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Archive for the ‘musings’ Category

Darkest Before Dawn

Three days into the new year,
and despite the lack of adequate light,
our white phalaenopsis orchid
has eased open a third delicate bloom.
Perhaps coaxed by the warmth
of the woodstove a few feet away,
the orchid thrives in its tiny pot
shaped like the shell of a nautilus,
sending out new stems and glossy leaves,
its aerial roots—green at the tips—
reaching upward like tentacles
to sip the morning air. These blooms
stir something too long asleep in me,
proving with stillness and slow growth
what I haven’t wanted to believe
these past few months—that hope
and grace still reign in certain sectors
of the living world, that there are laws
which can never be overturned
by hateful words or the wishes
of power-hungry men. Be patient,
this orchid seems to say, and reveal
your deepest self even in the middle
of winter, even in the darkness
before the coming dawn.

I found this poem last winter in How to Love the World, a lovely, hopeful anthology edited by Crews. I have been thinking of it again in these cold January days: sometimes keen and blue and bright, sometimes grey and damp and dark.

While I am not growing orchids, my last paperwhite bulb – which sat on the kitchen windowsill for over a week with no signs of growth at all – has started to uncurl its green stem, perhaps in response to the blinding winter sunshine. I am taking it as a sign of hope, and thought it was apt to share this poem with you.

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Hello, friends. It is so cold – the high yesterday here in Boston was 14 (!) degrees. It feels much warmer today (we’re above freezing!), but between the cold and the endless pandemic anxiety, I’ve been struggling with the blues. At least the sun is (mostly) shining; we had a solid week of rain and fog around Christmas/New Year’s and it was rough.

I’m isolating in my apartment this week after a positive COVID test. My symptoms are mild and I have enough groceries, etc., but of course it’s a bummer. And the headlines – and their individual impacts on each of our lives – go on and on.

So, in the spirit of hope and trying to find some joy, here’s what’s saving my life this week:

  • Sunshine, as always. Even when it’s bitterly cold, these blue and silver winter days (and the sunlight pouring in my kitchen windows) are so beautiful.
  • The Twisted Tomboy shower bombs I found recently at the Booksmith – so potent and refreshing.
  • Abby Rasminsky’s gorgeous, honest newsletter – she writes so well about pandemic life and trying to find the good.
  • The teas I stocked up on in December: one batch from my beloved local MEM Tea, one from the wonderful McNulty’s in Greenwich Village, NYC.
  • Related: my favorite mugs, including an old one from Obvious State and a newish one from Flour.
  • My friend Micha’s lovely, contemplative podcast, The Slow Way.
  • Hannah Jane Parkinson’s quirky, lovely collection The Joy of Small Things, which I found at the marvelous Three Lives – exactly what it sounds like.
  • Texts and calls from my people, and a friend dropping off a bag of groceries the other day.
  • My leggy, lovely geraniums, which are reaching for the light in my kitchen window.
  • Good books, including a stack of library finds and a virtual stack of e-galleys for review.
  • Fun Spotify mixes: jazz and movie soundtracks, folk and Motown, nineties country – whatever I’m in the mood for.

What’s saving your life in these long winter days?

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How lightly we learn to hold hope,
as if it were an animal that could turn around
and bite your hand. And still we carry it
the way a mother would, carefully,
from one day to the next.

–from “Insha’Allah” by Danusha Laméris

I started 2021 with hope as my one little word. I thought, frankly, that it might be tempting fate to choose hope as my word in the middle of a pandemic, when I was unemployed and lonely and terrified of what the next months might bring. Six days into 2021, a group of white supremacists stormed the U.S. Capitol, and of course that was not nearly the end of the terrors and losses the year brought.

Hope, as we all know, is gritty and often surprising. It shows up where it was not expected, and it gleams out, sometimes, on the really hard days. It is, as Emily D. reminds us, “the thing with feathers,” and it is also often a choice. I had to choose hope many times in 2021 instead of falling into despair – instead of looking at the headlines and the case counts and my own empty apartment and sinking back into a fog of hopelessness. I did not always manage it; there were a lot of hard and lonely days. But having hope there at my elbow, nudging me, sometimes helped.

My words for each year may start out as abstract concepts, but as the days go on they become tangible, daily practices, embodied through actions and sometimes through other people. For me, hope this year often looked like the small daily stuff: washing dishes, going for a run, sending out yet another job application. It looked like walks with friends, fresh flowers, washing my face at night, making tentative travel plans (some of which I got to keep). It looked like choosing to believe good things would happen, but – critically – trying to let go of my notions of how they might happen.

I kept thinking this year of a line from Henri Nouwen, from that Advent book I love: “I have found it very important in my own life to let go of my wishes and start hoping.” Although it believes in a glad outcome, hope – Nouwen seems to be saying – is often open-ended.

