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Harvard yard November light trees fall blue sky

It has been (yet) another stretch of challenge and change here – though the new job is making a little more sense these days. And despite some heartening headlines from last week’s election (more women, more diversity, higher voter turnout), it’s been (another) hellishly hard week or two to be in the world.

That’s how it seems to go these days, isn’t it? Back and forth. But a few small lifesavers are bearing me up. On some days they feel like just enough. Even that, I recognize, is a gift. Here they are:

  • My short rain boots, which are getting me through the fall storms.
  • Related: my newish belted raincoat, lined with a hood.
  • Chatter with my colleagues: music, books, tea, punctuation. (Yes, we are nerds.)
  • Tart, crisp Empire apples from the farmers’ market.
  • The In the Heights soundtrack, especially the first few numbers.
  • Yoga on Tuesday nights, and Gina’s smile.
  • Standing at the kitchen sink washing piles of dishes.
  • The tiny, sparkly We See Stars earrings I bought in the West Village this summer.
  • This song from The Annual, a yearlong music project from St Aldates, my beloved church in Oxford.
  • Morning bike rides across the river after prayers at Mem Church.
  • Related: trips to Darwin’s before prayers, for chai and community.
  • Mums and late roses and black-eyed Susans.
  • The autumn light that turns leaves to stained glass.
  • The feeling when I’m running of finally being warm to my fingertips.
  • Early sunrises out my kitchen window.
  • Related: my vitamin D pills and my happy lamp.

What’s saving your life these days? Please share, if you like.

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The gift of welcome

mem-church-window

Morning at Mem Church: sunlight filtering through the clouds or gleaming between the changing leaves outside the windows above the high altar. Depending on where I sit, sometimes it shines directly into my face, and I close my eyes and receive it like a blessing.

The electric candles are lit, but they’re more for effect than illumination. We file in quietly, in ones and twos, choosing our familiar places in the carved wooden pews.

I glance at the week’s printed list of speakers and anthems, my eyes occasionally lighting on a hymn I know. Some parts of the service are as familiar as breath: the responsive verse-by-verse reading of a psalm, the quiet unison of the Lord’s Prayer. The phrases have held me all my life: Hallowed be thy name. Forgive us our trespasses. For thine is the kingdom.

Other parts I still stumble through: most of these Episcopalian hymns are not mine, but I relish the chance to lift my voice and sing, however imperfectly.

Most of us regulars know one another’s faces, even if we never speak or learn one another’s names. I greet the seminarians, nod at the music professor with perpetually tousled hair, smile at the student I came to know slightly last year, wave at my friend Ellen if I can catch her eye. There’s a loosely knit comfort in being together, all turning toward the light in this place.

The talks are varied, sometimes uneven: they draw in speakers from across the university and beyond. People speak out of their Christian and Muslim, Hindu and Jewish faiths, or no faith at all. Sometimes they are students, earnest and hesitant; sometimes professors, more polished, but less certain that they have all the answers. Sometimes a sentence arrows straight into my heart. On occasion, my eyes prick with sudden tears.

I like it best when there are a few new faces in the pews, come to support a friend or hear a professor speak. They shuffle in shyly, unsure of where to sit, when to stand and when to be seated. They fumble with the black-covered psalters, the crimson hymnals. It’s all right, I want to say to them. You are welcome here.

There’s a deep longing in all of us for community, for belonging, for a place to lay our burdens down and know that we are safe, welcome, loved. Most of those places eventually ask something of us, as they should. We who belong to communities must share the work of building and caring for them.

But for me, Mem Church has been a simpler gift: all it asks, most days, is that I show up.

On any weekday morning, I can walk down the long center aisle, or slip in the side door if I’m running late. All that’s asked of me is to be there, to sit and listen, to receive the gift of this time and place. I often add my voice to the prayers and the singing, but sometimes, I stay silent and let the community hold me.

