The Grateful List: 17 Things I’m Thankful for in 2017

Earlier this summer, I was struck by a phrase—Bible-inspired, of course, but relevant. Current. It stuck in my head, and months later, I still can’t stop thinking about it:

Life abundant. 

Life that is full and rich and overflowing. Life that is seeping out of the cracks; uncontainable. Abundant adventure, joy, grace, generosity, love, peace, patience…abundant life itself.

If you followed along my journey in 2016, you might remember that one of my greatest lessons was the connection between gratitude and joy. Put simply, if you want more joy, practice more gratitude. I’m as convinced of that as ever.

And if you carry that thought out, I think that gratitude is a great starting point for a life of abundance, too. So this year, as we wrap up 2017—a year that has been described (perhaps accurately) as a dumpster fire—I’m taking the time to say thank you. To choose life abundant in spite of the disasters that are all around. To remember 17 things that I am deeply grateful for in 2017.

Of course, there are the obvious things: my accountant, for one, who saved me last April when I had deductions in eight currencies. The chance to see Hamilton. Starbucks gold status. I’m grateful for it all. This list could be hundreds long if I stopped to think for a bit longer. This is just a start—but it’s an important first step. An exercise in the attitude of gratitude that I believe in now more than ever.

This year, I’m grateful for….


1. Brothers who fall in love with amazing girls 

I have a tribe of male friends who are my pseudo-brothers. They antagonize me and love me and challenge me and make me better—and over the past few years, they have begun to meet their people. And when my “brothers” find their soulmates, it means more sisters for me!

This year, three of my closest bros got engaged and/or married to the best girls.

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Kyle and Danielle got engaged last December, and then married in June—the ultimate dance party celebration.

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JP and Marly got engaged in March, and then married in November—and celebrating my oldest, dearest twin-brother-friend was one of the highlights of my entire year.

ian and jess

Ian and Jess got engaged in March, and then asked me to officiate their wedding—one of the biggest honors of my life. I CANNOT wait to help my favorite little family make it official later this year.


2. Trips that reset your perspective 

In March, I went to Haiti. Honestly, it just sort of happened. I showed up, reached out, and met incredible people who have forever-changed my view on the world.


Haiti undid me, as the best places do. I met TB/HIV patients, young adults aging out of orphanages, and so many amazing organization leaders who are challenging the status quo of aid in a country where NGOs have often done more harm than good. Each interaction left me grasping for understanding, shaking up everything I thought I knew and forcing me to put the pieces back together again.

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In July, I had the huge honor of taking 60 high school students to Costa Rica. Somewhere between the terrifying drives up and down the mountain, shoveling literally endless dirt, and preaching two sermons, I fell in love. With the place—yes. With the people—yes. But most of all with the way my life looks when I travel with Son Servants. What a gift to be reminded of a sacred—and right—rhythm of life.


3. The chance to celebrate people

If you know anything about me, you know that one of my all-time favorite life activities is celebrating people. This year brought so many opportunities to cheer loudly and throw parties and make sure my people know just how special they are. Of course, birthdays. And all the weddings: Kyle and Danielle’s, Dave and Sarah’s, Amy and Adiel’s, JP and Marly’s. But also the other stuff. The small stuff. The new stuff. The crazy stuff. A few big ones:

shans race

Celebrating my crazy sister running a 50 MILE ULTRAMARATHON in Maine in May. Ellie and I went full cheerleader-mode and screamed at the top of our lungs, even though we were the ONLY people with signs (apparently not a thing for distance trail running?? who knew?!)

julias marathon

Later in the year, Julia ran the Chicago marathon and I chased her around the west side cheering her on. If you’ve never been a spectator at the marathon, I HIGHLY encourage it.

coopers going away paraty

The day before the marathon, I raced home from Atlanta so that I could celebrate and send off my dear friends, Cooper and Jess, on their cross-country move to Los Angeles. And getting to reconnect with my bros to play old-school video games was the icing on the cake.

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We celebrated bride-to-be Marly with a Chicago shower and bachelorette party this fall, before her VERY fun wedding in Cali in November.

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In the summer we threw a big pizza party for my homegirl, Alexis, celebrating her start of nursing school—and the boldness it takes to leave a good job to pursue a dream.


