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

Archive for the month “February, 2012”

Lifelong Learning

On a recent Sunday morning in an old officer’s house at Fort Worden, it was so quiet the quiet itself felt loud. I sipped my coffee and watched the sky lighten. I thought of the layers of history on this silent hill just outside Port Townsend; how for decades, it teemed with soldiers, their cannons trained on the Straits of Juan de Fuca.  Now the Fort has been recommissioned as host to a motley assortment of visiting groups: healers, fiddlers, woodworkers, high school football teams, artists, writers.  People, including me, who mostly come in search of themselves.

            I was there for the Goddard College Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing commencement. Not my own—that happened the summer before last.  This time, I was there to witness.  To applaud what happens at the Fort.

            Goddard is one of more than fifty American colleges that offer what are called low-residency degrees.  At the beginning of each semester, faculty and students gather for eight days jam-packed with seminars, workshops, readings.  Then everyone goes home and writes like crazy, sending 30 or 40 page packets of work to their advisors every three weeks.  The idea is to integrate learning into life, rather than leaving your life to go to school full-time.

            There’s another idea at work, which seems at odds with the low-residency concept: the notion of creative community. Of the power of knowing you are not alone: you are connected to this group of people who, like you, find meaning in this crazy quixotic act called writing.  Who, like you, have full lives—jobs, families, commitments—but feel powerfully called to do this too.  And who, like you, find meaning in finally emerging from their shy shells to share their work—twice a year at the residencies and in all kinds of ways in between.

            Lewis Hyde writes, in his book The Gift, “The creative spirit moves in a body or ego larger than that of any single person.” He asserts works of art not only come from but nourish a part of our being that’s “not entirely personal.” This is easier to understand when you think of a symphony orchestra or a rock band than it is when you think of a writer toiling in solitude.  But it is true for us too.

            Writers are tempted to believe their gift is singular; it springs from some pure deep inner well. But that’s like believing you learn to walk, talk, eat and dress all by yourself. There’s a strand of your gift that is indeed only yours. But what are your tools? Words. How did you learn to use them? By reading and listening.

            There are no letter grades at Goddard. There are no valedictorians, no awards, no Best Emerging Writer of the Year. At commencement, every student gives a very short speech. Many spoke of how the Goddard community enabled them to overcome their fears, face the loudly quiet room, set aside wants in favor of greater desires.  One student spoke of learning at Goddard that what was more important than being “gifted” in some way was realizing she was “surrounded by people with gifts.”

And there were lighter moments.  For example, faculty speaker Ryan Boudinot belted out an original ballad that included a line about remembering, as you face that first student loan bill, quote, “they can’t repossess your brain.”

            No they can’t. Nor can “they” repossess the gifts people give each other in programs like Goddard’s, at re-imagined places like Fort Worden, in creative communities everywhere. 

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts also available. 


Hearts Broken Open

“A broken heart,” I wrote on a poster-sized, yellow Post-It.  Then, underneath, “A heart broken open.”

“Just a little inspiration for your free-write, in case you need it,” I told my students as they came in to our tiny classroom, an old office-building lunchroom.  We always warm up with ten minutes of free writing about anything.

Broken hearts versus Hearts broken open: It’s a little mantra that’s been going through my head this month.  Not an original one: Quaker writer Parker Palmer introduced me to it, in his book A Hidden Wholeness.

I quoted Palmer a few weeks ago, when I wrote about Washington State Senator Mary Margaret Haugen, who had the courage to change her mind and support same-sex marriage. This time, Palmer got me thinking about how one word, “open,” changes everything.  A heart broken—smashed, pieces scattered, beyond repair—versus a heart broken open: like a seed that needs to break open in order to sprout.  Or like a broken marriage that, someday, grows into a blended family. Or a tragedy or illness that breaks the people it strikes open into compassion and empathy. My own example is my mother’s early Alzheimer’s disease, which broke every heart in my family, but it also broke us open.  We know we’re not alone; we’re one of five million-plus American families who know the shape of this particular heartbreak.

I put those words on a big Post-it because I thought it might be an idea that would appeal to teenaged writers.  Who knows better than they the fresh, salty, smarting pain of a broken heart? I know they can’t immediately leap from that kind of pain to the healing that comes when your heart is broken open.   But I wanted them to think, as writers, about the power of one word.

Palmer writes, “As I stand in the tragic gap between reality and possibility, this small, tight fist of a thing called my heart can break open into greater capacity to hold more of my own and the world’s suffering and joy, despair and hope.”

