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Archive for the ‘musings’ Category

roses crimson

The seeds Dickon and Mary had planted grew as if fairies had tended them.

roses apricot sunlight

Satiny poppies of all tints danced in the breeze by the score, gaily defying flowers which had lived in the garden for years and which it might be confessed seemed rather to wonder how such new people had got there.

poppies red longfellow house garden

And the roses—the roses!

roses pink library

Rising out of the grass, tangled round the sun-dial, wreathing the tree trunks and hanging from their branches, climbing up the walls and spreading over them with long garlands falling in cascades—they came alive day by day, hour by hour.

climbing roses purple door

Fair fresh leaves, and buds—and buds—tiny at first but swelling and working Magic until they burst and uncurled into cups of scent delicately spilling themselves over their brims and filling the garden air.

rosebud honeysuckle pink flowers

I keep thinking of these lines from The Secret Garden as I walk around Cambridge, stopping to sniff roses and snap pictures and marvel at the colors. Summer has arrived and I am reveling in it, naming its glories: poppies, iris, peonies, columbines, honeysuckle, trees in full vivid green leaf.

I don’t know the names of everything I see, but as Mary Oliver says, “one doesn’t need to know the names to feel the presences.” I do know the roses, though, and their sweet scent and rich, velvety colors are a delight both familiar and new.

budding rose

I carried pink roses at my wedding, nine summers ago, and I picked wild roses on my grandparents’ farm as a child. My florist’s shop has buckets of them right now, in every color of the rainbow. But I love seeing them along the sidewalks too, nodding their heads in the breeze. They are “sweetness pure and simple” (Mary Oliver again), and they are saving my life these days.

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birds art life mug

“I found myself with a broken part,” Kyo Maclear writes in the introduction to her luminous memoir, Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation. During a year of dealing with her father’s illness and other challenges, Maclear found herself unmoored. “I had lost the beat,” she writes. Struggling with her responsibilities to her father, husband and sons, she found herself with no words: a troubling state of affairs for a writer.

Searching for a way to relocate herself in the everyday, Maclear met a musician whose passion was urban birdwatching. Birds Art Life chronicles the year they spent watching birds in and around her home city of Toronto.

I’m back at Great New Books today talking about how much I loved Maclear’s quiet, gorgeous memoir, which I picked up at Idlewild Books in NYC this winter. Please join me over there to read the rest of my review.

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mystic seaport ct

Earlier this month, the hubs and I took off for a much-needed weekend getaway. His birthday is in early May, and it seemed like forever since our quick trip to Florida in mid-March.

We’ve been through southern Connecticut many times on our train rides to NYC, but had never spent any time there – so we decided to hop down to Mystic (as in pizza) for a long weekend.

In spite of some truly crazy spring rainstorms, it was delightful. (As were these tulips, spotted outside a shop in downtown Mystic.)

tulips mystic ct

We arrived on a windy, rainy Friday afternoon, checked into our Airbnb apartment and ate lunch at the S&P Oyster Company, down by the water. The views were a bit obscured by the weather, but the clam chowder was delicious.

After lunch, we drove over to nearby Westerly, R.I., where we spent most of our time at the Savoy Bookshop & Cafe. (If you know me, you are not shocked by this one bit.)

savoy bookshop westerly rhode island

I browsed the stacks while J curled up and read for a while, and later (after wandering around in the rain) we came back for an afternoon snack.

The rain had (mostly) stopped by dinnertime, and we ate at the other pizza place in Mystic – not the one from the movie, but Pizzetta, down on Water Street. Both the spinach-artichoke dip and the pizza were fresh and delicious. (The after-dinner excitement: several of the server girls shrieking because a frog had found its way onto the back stairs!)

Saturday began with pastries from Sift (yum) and brought more wandering, including a long browse at Bank Square Books, which is owned by the same folks who run the Savoy. I could have stayed for hours: it is well-stocked, pleasantly arranged and full of unexpected corners.

bank square books mystic ct window

Our Airbnb hostess, Melissa, had told us about M Bar, a hip little restaurant in a converted gas station, a short walk from downtown Mystic. We had dinner there on Saturday night and I loved every bite: avocado mash with pita chips, veggie lasagna with white sauce, and the best fries I’ve had in quite some time – with house-made ketchup. (Plus lovely wine, a great ambiance and a handsome date.)

jer m bar mystic ct

The sun finally came out on Sunday, so we drove over to Gillette Castle, though we were disappointed to learn it was still closed for the season. (J really wanted to climb it, and I was curious to go inside.) We had to content ourselves with wandering around the site, and marveling at the exterior.

gillette castle exterior ct

After that, we headed to yet another bookstore: the rambling, overstuffed Book Barn in Niantic. It boasts a fairy garden, a “haunted” mystery shed, several annexes of various kinds, and – I kid you not – a hobbit hole.

hobbit hole book barn niantic ct

More to the point, it is positively overflowing with used books, and we ended up with a bulging bag of them: fiction and mysteries for me, history and other nonfiction for J. My favorite kind of vacation shopping.

