November 29, 2013


It wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to say I've been spending the last few weeks of my life dedicated to convincing all my friends here that Thanksgiving is like, a big deal. The Swedes don't really have a comparable holiday. Christmas is really important to them, of course, and probably next up is Midsummer. But missing out on a Midsummer holiday with your family is maybe about as disheartening as being away for the 4th of July in the States: sad, but it can be overlooked. Missing Thanksgiving, however, feels more like I'm stuffing my childhood with garlic and regret, burning it in the oven, and tossing it out into a snowbank. (I'm sure someone has done that to a turkey, right?)

Speaking of turkeys, can't find any here. It's hard to say if that's because they don't eat very much turkey in Sweden (that's probably true; when do Americans eat turkey besides on Thanksgiving?) or because I'm in a tiny one-reindeer town with two small grocery stores. Either way, I reconciled myself to buying a full roasting chicken for the occasion and calling it good. Canned cranberry also proved difficult to track down, so I thought I might replace that with lingonberries, a classic Swedish side that is relatively similar. But instead, clever girl that I am, I ended up throwing some dried cranberries into the stuffing. As most of you know by now, pumpkin is also out of the running. But whatever, I think I lose a million American points because I don't like pie anyway. I figured I'd be happier making an apple crisp.

The next bump in the road was discovering that NBC doesn't do any online streaming of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade online. (!!!) Turns out you actually do have to watch it on cable television. In America. There is an "Earthcam" on Times Square that streams the footage without commentary, but a visit to their website only yielded the disheartening announcement that the parade wasn't coming through Times Square this year. The Philadelphia Thanksgiving Day parade does do a live stream with announcers... but seriously, the Philly parade is also known as the "6abc/Dunkin Donuts" parade. That just sounds like disappointment waiting to happen. I tuned in for like, two minutes to the McDonald's Thanksgiving Parade in Chicago, but I'm guessing I was probably the only one.

My Thanksgiving morning started off with with doing what any red-blooded American would do in my situation: skipping school. Not only that, but I stayed holed up in my room watching the Season 2 finale of AMC's The Killing. Nothin' like a good crime to get me in the holiday spirit. I made a guest appearance at the cafeteria for an early lunch of vegetarian lasagna. A couple of my friends remembered to wish me a happy Thanksgiving, which was sweet. Afterwards, I consulted my list of open tabs on the computer to see what ingredients I would need for dinner and made what turned out to be a rather dangerous trek to the grocery store. Snow came to Vindeln a couple weeks ago, but the temperatures haven't been stable, so everything has turned into really slick ice with a layer of meltyslush on the top. In other words, I didn't stand a chance.

I almost-fell probably half a dozen times before I'd even gone half the way. The real fall finally happened just after I'd crossed the street near the pharmacy. I'm pretty sure a car stopped to make sure I was okay (and/or laugh at me) before moving on. But in spite of the dangers, it was nice to take a little winter walk alone. It was about 2:00pm, which means I got to witness the sunset that was happening right at that time. We now have only about five hours of daylight, and those hours are narrowing every day until the winter solstice. 

My first stop was to Coop, a huge chain of co-op grocery stores in Sweden, where I found most of what I needed. Minus sweet potatoes. What the heck? My family is more fond of the traditional mashed potatoes, but I think any holiday dinner I'm in charge of needs to feature sweet potatoes. It's just who I am, guys. So I trudged over to ICA, the other grocery store in town, with a backpack and two grocery bags full of Thanksgiving fare. I was able to find sweet potatoes there, along with some fresher fennel than what had been available at Coop. I headed home on the slick ice, this time bogged down by all of my dinner supplies. It reminded me of the many times I made treacherous walks across BYU campus with a precarious stack of books almost as tall as I am. Though there were a number of near-misses, I managed to make it back to the dorm without any embarrassing spills.

I did most of the cooking by myself to the soundtrack of my "Best Christmas Ever" playlist on Spotify. Jenny came to keep me company and Linus did his usual chore of peeling potatoes. (I have to admit, I hope I always have someone in my life who is willing to do that thankless task for me.) On the menu was a roasted chicken stuffed with lemon, garlic, and fresh thyme (recipe here), mashed sweet potatoes with honey and cinnamon, green beans sauteed with bacon, and an apple-cranberry stuffing (recipe here). I bought a fancy champagney soda for the occasion (they have a lot of those here) and we lit candles all around the living room before sitting down to the meal.

