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

Archive for the month “April, 2013”


DSC00865 “I know a young person who needs this,” whispered the woman sitting next to me at a fundraising event for a social services agency. She was talking about a small polished rock, on which the word “Courage” was engraved. There was one at every place setting: a little reminder for each guest to take home.

“You know, I do too,” I said. I slipped my rock into my purse, thinking of a young adult I know who is addicted to heroin. He doesn’t want to be. Who wants to live life enslaved to a drug? I’ve lost count of how many times he’s detoxed and rehabbed. Each relapse takes another chunk out of his store of hope. I pray daily that he won’t run out altogether. But this has been going on for a while now, and so where I find a shred of optimism is in a paradoxical thought: maybe, I tell myself, though he drew the bad card of addiction, he was also endowed with an inner core of resilience. There’s something in him that makes him strong enough to keep trying.

Why is it that some humans are resilient and others are not? I’m reading Nicole Krauss’ poignant novel The History of Love right now and marveling at the resilience of the main character, an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor named Leo Gursky. Somehow, Leo transcended the temptation to give up, or to define himself through hate, even though his family had been wiped out by the irrational hatred of the Nazis. Leo grew up on a scrap of the map claimed, at various times, by Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany and the Soviet Union. As a young man without family or friends, he started over in the United States, just like millions of immigrants before and since. For him, statelessness was a clean slate.

For others, it is lighter fluid just waiting for a match to flame it up into resentment, anger, vengefulness. Ireland, Israel, Iraq come to mind. The statelessness of ethnic Chechens may have played a part in the Boston Marathon bombs.

But why? Why do the hardships of war, repression, migration breed resilience in some and hatred in others?

The fundraiser I attended featured speakers who had survived horrific domestic violence and found the courage to get help and begin life anew. Two were women who had been severely injured by their abusers. One speaker was a man whose marriage ended after he threatened his wife. He sought help, and finally—in the middle of his life—learned how to behave nonviolently. How to build resilience through peace and compassion instead of abuse and control. It was an act of willful self-reprogramming not unlike what a drug addict must do in order to end his addiction. It took courage, just as it took courage for the other two speakers to save themselves and their children and start a new life.

Courage comes from the Latin word for heart. It’s about rock-like, inner strength. To be resilient, on the other hand, is to be elastic. It comes from a Latin root meaning to “jump back.” To bounce, not break. To weather change. To blossom after a drought, a hurricane, a hailstorm. Naturalist Ann Haymond Zwinger writes that “flowering is, after all, not an aesthetic contribution but a survival mechanism.” This was clear to me as I listened to the survivors of domestic violence, whose joyful blooming was so visible. Such a testament to what is possible when resilience meets courage. Which really is such a good word to put on a rock.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.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.




DSC00865One September day, when I was still a child but thought I was not, off I flew to Boston. My checked bags included a shiny trunk in a retro black and white pattern and a sky blue Skyway suitcase. I wore a new plaid blouse, brown corduroys and a brown hooded sweater. I was 17 and I didn’t look a day older.

Boston received me the way Boston does: with a bit of a yawn. Oh, here she comes; yet another wide-eyed rube from the Wild West come east to get some schooling. Sorry, sweetheart, but you’re a dime a dozen in this town. Never mind: have some chowder. Have a corn muffin. You want your coffee regular? Which in Boston, of course, means with cream and sugar.

I didn’t care, because I knew my real life was beginning.

In the mayhem of this past week, in our global obsession with Boston, with the bombs at the marathon finish line and who put them there and why; in our grief for the dead and injured, one of President Obama’s finest moments slipped under the news radar. On Thursday, hours before the terror and drama of the manhunt began, before we knew anything about two brothers with roots in Chechnya, the people of Boston gathered at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross to mourn. It was an interfaith service featuring many eloquent speakers. I happened to catch most of it on the radio. But it was our president who made me cry, because he reminded me what Boston means to me and to so very many others, including Michelle, including him.

“There’s a piece of Boston in me,” the President said, and I knew exactly what he meant. He recalled how the city welcomed him as a young law student. He talked about how he and Michelle knew its streets and squares.

“For millions of us,” the president said, “what happened on Monday is personal. It’s personal.” Yes it is.

When I went off to college, my destination was Wellesley, way out in the suburbs. After graduating from public high school in pre-Microsoft, pre-Nirvana Seattle, Wellesley—with its foreign princesses, New York sophisticates, New England bluebloods—was the first great culture shock of my life.  When the hothouse atmosphere got to be too much for me, Boston was where I went for relief.

I didn’t mind the long trip on the bus or the T. I craved the cobbled streets of Back Bay and Beacon Hill. I needed the cacophony of Park Street Station, the expanse of Copley Square. I reveled in the anonymity of cafes where even a greenhorn girl from out west could blend in. Boston wasn’t New York, but it was urban in ways that Seattle was not. It was historic, but it felt familiar: all my life, I’d heard of Harvard Yard, Old North Church, Boston Harbor, but I’d never seen them. And now here they were, like long-lost relatives who had been waiting to meet me.

