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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.

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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.

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daffodils desk

If you’re a regular reader, you know that I periodically turn back to the question of what is saving my life now. (I got it from Barbara Brown Taylor’s luminous memoir Leaving Church.)

Even pausing to think about the question – or jot down list in my journal at the end of a long day – can help shift my perspective. There’s always something saving my life, even on the days when it feels like everything is killing me (and there are a lot of those, lately).

As she’s done in midwinter for the past few years, my friend Anne Bogel at Modern Mrs. Darcy is inviting everyone to share what’s saving their lives in this cold, bleak season. I’m sharing my list below, because I need the reminder to look for the lifesavers (or the bits of magic) that are all around. Bonus: I love the snapshot it provides of how my days look (and how they are brightened) at a given moment.

Here, in early February of a year that’s already been a wild ride, is what’s saving my life now:

  • The La La Land soundtrack, which is full of swingy jazz, melancholy piano music and a couple of songs that make me cry.
  • $3 daffodils for my desk (see above), and chats with my florist.
  • My magic green coat, which garners compliments from strangers all. the. time.
  • Red lipstick, especially on a grey day.
  • My daily walks to Darwin’s, and checking in with my people there.
  • Verlyn Klinkenborg’s wise, practical book on writing, which I am savoring on my morning commutes.
  • The mornings I get to catch a ride to the train station with my husband. Those few minutes in the car together are precious.
  • Texts from a few friends who are my lifelines.
  • Long (or short) walks around Harvard Square: beloved streets, fresh air, the chance to stretch my legs and clear my head.
  • Fleece-lined tights as the temperatures drop again.
  • Piles of bright orange, tangy clementines.
  • Hot water with honey and lemon, on the nights when I need a mug of warm (non-caffeinated) comfort.
  • The colorful quilt made by my husband’s grandmother, which we sleep under all winter long.
  • My happy lamp, Vitamin D pills, two desk lamps and all the sunshine I can get. (The days are slowly getting longer…)
  • Weekly yoga classes at my local studio, where I am known by name.
  • The fleece-lined plaid slippers I got for Christmas – so cozy.
  • The Hamilton soundtrack, which helps me summon my courage.
  • Scribbling in my journal when I can – even a few lines can help me sort out my thoughts.

Feel free to share your lifesavers in the comments, or hop over to Anne’s blog to join the linkup.

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katie jer xmas 2016

  • bounced around Harvard (or a certain section of it) like a pinball, temping in two different offices and coming back to the first one for a more permanent gig, which I am loving.
  • taken countless walks to Darwin’s for cups of chai, delicious sandwiches, various other treats, and good talk with the folks behind the counter.
  • Related to both of the above: found several places where I know in my bones that I belong.
  • flown to Texas to surprise my dad for his 60th birthday.
  • moved to a new apartment in the same town I’ve lived in for six years, and navigated many shifts in my daily routine.
  • read nearly 200 books. I reviewed 51 of them for Shelf Awareness and six for Great New Books.
  • visited Martha’s Vineyard for the first time.
  • spent three blissful weekends in New York City: one in March, one in August and one in October.
  • become an obsessive (is there any other kind?) Hamilfan.
  • survived a wild Commencement season right in the thick of things at the Harvard Gazette.
  • been humbled over and over again by friends and colleagues who have helped me through transition: with advice, packing boxes, kind words, cups of tea and so much more.
  • returned to PEI for a wonderful and much-needed vacation.
  • hosted my parents for their annual visit to Boston.
  • returned to Abilene for my 10-year college reunion and a packed, nourishing weekend of time with my people there.
  • walked across Harvard Yard to many Morning Prayers services and had my spirit refreshed.
  • filled up half a dozen journals.
  • turned thirty-three and grown even more comfortable in my own skin.
  • spent my seventh (!) fall in New England, and snapped so many photos of leaves, as I do every year.
  • survived (as have we all) the most contentious election season in recent memory.

I’m frankly not sure what to say or think as we head into 2017. A friend sent me this Grace Paley quote recently, and it seems more apt than anything I could come up with: “Let us go forth with fear and courage and rage to save the world.”

Wishing you courage and peace in this new year, friends.

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ornaments light book

Somehow, we’ve landed in mid-December, which is proving both twinkly and hectic, as per usual. Here’s what’s saving my life, as we move through the last stretch of quasi-normal days before the Christmas break:

  • The Sylvia Plath poem from which this post takes its title.
  • “O Come O Come Emmanuel” (the Civil Wars version), on repeat.
  • Hot, spicy chai and a buttered English muffin from Darwin’s in the mornings.
  • Striped dress + black leggings + boots + scarf + magic green coat = warm, stylish winter uniform.
  • Sunshine and blue skies, even when it’s frigid out. (Related: walks in the fresh air, any time I can get them.)

charles river cambridge sunset

  • A couple of evenings in a friend’s living room, eating popcorn and drinking mulled cider and reading Advent poetry.
  • Snatching time to write in the library before work, and exchanging smiles with the security guard.
  • Yoga classes whenever I can squeeze them in. (Namaste.)
  • Krista Tippett’s On Being interview with Mary Karr, which is warm and wise and so honest.
  • A much-needed catch-up with a friend over hot chocolate the other day.
  • The particular blue of these early December mornings, glimpsed from the bathroom window.
  • Pumpkin chai from David’s Tea, brewed strong in a purple travel mug. Plus one of Molly’s scones and a crisp apple, every morning. (See also: not overthinking it.)

darwins sign winter snow

  • Twinkle lights: on my desk at work, on the trees in Harvard Square, on my two Christmas trees (one big, one tiny).
  • A few pages of Winter Solstice before bed, even when I can barely keep my eyes open.
  • Community of all stripes and in all places, from church to work to my daily rounds in the Square. It has been a turbulent year, to say the least, but I am deeply grateful to have found several places where I know I belong.

What’s saving your life this December? Please share, if you’re willing.

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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?

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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?

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