I started off with a prayer in Swedish, then Jenny and Linus both took turns listing three things they were grateful for. To be honest, it was about as close to perfect as you can ask a Thanksgiving-away-from-home to be. We played some classy old jazz music in the background (playlist here) and enjoyed the bounty that was ours. Philip joined us for a Skype chat, and later Agnes and Lova came to the party. Everyone seemed to love the food, though they were all completely mystified as to what stuffing was and hesitant to try it. Come to find, it's kind of hard to explain why mashing up bread with melted butter and sundry vegetables and herbs would actually be delicious. But it is! It is!

My friends were sweet enough to do clean-up duty. I was too bushed to make any dessert, so we enjoyed some gingerbread cookies and milk that I had bought as back-up. We started watching "While You Were Sleeping" all together before my family called on Skype. And what a much-needed blessing it was to see their faces, hear their voices, and remember the pandemonium of a Wilson family Thanksgiving. My Swedish friends got to say hi to some of my relatives, and I think it was then that they realized how big a family holiday Thanksgiving really is. I was beginning to realize it even more deeply myself. I stayed up past midnight having a much-needed catch-up session with my sister Sarah and afterwards fell asleep more happy and exhausted than I've been in a while.

Today, I'm grateful that Swedesgiving wasn't a total disasternot even closeand that I seem to always find people to celebrate (and celebrate with) where'er I roam.

The bird

Me and the bird

Linus (unawares) with the other dinner accoutrements

Lova and Agnes

Jenny and me

November 26, 2013


I used to be one of those people, too.

And I'm going to throw out a random guessI mean, uh, a really accurate and informed statisticthat at least 87.24% of you are one of those people.

You know the ones.

They are always bemoaning on Facebook that radio stations have started playing Christmas songs in early November. They'll complain to anyone who will listen about how Wal-Mart has prematurely started selling tinsel at the front of the store. Don't even get them started on the TV commercials! Filled with righteous indignation, these people demand that holiday cheer be like a good little boy and eat his Thanksgiving vegetables first. Speaking of Thanksgiving, we haven't even celebrated it yet! they protest.

I know the signs because I have been there. I, too, used to wait until the glory of the Friday-after to indulge in my holiday music of choice. (We won't talk about how, for most of my teenage years, that may or may not have been 'N Sync's Christmas album.) In that moment, I'd feel as though I were winning some sort of exquisite prize for holding out until "the time was right," like a virtuous bride on her wedding night. I wouldn't dream of playing those cheery songs about snow and caroling and peace and joy and love any earlier because... well, Christmas has to just calm down and and wait its turn! Right?

Don't believe me? I totally made this #holidayproblems meme last year.

C'mon, guys. This shtick is getting old. When we do this, we aren't protecting the sanctity of Christmas. We are just being Grinches. (And, for those of you paying close attention, that means you're breaking your own rules by being a Christmas Grinch before Christmas is "supposed to be" underway... I digress.) You're outta your gourd! (See that? I just made a Thanksgiving pun.) 

Don't get me wrong, I agree that it's obnoxious to see holiday commercialism crop up months in advance. But at this point, we are well into November and I am still seeing the debates raging on my Facebook newsfeed. Folks, there is no need for this. First of all, as a friend of mine pointed out, Thanksgiving is on the latest possible day it can be this year. There are other years when pulling out the Christmas music on, say, the 25th would be absolutely legitimate by the naysayers' standards. So surely you can't blame those of us whose hearts are getting ahead of us. A month is barely enough time to properly celebrate, especially for those working or in school (which is mostly everyone). And lest we forget, we're celebrating something of the utmost importance—something that has no temporal bounds. My Dad used to request that our church congregation sing "Joy to the World" even in the summer months. He did that at least once, anyway, and it left an impression on me. It wasn't a gimmicky "Christmas in July" stunt; it was an earnest reminder that we always have joy in the world because of the Savior. There is no way to start that celebration too early.

