Posts Tagged ‘attention’

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.


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

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astrid veronika lemonade stripes

What is it that makes us know when the summer turns? The smallest shift in the light? The slightest hint of chill in the morning air? A certain rustling of the leaves of the birches? That is how it is – suddenly, in the midst of the summer heat, you are overcome by a tightening of your heart. The realisation that it will all come to an end. And that brings a new intensity to everything: the colours, the smells, the feeling of sunshine on your arm. […]

Summer had turned. Although the weather remained sunny and warm, with each morning the air grew a touch crisper, the light a shade sharper, the evenings a notch darker.

Astrid & Veronika, Linda Olsson

I read Astrid & Veronika in late July, sitting in Harvard Yard with a cup of blueberry lemonade in hand. It’s a spare, lovely story about two women who become neighbors and help one another deal with deep grief. It is also about noticing the details, including the subtle shift in the seasons, the turning of summer toward fall.

The passage above leaped out at me when I read it, even though we were in the thick of summer, its full glorious green heat (and humidity). Now the calendar has flipped to September, and I’m noticing that seasonal shift – even though the weather is still summer-like.

Everyone I know – or their kids – seems to be heading back to school. (I work in higher ed and my circles of friends, both in Boston and Texas, include a lot of university students, professors and staff.) The blue of the sky is a little deeper, heading for that autumn blue I love so much. The sunsets are coming a little earlier, the sunrises a few minutes later. The light is sharpening a bit, the haze of summer gradually disappearing.

It has been a lovely summer and also a difficult one, in some ways. I am hoping for good things this fall, starting with a visit from my parents this week. And as I walk through these autumn days, I will do my best to pay attention, to notice the shifting light, the new coolness in the air, all the harbingers of my favorite season.

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red tulips public garden boston


A spring night is a power that sweeps through the crowded sheaves of blooming tulips and pours into your heart like a river.

—Anthony Doerr, Four Seasons in Rome

I took a solo walk through the Public Garden the other night, after a long, full day that included a work event and an impromptu dinner afterward with a friend.

We tucked into a corner booth at one of our favorite restaurants, over bowls of creamy, savory soup and glasses of red wine. The evening was blue and gold, with a brisk west wind. I had forgotten my jacket that morning and I was almost cold.

After dinner, I walked through the Garden alone, to see if there were any tulips left. (The photo above is from a couple of weeks ago; the tulip season is vivid and glorious here, but short.) A few bright blooms still lingered on their stalks, and I snapped a photo in the gathering dusk. But what caught my attention was the sunset light, reflected in the water.

sunset sky boston public garden

I thought of the line from Doerr’s memoir, above, written as he tried to savor the gorgeous, fleeting beauty that is spring in Rome. Spring in Boston – capricious, tricksy, full of sudden cool breezes and unexpected bursts of color – is a surprise and an enchantment every year. I’ve lived through five New England winters now and am on my fifth spring, and I am still in love, bewitched, utterly captivated by the new life around every corner.

This is a packed time of year, for me and for nearly everyone I know. Harvard’s Commencement approaches (next week); work deadlines loom. Summer, with all its pleasures and its changes from the usual routine, is on the horizon, but it’s not quite here yet.


I am walking through the middle of all this beauty, thinking about plans and to-do lists and so many meetings. I am busy and tired and a little stressed, but I want to stay awake. I don’t want to miss it. Any of it.

I am determined to keep paying attention, to let the power of these spring nights – and days – sweep through the tulips and blooming trees, and pour into my heart like a river.

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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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budding tree green blue sky

After what felt like the longest winter ever, the piles of dirty snow have (finally) disappeared. We’ve had quite a few brisk, chilly days and some damp, depressing gray ones, and a couple of unexpected torrential downpours. But spring is – finally! – here in Boston for real.

The trees are budding, clothed in red and white and even electric green. Last week, I was delighted to see the tulip magnolia trees burst into bloom. (I’d been watching a few of them for weeks, waiting for their lipstick-pink buds to open and reveal creamy petals.)

tulip magnolia tree

The crocuses and snowdrops are nearly done. The daffodils and the tiny blue scilla (an awful name for a lovely flower) are out in full force. I spotted a few pink hyacinth in a raised bed on Garden Street the other day. And soon, the flowerbeds in the Public Garden downtown will be a riot of tulips – my favorite. (A friend sent me a photo of the still-green buds this week, with the message, “Tulips are close to popping!”)

