therestlessnest

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

Archive for the category “nature”

Subduction Zone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rain Forest

IMG_1897 Rain Forest: the most cooling words in the world. Can’t you just feel the rain, dripping through the cool, deep shade of trees draped in moss? Aaahhh. I’m speaking of our Pacific Northwest rain forests, the great temperate forests that once stretched from Alaska to southern Oregon. Now, what is left of those ancient mossy kingdoms form the rich lungs of the Olympic National Park, breathing moisture through the valleys of the Queets, Quinault, Bogachiel and Hoh Rivers. IMG_0991They are where we go when we crave not just green but a thousand shades of green; not just trees but hundreds of giants, each one of them hundreds of years old.

My husband and I were there this weekend, backpacking along the Hoh River. As always, we packed fleece and rain gear. You never know, in the rain forest. But this was no ordinary Fourth of July trip to the Olympic Peninsula. This was the Fourth that came right after the warmest June in our weather history.

IMG_1894    It’s hard to describe to someone from, say, Arizona, what exactly is so strange about all this. Why it is incredible to camp on a gravel bar on the Hoh River without a rainfly over your tent, your sleeping bag unzipped and thrown open, the dry, clear summer twilight still faintly pink at ten o’clock, the full moon about to rise. Not only will there be no cold breeze or rain on this night in the temperate rainforest, there will barely be any darkness at all. It’s wonderful, it’s beautiful. And it’s unsettling. Normally, the first few days of July around here are still June, weather-wise, meaning quite likely rainy gray and cool. Normally, we dress warmly for Independence Day picnics and fireworks. But this year, the question we’re all asking ourselves is: is this the new normal? Hot, dry Fourth of July weather in the Rain Forest, where it rains 12 to 14 feet every year?

“Seattle on the Mediterranean,” was the headline on a New York Times essay by contributor Tim Egan, published last week. Egan points out that it’s been hotter here than Athens, Rome or Los Angeles on several days over the past month. He also cites University of Washington climate scientist Cliff Mass’ explanation of why Mass believes this heat wave is not attributable to global warming but is instead a, quote, “amplication of the upper level wave pattern.” It has to do with the jet stream being stuck in a persistent, warming ridge and trough. I think. Mass also explains high pressure over the eastern Pacific Ocean is warming the water, which warms the air flowing our way. Mass is no climate denier. His point is that when the weather is this spikey, this suddenly strange, it’s not about something that is happening incrementally and globally.

But Egan nails why it’s hard to just sit back and enjoy our Mediterranean summer. As he puts it, quote: “The current heat is a precursor, an early peek at a scary tomorrow.” We actually don’t want this to be the new normal. It’s hard to enjoy a quirky heat wave when we have much to legitimately fear about global warming.

And when we go to the rain forest, the last thing we expect is heat. Or the haze of the 1200-acre Paradise forest fire, the largest in the park’s history, blowing up from the Queets valley. A volunteer told us it will probably burn until snow starts falling. And weather-watchers are predicting another warm winter here. Strange times. Unsettling times. Though I’ll never forget our balmy night on the edge of the icy Hoh.

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

Beyond the Trail

IMG_1864  “End of Maintained Trail,” read the sign. “Travel Safely. Leave No Trace.” We had hiked the 3.1 miles up to Glacier Basin in Mt. Rainier National Park on a mid-June day that looked like late July: wildflowers everywhere, sky bluer than blue, glaciers looking decidedly underfed. I could use that “end of maintained trail” metaphor to riff about global warming, couldn’t I? But my mind is traveling in a different direction. More of a life direction. More of a… what it might feel like to get a scary diagnosis direction.

For 5.3 million Americans living today, that diagnosis is Alzheimer’s disease, and it may as well come with a trail’s-end message attached: This is the end of the maintained trail, pal. Sorry. Travel safely. Oh, and leave no trace of your fears and feelings because frankly, the rest of us can’t handle hearing about it. For their family members, the diagnosis message is the same: your life, too, will now proceed on unmarked terrain. There will be rocks, some slippery, others sharp. There will be immoveable boulders. Crevasses of anguish. The endless putting of one foot in front of another, as you wonder what lies around the next switchback or over that looming ridge.

