therestlessnest

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

5 a.m. Idea Factory

DSC01536On a good day, I call it the 5 a.m. Idea Factory; on a bad day, it’s the “pre-dawn stew.” I have also dubbed it “Restless Brain Syndrome,” which became the title of one of the most frequently browsed posts on this humble blog. Guess I’m not alone here on the insomnia journey.

But lately, I’ve been leaning positive. I’m trying to embrace my version of insomnia rather than fight it. Hence, the 5 a.m. Idea Factory. (Sometimes, it’s 3 or 4 a.m. Which is a little harder to embrace. But let’s not dwell on that.)

First: hats off to those of you who get up every day at five, either because you have to or because you want to. Seriously. I have spent a lot of time asking myself why, since I so often wake up at five, I so adamantly do not want to get up at five. In these self-to-self conversations, I have tried to employ logic (you’re awake! It makes sense!), ambition (think of all the writing you could get done!), selfishness (do it for you. Give yourself that time!) and selflessness (think how much better your husband will sleep if you get your restless self out of bed!) But no: my 5 a.m. brain may be on high alert, but my 5 a.m. body refuses all orders to throw back the covers and face the world.

One day, I listened as a woman a few decades older than I am described how she loves lingering in that time between sleep and waking, when she can just let her mind roam, sometimes dreamily, sometimes with purpose. A light bulb went off: was she saying that the pre-dawn tossing hours could be viewed as good? As something other than the maddening reason I can never stay awake through a movie that begins after 9 p.m.?

It’s not like my attitude changed overnight. I still get that sinking feeling when I look at the clock and it says four something. But here is what I have found: if I try to relax into my early morning wakefulness, if I allow my body to burrow under the covers while my mind roams, by the time I DO get up at, say, six, I might have a few new insights or ideas or—this is really the best part—a more profound appreciation of whatever came my way the day before.

For example: one recent night I went to see the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Director’s Choice” program of contemporary choreography. As I woke the next morning, my mind began to replay fragments of what I’d seen on stage the night before: the patterns and movements, the soaring, arching, folding bodies of dancers at the height of their physical powers, expressing every human emotion in ways that words can never match. I was so happy, in the early-morning dark, to be there again, with them.

Then I remembered the title of one of the pieces: “A Million Kisses to my Skin,” which choreographer David Dawson described in the program notes as his attempt to evoke the feeling of complete bliss dancers sometimes experience in their work. And I thought of something else Dawson said: that he has come to view his career as a dancer as a period of training for what he does now as a choreographer.

Lying in bed, I thought: maybe choreography is not so different from writing. It’s a different language, yes. But perhaps choreographers stir to wakefulness, like I do, letting dreams and life play together in search of meaning or joy or pleasant patterns. They probably slept better when they were young and still dancing several hours a day, just as I used to sleep deeply, wake to an alarm, and race off to my job as a news writer. I do miss the sound sleep. But the five a.m. idea factory has its joys. 

Her_Beautiful_BrainBuy Her Beautiful Brain from the small or large bookstore of your choice. Find a bookstore here. Order the Kindle version here.

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

Dignity is an Illusion

IMG_1075            “Dignity is an illusion,” I took to saying during a particularly rough year of my life. I don’t know where it came from, or when exactly I first said it, but it made me laugh. Which helped. Dignity was in short supply that year. Rejection was the theme of the hour. Publishers were rejecting my first book (a novel, which remains unpublished.) My husband was rejecting our marriage (a miserable phase for both of us, which thankfully ended and now seems so long ago now I sometimes can’t believe it ever happened.) I was applying for full-time jobs for the first time in quite a while, and getting a lot of “sorrys,” which I took to mean I was too old (40) and professionally out-of-shape (true). Meanwhile, I watched helplessly as my mother experienced the worst rejection of all: she was diagnosed with probable Alzheimer’s. Her dignity was in the shredder.

