Winter Gatherings

An amazing spread of grilled vegetables, fresh greens, nuts, olives and cheeses assembled by my friend, Jaminda. Delicious! Photos by Rachel Cuthbert Photography

An amazing spread of grilled vegetables, fresh greens, nuts, olives and cheeses assembled by my friend, Jaminda. Delicious! Photos by Rachel Cuthbert Photography

The holiday fog has finally cleared.  Post New Years, it takes me about two weeks to dig out, regroup, and to start missing people again. ; ) As January draws to a close, and winter has clearly set in (currently digging out from 8” new inches of snow and prepping for Polar Vortex 2019), I’m often looking for ways ways to stay active when my body is screaming, “hibernate!”, to engage my mind & gather friends. As you can imagine, winters in Michigan are long and often the skies are gray. Human connection makes a big difference.

The last two Christmas seasons, I’ve hosted a book swap with a few friends and we’ve had so much fun. I love books, friends, great conversation, the holidays season & brunch!  So why not combine a few of my favorite things? It’s a really fun way to celebrate the season together. But I think it also translates well into a good winter gathering. I truly believe that meaningful conversations, shared meals, and good books are a natural mood booster.

And it’s flexible. Last year I suggested people bring their favorite non-fiction and favorite fiction book.  This year, friends brought a recent favorite and a favorite from last year.  I served coffee, mimosas, my favorite Mushroom Swiss Chard Sausage Strata and friends brought food to share as well. The goal was to swap books throughout the year. Unfortunately, trading books throughout the year didn’t go as planned so I had people bring a favorite book from the previous year. Each guest drew a number and then picked 2 books. We chose White Elephant style, so the person choosing could unwrap a book or steal a book.

Wrapped books to be swapped. Photo by Rachel Cuthbert photo

Wrapped books to be swapped. Photo by Rachel Cuthbert photo

2018 books:

  • Educated by Tara Westover (I read this book in a few days—great read and leaves so much to discuss. Though it impeded some of my pre-Christmas work. Oops! I’m one of those readers who can’t begin a good book if I actually have things I need to accomplish.  The author drew me in to her harrowing family story, but I also appreciate the care she takes care to present facts as faithfully as possible. Throughout the book she recognizes that memory can be a tricky thing, and she tries to corroborate as many details as possible.

  • Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance—One of my favorite memoirs from the last couple of years. I’ve recommended it often. Much has been written about it in light of the 2016 election, and I certainly think it lives up to its reputation as a behind the scenes account of life in modern rural Midwestern America. If you’re an audio book fan, check this one out. The author narrates, and it really brings some of the characters, like his grandmother, to life.

  • In His Image by Jen Wilkin

  • Joel: A Boy of Galilee by Annie Fellows Johnston

  • Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett—I've heard good things about this and I’m looking forward to reading it. I’ve been a bit apprehensive to start because it’s a longer read and I fear that once I start, I won’t be able to put it down.

  • Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi This was my selection, and a book that I often think about and want to discuss. Dr. Qureshi, was a Christian apologist who came to his Christian faith as a medical student. His mind is razor sharp, and his journey to faith in Christ compelling. I first read this book in 2016 and later followed his apologetics ministry along with his battle and eventual death to stomach cancer in the fall of 2017 at the age of 33.

A few 2017 favorites: 

  • A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg—if you love food memoirs, this is a great one. 

  • A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken—Have read this a few times and it’s a tear jerker.  A beautiful love story with poignant spiritual depth. Includes letters between the author and CS Lewis.

  • Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

  • Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

  • The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt—I hope to read this soon. I have an almost teenager and three on his heels, so I’m always looking for good Young Adult lit.

Quick note: The above books were favorites of a group of friends. Some of the books I haven’t read so I am not necessarily recommending, just sharing what we traded with one another. I think that’s what makes this a fun gathering—I love seeing what friends are reading and also being challenged to read outside my comfort zone. My personal favorites from the two lists (understanding that I haven’t read all of the books so there may be new favorites lurking) are Educated, Hillbilly Elegy, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, A Homemade Life, and A Severe Mercy.

Funny, I’m noticing a theme here… human narratives. It’s true. I’m a people person and I love the deep dive into real stories—how people deal with life—tragedy, conflicts, limited resources, etc… and ultimately how they persevere. With that said, I would love to hear some of your reading favorites from 2018 and what you plan to read in 2019.


Nine for 2019 New Year's Resolutions

New Year’s Resolutions… Do you or don’t you?


Ugh!  I don’t even like typing “resolutions.”  To me, it’s synonymous with promises I will break.  If I have an obligation to work, to a friend, to an organization, I’m 100% all in and committed. But, obligations to myself are much easier to break. Thus, my dread of New Year’s resolutions. Much easier to not make them than to disappoint myself.   

