Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Year of Awesome: Part II

Now for the second half of my 2014 recaps!  While the second half of the year held fewer milestone moments, I still packed a whole lot in...  

In July I got to spend the 4th of July with my family and saw a lot of my extended family.

I also made a lot of great memories with Phil.  One of my favorite date nights was a group date to Minnehaha Falls with some of his college friends.

Another highlight of this month was attending Amber's wedding in Iowa.  It was my first road trip with Phil and we had a really fun time.  I also learned at this wedding that Phil LOVES to dance at weddings.

Lastly, in July I achieved a major accomplishment of paying off my grad school student loans!  The balance was so high when I graduated but I worked my butt off and made other sacrifices in my life to pay them off as fast as possible.

In August I got to introduce Phil to my entire family, minus one brother-in-law and he got the thumbs up from everyone.  My sister and her husband were home and while my time with them went way too fast, it was great to see them.

We closed out the month by attending another wedding, this time it was a college friend of Phil's.

The highlight of September was most certainly my trip to San Francisco for our running rendezvous.  I fell even more in love with San Francisco and was happy with the strong trail race I ran.  I especially appreciated the fact that Amber and I ran every step of the race together.

October was the month for visitors!  To start off the month, my friend from Austin came up for a college girls weekend which was so much fun.

The following weekend, Iowa Amber came to visit and we went to a book fair (plus 2 other bookstores) together. 

Lori came to visit at the end of the month and I got to play tour guide and show off some of the reasons I love Minneapolis so much.  We packed a lot in but also spent a lot of time relaxing and catching up.  I miss seeing her on a regular basis!

During the last week of the month, Phil and I also hosted a pumpkin carving party.  Thanks to a stencil and Phil's steady hand (he did the carving), we had the nicest pumpkin design I've ever had.

November featured our 6th annual Julia Child night.  The apron photo grows and grows each year!

I ended the month by celebrating Thanksgiving with my family at the lake.  I got to spend a lot of time with my grandma and we played a lot of games.  This picture shows 3 generations playing cards together!

Of course the highlight of December was our trip to Jamaica.  This was my first vacation with Phil and we had the best time. 

We came back to the holiday season and celebrated the season by attending a couple of parties, exchanging gifts, baking cookies, and looking at lights.

I spent Christmas at my parents' lake home.  With the exception of the stomach flu that hit several family members (including me), it was a great holiday!

My nephew Matthew dictating his letter to Santa to my sister Abby

The boys and their gadgets

Evie is one happy baby

There's no limit to the amount of whipped cream that goes on a hot cocoa at Grandma's house!

Anna with her cap with an Anna braid (my brother also tried it on but it was cuter on her!)

After writing these two posts out, it's no wonder that 2014 flew by as fast as it did...  What can I say - I lived the hell out of 2014.  While 2014 was an awesome year, I'm ready to close it out and start a new year.  There was a lot of awesomeness in 2014, but there was also a lot of change so I am looking forward to 2015 as I am hoping it will be a bit more peaceful and quiet. 

Our New Years plans are fairly quiet as we'll ring in the New Year by hanging out and playing games with some friends, which is the ideal way to celebrate New Years in my opinion!

What are your plans for New Years?  I hope that everyone has a safe and happy celebrations and that 2015 holds many great things for all of us!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Top 10 Books of 2014

I thought I'd sandwich my Best Books of 2014 post between my 2014 recap to break things up a bit.  As of now, I've read 68 books this year, which is fewer than the 79 books I read in 2013 (which was an abnormally high number and a signal of how much time I spent alone), but far more than my goal of 52.  Here are my favorites of the year in no particular order!

1.  Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch - This is a memoir written by a woman who battled the crippling grief of losing her sister by reading a book a day for an entire year.  She learns a lot about herself in the process and most importantly, finds healing.  It sort of reminded me of "The End of Your Life Book Club".  I loved this quote from the final pages:  "The only answer to sorrow is to live. To live looking backward, remembering the ones we have lost, but also looking forward, with anticipation and excitement. And to pass on those feelings of hope and possibility through acts of kindness, generosity, and compassion."

