therestlessnest

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

Archive for the category “arts”

No Mud, No Lotus

IMG_0860“Most people are afraid of suffering,” writes Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. “But suffering is a kind of mud to help the lotus flower of happiness grow. There can be no lotus flower without the mud.”

Thich Nhat Hanh has a remarkable ability to get my attention by saying the simplest things in fresh ways. Especially when I’m stuck in some sort of tiresome, sticky emotional mud; the kind of mud you can’t imagine could ever produce a lovely lotus blossom.

51DkLeJ5ZyL._SY346_           Earlier this year, I spotted his book, No Mud, No Lotus: the Art of Transforming Suffering at Elliott Bay Book Company. I thought it might come in handy as I embarked on my big 2017 foot surgery adventure. But month after month, it sat in a stack on my desk, where I mostly ignored it. When the title did catch my eye, I found it irritating. “Transforming suffering?” Tell that to my friend with cancer, Thich Nhat Hanh. Tell that to the exhausted firefighters all over the West. Tell it to the people of Houston, Florida, Mexico, Puerto Rico. Tell it to the DACA dreamers. The Syrian refugees. The millions of us who have to worry, again, that the Republicans are going to yank our health care. The sidelined career diplomats who live in fear every time our president opens his mouth about North Korea.

“Transforming suffering.” Hah! I preferred the edgier acronym a neighbor taught me: AFOG. Another Fucking Opportunity for Growth.

But as I sat at home this summer while my family hiked; as I pondered why foot surgery had somehow triggered pain in parts of my body—back, hip, glute—that were not near my foot, I inched a little closer to actually picking up the slim black book with its taunting title. I was fed up with obsessing about the physical mysteries of recovery. I hadn’t really turned my own challenges into an AFOG at all. I was trying to, but I kept getting mired in the fog of self-pity, which is an ugly stew, not unlike the thick gruel of forest fire smoke.

“The art of happiness is also the art of suffering well,” Nhat Hanh writes. Hmmm. Really? “Thinking we should be able to have a life without any suffering is as deluded as thinking we should be able to have a left side without a right side.” He goes on in a similar vein: without darkness there is no light; without cold there is no warmth.

But the story that got my attention was his description of his own suffering from a virus in his lungs that made them bleed. Nhat Hanh is well-known for his love of joyful, mindful breathing; for adages like: “When you wake up in the morning, the first thing to do is to breathe and to become aware that you have 24 brand-new hours to live.” When he was stricken by this severe lung virus, he wrote that “it was difficult to breathe, and it was difficult to be happy while breathing.” But after he healed? “Now when I breathe, all I need to do is to remember the time when my lungs were infected with this virus. Then every breath I take becomes really delicious, really good.”

It wasn’t being well that made Nhat Hanh even more joyful about breathing; it was the fact that he’d been so sick. This is not such a difficult concept. But Nhat Hanh knows how easy it is for us to forget these simple truths, and that’s why he keeps writing about them. I’m sure he would not be surprised or insulted if I told him that his book sat in a stack for weeks before it was finally, grudgingly, opened.

No one, including Thich Nhat Hanh, would argue that suffering is inherently good. Earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and fires: not good. Twanging something somewhere in my lower back just as I was getting mobile again: ditto.

But like Nhat Hanh breathing with joy after his illness, I know this: the rain that finally washed away the smoky haze over Washington state was the most beautiful, sweet-smelling rain ever. Letting go of hiking for a while and, instead, riding my bicycle around Seward Park for the first time in months was the best bike ride ever.

On the radio this morning, a resident of Central Mexico talked about how catastrophe brings us together. Politics and grudges become irrelevant. People are at their best.

IMG_0864In the words of the wise Buddhist monk: “We have to learn how to embrace and cradle our own suffering and the suffering of the world, with a lot of tenderness.”

Seattle readers: There are still a few spots left in my Introduction to Memoir Writing Class, which starts next Wednesday at Seattle Central College. I’m also excited to be a presenter at the Write on The Sound conference in Edmonds on Oct 7. That event is sold out, but I’ll keep you posted re future similar opportunities. 

 

 

 

 

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Restless Reinvention

1743563_10151864590352330_669973072_nNews Flash: The Restless Nest has been awarded an honorable mention in the “Blogs under 100,000 unique visitors” category of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ 2016 competition! 

