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Posts Tagged ‘attention’

tulips multicolored bed

After this long, gray, lingering winter, the spring in Cambridge has surprised me, as it does every year. This is my seventh spring in New England, and each time it feels entirely new: the slow budding of the bare trees, the first crocuses and snowdrops, the daffodils sprouting up in flowerbeds and in glorious scattered patches along the Charles River.

daffodils charles river cambridge spring

Though we had some warm days early in the season, it has been unrelentingly chilly for weeks: the skies heavy with lowering clouds, the wind whipping off the river, the rain pouring down. As a descendant of two farming families who also grew up in a near-desert region, I hesitate to complain about the rain – especially this year, when we needed it badly to make up for last summer’s drought. But it has left my spirits sodden, my heart disconsolate. I crave the sunshine like a cat, or a sunflower.

scilla flowers sunlight cambridge ma

I have taken lots of long walks, this winter and spring, around Cambridge with a friend who loves the flowers and trees as much as I do. We have watched, together, for every scrap of color and new life: first the snowdrops and crocuses, then the daffodils and hellebores, the gold forsythia and tiny blue scilla, the blooming cherry and redbud trees.

redbud blue sky brick building

Now we’re onto the tulips – my favorite – and the lilacs, which are truly stunning this year. I can’t walk down the sidewalk without stopping to sniff them. Lilies of the valley, shy and dainty, are peering out from under their curving leaves. The azaleas are out in force and the rhododendrons are budding. And the dogwood trees – creamy white and rich, vivid pink – are breathtaking.

dogwood pink flowers blue sky green leaves

It feels inconsequential, sometimes, to pay attention to trees and flowers when the headlines are shouting dismay and destruction, when heartbreak and strain are pressing in on all sides. There is so much going on, both in the world and in the lives of people I love: surgeries, cross-country moves, national security breaches. Job stress, political turmoil, the ache of endings and beginnings, so much fear and pain. All of it, or nearly all of it, beyond my power to mend.

tulips lily of the valley tree roots

I know that snapping photos of flowers, or buying bouquets of them for my desk, won’t solve these larger struggles. Some days I despair of finding enough hope to move forward, though I know in my bones that is the only thing to do.

lilacs may

But on other days, as my friend Jet noted recently, the sky is “a saving kind of blue.” The leaves of the pin oaks are an electric yellow-green, zinging with life. The cherry blossoms pile up along the streets in pink snowdrifts. The white lilacs carry their own scent along with a hint of honeysuckle. And on these days, the very act of stopping to gaze, to sniff, to snap a photo – in other words, to pay attention – is the thing that is saving my life now.

azalea bush

I say this every year: I don’t want to miss it. I want to stay awake, to notice every bit of beauty. I want to be right here, to soak up this glorious, brief season, to walk with open eyes through this neighborhood I love so well. I want to be open to it, all of it. Even when it makes my heart ache.

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tulip hyacinth leaves spring
Today

If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze

that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house

and unlatch the door to the canary’s cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,

a day when the cool brick paths
and the garden bursting with peonies

seemed so etched in sunlight
that you felt like taking

a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,

releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage

so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting

into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just that kind of day.

 

I love Collins’ work, but had forgotten about this poem until my friend Louisa shared it at our book club last fall. Now that we are into spring (however fitful and rainy), it feels like the perfect time to share these lines with you.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry on Fridays here this month.

(more…)

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summer sunset view porch

“Lately I’ve been waking up at 3 a.m.,” a friend admitted in a group email last month.

It was only a passing comment; we were talking about when we find time to read, and she confessed to snatching an hour here and there during her nocturnal wakings. But the 3 a.m. comment caused a quiet thump of recognition, because for months, I have been waking in the night, too. A flurry of responses from the group confirmed it: we’re not the only ones.

I think it started for me last summer, as I switched jobs, moved to a new apartment and grieved over several national tragedies. It has continued, off and on, through the fall and winter: the election and its fallout, significant stress at work, many other challenges in my life and the lives of people I love.

Late at night, I often find myself in bed with my journal and a pen in hand, pushing my glasses up on my nose. I keep the lamp on after my husband rolls over and closes his eyes, trying to write my way toward a peaceful place, taking deep breaths so I can turn out the light and head for sleep.

Some nights I can dive into a book, lose myself in a good story or some luminous poetry. Other nights, I need to trace the swirling thoughts, get them out of my brain and onto the page. Then I can try to sleep. But I often – though not always – end up wide awake, at some ungodly single-digit hour of the night.

My friend lives six time zones away, and our fellow nighttime wakers are scattered across the country, but it still comforted me, somehow, to know I wasn’t alone in this. The next few times I woke up in the middle of the night, I lay listening to the whir of traffic outside, thinking of my friends, wakeful in their houses, in Illinois or North Carolina or Maine. It made me feel better to picture their faces, even though I knew the fact of our communal waking wouldn’t solve anything for any of us.

Madeleine L’Engle, one of my patron saints, begins her memoir The Irrational Season with a similar image: the silhouette of Madeleine herself, standing at the window of her apartment on the Upper West Side, holding a mug of hot bouillon on a dark morning in early winter. She peers out the blinds to the street that is never quite silent, the building across the way whose lights never all go out at once. She sips her bouillon, savoring her small rebellion against the tyranny of the clock. “I enjoy these occasional spells of nocturnal wakefulness,” she says. “And I am never awake alone.”

