Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Tending Two Shops

by Rumi

Don't run around this world
looking for a hole to hide in.

There are wild beasts in every cave!
If you live with mice,
the cat claws will find you.

The only real rest comes
when you're alone with God.

Live in the nowhere that you came from,
even though you have an address here.

That's why you see things in two ways.
Sometimes you look at a person
and see a cynical snake.

Some one else sees a joyful lover,
and you're both right!

Everyone is half and half,
like the black and white ox.

Joseph looked ugly to his brothers,
and most handsome to his father.

You have eyes that see from that nowhere,
and eyes that judge distances,
how high and how low.

You own two shops,
and you run back and forth.

Try to close the one that's a fearful trap,
getting always smaller. Checkmate,
this way. Checkmate that.

Keep open the shop
where you're not selling fishhooks anymore.
You are the free-swimming fish.

Monday, December 13, 2010

This Love

I am here, in this moment.

In your arms, I learn stillness.
In your heart, the words for poems.

How many lives have we shared?
How many paths have we walked?

The sign of the circle, it moves,
Like Earth that dissolves in Fire,
                            Fire in Earth,
As old as the Light
that travels across the cosmos.

It is the same Light inside your eyes
I turn and gaze into you,
This sight becomes
                           this Love.

By Mai Brehaut
~San Francisco

Sunday, December 12, 2010

What Pleasure...

What pleasure
my eyes reveal
the silk fabric of the sky
weaved in colors of gold, pink, violet and blue.

I stare at the wonders
the clouds mirroring the
ocean, waves, swirling,
dancing, dancing,
free before me.

Forgive me. I curse myself,
the indignity of human form,
how I blame you for taking care of you,
for worrying too much over you.
Forgive me.

I breathe the air that opens me,
pouring into me, again and again.

I stare at the wonders
the clouds mirroring the
ocean, waves, swirling,
dancing, dancing,
weaved in colors of gold, pink, violet and blue.

Forgive me. I curse myself,
numb by loneliness and
the darkness of Doubt.
I step back foolishly, too easily
away from you.

My eyes are open.

I watch as you come next to me,
lean your weight on my side.
I bend and bend,
kneeling to the ground,
you sit at my side.

We watch the painted sky.
Such grace...
Such pleasure...
for it has always been you
taking care of me,
this whole time,
bringing me back to Love.

By Mai Brehaut
San Francisco, CA

Monday, November 22, 2010

La Soupe de Tomate

In 1981, my mom’s best friend was Daphne. Daphne came from the pages of a Victor Hugo novel. Her grandfather was a turn of the century industrialist from Arques (a town where we lived in Northern France in the early 80s). The family did well –a Victorian mansion in northern France, an apartment in Paris, a summer home in Saint Tropez. But those were grander days that passed with the changing wind. For although the buildings remained, the lifestyle and its contents were austere, like Daphne’s visage, bare and pink, no trace of makeup. No pretenses either with her flowing frizzy orange hair that bounced freely, when she walked.

On a day like any other, only a couple months working at the glass distillery called Arcopal – my mother, a new émigré and secretary, met Daphne, the cousin of the HR director. Something clicked and they became inseparable.

I saw her often in our tiny 1 bedroom flat where they would talk well into the night that became day again, the sounds of scraping butter over toast. Or during long walks we would take on the canal behind our apartment or on lovely late summer picnics when you could eat sweet raspberries right off of the vine.

In winter, we were invited to have dinner with her family. I was 6 at the time. We walked into the mansion; with its large wrought iron doors, its echoing hallways and cavernous rooms. The grandeur of wealth turned into a shadow, dilapidated and cold.

Madame P - Daphne's mother, a petite woman with black hair pulled into a bun, was in the kitchen – one of the 2 places in the home that was lit and heated. The kitchen was covered with white tiles and Wonder Woman was on the television. If no one were there, I would have surely spun myself around with Linda Carter to reveal my true magical identity.

Madame saw my eyes light up as I stood in front of the television, hypnotized. We didn’t have one.

Vien ici, come here.”

She lured me away from the tv set and pointed to a brown box in the corner. There was a circle of black fur inside. Several kittens lay hibernating tucked inside a labyrinth of each other’s bodies.

“You can pet them. Take one.”

I knelt down next to the box excited by their miniature bodies and limbs. I stroked their heads of black velvet, mesmerized by their sharp claws, their eyes, and whiskers, the sounds they made, mie…mieee… mieeou.

Madame went to a pot on the stove and stirred its mysterious, unassuming contents. Finally, the soup was ready.

We made our way to the dining room, the second place in the house that was lit and heated. There was a large roaring fire. The dining table sat right in front of the fireplace so you could instantly feel the heat on your face.

The oval table was vast and immense - more than enough space for the 5 of us. Madame, Daphne, her brother –(I don’t remember his name, something that sounded like Gregoire or Edouard) and my mom. Gregoire or Edouard spoke little. He looked like his sister, yet with eyes more distinctly out turned and that same orange hair, parted down in the middle. Across from me, he grinned like a devil as he lifted his hands, revealing 3 fingers on each hand, a secret deformity meant to shock.

