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Posts Tagged ‘community’

roxanne hks class

On a grey morning last week, I walked into a crowded classroom at the Kennedy School, caffeine firmly in hand, and slipped into a seat in the back. My day job sometimes allows me to write about the work of our students and faculty, and I’d already sat in this fall on Dara Kay Cohen’s fascinating class about sex, gender, violence, war and global politics.

My presence there last week didn’t have much to do (explicitly) with the piece I’m writing for the HKS website, though. I was there to listen to Roxanne speak, and afterward, to give her a big hug.

Roxanne and I found each other years ago, when our Internet orbits overlapped somehow. It was so long ago that I don’t remember which of us discovered whom first. We met in person for coffee when I had just moved to Boston and she was trying to decide whether to come back for graduate school (she eventually did). While our paths have continued to cross online, we hadn’t seen each other face to face in several years.

I knew a little about Roxanne’s work: research on the intricacies of victimhood, gender, violence and suffering in conflict and post-conflict areas. But this was the first time I’d ever heard her give a formal presentation. Sitting in the back of the classroom, I listened to her talk about gender and post-conflict life for ex-combatants and victims in Colombia. Like many good researchers and storytellers, she asked more questions than she answered, and I wrote down as many as I could:

Who is a combatant? Who is a victim? Is it possible to be both, and who gets to decide? How can ex-combatants, particularly women, rebuild their lives in a society that sees them as transgressive and permanently tainted? How can they grieve the complicated losses that come with leaving an armed group? Are there really flyers advertising lipstick colors for former guerrilleras? (The answer to that last one is, astonishingly, yes.)

More broadly, what happens when we leave people out of the narratives we build – or, conversely, what happens when we make room for all kinds of experiences?

Roxanne reminded me, as I scribbled down her questions in my notebook, that this is part of our work as storytellers and human beings: listening to others’ stories, making room for all kinds of narrative experience. We live in a world that rings with shouting matches, and the counterintuitive but vitally important work is often to stop yelling and listen. We all want to be heard, to be seen, to have our experience witnessed by other people. And we all carry the same responsibility: to make room. To listen. To pay attention.

After class, Roxanne had a lunch date and I had a stack of emails to answer. But we snatched a few minutes to catch up and chat – about everything from work to shoes to relationships – and hug each other tight. I felt seen in those brief moments: known, listened to, beloved. Also a wee bit smarter for having heard her brilliant presentation. And so proud of my whip-smart, wise, compassionate friend.

The whole experience made me deeply grateful for serendipity, and for the ways in which my worlds sometimes overlap – especially the ways I could never predict or expect. I’ll be carrying Roxanne’s questions forward with me this month. (And hoping for a tea date the next time she’s in town.)

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chalk heart flats

I’ve been back from Oxford for a week, and have been fighting serious jet lag, a wicked head/chest cold and an overflowing email inbox (more than 200 messages while I was away!).

Despite the coughing and the catch-up, though, the weather is pure October glory, and I thought it was about time for another list of what’s saving my life now:

leaves yellow green blue sky

  • Bold blue skies, crisp autumn breezes and that golden autumn light.
  • Related: the trees, which seem to be turning in slow motion but are starting to show red and gold.
  • Lemon-ginger tea (from Pukka or Stash), with honey when I can get it.

sunflowers orange rose

  • Sunflowers for my desk (and a bonus rose!), from my beloved florist.
  • The sunrises through my kitchen window: orange and gold, pink and blue.
  • My favorite red pants – always a shot of happy.
  • Walks on the river trail, alone or with my husband.

river trail asters

  • Catching up with loved ones: giving a girlfriend my unofficial Harvard tour, inviting friends over for dinner, meeting up for coffee or a long walk.
  • Salads from home and soup from Darwin’s.
  • The late roses around town, which are truly stunning this year.

late yellow rose

  • Dipping back into Anne of Windy Poplars, because October.
  • Simple kitchen routines: brewing tea in my red kettle every morning, toasting bread for breakfast, whipping up huevos after yoga, standing at the sink washing dishes.
  • Yoga classes: sun salutations, pigeon and warrior poses, deep breaths.
  • Looking forward to a long weekend in NYC.

