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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.

 

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#Enough

th          You know how it is. You don’t want to feel numb. You know that numbness is just pain postponed. Novocained. You know that, in order to get through this, you’ve got to feel.

And so you go about your day. You get in the car. You turn on the radio. Some of the speakers are inspiring, Donald Trump is horrible, but none of them are quite breaking through your numbed skin.

It’s the victims and those who grieve them, of course, who finally do break through. It’s the young man talking about frantically texting his 20-year-old best friend. It’s the front-page grid of faces: so many beautiful young people, smiling, being silly, being their young selves. It’s the story that writer Dan Savage told on the radio, choking up as he told it, of Brenda Marquez McCool, a single mother of 11 and cancer survivor, who died because she stood between the Orlando killer and her son Isaiah. At 2 in the morning at a gay nightclub, she saved the life of her son: as Savage pointed out, a previous generation would have found it stunning that she was even there, with her gay son, his adult life just beginning and hers beginning again after cancer. Or so they had hoped.

And then it was the two Sandy Hook parents on the radio, a mom and a dad, each of whom lost a child in the Newtown, CT school massacre on December 14, 2012. For more than three years, Nicole Hockley, who lost her son Dylan, and Mark Barden, who lost his son Daniel, have been on the radio, on the stump, online, in the papers and on TV, trying to get assault weapons banned.

“Gun violence is preventable,” Hockley and Barden both said, several times in several different ways. Gun violence is preventable, I repeated to myself as I went for a tearful walk. It’s not cancer. It’s not Alzheimer’s disease, which took my mom, too young. We can’t ban plaques and tangles from our brains. We can’t bar cancerous cells from invading our bodies. But we can ban assault weapons. Here’s the Sandy Hook Promise website. Give what you can to help them. Send an encouraging tweet or note to Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, who as I write is filibustering the Senate in support of gun control. Tell your senators to join him. (Mine is: Hats off to tireless WA Senator Patty Murray!)

A few months ago, I rented a car at San Francisco International Airport. I was assigned a stop-sign red VW bug, which made me feel happy and confident as I drove down to my friend’s house in Palo Alto. The next day, wearing a red dress that matched the car—pure coincidence! So Californian, so karmic!—I drove a few miles more to meet another friend. When I returned to the car, it wouldn’t start. I tried everything I could think of. Finally, desperately, I called my husband back in Seattle to see if he had any last-minute ideas, before I called a tow truck.

“Did you try putting your foot on the brake while you turned the key?” he asked.

Had not occurred to me. Not for a second.

I put my foot on the brake, and the car started right up.

Sometimes you just have to put your foot on the brake.

Just stop fearing people who aren’t like you, so you can start getting to know them.

Just stop the Senate down for a filibuster, like Senator Murphy: so that we can start getting assault weapons out of the hands of would-be murderers.

Just. Stop.

Upcoming reading: June 23, 7pm, with Hollis Giammatteo at King’s Books in Tacoma. And an upcoming screening too: our documentary film, Zona Intangible, premieres June 26, 6pm at the Rainier Arts Center in Seattle.

 

What We Say Matters

IMG_1415I’m thinking about the power of words this week, even more than I usually do. A word can be a weapon. A word can be a force for good. Words can heal or hurt. In a few days, I’ll be participating in a conference organized by the University of Washington School of Nursing called Elder Friendly Futures, and one thing we’ll talk about is words: how the words we choose define—no, become—what we think. And not just which words, but exactly how we say them: Elder can connote respect—or decrepitude. Friendly can sound saccharine—or inviting. And what about Futures? It’s the “s” that is intriguing, isn’t it, with its suggestion that there are many possible futures that could be friendly for elders, not just one.

