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Posts Tagged ‘Harvard’

We reach a point every December where I wake up with carols in my head: ribbons of lyrics old and new, lines I’ve known since I was a little girl and lines I’ve learned only in the last few years. They wind and stretch and run through my days, an undercurrent of magic and anticipation, a soundtrack to this time of year I have always loved.

This year, for the fourth time, I’ve been singing with friends in a local carol choir: a handful of us holding black and white binders, filled with songs we already knew (The First Noel, Silent Night) and unfamiliar tunes (Dadme Albricias, O Jesulein Suss, Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light). Just to keep it interesting, Peter always throws in a remix or two of carols we think we know – this year it’s The Holly and The Ivy, with syncopation where we didn’t expect it, and a slightly different version of Ding Dong Merrily on High (still with those Glorias).

There is much laughter, and a lot of wrong notes, and at least a moment or two where we all despair of ever getting it right. But every year, a couple of weeks before our performance, it somehow starts to come together. The phrases begin to make sense, and the chords coalesce into something beautiful. It starts to sound less like we’re stumbling our way through, and for a moment – as my choral director used to say – we actually make music together.

The Christmas music is coming in from all sides, these days. There are Spotify mixes on my morning runs or mellow evenings with my partner, and carols by our Sprouts at ZUMIX, and blaring pop renditions in every store or business I walk into. It’s impossible to escape it – but mostly I am happy to soak it in.

I also wake up, some mornings, with the songs of Christmas past: the youth choir singing verse after verse of Do You Hear What I Hear, led ably by George, our beloved music minister. My dad’s friends Buddy and Clay, singing O Holy Night in a church sanctuary in Dallas, thirty years ago. The Magnificat and other a cappella carols at Brookline and at Highland, those churches that were both once mine. And so many memories of Christmas Eve services with my parents, filled with classics like O Come All Ye Faithful and Silent Night.

Last night, my guy and I went to the Harvard carol service, arriving – to our surprise – during the season’s first snow. We sat in a dark wooden pew in the chapel where I used to go to Morning Prayers, and sang our hearts out: Adeste Fideles and Lo, How a Rose; Hark the Herald and Angels We Have Heard on High. It felt nourishing to be there, among poinsettias and candlelight, to wave at a few Harvard friends and see new faces in the pews. To hear again the words that have framed this season all my life: for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior. My soul magnifies the Lord. You will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes. Glory to God in the highest.

The music of the season is indelible for me; it expresses the wonder and joy through familiar melodies and the lyrics I have loved all my life. I’m grateful – through so much loss and change – that the songs have endured, and that I get to sing them in community, and take my annual turn at trilling the Glorias. This season is full of bustle and swing, but it also calls us back to awe and wonder, and these songs help steady me as I prepare to celebrate.

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Charles river ribbon light Boston blue sky

The Layers

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

I’d come across this poem before, but never really paid attention, until Jill Lepore read – nay, declaimed – its first few lines in a brilliant Morning Prayers talk at Harvard back in February. I looked it up immediately, and have read it over many times since.

A few lines keep ringing in my head: I am not who I was. Some principle of being abides, from which I struggle not to stray. I am not done with my changes. 

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

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plants sunny window blue sky

Earlier this month, Laura Tremaine hosted her annual #OneDayHH Instagram challenge: documenting the details of an ordinary day. I’ve participated for several years now, and I always enjoy it, both in the moment and looking back on it later.

This fall, I’m doing a lot of moving between my two worlds: Harvard Square, still and always my home, and my newer Berklee neighborhood in Boston’s Back Bay, where I spend most of my workdays now. This year’s #OneDayHH fell on a Thursday when I spent a lot of time in both, so here are some of the highlights from that day.

november sunrise sky

I love watching (and snapping) the sunrise from our kitchen windows while I move around and make tea.

butler stop leaves fall trolley

My commute begins with a quick walk down the street to the trolley stop. The trees were still in full glorious leaf.

mem church leaves fall blue sky Harvard yard

I walked across the Yard to Mem Church for prayers, as I often do…

Darwin's chai berries journal coffee shop

…and then I headed to Darwin’s, to hang out and work for a while. I had chai (of course), Kelly’s homemade apple bread, blueberries and a bit of writing time.