In between our wanderings, we spent a lot of time at the apartment: sleeping late, going to bed early, curling up with good books. I spent hours on the wicker sofa by the window, under a white afghan, sipping tea and reading a couple of YA novels I loved. It was restorative in the best way: walking and resting, exploring and eating, just being together.

We capped off our trip with brunch at Rise (which J kept mistakenly calling “Shine”) on Monday morning, and headed home, refreshed.

jer pancakes rise mystic ct

Mystic, you are enchanting. (And restful.) We’ll be back.

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harvard yard banners commencement 2016

We are (rapidly) approaching Commencement here at Harvard. Classes are over; fluttering robes and other regalia are appearing on the streets of Cambridge; the Yard is filling up with folding chairs, audio speakers and other equipment. (Three days to go.)

I’ve been walking through the Yard whenever I can, watching it all take shape: watching the banners unfurl and the stage come together on the south porch of Memorial Church, piece by piece. There is a comfort in these steady rituals, year after year, a reliability deepened by knowing where to look.

Most of our students at the Kennedy School of Government, where I work, are graduating after one or two years in a master’s program, while our Ph.D. students have been in it for a longer haul. But many of the students earning their undergraduate degrees from Harvard College have spent four years in this place. And as of this spring, so have I.

harvard yard memorial church view

This time of year always makes me reflective: we are wrapping up another academic season, pausing before the plunge into summer, stopping to take stock of what we’ve accomplished and what we’ve gained. We are celebrating another class of graduating students right before we lose them: we are sending (most of) them out into the world, charging them to take what they’ve learned here and do some good.

Yet those of us who stay, who spend our workdays year-round in this place, are under the same charge: to take what we have learned, what we have built here, and do some good.

During this turbulent academic year – a year in which I’ve been adjusting, simultaneously, to a new job and to constantly shifting political realities, which directly affect said job – I have been thinking of James Baldwin’s words about America. Baldwin asserted his love for this country, and added in the next breath, “Exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

Similarly, I have developed a bone-deep love for Harvard, but I insist on the right to question it perpetually, and yes, sometimes to criticize it.

To be a part of this place, with its nearly four centuries of history, tradition and scholarship, is also to reckon with its scars and inconsistencies, its blind spots and the weight of its privilege. It is to keep speaking up (in my own quiet way), insisting on a place for those who have often been marginalized here: women, immigrants, African Americans and other minorities, those who don’t fit the mold of the “traditional” Harvard student or employee. It is to believe – sometimes by an effort of will – that I belong here, and that my voice matters: that I, too, am Harvard.

Over the past four years, I’ve worked in three different areas of Harvard: the Ed School, where I first landed and began to stretch my wings; the Harvard Gazette, where I survived a wild and wonderful Commencement season last year; and the Kennedy School, where I spend my days now. I have worked hard to make a place for myself here, to find a home, and I’ve been surprised and delighted to find several. In addition to all three of my offices (current and former), there are other corners of Harvard that belong to me.

harvard yard path trees light

The sunken garden on Appian Way, where tulips and iris bob their vivid heads in the spring and summer. A particular carved wooden pew in Memorial Church, where I have sat on many mornings this year, listening to the choir sing and the congregation recite the Lord’s Prayer. A cluster of squashy armchairs in Lamont Library, with a window that looks out into the trees. The second-floor room at the Harvard Art Museums that holds my favorite Monet paintings and one of Degas’ Little Dancer sculptures. And I can’t forget the places that are technically not part of Harvard, but that anchor me and nourish me here in the Square: the flower shop, the Harvard Book Store, and – most especially – Darwin’s.

As I’ve said before, working at Harvard is often like working anywhere else: there are politics and frustrations and paperwork, and also triumphs and community and good, satisfying work. I have struggled here, and felt lost and heartbroken – especially after being laid off, two years ago this month. I have also worked hard for every relationship I’ve built here, and that work has been rewarded: now I regularly see familiar faces around the Square, or have coffee dates and congenial email exchanges with colleagues and friends. This feels like my place, and it is: I speak the language, I know the streets and buildings, I understand the rhythms of this neighborhood. There is so much more to learn (there always is), but I am rooted here, and thriving.

Like our students, I realize that what I’ve gained here – what I have been given, and also what I have worked hard for – comes with responsibility. So I’ll keep asking questions, keep moving forward, keep thinking about how to do my work well, how to affect this place for good.

I’m not graduating with a degree from Harvard this year. But I am grateful, down to my bones, for my four years (and counting) in this place that is ever more mine.

