Posts Tagged ‘music’

red leaves green flats harvard yard

I wrote this line from Hamilton in my journal last week, sitting on a bench outside Darwin’s at lunchtime. I sipped broccoli cheese soup from a paper cup, dipping in a hunk of baguette, taking a few deep breaths under a blue October sky.

I’ve heard that line a few hundred times since May, when I started listening to Hamilton nonstop. But lately, in the middle of a full, demanding, often harried season at work and at home, it has caught my attention particularly. As I face the challenges of each day – work projects, church responsibilities, the utter madness of the current political cycle – it has resonated like a deep, echoing gong, or the deep breath before a duel.

Autumn is always a crowded time: the academic year revs up with events and classes, and I plunge headfirst into fresh assignments while keeping up with the daily obligations of my life. This fall found me adjusting to a still-new job and an even newer apartment, with all the changes both have entailed. The past several weeks have included some beloved rituals like apple picking and some other things I was excited about: a book club poetry potluck, a few dinners with people I love, an evening of glorious sacred music at a friend’s church downtown. Coming alongside all that heart-stirring loveliness have been many challenges, too numerous to list briefly and too personal (some of them) to explore publicly here.

In the middle of this fast and furious season, when heartache, to-do lists and big life questions have felt equally clamorous and insistent, I have been going quiet, turning inward, thinking hard. I’m reaching for my tried-and-true grounding rituals: weekly trips to the florist and the farmers’ market, daily walks to Darwin’s for sustenance and smiles, the weekday Morning Prayers service in a small chapel just off Harvard Yard. I have been scribbling madly in my journal, talking things out with my husband and a few trusted friends. And I am reaching for this Hamilton line, and other good words about courage, to shore me up, to fortify me.

I’ve never gone to war against an invading army, or faced down an enemy with a pistol. I’ve certainly never tried to build a brand-new nation out of a loose confederation of fractious colonies. But the story of these wild, visionary rebels is among the things saving my life these days. They were flawed, hotheaded and sometimes foolish, but they were also passionate and brave. Throughout the Revolution and the years that followed, they summoned the courage required of them, over and over again.

As I walk through these gorgeous, demanding fall days, I’m doing my best to do the same.

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Remembering George


water clouds light

“Why is it so hard to acknowledge that we all walk through life with grief for which there is, today, no compensation?”

I read these words on Christie’s blog last week, at the end of a summer that has held chaos and change and all sorts of upheaval. Transitions are difficult, no matter the kind, and they bring with them their own, often bittersweet grief. But Christie’s words also came as I, and many people I love, are mourning the death of our friend George.

I always find it hard to write about these losses, not only because of the sadness, but because it feels impossible to convey the life, the spirit, of a person through a handful of sentences.

I could tell you that George was the music minister at my family’s church in West Texas for 23 years. I could tell you that he was a talented, accomplished musician, always willing to highlight and encourage others’ gifts while modest and humble (to a fault) about his own. I could tell you that he had four children, a wife he adored, five grandsons and dozens – no, hundreds – of friends. But all that would go a short way toward honoring the memory of the man himself.

George came back to Midland to work at our church (where he had grown up) when I was in the fourth grade. His son Wade is the same age as my sister, and they became firm friends. George directed the Sunday morning choir, in which my mother sang; the youth choir, in which my sister and I both participated; and the sweeping, elaborate Easter pageants that were a formative part of my teenage years (and which came to involve my entire family).

For years, George led worship at youth retreats and Vacation Bible School, at candlelight services on Christmas Eve and at four services every Sunday: three in the morning, one at night. He managed pianists and organists, praise bands and orchestras, pastors and PowerPoints, thousands of details no one ever knew about. His fingerprints are all over that building and that community: quiet but indelible, the definition of the word faithful. But my favorite thing about George was this: he always had time for everyone.

“A friend told me he had the greatest capacity for love [they had] ever seen,” George’s wife, DiAnn, wrote on Facebook recently. “He belonged to everyone.” And it’s true: George had as many things to do as most of us (maybe more), but I never saw him turn away anyone who had a question or needed a smile. During all those rehearsals for summer musicals and mission trips and Easter pageants, I never saw him lose his temper. If I close my eyes, I can hear his clear tenor voice and see his practiced gestures, guiding us through ancient hymns, nineties praise songs and soaring choral anthems with his signature humor and grace. He loved his work and he loved his community, and I am – we are – so grateful that he was ours.

