Outward Bound/Homeward Bound

eastbound amtrakAt 9:15 on a Sunday morning, we put our daughter Emma on the Amtrak train that will take her from the West Coast to the East Coast.

Then we sail back home on the freeway, strangely clear of the traffic that normally chokes it.

Less than half an hour after hugging Emma goodbye, I am at my yoga class, my routine barely interrupted by her departure.

When I emerge, all stretched out and relaxed, I wonder how Emma’s doing. Has she gotten up yet to stretch her legs? Where is she now? The train has surely hurtled beyond the bay, beyond the suburbs we consider home turf, possibly beyond the great wetlands near Sacramento that attract millions of migrating birds as they touch down between Canada and Mexico.

Our migrating daughter will touch down in Chicago, then New York before continuing, airborne, on the last leg of her journey to St. Petersburg, Russia, for an artist’s residency.

At home I make salad and grilled cheese, using the leftover bread from the Italian restaurant we went to for our last dinner together the night before. It’s delicious. I wonder if Emma has broken into her stash of salami sandwiches. Her food must last for three days. Has she eaten any PB and Js out of boredom, or homesickness?

It’s not as if Emma’s alone in the wilderness, though. There’s a dining car, vending machines and even cafes at the stations where the train stops. Emma has money—not much, but enough—to augment her supplies.

As I eat my lunch, I pick up my book. Has Emma begun the one she selected for her train ride—Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about losing and finding herself on the Pacific Crest Trail. Strayed really was alone in the wilderness, and ran out of food and money—even her hiking boots! The book’s a good choice for my daughter, who’s about the same age as Strayed was when she made her trek. Emma is not as poorly equipped or facing such daunting challenges in her quest for self, but she, too, seeks something equally elusive and necessary.

At night I go into Emma’s room, relishing the unfamiliar tidiness, mourning the emptiness. As I strip her sheets, I wonder if Emma is settling down for the night—the first of two spent upright in Coach. She might treat herself to a meal in Chicago, but she is too poor for a sleeper berth and young enough still to withstand the price her body will pay for lack of a real bed.

I text Emma, wishing her goodnight as she glides through Nevada and Utah in the darkness. I do not hear back right away, but in the morning Emma’s text alerts us that the snow-covered Sierra was indeed beautiful. No doubt the upcoming Rockies will be too.

I can’t remember when Emma will arrive in Denver; Chicago’s ETA is even fuzzier, Penn Station’s a complete mystery. I am beginning to regret that I discarded the Amtrak brochure with the schedule of all the stops and times—so linear and straightforward, so easy to track.

I am losing track of my daughter. And even if Emma had a smartphone, which she doesn’t, I have not the will nor the desire nor the technological savvy to keep her under constant GPS surveillance. She needs to roam beyond our reach.

We go about our usual lives–dinner, Netflix, laundry, work–as our daughter travels farther away. Soon Emma’s across the mountains, across the prairie, changing trains in Chicago, swept up in the swirl of New York City. We text and talk many times, of course. There are three “Have fun, be safe, goodbye, I love you!” calls alone on her last stateside day. Then Emma boards the plane, lands in Russia. At least Skype and email will keep the connection strong until she returns.

Our forebears, who made this journey in the opposite direction, were not so lucky. The three continents and an ocean they crossed opened many doors, but one closed shut behind them. Home remained as a dream, a memory, a yearning to those who ventured forth—while those left going about their days prayed that their loved ones had enough to eat, a place to sleep, and home carried always in their hearts.


K is for Kitchen Table

tableMy youngest daughter, Ally, who had our old kitchen table at college, wanted to sell it before studying abroad for a year. I, however, insisted on storing the table during her absence, certain she would need it upon her return.

But it was really my need: for Ally to still want to keep a part of home, and for her to remain with us, “in storage,” during the temporary absence that foreshadowed the permanent separation of growing up. Although the table would be cumbersome to move and store, I wasn’t ready to let go.

After all, it was so much more than a table. I remembered how my future husband set it with yellow roses and homemade spaghetti soon after we met, and the subsequent family dinners once we had kids. I recalled the homework, the crafts, the cookie decorating, how the table contained the overflow of books, mail, and all the stuff of family life throughout the years. I had held on to the table to forestall feeling the loss of these cherished times, the ache of the empty nest.

Transitional objects are not just the loved-to-bits blankies and stuffed animals of childhood; they help us cope throughout life. We hang on to them until we do the work of integrating and grieving what they signify, and can relinquish them once they become just the thing itelf.

So after remembering, and mourning, I called Ally and said, “Sell the table.” It had become just a piece of furniture to me, and a ratty one at that. I could bear its loss, and even look forward to what might open up in letting go.