Hope in hard times is, paradoxically, difficult and necessary; I am thus not done with hope, and I don’t suppose I will ever be. I am grateful for its presence in my life this past year, and I hope (as it were) to remain open to whatever it has to teach me.

Did you follow a word in 2021? If so, what did it teach you?

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Last Monday, I threw on my green coat over my pajamas and went out for a walk instead of my usual morning run. My running coach and many other wise people remind me regularly that rest days are important, and I also know I always feel better when I move.

I walked down the hill under grey misty skies, past the community garden with tidy beds mostly dug up for winter. There are a few roses, ragged and papery but still bright red, clinging to a bush up against the fence. I love them in all seasons, but this year I am particularly taken by the fact that they’re hanging on in the face of frosts and bitter winds.

Although I’d forgotten my headphones, I found The Civil Wars’ version of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and played it on repeat as I walked through the park. Every year there’s at least one morning in December when I listen to it over and over again, the haunting harmonies melding perfectly with the lyrics and their longing: O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by Thine advent here. O come, Thou Wisdom from on high, and order all things far and nigh. We used to start every Advent service at my former church with that hymn, the a cappella notes soaring up into the high-ceilinged sanctuary, setting the tone for the time of year when we watch for the light as the world grows dark.

I am where I often find myself in mid-December: slowly tiptoeing into the season, putting up my two Christmas trees (one tiny, one medium-size) but waiting a few days to add ornaments to the branches. I am listening to quiet Christmas music (Kate Rusby, Nichole Nordeman, Sarah MacLachlan) and some brighter melodies (She & Him, Broadway carol renditions on Spotify). I am rehearsing twice a week in a dusty church sanctuary with a group of friends for a Christmas carol performance, and singing those pieces – some familiar, some new – to myself as I wash dishes or walk to work. This year, we are singing the Magnificat (my idea), and those familiar lines weave in and over and around these days that feel both twinkly and edged with deep dark.

Here we are, I say every year in mid-December, mid-Advent: aching and tired and desperate for hope, working hard to make magic and grab hold of joy and balance our daily lives with the special moments of the season. Here we are, still mid-pandemic, still treading carefully but yearning to celebrate, still waiting for Emmanuel to come. Here we are, praying God will be with us, stubbornly nurturing that flame of hope amid wars and rumors of wars, disease and pain. Here we are: weary, anxious, but alive. I want to stay awake, alert to those flickers of hope, attuned to those whispers of joy.

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For leggy geraniums in my kitchen window and brilliant afternoon light.

For morning runs along the harbor and the greenway. For so much outdoor public space in my neighborhood, and a body that is strong and healthy, beautiful and resilient.

For a kind, brilliant, passionate, funny, fierce man whose love sustains me.

For a few local friends who are my lifelines, every single day.

For my faraway family, both blood kin and chosen.

For texts and calls with my girlfriends scattered across the miles. For the technologies that allow us to share in the details of one another’s lives.

For vaccines, nurses, doctors, public health officials and everyone who is (still) working so hard to keep us safe.

For a job at a neighborhood nonprofit that I love, working with good people to bring music and creative empowerment to our young folks.

For nourishing trips this summer and fall – to Texas, Minneapolis, Vermont and beyond – to explore new and beloved places and spend time with folks dear to me.

For music in all its forms: the Wailin’ Jennys and the women of country on my long runs, humming favorites in my kitchen, singing carols with others at Christmas choir rehearsal, hearing our ZUMIX students play ukulele or drums or guitar.

For good books, those who write them, and the chance to read and review them regularly.

For a place – my studio, my neighborhood, this city, my communities – where I have built a home and been welcomed into other people’s homes.

For all – as my friend Amy would say – that we have been given.

If you’re celebrating this week, I wish you a wonderful Thanksgiving.

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We’ve turned the corner into mid-November, flipping the big switch of Daylight Savings and shifting from bright green trees to russet leaves and early, gold-streaked sunsets. Back-to-school excitement (and trepidation) is a thing of the past, and even my trip to Texas last month feels like a long time ago. The accordion of time continues to contract and expand in strange ways in these still-pandemic months. Sometimes I’m not sure if I’ve lived one year, or five, or a strange in-between number, since March 2020. 

Here in Massachusetts, we are cautiously back to some kind of normal: back in the office, back to school, back to (some) indoor collective experiences. We are still wearing masks, keeping an eye on the COVID numbers, pulling out our vaccination cards to go to concerts or the theater. I know it isn’t the same everywhere; one of the defining features of this pandemic, for me, has been the wide range of experiences based on region, age and political affiliation. Sometimes I wonder if we are – if I am – being paranoid. But then I think about the losses of the past 20 months, all those lives memorialized this summer by tiny white flags near the Washington Monument. I think about the people I know who have lost loved ones. I think about the folks I love who have underlying health issues. And I think: maybe being cautious isn’t so bad.

