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Edging into Advent

lamont quad light sky

I expected to be so ready for Advent this year.

After a full, demanding fall semester and a bruising election cycle, I thought I’d be eager to sink into my favorite liturgical season: the readings, the carols, the longing and candlelight and hope. But at church on the first Sunday of Advent (after our wonderful Turkeypalooza), I still felt hopeless and tired and sad, even as we sang “O Come O Come Emmanuel.”

That evening, sitting on the floor at my friend Amy’s house, I admitted how I felt. We were working on the backdrop for the church Christmas pageant: hot-gluing uneven blocks of dark green felt to a bolt of midnight blue fabric, scattering handfuls of sticky, glittery stars overhead. “I think I need to sit in the darkness a while longer,” Amy said, and I nodded. I didn’t feel ready to start lighting candles yet.

The next day, I walked across the Yard to Morning Prayers, where a divinity student gave a talk on tenderness. “Let us be raw a while longer,” she said gently, urging us to sit with our pain – and the world’s – rather than glossing over it. We also sang “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and I hummed it as I walked to work afterward, the Civil Wars version in my earbuds.

It feels right for Advent to come slowly this year: we are working through more pain and darkness, on a national scale, than I can remember in a long time. The questions raised by my favorite Advent writers – Henri Nouwen, Kathleen Norris, Madeleine L’Engle, Alfred Delp – feel more pertinent than they ever have. I have been reluctant to skip over the ache to the joy, even as I’ve loved seeing twinkle lights and Christmas trees appear around Cambridge and in my friends’ homes.

Since I discovered it as a high school student, Advent has given me a way to wrestle with the questions of my faith: to look the darkness of this world steadily in the face, and to appreciate why we need the Light. I usually relish the ache of it, the haunting, lovely longing for Christ to come, for God to burst into the world and begin making all things new. But this year, everything already feels so dark. And I keep wondering: what good can our candles, anyone’s candles, possibly do?

Despite my weariness (and wariness), Advent keeps sneaking in, sidling up with quiet steps when I’m not quite paying attention. There is the Sylvia Plath poem whose inclusion in my favorite Advent book surprises and delights me every year. There are the annual Advent readings hosted by my friends Hannah and Chris, where we gather for poetry and hot cider and good talk in their cozy living room. There are the quiet carols (my favorite ones), which end up in my head almost by accident. And there are moments of connection with colleagues and friends, even in the midst of daily tasks and deeper sadness.

I am (finally) edging into the season: we put up our tree this weekend, and hung the greenery at church on Saturday. I am humming a few beloved carols, dipping into my Advent books, and watching for the light, whether literal (as above) or metaphorical, any place I can find it.

How are you finding the light – whether you’re observing Advent or not – in this season?

Our responsibility

jfk jr forum balloons hks

LEWIS ROTHSCHILD: Mr. President. You’ve raised a daughter – almost entirely on your own – and she’s terrific. So what does it say to you that, in the past seven weeks, 59 percent of this country has begun to question your family values?

A.J. MACINERNEY: The President doesn’t answer to you, Lewis.

LEWIS: Oh, yes, he does, A.J. I’m a citizen. This is my President. And in this country, it is not only permissible to question our leaders – it’s our responsibility.

The American President (1995)

I watched The American President again this fall, the way I do every election year, when I need a break from the TV ads and the ugly mudslinging and the constant ranting from both sides of the aisle. It’s billed as a love story, and the romantic plotline is charming. But I love it most for its thoughtful, incisive words about leadership and character, and the bond between the tightly knit group of staffers who work with the President, played by Michael Douglas.

Every time I watch it, I’m amazed at how it holds up. The casting is fantastic and there are so many great lines (this is Aaron Sorkin, writing pre-West Wing), but the last one above, delivered by a young, fiery Michael J. Fox, has been ringing in my head for weeks.

I’ve done a lot of questioning since the election. I am asking why we elected a man whose lack of experience in governing I find troubling and whose actions in his personal and professional life I find repugnant. I am asking, along with my colleagues, what role the news media played in this election and what our responsibilities are in reporting on the work of the Trump administration. (I am not a newspaper reporter, but I work in communications for a school of public policy, so my work is absolutely affected by who sits in the Oval Office and what they do there.)

