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Posts Tagged ‘attention’

atomic weight of love book sunflowers

I was humbled by the thought that our lives, however briefly, had touched. I thought about how lives bump up against each other, whether for moments of superficial conversation in line at the post office or a deeper enmeshment. […] How much meaning should I ascribe to knowing a stranger for the moments it took for me to donate to a V-book [war stamps] campaign? What were the evolutionary implications of kindness?

—Elizabeth J. Church, The Atomic Weight of Love

I came across these lines recently in Church’s stunning novel about the life of Meridian Wallace, an ornithologist who studies the behavior of crows. They reminded me powerfully of that Elizabeth Alexander poem, the one I have carried with me during a spring and summer fraught with personal changes and national tragedy:

Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,

and are we not of interest to each other?

Every time I turn on the news, there is more heartbreak to absorb and to bear: shootings by and of policemen, black families afraid for their lives in the U.S., refugees struggling to find a safe place to land, military unrest in Turkey and political turmoil in Britain. I have wept and I have ached, and I have wondered, What now?

I have failed, so far, to come up with any answers except this one: we must stop reacting to each other out of hatred, disinterest and fear.

I moved to Boston six summers ago from the plains of west central Texas, where I had lived nearly all my life. I’d heard that people in the Northeast were cold and unfriendly, and I was unsure how to carve out a place for myself in this bustling, unfamiliar city. It took me a long time to build a community here, to form real bonds with colleagues and friends. It took me even longer to start reaching out to others without fearing rebuff or dismissal. I cherish the friendships that have grown from that slow work: the brilliant women in my book club, the far-flung but genuine community at our church, my coworkers at various offices around Harvard.

When I read these lines about kindness, though, I thought about a different group of people: the ones whose lives bump up against mine in small but important daily ways.

The florist in Brattle Square, who always has a kind word for me when I go in to buy tulips or roses. The mail guy I used to work with, who would pause on his daily rounds to chat about Boston sports or the weather. My elderly Italian landlords, who live downstairs from us. The woman who makes the delicious tamales at the farmers’ market, tops them with freshly made salsa and calls me mi’ja. And the coffee-slinging, sandwich-making crew at Darwin’s, most of whose last names I don’t know, but whose smiling faces and cheerful banter are a regular and indispensable part of my workdays.

I am fascinated by the idea of all these lives constantly bumping up against each other, against my life, as I go about my daily routine. I am even more fascinated when I get a glimpse into one of their stories, when I break out of my self-focus long enough to truly connect with someone else. More and more, I am convinced this is the only way to begin healing the deep wounds of our common humanity: to listen, to look, to pay attention to one another.

It takes no work at all to encounter other human beings: we are surrounded by each other constantly, especially those of us who live and work in cities. But it sometimes takes work, and it always takes intention, for us to engage one another with kindness.

I’m not sure about the answer to Meridian’s question: I don’t know what the evolutionary implications of kindness would be. But they have to be better than the results of racism and hatred, fear and indifference, that are tearing our nation apart.

I know that smiling at a stranger will not solve the problems of the world: finding a better path forward will be the work of years. But kindness and attention must be where we begin. We must – I will keep saying it as long as I have to – we must be of interest to each other.

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july sunset

I wrote a post on margin recently, and as it often does, the universe laughed. The first half of July has been fast and furious and full. Hot days, crowded calendars, so many things jockeying for space in my brain. It has not been particularly restful. But there’s still lots of good stuff happening, and I want to note the details of how life looks right now.

Right now, in the thick of a hot, busy summer, I am:

  • waking up to the buzz of the window a/c unit and the piano music from Pride and Prejudice.
  • drinking my two favorite summer teas in my favorite mug: blackberry sage and ginger peach.

lady cop breakfast

  • making scones when I can stand to turn on the oven, and eating granola and Greek yogurt for breakfast when I can’t.
  • wearing skirts, sandals and all the work-appropriate short-sleeved tops I own.
  • living in shorts and bare feet at night and on the weekends.
  • lugging a box of veggies home every Wednesday (we’re doing a CSA share) and then trying to figure out how to use them all. green veggies
  • getting excited for the Rio Olympics.
  • eating tamales from the farmers’ market on Tuesdays.
  • tending basil and geraniums on my front porch.
  • dropping by Darwin’s a couple of times a day: for tea in the morning, a sandwich and chitchat at lunchtime, and sometimes lemonade and a cookie (and more chitchat) mid-afternoon.

