14 May 2023

My Mother Gave Me Permission

This memory exists in sharp detail: Nine-year-old me, lying on my bed in a sweltering attic bedroom with sun-yellow walls and a nubby, multicolored rug. I'm listening to the radio: country music of course. I don't recall the name of the song that was playing, just that it was incredibly sad. A story of lost love, heartbreak, and loneliness. 

I felt all of it. I felt the devastation and the overwhelming grief. The pain of loving and losing. The longing in the singer's voice. At 9 years old, years away from truly understanding a broken heart, that song made me deeply, massively sad.

I dissolved into tears, weeping little girl tears over grown-up heartbreak, tears of recognition that the world--and specific people within it-could stomp on my heart. I remember drenching my pillow and feeling bewildered. Where was this strong reaction coming from? I knew I was too little to really get it, but my heart went on that journey anyway. And once I started, I couldn't stop: the wailing went on far longer than the song.

My mother must have heard me. Suddenly, there she was, sitting on the bed beside me, concern on her face. 

"What's wrong, Mon?" 

I told her I had just listened to a really, really sad song and it made me cry. As a mother now myself, I imagine she might have been relieved. No broken bones, no blood, no trauma, just good old-fashioned sadness. She asked what the song was about.

I felt silly, but blurted: "Someone broke up with the girl, the singer, and she was really sad about it, and the song was the story, and it was SO SAD!" Fresh tears erupted, rendering me a puddle once more.

She hugged me, rubbed my back, and let me be sad. She told me she understood, that songs can really make us feel things. I felt silly telling her why I was crying, but she didn't treat me like I or my feelings were silly. From a mother's point of view, she did a mundane mom thing: made a kid feel better about something kind of small. But this small thing has stayed with me my entire life.

I have often wondered why. It was a tiny moment in a busy, loud, sarcastic household. It was a blip, a sliver, a shred. There was no postscript or profound conclusion. It remains just a snapshot of a moment in time.

But the little girl who felt so much in response to a song? That's who I have always been. I've always been a crier. Tears come easily and I treasure them, knowing and trusting their cleansing power. My heart is stirred by the tiniest slivers of things: curtains lifted by a breeze, revealing a wall of family portraits; trash collected at the side of a freeway on-ramp, items once used, or loved, or needed by someone; a broken down barn on the side of a road. Always, I yearn to know the stories hidden in these blips and slivers, and frequently, I'm stirred to strong emotions by them. That's who I am, and that's who I was as a little girl.

My mom let me be that girl that day. As I grew up, I took pride in being "a feeler." It became, and still is, a big part of my identity. Being a feeler has helped me forge strong connections with my wonderful network of dear and plentiful friends. It has helped me be a mom when I see strong emotions in my kids. It has always been a portal to understanding other people. 

So maybe I remember that tiny moment because it was a memory of me being just 100% me, all in my feels and wailing away, and because my mom's response was to let me be 100% that person. Maybe I remember it because her hand on my back, and her soothing words, told me I could let myself feel everything, that I could just be myself. Maybe each time I remember that day, and see that 70's snapshot in my mind, she is still telling me to be exactly who I am.

Life is lived in the slivers and shreds that stay with us.

Happy Mother's Day, mom.

09 February 2023


Take comfort.

Those things that make you breathe again are happening, even as your pulse quickens and your chest tightens. Even as gelatinous anxiety looms and threatens. The smallest, most important things are taking place right now.

Somewhere, a scruffy-headed kid squinches her face to the sun as she stretches for a blackberry.

Somewhere, a high creek rushes past, sweeping nettles downstream.

Somewhere, a single-engine airplane rumbles through a warm and cloudless sky, coating the land with suspended time.

Waves paint white foam on massive rocks. Onions sizzle and carmelize over a fire. A cellist draws his bow, steady and sweet, across a C string. 

These things exist. You can breathe again. 

27 September 2022

Why Books Matter

On Mother's Day several years ago, Rick gave me a Nook e-reader. Before that, I was a “real book” snob. “But the feel of turning the pages!” I said. “The smell of the paper and the binding!” I said. I eschewed e-readers like any self-respecting purist should.

