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Posts Tagged ‘seasons’

Darkest Before Dawn

Three days into the new year,
and despite the lack of adequate light,
our white phalaenopsis orchid
has eased open a third delicate bloom.
Perhaps coaxed by the warmth
of the woodstove a few feet away,
the orchid thrives in its tiny pot
shaped like the shell of a nautilus,
sending out new stems and glossy leaves,
its aerial roots—green at the tips—
reaching upward like tentacles
to sip the morning air. These blooms
stir something too long asleep in me,
proving with stillness and slow growth
what I haven’t wanted to believe
these past few months—that hope
and grace still reign in certain sectors
of the living world, that there are laws
which can never be overturned
by hateful words or the wishes
of power-hungry men. Be patient,
this orchid seems to say, and reveal
your deepest self even in the middle
of winter, even in the darkness
before the coming dawn.

I found this poem last winter in How to Love the World, a lovely, hopeful anthology edited by Crews. I have been thinking of it again in these cold January days: sometimes keen and blue and bright, sometimes grey and damp and dark.

While I am not growing orchids, my last paperwhite bulb – which sat on the kitchen windowsill for over a week with no signs of growth at all – has started to uncurl its green stem, perhaps in response to the blinding winter sunshine. I am taking it as a sign of hope, and thought it was apt to share this poem with you.

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Hello, friends. It is so cold – the high yesterday here in Boston was 14 (!) degrees. It feels much warmer today (we’re above freezing!), but between the cold and the endless pandemic anxiety, I’ve been struggling with the blues. At least the sun is (mostly) shining; we had a solid week of rain and fog around Christmas/New Year’s and it was rough.

I’m isolating in my apartment this week after a positive COVID test. My symptoms are mild and I have enough groceries, etc., but of course it’s a bummer. And the headlines – and their individual impacts on each of our lives – go on and on.

So, in the spirit of hope and trying to find some joy, here’s what’s saving my life this week:

  • Sunshine, as always. Even when it’s bitterly cold, these blue and silver winter days (and the sunlight pouring in my kitchen windows) are so beautiful.
  • The Twisted Tomboy shower bombs I found recently at the Booksmith – so potent and refreshing.
  • Abby Rasminsky’s gorgeous, honest newsletter – she writes so well about pandemic life and trying to find the good.
  • The teas I stocked up on in December: one batch from my beloved local MEM Tea, one from the wonderful McNulty’s in Greenwich Village, NYC.
  • Related: my favorite mugs, including an old one from Obvious State and a newish one from Flour.
  • My friend Micha’s lovely, contemplative podcast, The Slow Way.
  • Hannah Jane Parkinson’s quirky, lovely collection The Joy of Small Things, which I found at the marvelous Three Lives – exactly what it sounds like.
  • Texts and calls from my people, and a friend dropping off a bag of groceries the other day.
  • My leggy, lovely geraniums, which are reaching for the light in my kitchen window.
  • Good books, including a stack of library finds and a virtual stack of e-galleys for review.
  • Fun Spotify mixes: jazz and movie soundtracks, folk and Motown, nineties country – whatever I’m in the mood for.

What’s saving your life in these long winter days?

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Last Monday, I threw on my green coat over my pajamas and went out for a walk instead of my usual morning run. My running coach and many other wise people remind me regularly that rest days are important, and I also know I always feel better when I move.

I walked down the hill under grey misty skies, past the community garden with tidy beds mostly dug up for winter. There are a few roses, ragged and papery but still bright red, clinging to a bush up against the fence. I love them in all seasons, but this year I am particularly taken by the fact that they’re hanging on in the face of frosts and bitter winds.

Although I’d forgotten my headphones, I found The Civil Wars’ version of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and played it on repeat as I walked through the park. Every year there’s at least one morning in December when I listen to it over and over again, the haunting harmonies melding perfectly with the lyrics and their longing: O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by Thine advent here. O come, Thou Wisdom from on high, and order all things far and nigh. We used to start every Advent service at my former church with that hymn, the a cappella notes soaring up into the high-ceilinged sanctuary, setting the tone for the time of year when we watch for the light as the world grows dark.

I am where I often find myself in mid-December: slowly tiptoeing into the season, putting up my two Christmas trees (one tiny, one medium-size) but waiting a few days to add ornaments to the branches. I am listening to quiet Christmas music (Kate Rusby, Nichole Nordeman, Sarah MacLachlan) and some brighter melodies (She & Him, Broadway carol renditions on Spotify). I am rehearsing twice a week in a dusty church sanctuary with a group of friends for a Christmas carol performance, and singing those pieces – some familiar, some new – to myself as I wash dishes or walk to work. This year, we are singing the Magnificat (my idea), and those familiar lines weave in and over and around these days that feel both twinkly and edged with deep dark.