Dignity is an illusion. These four words became my gallows-humor motto that year, and they have stayed with me ever since. If a phrase can be a teacher, this one has been mine. And here’s what it’s taught me: Cling to dignity and you’ll be left with nothing, including your dignity. Acknowledge that dignity is nothing but a pleasant illusion and you will be empowered. Those kids in the office where you finally land a job who think you’re old? Who cares! Show them how little you value dignity and they will judge you differently: perhaps even on the basis of your actual work. Your teenaged children and their friends? Likewise. You don’t have to embarrass them by trying to act like a teen, but they’re going to feel a lot more comfortable around you if you act like yourself, instead of some sort of unapproachable bastion of dignity.

Where I’ve found the notion of dignity as an illusion especially valuable is in that whole scary arena called taking risks. Trying things I’ve always wanted to try. Like… writing about real stuff from my personal life and then reading it at a literary open mike. Or learning to row in an 8-person shell. I did it, for two whole months! Came close to swamping the whole boat, but never actually did. I also took an acting class. And life drawing, and painting. Every one of these forays made a mockery of my dignity yet paradoxically left me feeling braver and stronger, until I was brave and strong enough to go back to what I knew I really wanted to do, which was write.

Dignity is an illusion, I reminded myself, as I filled out an application for a Masters of Fine Arts writing program, not knowing if I had any chance of getting in. I got in. Dignity is an illusion, I repeated, as I turned in my first critical papers in thirty years and my first drafts of memoir chapters, many of which featured remarkably undignified moments in my life. Dignity is an illusion, as I stood in front of a roomful of eighth graders and taught my first memoir class. Dignity is an illusion, as I tried for three years to find a publisher for my book.

It’s not a new idea. In the eighth century BC, the Hebrew prophet Micah wrote this: “And what does the Lord require of you/ but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Two thousands years later, the Sufi poet Rumi put it this way: “Your defects are the ways that glory gets manifested… Keep looking at the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.”

Her_Beautiful_BrainBuy Her Beautiful Brain from the small or large bookstore of your choice. Find a bookstore here. Order the Kindle version here.

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

Optimism is Possible

IMG_0670It’s Election Day. Whatever your persuasions, you know and I know the news will not all be good. So: based on my just-concluded road trip—aka four weeks and 4500 miles of unscientific research—I am here to spread a little optimism.

My husband and I left Seattle on the last Monday in September and returned on the last Monday in October. Our destination was Salida, Colorado, where our daughter just finished a five-month season with the Southwest Conservation Corps. Reason for Optimism Number One: did you know there are more than 100 Conservation Corps all over the country, employing strong young people to take care of our wilderness areas in all kinds of ways? All summer long, they build and repair trails and camps in national parks and forests. Most are paid an Americorps stipend: barely enough to get by on. So as you gnash you teeth waiting for election news, be thankful for the more than 26 thousand young adults who serve our country in this invisible way.

We took our time getting to and from Colorado. One of the things we wanted to do was explore a bit via bicycle—not in any mega-mile way, like the supertough riders we saw out on Highway 101, cycling through the California Redwoods in a driving rainstorm—but in more modest jaunts around towns we didn’t know well. Which brings me to Reason for Optimism Number Two: good, long, well-marked bike paths can now be found in places you might never have expected. Like Laramie, Wyoming. Who knew how great it would feel, after hours in the car, to get on our bikes and ride along the Laramie River while the sun set? We also biked trails in Bend and Sisters, Oregon; Boulder and Salida, Colorado; Moab, Utah; Tahoe, Sacramento, Berkeley and San Francisco. Biking is such a great way to see and experience a place you don’t know: faster than walking, slower than driving; you can get a sense of your surroundings very quickly. And it made me so happy to see—and experience for myself—safe places to ride in so many towns and cities.

Just as it made me happy to visit a surprising number of independent bookstores. We sought them out and found them, thriving, throughout the West. Yes, there are “book deserts,” where the big mega-sellers have driven out every store except the tiniest, used-books-only holes-in-the-wall. But—and here it comes, Reason for Optimism Number Three—MANY readers in the West still buy their books from lively local shops, including: Broadway Books in Portland, Paulina Springs Books in Sisters, Oregon, Second Story Books in Laramie, Boulder Book Store in Boulder, Bookhaven in Salida, Back of Beyond Books in Moab, Utah, Book Passage in San Francisco, Northtown Books in Arcata and Gold Beach Books on the Oregon Coast. (For me, as a new author, the frosting on the cake was not only the honor and pleasure of reading from Her Beautiful Brain at two of these stores—Broadway Books and Book Passage—but also getting a friendly reception from staffers at every one of the others, who all took the time to chat and accept a review copy of my book.) 149372_10204211578223856_7742753382844932935_n

