hks desk rose itn computer

That’s what I say when my husband asks me what’s on tap for my Monday.

“You should trademark that,” he joked recently, as we did our morning dance in the bathroom: brushing teeth, blow-drying hair, shaving, slathering on moisturizer. It’s often our only chance to get a sense of each other’s days before he drives to the office and I walk down the street to catch the trolley.

J’s days are usually packed full of meetings: with clients (he’s a marriage and family therapist), supervisees (he helps train new therapists), co-workers. Mine often include meetings too, but the Monday scramble is slightly different: I see it as the deep breath, the pull of the lever that throws the week into gear.

I pack my bag the night before with books, workout gear, a snack or two. In the morning I add my water bottle, lunch if I’m bringing it, any last-minute essentials. When I get to the Square, I head to Mem Church (if I’ve made it in time), then walk a few blocks over to the office. And the gearing-up begins.

I sift through the weekend’s emails, put together the daily news roundup (see above), check my work calendar, write down to-do lists and reminders for the week. I jot down notes for our Monday-afternoon meeting and remind myself of where I left various projects on Friday. I send out a couple of weekly emails and draft another one. Mid-morning, if I can swing it, I push back my chair and head to Darwin’s for some chai. Caffeine is a vital part of this machinery, as are the smiles from my favorite baristas.

Many of these tasks happen every day in some form, but Mondays are a chance to hit reset: to look at the week as a whole and take stock before diving in. Of course, sometimes the chaos takes over, and unexpected things crop up all the time. But if I’m lucky, the Monday scramble helps me unscramble the rest of the week – or at least do some damage control.

How do you start off your weeks? Is there a “Monday scramble” – or something similar – in your world?


shortest way home book anemones flowers

In like a lion, as they say. Early March has included three (!) nor’easters: snow, wind, rain and flooding. Plus the first crocuses. And good books, as always.

Here’s the latest roundup:

Through the Evil Days, Julia Spencer-Fleming
I read this eighth mystery featuring Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne with my heart in my throat. A whopping ice storm, a missing girl, a meth-cooking operation – Spencer-Fleming amps up the tension on every level. The case gets solved, but an unrelated cliffhanger left me even more impatient for the next installment.

The Shortest Way Home, Miriam Parker
Hannah Greene has landed her dream job right out of business school, and she and her boyfriend have their lives all planned. But on a weekend in Sonoma County, Hannah falls in love with a local winery and jettisons her NYC plans. A charming novel about upending expectations (your own and everyone else’s) to make your way. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 31). I got to chat with the author, too, and she’s a darling.

Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years, David Litt
Former speechwriter Litt reminisces about his years on the Obama campaign trail and the White House in this wry memoir. He’s witty, self-deprecating and sometimes insightful about the boondoggle that is American politics, and the mix of hope, frustration and ennui that can plague workplaces like his. Plus fun insider stories, in the vein of Alyssa Mastromonaco’s Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?. Recommended by Rebecca on All the Books!.

The Plant Messiah: Adventures in Search of the World’s Rarest Species, Carlos Magdalena
Magdalena is a man on a mission: to care for and propagate the world’s disappearing plants, and to spread the gospel of conservation. A Spaniard who now works at London’s Kew Gardens, he’s crisscrossed the world on botanical adventures. This memoir got a little science-geeky at times, but it’s full of good stories and enthusiasm. (The man loves him some water lilies.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 10).

American Panda, Gloria Chao
Mei Lu, 17-year-old MIT freshman, wishes her Taiwanese parents would stop being so overprotective – especially since she wants to change her major and date a (gasp!) Japanese-American boy. A sweet, funny YA novel about family, independence and cultural clash. (And some pretty epic pranks.)

Mink River, Brian Doyle
I picked up this novel (Doyle’s first) at McNally Jackson last year, and have been lingering in it for weeks. Through brief vignettes and small everyday moments, he evokes the texture of life in Neawanaka, a tiny town in Oregon. I loved the characters; the plot rambles till it finally revs up near the end, but the charm of Doyle’s work is following his meandering joyous dizzying insightful sentences. Wise and hilarious and I’m reminded of what a treasure he was.

