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Posts Tagged ‘words’

brave necklace coral scarf

My favorite necklace, stamped with the word that has come to define both who I am and who I want to be.

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between you and me beach

A colleague’s new haircut. The results of the latest presidential debate. The next round of frigid winter weather. Small talk.

The best type of Girl Scout cookies. Real estate prices in Boston. The vagaries of the office microwave. Small talk. 

Weekend plans. The PowerBall jackpot. The merits of various restaurants or dog breeds. Small talk.

Small talk often gets a bad rap these days – especially among introverts. We like to think of ourselves as deep, sensitive, thoughtful souls whose true brilliance can’t possibly be captured in a brief exchange on trivial topics like the ones above. But honestly, the longer I am an adult, the more I believe that small talk is a necessary skill to build and hone.

I’m a true introvert, and my preferred form of conversation is long and deep and wide-ranging, preferably with a dear friend. But that isn’t always possible, especially in a professional setting, or a gathering of friends where I don’t know everyone. I’d often rather hide in a corner if I’m feeling shy or uncomfortable, but I frequently find myself making small talk instead, whether it’s to tamp down my own anxiety or put someone else at ease.

Recently, I’ve found myself in a lot of social situations with new people: greeting visitors at church, meeting work colleagues for the first time, attending a party where I knew the hosts but almost none of the other guests. I didn’t have to carry the entire conversation in these instances, but in each case, I made the effort to ask a few questions or throw out a comment on a topic of general interest. And it helped.

To be clear, I’m no expert on wine or property taxes or long-distance cycling. But a brief conversation on each of these subjects has helped me build bridges with brand-new acquaintances. (Bonus: one of those bridges led to a conversation about mystery novels, a topic I adore.)

Small talk – those tiny, seemingly inconsequential interactions sparked by comments such as “It’s cold out there today” or “I like your scarf” – can be more than a social lubricant among strangers. It’s often the first building block of a real relationship. And in a world where we all reflexively pull out our smartphones to avoid uncomfortable moments, it’s often noticeable by its absence.

I’m on the lookout for ways to bring more gumption into my life this year, and making small talk often requires it of me. I’m sometimes afraid my comments will fall flat – and, let’s be honest, they occasionally do. But I’m almost always glad I made the effort.

If I’m lucky, I’ve done more than mitigate my own nervousness: I’ve also put someone else at ease, or enjoyed a moment of human connection. That’s worth a little trivia, or a little embarrassment. Small talk is definitely a skill worth keeping in my conversational arsenal.

How do you feel about small talk?

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katie jer maine view

Earlier this summer, I started reading Laura Dave’s Eight Hundred Grapes, a novel about a woman who runs away from her wedding after learning that her fiance has a daughter he didn’t tell her about. (That’s not a spoiler; I just told you what Georgia – the narrator – finds out in the first chapter.)

Full disclosure: I didn’t finish the book (though my friend Hallie loved it and recommended it on Great New Books, where we’re both part of the review team).

But there’s one line I’m still thinking about, weeks later:

 

Wasn’t the ultimate form of fidelity whom you told your stories to?

In the book, this line refers to Georgia’s faltering relationship with her fiance: she’s (rightly) furious that Ben hasn’t told her about his daughter, or that he’s still in touch with his ex (the little girl’s mother). But I’ve been thinking about it in a broader sense.

As Joan Didion has noted, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” That’s especially true for those of us who view the world through words: readers, writers and bloggers who make and share meaning through stories.

Some of us are born storytellers, like my dad, whose sense of comedic timing and infectious laugh make it fun to listen to his stories over and over again. (I can retell many of them word for word – even if I wasn’t there when they happened.)

But all of us tell our stories to the people we love, whether it’s a funny incident at work or a life-changing moment in the middle of an ordinary Tuesday. And when we don’t – when we start to hide things or simply stop making the effort – it stands to reason that those relationships would start to fray.

Last year, my friend Laura wrote a terrifying and powerful blog post: And then I stopped talking to my husband. She didn’t literally stop talking to her husband, but she gradually quit sharing a lot of daily incidents and insights (which, in her case, happened mostly online) with him. They talked about their kids and their household routine, but they stopped discussing the important stuff – until one day, when he was driving her to the airport and didn’t know where she was heading. This caused a few understandable tears on Laura’s part, but they talked it out, and started making the effort again.

That post terrified me because I saw how easy it could be. How simple and effortless to stop telling your stories – until you don’t really know each other any more. I sent the link to my husband, and I’ve been thinking about it again since Eight Hundred Grapes brought it to mind.

