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Posts Tagged ‘surprises’

celebrating Pop

live love Texas sign

My grandfather turned 85 last month. If you asked him about it, he’d likely shrug it off as no big deal – but the rest of us disagree. So we’d been secretly planning a surprise party, spearheaded by my Aunt Cat, for months. (The hardest part was letting my grandmother, whom we all call Neno, in on the secret. She said it was stressful to keep it quiet!)

I flew down to San Antonio (my grandparents live about an hour away), and various family members came in from across Texas and Arizona. I hadn’t seen many of these folks in years, nor been to my grandparents’ spacious house, with its saltillo-tiled floors and stuccoed walls hung with Pop’s original paintings. (He worked in tool design for many years, and is a talented artist and woodworker.) They built this house themselves when they retired to Texas, twenty years ago, and stepping inside felt like coming home.

My parents and I surprised Pop at lunchtime on Friday (thereby pre-empting the surprise party, but Aunt Cat swore it was okay). I was grateful for that extra time around their kitchen table, just the five of us. Neno pulled out a box of beautiful handmade baby clothes (some hers, some Pop’s, some that her kids – my mom and her siblings – had worn). We exclaimed over the embroidery and tiny, meticulous stitches.

neno baby clothes

Later, we ate burgers and watched the birds out the back windows, trading stories and laughing. My sister and her family arrived that night, and it was a gift to hug her and play Uno with my nephews, and trade running tips with my brother-in-law (he’s training for a half marathon).

ryder harrison uno

The party on Saturday was total happy chaos – all of us weaving around one another in the kitchen, making corn casserole and pouring drinks and finding space for the pork ribs, chopped brisket and three huge cheese/fruit/veggie platters. There were two layer cakes, and tiny cups of Blue Bell ice cream, and lots of hugging, and even a surprise guest…

Pop is a huge John Wayne fan (so is Neno), and my aunt and uncle had schemed to have him show up for the party. None of the rest of us knew that was coming, and we were all highly entertained.

I may live in New England now, but I am a Texas girl to my core, and I needed that brief, nourishing time with four generations of my family. I was so happy to chat with my aunts and catch up with my cousins and especially to hug my sweet Neno.

Until next time, Texas. It was good to be back.

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newport-folk-banner

Last month, on the same weekend I moved, I spent two days at the Newport Folk Festival in Newport, Rhode Island.

Why, you ask? The answer I’ve been giving: because I am a crazy person. And I might be, honestly. But more than that: I love folk music, and I’d scored a press pass through my day job at Berklee. Several of our students were playing the festival on Friday and Sunday, so I volunteered to go down and write about them.

It was exhausting and crazy and so hot (I got a wicked sunburn on Friday). But was it worth it? Absolutely.

I drove down on Friday with some friends. At the top of my list that day was the all-female trio I’m With Her – both because our students were playing with them and because Sara Watkins is amazing. (I’m a Nickel Creek fan from way back.) My friend Jackie and I snagged seats up close to listen to them, and they were fantastic.

im-with-her-newport

I’m With Her also includes Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan. They were smart and funny and energetic – I loved everything from their cover of Dolly Parton’s “Marry Me” to their original tunes like “Call My Name” and “Ain’t That Fine.”

Their second-to-last song, “Overland,” featured our students, and Watkins asked the audience to sing along on the chorus. “This is for anyone who’s facing some uncertainty in their lives,” she said, before singing us the lines we would join in on:

Goodbye brother, hello railroad
So long, Chicago
All these years, thought I was where I ought to be
But times are changin’ – this country’s growin’
And I’m bound for San Francisco
Where a new life waits for me 

I welled up at that third line, but I sang along on every repeat of the chorus, watching our students play their string instruments in the background. I got to interview them afterward (in the artists’ tent, which had free snacks and comfy, non-folding chairs!), and they were excited and thoughtful and so sweet.

I wandered over to the Fort stage to buy some frozen lemonade and catch the end of Sheryl Crow’s set, and as I walked up, I heard her say, “Let’s soak up the sun, shall we?” I broke into a grin, and joined the crowd dancing to – yep – “Soak Up the Sun.”

james-taylor-sheryl-crow

Then – then! – Crow said casually, “I have a friend who was telling me about playing at Newport a long time ago.” (beat) “James Taylor, why don’t you come out here and tell this story?”

