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Posts Tagged ‘courage’

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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oh, heart,
remember that being brave
is not
that you are not afraid.
it is to choose to sing with a trembling voice,
to walk with one foot in front of the other
& to hold on to a hand as you do so.
it is to live,
to truly live
& to share your life,
to listen to the voice of fear
& to sing louder.
to be brave is to be here
despite it all,
despite the voices that tell you that you
do not belong.
to be brave is to look at injustice in the eye
& to still, somehow, have hope,
to dream of tomorrow & all that it holds.
oh, heart.
to be brave is to be you.

Months ago, a friend pointed me to Gaby on Instagram, where she shares a lot of her poetry. She’s a Dominican poet and educator, and her words are brave and whimsical and lovely.

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

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Hope has holes
in its pockets.
It leaves little
crumb trails
so that we,
when anxious,
can follow it.
Hope’s secret:
it doesn’t know
the destination–
it knows only
that all roads
begin with one
foot in front
of the other.

–Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer

I found this poem in the gorgeous collection How to Love the World, edited by James Crews, which will be my companion for National Poetry Month this year. It’s also on Rosemerry’s blog, where she posts a daily poem.

Hope – however foolish it may seem – is my one little word for 2021, and I am looking for it wherever I can in these spring days.

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

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Katie trail blue gray water

When I started running, I may have had (as previously stated) some insecurities about it. I didn’t want to fail at this. I wasn’t even sure how long it would last. What if it proved painful or depressing or just not fun? What if I injured myself right away, effectively ending my running career before it began? What if I told people I’d started running, only to fade out like the autumn daylight over the treetops on the trail?

So I didn’t tell anyone, at least not for a few weeks.

I’m not even sure I mentioned anything to my husband after those first few sweaty evening runs on the trail. He knew I was out there walking, of course, but I didn’t want to jinx this new thing I was trying: me with my old sneakers and baggy t-shirts and the ancient sports bra I’d dug up from somewhere. I didn’t look like a runner. I certainly didn’t know if I felt like one. And I felt, too, that this new attempt was just for me: I needed a chance to see if it would work, without anyone else’s gaze, without perceived or actual judgment. For that first month or so, especially, I didn’t say a word to anyone.

heart sneakers trail

It felt freeing, to be out there on the trail, moving my body in a way that still felt foreign, pumping music through my headphones and trying to figure out how long I could jog before stopping for breath. I quickly learned that running lets you see the world at a different rhythm than walking (although then, as now, I will always slow down to snap photos of flowers or vivid leaves or a particularly breathtaking sky).

When I did start telling people I was running, I slid it in sideways: a casual mention at boot camp, a post on Instagram that emphasized the sunset instead of the reason I was out there seeing it. My previous perception of a runner – strong, dedicated, serious – and my perception of myself (at least, in regard to exercise) didn’t quite match up. But to my own surprise, I found both joy and satisfaction on the trail. (I still do.)

These days, I’m much more vocal about my enjoyment of running: I’ve done a few races, and my Instagram feed is at least half running photos (harbor views, leaves, flowers, skies, sneakers, repeat). It’s not my secret any more, though it definitely still belongs to me. But I am glad I gave myself a chance to try it without anyone knowing, for a while. It helped me move toward embracing running as a new and vital part of my life.

More #run31 photos and stories to come.

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We are halfway through April (how??), and I’m mostly able to focus on books again. The days feel both long and short and somehow suspended – time is moving differently, I suspect, for many of us. But I’m still reading, and here are the books I’ve been enjoying:

Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change, Maggie Smith
Maggie’s poetry and “keep moving” notes speak right to my heart. This collection combines some of those notes with longer essays about dealing with loss, grief, upended expectations, and the surprising new spaces created by upheaval. She and I are both recently divorced, but I believe these essays will resonate with many people’s experiences. Wise and honest and so lovely. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 6 – it was originally May 5).

Braver Than You Think: Around the World on the Trip of My (Mother’s) Lifetime, Maggie Downs
Downs undertook a trip around the world as her mother was slipping into late-stage Alzheimer’s: she wanted to see and do all the things her mother never got to do. She has some rather harrowing adventures (and stays in lots of grubby hostels), but gains a few hard-won insights about her mother and herself. Compelling and moving, for fans of travel memoir and self-discovery. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 12).

