therestlessnest

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

Vietnam

IMG-2575The day I left Vietnam, I laughed and laughed.

I had not expected to. I woke up feeling sad about having to leave after only two weeks: far too short a time for my first visit to this captivating country. But my travel-mates—Anne and Lindsay, close friends I have known since freshman year of college—and I had hatched a plan for our final morning: we would get up at 5:30, throw on clothes, and walk over to Hoan Kiem Lake, a short stroll from our hotel in Hanoi. Anne had done this the day before.

“Trust me,” she said. “You won’t believe it.”

As we neared the lakeshore, the streets filled with people, many in athletic outfits, walking, jogging, bicycling. They, and we, were reveling in the relative cool of the dawn  air: by 9 am, we all knew the temperature would be in the 90s and indescribably humid.

When we got to the lake, we saw exercise groups of every possible type, all of them already in full swing: Tai Chi, yoga, Zumba, old-school aerobics, hip-hop dancing, ballroom dancing.

IMG-2668Across the street, a few dozen people had gathered with the apparent purpose of laughing their heads off.

The laughing people motioned to us to join them. Why not?

“Ha, ha, HEE,” we all shouted in unison, as we stretched and moved in gentle yoga-like ways, following the leader as best we could; breaking into more free-form laughter as we formed into a shoulder-massaging congo line; and then making different laughing noises as we clustered in circles, crossing hands, vine-stepping our feet, and just generally trying to keep up. Which we did, for about forty minutes.  IMG-1651

I can’t think of a better way to prepare for a long day of air travel.

I can’t think of a better sendoff from this small country that we had so quickly grown to love.

I’m surprised I waited a whole month to write this post. I’ve been thinking about Vietnam every single day since I got home. Maybe I just needed time to ponder the emotions Vietnam stirred in me.

IMG-2663It’s easy to talk about Vietnam’s natural beauty and friendly people. It’s easy to talk about its renowned food.

Or even about the many museums and memorials commemorating the American War.

But the experience of visiting Vietnam is much more than that. The Portuguese concept of saudade comes to mind: that mixed-up feeling of longing, love and melancholy.

When you land in Vietnam, you are IMG-2605

suddenly in a place that you’ve heard about all your life. And what you heard, and when you heard it, and how old you were when you heard it, shaped your young view of the world in ways that do not at all match what you are now, in 2019, seeing and experiencing. And that paradox stays with you, every step of your trip.

For a contrasting example, take Paris. When I was a child, Paris was where Madeline lived, one of twelve little girls in two straight lines, in that old house covered with vines. When I went to Paris for the first time, it looked and felt something like I had always imagined it would.

IMG-2581But Vietnam is different.

When I was a child, Vietnam was the place where the worst photos I’d ever seen came from, the ones in my parents’ and grandparents’ TIME and LIFE magazines. Vietnam was a word that meant moral confusion and horror and sorrow.

But then, as I grew into adulthood, we all began to hear of a different Vietnam. Beginning in the 1980s and picking up steam in the 1990s and the 2000s, we began to hear phrases like, “It’s such a beautiful country,” and “The people are so friendly.” And so my thinking about Vietnam began to shift, and though that left me even more perplexed and saddened by the legacy of the war, it also made me feel like maybe I was old enough, finally, to withstand the emotional currents inherent in visiting a place that is both forever symbolic of American hubris at its worst and vibrantly alive with the astounding ability of human beings to forgive, to repair, to choose love over vengeance.

That’s what Vietnam was about on this first visit. It was about feeling this saudade, this sense of love and tragedy and beauty all wrapped up together and ever present while we were enjoying all the above-mentioned joys: the beauty, the food, and the exuberant hospitality, on our final morning, of the laughing yoga people.

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Where we went: Ho Chi Min City, Whale Island, Quy Nhon, Hoi An, Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, and Hanoi. We stopped briefly in Hue, Marble Mountain and Son My (My Lai). There are many more places I look forward to visiting on my next trip.

Recommended reading: When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, by Le Ly Haislip, The Sorrow of War, by Bao Ninh, and The Sympathizer, by Viet Than Nguyen. I also recommend watching Ken Burns’ PBS series on the Vietnam War.

            For those of you who read my last post: I hit send on my first book pitch last week! I’ll be sending several more, soon. I’ll keep you posted. It could be a long haul.

