logic and order"), opted not to go this time because Jack is in school and she's readying a movie. If her career is going better than Quaid's right now, she refuses to notice: "I've always thought of the whole thing like, sometimes you're famous, sometimes you're not. I never felt like that had any bearing on what was going on between him and me." She pauses, looking over the hill toward the ocean, which sits as still as a backdrop.

"There's no map, there's not a lot of mythology about doing something that is hard for everybody: keeping marriage interesting. Right?" Ryan continues. "I just love it that we can simply drive around in the car and still crack up about stuff. I like the way he sees the world. Sometimes I just ask him what he's looking at. And it's fun, just that."

IN 'CITY OF ANGELS,' RYAN PLAYS A BRILLIANT heart surgeon who holds life and death in her hands as a matter of course. Then one day she loses a patient on the table — her first — for no specific reason. "He just dies," Ryan says. "And because her god is science, it's the beginning of her crisis." An angel, played by Nicolas Cage, is sent to help her. The angels in the film are lofty beings, detached from mundane human emotions. But this human is Meg Ryan, so Cage falls in love.

As research, Ryan witnessed an open-heart surgery. Before the operation, she asked the surgeon, "Do you believe in God?" He said no. Then she asked him, "Have you ever seen a miracle?" He said yes.

"To me, that's what City of Angels is about; that's the axis that it works on," Ryan says, her words tumbling over each other like towels in the dryer. "They can point to where the heart starts, but they can't tell you why. And then they stop it; they make a machine do the heart's work. And they use these tiny little needles — there's nothing that small; they're thinner than the edge of a dime! And they wear these magnifying glasses. And that's their life! All of these people in a dialogue constantly with their own mortality. I was just blown away by it. Blown away."

Where does Ryan stand on the God-science axis? "I think it's the same," she says. "I feel like it's not an axis." Does she believe in God? "Yeah. Oh, yeah." And has she ever seen a miracle? "Every minute, every day. Haven't you? While running an errand in Santa Monica, all of a sudden I was very aware that I had stepped over a curb that had litter and a flower," Ryan says. "I was in such a mood, I'm like, 'Na

ture is so optimistic!' If you have the presence of mind to have presence of mind, you can see a miracle all the time. That sounds so f—-ing Pollyanna, but I do believe it."

THE MARBLE FOR THE GETTY MUSEUM WAS hacked out of Italian earth and dragged to this hillside. The azaleas spent three years on a hidden plot in Malibu, being cut back and cut back again to maximize their blossoms. Success comes at a cost. Especially in L.A.

Though Ryan doesn't like to talk about it, her life was painful in the making, too. She is estranged from her mother, Susan, a teacher. The rift started in Ryan's childhood in Connecticut. ("I was the responsible one in my family for a long time," she says hesitantly. "I was the place where the buck stopped.") It intensified when her mother left the family to pursue an acting career in New York (Ryan was 15) and became permanent after she married her second husband, journalist Pat Jordan. (The couple published magazine articles about Ryan and Quaid.)

Ryan sighs. "I don't like to talk about my past, because I don't want to be in reaction to it all the time," she says. "I don't want it to be my story. Remember when you were in your 20s and you'd get to know someone and you'd tell them your sad story? That's done. I'm done."

Still, Ryan's past is evident in the priorities she sets in the present. "I was talking to this guy who's a very successful entrepreneur," she says. "He makes a success of almost anything he does. And his life, when he was a kid, was really crazy. So he made a point, in every situation, to find out what the bottom line was. What the truth was. I really related to that. When people are talking to me, I'm looking for what they're really saying, I feel like I'm doing this {she parts imaginary mists with her hands} a lot.

"And I always want Jack to know what's really going on," she continues. "If I'm mad and he asks, 'Are you mad?' I'm not going to say no. I don't want him to guess at what's real. And the winds are going to come; I'm not going to be able to stop that. But I want him to be standing with weights in his feet, knowing who he is."

Although Ryan has been successfully employed for 18 years, she has recently vowed to work less, and on more challenging projects — perhaps another baby. "Not that I'm responsible for Jack's being great," she says. "But I haven't messed it up too badly. I think we're good parents. I think I feel. ..confident."

Motherhood has changed her, Ryan says. "Because it's so fundamental, what you're doing for another person. And you're able to do it even though it takes a lot. I wouldn't have thought of myself as a person who could guide anybody. And then it turned out that I can. Not that I'm perfect. But it turns out I have answers to some of these questions. And if I don't, I can say, 'You know, I have that question, too.' "

Why does she sound so surprised at her own competence? "I guess I kind of feel like in most things I'm in a little bit over my head," she says. "And I feel I don't get heard a lot. But I finally feel like I have experience I can call on, that I can be a voice of experience in the room."

IT'S II A.M., AND REGULAR FOLKS BEGIN streaming into the museum. Time for Ryan to go. "What's so interesting about all this is what these people — the visitors, the artists, the whole museum scene — choose to snap a picture of, what they choose to see" Ryan says. "We're all doing that every minute. Isn't that interesting? Every second, we could choose to see like van Gogh did, that intensely. To be that present — whoa!"

Does Ryan think a person can choose to be happy or not? "Uh-huh," she says immediately. "If you're not happy, you can (a) choose to see it and then (b) choose to do something about it. I think it's a definite choice."

Her choice is obvious. "Well, I've chosen to try," she says. "I've chosen to try not to be tortured. It just got old." Ryan stops at the bottom of a big marble staircase bristling with trees and planters and people with cameras and maps. Her eyes are as clear as a sheet of new glass. "I don't know if you feel this way, but I feel like I've had glimpses of how big life can be," she says. "I'm very aware lately of how I constrict it. In my next movie {You Have Mail], my character is living a small life, and she wonders whether she likes it small or if she just hasn't been brave enough to be big about it. And I wonder that about me. I think there's an ongoing effort involved in trying to get a bigger perspective, trying to let go of things that limit your capacity to love and be loved, or your capacity to hear, and to really speak. You can never get done with that job; you can always be 'bigger.' Not bigger as in 'take up the room, look at me, look at me.' But be big enough to embrace experience, embrace it all. " In other words, big enough to sit on top of the hill and decide what views she wants to see. •

Johanna Schneller interviewed Rosie O'Donnell for the February issue of 'US.'