therestlessnest

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

Archive for the category “family”

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. 

 

 

 

 

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My Mother Was Here

img_2802_2This post is really about my mother-in-law, who died January 12 at the age of 86. She was sweeter and more selfless than I’ll ever be. You might say she was the kind of person our new president pretends to understand, but does not and never will, because his heart is several sizes too small. But I’m going to let her son, my husband Rustin, take it from here:

My mom, Donna Thompson, never thought of herself first. Even in the last month of her life while in the hospital, she’d offer her lunch to me or my wife (or her grandkids, Nick and Claire, pictured with her here) before taking a bite. Sometimes her unselfishness was exasperating. “Mom, it’s okay to take care of yourself,” I’d implore, but she was too stubborn to take my advice.

3-my-mother-was-here-500-photo-by-rustin-thompson    Mom would be the first to tell you she was just an ordinary person. She’d say she never did anything special or remarkable her whole life. She never flew on an airplane, never traveled farther than Disneyland to the south or Mt. Rushmore to the east. She drove the same car the last 35 years of her life, lived on nothing more than a pension and social security since she was 65, and she never owned a credit card. She worked hard for every penny she ever had.

Mom drove a Franklin Pierce district school bus for 28 years, working overtime at sporting events, and she picked raspberries and drove the berry-picking bus in the summers. In the mid ‘70s after I went off to college, she started playing volleyball and softball, becoming an All-Star pitcher several years in a row. She made crafts for her Children’s Orthopedic guild and carved pictures and Christmas ornaments with her great friends in a woodcarving group the last 20 years. When I cleaned out her house after she moved to a retirement home, I found boxes and boxes of unused ornaments and bins filled with elegant carving tools she forgot she bought.

4-my-mother-was-here-500-photo-by-rustin-thompson      My mom always had trouble getting rid of stuff, but I think it was because she suffered so many losses in her 86 years. The Lakebay, WA house she grew up in with her parents and seven siblings burned to the ground in the late 1930s, forcing the family to live off the kindness of friends. She quit school in the tenth grade, both to earn money and to get away from her father, a difficult, abusive and angry man.

She met my father, Lawrence Thompson, a few years later. They married and had two sons, me and my older brother Rex, and we lived, along with my half-sister Laura, in different houses in eastern Oregon and then mostly on the property my mom owned for 58 years in Summit View, WA. She had a field to keep the horse she loved. I think this was the happiest time of her life.

Eventually Mom sold the horse to help pay for my dad’s graduate school, and then my 9-year old brother died after surgery to repair a hole in his heart. This tore my parents apart in a time when people like them didn’t know anything about grief counselors. They divorced two years later and Mom and I lived alone for the next 11 years until I went off to the University of Washington.

1-my-mother-was-here-500-photo-by-rustin-thompsonAs the years went by, her large extended family also splintered. Stubborn grudges were held and relatives stopped talking to each other. During this time, my mom took care of my grandma until she died, and then Mom lived alone the last 20 years of her life. I’d noticed her hoarding when I was a kid, but eventually the house I was raised in was crammed with so many boxes you could barely walk into it.

Twenty-four hours before she died in her bed at Puyallup’s Brookdale Senior Living, my hardworking, taxpaying, athletic, woodcarving, very ordinary mom, had by now shrunk to skin and bones. But there she was, unselfish to the end, offering me a drink from her bottle of Ensure.

“I just want to go to sleep and not wake up,” Mom told me a few days earlier. On January 12, 2017, that’s exactly what happened.

About the title of this post: Rus is working on a memoir film about Donna called My Mother Was Here. 

#Election2016: Countdown

         img_2763   It has never, ever felt so good to seal and stamp an envelope as it did after I filled out my ballot last week. Sure, I miss the old ritual of going to my local polling place, but sitting down and getting it done at home, good and early, felt great. Especially this year.

Of course, especially this year.

And now I’m going to tell you a few of the people I voted for.

I voted for the third graders I tutor in an afterschool program. One of them told me last week he was “so scared Donald Trump was going to win.” The others all chimed in. “We’re scared too!” “I hate Trump!” All of them are from refugee families; most come from Somalia. I wondered what they’ve been hearing at home. Can you imagine how horrifying it is to watch this election unfold, if you’re a refugee from anywhere—but especially from a Muslim country?

