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Posts Tagged ‘hope’

As the snow swirls down outside, I’ve been plowing (ha) through books – poetry, fiction, memoir and strong women, as usual. Here’s what I have been reading:

Swan, Mary Oliver
I adored this Oliver collection, unsurprisingly – especially the first poem, and several others. She writes so well about nature, the interior life, seasons and paying attention. Perfect morning reading.

Salty: Lessons on Eating, Drinking, and Living from Revolutionary Women, Alissa Wilkinson
I’ve known Alissa online for years, and loved her book of essays on smart, strong, bold women – Hannah Arendt, Edna Lewis, Maya Angelou, Laurie Colwin and others – who had interesting things to say about food, gathering, womanhood and community. If that sounds dry, it isn’t; Alissa’s writing sparkles, and each chapter ends with a delectable-sounding recipe. Found at the lovely new Seven and One Books in Abilene.

Running, Lindsey A. Freeman
As a longtime runner, a queer woman and a scholar, Freeman explores various aspects of running through brief essays – part memoir, part meditation, part academic inquiry. I enjoyed this tour of her experience as a runner, and the ways she writes about how running shapes us. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 14).

Beyond That, the Sea, Laura Spence-Ash
During World War II, Beatrix Thompson’s parents send her to the U.S. to escape the bombings in London. Bea lands with a well-off family, the Gregorys, and her bond with them – deep and complicated – endures over the following years and decades. A gorgeous, elegiac, thoughtful novel about love and loss and complex relationships. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 21).

Winterhouse, Ben Guterson
Elizabeth Somers, an orphan who lives with her curmudgeonly relatives, spends a surprise Christmas vacation at Winterhouse, an old hotel full of delights. She makes a friend, uncovers a dastardly plot, makes some mistakes and discovers family secrets. I liked Elizabeth, but I really wanted this to be better than it was.

The Belle of Belgrave Square, Mimi Matthews
Julia Wychwood would rather read than go to a ball – but the only way to placate her hypochondriac parents is to plead illness. She’s rather miserable when Captain Jasper Blunt, a brooding ex-soldier in need of a fortune, arrives in London and begins pursuing her. A fun romance that plays with some classic tropes; I loved Julia (a fellow bookworm!) and her relationship with Jasper. I also loved The Siren of Sussex; this is a sequel of sorts.

The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times, Michelle Obama
Michelle needs no introduction from me; this book discusses some of the tools she uses to steady her during challenging times, such as knitting, exercise, friendship and keeping her perspective straight. I loved the insights into her marriage and her relationship with her mom, and her practical, wise voice. So good.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

What are you reading?

P.S. The fourth issue of my newsletter, For the Noticers, came out last week. Sign up here to get on the list for next time!

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Last week, I went to see Wakanda Forever with my guy. I’m still a Marvel novice (he’s an avid, longtime fan), and I’d avoided spoilers, wanting to come in with fresh eyes. It was gorgeous and impressive: the fight scenes alone were visually amazing. But the plot – although I knew it began with grief – was way heavier than I expected.

There was a lot of death and vengeance, I said to a friend afterward, debriefing the movie (and my reaction to it) while trying not to give the plot away.

Nothing says Advent like death and vengeance! she joked. Taxes, Herod, etc. And though I laughed, her words kept coming back to me all week.

The Marvel universe is, of course, not explicitly Christian: it has dozens of deities, who often out-human the humans in their capricious plotting and scheming. But both narratives – Black Panther and Advent – are, on some level, about what happens when humans pursue power at the cost of oppressing others. There is chaos and darkness, and a lot of yearning for things to be made new, in both Wakanda’s world and ours.

The villains wear different faces, perhaps. Herod is a shadowy figure to most of us, though he was infamous in his day for cruelty and paranoia (and, of course, taxation). The villains in Wakanda Forever are the colonizers: white Europeans who, in that world and this, have seized land and resources for themselves, with little thought to the impacts on native peoples, or any claim those same peoples might have to the land they have inhabited for centuries.

