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Posts Tagged ‘hope’

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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birds nest branches

Black Rook in Rainy Weather

On the stiff twig up there
Hunches a wet black rook
Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain.
I do not expect a miracle
Or an accident

To set the sight on fire
In my eye, nor seek
Any more in the desultory weather some design,
But let spotted leaves fall as they fall,
Without ceremony, or portent.

Although, I admit, I desire,
Occasionally, some backtalk
From the mute sky, I can’t honestly complain:
A certain minor light may still
Lean incandescent

Out of kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then —
Thus hallowing an interval
Otherwise inconsequent

By bestowing largesse, honor,
One might say love. At any rate, I now walk
Wary (for it could happen
Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); skeptical,
Yet politic; ignorant

Of whatever angel may choose to flare
Suddenly at my elbow. I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids up, and grant

A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality. With luck,
Trekking stubborn through this season
Of fatigue, I shall
Patch together a content

Of sorts. Miracles occur,
If you dare to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance miracles. The wait’s begun again,
The long wait for the angel,
For that rare, random descent.

—Sylvia Plath

The first time I came across this poem in Watch for the Light (over a decade ago), I remember being surprised at its inclusion. I knew Plath only as angry and suicidal, and her quiet, melancholy words moved me in a way I wasn’t expecting. Every year, I turn back to them and am grateful to hear them again.

This year, as I’ve edged slowly into Advent, these lines have run through my head on a daily basis. This is a “season of fatigue” and despair for many of us, but I am keeping a weather eye open for small miracles.

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lamont quad light sky

I expected to be so ready for Advent this year.

After a full, demanding fall semester and a bruising election cycle, I thought I’d be eager to sink into my favorite liturgical season: the readings, the carols, the longing and candlelight and hope. But at church on the first Sunday of Advent (after our wonderful Turkeypalooza), I still felt hopeless and tired and sad, even as we sang “O Come O Come Emmanuel.”

That evening, sitting on the floor at my friend Amy’s house, I admitted how I felt. We were working on the backdrop for the church Christmas pageant: hot-gluing uneven blocks of dark green felt to a bolt of midnight blue fabric, scattering handfuls of sticky, glittery stars overhead. “I think I need to sit in the darkness a while longer,” Amy said, and I nodded. I didn’t feel ready to start lighting candles yet.

The next day, I walked across the Yard to Morning Prayers, where a divinity student gave a talk on tenderness. “Let us be raw a while longer,” she said gently, urging us to sit with our pain – and the world’s – rather than glossing over it. We also sang “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and I hummed it as I walked to work afterward, the Civil Wars version in my earbuds.

It feels right for Advent to come slowly this year: we are working through more pain and darkness, on a national scale, than I can remember in a long time. The questions raised by my favorite Advent writers – Henri Nouwen, Kathleen Norris, Madeleine L’Engle, Alfred Delp – feel more pertinent than they ever have. I have been reluctant to skip over the ache to the joy, even as I’ve loved seeing twinkle lights and Christmas trees appear around Cambridge and in my friends’ homes.

Since I discovered it as a high school student, Advent has given me a way to wrestle with the questions of my faith: to look the darkness of this world steadily in the face, and to appreciate why we need the Light. I usually relish the ache of it, the haunting, lovely longing for Christ to come, for God to burst into the world and begin making all things new. But this year, everything already feels so dark. And I keep wondering: what good can our candles, anyone’s candles, possibly do?

Despite my weariness (and wariness), Advent keeps sneaking in, sidling up with quiet steps when I’m not quite paying attention. There is the Sylvia Plath poem whose inclusion in my favorite Advent book surprises and delights me every year. There are the annual Advent readings hosted by my friends Hannah and Chris, where we gather for poetry and hot cider and good talk in their cozy living room. There are the quiet carols (my favorite ones), which end up in my head almost by accident. And there are moments of connection with colleagues and friends, even in the midst of daily tasks and deeper sadness.

I am (finally) edging into the season: we put up our tree this weekend, and hung the greenery at church on Saturday. I am humming a few beloved carols, dipping into my Advent books, and watching for the light, whether literal (as above) or metaphorical, any place I can find it.

How are you finding the light – whether you’re observing Advent or not – in this season?

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Heartened

red gold leaves ground

By the brilliant, joyful student performance of In the Heights I saw at Berklee College of Music on Friday night. And the powerful, lovely original song the cast performed after the curtain call (written by Zaid Tabani, who played Usnavi and is wicked talented).

By the wise, thoughtful voices of faculty members at my workplace, who are drawing on their expertise and experience to help make sense of what happened and what is next.

By conversations with friends and strangers, and the quiet sense that we are taking care of each other in small ways.

By the gentle, steadying atmosphere at my local yoga studio, where I have been showing up more frequently this month.

By the conversation I overheard the other day between two young men, one of whom is a playwright, about the responsibility and power of art and artists at a time like this.