 

 

 

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Fear of Not Flying

IMG_0694 One week out from a big trip, I usually start feeling what I can only call an irrational, nagging dread. I can feel it right now: pulsing away, right alongside its sprightly, opposite twin: happy anticipation.

Why does the anticipation never quite drown out the dread?

Next week, I am going to Vietnam with two friends. 51UztAlIAnLI’ve never been there. But I have a long history of loving the experience of being somewhere I have never been. I like to think of myself as someone who does not fear the unknown.

And yet of course I do. Hence the dread.

It’s not the unknown of Vietnam, or of any other place that is new to me, which I fear. And it is not a textbook fear of flying. It’s more like a fear of not flying: a fear that one day, I will become that person who can’t or won’t, because I’ve just gotten too damn good at imagining every single worst-case scenario. Is that it?

Not quite. No, that more accurately describes another fear I’m currently trying to throttle, which is the fear of sending my almost-ready second memoir, The Observant Doubter, off to agents and editors, with the full knowledge that there will likely be many, many rejections to weather before my manuscript lands in its publishing home. There will be turbulence. I may be deploying that little white paper bag.

2n7jkhzI picture my manuscript as a tiny prop plane, no bigger than an old-school cropduster, buffeted by currents and squalls far beyond my control: We published something similar last year; Your subject makes me uncomfortable; You are not young/hip/the next big thing. I know, from past experience, that this will be a painful process, and I dread that pain. But I also know that my fear of not sending my manuscript out—of saying I can’t, I won’t, I’m grounding this plane—is far greater than my fear of sending it.

And so, thank God for the Vietnam trip: I can put the whole manuscript-sending process off for at least another month!

The question is whether, come summer, I can get myself to think about sending those query letters with the same happy anticipation I know I’ll feel once I finally get on that flight to Vietnam: that this will be an adventure. That there will be hard parts, but the solution is never to stay home. That what I fear most is not flying.

In this Sunday’s New York Times story about writer Anne Lamott’s joyful wedding—her first wedding, at age 65—this line surprised me: “She is afraid of almost everything, whereas he’s afraid of almost nothing.”

71K-cQF014L._AC_UL436_        But she’s written eighteen books, I thought. Books full of personal details and agony and reflection. Surely there is nothing scarier than sending her work out into the universe. And yet we, her loyal readers, know from reading her books that indeed, she is a chronic worrier. And that is part of her appeal: she is not a superhero, she’s as human and afraid as we are.

“You can’t fall out of love with something,” wrote Francis Sanzaro, the editor of Rock and Ice and Ascent magazines, in a recent essay in which he reflects on why mountain climbers keep climbing, despite the high risk of death and the sorrow that climbers’ deaths bring to all who love them. I squirmed as I read this: self-righteously, on behalf of the bereaved. But we all set our own fear versus joy bars. It’s such a personal equation. Anne Lamott has the courage to write and publish on subjects that terrify most of us—sickness, death, God, love, the small and large indignities of life—and yet she describes herself as a shy and introverted person who hates leaving the house. I love to travel, and yet I cannot swat away the pre-trip, irrational dread. I love to write, and I want to publish what I write, and yet I mewl and cower at the thought of rejection.

71TPx58TbdL._AC_UL436_          But this I know: a week from today, I am going to Vietnam. And I’m grateful to a number of writers who have had the courage to seek and find publication, including Viet Thanh Nguyen and Le Ly Hayslip, whose books have made me even more convinced that this will be a meaningful and unforgettable trip. 51fb2s8K9lL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_

And some time after I return, I will send my manuscript out into the world. I will.

 

 

 

 

 

Writing Home

    Image 2In the West, flying home means flying into the sunset. Even if you’re on a plane from Phoenix to Seattle, the sunset is there, flying with you, coaxing you, luring you home. Even if you’re on the wrong side of the plane, the clouds over the wing are splashed with peach and pink; the occasional mountain peak popping up below, bright in the reflected magic-hour light: that glowing hour when lamps are lit, when porch lights blink on, when home beckons.

As I flew home recently from Arizona, I thought about the power of home and how specific it is. Or isn’t. Say the word “home” and watch where your mind and memory go. Is home the house you grew up in? The house you live in now? Or is it not a house at all, but the place where you feel most yourself?

Image 3        And why would I—born and raised in Seattle, flying back on a March evening to the family and neighborhood and city that I love—why would I also have felt so strongly at home in Sedona, Arizona?