In every faith community I’ve belonged to, I have heard words of welcome and grace. Sometimes we struggle to live those words out: it’s part of the challenge that comes with being human. But sometimes, for a few minutes, our words and our actions match up, and we are able to welcome one another. It is always a gift. And I’m grateful.

read bbf ya panel Boston public library

November. Already. How did that happen?

The second half of October was a wild ride. Here’s what I’ve been reading on commutes, before bed and whenever else I can squeeze in a few pages:

Nothing Happened, Molly Booth
I heard Booth speak on a YA panel at the Boston Book Festival (she’s second from left, above). Her second novel is a modern-day retelling of Much Ado About Nothing set at a Maine summer camp. Lots of mixed signals, crossed wires, teenage drama and a whole range of gender identities. So much fun.

In Conclusion, Don’t Worry About It, Lauren Graham
Does a commencement speech count as a book? I don’t know, but this one was lighthearted, fun and wise, as you might expect from Lorelai Gilmore. I’m trying to take her titular advice. Short and sweet – recommended for drama nerds and Gilmore Girls fans.

The Law of Finders Keepers, Sheila Turnage
Mo LoBeau and her Desperado Detectives are back, trying to locate both Blackbeard’s treasure and Mo’s long-lost birth mother. A sleazy treasure hunter, unexpected snow and several mysterious objects keep them plenty busy. This middle-grade series has so much heart, and I loved this fourth installment.

Joy Enough, Sarah McColl
Sarah used to write the wonderful blog Pink of Perfection, and I was excited to read her debut memoir. It is slim and tense and poignant: it is about her mother, love, grief and womanhood. Some luminous lines and some sections I really struggled with: beauty and frustration, like life. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 15).

Annelies, David R. Gillham
What if Anne Frank had survived? That is the question Gillham addresses in his new novel, as Anne tries to adjust to life in Amsterdam after the camps. Reunited with her father, but deeply traumatized, Anne struggles to make peace with her wartime experiences and move forward. This was a hard read: well done, but heavy, as you might expect. Anne did seem real to me, and Gillham renders postwar Amsterdam in vivid detail. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 15).

Saving Hamlet, Molly Booth
Emma Allen is looking forward to sophomore year and her school’s production of Hamlet. But everything starts going horribly wrong – and that’s before Emma falls through a (literal) unauthorized trapdoor and lands in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, circa 1600, where everyone thinks she’s a boy. Time travel, Shakespeare, snarky friendships and budding romance – what’s not to love? I liked this even better than Nothing Happened.

Seafire, Natalie C. Parker
Caledonia Styx runs a tight ship: her female-only crew is fast, cohesive and skilled at staying alive. As they navigate the dangerous seas, Caledonia receives word that the brother she’d given up for dead may still be alive out there. A fast-paced beginning to a badass adventure trilogy. Recommended by Liberty.

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

What are you reading?

pink stock flowers bouquet

For about seven years now, I’ve been buying myself flowers on the regular.

It started during my first long grey winter in Boston, when I worked in an office right off the Common, and made weekly trips to a nearby flower stall for daffodils and tulips. That flower-seller, whose name I never learned, still plies his wares from the same spot next to Macy’s, an oasis of color among grey skyscrapers.

My flower habit has continued, as regular readers know, through my years in Cambridge and my deep (and still growing) affection for the plants and the people at Brattle Square Florist. I’m still swinging by once a week or so, and Stephen sends me home with roses, sunflowers, delphiniums and whatever else is in season.

plant-yellow-leaves-pru-window

One of my new colleagues, Michelle, is the office plant lady: her desk features colored grow lights and half a dozen tiny pots hanging over the cubicle wall. She tends most of the plants in our two sunny conference rooms, and she gave me a baby snake plant, which I’ve named Sal (short for Salazar). Michelle even lugged in a huge monstera from home, and she came to find me when it sprouted some new growth. (We squealed together.)