But that summer, my new Nook in its lovely green case delivered voracious reading to me at a furious and satisfying pace. From its glowing screen, I read All the Light We Cannot See, the House on Mango Street, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, Just Mercy, several New Yorker articles, and other things I can’t remember. As long as I charged that magic device every night, I had the world at my fingertips. I discovered the joy of carrying an entire library around in one slim volume. When my kids were small, one of our favorite bedtime stories was a book called (aptly) “Always Room for One More.” The title echoed in my brain: there is always room for one more way to read!

Years have gone by since that summer, and my relationship with my Nook has seen fewer peaks and more valleys. I can go months without even knowing where it is. I wish I could say this is because physical books and I got hot and heavy, but it’s more honest to say that my iPhone and I have been caught in a co-dependent spiral, spending far too much time together, both of us getting some kind of sick benefit from the countless wasted hours.

And so, in an effort to re-kindle (pun intended) my love of reading, I recently charged up the Nook and re-read Just Mercy. Even the second time around, it was definitely a can’t-put-it-down experience. I quickly tumbled into one of those delicious, all-consuming reads that take up residence in your mind and command all your attention. And along the way, I figured out the price we pay for reading on e-readers instead of with books in our hands.  

While I was devouring this book as if it were manna from heaven, like it was oxygen, water, life itself, no one in my family could tell what I was reading. No one could see it. I realized this when Bryan Stevenson’s name came up by chance with one of my daughters (probably prompted by NPR), and I jumped at the opportunity to talk about Just Mercy with her.  

She returned my enthusiasm with a blank stare, having no idea what I was talking about. I had to stop and explain that I was reading Mr. Stevenson’s book, and that it was amazing, and that she should read it. It was incredulous to me that she wasn’t familiar with the book that had been looming so large in my world. Here I was, reading a book that felt life-changing and urgent and essential, but because I was using an e-reader, my family was utterly clueless. Sure, they could tell that I was reading, but no one could tell what I was reading.  

If I were reading the physical edition of Just Mercy, they would know. The book would be living beside us, taking up space. It would sprawl on the couch next to a throw blanket, linger on my bedside table, sit patiently on the kitchen counter while I cooked. It would be visible. The title, the cover, the promo blurbs–all of those would seep into my children's brains. That’s what we lose when an entire library exists in one slim volume. If all the books stored in my nook were instead on my shelves, my kids would know more authors’ names and see more book titles around them. They would be surrounded by more possibilities for how to spend their time, each book peppering their consciousness with so many seeds.  

It’s not that my kids have not grown up around books; they have. My youngest takes pride in the fact that every year in school, when her English teachers assign new books, we rarely have to buy them. We usually already own them. But when it comes to Just Mercy, I was saddened that that book, in particular, was not on our shelves, helping me raise my children just by being there. It felt like a loss. 

The Red Pony. The Accidental Tourist. Amityville Horror. The Cracker Factory. Where the Red Fern Grows. James Joyce. William Butler Yeats. Erma Bombeck. Charles Dickens. Agatha Christie. Those are just some of the books and authors who raised me from their perches on bookshelves and coffee tables. Their presence signaled to me that the words they contained were valuable because my parents valued them. And now, they are part of the fabric of my childhood, part of my memories and my own family narrative.

So bring me real books please, and lots of them! Because as much as I love the convenience of my e-reader, taking up physical space matters. Real books actually live in our homes. They talk to us in conversations that begin before we ever crack their bindings and echo for decades. They help us raise our children and stay with us for our entire lives. Therein lies the difference: E-readers are fabulous for individual, solitary reading, while the books we hold in our hands shape the living, breathing communities we live in. 

I guess I’m still a “real book” snob after all. I do enjoy my Nook, but my physical books are family.

26 August 2022

3 Cheers for New Neural Pathways!

Anxiety, thou art everywhere, all at once. 

