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Posts Tagged ‘love’

betsy boys presents christmas

I never quite know how to write about Christmas, once it’s over. The presents have all been opened and admired, the holiday cards (finally) sent out, the suitcases packed and repacked and finally unpacked. We’re back in the routine of work and winter and daily life, and the 10 days we spent in Texas, driving up and down I-20 to see people we love, seem very far away.

This year will go down as the year of not-quite-normal: so many of our usual family traditions were altered or skipped over altogether. My sister has two small boys and was hobbling around in a knee brace this year (see above), so we opened family presents at her house instead of at my parents’ on Christmas Eve. For the same reason, J and I drove to Christmas Eve service by ourselves, slipping into a center pew to listen to a sermon by an unfamiliar minister. My dad, despite his best efforts, could not find any eggnog, so we missed having our annual cup together. And the small-child chaos was such that we completely forgot to read Luke 2 aloud before diving into the presents.

My husband’s family moved to a new house in a new town this summer, so we spent the first weekend of our trip navigating unfamiliar territory – a string of small towns in the East Texas countryside. The weather swung wildly from unseasonably warm (73 degrees on Christmas Day) to icy sleet and snow two days later. Our favorite Mexican restaurant was closed on the day we tried to go, and I had a 24-hour bug earlier in the week that prevented me from enjoying another Tex-Mex meal with my parents. All in all, it felt – I have to say – a little weird.

And yet.

On a breezy Monday night, J and I stood in a semicircle and sang Christmas carols a cappella with a few of his choir buddies from high school. The notes of those familiar tunes – “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” an absurdly complicated arrangement of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” – touched something deep inside me. This was our second time at this choral reunion, and though I am technically an outsider, they welcomed me like an old friend. Afterward, we walked to a local bar for snacks and cocktails, and told stories and laughed late into the evening.

My in-laws may have changed their address, but we are always sure of a welcome there: from J’s parents, his sister, the two cats, and three-year-old Annie, who jumped on J the minute we walked in the door and hardly let go for three days. She danced around, effervescent with joy, trying out her new rocking horse while clad in a pink princess dress. “Look at me, Uncle Miah! Watch me, Aunt Katie!”

jer annie shoulders smiles

It felt odd to be at Christmas Eve service without my parents, but their church, where I grew up, is still and always my favorite place to be on that night. We found seats in front of some family friends and lit our candles during “Silent Night.” Our beloved music minister, George, led the service with his customary joie de vivre. I slipped through the crowd to give him a hug afterward. And that felt – unmistakably – like Christmas.

My grandparents drove up from their house near San Antonio, and Pop brought me a gorgeous bookcase that he’d worked on for months. Neno brought a stack of old photos for Betsy and me to look through, and we spent a happy afternoon in Betsy’s kitchen, riffling through them and laughing and telling stories while we snacked on Pop’s guacamole and took turns making dishes for Christmas dinner.

We had all our traditional favorites: smoked brisket with Neno’s barbecue sauce, sweet potato casserole, Mom’s cranberries suspended in Jell-O, peanut butter kiss cookies. We ate several meals around the table that Pop made for Betsy, with my nephews in their high chairs and all of us squeezed in elbow to elbow. We had stockings at Mom and Dad’s on Christmas morning, with Mom’s three Christmas trees twinkling, and Dad and I sneaked in our favorite parts of Christmas Eve on Sesame Street.

cookie monster christmas eve telephone

“The best is being together, even if it is chaotic,” I said to Mom after Christmas, when we were discussing this year’s craziness. And it might sound cliched, but it’s true.

The best was sitting on the big sectional couch in Betsy’s living room, telling stories and cracking up at inside family jokes and hugging my nephews (when they stood still long enough). The best was catching up with multiple friends in Abilene, cramming in so many stories from the past year, sitting around a table until nearly midnight and laughing until our sides hurt. The best was chicken and dumplings around Frankie’s table, homemade pizza with Laura and Bill, cups of chai with Lisa and Mike, hugs from Shanna and Calvin and Gail.

The best, always, is heading two thousand miles south and west, knowing what’s at the end of that road: home. (And those small, wiggly cuties we love.)

jer harrison christmas

I hope your holidays were wonderful, and that 2016 is treating you right so far.

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kent haruf novels plainsong our souls at night

Every once in a while, a book comes along that knocks me backward with its quiet power. Kent Haruf’s final novel, Our Souls at Night, is such a book: a story about ordinary people living simple lives, told in spare, melancholy, beautiful prose.

Addie Moore and Louis Waters, both elderly and widowed, live a block apart in a small Colorado town. They’ve known one another for years (though not very well), and both of them are lonely. Addie makes an unusual request of Louis: she wants him to come and spend nights at her house, lying in bed next to her, just talking.

