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Posts Tagged ‘good words’

 

harvard yard leaves light

On Tuesday afternoon, I left my desk (it takes a lot of effort, these days, to detach from the email and the meetings and the endless to-do lists), wrapped myself in a jacket, and walked partway across Harvard Square.

It was a sullen, grey day, suddenly more like November than late August, but I had two aims in mind, and both were outdoors. (Three aims, if you count the stop I made at Darwin’s first: I needed a cup of tea, for warmth and caffeine. Thus fortified, I can face pretty much anything.)

My first stop was, as it often is, the Yard. A group of undergraduates, in attire ranging from suits and ties to hoodies and leggings, sat huddled in beige folding chairs, listening to a cadre of faculty speakers at Harvard College’s convocation ceremony.

I stood next to a friend who was covering the event for the Harvard Gazette, as Dean Mike Smith talked about the importance of connection (instead of comparison). We listened, after that, to a few deliberate, strong, well-chosen words from President Faust, who urged us in no uncertain terms to listen, engage, debate, take risks, and treat every person with dignity.

Midway through her remarks, I left for my second destination: a white tent on the Divinity School quad, packed with students and faculty who had gathered to listen to Cornel West – recently returned to HDS – deliver their convocation address.

His speech was in style and tone – though not in message – a direct contrast to President Faust’s. West is a fiery, passionate activist, shaped by the black Baptist tradition and the civil rights movement. He lambasted not only our current political administration, but all of us who often prize conformity over conviction, who prop up systems instead of asking dangerous and necessary questions that expose their cracks. His subject matter ranged from the recent events in Charlottesville to words from Bob Dylan and James Baldwin, and he urged not only courage, but magnanimity. We need both, he said, to fight hate.

As I sat in the back row, listening, it struck me: we also need both kinds of speeches I heard that day.

We need deliberate, thoughtful, measured words and scholarship, the kind that both Faust and West have produced and shared during their long careers. We aim to further those things at places like Harvard: our motto, after all, is Veritas, and as President Faust noted, we believe in the pursuit of truth.

But we also need radical questioners like West, who are bold and raw and unafraid to face their own demons and call out those of other people and institutions. And – it should not have to be said but I’m saying it anyway – we need all different kinds of voices: black men and white women; people who hold passports from every nation in the world (or none at all); people who hold a sheaf of advanced degrees and people who don’t; people who love in every form that exists. We need every variation of humanity.

We – not just Harvard, but the human race – are stronger when we treat everyone with dignity. We are better, and we can only move forward, when we are of interest to each other.

“I am who I am because somebody loved me,” West said at the beginning of his speech, repeating a line he has delivered many times. It’s true not only for him but for all of us. And as we work and wrestle and study together, we must also love one another. We need both.

Here’s to another school year, at Harvard and in the world: these are fraught, uncertain times, but the only thing to do is to keep moving forward. Together.

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brave necklace coral scarf

Last fall, it was a line from Hamilton: “Summon all the courage you require.”

This spring, it was a sentence from Donia Bijan’s lovely novel, The Last Days of Café Leila: “The only thing to do was to keep moving, to do something, to show courage, to give everything she was capable of giving.”

Right now, it’s a few lines from Alice Hoffman’s stunning new novel, The Rules of Magic, which comes out in October. It is the story of the Owens women: Franny, her sister Jet and their aunt Isabelle. I fell particularly in love with Franny, redheaded and prickly, and this line (about her) I wanted to write on my skin: “Above all she was brave.”

“Let’s see what you’ll have,” Isabelle says to Franny at the end of one summer, pointing to two pots of fresh tea. “Courage or caution?” Franny doesn’t hesitate: “Courage, thank you.”

Many years later, Franny admits to her aunt, “Maybe I’m afraid of love. It’s too powerful.” Isabelle scoffs at her: “Who chose courage [over caution]? You’re stronger than you know.”

As we head into September – a month I always love and which, this year especially, carries its own challenges – I am doing my best to choose courage, every single day.

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not afraid shirt ocean brave

My sweet husband bought me this shirt (designed by Kim Roach) on our trip to PEI last summer, but I’ve only started wearing it recently. So many of my adventures this year have been close to home, geographically – including our annual trip up to Crane Beach, where I took this photo. But they have involved big leaps of the heart.

Sometimes this shirt speaks the truth: I am not afraid. And sometimes the adventure lies in admitting I am afraid – and then leaping anyway.

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katie scarf just be true

Snapped yesterday on my new back porch, just before I dove into potting the new herbs (and another geranium) I’d bought at the garden center down the street.

That scarf is my favorite – a gift from my fashionista sister a while back. That glinting silver chain holds the “brave” pendant I adore. And the t-shirt – which says “Just be true” – is an oldie but goodie from Jen Lee’s shop. I bought it back in 2010, after meeting Jen at an incandescent retreat weekend in her Brooklyn neighborhood, and right before I moved to Boston. It, and its message, have stayed with me ever since.

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pink tulips boston public garden spring 2017

This spring weather, y’all. I don’t even know. We’ve had temperature swings worthy of my native West Texas: 80s and humid, 40s and raining, nearly every point in between. Swift-moving clouds, flashes of sunshine, sudden downpours and so much misty rain.

