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Posts Tagged ‘change’

rainbow spines bookshelf books color

The students are trickling back into Boston and Cambridge. The light is shifting – gently but inexorably – toward fall. And (sniff) I’ve hugged two of my favorite baristas good-bye in the last two weeks.

Change is in the air, as it always is at this time of year. I’m writing this post, belatedly, to tell you about another change: we’ve decided to let the sun set on Great New Books.

My friend Jennifer, the site’s founder and our fearless leader, invited me to be part of the GNB team three summers ago, and I said yes right away. I knew several of the women who wrote reviews for GNB, and I loved its mission: sharing the best new books we could find with the world.

I enjoyed writing my quarterly-ish reviews and reading my colleagues’ writing. I quickly fell in love with the smart, honest, well-read, funny group emails we’d all exchange every week, trading book recommendations and keeping each other updated on our lives. And I eventually took over the site’s Instagram account, which was a fun outlet for the #bookstagram photos I love to snap.

This spring and summer, several of my fellow reviewers decided to step down: new jobs, urgent writing projects and shifting family priorities meant they needed to rearrange, reevaluate. I was thinking of stepping down, myself: I’m also spinning a lot of plates these days. We were approaching the five-year anniversary of GNB, and it felt like the right time to decide: revamp and rev up for the next five years, or let it go?

We decided, as you know by now, to let it go. It was a bittersweet decision: I love books and I love community, and GNB has provided a lot of both for me. Those friendships won’t disappear because the site is going quiet, but this is still the end of something that’s meant a lot to me. I’m writing this post to name that: to mark an ending, and to give thanks for what has been.

Check out the final GNB post for the links to our various homes on the Internet, and you can still browse the site for our past book recs of all kinds. And as always, if you have great books to recommend, I’d love to hear.

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geraniums front porch

The summer breeze is blowing through my kitchen: one window on the north wall, one on the east. Both are cracked slightly to let the evening air move through, and the blinds are pulled halfway down to provide some relief from the heat. It’s almost working.

I’m sitting at the blond wood kitchen table that dates from my college years, with a glass of iced tea and a vase of wilting sunflowers at my elbow. If I look up, I can see the gallery wall above the table, hung with an assortment of my favorite pieces of art: a vivid watercolor of Boston’s North End, three red maple leaves pressed under glass, a textured map collage made by a friend. The kitchen curtains, brightly patterned cloth napkins bought at Pier 1 and artfully arranged by means of hook and rod, shift slightly in the breeze.

I’m trying to memorize this view. It won’t be mine for much longer.

tulips table kitchen

We are moving again soon, for the second time in a year: to a third-floor apartment in a different Boston suburb than the one we’ve lived in for seven years now. This move, unlike the one we undertook last summer, is our choice, triggered by months of frustration with our current living arrangement. It’s also the result of my husband’s careful combing of real estate listings, several weekends spent driving around to apartment showings, and the help of a realtor named Dante.

Both of us are looking forward to the new place: my commute will be a little shorter and easier, the neighborhood seems beautiful and interesting, and the apartment itself has spacious rooms and a covered back porch. But, as we pack our lives into cardboard boxes (again) and recruit our friends to help us fill a moving truck, I’m starting to realize what I’ll miss about this place.

I’m back at Art House America today (where I write periodically), sharing a bit about our upcoming move and the things I’ve loved – to my own surprise – about the apartment we’ve lived in this year. Please join me over there to read the rest of my essay.

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steel and rye lights sunset

Back in January, I decided my one little word for 2017 would be magic.

I’d had a year that required a lot of gumption (my word for 2016), and I wanted something a little lighter, more whimsical, for 2017. Between the headlines (which are constantly crazy-making), the months-long adjustment to a wonderful but demanding new job, and the annual challenges of winter in New England, I knew I could use some magic.

We’re (slightly over) halfway through 2017, and I found myself thinking about my word the other day. More accurately, I found myself wondering: is magic really the word for this year?

Let’s be honest: 2017 has not been an easy road, so far. It has contained a lot of beauty – flowers and good books, long walks with friends, many lifesaving encounters at Darwin’s and elsewhere – but it has also brought new and ongoing challenges. It has, in short, required a lot of grit.