Everywhere we turn, people are talking about anxiety, stress, and uncertainty.  Pick your topic:  The economy: Will it tank? The country: Will it collapse? The next election: Will we survive it? The pandemic: WTF?

Racism. Guns. Abortion. Masks. Vaccines. Police violence. 

Being alive right now, well, it's a doozy.

As the mother of a passel of Gen Z-ers, I see how much the cluster f--- that is our culture is weighing on young people. Many are cynical about the world and the future, and boy, do they have a right to be. I desperately wish I could convince my own offspring that there are reasons to be hopeful, but I also know I cannot relate to what they have experienced in the past 6 years. Us older adults have been through those same years, but from a vastly different vantage point. The formative years of young adults -- those years between 10 and 25 when we are weaving together so many notions about how the world operates -- have been steeped in a soup of chaos, vitriol, racism, opportunism, violence, and too many other confusing and scary things. I cannot imagine what it is like to grow into adulthood right now.

It is a privilege to have emerged from my teenage years with optimism; this is not a privilege many young adults share—or come by easily. 

I sometimes feel at a loss for how to help my kids navigate the anxiety that comes with waking up each day in this fraught and frightful world. I got a little help this week from, of all places, the Marketplace Morning Report on NPR. I say "of all places" because Marketplace (morning and afternoon) is a money, economy, NASDAQ, stocks, bonds, financial program, and I'm not a money, economy, NASDAQ, stock, bond, financial kinda girl. Most things econ-related are like mysterious black boxes to me. Even so, I've long appreciated Marketplace and its hosts for talking about the economy in ways that are interesting even for non-business-y people. This week, I appreciate it even more for a little segment on recession anxiety and for their guest Angela Sasseville, a Denver-based psychotherapist and executive coach. She captured the essence of what I see right now among young adults in this quote:

"Over the past 6 years the American public has experienced an unprecedented number of circumstances that have created uncertainty and caused them to feel anxious." 

THANK YOU! Yes, we sure as hell have and it's distressing in the extreme. She goes on: "Current data indicates that upward of 40% of American adults are currently feeling anxious or depressed, . . .a 29% increase from pre-pandemic levels." Yup. I feel that. I see it in the people around me. I bet for young adults, the numbers are even higher. 

Even better than just naming the elephant in the middle of the country, Ms. Sasseville offers us a way forward: "Fortunately, the strategies that are effective [in addressing anxiety] will work for the recession or any other issue that you're feeling anxious about. You can use the same neuroscience principle to install a new neural pathway that helps you experience a positive emotion instead."

We can create new neural pathways to fight anxiety! While not new information, it was the reminder I needed. I wanted to shout it from the rooftops, and also tell my kids and get them as excited as I am about this good news.  

I tried. I got blank stares, eye rolls, and garden variety annoyance. They are still close enough to their teenage years that I am perhaps not the best messenger for life-changing strategies. So I guess I'll just have to use this wise advice on myself instead.  If I can't save the next generation, at least I can save myself. Here's my grand plan to build those neural pathways:

  • Play the fiddle more. (Remind me to tell you about the new band I'm in!)
  • Exercise more. Use it or lose it is becoming uncomfortably relevant to me of late.
  • Read and write more. Also known as, those things I say I'm all about but don't do nearly enough.
  • Put. My. Phone. Down.  
I've never been more convinced that art -- making it, enjoying it, spending time with it -- is resistance. I know we are all finding ways to create the world we want, even if only in our little human-sized plots of space and time, and I'd love to hear yours. Sharing these small acts can only help us collectively stand against the machine that seems intent on grinding us all to a pulp. What are you doing to resist the prevailing culture of dread and fear? How are you creating optimism for yourself? What new neural pathways are you building day by day?

Right now, I am picturing a tiny, badass, all-female construction crew in my brain, energetically building new roads and connecting isolated sparks of creativity and consciousness. They seem like a trustworthy bunch: I'm sticking with them.

My kids may not be ready to listen to me, but the ones who still live here can't avoid listening to my fiddle. I do love a captive audience.

