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Posts Tagged ‘whimsy’

Last fall, on a whim and a discount code, I decided to try Birchbox, one of those seemingly ubiquitous beauty-subscription boxes. (This post is not sponsored or perked – I don’t even subscribe anymore. I’m simply musing about my experience.)

At the time, I was still in the throes of my divorce and my move to East Boston, and in stereotypically American-female fashion, I thought a little pampering might help. (Though I wasn’t sure it would, honestly. I’m hardly a beauty-product junkie; I dye my own hair from a box every few weeks, and I haven’t had a manicure since 2011. But I love a good lip gloss and I adore getting fun mail.)

I went online, filled out the quiz with details about my hair type, skin type, preferences, etc., and waited for my first box to arrive. When it did, I was charmed by the colorful packaging, breezy info card detailing how to use each product, and the fun array of samples: lip gloss, highlighter (what is that?), moisturizer, mascara. I was surprised, in fact, by how delighted I was.

As a lifelong bookworm, an English major and a feminist who grew up in Texas, I embody a few contradictions: I want people to love me for my brain and heart before my body, and I’d rather browse a bookstore than Sephora any day. But I was raised by a mother who never leaves the house without makeup, and I believe in the importance of both self-care and looking put together. Even during quarantine, I’ve been blow-drying my hair and putting on makeup most days: both routines help signal that I’m ready for whatever the day brings.

As I played around with Birchbox samples of eye cream, lipstick, primer (which I had never used before) and a gold-foil face mask that made me look like Iron Man, I realized something else: I had internalized some serious snobbery about women who self-soothe with beauty products. I still reach for a book and a cup of tea first when I’m stressed or sad, but I had discounted the fun of sticking on sparkly eye pads or trying a new shade of blush. Sometimes, frankly, pampering does nothing at all – but sometimes it helps me see myself a little differently, or just adds a shot of whimsy to the day.

The products didn’t all feel like me, and I ended up passing on a few extras to my mom, sister and girlfriends. (I haven’t used mousse since the eighties, and I’m not sorry about it.) But I found a few favorites that I still use, and several more that I enjoyed trying out on a limited basis. I’ve got a stockpile of still others in the bathroom, waiting for the day I need a pick-me-up and decide to try out that shade of eyeshadow or new face scrub. (Bonus: I haven’t had to buy mascara in months.)

This isn’t quite the because-you’re-worth-it narrative familiar to any woman who’s ever watched a L’Oreal commercial (though I am worth it, in case you were wondering). It’s more about trying something just because I wanted to, and being surprised and delighted by it. Birchbox even made it onto one of my lifesaving lists, because the boxes and their contents were sources of joy. I eventually stopped my subscription because I had enough products for now, but I’m still glad I tried it out. (And I am now a serious fan of Kiehl’s moisturizer and Dr. Lipp lip gloss.)

Have you tried Birchbox or something similar – and/or been forced to confront your own snobbery about makeup? I’d love to hear your stories.

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Since the schools and daycare centers closed, my neighbors have been looking for ways to keep their kids occupied. Especially as the weather warms, I’m seeing a lot of sidewalk chalk in the neighborhood.

Rainbows are a popular theme (they’re in lots of windows, too, including mine). One family scrawled “Quarantine” on the brick wall of their house, and played some tic-tac-toe games on the sidewalk nearby. They also wrote all their names, which I found both lovely and heartbreaking: we are here. 

My friend Ally and her kids have created a couple of epic hopscotch games, involving directions like “Spin 3 Times” and “Dance Party” (see above). And last week, I saw a heartfelt complaint next to the hockey courts at the end of my street: “Mayor Walsh took our hockey nets! We our [sic] very upset!” Someone else had printed an answer beneath: “We are all not happy about how things are going, but we will get through this.”

I have yet to invest in my own sidewalk chalk (maybe I should?), but for now, I’m enjoying the messages I find on my runs and walks, like this one:

That’s all we can do. Love all, wash our hands, keep telling our stories, get outside in the sunshine when we can. And keep going. Somehow we’ll make it through.

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One of the toughest things, so far, about quarantine is not being able to hang out with my friends.

I live alone, so I really rely on my friends in the neighborhood, my classes at the nearby yoga studio and my interactions with colleagues for human connection. We are doing the best we can – Zoom meetings and phone calls and virtual yoga (so much virtual yoga), but I miss just sitting in a friend’s living room, or inviting someone over for tea.

The other night, my friend Lauryn had a brilliant idea: a virtual baking date via FaceTime. We decided to start with Molly Wizenberg’s Scottish scones, about which I have raved here more times than I can count. They were on her blog a million years ago, then appeared in her first book, A Homemade Life – which, in addition to being gorgeous and funny and delicious, is one of the books that landed me my Shelf Awareness review gig. (I had to write a few sample reviews, and Marilyn, my editor, was already a Wizenberg fan – she asked me about Molly’s banana bread when she wrote me back to tell me I’d gotten the job.)

