therestlessnest

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

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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. 

 

 

 

 

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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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My Mother Was Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay Hungry

img_28372016 was a hungry, hungry year. Month after month, we hungered for justice and peace and hope, and we just kept getting hungrier. We thought November 8 might take the edge off; might give us a little encouraging broth for the journey. But no. Now we’re more famished than ever. And it’s very easy to feel like the best solution might be to simply curl up in a fetal position and hoard what little energy we have left.

But we can’t, can we? We owe it to ourselves, our children, our neighbors down the street and around the world, to stay hungry. To feel that driving bite in the gut, that ache, that howling growl that demands attention.

We are going to be offered pablum and junk food and we’ll be tempted to take it. We’ll be told to eat this, calm down, stop your bellyaching. But we can’t. We’ve got to stay hungry.

Yes, 2016 feels like the Worst Year Ever. But as one friend brooded on Facebook, what on earth makes us think 2017 is going to better?

Lest you think my only goal here is to write the most depressing post in Restless Nest history, I offer this morsel of optimism. Here’s what could be better about 2017, if we all stay hungry: this could be the year that we all do more than we ever have to make the world a better place. Instead of giving money to presidential candidates, we can give it to the people who are in the trenches, working against hate and for human rights; against climate change and for clean air, water and wilderness protection; against violence and for peace and reconciliation. Instead of talking about Nate Silver’s latest election prediction or Hillary Clinton’s email server or the latest egregious revelation about Donald Trump’s past, we can talk about what we can do, today, to protect vulnerable people and places and rights. We can volunteer to help immigrant children with homework, or help their parents gain citizenship. We can volunteer for medical research. We can rally. We can march. We can write letters and emails. We can support local and state politicians who are working for change. We can follow Senator Patty Murray’s lead and ask each other what we’re doing, not how we’re doing. Because we mostly know how we’re doing: we’re hungry. And we’re going to stay that way, for what could be quite a while.

img_2838Need some ideas of who to support? Here you go: ACLU, SPLC, Planned Parenthood, IRC, NOW, Emily’s List, LCV, NRDC, Sierra Club, Democracy Now, The Alzheimer’s Association, Seattle Globalist, Casa Latina, and Global Washington. Seattle-area friends: volunteer opportunities include Casa Latina, Refugee Women’s AllianceHorn of Africa Services (after-school tutoring) and the city’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs.

 

 

 

 

 

At the Edge of the World

img_2785            This is where I am: on the sandy, foamy, whitecapped edge of America. Last time I visited this beach, I wrote about the epidemic of earthquake fear then sweeping the Northwest, following the July 2015 publication of ­­­­­­­­Kathryn Schulz’s New Yorker article, “The Really Big One.” Maybe it’s just as well to be out on the wide-open Washington coast when the big one hits, I speculated. It would all be over pretty quick: one big, obliterating tidal wave. Boom.

And here I am again, feeling like the Big One did just hit us. It didn’t wipe us out. Yet. But it shook us to our core; challenged assumptions we’d held for months; changed the way we see ourselves and everyone else. Now we’re all rummaging through our psychic wreckage for salvageable scraps of energy, optimism, drive. We’re sorting useful anger from destructive anger. We’re demanding of ourselves that we learn to understand the people we quite recently referred to as Haters. We’re exhorting each other to eat, sleep, exercise, hug and read about a hundred articles a day.

I have been reading a lot, and I’m sure you have too. Here are a few post-election essays I’ve found really useful: Dame Magazine’s Don’t Tell Me to Calm Down, by Heather Wood Rudúlph ; Rebecca Solnit’s essay in The Guardian, Don’t Call Clinton a Weak Candidate, and, for when you’re ready to stop keening and take constructive action, New York Times’ columnist Nicholas Kristof’s A 12-Step Program for Responding to President-elect Trump.

But I’ve also been thinking often of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the human being. Not the superhuman political candidate, but Hillary. She’s too strong to need our pity. But what about empathy? What about taking a few minutes to think about what it must be like right now to be her? That’s what I’ve been pondering. I’m glad she has Bill and Chelsea; I’m glad she has dogs to walk, woodsy paths to walk on, grandchildren to cuddle up with. I’m glad she has time, although it must feel utterly strange to so suddenly have it. I’m sure time was really the last thing she expected to have right now.

