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Archive for the ‘musings’ Category

stronger together heart graffiti three lives

Today is just another Monday in many places. But here in my adopted city of Boston, it’s Marathon Monday.

It’s been five years since the bombing near the finish line that marked Boston, and the marathon, forever. We are a little wary these days, a little battle-weary, a little scarred. There is still joy in the marathon, but it’s layered with grief, and a fierce, stubborn gladness. This city, and the runners who descend on it every year, possess grit in spades. And they – we – are determined to keep going.

This year, as a novice runner, I understand the marathon in a new way. For the first time, I have a small sense of what it’s like to lace up your running shoes and get out there even when you don’t feel like it, even when the weather sucks, even when you’d rather stay inside.

I also have a small sense of the joy that comes from pushing yourself, from settling into the rhythm of a run, from sweating and moving and pounding the pavement (or in my case, the river trail). I am learning all the time about sore legs and stretching, about warming up and cooling down, about layers and sports bras and the importance of a good playlist. (It will surprise no one that I love to run to Hamilton.)

selfie gray hat river trail

I don’t pretend to know the particular challenges of being an elite runner or even a marathoner. The longest race I’ve ever (yet!) run is a 5K. But I’m prouder and more excited than ever for the marathon this year, because now I’m a runner. In a small way, I’m one of them.

I am cheering on every single person running today, from the leading elites to those who will limp across the finish line. (I am especially proud of my former colleague Jim Ryan, dean of Harvard’s Ed School.)

This is their race and this is our city. Together, we are Boston Strong. And if you’re running, we are all rooting for you.

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heart sneakers trail

UNREST IN BATON ROUGE

after the photo by Jonathan Bachman

Our bodies run with ink dark blood.
Blood pools in the pavement’s seams.

Is it strange to say love is a language
Few practice, but all, or near all speak?

Even the men in black armor, the ones
Jangling handcuffs and keys, what else

Are they so buffered against, if not love’s blade
Sizing up the heart’s familiar meat?

We watch and grieve. We sleep, stir, eat.
Love: the heart sliced open, gutted, clean.

Love: naked almost in the everlasting street,
Skirt lifted by a different kind of breeze.

Smith is the current U.S. poet laureate. This poem is from her newest collection, Wade in the Water, which came out last week (April 3). I also enjoyed Smith’s memoir, Ordinary Light. And the New York Times had a fantastic piece about her this week.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry here on Fridays this month, as I do every year.

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Edging toward spring

forsythia branches yellow flowers

The forsythia are late this year.

I usually spot their electric-yellow blossoms toward the end of February: they are sometimes an early sign of winter’s end. But although my friend Amy brought an armful of boughs inside to force them in midwinter, I only spotted them blooming outside last week.

crocuses stripe flowers

The crocuses, my faithful little friends, arrived right on time, along with the snowdrops, which sprouted up in their beds along the paths I walk daily in Cambridge. The long, elegant stems of daffodils and the uncurling leaves of tulips are up, too, but they’re not blooming yet – as far as I know.

tulip leaves flowerbed

It’s a long wait, every year, for the budding trees and green grass and soft air. I’m still getting most of my flower fix from my beloved florist, and from the geraniums in my dining-room window. They are blooming as though it were June already, scarlet and cheerful. They care as little for the weather forecast as do the saucy robins I see hopping about on the river trail.

geraniums red flowers

Some signs of spring arrive regardless of the weather: the approach of Commencement, the joy of Easter, the pageantry of the Masters. But I’m ready for it to feel like spring. I’m ready to revel in new beginnings. (And to wear lighter clothes, for a change.)

Until the forecast improves, I’ll be over here, bundled up, drinking tea, and watching the flowerbeds for (more) signs of color and life. Surely spring will win in the end. It always does.

scilla flowers blue

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katie lin-manuel miranda interview microphone

It’s been ten days and I still can’t believe I get to say this: I got to interview Lin-Manuel Miranda.

I do not, generally, get starstruck very often. The exceptions to that rule tend to be the authors I love (like Alice Hoffman, who was very kind when I spoke to her on the phone last fall). But I am a musical theatre geek from way back, and I have spent untold hours over the past two years listening to Hamilton.

So when I found out Lin-Manuel was coming to speak at the Harvard Kennedy School (where I work), I just about hit the ceiling. I know for a fact I wasn’t the only one.