I’ve thought often this year about an exchange between General Leia Organa and Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo in one of the newer Star Wars films. It’s the part in every Star Wars movie that always makes me cry: the moment when several of the characters acknowledge the odds they’re up against, and decide to go in anyway. This Leia is a different Leia than the fresh-faced princess with the cinnamon buns we met in A New Hope: she’s older, wearier, more familiar with the costs of constantly fighting. “So many losses,” she says quietly to her tall, purple-haired friend. “I can’t take any more.”

“Sure you can,” Holdo responds instantly. “You taught me how.”

Holdo’s comment first struck me as flippant when I saw it in the theater; I wondered if she was even listening to Leia. But it has stayed with me – this moment of vulnerability between two women who are longtime friends – through my divorce, a move, job changes, and the pandemic we’re all still living in. Sometimes I think it’s a testament to human resilience: we are all capable of withstanding more than we think. (Hasn’t the pandemic taught us that, if nothing else?) Sometimes I think it’s an important way for Holdo to remind Leia of her own courage. Some days I agree with Leia; my heart and soul have had enough.

Most of the time, I recognize it’s not that simple, not always. We may think – or even believe – we can’t take any more, in the moment. But we have to keep going. And we rely on our people to remind us that we can. 

The days are so bright right now, the low autumn sun sparkling on the harbor and flooding through the still-vivid leaves, making shifting patterns of orange and crimson and gold. And the nights are so dark – after those fiery sunsets at 4:45 p.m., the hours stretch on and on in pitch blackness, as I know they will for months. 

Somehow, I have to learn to hold the extremes – the dark and the bright, the losses and the joys. I have to learn to embrace it all, to lean into the loneliness as well as the deep connection. I am trying (always, it seems, I am trying) to accept all of it, to let it be what it will be and face whatever comes with courage and hope.

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I’m 38 today. And as I have said several times in the last week – to a friend who was joking about being “forever 29,” to another friend’s daughter who started to ask me how old I was and then hesitated, to my partner on the phone one night – I am proud to be 38. If you ask me how old I am, I will tell you. No dissembling, no hesitating. It may not always be that way, but it is that way today.

I have earned every one of these years: every gray hair, every smile line, every scar both visible and invisible. I have especially earned the last three years, which have included (among other things) my divorce, some serious church trauma, a move, two job changes, a new (wonderful) relationship, and a pandemic.

Since my this is thirty-five post, I have navigated challenges I could never have imagined. I have spent most of a year in my apartment by myself (or running through my beloved East Boston neighborhood). I have dealt with furloughs and layoffs and career/identity angst. I have chosen to blow up my life (read: leaving my marriage) and start again, and I have also dealt with changes I did not choose, repeatedly. I have held so much loss, and also so much love. I have not solved nearly everything, and I am still trying to let go of the idea that “solving” anything (except the New York Times crossword) is the goal.

Thirty-eight might be middle-aged, or close to it – but as Nora McInerny pointed out recently, middle age is the goal. Growing old is the goal. I want many more delicious years on this beautiful earth, and I want to live them as fully and bravely as possible. I want to care less (much less) about what people think, and more about creating joy and loving my people fiercely, and becoming a stronger writer, runner and human. (And I’d like to do some more international travel, too, once that feels like a good idea again.)

Thirty-eight looks like morning tea in one of my several favorite mugs, scribbling in my journal before heading out on a run. Thirty-eight is still adjusting to life at ZUMIX, dealing with the constant questions and uncertainty that come with any work (but especially youth-centered work) during a pandemic. Thirty-eight is yoga classes on some evenings and walks with my guy on others, regular text exchanges with a few close girlfriends and weekly phone calls with my parents. Thirty-eight has made New England her home for more than a decade, but is still and always a Texan.

Thirty-eight is still grieving the end of a marriage and an imagined future, and also reveling in the deep love I have found with a man I never expected. Thirty-eight is on a serious nineties country music kick and mixes in some Broadway tunes and folk music on the regular. Thirty-eight is learning to hold so many tensions, to accept and acknowledge that life is often both-and, to name the fear and worry and other hard emotions and then keep going through them. Thirty-eight snaps pictures of flowers every day, reads five or six books at once, eats a ton of granola and Greek yogurt and occasionally cooks real meals for one.

The upheavals of the last few years have made it challenging to plan, or even dream; so many of my former ideas about my life have been completely wiped away. But thirty-eight is starting to dream again.

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Last Saturday, I took my bike down to Franklin Park for the Ride for Black Lives. Since last summer, a group of us have been meeting there for monthly protest rides through the streets of Boston. The rides began in the wake of George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s deaths, and they have continued (with a winter hiatus) as the racial conversations in this country have shifted, quieted and occasionally flared up again.

