therestlessnest

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

Archive for the tag “memoir writing”

Seeking Shade

ImageThere is a toxic, orange glare emanating from the White House. We’ve got to seek shade wherever we can.

As I hopscotched from one patch of shade to the next during our most recent heat wave, feeling grateful for Seattle’s generous canopy of trees, I thought: this is what we’re all doing now. Seeking shade from that poisonous glare. It’s a matter of spiritual and psychological survival.

My own shade-seeking, Summer of 2018 mantra is this: “I am NOT going to let Donald Trump prevent me from writing my book.” Easier said than done, in the summer of 2018. But I’m doing it: I’m writing; I’m fitting in an hour or two a day, more when I can, less when work takes precedence or it’s time for a hiking break.

Writers, here’s my advice: close your email and your browser. Silence your phone. Set a timer for an hour. Checking your email, texts and news once an hour is enough.

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My own recent favorite reads

And readers: show yourself some kindness. Tear your bleary eyes away from the news alerts and the OpEds and read a novel or a memoir or a short story or a non-political essay. Feel your breathing change and your shoulders relax as you settle in. Parents and grandparents: read stories to your kids.

The book I am writing is about faith and doubt: the fervent faith of my youth, the twenty-year break I took from religion, the meaning I’ve found in accepting that doubt is where my faith now resides. My working title for this memoir is The Observant Doubter. It’s not an easy subject. The writing is slow going. I think I might be at about the three-quarters-done mark right now, but it’s a messy first draft, so there’s still a lot of work ahead.

And I am not, not, not going to let Trump stop me from finishing.

By which I mean: I won’t keep up with his every antic. I refuse to read every story about every tweet. I can’t listen to NPR right before I sit down to write.

But the energy required to NOT do those things, to stay focused even for an hour, has had consequences. For example: this is the first Restless Nest I’ve posted since May, when I wrote about the latest Royal Wedding, which now seems like it happened in some other century. And I haven’t been very social. And our garden this year is the size of a stamp.

And I can’t just ignore news like children being separated from their parents by agents whose wages we pay. I can’t not react.

Living in the time of Trump is like navigating an endless psychological-warfare obstacle course, isn’t it?

Sometimes, the best guides through the mess of it are the people who are just quietly and daily doing their work. By which I don’t mean writing a memoir, valuable though I believe that work to be. No: I mean people like our White Noise Productions clients. I don’t write nearly often enough about them, even though filming and telling their stories has kept me hopeful and optimistic for twenty years.

They work at non-profits, most of them small and way under the glamour-radar. Atlantic Street Center, for example, known for its thriving Summer Academy, its support groups for grandparents caring for grandkids, and a host of other programs that help families. Or Safe Crossings Foundation, which funds grief support for children and teens. Or Operation Nightwatch, providing meals and finding beds, night after night, for people seeking shelter. Or Full Life Care, helping people with chronic illnesses and disabilities. Or Seattle Arts & Lectures’ wonderful Writers in the Schools program.

Image 1On a hot summer day in 2018, these stories that we’re telling are like shade trees: they shelter us, for an hour or an afternoon, from all the toxic heat surging out of the other Washington. They shelter us by reminding us that compassion can’t actually be stamped out.

And they remind me that storytelling is important, which helps me get back to my writing.

I’ve never loved shade as much as I have this summer: when the glare of distraction has been so relentless.

Registration is open for my Introduction to Memoir Writing class at Seattle Central College. First class is September 25th. 

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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.

 

 

 

Restless Night

12079495_1002020523189036_4695099355839985106_nThere was a solemn three-year-old firefighter and a fierce four-year-old Batman. There were many princesses, one wearing a football helmet. There were moms dressed as witches and one dad in a hardhat carrying a cardboard model of Bertha, Seattle’s doomed supersized tunnel driller. IMG_1192There were some very sweet baby bumblebees. It was Halloween night in Columbia City, and my husband and I were there for the show.

We left a basket of candy on our front porch with a sign: “Happy Halloween! Take a few and leave some for your neighbors.” We’ll never know whether the trick or treaters did that, or whether one or a few them could not resist the temptation to empty the entire basket into their bags. What we did know is that we were too restless, this year, to sit home and wait for the doorbell to ring.