Anyway, I sent Lauryn the recipe and (for good measure) a photo of the ingredient list, and we gathered bags of flour and sugar and cartons of half-and-half and mixing bowls, and I propped up my phone inside the kitchen cabinet so it wouldn’t keep falling over. And we baked, with her husband and kids moving in and out of the frame, and me dashing to the cupboard to dig out the baking powder, and both of us struggling to scrape the zest (lemon for her, orange for me) off our respective graters.

We lost the connection a few times, and had to repeat ourselves more than once, but we caught up a bit, about the day and the weather and this weird new life we’re all living. And it helped. And the scones – need I say it? – were delicious. Mine (with dried cranberries and orange zest) are above; Lauryn’s (with lemon zest and crystallized ginger) are below.

Are you baking in these days, friends? (My friend Jess calls it “distractibaking,” and I suspect she’s not alone.) Do share, if you are. Be well.

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The first [daffodils] of the season are sprouting on my pocket-handkerchief sundeck—bursts of yellow on sappy stems. It seems almost wrong for them to be so yellow and so confident of the coming of spring. It is still winter. They are early. I am quite annoyed with them, which is perverse. […]

The pots on the sundeck are studded with strappy leaves, and stems topped with furled yellow buds, and, until I cut it a few minutes ago, there was this one arrogant or self-confident bloom ahead of all the rest, with its open-hearted, imprudent embrace of possibility. […]

Daffy daffodils. They open themselves in this way to light and sun and rain, exposing their innards, advertising their vulnerability with a splash of colour in the grey, shaded, pre-spring garden.

Spring is coming, the daffodils say. Hope springs eternal. And all that.

I am going to cut more of the furled yellow buds, put them in a vase, and watch them open in the warmth of my living room.

—Margaret Simons, Six Square Metres: Reflections from a Small Garden

I’ve been reading Simons’ wry, wonderful memoir about her tiny garden in the inner suburbs of Melbourne (kindly sent to me by the good folks at Scribe US). I don’t have any outdoor space for bulbs, but I’ve been filling my kitchen with Trader Joe’s daffodils lately, and her words were a perfect match for the cheery yellow blooms that are making my kitchen cart so happy right now.

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Tucked away on a side street near the Fens, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is one of Boston’s hidden gems. I’ve been there a few times, with my parents or visiting friends, but I hadn’t been back in several years.

The museum is open late on Thursdays, with jazz and samba music winding through the galleries and evocative shadows dancing in the corners. I spent the evening there last night with someone dear to me who had never been before (though he’s lived in Boston for years).

We wandered through the galleries, marveling at intricate tapestries, delicate handmade lace, elaborate marble statues and tile work, and gorgeous paintings. In each room, I always end up at the windows, gazing down into the central courtyard, which is amazing from every angle.

The museum is a different place at night: arranged exactly as it is in the daytime, but with more mystery in its corners. We wondered about the origins of some pieces, and noted a few empty frames (which held the pieces stolen in the Gardner’s 1990 heist). Different details catch my eye every time: a medieval portrait of an anonymous woman, an impressionist painting of gladioli, a bronze sculpture of Diana the huntress.

There’s far too much art to take in all at once, and so you don’t have to try, which is what I love about the Gardner: you can simply wander through and experience the art and the place.

I’d never spent an evening at the Gardner before: I’d always been on a weekend afternoon, with the attendant crowds (and sunshine pouring through the skylight). But this was a lovely way to enjoy a beautiful space. I can see more evenings there in my future.

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Several years ago, when my sister had her first baby, I knitted a surprise for his first Christmas: three ornaments in the shape of Weasley sweaters, each with a monogrammed initial, of course. Even my brother-in-law, who isn’t a Harry Potter fan, was delighted, and they’ve hung on the tree every year since.

Harrison, my second nephew, was born two and a half years later, and every December since then I’ve gotten a text from my sister, reminding me: we need another Weasley sweater. (She’s not a knitter, but she is excellent at reminding people about stuff.)

I finally got my act together this year and made Harrison his own Weasley sweater, to match the other three. I’d forgotten how easy and fun they are to knit. And how cute the final result is.

I’m thinking I need to knit myself one to hang on my own tree – maybe next year. (Also in Gryffindor colors, of course.)

In case you’re wondering, the pattern is from Alison Hansel’s Charmed Knits, though I used another knitter’s mods to make them top-down instead of knitting them in pieces and seaming them. Much easier, and so cute.

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I am (it’s no secret) in love with my new neighborhood of East Boston, tucked between the water and the airport. I’ve spent nearly five happy months here now, and I’ve loved watching my neighbors get festive for the holidays.

The Italian restaurant around the corner was one of the first to decorate:

My neighbors are putting up wreaths of all kinds, including this shiny silver one:

Fences are draped with twinkly lights, including this display down the street from my house:

Even the yoga studio has gotten into the spirit, with this tiny, charming tree:

The wreath at the top is from the park near my house, which also put up a lighted tree last week. I love walking down the dark streets after work and seeing all the festive trees and decorations in people’s windows. And, of course, I’ve done a bit of decorating of my own.

It is that famously hectic week before Christmas, with work projects and holiday parties and last-minute details galore. But just like every year, I’m trying to slow down and notice the sparkle. I hope it’s looking cheery (or quiet and peaceful) where you are.