Vice President Joe Biden is an elder. Perhaps barely so, by today’s ever lengthening standards. He is 72 years old. But more than his actual age, it is his scars and the way he wears them that give him Elder status. This is a man whose wife and daughter were killed in a car crash when he was 29 years old and newly elected to the Senate. Now, more than 40 years later, he is again freshly grieving: this time, the death of his son Beau from brain cancer. How does he keep going? What makes his life meaningful? Faith. Service. In other words, the ability to see the larger world outside your own small world, even when your eyes are clouded with tears. For most of us, this is a learned skill, and the price of such an education is high, sometimes higher than we can bear.Joe_Biden_Stephen_Colbert_YouTube_img

In a riveting TV interview, Biden told CBS Late Show host Stephen Colbert about a quote from Danish philosopher Søren Kirkegaard that his wife Jill taped to his mirror: “Faith sees best in the dark.” Biden used it as a way to talk about faith as the place you can go: even, or perhaps especially, when you feel like your faith is imperfect, or gone altogether. It seemed important to Biden to present his faith humbly. Modestly. He chose words like solace and ritual. It was a moment in which words, carefully but honestly selected, drew us in: whether or not we share Biden’s faith, whether or not we want him to run for president.

There was another public profession of faith last week that was exactly the opposite: Kentucky court clerk Kim Davis, jailed for refusing to grant marriage licenses to LGBTQ couples, triumphantly proclaimed, on her release, that she wanted to “give God the glory,” because, “his people have rallied, and you are a strong people.”

What she meant was clear: her God is not about finding people when they’re lost in the darkness of grief. Her God is about taking sides. Kicking people out of the club. Words are powerful. When Davis said, “you are a strong people,” she meant people who believe, as she does, that gay marriage is wrong.

Maybe Davis, who is 50, will choose different words when she attains the hard-earned status of elder, in about 20 years. Maybe not. But as I think ahead to the Elder Friendly Futures Conference and ponder what those futures might look like, Joe Biden’s empathy and wisdom give me hope.

second-wind-cover1In his stereotype-busting book Second Wind: Navigating the Passage to a Slower, Deeper, and More Connected Life (think about the positive power of those words: slower—deeper—more connected), author Dr. Bill Thomas writes, “Elders have access to a reservoir of feelings and access to a level of emotional control and insight that far exceeds that available to adults… At this moment in history for both cultural and planetary reasons we need elders more than ever before.”

IMG_1075Yes. And when we realize how much we are going to need their wisdom and insight as we face all kinds of global and local challenges, our elders’ futures take on a whole new importance. As does the importance of nurturing our own wisdom, as we move toward our own elder futures, which I truly hope will be friendly.

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!

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

 

 

Hallelujah

Unknown“Love is not a victory march,” wrote Leonard Cohen. “It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.” And it plays in my head, this lyrical fragment, quite often. (The Jeff Buckley version, may he rest in peace.) I find it profound and beautiful and even hopeful, though my sense of what it means changes from day to day. When I hear it, or think of it, I picture two people who love each other, embracing. Perhaps crying. One has just forgiven the other, I imagine. Or one has just been marked for death, or a long departure. Something is broken. Some cosmic chord has gone cold. Nothing could be further from what they are feeling than victory. And yet they are more intensely aware of their love, in this instant, than they have ever been.

The name of the Buckley album that includes Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is “Grace.” A difficult concept if there ever was one: spiritual grace, that is, as opposed to ballet or Mozart or Matisse. But though it may be difficult to describe, there are moments in life when grace is visible. Palpable.

And the last two weeks have been full of those moments.

“I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you,” sad Nadine Collier to the expressionless face on the video monitor, the face of the man accused of murdering her mother, Ethel Lance, and eight others at Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17th. jones_pict

“I forgive you.” Startling words. Powerful words. Over and over again, the family members of the nine who were killed that day said those words. And in doing so, they gave all of us the gift of witnessing grace. A broken, beautiful Hallelujah.

Fast forward a handful of days. The hallelujah train began to pick up some serious steam, as it headed right for the United States Supreme Court.

