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Archive for the category “faith and doubt”

Writing Home

    Image 2In the West, flying home means flying into the sunset. Even if you’re on a plane from Phoenix to Seattle, the sunset is there, flying with you, coaxing you, luring you home. Even if you’re on the wrong side of the plane, the clouds over the wing are splashed with peach and pink; the occasional mountain peak popping up below, bright in the reflected magic-hour light: that glowing hour when lamps are lit, when porch lights blink on, when home beckons.

As I flew home recently from Arizona, I thought about the power of home and how specific it is. Or isn’t. Say the word “home” and watch where your mind and memory go. Is home the house you grew up in? The house you live in now? Or is it not a house at all, but the place where you feel most yourself?

Image 3        And why would I—born and raised in Seattle, flying back on a March evening to the family and neighborhood and city that I love—why would I also have felt so strongly at home in Sedona, Arizona?

Because it’s the West, I thought. Give me red rocks and prickly pear; give me old-growth forests and fiddlehead ferns: I always feel a sense of home in the West. Much as I still love to visit the cities that shaped me in my youth—Boston, New York, London, Chicago—flying into the sunset, I savor the exhale of knowing I’m home.

9780307592736I am a memoir writer and teacher, so I read a lot of memoirs. So often, they are about that yearning for home: not necessarily the fondly remembered home of the writer’s childhood, but the sense of home the writer longs to feel now. So often, grief and loss have blocked the way, and the writer needs to write her way through, as Cheryl Strayed did in Wild. Her path to a newfound home was the Pacific Crest Trail. 9780156010863 In The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton traveled far and wide before he finally found his true home in a Trappist monastery in Kentucky.

9780199927814In Belden Lane’s Backpacking with the Saints, home is a mountain trail, most often in the Ozarks, with the books of his beloved “saints”—from Columba of Iona to Dag Hammarskjöld to Thich Nhat Hanh—for company.

In Sigrid Rausing’s Mayhem, home is where her family is, 41T+gg9Hu+L._SX335_BO1,204,203,200_precious and fragile after a dozen turbulent years in the maelstrom of her brother and sister-in-law’s addiction.

31MTlBzMT4L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_In Dani Shapiro’s stunning, elegiac  Inheritance, home is where love is—her husband, her son—and where it was: the father she knew and the father she didn’t.

How do we take a memory—whether it’s as snapshot-sharp as the buttes and mesas of Sedona, or as elusive as clouds billowing around a plane—and ask it to lead us home?

“When Memory Becomes Memoir” is the name of a talk I gave at the Frye Art Museum’s recent conference on creative aging. Use your five senses, I urged. Help your readers not only see and hear but taste, smell and touch this memory you want so badly to share. And then see where those senses lead you. A new insight about your past, a moment of reflection, may catch you by surprise.

9781439182710         One of my own favorite examples is Ernest Hemingway’s opening essay in A Moveable Feast called “A Good Café on the Place St. Michel.” Writing more than thirty years later, Hemingway took such sensory pleasure in describing the café where he wrote in his twenties: the pencil shavings curling into his saucer, the Martinique rum, the girl who walked in, with “hair black as a crow’s wing and cut sharply and diagonally across her cheek;” all culminating in an uncharacteristic burst of emotion: “I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.”

For the rest of his life, all Paris belonged to Hemingway, even though he no longer lived there. Just as Michigan belonged to him, because he did so much of his growing up there. Just as Seattle and the West belong to me, and your beloved homes, whether by birth or adoption, belong to you.

And the great gift of memory is that you can engage the imaginative twins of the physical tools you deploy every day to observe the world around you—sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell—and use them to take yourself home. Whether you’re flying into the sunset, or somewhere else that is all yours. Image

Seattle-area readers: There’s still time to sign up for my Introduction to Memoir Writing Class, beginning April 1 at Seattle Central College. Six Monday nights. Non-credit = no stress! 

