The Wishing Chair, 2018

It’s past nap time, but my Californian daughter doesn’t wanna go home.

Why would she? It’s Saturday, so she gets an all-day Mama after 45 hours  at preschool. The sun—Mister Sun, to give his formal title—is warming every face, so we have to remind ourselves that our huddled relatives in Limerick, Ottawa, and Michigan don’t need to hear us gush about t-shirts in February. And we are up in Berkeley, which Tara pronounces with three syllables and great delight.

Ber-ke-lee means climbing rocks to throw stones in the creek that runs through campus. Ber-ke-lee means watching students and squirrels orienteering in the eucalyptus groves. Ber-ke-lee means a visit to the library, and maybe her own latte at the Starbucks across the way. Ber-ke-lee means the art and film museum—BAMPFA—where she can apply her member sticker, then run up stairs painted International Orange to order egg sandwiches at Babette, or run down to play with stamps and blocks in the Art Lab below.

Who would want to leave this paradise for car seat straps and a darkened crib?

Not me either. I’m happy to watch her sing Despacito and throw dance shapes in the sunny BAMPFA lobby. Her father is already outside, but through the glass he seems glad to have a few moments of peace.

There’s a new wall of little plywood boxes that I haven’t had a chance to look at. I’ve never spent more hours in museums than this past year, but have to snatch minutes to look at what they show. I sidle over while Tara belts out her song.

TENgo QUE bailAR contigo hoy…

Postcards. Dozens of boxes of dozens of postcards, each printed with a fragment from a Bay Area writer working today, or from their dead literary heroes.

Tú, tú eres el imán y yo soy el metal…

I know that my darling two-year-old needs a grown up to take her by the hand and lead her toward a nap, even though it will wipe the joy off her face and make her screech. But I can’t bring myself to turn away from treasure boxes of printed matter.

The postcards were made in BAMPFA’s Art Lab downstairs. On some the type is set crookedly, and typos have crept in. I don’t care. I feel excited, hungry, greedy. I’m a small girl again, holding a ten-pence piece in the penny sweet shop. How many can I get? How long will they let me stay to mull the choices? Where will I go to devour them? And (already, even before I’m led away) when can I come back for more?

There’s a quote from Fred Turner that fits one of my current work projects. I pocket it and scan for more.

Some of the postcards are a single line, others are densely printed. My eyes skitter across the longer ones, or the poetry that doesn’t yield immediately. Later, my mind mumbles, followed by a tinge of shame. My attention, always flimsy, is now in smithereens from years of Twitter’s squirts of dopamine and cortisol. I gulp whatever’s short and easy, and hoard anything harder for a later that will outlive me. It’s Gresham’s Law for base content. 

I spot six lines of what looks like prose in red serif on a gray card. That’s more or less my span, so I pull it out. Truong Tran, it says at the bottom, and a recognition stirs. I know that name. Do I?

The hardest part about this or any endeavor—finding the
courage to call it out or claiming it as your art—the hardest
part is that moment in the making when you discover that
you, the maker, are implicated in your own work; that the
work reflects on you—the part of you that is hidden
inside—that you are hiding inside, you hide this inside.   

—Truong Tran, from The Book of Others

I skip back and forth around the em-dashes and semi-colons, picking up scraps:

The hardest part…
finding the courage…claiming it as your art…
you discover….
implicated in your own work…
hidden inside…
hiding inside.

That recognition again, flickering but excited. Is it a thief’s buzz at finding a fragment that might speak for me, without the trouble of laboring over my own words, or even bothering to read it through? Blah blah my depths are hidden and profound but creating is super hard et cetera.

My reflexes are pure 2018: Snap the postcard, bits to atoms, hashtag BAMFA. Pin it on the wall behind my desk, where it will recede unread. Gulp and display. Next.

Instead, I hold the postcard in a beam of sunlight and read it again. Slowly. Fidgeting. My daughter is still dancing to her own music.