The biggest celebration of the year was welcoming the first baby to the squad. Gabriel Francis Emerson entered the world in July, and the God Squad will never be the same. Brad and Terah are (unsurprisingly) amazing parents, and it has been so fun to celebrate their new addition to their family.

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4. Meeting incredible organizations

One of my goals for 2017 was to remain self-employed—and I did it! Thanks to the launch of my company (Swell+Good) at the end of February, I was able to visit so many incredible organizations in Chicago and around the world.

If you are looking for a few to check out locally, I suggest Breakthrough Urban Ministries, I Grow Chicago, New Moms, Purple Asparagus, and Circle Urban Ministries.


5. Working with my best friend

You may remember that I (attempted) to quit my job at Opportunity International in December 2015. You may also remember that they hired me back on contract as a freelance correspondent in August 2016 (when I traveled to Colombia, Mozambique, Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, and India on their behalf).

What you may also know is that all year, I’ve been back at it with Opportunity—still on contract so that I have the freedom to work with some of the smaller organizations I have come to know and love, but back at it nonetheless.

And really, I keep sticking around because of one thing:

My team is the best team. 

And my “boss” is my best pal. 

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Sure, the work is valuable and important—my rule still stands that I’ll only work for organizations to which I’ll willingly give my money. But Opportunity has my heart because I get to work with people who are my real-life friends.

Case in point: in October, they trusted me to produce the Summit—which became one of the largest professional accomplishments of my life. Getting to work on this monster of a project alongside such a remarkable squad made the whole thing not only possible, but fun.

summit working

Basically, had Ian not been my partner in crime on the event, I could not (and would not) have finished it.

And had Katie, Laura, Carly, Jim, Heather, Diane, Lydia, Shane, and everyone else not stepped up to keep me looking like a functioning human, the whole thing would have failed.

If you find yourself working with your professional soulmates, my expert opinion is that you should stick with them 🙂


6. My backyard

I am so wildly grateful to have a backyard. It is arguably my favorite part about living in my house—and certainly my favorite part about living in the suburbs.

This year, the backyard got plenty of use (as it often does). The Blue Table acquired a boatload of new signatures thanks to a series of backyard celebrations.

gabriels shower

We hosted Baby Gabriel’s baby shower in June (blue themed, so the table fit in perfectly!)

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Around the same time, I hosted a party for my parents and their friends. This was such a special celebration—honoring my folks and their impending move back to the states, but also being able to gather and thank the many adults who have been in my life from the beginning. I will never stop being grateful for the tribe of friends my parents built, and how that tribe has shaped my own.

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At the end of the summer, master chef RJ hosted a low country boil in the backyard. We threw some butcher paper on the table and dumped out a pile of shrimp, corn, potatoes, and sausage. I am VERY hopeful that this will become an annual affair 🙂

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This fall, I hosted Heather’s BBQ with the Opportunity team. It was so fun to hang with my colleagues outside of work, and to have their children run around the yard. Again, real-life work friends, cannot recommend this highly enough.


7. Iced coffee

Shockingly (and counter to any and all archetypes of my personality), I didn’t start drinking coffee until my RTW trip. And even then, coffee was mainly a vehicle for ice. But one thing that has always been high on my priority list is a good coffee shop.

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So when I entered 2017 as a full-time freelancer, coffee shops became my office of choice. I have spent much of the year working from a series of great coffee shops around Chicago and in cities throughout the US. In the process, I have developed a bit of an addiction to iced coffee. Whoops!

So here’s a question for you, dear readers—would you be interested in a lineup of my favorite coffee shops? Let me know!


8. Space to breathe

Something I have learned about myself: escaping (and particularly escaping outside) is CRITICAL for my wellbeing. I set a goal to travel every month this year (check), and while this is adventure-fueled, it is also sanity-fueled. I simply need to get away, get outside, and breathe pretty regularly.

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This year, breathing space meant our annual winter trip to the Erickson’s lake house in Michigan.

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A day playing hooky at the Morton Arboretum.

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Adventuring through the snow at Timber-Lee with the high schoolers, getting lost on the cross country ski paths and attempting not to freeze.

