Creating a Sense of Sanctuary

gray concrete column inside vintage building
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There are no intrinsically sacred objects or experiences; they are made sacred by the special context that we give them.

-Louise Thomsen Brits, The Book of Hygge

Now more than ever we all need a sanctuary, a refuge from the world, a safe place to reflect and restore.  But the word sanctuary implies more than just a safe space or refuge.  It suggests reverence.  Holiness.  A sense of the sacred.  When we think about our homes in the context of creating sanctuary, we see the value of a living space that is simple, comfortable and cared for, a space that is ready to calm and nurture those who enter.  When we bring this sense of sanctuary to the seemingly mundane details of our daily lives, the ordinary has the potential to take on new meaning.  A morning cup of coffee in our favorite mug suddenly becomes a quiet, restorative ritual to start the day.  Our favorite corner of the sofa is transformed into a cozy writing nest to contemplate and dream.  Preparing dinner becomes a sensory meditation.  As we infuse our lives with a new awareness and appreciation for the everyday moments, we create sanctuary for ourselves and those we love by elevating the ordinary into the extraordinary.

The creation of sanctuary is an intentional practice, a willingness to make room for and find the sacred in the everyday.  Here are a few ideas for how to begin creating a sense of sanctuary in your own life:

  1. Make Space.  It can be difficult to cultivate the sacred in the everyday when we are buried in clutter or an over-scheduled calendar.  Clear out and simplify.  Make room in your home and your planner for a more intentional, well-lived life, for what nourishes and sustains you.
  2. Own a few small, well-chosen items that comfort and delight. A warm blanket, a favorite mug, a pen that flows effortlessly across the pages of your journal…sometimes it’s the small luxuries that become talismans of comfort, familiarity and meaning in our daily round.
  3. Slow down. Our lives move at the speed of light.  How many times have you thought to yourself on a Thursday evening, “I can’t believe it’s Friday already tomorrow!  Where did the week go!?”  We can live our whole lives this way if we aren’t paying attention, racing unconsciously through our days, just managing to get by.  This kind of living is simply skimming the surface. We are not immersing ourselves in the richness that is right in front of us.  As a way to counter this pace, practice doing things SLOWLY on purpose.  Take a stroll through the neighborhood.  Not a power walk, but an easy stroll.  Prepare dinner at a leisurely pace.  Linger over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.  Luxuriate in a hot bath rather than take a quick shower.  Take up an activity in which success depends on time and patience, sourdough bread baking, for example.
  4. Unplug. We don’t cultivate the depth and richness of life by staring at a screen.  We need to be wholly available to participate with our environment and the people in it in order to notice and appreciate our everyday experience, at least for a little while each day.  Be gentle with yourself on this one…unplugging from a virtual world and plugging into our real one with all of its messiness and the possibility of boredom isn’t easy.  Start small if you need to by setting aside designated times where you don’t check your phone.  Having a no device time before, during and after dinner is a great place to start.
  5. Engage with your senses. We can come back to the wholeness of the moment, to the beauty of the here and now just by really seeing, smelling, touching, hearing and tasting what is right in front of us.  This is why cooking is such an extraordinary activity for discovering the sacred in the seemingly mundane tasks of daily life.  The smell of garlic sautéing in olive oil, the bright orange flesh of the squash we are cutting into cubes, the softness of a plush Colorado peach in late summer.  Cooking offers so many wonderful opportunities to stop and take in a moment of sensory wonder and appreciation for the everyday gifts that are right in front of us.
  6. Don’t just eat dinner…dine. Find a bit of ceremony in your day where you can.  Light candles at the dinner table, lay down some placemats and cloth napkins and open a bottle of wine.  Not only will you invite a sense of the sacred to your meal, research suggests that gathering around the table at the end of the day is a source of social connection and an important aspect of our physical health.  In his book, How to Make Disease Disappear, Dr. Rangan Chatterjee talks about what life was like when humans existed in hunter-gatherer tribes.  After the sun went down, these early humans shifted their activities and conversation from the work of finding food to telling one another stories around the campfire.  “The researches call this ‘firelight talk.’  It’s a time of calmness, reflection and-perhaps most importantly-connection.”  We are wired to reflect, connect and find meaning in our existence by sharing our stories, the happenings of our day, with those around us.  “In the modern West, the table rather than the campfire is where our connection, or our ‘firelight talk,’ happens.”  Elevate mealtime to a higher plane by realizing that this is where we strengthen our sacred connection to one other….especiallyon an ordinary Wednesday night over meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
  7. Bookend Your Day with Rituals for Reflection. For me this means meditation and journaling.  But it could just be a simple quiet moment with your cup of coffee in the morning before your day begins.  Taking even a few moments before the day gets away from you to quietly center yourself is invaluable.  You will enter the morning in a more intentional, peaceful frame of mind.  In Circle of Stones, author Judith Duerk tells the story of a woman who lights a candle when she first wakes up for a brief ritual of quiet presence:

    “as long as I take time every morning to light a candle to my life, it remains my life.  But if I hurry into work without that small moment of quiet, then I’ve already lost myself, and the day.  The task, for me, is to care, daily, for myself and my life….to love and to nurture, within myself, moment by moment, the quality of quiet presence, quietly being present to my life, which sanctifies it…to live as if the candle is lighted.