In some ways, the weather is reflecting the state of my soul: fitful, unsettled, often unpredictable. I am dealing with a lot of recent transitions and the fallout from the past year-plus of big changes. Sometimes it’s all I can do to keep up, brew myself a cup of tea and keep going. (Donia Bijan’s words about “the only thing to do” are running through my head every single day.)

In that spirit, I decided it was time for another list of what’s saving my life now: because something, or someone, always is. My lifesavers, in this topsy-turvy spring, include:

  • That benediction I love at Morning Prayers on Tuesdays. “May God go before us to lead us…”
  • My favorite black ankle boots: good for nearly all weather and comfortable for long walks.
  • Poetry by John Daniel, John Terpstra and Brian Doyle.
  • A recent visit from some beloved college friends and their little boy.
  • Tulips in all shades of lipstick red and pink. (See above, for evidence from the Boston Public Garden.)
  • Also: budding lilacs. The first lilies of the valley. Every new green leaf I see.

lilacs may

  • Playing Twenty Questions with my friends’ 10-year-old twins the other night and laughing ourselves silly. (Partly because they’re still figuring out how it works.)
  • The wise, funny, earnest Senior Talks at Morning Prayers, given by graduating students as we wrap up for the year.
  • My daily walks around Harvard Square to my places, especially the florist and my beloved Darwin’s.
  • Lauren Winner’s wise words about middles.
  • My umbrella, fingerless gloves and sunglasses, all of which I’ve been keeping handy. (See also: crazy weather.)
  • Long, long walks around Cambridge with a dear friend.
  • The hilarious sixth installment in Jodi Taylor’s series about time-traveling historians. (I’m the crazy person cracking up on the train, reading it.)
  • Unexpected moments of connection with friends and strangers.
  • As always: lots and lots of tea.

What’s saving your life these days? Please feel free to share in the comments.

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stronger together heart graffiti three lives

You Have to Be Careful

You have to be careful telling things.
Some ears are tunnels.
Your words will go in and get lost in the dark.
Some ears are flat pans like the miners used
looking for gold.
What you say will be washed out with the stones.

You look a long time till you find the right ears.
Till then, there are birds and lamps to be spoken to,
a patient cloth rubbing shine in circles,
and the slow, gradually growing possibility
that when you find such ears,
they already know.

—Naomi Shihab Nye

I came across this poem last spring, in Shihab Nye’s collection Words Under the Words. I posted it on Instagram at the time, and have thought of it occasionally since then – mostly when I’m remembering how glad I am to have such ears in my life.

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

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daffodils succulents florist

After the first week the girls of Patty’s Place settled down to a steady grind of study; for this was their last year at Redmond and graduation honors must be fought for persistently. Anne devoted herself to English, Priscilla pored over classics, and Philippa pounded away at Mathematics. Sometimes they grew tired, sometimes they felt discouraged, sometimes nothing seemed worth the struggle for it. In one such mood Stella wandered up to the blue room one rainy November evening. Anne sat on the floor in a little circle of light cast by the lamp beside her, amid a surrounding snow of crumpled manuscript.

“What in the world are you doing?”

“Just looking over some old Story Club yarns. I wanted something to cheer and inebriate. I’d studied until the world seemed azure. So I came up here and dug these out of my trunk. They are so drenched in tears and tragedy that they are excruciatingly funny.”

“I’m blue and discouraged myself,” said Stella, throwing herself on the couch. “Nothing seems worthwhile. My very thoughts are old. I’ve thought them all before. What is the use of living after all, Anne?”

Anne of the Island, L.M. Montgomery

I turned back to this exchange between Anne and Stella recently, while slogging through a stretch of cold, grey days. I’m fighting a head cold (as Anne does elsewhere), and my very thoughts, like Stella’s, have felt old. It might not be November around here, but biting winds and swirling snow in early April are just as depressing as a cold fall rain.

Despite my gloom, I smiled as I read Anne’s reply to Stella: “Honey, it’s just brain fag that makes us feel that way, and the weather. A pouring rainy night like this, coming after a hard day’s grind, would squelch any one but a Mark Tapley. You know it is worthwhile to live.”

I know in my bones that Anne is right: this life, with its myriad frustrations and joys, is entirely worth living. It’s full of things to savor and enjoy. But I’ve still been feeling more like Stella: “Oh, my mind agrees with you, Anne. But my soul remains doleful and uninspired.”

I’m falling back on all my tried-and-true lifesavers: daffodils for my desk, daily trips to Darwin’s for chai and chitchat, sweet clementines peeled and eaten mid-afternoon while I take a break from work email to catch up on blogs. But I’m also remembering what Stella says a few lines later: “I begin to feel that life is worth living as long as there’s a laugh in it.”

For that laughter, I’m relying on my people: my snarky coworkers, my goofy husband, the silliness that ensues when we gather around a friend’s table on Sunday nights. (Full disclosure: I’m also cracking up at James Corden’s Crosswalk musical videos and the occasional episode of Modern Family.)

When the skies are grey and the to-do list is long, I’m trying to remember: life is worth living as long as there’s a laugh in it. That laughter – even if sometimes it comes perilously close to crying – is what’s saving my life these days.

What’s making you laugh in these early spring days? (And when will the sunshine come back?)

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