therestlessnest

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

To the Nines

IMG_2249When I was nine years old, I put on my first pair of glasses—light blue, cat-eyed—and looked out my bedroom window at the huge, old Japanese maple tree that shaded our entire postage-stamp backyard. For the first time, from that once-great distance of about 20 feet, I saw not just its spring-green canopy of foliage, but the etched outlines of individual leaves.

It felt—magic is too weak a word. Religious might be right, or ecstatic. I wanted to cry, or shout. Not because I was experiencing my own personal miracle—I was blind, but now I see!—but because the world itself had changed. It had become rich in detail, startling in clarity. It was a place I wanted to know, in the way that grownups knew things. No more gauzy, child’s-eye views for me. In that instant, staring at the leaves of a tree I had loved since the day we moved into that Seven Dwarves’ cottage of a house, I believed that for me, vision would forever trump vanity: I would wear these glasses. Most of the time.

When I was nineteen years old, I got my first passport, and got it stamped for the first time at Heathrow Airport, where I began a year of study and travel that opened my eager eyes to the world. I wore contact lenses by then, the old hard lenses that could pop out of your eye and down the drain of a Roman pensione in a millisecond, leaving you with your slightly blurry backup glasses for the next month. Who knows how many leaf-edges, details in frescos, faces of gargoyles, I missed?

The nines have always been momentous years for me: years that took me to new places; that gave me new ways to see the world. In January, I celebrated my 59th birthday in Mexico, a country I have visited several times but have never seen the way I saw it on this trip. IMG_2264And it wasn’t because I was wearing new glasses, or because I can’t get over how old I am. It was because we finally resisted the seduction of the beaches and, instead, headed for Mexico’s mountaintop heart.

One of the things I love best about travel is being surprised; that moment in which you realize: this place, this experience, is not at all what I thought it would be. From the first moments, Mexico City was like that.

Mexico City has a reputation, long perpetuated in the United States, as dangerous, crime-ridden and full of perils for unsuspecting tourists. But that was not our experience at all. People were friendly and helpful. The streets around our hotel in the historic center were full of families well into the evening. We tried to behave sensibly, as we would in any large city, but we never felt threatened.

The next misconception to go was the notion that being in the hemisphere’s largest city would feel suffocating in the extreme. But if you’ve ever stood in Central Park, you know that it is possible to experience spaciousness in the middle of a metropolis. And Mexico City’s parks, public squares and boulevards are numerous, gracious, spacious and, with the exception of the vast central Zocalo, nearly all are shaded with trees. We felt the presence of 20+ million people most vividly when we rode the subway, which is so cheap and fast that it’s no wonder it is always crowded.

But I will remember Mexico City as a stroller’s paradise, with surprises around every corner.

There was the surf guitar band called Mondragon, rocking an alley just off a pedestrian-only shopping street near the Zocalo. There were the stately polka dancers next to the crafts market in the Alameda park. There were whole buildings covered in tile. IMG_2392There were buildings filled with dramatic murals by Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, José Orozco. There were candy shops that sold marzipan and spun sugar shaped into paper-thin fans and fruits. There were streets with a hundred shops that sold only fabric by the yard and other streets where you could buy only plastic: shower curtains, buckets and bins. One packed block specialized in baby dolls and christening gowns, essential for an upcoming feast day marking Jesus’ presentation at the temple. Nearby was a market where you could buy voodoo dolls, magic powders, herbs and aphrodisiacs.

On our first evening there, a Friday, we walked out our door into a thronged pedestrian-only street full of shoppers, hawkers, performers and family groups out for a stroll. We were there with our two 20-something children, so we felt like we fit right in. In one alley was the surf guitar band; in another, a Michael Jackson impersonator. When we got hungry, we joined dozens of other families at an old, tile-lined restaurant called Café Tacuba, where the waitresses wore white, nurse-like uniforms with giant white bows on the backs of their heads, and a band of musicians serenaded a huge multi-generational family party in the back room, giving us all a free concert.

