the empty tomb

We are – suddenly, it seems – headed toward Holy Week, as the temperatures (slowly) rise above freezing and the calendar spins toward April. The first half of Lent (with snowbanks up to my elbows) seemed to drag on forever, and many of those frigid days were simply about putting one foot in front of the other. (Carefully, since the ground was covered in snow and ice and half-frozen slush, not nearly all of which has disappeared yet.)

Holy Week for me, here in Boston, revolves around the two Sundays that bookend it: Palm Sunday and Easter. Palm Sunday means a sheaf of green, spiky palm fronds, waved in the air from every pew as we sing various songs containing the word “Hosanna.” It means planning the service to include glimpses of the Last Supper, the garden of Gethsemane, the long walk to the cross. We end in silence, and it feels off-kilter, unsettled. (As it should.)

Easter means lots of logistical details: special music, an Easter egg hunt for the kids, finger foods after service (during said egg hunt), lilies for the altar. My husband and I don’t handle all this alone, but we are right in the thick of it, and this year the timeline has caught me completely by surprise. I haven’t had time to think about what it all means, to walk through the story the way I want to. We are scrambling a bit, because Holy Week has shown up suddenly in the midst of our ordinary, walking-around lives.

I was in Texas last week visiting my family, and on Sunday morning I sat between my parents in the sanctuary of the church where I grew up. They’ve stopped producing the elaborate Easter pageant that was an almost annual occurrence from the mid-nineties to the mid-2000s – a huge chunk of my growing-up years. But sitting there, two weeks before Easter, listening to Doris play the organ and George conduct the choir and orchestra, it all came flooding back, the way it does every year.

I remembered stepping carefully down the church aisle wearing gold harem pants, playing a servant of the three wise men (one of whom was played by my dad). I remembered racks of costumes in an empty Sunday School room, presided over by Janice, a calm, white-haired woman who is a genius with a needle and thread. I saw the sets – the stable in Bethlehem, the wedding at Cana, Pilate’s balcony and the long table in the upper room and the bare hill of Golgotha – take shape again, before my eyes.

breaking bread

I remembered so many faces I knew: the people who taught my Sunday School classes and served on committees with my parents, faces I saw in the choir loft every Sunday. Friends of my parents’ and their children; my own friends, and their parents. My mom, helping with costumes and props; my sister, acting alongside me as a servant or a villager; my dad, playing “everyone but Jesus” (six different roles over 12 years). And George, our beloved, infinitely patient music minister, who led us through weeks of rehearsals and performances with kindness and grace. We stepped into the story of Jesus together, in a way that made it newly real and powerful even for those of us who have heard it from the cradle.

This year, I haven’t had time to think about Holy Week – it is suddenly upon us, the way spring is breaking out at odd moments around here. But I have woken up every morning this week humming songs from the pageant. I’m trying to remember half-forgotten lyrics and smiling over memories both onstage and backstage, and seeing the scenes unfold again in my mind.

Maybe I don’t have to think about it so much. Maybe I can simply pause for a moment and remember how it felt: the darkness of Gethsemane, the haunting melody of “Via Dolorosa,” the jarring sensation of shouting “Crucify Jesus!” with the crowd. And the undeniable power and joy of the final, triumphant song – “Hallelujah to the Lamb.”

Maybe I can simply remember – and let the story enter in again.

tulips table book bowl curry lunch

“It is an impossibly great trial to be married to a man one loves and hates in equal proportions.”

With a single witty sentence, Ashley Weaver introduces readers to the narrator of her sparkling debut novel, Murder at the Brightwell, and sets up one of its two central conflicts. (And doesn’t that sentence carry a whiff of Austen?)

Amory Ames is a wealthy socialite living in 1930s England, unhappy (or at least deeply ambivalent) in her marriage to dashing playboy Milo Ames. When her former fiancé, Gil Trent, appears on Amory’s doorstep and asks her to accompany him on a weeklong trip to a seaside hotel, Amory agrees.

Ostensibly, she’s being recruited to help Gil talk his sister Emmeline out of marrying the wrong man, a mistake to which Amory can relate. But Amory has always wondered how her life would have turned out if she’d married Gil instead of Milo. A week at the Brightwell Hotel – albeit in separate rooms – will provide the chance to find out.

