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Posts Tagged ‘daily life’

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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memorial church memorial hall harvard university
I was left to my own devices
Many days fell away with nothing to show

And the walls kept tumbling down
In the city that we love
Great clouds roll over the hills
Bringing darkness from above

But if you close your eyes
Does it almost feel like nothing’s changed at all?
And if you close your eyes
Does it almost feel like you’ve been here before?

How am I gonna be an optimist about this?
How am I gonna be an optimist about this?

—Bastille, “Pompeii”

I fell in love with this song about a year ago, when my husband started performing it with his a cappella group, the Mass Whole Notes. (I know I’m a little late to the Bastille party. J is constantly discovering brand-new music, the way I am always finding new books. But my musical tastes skew several years behind the times.)

“Pompeii” entered J’s performance repertoire around the time I lost my job (which happened a year ago this week). I have found myself humming it often this year, because it captures perfectly the in-between state in which I find myself.

Some things – in fact, many important things – in my life have not changed since last May: I live in the same light-filled apartment. I go to the same tiny church. I call my mother once a week, text my sister about Friends lines and my nephews, talk about golf and movies with my dad. I read scads of books and write lots of reviews. I am married to the same generous, funny, understanding man.

I also spend my weekdays in the same neighborhood where I’ve worked for three years now. Every morning, I sling the same two bags over my shoulder and head for the Red Line subway platform near my house. I get off in Harvard Square, looking up at the same brick buildings and tall, gracious towers. I head to Darwin’s for a spicy chai latte before walking to my office.

If I close my eyes – though that is dangerous when navigating a Cambridge sidewalk – I can almost pretend that nothing has changed.

harvard yard autumn light leaves

And yet.

This spring finds me working in a sixth-floor office, with new colleagues, in a temporary role. This job is different both from the one I lost last spring and the other temp gig I held from Thanksgiving until mid-March. All three roles have been at Harvard, doing communications work, but there are varying duties and projects, distinctive office cultures to navigate, constantly shifting expectations. I am a person who likes to have a plan, and the past year has made that difficult.

I have been constantly surprised by how the job hunt has played havoc with my sense of self: as an individual, a writer, a career woman, a part of the Harvard community. Previously, I had never thought of myself as a person defined by her career. But the lack of a job, a title, a defined place in a working community, has made me question so many facets of my identity and the stories I tell myself. Also, inevitably, it has caused a shift in my relationships, most notably the ones with my former co-workers. I don’t blame anyone for that; it is simply what happens when things change.

On some days, the refrain of “Pompeii” thrums through my head in a depressing rhythm: How am I gonna be an optimist about this? That question is harder to answer when I’m struggling with (more) rejection, or simply having a tough day. I don’t always know how to be an optimist about this. I do remember, usually, how to keep going forward (make a cup of tea, write another paragraph, answer another email), so mostly, that’s what I do.

On some days, though, I am able to simply be grateful for what is now: this job, this office, this paycheck. This group of quirky, sarcastic, whip-smart colleagues. This routine, which still contains so many things and people I love. This neighborhood, with its uneven brick sidewalks and colorful local businesses and budding spring flowers, that has become a part of me. This chance to spend my days doing meaningful work – even if I don’t know quite where it will lead.

Some days I teeter on the edge of nostalgia, and it’s tempting to slip inside it, like a familiar cardigan. If I close my eyes and burrow down into it, I can pretend for a moment that nothing has changed at all. But the truth – the harsh, rich, complicated, often beautiful truth – is that things have changed, both in ways I can point to and in ways I still can’t quite articulate.

For now, although I’m sure I’ll keep humming this song, I’m adopting a slightly different approach. Because after this turbulent year, I am still here. I still get to walk through the city I love – dark clouds, tumbling walls and all. It’s not always easy, but I’m doing my best to keep my eyes wide open.

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stir book stack jessica fechtor

After suffering a brain aneurysm at age 28, Jessica Fechtor found herself mostly physically healed, yet utterly disoriented. Multiple surgeries had left her brain clear of “problem areas,” but also caused the loss of her sense of smell and the sight in her left eye. And while she was “aggressively grateful” to have survived the medical ordeal, Fechtor still yearned to resume the life she loved: her graduate studies at Harvard, her still-new marriage, and the hours she spent in her Cambridge kitchen, cooking and baking for her husband and her friends.

“Getting well means finding your everyday,” Fechtor explains in her gorgeously written memoir, Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home. “I found mine in the kitchen.”

First came clear chicken soup and fresh raspberries, the latter eaten with her fingers in a Vermont hospital bed. Later, she propped herself up in a kitchen chair, watching as her loved ones prepared her favorite meals. Gradually, Fechtor ventured back into the kitchen, rediscovering “the protective powers of kneading, salting, sifting, and stirring, because you can’t be dead and do these things.”

It’s my turn again at Great New Books today, and I’m raving about how much I loved Stir. Please join me over there to read the rest of my review.

