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My one little word for 2018 is grit.

It took me a while to find it, and even longer to figure out what to say about it. I tried out a few other possibilities (while reflecting on the unexpected places magic took me in 2017). Nothing quite seemed to fit, until I remembered that grit sneaked its way in alongside magic last summer.

Grit is closely related to courage, which of course bears a deep connection to my longtime word, brave. It is ordinary, daily, sometimes deeply mundane: it is, quite often, the opposite of glamorous, though I think it can sometimes be magical.

Grit is the tiny pebbles that stick in the treads of my running shoes after an hour or two spent on the river trail. It is the crumbs I sweep off the kitchen table into my hand, over and over again. It is the commitment to the daily details that make up a life, to showing up and taking care and paying attention, even when you’d rather be anywhere else.

It’s been a year (and counting) of tremendous, often shattering change, which has rearranged my internal furniture in ways I didn’t expect. Each of those changes – the continuing fallout from the election, so many challenges at work, even the move this summer to a new apartment I love – have required copious amounts of grit. And I know there are more changes ahead in 2018. I’m making a couple (mostly exercise-related); I’ve been warned about a few (mostly work-related); and I’m certain there will be others I don’t see coming. (That’s life, isn’t it? In all its variety.)

Grit is a noun, and it’s also a verb: especially in the winter, I often have to grit my teeth through the latest train delays or impending snowstorm. But I don’t think grit has to be dreary or dour: as a friend said recently, “It’s certainly not whimsical, but I think there’s a quiet kind of joy in grit.”

When she said that, I thought of Lindsey’s musings on stubborn gladness and sturdy joy: I want more of both, this year. I think grit is as much about leaning into the good stuff, the magic and delight and love, as it is about showing up for the hard things, the loss and boredom and weariness. They are intertwined, in ways I can’t unravel or explain.

Last spring, I found a few lines in The Last Days of Café Leila that have become my mantra.  I’ve written them down more times than I can count, and they still ring in my head almost every day. For Noor, the protagonist, and for me, “the only thing to do is to keep moving, to do something, to show courage, to give everything [I’m] capable of giving.”

If that’s not grit, I don’t know what it is.

Do you have a word for this year? Please share, if you’d like.

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sass harrison christmas fire truck

We are easing back into routine over here: wrapping up against frigid temps; shoveling snow; making lots of soup (and huevos); drinking tea and answering email. It felt so good to hit pause on the responsibilities of work and church for a while, but now we’re back to it, albeit not quite at full throttle yet.

I am – I think – recovered from our annual 10-day holiday odyssey across Texas, and I’ve been thinking about the gifts it brought: not only the wrapped presents under various trees and the time with our families and friends, but a few surprises that sneaked in under the radar, and reminded me that this is a season of joy, love and – yes – magic.

In no particular order, here are the unexpected gifts I savored this Christmas season:

  • A dozen homemade gingersnaps, hand-delivered by J’s sweet Aunt Joy when we met her for lunch.
  • Singing O Holy Night at Christmas Eve service. It’s ambitious for congregational singing, but the new music minister at my parents’ church urged us to attempt it, “with gusto!” So we did.
  • Three blue-sky morning runs through my parents’ neighborhood, past houses decked with Christmas decor, with the Jennys in my ears.
  • Running into a longtime friend at a new-to-us pizza place in Abilene, and discovering later that she’d paid for our lunch.
  • My nephews, snuggled up on either side of me and listening with (mostly) rapt attention as I read the Christmas story aloud.
  • Laughing with my brother-in-law on Christmas Day about homemade sourdough pretzels and the dough that wouldn’t rise. (They were still delicious!)
  • Cuddling with my sister on the couch that night as everyone traded stories and sipped wine.
  • Playing baseball in the driveway with my dad, my husband and my older nephew, Ryder.
  • A couple of sunsets so stunning that we all piled out of my sister’s living room and onto her front porch to gaze at them.

