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Archive for the ‘musings’ Category

chalk heart flats

I’ve been back from Oxford for a week, and have been fighting serious jet lag, a wicked head/chest cold and an overflowing email inbox (more than 200 messages while I was away!).

Despite the coughing and the catch-up, though, the weather is pure October glory, and I thought it was about time for another list of what’s saving my life now:

leaves yellow green blue sky

  • Bold blue skies, crisp autumn breezes and that golden autumn light.
  • Related: the trees, which seem to be turning in slow motion but are starting to show red and gold.
  • Lemon-ginger tea (from Pukka or Stash), with honey when I can get it.

sunflowers orange rose

  • Sunflowers for my desk (and a bonus rose!), from my beloved florist.
  • The sunrises through my kitchen window: orange and gold, pink and blue.
  • My favorite red pants – always a shot of happy.
  • Walks on the river trail, alone or with my husband.

river trail asters

  • Catching up with loved ones: giving a girlfriend my unofficial Harvard tour, inviting friends over for dinner, meeting up for coffee or a long walk.
  • Salads from home and soup from Darwin’s.
  • The late roses around town, which are truly stunning this year.

late yellow rose

  • Dipping back into Anne of Windy Poplars, because October.
  • Simple kitchen routines: brewing tea in my red kettle every morning, toasting bread for breakfast, whipping up huevos after yoga, standing at the sink washing dishes.
  • Yoga classes: sun salutations, pigeon and warrior poses, deep breaths.
  • Looking forward to a long weekend in NYC.

What’s saving your life this fall? Please share, if you want.

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rules of magic book sunflowers

I think it’s safe to say that my one little word this year is a sneaky one.

Back in January, I chose magic for my 2017 word, believing and hoping I needed it after a year (in 2016) that felt hard at every turn. I needed all the gumption I could get last year, and I haven’t stopped needing it this year: many days have required equal parts magic and grit. But my word has always been there, peeking around the corner, surprising me, especially when I’m not looking for it.

I do occasional author interviews for Shelf Awareness, my longstanding freelance gig, and I was thrilled when my editor asked if I’d like to talk to Alice Hoffman about her new novel, The Rules of Magic. It’s a prequel to Practical Magic, which I had not read, but I’d read and adored Hoffman’s novel Faithful, and I was so excited about this one.

Spoiler alert: I loved the book. It’s an utterly enchanting, heartbreaking story of three siblings who have to reckon with their unusual gifts and the very ordinary human experiences of love, loss and figuring out who they really are. And I loved talking to Alice, who was so warm and engaging, and answered my questions patiently. The book comes out today, and to celebrate, I’m sharing a few snippets of the Q&A below.

KG: The magic the characters use [in The Rules of Magic] is a kind of everyday alchemy: there’s a sense that magic is already here in our world, and they can channel it or avoid it via certain “rules.” Can you talk about your concept of magic and magical power?

AH: I’m interested in everyday magic: magic that you could turn a corner and find. I think a lot of that has to do with the books I read as a child, because those are the books that make you a writer. I loved Ray Bradbury’s books, and there’s a real sense of that everyday magic in the here and now. That’s what I’m interested in both as a reader and a writer: magic that is affected by the everyday.

My books have a kind of push-pull regarding magic, and also between the mystical and spiritual and the demands of “real” life. In The Rules of Magic, they’re braided together. The characters really fight against who they are, so that’s another push-pull. The book is ultimately about being who you are, and I think that’s really hard to do, even if you’re not a witch.

It’s hard for a lot of us to be who we are, even if we’re not fighting a family curse.

It really is just that: accepting yourself. It’s true for everyone in the book, and it’s a process. It takes a whole lifetime to learn who you are.

Courage is a thread that runs through the book: choosing courage over caution, being brave above all. Can you talk about that? How does courage relate to magic?

In a certain sense, the characters discovered this thread on their own. The book is really all about courage: the courage it takes to be different, the courage it takes to be in love, and the courage it takes to be human. Most people spend their lives running away from all that. The characters have to learn that.

The book deals with destiny and choice: the characters try to dodge the family curse, and they wrestle with accepting fate versus making their own choices. Can you talk about that?