So there we were, a dozen blocks away in our neighborhood’s hopping, decked-out business district, watching what has become a wildly popular south Seattle ritual: trick or treating at the bars, restaurants, galleries and stores in rustic, red-brick Columbia City. 315398_249935491713680_5416914_nWe ordered beers at Lottie’s and stood outside, protected from the rain by the awning. We complimented the trick or treaters on their costumes and chatted with their parents. Rus took a few photos to send our children, currently living far away in Colorado and New York and busy at that hour dressing up for their respective Halloween parties.

12034366_10153835310440809_8368667048062586536_oAfter dinner at Tutta Bella, we raced up to Taproot Theatre in Greenwood to see Dracula on stage. One of our daughter’s childhood friends was in the cast, playing Lucy, the pretty ingénue who is transformed into a blood-craving vampire by the end of Act One. It was a great show.

It was a night of watching Halloween happen. We were spectators. And that was fine.

Twenty or thirty years ago, I might not have thought it would be fine, to be a Halloween spectator. I might have thought it would be sad. But this is one of the sweet treats, not tricks, that come with the passage of time. Nostalgia is part of it: I see the bumblebees and tiny Bat-men and I remember the fevered excitement of our children, putting on their costumes and getting ready for the big night. But nostalgia isn’t all of it. There’s also just a bit of relief—being a spectator is a lot less exhausting!—and there’s the feeling of newness. That’s the surprising part. Newness, not old-ness: this phase I call the Restless Nest is as surprisingly and richly new as it is nostalgic. It’s a blend. I get both: the newness of plunging into creative projects I didn’t have time for back in the bumblebee phase, and the pleasant nostalgia of remembering those years.

Recently, I was introduced at an event as the author of the blog called “The Restless Night.” I made a joke about how that sounded a bit more sinister than “The Restless Nest.” What I didn’t say is that it is all too often an apt description of how I’ve been sleeping lately. But I’ve come around, in recent years, to accept that insomnia goes hand in hand with the newness part of this phase of life. That when I’m doing new, scary things—like speaking at an event, or raising money for our film, Zona Intangible, on Kickstarter (please check out our page, watch the trailer and consider backing our movie!)—my nights are going to get restless. photo-original

“Only when we are at our most playful can divinity finally get serious with us,” Elizabeth Gilbert writes in her most recent book, Big Magic, a 273-page ode to creative risk-taking. Yes: it’s like the excitement children feel on Halloween night, as they put on their costumes and create new and different selves. It is play, but it is serious play.

Subduction Zone

IMG_1907Somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, our daughter is leading a trail crew. Somewhere in New York, our son, who moved there five days ago, is looking for a job and an apartment. Meanwhile, my husband and I are on the lovely, lonely Washington coast, at the Northwestern edge of the Lower 48: in the heart of what we all now know as the Cascadia Subduction Zone, thanks to Kathryn Schulz’ July 20 New Yorker story, “The Really Big One.”

We are staying in a dollhouse-sized, bright blue rental cabin, which islb4b82844-m9o for sale, just as it was when we stayed here two years ago. And just as we did then, we keep fantasizing about buying the place, which we can’t afford to do, though maybe with the publication of Schulz’ much-shared story, the price will drop. If I understand correctly, one response to her reporting that might make an odd kind of sense is: why not buy a tiny wooden house, 200 yards from the breaking waves? Our Seattle home is just as imperiled, right?

Here’s what’s appealing about the dollhouse: when we pulled up next to it two days ago and got out of the car, the vast view before us made me—gasp is the only word I can think of. Yes, I’ve been to the beach before, many times; I’ve been to this exact beach before. But each time, the expanse of it shocks me. Suddenly, I realize how crowded daily life can get: and I don’t mean busy sidewalks and backed-up freeways so much as to-do lists, worries, shoulds, musts. Suddenly, I’m in a place where all of that seems very far away. I’m on the edge of the continent. The horizon is beyond my own eyes’ capacity to see. IMG_1909

When we came here two years ago, I wrote about how our restless 50-something lives had more in common with our children’s restless 20-something lives than with the lives of the people in between: “the busy young parents renting the big beach houses and making spaghetti for eight.” This is still true. Though our children’s lives are changing more rapidly than ours, Rustin and I are feeling our own tectonic shifts.

