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Posts Tagged ‘community’

I was waiting in line at the post office recently (enjoying the Mary Tyler Moore episode playing on their new TV), and witnessed something that made my day…

A stooped older gentleman came in asking about the keys to his post office box, which he’d misplaced. One of the postal workers – who clearly knew him by name – immediately said: Oh, you left your box open last week, so we put the keys in it for you, honey. Her colleague retrieved the keys and handed them over, and with some gentle teasing, the man went on his way.

I loved everything about that interaction: the fact that the man got his keys back, the fact that the workers instantly knew where they were, the kindness in the woman’s voice as she called him honey. (She was probably young enough to be his granddaughter.) It was such a moment of care, in a busy city on a grey Thursday afternoon, that it delighted me simply to witness it.

I always feel privileged when I get a peek into moments of tenderness between people, and this sweet instance of neighborly kindness – in a business setting, no less – felt especially precious. I appreciated, too, the not-so-subtle reminder that, as the Mary Tyler Moore theme song reminds us, love is all around.

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We reach a point every December where I wake up with carols in my head: ribbons of lyrics old and new, lines I’ve known since I was a little girl and lines I’ve learned only in the last few years. They wind and stretch and run through my days, an undercurrent of magic and anticipation, a soundtrack to this time of year I have always loved.

This year, for the fourth time, I’ve been singing with friends in a local carol choir: a handful of us holding black and white binders, filled with songs we already knew (The First Noel, Silent Night) and unfamiliar tunes (Dadme Albricias, O Jesulein Suss, Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light). Just to keep it interesting, Peter always throws in a remix or two of carols we think we know – this year it’s The Holly and The Ivy, with syncopation where we didn’t expect it, and a slightly different version of Ding Dong Merrily on High (still with those Glorias).

There is much laughter, and a lot of wrong notes, and at least a moment or two where we all despair of ever getting it right. But every year, a couple of weeks before our performance, it somehow starts to come together. The phrases begin to make sense, and the chords coalesce into something beautiful. It starts to sound less like we’re stumbling our way through, and for a moment – as my choral director used to say – we actually make music together.

The Christmas music is coming in from all sides, these days. There are Spotify mixes on my morning runs or mellow evenings with my partner, and carols by our Sprouts at ZUMIX, and blaring pop renditions in every store or business I walk into. It’s impossible to escape it – but mostly I am happy to soak it in.

I also wake up, some mornings, with the songs of Christmas past: the youth choir singing verse after verse of Do You Hear What I Hear, led ably by George, our beloved music minister. My dad’s friends Buddy and Clay, singing O Holy Night in a church sanctuary in Dallas, thirty years ago. The Magnificat and other a cappella carols at Brookline and at Highland, those churches that were both once mine. And so many memories of Christmas Eve services with my parents, filled with classics like O Come All Ye Faithful and Silent Night.

Last night, my guy and I went to the Harvard carol service, arriving – to our surprise – during the season’s first snow. We sat in a dark wooden pew in the chapel where I used to go to Morning Prayers, and sang our hearts out: Adeste Fideles and Lo, How a Rose; Hark the Herald and Angels We Have Heard on High. It felt nourishing to be there, among poinsettias and candlelight, to wave at a few Harvard friends and see new faces in the pews. To hear again the words that have framed this season all my life: for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior. My soul magnifies the Lord. You will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes. Glory to God in the highest.

The music of the season is indelible for me; it expresses the wonder and joy through familiar melodies and the lyrics I have loved all my life. I’m grateful – through so much loss and change – that the songs have endured, and that I get to sing them in community, and take my annual turn at trilling the Glorias. This season is full of bustle and swing, but it also calls us back to awe and wonder, and these songs help steady me as I prepare to celebrate.

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November is speeding by, with lots of golden leaves, local adventures, election excitement and good books. Here’s what I have been reading:

A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting, Sophie Irwin
Annie recommended this delightful Regency romp, which follows Kitty Talbot as she hunts for a wealthy husband in London to save herself and her sisters from penury. When she meets the de Lacy family, their eldest brother – Lord Radcliffe – quickly figures out her game. I loved Kitty, her aunt Dorothy (a former actress) and Lord Radcliffe; also, the skewering of strict etiquette rules was hilarious. Thoroughly charming.

Merci Suárez Plays it Cool, Meg Medina
I adore this middle-grade series about a Latina girl finding her way at a posh private school (and with her loud, loving family). In this third installment, Merci is pulled between two groups of friends and navigating her feelings for a boy she kind of likes. Her beloved grandfather, Lolo, is also declining. I loved watching Merci try to figure things out – doing her best, messing up, apologizing, being stubborn and seeking advice from the adults in her life. So relatable.

