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Afternoon in Cobble Hill

cobble hill Brooklyn NYC

One of my favorite things about NYC: there are endless new neighborhoods to explore.

I love returning to my well-loved haunts there. I’ve spent some time in Fort Greene, and I was happy to revisit Park Slope (especially the Chocolate Room) on this most recent trip. But on Saturday, I decided to walk a few blocks west and wander Cobble Hill – partly motivated, you will not be surprised, by a bookstore.

Novelist Emma Straub opened a bookstore, aptly named Books Are Magic, a while back. It was an easy walk from my Airbnb, so I headed that way, grabbing an iced tea and popping into a few shops. I bought a long green dream of a dress at Something Else, then headed for the bookstore. It was well-lit and well-stocked, a little bit funky and yes, a little bit magical.

I browsed for a while, dipping into novels and mysteries, and saying “amen” to a fellow customer who was recommending Anne Lamott to her friend. (Bird by Bird!) I picked up a fun kids’ mystery featuring Agatha Oddly, then went down the street for an early dinner at Jolie – the only French-Mexican bistro I’ve ever seen.

Even though I’m living in Eastie, land of delicious tacos, I rarely pass up an opportunity for good Mexican food. The enchiladas, the fresh guacamole, and the late afternoon light at Jolie were all perfect.

My next stop was Whisk, which I discovered a while back via their store near the Flatiron Building in Manhattan. That location has closed, but their main store is in Cobble Hill, so I popped in to buy a couple of new tea strainers. (I can always use them.) From there, I headed for the subway and my Saturday-night plans: Come From Away, which I adored.

I was a little bit worried about coming to Brooklyn: it holds some tender associations for me. But I was very glad to discover a new pocket of it for myself, and make some new memories.

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Apple memories

apple orchard trees wonder woman bracelet red

I had my first bite of a September apple last week, sampling a crisp Macintosh from the white bag on the kitchen counter. It tasted delicious: tart, juicy, the embodiment of fall in New England. And I was stunned by the wave of sadness that followed it.

Since I moved to Boston, apples have been tangled up with September: crisp sunny days, cool nights, black-eyed Susans and dahlias and late daylilies in the flower beds around town. September is the start of the academic year, and in a city like Boston, that shifts the rhythm in a big way. And every fall, September has meant apple picking.

apple trees blue sky

Apple picking was and is a beloved tradition for my former church. I’d eaten apples all my life, but there are no apple orchards in West Texas, and I wasn’t prepared for the sight of their rambling, gnarled branches heavy with fruit. I fell instantly in love.

Last year, some dear friends who’d moved away came back to visit for a long weekend, and we made sure to plan our apple-picking excursion when they were here. We wandered the orchard and filled our bags to bursting and ate the traditional orchard lunch of hot dogs and apple cider donuts. There were photos and laughter and tired kiddos, and cold, fresh cider. It felt right.

This year, so much has shifted: I’m living across the water in Eastie, spending my Sunday mornings sleeping in or running instead of going to church. I’m navigating the end of the marriage whose story began when I was in college. I am not who I was, and my life is a testament to that fact. But it is still September, and the apples have appeared at the farmers’ markets and grocery stores.

I’ll keep eating them, because the flavor and enjoyment are worth the reminder of all I have lost. Things are different now, but life is still full of sweetness. I’m trying to feel it all, live it all, truly taste both the grief and the joy.

lost-in-stacks-strand

Starting with a Labor Day weekend jaunt to NYC, here’s what I have been reading:

The Accidental Beauty Queen, Teri Wilson
Anne put this one in her Summer Reading Guide and I flew through it on the train to NYC. Charlotte gets tapped to impersonate her identical twin, Ginny, in a beauty pageant, much to both their chagrin. I loved the nods to Harry Potter (Charlotte is a fan), the way both women had their preconceived notions tested, and the insights about family. So much fun.

Here if You Need Me, Kate Braestrup
When her husband died, Braestrup took up his dream of becoming a minister, and found herself serving as a chaplain for the Maine Warden Service. This thoughtful, often wry memoir is a glimpse into that world, and into her family life. Engaging, though I wanted more, somehow. Found recently at More Than Words.

