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harborwalk-trees

We’re (more than) three months into quarantine – my personal clock hit the three-month mark last weekend. Massachusetts, like a lot of states, is slowly reopening, even as coronavirus cases continue to appear. Recently, I’ve been out to a few local businesses that were closed for a while, but otherwise, my routine hasn’t changed much since March. And I’m frankly sick of it.

I keep seeing essays or tweets around the Internet of things people want to keep from this time: more time with their families, fewer commutes, less traffic congestion, and so on. That’s all fine and good – and I have a few silver linings of my own. But honestly, there’s a lot from this time I don’t want to keep.

I don’t want to keep the constant, gnawing anxiety: will I get sick? Will someone I love get sick? Will I/they be able to afford the medical bills? What if they don’t get better?

I don’t want to keep the constant risk/reward calculation (what one friend called “mental actuarial tables”) that goes on in my brain every time I leave the house. I am sick and tired of mentally estimating the risk of a walk or a hug or a trip to the grocery store. I miss being able to plan travel, or have anything but a walk or a Trader Joe’s trip to look forward to.

I don’t want to keep the constant isolation, so acute it sometimes makes me cry, sitting here at my kitchen table with no one else around. I miss my coworkers, my librarians and baristas and yoga instructors and especially my florist. Most of all I miss my friends, even those I have seen since quarantine started. We go on walks and wave goodbye from behind our masks instead of sharing a meal together and parting with hugs. It helps, but it’s not the same.

I don’t want to keep this incompetent president, unwilling to listen to scientific experts or wise advisors, fanning the flames of partisan division for his own selfish ends (or because he just likes chaos, I can’t tell). The U.S. response to the pandemic has been fragmented and inadequate, and I am frustrated and sad that so many people have died.

I don’t want to rush into a post-pandemic “new normal” until we can do so safely, and I think we’ve got a long road ahead. I will keep taking precautions and wearing a mask when I go out, for as long as it takes. But I don’t want to keep so many aspects of this time. And I needed to say so.

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Today is Juneteenth, the anniversary of the day the last slaves in the U.S. learned they were free, in 1865 (nearly two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation). I vaguely remember learning about it in school: I grew up in Texas, after all, and the holiday began in Galveston. But I had almost forgotten about it, until this year. Amid the recent Black Lives Matter protests and national conversations about race, lots of us white folks are relearning history, which includes Juneteenth and why it’s important.

I believe listening and educating ourselves is one of the first and best ways for white people to join the work of anti-racism. I also believe we need to vote with our dollars, and support Black-owned businesses and initiatives. To that end, here are a few links:

Happy Juneteenth, friends. See you next week.

love-all-chalk

Like millions of Americans, I’ve spent the past few weeks doing a lot of reading, listening and processing. The murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, the ensuing protests, and the waves of activism and helpful resources popping up everywhere have all been rightfully demanding my attention.

I’m a few chapters into White Fragility (“like all the other white people,” my friend Ally joked last week). I’m listening to podcast interviews with Black leaders, finding Black-owned businesses to support and following new-to-me accounts on Instagram run by Black folks. (One of my favorites: Black Librarians, which highlights – what else? – Black librarians doing excellent work in their field.)

It’s tempting to think that is enough: that exposing myself to new ideas, information and voices will root out my own biases. It will help, of course, but it is not nearly enough. I keep thinking, too, about a poem I found back in early 2016: Veronica Patterson’s “A Charm Against the Language of Politics.”

Patterson’s poem begins:

Say over and over the names of things,
the clean nouns: weeping birch, bloodstone, tanager,
Banshee damask rose.

Patterson’s poem talks about pleasant things, beautiful things: spiderwebs, apples, okra, calendula. Racism and violence are not nearly as appealing, but they are real, and we have to stop ignoring them.

If we are to face racism and work to end it, we must name it, and that means naming a host of other things: specific laws and policies that discriminate against Black people; instances of violence and murder (historical and present-day); our own sometimes-hidden biases against (various) people who do not look like us. It also means, for me, naming my own whiteness, and working to understand how it has shaped me.

