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sass harrison christmas fire truck

We are easing back into routine over here: wrapping up against frigid temps; shoveling snow; making lots of soup (and huevos); drinking tea and answering email. It felt so good to hit pause on the responsibilities of work and church for a while, but now we’re back to it, albeit not quite at full throttle yet.

I am – I think – recovered from our annual 10-day holiday odyssey across Texas, and I’ve been thinking about the gifts it brought: not only the wrapped presents under various trees and the time with our families and friends, but a few surprises that sneaked in under the radar, and reminded me that this is a season of joy, love and – yes – magic.

In no particular order, here are the unexpected gifts I savored this Christmas season:

  • A dozen homemade gingersnaps, hand-delivered by J’s sweet Aunt Joy when we met her for lunch.
  • Singing O Holy Night at Christmas Eve service. It’s ambitious for congregational singing, but the new music minister at my parents’ church urged us to attempt it, “with gusto!” So we did.
  • Three blue-sky morning runs through my parents’ neighborhood, past houses decked with Christmas decor, with the Jennys in my ears.
  • Running into a longtime friend at a new-to-us pizza place in Abilene, and discovering later that she’d paid for our lunch.
  • My nephews, snuggled up on either side of me and listening with (mostly) rapt attention as I read the Christmas story aloud.
  • Laughing with my brother-in-law on Christmas Day about homemade sourdough pretzels and the dough that wouldn’t rise. (They were still delicious!)
  • Cuddling with my sister on the couch that night as everyone traded stories and sipped wine.
  • Playing baseball in the driveway with my dad, my husband and my older nephew, Ryder.
  • A couple of sunsets so stunning that we all piled out of my sister’s living room and onto her front porch to gaze at them.

texas sunset sky december pump jack

  • Waking up with Do You Hear What I Hear? in my head the week before Christmas. We sang it every year when I was in youth choir, and it made me think of George.
  • The moment when my niece’s hair ties ended up in one of my (bald!) dad’s Christmas presents – my husband exclaimed, “That’s where those went!” and everyone burst out laughing.
  • Half an hour to myself in front of the Christmas tree one night, journaling and reading The Dark is Rising.
  • Coconut eggnog pie, with Blue Bell vanilla ice cream, as the denouement to a dinner with dear friends.
  • Picking up a novel I loved at the DFW airport bookstore.
  • Cracking up with J’s high school choir friends as we sang Christmas carols: “Johnny wants a pair of skates, Susie wants a shed…”
  • A wee girl named Genevieve Noelle, born to some of my best friends on Dec. 26. (We knew she was coming, of course, but we didn’t quite know when.)
  • The sentiment handwritten in my Aunt Cathy’s Christmas card: “And seriously, peace on earth.” (Hear, hear.)
  • Running straight into a few friends from high school at Christmas Eve service. I’ve been gone from my hometown a while, but it’s still and always where I’m from.
  • Singing hymns in the hallways of a hospice unit one night, with old friends.
  • A hilarious game of Scrabble with my in-laws.
  • The glass heirloom fruit bowls my Neno gave me.

There were plenty of gifts I was expecting this year: so much food and laughter at my parents’ house, time with beloved friends in Abilene, chips and salsa whenever we could squeeze them in. Those gifts were sweet and nourishing, and they filled me up. But these surprises have a magic all their own.

I hope your holidays included a few unexpected gifts, too.

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not afraid shirt ocean brave

It’s been a year, hasn’t it, friends?

These past months have been crowded and stressful, both in the world and in my own life. But they’ve also held beauty and laughter and joy. Here’s my annual (long but non-comprehensive) list of what has happened this year.

In 2017, I have:

darwins d2 start arrow

  • spent a long October weekend introducing my parents to New York City.
  • returned to PEI with the hubs for our third blissful stretch of days there.
  • spent a week wandering Oxford, city of my heart.
  • tried my first boot camp workout – a six-week series taught by my favorite yoga instructor – and loved it.
  • surprised myself by taking up running.
  • run my first 5K (in the snow!).
  • moved (again) and settled into our new apartment, a lovely third-floor eyrie in Dorchester.
  • fallen in love with the river trail near our house.

river trail asters

midtown nyc skyscrapers blue sky

  • gone on a few weekend escapes with the hubs: a Florida beach, a wee Connecticut town, the Maine woods.
  • spoken (once) and listened (on many days) at Morning Prayers at Memorial Church.
  • done a lot of church work, as ever: sending emails, organizing events, reading Scripture, washing dishes.
  • learned a thing or two about protesting.
  • marked nine years of marriage.
  • helped my best friends pack up their apartment, and sent them on their way to Idaho with many tears.
  • finished paying off our little silver car (we call her Adele).
  • celebrated my eighth (!) Turkeypalooza with church friends.
  • filled up half a dozen journals.

