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Posts Tagged ‘whimsy’

Winter can be a tough season: it’s cold, dark and frequently snowy where I live. This winter, I’m leaning hard into small everyday delights, and reaching for books that help me name and/or discover them.

Hannah Jane Parkinson’s witty, charming essay collection The Joy of Small Things is exactly what it sounds like: a compilation of Parkinson’s columns for The Guardian, celebrating quotidian, idiosyncratic joys. Techno music, red lipstick, night bus trips and cheating a hangover are among Parkinson’s delights, and her unabashed elation inspired me to notice my own pleasures. (I found this one at the wonderful Three Lives in NYC, and it was the perfect book for this season.)

I like cooking year-round, but am especially keen on baking in the winter. This year, I’ve reached for dessert inspiration in the form of Flour by Joanne Chang (which I’ve owned for years) and Nadiya Bakes by Nadiya Hussain, the 2015 winner of The Great British Baking Show. Chang, the founder-owner of Boston-based (and one of my faves) Flour Bakery + Cafe, delivers detailed recipes for her goodies, including raspberry crumb bars, lemon-ginger scones (with three kinds of ginger!) and the chunkiest chocolate-chip cookies. Hussain, sporting bright headscarves, showcases clever new recipes and bold twists on traditional desserts (blueberry scone pizza?!). Both women remind me that you don’t need an industrial kitchen to whip up tasty treats, though I do covet Hussain’s bright pink hand mixer.

Finally, Joyful by Ingrid Fetell Lee provides a tour of what Fetell Lee calls “the aesthetics of joy”: patterns, objects and modes of design that can enhance or inspire delight in our daily lives. Exploring harmony, magic, transcendence and other concepts, Fetell Lee shows how the physical environment (built or natural) can have a profound effect on our moods. As I wait for spring, I’ll be searching out every kind of joy–culinary, aesthetic or simply everyday–that I can find.

I originally wrote most of this column for Shelf Awareness, where it ran a couple of weeks ago.

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Well. We are digging out from a serious snowstorm, and it’s also (according to the calendar) the halfway point of winter. I’m linking up with Anne Bogel and others to share a list of what’s saving my life these days – because any and all lifesavers are worth celebrating. Here’s mine:

  • My final paperwhite bulb and the pink hyacinth in a glass vase I bought at Trader Joe’s – both blooming away.
  • The salsa class I’m taking on Thursday nights in Cambridge. It’s fun to learn something new, and it reminds me of the swing dance club I was in, back in college.
  • The big box of fresh citrus my California friend sent last week – most of it from her parents’ trees.
  • Strong black tea in my favorite mugs – a year-round lifesaver.
  • Tuesday writing class, which is back (on zoom) – I adore these ladies and the work we do together.
  • My cozy plaid infinity scarf and every sweater dress I own.
  • Yoga, which feels especially good when it’s so dang cold.
  • Spotify mixes – nineties country, mellow jazz, nineties pop hits, contemplative movie soundtracks and Natalie Cole.
  • Trying new ciders with my guy and writing about them for our cider Instagram account.
  • Dreaming and scheming about spring travel.
  • Baking treats from the Flour cookbook with my partner.
  • Good books: thoughtful nonfiction, plenty of YA and middle grade, and James Herriot before bed.
  • Related: All Creatures Great and Small season 2!

What’s saving your life in these winter days?

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We are (nearly) through a very cold January, and post-omicron, here’s what I have been reading:

Kisses and Croissants, Anne-Sophie Jouhanneau
Mia is convinced it’s her destiny to be a ballerina – especially since family legend has it her ancestor was painted by Degas. A summer program in Paris teaches her a few things about dedication, friendship, the stories we tell ourselves – and romance with a cute French boy. Fluffy and sweet – perfect isolation reading.

Our Wild Farming Life: Adventures on a Scottish Highland Croft, Lynn Cassells and Sandra Baer
I loved this memoir of two women who fell in love with a big piece of land in rural Scotland, and are pursuing their dream of a small-scale sustainable farm. A bit too much technical detail in the middle, but mostly a warm, fascinating account of the life they’ve built. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 10).

