Looking at the stars

We are all in the gutter.  But some of us are looking at the stars.  — Oscar Wilde

As a child, crying was usually an indicator of something negative happening in my life.  From falling and skinning my knee, to forgetting my homework and being reprimanded by a teacher, to getting in a fight with one of my siblings, the situations that sparked tears were ones of struggle.  I cried when I was sad, angry, hurt or confused. 

Somewhere along the line — maybe when I was in high school, when I began to see that words are usually as effective for expressing emotions as tears — this changed.  I still occasionally cry from grief or frustration, but more often now, my tears accompany feelings of nostalgia, hope, appreciation, love and awe.  I tear up when I read a story that demonstrates the goodness of humanity; my eyes get misty when a particularly sweet memory of my father, mother, sister or brothers comes to mind; my throat gets tight when I hear a beautiful piece of music of poetry. 

To be sure, the instances of struggle that used to cause me tears still exist.  In the world in which we live, sadness, anger, hurt and confusion are in many ways the status quo.  Maybe, along with learning that words as well as tears can express emotion, part of becoming an adult is realizing the pervasiveness of trauma, pain and suffering and implicitly acknowledging that if we let these things cause us tears, we’d be crying all the time. 

Looking around myself — reading the news, seeing a homeless man sitting on a cold stoop, talking with a grieving acquaintance — make me see that we’re in a gutter, all of us.  We are surrounded by pain — emotional, mental, physical, spiritual — and not a single one of us will get through life without suffering.  But my tears, now, remind me of the bursts of grace, the glimpses of light; the breaths of hope and the moments of joy.  My tears highlight the things that keep me going and get me through and remind me that there is meaning in life — in the good and the hard of it.  They remind me that I can be in the gutter and look at the stars. 

 

Photo by Mattias Milos on Unsplash

Brainstorming

Caleb and I spent his Spring Break in Costa Rica visiting my Uncle John, who is spending the semester teaching geology at a university in San Jose.  It was our first time in Central America, let alone Costa Rica, and we went into the trip with a plan to actively explore both San Jose and a few destinations outside the city, accessible by bus. 

San Jose
Caleb and my uncle, and a pretty street near UJ’s hose, in San Jose

Highlights of the week included a day-trip to Jaco, a beach town on the west coast of the country, a long weekend spent in La Fortuna, the small, gateway town to Arenal Volcano National Park, and an afternoon at Sibu, a chocolatoeria and cafe that uses organic Costa Rican cacao to craft the most divine chocolates and desserts.

Jaco

Jaco
Jaco — the beach town we visited on the west coast
Sibu Chocolateria
Enjoying our desserts at Sibu Chocolateria

Unexpected highlights of the week were the early morning and evening hours that we spent huddled around the kitchen table with Uncle John, talking about everything from memories of past trips together to updates on various family members to books and current events.  A good conversation never fails to leave me feeling nourished and invigorated, and we had some stellar talks with Uncle John.

During our many hours of conversation, Uncle John (my mom’s younger brother, a Ritter) made a comment that stood out to me about my Coda-family aunts and uncles, whom he has gotten to know through backpacking trips that include the two sides of my extended family.  He observed that a conversation with one of the Coda brothers is like a brainstorming session: a free-form and spontaneous discussion that (hopefully) leads to unexpected connections, new ideas, and creative solutions to problems.  Uncle John commented that he sometimes feels compelled to take notes during a conversation with my Uncle Tom, for example, because the movements of Uncle Tom’s mind lead to all sorts of new ideas. 


I nodded along in agreement with Uncle John as he made this observation; I’ve often been struck by how thought-provoking and fascinating conversations with Dad and his brothers are.  More than recalling a positive quality of my extended family, however, Uncle John’s comment reminded me of the importance of brainstorming, a term that I loved how he used to describe the high-energy dialogue with my Coda uncles.

Brainstorming is the sort of activity that I’ve done formally in school and work settings in the past, but haven’t necessarily given much thought to in my personal endeavors and more self-directed recent work.  Unlike my Coda uncles, brainstorming isn’t something that comes naturally to me; I’m much more inclined to follow a to-do list than to let my mind wander in uncharted direction.  Uncle John’s observation reminded me of the fruits of brainstorming and inspired me to prioritize making time for the activity.     

Reflecting on brainstorming led me to realize that brainstorming is part of (if not the primary) reason why I blog.  Because of my inclination to follow an ordered to-do list, I can’t count on brainstorming to happen naturally in conversations that I have with others and thought-processes that I go on alone.  I need to devote particular time to brainstorming — to thinking about one idea and letting it take me to new thoughts, considerations, places and ideas.  Writing  helps me to do this, and blogging forces me to write. 