That’s a big question. But it’s central to the book: the idea of the curse, which affects whether and how the Owens women fall in love. And yet, if you love someone, and open your heart to them, they will ultimately break your heart, curse or no curse. They may betray you; they may not be who you thought they were. Or they may get sick and die, as ultimately we all do.

At some point, inevitably, there is pain involved with love. I think it’s a big leap to make, and I think people are very brave when they do it. I think part of the Owens “curse” is just being human. And along the way, there are beautiful, wonderful things, and that’s part of being human too: such joy.


If you love magic, gorgeous writing or a good story, I highly recommend The Rules of Magic.

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neponset river sky

Mostly we go as far as we dare down the Road that Leads to the End of the World, rounding every corner adventurously and expectantly, as if we were going to find Tomorrow behind it, while all the little evening green hills neatly nestle together in the distance.

—Anne of Windy Poplars, L.M. Montgomery

Since we moved to Dorchester in late July, I’ve been exploring our new neighborhood: trying out the ice cream shop and a couple of restaurants, visiting the nail salon for a pedicure or two, buying potted herbs and cut flowers at the gorgeous garden center nearby. But my favorite thing about our new area might be the walking trail that’s only a block from our house. I’ve spent many weekend hours down there already, lacing up my sneakers and grabbing my earbuds, walking along the curving green path with the Wailin’ Jennys and my thoughts for company.

My first few walks on the trail were short ones: getting a feel for the route along the river, stopping to snap pictures of Queen Anne’s lace and weathered murals, or simply to take in the views. But a couple of weekends ago, I decided to see how far the trail went. I walked for over an hour, past two playgrounds and under several overpasses, enjoying the blue sky and the warmth of the sun on my shoulders.

That section of the trail stops at a small public dock that juts out over the river, and I walked out onto the dock and stood there, breathing in deeply, smelling the marshy salt air, watching a gull or two swing through the sky. And I thought of these words from Anne’s letter to Gilbert, which my friend Caroline mentioned on her blog a few years ago: “as far as we dare.”

katie river trail blue sky earbuds

My life, these days, requires more daring than I sometimes wish it did: I am learning every day, sometimes every hour, to face the vagaries of life by summoning my courage. Some of the challenges are what I call garden-variety chaos: the busyness of emails and meetings and work assignments, delayed trains and surprise thunderstorms, tricky schedules and missed deadlines. Those make me a little nuts, but I can handle them, and laugh them off at the end of the day. But I need more daring, more bravery, for the things I can’t possibly deal with in one fell swoop: the heartbreaking headlines, the complicated politics (both at work and in our nation at large), the daily (but far from everyday) deeper challenges of work and life and love.

It felt good, on that recent Sunday afternoon, to stretch both my legs and my courage, and go as far as I dared down the trail that led east – though I didn’t quite know where it went. But I followed it to its beautiful end, and then turned around and headed home, refreshed. I thought of this a few days later when a friend teased, “It’s always an odyssey,” and I replied, “That’s how you find your way back home.”

In Windy Poplars, Anne and her neighbor, Elizabeth Grayson, go for long evening walks (as mentioned above). They walk “as far as they dare” to escape Elizabeth’s tyrannical grandmother and the schoolwork that’s always waiting for Anne back at her house. But those walks, and each other’s company, help them dare more deeply and more often. They make each other more brave.

The people I love do that for me: they push me, by their loving presence, to dare a little farther, a little deeper. We walk “as far as we dare” side by side, and in so doing, we help each other find our way. But my solo walks on the river trail help me do this, too. Sometimes it’s good to test your own mettle, to find out how far you can go alone. To give a new meaning to “as far as you dare,” and to know that you can. That I can. That I dare.

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sunflowers tory row cambridge blue sky

Come with me
into the field of sunflowers.
Their faces are burnished disks,
their dry spines

creak like ship masts,
their green leaves,
so heavy and many,
fill all day with the sticky

sunflowers rockport tall

sugars of the sun.
Come with me
to visit the sunflowers,
they are shy

but want to be friends;
they have wonderful stories
of when they were young –
the important weather,

the wandering crows.
Don’t be afraid
to ask them questions!
Their bright faces,

sunflowers d2 cambridge

which follow the sun,
will listen, and all
those rows of seeds –
each one a new life!

hope for a deeper acquaintance;
each of them, though it stands
in a crowd of many,
like a separate universe,

is lonely, the long work
of turning their lives
into a celebration
is not easy. Come

sunflowers blue vase table

and let us talk with those modest faces,
the simple garments of leaves,
the coarse roots in the earth
so uprightly burning.

