where life's not empty, it's restless.

Grapefruit. Kristofferson.

images If you met me on the street, you might never guess that I once popped a contact lens right into Kris Kristofferson’s breakfast. And you might not guess how graciously he responded.

Our conversation went something like this:

Me: “I’m sorry! That is my contact lens on your grapefruit! Would you like me to bring you another one?” My finger, a few steps ahead of my brain, had already darted downward as I spoke, plucking the lens from where it had landed, right in the center of the sunny pink half.

Kris: “Oh no, that’s fine. I don’t mind.” Smile. Eye-twinkle.Unknown

It was 1976, the year he starred with Barbra Streisand in the rock-glamorous remake of A Star is Born. I was working for the summer in the restaurant of a downtown Seattle hotel. Kris was in Seattle for a concert with his then-wife, Rita Coolidge. That summer I served breakfast to Linda Ronstadt, the Doobie Brothers and Kris and Rita. My uniform was a blue polyester pantsuit.

I did not see A Star is Born that year, probably because it came to Seattle after I left in the fall to spend my junior year in England. But I knew a gorgeous actor/songwriter/singer when I saw one, even one who chose to sit alone in the back of a casual hotel restaurant, rather than order his grapefruit and cereal from room service.

Scenes from our lives, whether we’ve told them a hundred times or never at all, have a way of burbling up when you least expect them. I have repeated the contact lens story many times. I now have to explain to younger people that back then, we wore hard plastic lenses, which frequently popped right out if your eyes were dry, which mine often were after getting up at 4 a.m. for the breakfast shift. And not only did the old hard lenses tend to pop out, they were expensive. I cried the first time I lost one and couldn’t find it, because it would cost 70 dollars to replace.

What’s interesting to me now, as a memoir writer, is that I have never written the tale of Kris and the contact lens. I used a version of it once, long ago, in a short story I never finished after my writing group gave it a big thumbs down. I remember one woman called it “popcorn: tasty, but not satisfying.” I knew what she meant, but not what to do about it.

I think what was missing, in that short story, was the character that was me. On the outside, I was a friendly, 19-year-old breakfast waitress who needed to earn money for college. On the inside, I felt fat, plain, shy and more convinced every day that I might never ever be attractive to any man.

But wait: something important had either just happened, or was about to happen. That very summer, I had my very first boyfriend, who also worked at that very hotel. It was such a big deal. Being told you’re beautiful, by a boy? A VERY big deal for a girl who’s never heard it.

So here’s the question: did the grapefruit encounter with Kris happen before or after I began this belated blossoming? Was I the awkward girl still packing the freshman 20 or was I the young woman who had just been told for the first time that she was beautiful?

Memory is like that. It gives us juicy morsels, but not always the recipe.

Last week, I finally watched A Star is Born for the first time. The film is very mid-70s—plunging necklines, coke spoons and all—but it holds up. Streisand’s voice knocked my socks off. Kristofferson plays a great gorgeous, alcoholic train wreck.

MI0000096020 And his smile took me right back to the grapefruit incident.

Here’s what I remember that might offer a clue to who I was at the time: I was able to smile back. To laugh a little. To do something other than flush bright red and want to die. It wasn’t the most mortifying moment of my life. It was delightful. Kris treated me like a normal person. And I responded like one.

And at the time? That was a whole new way of being.


I’ll be reading with other authors from Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s at Ravenna 3rd Place Books in Seattle on Thursday, May 1st at 7pm.

Libraries Change Lives

UnknownSnapshot: me, sitting cross-legged on a hardwood floor. Surrounded by shelves of books. One open in my hand. I’m so absorbed in it I forget who I am, where I am, what time it is. When the bell rings, I close the book and jump up, limp-hopping because my leg’s dead-wood asleep. I’ve got to get to the checkout desk, fast, so I can take this precious book with me as I racewalk to my next class.

It’s 1969. I am 12 years old. The corner of the Nathan Eckstein Junior High School library where I hang out is the corner where the biographies and autobiographies are shelved. And the memoirs, although I don’t remember knowing or using that word then.