American Royals, Katharine McGee
What if George Washington had been the first king of America? What would his 21st-century descendants look like, and how would they rule? That’s the premise of this fun YA novel (first in a series), which follows Princess Beatrice (future queen) and her siblings as they navigate the expectations that come with their crowns. Witty, juicy and so much fun – a perfect distraction for these times.

The Paris Hours, Alex George
Paris, 1927: the lives of four ordinary people intertwine on one extraordinary day. A struggling artist, an Armenian refugee, Marcel Proust’s former maid and a grieving journalist are all searching for different things, but their paths cross and recross in fascinating ways. With cameos by Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach and others. I have read a lot of Paris novels, and am glad I picked this one up: it was really engaging. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 5).

Waterlight: Selected Poems, Kathleen Jamie
My friend Roxani has raved about Jamie’s essays, and I picked this poetry collection up at the library. Some of it, especially the poems written in Scots, didn’t really work for me, but some of them are melancholy and lovely.

Of Mutts and Men, Spencer Quinn
Chet and Bernie are back on the case – this one involving a hydrologist who was murdered, a vineyard perched in a strange place, and a lawyer who might be up to something. Chet (the dog) is a great narrator, and I was so glad to escape into this series again. To (maybe) review for Shelf Awareness (out July 7).

Last Train to Key West, Chanel Cleeton
As a hurricane bears down on Key West in 1935, the paths of three very different women – Cuban newlywed Mirta, former New York society girl Elizabeth, and battered wife Helen – intersect in interesting ways. I like Cleeton’s fiction about the Perez family and this was a solid historical novel. (Also the first ebook I’d read in quite a while.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 16).

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstores, Brookline Booksmith and Trident.

What are you reading?

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thrive heart dish shelf

My one little word for 2019 is thrive.

I was pretty sure it would be my word back in January, when I was wrapping up my reflections on grit, my word for 2018, and wondering what was next. I kept coming up to thrive and backing away from it. I was – I am – scared of what it might mean, the choices and changes it might require of me. But it dug in, quiet but insistent, and it wouldn’t leave me alone.

In the wake of a year that required so much grit, I wanted something more vibrant, more exciting – and thrive means, variously, to grow vigorously. To flourish. To walk forward unafraid. It’s tied to courage, as most of my words seem to be, but it also speaks of growth, of new possibilities, even of joy.

This has been a year of enormous challenge and change, and it’s not nearly over. There is a lot of grief and pain, a lot of asking questions and admitting hard truths. I started seeing a therapist in March, and I’ve been writing and running and talking with my people about all those things. I’ve generally had the sense that I need to reckon with what has been before (or at least while) beginning to ask what might be next. What it might mean to thrive, in this next chapter of my life.

I finally ordered a thrive talisman heart from Liz Lamoreux in early May, and it has sat on my bedside table (in three different apartments) ever since, a gentle reminder of what I’m hoping for. Thrive lived deep under the surface for a while this year, but like the plants I love so well, it is pushing up through the soil, coming up into the light.

As you know if you’ve spent much time here, I’ve been following a word each year since 2010, starting with brave, which took me on all sorts of journeys, including a cross-country move from Texas to Boston. I’m interested to see where thrive takes me, through the rest of this year and possibly beyond.

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

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fear choice mountain lyric frame

Last week, I saw an Instagram post from a local friend about a folk concert happening that night in Cambridge. An hour later, my husband called: “Want to go?”

I’d usually say no to anything that started at 9:30 on a Tuesday night (and oh, was I exhausted the next day). But I said yes, and we went. The Arcadian Wild puts on a good show, but the music wasn’t even my favorite part: it was the serendipity.

My friend who invited us knows the two guys in the band from way back: her husband worked with both of them during his youth-minister days in Florida. But it also turns out that Lincoln, the mandolinist, is the son of a couple who are close to some other friends of mine. I texted my friend Frankie to let her know where we were, and whom we were hearing. (She responded with delight.)

As the evening went on, I realized something else: the photo above, which I snapped during a visit to Frankie’s house in West Texas months ago, is a lyric from their song “Rain Clouds.” (I’d been struck by the words, but forgot to ask her about their origin.)