I also voted for another refugee: Henry Grundstrom, my great-grandfather, who, according to his naturalization papers, “foreswore his allegiance to the Czar of Russia” to become a United States citizen in 1898. Henry was from Finland, then under the Czar’s thumb. If he had stayed, he would have faced conscription into the Czar’s army. What would he have thought of allegations that Russian hackers could be trying to influence this election?

I voted for Viktor Warila, my other Finnish great-grandfather, who staked a homestead claim in Montana in 1910 and raised six children on the windswept bench lands between Billings and Yellowstone.

I voted for Lydia Warila, his wife, who traveled west from Ellis Island with her name and destination pinned to her coat, because she spoke not a word of English.

I voted for my Scottish forebears, who built houses in the Carnation Valley and on Queen Anne Hill, and for my Swedish great-grandfather, who left his Minnesota home at 18 and headed to Alaska for the Yukon Gold Rush.

I voted for my elegant grandmother, an orphan, who gave herself a whole new name when she was a teenager, because in this country you can do that. Because do-overs are in our DNA here. Unless you are Native American or your ancestors were brought here against their will, your people, too, came here because they wanted—or needed—to become something new. Just like my Somali students’ parents. And here’s the part that is apparently very hard for some Trump supporters to understand: in this country, we allow do-overs that don’t rob you of your core identity. You’re allowed to keep your religion, customs and language. My grandparents grew up speaking Finnish at home and attended Finnish Lutheran churches. Many of the Somali students in my neighborhood are trilingual: they speak English at school, Somali at home and learn Arabic in their religious classes.

I also cast my ballot in honor of my mother, who would have been SO thrilled to vote for the first woman ever to be a major-party candidate for president.

And I voted for my college: Wellesley College, Hillary Clinton’s alma mater too, which has been educating women since fifty years before we could legally vote for president, and whose founders wanted the college to prepare women for “great conflicts” and “vast reforms in social life.”

For Hillary Clinton, Wellesley was just the beginning of a lifetime of preparation for great conflicts and vast reforms. And for her, and for every woman in America, this election is much, much more than an opportunity for symbolism. It’s our chance to say: the great conflicts we face are real. Vast reform is needed. We need a president who knows these truths, and is ready to get to work.

That’s who I voted for. Let the countdown begin.

 

The Journals Project

IMG_2699 This may look like July 2016 to you, what with the political conventions, heat waves and all. But if you ask me where I am on any given afternoon, I might say 1994. Or 1992. Or, not too many weeks ago, 1978. It is the summer of the Journals Project: the season I re-read my hand-scrawled life, transcribing not all of it—that would be WAY too brutal a task—but some important scraps. Morsels.

I began keeping a journal when I was 13, so I have a lot of years to get through. The good news is that I did not (and do not) write every day. Sometimes I’ve skipped whole months, or more. But it’s taking me a while, because—sort of like eating Thanksgiving dinner—I can do it for no more than an hour or two at a time. There are only so many rich, nostalgia-laden bites a girl can take in one sitting. IMG_2697

My self-imposed assignment is to look for anything having to do with God, faith, loss of faith, doubt, mortality and/or the meaning of life. It’s research for my next book, known for now as The Observant Doubter. Me being me, there’s a generous sprinkling of all of the above.

In my very first volume, I wrote by candlelight, and used a fountain pen: a smudgy, spill-prone choice for left-handed me. But I can still remember the clink of the pen in the bottle, the scratchy sound of the nib, the smell of the ink.

In the beginning, I wrote a LOT about God. I had fallen hard for an Evangelical/ Episcopal version of Christianity that had arrived at my childhood church via a youth minister who radiated joy. I yearned to glow with the love of God, like he did.

But gradually, my fervent faith subsided, and other subjects took over. I gave up on fountain pens and switched to felt tips, so I could write faster. Guilt, always a theme for me, shifted from feeling guilty because I was a bad Christian to feeling guilty because I ate too much or I didn’t study enough to, eventually, that special Mt. Everest of guilt that young mothers climb every day: no matter what you do, you’re letting someone down. You’re not doing something well enough.

