therestlessnest

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

Archive for the tag “memoir”

The Journals Project

IMG_2699 This may look like July 2016 to you, what with the political conventions, heat waves and all. But if you ask me where I am on any given afternoon, I might say 1994. Or 1992. Or, not too many weeks ago, 1978. It is the summer of the Journals Project: the season I re-read my hand-scrawled life, transcribing not all of it—that would be WAY too brutal a task—but some important scraps. Morsels.

I began keeping a journal when I was 13, so I have a lot of years to get through. The good news is that I did not (and do not) write every day. Sometimes I’ve skipped whole months, or more. But it’s taking me a while, because—sort of like eating Thanksgiving dinner—I can do it for no more than an hour or two at a time. There are only so many rich, nostalgia-laden bites a girl can take in one sitting. IMG_2697

My self-imposed assignment is to look for anything having to do with God, faith, loss of faith, doubt, mortality and/or the meaning of life. It’s research for my next book, known for now as The Observant Doubter. Me being me, there’s a generous sprinkling of all of the above.

In my very first volume, I wrote by candlelight, and used a fountain pen: a smudgy, spill-prone choice for left-handed me. But I can still remember the clink of the pen in the bottle, the scratchy sound of the nib, the smell of the ink.

In the beginning, I wrote a LOT about God. I had fallen hard for an Evangelical/ Episcopal version of Christianity that had arrived at my childhood church via a youth minister who radiated joy. I yearned to glow with the love of God, like he did.

But gradually, my fervent faith subsided, and other subjects took over. I gave up on fountain pens and switched to felt tips, so I could write faster. Guilt, always a theme for me, shifted from feeling guilty because I was a bad Christian to feeling guilty because I ate too much or I didn’t study enough to, eventually, that special Mt. Everest of guilt that young mothers climb every day: no matter what you do, you’re letting someone down. You’re not doing something well enough.

My transcriptions are peppered with “oy” in parantheses: shorthand for, Hey 2016 Me, can you believe how much time you spent berating yourself for your shortcomings? In 1976, 1980, 1992, whenever?

“It’s so agonizing, this business of being pulled in a thousand directions,” I wrote one January morning when my children were one and four. “I want to be a good mother. I want my life to have meaning; I wish I could find meaning in the minutiae of everyday life.”

Oy. How I wish I could go back and tell myself: STOP. News flash from the future: it’s gonna be OK. You are loving your children and living your life and you just happened to be born into a time when the neatly laid table of family life was upended and everyone—including you, your husband, your family, your workmates, neighbors and all those perfect preschool parents you felt you could never ever measure up to—began to scramble and squabble about how it should now be reorganized.

Wow, it was confusing. Wow, it was impossible to get it all right.

And now: a quarter century after I watched Bill Clinton’s inauguration with a toddler on my hip and a baby on the way, stunned and grateful that we now had someone in the White House who had invited Maya Angelou to write and read an inaugural poem, here we all are again, still squabbling over what life in America should look like. One candidate wants to take us back to… where, exactly? The mythic America of girdles and grills; of happy white people who have no neighbors who do not look like them?

The other candidate may have been born into some version of that world, but long ago, she boarded the outbound train into the bumpy future where most of us actually live. Where women are allowed to have aspirations, even if that’s going to complicate their family life. Where fathers and mothers want to find meaning in the world and meaning at home. Through all these turbulent years recorded in my messy pages, Hillary Clinton has been working away, miles ahead of me. Making her own mistakes. Learning from them. Moving on. Preparing herself to be, as President Obama put it, the best-prepared presidential candidate we have ever had. hillary-clinton-and-obama-obama-750x400

As I continue to slog through the journals, knowing that she has prevailed over all the crazy roadblocks life has put in her way helps me to see that we as a nation and we, as women, have made progress. And will make more progress. But we’ve got to get her elected. Don’t feel guilty about how much time you can or can’t give to the cause: just do something. Just show up. I’m doing it not just for me, now, but for me, then: that fervent teen. That overwhelmed young mom. The ever-scribbling seeker of meaning that I still am.

