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Being Mortal in the Time of Trump

UnknownWhat matters most? That question has been like a three-word anthem for me this month, as I re-read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. The small Seattle church I attend is having a summer book club, of sorts, which consists of reading Being Mortal and getting together in small groups to talk about it over dinner.

The group I was in kept coming back to that question: what matters most? In Being Mortal, Gawande talks about a patient who decided that for him, life would continue to be worth living as long as he could enjoy chocolate ice cream and watching football on TV. Another patient, who knew her time was limited, wanted to be able to continue to give piano lessons as long as she could. But what really matters most—behind the scenes of those two and pretty much all of Gawande’s examples—is being with the people you love. Being able to love and be loved. That’s what matters most.

The other day, I was feeling a sort of low-grade emotional fever, triggered by Not Accomplishing Enough Work-Wise while wishing I could Just Go Swimming. My malaise was compounded by that other virus I can’t seem to kick: Creeping Despair.

IMG_0198.JPG          I decided to wallow. Just for a few minutes. So I opened Facebook. And there was the most delightful post from an old friend, describing how much fun she’d had hiking in Mt. Rainier National Park with her adult son. There were photos and captions loaded with mutual affection.

That’s what matters most, I thought. Love. The thoughtfulness of an avid hiker taking his mom, who probably doesn’t quite match his usual pace, up to Mt. Rainier, because he wants to share his favorite trails with her.

What is jarring, in this time of Trump, is to be reading a book that invites readers to reflect on the value of life, and the desire to live as fully as you can, with as much love as you can, until as close to the end as you can, while all the while the daily news is saturated with the casual and cruel devaluation of life. And the opposite of love: however you wish to characterize that. Is it hate? Yes. Too often. Is it also fear? Yes. All the time.

What we are learning, over and over, is that what matters most to some Americans is the right to buy and bear arms, including automatic weapons, with all that the word automatic applies. And in the darkest cases, the perceived “right” to use those arms. Against fellow humans. Apparently that is what matters most, to people who feel their 2nd amendment rights are more sacred than our right to take our kids shopping for school supplies without dying violently in a spray of gunfire. Or our right to go out on a Saturday night with friends and not be gunned down in cold blood. Or our right to attend high school—or elementary school—and live to attend college.

It is painful to think that while our reading groups have been contemplating what matters most at the end of life, our news headlines are braying the deathly drumbeat of rampant disregard for all of human life.

And it’s more than just gun violence. The same rampant disregard for human life is inherent in violent treatment of immigrants and in all the many forms of racism and bigotry that our president and his party personally encourage on a daily basis, egged on by the fundamentalist Christians who are more and more openly proclaiming their fealty to a white Christian nationalism that excludes pretty much everyone Jesus taught us to love.

However: there is a different kind of Christianity that is still strong in this country. I was startled to see the Washington Post point this out in a recent article about why evangelicals support Trump: startled because it’s so rare, though I hope it will become less so.

IMG-2885These other Christians are numerous, but a whole lot quieter. They are the sort of Christians who shelter immigrants in their churches, because they genuinely want to do the work that Jesus called them to do. They want to walk his walk, rather than be the noisy, attention-getting kids on the block, like the evangelicals.

Because what matters most to them is, as the prophet Micah famously put it: “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with their God.”

Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly.

Serve chocolate ice cream and football on TV to a dying man.

Hike in a mountain meadow with your mother.

Walk humbly with immigrants facing deportation.

Read Being Mortal, and talk about it.

And keep asking yourself—daily, hourly—What matters most?

9780525436058A few more end-of-summer book recommendations: Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, and Xu Xi’s This Fish is Fowl: Essays on Being. 41WiKzooBhLYou can read my interview with Xu Xi on the China-US Women’s Foundation website.

Seattle-area readers: Registration is now open for my Introduction to Memoir Writing class at Seattle Central College, which begins September 25. 

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Vietnam

IMG-2575The day I left Vietnam, I laughed and laughed.

I had not expected to. I woke up feeling sad about having to leave after only two weeks: far too short a time for my first visit to this captivating country. But my travel-mates—Anne and Lindsay, close friends I have known since freshman year of college—and I had hatched a plan for our final morning: we would get up at 5:30, throw on clothes, and walk over to Hoan Kiem Lake, a short stroll from our hotel in Hanoi. Anne had done this the day before.

“Trust me,” she said. “You won’t believe it.”

As we neared the lakeshore, the streets filled with people, many in athletic outfits, walking, jogging, bicycling. They, and we, were reveling in the relative cool of the dawn  air: by 9 am, we all knew the temperature would be in the 90s and indescribably humid.

