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a snowdrop story

 

snowdrops flowers gravel flowerbed

The calendar has flipped, officially, to spring. The piles of snow (mostly) melted while I was on vacation in San Diego, though the wind’s still got a bite, most days. But this week, I was still searching for a reliable sign of spring: the snowdrops I watch for every year.

I’ve been seeing tiny green spears – “crocuses an’ snowdrops and daffydowndillys,” as Ben Weatherstaff has it – poking out of the ground for weeks. But I was afraid they’d get frostbitten, and they did get covered up, by February’s bitter winds and an early March snowstorm. I hadn’t seen the shy white bells of snowdrops yet, though I had seen – to my relief and delight – the electric yellow and vivid red of witch hazel.

When I worked at the Ed School at Harvard, I would walk to Darwin’s down a straight side street, past a yellow house where an elderly woman could often be found reclining, apparently sound asleep, in a lounge chair in her front flowerbed. That same bed was a tangle of spring delights: snowdrops and scilla, hellebores and lilac, tiny white lilies of the valley. I made a point to stop by often, every spring, even when my daily orbit changed slightly, even when I hadn’t seen the woman for months.

That house has been under construction for a while now: workmen in boots and overalls have been gutting and sawing, replacing windows and repainting. The front flowerbed is a sandy mess, and I was afraid they’d dug up all the bulbs that have come back, reliably, every spring for so long. Or that they’d simply get buried under construction refuse and wait until next year to emerge.

crocuses march 2019

Yesterday, I slipped out of the house early, heading to Darwin’s for the first time in a while. I turned down that side street on my way from the T station. And there they were, poking up out of the gravel and rocks: snowdrops. And crocuses. And green spears that aren’t quite identifiable yet, but will be.

I suppose I should have known. As Anne Shirley says, “That is one good thing about this world…there are always sure to be more springs.” And more snowdrops. But it’s a relief and a joy to see them, all the same.

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Thy mercy

January sunrise pink clouds gold blue

Thy mercy, my God, is the theme of my song
The joy of my heart and the boast of my tongue…

A few Sundays ago, I walked into Church of the Cross, a low-key, welcoming Anglican congregation in the Fenway where I’ve visited off and on. It’s friendly, but not overbearing; people are kind, and a few of them remember my name by now. I like the mix of spontaneous prayer, raised hands and the rhythms of ancient liturgy. It reminds me, in this and other ways, of St Aldates, my beloved church in Oxford, where I still am at home.

Thy free grace alone, from the first to the last
Hath won my affection and bound my soul fast…

A small praise band provides the music: classic hymns, newly minted praise songs and some that fall in between. Inevitably, there’s a song or two I know, and a handful that are wholly new to me. I’ve learned the notes of the Alleluia before the gospel reading, and the later proclamation: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Without Thy sweet mercy I could not live here
Sin would reduce me to utter despair…

On that Sunday, I looked up at the screens to find a song I had totally forgotten about: a lilting, joyful tune written by Sandra McCracken to a set of lyrics from the 1770s. I learned it years ago, from an orange-covered Caedmon’s Call album that I think I still have somewhere.

But through Thy free goodness my spirits revive
And He that first made me still keeps me alive…

I thought I had outgrown this song and most of its kindred, or set them aside, long ago. My faith, these days, is complicated and shaded by doubt more often than pure joy. But I realized that day, as we sang this one, that I still know all the words.

Thy mercy is more than a match for my heart
Which wonders to feel its own hardness depart…

That song kept me company for days afterward, running through my head as I brushed my hair in the morning, as I walked to and from the train station, as I ran errands on my lunch break or after work. It wasn’t in there every moment, but it showed up often enough that I had to admit: it’s still mine.

‘Tis all by Thy goodness I fall to the ground
And weep for the praise of the mercy I’ve found…

One of the gifts of my Southern Baptist childhood – probably, of being steeped in any faith tradition for a long time – is the steady repetition of the same words that carry and embody deep truths. Lots of memory verses and hymns still rise to my recall, sometimes without my conscious effort. Some songs immediately take me back to youth group, or college chapel services, or those Easter pageants I loved so much. And though I am far from the places and the person I was then, the truth of them is still in there, knit deep into my soul.

Great Father of mercies, Thy goodness I own
And the covenant love of Thy crucified Son…

It’s not always easy for me to believe the truths I know: that God loves me, accepts me for who and what I am, sees all my flaws and mistakes and loves me anyway, wants the best for me. I have no trouble reassuring my loved ones that grace and love are real for them, but I have a much harder time accepting that for myself.

