And All Will Be Well

2019-11-07T14:45:55-08:00Categories: faith and doubt, family, memoir, travel, writing|Tags: , , , , , , |

Happy Holidays, Restless Nest readers! For the past several weeks, I’ve been devoting my writing energy to finishing the first draft of The Observant Doubter, my memoir about faith and doubt. I’m happy to say I now HAVE a first draft, which I’m about to (nervously) share with my first circle of critical readers. Meanwhile, here is a little seasonal morsel from my manuscript. It’s a story from my junior year in college, when I was an exchange student at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, which some of you may know as the city where the medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich, cloistered herself in a barnacle-like cell attached to a parish church and wrote of her encounters with God. When I was there four decades ago, I knew little of Julian: I had made a firm turn away from the religious fervor of my teens and was now embarking on the decidedly all-doubt, no-observance phase of my life. However: there was one frigid December evening in London. My new boyfriend and I had been walking all over the city, both of us infatuated with its grit and beauty and history. Unlike me, he had done some advance planning for his year in the U.K., and had brought with him not only a copy of Let’s Go Europe, but one of the wonderful, fusty old Blue Guides, which helped us find the homes of famous writers and the Punch Tavern and the dozens of churches designed by Christopher Wren, their spires popping up suddenly [...]

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 [...]

Boot Camp

2019-11-07T15:24:24-08:00Categories: faith and doubt, family, fitness, health & medicine, memoir, midlife, quiet, writing|Tags: , , , , , , , |

“You should write about This,” my friends say to me, as they take it all in: the bulky blue splint with its five Velcro straps, the twee roller cart, the pajama bottoms I’m trying to pass off as trousers. (They’re brand-new and navy-blue: surely it’s not obvious!) I’ve resisted Writing About This, until now, for many reasons, including: One, this is corrective foot surgery, not a disaster that befell me and would make for a really gripping story; Two, the prognosis is promising: This is not forever. And Three, I am getting all the help I need from my unbelievably patient husband. We are lucky enough to work from home, so these six weeks of being roller-cart-bound are not nearly as logistically daunting as they would be for most people. I have absolutely nothing at all to complain about. Right? Right. So I won’t. Instead, I’ll take a crack at the strangely surprising upside of it all: I’m learning like crazy. It’s all stuff I’ve never had to learn before, like: how to be helpless and grateful (especially on those first few days); how to ask for help (still learning, but getting better at it); how to be patient with the mysterious, and slow, process of healing (ditto, with occasional colossal backslides); how to be humble (crawling or backwards-scooting really are sometimes the best ways to get from A to B, especially in a house with stairs). Re asking for help, my husband—who is now an expert on getting asked for help 50 times a day—has [...]

My Mother Was Here

2019-11-07T15:30:19-08:00Categories: family, memoir, midlife, parenting, politics, Uncategorized|

This post is really about my mother-in-law, who died January 12 at the age of 86. She was sweeter and more selfless than I'll ever be. You might say she was the kind of person our new president pretends to understand, but does not and never will, because his heart is several sizes too small. But I'm going to let her son, my husband Rustin, take it from here: My mom, Donna Thompson, never thought of herself first. Even in the last month of her life while in the hospital, she’d offer her lunch to me or my wife (or her grandkids, Nick and Claire, pictured with her here) before taking a bite. Sometimes her unselfishness was exasperating. “Mom, it’s okay to take care of yourself,” I’d implore, but she was too stubborn to take my advice.     Mom would be the first to tell you she was just an ordinary person. She’d say she never did anything special or remarkable her whole life. She never flew on an airplane, never traveled farther than Disneyland to the south or Mt. Rushmore to the east. She drove the same car the last 35 years of her life, lived on nothing more than a pension and social security since she was 65, and she never owned a credit card. She worked hard for every penny she ever had. Mom drove a Franklin Pierce district school bus for 28 years, working overtime at sporting events, and she picked raspberries and drove the berry-picking bus in the summers. In [...]

