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Posts Tagged ‘traditions’

harvard widener library commencement banners

We celebrated Commencement at Harvard last week: my sixth one, the university’s 367th. It was – it always is – a kaleidoscope of moments and light, words and memories.

It was crimson hoods and black robes flapping, piles and piles of special editions of the Harvard Gazette, where I worked briefly during Commencement season, two years ago. It was spring breezes and blue skies, exuberant music by the Harvard band and choir, thousands of folding chairs and dozens of speeches.

I spent most of the morning in the Yard, the epicenter of the festivities, and it was overstimulating and glorious. I stood near the stage with my colleagues Deb and Christina, press passes around our necks. We listened and applauded, soaking it all in.

harvard yard banners trees commencement

Commencement, this year, smelled like lilacs, especially the waist-high versions that bloomed out just in time for the day. It sounded like marching feet and raucous cheers, vuvuzelas and ringing church bells, applause from so many proud parents and friends. It tasted like chai (of course) from Darwin’s, sipped standing in the Yard as we listened to the student orators, and like veggie wraps and guacamole, eaten sitting by a sixth-floor office window while we rested our tired feet.

This year, the road to Commencement has felt long and difficult. It has been a tough time to be doing communications work at a school of government, even (or especially) at Harvard. We have weathered serious internal changes in our staff and leadership, and decision-making processes have shifted, sometimes faster than I could keep up with.

Our work here is informed by the political climate in the nation and the world, and it’s been a wild ride lately in both places. The work of keeping on, of fulfilling our daily tasks and responsibilities, has felt sometimes futile and often overwhelming. I’ve wondered many times whether and how it can possibly matter.

And yet.

I spent a glorious hour sitting in the HKS café last month, listening to a Somali-Canadian student speak about her hopes for nation-building and the good questions she plans to take back to Mogadishu. On Commencement day, I listened to Pete Davis, the graduate student speaker, urge us to commit to showing up and slaying the dragons of boredom and distraction, to do the slow work of building a better world. I listened, that afternoon, to Drew Gilpin Faust speak about hope in her final Commencement address as Harvard’s president, nudging her audience toward wisdom and goodness. I remembered, for a moment, what this place can be.

I’ll be searching out my own new beginning (again) this summer. My current job is ending, so I’ll be looking for a new position where I can write and edit and tell good stories. I don’t know yet where that will be, though I hope it’s at Harvard.

Because after five years, this place is home. It is a challenge and a community, an inspiration and sometimes a source of exasperation. It is both a big, complicated, many-headed beast and a small New England town. It has tremendous potential to do some good in the world, and it is full of bright, thoughtful, curious people who help make that happen.

As our graduates begin their next chapters (mostly) outside of Cambridge, I hope I get the chance to write another one here.

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betsy boys presents christmas

I never quite know how to write about Christmas, once it’s over. The presents have all been opened and admired, the holiday cards (finally) sent out, the suitcases packed and repacked and finally unpacked. We’re back in the routine of work and winter and daily life, and the 10 days we spent in Texas, driving up and down I-20 to see people we love, seem very far away.

This year will go down as the year of not-quite-normal: so many of our usual family traditions were altered or skipped over altogether. My sister has two small boys and was hobbling around in a knee brace this year (see above), so we opened family presents at her house instead of at my parents’ on Christmas Eve. For the same reason, J and I drove to Christmas Eve service by ourselves, slipping into a center pew to listen to a sermon by an unfamiliar minister. My dad, despite his best efforts, could not find any eggnog, so we missed having our annual cup together. And the small-child chaos was such that we completely forgot to read Luke 2 aloud before diving into the presents.

My husband’s family moved to a new house in a new town this summer, so we spent the first weekend of our trip navigating unfamiliar territory – a string of small towns in the East Texas countryside. The weather swung wildly from unseasonably warm (73 degrees on Christmas Day) to icy sleet and snow two days later. Our favorite Mexican restaurant was closed on the day we tried to go, and I had a 24-hour bug earlier in the week that prevented me from enjoying another Tex-Mex meal with my parents. All in all, it felt – I have to say – a little weird.

And yet.

On a breezy Monday night, J and I stood in a semicircle and sang Christmas carols a cappella with a few of his choir buddies from high school. The notes of those familiar tunes – “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” an absurdly complicated arrangement of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” – touched something deep inside me. This was our second time at this choral reunion, and though I am technically an outsider, they welcomed me like an old friend. Afterward, we walked to a local bar for snacks and cocktails, and told stories and laughed late into the evening.