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tulips multicolored bed

After this long, gray, lingering winter, the spring in Cambridge has surprised me, as it does every year. This is my seventh spring in New England, and each time it feels entirely new: the slow budding of the bare trees, the first crocuses and snowdrops, the daffodils sprouting up in flowerbeds and in glorious scattered patches along the Charles River.

daffodils charles river cambridge spring

Though we had some warm days early in the season, it has been unrelentingly chilly for weeks: the skies heavy with lowering clouds, the wind whipping off the river, the rain pouring down. As a descendant of two farming families who also grew up in a near-desert region, I hesitate to complain about the rain – especially this year, when we needed it badly to make up for last summer’s drought. But it has left my spirits sodden, my heart disconsolate. I crave the sunshine like a cat, or a sunflower.

scilla flowers sunlight cambridge ma

I have taken lots of long walks, this winter and spring, around Cambridge with a friend who loves the flowers and trees as much as I do. We have watched, together, for every scrap of color and new life: first the snowdrops and crocuses, then the daffodils and hellebores, the gold forsythia and tiny blue scilla, the blooming cherry and redbud trees.

redbud blue sky brick building

Now we’re onto the tulips – my favorite – and the lilacs, which are truly stunning this year. I can’t walk down the sidewalk without stopping to sniff them. Lilies of the valley, shy and dainty, are peering out from under their curving leaves. The azaleas are out in force and the rhododendrons are budding. And the dogwood trees – creamy white and rich, vivid pink – are breathtaking.

dogwood pink flowers blue sky green leaves

It feels inconsequential, sometimes, to pay attention to trees and flowers when the headlines are shouting dismay and destruction, when heartbreak and strain are pressing in on all sides. There is so much going on, both in the world and in the lives of people I love: surgeries, cross-country moves, national security breaches. Job stress, political turmoil, the ache of endings and beginnings, so much fear and pain. All of it, or nearly all of it, beyond my power to mend.

tulips lily of the valley tree roots

I know that snapping photos of flowers, or buying bouquets of them for my desk, won’t solve these larger struggles. Some days I despair of finding enough hope to move forward, though I know in my bones that is the only thing to do.

lilacs may

But on other days, as my friend Jet noted recently, the sky is “a saving kind of blue.” The leaves of the pin oaks are an electric yellow-green, zinging with life. The cherry blossoms pile up along the streets in pink snowdrifts. The white lilacs carry their own scent along with a hint of honeysuckle. And on these days, the very act of stopping to gaze, to sniff, to snap a photo – in other words, to pay attention – is the thing that is saving my life now.

azalea bush

I say this every year: I don’t want to miss it. I want to stay awake, to notice every bit of beauty. I want to be right here, to soak up this glorious, brief season, to walk with open eyes through this neighborhood I love so well. I want to be open to it, all of it. Even when it makes my heart ache.

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pink tulips boston public garden spring 2017

This spring weather, y’all. I don’t even know. We’ve had temperature swings worthy of my native West Texas: 80s and humid, 40s and raining, nearly every point in between. Swift-moving clouds, flashes of sunshine, sudden downpours and so much misty rain.

In some ways, the weather is reflecting the state of my soul: fitful, unsettled, often unpredictable. I am dealing with a lot of recent transitions and the fallout from the past year-plus of big changes. Sometimes it’s all I can do to keep up, brew myself a cup of tea and keep going. (Donia Bijan’s words about “the only thing to do” are running through my head every single day.)

In that spirit, I decided it was time for another list of what’s saving my life now: because something, or someone, always is. My lifesavers, in this topsy-turvy spring, include:

  • That benediction I love at Morning Prayers on Tuesdays. “May God go before us to lead us…”
  • My favorite black ankle boots: good for nearly all weather and comfortable for long walks.
  • Poetry by John Daniel, John Terpstra and Brian Doyle.
  • A recent visit from some beloved college friends and their little boy.
  • Tulips in all shades of lipstick red and pink. (See above, for evidence from the Boston Public Garden.)
  • Also: budding lilacs. The first lilies of the valley. Every new green leaf I see.

lilacs may

  • Playing Twenty Questions with my friends’ 10-year-old twins the other night and laughing ourselves silly. (Partly because they’re still figuring out how it works.)
  • The wise, funny, earnest Senior Talks at Morning Prayers, given by graduating students as we wrap up for the year.
  • My daily walks around Harvard Square to my places, especially the florist and my beloved Darwin’s.
  • Lauren Winner’s wise words about middles.
  • My umbrella, fingerless gloves and sunglasses, all of which I’ve been keeping handy. (See also: crazy weather.)
  • Long, long walks around Cambridge with a dear friend.
  • The hilarious sixth installment in Jodi Taylor’s series about time-traveling historians. (I’m the crazy person cracking up on the train, reading it.)
  • Unexpected moments of connection with friends and strangers.
  • As always: lots and lots of tea.

What’s saving your life these days? Please feel free to share in the comments.

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tulip hyacinth leaves spring
Today

If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze

that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house

and unlatch the door to the canary’s cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,

a day when the cool brick paths
and the garden bursting with peonies

seemed so etched in sunlight
that you felt like taking

a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,

releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage

so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting

into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just that kind of day.

 

I love Collins’ work, but had forgotten about this poem until my friend Louisa shared it at our book club last fall. Now that we are into spring (however fitful and rainy), it feels like the perfect time to share these lines with you.

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

(more…)

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