By the friendly, supportive, determined conversations on Twitter and elsewhere that have helped me process my feelings and also figure out a few practical things to do. (First and foremost: so much listening.)

By the oak leaves in every shade of gold, red, russet and deep brown. I was afraid we wouldn’t have much color after a dry, hot summer, but the trees this fall are stunning.

By a brief conversation I had with the mayor of Providence, R.I., about the good work being done in government at the local level. (He was visiting campus for a conference, and probably has no idea how much his words encouraged me.)

By the spindly, twinkly “giving trees” on the steps of Memorial Church in Harvard Yard, covered in messages of hope. (And this separate message of hope, below.)

refugees welcome sign trees

Nearly two weeks post-election and it still feels like a new, fragile reality around here. We are heading into the holidays, which I love, but also into the shortest and darkest days of the year, which are hard for me. (I have never been more ready for Advent, which, for me, is a way to look the darkness steadily in the face and then light candles against it.)

I am still sad, frustrated and heartbroken, but I’ve also found myself heartened by the glimmers of hope I shared above. We have – I keep saying – so much work to do. As we move forward together (and head into Thanksgiving week here in the U.S.), I’d love to hear what is bolstering you up, these days.

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orinoco glasses lights fence

After work on Friday evening, I caught the bus from Harvard Square to a house on a hill in Lexington, where my friend Hannah lives. I had a bottle of (boxed) rosé in my bag, and a poem to share with the women in my book club (we dubbed this meeting our “poetry potluck”). I walked up Massachusetts Avenue from the bus station in the soft evening light, the first act of Hamilton in my headphones.

When I pushed open the screen door, I found Hannah and our friend Rachael standing in the kitchen, chopping apples and kale, seeding pomegranates, laying figs and prosciutto out on a cutting board. I greeted them (and Percy the cat), then joined the action: whisking eggs for an omelet, slicing cheddar cheese, pouring water. The three of us gathered around a small round table, munching and laughing, talking about TV shows and weddings, work and friendship, the stuff of daily life. Two other members joined us later, and the five of us moved into the living room, curling up on chairs and couches, barefoot, utterly at ease together.

We took turns reading our chosen poems aloud: words by Billy Collins, Wislawa Szymborska, Elizabeth Alexander, Kevin Young. We dipped black bean chips into spicy salsa and poured out the last of the rosé, and heaved open the windows to listen to (and smell) a glorious fall rain. Much later, Louisa and I caught an Uber back to Cambridge together, and I walked the few blocks from her street to Central Square, listening to the rain patter on my umbrella.

The whole evening felt like a gift – a deep breath I badly needed.

This September has been crowded and insistent, hot and demanding – at work, at home, all over the place. The national news has been full of raw grief, and I have also been dealing with some heartaches (my own and other people’s) closer to home. Last week felt particularly hard and helpless, so much so that I couldn’t even write about it here. Hope and peace have been difficult to find.

That evening of poetry and rich conversation did not erase my problems: none of us left Hannah’s that night with a magic solution to our own struggles or the continuing (seemingly intractable) problems of race relations and civil discourse in this country. The pain and fear are still present: they have not disappeared, and neither have the smaller daily trials we all must face. But those hours in that living room, laughing and listening and holding space for each other’s stories, were a balm to my soul. They are lingering in my memory, bolstering me up as I face another week. And I am grateful.

Wishing you a peaceful week, friends – with lots of deep breaths.

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9/11, fifteen years later

sept 11 memorial reflection

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

—William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

I heard these words of Faulkner’s again on a recent gray morning, as I stood in the doorway of a wood-paneled chapel on Harvard’s campus, a few steps from the Yard.

Speaking at the first Morning Prayers service of the fall semester, President Drew Faust invoked Faulkner to remind us that what we do with the past is our responsibility. It is, she said, “the essential material with which we can build a better future.”

As we marked the 15th anniversary of 9/11 this weekend, Faulkner’s words resonated in a different way.

Sept. 11, 2001, has passed into history, and yet it is still immediate, insistent. It is, after a decade and a half, part of my past and our national memory. But it is far from dead or irrelevant. It continues to affect my life and my world, both in ways I can point to and ways I can’t quite articulate. And it comes home to me again every fall.

sept 11 memorial flowers

I was a high school senior in West Texas on 9/11: happily absorbed in honors classes and marching band, excited about my new role on our school’s student diplomatic team, four days away from turning 18. I was curious and eager, on the brink of young adulthood, and I was completely undone by the news on the TV that morning. I walked around for days in a state of shock: tense, strained, saddened in a way I had never been before. It felt like a jolt into adulthood: a loss of innocence, a grim, sudden knowledge of how the world could be.

I’ve read a few books, in the years since that day, that include 9/11 as an element of the plot or setting. I couldn’t believe how long it took for the attacks and their aftermath to become a part of any fictional narrative instead of the gaping, overwhelming whole. Long after that day, the attacks dominated any discussion they entered. It took us years to absorb that story into the larger narrative of our lives.

