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Posts Tagged ‘magic’

steel and rye lights sunset

Back in January, I decided my one little word for 2017 would be magic.

I’d had a year that required a lot of gumption (my word for 2016), and I wanted something a little lighter, more whimsical, for 2017. Between the headlines (which are constantly crazy-making), the months-long adjustment to a wonderful but demanding new job, and the annual challenges of winter in New England, I knew I could use some magic.

We’re (slightly over) halfway through 2017, and I found myself thinking about my word the other day. More accurately, I found myself wondering: is magic really the word for this year?

Let’s be honest: 2017 has not been an easy road, so far. It has contained a lot of beauty – flowers and good books, long walks with friends, many lifesaving encounters at Darwin’s and elsewhere – but it has also brought new and ongoing challenges. It has, in short, required a lot of grit.

Grit is a popular word in higher ed circles right now, and a favorite word of Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard (where I work). I tend to think of it in both the verb and noun forms: grit as in gritting your teeth and hanging on, and grit as in the humble but honest dirt that collects in the floorboards of a house, or gives something the texture needed to grip it.

This year has contained a lot of both kinds of grit. I’ve had to wrestle with even the good gifts, and summon all my courage to get through even the beautiful days.

roots sky book sunflowers table

At the end of her lovely memoir, Roots and Sky, my friend Christie Purifoy writes about late-summer chaos: a gust of wind scattering the kids’ chore charts, a stray elbow sending a jar of gold star stickers all over the kitchen floor. “I intended them to march in rows across our charts, but now they sparkle among the dust bunnies,” she writes. “When [my son] Beau suddenly runs through the screen door, gold stars shine from the bottoms of his dirty feet.”

That image keeps coming back to me: it seems to perfectly capture the interplay of magic and grit. They are present, side by side, in unexpected places. They are frustrating and undeniably real, glorious and utterly ordinary. They both stick to the soles of my feet and insist on their place in the story of this year. So I am letting them both in, as I walk through these long, full summer days.

We’re moving again at the end of the month, to a different apartment in the next town over. More change is on the horizon: at work, at church, in other areas. I have no doubt all of these changes will require more grit. But – I hope and am trying to believe – they’ll also contain magic. At least, they will if I have anything to say about it.

The answer to my original question, it turns out, is “yes, and.” Magic is definitely present in this year, and so is grit. I can’t separate them, and it turns out I don’t really need to. Because they are both necessary, and both – sometimes to my surprise – life-giving.

Are you following a word (or more than one) this year? How’s it going? I’d love to hear.

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darwins notebook chai

“It’s only alchemy until you know how it works.”

So said a friend of mine recently, as he stood behind the counter at (where else?) Darwin’s, steaming the milk for my chai latte. That’s admittedly one of the simpler drinks they serve: one part spicy chai mix (which they make themselves), one part milk. But he was talking about the more complicated espresso-based drinks they offer: latte, cappuccino, macchiato, mocha, cortado. He had done a refresher course the day before, and found himself newly fascinated with this everyday alchemy, the process of taking disparate ingredients and blending them into something new.

I understood what he meant. I remembered the same aha! moment from my own barista days, when Barb and Cynthia showed me how to pull an espresso shot, steam a stainless-steel pitcher full of milk, add a dollop of rich chocolate or a smooth cap of foam, and create a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. I’m not even a coffee drinker – I love the smell, can’t stand the bitter taste – but I found myself fascinated, then and now, by the process. It does make a new kind of sense when you watch the steps unfold one by one.

As I stood there that morning, though, listening to the whir of the milk steamer, the grind of the espresso machine, the morning music mix on the stereo, I thought: that factual knowledge doesn’t quite cover it.

I understand, empirically, that a shot of espresso plus steamed milk equals a latte, that a cappuccino has more foam, that a mocha includes a shot of chocolate and that chemical reactions explain a lot of the taste and texture (and pleasure) we get from those drinks. But there are also other, less measurable ingredients at play: the sunset-colored walls, the music, the smiles from my favorite staff members. That, too, is everyday alchemy (or magic) – and even though those elements are familiar and ordinary, they delight me every single day.

This applies to more than coffee: I understand most of the science behind the steps I follow to make a pot of soup, marinate and roast a chicken, stir up a batch of scones. But I believe there’s room for wonder alongside our knowledge of how those processes work. It isn’t alchemy in the Nicolas Flamel sense, perhaps – but it’s still everyday magic.

