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Posts Tagged ‘Harvard’

morning prayers montage memorial church

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking at Morning Prayers, the brief service held every weekday at Harvard’s Memorial Church, across the Square from where I work.

I’ve been a sporadic attendee at Morning Prayers for a while, a more regular one this year, slipping into a pew to soak up the choral music and participate in the psalm readings, the Lord’s Prayer and the closing hymns. But this was my first time speaking there.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I chose to talk about what is saving my life now: reading a beloved passage by Barbara Brown Taylor, and explaining how that phrase of hers has captured and held my attention for several years. Here’s a snippet of my talk:

What is saving your life now?

It’s not a question I had ever considered in just this way, until I read it in Taylor’s book. I’d heard similar questions, phrased slightly differently: what are you grateful for? What’s making you happy these days?

But this question, with its insistence on what is vital, sneaked into my soul and set up camp there. And I’ve been amazed at the simple power of continuing to ask it. […]

It’s been a hard few months to live in the world – a hard year or so. I find myself need the reminder – and maybe you do too – that what can save our spiritual lives is the physical, embodied, daily experience of life on this earth. We are creatures who walk around in our bodies, breathing the air, dependent on food and drink for our survival, affected by our environment in a thousand ways, no matter how much we try to insist otherwise. As I kept asking this question, I found that, so often, what is saving my life now are the small things. Many of them are physical, tangible. And all of them are related to my daily, walking-around life in this world.

You can listen to the full service – just under 15 minutes – on the Memorial Church website. (My talk starts at about 4:25.) And as always, I’d love to hear about what is saving your life now.

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one day hh instagram

A couple of weeks ago, Laura Tremaine hosted her annual #OneDayHH Instagram event – an invitation to document and share the everyday details and rhythms of our lives.

Although I use Instagram for that anyway (sometimes), it’s always fun to play along, both to share my own daily routine and to see what others are posting. I’m a believer in the loveliness and power of sharing field notes from our lives, and this day always helps bring that back into focus.

This year was my third time participating, and the way it went felt completely fitting: I shared a few photos, mostly of my morning routine, then got totally caught up in the madness of meetings, email and other life tasks/craziness. (This was six days before the election, so my workday included a lot of that particular madness.)

In this full and demanding season, that is often how it’s going around here, and I’m letting myself off the hook for not sharing a “complete” record of the day. I wanted to share what I did post, though, since these details are vital and lovely, and I want to remember them. (Especially when I’m clinging to daily rhythms to save my sanity, right now.)

green coat red pants subway flats

I was up before dawn, moving around our still-new apartment in the dark: showering, brewing tea in a purple travel mug, packing my work bags. Most mornings, I catch the bus, but my husband drops me off at the T station in our old neighborhood on Wednesdays. I carry my black purse and this polka-dot bag (mostly filled with books) on my commute. It was a mild day, so I switched from black leggings and ankle boots back to my happy red pants (but still wore my favorite, magic jade-green coat).

boston skyline sunrise view

Halfway through my commute, I get this view as the train rumbles across the Charles River between Boston and Cambridge. I always take a second to soak it in – I love the sight of the skyline and the river at any time of the year.

golden leaves bikes harvard yard

After a little writing time in the library and Morning Prayers, I walk back through Harvard Yard to my office a few blocks away. Lately, this golden tree in the Yard is taking my breath away every morning. I love the autumn light in Cambridge.

hks desk view

My desk is command central for most of my workdays at the Harvard Kennedy School, and this is a typical view: a little cluttered, but I know where everything is. I spent most of the morning here, catching up on emails and writing projects (with a trip to Darwin’s for chai, mid-morning). My colleagues are out of frame here, but they are a vital part of my workdays, and a big reason I love my job.

soup red pants leaves

Back to Darwin’s at lunchtime for a bowl of spinach-potato-leek soup, and chitchat with the good folks behind the counter. I sat on a bench outside for a while, listening to the ’80s music blasting from the cafe’s open doors, dipping a hunk of baguette into the soup, and watching the sky.

