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Lilac time

lilacs flowers bush

This April was an unusually rainy one – even my favorite weather guy commented on it, more than once. The grey skies didn’t help my spirits much, but I have to say, the lilacs have loved it. (That adage about April showers and May flowers rings especially true in years like these.)

A friend sent me pictures of fragrant white lilacs before I saw any in flower. But by early May, the towering lilac across the street from my house was in full, perfect bloom. I stood under it after a Saturday run, sniffing ecstatically, and thinking about the line from that (insanely long) Alfred Noyes poem: “Come down to Kew in lilac-time, in lilac-time, in lilac time.”

lilacs yellow house blue sky

I’m dog-sitting again in East Boston, and one day after work, the neighbor kids were selling fistfuls of branches from their grandfather’s lilac for $3. I bought a bunch – a steal if I’ve ever seen one! – and enjoyed them in the kitchen for several days. They’re the same deep, rich color as these lovelies from Back Bay, below.

dark purple lilacs

Earlier this week, I stopped to sniff a tall lilac on my lunch break, and a woman walked up to join me. “They’re my favorite,” she said. We wished each other a good day, and then she turned, walked a few paces away, and called, “Oh, you have to come stand right here!” I walked over and was hit by a wave of lilac scent. The whole exchange, and the moment of connection, was a gift.

lilacs back bay blue sky

Cambridge has any number of old, beautiful lilacs, and I was afraid I’d miss them this spring. But I did sneak over one evening last week, and got to sniff the lilacs on a side street near Darwin’s (below), and the hedge of them near the Longfellow House garden.

lilacs white fence

This year’s lilac time is nearly over: the azaleas are blazing out, and the rhododendrons are coming. But it has been glorious, in all my neighborhoods (old and new). And I’m so grateful.

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Bella Roma

view from Vatican cupola Rome

My parents have spent the first part of May on a European adventure: flying into Athens, cruising through part of the Mediterranean, then ending their trip in Rome.

I can’t wait to hear all their stories when they recover from the jet lag, especially since most of their destinations are places I’ve never been. But their final stop – bella Roma – was part of my first Oxford semester, long ago. And I’ve been remembering.

I flew to Rome for a late-March long weekend with my friends Jesse, Adrienne and Heather. We slept in hostel bunk beds and spent three days walking around as much of the city as we could cover together. I’d given up chocolate for Lent that year (what on earth was I thinking?!) but fortunately, I could still eat fruit gelato. And I ate as much of it as possible.

friends Rome bridge

I remember Rome in flashes and glimpses: elaborate public drinking fountains on every corner, cupping our hands to drink the fresh, cold water. Counting out brassy euro coins and colorful bills (mostly to pay for pasta and pizza). Open street markets and loud Italian that sounded almost-but-not-quite like Spanish. Tossing coins over our shoulders into the Trevi Fountain.

The green oval of the Circus Maximus, once a chariot racing stadium and now a public park. Doing a double take when we saw an elderly nun smoking a cigarette, and another when we spotted a gladiator at the Colosseum with a lip piercing. Buying T-shirts on a side street near the Vatican that said “Ciao ciao” in flowing script like the Coca-Cola logo. Nearly getting hit (so many times!) by crazy drivers on cars and Vespas. Trying my first tiramisu at a little hostaria with plaster-and-beam ceilings on our last night there.

We spent about half a day touring the Vatican, getting up early one morning to beat the crowds. (That was Adrienne’s idea, and she was right on.) I remember being awed by St. Peter’s Basilica and underwhelmed by the Sistine Chapel (so crowded!). I fell in love with the elaborate, colorful, ancient maps in many of the exhibits, and I sent at least one postcard home from the Vatican’s post office.

We climbed up 500-plus steps to the top of the cupola, and that was my favorite view of all: Rome, in its entirety, spread out beneath our feet. If there’s a way to climb up and see a city from above, I will take it: see also St Mary’s church tower in Oxford, and a trip with my dad to the top of Notre-Dame.

That weekend was my first (and so far, only) taste of Italy – which didn’t capture my heart in quite the same way as Paris or Spain (or Oxford, which is still home). It ended with a frustrating coda: we took the wrong train, missed our flight and had to spend half a day (and too much money) trying to get back to Oxford.

Despite that, I loved Rome, and the smiles on our faces in my scrapbook photos bear out that truth. It’s been fun to walk down that particular memory lane again.

