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Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

peony candle

I read this line last month in Krista Tippett’s gorgeous, luminous book Becoming Wise. It is from a poem by Elizabeth Alexander, and I have not been able to stop thinking about it. In the wake of this weekend’s tragedy in Orlando, it has been with me like a heartbeat, thrumming quietly but insistently through my veins.

I talk a lot, lately, about my deep love for Darwin’s, the coffee shop down the street from my office. I am there so often – for chai or lunch or an afternoon snack – that I know at least half the staff by name. Several times a week, I stand in the lunchtime line that winds around the wine racks and past the ice cream freezer, and exchange smiles and hellos with the folks I know: Al, Kiersten, Ariel, Justin. If I’m lucky, my friend Gamal is working the register, and he always has a smile and a good word for me.

I have spent much of the past year not knowing quite where I belong: shunted between different offices, learning the ropes of two temp gigs while searching for the next right thing. I am both shy and introverted, and it’s hard sometimes for me to reach across and connect with new people, especially when I’m not sure I will be welcomed. (My first couple of years in Boston were hard and heartbreaking in that way, and it’s taken a long time for me to believe that people here want to know me, or be known by me.)

Especially during this year, I’ve been grateful for Darwin’s, and for other places of sanctuary and welcome in my life. The teams at both my temp gigs are full of smart, warmhearted people, and I’m lucky to have other folks to lean on: my husband, my family, a few treasured close friends.

And yet.

Relishing, and appreciating, the existing friendships in my life can’t be enough. Not when we wake up over and over to news reports of violence and tragedy, perpetuated by people full of hate and fear of those who are different from them. I can’t let my shyness – or my perceptions about any group of people – override my simple human responsibility: to be interested in others, and to treat them with dignity and compassion.

I am straight. I am white. I can’t imagine the discrimination experienced by some of my friends who don’t fit those descriptors. But I can – I must – be interested in them and their stories. Not as tokens or examples, but as people – complicated, messy, gloriously individual.

Alexander’s poem starts out being about poetry, as the narrator tells her students that poetry is “idiosyncratic.” But it quickly becomes about the human condition: “poetry is where we are ourselves,” she says. Her voice rises until it reaches the poem’s final crescendo:

Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,

and are we not of interest to each other?

Yes. We are of interest to each other. We must be, if we are going to stem the tide of hate and fear that seems to be spilling out all over the place. We must remain interested in – and delighted by, and full of compassion for – each other. We cannot afford to do otherwise.

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peter and the starcatcher set

The curtain goes up,
The curtain goes up,
It’s a wonderful moment,
When the curtain goes up…

—Maud Hart Lovelace, Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown

On Friday, the hubs and I met up downtown after work, to catch the Lyric Stage Company’s opening night performance of Peter and the Starcatcher. It’s a fast-paced, witty, hilarious prequel of sorts to Peter Pan, and we loved every second of it. Elaborate wordplay, swashbuckling fights, wildly colorful mermaid costumes, and a story with friendship and magic at its heart. (Because you can’t have Neverland without either one, really.)

I didn’t know much about the play beforehand, but I knew that the Lyric Stage puts on fabulous shows, since I took my parents to see their production of My Fair Lady last fall. That show is an old favorite of mine – my dad and I can quote Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering for hours – and their version felt both familiar and wonderfully fresh. Both nights reminded me of something I often forget: how much I love live theatre.

my fair lady set

Aside from a drama class in ninth grade and a few church plays, I don’t have much acting experience. But I love the immediacy of live theatre: the way it binds audience and actors together in a vital dynamic. In this age of carefully produced everything – Instagram filters, sharply cut films, painstakingly edited music – live theatre still holds the potential for surprise.

I know it takes a lot of work to get to opening night, and I know these actors and crew members spent weeks perfecting the set, the lighting, the lines and the blocking. But after all that preparation, each performance – the thing itself – is a glittering, singular entity all its own. Telling stories and listening to them is a deeply human act, and live theatre brings stories into the open, in all their glorious particularity.

There wasn’t an actual curtain on Friday night: the Lyric Stage space (see above) is small and intimate, and the audience simply waits for the lights to come up. But I still felt like Betsy Ray in the Deep Valley Opera House, alive with anticipation:

It’s like Christmas morning,
Stealing down stairs,
It’s like being hungry,
And saying your prayers.

