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Archive for the ‘musings’ Category

I was waiting in line at the post office recently (enjoying the Mary Tyler Moore episode playing on their new TV), and witnessed something that made my day…

A stooped older gentleman came in asking about the keys to his post office box, which he’d misplaced. One of the postal workers – who clearly knew him by name – immediately said: Oh, you left your box open last week, so we put the keys in it for you, honey. Her colleague retrieved the keys and handed them over, and with some gentle teasing, the man went on his way.

I loved everything about that interaction: the fact that the man got his keys back, the fact that the workers instantly knew where they were, the kindness in the woman’s voice as she called him honey. (She was probably young enough to be his granddaughter.) It was such a moment of care, in a busy city on a grey Thursday afternoon, that it delighted me simply to witness it.

I always feel privileged when I get a peek into moments of tenderness between people, and this sweet instance of neighborly kindness – in a business setting, no less – felt especially precious. I appreciated, too, the not-so-subtle reminder that, as the Mary Tyler Moore theme song reminds us, love is all around.

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My one little word for 2022, as you may remember, was true.

I didn’t write much about it here after that initial post. But it has quietly infused my days, as I run in the mornings and go to work, trade texts and emails and Marco Polos with friends, and talk with my partner about building the life we want to live, together.

For me, this year, being true meant asking myself – and speaking up about – what I wanted, when it made sense to do so (and, once in a while, when it didn’t). It meant having the occasional tough conversation, and putting myself out there to make a few new friends. It meant, sometimes, giving in to joy: dancing with abandon at the ZUMIX Gala, wandering around NYC on a couple of lovely solo weekends. It meant listening to a few inner nudges to do things differently, even if those nudges didn’t always make sense.

I thought a lot, this year, about a Masterpiece podcast episode in which Rachel Shenton, who plays Helen on All Creatures Great and Small, talked about her character needing to “live a more truthful life.” That was one of my aims in choosing this word, and it’s an ongoing challenge: to be honest about what I want, what I need, what I’d like to work toward in my life.

Sometimes that means being honest about grief, when friendships shift or disappear, when plans don’t work out, or when old sadness flares up unexpectedly. Often it means working against my ingrained habit of smoothing things over and being accommodating. Being true, and truthful, can mean admitting the uncomfortable stuff, or disagreeing with the people you love (which is hard for me). And there’s a corollary: once you put the truth out there, you rarely know where it will lead. I can’t control anyone else’s response to my truth, or to my sharing of the bigger truths that are often layered and difficult. That is scary, perhaps. But it’s a more honest way to live.

I’m still carrying true with me as I move into 2023, though I’ve chosen a new word (about which more soon). I’m still humming George Strait’s “True” – it’s a fitting theme song, by a man whose music I have loved all my life. I’m remembering Rachel’s words about Helen, making difficult decisions and staying true to herself in 1930s Yorkshire. And I am trying my best, each day, to be true.

Did you follow a word in 2022? If so, what did it teach you?

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If you read my recent newsletter, you know: the first week of January here was dreary and grey, with mornings shrouded in mist and afternoons that looked just like the mornings. It wasn’t particularly cold (at least, for New England), but it was gloomy as a Yorkshire moor, and not in the romantic way. By Thursday I was mopey, and by Friday I was downright cranky. And on Saturday morning, I nearly squealed – or wept, I couldn’t decide which – when I woke to bright sunshine.

There’s a sharpness to the light this time of year, a sudden urgency, as though the daylight itself is trying to make the most of its limited hours. The sun’s low angle bounces off the harbor and arrows straight into my kitchen window, nearly blinding me, but its golden warmth is welcome.

My houseplants stretch toward the light, and so do I – making sure to bundle up and get out for walks as often as I can. If it’s too cold or I’ve just come back inside, sometimes I stand in the kitchen window and let the sunlight flood my cells, my shadow stretching long on the floorboards behind me, lighting up the ordinary objects that crowd my shelves. Even my silverware drawer looks ethereal, bathed in that kind of light.

