Books Make the Best Gifts – Holiday 2020

I just finished reading my 74th book in 2020. Way back in January, or what feels like eight years ago now, I set a goal to read 55 books; Goodreads tells me I’m at 135% of that goal–and I’m not done yet!

Still, it’s time to purchase holiday gifts and I have some readers on my list. I’m a firm believer that books make great gifts. I have so many Christmas memories involving books… quelling my Christmas Eve anticipation by hiding away in a book, or putting off the inevitable let-down I always felt at the end of the extra-special holiday season and the return to “normal” life by, you guessed it, sticking my nose firmly in a book.

Sure, I liked toys and gadgets as much as the next child–like my Simon game with its colorful and annoying beeping patterns, or my first eight-track cassette player with a now-embarrassing Shawn Cassidy crooning at me–but a stack of books was always my favorite.

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

So here are a few of my favorites from the books I’ve read this year for your consideration…

For the bibliophile/fantasy reader: The Starless Sea by Erin Morganstern

For the reader who enjoys a life-affirming story: Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

For the literary fiction lover:
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett

For the historical fiction fan: The Exiles by Christina Baker Klein

For those who thrill to a creative reinterpretation of biblical stories:
The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd
The Book of V. by Anna Solomon

For the art lover: The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean

For teenagers and/or the young at heart:
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins
Dear Martin by Nic Stone

For the non-fiction world-changer: The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton

For the friend who’s worn through their walking shoes in this pandemic year: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

For the mindful reader: Radical Compassion by Tara Brach

For those who appreciate spiritually-focused memoirs:
Miracles and Other Reasonable Things by Sarah Bessey
Untamed by Glennon Doyle
Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott

Book titles link to Amazon for more info + easy purchasing. Please note: As an Amazon Associate, I may earn from qualifying purchases.

Storm Reflections

Today it’s blustery and gray outside, and the forecasted rain is most certainly on its way. It’s chilly and the storm hasn’t yet hit. It will be colder and wetter soon.

But not that long ago the sun radiated through the autumn-bedazzled green-yellow trees. The sky was a brilliant blue and even with a slight breeze the sun warmed my skin as I strolled the dogs through our neighborhood.

Today’s storm will hit and darkness will descend during daylight hours. But we know, in hope and from experience, that the sun will rise again.

Even on sunny days, for many of us 2020 has been a stormy year. Things have changed, minor inconveniences and devastating losses, and despite our attempts to calibrate to this “new normal” or our plaintive longings for the old “normal” that may have been the song on repeat but also may have been more ear worm than desirable—can anyone define what we even mean by “normal”?—this has been an exhausting year replete with challenges we’d prefer to have avoided. We’ve been shoved into a marathon for which we didn’t train; we’re parched and gasping for breath to fill our aching lungs.

But when we’re alone in our rooms, quiet outside and in (hard as that may be), we can take comfort that this, too, shall pass. We know, in hope and from experience, that the storm will cease and the sun will rise.

We don’t know when, or how, or what the newly-illuminated landscape will look like. We have theories, arguments, conjectures, sure we do. Or at least we try to conjure or adopt or collage theories, arguments, and conjectures so we appear educated, thoughtful, “in the know.” Other times we simply throw up our hands, shrug our shoulders, and sigh with the admission that we have no idea. We’re just doing our best to slug our way through today.

So today I’m going to light candles and start a fire in the fireplace. I’m going to drink hot tea. I’m going to listen as the rain thrums on the roof and the wind whistles and I’ll watch through the windows as the trees enthusiastically dance like they’ve been waiting for the storm as debutantes waited all season for the grand ball.

I will seek moments of beauty in the storm. Living in drought-prone California, I’m trained to appreciate water falling from the sky even when it’s inconvenient. I will respect the storm for what it is, for its differently beautiful gifts that nudge me to a new and necessary perspective.

I know, I know, that may be easier said in an actual rainstorm than done in the unimaginable storms of this year. Yet I can’t help but wonder: what candles can we light, and what will we admire in their glow? What unexpected gifts might this year offer as it prods us to reconsider our priorities, as individuals, neighbors, and citizens of our country and the world?

Because the sun will rise. It’s coming, friends.

Cover Image by Kerstin Riemer from Pixabay

2020 Travel: Tahoe

A week ago I began a blog and Instagram series on 2020 Armchair Traveling: My Life in Coffee Mugs. I wrote about New York City, Norway, and the San Francisco Bay Area and on IG posted about each of these destinations as well as San Diego. This is the final post in this series…for now.

