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merry and bright

christmas card 2014

From our household to yours, the happiest of holidays.

I’m taking the week off, friends. See you back here next week.

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Oxford: long talks

As I noted recently, going back to Oxford always means reconnecting with a few dear friends who live there. I had a splendid afternoon with my housemates, but it was only one part of a week spent soaking in community.

After my rapturous walk home on the morning I arrived, I was greeted by my hostess – Jacque, a college friend who has lived in Oxford for years now. The first thing she said was, “Cup of tea?” Which is code for, “I’ll put the kettle on and we’ll have a long chat.”

katie jacque oxford

We had plenty of long chats that week – sitting at her kitchen table, relaxing in her spacious living room, walking to the park or the coffee shop, meandering around City Centre. Many of our chats involved, or were in the presence of, her sweet wee baby, Matilda.

matilda

Matilda isn’t much for talking yet, but she gurgles and coos with the best of them. And she didn’t seem to mind being hauled all around Oxford (and up to London and back), as Jacque and I took her everywhere with us.

On Friday, Megan, another college friend, came up to spend the weekend in Oxford.

katie megan house 9 oxford

Megan recently moved to the south coast of England, and after several exciting but overwhelming weeks of transition, she was thrilled to be back in Oxford among familiar faces. And we were thrilled to have her.

She and I shared a room for two nights and stayed up far too late talking of a hundred things – work and family and life abroad, transition and culture shock and faith. We walked downtown on Sunday morning, via our favorite sandwich shop, and we stood in the nave of the church we both call home, and sang our hearts out together.

That Monday, I walked back down the Cowley Road to a building just around the corner from my old house, to spend the evening with Lizzie in her charming fourth-floor flat.

lizzie living room oxford

When we were housemates, Lizzie and I would frequently stay up late talking. Long after Jo and Grace (those early risers) had gone to bed, and we’d given up studying for the evening, we could be found curled up on her bed or mine, putting the world to rights over cups of tea or cocoa. We laughed and cried and wrestled with matters of school and career and the heart; we told secrets, told jokes, and forged a deep bond in those late-night hours. And on this evening, Lizzie made a pot of hearty pasta and a nectarine crumble, and we ate and giggled and talked for hours. Just like old times.

lizzie river oxford

My last full day in Oxford was chock-full of community, beginning with the lovely Laura.

katie laura oxford

Laura teaches at my alma mater in West Texas, and she and her family are spending this fall in Oxford while she teaches in their study abroad program. They were away in Scotland when I arrived, but came back midway through my trip, and on Tuesday, she and I had a delightful day out together.

radcliffe camera st mary's tower oxford

We climbed St Mary’s church tower for some of my favorite views in the world (above), ate lunch at Pieminister in the Covered Market, and visited a few of my favorite shops, including Ben’s Cookies.

bens cookies oxford covered market

We also crammed in as much catching-up as we could – books, faith, travel, family, work, Oxford itself. We see one another rarely since I moved to Boston, and this bonus time together was a treat.

Later than afternoon, Jacque and I had tea in the back garden – she even broke out the posh tea from Paris.

jacque matilda

Laura’s younger daughter, Molly, joined us for tea – though after trying the fancy tea we were drinking, she informed us seriously that she really prefers Earl Grey. (And ran next door to fetch her own teabag.)

tea set hands garden

That evening, I took a walk along the canal, out past the train station, to an old stone house where I’m always welcome.

simon preaching st aldates

My friend Simon (pictured above), one of the ministers at my beloved St Aldates, and his wife Tiffany welcomed me with hugs. We sat around the table with their teenage sons, eating pasta carbonara and catching up on our lives. After dinner, Tiffany served raspberry crumble topped with crushed almonds, and Simon and I sat in the living room and talked for hours.

I always wish I could record these conversations, capture their essence as well as the actual words exchanged – so many wise, loving and profound remarks come out of these hours among friends. But I have to be content with scribbling down a few of the most memorable words in my journal, and basking in the afterglow – the warm, nourished feeling that comes from spending time with people I love.

More (more!) Oxford photos and stories to come.

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katie lizzie rowing

I’ve said it before: there are always a hundred reasons I want to go back to Oxford. The city itself is an old friend: the winding streets, honey-colored stone and lush green parks are all dear and familiar. But I also have a half-dozen friends who live in Oxford, and I’d planned to spend an afternoon with my former housemate, Lizzie. (That’s her above.)

We met up on the colorful Cowley Road, near the little chocolate-box house we once shared with two other girls: a small, spare semi-detached with a blue door, tucked into a quiet close. Lizzie, knowing my penchant for nostalgia, suggested we go and say hello.

cowley house blue door

We stood in the middle of the close, marveling at how big the trees have grown and trying to guess who lives there now (we suspect another group of students). As I went to snap a photo, Lizzie said something and I turned around – to see Jo and Grace, our other housemates, standing behind me with identical grins on their faces.

housemates radcliffe square

I was flabbergasted. Stunned. Delighted. I hadn’t told Jo and Grace I was coming to the UK, knowing I wouldn’t be able to go see them while I was there – but Lizzie, clever girl, had secretly organized a surprise reunion. The three of them had been scheming for weeks. And we had the most wonderful afternoon.

