By Roselle Kovitz
On a wet fall morning, Rita Bresnahan welcomed me into her condo overlooking Shilshole Bay. Both of us stood for a few minutes, captivated by the view of masts set against the deep blue of the Puget Sound, trailing off into the horizon. Like the water that reached out in front of us, behind her smiling eyes, Rita seems vast, deep, playful and mysterious. She giggles at her good fortune to wake to this view every day, especially so, since she grew up in the Midwest on the edge of the Great Depression.
She was the second oldest of six in a devout Catholic family. “Our family was very poor, but oh so rich in the ways that count the most, what brings life meaning: love, spirit, values.”
Education was also important in her family, and all her siblings went on to finish college. Rita herself earned a BA in education and theology, an MSW, and a Ph.D. in psychology and spirituality. She taught for nearly 50 years, across subjects and grades, from elementary to high school, college and graduate school. For 35 years, she was a psychotherapist and for 25, a spiritual director, something she continues on a part time basis.
Rita loves to travel, and has spent extended time in South America, Africa and Europe. She also has a passion for being in nature, especially for the mountains. She even scaled sixteen of the14,000 foot peaks in Colorado!
In 1981, when the waters of the Northwest beckoned, she made her way to Seattle. She walks with friends or family along those waters nearly every day. Shortly after arriving here, she began teaching in the grad psych department at Antioch University, and at the Institute for Theological Studies at Seattle University.
“My work has always held deep meaning for me,” she says. And it has been quite diverse: as a social worker in the poverty areas of Illinois; also with special needs children, with troubled teens in a residential setting, and with elders at Foss Home. Through the years Rita has found ways to help people make sense of life by listening, and letting their own truth reveal itself—whether with a toddler examining a leaf, or with her mother when her mind was slipping away.
In Walking One Another Home: Moments of Grace and Possibility in the Midst of Alzheimer’s, published in 2003, Rita documents her extended visits with her mother as she succumbed to Alzheimer’s. Rita has heard from hundreds of readers who were inspired and helped by her story. To honor Alzheimer’s Day in 2009, BBC Mondo featured Rita responding to questions from readers of the Spanish version of her book on their BBC Latin American Service.
Rita writes what she calls “real-life narrative” and has “some 200 stories, poems and other material in its rawest form, just waiting to be called upon…or not,” she says. She is ever on the alert for “everyday kinds of poems.” “There is so much to marvel at, every day. I write when I’m touched by something or surprised…These days, I write mostly about times with the three children I play with nearly every day.” Whether talking about her nieces and nephews or her contemporaries, there is a sense of play in her eyes and in the way she speaks—sometimes with a bit of a lilt.
She’s an alumna of Hedgebrook, on the staff of Crone: Women Coming of Age, a frequent keynote speaker for conferences. She has offered hundreds of workshops, such as “With a Laughing Spirit,” “Aging as a Spiritual Journey,” “Creating Joy in Caregiving,” and “Leaving a Spiritual Legacy.” She also coaches aspiring writers.
Rita’s stories, poems and reflections have appeared in Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul, and also in A Time to Weep, A Time to Sing: Faith Journeys of Women Scholars of Religion.
As I left, Rita’s joy followed me, reminding me that it is available anywhere along the journey for us to take. She revels in the contentment of her “crone” years and time with her peers, as much as that she spends with her young nieces and nephews, hiking in the mountains, or meditating. In talking with her and reading her writing, it appears that when life’s winds kick up, she goes deep into the stillness where she finds an abiding sense of calm.
“Remember who you are,” her parents regularly reminded her, meaning that being in the Bresnahan family was a mark of honor. Now, Rita’s family is a vast one—like the Sound outside her window. Whether she’s writing about 3 year old Emma’s latest discovery, or her mother’s last days, her parents’ words seem to echo forward. Through her writing and her life, she seems to remember not only who she is, but who we all are.
Read Ballard Writers on other Ballard Writers every couple of weeks. If you join our group, you may enter your name on a slip of paper and put it in Bob Dalrymple’s hat. We’ll draw the name of someone for you to profile and someone else to profile you. Who will it be? The surprise is all part of the fun. Today, Roselle Kovitz profiles Rita Bresnahan.