On Wednesday night, Hillary gave us a brief public glimpse of what her life has been like since the Big One hit. Long before the election, she’d been invited to speak at a gala for the Children’s Defense Fund, the organization where she worked as a young law student. She admitted that she had been tempted to stay home. Instead, she showed up for her long-time mentor, Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman, and gave an emotional speech about the need to protect vulnerable and nonwhite children from hate talk and hate crimes; about how all of us must “believe in our country, fight for our values and never give up.”  17clinton-master675

My hope for Hillary is that someday soon, she can have a good laugh at this crazy cosmic joke. I don’t mean that she—or we—will ever be able to laugh it off. The stakes are too high; vigilance must be our default mode. But the kind of laugh where you just howl loudly, saying to yourself something along the lines of —this is so insane!—that kind of laugh can be cathartic. It can actually break through the torpor and sadness and make it possible to eat some toast and start your day.

After all, the only way the Republicans could beat her was to run an evil clown instead of someone who could in any way be construed as her peer. For a while, we all thought it really might be some crazy joke. Until it wasn’t. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take a break from fundraising, organizing, marching, volunteering and vigilance and laugh, now and then, at the absurdity of it all.

Go for it, Hillary. You deserve it.

Want to send Hillary a card or letter? Here’s her address: PO Box 5256, New York, NY 10185. 

HBBfinalcoverA final note: Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine were the only candidates who ever talked about the importance of funding Alzheimer’s research (which WAS on the agenda for the December legislative session, until Congress signaled its intent to wait on appropriations until March 31). Just another reason I’m grateful to her. 

#Election2016: Countdown

         img_2763   It has never, ever felt so good to seal and stamp an envelope as it did after I filled out my ballot last week. Sure, I miss the old ritual of going to my local polling place, but sitting down and getting it done at home, good and early, felt great. Especially this year.

Of course, especially this year.

And now I’m going to tell you a few of the people I voted for.

I voted for the third graders I tutor in an afterschool program. One of them told me last week he was “so scared Donald Trump was going to win.” The others all chimed in. “We’re scared too!” “I hate Trump!” All of them are from refugee families; most come from Somalia. I wondered what they’ve been hearing at home. Can you imagine how horrifying it is to watch this election unfold, if you’re a refugee from anywhere—but especially from a Muslim country?

I also voted for another refugee: Henry Grundstrom, my great-grandfather, who, according to his naturalization papers, “foreswore his allegiance to the Czar of Russia” to become a United States citizen in 1898. Henry was from Finland, then under the Czar’s thumb. If he had stayed, he would have faced conscription into the Czar’s army. What would he have thought of allegations that Russian hackers could be trying to influence this election?

I voted for Viktor Warila, my other Finnish great-grandfather, who staked a homestead claim in Montana in 1910 and raised six children on the windswept bench lands between Billings and Yellowstone.

I voted for Lydia Warila, his wife, who traveled west from Ellis Island with her name and destination pinned to her coat, because she spoke not a word of English.

I voted for my Scottish forebears, who built houses in the Carnation Valley and on Queen Anne Hill, and for my Swedish great-grandfather, who left his Minnesota home at 18 and headed to Alaska for the Yukon Gold Rush.

I voted for my elegant grandmother, an orphan, who gave herself a whole new name when she was a teenager, because in this country you can do that. Because do-overs are in our DNA here. Unless you are Native American or your ancestors were brought here against their will, your people, too, came here because they wanted—or needed—to become something new. Just like my Somali students’ parents. And here’s the part that is apparently very hard for some Trump supporters to understand: in this country, we allow do-overs that don’t rob you of your core identity. You’re allowed to keep your religion, customs and language. My grandparents grew up speaking Finnish at home and attended Finnish Lutheran churches. Many of the Somali students in my neighborhood are trilingual: they speak English at school, Somali at home and learn Arabic in their religious classes.

I also cast my ballot in honor of my mother, who would have been SO thrilled to vote for the first woman ever to be a major-party candidate for president.

And I voted for my college: Wellesley College, Hillary Clinton’s alma mater too, which has been educating women since fifty years before we could legally vote for president, and whose founders wanted the college to prepare women for “great conflicts” and “vast reforms in social life.”

For Hillary Clinton, Wellesley was just the beginning of a lifetime of preparation for great conflicts and vast reforms. And for her, and for every woman in America, this election is much, much more than an opportunity for symbolism. It’s our chance to say: the great conflicts we face are real. Vast reform is needed. We need a president who knows these truths, and is ready to get to work.

That’s who I voted for. Let the countdown begin.

 

Stockholm Syndrome

Nine years ago, a freelance critic for The Seattle Weekly suggested, in print for all to see, that I might be suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. She was right: I was. I tend to fall hard when I fall in love.

The critic was reviewing a short film my husband and I made called Art without Walls: the Making of the Olympic Sculpture Park, which aired that week on KCTS, our local public television station. Her point was that I was clearly way too enthralled by Seattle’s new sculpture park to produce an unbiased documentary about the making of it. Guilty as charged: I loved the sculpture park.

