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Ever since the first time I visited Spain, I’ve wanted to go back.

That initial trip came in the middle of a spring semester in Oxford, when my classmates and I took budget flights to the Continent and spent long weekends trekking new cities. We slept in hostel bunk beds, got lost on winding streets with signage in unfamiliar languages, soaked up museums and cathedrals and new foods, and generally had the time of our lives.

spain group 2004

I spent my Spring Break that year with four friends on a ten-day jagged loop of travel that began and ended in Barcelona. We hopped down to Granada and then the south coast for a couple of nights before a train journey to Madrid, which ended prematurely when terrorists bombed several trains in the city that morning. We were still several hours away, but we were substantially delayed, and the city was in shock by the time we arrived.

To many of our loved ones, that last incident came to define the whole trip. We couldn’t get word to our parents and professors for hours, and they were, understandably, terrified. But I have fought ever since to hold on to what came before: a whole week of exploring and soaking up a vivacious, beautiful country, eating tapas and drinking sangria and wandering to our hearts’ content.

I flew back to Spain for a long weekend in the winter of 2008, wandering Valencia with my friend Cole and a group of American students, drinking café con leche and eating fresh oranges and, one night, crowding into the back of a smoky bar to watch live flamenco. The following year, my husband and I took an autumn trip to the Basque country of northern Spain, where we wandered narrow streets in Pamplona and ate our weight in pintxos in San Sebastian, and tried to decipher signs written in Euskara.

Earlier this month – nearly 10 years later – we flew to Andalucía for a glorious 10-day jaunt: to Sevilla, new territory for both of us, and Granada, which I already adored. There are many stories to tell about our trip, and I’ll be sharing some of them with you this summer.

But it starts here: with Kyle saying, “Why don’t we go to Spain?” one night in Oxford, nearly a decade and a half ago. With Marcela, who’s from Honduras, acting as our chief interpreter, and Elizabeth navigating half a dozen unfamiliar cities by paper map. It starts with Jenny’s sweet smile and Kyle’s dad sense of humor, with the wide, colorful chaos of Las Ramblas in Barcelona and the crisp mountain air of Granada. It starts with a hike in the hills near Órgiva, with oranges plucked from tree branches hanging over a fence, with bulky backpacks and plastic grocery sacks of fresh fruit. It starts with crusty baguettes and jamón serrano and slices of queso manchego eaten in public parks at lunchtime. It starts with card games in hostels, with hanging clean laundry to dry on pensión terraces, with glasses of sangria and inside jokes and the wonders of La Alhambra.

Since that first journey, Spain has lived in my bones, and I was absolutely thrilled to go back – again. And while we made lots of wonderful new memories, this trip was part of that larger story. It was my fourth viaje a España, but I very much hope it won’t be my last.

More Spain photos and stories to come.

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sass harrison christmas fire truck

We are easing back into routine over here: wrapping up against frigid temps; shoveling snow; making lots of soup (and huevos); drinking tea and answering email. It felt so good to hit pause on the responsibilities of work and church for a while, but now we’re back to it, albeit not quite at full throttle yet.

I am – I think – recovered from our annual 10-day holiday odyssey across Texas, and I’ve been thinking about the gifts it brought: not only the wrapped presents under various trees and the time with our families and friends, but a few surprises that sneaked in under the radar, and reminded me that this is a season of joy, love and – yes – magic.

In no particular order, here are the unexpected gifts I savored this Christmas season:

  • A dozen homemade gingersnaps, hand-delivered by J’s sweet Aunt Joy when we met her for lunch.
  • Singing O Holy Night at Christmas Eve service. It’s ambitious for congregational singing, but the new music minister at my parents’ church urged us to attempt it, “with gusto!” So we did.
  • Three blue-sky morning runs through my parents’ neighborhood, past houses decked with Christmas decor, with the Jennys in my ears.
  • Running into a longtime friend at a new-to-us pizza place in Abilene, and discovering later that she’d paid for our lunch.
  • My nephews, snuggled up on either side of me and listening with (mostly) rapt attention as I read the Christmas story aloud.
  • Laughing with my brother-in-law on Christmas Day about homemade sourdough pretzels and the dough that wouldn’t rise. (They were still delicious!)
  • Cuddling with my sister on the couch that night as everyone traded stories and sipped wine.
  • Playing baseball in the driveway with my dad, my husband and my older nephew, Ryder.
  • A couple of sunsets so stunning that we all piled out of my sister’s living room and onto her front porch to gaze at them.

