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

Archive for the category “quiet”

National Parks

His name was Brady, “like the Bunch,” he said, which I’m sure he knew would make it stick in the minds of a couple of people already a chunk of years older than the Brady parents were during their TV heyday.

Brady looked no older than our own 20 and 23 year-old children. He had that skinny build that made me want to offer him a sandwich right away, if we’d had one to offer. If we hadn’t been backpacking in the North Cascades and just eaten a meal of freeze-dried something reconstituted with hot water and served in a pouch. And if he hadn’t been an actual park ranger, gun in holster and all.

We had just set up our tent at a place called High Camp when Brady loped into view. He apologized for bothering us, explaining he wanted to let us know he was there, right around the corner at a ranger campsite, since we might have thought we were alone and been startled by his footsteps or his two-way radio.

“No need to apologize,” I assured him, not adding what I was thinking, which was: we’re just a couple of city-dwelling people your parents’ age who really have no business up here in the backcountry and we are frankly thrilled to know there is a ranger on the other side of the knoll!

We asked about a noise we couldn’t identify, a sort of Tuvan throat-singer sound. Grouse, Brady said. We asked about bears. Oh sure, they’re around, he said—just make sure to hang your food bag. We talked about how gorgeous the alpine meadows were, though it was too bad the mosquitoes had just hatched like crazy. He offered to change our permit for the next night to a site where they weren’t so relentless, though he urged us to take a hike in the morning to the high meadows, before we headed down to our new camp. We promised we would, and we did.

As we hiked the next day through meadows of lupine and paintbrush, we marveled at Brady and everything he represented.  As Tim Egan wrote in a lovely essay in the New York Times, we—meaning all of us, all Americans—are the owners of a vast resort called the National Parks. Hard-working rangers like Brady make it safe and possible for us all to visit our communal vacationland; to be awed by wild places the way Americans have always been.

Rangers spend ten days at a time in the backcountry. They also log desk time at places like the Marblemount Ranger Station, where they have the tough job of eyeballing and tactfully questioning the hikers who come in for permits. It was a ranger named Sage who sent us to the High Camp trail instead of the one we’d intended to do, which was still under heavy snow, after we told him we had only one hiking pole between us and no ice axe or crampons. Sage may have pre-saved our lives, so to speak, and/or the lives of his colleagues who would have been sent to rescue us when we slipped and fell.

On our second night out, tucked in our tent at a cozy site called Hideaway Camp, I felt so grateful for Brady, Sage, the whole concept of National Parks in general and rangers in particular. It is hard to articulate what a few nights in the mountains will do for a person—spiritually, physically—but the rangers get it. And they want you to get it. Safely, and with no more mosquito bites than necessary. Because they understand: this is not just their summer resort, it is everyone’s.

I’m teaching a non-credit Introduction to Memoir class at Seattle Central this fall. Six Wednesday nights. Join me! More info here.

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

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


Time outside Time

“Wherever you’re going, we can get you there and there and there!” exulted the United Airlines on-hold record-a-voice.  Well, unfortunately, no, not on this midsummer Saturday. One packed flight from Seattle to Washington D.C. cancelled; 200-plus people, including me, suddenly stuck in airport purgatory.

For half an hour, I thought a few of us were lucky: we were rebooked on a US Air flight, via Phoenix, arriving in D.C. a mere five hours after we were originally supposed to. I sprinted from one end of Sea-Tac to the other, fingers crossed. But the US Air flight was delayed four hours.  The gate clerk ordered all of us United castoffs to go back and start over.

Back we went, now with no chance at all of getting a reasonable re-booking. Long story not so short—long time on hold on my cellphone; long time in line—I left SeaTac, now scheduled to leave the next afternoon.

And so I had a strange, sort of secret day. No plans. No responsibilities. No one, besides my immediate family and my disappointed friend in D.C., knew I was in Seattle.

I could have pulled weeds or caught up on some work. Or caught up on sleep, after a night spent tossing and worrying about waking up in time for the flight that never happened.

Instead, I left a note and got on my bike. On a whim, I rode straight to a Columbia City nail shop, where the staff is friendly, the massage chairs are the tacky best and offbeat nail colors are the rule.

From the nail shop, my bike and I carried on. I felt like I was 15 again, pedaling aimlessly along the lake on a summer Saturday, the breeze tickling my Friendly Skies-turquoise-blue toes.

I got just warm enough biking to go swimming. Now I felt more five than 15, splashing into the cold water, emerging baptized.  Now time truly felt like it did at five, especially in summer: slow, bedazzled, each minute like a jewel on a bracelet.  I basked. I read. I ate a snack. Time, this unexpected chunk of slow, summery time, wrapped around me like a blanket.