We Walked the Sky, Lisa Fiedler
Calliope VanDrexel is following in her grandmother’s footsteps as a tightrope walker. But when her mother gets a new job at an animal sanctuary, Callie has to leave the circus and she’s not happy about it. This dual-narrative YA novel tells both Callie’s story and that of her grandmother, Victoria (in the 1960s). I enjoyed both narratives (though Callie drove me nuts), and the circus setting is so fun.

The Right Sort of Man, Allison Montclair
As London recovers from World War II, Gwen Bainbridge, widowed and bored, and Iris Sparks, a snarky former intelligence agent, join forces to launch the Right Sort Marriage Bureau. But when one of their clients is murdered, presumably by another one, the women jump into an investigation to clear his name (and theirs). I love plucky amateur sleuths, especially British ones, and this story was great fun, especially the witty dialogue. First in a new series; found at the Strand.

The Book of Lost Saints, Daniel José Older
Marisol disappeared during the Cuban Revolution, lost to her family and the world. Half a century later, her spirit visits her nephew, Ramon, a hospital worker by day/DJ by night in New Jersey. Haunted by dreams that are really Marisol’s memories, Ramon starts digging into his family’s messy history. I love Older’s Shadowshaper YA series. This novel (for adults) is a gritty, sometimes bleak, often wisecracking look at cubano family ties and the ways past actions reverberate down through the generations. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 5).

Bluebird, Bluebird, Attica Locke
Temporarily in limbo in both his job and his marriage, Texas Ranger Darren Mathews drives up to tiny Lark, Texas, to investigate two murders: a local white girl and a black man who was passing through. This well-crafted mystery explores the layers of race, love and conflicting loyalties in East Texas. (Darren is black, raised by two uncles: a Texas Ranger and a lawyer.) I loved the true-to-life portraits of locals and the exploration of exile and the pull of home.

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Ross Gay
I loved Gay’s essay collection, The Book of Delights, and my friend Kate sent me this book of his poetry. The poems are – as one of the blurbs says – “bold and wild and weird.” Family, love, racial politics, music, grief, and the orchard Gay works in and loves – they’re all here.

This Is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession, Cameron Dezen Hammon
After converting to Christianity as a young woman, Hammon moved to Houston with her then-boyfriend and became a worship minister. This memoir traces her struggle to reconcile the gender politics of evangelical churches with her own craving for love and past scars. Thoughtful, though a bit vague at times; some of her frustrations definitely reflected my own. We need more stories like these. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 22).

Death and Love Among the Cheetahs, Rhys Bowen
Lady Georgiana Rannoch is finally married, and she and her Irish husband, Darcy, head to Kenya for an extended honeymoon. But instead of paradise, they find complicated sexual politics, theft and murder. I love Georgie and her adventures, but I’d hoped for a slightly more peaceful honeymoon for her!

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

What are you reading?

what I know about Kelly

 

flowers lilies windowsill church tulips brookline easter

My friend Kelly passed away last week.

I hadn’t seen her for some months, since her health began to fail (she had battled cancer for two decades, but the last stretch has been particularly rough). She and her family are a part of the church here in Boston where, for eight years, I spent nearly every Sunday. I always loved catching up with them at common meal, or in the back of the sanctuary after service. Since my time at that church ended, abruptly and painfully, last fall, I had mostly heard updates about her health through the grapevine.

By some measures, I didn’t know Kelly very well. I know she came to Boston from Oklahoma, many years ago, and chose to make a life here with her husband, Joe. I know she fought hard to beat back the cancer long enough to watch her two daughters grow up. I know she makes a delicious cranberry relish, which she would sometimes bring to Turkeypalooza, and sometimes Amy would bring it, made from Kelly’s recipe. I know she listened well, and was honest about her pain while never letting it dominate a conversation. A few years ago, she and Joe hosted the church Christmas party, and we ate and laughed, and sang carols in their living room. I know she enjoyed having everyone there.

Most of all, this is what I know about Kelly: she is a person who loved, and was loved.

