therestlessnest

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Archive for the category “immigration”

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. 

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After 2017: Wound Care

IMG_0918One year ago—before the Inauguration, before the women’s marches, before everything else that has happened since—I attended a New Year’s Eve get-together at which everyone made a prediction for 2017.
Mine was that the next (“hopefully great”) Democratic presidential candidate, “someone we haven’t even thought of yet,” would emerge by the end of this year. Others predicted that Trump would be impeached. Or that his first Supreme Court nominee would somehow be blocked. Some guests offered more general forecasts: “the pendulum will swing;” “people will come to their senses.” My husband vowed that we would see the “total cratering” of the Republican Party. His prediction may have come closest to the mark.

And though my own hope was misplaced—I think we’re still not even close to identifying the next Democratic candidate for president—I do believe the pendulum is swinging, and many people are coming to their senses. They just may not be the same people we had hoped would come to their senses.

The people who are coming to their senses are not the people who voted for Trump. We now understand that most of them (a minority of Americans, let’s not forget) are very unlikely to change their minds. The people who are coming to their senses are us. By which I mean the whole big crazy quilt of the Left. Or “The Resistance,” as Trump now likes to call us, in air quotes, thinking that it’s a scathing put-down. To which I say: Congratulations, Everyone! We’ve made enough noise this year to get our own group nickname. Long live the Resistance!

doug-jones-alabama-victory-1513196170-article-headerWe now understand that that we will win elections by getting our own selves to the polls, including our oldsters who may need rides and our youngsters who may need to feel more firmly respected for their views. After Alabama, we now understand that we will win elections when all Democrats feel that their vote is urgently needed.

2017 has been, if anything, more dismaying than I had ever believed it would be. I’m an optimist at heart, and this has not been a great year for optimism. But now, at the end of the year, I see so many reasons to hope.

In my last post, I called Trump an infection that has put our democracy’s health at risk. I declared that we, individual citizens, are the hard-working antibiotics who will ultimately prevail. And I do believe we will. In fact I think we could see a dramatic return to health right around mid-term election time, which is not much more than ten months from now.

But, just as I learned a few things about infections this year following foot surgery, I am now learning about the next phase: wound care.

I now know that wound care is a specialty that requires unflinching precision, compassion and the ability to inspire optimism—there it is again, my favorite word!—all while gently but firmly instilling in the patient—in this case, me—the understanding that optimism must be earned, through compliance. Attention to detail.

Wounds heal. But they heal better with the right care. And so it will be for our democracy, and for us.

I would venture that even as we fight off the infection, IMG_2864we’re already starting to heal. Wanting to get better is an essential first step, and we can check that one off. The women’s marches, last January 20th? That was all of us saying: “We want to get better. We will not give in.” The fights in the courts over immigration, the push-back on the proposed repeal of Obamacare, the victories in this fall’s special elections? All are signs that we are determined to be well again, and to come back stronger than ever.  

mr-potterThis Christmas, we watched It’s a Wonderful Life for the first time in at least a few years. Wow, does it resonate in 2017. You have to wonder if Trump watches it for inspiration, trying to be more like greedy, rich Mr. Potter every day; learning to perfectly imitate Lionel Barrymore’s signature lip curl as Jimmy Stewart makes his passionate plea for the rights of working people to live in homes that they own, rather than rent hovels from a slumlord. It’s an optimist’s dream story its-a-wonderful-life-bailey-family-05line: people working together to help each other can make the world a better place. People working together can heal the wounds of depressions and wars and personal tragedies: anathema to Trump and his rogues’ gallery of hangers-on, which currently include nearly every member of the forever-tarnished Republican Party.

Infections can be swift and merciless. Wound care is nearly always painstakingly slow. And there will be scars.

On the morning of the shortest, darkest day of the year, I watched as the sun, low and crisp, lit up a long, taut length of spiderweb in the corner of our bedroom. The thread stretched all the way from the ceiling, down six feet or more, to the branch of a palm in a clay pot. I wondered why the spider had hurled out that line. I marveled that spiders can do such a thing: that they can create a new something, in an instant, where there had previously been nothing. But we do that too, when we heal; we manufacture brand-new tissue and bone and skin to fill gaps and fuse breaks and stitch cuts. We keep at it until the scars fade to pencil marks.imgres

And that is my hope for 2018. That we’ll work together. we’ll spin out lifelines; we’ll do whatever it takes to heal this democracy’s wounds.

Find your January 20th, 2018 march here.