I’m so sorry I didn’t get to be in D.C. that night with one of my oldest and best friends. But I hope she got some secret time too; some time outside time. Lord knows she needs it: she and her husband manage and co-own two restaurants, the second of which just opened.  She rarely gets any time alone at all.

After dinner, I sat down at my desk and opened the window wide and watched my son and husband throw a Frisbee in the park across the street.  A few younger boys joined in.

There’s something about the leisurely pace of a Frisbee in the twilight. You think for a moment it might stop altogether, right there in mid-air. But of course it doesn’t. It curves, slow but not too slow, high but not too high, and gets to where it needs to go. Then everyone says Thanks and Good night and See you next time.

See you next time we step outside time for a few minutes and sail this disk through the sky.

Our film, Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story is now available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.

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

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



Slowness Breaks

When you’ve been moving fast, slowing down sometimes feels nearly impossible. Especially if you’ve been flitting like a hummingbird from task to task, as we so often do in our speed-loving, app-happy, instant-everything culture.

For example: every single time I sit down to write, I have to relearn the most basic of lessons, which is: Going slow is the fastest way to get the job done. Because there is just no way to do it besides: One. Word. At. A. Time. It’s like bricklaying: it happens brick by brick. Or, to use author Anne Lamott’s famous example, if you are writing a school report about birds, you have to go bird by bird.

Last week, I activated my new smart phone. Oh, the new high-speed horizons! But something unexpected happened on the way to my new 21st century lifestyle. In my eagerness to embrace all that my new toy had to offer, I brought my four-year-old laptop into the computer store for some upgrades. Long story short, something somewhere got miswired in the process and I ended up making four trips to the store and spending quite a bit of the week without my number-one tool: my laptop.

Fortunately, I picked the right week: no looming work deadlines. But I still felt like I’d been handcuffed. Sure, I had my sparkly new phone. But you can’t write write on a phone. And yes, I own pens and pencils and I used them plenty last week. But for 25 years, my habit has been to scribble unedited thoughts and reflections in a journal and then compose anything more formal than that with the help of a keyboard: a real one, not a slippery little wallet-sized touchscreen.

So, for five days, I did what I could with the tiny screen. And on my four treks to the computer store, while waiting for various attempted fixes, I did a lot of window shopping and a tiny amount of actual shopping at the other shops in the glamorous University Village, which, in its quaint early days, was the shopping center of my childhood and featured a Woolworth’s, a Singer sewing store, and best of all, a tiny bookshop called Kay’s Bookmark, where I spent hours of my young life.

By visit number four, I was so done with the U Village and so fed up I knew what I badly needed was a slowness break.

I packed a notebook and a pencil. I headed for the Washington Park Arboretum. When I got out of the car, a light rain had just begun to fall. I found a tree by a pond, its leaves thick enough to keep most of the rain off my head, and sat down. I wrote a little, word by word, recalling memories of the daydreamy, poetry-writing Arboretum rambles of my adolescence. But mostly, I watched the raindrops dance on the pond.

I wasn’t there long; maybe half an hour, before I got the call from the store and headed on to the Village. But what a difference that slowness break made in my ability to brave the final round of laptop-repair-stress.

In a recent survey by the Trust for Public Land, Seattle was rated ninth in the nation in quality and quantity of public green spaces. These parks are ours. Yours, mine, ours! Claim them. Try a ten-minute stop sometime soon and see how different you feel. Back away from all your gadgets—phone, computer, car—and take a slowness break. You might just find it’s the fastest way there is to restore your ability to get stuff done.

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

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


A long time ago, my daughter had a friend. Her name was Phaedra. I thought of her a few days ago when I saw the first fiddlehead ferns unfurling in Seward Park. The ferns always make me think of Phaedra because she was just starting to unfurl, to stretch up and out into the world, when a drunk driver killed her at the age of seven.

We know neither the day nor the hour: we don’t know whether we’ll have seven years or 17 or 97.  It’s what makes life so intensely precious. What makes gratitude for the time we do have mandatory.

Or is it? Mandatory?

South African philosophy professor David Benatar is the author of a book with the intriguing title, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence. In a recent New Yorker article, Elizabeth Kolbert explains the book’s contention that, quoting Benatar, “The amount of suffering in the world could be radically reduced if there were no more of us.” Kolbert calls it his, quote, “Conclusive Conclusion. If we all saw the harm we were doing by having children and put a stop to it, within a century or so the world’s population would drop to zero.”

This school of thought is called “anti-natalism.” Anti-birth. Which is not to be confused with the abortion debate. This is not about family planning, this is about preventing ALL births. About measuring the value of all of us and concluding it would be better if we just stopped. No more people.

I know the planet’s resources are strained. I know we humans cause a lot of harm. But it’s still a tough idea for me to grasp, this sweeping, nihilistic NO to life, especially at this time of year, what with ferns unfurling, trees budding, flowers blossoming everywhere we look. Both my children were born in the spring. The joy of new life beginning—it’s the essence of the season.

