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 [...]

Boston

2013-04-22T11:55:01-07:00Categories: arts, education, politics, urban life, writing|Tags: , , , , , |

One September day, when I was still a child but thought I was not, off I flew to Boston. My checked bags included a shiny trunk in a retro black and white pattern and a sky blue Skyway suitcase. I wore a new plaid blouse, brown corduroys and a brown hooded sweater. I was 17 and I didn’t look a day older. Boston received me the way Boston does: with a bit of a yawn. Oh, here she comes; yet another wide-eyed rube from the Wild West come east to get some schooling. Sorry, sweetheart, but you’re a dime a dozen in this town. Never mind: have some chowder. Have a corn muffin. You want your coffee regular? Which in Boston, of course, means with cream and sugar. I didn’t care, because I knew my real life was beginning. In the mayhem of this past week, in our global obsession with Boston, with the bombs at the marathon finish line and who put them there and why; in our grief for the dead and injured, one of President Obama’s finest moments slipped under the news radar. On Thursday, hours before the terror and drama of the manhunt began, before we knew anything about two brothers with roots in Chechnya, the people of Boston gathered at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross to mourn. It was an interfaith service featuring many eloquent speakers. I happened to catch most of it on the radio. But it was our president who made me cry, because he reminded me what [...]

Preschool

2013-02-26T10:02:43-08:00Categories: education, parenting, politics|Tags: , , |

“Just imagine they’re all four years old.” Someone once told me to try that when I was nervous about speaking in front of a group. Maybe you’ve heard it too: Look out at the audience and imagine them all as… preschoolers. Clearly, whoever coined that little quip had not spent a lot of time around young children. One of the reasons I am excited about Obama’s proposed preschool-for-all initiative is that it is going to be so educational for parents. Preschool is not just valuable for children’s development, it’s valuable for parents’ development. Think about it: is there any job for which we show up so utterly unprepared, uneducated and unqualified? As a young mom, I naively assumed guidance would spring up along the way, like traffic lights and road signs do when you’re driving. But more often, early parenthood resembles the confusion that ensues at a major intersection when the power’s out. No one knows what to do until the traffic cops arrive in their orange vests and jump out into the chaos and start signaling. Good preschool teachers are like those gutsy traffic cops. New parents show up, tired and edgy from all the inching along they’ve done in the clueless dark, and suddenly there is someone on the road who can show them the way. If you’re lucky enough to have access to and are able to afford good-quality preschool—your child’s teachers will be—unlike you—prepared by years of experience. They will have actual degrees in early childhood education. Whatever your worry might be about [...]

Women Warriors

2013-01-29T15:04:12-08:00Categories: politics, Uncategorized, war, women's rights|Tags: , , , , , , |

I claim I want to better understand war. But my gut reaction to the news about women being allowed to serve in combat positions? Queasy. As if what the headlines are shouting is: “Hooray! Women will now be allowed to do the most dangerous, spiritually challenging, morally ambiguous dirty work on the planet!” New York Times columnist Gail Collins set me straight, reminding me that “They killed the Equal Rights Amendment to keep this from happening, but, yet, here we are. And about time.” Collins goes on to recall the words of retired Air Force Brigadier General Wilma Vaught, who once told her: “I think people have come to the sensible conclusion that you can’t say a woman’s life is more valuable than a man’s life.” The logic is clear: if we invest our nation’s security in professional warriors and if we believe women deserve equal access to all career paths, then women who make the personally huge commitment to serve in the United Sates Armed Forces must not be barred, on the basis of gender, from combat roles. So why my retrograde queasiness? Because, like any pacifist, I find it so difficult to turn my thoughts to combat at all, no matter what the context. But—as I learned from Karl Marlantes’ book, What it is Like to Go to War (see last week’s post)—I know turning our backs on war is not the answer. Especially the wars we support with our tax dollars. It has been 40 years this month since we ended the draft. [...]

Connoisseurs of Light

2013-01-15T09:57:43-08:00Categories: midlife, nature, politics, Seattle|Tags: , , , , , , |

In January, we in the Northwest become connoisseurs of light. Gourmets who savor every spoonful. As the sun rises behind clouds on a Saturday morning, I lie in bed and study the bare branches of the old red oak in the park across the street and conclude: yes, they do look ever so slightly fuller. It’s the light, plumping the tiny buds inside each twig, like an artist going over his pencil marks with a black felt-tip marker. Later, we walk out of a matinee at 4:30 and are surprised to see streaks of light still in the sky. The next day, there will be a few more minutes of light. And each day after that. Every single day from now til the 21st of June! We who live nearer the poles love light the way babies love mothers’ milk. In winter, we turn our faces to the sun whenever and wherever we encounter it. This year, our New Year’s Day was dazzling, as drenched in light as Jan One can be in Seattle. My husband and I went for a walk at Alki Beach and everyone, everyone was smiling their most carefree, I’m-letting-my-inner-happy-baby-show kind of smile. It was as if the sun was granting us eight golden hours on the edge of the prism between the dark, exhausted old year and the beckoning light of the new. Talk and walk, the sun said; smile, breathe, drink in this light. You know it won’t last because this is the Northwest. But you live here, so you [...]

