Posts Tagged ‘Betsy-Tacy’

It’s becoming my pre-theatre tradition: a train ride from Eastie to the Back Bay neighborhood, a BLT and a bag of salt-and-vinegar chips, a cookie or brownie, and half an hour with a book. I take this pause between the workday and the show, immersing myself in one fictional world before diving into another. And then I gather my purse and head across the street, ready to begin my ushering gig at Lyric Stage Boston.

I started ushering back in the winter, first for The Book of Will (above) and subsequently for several other shows at Lyric Stage and elsewhere. I’ve loved my gigs at the Huntington and the ART, but I’ve returned, over and over, to this small black-box theatre in the heart of Back Bay, which puts on dazzling productions – funny, clever, moving – in a small space.

my fair lady set

I’ve loved live theatre since I was a child, since my parents would take us to musicals and the annual production of A Christmas Carol at our local community theatre. I was too shy to participate, beyond the Easter pageants at church, but I’ve always loved settling into my seat and watching a story – new or familiar – come to life. I especially adore getting a glimpse into the magic behind the scenes, whether it’s actors warming up or sets being moved into place or simply stacking programs in preparation for the audience to arrive.

There’s no physical curtain at Lyric Stage, but I often think of Betsy Ray’s poem from Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown while I’m handing out programs or waiting, along with the rest of the audience, for the show to start:

The curtain goes up,
The curtain goes up,
It’s a wonderful moment,
When the curtain goes up…

Betsy captures the anticipation – be it quiet or electric – of those moments in the pre-show dark, when we are waiting to be entertained or moved or challenged, when the actors are standing backstage, their lines on their lips. I love watching the pieces move together, the story envelop us all, the lines and scenes and musical numbers come together to immerse us in a completely different world for a while. Theatre as an art form has endured for thousands of years, but each performance is singular, ephemeral, time-limited: it hangs in the air for a couple of hours, then disappears as we emerge, blinking, back into our lives.

I’m looking forward, always, to the next time I get to see a show – whether as an usher, an audience member, or both. I love being a tiny but integral part of the process: answering questions, handing out programs and showing people to their seats. And I especially love that collective deep breath before Act I, Scene I – that moment, alive with anticipation, before the (real or metaphorical) curtain goes up.


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peter and the starcatcher set

The curtain goes up,
The curtain goes up,
It’s a wonderful moment,
When the curtain goes up…

—Maud Hart Lovelace, Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown

On Friday, the hubs and I met up downtown after work, to catch the Lyric Stage Company’s opening night performance of Peter and the Starcatcher. It’s a fast-paced, witty, hilarious prequel of sorts to Peter Pan, and we loved every second of it. Elaborate wordplay, swashbuckling fights, wildly colorful mermaid costumes, and a story with friendship and magic at its heart. (Because you can’t have Neverland without either one, really.)

I didn’t know much about the play beforehand, but I knew that the Lyric Stage puts on fabulous shows, since I took my parents to see their production of My Fair Lady last fall. That show is an old favorite of mine – my dad and I can quote Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering for hours – and their version felt both familiar and wonderfully fresh. Both nights reminded me of something I often forget: how much I love live theatre.

my fair lady set

Aside from a drama class in ninth grade and a few church plays, I don’t have much acting experience. But I love the immediacy of live theatre: the way it binds audience and actors together in a vital dynamic. In this age of carefully produced everything – Instagram filters, sharply cut films, painstakingly edited music – live theatre still holds the potential for surprise.

I know it takes a lot of work to get to opening night, and I know these actors and crew members spent weeks perfecting the set, the lighting, the lines and the blocking. But after all that preparation, each performance – the thing itself – is a glittering, singular entity all its own. Telling stories and listening to them is a deeply human act, and live theatre brings stories into the open, in all their glorious particularity.

There wasn’t an actual curtain on Friday night: the Lyric Stage space (see above) is small and intimate, and the audience simply waits for the lights to come up. But I still felt like Betsy Ray in the Deep Valley Opera House, alive with anticipation:

It’s like Christmas morning,
Stealing down stairs,
It’s like being hungry,
And saying your prayers.

It’s like being hungry,
And ready to sup,
It’s a wonderful moment,
When the curtain goes up.