Irony: planning and posting a series about Armchair Travel in the same week that generous church folks gifted us a few days’ stay in their Lake Tahoe vacation home. Of course we went.

Before we moved from SoCal to NorCal, someone who had moved the opposite direction mentioned that soon enough we’d be vacationing in Tahoe. He might as well have said we’d be hitting up Ibiza on the regular, it sounded so unlikely. He wasn’t wrong.

I’m not a snow sports person and I mostly like to experience snow through a picture window. But I do love to hike, and camp, and we’ve done a lot of both in Tahoe. And we have several generous friends who have handed us the keys to their vacation homes for an off-season weekend away.

My favorite picture from my first Tahoe birthday in 2007

Typically my birthday, which in early November means “mud season” and low crowds – tucked in between the crowded months of summer sun seekers floating on the Truckee River and boating on the lake and winter snow seekers.

Time stretches differently on vacation. Even though we had remote work/school on Thursday and Friday, we also had time for long hikes and soaking in the hot tub. We talked more and about different topics. We created new memories.

The sounds of the trip: the “slush” of lake-front sand or sloshy snow and the “crunch” of gravel or icy snow under our feet; the occasional “wa-wa-wa-whoops!” as we slipped on ice and flailed our arms seeking upright-balance like birds flapping hard against uneven wind currents; and the haunting-hollow clarinet howl-squeak of the wind during the day it stormed.

And laughter. Lots of conversation punctuated by joyous peals of laughter.

2020 Armchair Traveling: San Francisco

This week I’m armchair traveling on my blog and Instagram to share My Life in Coffee Mugs.

I grew up in San Diego. I went away to college and eventually returned. And then we moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where we’ve lived for almost 15 years.

The Bay Area is where our kids grew up. They were 7 and 2 years old when we landed, so this is their home like San Diego will always be mine.

My husband used to comment that SoCal didn’t have trees, and I didn’t understand—could he not see the palm trees and eucalyptus trees, the citrus and avocado trees? Now I get it, though, since we have giant redwood trees in our own backyard. We drive three minutes to a redwood forest.

I love the natural open spaces, walking from home to scenic hiking trails. I love our walkable neighborhood and the hours I spend each week pounding the pavement with my pups.

I love the weather, that we have distinct yet not severe seasons; you can take the girl out of SoCal but she will still prefer mild year-round weather. I love real rain storms and bundling up and lighting a fire on chilly days—we can get to snow when we want to but we don’t have to shovel driveways—and I’m grateful to wear sandals most of the year.

I love our small town, and that we can be in San Francisco in short order (traffic depending), to visit the beach (Crissy Field is our favorite), Pier 39, the Ferry Building, particularly on Saturday mornings for the Farmers’ Market, Union Square during the holidays or Ghirardelli Square for, what else?, chocolate. Or we can be wine tasting in Napa in 45 minutes, or at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in less than two hours. This is the farthest I’ve lived from the beach and yet we get to the beach regularly.

Because this is where our family grew up, no matter where life may take us, the Bay Area will always also be Home.

2020 Armchair Traveling: Norway

This week I am sharing on my blog and on Instagram about My Life in Coffee Mugs. On Monday, I wrote on the blog about New York City. On Tuesday on Instagram I posted about my hometown of San Diego. Today I am blogging about Norway…

We celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary with two weeks in Norway. We spent a week on the Hurtigruten, a mail delivery/cruise boat (though not the kind of cruise you typically think of), sailing along the coastline and through the fjords from Bergen to Kirkenes. The following week we flew to Oslo, took the train to Kristiansand, and then rode the train back to Bergen—arguably the most beautiful train ride in all of Europe (I can’t compare, but it was truly spectacular).

Along the way we visited my Norwegian family: my second cousins and my mom’s cousins, and we had the enormous privilege of holding a gathering in honor of my recently departed grandmother in her hometown of Lista with nine of her cousins, happy to tell stories and leaf through pictures in yellowing photo albums.

Lista Fyr, the lighthouse my grandmother considered “hers,” since this is the view from her childhood home

This wasn’t my first trip to Norway, but it was revelatory to see with adult eyes the country that grew my grandmother and my mother. Watching the cold and rugged coast drift by the Hurtigruten windows, houses improbably stuck to cliffsides, with narrow one lane roads–or no visible roads at all—I was newly impressed with the hardiness of my people.

I do not feel so hardy, rather cushy-spoiled by my SoCal upbringing, but I have renewed respect for my mom and grandma, for the stock boiled into and diluted in my blood. I differently understand their desire to be outside in all weather, their need for nature, growing things, water, green and blue–in potted plants and paintings and photographs, if that’s how they can get it.