    Likewise, take time to assess the day and find gratitude for the moments that touched your soul in some way, especially the small ones.  This is an excellent way to thoughtfully and intentionally shift into the evening hours.

Rest and restore in the sanctuary of everyday moments. Our lives are abundant in the ordinary, and it can be a profound gateway to something greater if we simply shift our perception a little.  The depth and meaning we seek in life is often not found in the big things….the parties, weddings, promotions and extravagant vacations.  Instead, we can find richness in our lives right where we are as we practice taking pleasure in the everyday stuff of life.

Creating Space: A Journaling Exercise

nordic landscape

“Nothingness is the sister of possibility.”

-John O’Donohue

I said to a friend last week that one of the greatest gifts I have given myself in recent years is the ability to recognize and appreciate a sense of internal space.  It is in this space that peace resides, possibilities are born and a sense of gratitude for nothing and everything begins to make itself known.  It is the place where we meet our inner self, and where our authenticity comes.  It is the place from which we are able to fill our own well, from the bottom up.

Journaling is a great way to clear our minds and intentionally cultivate this inner space, beginning with the mind.  This exercise is designed to help you do just that.

The Empty Room

Get out your pen and your journal and find a comfortable place to write.

We are going to do a stream of consciousness writing. This is essentially the process of dumping the contents of your mind onto the paper by simply writing down what comes into your head. Try to keep your pen flowing.  If you can’t think of what to write simply write, “I don’t know what to write” until something else pops in.  If you find yourself repeating thoughts, worries, whatever, just let that be.  Write what it is in your mind at this moment.  Anything and everything.  Don’t censor yourself, just let the thoughts come and record them.  Your thoughts may sound hopeful one moment, and then mean, petty or whiny the next.  It doesn’t matter.  Set your timer for 20 minutes, keep your pen moving and write them down.

When time is up, set your pen down, close your eyes and place your hands on top of your open journal.  Let your breathing slow and just notice what you are feeling.  Notice how it feels to have everything that was in your head down on paper, right beneath your hands.  Let what you have written stay there for now…there is no need to pick it up again, it’s all right there on paper in front of you.  It’s not going anywhere.  For now, just let it all go and enjoy the spaciousness you’ve cultivated in your mind.

Now, in your minds eye, picture an empty room.  It’s a large room with high ceilings and arched windows on all four sides. Slowly begin to walk around the room. Notice the clean, white walls. Notice the way the sunlight streams through the oversized windows.  Listen to the sound of your footsteps on the wood floor as they echo in all of that empty space.  This room is your blank canvas.  It represents your thoughts, your time and your energy.  Right now it is empty.  Spacious. Filled with nothing but possibility.  Sit down on the floor of your room and just breathe for a moment or two, soaking in the deliciousness of all of that spaciousness and freedom.  John O’Donohue says, “Nothingness is the sister of possibility.  It makes an urgent space for that which is new, surprising, and unexpected.”  Let yourself feel the truth of that.  Know that it is up to you to fill or not fill this space as you see fit.  You get to choose what goes in here.  You always have a choice.  This sacred space that represents your thoughts, energy and time is yours and yours alone.  How will you fill it?  What will you put here?  What will you not put here?  What is worthy of occupying this space?  When you are ready, slowly open your eyes.

Return your attention to your journal and read through what you just wrote.  Underline anything that represents something that you want to keep, something that lights you up, speaks to you, feels like it is worthy of occupying space in your room.  If your experience with stream of consciousness writing was more of a letting go and you are not finding much that you want to pick up again, that’s great too.  Don’t pick up anything that doesn’t feel like it belongs in that delicious room filled with light, spaciousness, freedom and possibility.  It can stay as empty as it needs to right now.

Open to a new page in your journal.This blank page represents your empty room, your sacred space.  Write down, possibly in boxes or circles, what you choose to keep. If you aren’t finding much to transfer over ask yourself, what, in an ideal world, would I want to dedicate my time, my energy, my thoughts to?  In an ideal world, what would I want in my sacred space?  Write these here.