 

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!

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! 

Dining Alone

IMG_1068     Cacio is an old central Italian word for cheese, but I didn’t know that until I looked it up later. What I wondered, as I crossed Second Avenue on a silky spring night, was whether it might mean “gift:” as in, a gift for me; the gift of a restaurant where I would have the courage to sit and dine alone on a Friday night in New York.

On any night, the East Village is chock-a-block with groups of friends and tightly clinched couples. These days, the trendiest restaurants have lines out the door and deafening crowds in the bars. But Cacio e Vino was a quieter place, just around the corner from my friend Lisa’s apartment, where I was staying. Its garage-style windows were rolled up, its tables invitingly half-outdoors. I thought I could do it.

I knew I needed to do it. I was hungry and thirsty and fresh out of mojo. I wanted to do it. But after 27 years of marriage, dining out, alone, is something I just never seem to do. Or maybe it’s something I have forgotten how to do.

11228506_10152771366521394_8112740348622402682_n         Funny thing is, the week I’d just spent in New York had been all about female empowerment with a capital E. With the help of Lisa, who is president of the Women’s Media Group, I gave my first New York reading from Her Beautiful Brain at Book Culture on Columbus Avenue. Later in the week at Book Expo, I was on a panel of women entrepreneurs. I spent one evening with old friends from my all-women’s college and one with new friends, fellow authors with my all-women’s publishing company, She Writes Press. IMG_1813I even had a ten-second encounter at Book Expo with Julianne Moore, who was signing copies of her latest children’s book, in which I managed to thank her for her Oscar-winning performance in Still Alice and, gulp, give her assistant a signed copy of my book.

By Friday afternoon, I was ready to rest. Lisa went out to see her mom in Brooklyn. We had plans to meet up later, but Lisa called to say she needed to stay put in Brooklyn. It’s OK, I assured her. I was exhausted, and I had an early flight the next morning.

And so that is how I came to be dining alone on a Friday night in New York.

You must do this, I told myself. It’s too beautiful an evening to get take-out and hide in the apartment.

I walked in to Cacio e Vino. The waiter offered me a choice of tables. I chose to look out on the street instead of hiding along the wall. He brought water and bread with fragrant oil. I ordered a glass of wine and a plate of pasta with zucchini, mint and goat cheese. Mint! Why not?

I didn’t have a book with me and I didn’t want to stare at my phone, so I pulled out a pen and a few note cards I’d bought. But for a long while, I simply sat and sipped and ate slowly, gazing out at the soft lights along the avenue, watching the New Yorkers walk by.

A young couple, oblivious to all but each other, stood outside Cacio e Vino for several minutes. Eventually, they came in, which made me happy, because I knew they’d love it. And because the sight of me, a solo diner so quaint as to have note cards and a pen on the table, had not scared them off.

It’s strange now to try to articulate the reasons why I might not have sat down and enjoyed that solo meal. Was it that I did not want to be looked at and pitied? Was I afraid someone—a man, most likely—would spoil my solitude by trying to strike up a conversation? This is much less likely to happen to me now, in my fifties, than it once was, and maybe that bothered me, in some illogical way. Was it the money? Did it feel too indulgent, spending restaurant dollars on me, alone? But here’s the real question: would a man ever, ever go through these mental hurdles before he took a seat at a restaurant table for one?

What’s odd is that sometimes I secretly daydream about dining alone. When I’m at a restaurant with other people, I have thoughts like: oh, that small plate would be the perfect thing to eat alone. And yet back in Seattle, if an evening comes along when I could actually do such a thing, I never do. But maybe now I will. Because here’s what I learned, last Friday night in New York: after a week of wall-to-wall empowerment, it was wonderful to be alone, and taken care of by a good waiter. As if I deserved it.

HBBfinalcoverBuy Her Beautiful Brain from the small or large bookstore of your choice. Find a bookstore here. Order the Kindle version here. An audiobook version will be available later this year.

