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

Archive for the month “March, 2013”


DSC00865I grew up in a world of well-marked borders between work and the rest of life. Work was something my father did in an office downtown, not ever at home. I knew he was an “insurance agent” but I didn’t know, or really care, what that meant. Work was what he did to earn money. That’s all work meant.

When my parents divorced, the Mad Men lifestyle they had modeled for us ended, at least at our house, for good. My mother went back to college and became a teacher, daily demonstrating to her six children how thoroughly work and the rest of life could and did mix when necessary. Her evenings were filled with making dinner, grading papers, paying bills, grading more papers. But still I thought of work as what you did to earn money.

These days, I’m not sure what to think.

I do plenty of work that is important to me for which I don’t get paid. I write these radio commentaries. I create independent documentary films with my husband, Rustin Thompson. This unpaid work gets all mixed in, every day, with our paying work. The borders are porous and the benefits flow both ways. We bring more creative energy to the work we do for our clients—nearly all of them hard-working nonprofits in the Puget Sound area—who in turn inspire us to be creative. Meanwhile, there’s cooking, housework, family time, all going into the daily mix.

Believe me, ours is not a great business model, if you define business in terms of dollars and cents. But it’s a life model that I have come to believe is more natural for us modern humans than Mad Men style separation. For centuries before the industrial revolution, farmers, craftsmen, artisans, shopkeepers lived and worked in the same place. Now that we’re post-industrial, many of us have returned to a home-based or borderless working life. (My late brother, an early computer prodigy who designed software from his home office, used to call himself a “software farmer.”)

The dark side of this is the much-bemoaned syndrome of always being chained—either by necessity or choice—to your work via the phone in your pocket. The bright side is when it can all blend together in the best ways.

During the Depression, Robert Frost wrote a poem called “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” about two hungry hobos who showed up in his New England yard just as he was getting ready to split wood—a task he loved and which, he implies in the poem, inspired him creatively. But he knew the tramps needed the work, and he knew he would offer it. “My right might be love but theirs was need,” Frost wrote.

The poem concludes with an ode to the best option of all: when work is done from love and need: “Only where love and need are one,/And the work is play for mortal stakes,/ Is the deed ever really done/For heaven and the future’s sakes.”

As I watch my own young adult children launch their working lives, my hope for them is that they will be able to meet their needs doing work they love. It’s a good goal. But as it has been for us, it might have to be a blend: some work done for love, some for need, some for love and need.

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.


Meaning: Searching and/or Finding

DSC00865Trying to fill a room in Seattle is a fickle business. On the first day of 2013 that felt like spring was not just a dream some of us had, who ever would’ve guessed that 25 hundred Seattle souls would willingly converge for a collection of lectures called the Search for Meaning Book Festival? And this was a free event: advance registration encouraged, but no fifty dollar commitment. No reason why you couldn’t just say, “Are you kidding? I’m going to Golden Gardens!” after you pulled back the curtains on a morning flood of daffodil-yellow sunlight.

Now in its fifth year, the Search for Meaning Book Festival just keeps growing. It is hosted by Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry, but the authors and speakers come from every religious tradition, including none-of-the-above. This year’s keynotes were a conversation between authors Sherman Alexie and Michael Chabon in the morning and a riveting talk by Iranian-American writer Reza Aslan in the afternoon. Before and after the keynotes were seminars, of which we attendees had to choose three or four out of nearly four dozen. Topics ranged from searching for meaning in suffering to the ethics of sustainable seafood. Highlights for me were Port Townsend poet Holly Hughes’ session on contemplation and creativity and Stranger Genius Award-winner Lesley Hazleton’s talk on the life of Muhammad.

But I digress. Back to the weather. Next time you’re on Capitol Hill, stroll a few blocks south and you’ll find yourself in a little green oasis: the Seattle University campus. Not such a bad place to be on a bizarrely sunny March day. Strolling back and forth between seminars, the Cascade Mountains glittered in the east, the trees were budding, the camellias popping, the fountains spraying. Inside the lovely Chapel of Saint Ignatius, the sunlit blue of the stained glass was so vibrant it vibrated.

