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Snow and silver linings

harvard yard trees snow

It snowed eight inches in Cambridge on Friday, as predicted. I’d kept an eye on the forecast, pulled out my snow boots, bundled up in all the right gear. But I was not ready.

After last winter’s record-breaking 108 inches of snow (that’s nine feet, people), most New England residents are greeting the weather forecast with a little trepidation these days. Even though we’ve had some shockingly mild spells, and this snow was mostly falling on bare ground, I still expected the usual slew of snow-related problems: icy sidewalks, bitter winds, slushy streets, possible train delays.

I didn’t want to walk out there and face it. But I had to.

harvard hall snow trees winter

These past few months have been a tough stretch for me, and for several people I love. We’re all dealing with the present reality or the aftermath of hard things: surgery, illness, uncertainty in our personal and professional lives. We wake up and face them because we have to, and we get through the day somehow, but at the end, it is still winter.

My sister is still on crutches after her knee surgery; my friends’ grown daughter still has cancer. I am still job hunting. We are all hanging in, bearing things we’d rather not have to bear, hoping for a glimpse of good news.

And yet.

cambridge fence sidewalk snow

On Friday, I arrived at the office to find I wasn’t alone, as I had feared I might be; about half of my colleagues had made it in. We spent a quiet, convivial, productive morning, watching the snow swirl down outside Sarah’s office window.

It felt like being inside a snow globe, and at lunch I walked out to the scene above. I made my way down the street to Darwin’s, for a sandwich and chitchat with the staff, and returned to work feeling nourished in several ways.

Later that afternoon, I threw on my coat, picked up a library book that needed returning, and headed over to the Yard. It is difficult to overstate my love for this particular patch of ground: I love it in all seasons, and it’s stunning in the snow.

johnson gate harvard snow

I walked down snowy sidewalks through Old Yard, past Widener Library and over to Lamont, where I returned my book and picked up another one. I stopped every few yards to marvel, sliding off my glove and snapping photos of buildings and trees limned with fluffy snow.

houghton library harvard memorial church snow

I am not a lover of cold and snow by nature. Given the choice, I’d prefer a mild spring evening or a crisp autumn day when the trees blaze red instead of standing out in black and white. But this winter wonderland has its own charms. And I was so grateful, on Friday, to be out in it, enjoying it. (I was equally glad to go back inside, where it was warm and dry.)

Worried about a messy evening commute, I left work a little early, only to find that the snow had stopped when I reached my neighborhood. The sky was tinted a delicate sunset pink, and the rosy light on the branches of the trees next to the subway station took my breath away.

sunset light snow branches winter

I would rather not have to bear the frustrations of winter (and I’m watching the forecast carefully, since more cold and snow are on their way). And I am so ready for the job hunt to be over. But both of them also possess some lovely silver – or, occasionally, rose-tinted – linings.

Mysteries and chocolate

 

flavia de luce series books mysteries
It’s no secret around here that these are two of my favorite things.

A couple of months ago, I noted that the Daisy Dalrymple mystery series are “my Cadbury milk chocolate: smooth, sweet and delightfully English.” I still like that metaphor, and it got me thinking about how to classify my other favorite mystery series as different types of chocolate.

So, for your culinary/reading/book-nerd pleasure, a list:

  • Dorothy Sayers’ mysteries featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane are rich dark chocolate: smooth, layered and delightfully complex. (She weaves in history, politics, feminism, culture, mental health – so many subjects.)
  • Spencer Quinn’s Chet and Bernie series (narrated by Chet the dog) is a handful of M&Ms: colorful, addictive and so much fun.
  • The Maisie Dobbs novels by Jacqueline Winspear remind me of a good chocolate caramel: rich, bittersweet and just slightly salty.
  • Tommy & Tuppence, Agatha Christie’s youthful detectives, are those Ghirardelli chocolate squares with mint inside – surprising and fun, and not too complex.
  • Miss Marple, that sweet elderly sleuth, and her cases are a truffle assortment – because there are always surprises inside.
  • Sherlock Holmes (in all his many iterations) is like an assortment from Burdicks, the gourmet chocolate shop in Harvard Square. These boxes always contain treats I’ve never heard of, made with exotic liqueurs – reminiscent of Holmes’ penchant for unusual cases with highly irregular details.
  • Rhys Bowen’s Her Royal Spyness mysteries are Hershey’s kisses: light, sweet and uncomplicated.
  • The Flavia de Luce series (pictured above) is a bar of wicked dark chocolate – since Flavia’s twin passions are for sleuthing and poison.

Any mysteries-as-chocolate you’d add to the list?

Cambridge staycation

k j hotel mirror selfie

Recently, I won a lovely and completely unexpected raffle prize: a free night at the Charles, a posh hotel in the heart of Harvard Square.

The raffle, which took place at a work lunch, included lots of fun prizes – movie tickets, gift cards to various restaurants. Since three of my colleagues had already won, I figured I was out. But the last name they called was mine. This weekend, the hubs and I used the voucher for a 24-hour staycation, which was, in a word, delightful.

