therestlessnest

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

Park Dining

family_funI had lunch today at “Dog in the Park,” one of the best outdoor dining establishments in Seattle. One window, one grill, and a cluster of umbrella-shaded picnic tables on prime downtown turf: the east side of Westlake Park. From my excellent table, I had a ringside view of the children’s play area, the waterfall wall and the busy intersection of Fourth and Pine. My chicken, feta and spinach dog with peppers and onions was grilled to perfection. It cost me five dollars plus tip. If you’re after traditional pork or beef dogs, they have those too. Veggie, vegan? Naturally. It may be a one-item menu, but “Dog in the Park” has a dog for everyone.

But this is not a restaurant review. This is a park story. Westlake Park is not just a busy downtown crossroads. It is, in fact, a city park. It has its own Seattle Park District web page, which lists its size as 0.1 acres. It also has its own Office of Arts & Culture web page, on which you can learn all about artist Robert Maki’s 1988 design for Westlake, which features paving stones in a Salish basket-weave pattern, a Roman-inspired stone archway and a 64-foot, double wall of water that you can walk through on a steel walkway.

Sitting in the park, with a tasty grilled hot dog, is much better than reading about it. As I ate, I watched a few kids plinking on a pink piano, one of the “Pianos in the Parks” that have popped up all logo-pianosintheparksover Seattle this summer. I watched a half dozen younger kids scramble on the geodesic jungle gym and the shiny aluminum balls. I watched the parents and grandparents who were watching all the children, some of whom occasionally drifted down to the south end of the park to see how the games were going on the giant chessboards. The sun was as summer-bright as it could be, but there was a delicious breeze cooling us all.

It’s all pretty wonderful, especially if, like me, you can actually remember what things looked like before 1988. Before this one-tenth of an acre became a park paved in a basket pattern. In 1982, when I moved back to Seattle after eight years away, Westlake had a post-apocalyptic feel. I remember gaping holes and plywood with graffiti on it, which gave way at some point to screeching jackhammers and scaffolding everywhere. I remember this going on for years.

I’ll tell you the truth: it wasn’t until I got home after my hot dog that I looked up online and learned that Westlake is a city park. It made me happy to learn that it is. Because on August 5th, Seattle 10295774_1453094438270155_5810437079417490514_nresidents have a chnce to vote to provide stable funding for all our parks, including tiny Westlake. If we can pass Proposition 1, Seattle, we’ll be protecting what has become a very sweet spot in the heart of the city. It’s only one tenth of one acre out of the 6200 acres in our park system. But it is probably the only park where you can buy a grilled-to-order lunch and eat it while taking in the ever-stimulating spectacle of downtown life.

On Tuesday nights, you could have your hot dog and then do a little ballroom dancing in Westlake Park. There are occasional concerts, too. Political rallies and parades pass through pretty regularly.

And because it’s a park, it’s ours. Just like Rainier is our mountain and Alki, Lincoln and Golden Gardens are our saltwater beaches, Westlake is our own protected bit of downtown real estate. Check it out. Try a hot dog. And mail that ballot.

Her_Beautiful_BrainSave the date for the 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.

 

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/

 

 

 

 

 

 

Park Dreaming

10295774_1453094438270155_5810437079417490514_nI want to write about parks. Seattle voters, you know we’ve got a big decision to make. But here’s the problem: there are these snapshots in my head that keep getting in the way.

A woman standing in front of her wildfire-torched home in Pateros, Washington.

A funeral for a child in Gaza.

Bodies lying in a wheat field in Ukraine.

The headlines this week, and the pictures that go with them, have been brutal.

I want to write about parks. But it seems—disrespectful.

I want to write about how parks saved my mental health more than once. About what a safe haven they’ve always been for me. I want to remember the Arboretum, where I could spend half a day with a pencil and notebook. I want to shout out the old-growth trees and cool summer waters of Seward Park, my refuge for 24 years. I want to remember the climbing tree in the playfield up the hill from my childhood home, where I could hide out for a while when being one of six kids in the house just got too cramped.