In conversations with friends and family, I am trying to stop vaguely referring to “everything that’s going on.” If I mean my ongoing anxieties about the coronavirus pandemic and states reopening, I say that. If I mean the sadness, outrage and drinking-from-a-firehose overwhelm of trying to process all this new information about race and racism, I say that. Sometimes I think about Albus Dumbledore, gravely reminding Harry, “Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

I was taught to ignore or sidestep race, especially the racial identities of brown and black people, and thus to ignore racism (or insist that it had been solved). But we cannot hope to solve a problem we don’t name. So, for me, it starts (in part) with naming.

Where are you finding yourselves these days, in the work of acknowledging and working to end racism in the U.S.? I’m still overwhelmed (and ashamed at how long it’s taking me to catch up), but I’m here for the work. Let’s learn together.

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We’re halfway through June, somehow – and what a ride it has been. Here’s what I have been reading:

The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy’s Vanishing Explorers, Emily Levesque
Most people imagine astronomers gazing into a backyard telescope, discovering new stars or trying to make contact with aliens. The reality is a little different, and Levesque’s memoir tells that story with humor and heart. She traces her own journey from backyard stargazer to Ph.D.-holding astronomer, and gives readers a tour of some of the world’s most powerful telescopes. Plenty of fun anecdotes about her colleagues and the field, too. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 4).

Song of the Trees, Mildred D. Taylor
I love Taylor’s series about the Logan family. This novella, narrated by Cassie, tells the story of a white landowner threatening to cut down some of the trees on her family’s land. Short and powerful.

Black History in Its Own Words, Ronald Wimberly
My guy gave me this book a while back – a collection of powerful quotes and portraits of black leaders, past and present. Some were familiar to me (bell hooks, Nina Simone, Muhammad Ali), others less so (Kimberly Bryant, Emory Douglas). Made me want to learn more about all of them.

The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living, Louise Miller
I needed a cozy, familiar story, so I picked up my friend Louise’s lovely debut novel. Boston baker Olivia Rawlings escapes to Vermont after setting her workplace (literally) on fire. Once there, she finds herself with a baking job, some new friends and a possible love interest. I love Livvy’s story and its warm, good-hearted cast of characters.

The Nesting Dolls, Alina Adams
Spanning eight decades, from Siberian work camps to 1970s Odessa to present-day Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, Adam’s saga follows three protagonists in the same Soviet family: Daria, her granddaughter Natasha, and Natasha’s granddaughter Zoe. It’s a compelling look at how the Soviet state’s ideas affected every aspect of its citizens’ lives, but it’s also a really good family saga – so good I flew through it, even on the Kindle. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 14).

I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening): A Guide to Grace-Filled Political Conversations, Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers
We are living in polarized times – and it can feel difficult and daunting to have conversations with people who think/vote/believe differently than we do. Sarah and Beth, hosts of the Pantsuit Politics podcast, share what they’ve learned through several years of digging into the issues together, and trying to do it with humility, curiosity and grace. So thoughtful and thought-provoking. Highly recommended.

The Scent of Murder, Kylie Logan
School admin assistant Jazz Ramsey spends her spare time training cadaver dogs. But she’s not prepared to find a body one Saturday night – much less one that belongs to a former student Jazz knew. Troubled by Florie Allen’s death, Jazz searches for answers while dealing (or choosing not to deal) with her personal life, including her detective ex-boyfriend. A solid entry in a new mystery series.

Silver Sparrow, Tayari Jones
Jones’ breakout novel tells the story of two girls who share a father, but only one of them knows it. In 1980s Atlanta, Dana and Chaurisse navigate both their teenage years and the complications of their family’s story. I loved (and was stunned by) Jones’ An American Marriage, and am glad I finally read this one.

Lumberjanes, Vol. 1: Beware the Kitten Holy, Noelle Stevenson, Shannon Watters, Brooke A. Allen, Grace Ellis
Jaclyn sent me the first two volumes of this highly entertaining comic, which follows five friends at an unconventional summer camp. I loved their exclamations (“Holy Mae Jemison!”) and the ways they band together. Lots of setup in this volume for whatever is coming next. So much fun.

