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texas sunset sky december pump jack

“I was going to ask if you believe praying can really help at a time like this.”

Clare folded her hands together and pressed them to her lips. She paused. […]

“I believe that God hears our prayers, and cherishes them. I believe He answers by sending His spirit, giving us strength, and peace, and insight. I don’t think He responds by turning away bullets and curing cancer. Though sometimes that does happen.”

Harlene frowned. “In other words, sometimes, the answer is no?”

“No. Sometimes the answer is ‘This is life, in all its variety. Make your way through it with grace, and never forget that I love you.’ ”

—Julia Spencer-Fleming, In the Bleak Midwinter

I don’t usually expect to find theology in mystery novels. Though perhaps I should have seen it coming in this book, the first in a series featuring Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson (flawed but faithful, like all the best human beings I know). I enjoyed the book – a solid mystery set in upstate New York, in which new-to-town Clare solves a murder case alongside longtime chief of police Russ Van Alstyne. But I found this exchange, between Clare and police dispatcher Harlene, particularly moving and deeply human.

I don’t pretend to know what prayer does, or exactly how it works. The older I get, the less sure I am of what God is up to in this world, or how the presence of the divine intersects with our lives. But Clare’s final statement to Harlene rings true to me: when we are faced with life in all its variety, all we can do is try to make our way through it with grace. In spite of the darkness, I still believe this too: we are not alone, but deeply, wholly loved.

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sass harrison christmas fire truck

We are easing back into routine over here: wrapping up against frigid temps; shoveling snow; making lots of soup (and huevos); drinking tea and answering email. It felt so good to hit pause on the responsibilities of work and church for a while, but now we’re back to it, albeit not quite at full throttle yet.

I am – I think – recovered from our annual 10-day holiday odyssey across Texas, and I’ve been thinking about the gifts it brought: not only the wrapped presents under various trees and the time with our families and friends, but a few surprises that sneaked in under the radar, and reminded me that this is a season of joy, love and – yes – magic.

In no particular order, here are the unexpected gifts I savored this Christmas season:

  • A dozen homemade gingersnaps, hand-delivered by J’s sweet Aunt Joy when we met her for lunch.
  • Singing O Holy Night at Christmas Eve service. It’s ambitious for congregational singing, but the new music minister at my parents’ church urged us to attempt it, “with gusto!” So we did.
  • Three blue-sky morning runs through my parents’ neighborhood, past houses decked with Christmas decor, with the Jennys in my ears.
  • Running into a longtime friend at a new-to-us pizza place in Abilene, and discovering later that she’d paid for our lunch.
  • My nephews, snuggled up on either side of me and listening with (mostly) rapt attention as I read the Christmas story aloud.
  • Laughing with my brother-in-law on Christmas Day about homemade sourdough pretzels and the dough that wouldn’t rise. (They were still delicious!)
  • Cuddling with my sister on the couch that night as everyone traded stories and sipped wine.
  • Playing baseball in the driveway with my dad, my husband and my older nephew, Ryder.
  • A couple of sunsets so stunning that we all piled out of my sister’s living room and onto her front porch to gaze at them.

texas sunset sky december pump jack

  • Waking up with Do You Hear What I Hear? in my head the week before Christmas. We sang it every year when I was in youth choir, and it made me think of George.
  • The moment when my niece’s hair ties ended up in one of my (bald!) dad’s Christmas presents – my husband exclaimed, “That’s where those went!” and everyone burst out laughing.
  • Half an hour to myself in front of the Christmas tree one night, journaling and reading The Dark is Rising.
  • Coconut eggnog pie, with Blue Bell vanilla ice cream, as the denouement to a dinner with dear friends.
  • Picking up a novel I loved at the DFW airport bookstore.
  • Cracking up with J’s high school choir friends as we sang Christmas carols: “Johnny wants a pair of skates, Susie wants a shed…”
  • A wee girl named Genevieve Noelle, born to some of my best friends on Dec. 26. (We knew she was coming, of course, but we didn’t quite know when.)
  • The sentiment handwritten in my Aunt Cathy’s Christmas card: “And seriously, peace on earth.” (Hear, hear.)
  • Running straight into a few friends from high school at Christmas Eve service. I’ve been gone from my hometown a while, but it’s still and always where I’m from.
  • Singing hymns in the hallways of a hospice unit one night, with old friends.
  • A hilarious game of Scrabble with my in-laws.
  • The glass heirloom fruit bowls my Neno gave me.

There were plenty of gifts I was expecting this year: so much food and laughter at my parents’ house, time with beloved friends in Abilene, chips and salsa whenever we could squeeze them in. Those gifts were sweet and nourishing, and they filled me up. But these surprises have a magic all their own.

