Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Podcast Interview

I was recently interviewed by the podcast "Based on a True Story" about my book The History of Christmas. If you'd like to hear the interview, you can find it here.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Christmas: Don't Treat A Gift Like a Burden

At this time of year, many of us begin to feel the mounting pressure of the holiday season as it looms before us on the horizon. Christmas, the joyous celebration of the birth of Christ, takes on the shape of a burden and not the gift it should be. We begin to "treat a gift like a burden."*

I've thought a lot about Christmas these past two years as I was researching and writing The History of Christmas. I've wondered what should Christmas look like, how stressful should a realistic holiday be, and how should my family go about celebrating it?

The most surprising result of my history research was realizing how much of our current idea of Christmas, and how it should be celebrated, was formed by writers in the 19th century who created fictional accounts of Christmas that the public adopted as non-fiction records of Christmases past. Think Charles Dickens and Washington Irving. Dickens and Irving made us feel that Christmas was a hugely sentimental and nostalgic time, a time with no end to the festivities and merry-making and cheer that should be participated in. Their writings served a beautiful purpose to bring joy back into the lives of their original readers at a time when Christmas was not as widely celebrated, but those same writings have tended to fuel burdens for subsequent generations as we try to live up to a nostalgic feeling at Christmas.

In my view, Christmas is a gift that's meant to brighten our lives and encourage our hearts at one of the most joy-less times of year. Before Christmas was a Christian holiday, it was a pagan celebration -- one that took place at the darkest time of the year. It was a time of festivity that helped people endure the dark and depressing cold of midwinter. When Christianity spread north, people kept the midwinter celebration but changed its focus. It became a joyous midwinter celebration of the birth of Christ, the Savior of the world. As a Christian, I not only have a joyous midwinter festival to look forward to, but one more opportunity to focus my mind and heart on Christ, on whom hangs the entire meaning of my religion.

As part of a denomination that does not feel bound by a Scriptural mandate to celebrate the birth of Christ in a particular way, I have great freedom to treat Christmas as a gift, and not a burden. I am free to celebrate it in a small way, or a great way, or even not at all. As a Christian I am commanded to love God and love mankind. For me, Christmas can be a means to both those ends! And those ends can also be a means of keeping Christmas from becoming a burden. When I ask myself, "Is this activity going to enable me to love others? Will it enable me to care for myself and my family? Will it grow my heart into a greater love for God?" I gain a better perspective on how to spend my time and energy during the holiday season.

So does this mean I have it all figured out  about how to keep Christmas from becoming stressful? Of course not! But thinking through these things, and having a framework for making decisions, goes a long way toward minimizing stress.

Here are a few more practical ideas:

Make a list -- Brenda taught me to write down a list at the beginning of the holiday season. This list should contain what is most important to you about the approaching weeks. If it's long, circle the three most important things. This helps focus energy in the right direction. Consider asking each member of your household what is the one thing they are looking forward to most over the holidays -- put those on the list and not the ten or twenty other things that could also be fun.

Rotate your traditions -- if it's too stressful to have all your traditions every year -- take a break. Do something this year and leave another thing for next year. Rather than do everything, do a few things with the promise you will do the other things next year.

Pick your poison -- decide what you are willing to be stressed out about and what you aren't, what you are willing to give up a night at home for and what you aren't. You do have agency (the ability to make decisions about your life)! As you decide, remind yourself that you are signing up for stress, or choosing to miss a good thing for the better thing that might be rest. Sometimes stress is worth it, sometimes not.

Why do you celebrate Christmas? -- do you have a working purpose in your mind for why you celebrate this holiday and go through the stressful motions that it sometimes takes? Every person's reason will be different. Mine revolves around the blessing of a celebration during a very bleak time of year which I can exploit to enable me to think more on God's love for me and share that love with others. If you can call to mind the purpose behind the stress, that often brings mental strength to keep going.

Remember it's a season of sacrifice -- quoting Gretchen Rubin again, Christmas is often a "season of sacrifice" for anyone involved in making it a special time for others. Despite careful planning, limits, self-denial, this month may call for an extra measure of sacrifice. Remember, the season does end! January is a wonderful time to hide away and recuperate!

Read this book -- Living the Season Well: Reclaiming Christmas by Jody Lee Collins. This book helped me to think more about simplifying Christmas. The future of this holiday is in our hands. How we celebrate it today will teach the next generation. Christmas has been a changing holiday since its earliest origins and it will continue to change. We can have a say in what those changes are!