20 February 2022


My daughter Tallulah is our guest writer today! Please enjoy this poem she wrote last November, as well as the art she made to go with it.


by Tallulah Alatorre

I am from long days in the yard lost in my imagination.

I am from a minivan stuffed full with 5 whirly children and two exhausted parents.

I am from the sound of NPR echoing in the halls on Sunday morning.

I am from apples and peanut butter served on a smooth wooden cutting board.

I am from trips to the beach with hot cocoa.

I am from hikes and creek explorations.

I am from long nights spent on a soccer field with the feel of an icy chill on my face.

I am from the evening sun hitting the yellowish walls of my home, illuminating the living room.

I am from the warm sweet smell of dinner preparing in the oven.

I am from walks to the corner store and soccer tennis at the park.

I am from hand-me-downs and everything used and loved before me.

I am from the crackling of the fireplace during winter time.

I am from doing my homework at a table splattered with paint and carved initials.

I am from lemonade stands and making cookies.

I am from warmth, love, and devotion. 


Maybe we got some things right.  Thank you, Tallulah!

29 January 2022

Tiny Rituals

Dateline, 2015. We rise early in the morning, my feisty 8-year-old and I, and head out to a soccer field.  As the youngest of five, she is all in for this gig, having tagged along to her older siblings' games and tournaments since she was born. Now it's her turn and she is beyond enthusiastic. Rabid might be a better word.

Early mornings are her favorite time to head out to a field, and games at least an hour away are the best. She loves to get up while it's still dark, pile her soccer backpack, pillows, and blankets into the car, and doze on our way to a game, holding a warm cup of hot chocolate and watching the sky lighten through half-closed eyes. We trundle down I-80. As we come around the wide curve in Albany, Golden Gate Fields appears, floating on the edge of the bay off to the right.  She perks up, stretches her body as high as she can, and starts to look for horses.

Golden Gate Fields is the local race track and in the early morning, trainers and jockeys are busy. From the freeway, we catch glimpses of horses practicing on the track, walking amidst the stables, or circling around a hot walker. We count as many as we can and as we pass the fields mere minutes later, we announce our findings: A 4 horse morning! A 2 horse morning!  A 9 horse morning!

Zero horse mornings are always a disappointment.  

On mornings we aren't together for her drive to a game, she excitedly reports the total to me later.  Her siblings – older, cooler – roll their eyes. I gush with enthusiasm and tell her how many I saw on my travels that day too.


Dateline, 2019.  It's way too early in the morning. I'm trying to get my 12-year-old out the door. Turns out, she did not, as she assured me last night, have her entire soccer uniform and she still needs to find one blue sock. Frustrated, I growl something about how it's her responsibility to be ready for her game and it's not me who will be late to warm-up. She growls something that may or may not be actual language. She doesn't eat the food I made. I don't have any encouraging words to share. We each glare and fume and think uncharitable thoughts.

The car is thick with silence, and neither of us so much as glances at Golden Gate Fields as we drive by. This is most definitely a zero horse morning of our own making. Forty minutes later, she slams the door without a word and disappears into the misty morning. I sit in the car grateful to be by myself and generally annoyed that she's such a bi–– ...bitter little pre-teen.  What happened to my sweet girl? When did we become adversaries? Why did we stop counting horses?


Dateline, 2022. My fifteen-year-old leaves in the morning with her older sister, who is now her main chauffeur. That precious car time we used to have so much of vanished one day without warning, and it turns out that I miss it. Mommy Brain has blissfully erased the frustrating mornings from my memory bank. I have time for other things now, but I know that her high school years will break the sound barrier as they whoosh past me. So as the car pulls away, I am both grateful for a quiet house and also a little melancholy about the nearly grown girls speeding down the street and away from me. Being a mom is confusing that way: always two competing emotions at once.

I settle into a comfortable chair with a hot cup of coffee and my laptop. I'll get some work done this morning and then take the dog for a walk, or play my fiddle, or binge-watch All Creatures Great and Small. I am positively giddy at the options. All my kids are old enough to do their own thing now and they need me less. Or at least differently.

Thirty minutes later, I am absorbed in a good book, when my phone pings with a quick text from my youngest. 

