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?

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?

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.

5 Things that Made My Heart Sing

Lately, I’ve been asking myself how to cut back on my social media consumption and still share meaningful, not-so-serious bits of my life. The result? A fun new collection of occasional curiosities posted here for our mutual enjoyment.

01.

I saw the new Little Women movie twice last month. I cried both times. I enjoyed the director’s combination of Louisa May Alcott’s story and her writing. The costumes were so beautiful and the familiar scenery made me fall in love with New England all over again.

“Women have minds and souls as well as hearts, ambition and talent as well as beauty, and I’m sick of being told that love is all a woman is fit for. But… I am so lonely.”

— Jo March
Historical Prettiness — Little Women (2019) dir. Greta Gerwig
photo: pinterest

And, just in case you’re obsessed with the hair styles in the movie like I am, I found this video with several tutorials inspired by the movie.

02.

Liz Vice’s song It Was Good. This was inspired by James Weldon Johnson’s poem, The Creation. Here’s a little excerpt,

“Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;
This great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in is his own image;

Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
Amen.      Amen.”

03.

Palm prayer has been a simple style of prayer I’ve been using lately. I was introduced to it through my spiritual director training program. Wondering what it is? You start with your palms facing down. You bring your worries and the not-so-pleasant thoughts to the front of your mind with the intention to release them to the Lord; you let them “fall” from your hands. After you feel finished you turn your palms to face upward. In this position you are ready to “receive” from God.

You can use this prayer practice in bed, at the office, or a before dinner — it can be very subtle and versatile for all types of settings.

04.

I’ve just recently finished (binged) the three seasons of the series, Anne with an “E”. I was skeptical but almost immediately found it very, very delightful. I was impressed it does not turn a blind eye to the challenges of racism, homophobia, colonization, classism, sexism, and other crucial issues. These issues are intertwined with identity, romance, legacy, grief, friendship, and imagination. I was pleasantly surprised to see these topics thoughtfully presented. A must see!

photo: pinterest

“It’s not what the world holds for you, it’s what you bring to it”

— Anne Shirley-Cuthbert

05.

The last Saturday of 2019 I woke up before sunrise (on accident) and realized I really wanted to drive straight to the beach and watch the sun come up. I woke Aaron up and thankfully he went along with it.

It was a beautiful morning for the two of us. We watched a handful of dogs chase each other and saw some people taking a chilly dip in the water. This small adventure cost a bit of sleep but gave us time together and a new memory or two. Now I’m wondering why we don’t do this more often.

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Weekend Diaries in Vermont

Since spending our (secret) honeymoon in the middle of Vermont, we’ve loved finding weekends where we can visit again, especially in the fall. Peak season for autumn colors is usually early to mid October.

I’d say we are still Vermont-amateurs, meaning there’s many places we’ve yet to visit, but we’ve certainly crossed off a few classic sights. We’ve taken the back roads a few times while in Vermont and have yet to regret it.

Southern Vermont

Hogback Mountain

Initially I wanted to find a good hike in the area (of which I’m sure there are plenty!) but we decided to “settle” for the 100-mile view at Hogback Mountain. This is technically a glorified pullout with a large gift shop. Parking can be found along the road or at a lot just past the restaurant. The view is incredible! Pictures don’t do it justice.

Dot’s Diner

We waited only a long line that poured out on the street. Fortunately the weather was beautiful, sunny and crisp. The waitress sarcastically attributed the long wait times to “horrible food and the worst service.” The food was certainly worth the wait and seemed like we’d known the waitresses forever. I recommend the Berry Berry Pancakes!

Bennington Potters

This shop caught my eye while researching the area and I’m so glad we went. I love pottery and all things home decor. You can browse the shop and take a self-guided your through the workshop! They’ve got beautiful pieces for kitchen, dining, and beyond. I scooped up the cutest dish brush with holder in the signature blue and white glaze.

Robert Frost Stone House Museum

Shaftsbury is slightly north of Bennington a few minutes. You’ll find the Stone House tucked away on a quiet road. The property is charming and well kept. The second floor was closed for renovations while we were there, otherwise we enjoyed learning more about Robert Frost’s life and time in Vermont. (Ask for the military discount for free admission, if that’s you!)

Bennington Monument

Another 5 star view without a hike. (Don’t get me wrong, I love hiking!) Similar to the Washington Monument, you access the top of this monument. The view was fantastic. (Ask for the military discount for free admission!) The neighborhood surrounding the property is also picturesque. The “Old First” Congregational Church is down the street, if that interests you. We didn’t make it there but several other suggested we stop by.

A view from the top of the Bennington Monument.

Readsboro Inn

We spent one night at the Readsboro Inn, which was a great stop nestled in the hills and trees at the bottom of Green Mountain State Forest. It’s a mom-and-pop, no frills accommodation and the only restaurant and bar in town. The owner, Stephanie, is kind and welcoming. The drive in and out of Readsboro is worth the stay.

Took a back road and found a local park with a beautiful view.

Covered Bridges

These bridges are all over Vermont and we drove through or stopped at a few. Pictured below is the Paper Mill Village Bridge near Bennington. I was happy to follow a little trail down to the water’s edge to snap a photo or ten.

Central Vermont

Downtown Woodstock

Woodstock’s downtown is easy to access and similar to other New England downtown settings. Quaint shops with art or boutique items. If I came back I would spend more time exploring other areas. If you have suggestions, let me know!

Pretty candles from a shop in downtown Woodstock.

Woodstock Farmer’s Market

We celebrated our wedding anniversary with sandwiches from the Woodstock Farmer’s Market. Aaron recommends #27 Russell’s Big Hustle. If you want to stay and eat, there’s a small creek running behind the building with picnic tables. A fun spot with mostly overpriced groceries.

Mount Tom Hike

This is a fairly easy hike with a beautiful view of Woodstock. Near the top you’ll encounter some rocky bits that won’t accommodate a stroller. Other than that it’s family-friendly. It took us approximately an hour from start to finish.

Sugarbush Farm

In case you’re itching for some fresh maple syrup and cheese, the Sugarbush Farm is a delicious spot where you can sample all their varieties of house cheese and syrup. There’s a family-friendly trail through the trees and even a small chapel to visit. Originally built by an owner for his own nuptials, the chapel has hosted many weddings. There’s a sweet photo album of all the couples who tied the knot there. Before you leave, head to the barn in the back to learn more about how they harvest and produce the maple syrup. We’ll be coming back.

Manchester and Montpelier are on my list for our next Vermont adventure. And then maybe even farther north.

Any tips for our next weekend trip?