It’s like being hungry,
And ready to sup,
It’s a wonderful moment,
When the curtain goes up.

Betsy, as usual, had it exactly right. As the cast came bounding onstage for the first scene, my eyes filled with sudden tears. This is what it means to be human: telling each other our stories, and delighting in them. (And maybe catching a few stars along the way.)

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library book stack tulips

I posted this photo on Instagram recently after all six of my two-week (!) library holds came in at once. (I may have a slight problem.)

Here’s a roundup of some of those books, and others:

Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home, Jessica Fechtor
After having a brain aneurysm at age 28, Fechtor found solace and recovery in the kitchen: eating the meals she loved, cooking them when she was well enough, and later writing about them. A gorgeously written, insightful memoir of how food connects us to ourselves and those we love. I loved it, and now I want to make every recipe. (Bonus: Fechtor used to live in Cambridge, and she evokes Harvard Square perfectly.) I also got to meet Fechtor and hear her read at Brookline Booksmith – a delight. (Recommended by Leigh.)

The Key to Extraordinary, Natalie Lloyd
Emma Pearl Casey comes from a long line of extraordinary women. But as she grieves her mother’s death and watches her Granny Blue struggle to keep the family cafe afloat, she wonders how to fulfill her own destiny. A sweet, whimsical, brave middle-grade novel about family, courage and stepping into your true self. (I also loved Lloyd’s debut, A Snicker of Magic.)

When My Name Was Keoko, Linda Sue Park
This was the April pick for the Reading Together Family Exploration Book Club. Through the eyes of two young narrators (Sun-hee and her brother, Tae-yul), Park vividly describes life in Japanese-occupied Korea during World War II. (The title refers to Koreans being forced to adopt Japanese names.) Fascinating and heartbreaking, and the first book I’ve read about this particular facet of WWII.

The Travelers, Chris Pavone
Will Rhodes is a travel writer for an international magazine – until he gets recruited by a woman who claims she’s CIA. Then Will starts to suspect that nothing in his life is what it seems – including his work and his marriage. Pavone writes such smart thrillers with sharp social commentary. Some great twists in this one, though it also struck me as deeply cynical.

Connect the Stars, Marisa de los Santos & David Teague
Aaron remembers everything he hears and reads, but sometimes spouts facts at the wrong moment. Audrey can always tell when someone is lying, and has decided it’s not worth having friends. But when they end up at the same wilderness camp in West Texas, they both learn a few things about truth and friendship. A beautifully written middle-grade novel with very real characters (though the plot dragged a bit). Reminded me of my time at Camp Blue Haven, a decade ago.

Words Under the Words: Selected Poems, Naomi Shihab Nye
I’d come across Nye’s poems (like “Gate A-4“) occasionally, and wanted to read more. (Plus I always make an effort to read poetry in April.) She writes in lovely, simple language about loss and love and everyday things. Some favorites: “Song,” “Daily,” “What People Do,” “Burning the Old Year.”

The Light of Paris, Eleanor Brown
1999: Madeleine feels trapped in her loveless marriage. 1924: Madeleine’s grandmother, Margie, feels trapped by the rigid mores of her social class. Margie escapes to Paris and gradually comes out of her shell; Madeleine discovers Margie’s story through her journals and letters. A lovely dual-narrative story about learning to shake off other people’s expectations and change the stories we tell ourselves. (I adored Brown’s debut, The Weird Sisters.)

Tuesdays at the Castle, Jessica Day George
Anne mentioned this middle-grade novel on her blog recently. Princess Celie and her siblings live in Castle Glower, which (sort of like Hogwarts) adds new rooms and staircases at whim, usually on Tuesdays. When their parents go missing and are presumed dead, the siblings (and the Castle) must work to prevent their kingdom from being seized. Really fun. First in a series.

Elizabeth and Her German Garden, Elizabeth von Arnim
After loving The Enchanted April, I picked up von Arnim’s autobiographical novel of life at her German country estate, and rhapsodies about its garden. The descriptions of flowers and trees are gorgeous, but von Arnim’s marriage (to “the Man of Wrath”) made me so sad, as Jaclyn noted.