The biography section runs on low shelves along the short, east wall to the corner of the long, curved north wall, with its sweeping bank of glass-block windows that work hard all day to capture, refract, diffuse whatever north Seattle light they can find. If you planned to spend some time there, as I usually did, sitting cross-legged on the floor with your skirt fanned from knee to knee was more modest and more comfortable than squatting. Sitting on the floor also dropped me right out of sight behind the interior forest of taller bookcases. For as long as I sat there, I was alone. I was free. No older girls, no cool girls. No cute boys, no scary boys. Just me and real stories of real people, most of whom lived long before junior high school existed. Before glasses, braces and a bad case of adolescent shyness could turn this place called Eckstein into a fortress full of hidden dangers that had to be navigated every single day.

My library corner was my refuge.

Many of the biographies I found and read in that corner have faded from memory. There were the nurses—Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale—and the writers: Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Bronte. There was Juliette Gordon Low, founder the Girl Scouts. Marie Curie. Helen Keller. Anne Frank. It wasn’t that I wasn’t curious about men. It’s just that during those junior high years, I needed stories of strong women the way lungs need oxygen.

One day, I pulled a memoir off the shelf called All But My Life by Gerda Weissmann Klein. Her story begins on September 3, 1939, a date she remembers with far more clarity than I can recall my Eckstein library corner. It was the day the Nazis invaded her Polish town. She remembers her brother, stepping outside to let the cat in. When he closed the door, he had a bullet hole in his trousers.

When I got home after school, I sat down on the floor of my bedroom and kept reading Gerda’s story: page after page of forced marches, cattle cars, work camps, death camps, and, against all odds, survival. This was not Anne Frank’s diary of hiding from the horror. This was the horror. Gerda Weissmann Klein taught me real history, stripped of all euphemism. She taught me the power of one person’s story. And she put the traumas of my little life—the glasses, the braces, the mean girls, my parents’ divorce—in perspective. Real history, stripped of euphemism, will do that.

This week is the American Library Association’s annual national library week, and this year’s theme is “Lives change @ your library.” My life changed every time I sat down in that secret, sunny corner. What about yours?





DSC00865I haven’t even started telling this story and I’ve already cheated. It’s supposed to be about recall, details, seeing what’s there and what’s not there. My intent was to write it all from memory and make that part of the story. But its focus is one work of art, which I knew I could find online, and when I sat down to write, temptation surged straight to my fingertips. In five minutes, I found myself staring at a reproduction of the painting on my screen.

Good? Yes: because now I’m going to read more about the artist and the picture and learn things I didn’t know. Bad? Yes, bad, too, because I just blew a great opportunity to give my brain a workout by recalling all the details I could before I went to the Internet for help.

This all started a month or so ago, on a stormy day in Chicago. It was an all-weather kind of a day, a late-winter specialty of the Midwest: snow, sleet, rain, a few minutes of sun, temperatures careening down then up then down again. The perfect day to spend wandering the great maze that is the Art Institute of Chicago.

I lived in Chicago for two years after college, so the Art Institute is like an old friend. But there are many rooms I haven’t been back to in a long, long time. English painting of the 19th century, for example.

“Oh hello, Turner,” I said to myself as I walked into the gallery. There in front of me was a roiling seascape by the English master of landscape, J.M.W. Turner: billowing clouds over three quarters of the canvas, waves like foaming mountains, ships tossing about like bundles of matchsticks. Turner’s paintings were never what you’d call placid, which is why I liked them when I was young: they resembled the landscapes of my mind.

A guard appeared next to me. “Let me be your audio guide,” she said.

I thought I didn’t hear her right. “Oh no, I don’t have one, I already turned it in,” I said.

“No, no. I’m your audio guide.” She pointed to herself, her gray dreadlocks bobbing. “Just look at the painting and you’ll understand.”

I nodded, still confused, and turned my eyes back to Turner as she cupped her hands around her mouth and proceeded to blow, loudly, like the wind at sea.