Dressed in jeans and a baseball cap, Taylor walked out on stage and told us about the time he was playing Newport in 1969 and they interrupted his set to break the news of the Apollo 11 moon landing. (No big deal!) Then he grabbed a guitar, and he and Sheryl played “Every Day is a Winding Road.” I could barely believe my ears, or my eyes.

I wound up my Newport Friday at the standing-room-only Highwomen performance – Brandi Carlile and her bandmates brought down the house. I especially loved “Heaven is a Honky Tonk” – their tribute to some of the great outlaw musicians – and “Redesigning Women.”

I’m not usually much for crowds, but I loved the Newport atmosphere: relaxed and fun, with lots of families, and musicians who seemed genuinely glad to be there. I spent a while talking to a woman named Mary Lynn who was selling her gorgeous leather goods, and wandered around on my own, soaking it all in. And one of the best parts of Friday? I knew more adventures were in store for me on Sunday.

More Newport photos and stories to come.

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heart sneakers trail

My one little word for 2018 is grit.

It took me a while to find it, and even longer to figure out what to say about it. I tried out a few other possibilities (while reflecting on the unexpected places magic took me in 2017). Nothing quite seemed to fit, until I remembered that grit sneaked its way in alongside magic last summer.

Grit is closely related to courage, which of course bears a deep connection to my longtime word, brave. It is ordinary, daily, sometimes deeply mundane: it is, quite often, the opposite of glamorous, though I think it can sometimes be magical.

Grit is the tiny pebbles that stick in the treads of my running shoes after an hour or two spent on the river trail. It is the crumbs I sweep off the kitchen table into my hand, over and over again. It is the commitment to the daily details that make up a life, to showing up and taking care and paying attention, even when you’d rather be anywhere else.

It’s been a year (and counting) of tremendous, often shattering change, which has rearranged my internal furniture in ways I didn’t expect. Each of those changes – the continuing fallout from the election, so many challenges at work, even the move this summer to a new apartment I love – have required copious amounts of grit. And I know there are more changes ahead in 2018. I’m making a couple (mostly exercise-related); I’ve been warned about a few (mostly work-related); and I’m certain there will be others I don’t see coming. (That’s life, isn’t it? In all its variety.)

Grit is a noun, and it’s also a verb: especially in the winter, I often have to grit my teeth through the latest train delays or impending snowstorm. But I don’t think grit has to be dreary or dour: as a friend said recently, “It’s certainly not whimsical, but I think there’s a quiet kind of joy in grit.”

When she said that, I thought of Lindsey’s musings on stubborn gladness and sturdy joy: I want more of both, this year. I think grit is as much about leaning into the good stuff, the magic and delight and love, as it is about showing up for the hard things, the loss and boredom and weariness. They are intertwined, in ways I can’t unravel or explain.

Last spring, I found a few lines in The Last Days of Café Leila that have become my mantra.  I’ve written them down more times than I can count, and they still ring in my head almost every day. For Noor, the protagonist, and for me, “the only thing to do is to keep moving, to do something, to show courage, to give everything [I’m] capable of giving.”

If that’s not grit, I don’t know what it is.

Do you have a word for this year? Please share, if you’d like.

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paperwhites flowers window

“My paperwhites are making me unreasonably happy,” I texted a friend last week.

Years ago, I learned from Tara’s blog that you can “force” paperwhite bulbs in the winter. As in: stick them in a (tall) vase with pebbles and plenty of water, put them in a sunny spot, and watch them grow. I tried it for the first time the following year, and was utterly delighted at the results: tall green shoots with delicate white flowers, which perfumed my dining room with their odd, sweet scent.

I haven’t grown paperwhites in a couple of years, but I picked up a handful of bulbs at our local garden center in November, and started two in my tallest vases right before Christmas. Since we were away for the holiday, I was afraid I’d miss the blooms, but – as you can see – they’re in full glorious flower.

paperwhite narcissus flowers

Every morning I walk into the kitchen and marvel at two things: the sunrise out the east-facing windows (new every morning, seriously) and the paperwhites on the low table next to the fridge, blooming away.

Winter in the Northeast is a long haul: it’s only mid-January and I know we won’t even see crocuses for a while yet. I’ve learned to appreciate the sharp white beauty of winter and also to grit my teeth through the tough parts. But meanwhile, I’m completely delighted by the fresh green growth in my kitchen – both the paperwhites and the leggy geraniums I’m tending.

paperwhites flowers window night

This is my eighth (!) winter in Boston, and I’ve come to appreciate the need for rest and fallow time, in the natural world and in my own life. But the paperwhites are a reminder that not all growth has to wait for spring. With a little sunlight and water, there’s room to dwell – as Emily D. has it – in possibility.

