therestlessnest

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

Archive for the category “writing”

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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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. 

Restless Reinvention

1743563_10151864590352330_669973072_nNews Flash: The Restless Nest has been awarded an honorable mention in the “Blogs under 100,000 unique visitors” category of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ 2016 competition! 

“Oh, to be wracked by success!” director Terence Davies exclaimed, hitting wracked loudly and hard with his gentle Liverpool lilt. He was imitating actor Cynthia Nixon, who plays Emily Dickinson in his new film A Quiet Passion, as he explained to us that—much as he loves planning every painstaking detail of his movies in advance—he delights in moments of surprise. Nixon’s emphatic reading of Dickinson’s line was not what he had imagined. But then, success, whether or not one is wracked by it, is often not at all what we imagine. True for nineteenth century poets, true for 21st century actors and directors. True for all of us.

the-long-day-closes-550x238-detail-main     Davies’ appearance at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, following a screening of his 1992 film, The Long Day Closes, was a highlight of my recent trip to New York. I had seen his Distant Voices, Still Lives some years ago and was haunted by his depiction of his Liverpool childhood, of which his violent father was the volatile heart. Davies makes movies like an old Dutch master paints. He loves what he calls “texture:” getting the faded, autumnal colors of the clothing, wallpaper and furniture of his 1950s working-class neighborhood just right; spending a full minute of screen time gazing at one patterned ochre rug, because that’s what children do: they stare at the patterns and textures in front of them. Rugs. Ladies’ skirts. A bricklayer setting bricks, one by one, in a back garden wall.

I might not have been there if my husband and son hadn’t wanted to go so badly. I might have lobbied for an unaffordable Broadway show or a cozy, bank-breaking restaurant. What a loss that would’ve been. Who knew Davies would be so riveting in person? He is what you might call a case study in restless, but lovingly attentive, reinvention. And, as I wrote about last month, I can’t resist stories of reinvention. Davies has no interest in chasing a Hollywood version of success. He wants to make films the way a jeweler cuts diamonds: slowly and carefully, facet by facet until the glittering whole is revealed. If it takes years, so be it. If he can’t get the money, he’ll wait. At seventy, he still radiates a creative hunger, a hyper-attentive glow that is infectious. I hope it’s infectious. I want to catch it and keep it.

New York can be maddening. Exhausting. A bad boyfriend, as one friend quipped: so enchanting one day, so brutal the next. On this early May trip, the weather was as leaden as Liverpool in March. The political weather was stormy, too: everyone still in shock over Trump’s primary-sweeping triumph; my son and I clashing over Sanders vs. Clinton.

The week’s bright spots were the re-inventors. There was Davies. There was also Cheryl Stern, an accomplished Broadway actor and a friend of my good friend Lisa Faith Phillips (herself a shining example of restless reinvention: if you’re in New York, don’t miss her cabaret performance on May 15). Lisa took me to see Stern’s new one-woman show—her first—called Shoes and Baggage, at the Cell on W. 23rd. Like Davies’ films, Stern’s show is memoir, but her instruments are song and monologue. At first, you might mistake Shoes and Baggage for a light little tale about shopping addiction. But gradually, you realize it’s much more layered, more textured, than that. It’s about body image and what we women do to define ourselves in a relentlessly look-ist world. Though I’ve never tried on a Manolo Blahnik pump, I understood her story. I felt her story, especially when she flashed back to childhood, to all the approval that is lavished on a potentially awkward girl when she gets her outfit just right.

CorneliaStreetwithDana          My own reinvention moment came early in our New York trip, when I got to read with my friend Dana Robbins at Cornelia Street Café. Dana, who is blossoming as a poet after 25 years as a lawyer, gave me the courage to read from my new work-in-progress, The Observant Doubter. I thought my theme of faith versus chronic doubt would be a tough sell in New York. But maybe New Yorkers aren’t as hard-boiled as we provincials think. After all, so many of them come from somewhere else. Somewhere they might miss. Some place, some time, to which their restless minds reflexively return. Like Terence Davies’ Liverpool. Like Cheryl Stern’s childhood trips to the mall. Like Dana’s childhood kitchen, where her father’s “square hands… moved like a meditation.”

The passage I read in the café was about returning after forty years to the church I last attended as a fervent teen. About how I thought I could slip in and out undetected, until an old woman asked me whose child I was.