This month’s ride drew a much smaller crowd: a few dozen instead of the several hundred we often had last summer. It was a hot day, and there were several other events happening at the same time; people are also taking vacations while they can. More worryingly, it seems some folks have simply moved on from wanting to talk or hear (or ride) about racial justice. (Though I know showing up to an event is far from the only way to participate.)

I often wonder if what we’re doing matters: if a bike ride (or five) will make any difference in the struggle for racial equality. For me personally, it’s often important and moving to show up and hear Black people share their experiences, but these rides are absolutely not about me. My partner is on the organizing committee, so of course I show up for him, too. But sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it. If what we do matters at all.

Last week, our speakers were several young people who have worked with Bikes Not Bombs, which (among other things) trains young people in bike mechanics and leadership skills. I was astounded by their bravery in sharing with us, and their vulnerability in admitting how hard life can be when you’re a Black teenager. Their stories (and one poem) reminded me: we are riding because their lives, and other Black lives, matter.

One of the speakers talked about his experience in mostly white schools, how there are so many spaces where he doesn’t feel he can be himself. Another one said simply that his experience is probably “typical” for a Black teenager, and listed a few of the slights he’s received. And another read a poem called “Can You Hear Me?”, a river of spoken word urging us – the adults in the room – to listen to the teenagers we often overlook.

We ride – I was reminded – for them. For the students who spoke and the students we serve at ZUMIX, where I work, and my partner’s son, who leaves for college this week. We ride, and continue the conversation, so that these young people can be their full selves in a country that is theirs as much as it is mine. We are thinking about how to expand our work, starting with a backpack and school supply drive. (We would love your support, if you’re able.) We keep showing up because no matter what the headlines say, it is unjustly hard to be a Black person in this country, and that should change.

I have more of a personal stake in this than ever before: loving a Black man makes a difference, even when you already believe in justice and equality in the abstract. I am proud to stand beside my guy and the others who make these rides happen. I am humbled and honored to fight alongside them. And I – we – will keep doing the work. Which includes, but is in no way limited to, these rides.

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Continuing the theme of collective experiences: I have sorely missed live music during the pandemic. I wasn’t ready to go back to Newport or another festival this year (though I thought about it), but I’ve been spending a few Sunday nights soaking in live music closer to home.

ZUMIX, my new employer, is a nonprofit that offers free and low-cost music lessons, ensembles and other creative opportunities for young people. We also put on a number of community events, including a summer concert series in Piers Park, down the hill from my house. I loved going to these concerts when I moved to Eastie in 2019, and then they were cancelled last summer (like everything). So it’s been a real joy to be back.

Everyone brings lawn chairs and picnic blankets and snacks; the kids run around blowing bubbles and dancing and generally having fun. Several of our ZUMIX students run the sound board, and others provide the opening acts for our local headliners. It’s a fun neighborhood outing and a great way to (finally) be back together in person.

We’ve got a few more concerts left this month and I’m crossing my fingers for good weather – and more chances to wave at (and maybe dance with) my neighbors.

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One of the things I’ve missed during this pandemic year is collective experiences: the chance to be among a group of people, enjoying the same thing at the same time (and not through a screen). I particularly missed live theatre, so I was thrilled that Shakespeare on the Common is back this year.

My guy and I made a midweek date to see The Tempest – which we had both read in high school, but not really interacted with since then. I met him after work and we picked up a feast from BarTaco, which does delicious tacos and salsa with flavor and heat.

We arrived early and snagged a good spot with a view of the stage – though I’d definitely bring or rent chairs next time, as the ground gets hard after a while. But it was a perfect, clear evening, and we settled in to watch the cast (including John Douglas Thompson, whom I remembered seeing in Carousel on Broadway a few years back).

Both the men who taught me Shakespeare – Mr. Walker in high school and Dr. Wade in college – used to insist, I think rightly, that his plays are meant to be watched, not read. The story has so much more power (and the jokes are so much funnier) when you’re watching it unfold in real time. I had forgotten, or perhaps never realized, how much of The Tempest is about power: who has it, who ought to have it, what it means to have (or choose to give up) authority over another person, or to assert your own.

Of course there’s the love at first sight between Ferdinand and Miranda, and Prospero’s schemes to ostensibly keep them apart. There’s the bumbling pair of jokers from the shipwrecked crew, and their plot to overthrow Prospero (not very well planned). And there are Ariel and Caliban – who are treated very differently by Prospero, but are ultimately bound to him until he sets them free.

We laughed and clapped and marveled at the cast’s artistry, and savored being together. An entirely joyous experience, and a wonderful return to live theater.

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