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sass harrison christmas fire truck

We are easing back into routine over here: wrapping up against frigid temps; shoveling snow; making lots of soup (and huevos); drinking tea and answering email. It felt so good to hit pause on the responsibilities of work and church for a while, but now we’re back to it, albeit not quite at full throttle yet.

I am – I think – recovered from our annual 10-day holiday odyssey across Texas, and I’ve been thinking about the gifts it brought: not only the wrapped presents under various trees and the time with our families and friends, but a few surprises that sneaked in under the radar, and reminded me that this is a season of joy, love and – yes – magic.

In no particular order, here are the unexpected gifts I savored this Christmas season:

  • A dozen homemade gingersnaps, hand-delivered by J’s sweet Aunt Joy when we met her for lunch.
  • Singing O Holy Night at Christmas Eve service. It’s ambitious for congregational singing, but the new music minister at my parents’ church urged us to attempt it, “with gusto!” So we did.
  • Three blue-sky morning runs through my parents’ neighborhood, past houses decked with Christmas decor, with the Jennys in my ears.
  • Running into a longtime friend at a new-to-us pizza place in Abilene, and discovering later that she’d paid for our lunch.
  • My nephews, snuggled up on either side of me and listening with (mostly) rapt attention as I read the Christmas story aloud.
  • Laughing with my brother-in-law on Christmas Day about homemade sourdough pretzels and the dough that wouldn’t rise. (They were still delicious!)
  • Cuddling with my sister on the couch that night as everyone traded stories and sipped wine.
  • Playing baseball in the driveway with my dad, my husband and my older nephew, Ryder.
  • A couple of sunsets so stunning that we all piled out of my sister’s living room and onto her front porch to gaze at them.

texas sunset sky december pump jack

  • Waking up with Do You Hear What I Hear? in my head the week before Christmas. We sang it every year when I was in youth choir, and it made me think of George.
  • The moment when my niece’s hair ties ended up in one of my (bald!) dad’s Christmas presents – my husband exclaimed, “That’s where those went!” and everyone burst out laughing.
  • Half an hour to myself in front of the Christmas tree one night, journaling and reading The Dark is Rising.
  • Coconut eggnog pie, with Blue Bell vanilla ice cream, as the denouement to a dinner with dear friends.
  • Picking up a novel I loved at the DFW airport bookstore.
  • Cracking up with J’s high school choir friends as we sang Christmas carols: “Johnny wants a pair of skates, Susie wants a shed…”
  • A wee girl named Genevieve Noelle, born to some of my best friends on Dec. 26. (We knew she was coming, of course, but we didn’t quite know when.)
  • The sentiment handwritten in my Aunt Cathy’s Christmas card: “And seriously, peace on earth.” (Hear, hear.)
  • Running straight into a few friends from high school at Christmas Eve service. I’ve been gone from my hometown a while, but it’s still and always where I’m from.
  • Singing hymns in the hallways of a hospice unit one night, with old friends.
  • A hilarious game of Scrabble with my in-laws.
  • The glass heirloom fruit bowls my Neno gave me.

There were plenty of gifts I was expecting this year: so much food and laughter at my parents’ house, time with beloved friends in Abilene, chips and salsa whenever we could squeeze them in. Those gifts were sweet and nourishing, and they filled me up. But these surprises have a magic all their own.

I hope your holidays included a few unexpected gifts, too.

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katie lizzie rowing

I’ve said it before: there are always a hundred reasons I want to go back to Oxford. The city itself is an old friend: the winding streets, honey-colored stone and lush green parks are all dear and familiar. But I also have a half-dozen friends who live in Oxford, and I’d planned to spend an afternoon with my former housemate, Lizzie. (That’s her above.)

We met up on the colorful Cowley Road, near the little chocolate-box house we once shared with two other girls: a small, spare semi-detached with a blue door, tucked into a quiet close. Lizzie, knowing my penchant for nostalgia, suggested we go and say hello.

cowley house blue door

We stood in the middle of the close, marveling at how big the trees have grown and trying to guess who lives there now (we suspect another group of students). As I went to snap a photo, Lizzie said something and I turned around – to see Jo and Grace, our other housemates, standing behind me with identical grins on their faces.

housemates radcliffe square

I was flabbergasted. Stunned. Delighted. I hadn’t told Jo and Grace I was coming to the UK, knowing I wouldn’t be able to go see them while I was there – but Lizzie, clever girl, had secretly organized a surprise reunion. The three of them had been scheming for weeks. And we had the most wonderful afternoon.

