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Archive for the ‘musings’ Category

My latest Chatbook arrived in the mail the other day. As usual, I tore open the jade-green envelope, flipped through the photos with a smile, added it to the growing stack on my bookshelf, and considered whether to cancel my subscription.

Since I started getting my Instagram photos printed through Chatbooks a few years ago, I’ve racked up more than 70 square softcover albums of my daily life. I loved the idea: an easy, affordable way to print the photos I was choosing to highlight anyway. And I still like the quality, and the ease and fun of getting a few photos off my phone. But every time I thumb through the pictures of flowers and books and my guy, a nagging voice in my head asks the same question: does it matter?

Since my divorce, I am a household of one: physically and financially independent. I wash my own dishes, pay my own bills, struggle to do my own meal planning and structure my days. Especially since the pandemic and my furlough, I also struggle to believe that being alone is not a lack, not a deficit. That my worth is not determined by my relationship to other people (though I do have, and am thankful for, deep loving relationships in my life).

Getting my own photos printed sometimes feels like a small declaration that I matter, and sometimes it seems like plain self-indulgence: who else is going to look at these albums? Who would care to? These photos and captions don’t matter much to anyone but me. Is that reason enough to keep spending the money? Am I overthinking this? (The answer is probably yes.)

I don’t have a good answer right now, for the photo albums or for the larger questions of how to build a life on my own. But for now, I’ll keep trying on both counts: keep snapping and posting photos of the details I notice and enjoy, and keep working to believe that my noticing counts for something. I’m not sure if I’ll keep stacking up the photo albums indefinitely. But for now, they serve as a small, tangible reminder: I am here. And I am trying to pay attention.

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Someone mentioned last week that we are six months into pandemic life, and I had to pause a moment. Six months? On some level, of course, six months is a blink – and in other ways it has been the longest, strangest half-year ever.

With wildfires on top of the pandemic and racial injustice, and a president who seems either unable or unwilling to respond properly to any of those, it can be tough to simply move through the days. My former colleague Juliette has started saying “pandemic good” when people ask how she’s doing – a response I love for its snark and honesty. (I follow her on Twitter because she’s a homeland security and logistics expert, and also because she’s reliably, relatably human.)

Doing yoga in Piers Park the other night (under a hazy sky), I stepped one foot back into a lunge and could feel myself shaking a bit. This multiplied when we got to crow pose, which I love but have not mastered yet. But I didn’t feel worried at any point that I was going to come crashing down: I felt shaky, but strong. And it came to me: that’s where so many of us are these days.

I am still furloughed (through the fall semester) and trying to figure out both freelance work and possible next steps. I miss my family, whom I haven’t seen since Christmas. Most of my friends are adjusting to new remote or hybrid school setups for their kids, often while working remotely themselves. My guy is still working at Trader Joe’s, a job he is thankful for but which carries a risk. We are all dealing with some form(s) of loneliness, worry, isolation and fear.

And yet: we are learning, slowly, what we need to survive or even flourish in these strange times. (For me: strong black tea before a morning run, in-person time with my people as often as possible, ginger-turmeric granola, bear hugs from my guy, good books, plenty of hand lotion to counteract all the sanitizing.) We worry about how we’ll keep going, and then we get up and do it. We are dealing with tech issues and unemployment tangles and trying to get our heads around a new season and waning hours of daylight. We are meeting for socially distanced walks and bike rides and picnics in the park. We have no real answers (does anyone?) but we are doing the best we can.

Shaky, but strong. That’s where I am today, and most days. We are building resilience even as these strange days take everything we’ve got. We are still here. There is still joy, and beauty, alongside anxiety and strain. And we get up each day, make another cup of tea or coffee, and keep going.

How are you really doing, these days? I’d love to know.

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One of the things I’ve missed the most in these pandemic times is travel.

I love my little nest in Eastie, but I also love hitting the road or jumping on a plane or train, to see somewhere new or revisit familiar, favorite places. Like so many folks I know, I have mourned multiple canceled trips this spring and summer. My guy and I have ridden our bikes all over Boston, and it’s been fun, but I’ve barely been out of the city for months.

