A Non-Traditional Birthday Gift Guide

In honor of my birthday this month I thought I would share 25 gifts (in no particular order) you can use as inspiration for your friends and family or shamelessly give yourself.

Some you can present with a bow on top and others are too meaningful for gift wrap. I list most of these with the hope they improve our quality of life or the lives around us.

(As I was finishing this list I saw a general pattern in the gifts: presence, learning, and reflection. All vital elements in life, in my opinion. What do you think?)

photo: pinterest

1. Invest in Therapy

Therapy is an investment in your overall health. If your insurance isn’t great, there are different options to keep mental healthcare accessible. Telehealth options are in abundance at the moment, so really, what are you waiting for?

2. A Library Card

A library card opens up the wonderful world of learning. Even if your library is closed, many offer ebooks and audiobooks on apps like Libby and Hoopla. Libraries can also be hosts to all types of resources and events, not just books.

11 Library Card Perks You’ve Never Heard Of

3. Spread Kindness

In a nation riddled with hate, division, and uncertainty, kindness makes a huge difference.

“A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees.”

— Amelia Earhart

4. Spiritual Direction

Spiritual direction comes in all shapes and sizes. It can be beneficial for anyone! Learn more about it here.

5. Spend Time Outdoors

With increased isolation and time indoors, I am so grateful to spend outdoors. It’s a great way to safely interact with others (or not!) and move your body.

How Does Nature Impact Our Wellbeing? — University of Minnesota

6. Spend Time with Loved Ones

Even if you can’t physically spend time with someone, there are still ways to spend time together. As things slowly open up, be both mindful and creative!

7. Invest in Sex and Relationship Education

Sex/sexuality and relationship education isn’t a one-stop-shop in middle school, it’s a lifelong conversation that grows and matures with time. Whether or not you’re in an intimate partnership, it is important to sharpen your relationship skills, like communication, boundaries, and problem solving.

8. Volunteer for a Cause

If you feel strongly about animals or social reform or creation care or any other cause — volunteer! And better yet, bring a friend!.

9. Invest in Physical Wellbeing

Try a new yoga practice, grab a gift card for a therapeutic massage, or explore a new sport. Find a way to care for yourself on purpose.

Make it date and learn a new dance with a partner.

10. Establish Prayer or Meditation Practice

There are hundreds (thousands?) of books on prayer and even more ways to pray. If you feel stuck, try something different like a lectio divina or the examen. Don’t feel obligated to sit still, by all means, walking or household chores can lend themselves nicely to prayer or meditation.

11. Learn About a Different Faith or Culture

It is well worth the time to listen and understand, rather than be understood.

“People of different religions and cultures live side-by-side in almost every part of the world, and most of us have overlapping identities which unite us in very different groups. We can love what we are, without hating what- and who we are not. We can thrive in our own tradition, even as we learn from others, and come to respect their teachings.”

— Kofi Annan

10 Honorable Ways to Learn About Another Culture

Book and Film Lists – Racial Equity Tools

12. Take a Screen Time Sabbath

Screen time can be useful, but take a moment to pause the scrolling. This is surely a gift to yourself and also to those around you!

13. Declutter Your Space

Set the timer for 5 minutes, even 2 minutes, and focus on the kitchen counter or the pile in the bedroom. Surprise yourself with the difference you made.

Cleaning and detailing a friend’s car might make you the best friend, ever!

14. Drink More Water

You know this. I know this. We all know water is a miracle worker. A reminder to drink plenty of water is both mom-approved and science-based.

15. Care for a Plant

Plants teach you valuable life skills, like gentleness, patience, and understanding how and when to nurture or prune. You might also get some delicious herbs or veggies, too.

Word to the wise, plants make lovely gifts.

16. Give Yourself Compassion

This is a gift I’m giving myself this year. It’s not the easiest gift to give, but it’s been well worth it. Give yourself permission to be human, to be vulnerable, to grow, to learn, to fail miserably and then find a way back up again.

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

— Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

17. Take More Pictures

Try taking pictures to remember the moment, not fill up Instagram. Take bad pictures. Take silly ones. Take photos special only to you. Have someone else take your picture, because God knows you need to be remembered, too.

