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

Archive for the month “December, 2011”

Goodbye, Oh’leven

Hey 2011.  Can I call you Oh’leven? You have been quite a year.  The Year of the Protester, according to TIME Magazine.  I know: I mentioned this last week.  But I’m so not done dwelling on the significance of it.  Oh’leven will forever be the year millions of people—in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, New York, Oakland, Seattle—decided to stand up, move, do something.  Because sitting out the recession wasn’t working very well.  Neither was waiting for aging dictators to die, or democracy to just happen.

I regret I did not personally take part in the Occupy Movement, which was at its height during our family’s craziest time in 2011: the Big Move from the house we’d been in for 21 years to a smaller home two miles away.  Instead of taking to the streets, we were taking endless loads of stuff to Goodwill.  But our move felt, in its humble way, like part of this larger story.  When our house sold, we traded in a big mortgage with a big bank for a small mortgage with a small bank.  We traded in a big house that served us well while raising children for a townhome that will serve us perfectly in our Restless Nest years.   We occasionally sold but mostly gave away all kinds of things we no longer needed—basketball hoop, couch, futon, rowing machine, clothes, sheets, towels—to people who need them more.  We chose a neighborhood where we can walk and take light rail.  When we tell people about making these choices, they get it, because this is the year everybody came clean about being squarely in the ranks of the 99 percent.

It’s so ingrained in the American psyche to aspire to that top one percent that the widespread acknowledgement of actual economic reality—the reality that for most people, it is well-nigh impossible to ever get even near those highest heights—is a big, big collective gear shift.  For our daughter and her classmates, who graduated from college in 2011, this shifting of the gears has hit hard.  They feel lucky if they have jobs at all, let alone something in their fields of study.  They feel lucky if they can scrape together enough money to move out of their childhood bedrooms.  Their expectations have skidded from the high times of 2007, when they graduated high school, right into the steep muddy slope of a recession no one hinted to them was just around the corner.

Our move, our daughter’s transition from college to work and living on her own, how these personal events dovetailed with the Year of the Protester: I found plenty to write about and think about this year, as I began my own Oh’leven adventure as a KBCS radio commentator.  There have been weeks when it was hard to find the time and, even more, the focus to sit down and write a Restless Nest piece.  But I’m so glad I get to do this every week, because it is keeping me writing through a time in my life—in all our lives—of great upheaval.

Every time I sit down to write, I learn something.  I let go of something.  My lost passport, for example: a casualty of the move, which if I share with you, I have to admit what a small thing it is.  How easily it can be replaced.  Just as whenever I write about the Big Move, I have to acknowledge how lucky we are to have pulled it off.  We sold a house and bought another one in the middle of a recession.  We made it through the steeplechase of inspections and repairs and loan approvals and it all actually worked.

Oh’leven, I am grateful.  You have not been easy.  But no one would ever call you dull.


A ribbon of orange lifts the night-sky curtain: it’s the literal crack of dawn here in Seattle, eight minutes before eight a.m.  Welcome to the week of the winter solstice, when every day tops out at just under eight and a half hours.

It’s dark.  Even during our eight hours of daylight, it’s pretty dark: the winter sun is no match for these thick winter clouds.  We were lucky, the first half of December, which local weather expert Cliff Mass says was the driest on record.  But dry or not, this is the season when we can’t take light for granted.  We have to create it ourselves.

And so we do: we string lights on our houses.  We drag trees inside, and cover them with lights.  We build fires and light candles.  We go to brightly lit stores and malls.  Sometimes it feels a little manic, this chasing after light.  This denial of the 15 and a half hours of daily darkness that is really what December is about.

Darkness feels dangerous. Uncomfortable. Blind.  Who wants it? Who needs it?

We do.  Think of how we all started out: it took us nine solid months of darkness before we were ready to open our lungs and breathe, open our eyes and see.  Newborn babies know darkness, not light.  They only learn to fear the dark as they rely on their eyes more and more to tell them where their parents are; where safety and comfort lie.

Seeds lie deep underground in the winter, content and dormant.  Their desperation for light begins the moment they break ground.  But for now, like an unborn child, they wait, patiently, in the dark.

We need darkness and quiet—and patience—in order to grow.

Of all the old-fashioned virtues, patience is the one we value least.  The patient waiting that used to be what the pre-Christmas season of Advent was all about has become a crazed countdown that begins with a day called Black Friday: 
as if we actually know just how warped this darkness-denying shopping mania really is.  As if we think by copping to it, we can claim we’re fulfilling some sort of Darwinian, light-seeking destiny.

But there’s been a counter-trend this holiday season, one captured perfectly by TIME magazine when it named the Protester its Person of the Year.  I believe the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring have been all about shining a light ON the darkness.  Into it.  People are tired of the fake light of empty promises.  They are standing up and saying: we are the 99 per cent and we are in a dark time.  We struggle to make ends meet.  We have had enough of hypocrisy and lip service to democracy.  We want the real thing.  We have been growing strong, in this darkness, and now we are ready to shine a truth-seeking light.

The Occupy protesters got some flack for not having “clear demands.”  Their demand is simple: shine a light. Show us the truth.

We moved into our new house on Halloween weekend.  One of the first things we did was buy some new light fixtures.  We also bought boxes of tea light candles.  I put my red paper star-shaped light in my office window. We knew we wouldn’t feel at home until we got the lighting right.

It’s good to move in to a new place in the darkest months.  It’s good to take some time to make the nest cozy, light our lights. Make peace with the darkness and get ready to grow again as the days grow longer.

Are We Old Yet?