To have a pot of coffee roasting hot from early-dark to late-night. To have tins stocked with fresh-baked cookies, and oven-fresh pastries, ready to serve to guests. To savor the aroma and relish the taste of fresh caught and cooked fish. Or to over-boil the fish and the potatoes, as well as the peas and green beans until they’re slightly gray, because high culinary status hadn’t hit Norway before they departed for the U.S.

I wouldn’t be me without my Norwegian heritage. I wonder if my siblings feel the same, or if my name, Siv, tightens my family ties. Every single time I meet someone, I have to explain my Norwegian name: “like Steve without the T,” Siv—wife of thunder god Thor—goddess of the harvest whose blonde hair waved in the wheat like the wind.

Simple and complicated. Like me.

P.S. My Norwegian cousins confirmed that, although coffee is a big deal in Norway, Starbucks is not. We bought this mug in the airport at the only Starbucks we saw.

2020 Armchair Traveling: My Life in Coffee Mugs

Along with so much else in 2020, travel has been cancelled. Good thing my coffee mugs remind me where I’ve been–exactly what Starbucks intended, right? This week, I’ll let my warm cuppa whisk me away to share a few highlights from my life.

Today is my birthday.

It’s also an ordinary Monday in an exceptionally strange year.

A year ago my family celebrated my milestone birthday in NYC. I’m not big on Big Cities, but NYC was where I wanted to wake up 50. No big party, rather a long weekend creating new memories with my loves. (Irony: we booked an AirBnB in New Jersey so I did not, in fact, wake up in NYC).

Setting aside the expected-and-unusual bumps that typically arise during travel, my last birthday was a nearly perfect day in an as-close-as-they-come perfect weekend.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Kicking up crunchy fall leaves as we strolled through Central Park. The Guggenheim. A fabulous sit-down dinner (at an all-veg restaurant, so the teens would describe it differently). The Empire State Building. Gourmet ice cream to end the day.

the view from Belvedere Castle in Central Park

During our stay, we hit many of the big touristy sites–the Statue of Liberty, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, the Stock Exchange and Federal Hall (and by happy accident, Hamilton’s grave), the American Museum of Natural History, Rockefeller Center, Broadway, Times Square, even Carlo’s Bakery–since we had never explored NYC as a family.

The Met was our unanimously favorite spot

But one of the highlights for me was tripping across memories of my family ties to this place:

The Fashion Institute of Technology, where my mom studied children’s clothing design at the same time Calvin Klein studied fashion.

We walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, starting on the Brooklyn side where my grandma lived with my young mom and aunt during the years she worked as a cook at the General Motors Building across from Central Park. My parents met at a mutual friend’s apartment, I can’t be sure now but maybe in Brooklyn?

My grandma lived in Queens when I was very young, when my parents and I lived on Long Island. My dad flew out of LaGuardia as a pilot for Pan American Airlines; before they married, he got my mom a job as a stewardess, a job she loved–”when airlines still offered hospitality that meant something”–until she got pregnant with me.

When I chose NYC as my birthday weekend destination, I chose it to visit fun and culturally significant places as a family. I didn’t realize that it would also connect me to family members no longer able to share their own memories.

One of the many benefits of travel.

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Following the Words: Scattered

One evening I heard myself say to my husband, “I feel scattered.” I went on to explain just a few of the dizzying directions in which my brain was spinning:

the books I’m reading–to study the author’s writing style, to challenge myself to learn about life from a different perspective, to unwind before bed;

my writing projects–the few side gigs that pay a few pennies, the assignments that stretch me, my commitment to post on my blog regularly, the personal projects I’m trying to take to the next level;

my thoughts and feelings about the divided state of our country, the political and racial strife stirring up people on the streets but also changing friendships and affecting families, the election, and oh, let’s not forget that we’re in the midst of a pandemic and I have never in my life spent this much time at home;

and the intensely personal thoughts and feelings about the ways in which my sons are struggling through distance learning and the coincidence of their developmental stages with this strange time in history, and my mom’s declining health and how her children are coming together…and not.

In other words, it’s a lot. Everybody’s dealing with a lot right now, but this is my heap of extra to pitchfork my way through in search of a needle to stitch together a patchwork quilt of goodness.

The next morning, as the foggy mental fatigue continued to hang heavy on me, I did what I do: I started writing. I decided to follow the word scattered, to listen to the images it offered and what they had to say to me.

I feel scattered…
…like the multicolored metallic glitter confetti strewn across the parquet wood-tile floor of my teenage bedroom after I tore open a belated birthday card…
No, not that bright.