And for me, there has been one huge and welcome quake since 2013.

When we came here two years ago, I was beyond discouraged about writing and publishing. The agent who had pitched my memoir to big publishers had long since given up. I was submitting Her Beautiful Brain to small and medium presses on my own and getting nowhere. Two years ago, as I walked this beach, I spent a lot of time pep-talking myself about how I was still a writer whether my book got published or not. Rus and I debated the pros and cons of self-publishing, which sounded exhausting. Instead, we started planning our next documentary film, which felt like something we actually knew how to do.

But a few months after that first dollhouse stay, I went, on a whim, to a 25-year anniversary celebration at Hedgebrook, the Whidbey Island retreat where my book was born during a two-week residency in 2008. The invited speaker was Brooke Warner, founder of the then year-old She Writes Press. When Brooke described her partnership publishing model, I thought: I could do this. Two weeks later, I sent her my manuscript. A few weeks after that, she said yes. One year later, in September 2014, Her Beautiful Brain was published.

It is hard to explain how grateful I am. How huge this has been for me. It has been like that moment of stepping out of the car and taking in the ocean view, over and over again. It has also been: hard work, drama, tension, anxiety attacks, readings attended by six people, readings attended by dozens of people. The partnership model means Rus and I made a modest investment, which we could not really afford to do but which, it appears, we may actually make back, though that’s without accounting for the hundreds of hours spent writing the book and doing what I can to sell it.

Partnership publishing is not self-publishing. She Writes Press has a traditional distribution deal with Ingram Publisher Services, which means Her Beautiful Brain is available on all platforms and from any bookseller. Writers of books need to reach people, and though not impossible, it’s hard to do without help.

When I say it’s hard to put into words how grateful I am, that includes gratitude to She Writes Press for taking me on. But it also includes gratitude to Rus for saying, “Of course we should do this.” And gratitude to God for keeping my wavering confidence alive just long enough. Because I do want my story to reach people. I didn’t write it with the understanding that it might never be read.

And reaching people has included some of the most meaningful experiences I’ve ever had: whether it’s that one person at a tiny bookstore reading who needs to talk to me about her mom and what she’s going through, or whether it’s my widest moment of outreach, an OpEd in the Wall Street Journal.

Maybe that’s part of what makes me love this little cottage: coming back has given me a chance to say to the me that was here two years ago: See? How the earth can move right under your feet?

And when the Big One hits, none of this will matter one bit, right? But while we’re here, while we’re alive and lucky enough to be living in the world’s most beautiful Subduction Zone, sometimes the surprises that come along are good. I wouldn’t have predicted, then, that our daughter would be leading a trail crew in the wilderness. That our son would be trying his luck in New York. Or that I would finally find a publisher for my book.

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 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 kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available too.kbcs_logo

The Restless Report

DSC00865Four years ago, a word came to me: restless. That’s me, I thought. That’s what I am: restless. And then I saw how well it went with the word “nest.” Restless Nest. Suddenly, I had a retort, a comeback, to the tiresome questions about how I was coping with our newly empty nest.

“It’s not empty,” I would say. “It’s restless.”

I liked saying it, because it instantly defused a whole Molotov-cocktail shaker full of flammable issues behind the words “empty nest.” There was the implied sexism—“I’m sure your husband’s fine but you must be a mess!”—and ageism: “wow, life’s pretty bleak and empty at your age, isn’t it?” And then there were my own incendiary issues: I hated the thought of my college-age children judging me and thinking my life was now empty and dull. I resented the mixed messages from well-meaning friends, which I somehow heard as: if you’re a good and loving mother, of course you are going to feel bereft when your children leave. On the other hand, if you do feel bereft, that must mean you defined yourself through your children, and didn’t we all vow thirty years ago we wouldn’t do that?

