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tea keep calm mug pei

I love the “around here” posts that pop up periodically throughout the blogosphere. It’s always a true pleasure to get a glimpse into others’ everyday lives, and I like looking back at my own (sporadic) posts of this type – they are wonderful snapshots of certain moments in my life.

red leaves brown boots fall

Life is full and busy and rich (and sometimes stressful) these days, and I want to remember how it feels, in all its particularity. Right now – as of late November 2014 – I am:

  • drinking David’s pumpkin chai almost every morning, and breaking out the Yorkshire tea (with milk and sugar) when the temps dip below 30.
  • waking up to the Pride and Prejudice soundtrack and the hubs curled up next to me.
  • wearing dresses, tights and boots to work, jeans and sweaters on the weekends (with my beloved jade green coat).

katie hot cocoa red cup green coat

  • breaking out the handknit hats and fingerless gloves.
  • eating lunch with the hubs almost every Friday when he comes to Harvard Square.
  • listening to the Wailin’ Jennys, Kate Rusby, a set of jazz compilation CDs I bought in London more than a decade ago, and Sarah MacLachlan’s Wintersong album.
  • getting ready to break out the Christmas music.
  • plugging away at my NaNoWriMo mystery novel (47K words and counting – so close!).

computer mug nanowrimo

  • reading a wickedly funny publishing whodunit (out in Feb.) and rereading The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets (again).
  • looking at photos of my 11-day-old nephew, Harrison, and hoping he and my sister (who have both been fighting infections) get to go home from the hospital soon.
  • wishing I could be in Texas to sit with my sister and hug my parents. Living far away is hard sometimes.
  • burning a Leaves candle in the evenings.
  • starting my dozenth (at least) reread of Watch for the Light as Advent begins.
  • preparing for Turkeypalooza, our annual Thanksgiving potluck with friends, which means I am
  • buying sweet potatoes, pecans, evaporated milk and frozen rolls.
  • continuing my Christmas shopping (I like to start early).
  • cooking a lot of solo dinners (soup, pasta, fried eggs) and saving leftovers for the hubs when he gets home from work.
  • snapping photos of the autumn leaves and light in Harvard Square.

harvard yard autumn light leaves

catte street oxford

  • anticipating our annual Christmas trip to Texas even more eagerly than usual.
  • knitting baby sweaters for Harrison and others.
  • loving the glimpses of others’ lives I see on Instagram.
  • delighting in the weekly email exchanges with the ladies of Great New Books.
  • sipping a lot of chai lattes from Darwin’s, and the occasional peppermint hot chocolate from Starbucks, in a red cup.

darwins chai journal

  • snuggling down under the electric blanket and the quilts from our grandmothers in the evenings.
  • slathering on the hand lotion as the air gets colder and drier.
  • browsing the Harvard Book Store on my lunch breaks.
  • savoring apples from the farmers’ market before it closes for the season.

What are you up to right now?

MOAS memories

oas main building

Every November, when the leaves turn yellow and the nights begin to draw in, there’s a particular sort of grey, windy, serious afternoon that takes me right back to high school.

Along with a dozen of my fellow students, I spent the fall of my senior year preparing for the annual conference of MOAS, a mock diplomatic organization in which teams of student delegates represent the nations of the Western Hemisphere. I interviewed for the team on a whim, looking for something to fill up my schedule, never dreaming what it would come to mean to me.

Our team was assigned to represent the U.S. that fall of 2001. Mr. Walker’s English classroom was our headquarters, and we spent hours hunched over particleboard desks, heads bent over thick black binders filled with forests of paper, learning terms like rapporteur and communiqué and secretariat.

We drafted formal proposals and learned the rules of table discussion, dragging our desks into a wonky circle and holding mock debates: “Point of order, question to the speaker directed through the chair.” Along the way, we worked physics problems and held economics study sessions and piled into each other’s cars at lunchtime, grabbing burgers or tacos or sandwiches in our 55-minute escapes from campus.

