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Archive for the category “health & medicine”

How Trump Made Me Love My Day Job

th-3       As I write, Donald Trump supporters are lining up outside a stadium about thirty miles north of here for a rally that begins many hours from now. This is confusing to me. Lining up for Trump? Who are they?

Yesterday, my husband and I met an immigrant family of nine and talked to them about how a local non-profit is helping them through their grief over the death of their baby girl. Last week, we visited an Adult Day Health Center that serves people who have dementia or have suffered brain trauma. We talked to a woman in her fifties whose face lit up with joy as she described how the time she spent at the center had given her the courage to go back to work after a stroke. The week before that, we interviewed a Seattle teacher who found an affordable apartment for herself and her son, with the help of a housing non-profit.

This is our day job: making short films for non-profits to help them raise money and spread the word about what they do. August is always a busy time for us, as our clients get ready for their fall events.

We feel very lucky that we get to do this work for a living. That we get to hear, and tell, stories about people helping people. Stories that debunk, over and over again, the American myth of rugged individualism; that show how much we Americans can do, when we pay attention to one another’s needs. When we are able to truly see each other, and recognize that we are all connected.

Which is why it is so hard for me to understand the Trump supporters who are standing in that line. I wonder who they are, and how it is they came to actually support this candidate who stands for slammed doors and high walls and connections based only on hate and fear.

The people I meet in my work are not the West Coast bubble-dwelling limousine liberals Trump loves to disparage. They are people who have rolled up their sleeves to actually find solutions to the toughest problems we face: homelessness, affordable housing, how to help vulnerable people weather trauma, loss, illness. How to make our schools better. How to protect our wild places for the next generation. If I dwell in a bubble, it is one in which compassion and inclusion are the norm. It is one in which people are allowed to be poor, or new to this country, or different in abilities, and dignified at the same time.

The interviews we do are my favorite part of the job. I love to listen to peoples’ stories. I love it when they surprise me, which they nearly always do. What’s much harder is what comes next: going back through those interviews, selecting the very best bits, and laying them out in an order that makes sense. It’s so important to me to get their stories right, especially during a year when slandering whole groups of people has become the Trumpian norm.

So I’m going to get back to work now. Thanks, Trump, for inspiring me to appreciate my day job even more. And I think we all know your rally is not going to make a difference in how our state votes. Because not very many of us live in your bubble. Thank God.

Here’s some inspiration to put on your calendar: A reading by writers who have experienced homelessness, September 12 at 7pm at the University Branch of the Seattle Public Library. Check out  Nicole Brodeur’s Seattle Times column about the Mary’s Place writers and their writing group leader, Julie Gardner.

 

 

 

Healing is a risky business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

From Sun to Sun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What We Say Matters

IMG_1415I’m thinking about the power of words this week, even more than I usually do. A word can be a weapon. A word can be a force for good. Words can heal or hurt. In a few days, I’ll be participating in a conference organized by the University of Washington School of Nursing called Elder Friendly Futures, and one thing we’ll talk about is words: how the words we choose define—no, become—what we think. And not just which words, but exactly how we say them: Elder can connote respect—or decrepitude. Friendly can sound saccharine—or inviting. And what about Futures? It’s the “s” that is intriguing, isn’t it, with its suggestion that there are many possible futures that could be friendly for elders, not just one.

Vice President Joe Biden is an elder. Perhaps barely so, by today’s ever lengthening standards. He is 72 years old. But more than his actual age, it is his scars and the way he wears them that give him Elder status. This is a man whose wife and daughter were killed in a car crash when he was 29 years old and newly elected to the Senate. Now, more than 40 years later, he is again freshly grieving: this time, the death of his son Beau from brain cancer. How does he keep going? What makes his life meaningful? Faith. Service. In other words, the ability to see the larger world outside your own small world, even when your eyes are clouded with tears. For most of us, this is a learned skill, and the price of such an education is high, sometimes higher than we can bear.Joe_Biden_Stephen_Colbert_YouTube_img

In a riveting TV interview, Biden told CBS Late Show host Stephen Colbert about a quote from Danish philosopher Søren Kirkegaard that his wife Jill taped to his mirror: “Faith sees best in the dark.” Biden used it as a way to talk about faith as the place you can go: even, or perhaps especially, when you feel like your faith is imperfect, or gone altogether. It seemed important to Biden to present his faith humbly. Modestly. He chose words like solace and ritual. It was a moment in which words, carefully but honestly selected, drew us in: whether or not we share Biden’s faith, whether or not we want him to run for president.