All praise to the Spirit, whose whisper divine
Seals mercy and pardon and righteousness mine… 

This song is still with me, weeks later, lodged in my heart like a bird on the wing. Some days it’s a declaration, some days it’s a prayer, some days it’s a desperate hope. Some days it’s all three. And always, always, it is true.

dog jack book blanket

I’ve had a couple of real duds lately: books I got pretty far into and then decided to jettison. But here’s the good stuff:

A Dog Called Jack, Ivy Pembroke
I love a sweet, witty chick-lit story once in a while – even better if it’s British. I grabbed this one at the library and happily curled up with it on a snowy weekend. It’s the story of Jack, a dog left behind by his previous owners who wins the hearts of a whole street in London. So lovely and fun.

Gmorning, Gnight!: Little Pep Talks for Me and You, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jonny Sun
It’s no secret I’m a Lin-Manuel fangirl (I even got to meet him last year). My husband gave me this warm, witty book of his good-morning and good-night tweets, illustrated. I’ve been flipping through it at night and – no surprise – it is so fun and encouraging.

The Weight of a Piano, Chris Cander
It took me a while to get into this novel – about two women, one in modern-day California and the other in 1960s Soviet Russia, who are linked by the Blüthner piano they both love. Despite the slow start, it’s a compelling story and the writing is really good. Especially enjoyable if you’re a musician.

The Farmer’s Son: Calving Season on a Family Farm, John Connell
Returning to his family’s farm in Ireland, John Connell wasn’t sure he wanted to stay. But helping his father (with whom he often clashes) through a calving and lambing season helped change his perspective. Beautifully written; a bit like a modern-day, more sober-eyed James Herriot. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 7).

On Being 40(ish), edited by Lindsey Mead
Lindsey is a lovely Internet-to-real-life friend of mine, and I’m so proud of her work in editing this collection of smart, funny, honest essays. They address the experience of turning 40, navigating the next decade or so, and looking back on the experiences that led to 40. I’m 35, so I’m a little younger than the contributors, but I found much to ponder and relate to here. My favorite essay was Veronica Chambers’ “A Game of Two Halves.”

Correspondents, Tim Murphy
Since high school, Rita Khoury, the daughter of a large Lebanese-Irish Boston family, has longed to be a journalist. In the wake of 9/11, she’s sent to Beirut and then Baghdad to cover the U.S. occupation and its effects on ordinary Iraqis. She becomes close to her interpreter, Nabil, and a handful of other colleagues. Murphy tells their story with warmth and compassion. Vivid, compelling and so deeply human – highly recommended. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 14).

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

What are you reading?

Ash Wednesday

There once was a man who thought love was war
Stop me if you’ve heard this story before…

I think of this song every year around this time, though I usually hear it in my friend Jenni’s voice instead of Tom Russell’s. Jenni is part of the folk trio JamisonPriest, and I heard her sing it long ago, at a few of their gigs in Abilene.

There once was a woman, a pretty young thing
She sold her soul for a diamond ring…

I love contemporary songs that somehow feel old: Russell released this one in the early 2000s, but his rough-edged voice and the plainspoken lyrics make it seem like a world-weary folk classic. It is not, perhaps, traditional Ash Wednesday music, neither a somber hymn nor a choral setting of a religious text. But it comes back to lodge in my heart every year, when we remember that we are dust.

They’re all lovesick, they’re love tired
They stood a little close to the edge of the fire…

I did not make it to an Ash Wednesday service this year. But on my way to the train after work, I walked by the Old South Church, where two clergy were standing outside in the cold, offering ashes to willing passersby. One of them, a woman I know slightly from our mutual connections to Harvard, greeted me and then marked my forehead with ashes. “Remember that you are dust,” she said, “and to dust you shall return. But today, you have life as a child of God.” My eyes filled with tears.

They’ve got holes in their pockets, holes in their minds
They’re holy people in an unholy time…

Like most folk songs, and like faith, those words and this song tell a story or two and then leave you with a few words and images you can’t quite explain. I don’t understand Russell’s lyrics in the strictly logical sense, but they resonate with me at a deep level. And there’s a reason we refer to “the holy mysteries”: I can’t fully grasp the story I have lived with all my life, but it still draws me in.