My transcriptions are peppered with “oy” in parantheses: shorthand for, Hey 2016 Me, can you believe how much time you spent berating yourself for your shortcomings? In 1976, 1980, 1992, whenever?

“It’s so agonizing, this business of being pulled in a thousand directions,” I wrote one January morning when my children were one and four. “I want to be a good mother. I want my life to have meaning; I wish I could find meaning in the minutiae of everyday life.”

Oy. How I wish I could go back and tell myself: STOP. News flash from the future: it’s gonna be OK. You are loving your children and living your life and you just happened to be born into a time when the neatly laid table of family life was upended and everyone—including you, your husband, your family, your workmates, neighbors and all those perfect preschool parents you felt you could never ever measure up to—began to scramble and squabble about how it should now be reorganized.

Wow, it was confusing. Wow, it was impossible to get it all right.

And now: a quarter century after I watched Bill Clinton’s inauguration with a toddler on my hip and a baby on the way, stunned and grateful that we now had someone in the White House who had invited Maya Angelou to write and read an inaugural poem, here we all are again, still squabbling over what life in America should look like. One candidate wants to take us back to… where, exactly? The mythic America of girdles and grills; of happy white people who have no neighbors who do not look like them?

The other candidate may have been born into some version of that world, but long ago, she boarded the outbound train into the bumpy future where most of us actually live. Where women are allowed to have aspirations, even if that’s going to complicate their family life. Where fathers and mothers want to find meaning in the world and meaning at home. Through all these turbulent years recorded in my messy pages, Hillary Clinton has been working away, miles ahead of me. Making her own mistakes. Learning from them. Moving on. Preparing herself to be, as President Obama put it, the best-prepared presidential candidate we have ever had. hillary-clinton-and-obama-obama-750x400

As I continue to slog through the journals, knowing that she has prevailed over all the crazy roadblocks life has put in her way helps me to see that we as a nation and we, as women, have made progress. And will make more progress. But we’ve got to get her elected. Don’t feel guilty about how much time you can or can’t give to the cause: just do something. Just show up. I’m doing it not just for me, now, but for me, then: that fervent teen. That overwhelmed young mom. The ever-scribbling seeker of meaning that I still am.

 

To the Nines

IMG_2249When I was nine years old, I put on my first pair of glasses—light blue, cat-eyed—and looked out my bedroom window at the huge, old Japanese maple tree that shaded our entire postage-stamp backyard. For the first time, from that once-great distance of about 20 feet, I saw not just its spring-green canopy of foliage, but the etched outlines of individual leaves.

It felt—magic is too weak a word. Religious might be right, or ecstatic. I wanted to cry, or shout. Not because I was experiencing my own personal miracle—I was blind, but now I see!—but because the world itself had changed. It had become rich in detail, startling in clarity. It was a place I wanted to know, in the way that grownups knew things. No more gauzy, child’s-eye views for me. In that instant, staring at the leaves of a tree I had loved since the day we moved into that Seven Dwarves’ cottage of a house, I believed that for me, vision would forever trump vanity: I would wear these glasses. Most of the time.

When I was nineteen years old, I got my first passport, and got it stamped for the first time at Heathrow Airport, where I began a year of study and travel that opened my eager eyes to the world. I wore contact lenses by then, the old hard lenses that could pop out of your eye and down the drain of a Roman pensione in a millisecond, leaving you with your slightly blurry backup glasses for the next month. Who knows how many leaf-edges, details in frescos, faces of gargoyles, I missed?

The nines have always been momentous years for me: years that took me to new places; that gave me new ways to see the world. In January, I celebrated my 59th birthday in Mexico, a country I have visited several times but have never seen the way I saw it on this trip. IMG_2264And it wasn’t because I was wearing new glasses, or because I can’t get over how old I am. It was because we finally resisted the seduction of the beaches and, instead, headed for Mexico’s mountaintop heart.

One of the things I love best about travel is being surprised; that moment in which you realize: this place, this experience, is not at all what I thought it would be. From the first moments, Mexico City was like that.

Mexico City has a reputation, long perpetuated in the United States, as dangerous, crime-ridden and full of perils for unsuspecting tourists. But that was not our experience at all. People were friendly and helpful. The streets around our hotel in the historic center were full of families well into the evening. We tried to behave sensibly, as we would in any large city, but we never felt threatened.

