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

Archive for the month “December, 2012”

Layered Days

DSC00865Memory is like layers and layers of scarves on a cold day, I thought as I walked through the Pike Place Market a few days before Christmas. You wrap yourself up, you revel in the warmth that comes from decades of turning the same corners at the same time of year. But then you feel a chilly blast, a spatter of December-in-Seattle raindrops just this side of ice and you remember: oh, right. Along with all these warm layers of Happy inevitably come the cold, damp sprays of Sad.

At no time of year is this more true than right now. And the older you get, the more layers there are, happy/sad happy/sad, happy/happy sad/sad, until you think you might drown in all the layers, you might just go under altogether, especially if you are walking through a known memory minefield like the Pike Place Market.

You’re sure your head and heart might explode at any moment. You wonder why no one can tell. The nervous, branch-thin cheese cutter at De Laurenti’s: clearly, she’s a seasonal hire, unlike the more seasoned gang at Sosio’s Fruit and Produce, who sense immediately your need for triage. Four of them spring into action, filling a box, encouraging you to focus your exploding mind on the concrete, present-moment compresses of carrots, spinach, lettuce, pretty little tomatoes called “strawberries,” chanterelle mushrooms crowded in a box like ballerinas waiting backstage.

The Sosio Brothers, and sisters, are old enough to know. They don’t know your personal details, but they viscerally know you didn’t just get to town yesterday, no you didn’t. These stalls, this market, is where you first came by yourself on the bus, barely out of childhood, and wondered: why does my family never leave our lemon-pledged neighborhood and come here? Where the smells of produce and meat and leather and incense and coffee and bread are a seduction, a perfume, a promise of a busy lively universe that has nothing to do with popular, pretty, cool, all the other words you hear ad nauseum every day? A promise that there is indeed a city beyond your junior-high world, a city you are learning to love even as you yearn to leave. Which you do, for eight years.

And then one day, you return to this city and finally love it the way you started to love it when you took those daring bus rides to First and Pike.

The Sosio gang senses—in their non-specific, humanitarian way—how you went on to build your grownup life here. How you and your newsroom friends hung out at the Virginia Inn. How you kissed two husbands under these lights. How you brought your babies here, in front packs, backpacks, strollers, finally on their own two feet. How you dined high—Place Pigalle, Il Bistro, Chez Shea, Matt’s, Maximilien’s, Campagne—and low: humbow, smoothies, piroshki, gyros, pizza, soup, cinnamon rolls. How you continued to come by yourself, over the years, when you needed the colors and the lights. They know that right now, you’re aching somewhere: for the feel of a tired toddler on your hip; for the way a chocolate-frosted donut tasted when you were twelve and so hungry. They know because for them, this place is just as layered, just as complicated, even though they come here every day of their working lives.

The English novelist and memoirist Jeannette Winterson writes of how “events separated by years lie side by side imaginatively and emotionally.” This travel outside linear time and into the folding, falling layers of memory time is so pungent, so poignant, and I find myself unable to resist poignance, even when it hurts.  It is what compels me to read memoirs like Winterson’s (Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?). It is what compels me to write.

The writing began five years ago, when my own voice started calling to me, loudly. Finally, I listened. That it happened when my daughter left home for college may have been clichéd but it was also, simply, true. Our son was still at home, so the nest wasn’t empty. But life, time, my days, all suddenly felt less linear. It seemed there was this newly opened space in my head where I was allowed to pile on or peel away layers of memory. To see how it felt when I did it. To see how it looked written down.

I knew I wanted to write about my mother—her remarkable life, her untimely death from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease—but I knew I also wanted to write about myself. I wanted to find out what was happening to me. I wanted to think out loud, on the page, about these new feelings I was having about, well, everything: my childhood, my young adulthood, my early parenthood, my grief for my mom, the meaning of my life.

Five years later, I’m seeking a publisher for my memoir, titled Her Beautiful Brain. I’m teaching memoir writing at Seattle Central Community College because, no matter how long it takes me to find the right publisher (or to conclude that I should self-publish, which I may do in 2013), I so believe in the power and poignance of embracing your own layers of memory and writing your own story that I want to encourage other people to do it too.

I’m also writing this blog, which is really a collection of the weekly Restless Nest essays I write and record for KBCS radio. This piece is not going to be on the radio: it’s too long and too personal. But the notion of the “restless nest” – of a life phase where so much stirring and sifting is suddenly going on and you’ve just got to write, paint, sing, cook, build, invent, travel, do something with this new less linear and more expressive kind of energy – this notion continues to intrigue me and I want to see where it takes me.

Even when it feels—on a December day in the packed Pike Place Market—like my head might explode.

Read more about the colorful history of the Pike Place Market 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.