For the grey days, I still have my happy lamp and vitamin D pills – and you can bet I’m outside every day, whether walking or running or simply commuting the few blocks to my office. The fresh air helps, no matter what color the skies are. But the sunlight – blazing or shy, intense or elusive – is its own particular gift. Especially on these short, dark days, I’m making the effort to soak it up as much as I can. (I’m also thinking of dipping back into Horatio Clare’s lovely memoir, aptly titled The Light in the Dark.)

How do you find light in the middle of winter?

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We’re a week into the new year, and in typical fashion, it’s chilly (though not as biting as it could be). The blue-sky days are brilliant, and the winterberries are showing off their cheery red, but there’s not a lot of visible growth outside. These days, the growing things I cherish – and a consistent delight – are my profusion of houseplants, a cluster of pots positioned to catch the winter sunlight.

I’ve nurtured a couple of geraniums for years – sometimes red, sometimes pink. Currently I have one of each, and I’m keeping a close eye on them after they got frostbitten during our Christmas cold snap. I’m hoping the southern sunshine will coax them back to thriving before too long. I love their cheery faces and the spicy scent of their leaves.

Across the kitchen, there’s a trio of smaller pots: an African violet sporting purple flowers, a re-sprouting amaryllis, and a purple-and-green striped nanouk plant from Trader Joe’s. Their spot on the waist-high cabinet that serves as a pantry means they catch the afternoon sunlight, and their fresh green growth makes me happy when there’s only brown to be seen outside.

On each kitchen windowsill, I’m starting a paperwhite bulb: my florist sells these around Christmastime, and I always scoop up a few. We are weeks away from crocuses, months away from daffodils and tulips and blossoming cherry trees, but the tall green shoots and sweet-scented white flowers always give me hope that we’ll survive the winter.

I love my houseplants for their inherent beauty, for their promise of new growth in a cold and dark season, for the unruly joy they bring to my (mostly) tidy apartment. New life is messy; growth pokes out an elbow or stretches out a leaf in unexpected places, and I often need the visual reminder. These plants, plus the fresh flowers I buy on the regular, and the fern that sits next to the humidifier, help me look for growth and vitality where I otherwise might not.

What’s delighting you this week? I’d love to hear.

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What Can I Say

What can I say that I have not said before?
So I’ll say it again.
The leaf has a song in it.
Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
and you are somewhere in it
and it will never end until all ends.

Take your busy heart to the art museum and the
chamber of commerce
but take it also to the forest.
The song you heard singing in the leaf when you
were a child
is singing still.
I am of years lived, so far, seventy-four,
and the leaf is singing still.

I found Oliver’s collection Swan at the Booksmith this fall, and this first poem stopped me in my tracks, especially the lines about where to take “your busy heart.” As we enter a new year, I am hoping to take my heart to all those places: engaging with the world, noticing and absorbing beauty, and taking time to be in nature and be still.

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Happy New Year, friends. However you celebrated, I hope your holidays were lovely.

I spent some time in Texas with family and longtime friends, then came back here for a few days to settle back in and hang with my guy. I’m grateful for the time away and also thankful to have had some time here, in my little book-lined flat near the harbor, which is currently filled with winter sunshine.

I often need a writing project to kick-start a new year or season, and – inspired by Ross Gay’s wonderful The Book of Delights – I’ve decided to share a different delight on the blog each Monday in 2023. I want to celebrate the good, especially after the last few difficult years, and this feels both fun and doable. Each week I’ll share a brief meditation on an everyday – sometimes overlooked, but truly wonderful – delight.

In the spirit of the holidays, here’s the first delight: giving, and receiving, gifts that make you feel seen.

I’ve written before about my gift-giving anxiety, the way I can get tied up in knots over what to get my people to properly express my love. Sometimes, I’ve put too much weight on the buying of said gifts: expecting them to somehow make up for the time I can’t spend with people, or the conversations we don’t have. But increasingly, when I can (mostly) let go of all that pressure, I truly enjoy searching for gifts that my people will love.