We began with lunch at Grendel’s Den, a Cambridge institution that makes the best French dip in town. Then we headed to Darwin’s for (what else?) chai, and cookies.

katie cookie darwins

After checking into our hotel room (elegant and comfortable, with a view of the courtyard), we wandered Harvard Square, popping in and out of shops and bookshops. It was chilly, but the sun was shining, and we happened upon a drumline performance – so fun.

The Square is my workaday neighborhood, of course, but I love to stroll it any time, and the hubs doesn’t get over here too often. So it was fun to walk around together, and to enjoy sunset in the Yard.

pink sunset harvard yard cambridge ma

Our voucher included dinner for two at Henrietta’s Table, the hotel restaurant. I have no pictures of the food, but it was delectable. Spiced pumpkin bisque, a yummy breadbasket, then melt-in-your-mouth ribeye steaks and mashed potatoes. We were happily stuffed by the end.

After dinner, we took another brief walk through the Square (though the wind had kicked up), then came back for a quiet evening in the room.

charles hotel courtyard view cambridge ma

The next morning included tea and croissants from the hotel’s coffee kiosk, before we checked out and went for brunch at Alden & Harlow. I was a little sad that we couldn’t stay longer – but it was lovely to get away, even for a night, and to be together. January was a tough month, but this was a beautiful way to end it.

 Do you ever take a staycation in your own city?

brookline backyard snow blue sky

I feel like winter is all I’m talking about here lately. (Well, winter and books. Because I’m always talking about books.)

I forget, every year, how winter takes over my life. It affects my commute, my diet (everything warm and spicy, please), my wardrobe (what goes with fleece-lined tights)?, my mental state. And although we escaped the recent blizzard with just a few inches of snow, it’s still cold, dark and sometimes icy out there.

Since winter is hard for a lot of us, my friend Anne put out a call for answers to this question: what is saving your life right now?

She didn’t make up the question, and neither did I – we both got it from Barbara Brown Taylor. But it’s too good a question not to revisit once in a while. Especially when things are tough.

So, in the midst of short days and long nights, constant subway delays and unpredictable weather, family illness and work stress and frustrating news from all over the world, it strikes me as not only good but necessary to list the things that are saving my life now. (I’m linking up with Anne and others – feel free to join us!)

lonesome dove breakfast

  • A few pages of Lonesome Dove every morning over breakfast. I am loving the epic story of Augustus McCrae, Woodrow F. Call, and their journey from Texas to Montana. (My dad adores it, but I’ve never read it before.)
  • My snazzy red journal, a gift from my sister.
  • Chitchat with my favorite sandwich-maker at Darwin’s, who has dreads halfway down his back, a fondness for tie-dye and a warm, wide smile.
  • Sea salt and vinegar chips (a new addiction).
  • Molly’s scones, which I cannot stop making (and eating).
  • Chai lattes from Darwin’s (also known, on some days, as the elixir of life).
  • Weekly group emails from the Great New Books ladies.
  • Related: stacks of good books. And my favorite bookish podcasts.
  • Blue skies, which can turn an entire day around.

blue sky orange building cambridge ma

  • Twinkle lights in my living and dining room.
  • Tea in my favorite blue mug (above).
  • Scarves and boots and fleece-lined tights.
  • The display of local art in the hallway at work. So cheery and colorful.
  • Tulips on my dining-room table.
  • The final season of Downton Abbey, which (so far) is so good.
  • Texts from a couple of stalwart friends.
  • The staycation my husband and I were able to take this weekend (of which more soon).
  • Sunday nights around the table at Ryan and Amy’s.

It’s your turn. What is saving your life right now?

wife maid mistress book soup bread
So many good books this month (including the one above). Here’s what I have been reading:

Crossing to Safety
, Wallace Stegner
I’d heard about this lovely, quiet novel from Anne and others, and am so glad I finally picked it up. It traces the friendship of two couples, the Morgans and the Langs, over several decades. So many subtle, thought-provoking insights on marriage, friendship, work and love. Beautifully written. I’ll be rereading it.

Superfluous Women, Carola Dunn
While convalescing in a country town, Daisy Dalrymple Fletcher reconnects with an old friend – and, of course, gets mixed up in a murder investigation. A quiet but thoughtful look at the issue of “superfluous” (i.e. unmarried) women in England after World War I, and a rather surprising solution to the mystery. (I love Daisy.)

Emerald Green, Kerstin Gier
Gwyneth Shepherd has discovered her destiny as a time-traveler, and met a handsome boy (her partner in crime). But things are getting desperate: they must plot to save themselves and their loved ones from the evil Count Saint-Germain. Fast-paced, funny and romantic; a great finish to this time-travel trilogy. (The magic and world-building are still a little confusing, but the story is so much fun.) A reread.

The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress, Ariel Lawhon
I blew through Lawhon’s second novel, Flight of Dreams (out Feb. 23), then picked up this one (her debut). The premise: Judge Joseph Crater disappears in New York City in 1930, and the three titular women each have damaging information about the case. Lawhon skillfully moves back and forth in time, with razor-sharp banter and stylish, telling details. A gripping mystery.

