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Posts Tagged ‘joy’

tree lights bookshelf christmas

This Advent, as I said last week, has felt a bit disjointed.

Instead of quiet and hopeful (which is admittedly a stretch, given the headlines lately), I have felt hesitant, restless, even a little angry. So much has shifted, in my life and in the world, this year, and though I’m glad to see Advent come again, my usual traditions aren’t really working. Instead of reading Watch for the Light on a near-daily basis, I’ve picked it up only a few times. I’ve been diving into Star Wars novels instead of my typical Advent stack, and even the carols haven’t been quite as present.

And yet.

At the last Morning Prayers service of the fall semester, Lucy began by reading a passage from 1 Corinthians 16: Be watchful. Stand firm in your faith. Be strong. Be courageous. Let all that you do be done in love. I took those words as a charge, especially the last two sentences. And I believed her when she said, a few minutes later, “The promise of Advent is that we will be met by the One who loves us, no matter.”

Two days later, at church, Emily read aloud from Isaiah: Comfort, comfort my people, says the Lord your God. Centuries before the birth of Christ, Isaiah spoke to a people who were weary and heartbroken. He had harsh words for them, sometimes – but he also offered comfort and hope.

I’ve been thinking, as I often do in Advent, about Mary: reading Laurie Sheck’s words about the “honest grace” of her body, her inability to hide her fear, her acknowledgment that her hands are “simply empty.” She was young and untried, alone and afraid. But as Kathleen Norris says in her essay on the Annunciation, “Mary proceeds – as we must do in life – making her commitment without knowing much about what it will entail or where it will lead.” She walked forward, with courage and love, into a new reality that must have felt uncertain, precarious, dark.

Singing carols this year feels more like an act of tenuous hope than an affirmation of faith or joy: the promise of God’s coming into our midst feels a long way off. But I am still humming O Come O Come Emmanuel, with all its aching longing. I am thinking, like my friend Claire, about the middle verses of beloved carols, which wrestle with the darkness and also seek out the spark of light. I am hearing again the voices of my dad’s friends Buddy and Clay, singing O Holy Night at our church in Dallas when I was a little girl: A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices. And I am humming the Magnificat, with Rachel’s words in mind.

Some days, it feels disingenuous to sing these songs: there is so much grieving, so much wrong, so much yet to be made right. But on other days it feels like an act of faith, one tiny candle flickering against the darkness. My soul magnifies the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

Amen.

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candle books snowflake peace

We are nearly halfway through Advent, the quiet, candlelit season leading to Christmas (which is often beset by the noise of daily life, on all sides). While I’m usually eager to step into Advent, this year I stood waiting at the door, so to speak, for days.

I am exhausted after the rush and press of a hectic fall, distressed by the news headlines, worried and saddened by the heaviness of the world and my own heart. As Rachel Held Evans observed recently, the usual ethos of Advent – the stillness and hope – has not felt quite right, this year.

We still showed up at church on a Saturday morning, though, to drape pine garland around doorways and ledges, to fill window boxes with cyclamen and green boxwood. That night, I finally pulled out the tiny coat-hanger tree that my friend Tiffany made for a Secret Santa exchange, twenty years ago. Every year, I hold my breath as I plug it in, hoping the colored lights will still shine. Every year, they wink out at me from the blue-green branches, the wires and foil held together by masking tape and hope.

kitchen stove kettle tree

The next day at church, we sang the hymn that encapsulates Advent’s longing for me: “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” I rubbed my fingers across the pine wreaths my friend Sarah had brought, and inhaled their sharp green scent. It smelled like Advent: like the promise of something fresh and bracing, even as the world outside grows quiet and dark.

Later, I stood behind the pulpit to welcome everyone, and borrowed a line from another Sarah. As my husband lit the first purple candle, I talked about how Advent is for the ones who grieve; who long; who hope. This year, maybe more than ever, we are stumbling forward in the dark, unsure whether we will find our way. But we believe that the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

That afternoon, I took a long walk on the river trail, along paths that have grown familiar, past benches and bare trees and slender, waving reeds. The morning’s sunshine had all but disappeared: a blanket of grey clouds covered the sky. As I turned toward home, it was rapidly growing dark. Yet the edges of the clouds still held a faint glow: I knew there was light behind them, even though the day had grown dim.