Finally—the National Parks. Reason for Optimism Number Four: not only do we have national parks, we have 401 of them. No matter how hard we try, we’ll never run out of new national parks to visit. We went to Grand Teton for the first time this year, and it was a highlight of our trip. But we also visited some much smaller and less famous parks: Great Basin in Eastern Nevada, with its groves of ancient bristlecone pines, the longest living trees on earth; the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado, nearly as deep as two Empire State buildings, swathed in an early snow flurry. And Golden Gate—yes, it’s a national park, and guess what? You can get to it via a gorgeous new bike trail along the San Francisco Bay. Maybe after picking up a good book at Book Passage.

Her_Beautiful_BrainBuy Her Beautiful Brain from the independent bookstore of your choice. Find a bookstore here. Order the Kindle version here.

Grand Tetons/Snake River IPA photo by Rustin Thompson

 

The West: A Love Story

IMG_0694“A mountain lion sounds like a screaming woman,” said the ranger at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. This bothered me. Until I was standing outside a locked door in Castle Valley, Utah, listening to what sounded like a chorus of screaming women. “Mountain lions,” I thought, as mournful coyotes sang harmony.

My husband and I are on a road trip around the West. We have stayed with relatives, camped, enjoyed a few budget motels and a sweet suite at a hostel. The graciously lent Utah home of a friend, outside of which we were now standing and listening to wildlife, was by far the most luxurious stop on our trip. For the first time in two weeks, we cooked: pasta with veggies from the Salida, Colorado Farmer’s Market; a bottle of red wine. Aahh. After dinner we stepped out on the patio to admire the stars and the moon over the red rock castles of this storied valley. Rustin was in socks. I was in slippers. The door closed and locked behind us.

What followed was one of the longest half hours of our lives.

For a few minutes, we swore and moaned along with the coyotes and lions. Then Rus began systematically checking windows. I tried jimmying the lock with my tiny cross necklace, succeeding only in twisting the cross—a metaphor I may use in a future Restless Nest, but not this one. Then I racked my brain: what else could I find and use, without a flashlight? My bicycle key and the Allen wrench in my bike bag? Yes! But no. No luck. However: our car was unlocked and our hiking boots were inside: excellent news. Big step up from socks and slippers. Now in boots, we inched around the house, trying windows, mulling which one we would break if we had to and how much it would cost to fix it.

When we were almost out of windows, the miracle happened: Rus tugged on a bathroom window and, with a pop, it opened. He boosted me through, right into the bathtub. We were in! Laughter, relief, joy!

Just another Western Road Trip moment, when you’re almost undone by your own stupidity and instead find yourselves doing what survivors do: laughing. After camping and hiking in bear country, after driving our tiny car with two wobbling bikes on the back through the high winds of Wyoming, who would’ve thunk a locked door would bring us down?

As I write, it’s morning on that same patio, and I’ve been watching the sun rise over the red rock castles. This time of year, that’s not such an early start: it was almost 8:00 when the sun blazed over the cliffs.

IMG_1334 What is it about these Western landscapes—these valleys the size of small Eastern states, these mountains and canyons that make city skyscrapers look like Lego towers—what is it that makes me feel an emotion very much like romantic love? Is it because I miss my mom, who grew up in Montana? Do I feel her mountain-fed spirit running through me? Is it because we just visited our daughter, who is so smitten after a second season with the Southwest Conservation Corps that she plans to stay in Colorado for a while? Is it because my husband shares this love I feel and, together, we’ve spent large parts of this trip in that sublime state I like to call daily stunned gratitude? Is it because we’re reminded of past trips, including one we made with our children in 1999, which involved hours in the car listening to the Sons of the San Joaquin?

Yes. And no. It feels more personal, more primal than that.

Feeling small in a large landscape makes me feel like: I may be tiny, but life is huge. It IMG_0656makes me feel the grandness of being alive in a world of beauty that has nothing to do with what we think we value when we stare at these small screens.

