Monthly Archives: April 2013

Assisted Living

Life and art collided for me in one simple gesture of going to the theatre on Friday evening. Don’t you love moments like that when what you do, and what you know to be true, are in complete sync?

Maybe I don’t mean “collide” so much as commingle. But it can be startling when it happens.

Or as writer Sarah Bird notes, “It’s gratifying when you’re in a world, and you see that the author gets that world right.”

Startling, humbling, gratifying….

This week I attended the preview at ACT Theatre in Seattle for the world premier of “Assisted Living.” Written by Katie Forgette, Assisted Living imagines a scenario in the not-too-distant-future in which an overwhelming number of elderly baby boomers–a “tsunami,” the playwright calls it–are housed in prisons. Prisoners having been outsourced to make room for them.

Or rather, for us.

It’s bleak, it’s debilitating, and it could be what’s coming. But for one thing: a band of residents with a love for theatre find each other and form a troupe. Together they give readings, write plays, perform, and save their own souls, during permissible social hours, of course.

Artistic Director of ACT, Kurt Beattie, refers to this as “…the survival instincts hard-wired in the human spirit, and the essential elements of a life worth living; community, hope, and love.”

Playwright Katie Forgette works in a retirement home. “We have a theatre group and we’ve read everything from Hedda  to, yes, Glengarry. What can I say? They’re a game bunch.”

And I see this every week in the writing workshop that I run in a retirement home in Queen Anne. What started as a six- week, I believe, teaching practicum requirement for my MFA, is still going two years after completing the degree. But with writers and individuals and relationships blooming, how could I ever leave?

And I know we’re next. In such a residence, I for one, would be despondent if a MFA student, or a writer, wasn’t coming in to offer something of this sort. I would consider it my saving grace.

It’s all about finding your tribe, at any age, anywhere.

“Assisted Living” runs through May 12 at ACT Theatre, Seattle.

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Save the Rail

2456somewhere_west01-1After her divorce, my sister moved closer to the center of town. I like that it’s more pedestrian, a walk to everything. Her street is a cul de sac primarily of duplexes, inhabited by highly-educated, multi-ethnic, mixed-aged residents, both married and divorced. This is where she now rents, and where she has found a real neighborhood.

Here neighbors know each other, walk with each other, and say good day and good night. As my sister describes it, “The houses and yards are close and run from one into the next. We support each other with advice and chores. There is always someone around who will listen or talk. We get together for wine, coffee, game nights, celebrate birthdays together, and Seder dinner for Passover.”

My sister formed a tutoring company with two other teachers in the neighborhood. The couple she shares a duplex with are an attorney and a grant writer. Her neighbor in the next house over is a child and adolescent psychologist. Asian, Russian, Indian, multi-religions.

“In the summer,” she continues, “we sit around fire pits under the stars. Sometimes it reminds me of a campground because in warm weather you can smell smoke and food from cook- outs, hear laughter and conversation.”

Not everyone’s experience of a neighborhood anymore.

A small creek runs behind her house, visible from her kitchen sink. And just beyond the homes at the end of the cul de sac: train tracks, where a commuter railroad goes whistling through, connecting ‘burbs such as hers to downtown Boston. The sound of the train gives me comfort. I like to sleep to it and wake to it when I am visiting. During the day, it’s a type of clockwork. Everything seems to be working as it should, as on a model train.

I know I derive more pleasure from this than my sister, for train trips filled many of my early vacations. But by the time she was born, our family was flying.

Back out west now, driving  the highways and freeways and sharing the road with monster trucks, I float back and forth between model trains on a table, my sister’s neighborhood, and the big picture. This works with trains; up and down in scale, they don’t really change. In my mind I “lift” all the containers off the road, all across the land, and set them down on railway cars. All the long hauls to be done by rail, enabling us to drive freely about in smaller, more fuel- efficient cars. A safer and prettier world I should think, where the towns are green and peopled, and trains run around them or through, whistling now and then.

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They Call Us Mossbacks

For years I wondered: where on earth do I feel most at home? We would move and I’d try various places, waiting to see if I could grow roots. Finally I took up gardening. In the garden I can make myself at home anywhere, but nowhere as easily as here, in the Pacific Northwest. Where everything grows on its own accord.

