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Archive for the ‘musings’ Category

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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A few weekends ago, I hopped on a plane – still a novelty after nearly 18 months of not going much of anywhere. I was headed to a new-to-me destination: the Twin Cities. I’ve been taking a writing class through ModernWell with Nina Badzin and others during this pandemic year, and when my classmates started planning an in-person meetup, I knew I had to be there.

Nina and I have been friends online for years, but we’d never met in person, and I’d never met any of the other women in our class. But in some ways we know each other deeply: we have spent the past year meeting via Zoom on Tuesday mornings, exchanging updates about what we’ve been reading and watching, then discussing writing prompts and craft, and sharing our writing with one another. I don’t know all the names of their kids or where they went to college, but I know the soul-deep insights they’ve shared in class these last months. In turn, they have been sounding boards for me as I processed my pandemic grief, post-divorce loneliness and various job hunt woes.

My friend Debra picked me up from the airport and took me straight to Lake Harriet for lunch and a run (see top photo). “I feel like you need to run a city lake while you’re here,” she had told me. She was determined to show me the best parts of her hometown, which included that lakeside run, a bike ride to the cute little town of Excelsior on Saturday morning, a long walk around Lake Minnetonka (shades of Betsy Ray!), and several delicious meals both out and at home. (Debra has a fun cooking Instagram, and I loved watching the magic happen in real time in her kitchen.)

I didn’t care about most touristy things (we skipped the Mall of America, for example) – but I had to make a pilgrimage to a certain street corner downtown.

I went through a serious Mary Tyler Moore phase after moving to Boston. I watched all seven seasons of the show over the course of a year, and I drew strength and comfort (and a lot of laughs) from Mary’s adventures in Minneapolis and her close bonds with her friends and colleagues. So of course I had to go pay homage, and throw a hat (which I borrowed from Nina) in the air.

The rest of the weekend was filled with eating and talking: so many stories to tell and catch up on, so many delicious dishes to sample. Debra and Nina took me to the charming Excelsior Bay Books (after brunch at Coalition) on Saturday, and then Debra whipped up a fabulous happy-hour spread for the whole group before we all went out to dinner. I was out of words every single night by the time I went to bed. And it was wonderful.

Just as Debra intended, I was utterly charmed by the Twin Cities, and by meeting her and my other ladies in person. I’ll definitely be back.

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Happy July, y’all. I can’t believe we’re here. We always seem to wait forever for summer in New England (certainly this spring dragged, for several reasons), and then when it’s here, it feels rich and fleeting. The trees are lush, the roses and daylilies are showing off, and I’m cranking up the country music on my morning runs. Though, really, I’ve been doing that for months.

I was raised on country music, as you may know (or assume) if you know that I grew up in West Texas. My hometown had a half-dozen country radio stations, and my parents had a stack of George Strait cassettes that we nearly wore out on our long summer road trips. (I shocked a colleague at Harvard, years later, by telling him – and I am still confident in this assertion – that I could probably sing, on demand, at least 50 of George’s 60 number one hits.)

George was and is the king of country as far as my family is concerned, and I love a lot of his male compatriots: Alan Jackson, Brooks and Dunn, Randy Travis, the guys who sang in Alabama and Diamond Rio. I have a soft spot for Brad Paisley (especially “She’s Everything”) and I still adore Garth Brooks. But this year, I’ve been spending my miles mostly listening to the women of country music.

I loved them all as a child and teenager: Reba, Martina, Trisha, Shania, the women of the Dixie Chicks (now the Chicks) and SheDAISY. I marveled at LeAnn Rimes (what a prodigy!) and based my high school graduation speech around Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance.” I can still sing you most of Faith Hill’s hits from that era, and Deana Carter’s dreamy debut album takes me right back to middle school.

I’ve never stopped loving country music, but I did stop listening to it for a while. I grew older, my tastes expanded to include folk music and Broadway show tunes and so much Christian pop music (bless it), as well as jazz and big band and the classical stuff we sang in choir. I left Texas, stopped driving to work (and thus listening to the radio as often), and married a fellow Texan who was a real snob about country music.

With all that, I’ve been on hiatus from these ladies for a decade or so. But I’ve been tiptoeing back: I heard the Highwomen at Newport Folk 2019 and fell completely in love. Last spring, I loved Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Songs from Home” on Instagram during quarantine, and a few weeks in, I went down a Jo Dee Messina rabbit hole. This winter, in the depths of job-hunt woes and loneliness, I rediscovered Martina McBride. And since then, I have been pounding down the harbor walk singing along to classics like “Heads Carolina, Tails California” and “Take Me As I Am” and “She’s in Love with the Boy” and “Independence Day.”

