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Archive for the ‘friendship’ Category

atomic weight of love book sunflowers

I was humbled by the thought that our lives, however briefly, had touched. I thought about how lives bump up against each other, whether for moments of superficial conversation in line at the post office or a deeper enmeshment. […] How much meaning should I ascribe to knowing a stranger for the moments it took for me to donate to a V-book [war stamps] campaign? What were the evolutionary implications of kindness?

—Elizabeth J. Church, The Atomic Weight of Love

I came across these lines recently in Church’s stunning novel about the life of Meridian Wallace, an ornithologist who studies the behavior of crows. They reminded me powerfully of that Elizabeth Alexander poem, the one I have carried with me during a spring and summer fraught with personal changes and national tragedy:

Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,

and are we not of interest to each other?

Every time I turn on the news, there is more heartbreak to absorb and to bear: shootings by and of policemen, black families afraid for their lives in the U.S., refugees struggling to find a safe place to land, military unrest in Turkey and political turmoil in Britain. I have wept and I have ached, and I have wondered, What now?

I have failed, so far, to come up with any answers except this one: we must stop reacting to each other out of hatred, disinterest and fear.

I moved to Boston six summers ago from the plains of west central Texas, where I had lived nearly all my life. I’d heard that people in the Northeast were cold and unfriendly, and I was unsure how to carve out a place for myself in this bustling, unfamiliar city. It took me a long time to build a community here, to form real bonds with colleagues and friends. It took me even longer to start reaching out to others without fearing rebuff or dismissal. I cherish the friendships that have grown from that slow work: the brilliant women in my book club, the far-flung but genuine community at our church, my coworkers at various offices around Harvard.

When I read these lines about kindness, though, I thought about a different group of people: the ones whose lives bump up against mine in small but important daily ways.

The florist in Brattle Square, who always has a kind word for me when I go in to buy tulips or roses. The mail guy I used to work with, who would pause on his daily rounds to chat about Boston sports or the weather. My elderly Italian landlords, who live downstairs from us. The woman who makes the delicious tamales at the farmers’ market, tops them with freshly made salsa and calls me mi’ja. And the coffee-slinging, sandwich-making crew at Darwin’s, most of whose last names I don’t know, but whose smiling faces and cheerful banter are a regular and indispensable part of my workdays.

I am fascinated by the idea of all these lives constantly bumping up against each other, against my life, as I go about my daily routine. I am even more fascinated when I get a glimpse into one of their stories, when I break out of my self-focus long enough to truly connect with someone else. More and more, I am convinced this is the only way to begin healing the deep wounds of our common humanity: to listen, to look, to pay attention to one another.

It takes no work at all to encounter other human beings: we are surrounded by each other constantly, especially those of us who live and work in cities. But it sometimes takes work, and it always takes intention, for us to engage one another with kindness.

I’m not sure about the answer to Meridian’s question: I don’t know what the evolutionary implications of kindness would be. But they have to be better than the results of racism and hatred, fear and indifference, that are tearing our nation apart.

I know that smiling at a stranger will not solve the problems of the world: finding a better path forward will be the work of years. But kindness and attention must be where we begin. We must – I will keep saying it as long as I have to – we must be of interest to each other.

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candle flower

Amid the horror and heartbreak of the past week, I have been turning back to poetry, because I honestly don’t know what else to do. I quoted this poem in a post I wrote last month (after the tragedy in Orlando), but I share it here in full.

Ars Poetica #100: I Believe

Poetry, I tell my students,
is idiosyncratic. Poetry

is where we are ourselves
(though Sterling Brown said

“Every ‘I’ is a dramatic ‘I'”),
digging in the clam flats

for the shell that snaps,
emptying the proverbial pocketbook.

Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,

overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way

to get from here to there.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)

is not all love, love, love,
and I’m sorry the dog died.

Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,

and are we not of interest to each other?

—Elizabeth Alexander

I also recommend Philip Larkin’s “The Mower,” Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Gate A-4,” and Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.”