Ponder how you can treat Christmas as a gift, and not a burden.

*thanks to Gretchen Rubin for her phrase, "Don't treat a gift like a burden."

Please note this post contains affiliate links.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Christmas Book List 2019

It's that time of year to order Christmas books from the library or your favorite bookstore! Here are the books I'm currently recommending for this festive time of year:

 A Literary Christmas: An Anthology by the British Library
I just got this book from the library and am excited to read it this season! The book is arranged around themes such as Before Christmas, The Nativity, Christmas Day, A Child's Christmas, or Seasonal Snow and Ice. Within each theme are up to ten works by famous authors: poems, story excerpts, essays. The authors include William Wordsworth, Emily Bronte, G. K. Chesterton, Samuel Pepys, George Eliot, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Kenneth Grahame, and Charles Dickens, among many, many others. It's just the sort of book one can dive into for a few minutes at a time and come away with something to think on.

The History of Christmas by Heather Winslow LeFebvre
Of course I have to recommend my own book! I feel passionate that everyone should understand what they are celebrating (or not) and why. My book is aimed at 8-14 year olds but is also ideal for adults who want a quick overview of Christmas history, and for young children who will enjoy the illustrations (done by my mom!). There's even activities, recipes, and suggested questions.

 Christmas books by Tasha Tudor
I'm on a Tasha Tudor kick right now -- although to some extent I always am. I've added a number of her books to my collection this year as well as discovered that one can reasonably come by an advent calendar of hers! My all-time favorite is Becky's Christmas, probably because so much in the book resonates with my own family's traditions. Here are a few books to check out:

The Dolls' Christmas
Becky's Christmas
The Christmas Cat
A Time to Keep: The Tasha Tudor Book of Holidays
Take Joy!: The Tasha Tudor Christmas Book
A Book of Christmas
Tasha Tudor's Advent Calendar: A Wreath of Days
Corgiville Christmas
Tasha Tudor's Favorite Christmas Carols
Snow Before Christmas
The Night Before Christmas (illustrated by Tasha Tudor)

The Jolly Christmas Postman by Janet & Allan Ahlberg
I've purchased this book for a surprise for the younger kids this year. What's not to love about little pockets filled with pull-out letters and other surprises along the way! It makes me want to be a mailman! Or at the least, write lots of real letters to people.

 The Christmas Stories of George MacDonald
I pulled this off my shelf this morning and need to read it this season. I've been studying the (interesting) life of George MacDonald this year and this will be just the thing to add to my growing knowledge of his works.

 Lucy & Tom's Christmas by Shirley Hughes
Next to Becky's Christmas, this might be my other favorite! I love this peak into a traditional British Christmas in the late 1990's. Shirley Hughes is one of my very favorite illustrators. She has many, many books, so check them out throughout the year!

Unwrapping the Greatest Gift by Ann Voskamp
I love this advent devotional and have used it several years in a row with our children.

 Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher
My favorite adult fiction read for December. I'm always on the lookout for new good Christmas-time stories. I have a hard time finding exactly what I like. Someday I will have to fill this gap by attempting to write my own.

 Advent Calendars
I purchased a new advent calendar on our fall family vacation and then realized that all these years I probably could have been collecting advent calendars on Amazon! Yes! They are available! Search for German advent calendars and you'll come across more traditional types. Through various situations, we now have three new-to-us advent calendars for December! I'm so excited! (It's the little things that matter....)

And that's my recommendation for this year! If you have books you love that I haven't mentioned, please comment and let me know! I am always looking for new Christmas books!

Please note: this post contains affiliate links. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Gene Stratton Porter State Historic Site

Last week I made the trip north to Rome City, Indiana to visit the home of Gene Stratton Porter (1863-1924), a famous Indiana writer from the last century whose life work of nature study, writing, conservation, and business ownership has inspired me for some time. 

I wanted to move right in to Gene's "Cabin at Wildflower Woods". Set on the banks of Sylvan Lake, Gene designed this house to provide spaces for hospitality, her own writing and photography work, and relaxation.

Look at that beautiful cherry woodwork! It was harvested from trees right on the property! I also loved the blue and white china in use on the table and filling a corner cupboard. 

Like Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, Gene was born into a minister's family, the twelfth child in the family! She was steeped in nature from her birth, being constantly taught to see beauty around her.

Here is a large fireplace in the front room at the Cabin where Gene used stones collected from all 48 states and given by friends to form the fireplace decoration. She had the stones inserted to include pictures (see a Revolutionary soldier on the right side of the fireplace).