Lowell house window view plants Harvard

Some Thursdays still include that Harvard writers’ meeting on the sixth floor, in one of my favorite places. This is the view of Lowell House from the window near Wendy’s desk.

I dashed to the florist after my meeting and then to Central Square to meet a girlfriend for lunch. I’d been meaning to try Andala Cafe, and it was delicious.

blue bikes central square Cambridge

Boston’s Blue Bikes are making my back-and-forth possible, these days, so I grabbed one for a quick ride back across the river.

Berklee desk flowers computer lamp work

I spent the afternoon partly here, at my desk: flowers, Oxford, tea, cards from friends, emails. I also spent a while in the sunny conference room – see photo at the top of this post. The plants love the sunshine as much as I do.

Berklee banner building Boston

The afternoon also included a walk to the other end of campus: I was supposed to meet a student. We missed each other, but I popped in to see a work friend, grabbed some Earl Grey from Pavement and headed back to the office to wrestle a podcast episode into submission.

prudential Boston sunset back bay

I left the office late and headed to the public library before meeting a friend for dinner at Flour and a wander around Trident. No photos from that part, but we didn’t need any.

I got home late and was exhausted – these dual-world days take a lot out of me. But I am grateful to belong in both places.

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berklee-building

That’s not quite true. But it has felt true lately, as I’ve added podcast-hosting duties to the round of life at my new job.

My colleagues and I take turns hosting Sounds of Berklee, our weekly podcast featuring songs by and interviews with Berklee students, alumni, faculty and visiting artists.

Here are my first two episodes, if you’d like to listen. The first features Avanti Nagral, a Berklee student pursuing a dual degree with Harvard and making great music while she’s at it:

The second is a Q&A session with Cristina Pato and Edward Perez, two artists from Silkroad who came over to talk about their collaboration with some of our students, and treat us to a live performance (of bagpipes and double bass!) in the studio.

It’s been fun to explore a new medium, and record at the studio on campus. Happy listening.

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komorebi harvard yard tree sky

First, the leaving.

I knew it was a possibility for a long time: the job I signed on for, back in 2016, is of a type that comes up for renewal each fiscal year. This was my fourth job at Harvard, and I’d already weathered a layoff and two temp gigs – so I wasn’t all that surprised to learn, in April, that I’d have to leave at the end of June.

Even at Harvard, few things are set in stone: my time there has seen massive internal shifts, many of them for the better. This storied place, ancient and rooted, is also a place of constant movement and change.

I did my best, this spring, to soak up all the rhythms and traditions I love there: Morning PrayersCommencement, my daily walks to Darwin’s. I had about a thousand coffee dates and sent out so many emails telling people: This chapter is ending. I don’t know what’s next.

On my last day, I walked to Darwin’s mid-morning, then went back later for lunch with a girlfriend. We sat outside, leaning against the plate-glass windows, eating sandwiches and talking about change. She had just started a new job, and I had no idea what the summer held. We agreed: change is hard, even when it’s exciting. And uncertainty is a beast.

Later that afternoon, I slipped away for a walk with a friend, and then came back to the office for my own bittersweet Mary Tyler Moore moment: packing up my bags and switching off the lights for the last time.

Of course, as a friend reminded me, Harvard isn’t going anywhere: it has survived for nearly four centuries, and if I want to go back there sometime, there’s a good chance I can. But this chapter, this particular stretch of five years where the Square became my daily ground, has ended.

I don’t have a word to sum it up neatly: like so much of life, it is full of contradictions. But somewhere between all those emails and meetings, between the headlines and the phone calls and the student interviews, between Tuesdays at the farmers’ market and Thursday mornings on the sixth floor, between frequent trips to the florist and every single day at Darwin’s, Harvard Square became my home.

I’ve landed in a good place across the river. But I left part of my heart in Cambridge, and for now, I’m making a point to get back there as often as I can.

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blue-sky-memorial-hall

Yesterday was a changeable day: morning haze, bright sunshine, an afternoon downpour. I spent it crisscrossing the Square, and snapped this photo walking by Memorial Hall after the rain.

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harvard widener library commencement banners

We celebrated Commencement at Harvard last week: my sixth one, the university’s 367th. It was – it always is – a kaleidoscope of moments and light, words and memories.

