This weekend, I set off for a quick overnight jaunt, and I’m pretty proud of my packing job: usually I think I’m traveling light if I manage to fit everything I need in a backpack, but this time, the only thing I brought was my Tom Bihn Co-Pilot. Measuring 12″x10″x5″ and holding 10 liters in volume, this bag has been my primary everyday purse for over a year now.
My dad and I were flying Spirit, which restricts you to a single personal item if you don’t want to pay baggage fees, and we were heading straight from the airport to my sister’s performance of Beauty and Bach with Avant Chamber Ballet, so packing light was a priority. My Co-Pilot turned out to be the perfect fit for my first-ever one-night plane trip, and this ended up being the lightest I’ve ever packed for any travel anywhere.
The main trick? In the decade and a half that I’ve owned laptops, I’ve never before traveled without my computer. This time, though, there truly was no point. We went straight from the airport to the show to a late dinner. By the time we finally checked into our hotel, it was past midnight, and I only managed to catch a few hours of sleep before we boarded our shuttle back to the airport for our early morning flight home. As I predicted, my phone and Kindle were ample to keep me entertained and connected.
Computer aside, I was also careful to eliminate other things I typically bring when I travel. Among the things I cut from my usual packing list: a change of clothes (apart from extra underwear); flip flops to wear in the hotel (although they would have fit); soap, shampoo, conditioner; cotton pads and facial toner; makeup; my travel pillow; an eye mask; ear plugs; and a more comprehensive first aid kit.
Here’s everything I did bring and how I packed it all:
In the first side pocket, I had my toiletry bag and a Clif Bar. The toiletry bag contained my toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, face wash, moisturizers with and without SPF, deodorant, hand sanitizer, lavender and peppermint essential oil rollers, nail clippers, and a tiny baggie with two cotton swabs in it.
The front center pocket held a small reusable water bottle. I packed it empty and filled it in the airport once we passed the security checkpoint.
In the second side pocket, I packed a pouch containing the aforementioned extra underwear and an emergency menstrual pad, a spare battery to recharge my electronics, my Tangle Teezer, my ChicoBag Vita (which I used once we landed in Texas to carry the winter jackets we needed in New York), and my electronics bag. The electronics bag held a 2-port USB wall charger, a Micro-USB cable for my Kindle and spare battery, a Lightning cable for my phone, the pair of earbud headphones that came with my phone, and a small lens cleaning cloth.
In the main pocket of the Co-Pilot, I carried my phone, my Kindle, my passport, my boarding passes, a pouch for my glasses, and my Tom Bihn Sidekick. The Sidekick contained tissues, assorted wipes (stain removal, antibacterial, insect repellent, lens cleaning, oil absorbing), a couple of pens, my mini first aid kit (a container of assorted pills and a baggie of assorted bandages), a coin purse, my Filofax (which doubles as a wallet and a planner), my keys, my standard safety kit (a mini flashlight, a whistle, and a compass), and extra hair ties.
And that’s it! It felt almost criminally indulgent to walk through airports carrying so little weight: I kept thinking that I was forgetting something. But I had everything I needed for my overnight trip, and it all fit in my purse with room to spare. I could get used to traveling this minimally.
For our January monthly walk, we headed up to the Bronx to walk the 5-mile length of the Grand Concourse. Built in the 1890s, the Grand Concourse was New York’s answer to Paris’s Champs-Élysées, although having never been to France, I can’t personally compare the two.
I thought I had never been to the Grand Concourse either, but as it turns out, it’s actually my most-traversed stretch of the Bronx. I ran its length twice each in 2013 and 2014, when it served as the out-and-back course of NYRR‘s Bronx 10 Mile road race. During those races, the wide avenue was closed to car traffic. I gave my attention to the gradient of the land, the beat of bodies around me, the rhythm feeding into my ears through my headphones. My experience centered on the pace and the distance, the labor and rewards of movement, the constant grind of will against resistance. It was an entirely different landscape.
Maybe that’s why I didn’t even recognize the Grand Concourse when I returned there for our January walk. It felt so much like my first time there that I only realized it wasn’t when I looked up Bronx 10 Mile course maps while writing this blog post. No longer subsumed by the buzz of the race, the boulevard unfolded before me. As we headed north from the southern end of the Concourse, we passed a couple of small parks, Franz Sigel Park and Joyce Kilmer Park, quiet on a cold Sunday morning. Sandwiched between them was the Bronx County Courthouse, a striking block of a building adorned with neoclassical columns and flanked by clusters of statues.
Soon after, we approached a majestic limestone mansion guarded by wrought iron gates and set back from the street by the Grand Concourse’s only front lawn. It was the day’s most intriguing story: the Andrew Freedman Home, built in the 1920s, served as a poorhouse for rich people who had lost their fortunes, enabling them to continue living in their accustomed affluence. It was hard to imagine a less worthwhile charity.
