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charles river cambridge sunset

Making Peace

A voice from the dark called out,
             ‘The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.’
                                   But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.
                                       A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.
                                              A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses . . .
                        A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.

I came across this poem (as I find so many lovely things) via the good folks at Image Journal. It strikes me, reading these lines, that peace – like magic – is something we must actively make.

Like Natalie Goldberg’s “holy yes,” peace is an act of creativity, grace and courage; it is not something that happens automatically. It is a choice, and a long process, and it can be hard, complicated and tiring. But it is also beautiful and necessary. In a world of loud arguments and urgent headlines, it is perhaps more necessary than ever.

May I – may we all – learn to be peacemakers in these days.

hancock tower protest boston refugees

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midtown nyc skyscrapers blue sky

New York in January is rain-washed sidewalks and humid air, brittle Christmas trees with their sharp pine scent, piled in heaps on the streets for the garbage collectors. It is scraps of blue sky glinting off silver skyscraper windows, traffic lights and street lamps and the glitter of midtown mingling together in a wild, whirling urban glow.

New York in January is women in black coats and ankle boots and red lipstick, hundreds of men in suits striding through midtown with sleek leather portfolios under their arms. It is spindly bare trees still wound with twinkle lights, orange construction cones and planks of plywood and men in hard hats blocking street corners with their work zones. It is darkness falling early as you walk past uniformed doormen, glowing storefronts and unexpected churches amid the high-rise buildings, raising their spires to the sky.

st patricks cathedral spires nyc

New York in January is dogs bundled up in plaid coats for a morning walk, intrepid runners in leggings and knit caps, slippery patches on sidewalks after hours of unexpected snow. It is skies so blue they make your heart ache, a brisk wind whipping off the East River, the relief of coming indoors to a warm bookstore or cafe after walking with your head bent for blocks on end.

New York in January is New York in all seasons: captivating, exhausting, a demanding, bewitching delight.

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writers resist nypl event protest

I spent most of the last week in New York City, first attending a work conference and then enjoying a long weekend in Brooklyn with my husband. We walked and wandered: around Fort Greene, across the Brooklyn Bridge, up through SoHo and what felt like half of Manhattan. On Sunday afternoon, we joined the crowd on the steps of the New York Public Library’s main branch for the PEN America Writers Resist event.

It’s always worth gathering to listen to writers read their own words and the words of other writers whom they treasure; to hear them speak in impassioned defense of free speech, a free press and the vitality of individual voices. We stood on the steps for an hour, listening to poets and novelists, essayists and short-story writers and singers, lifting their voices in praise of creativity and free expression.

In a moment of serendipity (or magic), we arrived just in time to hear novelist Alexander Chee read Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem “Praise Song for the Day,” from which this post takes its title. I stood there among a crowd of passionate strangers and felt tears prick my eyes. (As regular readers know, Alexander’s poem “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe” has been in my head for months.)

Lately, the loudest words in this country have seemed to be fear or division or prejudice. We are entering a time of political transition with many unknown factors, and I know a lot of us are struggling with fear and anger, every day. I can’t pretend that the protest solved that, for me or for anyone. But I believe it was important to show up and listen.

“In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, / any thing can be made, any sentence begun,” Chee read. I needed that reminder, and I’m sharing it in case you need it too. Pick up a pen, a paintbrush, a musical instrument – whatever tool you can use to make and remake the world. We need you: your work, your voice, your love. We are louder – and stronger – together. Let’s walk forward in that light.

