Happy Hygge-Days!

Christmas may have come and gone, but the long, cold winter still stretches endlessly in front of us. We have sixty more days of this snowy season, to be exact. People love to hate winter; complaining about the cold seems to be a favorite national pastime. And I get it. I live in Chicago, so when it comes to winter weather we have plenty to complain about. Our winter is not limited to December through March; we remain firmly bundled from October to May, or even beyond. When it snows here, it doesn’t just stick around for a day or two before being plowed or melting away, the white stuff fades to a dingy grey and becomes a permanent fixture for weeks. And it’s not uncommon to have days on end where temperatures hover in the single digits and even the sunshine decides it’s too frigid to make an appearance. Yes, I know the hardships of winter through and through.

Yet, I still kind of love winter.

Why? Because as I watch the snow fall quietly outside my window, blanketing the world anew, I can’t help but let the beauty and magic of it seep right into my soul. Then, as I look back inside our little house, I can’t help but be overcome by the love and warmth and togetherness that fills our home. There is an inexplicable feeling of coziness that comes from snuggling close with those I love most while the cold winds rage outside.

This warm-hearted feeling of coziness, I’ve discovered, has a name. It’s a Danish concept known as “hygge” (pronounced hoo-ga), and while there’s no direct English translation, according to the website Hygge House, the word is used to describe “a feeling or moment, either alone or with friends, at home or out, ordinary or extraordinary, as cozy, charming, and special.” Basically, hygge boils down to slowing down, enjoying the simple pleasures, creating intimacy, and being present in the ordinary moments of life. The Danes created hygge as a means of surviving the cold and dark of their own harsh winters; and something has to be said for a nation that weathers one of the worst winter climates, yet still consistently produces some of the world’s happiest people.

The idea of hygge, and embracing a more “hyggeligt” lifestyle of slower days and greater appreciation, has truly transformed the way I feel about this admittedly cold and dreary and sometimes limiting season. As freezing temperatures and swirling snow have swept across much of the nation this week, reaching all the way down to my friends in southern states, I thought I’d share ten tips for adding a little more hygge to your life and warmth to your home.

1. Light a Candle   Lighting candles is perhaps the most essential element in the Danish art of creating hygge. The soft peaceful glow that comes when you dim the bright overhead lights and spark a small wick brings instant warmth, calm, and closeness. I find myself captivated by the delicate dance of the tiny flame, and the intimacy it ignites inspires ideas and conversations. Conveniently, lighting a candle also happens to be the easiest thing you could do to up the hygge in your house. Most of us have a couple (or a couple dozen) spare candles lying around the house and an old set of matches tucked away in the bathroom. Dig them out, light them up, and enjoy the beautiful burn. My husband, in fact, became the unwitting cultivator of hygge in this regard. A couple months ago, as he grew increasingly annoyed at the unused candles that sat around our house creating more clutter, he started burning them religiously. As soon as he walks in the door, he lights a candle in our kitchen. His motivation, however, is more purposeful and less hyggeligt – he hopes that by burning the candles, we can finally get rid of them once they’re extinguished. Alas, new candles will always find a way to sneak in and add a little hygge to our home.

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2. Wear All the Wool   Wool clothing has become a recent obsession of mine, and quite frankly a necessity living in such a cold climate. This Christmas, approximately seventy-five percent of our gifts were something wooly. Our children got wool base layers and pants, my husband got wool socks, and I received a comfy wool shirt and the most incredible wool slippers. My husband and I joked that we should just become sheep farmers with the amount of money we’ve spent on woolen items. But really, it’s the perfect winter fabric – natural and renewable, moisture wicking and odor resistant, soft and comfortable, but above all, insanely warm. For padding around the house, slip on a cozy wool sweater, leggings, and the thickest wool socks. If you feel like venturing outdoors, simply throw on some boots and a coat and you’re ready to go. There are few things cozier than clothing yourself like a sheep.

3. Indulge in Comfort Food and Drink   Break out you crock pots and Dutch ovens, it’s soup and stew season! I’m all for a good juice cleanse, but I think I’ll save it for the heat of the summer when I can’t even stomach a hearty meal. Right now, though, bring on the beef and potatoes, the roasted veggies and the rich gravies, the steamy soups and creamy sides. Besides, I like to tell myself, my body needs all those extra fats to keep warm… I’m just trying to save on our heating bill! Truthfully, there are few aromas I love more than a roast that simmers all day, enhancing in intensity as the day wears on and the flavors combine. By the time the sun sinks below the horizon, at 4:00 pm, you have a delicious meal ready to fill the bodies and souls of your household as you gather around the dinner table.

When it comes to drinks, you can choose the route of numbing the bitterness of the season with alcohol, but I find that I’m feeling numb enough already with all this cold. Instead, I crave something that will warm me up and ignite the flames within me. I want to sip something that will stimulate my senses and leave me feeling simultaneously invigorated and calm. Our kettle gets quite the workout this time of year as we brew coffee in the morning and tea in the evening, with hot cocoa thrown somewhere in between. Grab an old favorite mug, fill it with your warm beverage of choice, and savor it slowly, truly tasting the flavors.

