It’s a curious thing to wake up in a city that’s quiet. Sure, it’s Saturday morning, but it happened on Friday, too. It could be that I’m used to the sounds of New York, which seems to be busy and loud at all hours of the day, and so I assume that all cities are noisy. San Francisco is quiet in the early morning.
I’m here to take a class at the Zen Hospice Project. I’ve wanted to see how they do end of life at the ZHP ever since I first read about it three years ago. But you can’t just go there and visit and you can’t volunteer for a short period of time, so I knew I would take a class eventually and I’ve finally gotten there. The class is called Mindful Caregiving, and the Project is right around the corner from where I’m staying, an inn called The Parsonage on Haight Street.
Of course, right?
I landed here two days ago and went straight to my brother Steve’s office in the Design District. He’s in-house legal council for a start-up called AutoFi. Yes, there is a ping pong table and a record player in their work space, and yes, many of the men there were wearing hoodies. Kind of funny; for the first time I found myself thinking about that kind of work culture in a different way, as not really all that appealing, a little too laid-back. Truly, I am getting old.
It’s fun to be in a new place, with new visuals, new geography, the ocean! I haven’t been in San Francisco for a very long time. Usually I fly into San Jose and visit Steve and his family in Los Altos, or I fly into Reno and visit my son, Sam, in Lake Tahoe, where he’s in school. I haven’t had a reason to go into the city for many years.
And so it was with great curiosity that I ventured out yesterday, with my freshly downloaded Lyft app, to see what was going on.
I went to the Legion of Honor museum, way out in the northeast corner of the city. There I met up with my beloved friend, Simone, who used to live in Vermont, but now teaches in San Anselmo. She was taking her kids on a field trip, and so we reconnected surrounded by Rodins and enormous paintings by Julian Schnabel. We kept hugging and smiling, knowing our time together was brief. We had to absorb as much of each other as we could, and we did, at the museum and then at Baker Beach where we had lunch and played in the ocean and admired the far-off view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
I met a person at the museum who noticed I was spending a lot of time in front of a large and particularly powerful painting of John the Baptist. “I can see you like the religious imagery,” he said. “I’m a pastor,” I replied, “and John the Baptist is one of my heroes.” This led to a conversation about Buddhism and Christianity and enlightenment and … life.
From there I went to the Conservatory of Flowers where I saw a fanged plant and marveled with the other viewers at the tiny orchids and enormous palm fronds. I took a Lyft from there clear across town to a tiny little shop in North Beach where they sell obscure brands of blue jeans. I met the owner who opened the place 27 years ago. “What made you decide to do this?” I asked him. “I had no idea what to do with my life,” he told me, “but I have always loved blue jeans and I like talking with people, so I put those two things together and it became this place.”
It’s a wonderful place, by the way—AB Fits it’s called. And the owner, Howard, not only sells blue jeans but makes them now, too.
I had a small rock in my pocket, as I often do. I’m one of those people who collects little bits of the world as I wander through it. I took it out and was rolling it around in my hand while Howard was telling me about his life. He noticed this and asked me, “Are you done with that yet?”
Done with a rock, what a funny notion!
“I might be, why? Do you need it?” I asked him.
“No, but just up the hill there’s a tree, and if you go around the back of it you will see that there’s a box that someone attached to the tree and you can take a rock or leave a rock,” he explained with the charming enthusiasm of a person who loves his neighborhood and the people in it.
And so I did. I went up the hill, and I left my rock, from Dorset, Vermont, and took a new rock. Then I started wandering around, down alleyways where I saw laundry hanging from lines. I saw an enormous church and was drawn there. Inside a wedding was going on! On a Friday afternoon in San Francisco, two people were getting married. I arrived right at the “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you” part, and so we all shook hands and smiled. There’s nothing quite like a wedding to make everyone happy.
It had been a long day. I was tired and still kind of on East Coast time, so I called the last Lyft of the day and headed back to The Parsonage. Each driver I had met throughout the day had a good story—and this one was no exception. It was a woman in her late 50s who had left an abusive marriage in L.A. with a small amount of money and a boatload of fears to start a new life for herself and her daughters. She shared with me how much she loves her work, how she meets people from all over the world, how much she loves driving the hills of San Francisco. She was radiant; her joy at having rediscovered herself and living a satisfying life filled the car.
You know this world, it really is so beautiful. This city, with its hilariously steep hills and gorgeous architecture, with its close proximity to the ocean, its impressive parks, tech culture, rich history, is a city filled with beautiful humans. And I met a handful of them yesterday: Vince, in the museum, who shared with me his Buddhist vision for a meaningful life; each of the Lyft drivers, who shared with me a small part of the stories of their lives; Howard, who shared with me the story of his passion for an item of clothing and how it changed his life; Simone and her kids, all of whom didn’t fit in in the traditional school system for one reason or another. We hugged, we smiled, we shared stories, us humans. I got a new rock. It was a day! Filled to the brim not so much with buildings or roads or sand and water, but with humans. People like us, who love where they live and have profoundly beautiful stories, each and every one. The trick, the trick, my friends, is in taking the time to listen, in giving another person the space to tell you the story of who they are. You might even get a new rock out of the deal! Amen.