Wouldn’t It Be Deadly, D.E. Ireland
Eliza Doolittle (yes, that Eliza Doolittle) is working as a language teacher and still sparring with Professor Henry Higgins, when her employer (one of Higgins’ rivals) is found dead. Higgins himself is the prime suspect, so Eliza sets out to clear his name. A fun mystery featuring the beloved characters from My Fair Lady.

I Shall Wear Midnight, Terry Pratchett
Tiffany Aching is officially the witch of the Chalk, which means she does all the unglamorous work no one else will do (with help from her friends, the miniature warriors known as the Nac Mac Feegle). But when a malevolent spirit starts spreading anti-witch feeling, Tiffany must face it down once and for all. The plot dragged in places, but I love Tiffany and the Feegles. (Crivens!)

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts, Joshua Hammer
I heard about this nonfiction adventure story on All the Books and was instantly intrigued. (What a title!) It follows Abdel Kader Haidara, a librarian who amassed an astounding collection of ancient Islamic manuscripts in his home country of Mali. As the manuscripts’ safety was threatened by Al Qaeda, Haidara and his colleagues staged a daring rescue operation. The details of military campaigns dragged at times, but I was fascinated by Haidara’s work. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 19).

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, Katarina Bivald
When shy, bookish Sara travels from Sweden to Broken Wheel, Iowa, to meet her pen pal, Amy, she discovers that Amy has died. But Amy’s friends are determined to take care of Sara – and even to do a little matchmaking. Sara opens a bookstore, and both her presence and the store inspire changes in the lives of various townspeople. Fun premise, lots of book-nerd catnip, but all the characters felt like vague outlines to me.

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

What are you reading?

darwins portrait red lipstick

About a year ago, I became fascinated by the concept of a personal uniform. (It was all over the Internet for a while: President Obama’s blue or grey suits, the Australian newscaster who wore the same suit every day for a year, numerous bloggers writing about their wardrobes.)

I’m not a big clothes shopper and I hate making decisions in the morning, so you’d think a personal uniform would be tailor-made (ha) for me. So far, though, I’ve lacked the discipline – or the commitment – to really take the plunge. I haven’t edited my wardrobe down to 10 items or consciously worn the same 33 items for a month. (I have also resisted the Marie Kondo madness because, frankly, everyone else seems to be doing it.)

But as we continue to slog through winter, I realized I’ve developed a personal uniform almost by accident.

Winter in the Northeast is (I need hardly say it) cold – often bitterly so – and snowy. I work in a business-casual office environment and I commute on public transportation, every weekday. So I need warm, sturdy winter gear: snow boots, fleece-lined tights, a knee-length down coat for frigid days and a couple of wool coats for milder ones. But I also need outfits to wear under those coats, and I find myself reaching for a variation on the same ensemble most days.

katie selfie red dress plaid scarf

Right now, that usually looks like a dress, either solid or striped (because I own an embarrassing number of striped dresses). I pair the day’s dress with black leggings and boots (of the snow or non-snow variety, depending on the weather). And I choose a scarf or knitted cowl to go with it. (That, and choosing my tea blend, is the kind of decision-making I can handle in the morning.)

I do own other pieces of clothing – sweaters, tees, skirts – and sometimes I feel like I should be making more of an effort to wear them. But right now, when I’m rushing around between showering and eating breakfast every morning, this winter uniform is what’s working for me.

Do you have a personal uniform – accidental or purposeful? (And if so, what is it?)

Building a scaffold

journals bon voyage red stars

When we are unable to work, we can work at the work of getting ready to work. Writers can lay in supplies of paper and enticing pens, notepads that plead, “Please write on me.” Painters can prepare their canvases, clean their brushes, neaten their studio space. Potters can acquire a new lump of cool clay and clear the table spare where they will knead and shape it. Gentle things can be done.

—Julia Cameron, The Sound of Paper

I’ve written before about how Julia’s words – especially in this book – are touchstones for me. She writes honestly about the frustrations and fears of the creative life, but is always nudging herself and her readers gently forward: Easy does it, but do it.

Write a few pages by hand, she says. Slip in an “artist date” on your lunch break. Pick up a few books that inspire you. And then there’s the advice above: so small and simple that it’s easy to overlook. But on these long winter afternoons, it is saving my life.

Some days I am able to move quickly and efficiently through projects, crossing tasks off my to-do list. (I love those days.) Sometimes I have a deadline prodding me along, or a colleague who needs something from me. That’s the easy part. The hard part is when I know I need to do something – send an email, draft a piece, tackle a nagging task – but I can’t make myself get started. This is where Julia comes in.

I like the phrase “the work of getting ready to work.” For me, that sometimes looks like buying nice pens or vivid, lovely journals (see above). But more often, it’s an even smaller step: Creating a Word document. Starting an email. Making a list. Figuring out what a task actually entails, breaking it down into manageable steps, and then tackling the first one.

Sometimes, the very fact of that waiting Word doc or email draft or to-do list is a scaffold I can climb on, materials in hand, and start to build something good and true. It may be only a stark outline, but it’s often enough to nudge me forward, toward the real work. (Bonus: these things also mitigate the terror of the blank page or screen.)

How do you nudge yourself to get ready to work?

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