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Posts Tagged ‘joy’

As I’ve grown to love running, and explored various running routes around the Boston area, I’ve been doing a similar thing with cycling.

I used to love riding bikes in my neighborhood as a child, and I spent hours on my jade-green bike as a grad student in Oxford. But I’d lived in Boston for eight years before I got up the gumption to try riding the city streets on a bike. The traffic terrified me, and I didn’t have a bike of my own.

My guy (though we were just friends then) convinced me to try out Bluebikes, Boston’s bike-share program, two years ago after I’d started a new job at Berklee. My first dozen or more rides followed the same route between Berklee and Harvard Square – much more pleasant than the 1 bus, except in driving rain. As I got stronger and more confident, I began trying new things occasionally: turning down a side street to see where it would go, trying out part of my commute on a bike, riding around Eastie when I moved here. I began paying more attention to bike lanes and traffic signals, and I’m still trying to make my peace with the hills in certain parts of Boston. This summer, I inherited a bright pink single-speed from a friend, and I’ve participated in several protest rides, plus a number of long rides with my guy (who is a cycling instructor, advocate and general bike fanatic).

As with yoga, I didn’t really think of cycling as having any connection to running. But they inform one another, sometimes in surprising ways. I’ve gained confidence on a bike in a similar way to the confidence I’ve gained with running: in this case, the muscle memory was there, but it needed to be revived. I keep learning that I can go farther, pedal stronger and even ride faster than I think I can. Sometimes I need a rest day after a seriously long ride. And in both cases, the main motivation is the sheer joy of moving through the world in this particular way.

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Running has brought me, as I keep saying, lots of unexpected gifts – many of which I didn’t even know I needed. Before I became a runner, I would have said I had a healthy relationship with my body, but it’s perhaps more accurate to say I lived in a state of neutrality toward it.

I’ve spent as much time as the average American woman trying to ignore the conflicting messages we get about our bodies: the magazines that scream at us about which kind of bodies are acceptable, the fashionable clothes that don’t seem designed for real women, the airbrushed images of Hollywood stars or elite athletes. I’ve made an effort to eat (mostly) healthy food and get some regular exercise my whole adult life. But I wouldn’t have said, prior to running, that I loved my body.

I grew up in a culture that prized the life of the mind: my early reading skills, spelling prowess and writing skills earned me a lot of acclaim as a child and teenager. I make a living these days by writing and editing, also activities of the mind, and the Christian faith in which I was raised also emphasized the brain and heart over the body. (The particular brand of evangelicalism with which I’m most familiar has often spoken about the human body in mostly negative terms: the need to subdue and control the body, or what the church believes people should do with their bodies. Those messages make an odd contrast to the notion – which I also heard growing up – that God’s creation is good, and that we, along with the rest of creation, are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”)

As I began and then kept on running (and doing boot camps and yoga classes), I started to marvel at what my body could do, how it felt to move through the air with fluidity and grace, the strength in my legs and endurance in my lungs that I hadn’t known existed. Under Erin’s guidance on Monday nights, I learned that I could lift weights and do push-ups and squats and other exercises in a way I’d never done before. I started learning more about my body’s capabilities, feeling more in tune with it. And overwhelmingly, I started to believe: this is good.

We all grow up absorbing some notion of the “ideal” body: through statues or magazines or the messages we hear from media outlets and the people we know and love. I was teased for my curves as they started to develop, and I used to feel inferior because I was short. I didn’t believe my body was the “ideal” body. But I’m starting to revise my definition of “ideal,” and to care less about that altogether.

My body, whether or not she comes up to anyone’s standard, is mine: she’s been supporting and sheltering me for 37 years. She is healthy and freckled, petite and sinewy, curvaceous and stronger than I ever thought she was. She deserves my loving care and attention, and on most days, she wants to run. And it’s a total joy to be out there, in my body, loving my body, moving through the world in this vessel I will always call home.

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As I’ve said many times this month, I started running with low expectations, and even a bit of trepidation. I knew a lot of people who got a kick out of running, and I was no stranger to the joys of a long walk or a sweaty, satisfying yoga class. But I knew that if running proved downright painful or unpleasant, I was unlikely to stick with it. I wasn’t sure how it would feel.

I recently reread Marisa de los Santos’ The Precious One, and one of the characters, 17-year-old Willow, is a runner. She notes, near the beginning of the book, that “when I run, my body stops being a grouping of parts and becomes a single thing. A fluidity. A living, breathing verb.”