texas sunset sky december pump jack

  • Waking up with Do You Hear What I Hear? in my head the week before Christmas. We sang it every year when I was in youth choir, and it made me think of George.
  • The moment when my niece’s hair ties ended up in one of my (bald!) dad’s Christmas presents – my husband exclaimed, “That’s where those went!” and everyone burst out laughing.
  • Half an hour to myself in front of the Christmas tree one night, journaling and reading The Dark is Rising.
  • Coconut eggnog pie, with Blue Bell vanilla ice cream, as the denouement to a dinner with dear friends.
  • Picking up a novel I loved at the DFW airport bookstore.
  • Cracking up with J’s high school choir friends as we sang Christmas carols: “Johnny wants a pair of skates, Susie wants a shed…”
  • A wee girl named Genevieve Noelle, born to some of my best friends on Dec. 26. (We knew she was coming, of course, but we didn’t quite know when.)
  • The sentiment handwritten in my Aunt Cathy’s Christmas card: “And seriously, peace on earth.” (Hear, hear.)
  • Running straight into a few friends from high school at Christmas Eve service. I’ve been gone from my hometown a while, but it’s still and always where I’m from.
  • Singing hymns in the hallways of a hospice unit one night, with old friends.
  • A hilarious game of Scrabble with my in-laws.
  • The glass heirloom fruit bowls my Neno gave me.

There were plenty of gifts I was expecting this year: so much food and laughter at my parents’ house, time with beloved friends in Abilene, chips and salsa whenever we could squeeze them in. Those gifts were sweet and nourishing, and they filled me up. But these surprises have a magic all their own.

I hope your holidays included a few unexpected gifts, too.

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roxanne hks class

On a grey morning last week, I walked into a crowded classroom at the Kennedy School, caffeine firmly in hand, and slipped into a seat in the back. My day job sometimes allows me to write about the work of our students and faculty, and I’d already sat in this fall on Dara Kay Cohen’s fascinating class about sex, gender, violence, war and global politics.

My presence there last week didn’t have much to do (explicitly) with the piece I’m writing for the HKS website, though. I was there to listen to Roxanne speak, and afterward, to give her a big hug.

Roxanne and I found each other years ago, when our Internet orbits overlapped somehow. It was so long ago that I don’t remember which of us discovered whom first. We met in person for coffee when I had just moved to Boston and she was trying to decide whether to come back for graduate school (she eventually did). While our paths have continued to cross online, we hadn’t seen each other face to face in several years.

I knew a little about Roxanne’s work: research on the intricacies of victimhood, gender, violence and suffering in conflict and post-conflict areas. But this was the first time I’d ever heard her give a formal presentation. Sitting in the back of the classroom, I listened to her talk about gender and post-conflict life for ex-combatants and victims in Colombia. Like many good researchers and storytellers, she asked more questions than she answered, and I wrote down as many as I could:

Who is a combatant? Who is a victim? Is it possible to be both, and who gets to decide? How can ex-combatants, particularly women, rebuild their lives in a society that sees them as transgressive and permanently tainted? How can they grieve the complicated losses that come with leaving an armed group? Are there really flyers advertising lipstick colors for former guerrilleras? (The answer to that last one is, astonishingly, yes.)

More broadly, what happens when we leave people out of the narratives we build – or, conversely, what happens when we make room for all kinds of experiences?

Roxanne reminded me, as I scribbled down her questions in my notebook, that this is part of our work as storytellers and human beings: listening to others’ stories, making room for all kinds of narrative experience. We live in a world that rings with shouting matches, and the counterintuitive but vitally important work is often to stop yelling and listen. We all want to be heard, to be seen, to have our experience witnessed by other people. And we all carry the same responsibility: to make room. To listen. To pay attention.

After class, Roxanne had a lunch date and I had a stack of emails to answer. But we snatched a few minutes to catch up and chat – about everything from work to shoes to relationships – and hug each other tight. I felt seen in those brief moments: known, listened to, beloved. Also a wee bit smarter for having heard her brilliant presentation. And so proud of my whip-smart, wise, compassionate friend.

The whole experience made me deeply grateful for serendipity, and for the ways in which my worlds sometimes overlap – especially the ways I could never predict or expect. I’ll be carrying Roxanne’s questions forward with me this month. (And hoping for a tea date the next time she’s in town.)

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turkeypalooza table

For three long tables set end to end in a tiled church basement, covered with red-and-white cloths and decorated with gourds and tiny pumpkins and sparkly wooden leaves.

For a dozen strands of Christmas lights twinkling overhead, and mellow acoustic music via Spotify providing the soundtrack.