Betsy, as usual, had it exactly right. As the cast came bounding onstage for the first scene, my eyes filled with sudden tears. This is what it means to be human: telling each other our stories, and delighting in them. (And maybe catching a few stars along the way.)

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Over on Instagram this month, I’ve been enjoying Jessica’s #31bookpics challenge. She came up with an eclectic list of bookish photo prompts, and I’ve relished looking through my shelves for books to fit each one.

Early in the month, the prompt was “underrated,” and I pulled together this stack.

underrated books yellow roses

These are all books by authors who are much better known for their other work: Anne of Green Gables (Montgomery), A Wrinkle in Time (L’Engle), Charlotte’s Web (White), All the Light We Cannot See (Doerr). I have no quibbles with this – I’m a lifelong Anne fan and I loved All the Light (and who doesn’t adore Charlotte?). The fame, in every case, is well deserved.

But there’s something delicious about knowing and loving an author’s more obscure work, whether you come to it after reading the better-known books or discover the author through the “back door.”

For me, Montgomery, Doerr, White and Maud Hart Lovelace belong in the first category: I read and reread Anne of Green Gables and the first few Betsy-Tacy books as a little girl. (My sister is named after Betsy Ray.) It took a while for me to move on to Montgomery’s other work and Betsy’s high school (and later) adventures, but when I did, I adored them.

I’d only peripherally heard of Doerr before All the Light swept the bestseller lists. But after reading that, I snagged a beautiful hardcover copy of Four Seasons in Rome in a used bookshop in San Diego, and loved it just as much. And my E.B. White obsession, though it began with Charlotte and Wilbur, has expanded to include pretty much everything the man ever wrote.

In other cases, though, I read the lesser-known works first, and they’re still my favorites.

I bought Walking on Water, L’Engle’s wonderful book on faith and art, from a college friend who was selling off some of her books. I loved it so much I sought out A Circle of Quiet and L’Engle’s other memoirs before I ever read A Wrinkle in Time. Julia Cameron is best known for The Artist’s Way, but my college boyfriend (now my husband) plucked The Sound of Paper off a bookstore shelf and gave it to me for graduation, so I read it first. It is still true north for me.

I realize it’s an ultra-hipster-trendy move these days to insist that you loved a book before it was cool, or knew about an author before he or she became popular. But as I said above, I adore these authors’ more popular works. I am happily in the majority of readers who follow the interstellar adventures of Meg Murry or wish they could spend an afternoon in Avonlea with Anne.

But I’m always so pleased to discover an author’s overlooked work, or to introduce some lesser-known favorites to fellow bookworms who may never have heard of Rilla of Ingleside (Montgomery) or Emily of Deep Valley (Lovelace). For me, it simply expands the pleasure of reading. And really, anyone who hasn’t read E.B. White’s pitch-perfect essays is missing out.

What are your favorite overlooked books?

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betsy tacy books

Betsy Ray on Murmuring Lake

People were always saying to Margaret, ‘Well, Julia sings and Betsy writes. Now what is little Margaret going to do?’

Margaret would smile politely, for she was very polite, but privately she stormed to Betsy with flashing eyes, ‘I’m not going to do anything. I want to just live. Can’t people just live?’

‘Of course,’ Betsy soothed her. But she could never understand.

—Betsy and Joe, Maud Hart Lovelace

Lately I am remembering Margaret’s words – Margaret, the little sister who hangs around on the fringes of Betsy’s and Julia’s much more exciting lives. She is quiet, sober, thoughtful, a loner – she prefers playing with her pets and taking walks with her father to playing with other children. She doesn’t ask for much from life, not like Julia with her dreams of becoming a world-famous opera singer, or Betsy, whose dreams of writing the great American novel mirror my own. She wants to “just live.” And lately I’m wondering: Can that be enough? And also: How much writing can one do without a good dose of “just living”?

Lately I am wondering if I’m doing enough living to infuse my writing with any kind of spark. I am hiding out in my office, and in stacks and stacks of great books, even more than usual. I am reading other people’s stories while often failing to live my own. And then when I come to the page, I find I don’t have much, if anything, to say.