According to a 1997 profile in the New York Times, “Each resident received free rent, free board, even free servants. … Public rooms had overstuffed sofas, fireplaces, lush plants, bronzes, and paintings. In each guest room was a shower stall of white marble.” Perhaps fittingly, the trust eventually ran out of money, and in the 1980s, the Mid-Bronx Senior Citizens Council purchased the building and used it to house the elderly poor. These days, it serves as an event space, complete with an artist residency program.
As morning turned to afternoon, and as we continued north, the streets grew busier and more commercial. Here and there, we saw the repurposed relics of a bygone era. Soon after we passed the distinctive facade of the former Paradise Theater, now home to the World Changers Church, we stopped for lunch at Fordham Restaurant, a busy diner with tasty grub, generous portion sizes, and ample options for our picky crowd.
From there, we were only minutes away from Poe Cottage, the small white cottage in what was then Fordham village where Edgar Allan Poe spent the final years of his life. Poe and his wife Virginia retreated there in 1846 in hopes that the country air would do some good for her tuberculosis. Alas, Virginia did not survive long, but her original deathbed remains in the house, on view for visitors.
Poe Cottage was also the site where Poe composed some of his most famous poems, including “The Bells” and “Annabel Lee,” a favorite of my teenage years. At $5/person, we found the tour we took engaging and well worth the price of admission, but an hour-long chat with the docent on the front steps of the cottage as we were leaving did throw off the rhythm of our walk a bit. We might have to leave museum visits off the itinerary in future months.
From Poe Cottage, it was just over a mile to the north end of the Grand Concourse, where it runs into Mosholu Parkway at the conveniently located Mosholu Parkway subway station. In this last stretch, the Concourse evolved away from busy commercial districts to more residential blocks. I enjoyed seeing colorful single-family homes tucked between big stone apartment buildings and the storied character the mix added to the neighborhood. Like the rest of the Grand Concourse, it had the dignified nonchalance of a place that has survived glory and decline and revitalization and knows that there’s more to come.
Near the end of 2017, I read a New York Times article that said the best way to cultivate self-control was gratitude. To give you an idea of how long this has been an area where I have needed work, I still remember the humiliating moment when my fourth grade teacher made me go up to her desk in front of my entire class and check the “needs improvement” box next to the “self-control” metric on my quarterly report card. Plus, what better way to work toward my goals than to work on my ability to work toward goals? As one of my resolutions for 2018, I committed to keeping a daily gratitude log.
Every day, I take a couple of minutes to reflect on my day and record at least five things I feel grateful for. Some days, this is easy; other days, it takes real mental gymnastics to come up with anything at all. It’s on those days that I’m especially grateful for this exercise, which, regardless of what it ends up doing for my self-control, I hope will make me a kinder person.
Each month, I plan to share an excerpt from my gratitude log here, one item per day. Here’s January:
01: Soft, warm covers and a nightgown that makes me feel like a princess.
02: If we were going to forget about a dozen hard-boiled eggs and leave them sitting out all day, at least they were unpeeled and it was a cold enough day that they were unlikely to spoil.
03: The return of The Amazing Race.
04: The bomb cyclone was not a cyclone of literal bombs set off by Trump and North Korea.
05: Rebecca reached out in response to my blog post and recommended a book about highly sensitive people that seems like it might be really helpful for me.
06: Well-written and well-imagined fanfiction for escapism.
07: The really long and excellent back rub Lawrence gave me today.
08: Well-timed traffic lights that let me get from home to the museum via the library in under 40 minutes.
09: Afternoon light.
10: A fridge full of delicious food from Chinatown.
12: The new parka I ordered for Lawrence fits him.
13: Hawaii was not in fact attacked by a ballistic missile, despite the false alarm.
14: My guild hall has a very functional snow ramp system now.
15: Cuddling on the bed with Lawrence and our stuffed elephants for family movie night.
16: We managed to buy Hamilton tickets for September.
17: Having sushi for the first time in four months.
18: My ability to deal with the disappointment of the package room closing early more calmly than the man I found there screaming furiously at the door and any passerby who would listen.
19: Two-factor authentication.
20: We survived one full year of President Trump.
21: Apart from some delays, our monthly walk went well: the route was interesting enough, the weather was pleasant, and we found a well-located diner with generous portions for lunch.
22: I was able to simplify my daily cleaning routine using advice from the time management book.
23: The wide sweeps of color streaking the winter sky after rain.
24: We finally made some progress on our thank you cards.
25: My group trip planning spreadsheet idea worked well, and I even got to play with conditional formatting.
26: That first hug with Lawrence after he gets home.
27: I finally found someone to take the last spot for tomorrow’s escape room.