The Un-cool Writers’ Club

1003375_10204029713357348_4120200472773550975_n-1 If you aspire to be a cool writer, then whatever you do, don’t hang out with me. I am your worst nightmare. Here’s why: for starters, I am old, so old I may as well tell you how old. 58. Fifty-eight! This would be acceptable if I had published many volumes by now. But no: I just published my very first book. And my book is a memoir. This might be acceptable if I was a recovering addict or had escaped the Taliban. But no: I am the daughter of a beautiful, smart woman who drew an unlucky card called younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and that is what I wrote about. Worse, my current work-in-progress is also a memoir, on an equally unhip topic: faith and doubt.

There’s more. I did not get my Master of Fine Arts degree until I was 53: enough said. And I have another career, which confuses people. IMG_0871It’s a reasonably cool career—documentary filmmaking—but alas, I’ve never had a film at Sundance (which would vault me right into the category of Permanently Cool). And I make films with my husband, which is way less cool than if I were doing it solo. Speaking of my husband: we’ve been married 27 years. Yikes! Just call us Ward and June!

And then there’s my lifetime issue of not wanting to be mean. In fact, right now, writing this, I’m uncomfortable with the whiff of snarkiness I detect; the implication that I don’t like cool writers, because I do. I like many cool writers. But that is not my point. My point is this: over my 58 years, I have learned, sometimes reluctantly but ultimately with relief, how wonderful, how freeing, it is to live life as not only an un-cool writer, but an un-cool person.

My education in un-coolness started early. There were painful drills, there were pop quizzes. But I faced my first big exam at the beginning of 9th grade at Seattle’s Eckstein Junior High School. All the aspiring cool girls, my sad self among them, hoped to be selected for something called “Girls Club,” which involved wearing special scarves and blouses once a week and engaging in lightweight service projects. Really, “Girls Club” was a sanctioned clique. My best friend—the one with whom I’d bought journals and real fountain pens and candles and browsed for old-fashioned children’s books at David Ishii’s bookstore in Pioneer Square—made the Girls Club cut. I did not. She dropped me with stunning speed.

When I came up for air after a good long cry, I realized what a great gift this was. I had been spared all the stress and effort it would have taken to retain my status as a Girls Club girl. I was free! Free to be my un-cool self. To keep on writing in my ink-stained journals; to keep on riding my bike to David Ishii’s or the Arboretum or anywhere else I could curl up with a book, undisturbed by cool people.

My junior high years coincided with my parents’ divorce, which, in that long-ago era, was definitely not a cool thing. But it was my Goddard College MFA advisor, Victoria Nelson, who helped me understand, decades later, how the divorce contributed to my liberation. Arlene and 6 kidsAll those hours I spent babysitting my younger brother and sisters while my mother went back to college gave me freedom to continue on my un-cool, future-writer path: unsupervised by adults, unseen by cool peers, I could write my fervent, un-cool poems and journal entries and read, read, read while my siblings watched cartoons or played. Sometimes we played school, with me as teacher. Or pioneers, or explorers. So not cool. I loved it.

And now that I’m a late-blooming, un-cool author, I’m more grateful than ever for the un-cool path that got me here. Not much I can do about my age. Nor my attraction to the wrong subjects. Nor my love of memoir writing, the actual hours spent writing, for which I credit my first Goddard advisor, Michael Klein, who taught me that memoir writing could be part poetry, part journalism, part essay: a hybrid, a blend, not unlike documentary filmmaking. Not unlike the way my restless brain has always worked.

The path of the un-cool writer is unpredictable. It’s more likely to result in rewards that can be measured in moments—conversations I’ve had after readings, emails from long-lost friends—than in big royalty checks or New York Times reviews. But it is the path I’m on, and I am grateful every day.

Upcoming readings: April 1, 7pm: St. James Cathedral Parish Hall, Seattle.  April 30, 7pm: The Regulator Bookshop, Durham, North Carolina.

