2020: A year in review

31 December 2020

Well, well, well, 2020. Let’s see what you had in store for the Thomas family.

We kicked off the year with June’s 4th birthday and an epic “day of fun” to celebrate (including her favorite, gem mining!). Sadly, we also experienced our first (though not last) ER visit this month, also for June. Work continued on the Cultivate office, and our Peloton arrived!

As always, I started the year by sharing my 2020 goals (and 2020 reading list!), as well as 9 decisions that led to a life I love in honor of our 15th dativersary.

Valentine’s Day brought lots of fun celebrations, like the Lovebug Dance (complete with corsage) at our church for John and June and a tea at the Carolina Inn with friends for me. We unveiled the sand table on our front porch and my newly-painted desk, played in the snow, completed our second ER trip (this time with ambulance ride!), and celebrated my birthday with sweet deliveries from friends.

On the blog, I shared my thoughts on The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry and the subsequent changes to my Instagram use.

On March 2, we officially moved into Cultivate’s new offices. On March 5, we had a photoshoot. On March 8, we ate our last meal inside a restaurant – for the year. On March 11, the NBA canceled their season, we officially began working from home, and John said, “I think you’d better go to the grocery store” (which I did, two carts later, along with almost everyone else in our town). On March 16, our kids’ school closed indefinitely. Empty grocery shelves, a new juggle of work and childcare (with babysitters added into the mix toward the end of the month), fear and uncertainty… and also penguins roaming aquariums, days off spent with our kids, hikes and car picnics. Weirdly, I published a North Carolina bucket list on the blog this month, ha!

April was high quarantine: lots of bike rides, s’mores, my first mask wearing, lunches in the backyard, starting our garden, chocolate chip cookies, making muffins, cancellations (soccer, family trip to Florida), porch deliveries, strawberry picking, all the sensory bins, playing in the creek, at-home haircuts, at-home Easter. I did a day-in-the-life on Stories to remember this weird time.

On the blog, we chatted about a simple meal-planning hack and Earth-friendly swaps in our home (loved your comments on both!).

May was more of the same: more bike rides, more hikes and creeks, more strawberries, more porch deliveries, and so many snack trays. We punctuated our days with a backyard campout (!), a new porch gate, and the sweetest Mother’s Day celebrated with picnic and scoot in downtown Raleigh. My parents were also able to visit for 10 days or so, which was a huge blessing for everyone (especially when our car was broken into and wallets stolen…).

On the blog, I shared a pair of posts about meal planning: my recipe binder and my routines!

As you can see in June in June, we continued to make the most of our time together at home, with ice cream, hikes, another campout (this time with Mama!), Father’s Day celebrations, trips to the Eno, and a backyard kiddie pool. We also spent much time thinking, reflecting, and talking as the racial justice conversation exploded. The tomatoes continued to roll in.

On the blog, I shared inspiration for a stay-at-home Fourth and some thoughts on raising kids I like, inspired by my Dad.

July had a LOT of highlights: road trips to Maine (with a beloved stop in the Berkshires along the way) and Connecticut (with a celebration for Shep’s birthday), so much family after such a long drought, John’s birthday, and progress on the Advent calendar (finally!). We have SO many sweet memories from this month!

We headed home from Connecticut in August, then celebrated our own Octonauts movie premiere, an Articles Club reunion (outside!), and, most momentously, our kids’ first day back at school. I also recorded my episode of Work & Play and began the upstairs bathroom refresh!

On the blog, I shared a few reflections upon the first day of school and FINALLY published my photo organization guide!! (Parts one, two, and three!)

You can see all the highlights from September in Shep’s second moviecamping, though tough, was definitely the most exciting event! On the blog, I shared my guacamole recipe, all about our net worth meetings, and the banned phrases in our marriage, in honor of our 8th wedding anniversary.

VERY grateful for our annual trip to the mountains – this year to Highlands for a twist on tradition. June mastering her big kid bike and the most fun Halloween were other October highlights! On the blog we discussed our fifth year of Articles Club, four-year-old favorites, and Instant Pot recipes.

Thankful for cousin visits, bike rides, trips to the Museum, and a cozy Thanksgiving just the four of us in November. I shared what we planned to give our kids for Christmas, always a popular post.

