What We Say Matters

2019-11-07T15:41:52-08:00Categories: brain, dementia, faith and doubt, health & medicine, memoir, midlife, politics, work, writing|Tags: , , , , |

I’m thinking about the power of words this week, even more than I usually do. A word can be a weapon. A word can be a force for good. Words can heal or hurt. In a few days, I’ll be participating in a conference organized by the University of Washington School of Nursing called Elder Friendly Futures, and one thing we’ll talk about is words: how the words we choose define—no, become—what we think. And not just which words, but exactly how we say them: Elder can connote respect—or decrepitude. Friendly can sound saccharine—or inviting. And what about Futures? It’s the “s” that is intriguing, isn’t it, with its suggestion that there are many possible futures that could be friendly for elders, not just one. Vice President Joe Biden is an elder. Perhaps barely so, by today’s ever lengthening standards. He is 72 years old. But more than his actual age, it is his scars and the way he wears them that give him Elder status. This is a man whose wife and daughter were killed in a car crash when he was 29 years old and newly elected to the Senate. Now, more than 40 years later, he is again freshly grieving: this time, the death of his son Beau from brain cancer. How does he keep going? What makes his life meaningful? Faith. Service. In other words, the ability to see the larger world outside your own small world, even when your eyes are clouded with tears. For most of us, this is a [...]

Letter to New Orleans

2019-11-07T15:43:00-08:00Categories: faith and doubt, film, human rights, midlife, parenting|Tags: , |

Dear New Orleans: you took me in. At a time when you were still so bruised, splintered, fractured, frayed, and I showed up with nothing to offer except my eyes, ears, a pen and a notebook—you pretended you could use me. Don’t hurry away, you said. Stay awhile. I couldn’t stay a while; I had teenagers back home. But I could and did return six times. My husband had something more to offer: his camera. What I did was to try to help him tell, not the story, but A story, a small story we happened to stumble across, about what happened to New Orleans, ten years ago this week. Our small story was about the post-Hurricane Katrina rebuilding of a church that is home to both New Orleans’ deaf Catholics and a Spanish-speaking congregation in a neighborhood layered with immigrant history. Creole, German and Italian-American carpenters, plumbers and skilled volunteers of every description showed up to help. Many of them had grown up down the block. Many had lost their own homes to Katrina. Volunteers from out of town, including a Seattle crew, were there too. Our small story became a documentary film called The Church on Dauphine Street. One of the first places it aired was on the New Orleans PBS station, WYES, whose studios had been badly damaged by Katrina. When we asked if the station wanted to air it again in honor of the tenth anniversary of the hurricane, they declined, saying people in New Orleans are trying hard to look forward [...]

Subduction Zone

2019-11-07T15:44:26-08:00Categories: faith and doubt, family, film, memoir, midlife, nature|Tags: , , , , , , |

Somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, our daughter is leading a trail crew. Somewhere in New York, our son, who moved there five days ago, is looking for a job and an apartment. Meanwhile, my husband and I are on the lovely, lonely Washington coast, at the Northwestern edge of the Lower 48: in the heart of what we all now know as the Cascadia Subduction Zone, thanks to Kathryn Schulz’ July 20 New Yorker story, “The Really Big One.” We are staying in a dollhouse-sized, bright blue rental cabin, which is for sale, just as it was when we stayed here two years ago. And just as we did then, we keep fantasizing about buying the place, which we can’t afford to do, though maybe with the publication of Schulz’ much-shared story, the price will drop. If I understand correctly, one response to her reporting that might make an odd kind of sense is: why not buy a tiny wooden house, 200 yards from the breaking waves? Our Seattle home is just as imperiled, right? Here’s what’s appealing about the dollhouse: when we pulled up next to it two days ago and got out of the car, the vast view before us made me—gasp is the only word I can think of. Yes, I’ve been to the beach before, many times; I’ve been to this exact beach before. But each time, the expanse of it shocks me. Suddenly, I realize how crowded daily life can get: and I don’t mean busy sidewalks and backed-up freeways so [...]

