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

Archive for the tag “middle age”

Foiled Again

DSC00853Wow, there was a lot of gray hair at the Oscars this year. Kidding! Sure, George Clooney’s silver head was in every other cutaway shot. And French best actress nominee Emmanuelle Riva looked fabulously un-dyed on this, her 86th birthday. But even Jane Fonda and Shirley Bassey (75 and 76 respectively), do not dare bare their true hair. Barbra Streisand (70), Meryl Streep (63)—no way.

I thought of them all as I sat in a salon chair, 50 or so squares of foil shooting out from my head, flipping through More magazine. Looking like an extra in a low-budget sci-fi film. Feeling morally deficient. I really want to be the kind of woman who can own the gray: Emmy Lou Harris. Jamie Lee Curtis. But I’m not. I’m just not. Not yet.

I tried. I stopped coloring my hair for about two years. I thought I was doing OK with the gradually emerging, real, salt-n-pepper me, until I saw a photo in which I resembled my grandmother. Not my stylish Seattle grandma: no, I resembled my dear, frumpy Finnish-American grandma, whose hair was the same steely gray I now saw on my own head. And what is so wrong with that, you might ask? What’s wrong is that I often work with people 10, 20, even 30 years younger than I am, and I can’t yet afford to frighten them away by resembling their grandmothers. I literally can’t afford it: in the often arbitrary world of self-employed creative professionals, the wrong first impression could cost you the job.

This is what I tell myself. That it’s not about me not accepting my age, it’s about our culture, our society, not accepting my age. But how am I helping if I capitulate and pour expensive chemicals on my head? I’m not helping, not at all. I’m contributing to the never-ending silliness of our age-allergic age. And I know this.

And I know that serious people who I respect will judge me, rightly, for my vanity.

However. There really is a however to this story. It’s about the self-knowledge that you start to bank as you age: about knowing what works for your self-esteem, your ability to get up in the morning and seize the day.  And we’re all wired a little differently. For example, it doesn’t bother me that I can’t afford to buy my wardrobe at high-end department stores. I like treasure-hunting at consignment shops. But hair is different. Your hair frames your face, which means when you greet yourself in the mirror at 7am, your hair is part of the package. And when my hair was gray, I looked in the mirror and I felt old. And—this is the interesting part—I think it made me, ever so subtly, act old. Old-er. You know: Oh that achy hip; oh I’m tired; oh let’s not go out. That sort of thing. This might not be true for you, but it was true for me.  And it bothered me.

In a lovely, wrenching, Oscar-nominated documentary called Mondays at Racine, women with cancer talked about how losing their hair was one of the hardest things they had to deal with.  Because, whether their hair was short and spiky or long and lush, it was the frame around the face they saw in the mirror. Without it, their faces looked as exposed and vulnerable as their cancer made them feel. Many of them learned to own the baldness, to embrace it as part of their new survivor-self. But it was not ever easy.

Men’s hair is, of course, a whole different subject. Barack Obama, George Clooney? No career problems we can pin on their heads. But that unlucky guy who is balding at 30? I bet he can relate to the way women feel about going gray.

Back to Emmy Lou and Jamie Lee: I admire them so much, just as I admire every woman I know who is not hung up, like I am, on hair color. That list includes my sister and sister-in-law, who both look gorgeous and youthful and ought to be an inspiration to me. And they will be, when the time comes. But I’m just not ready yet. Are you? I would love to hear why or why not.

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

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

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

Leaves, roots, flowers, fruits

Leaves, roots, flowers, fruits. When you’re in a searching mode, you hear clues everywhere, even on the call-the-gardeners radio show. What could this mean, I ask myself? I know they’re talking about crop rotation, but what could it actually mean to me personally?

Act. Observe. Be Open. I recently went to a yoga class for the first time in quite a while and this was the phrase the teacher repeated and riffed on. Act. Observe. Be Open. My mind raced as I stretched into unfamiliar positions. What could it mean? Maybe… take action, but be observant and open as you do?

