The Work That Reconnects: Active Hope for Activists

A few weeks ago I finished teaching my last practicum course for my mindfulness meditation teachers certification program. It was called Sheltering In Compassion, and the curriculum was focused on the Four Immeasurables and their application to the pandemic. Because of the wonderful company I keep, all the participants were committed activists, each of them improving the world in their own way. We spent a lot of time talking about the complicated roles that anger, outrage, despair, and fatigue play in an activist’s life, and I came out of the experience eager to find a way to refresh the passion and vision of activists and connect them, spiritually, to their values and dreams.

I’ve now spent a couple of weeks reading pretty much everything Joanna Macy has ever written, as well as the work that has come from her students and collaborators, and I am so impressed–it is exactly what I was looking for! The Work That Reconnects, formerly known as “Despair and Empowerment Work”, is all about honoring our pain and suffering as coming from our overall love of the world and deep connection to all living beings. It is such a deep, rich way to mill the difficulties and challenges in the activists’ path and engender hope and passion.

Too often, we receive well-meaning advice to draw boundaries, to leave our work aside, to numb ourselves to the pain we encounter. But this is very hard to do, and for people who come to social justice work with deep compassion, very difficult. It occurs to me that the challenges and fatigue is one of the reasons why activist groups bicker and splinter so bitterly (I’m going to write something about this in a separate post, as I’m now reading some social movement literature to understand it.) Even though lashing out at others seems to be an expression of anger and pain, it occurs to me that it is more often an effort to ricochet the pain and suffering away from us.

But the pain and suffering can be composted through expressing them–to ourselves and to compassionate listeners–and they can be rich soil for growing hope. This is where the four-step trajectory of Macy’s work comes in. The first step is Coming From Gratitude–acknowledging the beauty of the world and our commitment to it. Then we truly allow ourselves Feel the Pain of the World, which comes from how much we love the world and want to save it. Then, we See with New Eyes”–we understand our pain as reflecting our unity with everything that surrounds us. Finally, we Go Forth, allowing the unity to infuse us with vision and motivation.

If I have any non-family-obligation time left after grading, curriculum development (my fall teaching will happen online and I have some great ideas), and scholarship, I plan to spend it adapting Macy’s work to the law school classroom, so it can nourish and equip law students interested in social justice work with the skills they need to stay fresh, sane, and hopeful, even as they despair. I also hope to facilitate this work with activist lawyers.


I used a fantastic recipe by Maurizio over at The Perfect Loaf. Because I’m not blessed/burdened with Maurizio’s memories of the focaccia he had as a child by the sea, I wasn’t attached to a particular flavor profile, and I very much wanted something with lots of tasty vegetables. I also wanted to put in some whole grains, which Maurizio does not use in this particular recipe.

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Vegetables Korma

More pandemic cooking, and this time we’re flush with fresh produce because our friends at Albert & Eve came by yesterday with two bags full. We’ve been enjoying learning Indian cooking from Vegan Richa’s Indian Kitchen, and this time we made cauliflower, carrots and peas korma. I made a few adjustments to Richa’s excellent recipe to make it mild so that Rio would eat it. Big success!

As an aside, Richa’s terrific book is one of the two cookbooks we use most at home, the other one being Chloe’s Vegan Italian Kitchen by Chloe Coscarelli. We have lots of great cookbooks, the vast majority of which are vegan, but at this point we have our kitchen style and recipes pretty much mastered, so we need cookbooks only to learn things we don’t know yet.

The recipe in the book is very much like this one from Richa’s website, but with a few important changes, and I made a few additional simplifications. I substituted the fennel seeds with poppy seeds to great success, omitted the chiles, and had carrots in lieu of potatoes. We were lucky that fresh peas are in season, but wanted lots of peas so defrosted a frozen pea bag. I made a few other tweaks to fit the pandemic pantry situation, and there ya have it:


  • 1 tsp oil
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 cup canned tomatoes
  • 5 cloves of garlic
  • 1 inch ginger
  • 1 tbsp poppy seeds


  • 3 cups cauliflower florets
  • 1 cup sliced carrots
  • 1 cup peas (frozen is great)
  • 2/3 cup coconut milk
  • 1/4 cup water

Heat up oil in big pan, slice onion thinly, add to pan with coriander and cumin, and sauté until golden. Finely mince garlic and ginger and add. Sauté for about 5 more minutes, then add tomatoes, and cook an additional five minutes. Then, add poppy seeds and cook for another 2 mins. Add cauliflower and carrots and mix. Add coconut milk and water, cover, and cook on medium-low heat for 15 mins. Add peas, mix again, and cook for another 15 mins. Great over rice!

A Gift to You on Mother’s Day

When I became Río’s mom, my dear friend Sarah and I, in the throes of sleeplessness, milk, and diapers, started an ongoing conversation and bond that stays strong and joyful to this day. One of our recurring gags is an ongoing mockery of parenting books, their jargon, pretentiousness, and dogma. In the baby years, it was child-led-this and play-based-that, you know the drill. When we were looking at preschools, we attended open schools about parent-involved-this and developmental that. At some point I quipped that I would become the devout groupie of whatever educational method would get us off the waitlist. We often fantasize about writing a parenting book titled “Do Whatever the Fuck Makes Sense to You.”

But this morning I realized I did, however, come up with some sort of credo. I offer it to you with love on this Mother’s Day, whether you are a mother, a daughter, or both; whether you are near your mother or you miss her; whether she could or could not be fully present for you, in person, in body, or in spirit; whether you’ve had to make hard choices about the timing and form of your motherhood; whether motherly love is easy or difficult for you right now; whether you are mothering a human child, animals, plants, colleagues, friends, students, and/or mentees; in whatever form mothering energy manifests in your life.

1. I see my child every day with fresh eyes.

I wake up every morning to the miracle that this little boy is a member of my family. It is a miracle that he is alive–just as it is a miracle that all of us were babies once. Even when things are hard, there is deep appreciation and love of the opportunity to spend the rest of my life being his mom–and the incredible gift of love from Río’s birthparents, who chose us to be his parents.

2. I am with the journey moment to moment

Neil Gordon’s beautiful article on children and the dharma starts like this:

One night when he was perhaps eight months old, my son woke me, not by crying but by gurgling and laughing. He was in an extraordinary mood. Fully awake, his face broke into a wide smile as I came into his room, his eyes glistening in the glow of the moon above the Brooklyn rooftops. His movements, still uterine, as though he were weightless, were clearly giving him great physical pleasure. And the attention he was directing toward me, the central object of his massive happiness, was as powerful an experience of primal love as I had ever known. Basking in it, stroking my son’s hair, I found a nearly unbearable sensation of regret come over me.

