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

Archive for the tag “KBCS”

Dignity is an Illusion

IMG_1075            “Dignity is an illusion,” I took to saying during a particularly rough year of my life. I don’t know where it came from, or when exactly I first said it, but it made me laugh. Which helped. Dignity was in short supply that year. Rejection was the theme of the hour. Publishers were rejecting my first book (a novel, which remains unpublished.) My husband was rejecting our marriage (a miserable phase for both of us, which thankfully ended and now seems so long ago now I sometimes can’t believe it ever happened.) I was applying for full-time jobs for the first time in quite a while, and getting a lot of “sorrys,” which I took to mean I was too old (40) and professionally out-of-shape (true). Meanwhile, I watched helplessly as my mother experienced the worst rejection of all: she was diagnosed with probable Alzheimer’s. Her dignity was in the shredder.

Dignity is an illusion. These four words became my gallows-humor motto that year, and they have stayed with me ever since. If a phrase can be a teacher, this one has been mine. And here’s what it’s taught me: Cling to dignity and you’ll be left with nothing, including your dignity. Acknowledge that dignity is nothing but a pleasant illusion and you will be empowered. Those kids in the office where you finally land a job who think you’re old? Who cares! Show them how little you value dignity and they will judge you differently: perhaps even on the basis of your actual work. Your teenaged children and their friends? Likewise. You don’t have to embarrass them by trying to act like a teen, but they’re going to feel a lot more comfortable around you if you act like yourself, instead of some sort of unapproachable bastion of dignity.

Where I’ve found the notion of dignity as an illusion especially valuable is in that whole scary arena called taking risks. Trying things I’ve always wanted to try. Like… writing about real stuff from my personal life and then reading it at a literary open mike. Or learning to row in an 8-person shell. I did it, for two whole months! Came close to swamping the whole boat, but never actually did. I also took an acting class. And life drawing, and painting. Every one of these forays made a mockery of my dignity yet paradoxically left me feeling braver and stronger, until I was brave and strong enough to go back to what I knew I really wanted to do, which was write.

Dignity is an illusion, I reminded myself, as I filled out an application for a Masters of Fine Arts writing program, not knowing if I had any chance of getting in. I got in. Dignity is an illusion, I repeated, as I turned in my first critical papers in thirty years and my first drafts of memoir chapters, many of which featured remarkably undignified moments in my life. Dignity is an illusion, as I stood in front of a roomful of eighth graders and taught my first memoir class. Dignity is an illusion, as I tried for three years to find a publisher for my book.

It’s not a new idea. In the eighth century BC, the Hebrew prophet Micah wrote this: “And what does the Lord require of you/ but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Two thousands years later, the Sufi poet Rumi put it this way: “Your defects are the ways that glory gets manifested… Keep looking at the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.”

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

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 too.kbcs_logo



DSC00865We were going to camp, but the weather was terrible. Instead, we rented a tiny cottage on the Washington coast. It has a wood stove and a big window, so we can watch the storm pound the beach in comfort.

There is room, in this cabin, for exactly two people: my husband and me.

About fifteen years ago, we rented a pair of houses up the beach a ways. There were eight of us—my sister and her family and me and mine. Four adults, four kids. Beach fires, forts, expeditions, charades, a new puppy—it was a hectic, joyful blast of a trip.

It was a different time of life. A wonderful time. I feel lucky to have had such a wonderful time.

We still feel lucky. We have two young adult children who actually want to hang out with us reasonably often, and we treasure our time together. But we also have this: the flexibility to sneak off to the beach and rent a place the size of a dollhouse, where we can read, write, walk, eat and sleep when we want.

The Washington coast is a good place to ponder the passage of time. Little changes here, and yet everything does. The wind and waves push the sand without ceasing: every day, the beach is brand new.

Two years ago, when I began writing these commentaries for KBCS radio, I thought I would reflect frequently on the passage of time and this big life transition from a full nest to a “restless” one. More often, I’ve found myself responding to what is happening in the world, whether in my neighborhood or far away, from this more restlessly reflective vantage point.

Turns out, “restless” really is the right word to describe this phase. And not just for me and my husband but for our two children, as they make their ways in the world, bouncing back to the nest for an evening or a week or a month, setting out again, visiting frequently with reports from the frontlines of becoming an adult.

If you’re lucky, there is no dramatic break between a full nest and an empty one. Instead, there is breathing room—for us and for them—and frequent reunions, in which we can compare notes.

In some ways, their 20something and our 50something lives have more in common with each other than they do with the people in between us: the busy young parents renting the big beach houses and making spaghetti for eight. Our daughter’s in her first professional job; our son’s in his final stretch of college. They, like we, are pondering questions such as: what do I want the next one, five, ten years of my life to be? When you have young children, you’re way too busy doing to spend much time pondering.

Old beach cabins creak and rock and shift with every storm. There’s a for-sale sign outside this one: before long, it will probably be torn down and something bigger and fancier will be built on this prime beachfront lot.

I wonder if the new owners will keep the driftwood fence, with its festoons of fishing floats. There are names of people and places on some of them—Dominica, Piraeus, Doreen. Bits of histories that floated up here in the surf. Of people, who had bad times and wonderful times and stories to tell. Which I hope they told.

I’m going to take a three-month hiatus from the weekly Restless Nest radio commentaries. I may occasionally post a new (or old favorite) piece here over the summer, and I’ll see you on the radio again come September.  

In case you missed it: “Laughter and Forgetting,” mAugust 2012 story in Seattle Metropolitan Magazine about younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease just won first place in health reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. Honored and grateful to Sharon Monaghan and Cathie Cannon for sharing their story with me.

Radio lovers: Podcasts available here of the full Restless Nest audio archive.

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

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.


My daughter just tweeted this: “FLOTUS is my favorite OTUS.” After watching Michelle Obama light up the screen at the Democratic National Convention, I couldn’t agree more.  Maybe I’ll change my mind Thursday night, when POTUS takes the stage. But for now, I’m grateful for FLOTUS—aka the First Lady of the United States—who sure washed away my GOP-red-stained blues. What a difference a week makes.

This is a non-broadcast Restless Nest: typically I write on deadline for KBCS radio, but the conventions have given me a two-week break. I’m going to do some housekeeping—watch for some new pages on the blog  and a new URL. (don’t worry: you’ll be redirected).

Meanwhile, I offer you a very few of my own favorite blogs:

A Little Elbow Room: I love this week’s piece, “Pass me my blog.” Love the idea that we bloggers are creating a new literary tradition.

A Geography of Reading: if you want to go beyond the bestseller lists and discover the most provocative, beautifully written books in the world, Isla McKetta will take you there. You’ll get lost, happily, on this site.

Matrifocal Point: after watching Lilly Ledbetter’s speech last night, I love Liza’s blog even more. There is still so much work to do towards equality for women and she is a font of inspiration.

Peace Corps Gray: Ready for a challenge? How about joining the Peace Corps at 60? Marsha’s in Senegal for two years. Drop in on her now and then, via her warm, funny, honest, wise blog.

Shoes on the Wrong Feet is the sweetest, most lovingly crafted blog about motherhood. And daughterhood and just general being alive-hood.

Finally, the Restless Critic. Yes, I am married to this blogger, who over the years has developed a devoted following of people who want a fresh viewpoint on the latest films—or on the classic films they may have missed. Once you get to know Rustin Thompson, you’ll never watch movies the same way again. Trust me!



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