Gene began her writing as an outlet for her love of nature and desire to be creative. She also wanted to earn her own money. She wrote for women's magazines and then began to publish nature books and novels. Get this, at the height of Gene's career her books were more popular than the Harry Potter books are now (taking into account population growth, etc.)! That's serious numbers!

The fireplace in the writing room is made from Pudding Stone, a type of stone found only in a very small area of the country, including parts of Indiana.

Birds were at the heart of Gene's love for nature. As a child she roamed her family's fields caring for every nest and bird she came across. She was, in fact, a "bird whisperer." She created this beautiful, light-filled porch room for growing plants and included a low table with a faucet for growing seedlings.

Photography was cutting edge technology during Gene's time and she built herself a proper darkroom in this house so she wouldn't have to operate in a darkened bathroom. Many of her nature writings were illustrated with her own photographs.

I loved the kitchen: the floors, the tall ceilings and large windows, the blue on the walls, the cupboard for the state of the art icebox, the well-designed island with its spice rack, and an entire wall of cupboards. Gene hired cooks and housekeepers to help her, so she didn't really use the kitchen herself, but I sure wouldn't mind having this kitchen!

The Cabin at Wildflower Woods sits on the bank of Sylvan Lake and it makes for such a tranquil place to be.

We couldn't see upstairs in the house, but there are seven bedrooms as well as that huge sleeping porch! I just wanted to move right in!

Gene loved this place but found that as she grew in popularity the area became overrun with fans coming to visit/disturb her.

On the day I visited there were no hordes of tourists or meddlesome media. All was quiet with a gentle wind and the soft light of autumn sifting through the trees.

Behind the house were the gardens -- 35 "tidy" beds and then many "untidy" areas beyond that. Gene was devoted to plants and hired gardeners to make sure she could keep all these areas maintained.

Perhaps some of you are familiar with Gene's most famous novels: Girl of the Limberlost, or Laddie, or Freckles. Gene wrote 12 novels and 8 nature study books. When she felt her life at the Cabin becoming too overrun with people she moved out to California where she became a film producer and saw many of her books turned into movies!

After touring the house, a friend and I wandered the little trails meandering through the small amount of acreage left from Gene's original property.

This part of the property is being returned to prairie land, similar to the state park at Prophetstown.

Gene was killed in a traffic accident in California in 1924 but was eventually buried back here in Indiana at the Cabin of Wildflower Woods, as she had stipulated.

Gene was a woman who celebrated the wonder of nature and did her best to share that with others. She was a woman ahead of her time with her conservation work and efforts to save the Limberlost Swamp from being eradicated. If you haven't ever read a book by Porter, I highly recommend you try one! I've just picked up The Song of the Cardinal myself.

Please note: post contains affiliate links.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

London: A Bibliography

I finally have a young adult bibliography compiled for the sketching tour I am leading to London in January. I am making that bibliography available below. For those interested in my more complete adult list, please be sure to sign up for my newsletter if you haven't already (form in sidebar) as that booklist will be made available shortly to newsletter subscribers. 

London: A Bibliography for Young Adults

Disclaimer: Please note that some of these books/videos may contain offensive language in parts. I have attempted to limit the list to books I feel are wholesome enough to be used for high schoolers. I have not previewed every single video and I do know the Crown, and perhaps other series, contain some material that would be best to skip over. Discretion advised!

Day One:
Walking Tour of Westminster and Palace Areas

— The Crown
     TV Series depicting the life of Queen Elizabeth II
— BBC TV Westminster Abbey
     Documentary about Westminster Abbey
— The Queen’s Palaces (BBC)
     Documentary about Buckingham Palace
— Downton Abbey
     TV Series depicting life in the early 20th century in Northern England
— Sherlock Holmes
— Paddington Bear
— Darkest Hour (Winston Churchill movie)
— The Royal Wedding: William & Catherine
     The royal wedding inside Westminster Abbey
— Queen and Country (PBS)
      Documentary about the British monarchy
— The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II
      Documentary about the Queen’s coronation

Day Two:
Tower of London

— Secrets of the Tower of London (PBS)
     Documentary about the Tower of London

     London by Christopher Skaife

Day Three:
Kensington Palace, V&A Museum, Afternoon Tea

— Victoria 
     TV Drama Series about Queen Victoria and Prince Albert
— The Queen
     Movie based on the days immediately following the death of Diana, 
      Princess of Wales
— Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy
      Documentary about Diana to commemorate 20 years since her death

     by Lucy Worsley
     by Helen Rappaport 
-- Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie
    Kensington Park was used as inspiration for the story of Peter Pan

