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Posts Tagged ‘habits’

july sunset

I wrote a post on margin recently, and as it often does, the universe laughed. The first half of July has been fast and furious and full. Hot days, crowded calendars, so many things jockeying for space in my brain. It has not been particularly restful. But there’s still lots of good stuff happening, and I want to note the details of how life looks right now.

Right now, in the thick of a hot, busy summer, I am:

  • waking up to the buzz of the window a/c unit and the piano music from Pride and Prejudice.
  • drinking my two favorite summer teas in my favorite mug: blackberry sage and ginger peach.

lady cop breakfast

  • making scones when I can stand to turn on the oven, and eating granola and Greek yogurt for breakfast when I can’t.
  • wearing skirts, sandals and all the work-appropriate short-sleeved tops I own.
  • living in shorts and bare feet at night and on the weekends.
  • lugging a box of veggies home every Wednesday (we’re doing a CSA share) and then trying to figure out how to use them all. green veggies
  • getting excited for the Rio Olympics.
  • eating tamales from the farmers’ market on Tuesdays.
  • tending basil and geraniums on my front porch.
  • dropping by Darwin’s a couple of times a day: for tea in the morning, a sandwich and chitchat at lunchtime, and sometimes lemonade and a cookie (and more chitchat) mid-afternoon.

darwins chai cookie bench

  • reading allllll the books (as usual). Recent favorites include Lady Cop Makes Trouble, Everyone Brave is Forgiven, The Atomic Weight of Love and Jane Steele.
  • aching over the news reports from so many places riddled with tragedy.
  • treading water at work as I adjust to new routines and responsibilities.
  • relishing the familiar faces and witty banter of my colleagues.
  • snapping photos for the #FlowerReport when I’m out and about. This bed of lavender is growing outside our town library.

lavender library

  • texting my sister and a couple of friends about the madness and the fun of daily life.
  • listening to Hamilton on repeat, learning all the words, and priding myself on being able to rap (almost) as fast as Lafayette.
  • hunting for a new apartment (we have to move next month for reasons beyond our control).
  • savoring the last few weeks in the apartment we have lived in and loved for six years.

dining room dusk twinkle lights

  • sipping a lot of lemonade and the occasional glass of rosé.
  • flipping back through Julia Cameron’s The Sound of Paper: such wise words on writing and life.
  • sneaking in a beach day here and there.
  • trying (always trying) to pay attention to my life and the people I love.

crane beach jer

What does life look like for you right now?

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On margin

daffodils dachshund table

Recently, my husband and I took a weeklong road trip to Canada, to celebrate the end of a long, full spring season (at work and at home) and so I could take a break between jobs. We had a glorious time, and I promise I’ll tell you more about it soon. But I’ve been thinking about how I also loved having a few quiet days at home after we came back. My husband headed straight back to work on Monday morning, but I had a couple of days to sleep in, catch up on laundry and putter around the house. I had some margin.

I started my new job at the Harvard Kennedy School last week, and I am thrilled to be back among colleagues I already know, at a place I already love. I’m easing in, with a couple of days at work, a long weekend for the 4th of July, and a short workweek this week. And I am so happy about it – not just because it’s summer and things are therefore a little slower, but because it gives me some margin. Some room. Some breathing space.

I’m a classic type-A overachiever, and I live and work in a culture that prizes hustle. When the occasion calls for it, I can hit the ground running and keep up a hectic pace, for days or weeks on end. That’s what I did during my temp gig at the central Harvard Public Affairs office this spring. Commencement season around there is a maelstrom, and I was right in the thick of it.

But that’s not how I like to operate. When I can get it, I prefer a little margin.

This spring, I jumped straight from one temp gig to another with only a weekend in between. After our lovely weekend on Martha’s Vineyard, it was full speed ahead at work for the entire month of May, while still trying to figure out my next step. And although early June was quieter, it involved a lot of tying up loose ends and handing over tasks and projects to my replacement, before I took my vacation. I haven’t had a lot of margin lately.

