As my downstairs neighbor Jenny put it (sprightly Londoner that she is), “What a wacky hat!” Irish wool with a crown of looping braids and a cockeyed side tassel, the hat is both exuberant and down-home elegant. The cloche is layered in rows of checkered country color—moss, mustard, slate, night blue and red clay. If colors were musical notes, these would be playing a jig.
When I was seventeen, in a rare moment of rapprochement, I bought the hat as a gift for my mother, with whom I was, at that time, perpetually angry. Purchased at a craft sale at Bennington College in Vermont, it traveled now to New York City. It was perfect on my mom; its whimsical artistry and earth tones beautifully set off her silver hair. A friend chided in her New York twang, “But Baubra, how can you give up such a hat as that?” And in less generous moments, I wished I hadn’t.
Ten years later I was teaching in a community high school near Harvard Square, and I returned to New York hatless and cold-eared for a visit with my mom. On a chill day—winds whipping through Central Park, tearing off scarves and freezing noses—she kindly gave the hat to me. Back in Cambridge, I wore it in my VW Bug while ferrying my favorite car thieves and second-story boys. “Sweet Baaabra,” they teased (with a long Boston a). “You gotta be the most craziest driver with the most craziest hat.”
I first lost the hat a few years later, at the end of my time in Cambridge, when, for many troubled months, I felt as though I was losing everything, including my own mind. I’d always been a daydreamer, at the outer edge of preoccupied. And, as my mother never let me forget, I’d constantly lost my things—sweaters, sweatshirts, watches, earrings, socks. As a child, a teenager, even as an adult, I would leave a trail of gloves, jackets, umbrellas and purses at theaters and parties, in stores and on buses. But now there were heavier losses: my dad’s death, the loss of my capacity to pay attention to my teaching and my friends, and, finally, the loss of many friendships. I’d begun training in Buddhist meditation, a spiritual practice surely designed to help us attend fully to the present and meet life’s losses, but so far it didn’t seem to be working. Begrudgingly, I filed this hat-loss with all the others and fled to the west to find a new life (and hopefully myself).
In Berkeley, when I was unpacking my boxes, the hat reappeared. It disappeared again eighteen years later, when I was forty-seven, older than my mom had been when I first gave it to her. Meanwhile, I’d been continuing to practice Buddhism and my hair had turned silver. I’d gotten married and had a daughter of my own. I was still pretty angry, not as raging as when I was younger but still prone to blame myself, others and the universe. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, in a full-on attack to beat it, I’d teamed up with my dog, Cleo, to hike the winding streets and pathways of the Berkeley Hills. For the first time in its travels, the hat was in zealous use. But on arriving home from a walk one day, I noticed it was missing. Furiously, I tried to retrace my steps. I hunted for days—grousing at my own ineptitude and at life’s injustices. Finally, when a deluge of winter rains flooded the hills, I gave up. Ten days later, on the first bright morning after the rains, Cleo and I took to the streets again, leaping over the currents of water rushing through the gutters. I saw a colorful something gliding past, glinting red in the sun. The hat!
It didn’t disappear again until thirteen years later—this time at the Berkeley Marina—but since then, it has reappeared, vanished and rematerialized at a fast clip, including twice this past week. Now, in my sixties, there have been more losses. Our old dog, Cleo, died; our only child, Caitlin, went off to college; and my sister-in-law Ginny died a sudden, violent death. Throughout these troubled times, my heart has broken again and again, yet I’ve been bolstered, unaccountably, by a rising and sturdy spirit. Perhaps the Buddhist training is slowly doing its work, strengthening my courage, lightening my grasp. Or maybe I’m just growing up. Early each morning now I talk long-distance with my mom, who has become quite a dear friend and with whom I am hardly a whit angry. After that call, I go for a hike at the marina or on the wild trails of Tilden Park. Our new pup, Roxie, gallops ahead and I scramble behind, pulling the hat down snug so it holds my head close in its kindness, keeping my thoughts from drifting away.
Down at the marina with the hat protecting my ears against the bay winds, I often walk along the shore watching buffleheads and pied-billed grebes bob for food while the Rox joins in pickup games with local fútbol players. On one particular day, the bay was slick with oil and the sea birds were dying. I walked in the center of the park, grieving. So many losses. Suddenly, a fútbol player ran across the landfill from the far end of the marina waving something and shouting. “Your hat!” he called. “No es your hat, Señora? I remember because it makes me happy.”
A few days ago, the front bell rang midmorning, and I opened the door to Jenny, all rosy-cheeked and smiling a great big saucy grin. She just stood there, mum as could be. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Finally, she did a clip-clop-swivel-clog-stomp, then a curtsy, bowing low . . . in her charmingly familiar, cozily outrageous . . . hat. My hat! “I found it up on a trail in Tilden,” she said. “Did you know it was gone?”
They say a cat has nine lives. Well, what about a hat? I do hope this one’s lives haven’t run out.
Against many odds, for forty-five years, this wacky hat has kept appearing and disappearing in my world of intimates and acquaintances. I gave it to my mom and she gave it to me. It has continued to cycle and re-cycle, bringing a moment
of happiness to many (from Cambridgeans and Berkeleyites to Londoners and Latino fútbol players). Lo and behold, time and again, friends, strangers and the flow of the unpredictable have brought it back when it’s been lost. Each serendipitous return comes as a reminder to notice and celebrate, even in troubled times, the potential generosity of the world; to tap into Buddhanature, which is often hidden but never lost; and to affirm the capacity of all beings (including me) to be courageous, joyous, artful, zany and kind.