I don’t want to be lazy or undisciplined. I believe in the value of showing up to the page (or screen) regularly, if not always daily. I am grateful to have pockets of time and space to write. And yet lately I find myself running low on words, ideas and energy. It would certainly be easier to give up writing and “just live.”

But like Betsy (and her creator, Maud), I’ve always been a writer. And like both of them, I hope to learn how to balance the writing with all the pleasures and necessities of “just living.”

*Image from The Five Borough Book Review

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Carney’s House Party, Maud Hart Lovelace
This is a perfect summer book – who wouldn’t want to spend a summer in Deep Valley, going to parties and drives and dances with the Crowd? Carney is so appealing – honest and frank and funny and kind, and so many other beloved characters from the Betsy-Tacy books make appearances. I was quite envious of the nights spent on the sleeping porch and, as always, the beautiful dresses.

Heaven to Betsy, Maud Hart Lovelace
Finishing Carney’s story sent me scrambling back to the bookcase for the tales of Betsy’s high school years. I love Betsy’s laughter, her zest for life, her wide circle of friends, her flights of fancy. I also love that she’s such a real character – as insecure as most high school girls, though she’s funny and pretty and kind. Such a fun beginning to their years in high school.

Betsy in Spite of Herself, Maud Hart Lovelace
Betsy starts to learn the meaning of “To thine own self be true” – while dealing with a cranky English teacher, a jealous boyfriend, and the usual round of Crowd parties and Sunday night lunches. I love her Christmas visit to Tib in Milwaukee, and her gradual realization that she can’t be dramatic, mysterious Betsye – she’s just plain Betsy, and everyone loves her better for it.

Betsy Was a Junior, Maud Hart Lovelace
This book makes me squirm a little, because of the obsession with sororities (and the way it takes Betsy and her friends a long time to figure out that they aren’t a good idea). But there are some great moments here – barn dances, high school pranks, the Junior-Senior Banquet, and high jinks with Tib (who is finally back in Deep Valley). The ending is bittersweet, but I do love Betsy’s quiet reflections on growing up.

Betsy and Joe, Maud Hart Lovelace
Betsy has a brilliant senior year – though it has its share of trials and romantic trouble. But she settles down to work, at writing, at the piano and at school, and still enjoys the usual excitements of parties, dances and fun with the Crowd. I love the way her relationship with Joe develops here – slowly but steadily, with some grand moments – and the book finishes with a flourish amid the glories of Commencement.

Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way, Molly Birnbaum
Birnbaum was on her way to becoming a chef when she was injured in a car accident and lost her sense of smell – and thus most of her sense of taste. This is a beautifully written memoir of loss and recovery, packed with fascinating information about smell. Birnbaum’s writing is clear and evocative (and I love that every chapter is named after a pair of scents). Lovely, and so hopeful (she can smell almost everything again).

Betsy and the Great World, Maud Hart Lovelace
I love Betsy’s adventures in Europe – though this time I was more anxious than usual for her to get back to Joe. But she meets so many fascinating people, and spends time wandering and soaking it in and writing – just as I did during my year in Oxford. She visits places I’ve been (London and Paris) and spends time in places I’ve yet to see (Munich, Oberammergau, Venice). And this time, I noticed and delighted in her brief pre-trip stop in Boston.

Betsy’s Wedding, Maud Hart Lovelace
Betsy’s back in Minneapolis – and newlywed life offers just as many (though different) adventures as traveling in Europe. I love all the sweet stories of home, and the dedication she and Joe show to their writing, and all the familiar characters who people Betsy’s life again. I found myself wanting to linger here after I’d read the final scene.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading, Nina Sankovitch
I love books about reading, but this one had a poignant twist: the author decided to spend a year reading (and reviewing) a book a day, to help her find some peace after her sister’s death. She weaves in the story of her family’s history, as well as thoughtful, wise meditations on family, grief, love and why we read. (Bonus: a long list of great books to check out.)

Sesame Street: 40 Years – A Celebration of Life on the Street, Louise Gikow
I grew up watching Big Bird, Grover, Cookie Monster and the gang – so I loved this coffee-table book, packed with information about the history of Sesame Street, and full of great photos. I learned so much about the people behind Sesame, the educational aims of the program, its worldwide reach – so much I didn’t know. (And, of course, I spent some time with all my favorite monsters.) Fabulous.

Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh
I first read this a few years ago, and picked it back up after seeing it mentioned on Lindsey’s blog. Written in the fifties, its meditations on silence, solitude, relationships and family life are still strikingly relevant today. (I’m sure this will be even truer for me after I have kids.) So thoughtful and wise and lovely.

A Caribbean Mystery, Agatha Christie
Miss Marple travels to the West Indies – and, of course, ends up catching a killer while she’s there. I’m continually amazed at Christie’s gift for confounding readers until the very end, when it all comes clear. And I love how the characters in every book are astonished by Miss Marple’s sleuthing skills. Nicely done.

What Happened on Fox Street, Tricia Springstubb
Mo Wren loves living on Fox Street – it may be a little scruffy, but it’s her home. And she’s not at all thrilled when a big development company threatens to destroy the street and force the tenants to move out. A simple story with enjoyable characters, and some beautifully written passages. I’m planning to read the sequel, out next month.

I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You, Ally Carter
I read about this young adult series on Rachelle’s blog, and was curious to try them out. A top-secret boarding school that trains teenage girls to be spies? Such a fun concept – and the writing is pretty good. I enjoyed following the adventures of Cammie (the Chameleon) and her spy-girl pals. I’ll be reading the rest of the series when I need something light and fun.

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In Boston, she had made a patriotic pilgrimage…Faneuil Hall, the Cradle of Liberty, the State House, and the Old South Church.

“If I lived in Boston I’d wear red, white, and blue costumes and eagle headdresses,” she wrote her family.

She went through the Public Library and inspected the Art Museum. She marveled at the narrow twisting streets and walked elatedly across the Common.

Betsy and the Great World, Maud Hart Lovelace

Betsy Ray’s day in Boston was just a brief prelude to her adventures in Europe. But I like to think of her walking around my stomping grounds downtown, taking in everything with those bright, inquisitive hazel eyes of hers, and saving it all up to put into a story later.

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I’ve been spending a little time in Deep Valley, Minnesota. Feeling a little harried and craving some comfort (and a fun summer story), I picked up Carney’s House Party to read on the T one morning, and of course it wasn’t long before I was immersed in the high school adventures of my beloved Betsy Ray and her merry Crowd. I’ve been carrying the books around with me, spending my lunch breaks reading about school dances and the Essay Contest, Merry Widow hats and summers on Murmuring Lake, and the group of boys and girls who are so jolly and fun that I want them for my own friends.

(Image via New York Magazine)

These books never fail to delight me with their descriptions of gorgeous party dresses, delicious Sunday night lunches at the Ray house, vivid details of the seasons changing in Deep Valley, and the highly entertaining adventures of Betsy, Tacy, Tib and their posse of friends. Singing around the piano, ice skating on the pond, shopping for Christmas ornaments and drinking coffee at Heinz’s – what fun! But I also love the books for Betsy’s occasional moments of quiet reflection – particularly the ones when she realizes she’s neglected her writing and determines to rededicate herself to it.

I’ve struggled lately to find both inspiration and discipline for my writing, and it’s always heartening to read that Betsy struggled with the same problems, and always overcame them in the end. I love picturing her curled up next to Uncle Keith’s trunk, the print of a long-legged bird on the wall beside her, or floating on a rowboat at Murmuring Lake, scribbling away at a poem or a story with her freshly sharpened pencils.

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I mentioned recently, in my post about curating a library, that I treasure a few books passed on to me by people I love. I thought I’d share them with you, since treasures, after all, are meant to be shared.

My dad received a copy of Shakespeare’s Wisdom & Wit from a favorite junior college professor. (I think this was the same guy who’d put a totally random question on every test, and say with a smile, “Just pull that one out of your universal body of knowledge.”) It ended up in my Christmas stocking a few years ago – I think Santa and Dad knew how much I would love it. The inscription is wonderful:

I’ve loved the Betsy-Tacy series since I was a child – my sister is named after Betsy Ray, and I read and reread the first four books (though I don’t know where those copies are, actually). But my mom had an old library edition of Betsy and the Great World, and somehow it found its way from her bookshelf to mine, when I was in high school or college. I have the whole series now, the last six in HarperCollins’ gorgeous reissued paperbacks, but I cherish this copy, with its charcoal cover illustration depicting Betsy on her way to Europe and adventure.

