I write to discover.

One June morning in 2008, like all the other mornings that year, I went to Dolores Park to write. I lived in a flat on 19th Street, just a few doors down from Dolores Avenue. Proximity meant I could spend a lot of time in the park. Each day, I would walk with my dog a few blocks to Phil’s to get my coffee, then head back to sit in the park while my dog ran around, sniffing, pissing, and smiling at me with his tongue lolling.

The sun almost always shines on Dolores Park. I was told that there are 37 distinct microclimates in the forty-six-square-mile area that encompasses San Francisco, but the exact number is often debated. I know that Dolores Park is the best one.

I write to observe.

The weather patterns in the city occur too frequently to be overlooked – each day that famous fog rolls in from Ocean Beach, through Golden Gate Park, and heads East towards the Bay. The fog climbs Twin Peaks, and dissipates as it reaches the Mission. The chill dampens the air, and settles in pockets in some low areas. This phenomenon occurs every day, it seems. Almost every day the sun shines on Dolores Park, even when it is cloudy and cold in other places in that small, crowded and unique city.

I have read that Dolores Park was originally a Jewish cemetery, although the bodies were moved over a century ago. The park provided refuge to the victims of the 1906 earthquake. The full name is Mission Dolores Park – its namesake, Mission Dolores, was the first mission on the peninsula that marked the end of the long journey of the Franciscan monks along the California coast from San Diego.

Spanish architecture surrounds the park, and palm trees dot its landscaping, piercing the sky with green explosions that resemble fireworks in bloom. There are tennis courts, a playground, and the J streetcar line runs through the park.

This particular June morning was a Sunday. I couldn’t stay in bed through the sunshine, so I came to the park to drink coffee and slow hangover’s ascent on my brain. I brought my journal and pens, thinking I would write on my unfinished novel. I wanted to work on a scene that happens a few days after the funeral, where the characters have just begun to realize that they have to face life without someone they relied upon completely.

I write to reflect.

As I walked up the hill to take my place near the top – there is a picnic table just near the statue of Hidalgo, and he and I can share the panoramic view of the city and its bridges. I headed for the table, and saw the group of people gathered on the median of the sidewalk.

At nine in the morning on a Sunday, few people are in the park yet. San Francisco is a bit lazy, and likes to sleep in – but this particular Sunday, a group of people had a well-planned picnic already in progress before even the churchgoers had made it out of the house. Big linen sheets blocked off a wide space that comfortably held twelve people with ample space for more. Three small wooden tables held carafes of orange juice, champagne bottles, and plastic cups. A radio was playing Enya – “sail away, sail away, sail away,” and the members of the group were gazing off into the distance.

What struck my alcohol-addled brain first was their location within the park – why would they pick the median of the sidewalk, when the wide expanses of green lawns were available? There was no competition for space at this time of the day – there would be later, when the hipster picnics were so crowded together that walking through the park became an exercise in dodging drunks and hula-hoopers. Now, there were only a few people scattered around – what would make this group of people, who prepared this picnic so well, choose to seat themselves sandwiched on a thin slice of lawn between two large slabs of concrete sidewalk?

I write for myself.

I sat down at my picnic table, and gave a quick salute to Hildago’s statue. I had a good view of the Enya picnic club, and I figured I could pretend to write a little bit, sip my coffee, and spy on the people while I finished waking up. My dog had spotted canine friends and taken off. I pretended to focus on the dog, while trying to investigate the puzzle of the picnic spot.

The members of the picnic group were in their mid-to-late-thirties, it appeared. Mostly coupled up, with a couple of loose singles. Well-dressed, expensive-without-being-ostentatious sunglasses. Nice clothes – a little too nice to just be park-casual, a little more like church-casual. A little too nice for the setting, but no one seemed bored. On the contrary, each member seemed to be attentive around the needs of one man. He sat between two other people, and they nodded deeply and leaned in close while rubbing his back. I was too far from the group to make out any words, and relying on body language to solve this puzzle.

The man at the center of attention slumped forward. His shoulders heaved up and down with sobs, and his friends held him close. Ahhhh, I thought – this must be soon after a funeral. Maybe a week or so after the death – the friends are here for this man, who must have lost his partner. The newness of the death has worn off for everyone but the lover – they have done their crying, it would seem, and are here to help this man to grieve. I assume that he was gay, since the majority of the couples here are as well. This group has known each other for a while – this is not a casual gathering. These are good friends – they give him their full attention, and they give him time and space. Casual acquaintances would not make it to the park at nine on a Sunday morning.

I write to feel.

As the group centered around this one man, I imagined their life together. I thought of the place that they had lived, going through the exercise that couples do. Shopping for furniture, making meals, throwing parties. Holidays, family drama, fights. Tears, laughter, sex. I hope they had sex on all the furniture in the house, I thought. He is crying because he didn’t know at the time that these things wouldn’t be forever. It is easy to assume that the fairytale has been won – there will be plenty of happily-ever-after yet to come. Now his dreams have come crashing down – this man loved deeply, and I am watching his heart break and shatter a thousand times. I see the rawness here, and I imagine the feeling – how the heart is ripped open, raw like a wound scrubbed with salt, aching with a pain that is physical and emotional and spiritual torment, a torture of mind, body, and soul.

