therestlessnest

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

This Large Light

Image 1Driving west up Union, we could see taillights stretching ahead in a long, slow column. We crossed 23rd Avenue, turned onto a side street and parked. As we walked uphill towards Seattle’s storied Temple de Hirsch Sinai, my husband and I fell in step with a few others, then a few dozen. And then suddenly we were part of a stream of a few thousand, or more. Volunteers directed us to the ends of the long lines that circled the temple block in every direction.

The quiet was palpable.

The announcement soon went out that the synagogue, which holds 2,000 people, was full. Police blocked off the street in front and encouraged the hundreds of us who couldn’t get in to gather outside. Loudspeakers were set up. Someone began to strum a guitar and lead us in song. I stood behind a tall man in a fedora with a voice like a deep, clear bell and tried to pick up a few of the Hebrew words.

One of the rabbis came out and spoke to us. He told us God’s tears were mixing with ours, as we stood together in remembrance of the eleven people murdered two days ago at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. He talked of planting a new Tree of Life, where love can—no, must, he said—have the last word.

I thought of a film I saw this weekend, at the Friday Harbor Film Festival, that was all about how trees communicate with each other, underground; how the roots of wholly different species nurture each other, helped along by micro-organisms in the neighborhood.

Governor Jay Inslee came out from the service inside to offer a few words. Oh no, I thought. We don’t need a politician right now. But he was not a politician in that moment, he was our governor, grieving with us about a horror that he knew did not seem far away, not in a city and a state that has seen its own share of anti-Semitic violence, including murder.  Inslee spoke of how we must stop fearing and hating people who we perceive as Other. “There is no other,” he said.

Earlier that afternoon, unable to focus on anything resembling work, I had signed up at Vote Forward to send letters to specific people urging them to vote. There was a template, with space to add your own hand-written words about why you vote. “Because I believe in democracy,” I wrote, trying hard to be legible, “and voting is the beating heart of democracy. Without our votes, democracy will die.”

I sent ten letters to voters in the 13th District of North Carolina, which happens to include Greensboro, which happens to be the first place I ever visited in the South. It was 1977. I don’t know what Greensboro is like now, but my memory of seeing it then, at the tender age of 20, is of a city starkly and deliberately divided. Rich/poor; white/black. Split-levels in subdivisions; weatherbeaten cottages on streets without sidewalks. Forty years have passed. But as I addressed my letters, I pictured voters old enough to have grown up in that earlier Greensboro, and how much work they have had to do—unless they were white—simply to vote.

Standing outside the Temple de Hirsch, I thought of those names I wrote out so carefully on each envelope as the guitarist launched us into “This Little Light of Mine.”

Screen Shot 2018-10-30 at 8.26.09 AMAre you remembering summer camp? Maybe squirming a bit at the corniness of that song? Don’t. On an October night, outside a Seattle synagogue, it rang out loud and strong. Everyone knew the words—hooray! And I could feel all our little lights adding up to one large light; coming from similar gatherings in other cities, reaching Greensboro and Pittsburgh and a million other corners of this country we live in; this democracy where we have to keep getting together and shining our lights and reminding ourselves, in dark times, that there is no Other.

 

 

 

 

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Anger Management

1982-calendar

His calendar? Does anyone really think a 17-year-old boy would put a drinking party at the home of a friend whose parents would definitely not be present on his calendar?

            Thanks a lot, New York Times News Alert. Just when I was getting my anger under control, just when I was beginning to believe I might be able to think about something besides the upcoming Brett Kavanaugh hearing in which he will reiterate to us that he categorically denies Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations of sexual assault—now this: Kavanaugh’s 1982 calendar, which features “basketball games, movie outings, football workouts and college interviews. A few parties are mentioned, but include names of friends other than those identified by Dr. Blasey.”

I’m aware that I’ve been on a low simmer for a solid week; that this would not be a good time for me to have my blood pressure checked. But I thought I was managing my anger, until the news alert about the calendar. And that was before the latest news about a second allegation from a college classmate.

One night about 41 years ago, I made a mistake and missed a train. I was in Geneva, and I missed the last train to Paris. I was 19, and traveling on a ridiculous budget. I had no Swiss francs left and no credit card. It was nearly midnight. A 30-something American in an expensive trench coat offered to take me to his parents’ home, where I could sleep in the guest bedroom. I sized him up as best I could and said yes. There was something about the trench coat that seemed so respectable to my young eyes. And he said he was a pilot. And that his parents were diplomats. I can’t remember why, if I ever knew, he was sitting at the train station as the Paris train pulled away.

