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things I miss.

Happy Tuesday, friends. Here we are in week 11 of this strange restricted life, and the world is turning toward summer. I ran this morning by the water, through haze and humidity and (eventual) bright sunshine. The beach roses are blowing and the purple iris are budding, and I’m wearing my favorite denim shorts and growing herb seedlings in my kitchen window (until I can get some soil to pot them).

We are deep into whatever kind of “now normal” we are all creating for ourselves, and while there’s beauty and joy in that, today I wanted to acknowledge: I miss how it used to be.

Here in Massachusetts, we’re moving slowly into a phased reopening, but masks and social distancing and other restrictions will be part of our lives for a long while. There are some parts of “normal” we simply won’t get back, at least not for the foreseeable future. And that hurts. So, in no particular order, here is a list of things I miss:

  • Hugging my friends.
  • Browsing my favorite bookstores.
  • The library, especially the central BPL branch near my office.
  • Hanging out at coffee shops.
  • Making travel plans, which are all obviously on hold at the moment.
  • Running to the grocery store to grab “just one thing.”
  • Walking outside without a mask.
  • My family in Texas (the Zoom calls are fun, but not the same).
  • Going to friends’ houses for dinner or just to hang out.
  • By the same token: having people over to my house.
  • My colleagues, and the musical chitchat that passes for water-cooler talk at Berklee.
  • Sitting in on workshops and talking to our students.
  • The buzz of commencement season in Boston and Cambridge.
  • Going to yoga classes in a real studio.
  • Going to book events at a bookstore.
  • Walking to Downeast with my guy on a Saturday night to sample ciders and talk to the folks behind the counter.
  • Planning for summer festivals and concerts.
  • Going to the hair salon (they’re starting to reopen, but I’m going to wait a while).
  • My florist.
  • Waking up without the constant low-level (or higher-level) pandemic anxiety.

What do you miss?

Most of y’all know I’m a longtime reviewer for Shelf Awareness (best. gig. ever). That usually means I get a delicious stack of print advance copies to try out every month. But due to the pandemic, my last stack of physical ARCs arrived in mid-March. (Shortly after that, the stay-at-home orders came down, and many publicists and editors – including mine – couldn’t get to their offices to distribute books.)

Since we usually read two to three months ahead (those books I got in March all had pub dates for May, though some of them have been pushed back), we had to shift to e-galleys quickly. I was (am) not a fan of this idea: I love physical books, their heft and feel and smell, and I also don’t want one more reason to scroll on a screen. But my sister has lent me her long-disused Kindle Fire, and after several weeks of denial/procrastinating/avoiding reality, I finally have it set up for digital reading. (I’m requesting books through both Netgalley and Edelweiss, and the experience in both places has been mostly fine.)

It’s not as good as a “real” book, and I’m still reading physical books when I can: either rereading old favorites or working through my long-unread stacks. But the e-reader experience is much better than scrolling through files on my laptop, and it means I can still do the freelance work I love.

Like so much of life under quarantine, it’s not what I would have chosen, but here we are. I am (simultaneously) frustrated, trying to make the best of it, and intensely grateful that these are my problems.

Are you reading digitally in these strange times – or do you normally? Any tips?

In the midst of the profound strangeness we are all living in, it has been a gorgeous spring in Boston. The lilacs, in particular, are simply stunning this year. I’ve been stopping to sniff them on my daily walks and runs around Eastie, and on Sunday, my guy and I soaked them up at one of our favorite places.

The Longfellow House, just west of Harvard Square, has an entire hedge of lilacs out front and another grove of them all the way around its western side, ending in a stand of them by the back garden entrance. We love that garden, but it is not quite in its full summer glory yet; we were there for the lilacs, and oh my, did they deliver.

We walked and sniffed and snapped photos and sniffed some more, and actually crawled through a tunnel made by overhanging lilac branches. We saw a few other people who were as ecstatic as we were: a woman whose purple shirt matched the flowers, a mother with her redheaded toddler daughter, an older woman wearing blue eyeliner who told us she had grown up among lilacs in Lexington. Sunday was G’s birthday, and all he wanted was to wander among these lilacs, which he’d seen in bloom here and there before, but never at their peak.

Before the lilacs, we got sandwiches at Darwin’s (with chai for me) and ran into several people we know – both staff and regulars. Afterward, we rode bikes back across the city to the Blue Line, which brought us back to Eastie for a birthday dinner and presents. And all day long, we soaked up the beauty, and enjoyed being together.

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We’re halfway through May (how??), and while I am not nearly halfway through my long-unread stacks, I’ve been working through some of them. Here’s what I’ve been reading:

Once Upon a Sunset, Tif Marcelo
I really enjoyed Marcelo’s previous novel, The Key to Happily Ever After, and I liked this one, too. D.C.-based ob/gyn Diana Gallagher-Cary heads to the Philippines after a work crisis to investigate her family history. Her free-spirited photographer mother and various relatives and friends help Diana navigate a series of epiphanies. Lush descriptions of the Philippines, and several engaging subplots.

House Lessons: Renovating a Life, Erica Bauermeister
I love Bauermeister’s delicious, warmhearted novels, so was excited for this memoir about renovating a trash-filled house in Port Townsend, WA. She weaves together anecdotes about the physical house – staircases, windows, light fixtures – and learning to navigate her marriage and motherhood, and see herself, in new ways. Lovely and insightful.

