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Posts Tagged ‘grief’

memorial church harvard spire branches blue sky

We have arrived at Holy Week, again – after a long, gray Lenten season that felt like it would never end. Last week, a cardboard box of palm fronds (shipped from Minnesota, of all places) arrived on my doorstep, and on Sunday morning, we passed them out to the waiting hands at our tiny church. I stood in a pew waving my palm branch and snapping pictures with my phone as the kids (and some adults) walked a few laps around the sanctuary, singing songs anchored by the word Hosanna.

Later in the service, we did what we do each week: paused to mention specific prayer requests for our church community and the world. People raised their hands readily to ask for prayers for a pregnant sister, a jobless husband, an ill mother. But when Nate asked about prayers for the wider world, we fell silent, as we often do. Where to begin?

I thought of the chemical attacks in Syria, of the churches bombed that day in Egypt, of the refugees still pouring into Europe, searching for a home. I thought about the headlines that inform so much of my day job: when you work in communications at a school of government, ignoring the daily news is not an option. There is so much fear and anger and unrest, everywhere, and I don’t always know how to react to it all, much less form the words of a coherent prayer.

We always end with the Lord’s Prayer, reciting it aloud in quiet unison. We say it, too, at the weekday Morning Prayers service at Memorial Church, where I have ended up more and more often this year, walking across Harvard Yard to tuck myself into a carved wooden pew right behind the choir.

All winter long, and into this fitful spring, the same line has made tears well in my eyes: On earth as it is in heaven.

I don’t know much, of course, about what heaven is like. I doubt the images from our Sunday School lessons get all that close to the reality of it, and I don’t believe that’s the point, really. But I believe in a world beyond this one: a world of hope and redemption and deep, untrammeled joy, watched over by a God who is making all things new.

I also know that life on earth isn’t like that: the glories of this life are always mingled with heartbreak. We are so far, so much of the time, from any vision of peace and justice and love. There are glimpses of it: spasmodic tricks of radiance, if you will. But we are not there yet.

Holy Week is a time when we enter into the full dramatic scope of the Christian narrative: the triumphal (though unexpected) entry into Jerusalem, the bittersweet last meal with the disciples, the jarring tragedy of arrest and brutal crucifixion. During this week, we walk alongside the disciples as they watch Jesus give himself up, and for a few heart-stopping days, it looks like the horrors of this world have won. It looks like grief and fear and hopelessness. It looks like the headlines I see every day.

Here, in the middle of Holy Week, it can be hard to see the pattern: it looks like heartbreak and struggle, rather than triumph. It looks like tears and frustration and unanswered questions, and soon it will look like deep anguish. But then, in the early hours of Sunday morning, it will start to look like hope. The sky will start to lighten, and the earth will hold its breath. And then – out of the tomb, out of the very heart of darkness and despair – will come the joy.

This week, as I walk the streets of Cambridge, I am also walking a different road: the one that winds through Jerusalem, all the way up to Golgotha. The songs from the Easter pageants at my childhood church are running through my head, and I am remembering how it felt to be part of it all, as a servant of the wise men, a young bride at Cana, a villager joining an angry mob that later became a choir of praise.

For us, Easter Sunday isn’t the end of the story: we still have to contend with the brokenness of this world. But it is worth celebrating that one glorious day when already and not yet meld together: when, for just a moment, on earth as it is in heaven becomes real.

If you’re observing Holy Week (or simply looking forward to Easter), I wish you a blessed one.

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crocuses snow diptych

I flipped the kitchen calendar to April this weekend, as a mix of snow and sleet swirled down outside the windows. This wasn’t quite the April Fool’s blizzard of 20 years ago, but it was still a proper nor’easter: more like February than April. Both Nature’s clock and my internal one seem to be off this year.

It’s been a month since Ash Wednesday, a month that has swung wildly between sunny days that coaxed the crocuses to lift up their faces to the blue sky, and freezing, bitter winds accompanied by snow, sleet and rain. I suppose we were all fooled by the mild days in late February. (I know I was.)

Lent is typically a hard season for me: I do not naturally dwell in darkness, and Lent asks us to look steadily at our human frailties, the flaws inherent in our nature that trip us up again and again. We begin, on Ash Wednesday, with the words that say it all in one sentence: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

This year on Ash Wednesday, I sat with a handful of other Harvard folks in the boxy white pews of Memorial Church, listening to the prayers and readings, reciting the litany of confession. But I was thinking about two things, not (at first glance) related: a poem I’d heard that morning at the daily prayer service, and Lord Voldemort.

