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This year, it seemed that fully half my friends (at least, the ones who post on Instagram) hauled their Christmas decorations out in early November. I couldn’t fault them for it: as my sister and others have said, 2020 needs all the joy it can get. My mom famously decorates early every year (my parents have three Christmas trees), but everyone else seemed to jump on that bandwagon this year. It made a lot of sense to me, but I just was not ready to put up my own decorations.

Decorating the tree is one of my favorite Christmas traditions: I am one of those people who loves tons of (small, white) lights, and for whom nearly every ornament has a story. But since my divorce, that ritual is a bit fraught. Last year, I had my friend Lauryn come over and help me decorate, and this year, I asked my guy to help me do it.

We hauled my little tree and assorted decorations out of the basement on a Saturday night, and assembled it on the fireplace. I strung the lights that night (he provided moral support and Christmas music), and we waited another week to do the ornaments. I sort of like the look with just the lights, and it felt like a small acknowledgment of Advent: waiting, letting the process take its time.

Last weekend, we unwrapped a few cherished ornaments (plus two new ones I bought at Albertine Press), and hung them on the tree. And we also bought stockings at Target, and hung them on the snowflake hangers I’ve had for years. Old alongside new.

I can’t erase the memories of Christmases past, nor do I entirely want to. But we are moving forward, and I’m so pleased with the effect. It’s cozy and twinkly, and since I’m home all the time these days, I get plenty of chances to enjoy it.

‘Tis the season for treats – because it’s cold outside (good baking weather), because the holidays are coming, and because we are in month fourteen thousand of this pandemic year. (And because we got over a foot of snow here in Boston last night/today.)

I’ve been doing a bit of baking myself – mostly scones and superhero muffins – but have recently found myself the glad recipient of cookies made by friends. A girlfriend handed me a container of margarita shortbread cookies (with plenty of citrus and salt) on a recent walk in Cambridge. The following week, another friend texted to say she’d dropped off a tin of cookies (above) on my front porch. It contained crinkly chocolate cookies dusted with powdered sugar and, underneath, some classic sugar cookies. I stretched them out over nearly a week, to make them last.

The loneliness is hitting hard this week, but I am – as always – grateful for kind gestures from friends, which add sweetness to my life in more ways than one.

I’ve written before about how yoga has been getting me through the pandemic: lots of classes over Zoom this spring, then in the park this summer. Those outdoor classes were one of the true gifts of this strange time: setting up our mats in the lush grass, tree branches waving gently overhead, the sounds of birthday parties and children playing and a YMCA cardio class drifting over. We had occasional invasions from the local geese, but otherwise, it was just about perfect.

Lately, we’ve been back in the studio on a very limited basis, and I have loved showing up on Sunday and Wednesday nights with two or three others, to practice with Taylor and Carla, my favorite instructors. They are both warm and kind and understanding about how hard everything feels right now. They even put up twinkle lights and a couple of wee Christmas trees recently, and going there has felt quasi-normal, which is a serious gift right now.

Today, Boston is rolling back to an earlier phase of reopening for a few weeks, so we’re back to Zoom (fitness centers are closed) until January, at least. I am super sad about it: sometimes those few moments of chat in the studio are my only in-person conversations of the day. And while we don’t talk during class, it’s nourishing to be with other people, especially since I spend so much time alone right now.

I keep reminding myself that yoga will be there: that I can pull out my mat and practice at home; that (hopefully) my little studio will survive, and we will gather again on our mats, when we can. Until then, I’ll be tuning into class on Zoom, because I want to support a beloved small business, and I believe yoga is better when we do it together.

We’re halfway through December of the strangest year ever. As always, I’m reading – albeit sporadically, these days. Here’s the latest roundup:

Why We Swim, Bonnie Tsui
Swimming attracts and fascinates humans the world over, and Tsui (an avid swimmer and surfer) explores some of the history, science and psychology behind why. I loved her interviews with famous swimmers like Dara Torres, and her personal stories of swimming from childhood to now. Recommended by Libby Page, whose newsletter is the cheeriest thing lately.