I got to thinking about this for a few reasons. First of all, the Swedes don't observe Thanksgiving, so they don't have that marker as to when it becomes "appropriate" to move onto Christmas. I'm guessing this makes some of them more liberal in their standards ("Pull out the Bing Crosby jams in October for all I care!"), while others may wait a bit longer, thinking December is a good signal that the time has come. More than that, I have spent a lot of time explaining Thanksgiving to my Swedish friends and defending its significance both as a tradition and as something extremely meaningful to many Americans. Maybe that's when it began to occur to me that Thanksgiving actually creates an even greater incentive to start my celebration as soon as possible. To me, Thanksgiving and Christmas are more or less inseparable. It's hard for me to have one without the other.

November 2006. That was the one and only year up until now that I didn't celebrate Thanksgiving with my family, and I remember feeling a more than a bit traumatized. I know I cried that day. It's hard to say if I'll cry again this year. Not ruling it out. I'll admit it has been harder for me to feel genuine gratitude lately. I know I'm in a beautiful place. I know my family is safe and sound for now, and perhaps that should be enough. But I have had some recent disappointments. I have felt lonely. I have wondered when I'll feel like myself again. I have been longing for the warmth of my childhood home. It's harder than I thought it would be to be far away.

In the depth of my despair (i.e. yesterday), I got a little nudge from a friend to indulge in listening to a playlist of mine on Spotify aptly entitled "The Best Christmas Ever." But but but but but. Thanksgiving! I thought. I have to wait! Just a few more days... 

Somethingprobably a sugar plum fairytold me to ignore the part of me that's so devoted to delaying my Christmas cheer. And you know what? I pressed "play." And Ella Fitzgerald started singing to me about sleigh rides, Frank Sinatra about jingle bells. And I lit a bunch of holiday candles around my room. And I swear on Santa's beard that I am not exaggerating when I say: in that moment, I felt happier than I have in a while. And grateful.

I don't think Thanksgiving would be nearly as meaningful to me if we celebrated it in March or May or August. I think it's amazing that it takes place just as we are ushering in the Christmas season. And if the two happen to overlap a little, all the better. Maybe Thanksgiving is just what we need to strengthen our resolve to be grateful before we all turn to a celebration of life and love and grace, the free gifts we've all been given.

It's okay if you still want to wait until Friday before letting some crooner tell you that Santa Claus is coming to town. But don't be a Scrooge if the rest of us are a bit more eager. We're not forgetting Thanksgiving. We're probably just trying to grow our hearts a couple sizes in anticipation of all that is to come.

November 20, 2013

Staff Picks Shelf: Fall 2013

Remember last year when I posted my first "Staff Picks" selection? The idea was to curate a miniature collection of book, film, and music recommendations based on a theme, such as the season/my mood (they're often connected). At the time, I was relishing a perfect fall day of leaves and sweaters and overcast skies—in other words, so many things I love about this bless'd earth. I love the idea of curating: of assembling things you love, things that have influenced you or even made you who you are somehow, things that are simply beautiful, and gathering them up into a little patchwork. There is something so joyous in that. So satisfying. I could probably sustain this entire blog with lists of art and songs and poetry, photographs and recipes and snippets that color my world every day. But for now, another autumn collection as we drift into the last remnants of the season.

The snow has already come to Vindeln. I lit some holiday candles earlier and they are emanating a warm, sweet glow in my bedroom. The Swedes don't have Thanksgiving to signal to them an appropriate time to start celebrating Christmas. On this November day, though, my heart is still trailing behind in an autumn breeze.

1. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

Just take my word on this one; it's got autumn sensibilities laced all throughout. Need I say more than this: boys at boarding school playing football, except our young hero, who is more inclined to the thrill of poetry. "There was a cold night smell in the chapel. But it was a holy smell. It was not like the smell of the old peasants who knelt at the back of the chapel at Sunday mass. That was a smell of air and rain and turf and corduroy. But they were very holy peasants. They breathed behind him on his neck and sighed as they prayed. They lived in Clane, a fellow said: there were little cottages there and he had seen a woman standing at the half-door of a cottage with a child in her arms as the cars had come past from Sallins. It would be lovely to sleep for one night in that cottage before the fire of smoking turf, in the dark lit by the fire, in the warm dark, breathing the smell of the peasants, air and rain and turf and corduroy."

