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The Layers

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

I’d come across this poem before, but never really paid attention, until Jill Lepore read – nay, declaimed – its first few lines in a brilliant Morning Prayers talk at Harvard back in February. I looked it up immediately, and have read it over many times since.

A few lines keep ringing in my head: I am not who I was. Some principle of being abides, from which I struggle not to stray. I am not done with my changes. 

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry here on Fridays this month, as I do every year.
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k j alhambra view spain

When you say those wedding vows at eighteen, you are committing yourselves—with all that you are and all that you have—to only each other because you are young and wreathed in glory and take up all the space there is.

When you say them at thirty-five, you are signing on for something wider: a whole garden full of people to love and to cherish, in sickness and in health, in wheelchairs and sleepwalking and heart attacks, in arrogance and graciousness, stubbornness and forgiveness, stumbling and wisdom, in meanness and in kindness that falls like snow and shines brighter than the Dog Star.

To love and to cherish, yes. Like a tiger. A hurricane. A family. Relentlessly.

—Marisa de los Santos, The Precious One

Today we are celebrating a decade of marriage.

This passage comes from the end of de los Santos’ novel about Taisy and Willow, estranged half sisters who share a difficult father and eventually come to share much more. Taisy, who narrates the passage above, makes her wedding vows twice, to the same man. As she says, and as one might expect, the commitment has deepened and widened in the intervening 15 years.

J and I did not (quite) make our wedding vows at age 18. But we did begin dating as 20-year-olds, and at 34, we are standing on the edge of our second decade of marriage.

We knew, I think, that we were signing on for a broad and complicated commitment when we said our vows amid a crowd of people we loved, at age 24. But we did not – because nobody ever does – understand quite what the intervening years would entail.

Marriage is a joy, but it’s not always an easy one. It is a life-giving foundation, but it is neither unshakable nor unchanging. I have come, gradually, to believe that it’s more like a plant than a building. Like anything that lives, it requires tending and care. And like anything that lives, it sometimes changes in unexpected ways. Growth doesn’t always look the way you hope or assume it will. It is often surprising, and sometimes it hurts.

Because we met when we were so young, J and I have done a lot of growing up together: learning how to navigate the world as adults, especially during and after our cross-country move from Texas to Boston. In other ways, we have had to let each other grow on our own, and make space for the slightly different shapes we have taken on, even as each of our growth has informed the other’s.

We are facing (more) transition this summer, as I search for a new job and he continues to deal with changes at work. We are used to this by now, but we can’t just coast; marriage, like most things that are worthwhile, requires taking care. I am no expert on anyone’s marriage besides my own, but like Clare, another de los Santos character, I believe deeply that “at least half of love is paying attention.”

Celebrating a decade of marriage feels big, and it is. But it’s also simply waking up to another day together. It is daily and it is infinite. It is lifelong and it is right here, right now. It is doing our best to walk forward as flawed but loving human beings, trusting that our past experience and our present efforts will carry us into the future.

Happy anniversary, love. Here’s to many more.

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Eight years

high line selfie nyc

If there’s one thing we’ve learned, the two of us, it’s that marriage isn’t always easy, and there will be times that try us without mercy. We will sometimes – maybe even often – disagree, and things and people and events will come along that test our courage and resolve, and that’s when we will turn to the memory of this precious time together, and the knot we are weaving to bind us into one.

—Beatriz Williams, A Certain Age

I came across these sentences last month, when I read Williams’ glittering novel about tangled love and secrets in 1920s New York. My path to marriage – thank goodness – was not quite as dramatic as that of Sophie, who writes these lines to her sister near the end of the book. I met my husband on a quiet college campus in West Texas, and I married him on that same campus, nearly six years after we met (and almost five years after we started dating). We were starry-eyed and stubborn and impossibly young – and we have been married, as of yesterday, for eight years.