First came the Affordable Care Act: saved from its umpteenth and, God willing, final court challenge, on a six to three vote. Then the 1968 Fair Housing Act—47 years old, and still fighting off threats to the very basic notion that housing discrimination on the basis of race is indeed against the law—it, too, was saved, on a five to four vote.

And then on Friday, came Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s grace-filled, historic phrase: Equal Dignity. Kennedy’s explanation of the high court’s ruling that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage was long and often poetic. Quote, “As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death,” Kennedy wrote, and in conclusion, “They ask for equal dignity under the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

But there was still more grace to come that morning. After applauding the Supreme Court’s ruling, President Obama was off to South Carolina to attend the funeral of Reverend Clementa Pinckney. And when I turned on the radio and heard him end his eulogy by singing, a capella, in a voice as out-of-tune as my own, “Amazing Grace”—I laughed and cried.

Grace is like that. “How sweet the sound:” yes, even when love feels cold and broken by nine senseless deaths. Sometimes—as it was on Friday at the Supreme Court and in South Carolina—love is everything, all at once: it is a victory march, triumphing over hate, and it is cold and broken and grief-stricken, and yet it is still a resounding Hallelujah.

This just in: my OpEd in the Wall Street Journal on volunteering for research, published Monday, June 29.

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

Diagnosis

IMG_1669 Imagine: your doctor knows you have cancer, but chooses not to tell you or your family. Unthinkable, isn’t it? And yet consider this: fewer than half of all seniors diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or their caregivers are actually told of the diagnosis.

I just spent three days in the other Washington at the national Alzheimer’s Association’s Advocacy Forum. IMG_1661I was one of a thousand volunteers. We were loaded up with all kinds of facts and figures to use in conversations with all 12 of our Washington state senators and representatives and their super-smart aides. But that factoid about diagnosis is the one that stuck with me. Really? Really: 55 percent of seniors diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers are not told.

If the issue was that 55 percent of doctors assume someone with dementia would not remember their diagnosis, so why bother, then surely they would at least tell that person’s family caregiver. But no, in 55 percent of cases, they don’t even do that.

I can tell you many dire and alarming facts about Alzheimer’s disease. For example, it is now the most expensive disease in America. This year, we will spend 226 billion dollars on caring for people with Alzheimer’s. That number is expected to soar to 1.1 trillion in 2050.

Two thirds of those dollars come from Medicare and Medicaid. EndAlzThe other third comes out of the pockets of overwhelmed families. None of this is sustainable, which is why one thousand of us were on Capitol Hill trying to make the case for funding research now—the goal is effective treatment, prevention or even a cure by 2025—so that we won’t be facing demographic and economic disaster later.

But that business about diagnosis not only got my attention, it got the attention of just about everyone we talked to. Why? Because it screams, louder than dollars, everything that is wrong with the way we view Alzheimer’s disease. It says: we have no reason to hope. There’s nothing to offer people who are diagnosed. Better they continue to muddle along, not knowing. None of which is true. There is hope, aka progress on the research front, and there will be more, especially if we start adequately funding the scientists who are working as hard as they can on everything from genetic decoding of the disease, an area where huge progress has been made in recent years, to finding ways to reduce or even dissolve plaques or otherwise alter brain chemistry. And it is not better for families to muddle along, not by a long shot. A diagnosis of dementia calls for both long-term planning and short-term safety and lifestyle changes, including emotional support for both the person with Alzheimer’s and their family members.

A doctor’s decision not to share a diagnosis is so redolent of the bad old days, when they could get away with being that patronizing. When patients were not perceived as having rights, or even dignity. And it evokes shame and stigma: surely you wouldn’t want to speak out loud about an illness like Alzheimer’s, now would you?

One of our goals on Capitol Hill was to persuade lawmakers to support the HOPE for Alzheimer’s Act, which was introduced for the fourth time this year. The HOPE Act ensures that Medicare patients who are newly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease are not only told of their diagnosis, they will have a detailed discussion with a health care professional about treatment and support options. Pretty simple. Pretty important.

