therestlessnest

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

Archive for the category “Peru”

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.

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From Sun to Sun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zona Intangible

Diggers little boy  Outside Lima, Peru, on the steep, sandy hills at the upper perimeters of the newest handmade settlements, there are signs everywhere that say, “Zona Intangible.” (“In-tan-hee-bley,” in Spanish.) They are billboard-sized, meant to be read from a distance. What they mean is: Don’t build your house here. Zona Intangible1This zone is not to be touched. It is too unstable. Too high. The roads will never reach it. Water, sewers, electric lights—no way. None of those tangibles will be available to you, up here in the intangible zone, so don’t build here. Just don’t do it. And yet people do. Every day, another young couple, dreaming of having their own tangible home, takes a shovel and a hammer and four pre-made walls and heads up the hill to find an unclaimed spot.

Zona Intangible. If your mind naturally bends toward metaphor, it’s hard not to see a dozen different storylines in those signs. One: the people who travel up these hills with their shovels are people who own very little that is tangible. All they bring to the Zona are their most powerful, but intangible, possessions: their love for each other, their stamina, their faith. Their belief in a better future.

If, like me, you’re a visitor, a foreigner from a place where most of us have way too many tangibles, it is tempting to romanticize such bare-bones simplicity. To long to somehow find such a Zona Intangible. But we can’t do it. Not by the same steep path.

Our ways into our own intangible zones are at once more readily accessible and less so. Prayer. Meditation. Imagination. All intangible, all free, and all so undervalued in our tangible-centric world as to cause visible, physical discomfort when you bring them up in polite company. We want our children to major in the STEM subjects, because we want them to have tangibly rewarding futures. We converse freely about the tangible challenges of our daily lives—traffic, the high cost of everything, the miseries of bureaucracies like health insurance and taxes—because that is where we comfortably, communally dwell: in the safely tangible world.

Lima has become an increasingly glamorous tourist destination. The top restaurant in Latin America is not in Rio or Buenos Aires; it’s in Lima. In fact, three of the top five restaurants are in Lima, which is the third largest city in the hemisphere, after Mexico City and São Paulo. Lima is also known for its luxury LarcoMar shopping mall, carved out of a cliff above the Pacific Ocean, offering an endless parade of tangible treats and upscale people-watching.

Sometimes I wish I were content to stay, always, in the safely tangible world. But the Zona Intangible beckons. I want to know: what is it like to have such faith in God that you can walk up that hill with a shovel and build your own house and make a life? What is it like to walk down to mass every Sunday morning and get down on your knees and give thanks for your four walls and dirt floor? And how dare any observer call that misguided or ignorant, when in fact it requires a daily dose of courage so strong few of us could stomach it?

Our Kickstarter page for our film, Zona Intangible, is now live. Here’s the link. Whether or not you are able to donate, please help us spread the word! 

HBBfinalcoverOn November 1 at 3pm, I’ll be reading from Her Beautiful Brain at Elliott Bay Books with fellow She Writes Press author Nina McKissock, author of the luminous 51NYhLAG7FL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_From Sun to Sun: a Hospice Nurse Reflects on the Art of Dying

Dateline Máncora

IMG_1585There are only so many ways to describe a beautiful beach. The true beauty of it, for writers and readers, is the way it allows your mind to travel lightly, far and wide, or to venture deeply and with great absorption, as you wish or as you dare, always returning to the anchor of the beauty before you. The surprise of it, on this trip, is that our beach is in Peru.

Peru is the Inca Trail, the glorious Andes, sprawling, sleepless Lima. It is also one of the most ecologically diverse countries in the world. From where I’m sitting now in Máncora, on the north coast, the Amazon basin is not far away. Nor are the snowy high sierras. But this coastal landscape is a rugged desert edged by a strip of long, curving bays and beaches.

