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Never awake alone

summer sunset view porch

“Lately I’ve been waking up at 3 a.m.,” a friend admitted in a group email last month.

It was only a passing comment; we were talking about when we find time to read, and she confessed to snatching an hour here and there during her nocturnal wakings. But the 3 a.m. comment caused a quiet thump of recognition, because for months, I have been waking in the night, too. A flurry of responses from the group confirmed it: we’re not the only ones.

I think it started for me last summer, as I switched jobs, moved to a new apartment and grieved over several national tragedies. It has continued, off and on, through the fall and winter: the election and its fallout, significant stress at work, many other challenges in my life and the lives of people I love.

Late at night, I often find myself in bed with my journal and a pen in hand, pushing my glasses up on my nose. I keep the lamp on after my husband rolls over and closes his eyes, trying to write my way toward a peaceful place, taking deep breaths so I can turn out the light and head for sleep.

Some nights I can dive into a book, lose myself in a good story or some luminous poetry. Other nights, I need to trace the swirling thoughts, get them out of my brain and onto the page. Then I can try to sleep. But I often – though not always – end up wide awake, at some ungodly single-digit hour of the night.

My friend lives six time zones away, and our fellow nighttime wakers are scattered across the country, but it still comforted me, somehow, to know I wasn’t alone in this. The next few times I woke up in the middle of the night, I lay listening to the whir of traffic outside, thinking of my friends, wakeful in their houses, in Illinois or North Carolina or Maine. It made me feel better to picture their faces, even though I knew the fact of our communal waking wouldn’t solve anything for any of us.

Madeleine L’Engle, one of my patron saints, begins her memoir The Irrational Season with a similar image: the silhouette of Madeleine herself, standing at the window of her apartment on the Upper West Side, holding a mug of hot bouillon on a dark morning in early winter. She peers out the blinds to the street that is never quite silent, the building across the way whose lights never all go out at once. She sips her bouillon, savoring her small rebellion against the tyranny of the clock. “I enjoy these occasional spells of nocturnal wakefulness,” she says. “And I am never awake alone.”

I’m not always so sanguine about my own nocturnal waking, though sometimes I can turn over and fall back asleep, or think about something comforting (including my friends, awake in their own houses). Sometimes I get up for a drink of water, walking around the wicker chest at the end of our bed, down the darkened hallway and glancing out the bathroom window, at the streetlights one block over, or a winking star. (After eight months in this apartment, I can finally walk through it in the dead of night without crashing into anything.)

“I do not think we talk enough about how every one of us / Has shuffled around the house in the middle of the night / Worried,” Brian Doyle says, in a poem aptly titled “Three in the Morning.” A few lines later, he adds wryly, “Sometimes there is zero / To be done except shuffle around wearily.”

Sometimes, I might add, there’s not much to be done except lie there a while, taking deep breaths or running the lines of an old hymn through my head. The anxiety doesn’t always dissipate, though sometimes it quiets to a background hum. But it does help, usually, to think of my friends, or of Madeleine at the window with her mug of bouillon, watching the slow nighttime life of her neighborhood. If I am awake, and especially if I’m worried, it helps to know I’m not alone.

stronger together heart graffiti three lives

You Have to Be Careful

You have to be careful telling things.
Some ears are tunnels.
Your words will go in and get lost in the dark.
Some ears are flat pans like the miners used
looking for gold.
What you say will be washed out with the stones.

You look a long time till you find the right ears.
Till then, there are birds and lamps to be spoken to,
a patient cloth rubbing shine in circles,
and the slow, gradually growing possibility
that when you find such ears,
they already know.

—Naomi Shihab Nye

I came across this poem last spring, in Shihab Nye’s collection Words Under the Words. I posted it on Instagram at the time, and have thought of it occasionally since then – mostly when I’m remembering how glad I am to have such ears in my life.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry on Fridays here this month, as I do each year.

What light there is

tree buds red brick harvard yard

It’s a grey, gloomy day in early April. I’ve stayed home from work with a bad cold, and all afternoon, I’ve been listening to the slow drip, drip of rain outside. The purple tulips in their vase on my kitchen table are growing leggy; they’re reaching out, bending and stretching crookedly, for the light that is in short supply today.

We are nearing the end–I hope–of a winter that has felt long, even though we haven’t had too much snow by our usual Boston standards. One arctic blast in December and a couple more since the New Year left our teeth chattering in single-digit temps, but those frigid spells haven’t lasted long. And the snowstorms, though fierce, have been few and far between. We even had a couple of 60-degree days in late February.

