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

Archive for the tag “writing”

The Next Big Thing

DSC00853Book reviewer extraordinaire and writer of elegant prose Isla McKetta tagged me in an online writer’s blog series called The Next Big Thing. Isla is a copywriter by day, novelist by night, Richard Hugo House board member and indefatigable cheerleader of her writer friends. You can read Isla’s responses to to the ten Next Big Thing Questions here.  And here are mine:

1. What is your working title of your book?

Her Beautiful Brain

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

When my mother was in her late fifties, she began to forget. A lot. She began to repeat herself. A lot. Renowned since high school for her beautiful brain, my mother was losing her mind to Alzheimer’s disease, bit by bit, just as I became a mother myself. I began writing Her Beautiful Brain because I wanted to tell her story. But as I wrote, I realized it was my story too: of motherhood in the age of Alzheimer’s.

For nearly two decades, her slow erasure shaped our family life. As my children grew, my mother shrank: slowly, for a while, but  then rapidly, weirdly, every which way.

3. What genre does your book fall under?


4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Ah, the fun question! Mom at 60: Debra Winger? Me at 35: Rosemary DeWitt?

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

It’s about what it was like to become a mom just as my own mother—twice divorced, once widowed, mother of six, loving, unflappable role model to all of us—began to lose her mind to younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

6. Will you be self-published or represented by an agency?

An interesting either-or question! I had an agent, who pitched my book a half-dozen times and then… stopped. But I didn’t know that she’d stopped, not for months. (I know, I know, I should have figured it out!) So now I’m setting out to pitch it myself to midsized and small presses.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

About a year and a half.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

When I read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, I felt a great sense of kinship: her grief for her mother, her anger that this had happened, her determination to figure out what the hell to do with her grief and anger.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My mother inspired me to write. Alzheimer’s disease inspired me to write, because it is so insidious and it’s a galloping epidemic and yet no one wants to see, hear or think about it.

10. What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

In 2004, my husband and I produced a film about Mom and Alzheimer’s disease called Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story. Making the film made me realize I had so much more to say. I knew I would write a book, but I also knew that emotionally, I couldn’t start it until after Mom was gone. She died in 2006. Quick Brown Fox has been seen on PBS and other stations all over the world. It’s in educational distribution through Women Make Movies. And you can now watch it on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.


I was also tagged in this Next Big Thing game by the talented Donna Miscolta, author of the haunting, lovely novel, When the De La Cruz Family Danced. Read about Donna’s next big thing here.  And… by gifted playwright Scott Herman, who is writing a memoir about a loooonngg motorcycle road trip and the girl at the end of it.

Who have I tagged? I personally can’t wait to read what’s next for the multifaceted Wes Andrews, whose Verbalist’s Journal and reading/performance series have added excellent spice to Seattle’s literary scene. And Shahana Dattagupta, author of Thrive! Falling in Love with Life and half of the dynamic duo behind the Courageous Creativity ‘zine.



Layered Days

DSC00865Memory is like layers and layers of scarves on a cold day, I thought as I walked through the Pike Place Market a few days before Christmas. You wrap yourself up, you revel in the warmth that comes from decades of turning the same corners at the same time of year. But then you feel a chilly blast, a spatter of December-in-Seattle raindrops just this side of ice and you remember: oh, right. Along with all these warm layers of Happy inevitably come the cold, damp sprays of Sad.

At no time of year is this more true than right now. And the older you get, the more layers there are, happy/sad happy/sad, happy/happy sad/sad, until you think you might drown in all the layers, you might just go under altogether, especially if you are walking through a known memory minefield like the Pike Place Market.

You’re sure your head and heart might explode at any moment. You wonder why no one can tell. The nervous, branch-thin cheese cutter at De Laurenti’s: clearly, she’s a seasonal hire, unlike the more seasoned gang at Sosio’s Fruit and Produce, who sense immediately your need for triage. Four of them spring into action, filling a box, encouraging you to focus your exploding mind on the concrete, present-moment compresses of carrots, spinach, lettuce, pretty little tomatoes called “strawberries,” chanterelle mushrooms crowded in a box like ballerinas waiting backstage.

The Sosio Brothers, and sisters, are old enough to know. They don’t know your personal details, but they viscerally know you didn’t just get to town yesterday, no you didn’t. These stalls, this market, is where you first came by yourself on the bus, barely out of childhood, and wondered: why does my family never leave our lemon-pledged neighborhood and come here? Where the smells of produce and meat and leather and incense and coffee and bread are a seduction, a perfume, a promise of a busy lively universe that has nothing to do with popular, pretty, cool, all the other words you hear ad nauseum every day? A promise that there is indeed a city beyond your junior-high world, a city you are learning to love even as you yearn to leave. Which you do, for eight years.

