therestlessnest

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

Archive for the month “November, 2014”

Immigrant America

unnamedHer name was pinned to her coat, because she didn’t speak a word of English. But Lydia Westerback made it from Ellis Island to Hanna, Wyoming, where her future husband was waiting for her. He’d been waiting for nine years. It took that long for Lydia’s heart to heal after the death of her first fiancé, back in Finland. Nine years for her heart to stop hurting enough to see what Viktor Warila was offering her: not just love and marriage but a whole new world. She was 31. Her choice was stark: impoverished spinsterhood in Finland, under the rule of the Russian Czar? Or marriage, and America, with a friendly man whose letters she enjoyed but who she had not seen in nearly a decade?

Lydia and Viktor were my great-grandparents. Like all my forebears, they came here with little money and lots of hope. This might be your story too, or a part of your story. Whether it was nearly five centuries ago in Pilgrim New England, whether it was one or two centuries ago in the great immigrant waves that gave us Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty and Emma Lazarus’ beautiful poem—you remember, “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Whether it was 30 years ago or three years ago, we were all poor travelers at the table. Or as President Obama put it in his announcement last week of major executive action on immigration, “we know the heart of a stranger—we were strangers once too.”

Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat wrote beautifully this weekend on the same theme. Many others have, too. So my story, of Lydia and Viktor and their reunion at a Wyoming coal camp in 1899, is hardly unique—and that, of course, is exactly the point. Exactly why I’m giving thanks, this year, for President Obama’s action, because it is such an important reminder of who we are, as a nation. Why we exist. What we represent to the world. The new, jillion-dollar fence on our southern border is a shameful testament to who we are at our worst—selfish. Fearful. Ditto Congress’ inability to pass immigrant reform legislation. But the president’s executive order, imperfect though it is, is an urgently needed course correction back towards what Lazarus’s poem invoked us to be, when she imagined the Statue of Liberty saying to the world: “Send these homeless, tempest-tossed, to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The golden door of which she wrote led, of course, not to treasure but to backbreaking work. Just as it still does. Nothing is more wildly off the mark than recent characterizations of immigrants, legal or illegal, as “takers.” My great-grandfather was a coal miner. My great-grandmother ran a small boarding house. Then, with six young children to support, they farmed a homestead claim near Red Lodge, Montana.

I thought of them—and of Lydia’s long train trip across the West to meet her future husband—when my husband and I watched a haunting new documentary called Who is Dayani Cristal, produced by actor Gael Garcia Bernal, perhaps best known here for playing Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries. Bernal also narrates and appears on-screen in short re-enactments which help tell the story of one Honduran immigrant whose body was found in the Sonoran desert. Watch it, if you can: it’s available online. It will make you thankful for how we as a nation took a step last week back towards everything the Statue of Liberty stands for. “A mighty woman with a torch,” Lazarus called her: “and her name? Mother of Exiles.”

HBBfinalcoverBuy Her Beautiful Brain from the small or large bookstore of your choice. Find a bookstore here. Order the Kindle version 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 available too.

5 a.m. Idea Factory

DSC01536On a good day, I call it the 5 a.m. Idea Factory; on a bad day, it’s the “pre-dawn stew.” I have also dubbed it “Restless Brain Syndrome,” which became the title of one of the most frequently browsed posts on this humble blog. Guess I’m not alone here on the insomnia journey.

But lately, I’ve been leaning positive. I’m trying to embrace my version of insomnia rather than fight it. Hence, the 5 a.m. Idea Factory. (Sometimes, it’s 3 or 4 a.m. Which is a little harder to embrace. But let’s not dwell on that.)

First: hats off to those of you who get up every day at five, either because you have to or because you want to. Seriously. I have spent a lot of time asking myself why, since I so often wake up at five, I so adamantly do not want to get up at five. In these self-to-self conversations, I have tried to employ logic (you’re awake! It makes sense!), ambition (think of all the writing you could get done!), selfishness (do it for you. Give yourself that time!) and selflessness (think how much better your husband will sleep if you get your restless self out of bed!) But no: my 5 a.m. brain may be on high alert, but my 5 a.m. body refuses all orders to throw back the covers and face the world.