Many of the students I work with live full-time in that “tragic gap” between reality and possibility. Reality might include family lives strained by poverty, addiction, incarceration. Possibility might include an iron determination to beat the odds and get that high school diploma. It might include a talent, a dream, a relationship, a baby.

It’s hard to tell, with teenagers, whether something is resonating or not. Certainly I undermined my hearts-broken-open lesson by scattering Valentine’s Day chocolates around their tables. Hard to get all serious when you have a Hershey’s miniature in your mouth.

But they wrote: about relationships, about wanting to be a good parent, about finally getting serious about school and wanting to graduate.

They may not see their hearts this way, but I see their hearts already breaking open into ever-greater capacity.  For starters, they’re in the classroom, which means they haven’t walked away and given up.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts now available! 

Pinball Education

News and Life are crashing around in my head right now. News, meaning the latest raft of “gap” stories: achievement gap, income gap, incarceration gap. Life, as in my daily life, which lately has included an hour a day at a public alternative high school.

Seattle’s Interagency Academy, the school where I tutor writers, is no touchy-feely-type alternative school. For most of the students, it’s the school of last resort. They’ve bumped their way upward through the pinball machine of public education until, somewhere in high school, they slammed into a wall. Down the chute they went, fast-tracked right into the black hole of dropping out, if not for Interagency, a patchwork school of about ten tiny campuses, including a downtown youth employment program, the county’s juvenile detention facility and several agencies serving homeless teens.  I say “about” ten, because plans are always in the works to add new sites as new teen crises develop.  Teens fleeing prostitution, for example.  Or teens whose parents have recently been deported.

Last Thursday, my classroom was empty. Of the seven students with whom I am currently working, zero showed up. It’s hard to describe the cascade of emotions this triggered in me.  The week was going well until then. Students were working hard, toiling over heartfelt essays on subjects ranging from peer pressure to why it’s unfair for your boss to make you go to work when you’re sick.  I have never had all seven show up on the same day, but I’ve had five or six.  Three or four at a time is more typical.

But I had high hopes for Thursday. And then—there I was, just me and the dreary beige walls.

There are so many possible reasons why each one of the seven didn’t make it. One student has moved four times since January.  Another is about to become a father. Another, the one who had to go work sick, has been coughing and sniffling for ten days. I don’t want to be like his boss and expect him or anyone else to show up sick at school. But I felt lonely and sad, sitting there without them.

Some of my sadness was triggered by two recent news items.  One was a New York Times story headlined, “Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor.” It hasn’t just inched up: we’re talking 50 percent in 50 years, if your measure is college completion. The other was an article called “The Caging of America,” in which New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik lays out the stark facts about the prison industry in the United States.  Here’s one: There are more black men in the criminal justice system than were in slavery in 1850.  Here’s another: overall, there are more than six million people under “correctional supervision” in America.  Gopnik talks about how for many poor people in America, particularly poor black men, quote, “prison is a destination that braids through an ordinary life, much as high school and college do for rich white ones.”

A few weeks ago, I listened to some students talking about their brothers. One has a brother in prison. Another has a brother who recently leaped out the back window to evade arrest. Two have seen their grandmothers ordered to the floor during police raids.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to persuade them that learning to write matters. That it could braid some different destinations into their life. I believe this. But I don’t live in the same America they live in, the America where forgetting to properly scan your transit pass can land you in court. This happened to one of the Interagency students.  When I forgot to scan my pass, I got a warning.

I’ll keep showing up at school, and I hope my students do too. This is not just about their education, it’s about mine.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts now available! 

Thank you, Mary Tyler Moore

“Girl, you’re gonna make it after all.”  Can’t you just picture Mary Tyler Moore, beaming and tossing her beret in the air as the whole world sang along to her theme song every Saturday night?  Thirty-five years ago, when The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended its seven-year run, Moore was a “girl” of forty.  And yet she was every girl.  Every 15 or 25 or 40 year old girl who has ever panicked and thought: who am I without him? Who am I by myself? Can I really make it after all?

Yes, you can, Mary told us. I did, and you can too.

When The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted, she was 33. I was 13. The wacky, cozy world of her first big TV hit, The Dick Van Dyke Show, was so over, for both of us. My parents had just divorced. Moore’s character, Mary Richards, was divorced. Women like my mom and Mary were suddenly popping up everywhere, trying to make it on their own. Meanwhile, girls like me were letting go of our babyish fantasies involving princes, castles, Barbie and Ken. But we were uneasy about where to take our daydreams next.  I wasn’t old enough, yet, to embrace what Gloria Steinem had to say.