Daphne ladled the soup, red and white lava pools into each of the delicate china bowls and passed them around. There was salt on the table, pepper, cheese, cream and croutons.

The soup was an autumn pasture–the smell of fresh milk inside a pail and ruby tomatoes that had ripened underneath a bay leaf tree. On first taste, it felt like putting on a cashmere sweater after coming back from the rain. Soft, warm and comforting. Each spoonful was another coal for the fire, stoking the flames inside my chest and belly. Daphne poured more cream liberally into her soup. She added cheese and croutons. I followed along and did the same, enjoying the hard bread turning into soft clouds on my tongue. I looked around studying my surrounding, the edges of the room began to transform into a chiaroscuro painting from Caravaggio; faces around me, the dark shadows and lines illuminated against the bold orange rays of the fire.

On my lap, a secret; a black kitten sleeping that I would pet ever so often with my fingers.

I don’t remember the rest of the meal.

I just remember that soup. And that bubbling feeling of delight. Yes, that feeling. The first feeling of comfort and joy by which to define future experiences. I’ve felt it many times later in life, in different forms, similar vibrations like the feeling after a long run, the sheer thrill of jumping into a pool, or maybe a first kiss, soft and breathless. Or even falling in love when you feel something warm in your heart and then a little light headed afterwards. A mixture of fear/uncertainty turned into surprise turned into bliss.


10 years went by and I was 16 when my mother and I returned to France, our first trip back. It was the last month of the year, and we were in Paris with family. We met up with Daphne for an afternoon. We spent long hours catching up and walking on the cold streets along the Champs Elysees and along the department stores of Gallerie de Lafayette.

She took us back to their home where we found Madame P in the kitchen.

“Maman, do you remember Lan and her daughter?”

Madame smiled blankly, but then something in the curve of her mouth revealed a glimmer of the past.

“Yes, of course. Your daughter, I remember when she spent the week with us and she didn’t let me bathe her. She wouldn't let me. She went a week without bathing. Yes! How are you? Would you like something warm to eat?”

Something was bubbling on the stove, something familiar that greeted me from the cold.

Daphne’s cousin, his hands cupped around a coffee cup filled with the color of fire.

“Mmmmm, la soupe de tomate. Elle est bonne. Tomato soup, it’s good.”


I made my version of the tomato soup recently. I tried to recreate the same taste by memory. It ended up being slightly different from my childhood, perhaps my own experiences infusing the soup. But still so tasty. It’s something you can try if you need to stoke and keep the internal fires warm or even recreate the feeling of falling in love on a winter’s day.

Tomato Soup. Serves 12-16

3 large cans of tomatoes, (although you can use fresh)
1 leek
1 potato
1 yam
vegetable bouillon cubes
1 cheese rind
bay leaves

Cook for several hours (it was 10 hrs on low, you can easily cut it to 2-3 hrs on med/high). Time (like writing) is really the secret ingredient. The more time, the better it tastes. Add honey, pepper, salt, butter and cream to taste.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Thirteen More Miles

For a November, we’re having unusually warm weather. Summer is stubborn in her persistence, it seems. It's easy to imagine her, a woman demanding her equal share in the spotlight. Spring did have a long showing this year. And why so? Somehow you feel that Summer has cajoled Winter to share his days and she’s succeeded. Since for a week now, the weather in the city has been magical, temperate mornings, summer afternoons and cold evenings arriving as early as 5pm.

I’m happy that it’s a t-shirt kind of morning. My grey cable sweater feels too heavy on my back. I take it off and leave it lying on the patio chair. I feel free and at ease. An ice pack rests on my left foot. I’m having breakfast and journaling in the backyard ---a luxurious experience for a Monday. I take my time to enjoy stillness and study the surroundings that is always dynamic and changing.

Manly, his brown coat is glistening; gleaming as he sleeps, “sunbathing” on the stairs that lead to our backyard, while Biela, my arctic fox, rests under the shade of my chair. A blue jay makes an appearance. I can see his blue form behind the solitary calla lily that stands proudly. His belly is round filled with the lovely insects he’s caught this morning. There’s another blue jay, its mate perhaps, sitting silently, incognito on the branch of our yellow trumpet tree. Behind the yellow-green leaves, I can see her head cocking several times from side to side as she’s focusing in my direction. Does she see me watching her?

I shift the weight of my hip to a more comfortable position, every movement lets outs a sound, as the bones creak and pop like the sound of steps on an old wooden floor.

I breathe in the delicious air. It’s sweet, the same as yesterday’s but less salty on my skin.


Saturday, November 13, 2010. The day before the Big Sur ½ marathon. I’m not sure where the decision came from to enter the race. I’d registered several weeks after coming home from Oxford and Spain, back in August this year, itching perhaps for something to look forward to, a new challenge.