I laughed. “That’s great! Thank you!”

She smiled. “Now. Close your eyes.” I obeyed.

“Tell me: how many boats are there in the painting?”

“Um… four?”

“Nope. 21. Open your eyes and I’ll show you.”

I watched, amazed, as she pointed and counted. In the foreground, there was one big sailing ship and a handful of smaller ones. But tucked into the background and around the edges were tiny boats flailing in the swells, looking barely able to hold on. Turner’s subject was not the beauty of a stormy sky and sea, but a whole world of dramatic danger: the crowded waters of the commercial fishing industry of his day.

The painting, dated 1837-8, is titled “Fishing Boats with Hucksters Bargaining for Fish.”

THAT gave me a start. I thought the title might be something more like, “Fishing Boats Going Down in Deadly Storm.” But if you look closely, you can see two boats in the foreground, doing some kind of business in the midst of the maelstrom.

If you look closely: Hard to do, if your goal is to see as many works of art as you can in one afternoon. I was lucky. I got stopped by a guard who knew how to make me see a painting: by listening to the wind and then closing my eyes. What a gift. I think Turner would have been pleased.

The Restless Nest is on the radio every Tuesday morning at 7:45 a.m. on; 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.



Blue Dress, Red Dress

71453_476296855826703_1576117917_nI’m thinking again about Anita Hill’s blue dress. I wrote about it, and her, and Freida Mock’s engrossing documentary film, titled simply Anita, last year when the film played at the Seattle International Film Festival. Now, Anita is in theaters, including Seattle’s Sundance Cinema. Go see it. Time-travel back to October 1991, when we weren’t yet accustomed to having a man accused of sexual harassment on the Supreme Court.

But back to the dress. No matter how hard we all try to be less attached to the things of our lives, objects do have power. Anita Hill knew what her pale blue dress said, and so did we: Professional. Tasteful. Modest.

When I remember my mother, I often picture her in a dress that couldn’t be more different than the one Hill wore to that infamous Senate hearing. My mom’s dress was Tabasco-red. It was fitted with a flared skirt. Spaghetti-strapped. A print of tiny white racehorses galloped across it. That dress was shorthand for who she was then: a youthful, single, 49-year-old woman with a great eye for the right outfit, one that pushed the edge of daring without going over it.

A red dress says: Here I am.

The star of Peter Brook’s stage adaptation of a South African story called The Suit, Nonhlanhla Kheswa, was resplendent in a red dress that was a ringer for my mother’s, only without the racehorses. When she stepped to the front of the stage and sang Miriam Makeba’s haunting Malaika,” it was as if the red dress was powering her voice. Writer Can Themba’s premise in The Suit is all about the symbolic power of clothing: A husband punishes his adulterous wife by propping her lover’s left-behind suit in a chair at the table at every meal, whether guests are present or not. But Kheswa wears her red dress not in the manner of a sultry sinner, not in the manner of a scarlet A, but as a red badge of courage. As her way of saying: my husband wants to shame me, but I won’t sit quietly in the corner. He will never forgive me, but I will forgive myself. Not only will I sing, I will sing in a red dress. I am Malaika. I am an angel in red.

Testifying before a Senate committee, Anita Hill drew from a similar core of courage, but in a different, though no less powerful, dress.

I wonder if my mom’s red dress was her badge of courage. Her way of saying: I may have lost three husbands—two to divorce and one to death—but this is who I still am: a woman radiant and confident enough to wear a red dress.

Read the Restless Critic’s review of Anita. Read Seattle Times critic Misha Berson’s review of The Suit. Go see them both, if you can. The Suit ends Sunday but is opening soon in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Nashville. 


Happy Birthday, Gloria Steinem

UnknownHappy Birthday, Gloria Steinem. If you are what eighty looks like, then there is hope in this world. And it is high time I thanked you for a few things.