…like the dots and frizzles of crepe-paper ribbons launched from the midnight canon on New Year’s Eve in Times Square, paper melting and colors bleeding into sludgy snow drifts, ground into the treads of shuffling boots and sneakers and spiked by the impractical inches of sparkly high heels impaling the neon dark dawn of another cold year…
No, not that wasted.

…like the wild ping and ding and plonk and buzz and whap-slap of pinballs bouncing and banging a dizzying hypotrochoid roulette through an arcade game…
No, not that loud.

…like fire ash twisting in the late-summer breeze, tangling with the twigs of sunlight creeping through the apocalyptic orange smoke sky, impossibly snowing grey soot on our white roses…
No, not that tragic.

…like the crisp underfoot crunch of fallen autumn leaves carpeting the ground, sun yellow, rusty red, burnt orange, vibrant and colorful and withered, contributing their seasonal decay decoration to the loamy compost which will energize more life to burst forth from the ground…
Yes, organic potential, scattered like that.

Not the best piece of writing I’ve produced, but that wasn’t the point. The process itself was helpful. For a time I lost myself in playing with words and images. It felt freeing to be able to see, and then reject, what scattered could but didn’t mean to me: no, not wasted like crepe paper confetti on New Year’s Eve, or loud like pinball machines in an arcade. Not bright, not tragic.

But yes, scattered like fallen leaves, natural, not artificial, still scattered, but promising. Each factor in the multiplicity of ideas and anxieties boggling my brain and soul might come together for exponential growth. Some thoughts, like those fallen leaves, will crumble into dust and blow away on the breeze–not everything needs to lead to something or even mean something–but others may contribute to the rise of something new.

Though feeling scattered remains uncomfortable, the process of following the words led me to hope. And for that, I am grateful.

Cover Image by Martina Janochová from Pixabay

All Saints’ Day

Still trembling with fear, I grabbed Mom’s arm in wobbly desperation. “Do Not Ever let me ride that again!” I gasped. “Even when I’m a teenager and I come here with my friends, tell them I Am Not allowed to ride that ride!”

My mom took me and my sister to Disneyland, an hour-and-a-half drive from our home, and we went on the Haunted Mansion ride. About half-way through, our chair spun suddenly toward a mirror where I could see ghosts, invisible when I looked at myself but visibly sitting on my lap when I glanced in the mirror. Gah, ghosts? Only nine years old, I had the first panic attack of my life.

I’m not a Halloween person. As a kid, I liked costume parades and school carnivals, pumpkin carving and candy, all the candy, until that one year I learned that ALL the candy isn’t a grand idea. As a parent, I enjoyed helping my kids choose costumes, the kid-cute creativity and the fun of families gathering together for dinner and a trick-or-treat stroll of the neighborhood.

I understood early that I am sensitive, and scary + gore = more terror than I can handle. I eventually succumbed to sleep-over peer pressure and watched a few horror movies with friends, but that came to a hard stop when Nightmare on Elm Street gave me actual nightmares for months.

However, Halloween will always fall on October 31 and All Saints’ Day will always fall on November 1. I didn’t grow up within a tradition that observed All Saints’ Day, but it took on new meaning when my dad died on my son’s first birthday.

The Church has a centuries-old tradition of setting aside this day to remember those who have gone before us from life into death to form the “great cloud of witnesses” as mentioned in Hebrews: …since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus… (Hebrews 12:1-2, NRSV)

Although I have lightly pussy-footed with a little bit of running, that race image has never worked for me. I’m kind of a wuss, and perseverance implies a hard-edged discipline I don’t possess. Joy motivates me far more…and so it truly helps to remember that I, that we, have a jam-packed cheering section hootin’ and hollerin’ for us as we look to Jesus for direction on how to live each day.

I still don’t have a specific All Saints’ Day observance. Unlike Dia de Muertos, for me this day doesn’t come prepackaged with decorations, traditions, and treats. Some years it slips my notice altogether. But last night we had the quietest Halloween ever, take-out burritos (boo-ritos!) and a suspenseful (not gory) movie and not a single trick-or-treater at the door. Our kids having grown older and this pandemic year combined to cancel one more opportunity to gather.

Which made me more grateful for the timely encouragement I found this morning when I wasn’t even looking for it, a prayer and a hymn, the great cloud of witnesses putting resources in my hands to remind me that, though we may feel alone in these strange days, we are never truly alone.

By the way, my family celebrated my 40th birthday at Disneyland and, as the Haunted Mansion was also 40 years old, I received skip-the-line passes for the ride. Despite countless trips to Disneyland, I had, in fact, not ridden the ride since that first time. I put it off all day until finally, determined to conquer my fear, my young son held my hand and rode it with me.