I’m looking forward to turning the calendar on 2018: I love the idea of a fresh start, but there’s also some good stuff I want to carry over from 2017. Wishing you a peaceful, hopeful start to the New Year.

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katie st marys tower oxford england

I don’t consider myself a tourist in Oxford.

It is home, and has been home now for over a decade: almost since I first stepped off the bus after an overnight flight, back in 2004. I carry its map in my heart; the streets are full of memories, and I spend a lot of my time there revisiting favorite haunts and catching up with my people.

Every time I go back to visit, though, I can’t resist a few of its tourist attractions. The cobblestoned beauty of Radcliffe Square; the green vistas of University Parks; the shops on the Broad stuffed with T-shirts and postcards (because I always need a souvenir for someone). I roll my eyes at the tour groups as much as the next person, and then I, too, pull out my camera to snap photo after photo of the dreaming spires I love.

My favorite tourist spot, though, is a little higher up: 127 steps, to be exact. It’s the tower at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin: the highest point from which to view the city, and easily my favorite.

radcliffe camera oxford tower sky all souls

Looking north, you can see Radcliffe Square with the iconic Camera (in the foreground), with the bulk of the Bodleian just behind and All Souls College off to the right. If I squint, I can see past the Broad and the Science Center to the towers of St Anne’s and St Antony’s Colleges, up the Woodstock Road. You can’t quite see the North Oxford street where I used to live (and where I stayed this time), but I know exactly where it is: true north indeed.

all souls college view towers oxford

From the eastern side of the tower, All Souls is on full display. The colleges further along the High – Queen’s, University, Magdalen – are a little more coy, hiding themselves behind gates and battlements. Past Magdalen’s tower is the roundabout of St Clements, which leads to East Oxford and Headington Hill, down which the green sweep of South Park rolls like a velvet carpet. The middle road off St Clements leads to Cowley, which was my neighborhood as a graduate student: I lived there in a little chocolate-box house with three British girls who are still dear to me.

magdalen college tower oxford buildings

To the south lies a tangle of college buildings, old even by Oxford standards: Merton, Oriel, Corpus Christi, Christ Church with its famous Tom Tower. Right across from Christ Church is a less famous spire, but one that holds pride of place in my heart: St Aldates, the church where I have found grace and community since my first Sunday in Oxford.

christ church oxford towers south view

The western view, bounded by hills that glow yellow with rapeseed in spring, includes yet more colleges: Exeter, Jesus, Lincoln. I always feel I could step onto the rooftops and dance across them from here, like Bert and his chimney-sweep friends in Mary Poppins. This view of the city feels at once lofty and completely, utterly mine: I can pick out individual buildings I know while appreciating the whole sweep of it at once.

exeter college oxford view towers

I lingered as I always do, snapping photos from every angle, taking deep breaths and letting other visitors squeeze past me, talking in their various languages. Many of them are seeing Oxford from above for the first time, and I smile at their wonder, but it’s different from mine. They are seeing a place that is new and foreign. I am looking down, with love, at my home.

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mostly books interior abingdon uk bookshop

October began with a much-needed break: a trip across the pond to Oxford, my heart’s home, to see friends and dive into bookshops and drink so much tea. I bought half a dozen books there, of course. Here’s what I have been reading, on my long plane rides and since then:

The Austen Escape, Katherine Reay
Engineer Mary Davies is in a slump at work when her childhood best friend Isabel talks her into joining an Austen-themed country house party in England. Once there, Mary thinks they might actually enjoy themselves, until Isabel has a sudden memory lapse and believes the costume party is real. I like Reay’s sweet lit-nerd novels, though the mental health plotline here felt like a stretch. (NB: I’m married to a therapist.) I did enjoy seeing Mary come into her own. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 7).

The Troutbeck Testimony, Rebecca Tope
Persimmon “Simmy” Brown is celebrating her one-year anniversary of moving to the Lake District and opening a flower shop. But a series of disturbing events, including the body of a dead dog and the murder of a local man, mar her joy and draw her into a tangled investigation. Fourth in a series I hadn’t previously read; I liked Simmy, but found some of the other characters a bit annoying. Still an engaging airplane read. Found at the Oxfam bookshop on Turl Street, in Oxford.

