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church candlelight vienna

Come ye sinners, poor and needy, bruised and broken by the fall
Jesus ready stands to save you, full of pardoning love for all
He is able, He is able – He is willing, doubt no more
He is able, He is able – He is willing, doubt no more

I had grand plans for Lent this year: perhaps giving up Facebook, or even all social media as my friend Laura did for the month of March. I heard about friends giving up cheese, ice cream, alcohol. I finally decided to give up hitting the candy jar at work, because it seemed like a challenge I could handle.

I pulled out a book of Lenten readings, intending to read one piece each morning as I often do during Advent. Eight days in, I closed the book and never reopened it. The readings did not speak to my tired soul.

Come ye weary, heavy laden, weak and wounded, sick and sore
Jesus ready stands to save you, full of pity, love and power
He is able, He is able – He is willing, doubt no more
He is able, He is able – He is willing, doubt no more

Every Thursday night, my husband and I sit down after dinner to plan Sunday’s worship service. We are half of a part-time ministry team that keeps things running for our small, scattered church body of 50 or so people. We organize potlucks, wash dishes and communion trays, send out weekly email messages, print service bulletins. It is important work, but it is also deeply mundane. By Thursday night we are often tired, frustrated, not particularly excited about shaping a coherent service out of this week’s lectionary readings or the emphasis of the current church season.

This Lent has reminded me of my own brokenness, not in dramatic fashion but in the small trials of each day. I hit the snooze button almost every morning, despite my attempts to kick the habit. I snap at my husband when he gets home late yet again, after another evening of the therapy work he loves. I sleep in and skip yoga; I neglect my long-distance friends. I resent being asked to do the same humdrum tasks, at home and at work, over and over again. I fail. I am weak and wounded, sick and sore.

We are still nearly two weeks away from Easter, and while joy is on the horizon, it hasn’t quite arrived yet. Even after Easter, the petty frustrations and the larger hurts will remain. We live in a flawed and beautiful world, caught between blessed assurance and the stark reality of a creation that groans. But we still sing the words of salvation and new life, not because they always reflect our present reality but because they embody the hope we are holding onto.

Saints and angels join in concert, sing the praises of the Lamb
While the blissful courts of heaven sweetly echo with His Name
Hallelujah, hallelujah – here we now His love proclaim
Hallelujah, hallelujah – here we now His love proclaim

We include different words in our order of service every week: Bible readings, poems, always the Lord’s Prayer. We do our best to vary the hymns, so people don’t get bored. But during this Lent, this song – especially the second verse – is the only song I have wanted to sing.

“Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy” arranged by the ZOE Group, after Joseph Hart’s original hymn

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Walking into the light

Harvard Yard is a different place in the early morning.

Clear, lucid sunlight falls in patches through the leaves of trees still lush with summer green. Colorful chairs lie scattered across the lawn, angled limbs akimbo, facing every which way like the passersby on the street, everyone intent on his or her own errand.

Later, the Yard will hum with students hurrying to class and tourists snapping photos with the bronze statue of John Harvard, placing their hands on his buckled shoe, rubbed gold by generations of pilgrims seeking luck. But now, in the early morning sunshine, all is quiet.

memorial church tower harvard yard

The spire of Memorial Church stretches tall and white into the sky, framed by red-brick buildings and wrought-iron gas lamps, cutouts of blue visible in its bell tower. Inside, white box pews trimmed with varnished wood march two by two up to the dark, carved pews of Appleton Chapel, the whole scene illuminated by shafts of light in the window above the altar.

memorial church interior harvard yard

We file in quietly, alone or in pairs: bleary-eyed students, grave faculty members, the occasional staff member like me. We find our places in the pews, the slim black psalters and crimson-covered hymnals sedate in their racks. The choir, a dozen or so undergraduates in long black robes with crimson yokes, processes in to the sound of the organist’s voluntary. And we begin.

I got into the habit of sleeping in this summer, hitting the snooze button a few times as the sunlight drifted in the window, rolling over for an extra cuddle with my husband. But as the new school year begins, we are getting up earlier: he to head to the gym, me to get into the shower and start my morning so I can get out the door in time for Morning Prayers.

