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Mary Brown Has Died But She Lives On in All of Us

Mary Brown... about to say.... "Well, no..."

Mary Brown… about to say…. “Well, no…”

My good friend Mary Brown died about ten days ago. Yesterday, Saturday December 19, 2015, there was a stirring memorial for her, attended by well over 200 of her friends and family, all inspirations to her while she lived. But as the grief poured out and the memories piled up, the charming and hilarious anecdotes, the horrible sense of loss, and the powerful presence she had in her absence, the overwhelming inspiration she gave us all was the lasting impression for me. Over the years she had developed her own sensibilities, her own unique ways of thinking about and engaging with the world around her. Her work, from the push to establish the bike lanes on Valencia Street and help begin the still overdue transformation of San Francisco’s urban space, to her graduate thesis on the how automobility and congestion were imposed by motordom on the Mission, to her recent work to uncover the surprising diversity in the ticky-tack architecture of the Sunset district, all embodied and modeled a deeply observant and perpetually curious relationship to San Francisco, the Bay Area, and California.

In February at the PPIE100 opening at the Palace of Fine Arts: LisaRuth Elliott, Mary Brown, Elizabeth Creely, and yours truly.

In February at the PPIE100 opening at the Palace of Fine Arts: LisaRuth Elliott, Mary Brown, Elizabeth Creely, and yours truly.

I didn’t share the personal intimacies that so many memorialists did yesterday, especially her many housemates in the 22nd Street co-op. But the quirky, messy, prickly, funny, spontaneous, goofy, wonderful Mary that I have known since the mid-1990s was only confirmed and augmented by their stories. I was supposed to open the second part of the memorial of open-mic tributes, but after the lengthy ceremony and ensuing potluck, it seemed inappropriate to go back to microphone-and-audience, and anyway, we were hosting our big annual Posada party at home, scheduled long before this sad event became necessary. So I didn’t get to speak to the assembled mourners, but what I was prepared to talk about is this:

I didn’t live with Mary or even spend that much time alone with her over the years. What we shared more than anything was a mutual love of the City, an enthusiasm for exploration and meandering, for the dérive, the serendipitous, the historic mysteries embedded in the landscape—often in plain view. We both worked directly and indirectly to bring about a reinhabitation of the urban environment. We also shared a prickly contrarian sensibility that brooked no spiritual mumbo-jumbo, that took in the world through an assiduously secular lens that nevertheless could appreciate the wonder of life, the astonishing capacity of humans to connect with each other and the world around them. Mary was always a pillar of empathy and curiosity, far more capable of occupying an open-minded space of welcoming conviviality than most people I’ve ever met. At the same time she had little patience for trivialities, for niceties, for the blather that fills up way too much of our lives.

Beyond the specifics of her many accomplishments, her many friendships, and her infectious pleasure in living, I think Mary’s biggest contribution, one that is far from over, was her ability to model and share a new way of seeing the world around us. Perhaps she didn’t invent it, but as part of a wider stream of people who have been engaged in reconnecting us to place, to landscape, to the built environment, to the historic social movements that shaped our world, Mary Brown will always be with us because she helped change how we think. Never one to browbeat or lecture she still managed to convey a deeper way of seeing our world that once experienced, simultaneously humanized and naturalized each one of us. By sharing with us a utopian impulse that lacked the demanding perfectionism implied by the idea of utopia, her contribution to our changing epistemology is inestimable for those of us lucky enough to have been her friend and to have accompanied her on her perambulations across our fair town.

Mary Brown, you suffered way too much in your life, but now that it’s over it pales compared to the joy you took in the everyday pleasures right in front of us. On a StoryCorps interview with her from last June when Laura Lent asks her if she has any advice for the rest of us contemplating the unimaginable idea of a world without her, she laughs and assures us she has “lots of advice—for everyone!”… and her first, most urgent suggestion is to quit your job!

Life is far too short. When I turned 45, almost 14 years ago now, I felt that weight of mortality, how fleeting our time is on earth. To lose Mary at only 46 years of age, a life that endured four cancers over 20 years, is to know that most of us have not lived to our fullest, have not drunk nearly deeply enough of the joys and pleasures that are all around us. Mary, more than most people, showed us how to do it, and on her way out, took the time to wag her finger once more in her gently insistent way. “Do what matters! Don’t wait til later! Get on with it!” And so we should.