This year, I bought my guy a few things he adored: a new graphic novel, a bag of his favorite tea, a beautiful ramen bowl he’d admired, a bandana from Janine Kwoh’s wonderful shop. I found fun novels for a few girlfriends that I knew would suit their tastes, and bought my nephew the sequel to an adventure book he loves. And each time, I loved watching their faces light up (or receiving the joyous text) that let me know: I’d gotten them something that would bring them delight, something suited to their particular ways of experiencing joy.

I was also on the receiving end of this delight: my sister bought me a sweatshirt that says, “Drink tea, read books, be happy” (basically my life motto). A friend got me a gift card to the charming new bookstore in Abilene, so I could browse and pick out just what I wanted. Other friends sent citrus shower steamers and cute spatulas and a darling red hat (my favorite color). My guy bought me a stack of thoughtfully chosen books, and a delicate pair of gingko-leaf earrings I’d wanted. And my parents got me a couple of gift cards that will help me plan my next trip – plus a chic plaid scarf, a Christmas ornament from a favorite local shop, and a big bar of creamy Cadbury chocolate.

I often quote Clare from I’ll Be Your Blue Sky: “I am one of those people who believe at least half of love is paying attention.” Giving, and receiving, gifts like this lets me know that my people and I are paying attention to each other. They see me, with my quirks and preferences and particular tastes, and I see them, too, and celebrate their unique souls. Tangible gifts aren’t the only way to pay attention, of course, but they can certainly be a delightful one.

What’s delighting you so far in this new year? I’d love to hear.

P.S. The fourth issue of my newsletter, For the Noticers, comes out soon. Sign up here to get on the list!

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It has been a year, y’all. There’s no way a list can capture it all, but here are a few highlights from the past 12 months:

  • run miles and miles through my beloved neighborhood of Eastie, mostly in the mornings before work
  • knitted myself a pair of gloves, a cozy headband and two sets of legwarmers
  • lived in leggings, jeans, Allbirds sneakers, scarves and my green coat (see above)
  • discovered volunteer ushering and leaned hard into it
  • returned to Vermont, and adventured to western MA and the North Shore, with my guy
  • spent a couple of sweet solo weekends in NYC
  • delighted in hearing and promoting our young people’s music at ZUMIX
  • made lots of chickpea curry, ratatouille, black bean soup and other simple meals
  • drunk hundreds of cups of tea
  • spent a sweet Thanksgiving with my guy
  • interviewed several authors for Shelf Awareness
  • read roughly 230 books
  • done a lot of yoga, mostly at The Point
  • sung in a local carol choir for the fourth year
  • said goodbye to my beloved Darwin’s
  • written a couple of pieces for ACU Today
  • spent a little time in Texas
  • hosted my parents for their first joint visit to Boston since 2018
  • continued to savor my writing class on Tuesdays
  • worked the polls again, twice
  • gone to the movies alone (and with my guy)
  • helped pull off the ZUMIX Gala and Walk for Music
  • started a newsletter
  • done a “Southwest tour” to visit friends in Arizona and California
  • become a regular at the Eastie library
  • published a couple of essays online
  • gone back to some local museums
  • been to Portsmouth, Amherst and Westerly with my girl Jackie
  • taken a salsa dancing class
  • been to my first Comic-Con
  • survived having COVID
  • attended a number of outdoor concerts here in Eastie
  • seen both the Indigo Girls and the Wailin’ Jennys in concert (!!)
  • loved All Creatures season 2 and Magpie Murders
  • turned 39
  • tended geraniums, a fern, an African violet, paperwhite bulbs and cherry tomatoes
  • tried my best to pay attention, love my people and be brave and true

What has this year looked like for you?

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We reach a point every December where I wake up with carols in my head: ribbons of lyrics old and new, lines I’ve known since I was a little girl and lines I’ve learned only in the last few years. They wind and stretch and run through my days, an undercurrent of magic and anticipation, a soundtrack to this time of year I have always loved.

