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Archive for the tag “Search for Meaning Book Festival”

Dignity is powerful

rebuilding-home Resistance is “people insisting on their dignity and humanity in the face of those who would strip them of it,” said author and documentary filmmaker Jen Marlowe. She was speaking from the base of a tiered classroom in Seattle University’s Sullivan Hall, which made her appear even shorter than her five feet and one quarter inch. It was 9 am on a Saturday. Her talk was titled “Reflections on Resistance: Palestine, Darfur and the Death Penalty.”

I had arrived a few minutes late, not anticipating the crush of humanity at the check-in table for the Search for Meaning Book Festival, which packs the Seattle University campus with searchmore people than it holds on any other day in the year. Apparently there are many of us in this bookish, broody city who are searching for meaning. SU has responded by bringing to one campus, for one day, a dizzying variety of authors who have found meaning in faiths and places and chapters of history I never knew existed. Hild of Whitby, for example—the subject of Nicola Griffith’s book, Hild: The Woman Who Changed the World 1400 Years Ago.
Apparently Hild persuaded the Celtic and Roman bishops of the Dark Ages to sit down together, work out their differences, and unite the unruly believers of ancient Britain: quite an achievement for a single woman in the wilds of Northumbria.

Back to Jen Marlowe, who is a bit of a present-day Hild. Marlowe’s search for meaning takes her to epicenters of resistance: to places like Palestine, Darfur in Western Sudan and the state of Georgia’s death row. She is compelled to report, record and write stories of people asserting their dignity in the face of terror and destruction. jen_filming
In her talk, she wove stories from her three books, four documentary films and many shorter works. She told us of a wedding she witnessed in Darfur, a scene of dignity springing from defiant joy. She told us of a Palestinian man’s vow to replant his family’s ancient olive grove after it was deliberately uprooted by Israeli settlers. She described her long, sorrowful witness to the dignity of the family of Troy Davis, who was wrongly convicted and executed by the state of George in 2011.IATD-cover

“Easy for me to go around saying ‘Dignity is an illusion,’” I scribbled in the margin of my notes. I was remembering a Restless Nest essay I wrote last fall, about how that phrase—“Dignity is an illusion”—had become a gallows-humor punchline for me during a bad year. Sure, it was a rough time: my marriage was on life support, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and I was having trouble landing a job. But, as I listened to Jen Marlowe, I began to understand something: to dismiss dignity as a mere illusion was a privilege. I could toy with dignity, I could make light of it, because neither my core worth as a human being nor my very life were in danger of being ripped from me. My extended family could gather without fear of imminent slaughter. My house and garden were not in danger of being arbitrarily bulldozed. I was not about to be legally murdered by my own state for a crime I did not commit. The kind of dignity I was calling an illusion was small-d dignity, as exemplified by dreams of turning up for a job interview in furry slippers. The kind Marlowe was talking about at the Search for Meaning Festival was capital-D dignity: which has everything to do with meaning. If we disregard the dignity of the people of Darfur, Palestine and Death Row, we disregard the meaning of their lives. Of all human lives.

And to stand up for the dignity and worth of human life in the face of those who would dismiss it is to claim meaning. No search required: here it is.


Upcoming Her Beautiful Brain readings: April 1, 7pm, St. James Cathedral Parish Hall, Seattle; April 30, 7pm: The Regulator Bookshop, Durham, North Carolina; May 26, 7pm: Book Culture, 450 Columbus Ave, New York. 

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





At the movies

02_Toni_Servillo_La_grande_bellezza_foto_di_Gianni_Fiorito_2.JPGThree human beings are haunting me. One is a homophobic, bull-riding Texan who has AIDS. One is a Danish kindergarten teacher, wrongly accused of sexually molesting a student. One is a celebrated Roman novelist who still hasn’t started his second novel, forty years after the first one was published. All are characters I saw on screen last week, and about whom I am still thinking this week. Though I am not the official movie reviewer in this family, I see a lot of movies. The ones that stick with me are what I think of as “meaning of life” stories. Stories in which a character, famous or heroic or, more likely, not either, must ask him-or-herself: what is the meaning of a life? One life. My life.

When he is told he probably has 30 days to live, Ron Woodruff’s meaning-of-life meter goes crazy in Dallas Buyers’ Club. It was painful to watch the first phase of this—call it denial, or call it “I’m gonna go out in a blaze of glory”—and even more painful to watch his transition to the next one: actually, I do want to live, thinks Ron, and I’m gonna get the drugs I need. But Ron’s story transforms from painful to powerful as his fight for what he needs to stay alive becomes more than just his fight. Sure, he’s making money, but he’s also giving his life a meaning it never had, because it’s no longer all about him. Matthew McConaughey plays Ron as a human lightning rod: thin, dangerous and ultimately dazzling.

In The Hunt, Danish Actor Mads Mikkelson’s face is a study of bewildered, stunned pain as Lucas, the kindergarten teacher who is just beginning to find meaning again after divorce when a little girl’s blurted lie turns his life into a living hell. Lucas fights to hold on to a few shreds of love—his one loyal friend, his loyal son—while every other person he’s ever known turns against him. In “The Hunt,” meaning is a jewel trapped deep inside the collapsed mine of a life, and Lucas has to dig hard for it.