The Late Bloomers’ Club, Louise Miller
Nora Huckleberry is mostly content running the town diner in Guthrie, Vermont. But when she and her free-spirited sister inherit some land from an acquaintance, Nora’s life suddenly gets complicated. Miller’s second novel features some familiar faces and lots of new ones, and a protagonist wrestling with big life questions. Full of charm and heart.

Keep It Moving: Lessons for the Rest of Your Life, Twyla Tharp
Anne recommended this follow-up to Tharp’s The Creative Habit, which I loved. Tharp, a world-renowned dancer and choreographer, gives practical advice for building stamina and maintaining creativity and vitality as you age. She’s no-nonsense and wise, and this was a worthwhile read.

Spiderweb for Two, Elizabeth Enright
Randy and Oliver, the two youngest Melendys, are lonely without their older siblings. But a mysterious scavenger hunt fills their winter with adventures. I like the Melendys best when they are all together, but this final book in the quartet is charming and fun.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstores, Brookline Booksmith and Trident. I’ve also linked to Frugal Bookstore, a black-owned bookstore here in Boston. Y’all know I love independent bookstores, and I am also trying to support black-owned businesses more often as part of my commitment to anti-racist work.

What are you reading?

tawakal-art-tree

One of my favorite things about exploring Eastie this year has been the food.

As a Texas transplant who seriously misses her tacos, I’ve been thrilled to find decent – even delicious – Mexican food in Eastie. But today’s restaurant is something entirely different, something I’d never had before: Somali cuisine, made by the kind folks who run Tawakal Halal Cafe.

Tawakal is a hidden gem, tucked away in a small red house on a corner a few streets away from where I live. I discovered it last spring when I was dog-sitting in Eastie, and now I run by it nearly every morning. My guy and I decided to try it one Saturday, and we fell instantly and completely in love with the combination of flavors. It’s an amalgam of foods I recognize from Middle Eastern and Indian restaurants, and flavors I wasn’t familiar with before.

 

book water glass lunch Somali food

During quarantine (and especially during Ramadan, which fell during April and May), Tawakal has been providing hundreds of meals to local families struggling with job loss and food insecurity. The Boston Globe did a great Q&A with Yahya Noor, the owner, a few weeks ago. I love that Tawakal is a family business that really cares about the community, and the food – as I’ve already said – is delicious.

I haven’t been eating out much lately, but Tawakal is still a staple: my guy requested it for his birthday dinner last month, and I’ve been going by every couple of weeks to pick up takeout. My favorite dishes are the falafel biryani and the beef kabab biryani (pictured above), both with two kinds of hot sauce and plenty of rice and hummus. (The sambusas, also pictured above, are great too.) G is partial to the Malay fish spaghetti and the goat biryani. We both love the hot, spicy shaah (chai-like tea) they make, and he’s also a fan of the ginger coffee.

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Most of all, I love the warm welcome we always get, and I’m looking forward to the day we can sit at a table again, near the open windows, and eat our lunch and chat with the staff.

Have you ever had Somali (or other East African) food?

Last fall, on a whim and a discount code, I decided to try Birchbox, one of those seemingly ubiquitous beauty-subscription boxes. (This post is not sponsored or perked – I don’t even subscribe anymore. I’m simply musing about my experience.)

At the time, I was still in the throes of my divorce and my move to East Boston, and in stereotypically American-female fashion, I thought a little pampering might help. (Though I wasn’t sure it would, honestly. I’m hardly a beauty-product junkie; I dye my own hair from a box every few weeks, and I haven’t had a manicure since 2011. But I love a good lip gloss and I adore getting fun mail.)

I went online, filled out the quiz with details about my hair type, skin type, preferences, etc., and waited for my first box to arrive. When it did, I was charmed by the colorful packaging, breezy info card detailing how to use each product, and the fun array of samples: lip gloss, highlighter (what is that?), moisturizer, mascara. I was surprised, in fact, by how delighted I was.