Mimi Lee Gets a Clue, Jennifer J. Chow
Mimi Lee has finally opened her own pet-grooming business, Hollywoof – and things get interesting right away, with a talking cat named Marshmallow, a murdered Chihuahua breeder, and a cute young lawyer. An impulse buy at the Harvard Book Store – totally ridiculous and really fun.

Killer Content, Olivia Blacke
Odessa Dean is enjoying her summer in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, house-sitting for her aunt and waitressing at a local bookstore/cafe. But when one of her coworkers ends up dead (coinciding with a flash mob gone wrong), Odessa begins nosing around for clues. Fast-paced and funny, with a great setting. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 2).

The Soul of a Woman, Isabel Allende
Bestselling novelist Allende is a passionate feminist, and this slim memoir details her own experiences as a woman and her beliefs about women’s value, worth and power. She is charmingly cranky, often wryly funny and makes a cogent case for putting women in charge. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 2).

The Next Great Jane, K.L. Going
Jane Brannen, aspiring novelist, is thrilled when a real live writer moves to her tiny Maine town. But the author’s son is so annoying, and Jane’s mostly-absent mother turns up unexpectedly, with her filmmaker fiance in tow. A super fun middle-grade novel and a sweet homage to Jane Austen. Recommended by Anne.

Hardball, Sara Paretsky
V.I. Warshawski, private eye, picks up a 40-year-old missing-persons case right as her young cousin shows up in Chicago to work on a political campaign. Of course, they are connected, and Paretsky weaves in race, class and Chicago history. This one was powerful and intense – especially the ending – and so good.

Shepherds Abiding, Jan Karon
Christmas is coming in Mitford, and Father Tim ends up restoring a derelict Nativity scene as a surprise for his wife, Cynthia. Meanwhile, change is afoot at Happy Endings Books, and various townspeople are getting ready for Christmas. I love revisiting this book every year.

Links (not affiliate links) are to local bookstores I love: Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

What are you reading?

Last week, I made the drive across Boston to Quincy, the just-south suburb where I lived for seven years, to visit my hairstylist, Jess. Every time I go, I grumble to myself about it being kind of a pain; it’s the other end of town from where I live now. And every time, I remember: it’s totally worth it.

I found my salon through an acquaintance I met soon after moving to Boston; Annmarie used to live in Quincy, and had high praise for the salon and its owner, Micki. Walking into a new salon is terrifying (anyone hear me?), and I was further intimidated when my stylist, Jess, turned out to have Technicolor hair (it was a different bright shade every time) and so many tattoos I didn’t know where to look.

Despite my initial worries, it turns out Jess is a wizard with scissors, and she’s also a sweetheart. I’ve been going to her for almost ten years now, which definitely qualifies as a long-term relationship.

In the time I’ve known Jess, we’ve each moved several times; her salon has changed locations; we’ve both gotten divorced and found new love. She’s gained a dog and two stepsons; I’ve gained two nephews; and her daughter has gone from a preschooler to a full-blown teenager. Not to mention we’re both currently surviving a pandemic and the weirdest year ever. But she is dependably skilled at trimming my hair back to a sleek, elegant shape, and we catch up on our lives while I’m sitting in the chair. These days, we’re both wearing masks (and her hair is ice-blue after a long stretch of her natural blonde), but her warmth and styling mojo are as present as ever.

I had to talk myself into going, as usual, and I won’t lie: revisiting my old neighborhood feels a bit strange these days, post-divorce. But I’m always glad to see Jess, and I think the feeling is mutual. And I always come out of the salon feeling like a million bucks.

journal handwriting poetry elizabeth alexander

Back in the early months of 2020 (which seems a thousand years ago), I stumbled on a new podcast, produced by the good, thoughtful folks at On Being. I am the slowest podcast listener ever, but Poetry Unbound, hosted by Irish poet Pádraig Ó Tuama, saved my life on some of those long, dark evenings in early quarantine.

