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harvard yard banners commencement 2016

We are (rapidly) approaching Commencement here at Harvard. Classes are over; fluttering robes and other regalia are appearing on the streets of Cambridge; the Yard is filling up with folding chairs, audio speakers and other equipment. (Three days to go.)

I’ve been walking through the Yard whenever I can, watching it all take shape: watching the banners unfurl and the stage come together on the south porch of Memorial Church, piece by piece. There is a comfort in these steady rituals, year after year, a reliability deepened by knowing where to look.

Most of our students at the Kennedy School of Government, where I work, are graduating after one or two years in a master’s program, while our Ph.D. students have been in it for a longer haul. But many of the students earning their undergraduate degrees from Harvard College have spent four years in this place. And as of this spring, so have I.

harvard yard memorial church view

This time of year always makes me reflective: we are wrapping up another academic season, pausing before the plunge into summer, stopping to take stock of what we’ve accomplished and what we’ve gained. We are celebrating another class of graduating students right before we lose them: we are sending (most of) them out into the world, charging them to take what they’ve learned here and do some good.

Yet those of us who stay, who spend our workdays year-round in this place, are under the same charge: to take what we have learned, what we have built here, and do some good.

During this turbulent academic year – a year in which I’ve been adjusting, simultaneously, to a new job and to constantly shifting political realities, which directly affect said job – I have been thinking of James Baldwin’s words about America. Baldwin asserted his love for this country, and added in the next breath, “Exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

Similarly, I have developed a bone-deep love for Harvard, but I insist on the right to question it perpetually, and yes, sometimes to criticize it.

To be a part of this place, with its nearly four centuries of history, tradition and scholarship, is also to reckon with its scars and inconsistencies, its blind spots and the weight of its privilege. It is to keep speaking up (in my own quiet way), insisting on a place for those who have often been marginalized here: women, immigrants, African Americans and other minorities, those who don’t fit the mold of the “traditional” Harvard student or employee. It is to believe – sometimes by an effort of will – that I belong here, and that my voice matters: that I, too, am Harvard.

Over the past four years, I’ve worked in three different areas of Harvard: the Ed School, where I first landed and began to stretch my wings; the Harvard Gazette, where I survived a wild and wonderful Commencement season last year; and the Kennedy School, where I spend my days now. I have worked hard to make a place for myself here, to find a home, and I’ve been surprised and delighted to find several. In addition to all three of my offices (current and former), there are other corners of Harvard that belong to me.

harvard yard path trees light

The sunken garden on Appian Way, where tulips and iris bob their vivid heads in the spring and summer. A particular carved wooden pew in Memorial Church, where I have sat on many mornings this year, listening to the choir sing and the congregation recite the Lord’s Prayer. A cluster of squashy armchairs in Lamont Library, with a window that looks out into the trees. The second-floor room at the Harvard Art Museums that holds my favorite Monet paintings and one of Degas’ Little Dancer sculptures. And I can’t forget the places that are technically not part of Harvard, but that anchor me and nourish me here in the Square: the flower shop, the Harvard Book Store, and – most especially – Darwin’s.

As I’ve said before, working at Harvard is often like working anywhere else: there are politics and frustrations and paperwork, and also triumphs and community and good, satisfying work. I have struggled here, and felt lost and heartbroken – especially after being laid off, two years ago this month. I have also worked hard for every relationship I’ve built here, and that work has been rewarded: now I regularly see familiar faces around the Square, or have coffee dates and congenial email exchanges with colleagues and friends. This feels like my place, and it is: I speak the language, I know the streets and buildings, I understand the rhythms of this neighborhood. There is so much more to learn (there always is), but I am rooted here, and thriving.

Like our students, I realize that what I’ve gained here – what I have been given, and also what I have worked hard for – comes with responsibility. So I’ll keep asking questions, keep moving forward, keep thinking about how to do my work well, how to affect this place for good.

I’m not graduating with a degree from Harvard this year. But I am grateful, down to my bones, for my four years (and counting) in this place that is ever more mine.

