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 [...]

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. [...]

Field Trips

2019-11-07T14:53:02-08:00Categories: midlife, nature, quiet, Seattle, writing|Tags: , , |

Restless Nest readers, I want to share with you this guest post I wrote for the Wide Open Writing blog. Wide Open Writing is for writers in search of inspiration; they offer a few gorgeous retreats every year, virtual writing groups and one-on-one support. Their website will make your mouth water. What I wrote for them is below. I didn't take pictures on the day of my field trip, so here's one I took at Seattle's Lincoln Park, just to get you in the right mood: Why Writers Need Field Trips I thought I was going to take a quick stroll down the beach. Instead, I walked straight to the water’s edge, sat down, took off my shoes, and waded into Puget Sound. My toes dug happily into the dark, kelpy sand. My calves were electrically, perfectly cold. After a few minutes, I backed up and sat down where the tide could still lap my toes. I lifted my face to the sun and the breeze, both newly freed from the summer wildfire smoke that had blanketed Seattle for days. I felt like I’d come home, after a long time away. None of this involved thinking. All of it simply happened, as if some irresistible magnetic force was pulling me. As if I knew with my body, not my brain, that at this particular suburban Seattle beach, Richmond Beach, the thing to do was to get yourself right into the water the minute you got there. I never go to Richmond Beach. I live in southeast Seattle, [...]

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 [...]

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 [...]

Reinvention

2019-11-07T15:36:14-08:00Categories: arts, faith and doubt, midlife, work, writing|Tags: , , , |

When I was in sixth grade, I fell in love with a book called How to Be a Nonconformist. I loved it because it was a playfully written and illustrated cartoon diatribe against the social pressure of the era to be cool, hippy-style, which to my ten-year-old eyes, was a rigidly conformist way of life. I grew up a mile from Seattle’s University District. Long hair, fringe vests, beads and sandals made me roll my eyes, precisely because the people who dressed that way pretended so obnoxiously to be nonconformist when, clearly, I harrumphed, they were anything but.         How to Be a Nonconformist is out of print, but you can see some of it on the gorgeous Brain Pickings blog. You can also read about the author, Elissa Jane Karg Chacker (1951-2008), who was just 16 when she wrote the book and went on to become a nurse and lifelong socialist, in this tribute on the Solidarity website. I am sorry Chacker did not live long enough to see what her age-mates are up to now. Because I think many of them are finally figuring out how to be real nonconformists, and to those of us who are a few years younger and in need of role models, it is a bracing trend. Reinvention is what I’m talking about. We all know that the days of working one job all your life and then retiring to a La-Z-Boy recliner are over. Sure, some people still do that, but so many of them find they can’t [...]

Gloria

2019-11-07T15:39:52-08:00Categories: human rights, midlife, writing|Tags: , , , , , , |

“Don’t listen to me,” Gloria Steinem told the two 15-year-old girls. “Listen to yourselves.” A packed-to-the-rafters Benaroya Hall erupted in applause, as it did dozens of times on Sunday night. But there was something about those girls. They were all of us. We have all been fifteen and remember well that panicked thought: who am I? Who will I be? Who do I deserve to be? That the two of them stood together at the microphone, because standing alone would have been too scary, made it all the more poignant. How far in advance did they plan which one of them would ask the question—what advice do you have for teenaged girls?—and which one of them would stand with her for support? Gloria Steinem was in Seattle to promote her new memoir, My Life on the Road. In an evening presented by Hedgebrook, the Whidbey Island retreat for women writers where she wrote much of her book over several summers, Steinem was interviewed by Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, the best-selling memoir of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Strayed was funny and lively and made it clear from the beginning that she was as awed by Steinem as the rest of us. But it was Gloria’s night. I hope she doesn’t mind if I call her Gloria. I don’t believe she will. As she quipped at one point during the evening, “We women aren’t generally so attached to our last names, are we?” When Gloria and Cheryl walked on stage, I felt as if my spine [...]

Dining Alone

2019-11-07T15:46:51-08:00Categories: brain, midlife, quiet|Tags: , , , , , , |

     Cacio is an old central Italian word for cheese, but I didn’t know that until I looked it up later. What I wondered, as I crossed Second Avenue on a silky spring night, was whether it might mean “gift:” as in, a gift for me; the gift of a restaurant where I would have the courage to sit and dine alone on a Friday night in New York. On any night, the East Village is chock-a-block with groups of friends and tightly clinched couples. These days, the trendiest restaurants have lines out the door and deafening crowds in the bars. But Cacio e Vino was a quieter place, just around the corner from my friend Lisa’s apartment, where I was staying. Its garage-style windows were rolled up, its tables invitingly half-outdoors. I thought I could do it. I knew I needed to do it. I was hungry and thirsty and fresh out of mojo. I wanted to do it. But after 27 years of marriage, dining out, alone, is something I just never seem to do. Or maybe it’s something I have forgotten how to do.          Funny thing is, the week I’d just spent in New York had been all about female empowerment with a capital E. With the help of Lisa, who is president of the Women’s Media Group, I gave my first New York reading from Her Beautiful Brain at Book Culture on Columbus Avenue. Later in the week at Book Expo, I was on a panel of women entrepreneurs. I spent [...]

