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Posts Tagged ‘habits’

memorial church window light candles

I go for the sunlight shafting through the high windows, sometimes flooding directly into my eyes as I sit or stand. It feels like its own sort of benediction, like a blessing I didn’t earn and can only receive.

I go for the voices of the dozen students dressed in long black robes trimmed with scarlet cord. They sing a different anthem every weekday, and their voices soar clear and pure above the carved pews to the cream-colored ceiling.

I go for MemCafé on Wednesdays after service: a paper cup of Lady Grey tea, a granola bar for the road, a warm smile and chitchat from a college student who has no idea how much his kindness means to me.

I go for the words of the ancient texts: a psalm to begin the service, the Lord’s Prayer near the end. Sometimes I participate in the responsive readings or the prayer, my voice blending into the chorus. Other times I sit and listen, letting the community speak for me.

I go for the talks by members of the Harvard community and guests: always varied, often surprising, usually carrying an insight I didn’t expect.

I go because it’s good to be known and welcomed, to see other familiar faces in the pews even if we never speak to one another.

I go to let the ritual anchor me, to breathe deeply before the workday begins, to find a bit of hope and peace among the crowded tasks of ordinary life.

I go for the benedictions, every day: May the Lord bless you and keep you. May he preserve your going out and your coming in. May the peace of God rest, rule and abide in each of us until we meet again. Amen.

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kettle mug tea kitchen

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

—Annie Dillard

Recently, my friend Lindsey wrote a post ruminating on what she does every day. She agrees with Dillard’s words, above: the habits we keep, the actions we repeat, have a powerful effect on the shape of our lives. Gretchen Rubin’s version of this idea, which Lindsey mentioned and which I’d read before, is similar: “What we do every day matters more than what we do once in a while.”

Even though I’d argue that less frequent actions – things we do once a month or once a year – also shape us, I agree with these wise women: the daily actions of our lives do matter. They form us into the people we become. Lindsey’s litany of the things she does every day, or most days, inspired me to reflect on my own small daily acts.

katie selfie mirror onedayhh

Every day, I drink several cups of tea – usually brewing the first one in our kitchen. I pause to gaze out the east-facing window at the sunrise over the tops of the trees. Most days, I commute to Harvard Square, where I write stories and answer emails, go to meetings and chat with colleagues.

I walk to Darwin’s at least daily, for chai and scones, Earl Grey and hot cider, and – best of all – convivial chat with the baristas I know. I make the rounds of my beloved work neighborhood: the bank, the florist, the post office, other errands. I look up and snap pictures of the sky, or around and snap pictures of flowers and leaves. Most days, I post on Instagram and Twitter (though I usually spend far too much time looking at each). Most days, I write: journal entries, blog posts, book reviews, work assignments, emails. (Always emails.)

Every day, I text a couple of dear friends, and often at least one family member. I talk to my husband briefly in the middle of the workday. I make or juggle plans with friends; community is often fragmented in this world but it’s dear to me, and I fight for it. Every day, I dive into several books – on my commute, on my lunch break, before bed. I need good stories, and words that make me think or laugh or cry.

A few times a week, I do yoga: either at the studio I love or on my own green mat on the kitchen floor. I get out for a walk and/or a run on the river trail near our house. About once a week, I talk to my mom on the phone. Several times a week, I do laundry, cook dinner for myself and my husband. On other evenings, I spend time with friends: usually a one-on-one walk or dinner date. Every day, I make the bed, and later I stand at the sink and wash dishes, scrub out the tea strainer, wipe the counters, sort the mail.

“What do these small, mundane acts say about my priorities?” Lindsey wondered in her post. I think my small acts say that I value the daily: the act of nourishing myself and others, the act of pausing to pay attention to the world and the people I love.

I spend a lot of time and energy keeping up and taking care: of our home, of my work to-do list, of the details of my life. I’m an introvert: I need time by myself and time with the people I love, but I prefer the latter in small-group doses. I need sunshine and I need to move my body. And I am – though I sometimes struggle to believe it – a writer to my core.

As we move into the holiday season, my days will contain a number of seasonal rituals: starting with Turkeypalooza, continuing through Advent and Christmas prep (shopping, sending cards) and my annual trip to Texas to see family. I’ll pull out my beloved, battered Advent book and sing favorite carols. I’ll make an extra effort to gather with friends before we all scatter for the holidays.

Through it all, my daily routine will anchor me. What I do every day will continue to shape me. And if I need to make a change, or want to reinforce a new habit, it starts there: in the dailiness, the small round of hours and minutes that is so mundane and so precious.

What do you do every day, or most days? Do you think it matters?

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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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