A Trace of Poison, Colleen Cambridge
The village of Listleigh is hosting a Murder Fete, along with a short-story contest sponsored by Agatha Christie and her colleagues in the Detection Club. But when the local priest ends up dead from a poisoned cocktail, housekeeper Phyllida Bright decides to investigate. An engaging second mystery featuring Phyllida and her fellow staff, as well as Mrs. Christie (with cameos by Dorothy Sayers and G.K. Chesterton). Good British fun.

The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, Priya Parker
I loved Parker’s interview with Alissa Wilkinson about this book, and had heard about it from Anne and others. Parker explores the purpose, structure and details of good gatherings and gives examples about how to shape them well. She’s a great storyteller and her ideas are thought-provoking (and often fun!).

The Wild Robot, Peter Brown
After a terrible storm, robot Roz finds herself stranded on a remote island. At first the local animals think she’s a monster, but she gradually adapts to them, and they to her. I loved this middle-grade novel (which both my nephews have enjoyed) about friendship and change and caring for our world.

The Lost Ticket, Freya Sampson
When Libby crash-lands in London after a bad breakup, she meets elderly Frank on the 88 bus, and discovers he’s been looking for the same girl (whom he met on that bus) for 60 years. Libby plunges into helping Frank search for the mysterious girl, and ends up finding a new community. An utterly charming novel about friendship, memory and dealing with big life changes.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

What are you reading?

P.S. The second issue of my newsletter, For the Noticers, came out recently. Sign up here to get on the list for December!

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Last week, I spent an hour (alongside some colleagues) placing red and silver sparkly macarons into cocktail glasses, along with turquoise stickers and quotes from our student participants. Days before, I brainstormed cocktail names with my supervisor. (We landed on Razzle Dazzle, Stardust, and Fancy Was My Name – sometimes, it’s nice having another Southern girl in the office.)

In the weeks before that, I wrote, rewrote and proofread program text; ordered several life-size cardboard celebrity cutouts online; maneuvered our office van through the winding streets near Boston’s North Station; and bought a fabulous pair of cascading rhinestone earrings. It all came together beautifully last Wednesday, at the aptly named Glitter and Glam version of the annual ZUMIX gala.

When people ask me what we do at ZUMIX, I usually tell them that we provide free and low-cost music lessons and other creative classes for young people, ages 7-18. And we do that, every day, at the Firehouse in East Boston. But the Gala was a chance to celebrate the broader definition of what we do: help young people discover their shine.

One of our youth musicians, Andres, bounded in two hours early, fizzing with excitement for his first-ever paying gig. Julian, sporting a fedora along with his usual funky glasses, played in three different ensembles (a fact Wendy, one of his fellow musicians, made sure to mention onstage). Angelica, rocking a slinky green sequined dress, worked the room at the cocktail party, interviewing guests for her show on ZUMIX Radio. And sisters Layla and Maya – neither one of them out of elementary school – brought the house down with their rendition of Selena’s “La Carcacha.”

I could go on, and tell you about Elia on the drums, Camille rocking both the bass guitar and her elegant blue dress, Samantha swirling around in a sparkly gown and Brandon adding a few rhinestones to his sharp suit (and playing guitar with his usual cool). And my colleagues: Ben and Chris and Brian doing double-time to get there after their other teaching gigs across town. Kadahj and Corey (both ZUMIX alumni) speaking eloquently about the impact this place has had on their lives and so many others. Esther, my supervisor, dashing around in a sequined red fedora and a light-up tutu. And Madeleine – our co-founder, executive director and the hardest-working woman I know – doing everything from setup to schmoozing to calling the ZUMIX Latin Ensemble back out for an encore.

I loved so many moments: getting dressed in the bathroom alongside the setup crew, giggling like girlfriends as we glammed up for the evening. Hugging former staff and alumni whom I’ve grown to love. Applauding my friend Roberto (above), manager at Eastie Farm and community-builder extraordinaire, as he received an award (and, later, getting down with his crew on the dance floor). Dancing with Esther to the Cotton-Eyed Joe after the DJ had finished his set. Sipping a Razzle Dazzle cocktail and snapping photos of our board and staff and community enjoying each other. Handing out light-up plastic rings to those who donated, and to any teenager who wanted one. Snagging a selfie with Madeleine as the party swirled around us. And driving back to Eastie in the van, close to midnight, exhausted but entirely satisfied.