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harvard yard banners commencement 2016

Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.”

—Hope Jahren, Lab Girl

It is Commencement season here in Cambridge (as I may have mentioned once or twice). As we have prepared to celebrate our graduates, I’ve been reading Jahren’s smart, luminous, wry memoir about simultaneously building three labs, a career as a botanist, and a life. My brain has craved good nonfiction this spring, and I am feeding it with thoughtful, beautiful true stories: Stir, Becoming Wise, Orchard House, My Kitchen Year, and now Lab Girl.

Jahren writes about seeds, roots and leaves: the building blocks of the plant world, which she has spent her career studying. She emphasizes their otherness: plants are not animals, and they are definitely not the same as people. But she draws many sensitive parallels between a plant’s growth and that of a person: the right conditions for growth, the patterns we can chart and some we can’t, the ways both plants and humans react to unexpected strain.

Jahren also writes, wisely, about the cyclical nature of growth: plants, like their environments, have seasons, and endings are inextricably tied to beginnings. So it is, of course, with human beings. There’s a reason these elaborate ending ceremonies, at Harvard and elsewhere, are called Commencement. Each end is also a beginning.

I have done a lot of waiting over the past year, since I was laid off from my job and have spent months searching for what is politely called “my next step.” This has entailed a tremendous amount of work and worry, but much of it is out of my control. Every single part of the process – combing the job boards, sending out applications, worrying over where I might land next, questioning everything from my chosen career to my identity as a writer – has involved waiting. There have been multiple endings, and also beginnings.

Three weeks from now, I’ll finish up my temp gig at the Harvard Gazette, where I started in mid-March and have worked through the full cycle of Commencement prep and activity. It’s been a wild ride, and I have loved it up here, on the sixth floor overlooking a slice of Harvard Square. It will be an end, and also a beginning.

After a vacation with my husband, I will take that much-anticipated next step – right across the street, back to the communications office of the Harvard Kennedy School, where I temped from November to early March. I’m heading back to an office full of colleagues I already love, and a school whose mission of service and scholarship I respect. There will be a lot of learning and adjusting, as there always is when something new begins. But this feels like the next right step. I am grateful – and thrilled – that it’s worked out this way.

We are each given exactly one chance to be, as Jahren says: to forge our paths without always knowing precisely how to do that. My path has led me, somewhat unexpectedly, to Harvard, and it has become one of my places. I am grateful for the chance to stay here, to continue doing the work I love. To keep growing and asking questions and thriving. Because that is what people – and plants – do.

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hammer head coverI’m a writer. I have always wanted to be a writer.

Since I was a little girl scribbling in my first couple of diaries (the kind with locks and keys), or making up stories to tell myself before bed at night, I’ve loved playing with words. But in this digital age, writing can sometimes look a lot like moving pixels around a screen, and less like anything real. Sometimes, after a day of hitting the delete key once too often, I go home and plunge myself into more tangible tasks: cooking, knitting, washing dishes.

After spending her twenties working as a journalist for a Boston newspaper, Nina MacLaughlin found herself similarly dragged down by the endless clicking and digital noise of her day job. Finally, exhausted and soul-weary, MacLaughlin quit, and applied for a carpenter’s assistant position she found on Craigslist. Her gorgeous memoir, Hammer Head, charts her journey into the world of carpentry, working for a tough, wise woman named Mary and discovering an entirely new way of life.

I’m over at Great New Books today talking about Nina’s memoir – one of my favorite books of 2015. Please join me over there to read the rest of my review.

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About a year ago, I got several hints from the universe about The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Suddenly, she was everywhere – in friends’ blogs and casual conversation. I’d been briefly acquainted with Mary as a child, but we hadn’t hung out in years.

mary tyler moore hat

I’ve been borrowing the seasons from our library, and I watched the series finale a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t sniffle my way through it as I did when we finished Friends, but I did get a little misty as Mary looked around the WJM newsroom before turning the lights off for the last time.