Four years later, thinking about what I was thinking then makes my head spin. Because here’s one thing I’ve learned: I am not the only restless one in this nest, and I’m not just talking about my husband.

Although he’s a good place to start.

“Read this,” he said on Sunday, pointing to a New York Times Opinion piece titled “Sad Dads in the Empty Nest.” It’s about how much life has changed in this generation for fathers and what that means for them when their kids leave home. Our husbands are not like our dads. Writer Liza Mundy (The Richer Sex) cites a Pew Research Center study stating that since the 1960s, fathers have nearly tripled the time they spend with their children. The number of stay-at-home dads has doubled in two decades, and nearly half of all fathers say they would stay home if they could afford it. They’re doing more housework too, though Mundy writes that women still do about two-thirds of household chores. And so, she theorizes, “the empty nest may represent for men a pure loss of a cherished presence, whereas for women it can bring sadness but also freedom and a certain relief.”

“Pure loss of a cherished presence.” Wow. I wish we women could be sad with such noble, straightforward simplicity. But it’s not fair of me to be snarky, because honestly? Mundy speaks the truth. When our daughter Claire left for college in 2007, my daily emotional diet was, precisely, sadness, freedom and a certain relief. Missing her was a constant, sad ache. Freedom came more gradually, as I found that the ache was creating a space, and into that space moved a long-neglected, freedom-loving friend: the desire to write. Relief came in the form of a lightened schedule. Our son Nick was still in high school, Rus and I had plenty of work, but juggling three peoples’ daily events was somehow a snap compared to juggling four.

By the time Nick left for college in 2010, I had earned an MFA in creative writing and written a Her_Beautiful_Brainpolished draft of my memoir, Her Beautiful Brain. The nest was not empty. It was restlessly busy with a capital R.

And now, four years later, we’ve downsized to a new nest and adjusted to the comings and goings of the truly restless people in this family: our young adult children. They are both college graduates. They’ve both lived independently and stopped in at the nest on occasion. Right now, they are in Colorado and Eastern Europe, respectively. When they bounce back to Seattle, I’m sure they’ll touch down here. And we’ll welcome them. And we’ll applaud their restlessness. It’s what they should be doing. It’s what we should be doing.

Bookstore Love

logoRestless Brain Syndrome strikes again. Early this morning, my mind was like a pinball machine that had me reaching for a Post-it and scribbling inscrutable phrases in half-asleep handwriting: follow up on A, send an email about B, and for God’s sake, don’t forget about Z.

But the thought that made me sit straight up was this: Ann! Why haven’t you Her_Beautiful_Braintold everyone you know to save The Date? That date would be September 7, 2014 at 3pm: the book launch for my memoir, Her Beautiful Brain, at the Elliott Bay Book Company.

To you, Seattle may be the fastest-growing city in the United States, an epicenter of technology, global health, outdoor sports and online shopping. To me, Seattle is the big small town I grew up in. The town that taught me to love books. And bookstores.

As a very young child, the library was my first temple of book love. Then, just about the time I was allowed to go without a grownup to the University Village Shopping Center, a bookstore about as big as my bedroom opened across the breezeway from Lamont’s Department Store. It was called Kay’s Bookmark. Rarely could I afford to buy an actual book, but Kay didn’t seem to mind. Maybe she understood that kid-browsers like me—the ones who were more comfortable in her store than they were in Lamont’s—might be her future customers.

A handful of years later, about the time I was in the teen-angst-reducing habit of taking long bike or bus rides to more interesting parts of the city, another bookstore opened called the Elliott Bay Book Company. It was in the picturesque, new-old Pioneer Square district. Like Kay’s, Elliott Bay welcomed browsers of all ages. Unlike Kay’s, you could get a little bit lost in it, in the very best way.

I went off to college. I was away from Seattle for eight years. I visited many legendary bookstores: the Coop, the Strand, Foyles, Shakespeare & Company. But when I had my homesick wallows, it was Elliott Bay for which my Northwestern heart pined. How I missed the creaking wooden floors, the log cabin stairs, the café in the basement. Novels in one room; hiking books in another.