The old-timers, like my best friend Jon, told stories of past conferences and explained to us newbies what to expect. We learned salient facts about various Latin American countries, most of which I have now forgotten. Walker warned that as delegates representing our own nation, we would be seen by other teams as the heavyweight, worth taking seriously but not always popular. (It was my first indication of how the U.S. is often perceived by the rest of the world.)

September 11, it need hardly be said, would have changed all our lives, irrevocably, forever. But it had a particular effect on this group of serious high school students in a mid-size West Texas town. We watched the news and read the headlines obsessively, worrying over what this meant for our country and our futures as adults, but also for our immediate futures: our trip to D.C. and the revisions now required (if we went) to accurately represent our country, in deep shock and mourning.

After days of holding our breath, we learned that the conference was still on, and by a tremendous diplomatic feat of his own, Walker persuaded most of our parents to let us go.

As the trip approached, we received detailed briefings: conference schedules, travel itineraries, handwritten packing lists, most of them headed by Walker’s no-nonsense black capitals. The packing list was divided into casual, semi-formal and formal “occations” – my friend Sarah’s handwriting joyfully misspelling the same word over and over again. After Walker advised us girls to “pack a little black dress” for the conference Gala, we met in the hotel lobby to discover that nearly every female in the group had bought or borrowed a little black dress. Somewhere there’s a photo of us, glittering and unsteady in our high heels, teetering on the edge of an exciting evening and also of something infinitely more huge and terrifying: adulthood.

gala photo

Jon and me at the Gala, and yes, I’m wearing a little black dress.

During that week of mock diplomacy, I learned a few things: one, I didn’t want a career in this field. I am not interested (part of me already knew this) in spending my days arguing with a roomful of colleagues and strangers. Walker slipped me a note during one lunch break, after catching sight of my tense expression, that read, in part: “Knowing what you don’t want is as important as knowing what you do.” I have carried those words, and many of his others, through thirteen years and two countries and half a dozen jobs.

That week, I also learned how to cook in a tiny hotel kitchen, how to wear a suit with heels, and how to dance the Cotton-Eyed Joe with gleeful abandon under a roomful of bemused non-Texan eyes. I did not learn how to tie a necktie (not for lack of trying), but I learned to knock on the door of the senior boys’ suite when I needed a can opener, help with last-minute proposal revisions, assistance in tying said necktie, or simply an encouraging word. (Jon, well-spoken MOAS conference president and endlessly patient best friend, came through every single time.)

I also learned how to navigate a big city on my own for the first time, tramping around the tangle of streets that connected the OAS building to the edge of Georgetown, where we were staying. I waited for Jon after the sessions ended every night, shifting in the high heels borrowed from my mother, feeling the city’s pulse under my feet as we walked through the dark streets to our hotel. Under the city sky, crisscrossed with floodlights, we discussed committee politics and personal dramas, but we also caught glimpses of our future selves: the adults we would become long after we had left high school and MOAS behind.

These days, I hurry along sidewalks in a different city, my mind full of to-dos and writing projects and social obligations. I don’t often pause to wonder at my grown-up life; most of the time it is simply the life I’m living.

But every November, the grey skies and brisk winds bring me back to that week long ago: hovering on the edge of adulthood, nervous, exhilarated, plunging into unfamiliar, exciting territory. The world opened up for us during those days in D.C., shifting to allow us a peek into our own futures while we played at being adults. We headed back to the safety of parents and school and home, but nothing was quite the same. And every autumn, I walk under the grey skies, and remember.

(Top image from oas.org)

a personal canon of poems

poetry books

Recently, Alyssa tweeted about having “a personal canon of poems” – a few lines or poems she depends upon to be “permanently in [her] head.” Of course, I immediately started thinking about my own essential poems – the ones that rise up to comfort me after a loss, or get me through a tough day.

I stumbled on most of them in college or thereabouts, studying them in classes or discovering them via friends. I’ve quoted some of them here during Poetry Fridays, but today I wanted to gather them up, like a bouquet of words, and share them all with you.

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” I love Gerard Manley Hopkins’ words about “the dearest freshness deep down things.” In the face of deep and unrelenting darkness, the world is still heartbreakingly, powerfully lovely.

Since I came across it a few years ago, Wendell Berry’s “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” has been saving my life, line by line. I read it aloud from the pulpit in church this summer, and it was as good as any biblical exhortation.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.”