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papaw-grandkids

Last week, my dad sent a group text to my mom, my sister and me, reminding us that it was my grandfather’s birthday. “He loved the three of you very much,” Dad wrote. “I do too.”

I read it and thought about Papaw, a quiet man with kind eyes (pictured above with some of his grandkids in the late ’80s). It seems unbelievable, but he has been gone 16 years now. He died of cancer in the summertime, when I was a high school student, and we drove up to the family farm in southwest Missouri as we did every summer – but this time it was for the funeral.

We gathered with family on a June day at the old farmhouse outside of town where my grandparents raised their three boys. My dad spoke at the funeral and made everyone laugh, telling stories about his childhood and honoring the man who taught his boys to work hard, respect their elders and love one another.

Afterward, we all went back to the farmhouse and I helped my Aunt Carmen, my grandmother’s best friend, clean out the crowded kitchen fridge so we could find room for a dozen deli trays. (I remember us laughing helplessly at outdated jars of mayonnaise and so much sliced cheese, grateful for a moment of lightness amid our grief.)

Even without that text, I would have remembered Papaw this month: he was born on June 2 and later died on June 19, and so this month always reminds me of him.

There are dates that loom large in every life: birthdays, anniversaries, deaths. The births or the funerals of those we love; the days we receive the news that will change our lives, for a moment or forever. As I recently passed the one-year anniversary of my layoff, I’ve been thinking about the smaller anniversaries that also mark us.

I got laid off on the day before my husband’s birthday, which also happens to be the same day he proposed, nine years ago now (we’ve been married for nearly eight). There are other dates I don’t have to mark on a calendar to remember: the August night I got the phone call about my friend Cheryl’s death; the long-ago spring evening I got baptized in the little Baptist church in Coppell. And the night we arrived in Boston, grubby and tired from four days of driving cross-country but still eager to begin a new adventure.

I’ve written before about how my body also seems to remember certain places at certain times of year: the mountains of New Mexico in mid-May, windswept Whitby in February, Oxford at many times and seasons. Time and calendars may be relatively recent human inventions, but I believe our bodies and souls hold these memories, nudge us to remember these anniversaries. It is part of being human, this bittersweet ribbon of memory, the way we are marked by both grief and joy.

I miss Papaw even though he’s been gone a long time: I wish he could have met my husband and my sister’s husband, attended our weddings and our graduations, gotten down on the floor to play with his great-grandsons. He would have loved it, all of it. But I am grateful for him and his memory, and for the quiet reminder in my soul (and, okay, from my dad) every June: a nudge to remember.

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my kitchen year book pie flowers

I’ve been reading Ruth Reichl’s glorious cookbook-cum-memoir, My Kitchen Year. The book includes 136 recipes spread over four seasons, and each recipe is accompanied by a short essay. Most of the essay/recipe combinations begin with one of Reichl’s tweets, which are almost haiku-like: brief, clear, vivid renderings of her moods, meals, and where she finds herself at that precise moment.

My Kitchen Year was born out of a difficult time in Reichl’s life: the year after Gourmet magazine closed down, suddenly and unexpectedly. Reichl, the magazine’s longtime editor, found herself jobless, unmoored and totally unsure of where to go next. (I nodded my head as I read those passages: my layoff last spring induced similar feelings.)

She took refuge, perhaps unsurprisingly, in her kitchen, and the resulting book contains many mouthwatering recipes. But I loved it most for its simple, lyrical record of her journey through that year. Reichl writes with grace and honesty about feeling lonely and uncertain, about trying new ingredients and projects, and retreating to comforting familiar favorites. Her prose evokes quiet mornings at her house in upstate New York; afternoons spent browsing cheese and butcher shops amid the colorful bustle of New York City; reuniting with Gourmet colleagues for long evening meals and spending hours by herself, in cafes or on city sidewalks.

My Kitchen Year is about food, certainly, but it’s also grounded in a particular place and time: field notes from a year when food and a few key relationships were Reichl’s only anchors.