The poem, by Jan Richardson, is called “Blessing the Dust,” and Alanna read it aloud in her clear, ringing voice:

This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.

This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.

At many churches, the dried palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday service are burned to make the ashes for Ash Wednesday. The ashes are what is left after a fire: the scorched remains of what was once fresh and green. They mark us, smeared onto our foreheads by the finger of a minister or a loved one, along with those words I can’t forget: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Earlier this winter, I reread the Harry Potter series, again. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve turned back to this story, diving joyfully into the world of Hogwarts and relishing Harry’s adventures with Ron and Hermione. I read them, this time around, with a friend who loves them as much as I do, which was the most fun I’ve had reading anything in a very long time.

On Ash Wednesday, my thoughts turned back to Voldemort, and how the insistent reminder of Lent – that we are dust – is the very thing he worked so hard, all his life, to deny.

Voldemort – when he was still Tom Riddle, young and friendless – always yearned to believe he was special, set apart, somehow above the rules and limits placed on other people. When he learned about his magical ability, he began searching for a way to make himself immortal, which led him down a dark and dangerous path. He always had a deep and unusual fear of death, and this obsession led him to experiment with Horcruxes: splitting his soul into multiple pieces, killing again and again, trying any means he could find to achieve a semblance of immortality. His followers – never friends – were called Death Eaters; his quest to find Harry, and kill him, was born out of the terror of his own mortality. Voldemort never believed Dumbledore’s assertion that the limits of our humanity can also be a gift.

Magic in the Harry Potter universe (which bears some resemblance to faith in our own world) provides no guarantee of immortality. Many witches and wizards live long lives, but some of them – like Dumbledore, Harry’s parents and eventually Harry himself – end up placing their lives at risk, even giving them up, to defend those they love.

The walk Harry takes into the Forbidden Forest near the end of Deathly Hallows echoes Jesus’ journey to Calvary: the action of a man, gifted but mortal after all, intent on giving up his life for the sake of others. Voldemort, by contrast, hid behind his own twisted experiments and machinations until the very end. He never would have understood the words of Richardson’s poem: he would not have believed in “the blessing / that lives within / the ancient ashes.”

We are two weeks away from Easter: from the day when we emerge, blinking, into the brightness of the Garden on a Sunday morning, into the joy that has been winking at us, calling to us from around the corner. I love the Holy Week narrative and I know we need it all: the deep, utterly despairing dive into darkness, the mournful songs of Maundy Thursday and the howling grief of Good Friday. I know we need the suspension of Holy Saturday: the world holds its breath, waiting to see if the promise will be fulfilled.

I am ready for the joy of Easter Sunday: the blaze of light, the birdsong, the proclamation of the sentence carved on James and Lily Potter’s grave: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” But we are not quite there yet, and even when we get there, some of the old sorrow will still linger. The glory of Easter doesn’t negate the wounds of our humanity. It heals them, but it does not make them disappear.

So as I walk (carefully) down sidewalks still edged with melting snow, I am holding Richardson’s words close. I am thinking about our humanity, about the frail, soft, vulnerable parts of ourselves that Voldemort feared, but which give us (among other gifts) our ability to love. I am hopeful, as Richardson is, that I will see

what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made,
and the stars that blaze
in our bones,
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

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textbook akr book sky

Thanks to three glorious days in Florida last week (see above), my reading list has been long lately. (I read four and a half books on vacation!) Here’s the latest roundup:

How the Light Gets In: And Other Headlong Epiphanies, Brian Doyle
I love Brian Doyle’s wise, warm, witty voice and these prose poems – rambling, insightful, observant, funny – are just about perfection. I savored this, dipping into it a few poems at a time over several weeks. Full of wonder, grace and laughter. Found at the Strand.

Starry Night, Isabel Gillies
When 15-year-old Wren goes to a fancy benefit at the Met (where her dad works) wearing her mother’s vintage red Oscar de la Renta dress, and meets a fascinating boy, everything changes. But love, even first love, isn’t always smooth. A bittersweet YA romance; Wren is a little spoiled, but she learns some hard lessons (and says some wise things) about art and love. Found at Greenlight in Brooklyn.