HBBfinalcover

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

 

 

                       

Why I Volunteer for Research, Part One

EndAlz

Here are two of the many things that scare me: having to change a tire all by myself (because I’ve never done it) and camping in bear country (because I have). Here are two of the few things that don’t scare me: taking pop quizzes and getting poked with needles. These slim categories of fearlessness make me a natural volunteer for Alzheimer’s research.

My mother grew up in Montana and nothing much scared her. She not only changed tires, she put chains on tires by herself, tying them together with shoelaces if they didn’t fit right, lying under the car in a snow storm. As for camping, after a twenty-year hiatus, she decided to try it again—solo, with four children in tow. We didn’t see any bears. The worst thing that happened was that we forgot spoons for our cereal. The best thing was being with Mom, far away from all of her city responsibilities, laughing along with the rest of us as we slurped our Raisin Bran and milk from our cups.

Mom was the kind of person you would put last on your list of People Likely to Get Alzheimer’s disease. She was smart and lively and fit; she taught high school English and read like crazy; she weathered two divorces and the loss of her third husband and raised six kids alone. But somehow, Alzheimer’s found her, and it found her early. She was in her late fifties when she suspected something was wrong, was finally diagnosed at 66 and dead at 74. Meanwhile, my siblings and I were marrying, raising kids, building careers and trying to help her cope with this awful hand she’d been dealt. (You can read about it in my memoir, Her Beautiful Brain.HBBfinalcover

What was so frustrating, of course, was how little we could do for our mother. Medicine offers no antibiotic, no chemotherapy, no surgery or drugs beyond a few pills that might slow the progression of dementia. We could give her our time, ourselves, the joy of grandchildren, the pleasures of a walk or chocolate or music. What we could never give her was our sorrow and rage about Alzheimer’s. So what could we do with those emotions?

One answer I found: volunteer for research.

For me, it started by accident. Twelve years ago, I looked up the University of Washington Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC) in the phone book (remember phone books?) and gave them a call. I was seeking scientists to interview for a documentary about Alzheimer’s disease. But the administrator surprised me with a question of her own.

“Why don’t you volunteer for research?” she said. “As a control subject. It could be part of your film.”

QUIBRO_hires2And so, as I wrote in my book, I found myself in a room at Seattle’s huge VA Hospital, where the ADRC is located, taking all the memory tests I’d watched Mom flunk. The tests start with questions like, What day is it? Who is the president? and progress through tasks like spelling WORLD backwards, listening to a paragraph and recalling details ten minutes later, repeating back sequences of numbers, remembering short lists of words, distinguishing the words for colors from the actual colors, going back to that paragraph and recalling it again, going back to those numbers and doing the sequences in reverse order.

Despite my test-taking bravado, was I nervous? You bet. Am I glad I did it? Definitely.

To be continued…

Note: I wrote this post for the Alzheimer’s Association’s brand-new regional blog: check it out here. 

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

 I’ll be reading from Her Beautiful Brain at Ravenna Third Place Books on Thursday, February 12 at 7pm. You can pre-order it from Third Place or 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.

The Old Old House

IMG_1462“It’s not that far out of the way,” I thought, as I turned right towards Lake Washington instead of left towards the freeway. “And there won’t be any traffic, because everyone’s inside watching the Seahawks game.”

The Old-House Drive-By: surely I’m not the only one who does it.

I’m not talking about the house I moved out of three years ago, the house where I raised my children. I’m talking about the Old-old house: the house where I grew up.

As Seattle houses go, it’s a dime a dozen: just another Tudor cottage on a north-end street. But it is still standing, which you can’t count on any more in this town. In fact, it is so close to the ever-expanding campus of Children’s Hospital that its future is not in any way certain.

Why do I do it? The drive-by. It’s not like my childhood was a perfect idyll. It’s not like every memory I associate with that house was a happy one. But it is where I became who I am. Where I grew from the chubby five year old I was when we moved in, to the awkward pre-teen with the pointy glasses I was when my dad moved out, to the college girl I was when we all moved out. Home after my first-ever year out of the country, distracted by my first-ever real romance, I was not really taking in what my mom had just told me: we were leaving the Hansel and Gretel cottage and moving to her new husband’s house. We had two weeks to pack.

