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Harvard Commencement 2014 from behind a red ribbon

“I’m a Harvard grad,” a young Asian woman said while rolling a suitcase and checking her phone. No real reply from her companion, perhaps her brother, who was carrying a large flat box. “I did it,” she added. This was around 8:00 in the evening after Harvard’s 363th Commencement, and I was on my way to the pizza joint around the corner from my home after a long but joyful day serving as a marshal during the graduation ceremonies.

Commencement marshal ribbonThe role of marshal is largely ceremonial for alums attending their reunions. For those of us who work for Alumni Affairs and Development, the duties are largely of a hospitality/ushering nature. “Right now, we are the face of Harvard,” our leader told us. This year I was asked everything from, “Where’s my mother?” to “Where can I sit for a view of you?” The latter was said by an alum who graduated from Harvard before I was born. As marshals, women wear all black with a red rosette and optional hat—crimson fascinators were popular this year. Men wear top hats and morning coats, which tends to release their inner dapper gentleman of the academy. All wear a nametag with a ribbon of gold letters and a crimson ground.

with Walter Morris

with the distinguished Walter Morris, former president of the Harvard Alumni Association

While I joined other marshals in herding the faculty, dignitaries, and over 6,000 grads to seats for the morning exercises, a spare black man in a slim fit suit leaned against the crowd barrier behind me. “My son, my son, my son is coming… My son is coming?” He asked me directly.

“What’s his House?” The undergrads marched in according to the Houses in which they lived and studied, but not all of them would pass by us.

“I don’t know, I don’t know.” English was not his first language, and after some repetition by both of us and his consultations with others, he declared, “Quincy.”

“Yes! Quincy is coming now.”

“My son!” he pointed. He shouted to his son and asked for his hand. The son reached out and the father pulled him in for a fierce hug. The embarrassed grad escaped and after warm congratulations from me, the father asked if I taught at Harvard. No, but I do work here.

“Congratulations to you,” he said. He gestured to make sure I understood his point. “It takes all of you,” he embraced a circle with his arms, “all of you to make sure that they go up.” He pointed towards the grads and then raised his palms to the sky. “Congratulations to you, also.” Oh, that filled my heart.

Then my heart overflowed when Miss Aretha Franklin, on the stage to receive an honorary degree, sat at a grand piano and sang the National Anthem.

with Kelly Haigh

with my fine colleague Kelly Haigh

During the lull in our morning duties, I ran over to Starbucks for a frappacino and a savory nosh. I shared a table with a young woman working on a laptop. We chatted, and she soon revealed that she was in town from the Bay Area because her younger sister was receiving a doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Everyone has a story, she said. Just listen to this one. She and her sister had both been adopted, her sister joining the family after being found abandoned in a bar at the age of three months. My companion said she wasn’t a student herself, but her sister had put herself through UC San Diego, had received fellowship support for her doctoral studies at Harvard, aspired to be a superintendent of schools, and had already worked in some of the toughest schools in the Los Angeles area. How proud she was of her sister. So was I.

There was also pride in the young grad’s voice who proclaimed, “I did it!” later that evening near my house. Some wonder, too. It was a moment when there was no need for her to be “Harvard humble.” I no longer wore a red ribbon or hat, but was still dressed in a black blouse and skirt. For the last time that day I turned to a new alum.

“Congratulations,” I said. She beamed.


HGTV formula conjures dream writer’s retreat

Here’s what happens when you fall asleep to “Island Hunters” on HGTV: I dreamed I was with a couple looking at remote island properties that could accommodate up to 20 people. True to the Goldilocks nature of the HGTV formula, one property was serene and beautiful but too small, while the next was big enough for their purposes but its condition reminded them too much of a frat house at the end of the school year. The third property broke with the formula—it was not just right but over budget. Meanwhile, the couple morphed into friends and they already owned the third property, which was a compound that included a large, open building reminiscent of an old-style gym and included a raised stage along one of the long sides.

