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July has been a long hot month – and clearly books are one of my coping mechanisms, as always. Here’s what I have been reading:

Other Words for Home, Jasmine Warga
I flew through this sweet middle-grade novel in verse, narrated by Jude, who leaves her native Syria (with her mother) to live with relatives in Cincinnati. She misses her father, brother and best friend terribly, but gradually adjusts to her new life. Lovely.

The Feminist Agenda of Jemima Kincaid, Kate Hattemer
It’s April of Jemima Kincaid’s senior year and she’s burning to do something big to leave a legacy at her tony prep school. But she’s also dealing with teenage stuff: learning to drive, an inconvenient crush, friction with her best friend. A fun novel with a likable, flawed protagonist learning to confront her own privilege. (Warning: some truly cringeworthy teenage sex.)

Flying Free: My Victory Over Fear to Become the First Latina Pilot on the U.S. Aerobatic Team, Cecilia Aragon
Bullied as a child in her small Indiana town, Aragon found her way to a career in computer science, but still struggled with crippling fear and anxiety. A coworker’s love for flying ignited her own, and she threw herself into her new hobby, eventually competing on the U.S. Aerobatic Team. This straightforward, fascinating memoir chronicles her journey. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 22).

Shalom Sistas: Living Wholeheartedly in a Brokenhearted World, Osheta Moore
Moore is a wise, compassionate voice on Instagram and elsewhere, and this, her first book, is about pursuing shalom – God’s vision for true peace. It’s part memoir, part theology, part real talk. Warm and thoughtful.

Emily of Deep Valley, Maud Hart Lovelace
I picked up this lesser-known classic by the author of the Betsy-Tacy series for a reread. Emily Webster is one of my favorite heroines: thoughtful, sensitive and brave. She struggles with loneliness after finishing high school and feeling stuck in her small town, but she learns to “muster her wits” and build a life for herself. I love her story so much.

Mend! A Refashioning Manual and Manifesto, Kate Sekules 
Mending has existed as long as clothing has, and Sekules is here for the visible mending revolution. Packed with clothing/mending history (chiefly in the West), practical tips for sourcing vintage/mendable clothing, an extensive stitch guide and lots of snark. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 8).

House of Light, Mary Oliver
I’ve been rereading Oliver’s poems over breakfast. They are “lovely, dark and deep,” to quote Frost. Most of them are set in the woods or ponds. She is so good at paying attention.

Deadlock, Sara Paretsky
When V.I. Warshawski’s cousin, a former hockey star, dies under mysterious circumstances, V.I. begins to investigate. She finds herself drawn into a complex case involving corruption in the shipping industry. I like her snark and smarts and will keep going with the series.

Amal Unbound, Aisha Saeed
Twelve-year-old Amal dreams of becoming a teacher, though her family struggles as her mother deals with postpartum depression. But then Amal unwittingly offends the village landlord, and is forced to work as a servant in his house. She’s determined to find a way out, though. Bittersweet and inspiring, with a great cast of characters.

Bitter Medicine, Sara Paretsky
In V.I. Warshawski’s fourth adventure, she’s investigating the death of a young pregnant woman, a family friend. What she finds is potential malpractice, corruption and gang involvement – not to mention her smarmy lawyer ex. I especially loved the role played here by her elderly neighbor, Mr. Contreras.

Wild Words: Rituals, Routines, and Rhythms for Braving the Writer’s Path, Nicole Gulotta
My friend Sonia recommended this book months ago, and I’ve been reading it slowly all summer. Gulotta is wise, warm and practical, and this book (organized by “season”) has been deeply helpful for me.

Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal, G. Willow Wilson
Kamala Khan is an ordinary teenager, until she’s suddenly invested with strange powers she can’t quite control. A girlfriend lent me this first volume of the adventures of a young superhero growing into herself. The plot is a bit thin, but it was fun.

Blood Shot, Sara Paretsky
V.I. Warshawski isn’t crazy about going back to her South Chicago neighborhood. But a high school basketball reunion and an odd request from a friend pull her back in. Soon she’s investigating chemical corruption, chasing a friend’s (unknown) birth father and trying not to get killed. This was a grim one, but (see above) I am hooked on V.I.’s adventures.

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

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june-book-stack

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?