The Jane Austen Project, Kathleen Flynn
“What kind of maniac travels in time?” For Rachel Katzman, the answer is: a devoted Jane Austen fan who’s keen to retrieve a lost manuscript and perhaps unravel the mystery surrounding Jane’s death. Rachel and her colleague, Liam, travel back to 1815 and make friends with Jane and her family – but, of course, nothing goes quite as planned. A fun mix of time travel, love and catnip for Austen fans, though the ending was quite abrupt. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 2).

The Romantics, Leah Konen
Gael Brennan is a class-A certified Romantic – so it hits him particularly hard when he catches his girlfriend kissing his best friend (right after his parents have separated). But Love – the sly, witty narrator of this YA novel – has lots of plans for Gael and his nearest and dearest. An absolutely delightful look at love in all its forms. The narration is so clever and fun. My favorite line: “Real love makes you better than you ever knew you could be.”

Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Amy Krouse Rosenthal
I loved Rosenthal’s previous memoir, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. This one is organized topically: Pre-Assessment, Language Arts, Social Studies, Science, etc. Rosenthal’s writing is quirky and luminous – she holds a mirror up to the beautiful pieces of everyday life. Her Modern Love essay recently went viral, right before she passed away – and before Nina recommended this book at Great New Books. The timing, as well as the whimsy and gentle gravity of the memoir itself, make it even more worth reading.

Summerlost, Ally Condie
Since the car crash that killed her dad and brother, Cedar Lee has felt lost in her grief. But when she, her mom and other brother return to her mom’s hometown for the summer, Cedar makes a new friend, and begins edging back toward feeling whole again. A funny, sweet, gorgeous middle-grade novel of friendship, summer theatre festivals and learning to dream again. I loved it.

The Secrets of Wishtide, Kate Saunders
Mrs. Laetitia Rodd, a clergyman’s widow in 1850s England, uses her entirely correct social position as excellent cover for solving mysteries. Her narrative voice is wonderful – wry and keen-eyed – and the mystery was satisfyingly tangled. Her supporting cast – including her lawyer brother and plainspoken landlady – is also highly enjoyable. First in a planned series, and I’d gladly read the others.

The Lost Letter, Jillian Cantor
As Katie Nelson faces the dissolution of her marriage and her father’s increasing memory problems, she finds an intriguing item in his stamp collection: an unsent letter with an unusual German stamp from World War II. With the help of a stamp dealer, Katie digs into the stamp’s history and uncovers a connection to her own past. I like Cantor’s thoughtful, compelling historical novels and this dual-narrative one was satisfying. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 13).

Mary Russell’s War, Laurie R. King
I love King’s series of novels about Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell, and enjoyed this collection of short stories featuring same. Russell’s narrative voice is always a delight, and appearances by Mrs. Hudson, Dr. Watson and others are pure fun.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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lamont quad light sky

I expected to be so ready for Advent this year.

After a full, demanding fall semester and a bruising election cycle, I thought I’d be eager to sink into my favorite liturgical season: the readings, the carols, the longing and candlelight and hope. But at church on the first Sunday of Advent (after our wonderful Turkeypalooza), I still felt hopeless and tired and sad, even as we sang “O Come O Come Emmanuel.”

That evening, sitting on the floor at my friend Amy’s house, I admitted how I felt. We were working on the backdrop for the church Christmas pageant: hot-gluing uneven blocks of dark green felt to a bolt of midnight blue fabric, scattering handfuls of sticky, glittery stars overhead. “I think I need to sit in the darkness a while longer,” Amy said, and I nodded. I didn’t feel ready to start lighting candles yet.

The next day, I walked across the Yard to Morning Prayers, where a divinity student gave a talk on tenderness. “Let us be raw a while longer,” she said gently, urging us to sit with our pain – and the world’s – rather than glossing over it. We also sang “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and I hummed it as I walked to work afterward, the Civil Wars version in my earbuds.

It feels right for Advent to come slowly this year: we are working through more pain and darkness, on a national scale, than I can remember in a long time. The questions raised by my favorite Advent writers – Henri Nouwen, Kathleen Norris, Madeleine L’Engle, Alfred Delp – feel more pertinent than they ever have. I have been reluctant to skip over the ache to the joy, even as I’ve loved seeing twinkle lights and Christmas trees appear around Cambridge and in my friends’ homes.

