17 Things I Learned in 2017

New Year’s Eve truly snuck up on me this year. My tree is still up, our stockings are still hung, and I’m just barely starting to use the gifts I received from family and friends for Christmas. And already we’ve only got less than 24 hours left of 2017…

Perhaps the holiday season in general snuck up on me this year. Our city has been going through a lot in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, and not long after all the chaos, I started a new job which quickly became my focus for this last third of the year. Sometimes I can’t even remember what 2017 looked like before August. It feels like one blindingly fast blur.

I do remember some of my favorite moments, though. Like the week I spent in San Francisco serving with an amazing ministry and learning so much about God’s love. And the weekend I drove all the way to my hometown of El Paso, then spontaneously decided to spend the night in one of my favorite New Mexico towns. I do remember that though 2017 had its share of hardships and uncertainties, it also brought a lot of unexpected good. I got to start a new job at my church for example, and while its got its own challenges like any job, it’s truly amazing how comfortable and at home I feel there. God knew what I needed this year, and He led me right to it. He has an amazing way of doing that, of expanding my own small goals for bigger, grander ones that fit much better into my life.

Last year, I paid homage to 2016 by creating a list of 16 things I learned that year, and I’ve decided to continue the tradition (the inspiration for this actually came from this lovely blog). To me, the most important thing about a year is always what I learned because of it. If I can recognize an improvement in myself, a better way of dealing with problems or a more optimistic outlook on life, then by all accounts, I consider that year a success. 🙂

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Here are just a few of the things I learned in 2017, and the things and people that taught me them.

1. Anyone can long for beauty in faraway places, but to have a true eye for beauty is to be able to find it in your own backyard.

– Getting reacquainted with my local beach on a few spontaneous day trips

2. You can stress out when things don’t go your way, or you can use it as an opportunity to reevaluate your routines and perspectives.

– My car breaking down on me on the other end of the state

3. Few things can awaken and restore you like nature.

– The crisp mountain air of Ruidoso, New Mexico

4. Inner peace begins with learning to accept, and on occasion laugh, at your mistakes. Failure is part of being human, but being miserable about it doesn’t have to be.

– All the mistakes I’m prone to

 5. Even when we work as hard as possible and do our part, God finds a way of still exceeding our expectations.

– My sister getting into her top choice medical school

6. For all the heaviness in the world, we’ve been given so many light things to lessen our burdens (puppies, laughter, the ocean, and chocolate being a few of them).

– Morning drives on the way to work

7. Kindness is still one of the most attractive things in the world.

– I re-learn this every year, always thanks to different people.

8. The homeless person you see on the side of the street is more than just “a homeless person.” They’re a person with a unique backstory and beliefs just like you and me, and they deserve the same amount of dignity.

– A week serving with San Francisco City Impact

8. The more you have to fight for joy and peace, the stronger they both become.

– Finding joy and peace in the little things

10. People may be capable of extraordinary cynicism, but they’re also capable of extraordinary kindness.

– The local heroes that rescued many in our city during hurricane Harvey

11. A good story inspires you. A great story changes you.

– Writing this blog post

12. We are not immune to the sufferings and tragedies of life, but we’ve got a God who longs to be so near us in the midst of them.

– The book Daring to Hope (and Jesus himself)

13. The most natural result of gratitude and compassion is service.

–  The ridiculously long lines of volunteers after hurricane Harvey

14. When our circumstances are unpredictable and stressful, the peace God gives is like a solid rock that never wavers.

– Transitioning to a new job and routine

15. Hard work, dedication and trust in those around you will help you triumph even when the odds are stacked against you.

– Our hometown Astros winning the World Series 🙂

16. The proof of a good time isn’t in the likes you receive on an Instagram photo, but in the peace (or lack of it) it brought you.

– A perfect, lazy Christmas break spent cozily indoors

17. Keeping a sense of wonder and unbridled optimism is underrated, but so much more powerful than most people would believe.

