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

Archive for the tag “midlife”


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!


DSC00865I’m wearing two wedding rings right now: mine and my husband’s. He takes his off before he plays basketball, and he left it in the car. Our son spotted it in the cup holder and I put it on. His ring is bigger than mine. It feels heavy around my forefinger. I’m aware of it as I type. He’s not home yet, so I’m still wearing it.

These two rings I’m wearing started life as four: two cheap gold bands and two silver Claddagh rings, the traditional Irish ring in which two hands hold a crowned heart. The gold bands we bought one warm summer day on our lunch hour at a discount jeweler. We were saving money for an extended honeymoon, a round-the-world backpacking trip, so we didn’t want anything expensive.

A month later, our trip was underway, but we were spending one week apart before our Scotland wedding. Rustin was with his dad in Germany and I was in Ireland with my friend Kathy, who convinced me to buy the Claddagh rings as my wedding gift to Rus.

“The crown over the heart means ‘Let love reign,’” the Irish jeweler explained.

What could be a more perfect message?

But life can be hard on rings. About a decade or so into our married life, Rus’ gold band snapped in half. And then his silver Claddagh ring broke too. Not the most welcome developments, symbolically speaking, especially since we’d been through some class-four rapids on the old marital river and were trying to just quietly row for a while in calmer waters.

One day, I was driving past the Pratt Art Institute on Jackson Street, which is known for its jewelry and metallurgy studio, and I thought, “Of course! We’ll get a jewelry maker to fuse our rings!”

And so we did. Seattle jewelry designer Shava Lawson fused the gold bands with the silver hands, hearts and crowns, adding a dab of gold to the hearts. We’ve been wearing them ever since.

That would be 26 years and four months of wearing these symbols on our fingers with their simple message: Let Love Reign. If we were single, Irish tradition would have us turn them upside to show our availability to the next prince or princess of love that might come along. But we’re not, and sometimes it stuns me with gratitude to think for how very long we have been loyal subjects of not just love in general but this one love, our love, in particular.

It stuns me and it scares me, too. My friend Kathy’s own love story ended when she died in 2012 of cancer.

I thought of Kathy a few weeks ago when I was watching Downton Abbey. Stay with me here, even if you’re not a fan. There was a scene featuring the three bereaved characters—Tom, whose young wife Sybil died in childbirth; Mary, whose husband survived the trenches of World War One only to die in a car crash; and Mary’s mother-in-law, Isobel, who reminisced for a few uncharacteristically indulgent minutes about how she fell in love with her long-dead husband. Then Isobel said to the others, “We’re the lucky ones, aren’t we?” The lucky ones: lucky to have known love, even though all three of them were parted from love by death.

As I twist these two rings of ours, both of them strong now, thanks to Shava’s careful welding—I really can’t add to that wisdom, that grace. To know love, to let love reign for a time, long or short, over your life, is indeed to be lucky.

Love often gets a pretty bad rap this time of year. It’s easy to go dark and cynical and to grumble about the commercial bonanza that is Valentine’s Day. But for those of us who feel that humble, stunned gratitude, I say: Let love reign.

Calendar notes: I’ll be speaking and screening Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story at SUNY Oswego on February 18; I’ll be reading from Her Beautiful Brain as part of a program calledWitnessing Dementia at Seattle’s Frye Art Museum at 6:30 pm on February 27 and, in celebration of the publication of an anthology called Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s (edited by Collin Tong), I’ll be reading along with some of the other authors at Elliott Bay Bookstore at 3pm on March 16.

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

September Berries

Late-season blackberries are like the denizens of a well-worn tavern: this one’s dry as an old raisin, that one’s pretty but dusted with mold; this one is big but refuses to mature, that one is sweet but too soft, turning to jam in your hand.

Picking blackberries after Labor Day is indeed labor.

And yet I find it compulsively absorbing.

I wade in the shallows at the edge of Lake Washington, scanning, searching, occasionally finding. I work my way along the shoreline, a plastic bag in my sticky purple hand, my water sandals nested in mud. The sun is hot on my back. I’m concentrating so hard you’d think I was taking the Blackberry SATs.