On our ride down to Monterey, the day before the race with my love, behind the wheel and the smell of strawberries in the fields, I find a 2010 list of goals on my iphone, a list I’d made earlier this year. Listing all the things I wanted to accomplish…a souvenir from the old me.

Reading the list, it felt fake and almost pretentious, as if what I envisioned for myself can be so easily attainable and simplified like a possession.

Open mic/have a reading
Act in a film/theater piece
Trip to Peru, Vietnam
½ marathon or full

This list doesn’t feel like it belongs to me. Things have changed over the course of the year. Why not dream bigger, I ask myself? Does this list truly define me?

The truth is, I haven’t decided yet if I really want to do the race.

Three days earlier I’d sprained my left foot on an 8 mile run. I’d been limping and icing the foot, telling myself if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. Why force it?

We arrive in Monterey, late afternoon. To avoid the crowds, we quickly pick up our race packets that contain a race shirt and bib number at the Monterey Conference Center. As we cross the street making our way back to the car, getting lost somehow, a man our age walks parallel to us. He has long hair and is walking a German shepherd mix.

“Alvarado is the street on your right, if you keep walking straight through this street.”

His words don’t reach me immediately, I’m too stuck in my own mind to pay attention, trying to remember where the car was parked.

Finally, I look up in his direction and smile. We follow him.

“Are you both in the race tomorrow?”

My love immediately lights up and smiles yes and I say something to the affect of I hope so, will try.

“At least it’s not a full marathon. You know that miner from Peru, he did the New York Marathon. He took his time icing his knee, but he finished the race. Can you believe it?”

“Where are you folks from?”

“San Francisco.”

“You guys are probably still celebrating up there. Man, I’m glad the last game [world series] was in Texas, otherwise, if it was in the city, that would have been a major disaster if the team lost…like a big earthquake. Its sweet revenge to win in Texas, you know, much safer and it just shows the Bushes, up yours.”

We both are laughing out loud at his refreshing openness.

“Well, have a good race tomorrow.”

We thank him and find our way to the car. I think about the miners. I’ve been so out of the media frenzy-filled news that I ask my love about the story. I later learn that 33 men were trapped in a Peruvian mine for 2 months but later saved.

I wonder how it could have been possible to survive 2 months in darkness without hope or food. I’m overcome with admiration for the miner who finished the marathon even amidst knee complications. It makes my injury look like nothing. I make up my mind then that if he can do it, then I have no excuse to try. Mind over matter.


Race day. November 14, 2010. We wake up at 5:45AM. My love is already up and about preparing his version of strong hotel coffee and oatmeal.

He’s already showered and is in the process of preparing his gear. The morning is a blur. I take out newly bought clothes from a Sports Basement bag, removing the price tags still attached. I squirt a big glob of biofreeze and take 2 ibuprofens. I swallow down breakfast as best as I can at such an early time. Coffee and a wheat bagel (extra fiber, as it turns out) with cream cheese.

The race is no longer a desire or a goal. Some how it’s transformed into a force of will power; I feel it permeating my entire body.

Trust your body, it is stronger than you know.

The rest of the morning is captured like Polaroids snapped too quickly. 2 eaten bananas, bus shuttle, last port-a-potty trip, line up in respective corrals, start line, GO!

We’re separated, into holding blocks, like young bulls making their debut at the rodeo. I’m in a corral behind my love. Corral H. Slowly, the groups in alphabetical order make their way to the starting line.

60% of the people in the race are women. We’re in a group of 5 thousand that day. I check my watch, 7:15. I hear the last words from the announcer.

“Ok guys, are you ready?? Let me hear you guys!... H stands for HOT. Have a great race and ENJOOOOOOOOOY.”

I start off slowly but firmly. I have a black visor on, a birthday gift from a friend. I can still remember her words when she gave it to me along with the gym bag and other sports essentials. You’ll need it trust me, especially when the sun is out. I’ve kept it for 2 years now and today I put it into use. It helps me focus. It keeps me shielded like a protective armor. I tighten the band and wear the rim close down to my eyes.

I look up every now and then when I need to take in the course and moving landscapes around me.

First, downtown Monterey, there’s a young man in a tux, keyboard, playing a song from Santana, I cut through the crowd and move my body close to him receiving the vibrations of the music like a sacrament.

Then the tunnel. This is the most exhilarating part as all the runners scream, the echos of their voices fill the tunnel. The chaos, undoctored. There’s the sound of a bag pipe. I scream, first in a high pitch…then a more primal lower pitch. Every time I let out a scream, I hear the people around me, their energy, amplifies into something greater. We sound like a whale inside its belly. The sound passes and moves backward to the runners behind, who add to the chorus.

Every now and then when I feel slightly tired, I drift off of someone close to me. I match their fast pace. I don’t know who these people are but I take in their energy.

I hear heavy footsteps. A woman in her fifties, short hair. She’s bulky but working hard. She has arm warmers the color of flames. I call her the fire lady. I pass her several times but I am amazed that she catches up to me. I hear the shortness of her breath, struggling. Yet, she is determined. Regardless of age or body, that defines too easily, today, she is out to conquer the mind.