– Anne of Green Gables (the book, the 1980s movie and the Netflix series 😉

Here’s to next year. I hope you all have a wonderful New Year’s Eve!

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Gifts that Give Back: For the Introverts & Homebodies

Finally getting around to update one of my gift guides for you all. This was probably my favorite guide last year, because everything was just so cozy and supported my preferred lifestyle (at home in bed, reading or watching Netflix ;). But in all seriousness, while these gifts are all very introvert-friendly, I think anyone would appreciate them.

Again, this is not a sponsored post, these are just items I love and whose proceeds go to great causes.

Cozy Loungewear

I shared about Punjamees last year and wanted to include them again because they have some of the coziest loungewear out there. Sudara helps to provide sustainable living wages for women in India, helping them avoid sexual exploitation. They also focus on providing women and girls with valuable training and education.

Left: Varasi Robe, $79. Right: Suja Full Lounge Pants, $49.

Ivory Ella is all about helping save elephants in the wild by donating 10% of their products’ net profits to the cause. They’ve donated over $1 million so far to help preserve and protect these gentle creatures and other animals in the wild. Ivory Ella has tons of products featuring elephants (of course), but my favorites are the ones that make a relaxing day at home even cozier. Like these cute gray slippers and warm varsity joggers.

Left: Elephant Slippers, $25. Right: Varsity Jogger, $49.

 

Soft Blankets & Pillows

A year later, Sackcloth & Ashes remains one of my favorite brands for cozy blankets. Their products are genuinely so soft, and for every blanket you purchase, they’ll donate one to a homeless shelter for someone who needs one. These are two of my current favorite styles. The geometric patterns of the Darling Gray blanket would make it perfect for a throw across a bed or couch, and I just want to curl up in that chocolate blanket.

Left: Darling Gray, $119. Right: Queen Chocolate, $65.

Amani Ya Juu (which means “Peace From Above” in Swahili), is an awesome company that employs women in different parts of Africa who make beautiful products by hand. All their products are handmade from natural materials and help women rise out of poverty and adversity.

Left: Quilted Kenyan Throw, $130. Right: Amani Leaf Pillow, $36.

 

Coffee + Mugs
What’s a cozy day at home without a hot cup of coffee? Actually, I don’t drink coffee, but I do appreciate its wonderful smell and don’t blame anyone for being obsessed with it. There are so many amazing fair trade and charitable coffee brands out there, but 734 Coffee is one whose mission I really love. Coffee purchases from Refugee Campus go straight to helping refugees in South Sudan thrive, and from what I’ve heard, their coffee tastes amazing.
Is there a better way to enjoy a perfect cup of fair trade coffee than in a cute, minimalistic mug? The Created Co. donates 10% of their proceeds to charity water, an amazing organization that works to provide clean water access to the thousands of people around the world who don’t have it. They have tons of mugs to choose from, but these were my favorite because I love their messages.
Pampering Essentials
One of my favorite nonprofit organizations is Preemptive Love. They have an amazing approach to the work they do in places like war-torn Syria and Iraq. Their focus is always on peace and providing care for the most vulnerable, and they work to empower the populations they work with. One of their awesome projects is selling these lovely candles and soaps for the holidays, which are all handcrafted by refugees. People rave about their natural soaps and candles, but they sell out fast so I would order asap if you know someone who would love them.
Another awesome cause is the one supported by Thistle Farms. They help heal, empower and employ women survivors of sex trafficking by providing housing and the opportunity for economic independence. They have a lot of neat products, but this bath set (with eucalyptus mint body wash, bath soak, shave gel and lip balm), and energy and immunity support essential oils kit were pretty much made for the most relaxing spa night.
The next gift guide will focus on gifts for the world traveler, so stay tuned!
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Gifts that Give Back: Apparel & Accessories

Well, I’m finally emerging from my blogging hibernation (don’t ask me why, because I don’t have an excuse other than life has been crazy) to share a few gift guides with you all. I loved making these posts last year, so I wanted to share a few more this season too.