texas sunset sky december pump jack

  • Waking up with Do You Hear What I Hear? in my head the week before Christmas. We sang it every year when I was in youth choir, and it made me think of George.
  • The moment when my niece’s hair ties ended up in one of my (bald!) dad’s Christmas presents – my husband exclaimed, “That’s where those went!” and everyone burst out laughing.
  • Half an hour to myself in front of the Christmas tree one night, journaling and reading The Dark is Rising.
  • Coconut eggnog pie, with Blue Bell vanilla ice cream, as the denouement to a dinner with dear friends.
  • Picking up a novel I loved at the DFW airport bookstore.
  • Cracking up with J’s high school choir friends as we sang Christmas carols: “Johnny wants a pair of skates, Susie wants a shed…”
  • A wee girl named Genevieve Noelle, born to some of my best friends on Dec. 26. (We knew she was coming, of course, but we didn’t quite know when.)
  • The sentiment handwritten in my Aunt Cathy’s Christmas card: “And seriously, peace on earth.” (Hear, hear.)
  • Running straight into a few friends from high school at Christmas Eve service. I’ve been gone from my hometown a while, but it’s still and always where I’m from.
  • Singing hymns in the hallways of a hospice unit one night, with old friends.
  • A hilarious game of Scrabble with my in-laws.
  • The glass heirloom fruit bowls my Neno gave me.

There were plenty of gifts I was expecting this year: so much food and laughter at my parents’ house, time with beloved friends in Abilene, chips and salsa whenever we could squeeze them in. Those gifts were sweet and nourishing, and they filled me up. But these surprises have a magic all their own.

I hope your holidays included a few unexpected gifts, too.

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rose silver sunrise treetops

Somewhat to my own surprise, I chose magic for my one little word for 2017.

I’ve been choosing one little word each year since 2010, when brave sneaked into my life, took up residence and never left. It is still and always a guiding word for me, but over the years other words have found their place: comfort, shift, attention, light, gentle, gumption.

After all the changes and challenges of 2016, I knew 2017 would need some serious magic. And it’s been quite a journey: both in paying attention to magic where it already exists, and doing my best to make some of my own.

2017 held so much magic of the everyday kind: flowers, sunshine, my daily trips to Darwin’s, yoga classes, long walks, the kindness of friends and acquaintances and strangers. Like light, it often seems to grow stronger when I look for it and celebrate it.

There were some truly extraordinary magic moments this year, too: walking the beaches of PEI’s north shore with my husband. Hiking the misty Maine woods with dear friends. Climbing the tower of St. Mary’s in Oxford, and drinking in the view of the city at my feet. Closer to home, I ran my first 5K (in the snow!), spoke at Morning Prayers, walked miles around Cambridge and NYC soaking in their respective beauty, and interviewed several truly delightful authors for Shelf Awareness.

Magic, as Elise Blaha Cripe and Ali Edwards have noted, is often something you make. But I’ve also read enough stories of fantasy and magical realism to know this: it’s not entirely in our control.

By its very nature, magic is quicksilver, sneaky, surprising. It can show up where you least expect it and enchant or transform an entire day. But it is not a neutral force: it has a dark, slippery side. It is powerful, but – like love or ambition or so many other forces – it can be dangerous. And as every witch or wizard knows, it can be sought or celebrated or coaxed into greater life, but it can never entirely be tamed.

When I interviewed Alice Hoffman about her wonderful book The Rules of Magic, we talked not only about magic, but about courage, and love. Both in the book and in our lives, these three things are deeply intertwined.

“The book is really all about courage,” Hoffman told me. She spoke of “the courage it takes to be different, the courage it takes to be in love, and the courage it takes to be human.” The Owens siblings have certain powers, and they learn skills and spells and alchemy to hone those powers. But their most potent magic is much deeper and hard-won: it comes from choosing courage, choosing love, even when the outcome isn’t what they hoped for.

Many of the books I read this year involved magic: not only The Rules of Magic but The Dark is Rising, The Luster of Lost Things, the latest installments in Rae Carson’s Gold Seeker trilogy and Rachel Caine’s Great Library series. Several others invoked magic by another name: Leigh Bardugo’s take on Wonder Woman, Claudia Gray’s novels about Princess Leia, Jodi Taylor’s riotous time-traveling historians.