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And All Will Be Well

IMG_0395Happy Holidays, Restless Nest readers! For the past several weeks, I’ve been devoting my writing energy to finishing the first draft of The Observant Doubter, my memoir about faith and doubt. I’m happy to say I now HAVE a first draft, which I’m about to (nervously) share with my first circle of critical readers.

Meanwhile, here is a little seasonal morsel from my manuscript. It’s a story from my junior year in college, when I was an exchange student at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, which some of you may know as the city where the medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich, cloistered herself in a barnacle-like cell attached to a parish church and wrote of her encounters with God. IMG_0644
When I was there four decades ago, I knew little of Julian: I had made a firm turn away from the religious fervor of my teens and was now embarking on the decidedly all-doubt, no-observance phase of my life.

However: there was one frigid December evening in London.

My new boyfriend and I had been walking all over the city, both of us infatuated with its grit and beauty and history. Unlike me, he had done some advance planning for his year in the U.K., and had brought with him not only a copy of Let’s Go Europe, but one of the wonderful, fusty old Blue Guides, which helped us find the homes of famous writers and the Punch Tavern and the dozens of churches designed by Christopher Wren, their spires popping up suddenly between sooty Victorian office blocks like little havens of wholesome village life in the midst of the hectic capitol.

St+James'sWe happened across a Wren church called St. James Piccadilly. Usually, we just admired churches from the outside. But we heard a choir singing a Christmas carol, one of the English ones we Americans sing less often—was it “Lo, how a rose ere blooming?” Or “I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In?” Or “The Holly and the Ivy?”—I can’t now recall. What I do remember is feeling that I must go inside.

“It’s alright,” I said. “We’ll be very quiet. No one will notice us.”

We opened the door and saw that there were stairs to an upper gallery. We tiptoed up and slipped into the front row.

No one was in the church but the choir. It must have been a rehearsal. I remember whitewashed walls, dark pews, red drapes, stained-glass windows. I remember white choir robes. I remember that the choir was young: children and teenagers. I remember music filling the church, filling me.

Oh, the rising of the sun, and the running of the deer; 

The playing of the merry organ; sweet singing in the choir.

I remember feeling not just filled but held. The way a mother holds a baby, bathing her child in warmth and light. I remember crying.

Later, I called it a blast of intense, Christmastime nostalgia. But I knew, though I did not want to try, then, to describe it to anyone, including myself—I knew that it was more than that.

It felt like the reassurance of which Julian wrote: All will be well. I, God, am still here. And all will be well. I’ll always be here. And every kind of thing shall be well. Come back when you’re ready.

In the years ahead, that hour in St. James Piccadilly became a place I could go to for an instant. A match I could light, quickly, and blow out before anyone saw it.

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Merry Christmas.

Here are a few more seasonal stories: a guest post I wrote for the Patheos/Good Letters site called Going to the Manger as She Is, and this favorite from the Restless Nest archives: Sausage Rolls.

 

This Large Light

Image 1Driving west up Union, we could see taillights stretching ahead in a long, slow column. We crossed 23rd Avenue, turned onto a side street and parked. As we walked uphill towards Seattle’s storied Temple de Hirsch Sinai, my husband and I fell in step with a few others, then a few dozen. And then suddenly we were part of a stream of a few thousand, or more. Volunteers directed us to the ends of the long lines that circled the temple block in every direction.

The quiet was palpable.

The announcement soon went out that the synagogue, which holds 2,000 people, was full. Police blocked off the street in front and encouraged the hundreds of us who couldn’t get in to gather outside. Loudspeakers were set up. Someone began to strum a guitar and lead us in song. I stood behind a tall man in a fedora with a voice like a deep, clear bell and tried to pick up a few of the Hebrew words.

One of the rabbis came out and spoke to us. He told us God’s tears were mixing with ours, as we stood together in remembrance of the eleven people murdered two days ago at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. He talked of planting a new Tree of Life, where love can—no, must, he said—have the last word.

