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Posts Tagged ‘stories’

As the job hunt drags on (and despite several interviews lately, it seems endless), I keep turning this question over in my mind.

I am a firm believer in Joan Didion’s famous assertion that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” – often without even realizing it. Over the last year, I have found myself telling a lot of stories about unemployment and the job hunt, to myself and other people. They range widely, from the socially acceptable (I’m grateful for unemployment benefits) to the plucky and determined (I’m sure I’ll find something soon) to the truly painful (there must be something wrong with me). I have tried and tried to make sense of not only my most recent layoff – which, frankly, is a little easier because the pandemic upended everything – but also of my struggle to find a stable, low-drama, creatively fulfilling communications job where I can stay for a while.

Here are a couple of facts: I have done communications work for almost 15 years. I have worked at four different universities, and never stayed in any one job for more than a couple of years (sometimes by choice, sometimes not). There are lots of stories to be told about this, too: massive shifts in the higher education industry; a couple of better opportunities that came along; a few toxic work situations I needed to get out of; a couple of temp gigs that always had an end date. And, of course, a couple of endings (including the latest one) that I did not choose.

I know so many people – in my industry and out of it – who have held the same jobs or done the same kind of work for many years. I keep thinking there must be something I’m missing, that I can’t seem to find a similar situation. I have always chased (and been taught to value) stability, and I have always believed (perhaps wrongly, it turns out) that hard work and dedication would get me there.

Earlier in my career, I worried less about moving around a lot, and expected to find a more stable situation eventually. But my mid-career years have coincided with several departmental reorgs, leadership changes at my workplaces, my divorce, and a global health crisis. That is a lot of upheaval, and sometimes I think it’s no wonder I have bounced around like a tennis ball for several years now. Other days I think the story must have something to do with me: some fundamental lack that makes me dispensable.

I don’t know, of course, how this latest chapter in my career saga is going to turn out. I have done a lot of wrestling and crying, writing and running, venting to friends (and here on the blog) along with a lot of combing job boards and writing cover letters and interviewing. I don’t know if the chapter will end with me finding a similar gig to the ones I’ve had in the past, or something similar in a different industry, or something out of left field that I never could have expected.

More broadly, I don’t know what kind of story this is: is it the kind where the heroine slogs along for a while and her hard work is rewarded? Or the kind where something or someone swoops in sideways to introduce an entirely new storyline? Or a different kind I haven’t thought of yet?

Humans are meaning-makers, as one of my college professors (a jovial redheaded man with a passion for medieval literature and an equal passion for mobile technology) used to remind us. I think readers, writers and storytellers – and I am all three – are especially inclined that way. So it’s no wonder I am spending so much time trying to wrest some meaning out of this story. But it’s not over yet – we haven’t even reached the next stopping place, or the next chapter climax. And of course, there’s often no way to tell you’ve reached the turning point until much later.

For now, I will keep doing the things: networking, interviewing, cover-letter-writing, requesting the unemployment benefits I still need. I will keep living the story, because that’s the other thing: you only get to know what kind of a story it is if you stick with it.

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magnolia-eastie

Hello, friends. It’s April – though, to be honest, the days are all starting to run together a bit.

Like many of you, I’m still adjusting to the new not-quite-normal, sometimes multiple times a day. I woke up so sad this morning that I couldn’t just walk into the office and see my coworkers, or go hang out at Darwin’s, or buy armfuls of flowers from my florist in Brattle Square. (Though you can bet I will do all those and more when this is over.)

Stuck at home, there are lots of things I can’t do: go to the library, take a yoga class at my local studio, sit in my friend Chrissy’s living room and work on a puzzle together. But I am a storyteller, and I can still tell stories. So, every day this month, that’s what I’m going to do.

I need your help: please tell me, in the comments, what kind of stories you’d like to hear. And even leaving a comment at all helps: it lets me know that you’re out there, listening and reading.

Here’s today’s story:

magnolia-april

I started watching this magnolia tree last spring, when I was spending several weeks at a time in East Boston, walking Phoenix the doodle around the neighborhood in the mornings before work. I would wake up to filtered morning light and his furry face at the foot of my bed (sometimes closer if he had already decided it was time to get up). After a shower and my morning ablutions, I’d grab a banana and clip on his red leash, and we’d head out the door. (On the weekends, I grew really comfortable walking him in my pajamas.)