The term “Stockholm Syndrome” was coined in 1973, after several hostages in a Swedish bank holdup-turned-siege became emotionally attached to the robbers who had imprisoned them in a vault for six days. (I am one-eighth Swedish-American: could there be a genetic tendency at work?) In 1973, I was 16, and I read about such events with great interest, perhaps because I was still not fully recovered from my first and most dramatic bout of Stockholm Syndrome, which struck when I was 13.

navbar_02Do you remember the brief fad for chocolate fountains? How beautiful the chocolate looked, pouring over and over, endlessly bountiful, into a surrounding pool. How agonizing those fountains must have been to anyone who was dieting, or diabetic.

When I was 13, I dove right into the chocolate fountain of evangelical Christianity. So sweet, so filling, so sublime. And at first, it felt so uncomplicated: just believe. Believe Jesus Christ is the one and only way to eternal life, and eternity is yours. Believe you can speak in tongues, and presto: you can! Believe men are superior to women. Believe premarital sex is wrong. Stop thinking. Simply believe.

But it turns out I couldn’t stop thinking. Thinking has always been my downfall. Thanks tophoto excessive thinking, I failed at flirting, tennis, knitting and my first fifty attempts at parallel parking. And I failed at being an evangelical Christian.

I swam in that silky, rich fountain through much of my teens, but the romance ended abruptly when I got to college. At the time, I remember feeling like I was both betrayer and betrayed; like I had turned away from Jesus with the secret hope that he would try to win me back, but instead he went off to court a new crop of acolytes. I felt like a rejected first wife: older, wiser (or so I thought), but not nearly as cute and fun as I once was.

Twenty years later, I returned, tentatively at first, to church: this time, to a welcoming, liberal kind of congregation where I sensed that a closet doubter like myself could safely blend in; that this could be a place where I could find spiritual sanctuary while I continued to ask the questions that never went away.

And now, unbelievably, another two whole decades have passed, and I’m still going to that same church. And the questions haven’t gone away. I never cured myself of too much thinking; if anything, I’ve gotten worse. But I have, finally, accepted my spiritual self for who I am: an observant doubter. A survivor of Stockholm Syndrome, who wants to live meaningfully.

I’m trying now to write more about all of this. I’m starting with the story of what came first: my fervent, young faith—how it happened, and why I think it happened, and how it fit into what was happening in the world at the time, and did we really speak in tongues and swallow the apocalyptic visions of The Late Great Planet Earth? I want to include stories of some of the people I’ve traveled with along the way. I want to connect with others for whom faith and doubt co-exist; I believe there are many of us who live along this spectrum, far from the noisy extremes of fundamentalist faith or unwavering atheism.

I don’t know yet where this is all leading, but giving myself the time to do it means posting less frequently on this blog. See you once a month or so. The nest is ever restless!DSC00865

I’ll be teaching Introduction to Memoir Writing again at Seattle Central College beginning April 11. Six Monday Nights. Here’s the link.

 

 

 

Whole Hearted

IMG_1447“The Great Heart Split,” writer Gail Godwin calls it: that moment, about 400 years ago, when our knowledge of how the physical heart works leaped forward, sending ancient beliefs about the heart as spiritual headquarters backward, to be filed under folklore and mythology. News flash: the powerful, tangible pumping of the heart is what keeps our bodies alive. The heart’s emotional value, its mystical properties? Not actually located in the center of our chests. Ever since, rational knowledge has trumped what used to be called, simply, heart.

And then December comes along, and people start doing things that make no sense. We string colored lights from rooftops and balconies. We feverishly bake cookies, as if eating sweets mattered more than eating anything else. And, strangest of all, we cut trees and prop them up in basins of water in our living rooms. Even scientists and doctors do these things. And the scientists and doctors who study the brain—that mysterious organ where the intangible version of the heart has been hiding all along—they know that the protean behavior in which we indulge during this strange season called the Holidays can be both wonderful and awful for our brains, often at the very same time.

From Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, our hearts and heads are bombarded with memories. Many are good. Some are not. If you’ve lost someone who used to be a big part of your holiday season, you’ll be feeling that pain. If you have a family member or two who ever excelled in causing holiday misery, you’ll be zapped by those memories too. And if your brain is not at its best—if you are suffering from mental illness or if you have Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, then this season can be like a walk through the carnival not-so-fun house.