My in-laws may have changed their address, but we are always sure of a welcome there: from J’s parents, his sister, the two cats, and three-year-old Annie, who jumped on J the minute we walked in the door and hardly let go for three days. She danced around, effervescent with joy, trying out her new rocking horse while clad in a pink princess dress. “Look at me, Uncle Miah! Watch me, Aunt Katie!”

jer annie shoulders smiles

It felt odd to be at Christmas Eve service without my parents, but their church, where I grew up, is still and always my favorite place to be on that night. We found seats in front of some family friends and lit our candles during “Silent Night.” Our beloved music minister, George, led the service with his customary joie de vivre. I slipped through the crowd to give him a hug afterward. And that felt – unmistakably – like Christmas.

My grandparents drove up from their house near San Antonio, and Pop brought me a gorgeous bookcase that he’d worked on for months. Neno brought a stack of old photos for Betsy and me to look through, and we spent a happy afternoon in Betsy’s kitchen, riffling through them and laughing and telling stories while we snacked on Pop’s guacamole and took turns making dishes for Christmas dinner.

We had all our traditional favorites: smoked brisket with Neno’s barbecue sauce, sweet potato casserole, Mom’s cranberries suspended in Jell-O, peanut butter kiss cookies. We ate several meals around the table that Pop made for Betsy, with my nephews in their high chairs and all of us squeezed in elbow to elbow. We had stockings at Mom and Dad’s on Christmas morning, with Mom’s three Christmas trees twinkling, and Dad and I sneaked in our favorite parts of Christmas Eve on Sesame Street.

cookie monster christmas eve telephone

“The best is being together, even if it is chaotic,” I said to Mom after Christmas, when we were discussing this year’s craziness. And it might sound cliched, but it’s true.

The best was sitting on the big sectional couch in Betsy’s living room, telling stories and cracking up at inside family jokes and hugging my nephews (when they stood still long enough). The best was catching up with multiple friends in Abilene, cramming in so many stories from the past year, sitting around a table until nearly midnight and laughing until our sides hurt. The best was chicken and dumplings around Frankie’s table, homemade pizza with Laura and Bill, cups of chai with Lisa and Mike, hugs from Shanna and Calvin and Gail.

The best, always, is heading two thousand miles south and west, knowing what’s at the end of that road: home. (And those small, wiggly cuties we love.)

jer harrison christmas

I hope your holidays were wonderful, and that 2016 is treating you right so far.

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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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apple trees blue sky

Every September, we head to the orchard. And every September, I am enchanted.

After five years in New England, we have established a few beloved traditions. This is one of my favorites.

apple trees branches

I am always amazed by the low, rambling trees: so different from the tidy rows I remember seeing in picture books. (There are no apple orchards in West Texas, where I grew up.)

The reality is messier, though the different varieties are clearly marked. We always head straight for the Empires, plucking them off the branches, crunching as we go.

This year, we had a big crowd: both newbies and veterans. We arrived in a pack, then wandered the rows in loose, straggling groups, picking, laughing, snapping pictures.

adam jer orchard

The guys always have to do a little climbing, and a little horsing around.

Eventually, we all met up at the other side of the farm, for apple cider donuts, chili dogs and more photos.

katie abi orchard

This is our sixth year picking apples together. Abi loves it as much as I do. We have been friends since our freshman year in college, and I am constantly grateful that we get to live this Boston life side by side.

katie evie orchard

Sweet Evie (who belongs to Abi) is too young to pick apples yet, but she happily came along for the ride.

We had such perfect weather this year: blue skies, crisp air, golden sunshine. Of course, I love sharing it all with this guy.

katie jer orchard apple trees

I’ve already made one apple crisp, and snacked on a few apples out of hand. Yum.

What are your favorite fall traditions?

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harvard yard banners chairs

  • 32,000 folding chairs set up in Harvard Yard (a few of which are pictured above).
  • A 60% chance of rain on Commencement day, which did not – thank goodness – come to pass.
  • Ten honorary degrees conferred, including one to opera singer Renee Fleming, who sang “America the Beautiful” on Commencement morning in Harvard Yard.
  • 701 brand-new graduates from the Graduate School of Education, the corner of Harvard where I work.
  • $24,400 (and counting!) raised by 78% (a record percentage!) of those same 701 graduates for their Class Gift campaign. It will go toward financial aid for next year’s students.
  • Three times now I’ve stood in Radcliffe Yard and watched our graduates march in. The sight chokes me up every year.
  • Eight maps attached to the lanyard I wore around my neck, since my job was directing graduates during the processional.
  • Two student friends I got to hug on their way in, and one I found afterward in the melee of families, friends and flapping graduation robes.
  • Countless cameras, tweets, tears, Facebook posts, bottles of water, proud family members, and rounds of applause.

