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Posts Tagged ‘wonder’

darwins notebook chai

“It’s only alchemy until you know how it works.”

So said a friend of mine recently, as he stood behind the counter at (where else?) Darwin’s, steaming the milk for my chai latte. That’s admittedly one of the simpler drinks they serve: one part spicy chai mix (which they make themselves), one part milk. But he was talking about the more complicated espresso-based drinks they offer: latte, cappuccino, macchiato, mocha, cortado. He had done a refresher course the day before, and found himself newly fascinated with this everyday alchemy, the process of taking disparate ingredients and blending them into something new.

I understood what he meant. I remembered the same aha! moment from my own barista days, when Barb and Cynthia showed me how to pull an espresso shot, steam a stainless-steel pitcher full of milk, add a dollop of rich chocolate or a smooth cap of foam, and create a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. I’m not even a coffee drinker – I love the smell, can’t stand the bitter taste – but I found myself fascinated, then and now, by the process. It does make a new kind of sense when you watch the steps unfold one by one.

As I stood there that morning, though, listening to the whir of the milk steamer, the grind of the espresso machine, the morning music mix on the stereo, I thought: that factual knowledge doesn’t quite cover it.

I understand, empirically, that a shot of espresso plus steamed milk equals a latte, that a cappuccino has more foam, that a mocha includes a shot of chocolate and that chemical reactions explain a lot of the taste and texture (and pleasure) we get from those drinks. But there are also other, less measurable ingredients at play: the sunset-colored walls, the music, the smiles from my favorite staff members. That, too, is everyday alchemy (or magic) – and even though those elements are familiar and ordinary, they delight me every single day.

This applies to more than coffee: I understand most of the science behind the steps I follow to make a pot of soup, marinate and roast a chicken, stir up a batch of scones. But I believe there’s room for wonder alongside our knowledge of how those processes work. It isn’t alchemy in the Nicolas Flamel sense, perhaps – but it’s still everyday magic.

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magic is something you make brushstrokes

My one little word for 2017 is magic.

After a year that required all the gumption I could muster – which is to say, I frequently felt like I was hanging on by my fingernails – I wanted something different for 2017. I thought about vitality, which Ali chose for her word a few years ago, or rest, which I could certainly use more of this year.

Mostly, I wanted a word to help me live more fully into my everyday. Since I started choosing a word with brave back in 2010, this practice has become a way for me to pay better attention to my life. (Fittingly, attention was my word in 2013.)

I also wanted a word that would spark a little joy. 2016 was a hard and scary year, and I ended it completely worn out: exhausted, anxious, weary and fearful (though also deeply grateful for some good changes). There are lots of challenges ahead in 2017, I know, and I want to face them with bravery and hope: to walk forward expectant and unafraid.

All this reminded me of something Elise Blaha Cripe wrote a few years ago, when she chose magic for her word: “magic is something you make.” (The image above is from her site.)

Elise noted that magic doesn’t just happen to us, though it is there for the noticing: it often results from our choices, from the work we put in, from the way we choose to see the world. I was reminded, too, of Ali’s post from last year about making our own magic. Her post was related to the holidays, but I think it applies all year round.

Magic also feels a little sneaky, a little unexpected – like a much-needed antidote to the grim realities we’re all facing. To be honest, it also feels a little frivolous, and I wondered if I should choose something more grown-up and respectable. But then I remembered: I am always arguing in favor of the small things, the tiny, often overlooked moments that can turn a whole day around.

lamont quad light sky

The scrap of blue sky, the vase of red tulips on my desk, that first sip of hot, spicy chai in the morning. My favorite green coat, which has become my winter trademark. The pendant stamped with brave that I wear around my neck. The simple, small pleasures of daily life, and the lovely moments of connection with strangers and friends. Those “spasmodic tricks of radiance” are everyday magic, if anything is, and I firmly believe we need to notice them and also work to create more of them.

After I decided on my word, I went downtown to meet a friend one night last week. I got off the train early so I could walk through Beacon Hill, making my way down a dark, quiet, twinkly Charles Street with a cup of Earl Grey in my hand. And if I needed any further confirmation of my word, it came in this sign, spotted in a shop window: perfect words from one of my favorite writers.

presence wonder eb white

Wonder and magic are closely related, and I’ll be looking out for both of them this year. In a world that often feels fraught and dangerous, there’s still a great deal of light and loveliness to be found. I invite you to join me in looking for magic, and in making a little magic of our own.