At this point I have been watching this group for almost an hour, writing in my journal about my characters who are dealing with their imaginary lives after the imaginary funeral. I am crying while I watch these loving people, for them, for my characters, and for the people I know well who have lost children, spouses, and lovers. The members of the group have noticed me watching, but my tears buy me access to this small community. My voyeurism is allowed, because I share in the grief. Sadé sings from the small radio, “do you think I’d leave you down when you’re down on your knees/I wouldn’t do that.”

A couple of the members have revealed themselves to be the leaders – they must have organized this gathering, I think. They look at each other, one tilting his head as if asking a question. A slight nod is returned, and the nod is mirrored by the questioner. A decision has been made – they both rise, and make an announcement to the group. The group rises in agreement. Someone has been blocking my view – now I see the reason that they have gathered in the park in this strange spot by the sidewalk. A shovel is stuck into a mound of dirt adjacent to a sapling that has been recently planted in a hole. The hole is waiting to be filled in – clarity dawns in my addled brain – they have gathered to dedicate a tree to the memory of their friend. Fresh tears pour down my face with this realization.

I write to believe.

The group organizes themselves in a circle around the sapling, the dirt mound, and the shovel. I count – twelve of them. One is making a speech, his hands restrained – I imagine him to normally be a bouncy and bubbly person, and it looks like he is attempting to be sedate with the gravity of the occasion. He points at another member of a small group, giving a respectful nod of acknowledgement – the other members clap, and I realize that she must have organized the planting of the tree. Ready? Hand signals, thumbs-up, nods – they are going to begin.
Each member of the group in turn takes the shovel and delivers a small heap of dirt from the mound to the hole, and hands off the shovel to the next person. There is weight in ritual, and almost everyone in the group is crying now. I think about the metaphors at play within these actions – this park is a gathering place saturated in San Francisco history. Surely this group of people shared memories here with this now-dead lover. This picnic must be reminiscent of the times before, the moments that in the future will be shared around this tree, a living memory that grows down into the earth as it reaches to the sky. The planting is a new ritual, a tribute where each member of this small tribe can place their grief into the soil so that death can give birth to new life.

I write to pray.

After each member of the group has spooned a shovelful of dirt onto the roots of the young tree, the last one uses his foot to push the shovel back into the mound so that the shovel does not fall. The handle is straight, like a flagpole.

A robin lands on the top of the shovel’s blade. The bird has flown between members of the circle, directly to his target. He stands comfortably on his perch in the sunshine at the center of the group, twisting his head and looking around at each member. The group has begun hugging and holding each other, beginning the process of drawing the ritual to a close. Small bits of tension-breaking laughter break out among the group as tears are wiped from eyes.
A couple of people in the circle have noticed the bird’s abnormal behavior – it seems strange for a bird to fly into this place, at this time – and are nudging each other, pointing at the bird.

Quickly the circle of friends is quiet again, watching the bird.

The bird is looking at each member in turn, making sure that its actions are witnessed. The robin steps gingerly, rotating himself in a full circle by repositioning each foot in turn – he pauses to look at each person in the circle, tilting his head slightly up at one moment and to the side at the next. The bird makes direct eye contact. Members of the group pull cameras out of bags, and photograph the bird, who remains on his perch at the edge of the shovel. A couple of the group’s members glance over at me, eyebrows raised as if to say – Are you seeing this? I nod slowly, wide-eyed in wonder.

I glance at the clock on my phone – a few minutes have elapsed since the bird has landed, and I want to keep an honest record of this robin’s visit in the group. It is 10:22 on Sunday morning. My dog has joined me at some point, and he looks up at me, panting happily in the sun.

As I look up from my phone and back to the group, I see the robin hop down to the base of the roots of the sapling that has just been covered with dirt. The top of the robin’s head is barely visible over the rim of the hole, peaking up and disappearing down twice in a row. After the third nod down, the robin pops up holding a worm in his mouth. He flies briefly back up to his perch on the shovel, holding the worm in his mouth. He stands there with his worm, twisting his head, making eye contact with members of the circle. Slowly he makes a rotation, looking at each member of the group in turn. The people are silent now, cameras forgotten at their sides, watching this bird.

We watch in silence. I am in awe. Tears stream down my face – I laugh out loud as I wipe them away. Some members of the group have linked arm in arm, leaning on each other as we watch the bird. Others have gone back to their cameras, and are recording the bird. I look down at my phone’s clock. It is 10:31.

Around us, the park has come alive. A few dozen dogs are visible, catching Frisbees and balls, marking trees and buildings with urine, and sniffing body parts. Picnics have begun to sprout like mushrooms throughout the park – blankets are laid out, sips are taken from bottles inside brown bags, and the mingled sounds of laughter and chatter can be heard from all directions. A faint smell of marijuana whiffs to my nose from an unknown source, mingling with the smell of freshly-mowed grass, flowering trees, and a trace of dog shit.

The robin stayed on the shovel until 10:37, when he flew away, still holding the worm in his mouth. The group of friends broke the circle, and began to hug each other, say goodbyes, and gather their possessions. One of the members waved goodbye to me, and I waved back.

I write to bear witness.