So surely it was my fault, right? When I woke up in the wee hours of the morning, in the guest room, and he was on top of me?

That’s what I wrote in 2013, which was the last time I wrote about what happened to me in Geneva. My anger got the best of me after watching Chris Cuomo grill Amanda Knox about her sex life as if she was the she-devil incarnate, as opposed to a young American woman who was trying to rebuild her life after being wrongly convicted of murder and imprisoned in Italy for four years. I wonder if Knox would have had an easier time on her book tour for her memoir if she had released the book now, in the #MeToo era?

I doubt it. #MeToo, shmee-too. That’s what we’re seeing this month. If Kavanaugh’s “team,” as the Times calls the people “working for his confirmation,” as if his confirmation is a sporting event—if this team really believes Kavanaugh’s 1982 calendar is a persuasive document, then the #MeToo movement still has a long, long way to go.

I wonder if Mr. Trenchcoat’s calendar from January 1977 included entries like, “11pm Sunday: lurk about train station?”

And I wonder why a 30-something pilot would hang around the train station instead of just going to a bar, which was the customary way to pick up women in those olden days? Was all that flirting and buying of drinks just too much work? Or did he favor young college students who had a look of panic about them?

And I wonder: what would I do if I read in the Times one day that someone was running for office, or was about to be appointed to a high court, who had lived in Geneva in his thirties, had been an airline pilot, and whose parents had been diplomats? Not likely, I know. He’d be in his seventies now. I didn’t even know his name. I might have known it, for a day or two, but I have no record of it in my late-teen journals, which were no doubt much wordier than Kavanaugh’s late-teen calendar, but still lacking in many details.

Dr. Blasey was not so lucky. She remembered Kavanaugh’s name. And because she cares about her country and about our highest court, she felt compelled to say something.

I don’t blame her for trying to remain anonymous. Now that she’s not and never will be again, my hope for her is that at the end of this week, she will feel that speaking out was worth it.

Just thinking about her bravery is helping me manage my anger, and I mean manage: not suppress, not eliminate, but manage it, like a sharp and useful tool.

 

 

 

Seeking Shade

ImageThere is a toxic, orange glare emanating from the White House. We’ve got to seek shade wherever we can.

As I hopscotched from one patch of shade to the next during our most recent heat wave, feeling grateful for Seattle’s generous canopy of trees, I thought: this is what we’re all doing now. Seeking shade from that poisonous glare. It’s a matter of spiritual and psychological survival.

My own shade-seeking, Summer of 2018 mantra is this: “I am NOT going to let Donald Trump prevent me from writing my book.” Easier said than done, in the summer of 2018. But I’m doing it: I’m writing; I’m fitting in an hour or two a day, more when I can, less when work takes precedence or it’s time for a hiking break.

Writers, here’s my advice: close your email and your browser. Silence your phone. Set a timer for an hour. Checking your email, texts and news once an hour is enough.

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My own recent favorite reads

And readers: show yourself some kindness. Tear your bleary eyes away from the news alerts and the OpEds and read a novel or a memoir or a short story or a non-political essay. Feel your breathing change and your shoulders relax as you settle in. Parents and grandparents: read stories to your kids.

The book I am writing is about faith and doubt: the fervent faith of my youth, the twenty-year break I took from religion, the meaning I’ve found in accepting that doubt is where my faith now resides. My working title for this memoir is The Observant Doubter. It’s not an easy subject. The writing is slow going. I think I might be at about the three-quarters-done mark right now, but it’s a messy first draft, so there’s still a lot of work ahead.

And I am not, not, not going to let Trump stop me from finishing.

By which I mean: I won’t keep up with his every antic. I refuse to read every story about every tweet. I can’t listen to NPR right before I sit down to write.

But the energy required to NOT do those things, to stay focused even for an hour, has had consequences. For example: this is the first Restless Nest I’ve posted since May, when I wrote about the latest Royal Wedding, which now seems like it happened in some other century. And I haven’t been very social. And our garden this year is the size of a stamp.

And I can’t just ignore news like children being separated from their parents by agents whose wages we pay. I can’t not react.

Living in the time of Trump is like navigating an endless psychological-warfare obstacle course, isn’t it?

