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Hello, friends. It’s February, which is always a long month, even though it’s a short one. (See also: endless pandemic fatigue, etc.)

We’ve had some snow and will have more, and I keep thinking of E.B. White’s words about cold weather: “firm, business-like cold that stalked in and took charge […] as a brisk housewife might take charge of someone else’s kitchen in an emergency.” My kitchen, thank goodness, is full of tea and flowers, but I can see White’s point.

Last week, my friend Anne Bogel shared, as she does every winter, the surprising daily things that are saving her life right now. (This year, it’s laundry.) I am a whole week behind in sharing my own winter lifesavers, but I wanted to do it because I believe the practice is important, even in this pandemic year.

I am still job hunting, still missing my people, still spending a lot of time alone in my apartment. But here are the things getting me through these midwinter days:

  • Strong black tea, forever and always. I mostly drink MEM teas from Somerville, but have also been enjoying David’s Cream of Earl Grey lately.
  • Clementines by the handful (I say this every winter) – tart, sweet and cheery.
  • Nina’s writing class on Tuesday mornings – best Zoom of all, by far.
  • Daffodils! So cheerful and bright. Spotted at the florist and at Trader Joe’s.
  • Mini peanut-butter-filled pretzels, also from Trader Joe’s.
  • Morning runs and daily walks in the neighborhood, even when it’s frigid. (I’m still aiming to leave the house at least twice a day.)
  • Some really good books: New Yorkers by Craig Taylor, Wintering by Katherine May, A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow by Laura Taylor Namey.
  • Good pens and my Wingardium Leviosa Moleskine journal.
  • Vitamin D pills, my happy lamp, and (best of all) real sunshine, some days.
  • Daily check-ins with my guy, my friend Allison in California, and a couple of other dear ones.
  • Martina McBride, whose music I have loved for years – but I’m rediscovering her badass-women anthems and sweet love songs, and they are saving me.
  • Yoga – on Zoom for now, and maybe back in the studio soon.
  • The knowledge that we have a competent administration in Washington working to combat this virus and other problems.

What’s saving your life these days? I’d love to know.

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nonfiction tbr book stack

Like so many bookworms, I buy more books than I can read right away.

Part of this is intentional: I like having a stack of books waiting for me. Part of it’s a natural consequence of browsing bookstores at home or on vacation: sometimes I just can’t resist a good-looking book or five. And part of it just seems to happen, especially when I receive books as gifts.

I shared this photo on Instagram back in November: this was, at the time, my nonfiction TBR (to-be-read) stack. Generally speaking, nonfiction takes me longer than fiction, and I have Shelf Awareness review deadlines (and often, library deadlines) to meet each month. So the non-urgent nonfiction tends to pile up.

Six of these books were given to me by friends. The top two came from my trip to Oxford in October. Anne generously sent me a copy of her book, Reading People, when it came out last fall. And the other four I’d picked up on previous travels: one in London, three in New York.

All of them had been sitting there a while.

So when I heard about #theunreadshelfproject via my bookworm friend Leigh, I decided my reading goal for 2018 would be to make my way through this nonfiction stack. It sounded doable: 13 books spread over 12 months. (By the time 2018 rolled around, it was down to 11: I read and loved H is for Hawk and Reading People in December.)

I’ve since read three (more) of the books pictured here: Love of Country, Ordinary Light and Encore Provence. I’ve also added a bonus novel: Brian Doyle’s Mink River, which sat on my shelf for months after I bought it at McNally Jackson last winter. I’m in the middle of Scratch, and hoping to tackle Shopgirls or Crossing the Unknown Sea next.

With any luck, by the end of the year I’ll have either read all of these or decided they need a new home somewhere else. (But even if I don’t love Pigtails and Pernod, I might keep it around: it reminds me of a wonderful afternoon spent browsing the bookshops of Charing Cross Road with Caroline.)

Did you set any reading goals for yourself this year? Do your stacks tend to pile up like mine?

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one day hh 2015 graphic

Our task is to say a holy yes to the real things of our life as they exist – the real truth of who we are: several pounds overweight, the gray, cold street outside, the Christmas tinsel in the showcase, the Jewish writer in the orange booth across from her blond friend who has black children.

