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katie lin-manuel miranda interview microphone

It’s been ten days and I still can’t believe I get to say this: I got to interview Lin-Manuel Miranda.

I do not, generally, get starstruck very often. The exceptions to that rule tend to be the authors I love (like Alice Hoffman, who was very kind when I spoke to her on the phone last fall). But I am a musical theatre geek from way back, and I have spent untold hours over the past two years listening to Hamilton.

So when I found out Lin-Manuel was coming to speak at the Harvard Kennedy School (where I work), I just about hit the ceiling. I know for a fact I wasn’t the only one.

Lin-Manuel flew in for a Thursday evening to kick off America Adelante, a conference for Latino students and leaders. I begged everyone I had to beg – namely, my editors at the Harvard Gazette and my colleagues who organized the conference – to let me be the one to write the story. I’d have begged Drew Faust herself (Harvard’s president) if I had to.

All I was expecting was a seat at Lin’s keynote – a literal seat in the room where it happened. I did not dream of what you see above: ten minutes, give or take, with the man himself.

I’d scribbled notes all through his keynote, which was fantastic, then listened in as my colleague Matt interviewed him for the HKS podcast. When he turned to me with that grin after wrapping up with Matt and said, “Who are you writing for?,” I nearly lost all my words. (But I managed to recover a few of them.)

katie lin manuel miranda

I asked him first about democracy. Hamilton is the origin story of democracy, and some of Lin’s prolific activism on Twitter is about urging people to get involved in democracy today: registering to vote, calling their reps, making their voices heard. “We’re seeing such an accumulation of ordinary voices,” he said.

We talked, too, about art and activism: both are vital parts of his work. He mentioned being inspired by the Parkland students, and making “the Marvel/DC crossover” with Ben Platt of Dear Evan Hansen to encourage them. (Their collaborative song, Found Tonight, gives me chills.)

I admire Lin’s creative genius, but I also love how generous he is, how much he cares about making a difference in the world. He was funny and engaging, and even though I’m sure he was tired, he really listened to my questions and offered thoughtful answers. (And he talks with his hands! So do I.)

katie lin manuel miranda hand gesture

My favorite question was the last one I asked: “What’s the last great book you read?”

He paused – “Ooooh!” – then admitted, “I’m sort of in a prison of my own making.”

The reason? His New Year’s resolution was to read all of Shakespeare’s plays, and “I’m so behind,” he confessed. “I’ve had a busy few months!” That was the understatement of the night.

But then – then! – he waxed eloquent about reading the sonnets, and “the freedom he [Shakespeare] finds within the form.” In classic Lin fashion, he concluded, “Reading the sonnets was pretty dope.” I nearly died of English-major nerd bliss.

I’d forgotten my copy of the Hamiltome, but I asked Lin to sign my journal, and he graciously complied. The inscription, under my name and above his signature?

“See you in the room where it happens.”

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flowers lilies windowsill church tulips brookline easter 

There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins…

Easter at Brookline: gold-foil-wrapped pots of flowers lining the deep windowsills, tulips and lilies and hyacinths, bright splashes of color against the white walls. When you pull back the glass-paned double doors at the rear of the church, the scent hits you like a wave. It smells like spring, like hope, like resurrection in the face of impossible odds.

We set up two long tables behind the back pews and pile them with food, a rough division of sweets and savories, plates of sandwiches and mini quiche and cookies galore. Sarah brings the traditional cake frosted to look like a lamb. Sierra makes her cherry-center cookies dusted with powdered sugar. Early on Easter morning, the hubs slices avocados in our kitchen, a sturdy apron tied over his pastel-striped church shirt. The guacamole is a reliable crowd pleaser, even if we eat a lot of it ourselves.

And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains…

I didn’t walk through Lent this year the way I sometimes do, with an urgent, pressing awareness of the story. After a blue-skied Ash Wednesday, which fell incongruously on Valentine’s Day, a thousand other things demanded my attention. Even Holy Week felt fragmented: we were on the West Coast seeing friends on Palm Sunday, then jet-lagged through the days leading up to Easter, busy with to-do lists and the demands of everyday life. I wasn’t quite able to quiet down and listen.

