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Hello, friends. It’s technically the halfway point of winter, though we in the Northeast know we still have weeks to go before spring really comes. No matter what the groundhog says, we can expect biting winds and freezing temps for a while yet.

That’s one reason – though not the only reason – I’m joining up with Anne Bogel’s annual celebration of what’s saving our lives right now.

January was unusually grey – the cloudiest in decades, according to my favorite weather guy. I struggle with short days and bitter nights , and have been feeling a bit uninspired at work and in my own creative practice. So I needed the push, more than usual, to really look at what’s saving my life these days.

Here’s my list – I’d love to hear yours, if you’d like to share:

  • Clementines. These little bursts of sunshine are my favorite winter fruit. Their sweet-tart zing is just the best, and I love the way the scent lingers on my hands.
  • Petting Gigi, our affectionate office dog, whom I adore (it’s mutual).
  • Yoga, several times a week. I’m lucky that The Point, my beloved studio, is down the street from both work and home.
  • Strong black tea in my red Darwin’s mug. I miss the place itself, but the mug and the memories live on.
  • Fresh flowers, always, and houseplants. My stripey nanouk plant and African violet are thriving, and I’m starting my second batch of paperwhites soon.
  • Season 3 of All Creatures Great and Small, which is as joyful and funny and life-affirming as ever.
  • Spotify mixes, made for me: soulful singer-songwriters, Broadway hits, smooth jazz and the women of country.
  • Bright red toenail polish, even if nobody sees it but me.
  • Twinkle lights, at home and at work.
  • Travel plans coming up.
  • The &Juliet soundtrack, full of poppy, upbeat, feminist, blues-curing hits I adore.
  • Good books, as always.
  • Colorful pens and cute stickers, from Katie Daisy and Brandi Kincaid.
  • Trading texts and Marco Polo messages with a few dear friends.

What’s saving your life this winter? I’d love to hear.

P.S. The fifth issue of my newsletter, For the Noticers, comes out soon. Sign up here to get on the list!

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January has been a long year, as someone commented on social media recently. The latest batch of books, fortunately, has been excellent. Here’s what I have been reading:

Under the Henfluence: Inside the World of Backyard Chickens and the People Who Love Them, Tove Danovich
Danovich dreamed of owning chickens during her years in Brooklyn – but when she moved to Oregon and ordered three chicks, she had no idea how they’d change her life. A warm, engaging, often hilarious deep dive into chicken-keeping, the poultry industry, chicken care and the ways these little birds steal their owners’ hearts. Informative and fun. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 28).

Island of Spies, Sheila Turnage
Hatteras Island, 1942: As World War II heats up, Sarah Stickley “Stick” Lawson and her two best friends, Rain and Neb, hunt for mysteries to solve on the island. They’re soon caught up in some real espionage, possibly involving the cranky postmistress, two enigmatic visitors, a couple of baseball players and Stick’s older sister. I loved this middle-grade novel about family and secrets and standing up for what’s right; I also adore Turnage’s Three Times Lucky and its sequels.

The Theory of (Not Quite) Everything, Kara Gnodde
Siblings Mimi and Art have always been close – especially since their parents’ tragic death. But in her thirties, Mimi gets restless and wants to find love. Art – a mathematical genius – agrees to help her if he can use an algorithm. When Mimi falls for Frank, another mathematician, Art is distressed for a few reasons. A thoughtful exploration of sibling dynamics; I loved Mimi’s friend Rey, and Frank himself. (Heads up for a few seriously heartbreaking death and hospital scenes.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out February 28).

Other Birds, Sarah Addison Allen
When 19-year-old Zoey moves into the condo she inherited from her mother on tiny, beautiful Mallow Island, she’s hoping to uncover some family secrets – but other secrets start to emerge almost immediately. From the resident turquoise birds to the suspicious death of one of her neighbors, plus a local reclusive author, Mallow Island is teeming with mystery. I love Addison Allen’s warm, enchanting Southern fiction; this one has some engaging characters, but also lots of deep sadness around abuse and addiction.

