therestlessnest

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

Imperfectionism: a manifesto

images-3Here’s what gave me joy during the first presidential debate: Hillary Clinton’s smile. Sure, she might’ve practiced in front of the mirror, and I don’t fault her for that. As she told Donald Trump, she believes in preparing, both for the debates and for being president. But what her smile signaled so effectively was something else, something I would call her new imperfectionism. It’s no wonder she looked so joyful: if you’re Hillary Clinton, it must be a great relief to have moved beyond the futile grind of flat-out perfectionism. And I think we women can all learn from her.

I’m not arguing that she was not brilliant that night. She was. But her tone, her ease, and best of all that bemused, transcendent smile told me that not only is she confident and ready to govern, she is now beyond inured to the type of male posturing in which Donald Trump invests all of his strategic energy. This is an important trait in a first female president. It is one she has honed over the decades, especially as Secretary of State. While Trump has been sharpening his negotiating skills by belittling tenants, employees, contractors, and beauty pageant winners, Clinton has been steadily building her ability to hold her own with hard-to-handle men, from her husband to five-star generals to heads of state.

hillary-clinton-chocolate-chip-cookies-recipe-wewanthillary-the-world-of-hillary-clinton-2016Remember when she was first lady, and she baked those cookies just to show she could? That was perfectionist Hillary, responding to a media pile-on that was all about how uncomfortable the country was to find out that the new first lady intended to use her brain while residing in the White House. How great it must feel to not have to pull that kind of stunt anymore.

images-4I’m sure debating Donald Trump is not her idea of a fun gig. But what we saw Monday night is that Trump’s behavior is not so shocking to most women, including Hillary Clinton.

During the debate, my daughter texted from a bar in a mountain town that Trump was “giving her PTSD for every time she’d had a horrible demeaning argument with a man.” As her mother, it makes me sad to know that at 27, she’s already had that experience plenty of times. As a fellow female human being, my reaction is: of course she has, because she likes to talk about issues that matter, which means she is invariably going to feel that familiar frustration: the kind that simmers and bubbles as you get interrupted, talked over, put down, dismissed, patronized, ignored.

Men are allowed to be imperfect—temperamentally, intellectually, physically, behaviorally—by both their fellow men and by women. Women are not. It starts early, and it never ends. And one good thing that just might come out of the frenzied conversations of this election season is this: maybe we will finally embrace the beautiful reality of the imperfect female role model. The woman who is not both brilliant and a cookie-baker.

Men are also allowed to put on weight, wear strange orange comb-over hairdos, scowl, roll their eyes and mug for the camera, even as they criticize the appearance of a beauty pageant winner or the stamina of a former Secretary of State.

My own father thinks it’s OK to ask me questions like this one, over lunch a few weeks ago: “Do you think Hillary has put on weight?”

“Dad. I cannot believe you just said that,” I replied, or at least I think I did. How can I remember, when all my hot buttons were instantly on blood-red alert?

But Hillary’s debate smile is giving me a courageous new model. Hey, grown-up Ann, her smile tells me, don’t take the bait. Don’t sputter and turn red and instantly recall how fat you felt in college when you were binge-eating cereal out of the box. Instead, smile at your dad. Practice in front of a mirror. Give it that serene, Hillary-esque, “Wow, you’re old-fashioned, but I’m OK with that, because I have moved on with my own evolution!” kind of feel.

And that’s the new post-perfectionist Hillary Clinton. She knows she’s smart and strong and imperfect too. What a great role model for us all. images-5

Seattle friends and film-lovers: our new documentary, Zona Intangible, makes its festival debut at the Seattle Latino Film Festival this Saturday at 2pm at the Varsity Theatre. Join us! 

 

 

How Trump Made Me Love My Day Job

th-3       As I write, Donald Trump supporters are lining up outside a stadium about thirty miles north of here for a rally that begins many hours from now. This is confusing to me. Lining up for Trump? Who are they?