There was another public profession of faith last week that was exactly the opposite: Kentucky court clerk Kim Davis, jailed for refusing to grant marriage licenses to LGBTQ couples, triumphantly proclaimed, on her release, that she wanted to “give God the glory,” because, “his people have rallied, and you are a strong people.”

What she meant was clear: her God is not about finding people when they’re lost in the darkness of grief. Her God is about taking sides. Kicking people out of the club. Words are powerful. When Davis said, “you are a strong people,” she meant people who believe, as she does, that gay marriage is wrong.

Maybe Davis, who is 50, will choose different words when she attains the hard-earned status of elder, in about 20 years. Maybe not. But as I think ahead to the Elder Friendly Futures Conference and ponder what those futures might look like, Joe Biden’s empathy and wisdom give me hope.

second-wind-cover1In his stereotype-busting book Second Wind: Navigating the Passage to a Slower, Deeper, and More Connected Life (think about the positive power of those words: slower—deeper—more connected), author Dr. Bill Thomas writes, “Elders have access to a reservoir of feelings and access to a level of emotional control and insight that far exceeds that available to adults… At this moment in history for both cultural and planetary reasons we need elders more than ever before.”

IMG_1075Yes. And when we realize how much we are going to need their wisdom and insight as we face all kinds of global and local challenges, our elders’ futures take on a whole new importance. As does the importance of nurturing our own wisdom, as we move toward our own elder futures, which I truly hope will be friendly.

Registration is open for Introduction to Memoir Writing at Seattle Central College. Starts November 2, 2015. Six Monday nights. Non-credit = all inspiration, no stress!

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

 

 

My media adventures

Ann seated w dr Manny IMG_2903 - Version 2

Alzheimer’s disease is so hard to talk about. Or write about, or make films about. But here’s what I’m learning this summer: focusing on volunteering for Alzheimer’s research is somehow easier, and if it’s a way to get people to talk about this deadly illness that now affects 5.3 million people and costs our country $226 billion a year, then I’m willing to do it. And if you actually saw me on Fox News’ Health Talk and you’re inspired to volunteer for research, here’s the Alzheimer’s Association’s Trial Match page. Go for it! IMG_1988As I wrote about earlier this summer in the Wall Street Journal, you will feel more useful than you ever have in your life.

I am forever grateful to Dr. Manny Alvarez and his wonderful producer, Paula Rizzo (check out her lively website and book on productivity, Listful Thinking) for inviting me to share my experiences on Health Talk. Ann_Fox makeup _2873I’m still taking in the crazy whirl of it–lights, camera, makeup–but hoping, more than anything, that a few viewers are persuaded to volunteer.

Momandme1998I volunteer for my mom. But I also do it for myself, and my children, and their future children.  And for the millions of people, worldwide, who are living with Alzheimer’s now, or will be someday soon: unless, that is, there’s a research breakthrough. Which is more likely to happen if more research volunteers step up. Remember, you don’t have to have Alzheimer’s, or have it in your family; control subjects are always needed.

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

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.

Why I Volunteer for Research, Part Two

QUIBRO_hires2Although being a control subject in Alzheimer’s research studies involves plenty of memory tests, there are neurological tests too. I was tickled with feathers, tapped on the elbows and knees, peered at with a penlight in my eyes. And there were psychological questions: On a scale of one to ten, do you usually feel life is worth living?

I was weighed and measured. I gave blood. I peed in a cup. My family tree was drawn, with special attention to anything that might be relevant: Grandma Cere’s Parkinson’s disease; Great Aunt Eine’s Alzheimer’s disease, which started in her seventies. I was approved for a lumbar puncture, more commonly known as a spinal tap, and a week later, I came back and curled up in a ball while two tablespoons of fluid were extracted from my spine with a long quivery needle: two tablespoons that would be turned into 50 droplet-sized samples for research. My husband filmed nearly all of it, from What day is it? right through the spinal tap. Later, we filmed interviews with four different doctors.