Sometimes, the best guides through the mess of it are the people who are just quietly and daily doing their work. By which I don’t mean writing a memoir, valuable though I believe that work to be. No: I mean people like our White Noise Productions clients. I don’t write nearly often enough about them, even though filming and telling their stories has kept me hopeful and optimistic for twenty years.

They work at non-profits, most of them small and way under the glamour-radar. Atlantic Street Center, for example, known for its thriving Summer Academy, its support groups for grandparents caring for grandkids, and a host of other programs that help families. Or Safe Crossings Foundation, which funds grief support for children and teens. Or Operation Nightwatch, providing meals and finding beds, night after night, for people seeking shelter. Or Full Life Care, helping people with chronic illnesses and disabilities. Or Seattle Arts & Lectures’ wonderful Writers in the Schools program.

Image 1On a hot summer day in 2018, these stories that we’re telling are like shade trees: they shelter us, for an hour or an afternoon, from all the toxic heat surging out of the other Washington. They shelter us by reminding us that compassion can’t actually be stamped out.

And they remind me that storytelling is important, which helps me get back to my writing.

I’ve never loved shade as much as I have this summer: when the glare of distraction has been so relentless.

Registration is open for my Introduction to Memoir Writing class at Seattle Central College. First class is September 25th. 

Stand By Me

_101664541_053e2d0f-a05b-4c6e-bb13-349acf2c705dOn May 19, 2018, I did something I have never done before: I watched an entire royal wedding. Not live: better than live! In an act of pure selfless devotion, my husband remembered that I had said something about “recording the wedding” and actually set the TV to record it before we went to bed. He himself could not be less interested. But he knew I was.

After grieving my way through the morning papers—school shooting in Texas, misery in Gaza and Venezuela, tension brewing again in Korea—I was more than ready for the diversion of a royal pageant. Coffee in one hand and remote in the other, I fast-forwarded through the three hours of buildup and blather until, at last, I got to the main course: Meghan Markle getting out of the Rolls Royce at St. George’s Chapel. Time to get this fancy shindig started.

When Charles and Diana married in 1981, I was at Carolina Beach in my boyfriend’s family’s cabin. His mom and I set our alarms and got up in the wee hours, hoping we might squeeze some reception out of their old black-and-white TV. But no amount of wiggling the rabbit ears would bring in anything more than a squiggly, triple image—a sort of Cubist version of the ceremony—with words deeply buried in fuzzy static.

When William and Kate married in 2011, I was on a plane flying home from Mexico.

This time, I would finally get to indulge.

Most of the Brits I know roll their eyes when you say “royal family.” They mutter about the most expensive public housing in the world and the nuttiness of thinking that inbred aristocrats should for one second be considered superior to the rest of us. I get it. I understand that it’s all a silly fairy tale. But sometimes fairy tales make for bewitching theatre.
_101665452_pa-36630070Especially if there’s a twist: for example, if the fairytale princess is African-American, instead of British-Aristocrat. And so this royal wedding featured two of the best things that have ever happened to old St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle: an African-American-style gospel choir, and an African-American preacher. Karen Gibson and the Kingdom Choir (who are from London) rocked the royal house with an exquisitely harmonized version of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” featuring soloist Paul Lee. Presiding Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry Michael Curry at St George's Windsor for the Royal Weddingmade the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Dean of Windsor Castle seem like a couple of butlers from Downton Abbey, quietly dozing through their tea break while he brought the house down, gliding easily from quiet reflections on the Song of Solomon to thundering invocations of Martin Luther King, but circling back, always, to the power of love to change the world.

IMG_0874 - Version 2The power of love. It has been more than thirty years since that October day in Scotland when Rustin and I spoke our vows. Our own fairy tale, like so many fairy tales do, has taken us through a few dark woods. So it feels dangerously inane to me to say something like, “a lasting marriage is all about the little things; for example, recording the royal wedding for your wife, even though you can’t imagine why she or anyone else would want to watch such an absurd and outdated spectacle.”

But the power of love is about those small acts of love, just as much as it’s about the big dramatic ones.

At our wedding, the young Rev. Jeff McCormick of the Church of Scotland wound up his homily with these words of wisdom: “Never forget the love that brought you here today. Look after it and work with it. And, in a strange way, this will be just the beginning of a romantic story.”