Grit is a popular word in higher ed circles right now, and a favorite word of Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard (where I work). I tend to think of it in both the verb and noun forms: grit as in gritting your teeth and hanging on, and grit as in the humble but honest dirt that collects in the floorboards of a house, or gives something the texture needed to grip it.

This year has contained a lot of both kinds of grit. I’ve had to wrestle with even the good gifts, and summon all my courage to get through even the beautiful days.

roots sky book sunflowers table

At the end of her lovely memoir, Roots and Sky, my friend Christie Purifoy writes about late-summer chaos: a gust of wind scattering the kids’ chore charts, a stray elbow sending a jar of gold star stickers all over the kitchen floor. “I intended them to march in rows across our charts, but now they sparkle among the dust bunnies,” she writes. “When [my son] Beau suddenly runs through the screen door, gold stars shine from the bottoms of his dirty feet.”

That image keeps coming back to me: it seems to perfectly capture the interplay of magic and grit. They are present, side by side, in unexpected places. They are frustrating and undeniably real, glorious and utterly ordinary. They both stick to the soles of my feet and insist on their place in the story of this year. So I am letting them both in, as I walk through these long, full summer days.

We’re moving again at the end of the month, to a different apartment in the next town over. More change is on the horizon: at work, at church, in other areas. I have no doubt all of these changes will require more grit. But – I hope and am trying to believe – they’ll also contain magic. At least, they will if I have anything to say about it.

The answer to my original question, it turns out, is “yes, and.” Magic is definitely present in this year, and so is grit. I can’t separate them, and it turns out I don’t really need to. Because they are both necessary, and both – sometimes to my surprise – life-giving.

Are you following a word (or more than one) this year? How’s it going? I’d love to hear.

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Nine years

katie jer xmas 2016

Marriage hath in it less of beauty but more of safety, than the single life; it hath more care, but less danger; it is more merry, and more sad; it is fuller of sorrows, and fuller of joys; it lies under more burdens, but it is supported by all the strengths of love and charity, and those burdens are delightful.

—Bishop Jeremy Taylor

I heard these lines years ago, at the very end of the movie Forces of Nature: an odd place, I admit, to pick up wisdom about marriage. I wasn’t married then, or even thinking about it. But I tucked those words into my heart, and they have resurfaced in recent months, as my husband and I have navigated our ninth year of married life.

We were married nine years ago today, in a ceremony filled with pink roses and a cappella music and rows of people we love, sitting in black folding chairs in a spacious atrium on our West Texas college campus. Our friends Tim and Julie (who are the older, wiser, more grace-filled versions of us) took turns reading aloud from 1 Corinthians 13: love is patient, love is kind, love never fails.

The groomsmen, four of our dear college friends, slung their arms around each other’s shoulders as we sang “The Lord Bless You and Keep You,” and I choked up at the sight. (I could hear at least one of my bridesmaids – my dear friend Bethany – sniffling, behind me.) Our friend and minister, Mike, who grew up with my dad, spoke a few wise, simple words over us, and told a couple of jokes.

We walked back down the aisle to an exuberant James Taylor song, grinning at the truth of his words: How sweet it is to be loved by you. Afterward, there were fajitas and iced tea, toasts and dancing, and a brief downpour during the reception followed by a dramatic sunset. We drove to a B&B down the street, owned by friends of ours, and headed for our honeymoon in Ruidoso, N.M., the next day.

That was a beginning, but also a continuation: we have been husband and wife for nine years, but loved each other now for nearly 14.

The trick in many long-term relationships seems to be loving the other person as they are, while holding space for them to grow and change. It can be hard, sometimes, to allow for those changes after knowing each other so long and so well. We are, and yet we are not, the same people who met as college freshmen, started dating long-distance as sophomores, got engaged at 23. We have fought (though not against each other) to declare our independence, to carve out a place for ourselves in the world. We haven’t always known what that place will look like, except that we want to inhabit it together.

It isn’t always easy, this work of building a common life: it requires grace, grit, compromise, lots of forgiveness and so much listening. In our case, it is also held together by so many bowls of chips and salsa; countless loads of laundry and sinkfuls of dishes; years’ and years’ worth of inside jokes; and numberless days of blowing each other a kiss when I get out of the car in the mornings. It is rolling over to kiss one another good night when we’re half asleep at the end of a long day. It is checking in via text or a quick phone call in the middle of the workday. It is remaining near, as my friend Lindsey noted a few summers ago. It is choosing each other, over and over again – whether we are tired or frustrated, furious or sad or delighted.