18. Journal or Read a Memoir

I learn a lot about myself from journaling and reading the experiences of others through biographies or memoirs. Journaling doesn’t always have to be pen and paper. Recently I’ve been using the app 1 Second Everyday to record pieces of my life.

“Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”

— Anne LamottBird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

19. Create a Rule of Life

I talk a little more about this here. If you don’t have one yet, now’s the perfect time to start brainstorming and crafting one! This is an excellent gift to yourself.

20. Share Your Creativity

Creativity looks different for everyone. Coding, painting, carpentry work, writing, boat design — share it with someone! It doesn’t have to be polished or perfect to be meaningful.

21. Read a Children’s Book

When was the last time you browsed the shelves of the children’s section? (Amazon counts!) Children’s books are colorful, whimsical, and often include timeless life lessons — like how to be a good friend or why it’s important not to eat yellow snow.

Here’s a couple I like: The Rabbit Listened, The Moon Jumpers, Miss Rumphius, and Hats of Faith

22. Learn More About Myers-Briggs or the Enneagram

These models are more descriptive than prescriptive, so explore with a grain of salt and enjoy the process of learning. They can be especially helpful in a team setting or in a relationship.

23. Eat a Nourishing Meal

You probably already know the power of food. It’s not simply physical nourishment, it’s emotional and spiritual food, too. Whether a meal is made for you or you create your own menu, food is an amazing way to say “You’re loved!”

24. Create a Playlist

Music is a beautiful way to show someone you care for them. Playlists are the new mixtapes. Select a few old favorites and mix in a few new ones and you have yourself a thoughtful, personalized gift for a partner, friend, or family member.

25. Finally, Try New Things. Always.

“All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” 

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

I hope you enjoyed this list. What would you add to it?

A Guide to The Examen Prayer

The prayer of Examen is a space you create to reflect on (to examine) your day in light of God’s presence. This is a practice I’ve been using in recent weeks, as I approach my 25th birthday, and I’ve found it helpful and comforting.

“…to pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”

— Mary Oliver

This extraordinary time of life has lent itself to more personal reflection, the reorganization of priorities, and renewed awareness to life’s complexity. We must continue to examine our understanding of “normal,” and for many, our privilege, and seek to conform our hearts and minds to Christ.

Practicing the Examen

There are a few different variations of this form of prayer and if you decide to practice the examen, you’ll find your own rhythm that works best for you. I’ve found it helpful for my own practice to associate the steps with something tactile: gardening. Similar to adding motions to a children’s song, the gardening metaphors help me to remember the rhythm.

photo: jade seok

Give Thanks

Begin by planting seeds of gratitude. Offer thanks for whatever comes to mind. The “seeds” are all different sizes, some harder to pick up than others. There is a power in recognizing what you’re grateful for, even if you don’t *feel* very thankful in the moment. The seeds will continue to grow and fill up your garden.

“It is only with gratitude that life becomes rich!” 

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Be Present with God

Don’t be quick to wipe the dirt from your hands. Allow yourself to be fully present with God. One of the best parts of gardening is putting your hands in the soil. Its mildly therapeutic, in my humble opinion, and encourages me to be mindful of the task at hand. In silence or with a few words, invite the Holy Spirit to guide you as you pray.

“O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways…Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?”

—Psalm 139:1–3, 7 NRSV

Reflect on the Day

Notice how the garden has grown. Where have light and water nourished the garden? Where have weeds taken over? Allow the Holy Spirit to direct your attention to God’s presence in your day.

“Earth’s crammed with heaven,

Any every common bush afire with God,

But only [s]he who sees takes off [their] shoes;

The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”

— Elizabeth Barret Browning

Identify Areas of Growth

Remove any weeds from the garden. Invasive species or common weeds are inevitable and must be tended to with a sharp eye and gentleness. Where is pruning needed? Ask the Lord for forgiveness where you’ve been wrong. How can you initiate or participate in reconciliation?

“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

— Ephesians 4:31-32

Look to Tomorrow

Water with care. Reflect on your hopes for the next day and ask God to help you in any anticipated temptations or challenges. The act of watering is an act of hope for new growth and new life.