Look after your love. Work with it. What wise advice that was. Because—and you know how it goes–“When the night has come, and the land is dark, and the moon is the only light we’ll see; No I won’t be afraid, no I won’t be afraid. Just as long as you stand, stand by me.”

For more on the wedding: Read this moving essay by Mara Gay in The New York Times. And Anthony Lane’s report in The New Yorker is delectable.  

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Love and Sacrifice

IMG_1151 - Version 2On the day that students and the people who love them marched in cities and towns around the world, my husband and I walked the wide boulevards of Chichén Itzá. If our trip to Mexico had not been planned so far in advance, we too would have been marching in our hometown. Instead, heat-dazed, we gazed at the ruins of the ancient city that has long been known as a site of copious human sacrifice.  Image

The Mayans, and the Toltecs who conquered them, believed that the gods were hungry for blood, in particular the blood of fresh human hearts. When the divine appetite for blood was sated, the sun would rise and the crops would thrive.

Legend has it that the gods preferred the hearts of young warriors. That only the hearts of the strongest, healthiest, most beautiful young people would please the gods’ delicate palates.

Hundreds of years from now, will tourists visit the ruins of American schools and shake their heads in horror? Will they ask why we, a once-advanced civilization, were willing to sacrifice our young because we believed—what, exactly? That it was a sacred right to own the deadliest of weapons?

At least the Mayans and the Toltecs thought they were making the sun rise.

IMG_1161         As I write, Passover has begun and Easter is tomorrow. I’m back in Seattle now, but I started this holy week in Valladolid, Mexico, a quiet, colonial city near Chichén Itzá. On Palm Sunday, I attend 9 o’clock mass at the Templo de San Bernardino, the 460-year-old Catholic church a few yards from our hotel. On my way in, I bought a 5-peso (about 25 cents) palm cross with a postage-stamp-sized picture of Jesus and a tiny blue flower stapled to it.

By 9 o’clock, the church was standing room only, with people spilling out the door. I was lucky: I got a plastic chair in a row set up behind the last pew.

A few minutes past nine, the priest greeted us and invited us to turn and watch as dozens of children, most of them wearing red, processed in, waving palm branches and singing. They all sat up front and took the lead whenever it was time for more music.

My Spanish is not great, but I gamely followed along, waving my palm cross when everyone else did, and returning my neighbors’ hand clasps and wishes for “la paz” when it was time to do that.

I have to be honest and admit that I was far more preoccupied with the beauty of what was right in front of me—people in their Sunday best, waving palms, reciting familiar words, listening to familiar stories, watching out for toddlers underfoot—than I was with the religious meaning of it all. I also felt the weight of what I saw as my essential duty, in that one hour, which was to show respect. To blend in, as best someone who looks like me could under the circumstances. To be observant in close proximity to several hundred people for whom being observant was second nature.

I was grateful for their tolerance.

On Monday night, our last night in Mexico, Rustin and I were walking down our favorite street, the historic route that connects our neighborhood to the central plaza. We were thinking about where the nearest bank machine was, and where we should eat dinner.

We could hear a crowd, with a loudspeaker. They sounded far away. Then suddenly they weren’t. They were coming towards us, right down our street. Procession1Leading the way were several boys in white robes, one of them carrying a cross. Behind him came the priest, in red. Behind the priest was an old car with a loudspeaker on top. Inside was a white-robed nun, singing into a microphone. After the nun’s car came crowds of people, ten abreast, singing with her, call-and-response style. We had to flatten ourselves against the nearest building to get out of their way.

Procession3And they just kept coming. It was as if all of Valladolid, a city of 50,000, was taking part in this Holy Week Monday march, which we now understood had to do with the stations of the cross, which we could see placed at intervals down the length of the street.

The marchers were solemn, but not gloomy. There was a spring in their step, as if to say: This week is so important to us. This week is about sacrifice and it is about new life. It is about the divine in the human and the human in the divine. It is about grief and love and how they are forever intertwined. Some of us are devout, some of us are not, but on this night we come together. On this night we celebrate the triumph of love over violence.

Another year, I might tell this story differently. But this year, after seeing all the photos and video clips of the March for Our Lives; after being moved, again and again, by the power of the speeches and the silences; after visiting Chichén Itzá, with its bloodthirsty history—this year, this is what it felt like to witness Valladolid’s Holy Monday march.