I’m enjoying the greenery in the suite and at my elbows: besides Sal, I’ve got a pothos plant on my desk. But surprising exactly no one, my favorite way to add some color to my space is through a weekly bouquet, from the farmers’ market or the tiny Trader Joe’s down the street.

sunflowers-market-boots

Several weeks ago, a colleague stopped by my desk and asked, “Who loves you so much that they’re buying you flowers all the time?”

The short answer, I guess, is me. But the longer answer has several facets: it’s tied up with garden walks through Cambridge and the #FlowerReport on Twitter, with Stephen’s smiling face and the constant delight of watching bouquets change with the seasons. It has to do – like so many things – with paying attention. It is a small way of loving and celebrating the world.

Since I started at Berklee, I’ve had bouquets of pink stock, cheery mums, blue hydrangeas and the sunflowers I can’t get enough of. I’m totally happy to be known as the crazy flower lady. There are, after all, worse things to be.

back bay Boston brownstones sky

Step 1: eye the docking stations around Boston and Cambridge as you listen to your friends rhapsodize about the freedom, exercise benefits, etc. of urban cycling.

Step 2: remember your days as a cyclist (in Oxford) with fondness. Start following several cycling-related Twitter accounts. Imagine riding through Back Bay, along the Esplanade or around Harvard Square.

Step 3: rent or borrow bikes on vacation, getting reacquainted with cycling through neighborhoods (San Diego and Sevilla) or along two-lane shore roads (PEI).

Step 4: take a buddy ride from Back Bay to Central Square. Three turns, 1.6 miles, afternoon sunshine and the steadying comfort of following a friend.

Step 5: download the app.

Step 6: hop on a bike one morning after prayers at Mem Church, just to see if you can do it. Ride back across the river: two and a half miles down Mass Ave and over the bridge. Feel the wind in your hair, the good honest sweat, the pride in trying something new and brave.

Step 7: repeat step 6 and variants as often as possible. (Start carrying an extra shirt and additional snacks.)

This post is not sponsored – Blue Bikes doesn’t know who I am – and we’ll see how this evolves as the weather changes. But for now, these rides on brisk fall mornings are saving my life each week. 

book apple bench sunlight

Halfway through October and I can’t believe it, as ever. Here are the books I’ve been reading on the train, before bed, and on (rare) sunny lunch breaks:

Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, Rachel Held Evans
I’ve been following Evans’ work since the publication of her first book, Faith Unraveled. We’re about the same age and we come from similar evangelical backgrounds. Her latest book is an exploration of the Bible as the messy, often frustrating, powerful text it is, rather than the tidy answer book some folks would like it to be. I loved Evans’ reimaginings of well-worn biblical stories, and appreciated her broad-minded perspective on what the Bible can be.

An Act of Villainy, Ashley Weaver
Amateur sleuth Amory Ames and her dashing husband, Milo, are drawn into a mystery involving the players in a theatrical production. The director is a friend of theirs (and the leading actress is his mistress). When murder ensues, Amory and Milo work to unmask the killer. I like this elegant series, set in London between the wars; Amory is an engaging narrator and this fifth entry was fun.

Digging In, Loretta Nyhan
Two years widowed, Paige Moresco is struggling: she and her teenage son are still grieving and now her graphic design job is in jeopardy. On impulse, she digs up half her backyard and plants a garden, to the horror of her neighbors. A fun novel about digging (literally) through grief, though I wanted more depth. Reminiscent of The Garden of Small Beginnings; not as strong, but still really enjoyable.

The Lost for Words Bookshop, Stephanie Butland
Loveday Cardew has spent her whole adult life (so far) working in the same York bookshop and avoiding her past. But the appearance of a handsome magician and copies of her estranged mother’s favorite books throw all that into question. This book broke my heart with every chapter; it’s well done and lovely but so, so sad.