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 [...]

Lost & Found Mom

2019-11-07T15:47:21-08:00Categories: brain, faith and doubt, family, memoir, midlife, parenting|Tags: , , |

When I saw that dirt-colored linoleum, I knew I had to act. Fast. Thanks to my mom, I knew how. Yellow pages: rugs. Phone. Directions. “Vicky,” I said to my brand-new college roommate, “will you go in with me on a rug? It’ll cost us 40 dollars.” She said yes. And so off I went, via bus and subway, into a Boston neighborhood not normally frequented by Wellesley College freshmen from faraway states. I bought the rug: short nap, sky blue. I truly can’t remember how I got it back to the dorm. What caught me by surprise was how impressed my roommate and hallmates were. To me, this was a logical reaction to a crisis of ugliness. To them, it was all about me being a plucky Western girl, an Annie Oakley who got stuff done. But I knew the truth, which was that I had simply channeled my inner Arlene: my mom, that is, and the example she had always set of moving right past hand-wringing and right into making things better. I always wince when I use the words “lost” and “mom” in the same sentence. Because she’s not lost. She’s right here, inside me. I am sure my brother and sisters feel the same way. She was and is far too powerful a beacon to be “lost.” Gone, yes, and too young: Alzheimer’s started stealing bits of her when she was my age and kept at it for quite a long time. She died in 2006, at 74, after many years during [...]

Dignity is powerful

2019-11-07T15:48:53-08:00Categories: faith and doubt, film, human rights, Seattle, travel, war, women's rights, work, writing|Tags: , , , , , , , |

 Resistance is “people insisting on their dignity and humanity in the face of those who would strip them of it,” said author and documentary filmmaker Jen Marlowe. She was speaking from the base of a tiered classroom in Seattle University’s Sullivan Hall, which made her appear even shorter than her five feet and one quarter inch. It was 9 am on a Saturday. Her talk was titled “Reflections on Resistance: Palestine, Darfur and the Death Penalty.” I had arrived a few minutes late, not anticipating the crush of humanity at the check-in table for the Search for Meaning Book Festival, which packs the Seattle University campus with more people than it holds on any other day in the year. Apparently there are many of us in this bookish, broody city who are searching for meaning. SU has responded by bringing to one campus, for one day, a dizzying variety of authors who have found meaning in faiths and places and chapters of history I never knew existed. Hild of Whitby, for example—the subject of Nicola Griffith’s book, Hild: The Woman Who Changed the World 1400 Years Ago. Apparently Hild persuaded the Celtic and Roman bishops of the Dark Ages to sit down together, work out their differences, and unite the unruly believers of ancient Britain: quite an achievement for a single woman in the wilds of Northumbria. Back to Jen Marlowe, who is a bit of a present-day Hild. Marlowe’s search for meaning takes her to epicenters of resistance: to places like Palestine, Darfur in Western [...]

The Un-cool Writers’ Club

2019-11-07T15:49:19-08:00Categories: brain, dementia, faith and doubt, family, film, midlife, work|Tags: , , , |

 If you aspire to be a cool writer, then whatever you do, don’t hang out with me. I am your worst nightmare. Here’s why: for starters, I am old, so old I may as well tell you how old. 58. Fifty-eight! This would be acceptable if I had published many volumes by now. But no: I just published my very first book. And my book is a memoir. This might be acceptable if I was a recovering addict or had escaped the Taliban. But no: I am the daughter of a beautiful, smart woman who drew an unlucky card called younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and that is what I wrote about. Worse, my current work-in-progress is also a memoir, on an equally unhip topic: faith and doubt. There’s more. I did not get my Master of Fine Arts degree until I was 53: enough said. And I have another career, which confuses people. It’s a reasonably cool career—documentary filmmaking—but alas, I’ve never had a film at Sundance (which would vault me right into the category of Permanently Cool). And I make films with my husband, which is way less cool than if I were doing it solo. Speaking of my husband: we’ve been married 27 years. Yikes! Just call us Ward and June! And then there’s my lifetime issue of not wanting to be mean. In fact, right now, writing this, I’m uncomfortable with the whiff of snarkiness I detect; the implication that I don’t like cool writers, because I do. I like many cool writers. But [...]