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4. Bake With the Kids   If you’re a mother (or father) of young children, this may be an activity that you actively avoid doing with your little ones. Baking with kids is much less efficient, much more messy, and often less enjoyable than going it alone. Not to mention the results may leave something to be desired. But that’s kind of the point when it comes to hyyge. Baking becomes both an experience and experiment rather than something else to get through. Choose a day and time when you don’t have anywhere to be or anyone coming over, when the time spent and the mess made won’t matter. Then just slow down and try to enjoy the chaos of it all. A few weeks back, my husband decided to bake a cake with our daughter based solely on proportions, an idea I’m not even going to try to explain… but they worked together as he let her choose some of the random ingredients to include. The result? Less than perfect since he accidentally added only half of the recommended sugar. But the idea? Brilliant. They had fun and made something together that they were both proud of, despite the questionable taste (which was easily remedied by adding extra-sugary icing). Enjoy the fruits of your labors with your hot beverage of choice for the ultimate hygge moment.

5. Enjoy Simple Family Traditions   Most people associate traditions with holidays, but I feel that simple traditions are all the more meaningful when brought into everyday life. Traditions build in moments to pause and reflect and connect in the hustle and bustle of the day-to-day. We still often Light up the Night. For your family it could be a board game played together or completing a puzzle. Perhaps it’s a dance party or a tea party. Or maybe it’s simply sharing a meal together in the evening. The point isn’t to create yet another task that you have to do, but to celebrate the ordinary things you’re already doing. Cherish that togetherness.

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6. Take Family Naps   This is, perhaps, my favorite family tradition that we’ve added to the mix. Our children are still young enough that they, gloriously, nap during the day, and most of the time we can even manipulate them into sleeping at the same time. When this happens we don’t usually run around the house trying to get everything done, instead we make the conscientious choice to tuck ourselves into warm flannel sheets and snuggle close. As the soft afternoon sun warms the room and I wrap my arms around our sleeping baby while listening to the soft exhales of our toddler’s breath, we drift off to sleep, all together. Sometimes the peace lasts mere minutes, but on a good day we all wake up after a couple of hours, feeling rested and refreshed, and reconnected in the cozy comfort of our shared bed.

7. Have a Movie Night   Generally speaking, I’m kind of a crazy person when it comes to TV with my kids. I try to avoid letting them watch it much because I feel that there are so many more interesting things they could be doing with their time and minds. Also, selfishly, I can’t stand it. I find all the loud noises and bright colors, of kids’ shows especially, way too stimulating for me, so I can only imagine how my children’s tiny brains feel. But of course it’s a balance, and in winter, between the constant sicknesses and sub-zero temps that keep us indoors, we need a little something to break up the day. Still, TV time is usually limited to a single 20 minute show, during which I frantically try to do everything I can’t when I have kids needing something from me every 3.5 seconds. So movie night is a special time for our family. We try to pick something we will all (mostly) enjoy, and sit down together intentionally, limiting phones and other unnecessary distractions. We make popcorn. The real kind. Not the kind that inflates a bag in the microwave, but the tiny kernels that produce that distinctive lovely popping sound on the stovetop before being drenched in way too much butter and salt. Then we snuggle together under a blanket and indulge in entertainment.

8. Read a Book   When temperatures drop, it’s easy to stay on the couch and binge on Netflix. And certainly there’s a time and place for that in this snuggly season. But there is something wonderfully cozy about holding a book in your hands, feeling the weight of the pages as you let the words inspire your imagination. Whether you are snuggled with wee ones beneath a fuzzy blanket reciting Dr. Suess, or curling up on your own with that novel that’s been collecting dust on your bookshelf, let yourself focus and dive fully into the beautiful new world that a book brings to life.

9. Create Something   As we allow the pace of life to slow down and relax into the simple pleasures of ordinary days, you may find that you now have more time and space to pursue a creative passion. Though it can feel limiting to spend so much time indoors, it also provides the perfect platform to work on a passion project. For me, that is writing; for my husband, it’s working on and flying his plane. Our interests may differ greatly, but the common thread is allowing ourselves the reflective insight to find what we love and the intentional cultivation of a quieter season within which to toil. With children, you may pull out the paints and play-doh; or finish that craft project you’ve been talking about for ages. Besides, if you look through a new lens, winter is not merely a season of dead leaves and barren trees. It is a fount of inspiration – from the glint of the midday sun glistening across fresh snow to the soft afternoon rays casting shadows on the landscape, the rare sight of a red bird in flight or the quiet stillness of a dark cold night – the wonders are surely there if you only stop to see them.

10. Go on Winter Walks   Lest you think all hygge activities have to be limited to snuggling under a warm blanket, it can actually be a cozy experience to venture out into the cold world. I personally cannot stay inside too long. My mind and body and soul have no regard for the freezing temperatures; I need to breath the fresh air and feel the chill of the wind against my skin and experience the sights and sounds that only exist in the natural world. I’m a firm believer in the old adage, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” So we put on layer upon layer of wool (see above) and get outside. We walk and play with friends at our weekly Wild Child group until we can’t feel our fingers and our faces are frozen with the smiles that come from reconnecting with the fun of nature. Or we trek down to our local park and run like crazy around the deserted ball field, making snow angels and throwing snowballs and ignoring that the thermometer reads zero degrees. Then we come home with cold hands but warm hearts.

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These are just a few of my favorite hygge things. Your ideas and activities surrounding hygge may look completely different, and that’s the joy of it. Slow down, allow yourself the time and space to just be, to relax into the simple pleasures that warm your heart and captivate your soul, and to enjoy and find joy even in the cold and grey and everyday of this season.