Now, I’m trying to put these pieces together. I am trying to act, observe and be open as I rotate into a new phase of my working life, but it is one tendon-straining reach. I have to fight the urge to curl up instead of act. I have to fight the impulse to constantly judge myself, instead of gently observing. And I don’t want to Be Open, I want answers now.

So back to the gardeners and their formula for crop rotation. Leaves, roots, flowers, fruits. I’m guessing the idea is to rotate the same patch of dirt from year to year between plants grown for their leaves, roots, flowers or fruits, respectively. So: one year lettuce, the next year carrots, then daisies, then berries? Something like that.

Viewed from a metaphoric gardening perspective, I think what I’m trying to do right now is a little crop rotation. It’s not always a pleasant job. You have to pull up and get rid of the old plants. You have to get the soil ready for the new ones. Then you have to plant your tiny seeds, water them and weed.  It is work.

And for me that’s what this is about: my work. I don’t want to stop making films for a living. I just want to move that crop over to a new bed, freshen it up, and get some new stuff growing too. I want to mix more writing and more teaching into my rotation. But I’m not known as a writer or a teacher: I’m starting there at the seedling level.

Of course the prediction, made loudly several times per day, of my killer-dandelion-sized inner demons is: These new crops are going to fail, wither, die!

And my instinct, like a good gardener, is to yank those dandelions right out and throw them away. They’re bad, right? Weeds, right?

Not according to the principles of permaculture, which is all about encouraging mutually beneficial relationships in the garden. A trained permaculturist would tell you the biggest baddest old dandelions are great for breaking up compacted soil, working it with their deep taproots. Getting it ready for more fertile future endeavors.

I like that.

Could I learn to think of all my fears of failure, success, change I think is what we’re getting at here—could I learn to think of these fears as useful, dirt-digging dandelions, working me up into a state where new stuff can grow? Hmmm.

I could take the yoga teacher’s advice and act on this. I could. Act, observe—and maybe even be open.

News Flash: Our film, Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story is now available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites. 

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

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

Grown-up Brain

Sitting in my email inbox is a message with this subject line: “Five memory-killing foods you should NEVER eat!” But does this email tell me what they are? No, of course not, because the spammer who sent it wants me to click on their hack-trap  link. The email is from someone named “Alzheimer Cure,” whose address is gaynell at brendy dot lookharbor dot info. Hmmmm.

Clearly, Gaynell, you have not heard the good news about the middle-aged brain. Turns out I am not a), so dumb and desperate I’m going to open your email or b), on some grim downward slide that started around 25, when my brain peaked, and will continue until I keel over.

Clearly, Mr. or Ms. Gaynell at Brendy dot Lookharbor, you have not read the book I just read: The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain, by New York Times science editor Barbara Strauch.

This is a book is packed with good news: the kind of news that tends to slip under the radar because it is so counter-cultural and confusing to our youth-worshipping media world. Strauch’s mission is to bring us up to date on the brain research of the past few decades, nearly all of which refutes the prevailing cultural brain myth of our time: namely, that young brains work better.

She does not deny the specific ways in which youthful brains have it over middle-aged or older brains, which mostly have to do with speed and short-term recall. But she paints a fascinating picture of the ways in which our brains not only compensate for those age-related changes, but in most cases, vastly over-compensate. I am simplifying 200 pages of great science writing here, but the main point is this: what we lose in speed and recall we more than make up for in judgment, which builds up over decades of perceiving, discerning, weighing, deciding. Wisdom: that’s the old-fashioned word for this.

And even as those of us over 45 lament our inability to instantly recall names or keyboard shortcuts, we get a lot of mileage out of our accrued wisdom. But we rarely acknowledge this, even to ourselves. All our lives have been spent in the era of youth-worship, of middle-aged crises, of the acceptance of inevitable brain deterioration. Experience, mastery, knowledge—those are not words we’ve been conditioned to value, not in the same way we value words like innovation, genius and start-up.

About that notion of brain deterioration: recent research shows not only do we not lose large numbers of neurons over time, our brains are actually capable of making new neurons.  Or, as Strauch puts it, “scientists now believe that the brain does not undergo complete disintegration as we age.” Not only that, but—and here, perhaps, our obsession with youth should get a nod—researchers can now clearly see the connections between exercise, nutrition, cognitive engagement and brain health. Especially exercise. Which means: if you want your wise, middle-aged brain to stay in great shape, there ARE things you can do. Number one: stay physically active. Thirty minutes or more, five times a week, or more.