When we got to the lake, we saw exercise groups of every possible type, all of them already in full swing: Tai Chi, yoga, Zumba, old-school aerobics, hip-hop dancing, ballroom dancing.

IMG-2668Across the street, a few dozen people had gathered with the apparent purpose of laughing their heads off.

The laughing people motioned to us to join them. Why not?

“Ha, ha, HEE,” we all shouted in unison, as we stretched and moved in gentle yoga-like ways, following the leader as best we could; breaking into more free-form laughter as we formed into a shoulder-massaging congo line; and then making different laughing noises as we clustered in circles, crossing hands, vine-stepping our feet, and just generally trying to keep up. Which we did, for about forty minutes.  IMG-1651

I can’t think of a better way to prepare for a long day of air travel.

I can’t think of a better sendoff from this small country that we had so quickly grown to love.

I’m surprised I waited a whole month to write this post. I’ve been thinking about Vietnam every single day since I got home. Maybe I just needed time to ponder the emotions Vietnam stirred in me.

IMG-2663It’s easy to talk about Vietnam’s natural beauty and friendly people. It’s easy to talk about its renowned food.

Or even about the many museums and memorials commemorating the American War.

But the experience of visiting Vietnam is much more than that. The Portuguese concept of saudade comes to mind: that mixed-up feeling of longing, love and melancholy.

When you land in Vietnam, you are IMG-2605

suddenly in a place that you’ve heard about all your life. And what you heard, and when you heard it, and how old you were when you heard it, shaped your young view of the world in ways that do not at all match what you are now, in 2019, seeing and experiencing. And that paradox stays with you, every step of your trip.

For a contrasting example, take Paris. When I was a child, Paris was where Madeline lived, one of twelve little girls in two straight lines, in that old house covered with vines. When I went to Paris for the first time, it looked and felt something like I had always imagined it would.

IMG-2581But Vietnam is different.

When I was a child, Vietnam was the place where the worst photos I’d ever seen came from, the ones in my parents’ and grandparents’ TIME and LIFE magazines. Vietnam was a word that meant moral confusion and horror and sorrow.

But then, as I grew into adulthood, we all began to hear of a different Vietnam. Beginning in the 1980s and picking up steam in the 1990s and the 2000s, we began to hear phrases like, “It’s such a beautiful country,” and “The people are so friendly.” And so my thinking about Vietnam began to shift, and though that left me even more perplexed and saddened by the legacy of the war, it also made me feel like maybe I was old enough, finally, to withstand the emotional currents inherent in visiting a place that is both forever symbolic of American hubris at its worst and vibrantly alive with the astounding ability of human beings to forgive, to repair, to choose love over vengeance.

That’s what Vietnam was about on this first visit. It was about feeling this saudade, this sense of love and tragedy and beauty all wrapped up together and ever present while we were enjoying all the above-mentioned joys: the beauty, the food, and the exuberant hospitality, on our final morning, of the laughing yoga people.

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Where we went: Ho Chi Min City, Whale Island, Quy Nhon, Hoi An, Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, and Hanoi. We stopped briefly in Hue, Marble Mountain and Son My (My Lai). There are many more places I look forward to visiting on my next trip.

Recommended reading: When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, by Le Ly Haislip, The Sorrow of War, by Bao Ninh, and The Sympathizer, by Viet Than Nguyen. I also recommend watching Ken Burns’ PBS series on the Vietnam War.

            For those of you who read my last post: I hit send on my first book pitch last week! I’ll be sending several more, soon. I’ll keep you posted. It could be a long haul.

 

 

 

Writing Home

    Image 2In the West, flying home means flying into the sunset. Even if you’re on a plane from Phoenix to Seattle, the sunset is there, flying with you, coaxing you, luring you home. Even if you’re on the wrong side of the plane, the clouds over the wing are splashed with peach and pink; the occasional mountain peak popping up below, bright in the reflected magic-hour light: that glowing hour when lamps are lit, when porch lights blink on, when home beckons.

As I flew home recently from Arizona, I thought about the power of home and how specific it is. Or isn’t. Say the word “home” and watch where your mind and memory go. Is home the house you grew up in? The house you live in now? Or is it not a house at all, but the place where you feel most yourself?

Image 3        And why would I—born and raised in Seattle, flying back on a March evening to the family and neighborhood and city that I love—why would I also have felt so strongly at home in Sedona, Arizona?

Because it’s the West, I thought. Give me red rocks and prickly pear; give me old-growth forests and fiddlehead ferns: I always feel a sense of home in the West. Much as I still love to visit the cities that shaped me in my youth—Boston, New York, London, Chicago—flying into the sunset, I savor the exhale of knowing I’m home.