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daffodils blue pitcher plums

Every once in a while, I find it helpful to make a list of what is saving my life – from the small daily things to the big, soul-affirming stuff. As we make our way through April, here’s what’s saving my life these days:

  • Daily chitchat with the folks at Darwin’s, who provide spicy chai, delicious lunches and cookies, and excellent conversation about everything from pickles to music to childhood memories.
  • Tulips from my local florist, perched on the corner of my dining-room table. (Also, daffodils on my friend Amy’s table, above.)
  • Poetry from Veronica Patterson and Naomi Shihab Nye.
  • Running into people I know in Harvard Square and realizing all over again: this is my neighborhood.
  • The Sunday #FlowerReport on Twitter, hosted by my friend Alyssa. (Photos of gorgeous spring flowers from all over the place.)

early tulips public garden boston spring

  • Sarcastic asides from my co-workers. (Sometimes a little snark can save the day.)
  • Weekly phone calls with my mom, and reports on my three-year-old nephew’s T-ball games.
  • Frosted lemon cookies, flaky Scottish scones and whatever else I feel like baking.
  • Good books. (Recent favorites include Stir, The Enchanted April and Under a Painted Sky.)
  • Budding trees and blooming flowers – many of which I photograph for the #FlowerReport.

tulip magnolia buds blooms

  • The views from my sixth-floor office in Harvard Square.
  • Striped dresses and black leggings with my favorite green coat. Rinse and repeat. (See also: not overthinking it.)
  • A couple of blue-sky, open-window days.
  • Eating my lunch outside, when I can, preferably on the south porch of Mem Church.
  • Several much-needed catch-up sessions with friends: book club, lunch dates, cups of tea.
  • The dim glow of the over-the-stove light in my kitchen, which makes it look so cozy late at night.
  • Holding hands with my husband before we fall asleep.
  • Texts from my sister and a couple of dear friends.

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

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freesia flower yellow candle table

Daily

These shriveled seeds we plant,
corn kernel, dried bean,
poke into loosened soil,
cover over with measured fingertips

These T-shirts we fold into
perfect white squares

These tortillas we slice and fry to crisp strips
This rich egg scrambled in a gray clay bowl

This bed whose covers I straighten
smoothing edges till blue quilt fits brown blanket
and nothing hangs out

This envelope I address
so the name balances like a cloud
in the center of sky

This page I type and retype
This table I dust till the scarred wood shines
This bundle of clothes I wash and hang and wash again
like flags we share, a country so close
no one needs to name it

The days are nouns: touch them
The hands are churches that worship the world

I am more and more convinced that the small, everyday things hold so much of the sacred. This poem expresses that perfectly. (I have been enjoying Shihab Nye’s collection Words Under the Words.)

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry here on Fridays this month.

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dish rack kitchen

To Be of Use

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

I found this poem via the good folks at Image Journal, who are always providing thoughtful perspective and encouragement related to doing good work.

As a person who does a lot of my work digitally (and/or in my head), I spend a lot of time thinking about “real” work and what that means. I am grateful for the physical tasks of life that must be done, that require labor and muscle and provide tangible satisfaction. I love Piercy’s images of mud and harvest, of people plunging into work – of various kinds – that is good and real and true.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry here on Fridays this month.

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laptop darwins chai

On any given day, I get a lot of email. I bet you do too.

I appreciate the tabs in my Gmail inbox that (mostly) separate the pertinent, interesting stuff from the marketing emails and social media notifications. But some of the best, most surprising messages end up in the “Updates” category.

These aren’t the notes from friends (though I love those) or the emails from my editors about freelance assignments. (Though those are important and sometimes moderately lucrative.) These are the email newsletters to which I subscribe, and they are some of the best things in my inbox.

Here’s a roundup of my faves:

shelf awareness readers banner

Shelf Awareness
Full disclosure: I am biased, because (in case you didn’t know) I write book reviews for this smart, funny, big-hearted, bookish newsletter. But I still read it every single day. It comes out in two versions. (I get both.)

The longer-running daily newsletter is stuffed with book-trade news and bookstore updates, plus one book review each day. The Readers edition comes out on Tuesdays and Fridays and is chock full of book reviews and “book candy” – all those fun bookish articles/quizzes/photo galleries you see floating around the Internet.

The Shelf crew is proudly pro-indie bookstore and anti-literary snobbery. We love great books and we want to help people find them, and we love bookish fun in all its forms. Our mascot, Vik (a happily book-obsessed Buddha), likes to dress up for special occasions. I have met some wonderful people, and interviewed a few fabulous authors, through my work with the Shelf.

One caveat: your to-be-read list (or library holds list) will grow after reading the Shelf. But if you’re a bookworm, that’s not really a bad thing.

 

modern mrs darcy banner

Modern Mrs. Darcy‘s newsletter
Anne Bogel writes a smart, thoughtful, charming blog at Modern Mrs. Darcy. I also love her monthly-ish newsletters, which inevitably contain thought-provoking musings, lovely photos and links to blog posts you might have missed. I sometimes save the newsletters to read again.

Anne’s voice is warm and inviting, and she’s always finding and sharing good stuff. It’s a pleasure when her newsletter pops up in my inbox – it’s like getting a letter from a friend. (I count her among my Internet friends.)

 

innocent newsletter banner smoothies

Innocent Drinks newsletter
When I lived in the UK, I developed an addiction to Innocent smoothies, which are tart, fruity, delicious, and (sadly) not sold in the U.S. Innocent sponsors the annual Big Knit, in which they ask folks to knit tiny hats for their smoothie bottles, then donate part of the proceeds from each behatted bottle to charity. They publish a weekly e-newsletter full of updates from Fruit Towers (their office), tidbits about smoothies, and humorous absurdities. (I’ve always thought it would be a hilarious place to work.) The newsletter makes me laugh, and crave smoothies.

I also subscribe to a few bookstore newsletters (from Brookline Booksmith, the Harvard Book Store and the Bookstore in Lenox); Hollywood Housewife’s newsletter; and the New York Times daily headline email. And, of course, I always like to see an email telling me I’ve got a library hold to pick up.

What are the best things in your inbox?

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