But even though I really, really want Seattle voters to pass the measure on the August primary ballot which will create stable funding at last for our city parks, it just seems so indulgent to write about while the largest recorded wildfire in our state’s history blazes on. While both sides in Gaza report their deadliest day. While families in the Netherlands and Malaysia and a dozen other countries mourn the violent deaths of people they loved, people whose only involvement in a territorial war was to fly high overhead in a commercial jet.

So indulgent. But here’s the rub: I can’t stop the wildfires or the missiles or the bombs. But I can urge you to think about the future of Seattle’s parks. About how—when it feels like things aren’t going so well in the big wide world—we need our parks more than ever. We need green places where we can walk, talk, run, bike, swim, think.

Or pull ivy. On Saturday, I was planning to go for a run in one of the most popular parks in the city—beautiful Golden Gardens, way out on Shilshole Bay—when I spotted an email reminder about a work party in one of the least-known corners of the park system: Cheasty Greenspace, a tangle of woods along the east side of Beacon Hill, just around the corner from where I live.

I decided I needed to be useful more than I needed a drive across town and a fresh salt breeze.

The goal in the Cheasty woods is to create bike paths and walking paths in an area of the city where access to quiet, green spaces is sorely needed. There are some neighbors who say they want it to stay wild. But most of us in the area do want the trails, and we’re willing to show the city we do by putting in some seriously sweaty sweat equity.

The task at hand was not glamorous: yanking out invasive English ivy. Yards of it. Mounds of it. All morning, a dozen or so grownups pulled and pulled, while kids ran our little piles up to the big piles. By noon, we had amassed a small mountain of ivy.

We were sweaty and dirty. We had not solved the world’s problems. But we had done our modest bit for our future park, our little link in Seattle’s emerald chain.

We know the ivy will keep growing back. So… we’ll keep pulling it. Because once you see where there might someday, if everybody pitches in, actually be a path, it’s hard to get that snapshot out of your mind.

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

 

The Real Portlandia

10431951_659260227460590_1999677558_sImagine: you are in the middle of downtown, in a major American city, and you walk right into a clean, pleasant public bathroom. No strings attached: you don’t have to buy a coffee or stride purposefully past a store clerk or a hotel concierge or a librarian. This restroom is there expressly for you. You, the visitor. In fact, it is in a place called the “Welcome Center,” which also features racks of brochures and maps and friendly volunteers who will answer any questions you might have. Hot day? Water bottle empty? They’ll point you to the drinking fountain where you can fill it.

I know what you’re thinking: I really am imagining this. There’s no such place. But you know what? There is, and it’s closer than you think. One hundred seventy three miles south of Seattle, there exists a strange parallel universe called Portland, a cityscape that resembles ours, only everything is easier.

The Welcome Center is located in Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square, right in the heart of town, right where tourists can find it.

“Why can’t we have one of these in Seattle?” I thought, as I walked in, two minutes after stepping off the many-branched MAX light rail, which had just whisked us downtown from my nephew’s outlying neighborhood. I know: Seattle’s working on it. I live on our Link light rail line, and I love it. I just wish it were a real network, like the MAX, instead of one lonely line.

Light rail is expensive and it takes a long time to build. Public bathrooms downtown probably aren’t so easy, either. But there are a few other things Portland has figured out that Seattle has not. That maybe wouldn’t be so hard to do. For example, sidewalk dining. SO much nicer when it’s not crammed behind a chain. Walking along the Willamette River on the Fourth of July, café tables and chairs stretched from one restaurant to the next the way they do in Paris.

My husband and I were there for the Portland Blues Festival. We took a strolling break in search of coffee. Sitting at our little outdoor table was so pleasant we decided to keep strolling after we were done. We came to a restaurant, sat down and ate dinner—still on the sidewalk, taking in the scene as people spread their blankets to watch the fireworks—before we finally went back into the jam-packed festival area, which also sprawled along the river.

Here, too, there were no fenced-in beer gardens, as there are at Seattle’s festivals, for people who wanted to have a beer or glass of wine. Instead—what a concept!—you could buy your beer and sip it as you walked, or bring it back to your own blanket or lawn chair and sip it while you took in the music.