I admit it is uncomfortable – and necessary – to watch movies where people who look like me are the antagonists. It also makes me think, every time, of what Galadriel says at the beginning of the Fellowship of the Ring film: she’s talking about the rings designed for the kings of men, “who, above all else, desire power.”

If power (often via control of valuable resources) is the goal, then governments and rulers will stop at nothing to secure it. Even for those who primarily want to protect their people and homeland, power can be a seductive – and blinding – distraction. Several of the characters in Wakanda Forever get sidetracked by its lure, nearly launching the entire world into a blistering full-scale war.

There is (isn’t there always?) another way, which is the message of Advent: the quiet, messy, upside-down approach of mercy, the confounding way that hope and scrappy underdogs often sneak in to save the day. There is a way, even among warring nations, to choose peace and justice over iron-fist control, even when that justice comes at a heavy price. In Wakanda Forever, we watch several characters grapple with this choice – even as the consequences of others’ choices bring heavy losses and deep pain.

Neither narrative wraps up neatly: the movie ends, of course, and Christmas does come, but neither erases the pain that came before it. Neither ending can entirely negate the realities of oppression and power-seeking, and the losses that cannot be recovered. Death and darkness are real, and sometimes they threaten to overwhelm the light.

And yet: we wouldn’t keep watching superhero movies, or observing Advent, if we didn’t believe the light would triumph somehow. We would turn away from these stories altogether if we didn’t believe – or hope – the light could break through.

We keep telling these stories, trying to make sense of our pain, trying to turn toward mercy and justice and new life, even when the grief is a heavy weight, even when the darkness covers the earth. We believe, somehow, that the light is coming, that redemption is possible, that death and darkness are not the end.

In this season of deep darkness and stubborn light, I’ll keep clinging to that belief – whether via the essays in my Advent book or, unexpectedly, on a journey to Wakanda.

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Julia Roberts. Julia Child. Julia Cameron. A writer friend with whom I’ve recently reconnected. My yoga instructor, for a few months on Saturday mornings. And the name of my ex-husband’s new partner – indeed, the only name I knew her by, for a long time.

It’s not an uncommon name, Julia – especially here in the U.S., over the past century or so. I can think of other actresses (Stiles, Ormond, Louis-Dreyfus) and I’m sure I’ve met other women with that name, over the course of my life. For months after my marriage fell apart, the name hit me in the chest every time I heard it, whether or not it was referring to the woman whose last name I still didn’t know. (I didn’t ask for a lot of details; I figured – still figure – that for me it’s better not to know too much.)

I wondered, at the time: will I hate this name for the rest of my life? Would it make my heart clench every time I heard it? The name Julie, so similar but different, inspires nothing but warm feelings in me: since high school I’ve had at least one friend named Julie, women of courage and grace and great kindness, one or two of whom are still in my life. But I knew I didn’t want to recoil from every person I met named Julia. It’s a small detail of divorce I didn’t expect, this quiet reckoning with and reclaiming of a name that took something from me.

The reclaiming has been gradual, and it’s still in progress: it began with those Saturday morning yoga classes, a dark-haired nurse named Julia standing at the front desk, greeting all of us with a smile, learning my name. She moved to Florida a month or two ago, and I never told her – couldn’t figure out how to tell her – about this role she played in my life. In addition to sun salutations and child’s poses and deep warrior lunges, she brought a pleasant association with a name that had brought me sadness and grief.

Julia is also the name of a childhood friend’s daughter. Born a preemie, she’s now preschool age, spunky and slight, always on the go, if her mom’s Facebook photos are any indication. I haven’t met this wee Julia in person yet, but she and her brothers light up my feed when they appear, as does the joy of their parents and grandparents. We were all once afraid she might not make it this far, and now I think her folks worry more about keeping up – a joyous problem to have.

There’s no neat and tidy conclusion to this process, no total redemption (at least not yet) of this name and its difficult part in my story. But I’m learning to layer the good memories on top of the hard ones, not to hide them but to remind myself it all exists; it all belongs. These women I know, or have met, or whose work has influenced me, are part of the story of that name in my life, as much as the woman whose invisible presence hurt me so much. Tiny Julia; writer-from-Maine Julia; yoga instructor Julia; the redheaded actress whose cackling laugh I adore. The chef played so fabulously by Meryl Streep in a movie I love. And the writing teacher whose books have shaped my life so powerfully – thanks, in part, to that same ex-husband, whose presence in my life will never wholly disappear.