We ended the year with a really wonderful December, complete with a miraculous Christmas shrub glow-up, a visit from my parents, and plenty of magic for our first-ever Christmas morning at home, just the four of us (a fitting end-cap for the year).

Friends, thank you for indulging me. No matter the year, these posts are such a treat for me to write, and always some of my favorites to look back on years later. They help me to notice the good things, do my best to facilitate more of them, and remember to thank God for every delight (and for being with us in the struggles) along the way.

I know I’ve said it before, but I am SO excited for what we’ll discuss here in 2021. Thank you for being here, and for sharing so generously with me! It’s one of the delights of my life. Wishing you a healthy, happy, and abundant new year. I’ll see you soon! :)

2019 year in review
2018 year in review
2017 year in review
2016 year in review
2015 year in review
2014 year in review
2013 year in review
2012 year in review

2020 Books Review

30 December 2020

I’ve never done a yearly books review! But, considering I was more systematic about the books I read this year, it felt appropriate to recap them in a more ordered way, too.

In 2020, I read 32 books, which is significantly more than I read in 2019 (20). This could be due to the pandemic and a slightly-less-busy schedule, it could be due to having slightly older children… but I like to think it’s mostly due to choosing books to read in advance. Having a plan for each month kept me moving in the best way!

Of the 32, 17 were from my personal reading club (marked with an asterisk), most were excellent, a few were duds, and 1 or 2 were life-changing. All were read via physical copies, mostly from the library and mostly before bed. In the order I read them…

1.Long Bright River* | A thriller with heart. The writing was beautiful and it kept me up too late many nights :) It gets bonus points because the author is my literary agent brother-in-law’s client! From the jacket: “In a Philadelphia neighborhood rocked by the opioid crisis, two once-inseparable sisters find themselves at odds. One, Kacey, lives on the streets in the vise of addiction. The other, Mickey, walks those same blocks on her police beat. Alternating its present-day mystery with the story of the sisters’ childhood and adolescence, Long Bright River is at once heart-pounding and heart-wrenching: a gripping suspense novel that is also a moving story of sisters, addiction, and the formidable ties that persist between place, family, and fate.” NYT bestseller, all that good stuff!

2. The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry* | So good I wrote a whole blog post about it! My copy has been underlined, dog-eared, read aloud to John, discussed with friends, applied to my life, and recommended many times over. It’s sub-titled “how to stay emotionally healthy and spiritually alive in the chaos of the modern world” and is divided into three sections — the problem, the solution, and four practices for unhurrying your life (silence and solitude, Sabbath, simplicity, and slowing). The last section was by my favorite – it was practical, challenging, and gave me lots of good ideas to try in my day-to-day.

3. Ashlords | Our good friend’s newest YA fantasy novel! It was surreal to read since I remember him describing the plot the very first evening we met up for a walk in our neighborhood.

4. Late Migrations | This was a gift from my Mom, and an excellent one at that because it sounds exactly like a book I would love. Unfortunately, though some of the writing was really beautiful, it didn’t sing for me (and the through-line of death just felt heavy).

5. The Sound of Gravel*| A fascinating memoir in the vein of Educated (the author grew up the 39th of her father’s 42 children in a polygamist community in Mexico). Raw and heartbreaking and uplifting.

6. Southern Lady Code* | Do not recommend. Not only did I not howl with laughter, I merely chuckled once or twice. Maybe I’m just not Southern enough?

7. How to Raise a Wild Child* | When reading books like this (manifestos on topics I’m already passionate about), I usually consider them fuel in my tank – encouragement to stay the course! This book, though, combined the passion of a manifesto with some really practical ideas for getting my family outside and facilitating my kids’ connection to nature.

8. The Dream Manager* | Centered around the idea that “a company can only become the best version of itself to the extent that its employees are becoming better versions of themselves,” this book “explores the connection between the dreams we are chasing personally and the way we all engage at work.” Worth picking up if you have a hand in the culture of your workplace!

9. The Golden Hour | My Mom left this book at our house after a last visit before quarantine descended, and since pickings were slim with closed libraries, I picked it up. It’s enjoyable and engrossing, switching between a woman in early-1900s Germany and one in mid-1940s Bahamas. A summer beach read feel!

