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.

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

Meatless Monday – July 4th Ice Cream

Tween had cake for breakfast. To be fair, it was packaged and presented as a “muffin,” but I say we should call a chocolate-chocolate chip “muffin” with cream cheese filling by its true name: cake.

Whatever. He’s 12 and it’s a holiday.

Full disclosure, I had ice cream for breakfast.

Actually, I had coffee before my morning run, and couldn’t make my usual post-run green smoothie because my blender was full of ice cream base. I’d hoped to complete the ice cream making process last night, but got a late start and the ice cream maker hadn’t fully frozen. So I stuck the blender of base + the prepared swirl in the fridge overnight.

Which meant I had to get things going post-run, and so of course I had to dip a spoon. The recipe suggests the churning time will be 45 minutes, but mine went much faster, less than 25 minutes. So there was more spooning and stirring and churning to get the swirl mixed in. And then there was the transferring of ice cream to container, and it didn’t all fit, so…

Enough excuses already. It was delicious!

I used Minimalist Baker’s recipe for Raspberry Ripple Coconut Ice Cream and couldn’t be happier. Although I’d call it Coconut-Berry Ice Cream. It reminds me of one of my childhood happy food traditions, frozen yogurt for lunch after Sunday church. If it was available, I always got coconut, and then swirled it up side-by-side with either a fruit or chocolate flavor–YUM!ice cream

Some thoughts on the recipe: I used a can of Trader Joe’s coconut cream which I chilled in the fridge prior to opening. I also used less than 1/4 c natural sugar and less than 1/4 c maple syrup for sweeteners–I figured the fruit would add its own sweetness so I didn’t want to overdo it. And I used the coconut oil since I’m all about the coconut.

The base is delicious on its own and I think you could vary your swirls to include chocolate, chocolate-mint, nuts, you name it. I used just under a cup of mixed berries, frozen and defrosted, + topped off the 1c mark with unsweetened coconut flakes. Some people like their ice cream smooth, but I like mine with chunks (same goes for nut butters).

When Guy and I were first married, we’d make ice cream for each warm warm weather holiday. Eventually our ice cream maker broke and we fell out of the habit. The more I’ve leaned into a plant-based lifestyle, the less I have wanted ice cream (tastes change, and these days I find myself more inclined to a savory snack); and when I have wanted it, it has been less available. Thankfully, ice cream manufacturers are catching on that there is, in fact, a market for vegan ice cream, and yet it’s expensive. One more great thing about this recipe is that I already had all the ingredients on hand.

I’m thrilled to have an easy-to-make warm weather holiday treat as we celebrate the gift of living in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Happy 4th of July!fireworks

 

Happy Leap Day!

For most of us, today probably feels like an ordinary Monday. I’m doing my normal Monday routine – working from home, an extra load of laundry spinning as I type. But this Monday is a once-every-four-years event and for some reason this year I feel a particular urge to celebrate.

Probably because Leap Day only arrives every four years, it doesn’t have as many time-honored traditions, no special foods or colors or parties. At one time, culture encouraged women to turn the tables on gender roles and propose to their man on Leap Day, but times have changed and now women can take the relational lead any day of the year. As the New York Times declared on February 28, 1976, “In these liberated times, every day is Leap Day.”

When Teen was in kindergarten, he asked for Froggy Cupcakes to share with his class for his December birthday. If I still had littles, I might feel motivated to make dessert. Maybe we’d even play Leap Frog. But as I have adolescents, probably not on both counts.frog cupcakes

Instead, we’re trying something else. Like New Year’s but better, Leap Day give us an opportunity to consider: Who am I becoming? Who do I want to be in four years? More than What do I want to be doing?, be(coming) is the operative verb. Tonight after dinner I’ll pass out blank cards and envelopes and each of us will write a letter to our 2020 self.

Yes, this trick has been done so many times before. But in less than four years, Teen will be in college and Tween in high school. As a family we are in a highly transitional lifestage and it seems timely to think about who we want to be and how best to achieve those goals. Not this or that college, or straight A’s, or even Man of the Match, although some of that will surely happen along the way. Instead, thinking ahead to what we will be doing in four years, who do I want to be as I engage in those activities? Kind, brave, creative, thoughtful, a good friend… And what can I do to become those attributes, starting now?

The real trick for this disorganized mama will be: where will I put the letters so I can easily find them again in four years? Hmm…maybe one of my becoming goals should have to do with organization?

How about you? How will you celebrate the gift of an extra 24 hours, and more importantly, how will that contribute to who you are becoming?

Meatless Monday – Cauliflower Soup

A year ago I wrote this post about lining up my expectations with my Quirky Christmas reality. Always a struggle, during this month between Thanksgiving and Christmas the house has been clean for about three-quarters of one day; the cards still haven’t been mailed; worse yet, the packages will cost us a mint to ship overnight; and the tree was up and lit for three weeks (as opposed to last year’s one week) before the kids had time together to decorate it.