Here we are, I say every year in mid-December, mid-Advent: aching and tired and desperate for hope, working hard to make magic and grab hold of joy and balance our daily lives with the special moments of the season. Here we are, still mid-pandemic, still treading carefully but yearning to celebrate, still waiting for Emmanuel to come. Here we are, praying God will be with us, stubbornly nurturing that flame of hope amid wars and rumors of wars, disease and pain. Here we are: weary, anxious, but alive. I want to stay awake, alert to those flickers of hope, attuned to those whispers of joy.

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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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How is it November already, y’all? (I say this every month.) I am struggling with what to do with this blog, lately, but still wanted to share what I have been reading during these last few intense weeks. Here’s the latest roundup:

Silence in the LibraryKatharine Schellman
Wealthy widow Lily Adler finds herself dealing with an unwanted houseguest (her father) and the death of a family friend. Naturally, she gets suspicious and starts to investigate. A witty, highly enjoyable Victorian mystery.

All You Knead is Love, Tanya Guerrero
Alba doesn’t want to go live with her estranged abuela in Spain. But once she gets there, she finds her way to a local bakery, a new community, and a way to work through some difficulties. A lovely middle-grade story that gets honest about tough family stuff. I loved the glimpses of Barcelona, too – I visited a long time ago.

Olive Bright, Pigeoneer, Stephanie Graves
As the war with Germany drags on, Olive Bright is determined to do her bit – preferably with the help of her family’s highly trained pigeons. But the clandestine operation that comes knocking at her door isn’t quite what she expected. A really fun WWII story with a plucky heroine – very Home Fires.

Brown Girls, Daphne Palasi Andreades
Narrated in a collective voice, this powerful novel tells the story of a group of brown and Black girls from “the dregs of Queens.” Andreades’ voice is vivid and engaging, and she draws sharp portraits of their individual and shared experiences. So good. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 4).

The Austen Girls, Lucy Worsley
Jane Austen’s nieces, Fanny and Anna, are finally out in society – but a series of events leave them both wondering if the husband hunt is all it’s cracked up to be. A thoughtful middle-grade take on Austen (who is herself a character) with a slightly improbable but really fun plot. Just what I needed for a few cozy evenings. Found at Dogtown Books.

The Garden in Every Sense and Season, Tovah Martin
I’ve been going sloooooowly through this one since June. Martin takes readers through a year in her garden, through the lens of the five senses. She’s knowledgeable and also breezy (with a love for alliteration) and this was such a fun tour of her garden year. Found at the wonderful Concord Bookshop.

Miss Kopp Investigates, Amy Stewart
After the death of their brother, the Kopp sisters rally around their sister-in-law and her children. Fleurette, the youngest sister, puts aside her dreams of the stage – but soon finds herself involved in some undercover investigative work. I love this series and it was fun to see Fleurette coming into her own. Also found at the Concord Bookshop.

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

What are you reading?

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I’m 38 today. And as I have said several times in the last week – to a friend who was joking about being “forever 29,” to another friend’s daughter who started to ask me how old I was and then hesitated, to my partner on the phone one night – I am proud to be 38. If you ask me how old I am, I will tell you. No dissembling, no hesitating. It may not always be that way, but it is that way today.

I have earned every one of these years: every gray hair, every smile line, every scar both visible and invisible. I have especially earned the last three years, which have included (among other things) my divorce, some serious church trauma, a move, two job changes, a new (wonderful) relationship, and a pandemic.

Since my this is thirty-five post, I have navigated challenges I could never have imagined. I have spent most of a year in my apartment by myself (or running through my beloved East Boston neighborhood). I have dealt with furloughs and layoffs and career/identity angst. I have chosen to blow up my life (read: leaving my marriage) and start again, and I have also dealt with changes I did not choose, repeatedly. I have held so much loss, and also so much love. I have not solved nearly everything, and I am still trying to let go of the idea that “solving” anything (except the New York Times crossword) is the goal.

Thirty-eight might be middle-aged, or close to it – but as Nora McInerny pointed out recently, middle age is the goal. Growing old is the goal. I want many more delicious years on this beautiful earth, and I want to live them as fully and bravely as possible. I want to care less (much less) about what people think, and more about creating joy and loving my people fiercely, and becoming a stronger writer, runner and human. (And I’d like to do some more international travel, too, once that feels like a good idea again.)