I hope your holidays included a few unexpected gifts, too.

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rose silver sunrise treetops

Somewhat to my own surprise, I chose magic for my one little word for 2017.

I’ve been choosing one little word each year since 2010, when brave sneaked into my life, took up residence and never left. It is still and always a guiding word for me, but over the years other words have found their place: comfort, shift, attention, light, gentle, gumption.

After all the changes and challenges of 2016, I knew 2017 would need some serious magic. And it’s been quite a journey: both in paying attention to magic where it already exists, and doing my best to make some of my own.

2017 held so much magic of the everyday kind: flowers, sunshine, my daily trips to Darwin’s, yoga classes, long walks, the kindness of friends and acquaintances and strangers. Like light, it often seems to grow stronger when I look for it and celebrate it.

There were some truly extraordinary magic moments this year, too: walking the beaches of PEI’s north shore with my husband. Hiking the misty Maine woods with dear friends. Climbing the tower of St. Mary’s in Oxford, and drinking in the view of the city at my feet. Closer to home, I ran my first 5K (in the snow!), spoke at Morning Prayers, walked miles around Cambridge and NYC soaking in their respective beauty, and interviewed several truly delightful authors for Shelf Awareness.

Magic, as Elise Blaha Cripe and Ali Edwards have noted, is often something you make. But I’ve also read enough stories of fantasy and magical realism to know this: it’s not entirely in our control.

By its very nature, magic is quicksilver, sneaky, surprising. It can show up where you least expect it and enchant or transform an entire day. But it is not a neutral force: it has a dark, slippery side. It is powerful, but – like love or ambition or so many other forces – it can be dangerous. And as every witch or wizard knows, it can be sought or celebrated or coaxed into greater life, but it can never entirely be tamed.

When I interviewed Alice Hoffman about her wonderful book The Rules of Magic, we talked not only about magic, but about courage, and love. Both in the book and in our lives, these three things are deeply intertwined.

“The book is really all about courage,” Hoffman told me. She spoke of “the courage it takes to be different, the courage it takes to be in love, and the courage it takes to be human.” The Owens siblings have certain powers, and they learn skills and spells and alchemy to hone those powers. But their most potent magic is much deeper and hard-won: it comes from choosing courage, choosing love, even when the outcome isn’t what they hoped for.

Many of the books I read this year involved magic: not only The Rules of Magic but The Dark is Rising, The Luster of Lost Things, the latest installments in Rae Carson’s Gold Seeker trilogy and Rachel Caine’s Great Library series. Several others invoked magic by another name: Leigh Bardugo’s take on Wonder Woman, Claudia Gray’s novels about Princess Leia, Jodi Taylor’s riotous time-traveling historians.

In a year that often seemed like the stuff of nightmares, I kept reaching for stories of heroines, hoping (often unconsciously) for someone to swoop in and save us. But in the end, every one of these heroines – Franny Owens, Leah Westfall, Diana Prince, Leia Organa, Madeleine Maxwell – reminded me of what I already knew: the only true magic is the everyday kind.

heart sneakers trail

All the stories I know about magic eventually come to this: the deepest magic, the truest source of hope, is the very human, often humble work of showing up, taking care, doing what needs to be done. Those lines from The Last Days of Café Leila, which I read back in February, have echoed in my head like a spell or a mantra all year: “The only thing to do was to keep moving, to do something, to show courage, to give everything she was capable of giving.”

Tiffany Aching learns this in Terry Pratchett’s Wee Free Men series: the work of a village witch is often scrubbing and soothing and elbow grease, doing her best to watch over the people in her care. Isabelle Owens reminds her great-nieces of this in The Rules of Magic: “We carry these things with us, and we have to fight them. The best way to do this is to be who you are, every part of you.” And Albus Dumbledore insists, to Harry Potter and anyone else who will listen, that the deepest magic – the mightiest word – is love.

Magic still has much to teach me, I think, but its lessons – perhaps fittingly – aren’t easy for me to articulate. It has been a year of myriad questions and very few answers; a year of mystery and struggle and often darkness; a year of trying to keep up and take care, while the forces around me seemed hellbent on yanking my life out of control. But it has also been a year of surprising joy.

As I walk forward into 2018, I am grateful for the presence of magic in my life. I can’t control it and I don’t always understand it. But it is there, and I hope it stays around for a while. I’ll be watching for its glimmers amid the everyday.

Did you follow a word in 2017? What did it teach you?

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not afraid shirt ocean brave

It’s been a year, hasn’t it, friends?