Taste: My Life Through Food, Stanley Tucci
I love Tucci’s film work (who doesn’t?) and was keen to read this memoir after hearing Anne and others recommend it. (I kept picturing him as Paul Child from Julie & Julia.) He’s definitely more of a storyteller than a writer, but this is an engaging account of his encounters with food throughout his life (plus recipes).

Blanche on the Lam, Barbara Neely
Domestic worker Blanche White goes to court for bad checks (not her fault!) – and ends up hiding out in the country, working as a maid for a wealthy family with secrets. I’d read the sequel to this one, but it was fun to read Blanche’s first adventure. Sharp and sobering.

The Little Bookshop of Lonely Hearts, Annie Darling
Posy Morland isn’t great at adulting, though she manages to care for herself and her teenage brother Sam. But when Posy inherits the bookshop where she works and decides to turn it into a romance bookshop, she’s faced with all sorts of new challenges. A fun, fluffy British story – I’d read one of the sequels, so I knew the characters. I found Posy rather irritating, but this was good bedtime reading.

Strange Birds: A Guide to Ruffling Feathers, Celia C. Perez
I loved Perez’s debut so much that I picked this, her second novel, up at the library. Ofelia, Cat, Aster and Lane are four oddballs who form a secret club/Scout troop one summer in their small Florida town. A funny, thoughtful story of friendship and standing up for what you believe in. I love seeing more multiracial casts of characters in middle-grade novels.

The Joy of Small Things, Hannah Jane Parkinson
I picked up this essay collection at the wonderful Three Lives in NYC. Parkinson writes a column for The Guardian on small delights, and many of those columns are collected here. Perfect January cheer.

The Reading List, Sara Nisha Adams
Mukesh is a lonely widower living in west London. Aleisha is a teenager reluctantly spending her summer working at the local library. Through a handwritten reading list, the two (and a handful of other characters) form unexpected connections. This was so lovely – both joyful and sad, lots of depth, and wonderful characters. I loved Mukesh’s relationships with his daughters and granddaughter.

Room to Dream, Kelly Yang
Mia Tang is going back to China to visit family and she can’t wait! But once she’s there, she realizes how much has changed – in the country and in herself – since she immigrated to the U.S. Back home, she’s facing challenges at school and with her parents’ motel. I loved this spunky third installment in Yang’s series, and I especially loved watching Mia grow as a writer and a person.

Majesty, Katharine McGee
Beatrice Washington is America’s first (young!) queen after the death of her father. As she tries to figure out how to rule, she’s also planning a wedding – and relationships are getting complicated for her sister Sam and their friends, too. A deliciously scandalous sequel to American Royals, with some real insight on confidence and what it means to truly love someone.

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

What are you reading?

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Continuing the theme of collective experiences: I have sorely missed live music during the pandemic. I wasn’t ready to go back to Newport or another festival this year (though I thought about it), but I’ve been spending a few Sunday nights soaking in live music closer to home.

ZUMIX, my new employer, is a nonprofit that offers free and low-cost music lessons, ensembles and other creative opportunities for young people. We also put on a number of community events, including a summer concert series in Piers Park, down the hill from my house. I loved going to these concerts when I moved to Eastie in 2019, and then they were cancelled last summer (like everything). So it’s been a real joy to be back.

Everyone brings lawn chairs and picnic blankets and snacks; the kids run around blowing bubbles and dancing and generally having fun. Several of our ZUMIX students run the sound board, and others provide the opening acts for our local headliners. It’s a fun neighborhood outing and a great way to (finally) be back together in person.

We’ve got a few more concerts left this month and I’m crossing my fingers for good weather – and more chances to wave at (and maybe dance with) my neighbors.

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One of the things I’ve missed during this pandemic year is collective experiences: the chance to be among a group of people, enjoying the same thing at the same time (and not through a screen). I particularly missed live theatre, so I was thrilled that Shakespeare on the Common is back this year.

My guy and I made a midweek date to see The Tempest – which we had both read in high school, but not really interacted with since then. I met him after work and we picked up a feast from BarTaco, which does delicious tacos and salsa with flavor and heat.

We arrived early and snagged a good spot with a view of the stage – though I’d definitely bring or rent chairs next time, as the ground gets hard after a while. But it was a perfect, clear evening, and we settled in to watch the cast (including John Douglas Thompson, whom I remembered seeing in Carousel on Broadway a few years back).