And yet, there really is something important about fresh starts, goal setting, and keeping promises to ourselves. So, I’ve had to get creative—basically, to find ways around my worst self.  Truthfully, given to my worst inclinations, I am given to inertia.  I prefer a cup of coffee, a good book and a couch. And while those are fine things, I’m my most fulfilled when I’ve put in the hard work and treat myself with relaxation. It helps that I’m married to a mental health counselor—and someone who prioritizes goal setting and is more likely than me to meet his internal resolutions.  

Over the last two years, I’ve also appreciated reading/listening to books by Gretchin Rubin.  Just this past December, I started to read her flagship book that launched a website, podcast and many other books, The Happiness Project, and I love it.  I actually listened to her follow up books, Happier at Home and The Four Tendencies first.  

I resonate with her system. Clearly, she’s a very accomplished (Yale Law Review, clerked for Sandra Day O’Connor), but doesn’t make you feel like you’re not good enough.  Her message is that we can make life changes by incrementally (in her case, month by month) looking at areas of our lives that we want to improve.  These changes ultimately improve our day to day life. I haven’t systematically followed her rules (yet), but I’ve implemented a few and it has shifted that way I look at things.  I’ve realized that for many years I have felt stuck.  But as I’ve really examined my own personality, temperament, and strengths/weaknesses, I am working hard to work around my weaknesses and play to my strengths.  

Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.
— William Butler Yeats quoted in The Happiness Project (p.66)

It was eye opening listening to her book, The Four Tendencies, to realize that of the four (Upholder, Questioner, Rebel, Obliger), I’m an obliger.  As an obliger, my tendency is to fulfill outward obligations to people which makes me a good employer and friend, but I really struggle to meet my own inner expectations.  I spend my energy taking care of needs, but often fail myself by not meeting said expectations.  For years, I thought I was just unmotivated. It was helpful to recognize that it’s not an issue of laziness, but instead I work best with deadlines and —as she calls it, outer accountability.  

Honestly, this annoys me about myself.  I want to be an upholder with the mantra: “discipline is my freedom,” not the person who struggles with inner accountability. But all the gnashing of teeth in the world isn’t going to change how I’m hardwired. Instead of beating myself up, I’m actively looking for ways to create accountability.  Interestingly, I surround myself with upholders—I think this is one form of built in accountability. It’s important to spend the most time with people who inspire and encourage us to be our best selves. 

A few other ways I hold myself accountable include: For little things, like early prep for dinner or washing the dishes before I go to bed, I often ask myself how future self will feel. I’m old enough now (ha!)to know the pain of waking up to a sink full of dirty dishes. I also love learning & good conversation—so in particular, when I’m cooking in the kitchen or folding laundry, etc… I make sure that I stay motivated by listening to good podcasts, audio books or catching up on phone calls.

 For bigger tasks, such as creating my own website—I have had to invest more money and external accountability.  Bottom line: I need real skin in the game.  So I hired a graphic designer to help me craft my brand & I work with a recent marketing grad on some of my social media & scheduling.  Some would see this as a big expense, but for me it has been a good investment & a vehicle to fulfilling personal goals.

Inspired by the Happiness Podcast, here are my 9 Resolutions for 2019: 

1.     Exercise: more walking (track my steps), weight training, and stretching. I really need to work on my posture—I have a very bad habit of slouching and not holding my shoulders back. And big surprise, it’s not improving as I get older. So I’m dedicating 2019 to getting serious about this particular issue.

2.     Step up on the blog—weekly post, monthly email, research the business side of the website. Part of this includes making a concerted effort to write daily. Ideally, 1.5 hr increments. I can overthink projects and because of this really procrastinate. But there is something to setting a timer and breaking tasks into bite size pieces that makes things far less overwhelming. And again, once I get moving, push past my fear and inertia, the words come. I’ve been writing this particular post for 2 weeks. Sounds ridiculous I know. But I’ve been adding and subtracting content, and this is more personal to me than a post about Christmas trees, recipes or decorating. Slowly but surely, this post has taken shape.