I thought of a film I saw this weekend, at the Friday Harbor Film Festival, that was all about how trees communicate with each other, underground; how the roots of wholly different species nurture each other, helped along by micro-organisms in the neighborhood.

Governor Jay Inslee came out from the service inside to offer a few words. Oh no, I thought. We don’t need a politician right now. But he was not a politician in that moment, he was our governor, grieving with us about a horror that he knew did not seem far away, not in a city and a state that has seen its own share of anti-Semitic violence, including murder.  Inslee spoke of how we must stop fearing and hating people who we perceive as Other. “There is no other,” he said.

Earlier that afternoon, unable to focus on anything resembling work, I had signed up at Vote Forward to send letters to specific people urging them to vote. There was a template, with space to add your own hand-written words about why you vote. “Because I believe in democracy,” I wrote, trying hard to be legible, “and voting is the beating heart of democracy. Without our votes, democracy will die.”

I sent ten letters to voters in the 13th District of North Carolina, which happens to include Greensboro, which happens to be the first place I ever visited in the South. It was 1977. I don’t know what Greensboro is like now, but my memory of seeing it then, at the tender age of 20, is of a city starkly and deliberately divided. Rich/poor; white/black. Split-levels in subdivisions; weatherbeaten cottages on streets without sidewalks. Forty years have passed. But as I addressed my letters, I pictured voters old enough to have grown up in that earlier Greensboro, and how much work they have had to do—unless they were white—simply to vote.

Standing outside the Temple de Hirsch, I thought of those names I wrote out so carefully on each envelope as the guitarist launched us into “This Little Light of Mine.”

Screen Shot 2018-10-30 at 8.26.09 AMAre you remembering summer camp? Maybe squirming a bit at the corniness of that song? Don’t. On an October night, outside a Seattle synagogue, it rang out loud and strong. Everyone knew the words—hooray! And I could feel all our little lights adding up to one large light; coming from similar gatherings in other cities, reaching Greensboro and Pittsburgh and a million other corners of this country we live in; this democracy where we have to keep getting together and shining our lights and reminding ourselves, in dark times, that there is no Other.

 

 

 

 

Seeking Shade

ImageThere is a toxic, orange glare emanating from the White House. We’ve got to seek shade wherever we can.

As I hopscotched from one patch of shade to the next during our most recent heat wave, feeling grateful for Seattle’s generous canopy of trees, I thought: this is what we’re all doing now. Seeking shade from that poisonous glare. It’s a matter of spiritual and psychological survival.

My own shade-seeking, Summer of 2018 mantra is this: “I am NOT going to let Donald Trump prevent me from writing my book.” Easier said than done, in the summer of 2018. But I’m doing it: I’m writing; I’m fitting in an hour or two a day, more when I can, less when work takes precedence or it’s time for a hiking break.

Writers, here’s my advice: close your email and your browser. Silence your phone. Set a timer for an hour. Checking your email, texts and news once an hour is enough.

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My own recent favorite reads

And readers: show yourself some kindness. Tear your bleary eyes away from the news alerts and the OpEds and read a novel or a memoir or a short story or a non-political essay. Feel your breathing change and your shoulders relax as you settle in. Parents and grandparents: read stories to your kids.

The book I am writing is about faith and doubt: the fervent faith of my youth, the twenty-year break I took from religion, the meaning I’ve found in accepting that doubt is where my faith now resides. My working title for this memoir is The Observant Doubter. It’s not an easy subject. The writing is slow going. I think I might be at about the three-quarters-done mark right now, but it’s a messy first draft, so there’s still a lot of work ahead.

And I am not, not, not going to let Trump stop me from finishing.

By which I mean: I won’t keep up with his every antic. I refuse to read every story about every tweet. I can’t listen to NPR right before I sit down to write.