9780307592736I am a memoir writer and teacher, so I read a lot of memoirs. So often, they are about that yearning for home: not necessarily the fondly remembered home of the writer’s childhood, but the sense of home the writer longs to feel now. So often, grief and loss have blocked the way, and the writer needs to write her way through, as Cheryl Strayed did in Wild. Her path to a newfound home was the Pacific Crest Trail. 9780156010863 In The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton traveled far and wide before he finally found his true home in a Trappist monastery in Kentucky.

9780199927814In Belden Lane’s Backpacking with the Saints, home is a mountain trail, most often in the Ozarks, with the books of his beloved “saints”—from Columba of Iona to Dag Hammarskjöld to Thich Nhat Hanh—for company.

In Sigrid Rausing’s Mayhem, home is where her family is, 41T+gg9Hu+L._SX335_BO1,204,203,200_precious and fragile after a dozen turbulent years in the maelstrom of her brother and sister-in-law’s addiction.

31MTlBzMT4L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_In Dani Shapiro’s stunning, elegiac  Inheritance, home is where love is—her husband, her son—and where it was: the father she knew and the father she didn’t.

How do we take a memory—whether it’s as snapshot-sharp as the buttes and mesas of Sedona, or as elusive as clouds billowing around a plane—and ask it to lead us home?

“When Memory Becomes Memoir” is the name of a talk I gave at the Frye Art Museum’s recent conference on creative aging. Use your five senses, I urged. Help your readers not only see and hear but taste, smell and touch this memory you want so badly to share. And then see where those senses lead you. A new insight about your past, a moment of reflection, may catch you by surprise.

9781439182710         One of my own favorite examples is Ernest Hemingway’s opening essay in A Moveable Feast called “A Good Café on the Place St. Michel.” Writing more than thirty years later, Hemingway took such sensory pleasure in describing the café where he wrote in his twenties: the pencil shavings curling into his saucer, the Martinique rum, the girl who walked in, with “hair black as a crow’s wing and cut sharply and diagonally across her cheek;” all culminating in an uncharacteristic burst of emotion: “I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.”

For the rest of his life, all Paris belonged to Hemingway, even though he no longer lived there. Just as Michigan belonged to him, because he did so much of his growing up there. Just as Seattle and the West belong to me, and your beloved homes, whether by birth or adoption, belong to you.

And the great gift of memory is that you can engage the imaginative twins of the physical tools you deploy every day to observe the world around you—sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell—and use them to take yourself home. Whether you’re flying into the sunset, or somewhere else that is all yours. Image

Seattle-area readers: There’s still time to sign up for my Introduction to Memoir Writing Class, beginning April 1 at Seattle Central College. Six Monday nights. Non-credit = no stress! 

Get Close

get_close_cover_hrver2I love that my husband’s first book is called Get Close. In two words, it sums up his best filmmaking advice. And captures his own striking style. And reminds me of what I have learned from working with him, lo these many years.

I am thrilled to report that Get Close: Lean Team Documentary Filmmaking will be published by Oxford University Press on February 1, 2019. It’s available for pre-order now. If you know an aspiring documentary filmmaker, or you are one, or maybe you think you might be one because you have a film in mind that you’ve always wanted to make but you’re not sure where to start, then buy this book. Rustin Thompson will tell you everything you need to know, starting with those two words.

As Rus is quick to explain, he did not invent the idea of “getting close.” It was World War II photographer Robert Capa who famously said, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Rus also quotes former UN Ambassador Samantha Power, who—inspired by Capa—advised Yale students in a commencement address that “if you truly want to live fully and leave the world a little better than you found it, you have to get close…  Get close. Go all in. Get close to the people affected by your work. Seek out perspectives different from your own. And work to bring others close with you.”

For a filmmaker, this means shooting close to your subjects, so physically close that you and your camera will connect them to viewers in a way that will bring their story, their humanity, fully to life. “You probably won’t become longtime friends with your subjects,” Rus writes, “nor will the divides of class and race magically melt away forever, but for the brief time of your shoot you will be communicating almost non-verbally. The experience can be profound. Getting close has become my way of looking at the world, my philosophy of visual thinking.”

What is always fascinating to me, when I watch Rus shoot this way, is how quickly the people he is filming get used to it. People want to be seen.

And they want to be heard, which is where I come in. Sometimes—especially if Rus has already been filming for a while—the only question I have to ask is, “Tell me your story.” And then my job is simply to listen. Not to tell them what I think of it all; just to listen. That’s how I get close, when we do the work of documentary filmmaking.