Whole Hearted

2019-11-07T15:58:10-08:00Categories: brain, dementia, faith and doubt, family, film, reading, Uncategorized|Tags: , , , |

“The Great Heart Split,” writer Gail Godwin calls it: that moment, about 400 years ago, when our knowledge of how the physical heart works leaped forward, sending ancient beliefs about the heart as spiritual headquarters backward, to be filed under folklore and mythology. News flash: the powerful, tangible pumping of the heart is what keeps our bodies alive. The heart’s emotional value, its mystical properties? Not actually located in the center of our chests. Ever since, rational knowledge has trumped what used to be called, simply, heart. And then December comes along, and people start doing things that make no sense. We string colored lights from rooftops and balconies. We feverishly bake cookies, as if eating sweets mattered more than eating anything else. And, strangest of all, we cut trees and prop them up in basins of water in our living rooms. Even scientists and doctors do these things. And the scientists and doctors who study the brain—that mysterious organ where the intangible version of the heart has been hiding all along—they know that the protean behavior in which we indulge during this strange season called the Holidays can be both wonderful and awful for our brains, often at the very same time. From Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, our hearts and heads are bombarded with memories. Many are good. Some are not. If you’ve lost someone who used to be a big part of your holiday season, you’ll be feeling that pain. If you have a family member or two who ever excelled in causing [...]

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 [...]

Volunteer Janitor

2019-11-11T09:20:38-08:00Categories: faith and doubt, human rights, midlife, urban life, work|Tags: , , |

“I bet those nice ladies think I’m the new janitor,” I thought, as I jogged past them down the basement stairs of our 80-year-old church, carrying a caddy full of cleaning supplies. “I guess I’m OK with that.” But for a second or two, I wasn’t OK. I had a momentary taste of how it might feel to be the janitor, and I didn’t like it. I was fine with cleaning toilets as a volunteer. Our church had just finished a week of hosting six homeless women and their children in our basement and I was helping with cleanup. Lucky me, to have access to such an easy way to feel like I’d done something Good with a capital G. An hour in rubber gloves, and then I could get back to my real life of working at a desk, where I may think I’m scraping by financially but I know I make more than the church janitor. Custodian. Cleaner. Am I showing my age, using the word “janitor?” And then there are the homeless moms and kids, packing up their stuff every week and moving on to another church. This is what we call a “safety net” in America: networks of volunteers who put up tents in church basements and serve hot dinners and help with homework and try to make a desperate situation bearable. I don’t have a natural facility for this kind of volunteering, or any kind, really. I did not grow up in a volunteering kind of family. I had to learn [...]

Alchemy

2019-11-14T12:02:23-08:00Categories: faith and doubt, family, midlife, parenting|Tags: , , , |

High on the list of words that make me twitch due to overuse is the word “alchemy.” Early this morning, there it was on the page, ready to pounce on my nerves. But this time, I found myself—not twitching, perhaps because it appeared in the last line of a poem by Rumi. It is hard to accuse a writer dead for more than seven centuries of tedious trendiness. Rumi’s cryptic phrase was this: “The alchemy of a changing life is the only truth.” It’s the end of a poem of flirtation, of courtship. In the poem, Rumi playfully assumes the voice of King Solomon speaking to messengers sent by Queen Sheba. Solomon tells the messengers to scold Sheba for sending him expensive gifts. He suggests that the wealth of her throne “keeps her from passing through the doorway that leads to a true majesty.” He concludes by reminding her of the story of Joseph, who sat at the bottom of a well until he “reached to take the rope that rose/to a new understanding. The alchemy/of a changing life is the only truth.” I had to refresh myself on the story of Joseph. Most important point: Joseph got thrown into that well by his ever-jealous brothers. They only tossed him a rope when it occurred to them that they could sell him as a slave to some passing merchants, pocket the money, and still go home and tell their doting father that his favorite son was dead. Being sold to those traveling salesmen changed young Joseph’s [...]

