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

Archive for the month “January, 2012”

Yellow Table

Yellow is a color I crave.  You can’t order up a sunny sky, especially here in Seattle, but you can have a little sunshine always with you if, for example, you own a yellow kitchen table. 

When I was growing up, ours was buttercup-yellow formica, flecked with white.  Chrome trim and legs.  It was where we six kids ate our cereal—Oatmeal, Cheerios, Lucky Charms, depending on the prevailing parental permissiveness or lack thereof.  It was where we dunked our after-school graham crackers in glasses of chocolate milk.  It was where I sat in the evening, ON the table, my feet on a chair, twisting the cord of the kitchen wall phone as I talked to my friends. 

“What are you doing?”

“I don’t know. Nothing. What are you doing?”

A long time ago, I rented a tiny office in Pioneer Square.  I needed a desk.  When I spotted a yellow formica table, exactly like the one we had when I was a kid, in the window of a thrift store, I bought it right away.  For two years, as often as I could, I got myself to that table by my one office window overlooking the Bread of Life Mission and I wrote.  A novel.  I hadn’t written creatively in a long time.  I’d never written a book.  But that yellow table gave me courage.  On the darkest, most writer-blocked of days, it was always bright.  Always gentle and nourishing, like oatmeal on a pitch-black winter morning.   

When the office got to be too expensive, I went back to working from home. I took the table with me. But it didn’t fit into my makeshift workspace.  So down it went to the laundry room, where it spent fifteen years piled high with laundry baskets and storage bins.

When we moved a few months ago, the yellow table almost got packed off to Goodwill.  But our daughter had just found an apartment, and she and her roommates needed something to eat on.

The other day, I walked in to their living room and happiness poured right through me when I saw that glowing yellow formica, front and center under the bay window.  I wanted to pull up a chair and dunk some grahams.  Or talk on the phone.  Or write.

Yellow is so inviting: Sit! Eat! Write! Talk! It says.  And it’s so forgiving: we take all comers, it says. The sleepy schoolgirl who needs her cereal, the restless teenager, the unpublished novelist.  My daughter and her new roommates, needing somewhere to sit while they get to know each other.

Now, I write at a big, bright cherry-wood Ikea desk.  I like it because it has a curve in it and a wide wing I can spread with notes.  I like that I can snug it right up to my window.

I’m happy to have once owned a table just like the one I grew up with. I’m proud I sat at it and wrote a novel.  Which never did find a publisher.  But sitting at that table, writing a whole book, unlocked an important part of me, the creative part: the daydreaming girl I’d left behind at another yellow table.

Such a color, such a table, deserves to be shared.  To hold cereal bowls, jokes, secrets, conversations.  First drafts of novels, and of lives. 


 I’m turning 55.  What a great opportunity to flagellate myself for all that I’ve not done or done wrong.  For all the ways I’ve fallen short!

This is how the habitually self-bashing person thinks.  Maybe I’m not alone: Maybe it’s how a lot of us think.

A wise man about a decade older than I am once said to me, when I made some routinely self-deprecating remark at a church meeting: “Hey Ann, you know that stuff we hear every Sunday about forgiveness?  That’s supposed to start with yourself.  That famous line about loving your neighbor?  It’s ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ remember?”

Many’s the new year I’ve vowed to be kinder to myself.  And in many ways, I have, over time, learned to be much kinder to me than I was as a teenager.  Back then, the way I treated myself resembled the way Jane Eyre is treated at that awful orphanage.  You’re ugly, you’re not a good person, you’re terrible at sports, you’ll never be popular because you’re just a big loser, went the script that ran in my Orphanage Headmistress head.

Things have improved considerably since then.

One of the ways in which I now try to treat myself more kindly is to accept my lack of self-confidence, rather than trying to make it go away.  I used to think I shouldn’t talk about it, but talking about it can be a way of getting a little help from my friends, or at least getting them to help me laugh at myself. For example: my agent recently wrote in an email that trying to sell a memoir, like mine, that has anything to do with Alzheimer’s disease is like, “hurling Kryptonite.” Not exactly a confidence-booster. But it’s something I’ve repeated and actually laughed about with several writer friends, because I know they will bolster my courage to take the next step: pitching the book, myself, to a smaller, more Kryptonite-friendly press.

So: I don’t have the self-confidence to be, say, a politician.  But I do have the nerve to keep writing.

And though I flunked flirtation, I did find the courage to love.

And though I flunked Getting Rich, all my life I have sought and mostly found work that is meaningful.

Getting back to that wise man at my church: when I was a self-judging teen, I was much more pious than I am now.  Fanatical, at times.  But eventually my youth group-inspired fundamentalism lost out to my love of literature, history, travel, college and, let’s face it, the hedonism of the times… for which my inner Joan of Arc regularly rose up to berate me, calling me out as the spiritually spineless, directionless, purposeless child of the 70s I was.

It wasn’t until I had children of my own that, like so many of my age-mates, I found myself back in the pew. Humbler, this time. Less fervent. More willing to accept how very little I, or anyone else, knows about what or who God is. But it has taken some time to shake the adolescent self-judging out of my spiritual life.  Clearly, I’m not done. It still rears up, as, for example, a big birthday approaches.

Which is why I look forward to reading Patricia Cohen’s new book, In Our Prime: the Invention of Middle Age.  In an essay published recently in the New York Times, Cohen writes that most elderly people look back not on youth but on middle age as the best time of life. Perhaps because it’s when we learn, finally, to be a little kinder to ourselves. To count blessings more eagerly than we enumerate failures.

