My friend Jacquie Phelan, otherwise known as Alice B. Toeclips, is a former road, cyclocross, and mountain bike racer, as well as founder of the Women’s Mountain Bike and Tea Society (WOMBATS), which she formed in 1987 to encourage women in the sport. But that doesn’t begin to describe her. She’s witty, outspoken, even outrageous, a complete original. She lives in northern California and I don’t get to see her very often, but yesterday she invited me to meet her at a very special house at the end of a winding road halfway up Mt. Tamalpais. She rode forty miles to get there, then brewed us two pots of good hot tea.
“Do you prefer the green kind, or the amber?” she asked.
I was distracted. I’ve never seen a house quite like this one. Built in the early 1960s by Jacquie’s father-in-law, it evokes the spirit of its era, a time of creativity and possibility. It’s tall… five and a half levels…built of mostly recycled materials with details such as old church doors and bronze fixtures, unexpected turns and views, a mix of flower power wall paper and dark wood antiques. There were eclectic paintings and prints, a vintage macrame wall hanging, Persian rugs, stained glass windows, replicas of ancient Egyptian statuary, a washing machine from 1970 still in mint condition.
“This was built at a time when people still had dinner parties,” said Jacquie, standing wistfully before a large dining table covered with a yellow print cloth beneath a brass chandelier. On the wood-paneled wall was a plaque of a golden sun. The room seemed to glow.
Jacquie’s mother-in-law Carol lived in this house until her death just a year ago. Jacquie loved her dearly, and is still bereft and befuddled in the aftermath of her leaving. She calls it “no mom’s land” and it’s a tough place to navigate. When you lose someone this important to you, she has written, “there is not only a hole in your life, there is one less leg upon which to balance oneself.”
I notice a vase of sunflowers on a table by the door, a tender nod to Carol. I can feel her presence and her absence.
But Jacquie is philosophical about it too. If you have to stay stable on two points instead of three, she says, you turn them into wheels and roll on. Only in motion can the balance be sustained. She and her husband Charlie are slowly pushing forward, and sorting out this house is part of the ride.
There’s a lot of work to be done. Already books have been donated, objects packed and moved, furnishings sold, carpets rolled up. Repairs and improvements have begun in order to render it rentable. There are those who would sell this quirky place or knock it down, but Jacquie and Charlie love it.
“Someone will appreciate it,” says Jacquie. “Some old hippie maybe.”
It’s a house designed, built, and lived in by colorful and imaginative people, and the evidence is everywhere. There’s a studio filled with Carol’s prints and print-making materials, and Jacquie keeps giving me remnants she refers to as ephemera.
“That’s the actual term in the print world,” she tells me. It’s printed material not meant to be preserved. Some of these are beautiful: extravagant alphabet letters, elegant dispatches on quality paper, swatches of color and swirl. Ephemera. It seems a suitable word for our lives and all our stuff.
The house is filled with stories, but what Jacquie feels right now is the weight of them, the heaviness. She is all motion, as always, and a verbal dancer, but there’s a sadness in her eyes. I recognize the look. I know that road. She talks about her neediness, about how some people think she’s too much.
Too much. I think it’s an understandable response to life. Better than too little…right? Too much means present and proactive. It means feeling and acting and asking, trying to process and connect and make meaning. It means experiencing everything, now and out loud, the whole epic saga, with all of its pain and mystery and joy.
I turn back for a last look at the house before we leave. An accidental prism has spilled rainbows on one of the Persian rugs. Ephemera.
Then we pack Jacquie’s bicycle in the car to give her a lift back to the Marin Headlands where she can finish up her ride. She’s a celebrity at this bike event. Alice B. Toeclips pedals on.