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

Archive for the tag “Obama”

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.



DSC00865One September day, when I was still a child but thought I was not, off I flew to Boston. My checked bags included a shiny trunk in a retro black and white pattern and a sky blue Skyway suitcase. I wore a new plaid blouse, brown corduroys and a brown hooded sweater. I was 17 and I didn’t look a day older.

Boston received me the way Boston does: with a bit of a yawn. Oh, here she comes; yet another wide-eyed rube from the Wild West come east to get some schooling. Sorry, sweetheart, but you’re a dime a dozen in this town. Never mind: have some chowder. Have a corn muffin. You want your coffee regular? Which in Boston, of course, means with cream and sugar.

I didn’t care, because I knew my real life was beginning.

In the mayhem of this past week, in our global obsession with Boston, with the bombs at the marathon finish line and who put them there and why; in our grief for the dead and injured, one of President Obama’s finest moments slipped under the news radar. On Thursday, hours before the terror and drama of the manhunt began, before we knew anything about two brothers with roots in Chechnya, the people of Boston gathered at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross to mourn. It was an interfaith service featuring many eloquent speakers. I happened to catch most of it on the radio. But it was our president who made me cry, because he reminded me what Boston means to me and to so very many others, including Michelle, including him.

“There’s a piece of Boston in me,” the President said, and I knew exactly what he meant. He recalled how the city welcomed him as a young law student. He talked about how he and Michelle knew its streets and squares.

“For millions of us,” the president said, “what happened on Monday is personal. It’s personal.” Yes it is.

When I went off to college, my destination was Wellesley, way out in the suburbs. After graduating from public high school in pre-Microsoft, pre-Nirvana Seattle, Wellesley—with its foreign princesses, New York sophisticates, New England bluebloods—was the first great culture shock of my life.  When the hothouse atmosphere got to be too much for me, Boston was where I went for relief.

I didn’t mind the long trip on the bus or the T. I craved the cobbled streets of Back Bay and Beacon Hill. I needed the cacophony of Park Street Station, the expanse of Copley Square. I reveled in the anonymity of cafes where even a greenhorn girl from out west could blend in. Boston wasn’t New York, but it was urban in ways that Seattle was not. It was historic, but it felt familiar: all my life, I’d heard of Harvard Yard, Old North Church, Boston Harbor, but I’d never seen them. And now here they were, like long-lost relatives who had been waiting to meet me.

In his speech, Obama quoted a poem by E.B. White, in which White calls Boston not a capital or a place, but a perfect “state of grace.” I suspect White, a New Yorker, meant it more playfully than ponderously. But Obama lifted the phrase up a few notches, and I don’t think White, the author of Charlotte’s Web, would have minded. He would have understood our post-marathon need for grace, the way Charlotte the spider-who-saved-a-pig understood, the way Boston understands when it welcomes naïve students and runners from around the world who have dreamed of this place, who need it, who will make it a part of the new selves they are creating. For whom this city and what happens to it will always be personal.

 Check out my recent guest blog on inspired by Brenda Miller and Holly Hughes’ wonderful book, The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. 

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

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


DSC00853“Just imagine they’re all four years old.” Someone once told me to try that when I was nervous about speaking in front of a group. Maybe you’ve heard it too: Look out at the audience and imagine them all as… preschoolers. Clearly, whoever coined that little quip had not spent a lot of time around young children.

One of the reasons I am excited about Obama’s proposed preschool-for-all initiative is that it is going to be so educational for parents. Preschool is not just valuable for children’s development, it’s valuable for parents’ development. Think about it: is there any job for which we show up so utterly unprepared, uneducated and unqualified?

As a young mom, I naively assumed guidance would spring up along the way, like traffic lights and road signs do when you’re driving. But more often, early parenthood resembles the confusion that ensues at a major intersection when the power’s out. No one knows what to do until the traffic cops arrive in their orange vests and jump out into the chaos and start signaling. Good preschool teachers are like those gutsy traffic cops. New parents show up, tired and edgy from all the inching along they’ve done in the clueless dark, and suddenly there is someone on the road who can show them the way.

If you’re lucky enough to have access to and are able to afford good-quality preschool—your child’s teachers will be—unlike you—prepared by years of experience. They will have actual degrees in early childhood education. Whatever your worry might be about your preschooler—is this cold really strep throat? Do these backwards twos and Ns mean dyslexia?—chances are it is something the teachers have seen 200 times before. Which means they—unlike you—actually know what to do about it.

