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 [...]

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 [...]

Anger Management

2019-11-07T14:47:28-08:00Categories: feminism, journalism, politics, travel, women's rights|Tags: , , , |

His calendar? Does anyone really think a 17-year-old boy would put a drinking party at the home of a friend whose parents would definitely not be present on his calendar?             Thanks a lot, New York Times News Alert. Just when I was getting my anger under control, just when I was beginning to believe I might be able to think about something besides the upcoming Brett Kavanaugh hearing in which he will reiterate to us that he categorically denies Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations of sexual assault—now this: Kavanaugh’s 1982 calendar, which features “basketball games, movie outings, football workouts and college interviews. A few parties are mentioned, but include names of friends other than those identified by Dr. Blasey.” I’m aware that I’ve been on a low simmer for a solid week; that this would not be a good time for me to have my blood pressure checked. But I thought I was managing my anger, until the news alert about the calendar. And that was before the latest news about a second allegation from a college classmate. One night about 41 years ago, I made a mistake and missed a train. I was in Geneva, and I missed the last train to Paris. I was 19, and traveling on a ridiculous budget. I had no Swiss francs left and no credit card. It was nearly midnight. A 30-something American in an expensive trench coat offered to take me to his parents’ home, where I could sleep in the guest bedroom. I sized him up [...]

Stand By Me

2019-11-07T14:42:38-08:00Categories: faith and doubt, memoir, travel, Uncategorized|Tags: , , , , |

On May 19, 2018, I did something I have never done before: I watched an entire royal wedding. Not live: better than live! In an act of pure selfless devotion, my husband remembered that I had said something about “recording the wedding” and actually set the TV to record it before we went to bed. He himself could not be less interested. But he knew I was. After grieving my way through the morning papers—school shooting in Texas, misery in Gaza and Venezuela, tension brewing again in Korea—I was more than ready for the diversion of a royal pageant. Coffee in one hand and remote in the other, I fast-forwarded through the three hours of buildup and blather until, at last, I got to the main course: Meghan Markle getting out of the Rolls Royce at St. George’s Chapel. Time to get this fancy shindig started. When Charles and Diana married in 1981, I was at Carolina Beach in my boyfriend’s family’s cabin. His mom and I set our alarms and got up in the wee hours, hoping we might squeeze some reception out of their old black-and-white TV. But no amount of wiggling the rabbit ears would bring in anything more than a squiggly, triple image—a sort of Cubist version of the ceremony—with words deeply buried in fuzzy static. When William and Kate married in 2011, I was on a plane flying home from Mexico. This time, I would finally get to indulge. Most of the Brits I know roll their eyes when you say [...]

Love and Sacrifice

2019-11-07T14:48:04-08:00Categories: faith and doubt, travel, Uncategorized, urban life|Tags: , , , , , |

On the day that students and the people who love them marched in cities and towns around the world, my husband and I walked the wide boulevards of Chichén Itzá. If our trip to Mexico had not been planned so far in advance, we too would have been marching in our hometown. Instead, heat-dazed, we gazed at the ruins of the ancient city that has long been known as a site of copious human sacrifice.   The Mayans, and the Toltecs who conquered them, believed that the gods were hungry for blood, in particular the blood of fresh human hearts. When the divine appetite for blood was sated, the sun would rise and the crops would thrive. Legend has it that the gods preferred the hearts of young warriors. That only the hearts of the strongest, healthiest, most beautiful young people would please the gods’ delicate palates. Hundreds of years from now, will tourists visit the ruins of American schools and shake their heads in horror? Will they ask why we, a once-advanced civilization, were willing to sacrifice our young because we believed—what, exactly? That it was a sacred right to own the deadliest of weapons? At least the Mayans and the Toltecs thought they were making the sun rise.          As I write, Passover has begun and Easter is tomorrow. I’m back in Seattle now, but I started this holy week in Valladolid, Mexico, a quiet, colonial city near Chichén Itzá. On Palm Sunday, I attend 9 o’clock mass at the Templo de San Bernardino, [...]