“Time is cruel because it carries us so far from the people and places and things we have loved and lost,” Christie wrote in that blog post. In a certain sense, George is far away from us now: death has a way of creating distance. It feels final and inevitable, and I know it will come home to me again, some Sunday when I’m standing in those familiar pews and he isn’t there. We grieve, and we are right to do so: it means we have loved.

Grief is complicated, and so is faith: I don’t pretend to have any answers about what happens after we die. But I believe, and hope, in a time when everything will be made new: when, as Christie wrote, “all the fragments of our lives, all the broken bits and pieces, will be gathered up.” I know George believed that too, and I hope to see him again one day.

Rest well, good and faithful friend. I am grateful for all the songs you taught me, and I will keep singing them until we meet again.

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strand bookstore awning nyc

My reading pace has been fairly slow (for me) this month. New apartment, still-new job, lots of other things crowding into my brain. But I’ve still found a few good books. Here they are:

A Sense of Wonder: The World’s Best Writers on the Sacred, the Profane and the Ordinary, ed. Brian Doyle
An eclectic, luminous, often demanding collection of essays first published in Portland Magazine. My favorites are by Heather King, Robin Cody and Pico Iyer, but they are all worth reading. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 15).

Crowned and Dangerous, Rhys Bowen
This 10th entry in Bowen’s Royal Spyness series, which I love, finds Lady Georgiana Rannoch unexpectedly in Ireland with her beau, Darcy, trying to exonerate his father of a murder charge. Frothy, fun and smart, like this entire series. (I adore Georgie.)

The House of Dreams, Kate Lord Brown
Journalist Sophie Cass interviews artist Gabriel Lambert about his experience as a refugee in Marseille during World War II. The true story of Varian Fry and others at the Emergency Rescue Committee, who worked tirelessly to get artists out of France, is fascinating. But the novel’s framing story was less so, and I did not like the ending. (I loved Brown’s previous novel, The Perfume Garden.)

Love for Sale: Pop Music in America, David Hajdu
Music critic (and self-professed music geek) Hajdu takes readers on a tour of pop music in the U.S., from Tin Pan Alley to Broadway, 45s to LPs to mixtapes and MP3s. Smart, entertaining and surprisingly deep. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 18).

The Queen’s Accomplice, Susan Elia MacNeal
Mathematician-turned-spy Maggie Hope returns to WWII London and gets pulled onto a gruesome Scotland Yard case: a Jack-the-Ripper copycat serial killer targeting young professional women. I like Maggie (this is her sixth adventure), but this book was daaark. Also, the comments on the treatment of women felt heavy-handed. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 4).

Faithful, Alice Hoffman
Since the night of the accident that left her best friend in a coma, Shelby Richmond doesn’t believe she deserves to live. Faithful is the slow, rich, heartbreaking story of how Shelby finds her way, with help from her stalwart mother, a few stray dogs and a few highly unlikely friends. Bleak and gritty at times (Shelby messes up over and over), but also beautiful, and ultimately hopeful. Hoffman has written many books, but I’d never read her before. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 1).

The Boy is Back, Meg Cabot
Pro golfer Reed Stewart hasn’t been back to his Indiana hometown in a decade. But when his parents end up in the news (and in financial trouble), he returns to try and help out – which means facing his ex, Becky Flowers. Cabot tells this hilarious story through emails, texts and newspaper articles. Fluffy and really fun – smart chick lit. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 18).

Wonder Women: 25 Inventors, Innovators and Trailblazers Who Changed History, Sam Maggs
We are hearing a lot lately (it’s long overdue!) about brilliant, brave women whose stories have been overlooked. Sam Maggs writes bite-size biographies of 25 such women in this snappy, girl-power book. The colloquial tone got a little wearing, but these women – inventors, spies, scientists – are amazing. Would pair well with Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures, which I loved. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 18).

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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hopefuls book stack books

We are all drawing a few deep breaths after Commencement, and I’m diving into summer reading – woohoo! Here’s the latest roundup:

The Hopefuls, Jennifer Close
After Obama wins the presidency in 2008, Beth moves with her husband (a campaign staffer) to D.C. As Beth struggles to find her place in a new city, she and Matt meet a charismatic couple, Jimmy and Ash, who quickly become their best friends. But like so many friendships, this one is complicated, and Close expertly explores the shifting loyalties and the fault lines in both marriages. So well done. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 19).