Day Four:

— 84 Charing Cross
     Movie depicting the correspondence and subsequent friendship of 
      an author in NYC and a bookseller in London

84 Charing Cross by Anne Bancroft
     The story of a friendship between an author in NYC and a bookseller 
      in London
Pretty City London by Siobhan Ferguson
     A compilation of beautiful photos from London by an instagram artist

Day Five:
Church, National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery

Day Six:
Day trip to Bath

— Persuasion
     Jane Austen’s famous novel partially set in Bath

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Day Seven:
Day trip to Windsor Castle

— The Queen’s Palaces
     Documentary covering Windsor Castle
— Elizabeth at 90 (BBC)
     Documentary of the Queen’s 90 years
— Monarchy: The Royal Family at Work (BBC)
     Documentary about the Royal Family
— Bertie & Elizabeth: The Story of King George VI & Queen    
     Tells the story of the present Queen’s parents

Princess Elizabeth’s Spy by Susan Elia NacNeal (fiction) 

Day Eight:
Day trip to Oxford

— *Tolkien
     Movie about Tolkien’s early years including WWI and the TCBS
— Harry Potter Movie 1
     Scenes inspired by the dining hall at Christ Church College
— Inspector Lewis/Endeavor
      Murder mystery TV series set in Oxford

Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan
     Historical fiction telling the story of C.S. Lewis’ relationship 
     with the woman who became his wife
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
     Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) was a teacher at Oxford and wrote 
     Alice in Wonderland for his little friends at Christ Church College
    The first in Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia series
-- The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
-- Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber
    Tells of the real-life experience of an American studying at Oxford

Day Nine:
Dickens’ London

— *The Man Who Invented Christmas
     Movie telling about Dickens’ life and the story of A Christmas Carol
— Oliver Twist
     Orphan boy lured into a life of crime on London’s streets
— Bleak House
     An orphan raised by her aunt and later taken in by a philanthropist
— Little Dorrit
     Movie about a little girl raised in a London debtors’ prison
— A Christmas Carol

     Movie about Dickens’ best-loved Christmas story

— A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
     Dickens' most famous Christmas story, set in London

Please note: this post contains affiliate links. Thanks for supporting my work by clicking through to Amazon from my website!

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Gentle Travels in Britain: The Beginning

Every trip begins with a dream: a kernel of desire, hope, mystery, excitement. My summer trip to Great Britain began as a dream: just two friends, sipping tea, and wistfully imagining what it would be like to travel to England and Scotland together. We sat with the dream for years. But there comes a time when a dream either needs to grow old and retire, or it needs to be acted upon.

Of course there were obstacles. Plenty of obstacles to work out: the needs of my family, the cost of the trip, timing, etc. Obstacles are like beautiful but heavy doors -- they take some pushing on to gain admittance. And sometimes pushing on the obstacles proves to show the dream was not meant to be, or not meant to be in its present form. But sometimes pushing on the obstacles opens the door for a dream to come true.

 Being in my early forties, and having fairly recently lost a life-long friend to cancer, I've begun asking myself, "Why put this off?" to some dreams I have. For some of us there may not be as far distant of a future as we imagine. That's not to create an anxious sense of urgency, rather, I think it should foster a profound gratefulness for each experience, for every dream we are privileged to realize. But each realized dream comes from a decision that was made. A decision to take the risks a dream entails and make it a reality.

At some point, a decision was made. We stopped dreaming and starting planning. And that is the part that I find so fun. I like having 9-12 months to prepare. That gives me enough time to research and plan, to read a hefty amount of books on the subject, and to enjoy the experience of looking forward to something. It is almost (but not quite) possible that I drew more joy from planning this trip through a very difficult winter than in actually living it out. I'm beginning to think the best way to get through a winter is to have something waiting on the other side!

