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Posts Tagged ‘whimsy’

Hello, friends. It’s technically the halfway point of winter, though we in the Northeast know we still have weeks to go before spring really comes. No matter what the groundhog says, we can expect biting winds and freezing temps for a while yet.

That’s one reason – though not the only reason – I’m joining up with Anne Bogel’s annual celebration of what’s saving our lives right now.

January was unusually grey – the cloudiest in decades, according to my favorite weather guy. I struggle with short days and bitter nights , and have been feeling a bit uninspired at work and in my own creative practice. So I needed the push, more than usual, to really look at what’s saving my life these days.

Here’s my list – I’d love to hear yours, if you’d like to share:

  • Clementines. These little bursts of sunshine are my favorite winter fruit. Their sweet-tart zing is just the best, and I love the way the scent lingers on my hands.
  • Petting Gigi, our affectionate office dog, whom I adore (it’s mutual).
  • Yoga, several times a week. I’m lucky that The Point, my beloved studio, is down the street from both work and home.
  • Strong black tea in my red Darwin’s mug. I miss the place itself, but the mug and the memories live on.
  • Fresh flowers, always, and houseplants. My stripey nanouk plant and African violet are thriving, and I’m starting my second batch of paperwhites soon.
  • Season 3 of All Creatures Great and Small, which is as joyful and funny and life-affirming as ever.
  • Spotify mixes, made for me: soulful singer-songwriters, Broadway hits, smooth jazz and the women of country.
  • Bright red toenail polish, even if nobody sees it but me.
  • Twinkle lights, at home and at work.
  • Travel plans coming up.
  • The &Juliet soundtrack, full of poppy, upbeat, feminist, blues-curing hits I adore.
  • Good books, as always.
  • Colorful pens and cute stickers, from Katie Daisy and Brandi Kincaid.
  • Trading texts and Marco Polo messages with a few dear friends.

What’s saving your life this winter? I’d love to hear.

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

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birds art life mug

As we grind our way through winter (I’m trying to embrace it, but grey days and sleet make it hard), I’m taking delight in a newish enjoyment: watching, and identifying, the birds in my neighborhood.

I’ve long loved the sight of a cheery robin redbreast, and the squawks of a bluejay send me to the window to search out that flash of bright cobalt against the bare branches. I adore the cheeky house sparrows who perch on my windowsill, and I like watching the mourning doves who sometimes take up residence there. But lately, I’ve been trying to pay attention to other breeds as well.

I found an Audubon guide at a used bookstore last summer, and I’ve been using it to try and identify a few of the birds I see on my windowsill or on my morning runs: black-capped chickadees, bright goldfinches, the terns who swim in the harbor. The gulls and hawks are easy to spot, but so many of the smaller gray and brown birds (known, apparently, to birders as “LBJs” or “little brown jobs”) require a bit more attention. I’m not always sure I’ve gotten it right, but it’s fun to try and puzzle out the name of a new species.

The other week, on a walk with my friend Sharon, I stopped in Piers Park to watch a flock of birds on the water. We spent a few minutes debating: they were ducks, clearly, but what kind? We squinted in the fading light, studying the white rings on their necks and the little spikes on the backs of their heads. Sharon pulled out her phone, consulted a birding app, and we decided: they were probably red-breasted mergansers.

I get a little thrill from identifying a bird, as Mary Oliver describes in her poem “Bird in the Pepper Tree.” But I get a different, deeper satisfaction from simply watching: noticing, observing, trying to see these birds as separate from my categorization of them. I loved watching the flock of birds bobbing on the water, knowing some of them were mergansers but some might be other species. The snapshot, in my memory, of leaning against the railing with Sharon, watching their black bodies against the waves blue with reflected light, was better than knowing their names.

As Oliver notes, “a name is not a leash” – though it can be, or enhance, a true joy.

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If you read my recent newsletter, you know: the first week of January here was dreary and grey, with mornings shrouded in mist and afternoons that looked just like the mornings. It wasn’t particularly cold (at least, for New England), but it was gloomy as a Yorkshire moor, and not in the romantic way. By Thursday I was mopey, and by Friday I was downright cranky. And on Saturday morning, I nearly squealed – or wept, I couldn’t decide which – when I woke to bright sunshine.

There’s a sharpness to the light this time of year, a sudden urgency, as though the daylight itself is trying to make the most of its limited hours. The sun’s low angle bounces off the harbor and arrows straight into my kitchen window, nearly blinding me, but its golden warmth is welcome.

My houseplants stretch toward the light, and so do I – making sure to bundle up and get out for walks as often as I can. If it’s too cold or I’ve just come back inside, sometimes I stand in the kitchen window and let the sunlight flood my cells, my shadow stretching long on the floorboards behind me, lighting up the ordinary objects that crowd my shelves. Even my silverware drawer looks ethereal, bathed in that kind of light.