But Rus makes it possible, and in Get Close he tells you how, covering everything from planning your project, to essential gear, to shooting, editing and, ultimately, how to get over your self-doubt and get past the gatekeepers and find your audience.

Getting close: it’s like the difference between sitting down in the sand and digging and pouring and laughing out loud with your one-year-old, or standing 20 feet away and watching her play.

It’s like the difference between making a film, or thinking about making a film. Writing a book, painting a painting, composing a song—or not. Trying to solve problems, to tackle tough issues, or trying to tune them out.

Getting close: as Samantha Power can attest, it makes for a rich life.

Seattle-area readers: I will be teaching Introduction to Memoir Writing again at Seattle Central College beginning April 1st. Six Monday nights. Registration opens February 14. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quote from Get Close about getting close.

What that means in life as well as filmmaking. Writing. Volunteering etc.

Parents at the beach who put down their phones and play with their kids.

Surfers? Going inside the wave? Hmmm maybe not.

“Don’t be shy, meet a guy, pull up a chair…”

 

Stand By Me

_101664541_053e2d0f-a05b-4c6e-bb13-349acf2c705dOn May 19, 2018, I did something I have never done before: I watched an entire royal wedding. Not live: better than live! In an act of pure selfless devotion, my husband remembered that I had said something about “recording the wedding” and actually set the TV to record it before we went to bed. He himself could not be less interested. But he knew I was.

After grieving my way through the morning papers—school shooting in Texas, misery in Gaza and Venezuela, tension brewing again in Korea—I was more than ready for the diversion of a royal pageant. Coffee in one hand and remote in the other, I fast-forwarded through the three hours of buildup and blather until, at last, I got to the main course: Meghan Markle getting out of the Rolls Royce at St. George’s Chapel. Time to get this fancy shindig started.

When Charles and Diana married in 1981, I was at Carolina Beach in my boyfriend’s family’s cabin. His mom and I set our alarms and got up in the wee hours, hoping we might squeeze some reception out of their old black-and-white TV. But no amount of wiggling the rabbit ears would bring in anything more than a squiggly, triple image—a sort of Cubist version of the ceremony—with words deeply buried in fuzzy static.

When William and Kate married in 2011, I was on a plane flying home from Mexico.

This time, I would finally get to indulge.

Most of the Brits I know roll their eyes when you say “royal family.” They mutter about the most expensive public housing in the world and the nuttiness of thinking that inbred aristocrats should for one second be considered superior to the rest of us. I get it. I understand that it’s all a silly fairy tale. But sometimes fairy tales make for bewitching theatre.
_101665452_pa-36630070Especially if there’s a twist: for example, if the fairytale princess is African-American, instead of British-Aristocrat. And so this royal wedding featured two of the best things that have ever happened to old St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle: an African-American-style gospel choir, and an African-American preacher. Karen Gibson and the Kingdom Choir (who are from London) rocked the royal house with an exquisitely harmonized version of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” featuring soloist Paul Lee. Presiding Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry Michael Curry at St George's Windsor for the Royal Weddingmade the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Dean of Windsor Castle seem like a couple of butlers from Downton Abbey, quietly dozing through their tea break while he brought the house down, gliding easily from quiet reflections on the Song of Solomon to thundering invocations of Martin Luther King, but circling back, always, to the power of love to change the world.

IMG_0874 - Version 2The power of love. It has been more than thirty years since that October day in Scotland when Rustin and I spoke our vows. Our own fairy tale, like so many fairy tales do, has taken us through a few dark woods. So it feels dangerously inane to me to say something like, “a lasting marriage is all about the little things; for example, recording the royal wedding for your wife, even though you can’t imagine why she or anyone else would want to watch such an absurd and outdated spectacle.”

But the power of love is about those small acts of love, just as much as it’s about the big dramatic ones.

At our wedding, the young Rev. Jeff McCormick of the Church of Scotland wound up his homily with these words of wisdom: “Never forget the love that brought you here today. Look after it and work with it. And, in a strange way, this will be just the beginning of a romantic story.”

Look after your love. Work with it. What wise advice that was. Because—and you know how it goes–“When the night has come, and the land is dark, and the moon is the only light we’ll see; No I won’t be afraid, no I won’t be afraid. Just as long as you stand, stand by me.”

For more on the wedding: Read this moving essay by Mara Gay in The New York Times. And Anthony Lane’s report in The New Yorker is delectable.  

