Fear of Not Flying

2019-11-07T12:08:56-08:00Categories: arts, faith and doubt, featured posts, memoir, reading, travel, writing|Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

One week out from a big trip, I usually start feeling what I can only call an irrational, nagging dread. I can feel it right now: pulsing away, right alongside its sprightly, opposite twin: happy anticipation. Why does the anticipation never quite drown out the dread? Next week, I am going to Vietnam with two friends. I’ve never been there. But I have a long history of loving the experience of being somewhere I have never been. I like to think of myself as someone who does not fear the unknown. And yet of course I do. Hence the dread. It’s not the unknown of Vietnam, or of any other place that is new to me, which I fear. And it is not a textbook fear of flying. It’s more like a fear of not flying: a fear that one day, I will become that person who can’t or won’t, because I’ve just gotten too damn good at imagining every single worst-case scenario. Is that it? Not quite. No, that more accurately describes another fear I’m currently trying to throttle, which is the fear of sending my almost-ready second memoir, The Observant Doubter, off to agents and editors, with the full knowledge that there will likely be many, many rejections to weather before my manuscript lands in its publishing home. There will be turbulence. I may be deploying that little white paper bag. I picture my manuscript as a tiny prop plane, no bigger than an old-school cropduster, buffeted by currents and squalls far beyond my [...]

Get Close

2019-11-07T14:45:16-08:00Categories: arts, creative aging, journalism, Uncategorized, work, writing|Tags: , , , , |

I love that my husband’s first book is called Get Close. In two words, it sums up his best filmmaking advice. And captures his own striking style. And reminds me of what I have learned from working with him, lo these many years. I am thrilled to report that Get Close: Lean Team Documentary Filmmaking will be published by Oxford University Press on February 1, 2019. It’s available for pre-order now. If you know an aspiring documentary filmmaker, or you are one, or maybe you think you might be one because you have a film in mind that you’ve always wanted to make but you’re not sure where to start, then buy this book. Rustin Thompson will tell you everything you need to know, starting with those two words. As Rus is quick to explain, he did not invent the idea of “getting close.” It was World War II photographer Robert Capa who famously said, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Rus also quotes former UN Ambassador Samantha Power, who—inspired by Capa—advised Yale students in a commencement address that “if you truly want to live fully and leave the world a little better than you found it, you have to get close…  Get close. Go all in. Get close to the people affected by your work. Seek out perspectives different from your own. And work to bring others close with you.” For a filmmaker, this means shooting close to your subjects, so physically close that you and your camera will connect them [...]

Heart + Vitality = Courage

2019-11-07T14:51:30-08:00Categories: arts, brain, creative aging, faith and doubt, family, memoir, midlife, work, writing|Tags: , , , , , |

 “Roger-dodger on flight #97 SFO 12:25 PM May 20,” my brother John wrote to me, 43 years ago. “No sweat picking you up out of the horrors of the SF airport.” There’s more, in his rapid-scrawl handwriting on a sheet of notebook paper, and I love every word of it, even though it’s not the exact letter I’d hoped to find last night, as I lifted one envelope after another out of the plastic bin in which my letters have rested, ignored, for four decades. I pulled out every piece of mail that was addressed to me at Bates Hall, where I lived during my homesick first two years at Wellesley College. I wanted so badly to find one specific note that I knew John had written me in the spring of freshman year, when I wrote him for advice about whether I should transfer. The long New England winter was killing me. Why on earth had I even applied to a women’s college? Etcetera. What I found instead were exactly two other letters from John: one I’d long forgotten, which he was thoughtful enough to send in September (“Have you thrown yourself to the wolves at any of the cattle shows/mixers yet?”) and then the one he sent in May, after I had written to ask if I could visit him in Berkeley on my way home to Seattle. “Roger-dodger,” he replied. Which cracked me up, and then made me cry. Twice: when I opened it 43 years ago, and when I read it again [...]