Some of this pomp and pageantry is unique to Harvard, and some of it is common to universities the world over. This is an archetypal place, at once beautifully distinctive and deeply familiar. And I am so proud to be a part of its Commencement each year.

Congratulations to all those who graduated. We salute you. We believe, as the Ed School’s dean, Jim Ryan, said yesterday, that you all are going to rock. We know – because of what you have learned here, but more importantly because of who you are – that your work, and your presence, will change the world.

Most of all, we are proud to know you, and grateful to call you our own.

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get your jingle on sign christmas

We put up our Christmas tree last weekend, while listening to the traditional Christmas music: the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack, Elvis’ Blue Christmas, and some a cappella carols by the Robert Shaw Chorale – my husband’s choice. (They take him back to his high school days, singing carols with his show choir while wearing a Dickensian suit and top hat.)

christmas tree

I always love unwrapping our funky, mismatched ornaments and reminiscing about their origins: This ruby slipper came from the Smithsonian gift shop in D.C. Jana gave me this bell when I helped assemble her kids’ teacher gifts one year. These glass balls came from my parents’ first Christmas tree.

Every year, I share a few photos of beloved ornaments and their stories. For the sixth (!) year, here they are:

songbird ornament music

Last December, when J and I met Shanna for a pre-Christmas lunch in Abilene, she handed us this lovely bird ornament – “because you guys are my songbird friends,” she said. I miss singing with Shanna at church (she used to live here in Boston, but lives in Atlanta now), but the songbird makes me smile.

gingerbread house ornament

I ordered a set of three stuffed gingerbread houses from Etsy a few years ago. I gave two of them to my friends Abi and Bethany, and kept this one for myself. We all lived in Abilene at the time; now Bethany is in Nashville and Abi and I are in Boston. I like thinking of these ornaments on each of our trees every year.

snowflake ornament sparkly

A dozen or so of my ornaments came from It’s About Time, a lovely shop in Abilene filled with antiques and housewares and all kinds of beautiful things, run by my friend Pam. This sparkly snowflake-esque one might be my favorite.

silver bell ornament

For our first Christmas as a married couple, my mom gave us a gift card to buy our Christmas tree and a few dozen ornaments from Hobby Lobby. These silver bells are from that shopping trip, and of course they evoke the Bing Crosby song.

tree ornament

My aunt Charlene – my mother’s best friend, who lives in Ohio – used to send us Christmas ornaments every year. This little tree is one of them – and as the hubs pointed out, it’s so meta. A tree on a tree.

If you celebrate, do you have a color-coordinated tree, or one with assorted ornaments, like mine? (If you have ornament stories, I’d love to hear them.)

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brookline advent sunday

On Saturday morning, after Turkeypalooza, J and I went up to the church to decorate for Advent. Our friend Bob had made his annual nursery pilgrimage to pick up the wreaths, pine garland, poinsettias and cyclamen, but it turned out the nursery workers forgot the greenery. So we set out the flowers then, and put the greenery up the next morning, right before service started, as people drank coffee and greeted guests and chased their kids around the back of the church.

I wandered around with flowerpots and a roll of packing tape in my hands, dirt and pine sap on my fingers. We did not start remotely on time (though we never do, if we’re honest). And J was fighting a chest cold as he led singing. But the notes of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” soared through the building, as hopeful and aching as they are every year.

On Monday, I made it to Morning Prayers for the first time in months, slipping into a high-walled box pew in Memorial Church as the choir sang. I recited the Lord’s Prayer with the other congregants, and stumbled through an unfamiliar Advent hymn. As I walked through Harvard Yard on my way to the office, I hummed a different tune: Come, Thou long-expected Jesus, born to set Thy people free…

I’ve pulled out my Advent book, Watch for the Light, for what I think is the 14th year. It is a little battered by now, and I am not making myself read every single word this year. I am dipping in when it suits me, turning to favorite pieces by Henri Nouwen and Kathleen Norris and Gail Godwin, letting their words wake me up, letting them sink in and rest a while.

christmas tree

We’ve put up our tree (above), hung the stockings and mistletoe, bought our annual supply of mint M&Ms, even wrapped a few gifts. But even so, things still feel hopeful, expectant. We are easing into Advent, trying (always trying) to pay attention, to savor a bit of stillness in these days before the exaltation of Christmas.

I am turning to the words of Isaiah and the Gospels, clinging to their promises as to a solid rock in an unsteady world:

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.

My soul magnifies the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given. His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

I have heard those words all my life, and I know I still don’t understand their full meaning. But every Advent, I try to slow down a little, and listen.

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