Nothing so dirty as digging goes on in The Great Beauty. Au contraire: dapper Roman novelist Jep Gambardella, played by Toni Servillo, celebrates his 65th birthday with a rooftop party that gives new meaning to the word “lavish.” But the flip side of this happy decadence is deep fatigue. Jep’s life is glamorous, but unfulfilled. He’s drawn to a Mother Theresa-like centenarian celebrity nun, who may or may not have some kind of pipeline to a higher power, or at least a higher calling. As its name promises, The Great Beauty is as lusciously beautiful as The Hunt is bleak and Dallas Buyers’ Club is scruffy. And yet there’s a yearning at the core of it. Because unlike the cowboy dying of AIDS or the kindergarten teacher shunned for a crime he didn’t commit, Jep the pampered playboy author is not desperate, though you begin to sense he should be, and as the film unfolds, so does he. Sometimes it is harder find meaning when it is not thrust on you.

All of these films call to mind old truisms about how life is mostly about what you didn’t plan and couldn’t predict. It’s about how you respond to those moments. Whether and where you find the courage you suddenly need. These are the stories I love best on the screen, or the page, or in real life. Because most of us aren’t soldiers, astronauts or ship captains. But all of us, someday, are going to know illness, death, heartbreak, and—like Jep on his Roman rooftop—the vertigo of confronting the great void that lurks just beyond great beauty.

Calendar notes: Seattle University’s wonderful Search for Meaning Book Festival is February 15. I’ll have to miss it this year but I heartily recommend it. 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 called Witnessing 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.

Meaning: Searching and/or Finding

DSC00865Trying to fill a room in Seattle is a fickle business. On the first day of 2013 that felt like spring was not just a dream some of us had, who ever would’ve guessed that 25 hundred Seattle souls would willingly converge for a collection of lectures called the Search for Meaning Book Festival? And this was a free event: advance registration encouraged, but no fifty dollar commitment. No reason why you couldn’t just say, “Are you kidding? I’m going to Golden Gardens!” after you pulled back the curtains on a morning flood of daffodil-yellow sunlight.

Now in its fifth year, the Search for Meaning Book Festival just keeps growing. It is hosted by Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry, but the authors and speakers come from every religious tradition, including none-of-the-above. This year’s keynotes were a conversation between authors Sherman Alexie and Michael Chabon in the morning and a riveting talk by Iranian-American writer Reza Aslan in the afternoon. Before and after the keynotes were seminars, of which we attendees had to choose three or four out of nearly four dozen. Topics ranged from searching for meaning in suffering to the ethics of sustainable seafood. Highlights for me were Port Townsend poet Holly Hughes’ session on contemplation and creativity and Stranger Genius Award-winner Lesley Hazleton’s talk on the life of Muhammad.

But I digress. Back to the weather. Next time you’re on Capitol Hill, stroll a few blocks south and you’ll find yourself in a little green oasis: the Seattle University campus. Not such a bad place to be on a bizarrely sunny March day. Strolling back and forth between seminars, the Cascade Mountains glittered in the east, the trees were budding, the camellias popping, the fountains spraying. Inside the lovely Chapel of Saint Ignatius, the sunlit blue of the stained glass was so vibrant it vibrated.

West of campus, just across the street, is Swedish Hospital, where I have often found meaning waiting for me, whether I wanted it there or not: in the joy of greeting newborn babies; the sorrow of saying good-bye to a friend in her final days.

Truth be told, I was having trouble with meaning that morning at Seattle University. I had just learned that a child I know might have cancer.  It is hard to find meaning in that kind of news. I didn’t go to the Search for Meaning Book Festival expecting to find an answer there, but I thought maybe I’d find distraction. Or some vague kind of comfort.

The first seminar I attended was… exactly wrong. Right, no doubt, for adults facing major illness, but wrong for brooding me, wrestling with why children should ever have to face such horrors. Maybe I should have just skipped all this and gone to Golden Gardens, I thought, as I headed over to the keynote. I’ve heard Sherman Alexie AND Michael Chabon before—why am I here?

But Sherman Alexie is a charmer. He had me with his crack about dining on “kosher buffalo” with Chabon. And as Alexie encouraged Chabon to ramble on about the waxing and waning of his Jewish faith, I looked around the room and thought, Here’s the comfort: 2500 people who are curious, who are listeners and questioners, who actually want to search for meaning, even on a sunny day.

Chabon tossed off a line that stuck with me: “Searching and not finding is much more satisfying than finding.”

Later in the day, the Jesuit President of Seattle University, Father Steven Sundborg—a man who you might assume has Meaning all figured out—asked this: Do we seek meaning, or does meaning seek us?

He posed the question in his introduction to Reza Aslan, whose hour-long talk vigorously tackled the rising American fear of Islam: how it has morphed, over the dozen years since 9-11, into a right-wing-fueled, bigotry-stoking machine.

Aslan had lots of data. But ultimately, he said, data doesn’t change minds. What changes minds is relationships.

Because we’re all searching for meaning. It’s what we do. And it is comforting to know, on one bright Saturday in Seattle, that we’re not alone.

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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