First: Six years ago, for two weeks of my life, you gave me courage to get out of bed. It was April 2008. A cold April: frost every day, even a few snow flurries. Every morning, I huddled under the covers in my cottage at Hedgebrook, the Whidbey Island retreat for women writers, reading your brilliant book of essays, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions.

You have to understand, Gloria: I did not deserve to be at Hedgebrook, because I was not a real writer. Documentary filmmaker, occasional journalist, effective public affairs bloviator—you could call me all of the above. But writer? What was Hedgebrook thinking, giving me a cottage for two weeks on the basis of a script I’d written for a doc film about Alzheimer’s disease?

It was you who gave me courage to get over myself, get out of bed and start writing. Your honesty—about being a Playboy bunny, about your mother’s mental illness, about being a woman—inspired me to write honestly. Your voice—frank, funny, humble, confident—inspired me to try out my own.

I was writing about my mother, too. Or trying to. Her birthday is also March 25th. She would have been 83 today, had Alzheimer’s not marked her and claimed her far too young: at 74, after nearly two decades of relentless assault.

Even though my mother was just a few years older than you, Gloria, her life could not have been more different than yours. Six children. Divorced twice, widowed once. But the work you did in the sixties and seventies? Gloria, you changed my mother’s life. You gave her courage.

She may not have openly acknowledged the debt. She may have thought that it was all about her own pluck and stamina. But after my parents divorced and my mother went back to college at 38, what she was doing was taking charge of her life in a way that you and your colleagues in the women’s movement had made possible. Who knows? A few years earlier, she might have accepted alimony or gone back to work as a secretary. Instead, she fulfilled her long-deferred dream of studying English and becoming a teacher. Instead, she exemplified for her impressionable daughters the women’s movement—your movement—in action. Feminist rhetoric was reality, not theory, at our house.

So I thank you, Gloria, for being who you were at the end of the 1960s. And I thank you for being who you were, to me, as I lapped up your book at Hedgebrook on those frosty mornings in 2008. I knew you too had spent time at Hedgebrook (and would continue to come for several summers). Which meant that you too knew the power of a cottage and privacy all day followed by good food and conversation in the evenings.

And now, on this your 80th birthday, which is also my mother’s birthday, it gives me great joy to tell you that the memoir I started scribbling at Hedgebrook, inspired by you, is going to be published in September by She Writes Press. It’s called Her Beautiful Brain. Her_Beautiful_Brain

And here’s a remarkable thought: in your lifetime, Gloria, we have gone from a world where it was quite acceptable to believe that all women’s brains were actually inferior to men’s to a world in which we women know our brains are beautiful. You helped us get there. You helped me get there. So did my beautiful, brainy mom. Happy Birthday to both of you.

Arlene and 6 kids

Only  a few spots left in my non-credit, no stress Memoir Writer’s Workshop at Seattle Central Community College. This is a new class for writers who feel ready to write 5-7 pages a week. Six Monday nights, starting April 7.

The Restless Nest is on the radio every Tuesday morning at 7:45 a.m. on; 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.


Brain on Fire

DSC00865“What does this mean—‘brain on fire?’”  Munira pointed to the words on the page.

We were reading a passage about Helen Keller in her fourth-grade homework packet. The author was describing how Keller’s brain was suddenly “on fire” after the legendary breakthrough moment when she spelled the word “water” in her teacher Anne Sullivan’s hand; how Helen ran from object to object, demanding names, learning at least 30 words that very day.

I did my best to explain “brain on fire,” but found myself reaching for equally odd English sayings, about lightbulbs turning on or “Aha!” moments or “getting it.” Munira got it, and we read on. Like many of the Somali students I tutor in the after-school program in my neighborhood, her English is fluent but youthful and conversational. Phrases that date back a few decades, or several, stick out like a—well, like a sore thumb. I remember one afternoon last year when I had to explain the title of a reading passage called “America’s Favorite Pastime” to a student even younger than Munira: let’s just say, I’m no Anne Sullivan.