Seattle readers: There are still a few spaces left in my upcoming Introduction to Memoir Writing class at Seattle Central. More information here.

Reinvention II

IMG_1047It’s only been two weeks.

And as I write, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida have finished their first full day of classes since February 14, 2018: a Valentine’s Day that may have started sweetly, for some, but ended, for all, in horror.

And now, like it or not, they are engaging in that classic American project: reinvention.

Two years ago, I wrote a Restless Nest post about reinvention that now reads like a runic record of ancient times. It’s about reinvention as practiced by people my age; the kind that is motivated by benign milestones like career changes, downsizing, upsizing, retirement. It was written in that naïve era when we all assumed Hillary Clinton would be our next president; when we never would have dreamed that political vigilance would soon require an unprecedented amount of our time and attention.

Fourteen students and three adults from Marjory Stoneman Douglas will never have those kinds of opportunities for reinvention. Or political vigilance.

But their surviving classmates are wasting no time.

Two weeks ago, they were kids. Now, they are mourners and activists. And they are unafraid to say what needs to be said about gun violence and the complicity of the National Rifle Association and all the politicians the NRA grooms as its well-paid pawns. They are unafraid to reinvent themselves and their lives in honor of the friends they lost.

And look at the effect they’re having: in statehouses, in Washington, D.C., in the offices of corporate CEOs, including, as of this morning, Edward Stack, the chief executive of Dick’s Sporting Goods. Do not underestimate the power of a group of young people united by grief and anger and ready for reinvention.

Their school’s namesake would have approved. By the time Marjory Stoneman Douglas was a teen, her parents were divorced and her mother was in a mental institution. At Wellesley College, she excelled in elocution and joined the Suffrage Club. Months after she graduated in 1912, her mother died of breast cancer. By the time she was 25, Douglas had survived a disastrous first marriage and started her career in journalism at the Miami Herald. Later in her life, she championed the cause of saving the Florida Everglades. Douglas modeled creative reinvention through every decade of her life. She lived to be 108.

I have no doubt that many of the young Parkland activists will live lives as equally fruitful, long and full of reinvention as the life of Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

In the immediate future, may their reinvention ripple effect just keep flowing: beyond Ed Stack to other CEOs; beyond Tallahassee to every statehouse; beyond their showdown with Senator Marco Rubio to a world where lawmakers of both parties can and will say “No, thanks,” to the NRA and its money.

Reinvention can be beautiful to behold.

Seattle readers: I’ll be teaching Intro to Memoir Writing at Seattle Central College beginning April 9. Six Monday evenings. Registration is open now. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

State of the Union: Flashback

NIXON RESIGNATIONI had a flashback during the approximately 30 minutes I could bear to watch of the State of the Union address.

In the summer of 1974, which for me was the summer between high school and college, I was working the front counter at Kazdal’s Deli on University Way in Seattle. Kazdal’s (which later became the Lock, Stock and Bagel) was more of a lunch spot than a dinner restaurant. So just before 6 p.m. on August 9, the place was pretty quiet.

Suddenly, someone burst in our door and asked if we had a TV. “Nixon’s about to resign!” he said.

No, we didn’t have a TV. “But the Continental does,” said the cook, who had come running in from the kitchen. “Let’s get over there.”

The Continental was the Greek restaurant across the street. The cook dashed on over. I looked around—not a customer in the place—grabbed the keys, locked the front door and followed him.

I was about halfway across when a cop on a motorcycle roared up to me.

“Get back on the sidewalk, Miss. I’m writing you a ticket for jaywalking.”

“But Officer, don’t you know? Nixon’s resigning right now and I have to get to the Continental to see it on TV!”

The policeman was unmoved. He took down my name and address and gave me my ticket, watching me as I ran up to the crosswalk, waited for the light to change, and ran into the Continental, just in time to catch Nixon weirdly yammering on to the American public. He was actually trying to talk about his accomplishments. It seemed, to my 17-year-old ears and eyes, like a badly acted play about a sad, half-crazy man who thought he was the president, which is of course why it came to mind during Trump’s State of the Union speech.

But Nixon’s tone-deaf farewell also felt like the beginning of the end of a bitter, cynical, cacophonous era. And that’s why everyone at the Continental clapped and cheered.

imgresAnd then, just like that, Gerald Ford was our president, for two and a half years, which meant that those of us who entered college at that exact moment in history got a pass from the daily outrage that had been the lot of our older brothers and sisters. I am not proud of our mid-70s apathy, but I do get it. We were politically worn out by the time we could drive.