But for me, those first filmmaking visits to the University of Washington’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC) turned into more than just clips for our documentary, Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story. It was the beginning of what has become a meaningful part of my life. I am a regular research participant. Every fall, the ADRC calls me in. Depending on what studies they’re running, they may ask me to undergo a spinal tap (I’ve done five so far), but mostly it’s memory and neural testing. Once, a different UW department asked me to take part in an Alzheimer’s study that required an MRI: a Star Trek-like experience in which I lay down on a sort of conveyor belt that slid me into a tube that took pictures of my brain.

Some people are surprised that I want to participate in research. They ask if I get nervous about the memory testing, and even though I don’t suffer from a general fear of test-taking, the answer is: given what’s at stake, of course I do. I breathe a lot as I walk into the VA on the appointed day; I pep-talk myself about how the best strategy is to stay calm. Once the testing starts, I try to relax into it and just stay focused.

But what if one year I don’t pass with flying colors? Sure, that’s a scary thought. But if it happens, wouldn’t I want to be in immediate contact with the top Alzheimer’s researchers in my city? Wouldn’t I want to participate in, for example, a drug trial for people in the early stage? Yes and yes. And meanwhile, given my high level of fear about Alzheimer’s, it is extremely comforting to know that I’m still a high-functioning control subject.

It is also important to feel like I’m doing something for the cause of ending Alzheimer’s. I don’t have large amounts of money to donate. But I do have small chunks of time that I can gladly give. And as long as I don’t have to change a tire or carry bear spray, I’m in.

Speaking of, wouldn’t it be great if employers gave people time off to volunteer for research? As a self-employed filmmaker and writer, this is not an issue for me, but for many people it is. And if we could step up the pace of research, would that not be a wonderful thing?

Note: I wrote this post for the Alzheimer’s Association’s brand-new regional blog: check it out here.

Registration is open for Introduction to Memoir Writing at Seattle Central College. Starts February 11, 2015. Six Wednesday nights. Non-credit = all inspiration, no stress!

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

 

Why I Volunteer for Research, Part One

EndAlz

Here are two of the many things that scare me: having to change a tire all by myself (because I’ve never done it) and camping in bear country (because I have). Here are two of the few things that don’t scare me: taking pop quizzes and getting poked with needles. These slim categories of fearlessness make me a natural volunteer for Alzheimer’s research.

My mother grew up in Montana and nothing much scared her. She not only changed tires, she put chains on tires by herself, tying them together with shoelaces if they didn’t fit right, lying under the car in a snow storm. As for camping, after a twenty-year hiatus, she decided to try it again—solo, with four children in tow. We didn’t see any bears. The worst thing that happened was that we forgot spoons for our cereal. The best thing was being with Mom, far away from all of her city responsibilities, laughing along with the rest of us as we slurped our Raisin Bran and milk from our cups.

Mom was the kind of person you would put last on your list of People Likely to Get Alzheimer’s disease. She was smart and lively and fit; she taught high school English and read like crazy; she weathered two divorces and the loss of her third husband and raised six kids alone. But somehow, Alzheimer’s found her, and it found her early. She was in her late fifties when she suspected something was wrong, was finally diagnosed at 66 and dead at 74. Meanwhile, my siblings and I were marrying, raising kids, building careers and trying to help her cope with this awful hand she’d been dealt. (You can read about it in my memoir, Her Beautiful Brain.HBBfinalcover

What was so frustrating, of course, was how little we could do for our mother. Medicine offers no antibiotic, no chemotherapy, no surgery or drugs beyond a few pills that might slow the progression of dementia. We could give her our time, ourselves, the joy of grandchildren, the pleasures of a walk or chocolate or music. What we could never give her was our sorrow and rage about Alzheimer’s. So what could we do with those emotions?

One answer I found: volunteer for research.

For me, it started by accident. Twelve years ago, I looked up the University of Washington Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC) in the phone book (remember phone books?) and gave them a call. I was seeking scientists to interview for a documentary about Alzheimer’s disease. But the administrator surprised me with a question of her own.