Listen: there are all kinds of scrappy small organizations like ours, doing the work of building communities and giving young people a safe place to be themselves. We’ve made it through 31 years of this work, tied together by red Firehouse doors and ukulele strings and a whole lot of duct tape and hope. We are bolstered by smiles and crashing piano chords and a student’s look of astonishment as they land a guitar riff for the first time. We are scribbled song lyrics and sound-mixing wizardry; we are pupusas and potato chips and endless cups of tea from the office kettle. We are, also, budgets and grant proposals and donor acknowledgments and social media posts; the magic doesn’t happen without the admin grunt work, as my colleagues and I know all too well. But at events like the Gala, it all braids together beautifully, and like those macarons (courtesy of a Latin bakery in East Boston), it all sparkles.

We do provide music lessons, and theatre classes, and teach young people how to operate sound boards and create their own radio shows. But they teach us, too: how to be brave and silly and kind and fearless, how to try out new things – sometimes in front of a roomful of people – and not be afraid of what might happen. They demand honesty from us; they ask good questions; they push us to be better than we are. They ask us to build a world that is safe and creative and just. And they eat a lot of pizza – while making a lot of amazing music.

We have so many reasons to shine, Madeleine wrote in the event program last week. Gonzalo, one of our awardees, added, There is no stronger light than the one we receive from our young people. I am grateful – not just on Gala days, but every day – to be part of the string of lights that allows ZUMIX to keep on shining.

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Earlier this month, I joined a running club – the newish, informal, neighborhood group that meets at the foot of the Golden Stairs, mere yards from my house. I’d been seeing their posts on Instagram for months now, and seen them running in a pack through the neighborhood – but I’d hesitated to try it out. I usually like to run alone, plus 7 a.m. sounded a wee bit early…plus (and this is the real thing) I hate walking up to groups of strangers. I’ve never enjoyed that moment of being the odd new person, but like so many things, it’s gotten worse with two years of isolation during the pandemic.

But. It’s spring (tipping into summer this weekend, with 90-degree temps on the way). The mornings are lighter; the lilacs are blooming; the azaleas are a blaze of pink and the rhododendrons are right behind them. And in small ways, I can feel myself opening up, too: finally unclenching after months of clinging to all things safe and familiar.

Don’t get me wrong: I still need lots of nights on my couch with a book, or morning runs by myself with the Wailin’ Jennys or Martina McBride in my ears. But some things feel more possible, less scary, than they did a year ago. I’m seeing it all around me: people are traveling again, eating in restaurants and gathering with friends. I went to the movies last night for the first time in a year. It all feels like training wheels for being back in the world, a chance to try out – in a safe context – the things we used to do and the things we want to do, and decide which (if any) we’d like to keep.

Long before the pandemic, I was telling myself a story about meeting people in Boston: that it’s hard and scary and they probably won’t welcome me anyway. This was true at my first workplace here, and I’ve carried it with me, like a stone in my chest, for a decade. It has taken years to untangle that story, and the fear still rises up every so often. But the other week, I set my alarm for 6:15, ate some granola and drank a cup of tea, grabbed my keys and headed down the stairs. Just try it, I told myself. If you hate it, you never have to go back again.

Well. I didn’t hate it – as evidenced by the fact that I got up early this morning for the third Friday in a row. I ran a 5K last weekend in the sweaty, steamy heat with some of these people – and I didn’t even mind that much when I came in dead last. I’ve run into a couple folks already in the neighborhood. And most weeks, we walk to the new cafe afterward to grab coffee and chat.

It feels like community, like connection, like finding a new way to be in this neighborhood where I’ve spent three joyful and also difficult years. It feels like pushing off with those training wheels, learning to balance again. It feels – in a sneaky, surprising way – like joy.

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Well, friends, it happened: after nearly two years of wearing a mask, washing my hands incessantly, getting vaccinated and taking all the other precautions we’re all used to now, I tested positive for COVID-19 a few weeks ago.

I was lucky. My symptoms were fairly mild, mostly fatigue and congestion (though I will say the brain fog is real). My employer has been generous about giving us extra sick time for isolation and recovery (though I did work from home when I felt well enough, to stave off the boredom). I felt tired and draggy for nearly a week, and I’ve still had some fatigue and a lingering cough – but mostly, I feel grateful it wasn’t much worse.

My mild-ish symptoms didn’t surprise me too much: I’m vaxxed, boosted, in a low-risk demographic, etc. What did surprise me were some of the emotions I felt. They ran the gamut from fear (what if I become severely ill?) to worry (does my partner have it too? Spoiler: he did, and he’s also fine now) to eye-rolling frustration (here we go with the isolation and counting days).