Yesterday, my husband and I met an immigrant family of nine and talked to them about how a local non-profit is helping them through their grief over the death of their baby girl. Last week, we visited an Adult Day Health Center that serves people who have dementia or have suffered brain trauma. We talked to a woman in her fifties whose face lit up with joy as she described how the time she spent at the center had given her the courage to go back to work after a stroke. The week before that, we interviewed a Seattle teacher who found an affordable apartment for herself and her son, with the help of a housing non-profit.

This is our day job: making short films for non-profits to help them raise money and spread the word about what they do. August is always a busy time for us, as our clients get ready for their fall events.

We feel very lucky that we get to do this work for a living. That we get to hear, and tell, stories about people helping people. Stories that debunk, over and over again, the American myth of rugged individualism; that show how much we Americans can do, when we pay attention to one another’s needs. When we are able to truly see each other, and recognize that we are all connected.

Which is why it is so hard for me to understand the Trump supporters who are standing in that line. I wonder who they are, and how it is they came to actually support this candidate who stands for slammed doors and high walls and connections based only on hate and fear.

The people I meet in my work are not the West Coast bubble-dwelling limousine liberals Trump loves to disparage. They are people who have rolled up their sleeves to actually find solutions to the toughest problems we face: homelessness, affordable housing, how to help vulnerable people weather trauma, loss, illness. How to make our schools better. How to protect our wild places for the next generation. If I dwell in a bubble, it is one in which compassion and inclusion are the norm. It is one in which people are allowed to be poor, or new to this country, or different in abilities, and dignified at the same time.

The interviews we do are my favorite part of the job. I love to listen to peoples’ stories. I love it when they surprise me, which they nearly always do. What’s much harder is what comes next: going back through those interviews, selecting the very best bits, and laying them out in an order that makes sense. It’s so important to me to get their stories right, especially during a year when slandering whole groups of people has become the Trumpian norm.

So I’m going to get back to work now. Thanks, Trump, for inspiring me to appreciate my day job even more. And I think we all know your rally is not going to make a difference in how our state votes. Because not very many of us live in your bubble. Thank God.

Here’s some inspiration to put on your calendar: A reading by writers who have experienced homelessness, September 12 at 7pm at the University Branch of the Seattle Public Library. Check out  Nicole Brodeur’s Seattle Times column about the Mary’s Place writers and their writing group leader, Julie Gardner.

 

 

 

The Journals Project

IMG_2699 This may look like July 2016 to you, what with the political conventions, heat waves and all. But if you ask me where I am on any given afternoon, I might say 1994. Or 1992. Or, not too many weeks ago, 1978. It is the summer of the Journals Project: the season I re-read my hand-scrawled life, transcribing not all of it—that would be WAY too brutal a task—but some important scraps. Morsels.

I began keeping a journal when I was 13, so I have a lot of years to get through. The good news is that I did not (and do not) write every day. Sometimes I’ve skipped whole months, or more. But it’s taking me a while, because—sort of like eating Thanksgiving dinner—I can do it for no more than an hour or two at a time. There are only so many rich, nostalgia-laden bites a girl can take in one sitting. IMG_2697

My self-imposed assignment is to look for anything having to do with God, faith, loss of faith, doubt, mortality and/or the meaning of life. It’s research for my next book, known for now as The Observant Doubter. Me being me, there’s a generous sprinkling of all of the above.

In my very first volume, I wrote by candlelight, and used a fountain pen: a smudgy, spill-prone choice for left-handed me. But I can still remember the clink of the pen in the bottle, the scratchy sound of the nib, the smell of the ink.

In the beginning, I wrote a LOT about God. I had fallen hard for an Evangelical/ Episcopal version of Christianity that had arrived at my childhood church via a youth minister who radiated joy. I yearned to glow with the love of God, like he did.

But gradually, my fervent faith subsided, and other subjects took over. I gave up on fountain pens and switched to felt tips, so I could write faster. Guilt, always a theme for me, shifted from feeling guilty because I was a bad Christian to feeling guilty because I ate too much or I didn’t study enough to, eventually, that special Mt. Everest of guilt that young mothers climb every day: no matter what you do, you’re letting someone down. You’re not doing something well enough.

My transcriptions are peppered with “oy” in parantheses: shorthand for, Hey 2016 Me, can you believe how much time you spent berating yourself for your shortcomings? In 1976, 1980, 1992, whenever?