Lin-Manuel flew in for a Thursday evening to kick off America Adelante, a conference for Latino students and leaders. I begged everyone I had to beg – namely, my editors at the Harvard Gazette and my colleagues who organized the conference – to let me be the one to write the story. I’d have begged Drew Faust herself (Harvard’s president) if I had to.

All I was expecting was a seat at Lin’s keynote – a literal seat in the room where it happened. I did not dream of what you see above: ten minutes, give or take, with the man himself.

I’d scribbled notes all through his keynote, which was fantastic, then listened in as my colleague Matt interviewed him for the HKS podcast. When he turned to me with that grin after wrapping up with Matt and said, “Who are you writing for?,” I nearly lost all my words. (But I managed to recover a few of them.)

katie lin manuel miranda

I asked him first about democracy. Hamilton is the origin story of democracy, and some of Lin’s prolific activism on Twitter is about urging people to get involved in democracy today: registering to vote, calling their reps, making their voices heard. “We’re seeing such an accumulation of ordinary voices,” he said.

We talked, too, about art and activism: both are vital parts of his work. He mentioned being inspired by the Parkland students, and making “the Marvel/DC crossover” with Ben Platt of Dear Evan Hansen to encourage them. (Their collaborative song, Found Tonight, gives me chills.)

I admire Lin’s creative genius, but I also love how generous he is, how much he cares about making a difference in the world. He was funny and engaging, and even though I’m sure he was tired, he really listened to my questions and offered thoughtful answers. (And he talks with his hands! So do I.)

katie lin manuel miranda hand gesture

My favorite question was the last one I asked: “What’s the last great book you read?”

He paused – “Ooooh!” – then admitted, “I’m sort of in a prison of my own making.”

The reason? His New Year’s resolution was to read all of Shakespeare’s plays, and “I’m so behind,” he confessed. “I’ve had a busy few months!” That was the understatement of the night.

But then – then! – he waxed eloquent about reading the sonnets, and “the freedom he [Shakespeare] finds within the form.” In classic Lin fashion, he concluded, “Reading the sonnets was pretty dope.” I nearly died of English-major nerd bliss.

I’d forgotten my copy of the Hamiltome, but I asked Lin to sign my journal, and he graciously complied. The inscription, under my name and above his signature?

“See you in the room where it happens.”

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purple crocuses leaves

The City Crocuses

Up they come—the yellow ones
fierce as fighters and the purples shy and tender
wind funneling up from the river

blasts me in face and throat, winter gone,
and there’s more, the walk to the subway today
made me smile

because others were smiling
secretly to themselves, a few caught my eye
and said something grateful

about winter being over—
soon along Riverside Drive daffodils lilacs cherry
but for now the tiny snowdrops alyssum crocus

decide to stop waiting
they flex their little legs, they push
and divide the dirt and up they swim

yellow crocuses open
This is the poem that impelled me to buy Suskin Ostriker’s newest collection, Waiting for the Light, back in February. When the crocuses began sprouting a few days later, I thought of it immediately.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry here on Fridays this month, as I do every year.

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flowers lilies windowsill church tulips brookline easter 

There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins…

Easter at Brookline: gold-foil-wrapped pots of flowers lining the deep windowsills, tulips and lilies and hyacinths, bright splashes of color against the white walls. When you pull back the glass-paned double doors at the rear of the church, the scent hits you like a wave. It smells like spring, like hope, like resurrection in the face of impossible odds.

We set up two long tables behind the back pews and pile them with food, a rough division of sweets and savories, plates of sandwiches and mini quiche and cookies galore. Sarah brings the traditional cake frosted to look like a lamb. Sierra makes her cherry-center cookies dusted with powdered sugar. Early on Easter morning, the hubs slices avocados in our kitchen, a sturdy apron tied over his pastel-striped church shirt. The guacamole is a reliable crowd pleaser, even if we eat a lot of it ourselves.

And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains…

I didn’t walk through Lent this year the way I sometimes do, with an urgent, pressing awareness of the story. After a blue-skied Ash Wednesday, which fell incongruously on Valentine’s Day, a thousand other things demanded my attention. Even Holy Week felt fragmented: we were on the West Coast seeing friends on Palm Sunday, then jet-lagged through the days leading up to Easter, busy with to-do lists and the demands of everyday life. I wasn’t quite able to quiet down and listen.

