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

Archive for the month “January, 2014”

At the movies

02_Toni_Servillo_La_grande_bellezza_foto_di_Gianni_Fiorito_2.JPGThree human beings are haunting me. One is a homophobic, bull-riding Texan who has AIDS. One is a Danish kindergarten teacher, wrongly accused of sexually molesting a student. One is a celebrated Roman novelist who still hasn’t started his second novel, forty years after the first one was published. All are characters I saw on screen last week, and about whom I am still thinking this week. Though I am not the official movie reviewer in this family, I see a lot of movies. The ones that stick with me are what I think of as “meaning of life” stories. Stories in which a character, famous or heroic or, more likely, not either, must ask him-or-herself: what is the meaning of a life? One life. My life.

When he is told he probably has 30 days to live, Ron Woodruff’s meaning-of-life meter goes crazy in Dallas Buyers’ Club. It was painful to watch the first phase of this—call it denial, or call it “I’m gonna go out in a blaze of glory”—and even more painful to watch his transition to the next one: actually, I do want to live, thinks Ron, and I’m gonna get the drugs I need. But Ron’s story transforms from painful to powerful as his fight for what he needs to stay alive becomes more than just his fight. Sure, he’s making money, but he’s also giving his life a meaning it never had, because it’s no longer all about him. Matthew McConaughey plays Ron as a human lightning rod: thin, dangerous and ultimately dazzling.

In The Hunt, Danish Actor Mads Mikkelson’s face is a study of bewildered, stunned pain as Lucas, the kindergarten teacher who is just beginning to find meaning again after divorce when a little girl’s blurted lie turns his life into a living hell. Lucas fights to hold on to a few shreds of love—his one loyal friend, his loyal son—while every other person he’s ever known turns against him. In “The Hunt,” meaning is a jewel trapped deep inside the collapsed mine of a life, and Lucas has to dig hard for it.

Nothing so dirty as digging goes on in The Great Beauty. Au contraire: dapper Roman novelist Jep Gambardella, played by Toni Servillo, celebrates his 65th birthday with a rooftop party that gives new meaning to the word “lavish.” But the flip side of this happy decadence is deep fatigue. Jep’s life is glamorous, but unfulfilled. He’s drawn to a Mother Theresa-like centenarian celebrity nun, who may or may not have some kind of pipeline to a higher power, or at least a higher calling. As its name promises, The Great Beauty is as lusciously beautiful as The Hunt is bleak and Dallas Buyers’ Club is scruffy. And yet there’s a yearning at the core of it. Because unlike the cowboy dying of AIDS or the kindergarten teacher shunned for a crime he didn’t commit, Jep the pampered playboy author is not desperate, though you begin to sense he should be, and as the film unfolds, so does he. Sometimes it is harder find meaning when it is not thrust on you.

All of these films call to mind old truisms about how life is mostly about what you didn’t plan and couldn’t predict. It’s about how you respond to those moments. Whether and where you find the courage you suddenly need. These are the stories I love best on the screen, or the page, or in real life. Because most of us aren’t soldiers, astronauts or ship captains. But all of us, someday, are going to know illness, death, heartbreak, and—like Jep on his Roman rooftop—the vertigo of confronting the great void that lurks just beyond great beauty.

Calendar notes: Seattle University’s wonderful Search for Meaning Book Festival is February 15. I’ll have to miss it this year but I heartily recommend it. I’ll be speaking and screening Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story at SUNY Oswego on February 18; I’ll be reading from Her Beautiful Brain as part of a program called Witnessing Dementia at Seattle’s Frye Art Museum at 6:30 pm on February 27 and, in celebration of the publication of an anthology called Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s (edited by Collin Tong), I’ll be reading along with some of the other authors at Elliott Bay Bookstore at 3pm on March 16.

The Cover

Her_Beautiful_BrainThe first cover I saw was gorgeous, but I knew immediately it was not right for my book. And that certainty made my heart sink, because this is my very first book and this was the first and most important step in the design process and right out of the gate, I was going to have to be the bad guy.