In a way, I’m thankful for Gerald Ford. I can see how he played a part in the emotional repair of our exhausted country. Yes, we were appalled when he pardoned Nixon. Later, it became easier to understand why he did it. In 2001, the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation even gave him a Profile in Courage award for doing it.

imgres-1And there were those priceless Chevy Chase impressions on Saturday Night Live: also part of our national healing process.

If Trump ever resigns or is impeached, it is hard to imagine Vice President Pence rising to the role of Calming Presence in Chief the way Ford did. I prefer to imagine a dreamworld scenario in which Pence is also ousted, and the post-midterm-elections, future democratic Speaker of the House becomes president.

But on January 30, 2018, it was that lack of connection to the real United States of America in which we all live—as opposed to Trump’s fantasy United States of MAGA—that reminded me, along with Trump’s faux-patriotic delivery and love of stagecraft, of Nixon, nearly 44 years ago, in his final hours as president.

There was certainly stagecraft aplenty in Congressman Joe Kennedy III’s response, filmed in front of a car with its hood up at a technical school in Fall River, Massachusetts. But after Trump, I was more than ready for Kennedy’s honest anger and rousing shout-out to what really makes America great: as he put it, “our highest American ideal: the belief that we are all worthy, we are all equal and we all count. In the eyes of our law and our leaders, our God and our government. That is the American promise.”

If you didn’t watch the State of the Union, don’t bother. Check out Joe Kennedy’s speech. Cheer yourself up with an old Chevy Chase skit. Or, if you’re feeling brave, dial on back to August 9, 1974, and see what Nixon had to say.

Seattle readers: I’ll be teaching Intro to Memoir Writing at Seattle Central College beginning April 9. SCC Registration opens February 12 for returning students and February 20 for new students. 

 

 

 

 

 

After 2017: Wound Care

IMG_0918One year ago—before the Inauguration, before the women’s marches, before everything else that has happened since—I attended a New Year’s Eve get-together at which everyone made a prediction for 2017.
Mine was that the next (“hopefully great”) Democratic presidential candidate, “someone we haven’t even thought of yet,” would emerge by the end of this year. Others predicted that Trump would be impeached. Or that his first Supreme Court nominee would somehow be blocked. Some guests offered more general forecasts: “the pendulum will swing;” “people will come to their senses.” My husband vowed that we would see the “total cratering” of the Republican Party. His prediction may have come closest to the mark.

And though my own hope was misplaced—I think we’re still not even close to identifying the next Democratic candidate for president—I do believe the pendulum is swinging, and many people are coming to their senses. They just may not be the same people we had hoped would come to their senses.

The people who are coming to their senses are not the people who voted for Trump. We now understand that most of them (a minority of Americans, let’s not forget) are very unlikely to change their minds. The people who are coming to their senses are us. By which I mean the whole big crazy quilt of the Left. Or “The Resistance,” as Trump now likes to call us, in air quotes, thinking that it’s a scathing put-down. To which I say: Congratulations, Everyone! We’ve made enough noise this year to get our own group nickname. Long live the Resistance!

doug-jones-alabama-victory-1513196170-article-headerWe now understand that that we will win elections by getting our own selves to the polls, including our oldsters who may need rides and our youngsters who may need to feel more firmly respected for their views. After Alabama, we now understand that we will win elections when all Democrats feel that their vote is urgently needed.

2017 has been, if anything, more dismaying than I had ever believed it would be. I’m an optimist at heart, and this has not been a great year for optimism. But now, at the end of the year, I see so many reasons to hope.

In my last post, I called Trump an infection that has put our democracy’s health at risk. I declared that we, individual citizens, are the hard-working antibiotics who will ultimately prevail. And I do believe we will. In fact I think we could see a dramatic return to health right around mid-term election time, which is not much more than ten months from now.

But, just as I learned a few things about infections this year following foot surgery, I am now learning about the next phase: wound care.

I now know that wound care is a specialty that requires unflinching precision, compassion and the ability to inspire optimism—there it is again, my favorite word!—all while gently but firmly instilling in the patient—in this case, me—the understanding that optimism must be earned, through compliance. Attention to detail.

Wounds heal. But they heal better with the right care. And so it will be for our democracy, and for us.