The Forever House, Veronica Henry
Estate agent Belinda Baxter matches people up with their perfect homes, while longing for a permanent home of her own. When she lands the commission for Hunter’s Moon, a local house with lots of history, her day job and her personal life intersect in surprising ways. I love Henry’s sweet British novels; a girlfriend brought me this one from the UK. I savored the past-present storyline and the likable characters. Very satisfying.

Hiding in the Bathroom: An Introvert’s Guide to Getting Out There (When You’d Rather Stay Home), Morra Aarons-Mele
I heard Aarons-Mele on a podcast with Karen Walrond recently. This, her nonfiction book on work and networking for introverts (and/or hermits), is practical, insightful and honest. She shares tips for making helpful connections, setting your own schedule, and faking it when you have to.

Amina’s Voice, Hena Khan
Amina Khokar is struggling to adjust to middle school: suddenly, friendships and expectations are shifting. And she wants to sing a solo in the school concert, but she’s too shy. A sweet middle-grade novel of a Pakistani-American girl finding her voice in more ways than one. Recommended by Jaclyn.

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

What are you reading?

the long run book snow menzies-pike

My one little word for this year is grit. Two and a half months in, it’s already proven quite apt.

I’m running several times a week these days, and that takes grit. Getting myself out onto the trail after a long workday can be tough, but it’s rewarding.

There’s also the literal grit that collects in the treads of my running shoes (and, subsequently, on my kitchen floor). And the grit required to power through the boot-camp workouts I’ve been doing on Monday nights with Erin and a handful of other women. We do bursts of cardio – high knees, jumping jacks – interspersed with lunges and squats, weight training and push-ups.

Sometimes – I won’t lie – it’s hard. But it, too, is rewarding.

I’ve been on the lookout for words about grit, and I found the first ones, fittingly, in Catriona Menzies-Pike’s wonderful memoir, The Long Run.

Like me, Menzies-Pike is a lifelong bookworm who never expected to become a runner. Also like me, she fell in love with the sport and was amazed at the changes it wrought in her body and soul. She writes about pushing through, trying and failing, building up endurance and coming face to face with her own limits. “While I might not be sporty, I sure as hell was gritty,” she asserts. I’ve thought about that line during a couple of hard runs on the trail.

I came across more words on grit in Love and Ruin, Paula McLain’s stunning novel about journalist Martha Gellhorn and her tempestuous love affair with Ernest Hemingway. The book contains many beautiful, blazingly honest passages about love and loss and war.

Early, on, as Gellhorn talks to a group of republican rebels during the Spanish Civil War, she realizes: “they didn’t have an endless supply of bravery, because no one ever did. When courage failed them, they would find a way to stand their ground anyway and fight on spirit alone. They had that in spades—grit rather than bravery.”

The word grit caught my eye, as did the comparison to courage: these two things as related, but distinct. Much later in the book, Gellhorn—now working as a war correspondent in besieged Finland—says simply, “I didn’t feel brave, though. It wasn’t bravery when you did what you had to do.”

Grit is doing what you have to do, and also what you know you should do. For me, it’s often about the daily tasks that require not only courage, but stick-to-it-iveness. Sometimes I fail at these, or run out of steam, but I’m doing my best to keep going.

So often, these days, grit is required: to do my work and take care of my people and simply keep on going. Good words help with that, and I’m grateful for these.

Are you following a word or phrase this year? How’s it going?

yellow crocuses light leaves flowers

March blew in like a lion with two wild, wet nor’easters back to back, and no lack of responsibilities at work and at home. As I navigate these blustery days, here’s a handful of tiny things, like bits of glitter, that are saving my life now:

