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autumn sign leaves chalkboard

“Autumn seemed to arrive suddenly that year. The morning of the first of September was crisp and golden as an apple.”

—J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

September is here and so is fall, suddenly: classes have started, events are ramping up, and the mornings feel crisp and cool. The light in Cambridge has shifted to its autumn self: clear, lucid, heartbreakingly golden. I learned a new word this summer: komorebi, which is Japanese for “light filtered through leaves.”

komorebi harvard yard tree sky

As is often the case in the autumn, everything feels big and immediate and full.

In the midst of heartrending headlines (hurricanes, DACA, nuclear threats) and so many responsibilities (my to-do list is as long as my arm), I figured it was time for another list: what’s saving my life now.

I need the reminder to name the good things, and maybe you do too. So here they are:

  • Ginger peach tea in a purple travel mug, Earl Grey from my barista friends at Darwin’s, and lots of water all day long.
  • Seeing my red geraniums on the back porch every morning, and watching the sunrise through the kitchen windows.
  • Moving around in the new apartment and feeling like it belongs to us.
  • A few truly wonderful books: Salt Houses, The Captain’s Daughter, The Rules of Magic.

book geraniums captains daughter sandals porch flowers

  • Making new connections with folks at Harvard and around the Square, and running into people I know and love: this is my neighborhood.
  • Community in all its forms: our first dinner guests; a new-to-me book club; long walks with a dear friend; rich conversations over text and Twitter and email with loved ones who are far away.
  • End-of-summer flowers: Queen Anne’s lace, black-eyed Susans, multicolored hydrangeas, the first few asters.

black eyed susans

  • Harmonizing with the Wailin’ Jennys, whose music is in my earbuds and my heart every day.
  • Looking forward to some travel later in the season.
  • Burt’s Bees lemon butter cuticle salve, which I am using for everything these days.
  • My favorite clothes: happy red pants, go-with-everything flats, a scarf my sister gave me long ago, the malachite ring I bought in NYC last summer, and that brave necklace I never take off.
  • Yoga: once or twice a week at Healing Tree, and occasionally on my mat at home.
  • The Thursday morning writers’ meetings I love: sarcasm + sanity.
  • Morning Prayers at Memorial Church, as often as I can make it there.
  • The walking trail near our new house, and the first red leaves, spotted there on a solo walk this weekend.

red leaves neponset trail

As we plunge into fall, what is saving your life now? Please share, if you want.

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August reading roundup #2

book geraniums captains daughter sandals porch flowers

My reading slowed waaaay down in August, but I read some fantastic books. Here’s what I’ve been reading:

Salt Houses, Hala Alyan
When Salma Yacoub reads her daughter Alia’s tea leaves on the eve of Alia’s wedding, she sees trouble – unrest, displacement, grief – and also luck. From there unfolds the rich, layered, multigenerational saga of the Yacoub family, who are uprooted from Palestine during the Six-Day War of 1967. Over five decades and at least as many countries, Salma’s family continue to live: they struggle, they migrate, they work, they fight, they love. A powerful and absolutely gorgeous novel about family, belonging, restlessness, the secrets we keep and the selves we become. Recommended by my colleagues at Shelf Awareness.

The Rules of Magic, Alice Hoffman
The Owens women aren’t like other women: they have certain unusual powers, but they’re also under a longstanding curse. Hoffman tells the story of Franny, her sister Bridget (known as Jet) and their aunt Isabelle. I loved this book; it broke my heart and mended it, over and over, and gave me a few good words about courage. Lush and gorgeous and moving and powerful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 10).

Epiphanies & Elegies, Brian Doyle
My Brian Doyle kick continues: this is a slim, whimsical collection of poems on Ireland, animals, “wild holy children” and more. My favorites: “Instructions to the New Puppy,” “Lilies,” and “Goose Arrested at the Corner of Winter & Summer.”

The Captain’s Daughter, Meg Mitchell Moore
I love Moore’s insightful, honest novels about family and finding our place in the world. This one focuses on Eliza Barnes, who is called back to her tiny Maine hometown when her lobsterman father is injured. Eliza worked hard to build a different life for herself and she’s proud of that, but being back home makes her question her choices, and she also befriends a local teenager, Mary, who is facing her own crisis. Powerful and lovely and real.

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

What are you reading?

Convocation in contrast

 

harvard yard leaves light

On Tuesday afternoon, I left my desk (it takes a lot of effort, these days, to detach from the email and the meetings and the endless to-do lists), wrapped myself in a jacket, and walked partway across Harvard Square.