Dear dying Lamb, thy precious blood
Shall never lose its power…

On Friday night, we pulled together the worship order for Sunday, sitting in our living room, discussing hymns and Scripture readings, updating the prayer list. J suggested we begin the service by singing an old hymn, just the two of us and his guitar. We sang and he strummed, and on Sunday morning, we stood up in front of the community we love, and did it for them.

Till all the ransomed church of God
Be saved to sin no more…

This was our eighth Easter in this place, with these people, and as I looked out over the pews, I saw faces I love deeply and faces I’d never seen before. I saw the couple with their toddler son in his seersucker blazer, who are days away from welcoming their second child. I saw our friends who moved up from Texas three summers ago, on little more than hope and a sense of adventure. I saw our church treasurer, Dale, with his tall Jewish wife and daughter, all of whom had prepared and hosted a Passover Seder for us at the church the night before. I saw the couple who moved here from California for a year back in 1967, who have never stopped serving this church.

I sang to all of them, for all of them, my voice rising over the lines I know so well, and I saw how so many of them smiled back at me, how they could not help but sing along.

The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day…

I’ve been humming this hymn on and off since I read the second Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne mystery, which shares part of its title. In the book, Clare is unnerved by the song, but I’ve always loved it. It belongs to the canon of hymns we sang when I was a little girl, the ones that put the cross front and center, that remind us of the ways this story is visceral and real.

And there may I, though vile as he
Wash all my sins away…

You can’t have a resurrection without a physical death first; you can’t have a true redemption story without it getting very, very dark. A fountain filled with blood is a gruesome image, maybe, but in my mind it has always been linked to hope and grace.

E’er since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply…

We listened, that morning, to Amy reading from the gospel of Mark, recounting how Mary Magdalene was first baffled, then afraid and – at last – amazed. We listened to Dasha, age 12, reading the words of Psalm 118: This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. We listened to Colette, nine months old, adding her voice to the congregation’s chorus as we sang the familiar hymns.

christ the lord easter hymn sheet music

We listened to Landon reminding us of the hope of the resurrection, the fierce gladness that has endured for all these years. And when I got up to speak over the communion table, I said: today we celebrate the triumph of light over darkness, of life over death, and the certainty that we are loved beyond what we can imagine.

Redeeming love has been my theme
And shall be till I die…

Those are my favorite lines from this hymn. Those of us who have believed, who have made this story our own, are called to tell it, to keep singing this song for our whole lives. We have witnessed redemption and joy, light beyond the clouds of the darkest, most bitter night. We have been rescued from grief, from loneliness, from pain: we do not get to dodge it or avoid it, but we are assured that there is something beyond it, that God is making all things new. This story, which at times baffles and confuses and even breaks our hearts, is the story we will wrestle with forever, and the story we will tell until we die.

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

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sunday sunset river trail neponset

Regular readers know that I periodically turn back to the question of what’s saving my life now. I got it from Barbara Brown Taylor, and I always find answering it a helpful exercise, especially in the winter.

My friend Anne agrees. And today, at the halfway point of winter, she’s gathering all of us to share what’s saving our lives these days.

Here’s my list:

  • Paperwhite narcissus in my kitchen window. I started a new pair of bulbs last week and they are growing a bit every day.
  • The sunrise out that same window, every morning (when it’s not snowing).
  • Related: any scrap of blue sky I can find.
  • Tulips and daffodils for my desk and my kitchen table.
  • The weekly chats with my florist. Dear man.

ranunculus pink orange flowers

  • Spicy chai and scones from Darwin’s, and checking in with my people there. (Always.)
  • My winter gear: snow boots, warm gloves, hats, scarves and my two coats.
  • The days when I can wear real shoes to work. (Related: clear sidewalks, when I can find them.)
  • Tangy, bright clementines.
  • Fleeced-lined tights on frigid days.
  • Any time I can spend on the river trail: walking, running, taking deep breaths.