Mary’s story bears several parallels to my own over the past few years. True, she’s a single girl and I’m married, so I’m already done with the dating travails that sometimes bedevil her (though her love life is never the true focus of the show). But we both have struggled, and sometimes triumphed, as we’ve adjusted to new cities and navigated the rocky path of being career women in what is (still) often a man’s world. (And we each have a few stalwart friends in our corner, though unfortunately mine don’t live in my building.)

mary tyler moore rhoda

(Image from Hooked on Houses)

Mary is (nearly) the only woman in the WJM-TV newsroom in the early 1970s. The sexism she deals with is more overt than any I’ve ever encountered. But we both are pursuing that tricky thing called “work-life balance” or “having it all” – holding down a financially and emotionally satisfying job, while enjoying an active life outside of work and nurturing deep friendships. (And for heaven’s sake, both she and I would like a little time to ourselves once in a while.)

Mary’s pursuit of a successful life and career is not effortless. (Despite her hospitable spirit and impeccable fashion sense, her lousy dinner parties are a standing joke.) She loves her friends at the newsroom, but often gets caught up in their crises, and Rhoda and Phyllis (her upstairs and downstairs neighbors, respectively) do their part to keep things lively (and complicated). She never does get married, that we know of. She is bright and beautiful and capable, but she’s also just another girl trying to make a living, find love, sustain friendships, “make it after all.”

Therein, of course, lies Mary’s charm: who among us hasn’t dealt with cranky coworkers, awkward dates, deadlines at work and a stretched-to-the-breaking-point budget? Who hasn’t headed home to a hot bath after a stressful day or a frantic week, only to be interrupted by a friend’s crisis or a family member’s emergency? And who among us (especially women) hasn’t struggled to balance our people-pleasing instinct and cultural conditioning as “nice girls” with our drive for success?

I loved watching Mary find her feet, eventually summoning the moxie to talk back to her gruff boss, Lou Grant, and the self-absorbed anchorman, Ted Baxter. By the seventh season, she has grown into a feisty, independent but still compassionate woman who knows what she wants out of life (even if she can’t throw a perfect dinner party). She may not have all the answers (though she does have a hip little apartment and a fabulous wardrobe), but by the end of the series we know: she, and we, are gonna make it after all.

Thanks, Mary, for the laughs and the inspiration. I’ll be coming back to visit you in Minneapolis once in a while.

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I’ve got a whole crop of friends who graduated from college this year. Many of them are part of our beloved small group from our Abilene church; they are smart, capable, kind, funny, utterly wonderful people. Some of them have plans, but a few are still waiting, sending out job applications, bunking with friends or family or staying in college houses for a while, crossing their fingers and worrying and hoping. And even those who have plans – for grad school or a first job or internships – aren’t entirely sure what’s around the next bend.

And I want to say to them, and to you, if you’re there: I remember how that feels.

I remember the last few weeks in my college house, after the flurry of tearful post-graduation good-byes, packing books and dishes and furniture, trying to keep Bethany laughing as we worked so neither of us would cry. I remember sending out dozens (which felt like hundreds) of job applications, to places like New York and Nashville and Austin, and walking every day to my student job on campus, because they were keeping me on for the summer, and I sure didn’t know what else to do.

I remember watching Bethany drive away in her yellow moving truck, so tiny in the huge high cab, back to Longview to stay with her folks while she job-hunted. I went into the house and sat in the empty living room and cried. And then I called my friend Stephen, and we went for a Cajun cone, and I tried to drown my sorrows in shaved ice with raspberry syrup.

I remember the tentative first few weeks in my sister’s house, living with one of her roommates and assorted other girls who stayed for a week or a month, and the unexpected joy of Bethany moving back to live with us for the summer, and the two of us relishing our “borrowed time” together. (With Leigh Anne, the roommate mentioned above, whom we quickly came to adore.) We did a lot of worrying and some weeping that summer, but we did far more laughing – and we watched movies and hung out at coffee shops and borrowed each other’s clothes, and held each other in that tender space of not knowing, of in between.

