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darwins notebook chai

“It’s only alchemy until you know how it works.”

So said a friend of mine recently, as he stood behind the counter at (where else?) Darwin’s, steaming the milk for my chai latte. That’s admittedly one of the simpler drinks they serve: one part spicy chai mix (which they make themselves), one part milk. But he was talking about the more complicated espresso-based drinks they offer: latte, cappuccino, macchiato, mocha, cortado. He had done a refresher course the day before, and found himself newly fascinated with this everyday alchemy, the process of taking disparate ingredients and blending them into something new.

I understood what he meant. I remembered the same aha! moment from my own barista days, when Barb and Cynthia showed me how to pull an espresso shot, steam a stainless-steel pitcher full of milk, add a dollop of rich chocolate or a smooth cap of foam, and create a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. I’m not even a coffee drinker – I love the smell, can’t stand the bitter taste – but I found myself fascinated, then and now, by the process. It does make a new kind of sense when you watch the steps unfold one by one.

As I stood there that morning, though, listening to the whir of the milk steamer, the grind of the espresso machine, the morning music mix on the stereo, I thought: that factual knowledge doesn’t quite cover it.

I understand, empirically, that a shot of espresso plus steamed milk equals a latte, that a cappuccino has more foam, that a mocha includes a shot of chocolate and that chemical reactions explain a lot of the taste and texture (and pleasure) we get from those drinks. But there are also other, less measurable ingredients at play: the sunset-colored walls, the music, the smiles from my favorite staff members. That, too, is everyday alchemy (or magic) – and even though those elements are familiar and ordinary, they delight me every single day.

This applies to more than coffee: I understand most of the science behind the steps I follow to make a pot of soup, marinate and roast a chicken, stir up a batch of scones. But I believe there’s room for wonder alongside our knowledge of how those processes work. It isn’t alchemy in the Nicolas Flamel sense, perhaps – but it’s still everyday magic.

Listening, slowly

becoming wise book sunflowers tea

After I read Krista Tippett’s memoir Becoming Wise last spring, I did something I’d intended to do for a long time: subscribed to her weekly On Being podcast, which is the foundation for her book. I quickly realized a few things: one, the podcast is fascinating and lovely (as I expected). And two, I could never hope to stay “caught up.”

I wasn’t trying to listen to the whole On Being archive – that would take years. But even the current episodes, each nearly an hour long, ask for more time than I sometimes have (at least in one long spell). They also, critically, ask for my attention: these are not conversations during which you can zone out. Krista and her conversation partners – who are poets, physicists, activists, musicians and above all, deeply thoughtful people – are fully engaged in their talks about the big questions of being human. As a listener, I don’t want to miss anything.

My solution? I have been listening slowly.

I’ll turn on an episode of On Being while I cook dinner, some nights: peeling carrots, chopping peppers, stirring a pot of soup on the stove. I’ll listen to a chunk or two – 15 minutes here, 20 minutes there – while I’m running errands in the car, baking a batch of scones, or folding laundry. My head has to be in the right place: open, curious, sometimes a little melancholy. (The episodes, while they wrestle with real and sometimes insoluble issues, always leave me feeling heartened about the state of the world – and usually jotting down the title of a book written or recommended by that week’s guest.)

Generally, I hit the pause button at least once during an episode: when dinner is ready, or it’s time to go pick up my husband from work, or I arrive at yoga class or the library. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to an entire episode at once. But I’m coming to prefer it that way. These conversations contain so much that’s worth mulling over. They are slow, wise, witty, sometimes meandering. And they reward slow listening.

Some of my favorite episodes so far have featured Mary Karr, Michael Longley, Maria Popova and Naomi Shihab Nye. But there’s a wealth of honest, thought-provoking, warmhearted conversation to be found in the On Being archive. If you’re looking for an antidote to the rapid-fire headlines, I’d recommend listening – slowly.

charles river cambridge sunset

Making Peace

A voice from the dark called out,
             ‘The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.’
                                   But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.
                                       A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.
                                              A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses . . .
                        A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.

I came across this poem (as I find so many lovely things) via the good folks at Image Journal. It strikes me, reading these lines, that peace – like magic – is something we must actively make.

Like Natalie Goldberg’s “holy yes,” peace is an act of creativity, grace and courage; it is not something that happens automatically. It is a choice, and a long process, and it can be hard, complicated and tiring. But it is also beautiful and necessary. In a world of loud arguments and urgent headlines, it is perhaps more necessary than ever.

