Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Afterthought #27: Dame Judi Dench—Quaker and peacenik

I’m woefully out-of-step with popular culture—I don’t watch much television or take in many movies, I haven’t downloaded any music on my iPhone, and I only pick up the latest Hollywood gossip by reading magazine headlines in the check-out line at the local supermarket. Earlier this month (April 23) I confessed to being an unabashed fan of National Public Radio and gushed about my recent tour of the national headquarters in Washington, DC.

For today’s afterthought, I’ll solidify my geekiness with this clip from an interview of Dame Judi Dench.

I’ve long admired her work as an actor, and her latest movie, “Philomena,” is on my list to see. I enjoyed hearing her talk about her current project performing in the play, “Peter and Alice.” I learned something I didn’t know about her at 4:15 when the interviewer asked, “Off-stage, are you still a Quaker?”

When Dame Judi acknowledged that she is, he then asked, “Does it inform you?”

Her response, “It informs everything I do,” resonated for me.

My spiritual practice, in particular the Quaker belief that “there is that of God in everyone,” informs everything I do, as well.  I was stunned that the interviewer asked Dame Judi about her religion; that topic seems to be off-limits for most people. She said she doesn’t “flaunt” her Quakerism or the fact that she’s a “peacenik,” yet she didn’t dodge the question. I appreciate her honesty and yearn for more openness about how our beliefs inform our lives and our work. Brava, Friend Judi!

“Afterthoughts” is my blog version of a practice followed in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, people continue in silence for a few more minutes during which they’re invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning's worship. I’ve adopted the form here for last-day-of-the-month brief reflections on headlines, quotes, comments overheard, maybe even bumper stickers.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014


I balanced a plate brimming with potluck offerings on my knees and eavesdropped on a nearby conversation. It was sometime in1981, within the first year of our move from the Midwest to Seattle. I overheard two friends talking about their favorite radio show, All Things Considered on National Public Radio. I don’t remember their words, but I can still recall the excitement in their voices as they discussed the afternoon program’s mix of news, interviews, commentaries, reviews, and offbeat features. Until then, although I’d watched public television, I don’t think I even knew what public radio was. Soon, though, I was tuning in regularly to hear the day’s news from Susan Stamberg and later Noah Adams, Renée Montagne, and Robert Siegel (who still serves as co-host, now with Melissa Block).

Before long I was listening in the morning, as well, to Morning Edition with Bob Edwards. It was his voice I heard on weekdays when my clock radio woke me in time for work.  I especially looked forward to Edwards’s Friday morning calls to Tallahassee to talk with sportscasting legend Red Barber. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t much of a sports fan, because the conversations often digressed to the weather, Barber's flower garden, history, and social issues. I was especially touched when “Colonel Bob” (as Barber referred to Edwards because of his “Kentucky Colonel” honor from his home state) inquired about Barber’s wife, Lylah. I know I cried when Edwards gave his final tribute to Barber when he died in 1992.

So, during a recent visit with our son and his fiancée in Washington, DC, I was as excited to see the NPR logo when we drove by its headquarters as the cherry blossoms just starting to bud around the Capitol.

After a little searching on the Internet, my husband discovered that NPR has a gift shop and offers public tours. A couple of days later, we stood in the lobby with a dozen other fans, sharing our names and our favorite NPR program.

“When my husband and I moved to a remote village in the North Cascades that didn’t have radio reception,” I told the other tour members, “I listened to Morning Edition on cassette tapes that a friend recorded and mailed to me.”

“Nice friend,” one woman replied.

The guide steered us to a soundproof auditorium, sometimes used for live performances. That day, half a dozen people fiddled with a laptop and projector, preparing for a staff meeting.  I thought back to a talk I’d attended at Earlham College (where my daughter was then a student) by Andrea Seabrook, who began reporting on the U.S. Congress for NPR in 2001. Herself an Earlham alum, Seabrook had spoken about the importance NPR placed on storytelling; I imagined that day’s staff meeting spending at least some time discussing storytelling craft. Because of NPR reporters’ skill with the narrative form, I’m among the thousands of listeners to experience a “driveway moment,” unable to get out of my car until I’ve heard their final words about an event and the people affected.