We came to Máncora because it is a town my great-uncle and his family lived in for a year in the 1950s. It was a dramatic change from their elegant Lima home. My cousin Andy remembers Máncora as an 11-year-old’s backwater paradise, where he played in the dusty hills and on the sublime beach. We are in Peru to wrap up filming on our documentary, Zona Intangible, which was inspired by my great-uncle, who lived here for two decades and was a pioneer of Peru’s fishmeal industry. The film won’t be all about fishmeal or all about my uncle; it will, mostly, tell the story of a handmade city outside Lima where a clinic on a dusty back street bears his name and where the notion of what home is has taken on a new meaning. Is home a one-room shack on a hill of sand? A house in a fishing village where your father has decided you’ll live for this one year? Is it where your family lives, or is it where they came from?

Máncora is an easy-going town; a surfer’s paradise; the kind of place people roll into and stay longer than they thought they would. Our hotel—EcoLodge Máncora—is owned and run by French ex-pats. Much tinier than its name implies, it feels more like an old-fashioned guesthouse, the kind of place Graham Greene might have stayed, cross-bred with a tree-house that just kept getting bigger. The rambling “hostel” where we watched the Superbowl (Seattle friends: I will say nothing more on that front, I promise) featured a swimming pool, a ping-pong table, a cavernous bar with a big screen and many guests who appeared barely old enough to travel on their own. Maybe some of them will stay and make this their home for a while.

Rustin and I started our marriage living out of backpacks and traveling around the world for ten months. So sometimes, traveling feels a bit like an emotional home for us. A place where we’re comfortable together. Trips like this one—where we’re working for ourselves (Zona Intangible) and for others (the University of Washington’s Dept. of Global Health, which is doing amazing work in Peru) and also vacationing (the beach) feel natural to us. But, unlike during that first year of our marriage, we now do have a home, and it’s in Seattle. And as we near the end of this trip, we’re looking forward to getting back to it. Cold weather and all.

My Introduction to Memoir Writing class at Seattle Central College is now full! Next session will be in Fall 2015.

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

I had a great conversation with Women in Film Seattle President Virginia Bogert that she turned into a member profile of yours truly. Thanks, Virginia!

 

 

 

 

Brain Museum

ImageJust when I thought I was done writing about the brain, there I was in Lima, Peru, standing face to face with an actual brain floating in a glass globe.

I was in a small museum called “The Brain Museum.” Although I have visited many other quirky, out-of-the-way sites in Peru in the past month, I truly did not intend to visit this one. I was quite sure my Peru agenda had nothing to do with Alzheimer’s disease, my mom, her brain or brains in general.

My husband and I have been in Peru working on a documentary film project that has to do with a clinic named after my great-uncle, who lived here for 25 years. But we’re also doing a few days of filming for a global health fellowship program affiliated with the University of Washington. And that’s how I found myself face to face with a floating brain, the focal point of an assemblage sculpture called “Custodia, Estudio 1,” created by artist Jose Luis Herrera Gianino.

A custodia—or “monstrance” in English—is a glass container on a stand that is used in some Catholic churches to display the communion host, or wafer, representing the bread Jesus broke and shared with his disciples at the Last Supper. “This is my body, broken for you,” Jesus said. “Take, eat, in remembrance of me.”

In earlier eras, a custodia was sometimes used to display relics: bits of the bone, hair or clothing of saints.

Here, floating in front of me, was the most intimate relic imaginable of one anonymous human being, whose body was long ago broken but whose brain had been preserved—symmetrical, intact, rippling with all the hills and valleys which were once rich with memories and feelings and insights.

And here, surrounding me, were walls lined with preserved slices of hundreds of brains, most of them afflicted with frightening diseases: Cystisercosis (tapeworms), Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s.

There were other relics, too: brains that grew the wrong way, or too much, or not enough.

The Brain Museum was the archive of Dr. Oscar Trelles Montes, founder of Peru’s National Institute of Neurological Sciences. His patients came from all over the country to see him, because he was the only doctor in Peru who knew anything at all about their strange and distressing symptoms. He persuaded many of them to donate their brains to research after death.

I have participated in Alzheimer’s research. I have seen PET scans, MRI scans and many other images of the human brain. But certainly, I had never stood in a room lined with neatly sliced and preserved brains. And certainly I had never stared down a brain afloat in a glass globe, mounted on a bronze stand.

