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harvard yard banners commencement 2016

We are (rapidly) approaching Commencement here at Harvard. Classes are over; fluttering robes and other regalia are appearing on the streets of Cambridge; the Yard is filling up with folding chairs, audio speakers and other equipment. (Three days to go.)

I’ve been walking through the Yard whenever I can, watching it all take shape: watching the banners unfurl and the stage come together on the south porch of Memorial Church, piece by piece. There is a comfort in these steady rituals, year after year, a reliability deepened by knowing where to look.

Most of our students at the Kennedy School of Government, where I work, are graduating after one or two years in a master’s program, while our Ph.D. students have been in it for a longer haul. But many of the students earning their undergraduate degrees from Harvard College have spent four years in this place. And as of this spring, so have I.

harvard yard memorial church view

This time of year always makes me reflective: we are wrapping up another academic season, pausing before the plunge into summer, stopping to take stock of what we’ve accomplished and what we’ve gained. We are celebrating another class of graduating students right before we lose them: we are sending (most of) them out into the world, charging them to take what they’ve learned here and do some good.

Yet those of us who stay, who spend our workdays year-round in this place, are under the same charge: to take what we have learned, what we have built here, and do some good.

During this turbulent academic year – a year in which I’ve been adjusting, simultaneously, to a new job and to constantly shifting political realities, which directly affect said job – I have been thinking of James Baldwin’s words about America. Baldwin asserted his love for this country, and added in the next breath, “Exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

Similarly, I have developed a bone-deep love for Harvard, but I insist on the right to question it perpetually, and yes, sometimes to criticize it.

To be a part of this place, with its nearly four centuries of history, tradition and scholarship, is also to reckon with its scars and inconsistencies, its blind spots and the weight of its privilege. It is to keep speaking up (in my own quiet way), insisting on a place for those who have often been marginalized here: women, immigrants, African Americans and other minorities, those who don’t fit the mold of the “traditional” Harvard student or employee. It is to believe – sometimes by an effort of will – that I belong here, and that my voice matters: that I, too, am Harvard.

Over the past four years, I’ve worked in three different areas of Harvard: the Ed School, where I first landed and began to stretch my wings; the Harvard Gazette, where I survived a wild and wonderful Commencement season last year; and the Kennedy School, where I spend my days now. I have worked hard to make a place for myself here, to find a home, and I’ve been surprised and delighted to find several. In addition to all three of my offices (current and former), there are other corners of Harvard that belong to me.

harvard yard path trees light

The sunken garden on Appian Way, where tulips and iris bob their vivid heads in the spring and summer. A particular carved wooden pew in Memorial Church, where I have sat on many mornings this year, listening to the choir sing and the congregation recite the Lord’s Prayer. A cluster of squashy armchairs in Lamont Library, with a window that looks out into the trees. The second-floor room at the Harvard Art Museums that holds my favorite Monet paintings and one of Degas’ Little Dancer sculptures. And I can’t forget the places that are technically not part of Harvard, but that anchor me and nourish me here in the Square: the flower shop, the Harvard Book Store, and – most especially – Darwin’s.

As I’ve said before, working at Harvard is often like working anywhere else: there are politics and frustrations and paperwork, and also triumphs and community and good, satisfying work. I have struggled here, and felt lost and heartbroken – especially after being laid off, two years ago this month. I have also worked hard for every relationship I’ve built here, and that work has been rewarded: now I regularly see familiar faces around the Square, or have coffee dates and congenial email exchanges with colleagues and friends. This feels like my place, and it is: I speak the language, I know the streets and buildings, I understand the rhythms of this neighborhood. There is so much more to learn (there always is), but I am rooted here, and thriving.

Like our students, I realize that what I’ve gained here – what I have been given, and also what I have worked hard for – comes with responsibility. So I’ll keep asking questions, keep moving forward, keep thinking about how to do my work well, how to affect this place for good.

I’m not graduating with a degree from Harvard this year. But I am grateful, down to my bones, for my four years (and counting) in this place that is ever more mine.

tulips multicolored bed

After this long, gray, lingering winter, the spring in Cambridge has surprised me, as it does every year. This is my seventh spring in New England, and each time it feels entirely new: the slow budding of the bare trees, the first crocuses and snowdrops, the daffodils sprouting up in flowerbeds and in glorious scattered patches along the Charles River.

daffodils charles river cambridge spring

Though we had some warm days early in the season, it has been unrelentingly chilly for weeks: the skies heavy with lowering clouds, the wind whipping off the river, the rain pouring down. As a descendant of two farming families who also grew up in a near-desert region, I hesitate to complain about the rain – especially this year, when we needed it badly to make up for last summer’s drought. But it has left my spirits sodden, my heart disconsolate. I crave the sunshine like a cat, or a sunflower.