Several years ago, ABC Nightline aired a report called, “Experience 12 Minutes of Alzheimer’s Disease,” which has become a popular Youtube video. In it, a reporter and a caregiver put on goggles, gloves with some fingers taped, small objects in their shoes to throw off their balance, and, worst of all, headphones that emit static and gibberish, which is what many people with Alzheimer’s describe hearing in their heads all the time. They then tried, and failed, to perform a few simple tasks. It’s devastating to watch. And to think about how it would feel to be so impaired, this time of year, with all the extra stimuli of the holidays.

Chances are, you are going to cross paths in December with a relative or friend who suffers from dementia, which makes this a great time of year to try to gain a little insight into their world. But you won’t have to put on goggles and headphones to do it. Hollywood is here to help. Julianne Moore has been getting stellar reviews for her portrayal of a college professor with young-onset Alzheimer’s in the movie Still Alice, which opens in Seattle in January. While you’re waiting to see it, read the book it’s based on. Lisa Genova’s novel, Still Alice, was the first thing I ever read that captured the anguish and frustration of Alzheimer’s I remember seeing in my mother’s eyes.

Another good read is Stars Go Blue by Laura Pritchett. It’s the story of Ben, a Colorado rancher who copes by keeping notes in his pockets bearing important facts like his wife and children’s names. What drives the plot of Stars Go Blue is not just Ben’s Alzheimer’s, but his broken heart. He has an idea of how to mend it, if he can only get it done before Alzheimer’s gains the upper hand. The static in his head, the words and logic that elude him as he tries to accomplish this task—which I won’t reveal because I loved this poignant, poetic book too much to spoil it—make for a page-turning read. It’s almost as if, as his rational faculties leave him, he’s trying to go back, to function on the old-fashioned fuel of Heart with a capital H. It’s a perfect story for the holidays, when we’re all doing some version of that. Putting Reason in the back seat. Letting Heart rule.

Registration is open for Introduction to Memoir Writing at Seattle Central College. Starts February 11, 2015. Six Wednesday nights. Non-credit = all inspiration, no stress! 

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

 

 

 

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.

Park Dreaming

10295774_1453094438270155_5810437079417490514_nI want to write about parks. Seattle voters, you know we’ve got a big decision to make. But here’s the problem: there are these snapshots in my head that keep getting in the way.

A woman standing in front of her wildfire-torched home in Pateros, Washington.

A funeral for a child in Gaza.

Bodies lying in a wheat field in Ukraine.

The headlines this week, and the pictures that go with them, have been brutal.

I want to write about parks. But it seems—disrespectful.

I want to write about how parks saved my mental health more than once. About what a safe haven they’ve always been for me. I want to remember the Arboretum, where I could spend half a day with a pencil and notebook. I want to shout out the old-growth trees and cool summer waters of Seward Park, my refuge for 24 years. I want to remember the climbing tree in the playfield up the hill from my childhood home, where I could hide out for a while when being one of six kids in the house just got too cramped.

But even though I really, really want Seattle voters to pass the measure on the August primary ballot which will create stable funding at last for our city parks, it just seems so indulgent to write about while the largest recorded wildfire in our state’s history blazes on. While both sides in Gaza report their deadliest day. While families in the Netherlands and Malaysia and a dozen other countries mourn the violent deaths of people they loved, people whose only involvement in a territorial war was to fly high overhead in a commercial jet.

So indulgent. But here’s the rub: I can’t stop the wildfires or the missiles or the bombs. But I can urge you to think about the future of Seattle’s parks. About how—when it feels like things aren’t going so well in the big wide world—we need our parks more than ever. We need green places where we can walk, talk, run, bike, swim, think.

Or pull ivy. On Saturday, I was planning to go for a run in one of the most popular parks in the city—beautiful Golden Gardens, way out on Shilshole Bay—when I spotted an email reminder about a work party in one of the least-known corners of the park system: Cheasty Greenspace, a tangle of woods along the east side of Beacon Hill, just around the corner from where I live.

I decided I needed to be useful more than I needed a drive across town and a fresh salt breeze.

The goal in the Cheasty woods is to create bike paths and walking paths in an area of the city where access to quiet, green spaces is sorely needed. There are some neighbors who say they want it to stay wild. But most of us in the area do want the trails, and we’re willing to show the city we do by putting in some seriously sweaty sweat equity.

The task at hand was not glamorous: yanking out invasive English ivy. Yards of it. Mounds of it. All morning, a dozen or so grownups pulled and pulled, while kids ran our little piles up to the big piles. By noon, we had amassed a small mountain of ivy.

We were sweaty and dirty. We had not solved the world’s problems. But we had done our modest bit for our future park, our little link in Seattle’s emerald chain.

We know the ivy will keep growing back. So… we’ll keep pulling it. Because once you see where there might someday, if everybody pitches in, actually be a path, it’s hard to get that snapshot out of your mind.

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

 

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