But the energy required to NOT do those things, to stay focused even for an hour, has had consequences. For example: this is the first Restless Nest I’ve posted since May, when I wrote about the latest Royal Wedding, which now seems like it happened in some other century. And I haven’t been very social. And our garden this year is the size of a stamp.

And I can’t just ignore news like children being separated from their parents by agents whose wages we pay. I can’t not react.

Living in the time of Trump is like navigating an endless psychological-warfare obstacle course, isn’t it?

Sometimes, the best guides through the mess of it are the people who are just quietly and daily doing their work. By which I don’t mean writing a memoir, valuable though I believe that work to be. No: I mean people like our White Noise Productions clients. I don’t write nearly often enough about them, even though filming and telling their stories has kept me hopeful and optimistic for twenty years.

They work at non-profits, most of them small and way under the glamour-radar. Atlantic Street Center, for example, known for its thriving Summer Academy, its support groups for grandparents caring for grandkids, and a host of other programs that help families. Or Safe Crossings Foundation, which funds grief support for children and teens. Or Operation Nightwatch, providing meals and finding beds, night after night, for people seeking shelter. Or Full Life Care, helping people with chronic illnesses and disabilities. Or Seattle Arts & Lectures’ wonderful Writers in the Schools program.

Image 1On a hot summer day in 2018, these stories that we’re telling are like shade trees: they shelter us, for an hour or an afternoon, from all the toxic heat surging out of the other Washington. They shelter us by reminding us that compassion can’t actually be stamped out.

And they remind me that storytelling is important, which helps me get back to my writing.

I’ve never loved shade as much as I have this summer: when the glare of distraction has been so relentless.

Registration is open for my Introduction to Memoir Writing class at Seattle Central College. First class is September 25th. 

Stand By Me

_101664541_053e2d0f-a05b-4c6e-bb13-349acf2c705dOn May 19, 2018, I did something I have never done before: I watched an entire royal wedding. Not live: better than live! In an act of pure selfless devotion, my husband remembered that I had said something about “recording the wedding” and actually set the TV to record it before we went to bed. He himself could not be less interested. But he knew I was.

After grieving my way through the morning papers—school shooting in Texas, misery in Gaza and Venezuela, tension brewing again in Korea—I was more than ready for the diversion of a royal pageant. Coffee in one hand and remote in the other, I fast-forwarded through the three hours of buildup and blather until, at last, I got to the main course: Meghan Markle getting out of the Rolls Royce at St. George’s Chapel. Time to get this fancy shindig started.

When Charles and Diana married in 1981, I was at Carolina Beach in my boyfriend’s family’s cabin. His mom and I set our alarms and got up in the wee hours, hoping we might squeeze some reception out of their old black-and-white TV. But no amount of wiggling the rabbit ears would bring in anything more than a squiggly, triple image—a sort of Cubist version of the ceremony—with words deeply buried in fuzzy static.

When William and Kate married in 2011, I was on a plane flying home from Mexico.

This time, I would finally get to indulge.

Most of the Brits I know roll their eyes when you say “royal family.” They mutter about the most expensive public housing in the world and the nuttiness of thinking that inbred aristocrats should for one second be considered superior to the rest of us. I get it. I understand that it’s all a silly fairy tale. But sometimes fairy tales make for bewitching theatre.
_101665452_pa-36630070Especially if there’s a twist: for example, if the fairytale princess is African-American, instead of British-Aristocrat. And so this royal wedding featured two of the best things that have ever happened to old St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle: an African-American-style gospel choir, and an African-American preacher. Karen Gibson and the Kingdom Choir (who are from London) rocked the royal house with an exquisitely harmonized version of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” featuring soloist Paul Lee. Presiding Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry Michael Curry at St George's Windsor for the Royal Weddingmade the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Dean of Windsor Castle seem like a couple of butlers from Downton Abbey, quietly dozing through their tea break while he brought the house down, gliding easily from quiet reflections on the Song of Solomon to thundering invocations of Martin Luther King, but circling back, always, to the power of love to change the world.

