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Posts Tagged ‘pandemic’

I know we’re only a week into February, but I’ve already read a slew of great books (including on a snow day and a cross-country flight). Here’s what I have been reading:

Love, Lists and Fancy Ships, Sarah Grunder Ruiz
Jo Walker, yacht stewardess, has struggled to keep going since the death of her young nephew. But the surprise arrival of her two teenage nieces for the summer – plus a kind, handsome new neighbor/coworker and his daughter – forces her to get out and knock a few items off her 30-before-30 bucket list. Loved this funny, sweet novel.

Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness, Ingrid Fetell Lee
We tend to think of joy as an intangible, elusive emotion – but it can be enhanced, even engendered, by physical objects and patterns in the physical world. A fun, informative look at 10 different aesthetics of joy – natural and human-made. Recommended by Anne and others.

Some of It Was Real, Nan Fischer
Sylvie is a psychic on the brink of stardom who isn’t quite sure she believes in her own abilities. Thomas is a journalist who’s determined to expose her as a fraud. As they go on a road trip to delve into Sylvie’s past, they both are forced to examine some serious grief and other emotions, including how they feel about each other. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 22).

The Lonely Heart of Maybelle Lane, Kate O’Shaughnessy
Maybelle Lane dreams of a singing career – and when she finds out the daddy she’s never met is judging a singing contest, she schemes her way to Nashville, in the company of a no-nonsense neighbor woman and her maybe-friend, the boy next door. A sweet middle-grade story about loneliness and how you choose to build a family.

Just the Two of Us, Jo Wilde
Julie and Michael have been married for nearly 35 years – but their relationship has gone seriously sour. When they’re forced to isolate together in their home in March 2020, they start to wonder if they can find their way back to each other. I wasn’t sure I was ready for a “light” pandemic novel, but this was a lovely exploration of family and the ups and downs of a long marriage. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 12).

Shoutin’ in the Fire, Dante Stewart
I follow Stewart on Twitter and Instagram – he writes powerfully about being Black, Christian and American. This memoir delves deeper into his own experiences and how he has grappled with anti-Blackness in various contexts (including in himself). He’s a force and this is a message we all need.

The Wicked Widow, Beatriz Williams
I love Williams’ lush, compelling historical fiction. This novel is the third featuring Geneva “Gin” Kelly, a scrappy redhead who gets caught up with a major bootlegging racket during Prohibition, and her connection to the blue-blooded Schuyler family. Heartbreaking and juicy and so good.

A Place to Hang the Moon, Kate Albus
William always tells his younger siblings that their mum thought they “hung the moon.” But when the children – long since orphaned – are forced to evacuate during World War II, clinging to those memories becomes tougher. A sweet (if often sad) story about family, love and the power of good stories.

Every Living Thing, James Herriot
It’s no secret I love Herriot’s books and the new PBS adaptation based closely on them. I found this later volume at the wonderful Dogtown Books in Gloucester (a happy surprise!) and have been savoring it slowly. Funny and vivid and comforting.

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

What are you reading?

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One of my favorite follows on Instagram is Annie B. Jones, who runs The Bookshelf in Thomasville, Ga., and posts about books, musicals, channeling Kathleen Kelly and other lovely things. Last year, she shared monthly “what I learned” posts, and I enjoyed them so much I decided to try my own. We’ll see if it sticks, but here’s what I learned in January 2022:

  • Slouchy sweaters can be a great comfort, even if you’re more of a fitted-silhouette kind of girl.
  • One green curry paste IS different from another (learned while making this soup several times).
  • Paperwhite bulbs might take a while to bloom, but they – like so many things – can surprise you. (See above – my final bulb is flourishing.)
  • COVID brain fog is real. As are the emotions that come with it.
  • It takes 15 minutes to walk from my house down the Golden Stairs to the end of Piers Park and back. And that is enough when it’s 14 degrees outside.
  • It’s fun to be a beginner again, even – or especially – when it means stumbling through salsa steps with a roomful of other novices.
  • Some books (e.g. The Warmth of Other Suns) are just going to take as long as they take.
  • Just ask. (Still working on this one.)

What are you learning these days?

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Well, friends, it happened: after nearly two years of wearing a mask, washing my hands incessantly, getting vaccinated and taking all the other precautions we’re all used to now, I tested positive for COVID-19 a few weeks ago.