The Alzheimer’s Association recently switched its awareness month from November—cold, barren, Printdark—to June: mild, lush and flooded with light. At first, I didn’t get it. November had always seemed like the perfect Alzheimer’s Awareness month to me. But I think the point is to get us all thinking about just how long the days are for people with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers. What a marathon this diagnosis is. What a steeplechase—a better word, with its implied challenges and roadblocks and muddy sinkholes.

June in the Northwest is often a steeplechase sort of month in which it’s never quite safe to plan a picnic or plant something that might not respond well to a sudden chill or storm. It’s a month in which you never quite know expect. The only thing you do know is that the days will be long, and one of them will be the longest day of all. And mostly, we view that as a good thing: those long, creamsicle Solstice twilights and sunrises; those nights that even at midnight, never seem fully dark.

logo       On this year’s Solstice, Sunday, June 21st, I’ll be participating in an Alzheimer’s Association event: a “Longest Day” write-and-readathon at Seattle’s University Bookstore. It’s our first year, so we’re not quite sure what we’re doing and we’re definitely not going to try to keep it up for all 16 hours between dawn and dusk. But for four hours in the afternoon, our goal will be to read and write in honor of someone we love who is a caregiver or is living with or lived with Alzheimer’s disease. For me, that will be my mom. I don’t know yet if I’ll write about her or Alzheimer’s—I’ve done quite a bit of both. Maybe instead I’ll write about some of the things she loved to do. Or her favorite books and authors. Or how she might have liked to fill a Solstice day if she were alive and well. ArleneYoung

Mom’s life was never much of a maintained trail. She scrambled and improvised all the time, which made her a great role model for her six children, especially as we tried to figure out how best to help her when Alzheimer’s began to rumble like an avalanche after a June rain. But she was an English teacher. She loved reading and writing. I like to think she really would be honored by a write-and-readathon, on the year’s very longest day.

1904066_484139051691653_1188410800_nThe Details: June 21, 1 to 4pm, University Book Store, Seattle, the Alzheimer’s Association’s Longest Day” write-and-readathon: Join us! or come for the Open Mic reading at 3pm.

Just in: a new review of Her Beautiful Brain from Full Life Care blog editor Kavan Peterson. I am so honored to be speaking at Full Life’s fundraising breakfast in October. You can buy Her Beautiful Brain from Amazon or any independent bookstore. Find a bookstore here. Order the Kindle version hereHBBfinalcover

 

Spring Fever

IMG_1707What a great day it was to have five working senses. My nose might’ve had it the best: from coffee to strawberries, lavender, mint and, topping the list, dirt. I wallowed in it like a three-year-old in a sandbox: scooping wet compost into my garden bed, raking it, poking holes, patting seedlings into place. Rainbow chard, Merlot lettuce, Dinosaur kale: day one for this year’s 2 feet by 4 feet vegetable kingdom. Reach high, seedlings! Shake off that greenhouse gloom: you are outside now, kids, and every day, we’re all going to get a few more minutes of this golden light.

My husband and I started our Spring Fever Saturday with a long tromp through the Washington Park Arboretum. For two hours, we were the greenhouse transplants, stretching into warmth and light. IMG_1694Spring in Seattle is like that: everyone turns into happy seedlings, faces pointed skyward, toes in the mud. Or maybe we’re more like a tribe of Munchkins, blinking and wide-eyed as we obey the urging of the sun to come out, come out, wherever we are. The Arboretum trails were thronged with strolling birders and blossom-lovers, painters with easels all along Azalea Way, runners and rubber-booted families in the marshes of Foster Island. What an old friend of a landscape this is for me, I thought as we sat and put our boots back on after wading across a submerged bit of the Foster Island trail. On suddenly warm spring days just like this one, I used to come down here on my bike when I was 12 years old and find a sun patch where I could stretch out in the grass and read, looking up now and then to watch the parade of boats through the Montlake Cut.

IMG_1701 (1) The surprise of spring is this: every single year, it feels brand new. Every year, we get to do it all over again, right along with the azaleas and the marsh lilies and the painters with their easels. Their fresh newness is ours. Our fresh joy is theirs. I didn’t understand that when I was a dreamy preteen, spooling around northeast Seattle on my bike. I never dreamed that grownups in their fifties—such an utterly unimaginable age!—could feel as baptized by Spring as I did.

