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Posts Tagged ‘endings’

komorebi harvard yard tree sky

First, the leaving.

I knew it was a possibility for a long time: the job I signed on for, back in 2016, is of a type that comes up for renewal each fiscal year. This was my fourth job at Harvard, and I’d already weathered a layoff and two temp gigs – so I wasn’t all that surprised to learn, in April, that I’d have to leave at the end of June.

Even at Harvard, few things are set in stone: my time there has seen massive internal shifts, many of them for the better. This storied place, ancient and rooted, is also a place of constant movement and change.

I did my best, this spring, to soak up all the rhythms and traditions I love there: Morning PrayersCommencement, my daily walks to Darwin’s. I had about a thousand coffee dates and sent out so many emails telling people: This chapter is ending. I don’t know what’s next.

On my last day, I walked to Darwin’s mid-morning, then went back later for lunch with a girlfriend. We sat outside, leaning against the plate-glass windows, eating sandwiches and talking about change. She had just started a new job, and I had no idea what the summer held. We agreed: change is hard, even when it’s exciting. And uncertainty is a beast.

Later that afternoon, I slipped away for a walk with a friend, and then came back to the office for my own bittersweet Mary Tyler Moore moment: packing up my bags and switching off the lights for the last time.

Of course, as a friend reminded me, Harvard isn’t going anywhere: it has survived for nearly four centuries, and if I want to go back there sometime, there’s a good chance I can. But this chapter, this particular stretch of five years where the Square became my daily ground, has ended.

I don’t have a word to sum it up neatly: like so much of life, it is full of contradictions. But somewhere between all those emails and meetings, between the headlines and the phone calls and the student interviews, between Tuesdays at the farmers’ market and Thursday mornings on the sixth floor, between frequent trips to the florist and every single day at Darwin’s, Harvard Square became my home.

I’ve landed in a good place across the river. But I left part of my heart in Cambridge, and for now, I’m making a point to get back there as often as I can.

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harvard widener library commencement banners

We celebrated Commencement at Harvard last week: my sixth one, the university’s 367th. It was – it always is – a kaleidoscope of moments and light, words and memories.

It was crimson hoods and black robes flapping, piles and piles of special editions of the Harvard Gazette, where I worked briefly during Commencement season, two years ago. It was spring breezes and blue skies, exuberant music by the Harvard band and choir, thousands of folding chairs and dozens of speeches.

I spent most of the morning in the Yard, the epicenter of the festivities, and it was overstimulating and glorious. I stood near the stage with my colleagues Deb and Christina, press passes around our necks. We listened and applauded, soaking it all in.

harvard yard banners trees commencement

Commencement, this year, smelled like lilacs, especially the waist-high versions that bloomed out just in time for the day. It sounded like marching feet and raucous cheers, vuvuzelas and ringing church bells, applause from so many proud parents and friends. It tasted like chai (of course) from Darwin’s, sipped standing in the Yard as we listened to the student orators, and like veggie wraps and guacamole, eaten sitting by a sixth-floor office window while we rested our tired feet.

This year, the road to Commencement has felt long and difficult. It has been a tough time to be doing communications work at a school of government, even (or especially) at Harvard. We have weathered serious internal changes in our staff and leadership, and decision-making processes have shifted, sometimes faster than I could keep up with.

Our work here is informed by the political climate in the nation and the world, and it’s been a wild ride lately in both places. The work of keeping on, of fulfilling our daily tasks and responsibilities, has felt sometimes futile and often overwhelming. I’ve wondered many times whether and how it can possibly matter.

And yet.

I spent a glorious hour sitting in the HKS café last month, listening to a Somali-Canadian student speak about her hopes for nation-building and the good questions she plans to take back to Mogadishu. On Commencement day, I listened to Pete Davis, the graduate student speaker, urge us to commit to showing up and slaying the dragons of boredom and distraction, to do the slow work of building a better world. I listened, that afternoon, to Drew Gilpin Faust speak about hope in her final Commencement address as Harvard’s president, nudging her audience toward wisdom and goodness. I remembered, for a moment, what this place can be.