When my mom was finally diagnosed after nearly a decade of wondering what was wrong with her brain, of feeling that shame and stigma that it might somehow be “her fault,” such a conversation would have been a miracle. We had no idea what to expect or what we should do. It’s long past time to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

And thankfully for us, my sister had the good sense to call the Alzheimer’s Association.

For more Alzheimer’s stories, news and resources, check out the AlzWA Blog, where this piece is also posted. 

HBBfinalcoverUpcoming readings: April 1, 7pm, St. James Cathedral Pastoral Outreach Center, 907 Columbia Street, Seattle. 

April 30, 7pm: The Regulator Bookshop, Durham, NC

May 26, 7pm: 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 Accidental Lobbyist

EndAlzWe were five for five. The first five legislative aides we visited all had personal connections to Alzheimer’s disease: three grandmothers, one aunt and one best friend’s grandmother. This could work, I thought. We could build support, one aide’s grandma at a time!

“Building support,” also known as “lobbying,” is a word that has acquired a lot of baggage in the last five or fifty or 250 years, depending on how you’re counting.

“Did you lay some sports tickets on the desk when you walked in?” my son asked.

“Yeah, right,” I said. “Doesn’t quite work like that on the nonprofit side of the fence.” But the question did make me wince. Because in truth? The day I spent walking around Olympia with a purple sash tied, beauty-pageant style, from shoulder to waist made me proud to be a volunteer lobbyist. I was one of 105 humble foot soldiers who showed up to help the Alzheimer’s Association make the rounds. Most of us were rookies. Fortunately, we were matched up with experienced staffers who’ve done this before. My team leader was Janet Ceballos, social services manager for the Western and Central Washington chapter. Seven times, I watched her approach a state lawmaker’s reception desk, her face friendly but determined, her palm-sized note card handy in case she needed it.

We weren’t on a hard-sell mission. In 2014, state lawmakers passed a bill establishing an Alzheimer’s Disease Working Group, whose job it is to come up with ways our state can cope with the predicted dramatic increases in the need for dementia care over the next few decades. We may not be Florida, but we have a sizable Baby Boomer cohort that is likely to stay right here in Washington as they age. This will be a nightmare if we don’t plan ahead. So our goal, as we walked from one office to another, was to remind lawmakers of how important it is to continue to support this work.

What you never know, when you bring up Alzheimer’s, is whether the person you’re talking to has any personal connection to the disease. What is increasingly clear is that just about everybody does.

“This feels good,” said one member of my team. “It’s democracy in action.”

Yes it is, and yes it did feel good: to be making personal connections instead of sending emails or “liking” Facebook posts. (Check out these happy pictures on the Chapter blog site: good feelings all around!)

And about those purple sashes: at first, I was hesitant. Weren’t they just a bit too Miss America-esque? But then I noticed how my fellow volunteers stood up a little straighter and walked a little taller once they got their sash on. And there was no mistaking what the sash meant: “Alzheimer’s Association” was written loud and proud across that purple. And as we walked, I thought of my mom, who lived with Alzheimer’s disease for a long time, and the looks people would sometimes give her, if she said something odd or repeated herself or couldn’t add up her change. I thought of how I would feel: first embarrassed, then angry that I was allowing myself to feel embarrassed. So it felt good to wear the sash: for Mom. For all those times when I allowed the stigma of Alzheimer’s to sting.

Momandme1998     Just wearing that sash might have been the best message we volunteers could deliver to Olympia. Because what we were saying, to the aides whose grandmothers have the disease and to everybody else, is: we are done with shame. We’re done with stigma. We’re ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work on that state plan, and we hope you are too.

HBBfinalcoverBuy Her Beautiful Brain (4th on the Ravenna Third Place Books’ current bestseller list!) from the bookstore of your choice. Find a bookstore here. Order the Kindle version here

Upcoming reading: Friday, March 6, 7pm, Mt. Baker Park Presbyterian Church, Seattle. It’s a group reading–poetry, fiction, memoir–and I’ll be sharing new work from my next book (working title: The Observant Doubter.)  