What’s saving your life this fall? Please share, if you want.

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back porch geraniums

Last week, I sat in my usual spot in the chapel of Memorial Church, squinting in the bright morning light, watching it play across the high cream-colored ceilings and the carved wooden pews. Morning Prayers is back in session for the fall term, and I am grateful to rest in it again as part of my daily rhythm.

David Hempton, the dean of Harvard Divinity School, spoke that morning on an achingly timely topic: “belonging at Harvard.” (This was two days after the president’s DACA announcement, about which Harvard’s president, Drew Faust, and others have spoken more eloquently than I can.)

Hempton noted that belonging means something more than networking or connecting or being able to say you visited a place. Many people come to Harvard for exactly those (legitimate) reasons. But for those of us who work and study here – who have made it, in some sense, our home – belonging means more than that. We want to know that this is our community; that we are accepted here, valued, safe. With that comes a deep responsibility to make this community a safe, thoughtful, welcoming place for others.

Belonging, Hempton added, “involves the acceptance of our own frailties and those of others in a spirit of generosity and mutual forbearance. There is no belonging without self-acceptance.”

Those words, in his gentle Irish accent, made tears well in my eyes, and they reminded me of another David, the poet David Whyte, in “The House of Belonging“:

This is the bright home
in which I live,
this is where
I ask
my friends
to come,
this is where I want
to love all the things
it has taken me so long
to learn to love. […]

There is no house
like the house of belonging.

It takes a long time for most of us to find our own houses of belonging: to accept ourselves and others without judgment and with generosity, to be brave enough to become who we really are. It’s not a linear process, and it is a slow one: it takes a long time to grow into ourselves. But even as we fail and falter, we are still responsible for the other side of community: we must be a place of welcome for others. We must ask how we can help them belong, and help them thrive.

I don’t have the answers for any of this, at Harvard or elsewhere: I don’t always know what it looks like, for me or for my communities. But as Hempton said (and as Rakesh Khurana, the dean of Harvard College, said at Morning Prayers the very next day), I know one thing: we must do this work, of building and welcome, together.

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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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candles ashmont vigil

Metal and glass, granite and flame: I snapped this photo at a small vigil in Dorchester last Sunday night, in the wake of the awful events in Charlottesville.

I’d seen a list online of vigils in the Boston area, so the hubs and I hopped on the trolley to the Ashmont T station (about a mile from our new house) to join about 50 people in a quiet show of solidarity and peace.

I wasn’t sure whether to go: I am wary, in these uncertain days, of doing anything just to make myself feel better, when none of this is about me at all. I didn’t go so I could tell people I’d gone; I was shy even about introducing myself to others who were there. But it still felt important to show up, to stand with other people in our new neighborhood who care about justice and peace, and who understand that we are all culpable in this long story of hurt and hatred and injustice in the country we love.

We chanted Heather Heyer’s name; we sang a verse of a song about peace and carrying burdens together; and afterward, a few of us stood around chatting, learning each other’s names: Patricia, Johanna, Orin, Rachel, James, Lizzie, Kathleen. I left feeling still heartbroken, but quietly buoyed up.

It felt so small, hardly worth mentioning – but worth doing.  I share my experience here, in case you are wondering if the small things you’re doing are worth it, or in case you need an idea of how that might look. Because showing up – however that looks – always matters. I have to believe that.

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cedar grove gardens

This weekend, the hubs and I finally visited Cedar Grove Gardens, the gorgeous garden center that’s a short walk from our new house. I crave beauty, green growing things, flowers and feeling at home in the place I live, and our visit there provided all of that.

herb garden back porch plants

I now have an herb garden on the back porch, and I could not resist one more geranium. (Apparently “geranium, mint, rosemary and basil” is my version of “parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.”)

geranium red pot back porch flower

I also crave welcome and safety (don’t we all?), and am thinking about ways to provide it for others, in light of the horrifying events this weekend in Charlottesville.

I am furious and heartsick and I have no idea what to say or do, but as Karen said, I’ll figure it out. Because we all must. Hatred and bigotry should have no place in this country, and it’s high time we rooted them out. We must (I keep saying) be of interest to each other, and act like it. Starting now, in whatever ways (small and big) we can.

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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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