therestlessnest

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

Archive for the month “June, 2014”

Volunteer Janitor

DSC00865“I bet those nice ladies think I’m the new janitor,” I thought, as I jogged past them down the basement stairs of our 80-year-old church, carrying a caddy full of cleaning supplies. “I guess I’m OK with that.”

But for a second or two, I wasn’t OK. I had a momentary taste of how it might feel to be the janitor, and I didn’t like it. I was fine with cleaning toilets as a volunteer. Our church had just finished a week of hosting six homeless women and their children in our basement and I was helping with cleanup. Lucky me, to have access to such an easy way to feel like I’d done something Good with a capital G. An hour in rubber gloves, and then I could get back to my real life of working at a desk, where I may think I’m scraping by financially but I know I make more than the church janitor. Custodian. Cleaner. Am I showing my age, using the word “janitor?”

And then there are the homeless moms and kids, packing up their stuff every week and moving on to another church. This is what we call a “safety net” in America: networks of volunteers who put up tents in church basements and serve hot dinners and help with homework and try to make a desperate situation bearable.

I don’t have a natural facility for this kind of volunteering, or any kind, really. I did not grow up in a volunteering kind of family. I had to learn to volunteer by imitating other people. When my kids were young and pleas for volunteers began coming from their school, I learned that I was much better at hands-on time with children than committee work with grownups. I learned that I’d rather tutor a slow reader or shepherd a field trip than attend meetings and debate strategy. I’d rather clean toilets.

I sometimes quip that it’s a physical thing. I spend enough time sitting in meetings with adults.

But it’s about something else too; something harder to define. Something about not wanting to live full-time in a protected world where the closest I come to homelessness is buying a copy of Real Change from the vendor outside the PCC.

It’s uncomfortable to try to define because it sounds like tourism. Slumming, as people used to say. But what I’m getting at is more urgent than that. It’s more of a need to understand first-hand. Not fully, never fully, but to get at least a glimmer of insight into other worlds and lives.

It’s also about wanting to help in ways that are tangible, as in: Today, I helped one child read one book. I heard her inch a little closer to fluency.

My husband and I have made many, many short films for non-profit organizations. In the course of telling their stories, we’ve interviewed many of their clients. That has been another way of gaining insight. But it is not the same. Filming people tutoring or cleaning toilets is not tutoring or cleaning toilets. Watching people do it, you don’t wonder what it feels like to be a homeless child staying in a church basement in the same way you do when you are hunched over a homework packet with that child.

I know how lucky I am to have a home, to earn a living, to be part of a loving family. I also know how lucky I am to have time to volunteer. I always come home having learned something. About other people. About the world. About myself.

Save the date: Her Beautiful Brain book launch: 3pm, September 7, at Elliott Bay Book CompanyHer_Beautiful_Brain in Seattle. You can pre-order now from Elliott Bay, Powell’s Books, or the large or small bookseller of your choice.

 

 

 

The Longest Day

EndAlz

On the longest day of the year, the Alzheimer’s Association wants you to think. Use your precious and, God-willing, still-intact brain and think. Spend five of those one thousand glorious minutes of summer solstice daylight thinking about the people you know who are dealing with dementia and what the words “longest day” might mean to them.

The Alzheimer’s Association is betting you do know someone whose spouse, parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, friend or neighbor is living with Alzheimer’s disease. Someone who knows the loneliness of caring for a person who once had so much to say and now says nothing at all, all day long. Or maybe she says the same thing over and over again. Or maybe he speaks, but it makes no sense. Maybe she or he is sundowning—there’s a good “longest-day” word—but in the dementia world, sundowning is not so pretty. It means getting agitated and cranky and sometimes even scary right when the rest of the world is getting ready for bed.

The longest day. Where my ancestors came from, it was and is a day of IMG_0461celebration. Of joyous gratitude for summer light and warmth. And many of the people who are in the early stage of Alzheimer’s are going to be able to enjoy the longest day of the year just as much, if not more, than the rest of us, because no one is better at living in the moment than people who can’t remember. If you can no longer follow a book or a movie, then why not get outside and smell the June flowers and soak up the extra June hours? Why not savor every strawberry as if it’s the first one you ever ate? Because as far as you know, it is.

But for people who are in the middle or later stages of the illness, all that extra daylight could be confusing or exhausting or both. Which means it will be exhausting for their caregivers, too. And lest you think we’re talking about a boutique illness, a sliver of the medical world, here are the hard facts: more than five million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease. Officially, Alzheimer’s is now the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. But new research shows that it could be third, right behind heart disease and cancer. Last month, the New York Times ran a story headlined: “Alzheimer’s, the Neglected Epidemic,” citing research showing that in just one year, 2010, Alzheimer’s was the underlying cause in half a million deaths in this country.

