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 [...]

Writing Home

2019-11-07T14:44:14-08:00Categories: creative aging, faith and doubt, reading, Uncategorized, writing|Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

    In the West, flying home means flying into the sunset. Even if you’re on a plane from Phoenix to Seattle, the sunset is there, flying with you, coaxing you, luring you home. Even if you’re on the wrong side of the plane, the clouds over the wing are splashed with peach and pink; the occasional mountain peak popping up below, bright in the reflected magic-hour light: that glowing hour when lamps are lit, when porch lights blink on, when home beckons. As I flew home recently from Arizona, I thought about the power of home and how specific it is. Or isn’t. Say the word “home” and watch where your mind and memory go. Is home the house you grew up in? The house you live in now? Or is it not a house at all, but the place where you feel most yourself?         And why would I—born and raised in Seattle, flying back on a March evening to the family and neighborhood and city that I love—why would I also have felt so strongly at home in Sedona, Arizona? Because it’s the West, I thought. Give me red rocks and prickly pear; give me old-growth forests and fiddlehead ferns: I always feel a sense of home in the West. Much as I still love to visit the cities that shaped me in my youth—Boston, New York, London, Chicago—flying into the sunset, I savor the exhale of knowing I’m home. I am a memoir writer and teacher, so I read a lot of memoirs. [...]

From Sun to Sun

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

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

Beyond the Trail

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

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

Being Fragile

2019-11-07T15:56:56-08:00Categories: brain, dementia, health & medicine, midlife, reading|Tags: , , , |

Human beings are fragile, though we prefer not to dwell on this. We prefer to celebrate our resilience, our strength, our endurance. But in the end, we are fragile, because we are mortal. Some living things—for example, the bristlecone pines of Nevada’s Great Basin—can live for a thousand years. Not us. Not a single one of us. Not ever.  Mortality is what Atul Gawande wrestles with in his book, Being Mortal. Gawande is a surgeon, and he is trained to fix broken humans so they can go back to being strong and resilient and busy. But when his own father was given a diagnosis that both father and son knew was incurable, Gawande realized how ill-prepared he and his parents—both also doctors—were to accept what medicine can’t do to fix things. And he realized he and his family weren’t alone in this. He began to look around his world, the world of surgery, oncology, all kinds of high-tech solutions to human fragility. He started asking hard questions about how and why doctors so often aggressively treat terminally ill patients—frequently causing great distress and discomfort—and why they so rarely ask questions about what their patients might actually want from life in their final years, days or months. He sought out people who were trying to do things differently, and learned from them how to ask the right questions. A piano teacher with, at most, weeks to live, told him what she most wanted was to leave the hospital, go home, and be given just enough pain relief [...]

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 [...]

Bookstore Love

2019-11-14T12:01:48-08:00Categories: brain, dementia, reading, Seattle, writing|Tags: , , , , |

Restless Brain Syndrome strikes again. Early this morning, my mind was like a pinball machine that had me reaching for a Post-it and scribbling inscrutable phrases in half-asleep handwriting: follow up on A, send an email about B, and for God’s sake, don’t forget about Z. But the thought that made me sit straight up was this: Ann! Why haven’t you told everyone you know to save The Date? That date would be September 7, 2014 at 3pm: the book launch for my memoir, Her Beautiful Brain, at the Elliott Bay Book Company. To you, Seattle may be the fastest-growing city in the United States, an epicenter of technology, global health, outdoor sports and online shopping. To me, Seattle is the big small town I grew up in. The town that taught me to love books. And bookstores. As a very young child, the library was my first temple of book love. Then, just about the time I was allowed to go without a grownup to the University Village Shopping Center, a bookstore about as big as my bedroom opened across the breezeway from Lamont’s Department Store. It was called Kay’s Bookmark. Rarely could I afford to buy an actual book, but Kay didn’t seem to mind. Maybe she understood that kid-browsers like me—the ones who were more comfortable in her store than they were in Lamont’s—might be her future customers. A handful of years later, about the time I was in the teen-angst-reducing habit of taking long bike or bus rides to more interesting parts [...]

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 [...]

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 [...]