I was lucky. My symptoms were fairly mild, mostly fatigue and congestion (though I will say the brain fog is real). My employer has been generous about giving us extra sick time for isolation and recovery (though I did work from home when I felt well enough, to stave off the boredom). I felt tired and draggy for nearly a week, and I’ve still had some fatigue and a lingering cough – but mostly, I feel grateful it wasn’t much worse.

My mild-ish symptoms didn’t surprise me too much: I’m vaxxed, boosted, in a low-risk demographic, etc. What did surprise me were some of the emotions I felt. They ran the gamut from fear (what if I become severely ill?) to worry (does my partner have it too? Spoiler: he did, and he’s also fine now) to eye-rolling frustration (here we go with the isolation and counting days).

There was also abject sadness and terror at the thought of more isolation in my apartment, after spending most of 2020 and the first half of 2021 alone there. I broke down and sobbed to my mom on the phone after I got my positive results. I have worked so hard since my divorce to build a life for myself that includes community, but as a household of one with a highly contagious virus, I knew I was facing down at least a week of serious solitude.

I felt helpless and frustrated (there was nothing I could do about it), mildly outraged (but I’ve been doing everything right! The whole time!), and a little bit ashamed (I caught the virus anyway. Did I do something wrong?). And deep down, after a couple of days, I also felt a creeping sense of relief: now I’ve had it. So that happened.

In addition to all these emotions, I truly did feel lucky: my community stepped up for me, in ways both tangible and intangible. One friend dropped off groceries (and cough drops) on a bitterly cold afternoon. My supervisor called to check in on a few mornings. I went for a walk with a girlfriend who had tested positive the day after I did – which saved both of our sanity. Other friends texted; my parents called; my sister checked in on me every day. My partner and I did our best to support each other via FaceTime and phone calls, and on the weekend when we reunited in person, we hugged for minutes at a time. I felt loved and supported, even while I was physically alone.

As this pandemic drags on and on, the omicron wave has hit a lot of households in my circles that had so far managed to avoid the virus. My folks, my partner and various friends are all recovering; here in Boston we are still masking, sanitizing, flashing our vaccine cards to eat indoors and go to the gym and go hear live music (or dance salsa, in my case).

We are still here, I keep saying to my colleagues, my parents, my COVID-weary friends. I keep hearing Beth Silvers‘ voice in my head: It’s a virus, not a moral defect. Which is to say: keep doing everything you can, but testing positive is not a moral failure. It’s simply something many of us will have to deal with at some point.

I don’t have any neat and tidy conclusions, but wanted to share my experience in case it is helpful to someone here. (Beth also noted that, like childbirth, having COVID is a singular, isolating experience that creates some stuff we need to process together.) Thanks for reading, friends. If you have your own experiences/emotions to share, please feel free – I’m listening.

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How lightly we learn to hold hope,
as if it were an animal that could turn around
and bite your hand. And still we carry it
the way a mother would, carefully,
from one day to the next.

–from “Insha’Allah” by Danusha Laméris

I started 2021 with hope as my one little word. I thought, frankly, that it might be tempting fate to choose hope as my word in the middle of a pandemic, when I was unemployed and lonely and terrified of what the next months might bring. Six days into 2021, a group of white supremacists stormed the U.S. Capitol, and of course that was not nearly the end of the terrors and losses the year brought.

Hope, as we all know, is gritty and often surprising. It shows up where it was not expected, and it gleams out, sometimes, on the really hard days. It is, as Emily D. reminds us, “the thing with feathers,” and it is also often a choice. I had to choose hope many times in 2021 instead of falling into despair – instead of looking at the headlines and the case counts and my own empty apartment and sinking back into a fog of hopelessness. I did not always manage it; there were a lot of hard and lonely days. But having hope there at my elbow, nudging me, sometimes helped.

My words for each year may start out as abstract concepts, but as the days go on they become tangible, daily practices, embodied through actions and sometimes through other people. For me, hope this year often looked like the small daily stuff: washing dishes, going for a run, sending out yet another job application. It looked like walks with friends, fresh flowers, washing my face at night, making tentative travel plans (some of which I got to keep). It looked like choosing to believe good things would happen, but – critically – trying to let go of my notions of how they might happen.