What was it? I asked myself, standing in the moonlit room. Why was such pain attendant on such massive love? The koanic opening line of Yeats’s short poem had long haunted me as an enigma: “A pity beyond all telling/is hid in the heart of love—” koanic because I sensed its truth intuitively, enigmatic because the list of anodynes that followed—regular, everyday occurrences, from markets to clouds—did nothing to explain what that pity was. This night, the poem’s enigma seemed to me more urgent than ever. What is the pity that hides in the heart of love, and why was it overpowering even the magical immediacy of my child’s joy?

Already, I saw, my daughter had transformed from a wondrous baby into a curious, cheerful, intensely imaginative little girl. Already she had friends, interests, secrets. These moments with an infant in a crib—moments stolen from sleep—were likely the last such moments in my life.

I was more right than I knew. My son never again awoke laughing—at least not loud enough to wake me—and soon that eight-month-old face was two years old, then three, and the fat cheeks had smoothed to show my wife’s cheekbones, and the thin baby’s hair had grown into the thick bangs I once had as a boy. And from that night and for a long time after, my experience of my children came to be infused with this pity of love. So much so, in fact, that I thought it was something very like depression. But as I became more versed in this emotion—and particularly as I watched it in my practice of meditation—I became more and more convinced that this pity was not pathological but existential; that there was within it a dharmic insight.

And Mary Talbot writes about awakening to the Four Noble Truths through her children, and awakening them to impermanence and change:

Motherhood—and its corollary, childhood—in their current optimistic models are relatively new historical constructions and haven’t always had such a good rap as pathways to liberation. Until as recently as the 1930s, maternal mortality rates in the Western world were as high as at the time of the American Revolution. And throughout most of human history, infant mortality has been so widespread that well into the 19th century, American parents didn’t name their children until they hit toddlerhood, when the chances for the kid’s survival began to increase. The probability of child death was too extreme to risk developing parental bonds. For anyone who has had a miscarriage or given birth (I’ve done both, twice), fatality feels—is—viscerally close. It’s a painful, perilous business and an ear-splitting wake-up call to the unreliability of this body, this life, these relationships.

Experiencing a child’s life through a parent’s eyes deflates the myth of immortality in other ways, too. Most of us nurse the illusion of having an expansive life because the murky backward stretch of our own childhoods creates a perception of having lived for a very long time. But watching a child grow up explodes that sense of personal timelessness. When my children were in nursery school, I would come across things in the back of my refrigerator that were older than they were. The very phase of life I remembered as stretching out for an eternity was, in fact, over before I could use up a jar of capers packed in sea salt.

Río is now at a phase in which he is upset at time’s one-directional flow. He eats a banana, and then wants it back. I offer him another banana, and he cries: “No! I want the banana I already ate!” A tower of blocks collapses, but he rails against rebuilding, because even if we build a tower that looks the same, it won’t be the same tower that fell down. Whenever we talk about how we can’t bring things back, I see my own grief of impermanence in him–the grief I felt holding one of his baby suits and knowing that he will never be that little again. Thinking about our children’s past (nostalgia) and future (hope) takes us away from the only mothering moment we truly experience–the one that is happening right now. The fourth of the five remembrances in the Upajjhatthana Sutta is, “I must be separated and parted from all that is dear and beloved to me.” A thousand separations happen every day; our children grow more independent; they leave home; they move far away; we quarrel and put distance between us. And all of them foreshadow the last and final separation that death–ours, theirs–will bring. We are assured of this final loss–we cannot prevent it. What we have is now. And it makes now, which is only now–not before, not after, never to come back– precious and special.

3. Through my child, I love the children of the world.

When I started studying dharma and mindfulness, one of the most impenetrable doctrines was the “doctrine of the no self.” But through Thich Nhat Hanh’s Interbeing and through Joanna Macy’s Greening of the Self, as well as through vision quests and journeys, I learned that the separation between the self and the rest of the world is false and malleable. The miracle that is my child is part of the overall miracle of life. Through the joys and pains of my child I feel the joy and pain of other mothers–human and nonhuman alike. It is through this profound understanding that the separation is false that the courage to fight for the life and dignity of all children emerges. Macy interviews ecoactivist John Seed about what motivates his work:

He replied, “I try to remember that it’s not me, John Seed, trying to protect the rain forest. Rather, I am part of the rain forest protecting itself. I am that part of the rain forest recently emerged into human thinking.” This is what I mean by the greening of the self. It involves a combining of the mystical with the pragmatic, transcending separateness, alienation, and fragmentation. It is a shift that Seed himself calls “a spiritual change,” generating a sense of profound interconnectedness with all life. This is hardly new to our species. In the past, poets and mystics have been speaking and writing about these ideas, but not people on the barricades agitating for social change. Now the sense of an encompassing self, that deep identity with the wider reaches of life, is a motivation for action. It is a source of courage that helps us stand up to the powers that are still, through force of inertia, working for the destruction of our world. This expanded sense of self leads to sustained and resilient action on behalf of life.

Working for human rights and for animal rights, for the liberation of life, is part and parcel of being a mother.

4. I let the self grow as it will.

Many of us are in the habit of boxing ourselves in rigid beliefs about who we are: “I’m not the sort of person who…” As our children’s personalities start taking shape, it is tempting to box them, as well. So many preschool admission forms I filled out ask you to “describe your child.” I can describe my child today. I don’t know if the description will fit tomorrow, or even an hour from now; the self is flexible and boundless. I leave room for my child to surprise me every day.

5. I bring the miracle of compassion into my child’s life.

Earlier this year I found myself facing a difficult situation in my law school class that involved some cruel interpersonal behavior between students. As I was contemplating the unappetizing prospect of “giving a stern lecture,” whatever that means, I thought to myself–why would anyone whose empathy muscles are still growing learn kindness, when our government offers so little in the way of role models? But I was also struck with the poverty of cruelty as a go-to approach to the world. Why would you want to experience the small, petty cackle of the small self, when you can laugh with sympathetic joy and embrace with compassion? I don’t know how to “deliver a stern lecture” on that. All I know is that it has to be experienced. So I offer my son as many opportunities as I can to experience what it feels like to be compassionate–from cheering up a sad friend with a handful of blueberries at daycare to rescuing an errant spider from the tub, unscathed, and gently transporting him outside. We talk about our diet and consumption as choices that come from the desire to live as compassionate a life as possible. It is his choice what to take from this to his future life, but I trust that the experience of compassion itself, which is so rewarding, will be palpable for him.

6. I listen first.

There is a phenomenal children’s book I might have mentioned in a post before called The Rabbit Listened.:

I try to be like the rabbit. It is very tempting to superimpose my own interpretation of the situation, but I am not the one experiencing it. My aspiration is to make as much space as possible for Río to sit with what arises for him, without jumping to offer solutions or framing it in some way. I can help with descriptions, which is also an opportunity to learn how to define feelings, but I need to give the feelings as long as they take to process.