One day, I listened as a woman a few decades older than I am described how she loves lingering in that time between sleep and waking, when she can just let her mind roam, sometimes dreamily, sometimes with purpose. A light bulb went off: was she saying that the pre-dawn tossing hours could be viewed as good? As something other than the maddening reason I can never stay awake through a movie that begins after 9 p.m.?

It’s not like my attitude changed overnight. I still get that sinking feeling when I look at the clock and it says four something. But here is what I have found: if I try to relax into my early morning wakefulness, if I allow my body to burrow under the covers while my mind roams, by the time I DO get up at, say, six, I might have a few new insights or ideas or—this is really the best part—a more profound appreciation of whatever came my way the day before.

For example: one recent night I went to see the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Director’s Choice” program of contemporary choreography. As I woke the next morning, my mind began to replay fragments of what I’d seen on stage the night before: the patterns and movements, the soaring, arching, folding bodies of dancers at the height of their physical powers, expressing every human emotion in ways that words can never match. I was so happy, in the early-morning dark, to be there again, with them.

Then I remembered the title of one of the pieces: “A Million Kisses to my Skin,” which choreographer David Dawson described in the program notes as his attempt to evoke the feeling of complete bliss dancers sometimes experience in their work. And I thought of something else Dawson said: that he has come to view his career as a dancer as a period of training for what he does now as a choreographer.

Lying in bed, I thought: maybe choreography is not so different from writing. It’s a different language, yes. But perhaps choreographers stir to wakefulness, like I do, letting dreams and life play together in search of meaning or joy or pleasant patterns. They probably slept better when they were young and still dancing several hours a day, just as I used to sleep deeply, wake to an alarm, and race off to my job as a news writer. I do miss the sound sleep. But the five a.m. idea factory has its joys. 

Her_Beautiful_BrainBuy Her Beautiful Brain from the small or large bookstore of your choice. Find a bookstore here. Order the Kindle version 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 available too.

Dignity is an Illusion

IMG_1075            “Dignity is an illusion,” I took to saying during a particularly rough year of my life. I don’t know where it came from, or when exactly I first said it, but it made me laugh. Which helped. Dignity was in short supply that year. Rejection was the theme of the hour. Publishers were rejecting my first book (a novel, which remains unpublished.) My husband was rejecting our marriage (a miserable phase for both of us, which thankfully ended and now seems so long ago now I sometimes can’t believe it ever happened.) I was applying for full-time jobs for the first time in quite a while, and getting a lot of “sorrys,” which I took to mean I was too old (40) and professionally out-of-shape (true). Meanwhile, I watched helplessly as my mother experienced the worst rejection of all: she was diagnosed with probable Alzheimer’s. Her dignity was in the shredder.

Dignity is an illusion. These four words became my gallows-humor motto that year, and they have stayed with me ever since. If a phrase can be a teacher, this one has been mine. And here’s what it’s taught me: Cling to dignity and you’ll be left with nothing, including your dignity. Acknowledge that dignity is nothing but a pleasant illusion and you will be empowered. Those kids in the office where you finally land a job who think you’re old? Who cares! Show them how little you value dignity and they will judge you differently: perhaps even on the basis of your actual work. Your teenaged children and their friends? Likewise. You don’t have to embarrass them by trying to act like a teen, but they’re going to feel a lot more comfortable around you if you act like yourself, instead of some sort of unapproachable bastion of dignity.

Where I’ve found the notion of dignity as an illusion especially valuable is in that whole scary arena called taking risks. Trying things I’ve always wanted to try. Like… writing about real stuff from my personal life and then reading it at a literary open mike. Or learning to row in an 8-person shell. I did it, for two whole months! Came close to swamping the whole boat, but never actually did. I also took an acting class. And life drawing, and painting. Every one of these forays made a mockery of my dignity yet paradoxically left me feeling braver and stronger, until I was brave and strong enough to go back to what I knew I really wanted to do, which was write.

Dignity is an illusion, I reminded myself, as I filled out an application for a Masters of Fine Arts writing program, not knowing if I had any chance of getting in. I got in. Dignity is an illusion, I repeated, as I turned in my first critical papers in thirty years and my first drafts of memoir chapters, many of which featured remarkably undignified moments in my life. Dignity is an illusion, as I stood in front of a roomful of eighth graders and taught my first memoir class. Dignity is an illusion, as I tried for three years to find a publisher for my book.