28: A fun and hilarious conversation about the performance art of Tehching Hsieh.
29: The maintenance team that knocked on our door at 11pm because our downstairs neighbor reported water leaking from their ceiling didn’t find any problems in our apartment.
30: Mom brought us home-cooked turkey and tasty Icelandic chocolate.
31: The techniques from the time management book helped me figure out that I was feeling stressed because I had planned 22 hours of to-dos between noon and midnight and adjust accordingly.
Soon after we returned home from our honeymoon in the British Isles, we hosted a small Thanksgiving meal for a couple of close friends. Having picked up an afternoon tea habit while abroad, I naturally decided to make that the theme for our festivities. (And, yes, I see the irony of using a British custom for this distinctly American celebration!) The menu included tea we’d brought back from London, homemade scones, two kinds of jam, clotted cream, and, of course, an assortment of tea sandwiches. Salmon and cream cheese. Hummus and cucumber. Apple and brie. And egg salad.
The problem was that I had never made egg salad before. Because I didn’t like egg salad. Because it almost always contains mayonnaise and often contains mustard, two condiments that I dislike. (What can I say? I’m a picky eater.) But with a vegetarian and a pescatarian among our attendees, I wanted to make it work. I looked for egg salad recipes without mayo and found one that mentioned avocado as a substitute. From there, I improvised.
Luckily, it was a hit! Today, I made my egg salad again and documented the process to share with you. It’s extremely simple, and it’s delicious, if I do say so myself.
Here are the ingredients:
6 hard-boiled eggs
half a lime
whatever other spices you want to add, you not-picky, spice-loving person, you
Dice the eggs and avocado. (Note: this step is not actually necessary. I just wanted it to look pretty for the photo.)
Squeeze the juice of half a lime over the mixture. Salt, pepper, and spice to taste.
Mash everything together with a fork. Or a giant spork. I used a giant spork, personally. (Note: If you skipped the dicing, you might need to mash extra hard here.)
And that’s it! Eat it on tea sandwiches, on an artfully-sliced croissant, or just straight out of the bowl.
Suggested modifications: Double the recipe, because eggs come a dozen in a box, after all, and what are you going to do with half a lime? Besides, that way, you might have a chance of having leftovers.
We have several large, long-term organizing and decluttering projects ongoing in our home, but it can be easy to lose motivation and momentum when the end never feels in sight. Last month, I decided I wanted to tackle a smaller, more self-contained project, something that I could start and finish in a short amount of time while still making a visible impact. Our linen closet is the first thing you see when you walk into our bedroom, and it was just the scope I was looking for. With some simple decluttering, rearranging, and repurposing (and, okay, the indulgence of a few new organizational baskets), I was able to achieve the dramatic improvement between these before and after shots.
Here’s are the details, from the top down.
We used to keep a big red suitcase on the top shelf of our linen closet. It was a good fit for the space, but something we only use once every five years didn’t need to be front and center in an area we pass by many times daily. I found a more out-of-the-way home for the suitcase in a different closet and decided to use this shelf to store the tissue boxes and paper towel rolls we buy in bulk.
This shelf used to be full of old towels we rarely used, but now it’s home to two baskets. The smaller one holds spare toiletries and serves as a convenient, centralized place to look if we need a new bar of soap or an unopened bottle of shampoo. The larger basket holds a spare sheet for our bed and one spare pillowcase for each of the pillows on it. It does not hold the old sheets that only fit a bed we haven’t had since 2016; we took this opportunity to finally get rid of those.
This middle shelf of our linen closet was once crammed with assorted linens, but it now holds our newly-streamlined towel collection. We decluttered nearly all of our old towels, most of which were well over a decade old, and treated ourselves to a set of luxurious-yet-affordable new towels from Target. We now have a total of six wash cloths, six hand towels, and six bath sheets: two for each of us, and two for guests. It’s a perfect number. (And, yes, that’s a math pun!)
This shelf was home to some extra comforters, which we only use on the rare occasion when we host an overnight guest during the coldest days of winter. We relocated them to a different closet and made this a cleaning command center. The basket on the left holds all of our laundry supplies: mesh wash bags, soap nuts, wool dryer balls, our laundry room key. The basket on the right contains all the parts and extensions for our cordless vacuum, except that wand in front, of course.
The bottom shelf of our linen closet (also known as the floor) used to contain a plastic storage tub and a paper bag stuffed with paper bags. We moved the tub out of the way — I’ll be honest: sorting through its contents is still pending — and recycled the paper bags. We repurposed this space as a home for the bulk toilet paper that we buy 96 rolls at a time. I was pleasantly surprised that they all fit, with room to spare.