I love Taylor’s words about marriage because they capture the all of it: marriage is full of both dailiness and magic moments, tears and laughter, deep sorrow and overwhelming joy. It is a burden I’m grateful to carry alongside the man who carries so many of mine.

Nine years feels like a moment and a lifetime all at once – especially when I pause to consider the whole arc of it. And yet, in some ways (I hope), we are still at the beginning.

Happy anniversary, love. Here’s to many more.

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red leaves green flats harvard yard

I wrote this line from Hamilton in my journal last week, sitting on a bench outside Darwin’s at lunchtime. I sipped broccoli cheese soup from a paper cup, dipping in a hunk of baguette, taking a few deep breaths under a blue October sky.

I’ve heard that line a few hundred times since May, when I started listening to Hamilton nonstop. But lately, in the middle of a full, demanding, often harried season at work and at home, it has caught my attention particularly. As I face the challenges of each day – work projects, church responsibilities, the utter madness of the current political cycle – it has resonated like a deep, echoing gong, or the deep breath before a duel.

Autumn is always a crowded time: the academic year revs up with events and classes, and I plunge headfirst into fresh assignments while keeping up with the daily obligations of my life. This fall found me adjusting to a still-new job and an even newer apartment, with all the changes both have entailed. The past several weeks have included some beloved rituals like apple picking and some other things I was excited about: a book club poetry potluck, a few dinners with people I love, an evening of glorious sacred music at a friend’s church downtown. Coming alongside all that heart-stirring loveliness have been many challenges, too numerous to list briefly and too personal (some of them) to explore publicly here.

In the middle of this fast and furious season, when heartache, to-do lists and big life questions have felt equally clamorous and insistent, I have been going quiet, turning inward, thinking hard. I’m reaching for my tried-and-true grounding rituals: weekly trips to the florist and the farmers’ market, daily walks to Darwin’s for sustenance and smiles, the weekday Morning Prayers service in a small chapel just off Harvard Yard. I have been scribbling madly in my journal, talking things out with my husband and a few trusted friends. And I am reaching for this Hamilton line, and other good words about courage, to shore me up, to fortify me.

I’ve never gone to war against an invading army, or faced down an enemy with a pistol. I’ve certainly never tried to build a brand-new nation out of a loose confederation of fractious colonies. But the story of these wild, visionary rebels is among the things saving my life these days. They were flawed, hotheaded and sometimes foolish, but they were also passionate and brave. Throughout the Revolution and the years that followed, they summoned the courage required of them, over and over again.

As I walk through these gorgeous, demanding fall days, I’m doing my best to do the same.

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darwins portrait red lipstick

Several years ago, when I was still living in Texas, I took a writing workshop taught by my friend Shelly. I’ve forgotten most of the workshop’s content (sorry, Shelly!), but I remember one writing exercise. We began with the phrase “A person who…” and created a one- or two-sentence description of a character, using telling details. Then we went around the circle and read our descriptions aloud.

I’ve thought of that line occasionally over the years, because I often describe myself, or someone else, as “a person who.”

I am a person who reads (on average) two or three books a week. I am a person who collects black rollerball pens and lined journals with whimsical, colorful covers. I am a person who drinks a cup of tea every single morning, winter or summer, rain or shine, preferably brewed in my favorite cobalt blue mug. (I am also a person who loves a good daily routine.)

tea mug scone

Some of these descriptors, like the ones above, are true and even illuminating. But they can also be limiting.

For example: I thought I was a person who didn’t like hip hop (until I recently joined the ranks of Hamilton fans). I was a person who rarely spent money on fresh flowers, until I discovered how much joy they bring me (and how affordable they can be). I struggled mightily with a professional identity crisis after being laid off last year – because suddenly, I was no longer a person who worked at Harvard, or who had a job at all. (I have reclaimed both of those descriptors, though, and I’m deeply happy about that.)

Some aspects of my identity are fundamental and unlikely to disappear altogether: I am a reader, a writer, a musician, a person of faith. I am also a daughter, a sister, a wife, a friend. But I’d argue that it’s worth considering how our assumptions can influence the stories we tell ourselves. If I am a person who has firmly entrenched likes and dislikes, or even prejudices, I risk missing out on new experiences, new friends, new ways of believing and being.