#Election2016: Countdown

2019-11-07T15:32:29-08:00Categories: family, feminism, human rights, politics, Uncategorized, women's rights|Tags: , , , , , , , |

            It has never, ever felt so good to seal and stamp an envelope as it did after I filled out my ballot last week. Sure, I miss the old ritual of going to my local polling place, but sitting down and getting it done at home, good and early, felt great. Especially this year. Of course, especially this year. And now I’m going to tell you a few of the people I voted for. I voted for the third graders I tutor in an afterschool program. One of them told me last week he was “so scared Donald Trump was going to win.” The others all chimed in. “We’re scared too!” “I hate Trump!” All of them are from refugee families; most come from Somalia. I wondered what they’ve been hearing at home. Can you imagine how horrifying it is to watch this election unfold, if you’re a refugee from anywhere—but especially from a Muslim country? I also voted for another refugee: Henry Grundstrom, my great-grandfather, who, according to his naturalization papers, “foreswore his allegiance to the Czar of Russia” to become a United States citizen in 1898. Henry was from Finland, then under the Czar’s thumb. If he had stayed, he would have faced conscription into the Czar’s army. What would he have thought of allegations that Russian hackers could be trying to influence this election? I voted for Viktor Warila, my other Finnish great-grandfather, who staked a homestead claim in Montana in 1910 and raised six children on the windswept bench lands between [...]

The Journals Project

2019-11-07T15:34:34-08:00Categories: faith and doubt, family, feminism, parenting, politics, women's rights, work|Tags: , , , , |

This may look like July 2016 to you, what with the political conventions, heat waves and all. But if you ask me where I am on any given afternoon, I might say 1994. Or 1992. Or, not too many weeks ago, 1978. It is the summer of the Journals Project: the season I re-read my hand-scrawled life, transcribing not all of it—that would be WAY too brutal a task—but some important scraps. Morsels. I began keeping a journal when I was 13, so I have a lot of years to get through. The good news is that I did not (and do not) write every day. Sometimes I’ve skipped whole months, or more. But it’s taking me a while, because—sort of like eating Thanksgiving dinner—I can do it for no more than an hour or two at a time. There are only so many rich, nostalgia-laden bites a girl can take in one sitting. My self-imposed assignment is to look for anything having to do with God, faith, loss of faith, doubt, mortality and/or the meaning of life. It’s research for my next book, known for now as The Observant Doubter. Me being me, there’s a generous sprinkling of all of the above. In my very first volume, I wrote by candlelight, and used a fountain pen: a smudgy, spill-prone choice for left-handed me. But I can still remember the clink of the pen in the bottle, the scratchy sound of the nib, the smell of the ink. In the beginning, I wrote a LOT about [...]

To the Nines

2019-11-07T15:37:34-08:00Categories: family, memoir, midlife, parenting, travel|Tags: , |

When I was nine years old, I put on my first pair of glasses—light blue, cat-eyed—and looked out my bedroom window at the huge, old Japanese maple tree that shaded our entire postage-stamp backyard. For the first time, from that once-great distance of about 20 feet, I saw not just its spring-green canopy of foliage, but the etched outlines of individual leaves. It felt—magic is too weak a word. Religious might be right, or ecstatic. I wanted to cry, or shout. Not because I was experiencing my own personal miracle—I was blind, but now I see!—but because the world itself had changed. It had become rich in detail, startling in clarity. It was a place I wanted to know, in the way that grownups knew things. No more gauzy, child’s-eye views for me. In that instant, staring at the leaves of a tree I had loved since the day we moved into that Seven Dwarves' cottage of a house, I believed that for me, vision would forever trump vanity: I would wear these glasses. Most of the time. When I was nineteen years old, I got my first passport, and got it stamped for the first time at Heathrow Airport, where I began a year of study and travel that opened my eager eyes to the world. I wore contact lenses by then, the old hard lenses that could pop out of your eye and down the drain of a Roman pensione in a millisecond, leaving you with your slightly blurry backup glasses for the next [...]