In a year that often seemed like the stuff of nightmares, I kept reaching for stories of heroines, hoping (often unconsciously) for someone to swoop in and save us. But in the end, every one of these heroines – Franny Owens, Leah Westfall, Diana Prince, Leia Organa, Madeleine Maxwell – reminded me of what I already knew: the only true magic is the everyday kind.

heart sneakers trail

All the stories I know about magic eventually come to this: the deepest magic, the truest source of hope, is the very human, often humble work of showing up, taking care, doing what needs to be done. Those lines from The Last Days of Café Leila, which I read back in February, have echoed in my head like a spell or a mantra all year: “The only thing to do was to keep moving, to do something, to show courage, to give everything she was capable of giving.”

Tiffany Aching learns this in Terry Pratchett’s Wee Free Men series: the work of a village witch is often scrubbing and soothing and elbow grease, doing her best to watch over the people in her care. Isabelle Owens reminds her great-nieces of this in The Rules of Magic: “We carry these things with us, and we have to fight them. The best way to do this is to be who you are, every part of you.” And Albus Dumbledore insists, to Harry Potter and anyone else who will listen, that the deepest magic – the mightiest word – is love.

Magic still has much to teach me, I think, but its lessons – perhaps fittingly – aren’t easy for me to articulate. It has been a year of myriad questions and very few answers; a year of mystery and struggle and often darkness; a year of trying to keep up and take care, while the forces around me seemed hellbent on yanking my life out of control. But it has also been a year of surprising joy.

As I walk forward into 2018, I am grateful for the presence of magic in my life. I can’t control it and I don’t always understand it. But it is there, and I hope it stays around for a while. I’ll be watching for its glimmers amid the everyday.

Did you follow a word in 2017? What did it teach you?

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Every year it’s a challenge: to look back over the books I’ve read in a year (nearly 150, this time!) and choose a handful of favorites. I talked about a few gems in my first-half-of-2017 roundup, back in June. But here are the books that shine the brightest in my whole reading year:

Most Enchanting Family Saga: The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman. I’ve gushed about this one a lot, and I even got to interview Hoffman for Shelf Awareness. (She was lovely and wise, and patient with my fangirling.) I fell totally in love with these characters, and a few words about their courage have remained written on my heart.

Deep and Captivating Dive into the Word-Hoard: Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane. I loved every page of this beautiful, keenly observed book about landscapes, the words we use to describe them, and how those things shape each other (and us). A must-read if you’re a walker, a writer or a good noticer.

Loveliest and Most Honest Memoir of Transformation: The Book of Separation by Tova Mirvis. An unflinching, beautiful, often heartrending look at what it means to leave behind a faith and a marriage, and navigate new territory without a map.

Funniest Lighthearted Fiction: The Garden of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman. I couldn’t stop laughing at this wisecracking, warmhearted novel of grief, love and gardening.

Most Luminous Memoir of Faith and Struggle: In the Shelter by Pádraig Ó Tuama. Wise and lovely: always calling us to pay attention to what is here, what is real, what is full of possibility.

Timely and Vivid Nonfiction: The Newcomers by Helen Thorpe – a vivid account of refugee teenagers and their families struggling to adjust to life in Denver. Powerful, clear and compelling.

Poetry: Blue Iris by Mary Oliver, which contains so many beautiful flower poems – a perfect match to my flower walks and #FlowerReporting this spring and summer.

Favorite Reread: Either The Precious One by Marisa de los Santos or Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I love de los Santos’ warm, thought-provoking family stories, and Gilead is wise and slow (in the best way) and utterly lovely.

Gorgeous, Layered Family Saga: Salt Houses by Hala Alyan. Each section in this novel focuses on a different member of the same extended family, across countries and generations. Bittersweet and absorbing.

Best Title (with Wry, Hilarious Career Advice): Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? by Alyssa Mastromonaco. I really enjoyed this snarky, smart memoir about life in the Obama White House. But the title is almost my favorite part – it’s frighteningly applicable to so many situations these days.

What were your favorite books this year?

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shakespeare co nyc autumn window bookstore

I am, it seems, constantly in the middle of five books at once, these days. But I have managed to finish a few lately. (And admire a perfectly autumnal window display at Shakespeare & Co. in NYC.)

