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May is flying by, between events at work, a wonderful weekend in Maine, and celebrating my sweet man’s birthday. Here’s what I have been reading:

The Path to Kindness: Poems of Connection and Joy, ed. James Crews
I’ve been reading this poetry anthology sloooowly for months; it offers glimmers of hope, like its predecessor (also edited by Crews). Full of poets familiar and new. Really lovely.

A Fatal Groove, Olivia Blacke
Juniper Jessup and her sisters are thrilled to be getting their record shop/cafe, Sip & Spin, off the ground. But when the mayor drops dead after sipping their coffee at the local bluebonnet festival, Juni and her sisters fall under suspicion. A fun second entry in Blacke’s Record Shop Mystery series; I like the cast of characters. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 25).

West Side Love Story, Priscilla Oliveras
Musician and aspiring PA Mariana Capuleta doesn’t have time for love – till she kisses a handsome stranger on New Year’s Eve. He turns out to be Angelo Montero, part of a rival mariachi band. This modern-day Romeo & Juliet retelling set in San Antonio was way overwritten (so many similes!) but still a fun ride. Recommended by my friend Jess.

On Air with Zoe Washington, Janae Marks
After helping her birth father get out of prison, Zoe Washington is thrilled to be working with him at a bakery. But when Marcus reveals his dream of opening a restaurant, Zoe becomes determined to make that happen. She starts a podcast about the experiences of exonerees, launches a Kickstarter and brainstorms new desserts – all while juggling changing friend and family dynamics. I loved this sequel to Marks’ From the Desk of Zoe Washington, especially Zoe’s tenacity and the Boston references.

The Lady from Burma, Allison Montclair
A happily married (but terminally ill) woman visits The Right Sort Marriage Bureau to ensure her husband’s future happiness after her death. But when she’s found dead just days later, Iris Sparks and Gwen Bainbridge smell foul play. Meanwhile, Gwen is fighting to regain her legal status, and her court-appointed guardian may be involved in the case. This fifth mystery delves into each woman’s personal life, and the case is still well plotted; so enjoyable. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 25).

Forever Hold Your Peace, Liz Fenton & Lisa Steinke
When Olivia and Zach meet, fall in love and get engaged in Positano, their parents (all divorced) understandably have reservations. But when all four parents plus the lovebirds meet for brunch, it turns out their moms are ex-best friends, estranged for 25 years. Olivia and Zach try to get them to play nice; the moms, June and Amy, try to one-up each other in wedding-planning hijinks; and the dads (one of whom has a secret) are along for the ride. A breezy, hilarious, juicy novel about weddings and secrets and (yes) trying to move on. I winced a lot; laughed often; and breathed several huge sighs of relief. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 11).

To Catch a Thief, Martha Brockenbrough
Amelia MacGuffin loves books, cocoa and mysteries – but she wishes she were braver. When someone steals a town treasure, Amelia (with her siblings and their new neighbors, twins Dot and Dash) steps up to solve the mystery. A delightful cozy middle-grade story; the mystery is fun, but it’s really about community and belonging and lots of hot chocolate.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

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Suddenly, it’s lilac and tulip season – which means it’s inching closer to reading-barefoot-outdoors season. As we head into May, here’s what I have been reading:

Better Living Through Birding: Notes from a Black Man in the Natural World, Christian Cooper
Cooper gained some notoriety as the “Central Park birder” in 2020, but he’d been birding – and writing – for decades before that. This thoughtful memoir explores his experience as a queer Black man in New York City, his years writing for Marvel Comics (so cool!), his complex family relationships and, of course, his love for birds. Helpful tips on birding sprinkled throughout. I loved this book. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 13).

Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers, Jesse Q. Sutanto
When a mysterious man ends up dead on her teahouse’s floor, Chinese grandmother Vera Wong quickly decides the police are useless and she’ll solve the case herself. Hilarity ensues, including a spot of matchmaking; elaborate meals (cooked by Vera, of course); a Hercule Poirot-style dramatic reveal; and skirmishes with the police. I cracked up at this wonderfully plotted mystery; I love Sutanto’s work and hope she makes this a series.