 

velocipede races book

May is a whirlwind when you work in higher ed (I say this every year). Here are the books I’ve been dipping into on my commutes, at lunch, before bed and whenever else I can:

The American Agent, Jacqueline Winspear
1940: London is under siege as the Blitz takes hold, and an American broadcaster is found murdered in her flat. Two shadowy government agencies call Maisie Dobbs onto the case; she’s also volunteering as an ambulance driver and hoping to adopt Anna, a young evacuee. I am a longtime Maisie fan, and I loved this 15th (!) entry in the series. Solid writing, a well-done plot and so much British grit.

The Velocipede Races, Emily June Street
Emmeline longs to compete in bicycle races like her twin brother. But aristocratic women are forbidden to ride, much less race. When she’s forced into marriage to a rich man, she sees a chance to pursue her dreams secretly–but several surprises are in store. A friend snagged this novel for me at a cycling conference. Emmy is frustrating at times, but the plot is fun – especially if you love bikes.

Underland: A Deep Time Journey, Robert Macfarlane
I will read anything Macfarlane writes. He’s a brilliant nature writer who renders physical details beautifully, but sees under them, into the shape of things. This book – his latest and longest – is a sort of inversion of his previous work: an exploration of caves, crevices, burial grounds and other hidden places. I struggled with the subject matter a bit, but his adventures are fascinating. (I highly recommend his previous books: I particularly loved Landmarks.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 4).

Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble, Anna Meriano
Leo (age 11), the youngest of five daughters, stumbles on a secret: all the women in her family are brujas (witches) whose magic comes out through their baking. Naturally, she’s dying to experiment, with sometimes disastrous results. A sweet, funny middle-grade story of family, baking and magic. Found at Trident.

In Another Time, Jillian Cantor
Max, a bookseller, and Hanna, a Jewish violinist, meet in Germany just as Hitler is coming to power. They fall in love, and then Hanna wakes up in a field in 1946 with a decade of her memory gone. She tries to build a new life, not knowing what has happened to Max. I’ve liked Cantor’s previous historical novels, but this one had a plot element that really didn’t work for me. I did love Hanna’s bond with her nephew, and appreciated her fraught but loving relationship with her sister.

The Beautiful Strangers, Camille Di Maio
“Find the beautiful stranger.” That’s what Kate Morgan’s granddad begs of her when she hops a train from San Francisco to San Diego, to work on the set of Some Like It Hot. Soon Kate discovers a mystery surrounding the Hotel del Coronado, including a ghost who shares her name. I love Coronado Island – I’ve stayed there several times – and this sweet love story evokes it perfectly.

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

What are you reading?

fear choice mountain lyric frame

Last week, I saw an Instagram post from a local friend about a folk concert happening that night in Cambridge. An hour later, my husband called: “Want to go?”

I’d usually say no to anything that started at 9:30 on a Tuesday night (and oh, was I exhausted the next day). But I said yes, and we went. The Arcadian Wild puts on a good show, but the music wasn’t even my favorite part: it was the serendipity.

My friend who invited us knows the two guys in the band from way back: her husband worked with both of them during his youth-minister days in Florida. But it also turns out that Lincoln, the mandolinist, is the son of a couple who are close to some other friends of mine. I texted my friend Frankie to let her know where we were, and whom we were hearing. (She responded with delight.)

As the evening went on, I realized something else: the photo above, which I snapped during a visit to Frankie’s house in West Texas months ago, is a lyric from their song “Rain Clouds.” (I’d been struck by the words, but forgot to ask her about their origin.)

I’ve been gone from Abilene, where I spent my undergraduate (and several more) years, for a while now. But I still go through there at least once a year, and keep in regular touch with many friends from that community. So many of my stories, even now, begin or end in Abilene. And this one struck me as especially sweet: that a line about courage and fear, in the middle of a song about love and friendship, was the latest thread connecting my two lives.

Not surprisingly, I’ve been humming that song ever since.

Because of Rachel

Rachel held Evans headshot

Like many people I know, online and off, I’ve spent the past week beginning to mourn Rachel Held Evans‘ death.

Rachel came across my radar nearly a decade ago, just before she released her first book, Evolving in Monkey Town. She was already writing online about faith in a way I’d rarely seen before: asking hard questions, wrestling with the tenets of the Christianity she’d grown up with and the layers of (often frustrating) evangelical messages attached to it.

After a warm email exchange, Rachel sent me an advance copy of Monkey Town. I read it avidly and found myself nodding at almost every page. Our experiences, as women raised in southern evangelical churches around the same time, were strikingly similar, and she rendered hers so well.

I kept reading Rachel’s blog, sometimes tweeting about her work or to/with her, for years afterward. I watched her grow bolder and more powerful in calling out the abuses of power (and abuse of many other kinds) perpetrated by churches and church leaders. She had the energy for the kind of online engagement I often shrink from, but I was (am) in awe of her voice and the way she used it. She wrote three other books, all of which I read and found well worth reading. She was no plaster saint: I watched her speak in impatience and anger sometimes, and I watched her listen and apologize and try to do better.

