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atomic weight of love book sunflowers

I was humbled by the thought that our lives, however briefly, had touched. I thought about how lives bump up against each other, whether for moments of superficial conversation in line at the post office or a deeper enmeshment. […] How much meaning should I ascribe to knowing a stranger for the moments it took for me to donate to a V-book [war stamps] campaign? What were the evolutionary implications of kindness?

—Elizabeth J. Church, The Atomic Weight of Love

I came across these lines recently in Church’s stunning novel about the life of Meridian Wallace, an ornithologist who studies the behavior of crows. They reminded me powerfully of that Elizabeth Alexander poem, the one I have carried with me during a spring and summer fraught with personal changes and national tragedy:

Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,

and are we not of interest to each other?

Every time I turn on the news, there is more heartbreak to absorb and to bear: shootings by and of policemen, black families afraid for their lives in the U.S., refugees struggling to find a safe place to land, military unrest in Turkey and political turmoil in Britain. I have wept and I have ached, and I have wondered, What now?

I have failed, so far, to come up with any answers except this one: we must stop reacting to each other out of hatred, disinterest and fear.

I moved to Boston six summers ago from the plains of west central Texas, where I had lived nearly all my life. I’d heard that people in the Northeast were cold and unfriendly, and I was unsure how to carve out a place for myself in this bustling, unfamiliar city. It took me a long time to build a community here, to form real bonds with colleagues and friends. It took me even longer to start reaching out to others without fearing rebuff or dismissal. I cherish the friendships that have grown from that slow work: the brilliant women in my book club, the far-flung but genuine community at our church, my coworkers at various offices around Harvard.

When I read these lines about kindness, though, I thought about a different group of people: the ones whose lives bump up against mine in small but important daily ways.

The florist in Brattle Square, who always has a kind word for me when I go in to buy tulips or roses. The mail guy I used to work with, who would pause on his daily rounds to chat about Boston sports or the weather. My elderly Italian landlords, who live downstairs from us. The woman who makes the delicious tamales at the farmers’ market, tops them with freshly made salsa and calls me mi’ja. And the coffee-slinging, sandwich-making crew at Darwin’s, most of whose last names I don’t know, but whose smiling faces and cheerful banter are a regular and indispensable part of my workdays.

I am fascinated by the idea of all these lives constantly bumping up against each other, against my life, as I go about my daily routine. I am even more fascinated when I get a glimpse into one of their stories, when I break out of my self-focus long enough to truly connect with someone else. More and more, I am convinced this is the only way to begin healing the deep wounds of our common humanity: to listen, to look, to pay attention to one another.

It takes no work at all to encounter other human beings: we are surrounded by each other constantly, especially those of us who live and work in cities. But it sometimes takes work, and it always takes intention, for us to engage one another with kindness.

I’m not sure about the answer to Meridian’s question: I don’t know what the evolutionary implications of kindness would be. But they have to be better than the results of racism and hatred, fear and indifference, that are tearing our nation apart.

I know that smiling at a stranger will not solve the problems of the world: finding a better path forward will be the work of years. But kindness and attention must be where we begin. We must – I will keep saying it as long as I have to – we must be of interest to each other.

pei sandstone cliffs

The shore road was “woodsy and wild and lonesome.” On the right hand, scrub firs, their spirits quite unbroken by long years of tussle with the gulf winds, grew thickly. On the left were the steep red sandstone cliffs, so near the track in places that a mare of less steadiness than the sorrel might have tried the nerves of the people behind her. Down at the base of the cliffs were heaps of surf-worn rocks or little sandy coves inlaid with pebbles as with ocean jewels; beyond lay the sea, shimmering and blue, and over it soared the gulls, their pinions flashing silvery in the sunlight.

“Isn’t the sea wonderful?” said Anne, rousing from a long, wide-eyed silence.

Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery

pei north rustico harbour

On our recent return to PEI, the hubs and I stayed in a tiny village on the Island’s north shore. We were just a few minutes’ walk from the beach in one direction and the harbor (above) in the other. And though we did a bit of driving around the Island (lunch in Summerside one day, dinner in Charlottetown another night), we spent most of our time as close to the water as possible.

