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Posts Tagged ‘courage’

lamont quad light sky

Last week, I went to see Wakanda Forever with my guy. I’m still a Marvel novice (he’s an avid, longtime fan), and I’d avoided spoilers, wanting to come in with fresh eyes. It was gorgeous and impressive: the fight scenes alone were visually amazing. But the plot – although I knew it began with grief – was way heavier than I expected.

There was a lot of death and vengeance, I said to a friend afterward, debriefing the movie (and my reaction to it) while trying not to give the plot away.

Nothing says Advent like death and vengeance! she joked. Taxes, Herod, etc. And though I laughed, her words kept coming back to me all week.

The Marvel universe is, of course, not explicitly Christian: it has dozens of deities, who often out-human the humans in their capricious plotting and scheming. But both narratives – Black Panther and Advent – are, on some level, about what happens when humans pursue power at the cost of oppressing others. There is chaos and darkness, and a lot of yearning for things to be made new, in both Wakanda’s world and ours.

The villains wear different faces, perhaps. Herod is a shadowy figure to most of us, though he was infamous in his day for cruelty and paranoia (and, of course, taxation). The villains in Wakanda Forever are the colonizers: white Europeans who, in that world and this, have seized land and resources for themselves, with little thought to the impacts on native peoples, or any claim those same peoples might have to the land they have inhabited for centuries.

I admit it is uncomfortable – and necessary – to watch movies where people who look like me are the antagonists. It also makes me think, every time, of what Galadriel says at the beginning of the Fellowship of the Ring film: she’s talking about the rings designed for the kings of men, “who, above all else, desire power.”

If power (often via control of valuable resources) is the goal, then governments and rulers will stop at nothing to secure it. Even for those who primarily want to protect their people and homeland, power can be a seductive – and blinding – distraction. Several of the characters in Wakanda Forever get sidetracked by its lure, nearly launching the entire world into a blistering full-scale war.

There is (isn’t there always?) another way, which is the message of Advent: the quiet, messy, upside-down approach of mercy, the confounding way that hope and scrappy underdogs often sneak in to save the day. There is a way, even among warring nations, to choose peace and justice over iron-fist control, even when that justice comes at a heavy price. In Wakanda Forever, we watch several characters grapple with this choice – even as the consequences of others’ choices bring heavy losses and deep pain.

Neither narrative wraps up neatly: the movie ends, of course, and Christmas does come, but neither erases the pain that came before it. Neither ending can entirely negate the realities of oppression and power-seeking, and the losses that cannot be recovered. Death and darkness are real, and sometimes they threaten to overwhelm the light.

And yet: we wouldn’t keep watching superhero movies, or observing Advent, if we didn’t believe the light would triumph somehow. We would turn away from these stories altogether if we didn’t believe – or hope – the light could break through.

We keep telling these stories, trying to make sense of our pain, trying to turn toward mercy and justice and new life, even when the grief is a heavy weight, even when the darkness covers the earth. We believe, somehow, that the light is coming, that redemption is possible, that death and darkness are not the end.

In this season of deep darkness and stubborn light, I’ll keep clinging to that belief – whether via the essays in my Advent book or, unexpectedly, on a journey to Wakanda.

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Last week, I caught the train to Cambridge for a workshop at Albertine Press – an introduction to linocut printing. This involves carving a design into a linoleum block, inking the block with a roller (by hand or with a printing press), and transferring the design onto paper. I’ve done my fair share of scrapbooking, but had never tried anything like this.

Seven of us, plus the instructor, spent the evening happily carving and chatting, learning the feel of new tools in our hands and printing our designs in red or blue ink on one of the shop’s hand-cranked presses. Tiny pink rubber shavings piled up as we began carving; my fingers bore graphite stains from transferring my sketch from paper to rubber. I was fascinated by the tactile, physical nature of the process, and I learned – again – that my drawing skills are no match for the designs I can see in my head.

My attempt at a set of fall-ish postcards (see above) came out very wonky, and not just because the paper was sometimes a little crooked. I had to work hard not to be embarrassed at my efforts, especially after seeing others’ beautiful, elaborate designs. But I kept reminding myself: this is an experiment. I’m trying something new. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

We so often try new things expecting to master them quickly: a yoga pose, a new program at work, an interesting recipe. (Just me?) Sometimes it goes as planned: the pantry brownies I made last week turned out beautifully. Sometimes it’s sort of a disaster. Most of the time, we land somewhere in between.