It was a sullen, grey day, suddenly more like November than late August, but I had two aims in mind, and both were outdoors. (Three aims, if you count the stop I made at Darwin’s first: I needed a cup of tea, for warmth and caffeine. Thus fortified, I can face pretty much anything.)

My first stop was, as it often is, the Yard. A group of undergraduates, in attire ranging from suits and ties to hoodies and leggings, sat huddled in beige folding chairs, listening to a cadre of faculty speakers at Harvard College’s convocation ceremony.

I stood next to a friend who was covering the event for the Harvard Gazette, as Dean Mike Smith talked about the importance of connection (instead of comparison). We listened, after that, to a few deliberate, strong, well-chosen words from President Faust, who urged us in no uncertain terms to listen, engage, debate, take risks, and treat every person with dignity.

Midway through her remarks, I left for my second destination: a white tent on the Divinity School quad, packed with students and faculty who had gathered to listen to Cornel West – recently returned to HDS – deliver their convocation address.

His speech was in style and tone – though not in message – a direct contrast to President Faust’s. West is a fiery, passionate activist, shaped by the black Baptist tradition and the civil rights movement. He lambasted not only our current political administration, but all of us who often prize conformity over conviction, who prop up systems instead of asking dangerous and necessary questions that expose their cracks. His subject matter ranged from the recent events in Charlottesville to words from Bob Dylan and James Baldwin, and he urged not only courage, but magnanimity. We need both, he said, to fight hate.

As I sat in the back row, listening, it struck me: we also need both kinds of speeches I heard that day.

We need deliberate, thoughtful, measured words and scholarship, the kind that both Faust and West have produced and shared during their long careers. We aim to further those things at places like Harvard: our motto, after all, is Veritas, and as President Faust noted, we believe in the pursuit of truth.

But we also need radical questioners like West, who are bold and raw and unafraid to face their own demons and call out those of other people and institutions. And – it should not have to be said but I’m saying it anyway – we need all different kinds of voices: black men and white women; people who hold passports from every nation in the world (or none at all); people who hold a sheaf of advanced degrees and people who don’t; people who love in every form that exists. We need every variation of humanity.

We – not just Harvard, but the human race – are stronger when we treat everyone with dignity. We are better, and we can only move forward, when we are of interest to each other.

“I am who I am because somebody loved me,” West said at the beginning of his speech, repeating a line he has delivered many times. It’s true not only for him but for all of us. And as we work and wrestle and study together, we must also love one another. We need both.

Here’s to another school year, at Harvard and in the world: these are fraught, uncertain times, but the only thing to do is to keep moving forward. Together.

brave necklace coral scarf

Last fall, it was a line from Hamilton: “Summon all the courage you require.”

This spring, it was a sentence from Donia Bijan’s lovely novel, The Last Days of Café Leila: “The only thing to do was to keep moving, to do something, to show courage, to give everything she was capable of giving.”

Right now, it’s a few lines from Alice Hoffman’s stunning new novel, The Rules of Magic, which comes out in October. It is the story of the Owens women: Franny, her sister Jet and their aunt Isabelle. I fell particularly in love with Franny, redheaded and prickly, and this line (about her) I wanted to write on my skin: “Above all she was brave.”

“Let’s see what you’ll have,” Isabelle says to Franny at the end of one summer, pointing to two pots of fresh tea. “Courage or caution?” Franny doesn’t hesitate: “Courage, thank you.”

Many years later, Franny admits to her aunt, “Maybe I’m afraid of love. It’s too powerful.” Isabelle scoffs at her: “Who chose courage [over caution]? You’re stronger than you know.”

As we head into September – a month I always love and which, this year especially, carries its own challenges – I am doing my best to choose courage, every single day.

not afraid shirt ocean brave

My sweet husband bought me this shirt (designed by Kim Roach) on our trip to PEI last summer, but I’ve only started wearing it recently. So many of my adventures this year have been close to home, geographically – including our annual trip up to Crane Beach, where I took this photo. But they have involved big leaps of the heart.

Sometimes this shirt speaks the truth: I am not afraid. And sometimes the adventure lies in admitting I am afraid – and then leaping anyway.

window lamp geraniums herbs porch

One of my favorite things about our new bedroom: looking out the window next to my bedside table and seeing my beloved red geraniums.

birdsfoot trefoil flowers

I prefer to think of them as wildflowers, but whatever you call them, they’re lovely.

Birdsfoot trefoil (above) and Queen Anne’s lace (below), spotted on a walk along the river trail in my new neighborhood.

queen anne's lace