As a lifelong bookworm, an English major and a feminist who grew up in Texas, I embody a few contradictions: I want people to love me for my brain and heart before my body, and I’d rather browse a bookstore than Sephora any day. But I was raised by a mother who never leaves the house without makeup, and I believe in the importance of both self-care and looking put together. Even during quarantine, I’ve been blow-drying my hair and putting on makeup most days: both routines help signal that I’m ready for whatever the day brings.

As I played around with Birchbox samples of eye cream, lipstick, primer (which I had never used before) and a gold-foil face mask that made me look like Iron Man, I realized something else: I had internalized some serious snobbery about women who self-soothe with beauty products. I still reach for a book and a cup of tea first when I’m stressed or sad, but I had discounted the fun of sticking on sparkly eye pads or trying a new shade of blush. Sometimes, frankly, pampering does nothing at all – but sometimes it helps me see myself a little differently, or just adds a shot of whimsy to the day.

The products didn’t all feel like me, and I ended up passing on a few extras to my mom, sister and girlfriends. (I haven’t used mousse since the eighties, and I’m not sorry about it.) But I found a few favorites that I still use, and several more that I enjoyed trying out on a limited basis. I’ve got a stockpile of still others in the bathroom, waiting for the day I need a pick-me-up and decide to try out that shade of eyeshadow or new face scrub. (Bonus: I haven’t had to buy mascara in months.)

This isn’t quite the because-you’re-worth-it narrative familiar to any woman who’s ever watched a L’Oreal commercial (though I am worth it, in case you were wondering). It’s more about trying something just because I wanted to, and being surprised and delighted by it. Birchbox even made it onto one of my lifesaving lists, because the boxes and their contents were sources of joy. I eventually stopped my subscription because I had enough products for now, but I’m still glad I tried it out. (And I am now a serious fan of Kiehl’s moisturizer and Dr. Lipp lip gloss.)

Have you tried Birchbox or something similar – and/or been forced to confront your own snobbery about makeup? I’d love to hear your stories.

harborwalk-point

If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve seen my photos of the East Boston Harborwalk: I go running there all the time. The Harborwalk writ large is a 43-mile collection of not-quite-continuous pedestrian and bike paths along the waterfront in Boston. It starts in Eastie, three miles north of where I live, and extends all the way to the Dorchester/Milton line, where I used to live (and where I fell in love with running).

My section of the Harborwalk is a small one: it picks up at the tennis courts down the hill from my house, and curves around past several buildings belonging to the Massachusetts Port Authority, all the way down to the Hyatt hotel on the point. It’s a smooth paved path bordered by trees and tall white hydrangeas, and it’s the starting point for many of my morning runs.

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For me, running is mainly about two things: moving my body in a way I enjoy, and moving through the landscape (preferably one I enjoy). One of my favorite things about running the same several routes all the time is observing the subtle changes in familiar places.

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On the Harborwalk, I’ve watched the trees and shrubs bud and leaf out (and lose their leaves, last fall). The water is always changing: the tide comes slowly and inexorably in and out, creating a landscape of mud flats or rolling blue water in the harbor basin. These changes differ depending on the time of day and year, and I love noticing how it looks each time I’m out there. The brick buildings remain the same, but the light is always changing, too: I’ve taken dozens (hundreds?) of photos of the Boston skyline, with its ever-shifting skyscape of clouds and sun and even stars.

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On my way home, I sometimes go through the Navy Fuel Pier park, which was redeveloped as part of the Harborwalk project (it used to be an actual fuel pier). In June, it’s dotted with purple iris and heady with the scent of wild beach roses. And the gravel sidewalk has sea glass embedded in the concrete: a nod to the area’s maritime history, which looks different than it used to, but is still being written.

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My guy and I have plans to bike other sections of the Harborwalk this summer, and discover where they lead. I’m looking forward to that, but I’m also very grateful for this small part of the whole that belongs to me.

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I posted this book stack the other day on Instagram – it was/is the result of a quick scan of my shelves, pulling off books by black authors that have been (for me) powerful and thought-provoking. Some are longtime favorites, some newer discoveries.