I don’t always feel like that when I run: sometimes it’s a slog, heavy sneakers pounding on pavement. Sometimes it gets a bit monotonous. But at its best, running feels the way Willow describes it: “For me, being good was not the point. The point was cutting through the air, using the air, the way I used the ground. Who cared about good when there was joy like that?”

Running is sometimes meditation, sometimes a much-needed dose of solitude, sometimes a way to work off anxiety or tiredness or a plain old case of the blues. But often, it is that kind of joy: the physical pleasure of my body moving in concert with the air and the ground, the music pumping in my earbuds, lungs and legs and heart working together. It’s not always a conscious kind of magic, but it is always a kind of miracle. And that joy is one of the main reasons I keep heading back out there again and again.

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I know running is good for me physically in a lot of ways: our bodies were made to move, and sweating may help clear toxins out of our systems (as well as improving circulation). I’ve enjoyed building up my endurance and strength by running, too. But I’ve wondered for years about that elusive “runner’s high,” or the feel-good rush from endorphins released by exercise. When I started running, I wondered if I’d ever feel it – though that wasn’t why I kept heading back out to the trail.

Like a lot of things about running, the endorphins don’t usually arrive with high drama: I don’t round the final bend or crest one last hill and get a sudden rush of joy or euphoria. Sometimes, if it’s a particularly tough run, I arrive back home being simply grateful I’ve made it. But I do often feel better than I did when I set out. I feel accomplished, and (usually) satisfied with my efforts. These days, it’s an excellent way to start the day, and when I was mostly running after work, it was a gratifying way to cap off the workday. And – lest we all forget – let Elle Woods remind us that endorphins may help prevent murder. (“Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands. They just don’t!”)

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I used to see her in the neighborhood all the time, on the river trail where I ran, or standing on the sidewalk by her house, chatting up a storm with Sharon or Claire or one of the other neighbor women. Her dog, Riley, a beautiful red golden retriever with a few years on her, was nearly always in attendance.

Riley was used to being showered with affection by pretty much everyone in the neighborhood. She’d walk right up and sit on my feet while Kenzie and I chatted a minute, nudging my hand to keep scratching her silky ears if I got too distracted by our conversation. There was a man who lived down the street – Paul or Joe or Mike, one of those monosyllabic Boston Irish names – who referred to her as The Great Riley. He always remembered my name because he had a sister named Katie, the only girl in a family of five or six brothers. 

Kenzie lived in the yellow house on the corner, which was her dad’s house until they bought it from him about ten years ago, she and her husband Frank, whom I’d regularly see on the trail too. He’d either be striding along, deep in thought, or sitting on one of the rough granite benches, watching birds fly over the marsh with his binoculars. I never saw him smile, but once or twice in December I caught sight of him wearing a Santa hat, which was at odds with his expression but fit perfectly with his long white beard and hair. 

Kenzie was kind and inquisitive and funny, a retired nurse with a daughter in her twenties and a stepson whom I never saw. She was the first neighbor I ever made friends with, after seven years in Boston and three different apartments, not for lack of trying. I was charmed by her open, easy manner and the New England accent you could have cut with a steak knife. I never even knew her last name, but we were friends, of a sort, and I was always genuinely glad to see her.

I haven’t been down to the old neighborhood in a year or more, not since I separated from my husband and moved across the city. I told Kenzie I was getting divorced the week before I moved out. “Put your phone number in my mailbox,” she said. “We’ll go for a drink sometime.” I wanted to, and I meant to, but I never did. Somehow it was easier to leave a few of those loose ends of my old life untied. 

It’s October again, and the air turns sharp as the sky changes from cobalt to serge blue to golden in the evenings. I think of the waving reeds on the trail, and the murmuring sound they made. Sometimes I think of Riley, gone now, and wonder if Kenzie has gotten a new dog. I hope she has. Our friendship was brief, but it sustained me, made me feel like I belonged in that pocket of Dorchester, between the old chocolate factory and the river, in the third-floor apartment that was home for a while.

I wrote most of this post as an exercise for a writing class I’m taking online through ModernWell this fall. Since it’s sort of running-related, my fellow group members suggested I share it with you.