I kept thinking this year of a line from Henri Nouwen, from that Advent book I love: “I have found it very important in my own life to let go of my wishes and start hoping.” Although it believes in a glad outcome, hope – Nouwen seems to be saying – is often open-ended.

Hope in hard times is, paradoxically, difficult and necessary; I am thus not done with hope, and I don’t suppose I will ever be. I am grateful for its presence in my life this past year, and I hope (as it were) to remain open to whatever it has to teach me.

Did you follow a word in 2021? If so, what did it teach you?

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Here we are at the end of this strange, long year. I may have more to say about 2021 soon, but for now, I wish you a gentle transition into 2022. Here’s what I have been reading:

25 Days ‘Til Christmas, Poppy Alexander
This was an impulse buy at the Trident in 2019, and I loved it just as much this time. Widowed mum Kate is barely making ends meet with her job selling Christmas trees, while Daniel is struggling after the death of his sister. They meet, become friends (and maybe something more) and help each other figure out how to move forward. Sweet, witty and heartwarming.

Swimming with Seals, Victoria Whitworth
I found this at the Booksmith a while back and have been reading it sloooowly over breakfast. Whitworth is an archaeologist and cold-weather swimmer who chronicles her swims on Orkney, along with musings on the island’s ancient cultures, her relationship with her mother, and humankind’s relationship to the sea. It dragged a bit at times but the writing is lovely – so many good sentences.

Peach Blossom Spring, Melissa Fu
As the Japanese army advances through China, a young woman named Meilin flees with her son, Renshu, and their family. This absorbing novel tells their family’s story: Meilin’s constant efforts to keep Renshu safe and happy; his eventual emigration to the U.S.; and the life he builds there as a scientist and a father. Thoughtful and vividly described; a haunting tribute to immigrant families and being caught between worlds. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 15).

All I Want for Christmas, Wendy Loggia
Bailey Briggs, Christmas fanatic, can’t wait for the holiday – but she wants to kiss someone under the mistletoe. This YA rom-com features plenty of cheer, though the plot is a little thin. Still fun – Bailey works in a bookstore, and her friends and family are sweet. Found at the charming Book Shop of Beverly Farms and saved for this season.

Marvelous Manhattan, Reggie Nadelson
I picked up this collection at the wonderful Three Lives (my favorite NYC bookstore, which is featured!) in August, and have been sloooowly reading it since. Nadelson gives an insider’s tour, peppered with history (some of it personal), cultural commentary and yummy food descriptions. I want to try a lot of these places. Mouthwatering and enjoyable.

The Body in the Garden, Katharine Schellman
English widow Lily Adler is trying to figure out what to do with herself after her husband’s death – and stumbles (literally) on a dead body. I enjoyed this first outing in Lily’s adventures; the Regency London details are fun and I like Lily herself and the other characters. (I read the sequel, Silence in the Library, earlier this fall.)

The Twelve Days of Dash and Lily, Rachel Cohn & David Levithan
It’s 12 days before Christmas and Lily’s holiday spirit has all but disappeared – so Dash hatches a scheme with Lily’s brother, Langston, to bring back the cheer. I loved this sequel to Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares – sweet, funny, full of NYC Christmas magic, and a sensitive exploration of how the holidays can be tough when you’re struggling, for whatever reason.

The Bookshop of Dust and Dreams, Mindy Thompson
Poppy Fulbright adores her family’s magical bookshop, Rhyme and Reason – she feels safe there. But strange things start happening when her brother’s best friend is killed in the war and her father falls ill. A bookish middle-grade fantasy novel with an engaging protagonist.

Intimations, Zadie Smith
I heard about Smith’s pandemic essay collection a while ago, but I wasn’t ready for it then. But I picked it up at the delightful Crow Bookshop in Vermont this week and read the essays in one sitting. I think she does tiny details – tulips in a New York City garden, the small encounters in “Screengrabs” – better than high philosophy. But she also writes well about love and work and isolation.

The Last Chance LibraryFreya Sampson
Shy librarian June Jones has rarely left her home village or tried anything new – especially since her mother’s death, eight years ago. But when June’s beloved library is threatened with closure, June joins a ragtag group of protesters fighting to keep it open. An engaging British story about a woman finding her own voice and (of course) the power of libraries. Found, fittingly, at the BPL.

