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harvard widener library commencement banners

We celebrated Commencement at Harvard last week: my sixth one, the university’s 367th. It was – it always is – a kaleidoscope of moments and light, words and memories.

It was crimson hoods and black robes flapping, piles and piles of special editions of the Harvard Gazette, where I worked briefly during Commencement season, two years ago. It was spring breezes and blue skies, exuberant music by the Harvard band and choir, thousands of folding chairs and dozens of speeches.

I spent most of the morning in the Yard, the epicenter of the festivities, and it was overstimulating and glorious. I stood near the stage with my colleagues Deb and Christina, press passes around our necks. We listened and applauded, soaking it all in.

harvard yard banners trees commencement

Commencement, this year, smelled like lilacs, especially the waist-high versions that bloomed out just in time for the day. It sounded like marching feet and raucous cheers, vuvuzelas and ringing church bells, applause from so many proud parents and friends. It tasted like chai (of course) from Darwin’s, sipped standing in the Yard as we listened to the student orators, and like veggie wraps and guacamole, eaten sitting by a sixth-floor office window while we rested our tired feet.

This year, the road to Commencement has felt long and difficult. It has been a tough time to be doing communications work at a school of government, even (or especially) at Harvard. We have weathered serious internal changes in our staff and leadership, and decision-making processes have shifted, sometimes faster than I could keep up with.

Our work here is informed by the political climate in the nation and the world, and it’s been a wild ride lately in both places. The work of keeping on, of fulfilling our daily tasks and responsibilities, has felt sometimes futile and often overwhelming. I’ve wondered many times whether and how it can possibly matter.

And yet.

I spent a glorious hour sitting in the HKS café last month, listening to a Somali-Canadian student speak about her hopes for nation-building and the good questions she plans to take back to Mogadishu. On Commencement day, I listened to Pete Davis, the graduate student speaker, urge us to commit to showing up and slaying the dragons of boredom and distraction, to do the slow work of building a better world. I listened, that afternoon, to Drew Gilpin Faust speak about hope in her final Commencement address as Harvard’s president, nudging her audience toward wisdom and goodness. I remembered, for a moment, what this place can be.

I’ll be searching out my own new beginning (again) this summer. My current job is ending, so I’ll be looking for a new position where I can write and edit and tell good stories. I don’t know yet where that will be, though I hope it’s at Harvard.

Because after five years, this place is home. It is a challenge and a community, an inspiration and sometimes a source of exasperation. It is both a big, complicated, many-headed beast and a small New England town. It has tremendous potential to do some good in the world, and it is full of bright, thoughtful, curious people who help make that happen.

As our graduates begin their next chapters (mostly) outside of Cambridge, I hope I get the chance to write another one here.

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map of salt and stars book

I’ve always loved maps. Since I was a child sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car, tracing our summer road-trip routes on the pages of my dad’s United States atlas, I’ve been fascinated by those collections of lines and space. They help us navigate the physical world, but they tell us so much more than where we’ve been and where we’re going.

For Nour, the twelve-year-old narrator of Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar’s novel The Map of Salt and Stars, maps are her mother’s livelihood and her family’s lingua franca. But one map in particular may guide her to a brand-new home.

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I read The Map of Salt and Stars back in March; it came out in early May. I loved every page of Nour’s story, which is interwoven with the legend of Rawiya, a young woman who apprentices herself to a famed medieval mapmaker.

I’m sharing my full review over at Bookclique, a site run by my friend Jessica Flaxman. Please head on over there to read the rest of my thoughts.

Remembering Frank

pink gold texas sunset sky

I’ve been carrying Frank’s funeral program in my purse for days.

I slipped it in there at the end of his memorial service, a couple of weekends ago, in the high-ceilinged sanctuary of the church where I spent nearly every Sunday growing up. I nearly forgot about it, until I reached in a few days later to retrieve something else and my fingers brushed the paper. I saw his law firm portrait again and thought: That can’t be right.

