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Posts Tagged ‘joy’

celebrating Pop

live love Texas sign

My grandfather turned 85 last month. If you asked him about it, he’d likely shrug it off as no big deal – but the rest of us disagree. So we’d been secretly planning a surprise party, spearheaded by my Aunt Cat, for months. (The hardest part was letting my grandmother, whom we all call Neno, in on the secret. She said it was stressful to keep it quiet!)

I flew down to San Antonio (my grandparents live about an hour away), and various family members came in from across Texas and Arizona. I hadn’t seen many of these folks in years, nor been to my grandparents’ spacious house, with its saltillo-tiled floors and stuccoed walls hung with Pop’s original paintings. (He worked in tool design for many years, and is a talented artist and woodworker.) They built this house themselves when they retired to Texas, twenty years ago, and stepping inside felt like coming home.

My parents and I surprised Pop at lunchtime on Friday (thereby pre-empting the surprise party, but Aunt Cat swore it was okay). I was grateful for that extra time around their kitchen table, just the five of us. Neno pulled out a box of beautiful handmade baby clothes (some hers, some Pop’s, some that her kids – my mom and her siblings – had worn). We exclaimed over the embroidery and tiny, meticulous stitches.

neno baby clothes

Later, we ate burgers and watched the birds out the back windows, trading stories and laughing. My sister and her family arrived that night, and it was a gift to hug her and play Uno with my nephews, and trade running tips with my brother-in-law (he’s training for a half marathon).

ryder harrison uno

The party on Saturday was total happy chaos – all of us weaving around one another in the kitchen, making corn casserole and pouring drinks and finding space for the pork ribs, chopped brisket and three huge cheese/fruit/veggie platters. There were two layer cakes, and tiny cups of Blue Bell ice cream, and lots of hugging, and even a surprise guest…

Pop is a huge John Wayne fan (so is Neno), and my aunt and uncle had schemed to have him show up for the party. None of the rest of us knew that was coming, and we were all highly entertained.

I may live in New England now, but I am a Texas girl to my core, and I needed that brief, nourishing time with four generations of my family. I was so happy to chat with my aunts and catch up with my cousins and especially to hug my sweet Neno.

Until next time, Texas. It was good to be back.

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Lilac time

lilacs flowers bush

This April was an unusually rainy one – even my favorite weather guy commented on it, more than once. The grey skies didn’t help my spirits much, but I have to say, the lilacs have loved it. (That adage about April showers and May flowers rings especially true in years like these.)

A friend sent me pictures of fragrant white lilacs before I saw any in flower. But by early May, the towering lilac across the street from my house was in full, perfect bloom. I stood under it after a Saturday run, sniffing ecstatically, and thinking about the line from that (insanely long) Alfred Noyes poem: “Come down to Kew in lilac-time, in lilac-time, in lilac time.”

lilacs yellow house blue sky

I’m dog-sitting again in East Boston, and one day after work, the neighbor kids were selling fistfuls of branches from their grandfather’s lilac for $3. I bought a bunch – a steal if I’ve ever seen one! – and enjoyed them in the kitchen for several days. They’re the same deep, rich color as these lovelies from Back Bay, below.

dark purple lilacs

Earlier this week, I stopped to sniff a tall lilac on my lunch break, and a woman walked up to join me. “They’re my favorite,” she said. We wished each other a good day, and then she turned, walked a few paces away, and called, “Oh, you have to come stand right here!” I walked over and was hit by a wave of lilac scent. The whole exchange, and the moment of connection, was a gift.

lilacs back bay blue sky

Cambridge has any number of old, beautiful lilacs, and I was afraid I’d miss them this spring. But I did sneak over one evening last week, and got to sniff the lilacs on a side street near Darwin’s (below), and the hedge of them near the Longfellow House garden.

lilacs white fence

This year’s lilac time is nearly over: the azaleas are blazing out, and the rhododendrons are coming. But it has been glorious, in all my neighborhoods (old and new). And I’m so grateful.

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snowdrops flowers gravel flowerbed

The calendar has flipped, officially, to spring. The piles of snow (mostly) melted while I was on vacation in San Diego, though the wind’s still got a bite, most days. But this week, I was still searching for a reliable sign of spring: the snowdrops I watch for every year.