We must become writers who accept things as they are, come to love the details, and step forward with a yes on our lips so there can be no more noes in the world, noes that invalidate life and stop these details from continuing.”

—Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

On Tuesday, Laura hosted her annual #OneDayHH challenge– a simple call to document the details of our everyday lives. I participated last year, and enjoyed playing along again this year. I thought I’d share my photos, because I like having a record of it here on the blog.

quilt morning light

My morning began with the snooze button, and the muted grey light coming through the window. I always make the bed. Since the nights have gotten chilly, we are sleeping under this quilt my husband’s grandmother made him, years ago.

yoga mat leggings

I’m still starting a lot of my mornings with the yoga app. Often that means I go straight to the mat, in my pajamas.

dish rack kitchen

After a hot shower, I put the kettle on and tackled a pile of dishes from Monday night. (We had burritos, hence the rice cooker, cheese grater and guacamole bowl.)

anne of the island scone mug

Breakfast was a scone (one of Molly’s) and tea, with a few pages of Anne of the Island. I love Anne and her college adventures so much.

laptop kitchen table

The hubs had a mid-morning break and came home to drop off some groceries. We sat at the kitchen table, talking, for an hour. So rare these days, and so good. Then I spent a while longer at the table, writing and editing and answering emails. (With more tea.)

weird sisters novel flowers

I’m participating in #NaNoReadMo this month, so I took a break to share my glowing recommendation of Eleanor Brown’s The Weird Sisters.

soup crackers notepad book

Lunch was leftover butternut squash soup, with cheese and crackers and The Art of Travel.

train platform book

I headed into Cambridge after lunch, waiting for the T in a chilly wind (with Alain de Botton for company).

leaves boots bricks

The leaves are falling in great piles, and I couldn’t resist snapping a photo on the way to Darwin’s.

laptop darwins chai

I spent the afternoon here: chai, emails, writing, more emails. A little noveling.

rainy beacon st boston

I put my phone away for the evening, which included an overdue catch-up with a friend. We took a long walk, ate our favorite pizza, talked for hours. Later, I walked through the rain to catch the subway home.

jer apple cider

The hubs got home from rehearsal right after I did, and we drank apple cider at the kitchen table and debriefed on the day. (And then we collapsed into bed.)

I love Goldberg’s words about saying “a holy yes” to the details of our lives. And I love this project – capturing my own details and seeing those of others.

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Scenes from a day out in Gloucester.

tea plates cafe table
Tea at the Pleasant Street Coffee Bar & Tea Company (with a raspberry jam turnover).

flip flops sidewalk
Enjoying flip-flop weather for as long as it lasts.

jer bookstore
The hubs did some reading while I browsed at the Bookstore of Gloucester.

guitar rug
And we found a super cool rug outside Mystery Train Records.

Hope you’re having a gorgeous weekend.

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Exceptions

Valencia 116

I love both tea and chocolate, but I don’t usually like tea with chocolate in it. But I am loving the Read My Lips tea I bought at David’s Tea last month. Rich, satisfying and slightly minty. (I bought it when I ran out of Santa’s Secret, their holiday black tea blend with peppermint.)

I don’t usually care for crude humor, but Tommy Boy makes me laugh so hard I weep. (Partly because I first watched it with my cousin Andy – and watching him crack up was even funnier than the movie itself.)

I’m not a coffee drinker, but on a trip to Spain a few years back, I tried cafe con leche and savored every sip. (See above for photographic evidence.)

I’m not a devotee of fantasy lit in general, but it is difficult to overstate my love for both the Harry Potter series and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Pure magic, these books, in all the best ways.

I didn’t think I liked hot pink (my sister is the pink-obsessed one), but a college roommate brought me a bright pink scarf from a trip to New York long ago and I still wear it all the time. (That one wasn’t so much an exception as a misperception.)

I grew up with spontaneous prayer, so a lot of memorized prayers feel forced in my mouth, but there are two that come easily: the Lord’s Prayer and the table prayer of my grandparents.