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 [...]

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 [...]

Dateline Máncora

2019-11-07T15:55:12-08:00Categories: family, midlife, quiet, Seattle, travel|Tags: , , , , , |

There are only so many ways to describe a beautiful beach. The true beauty of it, for writers and readers, is the way it allows your mind to travel lightly, far and wide, or to venture deeply and with great absorption, as you wish or as you dare, always returning to the anchor of the beauty before you. The surprise of it, on this trip, is that our beach is in Peru. Peru is the Inca Trail, the glorious Andes, sprawling, sleepless Lima. It is also one of the most ecologically diverse countries in the world. From where I’m sitting now in Máncora, on the north coast, the Amazon basin is not far away. Nor are the snowy high sierras. But this coastal landscape is a rugged desert edged by a strip of long, curving bays and beaches. We came to Máncora because it is a town my great-uncle and his family lived in for a year in the 1950s. It was a dramatic change from their elegant Lima home. My cousin Andy remembers Máncora as an 11-year-old’s backwater paradise, where he played in the dusty hills and on the sublime beach. We are in Peru to wrap up filming on our documentary, Zona Intangible, which was inspired by my great-uncle, who lived here for two decades and was a pioneer of Peru’s fishmeal industry. The film won’t be all about fishmeal or all about my uncle; it will, mostly, tell the story of a handmade city outside Lima where a clinic on a dusty back [...]

Why I Volunteer for Research, Part Two

2019-11-07T15:55:37-08:00Categories: brain, dementia, family, health & medicine, midlife|Tags: , , |

Although being a control subject in Alzheimer’s research studies involves plenty of memory tests, there are neurological tests too. I was tickled with feathers, tapped on the elbows and knees, peered at with a penlight in my eyes. And there were psychological questions: On a scale of one to ten, do you usually feel life is worth living? I was weighed and measured. I gave blood. I peed in a cup. My family tree was drawn, with special attention to anything that might be relevant: Grandma Cere’s Parkinson’s disease; Great Aunt Eine’s Alzheimer’s disease, which started in her seventies. I was approved for a lumbar puncture, more commonly known as a spinal tap, and a week later, I came back and curled up in a ball while two tablespoons of fluid were extracted from my spine with a long quivery needle: two tablespoons that would be turned into 50 droplet-sized samples for research. My husband filmed nearly all of it, from What day is it? right through the spinal tap. Later, we filmed interviews with four different doctors. But for me, those first filmmaking visits to the University of Washington’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC) turned into more than just clips for our documentary, Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story. It was the beginning of what has become a meaningful part of my life. I am a regular research participant. Every fall, the ADRC calls me in. Depending on what studies they’re running, they may ask me to undergo a spinal tap (I’ve done five so [...]

The Old Old House

2019-11-07T15:57:28-08:00Categories: family, midlife|Tags: , |

“It’s not that far out of the way,” I thought, as I turned right towards Lake Washington instead of left towards the freeway. “And there won’t be any traffic, because everyone’s inside watching the Seahawks game.” The Old-House Drive-By: surely I’m not the only one who does it. I’m not talking about the house I moved out of three years ago, the house where I raised my children. I’m talking about the Old-old house: the house where I grew up. As Seattle houses go, it’s a dime a dozen: just another Tudor cottage on a north-end street. But it is still standing, which you can’t count on any more in this town. In fact, it is so close to the ever-expanding campus of Children’s Hospital that its future is not in any way certain. Why do I do it? The drive-by. It’s not like my childhood was a perfect idyll. It’s not like every memory I associate with that house was a happy one. But it is where I became who I am. Where I grew from the chubby five year old I was when we moved in, to the awkward pre-teen with the pointy glasses I was when my dad moved out, to the college girl I was when we all moved out. Home after my first-ever year out of the country, distracted by my first-ever real romance, I was not really taking in what my mom had just told me: we were leaving the Hansel and Gretel cottage and moving to her new husband’s [...]

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 [...]