It was crimson hoods and black robes flapping, piles and piles of special editions of the Harvard Gazette, where I worked briefly during Commencement season, two years ago. It was spring breezes and blue skies, exuberant music by the Harvard band and choir, thousands of folding chairs and dozens of speeches.

I spent most of the morning in the Yard, the epicenter of the festivities, and it was overstimulating and glorious. I stood near the stage with my colleagues Deb and Christina, press passes around our necks. We listened and applauded, soaking it all in.

harvard yard banners trees commencement

Commencement, this year, smelled like lilacs, especially the waist-high versions that bloomed out just in time for the day. It sounded like marching feet and raucous cheers, vuvuzelas and ringing church bells, applause from so many proud parents and friends. It tasted like chai (of course) from Darwin’s, sipped standing in the Yard as we listened to the student orators, and like veggie wraps and guacamole, eaten sitting by a sixth-floor office window while we rested our tired feet.

This year, the road to Commencement has felt long and difficult. It has been a tough time to be doing communications work at a school of government, even (or especially) at Harvard. We have weathered serious internal changes in our staff and leadership, and decision-making processes have shifted, sometimes faster than I could keep up with.

Our work here is informed by the political climate in the nation and the world, and it’s been a wild ride lately in both places. The work of keeping on, of fulfilling our daily tasks and responsibilities, has felt sometimes futile and often overwhelming. I’ve wondered many times whether and how it can possibly matter.

And yet.

I spent a glorious hour sitting in the HKS café last month, listening to a Somali-Canadian student speak about her hopes for nation-building and the good questions she plans to take back to Mogadishu. On Commencement day, I listened to Pete Davis, the graduate student speaker, urge us to commit to showing up and slaying the dragons of boredom and distraction, to do the slow work of building a better world. I listened, that afternoon, to Drew Gilpin Faust speak about hope in her final Commencement address as Harvard’s president, nudging her audience toward wisdom and goodness. I remembered, for a moment, what this place can be.

I’ll be searching out my own new beginning (again) this summer. My current job is ending, so I’ll be looking for a new position where I can write and edit and tell good stories. I don’t know yet where that will be, though I hope it’s at Harvard.

Because after five years, this place is home. It is a challenge and a community, an inspiration and sometimes a source of exasperation. It is both a big, complicated, many-headed beast and a small New England town. It has tremendous potential to do some good in the world, and it is full of bright, thoughtful, curious people who help make that happen.

As our graduates begin their next chapters (mostly) outside of Cambridge, I hope I get the chance to write another one here.

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katie lin-manuel miranda interview microphone

It’s been ten days and I still can’t believe I get to say this: I got to interview Lin-Manuel Miranda.

I do not, generally, get starstruck very often. The exceptions to that rule tend to be the authors I love (like Alice Hoffman, who was very kind when I spoke to her on the phone last fall). But I am a musical theatre geek from way back, and I have spent untold hours over the past two years listening to Hamilton.

So when I found out Lin-Manuel was coming to speak at the Harvard Kennedy School (where I work), I just about hit the ceiling. I know for a fact I wasn’t the only one.

Lin-Manuel flew in for a Thursday evening to kick off America Adelante, a conference for Latino students and leaders. I begged everyone I had to beg – namely, my editors at the Harvard Gazette and my colleagues who organized the conference – to let me be the one to write the story. I’d have begged Drew Faust herself (Harvard’s president) if I had to.

All I was expecting was a seat at Lin’s keynote – a literal seat in the room where it happened. I did not dream of what you see above: ten minutes, give or take, with the man himself.

I’d scribbled notes all through his keynote, which was fantastic, then listened in as my colleague Matt interviewed him for the HKS podcast. When he turned to me with that grin after wrapping up with Matt and said, “Who are you writing for?,” I nearly lost all my words. (But I managed to recover a few of them.)

katie lin manuel miranda

I asked him first about democracy. Hamilton is the origin story of democracy, and some of Lin’s prolific activism on Twitter is about urging people to get involved in democracy today: registering to vote, calling their reps, making their voices heard. “We’re seeing such an accumulation of ordinary voices,” he said.