“It’s so agonizing, this business of being pulled in a thousand directions,” I wrote one January morning when my children were one and four. “I want to be a good mother. I want my life to have meaning; I wish I could find meaning in the minutiae of everyday life.”

Oy. How I wish I could go back and tell myself: STOP. News flash from the future: it’s gonna be OK. You are loving your children and living your life and you just happened to be born into a time when the neatly laid table of family life was upended and everyone—including you, your husband, your family, your workmates, neighbors and all those perfect preschool parents you felt you could never ever measure up to—began to scramble and squabble about how it should now be reorganized.

Wow, it was confusing. Wow, it was impossible to get it all right.

And now: a quarter century after I watched Bill Clinton’s inauguration with a toddler on my hip and a baby on the way, stunned and grateful that we now had someone in the White House who had invited Maya Angelou to write and read an inaugural poem, here we all are again, still squabbling over what life in America should look like. One candidate wants to take us back to… where, exactly? The mythic America of girdles and grills; of happy white people who have no neighbors who do not look like them?

The other candidate may have been born into some version of that world, but long ago, she boarded the outbound train into the bumpy future where most of us actually live. Where women are allowed to have aspirations, even if that’s going to complicate their family life. Where fathers and mothers want to find meaning in the world and meaning at home. Through all these turbulent years recorded in my messy pages, Hillary Clinton has been working away, miles ahead of me. Making her own mistakes. Learning from them. Moving on. Preparing herself to be, as President Obama put it, the best-prepared presidential candidate we have ever had. hillary-clinton-and-obama-obama-750x400

As I continue to slog through the journals, knowing that she has prevailed over all the crazy roadblocks life has put in her way helps me to see that we as a nation and we, as women, have made progress. And will make more progress. But we’ve got to get her elected. Don’t feel guilty about how much time you can or can’t give to the cause: just do something. Just show up. I’m doing it not just for me, now, but for me, then: that fervent teen. That overwhelmed young mom. The ever-scribbling seeker of meaning that I still am.

 

#Enough

th          You know how it is. You don’t want to feel numb. You know that numbness is just pain postponed. Novocained. You know that, in order to get through this, you’ve got to feel.

And so you go about your day. You get in the car. You turn on the radio. Some of the speakers are inspiring, Donald Trump is horrible, but none of them are quite breaking through your numbed skin.

It’s the victims and those who grieve them, of course, who finally do break through. It’s the young man talking about frantically texting his 20-year-old best friend. It’s the front-page grid of faces: so many beautiful young people, smiling, being silly, being their young selves. It’s the story that writer Dan Savage told on the radio, choking up as he told it, of Brenda Marquez McCool, a single mother of 11 and cancer survivor, who died because she stood between the Orlando killer and her son Isaiah. At 2 in the morning at a gay nightclub, she saved the life of her son: as Savage pointed out, a previous generation would have found it stunning that she was even there, with her gay son, his adult life just beginning and hers beginning again after cancer. Or so they had hoped.

And then it was the two Sandy Hook parents on the radio, a mom and a dad, each of whom lost a child in the Newtown, CT school massacre on December 14, 2012. For more than three years, Nicole Hockley, who lost her son Dylan, and Mark Barden, who lost his son Daniel, have been on the radio, on the stump, online, in the papers and on TV, trying to get assault weapons banned.

“Gun violence is preventable,” Hockley and Barden both said, several times in several different ways. Gun violence is preventable, I repeated to myself as I went for a tearful walk. It’s not cancer. It’s not Alzheimer’s disease, which took my mom, too young. We can’t ban plaques and tangles from our brains. We can’t bar cancerous cells from invading our bodies. But we can ban assault weapons. Here’s the Sandy Hook Promise website. Give what you can to help them. Send an encouraging tweet or note to Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, who as I write is filibustering the Senate in support of gun control. Tell your senators to join him. (Mine is: Hats off to tireless WA Senator Patty Murray!)