I ran into Kelly on the library steps a few months back, when she was on her way to meet friends for afternoon tea and I was heading to the farmers’ market. We hugged, caught up a bit, and there was sorrow and kindness in her gentle eyes. We miss you, she said. I know, I said. I miss you too. We chatted about her girls, and my then-new job at Berklee, and we parted with another hug. I can’t remember if we said I love you, but I know we both felt it that day.

Last year, on Easter Sunday, J and I stood in front of the congregation and sang an old hymn I have known all my life: There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Emmanuel’s veins. J played the guitar and we took turns singing, and I looked at Kelly sitting in one of the front pews, quietly singing along with us. It was her lips moving to those familiar words, and the joy on her face, that prompted me to invite everyone to join us on the last verse: Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die. 

Kelly lived by redeeming love, walking a hard road with faith and compassion for many years. She embodied the names she gave to her daughters: grace and hope. And she is – I hope with all my heart – at peace and at rest from her pain.

Rest well, good and faithful friend. I believe you are healed. We will miss you here, but I look forward to hugging you and singing with you again one day.

thrive heart dish shelf

My one little word for 2019 is thrive.

I was pretty sure it would be my word back in January, when I was wrapping up my reflections on grit, my word for 2018, and wondering what was next. I kept coming up to thrive and backing away from it. I was – I am – scared of what it might mean, the choices and changes it might require of me. But it dug in, quiet but insistent, and it wouldn’t leave me alone.

In the wake of a year that required so much grit, I wanted something more vibrant, more exciting – and thrive means, variously, to grow vigorously. To flourish. To walk forward unafraid. It’s tied to courage, as most of my words seem to be, but it also speaks of growth, of new possibilities, even of joy.

This has been a year of enormous challenge and change, and it’s not nearly over. There is a lot of grief and pain, a lot of asking questions and admitting hard truths. I started seeing a therapist in March, and I’ve been writing and running and talking with my people about all those things. I’ve generally had the sense that I need to reckon with what has been before (or at least while) beginning to ask what might be next. What it might mean to thrive, in this next chapter of my life.

I finally ordered a thrive talisman heart from Liz Lamoreux in early May, and it has sat on my bedside table (in three different apartments) ever since, a gentle reminder of what I’m hoping for. Thrive lived deep under the surface for a while this year, but like the plants I love so well, it is pushing up through the soil, coming up into the light.

As you know if you’ve spent much time here, I’ve been following a word each year since 2010, starting with brave, which took me on all sorts of journeys, including a cross-country move from Texas to Boston. I’m interested to see where thrive takes me, through the rest of this year and possibly beyond.

Are you following a word this year? If so, what is it teaching you?

Penelope NYC interior restaurant

I spent my Labor Day weekend in NYC, staying in a little apartment near Park Slope and wandering in both Brooklyn and Manhattan. The trip, like most of my New York weekends these days, was a mix of familiar and new: a long browse at the Strand, a fantastic musical I hadn’t seen (Come From Away, which made me laugh and cry), a lovely Friday evening in my favorite tangle of streets in the West Village. (The bookseller gossip at Three Lives continues to be the best.)

I went back to the Chocolate Room, which I visited on my first-ever trip to NYC for a retreat led by Jen Lee, years ago. I finally went to Books Are Magic and then tried out Jolie, a French-Mexican cantina in Cobble Hill. I had brunch with dear Abilene friends (both of whom I’ve known since I was a college student and they were just kids) at Maman in TriBeCa, which was new to all of us.

And on Sunday night, I went back to Penelope.

Like so many of my NYC loves, Penelope was a gift from Allison, my dear friend who used to live in Queens and periodically take me to all her favorite NYC spots. Penelope is the kind of place we both love: cozy and inviting, with simple, homey comfort food and yummy desserts. We first ate there on a frigid January weekend, and it lived in my memory as twinkly and delicious.

There are literally hundreds (thousands?) of restaurants in NYC, and I love trying multiple new ones every time I go. Part of the adventure is simply walking into a new place that looks interesting, on whatever street I happen to be on. But I am also both a creature of habit and a person who and delights in repeating joys. When I find something I love, I generally want to enjoy it again and again.