And then he swims into view: Truong Tran, the poet from whom I bought my Eames lounger—how many years ago?  Truong, who liked beautiful things, but did not permit himself the luxury of sinking into them. Foster-guardian of the chair I adopted.

I had scoured Craigslist for months waiting for that chair. It would save me, or at least present me as I hoped to be seen, as a grown woman of substance and taste. In a rented apartment, in a temporary city, that chair would become a tiny plot of owned ground, at about the same cost per square foot as local real estate.  

I wrote an essay about what that chair meant to me at the time, and titled it The Wishing Chair.

On the way home from BAMPFA, I called up this near-dead blog on my phone and searched for the essay. It was twelve years old, and I’d forgotten most of it. That it was Kevin who drove me to pick up the chair in his truck, and did all the carrying. (Have I seen him since?) That from Truong’s ad, I’d expected an accountant, and encountered a poet. That I was lonely and scared back then, and wanted a chair built to hold me and hug me. 

There’s a photo at the bottom of the essay, a reflection in a TV screen from a time before we coined “selfie.” The digital camera and the bulky TV belong in the first decade of this century as surely as the chair comes from the middle of the last.

I’m sitting in the lounger, feet tucked on the ottoman, looking watchful. (Probably just trying to focus.) My neck has a smoothness that I miss now, but the scraped-back hair and sweatpants reveal I hadn’t left the apartment that day. I can cast back and feel that I was sadder than I let myself know, but I don’t remember why.

The Wishing Chair, 2006

I’d like to talk to that younger woman, draw her out. It would take a while. Even the silver backpack behind me in the photo was a carapace.

And still: I was writing. Sending words out into the world from that chair. I forced my puny attention to wrestle essays into being, and they became vessels that always took me to places I didn’t expect.

The essays were gradually replaced by Facebook updates, then retweets, and then nothing at all. I deflected any requests for more. I forgot that my Wishing Chairs had always been made by bending words, not wood; and that my wishes could only be crafted, not bought.

Four years after Kevin hefted Truong’s chair up the stairs in Bernal Heights, a big company paid strangers to carry it to my next stop, in Seattle. Five years after that, more movers brought it back to California. When they closed the door behind them, and I was alone for the first time in the first home I’d ever owned, I flopped into the Eames lounger, hauled tired feet up onto the ottoman, and watched baby Tara squirm in my huge belly. How rarely had I ever let myself just sit in that damned chair.

“Was a gift but can not afford to have such luxuries,” Truong had written in his Craigslist posting. Reading it again years later I realize that I’d felt entitled to be the chair’s owner, but not its occupant.

I hear the same austere Craigslist voice in Truong’s postcard poem. I wonder who chose that particular fragment to represent his work at the exhibition, and then read on the back that he selected it himself. There’s a blurred little author photo in place of a stamp. Truong regards me with the same sidelong stare as my own TV photo.

This poem is the art for which he sacrificed loungers and lounging. This art is the endeavor for which he freed himself from the seductive rails of corporate life. These lines are the gift he chose for BAMPFA; for me on a sunny February Saturday in 2018; and for the younger me writing her way out of hiding in 2006.

Do I take it as an admonishment? A tender confidence? An invitation to come back?

I lay my sleepy daughter in her crib, and start to write him back.

BAMPFA Library, February 2018
BAMPFA Library, February 2018. Photo by Keith Cormier.



Look, look, look

My friends Denis and Lily are driving me and Tara back home to Limerick from Sligo.Denis has mastered the complex task of threading a seat belt through various safety hooks on the car seat, and so he buckles the baby in while I pack her play mat and nappies.

Though his own children are grown, Denis has saved a full repertoire of songs to charm babies, or at least distract them while a five-point harness clamps their freedom. This morning it’s The Wheels on the Bus. Tara learns that the wheels on the bus go round and round, the doggies on the bus go woof woof woof, and the babies on the bus go wah wah wah. She seems to want to take notes. Maybe in two columns, distinguishing actions from sounds.