These songs are a particular brand of badass feminism: it wears mascara and uses (a lot) of hairspray, and it doesn’t let a man (or anyone else) tell it what to do. It celebrates grit (“I’m a Survivor”) and individuality (“Wild One”), and it champions both true romance (“Perfect Love,” “We Danced Anyway,” “Wild Angels”) and the need to leave sometimes (“Ready to Run,” “Consider Me Gone”). There are power ballads and tender love songs; there are girl-power anthems and some good old-fashioned honky-tonk. These songs reconnect me to the teenager I was, but they are helping me shape and discover the woman I am now.

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We’re 10 days into June and the books are flowing – which is just how I like it. Here’s what I have been reading:

City of Flickering Light, Juliette Fay
Desperate to escape a cruel employment situation, three young people jump off a moving train and make their way to Hollywood. Fay’s novel follows sensible Irene, guileless but thoughtful Millie, and dependable Henry as they navigate the sparkle and grit of 1920s Tinseltown. I flew through this in two days – it was captivating.

Dear Martin, Nic Stone
Justyce McAllister is a top student at a tony Atlanta prep school. But none of that matters when he encounters a police officer, or when his best friend gets shot – the police (and most of the public) only care that they’re Black. A thoughtful, compelling YA novel about race, first love and navigating friendships, with some parallels to The Hate U Give.

An Old, Cold Grave, Iona Whishaw
It’s early spring and the Hughes ladies are cleaning out their root cellar when they stumble on a child’s skeleton. Who was the child, and how did he/she get buried there? The local police ask Lane Winslow to help investigate. This third mystery digs into the complex relationships in King’s Cove, and delves into the mutual attraction between Lane and Inspector Darling. So thoughtful and well plotted.

The Queen Bee and Me, Gillian McDunn
Shy Meg has always been happy to live in her best friend Beatrix’s shadow. But both girls are changing as they go through middle school. When Meg takes a science elective on her own and makes friends with a quirky new girl, Beatrix is not pleased. A warm, honest middle-grade story of tricky friendships and learning to stand up for yourself.

Fortune Favors the Dead, Stephen Spotswood
Willowjean “Will” Parker is a circus girl working a side gig when she meets intrepid investigator Lillian Pentecost. Will becomes Lillian’s apprentice, and together the two crack some tough cases in 1940s New York City. A smart, hard-boiled noirish mystery with a sassy, slangy narrator. Lots of fun.

Dial A for Aunties, Jesse Q. Sutanto
When photographer Meddelin “Meddy” Chan accidentally kills her blind date, she calls her mother and three aunts to help her move the body. Unfortunately, all five women are in the middle of a big wedding weekend, which could be huge for their family business. A hilarious, zany story featuring complex Chinese-Indonesian family dynamics, a sweet love story and some insight about claiming your own independence. An impulse buy at Target and totally worth it.

Lookout: Love, Solitude, and Searching for Wildfire in the Boreal Forest, Trina Moyles
Writer and development worker Trina Moyles loved her childhood in rural Canada, but she never expected to find herself spending summers as a fire lookout. This is the story of Moyles’ journey deep into the woods, her first few summers there, and the challenges and beauty she found. Gorgeous, insightful writing and vivid characters – I loved Holly the tower dog and Trina’s lookout neighbors. One of my faves of 2021. Found at the wonderful Sundog Books in Seaside, FL.

The Memory Keeper, Jennifer Camiccia
Lulu Carter, almost 13, has a highly unusual memory: she can remember specific details from every day in her life. As Lulu’s memory sharpens, her beloved Gram seems to be losing hers, so Lulu and her friends dig into Gram’s past to see if they can help. Funny and sweet, with tons of information about the brain and a sensitive handling of tough family stories. Also found at Sundog Books.

The Paris Connection, Lorraine Brown
Hannah and her boyfriend Si are traveling from Venice to Si’s sister’s wedding in Amsterdam, when the train uncouples in the middle of the night and takes Hannah to Paris. She spends the day with Leo, a handsome but irritating (aren’t they always?) French guy who is also stranded. The day, and Leo, prompt her to rethink her life. A sweet rom-com with some deep introspection on Hannah’s part and lots of lovely Paris details. To review for Shelf Awareness out Aug. 24).