When I write a post, I generally have three pages open on my computer: the document in which I’m writing the post, an internet browser where I fact check and utilize the dictionary, and a separate brainstorming document.  In the brainstorming document, I capture the new thoughts and fresh ideas spring from the idea that I’m writing about in my post; I’m then able to return to these ideas at a later time. This method of brainstorming has helped me tap into my creative side and has made it so that I’m never at a loss for an idea of what to write about.  It has also given me a place to note ideas that come to me at other moments in my life.  Possessing a brainstorming document is like having a camera on my phone; I’m always prepared and ready to capture what might otherwise be a passing thought.

Volcan Arenal
Volcan Arenal

Hostel Arenal
The courtyard of the fabulous hostel we found in La Fortuna

Hostel Arenal

Hostel Arenal

Hostel Arenal

Apartment-versary

Apartment

A year ago today, Caleb and I packed the last of our boxes, watched as movers emptied our Somerville apartment, dropped our keys in the landlady’s mail box, and followed the moving truck to our new apartment in Providence.  We carried boxes up to our third floor “Victorian Treehouse” (our tree-line view inspired this nickname), debated the ideal placement of our bed, and mourned our beloved hand-me-down red couch as we realized that it wouldn’t fit through our narrow doorway.  At the end of the day, exhausted, we ate Indian food at a now-favorite local whole-in-the-wall gem.   

While my predominant thought at the moment is how glad I am that we’re spending the day in a coffee shop writing instead of bleeding money, sweat and tears in the moving process, I’m also feeling reflective as I consider the year that we have had in Providence.  Anniversaries, like holidays, endings, and beginnings, are a good opportunity to look back on the past, feel appreciation for the present and look towards the future.  And I think that this act of looking back, examining the lowlights and the highlights, can help me to soak in the beauty of the present and move forward with energy, joy, and grit. 

Historic Homes Providence
Photo credit: America Pink

Hard stuff about my first year in Providence

  • I was homesick for Boston for much of the year, and if I am being completely honest, much as I have come to love Providence, there are things that I still miss so, so much about my old city.  I miss the MBTA.  I miss the vibrancy of my old Church.  I just miss the specifics of Boston: the old brownstones of Commonwealth Ave and the lively activity of Harvard Square and the rarified air of the Boston Public Library and narrow little streets of Beacon Hill. 
  • It was crazy hard to make friends, and so I felt lonely for a lot of the year.  I’ve made some friends and am building relationships, but I still don’t feel at my old-social-level.
  • Working at a job that requires a significant commute and a significant amount of evening and weekend hours is less than ideal.  It presented a stumbling block socially. 

Highlights of my year in Providence

  • There is good, good food in this city.  We could go to a new restaurant every week and still have more to explore.  There is great coffee shop culture, and a huge variety of food, and lots of places with amazing ambiance as well as eats. 
  • Being able to live in a place where we can afford a beautiful apartment is a gift.  I love our sunny kitchen, and our spacious dining area, and our cozy living room.  I love our gallery wall and my yellow desk and our little parking spot and our wood-paneled stair case.
  • I’ve found special, life-giving communities in my new city.  The two that come to mind are the Chaplaincy Center, though which I’ve gotten the opportunity to work in a variety of clinical settings and meed a wide range of people whose work and ways of being I admire, and the Providence Atheneum, that gorgeous little library that also serves as a magnet for smart, witty and creative people. 
  • Having a car (which we likely would never have in Boston) enabled Caleb and I to explore the New England area more, which brought us a lot of fun this year.  Favorite trips included Portland, the Cape, Newport and Bristol. 
  • I love living in a walkable city. Even though Caleb and I have a car, we more or less only use it when taking trips, or when I commute to work.  This feels like a priority for me in terms of places that I live. 
  • This city is clean and has beautiful architecture and landscaping.  I really value being in an aesthetically pleasing environment. 

Lessons that I’ve learned/Themes of the year

  • There’s no way out but through: moving is hard, making friends is hard, starting from scratch in terms of networking is hard.  It will always be hard before it becomes easy.
  • Things take time: building a sense of community, making friends, and finding special places.
  • Distance relationships with people I love are worth spending time and money on nurturing.  Having a car made driving to visit my family and friends in PA possible, and so I found myself going often.  The time and energy are worth it.  The same goes for friendships in Boston.  It’s worth spending money on a commuter rail ticket to meet a friend for coffee; it’s worth driving in to the city to meet with my old book club.
  • “Going for it” with persistency is hard, but worth it.  I have a hard time pushing myself to put myself out there.  It feels scary and exhausting.  But that’s the only way to meet new people, get integrated in a community and take on new roles. 

Making life enjoyable

“Be happy for this moment.  This moment is your life.” — Omar Khayyam

This past weekend, I went home to Pennsylvania for a weekend of my sister Clare’s pre-wedding festivities.  On Saturday afternoon through Sunday, I hosted a bachelorette party (complete with a bridal party yoga class, dinner at a little Italian place, lots of bachelorette games and boozy punch, and a good-old-fashioned-sleepover in my parents’ home), and then on Sunday, the mother of Clare’s childhood best friend (who also happened to be my three siblings’ and my kindergarten teacher) hosted a gorgeous bridal shower in her home.  After the shower, we returned to my parents’ house for a family cookout.