In Real Time

2019-11-07T15:27:56-08:00Categories: economics, hiking, memoir, midlife, politics, travel|Tags: , , , , , , , |

Home. I’m home. The #TravelBinge2017 Tourist has Halted. However: she lives on inside me, and she has given my brain a much-needed adjustment. I don’t much like the word “tourist.” “Traveler” is the word I’ve always preferred, with its hints of Martha Gellhorn and Graham Greene. But in the eyes of the Chinese, Korean, French, English and Icelandic people who tolerated me tromping through their countries this past month, I was not fancy or special. I was a tourist. And that’s OK. No one would mistake me for a native in any of these nations, except perhaps Iceland. And being a tourist is not what it used to be. Or it doesn’t have to be what it used to be. You can break free of the pack, even in China, even without speaking Chinese. People are ridiculously busy in China these days, but if you flag them down, they’ll help you buy train tickets, or get off at the right stop, or order dumplings. And sometimes, if they want to practice their English, they’ll flag you down.       Outside Guangzhou--a city of 12 million in southern China that appears to be adding a skyscraper a day--my friend Lindsay and I were hiking up Baiyun Mountain when two young law students, Carry and Pelly (their “English names”) asked if they could walk and talk with us. It was a national holiday: Tomb Sweeping Day, when Chinese families gather to clean and decorate the graves of their ancestors. Carry and Pelly, both 21, came from a [...]

Restless Reinvention

2019-11-07T15:35:31-08:00Categories: arts, faith and doubt, film, midlife, travel, urban life|Tags: , , , , , , , |

News Flash: The Restless Nest has been awarded an honorable mention in the “Blogs under 100,000 unique visitors” category of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ 2016 competition!  “Oh, to be wracked by success!” director Terence Davies exclaimed, hitting wracked loudly and hard with his gentle Liverpool lilt. He was imitating actor Cynthia Nixon, who plays Emily Dickinson in his new film A Quiet Passion, as he explained to us that—much as he loves planning every painstaking detail of his movies in advance—he delights in moments of surprise. Nixon’s emphatic reading of Dickinson’s line was not what he had imagined. But then, success, whether or not one is wracked by it, is often not at all what we imagine. True for nineteenth century poets, true for 21st century actors and directors. True for all of us.      Davies’ appearance at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, following a screening of his 1992 film, The Long Day Closes, was a highlight of my recent trip to New York. I had seen his Distant Voices, Still Lives some years ago and was haunted by his depiction of his Liverpool childhood, of which his violent father was the volatile heart. Davies makes movies like an old Dutch master paints. He loves what he calls “texture:” getting the faded, autumnal colors of the clothing, wallpaper and furniture of his 1950s working-class neighborhood just right; spending a full minute of screen time gazing at one patterned ochre rug, because that’s what children do: they stare at the patterns and [...]

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 [...]

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 [...]

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 [...]

Optimism is Possible

2019-11-07T16:00:00-08:00Categories: hiking, memoir, midlife, politics, travel|Tags: , , , , |

It’s Election Day. Whatever your persuasions, you know and I know the news will not all be good. So: based on my just-concluded road trip—aka four weeks and 4500 miles of unscientific research—I am here to spread a little optimism. My husband and I left Seattle on the last Monday in September and returned on the last Monday in October. Our destination was Salida, Colorado, where our daughter just finished a five-month season with the Southwest Conservation Corps. Reason for Optimism Number One: did you know there are more than 100 Conservation Corps all over the country, employing strong young people to take care of our wilderness areas in all kinds of ways? All summer long, they build and repair trails and camps in national parks and forests. Most are paid an Americorps stipend: barely enough to get by on. So as you gnash you teeth waiting for election news, be thankful for the more than 26 thousand young adults who serve our country in this invisible way. We took our time getting to and from Colorado. One of the things we wanted to do was explore a bit via bicycle—not in any mega-mile way, like the supertough riders we saw out on Highway 101, cycling through the California Redwoods in a driving rainstorm—but in more modest jaunts around towns we didn’t know well. Which brings me to Reason for Optimism Number Two: good, long, well-marked bike paths can now be found in places you might never have expected. Like Laramie, Wyoming. Who knew how great [...]