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katie green coat black ink

A color story:

For several years, my favorite coat has been the jade-green wool one I found at a consignment shop in downtown Boston. It matches my eyes (like a certain Boy Who Lived, I have my mother’s green eyes) and it is warm, stylish and comfortable. It also garners compliments – from friends and strangers – like no other article of clothing I’ve ever owned.

When I started showing up at Darwin’s every day, some of the staff came to know me initially as “the girl in the green coat.” (They know my name now, and they also know my fondness for their chai lattes, shortbread cookies and soups of every kind.)

My green coat – with a warm scarf, fleece-lined tights and appropriate footwear – is perfect for many, if not most, winter days in Boston. But occasionally, we have arctic blasts (or blizzards) that send the temperatures dropping to near zero. That means I need to pull out the big guns: my knee-length, hooded, quilted down coat, which is red. (In the mornings, when I look around the subway platform, I’m often the only person not wearing black or gray.)

katie-red-coat-snow

A few weeks back, I walked into Darwin’s on a single-digit day wearing my red coat, and chatted with a friend behind the counter before going up to place my order. The staff member working the register stared at me for a moment in utter disbelief.

“Katie!” she exclaimed. “I didn’t even know who you were when you walked in!” I laughed out loud, and reassured her that the green coat would be back soon.

I told my husband this story that night. His comment? “Only you could wear a red coat and go incognito.”

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daffodils desk

If you’re a regular reader, you know that I periodically turn back to the question of what is saving my life now. (I got it from Barbara Brown Taylor’s luminous memoir Leaving Church.)

Even pausing to think about the question – or jot down list in my journal at the end of a long day – can help shift my perspective. There’s always something saving my life, even on the days when it feels like everything is killing me (and there are a lot of those, lately).

As she’s done in midwinter for the past few years, my friend Anne Bogel at Modern Mrs. Darcy is inviting everyone to share what’s saving their lives in this cold, bleak season. I’m sharing my list below, because I need the reminder to look for the lifesavers (or the bits of magic) that are all around. Bonus: I love the snapshot it provides of how my days look (and how they are brightened) at a given moment.

Here, in early February of a year that’s already been a wild ride, is what’s saving my life now:

  • The La La Land soundtrack, which is full of swingy jazz, melancholy piano music and a couple of songs that make me cry.
  • $3 daffodils for my desk (see above), and chats with my florist.
  • My magic green coat, which garners compliments from strangers all. the. time.
  • Red lipstick, especially on a grey day.
  • My daily walks to Darwin’s, and checking in with my people there.
  • Verlyn Klinkenborg’s wise, practical book on writing, which I am savoring on my morning commutes.
  • The mornings I get to catch a ride to the train station with my husband. Those few minutes in the car together are precious.
  • Texts from a few friends who are my lifelines.
  • Long (or short) walks around Harvard Square: beloved streets, fresh air, the chance to stretch my legs and clear my head.
  • Fleece-lined tights as the temperatures drop again.
  • Piles of bright orange, tangy clementines.
  • Hot water with honey and lemon, on the nights when I need a mug of warm (non-caffeinated) comfort.
  • The colorful quilt made by my husband’s grandmother, which we sleep under all winter long.
  • My happy lamp, Vitamin D pills, two desk lamps and all the sunshine I can get. (The days are slowly getting longer…)
  • Weekly yoga classes at my local studio, where I am known by name.
  • The fleece-lined plaid slippers I got for Christmas – so cozy.
  • The Hamilton soundtrack, which helps me summon my courage.
  • Scribbling in my journal when I can – even a few lines can help me sort out my thoughts.

Feel free to share your lifesavers in the comments, or hop over to Anne’s blog to join the linkup.

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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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christmas lights tree dog slippers
I was struck recently by a couple of posts on Ali Edwards’ site about making her (our) own magic.

I love Ali’s thoughtful, practical approach to life and memory-keeping, and although I am not (nearly) the scrapbooker she is, I love seeing how she captures moments and memories for herself and her family, in each season. Her December Daily project is always so lovely, and though I haven’t participated in several years, I enjoy watching it unfold.

This year, Ali’s Day 4 post included some wise words for those of us who face challenges (personal, emotional, logistical) in this season: “Magic is something we make. We don’t always get to choose what story we step into, but we get to choose how we respond to it and how we move forward from there.”

I think this is part of the work of adulthood: recognizing that we are, largely, responsible for our own internal weather. We can choose – ideally, with wisdom and grace – how to respond to, and move forward from, what happens to us. (We can also choose to be gentle with ourselves when we don’t respond well initially. We are human, after all.)

In a season like this one, which can be fraught with so many expectations (our own and other people’s), this is key. We get to choose how we respond to the delights and pressures of the season.