“You’ve made a beach bum out of me,” J said recently. I laughed and pointed out that I didn’t do anything: our trips to San Diego and PEI are wholly responsible for that change. The red beaches of PEI’s north shore, in particular, have completely captured our hearts.

pei north shore beach prince edward island canada

The Island’s north shore is quieter than the south; there are fewer towns, more long, unbroken stretches of beach. These comprise plenty of soft red sand (the Island soil contains so much iron that it oxidizes on contact with the air), and an occasional outcrop of sandstone cliffs (as in the photo at the top of this post).

I love visiting both the sand shore and the rock shore that L.M. Montgomery writes about in Anne’s House of Dreams and Rilla of Ingleside, but for spending an afternoon, the sand shore is my favorite. The sky is wide and open, the far red cliffs topped with lush green. As for the Gulf of St. Lawrence, I have to quote Jane Stuart: “I never thought anything could be so blue.”

gulf of st lawrence beach pei

We took a guided kayaking trip around the north shore one night, which was exhausting but wholly enjoyable, and a couple of late-evening walks to watch the sunset. But mostly we sprawled out on the sand with our books, getting up occasionally to splash in the shallows or toss the Frisbee. We came home with sand in the folds of our shorts and tote bags, but I didn’t mind. Those hours on the north shore, walking through the foamy waves and sinking into the sand, restored my soul.

katie pei beach

More PEI photos and stories to come.

july sunset

I wrote a post on margin recently, and as it often does, the universe laughed. The first half of July has been fast and furious and full. Hot days, crowded calendars, so many things jockeying for space in my brain. It has not been particularly restful. But there’s still lots of good stuff happening, and I want to note the details of how life looks right now.

Right now, in the thick of a hot, busy summer, I am:

  • waking up to the buzz of the window a/c unit and the piano music from Pride and Prejudice.
  • drinking my two favorite summer teas in my favorite mug: blackberry sage and ginger peach.

lady cop breakfast

  • making scones when I can stand to turn on the oven, and eating granola and Greek yogurt for breakfast when I can’t.
  • wearing skirts, sandals and all the work-appropriate short-sleeved tops I own.
  • living in shorts and bare feet at night and on the weekends.
  • lugging a box of veggies home every Wednesday (we’re doing a CSA share) and then trying to figure out how to use them all. green veggies
  • getting excited for the Rio Olympics.
  • eating tamales from the farmers’ market on Tuesdays.
  • tending basil and geraniums on my front porch.
  • dropping by Darwin’s a couple of times a day: for tea in the morning, a sandwich and chitchat at lunchtime, and sometimes lemonade and a cookie (and more chitchat) mid-afternoon.

darwins chai cookie bench

  • reading allllll the books (as usual). Recent favorites include Lady Cop Makes Trouble, Everyone Brave is Forgiven, The Atomic Weight of Love and Jane Steele.
  • aching over the news reports from so many places riddled with tragedy.
  • treading water at work as I adjust to new routines and responsibilities.
  • relishing the familiar faces and witty banter of my colleagues.
  • snapping photos for the #FlowerReport when I’m out and about. This bed of lavender is growing outside our town library.

lavender library

  • texting my sister and a couple of friends about the madness and the fun of daily life.
  • listening to Hamilton on repeat, learning all the words, and priding myself on being able to rap (almost) as fast as Lafayette.
  • hunting for a new apartment (we have to move next month for reasons beyond our control).
  • savoring the last few weeks in the apartment we have lived in and loved for six years.

dining room dusk twinkle lights

  • sipping a lot of lemonade and the occasional glass of rosé.
  • flipping back through Julia Cameron’s The Sound of Paper: such wise words on writing and life.
  • sneaking in a beach day here and there.
  • trying (always trying) to pay attention to my life and the people I love.

crane beach jer

What does life look like for you right now?

anne books blue chest

Like many young girls, I read the Anne of Green Gables books over and over when I was growing up. My mom put the first three into my hands, and I devoured them, then went on to read the other five books in the series. I later came to love L.M. Montgomery’s other novels: The Story Girl, Jane of Lantern Hill, the three books featuring Emily Byrd Starr. And I was thrilled, a few weeks ago, to return to the land from which they sprang: beautiful, bucolic Prince Edward Island.