And I’m not. I am not setting brains on fire on a regular basis. But I keep showing up, because I have this naïve belief in the power of reading. Once a child is able to open a book and read, all on her own, it’s as if she possesses a magic power, a golden key to everything, that no one can take away. But just as Anne Sullivan could not persuade Helen Keller that her funny finger exercises meant anything until Keller’s brain fired up that day at the water pump, no one can make a child read. What you can do is sit next to them and do your best to keep them focused, one word at a time, until that little spark lights. Munira’s a good reader. She’s been at it for a few years now. Her brow is not knitting (oh, that’s a good one!) over the act of reading itself but over a word or phrase she doesn’t know. Her brain is on fire, in a steady, crackling, productive way.

It’s the younger ones I lose sleep over: the 7 and 8 year olds who are falling a bit behind because they haven’t had that “on-fire” breakthrough yet. I know it will happen, but for their sake, I want it to happen now.

Late in her life, Anne Sullivan’s eyesight failed altogether and Helen Keller became her teacher, trying to revive Sullivan’s once-fluent ability to read and write in Braille. But Sullivan was convinced it was too late. She, one of the most famously patient teachers in the history of teaching, could not extend that patience to herself. She had lost confidence in her own brain’s ability to ignite.  I learned this from Sullivan’s 1936 New York Times obituary, which quoted its own editorial of a few years earlier about how Keller and Sullivan were now bringing a whole new meaning to yet another old saying, “the blind leading the blind.” But it was not to be, and Sullivan blamed herself, saying she had no patience for Braille, because she couldn’t read fast enough.

Fast forward to 2014. Is it harder to teach reading in a world where everything moves so fast? Imagine: you’re seven years old, in a room full of children, noise, distraction. You’re trying to sound out one word at a time but it’s so dull and slow. And yet: there is a part of you that knows that once you get this, you too will be able to whip out a phone and text your friends like the middle school girls over in their corner. Or look things up online. Reading is about so much more than books these days. The whole world is on fire with words, words, words: and maybe getting that is what it will take to turn kids into readers, before they get too old and impatient.

 Registration is now open for my non-credit, no stress Memoir Writer’s Workshop at Seattle Central Community College. This is a new class for writers who feel ready to write 5-7 pages a week. Six Monday nights, starting April 7. 

 The Restless Nest is on the radio every Tuesday morning at 7:45 a.m.; 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available. 



Local Heroes

DSC00865This is a local-hero story, about a pair of heroes you probably have never heard of. Their secret world headquarters is an unglamorous maze of cubicles in the sprawling Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Health Care headquarters on Seattle’s Beacon Hill. They look like they could be Clark Kent’s father and Lois Lane’s mother. But for twenty years, they’ve been doggedly researching two illnesses most of us would rather not think about: post-traumatic stress disorder—PTSD—and Alzheimer’s disease. As one of them likes to quip, they specialize in “people who can’t remember and people who can’t forget.”

I first met Doctors Murray Raskind and Elaine Peskind ten years ago, when I began work on a documentary film about Alzheimer’s disease. After I interviewed them, I wound up becoming one of their control research subjects. Dr. Peskind is known for her expertly gentle touch in administering lumbar punctures—better known as spinal taps. She has tapped me five times to extract samples of cerebro-spinal fluid for use in Alzheimer’s research. All I have to do is lie curled up and still for several minutes: a pretty modest contribution to the cause of finding out what might cause, or cure, an illness that currently affects five and a half million Americans.

Raskind and Peskind’s PTSD research happened almost by accident. Because the University of Washington’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center is physically located at the VA, Dr. Raskind, a psychiatrist, was asked, about twenty years ago, to advise a support group for African-American Vietnam veterans. Of the many issues members of the group were facing, one of the most troubling was that they couldn’t sleep. Every night, like clockwork, PTSD triggered such vivid, adrenaline-soaked nightmares they were bolted from bed into not merely wakefulness but a combat-ready, hyper-vigilant state, as if they were literally reliving their war experiences.