Shadow Spinner, Susan Fletcher
I’m getting a jump on the May pick for the RTFEBC. This is a spin on the tale of Scheherazade, narrated by a crippled servant girl who helps the young queen find new stories to tell the Sultan. Beautifully written, with engaging characters, though I saw some of the twists coming a mile away.

A Bed of Scorpions, Judith Flanders
Book editor Samantha Clair is drawn into another mystery when her old friend’s business partner dies unexpectedly. A witty mystery set in London’s art world. I like Sam and her supporting cast (her mother, neighbor, Scotland Yard detective boyfriend), though the plot got confusing at times.

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

What are you reading?

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sunset sky west texas

Let Evening Come

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

I don’t know much of Kenyon’s work, but I love this poem, with its simple imagery and the quiet comfort of the last lines.

April is National Poetry Month, and I have been sharing poetry here on Fridays this month. I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

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daffodils blue pitcher plums

Every once in a while, I find it helpful to make a list of what is saving my life – from the small daily things to the big, soul-affirming stuff. As we make our way through April, here’s what’s saving my life these days:

  • Daily chitchat with the folks at Darwin’s, who provide spicy chai, delicious lunches and cookies, and excellent conversation about everything from pickles to music to childhood memories.
  • Tulips from my local florist, perched on the corner of my dining-room table. (Also, daffodils on my friend Amy’s table, above.)
  • Poetry from Veronica Patterson and Naomi Shihab Nye.
  • Running into people I know in Harvard Square and realizing all over again: this is my neighborhood.
  • The Sunday #FlowerReport on Twitter, hosted by my friend Alyssa. (Photos of gorgeous spring flowers from all over the place.)

early tulips public garden boston spring

  • Sarcastic asides from my co-workers. (Sometimes a little snark can save the day.)
  • Weekly phone calls with my mom, and reports on my three-year-old nephew’s T-ball games.
  • Frosted lemon cookies, flaky Scottish scones and whatever else I feel like baking.
  • Good books. (Recent favorites include Stir, The Enchanted April and Under a Painted Sky.)
  • Budding trees and blooming flowers – many of which I photograph for the #FlowerReport.

tulip magnolia buds blooms

  • The views from my sixth-floor office in Harvard Square.
  • Striped dresses and black leggings with my favorite green coat. Rinse and repeat. (See also: not overthinking it.)
  • A couple of blue-sky, open-window days.
  • Eating my lunch outside, when I can, preferably on the south porch of Mem Church.
  • Several much-needed catch-up sessions with friends: book club, lunch dates, cups of tea.
  • The dim glow of the over-the-stove light in my kitchen, which makes it look so cozy late at night.
  • Holding hands with my husband before we fall asleep.
  • Texts from my sister and a couple of dear friends.

What’s saving your life these days? I’d really like to know.

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freesia flower yellow candle table

Daily

These shriveled seeds we plant,
corn kernel, dried bean,
poke into loosened soil,
cover over with measured fingertips

These T-shirts we fold into
perfect white squares

These tortillas we slice and fry to crisp strips
This rich egg scrambled in a gray clay bowl

This bed whose covers I straighten
smoothing edges till blue quilt fits brown blanket
and nothing hangs out

This envelope I address
so the name balances like a cloud
in the center of sky

This page I type and retype
This table I dust till the scarred wood shines
This bundle of clothes I wash and hang and wash again
like flags we share, a country so close
no one needs to name it

The days are nouns: touch them
The hands are churches that worship the world

I am more and more convinced that the small, everyday things hold so much of the sacred. This poem expresses that perfectly. (I have been enjoying Shihab Nye’s collection Words Under the Words.)

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry here on Fridays this month.

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dish rack kitchen

To Be of Use

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

I found this poem via the good folks at Image Journal, who are always providing thoughtful perspective and encouragement related to doing good work.

As a person who does a lot of my work digitally (and/or in my head), I spend a lot of time thinking about “real” work and what that means. I am grateful for the physical tasks of life that must be done, that require labor and muscle and provide tangible satisfaction. I love Piercy’s images of mud and harvest, of people plunging into work – of various kinds – that is good and real and true.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry here on Fridays this month.

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