The West: A Love Story

2019-11-07T16:00:34-08:00Categories: family, hiking, memoir, midlife, nature, parenting, travel|Tags: , |

“A mountain lion sounds like a screaming woman,” said the ranger at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. This bothered me. Until I was standing outside a locked door in Castle Valley, Utah, listening to what sounded like a chorus of screaming women. “Mountain lions,” I thought, as mournful coyotes sang harmony. My husband and I are on a road trip around the West. We have stayed with relatives, camped, enjoyed a few budget motels and a sweet suite at a hostel. The graciously lent Utah home of a friend, outside of which we were now standing and listening to wildlife, was by far the most luxurious stop on our trip. For the first time in two weeks, we cooked: pasta with veggies from the Salida, Colorado Farmer’s Market; a bottle of red wine. Aahh. After dinner we stepped out on the patio to admire the stars and the moon over the red rock castles of this storied valley. Rustin was in socks. I was in slippers. The door closed and locked behind us. What followed was one of the longest half hours of our lives. For a few minutes, we swore and moaned along with the coyotes and lions. Then Rus began systematically checking windows. I tried jimmying the lock with my tiny cross necklace, succeeding only in twisting the cross—a metaphor I may use in a future Restless Nest, but not this one. Then I racked my brain: what else could I find and use, without a flashlight? My bicycle key and the [...]

The Restless Report, Part Two

2019-11-07T16:01:38-08:00Categories: brain, family, memoir, midlife, parenting, travel|Tags: , , |

artist: Kim Goff-Harrington When our children were younger, my husband and I used to joke about our great fear that they might “rebel” against the creative, financially precarious example we have set by becoming stockbrokers or bankers. Didn’t happen! And so far, it doesn’t like it’s going to. This is good news, regarding all of us having a lot in common and plenty to talk about around the dinner table. Not so good, re our collective financial futures. But once you make the decision—or, more accurately, once you realize you’ve made the decision without noticing you made it—to value your time on the planet more than your money, it’s hard to go back. Three years ago, I wrote a Restless Nest about this called, “Oops, I forgot to get rich.” It cheered me up to write it in the midst of the recession, as we and our nonprofit clients struggled to stay afloat while the big bankers got their big bailout. But the central tenet of that piece—that time is worth so much more than money—holds up. Back to the kids, who aren’t kids anymore: they’re 22 and 25, and as I reported last week, they’re currently in Eastern Europe and Colorado, doing their own restless adventuring. Neither of them is sure what will come next. My own experience and my instincts about them tell me they’re doing exactly what they should be doing. But it’s also in my job description, as a mom, to worry. Just a tiny bit. Imagine my relief when [...]

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 [...]

Happy Mother’s Day

2019-11-13T16:18:03-08:00Categories: dementia, family, memoir, midlife, parenting, urban life|Tags: , , |

 Once upon a time in Seattle, a little girl went downtown with her mother and baby sister and had a grand adventure. They may have shopped at Frederick & Nelson. They could have sipped milkshakes in the Paul Bunyan Room. But the excitement meter started spinning like crazy when the car broke down. I was that little girl. What I remember is this: the pale green Pontiac thudded to a halt. Mom twisted the keys and the steering wheel. The car wheezed weakly—and then went silent. Mom sighed, got out, opened the back door, scooped up baby Lisa from her car bed and motioned for me to slide across the vast back seat. “What are we doing?” I asked, as I scrambled down to the sidewalk. “Are we going to visit this castle?” We were standing in front of a brick building with a grassy courtyard and white columns flanking the oversized front door. Mom laughed. “That’s not a castle, honey. That’s an apartment building. And look—here’s a bus stop right in front of it! Are you ready for your very first bus ride?” Was I ever. This was a trip downtown I would never forget! And I didn’t. As I wrote in my memoir, Her Beautiful Brain, “In my three-year-old mind, it was the ideal moment: the complete safety of Mom; the thrilling adventure of the bus. Our mother was the opposite of fear, the opposite of worry, the handler of everything.” It’s that castle-like apartment building that kept this scrap of memory alive for me. [...]

