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Posts Tagged ‘questions’

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“I was going to ask if you believe praying can really help at a time like this.”

Clare folded her hands together and pressed them to her lips. She paused. […]

“I believe that God hears our prayers, and cherishes them. I believe He answers by sending His spirit, giving us strength, and peace, and insight. I don’t think He responds by turning away bullets and curing cancer. Though sometimes that does happen.”

Harlene frowned. “In other words, sometimes, the answer is no?”

“No. Sometimes the answer is ‘This is life, in all its variety. Make your way through it with grace, and never forget that I love you.’ ”

—Julia Spencer-Fleming, In the Bleak Midwinter

I don’t usually expect to find theology in mystery novels. Though perhaps I should have seen it coming in this book, the first in a series featuring Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson (flawed but faithful, like all the best human beings I know). I enjoyed the book – a solid mystery set in upstate New York, in which new-to-town Clare solves a murder case alongside longtime chief of police Russ Van Alstyne. But I found this exchange, between Clare and police dispatcher Harlene, particularly moving and deeply human.

I don’t pretend to know what prayer does, or exactly how it works. The older I get, the less sure I am of what God is up to in this world, or how the presence of the divine intersects with our lives. But Clare’s final statement to Harlene rings true to me: when we are faced with life in all its variety, all we can do is try to make our way through it with grace. In spite of the darkness, I still believe this too: we are not alone, but deeply, wholly loved.

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roxanne hks class

On a grey morning last week, I walked into a crowded classroom at the Kennedy School, caffeine firmly in hand, and slipped into a seat in the back. My day job sometimes allows me to write about the work of our students and faculty, and I’d already sat in this fall on Dara Kay Cohen’s fascinating class about sex, gender, violence, war and global politics.

My presence there last week didn’t have much to do (explicitly) with the piece I’m writing for the HKS website, though. I was there to listen to Roxanne speak, and afterward, to give her a big hug.

Roxanne and I found each other years ago, when our Internet orbits overlapped somehow. It was so long ago that I don’t remember which of us discovered whom first. We met in person for coffee when I had just moved to Boston and she was trying to decide whether to come back for graduate school (she eventually did). While our paths have continued to cross online, we hadn’t seen each other face to face in several years.

I knew a little about Roxanne’s work: research on the intricacies of victimhood, gender, violence and suffering in conflict and post-conflict areas. But this was the first time I’d ever heard her give a formal presentation. Sitting in the back of the classroom, I listened to her talk about gender and post-conflict life for ex-combatants and victims in Colombia. Like many good researchers and storytellers, she asked more questions than she answered, and I wrote down as many as I could:

Who is a combatant? Who is a victim? Is it possible to be both, and who gets to decide? How can ex-combatants, particularly women, rebuild their lives in a society that sees them as transgressive and permanently tainted? How can they grieve the complicated losses that come with leaving an armed group? Are there really flyers advertising lipstick colors for former guerrilleras? (The answer to that last one is, astonishingly, yes.)

More broadly, what happens when we leave people out of the narratives we build – or, conversely, what happens when we make room for all kinds of experiences?

Roxanne reminded me, as I scribbled down her questions in my notebook, that this is part of our work as storytellers and human beings: listening to others’ stories, making room for all kinds of narrative experience. We live in a world that rings with shouting matches, and the counterintuitive but vitally important work is often to stop yelling and listen. We all want to be heard, to be seen, to have our experience witnessed by other people. And we all carry the same responsibility: to make room. To listen. To pay attention.

After class, Roxanne had a lunch date and I had a stack of emails to answer. But we snatched a few minutes to catch up and chat – about everything from work to shoes to relationships – and hug each other tight. I felt seen in those brief moments: known, listened to, beloved. Also a wee bit smarter for having heard her brilliant presentation. And so proud of my whip-smart, wise, compassionate friend.

The whole experience made me deeply grateful for serendipity, and for the ways in which my worlds sometimes overlap – especially the ways I could never predict or expect. I’ll be carrying Roxanne’s questions forward with me this month. (And hoping for a tea date the next time she’s in town.)

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plot thickens boston public library steps

We recently took some visiting friends on a tour of the renovated Boston Public Library, and found this wonderful staircase. I love a good literary pun – and I adore the BPL. Here’s my latest reading roundup:

Wait, What? And Life’s Other Essential Questions, James E. Ryan
Jim is the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where I used to work. This book is based on his 2016 Commencement speech, which went viral, and it’s good stuff. He explores five essential questions (plus a “bonus question”) to ask in tough situations. Lots of wisdom and humor (and I could hear his voice in my ear, telling these stories). A short, worthwhile read.