Mary and Adriana during the walk to Bayview Hill on February 6, 2010

Mary and Adriana during the walk to Bayview Hill on February 6, 2010

On Bayview Hill Feb. 6 2010.

On Bayview Hill Feb. 6 2010.

On the stairs at 20th and Sanchez, Feb. 5 2006 birthday walk...

On the stairs at 20th and Sanchez, Feb. 5 2006 birthday walk…

Riding along the Carquinez Straits in summer 2014.

Riding along the Carquinez Straits in summer 2014.

another view of Carquinez straits ride

another view of Carquinez straits ride

In McLaren Park overlooking Visitacion Valley... Feb 6 2010 birthday walk

In McLaren Park overlooking Visitacion Valley… Feb 6 2010 birthday walk

Mary Brown on the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater stage, during 2010 birthday walk

Mary Brown on the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater stage, during 2010 birthday walk.

Friends await a grand birthday speech at the McLaren Park Jerry Garcia Amphitheater, Feb. 6, 2010...

Friends await a grand birthday speech at the McLaren Park Jerry Garcia Amphitheater, Feb. 6, 2010…

Leland Street in Visitacion Valley, where Mary brought an art deco storefront to our attention.

Leland Street in Visitacion Valley, where Mary brought an art deco storefront to our attention.

More Visitacion Valley art deco!

More Visitacion Valley art deco!

On the ferry to Vallejo with Gerry...

On the ferry to Vallejo with Gerry…

David Martinez, Mary, and Clare Corcoran in 2006.

David Martinez, Mary, and Clare Corcoran in 2006.

Coming down out of McLaren Park in 2010...

Coming down out of McLaren Park in 2010…

Descending on Russian Hill during the 2006 birthday walk.

Descending on Russian Hill during the 2006 birthday walk.

Crossing Liberty Hill, also during the Feb. 5, 2006 walk.

Crossing Liberty Hill, also during the Feb. 5, 2006 walk.

Alemany Farm got a visit during the 2010 birthday walk.

Alemany Farm got a visit during the 2010 birthday walk.

The view north from Bayview Hill after our long trek Feb. 6, 2006.

The view north from Bayview Hill after our long trek Feb. 6, 2006.

Everyone snapping photos on Feb. 10, 2011 birthday walk at the coast in the Presidio.

Everyone snapping photos on Feb. 10, 2011 birthday walk at the coast in the Presidio.

Mary Brown, we'll miss you!

Mary Brown, we’ll miss you!

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6 Responses to “Mary Brown Has Died But She Lives On in All of Us”

  1. 1
    tb:

    Thanks, Chris, for a lovely tribute.

  2. 2
    Gerry:

    Ditto. Well said.

  3. 3
    Yowie stromberg:

    Thank you for this lovely tribute…I never met Mary Brown and actually only stumbled upon her after reading about her on the bike coalition site…wow I am so happy to know a single person could have such an amazing love for life and also affect the lives of all who knew her…I wish I did know her…thank you Mary Brown

  4. 4
    Ann Ashworth:

    What a great example for all of us!
    Mary’s recurring health battle never kept her from following her passion.

  5. 5
    Victoria Drake:

    I knew Mary from PB Junior High in San Diego. I was surprised in the’90’s to discover, as we randomly bumped into each other downtown, that we had both moved to SF. It was a fleeting moment of acknowledgment, seeing the shift from awkward adolescence to to adulthood. I have thought about that moment over the years. Wishing that I had more presence in the moment to truly reconnect and exchange contact information, perhaps still feeling that youthful awkwardness. To read this lovely tribute I do wish in a profound way that I had gotten the pleasure to truly know this amazing woman! My lesson, to not let opportunities for connection pass by. I’m so sorry for her long suffering and her short time on this planet. However, I am truly impressed with her robust spirit and zest for life and all she accomplished, what an amazing woman! Many blessings to you Mary, as you have crossed to the other side. When my time comes, I hope our spirits will have shed that earthly awkwardness and truly reconnect in the spirit world,…

  6. 6
    Howard Isaac Williams:

    I remember Mary as someone so cool in the original and fullest sense of the word. She could express so much in the quietly courageous manner that aided her in her battle with cancer. That’s what I mean by “cool” and she had it in such abundance that to be in her presence really was humbling and then inspiring. “Epic” is an overused word these days but her struggle while accomplishing so much truly was epic and heroic.

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