“Oh, to be wracked by success!” director Terence Davies exclaimed, hitting wracked loudly and hard with his gentle Liverpool lilt. He was imitating actor Cynthia Nixon, who plays Emily Dickinson in his new film A Quiet Passion, as he explained to us that—much as he loves planning every painstaking detail of his movies in advance—he delights in moments of surprise. Nixon’s emphatic reading of Dickinson’s line was not what he had imagined. But then, success, whether or not one is wracked by it, is often not at all what we imagine. True for nineteenth century poets, true for 21st century actors and directors. True for all of us.

the-long-day-closes-550x238-detail-main     Davies’ appearance at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, following a screening of his 1992 film, The Long Day Closes, was a highlight of my recent trip to New York. I had seen his Distant Voices, Still Lives some years ago and was haunted by his depiction of his Liverpool childhood, of which his violent father was the volatile heart. Davies makes movies like an old Dutch master paints. He loves what he calls “texture:” getting the faded, autumnal colors of the clothing, wallpaper and furniture of his 1950s working-class neighborhood just right; spending a full minute of screen time gazing at one patterned ochre rug, because that’s what children do: they stare at the patterns and textures in front of them. Rugs. Ladies’ skirts. A bricklayer setting bricks, one by one, in a back garden wall.

I might not have been there if my husband and son hadn’t wanted to go so badly. I might have lobbied for an unaffordable Broadway show or a cozy, bank-breaking restaurant. What a loss that would’ve been. Who knew Davies would be so riveting in person? He is what you might call a case study in restless, but lovingly attentive, reinvention. And, as I wrote about last month, I can’t resist stories of reinvention. Davies has no interest in chasing a Hollywood version of success. He wants to make films the way a jeweler cuts diamonds: slowly and carefully, facet by facet until the glittering whole is revealed. If it takes years, so be it. If he can’t get the money, he’ll wait. At seventy, he still radiates a creative hunger, a hyper-attentive glow that is infectious. I hope it’s infectious. I want to catch it and keep it.

New York can be maddening. Exhausting. A bad boyfriend, as one friend quipped: so enchanting one day, so brutal the next. On this early May trip, the weather was as leaden as Liverpool in March. The political weather was stormy, too: everyone still in shock over Trump’s primary-sweeping triumph; my son and I clashing over Sanders vs. Clinton.

The week’s bright spots were the re-inventors. There was Davies. There was also Cheryl Stern, an accomplished Broadway actor and a friend of my good friend Lisa Faith Phillips (herself a shining example of restless reinvention: if you’re in New York, don’t miss her cabaret performance on May 15). Lisa took me to see Stern’s new one-woman show—her first—called Shoes and Baggage, at the Cell on W. 23rd. Like Davies’ films, Stern’s show is memoir, but her instruments are song and monologue. At first, you might mistake Shoes and Baggage for a light little tale about shopping addiction. But gradually, you realize it’s much more layered, more textured, than that. It’s about body image and what we women do to define ourselves in a relentlessly look-ist world. Though I’ve never tried on a Manolo Blahnik pump, I understood her story. I felt her story, especially when she flashed back to childhood, to all the approval that is lavished on a potentially awkward girl when she gets her outfit just right.

CorneliaStreetwithDana          My own reinvention moment came early in our New York trip, when I got to read with my friend Dana Robbins at Cornelia Street Café. Dana, who is blossoming as a poet after 25 years as a lawyer, gave me the courage to read from my new work-in-progress, The Observant Doubter. I thought my theme of faith versus chronic doubt would be a tough sell in New York. But maybe New Yorkers aren’t as hard-boiled as we provincials think. After all, so many of them come from somewhere else. Somewhere they might miss. Some place, some time, to which their restless minds reflexively return. Like Terence Davies’ Liverpool. Like Cheryl Stern’s childhood trips to the mall. Like Dana’s childhood kitchen, where her father’s “square hands… moved like a meditation.”

The passage I read in the café was about returning after forty years to the church I last attended as a fervent teen. About how I thought I could slip in and out undetected, until an old woman asked me whose child I was.

We’re all somebody’s child. And that’s often where re-inventors let their restless imaginations take them. Because your life is your movie. Your poem. Your story, and no one else’s. And that’s the joy of it. Whether or not you are ever “wracked by success.”