My book is called Her Beautiful Brain. It’s a memoir about my mom and her younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease and how it changed our lives: hers, mine, everyone’s in my big, loving extended family. It’s a sandwich generation story, about raising young children while my mother started to crumble: first slowly, then very fast. It’s a late-20th-century story, about a miner’s daughter from Butte, Montana who weathered divorces and widowhood, went back to college and back to work, raised six children and was the strongest woman I ever knew.

It is not about a woman who ever had much time or inclination to knit. So when I saw that first elegant cover design, which showed a black silhouette of a woman’s head, in profile, with a bright pink ball of yarn inside it, one long strand of yarn unraveling out of her head and down the center of the frame, I thought: no. I don’t want a ball of yarn anywhere near this cover. Too literal? Maybe so. But I also didn’t like the notion of Alzheimer’s disease as an unraveling, because let me tell you, it is not. A brain affected by Alzheimer’s disease is not quietly unspooling, it is suffocating. It is choking on plaques and tangles. It is a mess. It is not pretty or elegant and it’s definitely not hot pink.

But for some reason, I did not express ANY of that. I simply said, “I don’t think it’s right.” I told myself I wanted to respect the designer’s creativity, not try to micro-manage or direct her, but why on earth wasn’t I more blunt about my aversion to yarn? Because sure enough, the next round of designs featured two yarn-centric covers: one, a big ball of yarn unraveling and the other, a knitted hat. I loved the layout and the font, but the yarn: I just couldn’t. Wouldn’t. I felt like a stubborn kindergartener.

There was an alternate, featuring a photo of my mom. But when I showed it to one of my sisters, she felt strongly about not having our mother’s picture on the cover of a book, and I felt strongly that her feelings were very important to me.

Ach! What to do? Who knew choosing a cover could be so hard?!

Then my husband thought of the idea of a clumpy ball of electrical wires, instead of yarn. We looked online and found the image that seemed just right. Just like what Alzheimer’s is: a maze of disconnected, tangled, malfunctioning, blocked, clipped neurons.

And that is the image you’ll see on the cover of my book, when it is published later this year by She Writes Press. I like to think my mom would have approved. That she would have said: Yes, that is what my brain feels like. Please try to describe that in your book, because I want people to know what it’s like. I want them to understand, when they meet someone with Alzheimer’s at the store or on the street.

Her brain really was beautiful, a long time ago; and that’s why it was so important to get this image of what happened to it right. I am so grateful to designer Patti Capaldi for her patience, because it’s the cover we should have. The cover we do have. One big decision down, many more to come between now and September!

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.





Race: a work-in-progress

DSC00865Race, as a concept, is hardly a work-in-progress in the construction sense of the phrase. On the contrary: the concept of race is in what you might call a state of rapid DE-construction. Debunking, Demythification, De-pseudo-science-ification. What I’m working on is copping to how little I understand, how little I have ever understood, about white privilege and the way it has shaped my life.

If you missed the Pacific Science Center’s recent exhibition called RACE: Are We So Different?, make sure to visit the exhibition’s provocative website. A project of the American Anthropological Association, RACE: Are We So Different? has traveled, or will travel, to more than 30 venues in the United States. That adds up to a lot of conversations about a subject none of us are very good at talking about.

If, like me, you’re white and over 50, or even 40, you probably didn’t grow up talking about white privilege. It was just there, so deeply woven into the fabric of our lives as to be invisible. To us.

If you are not white, you might have had “aha!” moments of a very different kind as you walked through the show. Maybe you nodded your head in recognition, anger, sadness. Maybe you looked around at all the white visitors and thought: at least they’re learning a little about my reality.

Here’s my easy example of how white privilege works: so easy it embarrasses me. When I travel, I’m always on a budget, but I have perfected the art of strolling into a five-star hotel anywhere in the world and finding and using the bathroom. I have actually taught this travel “trick” to my children. You just walk in, look confident and keep going until you see the discreetly placed sign. Would this work if I was not white? Not everywhere, it wouldn’t. And at some level I’ve always known this. But I still do it.

I thought of the 5-star bathroom stunt when I read an anecdote at the RACE exhibition. It was written by a non-white woman married to a white man, who learned one day that the corner store in their neighborhood always took his checks, even though it wouldn’t take hers.