10. The Tattooist of Auschwitz* | Beloved for good reason! This true story was hard to read at times, as any Holocaust story is, but it was a page-turner that ultimately ended with hope (and love!). A really important reminder of some of the worst and best of humanity.

11. The Invention of Wings | WOW this was so good. I hadn’t read anything by Sue Monk Kidd since The Secret Lives of Bees over a decade ago, and I forgot how elegant of a writer she is. This book is set over several decades in the 1800’s and follows two entwined stories loosely based on real figures: a white girl who grows up to be a Quaker Abolitionist, and the black girl she is given ownership of on her 11th birthday. I think fiction is one of the most beautiful and effective ways to grow empathy for people who are different than us, and on that basis alone I would highly recommend this one.

12. Unshakeable | A memoir written by Cultivate’s summer intern (!). Besides the fact that it’s wildly impressive for a college student to have self-published a book, I appreciated how she handled her rough transition to college, given my own. It was also another eyeopening and frightening look at how insidious anxiety can be for so many people today.

13. The Secrets of Happy Families* | I gave this book an enthusiastic thumbs up on Instagram when I was a few chapters in, and though I still very much recommend it, the first section turned out to be my favorite. The later chapters felt a little more surface to me, and not quite as original.

14. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn | I have been talking about this classic with Lisa for years, and I’m so glad to have finally experienced it! As she joked, it’s a book where nothing really happens — and yet, you grow so attached to the characters. A very approachable classic!

15. World Without End* | The massive, sweeping sequel to my favorite fiction read of 2019. It did not disappoint. Though many people who’ve read both told me they prefer this one, I think I enjoyed them equally! The plague is a major plot element, which made for interesting reading in this season. Highly recommended!

16. Just Mercy* | So, so, so good. If, like me, you have grown weary of the hot takes, gleeful shaming, and educational oneupmanship that has accompanied this year’s racial justice movement on social media, you might find it equally refreshing to be educated by such a wise, compassionate expert in long-form. The way Bryan weaves together facts, stories, and his experiences is masterful and incredibly impactful.

17. Eligible | I picked this up while we were in Maine and it was an ideal vacation read! Funny, well-paced, and with very short chapters that made it perfect for picking up and putting back down :) The story is based on Pride & Prejudice, but because it’s been years since I read P&P, it had to stand on its own for me, and it did.

18. Bet on Talent* | This work-related pick was a good read, but nothing Earth-shattering. I’m always willing to learn from the masters at CFA about team culture, though!

19. The Giver of Stars* | Controversial opinion! I thought this universally-beloved book was good, not great. The characters felt a little two-dimensional all the way through, and Alice’s husband and father-in-law were so awful that the first half of the book was kind of hard to read for me.

20. The Paris Wife | This novel was enjoyable, but knowing only a little about Hemingway and his first wife, I felt a general sense of dread hanging over me the whole time I was reading, knowing that I didn’t know what was going to happen but that things wouldn’t end well. If I had known Hadley’s life turns out in the end, I think I would have perked up a little :) Also, I assume the more Hemingway you’ve read, the more interesting you’d find this book! (I’ve read very little.)

21. Adopted for Life* | I enjoyed the Biblical depth he offered for the underpinnings of adoption, but I think I was hoping for something more practical.

22. The Signature of All Things | Did not enjoy, do not recommend. Another controversial opinion :)

23. 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You* | I have read many books on our digital lives at this point, and I think this one is middle of the pack. Similar to Adopted for Life, he’s less focused on the practical and more on the big picture… and I guess I like the nitty gritty :) The “change” that has stuck with me the most, though, has really stuck with me: “we ignore our flesh and blood.” I think about it every time I’m tempted to pick up my phone while driving.

24. Lilac Girls | I don’t believe I’ve ever read fiction told from the perspective of a Nazi, which made this novel set in World War II an interesting addition to the genre. If you enjoy stories from this era (The Nightingale, anyone?) you’ll eat up this weaving together of three distinct, yet entwined, narratives.

25. My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry | Highly recommended by a dear friend, this novel felt jangly, chaotic, and a little too self-aware at first, but I ended up loving it (though I did find the idea of classmates writing such horrible notes to a fellow 7-year-old – and no grown-up stepping in – hard to stomach). The way it weaves together and unveils the house residents and Miamas kingdoms is magic!