I’ve been doing my best to snatch breathing room where I can get it: solo lunch breaks with a sandwich and a book, a quiet evening at home with dishes and a podcast or another book (or three), and in rare cases, half an hour scribbling in my journal after my husband goes to bed. But I’m looking forward to a little more margin in my life this summer. There’s still a lot of change and adjustment ahead on the horizon, but I am hoping for more space – physical and mental – during these long, sunlit days.

Do you find that margin is necessary in your life? How do you make sure you get it?

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darwins portrait red lipstick

Several years ago, when I was still living in Texas, I took a writing workshop taught by my friend Shelly. I’ve forgotten most of the workshop’s content (sorry, Shelly!), but I remember one writing exercise. We began with the phrase “A person who…” and created a one- or two-sentence description of a character, using telling details. Then we went around the circle and read our descriptions aloud.

I’ve thought of that line occasionally over the years, because I often describe myself, or someone else, as “a person who.”

I am a person who reads (on average) two or three books a week. I am a person who collects black rollerball pens and lined journals with whimsical, colorful covers. I am a person who drinks a cup of tea every single morning, winter or summer, rain or shine, preferably brewed in my favorite cobalt blue mug. (I am also a person who loves a good daily routine.)

tea mug scone

Some of these descriptors, like the ones above, are true and even illuminating. But they can also be limiting.

For example: I thought I was a person who didn’t like hip hop (until I recently joined the ranks of Hamilton fans). I was a person who rarely spent money on fresh flowers, until I discovered how much joy they bring me (and how affordable they can be). I struggled mightily with a professional identity crisis after being laid off last year – because suddenly, I was no longer a person who worked at Harvard, or who had a job at all. (I have reclaimed both of those descriptors, though, and I’m deeply happy about that.)

Some aspects of my identity are fundamental and unlikely to disappear altogether: I am a reader, a writer, a musician, a person of faith. I am also a daughter, a sister, a wife, a friend. But I’d argue that it’s worth considering how our assumptions can influence the stories we tell ourselves. If I am a person who has firmly entrenched likes and dislikes, or even prejudices, I risk missing out on new experiences, new friends, new ways of believing and being.

I still find Shelly’s exercise useful in thinking about fictional characters. But for my own part, it might be worth pausing before I say I am (or she is or he is) a person who does this or likes that. Because I want to be a person who is open to surprises. Even from myself.

(NB: I am also a person who is going on vacation, so I’m taking the next week off from the blog. See you back here soon, friends.)

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darwins chai cup creamer coffee shop cambridge ma

10 a.m.: One medium chai latte, to go.

12:30 p.m.: Half a Longfellow sandwich (ham, cheddar, lettuce, tomato, sliced Granny Smith apples and spicy Dijon mustard) on sourdough. With salt and vinegar chips in a bright turquoise bag, if they’re available.

3:30 p.m.: One chocolate-dipped butter cookie, shaped like a heart, shamrock, Easter egg or autumn leaf, as the season dictates.

These are my usual orders at Darwin’s, the cafe down the street from my office. Sometimes the particulars vary a bit: I’ll add a buttery scone to my morning order, or splurge on a chocolate-glazed peanut butter cookie in the afternoon. If I’m feeling healthy I’ll swap the chips at lunch for a fruit salad, and on frigid days, I’ll often order a bowl of the daily soup, with a hunk of baguette for dipping.

I’ve worked in the same neighborhood for three years, and been an occasional visitor to Darwin’s for most of that time. But over the last year, I’ve become a regular. And it has brought me more pleasure than I could have dreamed.

I’m over at Art House America today waxing rhapsodic about my love for Darwin’s, and what it means to be a regular. Please join me over there to read the rest of my essay.

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katie baking apple crisp kitchen

I am usually a by-the-recipe kind of cook.

I learned to bake before I learned to cook, helping Mom mix up brownies or scooping chocolate chip cookie dough onto baking sheets in Neno’s (my grandmother’s) farmhouse kitchen. Baking often requires precise measurements, specific steps, double-checking the recipe to make sure you’ve done everything right. Too much flour, too little butter, and your cake will fall flat, or your cookies will remain gooey lumps.