All Things Wise and Wonderful, James Herriot
In this third volume of his memoirs, Herriot has signed up for the RAF and spends a lot of his time in training immersed in thoughts of Yorkshire. I remembered a few moments in this book from reading it 20 years ago, but most of it was fresh to me. Witty, warm and so comforting.

Most links are to Trident and Brookline Booksmith, my perennial local faves. Shop indie!

What are you reading?

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iris gumption kate winslet the holiday

I can’t remember exactly when I first saw The Holiday, but I remember the text my sister sent me after she saw it, with our mom: We found your dream house.

She was talking, of course, about the cozy book-filled English cottage belonging to Iris Simpkins (Kate Winslet), set among fields outside a quiet village near London. It has a spacious kitchen and a fireplace and so many sweet details, and those shelves lined with books. I instantly fell in love with the cottage, and also with Iris herself: smart, spunky, kindhearted and struggling to fully believe in her own brilliance. Perhaps it is no surprise that I saw myself in her.

I watch this film at least once a year, and I love Iris more every time: her romantic’s heart, her willingness to try new things (though she’s been stuck in the same loop for a while), her genuine curiosity about people. I especially love watching her pull away from the unhealthy patterns – including the toxic man – she’s been clinging to for a long time.

She has some help with this, in true rom-com fashion: a charming film composer (who knew Jack Black could be charming?) who brings her Starbucks and entertains her with his renditions of movie scores, and her elderly neighbor, Arthur (Eli Wallach), who tells her bluntly that she’s a “leading lady” but is behaving like a cinematic best friend. In short: Iris is way more brilliant and worthy than she believes she is, and she needs to dig deep to find the gumption to move forward with her life. (Arthur also gives her a long list of movies to watch, all featuring “powerhouse women” – he knows as well as anyone that we all need heroines and role models.)

Gradually, Iris begins to believe in herself again: finding her way around a new place, helping Arthur get into better shape, even throwing a party or two. I always want to stand up and cheer when she finally tells off her smarmy ex, Jasper (Rufus Sewell), toward the end of the film. “What has got into you?” he asks her, baffled. “I don’t know!” she says joyfully. “But I think what I’ve got is something slightly resembling – gumption!”

Gumption, largely inspired by Iris, was my word for the year in 2016. I had no idea how much I would need it, in a year that included two job changes, a move, and an election whose effects are still echoing in some ways. It is still an attribute I keep reaching for, in this lingering pandemic which includes (for me) another job hunt, continuing to heal from my divorce, and more solitude (and loneliness) than I ever thought possible.

I don’t for a moment believe that Iris’ new self-belief, or the new romance that came with it, solved all her problems. But I believe she’s on her way, and on the days when I emulate her and reach for my own gumption, it’s easier to believe that I am too.

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As the job hunt drags on (and despite several interviews lately, it seems endless), I keep turning this question over in my mind.

I am a firm believer in Joan Didion’s famous assertion that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” – often without even realizing it. Over the last year, I have found myself telling a lot of stories about unemployment and the job hunt, to myself and other people. They range widely, from the socially acceptable (I’m grateful for unemployment benefits) to the plucky and determined (I’m sure I’ll find something soon) to the truly painful (there must be something wrong with me). I have tried and tried to make sense of not only my most recent layoff – which, frankly, is a little easier because the pandemic upended everything – but also of my struggle to find a stable, low-drama, creatively fulfilling communications job where I can stay for a while.

Here are a couple of facts: I have done communications work for almost 15 years. I have worked at four different universities, and never stayed in any one job for more than a couple of years (sometimes by choice, sometimes not). There are lots of stories to be told about this, too: massive shifts in the higher education industry; a couple of better opportunities that came along; a few toxic work situations I needed to get out of; a couple of temp gigs that always had an end date. And, of course, a couple of endings (including the latest one) that I did not choose.

I know so many people – in my industry and out of it – who have held the same jobs or done the same kind of work for many years. I keep thinking there must be something I’m missing, that I can’t seem to find a similar situation. I have always chased (and been taught to value) stability, and I have always believed (perhaps wrongly, it turns out) that hard work and dedication would get me there.