Front and Side
We used to keep our laundry cart in front of our linen closet, but that made it hard to reach the shelves. Instead, we moved the cart to a different area of our bedroom and gave its spot to this darling elephant hamper that we received as a wedding gift. The wreath of flowers on its head is actually the wreath of flowers I wore on my head during our wedding! The elephant holds all of our spare linens that we use infrequently but want to hold on to: some throw blankets, a sleeping bag, a few emergency towels, a picnic blanket. It’s roomy enough to meet our needs while encouraging us to be selective about what we keep.
The shelves in our linen closet narrow on one side, making the resulting space awkward to use. However, as I was reimagining this closet, I finally had the perfect brainstorm for how to make use of that space. I printed out some of my favorite photos from our honeymoon, placed them in 5″x7″ picture frames we had used to hold signs at our wedding, and put one on each shelf (arranged, much to Lawrence’s amusement, in order of elevation). I chose landscapes that featured greens and blues to connect the greens of our bedroom to the right with the blues of our bathroom to the left. By a happy coincidence, the frames even match the elephant hamper! I love the difference these photos made for this space. Now, every time I walk into our bedroom, I’m greeted with the welcoming sight of happy memories — and the relief of a well-organized space!
When we came home from Texas after ten days away, I found Lily, my peace lily, drooping in her pot.
I had left her in a baking dish full of water and pulled back the window blinds so that she could enjoy the sunlight in our absence, but the pan was dry and, with the heat shut off, the temperature in our apartment had dropped far below her temperate preferences. The stalks of her leaves folded sharply downward so that she resembled a spindly, pale green, many-legged spider.
I resigned myself to this evidence that I had not inherited my mother and her father’s green thumbs. Barely past the two month mark, my goal of keeping a plant alive and healthy for six months seemed sadly done for. Nevertheless, I watered her and turned on the heat and angled a small humidifier toward her leaves. By the next morning, she was already starting to perk back up. Two days later, her leaves were once again standing tall, their dark green color betraying little sign of her brush with neglect.
Peace lilies are supposed to be hardy plants. That’s one of the reasons I chose that species to start my new adventures in plant care-taking. Watching Lily rapidly un-shrivel and bloom in the days following our return, I found myself in the odd position of envying a plant. I want her resilience for myself.
On Christmas day, I burst into tears for some completely minor reason, startling my dad who started lecturing me about overreacting until my explanation that I cry practically every week gave him pause.
“I didn’t know you were so sensitive,” he said. “You don’t usually cry when we see you.” This, despite the fact that I had also burst into tears the previous Christmas. In case you haven’t guessed, I’m not very good at holidays.
“I cry all the time,” I tried to explain to him. “I broke down sobbing when I heard that Australia had voted in favor of marriage equality, and I’ve never even been to Australia.”
“I guess we just don’t see you for a full week most of the time,” he decided and let the matter drop.
I’m sensitive. It’s true. I flinch at sounds that don’t even register for Lawrence — and he’s no aural lightweight, painstakingly normalizing the volumes of mix CD tracks with barely-detectable fraction-of-a-decibel adjustments. My sister can tell you about the ordeal of trying to get a pencil liner or a mascara wand or (Heaven forbid!) a pair of false lashes near my eyes: I twitch and blink uncontrollably, leaving everything smeared and askew. My sensitivity to flavors in foods has made me the pickiest eater I know. I’m pretty sure I have a reputation among even my close friends for being particular and easy to offend. And I cry all the time.
The worst part, though, is how long it takes me to bounce back after something goes wrong. The aftertaste of a tense exchange can linger for hours. Arguments (and I’m very argumentative!) can make me feel off kilter for days. So it was probably inevitable that my two-for-one New Year’s Day birthday was going to include an argument, followed by a jag of crying, followed by long, wobbly hours wondering how to recover.
Finally, around eight or nine at night, I said to Lawrence, “Let’s just start over.” I know this sounds ridiculous, but I pretended it was morning, and I pretended to wake up to a fresh new birthday with no mistakes in it yet (to paraphrase my favorite literary heroine). I took a shower and got dressed, and we watched a movie and had cake, and by then night and morning were blurring back together. But still we had somehow managed to rescue this small sliver of cheer from an otherwise dreary day.
I’m sensitive. It’s true. But maybe my sensitivity is also the fuel for my imagination, which might be my richest tool for cultivating resilience. My plant needs light and water and warmth, and my soul needs the ability to imagine better, to imagine a reason worth striving and falling short and striving again. I hope each next age can bring me closer to that.
At the beginning of 2017, I decided I wanted to work on building two habits. I didn’t want to call them “resolutions” (too much pressure), and I definitely didn’t want to announce them publicly (even more pressure). Now that the year is over, though, I’m happy to report that 2017 was actually my best resolution-keeping year yet! Here’s how I did.