My postcards are cute, with perhaps a sort of offbeat charm, but no one would mistake them for the work of an experienced artist. (Because I’m not!) But it was worthwhile: the trying, the experimenting, the meeting kind strangers while we learned something new, together. I may not become a linocut expert any time soon, but the joy of being a beginner again, for a couple of hours, was well worth the price of admission.

And now – if I can get over my own perfectionism – I have a stack of cute(ish) postcards to send to friends this fall.

When’s the last time you tried something new, just for fun? I’d love to hear.

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Thirty-nine. Almost 40. I’m still amazed by that reality, especially since I sometimes feel 17 or 22 or eight years old inside. But as I say often (quoting Madeleine L’Engle), I am every age I’ve ever been.

Thirty-nine is getting up and going for a run most mornings, even when I don’t feel like it, because I know I’ll be a better person the rest of the day. Thirty-nine does her best to hydrate, moisturize, make the bed, wash the dishes – all those acts of self-care that sometimes seem boring but are actually so important. Thirty-nine does a fair bit of yoga and walking, eats a ton of yogurt and granola, drinks black tea like it’s my job, indulges in a cider once a week or so.

Thirty-nine moves more cautiously, these days, after some serious shakeups the last few years. Thirty-nine does her best to lean into the present, to be here now, living with heart and commitment, while also realizing that things can change drastically at any moment. Thirty-nine loves her current life and is starting to dream about making some changes. Thirty-nine is grateful – as a teacher of mine once said – that not only have I survived through great upheaval, but I’ve thrived.

Thirty-nine has seen her life and world shift in ways she never imagined a few years back. Some of those changes she chose and orchestrated; some came out of nowhere and left her staggering, for a while. Thirty-nine is still healing, still grieving; learning to name and acknowledge the wounds that linger longer than we think they will, while also making space for new and vivid joys.

Thirty-nine still writes for Shelf Awareness, still texts a few stalwart friends nearly every day, still loves chai from Darwin’s and flowers from Brattle Square, still reads piles of books and still needs a dose of Texas once in a while. Thirty-nine is trying, always, to live with grace and courage and wisdom. Thirty-nine knows it’s important to be both brave and kind.

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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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flowers

here we are
running with the weeds
colors exaggerated
pistils wild
embarrassing the calm family flowers oh
here we are
flourishing for the field
and the name of the place
is Love

I found this poem in How to Carry Water, a robust collection of Clifton’s poems. I love its riotous exuberance, its verbs, its unapologetic flourishing. And that last line! As a flower geek and a perennial optimist, I love it all.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry – with an emphasis on women of color – here on Fridays this month, as I do every year. 

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March ended up being a very full month – it included a trip out west to see dear friends in Tucson, the L.A. suburbs and (again) San Diego. Plus a hiring process for a new colleague; lots of running (still building my stamina back after having COVID); both snow and spring flowers, as is normal for March; and dinners with a few friends I hadn’t seen in a long time. Whew.

April is here now, with its blustery winds, sharp spring light and budding tulips (!), and here’s what I learned in March:

  • Sometimes granola needs an extra 10 minutes in the oven. (Jenny’s recipe is my favorite.)
  • I tried this recipe for Thai butternut squash soup – a yummy, spicy alternative to my classic one.
  • Delays can be a chance to explore – as when my Amtrak train in CA was an hour late and I wandered the main street of Moorpark. (And picked up snacks and a yummy burrito!)
  • I might be a legwarmers kind of girl after all.
  • Write it down. You’d think I’d know this, but especially at work these days, if it doesn’t get written down, it flies right out of my brain.
  • I need a bit of margin in my week – especially salient now that the pace of life is picking back up.
  • Just ask. (Still and always working on this one.)

What did you learn in March?

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My one little word for 2022 is true.

It came to me in a yoga class, which makes me sound a lot more zen than I usually am. But I’d been mulling over the notion of finding a word for the year (which I do annually, in case you’re new here). Somewhere between the lunges and the triangle poses and the (masked) deep breaths, the word showed up in my mind like a deep exhale. True.

Like a lot of my words, true is more complicated than it first appears. I grew up in a household and culture that exhorted us to “tell the truth,” that championed Jesus (or a particular evangelical version of him) as the Way, the Truth and the Life. But I also – like so many of us – learned to elide the truth, to smooth it over, to swap it out for what I thought people wanted to hear. I learned to present the safe, smiling version of myself, to give the easy answer instead of the true one.