There’s a tone to the media coverage of Obama’s pre-school proposal that suggests it is something that will mainly benefit poor families. This is true, and important, in terms of basic access and affordability. But we have to be careful here.  To suggest that parents who are educated and affluent are somehow inherently gifted with better parenting skills—and, therefore, their children are less in need of a good preschool—is misguided and arrogant. Education and income are no substitute for experience. And experience is what the teacher has. Not the new parent.

When I walked into my daughter’s classroom on her first day of preschool, her baby brother squirming in my arms, I remember feeling like I’d just waded into a knee-high, churning mountain stream of three-year-old energy. Then I looked up and saw Joni, her teacher, smiling at me, radiating calm, as she knelt to welcome Claire. The school’s motto was, quote, “Children thrive in a happy medium.” On that first day and every day, Joni embodied that notion. She had been teaching preschool for many years. Joni knew more about 3 and 4 year olds than I will ever know.

People talk about the “soft skills” you learn in preschool. But “soft” does not mean “unimportant.” In their central Seattle preschool, my kids learned to play, share and work stuff out with all kinds of other children. They thrived in a happy medium full of other kids.

Some people worry we’ll now start obsessively testing pre-schoolers. I hope not. I hope the “soft skills” maintain their high-priority spot on the preschool to-do list. Others worry the preschool programs Obama has cited as models can’t be scaled up to accommodate millions of children.  And then there’s the issue of how to pay for it all.

The price will be higher if we don’t. The research is in and it’s firm: every dollar spent on early childhood education saves dollars later in life. Children thrive in a happy medium. And so do their parents.

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.

Women Warriors

DSC00853I claim I want to better understand war. But my gut reaction to the news about women being allowed to serve in combat positions? Queasy. As if what the headlines are shouting is: “Hooray! Women will now be allowed to do the most dangerous, spiritually challenging, morally ambiguous dirty work on the planet!”

New York Times columnist Gail Collins set me straight, reminding me that “They killed the Equal Rights Amendment to keep this from happening, but, yet, here we are. And about time.”

Collins goes on to recall the words of retired Air Force Brigadier General Wilma Vaught, who once told her: “I think people have come to the sensible conclusion that you can’t say a woman’s life is more valuable than a man’s life.”

The logic is clear: if we invest our nation’s security in professional warriors and if we believe women deserve equal access to all career paths, then women who make the personally huge commitment to serve in the United Sates Armed Forces must not be barred, on the basis of gender, from combat roles.

So why my retrograde queasiness? Because, like any pacifist, I find it so difficult to turn my thoughts to combat at all, no matter what the context. But—as I learned from Karl Marlantes’ book, What it is Like to Go to War (see last week’s post)—I know turning our backs on war is not the answer. Especially the wars we support with our tax dollars.

It has been 40 years this month since we ended the draft. It has also been 40 years since the Supreme Court’s Roe versus Wade decision, which legalized abortion. Though Roe v Wade was rightly hailed as a victory for women’s rights, the court’s decision had the unintended consequence of pumping up the volume on both sides of the larger movement for equality to such a level that passage of the Equal Rights Amendment quickly spiraled from assumed to doomed.

The language was so simple—“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex”—many of us were stunned when it failed. How could our fathers, brothers, boyfriends, husbands—let alone other women—oppose something so basic? And yet, as Gail Collins reminds us, it was the very idea of women in combat that ultimately killed the ERA. Perhaps for a nation still recoiling from the Viet Nam War, still without any bedrock confidence that the draft would not be reinstated the very next time Congress had a good excuse, the thought of sending sons and daughters to war was just too much, illogical though that may seem to us now.

Forty years is a long time. Our hearts and minds have changed. On Inauguration Day, we heard President Obama invoke not only rights for women and minorities but also, for the first time in an inaugural address, gay rights. As he poetically put it, “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.”

Obama went on to say that “our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.” And now wives, mothers and daughters who want to earn their living on the battlefield can officially do so–not just unofficially, as so many already have. Which could mean, ten years from now, we’ll have more women generals and admirals. We don’t know yet how this might change military culture (especially regarding epidemic sexual assault) or the way we fight wars. But we can hope it will.