A HGTV fable. . .

The husband appeared to be a music management colleague from my other waking life. He said that the large space was useless. No, I countered, you can do your art in here. Plus you could close off one end to make classrooms, and the bedrooms in the nearby building could accommodate workshop participants. In fact, the compound would make a perfect writer’s retreat, and I could even put it together for him, as long as I still had room for my own creative writing. The husband was not engaged in his own creative work, and didn’t want to be reminded of it (pop psychologist friends, feel free to insert knowing smirk here). So he stormed off into the small town to drink. Of course, since he shouldn’t be driving because he was planning to get rip-roaring drunk, a city taxi showed up to take him on his binge. That is dream logic.

Vermont farmhouseThe dream of a writer’s retreat run by moi first arose when I was in my twenties, long before I had learned to separate the creator from the editor or how to thread a narrative path through a forest of material. The earliest fantasy took the form of a big, rambling house on a hill, surrounded by acres of green fields, probably in Vermont. A key requirement was a lovely carriage house that would be my retreat from the retreat and would be off-limits to resident writers. I would also be unapologetic in wielding dictatorial control over invitations, lengths of stay, and requests to leave due to bad behavior (as defined by me) or slacking off work. All of the thousands of details of actually running such a living/writing space would be, you know, taken care of.

I dreamed up the island writer’s retreat as part of a HGTV fable. That’s not real life. Real life is suffering. Not real life is the stuff that dreams are made of. Not real life is the source of real writing. Real writing is real life. Not writing is real life suffering.

Meanwhile, if you’re seeking a dictator to run a writer’s retreat and can offer lodging in a cozy carriage house, I’m your girl.

Remote luxe island locations considered.

Farmhouse Exterior by Burlington Architects & Designers TruexCullins Architecture + Interior Design

On the occasion of the 91st anniversary of the birth of Arnold Sparks, Sr.

February 15, 2014

Arnold desk 2-14 webArnold would be 91 if he were still alive today. In many ways that man remains a mystery to me, but in many ways I realize that I am my father’s daughter. My dad was a gadget guy. I’m not a gadget guy, says the owner of an iPhone, an iPad with an Adonit cover/keyboard and stylus, a MacBook Pro, and a Kobo e-reader. Okay, maybe I own a few gadgets, but I wait for the second or third gen at least—my dad was an early adopter. I remember the big, clunky, expensive VCR he tried to pawn off on me when he wanted the sleeker, newer model for himself. I am so different than he was.

Arnold was a visionary man, one of a group responsible for starting Negro History Week, the forerunner of Black History Month, in El Paso, Texas in the mid-1960s. As I remember it, the first guest speaker was Barbara Jordan, who at the time had just been elected the first African American woman to serve as a state senator in Texas (she later went on to a seat in the US Congress). Last fall, when we passed the life-sized statue of her in the Barbara Jordan Terminal of the Austin-Bergstrom Airport, I remembered a part of her speech that day that stuck in my young brain. She said that when she was in her office people would come by to stare at her, saying they wanted to see this rarity with their own eyes. She would reply, well here I am, right here “in living color.”

The bronze sculpture in the airport’s terminal named after her was not in living color, but it was a striking tribute to her significant contributions to changing the course of Texas and American history through a steadfast dedication to civil rights and promoting the welfare of workers. I’m glad that my dad and his friends and colleagues on that first Negro History Week committee were that kind of early adopter.

I may have to admit that you hear a family strain of dreaming when I say, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” A thousand of those types of thoughts come and go, but the ones that become more than a mere burst of neuronal charges often need some helping hands to shape them into concrete being. Sometimes, fortune strikes, like it did almost ten years ago when my grad school writing circle and I determined not to let go of one another, because that was Simply Not Done.

Even though illness has prevented me from joining them this weekend for our annual President’s Day weekend retreat, I am glad that it is taking place on my dad’s birthday. You see, he was a writer, also. Only he didn’t have determined friends who would believe in his work even when he didn’t. His potential in this direction was never realized. Perhaps he would be less of a mystery to me if it had been.