They all are part of the story of this name. I’m grateful that now, most days, it is a story of joy – even if the pain still stings once in a while.

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Loving Working

“We clean to give space for Art.”
        Micaela Miranda, Freedom Theatre, Palestine

Work was a shining refuge when wind sank its tooth
into my mind. Everything we love is going away,
drifting – but you could sweep this stretch of floor,
this patio or porch, gather white stones in a bucket,
rake the patch for future planting, mop the counter
with a rag. Lovely wet gray rag, squeeze it hard
it does so much. Clear the yard of blowing bits of plastic.
The glory in the doing. The breath of the doing.
Sometimes the simplest move kept fear from
fragmenting into no energy at all, or sorrow from
multiplying, or sorrow from being the only person
living in the house.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry – with an emphasis on women of color – here on Fridays this month, as I do every year. 

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Insha’Allah

I don’t know when it slipped into my speech
that soft word meaning, “if God wills it.”
Insha’Allah I will see you next summer.
The baby will come in spring, insha’Allah.
Insha’Allah this year we will have enough rain.

So many plans I’ve laid have unraveled
easily as braids beneath my mother’s quick fingers.

Every language must have a word for this. A word
our grandmothers uttered under their breath
as they pinned the whites, soaked in lemon,
hung them to dry in the sun, or peeled potatoes,
dropping the discarded skins into a bowl.

Our sons will return next month, insha’Allah.
Insha’Allah this war will end, soon. Insha’Allah
the rice will be enough to last through winter.

How lightly we learn to hold hope,
as if it were an animal that could turn around
and bite your hand. And still we carry it
the way a mother would, carefully,
from one day to the next.

I discovered Danusha Laméris via her poem “Small Kindnesses,” included in the collection How to Love the World. This poem came to me via social media, I think; I am so grateful to the Poetry Foundation for holding and sharing so many wonderful poems.

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

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Darkest Before Dawn

Three days into the new year,
and despite the lack of adequate light,
our white phalaenopsis orchid
has eased open a third delicate bloom.
Perhaps coaxed by the warmth
of the woodstove a few feet away,
the orchid thrives in its tiny pot
shaped like the shell of a nautilus,
sending out new stems and glossy leaves,
its aerial roots—green at the tips—
reaching upward like tentacles
to sip the morning air. These blooms
stir something too long asleep in me,
proving with stillness and slow growth
what I haven’t wanted to believe
these past few months—that hope
and grace still reign in certain sectors
of the living world, that there are laws
which can never be overturned
by hateful words or the wishes
of power-hungry men. Be patient,
this orchid seems to say, and reveal
your deepest self even in the middle
of winter, even in the darkness
before the coming dawn.

I found this poem last winter in How to Love the World, a lovely, hopeful anthology edited by Crews. I have been thinking of it again in these cold January days: sometimes keen and blue and bright, sometimes grey and damp and dark.

While I am not growing orchids, my last paperwhite bulb – which sat on the kitchen windowsill for over a week with no signs of growth at all – has started to uncurl its green stem, perhaps in response to the blinding winter sunshine. I am taking it as a sign of hope, and thought it was apt to share this poem with you.

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How lightly we learn to hold hope,
as if it were an animal that could turn around
and bite your hand. And still we carry it
the way a mother would, carefully,
from one day to the next.

–from “Insha’Allah” by Danusha Laméris

I started 2021 with hope as my one little word. I thought, frankly, that it might be tempting fate to choose hope as my word in the middle of a pandemic, when I was unemployed and lonely and terrified of what the next months might bring. Six days into 2021, a group of white supremacists stormed the U.S. Capitol, and of course that was not nearly the end of the terrors and losses the year brought.