The highlight for me was Sunday morning, when I went to the ornate Palacio de Bellas Artes for an early performance of Mexico’s breathtaking Ballet Folklorico. IMG_2370It made sense that it was Sunday, because it was like church. It was like being nine and putting on that first pair of glasses all over again. It was like being 19 and stumbling off the overnight train into Paris or Rome. Such stunning poignance and grace, in the traditional dances so brilliantly re-imagined. I felt so grateful to be there. So grateful to have eyes and ears; to be discovering this very old, very rich cultural world that was so very new to me. At 59: imagine that.IMG_2394_2

 

 

 

 

Mangers Everywhere

DSC01536Two days shy of the darkest day of the year, silhouetted against a rainy twilight sky, I watched a young woman emerge from a tent, tugging a stroller behind her. A young man followed. They turned the stroller around and bumped it down a muddy knoll, lifting it over a ditch and onto the sidewalk. Their tent, pitched next to Interstate 5 at the 50th Street exit in Seattle’s University District, flapped behind them, sagging under the relentless rain, leaning half-heartedly against the wind, ready to cave in to the next good gust. As we waited for the light to change, all I could see of the baby in the stroller, across the two lanes of traffic that stood between us, was that at least she or he was covered with a blanket.

My husband and I were on our way to see the latest movie version of Macbeth. The very first shot in the movie is of a dead baby. And the weather in medieval Scotland, as seen on screen, was only slightly worse than the weather outside the theater in mid-winter Seattle. I shivered at the thought of living in such brutal conditions: no heat, no light, mud everywhere. But that is exactly how the young couple I’d seen coming out of their tent were living. Right here in my own high-tech hometown. Right now, in 2015.

As we drove home, we took in the sparkling lights of all the construction cranes in South Lake Union and downtown. It’s as if they’re competing this year for the most festive displays: long strings of brightly colored lights, even trees and Santas perched high above the city. And why not celebrate the ongoing construction boom? Five years ago, Seattle was dotted with half-dug holes, half-built buildings, half-done projects halted by the recession.

But the young couple with the stroller haunts me. How do two young people come to be so desperate that they pitch a tent on the edge of the freeway? And they’re not alone. The tents are everywhere. It seems that for every new crane hanging over another new construction site, there are dozens more tents popping up a few blocks away, often in places we haven’t seen them before.

It’s not my imagination. The Seattle Times reports that as of late November, 527 unauthorized homeless encampments were shut down by the city this year. 527. Those are just the ones that were actually shut down. That’s up from 351 in 2014. 131 in 2013. Eighty in 2012. On November 2, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray declared a homeless emergency and authorized five million dollars to be spent on shelter and services for people found sleeping outside.

Meanwhile, according to the Puget Sound Business Journal, nearly 21,600 rental units are currently under construction. But the Journal is also reporting an “alarming deterioration” in the local apartment rental market. Deterioriation! What could this mean? Here’s what it means: rents have dropped an average of $59 a month in the last quarter, in all neighborhoods except South Lake Union. Twenty percent of landlords are even offering “incentives” such as a month’s free rent. The vacancy rate is up from 4 percent to, wait for it, 4.3 percent.

Is this really how we define “alarming?” The fact that rents have taken a baby step backwards, towards actual affordability, is “alarming?” And you can bet rents are still so far from the reach of the people in the tents that they may as well be millions, not thousands, of dollars per month.

I don’t know what to do about the young family I saw coming out of the tent. Should I have pulled over, that evening, and given them whatever crumpled bills were in my purse? How much longer can I rationalize that doing the same small things, over and over again—volunteering when my church hosts homeless women and children overnight, buying diapers and toys for the families we sponsor at Christmas, giving coats and sleeping bags to the neighborhood kids who are collecting for their school, handing energy bars to panhandlers—is enough? And yet we, I, can’t not do these things. How could we not?

Mayor Murray is promising that the city will find shelter for the tent people. But is it? Are we? What’s going on in Seattle? Where and how are we going to find room at the inn?

Back to Macbeth for a moment. In this latest interpretation of Shakespeare’s 400-year-old play, director Justin Kurzel and actor Michael Fassbender as Macbeth are unflinching in their portrayal of a warrior who could have been a true hero and leader, if only he had found the strength to resist the temptations of power and greed. And we know where those temptations got him: to one of the most cynical, sad moments in literature, when he pronounced life “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

But life is not that. If it were, the couple in the tent would just give up. Instead, they went out in the rain, presumably in search of food and help for themselves and their infant. Because, as theologian Henri Nouwen wrote, “we are called to be people of hope.”

But Nouwen also said this: “we cannot go around despair to hope. We have to go right through despair.”

There are mangers everywhere, in this Advent season.

Father Solstice

12294725_1023642207693534_3470832158015669034_n 2 I was in it for the Beaconettes. What’s not to love about a holiday choir decked in sky-high beehive hairdos festooned with strings of lights? So I braved the bone-chilling Seattle December rain and headed for the annual tree-lighting at our neighborhood’s new gathering spot, a mini-park called the Columbia City Gateway. My husband was waiting for me, hot chocolate in hand. Aahhh.

