I dropped my daughter at tennis this afternoon. The sun was bright, glancing painfully off the chrome details of cars in the parking lot. Even the asphalt seemed to glare. I shielded my eyes with my hand and pulled a baseball cap over my head.
My daughter said, “Mom, that hat’s embarrassing. You look like a 15-year-old. And it’s florescent.”
Her tennis instructor and his daughter were unpacking their cars, pulling out folding metal baskets of bright, furry tennis balls, racket bags bulging with extra rackets. I noticed the daughter’s modest, white, fairly dinged wanna-be sports car and felt a rush of gratitude for this dedicated father-daughter team, for this amazingly affordable city program funded by the great Arthur Ashe.
I waved my daughter goodbye and set off on my walk. I’ve taken to walking while she’s at tennis for 90 minutes. I walk straight up the gradual hill for 45 minutes, turn around, and head right back down.
Today, at the top, I stopped at a shady elementary school lawn and laid down on my back. It felt so good. I closed my eyes and took deep, nourishing breaths. The air caressed my skin. I could hear kids nearby, but not too near. I didn’t open my eyes.
I nearly drifted to sleep there. Sounds grew muffled. Time slipped. I opened my eyes. I watched Sycamore leaves rock gently, heard them rustle, against the blue sky behind them.
I thought, what if the world didn’t have the wind? What if the air was still all the time? What if the trees and flowers stood stock still, unmoving, day after day? What if they were lifeless like that, rigid? How much of their beauty would be gone?
I thought, Why does their swaying, rocking, bowing, tossing feel like breathing? Are the trees breathing? I thought this is the tree living, showing her life, embracing her life. And me too. Embracing me too.
I did a yoga twist. The stretch was deep and hurt in a good way.
I did the other side, which was less severe.
I pulled my knees up to my chest and rocked on my spine for a few moments. I heard some kids piling into a nearby car and sensed I was being observed. I marveled at how little I cared and registered that as progress.
Finally, I roused myself, pushed off the ground with my hands, got to my feet. Got vertical. I set off, back down the gradual hill to the tennis courts on the flatlands below.
I passed exquisite gardens, the same ones I’d drunk in on the way up, the same ones I’d photographed last week, marveling at how pristine and harmonious they seemed. How “wild,” yet how manicured. I knew that kind of wildness was carefully contrived, that it wasn’t random.
I passed a young redwood tree situated proudly at the side of a rather small front yard. I admired her straight trunk, her light green feathery fronds, her light, her energy. She was beautiful in this garden. I looked critically at the garden. Why did this work? Wasn’t a redwood far too big for a garden this size? Was the owner a fool to plant this redwood? I thought, doesn’t this, or mightn’t this, annoy the neighbors in years to come?
I thought, Why does Berkeley seem to have so many gardens like this, but in my Oakland neighborhood, we have postage-sized dingy, singed lawns? Why are we open to one another, why are we so obedient? Why do none of us have a fence, even a modest one? Why do we insist on conforming, on opening ourselves up, on showing up undressed before one another? Why will no one make the first move?
The other day, I photographed fences. Pretty fences, unobtrusive fences, unoffensive fences. I thought, why can’t I have a fence? I’ve wanted a fence for years, since moving into the house nearly tw0 decades ago. And yet, because no one on our street has a fence, we don’t either. It’s just not done in my neighborhood.
It’s like Mr. Plumbean’s neighborhood. Everyone had a nice house because it was a nice street. Until Mr. Plumbean had a dream and transformed his house to match his dream, infuriating the neighbors, who came over one by one to yell at him. At which point Mr. Plumbean invited them to have a drink beneath one of his outrageous new palm trees, and one by one these neighbors left transformed, touched in the head, and they too created houses that looked like their dreams.
I examined flowers and trees, fences and rocks. I marveled at evergreens, a maple with a multitude of toothed leaves and gnarled poetic roots, old olive trees, spiky Dr. Seuss yuccas, tropical banana-like trees, majestic oaks, elegant Ginkgos.
After I passed the dividing line (busy Claremont Avenue and then Telegraph) and yet was still amidst the very beautiful and rapidly gentrifying flats, I noted a house with a hedge of green and white leaves, about 18 inches wide. I thought about a hedge. Would a hedge be less offensive? Less of a statement? Allowable?
Then, a former lover’s words floated into my head. “Protect your family from outside influence. You’re the head of your family. You decide what goes.”
I thought about all the times I sought counsel outside of myself. Most of my life actually. I thought of all the times I not only lacked trust in myself but openly, aggressively castigated myself for any decision I might make. No matter what I decided, which side I landed on, I’d find fault with what I’d done. For decades I’d tended to trust others — almost anyone — more than myself, when it came to just about anything. It was exhausting.
While I was lying in the grass at that school, I overheard one mom say to another, “I was supposed to be note-taking, but I’m bad at that…”
Today, I said at work, “I know Mark wants me to… but I’m not very good at that.”
My new colleague said quickly and with force, “Never say you’re not good at something.” She was sharp but kind. She was no-nonsense, and completely in my court. Her words immediately made me feel better. Stronger. Capable.
It’s true. I’m f*cking 49 years old and still struggling with self-confidence. Enough. Basta.
I heard this mom say this. I considered it. I wanted to rise from the lawn and cry out, repeat what L. had said to me today. “Never say you’re not good at something!” I wanted to pass on that gift.
I did not. That’s another thing you learn as you get older. You don’t have to act on every single impulse. And you kind of know by now when something like that will be welcome and when it definitely won’t.
So, yes, this former lover of mine. He was an Iranian Jew with a hard history. He had sparkly black eyes and a bright mind. After we made love, he’d sit up in bed and hold me and pull a flask of Laphroaig peated whisky from beneath the bed and offer me a sip. The burning liquid slipping down my throat seemed to slow and extend the ripples of my pleasure.
“Why don’t you protect your family?” he would ask. “Protect your boundaries. Decide for yourself. You get to decide.”
And now I’m reminded of the song from Into the Woods, a play by the great Stephen Sondheim I took my daughter to a few years ago. We were both moved by this song and played it many times on YouTube when we got home.
“No one is alone,” goes the song, “No one is alone, truly. People make mistakes. Fathers, Mothers. Honor their mistakes. Witches can be right; giants can be good. You decide what’s right. You decide what’s good. Someone is on your side — someone else is not…