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.

Optimism is Possible

IMG_0670It’s Election Day. Whatever your persuasions, you know and I know the news will not all be good. So: based on my just-concluded road trip—aka four weeks and 4500 miles of unscientific research—I am here to spread a little optimism.

My husband and I left Seattle on the last Monday in September and returned on the last Monday in October. Our destination was Salida, Colorado, where our daughter just finished a five-month season with the Southwest Conservation Corps. Reason for Optimism Number One: did you know there are more than 100 Conservation Corps all over the country, employing strong young people to take care of our wilderness areas in all kinds of ways? All summer long, they build and repair trails and camps in national parks and forests. Most are paid an Americorps stipend: barely enough to get by on. So as you gnash you teeth waiting for election news, be thankful for the more than 26 thousand young adults who serve our country in this invisible way.

We took our time getting to and from Colorado. One of the things we wanted to do was explore a bit via bicycle—not in any mega-mile way, like the supertough riders we saw out on Highway 101, cycling through the California Redwoods in a driving rainstorm—but in more modest jaunts around towns we didn’t know well. Which brings me to Reason for Optimism Number Two: good, long, well-marked bike paths can now be found in places you might never have expected. Like Laramie, Wyoming. Who knew how great it would feel, after hours in the car, to get on our bikes and ride along the Laramie River while the sun set? We also biked trails in Bend and Sisters, Oregon; Boulder and Salida, Colorado; Moab, Utah; Tahoe, Sacramento, Berkeley and San Francisco. Biking is such a great way to see and experience a place you don’t know: faster than walking, slower than driving; you can get a sense of your surroundings very quickly. And it made me so happy to see—and experience for myself—safe places to ride in so many towns and cities.

Just as it made me happy to visit a surprising number of independent bookstores. We sought them out and found them, thriving, throughout the West. Yes, there are “book deserts,” where the big mega-sellers have driven out every store except the tiniest, used-books-only holes-in-the-wall. But—and here it comes, Reason for Optimism Number Three—MANY readers in the West still buy their books from lively local shops, including: Broadway Books in Portland, Paulina Springs Books in Sisters, Oregon, Second Story Books in Laramie, Boulder Book Store in Boulder, Bookhaven in Salida, Back of Beyond Books in Moab, Utah, Book Passage in San Francisco, Northtown Books in Arcata and Gold Beach Books on the Oregon Coast. (For me, as a new author, the frosting on the cake was not only the honor and pleasure of reading from Her Beautiful Brain at two of these stores—Broadway Books and Book Passage—but also getting a friendly reception from staffers at every one of the others, who all took the time to chat and accept a review copy of my book.) 149372_10204211578223856_7742753382844932935_n

Finally—the National Parks. Reason for Optimism Number Four: not only do we have national parks, we have 401 of them. No matter how hard we try, we’ll never run out of new national parks to visit. We went to Grand Teton for the first time this year, and it was a highlight of our trip. But we also visited some much smaller and less famous parks: Great Basin in Eastern Nevada, with its groves of ancient bristlecone pines, the longest living trees on earth; the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado, nearly as deep as two Empire State buildings, swathed in an early snow flurry. And Golden Gate—yes, it’s a national park, and guess what? You can get to it via a gorgeous new bike trail along the San Francisco Bay. Maybe after picking up a good book at Book Passage.

Her_Beautiful_BrainBuy Her Beautiful Brain from the independent bookstore of your choice. Find a bookstore here. Order the Kindle version here.

Grand Tetons/Snake River IPA photo by Rustin Thompson

 

The Other Washington

IMG_1174It’s the heavyweight red bicycle I’ll remember: how I swiped a credit card and punched in a code and out it popped from its parking spot in front of the Department of Labor.

