therestlessnest

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

Archive for the category “faith and doubt”

Still Restless

DSC00865It’s 3 a.m. and I hear my neighbor’s car start and I wonder where he’s going at this hour and then I wonder why on earth I’m awake enough to wonder. And then I start wondering other things like will my book get published and will Rustin and I figure out how to live without our children in the house and will I ever get back to sleep?

Welcome to the Restless Nest.

It isn’t empty, that’s for sure. Two decades of life lived takes up a lot of room. As does this restlessness.

When I wrote those words in 2011 (before this blog was even on WordPress), the person I was welcoming to the Restless Nest was me. “Get comfortable,” I was telling myself, between the lines. “You’re here now. The Nest looks different. You look different. Life is going to be different. And all of that is going to be O.K.”

The more I rolled those words over my tongue—Restless Nest—the more I liked them. What might happen, I wondered, if I embraced restlessness?

Because that’s me, I thought. That’s what I am: restless. And then I saw how well it went with the word “nest.” Restless Nest. Suddenly, I had a retort, a comeback, to the tiresome questions about how I was coping with our newly empty nest.

“It’s not empty,” I would say. “It’s restless.”

I liked saying it, because it instantly defused a whole Molotov-cocktail shaker full of flammable issues behind the words “empty nest.” There was the implied ageism: “wow, life’s pretty bleak and empty at your age, isn’t it?” And then there were my own incendiary issues: I hated the thought of my college-age children judging me and thinking my life was now empty and dull. I resented the mixed messages from well-meaning friends, which I somehow heard as: if you’re a good and loving mother, of course you are going to feel bereft when your children leave. On the other hand, if you do feel bereft, that must mean you defined yourself through your children, and didn’t we all vow thirty years ago we wouldn’t do that?

Eight years later, looking back on all that makes my head spin. Why on earth did I worry so much about what other people thought?

And that has been the great gift of writing these posts for The Restless Nest. Gradually, I learned to let go of worrying about what everyone else thought by paying attention to what I thought. And I learned that I think best by thinking on the page. And that this way of thinking by writing makes me feel alive: restless in a meaningful way, instead of an aimless, wheel-spinning way.

And then I learned that the act of sharing these thoughts makes the writing feel even more meaningful. Especially when people I know, or don’t, respond in some way. Sure, there has been a lot of backsliding and relearning. During the four years of broadcasting the Restless Nest weekly on KBCS, it all sometimes felt like too much.

But mostly, I have savored this ongoing conversation. And I plan to continue it, although I may not write as often as I used to, especially back in those radio years.

I will soon be launching a new website, which will include the Restless Nest and everything else that’s on these pages, such as information about my first book, Her Beautiful Brain. But I want to make room for more: especially for news about The Observant Doubter, my second memoir, for which I am currently seeking a publisher. It’s my faith and doubt story; of the bookish, daydreaming girl—me—who fell hard for God as a teenager, then backed off for about twenty years. And then, to my surprise, came back: as an observant doubter. Which, as the name implies, has often felt confusing. But (see above) actually writing the book really helped. As I know conversations with readers will too.

See you again soon on the new website.  IMG-3105

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Being Mortal in the Time of Trump

UnknownWhat matters most? That question has been like a three-word anthem for me this month, as I re-read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. The small Seattle church I attend is having a summer book club, of sorts, which consists of reading Being Mortal and getting together in small groups to talk about it over dinner.

The group I was in kept coming back to that question: what matters most? In Being Mortal, Gawande talks about a patient who decided that for him, life would continue to be worth living as long as he could enjoy chocolate ice cream and watching football on TV. Another patient, who knew her time was limited, wanted to be able to continue to give piano lessons as long as she could. But what really matters most—behind the scenes of those two and pretty much all of Gawande’s examples—is being with the people you love. Being able to love and be loved. That’s what matters most.

The other day, I was feeling a sort of low-grade emotional fever, triggered by Not Accomplishing Enough Work-Wise while wishing I could Just Go Swimming. My malaise was compounded by that other virus I can’t seem to kick: Creeping Despair.

IMG_0198.JPG          I decided to wallow. Just for a few minutes. So I opened Facebook. And there was the most delightful post from an old friend, describing how much fun she’d had hiking in Mt. Rainier National Park with her adult son. There were photos and captions loaded with mutual affection.

That’s what matters most, I thought. Love. The thoughtfulness of an avid hiker taking his mom, who probably doesn’t quite match his usual pace, up to Mt. Rainier, because he wants to share his favorite trails with her.

What is jarring, in this time of Trump, is to be reading a book that invites readers to reflect on the value of life, and the desire to live as fully as you can, with as much love as you can, until as close to the end as you can, while all the while the daily news is saturated with the casual and cruel devaluation of life. And the opposite of love: however you wish to characterize that. Is it hate? Yes. Too often. Is it also fear? Yes. All the time.

What we are learning, over and over, is that what matters most to some Americans is the right to buy and bear arms, including automatic weapons, with all that the word automatic applies. And in the darkest cases, the perceived “right” to use those arms. Against fellow humans. Apparently that is what matters most, to people who feel their 2nd amendment rights are more sacred than our right to take our kids shopping for school supplies without dying violently in a spray of gunfire. Or our right to go out on a Saturday night with friends and not be gunned down in cold blood. Or our right to attend high school—or elementary school—and live to attend college.