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Love and Sacrifice

IMG_1151 - Version 2On the day that students and the people who love them marched in cities and towns around the world, my husband and I walked the wide boulevards of Chichén Itzá. If our trip to Mexico had not been planned so far in advance, we too would have been marching in our hometown. Instead, heat-dazed, we gazed at the ruins of the ancient city that has long been known as a site of copious human sacrifice.  Image

The Mayans, and the Toltecs who conquered them, believed that the gods were hungry for blood, in particular the blood of fresh human hearts. When the divine appetite for blood was sated, the sun would rise and the crops would thrive.

Legend has it that the gods preferred the hearts of young warriors. That only the hearts of the strongest, healthiest, most beautiful young people would please the gods’ delicate palates.

Hundreds of years from now, will tourists visit the ruins of American schools and shake their heads in horror? Will they ask why we, a once-advanced civilization, were willing to sacrifice our young because we believed—what, exactly? That it was a sacred right to own the deadliest of weapons?

At least the Mayans and the Toltecs thought they were making the sun rise.

IMG_1161         As I write, Passover has begun and Easter is tomorrow. I’m back in Seattle now, but I started this holy week in Valladolid, Mexico, a quiet, colonial city near Chichén Itzá. On Palm Sunday, I attend 9 o’clock mass at the Templo de San Bernardino, the 460-year-old Catholic church a few yards from our hotel. On my way in, I bought a 5-peso (about 25 cents) palm cross with a postage-stamp-sized picture of Jesus and a tiny blue flower stapled to it.

By 9 o’clock, the church was standing room only, with people spilling out the door. I was lucky: I got a plastic chair in a row set up behind the last pew.

A few minutes past nine, the priest greeted us and invited us to turn and watch as dozens of children, most of them wearing red, processed in, waving palm branches and singing. They all sat up front and took the lead whenever it was time for more music.

My Spanish is not great, but I gamely followed along, waving my palm cross when everyone else did, and returning my neighbors’ hand clasps and wishes for “la paz” when it was time to do that.

I have to be honest and admit that I was far more preoccupied with the beauty of what was right in front of me—people in their Sunday best, waving palms, reciting familiar words, listening to familiar stories, watching out for toddlers underfoot—than I was with the religious meaning of it all. I also felt the weight of what I saw as my essential duty, in that one hour, which was to show respect. To blend in, as best someone who looks like me could under the circumstances. To be observant in close proximity to several hundred people for whom being observant was second nature.

I was grateful for their tolerance.

On Monday night, our last night in Mexico, Rustin and I were walking down our favorite street, the historic route that connects our neighborhood to the central plaza. We were thinking about where the nearest bank machine was, and where we should eat dinner.

We could hear a crowd, with a loudspeaker. They sounded far away. Then suddenly they weren’t. They were coming towards us, right down our street. Procession1Leading the way were several boys in white robes, one of them carrying a cross. Behind him came the priest, in red. Behind the priest was an old car with a loudspeaker on top. Inside was a white-robed nun, singing into a microphone. After the nun’s car came crowds of people, ten abreast, singing with her, call-and-response style. We had to flatten ourselves against the nearest building to get out of their way.

Procession3And they just kept coming. It was as if all of Valladolid, a city of 50,000, was taking part in this Holy Week Monday march, which we now understood had to do with the stations of the cross, which we could see placed at intervals down the length of the street.

The marchers were solemn, but not gloomy. There was a spring in their step, as if to say: This week is so important to us. This week is about sacrifice and it is about new life. It is about the divine in the human and the human in the divine. It is about grief and love and how they are forever intertwined. Some of us are devout, some of us are not, but on this night we come together. On this night we celebrate the triumph of love over violence.

Another year, I might tell this story differently. But this year, after seeing all the photos and video clips of the March for Our Lives; after being moved, again and again, by the power of the speeches and the silences; after visiting Chichén Itzá, with its bloodthirsty history—this year, this is what it felt like to witness Valladolid’s Holy Monday march.

Seattle readers: There are still a few spaces left in my upcoming Introduction to Memoir Writing class at Seattle Central. More information here.

After 2017: Wound Care

IMG_0918One year ago—before the Inauguration, before the women’s marches, before everything else that has happened since—I attended a New Year’s Eve get-together at which everyone made a prediction for 2017.
Mine was that the next (“hopefully great”) Democratic presidential candidate, “someone we haven’t even thought of yet,” would emerge by the end of this year. Others predicted that Trump would be impeached. Or that his first Supreme Court nominee would somehow be blocked. Some guests offered more general forecasts: “the pendulum will swing;” “people will come to their senses.” My husband vowed that we would see the “total cratering” of the Republican Party. His prediction may have come closest to the mark.