 

 

Reinvention

howtobeanonconformist_backWhen I was in sixth grade, I fell in love with a book called How to Be a Nonconformist. I loved it because it was a playfully written and illustrated cartoon diatribe against the social pressure of the era to be cool, hippy-style, which to my ten-year-old eyes, was a rigidly conformist way of life. I grew up a mile from Seattle’s University District. Long hair, fringe vests, beads and sandals made me roll my eyes, precisely because the people who dressed that way pretended so obnoxiously to be nonconformist when, clearly, I harrumphed, they were anything but.

howtobeanonconformist        How to Be a Nonconformist is out of print, but you can see some of it on the gorgeous Brain Pickings blog. You can also read about the author, Elissa Jane Karg Chacker (1951-2008), who was just 16 when she wrote the book and went on to become a nurse and lifelong socialist, in this tribute on the Solidarity website.

I am sorry Chacker did not live long enough to see what her age-mates are up to now. Because I think many of them are finally figuring out how to be real nonconformists, and to those of us who are a few years younger and in need of role models, it is a bracing trend.

Reinvention is what I’m talking about. We all know that the days of working one job all your life and then retiring to a La-Z-Boy recliner are over. Sure, some people still do that, but so many of them find they can’t sit still. For starters, there are the economic realities: We’re living longer, which means we need to work longer, so we can sock away more money for old old age. Or so we can pay for all those things our health insurance for some reason doesn’t fully cover. Or so we can pay soaring rents or higher property taxes or $13 to go to a movie. But I digress.

The reinvention I’m talking about is not about money, it’s about meaning.

What’s interesting to me, as I think back on How to be a Nonconformist, is that so often, people’s stories of finding meaning have to do with going back to some version of what they loved most as a pre-cool ten-year-old.

I have one friend who was a lawyer and is now a poet. I have a sister-in-law who decided to live in and restore her truly unique childhood home rather than sell it after her mother’s death. I have a friend who retired from corporate communications but went back to work for a nonprofit she’s supported all her life because she believes in their mission of helping homeless families. I have other friends who are doing things they’ve never done before: writing their first book or joining a choir or training in hypnotherapy or hiking the Camino de Santiago as a true pilgrim and not just for the exercise.

At ten, what I loved was writing in my own, real voice: not school papers, not the journalism, press releases and documentary scripts that eventually defined my professional life, but stories by and/or about the real me. So that’s what I’m doing now: not exclusively, because it never will pay the bills, but that’s OK. It’s important to me. It’s what makes me me. And on this side of the old bell curve of life, I get that I should do what matters to me not later but now.

Now, at 59, I look back on my teens, twenties, thirties and forties and think: what a time this decade has been in my life. What a time of learning to think and feel on the page. What an opportunity to accept all the contradictory parts of myself and allow them to get to know each other. It is especially meaningful to see creative me and spiritual/seeking/questioning me talking to each other. Playfully, some of the time, and quite solemnly and seriously at other times. I am grateful for this trend. I think the level of suppression, of NOT allowing such dialogues, that I practiced earlier in my life often exhausted me.

Just like being perfectly sandaled, long-haired nonconformists must have sometimes exhausted the people Chacker parodied in her book. Now, all these decades later, what a relief it is that we are all allowing ourselves to be works-in-progress. To be our own ongoing experiments in reinvention.

Ann Dana pictureNew Yorkers: I’ll be reading at Cornelia Street Cafe with poet Dana Robbins on May 4 at 6pm. Our event is titled “Word Medicine.”  Hope to see you there!

Stockholm Syndrome

Nine years ago, a freelance critic for The Seattle Weekly suggested, in print for all to see, that I might be suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. She was right: I was. I tend to fall hard when I fall in love.

The critic was reviewing a short film my husband and I made called Art without Walls: the Making of the Olympic Sculpture Park, which aired that week on KCTS, our local public television station. Her point was that I was clearly way too enthralled by Seattle’s new sculpture park to produce an unbiased documentary about the making of it. Guilty as charged: I loved the sculpture park.

The term “Stockholm Syndrome” was coined in 1973, after several hostages in a Swedish bank holdup-turned-siege became emotionally attached to the robbers who had imprisoned them in a vault for six days. (I am one-eighth Swedish-American: could there be a genetic tendency at work?) In 1973, I was 16, and I read about such events with great interest, perhaps because I was still not fully recovered from my first and most dramatic bout of Stockholm Syndrome, which struck when I was 13.

navbar_02Do you remember the brief fad for chocolate fountains? How beautiful the chocolate looked, pouring over and over, endlessly bountiful, into a surrounding pool. How agonizing those fountains must have been to anyone who was dieting, or diabetic.

When I was 13, I dove right into the chocolate fountain of evangelical Christianity. So sweet, so filling, so sublime. And at first, it felt so uncomplicated: just believe. Believe Jesus Christ is the one and only way to eternal life, and eternity is yours. Believe you can speak in tongues, and presto: you can! Believe men are superior to women. Believe premarital sex is wrong. Stop thinking. Simply believe.