  • That first sip of Darwin’s chai in the morning, after I lift the cup off the bar and before I put the lid on. It’s hot, spicy and life-giving.
  • Catching the trolley or the Red Line without having to wait.
  • The first (!) golden crocuses, spotted in the yard of a pink house on Cambridge St. (The man who lives there cut some of his roses for me last summer.)
  • Good pens, and ink-stained fingers.
  • Letting the sunlight flood full into my face as I look out the kitchen window, step outside my office building or sink into my favorite pew at Mem Church.
  • Brian Doyle’s rambling rollicking jubilant heartbreaking sentences in Mink River. They read like the Irishman he was: tender and clear-eyed, vivid and joyous.
  • The first scent of spring on an evening run last week: not just damp earth, which I also love, but the distinct smell of fresh blooming things.
  • The chalk heart that someone draws over and over again on the river trail.
  • Seeing my work in Shelf Awareness, which never fails to thrill me. If you love books, you should subscribe – it’s free, fun and informative.
  • A few places in my life where I am sure of a welcome: my florist’s shop, my boss’ office, my Thursday-morning haunt on the sixth floor. And – say it with me now – Darwin’s. (Though that’s not such a small thing at all.)

Some of these lifesavers are tiny indeed. But they anchor me and bring me joy, over and over again.

What’s saving your life these days? I’d love to know.

clare russ book stack julia spencer fleming mysteries

A cop and a priest walk into a crime scene.

It’s a feature of several mystery series I love: Grantchester, the excellent ITV drama based on James Runcie’s novels about Sidney Chambers and Inspector Geordie Keating. Inspector Lewis, the BBC series in which Lewis and his sergeant, Hathaway (who trained for the priesthood) solve mysteries in my beloved Oxford.

And, most recently for me, Julia Spencer-Fleming’s mysteries set in Millers Kill, New York, starring police chief Russ Van Alstyne and the Reverend Clare Fergusson.

I picked up the first book at my library right after New Year’s and was captivated by Russ and Clare’s initial adventure, in which they rescue an abandoned baby and solve a murder case. As you can see from my reading roundups, I’ve blazed through the entire series over the past two months.

I love a good mystery series, though I’m not much for serious gore. Give me an engaging, thoughtful protagonist (or two) with a strong sense of justice, an interesting setting (and preferably a standout supporting cast), twisty and compelling mystery plots, and I’m satisfied.

In this series, all those elements are intertwined with Russ and Clare’s complicated relationship. They make a good team and they quickly become friends, bonding over the cases they solve together and their respective experiences in the U.S. military. Before long, they find themselves wrestling with a deeper attraction. The problem: Russ is married, and Clare’s chosen vocation gives her extra incentive to deal honestly with her feelings and take responsibility for her actions.

Spencer-Fleming writes a solid mystery plot: I’ve been amazed at the way she weaves in local Adirondack history, the tangled web of relationships present in any small town, and questions of justice. Clare’s clear-cut sense of right and wrong is often troubled by the cases she investigates, while Russ’ long experience as a policeman has left him more world-weary but no less dedicated.

I’ve also been repeatedly astonished by the rendering of Russ and Clare’s relationship. These are two people trying to do the right thing, while acknowledging that their feelings for one another could wreak havoc on their lives and their town. It feels blazingly honest and compassionate.

Millers Kill, as the characters frequently note, is a small town, and I’ve grown to love many of the supporting characters: deputy police chief Lyle and veteran dispatcher Harlene; the junior officers, especially Kevin Flynn and Hadley Knox; the members of Clare’s vestry board and her church; and others who walk in and out of the pages regularly. They all strike me as utterly human, and most of them are people I’d like to know in real life.

Writing honestly and well about faith is hard to do. I speak from my experience on this blog and elsewhere, but I’ve never tried my hand at it in fiction. Spencer-Fleming gives us glimpses of Clare’s hard-won, gritty faith, which informs every case she works on and often goes against the grain of church politics and the vestry’s expectations. I wrote about an early scene involving prayer and a subsequent one on forgiveness, but there’s at least one similar nugget in every book: a few clear-eyed lines about the struggle to be a faithful person in this mixed-up, often heartbreaking world.

During a crisis moment in I Shall Not Want, the sixth book, Russ remembers asking Clare, “So, how do you pray?” He recalls her thoughtful expression, and her answer: Say what you believe. Say what you’re thankful for. Say what you love. 