Hope, as we all know, is gritty and often surprising. It shows up where it was not expected, and it gleams out, sometimes, on the really hard days. It is, as Emily D. reminds us, “the thing with feathers,” and it is also often a choice. I had to choose hope many times in 2021 instead of falling into despair – instead of looking at the headlines and the case counts and my own empty apartment and sinking back into a fog of hopelessness. I did not always manage it; there were a lot of hard and lonely days. But having hope there at my elbow, nudging me, sometimes helped.

My words for each year may start out as abstract concepts, but as the days go on they become tangible, daily practices, embodied through actions and sometimes through other people. For me, hope this year often looked like the small daily stuff: washing dishes, going for a run, sending out yet another job application. It looked like walks with friends, fresh flowers, washing my face at night, making tentative travel plans (some of which I got to keep). It looked like choosing to believe good things would happen, but – critically – trying to let go of my notions of how they might happen.

I kept thinking this year of a line from Henri Nouwen, from that Advent book I love: “I have found it very important in my own life to let go of my wishes and start hoping.” Although it believes in a glad outcome, hope – Nouwen seems to be saying – is often open-ended.

Hope in hard times is, paradoxically, difficult and necessary; I am thus not done with hope, and I don’t suppose I will ever be. I am grateful for its presence in my life this past year, and I hope (as it were) to remain open to whatever it has to teach me.

Did you follow a word in 2021? If so, what did it teach you?

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Last Monday, I threw on my green coat over my pajamas and went out for a walk instead of my usual morning run. My running coach and many other wise people remind me regularly that rest days are important, and I also know I always feel better when I move.

I walked down the hill under grey misty skies, past the community garden with tidy beds mostly dug up for winter. There are a few roses, ragged and papery but still bright red, clinging to a bush up against the fence. I love them in all seasons, but this year I am particularly taken by the fact that they’re hanging on in the face of frosts and bitter winds.

Although I’d forgotten my headphones, I found The Civil Wars’ version of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and played it on repeat as I walked through the park. Every year there’s at least one morning in December when I listen to it over and over again, the haunting harmonies melding perfectly with the lyrics and their longing: O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by Thine advent here. O come, Thou Wisdom from on high, and order all things far and nigh. We used to start every Advent service at my former church with that hymn, the a cappella notes soaring up into the high-ceilinged sanctuary, setting the tone for the time of year when we watch for the light as the world grows dark.

I am where I often find myself in mid-December: slowly tiptoeing into the season, putting up my two Christmas trees (one tiny, one medium-size) but waiting a few days to add ornaments to the branches. I am listening to quiet Christmas music (Kate Rusby, Nichole Nordeman, Sarah MacLachlan) and some brighter melodies (She & Him, Broadway carol renditions on Spotify). I am rehearsing twice a week in a dusty church sanctuary with a group of friends for a Christmas carol performance, and singing those pieces – some familiar, some new – to myself as I wash dishes or walk to work. This year, we are singing the Magnificat (my idea), and those familiar lines weave in and over and around these days that feel both twinkly and edged with deep dark.

Here we are, I say every year in mid-December, mid-Advent: aching and tired and desperate for hope, working hard to make magic and grab hold of joy and balance our daily lives with the special moments of the season. Here we are, still mid-pandemic, still treading carefully but yearning to celebrate, still waiting for Emmanuel to come. Here we are, praying God will be with us, stubbornly nurturing that flame of hope amid wars and rumors of wars, disease and pain. Here we are: weary, anxious, but alive. I want to stay awake, alert to those flickers of hope, attuned to those whispers of joy.

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We’ve turned the corner into mid-November, flipping the big switch of Daylight Savings and shifting from bright green trees to russet leaves and early, gold-streaked sunsets. Back-to-school excitement (and trepidation) is a thing of the past, and even my trip to Texas last month feels like a long time ago. The accordion of time continues to contract and expand in strange ways in these still-pandemic months. Sometimes I’m not sure if I’ve lived one year, or five, or a strange in-between number, since March 2020. 