It’s so important to keep telling my stories, not just to my husband, but to my family and friends (many of whom live far away). I want to be faithful in telling my stories and hearing theirs, even when it takes work. (And sometimes it takes a lot of work.)

Lindsey noted last fall that friendship is made of attention, and I believe this is a part of that. We share our lives through stories, and they are foundational to our relationships. To paraphrase Didion, we tell ourselves – and each other – stories in order to live.

What do you think? Who are the people you tell your stories to?

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keep calm drink tea blue mug

Hello, friends. A belated Happy New Year to you.

I hope your holidays were wonderful. We spent ours in Texas, driving back and forth along a stretch of I-20 and spending time with several groups of people we love. I have stories (and photos of my brand-new nephew, Harrison) to share, but today I’m thinking about the words I want to keep in mind as I enter 2015.

I love the clean-slate, pristine feeling of a new year, and while I don’t always make resolutions, I usually choose a “word for the year.” This year’s word is gentle. I’ll have more to say about that soon, but after a hectic autumn and a stressful lead-up to Christmas, I’m ready for some gentleness. To that end, I’ve been remembering a line from Desiderata: “Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.” I’d like to pursue both halves of that line this year.

I’ve also been remembering a quote from Emerson that Lindsey tweeted a few months ago: “Let us be poised, and wise, and our own today.” Not a bad mantra, I’d say. Perhaps I should tape it to my bathroom mirror, or someplace where I’ll see it every morning.

I am a longtime fan of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and I found this next quote there, but it actually comes from Judith Guest, who wrote the book’s foreword. Guest says:

Some years ago, while cleaning out my grandmother’s attic, I came across this motto encased in an old oak picture frame: Do Your Work As Well As You Can and Be Kind. I remember laughing over what I thought then was a rather quirky juxtaposition of messages. Now it makes such perfect sense to me that I wonder how I could have missed it.

I have lots of plans and dreams for 2015, but that motto above sums them all up in one line. This year, I want to do my work as well as I can, and be kind. And be gentle, with myself and others. (I have a sneaking suspicion I’ll be following the advice in the top photo, too.)

What words are you keeping in mind as we enter this new year?

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Our names for God

brookline church of christ

On a recent Sunday night, we gathered around the long wooden table at Ryan and Amy’s, the kids squirming, everyone holding hands for a brief pause in the chaos of our evening together. It was Amy’s turn to pray, and she began as she always does: “Almighty God, we are so grateful for all that we have been given.”

I’m fascinated by the different ways people address God, especially since most people tend (consciously or not) to pick one and stick with it. I wonder if a person’s name for God, the way they address him (or her), reveals how they see God, the kind of deity they picture when they pray.

Amy’s prayers always begin at that place of reverence and gratitude, the place of acknowledging our blessings. She is one of the most honest and realistic people I know, but she is also good at being amazed, and good at being thankful.

Ryan, Amy’s husband and a chemistry professor, always begins with “Our Creator God.” Ryan spends his days teaching undergraduates about the tiny building blocks of our universe, and has spent a fair amount of time over the years thinking about science and faith. He deals with creation all day, every day, but what I love about his form of address is the “our”: for Ryan, the “our” is inextricably linked to the “Creator.”

My friend Julie, a warm and lovely soul who grew up with a cold and abusive father, addresses God as “Holy Father.” Her phrase reveals the twin aspects of God’s character that she holds most dear: his vast, mysterious holiness, and his closeness as the kind of father she desperately needed. My own dad also addresses God as “Father.” He learned early on, as I did, what it meant to have a loving human father, and he believes simply and completely in God as that same kind of Father.

My dad’s parents prayed the same table prayer for many years, the one that began, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest.” They were humble people, who worked hard and lived simply and raised their three boys to love God and love others, and they acknowledged Jesus both as Lord and guest.

My other grandpa, my mother’s dad, prays his own table prayer before every meal, usually with the same words and always with the same inflections. I can chart the words by the rise and fall of his deep voice, and he, too, begins from a place of gratitude: “Heavenly Father, we thank you for this day.”

I learned the Lord’s Prayer as a little girl, but rarely prayed it (either alone or with others) until I found my way to Highland as a college student. At that church (in West Texas), at the big Anglican church I attended in Oxford, and at our tiny church here in Boston, the congregations recite the Lord’s Prayer together every week. We pray the ancient, resonant phrases of gratitude and praise and supplication, and we always start the same way: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”

When I pray alone, sometimes I call him Father. Sometimes I repeat the “Come, Lord Jesus” prayer; sometimes I borrow a line from Shane & Shane and pray, “Be near, O God.” Sometimes I begin a prayer from the Compline service: “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work or watch or weep this night.”