Mrs. Porter Calling, AJ Pearce
Emmy Lake is relishing her job running the Yours Cheerfully advice page at Woman’s Friend magazine. But when the new publisher, the titular Mrs. Porter, starts changing all the best parts of the magazine, Emmy and her colleagues must band together to save Woman’s Friend. Meanwhile, WWII continues; Emmy’s friend Thelma and her kids move into the flat upstairs; and Emmy and her best friend Bunty continue to be shining examples of Pluck and Compassion. I adore this series. To review for Shelf Awareness (out August 8).

Leeva at Last, Sara Pennypacker
What are people for? This question propels Leeva Spayce Thornblossom out of her constricted existence (her parents are truly terrible people) and into the wider world. She meets the local librarians, makes a few friends and figures out how to save her town from bankruptcy. A sweet Roald Dahl-style middle-grade novel; I enjoyed Leeva and her new friends. Spotted at Symposium Books in Providence, RI.

My Lady Jane, Brodi Ashton, Cynthia Hand & Jodi Meadows
I was thinking about this book after seeing Six and then scored a copy at a Little Free Library. It’s a fresh, badass, feminist, hilarious take on Lady Jane Grey. England is split between Eðians – people who can change into animal form – and Verities – those who can’t. Edward VI is dying and hands his crown over to Jane, who is forced to marry a young lord who turns into a horse every morning. That’s inconvenient, but the real fun comes when politics, love and sly references to other stories collide. I raced through this in a weekend and adored it. Recommended by Anne.

Poet Warrior, Joy Harjo
I admire Harjo’s poetry (“Praise the Rain” is a favorite). This, her second memoir, explores her own identity as a poet and warrior, with a loosely chronological narrative of her life. It is wise and lovely, sometimes heartbreaking, occasionally a little hard to follow. Poems sprinkled throughout. Best read slowly, but definitely worth reading.

Symphony of Secrets, Brendan Slocumb
Musicologist Bern Hendricks is thrilled at the chance to work on a newly unearthed manuscript by his musical hero, Frederic Delaney. But as Bern and his tech-whiz colleague Eboni dig deeper, they discover a Black woman named Josephine Reed – was she Delaney’s lover, collaborator or something else? A fast-paced, fascinating musical mystery with a great dual narrative and engaging characters.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

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Most mornings, after journaling and breakfast, I pull on my running clothes and head out the door to spend a few miles pumping my legs and getting some fresh air. I don’t always have music playing at home, but I almost always listen to it on my morning runs. My “custom” Spotify mixes swing between the genres I love most: nineties country, mellow jazz, soulful singer-songwriters and Broadway show tunes. And I have to say, lately the mixes have been killing it.

My folk mixes are crammed full of my longtime faves, like the Indigo Girls and the Wailin’ Jennys, and newer-to-me discoveries like Birds of Chicago and Abigail Lapell. My Broadway mixes have been heavy on the & Juliet pop tunes since I saw it in NYC, but they also include doses of Hamilton, Amelie, Come From Away, The Fantasticks and other musicals I love. And you’ve heard me rhapsodize about my love for nineties country: Martina, Faith, Shania, Reba, Jo Dee, and (forever and always) George Strait.

It’s a pleasure when the mix turns up song after song I love, as my feet pound down the familiar paths of the parks or harborwalk or greenway. A good mix – especially one I don’t have to fiddle with – delights me every single time. (I’m convinced it helps me run faster, too.) Good music is so happy-making.

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We’re halfway through March (how??) and I’ve been blazing through some great books. Here’s what I have been reading:

The Violin Conspiracy, Brendan Slocumb
Violin prodigy Ray McMillian is catapulted to fame when his grandmother’s violin (passed down from her formerly enslaved grandfather) turns out to be a Stradivarius. When the violin is stolen on the eve of a major competition, Ray tries to find the thief – but everyone’s got a motive. I raced through this insightful, compelling novel exploring race, complicated family dynamics and the inner workings of the classical music world. Just fantastic.

Life and Other Love Songs, Anissa Gray
Gray’s second novel follows a Black family – Deborah and Oz Armstead and their daughter, Trinity – from the 1960s in Detroit (when Deborah and Oz meet) to the 1980s, when Oz disappears one day. A powerful exploration of family, loss and loyalty, guilt and love, and how to move forward. (I also loved Gray’s debut, The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 11).