Since we moved to Boston, J and I have been increasingly involved in the life of our little church, where he leads worship (which we often plan) nearly every Sunday. I read Scripture aloud and fill communion cups, send out the weekly email update, wash the coffeepot, write down prayer requests. We both plan and attend events, and generally help keep things humming.

We love this community, and we would not be content simply to sit on the sidelines, especially in a small place where all hands are needed. But at Morning Prayers, I have no responsibilities, no public part to play. I can come, sit, listen, and be.

We stand and reach for the black psalters, repeating familiar words of comfort, protection and grace. We sit and listen to the anthem, sung a cappella by the choir, delicate harmonies lingering on the air. We listen to a brief address by a member of the Harvard community, carefully considered words of welcome, challenge or wisdom. We bow our heads in our pews, and repeat the Lord’s Prayer together.

And then we stand, reach for our hymnals, and our voices swell with the organ in a final, soaring hymn. During the first week of school, we sang two of my favorites: “We Gather Together” and “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The minister raises his hand and gives a benediction: “Go in peace.” He reminds us what the Lord requires of us: “to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God.”

We walk out silently, behind the choir, after the final Amen. The notes of the organ follow us out, and we scatter in all directions, to our offices and classrooms, to the work we have been given to do. This morning ritual grounds us, gives us space to begin again, to reflect on what it is to do justly and love mercy. It is a brief window, before the rush of our busy days, a chance to glimpse again the life of grace and peace we are all pursuing.

Amen.

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Fall Manifesto

Nov 2011 091

Fall is my favorite season, and New England fall is perfection. Crisp, sunny, blue-skied days, cool indigo nights, fresh apples at the farmer’s market, the beginning of a new school year…I love it all.

Here’s my list of what to do this fall:

  • Go apple picking (by now a beloved tradition).
  • Reread Gaudy Night for my book club. (In progress.)
  • Voyager a Montreal to celebrate my 30th birthday.
  • Listen to this song from The Fantasticks. (Over and over.)
  • Visit Nantucket. (Perhaps some of the tourists have cleared out by now.)
  • Spend a weekend in New York (because who doesn’t love New York in the fall?).
  • Reread the Harry Potter series again (I always get a hankering for them in the fall).
  • Go to a Harvard football game.
  • Head down to Texas to see my family and cuddle my nephew.
  • Attend author events at the Booksmith and/or the Harvard Book Store.
  • Reread Anne of the Island and/or Anne of Windy Poplars. I love going back to school with Anne.
  • Start rehearsals with the choir I just joined.
  • Celebrate my fourth (!) Turkeypalooza with friends.
  • Drink chai, make pumpkin bread, simmer soup on the stove, and revel in all the fall flavors.

(I realize this is a long list. But a girl can dream.)

What’s on your list for this fall?

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As was the case last summer, some of the best living this summer has gone unblogged – out of necessity, lack of time to write about it, or the need for a break. As we head into fall (already?), I wanted to share a few glimpses of my summer with you.

We saw HEM at the Sinclair in Cambridge, in early June. I have loved their music since my long-ago days as a barista at an indie coffee house, when one of our regulars gave me their album Rabbit Songs. Hearing them play “Half an Acre,” which I adore, was a highlight.

k & j sinclair

I attended a work function in Memorial Hall on Harvard’s campus and ate my first meal inside Annenberg Hall, which looks like something out of the Harry Potter movies (or out of Oxford, where they were filmed):

annenberg hall interior harvard

We spent an afternoon wandering around Portsmouth, NH…

portsmouth street

…where we visited three bookstores, including the wonderful Book & Bar:

portsmouth book & bar

We made our annual pilgrimage to Cambridge to watch the July 4 fireworks show. (It was SO HOT. But there were friends and food and fireworks and it was a wonderful night.)

k & j 7-4-13

My parents came to visit in late July, and we took them to the John Adams houses and the Newport mansions and to Fenway, where we got rained out. So we headed to Finale for dessert instead:

finale molten chocolate cake

My parents are adorable.