But it turns out I couldn’t stop thinking. Thinking has always been my downfall. Thanks tophoto excessive thinking, I failed at flirting, tennis, knitting and my first fifty attempts at parallel parking. And I failed at being an evangelical Christian.

I swam in that silky, rich fountain through much of my teens, but the romance ended abruptly when I got to college. At the time, I remember feeling like I was both betrayer and betrayed; like I had turned away from Jesus with the secret hope that he would try to win me back, but instead he went off to court a new crop of acolytes. I felt like a rejected first wife: older, wiser (or so I thought), but not nearly as cute and fun as I once was.

Twenty years later, I returned, tentatively at first, to church: this time, to a welcoming, liberal kind of congregation where I sensed that a closet doubter like myself could safely blend in; that this could be a place where I could find spiritual sanctuary while I continued to ask the questions that never went away.

And now, unbelievably, another two whole decades have passed, and I’m still going to that same church. And the questions haven’t gone away. I never cured myself of too much thinking; if anything, I’ve gotten worse. But I have, finally, accepted my spiritual self for who I am: an observant doubter. A survivor of Stockholm Syndrome, who wants to live meaningfully.

I’m trying now to write more about all of this. I’m starting with the story of what came first: my fervent, young faith—how it happened, and why I think it happened, and how it fit into what was happening in the world at the time, and did we really speak in tongues and swallow the apocalyptic visions of The Late Great Planet Earth? I want to include stories of some of the people I’ve traveled with along the way. I want to connect with others for whom faith and doubt co-exist; I believe there are many of us who live along this spectrum, far from the noisy extremes of fundamentalist faith or unwavering atheism.

I don’t know yet where this is all leading, but giving myself the time to do it means posting less frequently on this blog. See you once a month or so. The nest is ever restless!DSC00865

I’ll be teaching Introduction to Memoir Writing again at Seattle Central College beginning April 11. Six Monday Nights. Here’s the link.

 

 

 

Mangers Everywhere

DSC01536Two days shy of the darkest day of the year, silhouetted against a rainy twilight sky, I watched a young woman emerge from a tent, tugging a stroller behind her. A young man followed. They turned the stroller around and bumped it down a muddy knoll, lifting it over a ditch and onto the sidewalk. Their tent, pitched next to Interstate 5 at the 50th Street exit in Seattle’s University District, flapped behind them, sagging under the relentless rain, leaning half-heartedly against the wind, ready to cave in to the next good gust. As we waited for the light to change, all I could see of the baby in the stroller, across the two lanes of traffic that stood between us, was that at least she or he was covered with a blanket.

My husband and I were on our way to see the latest movie version of Macbeth. The very first shot in the movie is of a dead baby. And the weather in medieval Scotland, as seen on screen, was only slightly worse than the weather outside the theater in mid-winter Seattle. I shivered at the thought of living in such brutal conditions: no heat, no light, mud everywhere. But that is exactly how the young couple I’d seen coming out of their tent were living. Right here in my own high-tech hometown. Right now, in 2015.

As we drove home, we took in the sparkling lights of all the construction cranes in South Lake Union and downtown. It’s as if they’re competing this year for the most festive displays: long strings of brightly colored lights, even trees and Santas perched high above the city. And why not celebrate the ongoing construction boom? Five years ago, Seattle was dotted with half-dug holes, half-built buildings, half-done projects halted by the recession.

But the young couple with the stroller haunts me. How do two young people come to be so desperate that they pitch a tent on the edge of the freeway? And they’re not alone. The tents are everywhere. It seems that for every new crane hanging over another new construction site, there are dozens more tents popping up a few blocks away, often in places we haven’t seen them before.

It’s not my imagination. The Seattle Times reports that as of late November, 527 unauthorized homeless encampments were shut down by the city this year. 527. Those are just the ones that were actually shut down. That’s up from 351 in 2014. 131 in 2013. Eighty in 2012. On November 2, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray declared a homeless emergency and authorized five million dollars to be spent on shelter and services for people found sleeping outside.

Meanwhile, according to the Puget Sound Business Journal, nearly 21,600 rental units are currently under construction. But the Journal is also reporting an “alarming deterioration” in the local apartment rental market. Deterioriation! What could this mean? Here’s what it means: rents have dropped an average of $59 a month in the last quarter, in all neighborhoods except South Lake Union. Twenty percent of landlords are even offering “incentives” such as a month’s free rent. The vacancy rate is up from 4 percent to, wait for it, 4.3 percent.