After our walk in the Arboretum, it was only natural to buy seedlings and go home and put them in the ground. Planting things is not something I did much of as a child. My mom grew up in Butte, Montana, a mining town where gardening was nearly impossible. Her agenda was to keep the rhododendron and lobelia bushes around our house alive and the lawn mowed. And I’ve never been very systematic about learning on my own. I pick up tips here and there from friends, neighbors, magazines and my more green-thumbed sisters, but when I’m in the garden, I always feel a bit like a clueless kid, especially when I’m planting. Did I put this one in the right place? Will it get the right mix of sun and shade? Should I water like crazy or not?

And the number of seedlings that come in one tiny plastic cup always, always catches me by surprise. I felt like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, adding more and more rows as what I thought were four plants turns into eight, 12, 16: a potentially ridiculous amount of lettuce, kale and chard for our household, which currently numbers three.IMG_1698

But on Day One in the garden, that’s not the point. Today, the point is that we’re shaking off winter, those seedlings and I. And the fact that we get to do this every year is astonishing.

Proud to be featured this week on Norelle Done’s SeattleWrote blog.

Upcoming readings:

April 30, 7pm: Her Beautiful Brain reading, The Regulator Bookshop, Durham, North Carolina

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

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

 

The West: A Love Story

IMG_0694“A mountain lion sounds like a screaming woman,” said the ranger at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. This bothered me. Until I was standing outside a locked door in Castle Valley, Utah, listening to what sounded like a chorus of screaming women. “Mountain lions,” I thought, as mournful coyotes sang harmony.

My husband and I are on a road trip around the West. We have stayed with relatives, camped, enjoyed a few budget motels and a sweet suite at a hostel. The graciously lent Utah home of a friend, outside of which we were now standing and listening to wildlife, was by far the most luxurious stop on our trip. For the first time in two weeks, we cooked: pasta with veggies from the Salida, Colorado Farmer’s Market; a bottle of red wine. Aahh. After dinner we stepped out on the patio to admire the stars and the moon over the red rock castles of this storied valley. Rustin was in socks. I was in slippers. The door closed and locked behind us.

What followed was one of the longest half hours of our lives.

For a few minutes, we swore and moaned along with the coyotes and lions. Then Rus began systematically checking windows. I tried jimmying the lock with my tiny cross necklace, succeeding only in twisting the cross—a metaphor I may use in a future Restless Nest, but not this one. Then I racked my brain: what else could I find and use, without a flashlight? My bicycle key and the Allen wrench in my bike bag? Yes! But no. No luck. However: our car was unlocked and our hiking boots were inside: excellent news. Big step up from socks and slippers. Now in boots, we inched around the house, trying windows, mulling which one we would break if we had to and how much it would cost to fix it.

When we were almost out of windows, the miracle happened: Rus tugged on a bathroom window and, with a pop, it opened. He boosted me through, right into the bathtub. We were in! Laughter, relief, joy!

Just another Western Road Trip moment, when you’re almost undone by your own stupidity and instead find yourselves doing what survivors do: laughing. After camping and hiking in bear country, after driving our tiny car with two wobbling bikes on the back through the high winds of Wyoming, who would’ve thunk a locked door would bring us down?

As I write, it’s morning on that same patio, and I’ve been watching the sun rise over the red rock castles. This time of year, that’s not such an early start: it was almost 8:00 when the sun blazed over the cliffs.

IMG_1334 What is it about these Western landscapes—these valleys the size of small Eastern states, these mountains and canyons that make city skyscrapers look like Lego towers—what is it that makes me feel an emotion very much like romantic love? Is it because I miss my mom, who grew up in Montana? Do I feel her mountain-fed spirit running through me? Is it because we just visited our daughter, who is so smitten after a second season with the Southwest Conservation Corps that she plans to stay in Colorado for a while? Is it because my husband shares this love I feel and, together, we’ve spent large parts of this trip in that sublime state I like to call daily stunned gratitude? Is it because we’re reminded of past trips, including one we made with our children in 1999, which involved hours in the car listening to the Sons of the San Joaquin?

Yes. And no. It feels more personal, more primal than that.