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katie jer xmas 2016

  • bounced around Harvard (or a certain section of it) like a pinball, temping in two different offices and coming back to the first one for a more permanent gig, which I am loving.
  • taken countless walks to Darwin’s for cups of chai, delicious sandwiches, various other treats, and good talk with the folks behind the counter.
  • Related to both of the above: found several places where I know in my bones that I belong.
  • flown to Texas to surprise my dad for his 60th birthday.
  • moved to a new apartment in the same town I’ve lived in for six years, and navigated many shifts in my daily routine.
  • read nearly 200 books. I reviewed 51 of them for Shelf Awareness and six for Great New Books.
  • visited Martha’s Vineyard for the first time.
  • spent three blissful weekends in New York City: one in March, one in August and one in October.
  • become an obsessive (is there any other kind?) Hamilfan.
  • survived a wild Commencement season right in the thick of things at the Harvard Gazette.
  • been humbled over and over again by friends and colleagues who have helped me through transition: with advice, packing boxes, kind words, cups of tea and so much more.
  • returned to PEI for a wonderful and much-needed vacation.
  • hosted my parents for their annual visit to Boston.
  • returned to Abilene for my 10-year college reunion and a packed, nourishing weekend of time with my people there.
  • walked across Harvard Yard to many Morning Prayers services and had my spirit refreshed.
  • filled up half a dozen journals.
  • turned thirty-three and grown even more comfortable in my own skin.
  • spent my seventh (!) fall in New England, and snapped so many photos of leaves, as I do every year.
  • survived (as have we all) the most contentious election season in recent memory.

I’m frankly not sure what to say or think as we head into 2017. A friend sent me this Grace Paley quote recently, and it seems more apt than anything I could come up with: “Let us go forth with fear and courage and rage to save the world.”

Wishing you courage and peace in this new year, friends.

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ornaments light book

Somehow, we’ve landed in mid-December, which is proving both twinkly and hectic, as per usual. Here’s what’s saving my life, as we move through the last stretch of quasi-normal days before the Christmas break:

  • The Sylvia Plath poem from which this post takes its title.
  • “O Come O Come Emmanuel” (the Civil Wars version), on repeat.
  • Hot, spicy chai and a buttered English muffin from Darwin’s in the mornings.
  • Striped dress + black leggings + boots + scarf + magic green coat = warm, stylish winter uniform.
  • Sunshine and blue skies, even when it’s frigid out. (Related: walks in the fresh air, any time I can get them.)

charles river cambridge sunset

  • A couple of evenings in a friend’s living room, eating popcorn and drinking mulled cider and reading Advent poetry.
  • Snatching time to write in the library before work, and exchanging smiles with the security guard.
  • Yoga classes whenever I can squeeze them in. (Namaste.)
  • Krista Tippett’s On Being interview with Mary Karr, which is warm and wise and so honest.
  • A much-needed catch-up with a friend over hot chocolate the other day.
  • The particular blue of these early December mornings, glimpsed from the bathroom window.
  • Pumpkin chai from David’s Tea, brewed strong in a purple travel mug. Plus one of Molly’s scones and a crisp apple, every morning. (See also: not overthinking it.)

darwins sign winter snow

  • Twinkle lights: on my desk at work, on the trees in Harvard Square, on my two Christmas trees (one big, one tiny).
  • A few pages of Winter Solstice before bed, even when I can barely keep my eyes open.
  • Community of all stripes and in all places, from church to work to my daily rounds in the Square. It has been a turbulent year, to say the least, but I am deeply grateful to have found several places where I know I belong.

What’s saving your life this December? Please share, if you’re willing.

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darwins cider sign red leaves

This fall, as I mentioned recently, has been more than a little hectic. Lots of demands at work and at home, plus two wonderful trips – one to NYC and one to Texas for a college reunion – have left me feeling frazzled.

I’ve done some highly cathartic venting to a few friends, but one of them reminded me the other day that it’s also helpful to focus on the good. And there is so much good, even while things are crazy. So here, a list of what’s saving my life this fall:

  • Early-morning writing sessions in one of the libraries on campus. If I wake up on time and catch the early bus, I often have 15 or 20 minutes to curl up in an armchair and scribble in my journal, or stare out the window. I like the quiet company of students (though occasionally someone is snoring!), and watching the leaves change through the windows. And writing is so good for my soul.
  • Walking through the Yard, or anywhere in Harvard Square, and marveling at the changing leaves. My three favorite red maples, the harbingers, are all but bare now, and the yellow leaves are out in full force. I’m stunned by the colors every year.
  • The weekday Morning Prayers service on campus, which this semester is meeting in Holden Chapel, is full of good words and gorgeous music. I’ve been making it over there most mornings, and I love listening to the choir, hearing speakers from around campus, and sight-reading unfamiliar but lovely hymns.
  • Darwin’s, about which I have talked often here, continues to save my life at least twice a day. The chai, the cookies, the warm sunset walls, the sandwiches and soup, and most of all, the friendly chitchat with my people. It is my place and I am so grateful.
  • My Thursday writers’ meetings up on the sixth floor, which are hilarious, sarcastic and always informative. (And which also involve some of my people.)
  • Jen Lee’s posts about her new project, which have given me so many good words on the price of courage and being enough.
  • Debriefing the days with my husband, whenever and however we can.
  • A few stalwart friendships, local and far-flung, which provide wisdom, joy and so much love.
  • My fall uniform: striped dress, black leggings and ankle boots, bright scarf, fingerless gloves, my favorite green coat. (See also: not overthinking it.)
  • Antacid pills and lots of water. Boring but true.
  • The Hamilton soundtrack, which has a line for every situation.
  • My colleagues, who are smart, funny and caring, and who make the craziness much more bearable.
  • Seeing so many people get excited about voting (though I am so ready for this election to be over).
  • Good books. I’m not reading at my usual pace or volume right now, but I recently loved Beneath Wandering Stars, A Word for Love and Books for Living.
  • This mantra from a colleague: “Never deny a positive impulse.” I love that.

What’s saving your life this fall? I’d really like to know.

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shakespeare and co bookstore upper east side nyc

The hubs and I spent a recent long weekend in NYC, dipping into a few bookstores as we hopped around the city. This is the lovely Shakespeare & Co. on the Upper East Side, and here’s my latest reading roundup:

The Kite and the String: How to Write with Spontaneity and Control—And Live to Tell the Tale, Alice Mattison
Mattison, a novelist and poet, gives practical, down-to-earth advice and shares her own experience as a writer. I liked her dryly humorous voice; some wise advice here, though more centered on fiction than nonfiction. Recommended by my writer friends Hannah and Elena.

Books for Living, Will Schwalbe
I loved Schwalbe’s first memoir, The End of Your Life Book Club. In this book, he writes brief essays on the books that have resonated throughout his life – relating to such topics as Napping, Connecting, Remembering, and Choosing Your Life. Witty, wise, totally unpretentious and so good. I’d love to get coffee and talk books with Schwalbe. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 27).

The Champagne Conspiracy, Ellen Crosby
Crosby’s seventh Wine Country mystery (the first I’ve read) finds vintner Lucie Montgomery trying to untangle a mystery involving murders past and present, complicated family relationships and blackmail. A light mystery with a compelling plot and a likable protagonist. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 1).

Grape, Olive, Pig: Deep Travels Through Spain’s Food Culture, Matt Goulding
Goulding, an American food writer living in Barcelona, takes readers on a tour through Spain’s regional cuisines: tapas, paella, migas and much more. My favorite parts are his anecdotes of memorable nights in this or that Spanish city, and his deep love for his Catalan wife, Laura. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 15).

Just One Damned Thing After Another, Jodi Taylor
I heard Liberty mention this one on All the Books. Madeleine Maxwell (“Max”) joins a coterie of time-jumping historians at St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research, and all hell quickly breaks loose. Dinosaurs, romantic tension and a nefarious conspiracy, told with dry wit, lots of (literal and metaphorical) explosions and countless cups of tea. So much fun. First in a series.

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, Alan Bradley
Flavia de Luce, chemist and sleuth, is back in England from Canada, and back to solving mysteries after she finds an elderly woodcarver hung upside down from his bedroom door. I love Flavia’s narrative voice, though her loneliness (which she never admits) breaks my heart.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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