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Posts Tagged ‘growth’

Nine years

katie jer xmas 2016

Marriage hath in it less of beauty but more of safety, than the single life; it hath more care, but less danger; it is more merry, and more sad; it is fuller of sorrows, and fuller of joys; it lies under more burdens, but it is supported by all the strengths of love and charity, and those burdens are delightful.

—Bishop Jeremy Taylor

I heard these lines years ago, at the very end of the movie Forces of Nature: an odd place, I admit, to pick up wisdom about marriage. I wasn’t married then, or even thinking about it. But I tucked those words into my heart, and they have resurfaced in recent months, as my husband and I have navigated our ninth year of married life.

We were married nine years ago today, in a ceremony filled with pink roses and a cappella music and rows of people we love, sitting in black folding chairs in a spacious atrium on our West Texas college campus. Our friends Tim and Julie (who are the older, wiser, more grace-filled versions of us) took turns reading aloud from 1 Corinthians 13: love is patient, love is kind, love never fails.

The groomsmen, four of our dear college friends, slung their arms around each other’s shoulders as we sang “The Lord Bless You and Keep You,” and I choked up at the sight. (I could hear at least one of my bridesmaids – my dear friend Bethany – sniffling, behind me.) Our friend and minister, Mike, who grew up with my dad, spoke a few wise, simple words over us, and told a couple of jokes.

We walked back down the aisle to an exuberant James Taylor song, grinning at the truth of his words: How sweet it is to be loved by you. Afterward, there were fajitas and iced tea, toasts and dancing, and a brief downpour during the reception followed by a dramatic sunset. We drove to a B&B down the street, owned by friends of ours, and headed for our honeymoon in Ruidoso, N.M., the next day.

That was a beginning, but also a continuation: we have been husband and wife for nine years, but loved each other now for nearly 14.

The trick in many long-term relationships seems to be loving the other person as they are, while holding space for them to grow and change. It can be hard, sometimes, to allow for those changes after knowing each other so long and so well. We are, and yet we are not, the same people who met as college freshmen, started dating long-distance as sophomores, got engaged at 23. We have fought (though not against each other) to declare our independence, to carve out a place for ourselves in the world. We haven’t always known what that place will look like, except that we want to inhabit it together.

It isn’t always easy, this work of building a common life: it requires grace, grit, compromise, lots of forgiveness and so much listening. In our case, it is also held together by so many bowls of chips and salsa; countless loads of laundry and sinkfuls of dishes; years’ and years’ worth of inside jokes; and numberless days of blowing each other a kiss when I get out of the car in the mornings. It is rolling over to kiss one another good night when we’re half asleep at the end of a long day. It is checking in via text or a quick phone call in the middle of the workday. It is remaining near, as my friend Lindsey noted a few summers ago. It is choosing each other, over and over again – whether we are tired or frustrated, furious or sad or delighted.

I love Taylor’s words about marriage because they capture the all of it: marriage is full of both dailiness and magic moments, tears and laughter, deep sorrow and overwhelming joy. It is a burden I’m grateful to carry alongside the man who carries so many of mine.

Nine years feels like a moment and a lifetime all at once – especially when I pause to consider the whole arc of it. And yet, in some ways (I hope), we are still at the beginning.

Happy anniversary, love. Here’s to many more.

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lab girl book tulips

“Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.”

This is one of many wonderful lines from Hope Jahren’s memoir, Lab Girl, which I read this spring. As I walked under budding trees and past flowering bushes, Jahren’s narrative of becoming a botanist, building three successful labs and constructing a life from scratch resonated with me deeply.

Jahren draws wonderful parallels between plants and people, exploring roots, leaves, seeds, flowers and fruit in both the botanical and human realms. She writes about the cyclical nature of growth, the right conditions for flourishing, the ways both plants and humans react to unexpected strain. She never loses sight of the fundamental differences between plants and people, but her elucidation of those differences is also insightful.

I’m over at Great New Books today talking about how much I loved Lab Girl. Please join me over there to read the rest of my review.

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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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green leaves snow spring winter

I looked out the window on Palm Sunday evening to see a streak of gold sunset against grey, lowering, heavy clouds. That morning at church, most of us hadn’t had enough sleep (or caffeine) to muster up a lot of enthusiasm, but we passed out the palm fronds anyway. My husband, fighting a sinus infection, led the procession around the sanctuary, kids and adults singing “Hosanna” and “Salvation Belongs to Our God.”

The next morning, we woke up to swirling, blowing snow: an inversion of the recent weather pattern that has coaxed the crocuses and some early daffodils and tulips out of the ground. I pulled on my snow boots and trudged toward the subway, dreading the biting wind. But by lunchtime, the storm had blown itself out, and scraps of blue sky peeked out from clouds grown suddenly fluffy. I walked down to my favorite cafe for a bowl of soup, snapping photos of green leaves sticking out of fresh snow.