Frank was an attorney, a father and husband, a percussionist, a dog lover, a man of faith. He and his wife, Kim, have been friends with my parents since the mid-eighties, since my sister and I were tiny. We grew up seeing them at church every week, where they worked tirelessly alongside my mom and dad, teaching Sunday school and directing events, serving in countless quiet ways. I used to baby-sit their sons and daughter, going over to their big, friendly house with its assorted dogs and cats (and, for a memorable time, a corn snake named Queenie). They have loved me, and I have loved them, nearly all my life.

When Frank went into the hospital in mid-April, none of us thought for a second that we’d be sitting at his funeral service in early May.

This is how it happens sometimes: without warning, in the middle of a full and busy spring, with school programs and work assignments and birthday parties and all the stuff of life. Kim is a preschool teacher (she taught my older nephew last year) and found herself taking days off school, both when Frank became ill and when he died. Their sons and daughter-in-law came in from Houston and North Carolina, and friends local and far-flung have rallied. And I think all of us have been wrestling with the sense of sturdy disbelief that Lindsey described in a recent post.

That day at the funeral, and the next day at church, people spoke about Frank and shared stories, funny and tender. He loved Mexican food, the spicier the better. He was a stickler for doing things well: his secretary learned years ago that there is a right and a wrong way to affix paper clips, and his kids knew he had high standards. He was a disciplined, faithful servant to his church and his community. He helped more people, in more ways, than I think any of us will ever know.

But the whole time, I was thinking about something much simpler: he was my friend.

Frank embodied discipline and duty, as his son Joey said at the funeral. (I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house when Joey started crying in the middle of his tribute to his dad.) He served, as so many people said, without fanfare and without ceasing. He showed up, quietly and consistently, over and over again. These things are important.

But what I will remember – what I suspect all of us will remember, too – is his warmth, his compassion, his smile.

I don’t get back to my hometown too often these days: a few times a year, for a long weekend or a few days at Christmas. I don’t have the kind of daily or weekly interaction with the folks there that I once did. But there are still places where I am sure of a welcome, and one of them is the big Sunday school room at the north end of the church. And Frank was one of the people who always welcomed me home. He always wanted to hear about Boston; he and Kim had enjoyed several trips to Nantucket. It made him happy that we shared a connection to this part of the world.

Those chats on Sunday morning, that rock-solid welcome, is what I will remember, and what I will miss the most.

We are all grieving: Frank’s family, his coworkers, his many friends, the church family he was a part of for so long. My parents are deeply sad and shaken by the loss of their friend. There are no easy words for this; I hesitated to even write these. But it feels important to mark his passing, to say: he was here and he lived and loved. And we loved him. We still do.

ryder poppy cards

A couple of weeks ago, I hopped a plane to west Texas, leaving behind emails and work to-do lists for a different kind of busy. My older nephew, Ryder, was turning six, and I’d planned to head home for his birthday party and a t-ball game, plus some Mexican food and time with my sister and parents.

The family texts flew back and forth in the days before my trip: party plans, flight schedules, what to buy Ryder for his birthday (answer: Nerf guns and Uno).

But on the day before I left, my sister and dad both sent a different kind of text: bring a dress in case the funeral happens while you’re here.

Frank, a longtime family friend of ours, had gone into the hospital in mid-April. It caught us all by surprise: he was 56 and healthy, and we were all stunned by the infection that took over his body. We had expected a long recovery, perhaps weeks in the hospital. But I stared in disbelief at the early-morning text my sister sent with news of his death. I still don’t quite believe it’s real.

I slipped a dress and a black cardigan into my suitcase, alongside my red shorts, running gear, flip-flops and a stack of books for the plane. After a long flight to Dallas and an even longer layover, I finally landed amid thunderstorms on a Wednesday night.

The next few days, it seemed to me, contained all of life: board games and Tex-Mex lunches, t-ball and the funeral, church on Sunday morning. There was, of course, lots of playing with my nephews: climbing around on their backyard fort, shooting baskets in the driveway, playing with the new Nerf guns in the living room. Tears and laughter and chaos. Grief and love.

“Life’s full,” my coworker Janet is fond of saying, usually with a wry smile in response to some fresh crisis, or a week like this one: crowded and crossed with the glory and the pain of life, all at once.