We tried to figure out where the tree was. Turns out it was a telephone pole. This would be a pole lighting. But that’s OK—it’s Columbia City, where even a pole lighting in a downpour can somehow still promise to be festive.

There were some mercifully short introductory remarks, and then the night’s celebrity guest was introduced: Father Christmas himself, or, as the announcer added, “Father Solstice, if you prefer.” And what a FatherSolsticemagnificent Father Christmas/Solstice he was: fur-crowned, green-robed, cascading white beard and hair.

I was kicking myself for not having added one more layer to my winter-rain getup and feeling anxious to see the Beaconettes before I crossed over into hypothermia. My husband saw me shivering and put his arms around me. Then Father Solstice stepped up to the microphone, wrapping us all in his gentle yet commanding presence: the kind of presence that long years of addressing such crowds can give a man, especially one with mythical tendencies.

I’m paraphrasing here, but this is what I remember of what Father Solstice said: “I won’t talk long, I promise. I know you’re wet and cold. But I just want to remind you about some refugees you might have heard about. Two thousand years ago, they were looking for a place to stay, because one of them was about to have a baby. Door after door was barred against them. And I’m bringing them up because this year, we’re more tempted than ever to bar our doors against the refugees of the world. More tempted than ever to act out of fear, instead of love.”

“Who remembers,” Father Solstice went on, “when Seattle was declared a Sanctuary City in the 1980s? Maybe it’s time to reclaim that vow.”

The soggy crowd was quiet.

“OK,” said Father S, snapping us back to the present. Let’s count down and light that pole!”

We all counted down, clapping and cheering when the telephone pole lit up. Then the Beaconettes stirred and glowed and we crowded in so we could hear them over the deluge as they belted out their trademark carols featuring rewritten lyrics about contemporary life in Seattle, which this year included riffs on marijuana, Amazon, Fitbits and Bertha the wayward tunnel-digger. They were hilarious, as always.

But it was Father Solstice who stayed with me, as we walked off into the dark.

Is it still possible to be a sanctuary city? What it technically means is that Seattle is a city where police officers are not allowed to ask about an individual’s immigration status. What “sanctuary city” also meant, in the 1980s, was a place where many churches and activists provided sanctuary for refugees fleeing violence in Central America and, later on, other turbulent places in the world.

Is it possible, in these times, not to offer sanctuary? In his Sunday speech from the Oval Office, President Obama called the terrorists of the Islamic State—which is neither reflective of more than a tiny, warped sliver of Islam, nor a state—“thugs and killers.” How can we not offer sanctuary when murderous thugs are driving waves of terrified people into exile? How can we be the ones who cry out, “no room at the inn?”

And yet: what kind of sanctuary are we, when our country is flooded with firearms, bedecked and bedazzled with them, to a degree that must make the violent thugs of the world quiver with envy? When our politicians shout, “yes, bar those doors!” even as they encourage the flow of guns from the factories and into the hands of everyone who wants one or two or two dozen, whether they’re terrorists, armed robbers, or duck hunters?

Turns out Father Christmas/Solstice is a long-time peace activist in Seattle named Bob Barnes. I had the honor of meeting him, and thanking him for what he said, after the pole-lighting; an event, I told him, that I won’t soon forget. Thanks, Beaconettes, and thank you, Bob. The holiday season in Seattle may be dark and sodden, but it has its bright moments. “Bright,” as in happy strings of lights on beehive hairdos and on one telephone pole. And “bright” as in: a man in a green cloak and furry crown, willing to shine a light right where we need it most.

In the mood for another seasonal tale? Here’s one I called “A Manger Story,” published this week on the Patheos Good Letters site. 

Radio news: After four years, The Restless Nest has retired from its weekly radio spot on KBCS. This will give me more time to work on some longer projects. But I’ll continue to post here at least a few times a month. 

 

Healing is a risky business

12241203_10206996887414845_2151836365820268832_nHealing is a risky business. Any poet or journalist could tell you that. It’s risky, because it has to start with truth telling, and when we’re wounded, the truth is not often what we want to hear.

For me, last week started with the peak experience of hearing Gloria 1442865674251Steinem rock Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, and it ended (or so I thought) with the peak experience of hearing Garrison Keillor read a poem written by my college friend, Dana Robbins, to a national radio audience. Gloria and Dana: two risk-takers, two truth-tellers. You know Gloria, so I’ll tell you a bit about Dana: she survived a stroke at 23 and a number of other nightmares and heartbreaks, which she writes about in her th_LeftSideLifefirst published book of poems, The Left Side of my Life (Moon Pie Press, 2015), in which you will also find poignant poems about motherhood and about her joyful second marriage. It was thrilling to me to at last hold a book of her poems in my hand AND hear her on the radio in the same week.