Shuffle, Repeat, Jen Klein
June Rafferty can’t wait for high school to be over. Oliver Flagg is soaking up every minute. When these two seniors end up riding to school together every day (thanks to their moms), they start a competition: whoever can prove that high school does or doesn’t matter gets to add a song to their car playlist. Despite their wildly divergent musical tastes (and other differences), they become friends – and possibly more. I loved this sweet, funny YA novel (and June’s hilarious BFF, Shaun). Recommended by Anne.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?, Jodi Taylor
Madeleine Maxwell is back for a sixth adventure: this time as the training officer for five historians-to-be at St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research. With the help of her stalwart crew (and so much tea), Max takes the trainees on some truly wild time-travel adventures and faces some agonizing decisions. (The answer to the titular question is “nearly everything.”) Witty, fast-paced, unexpectedly moving and so much fun, like this entire series. Can’t wait for book 7.

The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days, Michele Weber Hurwitz
Nina Ross is feeling a bit lost as summer begins: anxious about starting high school, worried that her best friend is changing too fast, missing her beloved grandma (who died last year). On an impulse, Nina decides to do one good thing every day over the summer, and the results – for herself and her neighborhood – are surprising. Sweet and hopeful without being saccharine; a lovely middle-grade novel.

The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues, Edward Kelsey Moore
When wandering blues man El Walker returns to his hometown of Plainview, Indiana, he shakes things up: for his estranged son, James; James’ wife, Odette, who can talk to ghosts; and Odette’s best friend Barbara Jean, whose damaged mother, Loretta, knew El when they were young. Meanwhile, Odette, Barbara Jean and their other best friend, Clarice, are dealing with other major struggles. A heartfelt, heartwarming novel of friendship and music and learning to forgive (even when you don’t want to). To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 20).

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

What are you reading?

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bargain poetry bookbook nyc

What Do Poems Do?

I was, no kidding, a visiting writer in a kindergarten recently,
And the children asked me many wry and hilarious questions,
Among them is that your real nose? and can you write a book
About a ruffed grouse, please? But the one that pops back into
My mind this morning was what do poems do? Answers: swirl
Leaves along sidewalks suddenly when there is no wind. Open
Recalcitrant jars of honey. Be huckleberries in earliest January,
When berries are only a shivering idea on a bush. Be your dad
For a moment again, tall and amused and smelling like Sunday.
Be the awful wheeze of a kid with the flu. Remind you of what
You didn’t ever forget but only mislaid or misfiled. Be badgers,
Meteor showers, falcons, prayers, sneers, mayors, confessionals.
They are built to slide into you sideways. You have poetry slots
Where your gills used to be, when you lived inside your mother.
If you hold a poem right you can go back there. Find the handle.
Take a skitter of words and speak gently to them, and you’ll see.

I picked up How the Light Gets In, a slim collection of Doyle’s rambling, luminous “proems,” at the Strand in February (though I snapped the photo above at bookbook). They are full of vivid images, wry humor, startling moments of joy.

This one – plus “The Under of Things,” and “Wrenness,” and “Poem for a New Baby Girl,” and “Silentium,” and half a dozen others – stopped me in my tracks. They did what the best poems do, which is make me pay attention. If you enjoyed this one, I’d recommend the whole collection.

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

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becoming wise book sunflowers tea

“I’m a person who listens for a living. I listen for wisdom, and beauty, and for voices not shouting to be heard.”

These are the opening sentences of Krista Tippett’s luminous memoir, Becoming Wise, which distills the best of what she has heard, and learned, in nearly 15 years of hosting the radio show On Being.

Each week, Tippett interviews a guest about his or her work in a stunning range of fields: from poetry to physics, counseling to yoga to social activism. She has listened to doctors and actors, priests and lawyers, people who are household names and those who work in quiet, unheralded spaces. Becoming Wise introduces us to some of those voices, and lets us listen in as they talk with Tippett about the big questions of what it means to be human.

If you’re a regular reader, chances are you’ve heard me rave about Becoming Wise in recent months. I’m over at Great New Books today, talking about it more fully. Please join me over there to read the rest of my (glowing) review.