I leave her behind and find another pair of moving feet. I drift along to their rhythm until we pass Cannery Row and the Aquarium. I can smell the ocean now and can see its vast body, awakening before me.

We go through a residential area, up a hill. People are out of their homes and cheering on the runners. A woman with bells, a man beating his drums that looks like a trash can. My feet syncopate to each slap of the drum, the bounce of the palm, matches the bounce of my heel against the concrete.

By mile marker 5, I feel good in my body. I try and avoid negative energy around me. It’s around people who talk too loudly, forcing too much of a good time. They keep their conversations loud, although deep down, what they want is for the race to be over and done with. Their voices drown out their fear or boredom perhaps.

Then there are those with the head phones, lost in their own world.

I hear a man cursing; he’s battling with his legs. He’s fighting off the pain. I move faster, avoiding his form.

“Shit. Fuck!” He yells at himself.

The lead pack of runners is already making their way back to the finish line, not even an hour into the race. I cheer on a woman, she’s over taking a man. She looks like a greek goddess with her wavy hair. She looks utterly still like a statue.

The fastest can easily finish sub 1:05.

I try and keep present in my body, finding my own stillness. I sense my mind, drifting, the ego making its presence known. It’s trying to play mind games again.

You’re injured it reminds me. You can take a little break.

I tell my ego to fuckoff.

I’m almost at the half way mark when I hear a voice.

“Come on Mai!!”

It’s my love; he’s already making his way back.

I yell back. “Run fat boy run!” A line from one of our favorite movie.

I look ahead and I see the serpentine shape of the runners ahead of me. The poka dot colors moving like a conveyer belt.

Breathe. Let go.

I try to keep balance to avoid putting too much weight on my left foot. Finally the halfway point.

On the way back, the ocean guides me. She's managed to seduce and lull several people to stop, rest and drink in her serene views. But I try not to look too much at her because she is so mesmerizing. Instead, I breathe her perfume and look above to watch the birds gliding, playfully on the wind.

By now, I hear Taiko drums. Ancestral drums. There is a row of women, beating the drums with wooden sticks releasing healing vibrations as it strikes. It evokes something in me that comes from another life. Something in my soul. A feeling from the womb or a battle cry of the warrior. It feels like a mix of both and temporarily, I feel the lightness in my body.

I pass them and make my way to the 9 mile marker.

“Are you Hmong?”

I lift me visor and look up.

“No, Vietnamese.”

“My mother has the same name, Mai.”

My bib number which rested in front of my waist at the start line, has now traveled around my back, easily readable to runners behind me.

I look up at a young woman in a pink race shirt. I smile at her and wish her a good race.

Strange, but I feel like her mother is with her. I can feel her spirit. She moves quickly ahead of me until her body disappears and I can no longer find her pink back.

Marker 10. Only 3 more miles now.

Every now and then I hear the cheers from the crowd. Their words arrive right when I need them most.

“You’re got this. You can do it”

I clap my hands exchanging my optimism with theirs.

I see people slowing down. Exhaustion. We’re moving down hill back to Cannery Row. I try and quicken my pace. By now my sole feels like it’s on fire.

Surprisingly, I see fire lady again. She managed to get ahead of me. Unbelievable.

You’re injured. Have a little rest at the next mile.

Another mind fuck. I tell my ego to fuckoff again for good! Regardless of what happens, I will finish even if it takes me longer. I will not stop.

Passing the Bubba Gump restaurant, I see Forest Gump. He’s on a bench.

“Run Susan run!” He yells at the woman in front of me.

By now, the sun is hot above me, so grateful for my visor, I pull it tighter over my eyes.

Another flare on my sole. This time, I’m hopping slightly. I think of Manly and Biela. I picture them before a walk and their infectious excitement. I hear Biela’s high pitched whining, her tail wagging. I see Manly howling. Both images of them are exaggerated giving me hope.

And then from a distance, I hear the barking of the sea lions. Their voices getting louder as if somehow they heard my prayers.

The last mile is the hardest. People are starting to walk. Self-sabotage. So close to the finish. Don’t give up, I want to yell out.

“Come on, finish strong. Heel toe, heel toe. You’re almost there.” A man yells.

I pick up the pace slightly.

“Only a quarter of a mile left guys. You are almost there.” A blonde woman cheers on.

I pick up speed.

Finally, I see it. I hear the crowds, the sound of music. The announcer’s voice.

“Come on runners. Oh, looks like we have some strong finishers. Looks like we have one, she’s coming from behind, she’s sneaking in...”

I give everything I have left. I can no longer feel my feet. With all my trust, my exhilaration, I allow my body to take over and glide, further, stronger, passing bodies around me, reaching to cross over, to the other side of the line, finally arriving. 