7. I let joy and sorrow grow side by side.

Río’s grandparents, who adore him, live far away from us, in Israel. They visit us for weeks at a time, which are times of joy for both Río and them. When it’s time for them to leave, it is very very hard to say goodbye. I insist on goodbyes in person. Feeling the sadness of parting with a loved relative is a gift. It teaches us that we can contain sorrow and grief, that sadness is a part of life, and that we are accepted and loved all the time, not only when we are happy. It has occurred to me that many of us were not given the gift of being allowed to feel sad by our families, and that’s why we don’t know how to pay it forward. It is very difficult to contain the sadness of someone we love. But it is a precious coping skill that I try to nourish from infancy, so that Río learns not to be afraid of the depths; Khalil Gibran reminds us,

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises
was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being,
the more joy you can contain.

When you are joyous,
look deep into your heart
and you shall find it is only
that which has given you sorrow
that is giving you joy.

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart,
and you shall see that in truth
you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

Nurturing a great capacity of love also means building a receptive container for the joys and sorrows of life. Offering compassion allows children to develop self-compassion.

8. I open doors to grow.

One of the gifts of adoption is that we don’t automatically assume that our child will have our affinities and interests. He is who he is. It turns out that, by contrast to this bookish/weird parents, Río is a natural athlete who enjoys ball games and skateboarding. Who knew? He might grow up to enjoy going to a symphony concert with me, or he might not, but I open doors to the things that interest us as well as to the things that interest him. Through him, we’ have learned a lot about ball sports and about moving around in ways that were less interesting to us before Río joined our family. I think the lesson can be extended to biological parents as well–our children are vast, open canvasses for the world, and the more doors we open, the more curiosity and exuberance they will find. I acknowledge that the ability to enrich and open doors is largely an accident of birth; because I want all children to grow, not just my child, I work to bring about equality and justice so that other people who love their children and want to open doors for them are able to do so.

9. I build a village.

My friend Ifat Matzner-Heruti, who is a parenting coach, recently wrote on Facebook:

It takes a whole village to raise a child. You are not a village. You can’t be. You can’t do it all, it is simply impossible. You can’t care, and work, and teach, and clean, and cook, and train, and launder, and contain, and listen, and educate, and create, and dance, and jump, and write, and breathe. You are not a village and you never will be. You can’t do it all.

She’s right–and I wrote some thoughts about this a couple of weeks ago. The upshot of it all is that, in the absence of paid preschool or caregivers, I realized that we have an unbalanced life. I don’t need more paid care so that i can work more. I need a shorter workday–we all need that, actually, parents and non-parents alike–so that there is more room to be with my child and raise him. Yesterday, out of the blue, Río said, “I don’t want to go back to the teachers. I want to be with you and Aba at home all the time.” That may not be entirely possible or desirable (and I won’t live with him at his college dorm!) but it conveys a deep, strong sentiment that needs to be honored. Love requires time, and if I don’t have all the time in the world, I want to fill this time with loving extended family, friends, and neighbors.

10. I mother myself.

I apply all of the above to my own life. I appreciate my own present body, mind, and spirit, even as I work daily to grow. I cultivate love for all beings and aspire to put that love into action every day. I listen to myself, I let myself feel sorrow as well as joy with self compassion. I accept the self as malleable and changing and open doors for transformation. And I cultivate a village around myself and my family, at the same time as I aspire to be part of your village.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of you! May your mothering path be filled with love and compassion.

Shelter In Place, Ch. 5

shelter in place



“Abuelita!” Yanneth’s voice rang from inside the house, lifting Saraí’s spirits. She could feel her fear, which clung to her throughout the eerie bus ride, dissipate. “Yanneth!” She called back. “I’m here!”

Yanneth, tall and long-limbed, rushed to the door and to her grandmother’s arms. Saraí noticed that her once-gangly granddaughter moved more gracefully now, though she was still as spirited and buoyant as she had been in her younger years. “How was your ride, abuelita?” she asked.

“Pretty scary,” admitted Saraí. “The buses are completely empty and it feels like a ghost town.”

“Well, now you can stay with us,” reassured Yanneth. “Maris and I are pretty busy with school online, but we can hang out all the time. And will you teach us how to cook? Mom can’t cook to save her life.”

Rocío peeked into the hallway. “No, I can’t,” she said with just a faint smile. “I’m too busy intubating people to make sure there’s gourmet food on the table here. You’re welcome.” She seemed tired, wearing the sweatpants she favored at home after changing from her scrubs. “Come in, Mami. Maris is going to share her room with Yanneth, so you can have some space.”

“Are you sure this isn’t too much?” asked Saraí. “I know your work is very busy.” Rocío waved her hand, as if Saraí’s words were a pesky fly. “Will do us all good. I’m in and out at all hours, the girls are alone at home most of the day, and it’ll be better if you’re here.”

“Where’s Maris?” asked Saraí. “Has she had a chance to ride at all?” Maris had been an avid bicyclist, but maybe her teenage years dampened her enthusiasm. “Yeah, she goes at night,” said Yanneth. “She doesn’t like the traffic.”

“Riding at night with low visibility,” said Rocío. “As if I don’t have enough to worry about.”

Maris emerged from her room. “Are you guys talking about me?” she said. “Yeah, I ride at night just so that mom has to worry about me.” She opened the refrigerator and took out a large carton of orange juice. “Abuelita, do you want some?” she asked.

Saraí appreciated the gesture. She was not a regular guest at Rocío’s home. “Yes, thank you, mija,” she said. “So how’s school online?”

“It sucks,” Maris summarized pithily.

“Some teachers are better than others,” said Yanneth. “I really like Miss Ortega. She sends us awesome videos to watch and does all this small group work on Zoom.”

“Speaking of which…” said her mother, motioning with her head toward the girls’ rooms.

“Yeah, I should get back into it,” said Yanneth and skipped toward her room.

“God only knows what she does in there,” said Rocío. “Both of them. Online all day, and I don’t think it’s schoolwork. I’m so tired, Mami, I don’t have the energy to check on them.”

“Don’t you worry?” asked Saraí.

“Worry about what?” retorted Rocío.

“I don’t know,” said Saraí. “Bad people online. I hear things. You know, Maribel told me—”

“Maribel should keep her mouth shut,” said Rocío. “She’s always freaking you out over nothing.”

But it’s not over nothing, thought Saraí. She pursed her mouth, then took a breath. “How’s work?”

“Absolutely horrible,” said Rocío. “All the patients come in with the same diagnosis. And you know what, I don’t trust the masks. That’s what scares me, that I’ll get it and then I won’t be able to work, and what will happen to the girls.”

“That’s horrible,” Saraí agreed. She offered to make dinner before Rocío’s night shift. Rocío eyed her kitchen with apprehension, then nodded. Saraí opened the refrigerator. Rocío had gone shopping for basics, which was good; not a lot to use for a hot meal, but some sandwiches, perhaps.