IMG_0726         Hiking in Arches National Park, hearing French, Chinese, German and a host of other languages on the trail, I feel especially grateful that we can share these Western treasures with the rest of the world. That in 1872, we started with Yellowstone and kept on adding, until, at this writing, we have 401 national parks. That 50 years ago, lawmakers took the whole idea even further and passed the Wilderness Act, which today protects 110 million of our most pristine acres.

And there’s no locked door on any of it. It’s ours. It all belongs to all of us.

I’m reminded of a poem my mother wrote in which she tried to explain to her six children how it was that she had enough love for all of us. “How can love be measured out?” she asked. “Love is infinite, indefinite, pervasive.”

Large Western landscapes call for large, immeasurable love. And loving the West along with the people you love, those who are gone and those who are here, is even sweeter. Even when the mountain lions are screaming and you’re locked out, in your slippers, wondering how far away they are.

1003375_10204029713357348_4120200472773550975_n-1Upcoming readings from Her Beautiful Brain: Thursday, October 23, 6pm, Book Passage, 1 Ferry Terminal Plaza, San Francisco and Tuesday, October 28, 7pm, Village Books, Bellingham.

 

 

 

 

 

The Restless Report, Part Two

artist: Kim Goff-Harrington

artist: Kim Goff-Harrington

When our children were younger, my husband and I used to joke about our great fear that they might “rebel” against the creative, financially precarious example we have set by becoming stockbrokers or bankers. Didn’t happen! And so far, it doesn’t like it’s going to. This is good news, regarding all of us having a lot in common and plenty to talk about around the dinner table. Not so good, re our collective financial futures. But once you make the decision—or, more accurately, once you realize you’ve made the decision without noticing you made it—to value your time on the planet more than your money, it’s hard to go back. Three years ago, I wrote a Restless Nest about this called, “Oops, I forgot to get rich.” It cheered me up to write it in the midst of the recession, as we and our nonprofit clients struggled to stay afloat while the big bankers got their big bailout. But the central tenet of that piece—that time is worth so much more than money—holds up.

Back to the kids, who aren’t kids anymore: they’re 22 and 25, and as I reported last week, they’re currently in Eastern Europe and Colorado, doing their own restless adventuring. Neither of them is sure what will come next. My own experience and my instincts about them tell me they’re doing exactly what they should be doing. But it’s also in my job description, as a mom, to worry. Just a tiny bit.

Imagine my relief when I came across psychology professor Laurence Steinberg’s recent essay called “The Case for Delayed Adulthood.” Steinberg argues that the longer we can prolong what he calls “adolescent brain plasticity,” the more resilient and flexible our brains will be over our life span. He says it’s, quote, “important to be exposed to novelty and challenge when the brain is plastic not only because this is how we acquire and strengthen skills, but also because this is how the brain enhances its ability to profit from future enriching experiences.”

Translation: seek new and novel experiences when you’re young and you’ll enjoy your mid-life or late-life adventures all the more.

Our generation might be the first to demonstrate this principle on a populist scale. We were at just the right age when travel became affordable and widespread. We soaked up “Let’s Go Europe” and the early Lonely Planet guidebooks. We shouldered our backpacks and embraced youth hostels and cheap pensions. I was the first person in my family to get a passport, when I went to England on a scholarship at 19, during my junior year of college. Neither of my parents traveled outside North America until they were in their forties.

Decades later, I love new adventures as much as I ever did. Judging from what I see on Facebook, it looks like everyone else I know does too. We travel when we can afford to; we backpack and hike and bike. We go back to school. We try to learn languages (cursing the inevitable slowdown of plasticity in that part of our brains) or we find new creative outlets: writing, drawing, new musical instruments. God willing, we’ll keep it up into old age.

And so will our children. Our daughter is making plans to go back to South America. Our son will keep traveling as long as he can, through countries that only recently threw their doors open to Americans. According to Professor Steinberg, as long as they’re “engaged in new, demanding and cognitively stimulating activity,” their future brains—their future selves—will thank them. What great news.

Buy Her Beautiful Brain from the small or large bookstore of your choice. Find a bookstore Her_Beautiful_Brainhere. Order the Kindle version here. And don’t be shy about reviewing on Goodreads and elsewhere! 