Last week, though, I decided to get out of town – at least for the afternoon – and head down to Falmouth, near the base of Cape Cod. My friend Hannah had invited me for lunch and a walk, so I rented a Zipcar and drove down in the late morning. By some miracle I escaped the weekend traffic (in both directions), and the afternoon was just what my soul needed.

Hannah and I met at a writing workshop years ago, and we love talking about books and faith and catching up on our lives. I sat on her sun porch and sipped tea while she made lunch for us, and we ate at a square blue table in her front yard, trading stories while the skies gradually cleared.

After lunch, we slipped on our sneakers and went for a long, rambling walk, past a local farm where someone had nailed a small box to a fence post and written “Enjoy!” on the side. It held a few cherry tomatoes, so I helped myself. And the dahlias nearby were stunning.

We walked down the bike path, through a sedate neighborhood filled with late-summer trees and flowers, over to Little Island and the beach there, which you reach by walking through the woods. There was a rotting pilot whale carcass on the beach (so smelly!) but there was also sweet autumn clematis, blooming away, and the first red leaves. We perched on the rocks and talked for a while, and then we walked back and I hopped in my rental car to make the drive home.

It was only a few hours, but I’d forgotten how refreshing it could be to see different views, explore a new path, breathe (slightly) different air. Not to mention the nourishing company of a dear friend. In these strange, anxious months, making the effort to get away often feels overwhelming. But I’m here to tell you: it is entirely worth it.

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I’m not much of a shopper normally, though I can rarely (if ever) resist a bookstore. But I love getting mail and supporting small businesses, and in these still-strange days, I’ll take my joys where I can find them.

So lately, I’ve been indulging in a little retail therapy: mostly online, but a little bit in person, when I can. I thought I’d share a few recent finds, just for fun.

I fell deeply in love with the magic of Newport Folk Fest last summer, and was so sad it couldn’t happen in person this year. But I jumped at the chance to order a bit of merch (above) from their online shop, and am proudly sporting my new neck gaiter on my morning runs.

It’s no secret I love New York in the fall and everything else about You’ve Got Mail, so I swooned over The Bookshelf Thomasville’s gorgeous new stationery collection featuring Kathleen Kelly. You bet I pre-ordered a couple of those goodies.

Just as everything shut down here in Boston in March, I went to Bob Slate in Cambridge and bought a stack of journals. That stack is all gone now, so I was thrilled to find a few lovely new notebooks for half price at the Booksmith recently (above), along with a couple of used books.

Several of my girlfriends have had birthdays recently, so I’ve ordered them stickers, stationery and other fun things from small vendors like Kwohtations and Carrot Top Paper Shop. And since we’re going to be wearing masks for a while, apparently, I picked up two beautiful ones from DIOP, Detroit-based and Black-owned.

I’m trying not to go overboard: I’m still furloughed and I still have to buy groceries and pay rent. But these bits of joy for myself and others are helping me get through. And I get a thrill when the fun packages arrive in the mail.

Are you indulging in any fun retail therapy recently? Do share, if you are.

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Last Tuesday, I did something entirely new to me: I spent 15 hours (yes, basically my whole waking day) serving as a poll worker at my neighborhood high school. This year, many veteran poll workers, who tend to be older, are stepping back due to coronavirus risks, so I signed up to help fill the gap.

As an experience, it was both eye-opening and at times mind-numbingly mundane. We did a lot of counting: blank ballots, tally marks, voter lists, early-voting ballots, all the scanned ballots at the end of the night. There was a lot of recounting and double-checking, to make sure the numbers matched the tabulations on the electronic machine. The smell of hand sanitizer hung in the air (with the universal funk of high school gym underneath). I wheeled my bike out of the gym at the stroke of 9 p.m., too tired even to pedal down the steep hill toward home.

All day, I kept thinking of something I heard Elizabeth Gilbert say a few years ago, in a podcast interview: some of the most important things in life are “ninety percent boring.” Writing is this way, she said, and marriage, and certainly raising children. And it occurred to me that this is true of democracy, as well.

Voting is, typically, modest and understated: you go to a school gym or City Hall or the Knights of Columbus clubhouse, give your name to a neighbor or a stranger, mark a ballot with a few dark circles. No one who came to vote on Tuesday was doing it to call attention to themselves. But what I loved was the aggregate: the mosaic, taken together, of all these people of different races, ages, genders and walks of life.