Like any book list, it is only a small beginning. I am reading and listening to black voices on social media: Osheta Moore, Austin Channing Brown, Well-Read Black Girl. I am ordering and placing library holds on books by black authors. I signed a NAACP petition calling for an independent investigation into the murder of George Floyd, and broader police reform. I donated to my local bail fund after more than 50 protesters were arrested this weekend in Boston.

None of this is “enough” or gets me off the hook for doing more. I share what I’ve been doing because so many of us white folks don’t know where to start. But we have to start, if we haven’t already. Until everyone is able to thrive in this country, the work will not be done. And we have to look hard at our own hearts – our biases and hesitation and fear – because the real work happens internally, too.

brazen-book

Somehow, it’s June – and my heart is heavy from the last week or so of murders, police violence and protests. I’m doing a lot of reading and listening to black folks online, and I urge you to do the same. These horrors cannot continue, and we are all responsible for our part in making sure they don’t.

Meanwhile: I have been reading a combination of long-unread paper books, old favorites, physical books borrowed from friends, and digital books on my sister’s old Kindle. I do not love ebooks, but the Kindle is a lot better than scrolling through pdf files on my laptop. In all formats and at all times, here’s what I’ve been reading:

Everything is Spiritual: Who We Are and What We’re Doing Here, Rob Bell
Bell is a former megachurch evangelical pastor, who these days is (still) a writer, speaker, podcaster and thinker. His new book traces his journey from small-town Michigan through his young adulthood and those pastoring days to the point where he wanted something more, outside the confines of church work. It’s got quantum physics and family history and lots of Big Questions. The style is unusual and it wanders, but the ideas are big and interesting, and Bell’s style is warm and conversational. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 15).

The Saturdays, Elizabeth Enright
I was in serious need of some cheer, so I turned back to this first book about the Melendys. Siblings Mona, Rush, Randy and Oliver live in pre-WWII Manhattan with their father and their beloved housekeeper, Cuffy. They decide to pool their allowances for Saturday adventures, and they have all sorts of fun. I adore this series – the characters are all so creative and funny and kind.

The Four-Story Mistake, Elizabeth Enright
The Melendys (see above) move to a big house (topped by a teeny cupola, hence the “mistake”) in upstate New York, and continue having adventures. Enright’s writing is both lyrical and funny, and I adore the siblings and the fun they get up to together.

The War Widow, Tara Moss
World War II is officially over, but even in Australia its effects are still being felt. Journalist Billie Walker, who lost her photographer husband in the war, takes up the mantle of her late father’s investigative agency. This first book in a new series follows Billie and her assistant, Sam, as they look for a missing teenage boy and try to unravel a case that points to war crimes, theft and kidnapping. Lots of setup, but once it got going this was a solid mystery. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 29).

Jane of Lantern Hill, L.M. Montgomery
I rediscovered Jane a few years ago, and I reach for her story almost every spring/summer. She (grudgingly) goes to PEI to visit her estranged father, and ends up falling totally in love with both him and the Island. I love PEI almost as much as Jane does, and her story is so full of hope and charm and spunk. Wonderful.

Words in Deep Blue, Cath Crowley
Henry and Rachel used to be best friends. But then Rachel moved away and her brother drowned, and she’s been reeling ever since. When she moves back to town, Henry’s family bookshop is struggling, and the two of them gradually find their way back to one another. I liked the setting (Howling Books) and the secondary characters much better than Rachel and Henry, but this is still a sweet, sad story. Recommended by Anne.

The Wedding Party, Jasmine Guillory
I like Guillory’s fun, snappy romance novels featuring loosely connected characters. This one centers on Maddie and Theo, who are the two BFFs of Alexa (from The Wedding Date). They think they hate each other, but (spoiler alert) this is not the case, as they embark on a secret affair that might be something more. I had to seriously suspend my disbelief (did they really think no one would catch on?) and skip over a few steamy scenes (not my thing), but this was fun holiday weekend reading.

Stranger God: Meeting Jesus in Disguise, Richard Beck
Richard is a friend of mine, and a psychology professor at my alma mater. He writes an excellent blog, and he also spends a lot of time these days with prisoners and low-income folks. Stranger God is his memoir-cum-psychological exploration of why most of us (privileged) Christians don’t do that, and why we should. Thoughtful, straightforward and very well-researched (in other words, vintage Richard).

Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close, Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman
Friendships are vital to most of our lives, but there’s hardly any sound research or advice on how to make them work long-term. Sow and Friedman, who have been close for more than a decade, unfold the story of their Big Friendship (known to some through their Call Your Girlfriend podcast) alongside expert voices on friendship. They share their hard-won wisdom and their challenges, in a wise, fresh, thought-provoking format. I want to buy this for all my girlfriends when it comes out. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 14).

Then There Were Five, Elizabeth Enright
The Melendys (see above) are loving their lives at the Four-Story Mistake. This third book introduces them (and readers) to Mark Herron, an orphan who (spoiler alert) ends up becoming part of their family. Full of warmth, charm and summer adventures. (The cover art on these new editions is kind of terrible, but the stories are so good.)

The Land, Mildred D. Taylor
I loved Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry as a child, and picked up this prequel, which tells the story of her biracial grandfather, Paul-Edward Logan. It’s set in post-Civil War Mississippi, and it is powerful and compelling. I raced through it in two nights.

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World, Pénélope Bagieu
My comics-loving guy gave me this book for Christmas. It’s a collection of graphic mini-biographies of badass women, from a Chinese empress and a gynecologist in ancient Greece to contemporary figures like Leymah Gbowee and Temple Grandin. The art is both whimsical and arresting and the stories are fantastic.

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

What are you reading?

 

As we head into summer, I’m approaching my one-year anniversary in East Boston, this neighborhood tucked between the airport and the water, where I moved on a hot, chaotic festival weekend last July.

It feels like I’ve lived in Eastie longer than that: I spent a lot of time here last spring, when my marriage was on the rocks and I needed a place to get away (while still being able to go to work). Eastie became my haven, my perch from which to look at my life and decide whether and how to change it. Now, nearly a year later, it’s my home.

On Fridays this summer, I’ll be sharing some glimpses of Eastie here on the blog. For this first one: a little background, and an intro to the things I love.

Like so much of Boston, Eastie is a curious mix of natural and man-made: it is built out of five different islands and a whole lot of landfill that connects them. My part of Eastie, Jeffries Point, looks out over Boston Harbor (the area was a shipbuilding mecca for many years). My kitchen windows look out on the shipyard, which is still active with warehouses and pleasure craft. Some of the piers have fallen into disrepair, but you can walk out on a few others, and a couple of businesses – the Downeast cider house and the excellent KO Pies – have made their homes in the shipyard, too.

I live in a row of redbrick houses with curved bowfront windows and dormers in their roofs. But there are also a lot of traditional Boston triple-deckers, with wood siding and flat roofs, in the neighborhood, as well as some modern homes with more glass and steel in their designs. The architecture reflects the mix of old and new and constantly shifting that characterizes Eastie: it is historically a working-class area, but has seen an influx of wealthier residents over the last decade or so. You’re as likely to hear Spanish on the street as English, which reminds me of my West Texas hometown, but there are immigrants from all over the world, as well as a growing number of young and youngish professionals (like me) who are largely American-born but transplants to Boston.

There are a lot of things I love about Eastie: the plentiful parks, the beautiful Harborwalk (where I run all the time), the delicious food (Mexican and otherwise), the proximity to downtown on the Blue Line. But most of all I love that it feels like a neighborhood.

I’ve lived here less than a year and already run into people I know on the street. I attended my first social event here three days after moving in last summer. (This was thanks in large part to my college friends who live down the hill, who have done their best to invite me to everything.) Even in the era of masks and social distancing, people wave and say hello, and the folks who sell tacos, wine, produce and Somali food at neighborhood establishments know their regulars.

Boston is a city of more than 700,000 (the metro area population tops 4 million), and it can feel – it has often felt – impossible to carve out a small place for myself here, a neighborhood in which to know and be known. But Eastie feels like a patch that is truly mine. I’m still mainly an observer of life in the neighborhood, but am gradually putting down roots here, and I’m thankful for every single one.

More Eastie stories and photos to come.