Goodbye, Oh-Twelve

2013-01-01T15:03:57-08:00Categories: politics|Tags: , , , , |

What if our New Year’s Resolutions looked like this? One: Be kind to yourself. Two: Be kind to others. The end. That’s it. Saved again, by the Golden Rule! You could add a little fine print. For example, re being kind to yourself: you could vow to truly ban all trash talk, especially the real F-words: fat and failure. Re being kind to others, that tends to be a whole lot easier once you’re being kind to yourself. Although I have often found this to work the other way round: doing something kind for someone else can be the quickest way to distract yourself from self-trashing. Once you’ve enacted your Golden Rule two-resolution package, you’ll have so much more time to reflect on the ways in which 2013 is going to be way, way better than 2012. Not that Oh-Twelve didn’t have its high points. Election night, anyone? But with apologies to Republicans—especially those who might be feeling that their party has been hijacked by a loud and deluded minority—the biggest way in which 2013 is going to be dramatically different from 2012 is that there will be no election night hanging over our heads for ten out of the twelve months. I know, the Republican primaries had a certain amount of entertainment value, as did Clint Eastwood and the chair, but WOW: however you may have voted, aren’t you glad it’s all over? I am. Especially after traveling to France and Finland last spring, a trip that was one of the highlights of my year. [...]

On a December Day

2012-12-18T12:36:25-08:00Categories: politics, travel|Tags: , , , |

One recent December day, my husband and I witnessed a rare event: a moment of silence on the floor of the United States House of Representatives. It was our first-ever trip to the visitors’ gallery at the Capitol. We were still trying to make sense of what appeared to be a gathering of 435 people engaged in animated speed-dating when the gavel thundered exactly twice and Congressman Earl Blumenauer of Oregon was given the floor. The congressman spoke briefly of the Clackamas Mall shooting, in which two people were killed, three including the gunman, who took his own life. The moment of silence ensued. Then the speed-dating resumed. After a vote on something involving asthma inhalers and quips exchanged with the young intern next to us re Speaker Boehner’s strikingly varnished skin color, we left, assuming, without giving it much thought, that Blumenauer’s mild call for attention to the nightmare of gun violence would go, as per usual, unheeded. A day and a half later, I attended a poetry reading at a Seattle elementary school where I’d been an apprentice with Seattle Arts & Lectures’ Writers in the Schools program. Parents, grandparents and squirmy younger siblings crowded into the school library to hear the fifth graders read of their passion for the color orange, for football, for horses, dogs, cats, tropical fish, recess, hot chocolate. I listened a bit wistfully, nostalgic for my own days as an elementary school parent. But I left with a smile on my face: how could one not feel hope and [...]

After Election Day

2012-11-13T14:51:16-08:00Categories: arts, politics, women's rights, writing|Tags: , , , , |

On Election Day 2012, I woke up in Baker City, Oregon, reached for my phone and read these words: “Make me a grave where’er you will, In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill, Make it among earth’s humblest graves, But not in a land where men are slaves.” It’s the first stanza of a poem by a daughter of freed slaves who died a century ago, Frances Harper. I had never heard of Harper. I had never before read her poem, titled “Bury Me in a Free Land.” But there I was, on the morning of the presidential election, instantly connected by Harper’s words to the historic hugeness of the day. True nerd confession: I like to start my mornings by reading a psalm and a poem. I have the Book of Psalms and a few poetry anthologies loaded on my phone now, so I can stick to my ritual on the road. I’ve been reading poetry all my life, but I grew up a white girl who went to mostly-white schools and either we didn’t have Frances Harper in our anthologies back then or we never turned to that page. So I was honored to make her acquaintance, on the morning I woke up wondering whether we would re-elect our first black president to a second term. It seemed a good omen, somehow, that Harper’s poem was the one that happened to be waiting for me. I’m working my way through an American anthology and I’d just finished a few days of Walt Whitman, [...]