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The First Ten

Today marks ten years since I first met my husband. A decade. A third of my life I’ve now spent with this man.

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When I think back to that fateful night ten years ago, it feels like the time that’s passed is both a lifetime and a blink. In the span of the last decade there have been countless moments and memories that have shifted and shaped us, both individually and as a couple. We’ve grown up and grown out of bad habits and grown into ourselves and grown together. The evolution of it all is wondrous.

There was the beginning. There was the late night with too many drinks and bad dance moves and his irresistible dark eyes and sweet crooked smile. There was our first date. My sick day off work and my warnings of being contagious and his reckless abandon as he kissed me anyway. There was my move halfway across the world and the awkwardness of saying goodbye to something that was still nothing. There was the crushing loneliness of knowing no one in a new land and spending hours at a European Internet cafe just hoping I could connect with him. There were entire nights spent chatting online because we were young and had all the time and energy in the world to burn. And thousands of miles couldn’t dim our spark. There was him flying halfway across the world to visit me. The glimpse of a familiar stranger in a foreign place. There was the love that sprouted as we traversed new territory, even though we weren’t yet brave enough to give it a name.

There were the adventures. Oh, the adventures! There were the 7 countries we trekked through, devouring food and culture and experiences and laughable moments. There were the countless states across this great nation, stretching from the southern tip of Florida to the furthest reaches of Alaska, upon which we’ve made our small but meaningful marks. There were planes, trains, and automobiles; and mopeds, gondolas, and donkeys too. There were missed trains and sleeping outside on station benches. Or airport floors. There were broken bones and crutching over cobblestone. There was the warmth of the Grecian sun kissing our skin and the chill of ancient ice glistening on a glacier. There were alligators and pythons and orcas and eagles. There were mountains climbed and vistas viewed. There was the magnificent flying, just the two of us soaring  high above lakes and rivers, hills and valleys. The most unique and beautiful way to experience this gorgeous Earth. There were more places and people and experiences that have taken our breath away as we’ve explored the world together over these first ten years than I could ever hope for in a lifetime.

There were the places we came home to. There was Maryland and DC, Florida and Tennessee, and now Illinois. There were crowded college houses and quaint city apartments. A tiny travel trailer and abodes shared with relatives. A house covered with dog hair and a home filled with all the joys and messes of children. There’s our conflicting zest for more travel and adventure mixed with our fervent desire to settle somewhere we love.

There were the leaps of faith. The jobs left and the passions pursued. There were the foolish but fun choices and and the vehement refusals to live according to someone else’s plan. There were the moves and the upheaval; the packing and the unpacking. There was the striking out on our own and encouraging the other to blaze their own unique trail. There was the catching each other when we fell and supporting each other when we floundered. There is the seemingly reckless but ultimately unwavering faith we have in one another to pursue our best lives; together.

There were the life transitions and momentous milestones. The moving in together and rearranging our lives for one another. The walking down the aisle and rings exchanged and vowing to love each other for the rest of this life. There was the heartwarming joy of growing new lives together and welcoming our children into this world. There was the heartbreaking grief of shepherding life out of this world and figuring out how to go on living.

And there were the heavy and hard times. More than we’d probably care to admit. There were the dreams shattered and hearts broken. There were the harsh words spoken and tears brought forth. The blame and shame and resentment and restitution. There was the bickering and the fighting. The honest miscommunications and the blatant bitterness. There was the questioning of whether this relationship could be or should be. The wondering if we were broken, and if we could be repaired.

Then there was the learning. The learning how to give and how to take. The compromising. There was the pushing and pulling to bring out the best in each other. The seeing through the broken cracks to discover new light in the other. The calling out of that light and trusting the person and the process. There was the embracing what truly matters and letting go of the rest. There was the realization that we’re in this for the long haul so we have to put in the effort, because nothing good ever comes without a little (or a lot) of work.

And there was, and of course still is, the love. Always the love, ever evolving. First burning hot and fast under the guise of desire. Then steadfast and righteous and ardent, followed by raw and vulnerable and real. Now all of those things combined, faded slightly in intensity, into the comfortable commitment that comes from spending a decade together. Strong and steady and simple. There were the small seemingly insignificant daily acts that formed the love song of our life. There were the million moments when we chose us and chose love, when we could have chosen something different.

There is the now. There are the sleepless nights that a decade ago were spent drinking or dancing or talking and now are spent caring for sick children. There are the soothing messages with scented lotion that have been replaced by the tender smoothing of vapor rub on our always sick and tired bodies. There are the beautiful babies and jubilant laughter and simple pleasures. There are the heavy burdens of responsibilities that accompany adulthood, and especially parenthood, and the effort not to let them consume us. There are the extraordinary joys we’re creating that often go overlooked in our ordinary life. There is the continual choosing, every day, to love one another and to carry onward on this well worn but still entirely unpredictable path together.

Here’s to the next ten, and the many more to follow.

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Light up the Night

Yesterday was the winter solstice. The shortest day of the year. Or the longest night, if you’re an optimist. The sun set at 4:22 pm, which meant as my children were waking up from their afternoon naps, the sun was already slipping below the horizon.