We headed down to Magdalen Bridge, where you can go punting or rent a rowboat. (We opted for the latter, feeling more confident in our rowing skill than our punting prowess.)

rowboats river cherwell oxford

After a couple of failed attempts at synchronized rowing, Lizzie took charge and rowed us out onto the river.

lizzie rowing

The girls had packed a feast – sandwiches, fruit, chips and veggies with hummus, flapjacks and cookies. Lizzie even packed some prosecco and plastic flutes. (Later on, we traded some to a Scottish couple in another boat for some of their banoffee chocolate. Yum.)

Mostly, we just had the loveliest time being together.

grace jo rowboat river oxford

It is six years since we all lived together, crowded into our wee house, cooking slapdash dinners and writing essays and brewing endless cups of tea. We always knew our living arrangement was temporary: I was in the UK for a one-year master’s program, and the other girls were finishing their undergraduate degrees. Grace and I were both engaged to the men who are now our husbands, and Jo met her husband, Tim, during that year. (The last time we were all together was at their wedding, five years ago.)

katie grace river oxford

Since our little household broke up, we have scattered far and wide, gotten married, moved too many times to count. Grace has a little boy and another baby on the way. I have made a cross-country move that proved just as challenging as my moves to Oxford and back. Jo has returned to the Welsh city where she grew up, and Lizzie has remained in Oxford while earning a master’s degree and establishing a career.

We have kept in touch via Facebook, text message and Christmas cards, knowing the broad outlines of one another’s lives while missing the details we knew during our year together. But we still love one another deeply, and that afternoon, we talked and laughed as though we had never been apart.

grace jo rowing

After the rowing (which proved excellent exercise), we wandered through town, pausing in Radcliffe Square for more photos.

housemates radcliffe camera oxford

We wound up with a walk to University Parks, where we sprawled on the grass and talked some more – about work and marriage and grown-up life, about family and travel and our days together in Oxford. “Do you miss anything about the UK?” Grace asked me at one point. That question has a thousand answers, but I gave her the most important one: “Yes. I miss all of you.”

It may be another several years before we are all together again. But this afternoon of sunshine and good talk and laughter will last me for quite a while.

More Oxford photos and stories to come.

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long-lost cousins

Yesterday I had lunch downtown with my cousin Corri.

I’d never met her before.

It seems impossible, in this Internet age, that I didn’t know I had a cousin living 20 miles from me, that we wouldn’t have found each other through some combination of Facebook and Google and other family members telling us about one another. But until last month, when Corri flew to Missouri for Mimi’s funeral and ran into my parents, she had no idea I lived in the Boston area. Me? I was clueless until she found me on Facebook the following week. And yesterday we finally met up for lunch, and marveled at the wonder of finding each other.

“I think we share the most wonderful family in the world,” Corri wrote to me in that initial Facebook message. And yesterday, it was such fun to compare notes on different members of that family, and talk about the places where our branches intersect. Our grandmothers were sisters; our dads are first cousins; I’m not sure if that makes us second cousins or first cousins once removed or whatever, but I know it makes us family. She remembers my grandpa as “Lefty,” his longtime nickname; I have vague memories of her grandmother, Nina, from when I was very small. My dad and his brothers idolized her dad, who was the cool older cousin (and quite the college basketball star in his day). Corri hadn’t seen my parents in thirty years until last month, but she remembers them visiting her family in Colorado when she was a child.

My Mimi had a large collection of costume jewelry (one of her many collections, which also included teacups, Sunshine Biscuit tins, shoes, canned goods, and funky antiques). All the women of the family chose a piece to wear at her funeral, and got to keep them afterward. And yesterday Corri gave me the piece she had chosen to wear: a small pin made of green stones in the shape of a butterfly. She could not have known that green is one of my favorite colors – nor that Margaret (who had the idea of everyone wearing Mimi’s jewelry at the funeral) was particularly fond of butterflies.

I am grateful, today, for the warmth of family – for the bond that immediately draws people together, no matter if they’ve never met before. I’m grateful for green butterfly pins and first-time-reunions and good talk over salad and soup. And I’m thrilled to have made another connection, another place to know and be known.

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