Like last year’s posts, these will all include gifts that give back in some way. I’ll be posting some new ones (like today’s) as well as updating my old ones, so stay tuned. 🙂

As for today’s guide, it’s going to be a long one because it’s focused on fashion, and there were too many great finds not to share them all. This is not a sponsored post, these are just items that I love and whose proceeds go to great causes.

Apparel

Parks Project has some of the coolest tanks and sweatshirts that are not only perfect for national park lovers, but whose proceeds actually go directly to improving the parks. I think this would be a perfect gift for someone who’d love a reminder about a special trip they took to one of these parks. But they’re so cute that I think they’d be great for anyone, even if they haven’t visited yet.
Sevenly is an awesome nonprofit organization that designs shirts and hoodies whose proceeds go to all kinds of different causes. I love that they tell you exactly which cause the product you’re buying will benefit. For example, proceeds from this awesome hoodie (one of my favorite items on this gift guide) go towards helping wounded service members, and proceeds from the t-shirt go to providing people with clean water access around the world.
Bags
I’ve loved FEED bags from the moment I laid eyes on them, and over the years their style has evolved to become even more modern and sophisticated. They’re incredibly durable, and of course the best part is, purchasing one helps provide meals to kids around the world. These leather bags are two of my current favorites, and each provide 100 meals.
These work-friendly leather crossbody’s are from the brand FashionABLE, which employs women who’ve faced hardship in places such as Ethiopia and Peru. I love how versatile they are, as they can be dressed down with jeans (like in the photos), or easily dressed up for a day at work.
Accessories
Krochet Kids is another one of my favorites. Women from around the world hand knit these scarves, beanies and other items (and even stitch their names into the tags), which helps them have a stable income in the midst of an uncertain environment. Their items are so wonderfully cozy and perfect for the cold.
While Alex and Ani isn’t actually a nonprofit organization, they do some awesome charity work through their Charity by Design line. 20% of the proceeds from these two pieces go to great charities (Unicef and Project Common Bond, respectively).
Shoes
Of course I had to include a few TOMS shoes in this guide. My favorite shoes of theirs are the booties, and I loved these two styles especially. If you don’t know about TOMS, for every pair of shoes purchased they donate one to a child around the world who is in need, and they do amazing work.
Last but not least are some rainboots by Roma. Founded in Romania, Roma has a similar business setup as TOMS, donating one pair of shoes per pair that’s purchased. They’re also focused on providing education and empowerment to the countries they work in.
Happy shopping, and stay tuned for another gift guide soon!

Daring to Hope: A Book Review

Daring to Hope

A few months ago I signed up to be part of the launch team for an awesome new book by Katie Davis Majors, who founded Amazima Ministries after moving to Uganda and adopting 13 girls (yes, 13). I loved Katie’s first book (Kisses From Katie), so I expected I’d love this one too. But I honestly didn’t expect just how much it would affect me.

Daring to Hope is a powerful read, and probably my favorite book I’ve read all year – which is why I really wanted to take the time to blog about it here. While it starts off a bit of a slow, it quickly builds up and by the middle of the book, you won’t be able to put it down.

Perhaps the most amazing thing is that all the stories in Daring to Hope are real. Some are inspiring and full of happy endings. And some are full of tragedy and pain that breaks your heart as you read them. But that’s exactly why this book is so powerful – it’s honest about the hardest things we face in life, and speaks on how to find hope in the midst of them. Though Katie’s living out life with her family in Uganda, her experiences are relevant to anyone who’s ever encountered loss, heartbreak, or uncertainty.