In his speech, Obama quoted a poem by E.B. White, in which White calls Boston not a capital or a place, but a perfect “state of grace.” I suspect White, a New Yorker, meant it more playfully than ponderously. But Obama lifted the phrase up a few notches, and I don’t think White, the author of Charlotte’s Web, would have minded. He would have understood our post-marathon need for grace, the way Charlotte the spider-who-saved-a-pig understood, the way Boston understands when it welcomes naïve students and runners from around the world who have dreamed of this place, who need it, who will make it a part of the new selves they are creating. For whom this city and what happens to it will always be personal.

 Check out my recent guest blog on inspired by Brenda Miller and Holly Hughes’ wonderful book, The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. 

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.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.


DSC00865It’s almost 5:30. Time to walk the one block from my front door to the neighborhood center where I volunteer once a week as a homework tutor for Horn of Africa Services, a nonprofit serving Seattle’s East African community. I wonder what challenges await me today. Will I find myself trying to explain what a “bale of hay” is? Corral the attention of a first-grader who is convinced the police car in the alley might be here for someone he knows? Search for scissors and a glue stick for a “word-sorting” homework assignment that involves pasting postage-sized pictures of words with similar endings in the correct columns? The word-sort worksheet makes me wonder if the teacher who assigned it really enjoys the mental picture of parents and other homework helpers, like me, down on our knees gathering up flyaway scraps of homework confetti. (I don’t remember my own children having to use glue to do homework very often, though there was that one multi-day, sweat-and-tear-stained project that called for recreating Fort Vancouver out of popsicle sticks.)

At a training for volunteers, Program Director Dereje Zewdie began by defining culture as, quote, “what makes you a stranger when you’re away from home.” Walking to the tutoring center, I’m only a few hundred yards from where I now live. A mere ten miles from the house where I grew up. I don’t think about My Culture because I live in it. It is omnipresent; as invisible as air.

But all that changes when I open the door and walk in. Nearly everyone else in the room is about nine thousand miles, give or take, from the place they or their parents call home. And so Culture, the whole concept of it, is suddenly present, visible, tangible. Their culture, my culture—our rules, beliefs, traditions, language, values; everything human families transmit from one generation to the next—hovers around us.

What breaks the ice is the goal we all share: to get the homework done. The packets are due Friday, so we’re down to the wire on Thursday evenings. Huddled together over word sorts and math problems; over assigned stories full of puzzlers like “bales of hay;” we forget for an hour or two how strange we are to each other. Me with my uncovered, blonde-brown-gray hair. They with their colorful hijab.

There usually are not enough tutors to work one on one, so we juggle. I might find myself reading out loud with a kindergartener and a first-grader, stopping every few minutes to help a second grader add columns. After an hour of this, I often feel like my brain has been scissored into word-sort confetti.

According to Historylink’s 2010 article on Seattle’s Somali community, Somali students are the second largest bilingual group in the Seattle Public Schools. Amharic, Tigrinya and Oromo are also among the top eight languages spoken in the district. Seattle King County Public Health estimates there are about 40 thousand East African immigrants in King County. Some nonprofit organizations put the number much higher.

I’m not an academically valuable tutor. My math skills are rudimentary. But I’m comfortable around children, and I can put a LOT of gusto into reading and writing. Over my first several months, I’ve seen a few readers shift from stop-and-go to full-speed-ahead, and that is gratifying, even though I played only a small, once-a-week part in their progress.

In a recent Crosscut column, former Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle President Bill Stafford pointed out that Bellevue is now over 30 percent foreign born and Seattle 25 percent. “Whether you are a newspaper, theater company, medical provider or retailer,” writes Stafford, “to be successful, you must understand the changing demographics of the Puget Sound community.”

I appreciate his point, even though I am not any of those things. What keeps me coming back on Thursdays is: these are my neighbors. I want to know them better. If I had different talents, I might find some other way to do that. But for me, sounding out words with 6 and 7-year-olds is a place to start.

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 7:45 a.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.

Hard-wired for Green

DSC00865We are hard-wired for green. It’s a phrase I heard for the first time this week, and it is lodged in my brain at the moment like an advertising jingle I secretly like. Hard-wired for green: meaning, you can strip away everything you’ve learned since birth and you will still primally, viscerally, respond like a seedling in the sun to the sight of new green growth. You will feel reassured by this evidence that the planet, or at least one bit of it, is still alive and well. You will feel energized—if these plants can grow, then I can too.

You might think I heard this in some sort of eco-oriented setting, and you’d be right, if you stretched your notion of ecology to include the complex landscape of the brain. It was the keynote speaker at the regional Alzheimer’s conference who planted the “hard-wired for green” seed in my head. Sociologist and author John Zeisel was talking about what people with Alzheimer’s don’t lose as the disease goes about its inexorable business. What they don’t lose is what is “hard-wired;” so deeply embedded that we’re born with it. Positive feelings about green, especially trees, were at the top of his list, which also included: universal facial expressions—smiles, frowns and the look of disgust; response to touch, especially anything resembling a mother’s touch; the learning and use of landmarks; and, finally, creative expression: art, poetry, music and dance.