selfie gray hat river trail

  • The sleeveless gray sweater I found in Oxford this fall: the coziest thing I own. I’m wearing it almost every day, usually over a striped dress.
  • Good books: the latest Marisa de los Santos novel; Ada Calhoun’s wise, candid essays on marriage; lots of mysteries.
  • My favorite podcast: All the Books!, which features Rebecca and Liberty talking books and all sorts of randomness. Makes me laugh out loud on the regular.
  • The Wailin’ Jennys, in my ears on the river trail.
  • Lots and lots of water.
  • So much tea: ginger peach, Earl Grey, peppermint for the late nights.
  • My light box and Vitamin D pills, for the grey days.
  • Texts from a couple of dear friends.
  • The occasional glass of red wine or cup of strong tea with a girlfriend.
  • Monday night boot camp + yoga, both taught by the inimitable Erin.
  • Huevos on Mondays after that doubleheader workout.
  • A couple of upcoming trips I’m excited about. Having something to look forward to always helps.
  • Listening to Acoustic Sunrise as the hubs and I drive to church on Sunday mornings.
  • Good pens, and a minute to scribble in my journal here and there.
  • My Thursday morning writers’ meetings across the street: sarcastic and fun and so informative.
  • Season 8 (yes, we’re behind) of Modern Family, which makes my husband laugh harder than anything, these days.

What’s saving your life now? Please share in the comments, and/or hop over to Anne’s site to read her list of lifesavers and more.

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oxford book stack red daisies flowers table

The second half of October, like the first, was a whirlwind of golden leaves and email and travel. I’d barely recovered from my Oxford trip (and the subsequent head cold) before we headed to NYC for a long weekend with my parents. Here’s what I have been reading, in between all that activity:

The Reporter’s Kitchen, Jane Kramer
For food writer Kramer, writing and cooking are inextricably linked—though she sometimes uses one to avoid the other. This collection of her pieces from The New Yorker includes chef profiles, food history and a few personal essays (my favorites). She’s warm, witty and practical. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 21).

First Class Murder, Robin Stevens
The third book in Stevens’ Wells & Wong middle-grade mystery series finds Daisy and Hazel aboard the famous Orient Express. Naturally, a murder occurs and they have to investigate. An homage to Christie’s classic, but also a fun, well-plotted story. Found at the Book House in Summertown, Oxford.

The Music Shop, Rachel Joyce
In a down-at-heel street in a nondescript British city, Frank’s record shop doesn’t just sell vinyl (and only vinyl), but it gives people the music they don’t know they need. When Ilse Brauchmann, a mysterious woman in a green coat, visits the shop, Frank finds himself both drawn to Ilse and utterly baffled by her. A wonderful novel about music, loss, healing and love, with vivid characters and so many brilliant sentences. (I also adored Joyce’s debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 2).

Rain: Four Walks in English Weather, Melissa Harrison
Like many English people, Harrison is an avid walker, even—nay, especially—in the rain. She chronicles four rainy walks in different seasons and locations, musing on how rain has shaped the climate and psyche of the British Isles, and recording details of habitat and weather with a keen, lyrical eye. So lovely. Found at the amazing Blackwells Bookshop in Oxford.

The Disappearances, Emily Bain Murphy
When Aila Quinn’s mother, Juliet, dies unexpectedly, Aila and her brother are sent to Juliet’s hometown to stay with friends. But they are greeted with suspicion: the town lies under a curse, and some people blame Juliet. Aila digs into her mother’s history (and a mysteriously annotated volume of Shakespeare) to clear Juliet’s name. An enchanting, thought-provoking YA novel; I especially loved Aila and her friend Beas. The dialogue felt almost too modern (it’s set in the 1940s), but the central conceit is wonderful. Recommended by Liberty on All the Books!.

The Luster of Lost Things, Sophie Chen Keller
Walter Lavender Jr. doesn’t talk much, but he’s got a keen observer’s eye and a knack for finding lost things. When the mysterious Book that is the lifeblood of his mother’s West Village bakery disappears, Walter and his golden retriever, Milton, embark on a search that takes them up and down Manhattan. An utterly magical novel full of heartbreak and love; the writing sings and the city itself is a character. Found (fittingly) at Shakespeare & Co. in NYC. Recommended by my colleague Kat at Shelf Awareness.

Poems to Live By in Troubling Times, ed. Joan Murray
I’ve needed poetry lately, and have lingered in this slim, often heartrending anthology of poems on war, terror, grief, healing and peace. Uneven, like many anthologies, but I did find a few gems. Bought at the Brattle on a walkabout day this summer.