Operation Sisterhood, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich
Bo and her mum have always been a team, and Bo likes it that way. But when Mum announces she’s getting married, they move from the Bronx to Harlem and in with Bo’s new stepdad, his daughter, another family who shares their house, and a menagerie of pets. Bo – an introvert, baker and happy only child – likes her new family, but struggles to adjust. A warm, funny middle-grade novel (like the Vanderbeekers turned up to 11) with lashings of Black girl magic.

The Covenant of Water, Abraham Verghese
Verghese’s second novel traces the epic story of a family in southern India afflicted by a mysterious condition: one person in every generation dies by drowning. Spanning seven decades, the story begins with a child bride coming to Parambil, the family estate, and continues through several generations of love, loss, marriage, death, medical school and social change. Verghese is a medical doctor and it shows; the medical detail is painstaking (and occasionally gruesome). I read his memoir My Own Country in college and was blown away; he’s a powerful writer. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 2).

People We Meet on Vacation, Emily Henry
Poppy and Alex – polar opposites – have been best friends since college, taking an annual summer trip together. Until two years ago when they ruined everything. Poppy, floundering at work, is determined to salvage their friendship with one last trip to Alex’s brother’s wedding in Palm Springs. A funny story of travel disasters and friendship that might tip over into love; Poppy is wacky and oblivious, but eventually gains a little self-awareness. Fun for the winter doldrums.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

What are you reading?

P.S. The February issue of my newsletter, For the Noticers, will come out soon. Sign up here to get on the list!

birds art life mug

As we grind our way through winter (I’m trying to embrace it, but grey days and sleet make it hard), I’m taking delight in a newish enjoyment: watching, and identifying, the birds in my neighborhood.

I’ve long loved the sight of a cheery robin redbreast, and the squawks of a bluejay send me to the window to search out that flash of bright cobalt against the bare branches. I adore the cheeky house sparrows who perch on my windowsill, and I like watching the mourning doves who sometimes take up residence there. But lately, I’ve been trying to pay attention to other breeds as well.

I found an Audubon guide at a used bookstore last summer, and I’ve been using it to try and identify a few of the birds I see on my windowsill or on my morning runs: black-capped chickadees, bright goldfinches, the terns who swim in the harbor. The gulls and hawks are easy to spot, but so many of the smaller gray and brown birds (known, apparently, to birders as “LBJs” or “little brown jobs”) require a bit more attention. I’m not always sure I’ve gotten it right, but it’s fun to try and puzzle out the name of a new species.

The other week, on a walk with my friend Sharon, I stopped in Piers Park to watch a flock of birds on the water. We spent a few minutes debating: they were ducks, clearly, but what kind? We squinted in the fading light, studying the white rings on their necks and the little spikes on the backs of their heads. Sharon pulled out her phone, consulted a birding app, and we decided: they were probably red-breasted mergansers.

I get a little thrill from identifying a bird, as Mary Oliver describes in her poem “Bird in the Pepper Tree.” But I get a different, deeper satisfaction from simply watching: noticing, observing, trying to see these birds as separate from my categorization of them. I loved watching the flock of birds bobbing on the water, knowing some of them were mergansers but some might be other species. The snapshot, in my memory, of leaning against the railing with Sharon, watching their black bodies against the waves blue with reflected light, was better than knowing their names.

As Oliver notes, “a name is not a leash” – though it can be, or enhance, a true joy.

I was waiting in line at the post office recently (enjoying the Mary Tyler Moore episode playing on their new TV), and witnessed something that made my day…

A stooped older gentleman came in asking about the keys to his post office box, which he’d misplaced. One of the postal workers – who clearly knew him by name – immediately said: Oh, you left your box open last week, so we put the keys in it for you, honey. Her colleague retrieved the keys and handed them over, and with some gentle teasing, the man went on his way.

I loved everything about that interaction: the fact that the man got his keys back, the fact that the workers instantly knew where they were, the kindness in the woman’s voice as she called him honey. (She was probably young enough to be his granddaughter.) It was such a moment of care, in a busy city on a grey Thursday afternoon, that it delighted me simply to witness it.