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We are halfway through April (how??), and I’m mostly able to focus on books again. The days feel both long and short and somehow suspended – time is moving differently, I suspect, for many of us. But I’m still reading, and here are the books I’ve been enjoying:

Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change, Maggie Smith
Maggie’s poetry and “keep moving” notes speak right to my heart. This collection combines some of those notes with longer essays about dealing with loss, grief, upended expectations, and the surprising new spaces created by upheaval. She and I are both recently divorced, but I believe these essays will resonate with many people’s experiences. Wise and honest and so lovely. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 6 – it was originally May 5).

Braver Than You Think: Around the World on the Trip of My (Mother’s) Lifetime, Maggie Downs
Downs undertook a trip around the world as her mother was slipping into late-stage Alzheimer’s: she wanted to see and do all the things her mother never got to do. She has some rather harrowing adventures (and stays in lots of grubby hostels), but gains a few hard-won insights about her mother and herself. Compelling and moving, for fans of travel memoir and self-discovery. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 12).

American Royals, Katharine McGee
What if George Washington had been the first king of America? What would his 21st-century descendants look like, and how would they rule? That’s the premise of this fun YA novel (first in a series), which follows Princess Beatrice (future queen) and her siblings as they navigate the expectations that come with their crowns. Witty, juicy and so much fun – a perfect distraction for these times.

The Paris Hours, Alex George
Paris, 1927: the lives of four ordinary people intertwine on one extraordinary day. A struggling artist, an Armenian refugee, Marcel Proust’s former maid and a grieving journalist are all searching for different things, but their paths cross and recross in fascinating ways. With cameos by Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach and others. I have read a lot of Paris novels, and am glad I picked this one up: it was really engaging. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 5).

Waterlight: Selected Poems, Kathleen Jamie
My friend Roxani has raved about Jamie’s essays, and I picked this poetry collection up at the library. Some of it, especially the poems written in Scots, didn’t really work for me, but some of them are melancholy and lovely.

Of Mutts and Men, Spencer Quinn
Chet and Bernie are back on the case – this one involving a hydrologist who was murdered, a vineyard perched in a strange place, and a lawyer who might be up to something. Chet (the dog) is a great narrator, and I was so glad to escape into this series again. To (maybe) review for Shelf Awareness (out July 7).

Last Train to Key West, Chanel Cleeton
As a hurricane bears down on Key West in 1935, the paths of three very different women – Cuban newlywed Mirta, former New York society girl Elizabeth, and battered wife Helen – intersect in interesting ways. I like Cleeton’s fiction about the Perez family and this was a solid historical novel. (Also the first ebook I’d read in quite a while.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 16).

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

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One of the toughest things, so far, about quarantine is not being able to hang out with my friends.

I live alone, so I really rely on my friends in the neighborhood, my classes at the nearby yoga studio and my interactions with colleagues for human connection. We are doing the best we can – Zoom meetings and phone calls and virtual yoga (so much virtual yoga), but I miss just sitting in a friend’s living room, or inviting someone over for tea.

The other night, my friend Lauryn had a brilliant idea: a virtual baking date via FaceTime. We decided to start with Molly Wizenberg’s Scottish scones, about which I have raved here more times than I can count. They were on her blog a million years ago, then appeared in her first book, A Homemade Life – which, in addition to being gorgeous and funny and delicious, is one of the books that landed me my Shelf Awareness review gig. (I had to write a few sample reviews, and Marilyn, my editor, was already a Wizenberg fan – she asked me about Molly’s banana bread when she wrote me back to tell me I’d gotten the job.)

Anyway, I sent Lauryn the recipe and (for good measure) a photo of the ingredient list, and we gathered bags of flour and sugar and cartons of half-and-half and mixing bowls, and I propped up my phone inside the kitchen cabinet so it wouldn’t keep falling over. And we baked, with her husband and kids moving in and out of the frame, and me dashing to the cupboard to dig out the baking powder, and both of us struggling to scrape the zest (lemon for her, orange for me) off our respective graters.

We lost the connection a few times, and had to repeat ourselves more than once, but we caught up a bit, about the day and the weather and this weird new life we’re all living. And it helped. And the scones – need I say it? – were delicious. Mine (with dried cranberries and orange zest) are above; Lauryn’s (with lemon zest and crystallized ginger) are below.

Are you baking in these days, friends? (My friend Jess calls it “distractibaking,” and I suspect she’s not alone.) Do share, if you are. Be well.

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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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