therestlessnest

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

Archive for the category “memoir”

Still Restless

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

Welcome to the Restless Nest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vietnam

IMG-2575The day I left Vietnam, I laughed and laughed.

I had not expected to. I woke up feeling sad about having to leave after only two weeks: far too short a time for my first visit to this captivating country. But my travel-mates—Anne and Lindsay, close friends I have known since freshman year of college—and I had hatched a plan for our final morning: we would get up at 5:30, throw on clothes, and walk over to Hoan Kiem Lake, a short stroll from our hotel in Hanoi. Anne had done this the day before.

“Trust me,” she said. “You won’t believe it.”

As we neared the lakeshore, the streets filled with people, many in athletic outfits, walking, jogging, bicycling. They, and we, were reveling in the relative cool of the dawn  air: by 9 am, we all knew the temperature would be in the 90s and indescribably humid.

When we got to the lake, we saw exercise groups of every possible type, all of them already in full swing: Tai Chi, yoga, Zumba, old-school aerobics, hip-hop dancing, ballroom dancing.

IMG-2668Across the street, a few dozen people had gathered with the apparent purpose of laughing their heads off.

The laughing people motioned to us to join them. Why not?

“Ha, ha, HEE,” we all shouted in unison, as we stretched and moved in gentle yoga-like ways, following the leader as best we could; breaking into more free-form laughter as we formed into a shoulder-massaging congo line; and then making different laughing noises as we clustered in circles, crossing hands, vine-stepping our feet, and just generally trying to keep up. Which we did, for about forty minutes.  IMG-1651

I can’t think of a better way to prepare for a long day of air travel.

I can’t think of a better sendoff from this small country that we had so quickly grown to love.

I’m surprised I waited a whole month to write this post. I’ve been thinking about Vietnam every single day since I got home. Maybe I just needed time to ponder the emotions Vietnam stirred in me.

IMG-2663It’s easy to talk about Vietnam’s natural beauty and friendly people. It’s easy to talk about its renowned food.

Or even about the many museums and memorials commemorating the American War.

But the experience of visiting Vietnam is much more than that. The Portuguese concept of saudade comes to mind: that mixed-up feeling of longing, love and melancholy.

When you land in Vietnam, you are IMG-2605

suddenly in a place that you’ve heard about all your life. And what you heard, and when you heard it, and how old you were when you heard it, shaped your young view of the world in ways that do not at all match what you are now, in 2019, seeing and experiencing. And that paradox stays with you, every step of your trip.

For a contrasting example, take Paris. When I was a child, Paris was where Madeline lived, one of twelve little girls in two straight lines, in that old house covered with vines. When I went to Paris for the first time, it looked and felt something like I had always imagined it would.

IMG-2581But Vietnam is different.

When I was a child, Vietnam was the place where the worst photos I’d ever seen came from, the ones in my parents’ and grandparents’ TIME and LIFE magazines. Vietnam was a word that meant moral confusion and horror and sorrow.

But then, as I grew into adulthood, we all began to hear of a different Vietnam. Beginning in the 1980s and picking up steam in the 1990s and the 2000s, we began to hear phrases like, “It’s such a beautiful country,” and “The people are so friendly.” And so my thinking about Vietnam began to shift, and though that left me even more perplexed and saddened by the legacy of the war, it also made me feel like maybe I was old enough, finally, to withstand the emotional currents inherent in visiting a place that is both forever symbolic of American hubris at its worst and vibrantly alive with the astounding ability of human beings to forgive, to repair, to choose love over vengeance.

That’s what Vietnam was about on this first visit. It was about feeling this saudade, this sense of love and tragedy and beauty all wrapped up together and ever present while we were enjoying all the above-mentioned joys: the beauty, the food, and the exuberant hospitality, on our final morning, of the laughing yoga people.

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Where we went: Ho Chi Min City, Whale Island, Quy Nhon, Hoi An, Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, and Hanoi. We stopped briefly in Hue, Marble Mountain and Son My (My Lai). There are many more places I look forward to visiting on my next trip.

Recommended reading: When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, by Le Ly Haislip, The Sorrow of War, by Bao Ninh, and The Sympathizer, by Viet Than Nguyen. I also recommend watching Ken Burns’ PBS series on the Vietnam War.