Dr. Raskind had a hunch about a drug he thought might help them, a generic medication called prazosin that was prescribed for high blood pressure. It worked by blocking brain receptors for norepinephrine, a sort of partner to adrenaline. Could this calm the nighttime adrenaline storms the vets described?

It did. But it took nearly two decades for Raskind and Peskind to prove it, with the help of many veterans and active-duty soldiers, all suffering from PTSD nightmares, who were willing to endure double-blind studies, even if it meant they might have to take a placebo for months. They were “doing this for their buddies,” a psychiatrist on base said. You can read more about it in an article I wrote for the March 2014 issue of Seattle Met magazine.

Writing that story and hearing about what it really means for a scientist to have a hunch, follow it, find funding, recruit volunteers, set up and carry out longitudinal studies—I realized what a simple, short-attention-span kind of existence I lead. Here, in a hometown chock-full of local heroes like Raskind and Peskind.

There is so much research going on in Seattle it’s hard to quantify. But here’s one statistic: the University of Washington School of Medicine is first in the nation among public medical schools in federal funding for research. Areas of study include: infections diseases, genotyping and global health, with projects in more than 90 countries.

We are also home to major research institutes such as Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center; the Allen Institute for Brain Science, Benaroya, whose emphasis is auto-immune disorders and Seattle Bio-med, focusing on infectious diseases. Our hospitals—Swedish, Virginia Mason, Seattle Children’s and many others—conduct research of their own. Then there are the funders—the Gates Foundation may be the largest, but there are many, many more.

The best thing about volunteering for medical research: the opportunity to meet a few of these local heroes. They’re very serious about changing the world. How exciting to be able to lend them a hand.

This Sunday, March 16 at 3pm, in celebration of the publication of  Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s (edited by Collin Tong), I’ll be reading, along with some of the other authors, at Elliott Bay Bookstore.

Registration is now open for my non-credit, no stress Memoir Writer’s Workshop at Seattle Central Community College. This is a new class for writers who feel ready to write 5-7 pages a week. Six Monday nights, starting April 7. 
The Restless Nest is on the radio every Tuesday morning at 7:45 a.m.; 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available. 


Falling off the map

DSC00865Once upon a time, it was easy to fall off the map. You saved your money. You bought a ticket. You told your parents you’d be checking in, gave them a hug, and off you went. A few weeks later, you scribbled a postcard if you remembered. If you were feeling verbose, you bought a tissue-thin aerogram and wrote a letter in your tiniest handwriting. If weeks turned into months, you went to an underlit, Dickensian place full of grimy booths called a telephone center and sat down for a brief, expensive, shouted phone call to the folks back home. But at no point did you feel compelled or obliged to let anyone know where you were all the time, or even most of the time.

I started writing this piece on a cross-country flight a few weeks ago. We are still generally unreachable when in mid-air, although 1) this may change and/or is already changing and 2) your nearest and dearest tend to know where you are when you’re on that plane, even if you can’t text, email or actually call one another.

I wrote a bit more when I was on a Megabus trip from New York City to Syracuse. The wi-fi worked pretty well, with the occasional slow patch as we skirted the Catskills. Most of the other passengers appeared to be college students, heading back upstate after a weekend in the city. Most of them wore ear buds connected to smartphones; tethered even as they slept to music, to friends, to news. That’s not all bad. I get it. I’m happy to knock off some emails and read a few headlines on a five hour bus trip. If I’d remembered my ear buds, I would have listened to music too.

But I think we parents have to own up to the fact that we are the ones who, by encouraging (or even ordering) our kids to check in all the time, are not allowing them to do what we got to do at their age, which was fall off the map. We want to know where they are because we believe that knowing where they are is the same thing as knowing they are safe, which it is not. At all. Sometimes, one could argue, it’s more distressing to know than not to know.

But really this is about more than just the old “ooh-baby it’s a wired world” refrain. Really, it’s about actually encouraging our over-programmed and super-plugged-in young adults to take a break from knowing where they themselves are. It’s about encouraging them to take a leap off the map.