The Agathas, Kathleen Glasgow and Liz Lawson
Alice Ogilvie got a lot of flak when she disappeared with no explanation (and then reappeared) last summer. But now Alice’s former best friend, Brooke, has also disappeared, and something’s not right. Alice (an Agatha Christie fan) teams up with her tutor, Iris, to solve the case. A fresh, funny mystery with serious Veronica Mars vibes: set in a ritzy California town, but also an exploration of whose stories do and do not get believed.

How to Be True, Daisy May Johnson
Edie Berger and the girls from How to Be Brave end up in Paris on a school trip, staying with Edie’s cranky great-grandmother. But they quickly get drawn into a mystery involving a painting, a lost love and some wartime stories. A fun, zany story with more depth than Johnson’s first book.

The Twelve Dogs of Christmas, Lizzie Shane
Yes, I know it’s March. But I loved this sweet Christmas novel (from the author of Pride and Puppies). Ally Gilmore has landed in Pine Hollow, Vt., to help her grandparents and figure out her life. When a grumpy town councilman votes to cut funding for her family’s dog shelter, Ally springs into action to try and get all the dogs adopted. To her surprise, she finds herself falling for the councilman – and for Pine Hollow. A super fun, canine-filled romance.

The League of Gentlewomen Witches, India Holton
Charlotte Pettifer has spent her life trying to be a dutiful witch, as the heir to the titular League’s power. But when their ancestor’s powerful amulet comes up for theft, she finds herself consorting with pirates (especially a handsome Irish one), taking unsupervised adventures (and other liberties) and even making friends. I loved this wild, funny, literary sequel to the Wisteria Society; so much fun. Can’t wait for book 3.

Emma of 83rd Street, Audrey Bellezza & Emily Harding
I adore both Austen’s original Emma and Clueless – and this novel is a charming modern twist on the former, with shades of the latter. Set on the Upper East Side, the novel follows Emma Woodhouse as she navigates grad school, makes (and tries to transform) a new friend, and struggles to figure out her feelings for her neighbor, George Knightley. Witty and fun; heads up for some seriously steamy scenes near the end. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 23).

Sunshine Nails, Mai Nguyen
Vietnamese immigrants Debbie and Phil Tran have spent two decades working to keep their Toronto nail salon afloat. But right after their daughter, Jessica, comes home from L.A. (smarting from setbacks in love and career), a hip new salon moves in across the street. Along with their son Dustin and their niece Thuy, the Trans try to fight the interlopers. But is taking down the other salon worth it if it destroys their family? A sharp, witty, warmhearted novel exploring small business ownership, immigrant family dynamics and the power of changing course. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 4).

Everybody Come Alive: A Memoir in Essays, Marcie Alvis Walker
Walker’s memoir explores her experience as a Black woman in America: the mingled love and racism she experienced in childhood, her mother’s mental illness, the challenges of navigating a white world as a dark-skinned Black woman, and her fierce love for her transgender child. I appreciate Walker’s truth-telling over on Instagram; this book goes deeper and broader. Reflective, spiritual, pull-no-punches. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 30).

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

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January has been a long year, as someone commented on social media recently. The latest batch of books, fortunately, has been excellent. Here’s what I have been reading:

Under the Henfluence: Inside the World of Backyard Chickens and the People Who Love Them, Tove Danovich
Danovich dreamed of owning chickens during her years in Brooklyn – but when she moved to Oregon and ordered three chicks, she had no idea how they’d change her life. A warm, engaging, often hilarious deep dive into chicken-keeping, the poultry industry, chicken care and the ways these little birds steal their owners’ hearts. Informative and fun. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 28).

Island of Spies, Sheila Turnage
Hatteras Island, 1942: As World War II heats up, Sarah Stickley “Stick” Lawson and her two best friends, Rain and Neb, hunt for mysteries to solve on the island. They’re soon caught up in some real espionage, possibly involving the cranky postmistress, two enigmatic visitors, a couple of baseball players and Stick’s older sister. I loved this middle-grade novel about family and secrets and standing up for what’s right; I also adore Turnage’s Three Times Lucky and its sequels.