We talked, too, about art and activism: both are vital parts of his work. He mentioned being inspired by the Parkland students, and making “the Marvel/DC crossover” with Ben Platt of Dear Evan Hansen to encourage them. (Their collaborative song, Found Tonight, gives me chills.)

I admire Lin’s creative genius, but I also love how generous he is, how much he cares about making a difference in the world. He was funny and engaging, and even though I’m sure he was tired, he really listened to my questions and offered thoughtful answers. (And he talks with his hands! So do I.)

katie lin manuel miranda hand gesture

My favorite question was the last one I asked: “What’s the last great book you read?”

He paused – “Ooooh!” – then admitted, “I’m sort of in a prison of my own making.”

The reason? His New Year’s resolution was to read all of Shakespeare’s plays, and “I’m so behind,” he confessed. “I’ve had a busy few months!” That was the understatement of the night.

But then – then! – he waxed eloquent about reading the sonnets, and “the freedom he [Shakespeare] finds within the form.” In classic Lin fashion, he concluded, “Reading the sonnets was pretty dope.” I nearly died of English-major nerd bliss.

I’d forgotten my copy of the Hamiltome, but I asked Lin to sign my journal, and he graciously complied. The inscription, under my name and above his signature?

“See you in the room where it happens.”

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hks desk rose itn computer

That’s what I say when my husband asks me what’s on tap for my Monday.

“You should trademark that,” he joked recently, as we did our morning dance in the bathroom: brushing teeth, blow-drying hair, shaving, slathering on moisturizer. It’s often our only chance to get a sense of each other’s days before he drives to the office and I walk down the street to catch the trolley.

J’s days are usually packed full of meetings: with clients (he’s a marriage and family therapist), supervisees (he helps train new therapists), co-workers. Mine often include meetings too, but the Monday scramble is slightly different: I see it as the deep breath, the pull of the lever that throws the week into gear.

I pack my bag the night before with books, workout gear, a snack or two. In the morning I add my water bottle, lunch if I’m bringing it, any last-minute essentials. When I get to the Square, I head to Mem Church (if I’ve made it in time), then walk a few blocks over to the office. And the gearing-up begins.

I sift through the weekend’s emails, put together the daily news roundup (see above), check my work calendar, write down to-do lists and reminders for the week. I jot down notes for our Monday-afternoon meeting and remind myself of where I left various projects on Friday. I send out a couple of weekly emails and draft another one. Mid-morning, if I can swing it, I push back my chair and head to Darwin’s for some chai. Caffeine is a vital part of this machinery, as are the smiles from my favorite baristas.

Many of these tasks happen every day in some form, but Mondays are a chance to hit reset: to look at the week as a whole and take stock before diving in. Of course, sometimes the chaos takes over, and unexpected things crop up all the time. But if I’m lucky, the Monday scramble helps me unscramble the rest of the week – or at least do some damage control.

How do you start off your weeks? Is there a “Monday scramble” – or something similar – in your world?

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memorial church window light candles

I go for the sunlight shafting through the high windows, sometimes flooding directly into my eyes as I sit or stand. It feels like its own sort of benediction, like a blessing I didn’t earn and can only receive.

I go for the voices of the dozen students dressed in long black robes trimmed with scarlet cord. They sing a different anthem every weekday, and their voices soar clear and pure above the carved pews to the cream-colored ceiling.

I go for MemCafé on Wednesdays after service: a paper cup of Lady Grey tea, a granola bar for the road, a warm smile and chitchat from a college student who has no idea how much his kindness means to me.

I go for the words of the ancient texts: a psalm to begin the service, the Lord’s Prayer near the end. Sometimes I participate in the responsive readings or the prayer, my voice blending into the chorus. Other times I sit and listen, letting the community speak for me.

I go for the talks by members of the Harvard community and guests: always varied, often surprising, usually carrying an insight I didn’t expect.

I go because it’s good to be known and welcomed, to see other familiar faces in the pews even if we never speak to one another.

I go to let the ritual anchor me, to breathe deeply before the workday begins, to find a bit of hope and peace among the crowded tasks of ordinary life.

I go for the benedictions, every day: May the Lord bless you and keep you. May he preserve your going out and your coming in. May the peace of God rest, rule and abide in each of us until we meet again. Amen.

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