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Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

Oct 2013 001

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird —
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

I have never met Mary Oliver, but I consider her one of my teachers.

A published poet since 1963, Oliver has written hundreds, probably thousands, of poems during her lifetime, producing more than 25 books of poetry and three books of nonfiction to date. She writes about early morning walks in the woods or along the shoreline; finding the footprints of animals in the forest or near a lake; the tension between the fleeting beauty of the natural world and its undertones of violence, death and decay. She harbors a deep love for the world we inhabit, and a deep sadness for the ways humans mar or destroy the quiet, lonely places where animals and plants live.

I doubt Oliver ever cared much for clothes and fashion, but if she did, she gave up that particular passion long ago. She has learned what is worth caring about, and what she can easily ignore:

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be
astonished.

This is what I need to learn, amid my distracted and often scattered life, amid my commute and my day job, amid the relentless pull of social media and relationships online and offline. I need to learn to pause, on my front porch or in the park or even on the subway platform, and pay attention to the
natural world, to the details that astonish.

I’m over at TRIAD magazine again today, sharing my thoughts on Oliver’s poetry. Please click over there to read the rest of my essay.

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We all have stories we tell ourselves. We tell ourselves we are too fat, too ugly, or too old, or too foolish. We tell ourselves these stories because they allow us to excuse our actions, and they allow us to pass off the responsibility for things we have done — maybe to something within our control, but anything other than the decisions we have made.

[...] It is past time, I think, for you to stop telling that particular story, and tell the story of yourself. [...] There are times in our lives when we have to realize our past is precisely what it is, and we cannot change it. But we can change the story we tell ourselves about it, and by doing that, we can change the future.

The Weird Sisters, Eleanor Brown

longfellow garden radcliffe yard

I reread Eleanor’s lovely novel this spring, and this quote (near the end of the book, after one character has finally faced up to her mistakes) has stayed with me. It struck me the first two times I read The Weird Sisters, but on this, my third read, it lodged in my mind and has remained there. And only now, months later, have I figured out why.

For the first two years of my life in Boston, I told myself this story about it: Boston is a strange, difficult, often lonely place to live, full of beauty, history and culture, but far from my home and the family and friends I miss. I will have a hard time truly belonging here.

My six months of unemployment and my subsequent first job here gave me few reasons to change this narrative, even as I fell in love with our apartment and our church. I clung to Abi and Shanna, my two treasured friends who moved up here when we did, and to the few new friends we made. I also spent many (not unhappy) afternoons wandering the city by myself, but I eventually came to believe that carving out a place for ourselves here was not only difficult but impossible.

The last seven months have completely upended that narrative, forcing me to rethink the story altogether.

Part of the change is simply a result of the passage of time. After three years, we know all sorts of things we could not have known as Boston newbies: how to navigate the subway system, how to decipher the New England accents, how long it takes to get to church and the mall and the grocery store. We have library cards and parking passes, a detailed mental map of Boston and its environs. We have established a number of traditions: apple picking, July 4 fireworks, Turkeypalooza. We own down coats and CharlieCards and Massachusetts drivers’ licenses. We have built, slowly and over many months, deep friendships that did not exist before we came here.

We also know larger, intangible things: how it feels to move two thousand miles away from family, how difficult and freeing it can be to strike out on your own in a totally new part of the country. How much it costs to fly, at various times of the year, from Boston to Dallas or Boston to West Texas, and how and what to pack for those trips. How it feels to ache for the community you left, and how to do the slow work of building a new one. We are no longer as lonely as we were, and I cannot tell you how grateful this makes me.

The surprise factor in changing my narrative about Boston and New England is my new neighborhood, the job I now hold at one of Harvard’s schools and the transformation it has wrought in my workdays.

I had convinced myself, after months of experience to that effect, that Boston’s landscape of friendship might be as gray and barren as its physical landscape in winter. And though I started my new job in the dead of winter, the camaraderie in my new office burst onto my internal landscape like a garden of spring flowers.