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The gift of Winnetka—playing at the lake with my best pals.

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Apple picking at the Apple Holler—the very best fall activity.

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And returning to Michigan for a chill weekend with my best friends’ parents/my parents’ best friends. Love hanging with the grown-ups for the weekend 🙂

These moments of sun and snow and water are good—and necessary—for my soul.


9. Learning and teaching 

We all know I’m a forever-student. There is little I love more than learning new things, and this year was no exception.

In October, I took a solo road trip to Atlanta to attend the Catalyst conference because several of the people I admire most in the world were scheduled to be speaking. I’ve often heard it said that if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room. So all year, I’ve been focused on putting myself in rooms where I am decidedly NOT the smartest—not even close. Catalyst was that for me. Honestly worth the trip just to hear Jeremy Courtney talk for 20 minutes.

I also took a “class” called Bible Geeks taught by my friend Ryan. While my travel schedule caused me to miss a few sessions, it was a great addition to my fall—getting to dive deep (and I mean DEEP) into the covenants of the Bible. Looking forward to another semester this spring!

And of course, one of my greatest sources of learning is my weekly trivia game. Crazily, we’ve been playing at the same bar for 6 years—and our team has really hit its stride. We were able to compete in the Tournament of Champions this summer, and my work friends recently made their own team in a (so far unsuccessful) attempt to beat us.

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In addition to my learning, I also got back to teaching this year after a year+ break. Beginning this fall, I have been teaching my favorite 8 and 12 year olds Spanish, and it has been SO fun!


10. Walking 

I am grateful for legs that can carry me for miles—allowing me to traipse around my favorite cities exploring on foot. As weird as it sounds, walking is one of my favorite life activities.

city hike

City Hike continued this year (albeit sporadically), and we were able to check out new neighborhoods around Chicago with our ever-growing tribe of hikers.

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Shannon and I also did a modified City Hike in NYC in September—nothing official, but both of us get a little carried away with the walking when we are in the Big Apple.

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And for my birthday, my friends threw me an “Urban Trek” (careful not to steal the City Hike name). The added bonus of this celebration was that I had to answer trivia questions to get from place to place—SO FUN!


11. Friends who invite me into their big ideas 

Above all else, I am grateful for the people God has put in my life. They are wise and funny and often-ridiculous, and when I get really lucky, they invite me into their big ideas. There is little that brings me more joy than getting to come along on their adventures.

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This year, my friend Amy invited Ian and me back to Chiquila, Mexico to teach rockstar students about marketing. We created the Vuela Libre marketing agency, and the kids learned all about messaging, social media, and carrying out a pitch. The best part was “billing” our coffee-shop client (another group of students taught by our real-life coffee-shop-owning friends Matt and Courtney). Hilarious.

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Later this fall, my friend Steve invited me into his big idea: a week-long adventure in San Diego. Clearly, I immediately said yes and we got to work renting a house, loading up on surf boards, and getting ready for a week of sun in Cali. A few other friends joined in the fun, too, and we had the BEST week relaxing, surfing, and chilling in SD.


12. A functioning body that lets me try new things

Compared to some people I know (my sister, ahem), I am not in great shape. My shins hate me when I run, and I’ve been pretty lame on keeping up with my pilates (I’m going back to it! I promise!). That said, I am GRATEFUL for a body that is still putting up with me. It may not be suited for 50 mile runs, but it can do things—and that is really what counts.

This year, I tried a few new physical endeavors that proved to be hard, fun, sometimes-embarrassing, and always entertaining.

acro fitness

Julia and I attempted air fitness, which, let me tell you, is IMPOSSIBLE. We had a great time, despite being horrible at it—and laughed a lot.


In California, we spent the mornings surfing…including one morning when the waves were CRAZY and we definitely should not have been out there. I have secret dreams of being a legit surfer, but let’s just say that we are far far far away from this goal.

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My biggest physical challenge of the year was joining the Lincoln Park Boat Club for the summer to learn to row. I LOVED this and had so much fun being in a boat three days a week. If it was closer to home, I would for SURE join permanently.