Headin’ for the church at the end of the line
Ash Wednesday…

We are right where we always seem to be, when Lent begins: still in the middle of winter, snow-edged sidewalks and bold blue skies, bare branches and biting winds. The green spears of daffodils and crocuses are poking through the earth, but there’s danger of frostbite a while yet. It’s almost Easter, a friend joked the other day, and I said, Oh, no. We’ve barely begun.

We’re all lovesick, and love tired, as Russell has it, or (to quote my singer-songwriter friend Rachel) “proud and aching and sore.” But we are also – I will keep saying it all my life – wholly, deeply, unbelievably loved.

star crossed book jeans bare feet chair

For thousands of years, human beings have watched the stars–to observe their beauty, to navigate across uncharted oceans, and (sometimes) to seek guidance for important decisions. But do the stars truly affect our lives? Does a person’s zodiac sign determine his or her personality and fate, or are human beings the masters of our own destinies?

Australian novelist Minnie Darke takes a playful approach to these questions–and the havoc that sometimes results from pursuing them–in her big-hearted and witty debut, aptly titled Star-Crossed.

Darke’s novel centers on Justine (Sagittarius, possessed of a near-photographic memory, thoroughgoing star skeptic) and Nick (dreamy Aquarius, struggling actor, true believer). Born nine months apart to mothers who were best friends, the two spent their childhoods together, but lost touch after Nick’s family moved across the country.

Darke sets up this shared history in a few breezy chapters, then leaps ahead to when Justine’s and Nick’s orbits overlap again in their 20s. Justine is an aspiring reporter at a quirky monthly magazine, and Nick has just landed the lead in a local avant-garde production of Romeo and Juliet. As the two reconnect and become friends, and as Justine’s responsibilities at the magazine shift, she starts to wonder if there’s any harm in tweaking the monthly astrology column, just a little. The results – predictably – go a bit beyond what she expected.

I read Star Crossed back in December so I could review it for Shelf Awareness – the above paragraphs are the first part of my extended review. I also got to interview Minnie via email (she lives in Tasmania). She was charming and warm and funny, like her novel (and most of its characters). Here are a few fun excerpts from our conversation:

KNG: What inspired you to write a novel focused on astrology and the stars?

MD: The idea for the novel came to me quite a long time ago, when I was a journalist at a small newspaper. Because the staff were few, and it was handy for everyone to be able to make changes to the paper right up until deadline, I had a login that gave me access to the entire publication.

I was working late one night when I had the idea that I could, if I wanted to, fiddle about with the astrology column. Hmmm, I thought. I could make the entries spookily relevant to my friends’ lives, or perhaps take a hand–invisibly–in their decisions. I’m not saying I definitely ever did any of that, but it was a seductive idea. It was also, I thought, a good basis for a novel.

We humans are reliably interested in questions of fate. Are we living out a preordained pattern? Or are we just drifting, bumbling along? We know that there are forces acting on us all the time, but are some of them as far away as the stars? Could these forces be known, and therefore harnessed in the service of our dreams? These are all interesting questions.

Justine is a Sagittarian skeptic and Nick is a true-believer Aquarius. Many of the other characters, no matter their signs, fall somewhere in between. What about you? What’s your relationship with the stars?

I don’t know if I believe in astrology, but I certainly like it. I like the way people enjoy fulfilling, and also confounding, the stereotypes of their sign. And I like the way people use astrology to understand others and their relationships. Just as humans like to seek out systems of meaning, we’re also pretty interested in classificatory systems.

As classificatory systems go, astrology is pretty good fun, and I learned this from my grandmother. She kept two very well-thumbed and dog-eared books on a shelf near her favourite chair. One was her crossword puzzle dictionary and the other was a copy of Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs. She was a great one for saying things like, “Oh, your grandfather’s just being a miserly old Capricorn.” Or, “Your dad’s not one for risks; he’s a Cancerian after all.” She was a nurse, and a classic Virgo–always ready to patch up people’s ailments, and to take a close interest in their personal affairs.

The novel is lighthearted, but it asks big questions about decisions, fate and the surprising twists our lives often take. What are your thoughts on the relationship between decisions, free will and destiny?

One of the things I love about being a writer is that it’s not my job to come up with answers or solutions to tricky questions. My job–and I think it’s the best job of all–is to keep asking those tricky questions in new and hopefully entertaining ways.

