A Gratitude List for Fall

Writing a gratitude list for fall, my favorite season.

Fall may not begin until September 23, but this past weekend we got a beautiful preview in Chicago. The leaves are hinting at yellow, the air is cool and almost sharp, and the honeycrisp apples have hit the farmers market. It’s almost the season of cider and pie, crunching leaves and all things plaid. My favorite season, the one that always seems to rush off early and leave us in the clutches of winter.

Wait, it isn’t winter yet, so let me back that up:

While it feels like summer ended too fast, I love all things autumnal, and I want to savor this season for as long as possible. That means lots of time outside: picnics, hikes, day trips to Wisconsin or the suburbs, and the usual strolls through the neighborhood. This weekend, that meant walking around the Lakeview East Festival of the Arts, stopping by the farmers market, and spending a couple hours at a breathtaking farm while the sun went down.

As usual, all that fresh air and walking was great for coming up with ideas. (IOU Love Your Body Resolution posts, times ten.) What it wasn’t so good for? Sitting down and actually writing. Like so many things that I know are good for me, writing gets shafted in favor of things that are easier, or that feel more pressing.

So I thought that sitting down and making a gratitude list might be a good way to chip away at this pesky writer’s block–focusing on gratitude seems to be a helpful response to most situations. What better way to welcome fall than with an early thanksgiving?

On this clear day, on which I watched an exquisite sunset and unpacked my Bean boots, I’m grateful for:

  • Warm sweaters that are still going strong after 10 years.
  • A steaming moka pot full of espresso, made with beans sent our way from a charming town I visited this summer.
  • The USPS. It may not be perfect, but it brings the sweetest words my way.
  • My raggedy journal (one of many) that’s been my on-again, off-again companion since high school French classes.
  • Hours of conversation this past weekend.
  • The ability to crochet, taught by my grandma, which means I will always have all the cowls I want, as well as something to do with my hands during marathons of The West Wing.
  • Long walks through the city, through my hometown, and hopefully new destinations in 2015.
  • A tried-and-true zucchini bread recipe from my roommate, waiting for me on the counter so I can unwind by baking a welcome gift for our neighbors this week.
  • The gift of sight, and a lens that reveals miracles in the everyday.
  • Friends and family, always.

This week, I’m looking forward to eating fried chicken, talking to my awesome mentor, making some enchiladas with J, and training a couple people at work. I hope your week is off to a wonderful start, too!

I Took a Blog Break and It Was Awesome.

Hey guys!

That’s not how I usually start a blog post, but it feels right to treat this one like more of a letter than a post. So “hey guys” seems appropriate. This an update for regular readers, so I apologize if you’re stumbling on it after finding my paleo pizza recipe–I hope you’ll stick around for the next regular post.

So, the first thing I want to say is thank you. I was heart-struck, if we can make that a word, by your many thoughtful responses when I shared some deeply personal news earlier this summer. To everyone who commented, emailed, called, and texted: thank you. The power of blogging and social media to connect us all never cease to amaze me, even though nothing should surprise me by now. I cherish your sensitivity, encouragement, and warmth, and my family and I are grateful for your positive thoughts and prayers. My favorite moment was when one of my roommates read that blog post and said to me afterwards, “did you see the comments? Your blog friends are amazing!” And I agree, you are.

I was nervous to publish something so intimate, and since then, the fact that I did has given me pause whenever I sit down to write. It feels frivolous to post something like a banana bread French toast recipe and make no mention of the personal bombshell I just dropped. But Jaybird is an outlet for me, and I’ve always tried to focus on happy things or take a productive tack when addressing discontent. So it’s likely that I won’t write about it again. I’m glad that I shared, but now I’d like to keep things on a more optimistic level. I always welcome personal emails and, if you’re struggling with something similar and want to talk, you’re more than welcome to reach out (alicia@jaybirdblog.com).

Getting back to that cheerier note, let’s talk about what I learned during my month-long break from blogging…because honestly, it was pretty awesome.

Despite failing to hit the publish button, I’ve spent plenty of time during the past four weeks coming up with new ideas, writing lengthy draft posts, and tweeting merrily away. After a few years of blogging, it’s hard to turn off the mental hum of, “ooh, that would make a good blog post,” and “what if I wrote about it like this…?” I did pull entirely away from a few things: I wrapped up my Read//Eat guest posts (get the last recipe!), I canceled and refunded all of my sponsors, and I declined new freelance work. Every day, the ideas kept coming, but I didn’t have any of the usual pressure to publish regularly or share my posts. Blog-wise, I’d like to keep writing, but I’m doing so without a set schedule in mind.

Offline, my schedule opened up considerably. While home with my family, my biggest obligation was carrying our new puppy, Leo, up and down the stairs for bathroom breaks. (And look at him, who wouldn’t want to carry that sweet furball?) In Chicago, my evenings were suddenly free. I came home from work and felt disoriented…three full hours with no blogging to do? What am I supposed to do with all that free time?! Let me tell you what I’m doing these days:

I’m taking long walks. I found a park that’s about 2.5 miles round trip from my house, and I love to head there with a book and a blanket in hand. I recently started The Desire Map, and annotating my way through that has provided some good ol’ woo-woo guidance.