mom & dad finale

My dad always has to have lobstah when he comes to Boston, and you can get ‘em cheap at Quincy Market:

dad lobster

We headed back to Cape Cod for a weekend in August, complete with bookstore browsing, a Cape Cod League baseball game and some serious beach time. (This was after the swimming, the reading and the accompanying sunburn, and right before the sunset.)

k & j eastham beach

This weekend, we headed to a friend’s housewarming party, where she donned a fabulous blazer to host a game of couples Jeopardy (which J and I won):

Jeopardy Aug 2013 002

And in between, there have been plenty of patio dinners, trips to the farmer’s market, episodes of Inspector Lewis, Sunday cookouts with friends, great books, and ordinary evenings spent hanging out with my love.

What have you left unblogged this summer?

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I’ve been reading some heavy stuff recently. But I’m attempting to balance it with a bit of levity (isn’t that what summer reading is supposed to bring?). Here, my most recent reads:

brookline booksmith shelves interior

The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene
The Communists are hunting down the priests in southern Mexico, and the last priest is on the run. He is not a “good” priest: he drinks brandy, he grows impatient with people, he has fathered an illegitimate child. But he is still searching for redemption among the desperately poor villagers he visits. Dark and sometimes tedious, but sometimes compelling. Slogged through this one for book club.

Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible, Alan Rusbridger
Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian and keen amateur pianist, attempts to master Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23, in the midst of a turbulent year (which includes WikiLeaks and the Arab Spring) at his demanding day job. Along the way, he interviews pianists, neuroscientists and others about music, practice, discipline and memory. Rusbridger is a witty, thoughtful writer and this was a fun journey, though it got a bit technical at times. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 17).

Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Carol Rifka Brunt
It’s 1987, and 14-year-old June has just lost her uncle Finn, a talented artist, to AIDS. She strikes up a secret and unlikely friendship with Toby, Finn’s partner, bonding with him over their mutual love for Finn and their shared loneliness. Meanwhile, her mother and sister are dealing with Finn’s death in their own ways. Beautifully written and utterly, devastatingly heartbreaking. Recommended by Laura.

Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America, Jeff Chu
The subtitle says it all: Chu travels the U.S. to visit congregations and interview pastors across the theological spectrum, from gay-focused churches to those who believe homosexuality is evil. Chu grew up devoutly Christian and is still wrestling with the tension between his faith and his sexuality. A well-researched, thoughtful portrait of a divisive, many-sided conflict. I wanted more of Chu’s own story in between the interviews, though.

Swimming in the Moon, Pamela Schoenewaldt
Forced to leave their master’s home in Italy, hot-tempered Teresa and her daughter Lucia sail for America and settle in Cleveland. Teresa becomes a vaudeville singer, and Lucia graduates high school, dreaming of college. But labor unrest ripples through Cleveland’s immigrant community, and Teresa is fighting inner demons of her own. Lucia struggles to care for her mother, follow her dreams and fight for justice. Evocative and compelling; a fascinating portrait of immigrant life circa 1910. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 3).

The Engagements, J. Courtney Sullivan
Sullivan’s latest novel features advertising copywriter Frances Gerety, author of the famous De Beers slogan, “A Diamond is Forever.” Frances never married, but her story is intertwined here with those of several fictional couples from four distinct time periods (1972, 1987, 2003, 2012). Smart, deft portraits of the highs, lows and everyday tedium of love and marriage across a range of locations and socioeconomic classes. Each relationship is quite different from the others, but the couples are connected in surprising ways. (I wanted more of Frances, though – I loved her.)

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What are you reading?

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may books 3

The Weird Sisters, Eleanor Brown
I love the story of the Andreas sisters, Rosalind, Bianca and Cordelia (daughters of a Shakespeare professor), who converge on their childhood home as their mother battles cancer. The first-person-plural voice is brilliant, the sleepy Ohio college town appealing, the characters richly layered. I spent a blissful weekend sinking into this story for the third time. (My book club had a great Skype discussion with the author last year.)