scilla flowers sunlight cambridge ma

I have taken lots of long walks, this winter and spring, around Cambridge with a friend who loves the flowers and trees as much as I do. We have watched, together, for every scrap of color and new life: first the snowdrops and crocuses, then the daffodils and hellebores, the gold forsythia and tiny blue scilla, the blooming cherry and redbud trees.

redbud blue sky brick building

Now we’re onto the tulips – my favorite – and the lilacs, which are truly stunning this year. I can’t walk down the sidewalk without stopping to sniff them. Lilies of the valley, shy and dainty, are peering out from under their curving leaves. The azaleas are out in force and the rhododendrons are budding. And the dogwood trees – creamy white and rich, vivid pink – are breathtaking.

dogwood pink flowers blue sky green leaves

It feels inconsequential, sometimes, to pay attention to trees and flowers when the headlines are shouting dismay and destruction, when heartbreak and strain are pressing in on all sides. There is so much going on, both in the world and in the lives of people I love: surgeries, cross-country moves, national security breaches. Job stress, political turmoil, the ache of endings and beginnings, so much fear and pain. All of it, or nearly all of it, beyond my power to mend.

tulips lily of the valley tree roots

I know that snapping photos of flowers, or buying bouquets of them for my desk, won’t solve these larger struggles. Some days I despair of finding enough hope to move forward, though I know in my bones that is the only thing to do.

lilacs may

But on other days, as my friend Jet noted recently, the sky is “a saving kind of blue.” The leaves of the pin oaks are an electric yellow-green, zinging with life. The cherry blossoms pile up along the streets in pink snowdrifts. The white lilacs carry their own scent along with a hint of honeysuckle. And on these days, the very act of stopping to gaze, to sniff, to snap a photo – in other words, to pay attention – is the thing that is saving my life now.

azalea bush

I say this every year: I don’t want to miss it. I want to stay awake, to notice every bit of beauty. I want to be right here, to soak up this glorious, brief season, to walk with open eyes through this neighborhood I love so well. I want to be open to it, all of it. Even when it makes my heart ache.

plot thickens boston public library steps

We recently took some visiting friends on a tour of the renovated Boston Public Library, and found this wonderful staircase. I love a good literary pun – and I adore the BPL. Here’s my latest reading roundup:

Wait, What? And Life’s Other Essential Questions, James E. Ryan
Jim is the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where I used to work. This book is based on his 2016 Commencement speech, which went viral, and it’s good stuff. He explores five essential questions (plus a “bonus question”) to ask in tough situations. Lots of wisdom and humor (and I could hear his voice in my ear, telling these stories). A short, worthwhile read.

Shuffle, Repeat, Jen Klein
June Rafferty can’t wait for high school to be over. Oliver Flagg is soaking up every minute. When these two seniors end up riding to school together every day (thanks to their moms), they start a competition: whoever can prove that high school does or doesn’t matter gets to add a song to their car playlist. Despite their wildly divergent musical tastes (and other differences), they become friends – and possibly more. I loved this sweet, funny YA novel (and June’s hilarious BFF, Shaun). Recommended by Anne.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?, Jodi Taylor
Madeleine Maxwell is back for a sixth adventure: this time as the training officer for five historians-to-be at St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research. With the help of her stalwart crew (and so much tea), Max takes the trainees on some truly wild time-travel adventures and faces some agonizing decisions. (The answer to the titular question is “nearly everything.”) Witty, fast-paced, unexpectedly moving and so much fun, like this entire series. Can’t wait for book 7.

The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days, Michele Weber Hurwitz
Nina Ross is feeling a bit lost as summer begins: anxious about starting high school, worried that her best friend is changing too fast, missing her beloved grandma (who died last year). On an impulse, Nina decides to do one good thing every day over the summer, and the results – for herself and her neighborhood – are surprising. Sweet and hopeful without being saccharine; a lovely middle-grade novel.

The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues, Edward Kelsey Moore
When wandering blues man El Walker returns to his hometown of Plainview, Indiana, he shakes things up: for his estranged son, James; James’ wife, Odette, who can talk to ghosts; and Odette’s best friend Barbara Jean, whose damaged mother, Loretta, knew El when they were young. Meanwhile, Odette, Barbara Jean and their other best friend, Clarice, are dealing with other major struggles. A heartfelt, heartwarming novel of friendship and music and learning to forgive (even when you don’t want to). To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 20).

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

What are you reading?

pink tulips boston public garden spring 2017

This spring weather, y’all. I don’t even know. We’ve had temperature swings worthy of my native West Texas: 80s and humid, 40s and raining, nearly every point in between. Swift-moving clouds, flashes of sunshine, sudden downpours and so much misty rain.

