Pandemic Mirror

2020-06-30T16:28:53-07:00Categories: brain, creative aging, family, featured posts, health & medicine, memoir, midlife, quiet, Uncategorized|Tags: , , , , , |

“When did my hair get so long?” I ask myself, as I look in the mirror. “And I look so  OLD!” I am 63. We are winding up Month Four of the pandemic. No. I’m not 63. I am seven, and I am winding up two weeks of being home sick with the mumps. I’m standing in front of the full-length mirror that hangs inside my parents’ bedroom closet door. When the door is open, there is plenty of light on the mirror, so it’s ideal for getting a good look at yourself, which I haven’t done in many days. One of my cheeks is puffed out like a popover. But almost more fascinating to seven-year-old me is how long my hair looks. Can it have grown so much since I last took a look at myself? I am also admiring my new pale blue, pearl-buttoned bathrobe, with its fake-fur collar. How did I, the third of six children (five at the time), acquire such a fancy robe? Was it a gift from my elegant grandmother, given to me because I had the mumps? Was I the only one of us who had the mumps? I don’t remember. What I do remember is what a novelty it was to look in the mirror and see only me: my brother and sisters were at school; my baby brother was taking a nap, or maybe he was with Grandma. And I didn’t look like me, pre-mumps. Never mind the puffy cheek: this was the second one to pop [...]

After the Blast

2020-05-18T11:21:30-07:00Categories: featured posts, health & medicine, hiking, journalism, nature, reading|Tags: , , , , |

In early February, aka one million years ago, I requested an advance copy of After the Blast: The Ecological Recovery of Mount St. Helens by Eric Wagner, published in April by University of Washington Press. I had been thinking about the upcoming 40th anniversary of Mount St. Helens’ May 18, 1980 eruption—an event which loomed large over my early years as a journalist, even though I had missed the main event—so I was thrilled to see Wagner’s book on the UW Press website. Wagner, who earned a PhD in biology from the University of Washington, has built a career as a science writer for magazines like The Atlantic, High Country News, Orion and Smithsonian. He has authored a book about penguins and co-authored a book about the Duwamish River. I feared I might not be the right kind of reader for his kind of writing. Turns out, I’m exactly the right kind of reader: an English major who loves to read about science in language that is both comprehensible and confident. “The summit rippled, churned, and then collapsed as more than two billion tons of rock, snow, and glacial ice fell away in the largest landslide recorded in human history,” Wagner writes, of the eruption that began at 8:32 a.m. on Sunday, May 18, 1980, lasted nine hours, and caused the deaths of 57 people. The fact that it happened on a Sunday morning is nearly always noted in the recounting of the Mount St. Helens story, because, as Wagner later tells us, “At 8:30 on a Monday [...]

Pandemic Road

2020-04-28T09:16:00-07:00Categories: family, featured posts, health & medicine, memoir, writing|Tags: , , , , |

The taste of blood mixed with gravel is metallic, it’s gritty, but most of all, it is surprising. I hadn’t opened my mouth on purpose; the taste was just suddenly there. Remembering, I can taste it now. Just as I can hear the big kids yelling: “Go get her mom! She’s bleeding!” I remember lying in the gravel, squinting in the bright sun. And, before she dropped me, how it felt to be carried by the neighbor girl: sweaty and awkward, our limbs criss-crossing in the wrong places; but so worth it, because I felt important. I felt like a princess. When she let go of me in the middle of the street, it was like being dropped into a swimming pool—there was that one whooshing instant in the air—except that where I landed, chin-first, was not in water but in gravel. And what I tasted was not chlorine, but my own blood. Sitting here on a pandemic afternoon, this is the scene from my early childhood I find myself trying to recall. I don’t remember much more. I was only about three years old. We lived just north of Seattle, on a no-sidewalk block of modest ranch homes. My big sister had lost interest in carrying me, because we now had a new baby sister, but the neighbor girl was willing to give it a try. In this way, she explained, we could cross from my house to her house without breaking my mother’s rule that I must never walk across the street without asking [...]