Sight Reading, Daphne Kalotay
A subtle, complicated story of love and classical music, following violinist Remy, composer Nicholas and several other people as their lives intertwine over two decades. It frustrated me that the characters were not always held responsible for their actions (Nicholas almost never), but I loved the descriptions of music, which is difficult to capture on the page (Kalotay is a trained musician). I also loved Kalotay’s debut, Russian Winter. (I received a copy of this book from the publisher, but was not compensated for this review.)

A Death in the Small Hours, Charles Finch
Charles Lenox, M.P., new father and erstwhile detective, escapes to his uncle’s Somerset estate to work on an important parliamentary speech. But a series of crimes in the nearby village tugs at his attention. With his protege, John Dallington, Lenox attempts to solve the case, write his speech, and also play in the village cricket match. A fun mystery, though I agree with Lenox that Parliament can get a little dull.

The Lucy Variations, Sara Zarr
Classical pianist Lucy Beck-Moreau achieved international fame by age 14. Then she abandoned her career, much to her family’s disappointment and her own confusion. But when her brother’s new piano teacher befriends Lucy, she starts wondering if she could return to music – for herself. Zarr brilliantly evokes the complications of following a vocation: family and personal pressure, burnout, a longing to create without strictures. She also sensitively explores Lucy’s relationship with Will, the (married) piano teacher. A wonderful read for creatives and young people.

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, Stephen L. Carter
What if Abraham Lincoln had survived the assassination attempt at Ford’s Theatre? This alternate history, set in 1867, shows a country still reeling from the Civil War and arguing over how to treat the Southern states. Abigail Canner, young, ambitious and black, lands a job as a clerk in the law firm representing Lincoln at his impeachment trial. But when Lincoln’s lawyer is murdered, she finds herself drawn into a web of secrets and conspiracy theories. Tightly drawn courtroom scenes and an intriguing mystery, though I found the ending unsatisfying. (Reminded me of the film Lincoln – I saw and heard Daniel Day-Lewis in my head every time Lincoln himself appeared.)

Dinner: A Love Story: It all begins at the family table, Jenny Rosenstrach
I love Jenny’s blog and had heard rave reviews of this cookbook, and I wasn’t disappointed. Jenny traces her journey of family dinners (she has kept a dinner diary since 1998), from the pre-kid years to the baby/toddler years to “the years the angels began to sing” (read: when her daughters were finally able to hold both a fork and a conversation). Her essays are funny and relatable (I am also fanatical about family dinner), and the recipes look delicious. We’ve already made the Curried Chicken with Apples. Delectable.

Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
I rediscovered Mary Tyler Moore about two years ago, and fell deeply in love with the show. So I relished this behind-the-scenes peek into its conception and evolution, focusing mostly on its writers and producers. MTM hired many women writers (groundbreaking in the 1970s) and dealt with issues (divorce, the Pill, homosexuality) previously eschewed on TV. And as its fans know, it was also inspiring, smart, and a heck of a lot of fun. I loved the details of the show’s day-to-day workings and the relationships of its cast. (I’ve been re-watching a few episodes, which made the book even more enjoyable.)

How to Bake a Perfect Life, Barbara O’Neal
Ramona Gallagher has worked hard to raise a daughter on her own and run a successful bakery. But when her son-in-law is injured in Afghanistan, her daughter’s teenage stepdaughter ends up at Ramona’s house because she has nowhere else to go. Ramona must also deal with a series of maintenance issues and the reappearance of a lost love. An enjoyable family story, with a hint of magical realism and a few bread recipes. Fluffy but fun.

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may reading roundup 1 books


The Importance of Being Seven
, Alexander McCall Smith

The sixth Scotland Street novel finds Matthew and Elspeth expecting triplets (!), Angus and Domenica traveling to Italy on holiday, and Bertie struggling, as ever, with his overbearing mother, Irene (and longing to turn seven). Fun and philosophical and gently satirical, like all the other books in this amusing series.