Here in Massachusetts, we are cautiously back to some kind of normal: back in the office, back to school, back to (some) indoor collective experiences. We are still wearing masks, keeping an eye on the COVID numbers, pulling out our vaccination cards to go to concerts or the theater. I know it isn’t the same everywhere; one of the defining features of this pandemic, for me, has been the wide range of experiences based on region, age and political affiliation. Sometimes I wonder if we are – if I am – being paranoid. But then I think about the losses of the past 20 months, all those lives memorialized this summer by tiny white flags near the Washington Monument. I think about the people I know who have lost loved ones. I think about the folks I love who have underlying health issues. And I think: maybe being cautious isn’t so bad.

I’ve thought often this year about an exchange between General Leia Organa and Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo in one of the newer Star Wars films. It’s the part in every Star Wars movie that always makes me cry: the moment when several of the characters acknowledge the odds they’re up against, and decide to go in anyway. This Leia is a different Leia than the fresh-faced princess with the cinnamon buns we met in A New Hope: she’s older, wearier, more familiar with the costs of constantly fighting. “So many losses,” she says quietly to her tall, purple-haired friend. “I can’t take any more.”

“Sure you can,” Holdo responds instantly. “You taught me how.”

Holdo’s comment first struck me as flippant when I saw it in the theater; I wondered if she was even listening to Leia. But it has stayed with me – this moment of vulnerability between two women who are longtime friends – through my divorce, a move, job changes, and the pandemic we’re all still living in. Sometimes I think it’s a testament to human resilience: we are all capable of withstanding more than we think. (Hasn’t the pandemic taught us that, if nothing else?) Sometimes I think it’s an important way for Holdo to remind Leia of her own courage. Some days I agree with Leia; my heart and soul have had enough.

Most of the time, I recognize it’s not that simple, not always. We may think – or even believe – we can’t take any more, in the moment. But we have to keep going. And we rely on our people to remind us that we can. 

The days are so bright right now, the low autumn sun sparkling on the harbor and flooding through the still-vivid leaves, making shifting patterns of orange and crimson and gold. And the nights are so dark – after those fiery sunsets at 4:45 p.m., the hours stretch on and on in pitch blackness, as I know they will for months. 

Somehow, I have to learn to hold the extremes – the dark and the bright, the losses and the joys. I have to learn to embrace it all, to lean into the loneliness as well as the deep connection. I am trying (always, it seems, I am trying) to accept all of it, to let it be what it will be and face whatever comes with courage and hope.

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computer tulips hpac

It’s the question at the heart of every application process: what if I get rejected?

What if I do all this work on a cover letter and my resume, and the HR person or hiring manager tosses aside my carefully polished materials? What if they pass me over without a second thought, or – almost worse – what if they take the time to interview me, and then decide I’m not who they are looking for?

It happens, of course – often multiple times in every job hunt. It happens in our lives, too: not getting picked for the team, getting dumped or brushed off by a potential partner, drifting apart from or being excluded by our friends. It’s easy for others, especially those we love, to say “it’s not about you” when a person or organization rejects you, and most of the time there’s some truth to that. But no matter the type of rejection, it still stings – even if you know there were other factors at work.

Real talk: some days the fear of rejection is enough to make me want to slam my laptop closed and just stop putting myself out there for employers to dismiss. Some days the form rejections from application portals slide off my back (this is rare; I’m a sponge, not a duck), but more often, they have a bite. And it’s always disappointing when you’ve made a connection with a real person or group of people and you get an email or a phone call beginning with, “I’m sorry…”

I’ve had to work hard (and am still working) to really believe – and remember – that while rejection stinks, getting turned down for a job doesn’t mean I am not qualified or experienced. It especially doesn’t reflect on my worth as a person (more on that in a future post). It’s also not the end of the world, as my mother would say, and it definitely is a signal that I need to keep going. Sometimes, repeated rejections or disappointments have even nudged me to consider new possibilities: as a girlfriend noted last week, rejection can be redirection. (Case in point: my string of layoffs and struggles working in higher ed communications are part of what prompted me to cast my job-search net wider this time around.)

Some days, though, as my friend Stephanie noted recently, rejection just sucks and there’s no silver lining. I think it’s important to name that, too. Rejection may push us in new directions, make us stronger or simply remind us that we can get through hard things. But sometimes it’s just that: hard.

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