Often, I go berry picking with the goal of Thinking about something that needs thinking about: for example, should I let go of the dream of a traditional publisher for my memoir and try a different route? Or, on a more immediate note, how soon can I text my son, who is 3,000 miles away and in the throes of mono, and ask him if he’s feeling any better today?

But when I step into the water and begin my hunt for the plumpest, darkest berries, I stop thinking. I go into a sort of trance state in which the only thing that matters is: where’s the next one? Is it there, on that cluster? No: they look ready, but they’re not. Or there, on the next branch? No: those ones should have been picked last week. Mold has crept over them, like a white shadow.

I taste as I go: one is vinegar, one’s wine, one’s raisiny. One out of ten, aahh!—is meltingly sweet.

The late ripeners.

Is that what I am?

I hope so.

It would have been thrilling to be a published author in my twenties, or thirties, or forties. But I wasn’t. I did other things: wrote news stories, made documentary films, raised children.

Now, I’m ripening as a writer and trying hard to do it right: Study. Practice. Water and sun when I need it. Well-nourished roots. Space to stretch and put out green leaves, flowers and, finally, fruit. Which will need to picked at the right time and prepared and consumed in the best way: simply raw? Baked in a pie? Cooked into a jam?

When I was about 12, my grandparents bought a beach house near Bremerton—an unglamorous but perfect spot, just a few miles from the ferry dock. To get to it, we drove to the end of a city street and then down a long dirt road through a forested ravine loaded with blackberries.

When we stayed there for the first time with my mom, she was newly divorced and this was a new experience: not only because it was just us kids and her, but because we had rarely in our lives gone to stay anywhere overnight with our parents.

Mom was a Montana girl who knew more about woods than she did about beaches. She breathed in, deeply, joyfully, at the sight and smell of the ripe berries. She urged us to pick as many as we could, promising pies and cobblers and jars of jam.

Jam! We were skeptical. Night after night, our mother cranked out dinner for six children, but she had never done anything as homespun as make jam.

We came home that afternoon with buckets of berries, the memory of which makes the tiny bags I pick these days look even tinier and more pathetic.

Mom had been to the store. The kitchen counters were covered with jars, lids, paraffin and sugar. Her face flushed as she leaned over a pot of boiling water, fishing the jars out with barbecue tongs, explaining that she was “sterilizing” them. She looked younger than she had in months, almost childlike. Yet, oddly, she seemed to know what she was doing.

“Grandma used to make jam all the time,” she explained. “You poor things don’t even know how good this is going to taste.”

We didn’t. It was the age of Smucker’s and Welch’s. Even mothers who weren’t divorced and back in college, like our mom, did not make jam, at least not any I knew.

And she was right: homemade blackberry jam tasted nothing like what we bought at the store. It tasted like summer. It tasted like sun and rain and the woods and the beach.

And when I taste a blackberry now, I taste that jam, and I remember the ripening, the awakening, of my mom in the middle of her life. I think of what she must have felt, to be able to say: “Today, we are making jam and lots of it, because that is what I want to do and there’s no one here who’s going to try to talk me out of it!”

I haven’t made jam as an adult. I consider it a failing, that I didn’t do it when my own children were young. But at least I can call myself a late-blooming berry picker, one who specializes in finding the late-ripening fruit: the September berries.

And I won’t give that up.

And I won’t give up trying to be one myself: a late ripener.

It’s a way to honor my mother, whose mid-life ripening was thwarted, eventually, by younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

After my mother got her mid-life college degree, she became a teacher. In one of her school yearbooks, the teachers all had favorite quotes under their photos. She chose the last two lines of Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress:” Thus, though we cannot make our sun/Stand still, yet we will make him run.

I’m taking notes, Mom. Taking notes and picking berries.

Ready to do some writing? Registration is now open for my Intro to Memoir class at Seattle Central. Noncredit, no stress. Five Monday evenings, starting Sept 23. More info here. 
Radio lovers: stay tuned! Back on the air in October.


Readers: October has been a busy month here in the Restless Nest. This week, I re-broadcast a radio piece on one of my favorite subjects: breakfast.