This can make winter feel like a limiting time. Especially for someone who needs copious amounts of outdoor time in order to feel sane, seeing the sun begin to set by midday can be a bit depressing. When it’s dark and cold and you have small children, you can feel trapped indoors. And with enough of those indoor evenings, the walls start to close in and merriment seems to creak out the cracks of the drafty doorway.

So a few weeks back, when the days began to grow shorter and our patience seemed to as well, our family started a new tradition to mix things up. It was born partially out of a need to force ourselves to get outside in the evening and partially out of guilt for not wanting to do all the Christmasy things, but still wanting to add a little magic to our kids’ lives.

I dug through our holiday box in the basement and found an old string of Christmas lights. Balancing a baby on my hip, I haphazardly wrapped them around the railing on the back deck. A speaker blasted Christmas tunes as I gathered popcorn and hot cocoa to sustain us on a cold winter night. As the sun set, we excitedly counted down – 5…4…3…2…1… LIGHT UP THE NIGHT!

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Was is magical?! No. The first night we did it my daughter complained that her cocoa was too hot (it was lukewarm) and she was too cold (it was 60 degrees).

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But we stuck with it. Not every night, because consistency is not our strong suit, but those nights that we remembered or had time or just realized we really needed a break from the evening craziness. Some nights we dance to festive music, some nights we snuggle under a blanket and share popcorn, some nights we simply stare at the night sky as my two year old excitedly exclaims, “The sky is SO beautiful!”

And I’ve come to love this simple holiday tradition that adds light and love and togetherness into a busy season of the year stacked upon a busy season of life. Years from now I doubt I’ll remember that I failed to bake dozens of festive shaped cookies from scratch. I probably won’t recall that my kids missed out on 12 days of Christmas crafts and I missed the order deadline for that perfect gift. And I don’t think any of us will be too torn up over the fact that we didn’t run all over town partaking in all the merry celebrations and cozying up to every Santa iteration.

What I hope we do remember are quiet ordinary evenings spent outside listening to the swirling sounds of jolly music, our children’s laughter, and the world around us. I hope I recall a time when my two babes were small enough to sit together on my lap, and the inherent kindness in my older daughter tucking a soft blanket around her baby sister to keep her warm. I hope we hold onto the magic and merriment of how a simple string of lights can bring warmth and joy into our world.

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Here’s to the simple pleasures of the season. Here’s to joy always overcoming darkness. Here’s to lighting up the night!

Broken Kitchen Cabinets

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The day started with a cold and dark awakening. Eyes open before the sun even began to peak over the horizon. I was squeezed in bed between two tiny bodies with a chorus of echoing cries; my children’s needs already pressing in on me from both sides.

As I dragged myself out of bed and began the marathon of racing from one emergency to the next as two children needed something and everything all at once, I realized it was not going to be one of those days where I could embrace the joys of motherhood. The darkness of the early morning never truly yielded, but simply faded to a cold grey; a staple of an unrelenting Chicago winter. The weather settled in for the day, reflecting the mood of our household. Smiles were overshadowed by tears, laughter drowned out by screams.

I wasn’t able to be in a space of responding to the kids, thinking and processing with depth and compassion. There was no time for all of that on this dark day. I was merely reacting, attempting to put out fires before another cropped up.

The day wore on and the needs of my children continued to pummel me incessantly, an attack on all senses. The sound of deafening screams exhaled from tiny bodies. The feel of little hands endlessly grabbing for and lashing against my own body. The smell of diapers that needed changing and a house that needed a good scrub. The sight of tears and chaos all around.

One child finally went to sleep, the other awoke. No break. No space to breathe. It was all too much.

I set a crying baby on the floor surrounded by a pile of toys. Grabbing myself a glass of water, I shut the kitchen cabinet a bit too hard. The sharp thwack of wood hitting wood, the freedom of swinging my arm with all its strength felt strangely liberating. I opened the cabinet door and slammed it again. And again. And again. The kitchen cabinet graciously granted me five swings before it’s fifty year old hinges finally gave way. The solid maple door landed with a heavy thud on our hardwood floor. Then a moment of silence.

I looked up, stunned. Glancing out the window I saw our dog in the backyard staring back at me. She had heard the thud. “Are you okay?” her soulful eyes seemed to be asking me through the smears of our dirty door panes and my own tears. Was I?

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Sometimes motherhood feels like this. Heavier than a kitchen cabinet. Darker than a winter night. Harder than I ever could have imagined. Often it feels as if I, like that cabinet, am being slammed by needs over and over and over again. Sometimes I wonder if the hinges will hold me or if I, too, will break. And there are days where I find myself broken.

But I hold on. And I realize that broken can often be a passageway to better, rather than a permanent state of being in which I must reside.

I learn. I learn about limits, both my children’s and my own. I learn about grace, for what I have done and what I can’t do. And I learn about fixing, what needs to be repaired and what needs to be let go.

At the end of the day, even the worst days, comes help and hope. I lean into my need for help, whether it’s a hug or a listening ear or a hand with the kids. I hold onto the hope that tomorrow we can be a bit calmer, tomorrow will be a bit easier for all that we have learned today.

My husband came home and fixed the broken kitchen cabinet, skillfully refastening the door without question or judgement. Words weren’t necessary to know that he was there for me, believing in me even when I couldn’t believe in myself. His arms embraced me in the reassurance that even on my broken days, I’m doing okay.