Just as it was sixteen years ago, when we learned of Phaedra’s death on a warm July night. It happened in Texas, where she was visiting relatives, so the news came by phone. “Shock” is such an inadequate word. I remember feeling first confused: how can this be? It can’t be. Phaedra had just been at our home the week before, launching what turned into a two-day play-athon: Phaedra, my daughter and their other best friend, moving from one girl’s house to the next, unable to say goodbye. After confusion I felt nausea, like the whole world was a rocking ship. Then sadness, great rolling swells of tears. Then, finally, anger: the driver of the pickup truck that hit Phaedra’s uncle’s car had a blood alcohol level of three times the legal limit. He killed three people that night: Phaedra, her uncle and her cousin. Two other cousins and her aunt were badly burned. The drunk driver walked away.

That right there is nihilism. Or anti-natalism, or whatever you want to call it. This was no arbitrary accident. This was blatant disregard for the preciousness of life, encoded in weak drunk driving laws and a world that turns a blind eye to nihilistic binge drinking. Three lives ended, including the life of one seven-year-old girl who would be 22 if she were alive today.

The name “Phaedra” means bright. I think about that too, when the sun suddenly lights us up and warms us up the way it hasn’t in six months, triggering an instant surge of gratitude for… gratitude. For the way it feels to feel real joy at being alive, to feel thankful for having been born, for having given birth to two children. For having known a bright little girl who only got seven years here but who reminds me, still, to say yes, not no, to being alive.


Sixteen: that is the number of trilliums I’ve seen in the past two days. Sixteen! I wish I could travel back in time and tell ten-year-old me the good news: The trilliums made it. They didn’t go extinct.

When I was a girl, I worried so much about them. On one of the first hikes of my life, our Girl Scout leader told us trilliums were endangered and that was why we mustn’t ever pick them, beautiful though they were, shyly nodding their white tri-cornered heads from their shady hiding places. The scout leader said it didn’t look good for the trilliums: they might be gone very soon. She said this in a grave voice, as if she were talking about a very ill child.  She told us that if we saw even one on our hike, let alone two or three, we’d be lucky.

But today, yesterday, here they were: 16 trilliums sighted on two urban runs, both through reclaimed green spaces within two or three miles of downtown Seattle.

And as I crouched to get a closer look, I thought: this is one of those good things about having a few more decades under my belt. I see the trilliums and I understand, in a way I couldn’t if I were ten or 20: when people put their minds to something, like saving a plant or an animal from extinction, it’s not necessarily some impossible dream. Change may sometimes be slow, but it is possible.

Trails through ravines that, not long ago, were choked with trash and blackberry vines: also possible, thanks to dozens of volunteers who spent dozens of Saturdays clearing weeds, cutting in steps, laying down gravel paths.

Bald eagles in city parks: not only possible but no longer even unusual. Seattle has several now, nesting in the older-growth havens like Seward and Discovery Parks but visiting all over the place, including the reclaimed ravines and heritage trees and pocket parks that now dot our city.

It is also possible the trilliums I saw in the urban woods were not the same super-endangered trilliums my scout leader was talking about. But in 30 years of running through the official and de facto parks of Seattle, I have never seen more than one or two lone trilliums at a time.

We get so cranky and impatient. We want Obama to change up Washington overnight. We want equality now, justice now, peace now. If you’re at a different place on the political spectrum, you might use different buzzwords—liberty, or freedom—but you’re probably impatient too. Just plain tired of how long change takes.

Wherever you are, politically, geographically, I bet there might be somewhere near where you live where some dedicated group has created a place to walk where one didn’t previously exist. Mine is a city ravine; maybe yours is a former train track or a reclaimed logging road or a boardwalk across a bog. Here’s my advice: walk there. Think about the people who worked hard to make it happen. Say hello to the plants and birds and animals that have moved back in.  Maybe you’ll see one trillium. Maybe you’ll see sixteen.

What if my scout leader had given us a different message?

“Girls, go ahead and pick those pretty white flowers; they’re going to be extinct soon anyway.”

Saving a flower might seem like no big deal. On the other hand, if it’s what gets people to believe that change is possible—well then, take a bow, you shy trilliums. I am so thrilled you’re still around.

Thank you, Mary Margaret

Please help me in my campaign to prolong Mary Margaret Haugen’s moment in the spotlight. Already fuzzy on placing that name? She’s the conservative, church-going, democratic Washington state senator from cozy Camano Island who, like our church-going democratic governor, had the courage to change her mind. Thanks to Mary Margaret Haugen, gay marriage is almost certainly going to be legal in our state, very soon.