We hauled the tree up out of the basement that night, and unraveled eight strands of lights while listening to the King’s College singers. It sat in the living room, unadorned, for an entire week: the ornaments waited in their boxes for an evening when we had the time and inclination to unwrap them. The tree looked a little sad to me at first, but I came to enjoy its quiet glow, its patient waiting.

christmas tree lights snoopy

Advent is about acknowledging this difficult truth: not everything is as it should be, not yet.

I keep thinking of Nichole Nordeman’s words, which I wrote about after Thanksgiving: surely you can see that we are thirsty and afraid. They mingle in my head with a line from “O Holy Night:” a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices. Somehow, at the same time, both of these things are true.

We are tired and thirsty, weary and fearful; we are not sure how, or when, or even if God will come. At the same time, our hearts quicken with a hope we can’t explain or understand: a quiet undercurrent, a bubbling thrill of joy.

Advent is about these contradictions: walking forward in the darkness, clinging to the promise of the Light. It’s about acknowledging the hurt and the fear, the injustice and the gaping need, the despair that threatens to overwhelm us. And it is choosing to believe the words we read again every year: Comfort, comfort my people, says the Lord your God. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. Behold, I am making all things new. 

We choose hope, despite all evidence to the contrary. We sing, even when the words feel make-believe rather than true. We wait and watch, together in the darkness, lighting candles and looking for the light that hovers just behind the clouds. And we pray: Come, Lord Jesus. Make all things new.

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sumac river trail

December has arrived – suddenly, it seems. My neighbors are putting up twinkle lights, and the church sanctuary is full of pine garland, poinsettias and cyclamen. We began Advent on Sunday with the aching melody of “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and I’m slowly setting out the Christmas decorations and turning back to the words of hope in my Advent book.

Alongside all of that, it is dark. So dark.

Not only does the sun slip below the horizon as I’m finishing my workdays, but the news out of Washington and elsewhere is (still) so disheartening. I have friends who are grieving, weary, afraid. I am struggling with heartbreak, change, loss, fear. I know so many people who are waiting: for test results or resolution or even the tiniest scrap of good news.

In the midst of the darkness (literal and metaphorical), I know there are pinpricks of light, even when I can’t see them. In an effort to remind myself of this fact, I thought it was time for another list of what’s saving my life now:

  • Laurie Sheck’s poem “The Annunciation,” where I found the phrase “honest grace.” Kathleen Norris mentions it in her essay “Annunciation,” and I finally looked it up after meaning to do so for years.
  • Seeing birds’ nests in the bare trees and thinking of Lindsey.
  • Tulips for my desk and the weekly chat with my florist, who is the dearest man.
  • Bracing, practical, sarcastic advice from a writer colleague.
  • I say this every single day: Darwin’s. The ritual of walking down there; the delicious drinks and nourishing food; the familiar rhythm of the place; and most of all, the warmth from my café people.

chai darwins red bracelets

  • Laughter with my coworkers, whenever and however it comes.
  • Morning Prayers at Mem Church, which is wrapping up for the fall: thoughtful words, lovely music, the ritual of repeating the Lord’s Prayer and singing (often sight-reading) the daily hymns.
  • Texts from a few friends who are my lifelines.
  • The return of my winter uniform: striped dress + black leggings (fleece-lined when I need them) + ankle boots + scarf + magic green coat.
  • Weekly phone calls with my parents and looking forward to Christmas together.
  • Twinkle lights wrapped around anything.
  • Susannah Conway’s lovely December Reflections project on Instagram.
  • Walking and sometimes running on the river trail: on bold blue weekend afternoons or under dark weeknight skies after work.
  • In my ears on those walks and at other times: the Wailin’ Jennys and Hamilton. An odd mix, but it’s working for me.

sunrise early winter blue gold

  • Sunrises seen from the kitchen window: fiery orange over the treetops, or blue with silver-streaked clouds.
  • Yoga on my green mat at home (even 10 minutes can help) or at Healing Tree.
  • The boot camp I’m doing on Monday nights, taught by my favorite yoga instructor. So fun and empowering.
  • Slapdash huevos rancheros after said workout, every Monday night.
  • My morning routine: snooze button + hot shower + sunrise gazing + tea in a purple travel mug + scone eaten en route to the trolley stop.
  • Takeout from our favorite Indian place and a few hilarious episodes of Modern Family with the hubs.
  • Putting the world to rights over paella and wine with a girlfriend.
  • The words that have carried me over many months.

