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Posts Tagged ‘whimsy’

‘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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Last year, one of the joys of December in Eastie was participating in a local Christmas carol choir, spearheaded by my friend Peter and often hosted by him and his wife, Giordana. (That’s their dining room table, above, complete with pencils for marking and herbal tea for scratchy throats.)

We are all keeping our distance this year, of course, but I think Peter (and some of us) could not bear to do nothing, so we’re cobbling together a pandemic-safe carol service. We’re holding rehearsals on Zoom and planning to record ourselves singing the individual parts, to be mixed together and then released as a full (amateur) recording.

I thought it might feel sad, or inadequate: like so many things, this practice is a shadow of what it was pre-pandemic. We can’t gather in anyone’s living room, or sing together in real time; instead, we all mute ourselves and sing along with recordings on YouTube, sharing the sheet music on our computer screens (with lots of attendant technical glitches).

It is messy and imperfect and sometimes hilarious, and the recordings are hit or miss, frankly. But it’s still nourishing to see everyone’s faces, and wave hello and sing together, even if it doesn’t look at all “normal.” I am learning a few songs I didn’t know, and revisiting cherished favorites, like “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” and “O Holy Night.”

These songs have layers of associations for me, long years of singing them with family or friends or church communities, all the way up to Christmas Eve. For me, the music and the community are both vital to marking the season. So despite the tech issues and the funky recordings and the wish that we could all be together, these rehearsals – virtual though they may be – are a real source of light and warmth and laughter.

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One of the perks of having a partner who works at Trader Joe’s: a front-row seat to all the new fun seasonal products. This summer, it was jalapeño limeade, sparkling coconut water with yuzu and watermelon mint tea, and in mid-September, I walked into the store to find that a pumpkin spice factory had apparently exploded.

Starting on my birthday, we’ve tried all the fall treats: pumpkin ravioli with harvest pasta sauce (delicious), leaf-shaped tortilla chips (good, but kind of strange); pretzels dipped in pumpkin-spice yogurt (a little over the top, but yummy); pumpkin curry simmer sauce (divine); ginger-turmeric granola (I am seriously addicted). Now that we’re into November, the holiday treats have started arriving at TJs, but I’ve still got fresh apple cider in the fridge and a box or two of pumpkin samosas stashed in the freezer.

I’m not a pumpkin spice latte girl (I don’t drink coffee), and I’m not even that into pumpkin pie. But as Anne also noted, leaning hard into the seasonal joy this year felt like a good antidote to election anxiety and pandemic sadness. It even became a joke with one of my girlfriends: “Don’t hold back on the pumpkin [or fall] joy!” And, truly, from harvest spiced nuts to a cranberry goat cheese log, I feel we have made the most of the fall grocery-store delights.

So much of the novelty in our daily lives is missing this year; I am trying to savor the sweet parts of home, but I miss travel and trying new restaurants and having new experiences. A box of pumpkin pancake mix might not make up for all that, but it’s a fun way to bring a bit of novelty and joy into our days. (Especially when paired with ginger maple syrup and a steaming cup of tea.)

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We’re entering the dark time of the year: when the sun starts to sink in mid-afternoon, and even some of the mornings are grey and dreary. My apartment gets much more natural light than my cubicle at work ever did, but it can get lonely, here by myself most days.

To stave off the loneliness and help kick-start my creativity, I’ve been taking my friend Nina Badzin’s writing class through ModernWell, on Tuesday mornings. Some of us are doing NaNoWriMo, and we’re cheering each other on through this crazy month of trying to write 50,000 words.

“I think ideas beget ideas,” Nina declared in class the other week. “So don’t ‘save’ them – just write them down.” It made me think of a similar sentiment I’d read recently on Anne Bogel’s blog: she shared her habit of lighting candles in the winter months. She said – and I agree – that it takes a bit of effort, but that having a candle burning while she brews a hot beverage is so much more satisfying than hoarding the “good” candles. (I rummaged in a drawer immediately after reading that blog post and came up with a couple of scented candles I’d been hoarding for a year. Why?)

I’m working on a secret project for NaNoWriMo, doing my usual book reviews for Shelf Awareness and some other freelance work, journaling most mornings and trying to post here sometimes, too. Sometimes all that writing feels like a lot. But I’m trying to follow Nina’s advice and just chase the ideas, when I have them. More often than not – as with my #run31 posts – coming up with a few ideas gets the wheels turning.

Candles do not beget candles, unfortunately, but I often light one while I do the writing anyway. It’s an affordable indulgence, and that bit of flame is a cheery way to help beat back the dark.

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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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