Last week, I interviewed a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, where I work, about the far-reaching effects of 9/11, especially in the field of homeland security (her specialty). I asked her what the U.S. has learned, what we could have done differently, how daily life has changed for most Americans. I tried to reflect, in my questions, an awareness of the passage of time and of both President Faust’s and Faulkner’s words. Not simply Where were you that day? (though I always want to know), or Isn’t it awful that this happened?, but How can we move forward?.

In a sense, that is the question I have been asking for 15 years: how can we acknowledge the grief and fear, the complexity of such an event and its ripples, and carry it forward with wisdom and grace? How can we remember and honor the day itself, and yet move ahead with courage?

I don’t have many answers for this, but as always, I think telling our stories helps.

I’d welcome your stories, in the comments, and I’d also recommend a few of those novels I mentioned: Nichole Bernier’s The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D., Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Kathleen Donohoe’s Ashes of Fiery Weather. They treat this event and its aftermath with care and good sentences, which is often all a writer can do. And sometimes, that’s enough.

(Images are from the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan, which I visited a few years ago.)

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memorial church memorial hall harvard university
I was left to my own devices
Many days fell away with nothing to show

And the walls kept tumbling down
In the city that we love
Great clouds roll over the hills
Bringing darkness from above

But if you close your eyes
Does it almost feel like nothing’s changed at all?
And if you close your eyes
Does it almost feel like you’ve been here before?

How am I gonna be an optimist about this?
How am I gonna be an optimist about this?

—Bastille, “Pompeii”

I fell in love with this song about a year ago, when my husband started performing it with his a cappella group, the Mass Whole Notes. (I know I’m a little late to the Bastille party. J is constantly discovering brand-new music, the way I am always finding new books. But my musical tastes skew several years behind the times.)

“Pompeii” entered J’s performance repertoire around the time I lost my job (which happened a year ago this week). I have found myself humming it often this year, because it captures perfectly the in-between state in which I find myself.

Some things – in fact, many important things – in my life have not changed since last May: I live in the same light-filled apartment. I go to the same tiny church. I call my mother once a week, text my sister about Friends lines and my nephews, talk about golf and movies with my dad. I read scads of books and write lots of reviews. I am married to the same generous, funny, understanding man.

I also spend my weekdays in the same neighborhood where I’ve worked for three years now. Every morning, I sling the same two bags over my shoulder and head for the Red Line subway platform near my house. I get off in Harvard Square, looking up at the same brick buildings and tall, gracious towers. I head to Darwin’s for a spicy chai latte before walking to my office.

If I close my eyes – though that is dangerous when navigating a Cambridge sidewalk – I can almost pretend that nothing has changed.

harvard yard autumn light leaves

And yet.

This spring finds me working in a sixth-floor office, with new colleagues, in a temporary role. This job is different both from the one I lost last spring and the other temp gig I held from Thanksgiving until mid-March. All three roles have been at Harvard, doing communications work, but there are varying duties and projects, distinctive office cultures to navigate, constantly shifting expectations. I am a person who likes to have a plan, and the past year has made that difficult.

I have been constantly surprised by how the job hunt has played havoc with my sense of self: as an individual, a writer, a career woman, a part of the Harvard community. Previously, I had never thought of myself as a person defined by her career. But the lack of a job, a title, a defined place in a working community, has made me question so many facets of my identity and the stories I tell myself. Also, inevitably, it has caused a shift in my relationships, most notably the ones with my former co-workers. I don’t blame anyone for that; it is simply what happens when things change.

On some days, the refrain of “Pompeii” thrums through my head in a depressing rhythm: How am I gonna be an optimist about this? That question is harder to answer when I’m struggling with (more) rejection, or simply having a tough day. I don’t always know how to be an optimist about this. I do remember, usually, how to keep going forward (make a cup of tea, write another paragraph, answer another email), so mostly, that’s what I do.

On some days, though, I am able to simply be grateful for what is now: this job, this office, this paycheck. This group of quirky, sarcastic, whip-smart colleagues. This routine, which still contains so many things and people I love. This neighborhood, with its uneven brick sidewalks and colorful local businesses and budding spring flowers, that has become a part of me. This chance to spend my days doing meaningful work – even if I don’t know quite where it will lead.

Some days I teeter on the edge of nostalgia, and it’s tempting to slip inside it, like a familiar cardigan. If I close my eyes and burrow down into it, I can pretend for a moment that nothing has changed at all. But the truth – the harsh, rich, complicated, often beautiful truth – is that things have changed, both in ways I can point to and in ways I still can’t quite articulate.

For now, although I’m sure I’ll keep humming this song, I’m adopting a slightly different approach. Because after this turbulent year, I am still here. I still get to walk through the city I love – dark clouds, tumbling walls and all. It’s not always easy, but I’m doing my best to keep my eyes wide open.

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