And then one day, you return to this city and finally love it the way you started to love it when you took those daring bus rides to First and Pike.

The Sosio gang senses—in their non-specific, humanitarian way—how you went on to build your grownup life here. How you and your newsroom friends hung out at the Virginia Inn. How you kissed two husbands under these lights. How you brought your babies here, in front packs, backpacks, strollers, finally on their own two feet. How you dined high—Place Pigalle, Il Bistro, Chez Shea, Matt’s, Maximilien’s, Campagne—and low: humbow, smoothies, piroshki, gyros, pizza, soup, cinnamon rolls. How you continued to come by yourself, over the years, when you needed the colors and the lights. They know that right now, you’re aching somewhere: for the feel of a tired toddler on your hip; for the way a chocolate-frosted donut tasted when you were twelve and so hungry. They know because for them, this place is just as layered, just as complicated, even though they come here every day of their working lives.

The English novelist and memoirist Jeannette Winterson writes of how “events separated by years lie side by side imaginatively and emotionally.” This travel outside linear time and into the folding, falling layers of memory time is so pungent, so poignant, and I find myself unable to resist poignance, even when it hurts.  It is what compels me to read memoirs like Winterson’s (Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?). It is what compels me to write.

The writing began five years ago, when my own voice started calling to me, loudly. Finally, I listened. That it happened when my daughter left home for college may have been clichéd but it was also, simply, true. Our son was still at home, so the nest wasn’t empty. But life, time, my days, all suddenly felt less linear. It seemed there was this newly opened space in my head where I was allowed to pile on or peel away layers of memory. To see how it felt when I did it. To see how it looked written down.

I knew I wanted to write about my mother—her remarkable life, her untimely death from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease—but I knew I also wanted to write about myself. I wanted to find out what was happening to me. I wanted to think out loud, on the page, about these new feelings I was having about, well, everything: my childhood, my young adulthood, my early parenthood, my grief for my mom, the meaning of my life.

Five years later, I’m seeking a publisher for my memoir, titled Her Beautiful Brain. I’m teaching memoir writing at Seattle Central Community College because, no matter how long it takes me to find the right publisher (or to conclude that I should self-publish, which I may do in 2013), I so believe in the power and poignance of embracing your own layers of memory and writing your own story that I want to encourage other people to do it too.

I’m also writing this blog, which is really a collection of the weekly Restless Nest essays I write and record for KBCS radio. This piece is not going to be on the radio: it’s too long and too personal. But the notion of the “restless nest” – of a life phase where so much stirring and sifting is suddenly going on and you’ve just got to write, paint, sing, cook, build, invent, travel, do something with this new less linear and more expressive kind of energy – this notion continues to intrigue me and I want to see where it takes me.

Even when it feels—on a December day in the packed Pike Place Market—like my head might explode.

Read more about the colorful history of the Pike Place Market here.

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.




DSC00865Word fashions come and go: what is “awesome” was once “marvelous,” what is “great” was once merely “good.”  What we value changes too: what we deem awesome today—a tiny car that gets high mileage; a good bottle of Washington wine—would have deeply puzzled our great-grandparents.

There’s one word I bet our great-grandparents used more often than we do that I’d like to bring back. Curiosity. It’s not gone for good, it’s just fallen into disuse. You could call it a value, and you might mean that in a good or a bad way, depending on your “values” with a capital V. Or you could call it a character trait.  But doesn’t it roll off the tongue? Curiosity.

We readers are likely to link it in our minds to books, beginning of course with Curious George, the monkey whose endless curiosity got him into endless scrapes. (“Scrapes:” there’s another rich old word, connoting a scrape along the outer edge of good behavior or the law or life itself.) But with George there was always an underlying moral along the lines of: Better not to be too curious. It was a moral well-suited to George’s heyday in the middle of the last century, when our elders worried that curiosity might lead us to flirt with communism or beat poetry or other interests that would cause us to stray from the proper paths of college, marriage, corporate employment and home ownership.

Poor George: whisked from the jungle to a wondrous new planet called Manhattan and then chastised every time he wanted to rappel off the fire escape for a little curiosity-fueled tour. What child sentenced to spend their days fidgeting at a school desk could not relate to his pain: the torture of a curious soul, caged and clamped down?

How thrilling then, the glimmers of hope for the curious offered by the good books that came after George–Harriet the Spy, A Wrinkle in Time, Swiss Family Robinson—and by the occasional good teacher. Mine was Mrs. LaCrosse, second grade, who preached not only reading but writing as the key to a rich and curious life. Writers could ask questions, think thoughts, take imaginary trips any time they wanted. What an anarchist’s vision, what a revolutionary dream!