Most of all, I am asking how I can participate actively in making this country a safer place for people who are threatened by the rhetoric of our president-elect. And I am absolutely questioning what Trump is saying and doing these days.

Before you stop reading, let me say: this is not (entirely) about partisan politics.

As citizens of a democracy, it is our responsibility to question our leaders at every level of government, no matter their policy positions or party affiliations. All our leaders, from the President on down, answer to every one of us. “America,” as Michael Douglas says near the end of The American President, “is advanced citizenship.” It is hard and complicated work. It’s why I have (for a start) been adding my name to petitions calling for an audit of the vote, supporting my Massachusetts senators who have spoken out against some of Trump’s hiring choices, and calling the House Oversight Committee to demand a bipartisan review of Trump’s finances and potential conflicts of interest.

Full disclosure: I am brand-new to any kind of political activism, even these small steps. I have always voted, but I’ve never before gotten involved in government beyond casting my ballot. I’m fumbling around here, trying to figure out what I can do to make a difference, to let my voice be heard. I am listening to people who have way more at stake (and way more experience) than I do, and trying to follow their lead.

If you usually come here for the books, the tea and the posts about what is saving my life now, don’t worry: I’ll keep writing about those things, especially as we head into the holidays. This blog will probably never be all politics, all the time. But in the wake of an election season that has rocked this country to its core, I had to say this: please join me in asking the questions.

Your questions, and the people and issues you are questioning, might be different from mine. We may not – in fact, we probably won’t – like a lot of the answers we get. But the asking, and the listening to both questions and answers, is vitally important. It is part of what democracy looks like. And when we ask, we can also decide what to do about the answers, the problems and the issues. That, too, is our responsibility.

Dec 2012 003

Rather suddenly, it’s December, and I am a bit behind on the reading updates. But here’s what I’ve been reading lately:

Iron Cast, Destiny Soria
Ada and Corinne are best friends in 1920s Boston who work for a notorious gangster in exchange for his protection. (Both girls are hemopaths: they have a blood condition which allows them to perform magic, but causes a strong aversion to iron.) Rich, complex characters, a twisty plot and a setting I adored, plus strong women in spades. (From the staff recs shelf at the Harvard Book Store.)

Letters to a Young Muslim, Omar Saif Ghobash
Ghobash is the UAE’s ambassador to Russia and the father of two teenage sons. In a time when Islam is beset by extremism and anger, Ghobash shares his personal journey as a Muslim and some wise advice for his boys. Thoughtful, engaging and so timely – we all desperately need to hear from people who aren’t just like us, in this moment of fear and upheaval. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 3, 2017).

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling
I love this series so much, and it’s been a few years: it was time for another reread. The first book always goes fast, and it’s fun to discover the wizarding world right along with Harry and his friends.

The Wicked City, Beatriz Williams
After discovering her husband cheating, Ella Gilbert moves out – to a building in the West Village that might be haunted. Williams uses Ella’s narrative to frame the story of Geneva Rose “Gin” Kelly, who escaped backwoods Maryland to build a life in 1920s NYC. But Gin’s bootlegging stepfather, Duke, won’t let her alone. Witty and deliciously scandalous, like all Williams’ books – though I found Gin’s story much more compelling than Ella’s. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 17, 2017).

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling
Rowling’s second book delves more deeply into the wizarding world, the (first) rise of Lord Voldemort and the odd similarities between Voldemort and Harry. (Plus it’s so much fun. Flying cars! Quidditch! More spellwork! And Fawkes the phoenix.)

Some Writer!: The Story of E.B. White, Melissa Sweet
It’s no secret that I love E.B. White’s work – both his classic children’s books and his wry, witty letters and essays. Sweet tells White’s story through collage and illustration in this lovely children’s biography. (Bonus: adorable dachshunds!) Bought at Three Lives & Co. in NYC.

Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, David Whyte
I love Whyte’s poetry and also enjoyed this collection of brief, lyrical essays on words such as “solace,” “work,” “courage,” “heartbreak,” “Istanbul” and many others. A little esoteric and very lovely.