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. http://kbcs.fm/listen/podcasts/

 

The Restless Report

DSC00865Four years ago, a word came to me: restless. That’s me, I thought. That’s what I am: restless. And then I saw how well it went with the word “nest.” Restless Nest. Suddenly, I had a retort, a comeback, to the tiresome questions about how I was coping with our newly empty nest.

“It’s not empty,” I would say. “It’s restless.”

I liked saying it, because it instantly defused a whole Molotov-cocktail shaker full of flammable issues behind the words “empty nest.” There was the implied sexism—“I’m sure your husband’s fine but you must be a mess!”—and ageism: “wow, life’s pretty bleak and empty at your age, isn’t it?” And then there were my own incendiary issues: I hated the thought of my college-age children judging me and thinking my life was now empty and dull. I resented the mixed messages from well-meaning friends, which I somehow heard as: if you’re a good and loving mother, of course you are going to feel bereft when your children leave. On the other hand, if you do feel bereft, that must mean you defined yourself through your children, and didn’t we all vow thirty years ago we wouldn’t do that?

Four years later, thinking about what I was thinking then makes my head spin. Because here’s one thing I’ve learned: I am not the only restless one in this nest, and I’m not just talking about my husband.

Although he’s a good place to start.

“Read this,” he said on Sunday, pointing to a New York Times Opinion piece titled “Sad Dads in the Empty Nest.” It’s about how much life has changed in this generation for fathers and what that means for them when their kids leave home. Our husbands are not like our dads. Writer Liza Mundy (The Richer Sex) cites a Pew Research Center study stating that since the 1960s, fathers have nearly tripled the time they spend with their children. The number of stay-at-home dads has doubled in two decades, and nearly half of all fathers say they would stay home if they could afford it. They’re doing more housework too, though Mundy writes that women still do about two-thirds of household chores. And so, she theorizes, “the empty nest may represent for men a pure loss of a cherished presence, whereas for women it can bring sadness but also freedom and a certain relief.”

“Pure loss of a cherished presence.” Wow. I wish we women could be sad with such noble, straightforward simplicity. But it’s not fair of me to be snarky, because honestly? Mundy speaks the truth. When our daughter Claire left for college in 2007, my daily emotional diet was, precisely, sadness, freedom and a certain relief. Missing her was a constant, sad ache. Freedom came more gradually, as I found that the ache was creating a space, and into that space moved a long-neglected, freedom-loving friend: the desire to write. Relief came in the form of a lightened schedule. Our son Nick was still in high school, Rus and I had plenty of work, but juggling three peoples’ daily events was somehow a snap compared to juggling four.

By the time Nick left for college in 2010, I had earned an MFA in creative writing and written a Her_Beautiful_Brainpolished draft of my memoir, Her Beautiful Brain. The nest was not empty. It was restlessly busy with a capital R.

And now, four years later, we’ve downsized to a new nest and adjusted to the comings and goings of the truly restless people in this family: our young adult children. They are both college graduates. They’ve both lived independently and stopped in at the nest on occasion. Right now, they are in Colorado and Eastern Europe, respectively. When they bounce back to Seattle, I’m sure they’ll touch down here. And we’ll welcome them. And we’ll applaud their restlessness. It’s what they should be doing. It’s what we should be doing.

Welcome to Seattle

IMG_1312Here’s a sad, sad thought: your cherished friend is visiting Seattle from across the country and you find out she’s drinking bad hotel coffee at her downtown hotel. You know the stuff: those packets that you stick in the toddler-sized coffeemaker, because you can’t bear to spend ten dollars on a cup from room service OR throw a coat over your pajamas and venture out for a to-go cup from the nearest café.

When I heard the news, I felt personally embarrassed on behalf of my hometown.

Vicky and I met forty years ago this month, when Wellesley College assigned us to live in the same room. She was from Ohio. I was from Seattle. We were both 17, on financial aid and not from New York or New England, which must be why Wellesley College matched us up.

Vicky remembers that I drew little cartoon evergreen trees on the whiteboard outside our dorm room because I was so homesick. She remembers that I brewed my own coffee, purchased at the gourmet store in town.