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harbor-view-red-berries

We’ve had nearly a week of grey skies and misty rain – yesterday was the first sunny day since last Saturday. I finally felt I could breathe again.

In between meetings, construction noise at work and cooking dinner, here’s what is saving my life now:

  • Fresh pomegranates – seeding them is somehow satisfying, and the seeds themselves are delicious, like little tart jewels.
  • My colleagues’ sly humor and good cheer, which came in especially handy during a three-hour meeting (yes, really) this week.
  • The olive green textured leggings my mom passed on to me this fall, which (it turns out) go with nearly everything.
  • Replacing a few worn-out wardrobe staples: ankle boots, slippers, running shoes.
  • Shalane Flanagan’s superhero muffins – filling, delicious and healthy.

geraniums-books

  • My red geraniums, which I’ve brought indoors for the winter. So far, they are thriving.
  • Starting (another) reread of the Harry Potter series.
  • Several recent phone and in-person chats with dear friends.
  • It’s soup season and I’ve been making my classics: black bean, chicken enchilada, tomato, jalapeño. Yum.
  • Related: leftovers for lunch and dinner, some days.
  • My new bright teal running headband.

oak-leaves-esplanade

  • Related: lunchtime running on the Esplanade, when I can swing it. (Those skies.)
  • Sunshine, whenever I can get it.
  • Grocery delivery and online shopping – without a car, it’s a huge help.
  • Strong black tea, several times a day.
  • Maggie Smith’s gentle, wise, beautifully crafted tweets, which always end with “Keep moving.”

What’s saving your life on these dark, chilly evenings?

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forsythia gold flowers blue sky

I’m back home after two weeks dog- and house-sitting in East Boston, watching spring emerge in a new neighborhood as Phoenix the pup and I walked the streets and ran the Harborwalk together. Not surprisingly, one of the things I missed most about Dorchester was my river trail. I came home after work midweek, suitcase in tow, and immediately laced up my running shoes and headed out there. It, too, is growing greener (and bluer).

Katie silhouette trail river blue sky

I’ve been for a few runs since coming home, and on Easter Sunday, I finally ran all the way out to Port Norfolk and the second pier where that part of the trail ends. I was tired, but the sun had broken through after days of thick clouds, and I snapped a few photos of the blue water and a few wild patches of daffodils.

I remembered seeing a particular forsythia bush last spring, between the pier and the house that faces it, and so I jogged over to see if it was in bloom. (They’re late again this year – so late that they’re blooming alongside the magnolias and early tulips.)

As you can see above, that bush is in full glorious flower. There was no rainbow that day, but it felt like finding a pot of gold. And I remembered: it’s always worth looking (especially if you know where to look).

If it’s spring where you live, I hope it’s showing up in delightful and unexpected ways.

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dog jack book blanket

I’ve had a couple of real duds lately: books I got pretty far into and then decided to jettison. But here’s the good stuff:

A Dog Called Jack, Ivy Pembroke
I love a sweet, witty chick-lit story once in a while – even better if it’s British. I grabbed this one at the library and happily curled up with it on a snowy weekend. It’s the story of Jack, a dog left behind by his previous owners who wins the hearts of a whole street in London. So lovely and fun.

Gmorning, Gnight!: Little Pep Talks for Me and You, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jonny Sun
It’s no secret I’m a Lin-Manuel fangirl (I even got to meet him last year). My husband gave me this warm, witty book of his good-morning and good-night tweets, illustrated. I’ve been flipping through it at night and – no surprise – it is so fun and encouraging.

The Weight of a Piano, Chris Cander
It took me a while to get into this novel – about two women, one in modern-day California and the other in 1960s Soviet Russia, who are linked by the Blüthner piano they both love. Despite the slow start, it’s a compelling story and the writing is really good. Especially enjoyable if you’re a musician.

The Farmer’s Son: Calving Season on a Family Farm, John Connell
Returning to his family’s farm in Ireland, John Connell wasn’t sure he wanted to stay. But helping his father (with whom he often clashes) through a calving and lambing season helped change his perspective. Beautifully written; a bit like a modern-day, more sober-eyed James Herriot. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 7).

On Being 40(ish), edited by Lindsey Mead
Lindsey is a lovely Internet-to-real-life friend of mine, and I’m so proud of her work in editing this collection of smart, funny, honest essays. They address the experience of turning 40, navigating the next decade or so, and looking back on the experiences that led to 40. I’m 35, so I’m a little younger than the contributors, but I found much to ponder and relate to here. My favorite essay was Veronica Chambers’ “A Game of Two Halves.”

Correspondents, Tim Murphy
Since high school, Rita Khoury, the daughter of a large Lebanese-Irish Boston family, has longed to be a journalist. In the wake of 9/11, she’s sent to Beirut and then Baghdad to cover the U.S. occupation and its effects on ordinary Iraqis. She becomes close to her interpreter, Nabil, and a handful of other colleagues. Murphy tells their story with warmth and compassion. Vivid, compelling and so deeply human – highly recommended. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 14).

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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