Ten years ago (!) this month, for my college graduation, I received a copy of Julia Cameron’s The Sound of Paper. My then-boyfriend (now my husband) plucked it off the shelf at our local Books-a-Million, knowing I loved books about writing and thinking perhaps I’d enjoy this one. He could not have known – nor could I – how powerfully Julia’s short essays, about writing and living and beginning again, would resonate with me.

Like Reichl, Cameron (though I call her “Julia” in my head) writes in first person, grounding her ideas in a specific place and context. She begins many of her essays with a note about the weather: a “gray, dreary, socked-in day” or a morning of blue skies and budding trees. She writes about her New York City apartment overlooking the Hudson River; the house she loves in Taos, New Mexico; the music and books that inspire her. Her ideas about building a life conducive to creativity, a rich and artful life, are broadly appealing, but they are also field notes, full of crisp sensory details. She invites us to notice each day along with her.

I think that’s how blogging and social media began: as a way to share field notes from our lives, a way to reach out to one another across the vast spaces of modern life and say, “Here I am. This is what I’m noticing today.” I have met so many wonderful people (some of whom I’ve eventually met in person) this way: through the small, quotidian details we’ve shared online, the ways we have chosen to record and remember the stuff of our lives.

I have an ongoing text conversation with a dear friend that functions in a similar way. We share small notes on of our days: traffic and commutes and weather, lunch and errands, meetings with friends and colleagues. We talk about big ideas too, and what’s making us laugh, and sometimes we share what is saving our lives. Some of it probably is universal. But much of it is blessedly particular: field notes from these specific, mundane, glorious days.

I write sometimes here about the Big Things: the struggles of the job hunt; the prickly ache of missing my family; the quiet glory of my marriage; what it means to be a person of faith. But I am just as likely, on any given day, to be writing about the small, vivid, particular things. To be sharing field notes from right where I am.

Thanks for reading. As Lindsey noted recently, there is a lot of kindness that shows up online, and I’m grateful for every bit of it here in this space.

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daffodils blue pitcher plums

Every once in a while, I find it helpful to make a list of what is saving my life – from the small daily things to the big, soul-affirming stuff. As we make our way through April, here’s what’s saving my life these days:

  • Daily chitchat with the folks at Darwin’s, who provide spicy chai, delicious lunches and cookies, and excellent conversation about everything from pickles to music to childhood memories.
  • Tulips from my local florist, perched on the corner of my dining-room table. (Also, daffodils on my friend Amy’s table, above.)
  • Poetry from Veronica Patterson and Naomi Shihab Nye.
  • Running into people I know in Harvard Square and realizing all over again: this is my neighborhood.
  • The Sunday #FlowerReport on Twitter, hosted by my friend Alyssa. (Photos of gorgeous spring flowers from all over the place.)

early tulips public garden boston spring

  • Sarcastic asides from my co-workers. (Sometimes a little snark can save the day.)
  • Weekly phone calls with my mom, and reports on my three-year-old nephew’s T-ball games.
  • Frosted lemon cookies, flaky Scottish scones and whatever else I feel like baking.
  • Good books. (Recent favorites include Stir, The Enchanted April and Under a Painted Sky.)
  • Budding trees and blooming flowers – many of which I photograph for the #FlowerReport.

tulip magnolia buds blooms

  • The views from my sixth-floor office in Harvard Square.
  • Striped dresses and black leggings with my favorite green coat. Rinse and repeat. (See also: not overthinking it.)
  • A couple of blue-sky, open-window days.
  • Eating my lunch outside, when I can, preferably on the south porch of Mem Church.
  • Several much-needed catch-up sessions with friends: book club, lunch dates, cups of tea.
  • The dim glow of the over-the-stove light in my kitchen, which makes it look so cozy late at night.
  • Holding hands with my husband before we fall asleep.
  • Texts from my sister and a couple of dear friends.

What’s saving your life these days? I’d really like to know.

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On kindness

on my left print friends bench curly girl

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

This quote has been variously attributed to Plato, Philo of Alexandria, Ian MacLaren (the pen name of a man called John Watson) and many others. I’m not all that concerned with who said it first, but I’ve been thinking about it often lately, because it’s saving my life.