darwins chai cookie bench

  • reading allllll the books (as usual). Recent favorites include Lady Cop Makes Trouble, Everyone Brave is Forgiven, The Atomic Weight of Love and Jane Steele.
  • aching over the news reports from so many places riddled with tragedy.
  • treading water at work as I adjust to new routines and responsibilities.
  • relishing the familiar faces and witty banter of my colleagues.
  • snapping photos for the #FlowerReport when I’m out and about. This bed of lavender is growing outside our town library.

lavender library

  • texting my sister and a couple of friends about the madness and the fun of daily life.
  • listening to Hamilton on repeat, learning all the words, and priding myself on being able to rap (almost) as fast as Lafayette.
  • hunting for a new apartment (we have to move next month for reasons beyond our control).
  • savoring the last few weeks in the apartment we have lived in and loved for six years.

dining room dusk twinkle lights

  • sipping a lot of lemonade and the occasional glass of rosé.
  • flipping back through Julia Cameron’s The Sound of Paper: such wise words on writing and life.
  • sneaking in a beach day here and there.
  • trying (always trying) to pay attention to my life and the people I love.

crane beach jer

What does life look like for you right now?

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lilacs flowers rain

That is one good thing about this world…there are always sure to be more springs.

—L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea

As soon as the snow melts, I’m poised and ready: watching for the first spears of snowdrops and crocuses, the first buds on the trees, the first leaves on the bushes. Spring in New England is a wonder every year, and I keep an eye out for it, snapping photos on my daily rounds of Harvard Square and wherever else I happen to be.

purple hyacinth

Sometimes I share those flower photos on Instagram or here on the blog, but this year I’ve also been sharing them on Twitter, as part of the Sunday #FlowerReport.

orange-tulips-public-garden

My friend Alyssa, a writer and professional delight-er who lives in Austin, anchors the #FlowerReport, which consists of people sharing photos of gorgeous blooms. We have “correspondents” from all over the U.S. and a handful of other countries, and I love seeing what people spot on their walks, in their gardens or on their kitchen tables.

red ranunculus table

Occasionally someone will share a shot of an unknown species and ask for help in identifying it. (I did this recently with a photo of what turned out to be tradescantia, or spiderwort.) I love the friendly spirit on the thread; the more experienced flower-spotters are always willing to help us amateurs out. And there is so much beauty.

dogwood tree brick wall

The #FlowerReport taps into one of the central refrains of my adult life: I am always trying to pay attention. It’s so easy to get distracted by my phone or my to-do list or my latest worries, but I am constantly trying to stay awake to this rich, messy, glorious, complicated world.

alliums boston public garden

This is maybe a bit easier in the spring, when the natural world is waking up and shouting for our attention with its vivid, gorgeous color. But I still need a reminder every so often. And the #FlowerReport is there like a nudge: What did you see today? Can you show us?

daffodils dachshund table

We have moved from snowdrops and crocuses through tulips and daffodils, on to lilacs, dogwoods and lilies of the valley. Now we are approaching summer, with azaleas, rhododendrons and the first few irises, peonies and roses. I love watching the different flowers appear, and it’s so much fun to share them with this little corner of the Internet.

white tulips boston public garden

If you love flowers or need a bit of beauty in your life, come join us. We’ll be there on Sunday.

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harvard yard memorial church view

It is (finally) springtime in Cambridge. The trees are blooming, the tulips are lifting up their elegant heads to the sun, the azaleas and hydrangeas are flowering. And the tourist groups are out in force.

Working at Harvard, especially during the warmer months, means engaging with (sometimes dodging) people whose purpose for being on campus is quite different from mine. Harvard is where I spend my workdays: it is the backdrop for my meetings, projects, lunch breaks, my work-related frustrations and triumphs. It is a living, breathing, complex community, comprising several thousand students and employees. But it is also world famous and storied, and certain parts of it are very public, even iconic.

harvard yard autumn light leaves

I love some of the public spaces at Harvard, such as the Yard (above), edged with red-brick buildings and dotted with colorful chairs in the summertime. The wide south porch of Memorial Church, which is my favorite place to eat a picnic lunch. The grand, columned facade of Widener Library, iconic in both design and purpose. The towering exterior of Memorial Hall (below), which evokes nothing so much as Hogwarts.

memorial hall harvard

All these images are “very Harvard” – part of the history and mythology of this place, but also integral to its everyday working life.