These Precious Days, Ann Patchett
Patchett needs no introduction from me. I picked up her new essay collection at my beloved Three Lives in NYC. These warm, wise, tender essays explore friendship, marriage, dogs, her relationship with her father (and father figures), her love of literature and so much more. A perfect book to end the year.

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

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For leggy geraniums in my kitchen window and brilliant afternoon light.

For morning runs along the harbor and the greenway. For so much outdoor public space in my neighborhood, and a body that is strong and healthy, beautiful and resilient.

For a kind, brilliant, passionate, funny, fierce man whose love sustains me.

For a few local friends who are my lifelines, every single day.

For my faraway family, both blood kin and chosen.

For texts and calls with my girlfriends scattered across the miles. For the technologies that allow us to share in the details of one another’s lives.

For vaccines, nurses, doctors, public health officials and everyone who is (still) working so hard to keep us safe.

For a job at a neighborhood nonprofit that I love, working with good people to bring music and creative empowerment to our young folks.

For nourishing trips this summer and fall – to Texas, Minneapolis, Vermont and beyond – to explore new and beloved places and spend time with folks dear to me.

For music in all its forms: the Wailin’ Jennys and the women of country on my long runs, humming favorites in my kitchen, singing carols with others at Christmas choir rehearsal, hearing our ZUMIX students play ukulele or drums or guitar.

For good books, those who write them, and the chance to read and review them regularly.

For a place – my studio, my neighborhood, this city, my communities – where I have built a home and been welcomed into other people’s homes.

For all – as my friend Amy would say – that we have been given.

If you’re celebrating this week, I wish you a wonderful Thanksgiving.

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We’ve turned the corner into mid-November, flipping the big switch of Daylight Savings and shifting from bright green trees to russet leaves and early, gold-streaked sunsets. Back-to-school excitement (and trepidation) is a thing of the past, and even my trip to Texas last month feels like a long time ago. The accordion of time continues to contract and expand in strange ways in these still-pandemic months. Sometimes I’m not sure if I’ve lived one year, or five, or a strange in-between number, since March 2020. 

Here in Massachusetts, we are cautiously back to some kind of normal: back in the office, back to school, back to (some) indoor collective experiences. We are still wearing masks, keeping an eye on the COVID numbers, pulling out our vaccination cards to go to concerts or the theater. I know it isn’t the same everywhere; one of the defining features of this pandemic, for me, has been the wide range of experiences based on region, age and political affiliation. Sometimes I wonder if we are – if I am – being paranoid. But then I think about the losses of the past 20 months, all those lives memorialized this summer by tiny white flags near the Washington Monument. I think about the people I know who have lost loved ones. I think about the folks I love who have underlying health issues. And I think: maybe being cautious isn’t so bad.

I’ve thought often this year about an exchange between General Leia Organa and Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo in one of the newer Star Wars films. It’s the part in every Star Wars movie that always makes me cry: the moment when several of the characters acknowledge the odds they’re up against, and decide to go in anyway. This Leia is a different Leia than the fresh-faced princess with the cinnamon buns we met in A New Hope: she’s older, wearier, more familiar with the costs of constantly fighting. “So many losses,” she says quietly to her tall, purple-haired friend. “I can’t take any more.”

“Sure you can,” Holdo responds instantly. “You taught me how.”

Holdo’s comment first struck me as flippant when I saw it in the theater; I wondered if she was even listening to Leia. But it has stayed with me – this moment of vulnerability between two women who are longtime friends – through my divorce, a move, job changes, and the pandemic we’re all still living in. Sometimes I think it’s a testament to human resilience: we are all capable of withstanding more than we think. (Hasn’t the pandemic taught us that, if nothing else?) Sometimes I think it’s an important way for Holdo to remind Leia of her own courage. Some days I agree with Leia; my heart and soul have had enough.

Most of the time, I recognize it’s not that simple, not always. We may think – or even believe – we can’t take any more, in the moment. But we have to keep going. And we rely on our people to remind us that we can. 

The days are so bright right now, the low autumn sun sparkling on the harbor and flooding through the still-vivid leaves, making shifting patterns of orange and crimson and gold. And the nights are so dark – after those fiery sunsets at 4:45 p.m., the hours stretch on and on in pitch blackness, as I know they will for months. 