For the grey days, I still have my happy lamp and vitamin D pills – and you can bet I’m outside every day, whether walking or running or simply commuting the few blocks to my office. The fresh air helps, no matter what color the skies are. But the sunlight – blazing or shy, intense or elusive – is its own particular gift. Especially on these short, dark days, I’m making the effort to soak it up as much as I can. (I’m also thinking of dipping back into Horatio Clare’s lovely memoir, aptly titled The Light in the Dark.)

How do you find light in the middle of winter?

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We’re a week into the new year, and in typical fashion, it’s chilly (though not as biting as it could be). The blue-sky days are brilliant, and the winterberries are showing off their cheery red, but there’s not a lot of visible growth outside. These days, the growing things I cherish – and a consistent delight – are my profusion of houseplants, a cluster of pots positioned to catch the winter sunlight.

I’ve nurtured a couple of geraniums for years – sometimes red, sometimes pink. Currently I have one of each, and I’m keeping a close eye on them after they got frostbitten during our Christmas cold snap. I’m hoping the southern sunshine will coax them back to thriving before too long. I love their cheery faces and the spicy scent of their leaves.

Across the kitchen, there’s a trio of smaller pots: an African violet sporting purple flowers, a re-sprouting amaryllis, and a purple-and-green striped nanouk plant from Trader Joe’s. Their spot on the waist-high cabinet that serves as a pantry means they catch the afternoon sunlight, and their fresh green growth makes me happy when there’s only brown to be seen outside.

On each kitchen windowsill, I’m starting a paperwhite bulb: my florist sells these around Christmastime, and I always scoop up a few. We are weeks away from crocuses, months away from daffodils and tulips and blossoming cherry trees, but the tall green shoots and sweet-scented white flowers always give me hope that we’ll survive the winter.

I love my houseplants for their inherent beauty, for their promise of new growth in a cold and dark season, for the unruly joy they bring to my (mostly) tidy apartment. New life is messy; growth pokes out an elbow or stretches out a leaf in unexpected places, and I often need the visual reminder. These plants, plus the fresh flowers I buy on the regular, and the fern that sits next to the humidifier, help me look for growth and vitality where I otherwise might not.

What’s delighting you this week? I’d love to hear.

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Last week, I caught the train to Cambridge for a workshop at Albertine Press – an introduction to linocut printing. This involves carving a design into a linoleum block, inking the block with a roller (by hand or with a printing press), and transferring the design onto paper. I’ve done my fair share of scrapbooking, but had never tried anything like this.

Seven of us, plus the instructor, spent the evening happily carving and chatting, learning the feel of new tools in our hands and printing our designs in red or blue ink on one of the shop’s hand-cranked presses. Tiny pink rubber shavings piled up as we began carving; my fingers bore graphite stains from transferring my sketch from paper to rubber. I was fascinated by the tactile, physical nature of the process, and I learned – again – that my drawing skills are no match for the designs I can see in my head.

My attempt at a set of fall-ish postcards (see above) came out very wonky, and not just because the paper was sometimes a little crooked. I had to work hard not to be embarrassed at my efforts, especially after seeing others’ beautiful, elaborate designs. But I kept reminding myself: this is an experiment. I’m trying something new. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

We so often try new things expecting to master them quickly: a yoga pose, a new program at work, an interesting recipe. (Just me?) Sometimes it goes as planned: the pantry brownies I made last week turned out beautifully. Sometimes it’s sort of a disaster. Most of the time, we land somewhere in between.

My postcards are cute, with perhaps a sort of offbeat charm, but no one would mistake them for the work of an experienced artist. (Because I’m not!) But it was worthwhile: the trying, the experimenting, the meeting kind strangers while we learned something new, together. I may not become a linocut expert any time soon, but the joy of being a beginner again, for a couple of hours, was well worth the price of admission.

And now – if I can get over my own perfectionism – I have a stack of cute(ish) postcards to send to friends this fall.

When’s the last time you tried something new, just for fun? 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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This past weekend, I spent a day at Boston Fan Expo – known popularly, if not officially, as Boston Comic-Con – with my guy. He’s a comic-book geek from way back, and he and his son have been going to this event together for more than a decade.

It was my first con event ever, and I decided – after a fun but seriously overstimulating day – that it was sort of like traveling to a foreign country.

Why? First of all, it took a little effort to get there: for me, one stop on the train and then a bike ride to the convention center. G made sure to give me the lay of the land (not quite a guidebook, but close) before we went inside. But there was a lot he didn’t know, even after years of doing this, and a lot I had to figure out for myself.

Once inside, we explored and wandered. The costumes, languages and locals I saw spanned the gamut from familiar to totally unknown. I’m fairly fluent in Harry Potter, for example, and I speak a bit of Star Wars and some Lord of the Rings. But I only know a little Marvel, and even less DC (except for Wonder Woman, of course), and I don’t speak anime (or horror) at all. It reminded me of being in Spain: I could decipher some of the main language, with patience. But several of the dialects, and other languages such as Catalan and Euskara, remain totally unfamiliar to me after multiple trips there.