It’s not a new idea. In the eighth century BC, the Hebrew prophet Micah wrote this: “And what does the Lord require of you/ but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Two thousands years later, the Sufi poet Rumi put it this way: “Your defects are the ways that glory gets manifested… Keep looking at the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.”

Her_Beautiful_BrainBuy Her Beautiful Brain from the small or large bookstore of your choice. Find a bookstore here. Order the Kindle version 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 available too.kbcs_logo

Optimism is Possible

IMG_0670It’s Election Day. Whatever your persuasions, you know and I know the news will not all be good. So: based on my just-concluded road trip—aka four weeks and 4500 miles of unscientific research—I am here to spread a little optimism.

My husband and I left Seattle on the last Monday in September and returned on the last Monday in October. Our destination was Salida, Colorado, where our daughter just finished a five-month season with the Southwest Conservation Corps. Reason for Optimism Number One: did you know there are more than 100 Conservation Corps all over the country, employing strong young people to take care of our wilderness areas in all kinds of ways? All summer long, they build and repair trails and camps in national parks and forests. Most are paid an Americorps stipend: barely enough to get by on. So as you gnash you teeth waiting for election news, be thankful for the more than 26 thousand young adults who serve our country in this invisible way.

We took our time getting to and from Colorado. One of the things we wanted to do was explore a bit via bicycle—not in any mega-mile way, like the supertough riders we saw out on Highway 101, cycling through the California Redwoods in a driving rainstorm—but in more modest jaunts around towns we didn’t know well. Which brings me to Reason for Optimism Number Two: good, long, well-marked bike paths can now be found in places you might never have expected. Like Laramie, Wyoming. Who knew how great it would feel, after hours in the car, to get on our bikes and ride along the Laramie River while the sun set? We also biked trails in Bend and Sisters, Oregon; Boulder and Salida, Colorado; Moab, Utah; Tahoe, Sacramento, Berkeley and San Francisco. Biking is such a great way to see and experience a place you don’t know: faster than walking, slower than driving; you can get a sense of your surroundings very quickly. And it made me so happy to see—and experience for myself—safe places to ride in so many towns and cities.

Just as it made me happy to visit a surprising number of independent bookstores. We sought them out and found them, thriving, throughout the West. Yes, there are “book deserts,” where the big mega-sellers have driven out every store except the tiniest, used-books-only holes-in-the-wall. But—and here it comes, Reason for Optimism Number Three—MANY readers in the West still buy their books from lively local shops, including: Broadway Books in Portland, Paulina Springs Books in Sisters, Oregon, Second Story Books in Laramie, Boulder Book Store in Boulder, Bookhaven in Salida, Back of Beyond Books in Moab, Utah, Book Passage in San Francisco, Northtown Books in Arcata and Gold Beach Books on the Oregon Coast. (For me, as a new author, the frosting on the cake was not only the honor and pleasure of reading from Her Beautiful Brain at two of these stores—Broadway Books and Book Passage—but also getting a friendly reception from staffers at every one of the others, who all took the time to chat and accept a review copy of my book.) 149372_10204211578223856_7742753382844932935_n

Finally—the National Parks. Reason for Optimism Number Four: not only do we have national parks, we have 401 of them. No matter how hard we try, we’ll never run out of new national parks to visit. We went to Grand Teton for the first time this year, and it was a highlight of our trip. But we also visited some much smaller and less famous parks: Great Basin in Eastern Nevada, with its groves of ancient bristlecone pines, the longest living trees on earth; the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado, nearly as deep as two Empire State buildings, swathed in an early snow flurry. And Golden Gate—yes, it’s a national park, and guess what? You can get to it via a gorgeous new bike trail along the San Francisco Bay. Maybe after picking up a good book at Book Passage.

Her_Beautiful_BrainBuy Her Beautiful Brain from the independent bookstore of your choice. Find a bookstore here. Order the Kindle version here.

Grand Tetons/Snake River IPA photo by Rustin Thompson

 

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