I took my first forays into meditation in 2016 and flirted with the practice on and off throughout the year. In 2017, I wanted to make it a more consistent presence in my life. I decided that I would start by meditating for 10 minutes a day in January (a duration that felt long at the time) and increase that time by 30 seconds each month.
I successfully kept up with this routine through travel to China (by meditating in my seat during the long haul flights), wedding planning, and even my wedding day itself, but after a long overnight journey, I collapsed exhausted into bed on the first day of our honeymoon and was asleep before I had meditated. After that, I decided to take the honeymoon off from meditating.
It was a choice that made sense given our pace of travel. It also had the unexpected side effect of reinforcing the benefit of this daily practice in my life. I found myself missing the ritual of sitting quietly in a dark room, listening to the ambient sounds playing on my meditation app, and letting my mind be still or at least free. After our honeymoon was over, I decided to start back up at 15 minutes a day, with no more duration increases. I’ve been doing that ever since: New Year’s Eve marked day 70.
While I didn’t follow my original prescription exactly, I still consider my meditation practice in 2017 a success. It’s a habit I’ve integrated into my life, and I experience its benefits every day.
I’ve been using a Fitbit to log my daily step count since 2011, but long gone were the days when I’d bounce around the living room at ten to midnight, racing the clock to hit 10000 steps. Toward the end of 2016, I noticed myself growing increasingly sedentary, and I wanted to change that in 2017.
I decided to do this by setting a daily step minimum: not a goal, which I might hit one day but miss the next, but a firm bar beneath which I would not allow myself to cross. I started in January with the extremely modest threshold of 1000 steps a day and increased this number by 1000 steps a month. I’m happy to report that I didn’t miss a single day all year. I paced the lengths of airport terminals, jogged in place in front of YouTube videos, arranged social gatherings that took the format of group walks, sometimes ran errands very inefficiently, and walked from the subway to my own wedding, but I did it.
I’ve taken at least 10000 steps a day every day since the beginning of October, without exception, and I took at least 12000 steps every single day in December. It’s also the first year since 2012 that my total step count for the year exceeded 3 million. I’m pretty proud of that.
Goodreads Reading Challenge
I deliberately set only two goals at the beginning of the year because I wanted it to be easy to keep my goals in mind every single day. It took me a while to realize that I was actually working toward a third goal as well. For the second year running, I participated in the Goodreads Reading Challenge with a target of 26 books, one book every two weeks. It’s a pace that feels good for me: not so many that reading becomes stressful, but not so few that the goal feels trivial. In 2017, I managed to hit my target exactly, finishing book number 26 (the one I started on Christmas Eve) on December 29.
Reading Books By Women
This last goal wasn’t one I planned for the year but one that found me along the way. At the end of 2016, when Lawrence and I were looking over the lists of books we had read that year, I observed that the vast majority of my books had been written by women, while the vast majority of his had been written by men. This was not deliberate — neither of us had given the slightest thought to the genders of the authors we read — but nevertheless this pattern emerged. I was intrigued but set that thought aside as I embarked on my reading for 2017.
When I was five or six books into the year, I noticed that all of the books I had read so far had been written by women and wondered if I could keep that up all year long. The answer, it turned out, was yes: all 26 new books I read in 2017 (plus the one that I reread and didn’t include in the count) were written by women. Was it hard? Not particularly, since (to paraphrase The Lion King) there’s more to read than can ever be read, but I do wonder if my 2018 reading will end up skewing more toward male authors as a result.
Lessons for the Future
In 2017, I gained two habits (and kept one old one) that enhance my daily life, but possibly more importantly, I learned about the process of working toward goals. I think these insights will help me to set myself up for more successes in the future, and I hope they’ll be able to do the same for you.
Inputs Over Outcomes
Many of us, myself included, use the terms “goal” and “resolution” interchangeably, but in 2017, I learned that there is an important difference between the two. A goal is an outcome you want to achieve, but a resolution should focus on the concrete steps you take to get there. It’s the difference between “I want to lose weight” and “I will exercise at least 5 days a week for at least 30 minutes each time,” between “I want to be published” and “I will submit my work.” A goal can be your motivation, but the best resolutions are plans of action.
The Things I Can Control
The reason why it helps to focus on inputs over outcomes when choosing resolutions is because inputs are within our control. If you pick a resolution that is entirely and exclusively in your hands, then you make yourself the key determinant of your success. Other factors might affect the outcome of a situation, but you can put in the work and celebrate your efforts for their own sakes.
A Habit of Success
I started off my daily steps habit by pledging to take at least 1000 steps per day in January. Now, I’m not saying it’s impossible to take fewer than 1000 steps in a day (I’ve done it before!), but it’s a pretty trivial target for most people. What’s the point of setting such a low bar to start? I wanted to make my target so easy that it would be hard to fail. I wanted to make sure my resolution felt approachable while I was getting used to it. I wanted to get myself in the habit of succeeding.