Eight years is a long time and not a long time, all at once. It is not quite a decade, but it is long enough that we have formed certain habits, learned and unlearned certain things, built a solid (I hope) foundation for the rest of our marriage and our lives. By virtue of meeting when we were so young, we have been together for a good chunk of our lives. But eight years is also long enough to learn this: things change.

I am married, in some ways, to the same man I met when we were 18. He has the same dark eyes and wide smile, the same clear tenor singing voice, the same love for sports and his family and me. I am also the same, in some ways, as when we met: I have green eyes and freckles and a deep love for books. I read and write both to make my living and to make sense of the world. And one fundamental thing is also the same: we love each other, fiercely and deeply.

But eight years is also long enough for a lot of change to happen. We have both changed jobs, finished graduate school, moved across the country and changed jobs again (roughly in that order). More importantly: we have both learned and grown as people, which means that our relationship has evolved. There have been times – including the past year, when I was job hunting – that have tried us without mercy. And life has tested our courage and resolve.

The work of marriage in these years has been about building a life together, yes, but it has also been about giving each other the space to grow and change. It is hard for me sometimes to admit that our life looks different than I thought it would, or that we are both allowed to change our opinions – and then that change might require some reshuffling. Like anything that is expected to endure, a marriage has to be both strong and flexible. That is, as I once heard Lauren Winner say, “hard and holy work.” And it is ongoing.

Here is the other side of that coin, though: marriage is sweet. It is deep and rich and nourishing, and it is often a lot of fun. I am grateful to be married to someone who makes me laugh, who always has my back, who gets me in ways I don’t have to explain. We love to go adventuring together and we love to stay home. We love being us, even while we are still two separate people. We love our life together. And I am grateful for it all.

Happy anniversary, love. Here’s to many more.

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hammer head coverI’m a writer. I have always wanted to be a writer.

Since I was a little girl scribbling in my first couple of diaries (the kind with locks and keys), or making up stories to tell myself before bed at night, I’ve loved playing with words. But in this digital age, writing can sometimes look a lot like moving pixels around a screen, and less like anything real. Sometimes, after a day of hitting the delete key once too often, I go home and plunge myself into more tangible tasks: cooking, knitting, washing dishes.

After spending her twenties working as a journalist for a Boston newspaper, Nina MacLaughlin found herself similarly dragged down by the endless clicking and digital noise of her day job. Finally, exhausted and soul-weary, MacLaughlin quit, and applied for a carpenter’s assistant position she found on Craigslist. Her gorgeous memoir, Hammer Head, charts her journey into the world of carpentry, working for a tough, wise woman named Mary and discovering an entirely new way of life.

I’m over at Great New Books today talking about Nina’s memoir – one of my favorite books of 2015. Please join me over there to read the rest of my review.

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Celebrating Easter

palm sunday church

This year, the Easter planning happened on the fly.

I suppose it always does, really. Our tiny church, as I’ve said before, has no dedicated, full-time paid ministry staff. Instead, there are four or five of us who plan services and schedule preachers, print bulletins and fill glass communion cups with Welch’s grape juice, and another half dozen who deal with finances and building issues (our sanctuary ceiling has boasted multiplying cracks for years now).

We rarely all end up in the same room together for any length of time. We parcel out the responsibilities, and then we have to trust that everyone knows what they’re doing.

In true twenty-first-century fashion, a lot of the planning happens over email, my husband and I touching base with the folks who teach children’s classes, read Scripture aloud during service, lead prayers, bring snacks for the coffee hour before worship. But during the days leading up to Palm Sunday and Easter, even J and I couldn’t sit down together for more than ten minutes to talk about the services. Instead, we had those conversations when we could: brushing our teeth elbow to elbow in our tiny bathroom, sitting at the dinner table while he ate reheated leftovers after working late (again), pulling on our pajamas to fall into bed after another long day.

