therestlessnest

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

Archive for the category “parenting”

My Mother Was Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Journals Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

To the Nines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Restless Night

12079495_1002020523189036_4695099355839985106_nThere was a solemn three-year-old firefighter and a fierce four-year-old Batman. There were many princesses, one wearing a football helmet. There were moms dressed as witches and one dad in a hardhat carrying a cardboard model of Bertha, Seattle’s doomed supersized tunnel driller. IMG_1192There were some very sweet baby bumblebees. It was Halloween night in Columbia City, and my husband and I were there for the show.

We left a basket of candy on our front porch with a sign: “Happy Halloween! Take a few and leave some for your neighbors.” We’ll never know whether the trick or treaters did that, or whether one or a few them could not resist the temptation to empty the entire basket into their bags. What we did know is that we were too restless, this year, to sit home and wait for the doorbell to ring.

So there we were, a dozen blocks away in our neighborhood’s hopping, decked-out business district, watching what has become a wildly popular south Seattle ritual: trick or treating at the bars, restaurants, galleries and stores in rustic, red-brick Columbia City. 315398_249935491713680_5416914_nWe ordered beers at Lottie’s and stood outside, protected from the rain by the awning. We complimented the trick or treaters on their costumes and chatted with their parents. Rus took a few photos to send our children, currently living far away in Colorado and New York and busy at that hour dressing up for their respective Halloween parties.

12034366_10153835310440809_8368667048062586536_oAfter dinner at Tutta Bella, we raced up to Taproot Theatre in Greenwood to see Dracula on stage. One of our daughter’s childhood friends was in the cast, playing Lucy, the pretty ingénue who is transformed into a blood-craving vampire by the end of Act One. It was a great show.

It was a night of watching Halloween happen. We were spectators. And that was fine.

Twenty or thirty years ago, I might not have thought it would be fine, to be a Halloween spectator. I might have thought it would be sad. But this is one of the sweet treats, not tricks, that come with the passage of time. Nostalgia is part of it: I see the bumblebees and tiny Bat-men and I remember the fevered excitement of our children, putting on their costumes and getting ready for the big night. But nostalgia isn’t all of it. There’s also just a bit of relief—being a spectator is a lot less exhausting!—and there’s the feeling of newness. That’s the surprising part. Newness, not old-ness: this phase I call the Restless Nest is as surprisingly and richly new as it is nostalgic. It’s a blend. I get both: the newness of plunging into creative projects I didn’t have time for back in the bumblebee phase, and the pleasant nostalgia of remembering those years.

Recently, I was introduced at an event as the author of the blog called “The Restless Night.” I made a joke about how that sounded a bit more sinister than “The Restless Nest.” What I didn’t say is that it is all too often an apt description of how I’ve been sleeping lately. But I’ve come around, in recent years, to accept that insomnia goes hand in hand with the newness part of this phase of life. That when I’m doing new, scary things—like speaking at an event, or raising money for our film, Zona Intangible, on Kickstarter (please check out our page, watch the trailer and consider backing our movie!)—my nights are going to get restless. photo-original

“Only when we are at our most playful can divinity finally get serious with us,” Elizabeth Gilbert writes in her most recent book, Big Magic, a 273-page ode to creative risk-taking. Yes: it’s like the excitement children feel on Halloween night, as they put on their costumes and create new and different selves. It is play, but it is serious play.

Letter to New Orleans

Jesus Mary Flag dpi1Dear New Orleans: you took me in. At a time when you were still so bruised, splintered, fractured, frayed, and I showed up with nothing to offer except my eyes, ears, a pen and a notebook—you pretended you could use me. Don’t hurry away, you said. Stay awhile.

I couldn’t stay a while; I had teenagers back home. But I could and did return six times. My husband had something more to offer: his camera. What I did was to try to help him tell, not the story, but A story, a small story we happened to stumble across, about what happened to New Orleans, ten years ago this week.

the churchOur small story was about the post-Hurricane Katrina rebuilding of a church that is home to both New Orleans’ deaf Catholics and a Spanish-speaking congregation in a neighborhood layered with immigrant history. Creole, German and Italian-American carpenters, plumbers and skilled volunteers of every description showed up to help. Many of them had grown up down the block. Many had lost their own homes to Katrina. Volunteers from out of town, including a Seattle crew, were there too. Our small story became a documentary film called The Church on Dauphine Street. Dauphine_cover #1One of the first places it aired was on the New Orleans PBS station, WYES, whose studios had been badly damaged by Katrina. When we asked if the station wanted to air it again in honor of the tenth anniversary of the hurricane, they declined, saying people in New Orleans are trying hard to look forward right now, not back.

I get that. We made our first trip to New Orleans in April 2006, just a month after my mother died. My grief was still raw. One of the first things I wrote in my journal about New Orleans, which I had never before visited, was this: “Oh Mom, you would’ve loved New Orleans. Because it feels so much like another country.” My mother loved to travel. And I remember vividly the moment I stepped off the plane in Louisiana, the smell of cooking fires mixed with hot, humid air instantly reminded me of Haiti, where Mom and I had both been, two decades earlier, to visit my sister in the Peace Corps.