Once I was in the habit of succeeding, I then incrementally increased my target. Every month, I raised my target step count by 1000 steps, which was a small enough difference to feel achievable but a large enough difference to feel like I was continuing to push myself. A month turned out to be the perfect amount of time for the new increment to move from challenging to manageable without quite hitting easy. Just as I was about to get acclimated to each target, it would be time to move on to the next one and start the process again. These regular increments helped me to make and measure my progress.
What will I be working on in 2018? With a year of success under my belt, I feel less shy about sharing this time around: I plan to incrementally raise the duration of my daily meditation sessions from 15 minutes to 20, maintain an average step count above 10000 per day for the year by continuing to shoot for 12000 most days so that I can take the occasional rest day, and keep a daily gratitude log. For the third year in a row, I’ve set a goal of 26 books in the Goodreads Reading Challenge. I want to visit at least one new state and at least two new countries. And every month, I intend to savor one British-style afternoon tea at home, lead one walk in our monthly walk series, and write at least five posts for this blog. Starting with this one.
I’ve been celebrating Christmas for as long as I’ve lived in America, more than a quarter century, but I only have one Christmas tradition.
My family usually gets together around the holidays, but sometimes it’s for Christmas day, and sometimes it’s not until New Year’s, and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. We exchange presents in some fashion most years, but the process is always a bit uncertain, lacking both guidelines and routine. One year we might gather under the tree Christmas morning to tear apart wrapping paper, and another year, I might have Amazon ship my folks a box in early December. We used to set up and decorate a tree every year, but that custom grew more sporadic after the cat knocked down the Christmas tree so many times its stand broke. Even after the cat got too old to jump up the tree and eventually died, we started being away from home for the holidays more, and setting up a tree felt less worthwhile. Three years ago, Lawrence and I bought a little artificial Christmas tree for our living room, and we haven’t taken it down since, but that’s long lost the luster of tradition and probably better qualifies as background decor these days. For a few years past our breakup, I tried to keep alive the breakfast tradition I had learned with my ex-boyfriend’s family — cinnamon scones and scrambled eggs and bacon — but eventually that, too, faded into obscurity.
But planning a wedding this past year meant that I spent a lot of time holding traditions — bridal showers, bachelorette parties, cocktail hours — up to the light, examining them, and deciding whether they were right for me. In many cases (including all the aforementioned ones), they weren’t, so we skipped them. So maybe it’s not surprising that now, as Lawrence and I lay the foundations of our own family, I find myself turning that same scrutiny to Christmas. I want to apply that same care and thoughtfulness to the rituals of Christmas, elevating those that genuinely resonate with or hold meaning for me and discarding those that don’t.
Last year, just before Christmas, I saw a random tweet about an Icelandic tradition of receiving books and chocolate on Christmas Eve. The idea of spending the night before Christmas curled up somewhere cozy sinking into a new novel while slowly suckling chocolate sounded absolutely divine to me. I knew I had to make it happen. Once may be a whim, but this year, we once again treated ourselves to new books and fancy chocolate the night of Christmas Eve. So now it’s a tradition. My Christmas tradition. My only Christmas tradition.
After a Christmas Day yesterday that somehow managed to feel perfectly ordinary despite being in a new state, I’m already bursting with ideas for potential Christmas traditions that I want to test out in the future, rituals that make sense for me and my new family, structures to elevate the day with significance. Here are a few:
Christmas CD Advent Calendar
During this busy December, Lawrence and I seldom spared a thought for Christmas, and I think this lack of build up may have inadvertently curbed our enthusiasm for the holiday. We already own a Christmas CD collection large enough to listen to a different one each day of the month, but right now, that just means that we end up going through a Christmas season without listening to most of our Christmas CDs. My idea is to designate a specific Christmas CD for each day of December leading up to Christmas next year. It’ll be a two-for-one for getting in the holiday spirit. I always think that anticipation is half the joy of something, and a daily countdown would certainly help build anticipation. And, of course, a daily dose of Christmas music should help to set the mood.
My family did have Christmas stockings sometimes when I was growing up, but we used them primarily as decor rather than as a repository for gifts. As immigrants from a country without a Christmas tradition, I think the difference between tree presents and stocking presents was one of those things that got lost in translation when we tried to adopt a holiday wholesale without any examples or instructions along the way. Were they for gag gifts? Presents that were small in size? Who knew? But, looking back, I can remember at least one childhood Christmas when having a Christmas stocking and clear instructions could have spared a lot of grief.