Since I discovered it as a high school student, Advent has given me a way to wrestle with the questions of my faith: to look the darkness of this world steadily in the face, and to appreciate why we need the Light. I usually relish the ache of it, the haunting, lovely longing for Christ to come, for God to burst into the world and begin making all things new. But this year, everything already feels so dark. And I keep wondering: what good can our candles, anyone’s candles, possibly do?

Despite my weariness (and wariness), Advent keeps sneaking in, sidling up with quiet steps when I’m not quite paying attention. There is the Sylvia Plath poem whose inclusion in my favorite Advent book surprises and delights me every year. There are the annual Advent readings hosted by my friends Hannah and Chris, where we gather for poetry and hot cider and good talk in their cozy living room. There are the quiet carols (my favorite ones), which end up in my head almost by accident. And there are moments of connection with colleagues and friends, even in the midst of daily tasks and deeper sadness.

I am (finally) edging into the season: we put up our tree this weekend, and hung the greenery at church on Saturday. I am humming a few beloved carols, dipping into my Advent books, and watching for the light, whether literal (as above) or metaphorical, any place I can find it.

How are you finding the light – whether you’re observing Advent or not – in this season?

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jfk jr forum balloons hks

It’s been a bruising week, y’all.

On Tuesday, J and I left the house early to stand in line at our local polling place, and cast our votes for a candidate we believed in. I was thrilled to have the chance to vote for a female president for the first time. (That’s not the only reason I voted for Hillary Clinton, but it’s an important one.)

voter selfie k j

I believe in the democratic process, as I’ve written about here before, and I was glad to see many people I know – in many states and yes, at various locations on the political spectrum – exercising their right to vote. I spent a tense, hopeful day with my colleagues and a tense and increasingly worried evening with my husband, watching the news and the election returns.

And then I woke up on Wednesday morning to heartbreak.

I’ve never considered myself especially political, until this election cycle. I come from a deeply conservative state (I grew up in West Texas) and my political leanings have gradually shifted left over the years, but I don’t usually start conversations about them. I live in a deeply liberal state now, and I work at a place that is focused on public policy, but we are an educational institution and therefore non-partisan. We have students, faculty and staff from dozens of states and countries, who hold wildly differing views. We encourage open dialogue and respect for all beliefs; it is fundamental to our mission.

And yet: I am appalled that our country has elected a man who has repeatedly made bigoted, insulting and uninformed comments about Muslims, women, immigrants, disabled people, African Americans, the LGBT community and other groups. I am shocked at the extent of the deep divisions in our country, and deeply troubled by the bitterness and hatred that have come out into the open.

I don’t expect to agree politically with everyone I know or even my close friends and family members, but I am so sad that we seem to have lost the ability to have reasoned, respectful dialogue with people with whom we disagree. No candidate or party is solely responsible for this division, and it didn’t start with this election, but it has become shockingly visible, and it breaks my heart.

The top photo above is from Wednesday, when the HKS community gathered to hear words of empathy and encouragement from our dean. We dropped the balloons, silently, to mark the end of a bitter and vengeful election season, but there was no celebration in it at all. As they floated down to the crowded floor, someone began to sing “Amazing Grace.”

Afterward, we filed quietly back to our offices and classrooms. At least in my office, there were tears and disbelief, venting and anger. We are asking lots of questions for which there are, at least now, very few answers. And, gradually, we are getting back to work.

There is a lot to do, and I am not the person to direct any of it: I don’t even know where to start. Right now I am simply trying to listen, hug my people, check in on the ones who live too far away to hug, and take a hard look at my own life. That is a small beginning, and I know it’s not enough on its own, but we all have to start somewhere.

I’ll be lighting candles, both physical and metaphorical, for peace this weekend. (Advent cannot come soon enough.) And I will be listening. If you want to have open and respectful conversations, or need a shoulder to cry on, I’m here.

Take care, friends.

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orinoco glasses lights fence

After work on Friday evening, I caught the bus from Harvard Square to a house on a hill in Lexington, where my friend Hannah lives. I had a bottle of (boxed) rosé in my bag, and a poem to share with the women in my book club (we dubbed this meeting our “poetry potluck”). I walked up Massachusetts Avenue from the bus station in the soft evening light, the first act of Hamilton in my headphones.