Strauch thinks it’s time for a “middle-aged revolution.” After all, she says, the numbers are on our side. Maybe we need a better label, though. The word “youth” has such a nice whoosh to it.  “Middle-aged,” not so much.

Let’s all go for a long walk, run or bike ride and think about it.

News Flash: Our film Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story is now available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.

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

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

Thank you, Mary Margaret

Please help me in my campaign to prolong Mary Margaret Haugen’s moment in the spotlight. Already fuzzy on placing that name? She’s the conservative, church-going, democratic Washington state senator from cozy Camano Island who, like our church-going democratic governor, had the courage to change her mind. Thanks to Mary Margaret Haugen, gay marriage is almost certainly going to be legal in our state, very soon.

How I admire a politician who thoughtfully and deliberately Changes. Her. Mind.  This is not what we love to call “waffling.” This is the human brain doing what it does best: considering new ideas. Pondering them. Reflecting. Praying. Departing from long-unquestioned assumptions to ask and answer questions one might never previously have thought to ask.

This is why gay marriage is such a linchpin issue: because it is getting rational, thoughtful people all over the American belief spectrum to think in new ways. To have new conversations.

I’ve been reading a book by the Quaker writer Parker Palmer called A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life in which he talks about how damaging it is to live a life in which “soul” and “role” are kept firmly separate, our outer selves orbiting further and further from the compass of our true, inner selves.  Politicians, perhaps more than any of us, are expected to wall themselves off in this way, keeping firmly out of sight any quirks or views their constituents might reject.

Gay marriage has given them, and us, a chance to ask: OK, how do I really, truly feel about this and why? And how would it change my life if I changed my mind? I would be changing the lives of others, and that’s pretty great. But might I also feel more whole, holding this new view?

Like Washington Governor Chris Gregoire, state Senator Haugen did not arrive at her decision lightly.  In a prepared statement, Haugen said, “For some people, this is a simple issue. I envy them. It has not been simple or easy for me.”  She went on to say, “I think we should all be uncomfortable sometime.” She concluded by pointing out the only reason she was the so-called 25th vote, the vote that ensures passage, is because she insisted on taking as much time as she needed to hear from her constituents and to sort it out for herself, to reconcile her religious beliefs with her beliefs, “as an American, as a legislator, and as a wife and mother who cannot deny to others the joys and benefits I enjoy.”

Wow.  I want more politicians who think we should all be uncomfortable sometimes. Who think conversations that change minds are possible. Do I even need to bring up the Republican debates for contrast?

It is interesting to see these grown-up men working so hard to portray themselves as full of steely and unchangeable resolve, as if the ability to cling to one viewpoint without ever wavering is exactly what we’re looking for in a world leader.  Isn’t one of the great reliefs of getting past, say, 30, the realization that you will, in fact, continue to change and grow for the rest of your life?  I’d like to think so.  Mary Margaret Haugen, you’re living proof.

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


 I’m turning 55.  What a great opportunity to flagellate myself for all that I’ve not done or done wrong.  For all the ways I’ve fallen short!

This is how the habitually self-bashing person thinks.  Maybe I’m not alone: Maybe it’s how a lot of us think.

A wise man about a decade older than I am once said to me, when I made some routinely self-deprecating remark at a church meeting: “Hey Ann, you know that stuff we hear every Sunday about forgiveness?  That’s supposed to start with yourself.  That famous line about loving your neighbor?  It’s ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ remember?”

Many’s the new year I’ve vowed to be kinder to myself.  And in many ways, I have, over time, learned to be much kinder to me than I was as a teenager.  Back then, the way I treated myself resembled the way Jane Eyre is treated at that awful orphanage.  You’re ugly, you’re not a good person, you’re terrible at sports, you’ll never be popular because you’re just a big loser, went the script that ran in my Orphanage Headmistress head.