A few months ago, I rented a car at San Francisco International Airport. I was assigned a stop-sign red VW bug, which made me feel happy and confident as I drove down to my friend’s house in Palo Alto. The next day, wearing a red dress that matched the car—pure coincidence! So Californian, so karmic!—I drove a few miles more to meet another friend. When I returned to the car, it wouldn’t start. I tried everything I could think of. Finally, desperately, I called my husband back in Seattle to see if he had any last-minute ideas, before I called a tow truck.

“Did you try putting your foot on the brake while you turned the key?” he asked.

Had not occurred to me. Not for a second.

I put my foot on the brake, and the car started right up.

Sometimes you just have to put your foot on the brake.

Just stop fearing people who aren’t like you, so you can start getting to know them.

Just stop the Senate down for a filibuster, like Senator Murphy: so that we can start getting assault weapons out of the hands of would-be murderers.

Just. Stop.

Upcoming reading: June 23, 7pm, with Hollis Giammatteo at King’s Books in Tacoma. And an upcoming screening too: our documentary film, Zona Intangible, premieres June 26, 6pm at the Rainier Arts Center in Seattle.

 

Restless Reinvention

1743563_10151864590352330_669973072_nNews Flash: The Restless Nest has been awarded an honorable mention in the “Blogs under 100,000 unique visitors” category of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ 2016 competition! 

“Oh, to be wracked by success!” director Terence Davies exclaimed, hitting wracked loudly and hard with his gentle Liverpool lilt. He was imitating actor Cynthia Nixon, who plays Emily Dickinson in his new film A Quiet Passion, as he explained to us that—much as he loves planning every painstaking detail of his movies in advance—he delights in moments of surprise. Nixon’s emphatic reading of Dickinson’s line was not what he had imagined. But then, success, whether or not one is wracked by it, is often not at all what we imagine. True for nineteenth century poets, true for 21st century actors and directors. True for all of us.

the-long-day-closes-550x238-detail-main     Davies’ appearance at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, following a screening of his 1992 film, The Long Day Closes, was a highlight of my recent trip to New York. I had seen his Distant Voices, Still Lives some years ago and was haunted by his depiction of his Liverpool childhood, of which his violent father was the volatile heart. Davies makes movies like an old Dutch master paints. He loves what he calls “texture:” getting the faded, autumnal colors of the clothing, wallpaper and furniture of his 1950s working-class neighborhood just right; spending a full minute of screen time gazing at one patterned ochre rug, because that’s what children do: they stare at the patterns and textures in front of them. Rugs. Ladies’ skirts. A bricklayer setting bricks, one by one, in a back garden wall.

I might not have been there if my husband and son hadn’t wanted to go so badly. I might have lobbied for an unaffordable Broadway show or a cozy, bank-breaking restaurant. What a loss that would’ve been. Who knew Davies would be so riveting in person? He is what you might call a case study in restless, but lovingly attentive, reinvention. And, as I wrote about last month, I can’t resist stories of reinvention. Davies has no interest in chasing a Hollywood version of success. He wants to make films the way a jeweler cuts diamonds: slowly and carefully, facet by facet until the glittering whole is revealed. If it takes years, so be it. If he can’t get the money, he’ll wait. At seventy, he still radiates a creative hunger, a hyper-attentive glow that is infectious. I hope it’s infectious. I want to catch it and keep it.

New York can be maddening. Exhausting. A bad boyfriend, as one friend quipped: so enchanting one day, so brutal the next. On this early May trip, the weather was as leaden as Liverpool in March. The political weather was stormy, too: everyone still in shock over Trump’s primary-sweeping triumph; my son and I clashing over Sanders vs. Clinton.

The week’s bright spots were the re-inventors. There was Davies. There was also Cheryl Stern, an accomplished Broadway actor and a friend of my good friend Lisa Faith Phillips (herself a shining example of restless reinvention: if you’re in New York, don’t miss her cabaret performance on May 15). Lisa took me to see Stern’s new one-woman show—her first—called Shoes and Baggage, at the Cell on W. 23rd. Like Davies’ films, Stern’s show is memoir, but her instruments are song and monologue. At first, you might mistake Shoes and Baggage for a light little tale about shopping addiction. But gradually, you realize it’s much more layered, more textured, than that. It’s about body image and what we women do to define ourselves in a relentlessly look-ist world. Though I’ve never tried on a Manolo Blahnik pump, I understood her story. I felt her story, especially when she flashed back to childhood, to all the approval that is lavished on a potentially awkward girl when she gets her outfit just right.