But Mary Tyler Moore? She was so—real. So still wistful and a little shaky about the dream she’d given up, the one involving a NEVER-discussed ex-husband.  So clearly competent yet still lacking the self-confidence to go with it.  So easily rattled by the men who held power in her life: her boss, played by Ed Asner. The news anchor, Ted Baxter.  The clueless guys she dated.

Let’s see: Wistful, shaky, smart but not confident, rattled by men in authority? That pretty much covered my emotional profile as a teenager.

As Mary slowly got the hang of being a single career woman, so did my mom.  Newly divorced at 39, she wasn’t much older than Mary, though her life was pretty different, what with five of her six children still at home. It’s funny, looking back, to realize I didn’t think of my Mom as a Mary type at all, even though she had shiny brown hair and a big smile and a similar brand of no-nonsense spunkiness. But Mom was a mom, which made her not a girl, in my girlish mind. Mary was a grown-up girl. She was what I wanted to be. What all my friends wanted to be: a grown-up girl living in her own apartment, working at a real grown-up job.

At its recent gala, the Screen Actors Guild honored her with a Lifetime Achievement Award, recognizing not only her iconic TV roles but the virtuosity she brought to other roles, like the icy, repressed Beth in the 1980 film Ordinary People. Once again, Moore captured a transitional moment in our social history, portraying a character who, unlike Mary Richards or Mary Tyler Moore, could not and would not change.

When I was in my twenties, I actually had various versions of Mary Richards’ job. For five years, I worked at a Seattle TV station as a newswriter and producer.

Mary was in reruns and I still watched her sometimes, loving the show for the way it poked fun at the world of local TV news. But mostly, I loved it for Mary: the girl who showed us how to make it after all.

Thank you, Mary Margaret

Please help me in my campaign to prolong Mary Margaret Haugen’s moment in the spotlight. Already fuzzy on placing that name? She’s the conservative, church-going, democratic Washington state senator from cozy Camano Island who, like our church-going democratic governor, had the courage to change her mind. Thanks to Mary Margaret Haugen, gay marriage is almost certainly going to be legal in our state, very soon.

How I admire a politician who thoughtfully and deliberately Changes. Her. Mind.  This is not what we love to call “waffling.” This is the human brain doing what it does best: considering new ideas. Pondering them. Reflecting. Praying. Departing from long-unquestioned assumptions to ask and answer questions one might never previously have thought to ask.

This is why gay marriage is such a linchpin issue: because it is getting rational, thoughtful people all over the American belief spectrum to think in new ways. To have new conversations.

I’ve been reading a book by the Quaker writer Parker Palmer called A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life in which he talks about how damaging it is to live a life in which “soul” and “role” are kept firmly separate, our outer selves orbiting further and further from the compass of our true, inner selves.  Politicians, perhaps more than any of us, are expected to wall themselves off in this way, keeping firmly out of sight any quirks or views their constituents might reject.

Gay marriage has given them, and us, a chance to ask: OK, how do I really, truly feel about this and why? And how would it change my life if I changed my mind? I would be changing the lives of others, and that’s pretty great. But might I also feel more whole, holding this new view?

Like Washington Governor Chris Gregoire, state Senator Haugen did not arrive at her decision lightly.  In a prepared statement, Haugen said, “For some people, this is a simple issue. I envy them. It has not been simple or easy for me.”  She went on to say, “I think we should all be uncomfortable sometime.” She concluded by pointing out the only reason she was the so-called 25th vote, the vote that ensures passage, is because she insisted on taking as much time as she needed to hear from her constituents and to sort it out for herself, to reconcile her religious beliefs with her beliefs, “as an American, as a legislator, and as a wife and mother who cannot deny to others the joys and benefits I enjoy.”

Wow.  I want more politicians who think we should all be uncomfortable sometimes. Who think conversations that change minds are possible. Do I even need to bring up the Republican debates for contrast?

It is interesting to see these grown-up men working so hard to portray themselves as full of steely and unchangeable resolve, as if the ability to cling to one viewpoint without ever wavering is exactly what we’re looking for in a world leader.  Isn’t one of the great reliefs of getting past, say, 30, the realization that you will, in fact, continue to change and grow for the rest of your life?  I’d like to think so.  Mary Margaret Haugen, you’re living proof.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts now available! 

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