Renovated to include characters from The Nightmare Before Christmas movie, we giggled throughout our short trip. The ride still has the ghost-infested mirrors, but they no longer scared me. At the end, my son looked at me with concern on his face: What about that was so scary for you? I understood his incredulity; the ride isn’t scary.

It scared me once, though, when it showed me that there might be more going on in our experience of this life than we can observe with our two eyes. Still, I’ll take a heavenly cheering section over ghosts any day.

Prayer: Lord, your saints come from every nation and every tribe. Such is the beauty of your kingdom, where every race and people are honored and recognized as being made in your image. Help us live lives of peace and reconciliation that pay homage to the diversity of your great cloud of witnesses. Amen. (from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and Enuma Okoro)

Hymn:
Be still, my soul, the Lord is on thy side
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain
Leave to thy God to order and provide
In every change He faithful will remain
Be still my soul thy best, thy heavenly friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end

Be still, my soul, thy God doth undertake
To guide the future as He has the past
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake
All now mysterious shall be bright at last
Be still, my soul, the waves and winds still know
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below

Be still, my soul, when dearest friends depart,
and all is darkened in the vale of tears,
then shall you better know his love, his heart,
who comes to soothe your sorrow and your fears.
Be still, my soul: your Jesus can repay
from his own fullness all he takes away.

Be still, my soul! The hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored
Be still, my soul! When change and tears are past
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last
(Be Still, My Soul!, music by Jean Sibelius, words adapted from Psalm 46 by Kathrina von Schlegel)

Cover Image by Henryk Niestrój from Pixabay

Noticing the Glorious Ordinary

Most days of the week I walk by this ordinary bush tucked in among other ordinary bushes along the roadside. So why on that particular day did this one particular ordinary bush attract my eye? The dog must have yanked her leash and stopped to sniff at its roots, allowing my eye to rest a beat longer than usual.

But this bush…! Once I noticed it, I couldn’t not notice it. Now I see it, and admire it, every time I stroll that stretch of the neighborhood. I don’t know what it’s called, or whether it might look different in a different season, but it fascinates me in this early fall. I’m no mathematician but I’m certain its intricacies are mathematical in their precision.

Do you see those teensy pink flowers tickling their way out of the pods extending on stems from the central ball, like the tiny tickling feet of a sea star, or the antennae of some other spectacular underwater creature?

This glorious ordinary bush, tucked in among other ordinary bushes which might be equally glorious if I stopped to notice them. Like one glorious ordinary day in a week, or a month, or a year of ordinary days…and in this year filled with never-ending weeks and months of Blursdays, blurry in their sameness, it’s too easy to lose track. Some days when I open my gratitude journal in the morning to record a few sprinkles of gratitude from the previous day, I can’t remember a single stand out; some days I forget to even pick up the gratitude journal.

This striking regular bush, like a magnificent typical day, like a fantastic common individual human person. All ordinary, among ordinary others, and all miraculous… What will it take for us to stop, see, notice, admire, appreciate, marvel in the extraordinary ordinary all around us? Including our very own lives.

Choose Joy

I have a full day in progress, some work and mostly mundane chores that still need to get done. I also received hard, sad news yesterday, had strange dreams that shocked me awake with my heart fluttering, and had a pressing headache–from the tip of my nose down to my aching shoulders–before I even opened my eyes. None of that changes all the tasks ahead of me today.

And so I will choose joy.

@apeaceofwerk

I may require extra coffee and ibuprofen, notes to self to unclench my jaw and stretch, and refilling my water bottle more than normal. But I will still choose joy.

I will set timers to be productive and take breaks.

I will involve the kids, turn on music, and transform cleaning into a dance party.

I will offer myself periodic rewards for work well done, something as simple as a head massage in the shower I won’t get until this afternoon.

I will step outside and feel the warmth of the sun.

@apeaceofwerk

I will notice gratitude–for the sun, for the new crop of grape tomatoes growing in our container garden that will explode deliciousness in our mouths, for the company of the people I love living under our roof.

I will breathe deeply.

I will engage my senses–what can I see, hear, smell, taste, and touch that adds beauty to this very moment?

I will pet the pets and laugh at their antics. Maybe I’ll look up silly animal videos on one of my breaks.

I will give myself bear hugs.

I will say YES and Thank You to whatever this day holds, all the imperfections and the missed expectations and the mess and the wild and precious ordinary 1440 minutes (or however many are left) in this day.

@triciarobinson

How will you choose joy today?