But last week didn’t end there. Because that was Before Paris.

For the Islamic State terrorists, the bloody attacks on Paris that killed 129 people were the grand finale of a two-week horror show that included claiming responsibility for the October 31 plane crash in Egypt that killed 224 people and bombings in Beirut that killed 43 12027805_10153834583469673_8324533815771842484_nand in Baghad that killed at least 26. For those of us who are slow to wake up to violence in places where we haven’t traveled, countries we don’t know personally, Paris was the visceral, gut-punching, week-ending shock.

For me, hearing the news will forever be oddly twined with seeing the movie Spotlight, about the team of UnknownBoston Globe reporters who broke the story of the systemic, deliberate, top-down cover-up of the cases of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. My husband and I went into the theatre knowing something awful had happened in Paris. We came out and learned the news was far worse than we’d thought. And so our conversation that evening was about how hard, but essential, it was to hear the truth about tragedies that had happened decades ago. OR hours ago.

Journalists and poets uncover old truths and new truths. They are both first-responders to fresh tragedies, and dogged researchers of outrages that have been buried but must be exhumed in order for justice to be done.

They can’t do their work without brave people willing to talk. Spotlight is all about that: about finding people who have been very badly hurt but are now angry enough and brave enough to talk about it, with the hope that by talking they will save future children from similar harm. Another movie out now, Truth, is also about finding brave people willing to go on the record. It’s the story, as told in her memoir, of former CBS journalist Unknown-1 Mary Mapes, who uncovered the important story of a young, future President George W. Bush shirking his duty in the National Guard. Mapes was brought down, along with Dan Rather and several colleagues, by one memo that had not been fully verified and was quickly seized on by the right-wing media machine—though the story itself, of Bush’s shirking, was all true. I knew Mary Mapes in the 1980s, when we both worked at KIRO TV, and she was, and is, one of the hardest-working, most dedicated journalists I’d ever met. Seeking truth is a risky business.

Sometimes, and perhaps more often in the case of poets, the brave truth-teller is the writer herself. Dana’s book begins: “They tell me I had a stroke/a cosmic joke,/like waking up a cockroach.” Of being offered a wheelchair at the airport, she writes: “How would the people who offer help in the airport know that to me/ the apparatus of disability has all the appeal of the electric chair?”

There is an unflinching quality in poetry that is a cousin of the best journalism. It’s as if poets are driven to flush out the dark corners and bring what is most frightening into the daylight. It’s very different than the urge to fictionalize or mythologize.

We need poets to say, starkly, what happened, and to give voice to grief; and we need journalists to shine their most powerful high-beam headlights on who and what is behind the tragedies we grieve and how, if it’s possible, we can heal.

As the poet Rumi wrote, 800 years ago: “Don’t turn your head. Keep looking/ at the bandaged place. That’s where/ the light enters you.”

 

Gloria

1442865674251“Don’t listen to me,” Gloria Steinem told the two 15-year-old girls. “Listen to yourselves.” A packed-to-the-rafters Benaroya Hall erupted in applause, as it did dozens of times on Sunday night. But there was something about those girls. They were all of us. We have all been fifteen and remember well that panicked thought: who am I? Who will I be? Who do I deserve to be? That the two of them stood together at the microphone, because standing alone would have been too scary, made it all the more poignant. How far in advance did they plan which one of them would ask the question—what advice do you have for teenaged girls?—and which one of them would stand with her for support?

IMG_2128Gloria Steinem was in Seattle to promote her new memoir, My Life on the Road. In an evening presented by Hedgebrook, the Whidbey Island retreat for women writers where she wrote much of her book over several summers, Steinem was interviewed by Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, the best-selling memoir of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Strayed was funny and lively and made it clear from the beginning that she was as awed by Steinem as the rest of us. But it was Gloria’s night. I hope she doesn’t mind if I call her Gloria. I don’t believe she will. As she quipped at one point during the evening, “We women aren’t generally so attached to our last names, are we?”