I remember that no one knew anything about Seattle, except for what they’d seen on Here Come the Brides, the TV show responsible for the song, “The Bluest Skies You’ve Ever Seen.” (“—are in Seattle?” Who wrote that?)

Over the many years since college, Vicky has been in Seattle briefly a few times. But on this visit, she finally had the leisure to look around a bit, while her husband attended a conference. I know Vicky to be an intrepid walker, so I thought we could start with a morning of urban hiking.

But first she needed a decent cup of coffee. And food. Now that everyone in the world can go to Starbuck’s, we locals have to get a little more creative. So we marched through downtown to the original Macrina Bakery in Belltown, where they serve perfect drip coffee in giant sloshing cups, along with the world’s best muffins and quiche and pastries.

Fueled up, we headed to the Olympic Sculpture Park: my favorite place to take out-of-town guests. To me, it’s where a lot of what makes Seattle Seattle converges: water, mountains, trees, art, kitschy history (The Space Needle), long-ago history (the bustle of tribal canoes and tall-masted ships), green history (the Sculpture Park was built on a former petroleum depot), and the ongoing conservation wars that define the West: the park crosses the same train tracks that carry coal bound for Asia. It is where I can show my college roommate what I missed when I showed up in that Wellesley dorm room.

Full disclosure: in 2007, my husband and I produced a documentary about the making of the Olympic Sculpture Park that was so positive a reviewer for the Seattle Weekly accused me of “documentarian Stockholm Syndrome,” as if I’d been kidnapped by and fallen in love with my subject: the Sculpture Park. Ouch! But that’s another Seattle quirk: our discomfort with boosterism. We fear it, because we’ve been taught all our lives that we’re provincial, we’re quaint, we’re not San Francisco or New Orleans, which are allowed to be both regionally flavorful and sophisticated. No, we prefer to joke about our shortcomings. To talk about how gray and rainy it is, instead of how gorgeous the weather can be in, say, September.

I confess to that reviewer that she was right: I was smitten with the park and therefore not very objective. I confess: then and now, I was and am un-hiply boosterish. I want people to love Seattle. I want them to see what a unique place it is. That’s why I don’t want them to drink awful hotel coffeemaker coffee.

And that’s why I’m glad the sky was blue when Vicky was here. Because when it is blue, it is about the bluest ever. Go ahead, accuse me of Stockholm syndrome. You know it’s true.

Her_Beautiful_BrainThanks to everyone who attended the launch of Her Beautiful Brain at Elliott Bay Book Company. The room was full to the brim with warmth and support. And first reviews are in! From Shelf Awareness: “unflinching, tragic and compassionate.” And from Booklist: “candid, sometimes funny and always poignant.”  984230_10152726131714684_7000466355561148229_n

 

 

Alzheimer’s + Anger

Her_Beautiful_Brain

I am not an angry person. I’m not. I’m sure I’m not. So why, then, am I riveted by Greg O’Brien’s rage?

O’Brien is an investigative reporter who, as Maria Shriver put it, “is embedded in the mind of Alzheimer’s, which happens to be his own mind.” Five years ago, at 59, O’Brien was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s. Now, O’Brien told Shriver in an NBC interview, “60 percent of his short-term memory is gone in 30 seconds.”

And it fills him with rage. When he can’t remember how to dial his cellphone. When he looks at a lawn sprinkler and can’t remember what it is. When suddenly “you don’t know where you are, who you are, or what the hell you’re doing.”

When you recognize that there will never be enough research dollars directed towards Alzheimer’s until people understand that it’s not always a disease, said O’Brien, that “you get at 85 and then you die, and who gives a s*it.”

O’Brien’s memoir, On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer’s, is coming out in 10552552_1505946412957424_2136751528538458501_nOctober. I look forward to reading it. I know it won’t be sugar-coated. I’m glad.

O’Brien was fresh in my mind when, a few days later, I read about 16-year-old Alicia Kristjanson of Edmonds, Washington. Kristjanson will be walking in the upcoming Walk to End Alzheimer’s in honor of her father Doug, who died of the disease this year at age 49. She told the Edmonds Beacon she “would never wish what I went through with my father on anyone else, not even on my worst enemy.”

