Stay Hungry

2019-11-07T15:31:01-08:00Categories: economics, education, faith and doubt, feminism, human rights, immigration, journalism, politics, Seattle, Uncategorized, urban life, women's rights|Tags: , , |

2016 was a hungry, hungry year. Month after month, we hungered for justice and peace and hope, and we just kept getting hungrier. We thought November 8 might take the edge off; might give us a little encouraging broth for the journey. But no. Now we’re more famished than ever. And it’s very easy to feel like the best solution might be to simply curl up in a fetal position and hoard what little energy we have left. But we can’t, can we? We owe it to ourselves, our children, our neighbors down the street and around the world, to stay hungry. To feel that driving bite in the gut, that ache, that howling growl that demands attention. We are going to be offered pablum and junk food and we’ll be tempted to take it. We’ll be told to eat this, calm down, stop your bellyaching. But we can’t. We’ve got to stay hungry. Yes, 2016 feels like the Worst Year Ever. But as one friend brooded on Facebook, what on earth makes us think 2017 is going to better? Lest you think my only goal here is to write the most depressing post in Restless Nest history, I offer this morsel of optimism. Here’s what could be better about 2017, if we all stay hungry: this could be the year that we all do more than we ever have to make the world a better place. Instead of giving money to presidential candidates, we can give it to the people who are in the trenches, [...]

Dignity is an Illusion

2019-11-07T15:59:16-08:00Categories: education, faith and doubt, family, memoir, midlife|Tags: , , , , |

            “Dignity is an illusion,” I took to saying during a particularly rough year of my life. I don’t know where it came from, or when exactly I first said it, but it made me laugh. Which helped. Dignity was in short supply that year. Rejection was the theme of the hour. Publishers were rejecting my first book (a novel, which remains unpublished.) My husband was rejecting our marriage (a miserable phase for both of us, which thankfully ended and now seems so long ago now I sometimes can’t believe it ever happened.) I was applying for full-time jobs for the first time in quite a while, and getting a lot of “sorrys,” which I took to mean I was too old (40) and professionally out-of-shape (true). Meanwhile, I watched helplessly as my mother experienced the worst rejection of all: she was diagnosed with probable Alzheimer’s. Her dignity was in the shredder. Dignity is an illusion. These four words became my gallows-humor motto that year, and they have stayed with me ever since. If a phrase can be a teacher, this one has been mine. And here’s what it’s taught me: Cling to dignity and you’ll be left with nothing, including your dignity. Acknowledge that dignity is nothing but a pleasant illusion and you will be empowered. Those kids in the office where you finally land a job who think you’re old? Who cares! Show them how little you value dignity and they will judge you differently: perhaps even on the [...]

Libraries Change Lives

2019-11-13T16:29:41-08:00Categories: education, reading, women's rights|Tags: , , , , |

Snapshot: me, sitting cross-legged on a hardwood floor. Surrounded by shelves of books. One open in my hand. I’m so absorbed in it I forget who I am, where I am, what time it is. When the bell rings, I close the book and jump up, limp-hopping because my leg’s dead-wood asleep. I’ve got to get to the checkout desk, fast, so I can take this precious book with me as I racewalk to my next class. It’s 1969. I am 12 years old. The corner of the Nathan Eckstein Junior High School library where I hang out is the corner where the biographies and autobiographies are shelved. And the memoirs, although I don’t remember knowing or using that word then. The biography section runs on low shelves along the short, east wall to the corner of the long, curved north wall, with its sweeping bank of glass-block windows that work hard all day to capture, refract, diffuse whatever north Seattle light they can find. If you planned to spend some time there, as I usually did, sitting cross-legged on the floor with your skirt fanned from knee to knee was more modest and more comfortable than squatting. Sitting on the floor also dropped me right out of sight behind the interior forest of taller bookcases. For as long as I sat there, I was alone. I was free. No older girls, no cool girls. No cute boys, no scary boys. Just me and real stories of real people, most of whom lived long before junior [...]

Brain on Fire

2014-03-19T09:57:48-07:00Categories: brain, education, Seattle, urban life|Tags: , , , |

“What does this mean—‘brain on fire?’”  Munira pointed to the words on the page. We were reading a passage about Helen Keller in her fourth-grade homework packet. The author was describing how Keller’s brain was suddenly “on fire” after the legendary breakthrough moment when she spelled the word “water” in her teacher Anne Sullivan’s hand; how Helen ran from object to object, demanding names, learning at least 30 words that very day. I did my best to explain “brain on fire,” but found myself reaching for equally odd English sayings, about lightbulbs turning on or “Aha!” moments or “getting it.” Munira got it, and we read on. Like many of the Somali students I tutor in the after-school program in my neighborhood, her English is fluent but youthful and conversational. Phrases that date back a few decades, or several, stick out like a—well, like a sore thumb. I remember one afternoon last year when I had to explain the title of a reading passage called “America’s Favorite Pastime” to a student even younger than Munira: let’s just say, I’m no Anne Sullivan. And I’m not. I am not setting brains on fire on a regular basis. But I keep showing up, because I have this naïve belief in the power of reading. Once a child is able to open a book and read, all on her own, it’s as if she possesses a magic power, a golden key to everything, that no one can take away. But just as Anne Sullivan could not persuade Helen Keller [...]