Dear dying Lamb, thy precious blood
Shall never lose its power…

On Friday night, we pulled together the worship order for Sunday, sitting in our living room, discussing hymns and Scripture readings, updating the prayer list. J suggested we begin the service by singing an old hymn, just the two of us and his guitar. We sang and he strummed, and on Sunday morning, we stood up in front of the community we love, and did it for them.

Till all the ransomed church of God
Be saved to sin no more…

This was our eighth Easter in this place, with these people, and as I looked out over the pews, I saw faces I love deeply and faces I’d never seen before. I saw the couple with their toddler son in his seersucker blazer, who are days away from welcoming their second child. I saw our friends who moved up from Texas three summers ago, on little more than hope and a sense of adventure. I saw our church treasurer, Dale, with his tall Jewish wife and daughter, all of whom had prepared and hosted a Passover Seder for us at the church the night before. I saw the couple who moved here from California for a year back in 1967, who have never stopped serving this church.

I sang to all of them, for all of them, my voice rising over the lines I know so well, and I saw how so many of them smiled back at me, how they could not help but sing along.

The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day…

I’ve been humming this hymn on and off since I read the second Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne mystery, which shares part of its title. In the book, Clare is unnerved by the song, but I’ve always loved it. It belongs to the canon of hymns we sang when I was a little girl, the ones that put the cross front and center, that remind us of the ways this story is visceral and real.

And there may I, though vile as he
Wash all my sins away…

You can’t have a resurrection without a physical death first; you can’t have a true redemption story without it getting very, very dark. A fountain filled with blood is a gruesome image, maybe, but in my mind it has always been linked to hope and grace.

E’er since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply…

We listened, that morning, to Amy reading from the gospel of Mark, recounting how Mary Magdalene was first baffled, then afraid and – at last – amazed. We listened to Dasha, age 12, reading the words of Psalm 118: This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. We listened to Colette, nine months old, adding her voice to the congregation’s chorus as we sang the familiar hymns.

christ the lord easter hymn sheet music

We listened to Landon reminding us of the hope of the resurrection, the fierce gladness that has endured for all these years. And when I got up to speak over the communion table, I said: today we celebrate the triumph of light over darkness, of life over death, and the certainty that we are loved beyond what we can imagine.

Redeeming love has been my theme
And shall be till I die…

Those are my favorite lines from this hymn. Those of us who have believed, who have made this story our own, are called to tell it, to keep singing this song for our whole lives. We have witnessed redemption and joy, light beyond the clouds of the darkest, most bitter night. We have been rescued from grief, from loneliness, from pain: we do not get to dodge it or avoid it, but we are assured that there is something beyond it, that God is making all things new. This story, which at times baffles and confuses and even breaks our hearts, is the story we will wrestle with forever, and the story we will tell until we die.

If you celebrated, I hope you had a wonderful Easter.

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alice network book chai red

It’s no secret I love a good spy story – especially if it features a badass female protagonist. This column originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

Spies are paradoxically famous for flying under the radar. Both their livelihood and their success depend on remaining undetected. For women, their gender often provides an additional layer of disguise: many men overlook women or doubt them to be capable of a spy’s cunning and deceit. (They’re wrong.)

Kate Quinn’s 2017 novel The Alice Network brings to life the work of female spies in occupied France during World War I. The titular network revolves around whip-smart Alice Dubois (an alias, of course), who smuggles information up the Allied ranks via hairpins, skirt seams and her web of crackerjack female agents. Though Quinn’s protagonist Eve Gardiner is fictional, “Alice” and her compatriots really existed, and the novel is a fitting homage to their courage.

Spanish seamstress Sira Quiroga finds herself swept up and then abandoned by a charming man in Maria Duenas’s powerful novel The Time in Between. Stranded in Morocco, Sira hones her sewing skills and becomes a successful couturier whose designs eventually catch the eye of Nazi diplomats’ wives. As war swirls on the Continent, first in Spain and then everywhere, Sira passes coded information through her elegant gowns, stitching herself into the complex worlds of high fashion and espionage.

Mrs. Virgil (Emily) Pollifax is used to being underestimated: as a retired widow, she’s also downright bored. Presenting herself at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., she argues her way into a position as an undercover agent, launching an unorthodox career that has her crisscrossing continents throughout the Cold War (though her neighbors never know it). Dorothy Gilman’s series, which spans 14 novels, lives up to the name of its first book, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, in delightful fashion.

In fiction as in real life, female spies are often underrated–but their stories are reliably fascinating.

Who are your favorite lady spies – real or fictional?

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