By Mai Brehaut

Big Sur (taken by

Sunday, November 07, 2010


The Light that radiates in all
of us –
follow it.
When you Care
And open yourself,
Trust allow it
To Comfort
give Courage to
Strength and
Tenderness can live
together as

By Mai Brehaut

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

A Humbling Halloween

I spend Halloween afternoon at Glide Memorial Church, meal service. I’m with a group of 20 other volunteers from One Brick. We liberate and pop open the soft tiny bags that contain our instant uniform: 1 prison grade hairnet, 1 pair oversized garbage bag gloves, 1 see thru lunch lady apron. Our nametags, "Hello, My Name is..." scream awkwardly underneath the plastic aprons as we tie the transparent arms over our clothes.

“The end of the month is the hardest for folks when money is tight. It’s the last day of the month. They’re trying to do what they can to stretch what they have. Hard times, you know. You gotta do, what you gotta do.” A man named James tells us.

He’s short, built like a heavyweight boxer, tats on both forearms, black t-shirt, black pants, black cap, brown eyes. He could take us all down. He portrays the image of a tough guy from el barrio, but his tone and manner of speaking betrays him. I later learn that James is among the core Glide volunteer staff – men and women, who have benefited from Glide’s community services. They volunteer too, their way of giving back.

“So, I’ll take you to the back. We’ll get about a thousand people at lunch today. Help out where it’s needed and have a good time guys.”

James takes us to the main eating area. There are so many volunteers that our bodies instantly create a traffic jam as we head towards the silver counter and trash bins for the empty trays and cups. The sound of the dining hall grows louder as the lunch service begins. I can’t hear what James says anymore. One of the volunteers in the front closest to James relays his message.

She says, “if there is an empty water pitcher, fill it. Take away the tray. Clean the tables and make people feel comfortable.” She’s a young woman from the East Bay, short hair and thick cool glasses. Her efficient words show that she’s volunteered before.

The message gets passed back quickly, an imaginary phone placed, ear to ear until everyone knows what to do and our line disperses into an army of bees flying in all directions.

People are now starting to pour onto the banquet tables and green chairs.

I feel slightly nervous and out of place.

My eyes fall first on the senior citizens, mostly Asian women and men. This is the hardest for me to take in. They’re the age of my parents. I look away and take a deep breath. I think about the Glide Ensemble singers, their uplifting voices as I walked in earlier this morning. Their colorful orange robes and hand clapping words, the airy vibration of joy that pins me grounded, “Cele...a..bration,”

A man stuffs the entire contents of his blue tray, a baked chicken thigh, mashed potatoes, broccoli and bread into a plastic baggie. In less than a minute, he stands up and walks away.

I snap into action and take his tray from him and smile.

“Thank you. Take care.” I don’t know what to say but he smiles back and says, “Thank you, honey. Alright.”

With such a simple exchange, my heart quietly sings.

There are folks who are clearly homeless. But most are just struggling to make ends meet. There are the wanders some with hiking bags, roller luggage, backpacks. Some are teenagers, runaways perhaps. There are the occasional eccentrics in tattered suits and ties, an African American man with a scarf; he looks like Langston Hughes, I offer to fill his cup with more water. There’s another man, Tom Hanks in Philadelphia with smudged mascara. A man in a beehive wig and red lipstick, a purple teddy bear hangs from his purse. Every now and again, I’ll see women. One sits alone with large Jacky O sunglasses, gray turtleneck. She speaks to herself as she eats. She doesn’t want anyone to touch her tray when she’s done. She insists on clearing it herself. A sense of pride.

A man eats standing up. He doesn’t want anyone near him.

Quickly a crowd of people form, shuffling for a place to sit. I start to help navigate those to empty spots. A Latino man, he’s searching, I put my hand lightly on his shoulder to guide him. He snaps his shoulder away from my hand, fiercely, showing  “back off, don’t touch me”.

He’s territorial. I’m surprised but give him his space. 

A year ago, I would have taken many things personally. But I don’t now. I know people are struggling to survive. As best I can, I push away discouragement. 

There’s no time to react and I see a finished tray and grab it to put it away. The dining hall is so crowded with people that sometimes all we can do as volunteers is to take each other’s trays and relay them back to the end of the room where they are stacked and carted away to another part of the kitchen for washing.

A man drops a key, his ID and hat.

“Excuse me! Sir! You dropped your things. Sir!”

I lean down grab desperately for his key with my plastic gloves. He talks back in Spanish. I can’t understand the words but he repeats them. Finally, I take off my glove, grab the key and put it into his hand. He repeats his words again. But I shake my head and smile. Finally, I hear “Gracias.”

Nicky, a Glide volunteer comes from behind me and whispers, “Honey, be careful of him. He’s a pervert. He tried to touch me last week. He’s no good. Be careful.”

“Ok, thanks.” I’m grateful for her caring.

The baked chicken gets devoured quickly, then the potatoes. People are leaving behind their broccoli and small green pears the size of my small fist. I start to save the pears from the trash bins. I put them into an over sized salad bowl that quickly over flows. Before I know it, all the volunteers start to save the pears too.

“All you need to do is make a crumble with all the pears.” I tell one of the volunteers closest to me. He’s got a red cap and blue eyes. He looks like Chucky, a weathered version.