After my sister and I outgrew naptime, we still had “quiet time” each afternoon during our summer visits to Mimi’s house in rural Missouri. I discovered No Children, No Pets in the hall closet one summer and curled up on the bed to read it – and giggled until my mom came in to ask what was so funny. I reread it every summer for at least 10 years, until Mimi finally gave me the book for my own. (I wouldn’t let her give it to me when I was younger – I wanted to keep it at her house. That was part of the magic.) I still reread it every year or two, always in the summer, and smile at the adventures of Jane, Betsy, Don and Mike in 1950s Florida.

Similarly, Neno’s house (that old blue farmhouse in Ohio) held some bookish treasures, including the entire My Book House collection, twelve volumes of nursery rhymes and fairy tales, folklore and Bible stories and adaptations of Dickens and Shakespeare (among others) for young readers. I fell in love with A Midsummer Night’s Dream because of these books, and read some of the fairy tales over and over again. They got packed in a box when my grandparents moved to Texas, but Neno pulled them out of a closet a couple of years ago, and passed them on to me. So precious.

Finally, when my great-grandma Ada (my mother’s grandmother) passed away, my grandparents gave my mom a few of her books to send to me. Some belonged to Ada, some to her mother, who I never knew. They are beautifully old, with spidery inscriptions in the handwriting of long-lost friends and relatives. I keep them on a table in the living room, and sometimes I wonder about the girls and young women who carried them, read them, wrote in them and loved them enough to keep them safe all this time.

Your turn. Any heirlooms – books or otherwise – that you treasure?

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Un Amico Italiano: Eat, Pray, Love in Rome, Luca Spaghetti
Like millions of other women (and some men), I loved Eat, Pray, Love – and this was a fun take on the Italy/”eat” part of the story. Luca Spaghetti (that’s really his name!) seems like a nice guy – kind, funny, devoted to food, friends and soccer. And he loves American music – especially James Taylor! A lighthearted, funny tour of Rome from a native Roman, and a fun chance to see Elizabeth Gilbert through someone else’s eyes.

Betsy-Tacy and Betsy-Tacy and Tib, Maud Hart Lovelace
I’ve read both these books a dozen times – but hadn’t picked them back up in years. They were my bedtime reading for a few nights (I can’t handle anything too intense before bed), and they’re just as charming as I remembered. I love the stories of their exploits – making Everything Pudding, cutting off each other’s hair, dyeing sand and Easter eggs, and teasing their bossy big sisters. So fun.

The Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein
Annie mentioned this book the other week, and I found a copy at the Brattle and thoroughly enjoyed Enzo’s story. He’s an unusually wise dog with a wry sense of humor and a fierce love for his master, Denny, and Denny’s wife and daughter. I learned a lot about racecar driving – which I’d never been interested in before – and there are some lovely meditations on life sprinkled in. The plot is heartbreaking, but beautifully told – and it ends bittersweetly, but with so much hope.

Spiderweb for Two: A Melendy Maze, Elizabeth Enright
Such a fun conclusion to the Melendy Quartet – a scavenger hunt that lasts all year! I loved watching Randy and Oliver hunt for the next clue, and discover new places and treasures in the process. Fun family moments, as always, abound – the Christmas chapter was particularly lovely.

Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, Maud Hart Lovelace
I love this third installment of the adventures of Betsy, Tacy and Tib – from falling in love with the King of Spain to Cat Duets and Baby Dances. But my favorite part is when the girls go to Little Syria, and discover a whole world of kind, good-hearted people who are proud to be new Americans.

Murder at the Vicarage, Agatha Christie
In preparation for the AC read-along hosted by Book Club Girl and friends, I thought I’d check out the first Miss Marple mystery (though it’s not on the discussion list). I read it in one day – couldn’t go to sleep without finding out who really killed Colonel Protheroe! Charming setting, delightful characters and a wonderfully twisty plot. I can’t wait to dig into more Miss Marple books!