We’re all somebody’s child. And that’s often where re-inventors let their restless imaginations take them. Because your life is your movie. Your poem. Your story, and no one else’s. And that’s the joy of it. Whether or not you are ever “wracked by success.”

 

 

Reinvention

howtobeanonconformist_backWhen I was in sixth grade, I fell in love with a book called How to Be a Nonconformist. I loved it because it was a playfully written and illustrated cartoon diatribe against the social pressure of the era to be cool, hippy-style, which to my ten-year-old eyes, was a rigidly conformist way of life. I grew up a mile from Seattle’s University District. Long hair, fringe vests, beads and sandals made me roll my eyes, precisely because the people who dressed that way pretended so obnoxiously to be nonconformist when, clearly, I harrumphed, they were anything but.

howtobeanonconformist        How to Be a Nonconformist is out of print, but you can see some of it on the gorgeous Brain Pickings blog. You can also read about the author, Elissa Jane Karg Chacker (1951-2008), who was just 16 when she wrote the book and went on to become a nurse and lifelong socialist, in this tribute on the Solidarity website.

I am sorry Chacker did not live long enough to see what her age-mates are up to now. Because I think many of them are finally figuring out how to be real nonconformists, and to those of us who are a few years younger and in need of role models, it is a bracing trend.

Reinvention is what I’m talking about. We all know that the days of working one job all your life and then retiring to a La-Z-Boy recliner are over. Sure, some people still do that, but so many of them find they can’t sit still. For starters, there are the economic realities: We’re living longer, which means we need to work longer, so we can sock away more money for old old age. Or so we can pay for all those things our health insurance for some reason doesn’t fully cover. Or so we can pay soaring rents or higher property taxes or $13 to go to a movie. But I digress.

The reinvention I’m talking about is not about money, it’s about meaning.

What’s interesting to me, as I think back on How to be a Nonconformist, is that so often, people’s stories of finding meaning have to do with going back to some version of what they loved most as a pre-cool ten-year-old.

I have one friend who was a lawyer and is now a poet. I have a sister-in-law who decided to live in and restore her truly unique childhood home rather than sell it after her mother’s death. I have a friend who retired from corporate communications but went back to work for a nonprofit she’s supported all her life because she believes in their mission of helping homeless families. I have other friends who are doing things they’ve never done before: writing their first book or joining a choir or training in hypnotherapy or hiking the Camino de Santiago as a true pilgrim and not just for the exercise.

At ten, what I loved was writing in my own, real voice: not school papers, not the journalism, press releases and documentary scripts that eventually defined my professional life, but stories by and/or about the real me. So that’s what I’m doing now: not exclusively, because it never will pay the bills, but that’s OK. It’s important to me. It’s what makes me me. And on this side of the old bell curve of life, I get that I should do what matters to me not later but now.

Now, at 59, I look back on my teens, twenties, thirties and forties and think: what a time this decade has been in my life. What a time of learning to think and feel on the page. What an opportunity to accept all the contradictory parts of myself and allow them to get to know each other. It is especially meaningful to see creative me and spiritual/seeking/questioning me talking to each other. Playfully, some of the time, and quite solemnly and seriously at other times. I am grateful for this trend. I think the level of suppression, of NOT allowing such dialogues, that I practiced earlier in my life often exhausted me.

Just like being perfectly sandaled, long-haired nonconformists must have sometimes exhausted the people Chacker parodied in her book. Now, all these decades later, what a relief it is that we are all allowing ourselves to be works-in-progress. To be our own ongoing experiments in reinvention.

Ann Dana pictureNew Yorkers: I’ll be reading at Cornelia Street Cafe with poet Dana Robbins on May 4 at 6pm. Our event is titled “Word Medicine.”  Hope to see you there!

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.

 

 

 

Healing is a risky business

12241203_10206996887414845_2151836365820268832_nHealing is a risky business. Any poet or journalist could tell you that. It’s risky, because it has to start with truth telling, and when we’re wounded, the truth is not often what we want to hear.

For me, last week started with the peak experience of hearing Gloria 1442865674251Steinem rock Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, and it ended (or so I thought) with the peak experience of hearing Garrison Keillor read a poem written by my college friend, Dana Robbins, to a national radio audience. Gloria and Dana: two risk-takers, two truth-tellers. You know Gloria, so I’ll tell you a bit about Dana: she survived a stroke at 23 and a number of other nightmares and heartbreaks, which she writes about in her th_LeftSideLifefirst published book of poems, The Left Side of my Life (Moon Pie Press, 2015), in which you will also find poignant poems about motherhood and about her joyful second marriage. It was thrilling to me to at last hold a book of her poems in my hand AND hear her on the radio in the same week.