Somehow, I have to learn to hold the extremes – the dark and the bright, the losses and the joys. I have to learn to embrace it all, to lean into the loneliness as well as the deep connection. I am trying (always, it seems, I am trying) to accept all of it, to let it be what it will be and face whatever comes with courage and hope.

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We are halfway through November (already?) and the leaves are still gorgeous, thought the nights are getting colder (and darker!). Here’s what I have been reading:

Our American Friend, Anna Pitoniak
First Lady Lara Caine, a Russian and former model, has always been a bit of a mystery. When she invites journalist Sofie Morse to write her biography, Sofie’s not sure what to think – but she finds herself drawn into Lara’s world. A twisty, fascinating novel – part thriller, part Cold War history, part meditation on making one’s way in the world as a woman. Clearly inspired by Melania Trump, but very much its own thing. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 4).

The Whispers of War, Julia Kelly
As Europe hurtles toward another war, three friends – two Englishwomen and a German immigrant – struggle with the implications for their lives and friendship. Kelly writes warm, engaging novels about female friendship, and this one was really well done. Found at the Book Shop of Beverly Farms.

Red is My Heart, Antoine Laurain, illus. Le Sonneur
I have loved several of Laurain’s whimsical novels about life and love in Paris. This one is different – snippets of musings from a man going through a breakup, illustrated by street artists Le Sonneur. A bit enigmatic, a bit pensive. I received an advance copy; it’s out Jan. 18.

The Magnolia Palace, Fiona Davis
New York, 1919: artists’ model Lillian Carter needs a new career, and stumbles into a position as private secretary to Helen Clay Frick (whose father created the Frick Collection). In 1961, a young English model named Veronica finds herself stranded at the Frick in a snowstorm and uncovers a mystery. I love Davis’ richly detailed historical novels – this one was engaging and fun. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 25).

Call Us What We Carry, Amanda Gorman
Like a lot of people, I found out about Gorman when she wowed us at President Biden’s inauguration. Her new collection is piercingly honest and deeply felt – about race, the pandemic and the vagaries of being human. Lyrical and healing; her skill amazes me. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 7).

Her Path Forward: 21 Stories of Transformation and Inspiration, ed. Chris Olsen and Julie Burton
My Tuesday morning writing group has saved my life during the pandemic. Chris (a member) and Julie (who runs ModernWell) have co-launched Publish Her Press, and this is their first project. (And several of my friends are in it!) A wide-ranging collection of stories by and about women finding their way.

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

What are you reading?

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Wrapping up the month—life is still a struggle, but it helps to name and celebrate the good. I’ve enjoyed this format and will keep looking for hope as April begins.

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One of the (many) hard things about this past year: so much of it has felt exactly the same.

I love a good routine (and especially a good rhythm). I went to the same coffee shop (hello Darwin’s!) nearly every day for five years when I worked at Harvard. I run almost the same path through my beloved Eastie every morning. Even my nightly (very simple) skincare routine can be soothing in its familiarity.

But: the past 10+ months have held a severely limited orbit of people and places. With the arrival of a new year and no changes (except horrifying ones, like more COVID-19 deaths, and the attempted coup in D.C. on Jan. 6), I have been seriously craving some newness in my days.

I read somewhere that human beings need a mix of novelty and routine in their lives, which struck me as utterly true: the ratio is different for everyone, but most of us need a balance of some kind between comfort and adventure. Since a pandemic winter prevents me from seeking out some of my more typical adventures (I miss you, New York weekends), I’ve been trying to search for novelty in smaller ways.

Last week, I brought home anemones from the florist instead of daffodils or tulips, and their bright reds and purples (see above) made me so happy. I met a friend for a walk at the arboretum a few weeks ago – I hadn’t been there in years. We got lost trying to find each other, but even that newness was interesting, and good for my brain.

My guy and I have tried a couple of new recipes lately: fish tacos, a one-pot stew from Real Simple, cranberry-lemon scones. And last weekend, I drove over to his place and went for a run along his section of the river, instead of my usual harbor/greenway loop. Much of it felt reassuringly familiar – blue skies, pounding feet, beating heart – but there were new trees and paths to see and navigate, and it helped a bit. A change is, sometimes, as good as a rest.

How are you creating (or finding) novelty in these same-same days?

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