West of campus, just across the street, is Swedish Hospital, where I have often found meaning waiting for me, whether I wanted it there or not: in the joy of greeting newborn babies; the sorrow of saying good-bye to a friend in her final days.

Truth be told, I was having trouble with meaning that morning at Seattle University. I had just learned that a child I know might have cancer.  It is hard to find meaning in that kind of news. I didn’t go to the Search for Meaning Book Festival expecting to find an answer there, but I thought maybe I’d find distraction. Or some vague kind of comfort.

The first seminar I attended was… exactly wrong. Right, no doubt, for adults facing major illness, but wrong for brooding me, wrestling with why children should ever have to face such horrors. Maybe I should have just skipped all this and gone to Golden Gardens, I thought, as I headed over to the keynote. I’ve heard Sherman Alexie AND Michael Chabon before—why am I here?

But Sherman Alexie is a charmer. He had me with his crack about dining on “kosher buffalo” with Chabon. And as Alexie encouraged Chabon to ramble on about the waxing and waning of his Jewish faith, I looked around the room and thought, Here’s the comfort: 2500 people who are curious, who are listeners and questioners, who actually want to search for meaning, even on a sunny day.

Chabon tossed off a line that stuck with me: “Searching and not finding is much more satisfying than finding.”

Later in the day, the Jesuit President of Seattle University, Father Steven Sundborg—a man who you might assume has Meaning all figured out—asked this: Do we seek meaning, or does meaning seek us?

He posed the question in his introduction to Reza Aslan, whose hour-long talk vigorously tackled the rising American fear of Islam: how it has morphed, over the dozen years since 9-11, into a right-wing-fueled, bigotry-stoking machine.

Aslan had lots of data. But ultimately, he said, data doesn’t change minds. What changes minds is relationships.

Because we’re all searching for meaning. It’s what we do. And it is comforting to know, on one bright Saturday in Seattle, that we’re not alone.

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.




DSC00865Leakers: They sound like something out of the Walking Dead. And, in some frightening version of the future, they could be. “Leakers” are what the people who work at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation call the nuclear waste storage tanks that have been leaking. According to Crosscut journalist John Stang, there have now been 69 confirmed leakers at Hanford, including six currently believed to be leaking.  About three to six gallons per tank per day of radioactive waste, leaking into the ground, 7 to 10 miles from the Columbia River: especially unnerving now that, thanks to the federal sequester, Hanford may have to put the brakes on its efforts to stop the leakers.

What a poster-child the Leakers are for everything that’s wrong with the blunt instrument, across-the-board, Sequester approach to budget cutting: more than half the staff at Hanford could be furloughed or laid off on April 1st. Once the shining star of our cold war defenses; Hanford is now the dark star of the world’s most delicate, most important cleanup dilemma: what to do with all the waste we generated building all those warheads? And now we’re going to lay off the people who are actually willing and–God willing–able to figure this stuff out?

Governor Inslee says he’s on it. He told longtime Hanford reporter Anna King he views the leaking tanks as a problem as “urgent as if they were spilling out into his front lawn.” But Hanford is much, much more than a Washington state problem. Just ask New Mexico, where the Feds plan to ship some of the Hanford waste. There are conservationists there who are pretty upset about that plan, and who can blame them? Especially with these new Leakers stalking the news?

Our state’s poet laureate, Kathleen Flenniken, has written a chilling, beautiful book of poems about Hanford called Plume. Flenniken grew up there during the Cold War years. Her dad was a Hanford engineer. The poems are a stark testament to how far we as a country will go in demanding patriotism. At Hanford, in the 1940s, fifties, sixties, seventies, the ultimate patriotic act was silence. Silence about what was being produced there—how much, how powerful, how dangerous; silence about known levels of radioactivity in fish, milk, soil and the bodies of the people who worked on the site. Silence about consequences. About cancer. About death.