CorneliaStreetwithDana          My own reinvention moment came early in our New York trip, when I got to read with my friend Dana Robbins at Cornelia Street Café. Dana, who is blossoming as a poet after 25 years as a lawyer, gave me the courage to read from my new work-in-progress, The Observant Doubter. I thought my theme of faith versus chronic doubt would be a tough sell in New York. But maybe New Yorkers aren’t as hard-boiled as we provincials think. After all, so many of them come from somewhere else. Somewhere they might miss. Some place, some time, to which their restless minds reflexively return. Like Terence Davies’ Liverpool. Like Cheryl Stern’s childhood trips to the mall. Like Dana’s childhood kitchen, where her father’s “square hands… moved like a meditation.”

The passage I read in the café was about returning after forty years to the church I last attended as a fervent teen. About how I thought I could slip in and out undetected, until an old woman asked me whose child I was.

We’re all somebody’s child. And that’s often where re-inventors let their restless imaginations take them. Because your life is your movie. Your poem. Your story, and no one else’s. And that’s the joy of it. Whether or not you are ever “wracked by success.”

 

 

Reinvention

howtobeanonconformist_backWhen I was in sixth grade, I fell in love with a book called How to Be a Nonconformist. I loved it because it was a playfully written and illustrated cartoon diatribe against the social pressure of the era to be cool, hippy-style, which to my ten-year-old eyes, was a rigidly conformist way of life. I grew up a mile from Seattle’s University District. Long hair, fringe vests, beads and sandals made me roll my eyes, precisely because the people who dressed that way pretended so obnoxiously to be nonconformist when, clearly, I harrumphed, they were anything but.

howtobeanonconformist        How to Be a Nonconformist is out of print, but you can see some of it on the gorgeous Brain Pickings blog. You can also read about the author, Elissa Jane Karg Chacker (1951-2008), who was just 16 when she wrote the book and went on to become a nurse and lifelong socialist, in this tribute on the Solidarity website.

I am sorry Chacker did not live long enough to see what her age-mates are up to now. Because I think many of them are finally figuring out how to be real nonconformists, and to those of us who are a few years younger and in need of role models, it is a bracing trend.

Reinvention is what I’m talking about. We all know that the days of working one job all your life and then retiring to a La-Z-Boy recliner are over. Sure, some people still do that, but so many of them find they can’t sit still. For starters, there are the economic realities: We’re living longer, which means we need to work longer, so we can sock away more money for old old age. Or so we can pay for all those things our health insurance for some reason doesn’t fully cover. Or so we can pay soaring rents or higher property taxes or $13 to go to a movie. But I digress.

The reinvention I’m talking about is not about money, it’s about meaning.

What’s interesting to me, as I think back on How to be a Nonconformist, is that so often, people’s stories of finding meaning have to do with going back to some version of what they loved most as a pre-cool ten-year-old.

I have one friend who was a lawyer and is now a poet. I have a sister-in-law who decided to live in and restore her truly unique childhood home rather than sell it after her mother’s death. I have a friend who retired from corporate communications but went back to work for a nonprofit she’s supported all her life because she believes in their mission of helping homeless families. I have other friends who are doing things they’ve never done before: writing their first book or joining a choir or training in hypnotherapy or hiking the Camino de Santiago as a true pilgrim and not just for the exercise.

At ten, what I loved was writing in my own, real voice: not school papers, not the journalism, press releases and documentary scripts that eventually defined my professional life, but stories by and/or about the real me. So that’s what I’m doing now: not exclusively, because it never will pay the bills, but that’s OK. It’s important to me. It’s what makes me me. And on this side of the old bell curve of life, I get that I should do what matters to me not later but now.

Now, at 59, I look back on my teens, twenties, thirties and forties and think: what a time this decade has been in my life. What a time of learning to think and feel on the page. What an opportunity to accept all the contradictory parts of myself and allow them to get to know each other. It is especially meaningful to see creative me and spiritual/seeking/questioning me talking to each other. Playfully, some of the time, and quite solemnly and seriously at other times. I am grateful for this trend. I think the level of suppression, of NOT allowing such dialogues, that I practiced earlier in my life often exhausted me.