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

What are you reading?

hidden figures book tea scone

Before “computer” came to mean a sophisticated calculating machine, it meant a person: someone with a firm grasp of numbers and their myriad practical applications in the real world. In the 1940s, as the U.S. rapidly expanded its flight program to fight the Axis Powers, the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia tapped into a new source of computing power: a group of whip-smart, highly educated African American women.

For the next two decades, the “colored computers” applied their mathematical knowledge to solve problems of flight at Langley, first in aviation and eventually in the space race. Margot Lee Shetterly tells the previously unknown story of these women in her first nonfiction book, Hidden Figures.

Sixty years after the narrative of Hidden Figures begins, we are living in fraught times here in the U.S. Many voices are calling for respect, equality and civil discourse while other voices–which often seem louder–are trumpeting hatred, bigotry and violence. I don’t always know how best to add my own (white, privileged) voice to the chorus of the former. But I believe that listening to, and helping tell, the stories of people whose experiences are different from my own is a vital first step.

It’s my turn again at Great New Books today, and I’m raving about the brilliant, bold women of Hidden Figures. Please join me over there to read the rest of my review.

Thankful

turkeypalooza table

For three long tables set end to end in a tiled church basement, covered with red-and-white cloths and decorated with gourds and tiny pumpkins and sparkly wooden leaves.

For a dozen strands of Christmas lights twinkling overhead, and mellow acoustic music via Spotify providing the soundtrack.

For breakfast at Abigail and Nate’s on Thanksgiving morning: Friends episodes and French toast, link sausage and apple slices and Evie toddling around trying out her two newest words – “Kay-kee” and “Miah.”

katie abi nate jer

For a husband who peeled and chopped sweet potatoes to save me some time (and labor) the night before. For the sweet potato casserole-cum-dessert I make every year, topped with brown sugar and pecans.

For a mix of beloveds and new faces around the table: half a dozen nationalities and at least as many languages.

For the pause to say a prayer and sing “Give Thanks” a cappella before the meal, and Evie clinging to my hip as the mad scramble for food began.

For two turkeys, 15 pounds (!) of mashed potatoes, a table crowded with casseroles and one crammed with desserts. For apple-pomegranate salad and cranberry relish, pumpkin bars with cream cheese frosting and three kinds of pie.

dessert table

For mulled wine and ice water, sipped from goblets gathered from three different kitchens. For stacks of paper napkins and so many dishes, and lots of willing hands to wash and dry them afterward.

For my favorite twins, so grown up now (they’re 10), trying to spell “facetious” and bombarding me with questions about Harry Potter.

For little Adam, who turned four on Thursday, and the chocolate cake and joyful cacophony of “Happy Birthday” when it was time for dessert.

For dominoes and chitchat and so much laughter. For inside jokes and old stories, budding friendships and brand-new memories.

simpsons smiles thanksgiving

When you do something once, it’s a novelty. When you do it two, three, four times, it becomes a habit, a ritual. When you’ve done it seven times, it’s a tradition.

This year’s Turkeypalooza – our name for the joyous, chaotic, come-as-you-are feast at our church – is in the books, and it was a good one. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be on Thanksgiving Day than with these friends who have become family.

How was yours, if you celebrated?

Heartened

red gold leaves ground

By the brilliant, joyful student performance of In the Heights I saw at Berklee College of Music on Friday night. And the powerful, lovely original song the cast performed after the curtain call (written by Zaid Tabani, who played Usnavi and is wicked talented).

By the wise, thoughtful voices of faculty members at my workplace, who are drawing on their expertise and experience to help make sense of what happened and what is next.

By conversations with friends and strangers, and the quiet sense that we are taking care of each other in small ways.

By the gentle, steadying atmosphere at my local yoga studio, where I have been showing up more frequently this month.

By the conversation I overheard the other day between two young men, one of whom is a playwright, about the responsibility and power of art and artists at a time like this.

By the friendly, supportive, determined conversations on Twitter and elsewhere that have helped me process my feelings and also figure out a few practical things to do. (First and foremost: so much listening.)

By the oak leaves in every shade of gold, red, russet and deep brown. I was afraid we wouldn’t have much color after a dry, hot summer, but the trees this fall are stunning.