This year, for the fourth time, I’ve been singing with friends in a local carol choir: a handful of us holding black and white binders, filled with songs we already knew (The First Noel, Silent Night) and unfamiliar tunes (Dadme Albricias, O Jesulein Suss, Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light). Just to keep it interesting, Peter always throws in a remix or two of carols we think we know – this year it’s The Holly and The Ivy, with syncopation where we didn’t expect it, and a slightly different version of Ding Dong Merrily on High (still with those Glorias).

There is much laughter, and a lot of wrong notes, and at least a moment or two where we all despair of ever getting it right. But every year, a couple of weeks before our performance, it somehow starts to come together. The phrases begin to make sense, and the chords coalesce into something beautiful. It starts to sound less like we’re stumbling our way through, and for a moment – as my choral director used to say – we actually make music together.

The Christmas music is coming in from all sides, these days. There are Spotify mixes on my morning runs or mellow evenings with my partner, and carols by our Sprouts at ZUMIX, and blaring pop renditions in every store or business I walk into. It’s impossible to escape it – but mostly I am happy to soak it in.

I also wake up, some mornings, with the songs of Christmas past: the youth choir singing verse after verse of Do You Hear What I Hear, led ably by George, our beloved music minister. My dad’s friends Buddy and Clay, singing O Holy Night in a church sanctuary in Dallas, thirty years ago. The Magnificat and other a cappella carols at Brookline and at Highland, those churches that were both once mine. And so many memories of Christmas Eve services with my parents, filled with classics like O Come All Ye Faithful and Silent Night.

Last night, my guy and I went to the Harvard carol service, arriving – to our surprise – during the season’s first snow. We sat in a dark wooden pew in the chapel where I used to go to Morning Prayers, and sang our hearts out: Adeste Fideles and Lo, How a Rose; Hark the Herald and Angels We Have Heard on High. It felt nourishing to be there, among poinsettias and candlelight, to wave at a few Harvard friends and see new faces in the pews. To hear again the words that have framed this season all my life: for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior. My soul magnifies the Lord. You will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes. Glory to God in the highest.

The music of the season is indelible for me; it expresses the wonder and joy through familiar melodies and the lyrics I have loved all my life. I’m grateful – through so much loss and change – that the songs have endured, and that I get to sing them in community, and take my annual turn at trilling the Glorias. This season is full of bustle and swing, but it also calls us back to awe and wonder, and these songs help steady me as I prepare to celebrate.

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It seems to start earlier every year: the full-on blitz of evergreens, candy-cane decorations, tinsel and twinkle lights. Red cups at Starbucks, Santa hats all over the place, peppermint-flavored everything…the list goes on.

I’m here for the twinkle lights and the peppermint treats – and y’all know I love Christmas music and movies. But for the last several years, I’ve been edging into the season: tiptoeing, observing tiny rituals, looking for the light. It feels like too much to turn the Christmas-ness up full blast in mid-November, if I want to actually enjoy it. As Father Tim once observed, it feels like “hitting, and holding, high C” for weeks on end. As a singer, I know that is both screechy and impossible.

This year, I am taking the season in small doses: putting up my two trees, both of them festooned with lights, but not rushing to hang the ornaments. I’m taping Christmas cards around my door frame, wearing the tiny raccoon-holding-a-holly-sprig pin that was my mother’s in the ’90s. I’m listening to Christmas music when I feel like it (Sara Groves, Kate Rusby, the Indigo Girls, Vince Guaraldi), and turning it off when I’ve had enough.

I’ve been rehearsing for our annual neighborhood carol service with friends, trying to hear how the phrases should sound, relaxing into the familiarity of “Silent Night” and “The First Noel.” The music is still creaky, but it will come together. We will probably miss a cue or two, stumble over words in an unfamiliar language. And we will also create chords of beauty and longing, both from carols we know and pieces we have only learned this year.

“The light shines in the darkness,” we are told, and we hear it often this time of year. But living in the Northeast reminds me that the darkness is necessary, too. I can savor the fiery sunsets and crisp moonlit nights, while also appreciating the longer evenings. The light and the darkness need one another; neither one can exist alone.