When I finished Daring to Hope (after, predictably, a night of staying up super late because I couldn’t put it down), I was so in awe of God’s grace and goodness, and how He draws closer to us in times of pain and sorrow. Though we can’t always understand why He allows some things, we can always trust in His love for us. It’s what carries us forward and what makes life beautiful even in the darkness. And Daring to Hope illustrates that so well.

If you’ve ever wondered why God allows pain into our lives, I think you will get so much out of reading this book. It’s one of the most honest and remarkable stories I’ve ever read about what it looks like to love the person in front of you, to give even when you’ve lost much, and to trust God even through heartbreak and pain. Here is the link to purchase it if you’re interested. You can also check out Amazima Ministries to learn more about Katie’s work in Uganda.

A few of my favorite quotes from the book…  

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our god wields a

Tips for Staying in New Mexico’s Loveliest Mountain Town

When I was a kid I used to live in a city by the border of Texas, Mexico, and New Mexico – a fact that my family took advantage of by taking lots of road trips. That is of course where my love for traveling and road trips began. Even years later, I can still remember those early trips so well.

One of the places we most used to visit was a little town on the edge of New Mexico called Ruidoso. It’s mostly known for its ski slopes during the winter, but oddly enough, we used to visit during the summer. Earlier this year, I got the chance to go back to this woodsy oasis exactly 10 years after the last time I visited (crazy how quickly time passes). And while it’s often weird to visit a place that contains so many nostalgic memories, Ruidoso did not let me down.

So if you ever find yourself in this little corner of the south, I can assure you, you won’t regret spending a day or two in this lovely little mountain town. Here are a few of my tips on how to make that stay even more amazing.

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Ditch the Hotel for a Rustic Cabin 

One of the best things about spending the night in Ruidoso is that you can rent a cozy cabin for less than what you’d pay to get a hotel room in the city, which is what my family used to do whenever we visited. When I went back a few months ago we unfortunately couldn’t find a cabin in time so we stayed at a hotel. But usually there are a lot of great cabin options to choose from. My tip for finding the best one is to drive around checking out prices and areas first to see what you’re most comfortable with – and make sure to ask to see the inside of the cabin before you pay.

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Eat and Shop Local 

Even though Ruidoso is a small town, it’s not immune to the mainstream places we all know, like Walmart and Starbucks. You can find a lot of chain stores and restaurants on the edge of the city, but it’s not until you drive further into the mountains that you’ll get to see the small town charm of local shops and restaurants. My favorite place to eat in Ruidoso is a local barbecue spot that is both super affordable and delicious. I have so many memories from visiting this place when I was little, so it was very weird to go back (it seemed a lot smaller, but it was just as delicious). And even 10 years later, they still have coffee for only 5 cents (yes, really). Another neat thing about Ruidoso is their affinity for carved wooden bears. I have one from 10 years ago so I didn’t get one this time around, but it’s always fun to look at them because they sell them everywhere.

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Drive Through the Mountains 

Mountains are my favorite kind of landscape, so naturally my favorite part about visiting Ruidoso was getting to drive through them. The crisp mountain air smelled so good (think of the best forest smell you can imagine) that I drove around the whole time with the windows down. You’ll also get to see deer everywhere. Pretty much as often as you’d see a squirrel in a city like Houston, you see deer in Ruidoso because they like to wander eating grass on people’s lawns. That being said, be careful while you’re driving through the winding roads, especially at night where there may also be bears who climb down looking for food. And of course be respectful of people’s homes because there are some (very lucky!) people who actually live here.

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I wish you could all smell what I was smelling in this photo. Nothing smells as good as pure mountain air. 