Like many Seattleites, my husband and I are not often tourists in Portland. We pop down for a day of work or a visit with friends or relatives and then we head home. But after our recent three-day jaunt, I get the magic. I understand why young people are moving there in droves. Sure, it’s “twee”—you can buy a book at Powell’s that explains what that is—and many people have many, many tattoos, some of them quite beautiful. But Portland also boasts great art, music, food and drink. You can get to the ocean beaches or the Gorge in no time. And on top of all that? Portland is easy. It’s friendly. It is so welcoming it has a Welcome Center.

Seattle, I know we’ve got the guys who throw the salmon around under the Market clock. But I think it’s about time we learned a few things. From Portland.

Save the date for the 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.

Freedom Riders

DSC00865“Freedom,” such a lovely word, is about to get its annual binge on. It will be overused, misused, badly used and, occasionally, poignantly or profoundly used. Why even try to compete?

So I’m keeping my contribution simple. You ready?

Freedom is a bicycle.

Stay with me here. Ride with me.

I live in a newly rebuilt neighborhood where many of my neighbors are African immigrants. Our home overlooks a small central park built around two enormous red oak trees. On summer afternoons, it is usually full of children.

One recent afternoon, I sat at my desk, trying and failing to focus on my work while I watched the park fill with kids. They were headed towards a shining sea of bicycles parked under a big blue canopy down at the other end. It was the annual bike fair and giveaway sponsored by Bikeworks, one of the most high-energy, generous nonprofits in Seattle. One by one, thirty children were fitted with a new helmet, passed a safety test, and sped down the sidewalk on a bright new refurbished used bike. One by one, I watched them ride right towards me, smiles filling their faces.

Freedom is a bicycle, I’m telling you.

When you get on a bike, your feet kiss the ground goodbye. Pedaling uphill may make you sweat, but coasting is flying. One minute, you’re standing in the park; the next, you’re flying, and it’s not magic, it’s your own muscles turning those wheels and making it happen.

I learned to ride a bike late. I was the third of six children, and my parents, like many of the parents in my current neighborhood, were busy with the youngest ones and apparently never thought about teaching us middle girls to ride. Finally, when I was about nine or maybe even ten, our grandparents gave my sister and me funny bikes with banana seats and we taught ourselves. No training wheels; just a few weeks of bruised shins and crashes until riding a bike was, suddenly and forever, as natural as breathing.

And it was freedom. Overnight, we graduated from footsore hikers of the neighborhood to fliers, little Amelia Earharts piloting our low-slung, banana-seated planes as far as we dared.

I love seeing that Amelia Earhart look in the faces of the neighborhood kids, soaring by on their new bikes. Few of them will go to soccer camps or summer camps, but they’ll be able, occasionally, to soar.

I worry a lot about safety. I wish they would wear their helmets at all times. As in many American neighborhoods, we have a problem with a few young men who love driving fast in cars. Trying to soar in a car is never a good idea. But once you’ve got a driver’s license, bicycles just aren’t as cool.

Until you get past all that and realize that actually, they are.

On the Saturday of the Solstice, my husband and I rode our bikes up and over Beacon Hill, through the International District and Pioneer Square, along the downtown waterfront, through Myrtle Edwards Park and along the Interbay bike path to the Ballard Bridge, where we picked up the Ship Canal path and took it to Fremont. We got there in time to catch the last wave of naked bicyclists in the annual Solstice Parade. Seeing them was a lot of fun, but really, the best part of the day was riding through our city, speeding past snarls of traffic. Feeling free.

I’m sure we looked as old and uncool as we are. But who cares? Like the little girl who just sped by as I write, her bright blue hijab flying out from under her red helmet, we were tasting freedom, and it tasted like the Fourth of July.

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.Her_Beautiful_Brain

 

 

 

Posted

Volunteer Janitor

DSC00865“I bet those nice ladies think I’m the new janitor,” I thought, as I jogged past them down the basement stairs of our 80-year-old church, carrying a caddy full of cleaning supplies. “I guess I’m OK with that.”