Time stands still and then rewinds, back to those lovely early mornings, back to the simple fun of counting horses and sharing the numbers with each other. Who knew it would stick?  Just for a moment, there are no competing emotions, just gratitude: for horses, for her, and for the tiny little rituals that bind us together. Smiling, I turn back to the good book. All is right in my world. 


Note: Shoutout to Hideout and Suede, the handsome boys in the photo at the top; photo cred to my friend Janelle who is busy every day with these two.

26 January 2022

The Truth is True, Even When It's Not

I have been cleaning up my laptop lately and finding really old files of all kinds of things. Today, I am posting one of the things I found. I have absolutely zero recollection of writing this piece, but apparently, I wrote it in 2018, during Lent.  2018 was a shit show: not only did it follow the single worst year of my life (2017), but our entire country was dripping with Trump droppings. Maybe that's why I don't remember writing it – I may have tried to erase that year entirely from my brain. 

Anyway, this is what I wrote back then.  It is imperfect and sloppy and not entirely sensical.  And it was good to find it today.


The truth is true, even when it’s not.

I have been praying the rosary every weekday morning during this Lent.  The first time I did it, I was flooded with relief.  Spending time so differently—without noise and clamor and news and the distress that comes through my radio and my smartphone—felt like a gift to myself.

The quiet, the repetition, the reverence for things eternal: all of those seemed to bring me back to myself in a way that actually made me cry.  It felt right and just to be spending my time in that way.

I know why I thought of doing this in the first place: because of Ann.  She loved the rosary, loved Mary.  She had what is called a “devotion” to Mary – a special connection to the Blessed Mother that buoyed her and sustained her.  When she was sick, she and her family visited Lourdes, looking I’m sure partly for a cure and also for peace.  She didn’t find the cure.

I started doing the Rosary to feel closer to Ann.  Or maybe to be Ann.  When I am feeling the weakest and the least confident, I try to channel the people I love who have qualities or characteristics that I aspire to, like my dad’s ability to charm people and make them feel special.  When I’m feeling socially awkward or overly self-conscious, I think: “Channel Larry.”  And sometimes, I find a way to turn it around and focus my attention on other people.  It’s not a nice thing to do for others: it’s a survival mechanism for myself, a self-care strategy that has the added benefit of making other people feel good.

When I’m feeling disconnected and lonely, I think: “Channel Ann.”  And sometimes, I find a way to imitate the way she radiated love and goodness and made other people feel just plain blessed in her presence.

So I started doing the Rosary, so that I could maybe start to understand why Ann loved it so much.  To find in the repetition something of the deep peace she radiated.  

As the days have gone by, I have struggled a bit with the practice.  It feels odd to be repeating words like “save us from the fires of hell” and “pray for us sinners,” even though I have no problem with the idea of sin.  It feels both out of touch and relevant at the same time—a dissonance that is sometimes OK with me and sometimes, for lack of a better word, really weird.

It makes me wonder what Ann would say if I could ask her: “Why do you love the Rosary so much?”  But of course, I cannot ask her that, and realizing that I can’t ask her that, or any other question, ever again, brings on waves and waves of regret and sorrow.  That I didn’t ask her more questions when she was here, that I took for granted our friendship, that I behaved as if she would always be there for me.

She isn’t here anymore.

Yesterday, as I was saying the Rosary, I kept thinking about something the priest said at Ann’s Rosary, the night before her funeral Mass. He was describing her, and he talked about how our gathering to pray the Rosary was so fitting, because of Ann’s special devotion to Mary and her own love of the Rosary prayer. An unwelcome thought crossed my mind: “Was Ann perfect?  No one is perfect, but the way this guy is talking, it sure sounds like she was perfect.” I’m don't know why I had that thought. I think it all felt unreal to me: Ann dying. Us being gathered there, participating in a death ritual.  And it felt like we were celebrating a saint, a mystic...a unicorn. But the truth is, Ann was better than anyone I've ever met at actively, purposefully loving the people in her life.