On a December Day

DSC00865One recent December day, my husband and I witnessed a rare event: a moment of silence on the floor of the United States House of Representatives. It was our first-ever trip to the visitors’ gallery at the Capitol. We were still trying to make sense of what appeared to be a gathering of 435 people engaged in animated speed-dating when the gavel thundered exactly twice and Congressman Earl Blumenauer of Oregon was given the floor. The congressman spoke briefly of the Clackamas Mall shooting, in which two people were killed, three including the gunman, who took his own life. The moment of silence ensued. Then the speed-dating resumed. After a vote on something involving asthma inhalers and quips exchanged with the young intern next to us re Speaker Boehner’s strikingly varnished skin color, we left, assuming, without giving it much thought, that Blumenauer’s mild call for attention to the nightmare of gun violence would go, as per usual, unheeded.

A day and a half later, I attended a poetry reading at a Seattle elementary school where I’d been an apprentice with Seattle Arts & Lectures’ Writers in the Schools program. Parents, grandparents and squirmy younger siblings crowded into the school library to hear the fifth graders read of their passion for the color orange, for football, for horses, dogs, cats, tropical fish, recess, hot chocolate. I listened a bit wistfully, nostalgic for my own days as an elementary school parent. But I left with a smile on my face: how could one not feel hope and happiness after a morning like that?

Then I looked at my phone and saw a news alert bearing a number I thought couldn’t make sense. Must be a typo. 27 dead? At an elementary school?

And so the day unfolded, so very differently than I, than any of us, had thought it would.

Even before our Capitol visit, our east coast trip had been unexpectedly patriotically-themed. It started in New York, when we went to pay our respects at Ground Zero. Before we got to the site itself, we visited tiny St. Paul’s Church, just a few hundred yards away, where a home-made altar covered with flyers and photos of 9-11 victims still stands, right next to what was once George Washington’s private pew. A sign on the pew explained that after 9-11, exhausted search and rescue crews sat there to get their feet massaged.

Something about that layering of history moved us, on our next stop, to visit the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, where we saw for ourselves what millions of other visitors already knew: it’s the jagged crack in the bell that is so compelling. A timeless reminder that democracy is fragile. It’s not an unbreakable, forever joyously clanging bell; sometimes it’s an exhausted New York firefighter whose feet are wrecked.

A few days later in DC, we walked up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I thought once again of Steven Spielberg’s movie depiction of President Lincoln’s personal evolution on the subject of slavery. Just as our bell-ringing founding fathers were not born revolutionaries, Lincoln did not start his political life as a committed abolitionist. The tragedy of war took him there. As we can only hope the tragedies in Colorado and Oregon and now Connecticut will take President Obama to a place of leadership on gun control; to a new era when one moment of silence on a December day will no longer be considered an adequate response to senseless gun violence.

At the end of his 1865 inaugural address, Lincoln called on the country—“With malice toward none; with charity for all”—to, quote, “do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” Peace among ourselves: in this season when we invoke the word so often, doesn’t the time seem right to do all which may achieve it? 

Speaking of the season: check out The Restless Critic’s Christmas movie list, in which he reveals our family’s annual guilty pleasure film. 

Our films, The Church on Dauphine Street, 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle and Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story are 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.


DSC00865Word fashions come and go: what is “awesome” was once “marvelous,” what is “great” was once merely “good.”  What we value changes too: what we deem awesome today—a tiny car that gets high mileage; a good bottle of Washington wine—would have deeply puzzled our great-grandparents.

There’s one word I bet our great-grandparents used more often than we do that I’d like to bring back. Curiosity. It’s not gone for good, it’s just fallen into disuse. You could call it a value, and you might mean that in a good or a bad way, depending on your “values” with a capital V. Or you could call it a character trait.  But doesn’t it roll off the tongue? Curiosity.

We readers are likely to link it in our minds to books, beginning of course with Curious George, the monkey whose endless curiosity got him into endless scrapes. (“Scrapes:” there’s another rich old word, connoting a scrape along the outer edge of good behavior or the law or life itself.) But with George there was always an underlying moral along the lines of: Better not to be too curious. It was a moral well-suited to George’s heyday in the middle of the last century, when our elders worried that curiosity might lead us to flirt with communism or beat poetry or other interests that would cause us to stray from the proper paths of college, marriage, corporate employment and home ownership.

Poor George: whisked from the jungle to a wondrous new planet called Manhattan and then chastised every time he wanted to rappel off the fire escape for a little curiosity-fueled tour. What child sentenced to spend their days fidgeting at a school desk could not relate to his pain: the torture of a curious soul, caged and clamped down?

How thrilling then, the glimmers of hope for the curious offered by the good books that came after George–Harriet the Spy, A Wrinkle in Time, Swiss Family Robinson—and by the occasional good teacher. Mine was Mrs. LaCrosse, second grade, who preached not only reading but writing as the key to a rich and curious life. Writers could ask questions, think thoughts, take imaginary trips any time they wanted. What an anarchist’s vision, what a revolutionary dream!