“Look in the freezer,” said Rocío. “I got some things the girls can reheat when I’m not here. It’s not that bad.”

Saraí remained quiet. Rocío said, “I know what you’re thinking. But I can be a good mother without cooking here every night.”

“That’s not what I was thinking at all,” said Saraí. “I’m very proud of you.” Everything between them was so prickly. David’s mother once lent her a book called You’re Wearing That? by a linguist. Saraí usually preferred reading in Spanish, but for that book she made an exception. I could’ve written that book about Rocío and me, she thought.

Anyway, who was she to judge? She cooked for her kids every day and it wasn’t enough to keep Chris home, safe.

She must have allowed a pained expression to cross her face, because Rocío said, “I’m sorry, Mami. Let’s let it go.”

Saraí nodded.

Dinner was served and the girls emerged from their laptops. Yanneth ate voraciously and asked questions about recipes; Maris played with her food a bit, lost in thought. Rocío got up from the dinner table, heading to the closet to get clean scrubs and pack an overnight bag. Maris helped Saraí take her bag to Yanneth’s room.

Rocío departed with a few requests from the girls—“and don’t let your abuela do this for you”—and kisses on their foreheads. Saraí sat in Yanneth’s room, lost in thought.

She missed Chris. Even toward the end, when he was defiant, opting more and more for whatever life he was living, she felt a warm connection to him that was harder with Rocío; she loved them both, but Chris was more like her and easier for her to understand. Rocío was a bit more like Alejandro—taciturn, efficient, attentive to her own counsel. Chris couldn’t help but reveal his innermost concerns, even when he tried to cover his new, secretive life. Ah, what she would give—but this was sending her down the pattern that the grief counselor said so many time was treading water. Accept, accept, accept. Chris is gone, gone, gone. The familiar pain returned, like a heavy stone sinking into a deep vat of water. Gone, gone, gone.

“Abuelita,” said Yanneth, “what’s up? You’re so quiet.”

“Just thinking,” said Saraí.

“About Uncle Chris?” asked Yanneth. This surprised Saraí. She could not imagine Rocío talking about Chris with the girls.

“I sometimes get a little bit sad,” said Saraí. She could tell that her honesty touched the girl. “Now, what would you girls like to do?”

“Let’s watch something together,” Maris suggested. They ushered Saraí to the couch, each girl sitting on her side, and brought Maris’s laptop. They quickly settled on something—some new sacchariny tale of high school and boys—and clicked on the title. Save for passing commentary about outfits or the music, they were engrossed in the movie. Saraí allowed her thoughts to ramble through her mind, cloudlike. It was good to be around the girls; she felt better being with other people, with young people. She had lost their uncle when he was not much older than than his nieces were now. She allowed her sorrow to soften, breathing the scent of the girls’ shampoo and letting her memories come and go.

How We See Others: On Ahmaud Arbery, Homelessness, and the Judging Mind

A couple of weeks ago I posted about the comparing mind and how to soften our judgment of others. The pull toward judgment is so strong–I’m encountering it in myself as well as in lots of people around me who are ordinarily kind and patient–so I find myself posting about judgments again. During today’s outing with my son I was mindful of how a six-foot measuring stick has been embedded in my brain, and that was the first thing I noticed about people around me–that and whether they were wearing masks. It was as if something inside me yearned to control and chide other people’s behavior. The act of perceiving others’ compliance was so instantaneous that it frightened me. Being cognizant of this feeling, and sensing the “hook” of the temptation to judge in myself, has given me more understanding of the judging behavior of others.

On our outing, we traveled 2.23 miles to honor the memory of Ahmaud Arbery, the young man who was so cruelly murdered a few months ago while going on his daily run. Two suspects–a father and son–have now been charged with his murder. We will learn more during the trial, but the chilling footage suggests that Ahmaud was gunned down for no other reason than the color of his skin–yet another horrifying tragedy building on our racist legacies.

As we were walking, I was thinking about the horrors of these immediate judgments and biases. Before our pandemic times, we would look at passers-by in the streets and our unconscious would sort them into groups based on their gender expression, ethnic or racial appearance, or the apparent quality and fit of their clothes. These and other factors determine not only how we see people, but sometimes whether we see them at all. China Miéville’s wonderful novel The City and The City is set in two European city-states occupying the same physical space, but without mutual diplomatic relations. The citizens of each city are socialized, since infancy, not to see the buildings, cars, and people of the other city. When the hero has to investigate a disappearance from one city to the other, he has to undergo training to “unsee” his own city and “see” the other.

This week, UC Hastings and other businesses and people in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco sued the City of San Francisco for its neglect to address the overwhelming crisis of homelessness, drug dealing and mental disability that has characterized the Tenderloin, especially since the pandemic. I’ve spoken about this with students who live in our dorm, the Tower; even though we all have witnessed the immense suffering in the streets surrounding campus for years, the virus and resulting crises have magnified the suffering, to a level that affects everyone in the Tenderloin–housed and unhoused alike. We think of ourselves as good, kind, compassionate people, and yet we must harden our hearts and “unsee” the human suffering at our doorstep; it has finally risen to a level of tragedy that can no longer be unseen.

These snap judgments we make are at the heart of the many mundane ways in which we treat others badly. Most of us (I believe and hope) do not share the murderous intents of the people who accosted and shot Ahmaud. But how many people who think of themselves as kind and compassionate perceive people who do not look like them as dangerous, threatening, unpleasant to interact with, and move to the opposite sidewalk?

With the current threat at our doors, the usual features that our biased minds would glom to, to offer a snap judgment of the person walking toward us–poor, dangerous, friendly, you name it–have receded to the background, and our immediate biases have clung to masks and distances. The first thing we see now goes beyond poor/rich, male/female, white/nonwhite. It goes to masked/unmasked and distancing/not distancing. And so, our judging energy has gone there, where it might have gone elsewhere in past times when we noticed other things. It has been a profound education for me in the nature of instant visible biases.

I imagine some people reading this will be rightfully upset about the comparison between racist murderers and people who just want others to participate in the measures we are taking to prevent contagion. Of course motivation matters. But look at what the presumably commendable effort to shelter in place is making people do: scream at other people, slash each other’s tires, write horrible notes to each other, place rotten meat at people’s entrances as punishment for their perceived violations. For people imbued with a commendable motive, these are not particularly commendable (or effective) actions.

We must heal and fix the world, so that young people’s promising lives will not be cut short by race-fueled hatred, and so that poor and suffering people will not be ignored and unseen. Let’s start by sitting with our own judging minds, let go of others’ behavior that we cannot control, and then find the space to unite in active hope to work for racial and economic equality. The revolution is bigger than all of us, but it starts inside us.