When I pushed open the screen door, I found Hannah and our friend Rachael standing in the kitchen, chopping apples and kale, seeding pomegranates, laying figs and prosciutto out on a cutting board. I greeted them (and Percy the cat), then joined the action: whisking eggs for an omelet, slicing cheddar cheese, pouring water. The three of us gathered around a small round table, munching and laughing, talking about TV shows and weddings, work and friendship, the stuff of daily life. Two other members joined us later, and the five of us moved into the living room, curling up on chairs and couches, barefoot, utterly at ease together.

We took turns reading our chosen poems aloud: words by Billy Collins, Wislawa Szymborska, Elizabeth Alexander, Kevin Young. We dipped black bean chips into spicy salsa and poured out the last of the rosé, and heaved open the windows to listen to (and smell) a glorious fall rain. Much later, Louisa and I caught an Uber back to Cambridge together, and I walked the few blocks from her street to Central Square, listening to the rain patter on my umbrella.

The whole evening felt like a gift – a deep breath I badly needed.

This September has been crowded and insistent, hot and demanding – at work, at home, all over the place. The national news has been full of raw grief, and I have also been dealing with some heartaches (my own and other people’s) closer to home. Last week felt particularly hard and helpless, so much so that I couldn’t even write about it here. Hope and peace have been difficult to find.

That evening of poetry and rich conversation did not erase my problems: none of us left Hannah’s that night with a magic solution to our own struggles or the continuing (seemingly intractable) problems of race relations and civil discourse in this country. The pain and fear are still present: they have not disappeared, and neither have the smaller daily trials we all must face. But those hours in that living room, laughing and listening and holding space for each other’s stories, were a balm to my soul. They are lingering in my memory, bolstering me up as I face another week. And I am grateful.

Wishing you a peaceful week, friends – with lots of deep breaths.

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9/11, fifteen years later

sept 11 memorial reflection

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

—William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

I heard these words of Faulkner’s again on a recent gray morning, as I stood in the doorway of a wood-paneled chapel on Harvard’s campus, a few steps from the Yard.

Speaking at the first Morning Prayers service of the fall semester, President Drew Faust invoked Faulkner to remind us that what we do with the past is our responsibility. It is, she said, “the essential material with which we can build a better future.”

As we marked the 15th anniversary of 9/11 this weekend, Faulkner’s words resonated in a different way.

Sept. 11, 2001, has passed into history, and yet it is still immediate, insistent. It is, after a decade and a half, part of my past and our national memory. But it is far from dead or irrelevant. It continues to affect my life and my world, both in ways I can point to and ways I can’t quite articulate. And it comes home to me again every fall.

sept 11 memorial flowers

I was a high school senior in West Texas on 9/11: happily absorbed in honors classes and marching band, excited about my new role on our school’s student diplomatic team, four days away from turning 18. I was curious and eager, on the brink of young adulthood, and I was completely undone by the news on the TV that morning. I walked around for days in a state of shock: tense, strained, saddened in a way I had never been before. It felt like a jolt into adulthood: a loss of innocence, a grim, sudden knowledge of how the world could be.

I’ve read a few books, in the years since that day, that include 9/11 as an element of the plot or setting. I couldn’t believe how long it took for the attacks and their aftermath to become a part of any fictional narrative instead of the gaping, overwhelming whole. Long after that day, the attacks dominated any discussion they entered. It took us years to absorb that story into the larger narrative of our lives.

Last week, I interviewed a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, where I work, about the far-reaching effects of 9/11, especially in the field of homeland security (her specialty). I asked her what the U.S. has learned, what we could have done differently, how daily life has changed for most Americans. I tried to reflect, in my questions, an awareness of the passage of time and of both President Faust’s and Faulkner’s words. Not simply Where were you that day? (though I always want to know), or Isn’t it awful that this happened?, but How can we move forward?.

In a sense, that is the question I have been asking for 15 years: how can we acknowledge the grief and fear, the complexity of such an event and its ripples, and carry it forward with wisdom and grace? How can we remember and honor the day itself, and yet move ahead with courage?

I don’t have many answers for this, but as always, I think telling our stories helps.

I’d welcome your stories, in the comments, and I’d also recommend a few of those novels I mentioned: Nichole Bernier’s The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D., Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Kathleen Donohoe’s Ashes of Fiery Weather. They treat this event and its aftermath with care and good sentences, which is often all a writer can do. And sometimes, that’s enough.

(Images are from the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan, which I visited a few years ago.)

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