The End of Night, Paul Bogard
Our night skies are disappearing, due to the increasing brightness and volume of man-made light. Bogard visits a wide range of bright and dark places – from the dazzling Las Vegas Strip to Acadia National Park in Maine – to explore the effects of light pollution on our health, our public spaces and our society. His deep love for the night is infectious, and his interviews with folks ranging from astronomers to night-shift workers are fascinating. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 9).

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, Anna Quindlen
I loved this warm, witty book of essays, in which Quindlen touches on everything from the importance of girlfriends to the profound changes wrought by the women’s movement during her lifetime. She writes wisely and often humorously about marriage, motherhood, family and aging – it felt like I was sitting across the table, listening as she shared her wisdom. Wonderful.

Someday, Someday, Maybe, Lauren Graham
Aspiring actress Franny Banks came to NYC after college, determined to make it big in three years – and she’s got six months left. Graham (whom I loved on Gilmore Girls) has created a fun first novel, full of New York moments, sly humor and wonderful mid-90s details (answering services, high-top sneakers, pay phones). Franny is funny, smart and full of spunk, and I rooted for her the whole way. The ending was a bit abrupt, but this was a wonderful ride.

The Romeo and Juliet Code, Phoebe Stone
After leaving England, 11-year-old Felicity is dropped off at her grandmother’s house in Maine while her stylish, mysterious parents return to Europe to pursue their secret work. When Felicity’s uncle starts receiving top-secret letters from her father, Felicity and her new friend Derek investigate. I found Felicity naive and bratty at first, but I did enjoy the story, and I eventually warmed to her. Fun weekend reading.

Calling Me Home, Julie Kibler
African-American hairdresser Dorrie is surprised when her favorite (white) client, Miss Isabelle, asks a big favor: she wants Dorrie to drive her from Texas to Cincinnati for a funeral. As the women travel north, Isabelle shares her story of falling in love with a black boy as a teenager in 1930s Kentucky. Meanwhile, single mom Dorrie is dealing with her own problems, and wondering whether she can trust the new man in her life. I found 1930s Isabelle a bit naive and selfish, but I liked both Dorrie and present-day Isabelle, and several plot twists kept me turning the pages.

Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris, Paul Gallico
I loved this spunky, sweet tale of a British charwoman who saves her money for years so she can jaunt over to Paris and buy herself a Dior gown. The gown is exquisite, of course, but the people Mrs. Harris meets, and the connections they forge, are the best part of the story. (Also: the flowers.) Recommended by Jaclyn. Similar to Miss Pettigrew, shorter and simpler but just as charming.

The September Society, Charles Finch
Victorian gentleman detective Charles Lenox returns for a second case, investigating the death of a young man at Oxford (his alma mater). I loved the visits to 1860s Oxford, different from and yet so similar to the Oxford I know and adore. And I like Lenox, a thoughtful and principled detective, and his circle of friends. Great fun.

Ready for a Brand New Beat, Mark Kurlansky
Released at the beginning of the “Freedom Summer” of 1964, “Dancing in the Street” became the anthem of an unsettled generation. Kurlansky delves into the history of music in mid-century America, the origins of Motown, the civil rights movement and the continuing life of the song, which endures today. Fascinating and well-researched, with plenty of outsize personalities. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 11).

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What are you reading?

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china cabinet bookcase books

My china-cabinet bookcase

Thereby Hangs a Tail, Spencer Quinn
Chet and Bernie (a canine-human PI pair) handle a missing-persons case with a twist: the real target, also missing, is Princess, a tiny but famous show dog. Tracking down Princess and her owner proves complicated, especially when Bernie’s girlfriend, Suzie, also disappears. Chet makes a few discoveries on his own, but he can’t share them in words, and it takes a few more days (and Bernie’s interviewing skills) to put the pieces together. Just as fun as Dog On It, with lots of sharp observations and canine asides from Chet.

Shall We Play That One Together? The Life and Art of Jazz Piano Legend Marian McPartland, Paul de Barros
Born in England and trained as a classical pianist, Marian McPartland became one of the top jazz pianists in the U.S. Paul de Barros tells her story, from her childhood to her experiences playing with the USO during World War II (where she met her husband, cornetist Jimmy McPartland) to the decades she spent in the States, playing, touring and composing. Thorough and fascinating (though the names of jazz pieces and players are dizzying, at times). Recommended for fans of jazz, meaty biographies and American pop music. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 16).