Here’s what I have been reading:

Three Daughters of Eve, Elif Shafak
Peri, a wealthy Turkish housewife, is mugged on her way to a dinner party in Istanbul. The thief unearths an old photo, which takes Peri back 15 years to her time as a student at Oxford, and the professor who fascinated her. A well-written novel of a woman caught between several worlds. Peri’s character frustrated me at times, but I enjoyed the glimpses of Oxford, my favorite city. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 5).

Woman Enters Left, Jessica Brockmole
I loved Brockmole’s previous two historical novels, Letters from Skye and At the Edge of Summer. This one moves into the U.S. and the 20th century, following actress Louise Wilde as she drives cross-country in 1952, trying to unravel a mystery involving her mother. (We also get glimpses into her mother’s earlier road trip along a similar route.) An engaging story with three likable protagonists, though I found the ending abrupt.

Hunted, Meagan Spooner
This YA reimagining of Beauty and the Beast (recommended by Leigh) is gorgeous and compelling. When Yeva’s father loses his fortune, begins acting strangely and then disappears, Yeva takes off into the woods, determined to find him and the creature he’s been tracking. What – and who – she finds is surprising. A fascinating take on this familiar story, weaving in Russian folklore and the tale of the Firebird. I loved Yeva and her sisters.

All We Saw, Anne Michaels
I heard about this new collection of poems on love and grief via the Knopf poetry newsletter, and picked it up at the Book House in Summertown, Oxford. It is spare and haunting and jarring and lovely. One of my favorite lines: “forgiveness is not about the past but the future / and needs another word.”

Here is Real Magic: A Magician’s Search for Wonder in the Modern World, Nate Staniforth
After working for years as a touring magician, Staniforth found himself totally burned out. So he headed to India with a friend and almost no plan, hoping to rediscover a sense of wonder. A highly enjoyable, honest memoir about the hard work of doing what you love, dealing with disillusionment and finding wonder in it again. I liked Nate’s voice and he has some wonderful insights about magic (the non-staged kind). To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 16).

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

What are you reading?

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oxford book stack red daisies flowers table

The second half of October, like the first, was a whirlwind of golden leaves and email and travel. I’d barely recovered from my Oxford trip (and the subsequent head cold) before we headed to NYC for a long weekend with my parents. Here’s what I have been reading, in between all that activity:

The Reporter’s Kitchen, Jane Kramer
For food writer Kramer, writing and cooking are inextricably linked—though she sometimes uses one to avoid the other. This collection of her pieces from The New Yorker includes chef profiles, food history and a few personal essays (my favorites). She’s warm, witty and practical. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 21).

First Class Murder, Robin Stevens
The third book in Stevens’ Wells & Wong middle-grade mystery series finds Daisy and Hazel aboard the famous Orient Express. Naturally, a murder occurs and they have to investigate. An homage to Christie’s classic, but also a fun, well-plotted story. Found at the Book House in Summertown, Oxford.

The Music Shop, Rachel Joyce
In a down-at-heel street in a nondescript British city, Frank’s record shop doesn’t just sell vinyl (and only vinyl), but it gives people the music they don’t know they need. When Ilse Brauchmann, a mysterious woman in a green coat, visits the shop, Frank finds himself both drawn to Ilse and utterly baffled by her. A wonderful novel about music, loss, healing and love, with vivid characters and so many brilliant sentences. (I also adored Joyce’s debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 2).

Rain: Four Walks in English Weather, Melissa Harrison
Like many English people, Harrison is an avid walker, even—nay, especially—in the rain. She chronicles four rainy walks in different seasons and locations, musing on how rain has shaped the climate and psyche of the British Isles, and recording details of habitat and weather with a keen, lyrical eye. So lovely. Found at the amazing Blackwells Bookshop in Oxford.

The Disappearances, Emily Bain Murphy
When Aila Quinn’s mother, Juliet, dies unexpectedly, Aila and her brother are sent to Juliet’s hometown to stay with friends. But they are greeted with suspicion: the town lies under a curse, and some people blame Juliet. Aila digs into her mother’s history (and a mysteriously annotated volume of Shakespeare) to clear Juliet’s name. An enchanting, thought-provoking YA novel; I especially loved Aila and her friend Beas. The dialogue felt almost too modern (it’s set in the 1940s), but the central conceit is wonderful. Recommended by Liberty on All the Books!.