Since February, my relationships with my colleagues have bloomed, sometimes slowly, but steadily, and they provide daily color and light where before I had little of either. The work itself is another important factor: it suits me better, personally and professionally, than my former position. And the chance to explore Harvard Square on my lunch breaks, and attend Morning Prayers at Memorial Church, is no small thing.

As a result, the story I tell myself, about both my past and present experience in Boston, is changing. I am learning to see the first two years for what they were: a challenging but valuable transition into a new city and a much different way of life. I am newly aware of how long it takes to truly feel at home in a place, and newly accepting of the ways in which I may always feel like an outsider. But I no longer assume that the people I meet will prove brusque or uncaring. I am more open to new experiences, new friends, new projects and possibilities.

I am creating a new story to tell myself. And it feels good.

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A Bit of Earth

balcony garden 012

This was my fourth summer growing a balcony garden. And I’m feeling a little guilty about it.

My roots are on two Midwestern farms, where I spent my childhood summers watching cows graze on quiet hillsides and riding in the tractor cab with my grandfather. I spent hours shelling peas and snapping green beans into stainless-steel bowls, pulling dinner – or at least part of it – from the earth outside. I learned about how the land fed us, how in turn we tended the land. How our hard work and care, combined with rain and soil and light, produced the vegetables and meat that ended up on my grandparents’ table.

These days, the most I can manage is a row of pots on a balcony.

I’m a city dweller now, living above the land instead of on it, in a second-floor flat on a suburban street in a bustling town just south of Boston. My husband and I have yet to own any of the places we’ve lived; we are renters, tenants, temporary residents with a lease, not a deed, to our names.

There are perks to this way of living, of course: when a faucet sprouts a leak or an electrical circuit shorts out, we call the landlords (who conveniently live downstairs) and let them deal with it. But since we live upstairs and don’t own our place, the yard – the land – doesn’t belong to us.

Most of the time I don’t mind, but sometimes I wish we could have a garden. I wonder if it would help ground me, help me feel connected to the city I’ve lived in for three years but still hesitate to call home.

I’m over at TRIAD magazine today, talking about my balcony garden. Please click over there to read the rest of my essay and see Kristin’s gorgeous photos of my plants.

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Katie Gibson-6

I’m turning 30 (!) in just a few days, so here’s my last update on the list I made last September of things to do/accomplish/try/enjoy before then.

Items completed (or jettisoned) are crossed off; items begun are starred.*

1. Go back to Europe. Specifically Oxford (where I used to live). Not happening this year, between my newish job and various financial commitments.
2. Read or donate at least half the books I own that I’ve not yet read.* I’ve cleared out a lot of books. Done.
3. Go back to the Glen Workshop. Couldn’t swing it this year. See #1.
4. Visit my loved ones in Abilene. (Loved being there over Christmas.)
5. Finish a draft of my memoir. On hold for now.
6. Pay off my student loans. DONE!
7. Go apple picking for the third time. (It was glorious.)
8. Visit a place I’ve never been. (Newport, RI; the Berkshires in MA; Portsmouth, NH; Upper Cape Cod; Camden, ME; Lower Cape Cod)
9. Read 10 new-to-me classics of any genre. I’ve read 18, including Les Mis.
10. Participate in a cooking challenge with fellow Shelf Awareness reviewers. (Read all about it!)
11. Visit New York in the fall. (A weekend full of wonder.)
12. Cuddle my sweet nephew a lot. (Yes – at Christmas and in March. Planning more cuddles this fall.)
13. Conquer the snooze button.* (Still working on it.)
14. Knit a few beautiful things. (See my late winter knits.)
15. Go to the dentist.
16. Visit Canada.* (Birthday trip in the works!)
17. Reach out to two friends every week. (Social media makes this easier.)
18. Reread the Mother-Daughter Book Club series. Done.
19. Take a vacation with friends.* (Planning on this soon.)
20. Try 2 or more new recipes a month. Delicious.
21. Develop a steady, focused routine for my workdays.* (Still working on it.)
22. Re-imagine our cluttered guest room.* (Major progress.)
23. Invest in sturdy, chic black flats. Finally.
24. Eat at the food truck on the Common. Yum.
25. Get a pedicure. Ahhhh.
26. Invite friends over at least once a month.
27. Write half a dozen more essays. (I’ve written for Art House America about laundry, mending, and prayer. Now working on a series of three essays for TRIAD.)
28. Order myself a new “brave” necklace.
29. Savor the last year of my twenties. (Absolutely.)