And then I thought about eulogies in general, and how when we talk about the people we lose, we talk about their perfections. It is true that Ann was perfect. She was perfectly Ann. 

Did she have annoying qualities? Was she ever impatient with her kids, or too tired to do one more thing for them? Did she and Eric fight, or did she ever feel like a failure, or did she ever give in to weakness? I’m sure some or all of those things are true.  And still, she was perfect.  The truth is true, even when it’s not.

Not sure if I'll keep the rosary thing in my life, but I'm grateful for all the things doing it each day has made me think about, and especially grateful for the ways it is keeping Ann present and close.

09 January 2022

Daybook: 9 January, 2022

Outside my window, the sky is piercing blue, the air is sharply chill. The planting beds are heavy with recent rains and replete with weeds that I should be pulling.

I am thinking about many many things: Aren't we all? I'll share the first five I can think of. (1) the stupid pandemic and how radically it has altered all of our lives; (2) the pile of laundry I need to get through; (3) my goal (at work) to raise $375,000 this year from individual donors; (4) the three large manual typewriters on my dining room table that have been there for two weeks (rendering the table unusable) and how I want to sell them so I can get rid of them and so I can use my table again; (5) the fact that I can never seem to get up early anymore. I used to get up at 6 or 6:30, and now I can barely crawl out of bed on the weekends before 9 or 10. Is it the cold winter weather? Is it the pandemic? 

I am thankful for the beignets my husband brought home this morning for all of us to enjoy, from Devils Teeth Baking in San Francisco.

From the kitchen: Coffee and beignets.

I am wearing grey yoga pants and a long-sleeve black shirt. So, basically, my uniform.

I am creating space. Always, forever, trying like hell to create space.

I am going to play my fiddle today if it's the last thing I do before head hits pillow tonight.

I am reading About a Boy, by Nick Hornby, a light-hearted fun read after the much heavier book I just finished: Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann. I recommend them both!

I am hoping that my two adult sons get their own place soon. They moved back to the Bay Area and into my tiny house three weeks ago. They/we are actively looking for an apartment for them, and we all need it to happen soon.

I am hearing the beeper on my microwave going off every 60 seconds, indicating that someone heated something up for themselves and then forgot to retrieve it.  It's anyone's guess how long we all just let the beeper go before one of us deals with it.

Around the house, there are too many piles of my two adult sons' belongings.

One of my favorite things: My dog.  She's not a thing, but she's my favorite.  She is sitting on my feet right now as I type.

A few plans for the rest of the week: figure out how to practice my fiddle and get exercise while also working full time.  It's very challenging to do it all.

And a picture: My daughter sent me a photo of her desk at college; she goes to the University of California, Santa Cruz.  I absolutely love this photograph: it is so her.  :)

Ahhh, college life!

I invite you to join me by posting your own daybook; the text in italics are your categories (or you can make up your own).

30 December 2021

From the Flagstone

From the flagstone in the far corner of the garden
All I see are flames leaping from the copper pit and
Manzanita branches, sketching dark lines against the not-yet-night sky.

I’ve been sitting here for hours, finally just sitting,
Letting night descend, letting plants seep and mingle into darkness.
Listening to the irises and the ribes.

The dog runs back and forth, shimmying in the November air,
Tearing through fallen leaves,
Dancing in the disappearing light.
She has taken over for the bees, dashing from plant to plant
while they sleep and wait for the sun to rise again.

This patch of earth and stones and trees and grasses,
Is ours. Our place apart from concrete and cars, electrical lines and insatiable billboards.
Our place to sit, to stare, to listen.
At rest in a world of bees and flowers and shifting light.