“What’s that?” He grins.

I’m surprised by his response.

“It’s like a pie. If we made crumble, the pears would be gone in a second.”

“Oh, ok, sounds good.” Says Chucky. He takes my empty tray and takes the blue cup.

There’s a bucket of washcloths. The water is dirty, but I grab a washcloth anyway. My washcloth becomes my companion, when in doubt, wipe the table.

Chucky comes to me and starts grinning. He pulls my arm closer to his. I don’t understand his words. “Man you have no idea what just went down. Man, no idea.” He pulls me closer.  His breath is stale and fetid. I turn my face away; his words are erratic and nonsensical. I’m confused but I manage to break away from him and grab an empty water pitcher at a near by table.

“Don’t worry. He’s a good guy. I think he just likes you.” Nicky says comforting me.

“So do you have any kids sweetheart?” She asks.

Nicky stands a little shorter than me with a cherub face.

“2 dogs and a husband. You?”

“1 kid. 14 ½. “

“No way! You look too young.” I tell her.

“How old do you think I am?... Guess.”

“I dunno. 23.” I charm her.


I realize that we’re both about the same age. She removes her cap and shows me a couple of white hairs amidst her short wavy mane that’s jet black. She puts her cap back on and pours water for new folks that have just sat down. She has a sense of tenderness and an easy laugh that lights up others around her.

I relieve her of a tray she’s carrying and from that moment on, I watch out for her and help her whenever I can. I lift many trays from her and relay them back.

“Hurry up, you have to move faster than that if you’re going to be my wife.” One of the volunteer says. His skin is sun-kissed, a native cowboy with shoulder length hair.

“My husband never complains.” I say back jokingly.

“Oh, I’m sure he doesn’t. You better hurry up, cupcake.”

On his nametag, the words Joe Smith are written in elementary cursive. I wonder if it’s his real name. As he speaks, his lips reveal missing teeth.

People keep pouring in. The trays start to look all the same to me, new, finished. I can’t tell the difference anymore. I start to feel overwhelmed.

I stand next to Joe for a quick breather.

“Come on smile. It’s Halloween.” I notice he’s a little down.

“Sorry, I’ve had a tough week and I need to clean my gun tonight. Trick or treat for sure.”

The words are strange but I’m off to pick up another tray before they make any sense.

A flying tray misses my face.

I hear Joe shout at the person behind me.

“Hey, you need to watch where you’re going!!!”

I wonder about Joe and his current state. I wonder if he does have a gun or if its a sign of street bravado, a way of talking, expressing "hey, don't mess with me".  But his actions show nothing but a sense of deep caring. I watch him wipe the tables. He works diligently. 

I notice now that the salad bowl can not take in any more saved pears.  A volunteer gives me a larger container and I start to transfer the pears. They still have their fresh odor. There’s a perfect one with the leaves still on the stem.

Sometimes my eyes randomly fall on some one else’s, sometimes the look is returned with defensiveness that tests, sometimes it’s intense and vaguely provocative, but often it’s indifferent and glazed. I become more careful and keep my eyes downcast.  I start to understand why the core volunteers have caps on; it works as a shield.

For the first time, the light shines in and brightens the basement.

People are cheering. The kitchen is closed. 3 hours fly by so quickly and before I know it; I follow all the One Brick volunteers like cattle to the lockers to retrieve our belongings. I run back and tell Nicky that it was a pleasure to know her and that I hope to see her again. I don’t find Joe.

“So did you have fun?” James asks. “Thanks for all your help guys.” I shake his hands.

The experience is a mix of emotions that I don’t know how quite to process as I walk back to my car.

Courage is the first thing that comes to mind. I realize how much courage it takes to line up and have a meal at Glide. How much courage it takes to have hope, to move on even when things around you look grim. I realize how tenderness, protection and kindness can be found in unexpected places. It’s all around us. When you feel it and pass it on, it comforts you and others around you. It lifts you and keeps you focused on getting the work done.

We fed 900 people that afternoon.

Glide is the only organization in the west coast that feeds people 3 meals a day, 365 days a year. It’s a special place.

Several of the core Glide volunteers invite me to join them afterwards to eat. They tell me, “you can’t really experience it until you eat the food.” I feel really bad that I’ve left them without sharing a meal together. Hopefully next time. But what they’ve given me is far more profound.

I begin to realize what it means to truly see someone not for who they are but who they hope to be.

By Mai Brehaut
Glide Church (taken by ethosmagazine)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Rainy Days

The first drops of rain are washing the streets of San Francisco, cleansing the way for the new season, Autumn. When I think of rain, I think of my dad. At 73, he still works every day at my parent’s ice cream business. 7 days a week. But on the days that it rains, those are his rest days. When I was a little girl, those were the days we would be together.

At 7, I was already very independent (some might say defiant and stubborn). One day after school, I decided to walk home alone. Some how I managed to dodge the baby sitter standing with the swarms of parents in front of Slonaker Elementary. It had been a couple months since my mom and I moved from Arques, France to be reunited with my dad in San Jose, California. Even so, like a homing pigeon, I knew what streets to follow, the corners to turn to get back home. But without a key, I couldn’t get into the apartment.