Here are some practical ways I plan for trips:
-- buy an atlas of the country I'm going
-- check out tourist guides from the library
-- scan the library system for novels set in the area I'm visiting, biographies of famous people who lived in that area, movie set in that countryside, etc.
-- find a few hashtags on Instagram pertinent to where I'll be traveling. I get some seriously good ideas for places to eat and visit from random Instagram posts.
-- set up a Pinterest board if I'm in a Pinterest mood
-- read reviews of restaurants and overnight stays on TripAdvisor
-- create a document where I post information pertinent to each day of the trip

Having our airline tickets locked in the dates for us, and gave us the border pieces to the puzzle that was our trip. Carefully we turned the puzzle pieces this way and that until we managed to work each piece into a way that fit the whole. We would start in Glasgow, drive to the Lake District, spend a few days in Oxford, make our way slowly north to the Cairngorms in Scotland, and then end our trip in Airdrie, my old "home town." We would stay in rented houses, bed and breakfasts, and homes of friends. I would paint, my friend, Janet, would knit. I would drive, Janet would photograph. I would suggest daring, Janet would urge sensibility, and every time I took a wrong turn Janet would say, "It's just a long cut, and long cuts are good."

We left on our journey at the insane hour of 3:45am, in order to catch our 6am flight to New York City. One of the ways I overcame the obstacles of this dream was to use frequent flyer miles, and frequent flier miles often require crazy flight times. (Better at the beginning of the journey than the end!) So we had a day to spend in New York City, no matter that we had to drag our carry-ons and shoulder luggage, a camera, and purses with us. We tramped our way from Newark, NJ, to central Manhattan and then way up to the very top of Manhattan to see my NYC friend Christy, and spend the day in her happy places.

I think this was my seventh trip to NYC to see Christy. Ten years ago I would never have imagined myself being able to say I'd been to NYC to visit a friend seven times. I distinctly remember when I made the decision to go for the first time. It would have been very easy to have never made that decision. It was riskier to take it: to invest time and money in myself and in a friendship. The investment brought returns (no pun intended) far greater than I could have imagined. I'm quite sure it also led to me having the courage to attempt the kind of trip I took this summer.

So there we were -- two of my friendships melding as we sat in the place we always go when I visit: the New Leaf restaurant at the Cloisters, tucked into the trees and whispering of Europe. Janet to my right and Christy to my left -- the funny thing is all three of us grew up
in the same square mile in Indianapolis (okay, I only spent a few of my teen years there), the streets and building names so familiar to all three of us. We walked in the Heather Garden which is a pilgrimage we always take, and introduced Janet to the beauties of the Cloister grounds.

A few quick hugs for Christy's boys as they got out of school and then Janet and I were off on our journey back to Newark and the night flight to Glasgow.

As we sat in the United lounge sipping our soda water and eating the free dinner our little passes allotted us, our smiles could hardly have been bigger. Just a few more hours and we would be back in Scotland!

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

September Update

I have the pictures ready, but no time yet, to start posting about my summer travels. Instead life has been happening full speed around here. The kids are adjusting well to the school year and I am very thankful. I needed room to breathe and it came just in time. School sports are filling up the after school hours and eating up tank after tank of gas. But it's probably the only season I'll have all four kids in sports, and we did actually "choose" to do this, for important reasons.

The colors in my neglected garden are just incredibly gorgeous right now: jewel-like tones. I can't stop staring at the flowers when I'm sitting in the living room. And the sound of the crickets outside -- it's one of the most comforting sounds I personally know. It makes me feel relaxed and calm.

Random things have popped into our schedule: a trip to Chicago last week to visit friends who blessed with a vacuum we needed (and then more things like blue and white china and an oil painting), helping family with various needs, our first family bike ride on Labor Day(!), trying to get a tennis racket re-strung and then again, daydreaming about the building our church is about to lease after 13 years of looking, ordering book after book from the library for "London trip research," teaching a young friend to knit, daily going over the schedules of who goes where at what time and with what car and which parent, being given homegrown pears, celebrating a son's 17th birthday.

Life is a daily choosing to rest, mentally and physically, in the midst of real dilemmas, joys, heartaches, and hard work. Every day is a challenge in this way!

It's time for me to pack up and head out the door. I'm looking forward to those trip posts, when the time appears!

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Tea Cozies for Sale

I'm selling tea cozies on behalf of a few high school art students who are planning to take the Sketching England trip which I am leading this coming January. (If you are interested to know more about the trip, sign up for my newsletter in the sidebar and I'll be talking about it in my next issue.)

The tea cozies are $35 each with free shipping in the USA. The entire $35 will go to the students. The cozies are sized to fit a 4-6 cup pot.

Fall is just around the corner and a new tea cozy is a certain way to add some coziness to your days!

There are lots of colors to choose from!

If you are interested in purchasing a cozy, leave a comment with some way for me to contact you! (or find me on Facebook or Instagram and PM me)

Happy tea drinking!