Are you following a word this year? (I know I asked this question last week, but feel free to share if you haven’t already.)

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inishmor view 3

I grew up on the plains of West Texas, under vast skies that blaze orange and golden at sunset, stretching high and blue above during the day. Those plains stretch for hundreds of miles, the view broken up only by spindly telephone poles and by curving pump jacks rocking rhythmically up and down. I am used to landscapes that make me feel small.

As a native of that dry land, though, I have little experience with bodies of water bigger than a lake or a backyard swimming pool. My first views of oceans were mostly of the bird’s-eye variety: I had flown back and forth over the Atlantic Ocean half a dozen times before I found myself standing on the edge of it.

It was a bright, blustery day in September, during the year I spent studying for my master’s degree in Oxford, England. A lifelong friend of mine was spending the semester in Galway, Ireland, and I flew out to visit him for the weekend. The day after I arrived, we boarded a ferry to Inis Mór, the largest of the three Aran Islands.

Dotted with weathered, picturesque cottages and crisscrossed with ancient stone walls, the Aran Islands – Inis Mór, Inis Meáin and Inis Oírr – float in the mouth of Galway Bay, just a few miles off the western coast of Ireland. Sparsely populated, they attract a steady stream of tourists but still remain green and quiet. We checked into our hostel, then rented bikes and rode all around Inis Mór, stopping to pick blackberries by the side of the road and occasionally pulling aside to let a horse-drawn cart pass.

Eventually, we found our way to Dún Aonghasa, a ruined, tumbled pile of stones that crowns the island’s highest hill. The tiny visitors’ center gave us an idea of the structure’s previous life as a fort, used by the islanders to protect themselves from invaders approaching from the west. We made our way out into the sunshine, eager to see the ruins and the view for ourselves.

I’m over at TRIAD magazine (run by my friend Kristin) today, writing about my experience on the Aran Islands. I’d love it if you’d click over there to read the rest of my essay.

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Hello, friends. Happy New Year. I hope your holidays, however you celebrated, have been merry and bright.

For the last few Decembers, I’ve spent time choosing (or discovering) a word to guide me through the year to come. Sometimes, like this year, that word gets a bit lost in the continuing shuffle of my daily routine, of commutes and obligations and books and social media. (I am learning not to beat myself up when this happens.)

Some words, as with my 2010 word, “brave,” resonate through my life like a deep gong, providing a key and a touchstone for many experiences. (I still wear the word “brave” around my neck.) And sometimes, as with my 2011 word (“comfort”), the result falls somewhere in between.

brave necklace pendant word sunlight

My word for 2013 came from three different books which pointed up a continuing need in my life: the need to be present, to stop walking through life distracted, to wish or plan or dream away the moments that are happening now. The first passage is one I read years ago, from Lauren Winner’s book Mudhouse Sabbath, and it has remained in my heart ever since:

You don’t find candles lit in frenetic houses; you find them lit in houses where people are trying to pay attention.

 

candle tulips table light

This summer, before taking a writing workshop with Lauren at the Glen, I read her latest book, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, and was stunned by this passage:

Five years after her funeral, it is as if my mother has reached up from the grave and pulled my head, held my head the way a person holds a cat by the scruff of the neck, and said: There; look there. […]

I want her to know that I am trying. I am trying to pay attention. I am trying to look.

And finally, Barbara Brown Taylor spoke eloquently to the value of attention in our everyday lives:

What is saving my life now is the conviction that there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of human life on earth. My life depends on engaging the most ordinary physical activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them.

An Altar in the World

I know that attention is not a magic cure: some days will still be mundane or dark or difficult, even when I give them my full attention. But I believe attention garners rich rewards when we make it a practice: we notice flashes of light, literal and metaphorical, that we might miss otherwise. I live in a city and a culture where everyone is often most focused on themselves and their own problems. What would happen, I wonder, if I turned some of my attention outward, to the people and places and things among whom I walk?

This year, I intend to find out.

I want more wonder in my life, more quiet focus, more moments when I am aware of being fully present to the here and now. Less distraction, and greater clarity. I am hoping to gain some of all these things by paying attention.

Do you, or have you, chosen a word for the year? If you have, I’d love to hear about it.

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