Feeling small in a large landscape makes me feel like: I may be tiny, but life is huge. It IMG_0656makes me feel the grandness of being alive in a world of beauty that has nothing to do with what we think we value when we stare at these small screens.

IMG_0726         Hiking in Arches National Park, hearing French, Chinese, German and a host of other languages on the trail, I feel especially grateful that we can share these Western treasures with the rest of the world. That in 1872, we started with Yellowstone and kept on adding, until, at this writing, we have 401 national parks. That 50 years ago, lawmakers took the whole idea even further and passed the Wilderness Act, which today protects 110 million of our most pristine acres.

And there’s no locked door on any of it. It’s ours. It all belongs to all of us.

I’m reminded of a poem my mother wrote in which she tried to explain to her six children how it was that she had enough love for all of us. “How can love be measured out?” she asked. “Love is infinite, indefinite, pervasive.”

Large Western landscapes call for large, immeasurable love. And loving the West along with the people you love, those who are gone and those who are here, is even sweeter. Even when the mountain lions are screaming and you’re locked out, in your slippers, wondering how far away they are.

1003375_10204029713357348_4120200472773550975_n-1Upcoming readings from Her Beautiful Brain: Thursday, October 23, 6pm, Book Passage, 1 Ferry Terminal Plaza, San Francisco and Tuesday, October 28, 7pm, Village Books, Bellingham.

 

 

 

 

 

Park Dreaming

10295774_1453094438270155_5810437079417490514_nI want to write about parks. Seattle voters, you know we’ve got a big decision to make. But here’s the problem: there are these snapshots in my head that keep getting in the way.

A woman standing in front of her wildfire-torched home in Pateros, Washington.

A funeral for a child in Gaza.

Bodies lying in a wheat field in Ukraine.

The headlines this week, and the pictures that go with them, have been brutal.

I want to write about parks. But it seems—disrespectful.

I want to write about how parks saved my mental health more than once. About what a safe haven they’ve always been for me. I want to remember the Arboretum, where I could spend half a day with a pencil and notebook. I want to shout out the old-growth trees and cool summer waters of Seward Park, my refuge for 24 years. I want to remember the climbing tree in the playfield up the hill from my childhood home, where I could hide out for a while when being one of six kids in the house just got too cramped.

But even though I really, really want Seattle voters to pass the measure on the August primary ballot which will create stable funding at last for our city parks, it just seems so indulgent to write about while the largest recorded wildfire in our state’s history blazes on. While both sides in Gaza report their deadliest day. While families in the Netherlands and Malaysia and a dozen other countries mourn the violent deaths of people they loved, people whose only involvement in a territorial war was to fly high overhead in a commercial jet.

So indulgent. But here’s the rub: I can’t stop the wildfires or the missiles or the bombs. But I can urge you to think about the future of Seattle’s parks. About how—when it feels like things aren’t going so well in the big wide world—we need our parks more than ever. We need green places where we can walk, talk, run, bike, swim, think.

Or pull ivy. On Saturday, I was planning to go for a run in one of the most popular parks in the city—beautiful Golden Gardens, way out on Shilshole Bay—when I spotted an email reminder about a work party in one of the least-known corners of the park system: Cheasty Greenspace, a tangle of woods along the east side of Beacon Hill, just around the corner from where I live.

I decided I needed to be useful more than I needed a drive across town and a fresh salt breeze.

The goal in the Cheasty woods is to create bike paths and walking paths in an area of the city where access to quiet, green spaces is sorely needed. There are some neighbors who say they want it to stay wild. But most of us in the area do want the trails, and we’re willing to show the city we do by putting in some seriously sweaty sweat equity.

The task at hand was not glamorous: yanking out invasive English ivy. Yards of it. Mounds of it. All morning, a dozen or so grownups pulled and pulled, while kids ran our little piles up to the big piles. By noon, we had amassed a small mountain of ivy.

We were sweaty and dirty. We had not solved the world’s problems. But we had done our modest bit for our future park, our little link in Seattle’s emerald chain.

We know the ivy will keep growing back. So… we’ll keep pulling it. Because once you see where there might someday, if everybody pitches in, actually be a path, it’s hard to get that snapshot out of your mind.