We packed. We left. We were all distracted that summer. And so we didn’t really give the house a proper good-bye. Maybe that’s why I keep circling back. Why I found myself, on this dark December night, driving the deserted North end arterials that are imprinted on my brain in a way the arterials of the South end, where I have lived for 24 years, are not.

As I approached the house, I kicked into a familiar version of high alert, butterflies beating inside, as if I was about to do something—forbidden. I slowed down. I kept my eye on the rear view mirror. No cars coming: I could dawdle.

The curtains were open. Through the glass of the old leaded windowpanes, I could see a Christmas tree in the corner next to the mantel. The white lights on the tree made the stucco walls glow. I could just glimpse the dining room through the archway where we had all crouched on the morning of the 1965 earthquake. I couldn’t see any people—they must’ve been in another room, perhaps watching the game. But the house looked alive, as in: full of the life of the family that lived there. As it should look. As I would wish it to look.

How lucky I am, to be able to see that. So many of the brick apartment buildings in Seattle, built in the same era as our Tudor cottage, are now giving way to glittering high-rises. My mother’s childhood homes in Butte, Montana were all sacrificed to open-pit mining. But I can still drive by, on a winter night, and see the old house: windows outlined in Christmas lights, tree in the corner, car in the driveway. Another family inside, loving and growing and going out into the world.

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

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

Alzheimer’s + Anger

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I am not an angry person. I’m not. I’m sure I’m not. So why, then, am I riveted by Greg O’Brien’s rage?

O’Brien is an investigative reporter who, as Maria Shriver put it, “is embedded in the mind of Alzheimer’s, which happens to be his own mind.” Five years ago, at 59, O’Brien was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s. Now, O’Brien told Shriver in an NBC interview, “60 percent of his short-term memory is gone in 30 seconds.”

And it fills him with rage. When he can’t remember how to dial his cellphone. When he looks at a lawn sprinkler and can’t remember what it is. When suddenly “you don’t know where you are, who you are, or what the hell you’re doing.”

When you recognize that there will never be enough research dollars directed towards Alzheimer’s until people understand that it’s not always a disease, said O’Brien, that “you get at 85 and then you die, and who gives a s*it.”

O’Brien’s memoir, On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer’s, is coming out in 10552552_1505946412957424_2136751528538458501_nOctober. I look forward to reading it. I know it won’t be sugar-coated. I’m glad.

O’Brien was fresh in my mind when, a few days later, I read about 16-year-old Alicia Kristjanson of Edmonds, Washington. Kristjanson will be walking in the upcoming Walk to End Alzheimer’s in honor of her father Doug, who died of the disease this year at age 49. She told the Edmonds Beacon she “would never wish what I went through with my father on anyone else, not even on my worst enemy.”

“I am not a very angry person,” Kristjanson explained to me later. “So when I do get angry, for me, the way I’ve gotten out my anger is by volunteering and doing what I’m doing to try to find a cure.”

Alzheimer’s disease: it’s not just for old people.

quibro_loresMy mother was in her late fifties when she began to worry that something was wrong with her brain. She was diagnosed at 66 and died at 74. Like Alicia Kristjanson, I would never wish what she went through on anyone. Like Greg O’Brien, I am filled with rage when I think of how much frustration and misery she had to suffer. How little we still know about why it happens. How helpless we still are to treat symptoms, let alone cure or prevent Alzheimer’s, which currently affects more than 5.2 million Americans, including 200 thousand who are younger than 65.

It does help to write. The body of literature about Alzheimer’s is growing. Lisa 10439509_10152589930319379_3980131392185575086_nGenova’s best-selling novel, Still Alice—which she finally self-published after two years of rejections—is now also a feature film starring Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin and premiering this month at the Toronto International Film Festival. Trailblazers in our own region include poet Holly Hughes, editor of the luminous anthology, Beyond Forgetting: Poetry and Prose about Alzheimer’s Disease; Unknown
poet Tess Gallagher, journalist Collin Tong, who curated a collection of essays called Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s; poet and memoirist Esther Altshul Helfgott, (Dear Alzheimer’s: A Caregiver’s Diary & Poems) and poet Lon Cole, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at 61, whose latest book is called alive & thankful. I will be honored to join their ranks when my memoir, Her Beautiful Brain, is published this month.