But for a second or two, I wasn’t OK. I had a momentary taste of how it might feel to be the janitor, and I didn’t like it. I was fine with cleaning toilets as a volunteer. Our church had just finished a week of hosting six homeless women and their children in our basement and I was helping with cleanup. Lucky me, to have access to such an easy way to feel like I’d done something Good with a capital G. An hour in rubber gloves, and then I could get back to my real life of working at a desk, where I may think I’m scraping by financially but I know I make more than the church janitor. Custodian. Cleaner. Am I showing my age, using the word “janitor?”

And then there are the homeless moms and kids, packing up their stuff every week and moving on to another church. This is what we call a “safety net” in America: networks of volunteers who put up tents in church basements and serve hot dinners and help with homework and try to make a desperate situation bearable.

I don’t have a natural facility for this kind of volunteering, or any kind, really. I did not grow up in a volunteering kind of family. I had to learn to volunteer by imitating other people. When my kids were young and pleas for volunteers began coming from their school, I learned that I was much better at hands-on time with children than committee work with grownups. I learned that I’d rather tutor a slow reader or shepherd a field trip than attend meetings and debate strategy. I’d rather clean toilets.

I sometimes quip that it’s a physical thing. I spend enough time sitting in meetings with adults.

But it’s about something else too; something harder to define. Something about not wanting to live full-time in a protected world where the closest I come to homelessness is buying a copy of Real Change from the vendor outside the PCC.

It’s uncomfortable to try to define because it sounds like tourism. Slumming, as people used to say. But what I’m getting at is more urgent than that. It’s more of a need to understand first-hand. Not fully, never fully, but to get at least a glimmer of insight into other worlds and lives.

It’s also about wanting to help in ways that are tangible, as in: Today, I helped one child read one book. I heard her inch a little closer to fluency.

My husband and I have made many, many short films for non-profit organizations. In the course of telling their stories, we’ve interviewed many of their clients. That has been another way of gaining insight. But it is not the same. Filming people tutoring or cleaning toilets is not tutoring or cleaning toilets. Watching people do it, you don’t wonder what it feels like to be a homeless child staying in a church basement in the same way you do when you are hunched over a homework packet with that child.

I know how lucky I am to have a home, to earn a living, to be part of a loving family. I also know how lucky I am to have time to volunteer. I always come home having learned something. About other people. About the world. About myself.

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

 

 

 

The Longest Day

EndAlz

On the longest day of the year, the Alzheimer’s Association wants you to think. Use your precious and, God-willing, still-intact brain and think. Spend five of those one thousand glorious minutes of summer solstice daylight thinking about the people you know who are dealing with dementia and what the words “longest day” might mean to them.

The Alzheimer’s Association is betting you do know someone whose spouse, parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, friend or neighbor is living with Alzheimer’s disease. Someone who knows the loneliness of caring for a person who once had so much to say and now says nothing at all, all day long. Or maybe she says the same thing over and over again. Or maybe he speaks, but it makes no sense. Maybe she or he is sundowning—there’s a good “longest-day” word—but in the dementia world, sundowning is not so pretty. It means getting agitated and cranky and sometimes even scary right when the rest of the world is getting ready for bed.

The longest day. Where my ancestors came from, it was and is a day of IMG_0461celebration. Of joyous gratitude for summer light and warmth. And many of the people who are in the early stage of Alzheimer’s are going to be able to enjoy the longest day of the year just as much, if not more, than the rest of us, because no one is better at living in the moment than people who can’t remember. If you can no longer follow a book or a movie, then why not get outside and smell the June flowers and soak up the extra June hours? Why not savor every strawberry as if it’s the first one you ever ate? Because as far as you know, it is.

But for people who are in the middle or later stages of the illness, all that extra daylight could be confusing or exhausting or both. Which means it will be exhausting for their caregivers, too. And lest you think we’re talking about a boutique illness, a sliver of the medical world, here are the hard facts: more than five million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease. Officially, Alzheimer’s is now the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. But new research shows that it could be third, right behind heart disease and cancer. Last month, the New York Times ran a story headlined: “Alzheimer’s, the Neglected Epidemic,” citing research showing that in just one year, 2010, Alzheimer’s was the underlying cause in half a million deaths in this country.