This was the last photo I posted of the day: my afternoon contained three solid hours of work meetings, one of which meant I stayed at the office a little late. I dug into Rae Carson’s wonderful YA novel Like a River Glorious on my train ride home, then spent the evening catching up on home details: laundry, dishes, making huevos rancheros for dinner. Later, I picked my husband up from work and we debriefed our days while he ate. I collapsed into bed around 10:30, rooting for the Cubs to win Game 7 (woohoo!), but not able to stay awake long enough to watch it happen. I scribbled a few notes from the day in my journal, then turned out the light.

Messy, full, busy, mundane, often lovely: this was a completely ordinary Wednesday. Both its broad outlines and its particular details are typical of my life right now. I may not have posted all the details, but I’m glad I captured a few. Every year, this project reminds me to “say a holy yes” to my life as it is, at this moment, and I am grateful.

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darwins cider sign red leaves

This fall, as I mentioned recently, has been more than a little hectic. Lots of demands at work and at home, plus two wonderful trips – one to NYC and one to Texas for a college reunion – have left me feeling frazzled.

I’ve done some highly cathartic venting to a few friends, but one of them reminded me the other day that it’s also helpful to focus on the good. And there is so much good, even while things are crazy. So here, a list of what’s saving my life this fall:

  • Early-morning writing sessions in one of the libraries on campus. If I wake up on time and catch the early bus, I often have 15 or 20 minutes to curl up in an armchair and scribble in my journal, or stare out the window. I like the quiet company of students (though occasionally someone is snoring!), and watching the leaves change through the windows. And writing is so good for my soul.
  • Walking through the Yard, or anywhere in Harvard Square, and marveling at the changing leaves. My three favorite red maples, the harbingers, are all but bare now, and the yellow leaves are out in full force. I’m stunned by the colors every year.
  • The weekday Morning Prayers service on campus, which this semester is meeting in Holden Chapel, is full of good words and gorgeous music. I’ve been making it over there most mornings, and I love listening to the choir, hearing speakers from around campus, and sight-reading unfamiliar but lovely hymns.
  • Darwin’s, about which I have talked often here, continues to save my life at least twice a day. The chai, the cookies, the warm sunset walls, the sandwiches and soup, and most of all, the friendly chitchat with my people. It is my place and I am so grateful.
  • My Thursday writers’ meetings up on the sixth floor, which are hilarious, sarcastic and always informative. (And which also involve some of my people.)
  • Jen Lee’s posts about her new project, which have given me so many good words on the price of courage and being enough.
  • Debriefing the days with my husband, whenever and however we can.
  • A few stalwart friendships, local and far-flung, which provide wisdom, joy and so much love.
  • My fall uniform: striped dress, black leggings and ankle boots, bright scarf, fingerless gloves, my favorite green coat. (See also: not overthinking it.)
  • Antacid pills and lots of water. Boring but true.
  • The Hamilton soundtrack, which has a line for every situation.
  • My colleagues, who are smart, funny and caring, and who make the craziness much more bearable.
  • Seeing so many people get excited about voting (though I am so ready for this election to be over).
  • Good books. I’m not reading at my usual pace or volume right now, but I recently loved Beneath Wandering Stars, A Word for Love and Books for Living.
  • This mantra from a colleague: “Never deny a positive impulse.” I love that.

What’s saving your life this fall? I’d really like to know.

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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 memorial church view

It is (finally) springtime in Cambridge. The trees are blooming, the tulips are lifting up their elegant heads to the sun, the azaleas and hydrangeas are flowering. And the tourist groups are out in force.