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 [...]

Welcome to Seattle

2019-11-07T16:02:45-08:00Categories: arts, hiking, memoir, midlife, travel, urban life|Tags: , , , |

Here’s a sad, sad thought: your cherished friend is visiting Seattle from across the country and you find out she’s drinking bad hotel coffee at her downtown hotel. You know the stuff: those packets that you stick in the toddler-sized coffeemaker, because you can’t bear to spend ten dollars on a cup from room service OR throw a coat over your pajamas and venture out for a to-go cup from the nearest café. When I heard the news, I felt personally embarrassed on behalf of my hometown. Vicky and I met forty years ago this month, when Wellesley College assigned us to live in the same room. She was from Ohio. I was from Seattle. We were both 17, on financial aid and not from New York or New England, which must be why Wellesley College matched us up. Vicky remembers that I drew little cartoon evergreen trees on the whiteboard outside our dorm room because I was so homesick. She remembers that I brewed my own coffee, purchased at the gourmet store in town. I remember that no one knew anything about Seattle, except for what they’d seen on Here Come the Brides, the TV show responsible for the song, “The Bluest Skies You’ve Ever Seen.” (“—are in Seattle?” Who wrote that?) Over the many years since college, Vicky has been in Seattle briefly a few times. But on this visit, she finally had the leisure to look around a bit, while her husband attended a conference. I know Vicky to be an intrepid walker, [...]

The Other Washington

2019-11-07T16:03:45-08:00Categories: human rights, politics, travel, Uncategorized|Tags: , , , |

It’s the heavyweight red bicycle I’ll remember: how I swiped a credit card and punched in a code and out it popped from its parking spot in front of the Department of Labor. Then, freedom. Off I went, up the long, gravel paths of the Mall, dodging the Sunday crowds, feeling the breeze I couldn’t quite catch when I was walking. The Other Washington is always full of tourists in the summertime, despite the tropical heat and humidity, which on this visit was blessedly below normal. Hot or not, I like being there with the tourists. My fellow tourists: I’m one too, even though I’ve visited many times over the years, since one of my closest friends lives in the Virginia suburbs. What fascinates me is how my own D.C. tastes have changed. How much more of a cornball, capitol-loving kind of tourist I’ve become over time. I was a college student when I first visited Washington, D.C., in the post-Watergate late seventies. Patriotism was unthinkable. The protest era was over, and what, we thought at that cynical time, had those marches achieved? The only government building I wanted to visit was the National Gallery. Nearly four decades later, D.C. has changed and so have I. On my first afternoon, I visited the Library of Congress, which I love for its over-the-top tile frescoes honoring muses, poets, philosophers and scholars; its gold-leaf proclamations that “Knowledge is Power.” But this time, I found a hidden gem: a tiny plain gallery down the hall from the basement shop, [...]

August

2019-11-07T16:04:46-08:00Categories: dementia, midlife, travel|Tags: , , , |

 August is a misunderstood month. “Nothing gets done in August,” people say. “Everyone’s on vacation.” But who is everyone, and what exactly does vacation mean? Below this surface fiction of hot, languid days, college freshmen pack up and get ready to step out of the only life they’ve ever known and into a new one they can’t quite imagine yet. Young couples get married. Babies conceived on cold winter nights are born on warm summer mornings. Teachers write lesson plans. Schoolkids—well, they’re probably still in happy denial, though a few might secretly look forward to being a whole year older than last year. And some of us have books coming out, not long after Labor Day. Call me a late bloomer, because I am, but publishing my first book this fall feels in many ways just as scary as going off to college. I was an early-bloomer then. I left home for college at seventeen. And all through that long-ago August, a stranger stood in my bedroom, reminding me that I was about to step off a cliff. The stranger was a suitcase. I’d never owned one. Never needed one. But here it was, my own classic, rectangular, sky-blue Skyway, a high school graduation gift from my grandparents: quietly waiting for me to fill it. Quietly reminding me, every day, that the Skyway and I would soon be flying east into a different universe called college. A universe I longed to love but didn’t know yet if I would. Didn’t know yet that there would be [...]