By a brief conversation I had with the mayor of Providence, R.I., about the good work being done in government at the local level. (He was visiting campus for a conference, and probably has no idea how much his words encouraged me.)

By the spindly, twinkly “giving trees” on the steps of Memorial Church in Harvard Yard, covered in messages of hope. (And this separate message of hope, below.)

refugees welcome sign trees

Nearly two weeks post-election and it still feels like a new, fragile reality around here. We are heading into the holidays, which I love, but also into the shortest and darkest days of the year, which are hard for me. (I have never been more ready for Advent, which, for me, is a way to look the darkness steadily in the face and then light candles against it.)

I am still sad, frustrated and heartbroken, but I’ve also found myself heartened by the glimmers of hope I shared above. We have – I keep saying – so much work to do. As we move forward together (and head into Thanksgiving week here in the U.S.), I’d love to hear what is bolstering you up, these days.

#OneDayHH: life right now

one day hh instagram

A couple of weeks ago, Laura Tremaine hosted her annual #OneDayHH Instagram event – an invitation to document and share the everyday details and rhythms of our lives.

Although I use Instagram for that anyway (sometimes), it’s always fun to play along, both to share my own daily routine and to see what others are posting. I’m a believer in the loveliness and power of sharing field notes from our lives, and this day always helps bring that back into focus.

This year was my third time participating, and the way it went felt completely fitting: I shared a few photos, mostly of my morning routine, then got totally caught up in the madness of meetings, email and other life tasks/craziness. (This was six days before the election, so my workday included a lot of that particular madness.)

In this full and demanding season, that is often how it’s going around here, and I’m letting myself off the hook for not sharing a “complete” record of the day. I wanted to share what I did post, though, since these details are vital and lovely, and I want to remember them. (Especially when I’m clinging to daily rhythms to save my sanity, right now.)

green coat red pants subway flats

I was up before dawn, moving around our still-new apartment in the dark: showering, brewing tea in a purple travel mug, packing my work bags. Most mornings, I catch the bus, but my husband drops me off at the T station in our old neighborhood on Wednesdays. I carry my black purse and this polka-dot bag (mostly filled with books) on my commute. It was a mild day, so I switched from black leggings and ankle boots back to my happy red pants (but still wore my favorite, magic jade-green coat).

boston skyline sunrise view

Halfway through my commute, I get this view as the train rumbles across the Charles River between Boston and Cambridge. I always take a second to soak it in – I love the sight of the skyline and the river at any time of the year.

golden leaves bikes harvard yard

After a little writing time in the library and Morning Prayers, I walk back through Harvard Yard to my office a few blocks away. Lately, this golden tree in the Yard is taking my breath away every morning. I love the autumn light in Cambridge.

hks desk view

My desk is command central for most of my workdays at the Harvard Kennedy School, and this is a typical view: a little cluttered, but I know where everything is. I spent most of the morning here, catching up on emails and writing projects (with a trip to Darwin’s for chai, mid-morning). My colleagues are out of frame here, but they are a vital part of my workdays, and a big reason I love my job.

soup red pants leaves

Back to Darwin’s at lunchtime for a bowl of spinach-potato-leek soup, and chitchat with the good folks behind the counter. I sat on a bench outside for a while, listening to the ’80s music blasting from the cafe’s open doors, dipping a hunk of baguette into the soup, and watching the sky.

This was the last photo I posted of the day: my afternoon contained three solid hours of work meetings, one of which meant I stayed at the office a little late. I dug into Rae Carson’s wonderful YA novel Like a River Glorious on my train ride home, then spent the evening catching up on home details: laundry, dishes, making huevos rancheros for dinner. Later, I picked my husband up from work and we debriefed our days while he ate. I collapsed into bed around 10:30, rooting for the Cubs to win Game 7 (woohoo!), but not able to stay awake long enough to watch it happen. I scribbled a few notes from the day in my journal, then turned out the light.

Messy, full, busy, mundane, often lovely: this was a completely ordinary Wednesday. Both its broad outlines and its particular details are typical of my life right now. I may not have posted all the details, but I’m glad I captured a few. Every year, this project reminds me to “say a holy yes” to my life as it is, at this moment, and I am grateful.