My Writing Process Blog Tour

2019-11-13T16:23:33-08:00Categories: faith and doubt, reading|Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

I’ve been tagged in the My Writing Process Blog Tour by Kim Brown, editor of the wonderful Minerva Rising literary journal. Check out what Kim’s been up to at http://www.the-confident-writer.net. This blog is a relay that involves answering four specific questions and then naming the authors who will follow. So here we go: What am I working on?? I am working on the first draft of my second memoir. (My first, Her Beautiful Brain, will be published this September by She Writes Press.) The working title for this book is The Observant Doubter. It’s about my own checkered history of faith and doubt. How does my work differ from others of its genre? Memoir is a slippery, shape-shifting sort of a genre, so this is a difficult question to answer. For me, memoir is not autobiography but more like extended essay writing, a way to explore what have become (like it or not) the enduring themes of my life. And I do mean “explore.” What I love about writing memoir are the new insights that come as you write about events in your life that you might have thought you already understood in every possible way. The memoir writers I admire include Anne Lamott, Elizabeth McCracken and Michael Klein. What I love about their work is that it asks questions. It meanders. It doesn’t follow a straight chronological line. Why do I write what I do? My first book was driven by a need to honor my mother’s life and to articulate the uniquely cruel fate [...]

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 [...]

Holiday Family School

2013-12-24T10:03:52-08:00Categories: faith and doubt, family, midlife, parenting|Tags: , |

We figured out a long time ago that buying presents for every single family member was not going to work out very well in the long-term. Not when you start with six siblings and add spouses and then kids, more and more, year after year. So in my extended family, we draw names. And every Christmas, I’m grateful we figured that part out. Because there’s always so much else going on. When a big family gets together for Thanksgiving or Christmas or Hanukah or any other annual occasion, it is never the same group of people it was the year before. There’s a new boyfriend, or spouse, or baby. There are friends or neighbors who need a place to go. There are a few nuclear families who might be missing this year because, shockingly, they’re with that other family known as their in-laws. Or they’ve dared to break with protocol and go on a trip. But there’s another reason it’s never the same group of people: everyone in the room is a year older. So what? You might say. Maybe so what for us grown-ups, but for the kids? Wow. What a difference a year makes, when you go from squalling newborn to toddling, smiling one-year-old. Or silent young teen to suddenly-able-to-speak-again older teen. Or high school senior to college freshman. The niece or nephew I thought I knew? Gone, replaced by a young adult who wants to talk to quaint, church-going me about whether God exists and if so, why. Every year for 32 years, [...]

Resilience

2013-04-30T16:26:12-07:00Categories: faith and doubt, Uncategorized|Tags: , , , , |

 “I know a young person who needs this,” whispered the woman sitting next to me at a fundraising event for a social services agency. She was talking about a small polished rock, on which the word “Courage” was engraved. There was one at every place setting: a little reminder for each guest to take home. “You know, I do too,” I said. I slipped my rock into my purse, thinking of a young adult I know who is addicted to heroin. He doesn’t want to be. Who wants to live life enslaved to a drug? I’ve lost count of how many times he’s detoxed and rehabbed. Each relapse takes another chunk out of his store of hope. I pray daily that he won’t run out altogether. But this has been going on for a while now, and so where I find a shred of optimism is in a paradoxical thought: maybe, I tell myself, though he drew the bad card of addiction, he was also endowed with an inner core of resilience. There’s something in him that makes him strong enough to keep trying. Why is it that some humans are resilient and others are not? I’m reading Nicole Krauss’ poignant novel The History of Love right now and marveling at the resilience of the main character, an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor named Leo Gursky. Somehow, Leo transcended the temptation to give up, or to define himself through hate, even though his family had been wiped out by the irrational hatred of the Nazis. Leo grew up [...]

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 [...]

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