Binders

2012-10-23T08:00:10-07:00Categories: midlife, politics|Tags: , , , , , , |

By the time you read this, we will have survived the third and final debate and we’ll be in the final countdown to Election Day. But I can’t help it, people: I’m still shaking my head over Mitt Romney and his binders full of women. Of course I am thankful, along with so many voters, for the comedy it inspired. Yet at the same time, I’m saddened by what it says about how far we women have really NOT come since Virginia Slims launched its 1968 ad campaign with the catchy tagline, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Funny how that particular jingle should spring to mind, with its dark double message: hey women, now that you’re so liberated, you too can smoke all you want and die of lung cancer, just like men! When Mitt said it—it being, “I went to a number of women’s groups and said, can you help us find folks? And they brought us whole binders full of — of women”—you could feel a collective squirm go through the Columbia City Theater, where I was watching the debate with friends. The squirm was followed by a collective head-scratch: did he really just say that? We all murmured. What century is this? You could argue that Mitt “meant well.” But what does it mean, to “mean well?” In this case, “meaning well” meant wanting to appear to be someone other than who he is: a guy, surrounded by guys, who—as the Boston Phoenix newspaper reminded us, contrary to the way he tried [...]

Noise Equals Hope

2012-10-10T09:01:41-07:00Categories: midlife, politics|Tags: , , , , , , , , |

Recently, a bulldozer showed up outside our house at seven a.m. and began backing up onto the vacant lot next door. I was trying to read. The noise was hard to tune out, especially when the bulldozer got to work and the whole house started to shake. I looked outside. Clouds of dust were rolling through the neighborhood. When one of the construction guys knocked on the door and asked if he could borrow our hose to keep the dust down until the water truck arrived, I was only too happy to say yes. And, believe it or not, I am thrilled this is all happening. This next-door project was one of those recession-reminder blank spots, another project that ground to a halt and left a gaping, weedy wound on our block; an everyday reminder that the economy remained in critical condition. The owners—who also built our townhome, right before they temporarily ran out of cash—finally sold the lot to another builder with a great reputation, and she (yes, she!) is breaking ground. Four more homes in south Seattle are on their way. And now the September job numbers are in: 114 thousand new jobs last month, the 24th consecutive month we added to, rather than subtracted from, the total number of people working. The unemployment rate is now below eight percent for the first time since President Obama was elected. Noise next door equals jobs equals hope. I know there are going to be times when the hammering gets maddening. But I’m going to try [...]

Becoming Obama

2012-10-03T08:22:16-07:00Categories: politics, urban life, writing|Tags: , , , , , , |

Barack Obama was 33 years old when he published his memoir, a fact often noted with the kind of wink that says, “Clearly, the man knew he was destined for greatness.”  But that’s not at all how the book reads. Dreams from my Father is written with humor and humility.  Graceful, fluent writing abounds, but so do the frankly self-conscious moments of a young writer who knows he’s still got a long way to go towards wisdom. Dreams from my Father is subtitled “A Story of Race and Inheritance,” and it is, but intimately so.  When Obama describes arriving in Indonesia as a little boy, he resists the scholarly urge to set the scene and instead reveals the country as it was revealed to him, from the back seat of a taxi, recalling the “brown and green uninterrupted, villages falling back into forest, the smell of diesel oil and wood smoke.” It is in Indonesia, a country where almost no one is black or white, that Obama has his first realization of the deep racism of America when he comes across an article in Life magazine about black people who have tried to dye their skin white. Back in Hawaii, an adolescent at the fancy Punahou prep school, Obama quickly understands that in America, he is and will always be black.  Through his high school and college years, he self-consciously plays the part he knows everyone in his life expects him to play, excelling as the young black man making it in the world of white privilege.  [...]

Conned

2012-09-20T14:31:52-07:00Categories: politics, Uncategorized|Tags: , , , , , |

 Seven years ago this month, much of New Orleans was under water. Hurricane Katrina remains the great before-and-after for that city and it is still making headlines. The latest big Katrina news: a lawsuit filed by homeowners against the Army Corps of Engineers and one of its contractors that is finally, after seven long years, getting its day in court. The suit asserts the Corps and the contractor were responsible for the levee failure that flooded thousands of homes. I just finished Dave Eggers’ fine non-fiction book about what one Syrian-American family endured after Katrina. It’s called Zeitoun, named for the title character, a father and business owner who rescues and helps people in the days following Katrina, only to be imprisoned on a bogus burglary charge. I was going to recommend this book to you. Now I’m not so sure. Turns out Zeitoun is in jail again, this time charged with assaulting and then conspiring to kill his ex-wife. They divorced earlier this year. I couldn’t believe it when I read it: the hero, the family man, who endured wrongful imprisonment and tried so hard not to let it enrage or embitter him, in jail on a charge like this? I felt so sad, stunned, angry.  And conned. I know that wasn’t the intention of Zeitoun or Eggers (who is channeling book profits into a foundation to help rebuild New Orleans), but I feel that way just the same: like I believed one thing about a person, only to find out he was someone else. Just as [...]