During the planning stages of the weekend, I called the shower hostess to rsvp, ask if there was anything that I could do to help, and thank her for offering to host.  Graciously, she exclaimed that she was so happy to be able to offer a shower, saying “I am delighted by Clare and Katie’s lifelong friendship, and your family’s friendship means so much to me; celebrating these friendships and milestones are what makes life enjoyable.” 

These words deeply resonated with me.  Celebrating friendships, celebrating milestones — celebrating people and moments — are what make life enjoyable.  We each just have one life to live, and that life moves quickly, and that life can be really hard at times.  Why not make it a point to take the time and energy and effort to enjoy it through celebrating meaningful relationships and moments?

This is not a post about becoming a pseudo-vegetarian

hnck7938After years of believing that if I were a better person I would become a vegetarian, I finally caved and watched Food, Inc..  I knew that the film — or any of the the many other meat-industry indicting books or media items in the market — would push my conscience over the edge and that I would be forced to truly confront my meat-eating and meat-loving habits.  I resisted all of the literature (Eating Animals, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, etc.) for this precise reason: I didn’t want to face the facts that would morally compel me to give up something that I enjoy eating.  Ignorance is bliss. 

Just as I suspected it would, Food, Inc. depressed and horrified me, and it depressed and horrified Caleb even more; and so without further adieu, Caleb is taking the vegetarian leap, and I’m taking vegetarian steps. (Translation: Caleb is giving up meat; I’m more or less giving up cooking meat — though if I am really craving it I might give in and allow myself to buy the expensive grass-fed, local stuff that I don’t find ethically problematic — and I’ll only eat meat  that I haven’t cooked if a) it will go to waste otherwise, or b) it would be rude or an inconvenience to someone else for me not to eat it. And I’m still eating fish.  In other words, I’m not becoming a vegetarian, but I am becoming much more conscientious about my consumption.) Read more

Portions of Every Day

light.jpegI don’t think that I have had a single book recommended to me more often, and by a wider variety of people, than Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.  A work ten years in the making, Doerr’s novel spans the years of World War II and weaves together the stories of Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig, a blind French girl residing with her eccentric, agoraphobic great-uncle and a German orphan forced into military school and then enlistment. 

As Marie-Laure and Werner witness and experience the tragic destruction — physical, mental, relational, and emotional — wreaked by the war, readers — if not the characters themselves — catch glimmers of light in the interactions and inner lives of the intertwining stories.  No doubt the novel is in many ways a dark one, and Doer certainly doesn’t romanticize or gloss over the suffering endured by his characters, but as his title suggests, he demonstrates that, whether or not a person can see the light in their present circumstances, there is light. 
Read more

Putting Myself Out There

Busy StreetI’ve been on a Brene Brown kick recently, and I’m finding that her key themes of vulnerability, shame, wholehearted living, and surviving failure are really resonating with me.  Brown is my kind of author, and I am always going to love a book that integrates self-help, research, spirituality, storytelling and list-making, but during this year of moving, making friends, and new jobs, her work feels especially helpful.

“People who live wholeheartedly are people who are facing their lives and living their lives, putting themselves out there and in consequence knowing that they will get hurt.  They are living with gusto and intention and not taking a backseat in their life.”

This has been a year of putting myself out there, and, if I am being completely honest, I didn’t love it.  With each new class that I’ve taught, service trip that I have led and event that I have planned, I have had to wonder: how will this go?  Will the students respond well?  What if I get lost on my way to the site/event location?  I’ve had to meet a lot of new people, which is tiring for an introvert, and I’ve felt overwhelmed by anxiety, worry, and frustration at numerous points.  Read more

Homesickness: an Ode to a City

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During a recent day-trip into Boston, I was struck by how keenly homesick I felt for the city: the streets lined with brownstone row houses, the screeching start and stop of the MBTA subway cars, the sidewalks filled with young-professionals walking at a clip, the waterfront breeze inherent to a coastal city, and the abundance of coffee shops, one on every corner.  Even as I sat amidst it all, I felt an overwhelming longing for it — a longing to grab the city and hang on to it, to have it as a part of my everyday again, to be living it with regularity, not observing it from the stance of a visiting outsider. 

What was this homesickness?  Why did I feel such sadness and longing for Boston when I simultaneously feel so content in my new city, Providence?  Read more

For All That Is To Come

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Those days of feeling glum are inevitable. 

For me, glum days take on a few different shapes.  I won’t feel like getting out of bed in the morning.  I’ll be easily distracted, unable to focus on a particular task and instead floating from one thing to another, with long periods of just sitting and thinking in between them.  I won’t accomplish half of the things on my daily to-do list, if I even get around to making the to-do list in the first place.  Read more