The Un-Gift Guide

I recently wrote about my distaste for the tradition of forced gifting for the holidays and the unnecessary stuff that comes along with it. But I know, too, that gifting brings immense joy, and a carefully curated present can be a heartfelt expression of love. I’m also aware that there are some societal pressures around gifting and, right or wrong, we will all probably still want a few things to wrap up for others. So I’d like to think outside the (Amazon) box when it comes to gifts and give some alternate ways to spread joy and cheer. Think of it less as a gift guide, and more as ideas to inspire your own unique and meaningful giving.

Ask for a wish list. Yes, you may want to show that you’re the mastermind of creativity and able to read minds to discern the perfect gift. But you’ll save a lot of hassle if you just ask someone what they want or need. If they say nothing, respect that too. Not everyone needs (or even wants) a gift.

Do a gift exchange. Rather than struggling to find a million small or meaningless gifts for everyone, see if your family or friend group would be open to an exchange. That way you can focus more effort and money towards something specific that your gift-ee might enjoy. My sister-in-law suggested a gift exchange for our family gifting this year and I could not respond “yes!” fast enough!

Give the gift of time. In today’s fast paced world, it seems like we never have enough time. Finding a way to help loved ones feel like they have a bit more time, especially in this season of busyness, can be such a blessing. Whether is offering to babysit so a couple can have a rare date, driving carpool so another momma can focus on herself or her other babies, or bringing over a meal so a neighbor doesn’t have to worry about cooking and cleaning. A few more minutes and a few less burdens are what we all need.

Share an experience. Living far from family, I can tell you there is no greater gift than time reconnecting with my favorite people. It could be sharing a cup of coffee and cozy conversation with a friend or enjoying a pedicure with your sister. Maybe it’s simply taking your grandchild to play at the park or taking your mom out to lunch and truly connecting. These are the gifts that will last. Memories made and relationships strengthened.

Give something consumable. Food is love. Coffee is life. (Or maybe it’s should be the other way around…) In any case, food, coffee, brownies, cookies, cake, etc. are perfectly acceptable and often preferred gifts in my book. If you give someone something they can enjoy in the moment, but doesn’t have to take up space in their home, it’s the best of both worlds.

Make something. Many of us have creative talents that are lying dormant just waiting for an opportunity to blossom. What better excuse than Christmas to brush off your crafting skills and make something with your whole heart. Bonus points if you can use what you already have on hand. You may feel like you don’t have time or talent, but even if you just bake a batch of store bought cookie dough, it’s something that you’ve had a hand in creating and is made with love.

Support local artisans. If getting your hands dirty for gift making doesn’t strike your fancy, it’s very likely there is someone else in your vicinity who has already done the dirty work of creating something beautiful. Maybe you have a talented friend you would love to support. Or scout out a local craft fair and connect with the person behind the wares. You’ll not only be giving your loved one a one of a kind gift, you’ll be giving hope to a budding business in your community.

Support a cause. What do you give to someone who already has everything? A gift for another who truly needs it. There are big organizations like Heifer International where you can donate an actual animal (or part of one) to help a family in need in another part of the world. Or if you prefer to keep it local, there are countless community charitable organizations that could use your aid. Our church hosts a really cool concept called Spirit Village, which allows you to stroll through a decorative Victorian marketplace, complete with caroling and live animals, and shop for unconventional gifts to support domestic and global outreach, ranging from donkeys of firewood to shoes and school uniforms for underprivileged children overseas. It’s a win-win-win in my opinion – family fun, supporting the missions of our local church, and gifting for those we love while giving to those in need.

Write a note. It can be words of encouragement, a note of thanks for being so incredible, or a love letter. As a writer I believe words are powerful and lasting and windows to our soul. So what greater gift could there be than something written from the heart?

Embrace the gift of nothing. I’ve said it before, but I think it bears repeating. Sometimes it’s ok to just not give a gift, regardless of what society may think. Maybe some people on our list also feel a sense of lightness and relief in not receiving a gift and feeling pressured to respond in kind. Maybe we can all agree that our love for one another does not have to be wrapped up and put under the tree. Maybe our giving and showing of love does not have to be limited to one day or season. Maybe I’ll find something I know you’ll adore next week or next month or next year and I’ll send you a happy little mid-year surprise. Or maybe not, because I’m forgetful and distracted and busy and don’t really love shopping, and I hope you know that it’s no reflection of how deeply I care.

A gift from the heart, no matter how small, bears infinitely more value than a million meaningless tokens masked in beautiful wrapping. Give with love and you will have always selected the best gift, even if it’s not something you’ll find under the tree.

What are some of your favorite alternative gifting traditions? I would love to hear more ideas and inspiration for spreading joy and cheer!

Enough with the Stuff

The holiday season is officially upon us and though the Thanksgiving turkey has yet to be cooked, everyone is in a frenzy to start checking gifts off Christmas lists. Black Friday is in t-minus 7 days, which means we have less than a week to figure out how to get the most for the cheapest. And if we can only just find the perfect gifts for everyone, then all will be well and our holiday season will be perfect too.

I say enough. Enough with the stuff. I, for one, have had enough of the notion of forced or arbitrary gifting for a holiday.