2.  The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein - I bought this book off of one of those BookBub eBook deal of the day emails as I was drawn to it after reading Shoshanah's review. It's about WWII but unlike most of the books I've read about that era, this book was set in Japan.  If you like historical fiction, I highly recommend this book.

3. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent - This book is dark and can be described as slow moving at times but I loved it so much as the writing was so good.  It's set in the 1820s and is about a woman who has been charged with the murder of her master.  She is sent to live with a family on a farm until her death by hanging.  It was a chilling read for me.

4. The Vacationers by Emma Straub - This is another book that was recommended by a blogger, this time by Lisa-Marie.  It looked like it would be pretty light based on the cover but it had a lot of depth to it.  It's about a family who takes a 2 week trip to Mallorca as a celebration of the husband and wife's anniversary and a final hurrah before their daughter heads to college. There's isn't much plot and instead the book delves into the characters and their relationships with each other. 

5. From Here to Paris by Cris Hammond - I read a lot of memoirs set in France but this one was one of my favorites of the year as it was just plain fun to read!  It's about a man who gets laid off and instead of wallowing in self-pity, him and his wife buy a river barge and sail the rivers of France.  Reading this book made me really want to take a river barge tour of France some day!

6.  Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen - When I was reading this book, I probably wouldn't have guessed that it would make my top books for 2014 list...  but it's one of those books that I liked the more and more I reflected upon it.  It's about a woman who leaves her life in NYC and spends a year in a cabin in upstate New York, as for both financial and personal reasons, she needs a change of scenery. The book is about that year away. There is not a whole lot of plot but it was still a good read. I pretty much love every Quindlen book I read - I think her writing is just excellent.  I found myself highlighting a lot of passages of the book, but this was my favorite as it resonated with me:  "One day she had been out walking and had wondered whether she'd become a different person in the last year... Then when she really thought about it she realized she'd been becoming different people for as long as she could remember but had never really noticed it or had put it down to moods, or marriage, or motherhood. The problem was that she'd thought that at a certain point she would be a finished product. Now she wasn't sure what that might be, especially when she considered how sure she had been about it at various times in the past, and how wrong she'd been."

7.  Us by David Nicholls - I adored Nicholls other book, "One Day" so was excited to read this and it did not disappoint.  It is darker and heavier as it's about a couple who takes a summer vacation through Europe with their son, which sounds marvelous - except before they leave for the trip, the wife tells the husband that she has decided their marriage is over and she will leave him after the trip is over.  Hence the heavy nature of the book.  The husband is the narrator of the book and he tells the story of their trip, city by city, while weaving together reflections of the relationship with his wife and their experiences dating, getting married and raising their son.  It's dark and honest and heartbreaking.

8.  The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult - I am really not a Picoult fan as I find her books to be so formulaic and longer than is necessary but I was urged to read this by others as they said it was different from what she typically writes.  Which was completely the case.  It's about a young Jewish girl who befriends an older man in the community and finds out that he was an SS guard.  He asks the young girl to help him kill himself as he feels that is the punishment he deserves for his involvement in the atrocities of the Holocaust.  If you like WWII books, this is worth checking out.

9. The Girls from Corona Del Mar by Rufi Thorpe - This is another book that I would describe as dark.  It's about the friendship between two girls who meet at a young age.  The books follows their progression through life. It's about friendship, our fates and whether a person deserves what they get. It brings to question how well we ever really know another person.

10.  The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin - OK, this list was not in any particular order but I did save the best book for last.  This was hands down my favorite book of the year.  The characters were delightful and it's one of those books that I really did not want to end.  It's about a bookseller who owns a store on an island near Boston. He's smart and quirky and you will want him to exist in real life so you can shop in his bookstore and talk about books with him. I borrowed it from the library but it's one of those books that I wish I owned and may need to buy.  Read it - I know you'll love it!  Here's one of my favorite passages:  "We are what we love. We are that we love... We aren't the things we collect, acquire, read. We are, for as long as we are here, only love. The things we loved. The people we loved. And these, I think they really do live on."