Kay’s was finally laid to rest by Barnes & Noble, which of course is now also gone from the U Village. But Elliott Bay hung on through some very tough years. Seattle’s book-lovers were shocked when it moved to Capitol Hill in 2010, but wasn’t that better, we all told ourselves, than if it had closed altogether? And didn’t we all start going more often than we had in the dark days of the recession, when Pioneer Square was kind of lonely and scary?

Now, we live in a city where the online juggernaut, Amazon, is headquartered a stone’s throw downhill from our standard-bearer of surviving bookstores. Where Pioneer Square is slowly coming back, despite the endless Viaduct teardown. Where our “fastest-growing” status is fueled by the unbeatable combo of good jobs AND a city people really want to live in. And what makes rainy Seattle so livable? Places like the Elliott Bay Book Company.

I’ve always referred to it as the Elliott Bay bookstore, but Company is its real name, so I’m trying it on here. Now that I’ll be both a longtime loyal customer AND an Elliott Bay Book Company author. Really? Me? Did I ever dream—Yes. Yes, I did. And that’s what makes this so exciting that I am compelled to announce it three months in advance.

You can already pre-order a copy of Her Beautiful Brain from Elliott Bay. Right on their website. Tell them you’ll pick it up on September 7th. That’s the weekend after Labor Day weekend. I’d love to see you there. 3pm.

You can also like my new author page on Facebook.

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

 

 

Grapefruit. Kristofferson.

images If you met me on the street, you might never guess that I once popped a contact lens right into Kris Kristofferson’s breakfast. And you might not guess how graciously he responded.

Our conversation went something like this:

Me: “I’m sorry! That is my contact lens on your grapefruit! Would you like me to bring you another one?” My finger, a few steps ahead of my brain, had already darted downward as I spoke, plucking the lens from where it had landed, right in the center of the sunny pink half.

Kris: “Oh no, that’s fine. I don’t mind.” Smile. Eye-twinkle.Unknown

It was 1976, the year he starred with Barbra Streisand in the rock-glamorous remake of A Star is Born. I was working for the summer in the restaurant of a downtown Seattle hotel. Kris was in Seattle for a concert with his then-wife, Rita Coolidge. That summer I served breakfast to Linda Ronstadt, the Doobie Brothers and Kris and Rita. My uniform was a blue polyester pantsuit.

I did not see A Star is Born that year, probably because it came to Seattle after I left in the fall to spend my junior year in England. But I knew a gorgeous actor/songwriter/singer when I saw one, even one who chose to sit alone in the back of a casual hotel restaurant, rather than order his grapefruit and cereal from room service.

Scenes from our lives, whether we’ve told them a hundred times or never at all, have a way of burbling up when you least expect them. I have repeated the contact lens story many times. I now have to explain to younger people that back then, we wore hard plastic lenses, which frequently popped right out if your eyes were dry, which mine often were after getting up at 4 a.m. for the breakfast shift. And not only did the old hard lenses tend to pop out, they were expensive. I cried the first time I lost one and couldn’t find it, because it would cost 70 dollars to replace.

What’s interesting to me now, as a memoir writer, is that I have never written the tale of Kris and the contact lens. I used a version of it once, long ago, in a short story I never finished after my writing group gave it a big thumbs down. I remember one woman called it “popcorn: tasty, but not satisfying.” I knew what she meant, but not what to do about it.

I think what was missing, in that short story, was the character that was me. On the outside, I was a friendly, 19-year-old breakfast waitress who needed to earn money for college. On the inside, I felt fat, plain, shy and more convinced every day that I might never ever be attractive to any man.

But wait: something important had either just happened, or was about to happen. That very summer, I had my very first boyfriend, who also worked at that very hotel. It was such a big deal. Being told you’re beautiful, by a boy? A VERY big deal for a girl who’s never heard it.

So here’s the question: did the grapefruit encounter with Kris happen before or after I began this belated blossoming? Was I the awkward girl still packing the freshman 20 or was I the young woman who had just been told for the first time that she was beautiful?