I’ll be searching out my own new beginning (again) this summer. My current job is ending, so I’ll be looking for a new position where I can write and edit and tell good stories. I don’t know yet where that will be, though I hope it’s at Harvard.

Because after five years, this place is home. It is a challenge and a community, an inspiration and sometimes a source of exasperation. It is both a big, complicated, many-headed beast and a small New England town. It has tremendous potential to do some good in the world, and it is full of bright, thoughtful, curious people who help make that happen.

As our graduates begin their next chapters (mostly) outside of Cambridge, I hope I get the chance to write another one here.

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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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harvard yard banners commencement 2016

Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.”

—Hope Jahren, Lab Girl

It is Commencement season here in Cambridge (as I may have mentioned once or twice). As we have prepared to celebrate our graduates, I’ve been reading Jahren’s smart, luminous, wry memoir about simultaneously building three labs, a career as a botanist, and a life. My brain has craved good nonfiction this spring, and I am feeding it with thoughtful, beautiful true stories: Stir, Becoming Wise, Orchard House, My Kitchen Year, and now Lab Girl.

Jahren writes about seeds, roots and leaves: the building blocks of the plant world, which she has spent her career studying. She emphasizes their otherness: plants are not animals, and they are definitely not the same as people. But she draws many sensitive parallels between a plant’s growth and that of a person: the right conditions for growth, the patterns we can chart and some we can’t, the ways both plants and humans react to unexpected strain.

Jahren also writes, wisely, about the cyclical nature of growth: plants, like their environments, have seasons, and endings are inextricably tied to beginnings. So it is, of course, with human beings. There’s a reason these elaborate ending ceremonies, at Harvard and elsewhere, are called Commencement. Each end is also a beginning.

I have done a lot of waiting over the past year, since I was laid off from my job and have spent months searching for what is politely called “my next step.” This has entailed a tremendous amount of work and worry, but much of it is out of my control. Every single part of the process – combing the job boards, sending out applications, worrying over where I might land next, questioning everything from my chosen career to my identity as a writer – has involved waiting. There have been multiple endings, and also beginnings.

Three weeks from now, I’ll finish up my temp gig at the Harvard Gazette, where I started in mid-March and have worked through the full cycle of Commencement prep and activity. It’s been a wild ride, and I have loved it up here, on the sixth floor overlooking a slice of Harvard Square. It will be an end, and also a beginning.

After a vacation with my husband, I will take that much-anticipated next step – right across the street, back to the communications office of the Harvard Kennedy School, where I temped from November to early March. I’m heading back to an office full of colleagues I already love, and a school whose mission of service and scholarship I respect. There will be a lot of learning and adjusting, as there always is when something new begins. But this feels like the next right step. I am grateful – and thrilled – that it’s worked out this way.

We are each given exactly one chance to be, as Jahren says: to forge our paths without always knowing precisely how to do that. My path has led me, somewhat unexpectedly, to Harvard, and it has become one of my places. I am grateful for the chance to stay here, to continue doing the work I love. To keep growing and asking questions and thriving. Because that is what people – and plants – do.

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harvard yard banners chairs

  • 32,000 folding chairs set up in Harvard Yard (a few of which are pictured above).
  • A 60% chance of rain on Commencement day, which did not – thank goodness – come to pass.
  • Ten honorary degrees conferred, including one to opera singer Renee Fleming, who sang “America the Beautiful” on Commencement morning in Harvard Yard.
  • 701 brand-new graduates from the Graduate School of Education, the corner of Harvard where I work.
  • $24,400 (and counting!) raised by 78% (a record percentage!) of those same 701 graduates for their Class Gift campaign. It will go toward financial aid for next year’s students.
  • Three times now I’ve stood in Radcliffe Yard and watched our graduates march in. The sight chokes me up every year.
  • Eight maps attached to the lanyard I wore around my neck, since my job was directing graduates during the processional.
  • Two student friends I got to hug on their way in, and one I found afterward in the melee of families, friends and flapping graduation robes.
  • Countless cameras, tweets, tears, Facebook posts, bottles of water, proud family members, and rounds of applause.