It was 1964 and conformity abounded. A solid majority of my little-girl brain wanted what Sleeping Beauty wanted: to be carried off by a handsome prince, dressed lavishly and taken care of, like a Chinese princess with bound feet, forever. But Mrs. LaCrosse had wedged open the door to a back brain closet. Inside, the rogue. The beast: curiosity. Thank God.

I do thank God, because I believe my curiosity saved me. I was not princess material, at least not in my world, which was a northeast Seattle neighborhood where if you didn’t wear bright new Bonnie Doon kneesocks, you were shunned. Add blue cat-eye glasses to your rubber-banded, hand-me-down socks, and you were doomed. For a brief and happy while, aka elementary school, I didn’t understand just how doomed; that came later with the cruelty of junior high school.

What got me thinking about the saving powers of curiosity was a book I plucked from the bargain table at Elliott Bay Bookstore: Martha Gellhorn’s memoir, Travels with Myself and Another. You may remember her as one of Hemingway’s wives. But that was but a brief episode in her long and curiosity-fueled career as a globe-trotting, conflict-seeking journalist. In her memoir, she reflects on what she calls her “horror journeys,” her worst travel nightmares, and how they never seemed to stop her from wanting more: more adventures, more challenges, more danger. (She is a hilarious practitioner of the wry understatement, as in this comment on travel in China in 1941: “Time resumed its frightful habit of standing still but finally we were gasping through the last night.”) Of a brief wartime break from her travels, she writes, “I was going into a decline from hearing about the war on the radio instead of being where I wanted to be, with the people whose lives were paying for it.”

Gellhorn was a great believer, as a journalist and as a human being, of the importance of seeing it for herself. How could she write about China without going there? If she were alive today, I suspect she would find our insta-access to information a marvelous convenience, but no substitute for first-hand experience. A good thing, but not a great or awesome thing. Curious people like to look stuff up and then go where their curiosity leads them. That’s when good becomes great, and marvelous, and awesome.

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.


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.

Slowness Breaks

When you’ve been moving fast, slowing down sometimes feels nearly impossible. Especially if you’ve been flitting like a hummingbird from task to task, as we so often do in our speed-loving, app-happy, instant-everything culture.

For example: every single time I sit down to write, I have to relearn the most basic of lessons, which is: Going slow is the fastest way to get the job done. Because there is just no way to do it besides: One. Word. At. A. Time. It’s like bricklaying: it happens brick by brick. Or, to use author Anne Lamott’s famous example, if you are writing a school report about birds, you have to go bird by bird.

Last week, I activated my new smart phone. Oh, the new high-speed horizons! But something unexpected happened on the way to my new 21st century lifestyle. In my eagerness to embrace all that my new toy had to offer, I brought my four-year-old laptop into the computer store for some upgrades. Long story short, something somewhere got miswired in the process and I ended up making four trips to the store and spending quite a bit of the week without my number-one tool: my laptop.

Fortunately, I picked the right week: no looming work deadlines. But I still felt like I’d been handcuffed. Sure, I had my sparkly new phone. But you can’t write write on a phone. And yes, I own pens and pencils and I used them plenty last week. But for 25 years, my habit has been to scribble unedited thoughts and reflections in a journal and then compose anything more formal than that with the help of a keyboard: a real one, not a slippery little wallet-sized touchscreen.

So, for five days, I did what I could with the tiny screen. And on my four treks to the computer store, while waiting for various attempted fixes, I did a lot of window shopping and a tiny amount of actual shopping at the other shops in the glamorous University Village, which, in its quaint early days, was the shopping center of my childhood and featured a Woolworth’s, a Singer sewing store, and best of all, a tiny bookshop called Kay’s Bookmark, where I spent hours of my young life.

By visit number four, I was so done with the U Village and so fed up I knew what I badly needed was a slowness break.

I packed a notebook and a pencil. I headed for the Washington Park Arboretum. When I got out of the car, a light rain had just begun to fall. I found a tree by a pond, its leaves thick enough to keep most of the rain off my head, and sat down. I wrote a little, word by word, recalling memories of the daydreamy, poetry-writing Arboretum rambles of my adolescence. But mostly, I watched the raindrops dance on the pond.

I wasn’t there long; maybe half an hour, before I got the call from the store and headed on to the Village. But what a difference that slowness break made in my ability to brave the final round of laptop-repair-stress.

In a recent survey by the Trust for Public Land, Seattle was rated ninth in the nation in quality and quantity of public green spaces. These parks are ours. Yours, mine, ours! Claim them. Try a ten-minute stop sometime soon and see how different you feel. Back away from all your gadgets—phone, computer, car—and take a slowness break. You might just find it’s the fastest way there is to restore your ability to get stuff done.

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.

Raised to Please

We are raised to please. We are raised to attract. We are raised to decorate, divert and delight. We are raised to invite attention, not to seek it. To never, ever risk rejection.