I’ve been seeing tiny green spears – “crocuses an’ snowdrops and daffydowndillys,” as Ben Weatherstaff has it – poking out of the ground for weeks. But I was afraid they’d get frostbitten, and they did get covered up, by February’s bitter winds and an early March snowstorm. I hadn’t seen the shy white bells of snowdrops yet, though I had seen – to my relief and delight – the electric yellow and vivid red of witch hazel.

When I worked at the Ed School at Harvard, I would walk to Darwin’s down a straight side street, past a yellow house where an elderly woman could often be found reclining, apparently sound asleep, in a lounge chair in her front flowerbed. That same bed was a tangle of spring delights: snowdrops and scilla, hellebores and lilac, tiny white lilies of the valley. I made a point to stop by often, every spring, even when my daily orbit changed slightly, even when I hadn’t seen the woman for months.

That house has been under construction for a while now: workmen in boots and overalls have been gutting and sawing, replacing windows and repainting. The front flowerbed is a sandy mess, and I was afraid they’d dug up all the bulbs that have come back, reliably, every spring for so long. Or that they’d simply get buried under construction refuse and wait until next year to emerge.

crocuses march 2019

Yesterday, I slipped out of the house early, heading to Darwin’s for the first time in a while. I turned down that side street on my way from the T station. And there they were, poking up out of the gravel and rocks: snowdrops. And crocuses. And green spears that aren’t quite identifiable yet, but will be.

I suppose I should have known. As Anne Shirley says, “That is one good thing about this world…there are always sure to be more springs.” And more snowdrops. But it’s a relief and a joy to see them, all the same.

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January sunrise pink clouds gold blue

Thy mercy, my God, is the theme of my song
The joy of my heart and the boast of my tongue…

A few Sundays ago, I walked into Church of the Cross, a low-key, welcoming Anglican congregation in the Fenway where I’ve visited off and on. It’s friendly, but not overbearing; people are kind, and a few of them remember my name by now. I like the mix of spontaneous prayer, raised hands and the rhythms of ancient liturgy. It reminds me, in this and other ways, of St Aldates, my beloved church in Oxford, where I still am at home.

Thy free grace alone, from the first to the last
Hath won my affection and bound my soul fast…

A small praise band provides the music: classic hymns, newly minted praise songs and some that fall in between. Inevitably, there’s a song or two I know, and a handful that are wholly new to me. I’ve learned the notes of the Alleluia before the gospel reading, and the later proclamation: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Without Thy sweet mercy I could not live here
Sin would reduce me to utter despair…

On that Sunday, I looked up at the screens to find a song I had totally forgotten about: a lilting, joyful tune written by Sandra McCracken to a set of lyrics from the 1770s. I learned it years ago, from an orange-covered Caedmon’s Call album that I think I still have somewhere.

But through Thy free goodness my spirits revive
And He that first made me still keeps me alive…

I thought I had outgrown this song and most of its kindred, or set them aside, long ago. My faith, these days, is complicated and shaded by doubt more often than pure joy. But I realized that day, as we sang this one, that I still know all the words.

Thy mercy is more than a match for my heart
Which wonders to feel its own hardness depart…

That song kept me company for days afterward, running through my head as I brushed my hair in the morning, as I walked to and from the train station, as I ran errands on my lunch break or after work. It wasn’t in there every moment, but it showed up often enough that I had to admit: it’s still mine.

‘Tis all by Thy goodness I fall to the ground
And weep for the praise of the mercy I’ve found…

One of the gifts of my Southern Baptist childhood – probably, of being steeped in any faith tradition for a long time – is the steady repetition of the same words that carry and embody deep truths. Lots of memory verses and hymns still rise to my recall, sometimes without my conscious effort. Some songs immediately take me back to youth group, or college chapel services, or those Easter pageants I loved so much. And though I am far from the places and the person I was then, the truth of them is still in there, knit deep into my soul.

Great Father of mercies, Thy goodness I own
And the covenant love of Thy crucified Son…

It’s not always easy for me to believe the truths I know: that God loves me, accepts me for who and what I am, sees all my flaws and mistakes and loves me anyway, wants the best for me. I have no trouble reassuring my loved ones that grace and love are real for them, but I have a much harder time accepting that for myself.

All praise to the Spirit, whose whisper divine
Seals mercy and pardon and righteousness mine… 

This song is still with me, weeks later, lodged in my heart like a bird on the wing. Some days it’s a declaration, some days it’s a prayer, some days it’s a desperate hope. Some days it’s all three. And always, always, it is true.