There was the young Hispanic mother in scrubs, holding her two children by the hand, who came to vote after work. (We made sure both kids got an “I Voted” sticker.) There were the retired couples, thin white hair and thick Boston accents, who came together in their sensible shoes. There were several women in hijab, alone or with their husbands, and a few men who walked straight in from their construction job sites, chunky boots and jeans smeared with dust.

We saw a number of first-time voters, young people feeling shy about feeding their ballots into the machine, unsure if they were doing it right. One woman rushed in at 7:45 p.m., saying she’d been on a deadline all day but was determined to come vote. The one that nearly made me cry was the biracial family with two tall teenage sons. One was voting for the first time, and he smiled shyly when I congratulated him. The other one wasn’t old enough to vote yet, but he followed his mother to the booth, and I knew: even if he didn’t act like it, he was paying attention.

Signing petitions, serving on a jury, ensuring free and fair elections: these things are ninety percent boring. Even protests can get hot and dusty and dull, though they’re fueled at first by passion. But these small levers of democracy are the ones that move it forward.

On Tuesday, there was a lot of sitting in hard chairs and watching people come through the line, one by one. There was a lot of pacing back and forth, answering the same few questions over and over, handing out stickers and pens, putting my limited Spanish to use (East Boston has a large Latinx population). It was, perhaps, ninety percent boring – though I truly enjoyed chatting with my fellow poll workers, and my guy came in to bring me dinner. But that made it no less important: in fact, possibly more so. And at the end of the night, we left satisfied that we had done our part to ensure that everyone’s vote counted.

I’ll be working the polls again this November. If you’re able, I’d urge you to consider joining me.

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This is the summer, as I said recently, of antiracist reading (along with sunflowers and bike rides and strawberries). On a recent Monday afternoon, a friend and I decided to explore with both our feet and our brains: we met up in Beacon Hill to walk the Boston Black Heritage Trail.

I’ve lived in Boston for a decade now, and I used to wander Beacon Hill frequently when I worked at Emerson College. But I didn’t know this trail existed until recently, and the more sites we found and the more snippets I read aloud from the National Park Service website, I wondered: why not?

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Like many American schoolchildren, I learned certain parts of Boston history: Paul Revere’s famous ride, the Boston Tea Party. I walked most of the Freedom Trail as a newcomer to Boston, ten years ago. I knew Boston was a center for the abolitionist movement (though it is also persistently racist). But I didn’t know about so many of the folks we learned about on the Black Heritage Trail: their names or their occupations or their contributions to the ongoing fight for Black freedom.

The trail comprises about a dozen sites, starting at the memorial to the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, a volunteer infantry regiment made up of Black soldiers (made famous in the movie Glory). The memorial itself is closed for restoration right now, but there’s a great temporary exhibition wrapped around the fencing, so you can still learn about the soldiers of the 54th.

Most of the trail’s other sites are former homes of Black people who fought for the abolition of slavery, helped house people escaping enslavement, helped integrate schools and churches in Boston, and played other important roles in Black community life. There are two former schools along the trail: the Abiel Smith School, the first Black public school in Boston, and the Phillips School, which became one of Boston’s first integrated schools.

The trail ends at the Smith Court Residences and the African Meeting House (now the Museum of African American History), which seem to have been the epicenter of Black life in Boston in the late 19th century. But even as we walked, we saw plaques on other buildings noting people who had lived and worked for abolition and Black rights in the neighborhood.

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I might never have seen these plaques, or any of these houses, if I hadn’t been looking for them – and I kept wondering: why not? Why aren’t we taught these stories, alongside those of Paul Revere and Samuel Adams and John Hancock? Why had I never heard of Lewis and Harriet Hayden or George Middleton or Elizabeth Smith? I want to find out more about them now – but their stories should not be tucked down a side street. They should be highlighted, celebrated.

So much of the work of adulthood, for me, is paying attention: noticing the details of each day, really listening to my loved ones when we’re talking, not simply scrolling or sleepwalking through this life. The work of anti-racism also involves paying attention: seeking out the stories we don’t know, the ones that have been ignored or erased or shunted aside. This walk, this trail, is a small beginning. I’m glad we went, and I’m committed to finding out more.