I was just about to graduate from high school when NPR went on the air May 3, 1971; that was made possible by unanimous passage, in both houses of Congress, of the Public Broadcasting Act. It would be more than a decade before I started listening regularly and relying on the service as my primary news source. I felt like a star-struck teenager as we toured the new building that is home base for the staff I respect such as Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, Nina Totenberg, Steve Inskeep, Audie Cornish, and Richard Harris. 

That day, we took an elevator from the building’s main floor to the fourth floor to see an array of satellite dishes on the “green” rooftop, planted to provide cooling in the summer and to retain heat in the winter. The rooftop garden and many other features of the new building earned it a silver LEED rating by the U.S. Green Building Council. On the next two floors, the guide ushered us past cubicles for staff of Morning Edition and Weekend Edition; she pointed out Studio One and the cluster of workspaces for the researchers and librarians. Some people sat at desks in front of split-screen computers; others had raised their adjustable desktops so they could stand.

The guide pointed out a round table in the center of the newsroom, crammed with computer screens and circled by chairs. She explained that when there’s “breaking news,” reporters cluster there to file stories.  The desk was busy the very first time NPR broadcast from this building—the day of the bombing at last year’s Boston Marathon.

The “breaking news” desk was quiet the day of our tour; instead, the most excitement was when we all streamed in to Studio 3.  This fully-equipped back-up control room and broadcast studio is identical to Studios 1 and 2 that are in regular use. In the event of big news events or technical problems, reporters and technicians can step in to Studio 3 to keep the news flowing. 

As I sat at a microphone, I fantasized being interviewed by Alan Cheuse about my memoir. Not likely, but fun to imagine.

Back in the lobby after the tour, I took note of the display of NPR reporter Philip Reeves’ “13 Rules” -  a mini-lesson in cross-cultural interviewing.

Much has changed in my life since I first started my day with “Morning Edition,” but clearly I’m still an NPR fan. Radio reception at my home on Lopez Island is slightly better than what we had in the mountain community where we relied on a friend’s cassette recordings, but satellites have to be in perfect alignment for a clear signal in the house.  Now I typically listen to news reports on the car radio and download my favorite programs to my iPhone. Which is what I’ll do as soon as I post this essay to my blog. One episode of Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! lasts through a walk with my dog. Since my tour, I’ll have some new images in my mind just about the time I round the last corner and hear Peter Sagal’s closing words…


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Writing Process Blog Tour

Many thanks to Janet Buttenwieser for inviting me to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour.  Janet has an MFA in nonfiction from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts.  Her nonfiction work has appeared several places, including Potomac Review, Literary Mama, Bellevue Literary Review, and SHARK REEF. She won honorable mention in The Atlantic 2010 Student Writing contest and was a finalist in the 2014 Oregon Quarterly Northwest Perspectives Essay Contest.  Janet teaches writing classes at Seattle’s Richard Hugo House. Find excerpts from her memoir-in-progress, GUTS, and her thoughts on the writing life on her website, Janet Buttenwieser.
You can read Janet’s responses to the Writing Process Blog Tour questions on her blog. I answer the same questions below.
What am I working on?
At the moment, I’m taking a pause from work on my memoir-in-progress, Hiking Naked—A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance. The manuscript is my thesis project for my MFA program at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, where I hope to graduate in August.  Hiking Naked is a personal narrative about what I learned while living in the remote mountain village of Stehekin, Washington about work, community, and leadings of the Spirit (as well as dealing with six feet of snow in the winter, ordering groceries by mail, and living without a telephone). Right now the manuscript is in the hands of my second reader. While I await her comments, I’m exploring a couple of ideas for future nonfiction projects (too soon to provide details, but they involve telling other people’s stories). I’m also sorting through the piles that accumulated in my office during the thesis revision process and in the aftermath of AWP#14 (huge writing conference in Seattle the end of Feb.).
Piles have been sorted now, and I can again sit in my chair
and on the couch.