Then, freedom. Off I went, up the long, gravel paths of the Mall, dodging the Sunday crowds, feeling the breeze I couldn’t quite catch when I was walking.

The Other Washington is always full of tourists in the summertime, despite the tropical heat and humidity, which on this visit was blessedly below normal. Hot or not, I like being there with the tourists. My fellow tourists: I’m one too, even though I’ve visited many times over the years, since one of my closest friends lives in the Virginia suburbs.

What fascinates me is how my own D.C. tastes have changed. How much more of a cornball, capitol-loving kind of tourist I’ve become over time.

I was a college student when I first visited Washington, D.C., in the post-Watergate late seventies. Patriotism was unthinkable. The protest era was over, and what, we thought at that cynical time, had those marches achieved? The only government building I wanted to visit was the National Gallery.

Nearly four decades later, D.C. has changed and so have I.

On my first afternoon, I visited the Library of Congress, which I love for its over-the-top tile frescoes honoring muses, poets, philosophers and scholars; its gold-leaf proclamations that “Knowledge is Power.” But this time, I found a hidden gem: a tiny plain gallery down the hall from the basement shop, where a small but powerful selection of news photos of the 1963 March on Washington were on display.

When you see those pictures of a quarter million people filling the Mall, all eyes turned toward the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps—when fifty years have passed and the words of his “I Have a Dream” speech still resound—and then you step outside and take in the vast sweep from the Capitol building down to the distant monuments—then you see Washington D.C. a little differently.

One of the photos was taken from behind Lincoln’s massive stone shoulder, as if he was looking down on the crowds, blinking back a hundred years worth of tears.

Hard to believe his life ended in a little house on 10th Street, across from Ford’s Theatre where he was fatally shot. Inspired by the Library of Congress exhibition, I finally went to see it.

It was a long walk up Pennsylvania Avenue, past the statues outside the National Archives, with their solemn motto, “Past is Prologue.” Past the Department of Justice and the FBI. Across busy E Street to quiet Tenth.

A group of foreign students stood outside the Petersen House, where Lincoln died early in the morning of April 15, 1865. They studied the plaque. They quietly snapped photos on their phones. Clearly, these young people understood history better than I did at their age. They understood the notion of past as prologue.

A few days later, riding my big red rental bike around the Washington Monument, I saw many more groups of students, some of them strolling with their parents. I saw buses from all over the country. I saw veterans making their way towards memorials to the Vietnam War, the Korean War, World War Two.

So much emotion courses through our capitol on any given day, I thought as I pedaled. Some days—like the day of the March on Washington or the day Lincoln died—it’s a collective tsunami of emotion. But ordinary D.C. days are moving too. And I’m always happy to see where one takes me.

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

Happy Birthday, Gloria Steinem

UnknownHappy Birthday, Gloria Steinem. If you are what eighty looks like, then there is hope in this world. And it is high time I thanked you for a few things.

First: Six years ago, for two weeks of my life, you gave me courage to get out of bed. It was April 2008. A cold April: frost every day, even a few snow flurries. Every morning, I huddled under the covers in my cottage at Hedgebrook, the Whidbey Island retreat for women writers, reading your brilliant book of essays, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions.

You have to understand, Gloria: I did not deserve to be at Hedgebrook, because I was not a real writer. Documentary filmmaker, occasional journalist, effective public affairs bloviator—you could call me all of the above. But writer? What was Hedgebrook thinking, giving me a cottage for two weeks on the basis of a script I’d written for a doc film about Alzheimer’s disease?

It was you who gave me courage to get over myself, get out of bed and start writing. Your honesty—about being a Playboy bunny, about your mother’s mental illness, about being a woman—inspired me to write honestly. Your voice—frank, funny, humble, confident—inspired me to try out my own.

I was writing about my mother, too. Or trying to. Her birthday is also March 25th. She would have been 83 today, had Alzheimer’s not marked her and claimed her far too young: at 74, after nearly two decades of relentless assault.