Now that we’re back to long dark evenings again, I am savoring the second season: an episode here and there, usually while I’m cooking dinner or putting dishes away. I am not much for longform podcasts (I’d rather read a book or an article), but these short, lyrical episodes feel just right to me. They consist of Pádraig reading a poem, then musing on it in several short segments, then reading it again. The repetition is soothing, and I often notice things in the second reading that I missed the first time around.

Pádraig’s poetic commentary includes musings on meter and word choice and metaphor, but he also muses on a range of broad and specific human issues: love and heartbreak, the complications of family and politics, the quiet bravery of healthcare workers, the wisdom of teachers, the utter devastation caused by fire and illness and grief. He is wise and thoughtful and tender, and his voice, with its Irish lilt, is a balm to my ears and my soul. As a serious bonus, many of the poets he features are new to me, and I’ve loved discovering their work alongside him.

What podcasts – or poems – are bringing you life, these days?

During this completely bonkers year, I have needed voices of reason more than ever — to help me make sense of the pandemic and political madness, and cut through all the noise. Juliette Kayyem is one of my go-to sources for sharp, thoughtful, sane news commentary, and her tweets are a major source of light (and reliable information) these days.

I met Juliette when I worked at the Harvard Kennedy School, where my duties included staffing the camera room on campus. We had multiple faculty members who were regular guests on CNN and other networks, and the camera allowed them to speak to networks remotely.

I got to know Juliette as she’d come dashing into the camera room before a CNN hit, frequently finishing up a call with her consulting company before plugging in her curling iron and changing into a snazzy blouse. She struck me then as brilliant, real and funny, and I’ve enjoyed following her work ever since — but she is really knocking it out of the park these days.

This pandemic, whatever else it is, is confusing, and the distribution of a vaccine (not to mention containing the spread, distributing PPE, etc.) is (and will continue to be) a huge logistical and policy challenge. Juliette (a former homeland security advisor at the state and federal level) knows a thing or two about disaster response and logistics, and I have so appreciated her thoughtful takes on various stages of the pandemic and the challenges facing us at each stage. She and a colleague have also done a wise, funny “Questions from Quarantine” video series, and she occasionally peppers her Twitter feed with photos of her sunset runs, or her dog.

In short, she’s a human being sharing her considerable expertise and also her very real, very human take on life during the pandemic, and I am here for all of it. I’m thankful today for the experts who are pulling back the curtain a bit, sharing their scientific and political knowledge (and their struggles with bored teenagers) as we continue to navigate this pandemic together.

Is it an odd thing to say I love my grocery store? In the middle of a pandemic, perhaps it’s fitting: these folks are among the essential workers who are keeping the rest of us fed and safe. As I’ve mentioned before, my partner works at the nearest Trader Joe’s, and I’m feeling extra grateful for him and his colleagues this week.

Since I moved to Eastie, I’ve been cobbling together grocery-store runs: picking up a few things on my way home from work, borrowing a friend’s car or using grocery delivery for bigger trips. But when my guy got a job at TJs back in the winter, I bought a rolling cart and started doing my weekly shops over there. These days, it’s an integral part of my week.

I make my list, go and wait in line (a short one, if I’m lucky), greet his coworkers as I walk through the produce section. I usually pick up some flowers to supplement my weekly bouquets from Brattle Square. There are always new treats to try (see above), plus reliable staples, and I sneak in a hug from my guy if he’s stocking the shelves or working the cash register. The store atmosphere is cheery and bright, and many of his coworkers recognize me now, even with a mask. I wave hello or chat with whoever’s ringing me up, then haul my groceries on the train back home.

Real talk: it’s sometimes a pain, and grocery shopping for one can feel a bit depressing. But we all need to eat, and I’m thankful to have a store I like nearby. I’m even more grateful for the community there: it’s good to walk in and be welcomed.