I’m back at Great New Books today, sharing my take on Murder at the Brightwell, which I read during a stretch of snow days in early February. Join me over there to read the rest of my review.

isabella stewart gardner museum courtyard boston

On a frigid (but sunny) Saturday in February, I met my friend Kristin in the Fenway neighborhood of Boston. During a previous outing, she’d mentioned the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which sits just around the corner from the Museum of Fine Arts, tucked between it and Simmons College.

“I’ve never been there,” she said. “Is it cool?”

My response? “We’re going.”

isabella stewart gardner museum courtyard statue boston

The Gardner is the former home of its namesake, Isabella Stewart Gardner – a Boston socialite and heiress whose art collection fills three floors of gorgeous, airy rooms. She collected everything: paintings, statuary, delicate handmade lace, elaborate candlesticks, furniture from various countries and periods. Leather-bound books and letters from famous people fill glass-fronted cases, and the walls are hung with tapestries, paintings and mirrors.

Mrs. Gardner (that’s what the museum guides call her) was a magpie, but a wealthy one with good taste. As specified in her will, the collection is left as she arranged it (with the exception of 13 pieces stolen in 1990, in one of the biggest unsolved art heists ever).

The central courtyard is the only part of the museum you’re allowed to photograph – and it’s stunning. Although the art in every room is amazing, I always find myself walking over to the windows to look out into the courtyard, again and again. The roof is enclosed by skylights, which give it a greenhouse feel. (Those orchids!)

gardner museum courtyard blue sky

I’ve been to the Gardner several times – it’s a great place to take friends who come to visit. But it’s nearly impossible to see everything (the rooms are crammed), so I’m always happy to go back.

We wandered the rooms, reading some of the guide cards that provide information about the pieces, and soaking up the atmosphere. A flautist stood by the piano in one of the upstairs galleries, and her music, like liquid silver, followed us all the way down the hall.

I don’t consider myself an art aficionado. But I will always say yes to an afternoon spent among beautiful things, with a good friend. Mrs. Gardner’s museum is the perfect place to spend such an afternoon.

Have you been to the Gardner Museum? Any favorite museums where you live?

all souls college oxford radcliffe square

A week is better, of course. Or a few months. Preferably a whole semester, so you can sink into the city and learn its streets, begin to feel its ancient rhythms in your bones. But if you’re hopping over from London and only have a day, here’s what to do.

Catch an early train from Paddington, or a bus from Victoria Station. The former will deliver you to the Oxford rail station; the latter, to cobblestoned Gloucester Green, where the open market happens on Wednesdays.

Either way, when you arrive, climb down and stretch your legs, and start walking east.

Stop when you hit Cornmarket Street, the bustling, pedestrian-only artery that runs through City Centre. Look up. This is Oxford: modern shops crammed side by side with ancient colleges, plate-glass windows reflecting towers of honey-colored stone.

catte street oxford

Walk up Cornmarket (passing by St Michael at the North Gate, the oldest building in Oxford) and turn right on Broad Street, the aptly named showpiece of City Centre. It’s lined on one side with colleges: St John’s, Balliol, Trinity. (You can tour the latter two if you like – the gardens and quads are stunning.)

sheldonian theatre oxford

Farther down is the Sheldonian Theatre, home to the university’s commencement exercises, its annual Christmas carol service and various other events. It, too, is ancient and lovely, and worth touring.

Across the street is Blackwell’s, home to miles (literally miles) of books.

blackwells bookshop oxford

There are four floors’ worth – you could spend a whole day – but since you’re only here for a little while, pop in and spend half an hour browsing. If you need caffeine by now, visit Caffe Nero on the first floor (the second floor to us Americans).

After Blackwell’s, turn left at the end of the Broad and walk up Parks Road to University Parks. The two-block walk will take you past a slew of other university buildings: Wadham College, the Oxford Museum of Natural History, Keble College with its fantastically colored brickwork.

Turn in at one of the iron gates and wander around the Parks to your heart’s content.

university parks oxford

When you get hungry from all that walking, come back to the entrance of the Parks and turn right out of the north lodge, onto the busy Banbury Road. Two blocks up is a little street called North Parade, which holds On the Hoof, the best sandwich shop in the world.

on the hoof interior oxford

All their sandwiches are delicious, but I recommend the Tom’s Le Club or the Sexy Brazilian. (Both are spicy.) You can perch on a barstool to eat your sandwiches, or take them to go as you keep walking.