After a whole lifetime of being so thickly scheduled you can’t help but fall into an exhausted doze on the Megabus, it can be frightening to look at the calendar and see blank pages. To not know where you’ll be tomorrow or the next day, week or month. Whether you just graduated from college or you just quit or got laid off from your first job; whether you’ve been saving money to travel and now it’s time to do it, or whether you haven’t saved money and you’re panicking about what the next job might be—these are the moments when fear can become fuel for a leap off the map.

And who knows where such a leap might lead you? What it might feel like to be somewhere in the world you’ve never been, or doing a job you never thought you’d do? You might make some colossal mistakes. But isn’t making new mistakes so much more educational than making the same old ones? Parents, remember this: if you let your grown-up children leap, chances are they will tell you all—OK, not all but some, the best bits—about it. Later.

Calendar Note: On March 16 at 3pm, in celebration of the publication of  Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s (edited by Collin Tong), I’ll be reading along with some of the other authors, including poet and memoirist Esther Altshul Helfgott, at Elliott Bay Bookstore.

Writers: Now’s the time to sign up for the non-credit, no stress Memoir Writer’s Workshop at Seattle Central Community College. This is a new class for writers who feel ready to write 5-7 pages a week. Six Monday nights, starting April 7.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.




The Writers Are Coming

    DSC00865When I opened this week’s Sunday Seattle Times, the first thing I saw was a big color ad for commemorative Super Bowl 48 bookends. Fully sculpted, cold-cast bronze, showing “Seahawks players in action!” Not available in stores! And only $49.99, payable in two easy installments!

I looked up “cold-cast bronze” so you won’t have to. It means the sculpture is made from a resin mixed with powdered bronze, which gives it a surface, quote, “similar to traditionally cast bronze, at a fraction of the cost.” Just FYI.

But what struck me about the ad was this: why bookends? In what way do books relate to football? Why not just make a Seahawks Super Bowl cold-cast bronze statue to place on the coffee table in front of the flat-screen TV, so you can see it every time you fire up ESPN?

Maybe the Bradford Exchange Collectibles people heard about one of Seattle’s other claims to fame, which is that we are one of the most literate cities in the country. The second, after Washington DC, for the fourth year in a row. The Central Connecticut State University study tracks six factors: number of bookstores, educational attainment, Internet resources, library resources, periodical publishing resources, and newspaper circulation.

Or maybe the cold-cast bronze makers got wind of Seattle author Ryan Boudinot’s campaign to get the United Nations to declare Seattle an official UNESCO City of Literature. A part of UNESCO’s Creative Cities program, such a designation would not only acknowledge what we all know—Seattleites love books—but help us share that news with the world. And doesn’t “UNESCO City of Literature” sound much cooler than second most literate city?

Which brings me to an event happening this week, in downtown Seattle. It’s what you might call the Super Bowl of literary conferences. Known as AWP for short, the 2014 conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs will bring some twelve thousand people and 650 exhibitors—literary magazines, small and mid-sized presses, MFA programs, writer’s retreats, organizations, booksellers—to the Washington State Convention Center. So if you’re walking downtown and you see people with big convention badges, they could be poets or novelists or professors or publishers. You might see some of our local authors—Tess Gallagher, Sherman Alexie, David Guterson. Or legendary writers from further afield: Ursula K. LeGuin, Annie Proulx, Gary Snyder, Sharon Olds. I could go on. At great length. But I’ve got to save a little mojo, because I plan on attending as much of AWP as I can. There are 550 events to choose from, and that doesn’t even count the off-site readings, at bookstores, bars, museums and theatres all over town.

So. Seattle. Order those Super Bowl bookends—or hey, build or sculpt your own—and then go out and buy some books to put between them. Or start writing a book. Or take a writing class, or go to a reading.

Many of the AWP off-site readings are open to the public. I’m taking part in one of them myself, Thursday night at the Frye Art Museum. I love that I live in a city where this is possible. Not too many of us get to actually play NFL football. But we can all be on Seattle’s UNESCO-worthy team of literature-lovers.