26. Save Me the Plums* | A delightful read. Ruth’s writing is simple but rich, and as a former magazine editor, it was so fun to get the behind-the-scenes details of her time at Gourmet.

27. God and Money* | This was a thought-provoking read, and has already stimulated conversation between John and me. The authors focus a lot on wealth and consumption “finish lines,” ideas I both chafe against and want to embrace.

28. The Handmaid and the Carpenter | A short little book bringing Mary and Joseph’s story to life. Elizabeth Berg is a favorite author of mine and it’s a treat to hear her take on this famous story!

29. The Great Alone* | One of my favorites from the year! Though there is tragedy and darkness woven throughout, it’s an epic, engrossing tale that ends on a bright note. Love, love, love.

30. Time to Parent* | I’m going to file this one under “good for her, not for me.” I agreed with most of her ideas about organizing our time and actions as parents, and there were some gems tucked in, but I’d say this book was a 101 level, and time organization is probably one of the things I’m better at in life. If you’re struggling to find time for all of your priorities as a parent, I think this would be a great read!

31. HRH: So Many Thoughts About Royal Style | A very sweet gift from my work Secret Santa, this has been the perfect read for lazy post-Christmas days (and has also totally gotten us back into The Crown!). I find her writing a little chatty (Can you imagine? Don’t you think?) but it’s a fun read.

32. Make Something Good Today* | I had the joy of reading Erin’s daily blog that inspired this book long before HGTV found her and Ben. Her writing was something special back then, and it shines here, too. I don’t think you need to care at all about their show to enjoy this book, though, of course, if you do, you’ll probably like it even more!

Whew! I hope you found something here to add to your TBR pile, or just to generally inspire a year of reading ahead! I’d love to hear a favorite book you read this year, if you’d like to share! Back with my 2021 list next week :)

Affiliate links are used in this post!

2020 Christmas cards from Minted

28 December 2020

Friends, I hope you had the sweetest Christmases, if you celebrated! We did celebrate and it was sweet.

Being the sole providers of Christmas magic, though, without family or church or friends to play supporting in-person roles, did leave me feeling a little unexpectedly nervous last week. My desire wasn’t for a perfect celebration, but more one that was satisfying and loving and hit the high notes of my own childhood. I think I was subconsciously afraid I was going to forget something, ha! (And forget something, I did – I didn’t realize until Christmas Eve that we do not own a copy of A Visit from St. Nicholas. Yikes! I recited it from my phone, which was unimpressive to my audience of two.)

One sweet moment that stands out? Drilling holes into the underside of our mantel on Christmas Eve afternoon for little cup hooks to hold our stockings. Since it was the first Christmas Eve we’d spent in our home, we’d never needed them before. It was our first year hanging our stockings by our chimney with care, but not the last!

Anyway, I wanted to take a minute and pop in to share our 2020 Christmas cards with you! Thanks to the postal service delays, it appears they are arriving to loved ones’ mailboxes about the same time as this blog post, even though I mailed them weeks ago, ha! So happy to share them with you loved ones, too.

It was hard to choose a greeting that felt appropriate for 2020, but I thought this one fit the bill. Our photo is a favorite from our Fourth of July backyard fun with Lisa and Christen.

As always, our card is from Minted. This particular design is by Alethea & Ruth, who I’ve chosen many times over for all sorts of projects (her lettering is perfection!). I am so grateful to my friends at Minted for gifting these to us – such a treat!

What a relief that the government is on HIS shoulder! That He is mighty, everlasting, and the prince of peace!

As always, we included our beloved Christmas newsletter! Loyal readers will recognize most of these notables from the last year of posts (and how about that tomato stat!!).

Planning to be back later this week with recaps of the books I read this year, my goals, and the year as a whole! Hope you love year-end reviews as much as I do :)

Best of 2020 – with friends!

16 December 2020

Did I cringe a bit typing in the title of this post? Yes, yes, I did. Not because this weird year hasn’t had its superlative moments for our family – it has – but because I worried it might feel insensitive to talk about the best parts of a year to readers who may have had a much harder go in 2020 than we have. If you’ve suffered the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, or even just the painful loss of hopes or expectations, it might feel flippant to talk about favorite TV shows or little luxuries.