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It also helps to find ways to feel less alone. This month, the Alzheimer’s Association is staging Walks to End Alzheimer’s all over the country, including ten in Western and Central Washington. The Seattle Walk is on September 20th.

When you see or hear news stories about the Alzheimer’s walks, remember that Alzheimer’s is not a condition that inevitably comes with age. It is a terminal illness. It is deadly and indiscriminate. It is the sixth leading cause of death in our country, and the most expensive: more than 200 billion dollars in direct costs this year. And yet research funding for Alzheimer’s lags far behind funding for other illnesses.

Anger is an appropriate response to Alzheimer’s. Those of us who have lived with it or near it have been too quiet for too long.

Thanks to everyone who came to the September 7 Her Beautiful Brain book launch at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. So wonderful to see you all there! 

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. http://kbcs.fm/listen/podcasts/

August

IMG_1162 August is a misunderstood month. “Nothing gets done in August,” people say. “Everyone’s on vacation.” But who is everyone, and what exactly does vacation mean?

Below this surface fiction of hot, languid days, college freshmen pack up and get ready to step out of the only life they’ve ever known and into a new one they can’t quite imagine yet. Young couples get married. Babies conceived on cold winter nights are born on warm summer mornings. Teachers write lesson plans. Schoolkids—well, they’re probably still in happy denial, though a few might secretly look forward to being a whole year older than last year.

And some of us have books coming out, not long after Labor Day.

Call me a late bloomer, because I am, but publishing my first book this fall feels in many ways just as scary as going off to college.

I was an early-bloomer then. I left home for college at seventeen. And all through that long-ago August, a stranger stood in my bedroom, reminding me that I was about to step off a cliff. The stranger was a suitcase. I’d never owned one. Never needed one. But here it was, my own classic, rectangular, sky-blue Skyway, a high school graduation gift from my grandparents: quietly waiting for me to fill it. Quietly reminding me, every day, that the Skyway and I would soon be flying east into a different universe called college. A universe I longed to love but didn’t know yet if I would. Didn’t know yet that there would be moments worth loving, freedoms worth having, but crises and troughs and miseries too.

Her_Beautiful_BrainI want to love launching my first book, Her Beautiful Brain. But now I’m way beyond old enough to know there will be high and low points. There will be people who don’t like it. People I love who don’t like all of it. People whose attention I had hoped to attract, who ignore it.

That sturdy, rectangular Skyway was my sidekick, my magic carpet, my ticket out of this sleepy old Here Come the Brides town. Grandma was so proud to have picked it out for my high school graduation gift. It was our color, the blue of all of our eyes, the blue that turned up in every ski sweater she ever knit. Skyway blue, set off perfectly by the stainless steel latches that snapped open and shut like a stapler. Inside, the blue was subtly quilted and had a silver sheen, not unlike Grandma’s hair. There were shirred pockets around the sides for small items. It smelled like a new car. It smelled like my life finally beginning.

A few years ago, before we moved out of the house we’d been in for two decades, the time came to face the truth: twenty years in an unheated carport had not been kind to my old Skyway, so unkind it wasn’t even Goodwill-worthy. Off to the dump it went. Or “transfer station,” as we now say, as if we are gently “transferring” our cast-offs to a new habitat.DSC00232.JPG

As I watched the Junk-B-Gone truck pull out of the driveway, the Skyway half-buried, I felt disloyal and guilty about the haphazard way I’d stored it.

It was a tool, I told myself. Like my long-gone first Royal typewriter. Or the laptop on which I started my memoir, which is not the same laptop on which I finished it. It’s where the Skyway took me that mattered. Into the stories of my life. One of which, one month from now, I will be sharing, between the covers of a book.

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