Zeisel is a tireless advocate for the “personhood” of the person with dementia, as reflected in the title of his book, I’m Still Here—a New Philosophy of Alzheimer’s Care. His credo is to focus not on what’s lost to Alzheimer’s, but on what’s left. He likes to throw around phrases like, “People with Alzheimer’s have a human right to lead a life worth living.”

If you, like me, are one of the millions of people in the world who have seen Alzheimer’s disease up close in someone you love, this is emotionally loaded territory. Our mother lived into the very late stages of the illness, and I can attest that green trees, facial expressions and touch remained powerful for her. But as that little phrase, “hardwired for green,” settles into my brain, I am struck by the larger truths behind Zeisel’s list. By how these visceral, hardwired pleasures nurture not only those of us whose brains are ill but those of us who are well.

And here’s what I wonder: if we modern, multi-tasking humans allow ourselves to revel in green, in smiles, in human touch, in creative expression… will those primal elements be even more present for us, even more accessible, when we need them at the ends of our lives? We won’t know until we get there. But surely we’ll have a richer ride through the years.

At the other end of life, arts education is back in the news and beginning to recover its lost momentum. People are talking about how yes, the STEM subjects—Science, Technology, Engineering and Math—are crucial, but if you put the A for Art back in and call it STEAM, you add creative thinking to the mix, which might be the most powerful ingredient of all. As an apprentice in Seattle Arts & Lectures’ Writers in the Schools program, I see this every week. Poetry, music, art and dance come naturally to children who haven’t yet locked them away in some “that’s not who I am” category.

And getting back to green: that hard-wired response is front and center this time of year. For children and for all of us. As my mom often said, long after most other phrases had failed her, “Look at these trees! We live in such a beautiful place.”

Don’t miss Bill Hayes’ beautiful essay about trees published in the Sunday New York Times.

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


DSC00865“Patience is a virtue.” Who first said that, and why? A quick Internet search points to a few “medieval poets.” Let’s leave it there—in the dark ages—and move on: to why patience is on my mind, and not in a virtuous, well-behaved way.

I just spent an evening at Seattle’s Town Hall listening to five dynamic women speak at an event, sponsored by the Women’s Funding Alliance, called “Fresh Perspective: Women Lead a Changing World.” Good title; wish it were true.

The speakers had some good news to share—the dramatic increase in the numbers of women obtaining bachelors, masters and PhD degrees; the previously unheard of opportunities for women in government, science, technology, sports.

But “Women Lead a Changing World?” No. Not very many of us are leading. Not by a long shot. And the world may be changing, but it sure is taking its time. And we’ve been far too patient.

It is time we made a virtue of impatience.

When eight of every ten corporations in Washington state have fewer than three women on their boards, it is time to be impatient.

When women in Washington* earn 75 cents for every dollar men earn—73 cents, if you have kids; 60 cents if you’re a single mom—it’s time to be impatient.

When Washington slips from first to eighth in the nation for female political representation, it’s time to be impatient.

When 415 thousand women and girls in our state have no health insurance, when reproductive rights are under assault, when one out of four children in our state don’t have enough to eat—impatience. Please. Now!

Kristin Rowe Finkbeiner of nailed it when she said that what we have here is a “national structural issue, not an epidemic of personal failings.” We women are far too expert at blaming ourselves for problems like finding high-quality affordable childcare in a country where it is nearly impossible to put “high-quality” and “affordable” in the same sentence.

All of the speakers dealt deftly with the recently published elephant in the room: Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. Finkbeiner urged us to “lean together.” Award-winning Seattle Art Museum educator Sandra Jackson-Dumont praised Sandberg for igniting important conversations at a crucial time for women.

Full disclosure: I haven’t read Sandberg’s book, but I will. If she is igniting conversations, that’s a good thing. Conversations have a way of triggering collective impatience.

Women are more than half the electorate and, for the first time in history, half the paid labor force. We make 85 percent of purchasing decisions. Collectively, our impatience could have an impact.

And there are so many ways we could put it to work.

We can encourage each other to run for office, to seek out board positions, to stretch ourselves towards leadership by learning the skills we think we might lack and daring to use the skills and wisdom we know we have. We can go beyond simply voting and send emails, make phone calls, write OpEds and letters to the editor about the issues that matter to us.

I’m speaking in particular, here, to my age-mates. We know how busy women who are juggling work and child-rearing are because we were just there. Now, it’s our turn to lean together, work together. Get usefully, virtuously impatient. Together.

 *Research cited in this piece was provided by Lori Pfingst of the Washington State Budget & Policy Center, Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner of MomsRising, Ada Williams Prince of One America and Jennifer Stuller of GeekGirlCon.

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.

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.

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



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