Full Circle

Ten years ago, I moved to San Francisco.

I was a newly minted college grad with, naturally, no clue what I wanted to do with my life, and after a few months living back home with my parents in the suburbs, I found an apartment with three other girls [and one bathroom – still not sure how we pulled that off] and moved up to the city.

SF ten years ago was a very different place than it is today – for starters, my portion of rent in our lovely Pacific Heights 4-bedroom apartment was $700.  If you’re unfamiliar with the insanity that is the current Bay Area real estate market, paying $700 in rent is the “good ole days” pricing equivalent of when your parents tell stories of buying a Coca-Cola for a nickel at the corner store – a different time, indeed.

My roommates and I made batch after batch of chocolate chip cookies, had clean-the-apartment dance parties and watched this crazy new show called The Bachelor [though I was eventually banned from group viewings because I kept rolling my eyes and making sarcastic comments despite my roommate’s assertion “Mary, they’re just trying to find love!!”]

I worked at an Italian restaurant on Fillmore street that had been there for thirty years, where I learned how to slice prosciutto and ate my weight in homemade pasta with red-wine bolognese [clearly this was in my pre-vegetarian days].  There was no Uber or Lyft, and after one traumatic car-towing incident that involved me running after the tow truck crying at 7am in my PJs and rain boots, I left my car in the ‘burbs and stuck to walking or riding the 45 Muni bus down Sutter Street.

While I was living in SF I was applying to grad school, and I’ll never forget the day one of my roommates Mandy [who had just started working at this crazy company called Google] showed up at the restaurant with my acceptance letter to The New School.  She had gotten home from work, spied it in the mailbox, and without even taking off her jacket turned right around to bring it to me because she saw it was “the big envelope” and we all knew what that meant.

After less than a year in San Francisco, I moved to New York City, and spent five years building a life there that included incredible friendships with some seriously kick-ass women, including my roommate Stephanie, whom I’d met through our mutual friend while studying abroad in college.  My roommate adventures with Steph in NYC looked slightly different than SF, most notably by swapping out the apt-cleaning dance parties for mouse-catching dance parties – the “don’t let the mouse run over your feet while you try to shoo it into the closet” shimmy was all the rage in 2010.

After five years in New York, I had built I life I loved – but my best friend was about to have her first baby back in California, and I knew no amount of shiny NYC glitz could replace being here to watch him grow up.

The last four years living on the Peninsula have been a gift – proximity to my friends and family topping that list.  But at a certain point I couldn’t keep denying what I’ve always known in my bones is true – I belong in the city.  I come alive and feel most at home in when I’m in a place that’s humming with energy, diversity and a little grit.  The city is my home.  

So, fast forward ten years, and this weekend I’m moving to San Francisco.  I’m living with a roommate I met through this crazy company called Google, where I now work thanks to my original SF roommate, Mandy.  Through some beautiful, crazy, #fullcircle twist of life’s trajectories, Stephanie, that mouse-catching NYC roommate I lived with 3,000 miles from here, five years ago?  She moved to SF last summer with her husband and impossibly adorable baby son, and my new apartment is just two blocks away from her front door.

As I’m packing up moving boxes this week, which I’ve done so many times in the last 10 years I’m afraid to count, I’m reflecting on the last decade of my post-college adulthood.  I have started jobs and left them, dated and broken up, made fabulous memories that I treasure and painful ones that still sting, been in shape and out of shape, attempted a dozen different ways of getting my hair to behave itself, and generally made and re-made my life in a million different ways, but the thread running through the patchwork, holding it all together, are the people I have been privileged to do life with.

The last ten years have not been free of pain or loss, they have not been easy or carefree, and certainly not linear or simple.  What they have been, though, is full of deep friendships forged out of shared experiences, precious memories and some serious amounts of cookie baking.  The past ten years have been full of love, and for that I am stunningly, wholeheartedly, brought to tears grateful.

As I’m packing moving boxes, I’m shaking my head at how funny life is, and realizing that geography is no match for love.

So look out, SF – I’m coming for you.  I don’t know how long this season will last, but I do know I’m already so grateful for it.


So we don’t forget

I spent the morning of Valentine’s Day visiting the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam.  I know – pretty much the polar opposite of a romantic activity [aww, learning about the systematic mass genocide of an entire people group based on their religion –  honey you shouldn’t have!].  I knew that this visit – especially given everything happening in the US right now – was going to be emotional and poignant, and I had no shortage of thoughts, feelings and reactions during my time there.   I emerged from the house totally depleted at 10 am, standing next to the canal to get my bearings, unsure if I wanted a nap, a cocktail or both [I settled for a strong coffee].

The thought I keep coming back to, and the thing I ended up writing in the guestbook, was a note to everyone who makes the Anne Frank house possible – donors, staff, volunteers:

Thank you for making sure we don’t forget Anne’s story.

I learned – or perhaps my elementary-school self was reminded – that Anne’s story was almost not told – her father Otto had to push publishers to consider it after the war was over.  I was also reminded that Anne dreamed of telling her own story one day – that she wrote in her diary that she would publish a novel of her experiences “after the war.”  That was one of the phrases that haunted me most – you saw it pop up over and over in the excerpts from Anne’s diary hung on the museum walls.  “Mother is planning for us to visit Switzerland ‘after the war,’”…“Peter and I dream about what we’ll do ‘after the war.’”  That hurt the most – to think of them hoping for something that I know  – from my vantage point in history – wasn’t to be.  I was looking at the dates on the photographs – the day they were captured, the day they were sent to the camps, the days they died and the day the camps were liberated – the span is less than 5 months: August 1944 to January 1945.  That hurt too – to think they came so close to being safe.  Although even if Anne and her family had survived – how many other children, how many other mothers and fathers, sisters and brother, neighbors and friends, had their lives ripped from them?