Earlier in my career, I worried less about moving around a lot, and expected to find a more stable situation eventually. But my mid-career years have coincided with several departmental reorgs, leadership changes at my workplaces, my divorce, and a global health crisis. That is a lot of upheaval, and sometimes I think it’s no wonder I have bounced around like a tennis ball for several years now. Other days I think the story must have something to do with me: some fundamental lack that makes me dispensable.

I don’t know, of course, how this latest chapter in my career saga is going to turn out. I have done a lot of wrestling and crying, writing and running, venting to friends (and here on the blog) along with a lot of combing job boards and writing cover letters and interviewing. I don’t know if the chapter will end with me finding a similar gig to the ones I’ve had in the past, or something similar in a different industry, or something out of left field that I never could have expected.

More broadly, I don’t know what kind of story this is: is it the kind where the heroine slogs along for a while and her hard work is rewarded? Or the kind where something or someone swoops in sideways to introduce an entirely new storyline? Or a different kind I haven’t thought of yet?

Humans are meaning-makers, as one of my college professors (a jovial redheaded man with a passion for medieval literature and an equal passion for mobile technology) used to remind us. I think readers, writers and storytellers – and I am all three – are especially inclined that way. So it’s no wonder I am spending so much time trying to wrest some meaning out of this story. But it’s not over yet – we haven’t even reached the next stopping place, or the next chapter climax. And of course, there’s often no way to tell you’ve reached the turning point until much later.

For now, I will keep doing the things: networking, interviewing, cover-letter-writing, requesting the unemployment benefits I still need. I will keep living the story, because that’s the other thing: you only get to know what kind of a story it is if you stick with it.

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I rewatched While You Were Sleeping around Christmastime – which is when I usually watch it, since it takes place during Christmas week. I cracked up at all the best lines – “These mashed potatoes are so creamy!” “New Year’s Eve hasn’t been the same since Guy Lombardo died!” “I got Ice Capades!” – and reveled in the happy cacophony of the Callaghan family’s holiday celebrations. But this time, I was focused on a different aspect of the story: the loneliness.

When the movie opens, Lucy Moderatz (Sandra Bullock’s character) sits all day in a CTA booth taking subway tokens from strangers. She’s single, childless, without family since her dad’s passing, and her boss is asking her (again) to work on Christmas. Although she spends a lot of the movie interacting with the Callaghans (and trying to figure out how to tell them she’s not actually engaged to their comatose son), there are a number of scenes where she’s alone in her apartment, with her cat and the Christmas tree that broke the window early in the film. She’s so desperate for connection that she goes along with a lie, and nearly ends up marrying the wrong man just so she can be part of a family.

I read an article this winter about how While You Were Sleeping is the perfect movie for a pandemic: many of us, like Lucy, have spent the past year missing the communities we used to have (or wanted to have, or thought we were supposed to have). Lucy has never been part of a big family, but she’s thrilled to be welcomed into the Callaghan clan. She accepts hugs, chokes on Christmas eggnog, and cradles her wrapped present as the others tear into theirs; having spent years starved for community, she doesn’t want to miss savoring even a moment of it.

That scene made me well up: after I’ve spent so much of the past 14-ish months alone in my apartment, Lucy’s loneliness hit much closer to home. I have been grateful for every scrap of community I’ve found this year, including my online writing class, the few neighborhood friends I’ve been seeing, and in-person time with my sweet guy. But I have missed other connections: time with my family; in-person interactions with coworkers and other friends; the chance to build on new neighborhood relationships I had just started forming when the pandemic hit.

Ultimately, Lucy – and I – must make some choices about the kind of community that’s really worth pursuing. She decides, in the end, to tell the truth rather than end up married to a man she doesn’t love (and barely knows), even if that means losing the family she’s recently gained. As I continue to navigate life post-divorce (and as we all emerge slowly from the pandemic), I have to make choices, too. Which relationships are worth continuing to foster, and which ones do I need to let go? Was I hanging onto some connections – or the idea of them – long past their sell-by date? Where I can I find, or continue to seek, community that lets me be seen and loved?

After New Year’s, Lucy gets her happy ending – including a honeymoon to Florence with her beloved Jack. I’m hopeful, these days, that more connection is coming for me, too. But I think it’s worth remembering that loneliness isn’t limited to times of great isolation, and that we can all work to provide (and ask for) connections to those we love or those we encounter. (It is also, of course, worth remembering that Argentina has great beef, that Guy Lombardo didn’t play the clarinet, and that John Wayne was tall.)

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