I would venture that even as we fight off the infection, IMG_2864we’re already starting to heal. Wanting to get better is an essential first step, and we can check that one off. The women’s marches, last January 20th? That was all of us saying: “We want to get better. We will not give in.” The fights in the courts over immigration, the push-back on the proposed repeal of Obamacare, the victories in this fall’s special elections? All are signs that we are determined to be well again, and to come back stronger than ever.  

mr-potterThis Christmas, we watched It’s a Wonderful Life for the first time in at least a few years. Wow, does it resonate in 2017. You have to wonder if Trump watches it for inspiration, trying to be more like greedy, rich Mr. Potter every day; learning to perfectly imitate Lionel Barrymore’s signature lip curl as Jimmy Stewart makes his passionate plea for the rights of working people to live in homes that they own, rather than rent hovels from a slumlord. It’s an optimist’s dream story its-a-wonderful-life-bailey-family-05line: people working together to help each other can make the world a better place. People working together can heal the wounds of depressions and wars and personal tragedies: anathema to Trump and his rogues’ gallery of hangers-on, which currently include nearly every member of the forever-tarnished Republican Party.

Infections can be swift and merciless. Wound care is nearly always painstakingly slow. And there will be scars.

On the morning of the shortest, darkest day of the year, I watched as the sun, low and crisp, lit up a long, taut length of spiderweb in the corner of our bedroom. The thread stretched all the way from the ceiling, down six feet or more, to the branch of a palm in a clay pot. I wondered why the spider had hurled out that line. I marveled that spiders can do such a thing: that they can create a new something, in an instant, where there had previously been nothing. But we do that too, when we heal; we manufacture brand-new tissue and bone and skin to fill gaps and fuse breaks and stitch cuts. We keep at it until the scars fade to pencil marks.imgres

And that is my hope for 2018. That we’ll work together. we’ll spin out lifelines; we’ll do whatever it takes to heal this democracy’s wounds.

Find your January 20th, 2018 march here.

American Infection

imgresSometimes we writers search too hard for the perfect metaphor. Sometimes, it’s right under our nose—or, in my case, right under my blue, Velcro-strapped boot.

Infection: that’s what Trump is, I thought this morning, as I took my nineteenth of the twenty Amoxicillin tablets we brought home from the pharmacy ten days ago. Trump has infected our vigorous, 241-year-old democracy. And like so many infections, this one is fire-engine red and spreading, unchecked and unmedicated. Meanwhile, the patient is hot with fever one day and shaking with chills the next. Nothing tastes right. Muscles ache. Vaguely flu-like feelings abound. Waves of determination to soldier through—we’ll get over this!—are followed by languorous apathy: let’s just give up.

Speaking as one who tried to ignore an infection for several days, I can tell you it is not a strategy that works. After foot surgery on November 6, I assumed the three incisions on my right foot were healing up nicely under all those bandages, just the way they had on my left foot, last May. And they probably were, for the first several days. But then something somehow went wrong along one of those neat lines of stitches. At that point my foot was in a plastic cast, so I couldn’t see it. And for reasons I cannot explain, I chose to believe that feeling like my foot was on fire was probably “normal,” that fever and chills were a “part” of healing, and that I would magically “get over it.” Wrong, wrong, wrong. Thank God for antibiotics.

And so: if Trump is the infection, what is the cure?

The first and worst news, of course: it’s going to take a lot longer than ten days.

But we have to get the treatment started. And—despite the screaming-red, oozing tax bill that, at this writing, is poised to pass—I would argue that we have started.

WE are the antibiotics. Every time we make a phone call to Capitol Hill, every time we contribute to the ACLU, Emily’s List, Planned Parenthood or the Sierra Club (my own favorites), we are giving our ailing patient, our democracy, another life-saving dose. And every time a new, energetic progressive candidate is elected to a local or state office, that’s a mega-dose. Tukwila, a Seattle suburb, just elected Somali-American Zak Idan, 29, to its City Council. Seattle’s east-side suburbs just tipped our statehouse fully blue by electing Indian-American lawyer Manka Dhingra to the state senate. There have been similar victories in other states this fall, notably in Virginia and New Jersey. All of this bodes well for elections in 2018.