In the end Ally decided to keep the table. Perhaps she still needed a token of home while growing up. Or just a place to eat dinner and throw her books.


What have you hung on to, and what has helped you relinquish it?

From Boyhood to Adulthood, Time Passes


“We happen upon ourselves when nothing much happens to us, and we are transformed in the process.”  (Anthony Lane’s review of Boyhood in The New Yorker, July 21, 2014)

In Richard Linklater’s wonderful film, Boyhood, we see a boy and his family grow up throughout 12 years of real rather than simulated aging. Time itself is one of the lead actors. Toward the end of the film, the boy, Mason, talks with a young woman he meets on his first day of college. “Seize the moment,” they conclude about the adage, has it backwards. Actually, “the moment seizes you.”

Every one of Boyhood’s ­­164 minutes seized me through its assemblage of ordinary moments that constitute life. At my urging, my 23- and 26-year-old daughters went to see the film. They liked it, but both said it was more for middle-aged people than young ones. This strikes me as true, but why?

Perhaps a fundamental difference between how my daughters and I perceived the film stems from the fundamental difference between how children and adults perceive time. For kids, time passes slowly, excruciatingly or deliciously so. Adults, on the other hand, want to stop if not reverse the clock. They have a consciousness of aging that children lack. Linklater simultaneously captures a child’s moment-by-moment experience and the palpable nostalgic ache of adulthood. Longing for what is lost to time itself adds an extra dimension for the viewer old enough to have moved midway through time’s trajectory.

During one of Boyhood’s earliest scenes, Mason’s mother hands him a can of paint and asks him to cover up stray marks in preparation for moving. Mason whites out the lines on the door jamb marking his and his sister’s heights—measurements that are a yearly ritual for any family. We don’t know how six-year-old Mason experiences the moment. Perhaps he is eager to complete a task for his beleaguered mother, perhaps he’s annoyed that his sister chats on the phone while he works, perhaps he’s sad about the friends he’s about to leave behind. But surely the child feels the disruption of the present moment, not retrospective longing as his paintbrush obliterates the record of growth spurts.

Such nostalgia is the purview of adult viewers, if not Mason’s mother, who is mostly too harried and pragmatic to feel its pull until she is on the brink of the empty nest. That’s when time’s passage wallops her. As she despairingly imagines it, everything’s over in the blink of an eye,

For much of the time Linklater was writing and filming, “Always Now” was his working title. But the film might also be called “Looking Backward.” Again, it’s the difference in perspective between young and old, and between the young and old viewer. One unfolds to new possibilities while the other feels the sharp poignancy of what is already gone.

Maybe that’s why when young people get married, “Sunrise, Sunset” makes it onto the band’s playlist not for the newlyweds, but for their parents. And why Boyhood makes it onto my, but not my daughters’, all-time-favorites list.


How has your perspective on time changed with age? And if you’ve seen Boyhood, what did you think of it? If you have kids who saw it, what did they think?


Health Care for the Holidays

Covered California home page

A version of this piece recently aired on KQED’s Perspectives.


With the holidays here, I know just what I’m going to ask my daughter for this year. Emma’s almost 26, and like a lot of young adults, she’s piecing together a couple of part-time jobs while figuring out what comes next. I don’t want her to spend her hard-earned cash on stuff I don’t need. Instead, I’m asking Emma to make sure she signs up for something she needs: health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

It’s true that the rollout has been riddled with problems, but the Affordable Care Act’s tremendous benefits remain. Besides, Californians are lucky to have Covered California, the state’s fully functional and easy-to-navigate healthcare exchange. Those who enroll by December 23 will be covered when the law goes into effect January 1. What better way to start the New Year?

Our family has already benefited greatly from the Affordable Care Act–it’s allowed us to keep our daughters on our plan until they turn 26. Soon, though, Emma will need her own health insurance. Before, she never could have afforded it. It’s hard to find jobs these days that offer coverage. Emma, like millions of Americans, might have been forced to rely on costly ER visits or the “Cross my fingers and hope I don’t need it!” plan. Now, under the Affordable Care Act, she and the many Californians like her who’ve risked disaster due to unattainable insurance will be eligible for expanded Medicaid, federal subsidies, or tax credits.

As parents, we make sure our kids are safe: teaching them to buckle up, wear bike helmets, and drive defensively. Grown-up children may think of themselves as Young Invincibles who don’t need insurance, but accidents and serious illness happen, putting health and family finances at risk. Here’s our chance to further guide our kids into responsible and secure adulthood, continuing to protect them by making sure they’re covered.

That’s why I’m asking Emma for the best present of all: good and affordable healthcare for her, peace of mind for me.


Covered California: www.coveredca.com or 800-300-1506

Other states: check your local resources or www.healthcare.gov or 800-318-2596

Open enrollment period ends March 31, 2014