This Thursday, January 31, 2013, I’ll be reading as part of the Writers in The Schools writer reading at Richard Hugo House. 7:30 to 9pm. The bar will be open and admission is free!

 Also: I have guest posts up on two sites I love,  A Geography of Reading and Earthy Sophisticate.

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.

Connoisseurs of Light

In January, we in the Northwest become connoisseurs of light. Gourmets who savor every spoonful. As the sun rises behind clouds on a Saturday morning, I lie in bed and study the bare branches of the old red oak in the park across the street and conclude: yes, they do look ever so slightly fuller. It’s the light, plumping the tiny buds inside each twig, like an artist going over his pencil marks with a black felt-tip marker.

Later, we walk out of a matinee at 4:30 and are surprised to see streaks of light still in the sky. The next day, there will be a few more minutes of light. And each day after that. Every single day from now til the 21st of June!

We who live nearer the poles love light the way babies love mothers’ milk. In winter, we turn our faces to the sun whenever and wherever we encounter it. This year, our New Year’s Day was dazzling, as drenched in light as Jan One can be in Seattle. My husband and I went for a walk at Alki Beach and everyone, everyone was smiling their most carefree, I’m-letting-my-inner-happy-baby-show kind of smile. It was as if the sun was granting us eight golden hours on the edge of the prism between the dark, exhausted old year and the beckoning light of the new. Talk and walk, the sun said; smile, breathe, drink in this light. You know it won’t last because this is the Northwest. But you live here, so you know to treasure it.

I was born in January. I’m a natural Janus. That lesser, restless, Roman gatekeeper god, always depicted in a double profile, looking forward and back? That’s me. I don’t want to forget the past; I want to mull it and sift it and puzzle over what it might mean. But I’m just as fascinated by the future. I strain to see ahead; I’m so curious to know what’s around the next curve. What adventures the new year might bring.

Sometimes, that looking back that I so love to do enhances the forward view in unexpected ways. For example: Last January, I was looking forward to, of all things, the end of Newt Gingrich’s primary campaign, which was imminent. This January, we are celebrating President Obama’s second inauguration. What a difference a year makes!

Last January, I praised outgoing Governor Gregoire for her public support of gay marriage and her explanation of why, as a Catholic, she finally changed her mind. This January, the gay couples who got married as soon it was legal in our state are celebrating their one-month anniversaries. And there are rumors that Obama will ask Gregoire to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

Every year, I do have to face the one-year-older part of my January equation. But I try to think of one of my mom’s favorite quips about aging, which was, “Hey, consider the alternative!” When she was my age and said it, I thought it was spunky and charming. Now, I’ve lost enough friends and colleagues to really understand the poignance of what she meant. To understand that it’s a blessing to be a Janus, because the pause between past and future is where we live. We look back, we look forward, then we stand still, turn our faces to the sun and drink this moment deeply.

Movies on your restless mind? Check out The Restless Critic.

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.

Goodbye, Oh-Twelve

DSC00865What if our New Year’s Resolutions looked like this? One: Be kind to yourself. Two: Be kind to others. The end. That’s it. Saved again, by the Golden Rule!

You could add a little fine print. For example, re being kind to yourself: you could vow to truly ban all trash talk, especially the real F-words: fat and failure.

Re being kind to others, that tends to be a whole lot easier once you’re being kind to yourself. Although I have often found this to work the other way round: doing something kind for someone else can be the quickest way to distract yourself from self-trashing.

Once you’ve enacted your Golden Rule two-resolution package, you’ll have so much more time to reflect on the ways in which 2013 is going to be way, way better than 2012. Not that Oh-Twelve didn’t have its high points. Election night, anyone? But with apologies to Republicans—especially those who might be feeling that their party has been hijacked by a loud and deluded minority—the biggest way in which 2013 is going to be dramatically different from 2012 is that there will be no election night hanging over our heads for ten out of the twelve months. I know, the Republican primaries had a certain amount of entertainment value, as did Clint Eastwood and the chair, but WOW: however you may have voted, aren’t you glad it’s all over?