—Mary Oliver

I came across this poem in Oliver’s gorgeous collection Blue Iris, which I read, savored and lingered over for weeks this spring. It has stayed with me through a long, hot, crowded summer, especially as the sunflowers began to bloom here in Boston and Cambridge. Some of its lines resonated right away; others have come back to me during difficult or lonely days.

sunflowers darwins cambridge

I love sunflowers: their bright faces and sturdy stalks, their cheery yellow petals, the way they peek over fences and surprise me. There are vases of them – on both my desk at work and my kitchen table – as I type this.

In some ways, I also am a sunflower: I am shy, but want to be friends. I always do my best to seek out the light, though I recognize, increasingly, that “the long work of turning [our] lives into a celebration is not easy.”

perennial sunflowers rockport

I am grateful, this week and in this whole season, for these bright faces peeking out around so many corners. Like all the flowers I love, they offer beauty and hope in a world where we badly need both.

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back porch geraniums

Last week, I sat in my usual spot in the chapel of Memorial Church, squinting in the bright morning light, watching it play across the high cream-colored ceilings and the carved wooden pews. Morning Prayers is back in session for the fall term, and I am grateful to rest in it again as part of my daily rhythm.

David Hempton, the dean of Harvard Divinity School, spoke that morning on an achingly timely topic: “belonging at Harvard.” (This was two days after the president’s DACA announcement, about which Harvard’s president, Drew Faust, and others have spoken more eloquently than I can.)

Hempton noted that belonging means something more than networking or connecting or being able to say you visited a place. Many people come to Harvard for exactly those (legitimate) reasons. But for those of us who work and study here – who have made it, in some sense, our home – belonging means more than that. We want to know that this is our community; that we are accepted here, valued, safe. With that comes a deep responsibility to make this community a safe, thoughtful, welcoming place for others.

Belonging, Hempton added, “involves the acceptance of our own frailties and those of others in a spirit of generosity and mutual forbearance. There is no belonging without self-acceptance.”

Those words, in his gentle Irish accent, made tears well in my eyes, and they reminded me of another David, the poet David Whyte, in “The House of Belonging“:

This is the bright home
in which I live,
this is where
I ask
my friends
to come,
this is where I want
to love all the things
it has taken me so long
to learn to love. […]

There is no house
like the house of belonging.

It takes a long time for most of us to find our own houses of belonging: to accept ourselves and others without judgment and with generosity, to be brave enough to become who we really are. It’s not a linear process, and it is a slow one: it takes a long time to grow into ourselves. But even as we fail and falter, we are still responsible for the other side of community: we must be a place of welcome for others. We must ask how we can help them belong, and help them thrive.

I don’t have the answers for any of this, at Harvard or elsewhere: I don’t always know what it looks like, for me or for my communities. But as Hempton said (and as Rakesh Khurana, the dean of Harvard College, said at Morning Prayers the very next day), I know one thing: we must do this work, of building and welcome, together.

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autumn sign leaves chalkboard

“Autumn seemed to arrive suddenly that year. The morning of the first of September was crisp and golden as an apple.”

—J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

September is here and so is fall, suddenly: classes have started, events are ramping up, and the mornings feel crisp and cool. The light in Cambridge has shifted to its autumn self: clear, lucid, heartbreakingly golden. I learned a new word this summer: komorebi, which is Japanese for “light filtered through leaves.”

komorebi harvard yard tree sky

As is often the case in the autumn, everything feels big and immediate and full.

In the midst of heartrending headlines (hurricanes, DACA, nuclear threats) and so many responsibilities (my to-do list is as long as my arm), I figured it was time for another list: what’s saving my life now.