I’ve been gone from Abilene, where I spent my undergraduate (and several more) years, for a while now. But I still go through there at least once a year, and keep in regular touch with many friends from that community. So many of my stories, even now, begin or end in Abilene. And this one struck me as especially sweet: that a line about courage and fear, in the middle of a song about love and friendship, was the latest thread connecting my two lives.

Not surprisingly, I’ve been humming that song ever since.

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tulips red back bay garden

Give me a garden full of strong, healthy creatures, able to stand roughness and cold without dismally giving in and dying. I never could see that delicacy of constitution is pretty, either in plants or women.

—Elizabeth von Arnim, Elizabeth and Her German Garden

I was searching last week for that von Arnim quote on tulips, because it is tulip season in the Public Garden and I agree with von Arnim: they are my favorite. While double-checking that quote, I came across these lines, and was immediately struck by them: yes.

I love looking at the graceful potted orchids at my florist’s shop, but as Anne Shirley has said, I want flowers I can live with. Instead of sensitive hothouse orchids, give me this:

crocuses rock light flowerbed

Give me the crocuses, pushing their purple and golden spears up through the snow at the end of winter. Give me the daffodils, slender but steely, dollops of bright gold against crusted snowbanks and worn-out winter dirt. Give me the lipstick-pink tulip magnolias, petals winging their way off the ends of their branches like butterflies, and the blush-pink apple and cherry blossoms, ruffled and gorgeous even in the rain.

tulip magnolia tree bloom blue sky

Give me the tulips, holding up their vivid cups to sun, rain, brisk spring winds or anything else nature might throw at them. Give me the lilacs, budding even now as the nights persist chilly, and the shock of yellow forsythia, and the shy, trailing hellebores in cream and mauve and green. Give me the blue scilla dotting the ground, the blaze of azaleas and rhododendrons, the wild violets showing their faces here and there along the river trail.

scilla flowers blue

Give me, too, friends of stalwart courage and fighter hearts, those who don’t run away when life gets messy or tough or complicated. Give me a band of strong women who will bolster me up, and accept my help when it’s my turn to do the same. And give me a lion heart so I don’t fail those same friends, a fierce resolve and bold kindness to stand with them and for them, and for myself, when I need it.

Amen.

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Ivey book slippers twinkle lights

Among explorers, hunters and fishermen, Alaska was long perceived as a man’s world. Women have often had to fight for the chance to love this harsh, beautiful land and prove they can handle its challenges. I’ve never been to Alaska, but I’ve ended up reading a spate of books about it recently – all written by, and featuring, strong women.

Sophie Forrester, military wife and aspiring photographer, is initially denied her chance to see Alaska when her husband Allen is assigned to explore the Yukon Territory in 1885. But she faces her own challenges at the barracks in Vancouver, and (mild spoiler) does eventually get to see Alaska. Eowyn Ivey tells Sophie’s story in her stunning second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World. I raved about this book earlier this winter – my first five-star read of 2019.

For memoirist and obituary writer Heather Lende, Alaska is home: she’s spent decades living and working there. Her three books (If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name; Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs; Find the Good) offer a welcome balance to Alaska’s lonely wildness: the warm, colorful community of fellow residents that is necessary for survival.

Kristin Knight Pace ended up in Alaska almost by accident, as a heartbroken divorcee. But her initial five-month stint turned into a decade, and now she runs a dog kennel with her husband. She chronicles the wonder, challenges and the grit required to complete two storied 1,000-mile dog races (the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest) in This Much Country. (I was particularly gripped by the contrast between her Alaskan life and her childhood in suburban Fort Worth, Texas.)

Adrienne Lindholm was unprepared for the rigors of backcountry life when she moved to Alaska after college. Nearly two decades later, she’s carved out a home for herself and wrestled with fundamental questions about identity and motherhood. Her luminous memoir, It Happened Like This, chronicles her journeys out and back in, exploring her efforts to live and thrive in a gorgeous, demanding inner and outer landscape. (I read Lindholm’s book in Spain last summer – a different kind of gorgeous and demanding landscape, at least for me.)

I originally reviewed three of these books and wrote most of this column for Shelf Awareness for Readers, where it ran last week.

 

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