We headed down to Magdalen Bridge, where you can go punting or rent a rowboat. (We opted for the latter, feeling more confident in our rowing skill than our punting prowess.)

rowboats river cherwell oxford

After a couple of failed attempts at synchronized rowing, Lizzie took charge and rowed us out onto the river.

lizzie rowing

The girls had packed a feast – sandwiches, fruit, chips and veggies with hummus, flapjacks and cookies. Lizzie even packed some prosecco and plastic flutes. (Later on, we traded some to a Scottish couple in another boat for some of their banoffee chocolate. Yum.)

Mostly, we just had the loveliest time being together.

grace jo rowboat river oxford

It is six years since we all lived together, crowded into our wee house, cooking slapdash dinners and writing essays and brewing endless cups of tea. We always knew our living arrangement was temporary: I was in the UK for a one-year master’s program, and the other girls were finishing their undergraduate degrees. Grace and I were both engaged to the men who are now our husbands, and Jo met her husband, Tim, during that year. (The last time we were all together was at their wedding, five years ago.)

katie grace river oxford

Since our little household broke up, we have scattered far and wide, gotten married, moved too many times to count. Grace has a little boy and another baby on the way. I have made a cross-country move that proved just as challenging as my moves to Oxford and back. Jo has returned to the Welsh city where she grew up, and Lizzie has remained in Oxford while earning a master’s degree and establishing a career.

We have kept in touch via Facebook, text message and Christmas cards, knowing the broad outlines of one another’s lives while missing the details we knew during our year together. But we still love one another deeply, and that afternoon, we talked and laughed as though we had never been apart.

grace jo rowing

After the rowing (which proved excellent exercise), we wandered through town, pausing in Radcliffe Square for more photos.

housemates radcliffe camera oxford

We wound up with a walk to University Parks, where we sprawled on the grass and talked some more – about work and marriage and grown-up life, about family and travel and our days together in Oxford. “Do you miss anything about the UK?” Grace asked me at one point. That question has a thousand answers, but I gave her the most important one: “Yes. I miss all of you.”

It may be another several years before we are all together again. But this afternoon of sunshine and good talk and laughter will last me for quite a while.

More Oxford photos and stories to come.

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When the foundation shifts

sunset blue mussel cafe pei

I’ve been thinking lately about loss. Not the deep, jagged grief occasioned by the loss of a close family member or friend, but the smaller losses, more peripheral but no less meaningful.

Last month I heard about the death of a family friend, a gentle man I’ve always called Uncle Harold – not a blood relative, but someone I have known and loved all my life. He was my grandfather’s close friend for many years; his wife and my grandmother talked every day until Mimi’s death, two years ago. Harold’s son and daughter grew up with my dad and uncles, and his grandson is my lifelong friend. I know my loss is small compared to that of Harold’s wife, Carmen, and their family. But his death marked another small shift in the foundations of my world, and I realized it’s happening with increasing frequency.

Last summer, when Lindsey wrote about being thirty-eight, she said, “Thirty-eight is not having any more grandparents.” At thirty, I still have two grandparents – my mom’s parents, who live in the Texas Hill Country near San Antonio. But my dad’s folks are both gone: my grandfather back in 2000, my grandmother in 2012. With Uncle Harold’s death, Aunt Carmen is the only one left of that quartet of friends, who used to spend long evenings playing card games or chatting over dinner. I don’t find myself in southwest Missouri very often any more, and I am glad Harold is no longer suffering (he struggled with Parkinson’s for years). But it makes me sad to know he isn’t there, and that Carmen is all alone.

I am starting to lose the pillars of my childhood, those relatives and family friends who were always there, who could be counted on for Christmas and birthday cards and occasional phone calls. They didn’t always share my DNA or live close by, but they made up the foundation of my early years. I have, so far, been fortunate: my parents and sister, along with my husband and his parents, are still here and healthy, and I know (without wanting to seem morbid) that there are greater losses in all our futures. But every time I hear that someone I loved has died, the foundation shifts a little, and I realize again that this is part of what it means to grow up.

Another family friend, Susan, has recently been moved to hospice care, still hovering on the periphery of life for now. She moved away after her divorce and I haven’t seen her for many years, but I remember her clearly from when I was a little girl, her dark hair and almond-shaped eyes and gentle smile. I remember when each of her three daughters joined their family: her oldest, Lauren, was born just before my sister Betsy turned four, and I remember Susan cradling her, wrapped in a yellow blanket, at Betsy’s birthday party. I used to baby-sit Lauren and her sisters in the summers, watching Disney Channel shows and making lunches and letting them brush my hair. They are now in their twenties, all long limbs and shiny blonde hair in their Facebook photos – confident, grown-up young women.