You know what? Oh well! I’m not Pinterest Perfect, and that’s alright with me. The house is festive, the kids clean and fed, and we’re focusing on joy. Today, in fact, was downright close to perfect: I got up before the guys and reveled in morning quiet with coffee and a book. I met up with friends and kids for more coffee and belly laughs. Guy took the day off work and, because it’s raining and we’d originally planned a hike or a walk on the beach, we went to an indoor archery range and discovered a super-fun new family activity we can all enjoy; we ate a late lunch out; and now we’re cozy at home. And a cup of tea and another good book await me at bedtime.

There is beauty in brokenness

There is beauty in brokenness

Yes, it’s Christmas week and I have yet to plan the holiday menu and shop and slowly begin to prep ingredients over the next few days. But some days you just want something simple, quick, and healthy. A sweet friend who is way closer to Martha Stewart-dom (or her French counterpart, whoever that may be), introduced me to this recipe years ago when I thought cauliflower could only be endured in small florets doused in Ranch dressing presented on a party veggie tray. That is, in fact, how I introduced my kids to it. Later I took Tween to a farmer’s market where he discovered purple and peachy-orange cauliflower; of course we bought them and he ate them, still raw but relishing every bite. Since then we’ve added it to mixed roasted veggies and stir fry but most often in this soup, which looks like caramel and tastes like comfort.ingredientscauliflower soup

Cauliflower Soup
Serves 4-6

½ white or yellow onion, diced
1 large potato, diced
2 cloves garlic, pressed
1 head cauliflower, chopped
1 tsp fresh rosemary, chopped
Salt/pepper to taste
4 c veggie broth

Sautee onion, potato and garlic in a large soup pot, stirring occasionally. Chop cauliflower. When potatoes start to soften, add cauliflower, rosemary, salt/pepper, and broth. Cook over medium-high heat 15-20 minutes or until veggies are very soft. Use an immersion blender (or transfer soup to a blender) to blend completely. Homemade rustic bread croutons are a nice addition.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Happy Day! Put on your hats. Work together to solve the clues. Split the pot o' gold. Luck o' the Blarney Stone be with you!

“Happy Day! Put on your hats. Work together to solve the clues. Split the pot o’ gold. Luck of the Blarney Stone to you!”

The leprechauns stopped by to lead the boys on their annual treasure hunt. Our leprechauns don’t come in the wee hours, and we have never tried to trap them. Their only mischief is to create silly clues that have the kids running from side-to-side of the house, laughing all the way.

We started this tradition when Teen was in 1st grade and Tween a toddler. Teen’s school had a book fair, and we decided we could justify buying more books if they were gifts for an occasion. The next holiday on the calendar was St. Patrick’s Day, which worked for us, especially as both of our kids have Irish names. We bought a few books for each boy, wrapped them in different paper, created a series of pictographs, and send the kids on a hunt working together.

The tradition stuck, but over the years the gifts have changed. One year Teen got a crepe pan and Tween got music for his iPod. This year they both got new boxers. They always get chocolate coins, because of course!

See if you can solve the clues: Cat Tree Harry Potter Roomba

See if you can solve the clues:
Cat Tree (an easy one)
Harry Potter (kids checked all the potted plants, especially the hairy ones)
Roomba (kids thought this was Tree House)

Practical items can make funny gifts but need a little sweetness.

Practical items can make funny gifts but require a little sweetness alongside.

The treasure hunt ended with a veggie shepherd’s pie, with Irish soda bread for dessert.

Nonstick vegetable oil spray
1 1/4 c white whole wheat flour
3/4 c whole wheat flour
1/4 c+ organic sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
3/4 tsp baking soda
3 Tbsp vegan butter (Earth Balance)
1 c non-dairy milk + 1 Tbsp lemon juice – combine and set aside
2/3 c raisins, craisins, or dark chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375. Spray 8-inch diameter cake pan. Whisk flour, 1/4 c sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda in large bowl to blend. Add butter. Using fingertips (or tines of a fork) combine until coarse meal forms. Make well in center of flour mixture and add milk/lemon juice. Gradually stir to combine (batter will be thick). Mix in final ingredient of choice.

Transfer dough to prepared pan and flatten slightly (I use fork tines and it makes an interesting pattern – Tween says, “Like birds’ feet!”). If desired, sprinkle dough lightly with additional sugar (I find about 1 tsp sufficiently covers the dough).

Bake until lightly browned, about 40 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature, and preferably with a spread of vegan butter or jam.

This recipe comes together so quickly that I made two loaves, one with chocolate chips and the other with craisins. I sprinkled the craisin loaf with sugar and left the chocolate loaf plain. Both turned out delicious.

An Old Irish Blessing
May love and laughter light your days,
and warm your heart and home.
May good and faithful friends be yours,
wherever you may roam.
May peace and plenty bless your world
with joy that long endures.
May all life’s passing seasons
bring the best to you and yours!