To Fetch a Thief, Spencer Quinn
Chet and Bernie’s third case involves a missing circus elephant and her trainer, with an interesting subplot concerning a divorce case. Quinn ratchets up the action in this book, taking our heroes south of the border in pursuit of animal traffickers. Chet’s perspective on the various circus folk is highly entertaining, as are his interactions with Peanut. Even better than the first two books.

The Christmas Plains, Joseph Bottum
Bottum recalls his childhood Christmases in the Midwest, mixing in carols, Charles Dickens, musings on holiday  commercialism and traditions, and stories from other times in his life. He rambles at times, but also hits on a few profound truths about this much-loved, much-maligned holiday. (It felt odd to read this in August, but I was reading for Shelf Awareness; the book is out Oct. 23.)

The Dog Who Knew Too Much, Spencer Quinn
Chet and Bernie return for a fourth case, tracking down a boy missing from a wilderness camp. When someone else from the camp turns up dead and Bernie gets arrested for murder, it’s up to Chet to bring in reinforcements (even if that means a few long nights on the road) and crack the case. Suspenseful, well plotted, funny and satisfying – these books get better and better.

Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books, Maureen Corrigan
Corrigan, the book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air, explores the joys of a reading life, focusing on three genres and how they’ve shaped her own perspective: female extreme adventure stories (a genre she names and explains), detective fiction, and Catholic memoirs/fiction. I love books about books, and I enjoyed her smart musings and vivid anecdotes. (Also: her tales of graduate school convinced me anew that I am not meant to get a Ph.D.) Good fun if you’re a reader.

A Dance with Jane Austen: How a Novelist and her Characters Went to the Ball, Susannah Fullerton
Fullerton explains dance in Jane Austen’s day, from etiquette to menus to dress, accompanied by lovely period illustrations. She also discusses dancing and balls in each of Austen’s novels, exploring how they move the action forward and what they tell us about the characters. (She draws rather heavily on the unfinished The Watsons, but Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Mansfield Park get plenty of play.) Fun and informative; a good bet for Austen fans. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 16).

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When writers and artists come together, there is music. And when the people of God come together, there is music. So at the Glen, as you might expect, we played and we listened and we sang.

mount holyoke college chapel

The chapel at Mt. Holyoke

Jan Krist ably led us in worship during the brief, nightly services, which felt like a semicolon, like a welcome pause after each long, full day of what Lauren Winner admitted, one morning as we wrapped up our workshop, is “hard and holy work.”

Talking and listening and thinking about craft and purpose, and holding each other’s stories, on and off the page, is both difficult and sacred. So I found it fitting that Lauren began each class session with the same words that opened each worship service: “The Lord be with you.” Each time, sitting around a large wooden table with pens in hand or shifting in our chairs in the high-ceilinged music hall, we responded: “And also with you.”

I wasn’t sure what hymns we’d be singing together. This was a wildly diverse, ecumenical group, and I was prepared to hear (and try to sing along with) songs I didn’t know. But on the first night, Jan’s gentle chords led us into a hymn I’ve been singing all my life, one I haven’t heard much in the last few years:

I love to tell the story
Of unseen things above
Of Jesus and His glory
Of Jesus and His love…

With Kristin singing alto on my left, and Kari and Stephanie on my other side, I closed my eyes and thought back to my dad singing scraps of this song around the house, while he took out the trash or unloaded the dishwasher or puttered around on a lazy Saturday. I thought of singing each verse in the small brown sanctuary of the little Baptist church in Coppell, where I learned the words to so many hymns that still live deep in my bones.

And then I opened my eyes and looked around at the room of novelists and artists and poets and songwriters, memoirists and sculpture artists and people who make all kinds of art, every day. I had barely met most of them, but I knew: this is one thing we’re all trying to do.