I still find Shelly’s exercise useful in thinking about fictional characters. But for my own part, it might be worth pausing before I say I am (or she is or he is) a person who does this or likes that. Because I want to be a person who is open to surprises. Even from myself.

(NB: I am also a person who is going on vacation, so I’m taking the next week off from the blog. See you back here soon, friends.)

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memorial church memorial hall harvard university
I was left to my own devices
Many days fell away with nothing to show

And the walls kept tumbling down
In the city that we love
Great clouds roll over the hills
Bringing darkness from above

But if you close your eyes
Does it almost feel like nothing’s changed at all?
And if you close your eyes
Does it almost feel like you’ve been here before?

How am I gonna be an optimist about this?
How am I gonna be an optimist about this?

—Bastille, “Pompeii”

I fell in love with this song about a year ago, when my husband started performing it with his a cappella group, the Mass Whole Notes. (I know I’m a little late to the Bastille party. J is constantly discovering brand-new music, the way I am always finding new books. But my musical tastes skew several years behind the times.)

“Pompeii” entered J’s performance repertoire around the time I lost my job (which happened a year ago this week). I have found myself humming it often this year, because it captures perfectly the in-between state in which I find myself.

Some things – in fact, many important things – in my life have not changed since last May: I live in the same light-filled apartment. I go to the same tiny church. I call my mother once a week, text my sister about Friends lines and my nephews, talk about golf and movies with my dad. I read scads of books and write lots of reviews. I am married to the same generous, funny, understanding man.

I also spend my weekdays in the same neighborhood where I’ve worked for three years now. Every morning, I sling the same two bags over my shoulder and head for the Red Line subway platform near my house. I get off in Harvard Square, looking up at the same brick buildings and tall, gracious towers. I head to Darwin’s for a spicy chai latte before walking to my office.

If I close my eyes – though that is dangerous when navigating a Cambridge sidewalk – I can almost pretend that nothing has changed.

harvard yard autumn light leaves

And yet.

This spring finds me working in a sixth-floor office, with new colleagues, in a temporary role. This job is different both from the one I lost last spring and the other temp gig I held from Thanksgiving until mid-March. All three roles have been at Harvard, doing communications work, but there are varying duties and projects, distinctive office cultures to navigate, constantly shifting expectations. I am a person who likes to have a plan, and the past year has made that difficult.

I have been constantly surprised by how the job hunt has played havoc with my sense of self: as an individual, a writer, a career woman, a part of the Harvard community. Previously, I had never thought of myself as a person defined by her career. But the lack of a job, a title, a defined place in a working community, has made me question so many facets of my identity and the stories I tell myself. Also, inevitably, it has caused a shift in my relationships, most notably the ones with my former co-workers. I don’t blame anyone for that; it is simply what happens when things change.

On some days, the refrain of “Pompeii” thrums through my head in a depressing rhythm: How am I gonna be an optimist about this? That question is harder to answer when I’m struggling with (more) rejection, or simply having a tough day. I don’t always know how to be an optimist about this. I do remember, usually, how to keep going forward (make a cup of tea, write another paragraph, answer another email), so mostly, that’s what I do.

On some days, though, I am able to simply be grateful for what is now: this job, this office, this paycheck. This group of quirky, sarcastic, whip-smart colleagues. This routine, which still contains so many things and people I love. This neighborhood, with its uneven brick sidewalks and colorful local businesses and budding spring flowers, that has become a part of me. This chance to spend my days doing meaningful work – even if I don’t know quite where it will lead.

Some days I teeter on the edge of nostalgia, and it’s tempting to slip inside it, like a familiar cardigan. If I close my eyes and burrow down into it, I can pretend for a moment that nothing has changed at all. But the truth – the harsh, rich, complicated, often beautiful truth – is that things have changed, both in ways I can point to and in ways I still can’t quite articulate.

For now, although I’m sure I’ll keep humming this song, I’m adopting a slightly different approach. Because after this turbulent year, I am still here. I still get to walk through the city I love – dark clouds, tumbling walls and all. It’s not always easy, but I’m doing my best to keep my eyes wide open.

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