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I’ve spent a lot of time on bikes this spring and summer – one of the odd silver linings of this work-from-home/furloughed life. My guy is a bike advocate and instructor (and general bike fanatic), so he’s been thrilled to have a partner in crime on some of his rides.

I learned to ride as a child, like many people, but hadn’t ridden a bike in about a decade until I went to graduate school in Oxford. That year, I bought a secondhand green bike (I named her Jade) and rode her all over Oxford, relishing the freedom of movement and the wind in my hair. The traffic always terrified me, though – and that fear was multiplied when I moved to Boston in 2010. The city launched a bike-share program (then Hubway; now Bluebikes) soon after I moved here, but I didn’t get up the courage to try it out until a couple of years ago.

Fast forward to this spring, when my friend Maureen lent me her bike (she was leaving town for a couple of months). I had a lot more time to ride around, and having a bike at my disposal made a huge difference. This summer, I inherited the pink bike in the photo above from another friend – she’d been riding it, but it didn’t quite work for her. The frame is nearly too tall for me, but I’ve come to love it, and I’ve been riding all over the place this summer. (I’ve named her my Wild Irish Rose.)

I’ve gained a lot of confidence in the past two years: riding in traffic, learning to switch gears and navigate new routes, hauling a bike on the T (though that one’s more muscle than courage). But as I adjust to my new bike, and continue to push my boundaries, I find it requires small doses of courage all the time. 

For example: I’d never ridden a single-speed bike as an adult, and I was worried about navigating hills on my new bike. It only has one brake (currently), and I’ve been learning how to handle it (very different than a geared bike with two brakes). Boston has a patchwork of bike lanes, but it’s wildly inconsistent, so one of the biggest challenges is simply learning to take up space among the cars on the road. And last month, I participated in my first big group ride, the July Ride for Black Lives through the heart of the city.

Some of the cycling skills I honed as a teenager and a twentysomething grad student have come back to me: there’s a reason the old saw about riding a bike has endured. But there are new skills to learn, new challenges to face, all the time. I’ve learned (am learning) to pump air into my tires, clean my chain, pay more attention to how the bike feels on the road. I’m learning to read the signals of cars and traffic lights: not only the obvious ones, but the subtle indicators we all give off, even when we’re operating machines. I’ve been surprised when my bike sparks conversations with other cyclists when I’m out and about.

Sometimes the sheer amount I still have to learn is intimidating. But mostly, cycling is a source of joy. And it helps me continue to practice bravery, every time I get on the bike.

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I’ve lived in my little studio in Eastie for a year now, and for most of that time, I’ve been chucking my fruit pits, veggie peels, eggshells and tea leaves (so many tea leaves) into a countertop compost bin I bought from Target. (No perks or affiliate links here; I just did some searching for sleek, easy-to-clean countertop bins, and I like this one.)

I don’t have space (or need) for a big compost bin of my own, but the City of Boston’s pilot compost project, charmingly named Project Oscar, includes a couple of bins down the hill from my house. Every few days, I tie up the green compostable bag filled with flower stems, orange peels and zucchini ends, and carry it down the hill, where I dump it into the bigger compost bin and hope whoever picks it up is hauling it away to some good purpose.

Sometimes, I think about Natalie Goldberg’s chapter on “Composting” in Writing Down the Bones, where she compares writing (and mulling over your lived experiences) to composting our kitchen scraps. “Our bodies are garbage heaps,” she says, “and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil. […] But this does not come all at once. It takes time.”

I like the notion that I’m diverting some of my kitchen leavings away from the landfill, and sending them where they can do some good. Sometimes I wonder who else is tossing their kitchen scraps into the bins over by Maverick Square, and what they will eventually become, and what they will feed. (Sometimes, I simply hold the bag at arm’s length – even pre-compost starts to smell – and promise myself to bring it down to the bins sooner next time.)

I’ve found it difficult, these last months, to create anything of substance, other than book reviews, the occasional meal, and countless cups of tea. I tend to beat myself up about this, but then (sometimes) I remember Natalie and her advice: “Continue to turn over and over the organic details of your life until some of them fall through the garbage of discursive thoughts to the solid ground of black soil.”

I’ll keep doing that. And I’ll keep composting my apple cores and bell pepper stems and those tea leaves, hoping they contribute to a richness I can’t yet see.

