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New York in January

midtown nyc skyscrapers blue sky

New York in January is rain-washed sidewalks and humid air, brittle Christmas trees with their sharp pine scent, piled in heaps on the streets for the garbage collectors. It is scraps of blue sky glinting off silver skyscraper windows, traffic lights and street lamps and the glitter of midtown mingling together in a wild, whirling urban glow.

New York in January is women in black coats and ankle boots and red lipstick, hundreds of men in suits striding through midtown with sleek leather portfolios under their arms. It is spindly bare trees still wound with twinkle lights, orange construction cones and planks of plywood and men in hard hats blocking street corners with their work zones. It is darkness falling early as you walk past uniformed doormen, glowing storefronts and unexpected churches amid the high-rise buildings, raising their spires to the sky.

st patricks cathedral spires nyc

New York in January is dogs bundled up in plaid coats for a morning walk, intrepid runners in leggings and knit caps, slippery patches on sidewalks after hours of unexpected snow. It is skies so blue they make your heart ache, a brisk wind whipping off the East River, the relief of coming indoors to a warm bookstore or cafe after walking with your head bent for blocks on end.

New York in January is New York in all seasons: captivating, exhausting, a demanding, bewitching delight.

writers resist nypl event protest

I spent most of the last week in New York City, first attending a work conference and then enjoying a long weekend in Brooklyn with my husband. We walked and wandered: around Fort Greene, across the Brooklyn Bridge, up through SoHo and what felt like half of Manhattan. On Sunday afternoon, we joined the crowd on the steps of the New York Public Library’s main branch for the PEN America Writers Resist event.

It’s always worth gathering to listen to writers read their own words and the words of other writers whom they treasure; to hear them speak in impassioned defense of free speech, a free press and the vitality of individual voices. We stood on the steps for an hour, listening to poets and novelists, essayists and short-story writers and singers, lifting their voices in praise of creativity and free expression.

In a moment of serendipity (or magic), we arrived just in time to hear novelist Alexander Chee read Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem “Praise Song for the Day,” from which this post takes its title. I stood there among a crowd of passionate strangers and felt tears prick my eyes. (As regular readers know, Alexander’s poem “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe” has been in my head for months.)

Lately, the loudest words in this country have seemed to be fear or division or prejudice. We are entering a time of political transition with many unknown factors, and I know a lot of us are struggling with fear and anger, every day. I can’t pretend that the protest solved that, for me or for anyone. But I believe it was important to show up and listen.

“In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, / any thing can be made, any sentence begun,” Chee read. I needed that reminder, and I’m sharing it in case you need it too. Pick up a pen, a paintbrush, a musical instrument – whatever tool you can use to make and remake the world. We need you: your work, your voice, your love. We are louder – and stronger – together. Let’s walk forward in that light.

three lives bookstore interior

I’ve been (not surprisingly) digging into stacks of books as 2017 begins, and I’ve found some gems this month. Here’s the latest roundup:

Dinner with Edward: A Story of an Unexpected Friendship, Isabel Vincent
When Isabel Vincent’s friend Valerie asked her to look in on her recently widowed father, Isabel never dreamed she’d make a new friend. But she did – and this lovely memoir recounts many of their dinners á deux. Edward is a great cook, but also gives sound, practical advice, and Vincent writes their story with warmth and charm.

The Lost Book of the Grail, Charlie Lovett
Arthur Prescott is happily ensconced in his life in Barchester: teaching English at the university, spending untold hours in the library and secretly searching for the Holy Grail. But the arrival of an attractive young American who is digitizing the library’s manuscripts upends Arthur’s world. Lovett deftly moves back and forth in time between this present-day story and other historical eras (starting in the 500s). A fascinating, fun literary mystery – the third Lovett book I’ve read and possibly his best yet. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 28).

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling
This series gets bigger, deeper, darker and more heartbreaking with every book. I love this story so much, and I’m still loving my reread-along with a friend, which has prompted multiple discussions on everything from Rowling’s clever wordplays to the big questions of life and destiny at the heart of the series.

A Country Between: Making a Home Where Both Sides of Jerusalem Collide, Stephanie Saldaña
After falling in love with a French novice monk in Syria, American writer Saldaña ended up making a home with her new husband on a street in the middle of Jerusalem. A luminous, thoughtful, achingly lovely memoir about home, family, time and searching for the beautiful, even – especially – in broken and hard places. Stunning. I also loved Saldaña’s previous memoir, The Bread of Angels. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 7).

News of the World, Paulette Jiles
Captain Jefferson Kidd, an itinerant news reader in post-Civil War Texas, is asked to return a young girl, Johanna, to her family after she has been “recovered” from the Kiowa tribe. Slowly, as Kidd and Johanna make the treacherous journey from north Texas to San Antonio, they form a tight, tenuous bond. A slim story told in spare, powerful prose.

Everything, Everything, Nicola Yoon
Madeline Whittier hasn’t left her house in 17 years, due to a rare immune disease. But when a boy named Olly moves in next door, she starts questioning the protected life she’s been living. A sweet, heartbreaking, funny, wonderful YA novel. I read it in one sitting.