Citizens

2012-09-12T15:07:21-07:00Categories: politics, Uncategorized|Tags: , , , |

When you get up in the morning, do you EVER think, “Ah, what a great day it is to be an American consumer?” Who wants to be a consumer? Since when were we stuck with this label?  Does what we ingest, what we purchase, what we acquire really define us? And if it does, how deeply sad is that? In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, President Obama used a different word, one that’s come to sound a bit old-fashioned: Citizen. Try that on. “Ah, what a great day it is to be an American citizen.” Maybe you don’t feel that way every morning of your life. But wouldn’t you rather wear the label, “Citizen,” with all it implies? A citizen sounds like someone worthy of respect. A consumer sounds like an appetite housed in a body. A citizen sounds like someone who cares what happens to our country. A consumer sounds like someone who cares what happens to him or her self. To be a citizen is to be a citizen OF a specific place. To care about a community larger than yourself. To live the belief that investing in the common good enriches our individual lives, too. It’s pretty simple. Citizens vote; consumers buy stuff. In his convention speech, President Obama called citizenship, quote, “a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.” The “heart of [...]

Apologies

2012-05-16T08:49:22-07:00Categories: education, midlife, politics|Tags: , , , |

High School was a long time ago. And I like to think we’ve all grown up since then. But the story of Mitt Romney chasing down a classmate and forcibly cutting his hair gave me chills. And his so-called “apology” turned my stomach. “IF I hurt anyone,” Romney said. Did no one ever teach this man who thinks he’s qualified to be our next president that an apology that comes loaded with the word “if” is no apology at all? I wasn’t bullied in high school, but I always felt just a few missteps away from the nightmare of being targeted.  After one of my best friends in junior high dumped me for not being cool enough, the popular girls mostly ignored me and I knew it was safer to keep it that way. Thinking about it now, a million years later, I can still feel the pain of being dumped and the humility of being invisible. Mitt Romney’s high school “pranks” may seem trivial to him, nearly fifty years down the road, but you can bet the living victims of those pranks have never forgotten how it felt. You can bet the “if” in the middle of his apology clanged like a high school fire alarm on their aging eardrums. George W. Bush was fond of high jinks too, back in the day. You have to wonder: did that make it easier for him to condone torture? Does the youngster capable of bullying grow up to be the president who says yes to waterboarding? Or [...]

Trilliums

2012-04-11T20:38:48-07:00Categories: hiking, midlife, quiet|Tags: , , , |

Sixteen: that is the number of trilliums I’ve seen in the past two days. Sixteen! I wish I could travel back in time and tell ten-year-old me the good news: The trilliums made it. They didn’t go extinct. When I was a girl, I worried so much about them. On one of the first hikes of my life, our Girl Scout leader told us trilliums were endangered and that was why we mustn’t ever pick them, beautiful though they were, shyly nodding their white tri-cornered heads from their shady hiding places. The scout leader said it didn’t look good for the trilliums: they might be gone very soon. She said this in a grave voice, as if she were talking about a very ill child.  She told us that if we saw even one on our hike, let alone two or three, we’d be lucky. But today, yesterday, here they were: 16 trilliums sighted on two urban runs, both through reclaimed green spaces within two or three miles of downtown Seattle. And as I crouched to get a closer look, I thought: this is one of those good things about having a few more decades under my belt. I see the trilliums and I understand, in a way I couldn’t if I were ten or 20: when people put their minds to something, like saving a plant or an animal from extinction, it’s not necessarily some impossible dream. Change may sometimes be slow, but it is possible. Trails through ravines that, not long ago, were choked [...]

Every Age

2012-03-14T08:54:22-07:00Categories: education, midlife, Uncategorized|Tags: , , , , , |

Walking up Michigan Avenue on a cold Chicago morning, I know what I look like: a middle-aged woman suited up for a brisk Sunday walk. Practical shoes, corduroy jeans, warm jacket.  Exactly the kind of outfit my mother used to make me wear when I was four years old and I would’ve rather just thrown on a party dress.  Exactly the kind of outfit I’ve worn all my life, setting out for long walks, in any weather, in the many cold northern cities I’ve called home: Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Norwich and Cambridge, England. What’s so hard to explain to younger people is this: the older you get, the more ages you are. I mean all at once. In every moment of your life.  I’m not just 55, I’m every age I ever was.  I’m the four-year-old who wants to skip and sing. I’m the teenager, walking because I need to be alone. I’m the twenty-something, wishing I could look attractive and stay warm at the same time.  I’m the mom, wishing all the children I see on this chilly day would please, please wear their hats. I was in Chicago last weekend for the ridiculously gigantic writers’ conference known as AWP: the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.  Picture nearly ten thousand writers of all ages, racing from bookfairs to seminars in some of Chicago’s most historic hotels—the flagship Hilton across from Grant Park, where President Obama celebrated on Election Night 2008.  The Palmer House, favored by Ronald Reagan.  When Reagan was president, I was a [...]