Some of this pomp and pageantry is unique to Harvard, and some of it is common to universities the world over. This is an archetypal place, at once beautifully distinctive and deeply familiar. And I am so proud to be a part of its Commencement each year.

Congratulations to all those who graduated. We salute you. We believe, as the Ed School’s dean, Jim Ryan, said yesterday, that you all are going to rock. We know – because of what you have learned here, but more importantly because of who you are – that your work, and your presence, will change the world.

Most of all, we are proud to know you, and grateful to call you our own.

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widener library harvard convocation

When we left Queen’s we knew everybody and had a place of our own. […] Now we feel as if the ground had slipped from under our feet. I’m thankful that neither Mrs. Lynde nor Mrs. Elisha Wright know, or ever will know, my state of mind at present. They would exult in saying ‘I told you so,’ and be convinced it was the beginning of the end. Whereas it is just the end of the beginning.

Anne of the Island, L.M. Montgomery

I always think of Anne’s words at this time of year, when flapping black robes and colorful hoods appear on the streets of Boston and Cambridge, when nervous almost-graduates have to answer the question “What are you doing next?” for the seventy-sixth time. Families flood into town to watch their sons, daughters and siblings walk across those stages. For weeks, you can’t set foot outside without tripping over a few knots of family-members-cum-tourists, disoriented but excited, trying to squeeze in all the sightseeing and still get everyone where they’re supposed to be on time.

I’m no longer a student, but I have never left the world of higher education. I’ve worked at three universities, and I spent a year in Oxford earning a graduate degree. Last week was my first Harvard commencement, and though I mostly watched it from afar, it thrilled me to be part of a centuries-old tradition, distinctive yet common to universities around the world.

The festivities began for us on Wednesday afternoon, with the Ed School’s Convocation ceremony under a big white tent in Radcliffe Yard. I manned the Class Gift table with two colleagues, and we watched our office’s intern, Evan, present the class gift check to our dean and then deliver her speech, perfectly poised. (She’s a class act and a fellow West Texan – which makes me doubly proud.)

evan speech convocation

The Thursday morning exercises in Tercentenary Theatre (adjacent to Harvard Yard) are always packed, and tickets are hard to come by, so I watched the live stream online with my colleagues (in our air-conditioned offices – it was 92 degrees!). But I did walk through the day before:

tercentenary theatre harvard commencement

I’ve never seen so many folding chairs or college banners in one place. And even when it was (mostly) empty, you could feel the buzz in the air.

On the day, the pomp and circumstance were such fun to watch – as were the quirky details, from President Faust’s crimson shoes to the deans all hugging Oprah (the afternoon’s featured speaker) during their brief times onstage. And the student speeches – one in Latin, two in English – were simply wonderful. My favorite quote came from Jon Murad, a New York police officer who earned a graduate degree at the Kennedy School of Government:

Here’s the secret: Everyone changes the world. Everything ripples. What matters is how we do it.

That is the excitement of commencement, at Harvard or anywhere else: the idea that these graduates will leave campus and begin working to change the world. It is an end, especially for the undergraduates – but it is also a beginning. They are leaving a place where they have become comfortable and known, but they are on the cusp of another grand adventure.

We’re settling into summer mode around here: tying up loose ends from the school year, dodging tourists with oversized cameras, shifting our attention to projects we’d been saving for quieter days. The tents have been folded, the chairs stacked and carted away. But the air still shimmers with the excitement – and uncertainty – of all those beginnings.

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