Both the men who taught me Shakespeare – Mr. Walker in high school and Dr. Wade in college – used to insist, I think rightly, that his plays are meant to be watched, not read. The story has so much more power (and the jokes are so much funnier) when you’re watching it unfold in real time. I had forgotten, or perhaps never realized, how much of The Tempest is about power: who has it, who ought to have it, what it means to have (or choose to give up) authority over another person, or to assert your own.

Of course there’s the love at first sight between Ferdinand and Miranda, and Prospero’s schemes to ostensibly keep them apart. There’s the bumbling pair of jokers from the shipwrecked crew, and their plot to overthrow Prospero (not very well planned). And there are Ariel and Caliban – who are treated very differently by Prospero, but are ultimately bound to him until he sets them free.

We laughed and clapped and marveled at the cast’s artistry, and savored being together. An entirely joyous experience, and a wonderful return to live theater.

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Masked smiles from strangers, neighbors bringing in packages, snail mail from friends. Kindness keeps the world going, especially in times of isolation and strife. I give it back when I can.

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The weather, their kids, books we’re reading, joys, frustrations, existential questions, virtual hugs. I miss in-person time, but this is a vital way to say I see you, and be seen.

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My cousin’s son, Ty, sent me a paper penguin for a school project. I was honored to take him around town and snap pictures—a bit of much-needed whimsy and fun. 

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‘Tis the season for treats – because it’s cold outside (good baking weather), because the holidays are coming, and because we are in month fourteen thousand of this pandemic year. (And because we got over a foot of snow here in Boston last night/today.)

I’ve been doing a bit of baking myself – mostly scones and superhero muffins – but have recently found myself the glad recipient of cookies made by friends. A girlfriend handed me a container of margarita shortbread cookies (with plenty of citrus and salt) on a recent walk in Cambridge. The following week, another friend texted to say she’d dropped off a tin of cookies (above) on my front porch. It contained crinkly chocolate cookies dusted with powdered sugar and, underneath, some classic sugar cookies. I stretched them out over nearly a week, to make them last.

The loneliness is hitting hard this week, but I am – as always – grateful for kind gestures from friends, which add sweetness to my life in more ways than one.

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As a lover of Christmas (and twinkle lights), I have a soft spot for December. It usually feels both hectic and peaceful: holiday celebrations and travel prep and last-minute gifts alongside the hush of quiet evenings and diamond-bright, blue-sky mornings.

This year, of course, December feels different: I’m not packing for Texas, not finishing up a semester of full-time work, not going to Advent services or planning to sing carols in church on Christmas Eve. I am trying to wrap my head around a low-key, cozy, local Christmas. But I am still observing a few tiny rituals of the season, and I thought I’d share them with you. They include:

Stringing twinkle lights on a Christmas tree – I put mine up last weekend, well behind the pandemic-inspired holiday rush but with plenty of time to enjoy it before Christmas.

Lighting the good candles, as often as I want.

Pulling out a few cherished mementoes, like the metal mailbox with a little moose on it and the words “Merry Kiss Moose” in red letters. And the coat-hanger tree I’ve had since junior high, which still – miraculously – works, at least for now.

Listening to The Holiday soundtrack while I clean or cook or write. And watching the movie itself, which is a perennial fave.

Addressing Christmas cards and wondering whether I need to buy more stamps. (Related: texting friends to ask for snail-mail addresses.)

Pulling out my now-worn Advent book and flipping to my favorite essays.

Seeing those plush reindeer antlers and noses on cars around town, which always make me smile.

Revisiting Shepherds Abiding, a tale of Mitford at Christmastime that charms me and chokes me up every. single. year.

Searching out stocking stuffers (this time, for my guy).

Looking up at birds’ nests in bare tree branches.

Snapping photos of holiday decorations around town.

Humming the carols I love, and pulling out a few favorite albums: Sarah McLachlan’s Wintersong, James Taylor’s At Christmas, the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack.

Following along with Ali Edwards’ December Daily stories, even though I’m not making a scrapbook myself.

Pulling out the fleece-lined tights and handknit accessories.

Remembering Christmases past: red felt stockings on the mantel at Mimi’s, candles in the sanctuary at my parents’ church, the words of Luke 2 from Mom’s worn old Bible, Christmas-morning shenanigans with my nephews.

What are your tiny December rituals?

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