Things have improved considerably since then.

One of the ways in which I now try to treat myself more kindly is to accept my lack of self-confidence, rather than trying to make it go away.  I used to think I shouldn’t talk about it, but talking about it can be a way of getting a little help from my friends, or at least getting them to help me laugh at myself. For example: my agent recently wrote in an email that trying to sell a memoir, like mine, that has anything to do with Alzheimer’s disease is like, “hurling Kryptonite.” Not exactly a confidence-booster. But it’s something I’ve repeated and actually laughed about with several writer friends, because I know they will bolster my courage to take the next step: pitching the book, myself, to a smaller, more Kryptonite-friendly press.

So: I don’t have the self-confidence to be, say, a politician.  But I do have the nerve to keep writing.

And though I flunked flirtation, I did find the courage to love.

And though I flunked Getting Rich, all my life I have sought and mostly found work that is meaningful.

Getting back to that wise man at my church: when I was a self-judging teen, I was much more pious than I am now.  Fanatical, at times.  But eventually my youth group-inspired fundamentalism lost out to my love of literature, history, travel, college and, let’s face it, the hedonism of the times… for which my inner Joan of Arc regularly rose up to berate me, calling me out as the spiritually spineless, directionless, purposeless child of the 70s I was.

It wasn’t until I had children of my own that, like so many of my age-mates, I found myself back in the pew. Humbler, this time. Less fervent. More willing to accept how very little I, or anyone else, knows about what or who God is. But it has taken some time to shake the adolescent self-judging out of my spiritual life.  Clearly, I’m not done. It still rears up, as, for example, a big birthday approaches.

Which is why I look forward to reading Patricia Cohen’s new book, In Our Prime: the Invention of Middle Age.  In an essay published recently in the New York Times, Cohen writes that most elderly people look back not on youth but on middle age as the best time of life. Perhaps because it’s when we learn, finally, to be a little kinder to ourselves. To count blessings more eagerly than we enumerate failures.

And here’s one I’m counting right now: on the day before my birthday, a short piece I wrote called “Blue Nest” was published in the new Verbalist’s Journal. You can download it for free.  Check it out!

Are We Old Yet?

It’s kind of touching, isn’t it, the way we fifty-somethings insist on calling ourselves “middle-aged.”  As if.  People: I read in the paper this morning: the average life span in America is still 78.  Half of 78 is still 39, no matter how you slice and dice it.

I remember being 39.  I do, really.  I remember thinking people in their fifties who couldn’t say the word “old” were kind of sad.

At 39, I had a seven-year-old, a four-year-old, a novel I so hoped would find a publisher and a freelance career I had allowed to dwindle.  My 65-year-old mother’s disturbing memory lapses were soon to be given the dreaded label that would define her final descent: Alzheimer’s disease.  At 39, the statistical middle of an American life, I did not feel young, middle-aged or old; I felt seasick. I had jettisoned the ballast of a secure job. I believed motherhood, marriage, writing and my mom’s desire to be a hands-on grandma would be my anchors for the next decade or so.

Looking back, I see my younger self as touchingly naïve.  Surely not at any sort of mid-point, any sort of stable axis.

But are we ever? And isn’t that what’s so ridiculous, really, about the whole notion of a “middle age”?  Because of course we don’t know whether we’re going to get 78 years, or 98, or maybe only 28 or 58.  So when exactly should we call ourselves “middle-aged?”

What we do learn, as we churn through the decades, is that whatever middle age is, it is not the same as wisdom.  Which, we also grudgingly learn, is not some inner lightbulb that suddenly clicks on.

Wisdom is more sedimentary. Layered. It’s more like that fusty old poem called “The Chambered Nautilus,” in which the poet imagines us adding years, like rooms, to the spiraling shell of our lives.

“Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul, as the swift seasons roll!” poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Senior intoned, already well past the mid-point—though of course he didn’t know it—of his impressive 85 years.

Our generation doesn’t warm to the word “stately” the way Holmes’ did.  We don’t want to be stately snails; we want to hold on to shiny, speedy youthfulness.