“So, how’s the Empty Nest going for you?” the Other Mom asked me when we ran into each other in the park.  Our children were the same ages: 18 and 21.   The younger ones recently graduated from the same high school.

“It’s a little strange.  But I guess I don’t miss getting up every day at 6:30.”

“Oh, that wasn’t an issue for me,” she responded.  “My daughter was so self-sufficient.”

The implication being, of course, that our son was not: that it was his sorry lack of self-sufficiency that got my husband and me out of bed every morning.

But that wasn’t it at all, I wanted to explain, but didn’t.

I wanted to be there every day, just to say “Good-bye!  Have a great day!” as Nick ran out the door.  I wanted to know he had breakfast in his stomach and a sack lunch in his backpack.  I knew he didn’t “need” us to get up.  He probably didn’t even “want” us to get up.  But isn’t one of the enduring themes of the teenage years that secret feeling that no one really cares?  And when you’re having one of those dark adolescent moments, might it not help to be able to say to yourself, At least my parents get up every morning and pop my toast in for me?  At least they say good-bye when I leave the house?

But I didn’t say any of that to the Other Mom.  Especially since she was the same Other Mom who, the first time we ever chatted, scolded me for putting my daughter in an “elitist” gifted program, the same program she put her own daughter in a few years later.

Parents can be so judgmental.  Myself included.  In Seattle, we judge each other for, among other things, not offering the most perfectly healthy snacks or allowing violent video games or too much TV.  Or any TV at all.  But one of the wisest, most non-judgmental moms I know once told me, when Nick was still in middle school, that she would continue to make peanut butter toast in the mornings and pack sack lunches until her tall teenaged boys absolutely forbade it, because to be able to send them out into the day with good food gave her such comfort: the comfort of knowing that, whatever else might happen to them that morning or afternoon, breakfast and lunch were covered.

I can do that for Nick, I thought at the time.  I will do that.

Her twin boys are 21 now, seniors in college, living off campus, cooking and eating with impressive self-sufficiency.

I don’t miss smearing peanut butter and jam on bread, bagging carrots, rummaging in the cupboards for trail mix or cookies.  I do miss knowing that Nick has a brown bag full of healthy food in this pack, food he can “eat standing up,” his one specific lunch-packing request.

I don’t miss having to get up at 6:30.

I do miss the two-second, patiently tolerated goodbye kiss.  That I do miss.

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


We Northwesterners think of where we live as blue and green, like those pictures of the planet from outer space. Lots of water. Lots of trees. Which is why fire shocks us so. Suddenly, a deliciously warm week becomes ominously hot. Suddenly, landscapes we know and love explode in flames.

This week, it was the Taylor Bridge fire, just east of Cle Elum, a scant 90 minutes from downtown Seattle. More often, the fires burn further east.

When I was a child, we rarely crossed the mountains into fire country. Forest fires were something that happened far from my blue and green world. But in the past twenty years, my family has crossed the North Cascades to backpack, hike, camp and rent a cabin in the Methow Valley every summer. We were there not long after the terrible Thirtymile Fire of 2001, in which four firefighters were killed. That summer, the valley was as thick with stunned grief as it was with the heavy smoke of a fire that’s been doused into ashy mud.

Then and now, we hear the usual reminders of the benefits of fire. Of how fires are part of the forest ecology; vital for the transmission of seeds and regeneration of dozens of species. All true, but hard to hear when a place you love has been charred to nakedness.

This summer, we drove up the long east branch of the Chewuch River Road, where a succession of fires has scorched thousands of acres in the past decade, to hike up Tiffany Mountain. The landscape was lonely. Eerie. Mile after mile of giant black toothpicks: no branches, no leaves.

But when we got out of the car and onto the trail, we saw a different story. Abundant fireweed—tall, bright green plants with purple tops like oversized sweet peas—filled the forest floor. Waist-high pines and knee-high fir trees waved in the breeze. Alpine flowers—lupine, Queen Anne’s lace, paintbrush—crowded the clearings. The ghostly tree trunks, surrounded as they were by all this growth, took on a sentinel quality: gaunt elders watching over the next generation.

It’s an irresistible metaphor: how fire clears the way for new growth; how we have no control over when and where the blaze will occur. Over the terror of the flames; the pain of the burn; the shock when it’s over.