High Tide, Veronica Henry
I loved Henry’s novel How to Find Love in a Bookshop and picked this one up at the Oxfam shop in Summertown, Oxford. It’s a charming story of several people who find themselves in the Cornwall village of Pennfleet, just as summer is turning to autumn. Love and soul-searching and dramatic life changes lie ahead, and I loved each character’s arc – they all felt satisfying, and the tone is so engaging. Light and lovely. (I enjoy a dose of British chick lit once in a while.)

The War I Finally Won, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Bradley’s sequel to The War That Saved My Life (which I adored) picks up with Ada Smith and her brother, Jamie, living in the Kentish countryside with their guardian, Susan. As World War II heats up, Ada and her family find themselves hosting Ruth, a German Jewish refugee. Ada’s struggle to accept Ruth, to trust that Susan will care for her and Jamie, and to reckon with her own losses and fears (war-related and otherwise) broke my heart and mended it again. She is so brave, and this is such a great story. Found at Mostly Books in Abingdon (pictured above) on my trip.

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

What are you reading?

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neponset river sky

Mostly we go as far as we dare down the Road that Leads to the End of the World, rounding every corner adventurously and expectantly, as if we were going to find Tomorrow behind it, while all the little evening green hills neatly nestle together in the distance.

—Anne of Windy Poplars, L.M. Montgomery

Since we moved to Dorchester in late July, I’ve been exploring our new neighborhood: trying out the ice cream shop and a couple of restaurants, visiting the nail salon for a pedicure or two, buying potted herbs and cut flowers at the gorgeous garden center nearby. But my favorite thing about our new area might be the walking trail that’s only a block from our house. I’ve spent many weekend hours down there already, lacing up my sneakers and grabbing my earbuds, walking along the curving green path with the Wailin’ Jennys and my thoughts for company.

My first few walks on the trail were short ones: getting a feel for the route along the river, stopping to snap pictures of Queen Anne’s lace and weathered murals, or simply to take in the views. But a couple of weekends ago, I decided to see how far the trail went. I walked for over an hour, past two playgrounds and under several overpasses, enjoying the blue sky and the warmth of the sun on my shoulders.

That section of the trail stops at a small public dock that juts out over the river, and I walked out onto the dock and stood there, breathing in deeply, smelling the marshy salt air, watching a gull or two swing through the sky. And I thought of these words from Anne’s letter to Gilbert, which my friend Caroline mentioned on her blog a few years ago: “as far as we dare.”

katie river trail blue sky earbuds

My life, these days, requires more daring than I sometimes wish it did: I am learning every day, sometimes every hour, to face the vagaries of life by summoning my courage. Some of the challenges are what I call garden-variety chaos: the busyness of emails and meetings and work assignments, delayed trains and surprise thunderstorms, tricky schedules and missed deadlines. Those make me a little nuts, but I can handle them, and laugh them off at the end of the day. But I need more daring, more bravery, for the things I can’t possibly deal with in one fell swoop: the heartbreaking headlines, the complicated politics (both at work and in our nation at large), the daily (but far from everyday) deeper challenges of work and life and love.

It felt good, on that recent Sunday afternoon, to stretch both my legs and my courage, and go as far as I dared down the trail that led east – though I didn’t quite know where it went. But I followed it to its beautiful end, and then turned around and headed home, refreshed. I thought of this a few days later when a friend teased, “It’s always an odyssey,” and I replied, “That’s how you find your way back home.”

In Windy Poplars, Anne and her neighbor, Elizabeth Grayson, go for long evening walks (as mentioned above). They walk “as far as they dare” to escape Elizabeth’s tyrannical grandmother and the schoolwork that’s always waiting for Anne back at her house. But those walks, and each other’s company, help them dare more deeply and more often. They make each other more brave.

The people I love do that for me: they push me, by their loving presence, to dare a little farther, a little deeper. We walk “as far as we dare” side by side, and in so doing, we help each other find our way. But my solo walks on the river trail help me do this, too. Sometimes it’s good to test your own mettle, to find out how far you can go alone. To give a new meaning to “as far as you dare,” and to know that you can. That I can. That I dare.

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not afraid shirt ocean brave

My sweet husband bought me this shirt (designed by Kim Roach) on our trip to PEI last summer, but I’ve only started wearing it recently. So many of my adventures this year have been close to home, geographically – including our annual trip up to Crane Beach, where I took this photo. But they have involved big leaps of the heart.

Sometimes this shirt speaks the truth: I am not afraid. And sometimes the adventure lies in admitting I am afraid – and then leaping anyway.

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birdsfoot trefoil flowers

I prefer to think of them as wildflowers, but whatever you call them, they’re lovely.

Birdsfoot trefoil (above) and Queen Anne’s lace (below), spotted on a walk along the river trail in my new neighborhood.

queen anne's lace

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