When Gloria and Cheryl walked on stage, I felt as if my spine had just been plugged into a sizzling charger. My eyes started to glisten. My throat tightened. My heart did a little step-dance. I apologize for how trite this all may sound, but I am trying hard to describe how I really, truly felt at that moment, because I don’t feel that way very often. Thanks to my broadcast journalist past, I’m not instantly impressed by famous people. But Gloria is different. Gloria is personal. She changed my life. She changed my mother’s life, my friends’ lives, my daughter’s life. She changed the life of every woman, whether they know it or not. Does this sound over-the-top? I would argue that it is not. Not at all. Gloria Steinem is 81 years old (last year, when she turned 80, I discovered that she and my mother share the same birthday and I wrote a tribute to the two of them), and her life work has been to change the way we perceive women. In my lifetime, the change has been profound and global. For example, the small businesswomen I’ve met in places like Peru, India, Thailand: Ayacucho WomanGloria helped me to see them differently; to fully appreciate their strength and resilience. Or take Sahar, the Seattle-based nonprofit that is building schools for girls in Afghanistan: thanks to Gloria, the world understands how essential such work is.

“Women get more radical with age,” Gloria said in response to a question about why there weren’t more very young feminist spokeswomen. Yes we do, because we get impatient. All our lives, we are told: be patient. The world is changing. Hang on! But then when you look up one day and realize your daughter is facing way too many of the same hurdles you faced—and then some, if she lives in the wrong state and might wish to do something as radical as visit a Planned Parenthood clinic—you think: enough patience already. I’m done.

Ann 1978 (1)When I was a newly minted college graduate in 1978, the personnel director at a major publisher told me that “all our young women start as secretaries and our young men start as sales reps.” And so my first job title, post-college, was secretary. That is why Gloria Steinem moves me in a way perhaps no other public figure ever will. She understood then, and she understands now: equal treatment for all—regardless of gender, race, age or any other consideration—is not political. It is a basic human right.

Diggers little boyPlease check out our Kickstarter page for Zona Intangible, our film set in Peru and now in post-production. Watch the trailer. Consider a donation. Our deadline is November 24. Thank you! 

Restless Night

12079495_1002020523189036_4695099355839985106_nThere was a solemn three-year-old firefighter and a fierce four-year-old Batman. There were many princesses, one wearing a football helmet. There were moms dressed as witches and one dad in a hardhat carrying a cardboard model of Bertha, Seattle’s doomed supersized tunnel driller. IMG_1192There were some very sweet baby bumblebees. It was Halloween night in Columbia City, and my husband and I were there for the show.

We left a basket of candy on our front porch with a sign: “Happy Halloween! Take a few and leave some for your neighbors.” We’ll never know whether the trick or treaters did that, or whether one or a few them could not resist the temptation to empty the entire basket into their bags. What we did know is that we were too restless, this year, to sit home and wait for the doorbell to ring.

So there we were, a dozen blocks away in our neighborhood’s hopping, decked-out business district, watching what has become a wildly popular south Seattle ritual: trick or treating at the bars, restaurants, galleries and stores in rustic, red-brick Columbia City. 315398_249935491713680_5416914_nWe ordered beers at Lottie’s and stood outside, protected from the rain by the awning. We complimented the trick or treaters on their costumes and chatted with their parents. Rus took a few photos to send our children, currently living far away in Colorado and New York and busy at that hour dressing up for their respective Halloween parties.

12034366_10153835310440809_8368667048062586536_oAfter dinner at Tutta Bella, we raced up to Taproot Theatre in Greenwood to see Dracula on stage. One of our daughter’s childhood friends was in the cast, playing Lucy, the pretty ingénue who is transformed into a blood-craving vampire by the end of Act One. It was a great show.

It was a night of watching Halloween happen. We were spectators. And that was fine.

Twenty or thirty years ago, I might not have thought it would be fine, to be a Halloween spectator. I might have thought it would be sad. But this is one of the sweet treats, not tricks, that come with the passage of time. Nostalgia is part of it: I see the bumblebees and tiny Bat-men and I remember the fevered excitement of our children, putting on their costumes and getting ready for the big night. But nostalgia isn’t all of it. There’s also just a bit of relief—being a spectator is a lot less exhausting!—and there’s the feeling of newness. That’s the surprising part. Newness, not old-ness: this phase I call the Restless Nest is as surprisingly and richly new as it is nostalgic. It’s a blend. I get both: the newness of plunging into creative projects I didn’t have time for back in the bumblebee phase, and the pleasant nostalgia of remembering those years.

Recently, I was introduced at an event as the author of the blog called “The Restless Night.” I made a joke about how that sounded a bit more sinister than “The Restless Nest.” What I didn’t say is that it is all too often an apt description of how I’ve been sleeping lately. But I’ve come around, in recent years, to accept that insomnia goes hand in hand with the newness part of this phase of life. That when I’m doing new, scary things—like speaking at an event, or raising money for our film, Zona Intangible, on Kickstarter (please check out our page, watch the trailer and consider backing our movie!)—my nights are going to get restless. photo-original

“Only when we are at our most playful can divinity finally get serious with us,” Elizabeth Gilbert writes in her most recent book, Big Magic, a 273-page ode to creative risk-taking. Yes: it’s like the excitement children feel on Halloween night, as they put on their costumes and create new and different selves. It is play, but it is serious play.