I didn’t think it applied to me, right now, not really. Not until I got home from our hiking trip and suddenly, without warning, got kicked in the gut with a whole messy smoky stew of fears about the future, about work, about money, about meaning. You know: about everything.

There’s a writer that pastors and chaplains turn to when they’re feeling burned-out. (Speaking of fire metaphors.) William C. Martin writes this: “Discontent is a wonderful gift. It tells us something. Let it burn openly. If it is deep and valid it will burn and cleanse the underbrush and prepare for new growth. If it is superficial and false, it will find no fuel and burn out quickly.”

Some of my discontent was nothing more than post-vacation re-entry syndrome, as I like to call it, and it did burn out quickly. But some of it is real and important and I’m trying hard to let it burn openly. To make way for new growth. For the seedlings and the fireweed. Which deserves a much prettier name. It’s really the most beautiful of all the mountain flowers.

 I’m teaching a non-credit memoir class this fall at Seattle Central. Six Wednesday evenings. Join me! and/or spread the word! Here’s the link. 

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.

Every Age

Walking up Michigan Avenue on a cold Chicago morning, I know what I look like: a middle-aged woman suited up for a brisk Sunday walk. Practical shoes, corduroy jeans, warm jacket.  Exactly the kind of outfit my mother used to make me wear when I was four years old and I would’ve rather just thrown on a party dress.  Exactly the kind of outfit I’ve worn all my life, setting out for long walks, in any weather, in the many cold northern cities I’ve called home: Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Norwich and Cambridge, England.

What’s so hard to explain to younger people is this: the older you get, the more ages you are. I mean all at once. In every moment of your life.  I’m not just 55, I’m every age I ever was.  I’m the four-year-old who wants to skip and sing. I’m the teenager, walking because I need to be alone. I’m the twenty-something, wishing I could look attractive and stay warm at the same time.  I’m the mom, wishing all the children I see on this chilly day would please, please wear their hats.

I was in Chicago last weekend for the ridiculously gigantic writers’ conference known as AWP: the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.  Picture nearly ten thousand writers of all ages, racing from bookfairs to seminars in some of Chicago’s most historic hotels—the flagship Hilton across from Grant Park, where President Obama celebrated on Election Night 2008.  The Palmer House, favored by Ronald Reagan.  When Reagan was president, I was a cub reporter in Chicago and grateful to be a girl, in those sexist times, because it meant I didn’t have to work what was known as the Reagan Death Watch, which consisted of hanging out all night at the Palmer House in case Reagan, robust though he was, but—let’s face it—well over 70, suddenly keeled over.

As I walked down Michigan, my brain shifted back and forth from the Reagan era to the Obama era.  My life then. My life now.

My life then: twenty-something. Yearning. Learning my new trade, journalism. Wondering whether my boyfriend and I would marry. Torn on a daily basis between loving life with him and yearning to be… someone else. But I wasn’t sure who.

My life now: fifty-something. Married 24 years, but not to that boyfriend.   Sharing a Chicago hotel room, this AWP weekend, with my 22-year-old daughter. Where did the decades go?

Walking south on Michigan, you can see a faded advertisement for Gossard Corsets still visible on the side of a brick building that now overlooks a Zip Car lot.  This is what 55 means: you’re so old that when you were a very little girl, there were a very few ancient women who still wore some version of a corset. And now you’re living in the era of the Zip Car.

My daughter’s friend drove us to O’Hare Airport in a Zip Car. He’s in Chicago working for the campaign to re-elect our first black president. Could the women who wore Gossard Corsets ever have imagined such a time? Could I, thirty years ago, as I waited for the latest Reagan update in a smoky newsroom full of manual typewriters?

“Live in the moment,” people like to say. It’s good advice. But we don’t.

At one AWP panel, novelist Alice LaPlante suggested that one secret to the success of acclaimed short story writer Alice Munro is that she understands this truth: every present moment is freighted with every past moment of our lives.

Yes, I thought, as I walked up Michigan Avenue.  I am every age I ever was. And that is what makes life meaningful, and poignant.

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

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

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