I am. Especially after traveling to France and Finland last spring, a trip that was one of the highlights of my year. Granted, I visited but a small European subset of the world—but I felt first-hand the love and respect people in other countries feel for President Obama. I could see what a setback it would have been to lose all that good will, when we have so much work to do on so many fronts. Global warming being by far the most urgent front: and though I’m not happy with Obama’s lack of forceful leadership on climate change, I can’t imagine where we’d be if the candidate backed by the climate deniers had won.

In 2011, TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year was the Protester, a moving shout-out to the Occupy movement and to the Arab Spring. In oh-Twelve, TIME picked President Obama: for, as managing editor Richard Stengel wrote, “finding and forging a new majority, for turning weakness into opportunity and for seeking, amid great adversity, to create a more perfect union.” TIME makes a persuasive case for Obama, noting that “we are in the midst of historic cultural and demographic changes, and Obama is both the symbol and in some ways the architect of this new America.”

I couldn’t agree more. I’m a great fan of our president. But if I got to choose, I would have declared 2012 the Year of the Voter. Or the year of the young voter, 60 percent of whom voted for Obama. And then there were the female, Asian, Hispanic, African-American and GLBT voters. The point is, Oh-Twelve was the year voters of every description decisively ended the white, straight, male chokehold on the American presidency. You might say: didn’t we do that in 2008? Yes, but. In 2012 we gave history the gift of ensuring that oh-eight could never be viewed as an aberrance, a fluke, a blip.

In 2012, voters said: Thank you, oh-‘leven Occupy protesters; thank you, Arab Spring, for reminding us that Every. Vote. Counts. Every voice counts. Every human counts. The Golden Rule counts.

Goodbye, Oh-Twelve. I’ll miss the election-year excitement, a little. But I won’t miss the nail-biting. And I’ll be grateful, as 2013 gets going, that 2012, the year of the Voter, paved the way.

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.

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.

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


On a December Day

DSC00865One recent December day, my husband and I witnessed a rare event: a moment of silence on the floor of the United States House of Representatives. It was our first-ever trip to the visitors’ gallery at the Capitol. We were still trying to make sense of what appeared to be a gathering of 435 people engaged in animated speed-dating when the gavel thundered exactly twice and Congressman Earl Blumenauer of Oregon was given the floor. The congressman spoke briefly of the Clackamas Mall shooting, in which two people were killed, three including the gunman, who took his own life. The moment of silence ensued. Then the speed-dating resumed. After a vote on something involving asthma inhalers and quips exchanged with the young intern next to us re Speaker Boehner’s strikingly varnished skin color, we left, assuming, without giving it much thought, that Blumenauer’s mild call for attention to the nightmare of gun violence would go, as per usual, unheeded.

A day and a half later, I attended a poetry reading at a Seattle elementary school where I’d been an apprentice with Seattle Arts & Lectures’ Writers in the Schools program. Parents, grandparents and squirmy younger siblings crowded into the school library to hear the fifth graders read of their passion for the color orange, for football, for horses, dogs, cats, tropical fish, recess, hot chocolate. I listened a bit wistfully, nostalgic for my own days as an elementary school parent. But I left with a smile on my face: how could one not feel hope and happiness after a morning like that?

Then I looked at my phone and saw a news alert bearing a number I thought couldn’t make sense. Must be a typo. 27 dead? At an elementary school?

And so the day unfolded, so very differently than I, than any of us, had thought it would.

Even before our Capitol visit, our east coast trip had been unexpectedly patriotically-themed. It started in New York, when we went to pay our respects at Ground Zero. Before we got to the site itself, we visited tiny St. Paul’s Church, just a few hundred yards away, where a home-made altar covered with flyers and photos of 9-11 victims still stands, right next to what was once George Washington’s private pew. A sign on the pew explained that after 9-11, exhausted search and rescue crews sat there to get their feet massaged.

Something about that layering of history moved us, on our next stop, to visit the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, where we saw for ourselves what millions of other visitors already knew: it’s the jagged crack in the bell that is so compelling. A timeless reminder that democracy is fragile. It’s not an unbreakable, forever joyously clanging bell; sometimes it’s an exhausted New York firefighter whose feet are wrecked.