Two in the Far North, Margaret E. Murie
The good folks at West Margin Press sent me this book after I wrote a Shelf Awareness column about women in Alaska, last year. Murie spent many years in Alaska, first as a young person and then with her biologist husband, Olaus. Her memoir describes some of their travels in detail, and oh my, it is lovely. Clear-eyed descriptions of birds, wildlife and flowers, and so much joy and wonder in the natural world. I’m so glad I kept it all this time, and finally read it.

Last Bus to Wisdom, Ivan Doig
This novel has sat on my shelf since last summer (!) – and I finally picked it up after loving The Whistling Season. Donal Cameron, age 11, is packed off to his great-aunt in Wisconsin when his grandmother has to have surgery. After enduring several maddening weeks, Donal and his great-uncle, Herman the German, head back to Montana on the Greyhound bus and have all sorts of adventures. A rollicking tale of adventure, and so much fun.

The Key Lime Crime, Lucy Burdette
It’s nearly New Year’s in Key West, and food critic Hayley Snow is juggling her new husband, her enigmatic mother-in-law, her octogenarian roommate and a local key lime pie competition. Things get stickier when one of the chef-contestants ends up murdered. I like this cozy mystery series following Hayley’s foodie adventures. To possibly review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 11).

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstores, Brookline Booksmith and Trident.

What are you reading?

One of the things I hate the most about this pandemic: it’s playing on and heightening all our usual fears.

As a recent divorcée who lives alone, one of my deep fears is disappearing: being forgotten, ignored or simply overlooked. I’ve worked hard to build and maintain my relationships over the last year, and I’m deeply grateful for my community, both local and far-flung – though the loneliness still hits hard sometimes.

Several weeks into quarantine, it became clear I was going to need more than FaceTime dates and Zoom calls to stay connected. Fortunately, several of my girlfriends feel the same, so we’ve been going on walks, either here in Eastie or along the Charles River.

I won’t lie: it’s weird not to be able to hug them, or invite them upstairs for a cup of tea. But these socially-distanced, masked walks are still feeding my soul. We get to soak up the fresh air and (often) the sunshine, trade small anecdotes about our days and/or talk about the big life stuff. Sometimes it’s work and relationships; sometimes general pandemic craziness; sometimes we dive into books or fashion. Being together in person, even from six feet apart, is seriously the best. (The longer evenings also help.)

How are you staying connected in these strange days?

Hello, friends. I’m about out of words today, but I did want to share some tulips, and point you to a podcast episode that came to me (via a dear friend) at just the right time.

Dr. Brené Brown is a researcher, speaker, author and fellow Texan – you may have heard of her work on shame, fear, bravery and leadership. Sometimes her work really lands for me and sometimes it doesn’t, but this episode of her newish podcast, Unlocking Us, definitely hit home.

She begins by acknowledging that we have collectively hit weary (and this was a month ago, so boy have we ever). She then talks about a plan for filling in the gaps for each other when no one in a family unit is operating at their usual capacity. I liked her phrase “settling the ball” – a holdover from her kids’ soccer days – which speaks to how we address challenges after the initial shock has subsided. And she addresses the tendency to minimize our own suffering, and how that hampers our ability to be kind to others.

I have a longtime habit of minimizing my own problems; it is deeply rooted in the don’t complain ethic that ran through most of my childhood. But the truth is that we are all struggling here, in many and varied ways. If I can manage to be kind to myself, it will help me be kinder to others, because there is more than enough empathy and love to go around.

Give the episode a listen, if you like, or feel free to share other resources that are helping you. We are all in this together (cue the High School Musical finale) and the more bits of wisdom and joy and patience we can share, the better.

red-tulip-small

Good morning, friends. Here we are in week 9 (I think). The weekends do still feel a little different, mostly because I’m not trying to work from my kitchen table.

The past few Sunday mornings, I’ve been tuning into a livestreamed church service from Highland, my church in Abilene. This is a little fraught, I admit: Highland is where I spent countless hours singing on the praise team with my ex-husband, who was the worship leader there. We had our rehearsal dinner in the Highland atrium, and we lived across the alley from the church when we were first married. It was our place, and it is still full of people who love both of us.

Many of you know that we lost our church community here in Boston in September 2018, a loss which has echoed through the following year and a half, especially when my marriage subsequently fell apart. I did make a few attempts to find a new church, or just a place to sit and cry, after we stopped going to Brookline, but it was always hard. (The exceptions were special occasions, like the glorious carol service at Memorial Church in early December, and the lovely, twinkly Christmas Eve service at my childhood church in West Texas.)

gold-tulips

In this time of quarantine, I couldn’t walk into a church if I wanted to, and while that is tough, I’ve also felt a sneaking sense of relief. I’ve been turning back to the things that comfort me (haven’t we all?), and the familiar sight of the Highland auditorium, and a few faces and voices I know, is a deep comfort to me. They start with singing – my favorite part of any church service – and then a child recites the Lord’s Prayer via video. I’ve enjoyed seeing a few of the elders, whom I know, get up and lead prayers, too. Sometimes I skip the sermon, but when I’ve listened, I have found wisdom and grace there.

I’ve also been enjoying some of the “Daily Thought” videos from St Aldates, the big, vibrant, loving church in Oxford where I went as a student. And the best “sermon” I’ve heard in this strange time came from my friend Richard Beck, who spoke at the last virtual chapel of the semester for ACU, my alma mater, last week. He reminded the graduating seniors, and all of us, that status and productivity and wealth don’t really matter: what matters is that we are deeply, inherently loved. (His talk starts about 30 minutes into the video.)

Where are you finding encouragement – spiritual or otherwise – in these times? I’d love to hear.