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Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

Privacy in public

chai journal pencil case darwins

For one reason and another, I have spent a lot of time working in libraries and coffee shops over the last few months. (If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve probably seen my copious photos of the chai lattes at Darwin’s.)

I love both settings, for different moods and often different kinds of work. But it occurred to me recently that both places offer a way to strike a balance between privacy and being in public.

farnsworth reading room lamont library harvard

In a library, it is of course generally expected that you won’t – or don’t have to – talk to anyone. Though many libraries now offer group study spaces, you can also settle in quite comfortably with your laptop at a table or in a deep armchair.

I spent an hour in Lamont Library (at Harvard) one recent afternoon with about fifteen other people – all of us tucked up in different corners of the Farnsworth Room, typing contentedly away at our computers or scribbling in notebooks. We weren’t oblivious of each other’s presence, but we didn’t have to acknowledge it, either.

The collective presence in the room formed a kind of reassuring cushion for me. Introvert that I am, I still like to know that there are other people out there in the world (or right next to me), working on their own projects, doing their thing. I like knowing I’m part of that collective, without having to talk to anyone.

darwins cafe cup

In a coffee shop, the boundaries are more porous. There’s food and drink, for one thing, and generally also music. (The music at Darwin’s ranges delightfully and eclectically from classic rock to indie folk to the occasional country song.) I’ve learned the names of a couple of baristas, and I know most of the other ones by sight – and I’m sure I surprise no one, any more, when I order a medium chai latte.

At Darwin’s, you still don’t have to talk to anyone – but the general volume is a little louder, the vibe chummier. People do sometimes ask if they can share tables, borrow a chair, or make use of a power strip or outlet. I know a few of the other regulars by sight, and occasionally I bump into a friend or colleague. I listen with pleasure to the baristas’ banter as they sling drinks behind the counter or bring new supplies up from the basement. (It reminds me of my days as a barista at the Ground Floor, long ago.)

Here, too, the background noise forms a sort of comforting baseline: the small noises of footsteps and chatter, the whirr and hum of the espresso machine, blend into a pleasing buzz. I can (usually) detach my brain from following individual noises, letting it rest in the general hum, as I jot down notes (or a to-do list) or type away on my computer. Around me, there’s usually a mix of fellow workers on their laptops, elderly men perusing the newspaper, the guy who brings in his pastels to sketch, and chattering pairs of friends.

I love my solitude, however I can get it: a solo lunch in Harvard Yard, a quiet evening at home alone, even disappearing into a book on a crowded subway train. But I also love this contradictory mix of privacy in public. I like being part of the rhythm of a place, even if – sometimes especially if – my thoughts and words can remain all my own.

Do you like hanging in out libraries and coffee shops?

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central park yellow flowers nyc

On a Wednesday morning earlier this month, I boarded a train from Boston to New York City. My husband was headed to a work conference in Texas, and I had decided to take a solo adventure while he was away.

When I told people about my plans, their initial response was always the same: “By yourself?”

My mother was doubtful, my sister surprised, my friend Abigail wistful. “You’re so brave,” she said. I’m fairly certain they all expected me to be nervous about spending three days in the city alone. But I could hardly keep the glee out of my voice.

I’m an introvert by nature, a small-town girl by upbringing and heritage. I’m the granddaughter, on both sides, of farmers who raised cattle and alfalfa hay on quiet green acres bordered by forests. I’m a West Texan, and I admit to loving the solitude and freedom of those wide open spaces: long gray ribbons of highway stretching to the horizon, the silhouettes of tall pump jacks and mesquite scrub against so much sky.

sunset sky west texas

I’ve come to cherish a different kind of solitude in recent years, though: the experience of being alone in a city.

I’m back at the Art House America blog today, sharing my love of being alone in the big city. Please join me over there to read the rest of my essay.

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hammer head coverI’m a writer. I have always wanted to be a writer.

Since I was a little girl scribbling in my first couple of diaries (the kind with locks and keys), or making up stories to tell myself before bed at night, I’ve loved playing with words. But in this digital age, writing can sometimes look a lot like moving pixels around a screen, and less like anything real. Sometimes, after a day of hitting the delete key once too often, I go home and plunge myself into more tangible tasks: cooking, knitting, washing dishes.

After spending her twenties working as a journalist for a Boston newspaper, Nina MacLaughlin found herself similarly dragged down by the endless clicking and digital noise of her day job. Finally, exhausted and soul-weary, MacLaughlin quit, and applied for a carpenter’s assistant position she found on Craigslist. Her gorgeous memoir, Hammer Head, charts her journey into the world of carpentry, working for a tough, wise woman named Mary and discovering an entirely new way of life.

I’m over at Great New Books today talking about Nina’s memoir – one of my favorite books of 2015. Please join me over there to read the rest of my review.