Is this really how we define “alarming?” The fact that rents have taken a baby step backwards, towards actual affordability, is “alarming?” And you can bet rents are still so far from the reach of the people in the tents that they may as well be millions, not thousands, of dollars per month.

I don’t know what to do about the young family I saw coming out of the tent. Should I have pulled over, that evening, and given them whatever crumpled bills were in my purse? How much longer can I rationalize that doing the same small things, over and over again—volunteering when my church hosts homeless women and children overnight, buying diapers and toys for the families we sponsor at Christmas, giving coats and sleeping bags to the neighborhood kids who are collecting for their school, handing energy bars to panhandlers—is enough? And yet we, I, can’t not do these things. How could we not?

Mayor Murray is promising that the city will find shelter for the tent people. But is it? Are we? What’s going on in Seattle? Where and how are we going to find room at the inn?

Back to Macbeth for a moment. In this latest interpretation of Shakespeare’s 400-year-old play, director Justin Kurzel and actor Michael Fassbender as Macbeth are unflinching in their portrayal of a warrior who could have been a true hero and leader, if only he had found the strength to resist the temptations of power and greed. And we know where those temptations got him: to one of the most cynical, sad moments in literature, when he pronounced life “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

But life is not that. If it were, the couple in the tent would just give up. Instead, they went out in the rain, presumably in search of food and help for themselves and their infant. Because, as theologian Henri Nouwen wrote, “we are called to be people of hope.”

But Nouwen also said this: “we cannot go around despair to hope. We have to go right through despair.”

There are mangers everywhere, in this Advent season.

Healing is a risky business

12241203_10206996887414845_2151836365820268832_nHealing is a risky business. Any poet or journalist could tell you that. It’s risky, because it has to start with truth telling, and when we’re wounded, the truth is not often what we want to hear.

For me, last week started with the peak experience of hearing Gloria 1442865674251Steinem rock Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, and it ended (or so I thought) with the peak experience of hearing Garrison Keillor read a poem written by my college friend, Dana Robbins, to a national radio audience. Gloria and Dana: two risk-takers, two truth-tellers. You know Gloria, so I’ll tell you a bit about Dana: she survived a stroke at 23 and a number of other nightmares and heartbreaks, which she writes about in her th_LeftSideLifefirst published book of poems, The Left Side of my Life (Moon Pie Press, 2015), in which you will also find poignant poems about motherhood and about her joyful second marriage. It was thrilling to me to at last hold a book of her poems in my hand AND hear her on the radio in the same week.

But last week didn’t end there. Because that was Before Paris.

For the Islamic State terrorists, the bloody attacks on Paris that killed 129 people were the grand finale of a two-week horror show that included claiming responsibility for the October 31 plane crash in Egypt that killed 224 people and bombings in Beirut that killed 43 12027805_10153834583469673_8324533815771842484_nand in Baghad that killed at least 26. For those of us who are slow to wake up to violence in places where we haven’t traveled, countries we don’t know personally, Paris was the visceral, gut-punching, week-ending shock.

For me, hearing the news will forever be oddly twined with seeing the movie Spotlight, about the team of UnknownBoston Globe reporters who broke the story of the systemic, deliberate, top-down cover-up of the cases of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. My husband and I went into the theatre knowing something awful had happened in Paris. We came out and learned the news was far worse than we’d thought. And so our conversation that evening was about how hard, but essential, it was to hear the truth about tragedies that had happened decades ago. OR hours ago.

Journalists and poets uncover old truths and new truths. They are both first-responders to fresh tragedies, and dogged researchers of outrages that have been buried but must be exhumed in order for justice to be done.

They can’t do their work without brave people willing to talk. Spotlight is all about that: about finding people who have been very badly hurt but are now angry enough and brave enough to talk about it, with the hope that by talking they will save future children from similar harm. Another movie out now, Truth, is also about finding brave people willing to go on the record. It’s the story, as told in her memoir, of former CBS journalist Unknown-1 Mary Mapes, who uncovered the important story of a young, future President George W. Bush shirking his duty in the National Guard. Mapes was brought down, along with Dan Rather and several colleagues, by one memo that had not been fully verified and was quickly seized on by the right-wing media machine—though the story itself, of Bush’s shirking, was all true. I knew Mary Mapes in the 1980s, when we both worked at KIRO TV, and she was, and is, one of the hardest-working, most dedicated journalists I’d ever met. Seeking truth is a risky business.