Stop by the Inn of the Mountain Gods

Another neat spot to visit in Ruidoso is the Inn of the Mountain Gods, which is a casino/hotel within the Apache reservation. This is another place we used to go to a lot when we were kids… just to see the lovely lake and landscape outside, of course. They’ve remodeled a lot over the past 10 years, but the hotel is still lovely on the inside, and I wouldn’t mind staying there for a few nights someday. I probably wouldn’t gamble, but I’m pretty sure that’s why most people go since they have a whole floor reserved for it. In my opinion though, the lake outside is the best part:

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One Final Tip… Explore Beyond Ruidoso 

As if Ruidoso weren’t lovely enough on its own, it’s also very close to a lot of other beautiful places to visit – like White Sands, which I will blog about visiting soon! I recommend renting a car if you fly in to El Paso, and then driving through the Franklin Mountains and White Sands on your way to this lovely mountain town.

 

A Cozy Houston Coffee Shop and the Reasons I Love Fall 

Years are usually divided by their seasons, but because of all that’s really happened in Houston, I think our year has felt more divided into before Harvey / after Harvey. In the midst of all the flooding and craziness of the past few weeks, most of us barely noticed the start of the transition from summer into fall. And though our weather is doing its usual back-and-forth tease with cooler temperatures, I think we’re finally starting to accept the reality that summer is coming to an end.

In my book, that’s always a good thing.  It’s not that I don’t like some things about summer, it’s just that the intense heat and humidity start to get a little old after a few months (who am I kidding? after a few weeks). So I’m all for welcoming the autumn season with open arms. Fall is actually my favorite time of the year, and I’m so excited for it. This year it will of course be different as our city is still focused on rebuilding, but I think this time full of family, celebration and the end of the hurricane season is a blessing for all of us.

This season also means a lot of introspection and writing for me, so I look forward to the many days spent in cozy coffee shops like this one contemplating life and change. For now, here are just a few thoughts on why I love this season.

Reasons I Love Fall

one of my favorite cozy coffee shops in the Heights district of Houston

The Weather 

We don’t really get fall weather here in Houston until mid to late October, but once it comes, I enjoy those few months of it to the fullest. That includes eating in restaurant patios whenever I get the chance, driving with the windows down, and just breathing in the crisp, fresh air. Here in Texas, our summers basically last from May to September. So as soon as those low-seventy temperatures start creeping in, we all let out a collective sigh of relief.

The Fashion 

Fall fashion is all about rich, dark colors and layering – two of my favorite things when it comes to fashion. To be honest, I don’t approach the spring and summer months here in Houston very fashionably… it’s more of a, what can I wear today that won’t make me sweat all day approach. But during the fall, I feel a lot more inspired. Most of my shopping happens during the fall and winter months, and this year I’m looking forward to be deliberate about my style and wear what truly feels like me, not just what’s trending. Stay tuned for more posts on that in the near future. 😉

The Beginning of the Holidays 

I’ve blogged about this before, but I used to have very mixed feelings about the holiday season, especially when it came to all the shopping and spending pressure of Christmas. But over time I’ve learned to enjoy the season for the best parts of it – like the fact that it brings families together, promotes gratitude and allows us to feel loved and like we belong. Of course, the holidays are never perfect, and they can be very difficult for some people. I think we can address that by including others and serving whenever we can, while also appreciating the beauty of the season.

The General Coziness 

I’m a proud introvert, so you can imagine that one of my favorite parts about the fall (and winter) season is that it leads to a lot of coziness indoors. Bring out the warm hot cocoa and pumpkin spice and the soft blankets and cozy pillows. If the weather allows, you can even dress super cozy – with soft, long sweaters and tall, warm boots. This season was pretty much made to curl up with a good book in the warmth of your house or a cozy coffee shop – so you can be sure I’ll also be doing some of that.

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Reasons I Love Fall

can’t go wrong with coffee and sweet monkey bread

Reasons I Love Fall

 

What’s your favorite thing about fall? 

5 Books That Changed My Life

When I think about some of the most memorable books I’ve read, I can always remember exactly what season of life I was in when I first read them, and what they meant to me then. From childhood series like the American Girl books and The Babysitter’s Club that activated my imagination, to classics like Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Shakespeare’s Midsummer Nights Dream that shaped my love for storytelling, books have a way of becoming more than just stories. They so often become a part of our own narrative, shaping what we believe and what we create, and occasionally even who we become.