Calendar Notes: I’ll be reading from my memoir, Her Beautiful Brain (forthcoming this fall from She Writes Press) as part of Witnessing Dementiaan AWP off-site event at Seattle’s Frye Art Museum at 6:30 pm on Thursday, February 27. Also on the program: Tess Gallagher, Holly Hughes and Esther Helfgott. On March 16 at 3pm, in celebration of the publication of an anthology called Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s (edited by Collin Tong), I’ll be reading along with some of the other authors at Elliott Bay Bookstore.


Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.



DSC00865I’m wearing two wedding rings right now: mine and my husband’s. He takes his off before he plays basketball, and he left it in the car. Our son spotted it in the cup holder and I put it on. His ring is bigger than mine. It feels heavy around my forefinger. I’m aware of it as I type. He’s not home yet, so I’m still wearing it.

These two rings I’m wearing started life as four: two cheap gold bands and two silver Claddagh rings, the traditional Irish ring in which two hands hold a crowned heart. The gold bands we bought one warm summer day on our lunch hour at a discount jeweler. We were saving money for an extended honeymoon, a round-the-world backpacking trip, so we didn’t want anything expensive.

A month later, our trip was underway, but we were spending one week apart before our Scotland wedding. Rustin was with his dad in Germany and I was in Ireland with my friend Kathy, who convinced me to buy the Claddagh rings as my wedding gift to Rus.

“The crown over the heart means ‘Let love reign,’” the Irish jeweler explained.

What could be a more perfect message?

But life can be hard on rings. About a decade or so into our married life, Rus’ gold band snapped in half. And then his silver Claddagh ring broke too. Not the most welcome developments, symbolically speaking, especially since we’d been through some class-four rapids on the old marital river and were trying to just quietly row for a while in calmer waters.

One day, I was driving past the Pratt Art Institute on Jackson Street, which is known for its jewelry and metallurgy studio, and I thought, “Of course! We’ll get a jewelry maker to fuse our rings!”

And so we did. Seattle jewelry designer Shava Lawson fused the gold bands with the silver hands, hearts and crowns, adding a dab of gold to the hearts. We’ve been wearing them ever since.

That would be 26 years and four months of wearing these symbols on our fingers with their simple message: Let Love Reign. If we were single, Irish tradition would have us turn them upside to show our availability to the next prince or princess of love that might come along. But we’re not, and sometimes it stuns me with gratitude to think for how very long we have been loyal subjects of not just love in general but this one love, our love, in particular.

It stuns me and it scares me, too. My friend Kathy’s own love story ended when she died in 2012 of cancer.

I thought of Kathy a few weeks ago when I was watching Downton Abbey. Stay with me here, even if you’re not a fan. There was a scene featuring the three bereaved characters—Tom, whose young wife Sybil died in childbirth; Mary, whose husband survived the trenches of World War One only to die in a car crash; and Mary’s mother-in-law, Isobel, who reminisced for a few uncharacteristically indulgent minutes about how she fell in love with her long-dead husband. Then Isobel said to the others, “We’re the lucky ones, aren’t we?” The lucky ones: lucky to have known love, even though all three of them were parted from love by death.

As I twist these two rings of ours, both of them strong now, thanks to Shava’s careful welding—I really can’t add to that wisdom, that grace. To know love, to let love reign for a time, long or short, over your life, is indeed to be lucky.

Love often gets a pretty bad rap this time of year. It’s easy to go dark and cynical and to grumble about the commercial bonanza that is Valentine’s Day. But for those of us who feel that humble, stunned gratitude, I say: Let love reign.

Calendar notes: I’ll be speaking and screening Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story at SUNY Oswego on February 18; I’ll be reading from Her Beautiful Brain as part of a program calledWitnessing Dementia at Seattle’s Frye Art Museum at 6:30 pm on February 27 and, in celebration of the publication of an anthology called Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s (edited by Collin Tong), I’ll be reading along with some of the other authors at Elliott Bay Bookstore at 3pm on March 16.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

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