No Mud, No Lotus

2019-11-07T14:52:18-08:00Categories: arts, faith and doubt, health & medicine, hiking, memoir, Uncategorized, writing|Tags: , , , , , |

“Most people are afraid of suffering,” writes Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. “But suffering is a kind of mud to help the lotus flower of happiness grow. There can be no lotus flower without the mud.” Thich Nhat Hanh has a remarkable ability to get my attention by saying the simplest things in fresh ways. Especially when I’m stuck in some sort of tiresome, sticky emotional mud; the kind of mud you can’t imagine could ever produce a lovely lotus blossom.            Earlier this year, I spotted his book, No Mud, No Lotus: the Art of Transforming Suffering at Elliott Bay Book Company. I thought it might come in handy as I embarked on my big 2017 foot surgery adventure. But month after month, it sat in a stack on my desk, where I mostly ignored it. When the title did catch my eye, I found it irritating. “Transforming suffering?” Tell that to my friend with cancer, Thich Nhat Hanh. Tell that to the exhausted firefighters all over the West. Tell it to the people of Houston, Florida, Mexico, Puerto Rico. Tell it to the DACA dreamers. The Syrian refugees. The millions of us who have to worry, again, that the Republicans are going to yank our health care. The sidelined career diplomats who live in fear every time our president opens his mouth about North Korea. “Transforming suffering.” Hah! I preferred the edgier acronym a neighbor taught me: AFOG. Another Fucking Opportunity for Growth. But as I sat at home this summer while my [...]

Restless Reinvention

2019-11-07T15:35:31-08:00Categories: arts, faith and doubt, film, midlife, travel, urban life|Tags: , , , , , , , |

News Flash: The Restless Nest has been awarded an honorable mention in the “Blogs under 100,000 unique visitors” category of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ 2016 competition!  “Oh, to be wracked by success!” director Terence Davies exclaimed, hitting wracked loudly and hard with his gentle Liverpool lilt. He was imitating actor Cynthia Nixon, who plays Emily Dickinson in his new film A Quiet Passion, as he explained to us that—much as he loves planning every painstaking detail of his movies in advance—he delights in moments of surprise. Nixon’s emphatic reading of Dickinson’s line was not what he had imagined. But then, success, whether or not one is wracked by it, is often not at all what we imagine. True for nineteenth century poets, true for 21st century actors and directors. True for all of us.      Davies’ appearance at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, following a screening of his 1992 film, The Long Day Closes, was a highlight of my recent trip to New York. I had seen his Distant Voices, Still Lives some years ago and was haunted by his depiction of his Liverpool childhood, of which his violent father was the volatile heart. Davies makes movies like an old Dutch master paints. He loves what he calls “texture:” getting the faded, autumnal colors of the clothing, wallpaper and furniture of his 1950s working-class neighborhood just right; spending a full minute of screen time gazing at one patterned ochre rug, because that’s what children do: they stare at the patterns and [...]

Reinvention

2019-11-07T15:36:14-08:00Categories: arts, faith and doubt, midlife, work, writing|Tags: , , , |

When 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.         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 [...]

Stockholm Syndrome

2019-11-07T15:36:57-08:00Categories: arts, faith and doubt, feminism, memoir, midlife, Uncategorized, women's rights, writing|Tags: , , , , |

Nine years ago, a freelance critic for The Seattle Weekly suggested, in print for all to see, that I might be suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. She was right: I was. I tend to fall hard when I fall in love. The critic was reviewing a short film my husband and I made called Art without Walls: the Making of the Olympic Sculpture Park, which aired that week on KCTS, our local public television station. Her point was that I was clearly way too enthralled by Seattle’s new sculpture park to produce an unbiased documentary about the making of it. Guilty as charged: I loved the sculpture park. The term “Stockholm Syndrome” was coined in 1973, after several hostages in a Swedish bank holdup-turned-siege became emotionally attached to the robbers who had imprisoned them in a vault for six days. (I am one-eighth Swedish-American: could there be a genetic tendency at work?) In 1973, I was 16, and I read about such events with great interest, perhaps because I was still not fully recovered from my first and most dramatic bout of Stockholm Syndrome, which struck when I was 13. Do you remember the brief fad for chocolate fountains? How beautiful the chocolate looked, pouring over and over, endlessly bountiful, into a surrounding pool. How agonizing those fountains must have been to anyone who was dieting, or diabetic. When I was 13, I dove right into the chocolate fountain of evangelical Christianity. So sweet, so filling, so sublime. And at first, it felt so uncomplicated: just believe. [...]