At the time, I’d lived in Boston for almost nine years, but had never spent much time in Eastie, this neighborhood tucked between the airport and the harbor, suspended between water and sky. I’d met Phoenix and his owner through a longtime friend of mine, and those first weekends at her house turned into two long stretches that spring while Carolyn was traveling and needed a dog-sitter. If I’m honest, I needed those weeks in Eastie as much as Phoenix needed those walks: I was sifting, agonizing, thinking and worrying, trying to decide whether to stay in my marriage or whether – though it seemed barely possible – I could walk away and start again.

The magnolia tree stands near the end of our morning walks, in the yard of a house that sits catty-corner from where I live now. I did not know, then, as I glanced up at it on our way to the park and back home, that I would be watching it bloom this spring, waiting for the fuzzy buds to open up and unfurl their white and lipstick-pink petals. I didn’t know I would pass it every time I went for a run, pausing to snap photos of its budding branches and the purple crocuses that share its yard. I did not know, yet, that Eastie would become my new home.

I’ve been watching the magnolia and its neighbors for nearly a year: the forsythia bush down the street, the budding maples with their red flowers, the unexpected patch of tulips in the shipyard, are all dear and familiar now. I’ve only officially lived in Eastie since the end of July, but it feels more like a year, and this spring feels like an anniversary. And I am grateful.

I’ll be back tomorrow, friends. Hope you’re staying well and safe.

 

 

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bargain poetry bookbook nyc

I love a well-crafted poetry collection as much as the next reader. But most often, I’m hankering for a story when I read. True or fictional, I want a compelling narrative, well told. Fortunately, many poets have turned their wordsmithing skills to prose, and their novels and memoirs are some of my favorites.

Marisa de los Santos began her career with the poetry collection From the Bones Out, but has found major success with her fiction, including Love Walked InBelong to Me; and I’ll Be Your Blue Sky. Her prose is simple, warmhearted and truly lovely, as are many of her characters. (I reread those three novels again this spring, when I was heartbroken and badly in need of comfort and hope.)

Former U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith has published four books of poetry, including the 2019 collection Wade in the Water. Her memoir, Ordinary Light, which my friend Colleen gave me a while back, chronicles Smith’s childhood in California, her deep and loving (and sometimes fraught) relationship with her mother, and her journey toward poet as vocation. Her prose is as luminous and (sometimes) as sharp-edged as her poems.

Brian Doyle, the late editor of Portland magazine, wrote anything and everything: poems, prose poems, rambling essays, rollicking or thoughtful novels like Chicago and Mink River, both of which I adored. I’ll read any and all of his work, though my absolute favorite is his essay on how he became a writer. (Also: I reviewed an essay collection he edited a few years ago, and he wrote me a brief, lovely email of thanks, which I still have.)

Poet Ross Gay (Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude) spent his 43rd year capturing ordinary joyful moments almost every day, and spinning them into “essayettes” that became his collection The Book of Delights. Like the subject matter, the result is delightful–both the mosaic of quotidian, unexpected pleasures, and Gay’s commentary on them.

For readers who appreciate a well-turned phrase and an engaging story arc, poets who write prose offer the best of both literary worlds.

I originally wrote most of this column for Shelf Awareness, where it appeared last week. 

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what I know about Kelly

 

flowers lilies windowsill church tulips brookline easter

My friend Kelly passed away last week.

I hadn’t seen her for some months, since her health began to fail (she had battled cancer for two decades, but the last stretch has been particularly rough). She and her family are a part of the church here in Boston where, for eight years, I spent nearly every Sunday. I always loved catching up with them at common meal, or in the back of the sanctuary after service. Since my time at that church ended, abruptly and painfully, last fall, I had mostly heard updates about her health through the grapevine.

By some measures, I didn’t know Kelly very well. I know she came to Boston from Oklahoma, many years ago, and chose to make a life here with her husband, Joe. I know she fought hard to beat back the cancer long enough to watch her two daughters grow up. I know she makes a delicious cranberry relish, which she would sometimes bring to Turkeypalooza, and sometimes Amy would bring it, made from Kelly’s recipe. I know she listened well, and was honest about her pain while never letting it dominate a conversation. A few years ago, she and Joe hosted the church Christmas party, and we ate and laughed, and sang carols in their living room. I know she enjoyed having everyone there.