A Trail Through Time, Jodi Taylor
Madeleine Maxwell, time-jumping historian, has been yanked out of her own world by the Muse of History and deposited in a very similar one, where she and the man she loves are trying to outrun the Time Police. (Confused yet?) This fourth installment in Taylor’s Chronicles of St. Mary’s series gave me whiplash, but it was so much fun.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith. Pictured above: the interior of Three Lives & Co. in NYC, where I spent a very happy hour this week.

What are you reading?

magic is something you make brushstrokes

My one little word for 2017 is magic.

After a year that required all the gumption I could muster – which is to say, I frequently felt like I was hanging on by my fingernails – I wanted something different for 2017. I thought about vitality, which Ali chose for her word a few years ago, or rest, which I could certainly use more of this year.

Mostly, I wanted a word to help me live more fully into my everyday. Since I started choosing a word with brave back in 2010, this practice has become a way for me to pay better attention to my life. (Fittingly, attention was my word in 2013.)

I also wanted a word that would spark a little joy. 2016 was a hard and scary year, and I ended it completely worn out: exhausted, anxious, weary and fearful (though also deeply grateful for some good changes). There are lots of challenges ahead in 2017, I know, and I want to face them with bravery and hope: to walk forward expectant and unafraid.

All this reminded me of something Elise Blaha Cripe wrote a few years ago, when she chose magic for her word: “magic is something you make.” (The image above is from her site.)

Elise noted that magic doesn’t just happen to us, though it is there for the noticing: it often results from our choices, from the work we put in, from the way we choose to see the world. I was reminded, too, of Ali’s post from last year about making our own magic. Her post was related to the holidays, but I think it applies all year round.

Magic also feels a little sneaky, a little unexpected – like a much-needed antidote to the grim realities we’re all facing. To be honest, it also feels a little frivolous, and I wondered if I should choose something more grown-up and respectable. But then I remembered: I am always arguing in favor of the small things, the tiny, often overlooked moments that can turn a whole day around.

lamont quad light sky

The scrap of blue sky, the vase of red tulips on my desk, that first sip of hot, spicy chai in the morning. My favorite green coat, which has become my winter trademark. The pendant stamped with brave that I wear around my neck. The simple, small pleasures of daily life, and the lovely moments of connection with strangers and friends. Those “spasmodic tricks of radiance” are everyday magic, if anything is, and I firmly believe we need to notice them and also work to create more of them.

After I decided on my word, I went downtown to meet a friend one night last week. I got off the train early so I could walk through Beacon Hill, making my way down a dark, quiet, twinkly Charles Street with a cup of Earl Grey in my hand. And if I needed any further confirmation of my word, it came in this sign, spotted in a shop window: perfect words from one of my favorite writers.

presence wonder eb white

Wonder and magic are closely related, and I’ll be looking out for both of them this year. In a world that often feels fraught and dangerous, there’s still a great deal of light and loveliness to be found. I invite you to join me in looking for magic, and in making a little magic of our own.

Are you following a word this year? (I know I asked this question last week, but feel free to share if you haven’t already.)

millennium falcon interior empire strikes back

Recently, the hubs and I saw Rogue One, which was fantastic and heartbreaking. It made me laugh and cry, like The Force Awakens and the original Star Wars trilogy. (We won’t talk about episodes I-III.)

In fact, we loved it so much that we went straight home and watched A New Hope, sitting on the couch with takeout from our favorite Indian restaurant. (This was New Year’s weekend and yes, we do know how to party.)

Watching those two films meant, of course, that we also had to watch The Empire Strikes Back (my personal favorite) and Return of the Jedi. We haven’t rewatched The Force Awakens yet, but I’d like to.

I love so many things about these movies – including the snappy dialogue, the ingenious technological devices, the frequent flashes of wry humor and the way R2-D2 always saves the day. But this time, I noticed something about when, and why, they made me cry.

There are moments in all three original films (and also in Rogue One) when a small, motley crew of rebels, who have usually gathered hastily from across the galaxy in response to a distress call or a preemptive strike by the Empire, must decide to go into battle. It usually looks like a fool’s errand: what chance do a few fighters have against the Empire’s sleek, massive fleet? Or, as a pilot says to Leia in The Empire Strikes Back, “Two fighters against a star destroyer?”

The Rebel forces often seem scruffy and disorganized next to the Empire’s sharp lines of identically clad soldiers, and they know: bravery is no guarantee of success. Sometimes they’re receiving their marching orders when they are already under attack. But they always choose to face down the enemy, and they choose to do it together.

None of these moments are climactic in themselves: they happen before Luke makes the kill shot to destroy the Death Star, before the Millennium Falcon and her crew escape the Cloud City, before the final showdowns (there are several) in Return of the Jedi. They are the small decisive moments before the big battle scenes, when the rebels look each other in the eye and say: let’s do this. Together.