Back then, I got exactly one present each Christmas, and I got to pick it out (within a budget). That year, I was getting a dollhouse where each room could be assembled from building blocks, some kind of Lego knockoff, and I couldn’t wait to start playing with it. On Christmas morning, I woke up in the dead of night, and there it was, waiting under the tree. I dragged it to my bedroom, tore off the paper, and had been happily playing with it for a couple of hours by the time my poor parents awoke to find that I had opened my Christmas present without them. It wasn’t even that I had violated an explicit instruction to wait to open presents together; it was that they had expected me to know better without being told, to be considerate enough to wait. The details are fuzzy so many years later, but I remember that my parents were furious, and I’m pretty sure the occasion ended in tears.
Here’s the distinction between stocking presents and tree presents that makes the most sense to me: stocking presents are those you can open by yourself, as soon as you wake up on Christmas morning. Tree presents are those that you open together, everyone gathered together leisurely, probably after breakfast. In that vein, it also makes sense to me for stocking presents to focus around self care and pampering and to be primarily consumable items rather than permanent objects: a box of tea, a bath bomb, lip balm, comfortable socks. A favorite snack; another bar of chocolate. Something to entertain an eager little girl who gets up hours before her parents (the sequel to the book from the night before?). And citrus fruit in the toe, because Lawrence’s aunt told me that’s what she did when she was a little girl, and as a lover of oranges, who am I to argue with tradition?
I’m already looking forward to putting these together — and opening them — next year.
Last year, we spent a magical Christmas afternoon snow tubing in the mountains of Washington state, and this year, we took three walks around the neighborhood of our AirBnB in a San Antonio suburb. In some sense, I suppose you could say that we have this tradition already. Both times, we felt invigorated and refreshed by the brisk air and the activity, but I can assure you that the two experiences were not equal. I’d like to give this tradition more thought in the coming year and formalize it enough to plan for it, so that when we return to it, we can have more playing in the snow and less strolling through the subdivision.
In a recent conversation about Christmas traditions with a friend, she described a problem I’ve never experienced: having so many Christmas traditions that it felt burdensome to perform all of them. It was a good reminder for me not to get too carried away when adding new traditions. Much like my material possessions, I only want to keep my Christmas traditions if they have meaning, serve a purpose, or bring me joy. And that means that the most important Christmas tradition of all might be to continually examine my traditions, assess them, and honestly choose the ones that are right for me.
In a matter of days, we’ll be jetting off to Texas for this year’s holiday celebrations with my family. We’ll be spending most of our time in San Antonio, hopefully with a day trip or two to Austin, but we’re ending our trip with a couple of days in Dallas. I last visited Dallas about 14 months ago, and it’s pretty unusual for me to return to the same place twice in two years. Especially because this will be Lawrence’s first time there, I’m finding myself thinking about what my favorite places were from my own first visit and which locations I’d like to return to this time.
Here are my top five attractions (and an honorable mention) from my Fall 2016 visit to Dallas:
Old Red Museum
Especially during a first visit, I love learning about the history of where I am, and the Old Red Museum in downtown Dallas provided a charming, accessible, and detailed look at the origin and development of Dallas, from prehistory through its early growth as a railway crossroads to its commercial and cultural maturation in the 20th century. Split over four time periods, each section of the museum featured artifacts, interactive exhibits, and a short film. The building itself, formerly the Dallas County Courthouse, was also lovely. For anyone interested in history, I’d be hard-pressed to recommend a better introduction to Dallas than Old Red.
Dallas Heritage Village
I love examining the layouts and interiors of houses, so I often find myself gravitating toward historic homes and buildings. Dallas Heritage Village was home to not just one but a whole array of them, originating from a variety of times and places and collected together in a single park. During our visit, my mother and I meandered from pioneer cabin to stately Victorian home, from chapel to general store, from farmhouse to schoolhouse. We learned about horseshoes from a blacksmith, befriended a goat who followed me around a building and across a field, and were even on hand to witness the celebratory arrival of the park’s new donkeys.
As a small town girl turned New York City transplant, I’m constantly looking for the green spaces in metropolitan areas. The Katy Trail was Dallas’s incarnation of the urban hiking trail, and it felt like a vibrant oasis in a concrete desert. While we didn’t cover its entire distance, my mother, sister, and I enjoyed several miles of invigorating walking starting and ending at Reverchon Park. The two attractions above helped me to connect Dallas’s past with its present, but the Katy Trail gave me a sense of the way its sprawling neighborhoods connected with one another. It was the type of place I’d frequent if I lived there.
Dallas Museum of Art
I’m usually tepid when it comes to art museums, but I found myself unexpectedly enchanted by the free Dallas Museum of Art. Its expansive interior space complemented its similarly expansive global collection, and moving through it felt like the sort of exploration in which you could get lost and then found again. As someone who’s perpetually drawn to period rooms (see: Dallas Heritage Village, above), it’s no surprise that my favorite exhibit was the recreated Mediterranean home of Wendy and Emery Reves, Villa La Pausa, in the namesame Wendy and Emery Reves Collection.
Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden
I freely admit that the Dallas Arboretum enjoyed the advantage of my first visit falling in October, but I fell head over heels for this botanical garden during its annual pumpkin extravaganza. Nearly a hundred thousand pumpkins lined its every path and filled its breathtaking centerpiece, the Pumpkin Village. It was a pumpkin patch crossed with a fairy tale. There were so many pumpkins. Pumpkins everywhere. Endless pumpkins. How could anywhere else in Dallas compete?
Honorable Mention: Sixth Floor Museum
The Sixth Floor Museum, located in the former Texas School Book Depository, is the site from which the fatal bullet was fired that killed President John F. Kennedy. Now, an audio tour leads visitors through a meticulous reconstruction of the final days and moments of Kennedy’s life and places his assassination in its cultural, political, and spatial context. The experience was of excellent quality, informative, and somber. Within our deeply divided political climate, a memorial that educates us about our country’s terrible history of political assassination is unquestionably important. But unlike every other place on this list, I can’t say that I enjoyed the Sixth Floor Museum, and I wouldn’t choose to visit it twice in two years.
One of the most unexpectedly moving parts of getting married, for me, was the way it allowed me to experience my community. I don’t mean my geographic community — although my native New Yorker husband and I did take the subway to our own wedding and get stuck in traffic on the BQE on our way home — but my human community. Our loved ones took time away from their lives and flew across the country (or the ocean, in one case) or drove for hours and paid for expensive New York City lodging to witness an event we conjured. One friend even left his home state of Texas for the first time in a decade just to attend our wedding! It was a monumental reminder that each of us as individuals and our relationship to one another doesn’t exist in a vacuum but in a vast, strong, interconnected network of love, support, and community. Even months later, I feel full of gratitude at the thought.
After we came home from our honeymoon, we decided that it was important to us to actively cultivate that community and foster those bonds. One of the ways we’re doing that is by hosting a monthly walk series, an opportunity to explore and connect with New York and with our community here. We’ve led two so far. The inaugural walk took place in November: we met at Columbus Circle, walked the main loop of Central Park counterclockwise, and then had lunch at Whole Foods after. It’s one of my favorite routes in the city, but it was also one with which I was intimately familiar. Although the last one was years ago, countless long runs along that loop in snow and rain and blazing heat meant that I knew every water fountain, every incline.
This past weekend, we took the opposite approach in our second walk by visiting a neighborhood that was entirely new to us. We met outside the main entrance of Brooklyn’s landmark Green-Wood Cemetery, one of those places I’ve meant to check out a thousand times but never actually got around to visiting. It was the morning after the season’s first snow, brisk but clear, the cemetery blanketed in softening white. None of the four of us who met that morning knew much about Green-Wood Cemetery, but someone recollected that it had served as an inspiration for Central Park, and it was easy to see why as we walked along the perimeter of the most picturesque and fascinating cemetery I’ve ever explored.
We passed tranquil ponds, rows of hedges, steps that wove up sheltering hills. A field of plain grave markers contrasted with a cluster of ornate Grecian tombs, adorned with statues and columns. Everywhere, the inscriptions evoked for us stories we could nearly imagine as memories of an old New York. We examined a monument to D. M. Bennett, densely inscribed with his ideas. “He had a thousand friends,” the stone banner proclaimed (“and even more opinions,” we quipped). We read a poem on an elaborate stone, a tribute from a husband to his deceased wife, and observed from his much more modest marker that she must have died first, even though their dates were buried in snow. We found a grave for “Alexander the Great,” which appeared to be for an unnamed child of the Alexander family, dead the year after birth. We saw a tomb shaped like an Egyptian pyramid, decorated with Christian statuary. There was a point where we could stand and see the Manhattan skyline looking one way and the Statue of Liberty looking the other.
A lap later, we emerged back out of Green-Wood’s main gate and were tempted into Baked in Brooklyn, across the street, by the delicious aroma of fresh-baked bread. After we left, laden with cupcakes and enormous cinnamon buns and other confections, we walked through the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn to its namesake park, which offered even more splendid views of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty than from the cemetery. From there, we made our way to 8th Ave, the main thoroughfare of Sunset Park’s Chinatown. In the stretch we walked, about a mile, it seemed full of the same sensory pleasures as every other New York Chinatown — tantalizing roast meats, mini hot cakes, gloriously colorful produce — but without the throngs of tourists. Easily accessible via the 8th Ave stop on the N train, now that I’ve been there, I’m more surprised than ever how few people know about or visit Sunset Park’s Chinatown. We stopped for lunch at Kai Feng Fu Dumpling House, where we gorged ourselves on astonishingly cheap comfort food; my favorite, the fried pork-and-leek dumplings, were flavorful and deliciously greasy and cost $1 for 4.