I thought of it as I read about the history of racism, the shameful, long-discredited yet persistently believed “science” of racial categorization, the naked fear behind all of it; the policies this “science” supported, from apartheid in South Africa to real estate red-lining in our own city. On the “here in Seattle” wall was a quote from the original Broadmoor neighborhood covenant, explicity forbidding African American, Asian, Jewish and Southern European residents, unless they were employees, from living in this gated community that borders the Washington Park Arboretum. But it wasn’t just enclaves like Broadmoor (where my grandparents lived for more than 30 years and my father and stepmother for ten) that had these kinds of rules. Queen Anne, Greenwood, Capitol Hill and many other Seattle neighborhoods used racially restrictive covenants to keep out non-white residents.

The neighborhood I now live in is about as different from Broadmoor as it can be. Many of my neighbors come from east Africa. And yet the divide persists. Most white families in our neighborhood own their homes. Most non-white families do not.

The list of benefits of being white in America is long. So many are so ingrained, so obvious, we can’t even see them. What the RACE exhibit asks us to do—some of us for the first time in our lives—is to question, rather than accept, what is obvious about race in America.

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.



DSC00865She “made us move bigger than we actually were, with a courage and physical confidence we didn’t yet possess,” wrote Jennifer Homans in a recent tribute to the great ballerina Maria Tallchief, who died in 2013. Maria Tallchief: what a graceful name for the daughter of an Osage chief who grew into a dancer known all over the world for her long-limbed, dazzling, powerful presence. My own memory of Maria Tallchief is not of her on stage—I was never so lucky—but of the sound of her name as spoken by my mom. She said it gratefully, joyfully and with wonder: as in, can you imagine how thrilling it was for me to see Maria Tallchief on stage in Butte, Montana? How lucky I felt?

I think she saw Tallchief in Swan Lake. It must have been the late 1940s, when my mother was in high school. Butte, her hometown, was in a pretty happy mood then: World War II had brought Butte’s copper mines—a vast honeycomb underneath what had been known before the Depression as the “richest hill on earth”—back to life. My grandparents bought their first house, a tiny bungalow down on the flats with a stamp of a yard where you could coax a little grass and a few trees to grow: paradise, after a dozen years in the treeless tenements uptown.

The Depression had been very hard on Butte, and on my mother’s family. And so this ballerina, whose talent was to be bold, strong, courageous, to exude confidence from her outstretched arms and atop her pointed toes; who wasn’t a hothouse flower of the east but a daughter of an Oklahoma tribe—no wonder she made my mom and all of Butte, Montana swoon.

We memoir writers like to imagine such scenes. It’s a way of understanding something about our parents’ past—which is our past, too. Because when you hear your mother or your father talk about the events that shaped their young lives, you absorb their truths. For my mom, the truth of Maria Tallchief was this: Seeing a beautiful dancer dance to beautiful music is a gift beyond description, a way of lifting your spirit beyond daily life to somewhere else, some other realm. This is what matters about art. This is what is worth remembering.

As a child, you take note of what memories make your mother’s eyes light up. You file it somewhere; you understand that if you should ever get a chance to see ballet, you will do so, and you’ll do it with reverence.

As an adult, you remember your mothers’ shining eyes as you stare at the New York Times Magazine’s stunning photo of Tallchief in a 1948 performance of George Balanchine’s Orpheus. You long to call your mom and hear the story again, but your mom is long gone, and so you go down the rabbit hole of the Internet and find nothing about Tallchief’s performance in the late 1940s in Butte, Montana. Did it happen? Are you remembering wrong? Perhaps your mom saw Tallchief in the late 1950s in Seattle, or on the Ed Sullivan show in the early 1960s.

But the truth remains, a truth that transcends remembered or forgotten facts. You grew up with a mother who treasured encounters with transcendent beauty, and so you too learned to treasure such encounters.

And this is why the Times’ Lives they Lived” issue of the magazine, which comes out at the very end of every year, is such a rich reading experience. An ode to Maria Tallchief moved me to remember my mom and to write. For you, it might be the photo of James Gandolfini’s Cadillac. Or the tributes to Abigail Van Buren, Joyce Brothers, JJ Cale. Or you might find that the story of someone you’ve never heard of—87-year-old marathon runner Joy Johnson, for example—lifts you out of your everyday life for a few minutes, like a ballerina on a stage in Butte, Montana did for my mother, more than sixty years ago.


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