Mangers Everywhere

2019-11-11T09:15:30-08:00Categories: arts, economics, faith and doubt, film, human rights, urban life|Tags: , , , , |

Two days shy of the darkest day of the year, silhouetted against a rainy twilight sky, I watched a young woman emerge from a tent, tugging a stroller behind her. A young man followed. They turned the stroller around and bumped it down a muddy knoll, lifting it over a ditch and onto the sidewalk. Their tent, pitched next to Interstate 5 at the 50th Street exit in Seattle’s University District, flapped behind them, sagging under the relentless rain, leaning half-heartedly against the wind, ready to cave in to the next good gust. As we waited for the light to change, all I could see of the baby in the stroller, across the two lanes of traffic that stood between us, was that at least she or he was covered with a blanket. My husband and I were on our way to see the latest movie version of Macbeth. The very first shot in the movie is of a dead baby. And the weather in medieval Scotland, as seen on screen, was only slightly worse than the weather outside the theater in mid-winter Seattle. I shivered at the thought of living in such brutal conditions: no heat, no light, mud everywhere. But that is exactly how the young couple I’d seen coming out of their tent were living. Right here in my own high-tech hometown. Right now, in 2015. As we drove home, we took in the sparkling lights of all the construction cranes in South Lake Union and downtown. It’s as if they’re competing this [...]

Healing is a risky business

2019-11-07T15:39:11-08:00Categories: arts, brain, faith and doubt, feminism, film, health & medicine, human rights, journalism, war, women's rights, writing|Tags: , , , , , , , , |

Healing is a risky business. Any poet or journalist could tell you that. It’s risky, because it has to start with truth telling, and when we’re wounded, the truth is not often what we want to hear. For me, last week started with the peak experience of hearing Gloria Steinem rock Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, and it ended (or so I thought) with the peak experience of hearing Garrison Keillor read a poem written by my college friend, Dana Robbins, to a national radio audience. Gloria and Dana: two risk-takers, two truth-tellers. You know Gloria, so I’ll tell you a bit about Dana: she survived a stroke at 23 and a number of other nightmares and heartbreaks, which she writes about in her first published book of poems, The Left Side of my Life (Moon Pie Press, 2015), in which you will also find poignant poems about motherhood and about her joyful second marriage. It was thrilling to me to at last hold a book of her poems in my hand AND hear her on the radio in the same week. But last week didn't end there. Because that was Before Paris. For the Islamic State terrorists, the bloody attacks on Paris that killed 129 people were the grand finale of a two-week horror show that included claiming responsibility for the October 31 plane crash in Egypt that killed 224 people and bombings in Beirut that killed 43 and in Baghad that killed at least 26. For those of us who are slow to wake up to [...]

Restless Night

2019-11-07T15:40:26-08:00Categories: arts, film, memoir, midlife, parenting, Seattle, urban life|Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