IMG_0874 - Version 2The power of love. It has been more than thirty years since that October day in Scotland when Rustin and I spoke our vows. Our own fairy tale, like so many fairy tales do, has taken us through a few dark woods. So it feels dangerously inane to me to say something like, “a lasting marriage is all about the little things; for example, recording the royal wedding for your wife, even though you can’t imagine why she or anyone else would want to watch such an absurd and outdated spectacle.”

But the power of love is about those small acts of love, just as much as it’s about the big dramatic ones.

At our wedding, the young Rev. Jeff McCormick of the Church of Scotland wound up his homily with these words of wisdom: “Never forget the love that brought you here today. Look after it and work with it. And, in a strange way, this will be just the beginning of a romantic story.”

Look after your love. Work with it. What wise advice that was. Because—and you know how it goes–“When the night has come, and the land is dark, and the moon is the only light we’ll see; No I won’t be afraid, no I won’t be afraid. Just as long as you stand, stand by me.”

For more on the wedding: Read this moving essay by Mara Gay in The New York Times. And Anthony Lane’s report in The New Yorker is delectable.  

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Love and Sacrifice

IMG_1151 - Version 2On the day that students and the people who love them marched in cities and towns around the world, my husband and I walked the wide boulevards of Chichén Itzá. If our trip to Mexico had not been planned so far in advance, we too would have been marching in our hometown. Instead, heat-dazed, we gazed at the ruins of the ancient city that has long been known as a site of copious human sacrifice.  Image

The Mayans, and the Toltecs who conquered them, believed that the gods were hungry for blood, in particular the blood of fresh human hearts. When the divine appetite for blood was sated, the sun would rise and the crops would thrive.

Legend has it that the gods preferred the hearts of young warriors. That only the hearts of the strongest, healthiest, most beautiful young people would please the gods’ delicate palates.

Hundreds of years from now, will tourists visit the ruins of American schools and shake their heads in horror? Will they ask why we, a once-advanced civilization, were willing to sacrifice our young because we believed—what, exactly? That it was a sacred right to own the deadliest of weapons?

At least the Mayans and the Toltecs thought they were making the sun rise.

IMG_1161         As I write, Passover has begun and Easter is tomorrow. I’m back in Seattle now, but I started this holy week in Valladolid, Mexico, a quiet, colonial city near Chichén Itzá. On Palm Sunday, I attend 9 o’clock mass at the Templo de San Bernardino, the 460-year-old Catholic church a few yards from our hotel. On my way in, I bought a 5-peso (about 25 cents) palm cross with a postage-stamp-sized picture of Jesus and a tiny blue flower stapled to it.

By 9 o’clock, the church was standing room only, with people spilling out the door. I was lucky: I got a plastic chair in a row set up behind the last pew.

A few minutes past nine, the priest greeted us and invited us to turn and watch as dozens of children, most of them wearing red, processed in, waving palm branches and singing. They all sat up front and took the lead whenever it was time for more music.

My Spanish is not great, but I gamely followed along, waving my palm cross when everyone else did, and returning my neighbors’ hand clasps and wishes for “la paz” when it was time to do that.

I have to be honest and admit that I was far more preoccupied with the beauty of what was right in front of me—people in their Sunday best, waving palms, reciting familiar words, listening to familiar stories, watching out for toddlers underfoot—than I was with the religious meaning of it all. I also felt the weight of what I saw as my essential duty, in that one hour, which was to show respect. To blend in, as best someone who looks like me could under the circumstances. To be observant in close proximity to several hundred people for whom being observant was second nature.

I was grateful for their tolerance.

On Monday night, our last night in Mexico, Rustin and I were walking down our favorite street, the historic route that connects our neighborhood to the central plaza. We were thinking about where the nearest bank machine was, and where we should eat dinner.