I always feel privileged when I get a peek into moments of tenderness between people, and this sweet instance of neighborly kindness – in a business setting, no less – felt especially precious. I appreciated, too, the not-so-subtle reminder that, as the Mary Tyler Moore theme song reminds us, love is all around.

As the snow swirls down outside, I’ve been plowing (ha) through books – poetry, fiction, memoir and strong women, as usual. Here’s what I have been reading:

Swan, Mary Oliver
I adored this Oliver collection, unsurprisingly – especially the first poem, and several others. She writes so well about nature, the interior life, seasons and paying attention. Perfect morning reading.

Salty: Lessons on Eating, Drinking, and Living from Revolutionary Women, Alissa Wilkinson
I’ve known Alissa online for years, and loved her book of essays on smart, strong, bold women – Hannah Arendt, Edna Lewis, Maya Angelou, Laurie Colwin and others – who had interesting things to say about food, gathering, womanhood and community. If that sounds dry, it isn’t; Alissa’s writing sparkles, and each chapter ends with a delectable-sounding recipe. Found at the lovely new Seven and One Books in Abilene.

Running, Lindsey A. Freeman
As a longtime runner, a queer woman and a scholar, Freeman explores various aspects of running through brief essays – part memoir, part meditation, part academic inquiry. I enjoyed this tour of her experience as a runner, and the ways she writes about how running shapes us. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 14).

Beyond That, the Sea, Laura Spence-Ash
During World War II, Beatrix Thompson’s parents send her to the U.S. to escape the bombings in London. Bea lands with a well-off family, the Gregorys, and her bond with them – deep and complicated – endures over the following years and decades. A gorgeous, elegiac, thoughtful novel about love and loss and complex relationships. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 21).

Winterhouse, Ben Guterson
Elizabeth Somers, an orphan who lives with her curmudgeonly relatives, spends a surprise Christmas vacation at Winterhouse, an old hotel full of delights. She makes a friend, uncovers a dastardly plot, makes some mistakes and discovers family secrets. I liked Elizabeth, but I really wanted this to be better than it was.

The Belle of Belgrave Square, Mimi Matthews
Julia Wychwood would rather read than go to a ball – but the only way to placate her hypochondriac parents is to plead illness. She’s rather miserable when Captain Jasper Blunt, a brooding ex-soldier in need of a fortune, arrives in London and begins pursuing her. A fun romance that plays with some classic tropes; I loved Julia (a fellow bookworm!) and her relationship with Jasper. I also loved The Siren of Sussex; this is a sequel of sorts.

The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times, Michelle Obama
Michelle needs no introduction from me; this book discusses some of the tools she uses to steady her during challenging times, such as knitting, exercise, friendship and keeping her perspective straight. I loved the insights into her marriage and her relationship with her mom, and her practical, wise voice. So good.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

What are you reading?

P.S. The fourth issue of my newsletter, For the Noticers, came out last week. Sign up here to get on the list for next time!

My one little word for 2022, as you may remember, was true.

I didn’t write much about it here after that initial post. But it has quietly infused my days, as I run in the mornings and go to work, trade texts and emails and Marco Polos with friends, and talk with my partner about building the life we want to live, together.

For me, this year, being true meant asking myself – and speaking up about – what I wanted, when it made sense to do so (and, once in a while, when it didn’t). It meant having the occasional tough conversation, and putting myself out there to make a few new friends. It meant, sometimes, giving in to joy: dancing with abandon at the ZUMIX Gala, wandering around NYC on a couple of lovely solo weekends. It meant listening to a few inner nudges to do things differently, even if those nudges didn’t always make sense.

I thought a lot, this year, about a Masterpiece podcast episode in which Rachel Shenton, who plays Helen on All Creatures Great and Small, talked about her character needing to “live a more truthful life.” That was one of my aims in choosing this word, and it’s an ongoing challenge: to be honest about what I want, what I need, what I’d like to work toward in my life.