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It’s no secret that I love a good coffee shop – even though I am not, and have never been, a coffee drinker. I’ve also been hankering for new places to (safely) explore during this pandemic, and missing my regular “third places.” (Though I have been dropping by Darwin’s once in a while, to get iced tea and wave at my people.)

A couple of months ago, I heard that Eagle Hill Cafe had moved from its previous location (in Eagle Hill, the next neighborhood over) to one of the main streets in my part of Eastie. I hopped on my bike one afternoon and rode over to check it out. And I’ve fallen completely in love: with the kind, friendly atmosphere, the delicious bagel sandwiches, and their smoothies.

We’ve had a hot summer here in Boston, so I’ve been on the lookout for new cooling treats (and meals that don’t require cooking). The smoothies at Eagle Hill are fresh and delicious, and I’ve decided to work my way through the dozen or so options on their list. The Sunset (pictured above) is my favorite so far: strawberry, mango and apple juice. But I’ve tried several others: tropical concoctions involving mango and pineapple; super-healthy green ones with spinach and cucumber; the “Purple Rain” and “Berry Fairy,” which both involve (surprise) lots of berries.

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It’s nice to have something to look forward to, and something to cross off a list, even if it’s just the next smoothie flavor. I like dropping in and saying hello to Ellis and Monica behind the counter, and soaking in the a/c for a few minutes. Once in a while I treat myself to a bagel sandwich, and last month, I took my guy there for a lunch date. Especially in these times, we take our joys where we can find them, and I’m so glad this one is just a few blocks down the street.

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Hello, friends. Somehow it is August, and though we are so many weeks into pandemic life that I have lost count, summer is still summer. We’ve had a stretch of gorgeous hot weather (though we desperately need some rain) and I am soaking up all the pleasures summer has to offer, while I can. Here’s a list:

  • Sea breezes from the harbor through my kitchen window, which makes the heat in my apartment just about bearable.
  • Stone fruits and berries galore: cherries, blackberries, peaches and nectarines, blueberries, raspberries, tiny tart red currants.
  • Amanda’s spicy salsa roja with any chips I can get my hands on.

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  • Morning runs along the harborwalk (the earlier I go, the more shaded it is), watching for white herons and Black-eyed Susans, and the boats on the water.
  • Related: funky tan lines and freckles on my shoulders. (I promise I do wear sunscreen.)
  • Evening yoga in Piers Park, whether we’re sweating or catching a cool breeze.
  • Sliced cucumbers from a friend’s garden with Samira’s spicy muhammara – red pepper spread with walnuts and pomegranate.

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  • Sunflowers, roses and catching up with my florist.
  • Library hold pickup, about once every 10 days.
  • My new-to-me bike, which I’ve dubbed my Wild Irish Rose.
  • The music of I’m With Her, Our Native Daughters and several other groups I heard at Newport last year. (Related: reliving that magic.)
  • Making chilled cucumber soup with dill, basil and Greek yogurt – one of the perks of garden caretaking. (See also: fresh marigolds.)

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  • Smoothies from Eagle Hill Cafe, a newish neighborhood staple run by two friendly women.
  • Revisiting some childhood classics, including Maud Hart Lovelace’s stories.
  • Daylilies, Queen Anne’s lace, beach roses, hydrangea, Rose of Sharon, bee balm, nasturtiums and other wildflowers. The world is lush and green and colorful right now.

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  • Bike rides with my guy – around the Seaport (where he works), over to Cambridge, around Eastie (where I live) or just about anywhere.
  • Discovering new farmers’ markets on the bike. The Harvard farmers’ market has my heart, but I like visiting other ones.
  • Jasmine tea lemonade or iced black tea from (where else?) Darwin’s.

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  • Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski mystery series – my newest obsession.
  • Nicole Gulotta’s #30DayHaikuProject on Instagram, which I’m enjoying.

What small pleasures is summer offering you?

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strawberry-science-plaza

The hardest part of quarantine, for me, has been the constant isolation. I live alone, have been working remotely since mid-March (until I was furloughed last month), and have been seeing very few people in person. (I do still get to hug my guy, and walk with a girlfriend or two once in a while. Thank goodness.)

I miss my friends the most, but I’ve also been feeling the loss of what sociologists call “weak ties”: those casual, in-person relationships with people like your barista or librarian or yoga instructor. And I’ve been missing the “third places” where those relationships often take place: communal spaces outside of home and work where people interact and enjoy each other’s company.