And a few lines down: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” (This is hard but so necessary.)

I am a lifelong bookworm, and I love Wordsworth’s “The Tables Turned” because it pushes me to get out of my head and into the beautiful world around me. The last lines are my favorites: “Come forth and bring with you a heart / That watches and receives.”

Marie Howe’s poem “What the Living Do” stopped me in my tracks the first time I read it, on Sarah’s blog. I later read it aloud to a roomful of college freshmen one Sept. 11, as a way of paying tribute to those who died. The last lines still choke me up: “I am living. I remember you.”

I first encountered W.S. Merwin’s “Thanks” as the epigraph to Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies. It speaks powerfully to the beauty and the difficulty of life, and the continued impetus to keep saying thank you.

Mark Strand’s poem “The Coming of Light,” discovered years ago in a rickety cabin at a camp tucked deep in the hills of northern New Mexico, always reminds me how magic lives in the everyday.

“My work is loving the world.” Mary Oliver’s “Messenger” reminds me of this again and again.

These poems have worked on me in different ways through the years. Sometimes they comfort me; sometimes they wake me up, through rhyme and rambling meter and startling images. But they all do what Seamus Heaney talks about in the last line of his wonderful poem “Postscript“: they “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”

What poems have made it into your personal canon? I’d love to hear.

Waiting for Advent

advent church window flowers

“I’m ready for Advent,” I told my husband over a week ago.

I didn’t mean I’m ready for Christmas – not yet. I love the Christmas season, from the music to the decorations to the cozy, twinkly evenings in and the anticipation of time with my family. But over the last few years, I’ve also grown to love November, this glorious last gasp of fall before winter sets in. I relish the golden leaves, the achingly blue skies, the slow turning of the year from light to dark (while waiting eagerly for it to turn back again).

orange trees leaves cambridge graveyard

However, Advent – that time of waiting with deep longing and anticipation for the birth of Christ – could not be more welcome this year.

The news has been bad for several months now. I suppose the news is always bad, particularly if you go looking for things to worry over. There are always wars and rumors of wars, political unrest in our own country and elsewhere, poverty, famine, natural disasters.

But between the tragedy in Ferguson, the Ebola epidemic, ongoing crises in Syria and Ukraine and elsewhere, and many smaller struggles in my own life and the lives of people I know, it’s been a tough few months. We are – I am – in desperate need of some good news. And this is where Advent comes in.

Every year, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, we wait for the ultimate good news: the birth of the baby whose life, death and resurrection would divide history into two parts – before and after. The words of the angel still make me well up, even though I’ve heard them a thousand times: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

This is good news of the very best kind: God coming down from heaven, touching earth, making his home among us.

But we have to wait, as the Israelites waited thousands of years for the birth of their Messiah. Every year, we have to wait again. And I’m already impatient to begin that waiting.

I’ll be waiting with the help of some familiar rituals: the singing of “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” the tree-trimming and gift-buying, the reading of a few beloved books. But first I have to wait for Advent to begin. And in that waiting, there is a deep and radiant joy – because I am waiting for what I know is good news.

Advent starts on Nov. 30 this year. I invite you to wait with me.

fall books window mcnally jackson nyc

(Window display at McNally Jackson in NYC)

The Genius of Language: Fifteen Writers Reflect on Their Mother Tongues, ed. Wendy Lesser
A fascinating, varied collection of essays by writers – most of whom write in English – on the (often fraught) relationship between English and their native tongues. Found at McNally Jackson on our NYC trip.

Anne of Windy Poplars, L.M. Montgomery
I have read this book so many times, but I always reach for it in the fall. I love Anne’s adventures in Summerside – befriending the proud Pringles, doing a bit of matchmaking, spending many quiet evenings in her wonderful tower room.

Lila, Marilynne Robinson
I adore Gilead and Home, Robinson’s previous two novels. This book views some of the same characters from a different angle, telling the life story of Lila, Reverend John Ames’ wife. Heartbreaking and beautiful, and an unflinching look at Dust Bowl poverty.