13. The honor of listening to peoples’ stories

The best part of my job in 2016 was conducting over 500 interviews for Opportunity International. In 2017, I was able to continue with this role on behalf of Opportunity Canada. It is my great honor to sit across from women and men and listen to them share their stories. The people I have met are hilarious and amazing and inspiring. They are overcoming unimaginable circumstances, and I get to share their lives with the world.


I traveled to Nicaragua directly from Haiti, returning to a country that stole my heart nearly a decade ago. I rode around the mountains in the back of a pickup truck, meeting Opportunity clients and rekindling my love for this awesome place. I also got to stay in a DREAM of a guesthouse—straight out of a fairytale!


From Nicaragua, I traveled to Honduras—a new country for me!—where I proceeded to interview more women and write up their stories on behalf of Opportunity Canada. Literal JOY.


14. Books! 

2017 books

Books are at the top of my list of physical things—I’m drowning in them and I love it.

For the first time in many years, I actually hit my goal of #50books this year! Hooray! Check out my list, and let me know if you have things I should add!


15. My family all being in the same country 


Not much more to say besides—hooray!—my whole family is back in the USA! Mom and Dad ended their time in Asia and are back in Chicago, living in a sweet apartment that I plan to borrow when they are out of town 🙂


16. Adventure weekends (and weeks!) 

For years, I have advocated for adventure weekends. Short trips to explore and eat and have fun. Often, they are road trips. Often, I bring along friends or sisters. Always, they are my favorite.

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This year, I had an AWESOME adventure weekend in Baltimore for my 5-year business school reunion. How 5 years have gone by is beyond me, but here we are. It was so great to reconnect with my friends from around the world, and to see how trendy and fancy Baltimore has become.

adventure weekend madison

For Ellie’s birthday, Alexis, Ellie, and I took a brown-sign adventure to Madison, Wisconsin. We checked out Bessie the Cow, got Chipotle to give us free birthday tacos, visited House on the Rock, went on a tour of caves, and hung out in a troll town.

adventure weekend maine nh

I had two adventures to Maine and New Hampshire—to help Shan move and then again for her race. Both times, we got Holy Donut and Maine Squeeze (my faves), I read in the Harry Potter room in the Dartmouth Library, and we went to alllll the lighthouses. Shan is forever my fave adventure buddy 🙂

amys wedding

In the fall, Ian, Jess, and I had a very quick adventure to Connecticut to see Amy and Adiel get married. In addition to a BEAUTIFUL, incredible wedding, Team Haislee and I went to Source Coffeehouse, ate at a super cute little cafe, went to the beach, and wandered a town that is basically Stars Hollow.


Like every fall, I spent a weekend in Chattanooga for Planning Team with Son Servants. This year, the trip included whiskey tasting, Mexican food, and a cute new coffee shop, in addition to the regular joy of fall and friends in Tennessee.

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My last adventure weekend was actually a week long—a solo road trip to Louisville, Nashville, and Atlanta. I got to hang with my grandma, aunts and uncles, and cousins in Louisville. I stayed with Allix and got to hang out with Sam and Haley in Nashville—which is one of my all time favorite adventure cities (check out my city guide!). And I got to see Jake, Clarie, Sean, and Becca in Atlanta. I consumed buckets of coffee, ate amazing food, and listened to all the podcasts on my long car journey.


17. Home 

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Entering 2017, I was so nervous about my transition. Coming off of a year of adventure, I had no idea what a season at home would look like. But despite many things that were hard, this year was largely a gift. I got to build some steadiness—with a healthy dose of continued adventure sprinkled in.

Top of the list of the beautiful things at home: my bed. It’s the best. Full stop.

I have my kitchen back, which means cooking and baking and a fridge organized the way that I like it.

I’m back at First Pres, and have gotten even more involved with the band. Playing music each week with these super talented musicians has been such a gift of my year.

And of course, my people. The best part of being home, by far. You all make this whole crazy life adventure the party that it is. I am IMMEASURABLY grateful for each of you.

Basically this (very long) list proves one thing. I’m thankful. Very very thankful. Despite all the challenges that come my way, I have an abundant life. My prayer is that I never lose sight of that—that I continue to live into this purpose and joy and abundance and gratitude.

Let’s do this, 2018!







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