Trying to fill a room in Seattle is a fickle business. On the first day of 2013 that felt like spring was not just a dream some of us had, who ever would’ve guessed that 25 hundred Seattle souls would willingly converge for a collection of lectures called the Search for Meaning Book Festival? And this was a free event: advance registration encouraged, but no fifty dollar commitment. No reason why you couldn’t just say, “Are you kidding? I’m going to Golden Gardens!” after you pulled back the curtains on a morning flood of daffodil-yellow sunlight.
Now in its fifth year, the Search for Meaning Book Festival just keeps growing. It is hosted by Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry, but the authors and speakers come from every religious tradition, including none-of-the-above. This year’s keynotes were a conversation between authors Sherman Alexie and Michael Chabon in the morning and a riveting talk by Iranian-American writer Reza Aslan in the afternoon. Before and after the keynotes were seminars, of which we attendees had to choose three or four out of nearly four dozen. Topics ranged from searching for meaning in suffering to the ethics of sustainable seafood. Highlights for me were Port Townsend poet Holly Hughes’ session on contemplation and creativity and Stranger Genius Award-winner Lesley Hazleton’s talk on the life of Muhammad.
But I digress. Back to the weather. Next time you’re on Capitol Hill, stroll a few blocks south and you’ll find yourself in a little green oasis: the Seattle University campus. Not such a bad place to be on a bizarrely sunny March day. Strolling back and forth between seminars, the Cascade Mountains glittered in the east, the trees were budding, the camellias popping, the fountains spraying. Inside the lovely Chapel of Saint Ignatius, the sunlit blue of the stained glass was so vibrant it vibrated.
West of campus, just across the street, is Swedish Hospital, where I have often found meaning waiting for me, whether I wanted it there or not: in the joy of greeting newborn babies; the sorrow of saying good-bye to a friend in her final days.
Truth be told, I was having trouble with meaning that morning at Seattle University. I had just learned that a child I know might have cancer. It is hard to find meaning in that kind of news. I didn’t go to the Search for Meaning Book Festival expecting to find an answer there, but I thought maybe I’d find distraction. Or some vague kind of comfort.
The first seminar I attended was… exactly wrong. Right, no doubt, for adults facing major illness, but wrong for brooding me, wrestling with why children should ever have to face such horrors. Maybe I should have just skipped all this and gone to Golden Gardens, I thought, as I headed over to the keynote. I’ve heard Sherman Alexie AND Michael Chabon before—why am I here?
But Sherman Alexie is a charmer. He had me with his crack about dining on “kosher buffalo” with Chabon. And as Alexie encouraged Chabon to ramble on about the waxing and waning of his Jewish faith, I looked around the room and thought, Here’s the comfort: 2500 people who are curious, who are listeners and questioners, who actually want to search for meaning, even on a sunny day.
Chabon tossed off a line that stuck with me: “Searching and not finding is much more satisfying than finding.”
Later in the day, the Jesuit President of Seattle University, Father Steven Sundborg—a man who you might assume has Meaning all figured out—asked this: Do we seek meaning, or does meaning seek us?
He posed the question in his introduction to Reza Aslan, whose hour-long talk vigorously tackled the rising American fear of Islam: how it has morphed, over the dozen years since 9-11, into a right-wing-fueled, bigotry-stoking machine.
Aslan had lots of data. But ultimately, he said, data doesn’t change minds. What changes minds is relationships.
Because we’re all searching for meaning. It’s what we do. And it is comforting to know, on one bright Saturday in Seattle, that we’re not alone.
Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.
Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.