The Theory of (Not Quite) Everything, Kara Gnodde
Siblings Mimi and Art have always been close – especially since their parents’ tragic death. But in her thirties, Mimi gets restless and wants to find love. Art – a mathematical genius – agrees to help her if he can use an algorithm. When Mimi falls for Frank, another mathematician, Art is distressed for a few reasons. A thoughtful exploration of sibling dynamics; I loved Mimi’s friend Rey, and Frank himself. (Heads up for a few seriously heartbreaking death and hospital scenes.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out February 28).

Other Birds, Sarah Addison Allen
When 19-year-old Zoey moves into the condo she inherited from her mother on tiny, beautiful Mallow Island, she’s hoping to uncover some family secrets – but other secrets start to emerge almost immediately. From the resident turquoise birds to the suspicious death of one of her neighbors, plus a local reclusive author, Mallow Island is teeming with mystery. I love Addison Allen’s warm, enchanting Southern fiction; this one has some engaging characters, but also lots of deep sadness around abuse and addiction.

Operation Sisterhood, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich
Bo and her mum have always been a team, and Bo likes it that way. But when Mum announces she’s getting married, they move from the Bronx to Harlem and in with Bo’s new stepdad, his daughter, another family who shares their house, and a menagerie of pets. Bo – an introvert, baker and happy only child – likes her new family, but struggles to adjust. A warm, funny middle-grade novel (like the Vanderbeekers turned up to 11) with lashings of Black girl magic.

The Covenant of Water, Abraham Verghese
Verghese’s second novel traces the epic story of a family in southern India afflicted by a mysterious condition: one person in every generation dies by drowning. Spanning seven decades, the story begins with a child bride coming to Parambil, the family estate, and continues through several generations of love, loss, marriage, death, medical school and social change. Verghese is a medical doctor and it shows; the medical detail is painstaking (and occasionally gruesome). I read his memoir My Own Country in college and was blown away; he’s a powerful writer. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 2).

People We Meet on Vacation, Emily Henry
Poppy and Alex – polar opposites – have been best friends since college, taking an annual summer trip together. Until two years ago when they ruined everything. Poppy, floundering at work, is determined to salvage their friendship with one last trip to Alex’s brother’s wedding in Palm Springs. A funny story of travel disasters and friendship that might tip over into love; Poppy is wacky and oblivious, but eventually gains a little self-awareness. Fun for the winter doldrums.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

What are you reading?

P.S. The February issue of my newsletter, For the Noticers, will come out soon. Sign up here to get on the list!

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It has been a year, y’all. There’s no way a list can capture it all, but here are a few highlights from the past 12 months:

  • run miles and miles through my beloved neighborhood of Eastie, mostly in the mornings before work
  • knitted myself a pair of gloves, a cozy headband and two sets of legwarmers
  • lived in leggings, jeans, Allbirds sneakers, scarves and my green coat (see above)
  • discovered volunteer ushering and leaned hard into it
  • returned to Vermont, and adventured to western MA and the North Shore, with my guy
  • spent a couple of sweet solo weekends in NYC
  • delighted in hearing and promoting our young people’s music at ZUMIX
  • made lots of chickpea curry, ratatouille, black bean soup and other simple meals
  • drunk hundreds of cups of tea
  • spent a sweet Thanksgiving with my guy
  • interviewed several authors for Shelf Awareness
  • read roughly 230 books
  • done a lot of yoga, mostly at The Point
  • sung in a local carol choir for the fourth year
  • said goodbye to my beloved Darwin’s
  • written a couple of pieces for ACU Today
  • spent a little time in Texas
  • hosted my parents for their first joint visit to Boston since 2018
  • continued to savor my writing class on Tuesdays
  • worked the polls again, twice
  • gone to the movies alone (and with my guy)
  • helped pull off the ZUMIX Gala and Walk for Music
  • started a newsletter
  • done a “Southwest tour” to visit friends in Arizona and California
  • become a regular at the Eastie library
  • published a couple of essays online
  • gone back to some local museums
  • been to Portsmouth, Amherst and Westerly with my girl Jackie
  • taken a salsa dancing class
  • been to my first Comic-Con
  • survived having COVID
  • attended a number of outdoor concerts here in Eastie
  • seen both the Indigo Girls and the Wailin’ Jennys in concert (!!)
  • loved All Creatures season 2 and Magpie Murders
  • turned 39
  • tended geraniums, a fern, an African violet, paperwhite bulbs and cherry tomatoes
  • tried my best to pay attention, love my people and be brave and true

What has this year looked like for you?