Just like being perfectly sandaled, long-haired nonconformists must have sometimes exhausted the people Chacker parodied in her book. Now, all these decades later, what a relief it is that we are all allowing ourselves to be works-in-progress. To be our own ongoing experiments in reinvention.

Ann Dana pictureNew Yorkers: I’ll be reading at Cornelia Street Cafe with poet Dana Robbins on May 4 at 6pm. Our event is titled “Word Medicine.”  Hope to see you there!

Stockholm Syndrome

Nine years ago, a freelance critic for The Seattle Weekly suggested, in print for all to see, that I might be suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. She was right: I was. I tend to fall hard when I fall in love.

The critic was reviewing a short film my husband and I made called Art without Walls: the Making of the Olympic Sculpture Park, which aired that week on KCTS, our local public television station. Her point was that I was clearly way too enthralled by Seattle’s new sculpture park to produce an unbiased documentary about the making of it. Guilty as charged: I loved the sculpture park.

The term “Stockholm Syndrome” was coined in 1973, after several hostages in a Swedish bank holdup-turned-siege became emotionally attached to the robbers who had imprisoned them in a vault for six days. (I am one-eighth Swedish-American: could there be a genetic tendency at work?) In 1973, I was 16, and I read about such events with great interest, perhaps because I was still not fully recovered from my first and most dramatic bout of Stockholm Syndrome, which struck when I was 13.

navbar_02Do you remember the brief fad for chocolate fountains? How beautiful the chocolate looked, pouring over and over, endlessly bountiful, into a surrounding pool. How agonizing those fountains must have been to anyone who was dieting, or diabetic.

When I was 13, I dove right into the chocolate fountain of evangelical Christianity. So sweet, so filling, so sublime. And at first, it felt so uncomplicated: just believe. Believe Jesus Christ is the one and only way to eternal life, and eternity is yours. Believe you can speak in tongues, and presto: you can! Believe men are superior to women. Believe premarital sex is wrong. Stop thinking. Simply believe.

But it turns out I couldn’t stop thinking. Thinking has always been my downfall. Thanks tophoto excessive thinking, I failed at flirting, tennis, knitting and my first fifty attempts at parallel parking. And I failed at being an evangelical Christian.

I swam in that silky, rich fountain through much of my teens, but the romance ended abruptly when I got to college. At the time, I remember feeling like I was both betrayer and betrayed; like I had turned away from Jesus with the secret hope that he would try to win me back, but instead he went off to court a new crop of acolytes. I felt like a rejected first wife: older, wiser (or so I thought), but not nearly as cute and fun as I once was.

Twenty years later, I returned, tentatively at first, to church: this time, to a welcoming, liberal kind of congregation where I sensed that a closet doubter like myself could safely blend in; that this could be a place where I could find spiritual sanctuary while I continued to ask the questions that never went away.

And now, unbelievably, another two whole decades have passed, and I’m still going to that same church. And the questions haven’t gone away. I never cured myself of too much thinking; if anything, I’ve gotten worse. But I have, finally, accepted my spiritual self for who I am: an observant doubter. A survivor of Stockholm Syndrome, who wants to live meaningfully.

I’m trying now to write more about all of this. I’m starting with the story of what came first: my fervent, young faith—how it happened, and why I think it happened, and how it fit into what was happening in the world at the time, and did we really speak in tongues and swallow the apocalyptic visions of The Late Great Planet Earth? I want to include stories of some of the people I’ve traveled with along the way. I want to connect with others for whom faith and doubt co-exist; I believe there are many of us who live along this spectrum, far from the noisy extremes of fundamentalist faith or unwavering atheism.

I don’t know yet where this is all leading, but giving myself the time to do it means posting less frequently on this blog. See you once a month or so. The nest is ever restless!DSC00865

I’ll be teaching Introduction to Memoir Writing again at Seattle Central College beginning April 11. Six Monday Nights. Here’s the link.

 

 

 

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. 

 

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