While I believe there’s value in considering both my words and other people’s feelings, I’m tired of doing that back-and-forth dance. I want to stop hiding, stop second-guessing. I want – as Rachel Shenton said in a recent episode of the Masterpiece podcast – to live a more truthful life. So true feels like a good word to keep in mind.

Having true as my word has so far looked like: admitting my limits (especially after coming down with COVID), following a few of my whims (like taking a salsa class and signing up as a volunteer usher with my favorite theater company), making lists of dreams for the short and long term, and re-embracing colorful stickers and washi tape. (And humming “True” by George Strait, because I love a good theme song and I am always and forever a Texas girl.)

Most importantly, it looks like giving the true answer, to myself and to others, instead of shrugging or taking refuge in “I don’t know.” Sometimes “I don’t know” is the true answer, and that’s humbling and healthy to admit. But often, it’s worth digging a little deeper to discover: what do I actually think? What do I want? What do I believe, or wonder about, or want to know? What am I afraid of? And how can I let the truth – all those true answers – push me forward into a braver and more beautiful life?

“It takes an effort to be clear about things,” Julia Cameron writes in my longtime fave The Sound of Paper. “It is easier and much sadder to be muddy, to never take the time to clarify our thoughts.” She notes that “Who do I think I am?” becomes an interesting question when we consider it honestly. Who do I think I am, and what might I try? How might that answer change, and how might I want to change it? “Every time we take pen to page we become more ourselves, less something vague and amorphous,” Julia says. That life – a life of greater clarity and more deep truth – sounds good to me.

Are you following a word this year? If so, what is it teaching you?

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How lightly we learn to hold hope,
as if it were an animal that could turn around
and bite your hand. And still we carry it
the way a mother would, carefully,
from one day to the next.

–from “Insha’Allah” by Danusha Laméris

I started 2021 with hope as my one little word. I thought, frankly, that it might be tempting fate to choose hope as my word in the middle of a pandemic, when I was unemployed and lonely and terrified of what the next months might bring. Six days into 2021, a group of white supremacists stormed the U.S. Capitol, and of course that was not nearly the end of the terrors and losses the year brought.

Hope, as we all know, is gritty and often surprising. It shows up where it was not expected, and it gleams out, sometimes, on the really hard days. It is, as Emily D. reminds us, “the thing with feathers,” and it is also often a choice. I had to choose hope many times in 2021 instead of falling into despair – instead of looking at the headlines and the case counts and my own empty apartment and sinking back into a fog of hopelessness. I did not always manage it; there were a lot of hard and lonely days. But having hope there at my elbow, nudging me, sometimes helped.

My words for each year may start out as abstract concepts, but as the days go on they become tangible, daily practices, embodied through actions and sometimes through other people. For me, hope this year often looked like the small daily stuff: washing dishes, going for a run, sending out yet another job application. It looked like walks with friends, fresh flowers, washing my face at night, making tentative travel plans (some of which I got to keep). It looked like choosing to believe good things would happen, but – critically – trying to let go of my notions of how they might happen.

I kept thinking this year of a line from Henri Nouwen, from that Advent book I love: “I have found it very important in my own life to let go of my wishes and start hoping.” Although it believes in a glad outcome, hope – Nouwen seems to be saying – is often open-ended.

Hope in hard times is, paradoxically, difficult and necessary; I am thus not done with hope, and I don’t suppose I will ever be. I am grateful for its presence in my life this past year, and I hope (as it were) to remain open to whatever it has to teach me.

Did you follow a word in 2021? If so, what did it teach you?

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Happy July, y’all. I can’t believe we’re here. We always seem to wait forever for summer in New England (certainly this spring dragged, for several reasons), and then when it’s here, it feels rich and fleeting. The trees are lush, the roses and daylilies are showing off, and I’m cranking up the country music on my morning runs. Though, really, I’ve been doing that for months.

I was raised on country music, as you may know (or assume) if you know that I grew up in West Texas. My hometown had a half-dozen country radio stations, and my parents had a stack of George Strait cassettes that we nearly wore out on our long summer road trips. (I shocked a colleague at Harvard, years later, by telling him – and I am still confident in this assertion – that I could probably sing, on demand, at least 50 of George’s 60 number one hits.)