They know the stakes; they know they might not make it out alive. Some of them don’t; the death toll in all four movies struck me forcibly this time around. But they are willing to fight for the cause of freedom and justice, and they will walk into the mouth of hell itself – or fly straight toward Darth Vader’s ship – beside one another.

As C-3PO helpfully points out more than once, the deck is often stacked against them: the odds of successfully navigating an asteroid field, for example, “are approximately 3,720 to 1!” But Han Solo and the rest aren’t interested in the odds: they’re going in. Together. And it makes me cry every time.

(Image via Google)

iris gumption kate winslet the holiday

Last January, I chose gumption as my one little word for 2016. I was partly inspired by Kate Winslet’s character in The Holiday, above – I love watching her discover her own gumption with the help of her friend Arthur.

I’ve been choosing a word nearly every year since 2010, when I chose brave and it sparked, catalyzed and helped me navigate all sorts of big changes in my life. When 2016 began, I was still in the throes of the job hunt, and I chose gumption as a way to pump myself up for the challenges I knew were coming. (As you may have noticed, 2016 also brought all kinds of challenges that I – and a lot of other people – didn’t see coming.)

Some days in 2016 – a lot of days – gumption simply meant getting out of bed and dealing with the day’s vagaries, at work and at home. But it often meant much more than that.

This year, gumption meant speaking up in meetings at work and church, contributing my ideas and asking questions. It meant carving out a place for myself at two different temp gigs at Harvard, then coming back to the first office in a more permanent role. (That was an adjustment in itself, though I am delighted to be here.)

This summer, it meant taking the leap to a new apartment: packing, moving, unpacking, adjusting to a new neighborhood and lots of resultant shifts in my routine. (It also meant heading to NYC, by myself, for three hot, humid, glorious days in mid-August when I couldn’t take the moving chaos any more.)

hibiscus iced tea journal

All year, gumption has meant sending that email, making that phone call, asking that friend to meet up, admitting that hard or vulnerable true thing. It has meant asking a lot of questions about my work (day-job-related and otherwise) and my place in the world. It has meant riding the emotional roller coaster of the election season, and bracing myself for what comes next. It has meant learning how to do a lot of new things, and it has meant summoning my courage, over and over again.

Sometimes I wondered if gumption was really the right word for this year: at times survival, or barely hanging on, seemed more accurate. But I also saw the flip side of gumption this year: the lightness and laughter that often pop up during hard times, when you least expect them.

I think of gumption as a combination of lightness and grit. And while the trials of 2016 required plenty of grit, the year also brought some much-needed levity, mostly via my loved ones. My husband, my coworkers, my friends and the children in my life (my nephews and my friends’ kids) made me laugh and helped me look for the silver linings. I may have chosen gumption as my word, but the words community and belonging (and Darwin’s) ended up choosing me.

I’m still thinking about my word for 2017, as we ease into a new year fraught with (more) challenges and change. I’ll let you know when I decide on a word, but meanwhile, I’d love to know if you have a word for 2017, or if you had one for 2016. Please share, if you like.

december books 2016 christmas tree

Happy New Year, friends. How were your holidays? I hope they were lovely.

I spent the first part of my Christmas break sick in a hotel room (ugh), but did manage to squeeze in a lot of reading, both while I was sick and after I got well. So as we head into 2017, here’s the last reading roundup of 2016:

My (Not So) Perfect Life, Sophie Kinsella
Katie Brenner is living her dream life in London – and trying to rise above the non-Instagrammable parts. When she’s let go, she heads home to Somerset to help her dad launch a glamping business. Everything is fine until her high-maintenance ex-boss, Demeter, shows up. Fluffy and fun with a few deeper insights. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 7).

A Study in Scarlet Women
, Sherry Thomas
When Charlotte Holmes is caught in flagrante delicto with a married man, it’s the end of her reputation – but only the beginning of her career as Sherlock Holmes. This was a clever take on the Sherlock Holmes story, with a highly entertaining “Watson.”

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling
Harry’s fourth year at Hogwarts is chock full of adventures – the Quidditch World Cup, the Triwizard Tournament – but the shadow of Lord Voldemort draws ever closer. I’m rereading these books in tandem with a friend this time around, and it is so much fun.

Winter Solstice, Rosamunde Pilcher
I reread this gentle Scottish novel every December. This year I lingered in it, sometimes reading only a few pages a day. I love this story of heartbreak, quiet hope, and the ways community saves us.

A Cast of Vultures, Judith Flanders
London book editor Sam Clair is juggling cranky colleagues, nosy consultants and an epic hangover – and that’s before she gets drawn into a mystery involving arson, missing neighbors and potential drug dealing. Witty and well plotted; better than its two predecessors. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 21).

The Left-Handed Fate, Kate Milford
Lucy Bluecrowne is utterly at home on her father’s privateering vessel, the titular Left-Handed Fate. But as the Fate sails the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars, Lucy and her crew are drawn into intrigue with the French, the Americans and the mysterious citizens of Nagspeake. A great adventure story with a hint of magic. (I also loved Milford’s previous novel, Greenglass House.)

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

What are you reading in this brand-new year?