It was 1964 and conformity abounded. A solid majority of my little-girl brain wanted what Sleeping Beauty wanted: to be carried off by a handsome prince, dressed lavishly and taken care of, like a Chinese princess with bound feet, forever. But Mrs. LaCrosse had wedged open the door to a back brain closet. Inside, the rogue. The beast: curiosity. Thank God.

I do thank God, because I believe my curiosity saved me. I was not princess material, at least not in my world, which was a northeast Seattle neighborhood where if you didn’t wear bright new Bonnie Doon kneesocks, you were shunned. Add blue cat-eye glasses to your rubber-banded, hand-me-down socks, and you were doomed. For a brief and happy while, aka elementary school, I didn’t understand just how doomed; that came later with the cruelty of junior high school.

What got me thinking about the saving powers of curiosity was a book I plucked from the bargain table at Elliott Bay Bookstore: Martha Gellhorn’s memoir, Travels with Myself and Another. You may remember her as one of Hemingway’s wives. But that was but a brief episode in her long and curiosity-fueled career as a globe-trotting, conflict-seeking journalist. In her memoir, she reflects on what she calls her “horror journeys,” her worst travel nightmares, and how they never seemed to stop her from wanting more: more adventures, more challenges, more danger. (She is a hilarious practitioner of the wry understatement, as in this comment on travel in China in 1941: “Time resumed its frightful habit of standing still but finally we were gasping through the last night.”) Of a brief wartime break from her travels, she writes, “I was going into a decline from hearing about the war on the radio instead of being where I wanted to be, with the people whose lives were paying for it.”

Gellhorn was a great believer, as a journalist and as a human being, of the importance of seeing it for herself. How could she write about China without going there? If she were alive today, I suspect she would find our insta-access to information a marvelous convenience, but no substitute for first-hand experience. A good thing, but not a great or awesome thing. Curious people like to look stuff up and then go where their curiosity leads them. That’s when good becomes great, and marvelous, and awesome.

Our films, The Church on Dauphine Street, 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle and Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story are 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.


Restless Brain Syndrome

DSC00853Restless Brain Syndrome: I’ve had it bad lately. Typical onset: about five a.m. Starts with: review of dreams, none of which ever make much sense, but all of which seem to crescendo up to some cliff-hanger moment that wakes me up. I can’t keep swimming this river: there’s no more water! And wait: why am I wearing a slip? Who even wears slips anymore?

From these traumas, my brain moves restlessly towards the saving light of consciousness, only to find a whole new casserole of dilemmas. My husband is right: we’ve got to get rid of that storage unit. It is ridiculous to have a storage unit. Speaking of Rustin, his latest film review ends with him saying he doesn’t think he’ll want to see Lincoln again. I couldn’t agree less.  Speaking of presidents trying to work with congresses, what about that fiscal cliff? Speaking of fiscal cliffs, I fear our checking account may be approaching one…

After enduring this for a while, I start bargaining with my brain. OK, Brain, you’re awake: so let’s stop tossing more leftovers into the casserole and address these food groups one at a time. How about we start by clearing the table of the stuff you can’t personally solve, like the fiscal cliff? In this phase, my restless brain tacks back and forth between wanting to get up and make a to-do list and wanting to cocoon deep into the pillow and see if I could somehow find another five minutes of sleep.

While this Restless Brain syndrome is nothing new for me—or for, oh, billions of other humans—there are seasons when, collectively and individually, we’re more likely to catch it. Like the flu, the restless brain favors winter: it’s dark, it’s cold, we’re cooped up with our worries. The charming ways in which our homes tend to crumble in this climate suddenly matter: a gap in the window frame is now a gateway to an arctic breeze; that tiny paint bubble has morphed into a peeling blister. Deadlines that were far away—fiscal cliff, college application, colonoscopy—suddenly loom like lethal icebergs. And in winter, we spend more time reading, seeing movies, staying on top of the news—all of which is good, but much less conducive to a good night’s sleep than the hiking, swimming, gardening of summer.

Lincoln is very much a brooding, winter film. Daniel Day-Lewis portrays President Lincoln as a man with a crushingly restless brain who paced the halls of the White House, night after night, through the Civil War’s dark seasons of slaughter. Of course he couldn’t sleep. The problems he faced make the fiscal cliff standoff look like teens playing Truth or Dare. What was so moving about watching Lincoln not sleep was: I felt like we could see him turning over every scrap of his own life experience, every trip to every battlefield, every conversation with constitutional scholars, as he worked out what he felt was his defining dilemma: how to ensure that slavery would indeed end—legally, constitutionally, finally—when the war ended.

Now, we have a whole pharmaceutical industry out there, luring us to end our insomnia with this pill or that one. And truly, none of us can not-sleep forever. But I sometimes wonder if part of the problem is: we try to move too quickly through the screen-centric tasks of our days. We don’t allow ourselves time to brood, pace, tell stories, think. So our restless brains make us do it at five in the morning. Maybe it’s not a syndrome. Maybe it’s just—the way we’re wired. 

Our films, The Church on Dauphine Street, 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle and Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story are 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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