For all kinds of reasons, it has been very hard to get people to feel the urgency of the Alzheimer’s epidemic. Maybe, until you see it up close, it is easy to dismiss as some sort of inevitable curse of old age. Something far off in the sundowning distance. But as the baby boomers grow old, we are going to be in deep trouble if we don’t step it up. Current federal funding for Alzheimer’s research is half a billion dollars a year. Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? But cancer research commands more than five billion federal dollars a year. Heart disease: nearly two billion. And those investment have made a huge difference. Heart disease and cancer death rates are declining, even as Alzheimer’s deaths soar.

Some of the people you know who are affected by Alzheimer’s disease might be part of a “Longest Day” fundraising team. Give them a boost, if you can. But at the very least? Think of them. On the longest day or, better yet, every day.

Need help getting fired up about the urgency of the Alzheimer’s epidemic? Watch actor and comedian Seth Rogen’s testimony before Congress.

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

Alchemy

UnknownHigh on the list of words that make me twitch due to overuse is the word “alchemy.” Early this morning, there it was on the page, ready to pounce on my nerves. But this time, I found myself—not twitching, perhaps because it appeared in the last line of a poem by Rumi. It is hard to accuse a writer dead for more than seven centuries of tedious trendiness.

Rumi’s cryptic phrase was this: “The alchemy of a changing life is the only truth.”

It’s the end of a poem of flirtation, of courtship. In the poem, Rumi playfully assumes the voice of King Solomon speaking to messengers sent by Queen Sheba. Solomon tells the messengers to scold Sheba for sending him expensive gifts. He suggests that the wealth of her throne “keeps her from passing through the doorway that leads to a true majesty.” He concludes by reminding her of the story of Joseph, who sat at the bottom of a well until he “reached to take the rope that rose/to a new understanding. The alchemy/of a changing life is the only truth.”

I had to refresh myself on the story of Joseph. Most important point: Joseph got thrown into that well by his ever-jealous brothers. They only tossed him a rope when it occurred to them that they could sell him as a slave to some passing merchants, pocket the money, and still go home and tell their doting father that his favorite son was dead.

Being sold to those traveling salesmen changed young Joseph’s life, because they in turn sold him to an Egyptian, who happened to be in charge of the Pharoah’s palace guard. And that’s how a poor shepherd boy moved on up into the royal court of Egypt.

Truth: Joseph got thrown in a well. Alchemy: talk about your life-changing moment! Reaching to take the rope: yes, he did that, because it was preferable to dying a slow death at the bottom of a well. But as far as he knew, the rope was not leading him anywhere good. Even though he’d had those big dreams about how his brothers would someday bow down to him.

So: I read the word “alchemy” at six in the morning, and this is the garden path I go down, from Rumi to a Bible story that most scholars agree is one of the least credible of them all. Why? Because there was something about the way Rumi put it that made me think of all the young people I know whose lives are changing, right now, by the minute. Some of them are graduating from high school or college: and yes, that’s big, but often it’s just the first step in an ongoing, protracted process of—here we go—alchemy.

Alchemy is a word that, in Rumi’s time, most commonly meant a magical way to change ordinary metals into gold. Merriam-Webster says that medieval philosophers sometimes also used it to mean the discovery of a universal cure for disease. Over the centuries, it has come to signify the transformation of something ordinary into something special, or any sort of mysterious change.

As I write, my daughter is sleeping in a tent on the edge of an Idaho lake, on her way to spend 10394488_10201937267784962_5278684326381334855_nthe summer mending trails and breaking trails in Colorado. Last summer she got a taste of this work, and it made her want more. It made her want it more than she wanted to return to a desk job. She’s living the alchemy of a changing life. Embracing it, in a way that we older adults often forget how to do. Meanwhile, our freshly graduated son is working two jobs, saving money to travel in the fall. He’s not even sure where yet. And two nephews are graduating from high school. That’s just the tip of the iceberg of young people in my life, and I’m sure you know plenty too.