Sometimes, that means making the effort to create our own magic – whether it’s wrapping your front porch with pine garland, as Ali did, or unraveling ten (!) strands of Christmas lights for the tree, as I did (see above).

Sometimes, it means taking a step back from all that work, and sitting quietly (even for a few minutes) to find some peace amid the bustle.

christmas tree cloister walk

I was lucky to grow up in a house where my parents worked hard to create a magic atmosphere at Christmas. My mother loves a tall, sparkling Christmas tree, and my dad gets so excited about playing “head elf” (filling stockings, distributing presents) every year. I’m still lucky to get to participate in (and contribute to) that magic when I go home for Christmas. But if I want Christmas magic in my own apartment here in Boston (oh, and I do), then it’s up to me to make it.

On Day 8, Ali wrote,  “Part of making your own magic includes setting stuff up in order to have it actually happen.” This resonated deeply with me too, because magic often takes effort and planning. There are processes – some which have solidified into traditions – in place for our magic-making. And even though it’s a lot of work sometimes, I do it, because I know I will love the outcome.

I hang the stockings, haul the boxes of ornaments up from the basement, dig out the Christmas CDs. I buy the mint M&Ms to fill the candy dish (and some plain M&Ms, too, because my husband likes those better). I keep apple cider in the fridge. I buy wrapping paper and extra Scotch tape and order Christmas cards. My husband chips in to help, of course, but I am the chief magic-maker at our house. And it feels good. Satisfying. Magical, even.

How do you make magic for yourself in this season?

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magic lessons podcast elizabeth gilbert

Thank you so much for the thoughtful comments on my recent post. It’s good to know I’m not alone. And now, for something completely different…

Since I came late to the smartphone game (and never owned an iPod), I also came late to the world of podcasts.

I’m still a novice – I don’t listen as much as Anne, who shared her favorites recently, or Elise – who hosts her own podcast and also wrote about her favorites. If I’m riding the subway, I’d rather be reading (an actual paper book).

But I have a few podcasts I love – one reliable standby and several newer discoveries – and I thought I’d share them with you.

Books on the Nightstand

The first podcast I ever fell in love with – and still my favorite – is Books on the Nightstand, co-hosted by Ann Kingman (a Twitter pal I’ve met in person once or twice) and Michael Kindness. Ann and Michael both work for Random House, and they started this weekly podcast to talk about their favorite new books. I started listening a couple of years ago, and now I never miss an episode.

Nearly 350 episodes (!) in, BOTNS has regular features about new books and audiobooks, a monthly segment highlighting older books (called Don’t You Forget About Me), an annual Summer Book Bingo game, and much more. I love the glimpses into the inner workings of the book industry, the “themed” episodes such as 500 Pages Plus, and the warm, generous, often funny conversation between Ann and Michael. Their tastes don’t always match mine, but I love hearing them talk about books and book-related issues.

Magic Lessons

Elizabeth Gilbert (yes, that Elizabeth Gilbert) recently launched a podcast called Magic Lessons, in advance of the release of her new book, Big Magic (out this fall). I haven’t read the book yet, but I am loving Liz’s conversations on creative work, bravery, motivation and – yes – magic with people who are struggling to build a creative life.

So far, she’s alternated between talking to people who are dealing with frustration or feeling “blocked” in their creativity, and talking to people like Cheryl Strayed and Rob Bell, who may have helpful insights to share. Liz’s voice is so warm and friendly, and I love what she has to say about creative work. This is a new podcast, so I’m excited for what’s to come.

Book Riot: All the Books

How could I not love a podcast with this title? Liberty Hardy and Rebecca Joines Schinsky, known as “The Well-Readheads,” are both part of the (smart, sarcastic, book-obsessed) team at Book Riot, and they chat once a week about brand-new books they can’t wait for people to read. This podcast launched in May and I’m slowly making my way through the backlog of episodes. Not surprisingly, my TBR list gets longer every time I listen.

Liberty and Rebecca both read widely (of course), and they talk about (and/or gush about) books on this podcast that I might not hear about otherwise. Also, they are good friends (like Ann and Michael above), and it’s so much fun to listen to their exchanges.

Elise Gets Crafty

I’ve been reading Elise Blaha Cripe’s blog for a while now, and I’ve listened to quite a few episodes of her podcast. Some of them are aimed at small business owners (which I am not), but nearly every episode also touches on some combination of blogging, motivation, inspiration and balancing creative projects with your daily life. Super fun and accessible.

Do you have a favorite podcast, or a handful of them? Please share in the comments!

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