Save the date: Her Beautiful Brain book launch: 3pm, September 7, at Elliott Bay Book Company inHer_Beautiful_Brain Seattle. You can pre-order now from Elliott Bay, Powell’s Books, or the large or small bookseller of your choice.

 

Restless Breeze

TiffanyLakeToes2013I’m restless, I’m humid, I’m one big inhale. I’m a late-August breeze in the shape of a woman.

Labor Day is SO next week.

Vacation’s over. There’s work to do. But give me any excuse and I’m jumping on my bike. And/or into the lake. I’m stalking blackberry bushes with a plastic bag. I’m looking at the Washington Trails Association website, studying the Hike of the Week, reading articles about what to do if you encounter a bear.

I think the entire Northwest population is unanimous about how wonderful the weather has been this summer, even with these recent splatters of rain. It’s such a big deal for us: we don’t always have summers like this one, with tomatoes ripening in early August and day after day glittering like a glacial stream. But it also makes it very hard to say goodbye. Word from the weather watchers is that we don’t have to quite yet, thank God: the September forecast is for more, more, more.

But therein lies the challenge: how do we shift gears, get busy, get going, when our restless bodies and minds shout Summer?

I am hoping that resuming my reports from the Restless Nest will help. Breaks are good, but I’ve missed this, which is so different from anything else I do or write.

And the Nest is authentically Restless right now. Our children—who don’t live under our roof but do live nearby—are off adventuring. Claire’s in the mountains of Colorado with the Southwest Conservation Corps, out of cellphone reach for ten days at a time. Nick’s on a cross-country road trip that just got complicated by mononucleosis. He’s sweating it out on a friend of a friend’s bed in upstate New York; I’m stuck here, sending him sympathetic but useless texts.

Their absence makes for a sudden surplus of quiet. An excuse to take my own temperature.

It’s a little on the high side, I’d say, and that is not a hot-flash joke.

No, it’s more of a slightly feverish thrum winding its way through my brain, under and around the idle visions of mountain lakes and saltwater beaches; over and through the work of the hour. I didn’t have a word for it until Saturday, when, lucky me, I got to spend the day up at Hedgebrook (the Shangri-la of women’s writing retreats, on Whidbey Island) soaking up writerly inspiration. The occasion was an alumnae celebration of Hedgebrook’s 25th anniversary. The morning started with a pep talk from Brooke Warner, longtime book editor, writing coach and co-founder of the new, very exciting She Writes Press. Warner focused on what she called women’s worthiness problem. As in, I am not worthy of time and space to write. My writing is not worthy of being read. My voice is not worthy of being heard; my self not worthy of attention.

Worthiness. This is why I’m here, I thought: I really, really needed a worthiness tune-up. Because the annual portal that is Labor Day always scares me a little. Goodbye blackberries and basking; hello adrenaline, deadline pressure, expectations, worthiness crises.

And yet: going into fall with my feet browned and my legs berry-scratched means this was a good summer. One that will be inside me, half restless breeze and half rock-steady heartwood, shoring up my worthiness through the months ahead.

Radio lovers: I’ll be back on the air in September!

New Orleans lovers: today is the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Our documentary film, The Church on Dauphine Street: One Katrina Story, is available on Amazon, Hulu and other digital sites.

 

Hiatus: the Mid-term Report

IMG_0547

Gravel bar: my favorite hiatus phrase. So far. See photo, at left, of the view from our Fourth of July campsite in the heart of the Olympic National Park’s Hoh Rain Forest. Who knew that in the middle of one of the shadiest, mossiest, wettest places on the planet we would find a sun-drenched spot called Five Mile Island on one of the Hoh’s 50 or so miles of braided gravel bars?

We splashed our sweat off in the icy water and set up our tent. Then we sat in the sun and read, trading back and forth an unlikely pair of books: War by Candlelight, Daniel Alarcón’s luminous stories of Peru, and What Darwin Really Said by Benjamin Farrington.

Truth: the real reason these two books made the backpack cut was because they are slim. But they delivered.

Alarcón is a master of the first line that hooks you, helplessly:

“They’d been living in the apartment for ten days when David was first asked to disappear.”

“The day before a stray bomb buried him in the Peruvian jungle, Fernando sat with José Carlos and together they meditated on death.”

“Every year on Mayra’s birthday, since she turned one, I have asked Sonia to marry me.”