And though my own hope was misplaced—I think we’re still not even close to identifying the next Democratic candidate for president—I do believe the pendulum is swinging, and many people are coming to their senses. They just may not be the same people we had hoped would come to their senses.

The people who are coming to their senses are not the people who voted for Trump. We now understand that most of them (a minority of Americans, let’s not forget) are very unlikely to change their minds. The people who are coming to their senses are us. By which I mean the whole big crazy quilt of the Left. Or “The Resistance,” as Trump now likes to call us, in air quotes, thinking that it’s a scathing put-down. To which I say: Congratulations, Everyone! We’ve made enough noise this year to get our own group nickname. Long live the Resistance!

doug-jones-alabama-victory-1513196170-article-headerWe now understand that that we will win elections by getting our own selves to the polls, including our oldsters who may need rides and our youngsters who may need to feel more firmly respected for their views. After Alabama, we now understand that we will win elections when all Democrats feel that their vote is urgently needed.

2017 has been, if anything, more dismaying than I had ever believed it would be. I’m an optimist at heart, and this has not been a great year for optimism. But now, at the end of the year, I see so many reasons to hope.

In my last post, I called Trump an infection that has put our democracy’s health at risk. I declared that we, individual citizens, are the hard-working antibiotics who will ultimately prevail. And I do believe we will. In fact I think we could see a dramatic return to health right around mid-term election time, which is not much more than ten months from now.

But, just as I learned a few things about infections this year following foot surgery, I am now learning about the next phase: wound care.

I now know that wound care is a specialty that requires unflinching precision, compassion and the ability to inspire optimism—there it is again, my favorite word!—all while gently but firmly instilling in the patient—in this case, me—the understanding that optimism must be earned, through compliance. Attention to detail.

Wounds heal. But they heal better with the right care. And so it will be for our democracy, and for us.

I would venture that even as we fight off the infection, IMG_2864we’re already starting to heal. Wanting to get better is an essential first step, and we can check that one off. The women’s marches, last January 20th? That was all of us saying: “We want to get better. We will not give in.” The fights in the courts over immigration, the push-back on the proposed repeal of Obamacare, the victories in this fall’s special elections? All are signs that we are determined to be well again, and to come back stronger than ever.  

mr-potterThis Christmas, we watched It’s a Wonderful Life for the first time in at least a few years. Wow, does it resonate in 2017. You have to wonder if Trump watches it for inspiration, trying to be more like greedy, rich Mr. Potter every day; learning to perfectly imitate Lionel Barrymore’s signature lip curl as Jimmy Stewart makes his passionate plea for the rights of working people to live in homes that they own, rather than rent hovels from a slumlord. It’s an optimist’s dream story its-a-wonderful-life-bailey-family-05line: people working together to help each other can make the world a better place. People working together can heal the wounds of depressions and wars and personal tragedies: anathema to Trump and his rogues’ gallery of hangers-on, which currently include nearly every member of the forever-tarnished Republican Party.

Infections can be swift and merciless. Wound care is nearly always painstakingly slow. And there will be scars.

On the morning of the shortest, darkest day of the year, I watched as the sun, low and crisp, lit up a long, taut length of spiderweb in the corner of our bedroom. The thread stretched all the way from the ceiling, down six feet or more, to the branch of a palm in a clay pot. I wondered why the spider had hurled out that line. I marveled that spiders can do such a thing: that they can create a new something, in an instant, where there had previously been nothing. But we do that too, when we heal; we manufacture brand-new tissue and bone and skin to fill gaps and fuse breaks and stitch cuts. We keep at it until the scars fade to pencil marks.imgres

And that is my hope for 2018. That we’ll work together. we’ll spin out lifelines; we’ll do whatever it takes to heal this democracy’s wounds.

Find your January 20th, 2018 march here.

American Infection

imgresSometimes we writers search too hard for the perfect metaphor. Sometimes, it’s right under our nose—or, in my case, right under my blue, Velcro-strapped boot.

Infection: that’s what Trump is, I thought this morning, as I took my nineteenth of the twenty Amoxicillin tablets we brought home from the pharmacy ten days ago. Trump has infected our vigorous, 241-year-old democracy. And like so many infections, this one is fire-engine red and spreading, unchecked and unmedicated. Meanwhile, the patient is hot with fever one day and shaking with chills the next. Nothing tastes right. Muscles ache. Vaguely flu-like feelings abound. Waves of determination to soldier through—we’ll get over this!—are followed by languorous apathy: let’s just give up.