Falling off the map

2014-03-04T13:50:56-08:00Categories: family, memoir, midlife, parenting, travel|Tags: , , |

Once upon a time, it was easy to fall off the map. You saved your money. You bought a ticket. You told your parents you’d be checking in, gave them a hug, and off you went. A few weeks later, you scribbled a postcard if you remembered. If you were feeling verbose, you bought a tissue-thin aerogram and wrote a letter in your tiniest handwriting. If weeks turned into months, you went to an underlit, Dickensian place full of grimy booths called a telephone center and sat down for a brief, expensive, shouted phone call to the folks back home. But at no point did you feel compelled or obliged to let anyone know where you were all the time, or even most of the time. I started writing this piece on a cross-country flight a few weeks ago. We are still generally unreachable when in mid-air, although 1) this may change and/or is already changing and 2) your nearest and dearest tend to know where you are when you’re on that plane, even if you can’t text, email or actually call one another. I wrote a bit more when I was on a Megabus trip from New York City to Syracuse. The wi-fi worked pretty well, with the occasional slow patch as we skirted the Catskills. Most of the other passengers appeared to be college students, heading back upstate after a weekend in the city. Most of them wore ear buds connected to smartphones; tethered even as they slept to music, to friends, to news. [...]

Rings

2019-11-14T12:12:40-08:00Categories: family, midlife, travel|Tags: , , , , |

I’m wearing two wedding rings right now: mine and my husband’s. He takes his off before he plays basketball, and he left it in the car. Our son spotted it in the cup holder and I put it on. His ring is bigger than mine. It feels heavy around my forefinger. I’m aware of it as I type. He’s not home yet, so I’m still wearing it. These two rings I’m wearing started life as four: two cheap gold bands and two silver Claddagh rings, the traditional Irish ring in which two hands hold a crowned heart. The gold bands we bought one warm summer day on our lunch hour at a discount jeweler. We were saving money for an extended honeymoon, a round-the-world backpacking trip, so we didn’t want anything expensive. A month later, our trip was underway, but we were spending one week apart before our Scotland wedding. Rustin was with his dad in Germany and I was in Ireland with my friend Kathy, who convinced me to buy the Claddagh rings as my wedding gift to Rus. “The crown over the heart means ‘Let love reign,’” the Irish jeweler explained. What could be a more perfect message? But life can be hard on rings. About a decade or so into our married life, Rus’ gold band snapped in half. And then his silver Claddagh ring broke too. Not the most welcome developments, symbolically speaking, especially since we’d been through some class-four rapids on the old marital river and were trying to just quietly [...]

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 [...]

Race: a work-in-progress

2014-01-15T11:30:08-08:00Categories: economics, family, human rights, Seattle, urban life|Tags: , , , , , , |

Race, as a concept, is hardly a work-in-progress in the construction sense of the phrase. On the contrary: the concept of race is in what you might call a state of rapid DE-construction. Debunking, Demythification, De-pseudo-science-ification. What I’m working on is copping to how little I understand, how little I have ever understood, about white privilege and the way it has shaped my life. If you missed the Pacific Science Center’s recent exhibition called RACE: Are We So Different?, make sure to visit the exhibition’s provocative website. A project of the American Anthropological Association, RACE: Are We So Different? has traveled, or will travel, to more than 30 venues in the United States. That adds up to a lot of conversations about a subject none of us are very good at talking about. If, like me, you’re white and over 50, or even 40, you probably didn’t grow up talking about white privilege. It was just there, so deeply woven into the fabric of our lives as to be invisible. To us. If you are not white, you might have had “aha!” moments of a very different kind as you walked through the show. Maybe you nodded your head in recognition, anger, sadness. Maybe you looked around at all the white visitors and thought: at least they’re learning a little about my reality. Here’s my easy example of how white privilege works: so easy it embarrasses me. When I travel, I’m always on a budget, but I have perfected the art of strolling into a five-star [...]

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, [...]