This is another world, I thought. And another world is what I need right now.

flood damage#1As we drove into the city, I shook off that swoon. This other world I had entered was a whole landscape of grief, gaping and gashed. Why did I smell cooking fires? How many homes were still without gas or electricity? It had been eight months since Katrina. Reminders of death and loss were everywhere—in the spray-painted numbers on empty houses; in makeshift memorials; in the eery silence of block after empty block.

By 2010, when I last visited, many—but certainly not all—of those destroyed blocks had been cleared away. But five years later, Mayor Mitch Landrieu is far from ready to pronounce his city fully healed. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports Landrieu said, quote: “Communities have to find a way to get stronger, and Katrina showed us we’re not as resilient as we need to be, and we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

I feel lucky to have witnessed one story of New Orleans getting stronger. And lucky to have been a part of it, at a time when I needed to get stronger.

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

Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Seattle: Saturday, August 29 at Seattle University. 

HBBfinalcoverJoin me on Tuesday, September 1 at 10:30 a.m. for “The Accidental Advocate,” a talk at Horizon House, 900 University Street, Seattle. Admission is free. 

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

 

 

Lost & Found Mom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Restless Report, Part Two

artist: Kim Goff-Harrington

artist: Kim Goff-Harrington

When our children were younger, my husband and I used to joke about our great fear that they might “rebel” against the creative, financially precarious example we have set by becoming stockbrokers or bankers. Didn’t happen! And so far, it doesn’t like it’s going to. This is good news, regarding all of us having a lot in common and plenty to talk about around the dinner table. Not so good, re our collective financial futures. But once you make the decision—or, more accurately, once you realize you’ve made the decision without noticing you made it—to value your time on the planet more than your money, it’s hard to go back. Three years ago, I wrote a Restless Nest about this called, “Oops, I forgot to get rich.” It cheered me up to write it in the midst of the recession, as we and our nonprofit clients struggled to stay afloat while the big bankers got their big bailout. But the central tenet of that piece—that time is worth so much more than money—holds up.

Back to the kids, who aren’t kids anymore: they’re 22 and 25, and as I reported last week, they’re currently in Eastern Europe and Colorado, doing their own restless adventuring. Neither of them is sure what will come next. My own experience and my instincts about them tell me they’re doing exactly what they should be doing. But it’s also in my job description, as a mom, to worry. Just a tiny bit.

Imagine my relief when I came across psychology professor Laurence Steinberg’s recent essay called “The Case for Delayed Adulthood.” Steinberg argues that the longer we can prolong what he calls “adolescent brain plasticity,” the more resilient and flexible our brains will be over our life span. He says it’s, quote, “important to be exposed to novelty and challenge when the brain is plastic not only because this is how we acquire and strengthen skills, but also because this is how the brain enhances its ability to profit from future enriching experiences.”

Translation: seek new and novel experiences when you’re young and you’ll enjoy your mid-life or late-life adventures all the more.

Our generation might be the first to demonstrate this principle on a populist scale. We were at just the right age when travel became affordable and widespread. We soaked up “Let’s Go Europe” and the early Lonely Planet guidebooks. We shouldered our backpacks and embraced youth hostels and cheap pensions. I was the first person in my family to get a passport, when I went to England on a scholarship at 19, during my junior year of college. Neither of my parents traveled outside North America until they were in their forties.

Decades later, I love new adventures as much as I ever did. Judging from what I see on Facebook, it looks like everyone else I know does too. We travel when we can afford to; we backpack and hike and bike. We go back to school. We try to learn languages (cursing the inevitable slowdown of plasticity in that part of our brains) or we find new creative outlets: writing, drawing, new musical instruments. God willing, we’ll keep it up into old age.

And so will our children. Our daughter is making plans to go back to South America. Our son will keep traveling as long as he can, through countries that only recently threw their doors open to Americans. According to Professor Steinberg, as long as they’re “engaged in new, demanding and cognitively stimulating activity,” their future brains—their future selves—will thank them. What great news.

Buy Her Beautiful Brain from the small or large bookstore of your choice. Find a bookstore Her_Beautiful_Brainhere. Order the Kindle version here. And don’t be shy about reviewing on Goodreads and elsewhere! 

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. http://kbcs.fm/listen/podcasts/

 

The Restless Report

DSC00865Four years ago, a word came to me: restless. 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 sexism—“I’m sure your husband’s fine but you must be a mess!”—and 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?

Four years later, thinking about what I was thinking then makes my head spin. Because here’s one thing I’ve learned: I am not the only restless one in this nest, and I’m not just talking about my husband.

Although he’s a good place to start.

“Read this,” he said on Sunday, pointing to a New York Times Opinion piece titled “Sad Dads in the Empty Nest.” It’s about how much life has changed in this generation for fathers and what that means for them when their kids leave home. Our husbands are not like our dads. Writer Liza Mundy (The Richer Sex) cites a Pew Research Center study stating that since the 1960s, fathers have nearly tripled the time they spend with their children. The number of stay-at-home dads has doubled in two decades, and nearly half of all fathers say they would stay home if they could afford it. They’re doing more housework too, though Mundy writes that women still do about two-thirds of household chores. And so, she theorizes, “the empty nest may represent for men a pure loss of a cherished presence, whereas for women it can bring sadness but also freedom and a certain relief.”