Most of all, this is what I know about Kelly: she is a person who loved, and was loved.

I ran into Kelly on the library steps a few months back, when she was on her way to meet friends for afternoon tea and I was heading to the farmers’ market. We hugged, caught up a bit, and there was sorrow and kindness in her gentle eyes. We miss you, she said. I know, I said. I miss you too. We chatted about her girls, and my then-new job at Berklee, and we parted with another hug. I can’t remember if we said I love you, but I know we both felt it that day.

Last year, on Easter Sunday, J and I stood in front of the congregation and sang an old hymn I have known all my life: There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Emmanuel’s veins. J played the guitar and we took turns singing, and I looked at Kelly sitting in one of the front pews, quietly singing along with us. It was her lips moving to those familiar words, and the joy on her face, that prompted me to invite everyone to join us on the last verse: Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die. 

Kelly lived by redeeming love, walking a hard road with faith and compassion for many years. She embodied the names she gave to her daughters: grace and hope. And she is – I hope with all my heart – at peace and at rest from her pain.

Rest well, good and faithful friend. I believe you are healed. We will miss you here, but I look forward to hugging you and singing with you again one day.

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neponset reflection dorchester water sky

I am a person who loves to hear the same stories over and over again.

Since I was a little girl, I’ve loved hearing my dad’s stories: anecdotes about family members or friends, or stories from when he was growing up in rural Missouri. We read – as many parents and children do – the same picture books over and over, before bed at night. (I still have a special place in my heart for a Little Golden Book called Home for A Bunny.)

I am my father’s daughter in this as well as other ways: I tell the same stories over and over again. My long-suffering husband and many of my friends have heard my stories more than once. And I am – as you know if you’ve heard me talk about my favorite books – an inveterate reader and re-reader.

I do this with music, too: I listened to Hamilton for six months straight once I discovered it and fell in love. I know nearly every word to a couple of Wailin’ Jennys albums (and so many George Strait songs from my childhood), among others. And lately, I’ve been listening to Headed Home, a 2015 release by The Light Parade, on repeat.

The Light Parade is Alex and Kara, two friends of mine from college who began making music back then (as Thus Far). I recently rediscovered their music, and it’s been keeping me company on long runs and train rides. I love many of the songs, but the first track – You Are Loved – is one of my favorites. I’ve been listening to it so often that its first line – you are loved with a fierceness you cannot understand – is playing on repeat in my head.

Yesterday I stood behind the communion table at our tiny church, looking out onto pews full of people I love and a few new faces I barely know. I told them about Alex and Kara’s song, and I said to them: we come together, every week, to hear the same stories and sing some of the same songs. And the message carried by many of those is the same: you are loved. With a fierceness you cannot understand. 

We come to church every week as ourselves: hurting, joyful, brave, broken, despairing, confident. We brim over with stories and wounds, and what we hear at church will – I hope – open up the way for healing and wholeness. If there’s one message, I said, that we should take away from here, one story I want to tell and to hear over and over again, it is this: you are loved. We are deeply and wholly loved.

May you know that today, wherever you are.

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becoming wise book sunflowers tea

After I read Krista Tippett’s memoir Becoming Wise last spring, I did something I’d intended to do for a long time: subscribed to her weekly On Being podcast, which is the foundation for her book. I quickly realized a few things: one, the podcast is fascinating and lovely (as I expected). And two, I could never hope to stay “caught up.”

I wasn’t trying to listen to the whole On Being archive – that would take years. But even the current episodes, each nearly an hour long, ask for more time than I sometimes have (at least in one long spell). They also, critically, ask for my attention: these are not conversations during which you can zone out. Krista and her conversation partners – who are poets, physicists, activists, musicians and above all, deeply thoughtful people – are fully engaged in their talks about the big questions of being human. As a listener, I don’t want to miss anything.

My solution? I have been listening slowly.