I’d like to thank a few people

2013-10-25T10:43:47-07:00Categories: education, midlife, writing|Tags: , , |

 I am writing the first acknowledgements page of my writing life, and I am paralyzed. I don’t want to send it to my editor. I won’t send it. What if I’ve forgotten someone? I know I’ve forgotten someone. I mean, let’s just assume. Because where do you draw the line? For example, I didn’t include the first person who told me I could write: Mrs. LaCross, my second and third grade teacher. She loved my sometimes droll but mostly inane little poems, directly inspired by her frequent dramatic readings from Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. I didn’t include Rose Moss, my Wellesley College creative writing professor, who taught me how to show versus tell in a piece of “fiction” that really was my first attempt at memoir. Mrs. Moss made me see a dark night in my young life so clearly I can see it still: the train station in Geneva, the last train pulling away with me not on it, the blond man in a trench coat who seemed so trustworthy, so sincere. She made me see myself: a college student in a peach-colored parka, Frye boots, bell-bottom jeans, carrying a forest-green, metal-framed backpack. Wearing old tortoise-shell glasses with a bad prescription, because I’d flushed my contact lens down the drain of a pension in Rome. I didn’t include Paul Zimbrakos, my boss at City News Bureau of Chicago, who taught me that I could and would interview anybody, from AFL-CIO chief Lane Kirkland to the cops who addressed me as “Hey [...]

Night of the Shutdown

2013-10-01T11:27:21-07:00Categories: education, politics|Tags: , , , , , , |

On the night the Republicans shut down the government, I was teaching at Seattle Central Community College: “Intro to Memoir Writing,” a non-credit class offered through Central’s lively Continuing Education program. While my students and I tackled the mysterious mechanics of writing about our lives, other students and other teachers labored in classrooms all around us: French, across the hall; English as a Second Language, a few doors down; history and sociology around the corner. While Congress wasted the country’s time, we devoured time hungrily and with purpose: teaching, listening, learning from each other. While House Speaker John Boehner did his best to dismantle the democratic process, we were building—in our cases, stories, built one word at a time with sweat, tears, love and hard labor. At some point earlier in their careers, surely Boehner and his colleagues must have wanted to build, rather than tear down. Maybe not: maybe the Republican party has always been dedicated to ending government as we know it. Government, as we were taught in classrooms long ago, in which bills are drafted, debated, rewritten, passed, signed and then become the law of the land. Law: not a target for blackmail and subversion, but law. It cheers me to think of all the learning going on in community college classrooms, not only on Monday, September 30, but on any given evening. Because this is where Boehner and his cohort are going down. The people the Tea Party et al fear so much—people who think, people who want to learn rather than [...]

Boston

2013-04-22T11:55:01-07:00Categories: arts, education, politics, urban life, writing|Tags: , , , , , |

One 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 [...]

Homework

2013-04-16T14:03:23-07:00Categories: education, immigration, Seattle, urban life|Tags: , , , , , |

It’s almost 5:30. Time to walk the one block from my front door to the neighborhood center where I volunteer once a week as a homework tutor for Horn of Africa Services, a nonprofit serving Seattle’s East African community. I wonder what challenges await me today. Will I find myself trying to explain what a “bale of hay” is? Corral the attention of a first-grader who is convinced the police car in the alley might be here for someone he knows? Search for scissors and a glue stick for a “word-sorting” homework assignment that involves pasting postage-sized pictures of words with similar endings in the correct columns? The word-sort worksheet makes me wonder if the teacher who assigned it really enjoys the mental picture of parents and other homework helpers, like me, down on our knees gathering up flyaway scraps of homework confetti. (I don’t remember my own children having to use glue to do homework very often, though there was that one multi-day, sweat-and-tear-stained project that called for recreating Fort Vancouver out of popsicle sticks.) At a training for volunteers, Program Director Dereje Zewdie began by defining culture as, quote, “what makes you a stranger when you’re away from home.” Walking to the tutoring center, I’m only a few hundred yards from where I now live. A mere ten miles from the house where I grew up. I don’t think about My Culture because I live in it. It is omnipresent; as invisible as air. But all that changes when I open the door and [...]

Hard-wired for Green

2013-04-09T11:58:14-07:00Categories: arts, brain, dementia, education, nature, writing|Tags: , , , |

We are hard-wired for green. It’s a phrase I heard for the first time this week, and it is lodged in my brain at the moment like an advertising jingle I secretly like. Hard-wired for green: meaning, you can strip away everything you’ve learned since birth and you will still primally, viscerally, respond like a seedling in the sun to the sight of new green growth. You will feel reassured by this evidence that the planet, or at least one bit of it, is still alive and well. You will feel energized—if these plants can grow, then I can too. You might think I heard this in some sort of eco-oriented setting, and you’d be right, if you stretched your notion of ecology to include the complex landscape of the brain. It was the keynote speaker at the regional Alzheimer’s conference who planted the “hard-wired for green” seed in my head. Sociologist and author John Zeisel was talking about what people with Alzheimer’s don’t lose as the disease goes about its inexorable business. What they don’t lose is what is “hard-wired;” so deeply embedded that we’re born with it. Positive feelings about green, especially trees, were at the top of his list, which also included: universal facial expressions—smiles, frowns and the look of disgust; response to touch, especially anything resembling a mother’s touch; the learning and use of landmarks; and, finally, creative expression: art, poetry, music and dance. Zeisel is a tireless advocate for the “personhood” of the person with dementia, as reflected in the title [...]