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end, they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”

— Lamentations 3:22-23

Alternative Method

We all get overwhelmed and sometimes it’s too much to think of the entire prayer, or the entire garden, if you will. If this describes your day, it may be easier to ask yourself just two questions:

  • Where have I spoken or acted in love?
  • Where have I spoken or acted in fear?

As you ask these questions, allow yourself to be present with God, even for a few minutes.

Additional Resources

5 Things that Made My Heart Sing During COVID19

As we start our seventh week of sheltering-in-place we’re still adjusting to new combinations of stillness and stress. And we’re still learning to balance uncertainty with hope. Here’s a few things stirring up hope in my life.

01.

Kate Bowler’s “A Rhythm for an Uncertain Week” is timely and encouraging.

02.

I’m loving the song Island by Audrey Assad. I’ve also really been enjoying Bifrost Art’s album, Lamentations: Simple Songs of Lament and Hope Vol. 1.

03.

I tried a new bread recipe in my Dutch oven a couple weeks ago. (Is it just me or is everyone making their own bread now!?) The first loaf was delicious. I cut it up and served it with this. I recently made another loaf and added some honey.

I also made these yeast-free cinnamon rolls for our quiet Easter morning and yes, they were the best.

04.

I finished Henri Nouwen’s book, Life of the Beloved. It’s his letter to a friend explaining Christian spiritual life to a secular audience. With warmth and compassion, Nouwen invites the reader to live in their true identity, Beloved.

“To be chosen as the Beloved of God is something radically different. Instead of excluding others, it includes others. Instead of rejecting others as less valuable, it accepts others in their own uniqueness. It is not a competitive, but a compassionate choice. Our minds have great difficulty in coming to grips with such a reality. Maybe our minds will never understand it. Perhaps it is only our hearts that can accomplish this. Every time we hear about ‘chosen people’, ‘chosen talents’, or ‘chosen friends’, we almost automatically start thinking about elites and find ourselves not far from feelings of jealousy, anger, or resentment. Not seldom has the perception of others as being chosen led to aggression, violence, and war.”

— Henri Nouwen

05.

Walks or bike rides with Aaron have been good reminders of beauty. We walk around the neighborhood or nearby trails, and sometimes skip the walk and take a scenic drive instead. In the past couple weeks we’ve explored Walden Pond and the trails in Minute Man National Historic Park.

Where have you noticed beauty or hope around you?

Digital Minimalism in the Midst of a Pandemic

“Digital Minimalism: A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”

Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World

Our family has been experimenting with a no-social-media-life. Aaron left social media a year ago and I’ve been taking more frequent and longer breaks from Facebook and Instagram in the past few months. Almost as long as we’ve been married, we’ve deactivated or signed off of Twitter and Snapchat, and haven’t downloaded TikTok or any of the other more recent apps.

Even in the midst of COVID-19, social distancing, and remote work, we’re not itching to see what everyone else is doing. It probably looks similar to what we’re doing: staying home. We catch the news from our state’s website our local NPR station, and one or two other online newspapers or non-profits. It certainly cuts down on the amount of irrelevant clutter or distractions.

(I’ll take this moment and say that while narrowing our intake of information, we have not simply cut out opposing views in favor of sources that are likely to “agree” with us. Selective media exposure, according to research, has consequences. In limiting our intake of digital media we have been conscious of this. Well-rounded media consumption can still happen in thoughtful, small portions.)

When I was initially debating a minimalist approach, I wasn’t sure if I would be successful. I gave myself a few questions to consider.

  • What causes me to pick up my phone and check these apps?
  • How are these posts edifying my life or the community I live in?
  • How does scrolling through my feed make me feel afterwards?

My answers to these questions will probably look different than yours. Maybe you enjoy a 24 hour break. Or maybe you’re looking for a long-term change. I know that my online presence can directly influence how I handle anxiety and how I interact with others in real life. But this isn’t a universal experience.

“We all need empty hours in our lives or we will have no time to create or dream.”