Notes from an Accidental Band Geek, Erin Dionne
Elsie Wyatt is a top-notch French horn player, determined to get into a prestigious summer music program. But this means she has to (gasp!) join marching band. Elsie is a brat at first, but I loved watching her fall in love with band. (I’m a proud band geek from way back.) Super fun.

Girl in the Blue Coat, Monica Hesse
Hanneke spends her days finding and distributing black-market goods in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. But when a customer asks for her help in finding a missing Jewish girl, Hanneke is drawn into a web of Resistance activities. A compelling evocation of bravery, cowardice and betrayal during wartime – tense and well crafted.

Gone Crazy in Alabama, Rita Williams-Garcia
Sisters Delphine, Vonetta and Fern travel from Brooklyn to Alabama to spend the summer with relatives. Being black in both places carries a particular challenge in 1969, and the girls struggle to adjust while listening to the (warring) family stories from their great-grandmother and her sister. Delphine’s voice is smart and so engaging.

Understood Betsy, Dorothy Canfield Fisher
I’d never read this classic but picked it up after it featured prominently in Mother-Daughter Book Camp. Elizabeth Ann, sheltered and timid, is sent to Vermont to stay with cousins she’s never met. To everyone’s surprise – including her own – she blossoms there. A sweet, gentle story.

Before We Visit the Goddess, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
This is one of the picks for Modern Mrs. Darcy’s online Summer Reading Club. It’s a bittersweet story of mothers and daughters, spanning three generations and shifting in time, place and point of view: India to California to Texas, mother to daughter to granddaughter. Lovely and melancholy, though I wanted more resolution at the end.

Graveyard of the Hesperides, Lindsey Davis
Davis’ fourth novel featuring Flavia Albia, a private informer in ancient Rome, finds Albia approaching wedded bliss with her beloved, Manlius Faustus. But they get sidetracked when the remains of six bodies turn up in the garden of a bar he’s renovating. The plot meanders, but Albia is a sharp-tongued, engaging narrator. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 12).

Nine Women, One Dress, Jane L. Rosen
Everyone is desperate to get their hands on the little black dress of the season – and it changes the fortunes of nine women, including a runway model, two saleswomen at Bloomingdale’s, an aging Broadway diva and more. Light and frothy and highly entertaining. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 12).

The Seafront Tea Rooms, Vanessa Greene
A journalist researching tea rooms, a young mother at the end of her rope, and a French au pair bond over tea and struggles in Scarborough. Light, refreshing and lovely. Fun for Anglophiles.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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memorial church memorial hall harvard university
I was left to my own devices
Many days fell away with nothing to show

And the walls kept tumbling down
In the city that we love
Great clouds roll over the hills
Bringing darkness from above

But if you close your eyes
Does it almost feel like nothing’s changed at all?
And if you close your eyes
Does it almost feel like you’ve been here before?

How am I gonna be an optimist about this?
How am I gonna be an optimist about this?

—Bastille, “Pompeii”

I fell in love with this song about a year ago, when my husband started performing it with his a cappella group, the Mass Whole Notes. (I know I’m a little late to the Bastille party. J is constantly discovering brand-new music, the way I am always finding new books. But my musical tastes skew several years behind the times.)

“Pompeii” entered J’s performance repertoire around the time I lost my job (which happened a year ago this week). I have found myself humming it often this year, because it captures perfectly the in-between state in which I find myself.

Some things – in fact, many important things – in my life have not changed since last May: I live in the same light-filled apartment. I go to the same tiny church. I call my mother once a week, text my sister about Friends lines and my nephews, talk about golf and movies with my dad. I read scads of books and write lots of reviews. I am married to the same generous, funny, understanding man.

I also spend my weekdays in the same neighborhood where I’ve worked for three years now. Every morning, I sling the same two bags over my shoulder and head for the Red Line subway platform near my house. I get off in Harvard Square, looking up at the same brick buildings and tall, gracious towers. I head to Darwin’s for a spicy chai latte before walking to my office.

If I close my eyes – though that is dangerous when navigating a Cambridge sidewalk – I can almost pretend that nothing has changed.

harvard yard autumn light leaves

And yet.