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We are (somehow) halfway through December, and the world feels twinkly and dark and (sometimes) chaotic. Here’s what I have been reading:

Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Love Story, in Music Lessons, Jeremy Denk
I spotted this book at Three Lives this summer, and snagged it at the library recently. Denk charts his journey from piano-nerd kid to classical pianist, via lots of lessons with idiosyncratic, brilliant teachers (and some personal growth). Writing about music can be hard to do, but Denk pulls it off. Entertaining, witty and wonderfully geeky.

Peril in Paris, Rhys Bowen
Lady Georgiana Rannoch is thrilled to visit her dear friend Belinda in Paris. But once Georgie gets there, she becomes entangled in both a Chanel fashion show and a mysterious death – which leaves a police inspector convinced she’s a criminal. I love this fun historical mystery series and this was an entertaining entry.

What Wildness is This: Women Write About the Southwest, ed. Susan Wittig Albert, Susan Hanson, Jan Epton Seale and Paula Stallings Yost
I stumbled on this collection in an Airbnb in Amherst, and immediately got it from the library when I came home. It’s a stunning anthology of essays and poetry: incisive, moving female perspectives on how we interact with the land, what we take from and give to it, what we leave behind. I loved reading this slowly in the mornings.

Killers of a Certain Age, Deanna Raybourn
Billie, Natalie, Helen and Mary Alice have spent 40 years working as assassins for the Museum, a secret extra-governmental organization. On their retirement cruise, someone targets them, and they work to find out why – and take out their would-be killers. A hilarious, incisive romp showcasing the skills (and ingenuity) of older women.

Maureen, Rachel Joyce
I loved The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which follows a man taking a much-longer-than-planned walk that turns into a journey of self-discovery. 10 years later, this slim novel shares the perspective of Harold’s wife, Maureen. She makes a pilgrimage of her own – which doesn’t go quite as she expected. Lyrical, sad and moving. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 7, 2023).

Hijab Butch Blues, Lamya H
I enjoyed this unusual memoir by a queer Muslim woman exploring all the intersections of her identities. A lot here about Muslim faith and practice; many familiar Bible stories retold as they appear in the Quran; and an honest examination of inner struggle. Heavy at times, and thoughtful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 7, 2023).

The Holiday Switch, Tif Marcelo
Lila Santos is ready to plunge into the Christmas season (and work all the hours at her local inn’s gift/book shop to save for college). She’s also an anonymous book blogger. When her boss’s nephew, Teddy, shows up to work the holiday season, the two of them clash – but gradually find themselves drawn to one another. A super fun YA holiday romance featuring Filipino-American characters; I also love Marcelo’s adult fiction.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

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We reach a point every December where I wake up with carols in my head: ribbons of lyrics old and new, lines I’ve known since I was a little girl and lines I’ve learned only in the last few years. They wind and stretch and run through my days, an undercurrent of magic and anticipation, a soundtrack to this time of year I have always loved.

This year, for the fourth time, I’ve been singing with friends in a local carol choir: a handful of us holding black and white binders, filled with songs we already knew (The First Noel, Silent Night) and unfamiliar tunes (Dadme Albricias, O Jesulein Suss, Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light). Just to keep it interesting, Peter always throws in a remix or two of carols we think we know – this year it’s The Holly and The Ivy, with syncopation where we didn’t expect it, and a slightly different version of Ding Dong Merrily on High (still with those Glorias).

There is much laughter, and a lot of wrong notes, and at least a moment or two where we all despair of ever getting it right. But every year, a couple of weeks before our performance, it somehow starts to come together. The phrases begin to make sense, and the chords coalesce into something beautiful. It starts to sound less like we’re stumbling our way through, and for a moment – as my choral director used to say – we actually make music together.

The Christmas music is coming in from all sides, these days. There are Spotify mixes on my morning runs or mellow evenings with my partner, and carols by our Sprouts at ZUMIX, and blaring pop renditions in every store or business I walk into. It’s impossible to escape it – but mostly I am happy to soak it in.