But last week didn’t end there. Because that was Before Paris.

For the Islamic State terrorists, the bloody attacks on Paris that killed 129 people were the grand finale of a two-week horror show that included claiming responsibility for the October 31 plane crash in Egypt that killed 224 people and bombings in Beirut that killed 43 12027805_10153834583469673_8324533815771842484_nand in Baghad that killed at least 26. For those of us who are slow to wake up to violence in places where we haven’t traveled, countries we don’t know personally, Paris was the visceral, gut-punching, week-ending shock.

For me, hearing the news will forever be oddly twined with seeing the movie Spotlight, about the team of UnknownBoston Globe reporters who broke the story of the systemic, deliberate, top-down cover-up of the cases of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. My husband and I went into the theatre knowing something awful had happened in Paris. We came out and learned the news was far worse than we’d thought. And so our conversation that evening was about how hard, but essential, it was to hear the truth about tragedies that had happened decades ago. OR hours ago.

Journalists and poets uncover old truths and new truths. They are both first-responders to fresh tragedies, and dogged researchers of outrages that have been buried but must be exhumed in order for justice to be done.

They can’t do their work without brave people willing to talk. Spotlight is all about that: about finding people who have been very badly hurt but are now angry enough and brave enough to talk about it, with the hope that by talking they will save future children from similar harm. Another movie out now, Truth, is also about finding brave people willing to go on the record. It’s the story, as told in her memoir, of former CBS journalist Unknown-1 Mary Mapes, who uncovered the important story of a young, future President George W. Bush shirking his duty in the National Guard. Mapes was brought down, along with Dan Rather and several colleagues, by one memo that had not been fully verified and was quickly seized on by the right-wing media machine—though the story itself, of Bush’s shirking, was all true. I knew Mary Mapes in the 1980s, when we both worked at KIRO TV, and she was, and is, one of the hardest-working, most dedicated journalists I’d ever met. Seeking truth is a risky business.

Sometimes, and perhaps more often in the case of poets, the brave truth-teller is the writer herself. Dana’s book begins: “They tell me I had a stroke/a cosmic joke,/like waking up a cockroach.” Of being offered a wheelchair at the airport, she writes: “How would the people who offer help in the airport know that to me/ the apparatus of disability has all the appeal of the electric chair?”

There is an unflinching quality in poetry that is a cousin of the best journalism. It’s as if poets are driven to flush out the dark corners and bring what is most frightening into the daylight. It’s very different than the urge to fictionalize or mythologize.

We need poets to say, starkly, what happened, and to give voice to grief; and we need journalists to shine their most powerful high-beam headlights on who and what is behind the tragedies we grieve and how, if it’s possible, we can heal.

As the poet Rumi wrote, 800 years ago: “Don’t turn your head. Keep looking/ at the bandaged place. That’s where/ the light enters you.”

 

Gloria

1442865674251“Don’t listen to me,” Gloria Steinem told the two 15-year-old girls. “Listen to yourselves.” A packed-to-the-rafters Benaroya Hall erupted in applause, as it did dozens of times on Sunday night. But there was something about those girls. They were all of us. We have all been fifteen and remember well that panicked thought: who am I? Who will I be? Who do I deserve to be? That the two of them stood together at the microphone, because standing alone would have been too scary, made it all the more poignant. How far in advance did they plan which one of them would ask the question—what advice do you have for teenaged girls?—and which one of them would stand with her for support?

IMG_2128Gloria Steinem was in Seattle to promote her new memoir, My Life on the Road. In an evening presented by Hedgebrook, the Whidbey Island retreat for women writers where she wrote much of her book over several summers, Steinem was interviewed by Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, the best-selling memoir of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Strayed was funny and lively and made it clear from the beginning that she was as awed by Steinem as the rest of us. But it was Gloria’s night. I hope she doesn’t mind if I call her Gloria. I don’t believe she will. As she quipped at one point during the evening, “We women aren’t generally so attached to our last names, are we?”