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red geranium flower close up

Delight, according to poet Ross Gay, is underrated: its very existence, the multiplicity of delights present in the world, the noticing and celebrating of said delights. (For what it’s worth, I agree with him.)

Between his 42nd and 43rd birthdays, Gay decided to capture as many delights as possible, and spin them out into a series of “essayettes.” The result, The Book of Delights, is a kaleidoscopic collection of joy–an accumulation of blessings that, piled up, create a larger enchantment.

I interviewed Ross via email for Shelf Awareness after reading The Book of Delights – the paragraph above is the first part of my review. His answers to my questions, not surprisingly, were a delight, so I wanted to share them with you. (And I highly recommend the book itself, which came out last week.)

KNG: Tell us about the inspiration for The Book of Delights.

RG: I was–this is not a joke–walking back to the castle I was staying in for the month of June in Umbria, at an artists’ residency. I was delighted, and acknowledged it. I was like, “Oh, this is really delightful!” It might have been the wildflowers at my feet swooning with bees, or the fig trees (unripe) everywhere, or the way Erykah Badu singing in your headphones usually makes things more delightful. Or the castle, I guess.

But I think catching myself in delight that day made me think it would be interesting and challenging and fun to do every day for a year. It was close to my birthday, so that was an easy form: birthday to birthday. And, too, the fact that I am always hungry, like deeply hungry, for writing about and thinking about and theorizing about and singing about that which I love.

How did you decide which delights to capture and expound upon? (You note that stacking delights is itself a delight, but at the same time, you cant write about them all!)

Today, outside my window, is what looks like a weird kind of poppy shrub–a cardinal just flipped by, and there goes her fella–which amazes and delights me, you know, because it’s January and, thank god, very cold outside, much too cold for a poppybush to be growing, whatever a poppybush is.

Then I realized I’d chucked a couple clementine peels out of the car when I was coming home from the store, and the way they landed behind the bald shrub, and from this distance, makes it look as though they are flowers on the tree, as though they are a poppybush, which they are. And one of those cardinals is so bright, looking right into this window from across the street, that he looks like a red light bulb. I mean, I don’t know. There is, along with all else, so much to delight upon, the way I see it.

I remember trying to write about things that really delighted me, but they just kind of spun out as essayettes and didn’t go anywhere. So probably I needed the delight to take me somewhere, which could mean associative wandering, or musical wandering, or digging really hard on a thing. But I guess the delights needed to offer a certain amount of puzzlement in addition to delight. They often had to make me ask why a thing delights me, which often took me far from delight–often took me nowhere I would have anticipated.

You talk about delight, and the noticing of it, as a muscle that can be strengthened, or a radar that grows more sensitive over time. Tell us about about the process of finding more delight as you went along.

I think I was prepared for a kind of scarcity of delight. To need to be scouring my life for delight to write these essayettes. And then, as I turned it on, it was like this is what Im doing, attending to my delight.

I found, with that attention, that I am often kind of delighted. And often delighted by things I didn’t realize delighted me. And that is a gift–to be like, “Oh, shoot, I love that jade plant that my student gave to me and I have spent all these years never realizing how much I love it!” Or, “I love that candy because it reminds me of my father, who could be so ridiculously sweet to us.” To do that again and again. But it took me giving myself the task of attending to and articulating the experience of delight to myself to realize that. Because, the truth is, my inclination has been kind of melancholic plus.

Delight, or at least the public celebration of it, has often been denied to black people in the U.S. Can you talk about writing a book of black delight. Daily as air?”

I think there’s a very clear desire (and industry) by some to crush the experience, or to imagine the experience, of black people into, simply, suffering and pain. Like if it isn’t pain, it isn’t black. If it isn’t about pain or reacting to or resisting pain, it isn’t black. Something like that. That’s bullsh*t, and it’s poisonous, all around. (Black pain as a salable product, a good, that’s familiar, huh?)

I’m interested in the full, weird, complex, surprising, tender humanity of my life, our lives. Which includes delight. (And I recommend Kevin Quashie’s book The Sovereignty of Quiet.)

Theres a perception that delight, joy or playfulness arent serious, or that celebrating them forces people to ignore the harsher realities of life. But your collection draws together the dark and the light, and takes joy and pleasure seriously. Were you consciously trying to strike that balance or was it more organic?