It is painful to think that while our reading groups have been contemplating what matters most at the end of life, our news headlines are braying the deathly drumbeat of rampant disregard for all of human life.

And it’s more than just gun violence. The same rampant disregard for human life is inherent in violent treatment of immigrants and in all the many forms of racism and bigotry that our president and his party personally encourage on a daily basis, egged on by the fundamentalist Christians who are more and more openly proclaiming their fealty to a white Christian nationalism that excludes pretty much everyone Jesus taught us to love.

However: there is a different kind of Christianity that is still strong in this country. I was startled to see the Washington Post point this out in a recent article about why evangelicals support Trump: startled because it’s so rare, though I hope it will become less so.

IMG-2885These other Christians are numerous, but a whole lot quieter. They are the sort of Christians who shelter immigrants in their churches, because they genuinely want to do the work that Jesus called them to do. They want to walk his walk, rather than be the noisy, attention-getting kids on the block, like the evangelicals.

Because what matters most to them is, as the prophet Micah famously put it: “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with their God.”

Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly.

Serve chocolate ice cream and football on TV to a dying man.

Hike in a mountain meadow with your mother.

Walk humbly with immigrants facing deportation.

Read Being Mortal, and talk about it.

And keep asking yourself—daily, hourly—What matters most?

9780525436058A few more end-of-summer book recommendations: Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, and Xu Xi’s This Fish is Fowl: Essays on Being. 41WiKzooBhLYou can read my interview with Xu Xi on the China-US Women’s Foundation website.

Seattle-area readers: Registration is now open for my Introduction to Memoir Writing class at Seattle Central College, which begins September 25. 

Fear of Not Flying

IMG_0694 One week out from a big trip, I usually start feeling what I can only call an irrational, nagging dread. I can feel it right now: pulsing away, right alongside its sprightly, opposite twin: happy anticipation.

Why does the anticipation never quite drown out the dread?

Next week, I am going to Vietnam with two friends. 51UztAlIAnLI’ve never been there. But I have a long history of loving the experience of being somewhere I have never been. I like to think of myself as someone who does not fear the unknown.

And yet of course I do. Hence the dread.

It’s not the unknown of Vietnam, or of any other place that is new to me, which I fear. And it is not a textbook fear of flying. It’s more like a fear of not flying: a fear that one day, I will become that person who can’t or won’t, because I’ve just gotten too damn good at imagining every single worst-case scenario. Is that it?

Not quite. No, that more accurately describes another fear I’m currently trying to throttle, which is the fear of sending my almost-ready second memoir, The Observant Doubter, off to agents and editors, with the full knowledge that there will likely be many, many rejections to weather before my manuscript lands in its publishing home. There will be turbulence. I may be deploying that little white paper bag.

2n7jkhzI picture my manuscript as a tiny prop plane, no bigger than an old-school cropduster, buffeted by currents and squalls far beyond my control: We published something similar last year; Your subject makes me uncomfortable; You are not young/hip/the next big thing. I know, from past experience, that this will be a painful process, and I dread that pain. But I also know that my fear of not sending my manuscript out—of saying I can’t, I won’t, I’m grounding this plane—is far greater than my fear of sending it.

And so, thank God for the Vietnam trip: I can put the whole manuscript-sending process off for at least another month!

The question is whether, come summer, I can get myself to think about sending those query letters with the same happy anticipation I know I’ll feel once I finally get on that flight to Vietnam: that this will be an adventure. That there will be hard parts, but the solution is never to stay home. That what I fear most is not flying.

In this Sunday’s New York Times story about writer Anne Lamott’s joyful wedding—her first wedding, at age 65—this line surprised me: “She is afraid of almost everything, whereas he’s afraid of almost nothing.”

71K-cQF014L._AC_UL436_        But she’s written eighteen books, I thought. Books full of personal details and agony and reflection. Surely there is nothing scarier than sending her work out into the universe. And yet we, her loyal readers, know from reading her books that indeed, she is a chronic worrier. And that is part of her appeal: she is not a superhero, she’s as human and afraid as we are.

“You can’t fall out of love with something,” wrote Francis Sanzaro, the editor of Rock and Ice and Ascent magazines, in a recent essay in which he reflects on why mountain climbers keep climbing, despite the high risk of death and the sorrow that climbers’ deaths bring to all who love them. I squirmed as I read this: self-righteously, on behalf of the bereaved. But we all set our own fear versus joy bars. It’s such a personal equation. Anne Lamott has the courage to write and publish on subjects that terrify most of us—sickness, death, God, love, the small and large indignities of life—and yet she describes herself as a shy and introverted person who hates leaving the house. I love to travel, and yet I cannot swat away the pre-trip, irrational dread. I love to write, and I want to publish what I write, and yet I mewl and cower at the thought of rejection.

71TPx58TbdL._AC_UL436_          But this I know: a week from today, I am going to Vietnam. And I’m grateful to a number of writers who have had the courage to seek and find publication, including Viet Thanh Nguyen and Le Ly Hayslip, whose books have made me even more convinced that this will be a meaningful and unforgettable trip. 51fb2s8K9lL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_

And some time after I return, I will send my manuscript out into the world. I will.

 

 

 

 

 

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! 

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.

 

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