22 October 2021

Rope Swing Summer

Image by bednuts from Pixabay

Near the far end of the back forty,
Off to the right,
A space opens up in the brambles that line the creek.
He swishes through high grasses to the opening and enters. 
From the top of the slope, he can see the rock slab at the water's edge and
the thick worn rope hanging from a branch stretching across the creek. 
He climbs down to it, reaches out, grabs hold.  The sturdy length gives him enough slack 
to pull it all the way back up the slope.
The worn path at the top makes room for two or three steps before push off.
He flies through the summer day.
Air rushes by, smelling of dust, heat and dry grass.
He feels the rough hew of the rope in his hands; 
It catches the grooves of his calluses, promising to hold on.
He glides back and forth, again and again,
Over the sweet blackberries on the slope,
Over the water tumbling across the creek bed rocks.
This is not the day the branch will give way and snap, 
landing beside him with a crack on the hard slab.
This is the day he snacks on garden apples and blackberries, 
snags his jeans on thorny branches as he pushes further in
to snatch the plump ones just out of reach.
This is the day he enters the opening and disappears for hours,
So far away he’s in another world, free to be anything, do anything.
It’s up to him when he finally drops the rope.
And when that moment comes, he watches it swing a few times before coming to stillness again.  
Sweaty, purple fingertips, he climbs back up and into the back forty.
Crosses the dry grasses and salutes the garden apple trees. 
He slams the screen door on the way in.

17 October 2021

Knuckleheads, Home From the Dance

My parents were the cool parents: they let me drive around in our sleepy one-horse town before I was officially licensed. Emphasis on sleepy. Nothing ever happened there, so they figured nothing would ever happen to me.

And they were right...until they weren't. Until one night at 2 am, when my friend Samantha and I returned home from a dance in the next town over. No, they had not let me drive that far, but they did say I could take Samantha home once the friend who had driven us there dropped us both at my house. So we had enjoyed the dance and then a party afterward–no alcohol for me–and then arrived back at mom and dad’s.  

We hopped in the orange and white Volkswagon van I learned to drive on and headed across town. She lived up in the hills, relatively far away (but still: sleepy town, nothing going on, you get the idea). I had never actually been to her house, so did not know that she lived at the top of a very long, very steep driveway. We pulled up to the bottom, and I pondered the hill before me, one hand on the gear shift of the van. 

Now, the smart thing to do would have been to have Samantha hoof it up that hill. We were both quite smart teenagers, so let’s just say it was a glitch in the fabric of the universe that we did not use our smarts to make the decision in front of us.

Let’s do it, I suggested gamely, and up we went. 

The driveway had wide curves in it, and I did fine through the first one. On either side of us, the brown grasses of the Valley of the Moon waved in a gentle nighttime breeze, their carpet punctuated by scrub oaks here and there. I had enough speed going to be fine...at first. As the slope continued, and the second curve was upon me, I couldn’t keep the speed up. The van stalled, shuddered, and died, with little ole unlicensed, inexperienced me, gripping the steering wheel. A flush of panic headed up my spine, my hands trembled.  

We looked at each other. Nothing to do but try to start this bad boy up again, so I gave it a go. But after I started the engine, there was the small matter of needing to take my foot off the brake in order to give it some gas. Years later, I would become a bad-ass San Francisco driver who would have scoffed at the challenge, but I was not yet that driver by a long shot. I tried; I failed; I panicked. And the van started to roll backward.  

“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” I wailed, completely unsure which way to turn the wheel to stay on the driveway.  

“Go forward, go forward!” Samantha screamed. “I’m trying!” I screamed back.

Mayhem ensued as the van gained speed. I had no idea what to do, so naturally, I did nothing. I let the van go where its heart would take it, which happened to be off the left-hand side of the driveway, down over the waving brown grasses, faster and faster, until halted in its trajectory by an oak tree, that keeper of the California hills.

We stopped with a bang. Not injured. Not harmed in the slightest. Just completely freaked out, with the specific intensity of teenage girls. I burst into tears, while Samantha looked stunned and frozen, both of us entirely dreading whatever might come next.

Way up at the top of the driveway, a light went on. We looked up to see the silhouettes of her parents, pajama-clad, shoulders bunched-up against the cold night air, staring down at the Orange Blossom Special resting against one of their trees.  

My Mother Gave Me Permission

This memory exists in sharp detail: Nine-year-old me, lying on my bed in a sweltering attic bedroom with sun-yellow walls and a nubby, multi...