May I – may we all – learn to be peacemakers in these days.

hancock tower protest boston refugees

tulips table oranges book

It has started snowing over here – not my favorite weather, but it’s good for curling up with books. Here’s what I’ve been reading lately:

Several Short Sentences About Writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg
I’ve enjoyed Klinkenborg’s columns in the New York Times, and loved this wise, thoughtful, wry, thought-provoking book on writing. I savored it over a couple of weeks. Bought at the wonderful Three Lives & Co. in NYC.

Paper and Fire (The Great Library #2), Rachel Caine
After being trained as foot soldiers for the Great Library of Alexandria, Jess Brightwell and his friends are staging a rebellion – if they survive that long. Caine’s sequel to Ink and Bone is fast-paced, bold and really well done. I can’t wait for book 3.

No Time Like the Past, Jodi Taylor
Madeleine Maxwell and her gang of time-traveling historians are back for a fifth adventure, which takes them to the Great Fire of London and Thermopylae, among other destinations. This series is so much fun – madcap, smart, hilarious and tea-soaked. This book was especially witty.

The Last Days of Café Leila, Donia Bijan
Since Noor left her homeland of Iran for the U.S. at 18, she’s missed her father and their family’s café – a neighborhood institution. After discovering her husband’s infidelity, Noor heads back to Tehran with her teenage daughter, Lily, in tow. The world they discover is both familiar and unknown to Noor, and totally new to Lily. A gorgeous novel of family, food, love and loss. (I also loved Bijan’s memoir, Maman’s Homesick Pie.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 18).

Lay Down Your Weary Tune, W.B. Belcher
With his love life and career both foundering, musician-cum-writer Jack Wyeth gets the chance to write the biography of his folk-music idol, Eli Page. But when Jack arrives at Eli’s rural farmhouse, he finds an enigmatic, irascible man reluctant to divulge his secrets. This one started slowly, but it’s a thoughtful, lovely novel about music, identity, family and the secrets we all keep. Found (for $6!) at the Center for Fiction in midtown Manhattan.

Never Out of Season: How Having the Food We Want When We Want It Threatens Our Food Supply and Our Future, Rob Dunn
Scientific food-growing techniques have wrought a series of transformations in our diets: we are increasingly dependent on a small number of crops grown on a massive scale. Dunn recounts the narrowing of our plates and warns of the dangers we face. Thoughtful and well-researched, though occasionally rambling. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 14).

Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson
In a series of lyrical flashbacks, Woodson evokes the experience of “growing up girl” in 1970s Brooklyn. Her narrator, August, navigates the world alongside her brother, her father and her three best friends. Poignant and beautifully written. (Julia recommended this one at Great New Books.)

The Sun is Also a Star, Nicola Yoon
Natasha is an illegal Jamaican immigrant whose family is about to be deported. Daniel is a dreamy Korean-American teenager who wants to write poetry instead of going to Yale and becoming a doctor. They meet one day in Manhattan, and their lives will never be the same. Funny and heartwarming – the epilogue took the whole book up a notch. I also loved Yoon’s debut, Everything, Everything.

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

What are you reading?

A tale of two coats

katie green coat black ink

A color story:

For several years, my favorite coat has been the jade-green wool one I found at a consignment shop in downtown Boston. It matches my eyes (like a certain Boy Who Lived, I have my mother’s green eyes) and it is warm, stylish and comfortable. It also garners compliments – from friends and strangers – like no other article of clothing I’ve ever owned.

When I started showing up at Darwin’s every day, some of the staff came to know me initially as “the girl in the green coat.” (They know my name now, and they also know my fondness for their chai lattes, shortbread cookies and soups of every kind.)

My green coat – with a warm scarf, fleece-lined tights and appropriate footwear – is perfect for many, if not most, winter days in Boston. But occasionally, we have arctic blasts (or blizzards) that send the temperatures dropping to near zero. That means I need to pull out the big guns: my knee-length, hooded, quilted down coat, which is red. (In the mornings, when I look around the subway platform, I’m often the only person not wearing black or gray.)

katie-red-coat-snow

A few weeks back, I walked into Darwin’s on a single-digit day wearing my red coat, and chatted with a friend behind the counter before going up to place my order. The staff member working the register stared at me for a moment in utter disbelief.

