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

Archive for the month “April, 2012”

Immigrant Nations

By the time you hear this, I’ll be in one of the world’s great immigrant nations: France. One in five people in France were either born in another country, or their parents were.

In the United States, we count differently: “foreign-born” does not include children born here to immigrant parents, who are granted US citizenship at birth.

So it’s hard to make a direct comparison. But the US Census says 12.7% of us are foreign-born, as of 2010, which is close to where we were 100 years ago, when immigration was at its peak.

And yet former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice had this to say in a recent speech: “I don’t know when immigrants became the enemy.”  She said one of the greatest disappointments of her career was the Bush administration’s failure to achieve comprehensive immigration reform.

I know there’s a lot of anti-immigrant backlash in France, too, and I’m sure I’ll hear more about it on my trip. But it makes me sad to think that our country’s self-image of open arms and opportunity, of the Statue of Liberty lighting the way for newcomers to our shores, has slipped so far that effective immigration reform now seems further away than ever.

Condi Rice went on to say our immigrant culture is, quote, “at the core of our strength.” She’s right.  And we forget, at our peril, that nearly all of us have immigrant roots.

After France, I’m headed for the first time in my life to the country my own ancestors came from: Finland.

I’ll be retracing the steps of my great-grandmother, who traveled from Finland to Wyoming in 1899. Her name and destination were pinned to her coat because she didn’t speak a word of English.

When I stumbled across Iceland Air’s unbeatable deal, my first impulse was to close that window, fast. But Finland haunts me.  My great-grandmother haunts  me.

By the time she and her husband staked a homestead claim in Montana in 1910, they were both 40. But they’d bought into the optimism of the West. They were a new generation of settlers, wholly unlike the early Oregon trailers. They were Americans now, though they spoke Finnish at home and taught it to their six children.

I don’t know what I expect to find in Finland, so poor when my ancestors left; now one of the most affluent, progressive countries in the world.  Remember that 2010 Gallup Happiness poll? Finland came in second, after Denmark.  For the record, the US was 14th and France was 44th, but maybe that’s because the French just don’t like to admit to anything as bland as satisfaction.

In Finland, I’ll do what Americans do: hunt up distant relatives; find the towns whose names I’ve heard all my life: Kaustinen, Raavi, Oolu. Call it a pilgrimage; call it a search for the prequel to a story I’m still writing: my own.  Call it a shout out to immigration.  I don’t always find myself agreeing with Condi Rice. But  I’m with her on this one.


A long time ago, my daughter had a friend. Her name was Phaedra. I thought of her a few days ago when I saw the first fiddlehead ferns unfurling in Seward Park. The ferns always make me think of Phaedra because she was just starting to unfurl, to stretch up and out into the world, when a drunk driver killed her at the age of seven.

We know neither the day nor the hour: we don’t know whether we’ll have seven years or 17 or 97.  It’s what makes life so intensely precious. What makes gratitude for the time we do have mandatory.

Or is it? Mandatory?

South African philosophy professor David Benatar is the author of a book with the intriguing title, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence. In a recent New Yorker article, Elizabeth Kolbert explains the book’s contention that, quoting Benatar, “The amount of suffering in the world could be radically reduced if there were no more of us.” Kolbert calls it his, quote, “Conclusive Conclusion. If we all saw the harm we were doing by having children and put a stop to it, within a century or so the world’s population would drop to zero.”

This school of thought is called “anti-natalism.” Anti-birth. Which is not to be confused with the abortion debate. This is not about family planning, this is about preventing ALL births. About measuring the value of all of us and concluding it would be better if we just stopped. No more people.

I know the planet’s resources are strained. I know we humans cause a lot of harm. But it’s still a tough idea for me to grasp, this sweeping, nihilistic NO to life, especially at this time of year, what with ferns unfurling, trees budding, flowers blossoming everywhere we look. Both my children were born in the spring. The joy of new life beginning—it’s the essence of the season.

Just as it was sixteen years ago, when we learned of Phaedra’s death on a warm July night. It happened in Texas, where she was visiting relatives, so the news came by phone. “Shock” is such an inadequate word. I remember feeling first confused: how can this be? It can’t be. Phaedra had just been at our home the week before, launching what turned into a two-day play-athon: Phaedra, my daughter and their other best friend, moving from one girl’s house to the next, unable to say goodbye. After confusion I felt nausea, like the whole world was a rocking ship. Then sadness, great rolling swells of tears. Then, finally, anger: the driver of the pickup truck that hit Phaedra’s uncle’s car had a blood alcohol level of three times the legal limit. He killed three people that night: Phaedra, her uncle and her cousin. Two other cousins and her aunt were badly burned. The drunk driver walked away.

That right there is nihilism. Or anti-natalism, or whatever you want to call it. This was no arbitrary accident. This was blatant disregard for the preciousness of life, encoded in weak drunk driving laws and a world that turns a blind eye to nihilistic binge drinking. Three lives ended, including the life of one seven-year-old girl who would be 22 if she were alive today.

The name “Phaedra” means bright. I think about that too, when the sun suddenly lights us up and warms us up the way it hasn’t in six months, triggering an instant surge of gratitude for… gratitude. For the way it feels to feel real joy at being alive, to feel thankful for having been born, for having given birth to two children. For having known a bright little girl who only got seven years here but who reminds me, still, to say yes, not no, to being alive.