Head south, retracing your steps back toward City Centre – down the Banbury Road past the Parks, down Parks Road to the end of the Broad.

That massive building next to the Sheldonian is the Bodleian Library – worth touring but also amazing from the outside. Behind the Bod’s main building stands Radcliffe Square: the cobblestoned, beating heart of Oxford.

radcliffe camera st mary's tower oxford

Stand in the Square and look and look, and feel the life of the city pulsing under your feet. This is Oxford: eight hundred years’ worth of knowledge and learning, books and carvings and ancient stone walls.

When you’ve looked your fill here on the ground, cross the Square to the tall church that stands on its south side: the University Church of St Mary the Virgin.

university church tower oxford england

Go inside and look around, then pay a few pounds to climb the tower. It offers the best views of Oxford, from a narrow ledge on all four sides. Each view is different, and all four are stunning.

view st marys church oxford west side

Lean on the stone railing and look and look. This is Oxford: dreaming spires, flat-roofed modern buildings, the green handkerchief of South Park unrolling down the hill to the east.

all souls towers oxford england

After you come down from the tower, turn left at the church entrance and walk a little way down the High Street. Past the gates of All Souls and Queen’s Colleges sits Queen’s Lane Coffee House.

Tuck yourself in at a small round table, preferably near a window, and order the best cream tea in Oxford: two round, warm scones with jam and clotted cream, and plenty of hot, strong tea.

queens lane cream tea oxford

Sip your tea and munch your scones while looking out the window. Buses, taxis, students on bikes – all of Oxford passes up and down the busy High Street. Here, in the city’s oldest cafe, you can both watch and be part of it all.

Walk back up the High to where it crosses Cornmarket. If you have time, pop into the Covered Market and wander its maze of stalls, which sell everything from clothing and jewelry to art prints and fresh flowers. Grab a Ben’s Cookie for the train ride back, and pop into Whittard for a tin of tea.

bens cookies oxford covered market

From here, it’s up to you. Wander the tangle of streets in City Centre, or walk down St Aldates Street for a look at Christ Church, one of the largest and most famous colleges. Find an Evensong service to attend, or opt for dinner at a cozy pub. (The Eagle and Child is famous for being the haunt of Tolkien and Lewis, but Oxford has dozens of pubs – take your pick.)

When the sun is setting behind the hills to the west and the spires are casting long shadows onto the streets, head back to the train or bus station.

radcliffe square dusk oxford

Take a last look around, and make a silent promise you already know you’ll keep: I’ll be back.

For Lawson and Lindsey, who are going to Europe this summer and planning to spend a day in Oxford.

family rockport I have green eyes and a deep alto voice. I am my mother’s daughter.

I have a ridiculously corny sense of humor. I am my father’s daughter.

Red is my perennial favorite color. I am my mother’s daughter.

I never miss the Masters. I am my father’s daughter.

I rarely (if ever) leave the house without makeup. I am my mother’s daughter.

I have complicated feelings about my country, but I well up when I hear the national anthem. I am my father’s daughter.

I believe family dinner sits at the center of family life. I am my mother’s daughter.

I tell the same stories over and over – and most of them are long. I am my father’s daughter.

I love deeply, feel deeply, often find it difficult to say what’s really in my heart. I am my mother’s daughter.

I hum old hymns while I putter around the house. I am my father’s daughter.

I am sometimes too proud to ask for help. I am my mother’s daughter.

I have a wide-ranging curiosity about the world. I love to visit new places and soak them up. I am my father’s daughter.

I am always looking for ways to take care of the people I love. I am my mother’s daughter.

I get deeply attached to traditions and rituals and memories. I am my father’s daughter.

I’ve inherited many things from both my parents: my faith, my love of family, my passion for the music of George Strait, my yen for Mexican food. And some things are wholly my own: my love for Oxford, my insatiable appetite for books.

But as I get older, I see pieces of both my mom and my dad more clearly in myself. I hear their voices in my head all the time (as well as in our weekly phone calls). And I am so grateful to be their daughter.

Photo: Mom and Dad and me in Rockport last summer

light candles memorial church

Over the past week, I’ve been watching the grief over two deaths unfold in real time. My college community has been mourning the loss of our friend Jeff McCain, and many people I know from Twitter and the blogosphere have been grieving the death of Lisa Bonchek Adams.