There was a solemn three-year-old firefighter and a fierce four-year-old Batman. There were many princesses, one wearing a football helmet. There were moms dressed as witches and one dad in a hardhat carrying a cardboard model of Bertha, Seattle’s doomed supersized tunnel driller. There were some very sweet baby bumblebees. It was Halloween night in Columbia City, and my husband and I were there for the show. We left a basket of candy on our front porch with a sign: “Happy Halloween! Take a few and leave some for your neighbors.” We’ll never know whether the trick or treaters did that, or whether one or a few them could not resist the temptation to empty the entire basket into their bags. What we did know is that we were too restless, this year, to sit home and wait for the doorbell to ring. So there we were, a dozen blocks away in our neighborhood’s hopping, decked-out business district, watching what has become a wildly popular south Seattle ritual: trick or treating at the bars, restaurants, galleries and stores in rustic, red-brick Columbia City. We ordered beers at Lottie’s and stood outside, protected from the rain by the awning. We complimented the trick or treaters on their costumes and chatted with their parents. Rus took a few photos to send our children, currently living far away in Colorado and New York and busy at that hour dressing up for their respective Halloween parties. After dinner at Tutta Bella, we raced up to Taproot Theatre in Greenwood to [...]

From Sun to Sun

2019-11-07T15:40:52-08:00Categories: arts, film, health & medicine, human rights, immigration, memoir, Peru, reading|Tags: , , , , , , |

 “I am not an angel,” Nina McKissock told me firmly. “I’m just doing my job.” McKissock is a hospice nurse. She is also the author of a new memoir called From Sun to Sun: A Hospice Nurse Reflects on the Art of Dying, in which she tells the stories of composite patients based on many of the real people she has cared for at the end of their lives. (McKissock and I will be reading and talking together at Elliott Bay Bookstore in Seattle on Sunday, November 1 at 3pm.) From Sun to Sun is one of those books I was hesitant to read, thinking surely it will be too hard and too sad to bear. But once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. Each one of McKissock’s 24 patients became my friend for an hour or two; a friend whose story had much to teach me. “There can be great healing within the dying process,” McKissock writes in the frontispiece to the book, and though this may seem counterintuitive, she goes on to show us many examples of how it can be true. One of the most moving stories was of Eric, a 51-year-old with ALS: Lou Gehrig’s disease. Eric had watched his father die of the same illness, so he knew what lay ahead. His type-A, executive wife was heartbroken and enraged. Of course. But her anger at ALS made it nearly impossible for her to slow down and muster the patience caring for her dying husband required. When McKissock persuaded her and Eric [...]

Hallelujah

2019-11-07T15:45:30-08:00Categories: arts, faith and doubt, family, health & medicine, politics|Tags: , , , , , |

“Love is not a victory march,” wrote Leonard Cohen. “It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.” And it plays in my head, this lyrical fragment, quite often. (The Jeff Buckley version, may he rest in peace.) I find it profound and beautiful and even hopeful, though my sense of what it means changes from day to day. When I hear it, or think of it, I picture two people who love each other, embracing. Perhaps crying. One has just forgiven the other, I imagine. Or one has just been marked for death, or a long departure. Something is broken. Some cosmic chord has gone cold. Nothing could be further from what they are feeling than victory. And yet they are more intensely aware of their love, in this instant, than they have ever been. The name of the Buckley album that includes Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is “Grace.” A difficult concept if there ever was one: spiritual grace, that is, as opposed to ballet or Mozart or Matisse. But though it may be difficult to describe, there are moments in life when grace is visible. Palpable. And the last two weeks have been full of those moments. “I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you,” sad Nadine Collier to the expressionless face on the video monitor, the face of the man accused of murdering her mother, Ethel Lance, and eight others at Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17th.  “I forgive you.” Startling words. Powerful words. Over and [...]

Beyond the Trail

2019-11-07T15:46:19-08:00Categories: arts, brain, dementia, hiking, memoir, nature, reading, Seattle, writing|Tags: , , , |