From Sun to Sun

51NYhLAG7FL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_ “I am not an angel,” Nina McKissock told me firmly. “I’m just doing my job.” McKissock is a hospice nurse. She is also the author of a new memoir called From Sun to Sun: A Hospice Nurse Reflects on the Art of Dying, in which she tells the stories of composite patients based on many of the real people she has cared for at the end of their lives. (McKissock and I will be reading and talking together at Elliott Bay Bookstore in Seattle on Sunday, November 1 at 3pm.)

From Sun to Sun is one of those books I was hesitant to read, thinking surely it will be too hard and too sad to bear. But once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. Each one of McKissock’s 24 patients became my friend for an hour or two; a friend whose story had much to teach me. “There can be great healing within the dying process,” McKissock writes in the frontispiece to the book, and though this may seem counterintuitive, she goes on to show us many examples of how it can be true. One of the most moving stories was of Eric, a 51-year-old with ALS: Lou Gehrig’s disease. Eric had watched his father die of the same illness, so he knew what lay ahead. His type-A, executive wife was heartbroken and enraged. Of course. But her anger at ALS made it nearly impossible for her to slow down and muster the patience caring for her dying husband required. When McKissock persuaded her and Eric to accept the help of Rachel, a gifted full-time caregiver, both of them began to heal. Emotionally.

One night, Rachel and McKissock carried Eric outside to see the full moon. “There are moments in my life where I feel so humble that I simply want to kneel in reverence; this was one such moment,” McKissock writes. “It was sacred to witness this beautiful, broken man wrapped in blankets—who knew full well he was seeing his last full moon.”

MicKissock speaks truth when she says hospice nurses and caregivers are not angels. They are the opposite of ethereal. Much of their work is hard, physical labor: moving patients, dressing patients, changing sheets, preparing, serving and cleaning up after painstakingly offered meals. Much of it is a highly professional mix of cognition and intuition, calibrated by years of experience, as they assess a patient’s ever-changing needs for care and medication, even as they carefully juggle his or his family’s needs to be kept informed and prepared for what lies ahead. They know that as they do their job, the dying person is doing the hardest spiritual work any of us will ever do: saying good-bye. And then preparing to take that final step, the one we will all have to take alone. A good hospice nurse can be a very real guide and helper as her patient embarks on that journey.

My brother died of a brain tumor at 52. Because his brain was affected by the tumor, it was very hard for him to express his thoughts and feelings in his final days. But I’ll never forget two words he said to me, as we sat together in his hospice room: “I’m scared.” I felt helpless in that moment. I don’t remember what I said in response. But I was so grateful for the hospice nurses, who had created an atmosphere of comfort and serenity for him and for us.

At the end of the chapter about Eric, McKissock quotes the 13th century poet, Rumi: “This being human is a Guest House; treat each guest honorably.” With the help of hospice nurses, caregivers and social workers, I believe we are, at last, re-learning how to do that.

Bonus event! At 5pm on Sunday, Nov 1, I will be at Northwest Film Forum to talk about the Kickstarter campaign for our film, Zona Intangible, as part of their free Join the Crowd presentation about crowd funding. Please support our Kickstarter if you can and share the link with others!

Zona Intangible

Diggers little boy  Outside Lima, Peru, on the steep, sandy hills at the upper perimeters of the newest handmade settlements, there are signs everywhere that say, “Zona Intangible.” (“In-tan-hee-bley,” in Spanish.) They are billboard-sized, meant to be read from a distance. What they mean is: Don’t build your house here. Zona Intangible1This zone is not to be touched. It is too unstable. Too high. The roads will never reach it. Water, sewers, electric lights—no way. None of those tangibles will be available to you, up here in the intangible zone, so don’t build here. Just don’t do it. And yet people do. Every day, another young couple, dreaming of having their own tangible home, takes a shovel and a hammer and four pre-made walls and heads up the hill to find an unclaimed spot.

Zona Intangible. If your mind naturally bends toward metaphor, it’s hard not to see a dozen different storylines in those signs. One: the people who travel up these hills with their shovels are people who own very little that is tangible. All they bring to the Zona are their most powerful, but intangible, possessions: their love for each other, their stamina, their faith. Their belief in a better future.