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darwins journal scone tea

Another scene from my favorite cafe: tea, a raspberry scone and my current journal (with a note from Alisha taped inside).

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harvard yard memorial church view

One of the perks of working at a university: life slows down a little in the summer.

Of course, there are still students around: taking courses, working in the research labs, flying in for brief seminars or leadership programs. The number of high school students goes way up after Commencement, and the tour groups are out in full force.

But some pockets of campus, like the libraries, are quieter than usual. And lately, I’ve been spending some time over at Lamont Library.

donatelli reading room lamont library harvard

Lamont is one of the undergraduate libraries, located off the southeast corner of Harvard Yard, still on the main campus but off the most-trafficked paths. It’s smaller than Widener, the university’s main library, and it feels friendlier, less grand and imposing.

While Widener is composed mostly of dimly lit stacks (which stretch several stories underground), Lamont has a nice mix of shelves and reading rooms. It has lots of windows and more than a few quiet spaces where you can curl up in an armchair (or spread out at a desk) and spend a while working, reading or studying. (I’ve also seen a few students napping in the comfy chairs.)

farnsworth reading room lamont library harvard

I always stop to peruse the New Books shelf near the front desk on my way out, and sometimes I pop downstairs to the media stacks to check out a DVD. But Lamont is also simply a good place to perch for a few hours.

The air-conditioning hums quietly, the summer sun slants in through the windows, and the books, with their colorful spines, make a welcoming background for my work. And the views – especially from the third floor facing north – are quite lovely.

memorial church memorial hall harvard university

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red journal chai darwins

A good journal entry – like a good song, or sketch, or photograph – ought to break up the habitual and lift away the film that forms over the eye, the finger, the tongue, the heart. A good journal entry ought to be a love letter to the world.

—Anthony Doerr, Four Seasons in Rome

As a longtime journaler (I have boxes of old journals stowed away in a closet, and a stack of more recent ones teetering on a bookshelf), this passage from Doerr’s lovely memoir positively made my heart sing.

Happy Friday, friends. Hope you have a lovely weekend.

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Rhythm vs. routine

red journal chai darwins

It’s no secret: this winter has been driving me crazy. You know the salient facts: blizzards for days. Record-breaking cold temps. Snowbanks higher than my head, ice and slush on the roads, more snow (always) in the forecast. (We’re heading toward a new record for Boston’s snowiest winter ever.)

I don’t love the cold (or the high heating bills). But this stretch of weather – unpredictable, intense and requiring lots of cleanup after each storm – has seriously messed with my routine. It’s taken me – and most people I know – nearly two months to settle into a winter rhythm. (Since I work at a university, I see it with our students too: most of them didn’t have a “normal” week of classes until Week 5 of the semester.)

I’ve been thinking about rhythm versus routine. I have a lot of routines in my daily life – some seasonal, some perennial. Right now, the morning routine looks like this: hit the snooze button, hop in the shower, pull on a dress and fleece-lined tights, brew a cup of Earl Grey in my favorite blue mug.

Some routines, like that one, are most productive when they’re well honed and I don’t have to think about them. (I haven’t had the energy for overthinking lately – which isn’t entirely a bad thing.) And some habits are truly life-giving: that morning cup of tea, calling my mom once a week or so, writing every day, catching up with my husband over dinner. I draw deep nourishment from those practices.

Sometimes, though, I get bored with an unchanging routine. I’ll eat the same thing for lunch three days in a row and then crave something new, stat. I’ll drink the same tea for a week or more and then decide, inexplicably, that I want something different. (Fortunately, I always have a dozen or so options on hand.)

tea keep calm mug pei

I’m a musician. I love a good rhythm. I like a certain amount of predictability, of comfort, of knowing what’s coming at the end of the next verse (or day). But I want room for variation, syncopation, a little color or spice. I want the freedom to choose daffodils over tulips, ginger peach tea instead of chai, a new recipe instead of the same old meal (though I rely heavily on our menu of favorites).

Sometimes I try something new and fall in love (like going to the art museum on Thursdays), so it becomes a habit, part of my daily or weekly rhythm. I am thrilled to be back at Monday night yoga, where the instructor and the poses are familiar (though Meredith does vary things a bit from week to week).

But I like having the option for change. I get bored and fidgety if I feel like I have to do the same thing, in the same way, every time. Sometimes I break the routine on purpose, just to shake things up. I like to think of it as that syncopation, an extra beat (or pause) that gives my life a bit of pizzazz.

Is it just a fear of boredom, or does it go deeper than that? Is there something life-giving about rhythms, like a favorite song or a good liturgy? Is there something soul-sucking about routines, like the dullness of an automated assembly line? Or am I just quibbling over semantics?

What do you think?

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