American Infection

imgresSometimes we writers search too hard for the perfect metaphor. Sometimes, it’s right under our nose—or, in my case, right under my blue, Velcro-strapped boot.

Infection: that’s what Trump is, I thought this morning, as I took my nineteenth of the twenty Amoxicillin tablets we brought home from the pharmacy ten days ago. Trump has infected our vigorous, 241-year-old democracy. And like so many infections, this one is fire-engine red and spreading, unchecked and unmedicated. Meanwhile, the patient is hot with fever one day and shaking with chills the next. Nothing tastes right. Muscles ache. Vaguely flu-like feelings abound. Waves of determination to soldier through—we’ll get over this!—are followed by languorous apathy: let’s just give up.

Speaking as one who tried to ignore an infection for several days, I can tell you it is not a strategy that works. After foot surgery on November 6, I assumed the three incisions on my right foot were healing up nicely under all those bandages, just the way they had on my left foot, last May. And they probably were, for the first several days. But then something somehow went wrong along one of those neat lines of stitches. At that point my foot was in a plastic cast, so I couldn’t see it. And for reasons I cannot explain, I chose to believe that feeling like my foot was on fire was probably “normal,” that fever and chills were a “part” of healing, and that I would magically “get over it.” Wrong, wrong, wrong. Thank God for antibiotics.

And so: if Trump is the infection, what is the cure?

The first and worst news, of course: it’s going to take a lot longer than ten days.

But we have to get the treatment started. And—despite the screaming-red, oozing tax bill that, at this writing, is poised to pass—I would argue that we have started.

WE are the antibiotics. Every time we make a phone call to Capitol Hill, every time we contribute to the ACLU, Emily’s List, Planned Parenthood or the Sierra Club (my own favorites), we are giving our ailing patient, our democracy, another life-saving dose. And every time a new, energetic progressive candidate is elected to a local or state office, that’s a mega-dose. Tukwila, a Seattle suburb, just elected Somali-American Zak Idan, 29, to its City Council. Seattle’s east-side suburbs just tipped our statehouse fully blue by electing Indian-American lawyer Manka Dhingra to the state senate. There have been similar victories in other states this fall, notably in Virginia and New Jersey. All of this bodes well for elections in 2018.

But this infection is ugly. As Charles Blow writes this week, it stinks of sanctioned racism and that smell just keeps getting stronger. In just the past few days alone, Trump has tweeted anti-Muslim hate videos, insulted Native Americans, and tried to revive his Obama-smearing Birther campaign. And as Thomas Edsall writes, the infection has spread its noxious tentacles deep and wide. But we, the antibiotics, must keep on until we turn the tide. Make those calls, write those emails, support progressive candidates at every level. Or be like Idan and Dhingra and run for office yourself.

And know that while we’re working to turn the infectious tide in 2018, there are specialists who are deploying other life-saving measures. Robert Mueller and his staff. Several state attorneys general. Senators like our own Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both of whom are very busy right now identifying all the nasty bacteria that has been stuffed into the tax bill, like Arctic drilling and repeal of the health care mandate.

unnamedThis won’t be easy. The antibiotics will take time. There will be a lot of wound care, too. Scar tissue. Rehab. But we’ve got to save our patient. How will we answer to our children if we let democracy die?

 

 

 

The Long Game

recordhighs_1498436682731_9904006_ver1.0It was the hottest evening of the year. So far. I rested my post-surgical, boot-encased foot on my husband’s leg as we sat with a group of like-minded, anxious Seattle progressives and listened to the ACLU’s state communications director answer questions.

“What should we do?” was what we wanted Doug Honig to tell us. Meaning: about Trump? During his presidency? What should we do? How can we help?

Honig’s advice, which I’m paraphrasing and which he delivered with more nuance, was essentially this: Try to stop obsessing about Trump. This isn’t about Trump, this is about the Republican plan to remake our country. The Republicans have deep pockets and many loyal foot soldiers and they are in this for the long game. And so we need to be, too.web17-muslimbancapitol-1160x768

What does that mean? It means supporting local, state and national politicians and candidates who stand for compassion, not cruelty. It means raising our voices in defense of the Affordable Care Act, immigrants’ rights, our national parks and monuments, clean air, clean water, and everything else we care about that is threatened not just by Trump’s vicious, bullying twitter feed but by his clever cabinet appointees and his allies on Capitol Hill, who love love love that he is providing constant, highly distracting cover while they pursue their draconian agenda.