This truth is harder to accept on an emotional level; I’d rather skip over the grief that comes up this time of year, and focus on the joy. But I know I can’t do that. Ignoring the sadness will only make it worse. Naming it, and leaning into the music and rituals that make room for complexity, is vital if I want to live honestly in – and enjoy – this season.

I do miss some of the Advent rituals of my old life: greening the church on a Saturday morning, gathering with friends I don’t see anymore, singing “O Come O Come Emmanuel” in a community that is no longer mine. There is brokenness and longing in these memories, and also joy: those rituals nourished me, for a time, and now I have to find new rituals to carry me through.

As is so often the case, there’s a metaphor here. Advent is about what happens when the old ways don’t work anymore. It is a sudden interruption, a dramatic entrance, into a world that is desperate for all things to be made new. It is making sense of the light and the darkness – or, failing that, accepting the presence of both in this world.

How are you savoring the season this year? I’d love to hear.

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lamont quad light sky

Last week, I went to see Wakanda Forever with my guy. I’m still a Marvel novice (he’s an avid, longtime fan), and I’d avoided spoilers, wanting to come in with fresh eyes. It was gorgeous and impressive: the fight scenes alone were visually amazing. But the plot – although I knew it began with grief – was way heavier than I expected.

There was a lot of death and vengeance, I said to a friend afterward, debriefing the movie (and my reaction to it) while trying not to give the plot away.

Nothing says Advent like death and vengeance! she joked. Taxes, Herod, etc. And though I laughed, her words kept coming back to me all week.

The Marvel universe is, of course, not explicitly Christian: it has dozens of deities, who often out-human the humans in their capricious plotting and scheming. But both narratives – Black Panther and Advent – are, on some level, about what happens when humans pursue power at the cost of oppressing others. There is chaos and darkness, and a lot of yearning for things to be made new, in both Wakanda’s world and ours.

The villains wear different faces, perhaps. Herod is a shadowy figure to most of us, though he was infamous in his day for cruelty and paranoia (and, of course, taxation). The villains in Wakanda Forever are the colonizers: white Europeans who, in that world and this, have seized land and resources for themselves, with little thought to the impacts on native peoples, or any claim those same peoples might have to the land they have inhabited for centuries.

I admit it is uncomfortable – and necessary – to watch movies where people who look like me are the antagonists. It also makes me think, every time, of what Galadriel says at the beginning of the Fellowship of the Ring film: she’s talking about the rings designed for the kings of men, “who, above all else, desire power.”

If power (often via control of valuable resources) is the goal, then governments and rulers will stop at nothing to secure it. Even for those who primarily want to protect their people and homeland, power can be a seductive – and blinding – distraction. Several of the characters in Wakanda Forever get sidetracked by its lure, nearly launching the entire world into a blistering full-scale war.

There is (isn’t there always?) another way, which is the message of Advent: the quiet, messy, upside-down approach of mercy, the confounding way that hope and scrappy underdogs often sneak in to save the day. There is a way, even among warring nations, to choose peace and justice over iron-fist control, even when that justice comes at a heavy price. In Wakanda Forever, we watch several characters grapple with this choice – even as the consequences of others’ choices bring heavy losses and deep pain.

Neither narrative wraps up neatly: the movie ends, of course, and Christmas does come, but neither erases the pain that came before it. Neither ending can entirely negate the realities of oppression and power-seeking, and the losses that cannot be recovered. Death and darkness are real, and sometimes they threaten to overwhelm the light.

And yet: we wouldn’t keep watching superhero movies, or observing Advent, if we didn’t believe the light would triumph somehow. We would turn away from these stories altogether if we didn’t believe – or hope – the light could break through.

We keep telling these stories, trying to make sense of our pain, trying to turn toward mercy and justice and new life, even when the grief is a heavy weight, even when the darkness covers the earth. We believe, somehow, that the light is coming, that redemption is possible, that death and darkness are not the end.

In this season of deep darkness and stubborn light, I’ll keep clinging to that belief – whether via the essays in my Advent book or, unexpectedly, on a journey to Wakanda.

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