Use Your Fear

2020-03-31T09:28:21-07:00Categories: faith and doubt, family, featured posts, health & medicine, nature, Seattle, Uncategorized|Tags: , , , , , , |

“Want to hear what our resident coyotes sound like?” read the headline in our south Seattle neighborhood’s Nextdoor Digest email. You bet I do, I thought. Anything to distract me from the latest coronavirus news. I clicked play. Do you know the sound? It’s not haunting in an old Western movie way; it’s more like something out of a horror film; like the screeches that slice along with the killer’s kitchen knife in Psycho. I want to play it again right now, so I can do a better job of describing it, but actually I… don’t want to. What I’ve heard from neighbors is that we have exactly two resident coyotes in our local greenbelt. But the noise they make sounds like a screaming chorus of two dozen starving dogs, ready to hunt now. And here’s what I didn’t think about when I pressed play and the coyotes started howling from my computer speakers: our cat was in the room. The second he heard that noise, he leaped straight up from a sound sleep into his maximum-alert posture, which he maintained for several minutes as he scanned the neighborhood from our upstairs window, his eyes darting like an air traffic controller’s. I tried to soothe him, but he would have none of it. Did I not understand that his life was at stake?! Finally, satisfied that the danger was past, he curled up and went right back to sleep. He knows how to use his fear, I thought. Danger at hand? Be maximum-alert. Get an immediate [...]

Emotional Truth: Teaching Memoir in the Time of Trump

2020-02-29T10:33:18-08:00Categories: arts, brain, Creative, creative aging, featured posts, memoir, politics, writing|Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Sixteen years ago, on Leap Year Day, my mathematically gifted brother left this world. Felled by glioblastoma, he did not have much choice in the timing of his death. But he did have a flair for drama, and it may have pleased him to give a parting nod to the beauty of numbers. The fact is that he died on February 29, 2004. The emotional truth is that he died not on any old dreary winter day, but on a numerically elegant date that only happens every four years. We memoir writers like to talk about seeking, and writing, the emotional truth. It’s an intuitive concept; more what you feel than what you think. Yes, you tell yourself, when you feel you’ve got it right: what I’ve written is what happened, and why it mattered. Or no, you sigh as you stare at the words on the screen: no, I’m not telling it right. I’m holding back. Or telling the wrong story. Or writing around the heart of the matter, instead of into it. Here’s a famous example of emotional truth, from Ernest Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast: “I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again,” Hemingway wrote, of a woman who walked in to the café where he was writing; a woman he still remembered three decades later. “You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.” When I teach memoir [...]

Veracruz

2020-01-15T09:06:20-08:00Categories: featured posts, memoir, midlife, travel, Uncategorized|Tags: , , , , , , , , |

We welcomed in the 2020s in the Mexican port city of Veracruz, where even the restroom signs can’t stop dancing. Rustin and I arrived on December 28th, thinking it might be quiet for a few days before New Year’s festivities kicked into full swing. Quiet would have been fine with us: we’d been traveling for two weeks and we had a few things to get over, including illness (Rus’s flu) and theft (my phone.) But quiet, in Veracruz? De lo contrario.  On our first short walk—from our hotel overlooking the historic heart of the city, the Zocalo, over to the lively waterfront—we passed two small troupes of folk dancers in flowing white who had set up their wooden platforms on two different street corners, turned on their boom boxes, and commenced to dance. I can’t think of them now without smiling, because they radiated such joy. Crowds were also forming around a capoeira-style breakdancing group. By the time we circled back to the Zocalo, roving bands—mariachi, marimba, ranchero—were working the outdoor bars. Meanwhile, people were thronging in the direction of the main street. A parade was coming, someone told us. We darted across the cordoned avenue to the Bar El Estribo, on the block-long veranda of the stately Gran Hotel Diligencias. Our waiter said the coming parade was called Papaqui and that it would be a sort of mini-Mardi Gras parade, a preview of Carnaval, which is huge in Veracruz. He explained that it was always held on this day, the Dia de los Inocentes, so [...]