Sometimes that means being honest about grief, when friendships shift or disappear, when plans don’t work out, or when old sadness flares up unexpectedly. Often it means working against my ingrained habit of smoothing things over and being accommodating. Being true, and truthful, can mean admitting the uncomfortable stuff, or disagreeing with the people you love (which is hard for me). And there’s a corollary: once you put the truth out there, you rarely know where it will lead. I can’t control anyone else’s response to my truth, or to my sharing of the bigger truths that are often layered and difficult. That is scary, perhaps. But it’s a more honest way to live.

I’m still carrying true with me as I move into 2023, though I’ve chosen a new word (about which more soon). I’m still humming George Strait’s “True” – it’s a fitting theme song, by a man whose music I have loved all my life. I’m remembering Rachel’s words about Helen, making difficult decisions and staying true to herself in 1930s Yorkshire. And I am trying my best, each day, to be true.

Did you follow a word in 2022? If so, what did it teach you?

If you read my recent newsletter, you know: the first week of January here was dreary and grey, with mornings shrouded in mist and afternoons that looked just like the mornings. It wasn’t particularly cold (at least, for New England), but it was gloomy as a Yorkshire moor, and not in the romantic way. By Thursday I was mopey, and by Friday I was downright cranky. And on Saturday morning, I nearly squealed – or wept, I couldn’t decide which – when I woke to bright sunshine.

There’s a sharpness to the light this time of year, a sudden urgency, as though the daylight itself is trying to make the most of its limited hours. The sun’s low angle bounces off the harbor and arrows straight into my kitchen window, nearly blinding me, but its golden warmth is welcome.

My houseplants stretch toward the light, and so do I – making sure to bundle up and get out for walks as often as I can. If it’s too cold or I’ve just come back inside, sometimes I stand in the kitchen window and let the sunlight flood my cells, my shadow stretching long on the floorboards behind me, lighting up the ordinary objects that crowd my shelves. Even my silverware drawer looks ethereal, bathed in that kind of light.

For the grey days, I still have my happy lamp and vitamin D pills – and you can bet I’m outside every day, whether walking or running or simply commuting the few blocks to my office. The fresh air helps, no matter what color the skies are. But the sunlight – blazing or shy, intense or elusive – is its own particular gift. Especially on these short, dark days, I’m making the effort to soak it up as much as I can. (I’m also thinking of dipping back into Horatio Clare’s lovely memoir, aptly titled The Light in the Dark.)

How do you find light in the middle of winter?

mostly books interior abingdon uk bookshop

I’ve been blowing through books in the first days of 2023 – so it’s time for a roundup (already!). As we dive into a new year, here’s what I have been reading:

Mastering the Art of French Murder, Colleen Cambridge
Tabitha Knight is loving her sojourn in postwar Paris with her grand-pere – especially since she has Julia Child for a neighbor. But when an acquaintance is found stabbed with Julia’s kitchen knife, Tabitha undertakes a bit of amateur sleuthing. A fun, clever start to a new mystery series; technically my last book of 2022. Coming out in April; I read an ARC.

God’s Ex-Girlfriend: A Memoir About Loving and Leaving the Evangelical Jesus, Gloria Beth Amodeo
Raised in a fairly laid-back Catholic faith, Amodeo joined Campus Crusade for Christ as a college student. This memoir details her experience with Cru, as it’s now called; explores the reasons she clung to the community she found; and charts her struggles to get out of it. Thoughtful and relatable, though the ending felt rushed. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 21).

Code Name Sapphire, Pan Jenoff
German political cartoonist Hannah Martel escapes to her cousin Lily’s house in Belgium after the Nazis discover her true identity. There, she joins the Sapphire Line resistance network, working with the prickly Micheline and her brother Matteo. But the network is (always) in jeopardy, and its members face danger and compromise at every turn. A compelling WWII story inspired by a real-life train break; Hannah and Lily’s relationship is especially complex. I found the ending really depressing. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 7).

Freestyle, Gale Galligan
Cory Tan loves nothing more than dancing with his crew of friends. But when his parents freak out about his grades and get him a tutor, he makes a friend and discovers a new hobby – yo-yo throwing. I adored this sweet middle-grade graphic novel (a Christmas gift from my guy) about friendship, stretching your horizons, apologizing and trying new things. So joyful and fun.