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For a lifelong reader, I came late to the work of Madeleine L’Engle.

madeleine l'engle books shelf collection

I didn’t have a taste for fantasy as a child, so I never read A Wrinkle in Time or any of its sequels. For years, I didn’t know that Madeleine had written other books, that in fact her oeuvre ranged from adult fiction to memoir to poetry. But when my friend Teresa sold off a few of her books at the end of one semester in college, I picked up an old paperback copy of Walking on Water, Madeleine’s book of reflections on faith and art. And for nearly two years after that, I could be found with one of her books – The Small Rain, A Circle of Quiet, the entire Time Quintet – in my hand.

I love all Madeleine’s work in different ways, but A Circle of Quiet gave me a phrase that continues to resonate, striking a deep gong in my soul.

She recounts:

A winter ago I had an after-school seminar for high-school students and in one of the early sessions Una, a brilliant fifteen-year-old, a born writer who came to Harlem from Panama five years ago, and only then discovered the conflict between races, asked me, “Mrs. Franklin, do you really and truly believe in God with no doubts at all?”

“Oh, Una, I really and truly believe in God with all kinds of doubts.”

But I base my life on this belief.

That quiet anecdote, slipped in between Madeleine’s musings on ontology (the why of being) and a digression on the punctuation of A Wrinkle in Time, has changed the way I view faith, and the way I view life.

I’m at Micha Boyett’s blog today, participating in her One Good Phrase series. Click over there to read about how Madeleine’s phrase continues to resonate for me.

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We were lucky

boston public garden tree lake autumn fall

The Public Garden, still intact after the storm

I keep hearing the same phrase, in conversations on the street, on Facebook, in text message exchanges with friends. I used it myself, to reassure my parents and my sister, my aunts and my grandmother, about the minimal fallout we experienced last week from Hurricane Sandy. We never lost power, I explained over and over. We lost some leaves, but no tree branches. J even worked a half day on Monday. They reopened the subway on Tuesday morning. We were lucky.

I know, as most of you do, people who were not so lucky. One friend went to work west of Boston on Tuesday, but was stuck at the office until nearly 8 p.m. because of flooded roads. Co-workers lost power, as did friends both nearby and in Maryland. And my friends in New York have had their lives totally disrupted, though some neighborhoods are already recovering.

When I was a child, my family’s relationship with the word “luck” was uneasy, ambivalent. We called my sister “lucky” when she won repeatedly at Yahtzee, when she turned up just the right card in a poker match, when she beat all of us at Monopoly (again). We used it to refer to sporting events, weather conditions, narrow escapes of various kinds. But when it came to bigger things, to health issues and job worries and college acceptances, we used the word “fortunate” instead, or named it a “blessing.” I know plenty of people who would have said God spared us this week, instead of praising our luck.

But I can’t think of it quite that way in this case. If we were spared, then God must have seen fit not to spare other people whose homes and lives were devastated. If we were blessed, did he choose not to bless others, or to visit a curse on them in the form of this storm? (Hurricanes and other disasters, oddly, are still called “acts of God,” even by secular insurance companies.)

But the God I believe in, the God whose essence is love, is not so capricious, so arbitrary. He did not pick out certain houses to lose their power while others kept it. He is not laughing at the destruction of Breezy Point or the frustrations of lower Manhattan. He is hurting with all the victims and survivors. He may seem far away, but he is there.

I have been frazzled this week, my mind taken up with the usual worries: what to make for dinner, the state of my kitchen floor, which book to read next. But I am still lucky. I get to worry about domestic details and work obligations, instead of how to recover my possessions or where I’m going to live. I get to worry about church events and how much I miss my family in Texas, instead of staring down injury or death. I get to continue my normal routine, while thousands of people just a few hours away are dealing with huge, life-altering problems.

Despite my belief that God noticed, and cared about, all the destruction we’ve seen this week (and all the pain we never see), I don’t quite know how he is involved here. I can’t explain why I escaped disaster when so many did not. I know it was not because of my strength or intelligence or wisdom; such decisions are beyond my power.

Maybe one day I will understand more about how this works, how God is tied up with the winds and waves, what factors influence the number of griefs and disasters in a person’s life. I doubt I’ll ever understand fully; this tapestry is too large for me to see the whole pattern.

For now, I will send money to those who need it, and I will breathe a prayer of thanks and relief. And almost in the same breath, I’ll continue to admit:

We were lucky.

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