This spring finds me working in a sixth-floor office, with new colleagues, in a temporary role. This job is different both from the one I lost last spring and the other temp gig I held from Thanksgiving until mid-March. All three roles have been at Harvard, doing communications work, but there are varying duties and projects, distinctive office cultures to navigate, constantly shifting expectations. I am a person who likes to have a plan, and the past year has made that difficult.

I have been constantly surprised by how the job hunt has played havoc with my sense of self: as an individual, a writer, a career woman, a part of the Harvard community. Previously, I had never thought of myself as a person defined by her career. But the lack of a job, a title, a defined place in a working community, has made me question so many facets of my identity and the stories I tell myself. Also, inevitably, it has caused a shift in my relationships, most notably the ones with my former co-workers. I don’t blame anyone for that; it is simply what happens when things change.

On some days, the refrain of “Pompeii” thrums through my head in a depressing rhythm: How am I gonna be an optimist about this? That question is harder to answer when I’m struggling with (more) rejection, or simply having a tough day. I don’t always know how to be an optimist about this. I do remember, usually, how to keep going forward (make a cup of tea, write another paragraph, answer another email), so mostly, that’s what I do.

On some days, though, I am able to simply be grateful for what is now: this job, this office, this paycheck. This group of quirky, sarcastic, whip-smart colleagues. This routine, which still contains so many things and people I love. This neighborhood, with its uneven brick sidewalks and colorful local businesses and budding spring flowers, that has become a part of me. This chance to spend my days doing meaningful work – even if I don’t know quite where it will lead.

Some days I teeter on the edge of nostalgia, and it’s tempting to slip inside it, like a familiar cardigan. If I close my eyes and burrow down into it, I can pretend for a moment that nothing has changed at all. But the truth – the harsh, rich, complicated, often beautiful truth – is that things have changed, both in ways I can point to and in ways I still can’t quite articulate.

For now, although I’m sure I’ll keep humming this song, I’m adopting a slightly different approach. Because after this turbulent year, I am still here. I still get to walk through the city I love – dark clouds, tumbling walls and all. It’s not always easy, but I’m doing my best to keep my eyes wide open.

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belong to me book tulips mug

April has brought the craziest weather so far: six inches of snow, torrential rain, mild sunshine. Here’s what I have been reading:

Last Ride to Graceland, Kim Wright
Blues musician Cory Beth Ainsworth has always known her mama spent a year as a backup singer for Elvis – but she’s never known the details. After her mother dies, Cory stumbles upon a vintage Stutz Blackhawk in her stepfather’s shed: a car that belonged to the King himself. Fueled by a need to know more about her own history, Cory takes to the road, driving the Blackhawk from South Carolina to Memphis. A sweet road-trip story, though Cory is seriously flaky. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 24).

Belong to Me, Marisa de los Santos
During a serious reading slump, I picked up this book and fell head over heels (again) into this luminous, funny, utterly genuine story about a few families whose lives become intertwined. I adore Cornelia, who also narrates Love Walked In, and I love how her world gets bigger and richer in this book. I am amazed at de los Santos’ deep compassion for her characters, even prickly Piper (Cornelia’s neighbor).

West Wind, Mary Oliver
I need a Mary Oliver fix every once in a while (especially during National Poetry Month). This collection of poems and prose poems is luminous and lovely. Some favorites: “Fox,” “It is midnight, or almost,” and the last poem, “Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches.”

Audacity Jones to the Rescue, Kirby Larson
Audacity Jones is whisked away from Miss Maisie’s Home for Wayward Girls as part of a top-secret mission involving President Taft – but neither the mission nor its consequences are what she expects. A fun, fast-paced middle-grade novel with a spunky, clever heroine. (I love her name!)

The Song of Hartgrove Hall, Natasha Solomons
After World War II, the Fox-Talbot estate in Dorset (Hartgrove Hall) is falling apart, and the family’s three sons work to try and save it. Harry, the youngest, is a gifted composer and avid folk-song collector, but he’s also in love with his brother’s girlfriend. Solomons’ writing is gorgeous – she evokes both music and the English countryside so well – though the love triangle didn’t feel quite believable to me. (I loved her earlier novel The House at Tyneford.)

The Saturdays, Elizabeth Enright
The four Melendy children – Mona, Rush, Randy and Oliver – live with their father in a comfortable, shabby brownstone in 1940s New York City. They decide to pool their allowances so they can have adventures on Saturdays, and do they ever! I love this book – the writing is simple and lovely and the characters are so much fun. First in a series.