But one unexpected gift of working at Harvard is the chance to see and explore its hidden corners. I’ve worked in three offices here now, and visited eight of the University’s schools (and many different buildings) for interviews, meetings and events. I spent an entire semester making weekly visits to the Harvard Art Museums last year. And while the view from my current sixth-floor workspace includes several of those famous spires, I have discovered a few hidden corners I adore.

The sunken garden on Appian Way, where I spent many lunch breaks when I worked in the building next door. The exhibition room at Houghton Library, where treasures from the archives are on display to the public (but it’s dim, quiet and rarely crowded). The corner of Boylston Hall, next to Widener, which catches the most gorgeous afternoon light. The passageway between Larsen Hall and Christ Church Cambridge, where crocuses and forsythia bloom in the spring.

cambridge ma forsythia yellow spring

After three years, this is, unquestionably, my neighborhood. I still have much more to discover: Harvard is a big, complicated, multilayered place. But the physical space, the ground of the Square, grows more and more familiar to me. It no longer feels like a code I can’t crack, a walled garden I can’t open. I have my routines, my rhythms, my favorite spots for work and play. I watch the seasons change, delighting in spring flowers, autumn leaves and even the occasional snowstorm.

johnson gate harvard snow

Many of the nooks and crannies I love are technically public: they are available to anyone who is willing to explore and pay attention. But some of them feel like hidden treasure, like delightful secrets that are all mine. They are perhaps less awe-inspiring than the grand public spaces, but they hold their own tranquil beauty. They are part of the life of this place, as much as the postcard-worthy columns and towers. And they are part of my Harvard: my particular experience of this place I love so well.

Commencement is next week, and I will delight in the public pomp and circumstance, as I do every year: the banners, the caps and gowns, the Latin oration, the glorious swirl of excitement and new beginnings. But after the dust has settled and the folding chairs have been put away, you can find me hiding out in these quiet corners: relishing the approach of summer, dodging the tourist traffic, and trying – always trying – to pay attention to the beauty around every bend.

katie memorial church green coat harvard yard

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my kitchen year book pie flowers

I’ve been reading Ruth Reichl’s glorious cookbook-cum-memoir, My Kitchen Year. The book includes 136 recipes spread over four seasons, and each recipe is accompanied by a short essay. Most of the essay/recipe combinations begin with one of Reichl’s tweets, which are almost haiku-like: brief, clear, vivid renderings of her moods, meals, and where she finds herself at that precise moment.

My Kitchen Year was born out of a difficult time in Reichl’s life: the year after Gourmet magazine closed down, suddenly and unexpectedly. Reichl, the magazine’s longtime editor, found herself jobless, unmoored and totally unsure of where to go next. (I nodded my head as I read those passages: my layoff last spring induced similar feelings.)

She took refuge, perhaps unsurprisingly, in her kitchen, and the resulting book contains many mouthwatering recipes. But I loved it most for its simple, lyrical record of her journey through that year. Reichl writes with grace and honesty about feeling lonely and uncertain, about trying new ingredients and projects, and retreating to comforting familiar favorites. Her prose evokes quiet mornings at her house in upstate New York; afternoons spent browsing cheese and butcher shops amid the colorful bustle of New York City; reuniting with Gourmet colleagues for long evening meals and spending hours by herself, in cafes or on city sidewalks.

My Kitchen Year is about food, certainly, but it’s also grounded in a particular place and time: field notes from a year when food and a few key relationships were Reichl’s only anchors.

Ten years ago (!) this month, for my college graduation, I received a copy of Julia Cameron’s The Sound of Paper. My then-boyfriend (now my husband) plucked it off the shelf at our local Books-a-Million, knowing I loved books about writing and thinking perhaps I’d enjoy this one. He could not have known – nor could I – how powerfully Julia’s short essays, about writing and living and beginning again, would resonate with me.