We are days away from Easter, and it’s technically spring: we have turned the clocks forward, observed the vernal equinox. But it all feels topsy-turvy: we are squinting in the bright sunlight even as we dig out the down coats again, then exchange them for umbrellas. I am grateful not to be fighting the deep snowbanks of last winter, but this season keeps catching me off balance. I don’t know what to make of these up-and-down days, their refusal to form a linear progression. It does not feel like a measured journey toward something new.

I started a new temp gig last week, across the street from the one I’ve held for the last four months. The people in both offices are kind, and the work is similar: the kind of university communication that has paid my bills for years. But I haven’t settled into my new routine yet, and everything feels off-kilter. The sunlight slants at an unfamiliar angle across my new desk, and I’m still learning the contours of this place. And I don’t know, yet, what will happen next. (This is the constant refrain of the past year.)

I haven’t paid much attention to Lent this year: my energy has been focused on getting through each day. The broader arc of the season has been difficult to see. But it strikes me that this is how the disciples must have felt during the first Holy Week, especially toward the end of it. The events right in front of them – dramatic and heartbreaking and also deeply mundane – demanded much of their attention. They couldn’t see the pattern until later. And the light, when it broke through, caught them completely off guard.

This season, while difficult, has been full of unexpected beauty: crocuses poking up through the hard earth, acts of kindness that have carried me through some tough days. It has been hard in the ways that waiting and uncertainty are hard. But there has also been sharp light and sudden joy.

As I do every year during Holy Week, I am humming songs from long-ago Easter pageants, making plans for Easter Sunday. I am trusting that these mixed-up days, these tangled weather patterns, will eventually lead us to spring. I am doing my best to pay attention, to notice the small gifts of each day, and to hold on to the promise that something new is coming. Even if I can’t see it yet.

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pink hydrangeas flowers

The hydrangeas are everywhere this summer.

I love watching the seasonal progression of flowers in New England every year – from crocuses to tulips and daffodils, then on to iris, peonies, roses and sunflowers. But I’ve never noticed so many hydrangeas as I have this year. We are in the thick of summer – hot, languid, blue-sky days that end with hazy pink and gold sunsets – and the daylilies and hydrangeas, vivid splashes of color, seem to pop up on every corner.

I read a long time ago on Lindsey’s blog that the color of hydrangeas is determined by the pH composition of their soil. This fascinates me, especially since there are often multicolored flowers on one plant. How does the same soil – or slight variations of it – produce so many shades of beauty? (On a walk to the beach the other night, I spotted four hydrangea plants growing in one yard – all of them sporting different-colored flowers.)

blue hydrangeas purple door

The hydrangeas also fascinate me as a metaphor. I believe place has a strong influence on who we are, and who we become. I’m a native Texan who has lived in Oxford and now in Boston, and all three places have powerfully shaped who I am. The particular terrain of each season of my life – the beautiful and difficult elements alike – also has its effect on me. Like the hydrangeas, I must draw on the gifts (and the trials, and the weather) of my environment to create something rich and beautiful. The hydrangeas can’t choose what color their flowers will be, but I can choose what I make of my life.

This summer, despite its many delights, has been a difficult season in some ways. I’m turning back to my tried-and-true comforts: tea in the morning from my favorite mug, lunches and coffee dates with friends, the words of Julia Cameron (in The Sound of Paper) about self-care and building a creative life.

As I walk through my town on Boston’s South Shore and my work neighborhood in Harvard Square, I keep noticing the hydrangeas. I love them for their beauty, but I’m coming to love them for their resilience too.

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A Bit of Earth

balcony garden 012

This was my fourth summer growing a balcony garden. And I’m feeling a little guilty about it.

My roots are on two Midwestern farms, where I spent my childhood summers watching cows graze on quiet hillsides and riding in the tractor cab with my grandfather. I spent hours shelling peas and snapping green beans into stainless-steel bowls, pulling dinner – or at least part of it – from the earth outside. I learned about how the land fed us, how in turn we tended the land. How our hard work and care, combined with rain and soil and light, produced the vegetables and meat that ended up on my grandparents’ table.

These days, the most I can manage is a row of pots on a balcony.

I’m a city dweller now, living above the land instead of on it, in a second-floor flat on a suburban street in a bustling town just south of Boston. My husband and I have yet to own any of the places we’ve lived; we are renters, tenants, temporary residents with a lease, not a deed, to our names.