The Wedding Date, Jasmine Guillory
Two people meet in a stalled elevator and end up going to a wedding together; he needs a date, and she thinks he’s cute. But, of course, it doesn’t end there. This delightful, sexy novel follows Drew and Alexa as they navigate a modern-day, long-distance relationship and face their own fears (and Alexa digs into a major work project). Sweet and spicy and so much fun.

The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House, Ben Rhodes
One of my coping mechanisms in the current political climate is reading these Obama staffer memoirs. Rhodes worked on communications and foreign policy for Obama for a decade. This thoughtful, fascinating, well-written insider account recalls a saner time in national politics and helps explain how we got to where we are now. Lots of flashbacks to my last job at HKS; Rhodes’ days – not the setting but the focus and the rhythm – bore some striking parallels to mine.

Our Homesick Songs, Emma Hooper
As the fish disappear from Newfoundland’s waters in the 1990s, the local families leave to find work. Ten-year-old Finn Connor, left almost alone, hatches a plan to bring the fish back. Meanwhile, his parents are taking turns leaving the island to work, and his older sister Cora is trying to find her own way. Haunting and beautiful and sad; started off slowly but I ended up loving it. I also adored Hooper’s debut, Etta and Otto and Russell and James.

Help Me!: One Woman’s Quest to Find Out if Self-Help Really Can Change Your Life, Marianne Power
I’m a little tired of “stunt” memoirs, but gave this one a go. British journalist Power recounts her year-plus of reading and trying to follow one self-help tome per month. Predictably, she does not turn into a perfect, worry-free version of herself – but she does learn some important lessons, often with hilarious effects. Dragged in the middle (when she became a bit self-obsessed), but I thought it ended well. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 15 in the U.S.).

The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden, Karina Yan Glaser
When their elderly neighbor has a stroke, the Vanderbeeker kids want to do something good for him, so they begin turning an abandoned lot into a garden. Challenges and hilarity (as well as the threat of a condo complex) ensue. A heartwarming sequel to the first Vanderbeeker book. These siblings are the 21st-century Harlem version of the Melendys, whom I adore. So much fun.

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

What are you reading?

back bay church trees Hancock tower

I’m into the eighth week at my new job, and I get asked all the time: How is it? Are you settling in? Do you like it?

The answers to all these questions are mostly positive, but alongside them is another truth: adjusting to a new neighborhood has been hard.

My first job in the Boston area was at Emerson College, steps from the Common and the Boston Public Garden. My new job, at Berklee College of Music, finds me a mile or so from there, among the collection of brownstones and skyscrapers that make up the Back Bay.

I miss Harvard Square, where I’ve spent every workday for the last five years and which (as regular readers know) I adore. But there are a few things, so far, to recommend this neighborhood. Here they are, in no particular order:

Boston public library blue sky Hancock tower Boston

  • The gorgeous central Boston Public Library, above, a few blocks from my office. I often pop in during my workday or on my way to the train. Bonus: they have a good cafe.
  • The sunny, plant-filled conference room at work, where I take my laptop as often as I can.
  • The tiny Trader Joe’s down the street, which provides me with affordable flowers (when I can’t get to Brattle Square), dark chocolate peanut butter cups, and a place to grab last-minute grocery items.
  • The Copley Square farmers’ market on Tuesdays and Fridays. Related: the few intrepid vendors who come out even in the rain. I miss Amanda and her tamales, but am glad for a place to pick up fresh produce.
  • The nearest Flour location, which has $5 soup, decent chai (it’s not Darwin’s but it’ll do), and friendly employees.
  • The Commonwealth Avenue mall: green and lovely and dotted with benches.
  • So many happy dogs, walking the streets with their owners or in packs shepherded by dog walkers.
  • Trident, the newly reopened bookstore down the street.
  • The midweek Eucharist service at Trinity Church: I’ve only been once so far but it was lovely.
  • Occasional walks along the Esplanade, when I have time.

What’s saving your life these days? Heaven knows we all need to take our joy where we can find it, right now.