The Real Portlandia

2019-11-07T16:07:00-08:00Categories: travel, urban life|Tags: , , , , |

Imagine: you are in the middle of downtown, in a major American city, and you walk right into a clean, pleasant public bathroom. No strings attached: you don’t have to buy a coffee or stride purposefully past a store clerk or a hotel concierge or a librarian. This restroom is there expressly for you. You, the visitor. In fact, it is in a place called the “Welcome Center,” which also features racks of brochures and maps and friendly volunteers who will answer any questions you might have. Hot day? Water bottle empty? They’ll point you to the drinking fountain where you can fill it. I know what you’re thinking: I really am imagining this. There’s no such place. But you know what? There is, and it’s closer than you think. One hundred seventy three miles south of Seattle, there exists a strange parallel universe called Portland, a cityscape that resembles ours, only everything is easier. The Welcome Center is located in Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square, right in the heart of town, right where tourists can find it. “Why can’t we have one of these in Seattle?” I thought, as I walked in, two minutes after stepping off the many-branched MAX light rail, which had just whisked us downtown from my nephew’s outlying neighborhood. I know: Seattle’s working on it. I live on our Link light rail line, and I love it. I just wish it were a real network, like the MAX, instead of one lonely line. Light rail is expensive and it takes a long [...]

Polska, 1994

2019-11-13T16:12:33-08:00Categories: arts, human rights, travel, war, writing|Tags: , , , , , , |

Restless Nest readers, today we are toasting my friend and Goddard MFA classmate Isla McKetta, whose novel, Polska, 1994, has just been published by Editions Checkpointed, the French publisher known for the literature of conflict. Wow. I asked Isla a few questions about how it happened and here's what she had to say: 1. You balanced writing a novel/earning an MFA with a full-time job. How? And why? What drove you? When I first decided to apply for MFA programs—when I committed to the idea of myself as a writer—I hadn’t worked in almost two years. I’d left my job to take care of my mom through a couple of surgeries, and that journey home forced me to face some childhood trauma from her initial battle with cancer. The whole thing left me in a state of depression that eventually became a spur to examine what I wanted in life. I realized that what made me feel happiest and most fulfilled is when I am creating art, and words are my go-to medium. I started applying to graduate programs and jobs at the same time. I’m one of those people who’s doing everything all at once or nothing at all, and I think I’d built up a lot of energy during that down time so working while going to school felt like a good way to throw myself back into living. Plus, the more I wrote, the more the act of writing energized me. You know how intense the MFA program can be, and by the [...]

Details

2019-11-13T16:34:17-08:00Categories: arts, travel|Tags: , |

I haven’t even started telling this story and I’ve already cheated. It’s supposed to be about recall, details, seeing what’s there and what’s not there. My intent was to write it all from memory and make that part of the story. But its focus is one work of art, which I knew I could find online, and when I sat down to write, temptation surged straight to my fingertips. In five minutes, I found myself staring at a reproduction of the painting on my screen. Good? Yes: because now I’m going to read more about the artist and the picture and learn things I didn’t know. Bad? Yes, bad, too, because I just blew a great opportunity to give my brain a workout by recalling all the details I could before I went to the Internet for help. This all started a month or so ago, on a stormy day in Chicago. It was an all-weather kind of a day, a late-winter specialty of the Midwest: snow, sleet, rain, a few minutes of sun, temperatures careening down then up then down again. The perfect day to spend wandering the great maze that is the Art Institute of Chicago. I lived in Chicago for two years after college, so the Art Institute is like an old friend. But there are many rooms I haven’t been back to in a long, long time. English painting of the 19th century, for example. “Oh hello, Turner,” I said to myself as I walked into the gallery. There in front of [...]

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 [...]