Death in Four Courses, Lucy Burdette
Key West food critic Hayley Snow’s second adventure (I recently read book #5) finds her at a food writing seminar where the star speaker turns up dead. Full of backstabbing foodies, yummy meals and quirky characters.

Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil, James Runcie
Newlywed priest Sidney Chambers continues solving crimes in 1960s Cambridge and musing on the universe’s big questions. The cases are slow-paced and never too hard to solve, but still enjoyable.

The Song of the Lark, Willa Cather
A gorgeous, sweeping novel telling the life story of Thea Kronborg, a Colorado girl who becomes a famous opera singer. So much here about art and passion, love and striving. And I love Cather’s lyrical prose.

Bel Canto, Ann Patchett
I read this book years ago and fell in love with the gorgeous language and unusual storyline. I reread it for book club and found it as beautiful and heartbreaking as ever.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

movement-of-stars-coverToday I’m excited to make my official debut as a member of the Great New Books review team.

Jennifer King invited me to join the team a few months ago. It’s a group of smart, lovely women who talk about books they love over at the Great New Books website. My first post, on Amy Brill’s The Movement of Stars, is up today.

Here’s an excerpt:

I’ve always been fascinated by the stars. Although I can’t name nearly all the constellations, I love to pick out the ones I do know: the Big Dipper, Orion, Cassiopeia, the Little Dipper pivoting around its anchor point, the North Star.

I love to watch the constellations shift their positions in the sky as the seasons change. This rhythm – seemingly steady, yet always surprising – is captured in both the title and the storyline of Amy Brill’s gorgeous debut novel, The Movement of Stars.

Please click over to the GNB website to read the rest of my review. I’ll see you there!

Sunday in New York

brooklyn spread love sign

Our recent New York weekend began with Mexican food, book browsing in the West Village and dessert at Cafe Lalo. It continued with a gorgeous, sunny Sunday.

little zelda brooklyn

We got chai and breakfast sandwiches from Little Zelda, and ate them perched on a bench on the sidewalk, enjoying the sunshine.

sept 11 memorial reflection

After breakfast, we caught a train to Lower Manhattan, where we visited the 9/11 Memorial. It was crowded, but still (mostly) quiet, and so moving.

sept 11 memorial pool

Everyone says it was a gorgeous fall day when the planes hit the towers – a day just like this. Endless, heartbreaking blue sky.

sept 11 memorial blue sky

I had wanted to see the memorial for a while, and I’m glad we finally went: it felt right to walk around the two sunken pools and pay my respects. I couldn’t help thinking back to the day (I was a high school student in West Texas) and the changes those attacks have wrought in all our lives.

sept 11 memorial flowers

I wanted to walk around and read every single name.

first responders sept 11 memorial

After spending a while there, we caught a train up to SoHo, where we browsed the high-end shops and visited Purl Soho. I came away with two gorgeous skeins of bright pink yarn.

purl soho yarn

Our friend Mary Kate recently moved to NYC, and we met her for lunch at Parm. We ate delicious Italian food (eggplant parm on a sandwich, people) and talked for ages.

jer katie mary kate nyc

After lunch we headed up to Central Park, which is always a treat, but especially so on such a gorgeous day.

central park nyc

We walked and walked, watching the children and the buskers and the rowboats on the lake, trading stories about our time in Boston and Mary Kate’s brand-new NYC life.

After all that walking, we needed sustenance, so we popped into Magnolia Bakery on the Upper West Side, where Mary Kate tackled this chocolate monster. (She asked for a box to take it home.)

mary kate cake magnolia bakery nyc

We headed back to SoHo in an attempt to visit the Central Perk pop-up shop – but, alas, it was closed. (We’d checked it out earlier, but the line was miles long.) We contented ourselves with photos of the iconic logo.

central perk logo nyc

Next we headed to McNally Jackson, where we stayed almost until closing time. I picked up the delightful Greenglass House (the author works there) and the fascinating The Genius of Language.

mcnally jackson books nyc interior

Dinner at the Grey Dog was delicious – hearty American food and more good conversation. (And cool lighting.)

grey dog soho nyc interior

New York, you are full of wonder (as always). We’ll be back.

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