I am fighting a couple of hard battles right now: navigating the seemingly endless job hunt and enduring another long, hard winter. I know I have much to be grateful for: a loving husband, a staunch and supportive family, all the basic physical necessities, so many good books. But life these days is tough. And kindness – often from people I know, but sometimes from total strangers – is making a real and tangible difference for me.

A couple of weeks ago, I ordered a breakfast sandwich at Darwin’s, and my order got lost in the shuffle – so one of the baristas gave me a free (heart-shaped) cookie while his co-worker apologized and started making my sandwich. I’m often in there for lunch too, and I look forward to the chitchat with my favorite staff members as they ring up my sandwich and chips. Even a brief exchange about the weather, which has been reliably crazy recently, or a laugh about nothing at all, can turn my entire day around.

I’m reaching the end of a temp gig I have loved, and a work acquaintance asked me last week, “What’s next for you?” “I don’t know,” I admitted. He said he’d keep an eye out for writing gigs for me – and he’s far from the only person who has made that offer. On a cold, gray day in the middle of a week of bad news, that simple gesture made me want to weep with gratitude.

After a difficult meeting last week, I found myself in tears in the middle of my office – not a situation I’d have preferred, but I couldn’t help it. Two of my colleagues supplied hugs, tissues, laughter and encouragement. I’ve only known these women for a couple of months, but I was – and am – so grateful.

As I am on the receiving end of kindness, I’m trying to remember to extend it to friends, family, acquaintances and strangers. These small gestures have bolstered me up as I fight my own battles – so I’m doing my best to pay it forward.

When has kindness made a real difference for you?

(Image from Curly Girl Design – a dear friend bought me this print a few years ago.)

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brookline backyard snow blue sky

I feel like winter is all I’m talking about here lately. (Well, winter and books. Because I’m always talking about books.)

I forget, every year, how winter takes over my life. It affects my commute, my diet (everything warm and spicy, please), my wardrobe (what goes with fleece-lined tights)?, my mental state. And although we escaped the recent blizzard with just a few inches of snow, it’s still cold, dark and sometimes icy out there.

Since winter is hard for a lot of us, my friend Anne put out a call for answers to this question: what is saving your life right now?

She didn’t make up the question, and neither did I – we both got it from Barbara Brown Taylor. But it’s too good a question not to revisit once in a while. Especially when things are tough.

So, in the midst of short days and long nights, constant subway delays and unpredictable weather, family illness and work stress and frustrating news from all over the world, it strikes me as not only good but necessary to list the things that are saving my life now. (I’m linking up with Anne and others – feel free to join us!)

lonesome dove breakfast

  • A few pages of Lonesome Dove every morning over breakfast. I am loving the epic story of Augustus McCrae, Woodrow F. Call, and their journey from Texas to Montana. (My dad adores it, but I’ve never read it before.)
  • My snazzy red journal, a gift from my sister.
  • Chitchat with my favorite sandwich-maker at Darwin’s, who has dreads halfway down his back, a fondness for tie-dye and a warm, wide smile.
  • Sea salt and vinegar chips (a new addiction).
  • Molly’s scones, which I cannot stop making (and eating).
  • Chai lattes from Darwin’s (also known, on some days, as the elixir of life).
  • Weekly group emails from the Great New Books ladies.
  • Related: stacks of good books. And my favorite bookish podcasts.
  • Blue skies, which can turn an entire day around.

blue sky orange building cambridge ma

  • Twinkle lights in my living and dining room.
  • Tea in my favorite blue mug (above).
  • Scarves and boots and fleece-lined tights.
  • The display of local art in the hallway at work. So cheery and colorful.
  • Tulips on my dining-room table.
  • The final season of Downton Abbey, which (so far) is so good.
  • Texts from a couple of stalwart friends.
  • The staycation my husband and I were able to take this weekend (of which more soon).
  • Sunday nights around the table at Ryan and Amy’s.

It’s your turn. What is saving your life right now?

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