Louis is surprised, but he agrees to give it a try, and they strike up a friendship – spending their nights in quiet companionship, telling each other the stories of their lives.

I’m at Great New Books today talking about how much I loved Our Souls at Night. Please join me over there to read the rest of my review.

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Paris

notre-dame

Paris. Long walks on grey cobblestones alongside the rushing, undulating waters of the Seine. Bookshops (librairies) full of slim paperbacks with incomprehensible titles in a beautiful language. The tall, proud spires of Notre-Dame, from whose roof you can see the entire city, spread out at your feet.

Paris. Blooming trees in the springtime, golden leaves in the fall. Soft watercolor paintings by Monet and ballerina sculptures by Degas. A train station-turned-museum – the Musée d’Orsay – full of light and open space and beautiful, thought-provoking art. Twenty-three bridges over the Seine, many of them lit softly at night, ghost bridges to another city, another time.

Paris November 07 181

Paris. The setting for some of my favorite books: Les Misérables, A Moveable Feast, A Homemade Life, The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, My Life in France. And many more with Paris in the titles: Lunch in Paris, Paris My Sweet, Paris in Love, The Paris Wife, Paris to the Moon.

Paris. Thin buttery crepes with sugar and lemon juice, wrapped in wax paper and eaten piping hot on the street. Wood-paneled cafes with long mirrors, white tablecloths, small round tables. Gold-rimmed cups of café crème and chocolat chaud, with sugar cubes wrapped separately in crackling paper. A glass of vin chaud at Cafe Panis one sharp spring night, after a long solo browsing session at Shakespeare & Company.

cafe panis paris mulled wine notre dame

Paris. Swing dancing in a stone-vaulted basement at Caveau de la Huchette. Cigarette smoke and elegant buildings. Buttery croissants and thick onion soup. The best falafel in the world on Rue des Rosiers in the Marais. An exotic honey shop on the Rue de Rivoli, filled with glass jars that seemed to capture different flavors of sunshine.

Paris. Endless grey rooftops stretching out across the sky. The wedding-cake confection of Sacre-Coeur, set high on a hill in Montmartre. The siren call of streets and gardens; the mystique of a city I adore but have only begun to discover. And, this week, the site of unimaginable yet all-too-familiar tragedy.

Paris, je t’aime. My heart is with you.

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katie bethany coffee shop

Here is one thing I love about deep friendships: you develop a kind of shorthand after a while.

Some of this shorthand is topical: my friend Abi and I love so many of the same books and TV shows, and we can discuss/quote them for hours. Some of it’s geographical: my friend Kristin, a fellow West Texas transplant to Boston, knows exactly what I mean when I talk about missing home and loving the life I have here. (Even better: she knows the particulars of certain Texas cities, and how tough it is to find great Tex-Mex food in Boston.)

I’ve been thinking about another kind of shorthand, though: the kind that comes from knowing each other’s casts of characters.

Pretty much everyone I meet knows I’m married: if my wedding ring doesn’t give it away, a comment about my husband is bound to come up before long.

katie jer beach san diego

I also talk frequently about my parents, sister and two adorable nephews – and I’ll show pictures of those sweet boys to anyone who’s willing to look at them. (Here are Harrison and my sister. Adorable, no?)

betsy harrison

But my good friends (and family) also know about the other important people in my life – even if they don’t know one another personally. I tell stories about Sunday nights spent at Ryan and Amy’s, long talks with Abi (and snuggles with her baby girl), college and post-college adventures with my roommate Bethany. (That’s her at the top of this post.)

I talk about my writer pal Hannah (who runs our occasional book club), my snail-mail pen pal Jaclyn, my work buddies Adam and Anissa, my long-distance lifesaver Laura. And in turn, I get to hear about the supporting casts of my friends’ lives: their parents, spouses, siblings, best friends, the people who help anchor them.

It’s a gift to reach the place in a friendship where you don’t have to explain all of that, where the person who’s listening to you has heard, and remembered, the stories about the people who matter. I love hearing stories about my friends’ loved ones – and it’s even more fun if I get to meet them in person. I feel like I know my friends better after getting to know the people they love, because our people are so much a part of who we are.

Do you have this kind of shorthand with your friends? Who’s in your supporting cast of characters?

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jer newport cliff walk

Taken on the Cliff Walk in Newport, RI. A long, meandering afternoon with my love.

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housemates radcliffe camera oxford

If I’ve heard it said once, I’ve heard it a hundred times: friendship is a process of give and take.

