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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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back porch geraniums

Last week, I sat in my usual spot in the chapel of Memorial Church, squinting in the bright morning light, watching it play across the high cream-colored ceilings and the carved wooden pews. Morning Prayers is back in session for the fall term, and I am grateful to rest in it again as part of my daily rhythm.

David Hempton, the dean of Harvard Divinity School, spoke that morning on an achingly timely topic: “belonging at Harvard.” (This was two days after the president’s DACA announcement, about which Harvard’s president, Drew Faust, and others have spoken more eloquently than I can.)

Hempton noted that belonging means something more than networking or connecting or being able to say you visited a place. Many people come to Harvard for exactly those (legitimate) reasons. But for those of us who work and study here – who have made it, in some sense, our home – belonging means more than that. We want to know that this is our community; that we are accepted here, valued, safe. With that comes a deep responsibility to make this community a safe, thoughtful, welcoming place for others.

Belonging, Hempton added, “involves the acceptance of our own frailties and those of others in a spirit of generosity and mutual forbearance. There is no belonging without self-acceptance.”

Those words, in his gentle Irish accent, made tears well in my eyes, and they reminded me of another David, the poet David Whyte, in “The House of Belonging“:

This is the bright home
in which I live,
this is where
I ask
my friends
to come,
this is where I want
to love all the things
it has taken me so long
to learn to love. […]

There is no house
like the house of belonging.

It takes a long time for most of us to find our own houses of belonging: to accept ourselves and others without judgment and with generosity, to be brave enough to become who we really are. It’s not a linear process, and it is a slow one: it takes a long time to grow into ourselves. But even as we fail and falter, we are still responsible for the other side of community: we must be a place of welcome for others. We must ask how we can help them belong, and help them thrive.

I don’t have the answers for any of this, at Harvard or elsewhere: I don’t always know what it looks like, for me or for my communities. But as Hempton said (and as Rakesh Khurana, the dean of Harvard College, said at Morning Prayers the very next day), I know one thing: we must do this work, of building and welcome, together.

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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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harvard yard banners commencement 2016

We are (rapidly) approaching Commencement here at Harvard. Classes are over; fluttering robes and other regalia are appearing on the streets of Cambridge; the Yard is filling up with folding chairs, audio speakers and other equipment. (Three days to go.)

I’ve been walking through the Yard whenever I can, watching it all take shape: watching the banners unfurl and the stage come together on the south porch of Memorial Church, piece by piece. There is a comfort in these steady rituals, year after year, a reliability deepened by knowing where to look.

Most of our students at the Kennedy School of Government, where I work, are graduating after one or two years in a master’s program, while our Ph.D. students have been in it for a longer haul. But many of the students earning their undergraduate degrees from Harvard College have spent four years in this place. And as of this spring, so have I.

harvard yard memorial church view

This time of year always makes me reflective: we are wrapping up another academic season, pausing before the plunge into summer, stopping to take stock of what we’ve accomplished and what we’ve gained. We are celebrating another class of graduating students right before we lose them: we are sending (most of) them out into the world, charging them to take what they’ve learned here and do some good.

Yet those of us who stay, who spend our workdays year-round in this place, are under the same charge: to take what we have learned, what we have built here, and do some good.

During this turbulent academic year – a year in which I’ve been adjusting, simultaneously, to a new job and to constantly shifting political realities, which directly affect said job – I have been thinking of James Baldwin’s words about America. Baldwin asserted his love for this country, and added in the next breath, “Exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

Similarly, I have developed a bone-deep love for Harvard, but I insist on the right to question it perpetually, and yes, sometimes to criticize it.

To be a part of this place, with its nearly four centuries of history, tradition and scholarship, is also to reckon with its scars and inconsistencies, its blind spots and the weight of its privilege. It is to keep speaking up (in my own quiet way), insisting on a place for those who have often been marginalized here: women, immigrants, African Americans and other minorities, those who don’t fit the mold of the “traditional” Harvard student or employee. It is to believe – sometimes by an effort of will – that I belong here, and that my voice matters: that I, too, am Harvard.

Over the past four years, I’ve worked in three different areas of Harvard: the Ed School, where I first landed and began to stretch my wings; the Harvard Gazette, where I survived a wild and wonderful Commencement season last year; and the Kennedy School, where I spend my days now. I have worked hard to make a place for myself here, to find a home, and I’ve been surprised and delighted to find several. In addition to all three of my offices (current and former), there are other corners of Harvard that belong to me.

harvard yard path trees light

The sunken garden on Appian Way, where tulips and iris bob their vivid heads in the spring and summer. A particular carved wooden pew in Memorial Church, where I have sat on many mornings this year, listening to the choir sing and the congregation recite the Lord’s Prayer. A cluster of squashy armchairs in Lamont Library, with a window that looks out into the trees. The second-floor room at the Harvard Art Museums that holds my favorite Monet paintings and one of Degas’ Little Dancer sculptures. And I can’t forget the places that are technically not part of Harvard, but that anchor me and nourish me here in the Square: the flower shop, the Harvard Book Store, and – most especially – Darwin’s.

As I’ve said before, working at Harvard is often like working anywhere else: there are politics and frustrations and paperwork, and also triumphs and community and good, satisfying work. I have struggled here, and felt lost and heartbroken – especially after being laid off, two years ago this month. I have also worked hard for every relationship I’ve built here, and that work has been rewarded: now I regularly see familiar faces around the Square, or have coffee dates and congenial email exchanges with colleagues and friends. This feels like my place, and it is: I speak the language, I know the streets and buildings, I understand the rhythms of this neighborhood. There is so much more to learn (there always is), but I am rooted here, and thriving.

Like our students, I realize that what I’ve gained here – what I have been given, and also what I have worked hard for – comes with responsibility. So I’ll keep asking questions, keep moving forward, keep thinking about how to do my work well, how to affect this place for good.

I’m not graduating with a degree from Harvard this year. But I am grateful, down to my bones, for my four years (and counting) in this place that is ever more mine.

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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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