The next misconception to go was the notion that being in the hemisphere’s largest city would feel suffocating in the extreme. But if you’ve ever stood in Central Park, you know that it is possible to experience spaciousness in the middle of a metropolis. And Mexico City’s parks, public squares and boulevards are numerous, gracious, spacious and, with the exception of the vast central Zocalo, nearly all are shaded with trees. We felt the presence of 20+ million people most vividly when we rode the subway, which is so cheap and fast that it’s no wonder it is always crowded.

But I will remember Mexico City as a stroller’s paradise, with surprises around every corner.

There was the surf guitar band called Mondragon, rocking an alley just off a pedestrian-only shopping street near the Zocalo. There were the stately polka dancers next to the crafts market in the Alameda park. There were whole buildings covered in tile. IMG_2392There were buildings filled with dramatic murals by Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, José Orozco. There were candy shops that sold marzipan and spun sugar shaped into paper-thin fans and fruits. There were streets with a hundred shops that sold only fabric by the yard and other streets where you could buy only plastic: shower curtains, buckets and bins. One packed block specialized in baby dolls and christening gowns, essential for an upcoming feast day marking Jesus’ presentation at the temple. Nearby was a market where you could buy voodoo dolls, magic powders, herbs and aphrodisiacs.

On our first evening there, a Friday, we walked out our door into a thronged pedestrian-only street full of shoppers, hawkers, performers and family groups out for a stroll. We were there with our two 20-something children, so we felt like we fit right in. In one alley was the surf guitar band; in another, a Michael Jackson impersonator. When we got hungry, we joined dozens of other families at an old, tile-lined restaurant called Café Tacuba, where the waitresses wore white, nurse-like uniforms with giant white bows on the backs of their heads, and a band of musicians serenaded a huge multi-generational family party in the back room, giving us all a free concert.

The highlight for me was Sunday morning, when I went to the ornate Palacio de Bellas Artes for an early performance of Mexico’s breathtaking Ballet Folklorico. IMG_2370It made sense that it was Sunday, because it was like church. It was like being nine and putting on that first pair of glasses all over again. It was like being 19 and stumbling off the overnight train into Paris or Rome. Such stunning poignance and grace, in the traditional dances so brilliantly re-imagined. I felt so grateful to be there. So grateful to have eyes and ears; to be discovering this very old, very rich cultural world that was so very new to me. At 59: imagine that.IMG_2394_2

 

 

 

 

Subduction Zone

IMG_1907Somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, our daughter is leading a trail crew. Somewhere in New York, our son, who moved there five days ago, is looking for a job and an apartment. Meanwhile, my husband and I are on the lovely, lonely Washington coast, at the Northwestern edge of the Lower 48: in the heart of what we all now know as the Cascadia Subduction Zone, thanks to Kathryn Schulz’ July 20 New Yorker story, “The Really Big One.”

We are staying in a dollhouse-sized, bright blue rental cabin, which islb4b82844-m9o for sale, just as it was when we stayed here two years ago. And just as we did then, we keep fantasizing about buying the place, which we can’t afford to do, though maybe with the publication of Schulz’ much-shared story, the price will drop. If I understand correctly, one response to her reporting that might make an odd kind of sense is: why not buy a tiny wooden house, 200 yards from the breaking waves? Our Seattle home is just as imperiled, right?

Here’s what’s appealing about the dollhouse: when we pulled up next to it two days ago and got out of the car, the vast view before us made me—gasp is the only word I can think of. Yes, I’ve been to the beach before, many times; I’ve been to this exact beach before. But each time, the expanse of it shocks me. Suddenly, I realize how crowded daily life can get: and I don’t mean busy sidewalks and backed-up freeways so much as to-do lists, worries, shoulds, musts. Suddenly, I’m in a place where all of that seems very far away. I’m on the edge of the continent. The horizon is beyond my own eyes’ capacity to see. IMG_1909

When we came here two years ago, I wrote about how our restless 50-something lives had more in common with our children’s restless 20-something lives than with the lives of the people in between: “the busy young parents renting the big beach houses and making spaghetti for eight.” This is still true. Though our children’s lives are changing more rapidly than ours, Rustin and I are feeling our own tectonic shifts.