            For those of you who read my last post: I hit send on my first book pitch last week! I’ll be sending several more, soon. I’ll keep you posted. It could be a long haul.

 

 

 

Fear of Not Flying

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

Why does the anticipation never quite drown out the dread?

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

And yet of course I do. Hence the dread.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Writing Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And All Will Be Well

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

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

However: there was one frigid December evening in London.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Merry Christmas.

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

 

Stand By Me

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

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

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

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

This time, I would finally get to indulge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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State of the Union: Flashback

NIXON RESIGNATIONI had a flashback during the approximately 30 minutes I could bear to watch of the State of the Union address.

In the summer of 1974, which for me was the summer between high school and college, I was working the front counter at Kazdal’s Deli on University Way in Seattle. Kazdal’s (which later became the Lock, Stock and Bagel) was more of a lunch spot than a dinner restaurant. So just before 6 p.m. on August 9, the place was pretty quiet.

Suddenly, someone burst in our door and asked if we had a TV. “Nixon’s about to resign!” he said.

No, we didn’t have a TV. “But the Continental does,” said the cook, who had come running in from the kitchen. “Let’s get over there.”

The Continental was the Greek restaurant across the street. The cook dashed on over. I looked around—not a customer in the place—grabbed the keys, locked the front door and followed him.

I was about halfway across when a cop on a motorcycle roared up to me.

“Get back on the sidewalk, Miss. I’m writing you a ticket for jaywalking.”

“But Officer, don’t you know? Nixon’s resigning right now and I have to get to the Continental to see it on TV!”

The policeman was unmoved. He took down my name and address and gave me my ticket, watching me as I ran up to the crosswalk, waited for the light to change, and ran into the Continental, just in time to catch Nixon weirdly yammering on to the American public. He was actually trying to talk about his accomplishments. It seemed, to my 17-year-old ears and eyes, like a badly acted play about a sad, half-crazy man who thought he was the president, which is of course why it came to mind during Trump’s State of the Union speech.

But Nixon’s tone-deaf farewell also felt like the beginning of the end of a bitter, cynical, cacophonous era. And that’s why everyone at the Continental clapped and cheered.

imgresAnd then, just like that, Gerald Ford was our president, for two and a half years, which meant that those of us who entered college at that exact moment in history got a pass from the daily outrage that had been the lot of our older brothers and sisters. I am not proud of our mid-70s apathy, but I do get it. We were politically worn out by the time we could drive.

In a way, I’m thankful for Gerald Ford. I can see how he played a part in the emotional repair of our exhausted country. Yes, we were appalled when he pardoned Nixon. Later, it became easier to understand why he did it. In 2001, the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation even gave him a Profile in Courage award for doing it.

imgres-1And there were those priceless Chevy Chase impressions on Saturday Night Live: also part of our national healing process.

If Trump ever resigns or is impeached, it is hard to imagine Vice President Pence rising to the role of Calming Presence in Chief the way Ford did. I prefer to imagine a dreamworld scenario in which Pence is also ousted, and the post-midterm-elections, future democratic Speaker of the House becomes president.

But on January 30, 2018, it was that lack of connection to the real United States of America in which we all live—as opposed to Trump’s fantasy United States of MAGA—that reminded me, along with Trump’s faux-patriotic delivery and love of stagecraft, of Nixon, nearly 44 years ago, in his final hours as president.

There was certainly stagecraft aplenty in Congressman Joe Kennedy III’s response, filmed in front of a car with its hood up at a technical school in Fall River, Massachusetts. But after Trump, I was more than ready for Kennedy’s honest anger and rousing shout-out to what really makes America great: as he put it, “our highest American ideal: the belief that we are all worthy, we are all equal and we all count. In the eyes of our law and our leaders, our God and our government. That is the American promise.”

If you didn’t watch the State of the Union, don’t bother. Check out Joe Kennedy’s speech. Cheer yourself up with an old Chevy Chase skit. Or, if you’re feeling brave, dial on back to August 9, 1974, and see what Nixon had to say.

Seattle readers: I’ll be teaching Intro to Memoir Writing at Seattle Central College beginning April 9. SCC Registration opens February 12 for returning students and February 20 for new students. 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Heart + Vitality = Courage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mortality is a pure bitch. Aging is a privilege.

