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bookstore lenox sign natalie goldberg event

A couple of Sundays ago, I skipped out on church early and drove out to the Berkshires for the afternoon.

I’m a longtime fan of The Bookstore in Lenox, despite the fact that I only get out there every couple of years. Matt, the owner, writes a rambling, erudite e-newsletter which I love reading every week, and in early July I opened it to find that Natalie Goldberg was coming for a Sunday afternoon reading and book signing.

This came the day after I’d been talking to a friend about Natalie’s work – explaining how I stumbled on Writing Down the Bones the summer after I graduated from college, when an acquaintance was selling off a few of her books. I bought it and a few others (including Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water), never dreaming what an effect Natalie’s words would have on the way I thought about my writing and my life.

The whole afternoon, from start to finish, was a delight. It felt – as these things sometimes do – like grace unbidden.

bookstore lenox interior shelves

It started with the drive there, listening to good music on the radio and Elizabeth Gilbert’s delightful On Being episode, about following your curiosity. It continued when I walked into the store and heard the events manager testing the mic by reciting “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” in an Irish accent. He stopped after a couple of lines and mused, “Should I do the whole poem?” Everyone who’d already gathered responded, “Yes!”

I browsed a little while, then perched on a stool near the front counter for the event itself. Natalie arrived with her cousins in tow, and she was warm and down-to-earth, as I always hope authors will be. She read a few sections from her new book, standing in the middle of the store in a long black dress, telling us about love and illness and noticing, about grief and doctors and paying attention.

“You’re such deep listeners,” she kept saying to the group gathered in folding chairs or leaning against the back shelves. I think we were all simply fascinated. But it was clear that everyone in the room was so happy to be there.

I loved every moment: the breeze wafting through the open door, other browsers wandering in and out, my fellow audience members listening so intently and asking good questions. Most of all I loved hearing Natalie’s voice – which I have heard so often in my head over the years – in real life. Afterward, I went up and asked her to sign both her new book and my copy of Writing Down the Bones, bristling with Post-Its. “I’ll sign as many books as you want,” she had said to the crowd, and many of us took her up on that offer.

The great pleasure of any bookstore is browsing, of course, and I wandered among the shelves for a little while before and after the event. I ended up with a copy of Natalie’s new book (of course), a memoir by a 747 pilot, some Alastair Reid poetry, and Matt’s slim, self-published memoir of his years working at the now-defunct Gotham Book Mart in NYC. He exclaimed when I brought it to the register, and we had a delightful exchange. I told him I’d been there before, and how much I love the store. Matt offered to sign his book, and when I peeked inside I saw that he’d inscribed it – to my delight – “For Katie, who came back!”

I left feeling nourished in a soul-deep way: from having spent an afternoon among people who love words and good stories and this world. “I wanted to grab a hunk of living again and hold on tight,” Natalie writes in the introduction to her new memoir. That afternoon in Lenox was a vivid, flavorful hunk of living, and I savored its sweetness all the way home.

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charles river cambridge sunset

Making Peace

A voice from the dark called out,
             ‘The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.’
                                   But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.
                                       A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.
                                              A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses . . .
                        A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.

I came across this poem (as I find so many lovely things) via the good folks at Image Journal. It strikes me, reading these lines, that peace – like magic – is something we must actively make.

Like Natalie Goldberg’s “holy yes,” peace is an act of creativity, grace and courage; it is not something that happens automatically. It is a choice, and a long process, and it can be hard, complicated and tiring. But it is also beautiful and necessary. In a world of loud arguments and urgent headlines, it is perhaps more necessary than ever.

May I – may we all – learn to be peacemakers in these days.

hancock tower protest boston refugees

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magic is something you make brushstrokes

My one little word for 2017 is magic.

After a year that required all the gumption I could muster – which is to say, I frequently felt like I was hanging on by my fingernails – I wanted something different for 2017. I thought about vitality, which Ali chose for her word a few years ago, or rest, which I could certainly use more of this year.

Mostly, I wanted a word to help me live more fully into my everyday. Since I started choosing a word with brave back in 2010, this practice has become a way for me to pay better attention to my life. (Fittingly, attention was my word in 2013.)