I’ve had enough of the stress, both emotional and financial, of having to show someone you care by getting them physical possessions. Some people are masters of finding the perfect gifts for others. Some people actually even enjoy the process – the hunt for something a loved one will adore. Gifting is their love language. But I am not this person. I am the person who overthinks what I should get someone for weeks, wait until the last minute when I still have no ideas or time, and buy something random that I know the person might not actually enjoy. Yet I feel like I need to get them something. So the dollars fly out of my wallet, and along with them my dreams of owning a house or enjoying a vacation. Because, let’s be honest, gifting is expensive. Even if you plan to keep it small or set budgets, when you multiply the small gifts by all the family, friends, neighbors, teachers, whomever that you need to buy for, it can quickly add up to hundreds or thousands of dollars. Of small stuff. Which brings me to my next point…

I’ve had enough of being on the receiving end of gifts that I don’t actually want or need, and that just take up space in my home and life. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but I don’t really need another mug / scarf / decorative candle holder. It’s not that I don’t appreciate them, I am blessed with many loved ones who have impeccable taste and give me lovely gifts. But the problem is me. I am woefully disorganized and a trail of clutter seems to follow my every move. This problem is increased exponentially with young children and all the stuff that’s required to keep them fed, clothed and entertained on a daily basis. I wish I was better at keeping things stowed away in their rightful place, but I’m not. So when gifts we may not need come into our house, one of two things usually happens: 1. They get thrown into our office and forgotten because I can’t deal with the task of finding a place for them or, 2. They create more clutter on our floor / counter / life that simply stresses me out. I’m realizing more and more that stuff, and the effort it takes to maintain and put away said stuff, is a huge drain on my energy and joy. Isn’t spreading joy what we’re all striving for, especially this time of year?

I’ve had enough of how consumerism steals the joy and overshadows the meaning of Christmas. Did you know that Christmas isn’t actually about physical presents? Are you aware that Santa and stocking stuffers are not really requirements of a happy holiday? If you come from a Christian tradition, as I do, it might be worthwhile to focus on the greatest gifts of Christmas – the gift of God with us, the gift of grace. Regardless of your belief system, though, it’s so much more meaningful to spend time with the people you love rather than stressing about shopping for them. It’s easy to forget in the fanfare of the holidays what this season is all about. So I’d personally like to quiet some of the noise and the demands to create space and time to focus on family and faith. Maybe it’s necessary to clear away the unnecessary in order to see what’s most important; what we already possess. Unlike Christmas clutter, these are the gifts that last.

I’ve had enough of the wastefulness of buying something for one day that will have an impact on our planet for years to come. This may be the biggest issue that is often overlooked when it comes to unnecessary gifting. The non-renewable resources that go into producing the kitsch items we often give as gifts deplete our land and pollute our environment. An abysmally large proportion of gifts are discarded within six months because they have broken, become obsolete, or were never needed / wanted in the first place. For a fleeting moment of joy, we are filling our landfills for the foreseeable future. I think the most awakening summation of this issue I’ve read comes from this article, which gives the touching advice: “Bake them a cake, write them a poem, give them a kiss, tell them a joke, but for God’s sake stop trashing the planet to tell someone you care. All it shows is that you don’t.” Our children don’t need another toy from Santa to know that we care, they need a future where they can continue to enjoy the beauty of the Earth we walk upon.

So maybe this year, instead of rushing off to stores before Thanksgiving leftovers have even be put away, we sit with those we’re lucky enough to be surrounded by just a bit longer. Maybe instead of running all over town, filling our heads with stress, we appreciate where we are and fill our hearts with memories. Maybe instead of adding more clutter this Christmas, we leave space for what matters most. Maybe we can all agree that we already have enough without the extra stuff.

At the risk of sounding like a complete Grinch, I feel compelled to offer some Christmas hope. Here’s the truth, as much as I don’t want to give or receive unnecessary stuff, I’ll still give some gifts, and so will you I’d guess, which is wonderful if done with mindfulness and love. So I’ll be following up with a list of ideas to make your gifting more impactful for those you love and less impactful on your level of stress, finances, and our Earth.

Small Gratitudes

It’s the month of Thanksgiving. The time of year when we see grocery store aisles brimming with turkey and stuffing and Facebook feeds filling with daily reminders of gratitude. Many people partake in a lovely tradition where they record and post one thing they are thankful for each day during the month of November. I think this is a beautiful practice, but I’ve never been able to maintain it with any consistency. You see, I’m woefully forgetful and far too easily distracted, so I make it to about day three before my efforts begin to taper off.

Instead, I decided to practice a day of gratitude. Rather than finding 30 things I’m thankful for over the course of the month, I decided to challenge myself to find 30 things to be thankful for in a single ordinary day. The thing is, its in the ordinary, the mundane of everyday life, that we can often find the extraordinary. But we must be willing to slow down, shift our perspective, and notice.

These are just a few of the many magical moments sprinkled throughout my day that often go overlooked, but for which I am so thankful:

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1. Tiny baby fingers grasping my arm and snuggling warm in bed in the dark and cold of the early morning.

2. The magic of a toddler growing in independence. Getting out of bed and going to the bathroom by herself and amazing us with what she’s learning every day.