The Porcelain Moon, Janie Chang
Pauline Deng loves working in her uncle’s antique shop in Paris with her beloved cousin Theo. When war breaks out and Theo joins the Chinese Labour Corps as a translator, big changes come for them both, as well as for Camille, a young woman in the village where Theo is stationed. I flew through this well-written novel about a relatively unknown slice of WWI history. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 21).

A Perilous Undertaking, Deanna Raybourn
Lepidopterist Veronica Speedwell and her colleague Stoker have settled into their jobs cataloging the collection of a London gentleman. But when they get asked to investigate a murder, things get way more interesting. A fun, well-plotted mystery (though I agree with my friend Jess – too many phallic jokes). I like Stoker and Veronica, and Raybourn’s writing is highly entertaining.

Her Lost Words, Stephanie Marie Thornton
Both Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley (who never knew her mother) longed to take the world by storm. Thornton’s novel unfolds both women’s stories in alternating timelines, charting their emotional and financial struggles as well as their writing (with despairs and successes). A little long, but ultimately fascinating – like its subjects. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 28).

A Spoonful of Murder, Robin Stevens
Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells travel to Hong Kong to mourn Hazel’s grandfather. When they arrive, they find some surprises – including a new baby brother for Hazel, and soon, a murder. I enjoy this British middle-grade series; I love Hazel as a narrator, and I especially enjoyed the sensitive explorations of the dynamics between the girls in a new setting.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

What are you reading?

P.S. The fourth issue of my newsletter, For the Noticers, came out last week. Sign up here to get on the list for next time!

We’re a week into the new year, and in typical fashion, it’s chilly (though not as biting as it could be). The blue-sky days are brilliant, and the winterberries are showing off their cheery red, but there’s not a lot of visible growth outside. These days, the growing things I cherish – and a consistent delight – are my profusion of houseplants, a cluster of pots positioned to catch the winter sunlight.

I’ve nurtured a couple of geraniums for years – sometimes red, sometimes pink. Currently I have one of each, and I’m keeping a close eye on them after they got frostbitten during our Christmas cold snap. I’m hoping the southern sunshine will coax them back to thriving before too long. I love their cheery faces and the spicy scent of their leaves.

Across the kitchen, there’s a trio of smaller pots: an African violet sporting purple flowers, a re-sprouting amaryllis, and a purple-and-green striped nanouk plant from Trader Joe’s. Their spot on the waist-high cabinet that serves as a pantry means they catch the afternoon sunlight, and their fresh green growth makes me happy when there’s only brown to be seen outside.

On each kitchen windowsill, I’m starting a paperwhite bulb: my florist sells these around Christmastime, and I always scoop up a few. We are weeks away from crocuses, months away from daffodils and tulips and blossoming cherry trees, but the tall green shoots and sweet-scented white flowers always give me hope that we’ll survive the winter.

I love my houseplants for their inherent beauty, for their promise of new growth in a cold and dark season, for the unruly joy they bring to my (mostly) tidy apartment. New life is messy; growth pokes out an elbow or stretches out a leaf in unexpected places, and I often need the visual reminder. These plants, plus the fresh flowers I buy on the regular, and the fern that sits next to the humidifier, help me look for growth and vitality where I otherwise might not.

What’s delighting you this week? I’d love to hear.

What Can I Say

What can I say that I have not said before?
So I’ll say it again.
The leaf has a song in it.
Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
and you are somewhere in it
and it will never end until all ends.

Take your busy heart to the art museum and the
chamber of commerce
but take it also to the forest.
The song you heard singing in the leaf when you
were a child
is singing still.
I am of years lived, so far, seventy-four,
and the leaf is singing still.

I found Oliver’s collection Swan at the Booksmith this fall, and this first poem stopped me in my tracks, especially the lines about where to take “your busy heart.” As we enter a new year, I am hoping to take my heart to all those places: engaging with the world, noticing and absorbing beauty, and taking time to be in nature and be still.