Even though my mother was just a few years older than you, Gloria, her life could not have been more different than yours. Six children. Divorced twice, widowed once. But the work you did in the sixties and seventies? Gloria, you changed my mother’s life. You gave her courage.

She may not have openly acknowledged the debt. She may have thought that it was all about her own pluck and stamina. But after my parents divorced and my mother went back to college at 38, what she was doing was taking charge of her life in a way that you and your colleagues in the women’s movement had made possible. Who knows? A few years earlier, she might have accepted alimony or gone back to work as a secretary. Instead, she fulfilled her long-deferred dream of studying English and becoming a teacher. Instead, she exemplified for her impressionable daughters the women’s movement—your movement—in action. Feminist rhetoric was reality, not theory, at our house.

So I thank you, Gloria, for being who you were at the end of the 1960s. And I thank you for being who you were, to me, as I lapped up your book at Hedgebrook on those frosty mornings in 2008. I knew you too had spent time at Hedgebrook (and would continue to come for several summers). Which meant that you too knew the power of a cottage and privacy all day followed by good food and conversation in the evenings.

And now, on this your 80th birthday, which is also my mother’s birthday, it gives me great joy to tell you that the memoir I started scribbling at Hedgebrook, inspired by you, is going to be published in September by She Writes Press. It’s called Her Beautiful Brain. Her_Beautiful_Brain

And here’s a remarkable thought: in your lifetime, Gloria, we have gone from a world where it was quite acceptable to believe that all women’s brains were actually inferior to men’s to a world in which we women know our brains are beautiful. You helped us get there. You helped me get there. So did my beautiful, brainy mom. Happy Birthday to both of you.

Arlene and 6 kids

Only  a few spots left in my non-credit, no stress Memoir Writer’s Workshop at Seattle Central Community College. This is a new class for writers who feel ready to write 5-7 pages a week. Six Monday nights, starting April 7.

The Restless Nest is on the radio every Tuesday morning at 7:45 a.m. on KBCS.fm; 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.

 

Night of the Shutdown

DSC00865On the night the Republicans shut down the government, I was teaching at Seattle Central Community College: “Intro to Memoir Writing,” a non-credit class offered through Central’s lively Continuing Education program. While my students and I tackled the mysterious mechanics of writing about our lives, other students and other teachers labored in classrooms all around us: French, across the hall; English as a Second Language, a few doors down; history and sociology around the corner. While Congress wasted the country’s time, we devoured time hungrily and with purpose: teaching, listening, learning from each other. While House Speaker John Boehner did his best to dismantle the democratic process, we were building—in our cases, stories, built one word at a time with sweat, tears, love and hard labor.

At some point earlier in their careers, surely Boehner and his colleagues must have wanted to build, rather than tear down. Maybe not: maybe the Republican party has always been dedicated to ending government as we know it. Government, as we were taught in classrooms long ago, in which bills are drafted, debated, rewritten, passed, signed and then become the law of the land. Law: not a target for blackmail and subversion, but law.

It cheers me to think of all the learning going on in community college classrooms, not only on Monday, September 30, but on any given evening. Because this is where Boehner and his cohort are going down. The people the Tea Party et al fear so much—people who think, people who want to learn rather than be spoon-fed half-truths and untruths about how democracy is supposed to work—I’m here to tell you there are more of them every day. And they’re not home watching Fox News after work, they’re going to night school.

What angers me is that some of those students might also be among the 800,000 federal employees who are out of a job, thanks to the selfish grandstanding of the zealots on Capitol Hill.

It helps a little to know they’ll be able to get health insurance, thanks to the Affordable Care Act. Law: the Affordable Care Law. Passed by the people’s representatives, signed by the democratically elected president, upheld by the highest court in the land.

I love how that works.

Just as I love teaching in a continuing education program at a community college: where people are excited about opening their brains up to new ideas, rather than pretending new ideas—or new laws—don’t exist.

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