Brain Museum

2013-12-09T10:15:22-08:00Categories: arts, brain, dementia, film, human rights, travel|Tags: , , , |

Just when I thought I was done writing about the brain, there I was in Lima, Peru, standing face to face with an actual brain floating in a glass globe. I was in a small museum called “The Brain Museum.” Although I have visited many other quirky, out-of-the-way sites in Peru in the past month, I truly did not intend to visit this one. I was quite sure my Peru agenda had nothing to do with Alzheimer’s disease, my mom, her brain or brains in general. My husband and I have been in Peru working on a documentary film project that has to do with a clinic named after my great-uncle, who lived here for 25 years. But we’re also doing a few days of filming for a global health fellowship program affiliated with the University of Washington. And that’s how I found myself face to face with a floating brain, the focal point of an assemblage sculpture called “Custodia, Estudio 1,” created by artist Jose Luis Herrera Gianino. A custodia—or “monstrance” in English—is a glass container on a stand that is used in some Catholic churches to display the communion host, or wafer, representing the bread Jesus broke and shared with his disciples at the Last Supper. “This is my body, broken for you,” Jesus said. “Take, eat, in remembrance of me.” In earlier eras, a custodia was sometimes used to display relics: bits of the bone, hair or clothing of saints. Here, floating in front of me, was the most intimate relic imaginable of [...]

The Intangible Zone

2013-11-25T14:59:18-08:00Categories: human rights, travel, war|Tags: , , , |

 High on a dusty hill outside Lima, a sign rippled in the wind: “Zona Intangible,” it said. In-tan-gi-blé, in Spanish, but the literal meaning is the same: untouchable. The Untouchable Zone. For a minute, I thought it might mean there were dangerous chemicals buried there, or live electrical wires, or something else it would be very dangerous to touch. But no: what the sign meant was: don’t try to build your house here. Just a few hundred yards downhill, we watched a few family groups hacking level spaces in the soft sand. One family had some pre-nailed walls stacked nearby: their future one-room home, at the ready.  Another young couple let their two-year-old son take a turn with the shovel. This is the uphill edge of Manchay, a sprawling community of about 100,000 people on the outskirts of Lima. It is one of many asentamientos humanos, human settlements, that have sprung up around Peru’s capital city, where one out of every three of the country’s 30 million people now live. On a first visit to Manchay, it is very hard to imagine why anyone would want to live in this place. Most of the roads are unpaved, churning up constant clouds of dust, which coats everything, including the occasional brave flower garden or struggling tree. And yet: there is another kind of Zona Intangible here. Manchay was founded by people whose driving desire was to live in peace. Most of them came from a landscape that could not have been more different from this one: the [...]

Peru

2013-11-06T03:42:27-08:00Categories: dementia, hiking, travel|Tags: , , |

 “I’m doing this for Mom,” I thought, half-dreaming, as our bus climbed up and up through the scarves of fog that swirled around Machu Picchu. Doing this for Mom. Why would I think that? It’s not like her heart’s desire was to visit Peru and see the Inca citadels. But the thought persisted, until my eyes were welling. It’s the altitude, I thought. It’s the 4:00 a.m. bolt out of bed. I need more coffee. I need— I need to share this with my mom. And I can’t. And yet, as the day progressed, I felt like I did. I have a necklace my Great-uncle Carl bought for my mother in Peru. It’s a simple string of alternating wooden and silver beads. I remember how perfect it looked against her tanned skin and dark hair. I imagine that Carl, or perhaps his elegant wife Ruth, enjoyed buying it, fifty or so years ago, at some lovely shop in Lima. They were nearing the end, then, of two decades here; decades in which they helped launch Peru’s thriving fishmeal industry, raised four children and became leaders in the ex-pat community. To me, as a little girl, their lives sounded unimaginably exotic. I remember Carl instructing us to say YA-ma, not LA-ma; I remember the strange words—Machu Picchu, Cuzco, Inca—rolling off his tongue. When Carl gave my mom that necklace, she had never been east of her home state, Montana, south of San Francisco, north of Vancouver, west of Westport. But she loved to daydream about the trips [...]