When Gloria and Cheryl walked on stage, I felt as if my spine had just been plugged into a sizzling charger. My eyes started to glisten. My throat tightened. My heart did a little step-dance. I apologize for how trite this all may sound, but I am trying hard to describe how I really, truly felt at that moment, because I don’t feel that way very often. Thanks to my broadcast journalist past, I’m not instantly impressed by famous people. But Gloria is different. Gloria is personal. She changed my life. She changed my mother’s life, my friends’ lives, my daughter’s life. She changed the life of every woman, whether they know it or not. Does this sound over-the-top? I would argue that it is not. Not at all. Gloria Steinem is 81 years old (last year, when she turned 80, I discovered that she and my mother share the same birthday and I wrote a tribute to the two of them), and her life work has been to change the way we perceive women. In my lifetime, the change has been profound and global. For example, the small businesswomen I’ve met in places like Peru, India, Thailand: Ayacucho WomanGloria helped me to see them differently; to fully appreciate their strength and resilience. Or take Sahar, the Seattle-based nonprofit that is building schools for girls in Afghanistan: thanks to Gloria, the world understands how essential such work is.

“Women get more radical with age,” Gloria said in response to a question about why there weren’t more very young feminist spokeswomen. Yes we do, because we get impatient. All our lives, we are told: be patient. The world is changing. Hang on! But then when you look up one day and realize your daughter is facing way too many of the same hurdles you faced—and then some, if she lives in the wrong state and might wish to do something as radical as visit a Planned Parenthood clinic—you think: enough patience already. I’m done.

Ann 1978 (1)When I was a newly minted college graduate in 1978, the personnel director at a major publisher told me that “all our young women start as secretaries and our young men start as sales reps.” And so my first job title, post-college, was secretary. That is why Gloria Steinem moves me in a way perhaps no other public figure ever will. She understood then, and she understands now: equal treatment for all—regardless of gender, race, age or any other consideration—is not political. It is a basic human right.

Diggers little boyPlease check out our Kickstarter page for Zona Intangible, our film set in Peru and now in post-production. Watch the trailer. Consider a donation. Our deadline is November 24. Thank you! 

What We Say Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Registration is open for Introduction to Memoir Writing at Seattle Central College. Starts November 2, 2015. Six Monday nights. Non-credit = all inspiration, no stress!

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

 

 

Beyond the Trail

IMG_1864  “End of Maintained Trail,” read the sign. “Travel Safely. Leave No Trace.” We had hiked the 3.1 miles up to Glacier Basin in Mt. Rainier National Park on a mid-June day that looked like late July: wildflowers everywhere, sky bluer than blue, glaciers looking decidedly underfed. I could use that “end of maintained trail” metaphor to riff about global warming, couldn’t I? But my mind is traveling in a different direction. More of a life direction. More of a… what it might feel like to get a scary diagnosis direction.

For 5.3 million Americans living today, that diagnosis is Alzheimer’s disease, and it may as well come with a trail’s-end message attached: This is the end of the maintained trail, pal. Sorry. Travel safely. Oh, and leave no trace of your fears and feelings because frankly, the rest of us can’t handle hearing about it. For their family members, the diagnosis message is the same: your life, too, will now proceed on unmarked terrain. There will be rocks, some slippery, others sharp. There will be immoveable boulders. Crevasses of anguish. The endless putting of one foot in front of another, as you wonder what lies around the next switchback or over that looming ridge.

The Alzheimer’s Association recently switched its awareness month from November—cold, barren, Printdark—to June: mild, lush and flooded with light. At first, I didn’t get it. November had always seemed like the perfect Alzheimer’s Awareness month to me. But I think the point is to get us all thinking about just how long the days are for people with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers. What a marathon this diagnosis is. What a steeplechase—a better word, with its implied challenges and roadblocks and muddy sinkholes.

June in the Northwest is often a steeplechase sort of month in which it’s never quite safe to plan a picnic or plant something that might not respond well to a sudden chill or storm. It’s a month in which you never quite know expect. The only thing you do know is that the days will be long, and one of them will be the longest day of all. And mostly, we view that as a good thing: those long, creamsicle Solstice twilights and sunrises; those nights that even at midnight, never seem fully dark.

logo       On this year’s Solstice, Sunday, June 21st, I’ll be participating in an Alzheimer’s Association event: a “Longest Day” write-and-readathon at Seattle’s University Bookstore. It’s our first year, so we’re not quite sure what we’re doing and we’re definitely not going to try to keep it up for all 16 hours between dawn and dusk. But for four hours in the afternoon, our goal will be to read and write in honor of someone we love who is a caregiver or is living with or lived with Alzheimer’s disease. For me, that will be my mom. I don’t know yet if I’ll write about her or Alzheimer’s—I’ve done quite a bit of both. Maybe instead I’ll write about some of the things she loved to do. Or her favorite books and authors. Or how she might have liked to fill a Solstice day if she were alive and well. ArleneYoung

Mom’s life was never much of a maintained trail. She scrambled and improvised all the time, which made her a great role model for her six children, especially as we tried to figure out how best to help her when Alzheimer’s began to rumble like an avalanche after a June rain. But she was an English teacher. She loved reading and writing. I like to think she really would be honored by a write-and-readathon, on the year’s very longest day.