Rachel believed, fiercely, in the kind of Love that makes room for resurrection and redemption for all people. She championed the voices of women and LGBT people in the church. She made space for so many of us to grieve and doubt and ask questions – especially those who are refugees from a certain kind of evangelicalism, but who have not been able to stop wrestling with this story. She admitted, always, that she did not have all the answers.

We were all hoping and praying Rachel would get better after she went into the hospital with an infection a few weeks ago. My heart aches for her husband and two small children, her parents, and all those who knew and loved her. (Like Rachel, I am one of two sisters who are very different but love one another deeply, and I especially hurt for her sister Amanda.)

I’ve been amazed, in the last week, by how many people in different parts of my life have spoken about Rachel and what she meant to them. We miss her deeply, already. She was smart and fierce and thoughtful, kind and funny and faithful and brave. I never got to meet her in person, but she was my friend. May she rest in deep peace and love.

(Image from Rachel’s site)

tulips red back bay garden

Give me a garden full of strong, healthy creatures, able to stand roughness and cold without dismally giving in and dying. I never could see that delicacy of constitution is pretty, either in plants or women.

—Elizabeth von Arnim, Elizabeth and Her German Garden

I was searching last week for that von Arnim quote on tulips, because it is tulip season in the Public Garden and I agree with von Arnim: they are my favorite. While double-checking that quote, I came across these lines, and was immediately struck by them: yes.

I love looking at the graceful potted orchids at my florist’s shop, but as Anne Shirley has said, I want flowers I can live with. Instead of sensitive hothouse orchids, give me this:

crocuses rock light flowerbed

Give me the crocuses, pushing their purple and golden spears up through the snow at the end of winter. Give me the daffodils, slender but steely, dollops of bright gold against crusted snowbanks and worn-out winter dirt. Give me the lipstick-pink tulip magnolias, petals winging their way off the ends of their branches like butterflies, and the blush-pink apple and cherry blossoms, ruffled and gorgeous even in the rain.

tulip magnolia tree bloom blue sky

Give me the tulips, holding up their vivid cups to sun, rain, brisk spring winds or anything else nature might throw at them. Give me the lilacs, budding even now as the nights persist chilly, and the shock of yellow forsythia, and the shy, trailing hellebores in cream and mauve and green. Give me the blue scilla dotting the ground, the blaze of azaleas and rhododendrons, the wild violets showing their faces here and there along the river trail.

scilla flowers blue

Give me, too, friends of stalwart courage and fighter hearts, those who don’t run away when life gets messy or tough or complicated. Give me a band of strong women who will bolster me up, and accept my help when it’s my turn to do the same. And give me a lion heart so I don’t fail those same friends, a fierce resolve and bold kindness to stand with them and for them, and for myself, when I need it.

Amen.

My favorite colors are the colors of the sea, blue and gray and green, depending on the weather. My brother William is a fisherman, and he tells me that when he is in the middle of a fog-bound sea the water is a color for which there is no name.

—Sarah, Plain and Tall, Patricia MacLachlan

When I was a child, I read this book – slim and spare, with a pale pink cover – over and over again. I loved the story of Sarah, who comes from Maine to the wide plains of the Midwest, to be a new wife for Jacob and a stepmother for Anna and Caleb. She brings her cat, Seal, and they all learn to live with one another. The children, who have never seen the sea, listen enthralled to Sarah’s stories about Maine.

My beloved Neponset river trail, here in Dorchester, winds along marshes and brush and through several public parks, with views of water and trees (and also bridges and roads). Nearly every time I’m out there, especially when it’s overcast, I think of Sarah’s words, the rhythm of them: blue and gray and green.

Katie trail blue gray water

 

The water is sometimes blue, of course, though it’s often gray (the same goes for the sky). The grass and trees are greening up, right now, and the broken slabs of granite along the shoreline are always gradations of gray. Sometimes the sky glows pink or orange, streaked with sunset fire or smudged with purple. Sometimes, the light on the water glitters gold.

In the winter, the trail is often edged – occasionally submerged – with fresh white snow, turning the color scheme into blue and white and brown. But in all other seasons, it is blue and gray and green. The combinations shift, depending on the weather. I have run it in all seasons, in bright morning sunlight and pitch winter dark and every time of day in between, and I love noticing the changes, subtle brushstrokes shifting with the light and the time of year.

My favorite color, as most people know, has long been red – and I’ve not lost my love for a bright flash of scarlet or deep crimson. But my favorite landscape, these days, is blue and gray and green.