I need the reminder to name the good things, and maybe you do too. So here they are:

  • Ginger peach tea in a purple travel mug, Earl Grey from my barista friends at Darwin’s, and lots of water all day long.
  • Seeing my red geraniums on the back porch every morning, and watching the sunrise through the kitchen windows.
  • Moving around in the new apartment and feeling like it belongs to us.
  • A few truly wonderful books: Salt Houses, The Captain’s Daughter, The Rules of Magic.

book geraniums captains daughter sandals porch flowers

  • Making new connections with folks at Harvard and around the Square, and running into people I know and love: this is my neighborhood.
  • Community in all its forms: our first dinner guests; a new-to-me book club; long walks with a dear friend; rich conversations over text and Twitter and email with loved ones who are far away.
  • End-of-summer flowers: Queen Anne’s lace, black-eyed Susans, multicolored hydrangeas, the first few asters.

black eyed susans

  • Harmonizing with the Wailin’ Jennys, whose music is in my earbuds and my heart every day.
  • Looking forward to some travel later in the season.
  • Burt’s Bees lemon butter cuticle salve, which I am using for everything these days.
  • My favorite clothes: happy red pants, go-with-everything flats, a scarf my sister gave me long ago, the malachite ring I bought in NYC last summer, and that brave necklace I never take off.
  • Yoga: once or twice a week at Healing Tree, and occasionally on my mat at home.
  • The Thursday morning writers’ meetings I love: sarcasm + sanity.
  • Morning Prayers at Memorial Church, as often as I can make it there.
  • The walking trail near our new house, and the first red leaves, spotted there on a solo walk this weekend.

red leaves neponset trail

As we plunge into fall, what is saving your life now? Please share, if you want.

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harvard yard leaves light

On Tuesday afternoon, I left my desk (it takes a lot of effort, these days, to detach from the email and the meetings and the endless to-do lists), wrapped myself in a jacket, and walked partway across Harvard Square.

It was a sullen, grey day, suddenly more like November than late August, but I had two aims in mind, and both were outdoors. (Three aims, if you count the stop I made at Darwin’s first: I needed a cup of tea, for warmth and caffeine. Thus fortified, I can face pretty much anything.)

My first stop was, as it often is, the Yard. A group of undergraduates, in attire ranging from suits and ties to hoodies and leggings, sat huddled in beige folding chairs, listening to a cadre of faculty speakers at Harvard College’s convocation ceremony.

I stood next to a friend who was covering the event for the Harvard Gazette, as Dean Mike Smith talked about the importance of connection (instead of comparison). We listened, after that, to a few deliberate, strong, well-chosen words from President Faust, who urged us in no uncertain terms to listen, engage, debate, take risks, and treat every person with dignity.

Midway through her remarks, I left for my second destination: a white tent on the Divinity School quad, packed with students and faculty who had gathered to listen to Cornel West – recently returned to HDS – deliver their convocation address.

His speech was in style and tone – though not in message – a direct contrast to President Faust’s. West is a fiery, passionate activist, shaped by the black Baptist tradition and the civil rights movement. He lambasted not only our current political administration, but all of us who often prize conformity over conviction, who prop up systems instead of asking dangerous and necessary questions that expose their cracks. His subject matter ranged from the recent events in Charlottesville to words from Bob Dylan and James Baldwin, and he urged not only courage, but magnanimity. We need both, he said, to fight hate.

As I sat in the back row, listening, it struck me: we also need both kinds of speeches I heard that day.

We need deliberate, thoughtful, measured words and scholarship, the kind that both Faust and West have produced and shared during their long careers. We aim to further those things at places like Harvard: our motto, after all, is Veritas, and as President Faust noted, we believe in the pursuit of truth.

But we also need radical questioners like West, who are bold and raw and unafraid to face their own demons and call out those of other people and institutions. And – it should not have to be said but I’m saying it anyway – we need all different kinds of voices: black men and white women; people who hold passports from every nation in the world (or none at all); people who hold a sheaf of advanced degrees and people who don’t; people who love in every form that exists. We need every variation of humanity.

We – not just Harvard, but the human race – are stronger when we treat everyone with dignity. We are better, and we can only move forward, when we are of interest to each other.

“I am who I am because somebody loved me,” West said at the beginning of his speech, repeating a line he has delivered many times. It’s true not only for him but for all of us. And as we work and wrestle and study together, we must also love one another. We need both.

Here’s to another school year, at Harvard and in the world: these are fraught, uncertain times, but the only thing to do is to keep moving forward. Together.

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