I also wake up, some mornings, with the songs of Christmas past: the youth choir singing verse after verse of Do You Hear What I Hear, led ably by George, our beloved music minister. My dad’s friends Buddy and Clay, singing O Holy Night in a church sanctuary in Dallas, thirty years ago. The Magnificat and other a cappella carols at Brookline and at Highland, those churches that were both once mine. And so many memories of Christmas Eve services with my parents, filled with classics like O Come All Ye Faithful and Silent Night.

Last night, my guy and I went to the Harvard carol service, arriving – to our surprise – during the season’s first snow. We sat in a dark wooden pew in the chapel where I used to go to Morning Prayers, and sang our hearts out: Adeste Fideles and Lo, How a Rose; Hark the Herald and Angels We Have Heard on High. It felt nourishing to be there, among poinsettias and candlelight, to wave at a few Harvard friends and see new faces in the pews. To hear again the words that have framed this season all my life: for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior. My soul magnifies the Lord. You will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes. Glory to God in the highest.

The music of the season is indelible for me; it expresses the wonder and joy through familiar melodies and the lyrics I have loved all my life. I’m grateful – through so much loss and change – that the songs have endured, and that I get to sing them in community, and take my annual turn at trilling the Glorias. This season is full of bustle and swing, but it also calls us back to awe and wonder, and these songs help steady me as I prepare to celebrate.

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It seems to start earlier every year: the full-on blitz of evergreens, candy-cane decorations, tinsel and twinkle lights. Red cups at Starbucks, Santa hats all over the place, peppermint-flavored everything…the list goes on.

I’m here for the twinkle lights and the peppermint treats – and y’all know I love Christmas music and movies. But for the last several years, I’ve been edging into the season: tiptoeing, observing tiny rituals, looking for the light. It feels like too much to turn the Christmas-ness up full blast in mid-November, if I want to actually enjoy it. As Father Tim once observed, it feels like “hitting, and holding, high C” for weeks on end. As a singer, I know that is both screechy and impossible.

This year, I am taking the season in small doses: putting up my two trees, both of them festooned with lights, but not rushing to hang the ornaments. I’m taping Christmas cards around my door frame, wearing the tiny raccoon-holding-a-holly-sprig pin that was my mother’s in the ’90s. I’m listening to Christmas music when I feel like it (Sara Groves, Kate Rusby, the Indigo Girls, Vince Guaraldi), and turning it off when I’ve had enough.

I’ve been rehearsing for our annual neighborhood carol service with friends, trying to hear how the phrases should sound, relaxing into the familiarity of “Silent Night” and “The First Noel.” The music is still creaky, but it will come together. We will probably miss a cue or two, stumble over words in an unfamiliar language. And we will also create chords of beauty and longing, both from carols we know and pieces we have only learned this year.

“The light shines in the darkness,” we are told, and we hear it often this time of year. But living in the Northeast reminds me that the darkness is necessary, too. I can savor the fiery sunsets and crisp moonlit nights, while also appreciating the longer evenings. The light and the darkness need one another; neither one can exist alone.

This truth is harder to accept on an emotional level; I’d rather skip over the grief that comes up this time of year, and focus on the joy. But I know I can’t do that. Ignoring the sadness will only make it worse. Naming it, and leaning into the music and rituals that make room for complexity, is vital if I want to live honestly in – and enjoy – this season.

I do miss some of the Advent rituals of my old life: greening the church on a Saturday morning, gathering with friends I don’t see anymore, singing “O Come O Come Emmanuel” in a community that is no longer mine. There is brokenness and longing in these memories, and also joy: those rituals nourished me, for a time, and now I have to find new rituals to carry me through.

As is so often the case, there’s a metaphor here. Advent is about what happens when the old ways don’t work anymore. It is a sudden interruption, a dramatic entrance, into a world that is desperate for all things to be made new. It is making sense of the light and the darkness – or, failing that, accepting the presence of both in this world.

How are you savoring the season this year? I’d love to hear.