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It’s no secret that I love a good coffee shop – even though I am not, and have never been, a coffee drinker. I’ve also been hankering for new places to (safely) explore during this pandemic, and missing my regular “third places.” (Though I have been dropping by Darwin’s once in a while, to get iced tea and wave at my people.)

A couple of months ago, I heard that Eagle Hill Cafe had moved from its previous location (in Eagle Hill, the next neighborhood over) to one of the main streets in my part of Eastie. I hopped on my bike one afternoon and rode over to check it out. And I’ve fallen completely in love: with the kind, friendly atmosphere, the delicious bagel sandwiches, and their smoothies.

We’ve had a hot summer here in Boston, so I’ve been on the lookout for new cooling treats (and meals that don’t require cooking). The smoothies at Eagle Hill are fresh and delicious, and I’ve decided to work my way through the dozen or so options on their list. The Sunset (pictured above) is my favorite so far: strawberry, mango and apple juice. But I’ve tried several others: tropical concoctions involving mango and pineapple; super-healthy green ones with spinach and cucumber; the “Purple Rain” and “Berry Fairy,” which both involve (surprise) lots of berries.

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It’s nice to have something to look forward to, and something to cross off a list, even if it’s just the next smoothie flavor. I like dropping in and saying hello to Ellis and Monica behind the counter, and soaking in the a/c for a few minutes. Once in a while I treat myself to a bagel sandwich, and last month, I took my guy there for a lunch date. Especially in these times, we take our joys where we can find them, and I’m so glad this one is just a few blocks down the street.

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This is the summer of simple breakfasts: Greek yogurt with granola and blueberries in the blue-and-white bowls I bought from Carolyn. I eat sitting at my kitchen table, sipping ginger peach or English Breakfast from one of my favorite mugs.

This is the summer of morning pages: filling up slim notebooks with scribbled thoughts, jottings, worries, hopes, half-remembered dreams. I went to Bob Slate right when quarantine started and spent a small fortune on journals, which have lasted up until now.

This is the summer of morning runs, down the hill to the harborwalk and over to the greenway, pausing to snap photos of harbor views and herons, wild roses and day lilies.

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This is the summer of purple sneakers pounding on pavement, I’m With Her or the Highwomen in my ears, pulling up my neck gaiter when I pass another person, wishing I could stop to pet the friendly dogs.

This is the summer of masks: wearing, washing, pulling up and down, wondering if I should buy more, on repeat.

This is the summer of long bike rides, alone or with G on my new single-speed pink bike, gradually gaining confidence in hills and corners, thankful for a way to avoid public transit and be out in the sunshine.

This is the summer of missing normal: canceled plans, Zumix concerts in the park, dinner with friends, time with my family, hugs.

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This is the summer of Sara Paretsky: I’m deep into V.I. Warshawski’s adventures fighting crime in Chicago and I think it’s safe to say I am obsessed.

This is the summer of Tuesdays at the farmers’ market, buying salsa roja and berries and sometimes hummus or muhammara, from the handful of sellers who wait faithfully on the plaza. After we shop, we sit in the grass and snack, savoring tart currants and sweet strawberries before heading our separate ways, toward home.

This is the summer of so much time and feeling like I should be doing something with it.

This is the summer of yoga in the park, spreading my mat out a safe distance from everyone else and breathing through sun salutations and hip openers.

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This is the summer of light on the water, watching sailboats and dinghies and yachts on the harbor, marveling at how it changes from hour to hour.

This is the summer of antiracist reading: Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, Mildred D. Taylor and Nikki Giovanni, making a conscious effort to seek out stories by people who don’t look like me.

This is the summer of Downeast cider – no samples, but cans or growlers picked up to go, refreshing fruit flavors with a little bite.

This is the summer of serious loneliness, trying to build in phone chats and/or in-person connection every day. Sometimes it works; sometimes it’s simply exhausting.

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This is the summer of smoothies at Eagle Hill Cafe, a new favorite in Eastie – I’m working my way through their smoothie list.

This is the summer of reading e-galleys for review; I still don’t like it but I am used to it by now. I am thankful to pick up physical books at the library, and drop in at my favorite bookstores occasionally.

This is the summer of waiting: for the pandemic to be over, for my unemployment to come through (finally), for news about my furlough status, for a time when we can gather without fear.

What does this summer look like for you?

 

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