It’s kind of touching, isn’t it, the way we fifty-somethings insist on calling ourselves “middle-aged.”  As if.  People: I read in the paper this morning: the average life span in America is still 78.  Half of 78 is still 39, no matter how you slice and dice it.

I remember being 39.  I do, really.  I remember thinking people in their fifties who couldn’t say the word “old” were kind of sad.

At 39, I had a seven-year-old, a four-year-old, a novel I so hoped would find a publisher and a freelance career I had allowed to dwindle.  My 65-year-old mother’s disturbing memory lapses were soon to be given the dreaded label that would define her final descent: Alzheimer’s disease.  At 39, the statistical middle of an American life, I did not feel young, middle-aged or old; I felt seasick. I had jettisoned the ballast of a secure job. I believed motherhood, marriage, writing and my mom’s desire to be a hands-on grandma would be my anchors for the next decade or so.

Looking back, I see my younger self as touchingly naïve.  Surely not at any sort of mid-point, any sort of stable axis.

But are we ever? And isn’t that what’s so ridiculous, really, about the whole notion of a “middle age”?  Because of course we don’t know whether we’re going to get 78 years, or 98, or maybe only 28 or 58.  So when exactly should we call ourselves “middle-aged?”

What we do learn, as we churn through the decades, is that whatever middle age is, it is not the same as wisdom.  Which, we also grudgingly learn, is not some inner lightbulb that suddenly clicks on.

Wisdom is more sedimentary. Layered. It’s more like that fusty old poem called “The Chambered Nautilus,” in which the poet imagines us adding years, like rooms, to the spiraling shell of our lives.

“Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul, as the swift seasons roll!” poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Senior intoned, already well past the mid-point—though of course he didn’t know it—of his impressive 85 years.

Our generation doesn’t warm to the word “stately” the way Holmes’ did.  We don’t want to be stately snails; we want to hold on to shiny, speedy youthfulness.

And yet: there’s an appreciation of slowness that creeps up on you, maybe somewhere between, oh, 39 and 54, during those years when life often feels way too much like a white-water rafting trip, rapids all around, your little boat barely under control.  You find that the stuff you really care about doing—writing, for me, or good conversations over dinner, or reading or growing a garden—mostly gets done slowly.

There was a story in the New York Times last week about an 85-year-old jazz piano player named Boyd Lee Dunlop.  He released his debut CD this weekend.  That is one stately pace.

I know one reason I sometimes, still, want to speed around and Get a Lot Done is because I watched time and memory run out for my mother and I fear her fate.  I dread it.  It’s what often wakes me up at five in the morning.

But rushing around doesn’t make it better, it makes it worse.  Boyd Dunlop didn’t just decide it was time for a CD at 85 and poof! There it was.  It took him four years of pounding away on an out-of-tune piano at the nursing home where he lives.

Boyd’s a good model for us wannabe middle-agers.  I bet he doesn’t spend much time at all dwelling on age.  He’s way too busy making music.

Hello, Ancestors

     Out of a yellow envelope in a box marked “Ann’s office” they fell: four people in funny felt hats, staring at me from an 8 by 10, black-and-white photo. Three young men and one young woman. If they took off those four-cornered caps, the men would fit right in at the Comet Tavern on Capitol Hill, with their scruffy goatees and mustaches.

     When you move, you don’t just let go of stuff you don’t need, you find stuff you forgot you need. Five years ago, I saw this photo in the archive of a local history museum. Undated, un-located, it was labeled simply “Finnish Immigrants.” I was so taken by it I bought a print. But it languished, forgotten in an envelope, until now.

     My husband found a frame. Now it’s on my desk. I’ve taken to calling it “my ancestors.”

     They could be: they’re Finnish immigrants, arriving somewhere, some dreary boardwalk of a train station, in the West. Their leggings and belted jackets and jaunty headware mark them: fresh arrivals. Their expressions are not fearful, but expectant: ready for a new life that will start somewhere out beyond where the boardwalk ends. The woman, whose hat is a knit helmet of the type favored by snowboarders, is holding a few paper-wrapped parcels: food for the journey? Letters of introduction?

     My own great-grandmother traveled alone across the country with her name and destination—Hanna, Wyoming, where my great-grandfather was waiting to marry her–pinned to her coat.

     I’m reminded of her, and of my could-be ancestors in the photo, when I see the African immigrant women in our new neighborhood, crossing the park outside our window with their children, burkas flying behind them as they hurry to the school bus stop. They too are expectant. They know: every day, when their children step on that bus, they are entering new worlds of opportunity.

     Until recently, we accepted the notion that all children living in America, regardless of where they or their parents were born, were entitled to a free public education. Now we have states like Alabama and Arizona where that may no longer be a given. And here in Washington, we have lawmakers, desperate to find places to cut the budget, talking about across-the-board cuts in education. Fewer school days is the latest idea.

     Last week, four hundred students from Seattle’s Garfield High School marched downtown to protest the cuts. It made my kids proud of their alma mater. Me too.

     One of the few things I have that was my great-grandmother’s is a copy book in which, as a little girl, she practiced her penmanship. Page after page of letters and words, all in inscrutable Finnish. Either she chose to bring it with her to America, or someone gave it to my grandmother when she visited Finland. Either way, it was saved. It was valued.

     Immigrants have always understood that education is what matters most. And since, with the exception of Native Americans, we are all immigrants, it’s shocking we would forget that. My great-grandmother never mastered English. But her daughter, my grandmother, went to college for a year and taught in a one-room school in Montana. Maybe some of her students were newbies like the foursome in my photo.

     Her mother must have been so proud. Eighty years later, I’m so proud.

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