  “End of Maintained Trail,” read the sign. “Travel Safely. Leave No Trace.” We had hiked the 3.1 miles up to Glacier Basin in Mt. Rainier National Park on a mid-June day that looked like late July: wildflowers everywhere, sky bluer than blue, glaciers looking decidedly underfed. I could use that “end of maintained trail” metaphor to riff about global warming, couldn’t I? But my mind is traveling in a different direction. More of a life direction. More of a… what it might feel like to get a scary diagnosis direction. For 5.3 million Americans living today, that diagnosis is Alzheimer’s disease, and it may as well come with a trail’s-end message attached: This is the end of the maintained trail, pal. Sorry. Travel safely. Oh, and leave no trace of your fears and feelings because frankly, the rest of us can’t handle hearing about it. For their family members, the diagnosis message is the same: your life, too, will now proceed on unmarked terrain. There will be rocks, some slippery, others sharp. There will be immoveable boulders. Crevasses of anguish. The endless putting of one foot in front of another, as you wonder what lies around the next switchback or over that looming ridge. The Alzheimer’s Association recently switched its awareness month from November—cold, barren, dark—to June: mild, lush and flooded with light. At first, I didn’t get it. November had always seemed like the perfect Alzheimer’s Awareness month to me. But I think the point is to get us all thinking about just how [...]

5 a.m. Idea Factory

2019-11-11T09:17:49-08:00Categories: arts, brain, health & medicine, memoir, midlife, writing|Tags: , |

On a good day, I call it the 5 a.m. Idea Factory; on a bad day, it’s the “pre-dawn stew.” I have also dubbed it “Restless Brain Syndrome,” which became the title of one of the most frequently browsed posts on this humble blog. Guess I’m not alone here on the insomnia journey. But lately, I’ve been leaning positive. I’m trying to embrace my version of insomnia rather than fight it. Hence, the 5 a.m. Idea Factory. (Sometimes, it’s 3 or 4 a.m. Which is a little harder to embrace. But let’s not dwell on that.) First: hats off to those of you who get up every day at five, either because you have to or because you want to. Seriously. I have spent a lot of time asking myself why, since I so often wake up at five, I so adamantly do not want to get up at five. In these self-to-self conversations, I have tried to employ logic (you’re awake! It makes sense!), ambition (think of all the writing you could get done!), selfishness (do it for you. Give yourself that time!) and selflessness (think how much better your husband will sleep if you get your restless self out of bed!) But no: my 5 a.m. brain may be on high alert, but my 5 a.m. body refuses all orders to throw back the covers and face the world. One day, I listened as a woman a few decades older than I am described how she loves lingering in that time between sleep and [...]

Welcome to Seattle

2019-11-07T16:02:45-08:00Categories: arts, hiking, memoir, midlife, travel, urban life|Tags: , , , |

Here’s a sad, sad thought: your cherished friend is visiting Seattle from across the country and you find out she’s drinking bad hotel coffee at her downtown hotel. You know the stuff: those packets that you stick in the toddler-sized coffeemaker, because you can’t bear to spend ten dollars on a cup from room service OR throw a coat over your pajamas and venture out for a to-go cup from the nearest café. When I heard the news, I felt personally embarrassed on behalf of my hometown. Vicky and I met forty years ago this month, when Wellesley College assigned us to live in the same room. She was from Ohio. I was from Seattle. We were both 17, on financial aid and not from New York or New England, which must be why Wellesley College matched us up. Vicky remembers that I drew little cartoon evergreen trees on the whiteboard outside our dorm room because I was so homesick. She remembers that I brewed my own coffee, purchased at the gourmet store in town. I remember that no one knew anything about Seattle, except for what they’d seen on Here Come the Brides, the TV show responsible for the song, “The Bluest Skies You’ve Ever Seen.” (“—are in Seattle?” Who wrote that?) Over the many years since college, Vicky has been in Seattle briefly a few times. But on this visit, she finally had the leisure to look around a bit, while her husband attended a conference. I know Vicky to be an intrepid walker, [...]