The people-watching, as advertised, was excellent: one vendor had a live parrot on her shoulder, and another had gone full hobbit, with pointy ears and a green Elven cloak fastened with a leaf clasp. I saw so many tattoos and costumes whose meanings I couldn’t begin to guess at, and mostly I saw a ton of folks having fun, in a world they inhabit and love.

We made sure to hydrate and take breaks, and I came away with a few fun souvenirs, including a Gryffindor keychain. I loved chatting with the locals (i.e. a few vendors) and exploring a part of G’s world alongside him. But by the end – I have to say – I was very ready to go home. We picked up tacos from a favorite local spot, headed back to my house, cracked open a new cider, and crashed.

Have you been to a con or other event like this? Did it feel like a foreign country to you?

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It started off small, as so many things do: with a job I hated and a commitment to buying myself flowers on Mondays.

My essay “Becoming the Crazy Flower Lady” is up at Random Sample Review! Please click over to read it, and let me know what you think, if you’d like.

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Last month, my girl Jackie and I took off on a Saturday morning, heading north up Route 1 to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, about an hour from Boston. (After 12 years in New England, my Texas-girl sense of space still marvels that you can get to another state that quickly.)

Our main destination was Book & Bar, which has had a facelift since I was there last, and still feels full of literary possibilities. We browsed for ages, split a salad and some yummy pretzel rolls, had a long chat with one of the managers, browsed some more. Eventually, we left to wander the main drag (and get caught in a rainstorm). But Jackie had another destination in mind to cap off our day: Auspicious Brew, a kombucha brewery in nearby Dover.

I’d only had kombucha once or twice before, and wasn’t sure I liked it: the fermentation can make it taste real funky. But I’d never even heard of a kombucha brewery, and from the moment we walked in, I was utterly charmed.

The brewery is in a former industrial space that reminded me both of Downeast and of the Lower Mills buildings, near where I used to live. It’s bright and funky, with potted plants and twinkle lights and hand-painted signs. We tried flights of kombucha, choosing from the eight (!) flavors they had on tap, and I picked up a mix-and-match four-pack to take home to my guy. You can also order Mexican food from the restaurant down the hall – they’ll even deliver it right to your table. We were hungry after a day of shopping and schlepping, so we took full advantage.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the kombucha: it reminded me of the fruity ciders I love, with a little extra funk and some creative flavors. (Concord grape and cardamom – the dark purple one above – was surprisingly delicious.) We sipped and talked and snapped photos and talked some more. I was delighted to try something new and tasty, and it was even more fun to share it with a friend.

What local(ish) adventures and/or fun libations are you having, these days?

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Recently, on a mild midweek evening, my guy and I ate dinner at his house and then went for a walk through the neighborhood. We have savored these midweek dinners in this season; they began as taco nights, but have evolved to include lasagna or hot dogs or whatever is in the fridge or pantry on any given week. They also, sometimes, include episodes of Black-ish or The Mandalorian, but on this particular evening, we wanted to wander.

He lives in a mostly residential area, leafy and quiet and hard to get to by public transit; I like it, except that it’s not all that accessible. The houses are a mix of single-family, classic Boston triple-deckers, brick mid-century apartment blocks. There were, on that evening, so many climbing vines and blooming roses and blowsy, beautiful peonies.

We ended up at Kiki’s, a nearby market whose name always makes me smile, because it’s what my nephews call me. I’d never been inside, so we decided to go in for a browse. And to our surprise and my utter delight, we found the aisle you see above: lined with every conceivable kind of digestive biscuit, Cadbury chocolate bar, and various other British treats.

Suddenly I was 20 years old again, standing in the smallish Sainsbury’s on the Woodstock Road in Oxford, or in the tiny post office around the corner on North Parade. I was gazing at the unfamiliar chocolates in their purple wrappers, trying to decide which one to take home for my study session that night. I was in the House 10 kitchen with Jamie, late at night, munching on an orange-wrapped roll of Hobnobs biscuit, talking about dreams and travel and love.

There was more: custard creams and bourbon creams, jammy tea cakes wrapped in marshmallow and chocolate, the orange-scented Jaffa cakes that are my friend Cole’s favorite. I was taken back, too, to the tiny newsstand across from St Anne’s College, Oxford, where you could once buy a bag of broken biscuits (exactly what it sounds like) for a pound or two.

We brought home an assortment of biscuits, plus a Cadbury Mint Crisp bar (still my favorite), and some spicy beef jerky (G couldn’t resist). I was – am – completely surprised to find all these treats in such variety and volume, three blocks from G’s house in Brighton. It kicked my ever-present wanderlust back into gear, of course, but more than that it simply made me happy: so glad to find these goodies that are part of a place I love, and happy to share them with my favorite man.

What local adventures are you having, these days?

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