Because it’s the West, I thought. Give me red rocks and prickly pear; give me old-growth forests and fiddlehead ferns: I always feel a sense of home in the West. Much as I still love to visit the cities that shaped me in my youth—Boston, New York, London, Chicago—flying into the sunset, I savor the exhale of knowing I’m home.

9780307592736I am a memoir writer and teacher, so I read a lot of memoirs. So often, they are about that yearning for home: not necessarily the fondly remembered home of the writer’s childhood, but the sense of home the writer longs to feel now. So often, grief and loss have blocked the way, and the writer needs to write her way through, as Cheryl Strayed did in Wild. Her path to a newfound home was the Pacific Crest Trail. 9780156010863 In The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton traveled far and wide before he finally found his true home in a Trappist monastery in Kentucky.

9780199927814In Belden Lane’s Backpacking with the Saints, home is a mountain trail, most often in the Ozarks, with the books of his beloved “saints”—from Columba of Iona to Dag Hammarskjöld to Thich Nhat Hanh—for company.

In Sigrid Rausing’s Mayhem, home is where her family is, 41T+gg9Hu+L._SX335_BO1,204,203,200_precious and fragile after a dozen turbulent years in the maelstrom of her brother and sister-in-law’s addiction.

31MTlBzMT4L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_In Dani Shapiro’s stunning, elegiac  Inheritance, home is where love is—her husband, her son—and where it was: the father she knew and the father she didn’t.

How do we take a memory—whether it’s as snapshot-sharp as the buttes and mesas of Sedona, or as elusive as clouds billowing around a plane—and ask it to lead us home?

“When Memory Becomes Memoir” is the name of a talk I gave at the Frye Art Museum’s recent conference on creative aging. Use your five senses, I urged. Help your readers not only see and hear but taste, smell and touch this memory you want so badly to share. And then see where those senses lead you. A new insight about your past, a moment of reflection, may catch you by surprise.

9781439182710         One of my own favorite examples is Ernest Hemingway’s opening essay in A Moveable Feast called “A Good Café on the Place St. Michel.” Writing more than thirty years later, Hemingway took such sensory pleasure in describing the café where he wrote in his twenties: the pencil shavings curling into his saucer, the Martinique rum, the girl who walked in, with “hair black as a crow’s wing and cut sharply and diagonally across her cheek;” all culminating in an uncharacteristic burst of emotion: “I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.”

For the rest of his life, all Paris belonged to Hemingway, even though he no longer lived there. Just as Michigan belonged to him, because he did so much of his growing up there. Just as Seattle and the West belong to me, and your beloved homes, whether by birth or adoption, belong to you.

And the great gift of memory is that you can engage the imaginative twins of the physical tools you deploy every day to observe the world around you—sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell—and use them to take yourself home. Whether you’re flying into the sunset, or somewhere else that is all yours. Image

Seattle-area readers: There’s still time to sign up for my Introduction to Memoir Writing Class, beginning April 1 at Seattle Central College. Six Monday nights. Non-credit = no stress! 

Get Close

get_close_cover_hrver2I love that my husband’s first book is called Get Close. In two words, it sums up his best filmmaking advice. And captures his own striking style. And reminds me of what I have learned from working with him, lo these many years.

I am thrilled to report that Get Close: Lean Team Documentary Filmmaking will be published by Oxford University Press on February 1, 2019. It’s available for pre-order now. If you know an aspiring documentary filmmaker, or you are one, or maybe you think you might be one because you have a film in mind that you’ve always wanted to make but you’re not sure where to start, then buy this book. Rustin Thompson will tell you everything you need to know, starting with those two words.

As Rus is quick to explain, he did not invent the idea of “getting close.” It was World War II photographer Robert Capa who famously said, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Rus also quotes former UN Ambassador Samantha Power, who—inspired by Capa—advised Yale students in a commencement address that “if you truly want to live fully and leave the world a little better than you found it, you have to get close…  Get close. Go all in. Get close to the people affected by your work. Seek out perspectives different from your own. And work to bring others close with you.”

For a filmmaker, this means shooting close to your subjects, so physically close that you and your camera will connect them to viewers in a way that will bring their story, their humanity, fully to life. “You probably won’t become longtime friends with your subjects,” Rus writes, “nor will the divides of class and race magically melt away forever, but for the brief time of your shoot you will be communicating almost non-verbally. The experience can be profound. Getting close has become my way of looking at the world, my philosophy of visual thinking.”