What I’m missing, in these early spring days, is the light.

I’m over at the Art House America blog today (where I write occasionally), talking about my efforts to watch for the light in this season. Please join me over there to read the rest of my piece.

birds art life mug

We’re halfway through April and I’m really counting on this whole “April showers bring May flowers” thing. But the showers are bringing good books. (Above: the endpapers of Birds Art Life, and a mug I love, from Obvious State.)

Here’s my latest book roundup:

‘Round Midnight, Laura McBride
June Stein never expected to end up a casino owner’s wife in Las Vegas. But that’s where she finds herself, and her story intertwines with those of several other women in surprising ways. McBride tells a compelling, heartbreaking story of four women deeply affected by the El Capitan, the casino June owns with her husband, and the evolution of Vegas from the 1950s to the present. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 2).

Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation, Kyo Maclear
I picked up Maclear’s luminous, quiet memoir at Idlewild Books in the West Village. She chronicles a year spent watching birds in and around her home city of Toronto, while dealing with her father’s illness and generally feeling unmoored. Melancholy and beautiful, with insights on bravery, marriage, noticing the small things, and making a world where birds (and humans) can thrive.

Ashes, Laurie Halse Anderson
After years of searching, Isabel Gardener has finally found her sister Ruth, who was kidnapped by their old slave mistress. But more trials await the sisters and their friend Curzon as the American Revolution drags on. Compelling, heartbreaking YA fiction (the third volume in a trilogy) with a sharp-tongued, brilliant protagonist. (Set during and around the Battle of Yorktown, so you can guess what was in my head the whole time.)

Becoming Bonnie, Jenni L. Walsh
Bonnelyn Parker has always been a good girl: working hard in school, helping her mama, working at a diner to earn extra money. But when she loses her job and her best friend Blanche convinces her to try bartending at a speakeasy, Bonnelyn may be on her way to becoming someone else: Bonnie. A really fun historical novel of the woman who became one half of Bonnie and Clyde. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 9).

The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois
I’d never read this seminal work on the plight of black people in the U.S., and I figured it was long overdue. Du Bois is eloquent, passionate and thoughtful (though some of his language feels a little quaint, 100 years later). Of particular interest: his notions of the Veil and the double life led by black Americans. I also love his thoughts on the “sorrow songs” and their place in black history.

The Kind of Brave You Wanted to Be: Prose Poems and Cheerful Chants Against the Dark, Brian Doyle
More prose poems from Doyle: keen-eyed, thoughtful, wide-ranging, humorous and occasionally so luminous they make me cry. (Besides, April is always a good time to read poetry.) My favorites include “Your Theatrical Training” and “The Western Yellowjacket: A Note.”

Girl on the Leeside, Kathleen Anne Kenney
Since her mother’s death in an IRA bombing when she was just a toddler, Siobhan Doyle has lived a quiet life with her uncle Keenan, working alongside him in their family’s pub, the Leeside, and writing poetry. She’s content with her sheltered existence until the arrival of an American professor, whose visit makes her ask all sorts of questions. A lovely, lyrical coming-of-age novel, set in a quiet corner of Ireland. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 20).

Saints for All Occasions, J. Courtney Sullivan
Sisters Nora and Theresa Flynn came to the U.S. from Ireland together as teenagers. When Theresa ends up pregnant, both sisters must make a choice that will have far-reaching consequences for their family. Sullivan writes with warmth, sensitivity and keen observation about family, regret and love in her fourth novel. (Set in Boston’s Irish and Irish-American communities – vividly and accurately rendered.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 9).

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

What are you reading?

bargain poetry bookbook nyc

What Do Poems Do?

I was, no kidding, a visiting writer in a kindergarten recently,
And the children asked me many wry and hilarious questions,
Among them is that your real nose? and can you write a book
About a ruffed grouse, please? But the one that pops back into
My mind this morning was what do poems do? Answers: swirl
Leaves along sidewalks suddenly when there is no wind. Open
Recalcitrant jars of honey. Be huckleberries in earliest January,
When berries are only a shivering idea on a bush. Be your dad
For a moment again, tall and amused and smelling like Sunday.
Be the awful wheeze of a kid with the flu. Remind you of what
You didn’t ever forget but only mislaid or misfiled. Be badgers,
Meteor showers, falcons, prayers, sneers, mayors, confessionals.
They are built to slide into you sideways. You have poetry slots
Where your gills used to be, when you lived inside your mother.
If you hold a poem right you can go back there. Find the handle.
Take a skitter of words and speak gently to them, and you’ll see.