3.     Decreasing time on social media—only 2 x’s a day. This is to review Instagram, catch up on blogs, and read news. Like many of us, I have a love hate with social media.  I like keeping up with people’s lives, and I like learning from the various talented bloggers online (one of the reasons I started my own website is because I’ve learned so much from other women who’ve made careers writing about books they read, time management strategies, menu planning, and home décor). But it can also be an exhausting, comparison game, time suck.  Alas, how do we take the good & leave the bad… 

4.     Memory books—pretty behind on this one.  Like 12 years of family photos all stored online behind.  My pipe dream goal is to make one scrapbook a month for the next year.  Probably unrealistic, but a girl can dream. : )

5.    Spend less money on incidentals, bring less into the house. Another personality trait I’ve had to come to terms with… I’m a spender. Some people under spend and have to learn to treat themselves & be more generous. I have to learn to spend less & more wisely. One budgeting tool that Brock and I have loved is the budgeting app: YNAB, short for You Need a Budget. It’s been a game changer for us—we do pay a yearly fee, but it’s been super helpful tracking every dollar and helping us save more. Of course, there’s always room for improvement. Thus I’m trying to decrease nickel & dime purchases. : )

6. Continuing to organize, purge and declutter the house. This goal is tied to #5. I started this process when the now very popular book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo burst on the scene 4 years ago. There’s a reason it has nearly 14,000 4.5 star reviews on Amazon and she has a new series on Netflix. Her steps work. There are a few weird things that I don’t subscribe to—basically treating inanimate objects as living things—but I do love looking at the items I own, or am considering purchasing, and asking the question, “does this spark joy?” There is something to having less but loving each item instead of being overwhelmed and frustrated by the endless organization of mediocre stuff.

7. Saving more for travel & bigger ticket items. Again, directly correlated to goals 5 & 6. Our oldest child is nearly 13, and the way we see it, we have 5 summers left with him living full time at our house. Big fat sigh. I want to use this time wisely. My goal—spend time & money on things that really matter.

8. Go to bed earlier (by 10:30, up early, up by 6 a.m.). I am hoping the Brock is the “wind beneath my wings” in this area. I’m a late night girl, and he loves early mornings. I’m trying to go to bed with him, read for a bit, and then get up earlier. This has been hit or miss so far.

9. Consistent quiet time with the Lord each morning (this is tied to going to bed earlier and getting up earlier).  The joy of the Lord truly is my strength.  But I can’t experience that if I’m not spending good time with Him.  My husband, Brock, is tapped into this—as a human being who counsels other humans, he can’t function before he spends a lot of time reading the Bible, devotionals, reflecting, and praying.  Often, I find myself riding his spiritual coat tails and coasting along until I find myself worn out & irritated with everyone in my general vicinity.  Truth is that on my own, I don’t have enough love, patience or strength.  

My true source is Jesus and his Word.  When I open my Bible, turn on worship music, spend time in prayer—this is the place I am truly encouraged & nourished.  I simply don’t have it on my own.  He, the sovereign Lord and king, the giver of life and peace, who tells us to come to the living water and drink from it (John 7:37-39, paraphrase) has to be my main source.  

Finally, because Brock counsels college students, he often discusses goal setting & such. So I asked him for a bit of feedback on how he encourages people to fulfill goals. Here’s what he had to say:

Why most people have a love/hate with resolutions is that we love newness, it’s the hope that things are going to change.  Which is true—new job, new love, new year… it’s possibility for change.  But—truth is that it has too much emphasis on external locus of control.  

Change comes from inside… Most resolutions fail because they are pipe dream or a magic wand that you want to wave over your life and have instant change. Change happens through hard work, setting objectives to bringing about the goal, by accountability.  

Naturally, I asked him what he suggests people do to fulfill there resolutions. “Pretend I’m a client in your office, what would you tell me?”

  • Review your resolutions/goals every day

  • Hang them up where I can see them

  • Focus on how you think & feel and be if I accomplish them.

  • Journaling about something that didn’t want to do, but I did do. Journal & reflect on things that went well.  Not just the hard things.   

So that’s it for the moment. Would love to hear some of your New Years resolution and ways you plan on meeting them! Cheers to 2019 & greater growth!


It All Begins at the Dining Table

It All Begins at the Dining Table

I’m not particularly trendy or cutting edge with my cooking, my approach to feeding people is—keep the kitchen stocked with good food & your doors open.  If you feed them, they will come. : ) Sometimes it’s fancy feasting, but most of the time it’s simply an open invitation to come and sit, have a cup of coffee, a biscotti (or whatever I can pull together), and chat about life. 

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Pizzelle Cookie Recipe

Pizzelle Cookie Recipe

I’m feeling particularly nostalgic this Mother’s Day. April would have marked my grandmother’s 91 st birthday—she passed way in October. I’m incredibly grateful for the 40+ years that I had with her, and when Tree Classics asked me to share an heirloom recipe I knew this was the perfect opportunity to explore her recipe box. It didn’t take me long to settle on making her pizzelle cookies. I can’t remember a holiday without them, and hers were my absolute favorite.

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