For breakfast at Abigail and Nate’s on Thanksgiving morning: Friends episodes and French toast, link sausage and apple slices and Evie toddling around trying out her two newest words – “Kay-kee” and “Miah.”

katie abi nate jer

For a husband who peeled and chopped sweet potatoes to save me some time (and labor) the night before. For the sweet potato casserole-cum-dessert I make every year, topped with brown sugar and pecans.

For a mix of beloveds and new faces around the table: half a dozen nationalities and at least as many languages.

For the pause to say a prayer and sing “Give Thanks” a cappella before the meal, and Evie clinging to my hip as the mad scramble for food began.

For two turkeys, 15 pounds (!) of mashed potatoes, a table crowded with casseroles and one crammed with desserts. For apple-pomegranate salad and cranberry relish, pumpkin bars with cream cheese frosting and three kinds of pie.

dessert table

For mulled wine and ice water, sipped from goblets gathered from three different kitchens. For stacks of paper napkins and so many dishes, and lots of willing hands to wash and dry them afterward.

For my favorite twins, so grown up now (they’re 10), trying to spell “facetious” and bombarding me with questions about Harry Potter.

For little Adam, who turned four on Thursday, and the chocolate cake and joyful cacophony of “Happy Birthday” when it was time for dessert.

For dominoes and chitchat and so much laughter. For inside jokes and old stories, budding friendships and brand-new memories.

simpsons smiles thanksgiving

When you do something once, it’s a novelty. When you do it two, three, four times, it becomes a habit, a ritual. When you’ve done it seven times, it’s a tradition.

This year’s Turkeypalooza – our name for the joyous, chaotic, come-as-you-are feast at our church – is in the books, and it was a good one. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be on Thanksgiving Day than with these friends who have become family.

How was yours, if you celebrated?

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summer beach view boston

Summer is drawing to a close here in New England. The season’s heat is still lingering, but I’ve noticed a new crispness in the air on several recent mornings. My Facebook feed is full of back-to-school pictures of my friends’ children, and the students at Harvard, where I work, start classes next week.

Before we jump into my favorite season, I wanted to share a few summer scenes that have, so far, gone unblogged.

Some friends of ours – former fellow Boston transplants, who now live in northern California – blew into town over Memorial Day weekend. We spent an evening catching up over pizza and wine, in their swank 14th-floor suite (!) at the Liberty Hotel, looking out over the Charles River.

charles river sunset view boston fog

After surviving a hectic and fun Commencement season at my temp gig, I stepped aside to make room for (and train) my replacement. This photo is from my last solo day in that temporary space, on the sixth floor with so much light.

computer tulips hpac

My colleagues surprised me with a good-bye reception on my last day there. This is Wendy, our office manager, who made that (and so many other things) happen.

katie wendy books

At the end of June, I started my new job (back where I temped this winter) and was greeted by this tiny orchid, a gift from my boss.

you are here orchid desk

On the 4th of July, we headed to Fenway to cheer on the Rangers as they played the Red Sox. It was sweltering in the outfield, but fun to be there with friends.

simpsons gibsons fenway

The hubs and I sneaked in an afternoon at Crane Beach in mid-July: sun, sand and a delicious dinner afterward at Salt.

crane beach jer

I flew to Texas at the end of July to surprise my dad for his 60th birthday. We threw a party at the home of some friends and he didn’t suspect a thing, which was perfect. Then I spent three days chasing my nephews, who are so big and who both love to play in the dirt.

ryder harrison tractor

One of J’s friends from his a cappella group got married in July, and the group performed the processional music – “The Book of Love.” J also played a few acoustic songs during the cocktail hour, and then we all danced the night away. So fun.

mass whole notes wedding

I spent a lot of time on our front porch before we moved, soaking up the views in the neighborhood we called home for six years.

summer sunset view porch

We moved almost three weeks ago, and honestly, life has felt like utter chaos since then. But I did snag a lunch date with this guy one Tuesday – fresh tamales at the Harvard farmers’ market, and fro-yo from Berryline.

jer katie harvard yard

I’m looking ahead to fall: making plans, making lists, feeling ready to be more settled at home and at work. This summer has felt chaotic and hot and stressful, in a lot of ways. But looking back at these photos reminded me: there’s been a lot of beauty, too.

What have you left unblogged this summer?

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nate evie small group

On Sunday afternoon, after a day of rushing around from church to lunch to the grocery store, my husband and I hopped in the car and drove across the Boston metro area, under an already-darkening sky.