I also wanted a word that would spark a little joy. 2016 was a hard and scary year, and I ended it completely worn out: exhausted, anxious, weary and fearful (though also deeply grateful for some good changes). There are lots of challenges ahead in 2017, I know, and I want to face them with bravery and hope: to walk forward expectant and unafraid.

All this reminded me of something Elise Blaha Cripe wrote a few years ago, when she chose magic for her word: “magic is something you make.” (The image above is from her site.)

Elise noted that magic doesn’t just happen to us, though it is there for the noticing: it often results from our choices, from the work we put in, from the way we choose to see the world. I was reminded, too, of Ali’s post from last year about making our own magic. Her post was related to the holidays, but I think it applies all year round.

Magic also feels a little sneaky, a little unexpected – like a much-needed antidote to the grim realities we’re all facing. To be honest, it also feels a little frivolous, and I wondered if I should choose something more grown-up and respectable. But then I remembered: I am always arguing in favor of the small things, the tiny, often overlooked moments that can turn a whole day around.

lamont quad light sky

The scrap of blue sky, the vase of red tulips on my desk, that first sip of hot, spicy chai in the morning. My favorite green coat, which has become my winter trademark. The pendant stamped with brave that I wear around my neck. The simple, small pleasures of daily life, and the lovely moments of connection with strangers and friends. Those “spasmodic tricks of radiance” are everyday magic, if anything is, and I firmly believe we need to notice them and also work to create more of them.

After I decided on my word, I went downtown to meet a friend one night last week. I got off the train early so I could walk through Beacon Hill, making my way down a dark, quiet, twinkly Charles Street with a cup of Earl Grey in my hand. And if I needed any further confirmation of my word, it came in this sign, spotted in a shop window: perfect words from one of my favorite writers.

presence wonder eb white

Wonder and magic are closely related, and I’ll be looking out for both of them this year. In a world that often feels fraught and dangerous, there’s still a great deal of light and loveliness to be found. I invite you to join me in looking for magic, and in making a little magic of our own.

Are you following a word this year? (I know I asked this question last week, but feel free to share if you haven’t already.)

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my kitchen year book pie flowers

I’ve been reading Ruth Reichl’s glorious cookbook-cum-memoir, My Kitchen Year. The book includes 136 recipes spread over four seasons, and each recipe is accompanied by a short essay. Most of the essay/recipe combinations begin with one of Reichl’s tweets, which are almost haiku-like: brief, clear, vivid renderings of her moods, meals, and where she finds herself at that precise moment.

My Kitchen Year was born out of a difficult time in Reichl’s life: the year after Gourmet magazine closed down, suddenly and unexpectedly. Reichl, the magazine’s longtime editor, found herself jobless, unmoored and totally unsure of where to go next. (I nodded my head as I read those passages: my layoff last spring induced similar feelings.)

She took refuge, perhaps unsurprisingly, in her kitchen, and the resulting book contains many mouthwatering recipes. But I loved it most for its simple, lyrical record of her journey through that year. Reichl writes with grace and honesty about feeling lonely and uncertain, about trying new ingredients and projects, and retreating to comforting familiar favorites. Her prose evokes quiet mornings at her house in upstate New York; afternoons spent browsing cheese and butcher shops amid the colorful bustle of New York City; reuniting with Gourmet colleagues for long evening meals and spending hours by herself, in cafes or on city sidewalks.

My Kitchen Year is about food, certainly, but it’s also grounded in a particular place and time: field notes from a year when food and a few key relationships were Reichl’s only anchors.

Ten years ago (!) this month, for my college graduation, I received a copy of Julia Cameron’s The Sound of Paper. My then-boyfriend (now my husband) plucked it off the shelf at our local Books-a-Million, knowing I loved books about writing and thinking perhaps I’d enjoy this one. He could not have known – nor could I – how powerfully Julia’s short essays, about writing and living and beginning again, would resonate with me.

Like Reichl, Cameron (though I call her “Julia” in my head) writes in first person, grounding her ideas in a specific place and context. She begins many of her essays with a note about the weather: a “gray, dreary, socked-in day” or a morning of blue skies and budding trees. She writes about her New York City apartment overlooking the Hudson River; the house she loves in Taos, New Mexico; the music and books that inspire her. Her ideas about building a life conducive to creativity, a rich and artful life, are broadly appealing, but they are also field notes, full of crisp sensory details. She invites us to notice each day along with her.