We could hear a crowd, with a loudspeaker. They sounded far away. Then suddenly they weren’t. They were coming towards us, right down our street. Procession1Leading the way were several boys in white robes, one of them carrying a cross. Behind him came the priest, in red. Behind the priest was an old car with a loudspeaker on top. Inside was a white-robed nun, singing into a microphone. After the nun’s car came crowds of people, ten abreast, singing with her, call-and-response style. We had to flatten ourselves against the nearest building to get out of their way.

Procession3And they just kept coming. It was as if all of Valladolid, a city of 50,000, was taking part in this Holy Week Monday march, which we now understood had to do with the stations of the cross, which we could see placed at intervals down the length of the street.

The marchers were solemn, but not gloomy. There was a spring in their step, as if to say: This week is so important to us. This week is about sacrifice and it is about new life. It is about the divine in the human and the human in the divine. It is about grief and love and how they are forever intertwined. Some of us are devout, some of us are not, but on this night we come together. On this night we celebrate the triumph of love over violence.

Another year, I might tell this story differently. But this year, after seeing all the photos and video clips of the March for Our Lives; after being moved, again and again, by the power of the speeches and the silences; after visiting Chichén Itzá, with its bloodthirsty history—this year, this is what it felt like to witness Valladolid’s Holy Monday march.

Seattle readers: There are still a few spaces left in my upcoming Introduction to Memoir Writing class at Seattle Central. More information here.

Heart + Vitality = Courage

IMG_0911 “Roger-dodger on flight #97 SFO 12:25 PM May 20,” my brother John wrote to me, 43 years ago. “No sweat picking you up out of the horrors of the SF airport.” There’s more, in his rapid-scrawl handwriting on a sheet of notebook paper, and I love every word of it, even though it’s not the exact letter I’d hoped to find last night, as I lifted one envelope after another out of the plastic bin in which my letters have rested, ignored, for four decades.

I pulled out every piece of mail that was addressed to me at Bates Hall, where I lived during my homesick first two years at Wellesley College. I wanted so badly to find one specific note that I knew John had written me in the spring of freshman year, when I wrote him for advice about whether I should transfer. The long New England winter was killing me. Why on earth had I even applied to a women’s college? Etcetera.

What I found instead were exactly two other letters from John: one I’d long forgotten, which he was thoughtful enough to send in September (“Have you thrown yourself to the wolves at any of the cattle shows/mixers yet?”) and then the one he sent in May, after I had written to ask if I could visit him in Berkeley on my way home to Seattle.

“Roger-dodger,” he replied. Which cracked me up, and then made me cry. Twice: when I opened it 43 years ago, and when I read it again last night.

John and I had a tough time getting along when we were kids. He was five years older, and he had a lot of perfectly sensible reasons to resent the hell out of me, the doted-upon firstborn of our mother’s second marriage. He began to lighten up when he went off to M.I.T. By the time I left for college five years later, we were tentative friends.

But what made me think of him, now, were a few things I heard at the Frye Art Museum’s recent Creative Aging Conference. Before I even got there, the very name of the event felt like a taunt. Sciatic nerve pain shooting up your leg this morning, making it hard to walk for more than five minutes? C’mon, Ann, get creative! You’re sixty, dammit!

“The pure bitch that is mortality,” began keynote speaker Wes Cecil, as I dropped with relief into my seat, is our one major “design flaw.” And yet it defines our lives. From the moment we’re born, we’re aging; at its most basic, “aging” simply means “not dead yet.”

I’m sixty, dammit. I’m having a year of physical challenges the likes of which I’ve never experienced: two foot surgeries, with this sciatic setback in between. Poor, old, aging me.

But John? His aging was stopped cold by a brain tumor at 52.

Mortality is a pure bitch. Aging is a privilege.

Cecil, an independent scholar and lecturer on philosophy and literature, went on to riff on the etymology of the word, which he said comes from an Indo-European, Sanskrit root that translates as “vitality.” Courage, for example, comes from the roots for “heart” (coeur) and “vitality” (age).