As a lover of Christmas (and twinkle lights), I have a soft spot for December. It usually feels both hectic and peaceful: holiday celebrations and travel prep and last-minute gifts alongside the hush of quiet evenings and diamond-bright, blue-sky mornings.

This year, of course, December feels different: I’m not packing for Texas, not finishing up a semester of full-time work, not going to Advent services or planning to sing carols in church on Christmas Eve. I am trying to wrap my head around a low-key, cozy, local Christmas. But I am still observing a few tiny rituals of the season, and I thought I’d share them with you. They include:

Stringing twinkle lights on a Christmas tree – I put mine up last weekend, well behind the pandemic-inspired holiday rush but with plenty of time to enjoy it before Christmas.

Lighting the good candles, as often as I want.

Pulling out a few cherished mementoes, like the metal mailbox with a little moose on it and the words “Merry Kiss Moose” in red letters. And the coat-hanger tree I’ve had since junior high, which still – miraculously – works, at least for now.

Listening to The Holiday soundtrack while I clean or cook or write. And watching the movie itself, which is a perennial fave.

Addressing Christmas cards and wondering whether I need to buy more stamps. (Related: texting friends to ask for snail-mail addresses.)

Pulling out my now-worn Advent book and flipping to my favorite essays.

Seeing those plush reindeer antlers and noses on cars around town, which always make me smile.

Revisiting Shepherds Abiding, a tale of Mitford at Christmastime that charms me and chokes me up every. single. year.

Searching out stocking stuffers (this time, for my guy).

Looking up at birds’ nests in bare tree branches.

Snapping photos of holiday decorations around town.

Humming the carols I love, and pulling out a few favorite albums: Sarah McLachlan’s Wintersong, James Taylor’s At Christmas, the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack.

Following along with Ali Edwards’ December Daily stories, even though I’m not making a scrapbook myself.

Pulling out the fleece-lined tights and handknit accessories.

Remembering Christmases past: red felt stockings on the mantel at Mimi’s, candles in the sanctuary at my parents’ church, the words of Luke 2 from Mom’s worn old Bible, Christmas-morning shenanigans with my nephews.

What are your tiny December rituals?

One of the toughest parts of the pandemic, for me, has been the isolation. I live alone, was working full-time from home until I was furloughed in May, and have not seen my family (all of whom live in Texas or other far-flung states) at all this year. I’ve still been seeing my guy (thank goodness) and a few local friends, but there are a lot of empty hours to fill, and even when I have work to do, I’ve been missing community.

Back in September, my friend Nina Badzin posted about an online writing class she was teaching through ModernWell, which usually happens in person but had moved to Zoom for the fall. I’ve known Nina online for years (we both used to write for the now-defunct Great New Books), but we’ve never (yet) met in person. But I loved the idea of a safe, fun, creative space on Tuesday mornings, a chance to write in community. I signed up, and y’all, it has been life-giving.

There are around a dozen women, mostly Midwesterners (a few of us live elsewhere) of varying ages, careers/life situations and writing experience. Many of us love to cook, and we’ve had a few cookbook discussions alongside the writing chat. All of us love books and enjoy a well-written TV show (I think I’m the last one who hasn’t yet watched The Queen’s Gambit). Everyone has been warm and welcoming, and I’ve so loved seeing their faces on Zoom every week. Our focus is writing, but bits of our lives creep in around the edges – one woman’s newborn granddaughter, another’s house renovation, another’s passion for beautifully wrapped gifts.

We go around and share what we’ve been up to creatively – both what we’ve been writing/creating and how we’ve been filling the well. Nina gives us a prompt or exercise, usually with a sample essay by a pro, and we turn off our cameras and write for a while. Then we take turns sharing our work. The results are rough, of course, but they are full of gems – astonishing warmth and humor and vivid details, whether we’re writing about our current lives or memories from way back.

In a time when I’ve struggled to find both community and silver linings, this group has been a major source of both. We’re taking a few weeks off for the holidays, but we’ll be back in the New Year, and I’m so glad.