There are a few discrete kitchen tasks I learned early on: chopping vegetables, peeling potatoes, sprinkling brown sugar on a pink slab of ham. But for years, I checked and double-checked the recipe every time I made a dish. I lacked confidence in my own ability to improvise, faith in the muscle memory of my hands and arms.

During these years, I marveled at a few college girlfriends who could whip up a stir-fry or a soup – sometimes fairly complicated ones – without so much as glancing at a cookbook. (Especially in Oxford, this creativity was often born out of necessity, if we found ourselves low on grocery money or newly back from a weekend jaunt and forced to make a meal out of odds and ends in the cupboards.)

But after more than a decade in my own kitchen, I’ve become more confident, more sure. I still use recipes frequently, but by now, there are a slew of tasks and a few dishes my hands know by heart.

Rachel’s tomato soup, studded with garlic and butter and sprinkled with fresh basil (if I can find it). The creamy jalapeño soup passed on to us by my mom’s friend Connie. My version of guacamole, which is less recipe than assemblage: avocado, lemon juice, green tomatillo salsa, red tomato salsa. Chop, mash, mix, taste. Repeat the last two steps if necessary. I stop when the texture and the taste feel just right – but it’s a knowledge born of practice, not anything written down.

More recently, I’ve memorized Molly’s scones, making a batch almost weekly in my orange mixing bowl, dry ingredients whisked together before I fold in dried cranberries and stir in the liquid. I know exactly how they should look (dry-ish, but not falling apart). I’ve made them so many times that while I can see the printed text of the recipe in my mind, I don’t have to flip the book (A Homemade Life) open any more. Instead, I let my hands take over: whisk and measure, stir and fold. Knead and press and cut into eight wedges.

There’s a deep satisfaction in this simple knowledge, especially for me, since I spend my time (and make my living by) moving words and pixels around on a screen. Sometimes I hold a pen, which is more tactile, but it’s a different kind of productivity to take raw physical ingredients and transform them into something nourishing. It’s even better when I don’t have to fuss over measurements and spices, and can simply get on with the work of making dinner. (Or scones.) I like knowing that this knowledge is stored somewhere in my body, that my senses and sinews know things my conscious mind can only guess at.

What recipes do your hands know by heart?

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darwins portrait red lipstick

About a year ago, I became fascinated by the concept of a personal uniform. (It was all over the Internet for a while: President Obama’s blue or grey suits, the Australian newscaster who wore the same suit every day for a year, numerous bloggers writing about their wardrobes.)

I’m not a big clothes shopper and I hate making decisions in the morning, so you’d think a personal uniform would be tailor-made (ha) for me. So far, though, I’ve lacked the discipline – or the commitment – to really take the plunge. I haven’t edited my wardrobe down to 10 items or consciously worn the same 33 items for a month. (I have also resisted the Marie Kondo madness because, frankly, everyone else seems to be doing it.)

But as we continue to slog through winter, I realized I’ve developed a personal uniform almost by accident.

Winter in the Northeast is (I need hardly say it) cold – often bitterly so – and snowy. I work in a business-casual office environment and I commute on public transportation, every weekday. So I need warm, sturdy winter gear: snow boots, fleece-lined tights, a knee-length down coat for frigid days and a couple of wool coats for milder ones. But I also need outfits to wear under those coats, and I find myself reaching for a variation on the same ensemble most days.

katie selfie red dress plaid scarf

Right now, that usually looks like a dress, either solid or striped (because I own an embarrassing number of striped dresses). I pair the day’s dress with black leggings and boots (of the snow or non-snow variety, depending on the weather). And I choose a scarf or knitted cowl to go with it. (That, and choosing my tea blend, is the kind of decision-making I can handle in the morning.)

I do own other pieces of clothing – sweaters, tees, skirts – and sometimes I feel like I should be making more of an effort to wear them. But right now, when I’m rushing around between showering and eating breakfast every morning, this winter uniform is what’s working for me.

Do you have a personal uniform – accidental or purposeful? (And if so, what is it?)

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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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