The vitality in those long-ago letters from John jumped from the page.

“The great sin” of humankind is “not loving our lives enough,” said Cecil, paraphrasing Friedrich Nietzsche. But that doesn’t mean we love our lives because they’re somehow perfect, because of course they never are. We never are. But we can love the great gift of being alive. Throughout our lives. Through all the changes and challenges and decades that we are lucky enough to get.

I heard many more good speakers at the Frye: healthy aging expert Eric Larson on resilience; 91-year-old documentary filmmaker Jean Walkinshaw, who embodies resilience; Frye curator Rebecca Albiani on artists who lived long lives and found ways to turn challenges like blindness or arthritis into new ways of creating.

But it was that notion of loving our lives—no matter how messy or exasperating or imperfect—that stayed with me. And which I will hold close on this Day of the Dead, as I remember my brother, in all his complicated, thrumming heart vitality.

 

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. 

 

 

 

 

Boot Camp

IMG_0717You should write about This,” my friends say to me, as they take it all in: the bulky blue splint with its five Velcro straps, the twee roller cart, the pajama bottoms I’m trying to pass off as trousers. (They’re brand-new and navy-blue: surely it’s not obvious!)

I’ve resisted Writing About This, until now, for many reasons, including: One, this is corrective foot surgery, not a disaster that befell me and would make for a really gripping story; Two, the prognosis is promising: This is not forever. And Three, I am getting all the help I need from my unbelievably patient husband. We are lucky enough to work from home, so these six weeks of being roller-cart-bound are not nearly as logistically daunting as they would be for most people.

I have absolutely nothing at all to complain about. Right?

Right. So I won’t. Instead, I’ll take a crack at the strangely surprising upside of it all:

I’m learning like crazy. It’s all stuff I’ve never had to learn before, like: how to be helpless and grateful (especially on those first few days); how to ask for help (still learning, but getting better at it); how to be patient with the mysterious, and slow, process of healing (ditto, with occasional colossal backslides); how to be humble (crawling or backwards-scooting really are sometimes the best ways to get from A to B, especially in a house with stairs). Re asking for help, my husband—who is now an expert on getting asked for help 50 times a day—has this advice: Be direct and to the point. Don’t couch everything in silly phrases like, “If you don’t mind,” or “If it’s not too much trouble” or “When you get a chance.” Also: “please” and “thank you” are always worth saying.

41ciJJ+6+mL._SX315_BO1,204,203,200_I’m reading like crazy. When you subtract real exercise, cooking, cleaning, shopping and driving from your day, you suddenly have a lot of reading time. You can read all of the Sunday papers, and even some of The New Yorker, and still have time for stacks of books. Here are a few of my May favorites: Elizabeth Strout’s new book of ingenuously linked stories, Abide with Me; Walker Percy’s stunning 1961 classic, The Moviegoer; Mirabai Starr’s memoir of grief and spiritual searching, Caravan of No Despair; Richard Ford’s memoir of his parents, Between Them; 51Oh93fUHEL._SY346_Finnish-American journalist Anu Partenen’s provocative look at life in Scandinavia versus America, The Nordic Theory of Everything; and Claire Dederer’s memoir of adolescent yearning, sex and marriage, Love and Trouble.

51tLaNEEZdLAbout Love and Trouble: Two different friends urged me to get to Dederer’s book as soon as I possibly could. I urge you to get to it too. It’s not an easy read. I also know people who say they won’t touch it. I wish they would, because it is an honest and unflinching reckoning with what it meant to grow up at a time when parents were often too busy with their own missions of self-discovery to pay attention to what their kids were up to. And Dederer’s writing is hypnotically engaging, especially in the chapter entitled “Dear Roman Polanski.” I won’t say more, except this: I forgot I even had a swollen, stitched-up, splint-encased foot while reading this book.