“I am not a very angry person,” Kristjanson explained to me later. “So when I do get angry, for me, the way I’ve gotten out my anger is by volunteering and doing what I’m doing to try to find a cure.”

Alzheimer’s disease: it’s not just for old people.

quibro_loresMy mother was in her late fifties when she began to worry that something was wrong with her brain. She was diagnosed at 66 and died at 74. Like Alicia Kristjanson, I would never wish what she went through on anyone. Like Greg O’Brien, I am filled with rage when I think of how much frustration and misery she had to suffer. How little we still know about why it happens. How helpless we still are to treat symptoms, let alone cure or prevent Alzheimer’s, which currently affects more than 5.2 million Americans, including 200 thousand who are younger than 65.

It does help to write. The body of literature about Alzheimer’s is growing. Lisa 10439509_10152589930319379_3980131392185575086_nGenova’s best-selling novel, Still Alice—which she finally self-published after two years of rejections—is now also a feature film starring Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin and premiering this month at the Toronto International Film Festival. Trailblazers in our own region include poet Holly Hughes, editor of the luminous anthology, Beyond Forgetting: Poetry and Prose about Alzheimer’s Disease; Unknown
poet Tess Gallagher, journalist Collin Tong, who curated a collection of essays called Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s; poet and memoirist Esther Altshul Helfgott, (Dear Alzheimer’s: A Caregiver’s Diary & Poems) and poet Lon Cole, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at 61, whose latest book is called alive & thankful. I will be honored to join their ranks when my memoir, Her Beautiful Brain, is published this month.

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It also helps to find ways to feel less alone. This month, the Alzheimer’s Association is staging Walks to End Alzheimer’s all over the country, including ten in Western and Central Washington. The Seattle Walk is on September 20th.

When you see or hear news stories about the Alzheimer’s walks, remember that Alzheimer’s is not a condition that inevitably comes with age. It is a terminal illness. It is deadly and indiscriminate. It is the sixth leading cause of death in our country, and the most expensive: more than 200 billion dollars in direct costs this year. And yet research funding for Alzheimer’s lags far behind funding for other illnesses.

Anger is an appropriate response to Alzheimer’s. Those of us who have lived with it or near it have been too quiet for too long.

Thanks to everyone who came to the September 7 Her Beautiful Brain book launch at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. So wonderful to see you all there! 

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. http://kbcs.fm/listen/podcasts/

The Other Washington

IMG_1174It’s the heavyweight red bicycle I’ll remember: how I swiped a credit card and punched in a code and out it popped from its parking spot in front of the Department of Labor.

Then, freedom. Off I went, up the long, gravel paths of the Mall, dodging the Sunday crowds, feeling the breeze I couldn’t quite catch when I was walking.

The Other Washington is always full of tourists in the summertime, despite the tropical heat and humidity, which on this visit was blessedly below normal. Hot or not, I like being there with the tourists. My fellow tourists: I’m one too, even though I’ve visited many times over the years, since one of my closest friends lives in the Virginia suburbs.

What fascinates me is how my own D.C. tastes have changed. How much more of a cornball, capitol-loving kind of tourist I’ve become over time.

I was a college student when I first visited Washington, D.C., in the post-Watergate late seventies. Patriotism was unthinkable. The protest era was over, and what, we thought at that cynical time, had those marches achieved? The only government building I wanted to visit was the National Gallery.

Nearly four decades later, D.C. has changed and so have I.

On my first afternoon, I visited the Library of Congress, which I love for its over-the-top tile frescoes honoring muses, poets, philosophers and scholars; its gold-leaf proclamations that “Knowledge is Power.” But this time, I found a hidden gem: a tiny plain gallery down the hall from the basement shop, where a small but powerful selection of news photos of the 1963 March on Washington were on display.

When you see those pictures of a quarter million people filling the Mall, all eyes turned toward the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps—when fifty years have passed and the words of his “I Have a Dream” speech still resound—and then you step outside and take in the vast sweep from the Capitol building down to the distant monuments—then you see Washington D.C. a little differently.

One of the photos was taken from behind Lincoln’s massive stone shoulder, as if he was looking down on the crowds, blinking back a hundred years worth of tears.