Memory is like that. It gives us juicy morsels, but not always the recipe.

Last week, I finally watched A Star is Born for the first time. The film is very mid-70s—plunging necklines, coke spoons and all—but it holds up. Streisand’s voice knocked my socks off. Kristofferson plays a great gorgeous, alcoholic train wreck.

MI0000096020 And his smile took me right back to the grapefruit incident.

Here’s what I remember that might offer a clue to who I was at the time: I was able to smile back. To laugh a little. To do something other than flush bright red and want to die. It wasn’t the most mortifying moment of my life. It was delightful. Kris treated me like a normal person. And I responded like one.

And at the time? That was a whole new way of being.

 

I’ll be reading with other authors from Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s at Ravenna 3rd Place Books in Seattle on Thursday, May 1st at 7pm.

Tallchief

DSC00865She “made us move bigger than we actually were, with a courage and physical confidence we didn’t yet possess,” wrote Jennifer Homans in a recent tribute to the great ballerina Maria Tallchief, who died in 2013. Maria Tallchief: what a graceful name for the daughter of an Osage chief who grew into a dancer known all over the world for her long-limbed, dazzling, powerful presence. My own memory of Maria Tallchief is not of her on stage—I was never so lucky—but of the sound of her name as spoken by my mom. She said it gratefully, joyfully and with wonder: as in, can you imagine how thrilling it was for me to see Maria Tallchief on stage in Butte, Montana? How lucky I felt?

I think she saw Tallchief in Swan Lake. It must have been the late 1940s, when my mother was in high school. Butte, her hometown, was in a pretty happy mood then: World War II had brought Butte’s copper mines—a vast honeycomb underneath what had been known before the Depression as the “richest hill on earth”—back to life. My grandparents bought their first house, a tiny bungalow down on the flats with a stamp of a yard where you could coax a little grass and a few trees to grow: paradise, after a dozen years in the treeless tenements uptown.

The Depression had been very hard on Butte, and on my mother’s family. And so this ballerina, whose talent was to be bold, strong, courageous, to exude confidence from her outstretched arms and atop her pointed toes; who wasn’t a hothouse flower of the east but a daughter of an Oklahoma tribe—no wonder she made my mom and all of Butte, Montana swoon.

We memoir writers like to imagine such scenes. It’s a way of understanding something about our parents’ past—which is our past, too. Because when you hear your mother or your father talk about the events that shaped their young lives, you absorb their truths. For my mom, the truth of Maria Tallchief was this: Seeing a beautiful dancer dance to beautiful music is a gift beyond description, a way of lifting your spirit beyond daily life to somewhere else, some other realm. This is what matters about art. This is what is worth remembering.

As a child, you take note of what memories make your mother’s eyes light up. You file it somewhere; you understand that if you should ever get a chance to see ballet, you will do so, and you’ll do it with reverence.

As an adult, you remember your mothers’ shining eyes as you stare at the New York Times Magazine’s stunning photo of Tallchief in a 1948 performance of George Balanchine’s Orpheus. You long to call your mom and hear the story again, but your mom is long gone, and so you go down the rabbit hole of the Internet and find nothing about Tallchief’s performance in the late 1940s in Butte, Montana. Did it happen? Are you remembering wrong? Perhaps your mom saw Tallchief in the late 1950s in Seattle, or on the Ed Sullivan show in the early 1960s.

But the truth remains, a truth that transcends remembered or forgotten facts. You grew up with a mother who treasured encounters with transcendent beauty, and so you too learned to treasure such encounters.

And this is why the Times’ Lives they Lived” issue of the magazine, which comes out at the very end of every year, is such a rich reading experience. An ode to Maria Tallchief moved me to remember my mom and to write. For you, it might be the photo of James Gandolfini’s Cadillac. Or the tributes to Abigail Van Buren, Joyce Brothers, JJ Cale. Or you might find that the story of someone you’ve never heard of—87-year-old marathon runner Joy Johnson, for example—lifts you out of your everyday life for a few minutes, like a ballerina on a stage in Butte, Montana did for my mother, more than sixty years ago.

 

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