A few days later in DC, we walked up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I thought once again of Steven Spielberg’s movie depiction of President Lincoln’s personal evolution on the subject of slavery. Just as our bell-ringing founding fathers were not born revolutionaries, Lincoln did not start his political life as a committed abolitionist. The tragedy of war took him there. As we can only hope the tragedies in Colorado and Oregon and now Connecticut will take President Obama to a place of leadership on gun control; to a new era when one moment of silence on a December day will no longer be considered an adequate response to senseless gun violence.

At the end of his 1865 inaugural address, Lincoln called on the country—“With malice toward none; with charity for all”—to, quote, “do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” Peace among ourselves: in this season when we invoke the word so often, doesn’t the time seem right to do all which may achieve it? 

Speaking of the season: check out The Restless Critic’s Christmas movie list, in which he reveals our family’s annual guilty pleasure film. 

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.

After Election Day

On Election Day 2012, I woke up in Baker City, Oregon, reached for my phone and read these words: “Make me a grave where’er you will, In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill, Make it among earth’s humblest graves, But not in a land where men are slaves.” It’s the first stanza of a poem by a daughter of freed slaves who died a century ago, Frances Harper. I had never heard of Harper. I had never before read her poem, titled “Bury Me in a Free Land.” But there I was, on the morning of the presidential election, instantly connected by Harper’s words to the historic hugeness of the day.

True nerd confession: I like to start my mornings by reading a psalm and a poem. I have the Book of Psalms and a few poetry anthologies loaded on my phone now, so I can stick to my ritual on the road. I’ve been reading poetry all my life, but I grew up a white girl who went to mostly-white schools and either we didn’t have Frances Harper in our anthologies back then or we never turned to that page. So I was honored to make her acquaintance, on the morning I woke up wondering whether we would re-elect our first black president to a second term.

It seemed a good omen, somehow, that Harper’s poem was the one that happened to be waiting for me. I’m working my way through an American anthology and I’d just finished a few days of Walt Whitman, who was excellent company on our road trip through the West, with his rousing anthems like “I Hear America Singing,” an exuberant poem that reads a bit like a candidate’s stump speech, with its odes to mechanics and masons, carpenters and mothers.

Harper’s poem was a stark contrast, a reminder of the cruelty embedded in our history. Of how divided we were then and still are now.

Whatever would she think of this election day? Of our president, son of a Kenyan father and a white American mother; of his wife and children, descended, like Harper, from slaves?

As my husband and I drove home to Seattle, I liked feeling like Frances Harper was with me. Listening, with me, to stories on the radio of long lines in polling places—lines that included Americans of every origin, every one of them determined to exercise their constitutional right. Lines that included women, who still didn’t have the vote when Harper died.

That night, as we watched the results roll in, I felt such relief on her behalf and on my own: relief, that the trajectory of her work, as a poet and fervent abolitionist, was continuing, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, to bend its long arc toward justice. And I felt relief for myself that I would never have the sad task of explaining to my future grandchildren what went wrong on November 6, 2012.

President Obama is not perfect. He has made mistakes. For example, he could have been a lot more vocal on climate change. But despite what you may have heard during election season, Obama has gotten a LOT done—the Affordable Care Act, the auto industry bailout, the Lilly Ledbetter Equal Pay Act, just to name a few greatest hits—and he is poised to do even more in his campaign-free second term. By RE-electing him, we have ensured that his presidency cannot be viewed as some fluke, some aberration, some pause for diversity in the long history of white male control.  That is a big deal. Frances Harper would be stunned and proud. And we did it. On November 6, 2012, we did it.

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.


By the time you read this, we will have survived the third and final debate and we’ll be in the final countdown to Election Day. But I can’t help it, people: I’m still shaking my head over Mitt Romney and his binders full of women. Of course I am thankful, along with so many voters, for the comedy it inspired. Yet at the same time, I’m saddened by what it says about how far we women have really NOT come since Virginia Slims launched its 1968 ad campaign with the catchy tagline, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

Funny how that particular jingle should spring to mind, with its dark double message: hey women, now that you’re so liberated, you too can smoke all you want and die of lung cancer, just like men!

When Mitt said it—it being, “I went to a number of women’s groups and said, can you help us find folks? And they brought us whole binders full of — of women”—you could feel a collective squirm go through the Columbia City Theater, where I was watching the debate with friends. The squirm was followed by a collective head-scratch: did he really just say that? We all murmured. What century is this?

