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Archive for the ‘friendship’ Category

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 (I remember us laughing helplessly at outdated jars of mayonnaise and so much sliced cheese, grateful for a moment of lightness amid our grief.)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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between you and me beach

A colleague’s new haircut. The results of the latest presidential debate. The next round of frigid winter weather. Small talk.

The best type of Girl Scout cookies. Real estate prices in Boston. The vagaries of the office microwave. Small talk. 

Weekend plans. The PowerBall jackpot. The merits of various restaurants or dog breeds. Small talk.

Small talk often gets a bad rap these days – especially among introverts. We like to think of ourselves as deep, sensitive, thoughtful souls whose true brilliance can’t possibly be captured in a brief exchange on trivial topics like the ones above. But honestly, the longer I am an adult, the more I believe that small talk is a necessary skill to build and hone.

I’m a true introvert, and my preferred form of conversation is long and deep and wide-ranging, preferably with a dear friend. But that isn’t always possible, especially in a professional setting, or a gathering of friends where I don’t know everyone. I’d often rather hide in a corner if I’m feeling shy or uncomfortable, but I frequently find myself making small talk instead, whether it’s to tamp down my own anxiety or put someone else at ease.

Recently, I’ve found myself in a lot of social situations with new people: greeting visitors at church, meeting work colleagues for the first time, attending a party where I knew the hosts but almost none of the other guests. I didn’t have to carry the entire conversation in these instances, but in each case, I made the effort to ask a few questions or throw out a comment on a topic of general interest. And it helped.

To be clear, I’m no expert on wine or property taxes or long-distance cycling. But a brief conversation on each of these subjects has helped me build bridges with brand-new acquaintances. (Bonus: one of those bridges led to a conversation about mystery novels, a topic I adore.)

Small talk – those tiny, seemingly inconsequential interactions sparked by comments such as “It’s cold out there today” or “I like your scarf” – can be more than a social lubricant among strangers. It’s often the first building block of a real relationship. And in a world where we all reflexively pull out our smartphones to avoid uncomfortable moments, it’s often noticeable by its absence.

I’m on the lookout for ways to bring more gumption into my life this year, and making small talk often requires it of me. I’m sometimes afraid my comments will fall flat – and, let’s be honest, they occasionally do. But I’m almost always glad I made the effort.

If I’m lucky, I’ve done more than mitigate my own nervousness: I’ve also put someone else at ease, or enjoyed a moment of human connection. That’s worth a little trivia, or a little embarrassment. Small talk is definitely a skill worth keeping in my conversational arsenal.

How do you feel about small talk?

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betsy boys presents christmas

I never quite know how to write about Christmas, once it’s over. The presents have all been opened and admired, the holiday cards (finally) sent out, the suitcases packed and repacked and finally unpacked. We’re back in the routine of work and winter and daily life, and the 10 days we spent in Texas, driving up and down I-20 to see people we love, seem very far away.

This year will go down as the year of not-quite-normal: so many of our usual family traditions were altered or skipped over altogether. My sister has two small boys and was hobbling around in a knee brace this year (see above), so we opened family presents at her house instead of at my parents’ on Christmas Eve. For the same reason, J and I drove to Christmas Eve service by ourselves, slipping into a center pew to listen to a sermon by an unfamiliar minister. My dad, despite his best efforts, could not find any eggnog, so we missed having our annual cup together. And the small-child chaos was such that we completely forgot to read Luke 2 aloud before diving into the presents.

My husband’s family moved to a new house in a new town this summer, so we spent the first weekend of our trip navigating unfamiliar territory – a string of small towns in the East Texas countryside. The weather swung wildly from unseasonably warm (73 degrees on Christmas Day) to icy sleet and snow two days later. Our favorite Mexican restaurant was closed on the day we tried to go, and I had a 24-hour bug earlier in the week that prevented me from enjoying another Tex-Mex meal with my parents. All in all, it felt – I have to say – a little weird.

And yet.

On a breezy Monday night, J and I stood in a semicircle and sang Christmas carols a cappella with a few of his choir buddies from high school. The notes of those familiar tunes – “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” an absurdly complicated arrangement of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” – touched something deep inside me. This was our second time at this choral reunion, and though I am technically an outsider, they welcomed me like an old friend. Afterward, we walked to a local bar for snacks and cocktails, and told stories and laughed late into the evening.

My in-laws may have changed their address, but we are always sure of a welcome there: from J’s parents, his sister, the two cats, and three-year-old Annie, who jumped on J the minute we walked in the door and hardly let go for three days. She danced around, effervescent with joy, trying out her new rocking horse while clad in a pink princess dress. “Look at me, Uncle Miah! Watch me, Aunt Katie!”

jer annie shoulders smiles

It felt odd to be at Christmas Eve service without my parents, but their church, where I grew up, is still and always my favorite place to be on that night. We found seats in front of some family friends and lit our candles during “Silent Night.” Our beloved music minister, George, led the service with his customary joie de vivre. I slipped through the crowd to give him a hug afterward. And that felt – unmistakably – like Christmas.

My grandparents drove up from their house near San Antonio, and Pop brought me a gorgeous bookcase that he’d worked on for months. Neno brought a stack of old photos for Betsy and me to look through, and we spent a happy afternoon in Betsy’s kitchen, riffling through them and laughing and telling stories while we snacked on Pop’s guacamole and took turns making dishes for Christmas dinner.

We had all our traditional favorites: smoked brisket with Neno’s barbecue sauce, sweet potato casserole, Mom’s cranberries suspended in Jell-O, peanut butter kiss cookies. We ate several meals around the table that Pop made for Betsy, with my nephews in their high chairs and all of us squeezed in elbow to elbow. We had stockings at Mom and Dad’s on Christmas morning, with Mom’s three Christmas trees twinkling, and Dad and I sneaked in our favorite parts of Christmas Eve on Sesame Street.

cookie monster christmas eve telephone

“The best is being together, even if it is chaotic,” I said to Mom after Christmas, when we were discussing this year’s craziness. And it might sound cliched, but it’s true.

The best was sitting on the big sectional couch in Betsy’s living room, telling stories and cracking up at inside family jokes and hugging my nephews (when they stood still long enough). The best was catching up with multiple friends in Abilene, cramming in so many stories from the past year, sitting around a table until nearly midnight and laughing until our sides hurt. The best was chicken and dumplings around Frankie’s table, homemade pizza with Laura and Bill, cups of chai with Lisa and Mike, hugs from Shanna and Calvin and Gail.

The best, always, is heading two thousand miles south and west, knowing what’s at the end of that road: home. (And those small, wiggly cuties we love.)

jer harrison christmas

I hope your holidays were wonderful, and that 2016 is treating you right so far.

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