I’m calling people. I have spent my adult life battling an aversion to the phone, and slowly I’m making headway. I’m trying to do a better job of regularly calling non-family (family already gets an earful on a regular basis). Granted, progress in this department means that I’ve spoken to like, two friends on the phone, but I’m getting there.

I’m cooking more. Eating well (and on a budget) is one of the first things to go when I’m stressed. Goodbye, weekly meal plan, hello, tacos every day! So this week, I compromised by buying some pre-made foods–a rotisserie chicken and a package of Niman Ranch sausages–along with lots of fresh vegetables and meat to cook on my own.

I’m clearing my calendar. I love, love, love spending time with friends. But I’ve realized recently that I need more alone time than ever, just to recharge and leave enough time to prioritize self-care. Fewer outings, more one-on-ones. It feels good to focus on one beloved person at a time, even if that means I don’t see everyone quite as often.

I’m journaling…kind of. Have you ever kept a journal but realized that you only write about your bad days? Over time, this has been my pattern: when life is good, I just want to run around living it–not taking time to record my joy. When I’m having a bad day, the whole rant goes into my journal to save my poor friends’ ears. This time around, I’m trying to write just one thing every day. It doesn’t have to be profound, it doesn’t have to be a full story, it just has to be one thing. Hopefully this record will be better than those in the past.

Overall, I’m trying to savor the good–and it isn’t hard to find. Life is always full of joy, even when it runs parallel to sorrow. Maybe this time off wasn’t a break after all, but a wake-up call…a reminder that each of us can do anything, but we can’t do everything. Thanks again for caring enough to read about this journey. I’d love to hear about the sunny moments of your life–with summer (in the northern hemisphere) coming to a close, what have you been up to?

Much love,


P.S. My Twitter handle is now @aliciabjohnston–if we weren’t following each other before, give me a shout!

DIY Spice Rack (No Special Skills or Equipment Required)

Every day that I live in my apartment, it feels more like a home. I’m still not 100 percent there in my bedroom, but I did decide to stop waiting for divine decorating inspiration to strike. Instead I worked with what I already had, and that resulted in a productive afternoon and a much cheerier bedroom: I hung my framed photos and swapped out some of the older prints, arranged all of my books and writing tools, redid my closet (that was kind of forced upon me when the rod fell down) and added a bright, beautiful bouquet from the farmers market.

DIY Wooden Spice Rack Tutorial | Jaybird Blog

When we first moved in, there was no question that we would unpack kitchen supplies first. We divvied up shelves, unpacked cast iron and of course, we put up the spice rack. This simple wooden spice rack is a DIY project that has stuck with me for three years. It isn’t perfect: there are uneven edges, and nailing it directly into the wall means it’s tricky to remove, but I love the minimal shelves and ample space for all of our different spice jars. If you’re interested in making your own, read on for a simple tutorial.

[Read more...]

One Day at a Time: A Personal Update

Sometimes, it’s a phone call. One conversation that turns a beautiful day into a nightmare. You might know what I mean (though I hope to goodness you don’t): a phone call that cuts off the air. Words that land on your heart like stones. A message that leaves you without answers, and sometimes, without hope.

I got one last week. Even though a part of me knew it might come, it shook me like an earthquake. It’s a few days later and I still feel the aftershocks.

I want to put this bluntly, to write it quickly and directly so I can spit these words out and walk away from them: someone I love has terminal cancer. My dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in May 2013, went through chemo and radiation, then a successful Whipple operation. He had a difficult recovery but had turned a corner in the past couple months, feeling stronger and more positive about the future…until it came back.

This news comes with two competing desires.

The first: to guard the most painful, intimate feelings I have experienced. To deny them power by refusing to voice them. To turn inward, putting the rest of life on the back burner. To shut down.

The second: to seek community more than ever. To share some of what we’re going through, not to bring others into our pain but to offer understanding to even one person reading who might be going through something similar. To stoke the hearth of normalcy by continuing with life as usual, as best I know how.

My first priority remains, as ever, my relationships–starting with family. There are no words to express my gratitude that my job not only allows but encourages me to go home and spend time with these people who laid the foundation of my life. Time with my parents and my brother, and the friends I grew up with in Virginia, is the best cure I know for heartsickness.

My second priority is self-care. For all my good intentions, it’s something I often preach without practicing, but I know that I need it now more than ever. I found immediate relief in letting some responsibilities go in order to make space for more of it: taking slow walks, writing in a journal and cooking comfort food. Calling Jim to come over and give me hugs, losing myself in the frivolous details of a low-key 25th birthday party. Cooing over puppy videos, reading fiction. Tweeting like a fool as usual.

While I want to keep some semblance of routine, I know the coming weeks and months will bring great change. I can’t quite envision what life would look like without blogging…Jaybird has been my creative outlet, my community, my hobby and even my (very small) business for the past 14 months. Blogging has been part of my life on and off since middle school.

But I imagine that, for now, my life will be enriched by letting go.

I’ll still write, but I won’t follow a schedule or post a set amount of times every week…and I might disappear for awhile. I’ll still read your posts, my inspiring blogger friends, but I may not comment as often. I’ll still share silly and happy things, but I won’t promise every post will be full of sunshine.

I’ll be taking it one day at a time. Sometimes, that’s all there is to do.