The Luster of Lost Things, Sophie Chen Keller
Walter Lavender Jr. doesn’t talk much, but he’s got a keen observer’s eye and a knack for finding lost things. When the mysterious Book that is the lifeblood of his mother’s West Village bakery disappears, Walter and his golden retriever, Milton, embark on a search that takes them up and down Manhattan. An utterly magical novel full of heartbreak and love; the writing sings and the city itself is a character. Found (fittingly) at Shakespeare & Co. in NYC. Recommended by my colleague Kat at Shelf Awareness.

Poems to Live By in Troubling Times, ed. Joan Murray
I’ve needed poetry lately, and have lingered in this slim, often heartrending anthology of poems on war, terror, grief, healing and peace. Uneven, like many anthologies, but I did find a few gems. Bought at the Brattle on a walkabout day this summer.

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

What are you reading?

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rules of magic book sunflowers

I think it’s safe to say that my one little word this year is a sneaky one.

Back in January, I chose magic for my 2017 word, believing and hoping I needed it after a year (in 2016) that felt hard at every turn. I needed all the gumption I could get last year, and I haven’t stopped needing it this year: many days have required equal parts magic and grit. But my word has always been there, peeking around the corner, surprising me, especially when I’m not looking for it.

I do occasional author interviews for Shelf Awareness, my longstanding freelance gig, and I was thrilled when my editor asked if I’d like to talk to Alice Hoffman about her new novel, The Rules of Magic. It’s a prequel to Practical Magic, which I had not read, but I’d read and adored Hoffman’s novel Faithful, and I was so excited about this one.

Spoiler alert: I loved the book. It’s an utterly enchanting, heartbreaking story of three siblings who have to reckon with their unusual gifts and the very ordinary human experiences of love, loss and figuring out who they really are. And I loved talking to Alice, who was so warm and engaging, and answered my questions patiently. The book comes out today, and to celebrate, I’m sharing a few snippets of the Q&A below.

KG: The magic the characters use [in The Rules of Magic] is a kind of everyday alchemy: there’s a sense that magic is already here in our world, and they can channel it or avoid it via certain “rules.” Can you talk about your concept of magic and magical power?

AH: I’m interested in everyday magic: magic that you could turn a corner and find. I think a lot of that has to do with the books I read as a child, because those are the books that make you a writer. I loved Ray Bradbury’s books, and there’s a real sense of that everyday magic in the here and now. That’s what I’m interested in both as a reader and a writer: magic that is affected by the everyday.

My books have a kind of push-pull regarding magic, and also between the mystical and spiritual and the demands of “real” life. In The Rules of Magic, they’re braided together. The characters really fight against who they are, so that’s another push-pull. The book is ultimately about being who you are, and I think that’s really hard to do, even if you’re not a witch.

It’s hard for a lot of us to be who we are, even if we’re not fighting a family curse.

It really is just that: accepting yourself. It’s true for everyone in the book, and it’s a process. It takes a whole lifetime to learn who you are.

Courage is a thread that runs through the book: choosing courage over caution, being brave above all. Can you talk about that? How does courage relate to magic?

In a certain sense, the characters discovered this thread on their own. The book is really all about courage: the courage it takes to be different, the courage it takes to be in love, and the courage it takes to be human. Most people spend their lives running away from all that. The characters have to learn that.

The book deals with destiny and choice: the characters try to dodge the family curse, and they wrestle with accepting fate versus making their own choices. Can you talk about that?

That’s a big question. But it’s central to the book: the idea of the curse, which affects whether and how the Owens women fall in love. And yet, if you love someone, and open your heart to them, they will ultimately break your heart, curse or no curse. They may betray you; they may not be who you thought they were. Or they may get sick and die, as ultimately we all do.

At some point, inevitably, there is pain involved with love. I think it’s a big leap to make, and I think people are very brave when they do it. I think part of the Owens “curse” is just being human. And along the way, there are beautiful, wonderful things, and that’s part of being human too: such joy.


If you love magic, gorgeous writing or a good story, I highly recommend The Rules of Magic.

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