IMG_0720I’ve also had plenty of time to follow the super-hot new Sopranos-like soap opera, Our 45th President. I recommend Lester Holt, Brian Williams and Judy Woodruff when you need a break from having the news shouted at you. And if you haven’t subscribed to The Washington Post, do it now. (I’m not up on NPR’s coverage, since I’m not doing any cooking or driving.)

IMG_2697And, finally, I am deep into the Journals Project: which consists of re-reading and transcribing excerpts from my, um, nearly five decades of journals. This is a project that has been ongoing, off and on, for well over a year, but one which I now feel I may actually complete within the next month. Nothing like solitude and big chunks of time, time, time, for deep spelunking into my own past.

My motivation for doing this is to trace my spiritual life (or lack thereof) from age 13, when I began keeping an intermittent journal. It was a time in my life when I was fervent in my faith. I want to write about this. But first I have to remember it, and ponder it, and take it forward through the many decades between then and now. And having time to do that has been the second-greatest gift of this period of convalescence.

But there’s no question about what the first-greatest gift of this Blue-Splint Boot Camp has been: learning how to ask for, and accept, help. Many people have quipped that this is good preparation for old age. Yes it certainly is, and since my husband and I intend to tackle that project (old age) together too, aren’t we lucky to have this opportunity to rehearse? I only hope that when it’s my turn to be the butler/chauffeur/chef/caregiver, I can be even half as positive, uncomplaining and cheerful as he is.

HBBfinalcoverSeattle-area friends: I’ll be reading from Her Beautiful Brain on  June 17 at 1pm at the Kenmore Library. 

 

 

 

 

Stay Hungry

img_28372016 was a hungry, hungry year. Month after month, we hungered for justice and peace and hope, and we just kept getting hungrier. We thought November 8 might take the edge off; might give us a little encouraging broth for the journey. But no. Now we’re more famished than ever. And it’s very easy to feel like the best solution might be to simply curl up in a fetal position and hoard what little energy we have left.

But we can’t, can we? We owe it to ourselves, our children, our neighbors down the street and around the world, to stay hungry. To feel that driving bite in the gut, that ache, that howling growl that demands attention.

We are going to be offered pablum and junk food and we’ll be tempted to take it. We’ll be told to eat this, calm down, stop your bellyaching. But we can’t. We’ve got to stay hungry.

Yes, 2016 feels like the Worst Year Ever. But as one friend brooded on Facebook, what on earth makes us think 2017 is going to better?

Lest you think my only goal here is to write the most depressing post in Restless Nest history, I offer this morsel of optimism. Here’s what could be better about 2017, if we all stay hungry: this could be the year that we all do more than we ever have to make the world a better place. Instead of giving money to presidential candidates, we can give it to the people who are in the trenches, working against hate and for human rights; against climate change and for clean air, water and wilderness protection; against violence and for peace and reconciliation. Instead of talking about Nate Silver’s latest election prediction or Hillary Clinton’s email server or the latest egregious revelation about Donald Trump’s past, we can talk about what we can do, today, to protect vulnerable people and places and rights. We can volunteer to help immigrant children with homework, or help their parents gain citizenship. We can volunteer for medical research. We can rally. We can march. We can write letters and emails. We can support local and state politicians who are working for change. We can follow Senator Patty Murray’s lead and ask each other what we’re doing, not how we’re doing. Because we mostly know how we’re doing: we’re hungry. And we’re going to stay that way, for what could be quite a while.

img_2838Need some ideas of who to support? Here you go: ACLU, SPLC, Planned Parenthood, IRC, NOW, Emily’s List, LCV, NRDC, Sierra Club, Democracy Now, The Alzheimer’s Association, Seattle Globalist, Casa Latina, and Global Washington. Seattle-area friends: volunteer opportunities include Casa Latina, Refugee Women’s AllianceHorn of Africa Services (after-school tutoring) and the city’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs.

 

 

 

 

 

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