There are perks to this way of living, of course: when a faucet sprouts a leak or an electrical circuit shorts out, we call the landlords (who conveniently live downstairs) and let them deal with it. But since we live upstairs and don’t own our place, the yard – the land – doesn’t belong to us.

Most of the time I don’t mind, but sometimes I wish we could have a garden. I wonder if it would help ground me, help me feel connected to the city I’ve lived in for three years but still hesitate to call home.

I’m over at TRIAD magazine today, talking about my balcony garden. Please click over there to read the rest of my essay and see Kristin’s gorgeous photos of my plants.

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Soon, I’m taking J to D.C. for the first time. He’s never been there, and I believe all Americans should go at least once, to wander the Smithsonians and pause at the National Mall and stand in silence at Arlington National Cemetery. And after a decade, the layers of memories from my five trips there are calling me back.

The first layer, from a quick family vacation when I was 12, is overlaid and obfuscated by images of the trips that came after. When did we go up in the Washington Monument? When did we tour Ford’s Theatre? How many times have I watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington? (Answer: not enough. Whatever your politics, it is one of the most deeply moving sights I’ve ever witnessed.)

My last visit to D.C. dates from November 2001, with 25 other students and my favorite English teacher, who sponsored our school’s student diplomatic team. We were representing the U.S. at a Model OAS conference, and we spent the fall semester researching current events and collecting our findings in thick black binders. We learned parliamentary procedure and explored the relationship of the U.S. to other countries in the Western Hemisphere. And then, with the rest of the world, we watched in horror as the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were hit. Underneath our shock and fear, our deep instinctive knowledge that our world would never quite be the same, was a flutter of wondering: Will we still get to go to D.C.?

moas front page

The front page of my MOAS scrapbook

Thanks to Mr. Walker’s powers of persuasion (he convinced our parents that the heightened security would make D.C. one of the safest cities in the world), we all woke up before dawn on the day after Thanksgiving, and hauled our luggage to the airport where we posed with tired eyes, a few of us holding a huge American flag. We had filled our suitcases with binders and business suits, and every one of us girls followed Walker’s advice to pack a little black dress for the Gala, held at the end of the conference. I had planned to tuck in my recipe for peanut butter kiss cookies, already the team’s favorite snack, but I forgot it, instead calling my mom from the hotel phone and asking her to dictate it to me.

We settled into a string of rooms at the State Plaza Hotel, with narrow kitchenettes and tall windows that gave us views of George Washington University and the edge of Georgetown. We were smart, articulate, well-mannered high school students – but we were also cocky, giddy teenagers, and our excitement bubbled and fizzed over like the champagne we were still too young to drink.

I have almost no photos of the usual D.C. attractions from that week, perhaps because I had walked the Mall, seen the monuments, toured the museums, before. I did love walking those familiar paths with new, dear friends, standing in silent awe at the Vietnam Memorial and looking up to read the words of the Gettysburg Address, half hidden in shadow as huge floodlights illuminated President Lincoln. I remember visiting Kermit the Frog and Dorothy’s ruby slippers at the American History Museum, and I did make a stab at a modern art museum, until I got downright bored and slipped out.

Mostly what I remember is the feeling of utter freedom, the ecstasy of being on my own, in a cosmopolitan city, with a group of the friends I loved best. My dearest friend, Jon, was the MOAS president that year, and we spent hours walking around Georgetown, just the two of us, one sparkling indigo night. I also waited for him every day after the conference sessions ended, tired and rumpled in my suit and heels, but anxious for his company on the short walk back to the hotel. The streets of D.C. pulse constantly with both history and change, solidity and growth, and we felt the city’s beat under our shoes, thrumming through the pavement, weaving itself into our bodies and our memories.

gala photo

Jon and me at the Gala, and yes, I’m wearing a little black dress.

I stepped into adulthood for the first time that week, trying it on for size like the navy-blue high heels I borrowed from my mother. I stumbled a bit, my feet aching from the unfamiliar fit, and when the week ended, I was glad to slip back into jeans and sneakers, to be a teenager again. But in that city where growth and change always agitate under the surface (and sometimes swirl above it), I caught a glimpse of what it meant to be grown up, to explore a city for myself, to walk unfamiliar streets and new neighborhoods until they became, somehow, my own.

I will go back to the monuments and museums with J, pointing out names and plaques, dates and heroes. We will visit the sites that demand a bit of awe, that mark wars and victories, challenges and triumphs, in our nation’s history. But I’ll also take him past the OAS building, down the once-familiar path leading back to our hotel. I will point out those spots too, those streets and buildings, less famous to others but vital to me. I will point them out, and I will say: There. Look hard. Do you see it? This is where I began to make the city my own. This is where the world opened up for me.

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