I think that’s how blogging and social media began: as a way to share field notes from our lives, a way to reach out to one another across the vast spaces of modern life and say, “Here I am. This is what I’m noticing today.” I have met so many wonderful people (some of whom I’ve eventually met in person) this way: through the small, quotidian details we’ve shared online, the ways we have chosen to record and remember the stuff of our lives.

I have an ongoing text conversation with a dear friend that functions in a similar way. We share small notes on of our days: traffic and commutes and weather, lunch and errands, meetings with friends and colleagues. We talk about big ideas too, and what’s making us laugh, and sometimes we share what is saving our lives. Some of it probably is universal. But much of it is blessedly particular: field notes from these specific, mundane, glorious days.

I write sometimes here about the Big Things: the struggles of the job hunt; the prickly ache of missing my family; the quiet glory of my marriage; what it means to be a person of faith. But I am just as likely, on any given day, to be writing about the small, vivid, particular things. To be sharing field notes from right where I am.

Thanks for reading. As Lindsey noted recently, there is a lot of kindness that shows up online, and I’m grateful for every bit of it here in this space.

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dish rack kitchen

Pottering. It’s a lovely word, isn’t it?

The word makes me think of actual clay pots, or a backyard garden with sprays of flowering vines growing over a wooden fence. It calls to mind lazy afternoons, shafts of sunlight pouring down through the trees, mild breezes and blue skies. And work – but not the backbreaking kind. The gentle, satisfying kind. Moving things around, digging, arranging, fiddling a bit, until they’re just right.

I don’t usually associate “pottering” with housework. But recently I’ve realized they are often one and the same in my life.

As a writer and editor in this increasingly digital age, I do most of my paid work on a computer. After a day at the office, answering emails, writing news features, managing social media, my hands and eyes often long for something tangible. Something I can touch and see.

I get home, these days, when it’s just getting dark, my hands full of mail and books, my brain often tired and fragmented from the work of the day. I shuck off my coat, drop my bag on the bench by the kitchen door, and often, I plunge straight into some form of pottering.

It’s not what you’d call heavy housework, most days. I save those tasks for weekends, when the hubs is home and can split the work with me. The tidying and maintenance I do in the evenings is just that: tossing a load of laundry in the washing machine. Sorting a stack of mail (often recycling most of it). Pulling on my rubber gloves and tackling a sinkful of dishes. Moving papers, clothes and general clutter back where they belong.

Sometimes I trim the stems on a vase of flowers, or rearrange the stacks of books that cover most of the available surfaces in our apartment. Usually, there’s some cooking to be done, and then I often eat alone because the hubs is working late, saving leftovers for him. After dinner, there are more dishes to wash, or sometimes a bit of baking. At least twice a day – once in the morning and once at night – the red teakettle sings its whistling song.

It’s not always as idyllic as I make it sound. I admit it: sometimes I grumble at the multiplying properties of dirty dishes and balled-up socks. Occasionally there’s a stack of mail I walk by and ignore. The work is never done, exactly, even when the clothes are folded and the sink is empty and shining. But then, the work of making a home is never quite done, either. It is constant, ongoing. A process.

Like so many things, pottering isn’t a cure-all: sometimes I go to bed still worn out and enervated, or I despair of ever conquering the latest list of household tasks. But most of the time, I appreciate the chance to feel useful and productive while also relaxing a bit. It’s good for my brain, my body and my soul to sink, for a little while, into the work of my hands.

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journals bon voyage red stars

When we are unable to work, we can work at the work of getting ready to work. Writers can lay in supplies of paper and enticing pens, notepads that plead, “Please write on me.” Painters can prepare their canvases, clean their brushes, neaten their studio space. Potters can acquire a new lump of cool clay and clear the table spare where they will knead and shape it. Gentle things can be done.

—Julia Cameron, The Sound of Paper

I’ve written before about how Julia’s words – especially in this book – are touchstones for me. She writes honestly about the frustrations and fears of the creative life, but is always nudging herself and her readers gently forward: Easy does it, but do it.