Thirty-eight looks like morning tea in one of my several favorite mugs, scribbling in my journal before heading out on a run. Thirty-eight is still adjusting to life at ZUMIX, dealing with the constant questions and uncertainty that come with any work (but especially youth-centered work) during a pandemic. Thirty-eight is yoga classes on some evenings and walks with my guy on others, regular text exchanges with a few close girlfriends and weekly phone calls with my parents. Thirty-eight has made New England her home for more than a decade, but is still and always a Texan.

Thirty-eight is still grieving the end of a marriage and an imagined future, and also reveling in the deep love I have found with a man I never expected. Thirty-eight is on a serious nineties country music kick and mixes in some Broadway tunes and folk music on the regular. Thirty-eight is learning to hold so many tensions, to accept and acknowledge that life is often both-and, to name the fear and worry and other hard emotions and then keep going through them. Thirty-eight snaps pictures of flowers every day, reads five or six books at once, eats a ton of granola and Greek yogurt and occasionally cooks real meals for one.

The upheavals of the last few years have made it challenging to plan, or even dream; so many of my former ideas about my life have been completely wiped away. But thirty-eight is starting to dream again.

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upper west side view

Of all the late-nineties rom-coms featuring plucky heroines, adorable New York apartments and lives full of utter charm, You’ve Got Mail might be my favorite.

I saw it in the theater as a teenager, and have watched it countless times since – with my family, my girlfriends, by myself. I remember the days of dial-up AOL and the magic of finding new friends online before social media, though I am about 15 years younger than Kathleen Kelly. I once spent a weekend on the Upper West Side visiting some of the movie’s iconic locations: Cafe Lalo, Zabar’s, Gray’s Papaya, the 91st Street Garden in Riverside Park. (I did not see Joe and Brinkley, but you can bet I looked.) I still have the soundtrack on CD, and New York in the fall definitely makes me want to buy school supplies.

You’ve Got Mail continues to charm me for so many reasons: the witty, perfectly timed dialogue; the cozy bookshop packed with beloved children’s classics and kind employees; the epistolary love story (though I have thoughts, these days, about Joe Fox and his personal ethics). But the more time I spend with it, the more clearly I see what my friend Kari noted years ago: in addition to a classic romantic comedy, it is (in Kari’s words) “a moving portrait of a woman who is going through a crisis of vocation.”

Kathleen has always known she’d run The Shop Around the Corner; she started helping her mother there after school at age six, and never left. We don’t even know if she went to college, or entertained other dreams for her life. She has grown up shaped by this bookstore and this neighborhood, and she would happily go on selling children’s books there forever. But she is not given that choice: Fox Books moves in across the way, and its big-box appeal (coupled, no doubt, with rising rents and the lurking shadow of Amazon) forces Kathleen to make a decision she never foresaw: “Close. We’re going to close.”

I’ve thought about Kathleen a lot this past year, as the pandemic has upended so many of the jobs most of us believed would bring us stability and security. I was furloughed from my higher ed job last May, then finally laid off in January after months of waiting. This wasn’t the first time, though: my last few years in higher ed have been marked by uncertainty and change, including two previous layoffs and a few temp gigs. The thing I have been chasing – meaningful work that provided a steady paycheck and health insurance in an industry I thought was stable – has turned out not to be so reliable after all.

“What are you going to do now?” a customer asks Kathleen as she rings up books (and stuffs in a box of Kleenex) at the closing sale. She gives a vague but honest answer: she’s going to take some time. We see her doing just that in the last third of the movie: reading a thick novel at a coffee shop, buying plants and produce with Joe Fox, heating up a bowl of soup and sitting on the floor in her apartment to eat it and bask in the sunshine. I suspect she also must have done some grieving. She must have wondered – what now? Earlier in the film, she had wondered in an email if her life’s smallness meant it didn’t have value, or that she lacked courage. Now, that life is no longer available to her, and she has to figure out the next step on a road she never saw coming.

We don’t get a tidy resolution of Kathleen’s career story; we don’t get to see her take her next professional step, though she hints that she’s working on a children’s book. I hope that whatever she does next, it is rich and satisfying and allows her to use all that experience from decades of working at the store. I hope her previous life leads, in both good and surprising ways, to her next one. I hope she realizes how brave she truly is – as Birdie tells her, “You are daring to imagine that you could have a different life.” I hope she’s happy with Joe, of course, but more than that I hope she is fulfilled in her own skin and satisfied with the way she gets to spend her days.