We head that way several times a month, to a house in the western suburbs where our friends Ryan and Amy live, with two kids, two cats, one dog and a general atmosphere of cheerful, friendly chaos. On Sunday nights, when we can, about a dozen of us come over for a potluck dinner, sitting around the long table on mismatched chairs, eating, laughing and catching up on our lives.

This fall, we have struggled to gather on a regular basis: soccer games, illness and travel have kept one family or another from joining in. But the minute we stepped inside the front door to be greeted by Telly, the resident dog, we were home.

telly dog

We piled jackets and handbags in the front hallway, carrying the food we’d brought through to the kitchen. Ryan stood at the stove, flipping pancakes, while Nate turned sausages on the griddle he’d carted over from his house. There were hugs and hellos as the kids raced around underfoot, and baby Evie, befuddled by the time change, tried to decide whether to laugh or cry.

Eventually, we all gathered around the table in a ragged circle, Evie bouncing on my knees, to join hands and hear Amy say grace.

It’s the simplest and sometimes the most difficult thing in the world: inviting people into your home, letting them be a part of your family’s life. I have missed it this fall, while we’ve all been tugged in our opposite directions, and that night, it was loud and imperfect and crazy, and just right.

Perched around the table, we dug into stacks of pancakes and munched on crispy bacon, and exclaimed over photos of the kids in their Halloween costumes: a pirate, Scooby-Doo, Princess Leia, a “zombie skeleton scientist.” We listened to snatches of a cappella songs (sung by Nate and my husband), told stories, cracked jokes. We refilled the kids’ glasses of milk and our own mugs of hot mulled cider. Telly padded around underfoot, and Nate carried a massive skillet of scrambled eggs out of the kitchen and spooned them onto everyone’s plates.

Later, I stood in the kitchen and tried to explain Daylight Savings Time to nine-year-old Michael, nearly dead on his feet after two soccer games that morning. And still later, we drifted into the living room to sing a few songs from battered hymnbooks, Abi rocking Evie slowly to sleep, the younger kids looking wide-eyed at Richard Scarry picture books while we sang “Be Thou My Vision” and “Mighty God.”

We left later than we intended (isn’t that always the way?), with bear hugs and “see you soons.” J and I were exhausted by the time we got home: we’re both introverts, and Sundays can be challenging. I was out of words and out of extrovert. But I also felt full, and grateful. This community, this warm, chaotic, nourishing thing we do on Sunday nights, saves my life over and over again.

Where do you find community in your life?

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housemates radcliffe camera oxford

If I’ve heard it said once, I’ve heard it a hundred times: friendship is a process of give and take.

In the best friendships, each person has a lot to offer the other, and we do this via a healthy, balanced exchange of love and respect. Not in a pedantic, score-keeping way, but in a way that fills each person up, and doesn’t tip the scales too far in any one direction. We lean on each other when we need it; we provide laughter, a listening ear, a place for our friends to be themselves.

I am grateful to have a lot of these friendships (and this kind of marriage) in my life. (One example: the three girls I lived with during my year in Oxford, who are pictured above – we had a surprise reunion last fall.)

I’m a classic overachiever: organized, driven, capable. I am not Superwoman, but I know my strengths, and like most people, I prefer to operate out of them most of the time. I am so much more comfortable being the giver in a friendship: the one who says, “I’m fine” and means it, the one who can provide what another person needs: a listening ear, a home-cooked meal, a bit of encouragement on a tough day.

I’ve been dealing with a difficult situation lately, and here is one of the most frustrating things about it: I have had to ask for help, over and over again. I need advice and support and cheering up; I need lunch dates and distraction and a little extra attention. I am having to learn to be the one who takes, who receives, who admits her own neediness and lack. And – no surprise here – I don’t like it.

There’s nothing wrong with being capable, but there’s something a little more insidious at work here: I like seeing myself as a person who has it all together. The other side of that coin, it turns out, is a deep fear: the fear of being a person who takes and takes and has nothing to give. Of being a person who pushes her friends away because she’s just so needy. Of turning into a person who demands more than she can give in return.

I don’t have any easy answers for this, at the moment. The tough situation in my life isn’t going away, at least not yet, and I’m still struggling to figure out how to ask my friends to help me through it. I’d much rather work things out on my own and keep presenting a brave face to those I love, but that isn’t really an option (at least not a healthy one).

So I’m learning, day by day, to keep asking for help when I need it, and reminding myself that friendship is about loving each other when we’re human. And to fight down the fear that says I’m not enough – because I know, deep down, that my friends and family are kind and generous and willing for me to lean on them. Even if I have trouble with the leaning, sometimes.

Do you struggle with being the “taker” – the vulnerable one – in your relationships? (Please tell me I’m not alone here.)

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