“The…Dervalas on the bus…” sings Denis, and stops to consult my four-month-old daughter. “What do the Dervalas on the bus say, Tara? Oh, yes, I know.” And he’s off again: “The Dervalas on the bus go, Oh, look at my gorgeous baby. Look, look, look. Look, look, look.

It’s true. I’m shameless. I’m known to dawdle past likely admirers—older women, say—while pushing the stroller hood back and blowing bubbles to make her laugh. I collect oohs and ahhs like a busker’s tips.

Because it’s also true that she is gorgeous, this baby. She has liquid Salma Hayek eyes, the kind that go down well in Ireland, where we prize brown eyes over our common blues. She has a healer’s charisma. People feel better when they hold Tara. She waves her fingers in delicate spells, making strangers feel seen and liked without saying a word.

Tara arrived in the air-world with all the qualities needed to succeed at babyhood: a fine, strong body, a well-finished digestive system, and a happy interest in her surroundings. Even before she arrived, I’d known that she was good at being a baby. Our shared placenta was unreliable, so I’d had scan after scan, weekly visits to get to know the beating of her heart, the grace of her swimming, and the way she found her thumb for comfort when the ultrasound technicians poked her.

By six days old, she was smiling every day. By ten weeks, she could roll right over and back again. She sucks with loud, smacking enjoyment—mwahhh!—and smiles herself awake in the mornings. Vaccinations, transatlantic vacations, strangers, teething, the puzzle of a bottle: she accepts all challenges, except the brief catastrophes of her mother’s sneezes.

You can tell, I suppose, how besotted I am, the ridiculous older mother of an only darling. I didn’t expect this child, in any sense. Though my body made her, out of blood and fat and milk and hopes, she is entirely her own self, and those oohs and ahhs are for her, not me. I like that we don’t look much alike. It reminds me that she arrived complete, and I’m just watching her unfurl, and beckoning witnesses to confirm what I can hardly believe. Look at this gorgeous, competent baby. Look, look.

At night I do what once made me good at my work: suck down information about my new research subject, and stack up all the contradicting experts. I’m not looking for advice. Though some things about being a single mother are hard, figuring out how to look after her is easy. These books and podcasts are something else: an orientation. This is what might be going on behind those brown eyes this week. This is what she might be discovering, feeling, thinking. All are clues to my biggest question: Who are you?

That, and of course the baby books give me little hits of smugness that take the edge off, say, figuring out childcare and mortgage payments. For fun, I read out lists of milestones to our neighbor, Keith, who visits her every evening. “Check,” he says. “Check. Ha. Check.” He is even more smug than me that she’s so advanced. We make fun of unknown loser babies who can’t even roll over, for god’s sake. Tara smiles on his lap, judgment-free.

This is the part I can do, these early months, which must surely be the loveliest. It’s all pared down: Breast milk to feed her. Plain water to wipe her bum. My arms to shelter her in bed. A knuckle for sore gums. A song, a walk, a storybook, a swing in the park. We need so little.

It’s the next stage that daunts me, as I leave this trance of babymotherhood to go back into the big world and look for work. I miss having colleagues and business challenges, and I have more to bring them now: my mind is sharper and my heart is bigger and more patient than before.  It felt like an exciting luxury to get a few hours of babysitting while I looked for short-term projects this past week.  But then the prospect of fifty-hour weeks, traveling for work, and hour-long snarls each way on the Bay Bridge makes me fear for her and for me. This year, I bet on rearing her as a single mother, on moving to California, on buying a home in our hysterical Bay Area housing market while I still could. Now I have to make those bets pay off for both of us.

“There is no such thing as a baby,” D.W. Winnicott said long ago. “If you set out to describe a baby, you will find that you are describing a baby and someone.” I don’t want Tara’s someone to have to abandon her in order to support her. May I find a way to be as good at my part as she is at hers. 

Tara in the bath at 4 months
October 2015. Photo by Keith Cormier.