Speaking as one who tried to ignore an infection for several days, I can tell you it is not a strategy that works. After foot surgery on November 6, I assumed the three incisions on my right foot were healing up nicely under all those bandages, just the way they had on my left foot, last May. And they probably were, for the first several days. But then something somehow went wrong along one of those neat lines of stitches. At that point my foot was in a plastic cast, so I couldn’t see it. And for reasons I cannot explain, I chose to believe that feeling like my foot was on fire was probably “normal,” that fever and chills were a “part” of healing, and that I would magically “get over it.” Wrong, wrong, wrong. Thank God for antibiotics.

And so: if Trump is the infection, what is the cure?

The first and worst news, of course: it’s going to take a lot longer than ten days.

But we have to get the treatment started. And—despite the screaming-red, oozing tax bill that, at this writing, is poised to pass—I would argue that we have started.

WE are the antibiotics. Every time we make a phone call to Capitol Hill, every time we contribute to the ACLU, Emily’s List, Planned Parenthood or the Sierra Club (my own favorites), we are giving our ailing patient, our democracy, another life-saving dose. And every time a new, energetic progressive candidate is elected to a local or state office, that’s a mega-dose. Tukwila, a Seattle suburb, just elected Somali-American Zak Idan, 29, to its City Council. Seattle’s east-side suburbs just tipped our statehouse fully blue by electing Indian-American lawyer Manka Dhingra to the state senate. There have been similar victories in other states this fall, notably in Virginia and New Jersey. All of this bodes well for elections in 2018.

But this infection is ugly. As Charles Blow writes this week, it stinks of sanctioned racism and that smell just keeps getting stronger. In just the past few days alone, Trump has tweeted anti-Muslim hate videos, insulted Native Americans, and tried to revive his Obama-smearing Birther campaign. And as Thomas Edsall writes, the infection has spread its noxious tentacles deep and wide. But we, the antibiotics, must keep on until we turn the tide. Make those calls, write those emails, support progressive candidates at every level. Or be like Idan and Dhingra and run for office yourself.

And know that while we’re working to turn the infectious tide in 2018, there are specialists who are deploying other life-saving measures. Robert Mueller and his staff. Several state attorneys general. Senators like our own Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both of whom are very busy right now identifying all the nasty bacteria that has been stuffed into the tax bill, like Arctic drilling and repeal of the health care mandate.

unnamedThis won’t be easy. The antibiotics will take time. There will be a lot of wound care, too. Scar tissue. Rehab. But we’ve got to save our patient. How will we answer to our children if we let democracy die?

 

 

 

No Mud, No Lotus

IMG_0860“Most people are afraid of suffering,” writes Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. “But suffering is a kind of mud to help the lotus flower of happiness grow. There can be no lotus flower without the mud.”

Thich Nhat Hanh has a remarkable ability to get my attention by saying the simplest things in fresh ways. Especially when I’m stuck in some sort of tiresome, sticky emotional mud; the kind of mud you can’t imagine could ever produce a lovely lotus blossom.

51DkLeJ5ZyL._SY346_           Earlier this year, I spotted his book, No Mud, No Lotus: the Art of Transforming Suffering at Elliott Bay Book Company. I thought it might come in handy as I embarked on my big 2017 foot surgery adventure. But month after month, it sat in a stack on my desk, where I mostly ignored it. When the title did catch my eye, I found it irritating. “Transforming suffering?” Tell that to my friend with cancer, Thich Nhat Hanh. Tell that to the exhausted firefighters all over the West. Tell it to the people of Houston, Florida, Mexico, Puerto Rico. Tell it to the DACA dreamers. The Syrian refugees. The millions of us who have to worry, again, that the Republicans are going to yank our health care. The sidelined career diplomats who live in fear every time our president opens his mouth about North Korea.

“Transforming suffering.” Hah! I preferred the edgier acronym a neighbor taught me: AFOG. Another Fucking Opportunity for Growth.

But as I sat at home this summer while my family hiked; as I pondered why foot surgery had somehow triggered pain in parts of my body—back, hip, glute—that were not near my foot, I inched a little closer to actually picking up the slim black book with its taunting title. I was fed up with obsessing about the physical mysteries of recovery. I hadn’t really turned my own challenges into an AFOG at all. I was trying to, but I kept getting mired in the fog of self-pity, which is an ugly stew, not unlike the thick gruel of forest fire smoke.

“The art of happiness is also the art of suffering well,” Nhat Hanh writes. Hmmm. Really? “Thinking we should be able to have a life without any suffering is as deluded as thinking we should be able to have a left side without a right side.” He goes on in a similar vein: without darkness there is no light; without cold there is no warmth.