I picked up How the Light Gets In, a slim collection of Doyle’s rambling, luminous “proems,” at the Strand in February (though I snapped the photo above at bookbook). They are full of vivid images, wry humor, startling moments of joy.

This one – plus “The Under of Things,” and “Wrenness,” and “Poem for a New Baby Girl,” and “Silentium,” and half a dozen others – stopped me in my tracks. They did what the best poems do, which is make me pay attention. If you enjoyed this one, I’d recommend the whole collection.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am (per tradition) sharing poetry on Fridays here this month.

memorial church harvard spire branches blue sky

We have arrived at Holy Week, again – after a long, gray Lenten season that felt like it would never end. Last week, a cardboard box of palm fronds (shipped from Minnesota, of all places) arrived on my doorstep, and on Sunday morning, we passed them out to the waiting hands at our tiny church. I stood in a pew waving my palm branch and snapping pictures with my phone as the kids (and some adults) walked a few laps around the sanctuary, singing songs anchored by the word Hosanna.

Later in the service, we did what we do each week: paused to mention specific prayer requests for our church community and the world. People raised their hands readily to ask for prayers for a pregnant sister, a jobless husband, an ill mother. But when Nate asked about prayers for the wider world, we fell silent, as we often do. Where to begin?

I thought of the chemical attacks in Syria, of the churches bombed that day in Egypt, of the refugees still pouring into Europe, searching for a home. I thought about the headlines that inform so much of my day job: when you work in communications at a school of government, ignoring the daily news is not an option. There is so much fear and anger and unrest, everywhere, and I don’t always know how to react to it all, much less form the words of a coherent prayer.

We always end with the Lord’s Prayer, reciting it aloud in quiet unison. We say it, too, at the weekday Morning Prayers service at Memorial Church, where I have ended up more and more often this year, walking across Harvard Yard to tuck myself into a carved wooden pew right behind the choir.

All winter long, and into this fitful spring, the same line has made tears well in my eyes: On earth as it is in heaven.

I don’t know much, of course, about what heaven is like. I doubt the images from our Sunday School lessons get all that close to the reality of it, and I don’t believe that’s the point, really. But I believe in a world beyond this one: a world of hope and redemption and deep, untrammeled joy, watched over by a God who is making all things new.

I also know that life on earth isn’t like that: the glories of this life are always mingled with heartbreak. We are so far, so much of the time, from any vision of peace and justice and love. There are glimpses of it: spasmodic tricks of radiance, if you will. But we are not there yet.

Holy Week is a time when we enter into the full dramatic scope of the Christian narrative: the triumphal (though unexpected) entry into Jerusalem, the bittersweet last meal with the disciples, the jarring tragedy of arrest and brutal crucifixion. During this week, we walk alongside the disciples as they watch Jesus give himself up, and for a few heart-stopping days, it looks like the horrors of this world have won. It looks like grief and fear and hopelessness. It looks like the headlines I see every day.

Here, in the middle of Holy Week, it can be hard to see the pattern: it looks like heartbreak and struggle, rather than triumph. It looks like tears and frustration and unanswered questions, and soon it will look like deep anguish. But then, in the early hours of Sunday morning, it will start to look like hope. The sky will start to lighten, and the earth will hold its breath. And then – out of the tomb, out of the very heart of darkness and despair – will come the joy.

This week, as I walk the streets of Cambridge, I am also walking a different road: the one that winds through Jerusalem, all the way up to Golgotha. The songs from the Easter pageants at my childhood church are running through my head, and I am remembering how it felt to be part of it all, as a servant of the wise men, a young bride at Cana, a villager joining an angry mob that later became a choir of praise.

For us, Easter Sunday isn’t the end of the story: we still have to contend with the brokenness of this world. But it is worth celebrating that one glorious day when already and not yet meld together: when, for just a moment, on earth as it is in heaven becomes real.

If you’re observing Holy Week (or simply looking forward to Easter), I wish you a blessed one.

charles river cambridge sunset

Hope and Love

All winter
the blue heron
slept among the horses.
I do not know
the custom of herons,
do not know
if the solitary habit
is their way,
or if he listened for
some missing one—
not knowing even
that was what he did—
in the blowing
sounds in the dark.
I know that
hope is the hardest
love we carry.
He slept
with his long neck
folded, like a letter
put away.

April is National Poetry Month, and I will – as is my tradition – be sharing poetry on Fridays here this month.