There was also abject sadness and terror at the thought of more isolation in my apartment, after spending most of 2020 and the first half of 2021 alone there. I broke down and sobbed to my mom on the phone after I got my positive results. I have worked so hard since my divorce to build a life for myself that includes community, but as a household of one with a highly contagious virus, I knew I was facing down at least a week of serious solitude.

I felt helpless and frustrated (there was nothing I could do about it), mildly outraged (but I’ve been doing everything right! The whole time!), and a little bit ashamed (I caught the virus anyway. Did I do something wrong?). And deep down, after a couple of days, I also felt a creeping sense of relief: now I’ve had it. So that happened.

In addition to all these emotions, I truly did feel lucky: my community stepped up for me, in ways both tangible and intangible. One friend dropped off groceries (and cough drops) on a bitterly cold afternoon. My supervisor called to check in on a few mornings. I went for a walk with a girlfriend who had tested positive the day after I did – which saved both of our sanity. Other friends texted; my parents called; my sister checked in on me every day. My partner and I did our best to support each other via FaceTime and phone calls, and on the weekend when we reunited in person, we hugged for minutes at a time. I felt loved and supported, even while I was physically alone.

As this pandemic drags on and on, the omicron wave has hit a lot of households in my circles that had so far managed to avoid the virus. My folks, my partner and various friends are all recovering; here in Boston we are still masking, sanitizing, flashing our vaccine cards to eat indoors and go to the gym and go hear live music (or dance salsa, in my case).

We are still here, I keep saying to my colleagues, my parents, my COVID-weary friends. I keep hearing Beth Silvers‘ voice in my head: It’s a virus, not a moral defect. Which is to say: keep doing everything you can, but testing positive is not a moral failure. It’s simply something many of us will have to deal with at some point.

I don’t have any neat and tidy conclusions, but wanted to share my experience in case it is helpful to someone here. (Beth also noted that, like childbirth, having COVID is a singular, isolating experience that creates some stuff we need to process together.) Thanks for reading, friends. If you have your own experiences/emotions to share, please feel free – I’m listening.

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For leggy geraniums in my kitchen window and brilliant afternoon light.

For morning runs along the harbor and the greenway. For so much outdoor public space in my neighborhood, and a body that is strong and healthy, beautiful and resilient.

For a kind, brilliant, passionate, funny, fierce man whose love sustains me.

For a few local friends who are my lifelines, every single day.

For my faraway family, both blood kin and chosen.

For texts and calls with my girlfriends scattered across the miles. For the technologies that allow us to share in the details of one another’s lives.

For vaccines, nurses, doctors, public health officials and everyone who is (still) working so hard to keep us safe.

For a job at a neighborhood nonprofit that I love, working with good people to bring music and creative empowerment to our young folks.

For nourishing trips this summer and fall – to Texas, Minneapolis, Vermont and beyond – to explore new and beloved places and spend time with folks dear to me.

For music in all its forms: the Wailin’ Jennys and the women of country on my long runs, humming favorites in my kitchen, singing carols with others at Christmas choir rehearsal, hearing our ZUMIX students play ukulele or drums or guitar.

For good books, those who write them, and the chance to read and review them regularly.

For a place – my studio, my neighborhood, this city, my communities – where I have built a home and been welcomed into other people’s homes.

For all – as my friend Amy would say – that we have been given.

If you’re celebrating this week, I wish you a wonderful Thanksgiving.

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A few weekends ago, I hopped on a plane – still a novelty after nearly 18 months of not going much of anywhere. I was headed to a new-to-me destination: the Twin Cities. I’ve been taking a writing class through ModernWell with Nina Badzin and others during this pandemic year, and when my classmates started planning an in-person meetup, I knew I had to be there.

Nina and I have been friends online for years, but we’d never met in person, and I’d never met any of the other women in our class. But in some ways we know each other deeply: we have spent the past year meeting via Zoom on Tuesday mornings, exchanging updates about what we’ve been reading and watching, then discussing writing prompts and craft, and sharing our writing with one another. I don’t know all the names of their kids or where they went to college, but I know the soul-deep insights they’ve shared in class these last months. In turn, they have been sounding boards for me as I processed my pandemic grief, post-divorce loneliness and various job hunt woes.

My friend Debra picked me up from the airport and took me straight to Lake Harriet for lunch and a run (see top photo). “I feel like you need to run a city lake while you’re here,” she had told me. She was determined to show me the best parts of her hometown, which included that lakeside run, a bike ride to the cute little town of Excelsior on Saturday morning, a long walk around Lake Minnetonka (shades of Betsy Ray!), and several delicious meals both out and at home. (Debra has a fun cooking Instagram, and I loved watching the magic happen in real time in her kitchen.)