My husband was a good sport about touring Green Gables when we first visited PEI in 2014. I loved every second of that visit, but I wanted to explore another Anne-related site this time (there are several on the Island). So we drove to the Anne of Green Gables Museum in Park Corner.

silver bush anne of green gables museum pei

This house was owned by some of L.M. Montgomery’s relatives. As you can see in the photo, she dubbed it “Silver Bush” and used it as the setting for several books (Pat of Silver Bush, The Story Girl, and their respective sequels). Like Green Gables, it has been lovingly maintained, and it is full of artifacts from Montgomery’s life. I could just imagine Maud and her cousins, or the clan of King children, popping popcorn by the parlor fire or gathered in the kitchen after dinner.

Maud was married in Silver Bush’s parlor in 1911, and it looks much as it might have then:

silver bush parlor anne of green gables museum pei

(I love the geranium on the side table, which reminded me of Anne naming the flowers and trees at Green Gables, including a geranium she called “Bonny.”)

There are also bookcases stuffed with beautiful first editions of Montgomery’s books:

silver bush bookcase anne of green gables museum pei

The whole house is filled with similar treasures: letters, linens, china from New Moon Farm (!), photographs and newspaper articles related to the Montgomery/Macneill families and the time period. It felt as though Maud herself – or Anne – might come around the corner at any moment.

My favorite part of the museum, though, is at the top of this post: a stellar collection of Anne books, in editions old and new, sitting on the actual blue chest from The Story Girl.

The chest’s contents are on display upstairs, but seeing the chest itself – the one I’ve read about so often – gave me goosebumps.  I half expected to see Sara Stanley perched on top of it, peeling potatoes as she regaled her cousins with the story of Rachel Ward’s handsome, dissolute groom who never showed up to their wedding. Maud changed the names and a few details when she wrote about it, but as with so much of her writing, the inspiration was drawn straight from real life.

Silver Bush and the blue chest reminded me – again – that this woman whose work I love so deeply was real. Her characters are longtime friends of mine: their words, after so many readings, live deep in my bones. They were real to her, too, as she notes in this journal entry about Anne:

anne quote silver bush pei

We finished off our time at Silver Bush with a stroll through a woodland path near the farmhouse. Perfection.

birch path woods silver bush pei

More PEI photos and stories to come.

book stack july 2016

July has been a tough month so far, as you know if you’ve been watching the news. As always, I am taking refuge in good books. Here’s the latest roundup:

Jane Steele, Lyndsay Faye
Anne and Leigh finally talked me into this whip-smart, witty, engaging homage to Jane Eyre and I’m so glad they did. Jane Steele, an orphan with few resources but a strong sense of justice, loves that other Jane, but her life turns out rather differently. I loved Steele’s take on the Brontë classic, and her supporting cast – especially the enigmatic Sikh butler – is fantastic.

The Apple Tart of Hope, Sarah Moore Fitzgerald
Meg Molony can’t believe her best friend Oscar has taken his own life. But Meg’s been in New Zealand for six months, and during that time, a lot of things have changed. A melancholy but sweet novel about friendship, the complicated gaps between perception and reality, and the world’s best apple tarts.

Cooking for Picasso, Camille Aubray
Céline hops a plane to the French Riviera in pursuit of a long-held family legend: did her grandmother, Ondine, really spend several months as Picasso’s personal chef? Aubray’s novel alternates between Céline’s and Ondine’s perspectives, weaving together art, family and choices. A great premise with mouthwatering food descriptions, though several plot points felt rushed. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 9).

See How They Run, Ally Carter
Grace Blakely was determined to solve her mother’s murder and was devastated by what she found. Grace’s second adventure finds her grappling with new secrets: an ancient underground society, another murder, and her own crippling anxiety. Fast-paced, well plotted and a powerful portrait of PTSD. (Carter writes smart, addictive YA with a little glamour and a lot of intrigue.)

The Altogether Unexpected Disappearance of Atticus Craftsman, Mamen Sánchez
Atticus Craftsman never travels without a supply of Earl Grey. In fact, he’d rather not leave England at all. But when his father sends him to Madrid to close down a failing literary magazine, Atticus finds himself at the mercy of five whip-smart Spanish women who care deeply about one another and their jobs. Highly entertaining. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 9).