Stay in, people, for the long game.

imgres“There’s a part for you to play in the next great progressive comeback story,” Senator Al Franken writes in his new memoir, Al Franken: Giant of the Senate. “But only if you can keep from losing your mind or getting so discouraged that you quit before the comeback even begins.”

Politically, this summer is already about as un-pretty as my swollen foot on a 96-degree day in June. And as with my foot, there’s no going back.

“Do you ever just wish you hadn’t done it?” a friend asked me, as I crutched toward her. It was a remarkably intuitive remark, given that I have been wishing exactly that, frequently, as I face the reality that it’s going to be quite a while before I’m walking normally, or new-normally, after a surgery involving three incisions, one metal plate, two screws and six weeks of roller-carting. Sure I wish I hadn’t done it, because then I could be doing all the things I love to do in the summer: hop on a bike, hike up a mountain trail, jump in the lake. IMG_0079

I could be doing all those wonderful things this summer, that is. But what about ten years from now? Twenty years from now? The point is: I didn’t have this surgery for me, right now, age 60. I did it for me at 61, 65, 70, 80, God willing. This foot-rebuilding project is a crazy (and temporarily crazy-making) vote of confidence in my own future. I’m in this for the long game.

And if what we care about is not just getting rid of Trump but ensuring a better, more humane world for our children and grandchildren, then we have to stay in for the long game. We have to work our political muscles for more hopeful summers in the future.

IMG_2864As my booted foot and I bumble about, it cheers me to think of the march through downtown Seattle back in January. Hundreds of thousands of strong feet, filling the streets of Seattle, Washington DC, cities and towns all over the country.

I look forward to marching again. Meanwhile, I’ll do what I can.

Friends in Seattle and South King County: I’ll be reading at the Renton Library at 7:00 pm on July 26th. 

 

 

Stay Hungry

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

#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.

 

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.

 

 

 

Father Solstice

12294725_1023642207693534_3470832158015669034_n 2 I was in it for the Beaconettes. What’s not to love about a holiday choir decked in sky-high beehive hairdos festooned with strings of lights? So I braved the bone-chilling Seattle December rain and headed for the annual tree-lighting at our neighborhood’s new gathering spot, a mini-park called the Columbia City Gateway. My husband was waiting for me, hot chocolate in hand. Aahhh.

We tried to figure out where the tree was. Turns out it was a telephone pole. This would be a pole lighting. But that’s OK—it’s Columbia City, where even a pole lighting in a downpour can somehow still promise to be festive.

There were some mercifully short introductory remarks, and then the night’s celebrity guest was introduced: Father Christmas himself, or, as the announcer added, “Father Solstice, if you prefer.” And what a FatherSolsticemagnificent Father Christmas/Solstice he was: fur-crowned, green-robed, cascading white beard and hair.

I was kicking myself for not having added one more layer to my winter-rain getup and feeling anxious to see the Beaconettes before I crossed over into hypothermia. My husband saw me shivering and put his arms around me. Then Father Solstice stepped up to the microphone, wrapping us all in his gentle yet commanding presence: the kind of presence that long years of addressing such crowds can give a man, especially one with mythical tendencies.

I’m paraphrasing here, but this is what I remember of what Father Solstice said: “I won’t talk long, I promise. I know you’re wet and cold. But I just want to remind you about some refugees you might have heard about. Two thousand years ago, they were looking for a place to stay, because one of them was about to have a baby. Door after door was barred against them. And I’m bringing them up because this year, we’re more tempted than ever to bar our doors against the refugees of the world. More tempted than ever to act out of fear, instead of love.”

“Who remembers,” Father Solstice went on, “when Seattle was declared a Sanctuary City in the 1980s? Maybe it’s time to reclaim that vow.”

The soggy crowd was quiet.

“OK,” said Father S, snapping us back to the present. Let’s count down and light that pole!”

We all counted down, clapping and cheering when the telephone pole lit up. Then the Beaconettes stirred and glowed and we crowded in so we could hear them over the deluge as they belted out their trademark carols featuring rewritten lyrics about contemporary life in Seattle, which this year included riffs on marijuana, Amazon, Fitbits and Bertha the wayward tunnel-digger. They were hilarious, as always.

But it was Father Solstice who stayed with me, as we walked off into the dark.

Is it still possible to be a sanctuary city? What it technically means is that Seattle is a city where police officers are not allowed to ask about an individual’s immigration status. What “sanctuary city” also meant, in the 1980s, was a place where many churches and activists provided sanctuary for refugees fleeing violence in Central America and, later on, other turbulent places in the world.