Shelter In Place, Ch. 4

shelter in place



All around the city, plastic bags rustled in thousands of kitchens. Plastic lids were pulled off hot soup; cartons of steamed rice were unpacked; thousands of teeth bit into soy sauce packets; thousands of hands held up hefty sandwiches, fished fries from bags, sprinkled chili flakes on freshly unveiled pizzas. The city sat down to lunch.

The app—efficient! Immaculate! Ahead of its time!—was silent, and John decided to check out for a couple of hours before the evening rush. He drove home, dug the remote out of the scooter’s front compartment, and opened his garage door. There it was, in all its glory—his TRX set from ten years ago, still in pristine, untouched condition, hanging from his garage ceiling.

John parked the scooter, dismounted, took off his gear, and grabbed the handles. The incline pushups were harder than he remembered from ten years and thirty pounds ago. All around him, self-styled influencers (he detested that word) implored their followers to seize the day, to view this “special time,” euphemism of the year, as a springboard for self-improvement. And why not? The deliveries built character, and perhaps he could have the muscles to go with.

His phone buzzed in his pocket. A text from Fabian: Hi dad wanna chat, never a question mark or a comma to be found. Rejoicing at the excuse to abandon his workout, John entered the house, sat in front of his computer, and logged on to Google Hangouts.

“Hi, Dad,” said Fabian, waving at him from the screen.

“Hi, Scoot,” said John, buoyed by the sight of his son’s face. “How was today?”

“Meh,” shrugged Fabian. “More emails and emails. Everything has a different password and some teachers still can’t use Zoom. My history teacher, Miss Ortega, she kicks ass, though. We got to watch a video about San Francisco in the 1970s.”

“Complete with the murders in City Hall, mind you,” Ceci’s voice rang from the kitchen. “As if these kids don’t have enough nightmares to deal with.”

“It’s fine, mom,” said Fabian, adding quietly for John’s benefit, “she thinks I don’t know about murders, but I just watched Dark Heart and it was awesome.”

“I heard that,” chimed in Ceci. “You and him both with these murder shows. What’s the appeal? Life isn’t hard enough for you?”

“But life is like this, Mom,” said Fabian. “Dad, a lot of these are based on real cases.”

“It’s true, Ceci,” said John. “I mean, only today I delivered a meal to this lady who seemed really sad and afraid.”

“Like, murder afraid?” asked Fabian.

“I don’t know, Scoot,” replied John. “She was wearing a mask. But it gave me a bad feeling to look at her. Think of all these poor people at home. God only knows what’s going on in there.”

“Yeah, like, with quarantine, you could be dead for weeks and no one would know,” said Fabian. “I read about this woman who was dead at home for three weeks and when the police came in, because the neighbors reported the smell, you see, she was eaten up by her cats.”

“Charming,” said Ceci. “John, how’s riding around doing deliveries?”

“It’s actually fine,” said John. “I get to see the city; I have some regulars already. It’s nice to be outside.” Neither of them mentioned the possibility that this could become John’s vocation. The rumors from college colleagues were not pretty, an honest day’s work was an honest day’s work, and John pushed the topic deeper into the recesses of his mind.

After ending the call with Fabian, John thought again of Phoenix Williams. That woman did not look like a phoenix to him, and for some reason, the plausible caregiving story did not seem right to him. He decided he would drive by the house again on his way to deliver dinners, but the app intervened by sending him all the way to Noe Valley with artisan burritos. The next four hours were a blur; restaurateurs’ eyes blurred into customers’ smiles, pizza boxes blurred into gyros Styrofoam containers, and there was even an earlyish cocktail delivery that tried his nerves as he swerved up O’Shaugnessy, praying not to spill anything. It was only around 11pm that he could swing by Persia again, and it was then that he remembered what had bothered him the whole time.

The woman in the window had not worn a mask before she got to the door. The vague movement he saw at lunchtime was a hasty effort to put on a mask before he saw her. And since she didn’t open the door, why did she put on the mask?

Was there something she didn’t want him to see?

John parked across the street, walked up to the house, rang the bell and stepped back down, looking at the window. There was no motion in the window for a moment, and then a man, about John’s age, opened the window. “How can I help?”

“I’m the delivery guy from lunch before,” said John. “There was some confusion at FoodFairy and we wanted to make sure that—” he pretended to look at his phone—“Phoenix got the correct delivery?”

“I’m Phoenix,” said the man. “I think everything was fine at lunch; it was our regular order. Allison, did all the food come okay at lunch?”

The woman from lunch—unmasked–stepped up to the window. “Yes, everything was fine, thank you,” she said. The man put his arm around her and closed the window. Yet just before she turned away, John noticed a nasty bruise around her mouth.

He walked toward his scooter and saw a masked neighbor with two children, drawing in chalk on the sidewalk. An idea occurred to him. He walked over to the children, staying within six feet of them, and called out: “Can I borrow some chalk?”

“Sure,” said the neighbor, “but just one. Turns out they are on backorder on Amazon now—can you believe it?”

John replied that indeed, he could, and picked up the chalk. His first instinct was to write a message for Allison on the sidewalk, but it was quickly followed by a realization of the foolishness of his plan. Instead, he drew a line—he hoped it would suggest a road, and two scooters: one upright, carrying a box, and the other upside down. He wrote the word “or” between them and added a question mark, and then casually dropped the chalk. With some luck, Phoenix would think it a child’s scribble and ignore it. Or, as usual, the whole thing was in John’s head, and all was well, and none of this was his business, anyway.

As he mounted the scooter, he felt a buzz in his pocket. He extracted his phone and saw that the app had sent him messages for a few minutes. He hopped on the scooter and headed to Thai House on Divisadero.  


When John was done for the night—other nameless, faceless people on scooters, bikes, and skates, would take his place—he felt exhausted. His last delivery left him close enough to Park Presidio; he took the road into Golden Gate Park. A large, luminous full moon hung above his head. The fresh night air filled him with nostalgia; he thought about the park in better days, when San Franciscans flooded it on weekends to go to the de Young, take a boat on Stow Lake, or go skating. He wondered about the tent encampments that would sometimes line the park, now nowhere to be seen; the Tenderloin was teeming with people without hope or options, but the park seemed empty.

He headed back home, taking a short detour to Persia. It was late, and people’s trash, recycle, and compost bins lined the street like a uniform. Phoenix and Allison’s bins were there, standing in line, just near John’s drawing.

He slowed down. It was hard to see, even with the full moon. The chalk was gone. So was the upright scooter from his drawing. The upside-down scooter was still there—but what was it?

It seemed like the scooter now had a rider. It was a person with long hair—a woman?—and a sad face, her arms reaching out as if saying, “help!” It was quite a crude drawing, which could well have been added by the neighborhood children. The whole thing probably had a benign explanation, which would come to him in the morning. Obsessing again. That, and all this driving. It couldn’t be good for him.