“Why don’t you volunteer for research?” she said. “As a control subject. It could be part of your film.”

QUIBRO_hires2And so, as I wrote in my book, I found myself in a room at Seattle’s huge VA Hospital, where the ADRC is located, taking all the memory tests I’d watched Mom flunk. The tests start with questions like, What day is it? Who is the president? and progress through tasks like spelling WORLD backwards, listening to a paragraph and recalling details ten minutes later, repeating back sequences of numbers, remembering short lists of words, distinguishing the words for colors from the actual colors, going back to that paragraph and recalling it again, going back to those numbers and doing the sequences in reverse order.

Despite my test-taking bravado, was I nervous? You bet. Am I glad I did it? Definitely.

To be continued…

Note: I wrote this post for the Alzheimer’s Association’s brand-new regional blog: check it out here. 

 Registration is open for Introduction to Memoir Writing at Seattle Central College. Starts February 11, 2015. Six Wednesday nights. Non-credit = all inspiration, no stress!

 I’ll be reading from Her Beautiful Brain at Ravenna Third Place Books on Thursday, February 12 at 7pm. You can pre-order it from Third Place or from the small or large bookstore of your choice. Find a bookstore here. Order the Kindle version here.

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

Being Fragile

IMG_1380Human beings are fragile, though we prefer not to dwell on this. We prefer to celebrate our resilience, our strength, our endurance. But in the end, we are fragile, because we are mortal. Some living things—for example, the bristlecone pines of Nevada’s Great Basin—can live for a thousand years. Not us. Not a single one of us. Not ever. Unknown

Mortality is what Atul Gawande wrestles with in his book, Being Mortal. Gawande is a surgeon, and he is trained to fix broken humans so they can go back to being strong and resilient and busy. But when his own father was given a diagnosis that both father and son knew was incurable, Gawande realized how ill-prepared he and his parents—both also doctors—were to accept what medicine can’t do to fix things. And he realized he and his family weren’t alone in this. He began to look around his world, the world of surgery, oncology, all kinds of high-tech solutions to human fragility. He started asking hard questions about how and why doctors so often aggressively treat terminally ill patients—frequently causing great distress and discomfort—and why they so rarely ask questions about what their patients might actually want from life in their final years, days or months. He sought out people who were trying to do things differently, and learned from them how to ask the right questions. A piano teacher with, at most, weeks to live, told him what she most wanted was to leave the hospital, go home, and be given just enough pain relief to enable her to teach as long as she could. She got it, and in her last days, her students played a final recital for her in her house.

Gawande also takes a long look at what life is like in America for people who may still have years to live, but who have reached that most fragile phase of all: old age. He questions whether safety—the stated priority of most adult children, when they look for a place for their parents to live—should really be our number-one concern in housing the elderly. What about joy? Meaning? The dignity of privacy; the pleasures of community? Gawande tells the story of how one assisted-living residence was transformed when dogs, cats and 100 parakeets were brought in. He also looks at programs to help seniors stay in their homes by zeroing in on small things: finding someone nearby they can call to change a lightbulb, or take them grocery shopping.

It may sound like a tough read, and at times it is. I wish he had wrestled more with the emotional and ethical challenges posed by Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. But Being Mortal is ultimately an uplifting book because Gawande seeks and finds examples of how we can do better at facing mortality: our own, and that of the people we love. His focus is on the medical end of the conversation, because, he contends, we have come to view old age and death as medical challenges. He wishes this was not the case, but given that it is, he wants us to think about ways to steer the conversation from what the intensive care unit or nursing home has to offer to what human beings nearing the end of life really need and want.

Gawande writes that he “never expected that among the most meaningful experiences I’d have as a doctor—and, really, as a human being—would come from helping others deal with what medicine cannot do as well as what it can.”

After reading Being Mortal, I felt less fragile. Less fearful. There’s something about facing fear head-on that does that, especially when you’ve got a good guidebook. 

HBBfinalcover

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

Registration is open for Introduction to Memoir Writing at Seattle Central College. Starts February 11, 2015. Six Wednesday nights. Non-credit = all inspiration, no stress!

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

5 a.m. Idea Factory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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