Both of them had cancer; both of them died far too soon. And in the wake of their deaths, many of their loved ones have taken to social media to express grief and to honor these two lives.

Jeff and I were friends before Facebook existed. (It came into being during our college years.) Our mutual friends are people we know in real life, from that patch of ground in West Texas where we studied, sang, laughed and cried together. My husband lived across the hall from Jeff our freshman year; my sister and her circle of friends all know him, too. And since we’re scattered all over the country and can’t gather to mourn in person, we come to Facebook to mourn together.

Dozens of people have posted brief sentiments or shared photos. Some of us, like me, wrote longer tributes and shared them as a way of marking Jeff’s death and, yes, celebrating his life. (He was, as I have said, a person who carried joy around with him. I have no doubt he’d approve of us recounting all the funny stories we can think of.) I’ve seen a similar trend with Lisa’s death – dozens of tweets and a fair few blog posts honoring her life, as well as mixed (but passionate) reactions to a couple of pieces in the New York Times.

Besides wishing we didn’t have to do this – because these deaths are fundamentally unfair and heartbreaking – I’ve been thinking about how we grieve together, in the age of social media. These sites where we share so much of our lives have become a new forum for public mourning. I’ve seen it happen after several tragedies: the Boston Marathon bombing, Hurricane Sandy, the events in Ferguson. We come together on social media to share our hurt, our outrage and our deep sadness.

It can be cathartic and helpful – a way to reach out to one another and say, “Me too.” It can also, eventually, become overwhelming. My husband and I have both felt the need to step back from Facebook at various times this week. We’ve sat at our kitchen table for hours, trading stories about Jeff and talking through our emotions. Eventually, we’ve needed to step away even from that. Grief has a saturation point, and it’s not something you work through in a couple of days.

I’ve also been turning back to a few beloved poems, including Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do.” But, fittingly, I discovered another poem this week via Twitter – “The Mower” by Philip Larkin. Its last lines sum up, for me, what this communal grieving is all about:

The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.
This. Always this. We should be kind, and careful to honor the tender places in each other’s lives, the wounds and blank spaces opened by grief. Sharing our sadness on social media is one way to do that. These sites can be loud and contentious places, but when they are avenues for sharing grief (and joy), they become beautiful – even holy – ground.

spring picture books harvard book store cambridge ma
March has come in like a lion, for sure. Here’s what I’ve been reading as the snowbanks (start to) melt.

Fairest, Marissa Meyer
This telling of evil Queen Levana’s story (from The Lunar Chronicles) is kind of depressing. And it won’t make sense if you haven’t read the series. But if you have (and are eagerly awaiting the next book, Winter), it’s worth reading.

Mr. Kiss and Tell, Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham
It’s tough to translate a TV series to fiction, but Thomas and Graham are doing a great job. This second Veronica Mars novel follows a sordid rape case and a(nother) sheriff election in Neptune. Both gritty and witty.

Stella Rose, Tammy Flanders Hetrick
When her best friend Stella dies of cancer, Abby St. Claire becomes guardian to Stella’s teenage daughter, Olivia. Through a turbulent year, Abby and Olivia mourn Stella while figuring out how to live without her. Heartbreaking, funny and wise, though I found the climax melodramatic. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 21).

Mrs. Tim Flies Home, D.E. Stevenson
Mrs. Tim spends the summer in a quiet village – which isn’t quite so quiet. An acerbic landlady, a gossipy neighbor and the romantic troubles of her young friends make for an entertaining few months. I love Mrs. Tim, and I’ll miss her (this is the last book in the series).

Love Walked In, Marisa de los Santos
I love this lyrical, wise, hopeful story – it’s got old movies, a homey coffee shop, characters I want to be friends with, and so many beautiful sentences. My third time to read it and I was captivated all over again.

Secrets of a Charmed Life, Susan Meissner
Our fearless leader Jennifer recommended this book at Great New Books. It’s a heartbreaking story of two sisters whose lives are forever altered by World War II, and a powerful meditation on choices and responsibility.

Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light, John Baxter
An entertaining premise: five nighttime Paris walks, each based on one of the five senses. But Baxter digresses so often that the structure gets totally lost. Uneven; sometimes charming, sometimes vulgar. Possibly to review for Shelf Awareness (out April 14).

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?


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