George was and is the king of country as far as my family is concerned, and I love a lot of his male compatriots: Alan Jackson, Brooks and Dunn, Randy Travis, the guys who sang in Alabama and Diamond Rio. I have a soft spot for Brad Paisley (especially “She’s Everything”) and I still adore Garth Brooks. But this year, I’ve been spending my miles mostly listening to the women of country music.

I loved them all as a child and teenager: Reba, Martina, Trisha, Shania, the women of the Dixie Chicks (now the Chicks) and SheDAISY. I marveled at LeAnn Rimes (what a prodigy!) and based my high school graduation speech around Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance.” I can still sing you most of Faith Hill’s hits from that era, and Deana Carter’s dreamy debut album takes me right back to middle school.

I’ve never stopped loving country music, but I did stop listening to it for a while. I grew older, my tastes expanded to include folk music and Broadway show tunes and so much Christian pop music (bless it), as well as jazz and big band and the classical stuff we sang in choir. I left Texas, stopped driving to work (and thus listening to the radio as often), and married a fellow Texan who was a real snob about country music.

With all that, I’ve been on hiatus from these ladies for a decade or so. But I’ve been tiptoeing back: I heard the Highwomen at Newport Folk 2019 and fell completely in love. Last spring, I loved Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Songs from Home” on Instagram during quarantine, and a few weeks in, I went down a Jo Dee Messina rabbit hole. This winter, in the depths of job-hunt woes and loneliness, I rediscovered Martina McBride. And since then, I have been pounding down the harbor walk singing along to classics like “Heads Carolina, Tails California” and “Take Me As I Am” and “She’s in Love with the Boy” and “Independence Day.”

These songs are a particular brand of badass feminism: it wears mascara and uses (a lot) of hairspray, and it doesn’t let a man (or anyone else) tell it what to do. It celebrates grit (“I’m a Survivor”) and individuality (“Wild One”), and it champions both true romance (“Perfect Love,” “We Danced Anyway,” “Wild Angels”) and the need to leave sometimes (“Ready to Run,” “Consider Me Gone”). There are power ballads and tender love songs; there are girl-power anthems and some good old-fashioned honky-tonk. These songs reconnect me to the teenager I was, but they are helping me shape and discover the woman I am now.

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iris gumption kate winslet the holiday

I can’t remember exactly when I first saw The Holiday, but I remember the text my sister sent me after she saw it, with our mom: We found your dream house.

She was talking, of course, about the cozy book-filled English cottage belonging to Iris Simpkins (Kate Winslet), set among fields outside a quiet village near London. It has a spacious kitchen and a fireplace and so many sweet details, and those shelves lined with books. I instantly fell in love with the cottage, and also with Iris herself: smart, spunky, kindhearted and struggling to fully believe in her own brilliance. Perhaps it is no surprise that I saw myself in her.

I watch this film at least once a year, and I love Iris more every time: her romantic’s heart, her willingness to try new things (though she’s been stuck in the same loop for a while), her genuine curiosity about people. I especially love watching her pull away from the unhealthy patterns – including the toxic man – she’s been clinging to for a long time.

She has some help with this, in true rom-com fashion: a charming film composer (who knew Jack Black could be charming?) who brings her Starbucks and entertains her with his renditions of movie scores, and her elderly neighbor, Arthur (Eli Wallach), who tells her bluntly that she’s a “leading lady” but is behaving like a cinematic best friend. In short: Iris is way more brilliant and worthy than she believes she is, and she needs to dig deep to find the gumption to move forward with her life. (Arthur also gives her a long list of movies to watch, all featuring “powerhouse women” – he knows as well as anyone that we all need heroines and role models.)

Gradually, Iris begins to believe in herself again: finding her way around a new place, helping Arthur get into better shape, even throwing a party or two. I always want to stand up and cheer when she finally tells off her smarmy ex, Jasper (Rufus Sewell), toward the end of the film. “What has got into you?” he asks her, baffled. “I don’t know!” she says joyfully. “But I think what I’ve got is something slightly resembling – gumption!”

Gumption, largely inspired by Iris, was my word for the year in 2016. I had no idea how much I would need it, in a year that included two job changes, a move, and an election whose effects are still echoing in some ways. It is still an attribute I keep reaching for, in this lingering pandemic which includes (for me) another job hunt, continuing to heal from my divorce, and more solitude (and loneliness) than I ever thought possible.

I don’t for a moment believe that Iris’ new self-belief, or the new romance that came with it, solved all her problems. But I believe she’s on her way, and on the days when I emulate her and reach for my own gumption, it’s easier to believe that I am too.

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