Sometimes, and perhaps more often in the case of poets, the brave truth-teller is the writer herself. Dana’s book begins: “They tell me I had a stroke/a cosmic joke,/like waking up a cockroach.” Of being offered a wheelchair at the airport, she writes: “How would the people who offer help in the airport know that to me/ the apparatus of disability has all the appeal of the electric chair?”

There is an unflinching quality in poetry that is a cousin of the best journalism. It’s as if poets are driven to flush out the dark corners and bring what is most frightening into the daylight. It’s very different than the urge to fictionalize or mythologize.

We need poets to say, starkly, what happened, and to give voice to grief; and we need journalists to shine their most powerful high-beam headlights on who and what is behind the tragedies we grieve and how, if it’s possible, we can heal.

As the poet Rumi wrote, 800 years ago: “Don’t turn your head. Keep looking/ at the bandaged place. That’s where/ the light enters you.”

 

Restless Night

12079495_1002020523189036_4695099355839985106_nThere was a solemn three-year-old firefighter and a fierce four-year-old Batman. There were many princesses, one wearing a football helmet. There were moms dressed as witches and one dad in a hardhat carrying a cardboard model of Bertha, Seattle’s doomed supersized tunnel driller. IMG_1192There were some very sweet baby bumblebees. It was Halloween night in Columbia City, and my husband and I were there for the show.

We left a basket of candy on our front porch with a sign: “Happy Halloween! Take a few and leave some for your neighbors.” We’ll never know whether the trick or treaters did that, or whether one or a few them could not resist the temptation to empty the entire basket into their bags. What we did know is that we were too restless, this year, to sit home and wait for the doorbell to ring.

So there we were, a dozen blocks away in our neighborhood’s hopping, decked-out business district, watching what has become a wildly popular south Seattle ritual: trick or treating at the bars, restaurants, galleries and stores in rustic, red-brick Columbia City. 315398_249935491713680_5416914_nWe ordered beers at Lottie’s and stood outside, protected from the rain by the awning. We complimented the trick or treaters on their costumes and chatted with their parents. Rus took a few photos to send our children, currently living far away in Colorado and New York and busy at that hour dressing up for their respective Halloween parties.

12034366_10153835310440809_8368667048062586536_oAfter dinner at Tutta Bella, we raced up to Taproot Theatre in Greenwood to see Dracula on stage. One of our daughter’s childhood friends was in the cast, playing Lucy, the pretty ingénue who is transformed into a blood-craving vampire by the end of Act One. It was a great show.

It was a night of watching Halloween happen. We were spectators. And that was fine.

Twenty or thirty years ago, I might not have thought it would be fine, to be a Halloween spectator. I might have thought it would be sad. But this is one of the sweet treats, not tricks, that come with the passage of time. Nostalgia is part of it: I see the bumblebees and tiny Bat-men and I remember the fevered excitement of our children, putting on their costumes and getting ready for the big night. But nostalgia isn’t all of it. There’s also just a bit of relief—being a spectator is a lot less exhausting!—and there’s the feeling of newness. That’s the surprising part. Newness, not old-ness: this phase I call the Restless Nest is as surprisingly and richly new as it is nostalgic. It’s a blend. I get both: the newness of plunging into creative projects I didn’t have time for back in the bumblebee phase, and the pleasant nostalgia of remembering those years.

Recently, I was introduced at an event as the author of the blog called “The Restless Night.” I made a joke about how that sounded a bit more sinister than “The Restless Nest.” What I didn’t say is that it is all too often an apt description of how I’ve been sleeping lately. But I’ve come around, in recent years, to accept that insomnia goes hand in hand with the newness part of this phase of life. That when I’m doing new, scary things—like speaking at an event, or raising money for our film, Zona Intangible, on Kickstarter (please check out our page, watch the trailer and consider backing our movie!)—my nights are going to get restless. photo-original

“Only when we are at our most playful can divinity finally get serious with us,” Elizabeth Gilbert writes in her most recent book, Big Magic, a 273-page ode to creative risk-taking. Yes: it’s like the excitement children feel on Halloween night, as they put on their costumes and create new and different selves. It is play, but it is serious play.

From Sun to Sun

51NYhLAG7FL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_ “I am not an angel,” Nina McKissock told me firmly. “I’m just doing my job.” McKissock is a hospice nurse. She is also the author of a new memoir called From Sun to Sun: A Hospice Nurse Reflects on the Art of Dying, in which she tells the stories of composite patients based on many of the real people she has cared for at the end of their lives. (McKissock and I will be reading and talking together at Elliott Bay Bookstore in Seattle on Sunday, November 1 at 3pm.)