And for me, there has been one huge and welcome quake since 2013.

When we came here two years ago, I was beyond discouraged about writing and publishing. The agent who had pitched my memoir to big publishers had long since given up. I was submitting Her Beautiful Brain to small and medium presses on my own and getting nowhere. Two years ago, as I walked this beach, I spent a lot of time pep-talking myself about how I was still a writer whether my book got published or not. Rus and I debated the pros and cons of self-publishing, which sounded exhausting. Instead, we started planning our next documentary film, which felt like something we actually knew how to do.

But a few months after that first dollhouse stay, I went, on a whim, to a 25-year anniversary celebration at Hedgebrook, the Whidbey Island retreat where my book was born during a two-week residency in 2008. The invited speaker was Brooke Warner, founder of the then year-old She Writes Press. When Brooke described her partnership publishing model, I thought: I could do this. Two weeks later, I sent her my manuscript. A few weeks after that, she said yes. One year later, in September 2014, Her Beautiful Brain was published.

It is hard to explain how grateful I am. How huge this has been for me. It has been like that moment of stepping out of the car and taking in the ocean view, over and over again. It has also been: hard work, drama, tension, anxiety attacks, readings attended by six people, readings attended by dozens of people. The partnership model means Rus and I made a modest investment, which we could not really afford to do but which, it appears, we may actually make back, though that’s without accounting for the hundreds of hours spent writing the book and doing what I can to sell it.

Partnership publishing is not self-publishing. She Writes Press has a traditional distribution deal with Ingram Publisher Services, which means Her Beautiful Brain is available on all platforms and from any bookseller. Writers of books need to reach people, and though not impossible, it’s hard to do without help.

When I say it’s hard to put into words how grateful I am, that includes gratitude to She Writes Press for taking me on. But it also includes gratitude to Rus for saying, “Of course we should do this.” And gratitude to God for keeping my wavering confidence alive just long enough. Because I do want my story to reach people. I didn’t write it with the understanding that it might never be read.

And reaching people has included some of the most meaningful experiences I’ve ever had: whether it’s that one person at a tiny bookstore reading who needs to talk to me about her mom and what she’s going through, or whether it’s my widest moment of outreach, an OpEd in the Wall Street Journal.

Maybe that’s part of what makes me love this little cottage: coming back has given me a chance to say to the me that was here two years ago: See? How the earth can move right under your feet?

And when the Big One hits, none of this will matter one bit, right? But while we’re here, while we’re alive and lucky enough to be living in the world’s most beautiful Subduction Zone, sometimes the surprises that come along are good. I wouldn’t have predicted, then, that our daughter would be leading a trail crew in the wilderness. That our son would be trying his luck in New York. Or that I would finally find a publisher for my book.

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

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.

Lost & Found Mom

IMG_1085When I saw that dirt-colored linoleum, I knew I had to act. Fast. Thanks to my mom, I knew how. Yellow pages: rugs. Phone. Directions.

“Vicky,” I said to my brand-new college roommate, “will you go in with me on a rug? It’ll cost us 40 dollars.”

She said yes. And so off I went, via bus and subway, into a Boston neighborhood not normally frequented by Wellesley College freshmen from faraway states. I bought the rug: short nap, sky blue. I truly can’t remember how I got it back to the dorm.

What caught me by surprise was how impressed my roommate and hallmates were. To me, this was a logical reaction to a crisis of ugliness. To them, it was all about me being a plucky Western girl, an Annie Oakley who got stuff done. But I knew the truth, which was that I had simply channeled my inner Arlene: my mom, that is, and the example she had always set of moving right past hand-wringing and right into making things better.

I always wince when I use the words “lost” and “mom” in the same sentence. Because she’s not lost. She’s right Arlene and 6 kidshere, inside me. I am sure my brother and sisters feel the same way. She was and is far too powerful a beacon to be “lost.” Gone, yes, and too young: Alzheimer’s started stealing bits of her when she was my age and kept at it for quite a long time. She died in 2006, at 74, after many years during which she did indeed appear to be lost inside an unforgiving forest of plaques and tangles.

And yet she wasn’t. She was right here, inside, the whole time. And she still is.