Write a few pages by hand, she says. Slip in an “artist date” on your lunch break. Pick up a few books that inspire you. And then there’s the advice above: so small and simple that it’s easy to overlook. But on these long winter afternoons, it is saving my life.

Some days I am able to move quickly and efficiently through projects, crossing tasks off my to-do list. (I love those days.) Sometimes I have a deadline prodding me along, or a colleague who needs something from me. That’s the easy part. The hard part is when I know I need to do something – send an email, draft a piece, tackle a nagging task – but I can’t make myself get started. This is where Julia comes in.

I like the phrase “the work of getting ready to work.” For me, that sometimes looks like buying nice pens or vivid, lovely journals (see above). But more often, it’s an even smaller step: Creating a Word document. Starting an email. Making a list. Figuring out what a task actually entails, breaking it down into manageable steps, and then tackling the first one.

Sometimes, the very fact of that waiting Word doc or email draft or to-do list is a scaffold I can climb on, materials in hand, and start to build something good and true. It may be only a stark outline, but it’s often enough to nudge me forward, toward the real work. (Bonus: these things also mitigate the terror of the blank page or screen.)

How do you nudge yourself to get ready to work?

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red christmas books

December is a lovely month, but man, it’s full. Here’s what I have been reading in this holiday season:

Moonlight Over Paris, Jennifer Robson
After recovering from a broken engagement and a near-fatal illness, Lady Helena Montagu-Douglas-Parr moves to Paris in 1924 to reinvent herself as an artist. Robson writes enchanting historical fiction. I didn’t love Helena as much as her previous heroines (she’s rather timid), but still enjoyed this story. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 19).

The Admissions, Meg Mitchell Moore
Nora and Gabe Hawthorne have built a seemingly perfect life for themselves and their three daughters. But as their eldest works on her Harvard application, their youngest (age seven) struggles with reading, and both Gabe and Nora face mounting pressures at work, their carefully calibrated existence seems set to unravel. Funny, incisive and so real, written in Moore’s delicious, addictive prose. I devoured this one. (I also loved Moore’s previous two novels, The Arrivals and So Far Away.)

The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places, from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley, Eric Weiner
Why do some places seem to produce dozens of geniuses and brilliant ideas? Eric Weiner travels to seven great cities of ideas – Athens, Edinburgh, Vienna, even Silicon Valley – to explore the concept of genius and the conditions that help nourish it. Fascinating and dryly witty. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 5).

Felicity, Mary Oliver
Oliver turns her attention to romantic love in this new poetry collection – a bit of a departure for her, though the natural world still makes frequent appearances. Slim and luminous.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue, Melanie Benjamin
New York in the 1950s was a glittering whirl of parties, lunches and social maneuvering. At the center of it all were Truman Capote, flamboyant literary darling, and the socialites he called his “swans” – Babe Paley and a handful of other wealthy, gorgeous, married women. Benjamin explores their tangled, intimate relationships, focusing on Truman and Babe’s friendship, and how it all eventually went south. Richly detailed and full of both catty asides and moments of startling vulnerability. I also adored Benjamin’s previous novel, The Aviator’s Wife. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 26).

Shepherds Abiding, Jan Karon
It’s nearly Christmas in Mitford, and Father Tim Kavanagh is hard at work on a special project: restoring a battered Nativity scene as a surprise for his wife, Cynthia. Meanwhile, other Mitford folks are making their own Christmas plans, and the mystery and wonder of the season sneaks in, often in unexpected ways. I love revisiting this story every year.

White Christmas: The Story of an American Song, Jody Rosen
Written by a Russian Jewish immigrant, “White Christmas” has become the quintessential American secular carol. Rosen explores the life, career and musical heritage of Irving Berlin, and the historical and musical context in which the song became such a massive hit. Interesting, though I wanted more about the eponymous film, which I adore. Found at the Dogtown Book Shop in Gloucester, MA.

Winter Solstice, Rosamunde Pilcher
I love this gentle, hopeful story of five people who end up in a small Scottish village at Christmastime, each nursing different griefs and finding unexpected joy during their time together. I reread it every December.

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

What are you reading?

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