Is it possible, in these times, not to offer sanctuary? In his Sunday speech from the Oval Office, President Obama called the terrorists of the Islamic State—which is neither reflective of more than a tiny, warped sliver of Islam, nor a state—“thugs and killers.” How can we not offer sanctuary when murderous thugs are driving waves of terrified people into exile? How can we be the ones who cry out, “no room at the inn?”

And yet: what kind of sanctuary are we, when our country is flooded with firearms, bedecked and bedazzled with them, to a degree that must make the violent thugs of the world quiver with envy? When our politicians shout, “yes, bar those doors!” even as they encourage the flow of guns from the factories and into the hands of everyone who wants one or two or two dozen, whether they’re terrorists, armed robbers, or duck hunters?

Turns out Father Christmas/Solstice is a long-time peace activist in Seattle named Bob Barnes. I had the honor of meeting him, and thanking him for what he said, after the pole-lighting; an event, I told him, that I won’t soon forget. Thanks, Beaconettes, and thank you, Bob. The holiday season in Seattle may be dark and sodden, but it has its bright moments. “Bright,” as in happy strings of lights on beehive hairdos and on one telephone pole. And “bright” as in: a man in a green cloak and furry crown, willing to shine a light right where we need it most.

In the mood for another seasonal tale? Here’s one I called “A Manger Story,” published this week on the Patheos Good Letters site. 

Radio news: After four years, The Restless Nest has retired from its weekly radio spot on KBCS. This will give me more time to work on some longer projects. But I’ll continue to post here at least a few times a month. 

 

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!

Immigrant America

unnamedHer name was pinned to her coat, because she didn’t speak a word of English. But Lydia Westerback made it from Ellis Island to Hanna, Wyoming, where her future husband was waiting for her. He’d been waiting for nine years. It took that long for Lydia’s heart to heal after the death of her first fiancé, back in Finland. Nine years for her heart to stop hurting enough to see what Viktor Warila was offering her: not just love and marriage but a whole new world. She was 31. Her choice was stark: impoverished spinsterhood in Finland, under the rule of the Russian Czar? Or marriage, and America, with a friendly man whose letters she enjoyed but who she had not seen in nearly a decade?

Lydia and Viktor were my great-grandparents. Like all my forebears, they came here with little money and lots of hope. This might be your story too, or a part of your story. Whether it was nearly five centuries ago in Pilgrim New England, whether it was one or two centuries ago in the great immigrant waves that gave us Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty and Emma Lazarus’ beautiful poem—you remember, “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Whether it was 30 years ago or three years ago, we were all poor travelers at the table. Or as President Obama put it in his announcement last week of major executive action on immigration, “we know the heart of a stranger—we were strangers once too.”

Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat wrote beautifully this weekend on the same theme. Many others have, too. So my story, of Lydia and Viktor and their reunion at a Wyoming coal camp in 1899, is hardly unique—and that, of course, is exactly the point. Exactly why I’m giving thanks, this year, for President Obama’s action, because it is such an important reminder of who we are, as a nation. Why we exist. What we represent to the world. The new, jillion-dollar fence on our southern border is a shameful testament to who we are at our worst—selfish. Fearful. Ditto Congress’ inability to pass immigrant reform legislation. But the president’s executive order, imperfect though it is, is an urgently needed course correction back towards what Lazarus’s poem invoked us to be, when she imagined the Statue of Liberty saying to the world: “Send these homeless, tempest-tossed, to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The golden door of which she wrote led, of course, not to treasure but to backbreaking work. Just as it still does. Nothing is more wildly off the mark than recent characterizations of immigrants, legal or illegal, as “takers.” My great-grandfather was a coal miner. My great-grandmother ran a small boarding house. Then, with six young children to support, they farmed a homestead claim near Red Lodge, Montana.

I thought of them—and of Lydia’s long train trip across the West to meet her future husband—when my husband and I watched a haunting new documentary called Who is Dayani Cristal, produced by actor Gael Garcia Bernal, perhaps best known here for playing Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries. Bernal also narrates and appears on-screen in short re-enactments which help tell the story of one Honduran immigrant whose body was found in the Sonoran desert. Watch it, if you can: it’s available online. It will make you thankful for how we as a nation took a step last week back towards everything the Statue of Liberty stands for. “A mighty woman with a torch,” Lazarus called her: “and her name? Mother of Exiles.”

HBBfinalcoverBuy Her Beautiful Brain 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.

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