This is my third spring working in Cambridge, the beginning of my third year in this job, this building, this neighborhood. By now, I know not only where to find the best chai latte in Harvard Square (Darwin’s) or where to go for a French dip (Grendel’s Den), but where to find the first, faint, shy signs of spring.

I’ve built up a store of knowledge through observation on my frequent walks. And when the snow started to melt – or, let’s be honest, even before – I was watching for the crocuses to poke up through the earth. I knew exactly where to look: a triangular flowerbed in the yard of a house with a purple door. My vigilance was rewarded – those purple blooms made my day when they finally appeared.

purple crocuses flowers spring

There’s something lovely and gratifying about this ritual – a small, quiet reward of my constant attempts to pay attention to my everyday life. This time of year, you can almost see the trees budding, watch the leaves uncurling, measure the progress of a rising daffodil stem from day to day. Or – just as often – a tree or shrub will lie dormant for months, then burst into bloom overnight. In both cases, the joy is deeper, the colors brighter, if you know where to look.

red tulips flowerbed

I read a line from John O’Donohue years ago that always comes to mind in the spring: “beauty likes neglected places.” The damp earth under still-bare trees, untended corners of vacant lots – these places are splashed with new life and color, just as much as the carefully cultivated flowerbeds. Forsythia bushes are spraying their fountains of gold all over the neighborhood, seemingly out of nowhere. And even the dandelions are adding their cheerful note to spring’s symphony.

We’re not quite in the full glory of spring just yet – lots of branches are still bare, and the nights still have a nip in them. But I am savoring every bud and leaf and scrap of color. I’m giving thanks for every flower, like Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden. And I am watching – always watching – for more signs of spring.

How is spring showing up where you live?

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This winter, I decided my one little word for 2014 would be light.

coronado ca sunset

I did pretty well at chasing it for a couple of months, especially in the winter when looking for the light becomes a survival technique. We chased it all the way to San Diego in March, and then I followed it to Texas in late April.

austin mural waterloo records

And then spring came, and though we had some gray days in late May and early June, it has been a summer flooded with light – so much so that I haven’t paid it much attention.

But when I stop to look, the light is everywhere.

It’s in the cloud-streaked blue sky as I walk to work.

blue sky cambridge

It streams in through the big picture window in my temporary office.

new office desk computer

It greets me when I walk down to our beach.

sunset beach boston ma

And though it hid from us for a while, it eventually blazed out in glory during our vacation in PEI.

sunset blue mussel cafe pei

We’re headed toward the turning of the year: already the mornings feel a little brisker, the nights a little cooler. The quality of the light will soon shift from summer’s mellow golden to autumn’s crisp, lucid clarity.

I love autumn in the Northeast with a passion, but I also want to savor these last, gorgeous golden days, and watch the transition day by day. I don’t want to miss it. I want to be awake, to pay attention. I want to keep looking for the light.

If you’re following one little word this year, how’s it going? Do you get off track sometimes and then come back, like me?

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Oct 2013 001

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird —
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

I have never met Mary Oliver, but I consider her one of my teachers.

A published poet since 1963, Oliver has written hundreds, probably thousands, of poems during her lifetime, producing more than 25 books of poetry and three books of nonfiction to date. She writes about early morning walks in the woods or along the shoreline; finding the footprints of animals in the forest or near a lake; the tension between the fleeting beauty of the natural world and its undertones of violence, death and decay. She harbors a deep love for the world we inhabit, and a deep sadness for the ways humans mar or destroy the quiet, lonely places where animals and plants live.

I doubt Oliver ever cared much for clothes and fashion, but if she did, she gave up that particular passion long ago. She has learned what is worth caring about, and what she can easily ignore:

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be

This is what I need to learn, amid my distracted and often scattered life, amid my commute and my day job, amid the relentless pull of social media and relationships online and offline. I need to learn to pause, on my front porch or in the park or even on the subway platform, and pay attention to the
natural world, to the details that astonish.

I’m over at TRIAD magazine again today, sharing my thoughts on Oliver’s poetry. Please click over there to read the rest of my essay.

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