Working at Harvard, especially during the warmer months, means engaging with (sometimes dodging) people whose purpose for being on campus is quite different from mine. Harvard is where I spend my workdays: it is the backdrop for my meetings, projects, lunch breaks, my work-related frustrations and triumphs. It is a living, breathing, complex community, comprising several thousand students and employees. But it is also world famous and storied, and certain parts of it are very public, even iconic.

harvard yard autumn light leaves

I love some of the public spaces at Harvard, such as the Yard (above), edged with red-brick buildings and dotted with colorful chairs in the summertime. The wide south porch of Memorial Church, which is my favorite place to eat a picnic lunch. The grand, columned facade of Widener Library, iconic in both design and purpose. The towering exterior of Memorial Hall (below), which evokes nothing so much as Hogwarts.

memorial hall harvard

All these images are “very Harvard” – part of the history and mythology of this place, but also integral to its everyday working life.

But one unexpected gift of working at Harvard is the chance to see and explore its hidden corners. I’ve worked in three offices here now, and visited eight of the University’s schools (and many different buildings) for interviews, meetings and events. I spent an entire semester making weekly visits to the Harvard Art Museums last year. And while the view from my current sixth-floor workspace includes several of those famous spires, I have discovered a few hidden corners I adore.

The sunken garden on Appian Way, where I spent many lunch breaks when I worked in the building next door. The exhibition room at Houghton Library, where treasures from the archives are on display to the public (but it’s dim, quiet and rarely crowded). The corner of Boylston Hall, next to Widener, which catches the most gorgeous afternoon light. The passageway between Larsen Hall and Christ Church Cambridge, where crocuses and forsythia bloom in the spring.

cambridge ma forsythia yellow spring

After three years, this is, unquestionably, my neighborhood. I still have much more to discover: Harvard is a big, complicated, multilayered place. But the physical space, the ground of the Square, grows more and more familiar to me. It no longer feels like a code I can’t crack, a walled garden I can’t open. I have my routines, my rhythms, my favorite spots for work and play. I watch the seasons change, delighting in spring flowers, autumn leaves and even the occasional snowstorm.

johnson gate harvard snow

Many of the nooks and crannies I love are technically public: they are available to anyone who is willing to explore and pay attention. But some of them feel like hidden treasure, like delightful secrets that are all mine. They are perhaps less awe-inspiring than the grand public spaces, but they hold their own tranquil beauty. They are part of the life of this place, as much as the postcard-worthy columns and towers. And they are part of my Harvard: my particular experience of this place I love so well.

Commencement is next week, and I will delight in the public pomp and circumstance, as I do every year: the banners, the caps and gowns, the Latin oration, the glorious swirl of excitement and new beginnings. But after the dust has settled and the folding chairs have been put away, you can find me hiding out in these quiet corners: relishing the approach of summer, dodging the tourist traffic, and trying – always trying – to pay attention to the beauty around every bend.

katie memorial church green coat harvard yard

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harvard yard trees snow

It snowed eight inches in Cambridge on Friday, as predicted. I’d kept an eye on the forecast, pulled out my snow boots, bundled up in all the right gear. But I was not ready.

After last winter’s record-breaking 108 inches of snow (that’s nine feet, people), most New England residents are greeting the weather forecast with a little trepidation these days. Even though we’ve had some shockingly mild spells, and this snow was mostly falling on bare ground, I still expected the usual slew of snow-related problems: icy sidewalks, bitter winds, slushy streets, possible train delays.

I didn’t want to walk out there and face it. But I had to.

harvard hall snow trees winter

These past few months have been a tough stretch for me, and for several people I love. We’re all dealing with the present reality or the aftermath of hard things: surgery, illness, uncertainty in our personal and professional lives. We wake up and face them because we have to, and we get through the day somehow, but at the end, it is still winter.

My sister is still on crutches after her knee surgery; my friends’ grown daughter still has cancer. I am still job hunting. We are all hanging in, bearing things we’d rather not have to bear, hoping for a glimpse of good news.

And yet.

cambridge fence sidewalk snow

On Friday, I arrived at the office to find I wasn’t alone, as I had feared I might be; about half of my colleagues had made it in. We spent a quiet, convivial, productive morning, watching the snow swirl down outside Sarah’s office window.