How I admire a politician who thoughtfully and deliberately Changes. Her. Mind.  This is not what we love to call “waffling.” This is the human brain doing what it does best: considering new ideas. Pondering them. Reflecting. Praying. Departing from long-unquestioned assumptions to ask and answer questions one might never previously have thought to ask.

This is why gay marriage is such a linchpin issue: because it is getting rational, thoughtful people all over the American belief spectrum to think in new ways. To have new conversations.

I’ve been reading a book by the Quaker writer Parker Palmer called A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life in which he talks about how damaging it is to live a life in which “soul” and “role” are kept firmly separate, our outer selves orbiting further and further from the compass of our true, inner selves.  Politicians, perhaps more than any of us, are expected to wall themselves off in this way, keeping firmly out of sight any quirks or views their constituents might reject.

Gay marriage has given them, and us, a chance to ask: OK, how do I really, truly feel about this and why? And how would it change my life if I changed my mind? I would be changing the lives of others, and that’s pretty great. But might I also feel more whole, holding this new view?

Like Washington Governor Chris Gregoire, state Senator Haugen did not arrive at her decision lightly.  In a prepared statement, Haugen said, “For some people, this is a simple issue. I envy them. It has not been simple or easy for me.”  She went on to say, “I think we should all be uncomfortable sometime.” She concluded by pointing out the only reason she was the so-called 25th vote, the vote that ensures passage, is because she insisted on taking as much time as she needed to hear from her constituents and to sort it out for herself, to reconcile her religious beliefs with her beliefs, “as an American, as a legislator, and as a wife and mother who cannot deny to others the joys and benefits I enjoy.”

Wow.  I want more politicians who think we should all be uncomfortable sometimes. Who think conversations that change minds are possible. Do I even need to bring up the Republican debates for contrast?

It is interesting to see these grown-up men working so hard to portray themselves as full of steely and unchangeable resolve, as if the ability to cling to one viewpoint without ever wavering is exactly what we’re looking for in a world leader.  Isn’t one of the great reliefs of getting past, say, 30, the realization that you will, in fact, continue to change and grow for the rest of your life?  I’d like to think so.  Mary Margaret Haugen, you’re living proof.

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


“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. You can lead a man to knowledge but you can’t make him think,” blues singer Tracy Nelson belts out on the radio. I’m listening to my husband’s Thursday afternoon show, “The Outskirts” on KBCS, and I’m thinking about all the knowledge that now inundates us every day of our lives, and how when it gets to be too much, we can’t think at all.

This is not a new thought, this notion of information overload. What’s interesting is the lengths to which people go in order to find some peace and quiet.

A few minutes after he played Tracy Nelson, Rus sent me a link to a New York Times opinion piece by travel writer Pico Iyer called “The Joy of Quiet.” Iyer writes of author friends who pay for a software called “Freedom” which blocks their Internet connections for hours at a time so they can get some writing done. He writes of other friends who declare an Internet Sabbath on the weekend, unplugging from Friday evening until Monday morning so they can enjoy family time. He writes of hotel room rentals for upwards of two thousand dollars a night where one of the main attractions is: NO Internet, TV or other connections to the outside world.

When I read these kinds of anecdotes, my impulse is to go judgmental. Have these people not heard of hiking or camping? I want to ask. Or maybe just a walk in the park, without their smart phone?

But part of me understands all too well what they’re up against. The problem is expectations. Or, more accurately, perceived expectations. Which can then so easily be used as excuses.

I don’t have a smart phone, but I will probably get one in 2012. Rus and I make short films for a living, and our clients now expect—or at least I believe they do—to be able to reach us via email, even if we’re out on a shoot for another client. This did not used to be true. “Traveling” or “filming” used to be legitimate reasons for being out of email range, along with “vacations” and “holidays.” No more.

And email is now only the tip of the iceberg. We should be using GPS, not printing map pages. An i-cal, not an ancient Daytimer. Then there’s Twitter and Facebook, the twin frenemies of procrastinators everywhere, including me.

I watch younger colleagues, or the teens I tutor, or my own young-adult children, deal with all these distractions so calmly and matter-of-factly I think maybe they’ve just grown up knowing how to concentrate on their work while also monitoring Twitter feeds and Facebook updates and blizzards of texts. But I don’t think that’s true. I think they need unplugged time more than we know. More than they know.

When faced with a task that is hard—writing an essay for a tough class or finishing an assignment for a demanding boss—it’s so, so easy to divert your attention to that little screen. To tap into all that knowledge that’s right there, literally in your pocket, luring you away from actually thinking.

Looking stuff up is ridiculously easy. Thinking is harder than ever. And it’s a learned skill. A muscle that needs to be exercised.

Here’s my New Year’s resolution: to practice turning off the faucet of knowledge when what I really need to do is think.

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