I’d almost always rather read a novel than short stories, but I’ve loved this collection of stories inspired by the Sherlock Holmes canon. Really fun and clever.

What are the exceptions in your life?

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I’ve been an avid reader – and rereader – almost since I learned how to read. (Just ask my parents, who swear they read Ned’s Numbers to me a million times when I was a toddler.) I’ve read – and reread – hundreds of books since then, but a few of them have truly, powerfully changed the way I see the world. This list is not exhaustive, but contains a handful of the gems that marked some important shifts for me. (Inspired by Roxanne’s Books Well-Loved series.)

1. Little Women, first read when I was seven – the first story that completely, wholly absorbed me and made me want to read it again and again. (Which I did.)
2. Walking on Water, my “back-door” introduction to Madeleine L’Engle (now one of my favorite authors) and her oeuvre of beautifully written, thoughtful, moving books. (And, eventually, a topic for my master’s thesis.)
3. Watch for the Light, a book of Advent reflections that has shaped my relationship to liturgy, and indeed my faith.
4. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, which constantly pushes me to be more honest in my writing.
5. The Sound of Paper by Julia Cameron: given to me as a college graduation gift by J, it has powerfully shaped my creative life.
6. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, which revolutionized the way I think about food and seasonal eating.
7. The Cool Girl’s Guide to Knitting by Nicki Trench, which helped reinforce a lot of the basics for me.
8. A New Kind of Christian by Brian McLaren, which introduced me to the concept of postmodern Christianity.
9. The reading list for my World Lit class, my senior year of college – most notably Saramago’s Blindness and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Horrifying, heartbreaking, powerful stories with pitch-perfect writing, and so many different ways of seeing the world.

What books have changed your life?

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(image from surprisedbyoxford.com)

I’m a voracious reader of travel memoir, but I’ve come across very few memoirs set in Oxford, where I once lived and which still has my heart. (Which makes it an even better idea for me to write an Oxford travel memoir one day.) So, when I read about Surprised by Oxford on Sarah’s blog, I wasted not a moment in ordering it.

The cover – a view of the front quad of Oriel College, where author Carolyn Weber studied – made me catch my breath. I know those spires, rising so elegant and clean against that blue sky. I’ve got a photo, somewhere, of that same quad (though I’ve never actually made it inside Oriel yet). Even the title evokes the life of another Oxford friend: C.S. Lewis, who called his memoir Surprised by Joy – which I think Caro was, too.

Caro’s story differs from mine in several important ways: she is Canadian, I am American; she studied at Oriel while I earned my master’s from Oxford Brookes; she parted ways with the fiance she’d left behind at Christmastime, whereas I did marry the man who’d waited so patiently for me back in Texas. Most importantly, Caro came to Oxford as an agnostic, and I was already a Christian when I came.

But the places she lived and studied and ate – Blackwells Bookshop, the Bodleian Library, Jamal’s Indian restaurant in Jericho), even the streets – were all intimately familiar to me. I couldn’t turn a page without feeling a ping of recognition – high tea at the Randolph! May Morning at Magdalen Tower! Turn Again Lane down by St Ebbe’s Street! If there had been a map included with the book, it would have closely resembled my own internal one of Oxford. And although my faith story looks quite different than hers in some respects, the ping of recognition also extended to her journey toward God.

Caro is a scholar, a lover of literature and poetry – and she quotes liberally from the greats, including Donne, Wordsworth and so many others, as she struggles to make sense of this new faith which calls to her. She’s also, like me, a woman and a feminist struggling with what has long been a male-dominated institution (at least in the Protestant West), and a curious mind with a lot of questions. Most importantly, she is utterly, disarmingly honest about her questions and doubts and fears. (She also has a wonderful sense of humor, even slipping in the occasional pun for some comic relief.)

I read her story over several days, sinking deeply into it the way you sink into a long talk with a good friend. (The way, indeed, I used to sink into talks with Jacque or Lizzie or Nicky or Jo, when I lived in Oxford.) I pondered Caro’s questions along with her, rooted for her budding love story, and delighted in every single allusion to a familiar street or shop or building in this city I love. Short of hopping a plane back to Oxford, it was the best (beautifully written) way to assuage the longing for the place I still call home.