1904066_484139051691653_1188410800_nThe Details: June 21, 1 to 4pm, University Book Store, Seattle, the Alzheimer’s Association’s Longest Day” write-and-readathon: Join us! or come for the Open Mic reading at 3pm.

Just in: a new review of Her Beautiful Brain from Full Life Care blog editor Kavan Peterson. I am so honored to be speaking at Full Life’s fundraising breakfast in October. You can buy Her Beautiful Brain from Amazon or any independent bookstore. Find a bookstore here. Order the Kindle version hereHBBfinalcover

 

Dignity is powerful

rebuilding-home Resistance is “people insisting on their dignity and humanity in the face of those who would strip them of it,” said author and documentary filmmaker Jen Marlowe. She was speaking from the base of a tiered classroom in Seattle University’s Sullivan Hall, which made her appear even shorter than her five feet and one quarter inch. It was 9 am on a Saturday. Her talk was titled “Reflections on Resistance: Palestine, Darfur and the Death Penalty.”

I had arrived a few minutes late, not anticipating the crush of humanity at the check-in table for the Search for Meaning Book Festival, which packs the Seattle University campus with searchmore people than it holds on any other day in the year. Apparently there are many of us in this bookish, broody city who are searching for meaning. SU has responded by bringing to one campus, for one day, a dizzying variety of authors who have found meaning in faiths and places and chapters of history I never knew existed. Hild of Whitby, for example—the subject of Nicola Griffith’s book, Hild: The Woman Who Changed the World 1400 Years Ago.
Apparently Hild persuaded the Celtic and Roman bishops of the Dark Ages to sit down together, work out their differences, and unite the unruly believers of ancient Britain: quite an achievement for a single woman in the wilds of Northumbria.

Back to Jen Marlowe, who is a bit of a present-day Hild. Marlowe’s search for meaning takes her to epicenters of resistance: to places like Palestine, Darfur in Western Sudan and the state of Georgia’s death row. She is compelled to report, record and write stories of people asserting their dignity in the face of terror and destruction. jen_filming
In her talk, she wove stories from her three books, four documentary films and many shorter works. She told us of a wedding she witnessed in Darfur, a scene of dignity springing from defiant joy. She told us of a Palestinian man’s vow to replant his family’s ancient olive grove after it was deliberately uprooted by Israeli settlers. She described her long, sorrowful witness to the dignity of the family of Troy Davis, who was wrongly convicted and executed by the state of George in 2011.IATD-cover

“Easy for me to go around saying ‘Dignity is an illusion,’” I scribbled in the margin of my notes. I was remembering a Restless Nest essay I wrote last fall, about how that phrase—“Dignity is an illusion”—had become a gallows-humor punchline for me during a bad year. Sure, it was a rough time: my marriage was on life support, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and I was having trouble landing a job. But, as I listened to Jen Marlowe, I began to understand something: to dismiss dignity as a mere illusion was a privilege. I could toy with dignity, I could make light of it, because neither my core worth as a human being nor my very life were in danger of being ripped from me. My extended family could gather without fear of imminent slaughter. My house and garden were not in danger of being arbitrarily bulldozed. I was not about to be legally murdered by my own state for a crime I did not commit. The kind of dignity I was calling an illusion was small-d dignity, as exemplified by dreams of turning up for a job interview in furry slippers. The kind Marlowe was talking about at the Search for Meaning Festival was capital-D dignity: which has everything to do with meaning. If we disregard the dignity of the people of Darfur, Palestine and Death Row, we disregard the meaning of their lives. Of all human lives.

And to stand up for the dignity and worth of human life in the face of those who would dismiss it is to claim meaning. No search required: here it is.

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Upcoming Her Beautiful Brain readings: April 1, 7pm, St. James Cathedral Parish Hall, Seattle; April 30, 7pm: The Regulator Bookshop, Durham, North Carolina; May 26, 7pm: Book Culture, 450 Columbus Ave, New York. 

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

 

 

 

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