Look at what you have chosen and notice how much lighter you feel.  Notice the clarity and focus that comes from letting go of that chatter that doesn’t serve us and deliberately choosing how we will dedicate our thoughts, time and energy.

How to use what you uncovered this week:

*Plan your day from this sacred space:  Annie Dillard famously said,“how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”  When you are planning your day or making a to-do list, have your sacred space page in front of you.  Let it be there as a reminder of how you choose to prioritize your time and energy.

*Take inspired action:  If a creative project or larger action item revealed itself to you in the course of the exercise, take at least one baby step in its direction this week.  You may find yourself with more energy and motivation to do so as you have let go of a lot of what was bogging you down and are clearer on where you want to invest yourself.

*Keep writing:  Use one or more of the thoughts or phrases you’ve chosen to put in your sacred space as a jumping off point for more writing.  See what comes up.

*Do it again:  Stream of consciousness writing is always here for you as tool to help you clear your mind and sort and sift through what is there.  Use it whenever you feel overwhelmed, distracted, or uncertain of where to go next.  What goes in your sacred space may shift and change as time goes on.  That’s perfect.  Let it be yours.  Let it evolve.

**Bonus exercise:  As it is on the inside, so it is on the outside.  And vice versa.  As we clear out our inner world, let’s clear out our physical realm to reflect our newfound appreciation of spaciousness and possibility.  Take everything out of at least one space in your home this week. It can be a drawer, a closet, an entire room.  Revel in the beauty of its spaciousness and then only put back what you really want there.



Mandelmussla (Almond Tart Shells)


Are you considering becoming a creative person?  Too late.  You already are one.

Big Magic:  Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert

I listened to an episode of NPR’s On Being with Krista Tippett this morning in which Ms. Tippett interviewed Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and, most recently, Big Magic:  Creative Living Beyond Fear.  Ms. Gilbert talked about how many people believe that creativity is reserved for the artists of the world, and that they themselves are not creative.  She went on to say that we can easily disprove this theory by looking to our ancestors.  Our grandparents and great-grandparents were creative makers, somewhat out of necessity, but also because human beings are inherently creative.  We have a desire to make things, and to make beautiful things…it’s simply the way we are.  “If you’re alive, you’re a creative person,” she says.  “You and everyone you know are descended from tens of thousands of years of makers.”

These little tarts remind me of my own legacy of creativity, the one that began with my Scandinavian ancestors spending long cold winter days in the kitchen baking exquisite breads, cookies, cakes, pies and tarts.  Why?  Because they wanted to create something that went a little above and beyond the ordinary….it’s what we are hard-wired to do.  Little tarts like these are lovely and delicious works of art, a small offering of beauty made for no reason other than the pleasure of doing so.  Oh, and the pleasure of sitting down and savoring their sweetness with a strong cup of coffee, of course.

How will you be the artist that you already are today?  What will you make that’s just a little more beautiful than it needs to be?   Perhaps these charming little almond tart shells are just the thing to get you started.  The blank canvas of fika treats, these simple tart shells can be dressed up with any manner of fillings…jam, sweetened berries, pastry cream, lemon curd, whipped cream just to name a few.  They are also delicious on their own, served upside down and dusted with a little powdered sugar.

You will need a set of small tart pans for this recipe.  I am fortunate to have inherited my pans from my mother, but if you do not already have a set, they are available through Amazon for a reasonable price.

Mandelmussla (Almond Tart Shells)   Makes 25-30 tart shells, depending on the size of your tart pans

1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 large egg

1 cup blanched, slivered almonds, ground fine in a food processor

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 teaspoon almond extract

2 cups all-purpose flour, spooned and leveled

1. In the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar together until fluffy.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.

2.  Add the egg, followed by the ground almonds, salt and almond extract. Mix until incorporated.

3.  Add the flour and mix on low until just combined.  Do not overmix.

4.  Remove bowl from mixer and knead the dough gently with your hands inside the bowl for a minute or two until it all comes together into a cohesive whole.  Remove the dough from the bowl and place on a large sheet of plastic wrap.  Wrap tightly and chill dough for at least 30 minutes.

5.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Lightly butter 25-30 small tart pans.  Remove chilled dough from the refrigerator and tear off a piece that is approximately the size of a walnut.  Pat the small piece of dough into the tart pan using your fingers.  The dough should be uniformly 1/16th inch to an 1/8th inch thick across the surface of the tart pan.  Be mindful to create a nice even edge at the top of the pan.

6.  Place 8-10 filled tart pans on a rimmed baking sheet lined with a piece of parchment paper and slide them in the oven for 12-15 minutes or until they are light golden brown in color.