A couple of years ago, during a work conference in midtown, I trudged over to Penelope for dinner one night, dry-eyed from staring at PowerPoint screens and nearly voiceless from a lingering cold. I sat at the bar, which was festooned with twinkle lights, and ate a bowl of spicy, orange carrot-ginger soup. The waitress, after hearing my scratchy voice, brought me a mug of hot water with honey and lemon, a vibrant yellow slice floating on top. Her kindness choked me up (even more than my sore throat). It was such a gesture of care.

I’ve spent enough time in New York now that parts of it feel like mine: there are places I can throw off the tourist mantle for a few minutes, neighborhoods I know well enough not to second-guess my every step. Much of it, of course, is either unfamiliar or constantly changing; the city is huge and dynamic, and even if I lived there, it wouldn’t stay the same. But I’ve drawn immense pleasure from coming back to my favorite places, including Penelope.

This time, it was late on a Sunday night and the place was nearly empty. But the waitress still had a smile for me, and I sat and read my book, savored my sandwich and glass of rosé, and relaxed into the quiet familiarity (and the nineties jams on the stereo). I walked back to the train through Murray Hill, with my leftovers in a brown paper bag, sleepy and footsore (I’d been walking for three days) and entirely satisfied.

Do you like going back to favorite places in cities you’ve visited? Or would you rather try something new every time?

August reading roundup #2

book stack pink table

August was a whirlwind, and I capped it off with a quick solo trip to NYC. Between working, running and settling into my new place, here’s what I have been reading:

City of Girls, Elizabeth Gilbert
Vassar dropout Vivian Morris moves to Manhattan to live with her eccentric Aunt Peg, who runs a down-at-heel theatre company. Amid the glitz and heartbreak of the city, Vivian and her compatriots find, lose and reinvent themselves many times over. This novel is a champagne cocktail with some unexpected depth (and occasional bite). I loved Vivian (much more once she gained a little self-awareness) and the theatre crew, especially Peg and Olive, her stalwart secretary-general. So much fun.

Celine, Peter Heller
Private eye Celine Watkins is handed an intriguing cold case: that of a National Geographic photographer who disappeared in a national park years ago. She and her husband, Pete, take off in her son’s camper van to figure out what became of Paul Lamont. Witty and well plotted, with wonderful characters; I’d read a whole series about Celine. Recommended by Anne and Jaclyn.

Good Husbandry: Growing Food, Love and Family on Essex Farm, Kristin Kimball
I loved Kimball’s first memoir, The Dirty Life, about how she met and started a farm with her husband, Mark (entirely contrary to her former life plan). This, her second, digs deeper (ha) into their years of working the farm and making it sustainable in various ways (physical, financial, etc.). I love her warm honesty, her crisp, vivid prose, and the way she weaves together the day-to-day of farm life with the big questions of love, work, parenting and identity. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 15).

Waiting for Tom Hanks, Kerry Winfrey
Aspiring screenwriter Annie Cassidy is waiting: for her hair to calm down, for her life to improve, for her perfect rom-com hero (a la ’90s Tom Hanks) to materialize. But when she gets an assistant job on a movie set, the guy she meets isn’t quite what she expected (and neither is anyone else). Sweet, fast and funny; perfect weekend reading. Recommended by Anne.

Why Can’t I Be You, Allie Larkin
Jenny Shaw gets dumped on her way to a business conference – then gets mistaken for a stranger in the hotel lobby of said conference. Before she knows it, she’s swept up in pretending to be Jessie Morgan, attending her high school reunion and finding real connection with Jessie’s friends. But of course, the illusion can’t last. This one was equal parts fun and cringe-y for me, though I loved the supporting cast.

Mudlark: In Search of London’s Past Along the River Thames, Lara Meiklem
The River Thames has long been a repository for lost things, accidentally or on purpose. Meiklem is a veteran “mudlark”–a scavenger who’s fascinated by the river’s trash and treasure. Her book charts her own journeys on the Thames foreshore, the objects she finds and their histories, and so much fascinating backstory about the river, the city and its people. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 5).

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

What are you reading?