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Last week, I spent an hour (alongside some colleagues) placing red and silver sparkly macarons into cocktail glasses, along with turquoise stickers and quotes from our student participants. Days before, I brainstormed cocktail names with my supervisor. (We landed on Razzle Dazzle, Stardust, and Fancy Was My Name – sometimes, it’s nice having another Southern girl in the office.)

In the weeks before that, I wrote, rewrote and proofread program text; ordered several life-size cardboard celebrity cutouts online; maneuvered our office van through the winding streets near Boston’s North Station; and bought a fabulous pair of cascading rhinestone earrings. It all came together beautifully last Wednesday, at the aptly named Glitter and Glam version of the annual ZUMIX gala.

When people ask me what we do at ZUMIX, I usually tell them that we provide free and low-cost music lessons and other creative classes for young people, ages 7-18. And we do that, every day, at the Firehouse in East Boston. But the Gala was a chance to celebrate the broader definition of what we do: help young people discover their shine.

One of our youth musicians, Andres, bounded in two hours early, fizzing with excitement for his first-ever paying gig. Julian, sporting a fedora along with his usual funky glasses, played in three different ensembles (a fact Wendy, one of his fellow musicians, made sure to mention onstage). Angelica, rocking a slinky green sequined dress, worked the room at the cocktail party, interviewing guests for her show on ZUMIX Radio. And sisters Layla and Maya – neither one of them out of elementary school – brought the house down with their rendition of Selena’s “La Carcacha.”

I could go on, and tell you about Elia on the drums, Camille rocking both the bass guitar and her elegant blue dress, Samantha swirling around in a sparkly gown and Brandon adding a few rhinestones to his sharp suit (and playing guitar with his usual cool). And my colleagues: Ben and Chris and Brian doing double-time to get there after their other teaching gigs across town. Kadahj and Corey (both ZUMIX alumni) speaking eloquently about the impact this place has had on their lives and so many others. Esther, my supervisor, dashing around in a sequined red fedora and a light-up tutu. And Madeleine – our co-founder, executive director and the hardest-working woman I know – doing everything from setup to schmoozing to calling the ZUMIX Latin Ensemble back out for an encore.

I loved so many moments: getting dressed in the bathroom alongside the setup crew, giggling like girlfriends as we glammed up for the evening. Hugging former staff and alumni whom I’ve grown to love. Applauding my friend Roberto (above), manager at Eastie Farm and community-builder extraordinaire, as he received an award (and, later, getting down with his crew on the dance floor). Dancing with Esther to the Cotton-Eyed Joe after the DJ had finished his set. Sipping a Razzle Dazzle cocktail and snapping photos of our board and staff and community enjoying each other. Handing out light-up plastic rings to those who donated, and to any teenager who wanted one. Snagging a selfie with Madeleine as the party swirled around us. And driving back to Eastie in the van, close to midnight, exhausted but entirely satisfied.

Listen: there are all kinds of scrappy small organizations like ours, doing the work of building communities and giving young people a safe place to be themselves. We’ve made it through 31 years of this work, tied together by red Firehouse doors and ukulele strings and a whole lot of duct tape and hope. We are bolstered by smiles and crashing piano chords and a student’s look of astonishment as they land a guitar riff for the first time. We are scribbled song lyrics and sound-mixing wizardry; we are pupusas and potato chips and endless cups of tea from the office kettle. We are, also, budgets and grant proposals and donor acknowledgments and social media posts; the magic doesn’t happen without the admin grunt work, as my colleagues and I know all too well. But at events like the Gala, it all braids together beautifully, and like those macarons (courtesy of a Latin bakery in East Boston), it all sparkles.

We do provide music lessons, and theatre classes, and teach young people how to operate sound boards and create their own radio shows. But they teach us, too: how to be brave and silly and kind and fearless, how to try out new things – sometimes in front of a roomful of people – and not be afraid of what might happen. They demand honesty from us; they ask good questions; they push us to be better than we are. They ask us to build a world that is safe and creative and just. And they eat a lot of pizza – while making a lot of amazing music.

We have so many reasons to shine, Madeleine wrote in the event program last week. Gonzalo, one of our awardees, added, There is no stronger light than the one we receive from our young people. I am grateful – not just on Gala days, but every day – to be part of the string of lights that allows ZUMIX to keep on shining.

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