I didn’t care about most touristy things (we skipped the Mall of America, for example) – but I had to make a pilgrimage to a certain street corner downtown.

I went through a serious Mary Tyler Moore phase after moving to Boston. I watched all seven seasons of the show over the course of a year, and I drew strength and comfort (and a lot of laughs) from Mary’s adventures in Minneapolis and her close bonds with her friends and colleagues. So of course I had to go pay homage, and throw a hat (which I borrowed from Nina) in the air.

The rest of the weekend was filled with eating and talking: so many stories to tell and catch up on, so many delicious dishes to sample. Debra and Nina took me to the charming Excelsior Bay Books (after brunch at Coalition) on Saturday, and then Debra whipped up a fabulous happy-hour spread for the whole group before we all went out to dinner. I was out of words every single night by the time I went to bed. And it was wonderful.

Just as Debra intended, I was utterly charmed by the Twin Cities, and by meeting her and my other ladies in person. I’ll definitely be back.

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I rewatched While You Were Sleeping around Christmastime – which is when I usually watch it, since it takes place during Christmas week. I cracked up at all the best lines – “These mashed potatoes are so creamy!” “New Year’s Eve hasn’t been the same since Guy Lombardo died!” “I got Ice Capades!” – and reveled in the happy cacophony of the Callaghan family’s holiday celebrations. But this time, I was focused on a different aspect of the story: the loneliness.

When the movie opens, Lucy Moderatz (Sandra Bullock’s character) sits all day in a CTA booth taking subway tokens from strangers. She’s single, childless, without family since her dad’s passing, and her boss is asking her (again) to work on Christmas. Although she spends a lot of the movie interacting with the Callaghans (and trying to figure out how to tell them she’s not actually engaged to their comatose son), there are a number of scenes where she’s alone in her apartment, with her cat and the Christmas tree that broke the window early in the film. She’s so desperate for connection that she goes along with a lie, and nearly ends up marrying the wrong man just so she can be part of a family.

I read an article this winter about how While You Were Sleeping is the perfect movie for a pandemic: many of us, like Lucy, have spent the past year missing the communities we used to have (or wanted to have, or thought we were supposed to have). Lucy has never been part of a big family, but she’s thrilled to be welcomed into the Callaghan clan. She accepts hugs, chokes on Christmas eggnog, and cradles her wrapped present as the others tear into theirs; having spent years starved for community, she doesn’t want to miss savoring even a moment of it.

That scene made me well up: after I’ve spent so much of the past 14-ish months alone in my apartment, Lucy’s loneliness hit much closer to home. I have been grateful for every scrap of community I’ve found this year, including my online writing class, the few neighborhood friends I’ve been seeing, and in-person time with my sweet guy. But I have missed other connections: time with my family; in-person interactions with coworkers and other friends; the chance to build on new neighborhood relationships I had just started forming when the pandemic hit.

Ultimately, Lucy – and I – must make some choices about the kind of community that’s really worth pursuing. She decides, in the end, to tell the truth rather than end up married to a man she doesn’t love (and barely knows), even if that means losing the family she’s recently gained. As I continue to navigate life post-divorce (and as we all emerge slowly from the pandemic), I have to make choices, too. Which relationships are worth continuing to foster, and which ones do I need to let go? Was I hanging onto some connections – or the idea of them – long past their sell-by date? Where I can I find, or continue to seek, community that lets me be seen and loved?

After New Year’s, Lucy gets her happy ending – including a honeymoon to Florence with her beloved Jack. I’m hopeful, these days, that more connection is coming for me, too. But I think it’s worth remembering that loneliness isn’t limited to times of great isolation, and that we can all work to provide (and ask for) connections to those we love or those we encounter. (It is also, of course, worth remembering that Argentina has great beef, that Guy Lombardo didn’t play the clarinet, and that John Wayne was tall.)

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Generous Listening

A conversation can be a contest,
or a game of catch with invisible balloons.
They bounce between us, growing and shrinking,
sometimes floating like cloud medicine balls,
and sometimes bowling at us like round anvils.
You toss a phrase and understanding blooms
like an anemone of colored lights.
My mind fireworks with unasked questions.
Who is this miracle speaking to me?
And who is this miracle listening?
What amazingness are we creating?
Out of gray matter a star spark of thought
leaps between synapses into the air,
and pours through gray matter, into my heart:
how can I not listen generously?

I found this poem via On Being’s poetry archive; I’ve heard Nelson on their podcast before. It seems to me – in a year marked by isolation and loss – that we especially need generous listening right now.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry here on Fridays this month, as I do every year. 

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