For the first time I thought about Otto Frank – this man lost his entire family in the most brutal way imaginable, and would have been forgiven for giving up, for curling into a ball of grief for the rest of his life – yet he made meaning out of his pain.  He persevered, and thanks to him we have Anne’s story, which has become emblematic of the millions of Jews killed in the Holocaust.

In the museum I watched footage of German soldiers marching into Amsterdam, Jews with yellow stars pinned to their chests being herded along like cattle, their eyes full of resignation mixed with fear and tears came to my eyes as I thought “God, how did we do this to each other?” What scares me is that I know the answer – I know [to boil it down to essentials] that a combination of power in the wrong hands, and “other-ing” a group of people out of misunderstanding and fear are a deadly combination.  What scares me even more is that is that this toxic combination sounds frighteningly like present day – in the US, yes absolutely, which is terrifying – but also in a lot of other places around the world, where fear of the “other” is making us more afraid and insular and less compassionate and open.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of stories – of giving space and weight to  individuals sharing their own experiences.  It’s easy to argue with policy or laws, but when a person sits in front of you, looks you in the eye and pours out their heart – when they trust you enough to be vulnerable, to share their experiences and their pain – that is a powerful appeal to our shared humanity that is much harder to argue with.

A few month ago I was in a room at work with a panel of coworkers who were sharing their stories of growing up black in America.  These folks were of different genders, ages, family backgrounds, cities of birth, socioeconomic status – yet story after story drove home the same heartbreaking themes – of exclusion and injustice, of working twice as hard to get half as much, of too often being judged first and foremost by the color of their skin and not by the content of their character.

I sat there that day and thought “maybe this is what we all need – just to sit in a room and ask people to tell us their stories, and  – this part is key – really listen.”  Because I defy you to sit there with an open heart and mind and listen to story after story and say there is no such thing as systemic racism, to not acknowledge that if you are white you probably do not have stories like these, and that there is serious work to be done acknowledging and repairing that fact.

In the same way, it was the individual stories that surfaced after the clusterf**k that is/was the immigration ban that made it clear this isn’t about abstract policy – this is about people’s lives.  

The four month old baby girl from Iran with a rare heart defect, whose parents were finalizing visas to come to the US for a heart surgery that would save their baby’s life – and who may not survive waiting to see what the courts decide.  The 8-months pregnant woman who couldn’t wait for her parents to arrive from Iraq to be here for the birth of their first grandchild – and now doesn’t know when they’ll even get to meet the baby.  The young woman getting her PhD in biomedical science, creating technology that is going to save lives – including American ones- being told she can’t go home next month to get married to the man she loves.  Who is now facing the very real possibility that she’ll have to choose between a career she loves, that makes a difference, and being with her husband.

This isn’t an abstract policy debate, these are people’s lives – people like you and me with families and friends and careers, people who are falling in love and having babies and working hard trying to make a life for their themselves.

Giving space and weight to stories isn’t easy  – it takes courage.

It takes courage to share your story, to open up old wounds or fresh ones, to recite aloud the experiences that have scarred your heart.

It also takes courage to listen – really listen-  to the stories being told, especially by people who look at first glance to be different than us, who make us uncomfortable.  It takes courage because opening yourself up to someone’s story means opening yourself up to their pain.  It takes courage because there is a strong risk the stories will challenge our own deeply held beliefs, the way we think about ourselves and the world.  And it takes courage because sometimes the stories leave us with a question that demands a response:

“Now that you know this, now that you’ve heard, now that you can no longer claim ignorance – what will you do?”

I was listening to NPR recently and there was an interview with a 95 year old Holocaust survivor who lives in Berkeley, the tattooed number from the concentration camps still clearly etched on his wrinkled skin.  His roommate/caretaker/friend is a young German woman whose grandparents were Nazis.  I know – this man is cared for by a woman whose grandparents tried to kill him and his family.  If that doesn’t make you believe in the power of human connection and shared humanity, I don’t know what will.

The young woman is a history professor who specializes in the Holocaust studies, and her focus is on understanding how and why so many people were active or complicit in the Nazi regime.  The challenge she asserted on NPR was “Could any of us say, with 100% certainty, that in that time and place, we wouldn’t have been Nazis too?”  That is a sobering and terrifying thought.

As I’ve traveled around Europe the last few days I keep seeing groups of kids – of different skin tones and genders and religions and native languages doing what kids do best – playing together.  Sometimes their parents know one another, and sometimes they don’t – sometimes they speak the same language and sometimes they don’t, but time after time I’ve seen them smile as they are drawn into a circle of shared humanity by their children’s laughter.

That is my prayer for all of us – that we are drawn into a circle of shared humanity.  That we are brave enough to sit and pause and look one another in the eye – to seek out those who are not like us.  To ask for stories and be willing to hear them.
I walked away from the Anne Frank house knowing that this was not an experience that was going to live in the past, not another bullet point on the lists of museums I visited on my vacation.  I walked away knowing that I have a responsibility – to carry Anne’s story with me, and to ask myself what it looks like today, in 2017, with everything that is happening in the US  – and the world –  with the power and privileges I have, not to forget.