In an artist’s statement on his London gallery’s website, Herrera cites truth and faith as two of his abiding themes. The truth is that we are beings who reside in bodies; beings whose faith, attributes, loves and hates are all filed, mysteriously and invisibly, in the pink folds of a soft, three-pound organ called the brain.

And if one of my own abiding themes, inspired by my mother’s Alzheimer’s disease, has been to wonder whether we are still ourselves when our brains are damaged or changed, then how presumptuous of me to think that this theme would not follow me everywhere I go. How dismissive to think that in a rapidly developing country like Peru, brain research would not also be a priority. In fact, Peru’s neuroscientists have a particularly fertile area to explore: the neurogenetics of a population with pre-European roots that date back thousands of years.

Once again, I was humbled by all I didn’t know: about the brain, about science, about the world and this corner of it. And every time this happens to me—this experience of being humbled, surprised, enlightened, all in one instant—I understand all over again: this is the very best reason to travel.

Give yourself the New Year’s gift of writing memoir. Register now for my non-credit (all about inspiration, not about stress) Intro to Memoir Writing class at Seattle Central Community College. Six Monday nights. Starts January 6, 2014. 

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.

photo taken in Ayacucho, Peru, by the Restless Critic, aka Rustin Thompson.

The Intangible Zone

Zona Intangible1 High on a dusty hill outside Lima, a sign rippled in the wind: “Zona Intangible,” it said. In-tan-gi-blé, in Spanish, but the literal meaning is the same: untouchable. The Untouchable Zone. For a minute, I thought it might mean there were dangerous chemicals buried there, or live electrical wires, or something else it would be very dangerous to touch.

But no: what the sign meant was: don’t try to build your house here.

Just a few hundred yards downhill, we watched a few family groups hacking level spaces in the soft sand. One family had some pre-nailed walls stacked nearby: their future one-room home, at the ready.  Another young couple let their two-year-old son take a turn with the shovel.

This is the uphill edge of Manchay, a sprawling community of about 100,000 people on the outskirts of Lima. It is one of many asentamientos humanos, human settlements, that have sprung up around Peru’s capital city, where one out of every three of the country’s 30 million people now live.

On a first visit to Manchay, it is very hard to imagine why anyone would want to live in this place. Most of the roads are unpaved, churning up constant clouds of dust, which coats everything, including the occasional brave flower garden or struggling tree.

And yet: there is another kind of Zona Intangible here.

Manchay was founded by people whose driving desire was to live in peace. Most of them came from a landscape that could not have been more different from this one: the green valleys of the Andes, glittering with glacier-fed streams that watered their fields and pastures. They came from families that had lived in those valleys for hundreds of years. They spoke Quechua or Aymara, not Spanish. Their food, clothing, music, art and traditions bore little resemblance to the coastal, urban culture of Lima. And yet they came, by the thousands, to this bone-dry moonscape, because their mountain world had become a battle zone. In the 1980s, the people of the Andes found themselves caught in the crossfire of violent guerrilla warfare between terrorist groups—most notoriously the MRTA and the Shining Path, who had decided to make the Andean provinces their stronghold—and Peru’s military, who mistakenly assumed the local farmers were all terrorist sympathizers.  According to the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 69,280 people, most of them Quechua-speaking civilians, died violently during the conflict.

Those who made it to Manchay considered themselves lucky to be alive. They built houses, by hand, from whatever materials they could find. They persuaded water trucks to climb up from Lima. Gradually, they opened and filled churches, schools, markets, small businesses, a health clinic operating out of a school bus.

They paid a high price to live in this Zona Intangible of peace and safety and hope for the future, and they value these intangibles in a way most of us have never had to.

What this meant for us as visitors was this: once we began to meet and talk to the people of Manchay, we began to see this new, hand-made city with different eyes. The human need for peace may not be something you can hold in your hand, but through the dust and noise and lively commerce of a brand-new city like Manchay, it is palpable. It is visible. And it gave us hope.

Radio lovers: The Restless Nest will be back on KBCS.fm (91.3 fm in the Seattle area), starting November 26, on Tuesdays at 7:45 a.m. Podcasts available.

 

 

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