It felt like being inside a snow globe, and at lunch I walked out to the scene above. I made my way down the street to Darwin’s, for a sandwich and chitchat with the staff, and returned to work feeling nourished in several ways.

Later that afternoon, I threw on my coat, picked up a library book that needed returning, and headed over to the Yard. It is difficult to overstate my love for this particular patch of ground: I love it in all seasons, and it’s stunning in the snow.

johnson gate harvard snow

I walked down snowy sidewalks through Old Yard, past Widener Library and over to Lamont, where I returned my book and picked up another one. I stopped every few yards to marvel, sliding off my glove and snapping photos of buildings and trees limned with fluffy snow.

houghton library harvard memorial church snow

I am not a lover of cold and snow by nature. Given the choice, I’d prefer a mild spring evening or a crisp autumn day when the trees blaze red instead of standing out in black and white. But this winter wonderland has its own charms. And I was so grateful, on Friday, to be out in it, enjoying it. (I was equally glad to go back inside, where it was warm and dry.)

Worried about a messy evening commute, I left work a little early, only to find that the snow had stopped when I reached my neighborhood. The sky was tinted a delicate sunset pink, and the rosy light on the branches of the trees next to the subway station took my breath away.

sunset light snow branches winter

I would rather not have to bear the frustrations of winter (and I’m watching the forecast carefully, since more cold and snow are on their way). And I am so ready for the job hunt to be over. But both of them also possess some lovely silver – or, occasionally, rose-tinted – linings.

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harvard yard memorial church view

Here is part of the truth about working at Harvard: it took a little while for it to feel like mine.

I admit to being a little intimidated – as one might expect. Harvard is storied, prestigious and often complicated to navigate, geographically and otherwise. (Harvard comprises more than a dozen schools, which each function as semi-autonomous units, but there’s a lot of cross-pollination, and some policies and procedures are university-wide.)

memorial hall harvard

I was fortunate to find a “home base” right away: my office at the Ed School’s campus on Appian Way, two blocks from the heart of the Square. I had colleagues who made me feel welcome and tried to explain the ins and outs of working for a unit within Harvard, while still being part of Harvard as a whole. (Confused yet?)

blue sky appian way

That first winter, I set about exploring Harvard Square, starting with familiar ground: Crema Cafe, the Yard, Memorial Church, the Harvard Book Store. Gradually, I added to my store of knowledge: shops, cafes and restaurants; the bank, the post office, the florist. I peeked into Widener Library, daring to check out a few books and DVDs. I soaked up the bits of Harvard lore I heard from colleagues and student tour guides, and I memorized dozens of acronyms related to offices and units across campus. (Harvard loves an acronym.)

And yet.

For a long while, I stuck mostly to my small patch of the Square: my office, the Yard, my favorite cafes and bookstores. I was a little shy about going farther afield. This is a big place, and it’s easy to get lost, or to feel intimidated when you’re heading to a new part of campus. There is so much to absorb, so much to take in, about this place and how it works. It can be hard to feel like you really belong here.

katie memorial church green coat harvard yard

Two and a half years in, I still feel these things occasionally. But by now, Harvard also feels like mine.

My work this summer has taken me to parts of campus I’d never seen before: the Divinity School, the Graduate School of Design, the Center for Astrophysics, the brand-new Launch Lab over at the Business School. I’ve spent a few afternoons in Lamont Library and found my way to numerous new-to-me offices and buildings.

All the while, I’ve continued to frequent my favorite places: Harvard Yard, green and summer-lush; the Harvard Art Museums, full of objects both fascinating and beautiful; Appian Way, still my center of gravity here. And I have realized again what I already knew: I love this place, this landscape, this institution, down to my bones.

I never expected to work at Harvard, or to fall in love with it the way I have. But I am grateful to be here, retracing familiar paths and discovering new corners of campus. It can be complicated, sometimes maddeningly bureaucratic – and the intimidation hasn’t all disappeared. But my Harvard staff ID and my heart say the same thing: it’s mine.

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