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After a trip, such as my lovely weekend in New York (complete with children’s lit tour), “normal” life can seem a bit staid, a bit dull, a bit – well – ordinary. Especially when you live in a place that’s no longer new – when you’re more inclined, perhaps, to take things for granted than to see them with fresh eyes.

Last fall, we had just moved to Boston and I was delighting in the Northeast fall – the changing leaves, the crisp days and chilly nights, the apple picking (and apple cider), the cafes and bookshops explored on long golden afternoons when I had nothing to do but wander around my new city.

This fall, I have a day job (and it’s been raining a lot lately), and I am, if not jaded, not always so attuned to the daily wonders of browsing at the Brattle or walking across the Common on my way to work. Sometimes the days can start to seem rather commonplace, or to run into one another with their commutes and errands and to-do lists.

But after a frantic day of emails and meetings this week, I remembered a bit of wisdom from our favorite red-haired heroine, when she arrives home to Ingleside after a trip to Avonlea:

“This is no common day, Mrs. Dr. dear,” [Susan] said solemnly.

“Oh, Susan, there is no such thing as a common day. Every day has something about it no other day has. Haven’t you noticed?”

Anne of Ingleside

Which made me think of a similar exchange between Emily Byrd Starr and her teacher, Mr. Carpenter:

“Stick to facts for three years and see what you can make of them. Leave the realm of imagination severely alone and confine yourself to ordinary life.”

“There isn’t any such thing as ordinary life,” said Emily.

Mr. Carpenter looked at her for a moment.

“You’re right – there isn’t,” he said slowly. “But one wonders a little how you know it.”

Emily Climbs

Good words to carry in my heart, for those not-quite-so-common, never-ordinary days.

May you have a delightfully not-ordinary weekend.

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Because beginnings can be so, so good. These are the ones I remember best.

1. I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. (I Capture the Castle)
2. I met Charlotte in London one afternoon while waiting for a bus. Just look at that sentence! (The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets)
3. In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines / lived twelve little girls in two straight lines. (Madeline)
4. My life – my real life – started when a man walked into it, a handsome man in a well-cut suit, and yes, I know how that sounds. (Love Walked In)
5. It was a dark and stormy night. (A Wrinkle in Time)
6. Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs. (Little House in the Big Woods)
7. We are each the love of someone’s life. (The Confessions of Max Tivoli)

I often have trouble remembering first lines of books – it’s the odd, random phrases or scenes from the middle that stick in my mind. But I do love these.

What are your favorite first lines?

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On a recent Wednesday night, I ended up in a field west of Concord, watching a juggler toss pins into the air, munching on kettle corn, and marveling at a magician’s card tricks and a mime’s skill at making balloon animals.

No, I wasn’t at a carnival or a circus – not a normal circus, anyway. This was the pre-launch preview party for Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel, The Night Circus. Appropriately, it was held in a circus tent.

Several dozen bookish folks from all over New England – bloggers, booksellers, reviewers, a librarian or two, and lots of folks who tweet about books – had been invited to the event by the area Random House sales reps. (Lots of people came from Boston and Cambridge, of course, but there were people from Rhode Island and even upstate New York.) And it was so fun.

We munched on hors d’oeuvres (and later, a selection of decadent desserts) and watched the performers do their thing, and then listened to an audio clip of the book’s beginning (read by Jim Dale, now famous for the Harry Potter audiobooks). I stuck close to Dawn all night, since I didn’t really know anyone else, and since I felt a little out of the loop among all these folks who live and breathe books at their day jobs. (I live and breathe books too, but my day job mainly involves webpages and emails.)

My gorgeous ARC of The Night Circus (which Erin graciously signed for me) has been sitting on my coffee table ever since, tantalizing me (I had a few other books to finish before I picked it up). I’m planning to take my trip to the circus this week. I’ll let you know how it goes, and meanwhile: can you guess what animal our mime friend is bringing to life with these balloons?

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