This trip was certainly full, and at times I could barely keep up: watching Ryder and his teammates run through the dirt at the t-ball fields, pushing Harrison (my younger nephew) in the swing and filming them both running through the sprinkler with my dad. Hugging Kim and Abbye, Frank’s wife and daughter, on a Friday morning that felt otherwise so ordinary. Eating chips and queso at Rosa’s with my mom and sister, before making a Target run. Holding Harrison on my lap at lunchtime, and admiring his new big-boy bed. Talking work and vacations with my parents and brother-in-law. Sitting outside at my sister’s house after the boys were in bed.

I went for three solo runs through my parents’ neighborhood, admiring the ocotillo and oleander, breathing in the fresh air under the big sky. Afterward, I sipped tea and ate breakfast in my mother’s kitchen, flipping through the local paper, which included, unbelievably, Frank’s obituary. We sat in a side pew at the packed funeral on Saturday morning, surrounded by so many faces I know and love. This church is part of the architecture of my life, and these people – not only Frank and Kim but so many others – are part of my family. We wound up the funeral by singing “It Is Well with My Soul” through our tears, Doris playing the organ as she has for decades. The next morning, we spent most of the Sunday school hour sharing stories about Frank.

There’s no tidy way to wrap up such a post; it feels unfinished, like the weekend itself, like life. Kim and her grown kids are at the beginning of a long road of grief, and Ryder and Harrison are wrapping up the school year. I’m caught, as always, between missing the cozy world of my hometown and being fiercely proud of the life I’ve built in a different city, hundreds of miles away.

I flew back to Boston that Sunday night, grateful to get back to my own house and my husband, who had been at a conference in L.A. while I was in Texas. But I also believe I was exactly where I needed to be that weekend: stepping back into a town that isn’t my current address, but which will always be home. Cheering for Ryder and his buddies as they batted and ran. And standing with my community, in grief and in joy.

stars book blue mug

I can’t believe we’re halfway through May already. Travel and illness have made the month fly for me, so far. Here’s what I’ve been reading, through flights and sniffles:

How Lovely the Ruins: Inspirational Poems and Words for Difficult Times, ed. Annie Chagnot and Emi Ikkanda
I found this anthology at the Harvard Coop this winter, and have been savoring it. It draws together heartening words from classic and contemporary poets, in light of our current turbulent moment. Some favorites: Jamaal May’s “Detroit,” Yehuda Amichai’s “The Place Where We Are Right,” and Elizabeth Alexander’s stirring foreword.

The Myth of Perpetual Summer, Susan Crandall
In the wake of family tragedy, Tallulah James left her Mississippi hometown at 17 and never looked back. But when her beloved younger brother is accused of murder, Tallulah is drawn back home to see if she can help him – and to face her own ghosts. A compelling, heartbreaking Southern family saga and a sensitive portrait of how mental illness can affect a family. I really enjoyed Crandall’s The Flying Circus, too. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 19).

Shadowhouse Fall, Daniel José Older
This sequel to Shadowshaper picks up several months later: Sierra Santiago and her friends are learning to use their powers, but trouble is afoot. Racial tensions are threatening to boil over in their Brooklyn neighborhood. A mysterious deck of cards, and the people connected to it, are a further sign of sinister forces at work. Fast-paced, vivid, brutally honest and so good. I can’t wait for book 3.

Cocoa Beach, Beatriz Williams
As a volunteer ambulance driver in World War I, Virginia Fortescue fell in love with a British surgeon. Now, long estranged from him and suddenly widowed, Virginia arrives in Prohibition-era Florida with her young daughter to inspect her husband’s estate. But almost nothing is as it seems. I like Williams’ lush historical novels, though this one didn’t hang together as well as most.

To Die But Once, Jacqueline Winspear
As the “phony war” drags on in 1940, investigator Maisie Dobbs looks into the disappearance of a young man doing top-secret government work. She finds more than she bargained for, while also caring for a young evacuee and supporting two friends whose nearly-grown sons are anxious to do their bit. I adore Maisie and this latest installment was rich and wonderful.