What lists are you working on lately?

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inishmor view 3

I grew up on the plains of West Texas, under vast skies that blaze orange and golden at sunset, stretching high and blue above during the day. Those plains stretch for hundreds of miles, the view broken up only by spindly telephone poles and by curving pump jacks rocking rhythmically up and down. I am used to landscapes that make me feel small.

As a native of that dry land, though, I have little experience with bodies of water bigger than a lake or a backyard swimming pool. My first views of oceans were mostly of the bird’s-eye variety: I had flown back and forth over the Atlantic Ocean half a dozen times before I found myself standing on the edge of it.

It was a bright, blustery day in September, during the year I spent studying for my master’s degree in Oxford, England. A lifelong friend of mine was spending the semester in Galway, Ireland, and I flew out to visit him for the weekend. The day after I arrived, we boarded a ferry to Inis Mór, the largest of the three Aran Islands.

Dotted with weathered, picturesque cottages and crisscrossed with ancient stone walls, the Aran Islands – Inis Mór, Inis Meáin and Inis Oírr – float in the mouth of Galway Bay, just a few miles off the western coast of Ireland. Sparsely populated, they attract a steady stream of tourists but still remain green and quiet. We checked into our hostel, then rented bikes and rode all around Inis Mór, stopping to pick blackberries by the side of the road and occasionally pulling aside to let a horse-drawn cart pass.

Eventually, we found our way to Dún Aonghasa, a ruined, tumbled pile of stones that crowns the island’s highest hill. The tiny visitors’ center gave us an idea of the structure’s previous life as a fort, used by the islanders to protect themselves from invaders approaching from the west. We made our way out into the sunshine, eager to see the ruins and the view for ourselves.

I’m over at TRIAD magazine (run by my friend Kristin) today, writing about my experience on the Aran Islands. I’d love it if you’d click over there to read the rest of my essay.

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tea journal sunglasses

A quiet solo hour at Tealuxe. Catching up on journaling, answering a letter from my pen pal, and sipping Lady Londonderry tea (a lovely, light black tea with strawberry and lemon).

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tealuxe iced chai sunglasses

Morning at Tealuxe: iced chai and some quiet writing time.

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Lindsey recently wrote a breathtaking post about what thirty-eight looks like for her. I am just a few months away from turning thirty (which alternately seems totally normal and a bit overwhelming), so I thought I’d do my own take.

This is twenty-nine.

chocolate room spiced hot cocoa

Twenty-nine is on the cusp of her third decade, seven years out of college and five years married. Twenty-nine is content so far to play the cool aunt, though she’s starting to wonder about having kids of her own.

Twenty-nine has successfully held down a series of real, full-time jobs with benefits and retirement plans, but still sometimes struggles to feel like a grown-up inside.

Twenty-nine looks in the mirror and sees her mother: the big green eyes, the shy smile, the long eyelashes. Twenty-nine hears both her mother’s advice and her dad’s punny jokes come out of her mouth all the time.

Twenty-nine always packs an extra book (or two) in her bag, makes sure to carry cash (but not too much), pays her bills on time, plans out meals for the week on a dry-erase board in the kitchen. Twenty-nine believes in being prepared.

Twenty-nine is slowly realizing that some friendships will fade with time, in spite of (sometimes because of) the relentless onslaught of social media minutiae. And that some friendships will endure in surprising ways.

Twenty-nine still keeps a handwritten journal as she has done since she was six, and has carted several boxes of old journals to half a dozen houses and apartments.