“Katie!” she exclaimed. “I didn’t even know who you were when you walked in!” I laughed out loud, and reassured her that the green coat would be back soon.

I told my husband this story that night. His comment? “Only you could wear a red coat and go incognito.”

Fort Greene revisited

south portland st brooklyn

One of the delights of visiting and revisiting a city: there are neighborhoods that become yours.

Last month, the hubs and I spent our third weekend in Fort Greene, which has become our favorite pocket of Brooklyn. I’d just spent three days at a conference in midtown and I was ready to get out of the bustle and glitz, to a tangle of quieter streets where people actually live. Coming out of Manhattan, even dragging all my luggage, felt like a much-needed exhale. And coming up out of the subway onto Fulton Street – even into a cold winter wind – felt like coming home.

We rented the top floor of a brownstone near Fort Greene Park, and spent the weekend popping into our favorite places and discovering new ones. It was the kind of travel I adore: the new and novel blended with the comforting and familiar.

We didn’t even discuss where to go for dinner on Friday night, but headed straight to Madiba for bowls of spicy lamb curry with raisin-studded saffron rice. When we told our hostess we were headed to the farmers’ market in the park the next morning, she laughed. “You’re practically natives!” And, indeed, it felt wonderful to stroll the stands and buy a cup of steaming apple cider and a scone the size of my fist. We perched on a bench and sipped our cider, watching dogs and children running in the cold, crisp air.

k-j-ft-greene-park

I’d made a short list of places to revisit, and we hit all of them: Greenlight Bookstore, the winter Brooklyn Flea market, the wonderful Greene Grape and its adjacent wine shop, and the bagel place on Lafayette Avenue. We ate Sunday brunch at Walter’s and strolled up and down the streets we love. But we also visited new coffee shops, turned down unfamiliar corners, ate guacamole and huevos at Pequeña. And we did something I’ve long wanted to do: took the gorgeous walk across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan.

brooklyn bridge cables sky

New York, more than most cities, offers endless new discoveries, and I am surprised and delighted by it every time I visit. But I also love that certain parts of it have become mine, or ours. Fort Greene welcomed us back, and I’m already looking forward to our next trip there.

daffodils desk

If you’re a regular reader, you know that I periodically turn back to the question of what is saving my life now. (I got it from Barbara Brown Taylor’s luminous memoir Leaving Church.)

Even pausing to think about the question – or jot down list in my journal at the end of a long day – can help shift my perspective. There’s always something saving my life, even on the days when it feels like everything is killing me (and there are a lot of those, lately).

As she’s done in midwinter for the past few years, my friend Anne Bogel at Modern Mrs. Darcy is inviting everyone to share what’s saving their lives in this cold, bleak season. I’m sharing my list below, because I need the reminder to look for the lifesavers (or the bits of magic) that are all around. Bonus: I love the snapshot it provides of how my days look (and how they are brightened) at a given moment.

Here, in early February of a year that’s already been a wild ride, is what’s saving my life now:

  • The La La Land soundtrack, which is full of swingy jazz, melancholy piano music and a couple of songs that make me cry.
  • $3 daffodils for my desk (see above), and chats with my florist.
  • My magic green coat, which garners compliments from strangers all. the. time.
  • Red lipstick, especially on a grey day.
  • My daily walks to Darwin’s, and checking in with my people there.
  • Verlyn Klinkenborg’s wise, practical book on writing, which I am savoring on my morning commutes.
  • The mornings I get to catch a ride to the train station with my husband. Those few minutes in the car together are precious.
  • Texts from a few friends who are my lifelines.
  • Long (or short) walks around Harvard Square: beloved streets, fresh air, the chance to stretch my legs and clear my head.
  • Fleece-lined tights as the temperatures drop again.
  • Piles of bright orange, tangy clementines.
  • Hot water with honey and lemon, on the nights when I need a mug of warm (non-caffeinated) comfort.
  • The colorful quilt made by my husband’s grandmother, which we sleep under all winter long.
  • My happy lamp, Vitamin D pills, two desk lamps and all the sunshine I can get. (The days are slowly getting longer…)
  • Weekly yoga classes at my local studio, where I am known by name.
  • The fleece-lined plaid slippers I got for Christmas – so cozy.
  • The Hamilton soundtrack, which helps me summon my courage.
  • Scribbling in my journal when I can – even a few lines can help me sort out my thoughts.

Feel free to share your lifesavers in the comments, or hop over to Anne’s blog to join the linkup.