What is always fascinating to me, when I watch Rus shoot this way, is how quickly the people he is filming get used to it. People want to be seen.

And they want to be heard, which is where I come in. Sometimes—especially if Rus has already been filming for a while—the only question I have to ask is, “Tell me your story.” And then my job is simply to listen. Not to tell them what I think of it all; just to listen. That’s how I get close, when we do the work of documentary filmmaking.

But Rus makes it possible, and in Get Close he tells you how, covering everything from planning your project, to essential gear, to shooting, editing and, ultimately, how to get over your self-doubt and get past the gatekeepers and find your audience.

Getting close: it’s like the difference between sitting down in the sand and digging and pouring and laughing out loud with your one-year-old, or standing 20 feet away and watching her play.

It’s like the difference between making a film, or thinking about making a film. Writing a book, painting a painting, composing a song—or not. Trying to solve problems, to tackle tough issues, or trying to tune them out.

Getting close: as Samantha Power can attest, it makes for a rich life.

Seattle-area readers: I will be teaching Introduction to Memoir Writing again at Seattle Central College beginning April 1st. Six Monday nights. Registration opens February 14. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quote from Get Close about getting close.

What that means in life as well as filmmaking. Writing. Volunteering etc.

Parents at the beach who put down their phones and play with their kids.

Surfers? Going inside the wave? Hmmm maybe not.

“Don’t be shy, meet a guy, pull up a chair…”

 

And All Will Be Well

IMG_0395Happy Holidays, Restless Nest readers! For the past several weeks, I’ve been devoting my writing energy to finishing the first draft of The Observant Doubter, my memoir about faith and doubt. I’m happy to say I now HAVE a first draft, which I’m about to (nervously) share with my first circle of critical readers.

Meanwhile, here is a little seasonal morsel from my manuscript. It’s a story from my junior year in college, when I was an exchange student at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, which some of you may know as the city where the medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich, cloistered herself in a barnacle-like cell attached to a parish church and wrote of her encounters with God. IMG_0644
When I was there four decades ago, I knew little of Julian: I had made a firm turn away from the religious fervor of my teens and was now embarking on the decidedly all-doubt, no-observance phase of my life.

However: there was one frigid December evening in London.

My new boyfriend and I had been walking all over the city, both of us infatuated with its grit and beauty and history. Unlike me, he had done some advance planning for his year in the U.K., and had brought with him not only a copy of Let’s Go Europe, but one of the wonderful, fusty old Blue Guides, which helped us find the homes of famous writers and the Punch Tavern and the dozens of churches designed by Christopher Wren, their spires popping up suddenly between sooty Victorian office blocks like little havens of wholesome village life in the midst of the hectic capitol.

St+James'sWe happened across a Wren church called St. James Piccadilly. Usually, we just admired churches from the outside. But we heard a choir singing a Christmas carol, one of the English ones we Americans sing less often—was it “Lo, how a rose ere blooming?” Or “I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In?” Or “The Holly and the Ivy?”—I can’t now recall. What I do remember is feeling that I must go inside.

“It’s alright,” I said. “We’ll be very quiet. No one will notice us.”

We opened the door and saw that there were stairs to an upper gallery. We tiptoed up and slipped into the front row.

No one was in the church but the choir. It must have been a rehearsal. I remember whitewashed walls, dark pews, red drapes, stained-glass windows. I remember white choir robes. I remember that the choir was young: children and teenagers. I remember music filling the church, filling me.

Oh, the rising of the sun, and the running of the deer; 

The playing of the merry organ; sweet singing in the choir.

I remember feeling not just filled but held. The way a mother holds a baby, bathing her child in warmth and light. I remember crying.

Later, I called it a blast of intense, Christmastime nostalgia. But I knew, though I did not want to try, then, to describe it to anyone, including myself—I knew that it was more than that.

It felt like the reassurance of which Julian wrote: All will be well. I, God, am still here. And all will be well. I’ll always be here. And every kind of thing shall be well. Come back when you’re ready.

In the years ahead, that hour in St. James Piccadilly became a place I could go to for an instant. A match I could light, quickly, and blow out before anyone saw it.

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Merry Christmas.

Here are a few more seasonal stories: a guest post I wrote for the Patheos/Good Letters site called Going to the Manger as She Is, and this favorite from the Restless Nest archives: Sausage Rolls.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

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