Like Reichl, Cameron (though I call her “Julia” in my head) writes in first person, grounding her ideas in a specific place and context. She begins many of her essays with a note about the weather: a “gray, dreary, socked-in day” or a morning of blue skies and budding trees. She writes about her New York City apartment overlooking the Hudson River; the house she loves in Taos, New Mexico; the music and books that inspire her. Her ideas about building a life conducive to creativity, a rich and artful life, are broadly appealing, but they are also field notes, full of crisp sensory details. She invites us to notice each day along with her.

I think that’s how blogging and social media began: as a way to share field notes from our lives, a way to reach out to one another across the vast spaces of modern life and say, “Here I am. This is what I’m noticing today.” I have met so many wonderful people (some of whom I’ve eventually met in person) this way: through the small, quotidian details we’ve shared online, the ways we have chosen to record and remember the stuff of our lives.

I have an ongoing text conversation with a dear friend that functions in a similar way. We share small notes on of our days: traffic and commutes and weather, lunch and errands, meetings with friends and colleagues. We talk about big ideas too, and what’s making us laugh, and sometimes we share what is saving our lives. Some of it probably is universal. But much of it is blessedly particular: field notes from these specific, mundane, glorious days.

I write sometimes here about the Big Things: the struggles of the job hunt; the prickly ache of missing my family; the quiet glory of my marriage; what it means to be a person of faith. But I am just as likely, on any given day, to be writing about the small, vivid, particular things. To be sharing field notes from right where I am.

Thanks for reading. As Lindsey noted recently, there is a lot of kindness that shows up online, and I’m grateful for every bit of it here in this space.

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kent haruf novels plainsong our souls at night

Every once in a while, a book comes along that knocks me backward with its quiet power. Kent Haruf’s final novel, Our Souls at Night, is such a book: a story about ordinary people living simple lives, told in spare, melancholy, beautiful prose.

Addie Moore and Louis Waters, both elderly and widowed, live a block apart in a small Colorado town. They’ve known one another for years (though not very well), and both of them are lonely. Addie makes an unusual request of Louis: she wants him to come and spend nights at her house, lying in bed next to her, just talking.

Louis is surprised, but he agrees to give it a try, and they strike up a friendship – spending their nights in quiet companionship, telling each other the stories of their lives.

I’m at Great New Books today talking about how much I loved Our Souls at Night. Please join me over there to read the rest of my review.

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harvard yard fall golden leaves

November is often a tricky month for me. The days are abruptly shorter after the fall time change, the long twilights of September and October suddenly snipped off like a ribbon. There’s a chill in the air most mornings, and I have to adjust to a different seasonal rhythm, the angle of the sun somehow melancholy even when the sky is vivid blue.

golden leaves sunshine

This week, though, has been one of almost unreal perfection: a glorious stretch of Indian summer, wherein (to quote L.M. Montgomery) “November dreamed that it was May.” I have spent hours in Harvard Yard, on the wide south porch of Memorial Church, perched on a bench or the concrete steps, sipping chai and scribbling in my journal or typing away at my laptop.

Every few minutes, I pause to look up as a breeze sends a swirl of golden leaves fluttering down from the trees. It’s like living in a postcard, or catching a glimpse of an enchanted forest.

harvard yard path trees light

Sometimes I think that if I watch hard enough, I can almost see it happen: the sun’s angle shifting gradually, the golden leaves falling one by one from the trees. The slow, elegiac turning of the year, the bright flaming out of orange and gold before the bare branches emerge to line the sky through the winter months.

orange gold leaves blue sky

Every year, it is a challenge for me to savor these last weeks of fall without dreading what comes after: the long, dark New England winter, which requires every bit of courage (and snow gear) I possess. I love the light, and like Dylan Thomas, I rage against its dying.

yellow leaves dormer windows harvard yard

But this week, I have felt cocooned in this quiet golden world, nourished by these bold blue skies and mild breezes and glowing, fire-bright leaves. I have stopped in my tracks so many times, looking up (and sometimes down), marveling at the colors, snapping pictures, soaking it up.

gold-red-leaves-grass

It all feels like a moment of grace, a gift. And for that, I am grateful.

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