Park Dining

2019-11-07T16:05:58-08:00Categories: arts, Seattle, urban life|Tags: , , , |

I had lunch today at “Dog in the Park,” one of the best outdoor dining establishments in Seattle. One window, one grill, and a cluster of umbrella-shaded picnic tables on prime downtown turf: the east side of Westlake Park. From my excellent table, I had a ringside view of the children’s play area, the waterfall wall and the busy intersection of Fourth and Pine. My chicken, feta and spinach dog with peppers and onions was grilled to perfection. It cost me five dollars plus tip. If you’re after traditional pork or beef dogs, they have those too. Veggie, vegan? Naturally. It may be a one-item menu, but “Dog in the Park” has a dog for everyone. But this is not a restaurant review. This is a park story. Westlake Park is not just a busy downtown crossroads. It is, in fact, a city park. It has its own Seattle Park District web page, which lists its size as 0.1 acres. It also has its own Office of Arts & Culture web page, on which you can learn all about artist Robert Maki’s 1988 design for Westlake, which features paving stones in a Salish basket-weave pattern, a Roman-inspired stone archway and a 64-foot, double wall of water that you can walk through on a steel walkway. Sitting in the park, with a tasty grilled hot dog, is much better than reading about it. As I ate, I watched a few kids plinking on a pink piano, one of the “Pianos in the Parks” that have popped up [...]

Polska, 1994

2019-11-13T16:12:33-08:00Categories: arts, human rights, travel, war, writing|Tags: , , , , , , |

Restless Nest readers, today we are toasting my friend and Goddard MFA classmate Isla McKetta, whose novel, Polska, 1994, has just been published by Editions Checkpointed, the French publisher known for the literature of conflict. Wow. I asked Isla a few questions about how it happened and here's what she had to say: 1. You balanced writing a novel/earning an MFA with a full-time job. How? And why? What drove you? When I first decided to apply for MFA programs—when I committed to the idea of myself as a writer—I hadn’t worked in almost two years. I’d left my job to take care of my mom through a couple of surgeries, and that journey home forced me to face some childhood trauma from her initial battle with cancer. The whole thing left me in a state of depression that eventually became a spur to examine what I wanted in life. I realized that what made me feel happiest and most fulfilled is when I am creating art, and words are my go-to medium. I started applying to graduate programs and jobs at the same time. I’m one of those people who’s doing everything all at once or nothing at all, and I think I’d built up a lot of energy during that down time so working while going to school felt like a good way to throw myself back into living. Plus, the more I wrote, the more the act of writing energized me. You know how intense the MFA program can be, and by the [...]

Grapefruit. Kristofferson.

2019-11-13T16:27:13-08:00Categories: arts, film, Seattle|Tags: , , , , , |

 If you met me on the street, you might never guess that I once popped a contact lens right into Kris Kristofferson’s breakfast. And you might not guess how graciously he responded. Our conversation went something like this: Me: “I’m sorry! That is my contact lens on your grapefruit! Would you like me to bring you another one?” My finger, a few steps ahead of my brain, had already darted downward as I spoke, plucking the lens from where it had landed, right in the center of the sunny pink half. Kris: “Oh no, that’s fine. I don’t mind.” Smile. Eye-twinkle. It was 1976, the year he starred with Barbra Streisand in the rock-glamorous remake of A Star is Born. I was working for the summer in the restaurant of a downtown Seattle hotel. Kris was in Seattle for a concert with his then-wife, Rita Coolidge. That summer I served breakfast to Linda Ronstadt, the Doobie Brothers and Kris and Rita. My uniform was a blue polyester pantsuit. I did not see A Star is Born that year, probably because it came to Seattle after I left in the fall to spend my junior year in England. But I knew a gorgeous actor/songwriter/singer when I saw one, even one who chose to sit alone in the back of a casual hotel restaurant, rather than order his grapefruit and cereal from room service. Scenes from our lives, whether we’ve told them a hundred times or never at all, have a way of burbling up when you least [...]