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Back in San Diego I used to paint my flowerpots with buttermilk, then roll them in dirt before potting. With regular watering over a course of time, the pots would whiten and grow the mossy green patina found on garden antiquity. All around me the homes were too new. Too many developments with roofs of clean bright orange terra cotta tile. Whereas the pots on my terrace gave the appearance of old. While developers were busy putting up “Mediterranean style” for the masses, I was looking for Old Spain, something evacuated from say, Seville.

Here in the Pacific Northwest we can save the buttermilk for baking. Moss grows up our steps, over walls, on all sides of trees, and onto rooftops. I have to laugh.

We love our moss. A friend told me the story of a time she hired a man to pressure-wash the brick patio, as it can get slippery, and stepped out of the house to find that he had gone on and taken care of the back wall as well “which was a treasure trove of happy lichens in yellow, orange and gold, plus fabulous swaths of moss.” She was heartbroken.

Not too long ago a neighbor from those days in San Diego, now living in Houston, came through Seattle on book tour. I had come into the kitchen in the morning, turned on KUOW, our local NPR, in the middle of an interview and recognized her voice immediately. That night I attended her reading at Third Place Books in Lake Forest. Harriet Halkyard is her name. One doesn’t forget a name like that. She and her husband, John, wrote 99 Days to Panama based on their travels there. After the reading I bought their book and we sat down for lattes and to get caught up.

I will admit I was surprised to hear how much they love living in Houston (“It’s the people; we’ve never been so socially engaged!”), but nothing could have prepared me for her next comment.

“I don’t know how you live here,” she cried.

“I mean,” Harriet went on, “when you’ve seen seen one pine tree you’ve seen them all.”

I smiled and realized it could be plants and trees and climates that determine where one feels most at home. In San Diego we both had the warmth, the sun, the desert landscape, the occasional palm tree and arid climate, and she chose to go get more of it in Texas. Whereas I sought to come home, if not to New England, to the Pacific Northwest. A place more exaggerated than New England ever dreamed.

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The Loop

Seattle_-_Queen_Anne_Boulevard_mapI walk because a little flower can bring me to my senses, turn the world right side up, and give balance. Just that, the perfect, or imperfect, little plant. With nature one just has to be there, to be very present.

Nature is my religion and walking pulls me along like prayer. Particularly in spring when the set changes so fast. The orchestration of bulbs pushing up, magnolia tree blossoms on high opening like a stretch and a yawn, and wild roses scrambling to position themselves alongside a fence. Whether we garden or not, spring is reward time. Daffodils double on their own, birds carry seeds, and things hop around by wind.

I live on a hilltop in the city of Seattle ringed by a historic four mile loop. “The loop,” as it’s called, is well treed, well tred, and many of us walk or run it faithfully. To walk the loop is to indulge in everything from close-up (plants and wildlife), to midrange (architecture), and most distant: spectacular views of the city skyline, Mt. Rainier, The Sound and Olympic Mountains on one side, Lake Union and The Cascades on the other. A painter’s paradise, as all of the waterscapes are backed by mountains, and from the vantage point of Queen Anne, Mt. Rainier looms like a backdrop over downtown. This was the view in the television series, “Frasier.”

Walking clears the head. What you can leave at home is immense. On this day: concern about my father’s lingering cough, discouragement that our efforts for gun control seem to be backfiring, fear of N. Korea’s blustery “state of war” declaration, and a blog to write—as if that is going to help anything.

Anyway, it’s a start. For I am walking away from all that and toward…. Well, we’ll see.

“As artists, we are like beachcombers,” Julia Cameron observes, “walking the tide line, pocketing the oddments washed ashore—some small stray thing will tell us a story to tell the world.” And story, as we know, is what moves life along and gives it meaning.

My walking companion, the young friend I’ve hired as a personal trainer, shared stories of her eight year old daughter, Eleanor. I don’t need to tell you that for parents, these were some of the best years of our lives. And out of the blue, as her stories evolved, there came an explosion of wonderfully old fashioned names for girls, all friends of Eleanor’s, an old fashioned name as well. A world of classmates and girlfriends by the names of Penelope, Hazel, Clementine, Scarlett, Beatrice, Isabella and Madeline!

Don’t tell me I’m alone in finding this delightful?

You have to know, the older I get the more I feel I belong to that world, and it is of course eroding under my feet…. In many ways I am but a polar bear on an ice floe. But if there are three things I can do they are: to worship nature, to walk, and to write.

Forget the NRA. Forget Kim Jong Un. Today’s walk was suddenly worth it for this, the pleasure of these wonderfully old fashioned names. There’s a story there and I will write it.

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