Perhaps the way the plot of Star-Crossed resolves suggests that there is such a thing as fate, or destiny. Or, perhaps Star-Crossed is simply a depiction of a series of events that take place in a world full of lucky, random chaos. It really will be up to the reader to decide.

I’d like readers to know that Star-Crossed was written in a spirit of joy and mischief, and I hope with all my heart that they will be amused, moved, uplifted and entertained by it.

You can read my full review and interview with Minnie at Shelf Awareness. The book comes out in the States in May, and – in case it wasn’t obvious – it’s really good fun. I recommend it if you’re looking for a charming, witty read with lots of heart – no matter how you feel about the stars.

rainbow spines bookshelf books color

Real talk: more running than reading is happening these days. But here are a few novels and a bit of nonfiction I’ve really enjoyed recently. (The Marisa de los Santos rereading kick continues.)

Lost and Wanted, Nell Freudenberger
When MIT physicist Helen Clapp hears of her college roommate Charlie’s death, she’s stunned – but even more so when she begins receiving texts and calls from Charlie’s phone. Helen tries to solve that mystery while navigating her own grief, parenting her son Jack, and dealing with her complicated feelings for a colleague. Thoughtful, wry and absorbing. Bonus for me: it’s set in Cambridge – Darwin’s even makes a brief appearance (!). To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 2).

When We Left Cuba, Chanel Cleeton
Forced to flee with her family when Fidel Castro seized power, sugar heiress Beatriz Perez is bored and restless in Palm Beach. Then she meets a handsome senator who’s wrong for her for all kinds of reasons, and is (separately) approached by the CIA to aid them in a plot to kill Castro. Cleeton’s sequel of sorts to Next Year in Havana is a fascinating glimpse into the turbulent early 1960s. I liked Beatriz, though I grew frustrated with her at times. I loved Cleeton’s musings on the conflicting pull of family, duty, country, love and independence. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 9).

I’ll Be Your Blue Sky, Marisa de los Santos
This book is about Clare, who appears in Love Walked In and Belong to Me. It begins with her breaking her engagement to a man she knows she can’t marry. Unexpectedly, Clare then inherits a house from Edith, an elderly woman she hardly knew, and it comes with a mystery. As Clare digs into Edith’s past, she’s reckoning with her own decisions and what she wants for her future. Brave and true and lovely, like all de los Santos’ novels.

Hermanas: Deepening Our Identity and Growing Our Influence, Natalia Kohn, Noemi Vega Quinones and Kristy Garza Robinson
This is the July selection for Sarah Bessey’s spiritual formation book club, but I spotted it at the library and decided to leap ahead. Three Latina authors explore their own experience and the idea of spiritual leadership, through the stories of 12 biblical women (Rahab, Hannah, Esther, etc.). I appreciated their honesty about the challenges of being a Latina in the U.S. and in American churches. Some of the evangelical language is of the sort that frustrates me, but I think that’s more my problem than theirs. I also liked their reflections on the biblical hermanas (some of those resonated more than others). We need more stories and perspective like this.

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

What are you reading?

Back on the needles

Erie hat pom pom knit table

I used to be quite a prolific knitter.

Especially the first few years I lived in Boston, I was always making something – fingerless gloves for my girlfriends, sweaters for my then-baby nephews and niece, so many hats and cozy cowls for myself. These were also the years of Downton Abbey and Castle, Lark Rise to Candleford and Sherlock and Grantchester. I’ve never been a big TV watcher, but an hour here and there added up to lots of knitting over the years.

And then a couple of years ago, I just…stopped.

We’d moved again, and several of my favorite shows had gone off the air, and I couldn’t really justify knitting myself yet another hat or scarf. I spend more of my evenings running than sitting at home these days, and so the knitting fell by the wayside. But around Thanksgiving, as the hubs and I were watching Modern Family or doing the NYT crossword (possibly both), I realized I had itchy fingers. So I picked up a skein of Madelinetosh sock yarn I’d had sitting around for ages, and I started knitting – just a round or two here and there.

Two months later, I have an Erie hat – cozy and soft. And I decided it was high time I owned something with a pom-pom. (Red, of course.)

It’s been a comfort to have something back on the needles, and to watch the progress, stitch by stitch, round by round. The merino wool feels good in my hands. And when the weather in New England does its schizophrenic thing, I have another way to keep out those biting winds.

I’m not sure I’ll dive back into knitting the way I once did. But I am eyeing the Queensland Beach headband pattern, with some yummy red yarn I have in my stash…