In some ways, the weather is reflecting the state of my soul: fitful, unsettled, often unpredictable. I am dealing with a lot of recent transitions and the fallout from the past year-plus of big changes. Sometimes it’s all I can do to keep up, brew myself a cup of tea and keep going. (Donia Bijan’s words about “the only thing to do” are running through my head every single day.)

In that spirit, I decided it was time for another list of what’s saving my life now: because something, or someone, always is. My lifesavers, in this topsy-turvy spring, include:

  • That benediction I love at Morning Prayers on Tuesdays. “May God go before us to lead us…”
  • My favorite black ankle boots: good for nearly all weather and comfortable for long walks.
  • Poetry by John Daniel, John Terpstra and Brian Doyle.
  • A recent visit from some beloved college friends and their little boy.
  • Tulips in all shades of lipstick red and pink. (See above, for evidence from the Boston Public Garden.)
  • Also: budding lilacs. The first lilies of the valley. Every new green leaf I see.

lilacs may

  • Playing Twenty Questions with my friends’ 10-year-old twins the other night and laughing ourselves silly. (Partly because they’re still figuring out how it works.)
  • The wise, funny, earnest Senior Talks at Morning Prayers, given by graduating students as we wrap up for the year.
  • My daily walks around Harvard Square to my places, especially the florist and my beloved Darwin’s.
  • Lauren Winner’s wise words about middles.
  • My umbrella, fingerless gloves and sunglasses, all of which I’ve been keeping handy. (See also: crazy weather.)
  • Long, long walks around Cambridge with a dear friend.
  • The hilarious sixth installment in Jodi Taylor’s series about time-traveling historians. (I’m the crazy person cracking up on the train, reading it.)
  • Unexpected moments of connection with friends and strangers.
  • As always: lots and lots of tea.

What’s saving your life these days? Please feel free to share in the comments.

maisie dobbs in this grave hour book

It’s May. (How did that happen?) The April showers continue, but they are producing both May flowers (tulips!) and good books. Here’s the latest roundup:

The Last of August, Brittany Cavallaro
Cavallaro’s second YA novel follows Charlotte Holmes and Jamie Watson (descendants of that Holmes and Watson) to Sussex, then to Berlin and Prague, on the trail of an art forgery ring and Charlotte’s missing uncle. I love Jamie’s narration: he is keenly observant and deeply kind (a Watson to his core). This plot was a lot of fun, though the ending didn’t quite work for me. I loved the first book featuring these two, A Study in Charlotte, and will definitely read the third.

How to Fall in Love with Anyone: A Memoir in Essays, Mandy Len Catron
Long before Catron wrote a Modern Love essay that went viral, she was thinking about – and doing research on – love. This book includes Catron’s own love story, but it’s not just a boy-meets-girl romance. She shares her parents’ and grandparents’ love stories, examines her own decade-long relationship that eventually soured, and considers a lot of the cultural baggage surrounding love. Insightful and honest and so good. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 27).

In This Grave Hour, Jacqueline Winspear
September 1939: England and Europe are bracing for another war, and as usual, Maisie Dobbs is in the thick of it. She’s investigating the deaths of several Belgian refugees from the last war, while helping her father and stepmother care for evacuee children, and watching out for her employees. I love Maisie and this was a stellar entry in Winspear’s series – plus a lot of great setup for (I hope) the next few books.

The Shark Club, Ann Kidd Taylor
When Maeve Donnelly was 12, she was bitten by a blacktip shark and kissed by the boy she loved. Eighteen years later, Maeve is a marine biologist with a deep love for sharks. When she returns to her hometown, her past and present (plus an illegal shark-finning operation) collide in powerful ways. A smart, well-written, absorbing novel of love, regret and moving forward. I also loved the memoir Taylor co-wrote with her mother, Sue Monk Kidd, Traveling with Pomegranates. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 6).

A Shimmer of Something: Lean Stories of Spiritual Substance, Brian Doyle
Doyle’s rambling prose poems stop me in my tracks – that is, they force me to pay attention, with his constant insistence that “there are no tiny things.” This collection (like all his work) is wonderful: wry, insightful, observant, compassionate.

Jane of Lantern Hill, L.M. Montgomery
Jane – wise, practical Jane – is one of my more recent faves among Montgomery’s heroines. This book has comforted me every spring for several years now. Love love love.

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

What are you reading?

tulip hyacinth leaves spring
Today

If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze

that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house

and unlatch the door to the canary’s cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,

a day when the cool brick paths
and the garden bursting with peonies

seemed so etched in sunlight
that you felt like taking

a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,

releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage

so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting

into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just that kind of day.

 

I love Collins’ work, but had forgotten about this poem until my friend Louisa shared it at our book club last fall. Now that we are into spring (however fitful and rainy), it feels like the perfect time to share these lines with you.

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

Continue Reading »

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.