A Year

Tara and I are in New York. I packed ahead of time to practice managing the car seat, the stroller, a changing bag, and a three-week suitcase. She’s growing while I’m shrinking, and it was a puzzle to figure out what each of us would need in New York’s Indian summer and Ireland’s blustery autumn, multiplied by a daily estimate of up-the-back poos and down-the-back milk, then pared down to the load my back can haul.


This time last year, I had just quit my job in Seattle. I’d originally meant to stay there for two years, and it had been more than four. I felt it was time to come up with a plan for the next half of life. I was a renter. I had no debts and no children, and was prone to being single. And I had a Green Card, at last. That added up to the freedom to go anywhere, and what I wanted was to go where my roots could grow. Whatever tribe and livelihood would bring me joy at fifty, I wanted to point toward now.

So I handed in notice to a company that had been very good to me, and conceived a few notions for a few months off. I would drive across the country to a six-week silent meditation retreat. Then I would go to Zambia, to see where I was born. I might start writing again, to discover what was on my mind. And after that, I’d move either back to Brooklyn or back to San Francisco, and settle in near old friends.

There were a lot of ‘I’s in those plans.

But it turned out that notions weren’t the only things conceived by then. A baby had picked me, for her own private reasons, and apparently, for the rest of my life I’d have company. “A wolf pack of two,” I joked at the time, but I was wrong by at least an order of magnitude.

Here’s something I wrote in 2008, in an essay about not having kids:

I’m bound up in an individualistic, transaction-based culture, rising and falling by my own efforts, and I don’t like to need anything from the people I like and love. That membrane of separateness, of self-reliance, is as fragile and illusory as a soap bubble, and a child would pop it instantly.

I was dead right. Independence was an illusion, and she dissolved it long before our shared waters broke. It took me all those months of pregnancy to grasp how babies make the world swell with love, and to learn to rest on that support.

All the baby gear I packed for this trip was infused with friendship. The car seat from Lisa, installed by Gordon. The stroller from Leelila, put together by Devin. The diaper bag from Tricia. The clothes and blankets and burp cloths from a dozen more friends. Our neighbor Keith loaded them all up and drove us to the airport, where he insisted on carrying Tara through security and all the way to the gate. On the other side, our New York friends were waiting to meet her and spoil us more.

Tonight she’s sleeping in Crown Heights, and I’m marveling that it’s a year today since I first learned of her existence. I didn’t know it would be this easy to be us.

cropped-stripes.jpgPhoto: Keith Cormier

And Yet It All Seems Limitless

“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five time more. Perhaps not even that. How many times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”
—For Brandon and Eliza
Ever Joined in True Love’s Beauty

Beautiful old graveyards address my main complaint about the outdoors: that there’s nothing to read. I’d like more epitaphs, which too few Americans seem to write, but will settle for the barest names, dates, and family labels in this migratory culture, where Hmong mothers lie next to Finnish fathers. Cemeteries makes me wonder about all those lives: short and long, dynastic and solitary, local and far-flung.

In Brooklyn, I used to go to Green-Wood Cemetery to see my compatriots, Dubliner John Mackay, with his heated mausoleum, and the scandalizing Limerickwoman, Lola Montez, dead at 42 and buried decorously as Mrs. Eliza Gilbert.



In Seattle, I lived near the lovely Lake View Cemetery. Another Irishman, P.J. Malone, lies 5,000 miles from his native Mayo, and surely could not have imagined the pilgrims who traipse over his worn 1873 headstone to visit his next-door neighbors, Bruce Lee, who was buried a hundred later, and his son Brandon.

Brandon’s epitaph plays in my mind this season as I make a daily loop of Lake View Cemetery in North Oakland. It’s another beautiful spot, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted with the generosity of a landscape architect who will never see the shapes of his mature plantings. I push my baby’s stroller up the spiraling paths, panting as my softened body tries to harden again. At the top we look down over the San Francisco Bay, south to Silicon Valley, west to Twin Peaks, and north to the Golden Gate Bridge. The Oakland Hills are behind us, with Berkeley to the east.

