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Posts Tagged ‘community’

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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iris gumption kate winslet the holiday

Last January, I chose gumption as my one little word for 2016. I was partly inspired by Kate Winslet’s character in The Holiday, above – I love watching her discover her own gumption with the help of her friend Arthur.

I’ve been choosing a word nearly every year since 2010, when I chose brave and it sparked, catalyzed and helped me navigate all sorts of big changes in my life. When 2016 began, I was still in the throes of the job hunt, and I chose gumption as a way to pump myself up for the challenges I knew were coming. (As you may have noticed, 2016 also brought all kinds of challenges that I – and a lot of other people – didn’t see coming.)

Some days in 2016 – a lot of days – gumption simply meant getting out of bed and dealing with the day’s vagaries, at work and at home. But it often meant much more than that.

This year, gumption meant speaking up in meetings at work and church, contributing my ideas and asking questions. It meant carving out a place for myself at two different temp gigs at Harvard, then coming back to the first office in a more permanent role. (That was an adjustment in itself, though I am delighted to be here.)

This summer, it meant taking the leap to a new apartment: packing, moving, unpacking, adjusting to a new neighborhood and lots of resultant shifts in my routine. (It also meant heading to NYC, by myself, for three hot, humid, glorious days in mid-August when I couldn’t take the moving chaos any more.)

hibiscus iced tea journal

All year, gumption has meant sending that email, making that phone call, asking that friend to meet up, admitting that hard or vulnerable true thing. It has meant asking a lot of questions about my work (day-job-related and otherwise) and my place in the world. It has meant riding the emotional roller coaster of the election season, and bracing myself for what comes next. It has meant learning how to do a lot of new things, and it has meant summoning my courage, over and over again.

Sometimes I wondered if gumption was really the right word for this year: at times survival, or barely hanging on, seemed more accurate. But I also saw the flip side of gumption this year: the lightness and laughter that often pop up during hard times, when you least expect them.

I think of gumption as a combination of lightness and grit. And while the trials of 2016 required plenty of grit, the year also brought some much-needed levity, mostly via my loved ones. My husband, my coworkers, my friends and the children in my life (my nephews and my friends’ kids) made me laugh and helped me look for the silver linings. I may have chosen gumption as my word, but the words community and belonging (and Darwin’s) ended up choosing me.

I’m still thinking about my word for 2017, as we ease into a new year fraught with (more) challenges and change. I’ll let you know when I decide on a word, but meanwhile, I’d love to know if you have a word for 2017, or if you had one for 2016. Please share, if you like.

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ornaments light book

Somehow, we’ve landed in mid-December, which is proving both twinkly and hectic, as per usual. Here’s what’s saving my life, as we move through the last stretch of quasi-normal days before the Christmas break:

  • The Sylvia Plath poem from which this post takes its title.
  • “O Come O Come Emmanuel” (the Civil Wars version), on repeat.
  • Hot, spicy chai and a buttered English muffin from Darwin’s in the mornings.
  • Striped dress + black leggings + boots + scarf + magic green coat = warm, stylish winter uniform.
  • Sunshine and blue skies, even when it’s frigid out. (Related: walks in the fresh air, any time I can get them.)

charles river cambridge sunset

  • A couple of evenings in a friend’s living room, eating popcorn and drinking mulled cider and reading Advent poetry.
  • Snatching time to write in the library before work, and exchanging smiles with the security guard.
  • Yoga classes whenever I can squeeze them in. (Namaste.)
  • Krista Tippett’s On Being interview with Mary Karr, which is warm and wise and so honest.
  • A much-needed catch-up with a friend over hot chocolate the other day.
  • The particular blue of these early December mornings, glimpsed from the bathroom window.
  • Pumpkin chai from David’s Tea, brewed strong in a purple travel mug. Plus one of Molly’s scones and a crisp apple, every morning. (See also: not overthinking it.)

darwins sign winter snow

  • Twinkle lights: on my desk at work, on the trees in Harvard Square, on my two Christmas trees (one big, one tiny).
  • A few pages of Winter Solstice before bed, even when I can barely keep my eyes open.
  • Community of all stripes and in all places, from church to work to my daily rounds in the Square. It has been a turbulent year, to say the least, but I am deeply grateful to have found several places where I know I belong.

What’s saving your life this December? Please share, if you’re willing.

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turkeypalooza table

For three long tables set end to end in a tiled church basement, covered with red-and-white cloths and decorated with gourds and tiny pumpkins and sparkly wooden leaves.

For a dozen strands of Christmas lights twinkling overhead, and mellow acoustic music via Spotify providing the soundtrack.

For breakfast at Abigail and Nate’s on Thanksgiving morning: Friends episodes and French toast, link sausage and apple slices and Evie toddling around trying out her two newest words – “Kay-kee” and “Miah.”

katie abi nate jer

For a husband who peeled and chopped sweet potatoes to save me some time (and labor) the night before. For the sweet potato casserole-cum-dessert I make every year, topped with brown sugar and pecans.