Impatience

2013-04-03T08:00:31-07:00Categories: arts, economics, education, midlife, parenting, Seattle, women's rights, work, writing|Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

“Patience is a virtue.” Who first said that, and why? A quick Internet search points to a few “medieval poets.” Let’s leave it there—in the dark ages—and move on: to why patience is on my mind, and not in a virtuous, well-behaved way. I just spent an evening at Seattle’s Town Hall listening to five dynamic women speak at an event, sponsored by the Women’s Funding Alliance, called “Fresh Perspective: Women Lead a Changing World.” Good title; wish it were true. The speakers had some good news to share—the dramatic increase in the numbers of women obtaining bachelors, masters and PhD degrees; the previously unheard of opportunities for women in government, science, technology, sports. But “Women Lead a Changing World?” No. Not very many of us are leading. Not by a long shot. And the world may be changing, but it sure is taking its time. And we’ve been far too patient. It is time we made a virtue of impatience. When eight of every ten corporations in Washington state have fewer than three women on their boards, it is time to be impatient. When women in Washington* earn 75 cents for every dollar men earn—73 cents, if you have kids; 60 cents if you’re a single mom—it’s time to be impatient. When Washington slips from first to eighth in the nation for female political representation, it’s time to be impatient. When 415 thousand women and girls in our state have no health insurance, when reproductive rights are under assault, when one out of four children [...]

Meaning: Searching and/or Finding

2013-03-19T13:43:57-07:00Categories: arts, education, faith and doubt, midlife, quiet, Seattle, urban life, writing|Tags: , , , , , , , , |

Trying 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 [...]

Preschool

2013-02-26T10:02:43-08:00Categories: education, parenting, politics|Tags: , , |

“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 [...]

Safety, Take Two

2012-06-06T12:30:12-07:00Categories: education, Uncategorized, urban life|Tags: , , , , , |

He didn’t think there was any way to get help for his son. And now six people are dead. How did we get to this place in modern history where we routinely take better care of our bodies, our teeth, our cars, our homes than we do our minds, our hearts, our souls? If we’re lucky enough to have health insurance, it probably doesn’t cover mental health. Maybe medications: pills to make us less anxious or depressed. Maybe. But treatment? Therapy? No, our national mental health plan is to turn our most tortured souls out on the streets. Let them fend for themselves. Let them buy guns, no problem there! Let their aging parents and other relatives do what they can. But as long as it’s not our mentally ill relative, it’s not our problem. If you are that aging parent, like Walter Stawicki, the father of Ian Stawicki, who killed five people, gravely wounded another and killed himself in Seattle on May 30, you know what resources are out there for your troubled adult child: none.  A 2006 survey ranked Washington state 47th in the number of psychiatric beds per capita. And involuntary commitment is well nigh impossible, unless your unstable relative is making imminent, life-endangering threats to another person. The Seattle Times reports that every month, between 15 hundred and two thousand people are evaluated by mental health professionals under the state’s involuntary treatment act. Two thirds of them are turned away. So Walter Stawicki assumed, correctly, that there was little he could do [...]

Apologies

2012-05-16T08:49:22-07:00Categories: education, midlife, politics|Tags: , , , |

High School was a long time ago. And I like to think we’ve all grown up since then. But the story of Mitt Romney chasing down a classmate and forcibly cutting his hair gave me chills. And his so-called “apology” turned my stomach. “IF I hurt anyone,” Romney said. Did no one ever teach this man who thinks he’s qualified to be our next president that an apology that comes loaded with the word “if” is no apology at all? I wasn’t bullied in high school, but I always felt just a few missteps away from the nightmare of being targeted.  After one of my best friends in junior high dumped me for not being cool enough, the popular girls mostly ignored me and I knew it was safer to keep it that way. Thinking about it now, a million years later, I can still feel the pain of being dumped and the humility of being invisible. Mitt Romney’s high school “pranks” may seem trivial to him, nearly fifty years down the road, but you can bet the living victims of those pranks have never forgotten how it felt. You can bet the “if” in the middle of his apology clanged like a high school fire alarm on their aging eardrums. George W. Bush was fond of high jinks too, back in the day. You have to wonder: did that make it easier for him to condone torture? Does the youngster capable of bullying grow up to be the president who says yes to waterboarding? Or [...]

Every Age

2012-03-14T08:54:22-07:00Categories: education, midlife, Uncategorized|Tags: , , , , , |

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 [...]