I take the sunshade down so that Tara can look at the light filtering through the leaves overhead. She squints as she surveys her territory, steering an imaginary convertible with plump arms. Her skin is golden and her eyes darkest brown. She watches her fellow north American natives, the nine wild turkeys who own this hill and the countless Canada geese who gobble the watered grass and then poop more than a ship of babies.

She babbles. We have a little chat about the big birdies.

It occurs to me that she will have an American accent, and that unlike me she will know how to say her name.

(“Is it Taw-ruh or Teaah-rah?” said the obstetrician when I was in heaviest labor, and it dawned on me that there are two distinct American pronunciations, neither of which is my flat Irish “Tah-rah.” Even Siri thinks I say “Tyra,” squashing my hopes that my daughter would have a foolproof Irish name.)

I keep hearing that with motherhood the days are long and the years are short. I don’t find it so, perhaps because I waited so long to meet her. It’s all fast to me. Our days together divide into miniature days that loop quickly. Sleep, eat, blurp, play. Sleep, eat, blurp, play. Walk. Visit friends. And again. And again.

Wherever we are, Tara concentrates on the light, staring at the lamp, the window, the sky, or her Twilight Turtle. The changes help her puzzle out our fruit-fly rhythms. She’s new here, but she’s a great navigator.

I love Brandon Lee’s epitaph. I love the reminder that this immigrant mother and native daughter will have only a certain number of these afternoons at the top of an Oakland hill. Even the act of remembering them will happen only a certain number of times for me, and she won’t record them at all. And yet I look into her face and want to give her every single thing we can see, and all of it seems limitless.

2015-09-06 16.06.112015-09-06 16.06.11

For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn

Tara with mary-jane socks

When I was pregnant, Leigh offered me a batch of clothes that her baby, Luna, had outgrown. She warned me to be selective, because hand-me-downs and presents would soon become an oppressive pile of mixed sizes and fiddly buttons. Tired mamas of waddlers would try to offload bags of frilly, poo-stained disasters on rookies like me, just to save a trip to Goodwill. I should take only what I liked and thought I needed.

But they made me greedy, those tiny striped union suits, rompers, and footie-pajamas; and the shoes, of course, the shoes: satin Mary Janes, red patent t-bars, glove-soft white ankle-straps, dove-gray booties. Pregnancy is a work of fiction, and these costumes brought my little character to life. I scooped up most of the clothes and all the shoes, six pairs, which Luna had never worn. We live in Oakland, where the babies dress down too.

In the late nights of late pregnancy, alone in my new house, I laid out outfits for Baby Tara. I cupped those tiny shoes and talked to her while she kicked corners into my round belly.

Tara arrived on her due date, eight pounds and 12 ounces of bright-eyed Californian confidence. The nurse who recorded her arrival had to reposition her feet three times to get them to fit within the borders of the footprints box. Her toes were elaborately knuckled and prehensile, and it has taken a few months of committed eating for her thigh rolls to balance those lovely flippers.

She’s three months old now, and likes to practice standing on my thighs. She stands wide-legged and reels slightly, like a stuntman on two horses, but she holds her head high. Her feet are grippy and strong, and I haven’t had the heart to stuff them into shoes, or to bundle her into pretty dresses that bind her as she rolls over on her mat. I thought I’d keep the shoes and dresses for special occasions.

It took me days to notice she had outgrown her diapers. The onesies for six-month-olds are only slightly baggy, and I’ve been micro-mourning some favorite outfits that I realize she’s already worn for the last time. She grows inexorably, glugging milk all day and stretching and plumping overnight. According to her last weigh-in at the doctor’s office, her mother’s ego is in the 97th percentile. Here in the Bay Area we quantify the self.

Late Friday night I pulled out those shoes, thinking we might dress up for the holiday weekend. I touched the red Mary Janes to her purple-pink soles, and realized it was too late. Only if I chewed off those toes–a real temptation–would they ever come close to fitting.

Now I have my own set of baby shoes, never worn, to pass along to the next baby in our tribe. And I’ve discovered that Papa Hemingway’s shortest story might be more joyful than poignant.

Tara's birth record