Then he reels you in, and sends you flying from the gravel bar to New York, to the Amazonian jungle, to Lima. Alarcón’s genius is to slip from sight, to leave us alone with his characters and without any overhanging awareness of his authorial presence—so that, at the end of the story, you the reader are as devastated, or uplifted, or both, as they are.

Meanwhile, there was Farrington, the late Irish professor and historian of science, eager to give those of us who never got around to reading The Origin of Species a brisk review of Darwin’s life and importance. Published in 1966 when Farrington was 72 years old, it’s the kind of book that makes you wish you could curl up with the author in front of a shilling-operated gas fire, light his pipe, pour him a cup of strong tea, and have him read it to you. But sitting on our gravel bar by a river milky with glacial runoff in the midst of an ancient forest? That wasn’t such a bad setting either, for lines like:

“The trouble began when Darwin, absorbed in elaborating his doctrine of natural selection, lost interest also in the wider culture which had once delighted him.”

This is from a chapter called “Darwin and the Poets,” in which Farrington argues that Darwin’s intellectual development suffered from his increasingly monomaniacal focus on his theories at the expense of everything else in his life.

Maybe what old Darwin needed was a hiatus. As prolific writer Anne Lamott might put it: I’m just saying.

However. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to some mixed feelings about this Restless Nest hiatus. After two years of weekly radio deadlines, I feel a little unmoored, much as I loved being able to bask on the gravel bar without worrying about what I would write next, and when I would write it. Just as I loved the trip I took to Boston in June for my college reunion: I didn’t “have” to write about it, I just got to do it. (OK, that trip did inspire me to write one little piece for Minerva Rising’s blog about a painting in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts that is like an old friend to me.)

Mostly, I like this feeling of being alert to everything around me—without an agenda, an angle, beyond scribbled descriptions in a notebook.

What I could be doing, of course, is writing ahead. But I’ve rarely done that with the Restless Nest. Maybe it’s that name: without thinking too hard about it, I’ve gotten into the habit of writing it restlessly; thinking on the page. I want it to reflect the week in which it’s written.

And that’s what I’ve missed on this hiatus: thinking on the page. I haven’t done enough of it. For me, it is the best way to think.

But I like that I miss it.

Except when I’m basking on a gravel bar, hanging out with some pretty great guys: Alarcón, Farrington, Darwin and of course my fellow basker Rustin Thompson, aka the Restless Critic and now also Crosscut’s Digital Prospector. We’ve been seeing a LOT of movies during this summer hiatus and unlike me, Rustin has been writing constantly—don’t miss his recommendations for the large and small screens!

 

Our films, The Church on Dauphine Street, 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle and Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story are available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.

 

Hard-wired for Green

DSC00865We are hard-wired for green. It’s a phrase I heard for the first time this week, and it is lodged in my brain at the moment like an advertising jingle I secretly like. Hard-wired for green: meaning, you can strip away everything you’ve learned since birth and you will still primally, viscerally, respond like a seedling in the sun to the sight of new green growth. You will feel reassured by this evidence that the planet, or at least one bit of it, is still alive and well. You will feel energized—if these plants can grow, then I can too.

You might think I heard this in some sort of eco-oriented setting, and you’d be right, if you stretched your notion of ecology to include the complex landscape of the brain. It was the keynote speaker at the regional Alzheimer’s conference who planted the “hard-wired for green” seed in my head. Sociologist and author John Zeisel was talking about what people with Alzheimer’s don’t lose as the disease goes about its inexorable business. What they don’t lose is what is “hard-wired;” so deeply embedded that we’re born with it. Positive feelings about green, especially trees, were at the top of his list, which also included: universal facial expressions—smiles, frowns and the look of disgust; response to touch, especially anything resembling a mother’s touch; the learning and use of landmarks; and, finally, creative expression: art, poetry, music and dance.

Zeisel is a tireless advocate for the “personhood” of the person with dementia, as reflected in the title of his book, I’m Still Here—a New Philosophy of Alzheimer’s Care. His credo is to focus not on what’s lost to Alzheimer’s, but on what’s left. He likes to throw around phrases like, “People with Alzheimer’s have a human right to lead a life worth living.”