From Sun to Sun is one of those books I was hesitant to read, thinking surely it will be too hard and too sad to bear. But once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. Each one of McKissock’s 24 patients became my friend for an hour or two; a friend whose story had much to teach me. “There can be great healing within the dying process,” McKissock writes in the frontispiece to the book, and though this may seem counterintuitive, she goes on to show us many examples of how it can be true. One of the most moving stories was of Eric, a 51-year-old with ALS: Lou Gehrig’s disease. Eric had watched his father die of the same illness, so he knew what lay ahead. His type-A, executive wife was heartbroken and enraged. Of course. But her anger at ALS made it nearly impossible for her to slow down and muster the patience caring for her dying husband required. When McKissock persuaded her and Eric to accept the help of Rachel, a gifted full-time caregiver, both of them began to heal. Emotionally.

One night, Rachel and McKissock carried Eric outside to see the full moon. “There are moments in my life where I feel so humble that I simply want to kneel in reverence; this was one such moment,” McKissock writes. “It was sacred to witness this beautiful, broken man wrapped in blankets—who knew full well he was seeing his last full moon.”

MicKissock speaks truth when she says hospice nurses and caregivers are not angels. They are the opposite of ethereal. Much of their work is hard, physical labor: moving patients, dressing patients, changing sheets, preparing, serving and cleaning up after painstakingly offered meals. Much of it is a highly professional mix of cognition and intuition, calibrated by years of experience, as they assess a patient’s ever-changing needs for care and medication, even as they carefully juggle his or his family’s needs to be kept informed and prepared for what lies ahead. They know that as they do their job, the dying person is doing the hardest spiritual work any of us will ever do: saying good-bye. And then preparing to take that final step, the one we will all have to take alone. A good hospice nurse can be a very real guide and helper as her patient embarks on that journey.

My brother died of a brain tumor at 52. Because his brain was affected by the tumor, it was very hard for him to express his thoughts and feelings in his final days. But I’ll never forget two words he said to me, as we sat together in his hospice room: “I’m scared.” I felt helpless in that moment. I don’t remember what I said in response. But I was so grateful for the hospice nurses, who had created an atmosphere of comfort and serenity for him and for us.

At the end of the chapter about Eric, McKissock quotes the 13th century poet, Rumi: “This being human is a Guest House; treat each guest honorably.” With the help of hospice nurses, caregivers and social workers, I believe we are, at last, re-learning how to do that.

Bonus event! At 5pm on Sunday, Nov 1, I will be at Northwest Film Forum to talk about the Kickstarter campaign for our film, Zona Intangible, as part of their free Join the Crowd presentation about crowd funding. Please support our Kickstarter if you can and share the link with others!

Hallelujah

Unknown“Love is not a victory march,” wrote Leonard Cohen. “It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.” And it plays in my head, this lyrical fragment, quite often. (The Jeff Buckley version, may he rest in peace.) I find it profound and beautiful and even hopeful, though my sense of what it means changes from day to day. When I hear it, or think of it, I picture two people who love each other, embracing. Perhaps crying. One has just forgiven the other, I imagine. Or one has just been marked for death, or a long departure. Something is broken. Some cosmic chord has gone cold. Nothing could be further from what they are feeling than victory. And yet they are more intensely aware of their love, in this instant, than they have ever been.

The name of the Buckley album that includes Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is “Grace.” A difficult concept if there ever was one: spiritual grace, that is, as opposed to ballet or Mozart or Matisse. But though it may be difficult to describe, there are moments in life when grace is visible. Palpable.

And the last two weeks have been full of those moments.

“I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you,” sad Nadine Collier to the expressionless face on the video monitor, the face of the man accused of murdering her mother, Ethel Lance, and eight others at Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17th. jones_pict

“I forgive you.” Startling words. Powerful words. Over and over again, the family members of the nine who were killed that day said those words. And in doing so, they gave all of us the gift of witnessing grace. A broken, beautiful Hallelujah.

Fast forward a handful of days. The hallelujah train began to pick up some serious steam, as it headed right for the United States Supreme Court.

First came the Affordable Care Act: saved from its umpteenth and, God willing, final court challenge, on a six to three vote. Then the 1968 Fair Housing Act—47 years old, and still fighting off threats to the very basic notion that housing discrimination on the basis of race is indeed against the law—it, too, was saved, on a five to four vote.