What is saving your life these days? Please share, if you like.

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autumn sunrise window view trees

I say this every year: I can’t believe it’s nearly Thanksgiving. But the weather has turned seasonably chilly, and the signs – including turkey stickers at a wine tasting I went to last week – are everywhere.

Every year mid-November, I perform a few annual rituals: I buy sweet potatoes and chop pecans for the casserole-cum-dessert that is my favorite Thanksgiving dish. (No marshmallows for me, thank you.) I double-check the sign-up list for Turkeypalooza, our annual potluck celebration in the church basement. I shiver as I hurry down the Cambridge streets in my green coat, watching the golden leaves dance and fly off the trees. I queue up the Friends Thanksgiving episodes. I reread W.S. Merwin’s poem “Thanks” and hum Nichole Nordeman’s song “Gratitude.”

This November, I’ve been doing a few new things, like listening to Richard Blanco discuss Merwin’s poem in a recent WGBH segment. I’ve been thinking about how some of my best friends, who moved to Idaho this spring, won’t be with us to celebrate Thanksgiving, for the first time since we all moved to Boston. I’ve been trying to come to grips with the realities of the last year: many things have changed, or been thrown into sharper relief, since the 2016 election. And I’ve been thinking about Wendell Berry.

The title of this post is a line from Berry’s poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” It captures my own struggle over the past weeks and months: how to choose joy, find the silver lining, set my face toward gratitude, while looking steadily at the sobering and often horrifying realities of this world.

It is easy – so easy – to become sad and overwhelmed and terrified by the headlines: natural disasters, infighting and cruelty in Congress, so many stories of horrific sexual violence in this country and elsewhere. Closer to home, I have friends and loved ones who are navigating bad news every day: surgeries, budget cuts at their workplaces, losing beloved pets, struggling through breakups, depression, job hunts. Sometimes it’s a battle to get up and face the day, to consider these facts without becoming paralyzed by them.

ankle boots leaves

I forget, sometimes, that the bright parts of life are just as factual as the tough parts: that the blessings, like my florist’s smile and the taste of Earl Grey (served with good cheer by my folks at Darwin’s) and the arc of a bold blue autumn sky overhead, are as real as the worries that tug at my heart. They are all part of this life, the beautiful and the terrible, the joyous and the disheartening. Sometimes the weight of the darkness threatens to pull me down. But the goodness, the light, is also always there.

“Ask the questions that have no answers,” Berry urges his readers. “Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.” Like all the poets I love, he urges me to pay attention, to keep up the hard and honest work of taking care, to look for and celebrate the sharp, sudden beauty of these days. “Laugh,” he says. “Laughter is immeasurable.” And again: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”

This is the challenge, as Lindsey wrote so eloquently last week: to acknowledge the sorrow, sit with the grief, call out the wrongness and work to change what we can, while actively seeking the “glimmers of joy” in our days. To be joyful, though we have considered all the facts – even the ones that make us cringe or roll our eyes or weep. To give thanks for what we have, what we enjoy, what (and whom) we love. For the blessings we have worked for and for those that come unasked, unbidden.

I am finding gratitude, like so many other things, complicated these days. But I also find it important, even vital. This week, before (and after) the turkey and the pies and the hours in the kitchens (mine and others’), I will be choosing to give thanks.

If you’re celebrating, I wish you a wonderful Thanksgiving.

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tulip hyacinth leaves spring
Today

If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze

that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house

and unlatch the door to the canary’s cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,

a day when the cool brick paths
and the garden bursting with peonies

seemed so etched in sunlight
that you felt like taking

a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,

releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage

so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting

into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just that kind of day.

 

I love Collins’ work, but had forgotten about this poem until my friend Louisa shared it at our book club last fall. Now that we are into spring (however fitful and rainy), it feels like the perfect time to share these lines with you.

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

(more…)

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magic is something you make brushstrokes

My one little word for 2017 is magic.

After a year that required all the gumption I could muster – which is to say, I frequently felt like I was hanging on by my fingernails – I wanted something different for 2017. I thought about vitality, which Ali chose for her word a few years ago, or rest, which I could certainly use more of this year.