If you, like me, are one of the millions of people in the world who have seen Alzheimer’s disease up close in someone you love, this is emotionally loaded territory. Our mother lived into the very late stages of the illness, and I can attest that green trees, facial expressions and touch remained powerful for her. But as that little phrase, “hardwired for green,” settles into my brain, I am struck by the larger truths behind Zeisel’s list. By how these visceral, hardwired pleasures nurture not only those of us whose brains are ill but those of us who are well.

And here’s what I wonder: if we modern, multi-tasking humans allow ourselves to revel in green, in smiles, in human touch, in creative expression… will those primal elements be even more present for us, even more accessible, when we need them at the ends of our lives? We won’t know until we get there. But surely we’ll have a richer ride through the years.

At the other end of life, arts education is back in the news and beginning to recover its lost momentum. People are talking about how yes, the STEM subjects—Science, Technology, Engineering and Math—are crucial, but if you put the A for Art back in and call it STEAM, you add creative thinking to the mix, which might be the most powerful ingredient of all. As an apprentice in Seattle Arts & Lectures’ Writers in the Schools program, I see this every week. Poetry, music, art and dance come naturally to children who haven’t yet locked them away in some “that’s not who I am” category.

And getting back to green: that hard-wired response is front and center this time of year. For children and for all of us. As my mom often said, long after most other phrases had failed her, “Look at these trees! We live in such a beautiful place.”

Don’t miss Bill Hayes’ beautiful essay about trees published in the Sunday New York Times.

Our films, Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story, The Church on Dauphine Street and 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle are available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

Leakers

DSC00865Leakers: They sound like something out of the Walking Dead. And, in some frightening version of the future, they could be. “Leakers” are what the people who work at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation call the nuclear waste storage tanks that have been leaking. According to Crosscut journalist John Stang, there have now been 69 confirmed leakers at Hanford, including six currently believed to be leaking.  About three to six gallons per tank per day of radioactive waste, leaking into the ground, 7 to 10 miles from the Columbia River: especially unnerving now that, thanks to the federal sequester, Hanford may have to put the brakes on its efforts to stop the leakers.

What a poster-child the Leakers are for everything that’s wrong with the blunt instrument, across-the-board, Sequester approach to budget cutting: more than half the staff at Hanford could be furloughed or laid off on April 1st. Once the shining star of our cold war defenses; Hanford is now the dark star of the world’s most delicate, most important cleanup dilemma: what to do with all the waste we generated building all those warheads? And now we’re going to lay off the people who are actually willing and–God willing–able to figure this stuff out?

Governor Inslee says he’s on it. He told longtime Hanford reporter Anna King he views the leaking tanks as a problem as “urgent as if they were spilling out into his front lawn.” But Hanford is much, much more than a Washington state problem. Just ask New Mexico, where the Feds plan to ship some of the Hanford waste. There are conservationists there who are pretty upset about that plan, and who can blame them? Especially with these new Leakers stalking the news?

Our state’s poet laureate, Kathleen Flenniken, has written a chilling, beautiful book of poems about Hanford called Plume. Flenniken grew up there during the Cold War years. Her dad was a Hanford engineer. The poems are a stark testament to how far we as a country will go in demanding patriotism. At Hanford, in the 1940s, fifties, sixties, seventies, the ultimate patriotic act was silence. Silence about what was being produced there—how much, how powerful, how dangerous; silence about known levels of radioactivity in fish, milk, soil and the bodies of the people who worked on the site. Silence about consequences. About cancer. About death.

Even children were called to the cause of silent patriotism, when their own radiation levels were calculated by MRI-like scanners.  In a poem titled “Whole-body Counter, Marcus Whitman Elementary,” Flenniken writes:

“and the machine had taken me in

like a spaceship and I moved

slow as the sun through the chamber’s

smooth steel sky.

I shut my eyes again and pledged

to be still; so proud to be

a girl America could count on.”

Hanford workers paid a high price for the silent loyalty of those years. Now, a new generation is being asked to figure out what to do with what they left behind: 56 million gallons of nuclear waste, much of it so highly toxic it can only be handled by remote control.

In a poem titled “The Cold War,” Flenniken concludes:

“We called it the arms race

and there were two sides.

It was simple.”

But now it’s not. Cleanup never is.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

Post Navigation