If, like me, you’re a visitor, a foreigner from a place where most of us have way too many tangibles, it is tempting to romanticize such bare-bones simplicity. To long to somehow find such a Zona Intangible. But we can’t do it. Not by the same steep path.

Our ways into our own intangible zones are at once more readily accessible and less so. Prayer. Meditation. Imagination. All intangible, all free, and all so undervalued in our tangible-centric world as to cause visible, physical discomfort when you bring them up in polite company. We want our children to major in the STEM subjects, because we want them to have tangibly rewarding futures. We converse freely about the tangible challenges of our daily lives—traffic, the high cost of everything, the miseries of bureaucracies like health insurance and taxes—because that is where we comfortably, communally dwell: in the safely tangible world.

Lima has become an increasingly glamorous tourist destination. The top restaurant in Latin America is not in Rio or Buenos Aires; it’s in Lima. In fact, three of the top five restaurants are in Lima, which is the third largest city in the hemisphere, after Mexico City and São Paulo. Lima is also known for its luxury LarcoMar shopping mall, carved out of a cliff above the Pacific Ocean, offering an endless parade of tangible treats and upscale people-watching.

Sometimes I wish I were content to stay, always, in the safely tangible world. But the Zona Intangible beckons. I want to know: what is it like to have such faith in God that you can walk up that hill with a shovel and build your own house and make a life? What is it like to walk down to mass every Sunday morning and get down on your knees and give thanks for your four walls and dirt floor? And how dare any observer call that misguided or ignorant, when in fact it requires a daily dose of courage so strong few of us could stomach it?

Our Kickstarter page for our film, Zona Intangible, is now live. Here’s the link. Whether or not you are able to donate, please help us spread the word! 

HBBfinalcoverOn November 1 at 3pm, I’ll be reading from Her Beautiful Brain at Elliott Bay Books with fellow She Writes Press author Nina McKissock, author of the luminous 51NYhLAG7FL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_From Sun to Sun: a Hospice Nurse Reflects on the Art of Dying

What We Say Matters

IMG_1415I’m thinking about the power of words this week, even more than I usually do. A word can be a weapon. A word can be a force for good. Words can heal or hurt. In a few days, I’ll be participating in a conference organized by the University of Washington School of Nursing called Elder Friendly Futures, and one thing we’ll talk about is words: how the words we choose define—no, become—what we think. And not just which words, but exactly how we say them: Elder can connote respect—or decrepitude. Friendly can sound saccharine—or inviting. And what about Futures? It’s the “s” that is intriguing, isn’t it, with its suggestion that there are many possible futures that could be friendly for elders, not just one.

Vice President Joe Biden is an elder. Perhaps barely so, by today’s ever lengthening standards. He is 72 years old. But more than his actual age, it is his scars and the way he wears them that give him Elder status. This is a man whose wife and daughter were killed in a car crash when he was 29 years old and newly elected to the Senate. Now, more than 40 years later, he is again freshly grieving: this time, the death of his son Beau from brain cancer. How does he keep going? What makes his life meaningful? Faith. Service. In other words, the ability to see the larger world outside your own small world, even when your eyes are clouded with tears. For most of us, this is a learned skill, and the price of such an education is high, sometimes higher than we can bear.Joe_Biden_Stephen_Colbert_YouTube_img

In a riveting TV interview, Biden told CBS Late Show host Stephen Colbert about a quote from Danish philosopher Søren Kirkegaard that his wife Jill taped to his mirror: “Faith sees best in the dark.” Biden used it as a way to talk about faith as the place you can go: even, or perhaps especially, when you feel like your faith is imperfect, or gone altogether. It seemed important to Biden to present his faith humbly. Modestly. He chose words like solace and ritual. It was a moment in which words, carefully but honestly selected, drew us in: whether or not we share Biden’s faith, whether or not we want him to run for president.

There was another public profession of faith last week that was exactly the opposite: Kentucky court clerk Kim Davis, jailed for refusing to grant marriage licenses to LGBTQ couples, triumphantly proclaimed, on her release, that she wanted to “give God the glory,” because, “his people have rallied, and you are a strong people.”

What she meant was clear: her God is not about finding people when they’re lost in the darkness of grief. Her God is about taking sides. Kicking people out of the club. Words are powerful. When Davis said, “you are a strong people,” she meant people who believe, as she does, that gay marriage is wrong.