These past months have been crowded and stressful, both in the world and in my own life. But they’ve also held beauty and laughter and joy. Here’s my annual (long but non-comprehensive) list of what has happened this year.

In 2017, I have:

darwins d2 start arrow

  • spent a long October weekend introducing my parents to New York City.
  • returned to PEI with the hubs for our third blissful stretch of days there.
  • spent a week wandering Oxford, city of my heart.
  • tried my first boot camp workout – a six-week series taught by my favorite yoga instructor – and loved it.
  • surprised myself by taking up running.
  • run my first 5K (in the snow!).
  • moved (again) and settled into our new apartment, a lovely third-floor eyrie in Dorchester.
  • fallen in love with the river trail near our house.

river trail asters

midtown nyc skyscrapers blue sky

  • gone on a few weekend escapes with the hubs: a Florida beach, a wee Connecticut town, the Maine woods.
  • spoken (once) and listened (on many days) at Morning Prayers at Memorial Church.
  • done a lot of church work, as ever: sending emails, organizing events, reading Scripture, washing dishes.
  • learned a thing or two about protesting.
  • marked nine years of marriage.
  • helped my best friends pack up their apartment, and sent them on their way to Idaho with many tears.
  • finished paying off our little silver car (we call her Adele).
  • celebrated my eighth (!) Turkeypalooza with church friends.
  • filled up half a dozen journals.

I’m looking forward to turning the calendar on 2018: I love the idea of a fresh start, but there’s also some good stuff I want to carry over from 2017. Wishing you a peaceful, hopeful start to the New Year.

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turkeypalooza 2017 friends

It began as it always does: with a look at the calendar in early November and a collective how is it time to think about that already? It continued with a sign-up sheet online and a swirl of hurried conferences after church services to make sure we’d have all the essential Thanksgiving dishes.

The list (of food and attendees) started small, then grew in size as it does every year: from a dozen or so people to around 20 adults, five kids and two babies. From turkey and sweet potatoes and cranberry relish to Korean fried chicken, baked ziti, a tempting tower of salted caramel apple cupcakes.

The emails and texts flew back and forth in the week preceding the day. Amy picked me up from work on Wednesday in the pouring rain, and we drove to the church to set out plates and goblets and turkey napkins, and hang half a dozen strands of twinkle lights.

On a bright blue Thursday afternoon, we feasted. And gave thanks.

turkeypalooza plate food thanksgiving

I woke up on Thanksgiving morning humming Nichole Nordeman’s “Gratitude,” a song that perfectly captures the day for me. Listening to it earlier that week, I choked up on a line I’d never really noticed before: Surely you can see that we are thirsty and afraid.

The song explores our constant need for reassurance and blessing, the asking we do over and over again, even as we rely on the gifts that come down to us from a place beyond ourselves. As I stood in my kitchen on Thursday morning, listening again, another line leaped out: We are blessed beyond what we could ever dream, in abundance or in need.

It has been a difficult year in many respects: for me, for many of the people I love, for my country and the world at large. I’ve written about how gratitude feels complicated, how joy seems sometimes out of reach. I have often focused on the need – my own and other people’s – instead of the abundance. But the latter narrative is also true: we have so many reasons to give thanks.

On Thursday, we had abundance of all kinds, beginning that morning when some friends came over to watch the Macy’s parade and a couple of Friends Thanksgiving episodes. We ate scrambled eggs and scones, and cracked up at Joey getting Monica’s turkey stuck on his head. Then we drove to the church, where abundance was definitely the word of the day: three long tables set end to end, goblets sparkling next to every plate, tea lights and pine cones and autumn leaves making the place feel festive.

As the afternoon went on, the basement grew crowded with friends old and new.

kids table turkeypalooza thanksgiving

We had so much food, as I had hoped: mashed and sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, baked ham, homemade crescent rolls. We had cupcakes and cookies and four kinds of pie. Before the meal, we gathered to sing “Give Thanks,” as is tradition. I looked around at this group of people, all of us transplants from far-flung places, all of us finding a home here in some way, with each other. Then I led the prayer and borrowed a line from Amy: we are so grateful for all that we have been given.

This was the 11th annual Turkeypalooza, our name for the potluck, everyone-is-welcome feast that means Thanksgiving to our church community. This was my eighth Turkeypalooza, and I am deeply grateful: for its existence, for the slightly wacky name, for the hard and loving work that went into every bit of it, for every face around the table that day.

turkeypalooza foam turkey

I am grateful for all the details: for the kids filling glasses with ice cubes before the meal; for Sierra’s meticulously labeled cherry-pie cookies; for the foam turkey Eaoin made at school and brought to share with us. I’m grateful for Charles making multiple trips back and forth to coax a recalcitrant turkey into doneness, for Nik running to CVS for coffee creamer, for little Adam running around telling everyone, “I’m going to be five tomorrow!”