Shelter In Place, Ch. 3

shelter in place



For the third night in a row, Caleb awoke perturbed from a disturbing dream: dozens of hands laid upon his head, some caressing, some gently tousling his curls, and an incessant humming, like the buzzing sounds of a busy beehive, rising all around him. The sensations and sounds took a few moments to fade. Then he sat up upon his cardboard mattress and took in the scenery.

It was still early and the park was enveloped in misty fog. The grass sparkled with droplets of water and the tree leaves above him glistened in the soft light. Farther in the distance, through the mist, he saw shapes suggesting other people, perhaps bundled in clothes or blankets.

Caleb stepped behind a tree to relieve himself, then felt a pang of hunger. He still had a couple of twenty-dollar bills he filched out of Amanda’s wallet before leaving; he wondered how far he could get them to stretch.

Motivated by hunger and some curiosity about his new surroundings, he crossed the street and started walking down Haight street. The shops—hair salons, old car washes, sixties memorabilia joints—were still closed. He found a small grocery store and bought a pack of cigarettes, a stale pastry and a can of coke. Outside, he sat on the sidewalk and quietly drank and ate.

He arrived in town three days ago in the early afternoon on a Greyhound bus he caught the previous night in Colorado Springs. The bus was full, but everyone minded their own business, which suited him fine. His first two nights were spent around City Hall, sleeping in doorways on a faded cardboard ad that read “Willie Brown.” But the noise and traffic disquieted him and he longed for somewhere quieter. Another guy told him about the park, and he ended up here, finding a huge appliance cardboard box in one of the carwash lots and using it as his bedding.

Done with his pastry, he strolled back to the park, still sipping from his can. The people in the park shed their blankets and coats and started to look more like people, but nothing like the people who surrounded him back in Colorado Springs. For folks in dire straits, they seemed quite groomed, their cultivated appearance evincing neglect and care in equal measures: army boots, metallic chains, army jackets, leather vests, torn jeans. Caleb noticed that a few had large dogs, which made him uneasy.

He was rattled by a hand touching his shoulder. “Can you spare one?” The woman, probably in her thirties but who knew, wore her hair in a long braid and was bundled in one of those South American sweaters. She gestured toward his pocket. Caleb took out the cigarette pack and handed her one. She took a lighter out of her pocket, flicked it on, and lit her cigarette. She gestured at Caleb, as if asking whether he wanted her to light one for him, too. He shook his head.

“You’re new, right?” she asked. Caleb didn’t answer.

“You’ll be fine. The winters are not as bad as in Minnesota or whatever. It’s been pretty dry the last coupla weeks. And the cops aren’t on our case with Matrix like they were last year.”

Still a bit groggy despite the coke and the pastry, Caleb listened as she explained. The public libraries were open and were warm inside; the grocery store left out some fruit when it closed for the night; best not to pet other people’s dogs (no risk of that, Caleb thought.) Other people around them struck conversations with each other. Caleb was not in a friend-making mood, but then again, he seldom was. What was it the social worker had said to Amanda when they first met? “Yeah, he’s kind of a loner,” she explained, “but eventually he opens up. It just takes time, right?”

At that first meeting, Amanda did most of the talking. Caleb knew he should make a good impression, be the sweetest kitten at the shelter, but could not bring himself to talk about it all. He let Amanda tell him that she lived with her husband Steve here in town, that Steve worked at Focus on the Family and Amanda worked the reception desk at their church, and that on weekends they hiked the wooden trails near the stream around the Air Force Academy before going to the Sunday morning service and church activities. They already had three adopted children close to his age from the Colorado Springs welfare system; at 11, he would be their third-oldest kid if he wanted to live with them. They all had dinner together every night and went to the same Christian school.

The loner streak did not dissipate. Talking, particularly about what happened before he came to live with them, was hard, not because Steve and Amanda weren’t nice. They were told the basic story, of course; with mom’s boyfriend in prison for it and a big part of it in his group home file, the obviously upsetting bits couldn’t be avoided. But he had the uneasy feeling that, even though they both said they knew it hadn’t been his fault, he felt Steve’s eyes resting on him sometimes with unspoken suspicion. Jesus said, Steve quoted, love the sinner and hate the sin, but where did one end and the other begin? Tarnished with more than his fair share of original sins, Caleb couldn’t possibly live up to Jesus, who was the top priority and the most loved at home, always. Before every meal, at church, of course, and even at Caleb’s junior high graduation, where the principal told the audience to refrain from applauding for their children, because all achievement bowed before Christ. There were a few claps here and there, Caleb remembered; not all the parents were sufficiently devout and self-restrained, but Steve and Amanda sat in complete silence until the potluck.

A loud siren interrupted Caleb’s thoughts. Another joined, and another, and soon the birdsong from the park was completely drowned by a cacophony of sirens. Police cars screeched in front of the people on Stanyan. A bullhorn peeked from a window: “Police!” (no shit, Sherlock, Caleb thought.) “We are breaking down this camp. You are distrupting the neighborhood and must disperse.”

An outburst of shouting came in response. “Where the fuck do you want us to go?” yelled the woman with the long braid. “What is this, Matrix? Fucking Willie Brown. Doesn’t make a difference who’s Mayor, you get hunted down.” “I ain’t moving nowhere. I’m done running away from you assholes.” “I got ten citations for just living. Ten! You just try and get me off.” The police officers, undeterred, emerged from the cars. Caleb had certainly seen his share of cops, and he had no love for them, but never so many. An officer grabbed the long-braided woman by the hand and dragged her away. Before Caleb could protest, he felt his hands pulled behind his back and a push forward. Within seconds he was in a police car, seated between two other people—the long-braided woman and a large man in his fifties. The man’s eyes were damp, and he muttered: “assholes. No heart. Where’s my dog gonna go?”

“Animal control,” said the officer from the passenger’s seat. “If you can’t put a roof over your head, you got no business owning a dog anyway.”

“You assholes,” sobbed the man. “You assholes.”

Surrounded on all sides—his least-preferable way to be—Caleb could not see well out of the window. He was wondering where the officers would deposit them. “Holy shit!” said the long-braided woman. “They’re taking us to 850 Bryant.”

“Shit is on,” said the large man. “There’s gonna be news crews and shit. Didn’t he get elected by promising people he wasn’t going to do this shit?”

The car stopped. The two officers got out of the car, opening the back doors and letting Caleb and the others out. In front of him was an enormous, rectangular building with small windows. The officers ushered Caleb and the others in a long row through the corridor.

“The court opens at nine, which is soon enough,” said the officers. “Whoever makes bail then, can leave; otherwise, it’s a traffic ticket.”

“Another ticket?” said someone Caleb hadn’t seen before. “Does Willie Brown have ideas on how I’m going to pay my ticket?”

“How about getting a job?” asked another officer. “I’m tired of sweeping the streets every day. Or here’s an idea, why don’t you go back to where you came from and live there?”