My hopes for Kathleen, of course, are also my hopes for myself. (Isn’t that what we do with our heroines – see ourselves in them, and then project our own hopes onto them?) In the wake of an extremely difficult year, I am hoping – and searching – for a steady paycheck, for sure. But I am also hoping for work that gives me a rich, satisfying, joyful way to spend my days. I think Kathleen would approve.

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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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The light shifts toward summer, and so does my spirit. Flowers wake up, trees stretch their branches toward different colors in the sky. Evening walks take on new shades of hope.

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We’re halfway through February and it’s snowing (again). I’ve been hunkering down with all the good books – here’s what I have been reading:

A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow, Laura Taylor Namey
Lila Reyes has big plans to take over her abuela’s bakery in Miami. But when three big griefs hit her at once, her family ships her off to Winchester, England, for the summer. Determined to be miserable, Lila nevertheless finds herself giving a Cuban twist to British pastries and making new friends – including a dreamy boy. I loved this sweet YA novel with its mashup of Miami and England.

New Yorkers: A City and its People in Our Time, Craig Taylor
I’ve been reading e-galleys since March (one of the many changes wrought by the pandemic). But y’all, I got a print galley of this collection of interviews with the unsung heroes who make up New York: elevator repairmen, bodega managers, homeless people, nannies, ICU nurses, aspiring actors and singers, cops and firefighters. Joyous, cacophonous, loud, varied and wonderful. (Can you tell I miss NYC?) To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 23).

All the Greys on Greene Street, Laura Tucker
Twelve-year-old Olympia, known as Ollie, loves hanging out at her dad’s art restoration studio and sketching everything in her neighborhood. But when her dad disappears with a valuable piece of art, and her mom goes to bed and won’t get up, Ollie and her two best friends have to figure out what to do next. A vivid, sensitive, compelling middle-grade adventure set in 1980s SoHo.

Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape, Lauret Savoy
I found Savoy’s work in Kathryn Aalto’s Writing Wild, and Roxani also recommended her. This is a thoughtful, layered exploration of how family and national histories are bound up with the land itself, and how race and silence and erasure all play roles. Savoy is mixed-race, with roots in several parts of the country, and she weaves her own story in with several deep dives into the physical landscape. So good.

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, Katherine May
Everyone seems to be reading this book right now, amid our endless pandemic winter. May writes honestly and thoughtfully about her own personal winters–chronic illness, her son’s anxiety, job angst–as well as physical winter and the way different cultures deal with it. I found some nuggets of wisdom to be more illuminating than the whole. Quiet and very worthwhile.

In a Book Club Far Away, Tif Marcelo
I enjoy Marcelo’s warmhearted fiction about strong women. This book features Adelaide, Sophie and Regina, three former military spouses (Regina is also a veteran) who met at a past posting in upstate New York. Ten years later, Adelaide sends her friends (now estranged from each other) an SOS. Sharing a house for two weeks, the three women must confront each other and their past secrets. Very relatable; by turns funny and moving. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 6).

The Love Story of Missy Carmichael, Beth Morrey
Millicent Carmichael, age 79, spends her days mostly alone, mourning her losses: estranged daughter, absent husband, son and grandson in Australia. But then an acquaintance asks her to look after a dog, and gradually, everything changes. Missy’s loneliness was hard to read about sometimes–it struck so close to home–but I loved the characters, especially Missy’s friend Angela, and watching Missy gradually open herself up to connection.

Mergers and Acquisitions: Or, Everything I Know About Love I Learned on the Wedding Pages, Cate Doty
Former society reporter Doty takes us inside the world of writing wedding announcements for The New York Times. Along the way, she muses on her own early obsession with weddings (influenced by her Southern roots), her doomed early-twenties love story, and the onetime coworker who became (spoiler) her lifelong love. Witty, warmhearted and at times juicy (though she doesn’t name names). So fun. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 4).

The Last Bookshop in London, Madeline Martin
Grace Bennett has never been a great reader. But when she moves to London with her best friend in pursuit of a new life, she lands a position at a dusty bookshop. As Grace seeks to improve the store’s sales, the Blitz comes to London, and she and her new circle of acquaintances must dig deep to find the courage to get through. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 6).

Links are to Trident and Brookline Booksmith, my perennial local faves. Shop indie!

What are you reading?

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