Wild Isle

2019-12-09T14:04:05-08:00Categories: featured posts, hiking, memoir, midlife, nature, parenting, quiet, Seattle, Uncategorized, urban life, writing|Tags: , , , , , , , , |

Wild Isle: what a beautiful pair of words. But where, on earth, might there be a wild isle in a city? Right in my back yard, as it turns out. One hundred and just about nine years ago, the voters of Seattle gave themselves a gift they decided to call Seward Park: an island of wild old-growth forest that juts into Lake Washington from its southwest shore, barely connected to the mainland via a then-slim isthmus. It seemed only right to name this green jewel box after William Seward, best known for negotiating the 1867 purchase of Alaska, a territory that Seattleites were very fond of, back in 1911, because of the money that had poured into the city as gold prospectors from all over the world stopped to gear up before sailing from Seattle to the Klondike by way of Alaska. On their way home, the miners stopped through again, and spent more money. At last, Seattle could afford the wild isle at the southern end of the stunning chain of parks and boulevards laid out by the famed Olmsted brothers of New York. And now our Wild Isle has its own beautiful book.  Published by the Friends of Seward Park under the painstaking direction of writer/editor Paul Talbert and photo editor/designer Karen O’Brien, Wild Isle in the City is full of “tales from Seward Park’s First 100 years,” as the subtitle promises. But it goes back much, much further, all the way back to the Ice Age geology that shaped our city; the abundance [...]

Being Mortal in the Time of Trump

2019-11-07T12:07:12-08:00Categories: creative aging, faith and doubt, featured posts, gun control, hiking, human rights, immigration, politics, Uncategorized|Tags: , , , , , , , , |

What matters most? That question has been like a three-word anthem for me this month, as I re-read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. The small Seattle church I attend is having a summer book club, of sorts, which consists of reading Being Mortal and getting together in small groups to talk about it over dinner. The group I was in kept coming back to that question: what matters most? In Being Mortal, Gawande talks about a patient who decided that for him, life would continue to be worth living as long as he could enjoy chocolate ice cream and watching football on TV. Another patient, who knew her time was limited, wanted to be able to continue to give piano lessons as long as she could. But what really matters most—behind the scenes of those two and pretty much all of Gawande’s examples—is being with the people you love. Being able to love and be loved. That’s what matters most. The other day, I was feeling a sort of low-grade emotional fever, triggered by Not Accomplishing Enough Work-Wise while wishing I could Just Go Swimming. My malaise was compounded by that other virus I can’t seem to kick: Creeping Despair.           I decided to wallow. Just for a few minutes. So I opened Facebook. And there was the most delightful post from an old friend, describing how much fun she’d had hiking in Mt. Rainier National Park with her adult son. There were photos and captions loaded with mutual affection. [...]

Vietnam

2019-11-07T12:08:22-08:00Categories: featured posts, memoir, midlife, travel, Uncategorized, war|Tags: , , , |

The day I left Vietnam, I laughed and laughed. I had not expected to. I woke up feeling sad about having to leave after only two weeks: far too short a time for my first visit to this captivating country. But my travel-mates—Anne and Lindsay, close friends I have known since freshman year of college—and I had hatched a plan for our final morning: we would get up at 5:30, throw on clothes, and walk over to Hoan Kiem Lake, a short stroll from our hotel in Hanoi. Anne had done this the day before. “Trust me,” she said. “You won’t believe it.” As we neared the lakeshore, the streets filled with people, many in athletic outfits, walking, jogging, bicycling. They, and we, were reveling in the relative cool of the dawn  air: by 9 am, we all knew the temperature would be in the 90s and indescribably humid. When we got to the lake, we saw exercise groups of every possible type, all of them already in full swing: Tai Chi, yoga, Zumba, old-school aerobics, hip-hop dancing, ballroom dancing. Across the street, a few dozen people had gathered with the apparent purpose of laughing their heads off. The laughing people motioned to us to join them. Why not? “Ha, ha, HEE,” we all shouted in unison, as we stretched and moved in gentle yoga-like ways, following the leader as best we could; breaking into more free-form laughter as we formed into a shoulder-massaging congo line; and then making different laughing noises as we clustered in [...]

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 [...]