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 [...]

Why I Volunteer for Research, Part One

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

Here are two of the many things that scare me: having to change a tire all by myself (because I’ve never done it) and camping in bear country (because I have). Here are two of the few things that don’t scare me: taking pop quizzes and getting poked with needles. These slim categories of fearlessness make me a natural volunteer for Alzheimer’s research. My mother grew up in Montana and nothing much scared her. She not only changed tires, she put chains on tires by herself, tying them together with shoelaces if they didn’t fit right, lying under the car in a snow storm. As for camping, after a twenty-year hiatus, she decided to try it again—solo, with four children in tow. We didn’t see any bears. The worst thing that happened was that we forgot spoons for our cereal. The best thing was being with Mom, far away from all of her city responsibilities, laughing along with the rest of us as we slurped our Raisin Bran and milk from our cups. Mom was the kind of person you would put last on your list of People Likely to Get Alzheimer’s disease. She was smart and lively and fit; she taught high school English and read like crazy; she weathered two divorces and the loss of her third husband and raised six kids alone. But somehow, Alzheimer’s found her, and it found her early. She was in her late fifties when she suspected something was wrong, was finally diagnosed at 66 and dead at 74. [...]

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 [...]

Alzheimer’s + Anger

2019-11-07T16:03:16-08:00Categories: brain, dementia, writing|Tags: , , , , , , , |

I am not an angry person. I’m not. I’m sure I’m not. So why, then, am I riveted by Greg O’Brien’s rage? O’Brien is an investigative reporter who, as Maria Shriver put it, “is embedded in the mind of Alzheimer’s, which happens to be his own mind.” Five years ago, at 59, O’Brien was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s. Now, O’Brien told Shriver in an NBC interview, “60 percent of his short-term memory is gone in 30 seconds.” And it fills him with rage. When he can’t remember how to dial his cellphone. When he looks at a lawn sprinkler and can’t remember what it is. When suddenly “you don’t know where you are, who you are, or what the hell you’re doing.” When you recognize that there will never be enough research dollars directed towards Alzheimer’s until people understand that it’s not always a disease, said O’Brien, that “you get at 85 and then you die, and who gives a s*it.” O’Brien’s memoir, On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer’s, is coming out in October. I look forward to reading it. I know it won’t be sugar-coated. I’m glad. O’Brien was fresh in my mind when, a few days later, I read about 16-year-old Alicia Kristjanson of Edmonds, Washington. Kristjanson will be walking in the upcoming Walk to End Alzheimer’s in honor of her father Doug, who died of the disease this year at age 49. She told the Edmonds Beacon she “would never wish what I went through with my father on anyone else, not [...]

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 [...]

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 [...]

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 [...]

Dementia-friendly World

2019-11-14T12:00:41-08:00Categories: brain, dementia, health & medicine, midlife, Seattle, urban life|Tags: , , , , , , |

 For a few years after she was diagnosed, my mother said the words, “I have Alzheimer’s disease” out loud, in public and often. She was in her mid-sixties, looked young and fit, spoke like the retired English teacher she was. She understood that the clerk in the grocery store or the waiter in the restaurant would be more patient with her if they knew why it was taking her so long to find her credit card or sign her name. So she told them. She spread those little learning moments wherever she went. I was the one who couldn’t get used to it. (I wrote a whole book about not getting used to it.) The looks we got in return—surprise, pity, shock—made me squirm. But later, when I had to say it for her because she no longer could, I remembered those early-stage days with a sort of wistful nostalgia. My indomitable mother looked the world in the eye and asked not for pity but for patience. And you know what? When you ask for patience, you often get it. My mother went public because it made sense. She was being her practical, problem-solving self. She probably would have scoffed at the notion that she was a pioneer; helping to build what the Alzheimer’s Association calls a “dementia-friendly community.” And because I am now as old as she was—57—when she began to wonder if something might be wrong with her brain, I have to wonder if I would be so brave. No, I don’t wonder. I [...]

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 [...]

Grapefruit. Kristofferson.