Mostly, I wanted a word to help me live more fully into my everyday. Since I started choosing a word with brave back in 2010, this practice has become a way for me to pay better attention to my life. (Fittingly, attention was my word in 2013.)

I also wanted a word that would spark a little joy. 2016 was a hard and scary year, and I ended it completely worn out: exhausted, anxious, weary and fearful (though also deeply grateful for some good changes). There are lots of challenges ahead in 2017, I know, and I want to face them with bravery and hope: to walk forward expectant and unafraid.

All this reminded me of something Elise Blaha Cripe wrote a few years ago, when she chose magic for her word: “magic is something you make.” (The image above is from her site.)

Elise noted that magic doesn’t just happen to us, though it is there for the noticing: it often results from our choices, from the work we put in, from the way we choose to see the world. I was reminded, too, of Ali’s post from last year about making our own magic. Her post was related to the holidays, but I think it applies all year round.

Magic also feels a little sneaky, a little unexpected – like a much-needed antidote to the grim realities we’re all facing. To be honest, it also feels a little frivolous, and I wondered if I should choose something more grown-up and respectable. But then I remembered: I am always arguing in favor of the small things, the tiny, often overlooked moments that can turn a whole day around.

lamont quad light sky

The scrap of blue sky, the vase of red tulips on my desk, that first sip of hot, spicy chai in the morning. My favorite green coat, which has become my winter trademark. The pendant stamped with brave that I wear around my neck. The simple, small pleasures of daily life, and the lovely moments of connection with strangers and friends. Those “spasmodic tricks of radiance” are everyday magic, if anything is, and I firmly believe we need to notice them and also work to create more of them.

After I decided on my word, I went downtown to meet a friend one night last week. I got off the train early so I could walk through Beacon Hill, making my way down a dark, quiet, twinkly Charles Street with a cup of Earl Grey in my hand. And if I needed any further confirmation of my word, it came in this sign, spotted in a shop window: perfect words from one of my favorite writers.

presence wonder eb white

Wonder and magic are closely related, and I’ll be looking out for both of them this year. In a world that often feels fraught and dangerous, there’s still a great deal of light and loveliness to be found. I invite you to join me in looking for magic, and in making a little magic of our own.

Are you following a word this year? (I know I asked this question last week, but feel free to share if you haven’t already.)

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On kindness

on my left print friends bench curly girl

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

This quote has been variously attributed to Plato, Philo of Alexandria, Ian MacLaren (the pen name of a man called John Watson) and many others. I’m not all that concerned with who said it first, but I’ve been thinking about it often lately, because it’s saving my life.

I am fighting a couple of hard battles right now: navigating the seemingly endless job hunt and enduring another long, hard winter. I know I have much to be grateful for: a loving husband, a staunch and supportive family, all the basic physical necessities, so many good books. But life these days is tough. And kindness – often from people I know, but sometimes from total strangers – is making a real and tangible difference for me.

A couple of weeks ago, I ordered a breakfast sandwich at Darwin’s, and my order got lost in the shuffle – so one of the baristas gave me a free (heart-shaped) cookie while his co-worker apologized and started making my sandwich. I’m often in there for lunch too, and I look forward to the chitchat with my favorite staff members as they ring up my sandwich and chips. Even a brief exchange about the weather, which has been reliably crazy recently, or a laugh about nothing at all, can turn my entire day around.

I’m reaching the end of a temp gig I have loved, and a work acquaintance asked me last week, “What’s next for you?” “I don’t know,” I admitted. He said he’d keep an eye out for writing gigs for me – and he’s far from the only person who has made that offer. On a cold, gray day in the middle of a week of bad news, that simple gesture made me want to weep with gratitude.

After a difficult meeting last week, I found myself in tears in the middle of my office – not a situation I’d have preferred, but I couldn’t help it. Two of my colleagues supplied hugs, tissues, laughter and encouragement. I’ve only known these women for a couple of months, but I was – and am – so grateful.

As I am on the receiving end of kindness, I’m trying to remember to extend it to friends, family, acquaintances and strangers. These small gestures have bolstered me up as I fight my own battles – so I’m doing my best to pay it forward.

When has kindness made a real difference for you?

(Image from Curly Girl Design – a dear friend bought me this print a few years ago.)

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