But this infection is ugly. As Charles Blow writes this week, it stinks of sanctioned racism and that smell just keeps getting stronger. In just the past few days alone, Trump has tweeted anti-Muslim hate videos, insulted Native Americans, and tried to revive his Obama-smearing Birther campaign. And as Thomas Edsall writes, the infection has spread its noxious tentacles deep and wide. But we, the antibiotics, must keep on until we turn the tide. Make those calls, write those emails, support progressive candidates at every level. Or be like Idan and Dhingra and run for office yourself.

And know that while we’re working to turn the infectious tide in 2018, there are specialists who are deploying other life-saving measures. Robert Mueller and his staff. Several state attorneys general. Senators like our own Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both of whom are very busy right now identifying all the nasty bacteria that has been stuffed into the tax bill, like Arctic drilling and repeal of the health care mandate.

unnamedThis won’t be easy. The antibiotics will take time. There will be a lot of wound care, too. Scar tissue. Rehab. But we’ve got to save our patient. How will we answer to our children if we let democracy die?

 

 

 

Heart + Vitality = Courage

IMG_0911 “Roger-dodger on flight #97 SFO 12:25 PM May 20,” my brother John wrote to me, 43 years ago. “No sweat picking you up out of the horrors of the SF airport.” There’s more, in his rapid-scrawl handwriting on a sheet of notebook paper, and I love every word of it, even though it’s not the exact letter I’d hoped to find last night, as I lifted one envelope after another out of the plastic bin in which my letters have rested, ignored, for four decades.

I pulled out every piece of mail that was addressed to me at Bates Hall, where I lived during my homesick first two years at Wellesley College. I wanted so badly to find one specific note that I knew John had written me in the spring of freshman year, when I wrote him for advice about whether I should transfer. The long New England winter was killing me. Why on earth had I even applied to a women’s college? Etcetera.

What I found instead were exactly two other letters from John: one I’d long forgotten, which he was thoughtful enough to send in September (“Have you thrown yourself to the wolves at any of the cattle shows/mixers yet?”) and then the one he sent in May, after I had written to ask if I could visit him in Berkeley on my way home to Seattle.

“Roger-dodger,” he replied. Which cracked me up, and then made me cry. Twice: when I opened it 43 years ago, and when I read it again last night.

John and I had a tough time getting along when we were kids. He was five years older, and he had a lot of perfectly sensible reasons to resent the hell out of me, the doted-upon firstborn of our mother’s second marriage. He began to lighten up when he went off to M.I.T. By the time I left for college five years later, we were tentative friends.

But what made me think of him, now, were a few things I heard at the Frye Art Museum’s recent Creative Aging Conference. Before I even got there, the very name of the event felt like a taunt. Sciatic nerve pain shooting up your leg this morning, making it hard to walk for more than five minutes? C’mon, Ann, get creative! You’re sixty, dammit!

“The pure bitch that is mortality,” began keynote speaker Wes Cecil, as I dropped with relief into my seat, is our one major “design flaw.” And yet it defines our lives. From the moment we’re born, we’re aging; at its most basic, “aging” simply means “not dead yet.”

I’m sixty, dammit. I’m having a year of physical challenges the likes of which I’ve never experienced: two foot surgeries, with this sciatic setback in between. Poor, old, aging me.

But John? His aging was stopped cold by a brain tumor at 52.

Mortality is a pure bitch. Aging is a privilege.

Cecil, an independent scholar and lecturer on philosophy and literature, went on to riff on the etymology of the word, which he said comes from an Indo-European, Sanskrit root that translates as “vitality.” Courage, for example, comes from the roots for “heart” (coeur) and “vitality” (age).

The vitality in those long-ago letters from John jumped from the page.

“The great sin” of humankind is “not loving our lives enough,” said Cecil, paraphrasing Friedrich Nietzsche. But that doesn’t mean we love our lives because they’re somehow perfect, because of course they never are. We never are. But we can love the great gift of being alive. Throughout our lives. Through all the changes and challenges and decades that we are lucky enough to get.

I heard many more good speakers at the Frye: healthy aging expert Eric Larson on resilience; 91-year-old documentary filmmaker Jean Walkinshaw, who embodies resilience; Frye curator Rebecca Albiani on artists who lived long lives and found ways to turn challenges like blindness or arthritis into new ways of creating.

But it was that notion of loving our lives—no matter how messy or exasperating or imperfect—that stayed with me. And which I will hold close on this Day of the Dead, as I remember my brother, in all his complicated, thrumming heart vitality.

 

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