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Posts Tagged ‘peace’

waves neponset summer

I keep hearing that phrase in my grandfather’s voice, these days.

To be clear, I am hearing it inside my head: Papaw died when I was 16, before I’d ever faced problems bigger than a difficult history exam or a temperamental band director.

He was my dad’s dad, a quiet man from Mississippi who spent his adult life in small-town Missouri. He was mostly deaf in one ear as a result of his time serving in Korea, and he wore plaid shirts that snapped up the front, and black-framed glasses, and baseball caps when he went golfing.

When my sister and I were young, we would try to arm-wrestle him, and though I’d push with both hands and throw all my weight against his big hand, I never managed to move it an inch. This made him throw back his head and laugh, a raspy, joyous sound that I loved to hear.

I don’t ever remember hearing Papaw say “It’ll all work out” when he was alive. My mom told me, not long ago, that he used to say it, and immediately I heard it in his voice, infused with the simple, rock-solid faith that I associate with him and my Mimi. They didn’t say much about their faith, but they helped out their neighbors and served their church and raised their three sons to love God and love others.

This summer, I am searching for a new job: combing job boards and sending out applications and trying my absolute best not to panic. I don’t know what is next, and I don’t like that at all. I am a person who likes to have a plan.

There’s no magic formula to quiet my soul when the fear sets in, though I am using all the good, healthy tricks I know, like yoga and running and lots of tea. But sometimes, Papaw’s voice floats through my head, saying this one simple phrase that I never heard him say in life. And it settles me, in a way I can’t quite explain: to know that if he were alive, he would say it to me, believing that I’ll find my next right step.

I don’t know if Papaw ever had doubts or dark nights of the soul. I’m not sure how I could explain to him the work I do, how I worry, what I’m hoping to find. I don’t quite believe he’s speaking to me from beyond, not that way.

But sometimes I hear him say these four words. And it helps me believe they are true.

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candles ashmont vigil

Metal and glass, granite and flame: I snapped this photo at a small vigil in Dorchester last Sunday night, in the wake of the awful events in Charlottesville.

I’d seen a list online of vigils in the Boston area, so the hubs and I hopped on the trolley to the Ashmont T station (about a mile from our new house) to join about 50 people in a quiet show of solidarity and peace.

I wasn’t sure whether to go: I am wary, in these uncertain days, of doing anything just to make myself feel better, when none of this is about me at all. I didn’t go so I could tell people I’d gone; I was shy even about introducing myself to others who were there. But it still felt important to show up, to stand with other people in our new neighborhood who care about justice and peace, and who understand that we are all culpable in this long story of hurt and hatred and injustice in the country we love.

We chanted Heather Heyer’s name; we sang a verse of a song about peace and carrying burdens together; and afterward, a few of us stood around chatting, learning each other’s names: Patricia, Johanna, Orin, Rachel, James, Lizzie, Kathleen. I left feeling still heartbroken, but quietly buoyed up.

It felt so small, hardly worth mentioning – but worth doing.  I share my experience here, in case you are wondering if the small things you’re doing are worth it, or in case you need an idea of how that might look. Because showing up – however that looks – always matters. I have to believe that.

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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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charles river cambridge sunset

Making Peace

A voice from the dark called out,
             ‘The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.’
                                   But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.
                                       A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.
                                              A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses . . .
                        A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.

I came across this poem (as I find so many lovely things) via the good folks at Image Journal. It strikes me, reading these lines, that peace – like magic – is something we must actively make.

Like Natalie Goldberg’s “holy yes,” peace is an act of creativity, grace and courage; it is not something that happens automatically. It is a choice, and a long process, and it can be hard, complicated and tiring. But it is also beautiful and necessary. In a world of loud arguments and urgent headlines, it is perhaps more necessary than ever.

May I – may we all – learn to be peacemakers in these days.

hancock tower protest boston refugees

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A blessing

holden chapel reflection harvard yard

My favorite part of Morning Prayers these days is often the benediction, which comes at the end of the service: after the choral anthem, after the Lord’s Prayer, after the brief address by the day’s speaker and the hymn of the morning. Benediction means blessing, and we stand quietly in the uneven rows of chairs, ready to receive it.

Sometimes the benediction is a familiar one, from the book of Numbers: the one that begins, “May the Lord bless you and keep you.” Sometimes it is a prayer or a blessing from an entirely different source, often unknown to me.

About once a week, this fall, it has been this prayer, delivered by a young seminarian who is particularly fond of it. (He might have written it. I don’t know.) It bolsters me up every time I hear it, and yesterday, I stood in front of my small church community and spoke it over them.