And here’s one I’m counting right now: on the day before my birthday, a short piece I wrote called “Blue Nest” was published in the new Verbalist’s Journal. You can download it for free.  Check it out!


Reasons why I love every January: one, every single day is longer than the day before. Two, it is my birthday month. Three, the word “January” is so lovely, lilting and full of hope after all those harsh, ever darker, ever colder, “ERR” months. September, October, November, Decemberrrrr.

Reasons why I Iove this January: one, Washington Governor Christine Gregoire is NOT running for re-election, which means she can throw her heart, soul and political smarts into issues like same-sex marriage.  And two, Newt Gingrich could really, truly be out of the news headlines by the end of the month.

It’s just so… unpleasant, having Newt around.  For those of us over thirty, it’s like having some annoying something you thought you were so over—athlete’s foot, a bad credit report, acne—suddenly back with a vengeance.  The bloviating, the bombast, the name itself—“NEWT”—really? You ask yourself? Again?

Janus, for whom my favorite non-summer month is named, is the Roman god of gates and doors, beginnings and endings.  His face is nearly always depicted as a double profile, looking both forward and back.  Encyclopedia Mythica says Janus also represents transitions between, quote, “primitive life and civilization, between the countryside and the city, peace and war, and the growing-up of young people.”

Governor Gregoire stands at the gate between two phases of her life—governor, and ex-governor—and she uses this threshold, this Janus moment, to say, This is the time to make this historic change.   Gregoire, who is Catholic, told the Seattle Times: “I have been on my own journey. I will admit that. It has been a battle for me with my religion.  I have always been uncomfortable with the position that I have taken publicly. And then I came to realize the religions can decide what they want to do but it is not OK for the state to discriminate.”

This is the kind of news—of gates and doors, beginnings and endings—that gives Janus, and January, a good name.

Newt Gingrich slipping to the back of the Republican pack, in large part thanks to the kind of big-money, negative campaigning he himself has long championed, doesn’t give off quite the same bouquet of hope. But try pairing it with Barack Obama starting the year out by daring to actually appoint Richard Cordray, his long-stalled nominee to the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, giving the bureau the green light to start getting some work done.  This is an agency Americans of many political persuasions agree is something we need.  It’s hard to oppose the concept of protecting consumers.  I think Janus might call it a step from primitive living toward civilization.  Or even a step toward the growing-up of our chronically adolescent government.

Meanwhile, both my children will be in town for my birthday. My husband and I have plenty of work. My volunteer tutoring is morphing into a bigger commitment, a writer-in-residence gig which I’m excited and nervous about.

And through it all, the sun will rise earlier and set later every day.  It’s going to be a good month.


“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. You can lead a man to knowledge but you can’t make him think,” blues singer Tracy Nelson belts out on the radio. I’m listening to my husband’s Thursday afternoon show, “The Outskirts” on KBCS, and I’m thinking about all the knowledge that now inundates us every day of our lives, and how when it gets to be too much, we can’t think at all.

This is not a new thought, this notion of information overload. What’s interesting is the lengths to which people go in order to find some peace and quiet.

A few minutes after he played Tracy Nelson, Rus sent me a link to a New York Times opinion piece by travel writer Pico Iyer called “The Joy of Quiet.” Iyer writes of author friends who pay for a software called “Freedom” which blocks their Internet connections for hours at a time so they can get some writing done. He writes of other friends who declare an Internet Sabbath on the weekend, unplugging from Friday evening until Monday morning so they can enjoy family time. He writes of hotel room rentals for upwards of two thousand dollars a night where one of the main attractions is: NO Internet, TV or other connections to the outside world.

When I read these kinds of anecdotes, my impulse is to go judgmental. Have these people not heard of hiking or camping? I want to ask. Or maybe just a walk in the park, without their smart phone?

But part of me understands all too well what they’re up against. The problem is expectations. Or, more accurately, perceived expectations. Which can then so easily be used as excuses.

I don’t have a smart phone, but I will probably get one in 2012. Rus and I make short films for a living, and our clients now expect—or at least I believe they do—to be able to reach us via email, even if we’re out on a shoot for another client. This did not used to be true. “Traveling” or “filming” used to be legitimate reasons for being out of email range, along with “vacations” and “holidays.” No more.

And email is now only the tip of the iceberg. We should be using GPS, not printing map pages. An i-cal, not an ancient Daytimer. Then there’s Twitter and Facebook, the twin frenemies of procrastinators everywhere, including me.

I watch younger colleagues, or the teens I tutor, or my own young-adult children, deal with all these distractions so calmly and matter-of-factly I think maybe they’ve just grown up knowing how to concentrate on their work while also monitoring Twitter feeds and Facebook updates and blizzards of texts. But I don’t think that’s true. I think they need unplugged time more than we know. More than they know.

When faced with a task that is hard—writing an essay for a tough class or finishing an assignment for a demanding boss—it’s so, so easy to divert your attention to that little screen. To tap into all that knowledge that’s right there, literally in your pocket, luring you away from actually thinking.

Looking stuff up is ridiculously easy. Thinking is harder than ever. And it’s a learned skill. A muscle that needs to be exercised.

Here’s my New Year’s resolution: to practice turning off the faucet of knowledge when what I really need to do is think.

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