Everyone Brave is Forgiven, Chris Cleave
I tore through most of this gorgeous, heartbreaking novel in a day. Cleave tells the story of the Blitz (1939-41 in London) through the lives of several young people: Mary, Tom, Alistair and Mary’s student, Zachary. A stunning evocation of small decisions and their far-reaching effects, and the utter desolation of war. (The third pick for the MMD Summer Reading Club.)

Lady Cop Makes Trouble, Amy Stewart
I loved Stewart’s novel Girl Waits with Gun and was thrilled to read a second book about Constance Kopp, one of the first female deputy sheriffs in the U.S. This book finds Constance serving as jail matron, accidentally letting a slippery fugitive escape and pursuing him all over NYC and New Jersey. Smart, fast-paced and often funny; I love Constance’s narrative voice. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 6).

Geek Girl: Picture Perfect, Holly Smale
Smale’s third novel featuring geeky model Harriet Manners whisks Harriet and her family away to New York. Harriet is amusing, but she never does learn from her mistakes and I found myself losing patience with her. But this was still a fun, quick read. Pure YA fluff.

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

What are you reading?

candle flower

Amid the horror and heartbreak of the past week, I have been turning back to poetry, because I honestly don’t know what else to do. I quoted this poem in a post I wrote last month (after the tragedy in Orlando), but I share it here in full.

Ars Poetica #100: I Believe

Poetry, I tell my students,
is idiosyncratic. Poetry

is where we are ourselves
(though Sterling Brown said

“Every ‘I’ is a dramatic ‘I'”),
digging in the clam flats

for the shell that snaps,
emptying the proverbial pocketbook.

Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,

overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way

to get from here to there.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)

is not all love, love, love,
and I’m sorry the dog died.

Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,

and are we not of interest to each other?

—Elizabeth Alexander

I also recommend Philip Larkin’s “The Mower,” Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Gate A-4,” and Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.”

Return to PEI

pei north shore beach prince edward island canada

Two summers ago, the hubs and I made a 600-mile drive from Boston, to fulfill a long-held dream of mine: visiting Prince Edward Island, land of (quietly) spectacular seafood and sunsets, and of course, the home terrain of a certain red-haired heroine.

A few weeks ago, we went back. And – I am happy to report – it was as delightful as we remembered.

pei fields prince edward island canada

PEI is gorgeous: it’s a green, quiet, bucolic place, a mix of furrowed red fields and meadows and glimpses of the bright blue sea around every corner. There are charming villages, trim farmhouses, and so many patches of lupines by the roadsides that I was always on the lookout for Miss Rumphius. I was also expecting (naturally) to run into Anne Shirley herself at any moment.

But I think the main reason we were so excited to be back is a little different: PEI is ours.

lupines pei flowers

Most of us, I think, have places like that: a handful of spots on this earth that call to us, that feel completely right. (Oxford is one of those places for me, as you know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while.) There are other patches of ground I really love: the Aran Islands on the west coast of Ireland; the tiny village of Whitby in northern England; Harvard Yard, which I get to walk through all the time. Those places belong to me, though I am usually happy to share them.

But my husband and I also have a few spots that are ours. They speak to both of us in that bone-deep way, sneaking into our souls and filling them with peace. Two years ago, we both fell so completely in love with PEI that when we left, we looked at each other and said with absolute certainty: We’re going back.

Anne wrote a post a while back about choosing to love certain places: how you have to put in a bit of effort to make them yours. The vacation home you return to year after year; the restaurant you visit on special occasions; the coffee shop or bar where you’re known by name. (Once again, my experience with Darwin’s comes to mind.)

In the case of PEI, this means rearranging our schedules and making a 12-hour drive across New England (and New Brunswick, and part of Nova Scotia) to reach a place we both adore. And this time – gloriously – it did feel like ours.

We stayed at the same guesthouse where we stayed two years ago, and our hostess, Patty, came down the steps to greet us with smiles and bear hugs. We revisited a few favorite restaurants: The Mill, Carr’s Oyster Bar, the Blue Mussel. We spent hours soaking up the sun and wading in the shallows on the Island’s red, sandy north shore. And it all felt, not only relaxing and lovely, but familiar. Like coming home.

k j pei beach

I’ll have much more to share about PEI soon. But for now, I will simply say: I’m so glad we went back. I’m so glad we are putting in the effort to make it ours.

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