I love to tell the story
For those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting
To hear it like the rest…

We spent the week telling each other our stories – over breakfast, lunch and dinner in the spacious dorm dining hall, over glasses of wine at the bar across the street, over a wide assortment of beverages in the lounge, until the wee hours, every night. We began to explain who we are, where we come from, what we write or paint or sing about that won’t let us go. But we also spent the week reminding each other of the story we’re all telling, the one we sometimes wrestle with and question and even throw off for a while, but always come back to in the end.

I love to tell the story
‘Twill be my theme in glory
To tell the old, old story
Of Jesus and His love.

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‘Tis the season for graduations, for flapping robes and square mortarboards, for colorfully archaic hoods and regalia. I’m a bit removed, personally, from all the beginnings and endings this year. But I work on a college campus (in Boston, that most densely packed of college towns), so the sights, sounds and attendant nervous excitement of graduation are in the air.

I’ve been thinking about another graduation, though. A slightly smaller one, held in the echoing gym of a junior college on the plains of West Texas, filled with graduates in purple robes, shuffling feet squeaking against the varnished wood floor. At the back of the room, another group of teenagers huddled behind spindly music stands, looking a bit lost without their graduating friends and section leaders. They played “Pomp and Circumstance,” but the piece that made me well up, sitting in the front row wearing my gold Salutatorian stole embroidered with trailing green vines, was “Amazing Grace.”

midland high school graduation speech 2002

Giving my speech

From where I sit now, a married woman with a grown-up office job and two literature degrees, it’s hard to believe that day was ten years ago.

My high school began releasing class rankings in the ninth grade, so for several years I knew I occupied the number-two spot in our class. The order of the top few places never shifted, though my friend Kate, in third place, constantly threatened to overtake me or even nab the valedictorian spot from our friend Cody. She never did, though, and in May of our senior year, Cody and I began thinking about – and procrastinating on – writing our speeches.

Several times during those last few weeks of school, we’d pass each other in the hallway, and one of us would ask, “Started your speech yet?” “Nope. You?” “Nope, not yet!” We’d grin nervously and part ways, both of us still wondering what on earth we were going to say.

When a student photographer called us out of class to snap our photo for the yearbook, we sat in the school courtyard for half an hour, talking about graduation and the upcoming summer and what would happen after. I knew, though I never said it aloud, that one reason I put off writing the speech was because it made graduation – and the wide, intimidating world beyond it – seem suddenly real.

A yearbook moment

My mom, as I kept procrastinating, kept slipping me sheets of yellow legal paper with lists of speech ideas. Nothing struck me, though, until she handed me a sheet covered with the lyrics to Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance.”

If you don’t know the song (which means you weren’t listening to country or pop radio in the early 2000s, because it was all over the place), it is a heartfelt, if sentimental, plea to embrace life, to resist the urge to play it safe by sitting in the shadows. As a shy bookworm who nevertheless had big plans and who did, in fact, love to dance, I thrilled to the song’s central line: “When you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance.”

I didn’t sing it up on stage. I wasn’t brave enough for that, and anyway I don’t have Womack’s vocal range. But I did stand up there in my bright purple gown and read out a few of the lyrics. And I looked down at Cody in the front row, at my best friend Jon in the second row, at my fellow band nerds clustered in the back, instruments on their laps. I searched the rows of faces for my best friends, for Mike and Adam and Lina and Brittany, and I glanced over to the left at my family in the bleachers, my parents and sister and three grandparents. And I urged that auditorium full of people, many of whom I would never see again, to dance.

Celebrating – and relieved it’s over

Sometimes I still feel like that high school senior, awkward and hopeful and unsure – though she would be amazed at all the dancing, literal and figurative, I have done in the last ten years. She would hardly believe I joined a swing dance club or lived in Europe for a year or landed a gig writing book reviews for a national publication. But she would understand – she does understand – the courage it took to get to where I am, and the reasons I wear a silver disk around my neck inscribed with the word “brave.”

I wish I still had a copy of that speech somewhere, but I doubt the paper copies have survived my many moves, and the computer on which I typed it has long been consigned to the garbage. To this day, though, those lyrics still thrum occasionally through my heart and soul, and they remind me: Dance. Always dance.

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