Recently, I came across a blog post by The Slow Traveler on 5 books that changed her life, and knew I wanted to write a similar tribute to some of the works that have most inspired me. Narrowing it down to only 5 books was a nearly impossible task (I think I changed my list a dozen times), but here they are.

Anne of Green Gables

The Pearl by John Steinbeck 

I read this short novella about a fisherman who finds a valuable pearl in sixth grade, and it left a powerful impression on me. Part of it was Steinbeck’s haunting prose and a story that, while unique, uses the relatable themes of greed and the ambition of humanity. But this was also the first book I ever wrote an epilogue for as part of an English class. I remember enjoying the assignment but not thinking too much of it until my sixth grade teacher read my submission out loud to the class and praised my writing and ability to adapt to Steinbeck’s style. It may seem small, but that was one of the first moments that gave me confidence in my writing and showed me that it was a skill I should continue to develop. So I’ll always be thankful to this book for that.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

I saw this movie before I ever attempted to read the series, but I fell in love with both equally. There’s something about the fantasy genre that tugs at my creative side, and I think this is one of the most beautifully executed fantasy stories out there. I’m also a sucker for allegories and symbols, so you can imagine why I love these books so much. Every time I read one or watch any of the movies, I’m reminded about important truths that are woven into the plot. To this day, The Chronicles of Narnia is probably my greatest inspiration as a writer.

The Twilight Series by Stephenie Meyer

Yes, I’m seriously including Twilight on this list. Once upon a time I was an eighth grader who fell in love with this admittedly cheesy vampire romance, and it led me to become part of a fandom that taught me a lot. This series might not have the best writing out there, and yeah, there are some odd things about it that I only picked up on later. But it was the Twilight fandom that introduced me to a creative side of the internet that I might not have otherwise known. I learned how to edit photos and videos because of these books (I even met Taylor Lautner once because of them haha but that’s another story). And while I don’t think I could ever get through reading them again, I’m not ashamed to admit that they did impact my life somehow. It’s silly to hide that just because people love to hate on it.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

I read this novel for the first time in college after only pretending to read it in high school. It only took a couple of chapters the second time around to realize it contained a story that despite its time still felt so relevant and fresh. I can remember getting to the part where she runs away (that’s not too much of a spoiler, is it?) one evening in a coffee shop and trying to act like everything was totally normal because I was in public even though it absolutely was not. The truth is that though this is technically a romance, that’s not why I fell in love with this novel. The real reason I love this story is because of Jane’s resilience and ability to remain true to herself despite the fact that she had no wealth or high social standing to lean on. It’s probably not a book for everyone’s taste, but I think it’ll always be one of my favorites.

Bittersweet by Shauna Niequist 

Bittersweet is one of those books that draws you in with its beautiful and poetic prose and then speaks straight to your soul. I discovered it as I was browsing in a bookstore (one of my favorite ways to discover books in the world). After reading just a few paragraphs of Shauna’s short essays on life, relationships and God, I went straight to the checkout counter and bought it, and I did not regret it. One unexpected thing that came out of reading Bittersweet is that I was inspired to write again. Shauna includes a lot of encouraging words for artists, and seeing her own beautiful prose would always inspire me to write my own thoughts on any subject I could think of. I love her other books too, but this will always be my original favorite.

Because I can’t help but cheat somehow, here are a few (okay, a lot) honorable mentions, in no particular order:

Bittersweet by Shauna Niequist 

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell

A Little Princess by Frances Burnett

The Edge of the Sword by Rebecca Tingle

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld 

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen 

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Daring Greatly by Brené Brown

Love Does by Bob Goff 

Enemies of the Heart by Andy Stanley

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery 

Wild and Free by Hayley Morgan & Jess Connolly  

Which books would be on your list?