I also write short-ish personal essays and have files of them on my computer that I’ve worked on the past three years while in the MFA program; it’s time to get back to them and see which ones are ready for another round of polishing and submission to literary journals and contests.
How does my work differ from others in its genre?
I’m still developing my unique voice.  My work is shaped by essayists and memoirists I admire, such as Ana Maria Spagna, Scott Russell Sanders, Annie Dillard, Brenda Miller, and Brian Doyle to name just a few.  Oh, to have my work NOT differ from theirs! I tend to wrestle with questions about spirituality, justice, work, and peace and to ground my reflections in nature.
Why do I write what I do?
In Writing from the Center, Scott Russell Sanders succinctly expresses my response to this question:
“I wake early in order to write, and I write in order to come more fully awake.”

For most of my adult life, writing has been a vehicle for me to understand what I believe, feel, question, and know -  “to come more fully awake.” I also strive to give voice to the untold stories of ordinary people; those stories often are the most extraordinary and the most meaningful. I never know who or what might call to me for telling, but I’ve learned to heed those stirrings of a good story. My first book, Hands at Work, was inspired by a series of black-and-white photographs of hands by photographer Summer Moon Scriver. The images suggested to me that these were people who were passionate about their work and were nourished by manual labor. I wanted to give voice to their stories and to others who work with their hands.
How does my writing process work?
A turning point in my writing life was an epiphany I had at a writing workshop nearly fifteen years ago.  Sometime during that week, I started to think of writing as my work and that I should treat it with the same respect and commitment I gave to my work as a public health consultant.  I recognized that I’m most creative in the morning, and since I was self-employed, I had control over my schedule. I still follow the practice I started then of reserving most weekday mornings (anywhere from one to four hours) for writing—I schedule those hours on my calendar just like any other commitment.
Coffee cup in hand, I climb the stairs to my office, the former bedroom of my now-adult son. I typically begin with some kind of centering activity:  a time of silence, reading something (often poetry) I admire, and a free write. Then I shift to the work at hand. Whether it’s writing new work or revising (my reward for having filled some blank pages), I set my timer for 20 to 30 minutes and write. I’ve turned off all visual and auditory notifications of anything coming in to e-mail or social media. If the phone rings, I let the machine answer. When the timer goes off, I stop where I am, re-set it for 10 to 15 minutes and get up from my desk. I do some task—hang laundry on the line, clean up breakfast dishes, brush the dog—that allows me to keep thinking about what I’m writing. I DON’T check e-mail or phone messages. When the timer goes off again, I re-set it for another half hour and return to what I was working on.  Depending on the day of the week and whether I’m heading off to my day job as a school nurse, I’ll repeat this cycle several times.  I’m lucky to be able to spend so many hours pursuing this craft.
Next week the Writing Process Blog Tour continues to branch out with two more writers I admire.
Chels Knorr is a writer first and an editor second. She's the editor of two monthly health-care publications (which on most days, basically just means she's a professional e-mail writer). She’s plannning to graduate with her MFA at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts on Whidbey Island in Washington State in August 2014. She loves waffles, a competitive game of Scrabble and telling (mostly true) stories.  She lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her husband, Tyler, and dog, Goose.
A North Carolina native, Gretchen Wing is a 20-year teacher of high school English and history who now works as a baker in Washington’s San Juan Islands, and writes. She earned her BA in English from Harvard and her Masters in U.S. and Latin American History from the University of Washington. Her stories have been published in SHARK REEF, and she writes the monthly column, "Spotlight on Lopezians," for The Islands' Weekly. Her middle grades novel, The Flying Burgowski, was published early this year by Madrona Branch Press, and she is hard at work on the sequel.