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

Archive for the tag “historylink”


DSC00865It’s almost 5:30. Time to walk the one block from my front door to the neighborhood center where I volunteer once a week as a homework tutor for Horn of Africa Services, a nonprofit serving Seattle’s East African community. I wonder what challenges await me today. Will I find myself trying to explain what a “bale of hay” is? Corral the attention of a first-grader who is convinced the police car in the alley might be here for someone he knows? Search for scissors and a glue stick for a “word-sorting” homework assignment that involves pasting postage-sized pictures of words with similar endings in the correct columns? The word-sort worksheet makes me wonder if the teacher who assigned it really enjoys the mental picture of parents and other homework helpers, like me, down on our knees gathering up flyaway scraps of homework confetti. (I don’t remember my own children having to use glue to do homework very often, though there was that one multi-day, sweat-and-tear-stained project that called for recreating Fort Vancouver out of popsicle sticks.)

At a training for volunteers, Program Director Dereje Zewdie began by defining culture as, quote, “what makes you a stranger when you’re away from home.” Walking to the tutoring center, I’m only a few hundred yards from where I now live. A mere ten miles from the house where I grew up. I don’t think about My Culture because I live in it. It is omnipresent; as invisible as air.

But all that changes when I open the door and walk in. Nearly everyone else in the room is about nine thousand miles, give or take, from the place they or their parents call home. And so Culture, the whole concept of it, is suddenly present, visible, tangible. Their culture, my culture—our rules, beliefs, traditions, language, values; everything human families transmit from one generation to the next—hovers around us.

What breaks the ice is the goal we all share: to get the homework done. The packets are due Friday, so we’re down to the wire on Thursday evenings. Huddled together over word sorts and math problems; over assigned stories full of puzzlers like “bales of hay;” we forget for an hour or two how strange we are to each other. Me with my uncovered, blonde-brown-gray hair. They with their colorful hijab.

There usually are not enough tutors to work one on one, so we juggle. I might find myself reading out loud with a kindergartener and a first-grader, stopping every few minutes to help a second grader add columns. After an hour of this, I often feel like my brain has been scissored into word-sort confetti.

According to Historylink’s 2010 article on Seattle’s Somali community, Somali students are the second largest bilingual group in the Seattle Public Schools. Amharic, Tigrinya and Oromo are also among the top eight languages spoken in the district. Seattle King County Public Health estimates there are about 40 thousand East African immigrants in King County. Some nonprofit organizations put the number much higher.

I’m not an academically valuable tutor. My math skills are rudimentary. But I’m comfortable around children, and I can put a LOT of gusto into reading and writing. Over my first several months, I’ve seen a few readers shift from stop-and-go to full-speed-ahead, and that is gratifying, even though I played only a small, once-a-week part in their progress.

In a recent Crosscut column, former Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle President Bill Stafford pointed out that Bellevue is now over 30 percent foreign born and Seattle 25 percent. “Whether you are a newspaper, theater company, medical provider or retailer,” writes Stafford, “to be successful, you must understand the changing demographics of the Puget Sound community.”

I appreciate his point, even though I am not any of those things. What keeps me coming back on Thursdays is: these are my neighbors. I want to know them better. If I had different talents, I might find some other way to do that. But for me, sounding out words with 6 and 7-year-olds is a place to start.

Our films, The Church on Dauphine Street, 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle and Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story are available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.

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


Seattle Grown Up

DSC00865Call me provincial, but I still get excited when I see anything about my hometown in the New York Times. Last Saturday, there we were, on the cover page of the Arts section, under the headline: “A Place Comfortable With Boeing, Anarchists and ‘Frasier.’” What an oddball trio of references, I thought. Then I saw it was a story about Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, better known as MOHAI, which has just reopened in the grandly re-imagined Naval Armory at the south end of Lake Union.

The hometown booster in me was excited. Proud: the nation’s newspaper of record was covering the museum that, more than any other, I think of as our museum. I love the Seattle Art Museum too, but MOHAI? It’s about us.

When I walked in for the first time, there was the Lincoln Toe Truck and the giant, neon Rainier Beer “R.” Even so, I felt disoriented, though in a mostly good way: the way I feel when I see one of my children’s preschool friends, now all grown up. This was not the museum I visited when I chaperoned those preschool field trips. No. This new MOHAI is a grown-up museum about a grown-up city.

Fresh evidence that while I may still be provincial, Seattle is not.

And like any newly minted grown-up, MOHAI had all kinds of things to teach me.  For example, New York Times writer Edward Rothstein’s reference to Seattle’s pioneering Denny Party, arriving via the Oregon Trail, which I smugly thought he got wrong? I was wrong. The Dennys did travel overland to Portland before they boarded a schooner for the last leg and made their famous water-landing at Alki Beach.

But unlike other Oregon Trail pioneers, the Denny group did not want to stake a claim and start farming. They wanted to build a city. They really did think Seattle might be the next New York.  And their gee-whiz, provincial spirit has shaped the city ever since. To the point where we might finally be transcending it.

My children, in their early 20s, think this is an interesting—maybe even exciting—time to be living here. We have a music scene, a filmmaking scene, a bar and restaurant scene, a critical mass of artists and writers instead of a lonely few. We’re a center for technology, medicine, global health and philanthropy.  We finally have a light rail system. We just voted for gay marriage and legal marijuana. Meanwhile, we still build airplanes and run North America’s seventh biggest port.

When I moved back to Seattle in the early 1980s, we had none of the above, except for the planes and ships. “Interesting” and “exciting” were not words I would have used to explain why I came back. I returned because I missed mountains, Puget Sound, evergreen trees and my family. Because it was home.

Seattle was then in the very earliest stage of recovery from our last major recession, and it was, well, a mess. The heart of downtown–Pine Street and Westlake—was a ripped-up, stalled-out construction site, through which I walked every day to work, a Monorail Espresso cup in my hand, feeling grateful that I had a job and that my city had something as quaintly innovative as a “coffee cart.”

As I became my grown-up self, so did Seattle. But—sort of like with brothers and sisters—it’s so easy to keep viewing the city you’ve always known in the exact way you’ve always viewed it. Visiting the new MOHAI was my wake-up call: it’s time for me to get over my provincial-vision problem. Time to get to know this new grown-up city.

Local history geeks: make sure to check out History Link, the free online encyclopedia of Washington state history. The best!

And… I’m proud to have an essay in the winter issue of the wonderful new literary journal, Minerva Rising. Subscribe online or, if you’re in Seattle, pick up a copy at Elliott Bay Books.

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

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

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