We were doing our best to be thoughtful, not to put off the planning until the last minute. But sometimes, the last minute – or a series of minutes, snatched here and there – is all we have. And inevitably, it makes me worry.

What if we can’t have the Easter egg hunt outside? Will the bulletins get printed with all the correct names on the list of Easter lily honorees? Will Bob remember to bring the flowers and Dan remember to make the coffee? Will the kids be so excited and hopped up on sugar that they can’t sit still? Will we have enough food for the after-church potluck? And – this is the big one – will it really feel like Easter?

Our friend Mason, who preached on Sunday, admitted to dreading Easter sermons. It’s like the Super Bowl for church, he said – a day fraught with high, often conflicting expectations, which no sermon can possibly meet. My own expectations for Easter are less about the sermon than about a few beloved hymns and the feelings they are supposed to engender. But it’s still a day with a lot of anticipation. And inevitably, not everything goes according to plan.

Yesterday, we realized five minutes before starting that we hadn’t asked anyone to give the communion thoughts – so I volunteered. Miraculously, the snow that still blanketed the backyard last week had melted – so we did get to have the Easter egg hunt outside. Bob filled the altar with armloads of lilies and the two deep windowsills along the church’s southern wall with tulips and daffodils and hyacinths. Dan did make the coffee, and we had plenty of snacks for the potluck afterward. We stood around in groups, eating scones and carrot sticks and spinach-artichoke dip with pretzels, catching up joyfully – if a little haphazardly – on each other’s lives.

easter flowers brookline

We sang “Low in the Grave He Lay” and “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” The older kids gave a presentation on the life of Jesus, standing in a ragged line on the stage, mumbling through their parts or speaking them loud and clear. The little ones were not quiet – they never are – and at times the whole morning felt a bit frenetic, a bit cobbled-together. But this is Easter: a story that takes unexpected turns, right in the middle of our ordinary, messy human lives.

I marvel at it every year, sometimes every week: how the logistics, the details, the words and notes on paper, become a living, breathing thing, a celebration of the story none of us can quite explain, but to which all of us, in our various ways, are clinging. It’s rarely neat and tidy, and it almost never turns out quite the way we plan. But – this week and always – it is beautiful.

If you celebrated Easter (or Passover), I hope you had a wonderful holiday.

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Lindsey recently wrote a breathtaking post about what thirty-eight looks like for her. I am just a few months away from turning thirty (which alternately seems totally normal and a bit overwhelming), so I thought I’d do my own take.

This is twenty-nine.

chocolate room spiced hot cocoa

Twenty-nine is on the cusp of her third decade, seven years out of college and five years married. Twenty-nine is content so far to play the cool aunt, though she’s starting to wonder about having kids of her own.

Twenty-nine has successfully held down a series of real, full-time jobs with benefits and retirement plans, but still sometimes struggles to feel like a grown-up inside.

Twenty-nine looks in the mirror and sees her mother: the big green eyes, the shy smile, the long eyelashes. Twenty-nine hears both her mother’s advice and her dad’s punny jokes come out of her mouth all the time.

Twenty-nine always packs an extra book (or two) in her bag, makes sure to carry cash (but not too much), pays her bills on time, plans out meals for the week on a dry-erase board in the kitchen. Twenty-nine believes in being prepared.

Twenty-nine is slowly realizing that some friendships will fade with time, in spite of (sometimes because of) the relentless onslaught of social media minutiae. And that some friendships will endure in surprising ways.

Twenty-nine still keeps a handwritten journal as she has done since she was six, and has carted several boxes of old journals to half a dozen houses and apartments.

Twenty-nine still loves the boy she fell in love with at nineteen, and can hardly believe they will celebrate a decade of being together in November.

Twenty-nine is learning to resist the allure of cheap clothes in favor of well-made pieces. Twenty-nine is embracing her signature style rather than chasing trends, though her favorite pieces of clothing still tend to come from her sister’s closet.

