October 23, 2002

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culture shocked
by katharine mieszkowski

Wish upon a tree

IT'S DECORATED LIKE a Christmas tree, except that instead of manically chortling snowmen and cherubic baby Jesus figurines for ornaments, a litter of fluttering, white index cards covers its branches.

Tied to the branches with bits of ribbon, the cards bear messages scrawled in colored pencil, each one written in a different hand.

"I wish to live in a land that has true democracy," one reads.

"Please stop killing. More smiles," another mewls.

"I wish we could legalize pot," a third says.

On 20th Street, just up the hill from the Church Street border of Dolores Park, the limbs of an unremarkable tree have grown into a canopy of wishes.

It's like a wishing well for exhibitionists – instead of muttering a secret desire as you cast a penny, you write down what you want and leave it rustling hopefully on a branch, for all the other passing dreamers to see. Attached to a bucket of blank index cards and colored pencils, a sign invites passersby to "please write your wish or wishes and hang them on the tree," noting that the tree is in honor of Sept. 11.

There are now more than 100 anonymous wishes hanging out there, with messages written in English, Chinese, Spanish, and Italian. Some are gooey with calls for world peace; others are of a frankly more plaintive, self-interested nature: "I wish someone would hire me soon" hangs next to "I wish I could have a baby."

One message, written in blue pencil, opines, "Sometimes I wish that I could wave my hand and [flash] enlighten our leaders." Presto! Geopolitical nirvana. But wait, the wish doesn't stop there: "And sometimes I wish I could just give them all a scorching genital rash."

The Johnny Appleseed behind this wishing tree is Pamela Weymouth, 34, a graduate student in creative writing who has lived in the little house in front of which the tree stands since last December. "That's my tree. I've never owned a tree before," she says. "Because I'm from New York."

She was inspired by Yoko Ono's recent exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which included a similar participatory wishing tree. But the enchantment of Weymouth's tree is that you don't set out to see it, like a museum exhibit. You stumble upon it where it sits tucked away up a hill on a side street, confirming the suspicion that there is daffiness and whimsy around every corner in this town.

"I wish more people would make wishing trees. Then, I wish more people would walk up steep hills to make wishes," one very meta index card reads.

The original wish-caster herself initially had doubts about the project. "I wasn't sure if it would be really cheesy," Weymouth says. "I thought maybe all my friends will think that I'm strange." But she wanted to do something in honor of the anniversary of Sept. 11. So she invited her friend and former neighbor Ron Frommann, a Bay Area restaurant manager who lost 19 friends in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, to seed the wish tree with her.

On the anniversary of the attacks, the two friends hung their own anonymous wishes along with the sign, which decreed it a "Wish Tree in honor of Sept. 11th," and they waited to see if anyone else would play. For a few days no one did, but then the wishes started to appear, some full of political sloganeering ("Drop Bush, not bombs"), some tersely conveying real sorrow ("I wish my daughter would not hate me").

Not everyone took to the wishing tree in the sincere spirit in which it was offered: "There are one or two that are not so nice," Weymouth says. "But I've left them up in the name of free speech." "I wish I could grow two inches downstairs" still hangs on the tree, but it's now tucked into an out-of-the-way spot. "I kind of hid that one, because I didn't like it," Weymouth confesses.

Weymouth made wishes on behalf of troubled friends, as well as one for world peace and one self-interested wish to get published. She's not making any sorcery claims for her wishing tree, but she did publish her first article in the Marin Independent Journal just a few weeks ago.

Many kids have cast their hopes into the tree: "I want for money," one message states in a childish hand. "I wish that R. and I will be together as long as I live," another scrawl says.

And there is something childish about the wishing tree itself that's both delightful and irritating. The grown-up curmudgeon in me wants to shake these daydreamers into action: "Stop hanging your hopes on a stupid tree and do something!" Harrumph. But that cranky, pragmatic sentiment is more than the ethereal notion of the wishing tree is meant to support.

"I thought, "Wouldn't it be wonderful if everyone could put wish trees around the White House and influence Bush," Weymouth says, "but I don't think that's going to happen."

E-mail Katharine Mieszkowski at km@salon.com.