For all kinds of reasons, it has been very hard to get people to feel the urgency of the Alzheimer’s epidemic. Maybe, until you see it up close, it is easy to dismiss as some sort of inevitable curse of old age. Something far off in the sundowning distance. But as the baby boomers grow old, we are going to be in deep trouble if we don’t step it up. Current federal funding for Alzheimer’s research is half a billion dollars a year. Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? But cancer research commands more than five billion federal dollars a year. Heart disease: nearly two billion. And those investment have made a huge difference. Heart disease and cancer death rates are declining, even as Alzheimer’s deaths soar.

Some of the people you know who are affected by Alzheimer’s disease might be part of a “Longest Day” fundraising team. Give them a boost, if you can. But at the very least? Think of them. On the longest day or, better yet, every day.

Need help getting fired up about the urgency of the Alzheimer’s epidemic? Watch actor and comedian Seth Rogen’s testimony before Congress.

Her_Beautiful_BrainAnd save the date for my book launch: 3pm, September 7, at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. You can pre-order Her Beautiful Brain from Elliott Bay, Powell’s Books, or the bookseller of your choice.

Alchemy

UnknownHigh on the list of words that make me twitch due to overuse is the word “alchemy.” Early this morning, there it was on the page, ready to pounce on my nerves. But this time, I found myself—not twitching, perhaps because it appeared in the last line of a poem by Rumi. It is hard to accuse a writer dead for more than seven centuries of tedious trendiness.

Rumi’s cryptic phrase was this: “The alchemy of a changing life is the only truth.”

It’s the end of a poem of flirtation, of courtship. In the poem, Rumi playfully assumes the voice of King Solomon speaking to messengers sent by Queen Sheba. Solomon tells the messengers to scold Sheba for sending him expensive gifts. He suggests that the wealth of her throne “keeps her from passing through the doorway that leads to a true majesty.” He concludes by reminding her of the story of Joseph, who sat at the bottom of a well until he “reached to take the rope that rose/to a new understanding. The alchemy/of a changing life is the only truth.”

I had to refresh myself on the story of Joseph. Most important point: Joseph got thrown into that well by his ever-jealous brothers. They only tossed him a rope when it occurred to them that they could sell him as a slave to some passing merchants, pocket the money, and still go home and tell their doting father that his favorite son was dead.

Being sold to those traveling salesmen changed young Joseph’s life, because they in turn sold him to an Egyptian, who happened to be in charge of the Pharoah’s palace guard. And that’s how a poor shepherd boy moved on up into the royal court of Egypt.

Truth: Joseph got thrown in a well. Alchemy: talk about your life-changing moment! Reaching to take the rope: yes, he did that, because it was preferable to dying a slow death at the bottom of a well. But as far as he knew, the rope was not leading him anywhere good. Even though he’d had those big dreams about how his brothers would someday bow down to him.

So: I read the word “alchemy” at six in the morning, and this is the garden path I go down, from Rumi to a Bible story that most scholars agree is one of the least credible of them all. Why? Because there was something about the way Rumi put it that made me think of all the young people I know whose lives are changing, right now, by the minute. Some of them are graduating from high school or college: and yes, that’s big, but often it’s just the first step in an ongoing, protracted process of—here we go—alchemy.

Alchemy is a word that, in Rumi’s time, most commonly meant a magical way to change ordinary metals into gold. Merriam-Webster says that medieval philosophers sometimes also used it to mean the discovery of a universal cure for disease. Over the centuries, it has come to signify the transformation of something ordinary into something special, or any sort of mysterious change.

As I write, my daughter is sleeping in a tent on the edge of an Idaho lake, on her way to spend 10394488_10201937267784962_5278684326381334855_nthe summer mending trails and breaking trails in Colorado. Last summer she got a taste of this work, and it made her want more. It made her want it more than she wanted to return to a desk job. She’s living the alchemy of a changing life. Embracing it, in a way that we older adults often forget how to do. Meanwhile, our freshly graduated son is working two jobs, saving money to travel in the fall. He’s not even sure where yet. And two nephews are graduating from high school. That’s just the tip of the iceberg of young people in my life, and I’m sure you know plenty too.

I think the best gift we can give them is to marvel at the alchemy of their changing lives. Cheer them on, but stay out of the way. Often, they make it look so easy. But don’t you remember? The truth is that it’s as hard as climbing out of a well.

Need a little Rumi in your life? Order Coleman Barks’ Essential Rumi from your favorite independent bookstore here.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts: http://kbcs.fm/listen/podcasts/
 

 

 

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