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Posts Tagged ‘community’

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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pink tulips boston public garden spring 2017

This spring weather, y’all. I don’t even know. We’ve had temperature swings worthy of my native West Texas: 80s and humid, 40s and raining, nearly every point in between. Swift-moving clouds, flashes of sunshine, sudden downpours and so much misty rain.

In some ways, the weather is reflecting the state of my soul: fitful, unsettled, often unpredictable. I am dealing with a lot of recent transitions and the fallout from the past year-plus of big changes. Sometimes it’s all I can do to keep up, brew myself a cup of tea and keep going. (Donia Bijan’s words about “the only thing to do” are running through my head every single day.)

In that spirit, I decided it was time for another list of what’s saving my life now: because something, or someone, always is. My lifesavers, in this topsy-turvy spring, include:

  • That benediction I love at Morning Prayers on Tuesdays. “May God go before us to lead us…”
  • My favorite black ankle boots: good for nearly all weather and comfortable for long walks.
  • Poetry by John Daniel, John Terpstra and Brian Doyle.
  • A recent visit from some beloved college friends and their little boy.
  • Tulips in all shades of lipstick red and pink. (See above, for evidence from the Boston Public Garden.)
  • Also: budding lilacs. The first lilies of the valley. Every new green leaf I see.

lilacs may

  • Playing Twenty Questions with my friends’ 10-year-old twins the other night and laughing ourselves silly. (Partly because they’re still figuring out how it works.)
  • The wise, funny, earnest Senior Talks at Morning Prayers, given by graduating students as we wrap up for the year.
  • My daily walks around Harvard Square to my places, especially the florist and my beloved Darwin’s.
  • Lauren Winner’s wise words about middles.
  • My umbrella, fingerless gloves and sunglasses, all of which I’ve been keeping handy. (See also: crazy weather.)
  • Long, long walks around Cambridge with a dear friend.
  • The hilarious sixth installment in Jodi Taylor’s series about time-traveling historians. (I’m the crazy person cracking up on the train, reading it.)
  • Unexpected moments of connection with friends and strangers.
  • As always: lots and lots of tea.

What’s saving your life these days? Please feel free to share in the comments.

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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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