I am a mystery to myself, but thanks to my fierce and loving writing family that refuses to let go, some unspent potential is channeling itself through me.

Happy birthday, Arnold.

Urban Critters, Part Five: Market Lobster

The other day I posted a thought after staring into the eyes of the lobsters in the tank at the Star Market.

The lobster tank at the supermarket: some fight to be on top, some are resigned to be the bottom, but we’re all in the same tank.

This post provoked three comments, all from Maine writers. Morgan first suggested that someone needed a nap, a bit of a a surprise since I was feeling sprightly when I posted. Cecile pointed out the precariousness and slippery slope down for those perched on top. Lesley lamented the uselessness of armature and claws for creatures confined to a store tank with no hope for the future.

In front of the heap of holiday lobsters, some so still I thought they might already be dead, a few fighting with their scrawny legs and searching with those tentacles, Jim paused and said, “Bugs.” Awfully big ones, if that’s the way you look at them.

LobsterMy take on the moment was akin to but not exactly in line with any one of the above. It was a rather Zen moment in its depth and absurdity, which is perhaps fitting since I had been reading Roar of the Tigress, a compilation of oral teachings in the Zen tradition by Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett. She suggests steering clear of meditation unless you want to be “grabbed by the Cosmic Buddha.” Too late, this warning has come, and thus I felt the aliveness of all of those creatures–the ones waiting to die, and those fighting towards death. I also felt the constriction of the rubber bands on their claws, and wondered what those waving tentacles might be searching for.Roar of the Tigress

One lobster had cleared a space around itself in the overcrowded tank, fighting off any who wanted to move in or who had the misfortune of falling off the heap. A feisty old bird, I thought, mixing my phyla; he/she is not going to taste any good after all of that fighting. Jim had moved on but returned to say, “You can have just their tail over there.” Oh great, those are the ones that managed to be ripped apart despite the rubber-clamped claws. Of course I have no idea of the actual history of the lobster tails perched on ice, but this scenario certainly fit my melancholy view.

I do eat meat, but I had a spark of appreciation for the allergy to crustaceans that I developed a few years ago that keeps me from indulging in lobster. Before one assigns too much of a metaphysical significance to this allergy, I’ll note that I also have allergies to many, many raw fruits and vegetables. Even so, the lobsters were miserable, and there’s no need to treat them badly on their way to a certain death.

I was in the presence of “bugs” that were beings with individual personalities and hopes… and dreams… and maybe that’s why a nap was suggested. The other Zen part of the experience was moving on to the realization that those lobsters were no more miserable than I and my fellow humans are with our glass walls of beliefs and rubber-banded psyches. Yep, there’s no outside-of-the-tank for any of us. Not a bad thought, more of a nod to the physical, universal condition. Even a lobster traipsing free in the sea cannot range outside of its physical condition or avoid a certain death. Which brought me back to the absurdity of all of our striving.

Morgan probably sensed the turn toward the absurd, which made her follow-up post perfect: the official video of  “Rock Lobster” by the B-52’s. Pass the tanning butter…

Urban Critters, Part Four: AWP Party Animals

AWP Party Animals

Sunday morning after AWP Conference 2013. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs brought 12,000 members of the tribe to Boston for celebration and serious conversations. Off-site events stretched across the city and apparently included a pretty good time right here.

Urban Critters, Part Three: Squawking Swallows Sound the Alarm

When I stepped out of the house at dusk some time ago, a ring of squawking swallows filled the lower branches of the dogwood tree. Two titmouses complained nearby, one flashing and fluttering its wings at the far side of the tree trunk, all the while holding a green berry in its mouth. At first I thought I had stumbled upon a scene of avian turf wars, but the swallows seemed to be ignoring the the other birds and concentrating on something in the bushes below. And the berry-bearing titmouse seemed to be trying to scare something away, although from the distance it was keeping from the bushes, the something was in fact scaring the bird.