I think the best gift we can give them is to marvel at the alchemy of their changing lives. Cheer them on, but stay out of the way. Often, they make it look so easy. But don’t you remember? The truth is that it’s as hard as climbing out of a well.

Need a little Rumi in your life? Order Coleman Barks’ Essential Rumi from your favorite independent bookstore 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: http://kbcs.fm/listen/podcasts/
 

 

 

Bookstore Love

logoRestless Brain Syndrome strikes again. Early this morning, my mind was like a pinball machine that had me reaching for a Post-it and scribbling inscrutable phrases in half-asleep handwriting: follow up on A, send an email about B, and for God’s sake, don’t forget about Z.

But the thought that made me sit straight up was this: Ann! Why haven’t you Her_Beautiful_Braintold everyone you know to save The Date? That date would be September 7, 2014 at 3pm: the book launch for my memoir, Her Beautiful Brain, at the Elliott Bay Book Company.

To you, Seattle may be the fastest-growing city in the United States, an epicenter of technology, global health, outdoor sports and online shopping. To me, Seattle is the big small town I grew up in. The town that taught me to love books. And bookstores.

As a very young child, the library was my first temple of book love. Then, just about the time I was allowed to go without a grownup to the University Village Shopping Center, a bookstore about as big as my bedroom opened across the breezeway from Lamont’s Department Store. It was called Kay’s Bookmark. Rarely could I afford to buy an actual book, but Kay didn’t seem to mind. Maybe she understood that kid-browsers like me—the ones who were more comfortable in her store than they were in Lamont’s—might be her future customers.

A handful of years later, about the time I was in the teen-angst-reducing habit of taking long bike or bus rides to more interesting parts of the city, another bookstore opened called the Elliott Bay Book Company. It was in the picturesque, new-old Pioneer Square district. Like Kay’s, Elliott Bay welcomed browsers of all ages. Unlike Kay’s, you could get a little bit lost in it, in the very best way.

I went off to college. I was away from Seattle for eight years. I visited many legendary bookstores: the Coop, the Strand, Foyles, Shakespeare & Company. But when I had my homesick wallows, it was Elliott Bay for which my Northwestern heart pined. How I missed the creaking wooden floors, the log cabin stairs, the café in the basement. Novels in one room; hiking books in another.

Kay’s was finally laid to rest by Barnes & Noble, which of course is now also gone from the U Village. But Elliott Bay hung on through some very tough years. Seattle’s book-lovers were shocked when it moved to Capitol Hill in 2010, but wasn’t that better, we all told ourselves, than if it had closed altogether? And didn’t we all start going more often than we had in the dark days of the recession, when Pioneer Square was kind of lonely and scary?

Now, we live in a city where the online juggernaut, Amazon, is headquartered a stone’s throw downhill from our standard-bearer of surviving bookstores. Where Pioneer Square is slowly coming back, despite the endless Viaduct teardown. Where our “fastest-growing” status is fueled by the unbeatable combo of good jobs AND a city people really want to live in. And what makes rainy Seattle so livable? Places like the Elliott Bay Book Company.

I’ve always referred to it as the Elliott Bay bookstore, but Company is its real name, so I’m trying it on here. Now that I’ll be both a longtime loyal customer AND an Elliott Bay Book Company author. Really? Me? Did I ever dream—Yes. Yes, I did. And that’s what makes this so exciting that I am compelled to announce it three months in advance.

You can already pre-order a copy of Her Beautiful Brain from Elliott Bay. Right on their website. Tell them you’ll pick it up on September 7th. That’s the weekend after Labor Day weekend. I’d love to see you there. 3pm.

You can also like my new author page on Facebook.

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.

 

 

Polska, 1994

Polska 1994Restless Nest readers, today we are toasting my friend and Goddard MFA classmate Isla McKetta, whose novel, Polska, 1994, has just been published by Editions Checkpointed, the French publisher known for the literature of conflict. Wow. I asked Isla a few questions about how it happened and here’s what she had to say:

1. You balanced writing a novel/earning an MFA with a full-time job. How? And why? What drove you?

When I first decided to apply for MFA programs—when I committed to the idea of myself as a writer—I hadn’t worked in almost two years. I’d left my job to take care of my mom through a couple of surgeries, and that journey home forced me to face some childhood trauma from her initial battle with cancer. The whole thing left me in a state of depression that eventually became a spur to examine what I wanted in life. I realized that what made me feel happiest and most fulfilled is when I am creating art, and words are my go-to medium.