Twenty-nine knows what it is to grieve, to question, to struggle with faith and come out on the other side with a faith that acknowledges all kinds of doubts. Twenty-nine believes, increasingly, that community and grace are far more important than doctrines or creeds.

Twenty-nine is learning to loosen up, to laugh more, to plan spontaneous adventures, to be silly sometimes rather than so serious all the time.

Twenty-nine is learning how to balance nice and honest, learning not to apologize for who she is.

Twenty-nine dreams of many more adventures, but is deeply grateful for her life as it is right now.

k & j fenway

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maine bar harbor smiling photo

  • survived my second (thankfully milder than the first) Boston winter.
  • admitted that, to survive my third such winter, a light box and Vitamin D pills will be helpful tools.
  • read nearly 300 books – a personal record. (Yes, I am fast. No, I don’t “speed read.” Yes, I spend a LOT of time reading.)
  • lost a grandmother and a cousin, and grieved.
  • flown to Texas three times to visit my family.
  • become an aunt twice over, to Ryder and then to Annalynn.
  • taken J to D.C., shown him the monuments and museums I love, and discovered some new places there with him.
  • spent two wonderful long weekends (one frigid, one fall-ish) in New York City.
  • drunk SO many cups of tea.
  • taken countless lunchtime walks.
  • filled up six and a half journals.
  • overslept a LOT of mornings.
  • had my soul fed, my heart uplifted and my intellect challenged at the Glen Workshop.
  • gained about 10 pounds. (Which I’d like to lose in 2013.)
  • attended my 10th high school reunion, and marveled at the ways my classmates and I have grown into ourselves since 2002.
  • kept up a pen-and-paper correspondence with the lovely Jaclyn (who also hosted us in D.C.).
  • driven to the wilds of Maine for a super-fun wedding.
  • kept showing up for my day job, even when I did not feel like it.
  • continued to work as a freelance for my beloved alma mater.
  • taken on extra responsibilities at church.
  • realized why church work is sometimes thankless and sometimes deeply rewarding.
  • missed my family, and faraway friends, deeply.
  • welcomed my sweet college roomie and her husband for a visit to Boston.
  • paid down a LARGE percentage of the balance on my student loans.
  • written 170-ish blog posts (and hit the milestone of 1,000 posts).
  • tweeted probably more than was strictly necessary. (But it’s so much fun.)
  • joined a networking group for bookish folks.
  • celebrated my third Turkeypalooza.
  • knitted 6 hats (4 adult, 2 baby), 4 baby sweaters, 2 pairs of booties, 2 cowls, 3 mini sweaters, 1 pair of leg warmers, 1 sunglasses case, 2 pairs of fingerless gloves, and 42 wee hats for smoothie bottles.
  • fallen head over heels for Lark Rise to Candleford, finished watching Mary Tyler Moore, and continued my love affair with Castle.
  • reviewed more than 40 books for Shelf Awareness.
  • met a dozen or more online friends in person.
  • become part of a book club.
  • visited Vermont, Newport (R.I.) and western MA.
  • found a question I keep asking over and over.
  • celebrated my fourth wedding anniversary.
  • relished a rain-soaked, hilarious, memorable 4th of July.
  • soaked up all I could of the London Olympics.
  • reflected on two years in Boston.
  • struggled at times to make this life fit.
  • talked about the future with J.
  • fallen in love with a slew of new-to-me detectives, including Mary Russell, Tommy & Tuppence, Sarah Kelling, Chet and Bernie, Bess Crawford, and the Spellmans. (This has been a year for mysteries.)
  • seen both The Lion King and The Fantasticks on Broadway.
  • spent many Tuesday evenings sipping tea with girlfriends.
  • wondered what is next.

I wrote a post like this last year, and it was so thought-provoking I decided to do it again. It’s amazing to look back over a year and see what’s happened, and what I have made happen.

What have you done, experienced, read, accomplished in 2012?

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