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

What are you reading?

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autumn sign leaves chalkboard

“Autumn seemed to arrive suddenly that year. The morning of the first of September was crisp and golden as an apple.”

—J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

September is here and so is fall, suddenly: classes have started, events are ramping up, and the mornings feel crisp and cool. The light in Cambridge has shifted to its autumn self: clear, lucid, heartbreakingly golden. I learned a new word this summer: komorebi, which is Japanese for “light filtered through leaves.”

komorebi harvard yard tree sky

As is often the case in the autumn, everything feels big and immediate and full.

In the midst of heartrending headlines (hurricanes, DACA, nuclear threats) and so many responsibilities (my to-do list is as long as my arm), I figured it was time for another list: what’s saving my life now.

I need the reminder to name the good things, and maybe you do too. So here they are:

  • Ginger peach tea in a purple travel mug, Earl Grey from my barista friends at Darwin’s, and lots of water all day long.
  • Seeing my red geraniums on the back porch every morning, and watching the sunrise through the kitchen windows.
  • Moving around in the new apartment and feeling like it belongs to us.
  • A few truly wonderful books: Salt Houses, The Captain’s Daughter, The Rules of Magic.

book geraniums captains daughter sandals porch flowers

  • Making new connections with folks at Harvard and around the Square, and running into people I know and love: this is my neighborhood.
  • Community in all its forms: our first dinner guests; a new-to-me book club; long walks with a dear friend; rich conversations over text and Twitter and email with loved ones who are far away.
  • End-of-summer flowers: Queen Anne’s lace, black-eyed Susans, multicolored hydrangeas, the first few asters.

black eyed susans

  • Harmonizing with the Wailin’ Jennys, whose music is in my earbuds and my heart every day.
  • Looking forward to some travel later in the season.
  • Burt’s Bees lemon butter cuticle salve, which I am using for everything these days.
  • My favorite clothes: happy red pants, go-with-everything flats, a scarf my sister gave me long ago, the malachite ring I bought in NYC last summer, and that brave necklace I never take off.
  • Yoga: once or twice a week at Healing Tree, and occasionally on my mat at home.
  • The Thursday morning writers’ meetings I love: sarcasm + sanity.
  • Morning Prayers at Memorial Church, as often as I can make it there.
  • The walking trail near our new house, and the first red leaves, spotted there on a solo walk this weekend.

red leaves neponset trail

As we plunge into fall, what is saving your life now? Please share, if you want.

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snapdragons salad book essence of malice table

I know, I know – we’re a week into August. But I have a good excuse: I’m poking my head up out of a sea of boxes (we moved!) and I’ve been shelving all the books in addition to reading a few.

Here’s what I have been managing to read lately:

The Essence of Malice, Ashley Weaver
Amory Ames and her husband, Milo, are enjoying a holiday on Lake Como – but then Milo’s former nanny summons them to Paris to investigate her employer’s death. A witty, well-plotted mystery involving a powerful parfumier and his family. I love Amory’s narrative voice and enjoyed this, her fourth adventure. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 5).

Summer of Lost and Found, Rebecca Behrens
When Nell Dare’s botanist mom drags her to Roanoke (from NYC) for a summer research trip, Nell expects to be bored. But she quickly becomes fascinated by the lost colony and starts digging for clues to its history. A sweet middle-grade novel with an engaging protagonist and some lovely insights. Found at the Bookstore of Gloucester.

The Encore: A Memoir in Three Acts, Charity Tillemann-Dick
Opera singers know drama: they have to, to pour themselves into demanding, heart-stirring roles. But Charity didn’t expect her own personal drama to include two double lung transplants. A compelling memoir of illness, recovery and the incredible love and support of Charity’s family, doctors and fiancé. I wanted more music, but enjoyed this one. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 3).

Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing, Daniel Tammet
Tammet’s brain processes language a bit differently than mine: he’s a high-functioning autistic who’s also brilliant, bilingual and slightly synesthetic. He dives into multiple facets of language: telephone grammar, Esperanto, lipograms, disappearing dialects and more. Witty, thoughtful and erudite; probably best suited for language nerds, but highly accessible. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 12). I also enjoyed Tammet’s book Thinking in Numbers.