It’s a mistake to imagine that what is brutal or awful is the only thing worth talking about. Primarily because the brutal and the awful and the harsh are not the only thing.

I mean, what is the world in which the only thing worth talking about or thinking about or meditating on or studying, the only thing worthy of our fullest attention, is that which sucks? What are the results of thinking and counseling that joy–which, in my opinion, comes from the realization that we are utterly interdependent, we are utterly connected (part of that connection being that we all die)–is not worth studying? F*ck that.

I want to study the zillion ways we care for each other so that I can get better at caring. I want to study the ways we collaborate, the ways we interdepend, whether we acknowledge it or not, which we damn well better do.

Do you have advice for readers who may be inspired to start their own delight-noticing projects, or write about their delights?

I’m not that good for advice, but I will say there was something useful to me about dailiness, about making writing these delights a practice. I also think having a little time constraint was useful for me; it helped me to think in a looser, non-precious way. I loved writing them by hand, too–that helps me to think more bodily, which I think is more delightful, frankly. And then you can have these notebooks full of meditations on things that have delighted you–how lucky!

I originally conducted this interview and reviewed this book for Shelf Awareness, where both pieces appeared last week. 

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pink stock flowers bouquet

For about seven years now, I’ve been buying myself flowers on the regular.

It started during my first long grey winter in Boston, when I worked in an office right off the Common, and made weekly trips to a nearby flower stall for daffodils and tulips. That flower-seller, whose name I never learned, still plies his wares from the same spot next to Macy’s, an oasis of color among grey skyscrapers.

My flower habit has continued, as regular readers know, through my years in Cambridge and my deep (and still growing) affection for the plants and the people at Brattle Square Florist. I’m still swinging by once a week or so, and Stephen sends me home with roses, sunflowers, delphiniums and whatever else is in season.

plant-yellow-leaves-pru-window

One of my new colleagues, Michelle, is the office plant lady: her desk features colored grow lights and half a dozen tiny pots hanging over the cubicle wall. She tends most of the plants in our two sunny conference rooms, and she gave me a baby snake plant, which I’ve named Sal (short for Salazar). Michelle even lugged in a huge monstera from home, and she came to find me when it sprouted some new growth. (We squealed together.)

I’m enjoying the greenery in the suite and at my elbows: besides Sal, I’ve got a pothos plant on my desk. But surprising exactly no one, my favorite way to add some color to my space is through a weekly bouquet, from the farmers’ market or the tiny Trader Joe’s down the street.

sunflowers-market-boots

Several weeks ago, a colleague stopped by my desk and asked, “Who loves you so much that they’re buying you flowers all the time?”

The short answer, I guess, is me. But the longer answer has several facets: it’s tied up with garden walks through Cambridge and the #FlowerReport on Twitter, with Stephen’s smiling face and the constant delight of watching bouquets change with the seasons. It has to do – like so many things – with paying attention. It is a small way of loving and celebrating the world.

Since I started at Berklee, I’ve had bouquets of pink stock, cheery mums, blue hydrangeas and the sunflowers I can’t get enough of. I’m totally happy to be known as the crazy flower lady. There are, after all, worse things to be.

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back bay Boston brownstones sky

Step 1: eye the docking stations around Boston and Cambridge as you listen to your friends rhapsodize about the freedom, exercise benefits, etc. of urban cycling.

Step 2: remember your days as a cyclist (in Oxford) with fondness. Start following several cycling-related Twitter accounts. Imagine riding through Back Bay, along the Esplanade or around Harvard Square.

Step 3: rent or borrow bikes on vacation, getting reacquainted with cycling through neighborhoods (San Diego and Sevilla) or along two-lane shore roads (PEI).

Step 4: take a buddy ride from Back Bay to Central Square. Three turns, 1.6 miles, afternoon sunshine and the steadying comfort of following a friend.

Step 5: download the app.

Step 6: hop on a bike one morning after prayers at Mem Church, just to see if you can do it. Ride back across the river: two and a half miles down Mass Ave and over the bridge. Feel the wind in your hair, the good honest sweat, the pride in trying something new and brave.

Step 7: repeat step 6 and variants as often as possible. (Start carrying an extra shirt and additional snacks.)

This post is not sponsored – Blue Bikes doesn’t know who I am – and we’ll see how this evolves as the weather changes. But for now, these rides on brisk fall mornings are saving my life each week. 

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