3. My husband going in just a little late to work so he can share breakfast with our family.

4. The all too loud sounds and overwhelming mayhem in the morning that mean our house is bursting with life.

5. A warm cup of coffee with a perfect swirl of cream and just the right amount of sweetness.

6. A baby who stops nursing just to look up at me with the most gorgeous gummy grin.

7. The music of little pots and pans clanging together in a play kitchen.

8. My daughters sitting on the kitchen floor, without caring how dirty it is, playing joyfully together.

9. The cold damp air on my cheeks as we head out for a misty morning walk.

10. Moving my body and stretching my legs as I breathe in the peace of the outdoor world.

11. The smell of fall. Not of artificial pumpkin spice, but of peaty fallen leaves and dewy grass.

12. The wonder of a child discovering an acorn or a worm on a walk in the park.

13. How excited the dog gets to see a squirrel. Tongue out, tail wagging wildly as she can barely contain her fierce energy.

14. Conversations with a neighbor. Dreaming together of exotic vacations with sunny skies and sandy beaches.

15. A friend getting my toddler a cup of water at storytime since my hands are so full and my mind is so frenzied.

16. The most caring librarians who always remember the children’s names, have the patience of saints, and engage the kids in such fun programs.

17. A kind compliment from a stranger telling me I’m handling my children so gracefully when in that moment I feel the exact opposite.

18. A hot meal out shared with my daughter, which feels like such a special indulgence, as we smile at each other across pot roast and mac & cheese.

19. The luxury of being able to buy groceries and feed my family.

20. Running through cold rain and climbing into a warm car to escape it.

21. An easy nap time. The rare and beautiful gift of my toddler drifting off to sleep without a battle.

22. The quiet and sacred breathing of both children sleeping simultaneously.

23. A meal eaten in silence and solitude. And consumed in one sitting.

24. A baby who won’t stay asleep without me nestled beside her, because it means I have no choice but to take a much needed break.

25. My daughters entertaining themselves and each other as they play so I can cook dinner in relative peace.

26. The warmth of a bear hug from my husband when he walks through the door.

27. Dancing while cleaning the kitchen as my girls stare at me with wide eyes and big smiles.

28. Little wet footprints on the floor after my daughter climbs out of the bath.

29. The sweet smell of clean babes with wet hair and snuggly pajamas.

30. The even sweeter taste of chocolate devoured after the kids are asleep.

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In the noticing of these little sparks of joy, the day actually felt so much more peaceful, happy, and slightly magical. Each challenge I met throughout the day provided an opportunity to look for the positive. The seeking was like a reset button, reminding me to step back and gain perspective.

While none of my moments were anything earth shattering or momentous, they were glimpses of the happiness that can often be overshadowed by busy schedules and grocery store meltdowns and sticky floors. They are the small wonders that lie between the mess of daily life, which at the end of the day is what its all about.

As one of my very favorite quotes by one of my very favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver, reminds me:

“Maybe life doesn’t get any better than this, or any worse, and what we get is just what we’re willing to find: small wonders, where they grow.”

Momma, You Are Doing Enough

Here’s a secret no one told me about motherhood. Or maybe they did and I just wasn’t listening closely. The secret is, motherhood can be truly all consuming. It can feel like I’m treading, just trying to keep up with the day to day demands. Yet when I look up, everyone else seems capable of doing it all and so much more. There’s the mom with the great career or the one with the spotless house. There’s the mom having fun with friends or venturing across the globe or running a marathon. It seems like no matter how much I do, there will always be more that I should be accomplishing; it will never be enough.

But being a mom, and all the simplicity and complexity that entails, is enough.

So here’s a reminder and reassurance, to myself and to you and to all of us treading through motherhood together, that whatever we are doing is already enough.

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You might think that you should be more doggedly chasing down your career goals; going back into the workforce or pursuing a promotion at you current job. But your time and energy and soul have limits. Embrace those limits and accept that it’s ok to lean out a bit when and where you can. Work and worth are not solely defined by numbers on a paycheck. You are doing enough.

Maybe you feel like you should be pursuing your passions, working on a project with all your heart. But maybe your kids are your passion right now, and that’s ok. Or maybe they’re not, but you’re too damn tired to figure out what your passions are. That’s ok too. You are doing enough.

You may feel like you should be traveling the world; experiencing life and making new memories. But to your little people you are the world; the leader of life and the maker of memories. Embrace seeing the world around you anew through their eyes. You are doing enough.

Maybe you think that you should be working out more. Running and shaping and toning your body to it’s pre-kid self. But your body has been a vessel of life and nourishment, which has shaped it in a new and different and spectacular way. Be kind to it – stretch it and move it – but be gentle on your tired bones. Appreciate all that your beautiful body has already done. You are doing enough.

Or maybe you wish that you could constantly cook up homemade organic and vegan and gluten free Pinterest-perfect recipes that the whole family would enjoy. But at the end of the day, the people and conversations around the dinner table are more important than what’s served on top. You are doing enough.

Perhaps you feel that you should go out more and keep up with friends. But sometimes the magic lies within the walls that surround you and the relationships cultivated with those who share your walls. Allow yourself the space to enjoy the magic moments right in front of you. You are doing enough.

Or you think you should stay home more to catch up on cooking and cleaning and laundry. But those chores will always be there. Sadly, there is no end in sight to the to-do list. So let go for a little while and explore what makes your soul come alive. Sharing this joy with your children is one of the sweetest fruits of life. You are doing enough.

You might be looking for tangibles, tasks to check off your to-do list, and it seems like a day with your children has resulted in nothing. But you are shaping souls, you are crafting character. There could be no nobler task. You are doing enough.

Maybe most days feel like it’s everything you can do just to keep up. Getting everyone fed and changed and fed and changed again is all you manage to accomplish. But you have kept another human alive; this is no small feat. You are doing so much more than enough.