I know Susan’s family, when they lose her, will grieve far more deeply than I will. I know this is the natural cycle of things: birth and death, over and over, world without end, amen. But I will mourn her too, as I mourned Harold: not just because their deaths will leave a hole in the fabric of their families, but because the tectonic plates of my own life will shift a bit. Because even if I haven’t seen them for years, the world is a little dimmer and sadder without the people I love.

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I recently reached the end of my #100happydays photo project. Here are some highlights from the final 25 days:

100happydays collage

Beach days, strawberries at the farmers’ market, watching the hubs perform with his a cappella group. An unexpected view from the seventh floor at work. Dinner on the balcony, solo soup lunches, stacks of library books, a good mail day. Lupines and concerts and red fields, from our PEI vacation.

It has occasionally been a challenge – technological or personal – to find bits of happiness for 100 days in a row. But mostly it has been a joy.

I’ve loved capturing the little things that brighten my days, sharing the photos I often snap anyway or taking the time to document moments of everyday delight. And I’ve loved sharing them – the response from friends and family, far-flung and near, has been inspiring and sweet and at times hilarious.

I may be officially “done” with documenting my happiness, but I’ll definitely continue to snap and share photos of things and people that make me smile.

What’s making you happy these days?

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Six years

k & j pei beach

Tomorrow we will have been married for six years.

We have been together nearly twice as long as that – we dated off and on (mostly on) through the majority of our college years. By the time I headed off to Oxford to earn a graduate degree, with J staying in west Texas to begin his own graduate program, we were engaged. We planned a wedding over nine months, across an ocean – a challenge I do not recommend, but somehow we made it to the wedding day itself, which was beautiful.

Lindsey recently noted on her blog that “marriage is about abiding. It is about remaining near.” I have thought of these words often over the last few weeks, as we circle around each other in the orbits of our workdays, then spend more sustained time together on the weekends and on our recent vacation. (The photo above is from our beach day on PEI.)

The challenge for me is in remaining near even when I am tired and frustrated. The work of marriage (and really, of all relationships) lies in being present, being thoughtful, being kind, when I’d really rather not make the effort. That is love, as surely as flowers and candlelight and elegantly wrapped gifts (though I do enjoy those gestures of romance).

Marriage is listening to my husband’s account of his days and checking in with him to share mine. It’s making plans and compromises, lists and dinner, balancing our priorities and needs and bank accounts. It is taking care of one another in a thousand small ways. It is a process I’m constantly relearning, and I expect to keep learning it for many years to come.

Six years in, we are still toward the beginning (I hope) of several decades together. But they have been good years, and I’m thankful for them – and thankful for the man who’s walked every step beside me.

j blue mussel lighthouse

Happy anniversary, love. Here’s to the next six, and many more.

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Family dinner

table summer dinner

Family dinner is one of the strongest memories from my childhood. It exists in blurred, indelible layers, the result of hundreds of nights when the four of us sat around the old wooden table in my parents’ kitchen. We used place mats (changed out with the seasons) and sturdy white plates rimmed in blue or green. We ate burritos and spaghetti and baked chicken, brown-sugar-glazed ham with green beans and buttery mashed potatoes. In the winter, Mom made hearty chili or chicken-cheese soup. When it was Dad’s turn to cook, sometimes we had breakfast for dinner.

Those dinners were our chance to come back together, to catch up on each other’s days. We told funny stories or complained about homework; we teased or argued, and always, we laughed. We always sat in the same seats (we still do, when I’m home); we always joined hands, bowed heads and gave thanks. And no matter how late my band rehearsal or my sister’s golf practice went, we waited to eat together.

Since I got married, I have begun to understand why my mother, in particular, fought so hard for family dinner during all those years. I work in a different town than my husband does; we rarely see one another during the workday, though we always make time for a quick phone call to catch up. He works several evenings a week, because marriage and family therapy is not a nine-to-five gig. In these days of mismatched schedules, I have become nearly fanatical about family dinner.

We plan out a rough menu for the week on Saturday or Sunday, based on how late he’s expecting to work each night. We go to the grocery store together, pushing the cart up and down the familiar aisles, grabbing an extra jar of salsa or box of pasta. We cook the simple, tasty meals we both love: pasta with veggies and goat cheese, my regular rotation of soups, chicken-mango curry, store-bought pizza crust topped with varying ingredients. And burritos (always burritos).

Sometimes he does dinner prep before leaving for work, turning on the Crock-Pot or chopping veggies or chicken and leaving them in the fridge for me. If he’s working really late, I cook and eat alone, making enough for two and sitting at the table with him when he comes home, hungry and tired. My favorite nights are the ones when we cook together, sliding past each other in the kitchen, the movements of this dance practiced and fluid after nearly six years.

I often wish we could have dinner together every night, that our schedules were as steady and consistent as my family’s was for much of my childhood. We live in a larger city, our lives swayed by unpredictable urban rhythms, so that family dinner is not always the constant I would like it to be. But no matter how crazy the weeks get, after a few frazzled nights or a few solo meals of leftover pasta or “single cuisine” eggs, we come back to the table, together.

Inspired in part by Lindsey’s recent post about family dinner.

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