For a mix of beloveds and new faces around the table: half a dozen nationalities and at least as many languages.

For the pause to say a prayer and sing “Give Thanks” a cappella before the meal, and Evie clinging to my hip as the mad scramble for food began.

For two turkeys, 15 pounds (!) of mashed potatoes, a table crowded with casseroles and one crammed with desserts. For apple-pomegranate salad and cranberry relish, pumpkin bars with cream cheese frosting and three kinds of pie.

dessert table

For mulled wine and ice water, sipped from goblets gathered from three different kitchens. For stacks of paper napkins and so many dishes, and lots of willing hands to wash and dry them afterward.

For my favorite twins, so grown up now (they’re 10), trying to spell “facetious” and bombarding me with questions about Harry Potter.

For little Adam, who turned four on Thursday, and the chocolate cake and joyful cacophony of “Happy Birthday” when it was time for dessert.

For dominoes and chitchat and so much laughter. For inside jokes and old stories, budding friendships and brand-new memories.

simpsons smiles thanksgiving

When you do something once, it’s a novelty. When you do it two, three, four times, it becomes a habit, a ritual. When you’ve done it seven times, it’s a tradition.

This year’s Turkeypalooza – our name for the joyous, chaotic, come-as-you-are feast at our church – is in the books, and it was a good one. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be on Thanksgiving Day than with these friends who have become family.

How was yours, if you celebrated?

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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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candle flower

Amid the horror and heartbreak of the past week, I have been turning back to poetry, because I honestly don’t know what else to do. I quoted this poem in a post I wrote last month (after the tragedy in Orlando), but I share it here in full.

Ars Poetica #100: I Believe

Poetry, I tell my students,
is idiosyncratic. Poetry

is where we are ourselves
(though Sterling Brown said

“Every ‘I’ is a dramatic ‘I'”),
digging in the clam flats

for the shell that snaps,
emptying the proverbial pocketbook.

Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,

overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way

to get from here to there.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)

is not all love, love, love,
and I’m sorry the dog died.

Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,

and are we not of interest to each other?

—Elizabeth Alexander

I also recommend Philip Larkin’s “The Mower,” Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Gate A-4,” and Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.”

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peony candle

I read this line last month in Krista Tippett’s gorgeous, luminous book Becoming Wise. It is from a poem by Elizabeth Alexander, and I have not been able to stop thinking about it. In the wake of this weekend’s tragedy in Orlando, it has been with me like a heartbeat, thrumming quietly but insistently through my veins.

I talk a lot, lately, about my deep love for Darwin’s, the coffee shop down the street from my office. I am there so often – for chai or lunch or an afternoon snack – that I know at least half the staff by name. Several times a week, I stand in the lunchtime line that winds around the wine racks and past the ice cream freezer, and exchange smiles and hellos with the folks I know: Al, Kiersten, Ariel, Justin. If I’m lucky, my friend Gamal is working the register, and he always has a smile and a good word for me.

I have spent much of the past year not knowing quite where I belong: shunted between different offices, learning the ropes of two temp gigs while searching for the next right thing. I am both shy and introverted, and it’s hard sometimes for me to reach across and connect with new people, especially when I’m not sure I will be welcomed. (My first couple of years in Boston were hard and heartbreaking in that way, and it’s taken a long time for me to believe that people here want to know me, or be known by me.)

Especially during this year, I’ve been grateful for Darwin’s, and for other places of sanctuary and welcome in my life. The teams at both my temp gigs are full of smart, warmhearted people, and I’m lucky to have other folks to lean on: my husband, my family, a few treasured close friends.

And yet.

Relishing, and appreciating, the existing friendships in my life can’t be enough. Not when we wake up over and over to news reports of violence and tragedy, perpetuated by people full of hate and fear of those who are different from them. I can’t let my shyness – or my perceptions about any group of people – override my simple human responsibility: to be interested in others, and to treat them with dignity and compassion.

I am straight. I am white. I can’t imagine the discrimination experienced by some of my friends who don’t fit those descriptors. But I can – I must – be interested in them and their stories. Not as tokens or examples, but as people – complicated, messy, gloriously individual.

Alexander’s poem starts out being about poetry, as the narrator tells her students that poetry is “idiosyncratic.” But it quickly becomes about the human condition: “poetry is where we are ourselves,” she says. Her voice rises until it reaches the poem’s final crescendo:

Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,

and are we not of interest to each other?

Yes. We are of interest to each other. We must be, if we are going to stem the tide of hate and fear that seems to be spilling out all over the place. We must remain interested in – and delighted by, and full of compassion for – each other. We cannot afford to do otherwise.

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