— Robert Coles

Observations I’ve made in my own life since signing off:

  • In the past two months neither of us have had access to the “normal” feed of photos, articles, and memes and have not felt FOMO (fear of missing out) or uninformed.
  • Social media is a place to share your life but you are not obligated to friend/follow the lives of anyone and everyone around you. I’ve “unfollowed” most of my “friends” on Facebook so my feed is now very brief. (Don’t worry, we’re still friends. I just don’t see everything you post.) If I were to sign on, I now only see the posts from a few family members and close friends.
  • Sourcing news from social media is not the only way to stay updated on important events and changes in your community. By taking news related media (and many of the well-intentioned opinions of Facebook) off of my feeds, I’d say I feel better informed by going straight to the sources. (Take this chance to strengthen your media literacy!)
  • “Liking” a post does not equal true connection. Call or text that person. Write a letter or email. Have a (virtual) coffee. It’s much more satisfying than the dopamine rush you get from your notifications.
  • My digital presence feels different based on if I’m using my phone or laptop. My laptop does not follow me into the bedroom, but my phone usually does since it’s my alarm clock. My laptop is more often used for writing and more professional endeavors, while my phone is seen as more casual.
  • Simply deleting the apps from my phone and signing off made me less likely to jump back in. Making it harder to access my feeds, makes it easier to find something else to do.

Things I’ve done instead of scroll: take longer walks, spend time cooking & baking new recipes, reading, several projects around our apartment, complete a sewing project or two, weekly counseling sessions, painting, sort and organize for our upcoming move, and of course, enjoy moments of boredom.

“All television is educational television.  The question is:  what is it teaching?”

— Nicholas Johnson

All that to say, I’m definitely not anti-social media or digital consumption. It’s a wonderful tool for connection and creativity, and sharing pieces of our lives. I look forward continue to use it thoughtfully, especially as it has become vital for so many during COVID19. I love having the instant access to inspiration, new and old friends, and sharing what interests me.

Have you considered jumping off social media or taking a different approach to your digital life?

Little Things with Great Love

Most days at I try to get out and walk around our neighborhood. Our suburban town has a nature trail I sometimes walk but other days I opt for the sidewalk that takes me by rows of older homes, bits of main street, and some historical remnants of what used to be Salem.

Even with the guidance of physical distancing and wearing masks people are pretty quick to wave and say hello as we walk past each other. I’ve also noticed teenage siblings shooting hoops outside with their family pup, a parent regularly outside with their little one, and several neighbors chatting over the fences. These are relatively small interactions but now they seem so much more meaningful. Physical touch, face to face conversations, sharing a meal — our social interactions have significantly shifted from what we were used to.

photo: steiner engeland

I’ve taken a lot of this for granted. Now tucked away at home my days blur together and there’s little change in the day-to-day routine. I’m “homesick” for the people who have helped make this corner of Massachusetts “home” and I’m sad to have cancelled travel plans with family, my original “home.”

The following song feels especially relevant during this time. The small things I’ve overlooked for so long, are becoming the primary sources of life for me: taking great care in preparing meals, both by planning for a trip to the store and trying new recipes, selecting a new book to read, driving, being outside and waving hello to a fellow trail-walker, among other things. These are the tender mercies of my new normal.

“Oh, the deeds forgotten; oh, the works unseen
Every drink of water flowing graciously
Every tender mercy, You’re making glorious
This You have asked us
Do little things with great love
Little things with great love”

Recognizing these small-but-significant gifts of wonder and beauty has made the uncertain days a little easier.

I do recognize I have the privilege of staying home, slowing down, working remotely, and avoiding much hardship with this change of pace. There are others who have much different experiences: survivors of domestic violence, the unemployed, healthcare and essential workers, the elderly and homeless, others without access to vital resources, and those dying alone. Their suffering is not forgotten.

“In the kingdom of the heavens, no suff’ring is unknown
Each tear that falls is holy, each breaking heart a throne
There is a song of beauty on ev’ry weeping eye
For there is One who loves me
His heart, it breaks with mine”

I lament the toll this virus has had around the world and the fear it carries with it. I watch the numbers rise each day in our county and state and find myself feeling helpless sometimes. I have no answers to offer, other than the encouragement to walk with great love in all you do.

“Oh give us ears to hear them and give us eyes that see
For there is One who loves them
I am His hands and feet

For there is One who loves them
I am His hands and feet”

Oh Lord, give us eyes to see.