And when I say we, of whom do I speak? It must be a group known to include me. Might it be… people over 50? Seattleites? Speakers of English?

Of course not. You know who I’m talking about. Women.

And what, you might ask, is so wrong with being raised to please?

Nothing at all, if you are born and remain a lovely-to-look-at, ornamental sort of a woman. Nothing at all, if ornamenting the world brings you great joy.

But what if what you long to do is build tall buildings? Play basketball? Conduct high-risk scientific research? Or—in my case—write? And in order to achieve that writing dream, you have to lob your precious words out into the world so they can be rejected over and over and over again until at last, you get lucky and what you’ve written is accepted and printed? Briefly, you are filled with joy—until your freshly published words are actually read. And not everyone likes them. And you want to die because you have displeased a few people.

Men, on the other hand, are raised to risk rejection or die trying. They’re raised to understand for every ten girls they ask out, one might say yes and hey, that’s great! They grow up understanding they won’t get a good job unless they apply for 100. They learn young: licking wounds is wasting time.

Meanwhile, women grow up learning: don’t ask for what you want. Be patient, pretty, good, do everything right—and someone, someday, will read your mind.

Am I oversimplifying? Sure. But take a look at the annual count by the literary nonprofit VIDA of female versus male writers published in prestigious magazines—Atlantic, New Yorker, Harpers, etcetera.  Diet-sized wedges of each pie chart represent articles written by women. I don’t think the problem is that women don’t write great nonfiction.  Or they don’t think their writing is good enough. I think women writers don’t submit their work because they fear rejection. Or, like me, they’ve been rejected half a dozen times and they can’t stand the pain.

As a longtime documentary filmmaker, I’ve been rejected by film festivals dozens of times.  But here’s the difference: I make films with my husband. Somehow, that helps, because even though I feel every rejection as a personal rejection of me, he knows how to move on and he tugs me along with him. Writing nonfiction for print publications is a newer pursuit for me and I’m flying solo.

My writer friend Isla is the one who got me thinking about this Curse of the Good Girl who internalizes early the paramount importance of pleasing. Isla is 20 years younger than I am. My daughter, 22 and a working journalist, gets it too.

The VIDA count is a vivid reminder, to writers like Isla, my daughter and me, that there’s more at stake here than our self-esteem. We need to keep submitting our work, and we need to get really good at handling rejection, because collectively, we still have a lot of catching up to do.

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.

Hearts Broken Open

“A broken heart,” I wrote on a poster-sized, yellow Post-It.  Then, underneath, “A heart broken open.”

“Just a little inspiration for your free-write, in case you need it,” I told my students as they came in to our tiny classroom, an old office-building lunchroom.  We always warm up with ten minutes of free writing about anything.

Broken hearts versus Hearts broken open: It’s a little mantra that’s been going through my head this month.  Not an original one: Quaker writer Parker Palmer introduced me to it, in his book A Hidden Wholeness.

I quoted Palmer a few weeks ago, when I wrote about Washington State Senator Mary Margaret Haugen, who had the courage to change her mind and support same-sex marriage. This time, Palmer got me thinking about how one word, “open,” changes everything.  A heart broken—smashed, pieces scattered, beyond repair—versus a heart broken open: like a seed that needs to break open in order to sprout.  Or like a broken marriage that, someday, grows into a blended family. Or a tragedy or illness that breaks the people it strikes open into compassion and empathy. My own example is my mother’s early Alzheimer’s disease, which broke every heart in my family, but it also broke us open.  We know we’re not alone; we’re one of five million-plus American families who know the shape of this particular heartbreak.

I put those words on a big Post-it because I thought it might be an idea that would appeal to teenaged writers.  Who knows better than they the fresh, salty, smarting pain of a broken heart? I know they can’t immediately leap from that kind of pain to the healing that comes when your heart is broken open.   But I wanted them to think, as writers, about the power of one word.

Palmer writes, “As I stand in the tragic gap between reality and possibility, this small, tight fist of a thing called my heart can break open into greater capacity to hold more of my own and the world’s suffering and joy, despair and hope.”

Many of the students I work with live full-time in that “tragic gap” between reality and possibility. Reality might include family lives strained by poverty, addiction, incarceration. Possibility might include an iron determination to beat the odds and get that high school diploma. It might include a talent, a dream, a relationship, a baby.

It’s hard to tell, with teenagers, whether something is resonating or not. Certainly I undermined my hearts-broken-open lesson by scattering Valentine’s Day chocolates around their tables. Hard to get all serious when you have a Hershey’s miniature in your mouth.

But they wrote: about relationships, about wanting to be a good parent, about finally getting serious about school and wanting to graduate.

They may not see their hearts this way, but I see their hearts already breaking open into ever-greater capacity.  For starters, they’re in the classroom, which means they haven’t walked away and given up.

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! 

Post Navigation