In the best friendships, each person has a lot to offer the other, and we do this via a healthy, balanced exchange of love and respect. Not in a pedantic, score-keeping way, but in a way that fills each person up, and doesn’t tip the scales too far in any one direction. We lean on each other when we need it; we provide laughter, a listening ear, a place for our friends to be themselves.

I am grateful to have a lot of these friendships (and this kind of marriage) in my life. (One example: the three girls I lived with during my year in Oxford, who are pictured above – we had a surprise reunion last fall.)

I’m a classic overachiever: organized, driven, capable. I am not Superwoman, but I know my strengths, and like most people, I prefer to operate out of them most of the time. I am so much more comfortable being the giver in a friendship: the one who says, “I’m fine” and means it, the one who can provide what another person needs: a listening ear, a home-cooked meal, a bit of encouragement on a tough day.

I’ve been dealing with a difficult situation lately, and here is one of the most frustrating things about it: I have had to ask for help, over and over again. I need advice and support and cheering up; I need lunch dates and distraction and a little extra attention. I am having to learn to be the one who takes, who receives, who admits her own neediness and lack. And – no surprise here – I don’t like it.

There’s nothing wrong with being capable, but there’s something a little more insidious at work here: I like seeing myself as a person who has it all together. The other side of that coin, it turns out, is a deep fear: the fear of being a person who takes and takes and has nothing to give. Of being a person who pushes her friends away because she’s just so needy. Of turning into a person who demands more than she can give in return.

I don’t have any easy answers for this, at the moment. The tough situation in my life isn’t going away, at least not yet, and I’m still struggling to figure out how to ask my friends to help me through it. I’d much rather work things out on my own and keep presenting a brave face to those I love, but that isn’t really an option (at least not a healthy one).

So I’m learning, day by day, to keep asking for help when I need it, and reminding myself that friendship is about loving each other when we’re human. And to fight down the fear that says I’m not enough – because I know, deep down, that my friends and family are kind and generous and willing for me to lean on them. Even if I have trouble with the leaning, sometimes.

Do you struggle with being the “taker” – the vulnerable one – in your relationships? (Please tell me I’m not alone here.)

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katie jer maine view

Earlier this summer, I started reading Laura Dave’s Eight Hundred Grapes, a novel about a woman who runs away from her wedding after learning that her fiance has a daughter he didn’t tell her about. (That’s not a spoiler; I just told you what Georgia – the narrator – finds out in the first chapter.)

Full disclosure: I didn’t finish the book (though my friend Hallie loved it and recommended it on Great New Books, where we’re both part of the review team).

But there’s one line I’m still thinking about, weeks later:

 

Wasn’t the ultimate form of fidelity whom you told your stories to?

In the book, this line refers to Georgia’s faltering relationship with her fiance: she’s (rightly) furious that Ben hasn’t told her about his daughter, or that he’s still in touch with his ex (the little girl’s mother). But I’ve been thinking about it in a broader sense.

As Joan Didion has noted, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” That’s especially true for those of us who view the world through words: readers, writers and bloggers who make and share meaning through stories.

Some of us are born storytellers, like my dad, whose sense of comedic timing and infectious laugh make it fun to listen to his stories over and over again. (I can retell many of them word for word – even if I wasn’t there when they happened.)

But all of us tell our stories to the people we love, whether it’s a funny incident at work or a life-changing moment in the middle of an ordinary Tuesday. And when we don’t – when we start to hide things or simply stop making the effort – it stands to reason that those relationships would start to fray.

Last year, my friend Laura wrote a terrifying and powerful blog post: And then I stopped talking to my husband. She didn’t literally stop talking to her husband, but she gradually quit sharing a lot of daily incidents and insights (which, in her case, happened mostly online) with him. They talked about their kids and their household routine, but they stopped discussing the important stuff – until one day, when he was driving her to the airport and didn’t know where she was heading. This caused a few understandable tears on Laura’s part, but they talked it out, and started making the effort again.

That post terrified me because I saw how easy it could be. How simple and effortless to stop telling your stories – until you don’t really know each other any more. I sent the link to my husband, and I’ve been thinking about it again since Eight Hundred Grapes brought it to mind.

It’s so important to keep telling my stories, not just to my husband, but to my family and friends (many of whom live far away). I want to be faithful in telling my stories and hearing theirs, even when it takes work. (And sometimes it takes a lot of work.)

Lindsey noted last fall that friendship is made of attention, and I believe this is a part of that. We share our lives through stories, and they are foundational to our relationships. To paraphrase Didion, we tell ourselves – and each other – stories in order to live.

What do you think? Who are the people you tell your stories to?

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