Details

2019-11-13T16:34:17-08:00Categories: arts, travel|Tags: , |

I haven’t even started telling this story and I’ve already cheated. It’s supposed to be about recall, details, seeing what’s there and what’s not there. My intent was to write it all from memory and make that part of the story. But its focus is one work of art, which I knew I could find online, and when I sat down to write, temptation surged straight to my fingertips. In five minutes, I found myself staring at a reproduction of the painting on my screen. Good? Yes: because now I’m going to read more about the artist and the picture and learn things I didn’t know. Bad? Yes, bad, too, because I just blew a great opportunity to give my brain a workout by recalling all the details I could before I went to the Internet for help. This all started a month or so ago, on a stormy day in Chicago. It was an all-weather kind of a day, a late-winter specialty of the Midwest: snow, sleet, rain, a few minutes of sun, temperatures careening down then up then down again. The perfect day to spend wandering the great maze that is the Art Institute of Chicago. I lived in Chicago for two years after college, so the Art Institute is like an old friend. But there are many rooms I haven’t been back to in a long, long time. English painting of the 19th century, for example. “Oh hello, Turner,” I said to myself as I walked into the gallery. There in front of [...]

Blue Dress, Red Dress

2019-11-13T16:35:11-08:00Categories: arts, film, memoir, midlife, women's rights|Tags: , , , , , |

I’m thinking again about Anita Hill’s blue dress. I wrote about it, and her, and Freida Mock’s engrossing documentary film, titled simply Anita, last year when the film played at the Seattle International Film Festival. Now, Anita is in theaters, including Seattle’s Sundance Cinema. Go see it. Time-travel back to October 1991, when we weren’t yet accustomed to having a man accused of sexual harassment on the Supreme Court. But back to the dress. No matter how hard we all try to be less attached to the things of our lives, objects do have power. Anita Hill knew what her pale blue dress said, and so did we: Professional. Tasteful. Modest. When I remember my mother, I often picture her in a dress that couldn’t be more different than the one Hill wore to that infamous Senate hearing. My mom’s dress was Tabasco-red. It was fitted with a flared skirt. Spaghetti-strapped. A print of tiny white racehorses galloped across it. That dress was shorthand for who she was then: a youthful, single, 49-year-old woman with a great eye for the right outfit, one that pushed the edge of daring without going over it. A red dress says: Here I am. The star of Peter Brook’s stage adaptation of a South African story called The Suit, Nonhlanhla Kheswa, was resplendent in a red dress that was a ringer for my mother’s, only without the racehorses. When she stepped to the front of the stage and sang Miriam Makeba’s haunting “Malaika,” it was as if the red dress [...]

The Writers Are Coming

2014-02-25T13:20:00-08:00Categories: arts, brain, dementia, memoir, writing|Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

    When I opened this week’s Sunday Seattle Times, the first thing I saw was a big color ad for commemorative Super Bowl 48 bookends. Fully sculpted, cold-cast bronze, showing “Seahawks players in action!” Not available in stores! And only $49.99, payable in two easy installments! I looked up “cold-cast bronze” so you won’t have to. It means the sculpture is made from a resin mixed with powdered bronze, which gives it a surface, quote, “similar to traditionally cast bronze, at a fraction of the cost.” Just FYI. But what struck me about the ad was this: why bookends? In what way do books relate to football? Why not just make a Seahawks Super Bowl cold-cast bronze statue to place on the coffee table in front of the flat-screen TV, so you can see it every time you fire up ESPN? Maybe the Bradford Exchange Collectibles people heard about one of Seattle’s other claims to fame, which is that we are one of the most literate cities in the country. The second, after Washington DC, for the fourth year in a row. The Central Connecticut State University study tracks six factors: number of bookstores, educational attainment, Internet resources, library resources, periodical publishing resources, and newspaper circulation. Or maybe the cold-cast bronze makers got wind of Seattle author Ryan Boudinot’s campaign to get the United Nations to declare Seattle an official UNESCO City of Literature. A part of UNESCO’s Creative Cities program, such a designation would not only acknowledge what we all know—Seattleites love books—but help [...]

At the movies

2014-01-29T17:09:12-08:00Categories: arts, faith and doubt, film, memoir, midlife, writing|Tags: , , , , |

Three 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 [...]