For the caught moments standing in the kitchen, chatting with whoever happened to be in there. For Matt, quietly scraping plates and expertly loading the dishwasher. For the babies, Colette and Abraham, who happily submitted to being passed around all afternoon. For bear hugs from a dozen or more people, for the voices raised in song and then in laughter. For the sunshine slanting through the windows, and for the many willing hands that helped cook and then clean up.

I’m still humming Nordeman’s song this week, and realizing its truth again: the blessings we have may not be what we expect, but they often outshine our wildest dreams. I could never have dreamed up Turkeypalooza if I’d tried. But it surprises and delights me every year.

If you celebrated, I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving.

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katie scarf just be true

Snapped yesterday on my new back porch, just before I dove into potting the new herbs (and another geranium) I’d bought at the garden center down the street.

That scarf is my favorite – a gift from my fashionista sister a while back. That glinting silver chain holds the “brave” pendant I adore. And the t-shirt – which says “Just be true” – is an oldie but goodie from Jen Lee’s shop. I bought it back in 2010, after meeting Jen at an incandescent retreat weekend in her Brooklyn neighborhood, and right before I moved to Boston. It, and its message, have stayed with me ever since.

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Nine years

katie jer xmas 2016

Marriage hath in it less of beauty but more of safety, than the single life; it hath more care, but less danger; it is more merry, and more sad; it is fuller of sorrows, and fuller of joys; it lies under more burdens, but it is supported by all the strengths of love and charity, and those burdens are delightful.

—Bishop Jeremy Taylor

I heard these lines years ago, at the very end of the movie Forces of Nature: an odd place, I admit, to pick up wisdom about marriage. I wasn’t married then, or even thinking about it. But I tucked those words into my heart, and they have resurfaced in recent months, as my husband and I have navigated our ninth year of married life.

We were married nine years ago today, in a ceremony filled with pink roses and a cappella music and rows of people we love, sitting in black folding chairs in a spacious atrium on our West Texas college campus. Our friends Tim and Julie (who are the older, wiser, more grace-filled versions of us) took turns reading aloud from 1 Corinthians 13: love is patient, love is kind, love never fails.

The groomsmen, four of our dear college friends, slung their arms around each other’s shoulders as we sang “The Lord Bless You and Keep You,” and I choked up at the sight. (I could hear at least one of my bridesmaids – my dear friend Bethany – sniffling, behind me.) Our friend and minister, Mike, who grew up with my dad, spoke a few wise, simple words over us, and told a couple of jokes.

We walked back down the aisle to an exuberant James Taylor song, grinning at the truth of his words: How sweet it is to be loved by you. Afterward, there were fajitas and iced tea, toasts and dancing, and a brief downpour during the reception followed by a dramatic sunset. We drove to a B&B down the street, owned by friends of ours, and headed for our honeymoon in Ruidoso, N.M., the next day.

That was a beginning, but also a continuation: we have been husband and wife for nine years, but loved each other now for nearly 14.

The trick in many long-term relationships seems to be loving the other person as they are, while holding space for them to grow and change. It can be hard, sometimes, to allow for those changes after knowing each other so long and so well. We are, and yet we are not, the same people who met as college freshmen, started dating long-distance as sophomores, got engaged at 23. We have fought (though not against each other) to declare our independence, to carve out a place for ourselves in the world. We haven’t always known what that place will look like, except that we want to inhabit it together.

It isn’t always easy, this work of building a common life: it requires grace, grit, compromise, lots of forgiveness and so much listening. In our case, it is also held together by so many bowls of chips and salsa; countless loads of laundry and sinkfuls of dishes; years’ and years’ worth of inside jokes; and numberless days of blowing each other a kiss when I get out of the car in the mornings. It is rolling over to kiss one another good night when we’re half asleep at the end of a long day. It is checking in via text or a quick phone call in the middle of the workday. It is remaining near, as my friend Lindsey noted a few summers ago. It is choosing each other, over and over again – whether we are tired or frustrated, furious or sad or delighted.

I love Taylor’s words about marriage because they capture the all of it: marriage is full of both dailiness and magic moments, tears and laughter, deep sorrow and overwhelming joy. It is a burden I’m grateful to carry alongside the man who carries so many of mine.

Nine years feels like a moment and a lifetime all at once – especially when I pause to consider the whole arc of it. And yet, in some ways (I hope), we are still at the beginning.

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

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