What were your favorite books of 2014?  What are you looking forward to reading in 2015?  I'm excited to read "The Rosie Effect" which is the sequel to the book "The Rosie Project."  

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Year of Awesome: Part I

Well Christmas is behind us which means that it's time for the "best of" lists.  I love reading all the "best of" lists (especially all the different book ones!) and reading others' recaps of their year.  That said, I do understand that, for some, it's painful to recap a year.  That's how I felt last year. I didn't want to look in the rear view mirror at life and instead wanted to push forward into what was to come.  There are several people in my life who experienced so much pain and heartbreak in 2014 and my hope for them is that 2015 is far, far kinder.   

However, I am thankful that I am ending 2014 in a far better place than I was at the end of 2013 - physically, mentally, spiritually, and geographically.  2014 far and away exceeded my expectations and will forever be remembered as the year of awesome for me.  So many wonderful things came together for me, from returning to running to getting a job offer back home to rekindling my relationship with Phil.  I'm splitting my year in review into 2 posts because there's just too much to talk about for one post.  So here goes!

January featured a trip to Charleston and my return to running.  I have no pictures to document my return to running because I was crazy paranoid that my RA pain would return so I only told about 3 people that I was back to running!

In February I celebrated my 33rd birthday by flying to Austin for the weekend to meet up with my best friends from college.   

In March I ran my first race since before my stress fracture/RA diagnosis.  I felt super strong during this race and ran it far faster than I anticipated (~8:30 minute miles, I still don't know how I did that).

Towards the end of the month, I visited Savannah, which ended up being my favorite Southern city that I visited while living in the south.

April was a  huge month as I received an offer for a job back in Minneapolis and resigned from my job.  I had a paid non-compete so got to spend the ladder half of the month exploring the Charlotte area.  I did a whole lot of hiking and got to form some positive memories in the state of NC.

I also got to celebrate Easter with my brother and his family as they were in the Gatlinburg area which was a short drive from Charlotte.

May was all about the move!  My mom flew down to Charlotte and did the drive back to Minneapolis with me.  That's the most time I've ever had one-on-one with my mom so it's something I'll be forever grateful for.

At the end of May, I moved into my condo (big shout-out to my aunt Barb for helping out BIG TIME with that move) and started my new job.

In June I got to meet my niece Evelyn, who was born in January, and enjoyed a weekend with my family at the lake.

Besides that, I got settled in, soaked up time with Phil and helped him throw a house warming party in the home he purchased in February, and spent a lot of time marveling at my view.  I still marvel at it as we move through the seasons of the year.  I LOVE where I live.

Whew, it's hard to believe all of that happened in the span of 6 months... 

What were some of the best moments of the first 6 months of 2014 for you?

Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas Traditions

And just like that, Christmas week is upon us!  I'm equal parts amazed and excited that Christmas is just days away.  This holiday season seemed to sneak up on me especially fast, but I am very excited to see all of my siblings (albeit not at the same time) and celebrate my favorite time of the year!

One thing I love about this time of year is all the traditions that each family honors year over year.  I'm always curious to hear about others' traditions so thought I'd share some of mine. 

Phil and I have celebrated two Christmases together and have established a tradition of baking something together after we have dinner and open presents.  On our first Christmas together we made peanut butter balls (aka buck-eyes) and this year we made Italian Almond cookies, which won the local paper's cookie recipe contest.  They are gluten free as they are made with almond flour and are easy and tasty!

Shifting to my family, here are some of our Christmas traditions.  Christmas Eve is definitely the bigger day of celebration for us, so all of our traditions tend to happen on Christmas Eve.