Most often, it’s simply “Dear God,” the way I learned to address God as a child. He is holy, mysterious and infinite, a big God whom I can’t define or explain. But he is also dear, an entity I have known all my life.

These days, I usually begin there, and then I often borrow Amy’s phrase: I am so grateful for all that I have been given.

If you are a person who talks to God, what names do you use?

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boston public garden pink tulips

The Tables Turned (An Evening Scene on the Same Subject)

(A response to “Expostulation and Reply.”)

Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you’ll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun, above the mountain’s head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless—
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:–
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

uni parks

This is my favorite Wordsworth poem, especially at this time of year, when the budding trees and plants are begging for “a heart that watches and receives.” I love books, probably more than the next person, but I believe there is a time to set them aside and soak up the loveliness and wisdom of nature. (Though it’s turned chilly again in Boston, and I am hoping for more warm weather soon.)

Also, this poem fits perfectly with my word for the yearattention.

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Let us remember . . . that in the end we go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.

—Christian Wiman

I have been craving poetry lately, reading an entire volume of Robert Frost and a luminous chapbook by Gregory Orr, and returning to the words of Marie Howe and W.S. Merwin almost daily. The world can be a grim place, whether I’m battling the mundane frustrations of crowded commutes and grey rainy days and maddening to-do lists that seem to multiply overnight, or worrying over the larger issues of pain and hunger and need that plague so many people, in so many different ways.

As a bookworm, I am tempted to hide behind books when life is either colorless or painful, and sometimes escaping into a sweeping story or a beloved tale (or even a witty volume of letters) is just the ticket. But ultimately, hiding from my life and the world is neither productive nor satisfying. And poetry, with its brief, searching lines that often break me wide open, provides a way for me to pay more attention to both my life and the world around me. And when I start to pay more attention, to lean into the moments and middles and mundanities, I often find hope and beauty there. I often find sorrow and frustration, too, but poetry helps me realize that grief and ennui do not have the last word.

Do you read poetry – for this reason or for others? What helps you inhabit your life more fully? And what are the poems, or other words, you return to over and over?

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We all have them, don’t we? The phrases we carry in our hearts, like the rosaries or stones or other talismans some people carry in their pockets, to be pulled out or simply touched, over and over, during difficult times. Here are a few of mine – and I’d love to hear yours.

1. “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” —Julian of Norwich
2. “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” —Mary Oliver
3. “Come forth, and bring with you a heart / That watches and receives.” —Wordsworth – from that poem I memorized recently
4. “I really and truly believe in God with all kinds of doubts. But I base my life on this belief.” —Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet
5. “You should sing, then, as wayfarers do – sing, but continue your journey. […] Sing then, but keep going.” —St. Augustine

What words do you carry in your heart?

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Because beginnings can be so, so good. These are the ones I remember best.

1. I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. (I Capture the Castle)
2. I met Charlotte in London one afternoon while waiting for a bus. Just look at that sentence! (The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets)
3. In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines / lived twelve little girls in two straight lines. (Madeline)
4. My life – my real life – started when a man walked into it, a handsome man in a well-cut suit, and yes, I know how that sounds. (Love Walked In)
5. It was a dark and stormy night. (A Wrinkle in Time)
6. Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs. (Little House in the Big Woods)
7. We are each the love of someone’s life. (The Confessions of Max Tivoli)

I often have trouble remembering first lines of books – it’s the odd, random phrases or scenes from the middle that stick in my mind. But I do love these.

What are your favorite first lines?

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1. A batch of Ron’s oaty scones.
2. A wee baby hat for a friend, out of leftover sock yarn.
3. A patch for some jeans, rendering them wearable again.
4. A few new outfits with items I already own.
5. Quite a few blog posts.
6. A patio container garden. (So far: mint, basil and a geranium.)
7. Packing lists.
8. Order out of chaos in our apartment.
9. Lots and lots of wedding decor.
10. A couple of summery salads.
11. Cream of jalapeno soup on a chilly night.
12. Pages of scribbled ideas in my journal.
13. A strawberry-rhubarb crisp.
14. A few simple, healthy dinners.
15. Packages to send to friends.

What are you making these days? (Check out the wonderful stuff happening at 30 Days of Creativity. Inspiring!)

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