“I’m from here,” said the long-braided woman. “Born and raised. Where should I go, huh?”

“Save it for the judge,” said the officer. Caleb and the others were shown into a long corridor with cell doors. It was the biggest jail Caleb had ever seen, and he’d seen quite a few.

The cell offered him no respite. Six of them locked together, four of whom had a penchant for talking—just like the incessant noise at Amanda and Steve’s, at the group home, and before. Caleb felt the familiar suffocation rise in his throat, just like it did the evening after his adoption went through. For the hearing itself he wore a button-down shirt and tie, which itched around his neck. Amanda and Steve and the other kids were there, all immaculately dressed, and the judge congratulated them for joining a solid Christian family. “At a time like this, when family values are at risk from all directions,” said the judge, and Caleb thought he was looking straight at him, “it is heartwarming to see God-loving people doing the right thing, saving these kids, and offering them a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

From the hearing, they headed off to the church, where dozens of helping hands put together a party to celebrate the adoption. Pastor Ethan took the microphone, blessed Caleb as a new brother in Christ, and invited the congregation to lay hands on him in blessing. Before Caleb could protest, he was surrounded by people—some he knew, many he didn’t—and felt the weight of a clammy, cold hand on his forehead. Another hand followed on the crown of his head, and soon, there were fingers in his hair, hands on his back, hands on his shoulder; the garlicky breath of a parishioner invaded his perception, sickening him. “Praise Jesus!” Said Pastor Ethan. “Praise Jesus!” called out the parishioners. Caleb, for whom the hands called the memory of other unwelcome hands, clammed up, shut his eyes, and waited for it all to end.

The cell door opened, rattling Caleb. Two officers he had not seen before, wearing a different uniform, motioned for Caleb and his cellmates to follow them. They walked down a long corridor and up a tall staircase, ending in a wider hallway with a shiny floor. Caleb was led into a courtroom, where he sat in silence, spoken to by no one.

Looking behind him, he saw rows of other people, some of whom he recognized from the park. Behind them was a strikingly good looking man in his forties in a short haircut and a crisp gray blazer over a blue collared shirt and jeans. The man looked straight at Caleb and smiled. Not only with his mouth, with the corner of his eyes. Caleb’s eyes opened wide. The man quietly nodded at him.

“All Rise!” announced the clerk and a slender woman in a bobbed haircut entered through a side door, wearing a black gown. The woman sat at the judge’s seat and they were all motioned to seat.

“Today we’re looking at loitering, right?” said the woman at the clerk. “It’s as if Frank Jordan never lost the election.” The clerk chuckled. The woman lifted her eyes and took them all in, then raised her eyebrows in surprise.

“Mr. Ellstrom?” she asked. “What are you doing here?”

The man in the gray blazer rose. “Your honor,” he said, “Perhaps I can help lighten the load here abit. I will bail out—” he turned to Caleb quickly and whispered, “what’s your name?” Caleb mumbled his name, “Caleb here, and I am capable of offering him housing and a job.”

“That’s remarkable, Mr. Ellstrom,” said the judge. “Will you post bail?”

“Certainly,” said the man. The judge motioned at Caleb. He approached the bench.

“Caleb, this is your lucky day,” said the judge. “Mr. Ellstrom here will take good care of you. Do you want to take this chance today?”

“Yes,” said Caleb. He cleared his throat; he had not heard the sound of his own voice in days. “Yes, your honor, thank you.”

The judge motioned him away and Ellstrom gestured at him, goodnaturedly, to come along. Spellbound, Caleb followed him outside the courtroom.

“Have you had anything to eat this morning?” said Ellstrom. Caleb nodded. “Enough?” asked Ellstrom. Caleb did not reply. “Well, I’m hungry. I’m gonna go for some eggs. Will you come with me?” Caleb nodded.

They exited the building, turned right, and crossed the street. Ellstrom pointed at a small joint. “It doesn’t look like much, but their breakfasts are really good,” he said. They stepped in and took a small formica table. “Hello, Mr. Ellstrom,” said a waiter, “it’s good to see you again.”

“Hi, Clark,” said Ellstrom. “Can you make us a couple plates of eggs and home fries? Some toast, too?”

“Sure thing,” said Clark and disappeared into the little kitchen.

“Look, Mr. Ellstrom,” said Caleb. “I can’t thank you enough, but—”

“Call me Neil,” said Ellstrom. “It’s no big deal, really. How long have you been in town?”

“Three days,” said Caleb.

“Do you have any construction experience?”

“Some,” said Caleb. This was not a lie. Steve took the boys to volunteer at Habitat for Humanity sometimes, and Caleb learned to pour cement and some of the basics of laying pipes.

“That’s great,” said Neil. “I could always use someone on my crew.” The eggs arrived, warm and fragrant, with some crispy hot fries and a buttered toast. Caleb looked at the plates with hesitation, but as Neil smiled and said, “dig in,” he started devouring his meal.

“Wow, you’re inhaling it,” laughed Neil. Caleb stopped eating, feeling self-conscious. “On my crew, you get a hot meal every morning. Folks work harder and better if they’ve had something solid to eat before work.”

Caleb looked at Neil’s smiling face and suddenly realized they had not said grace before the meal.

Shelter In Place, Ch. 2

shelter in place



Saraí would not have remembered it was a Tuesday had it not been for the familiar ringtone on her phone. Yanneth’s radiant smile on her screen, which flashed weekly as the phone rang, pulled her out of a foggy daydream and she tapped the green circle.

“Hola, Yanneth?” she said.

“Abuelita,” replied Yanneth, “How are you?”

“I’m okay,” replied Saraí. “Just hanging out, resting. How are you girls and your Mami?”

“We’re doing fine,” said Yanneth. “I’m creating this new dance with my friends and we’re going to record ourselves doing it and do a group video. Maris is on the phone with her boyfriend all the time. Mami is going crazy trying to get her to do her homework.”

Saraí smiled. She knew children, and her own grandchildren sounded upbeat. This was a balm, a refuge, for her; childhood and youth could be laden with challenges, as she knew all too well. Rocío was a good mom, judging from how the kids turned out. This thought raised a familiar bad taste in her mouth, and she swept it out of her head, realizing her granddaughter was still talking.

“So do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Do you want to come?”

“Come where?”

“Come on, Abuelita, you weren’t listening! Come live with us for the shelter-in-place order!”

“Mi amor, I have my place right here at home. No need to worry.”

This was not entirely true. The experience of sitting at home doing nothing was new and unnerving. God knew she’d been through plenty, by herself, not much older than Maris and Yanneth, and then with Alejandro and of course with Chris, but the fear she had felt then was acute, an awakening. Even when she felt frozen, she would then be propelled to act. Doing, working, acting, that was how she took on fear—an unwelcome but familiar guest. This newcomer, though, was of an entirely different quality. It numbed, it made the limbs go heavy, it blurred the hours of the day into tedium, punctuated only by vivid dreams of things forgotten and uneasy, abrupt awakenings.