I saw my freshman roommate, Vicky, just last weekend. I stayed with her in North Carolina; we attended our friend Lindsay’s daughter’s wedding. Of the three of us, I was the one taking a break from the duties of motherhood. Watching Lindsay in action reminded me of how much Mom had enjoyed every one of her six children’s weddings. Two of us gave her the chance to enjoy two weddings, and in each case, she embraced the second as enthusiastically as she had the first. And watching Vicky stay calm and out of the way as her youngest made it to the college finish line also reminded me of Mom, who was always a cheerleader and moral supporter but never a meddler in our young adult lives.

Vicky is an Episcopal priest. A highlight of my visit was seeing her in action in her beautiful white and gold robes. Her homily was inspired by the beautiful passage from the letters of John about how God is love, and how love casts out fear.

This was my mother’s great gift: to love us in a way that helped us overcome our fears.

Buying a rug may not be the most dramatic example. But I was 17, I had never lived away from home, and I needed to do something that felt like taking action, that felt like saying no to all my fears about living in this concrete and linoleum room 3,000 miles from Seattle. All I had to do was find my inner Arlene: the mom I’m forever finding, not losing.

I know I’m not alone in having had a mother like mine. I know that what she did is what loving moms simply do: love unconditionally, and teach their children to do the same. Because love is stronger than fear. It’s what keeps us from getting lost.

HBBfinalcoverMy next reading: May 26, 7pm: Her Beautiful Brain reading, Book Culture, 450 Columbus Ave, New York 

Buy Her Beautiful Brain from your favorite bookstore. Order the Kindle version here.

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

The Un-cool Writers’ Club

1003375_10204029713357348_4120200472773550975_n-1 If you aspire to be a cool writer, then whatever you do, don’t hang out with me. I am your worst nightmare. Here’s why: for starters, I am old, so old I may as well tell you how old. 58. Fifty-eight! This would be acceptable if I had published many volumes by now. But no: I just published my very first book. And my book is a memoir. This might be acceptable if I was a recovering addict or had escaped the Taliban. But no: I am the daughter of a beautiful, smart woman who drew an unlucky card called younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and that is what I wrote about. Worse, my current work-in-progress is also a memoir, on an equally unhip topic: faith and doubt.

There’s more. I did not get my Master of Fine Arts degree until I was 53: enough said. And I have another career, which confuses people. IMG_0871It’s a reasonably cool career—documentary filmmaking—but alas, I’ve never had a film at Sundance (which would vault me right into the category of Permanently Cool). And I make films with my husband, which is way less cool than if I were doing it solo. Speaking of my husband: we’ve been married 27 years. Yikes! Just call us Ward and June!

And then there’s my lifetime issue of not wanting to be mean. In fact, right now, writing this, I’m uncomfortable with the whiff of snarkiness I detect; the implication that I don’t like cool writers, because I do. I like many cool writers. But that is not my point. My point is this: over my 58 years, I have learned, sometimes reluctantly but ultimately with relief, how wonderful, how freeing, it is to live life as not only an un-cool writer, but an un-cool person.

My education in un-coolness started early. There were painful drills, there were pop quizzes. But I faced my first big exam at the beginning of 9th grade at Seattle’s Eckstein Junior High School. All the aspiring cool girls, my sad self among them, hoped to be selected for something called “Girls Club,” which involved wearing special scarves and blouses once a week and engaging in lightweight service projects. Really, “Girls Club” was a sanctioned clique. My best friend—the one with whom I’d bought journals and real fountain pens and candles and browsed for old-fashioned children’s books at David Ishii’s bookstore in Pioneer Square—made the Girls Club cut. I did not. She dropped me with stunning speed.

When I came up for air after a good long cry, I realized what a great gift this was. I had been spared all the stress and effort it would have taken to retain my status as a Girls Club girl. I was free! Free to be my un-cool self. To keep on writing in my ink-stained journals; to keep on riding my bike to David Ishii’s or the Arboretum or anywhere else I could curl up with a book, undisturbed by cool people.