I started applying to graduate programs and jobs at the same time. I’m one Isla_McKettaof those people who’s doing everything all at once or nothing at all, and I think I’d built up a lot of energy during that down time so working while going to school felt like a good way to throw myself back into living. Plus, the more I wrote, the more the act of writing energized me.

You know how intense the MFA program can be, and by the time I reached the third semester requirement of teaching a class while doing all the regular coursework and trying to complete a draft of my thesis (all while working), I started fitting writing into time I didn’t even know I had. I could be found at lunch in the break room typing out a few pages or I’d be scribbling on the bus. I was so engaged in the book and wanted so badly to complete the program on time that the work just happened.

At the end of that semester I remembered a lot about teaching and a lot about work, and even though I barely remembered having written, I had a full draft of my manuscript. That act of fitting writing in wherever possible has served me well in the years since grad school. During the best weeks I write or edit for an hour before work, another after, and then three to four hours each on Saturday and Sunday.

I want to say that you make time for what’s important, but I have sacrificed a lot of time with friends and loved ones to work on my writing. What keeps calling me back is that the writing is the one thing in my life which cannot exist without me. Sometimes I do step away or take a break, but I come back because that act of creation is so essential to my sense of fulfillment.

2. What was it about THIS story (Polska, 1994) that compelled you tell it? It seems highly relevant now, what with Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine. 

As a high school exchange student in Poland in 1994-5, I fell in love with the country and the people. I also became deeply fascinated with the culture and the way the country was and was not changing in the wake of the Soviet Union’s demise. Writing Polska, 1994 was an excuse to explore all kinds of questions about the country and the people. I also had a fascination with oppression that came from spending a year in Chile as a young child under Pinochet’s rule. Writing Polska, 1994 was also a chance to explore the personal aftermath of an authoritarian regime.

I’m watching carefully what happens in the Ukraine now both because of my deep affection for Poland but also because my grandfather’s family came from the Ukraine, specifically Galicia which has at times been Polish, Austro-Hungarian, and Ukrainian. Although my family emigrated before World War I, writing this book became a way to think about what my family’s life would have been like if they had stayed in Eastern Europe.

3. Your novel is elegantly crafted. Every word feels lovingly chosen. Talk about your process, about first draft vs second (or 3rd, 4th, 5th). What phase(s) do you most love?

That’s awfully nice of you to say. Thank you. The first drafts of Polska, 1994 were very much about getting words on the page and exploring where the story was going. I did spend some time perfecting sentences, but I’d be surprised if any of the early ones survived. I learned through writing this book how messy I had to get with the writing—sometimes just blarping information onto the page—before I could engage my perfectionist self.

Once I changed the point of view back and forth a few times and had the basic shape of the story, then it was time to really start editing. I printed out the manuscript and cut it into paragraph-sized chunks so I could physically pair like with like and eliminate the unnecessary. The book was around 20,000 words shorter when I was done with that exercise. The next step was to read the entire book out loud to get a sense of the rhythm and clean up the sentences.

Of course revising a novella is much easier than if I was working on something the size of War and Peace, but it was necessary for what I wanted the book to be and I’d like to think I would have done it even if the book was three times as long. I edited and rewrote this book until I was certain I had taken it as far as I could—I think it was seventeen full drafts in all—and then my editor helped me get through another three drafts before the book was done.

I have two favorite parts of the writing process. The first is in that cutting up part. I love physically breaking the tyranny of the page and finding the form that best communicates the story. It’s funny because I always think that I write much more abstract prose than I do, and this reordering and clarifying part is probably exactly the stage that tips my work toward concrete communication. I’m learning now, as I’m teaching myself to write poetry, that the comprehensibility of Polska, 1994 is a choice I made, and it’s the right choice for that book.

