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

Archive for the month “August, 2012”


We Northwesterners think of where we live as blue and green, like those pictures of the planet from outer space. Lots of water. Lots of trees. Which is why fire shocks us so. Suddenly, a deliciously warm week becomes ominously hot. Suddenly, landscapes we know and love explode in flames.

This week, it was the Taylor Bridge fire, just east of Cle Elum, a scant 90 minutes from downtown Seattle. More often, the fires burn further east.

When I was a child, we rarely crossed the mountains into fire country. Forest fires were something that happened far from my blue and green world. But in the past twenty years, my family has crossed the North Cascades to backpack, hike, camp and rent a cabin in the Methow Valley every summer. We were there not long after the terrible Thirtymile Fire of 2001, in which four firefighters were killed. That summer, the valley was as thick with stunned grief as it was with the heavy smoke of a fire that’s been doused into ashy mud.

Then and now, we hear the usual reminders of the benefits of fire. Of how fires are part of the forest ecology; vital for the transmission of seeds and regeneration of dozens of species. All true, but hard to hear when a place you love has been charred to nakedness.

This summer, we drove up the long east branch of the Chewuch River Road, where a succession of fires has scorched thousands of acres in the past decade, to hike up Tiffany Mountain. The landscape was lonely. Eerie. Mile after mile of giant black toothpicks: no branches, no leaves.

But when we got out of the car and onto the trail, we saw a different story. Abundant fireweed—tall, bright green plants with purple tops like oversized sweet peas—filled the forest floor. Waist-high pines and knee-high fir trees waved in the breeze. Alpine flowers—lupine, Queen Anne’s lace, paintbrush—crowded the clearings. The ghostly tree trunks, surrounded as they were by all this growth, took on a sentinel quality: gaunt elders watching over the next generation.

It’s an irresistible metaphor: how fire clears the way for new growth; how we have no control over when and where the blaze will occur. Over the terror of the flames; the pain of the burn; the shock when it’s over.

I didn’t think it applied to me, right now, not really. Not until I got home from our hiking trip and suddenly, without warning, got kicked in the gut with a whole messy smoky stew of fears about the future, about work, about money, about meaning. You know: about everything.

There’s a writer that pastors and chaplains turn to when they’re feeling burned-out. (Speaking of fire metaphors.) William C. Martin writes this: “Discontent is a wonderful gift. It tells us something. Let it burn openly. If it is deep and valid it will burn and cleanse the underbrush and prepare for new growth. If it is superficial and false, it will find no fuel and burn out quickly.”

Some of my discontent was nothing more than post-vacation re-entry syndrome, as I like to call it, and it did burn out quickly. But some of it is real and important and I’m trying hard to let it burn openly. To make way for new growth. For the seedlings and the fireweed. Which deserves a much prettier name. It’s really the most beautiful of all the mountain flowers.

 I’m teaching a non-credit memoir class this fall at Seattle Central. Six Wednesday evenings. Join me! and/or spread the word! Here’s the link. 

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.


National Parks

His name was Brady, “like the Bunch,” he said, which I’m sure he knew would make it stick in the minds of a couple of people already a chunk of years older than the Brady parents were during their TV heyday.

Brady looked no older than our own 20 and 23 year-old children. He had that skinny build that made me want to offer him a sandwich right away, if we’d had one to offer. If we hadn’t been backpacking in the North Cascades and just eaten a meal of freeze-dried something reconstituted with hot water and served in a pouch. And if he hadn’t been an actual park ranger, gun in holster and all.

We had just set up our tent at a place called High Camp when Brady loped into view. He apologized for bothering us, explaining he wanted to let us know he was there, right around the corner at a ranger campsite, since we might have thought we were alone and been startled by his footsteps or his two-way radio.

“No need to apologize,” I assured him, not adding what I was thinking, which was: we’re just a couple of city-dwelling people your parents’ age who really have no business up here in the backcountry and we are frankly thrilled to know there is a ranger on the other side of the knoll!

We asked about a noise we couldn’t identify, a sort of Tuvan throat-singer sound. Grouse, Brady said. We asked about bears. Oh sure, they’re around, he said—just make sure to hang your food bag. We talked about how gorgeous the alpine meadows were, though it was too bad the mosquitoes had just hatched like crazy. He offered to change our permit for the next night to a site where they weren’t so relentless, though he urged us to take a hike in the morning to the high meadows, before we headed down to our new camp. We promised we would, and we did.

As we hiked the next day through meadows of lupine and paintbrush, we marveled at Brady and everything he represented.  As Tim Egan wrote in a lovely essay in the New York Times, we—meaning all of us, all Americans—are the owners of a vast resort called the National Parks. Hard-working rangers like Brady make it safe and possible for us all to visit our communal vacationland; to be awed by wild places the way Americans have always been.

Rangers spend ten days at a time in the backcountry. They also log desk time at places like the Marblemount Ranger Station, where they have the tough job of eyeballing and tactfully questioning the hikers who come in for permits. It was a ranger named Sage who sent us to the High Camp trail instead of the one we’d intended to do, which was still under heavy snow, after we told him we had only one hiking pole between us and no ice axe or crampons. Sage may have pre-saved our lives, so to speak, and/or the lives of his colleagues who would have been sent to rescue us when we slipped and fell.

On our second night out, tucked in our tent at a cozy site called Hideaway Camp, I felt so grateful for Brady, Sage, the whole concept of National Parks in general and rangers in particular. It is hard to articulate what a few nights in the mountains will do for a person—spiritually, physically—but the rangers get it. And they want you to get it. Safely, and with no more mosquito bites than necessary. Because they understand: this is not just their summer resort, it is everyone’s.