What We See in the Stars, Kelsey Oseid
Humans have read messages in the skies for millennia: constellations, comets, galaxies and more phenomena we can’t even name. Oseid’s gorgeously illustrated book (see above) takes us on a tour of the skies. Informative, accessible and stunning.

A Maze Me: Poems for Girls, Naomi Shihab Nye
I love Nye’s work and picked up this slim collection after re-listening to her episode of On Being. These brief, whimsical poems are aimed at young girls, but many of them resonated for me. Lovely and nourishing.

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

What are you reading?

flats red pants front steps

Spring has sprung for sure here in Cambridge. I came back from a quick visit to Texas to find dogwoods, lilacs and tulips in full flower. The nights are still chilly and the mornings often misty, but the days are crisp and sunny – sometimes downright mild.

I’ve been working my winter uniform for months, rotating between half a dozen dresses (mostly striped, black or denim) with black ankle boots, fleece-lined tights, my crimson scarf and a cozy grey sleeveless cardigan I found in Oxford last fall. But – glory of glories – I need something lighter to wear now.

It’s not quite bare-legs weather yet, at least for me, and I don’t want to spend ages getting dressed in the morning (really, who has time for that?). But I realized last week that I’d come up with a spring uniform almost by accident.

katie scarf beach

Right now it looks like this: cropped trousers (I have the same ones in red and black) + sweater or long-sleeved top (black, gray, white, striped or some combination thereof) + tank top. I’m still wearing a scarf (usually red, or the patterned one above) most days, and then I slip on my ankle boots or Rothy’s flats. (See above: I also own a red pair.) I’m still hedging my bets and wearing my beloved green coat, mostly, but I’ve reached for my spring trench coat a time or two.

I’m no style innovator, but I’d rather look classy, be comfortable and feel like myself than spend a lot of time experimenting. The uniform will shift again when we reach full summer, but for now, this is working for me.

Do you do the uniform-dressing thing? What are you wearing this spring?

On our previous two trips to San Diego, J and I have mostly spent time on Coronado, the idyllic island across the bay from the city proper. It was home base this time, too, and we took full advantage of its delights: Bay Books, the Hotel del Coronado and its adjacent beach, tacos at Clayton’s and several long runs through its beautiful streets in the sunshine.

This time, Allison and I also spent a good chunk of our Saturday exploring a new-to-me neighborhood: South Park. We began with a yoga class at Pilgrimage of the Heart Yoga, up in Normal Heights, then hopped on bikes for the rest of our journey.

First stop: acai bowls at Captain Kirk’s Coffee. I’d never had one, but they’re sort of like a cross between a smoothie and fro-yo, topped (in this case) with granola, fresh fruit and coconut. Yum.

We popped into Target (always worth a visit, right?), wandered the neighborhood, and found – what else? – the bookstore. The Book Catapult, to be exact.

book catapult bookstore exterior san diego ca

It’s no secret that I love an indie bookstore, and this one was just perfect. It’s open and airy but crammed with good books of every kind, from fiction and travel to local interest, nonfiction and a fabulous children’s and young adult section in the back.

book catapult bookstore interior san diego books

Allison and I had a wonderful chat with Vanessa, who was working the register and is a contributing writer for Book Riot. We bonded over YA novels (The Hate U Give, Moxie, When Dimple Met Rishi) and our respective book-nerd haunts online (mine is Shelf Awareness). I came away with a wonderful travel guide to Spain and a fun travel-themed novel.

katie del sur mexican cantina tacos

We were starving by then, so we enjoyed tacos at Del Sur (above) – it was Tacopocalypse, after all. A bit more wandering and then we headed up to North Park to meet the guys. I couldn’t resist a stop at Verbatim Books, a wonderful (mostly) used bookstore.

I could have spent so much money, but restricted myself to a like-new copy of Ruth Reichl’s My Kitchen Year, which I loved but hadn’t quite brought myself to splurge on.

We dipped into Pigment, which is full of whimsical and gorgeous things, before meeting up with our husbands and heading back home.

As I joked to Allison, our Saturday was like a postcard of California: yoga, a bike ride for acai bowls, wandering, tacos, flowers, blue sky. But in case you couldn’t tell, I loved every minute.