I’m not always so sanguine about my own nocturnal waking, though sometimes I can turn over and fall back asleep, or think about something comforting (including my friends, awake in their own houses). Sometimes I get up for a drink of water, walking around the wicker chest at the end of our bed, down the darkened hallway and glancing out the bathroom window, at the streetlights one block over, or a winking star. (After eight months in this apartment, I can finally walk through it in the dead of night without crashing into anything.)

“I do not think we talk enough about how every one of us / Has shuffled around the house in the middle of the night / Worried,” Brian Doyle says, in a poem aptly titled “Three in the Morning.” A few lines later, he adds wryly, “Sometimes there is zero / To be done except shuffle around wearily.”

Sometimes, I might add, there’s not much to be done except lie there a while, taking deep breaths or running the lines of an old hymn through my head. The anxiety doesn’t always dissipate, though sometimes it quiets to a background hum. But it does help, usually, to think of my friends, or of Madeleine at the window with her mug of bouillon, watching the slow nighttime life of her neighborhood. If I am awake, and especially if I’m worried, it helps to know I’m not alone.

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tree buds red brick harvard yard

It’s a grey, gloomy day in early April. I’ve stayed home from work with a bad cold, and all afternoon, I’ve been listening to the slow drip, drip of rain outside. The purple tulips in their vase on my kitchen table are growing leggy; they’re reaching out, bending and stretching crookedly, for the light that is in short supply today.

We are nearing the end–I hope–of a winter that has felt long, even though we haven’t had too much snow by our usual Boston standards. One arctic blast in December and a couple more since the New Year left our teeth chattering in single-digit temps, but those frigid spells haven’t lasted long. And the snowstorms, though fierce, have been few and far between. We even had a couple of 60-degree days in late February.

What I’m missing, in these early spring days, is the light.

I’m over at the Art House America blog today (where I write occasionally), talking about my efforts to watch for the light in this season. Please join me over there to read the rest of my piece.

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bargain poetry bookbook nyc

What Do Poems Do?

I was, no kidding, a visiting writer in a kindergarten recently,
And the children asked me many wry and hilarious questions,
Among them is that your real nose? and can you write a book
About a ruffed grouse, please? But the one that pops back into
My mind this morning was what do poems do? Answers: swirl
Leaves along sidewalks suddenly when there is no wind. Open
Recalcitrant jars of honey. Be huckleberries in earliest January,
When berries are only a shivering idea on a bush. Be your dad
For a moment again, tall and amused and smelling like Sunday.
Be the awful wheeze of a kid with the flu. Remind you of what
You didn’t ever forget but only mislaid or misfiled. Be badgers,
Meteor showers, falcons, prayers, sneers, mayors, confessionals.
They are built to slide into you sideways. You have poetry slots
Where your gills used to be, when you lived inside your mother.
If you hold a poem right you can go back there. Find the handle.
Take a skitter of words and speak gently to them, and you’ll see.

I picked up How the Light Gets In, a slim collection of Doyle’s rambling, luminous “proems,” at the Strand in February (though I snapped the photo above at bookbook). They are full of vivid images, wry humor, startling moments of joy.

This one – plus “The Under of Things,” and “Wrenness,” and “Poem for a New Baby Girl,” and “Silentium,” and half a dozen others – stopped me in my tracks. They did what the best poems do, which is make me pay attention. If you enjoyed this one, I’d recommend the whole collection.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am (per tradition) sharing poetry on Fridays here this month.

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morning prayers montage memorial church

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking at Morning Prayers, the brief service held every weekday at Harvard’s Memorial Church, across the Square from where I work.

I’ve been a sporadic attendee at Morning Prayers for a while, a more regular one this year, slipping into a pew to soak up the choral music and participate in the psalm readings, the Lord’s Prayer and the closing hymns. But this was my first time speaking there.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I chose to talk about what is saving my life now: reading a beloved passage by Barbara Brown Taylor, and explaining how that phrase of hers has captured and held my attention for several years. Here’s a snippet of my talk:

What is saving your life now?

It’s not a question I had ever considered in just this way, until I read it in Taylor’s book. I’d heard similar questions, phrased slightly differently: what are you grateful for? What’s making you happy these days?

But this question, with its insistence on what is vital, sneaked into my soul and set up camp there. And I’ve been amazed at the simple power of continuing to ask it. […]

It’s been a hard few months to live in the world – a hard year or so. I find myself need the reminder – and maybe you do too – that what can save our spiritual lives is the physical, embodied, daily experience of life on this earth. We are creatures who walk around in our bodies, breathing the air, dependent on food and drink for our survival, affected by our environment in a thousand ways, no matter how much we try to insist otherwise. As I kept asking this question, I found that, so often, what is saving my life now are the small things. Many of them are physical, tangible. And all of them are related to my daily, walking-around life in this world.

You can listen to the full service – just under 15 minutes – on the Memorial Church website. (My talk starts at about 4:25.) And as always, I’d love to hear about what is saving your life now.

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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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