My junior high years coincided with my parents’ divorce, which, in that long-ago era, was definitely not a cool thing. But it was my Goddard College MFA advisor, Victoria Nelson, who helped me understand, decades later, how the divorce contributed to my liberation. Arlene and 6 kidsAll those hours I spent babysitting my younger brother and sisters while my mother went back to college gave me freedom to continue on my un-cool, future-writer path: unsupervised by adults, unseen by cool peers, I could write my fervent, un-cool poems and journal entries and read, read, read while my siblings watched cartoons or played. Sometimes we played school, with me as teacher. Or pioneers, or explorers. So not cool. I loved it.

And now that I’m a late-blooming, un-cool author, I’m more grateful than ever for the un-cool path that got me here. Not much I can do about my age. Nor my attraction to the wrong subjects. Nor my love of memoir writing, the actual hours spent writing, for which I credit my first Goddard advisor, Michael Klein, who taught me that memoir writing could be part poetry, part journalism, part essay: a hybrid, a blend, not unlike documentary filmmaking. Not unlike the way my restless brain has always worked.

The path of the un-cool writer is unpredictable. It’s more likely to result in rewards that can be measured in moments—conversations I’ve had after readings, emails from long-lost friends—than in big royalty checks or New York Times reviews. But it is the path I’m on, and I am grateful every day.

Upcoming readings: April 1, 7pm: St. James Cathedral Parish Hall, Seattle.  April 30, 7pm: The Regulator Bookshop, Durham, North Carolina.

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

 

 

                       

Dateline Máncora

IMG_1585There are only so many ways to describe a beautiful beach. The true beauty of it, for writers and readers, is the way it allows your mind to travel lightly, far and wide, or to venture deeply and with great absorption, as you wish or as you dare, always returning to the anchor of the beauty before you. The surprise of it, on this trip, is that our beach is in Peru.

Peru is the Inca Trail, the glorious Andes, sprawling, sleepless Lima. It is also one of the most ecologically diverse countries in the world. From where I’m sitting now in Máncora, on the north coast, the Amazon basin is not far away. Nor are the snowy high sierras. But this coastal landscape is a rugged desert edged by a strip of long, curving bays and beaches.

We came to Máncora because it is a town my great-uncle and his family lived in for a year in the 1950s. It was a dramatic change from their elegant Lima home. My cousin Andy remembers Máncora as an 11-year-old’s backwater paradise, where he played in the dusty hills and on the sublime beach. We are in Peru to wrap up filming on our documentary, Zona Intangible, which was inspired by my great-uncle, who lived here for two decades and was a pioneer of Peru’s fishmeal industry. The film won’t be all about fishmeal or all about my uncle; it will, mostly, tell the story of a handmade city outside Lima where a clinic on a dusty back street bears his name and where the notion of what home is has taken on a new meaning. Is home a one-room shack on a hill of sand? A house in a fishing village where your father has decided you’ll live for this one year? Is it where your family lives, or is it where they came from?

Máncora is an easy-going town; a surfer’s paradise; the kind of place people roll into and stay longer than they thought they would. Our hotel—EcoLodge Máncora—is owned and run by French ex-pats. Much tinier than its name implies, it feels more like an old-fashioned guesthouse, the kind of place Graham Greene might have stayed, cross-bred with a tree-house that just kept getting bigger. The rambling “hostel” where we watched the Superbowl (Seattle friends: I will say nothing more on that front, I promise) featured a swimming pool, a ping-pong table, a cavernous bar with a big screen and many guests who appeared barely old enough to travel on their own. Maybe some of them will stay and make this their home for a while.

Rustin and I started our marriage living out of backpacks and traveling around the world for ten months. So sometimes, traveling feels a bit like an emotional home for us. A place where we’re comfortable together. Trips like this one—where we’re working for ourselves (Zona Intangible) and for others (the University of Washington’s Dept. of Global Health, which is doing amazing work in Peru) and also vacationing (the beach) feel natural to us. But, unlike during that first year of our marriage, we now do have a home, and it’s in Seattle. And as we near the end of this trip, we’re looking forward to getting back to it. Cold weather and all.

My Introduction to Memoir Writing class at Seattle Central College is now full! Next session will be in Fall 2015.

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

I had a great conversation with Women in Film Seattle President Virginia Bogert that she turned into a member profile of yours truly. Thanks, Virginia!

 

 

 

 

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