I’m teaching a non-credit Introduction to Memoir class at Seattle Central this fall. Six Wednesday nights. Join me! More info here.

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.


Seattle Chill

Months ago, I sat down to write about the Seattle Chill, that social coolness that people new to our town find so perplexing. I found myself squirming as I wrote, because I realized I was describing myself.

Recently, I was asked to take a personality test, something I’ve long resisted. I learned, among other things, that I’m the type of introvert often mistaken for an extrovert.  This insight came as a great relief to me. It made me feel like I’m not a bad person for needing time alone, especially if I’ve been super-social—it’s just the way I’m wired. And I would venture this: Seattle is full of people like me. We can rally and behave like extroverts when we need or want to, but because we are true introverts, we just can’t keep it up all the time.

We’re good at cordial. Not so good at gregarious. Good at meeting for coffee, not so quick to extend that first invitation to dinner. As a Seattle native whose roots are mostly Scandinavian, I can play the old ethnic card. Taciturn Finns, somber Swedes—they are my people. And it is true the early Scandinavian settlers set the local social thermostat at a level that matched the climate: cool, with occasional slightly warm periods.

But there’s a twist to this story: I think a lot of the people who move here and complain about the Chill also take advantage of it to excuse behavior they wouldn’t get away with back home. They secretly like this license we give them to be socially lazy. Maybe they left their hometowns and moved to this far Northwest corner to get away from social and family obligations. So they embrace customs we natives might describe as cordial but on the cool side and take them right into the deep freeze. They out-chill the Seattle Chill, and then blame it all on us.

This could be wildly unfair. What I’m describing could be more of a generational change, related more to all the ways we now communicate online and how that shift has affected our in-person interactions.

But, ever the optimist, here’s my hope: that conversations about the Seattle Chill and what, if anything, we can do about it will turn us toward each other, not further away.

In my new neighborhood, people are starting to gather on Fridays in our small central park. It’s a little awkward, but it’s a start. A welcome change from last fall, when, shortly after we moved here, I went to the neighborhood trail-building work party and found myself taking it personally that no one introduced themselves to me, as we hoisted buckets of gravel up and down the muddy slopes.

I remember tried to have a private laugh about it as I walked home; trying to chalk it up to the Seattle Chill, even though my Seattle grandma would have called it plain old bad manners.

However: you never would have caught her at a neighborhood picnic in a public park, let alone a trail-building work party. So maybe we are making a little progress. Maybe we should cut ourselves some slack, newcomers and natives alike. Give ourselves time, accept that there will be awkwardness, as we learn how to warm up.

Here’s a link to my article, “Laughter and Forgetting,” in Seattle Met Magazine. 

Our film, Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story is now available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.

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.

First Class

            Ah, the clink of the forks in First Class. From where I’m sitting on this plane, just three rows away, the sound is like wind chimes heard through a closed window, reminding us: we are here and not there where those pretty breezes are blowing.

I’m in Economy Plus, where apparently there’s a little more legroom. I did not pay for or upgrade to this section; I think it’s a bone the airline threw me after my earlier flight was cancelled.

Going through security at Washington D.C.’s Dulles Airport, I noticed an express lane and signs urging me to sign up for a card that would give me the privilege of using this special lane, presumably after traveling thousands of miles or paying extra, or both.

None of this is particularly new. But it feels just a little more—in your face than it used to. Pay for this card and cut in line! Pay for an Economy Plus seat so you can cross your legs! Pay Lord knows how much and eat real food with real forks!

Here in Economy Plus, I’m sitting next to a blonde, sleepy teen in a hoodie whose suntanned and bejeweled mother, seated in First Class, just brought her back a chocolate sundae in a glass dish.

After eating her ice cream, teen daughter popped her ear buds in and went back to sleep, leaving me to wonder about her mother, as I always do about people in First Class: what is it like to have so much money you can spend a thousand plus dollars to fly across the country?

A few times in history, I’ve landed up there, due to some crazy act of God that never involves my money, and I have to admit it is very pleasant to have a huge seat, constant doting service, real food and free liquor. But it’s hard to imagine paying for it.

But I digress. I’ve just spent four days in Virginia and Washington, D.C., where the income gap might be more alive and well than in many other cities—or not. Maybe it just looks that way to my Seattle eyes, unaccustomed as they are to seeing men wearing expensive suits in any weather, let alone in the middle of a D.C. heat wave.

The men in suits and the women in summer dresses make for good people watching. But an even better and equally free activity, especially when it’s 101 and swamp-humid, are the museums.  Free, as in no cost! Just to put this in perspective, admission to the Museum of Modern Art in New York is 25 dollars. Seattle Art Museum: 17 dollars.

On this visit, I discovered the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, two collections housed together in what poet Walt Whitman called, quote,  “the noblest of buildings.”

I saw Harlem portraits by Gordon Parks, Bill Clinton’s portrait by Chuck Close, Richard Nixon by Norman Rockwell, Civil War generals photographed by Matthew Brady. Amelia Earhart. Ethel Waters. Dolly Madison. Faces of Americans, famous and not, filling room after room.

Outside, the heat wave broke into thunder, lightning and pouring rain. The museum was, suddenly and literally, a port in a storm, a port full of Americans, rich, poor, and in-between; some of us living and walking; others alive only on the walls.

I felt connected across decades and centuries; I felt that cornball emotion Whitman captured so well in his poem, “I Hear America Singing:” quote, “singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.”

I felt, for an hour, like the whole country had been upgraded to First Class.

I’ve got an article this month, “Laughter and Forgetting,” in Seattle Met Magazine.

Our film, Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story is now available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.

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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