Gone-Away Lake, Elizabeth Enright
A fun summer story of two cousins who discover an old abandoned group of houses in a swamp – and a couple of charming old folks who still live there. Not quite as well-drawn or as much fun as the Melendys, but still super fun. The kind of summer adventures kids dream of. (Though I think she could have named the main characters better. Portia and Julian? Really?)

Once Was Lost, Sara Zarr
I’d been hearing about Zarr’s work for a while, and was blown away by this sensitively told story of a struggling pastor’s daughter, who has to deal with an alcoholic mother, a missing girl in her town and an unavailable dad. Sam’s (the narrator’s) voice is so real and honest, and the other characters are also well drawn. I’m not a pastor’s kid, but I am a lifelong church kid – and I remember well how it feels when the answers you’ve always been so sure of start to crumble beneath your feet.

The Coffins of Little Hope, Timothy Schaffert
I read this one on the plane to Nashville. Such a fascinating story of a girl who disappears – or really of her mother and the people in their small Midwestern town, since we never meet the girl. The narrator, Essie, is the town obituary writer and a keen, incisive, often witty observer. Her family members have a few issues of their own, and the writing is beautiful. Totally entertaining and thought-provoking.

The Violets of March, Sarah Jio
Set on lovely Bainbridge Island, this book has a double plotline – a blocked writer with a failed marriage trying to get her life back, and the story of a woman whose 1943 diary holds all kinds of secrets. Interesting, though not quite what I wanted it to be. I’m not sure what was missing – the story is certainly compelling. I liked it, but I didn’t love it.

The 4:50 from Paddington, Agatha Christie
Another Miss Marple adventure for this summer’s read-along – so fascinating. It’s always the last person you suspect, of course. Elegantly plotted and well written, and fabulously entertaining. I’m getting hooked on AC!

A Ring of Endless Light, Madeleine L’Engle
Maybe my favorite of the Austin books so far. Vicky must face death for the first time in her life, along with all the usual complications of adolescence. In this fourth book, she’s finally starting to come into her own, as a writer and a woman. L’Engle writes so beautifully and sensitively – her books have so many levels. I loved this one.

Alice Bliss, Laura Harrington
Oh. My. Goodness. I loved this book. Love love loved it. The prose is gorgeous (but beautifully understated); the complicated bonds between the characters are so well drawn. I wanted to walk right through the pages and get to know Alice and her family even better. And I cried at the ending, riding the T on the way home. (Yes, this happens to me occasionally. Yes, I’m sure people think I’m nuts.) One of the best books I’ve read this year.

Story of a Girl, Sara Zarr
After reading Zarr’s latest (see above) I wanted to read her other books. This one, her debut, follows a girl whose life is marked by a mistake she made at 13 – and explores what happens when people insist on labeling you for so long you start to believe them. And what happens when you decide to fight that label – even a little bit.

Sweethearts, Sara Zarr
A sad, beautifully told story of a girl who lost her only friend, reinvented herself, and is totally shocked when he shows back up, eight years later. I wish it had ended differently, but the ending, like the story, is complicated. Lots of layers, like all of Zarr’s writing. (I think she gets better with each book…Once Was Lost is my favorite of her works.)

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I’ve recently discovered the work of Jen Louden – and loved her recent post about a “thimble list.” I’m a big believer in small, beautiful ways to celebrate and savor each day (see the subtitle of this blog!). So here’s my current “thimble list.” I love her idea that these are one-time pleasures, not a new list of “ideal life have-to’s.” I always set myself up for failure when I try to do the “perfect life thing.” But pleasures to savor – even once? Yes, please!

1. Listen to Sarah’s latest mixtape
2. Reread the entire Betsy-Tacy series for the sheer joy of it
3. Eat Haagen-Dazs fruit sorbet (so delicious)
4. Sit out on the porch – writing, eating or just being
5. Write a long, long email to a friend – because I love to write long emails
6. Read poetry or something equally inspiring over breakfast
7. Knit something with that delicious green yarn I bought last week
8. Laugh at a favorite TV show
9. Sew something by hand

What’s on your thimble list?

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