I’ll turn on an episode of On Being while I cook dinner, some nights: peeling carrots, chopping peppers, stirring a pot of soup on the stove. I’ll listen to a chunk or two – 15 minutes here, 20 minutes there – while I’m running errands in the car, baking a batch of scones, or folding laundry. My head has to be in the right place: open, curious, sometimes a little melancholy. (The episodes, while they wrestle with real and sometimes insoluble issues, always leave me feeling heartened about the state of the world – and usually jotting down the title of a book written or recommended by that week’s guest.)

Generally, I hit the pause button at least once during an episode: when dinner is ready, or it’s time to go pick up my husband from work, or I arrive at yoga class or the library. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to an entire episode at once. But I’m coming to prefer it that way. These conversations contain so much that’s worth mulling over. They are slow, wise, witty, sometimes meandering. And they reward slow listening.

Some of my favorite episodes so far have featured Mary Karr, Michael Longley, Maria Popova and Naomi Shihab Nye. But there’s a wealth of honest, thought-provoking, warmhearted conversation to be found in the On Being archive. If you’re looking for an antidote to the rapid-fire headlines, I’d recommend listening – slowly.

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rick castle kate beckett

Recently, the hubs and I watched the series finale of Castle, which has dominated our Monday nights for several years now. The show has suffered over the last couple of seasons, amid writer/producer turnover and a few casting changes. But we love Rick Castle and Kate Beckett and their ensemble cast, and we wanted to watch the end of their story.

In case you’re not familiar with it: Castle features Rick Castle, bestselling mystery writer, and Kate Beckett, NYPD homicide detective, who are thrown together when Castle begins shadowing Beckett as inspiration for his novels. Nathan Fillion plays Castle to cheeky, charming, boyish perfection, and Stana Katic is Kate Beckett: sharp, intense, brilliant, good with a gun. The supporting cast is equally beloved at our house, especially Beckett’s fellow detectives Kevin Ryan (Seamus Dever) and Javier Esposito (Jon Huertas).

We fell in love with Castle after our friend Nate practically shoved the DVD of Season 1 into my hands, telling me, “You’ll love it. He’s a writer!” And it’s true: one of Castle’s unique pleasures is its focus on, and delight in, good stories.

Especially in the early seasons, Castle is often able to help solve a homicide by thinking of it as one of his mystery plots. At least a dozen episodes include the line “If I were writing this story…” and feature Castle pacing around the 12th precinct or his apartment, trying to fit the clues into a narrative arc. Beckett – ever the practical cop – sometimes gets impatient with this line of thinking, but Castle’s narrative framework often leads them to a solution. Sometimes it provides the episode’s final twist, when the case seems to be neatly wrapped up, but the story is missing something.

As the show continued, its narrative arc expanded beyond each episode’s murder and solution: Beckett recommenced her longtime quest to track down her mother’s killer, and Castle wrestled with a few of his own demons, writing-related and otherwise. The show has traced his relationships with his whip-smart daughter Alexis, his ebullient actress mother Martha, and Beckett herself: what was at first a grudging partnership (on her end) became a dramatic love story. Meanwhile, the wisecracks from Ryan and Esposito made me laugh every week, and their quiet, steadfast loyalty to Beckett and each other has often made me cry.

After sticking with these characters through some serious highs and lows (and a mind-boggling number of homicides), I was hoping for a satisfying finale. We did get some resolution of a few major plot threads, but the ending was…not great. As the final credits rolled, the hubs and I looked at each other and said (almost in unison), “If I were writing this story…”

Maybe we didn’t get (exactly) the ending we wanted. I know that Hollywood studio politics, and the last-minute decisions of producers, had a great deal to do with that. It didn’t feel smooth or coherent or clean, and I’m also sad that I won’t be spending Monday nights with these characters any more. We’ll still quote episodes and watch reruns occasionally (and Esposito’s trademark “Yo!” is now a staple at our house). But it won’t be the same.

I love shows that make me laugh and make me think, and Castle has done both, in spades. I’m going to miss the folks at the 12th precinct. But I’m grateful for the hours of enjoyment, and the insights into what makes a good (heart-pounding, witty, compelling, highly entertaining) story.

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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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jer christmas tree star

Every year, I highlight a few of the ornaments on my Christmas tree and their stories. (That’s the hubs, putting the star on our tree last weekend.)