Sixteen: that is the number of trilliums I’ve seen in the past two days. Sixteen! I wish I could travel back in time and tell ten-year-old me the good news: The trilliums made it. They didn’t go extinct.

When I was a girl, I worried so much about them. On one of the first hikes of my life, our Girl Scout leader told us trilliums were endangered and that was why we mustn’t ever pick them, beautiful though they were, shyly nodding their white tri-cornered heads from their shady hiding places. The scout leader said it didn’t look good for the trilliums: they might be gone very soon. She said this in a grave voice, as if she were talking about a very ill child.  She told us that if we saw even one on our hike, let alone two or three, we’d be lucky.

But today, yesterday, here they were: 16 trilliums sighted on two urban runs, both through reclaimed green spaces within two or three miles of downtown Seattle.

And as I crouched to get a closer look, I thought: this is one of those good things about having a few more decades under my belt. I see the trilliums and I understand, in a way I couldn’t if I were ten or 20: when people put their minds to something, like saving a plant or an animal from extinction, it’s not necessarily some impossible dream. Change may sometimes be slow, but it is possible.

Trails through ravines that, not long ago, were choked with trash and blackberry vines: also possible, thanks to dozens of volunteers who spent dozens of Saturdays clearing weeds, cutting in steps, laying down gravel paths.

Bald eagles in city parks: not only possible but no longer even unusual. Seattle has several now, nesting in the older-growth havens like Seward and Discovery Parks but visiting all over the place, including the reclaimed ravines and heritage trees and pocket parks that now dot our city.

It is also possible the trilliums I saw in the urban woods were not the same super-endangered trilliums my scout leader was talking about. But in 30 years of running through the official and de facto parks of Seattle, I have never seen more than one or two lone trilliums at a time.

We get so cranky and impatient. We want Obama to change up Washington overnight. We want equality now, justice now, peace now. If you’re at a different place on the political spectrum, you might use different buzzwords—liberty, or freedom—but you’re probably impatient too. Just plain tired of how long change takes.

Wherever you are, politically, geographically, I bet there might be somewhere near where you live where some dedicated group has created a place to walk where one didn’t previously exist. Mine is a city ravine; maybe yours is a former train track or a reclaimed logging road or a boardwalk across a bog. Here’s my advice: walk there. Think about the people who worked hard to make it happen. Say hello to the plants and birds and animals that have moved back in.  Maybe you’ll see one trillium. Maybe you’ll see sixteen.

What if my scout leader had given us a different message?

“Girls, go ahead and pick those pretty white flowers; they’re going to be extinct soon anyway.”

Saving a flower might seem like no big deal. On the other hand, if it’s what gets people to believe that change is possible—well then, take a bow, you shy trilliums. I am so thrilled you’re still around.

Raised to Please

We are raised to please. We are raised to attract. We are raised to decorate, divert and delight. We are raised to invite attention, not to seek it. To never, ever risk rejection.

And when I say we, of whom do I speak? It must be a group known to include me. Might it be… people over 50? Seattleites? Speakers of English?

Of course not. You know who I’m talking about. Women.

And what, you might ask, is so wrong with being raised to please?

Nothing at all, if you are born and remain a lovely-to-look-at, ornamental sort of a woman. Nothing at all, if ornamenting the world brings you great joy.

But what if what you long to do is build tall buildings? Play basketball? Conduct high-risk scientific research? Or—in my case—write? And in order to achieve that writing dream, you have to lob your precious words out into the world so they can be rejected over and over and over again until at last, you get lucky and what you’ve written is accepted and printed? Briefly, you are filled with joy—until your freshly published words are actually read. And not everyone likes them. And you want to die because you have displeased a few people.

Men, on the other hand, are raised to risk rejection or die trying. They’re raised to understand for every ten girls they ask out, one might say yes and hey, that’s great! They grow up understanding they won’t get a good job unless they apply for 100. They learn young: licking wounds is wasting time.

Meanwhile, women grow up learning: don’t ask for what you want. Be patient, pretty, good, do everything right—and someone, someday, will read your mind.

Am I oversimplifying? Sure. But take a look at the annual count by the literary nonprofit VIDA of female versus male writers published in prestigious magazines—Atlantic, New Yorker, Harpers, etcetera.  Diet-sized wedges of each pie chart represent articles written by women. I don’t think the problem is that women don’t write great nonfiction.  Or they don’t think their writing is good enough. I think women writers don’t submit their work because they fear rejection. Or, like me, they’ve been rejected half a dozen times and they can’t stand the pain.

As a longtime documentary filmmaker, I’ve been rejected by film festivals dozens of times.  But here’s the difference: I make films with my husband. Somehow, that helps, because even though I feel every rejection as a personal rejection of me, he knows how to move on and he tugs me along with him. Writing nonfiction for print publications is a newer pursuit for me and I’m flying solo.

My writer friend Isla is the one who got me thinking about this Curse of the Good Girl who internalizes early the paramount importance of pleasing. Isla is 20 years younger than I am. My daughter, 22 and a working journalist, gets it too.

The VIDA count is a vivid reminder, to writers like Isla, my daughter and me, that there’s more at stake here than our self-esteem. We need to keep submitting our work, and we need to get really good at handling rejection, because collectively, we still have a lot of catching up to do.

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 available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

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