So I waited. I waited sitting down in front of the door with my oversized backpack. I waited squatting next to the plants, bringing my head close the leaves and studying their hue and veins. I waited playing hopscotch, hopping with one leg on the stone pathway that led to the door and back. Each time, I’d turn and rattle the locked doorknob hoping that, this time, it would open.

And then, it began to rain.

I sang to myself warding off fear. I jumped to keep warm. I hopped faster and faster on the stone path, splashing on the new puddles of water until my white socks were no longer dry. Hopefully, some one would come home soon, I prayed. The rain started to pour more evenly and heavily.

With all my will, I prayed to be inside. Realizing that it was stupid of me to walk home by myself, I was scared, I started to cry.

And then I saw my dad. He looked preoccupied. I wonder now where he came from. The babysitter’s? Was he panicked? In oil stained blue overalls, he didn’t notice me until he reached the door, my wet eyes staring back at his. He looked surprised. He reached for his key and let us in.

The days that rained marked the days that I would be with him. He’d wait for me in front of the school where we’d walk home together huddled underneath an umbrella. We played checkers, Connect 4 or puzzles with New England landscapes. He revealed the magic of the Chinese chessboard by explaining how each of the pieces moved like the horse, soldier, elephant. He taught me how to kill the king that moved like a crab or how to effectively cross the river and get into the enemy’s territory. Clapping when I’d take his pieces, he would let me win, occasionally.

The times I saw my father in glasses was when he read the Vietnamese newspapers, slice daikon for soup or when he would call me to lie on his lap and delicately clean my ears. With a copper ear scooper that looked ancient and sacred, he’d gently pull my ear lobe open and softly scrap the walls, putting me in a state where I resembled a paralyzed cat.

Sometimes I’d hear his deep baritone voice singing lyrics from Vietnamese opera called cai luong, songs of filial love and duty. On rainy weekends when both my parents were home, I’d lie sandwiched in between their warm bodies before my Saturday cartoons. My feet touching both their legs.

As I grew older, I spent less and less time with him. I’d get embarrassed by his presence or by his disregard for his appearance, his clothing. He always worked. We had less in common.

My dad never talked about his past. Stories of war and loss, repressed memories come out only in fragments during family meals. I don’t know much about his life back in Vietnam. At my brother's college graduation, he unusually confided that he wanted to go back to visit his ancestral hometown, Long Xuyen. He wants to stand in the same place when he was a little boy taking care of the water buffalo, to come back as an old man and measure the full length of his life like the length of a bamboo spear that he used to herd the buffalo. I hope we go there together. 

I think about him often, especially on a day like today. I haven’t forgotten those precious rainy days. And the drops, each falling like a gift of unexpected surprise and love that only my dad could give me.

By Mai Brehaut

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

~Derek Walcott

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Out of Gas - Part 2

Part 1: On Parenthood & Moving Out

I can still see them embrace. She’s kissing him, tenderly, one cheek then the other. I pause to see if she will cry, or allow herself to succumb to her true feelings kept hidden inside her – her baby is leaving; how to let go? There is no trace of sentiment. And as she pulls away, I see my brother, arms open, eyes fixed on her black hair.

I wonder if in that moment, if something needed to be exchanged between Mother and Son. Some last words of love, some life lessons, a story. Instead, mom says authoritatively as she walks away, “I’ll call you.”

The moment like many others, nameless, escapes, unscathed of any significance or meaning.

In the car, mom insists that I drop her off at the Caltrain in San Francisco, that she’ll take the train home to San Jose. The martyr in her insists. I tell her to rest and sleep, that I’ll wake her up when we arrive. I’ll take her home.

The space between us is filled with the sound of insects shattering randomly on the windshield and noise of the tires against dusty road. Mom shades her eyes with some mail from her purse.

“Vincent is so mature. He made several trips to prepare his place. He put too many things in his room. Why he didn’t find furniture there. He had to carry the loft bed from San Jose to Chico. He drove back and forth. His first place. Oh, he’s so responsible. That room is so small. He has too much stuff.”

“Well, he has everything he needs. The good thing was he took several trips so it wasn’t quick. He gave you time.”

I think of my own experience and the day I moved out. Packed, the truck was loaded and I was gone in less than an hour, leaving everyone confused and wondering if I was ever coming back. But I never did. I never wanted to come back.

“He’s so mature. He found the place, he managed the move and he did everything himself. He’s so responsible.”

“Well, it’s not that hard, ma. I found my own place and paid for it myself. Do you remember my first apartment?”

I test her.

“But you never came to my first place, did you?”

“Ah, your apartment, you shared a room with that girl, your friend from Santa Clara. What was her name? You paid $250.”

“It’s funny how you never came to visit me but you remember how much rent I paid. Mommie, that says a lot.”