This season is all about traditions and stories, and the tree in my living room holds many stories, old and new.

charlie brown heart ornament christmas

When I was about six years old, my family spent Christmas in an apartment in the Dallas area while our new house was being finished. Most of our things – including our Christmas decorations – were in storage. So we bought a tiny Christmas tree and made ornaments out of glitter, wax paper and glue to hang on its branches. Dad and I lovingly refer to them as our “Charlie Brown” Christmas ornaments.

More than 25 (!) years later, a few hearts, stars and bells have survived, and I finally remembered to ask Mom to set aside a couple for me to bring back to Boston last year. I am so pleased to have them on my tree now.

beefeater soldier christmas ornament

My aunt Charlene (my mother’s childhood best friend) has sent us many ornaments over the years. This cheerful Beefeater guard arrived long before I ever visited London, but I love him especially because I’ve spent so much time in the UK now. (He’s definitely more whimsical than his real-life counterparts.)

egg christmas ornament

Deep in the heart of Salzburg, Austria, is a shop filled with hundreds (thousands?) of hand-painted eggs, carefully stacked in crates and tied onto trees with ribbon. It’s a dazzling sight. I’ve been there twice, but I managed to lose the egg I brought back for myself, years ago. My sweet friend Laura knew this, and she brought one back for me when she visited Salzburg with her family last year.

snowflake crochet christmas ornament

I think my mom ordered these starched crochet snowflakes from a catalog many years ago. There are still a few on her tree, and now there are a few on mine.

pickle christmas ornament

The hubs and I found this goofy pickle ornament on a weekend trip to Boerne, Texas, right after we got married. Apparently, the person who can find the pickle on the tree gets a prize. It makes me laugh every year.

Do your Christmas ornaments have stories? (I’ll never have a sleek, color-coordinated tree – I love my mismatched collection of ornaments too much.)

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stories matter nanowrimo sticker

A story is like a giant jigsaw puzzle, a jigsaw puzzle that would cover the whole floor of a room with its tiny pieces. But it’s not the sort of puzzle that comes with a box. There is no lid with a picture on it so that you can see what the puzzle will look like when it’s finished. And you have only some of the pieces.

All you can do is keep looking and listening, sniffing about in all sorts of places, until you find the next piece. And then you’ll be amazed where that next piece will take you.”

Finding Serendipity, Angelica Banks

I read Finding Serendipity in mid-November, and this quote struck me as perfect for NaNoWriMo.

Most people (including me) start NaNo with a shiny but elusive idea, and we spend the month chasing those ideas – or, as Banks would have it, sniffing about for the next puzzle piece. Some folks work from detailed outlines, but I tend to make a few notes and then plunge in.

My first two weeks of NaNo were, shall we say, prolific. I was a little hopped up on both caffeine and words by the end of Week 1:

 

I wrote so much, in fact, that my wrists and hands (not to mention my tired brain) began to protest:

 

I slowed my pace a little during the second half of November, but I still made an effort to crank out a thousand words or so every day. My story is full of plot holes (and too much dialogue), but I’m proud to say I hit 50,000 words over Thanksgiving weekend, which makes me a NaNoWriMo winner.

nanowrimo 2015 winner banner

My novel, Pies and Plies, isn’t nearly done, and I’m not sure it will ever see the light of day. But that isn’t the point. It’s flawed in a hundred places, but I still love the premise – which came to me in a dream this summer – of a family running a ballet studio-cum-pizza parlor (hence the title).

Every time I attempt NaNo, I take on a new creative challenge. This time, I enjoyed the process of drafting a young adult novel. (I read a ton of YA novels, but I’d never attempted to write one.) This story is set in the suburbs of Boston (instead of Oxford, where my previous two NaNoNovels take place). And while all my narrators end up sharing some of my thoughts and preoccupations, this narrator, Elise, is not a carbon copy of me. That was also a creative stretch, and a satisfying one.

I don’t think I’m a fiction writer at heart. I tend to write about what I know, or more specifically, what I think about what I know, and what happens to me. But I love stories and I believe that they matter, and I love joining in this annual, gleeful, worldwide burst of creativity. And it’s so satisfying to say it: I won!

Onward to December – wherein I will still be writing, but giving my wrists (and brain) a bit of a break. Whew!

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