Under a Painted Sky, Stacey Lee
After Samantha Young loses her father and her home, she finds herself fleeing town in the company of a runaway slave, Annamae. The two girls disguise themselves as boys and strike out for the Oregon Trail, hoping to outrun their problems and chase their dreams to California. A smart, vivid YA novel with two brave heroines and some really fun supporting characters (human and animal). Reminded me a bit of Walk on Earth a Stranger.

A Front Page Affair, Radha Vatsal
Capability “Kitty” Weeks has ambitions of being a journalist, but she’s stuck writing for the Ladies’ Page of the New York Sentinel. But when a man is murdered at a society picnic on her beat, Kitty finds herself drawn into a twisty conspiracy. This one had a slow start but picked up later on. Kitty is a likable heroine and the setting (1915 NYC) will appeal to lovers of historical mystery. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 3).

The Enchanted April, Elizabeth von Arnim
Four Englishwomen, unacquainted and all variously miserable for their own reasons, rent a charming Italian villa for the month of April. A winsome comedy of manners with plenty of wit and many amusing misunderstandings. (Also: gorgeous descriptions.) Utterly delightful. Recommended by my pen pal Jaclyn.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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yoga mat leggings

A few weeks ago on a chilly Monday night, I was in my usual Monday-night place: lying on my back on a green yoga mat, in a dim, quiet wood-floored studio with early spring dusk coming in through the windows.

We had just finished an hour of yoga practice: warrior poses and sun salutations and deep breaths in downward facing dog. Meredith’s usual class playlist – acoustic guitar and mellow peace-on-earth lyrics mixed with a little rock ‘n’ roll – thrummed through our muscles and our eardrums. As we lay there, breathing in savasana (the final resting pose), a new song came over the speakers, a song I hadn’t heard in years.

Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary
Pure and holy, tried and true…

The singer’s voice slid over the familiar words, eliding the “l” in “Lord” until the word became a simple “o” sound. I knew what was coming next:

With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living
Sanctuary for you.

We talk a lot in yoga class about being present in our bodies, about making space for breath and peace and good things. About letting go of tension and worry and the unhelpful stories we tell ourselves. I have never heard the word “sanctuary” used explicitly in a yoga context, but the concept is definitely there. I couldn’t help smiling, though: my memories of the song “Sanctuary” come from a very different place.

I was one of those Jesus-freak kids in high school: the ones who wore WWJD bracelets and T-shirts emblazoned with catchy Christianese, who led Bible studies before school and knew all the words to the latest DC Talk and Newsboys albums. In small-town West Texas, this did not make me a total outsider, but it did make me a little odd. And, on Thursdays during lunchtime, it meant that I wolfed down taquitos and Bagel Bites with other students in a church gymnasium down the street from my high school, and then got up on a makeshift stage to lead a few praise songs.

Most people, I realized, came for the free food, instead of the spiritual enrichment offered by a prayer and a handful of worship choruses. The songs with goofy hand motions – “Peace Like a River,” for example – were the most popular. But during my senior year, “Sanctuary” became the sleeper hit. We usually sang a song or two and then took requests, and a few kids I knew slightly from marching band would shout, “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!” from their seats at the back of the room.

Maybe they liked the sound of the word (or were channeling Quasimodo). Maybe they liked the melody, played on guitar – different from the piano or the organ that accompanied the hymns they heard on Sundays when their parents dragged them to church. Maybe they just wanted to see if we’d actually sing the same song every single week. I never asked them, so I don’t know. But I stood up there and sang it every time, hoping that somehow it would bring them a little peace or light or whatever they needed. Because I understood even then that we can sometimes be sanctuary for each other.

I never expected to hear that song in a non-religious yoga studio south of Boston. I don’t know if Meredith, my instructor, is a Christian, or if she came across the song and liked the way it sounded. But that studio, with its leaf-green walls and smooth wood floors, has become a kind of sanctuary for me. And it is true that what we do on our mats – those deep breaths and stretches and difficult-but-empowering poses – prepares us for what we do out in the wider world.

Meredith’s playlist varies from week to week, so I don’t know when “Sanctuary” will come up again. But I like both the word and the idea (not to mention the song’s soothing melody). I like the thought of both finding a safe place for ourselves and being one for those who need it. Because heaven knows we could all use a little sanctuary in our lives.

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