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Motherhood is full of strange contradictions and often we feel like we’re doing everything and accomplishing nothing. But never underestimate how much you are truly doing. The small daily details that may never be seen or appreciated by anyone else are the building blocks to little lives. Each seemingly mundane or meaningless task you are doing is building a strong and sturdy foundation for your children. Your patience and presence through all the endless needs is the keystone that keeps your family standing.

Momma, you are doing enough. You are enough.

 

Dear Baby Girl

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Dear Baby Girl,

It is impossible to believe that two years have already passed since you burst into our world. The first words I blearily uttered when I saw your sweet face were “It’s ok, it’s a whole new world.” And it was, for both of us. A more beautiful, if sometimes more challenging, world than I ever could have imagined.

In the past two years, there have been countless moments where I’ve embraced the bliss of new motherhood, and just as many where I’ve felt like I’m completely failing at this parenting thing. There have been sleepless nights that felt like they would never end and frustrating days that I wished would end faster. But somehow all that time, those seemingly endless baby days, now feels like it has passed in the blink of an eye.

When you look up at me with those big brown eyes, or reach for me with your soft delicate hand, I still see that new babe who I first nestled in my arms two years ago. The shining light of my life, my beloved baby. But when I take a step back, I see with an aching heart that with each passing day you are less and less of a baby and more and more of a little girl.

No longer do you need me, or even want me, for everything. As you’ve shown with your continually emerging stubborn independence, you are no longer a helpless babe, but a fierce individual with ideas and opinions and autonomy. It’s amazing, yet slightly bittersweet, to watch this growth. Every day you surprise me with your grasp of new words and concepts. You amaze me with your intelligence and compassion and curiosity and quirky sense of humor. In each new situation, I’m delighted to see your sparkling personality shine through.

It feels like a daily gift to discover more and more of who you are. This is a gift for which I am not always the best at showing gratitude. So many of our days seem to pass in a blur of diapers and dishes and laundry. You keep us on our toes and never stop moving. Some days, when “Momma” echoes through the house endlessly and my arms and patience are exhausted from constant requests for “up” or “help” or “more,” it’s easy to forget that you won’t always want me to hold you; you won’t always need me to comfort you. But when I lie next to you at night and breathe in your sweet stillness, I remember again the incredible blessing that I get to be the one you call Momma.

Thank you, baby girl, for coming into our world and igniting it with infectious joy. Thank you for your patience as I’m constantly learning how to be your Momma. Thank you for the beautiful beacons of hope you provide throughout the day – your mischievous smile, your unbeatable hugs, your slobbery kisses, and your amusing words. Thank you for the endless well of love and learning that you bring to our family. Thank you for being my first little love; for making me a Momma.

As I watch you grow each day, you make me grow just as much. You continue to push me beyond what I thought was possible – physically and mentally and emotionally – towards a love previously unimaginable. And for that and you, I am overwhelmed with gratitude.

Happy Birthday, sweet baby girl!

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Poppa, The Great

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This guy. In the past 15 months, this guy has surpassed any and all of my wildest dreams and expectations of the father he would be to our daughter. And I am a gal of high expectations.

Though I knew in my heart that my husband would be a great dad, in my mind I worried how he would take to this life-changing little person who burst into our world. He’s a guy who shied away from holding our nieces and nephews as babies because he’s “not a baby person.” He’s a guy who laid out every real or imagined constraint that a baby would place on our lives. He’s a guy who, when I told him I was pregnant, responded with a nervous and questioning “congrats?”.

But he’s also a guy who has the incredible patience and compassion and persistence that it takes to care for a new life.

From the moment our daughter was born, he was there. He was there for her and he was there for me. In the trenches, all of us together, a family. He never hesitated to endlessly bounce our fussy newborn on an exercise ball. Never groaned about taking our sleepless babe at 5:00 am even when he had to leave for work at 6:00 am because I couldn’t hold my eye se open another minute. Never thought twice about curling up in bed with our child who can only sleep with human touch. He rose to his role as a father when neither our baby nor myself had the words or energy to thank him. This wonderful guy shepherded our growing family through that first foggy phase of new parenthood, helping us to evolve and emerge into new and beautiful places.

Since that early hazy period, so much has changed; and this guy continues to grow as a father to meet the ever-changing demands of our toddler daughter. His success as a father is reflected in the joyful spark that lights up our daughter’s eyes. He is her favorite playmate, most brilliant teacher, hilarious entertainment, and all-around hero. Throughout the day a chorus of “Poppa” echoes through our house (long before there were any utterances of “Momma”, I might add). And when the prodigal Poppa returns from work each day, the excited squeals emitted by our one-year-old could rival a group of tweens at a One Direction concert. He is her world, and it’s such a stunning sight to see.

I was the girl who always wanted to be a mother; my husband was the guy who was more reluctant to become a father. Yet everyday he is the one who is teaching me how to do this parenthood thing. He shows me that being a parent isn’t about the rules or expectations, it’s everything that lies in between – the endless capacity to love, the inspiring opportunities to play, the wonder of seeing the world through a new perspective and learning together, always together.

These are the things that make a great father, and these are the qualities that I’ve loved to see take flight in my husband as he embraces his role of proud Poppa and boldly leads our daughter into a world of limitless opportunity.

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This guy is simply the best.