Maybe Davis, who is 50, will choose different words when she attains the hard-earned status of elder, in about 20 years. Maybe not. But as I think ahead to the Elder Friendly Futures Conference and ponder what those futures might look like, Joe Biden’s empathy and wisdom give me hope.

second-wind-cover1In his stereotype-busting book Second Wind: Navigating the Passage to a Slower, Deeper, and More Connected Life (think about the positive power of those words: slower—deeper—more connected), author Dr. Bill Thomas writes, “Elders have access to a reservoir of feelings and access to a level of emotional control and insight that far exceeds that available to adults… At this moment in history for both cultural and planetary reasons we need elders more than ever before.”

IMG_1075Yes. And when we realize how much we are going to need their wisdom and insight as we face all kinds of global and local challenges, our elders’ futures take on a whole new importance. As does the importance of nurturing our own wisdom, as we move toward our own elder futures, which I truly hope will be friendly.

Registration is open for Introduction to Memoir Writing at Seattle Central College. Starts November 2, 2015. Six Monday nights. Non-credit = all inspiration, no stress!

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

 

 

Hot Water, Big Boxes: Workplace Nightmares

IMG_2052It’s the yelping that comes back to me across the decades: the sound of an old man yelping after I spilled hot water in his lap. I was the greenhorn waitress, the clumsy college girl, always several steps behind the professionals. I was working the breakfast shift in a busy hotel restaurant in downtown Seattle. It was the late 1970s, a time when busloads of tourists—who all wanted breakfast at the same time—were a new phenomenon in our city. I was rushing, of course, with too many plates in my hands, of course, and as I reached in to set down a tiny teapot full of hot water on the table of a solo diner, I fumbled, somehow, and the water poured into his lap.

He yelped, loudly, several times, as he tried to push his table out from the wall so he could stand up. All I remember saying is, “Oh! I’m so sorry!” as I helped him squeeze around the table from his bench sit to a standing position.

The manager came rushing over.

I tried hard not to cry as I explained that I had just poured scalding hot water into a customer’s lap.

She fixed her eyes on him. “Sir, would you like me to call a doctor?”

“No, no,” he mumbled. “I’m all right. I just need to go to my room and change.”

I watched as she escorted him to the elevator, her arm lightly around his shoulders, her voice soft and reassuring. She didn’t stop talking until he got on.

“It’s OK,” she told me. “I told him we would pay to get his suit cleaned immediately and that we would send a doctor if he changed his mind. He says he thinks he’s fine—he was just startled, not burned. I’ll tell the people who were sitting near him that he’s OK and I’ll comp their meals. Meanwhile, better get back to work—a lot of them have to get on that tour bus at eight.”

This all happened in about two minutes. But it was an important two minutes. I learned that in any future crisis, I wanted to be just like my manager.

I thought of those two minutes the other day, when an employee at a big box store dropped a big box on my chin. He was getting the blender I wanted down from a high shelf. Just as I had fumbled the teapot, he fumbled the blender, and the corner of it hit me hard on the chin.

I yelped. A little.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“I think so,” I said. But as I started walking towards the cash register, I put my fingers to my chin and felt blood.

“Excuse me,” I said, walking back. “Actually, I’m bleeding. I think I need a bandaid.”

He gave me a panicked look. “Just a minute,” he said, as he trotted away from me.

I tried to follow, but I couldn’t keep up. He disappeared behind a door. I stood awkwardly near the cash register. I pulled out a mirror and looked at my chin. It was bloody. I didn’t want to frighten other customers, so I stood there and tried to block my chin with my pocket mirror.

Finally, the young man returned with a bandaid, a packet of antibiotic cream and a paper towel, and pointed me towards the bathroom.

When I came out, with a big bandaid on my chin, I picked up my blender and got in line. The young blender-fumbler was nowhere to be seen.

“Did you find everything OK?” the clerk asked, as she rang up my purchase. I knew she had seen me standing around awkwardly near her cash register as I waited for my bandaid.

I laughed. “Sure,” I said. “Except for the injury I incurred in the process.”

“I’m going to give you an in-store coupon for 20 percent off,” she said.

And that was it. The employee who clipped my chin was, apparently, in hiding—perhaps along with the store manager, who I never saw—until I left. He never apologized. I understand he was probably terrified that I would formally complain. I did get his first name from the cashier, but that’s as far as I went.

But I have to wonder: are employees now advised to never admit fault? Is the customer, who was once always right, now always wrong?

And that is why, this Labor Day week, I just want to say thank you to my long-ago manager at that hotel restaurant. She was so good at her job.

Registration is open for Introduction to Memoir Writing at Seattle Central College. Starts November 2, 2015. Six Monday nights. Non-credit = all inspiration, no stress!

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

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