And yet: there’s an appreciation of slowness that creeps up on you, maybe somewhere between, oh, 39 and 54, during those years when life often feels way too much like a white-water rafting trip, rapids all around, your little boat barely under control.  You find that the stuff you really care about doing—writing, for me, or good conversations over dinner, or reading or growing a garden—mostly gets done slowly.

There was a story in the New York Times last week about an 85-year-old jazz piano player named Boyd Lee Dunlop.  He released his debut CD this weekend.  That is one stately pace.

I know one reason I sometimes, still, want to speed around and Get a Lot Done is because I watched time and memory run out for my mother and I fear her fate.  I dread it.  It’s what often wakes me up at five in the morning.

But rushing around doesn’t make it better, it makes it worse.  Boyd Dunlop didn’t just decide it was time for a CD at 85 and poof! There it was.  It took him four years of pounding away on an out-of-tune piano at the nursing home where he lives.

Boyd’s a good model for us wannabe middle-agers.  I bet he doesn’t spend much time at all dwelling on age.  He’s way too busy making music.

Desert Rain

It was pouring as I drove my tin-can rental car up the hill outside Tucson.  This is crazy, I thought.  Crazy that it’s raining in the desert, and crazy that I haven’t turned back yet.

I listened to the news as I splashed along.  An 85-year-old man, known to have dementia, was missing: went to the supermarket, never returned home.

I pulled into the Tucson Mountain lot.  The rain suddenly stopped.  So I grabbed my knapsack and began to follow the first trail I saw.

A hundred yards from the car, I hesitated, confused.  The trail had disappeared.  Or rather, there were suddenly half a dozen trails: all formed in the past hour, by rivulets of rain.  Whatever footprints might have once marked the real trail had been washed away.  There was no one else around.

This must be what dementia feels like, I thought.

I turned around and spotted a stone shelter just above the parking lot.  My beacon: When I turned around, I would head straight for it.

I knew I was in no danger, not really, yet I felt queasy: do scorpions come out after a rain in the desert?  Rattlesnakes?  I had no idea.  Could the clouds gather again so quickly and rain hard enough to cause a flash flood?  Probably.

I felt small and humble and not very smart.  But I pressed on, thirsty for a little fresh air and exercise.  Twenty minutes, then I’d turn around.

40 minutes later, I made it back to where I started, dry and unbitten by any snakes (though I did have a cactus needle stuck in my sock), diving into the car just as it began to pour again.

Maybe it was the sheets of rain or maybe it was the fact that I didn’t have a Tucson map, but I got myself all turned around trying to find a café I remembered. I pulled into a 7-Eleven.  The cashier had no maps and didn’t know Tucson much better than I did.  But a girl in a pizza parlor shirt came in to buy cigarettes for her boss.  She looked so young the clerk carded her.  I asked her if she knew how to get to 4th Avenue.

“I just moved here from California,” she said.  “But I’ve got a map in my car.  You can have it.”

When I told my dad and stepmom I’d come down to see them in Phoenix, I did not expect rain.  I did not expect to get lost on a trail or in Tucson.  Visiting Phoenix, I am used to feeling like the youngster: invincible, unwrinkled (OK, maybe less wrinkled), high on Vitamin D.  Like the girl from California who no longer needed her map, not like the man I heard about on the radio.

After that first day, the sun came out and stayed out.  I took a map on my next hike, the beautiful Mormon Trail loop at South Mountain.

This time, there were plenty of footprints.  And other people, like the two men I passed—skin like armadillos, Lawrence of Arabia-style sunhats flapping—so deep in conversation they barely nodded at me.

“The thing about cosmology,” one said to the other, “is that it’s isotropic!”

      Isotropic: I looked it up later.  It means exhibiting properties—such as light transmission—that are the same in all directions.

The desert may feel isotropic after rain, but it’s not.  One way leads to confusion; the other back to the car.

We humans are not so isotropic either.  And yet.  If you pull out for the wide wide shot, we too are part of cosmology, of the infinite, isotropic universe.  Especially in middle age: we’re young, we’re old, we’re every age we ever were or will be all at once.  Sometimes in one hour of hiking.

Post Navigation