2. New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver

In case you missed the memo, I have been obsessed with Mary Oliver for the past year or so. There is pretty much no season, no occasion, no mood that isn't doesn't pair well with this rich poetry. Oliver believes deeply in paying attention to grace and beauty and tragedy and tenderness. Her poem "In Blackwater Woods" is particularly autumnal and happens to be one of my first and forever favorites from her collection. "Look, the trees / are turning / their own bodies / into pillars / of light, / are giving off the rich / fragrance of cinnamon / and fullfillment,"

3. Frankenstein

I read this for the first time a couple months ago, albeit in simplified Swedish. But the Gothic sensibilities and the obvious ties to Halloween make this much more fun to read in October than any other time of the year, I'm wagering. Also, did you know this novel is officially subtitled "or, The Modern Prometheus"? That's kind of cool. Basic message: this novel is more awesome than all the lame ways we've appropriated Frankenstein in pop culture. Plus, I was delighted to see that it's written as a frame narrative in epistolary form. (What can I say? I'm a sucker for letters.)

4. Dan in Real Life (2007)

I'm pretty sure this film-still tells the whole story. Thanksgiving-esque weekend family reunion in Rhode Island, the trees are changing color, everyone is donned in cozy sweaters playing American football and being about as charming as your heart will be able to stand. I really do adore the vibe of this movie. And it doesn't hurt that most of the soundtrack is Sondre Lerche music.

5. Liberal Arts (2012)

It was my dear friend Jamie who recommended I watch this movie last year, bless her heart. Once I finally did, I realized it was so much my-life-in-a-nutshell at that point. First of all, we should probably put my crush on Josh Radnor out on the table. He just seems like a really genuine guy trying to pursue really genuine projects in his career. Radnor wrote, direct, and starred in this film in true Woody Allen style, and almost with as much wit. Most of the action takes place on a college campus (how much more "fall" can you get? I mean, look at those leaves on the DVD cover!), aside from when the protagonists are writing letters to each other (which is always an insta-win with me). It's a film about nostalgia, about growing up, about "moving on," whatever that means. And it's a nice shout-out to people majoring in the humanities (#represent). Sooo... what's not to like? 

Oh, and Zac Efron has a minor role in the cast as this kind of Zen, tree-hugging little philosopher. You'll get a kick out of that.

6. The Cider House Rules (1999)

Confession: I haven't seen the entire movie. But I started watching it a couple nights ago when I was having trouble sleeping and drifted into an autumnal slumber. It has just that fall feeling. Apple orchards. Orphans. A place called St. Cloud's, Maine. The charm of those kind of ambiguously mid-20th century costumes. Not to mention, the theme song of the film was later re-appropriated by the Pure Michigan campaign for its commercials and... all I have to say is, tears.

7. "Goodnight, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England" (8tracks mix)

“Goodnight, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England” from ellejolene on 8tracks Radio.

Speaking of all those gorgeous autumnal films, I made a playlist of instrumental soundtrack music from some of my favorites, including the aforementioned Cider House Rules/Pure Michigan tune that is sure to send you spiraling into nostalgia. You're welcome.

8. Moonrise Kingdom, soundtrack

The movie, which made my list of 2012 favorites, is more summery. But the soundtrack, featuring a variety of musical styles (including Benjamin Britten, Alexandre Desplat, Hank Williams, and Francoise Hardy), is surprisingly coherent and perfectly suited to your November afternoons of quiet reflection.

9. My One and Only Thrill, Melody Gardot

This is one of my go-to albums when I want that smoky, film noir aesthetic (which is more often than you'd think). Melody's jazz vocals and tasteful arrangements are also especially exquisite on a rainy day, especially the miniature set she has near the end of the album on tracks 8-10: "The Rain," "My One and Only Thrill," and "Deep Within the Corners of My Mind." I promise your next drizzly walk/drive/bus ride/afternoon of languishing on your bed will be transformed by these songs.

10. Blue, Joni Mitchell

To be honest, it's taken me a while to get on the Joni Mitchell bandwagon. But the day has come. Her signature blend of folky music and heartache is undeniably "autumn." Highlights on this album: "Little Green" (listened to it on a train ride through northern Sweden at sunset in September and there was no better song for that moment), "Blue," "River" (which is kind of a standard Christmas song now, and all for the better), "A Case of You" (umm, obviously), and "The Last Time I Saw Richard."

Even if it's already snowing where you are, most of these make nice transitions into early winter. Have a cozy morning/afternoon/evening, where'er you may be. And while you're thinking about it, make a Staff Picks list of your own! It's pretty much really fun. Feel free to leave a comment if you have an autumnal (or otherwise) literature, film, or music recommendation.