All that to say: the Harvard farmers’ market is back, and I am loving it.

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The past few Tuesdays, my guy and I have biked across the river to Cambridge, to visit the half-dozen vendors set up on the Harvard Science Plaza. It’s a smaller group than usual, but they are cheery behind their masks, and the offerings are limited but delicious. We sanitize and keep our distance and browse the stalls with our eyes, and choose a few treats to eat on the spot or take home.

I showed up at this market all the time when I worked at Harvard, and that’s where I met Amanda, who makes fantastic tamales, salsas and chili beans. (She’s from Corpus Christi and she knows how tough it can be to find decent Mexican food in New England – plus she’s warm and friendly.) I am downright thrilled to be eating her products again, and I’ve loved seeing her in person, too.

It’s strawberry season in New England, and G and I have bought pints of them recently, plus crisp Boston lettuce and peppery Easter egg radishes. (Aren’t those colors gorgeous?) The latter, it turns out, are delicious with hummus, and I even made pesto with the greens last week. Weather permitting, we’ve sat on the benches or lawn nearby, eating strawberries till our fingers are stained red with the juice. I toss the tamales back in the freezer when I get home, but they never last long – and the strawberries and salsa both tend to disappear within 24 hours.

So many things are still strange and hard, but I am looking for joy where I can find it, these days. And fresh fruit + sunshine + time with my favorite person in a place I love = serious joy, pandemic or no pandemic.

Are you shopping farmers’ markets this summer?

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Singing the season.

One essential part of the holiday season for me is the music.

I know I’m not alone in this: you can hardly walk into a store in December without hearing tinny remixes of classic carols or Mariah Carey belting out “All I Want for Christmas is You.” (I confess to a certain affection for Mariah, mostly because my sister loves that song. She and her college housemates used to slide in their socks down the hallway, singing it at the tops of their lungs.)

I have been steeped in the familiar carols all my life: “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Away in a Manger,” “Silent Night” and others. We always began Advent services at Brookline with “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and I know multiple verses of so many carols (including that one) by heart.

Every year, I remember the long-ago rendition of “O Holy Night” sung by two of my dad’s friends at our church in Dallas: a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices. At least once each December, I wake up humming “Do You Hear What I Hear,” and think of George, who patiently led our church youth choir through it again and again. I have favorite versions of “Go Tell it On the Mountain” (James Taylor) and “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” (Ella). And I wait all year for the chance to sing anything involving a Gloria.

This year, thanks to some local friends, I joined a carol choir in my neighborhood. We’ve been meeting on Thursday and Sunday nights since early November, gathering at a nearby church or in Peter and Giordana’s dining room. The music we’re singing is an eclectic mix of well-known classics (“The First Noel” and “Adeste Fideles”), slightly lesser-known carols (“Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” and “The Friendly Beasts”), and several pieces I’d never heard of, including one in Latin and one in Spanish.

I’d forgotten how much fun it is to sing with a choir, to hammer out melodies and harmonies one note at a time until it starts to sound something like music. I’ve loved standing between Melanie and Ann-Marie, all of us sipping herbal tea from Giordana’s collection of mugs, as we stumble our way through “Puer Nobis Nascitur” or “A la Nanita Nana.” I’ve been amazed at Anna’s soaring soprano descants and sense of humor, and deeply appreciated Gillian’s handy pitch pipe and her wry, sharp musical commentary. And Peter, who steers this ship every year, has brought us through the last few weeks with skill and grace.

I’ve been humming these tunes as I walk from the train to my office or putter around the apartment, making tea or washing dishes. I’ve also been playing the King’s College Cambridge carols album on repeat, and I went over to the glorious Harvard carol service last week, and sang my heart out standing next to someone I love.

I had wondered if, this year, the music of the season would sound like loss: the loss of several communities where I used to sing. But I am happy to report that the songs are still there, and so is the community. It just looks different. This year, it looks like Elsa’s sweet smile and Rudi’s quiet warmth. It sounds like Joe’s jokes from the back row and Jessica’s able piano playing. It feels like Steve and Chrissy giving rides and making people welcome. It looks like Xeroxed sheet music, and it sounds like joy.

This is not a gift I ever expected, but it is one I’m happy to savor. (And, of course, Mariah is still sneaking in there too, sometimes.)

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celebrating Pop

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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.

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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).

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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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