I’ve finished the series for now (though I hope there are more books to come), and I can say with certainty: I love these characters, and I’m thankful for them. And for writers like Spencer-Fleming who bring us stories like these.

ordinary light book journal

This February was up and down: weather-wise, work-wise, sleep-wise (the Olympics messed with that last one). But it included some fantastic books. Here’s the latest roundup:

Love and Ruin, Paula McLain
I loved McLain’s novel The Paris Wife, about Hadley and Ernest Hemingway, but frankly wasn’t sure I was up for another novel about the man. But the narrative voice of Martha Gellhorn, a fiery journalist who became his third wife, captivated me. McLain charts their passionate, stormy relationship and Martha’s fierce battle to build her career while living in Ernest’s shadow. Great writing, lots of drama (world and personal) and a searing portrait of complicated love. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 1).

Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill
This short novel garnered a lot of hype a few years ago, and I finally read it for my book club. It’s a string of vignettes and musings by a highly anxious woman in NYC whose marriage hits a rough patch. The viewpoint flips about halfway through from first to third person. I can see why others found this one compelling, but it didn’t work for me.

Ordinary Light, Tracy K. Smith
Smith, the U.S. poet laureate, turns to prose in this memoir, which chronicles her childhood in California and her mother’s powerful influence on her life. It started slowly for me, but I took my time and enjoyed it, especially the later sections. A few beautiful passages (one set in Lamont Library) and a thoughtful exploration of loss, belief and growing into ourselves. I also read Smith’s striking new collection, Wade in the Water (out in April), for review.

I Shall Not Want, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Russ Van Alstyne is grieving a great loss, and Clare Fergusson is balancing ministry and her assignment in the National Guard. They and the Millers Kill PD, including brand-new officer Hadley Knox, are swept up in a case involving undocumented immigrants, drug smuggling and murder. I can’t get enough of this series; this book was possibly the most powerful and honest yet.

Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng
This novel opens with teenage arson: a shocking act in most places, but especially in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a meticulously planned, rule-following community. Ng explores the interplay of two contrasting families: the stable, self-assured Richardsons, and newcomer Mia Warren (an itinerant artist) and her daughter Pearl. A page-turner with some compelling characters. I loved Ng’s debut, Everything I Never Told You, and this is a solid second novel.

To Be Where You Are, Jan Karon
I’m a longtime repeat visitor to Mitford, Karon’s fictional North Carolina town. In this latest novel (#14), retired priest Father Tim finds himself with a new job, as his son and daughter-in-law struggle with their own challenges. I always love visiting Mitford; it’s small and homey, but the struggles are very real. Funny, comforting and wise.

One Was a Soldier, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Clare Fergusson is struggling to readjust to civilian life after a year in Iraq. She joins a local veterans’ group, and when one of her compatriots ends up dead, she (of course) dives into the investigation. Meanwhile, the other group members are wrestling their own demons, and it’s a small town, so it’s all connected. Powerful and heartbreaking; the seventh in a fantastic series.

Let Your Mind Run: A Memoir of Thinking My Way to Victory, Deena Kastor (with Michelle Hamilton)
I’m a novice enthusiastic runner; Kastor is a pro and an Olympic medalist. I was fascinated by her memoir of running: her early career, the wisdom she gained from coaches and teammates, and her focus on mental toughness. She’s relentlessly positive but not trite, and I loved following her journey. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 10).

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

What are you reading?



The crocuses in that triangular bed across from my beloved Darwin’s.


The daffodils tucked up against brick walls in Cambridge flowerbeds.

witch hazel bloom cambridge

The witch hazel in front of the Harvard Art Museums.

snowdrops dew flowers

Snowdrops tangled in the ground cover on a side street near my office.

Something’s coming, Tony sings in West Side Story. Something good, if I can wait. 

I’m watching and hoping for spring, which isn’t quite here yet. (We’re just knocking on March, after all.) But these sprouts are giving me joy while I wait.

tulip sprouts flowerbed

Even the tulips – a little early – are joining in the show.

What’s sprouting where you are?