We are heading into a contentious election week here in the U.S., and I am as anxious as the next person about what’s coming our way. But in the spirit of sharing what is saving our lives these days, I wanted to pass this blessing on to you:

May God go before you to lead you.
May he stand behind you to push you,
on the side of you to guide you,
above you to protect you,
beneath you to sustain you,
and in you to keep you.

Amen.

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orinoco glasses lights fence

After work on Friday evening, I caught the bus from Harvard Square to a house on a hill in Lexington, where my friend Hannah lives. I had a bottle of (boxed) rosé in my bag, and a poem to share with the women in my book club (we dubbed this meeting our “poetry potluck”). I walked up Massachusetts Avenue from the bus station in the soft evening light, the first act of Hamilton in my headphones.

When I pushed open the screen door, I found Hannah and our friend Rachael standing in the kitchen, chopping apples and kale, seeding pomegranates, laying figs and prosciutto out on a cutting board. I greeted them (and Percy the cat), then joined the action: whisking eggs for an omelet, slicing cheddar cheese, pouring water. The three of us gathered around a small round table, munching and laughing, talking about TV shows and weddings, work and friendship, the stuff of daily life. Two other members joined us later, and the five of us moved into the living room, curling up on chairs and couches, barefoot, utterly at ease together.

We took turns reading our chosen poems aloud: words by Billy Collins, Wislawa Szymborska, Elizabeth Alexander, Kevin Young. We dipped black bean chips into spicy salsa and poured out the last of the rosé, and heaved open the windows to listen to (and smell) a glorious fall rain. Much later, Louisa and I caught an Uber back to Cambridge together, and I walked the few blocks from her street to Central Square, listening to the rain patter on my umbrella.

The whole evening felt like a gift – a deep breath I badly needed.

This September has been crowded and insistent, hot and demanding – at work, at home, all over the place. The national news has been full of raw grief, and I have also been dealing with some heartaches (my own and other people’s) closer to home. Last week felt particularly hard and helpless, so much so that I couldn’t even write about it here. Hope and peace have been difficult to find.

That evening of poetry and rich conversation did not erase my problems: none of us left Hannah’s that night with a magic solution to our own struggles or the continuing (seemingly intractable) problems of race relations and civil discourse in this country. The pain and fear are still present: they have not disappeared, and neither have the smaller daily trials we all must face. But those hours in that living room, laughing and listening and holding space for each other’s stories, were a balm to my soul. They are lingering in my memory, bolstering me up as I face another week. And I am grateful.

Wishing you a peaceful week, friends – with lots of deep breaths.

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On margin

daffodils dachshund table

Recently, my husband and I took a weeklong road trip to Canada, to celebrate the end of a long, full spring season (at work and at home) and so I could take a break between jobs. We had a glorious time, and I promise I’ll tell you more about it soon. But I’ve been thinking about how I also loved having a few quiet days at home after we came back. My husband headed straight back to work on Monday morning, but I had a couple of days to sleep in, catch up on laundry and putter around the house. I had some margin.

I started my new job at the Harvard Kennedy School last week, and I am thrilled to be back among colleagues I already know, at a place I already love. I’m easing in, with a couple of days at work, a long weekend for the 4th of July, and a short workweek this week. And I am so happy about it – not just because it’s summer and things are therefore a little slower, but because it gives me some margin. Some room. Some breathing space.

I’m a classic type-A overachiever, and I live and work in a culture that prizes hustle. When the occasion calls for it, I can hit the ground running and keep up a hectic pace, for days or weeks on end. That’s what I did during my temp gig at the central Harvard Public Affairs office this spring. Commencement season around there is a maelstrom, and I was right in the thick of it.

But that’s not how I like to operate. When I can get it, I prefer a little margin.

This spring, I jumped straight from one temp gig to another with only a weekend in between. After our lovely weekend on Martha’s Vineyard, it was full speed ahead at work for the entire month of May, while still trying to figure out my next step. And although early June was quieter, it involved a lot of tying up loose ends and handing over tasks and projects to my replacement, before I took my vacation. I haven’t had a lot of margin lately.

I’ve been doing my best to snatch breathing room where I can get it: solo lunch breaks with a sandwich and a book, a quiet evening at home with dishes and a podcast or another book (or three), and in rare cases, half an hour scribbling in my journal after my husband goes to bed. But I’m looking forward to a little more margin in my life this summer. There’s still a lot of change and adjustment ahead on the horizon, but I am hoping for more space – physical and mental – during these long, sunlit days.

Do you find that margin is necessary in your life? How do you make sure you get it?

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