And then on Friday, came Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s grace-filled, historic phrase: Equal Dignity. Kennedy’s explanation of the high court’s ruling that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage was long and often poetic. Quote, “As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death,” Kennedy wrote, and in conclusion, “They ask for equal dignity under the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

But there was still more grace to come that morning. After applauding the Supreme Court’s ruling, President Obama was off to South Carolina to attend the funeral of Reverend Clementa Pinckney. And when I turned on the radio and heard him end his eulogy by singing, a capella, in a voice as out-of-tune as my own, “Amazing Grace”—I laughed and cried.

Grace is like that. “How sweet the sound:” yes, even when love feels cold and broken by nine senseless deaths. Sometimes—as it was on Friday at the Supreme Court and in South Carolina—love is everything, all at once: it is a victory march, triumphing over hate, and it is cold and broken and grief-stricken, and yet it is still a resounding Hallelujah.

This just in: my OpEd in the Wall Street Journal on volunteering for research, published Monday, June 29.

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

Beyond the Trail

IMG_1864  “End of Maintained Trail,” read the sign. “Travel Safely. Leave No Trace.” We had hiked the 3.1 miles up to Glacier Basin in Mt. Rainier National Park on a mid-June day that looked like late July: wildflowers everywhere, sky bluer than blue, glaciers looking decidedly underfed. I could use that “end of maintained trail” metaphor to riff about global warming, couldn’t I? But my mind is traveling in a different direction. More of a life direction. More of a… what it might feel like to get a scary diagnosis direction.

For 5.3 million Americans living today, that diagnosis is Alzheimer’s disease, and it may as well come with a trail’s-end message attached: This is the end of the maintained trail, pal. Sorry. Travel safely. Oh, and leave no trace of your fears and feelings because frankly, the rest of us can’t handle hearing about it. For their family members, the diagnosis message is the same: your life, too, will now proceed on unmarked terrain. There will be rocks, some slippery, others sharp. There will be immoveable boulders. Crevasses of anguish. The endless putting of one foot in front of another, as you wonder what lies around the next switchback or over that looming ridge.

The Alzheimer’s Association recently switched its awareness month from November—cold, barren, Printdark—to June: mild, lush and flooded with light. At first, I didn’t get it. November had always seemed like the perfect Alzheimer’s Awareness month to me. But I think the point is to get us all thinking about just how long the days are for people with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers. What a marathon this diagnosis is. What a steeplechase—a better word, with its implied challenges and roadblocks and muddy sinkholes.

June in the Northwest is often a steeplechase sort of month in which it’s never quite safe to plan a picnic or plant something that might not respond well to a sudden chill or storm. It’s a month in which you never quite know expect. The only thing you do know is that the days will be long, and one of them will be the longest day of all. And mostly, we view that as a good thing: those long, creamsicle Solstice twilights and sunrises; those nights that even at midnight, never seem fully dark.

logo       On this year’s Solstice, Sunday, June 21st, I’ll be participating in an Alzheimer’s Association event: a “Longest Day” write-and-readathon at Seattle’s University Bookstore. It’s our first year, so we’re not quite sure what we’re doing and we’re definitely not going to try to keep it up for all 16 hours between dawn and dusk. But for four hours in the afternoon, our goal will be to read and write in honor of someone we love who is a caregiver or is living with or lived with Alzheimer’s disease. For me, that will be my mom. I don’t know yet if I’ll write about her or Alzheimer’s—I’ve done quite a bit of both. Maybe instead I’ll write about some of the things she loved to do. Or her favorite books and authors. Or how she might have liked to fill a Solstice day if she were alive and well. ArleneYoung

Mom’s life was never much of a maintained trail. She scrambled and improvised all the time, which made her a great role model for her six children, especially as we tried to figure out how best to help her when Alzheimer’s began to rumble like an avalanche after a June rain. But she was an English teacher. She loved reading and writing. I like to think she really would be honored by a write-and-readathon, on the year’s very longest day.

1904066_484139051691653_1188410800_nThe Details: June 21, 1 to 4pm, University Book Store, Seattle, the Alzheimer’s Association’s Longest Day” write-and-readathon: Join us! or come for the Open Mic reading at 3pm.

Just in: a new review of Her Beautiful Brain from Full Life Care blog editor Kavan Peterson. I am so honored to be speaking at Full Life’s fundraising breakfast in October. You can buy Her Beautiful Brain from Amazon or any independent bookstore. Find a bookstore here. Order the Kindle version hereHBBfinalcover

 

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