2019-11-13T16:27:13-08:00Categories: arts, film, Seattle|Tags: , , , , , |

 If you met me on the street, you might never guess that I once popped a contact lens right into Kris Kristofferson’s breakfast. And you might not guess how graciously he responded. Our conversation went something like this: Me: “I’m sorry! That is my contact lens on your grapefruit! Would you like me to bring you another one?” My finger, a few steps ahead of my brain, had already darted downward as I spoke, plucking the lens from where it had landed, right in the center of the sunny pink half. Kris: “Oh no, that’s fine. I don’t mind.” Smile. Eye-twinkle. It was 1976, the year he starred with Barbra Streisand in the rock-glamorous remake of A Star is Born. I was working for the summer in the restaurant of a downtown Seattle hotel. Kris was in Seattle for a concert with his then-wife, Rita Coolidge. That summer I served breakfast to Linda Ronstadt, the Doobie Brothers and Kris and Rita. My uniform was a blue polyester pantsuit. I did not see A Star is Born that year, probably because it came to Seattle after I left in the fall to spend my junior year in England. But I knew a gorgeous actor/songwriter/singer when I saw one, even one who chose to sit alone in the back of a casual hotel restaurant, rather than order his grapefruit and cereal from room service. Scenes from our lives, whether we’ve told them a hundred times or never at all, have a way of burbling up when you least [...]

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 [...]

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 [...]

Night of the Shutdown

2013-10-01T11:27:21-07:00Categories: education, politics|Tags: , , , , , , |

On the night the Republicans shut down the government, I was teaching at Seattle Central Community College: “Intro to Memoir Writing,” a non-credit class offered through Central’s lively Continuing Education program. While my students and I tackled the mysterious mechanics of writing about our lives, other students and other teachers labored in classrooms all around us: French, across the hall; English as a Second Language, a few doors down; history and sociology around the corner. While Congress wasted the country’s time, we devoured time hungrily and with purpose: teaching, listening, learning from each other. While House Speaker John Boehner did his best to dismantle the democratic process, we were building—in our cases, stories, built one word at a time with sweat, tears, love and hard labor. At some point earlier in their careers, surely Boehner and his colleagues must have wanted to build, rather than tear down. Maybe not: maybe the Republican party has always been dedicated to ending government as we know it. Government, as we were taught in classrooms long ago, in which bills are drafted, debated, rewritten, passed, signed and then become the law of the land. Law: not a target for blackmail and subversion, but law. It cheers me to think of all the learning going on in community college classrooms, not only on Monday, September 30, but on any given evening. Because this is where Boehner and his cohort are going down. The people the Tea Party et al fear so much—people who think, people who want to learn rather than [...]

The Next Big Thing

2013-02-19T15:07:52-08:00Categories: Uncategorized|Tags: , , |

Book reviewer extraordinaire and writer of elegant prose Isla McKetta tagged me in an online writer's blog series called The Next Big Thing. Isla is a copywriter by day, novelist by night, Richard Hugo House board member and indefatigable cheerleader of her writer friends. You can read Isla's responses to to the ten Next Big Thing Questions here.  And here are mine: 1. What is your working title of your book? Her Beautiful Brain 2. Where did the idea come from for the book? When my mother was in her late fifties, she began to forget. A lot. She began to repeat herself. A lot. Renowned since high school for her beautiful brain, my mother was losing her mind to Alzheimer’s disease, bit by bit, just as I became a mother myself. I began writing Her Beautiful Brain because I wanted to tell her story. But as I wrote, I realized it was my story too: of motherhood in the age of Alzheimer’s. For nearly two decades, her slow erasure shaped our family life. As my children grew, my mother shrank: slowly, for a while, but  then rapidly, weirdly, every which way. 3. What genre does your book fall under? Memoir 4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? Ah, the fun question! Mom at 60: Debra Winger? Me at 35: Rosemary DeWitt? 5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? It’s about what it was like to become a mom just as my own mother—twice divorced, once widowed, mother [...]

Curiosity

2012-12-11T06:19:37-08:00Categories: travel, Uncategorized|Tags: , , , , |

Word fashions come and go: what is “awesome” was once “marvelous,” what is “great” was once merely “good.”  What we value changes too: what we deem awesome today—a tiny car that gets high mileage; a good bottle of Washington wine—would have deeply puzzled our great-grandparents. There’s one word I bet our great-grandparents used more often than we do that I’d like to bring back. Curiosity. It’s not gone for good, it’s just fallen into disuse. You could call it a value, and you might mean that in a good or a bad way, depending on your “values” with a capital V. Or you could call it a character trait.  But doesn’t it roll off the tongue? Curiosity. We readers are likely to link it in our minds to books, beginning of course with Curious George, the monkey whose endless curiosity got him into endless scrapes. (“Scrapes:” there’s another rich old word, connoting a scrape along the outer edge of good behavior or the law or life itself.) But with George there was always an underlying moral along the lines of: Better not to be too curious. It was a moral well-suited to George’s heyday in the middle of the last century, when our elders worried that curiosity might lead us to flirt with communism or beat poetry or other interests that would cause us to stray from the proper paths of college, marriage, corporate employment and home ownership. Poor George: whisked from the jungle to a wondrous new planet called Manhattan and then chastised every time [...]