- We always attend mass as a family on Christmas Eve.  These days we go to the earlier mass since we have lots of young kids, but before the kids came along we'd go to the latest service which was usually at 10 pm.

- Our Christmas Eve meal is all about seafood.  For appetizers, we always have a platter of different cured fish, like smoked oysters (yum), sardines (ick), kipper snacks, which is a cured fish (yum), and herring (ick).  We also have shrimp cocktail which my brothers makes by steaming fresh shrimp.  It's SO good.  90% of the time I'm full by the time the appetizer course is over.

- The main meal is also all about seafood, but the meal has changed over the years.  Our traditional meal when I was growing up was oyster stew which I honestly have never liked.  But I come from one of those families where you eat what is served or you don't eat at all (my parents have 5 kids so I can not blame them for having this policy) so I used to eat a bowl of the broth and fill up on other stuff like the veggie tray.  But these days we have other options like grilled shrimp and crab legs.  My mom also makes a pasta option for the kids and those who don't care for seafood. 

- We always have homemade vanilla ice cream for dessert, but dessert usually happens way after dinner because everyone is way too full to have it right after the meal.  We used to have this old school ice cream maker.  We would pack snow around the ice cream maker part to keep it cool instead of using ice.  I observed this process a lot as a child and for the longest time I thought the snow actually went IN the ice cream but that was not the case.  These days my mom uses her kitchen aid ice cream maker and it's a much more domesticated process - i.e. no snow is needed.  :)

- Before we open gifts, most years we watch this home video that all the grandkids on my dad's side of the family made back in 1987 as a gift to our grandparents.  It's an enactment of the story of Christmas from the bible and hilarious to watch.  I'm almost 7 in the video and I played the part of the angel Gabriel.  My aunt, who passed away last year, narrates it so it's neat to hear her voice.  I am sure that when my parents and aunts and uncles made this video back in 1987, they never imagined we'd still be watching it all these years later, but we do. 

- After the story of Christmas is read or watched, we open gifts.  We go from youngest to oldest and each person takes a turn opening a present.  Having kids around definitely makes gift opening more fun because they get SO excited. 

- On Sunday morning, we sleep in and have a lazy start to the day.  Santa comes for the little ones during the night so they wake up and have a few more presents to open.  We have a big meal, but the main courses changes year to year. 

What are some of your family's holiday traditions?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

More Love Letters: 12 Days of Letter Writing

The holiday season holds a lot of traditions for me, some of which I will be sharing next week, and one of those traditions in my participation in the More Love Letters 12 Days of Love Letters. I was introduced to this organization by my good friend Becky and this is my 4th year of participating in their holiday letter writing campaign. 

So what is this letter writing campaign all about?  More Love Letters is a global organization using the power behind social media to write and mail love letters to strangers in need all over the world. The mission is simple: Love big. Love fast. Love hard. Get involved today. 

The 12 Days of Love Letter Writing is MLL's biggest + brightest campaign. In a nutshell: 12 days of letter requests. Lots of hot cocoa. A lot of good done. And bundles of hundreds of love letters dropped at strangers' doorstep. 

Nothing brightens my day like receiving a hand written note in the mail, so would you join me in writing a note for Shan?  Read her story below and you'll see that she could most definitely use some support and encouragement.

Shan's Letter Request:

Shan is a super mom of four, and a second mom to her daughter’s best friend! She greets everyone with a warm smile and a hug, and she bursts with a positive energy that most people can only strive for. This year, Shan was diagnosed with colon cancer, and subsequently underwent chemotherapy - which is a tiring, painful, and defeating process that most of us will never know what it means to endure. Despite this unimaginable challenge, Shan remained in high spirits for herself and her family. Unfortunately, when Shan’s chemo was done, the doctors found another growth in her neck. She is now set to undergo more chemotherapy in hopes to beat this cancer that was immune to her earlier treatment. 

Let us send Shan a world of support that she so deserves, and remind her that she will never be alone in her battle! 