My hope, though, in writing this post is that it would help me to reframe the narrative of this hard year, focusing on the gifts and the good instead of the more obvious disappointments. After all…

As you read along and reflect on your own year, I hope my musings might help you to pick out your own glittering moments. In the comments, please share a few of your best memories, finds, and favorites from 2020, if you’d like. As always, I can’t wait to hear!

P.S. Like last year, I invited a few of my favorite blogging friends – Lisa / Stephanie / Nancy / Rhi – to join me. I think you will love reading their reflections, too!

Best adventure/travel/trip: Our detour to the Berkshires (en route to Maine) stands out. Situated in early July, it was our first big adventure after quarantine, and because we’d never been there before, the whole experience felt shiny and new. I have the sweetest memories of sunset takeout, paddling in the warm water with June, and cozy post-shower snuggles with the kids in the big bed, warm summer air floating through the window.

Best book: I read 31 books this year (in part thanks to my personal reading club!) and a few rose to the top: The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry and Just Mercy are tied for the top non-fiction spot, and The Great Alone takes the cake for fiction. Stay tuned for next year’s list soon!

Best movie: Knives Out

Best TV show: The final season of Homeland, which aired in the thick of quarantine and gave us something to look forward to in those long weeks. Also The Last Dance. I’m as surprised as you, ha!

Best album or song:Never See the End” captured my heart in a big way when I discovered Jess Ray’s music for the first time after oh, only a decade of being aware it existed.

Best follow on Instagram: As you know, I follow very few people, and even fewer that I don’t know in real life. But this year, I added a few “strangers” I have particularly enjoyed: Shakira, who shares my love for making everyday magic for her family; Alice, who shoots it straight with practical and inspiring life/mom/work advice; and Ralphie, who’s ready with a boost of encouragement to be the mama I desire to be whenever I sign on.

Best kiddo milestone: It’s funny – last year, I listed Shep’s growing communication abilities and the attendant changes in his personality as the best kiddo milestone of 2019 – and this year, I’m going to list the exact same thing! His language has completely exploded in the second half of this year, and we are seeing the sweetest, most cheerful and delightful side of him these days. So grateful!

Best faith grower: It has been a tumultuous year for most e-commerce companies, and Cultivate is no different. Through the ups and downs, though, we have seen God deliver in the most extravagant, clear, and loving ways – and gotten to praise Him for it along the way. I am very grateful to Lara for leading us so faithfully and well!

Best trend you tried: In January, we bought a Peloton. Far from a trend for our family, this is the first time since high school I’ve stuck with a regular exercise rhythm – and the first time I’ve ever incorporated strength training into my routine. What a year to get one – I’m so grateful!

Best beauty purchase: Never did I ever think I’d list a Beautycounter product as a favorite, but here we are: my first ever BC product turned out to be a game changer! I use Skin Twin in Light 210 and it is a dream – light but effective coverage, which goes on really smoothly.

Best family memory: Our fall trip to Highlands, our two backyard camping adventures, and our Octonauts movie premiere party!

Best habit you created: In January, I made a number of cold turkey changes to my Instagram usage, including checking my public account just once a day, quitting the Explore tab, and muting or unfollowing people who left me feeling icky. They’re all still going strong, and I am much happier for it.

Favorite blog post written: This post on banned phrases as well as this one on my Dad and parenting stick out from the year. Also this one I wrote on our 15th dativersary!

Best new recipe: So many Instant Pot faves!

Best life or mom hack: Did you know that the wooden containers Melissa & Doug toys (such as this) come in make excellent drawer organizers? Turns out they do.

Best mama moment: There are so many, but I’ll go with watching June soar on her big-kid bike!

Best home improvement: Our upstairs bathroom refresh has been such a fun upgrade – I smile every time I walk past it! Full reveal to come soon, but you can see the plans here.

Best little luxury you’ve enjoyed: In the height of the pandemic, I learned the beauty of taking ordinary days off (instead of saving them all for holidays, travel, or family visits). Whether tackling a project around the house or spending one on one time with a kiddo, these were some of the sweetest days in 2020, and I will definitely be setting aside a few days for them in my leave calculations going forward!

As always, I’m ending the year so grateful for the delights, big and small, that filled our year. I’ll be sharing more in my year in review post coming up soon, but in the meantime, please do share: what are some of your “bests” from 2020? Can’t wait to hear!