My second favorite stage is any day you come back to the work after not reading it for a while (sometimes you have to let your work breathe before you can edit it well). I will do anything to avoid reopening the work, because in that cooling off period I’ve developed an idea of how terrible it all is. But then I open the manuscript and find phrases that are so good and so unfamiliar I don’t feel like I wrote them. That moment is perhaps the most rewarding part of the whole process.

4. Meanwhile… you wrote and published a book of writing prompts. Tell us how/why that came about. 

After all that writing and rewriting, I was ready to try something lighter. My day job involves writing blogs and other copy for the internet in this easygoing voice that tells you how simple it is to change your life for the better. My coworker, Rebecca Bridge, noticed that Write Bloody Publishing had a contest for a book of writing prompts. She has an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and taught creative writing for years, and we thought it would be fun to take all the advice we’d received over the years and all the lessons we learned through our projects and write a book that could help and inspire other writers.

We wrote the book comparatively quickly and bouncing the text back and Clear Out the Static in Your Attic_coverforth was fun. The result is Clear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer’s Guide for Turning Artifacts into Art. Writing is really hard work, but it can be immensely enjoyable at the same time. This book, I hope, can help writers of all skill levels balance the two. It might just change your life.

 

 

Dementia-friendly World

Momandme1998 For a few years after she was diagnosed, my mother said the words, “I have Alzheimer’s disease” out loud, in public and often. She was in her mid-sixties, looked young and fit, spoke like the retired English teacher she was. She understood that the clerk in the grocery store or the waiter in the restaurant would be more patient with her if they knew why it was taking her so long to find her credit card or sign her name. So she told them. She spread those little learning moments wherever she went.

I was the one who couldn’t get used to it. (I wrote a whole book about not Her_Beautiful_Braingetting used to it.) The looks we got in return—surprise, pity, shock—made me squirm. But later, when I had to say it for her because she no longer could, I remembered those early-stage days with a sort of wistful nostalgia. My indomitable mother looked the world in the eye and asked not for pity but for patience. And you know what? When you ask for patience, you often get it.

My mother went public because it made sense. She was being her practical, problem-solving self. She probably would have scoffed at the notion that she was a pioneer; helping to build what the Alzheimer’s Association calls a “dementia-friendly community.” And because I am now as old as she was—57—when she began to wonder if something might be wrong with her brain, I have to wonder if I would be so brave. No, I don’t wonder. I know. I am NOT that kind of brave.

When I forget a name or a word, or hit “save” instead of “save as,” or go to the store to buy the ingredients for Chicken Marbella and get everything but the chicken, or leave my driver’s license in my running shirt pocket for two days—I think that almost covers last week’s list—when I have those moments, all I feel is fear. Fear that someone will think that I’m… slipping towards Alzheimer’s. As if the shame of dementia would be worse than dementia itself.

In a recent essay in The New Yorker, Michael Kinsley wrote about how we are “comfortable with the idea that physical health is not just a single number but a multiplicity of factors. That’s where we need to arrive about mental problems. As we get older we’re all going to lose a few of our marbles.”

Kinsley was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease twenty years ago at age 43. He writes about what it feels like to learn that he’s apparently already lost a marble or two: that his most recent tests show his brain’s executive functioning abilities have slipped. And yet he can still write eloquently, and at length. And he gave me a whole new way to view the concept of a dementia-friendly community.

If we were tolerant of a few “lost marbles” in the same way we tolerate a limp or a deaf ear—if we naturally, easily, rose to help people with dementia the way we help someone with a broken leg get up the stairs—the way I saw most clerks and waiters help my mom—we could create a dementia-friendly world. Not could, must: more than five million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease, and we know those numbers are going to soar as the Boomer generation ages. So let’s do it. And let’s start small: by just helping each other over those awkward moments. Your lost marble or two might be different than mine. Together? We’ll be fine.

This Friday, May 16, quite a few experts will be in Seattle for the regional Alzheimer’s Association conference, including Dr. Cameron Camp, who is a leader in helping communities become “dementia-friendly.” Camp will also be speaking on Thursday, May 15 at 6pm at Town Hall Seattle.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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