But the story that got my attention was his description of his own suffering from a virus in his lungs that made them bleed. Nhat Hanh is well-known for his love of joyful, mindful breathing; for adages like: “When you wake up in the morning, the first thing to do is to breathe and to become aware that you have 24 brand-new hours to live.” When he was stricken by this severe lung virus, he wrote that “it was difficult to breathe, and it was difficult to be happy while breathing.” But after he healed? “Now when I breathe, all I need to do is to remember the time when my lungs were infected with this virus. Then every breath I take becomes really delicious, really good.”

It wasn’t being well that made Nhat Hanh even more joyful about breathing; it was the fact that he’d been so sick. This is not such a difficult concept. But Nhat Hanh knows how easy it is for us to forget these simple truths, and that’s why he keeps writing about them. I’m sure he would not be surprised or insulted if I told him that his book sat in a stack for weeks before it was finally, grudgingly, opened.

No one, including Thich Nhat Hanh, would argue that suffering is inherently good. Earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and fires: not good. Twanging something somewhere in my lower back just as I was getting mobile again: ditto.

But like Nhat Hanh breathing with joy after his illness, I know this: the rain that finally washed away the smoky haze over Washington state was the most beautiful, sweet-smelling rain ever. Letting go of hiking for a while and, instead, riding my bicycle around Seward Park for the first time in months was the best bike ride ever.

On the radio this morning, a resident of Central Mexico talked about how catastrophe brings us together. Politics and grudges become irrelevant. People are at their best.

IMG_0864In the words of the wise Buddhist monk: “We have to learn how to embrace and cradle our own suffering and the suffering of the world, with a lot of tenderness.”

Seattle readers: There are still a few spots left in my Introduction to Memoir Writing Class, which starts next Wednesday at Seattle Central College. I’m also excited to be a presenter at the Write on The Sound conference in Edmonds on Oct 7. That event is sold out, but I’ll keep you posted re future similar opportunities. 

 

 

 

 

Love in the time of Chaos

img_2891What is so fascinating, in this new and disorienting era in which we’re now living, are the connections that form amidst the chaos.

Last week, I was in Olympia for Alzheimer’s Advocacy Day. What a day of connections: of hearing and sharing stories; of witnessing the love that motivates families living with Alzheimer’s to go to the state capitol and talk to their representatives, even in this chaotic season when so many other causes cry out for their attention.

If you—or your husband, wife, mother, father, friend—are living with Alzheimer’s, you are accustomed to a baseline level of chaos. But when there’s a sense that chaos has been unleashed in the world on a larger scale, too, life can feel very—untethered. EndAlz

My mother’s Alzheimer’s disease began to rapidly accelerate in the summer and fall of 2001. She was quite unaware of the events of September 11. This may have been a blessing for her, but to us it was alarming. The country was in chaos. Our mother’s brain was in chaos. How to care for her, whether and where to move her, were the urgent questions that crowded our minds, even as we worried about war and terrorist threats. And then there was the daunting and dismaying challenge of explaining it all to our children—explaining not only what was happening in our country, but what was happening to their grandmother’s brain. Our hearts were breaking for her, and for the world, all at the same chaotic time.

img_2886“Let love reign,” is the symbolic message of the Irish Claddagh rings my husband Rustin and I wear as our wedding bands. On this fraught Valentine’s Day, let love indeed reign. It is our best chance at finding pathways through this time of chaos. Romantic love. Familial love. Friend-love. But most of all, the compassionate love we are suddenly seeing everywhere. While I was in Olympia, Rus was filming for the International Rescue Committee: emotional stories of refugee families reunited at SeaTac after the presidential immigration ban was stayed.

Let love reign and rain: in airports, town halls, capitols, courtrooms; let it reign wherever people are saying, “We are better than this. We are more loving than this. We can find ways to help families overwhelmed by dementia; we can welcome refugees overwhelmed by long, long journeys away from war and danger.”

Last week, I was lucky. I got to witness love reigning and raining everywhere: in the stories my husband told each evening about the refugees; in the stories I heard in Olympia. So now, in that spirit, I’m offering a Valentine’s Day gift. HBBfinalcoverEmail me your address (annhedreen at gmail.com) and I will mail you a free copy of my book, Her Beautiful Brain. Those many kinds of love are all there in my story, along with more than a few kinds of chaos. I’m also happy to send it to someone you know—just give me their address. I promise not to save or share anyone’s info.

Happy Valentine’s Day from the Restless Nest. Let love reign in this time of chaos.

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