Mysterious beginning

It all began with a curious and tantalizing email from my friend Karen in North Dakota: “Could you send me a photo of your home? I'm working on a surprise.” Karen (Karen R. Sanderson, a.k.a. The Word Shark) is a writer, editor, author, artist, poet, super grandmother, and a friend I wouldn't trade for anything. A surprise gift from Karen would definitely be a treat.

How our friendship came to be

Karen and I met a few years ago through a writing/editing group on LInkedIn, and without ever having met her, I hired her to do some editing for me. In the most professional way possible, she challenged me and made me a better writer. She had several loyal clients who all jumped on the bandwagon when—about three years ago—she organized a writer's conference (“The Word Shark Conference”) at her brother's home in Delaware. After a weekend getting acquainted and learning from each other, we all became fast friends and now call ourselves “Comrades of the Keyboard” or “Sharkies.” 

Karen and I email often and talk every few months, bouncing ideas off of each other and commiserating over some of life's barbs and arrows. I was later able to help her publish her first book of poetry and artwork No Boundaries (which I highly recommend as you can see from my review on Amazon — click on the cover image below). Last summer, Karen saved her money and flew all the way from North Dakota to Virginia to attend a spiritual writing retreat I led at Shrine Mont Conference Center in Orkney Springs, VA. She was the first person to sign up after registration opened. She brainstormed with me and helped me lug retreat materials to and from our meeting room, and I will never forget that remarkable show of support.

Mutual support, in fact, has been the hallmark of our friendship.

What was she up to?

After her odd request for a photo, I sent several shots of our Shenandoah Valley home and enjoyed letting my imagination run wild about what she might be cooking up. Maybe she was making notecards with the photos (she had sent me some fabulous notecards featuring her own artwork)…or perhaps she was working on a collage or other piece of art. Since her creativity knows no bounds and mine is rather pedantic, I knew I probably wouldn't figure it out until she chose to reveal it. 

Little did I know…

The suspense crept up a notch when, in mid-December, Karen texted me, “Did you get my package yet? I really wish I could see you open it!” Well, no, darn it, I had not gotten the package yet, so I had to keep waiting. I even drove to the post office to make sure they hadn't put it in my P.O. box instead of delivering it to the house, but no, it was still en route.

It's here!

Two days later, the highly anticipated package arrived, and I was as excited as a kid at Christmas to see what was inside. I carefully removed the outer wrapping and worked my way through multiple layers of tissue paper. I tried to turn my iPad video camera on so Karen could see me opening it, but it wasn't working. 

I first glimpsed the breathtaking cerulean blue of the Shenandoah Valley sky in the picture I had sent, the photograph protected by a clear plexiglass plate.

Could it be a picture frame? Or maybe a box for jewelry or writing tools?

But no, it had the dimensions and heft of a book (about 5-1/2 inches wide by 8-1/2 inches high and an inch thick), with another plate of clear plexiglass forming the back “book cover” and an elastic band holding the pages together. To my delight, when I turned it over, the back showed a vintage map magnified to reveal the exact portion of the Shenandoah Valley we live in, right down to the bends in the Shenandoah River!

Examining the “spine,” I saw that the book actually consisted of several interior booklets (see photo below), each a different color and texture and all hand-sewn together and threaded through the front and back clear plexiglass covers. It was a very unique and lovely journal, custom-made just for me, with details that spoke of creative thought, care, and love.

The beautiful message

Before I allowed myself the pleasure of exploring the inside of the journal, I opened the enclosed card—on the front was Karen's artwork of a lovely Celtic cross—and I was moved to tears by its handwritten, heartspoken message:

Elizabeth, 
     Since we've met, I've been honored by your friendship, awed by your commitment, humbled by your character, and contented by your counsel. I hope you love this gift as much as I loved having helped create it.                  Love, Karen

Tucked inside the note was this passage from Scripture: “Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.” Psalm 34:8

Suffice it to say, that note is now the first thing I see whenever I open my gift, and it will be a touchstone in the years ahead, especially on those days when I need a little encouragement.

Hidden surprises tucked throughout

The treasure hunt had just begun! 

The first thing I noticed as I opened and flipped through the journal was the tantalizing variety of papers used to create the book: handmade papers, art papers with various colors and textures, graph papers, pages from blank accounting sheets, wrapping paper, and pages that appeared to be from vintage books and newspapers. 

But there was so much more!

Interspersed throughout, I found all kinds of treats that were included, knowing they'd have special significance just for me:

  • a photo of some of our “Sharkies” from the writing conference and another of Karen's trademark shark
  • a map and several photos from Shrine Mont, the venue of our spiritual writing retreat last summer
  • pictures of various birds
  • botanical sketches
  • the banner from my Heartspoken blog
  • a photo of Karen I took in front of the Meems Bottom covered bridge where we stopped on our way home from the spiritual writing retreat
  • even an old-timey photo of a country doctor visiting a sick patient at home—a sweet nod to my wonderful physician husband

They all await my re-discovery and later pleasure as I use my journal.

The backstory of the journal

Karen has written a companion piece on her own blog to tell you the backstory of this unique customized journal. She shares how she came to find the two artists who created it, with input from her about what to include that would make it special for me. CLICK HERE to read “the rest of the story.” 

The challenge: how to use the gift

From the day it arrived, I pondered how I wanted to use this masterpiece. I already had a reading journal and a spiritual journal, and I didn't want to fill it up too fast by using it for daily journaling or writing. I wanted it to be a very, very special journal—worthy of the thought and affection that had gone into it. For awhile, though, I was stumped. 

Then I listened to a show in the “Happier” podcast hosted by Gretchen Rubin and her sister Elizabeth Craft. Their guest, Gretchen's daughter Eleanor, spoke of the happiness-boosting habit of keeping a running, dated list of your “Favorite Things.” She explained that not only did it tap into the power of gratitude, it also served—especially over time—as a fun and interesting way to see how your tastes change and to recall the favorite things of years gone by.*

Eureka! That was just the thing I would do with my precious gift: make it a Favorite Things journal. It will be years before it fills up and will be such a happy reminder of my friendship with Karen and so many other “favorite things” now and in the years ahead. 

Share your favorite gift or favorite things

A gift can be special for a million different reasons, and your list of favorite things is likely to be entirely different from mine. But I'd love to hear about any memorable gifts you've received and why they've touched your heart. And I'd also love to hear about your favorite things on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Just use the hashtag #FavoriteThings and #Heartspoken.

*Episode 151 of the Happier Podcast

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