I cautiously peered into the gloom of the bushes and two eyes glowed back at me. I made out the outline of a gray cat who never flinched at my attention. In fact, I got the distinct impression that he was saying, “Nothing to see here, move along. Tell the little birdies everything’s fine.” I snapped these pics, which show how well he was camouflaged.

2012-Hidden-Cat-1 A few days later, my friend and not-too-distant Cambridge neighbor Maria was stunned by a coyote in her backyard. I supposed that the little urban jungle cat should watch his back. Which made me wonder where he was from, since there are few outdoor cats in our neighborhood anymore. My query was answered a couple of weeks later, when I happened to spy him on the ledge beside a second-floor balcony of the apartment building next door.
2012-Hidden-Cat-2 Do his owners know that he gets out and about like that? Or does he wait until they leave and is always back home, greeting them with a slow, reproachful blink upon their return? Curious cat. I wonder which of his nine lives he’s on.

I’m 2 months into a 3-month Tai Chi retreat-in-place. No wondering around Chinese mountains looking for strange guys in multi-colored robes (yes, that’s a typo, but perhaps it more precisely conveys what actually happens when one wanders around mountains). But we did make a commitment to train every day and to attend weekly 3-hour workshops. Chronicles from me and other TCers here.

It's All One. . . Move

Where is the Tao?? Silly. Of course it’s right here. . . I mean right there. . . I mean. . . I don’t know what I mean. . .

Where is the Tao?

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A Red Ruby Heart on the way to New Orleans

Sometimes a straight line is a curve. That’s Tai Chi talk. It also describes the path to a major US press taken by Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea, the debut novel by literary colleague (and grad school friend) Morgan Callan Rogers. The novel, set on the Maine coast and narrated by a girl whose mother disappears, first caught the attention of a German press that specializes in maritime stories. I’m sure they were attracted by the excellent storytelling and Morgan’s intimate knowledge of coastal living:

Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea

As the water got deeper, it got colder. My ears felt as if they were pressing against my brains, and I wanted to head back up in the worst way. But Bud grabbed my hand and we spiraled down, until he stopped and pointed.

We’d reached an underwater city of rusty black rocks, where barnacles dotted the surfaces. Seaweed church steeples reached for the light. The far-above sun filtered through them, and Bud and I wove our way through their paths. An olive-colored crab marched backward between two rocks as two small silver fish swam past. A flash of white belly gave a flounder away as it sped off.

Astute readers soon made the German translation a bestseller in their country, which encouraged Viking to release it back across the ocean in Morgan’s native land and tongue.

In Boston she’ll be at the new location of Newtonville Books on Monday, April 23 at 7:00 pm. She will be joined by Kevin Barry, author of City of Bohane. I’m excited to hear Morgan read her pitch-perfect dialogue and to see the new digs of Newtonville Books.

Later next week, I’ll Pull Over the Car to see Dana, Jeremy, and Jerome in New Orleans

Members of Morphine & Jeremy Lyons

We’re going to the first weekend of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Special treat will be a major stage set by Jeremy Lyons and Members of Morphine in the Blues Tent on Saturday, April 28 at 12:25 pm. If you’re not walking (or flying or training or driving) to New Orleans, you can tune in to a live broadcast by WWOZ on-line. Good times, y’all!

Urban Critters, Part 2: Wild Turkey in Mid-Cambridge

Yesterday this wild turkey visited the freshman dorms in Harvard Yard. Today she picked and gobbled along behind my house. I’ve seen plenty of these, but usually in places that have more grass than grad students.

Wild Turkey in Mid-Cambridge

Lorem Ipsum Books: Books for your home

“I used to be suspicious of homes that didn’t have books,” I said to the young bookseller at Lorem Ipsum, the local used bookstore and artist cooperative space in Inman Square.

“I still am,” he said. “Although I understand they’re more common.”

Lorem Impsum Books in the Phoenix