Her friend Maribel had said something interesting. She was talking to her cousin Josué, who got into all kinds of New Age babble, The Secret, Pay It Forward, that sort of thing. Amidst the stream of snake-oil virus cure posts and memes with angels on them, Maribel said, he had sent her this piece about how this crisis was an opportunity to move from “doing” to “being.” “Being” is for people to lazy to “do,” Saraí thought. But lately she wondered whether Josué was right after all. Because living in her head after so many years of work, work, work—with her own children, with the children of others—was quiet. And quiet was not a good thing. It made room for things to sneak in, things best left in the past where they belonged. Being bombarded with warnings about belonging to a “high-risk population” so shortly after her sixtieth birthday was also discomfiting. But mostly it was the shapeless fog that enveloped her days that made the experience so eerie.

“But Mami wants you to come,” pleaded Yanneth.

This was also unlikely. Rocío barely spoke to Saraí, partly because they were both so busy with their respective jobs, and partly because of the obvious. They would exchange a few words on the phone or a text once every couple of weeks, of course, and Yanneth always called on Tuesdays, serving as an intermediary of sorts, but it was not the kind of relationship that would make the prospect of living together in close quarters something to look forward to. “Are you sure?” asked Saraí.

She heard some commotion on the other side of the line. Rocío’s muffled voice saying, “why do I need to talk to her? You talk to her,” followed by Yanneth’s, “but she wants to talk to YOU.”

“Hi, Mamá,” said Rocío.

“Hola, Rocío,” replied Saraí. “How are you doing?”

“It’s okay,” sighed Rocío. “Work is hard. You would not believe the things I see every day.”

Tell me, Saraí pleaded in her heart. Like you used to tell me when you were little, running to me every time a schoolgirl intrigue, some boy drama, anything unmoored you. But Rocío moved on. “I know you must be bored stiff after getting fired from that job, and, with me working full time, I know the girls would love having you around.”

“I wasn’t fired,” corrected Saraí. “David got into preschool. I couldn’t be his nanny forever.”

“Whatever,” said Rocío, an expression she learned from the valley girl movies of her teenage years. “You can have Yanneth’s room; she’s going to room with Maris. It’ll work out just fine.”

Saraí thought about it. For the last three years, her day revolved around David. She showed up at his home at 8:00am, right on time every time, just as David’s mom left home dressed to the nines to go to her job. David was always thrilled to see her, his bright eyes sparkling and his smile broadening, toddling over to her and squealing: “Tía Sara! Tía Sara!” They would play at home for a while, eat the breakfast his mom left him, and then go to the playground, where David amazed Saraí by climbing higher and higher and daringly using the tall slide. Rocío and Chris were not like this when they were little, she would think, and then remember that Chris did find some derring-do, but that would be much later.

When David turned three, his mom started looking for preschools. Saraí knew her days with him were numbered and felt the familiar sadness at saying goodbye. She had worked with about fifteen families, all different, and every time she moved on, her profound love for the child stayed with her. Some of her former employers stayed in touch; the kids would be friendly, but generally moved on with their lives. It was only several years into her work as a nanny that she realized that her love for the child—whether reciprocated or not—was her gift to take along, to keep her smiling through the uncertainties of future employment and the adjustment to a new family and a new routine.

As it turned out, David was accepted to preschool in early March. Saraí stayed on to help with the transition; he had not yet made any friends at the new place and was wary of the teachers and the noise during outside playtime. The new teachers did not speak Spanish and Saraí, like David’s mom, was worried that he would forget their Spanish conversations. When the shelter-in-place order descended, Saraí had been out of work for two weeks and living off the severance payments from David’s family. She had not found a new family ahead of time, not for want of effort, and, even though the financial situation worried her, she was happy not to be beholden to new employers at a time like this.

Maribel and Saraí talked about domestic workers and nannies in Brazil who were forced to live with their employers in quarantine or lose their jobs. Maribel had heard that the first woman to die of the virus in Brazil was a domestic worker, whose white employer, just back from vacation, demanded that she return to work as usual and hid from her that she was experiencing symptoms. The boss recovered; the worker died. The heart had no room to contain all this suffering, and if she was going to, she had plenty of her own to conjure. She could not afford sinking into this malaise that was reaching its tentacles into her daily routine.

“Okay,” she said, “I can come.”

Saraí was a light traveler, and looking around her apartment she couldn’t think of anything she would want or need with her. Then she packed some toiletries and essentials in a bag and some indulgences she thought Rocío might not have: the little coffee machine she received as a gift in a few years ago from the parents of one of her charges, the nice tortilla press, her favorite house slippers. Just about to step out of the house, she realized that public transportation might not run as frequently as she was used to.

She pulled out her phone. Maris had taught her to look up Muni times. NextMuni was working and reporting a bus arriving in ten minutes. Saraí stayed at home until the last possible minute, then headed to the station.

Boarding the bus alarmed her. She was used to drivers wearing masks on occasion, but the emptiness of the bus and the driver’s surprise at seeing her were unusual. She sat in the middle, alone, gazing at the vacant seats around her and at the boarded windows facing the street. Her daily commute to David’s house offered her a daily spectacle of the tragicomedy of San Francisco: people making speeches, chatting, bickering on board. Now, the recorded voice announcing the stations rang tinny and awkward in the empty bus, a ghost ship.

Saraí got off the bus a block away from Rocío’s house. Her heart was still pounding from the ride. She was relieved to feel her feet on the ground, even though the hollow sound of her soles on the pavement disoriented her. She took a breath, stepped up to the landing, and rang the doorbell with her elbow.

Corn and Bean Salad

While some of us have cooked for our families for a long time, others are only now learning to cook, and the abundance of fancy, complicated recipes can be daunting. It’s also hard to hunt for expensive ingredients. Here’s something that can easily be made with fresh, canned, or frozen ingredients; it’s a particularly convenient dish in my part of the world, because our neighborhood grocers are well-stocked in inexpensive produce.

You’ll need exactly five ingredients: corn, red or black beans, onion, cilantro, and lime. If the corn is fresh, you can get it off the cob with a sharp knife and leave it raw in the salad. If it’s frozen, defrost it but don’t cook it for long. The beans can be cooked from dried or canned (either way, rinse them well and let them cool a bit before assembling.) The onion and cilantro have to be fresh, and the lime juice tastes great fresh but you can use bottled unsweetened lemon or lime juice in a pinch. Be sure to mince the onions very finely and add considerably less onion, volume-wise, than corn and beans.

Serve with raw fresh vegetables, if you have any on hand; I like this with steamed broccoli florets on the side, which you can slather in this amazing sauce.