You could argue that Mitt “meant well.” But what does it mean, to “mean well?” In this case, “meaning well” meant wanting to appear to be someone other than who he is: a guy, surrounded by guys, who—as the Boston Phoenix newspaper reminded us, contrary to the way he tried to phrase it in the debate—did not actually notice the paucity of women in his gubernatorial administration until a coalition of Massachusetts women’s groups brought it to his attention. They offered the binders not in the sort of distasteful, mail-order bride way it sounded coming from the candidate, but in a proactive, let us educate you kind of way: as in, we want to introduce you to some incredibly qualified candidates for state office who have mysteriously been overlooked.

But then Mitt made it worse, by talking about how he generously allows his chief of staff to go home to her family at night: as if only mothers, not fathers, would want or need such an allowance. As if: you’ve come a long way, baby—but hiring you is still way different than hiring a man.

It all felt so… Ron and Nancy. So George and Laura. So Tarzan and Jane. It kind of made me want to sneak a cigarette.

But only for an instant. Because that whole notion—that to succeed as a woman, you have to make it on your merits into a special binder, rather than, say, play racquetball with the right people—that’s exactly the kind of stress that made women want to smoke back in the Virginia Slims day. It’s the double standard we restless nesters want to believe will not be the working-world norm for our daughters. And so when Mitt brings it up, like it was a good thing—hey, we were an all-guy team but then I asked for the binders full of women, wasn’t that great!—it made us all squirm because it sounded like the kind of thing you’d expect, maybe, a 75 or 85 year old man to say. Not a 65 year old aging Boomer, who is running for president in a century that is supposed to be new. But then again, this is a candidate  who did not support the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Which places him pretty firmly in the company of men who have NOT come a long way, and don’t plan to anytime soon.

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.

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.

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

Noise Equals Hope

Recently, a bulldozer showed up outside our house at seven a.m. and began backing up onto the vacant lot next door. I was trying to read. The noise was hard to tune out, especially when the bulldozer got to work and the whole house started to shake. I looked outside. Clouds of dust were rolling through the neighborhood. When one of the construction guys knocked on the door and asked if he could borrow our hose to keep the dust down until the water truck arrived, I was only too happy to say yes.

And, believe it or not, I am thrilled this is all happening. This next-door project was one of those recession-reminder blank spots, another project that ground to a halt and left a gaping, weedy wound on our block; an everyday reminder that the economy remained in critical condition. The owners—who also built our townhome, right before they temporarily ran out of cash—finally sold the lot to another builder with a great reputation, and she (yes, she!) is breaking ground. Four more homes in south Seattle are on their way.

And now the September job numbers are in: 114 thousand new jobs last month, the 24th consecutive month we added to, rather than subtracted from, the total number of people working. The unemployment rate is now below eight percent for the first time since President Obama was elected.

Noise next door equals jobs equals hope. I know there are going to be times when the hammering gets maddening. But I’m going to try to remember: noise equals hope.

And I’ll remember what it was like four years ago, when candidate Obama made hope his word, our word, at a time when most of us were consumed by fear. Remember what that felt like? I sure do. Our clients stopped calling. Our savings and home equity were amputated overnight. Friends lost jobs. Other friends lost their entire nest eggs, just as they thought they were nearing retirement. Younger friends couldn’t find work at all.  Nonprofit organizations lost donors and foundation grants, even as record numbers of people knocked on their doors for help.

For many, if not most, Americans, life is still a lot harder than it was before the recession. But there are noisy glimmers of hope. Bulldozers. Jobs.

In this election year, we are faced not with the economic terror of four years ago but with fragile signs of economic recovery, tiny seedlings that are going to need a lot of nurturing. And as we contemplate who we would like to have leading us through this careful, cautiously hopeful time, we have two very different choices. We have a president on whose watch we have gone from losing 600 thousand jobs in January 2009 to 24 straight months of growth. And we have a candidate who thinks it makes more sense to shrink the safety net—at a time when so many are still so vulnerable—than it does to ask the top one percent to kick in one more dime.

The house is shaking right now. The bulldozer next door is rumbling away. I’m remembering four years ago, when the silence on construction sites all over America was deafening. I’m OK with the noisy sound of hope.

Have you met the Restless Critic? Be warned: he could change your movie viewing habits forever. I know: I speak from 25 years (as of Wed, Oct 10, 2012) of experience! 

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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