It’s Not Yet Dark, Simon Fitzmaurice
Fitzmaurice, an Irish filmmaker and writer, was diagnosed with ALS several years ago. This luminous memoir tells his journey in brief, vivid snippets. Slim and lovely. My favorite line: “Those I count as friends are the brave.” To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 1).

Chicago, Brian Doyle
A young aspiring writer moves to Chicago after graduating college, and falls completely in love with the city he lives in for five seasons. I love Doyle’s big-hearted, rambling voice (I imagined this unnamed protagonist as his twentysomething self), and I loved every page of this novel. Found at the Strand, on a solo late-night browsing trip this winter.

The Precious One, Marisa de los Santos
I adore de los Santos’ fiction and this one hooked me from the first page: “a sky the color of moonstones and raspberry jam.” This was a reread, and I found I remembered the outlines but had forgotten many of the details. I loved the story of Taisy, her half sister Willow, their complicated family, and love in all its forms just as much the second time around.

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

What are you reading?

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summer sunset view porch

I hear a bird chirpin’ up in the sky
I’d like to be free like that, spread my wings so high
I hear the river flowin’, water runnin’ by
I’d like to be that river, see what I might find

—”Bird Song,” The Wailin’ Jennys

I stood at the kitchen sink late one night last month, plunging my hands in their purple rubber gloves under the stream of hot running water. I was tired from a long workday, answering emails and wrangling story assignments, and a long evening at home, taking care of other tasks.

I reached for a turquoise sponge, scrubbing bits of food off crusted plates and greasy pans. My smartphone sat on the ledge above the sink, playing this song on repeat, Heather Masse’s voice lilting along the familiar lyrics. Every time I hear her sing it, I can see her in a blue dress, swaying onstage at the Indian River Festival in PEI, three summers ago. My shoulders drop, and I exhale.

My musical taste tends toward the soulful and quiet: most of my favorite musicians are singer-songwriters who tell true stories with their notes and words. (The notable exception to this is Hamilton, but I tend to eschew the driving rock beats and funky mashups my husband loves.) I have a particular fondness for a handful of bands and solo artists, whose words and tunes have wound around my heart, knit themselves into the fabric of my soul.

This year, I’ve found myself turning often to a few beloved songs, as a balm, a solace when the world is too much, too fast, too insistent, too loud. I’ve begun to think of them not simply as my favorites, but as grown-up lullabies.

We sing lullabies to children, of course: to soothe a fractious baby or smooth a fidgety toddler’s way toward sleep. My nephews ask, over and over again, for the songs they have heard all their lives: “Edelweiss,” “General Froggie,” “Three Little Kitties.” My dad used to sing the latter two to my sister and me: his mother, my Mimi, also sang them to him and his brothers when they were small. (I love that these old folk lullabies are three generations strong in my family.)

It’s been years since anyone sang me a lullaby in the usual sense. But these days, “Bird Song” and a handful of other quiet, lilting songs are my lullabies: they soothe my anxious soul when the hurt and the frustration are beyond logic, beyond explaining.

Some of them are gentle folk ballads, sung by the Wailin’ Jennys, Grace Pettis, Hem, or my college friends Alex and Kara (known as the Light Parade). Some are old hymns that live deep in my bones: “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” “I Love to Tell the Story,” or “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.” Some are the last remnants of the Christian pop music I loved as a teenager and have never entirely outgrown: words from Nichole Nordeman and other wise voices. And a few are newer songs that periodically lodge in my soul: the Magnificat, in particular, never fails to soothe me, and Annie Lennox’s “Into the West” has a kind of distant magic.

These songs aren’t an instant cure for what ails me, or the world: I know singing a few verses won’t heal all wounds. But they are a salve for my weary soul, a way to quiet my running mind and gentle my anxious heart. I sometimes find myself matching my steps to the rhythm of these familiar voices, or swaying slightly as I stand at the kitchen sink, as though I were rocking a baby to sleep.

I’ve come to believe that grown-ups need nurturing too, and we often have to provide it for ourselves. These lullabies, and the peace they bring, are saving my life these days.

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