The Cover

2019-11-13T16:45:31-08:00Categories: arts, brain, dementia, family, midlife, women's rights, writing|Tags: , , , , |

The first cover I saw was gorgeous, but I knew immediately it was not right for my book. And that certainty made my heart sink, because this is my very first book and this was the first and most important step in the design process and right out of the gate, I was going to have to be the bad guy. My book is called Her Beautiful Brain. It’s a memoir about my mom and her younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease and how it changed our lives: hers, mine, everyone’s in my big, loving extended family. It’s a sandwich generation story, about raising young children while my mother started to crumble: first slowly, then very fast. It’s a late-20th-century story, about a miner’s daughter from Butte, Montana who weathered divorces and widowhood, went back to college and back to work, raised six children and was the strongest woman I ever knew. It is not about a woman who ever had much time or inclination to knit. So when I saw that first elegant cover design, which showed a black silhouette of a woman’s head, in profile, with a bright pink ball of yarn inside it, one long strand of yarn unraveling out of her head and down the center of the frame, I thought: no. I don’t want a ball of yarn anywhere near this cover. Too literal? Maybe so. But I also didn’t like the notion of Alzheimer’s disease as an unraveling, because let me tell you, it is not. A brain affected by Alzheimer’s disease is [...]

Tallchief

2019-11-13T16:48:58-08:00Categories: arts, family, memoir, writing|Tags: , , , , , |

  Ballerina Maria Tallchief. Undated photo. She “made us move bigger than we actually were, with a courage and physical confidence we didn’t yet possess,” wrote Jennifer Homans in a recent tribute to the great ballerina Maria Tallchief, who died in 2013. Maria Tallchief: what a graceful name for the daughter of an Osage chief who grew into a dancer known all over the world for her long-limbed, dazzling, powerful presence. My own memory of Maria Tallchief is not of her on stage—I was never so lucky—but of the sound of her name as spoken by my mom. She said it gratefully, joyfully and with wonder: as in, can you imagine how thrilling it was for me to see Maria Tallchief on stage in Butte, Montana? How lucky I felt? I think she saw Tallchief in Swan Lake. It must have been the late 1940s, when my mother was in high school. Butte, her hometown, was in a pretty happy mood then: World War II had brought Butte’s copper mines—a vast honeycomb underneath what had been known before the Depression as the “richest hill on earth”—back to life. My grandparents bought their first house, a tiny bungalow down on the flats with a stamp of a yard where you could coax a little grass and a few trees to grow: paradise, after a dozen years in the treeless tenements uptown. The Depression had been very hard on Butte, and on my mother’s family. And so this ballerina, whose talent was to be bold, strong, [...]

Brain Museum

2013-12-09T10:15:22-08:00Categories: arts, brain, dementia, film, human rights, travel|Tags: , , , |

Just when I thought I was done writing about the brain, there I was in Lima, Peru, standing face to face with an actual brain floating in a glass globe. I was in a small museum called “The Brain Museum.” Although I have visited many other quirky, out-of-the-way sites in Peru in the past month, I truly did not intend to visit this one. I was quite sure my Peru agenda had nothing to do with Alzheimer’s disease, my mom, her brain or brains in general. My husband and I have been in Peru working on a documentary film project that has to do with a clinic named after my great-uncle, who lived here for 25 years. But we’re also doing a few days of filming for a global health fellowship program affiliated with the University of Washington. And that’s how I found myself face to face with a floating brain, the focal point of an assemblage sculpture called “Custodia, Estudio 1,” created by artist Jose Luis Herrera Gianino. A custodia—or “monstrance” in English—is a glass container on a stand that is used in some Catholic churches to display the communion host, or wafer, representing the bread Jesus broke and shared with his disciples at the Last Supper. “This is my body, broken for you,” Jesus said. “Take, eat, in remembrance of me.” In earlier eras, a custodia was sometimes used to display relics: bits of the bone, hair or clothing of saints. Here, floating in front of me, was the most intimate relic imaginable of [...]