The truth is she did visit me once when Vince was 10. She spent the whole time...complaining. All the games and guilt – a different experience from my brother’s. And the phone calls. Once, in tears, she cried dramatically, “we work so hard, from the time we come to this country. We lived in the apartment in Cunningham to the duplex on 10th and now we have a home, we have our own place, but where are you? You’re not here.”

Memories I thought forgotten. Why didn’t I correct her, remind her that she did come visit me? Instead, I accept the silence between us.

I continue to accelerate, speeding through landscapes, towns and cities, getting from point A to B. I don’t care about the journey; I just want to get home. I want the day to end. The sun moves and finally descends. Nightfall. We arrive in San Jose. I park outside in front of the driveway.

“Come inside, hun. You have to try these dried mushrooms that I got from Taiwan. You like shitake? They are delicious. And you have to take the banh uot and cha lua. It’s your favorite. Come in. Just a little, hun.”

I shake my head. I give my mom a big hug with all my being. She’s handled the day well. I give her what is left of my energy and pass it from my heart to hers. I wave my mom good-bye until I can no longer see her face and her silhouette against the blue- black sky.

I head home. I flick through the radio station not satisfied with sounds. Back on the highway, I start accelerating again. 100. 110. I think of my brother. I already miss him. I think of my mother. I’m sad. The past has veiled her memories. She’s no longer present. I replay scenes from today, from last week, last month. I replay the past. I replay the words, conversations that drain me, belittle me. I feel completely empty. I keep accelerating.

Almost home, only 10 minutes away.

As fatigue starts to settle, the car suddenly....jolts. The speedometer drops from 90 to 40 to 30... I pump the gas, but the engine starts to choke. The wheel starts to harden.

“Shit, no! No!!”

Forgetting to signal, I immediately pull the wheel to the right heading to the shoulder. Almost colliding with a car. It hisses and honks, lights flicking, a loud scream. I put on my emergency lights looking at the row of cars behind me.


With no time wasted, the car inches and crawls onto the curb until it finally dies.

I’ve run out of gas.

Shocked. I can’t believe what has just happened. I restart the car. The dashboard light engages but dies. Several times, I attempt to start the car but every time it dies. I slowly start to accept the circumstance and focus on how to get gas!


Luckily, the iphone is charged. The nearest gas station is only half a mile away. Exhausted and feeling down on myself...I start to laugh. It can’t get any worse. Only this morning I told my husband that I really wanted to go for a run but that I didn’t have any time. No time for myself. The universe listens and it has a sense of humor.

Not knowing if I'm going the right direction, I start to run. I start to realize, you run out of gas when you give everyone everything you have and you have nothing left for yourself. Why do we do this? Especially in my family where women are expected to play a selfless role. They say that to give is to love. But, is it a value that we should uphold at all costs? Does it makes us look better to be a martyr? Do we feel justified? Too often, I see my mother give and give. She does it unconsciously, mindlessly, painfully. Over the years, I’ve tried to help her. But I can’t make her change. I can't make her face her demons, make her take better care of herself, make her stop worrying. Make her happy.

I manage to get a gas container from a guy working at the Shell station. He helps me fill it and shows me how to use it.

“You muz pooosh back the nuzzle” he says in a thick Indian accent.

Drenched in sweat, I stumble back to the car. I feel the force and the gravity of the cars whirl by as they pass; I pull back the nozzle and connect it to the opening of the gas tank. The gas starts pouring all over my hands and over the side of the car. I try again. This time, more gasoline gushes onto my hand, and on the side of the car until there’s a pool of it on the road. Obviously the container is broken! After 3 attempts, I pray that enough gas has made its way into the belly of the car.

Blinded by wet hair, gasoline, I get myself back in the driver’s seat. I attempt the sign of the cross with my hand, left to right, top of the head, heart. I’m not a Christian, but nonetheless. I do another cross sign, this time right to left, not knowing if the car will start or if the car with me in it, will go up in flames.

I take a deep breath as if it were my last.

The engine starts.

I’m on the road with mom, earlier that day.

“You know Vince said to me, that you might not realize it now but it’s better this way, for your relationship.” I tell her.

“What? He moved out because of me, to improve our relationship? He told you this? He moved out because of me...that he thought it would be better?”

Sentences, dissected and reordered and warped. It’s always about her.

I want to give up and keep quiet.

I try again.

“Well, it’s like us. Remember when I moved out? Aren’t we closer now?”

She’s no longer with me. She’s somewhere else. Only the shell of her body, her mind has left me and I don’t know how to bring her back.

But I try again.

“It’s like a flower. As a gardener, you need to give the flower, sun and water. You have to allow the flower to grow. You have to let it grow, so you can enjoy it’s beauty, ma.”

She smiles momentarily.

We pass a landscape of gold hills, the color of desert sand. Surreal and other worldly. The slopes of the hill, undulating, like the endless curve of a woman’s hip against the clear azure sky. Mom takes out her digital camera and snaps away. We both look at each other and smile allowing the gold light and serenity of that moment to wash over our faces and carry us away. It's beautiful.

By Mai Brehaut


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