Twenty-nine still loves the boy she fell in love with at nineteen, and can hardly believe they will celebrate a decade of being together in November.

Twenty-nine is learning to resist the allure of cheap clothes in favor of well-made pieces. Twenty-nine is embracing her signature style rather than chasing trends, though her favorite pieces of clothing still tend to come from her sister’s closet.

Twenty-nine knows what it is to grieve, to question, to struggle with faith and come out on the other side with a faith that acknowledges all kinds of doubts. Twenty-nine believes, increasingly, that community and grace are far more important than doctrines or creeds.

Twenty-nine is learning to loosen up, to laugh more, to plan spontaneous adventures, to be silly sometimes rather than so serious all the time.

Twenty-nine is learning how to balance nice and honest, learning not to apologize for who she is.

Twenty-nine dreams of many more adventures, but is deeply grateful for her life as it is right now.

k & j fenway

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hot chocolate burdicks journal watermelon

Every year I make a list of things to do before my next birthday, from the fun to the profound, and post periodic updates. Items completed (or, let’s be honest, jettisoned) are crossed off; items begun are starred.*

1. Go back to Europe. Specifically Oxford (where I used to live).
2. Read or donate at least half the books I own that I’ve not yet read.* (Major progress.)
3. Go back to the Glen Workshop. Couldn’t swing it this year.
4. Visit my loved ones in Abilene. (Loved being there over Christmas.)
5. Finish a draft of my memoir. On hold for now.
6. Pay off my student loans.* (Nearly there!)
7. Go apple picking for the third time. (It was glorious.)
8. Visit a place I’ve never been. (Newport, RI; the Berkshires in MA)
9. Read 10 new-to-me classics of any genre. Done!
10. Participate in a cooking challenge with fellow Shelf Awareness reviewers. (Read all about it!)
11. Visit New York in the fall. (A weekend full of wonder.)
12. Cuddle my sweet nephew a lot.* (Loved doing this at Christmas and in March.)
13. Conquer the snooze button.* (Working so hard on it.)
14. Knit a few beautiful things. (See my late winter knits.)
15. Go to the dentist.* (Made an appointment.)
16. Visit Canada. (Maybe for my 30th?)
17. Reach out to two friends every week.*
18. Reread the Mother-Daughter Book Club series. See my post about these books.
19. Take a vacation with friends.
20. Try 2 or more new recipes a month.* (I love doing this.)
21. Develop a steady, focused routine for my workdays.* (Attempting this at a new-ish job.)
22. Re-imagine our cluttered guest room.* (This is not going well.)
23. Invest in sturdy, chic black flats. Finally.
24. Eat at the food truck on the Common. Yum.
25. Get a pedicure.
26. Invite friends over at least once a month.*
27. Write half a dozen more essays.* (I’ve written for Art House America about laundry, mending, and prayer.)
28. Order myself a new “brave” necklace.
29. Savor the last year of my twenties.*

What lists are you working on lately?

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table with tulips dining room

“Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let this food to us be blessed. Amen.”

My family has a complicated relationship with liturgy.

In the Baptist churches of my childhood, no one ever prayed the same prayer twice. The Lord’s Prayer, handed down to us by Jesus, was dutifully memorized but rarely prayed by generations of Sunday School children. At bedtime with my parents when we were young, and later at youth group meetings on Wednesday nights, my sister and I were encouraged to make up our own prayers, to speak to God as directly and casually as to a friend.

We used many of the same phrases over and over, of course: Thank you, God, for this day. Please bless our family. Please heal ______ (inserting the name of whichever family member or friend was sick or hurting). But our parents and teachers urged us to put those phrases together in new and creative ways.

Over time, I picked up the notion that it was lazy, almost cheating, to pray the same prayer day in and day out. God gave us brains: weren’t we supposed to use them to create new and unique prayers? Wouldn’t God, like our friends, grow bored with us if we said the same things to Him over and over again?

I’m back at the Art House America blog today, talking about the table prayer I learned from my grandparents. Click over there to read the rest of my post.

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