“Pure loss of a cherished presence.” Wow. I wish we women could be sad with such noble, straightforward simplicity. But it’s not fair of me to be snarky, because honestly? Mundy speaks the truth. When our daughter Claire left for college in 2007, my daily emotional diet was, precisely, sadness, freedom and a certain relief. Missing her was a constant, sad ache. Freedom came more gradually, as I found that the ache was creating a space, and into that space moved a long-neglected, freedom-loving friend: the desire to write. Relief came in the form of a lightened schedule. Our son Nick was still in high school, Rus and I had plenty of work, but juggling three peoples’ daily events was somehow a snap compared to juggling four.

By the time Nick left for college in 2010, I had earned an MFA in creative writing and written a Her_Beautiful_Brainpolished draft of my memoir, Her Beautiful Brain. The nest was not empty. It was restlessly busy with a capital R.

And now, four years later, we’ve downsized to a new nest and adjusted to the comings and goings of the truly restless people in this family: our young adult children. They are both college graduates. They’ve both lived independently and stopped in at the nest on occasion. Right now, they are in Colorado and Eastern Europe, respectively. When they bounce back to Seattle, I’m sure they’ll touch down here. And we’ll welcome them. And we’ll applaud their restlessness. It’s what they should be doing. It’s what we should be doing.

Alchemy

UnknownHigh on the list of words that make me twitch due to overuse is the word “alchemy.” Early this morning, there it was on the page, ready to pounce on my nerves. But this time, I found myself—not twitching, perhaps because it appeared in the last line of a poem by Rumi. It is hard to accuse a writer dead for more than seven centuries of tedious trendiness.

Rumi’s cryptic phrase was this: “The alchemy of a changing life is the only truth.”

It’s the end of a poem of flirtation, of courtship. In the poem, Rumi playfully assumes the voice of King Solomon speaking to messengers sent by Queen Sheba. Solomon tells the messengers to scold Sheba for sending him expensive gifts. He suggests that the wealth of her throne “keeps her from passing through the doorway that leads to a true majesty.” He concludes by reminding her of the story of Joseph, who sat at the bottom of a well until he “reached to take the rope that rose/to a new understanding. The alchemy/of a changing life is the only truth.”

I had to refresh myself on the story of Joseph. Most important point: Joseph got thrown into that well by his ever-jealous brothers. They only tossed him a rope when it occurred to them that they could sell him as a slave to some passing merchants, pocket the money, and still go home and tell their doting father that his favorite son was dead.

Being sold to those traveling salesmen changed young Joseph’s life, because they in turn sold him to an Egyptian, who happened to be in charge of the Pharoah’s palace guard. And that’s how a poor shepherd boy moved on up into the royal court of Egypt.

Truth: Joseph got thrown in a well. Alchemy: talk about your life-changing moment! Reaching to take the rope: yes, he did that, because it was preferable to dying a slow death at the bottom of a well. But as far as he knew, the rope was not leading him anywhere good. Even though he’d had those big dreams about how his brothers would someday bow down to him.

So: I read the word “alchemy” at six in the morning, and this is the garden path I go down, from Rumi to a Bible story that most scholars agree is one of the least credible of them all. Why? Because there was something about the way Rumi put it that made me think of all the young people I know whose lives are changing, right now, by the minute. Some of them are graduating from high school or college: and yes, that’s big, but often it’s just the first step in an ongoing, protracted process of—here we go—alchemy.

Alchemy is a word that, in Rumi’s time, most commonly meant a magical way to change ordinary metals into gold. Merriam-Webster says that medieval philosophers sometimes also used it to mean the discovery of a universal cure for disease. Over the centuries, it has come to signify the transformation of something ordinary into something special, or any sort of mysterious change.

As I write, my daughter is sleeping in a tent on the edge of an Idaho lake, on her way to spend 10394488_10201937267784962_5278684326381334855_nthe summer mending trails and breaking trails in Colorado. Last summer she got a taste of this work, and it made her want more. It made her want it more than she wanted to return to a desk job. She’s living the alchemy of a changing life. Embracing it, in a way that we older adults often forget how to do. Meanwhile, our freshly graduated son is working two jobs, saving money to travel in the fall. He’s not even sure where yet. And two nephews are graduating from high school. That’s just the tip of the iceberg of young people in my life, and I’m sure you know plenty too.

I think the best gift we can give them is to marvel at the alchemy of their changing lives. Cheer them on, but stay out of the way. Often, they make it look so easy. But don’t you remember? The truth is that it’s as hard as climbing out of a well.

Need a little Rumi in your life? Order Coleman Barks’ Essential Rumi from your favorite independent bookstore 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: http://kbcs.fm/listen/podcasts/
 

 

 

Post Navigation