At the end of the summer, I moved in with friends – because I didn’t want to go home (which felt like admitting failure), and I still had no “real” job. I kept sending out applications, including one to a job on campus at ACU, even though I thought I didn’t want to stay in Abilene.

As fate, or God, or something would have it, I got offered that job, accepted it, and spent a very happy year working in the Bible department at ACU, living in my own apartment for the first time in my life, making the odd transition from student worker to grown-up colleague, and laughing at the antics and witty comments of the faculty members I worked with.

It wasn’t the job I wanted to do forever. (I’ve never yet had a job that fitted that description – unless it was being a barista at the Ground Floor.) It wasn’t technically “in my field,” and it certainly wasn’t what I expected. But it was good. So good. And it gave me a year to grow up a little, to stretch my wings in the safe confines of Abilene, to breathe a little and get my feet under me before embarking on the next phase of my life and career (which turned out to be graduate school in Oxford). And the next phase, too, was good.

So to all new graduates, or others, who are feeling unsteady, like you don’t have a clue how to navigate this new grown-up world or use that shiny new degree: I know how you feel. Five years ago, I was there. (A little secret: I’ve been there many times since – and I’ve spent a lot of time there this year.)

But it’s all worked out okay for me, at least so far. I have a job, a wonderful husband, dear friends and family in multiple cities on two continents, and I still get to play with words all the time. Not bad, really, for an English major who spent a whole summer terrified that some or all of those things might not work out.

Where were you five years ago? Is it radically different from where you are today?

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a flashy interview

Remember my flash fiction triumph back in May? (If you don’t, I was a finalist in a flash-fiction writing contest, over at WOW! Women on Writing. You can read my story, “Book By Its Cover,” here.)

A couple of weeks ago, Jill Earl of WOW sent me some interview questions, and as of today, they’re live on the magazine’s blog, The Muffin. (I feel like a glamorous published author!)

So if you’re insatiably curious about my writing history, writing habits, inspiration and favourite authors, you can read the full interview over here. Feel free to comment either here or there – hope you enjoy my chat with Jill!

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Happy almost-September, everyone! The mornings are actually classifiable as “cool” now; when I leave the house at 7:45, I can drive to campus with my windows down and even shiver slightly in the breeze. I’ve been watching a lot of sunrises since I began my new job – Tim and Julie’s house has tons of front windows, and the light just floods in when the sun rises.

I can’t believe I’ve spent a whole week in my new job (without any major crises or problems – yet). 🙂 I have my own office – with a window that looks out into a tree! – and a large bulletin board that is already half full of schedules and reminders, and two lovely lamps that add ambient light. Glenn (my boss) keeps a supply of M&Ms (which he calls “stress pills”) in his office, adjacent to mine, and Carlene (across the hall) has a large candy dish shaped like a frog, which holds yummy soft peppermints. So we’re well-stocked for sugar, which is good, because on weeks like this, we need it.

My first three days on the job were fairly calm – either the faculty or I, or both, were in meetings much of the time, and very few students came in with questions or problems. We’re off and running now, however, and I’ve spent much of my week directing traffic, answering students’ and graduate assistants’ and faculty members’ questions, and sending student workers to make copies of various documents. (This job requires a LOT of delegating.)

On my first day I received FOUR bouquets – one from Dad, one from Julie, one from Jeremiah, and one from Betsy. And on Monday, John and Evelyn Willis sent me more flowers, with a card that says, “We appreciate you!” Bless every one of their hearts. I’m so glad to have people who love me. 🙂

Speaking of love, Glenn tells me every day how glad he is that I’m working in this office, and Carlene (who handles most of the student traffic) is a sweetheart, and my student workers (some of whom are my age) are all very sweet and helpful. And everyone over in the dean’s office, across the way, has been so good to me when I have questions. I’m slowly settling into this role. Lots I don’t know yet, but it will come. For now, I think I’ll steal another handful of dark chocolate M&Ms.

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