Shan’s Bundle
% Olivia L. 
17 Ballwood Road
Old Greenwich, CT 06870
Time is running out as letters must be mailed by tomorrow, December 19th!  

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

It's Beginning to Look a lot Like Christmas

Ready or not, Christmas is coming!  I do love this season of the year but it seems like it really sneaks up on me each year, especially this year as December feels especially short since we were on vacation.  Couple that with the fact that it's been unseasonably warm (which I am NOT complaining about) and it just boggles my mind that Christmas is less than 10 days away.

All that said, I am doing all I can to get into the Christmas spirit.  Phil and I put my tree up the last weekend of November.  I leave the lights on non-stop.  There's nothing like coming home to the glow of a Christmas tree. 

Aside from my Eiffel Tower tree topper, there are other French-themed ornaments scattered about.  I hope to someday have a small tree exclusively decorated with French-themed ornaments.

A sparky Eiffel Tower and the word Paris (which is tough to spot in this photo) are tucked into these boughs

A blue macaron graces this part of the tree

and a different Eiffel Tower found its home on this bough.
We've attended a Christmas Party and will go to another one this week.  Phil's been a good sport about taking photos (which is not his favorite thing to do).  It always takes several attempts to get it just right, but the outtakes are my favorite, especially this one.

We did get a good one in the end, though.

And of course, now that I am back in Minneapolis, I got to resume the tradition of hosting a Gingerbread House Decorating party with my college friends and their kids.  We had some snacks (all gluten free, of course) before we got into decorating mode!

The houses turned out great!  Mine is on the far right.

And of course we had to take some "silly face" photos.  Phil would fit in with this group.

Do you feel ready for the holiday season?  Have you been to any holiday parties?

Monday, December 15, 2014

Jamaican Vacation

Oh vacations.  Why must they go so fast?  Our 5 nights of fun, sun, and celebration in Jamaica went oh so fast but were oh so fun.  We flew out super early (5:10 am!) on Friday, December 5th.  It was a super early morning but we were at the resort in Montego Bay by 1:30 pm that day, so it was worth the early morning!  We were greeted with this view!

Welcome to Paradise!
We spent Friday getting settled in.  The wedding weekend got kicked off with a cocktail hour at 5 pm.  Luke and Courtney had 74 people travel to Jamaica for their wedding so we had quite the big (and fun!) group!
Phil and I at the welcome happy hour
 The highlight of our time in Jamaica was definitely the wedding.  The day was beautiful and you could just tell how happy and excited Luke and Courtney were. Courtney looked stunning in her vintage wedding gown. 

My groomsman and I. 
When it came time to sit down, I had a sort of epiphany.  The other person I was sitting with asked if I thought there were certain sides for the bride and groom and I realized that this is probably the first wedding I've been to where I felt like I belonged on both sides.  Phil and Luke are college friends so their relationship goes back 10+ years, but I met Courtney and Luke at the same time and have gotten really close to both of them.  It was neat to have that realization.

Seaside vows

The beautiful bride and I
After the wedding and dinner that followed, we headed out to the beach for the wedding dance.  It was an eerily beautiful night!  Phil and I were on the dance floor for the entire wedding dance and had so much fun.

Luke and Courtney's first dance was extra special as Courtney's brother-in-law sang it while playing guitar.

Besides the wedding, there was lot of relaxation, 2 excursions (snorkeling off a catamaran and visiting a lagoon area with water that glowed in the dark when you swam it in), swimming and lots of reading while soaking up the sun.

This was our first beach vacation and we gave it two thumbs up.  The weather was perfect, the resort was beautiful, the friends were traveled with were fun, and we both came back refreshed and relaxed.

And it didn't hurt that we got upgraded to first class on all of our flights!

Look at all that leg room!

Now it's back to reality but luckily we have the excitement of the Holiday Season to help ease the post-vacation blues! We are already talking about where we want to go next, though!