Even children were called to the cause of silent patriotism, when their own radiation levels were calculated by MRI-like scanners.  In a poem titled “Whole-body Counter, Marcus Whitman Elementary,” Flenniken writes:

“and the machine had taken me in

like a spaceship and I moved

slow as the sun through the chamber’s

smooth steel sky.

I shut my eyes again and pledged

to be still; so proud to be

a girl America could count on.”

Hanford workers paid a high price for the silent loyalty of those years. Now, a new generation is being asked to figure out what to do with what they left behind: 56 million gallons of nuclear waste, much of it so highly toxic it can only be handled by remote control.

In a poem titled “The Cold War,” Flenniken concludes:

“We called it the arms race

and there were two sides.

It was simple.”

But now it’s not. Cleanup never is.

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.

Foiled Again

DSC00853Wow, there was a lot of gray hair at the Oscars this year. Kidding! Sure, George Clooney’s silver head was in every other cutaway shot. And French best actress nominee Emmanuelle Riva looked fabulously un-dyed on this, her 86th birthday. But even Jane Fonda and Shirley Bassey (75 and 76 respectively), do not dare bare their true hair. Barbra Streisand (70), Meryl Streep (63)—no way.

I thought of them all as I sat in a salon chair, 50 or so squares of foil shooting out from my head, flipping through More magazine. Looking like an extra in a low-budget sci-fi film. Feeling morally deficient. I really want to be the kind of woman who can own the gray: Emmy Lou Harris. Jamie Lee Curtis. But I’m not. I’m just not. Not yet.

I tried. I stopped coloring my hair for about two years. I thought I was doing OK with the gradually emerging, real, salt-n-pepper me, until I saw a photo in which I resembled my grandmother. Not my stylish Seattle grandma: no, I resembled my dear, frumpy Finnish-American grandma, whose hair was the same steely gray I now saw on my own head. And what is so wrong with that, you might ask? What’s wrong is that I often work with people 10, 20, even 30 years younger than I am, and I can’t yet afford to frighten them away by resembling their grandmothers. I literally can’t afford it: in the often arbitrary world of self-employed creative professionals, the wrong first impression could cost you the job.

This is what I tell myself. That it’s not about me not accepting my age, it’s about our culture, our society, not accepting my age. But how am I helping if I capitulate and pour expensive chemicals on my head? I’m not helping, not at all. I’m contributing to the never-ending silliness of our age-allergic age. And I know this.

And I know that serious people who I respect will judge me, rightly, for my vanity.

However. There really is a however to this story. It’s about the self-knowledge that you start to bank as you age: about knowing what works for your self-esteem, your ability to get up in the morning and seize the day.  And we’re all wired a little differently. For example, it doesn’t bother me that I can’t afford to buy my wardrobe at high-end department stores. I like treasure-hunting at consignment shops. But hair is different. Your hair frames your face, which means when you greet yourself in the mirror at 7am, your hair is part of the package. And when my hair was gray, I looked in the mirror and I felt old. And—this is the interesting part—I think it made me, ever so subtly, act old. Old-er. You know: Oh that achy hip; oh I’m tired; oh let’s not go out. That sort of thing. This might not be true for you, but it was true for me.  And it bothered me.

In a lovely, wrenching, Oscar-nominated documentary called Mondays at Racine, women with cancer talked about how losing their hair was one of the hardest things they had to deal with.  Because, whether their hair was short and spiky or long and lush, it was the frame around the face they saw in the mirror. Without it, their faces looked as exposed and vulnerable as their cancer made them feel. Many of them learned to own the baldness, to embrace it as part of their new survivor-self. But it was not ever easy.

Men’s hair is, of course, a whole different subject. Barack Obama, George Clooney? No career problems we can pin on their heads. But that unlucky guy who is balding at 30? I bet he can relate to the way women feel about going gray.

Back to Emmy Lou and Jamie Lee: I admire them so much, just as I admire every woman I know who is not hung up, like I am, on hair color. That list includes my sister and sister-in-law, who both look gorgeous and youthful and ought to be an inspiration to me. And they will be, when the time comes. But I’m just not ready yet. Are you? I would love to hear why or why not.

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

Post Navigation