Hard to believe his life ended in a little house on 10th Street, across from Ford’s Theatre where he was fatally shot. Inspired by the Library of Congress exhibition, I finally went to see it.

It was a long walk up Pennsylvania Avenue, past the statues outside the National Archives, with their solemn motto, “Past is Prologue.” Past the Department of Justice and the FBI. Across busy E Street to quiet Tenth.

A group of foreign students stood outside the Petersen House, where Lincoln died early in the morning of April 15, 1865. They studied the plaque. They quietly snapped photos on their phones. Clearly, these young people understood history better than I did at their age. They understood the notion of past as prologue.

A few days later, riding my big red rental bike around the Washington Monument, I saw many more groups of students, some of them strolling with their parents. I saw buses from all over the country. I saw veterans making their way towards memorials to the Vietnam War, the Korean War, World War Two.

So much emotion courses through our capitol on any given day, I thought as I pedaled. Some days—like the day of the March on Washington or the day Lincoln died—it’s a collective tsunami of emotion. But ordinary D.C. days are moving too. And I’m always happy to see where one takes me.

Her_Beautiful_Brain Save the date: Her Beautiful Brain book launch: 3pm, September 7, at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. You can pre-order now from Elliott Bay, Powell’s Books, or the large or small bookseller of your choice.

August

IMG_1162 August is a misunderstood month. “Nothing gets done in August,” people say. “Everyone’s on vacation.” But who is everyone, and what exactly does vacation mean?

Below this surface fiction of hot, languid days, college freshmen pack up and get ready to step out of the only life they’ve ever known and into a new one they can’t quite imagine yet. Young couples get married. Babies conceived on cold winter nights are born on warm summer mornings. Teachers write lesson plans. Schoolkids—well, they’re probably still in happy denial, though a few might secretly look forward to being a whole year older than last year.

And some of us have books coming out, not long after Labor Day.

Call me a late bloomer, because I am, but publishing my first book this fall feels in many ways just as scary as going off to college.

I was an early-bloomer then. I left home for college at seventeen. And all through that long-ago August, a stranger stood in my bedroom, reminding me that I was about to step off a cliff. The stranger was a suitcase. I’d never owned one. Never needed one. But here it was, my own classic, rectangular, sky-blue Skyway, a high school graduation gift from my grandparents: quietly waiting for me to fill it. Quietly reminding me, every day, that the Skyway and I would soon be flying east into a different universe called college. A universe I longed to love but didn’t know yet if I would. Didn’t know yet that there would be moments worth loving, freedoms worth having, but crises and troughs and miseries too.

Her_Beautiful_BrainI want to love launching my first book, Her Beautiful Brain. But now I’m way beyond old enough to know there will be high and low points. There will be people who don’t like it. People I love who don’t like all of it. People whose attention I had hoped to attract, who ignore it.

That sturdy, rectangular Skyway was my sidekick, my magic carpet, my ticket out of this sleepy old Here Come the Brides town. Grandma was so proud to have picked it out for my high school graduation gift. It was our color, the blue of all of our eyes, the blue that turned up in every ski sweater she ever knit. Skyway blue, set off perfectly by the stainless steel latches that snapped open and shut like a stapler. Inside, the blue was subtly quilted and had a silver sheen, not unlike Grandma’s hair. There were shirred pockets around the sides for small items. It smelled like a new car. It smelled like my life finally beginning.

A few years ago, before we moved out of the house we’d been in for two decades, the time came to face the truth: twenty years in an unheated carport had not been kind to my old Skyway, so unkind it wasn’t even Goodwill-worthy. Off to the dump it went. Or “transfer station,” as we now say, as if we are gently “transferring” our cast-offs to a new habitat.DSC00232.JPG

As I watched the Junk-B-Gone truck pull out of the driveway, the Skyway half-buried, I felt disloyal and guilty about the haphazard way I’d stored it.

It was a tool, I told myself. Like my long-gone first Royal typewriter. Or the laptop on which I started my memoir, which is not the same laptop on which I finished it. It’s where the Skyway took me that mattered. Into the stories of my life. One of which, one month from now, I will be sharing, between the covers of a book.

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