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

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

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

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

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

 

No Mud, No Lotus

IMG_0860“Most people are afraid of suffering,” writes Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. “But suffering is a kind of mud to help the lotus flower of happiness grow. There can be no lotus flower without the mud.”

Thich Nhat Hanh has a remarkable ability to get my attention by saying the simplest things in fresh ways. Especially when I’m stuck in some sort of tiresome, sticky emotional mud; the kind of mud you can’t imagine could ever produce a lovely lotus blossom.

51DkLeJ5ZyL._SY346_           Earlier this year, I spotted his book, No Mud, No Lotus: the Art of Transforming Suffering at Elliott Bay Book Company. I thought it might come in handy as I embarked on my big 2017 foot surgery adventure. But month after month, it sat in a stack on my desk, where I mostly ignored it. When the title did catch my eye, I found it irritating. “Transforming suffering?” Tell that to my friend with cancer, Thich Nhat Hanh. Tell that to the exhausted firefighters all over the West. Tell it to the people of Houston, Florida, Mexico, Puerto Rico. Tell it to the DACA dreamers. The Syrian refugees. The millions of us who have to worry, again, that the Republicans are going to yank our health care. The sidelined career diplomats who live in fear every time our president opens his mouth about North Korea.

“Transforming suffering.” Hah! I preferred the edgier acronym a neighbor taught me: AFOG. Another Fucking Opportunity for Growth.

But as I sat at home this summer while my family hiked; as I pondered why foot surgery had somehow triggered pain in parts of my body—back, hip, glute—that were not near my foot, I inched a little closer to actually picking up the slim black book with its taunting title. I was fed up with obsessing about the physical mysteries of recovery. I hadn’t really turned my own challenges into an AFOG at all. I was trying to, but I kept getting mired in the fog of self-pity, which is an ugly stew, not unlike the thick gruel of forest fire smoke.

“The art of happiness is also the art of suffering well,” Nhat Hanh writes. Hmmm. Really? “Thinking we should be able to have a life without any suffering is as deluded as thinking we should be able to have a left side without a right side.” He goes on in a similar vein: without darkness there is no light; without cold there is no warmth.

But the story that got my attention was his description of his own suffering from a virus in his lungs that made them bleed. Nhat Hanh is well-known for his love of joyful, mindful breathing; for adages like: “When you wake up in the morning, the first thing to do is to breathe and to become aware that you have 24 brand-new hours to live.” When he was stricken by this severe lung virus, he wrote that “it was difficult to breathe, and it was difficult to be happy while breathing.” But after he healed? “Now when I breathe, all I need to do is to remember the time when my lungs were infected with this virus. Then every breath I take becomes really delicious, really good.”

It wasn’t being well that made Nhat Hanh even more joyful about breathing; it was the fact that he’d been so sick. This is not such a difficult concept. But Nhat Hanh knows how easy it is for us to forget these simple truths, and that’s why he keeps writing about them. I’m sure he would not be surprised or insulted if I told him that his book sat in a stack for weeks before it was finally, grudgingly, opened.

No one, including Thich Nhat Hanh, would argue that suffering is inherently good. Earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and fires: not good. Twanging something somewhere in my lower back just as I was getting mobile again: ditto.

But like Nhat Hanh breathing with joy after his illness, I know this: the rain that finally washed away the smoky haze over Washington state was the most beautiful, sweet-smelling rain ever. Letting go of hiking for a while and, instead, riding my bicycle around Seward Park for the first time in months was the best bike ride ever.

On the radio this morning, a resident of Central Mexico talked about how catastrophe brings us together. Politics and grudges become irrelevant. People are at their best.

IMG_0864In the words of the wise Buddhist monk: “We have to learn how to embrace and cradle our own suffering and the suffering of the world, with a lot of tenderness.”

Seattle readers: There are still a few spots left in my Introduction to Memoir Writing Class, which starts next Wednesday at Seattle Central College. I’m also excited to be a presenter at the Write on The Sound conference in Edmonds on Oct 7. That event is sold out, but I’ll keep you posted re future similar opportunities. 

 

 

 

 

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