7.  Remove the baking sheet from the oven and allow tart shells to cool before handling.  Once they are cool enough to touch, tip them upside down and remove the tart shell from the pan.  This may take a little help from your fingers and by tapping and/or wiggling the pan a little to loosen the tart shell from the sides, all the while being mindful of the fact that the tart shells are fragile.  This may take a little practice.  Let the tart shells cool upside down on a wire baking rack.  Repeat with remaining tart pans, baking 8-10 on a baking sheet at a time.  Fill (or don’t fill) as desired.

*These tart shells freeze beautifully.  Put any tart shells that you are not immediately eating or filling in a freezer bag and consume at your leisure.

Shall We Fika?


To truly fika requires a commitment to making time for a break in your day, the creation of a magical moment in the midst of the routine and the mundane.

Fika, Anne Brones and Johanna Kindvall

At its very essence, the Swedish term “fika” (pronounced fee-ka) means to take a break and enjoy a cup of coffee and possibly a delicious baked good to go with it.  Fika can be a noun (it’s time for fika) or it can be used as a verb (shall we fika?).  But to simply call it a coffee break as we understand that term in English would be missing the point.  The tradition of fika runs deep in Sweden.  Life in structured to accommodate fika, even in the workplace, and the expectation of a midday opportunity to stop what you are doing and enjoy a cup of coffee and a treat is something that is anticipated and enjoyed as a part of daily life.

Fika is not something you do in front of a computer screen or as you scroll through social media on your phone.  It is meant to be a sacred pause in the day, an opportunity to rest, reconnect and nourish ourselves.  One can fika with others, strengthening our relationships with friends, coworkers and family over coffee and conversation.  One can also fika alone, nurturing the relationship with the self instead.  The particulars are entirely up to you…coffee or tea, treat or no treat, alone or with company.  What matters most is that you pause, unplug and enjoy a momentary respite from the day.



Hygge is about an atmosphere and an experience, rather than about things.  It is about being with people we love.   A feeling of home.  A feeling that we are safe, that we are shielded from the world and allow ourselves to let our guard down.

-Meik Weiking, The Little Book of Hygge

In Denmark there is a concept called “hygge” (pronounced hue-ga) that has no literal translation into English. Some say the closest definition might be something like “coziness”, but it goes a bit further than that. Hygge is the intentional practice of creating a sanctuary of warmth and intimacy.  It’s about appreciating the simple things, cultivating small moments of comfort and joy in our everyday lives.  It’s about anticipating and celebrating the changing seasons of the year.  It’s about being grateful for what we have and savoring the simple pleasures that are available to us each and every day.  In short, hygge quietly elevates the ordinary into the extraordinary.

Hygge has left the shores of Scandinavia in recent years and has become something of an international phenomenon.  Several books have been written on the subject, and sales of faux fur blankets, sheepskins and candles have skyrocketed as companies seek to take advantage of our desire to find the comfort and security we so desperately crave.  As such, hygge is often dismissed as a fad, soon to be replaced by the next latest thing.

But to brush the concept of hygge aside as simply a fad is shortsighted and unfortunate.  We cannot underestimate the importance of creating a haven that welcomes us home at the end of each day, where we can relax and be ourselves without pretense. The quiet act of carving out a comfortable, compassionate space for ourselves and those we love can be revolutionary and deceptively powerful.

How can we create more hygge in our lives?  A good place to start is to simply pause and notice what’s going on around you, particularly the small everyday details we tend to take for granted.  Notice the warmth of a cup of coffee in your hands first thing in the morning.  The smell of rain and wet earth after a thunderstorm.  A glimpse of the moon peeking out from behind the clouds late at night.  The quiet, rhythmic breathing of your dog sleeping next to you.  Taking note of these seemingly small details can create a much needed moment of softness and comfort in our day, of feeling at home in the world.

The Small, Calm Thing

nordic landscape

“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.  Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world will help immensely.”

.-Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Finding a “small, calm thing” in this era of busy-ness, distraction and overwhelm is a difficult task.  It’s true, we cannot fix the entire world all at once.  But we can create a peaceful space in our own small corner of the world, an authentic sanctuary that comforts, nourishes and restores our weary souls.  It is from this place that we become our most powerful, able to act on behalf of ourselves and others.  Not from a place of exhaustion or overwhelm, but from a place of love, kindness and authentic generosity.  Our gestures may be small…taking the time to sit down and enjoy a cup of coffee, setting down the phone and giving someone our undivided attention (a great and rare gift these days), sharing a meal with family or friends, baking a loaf of bread for a neighbor.  But the impact of these small endeavors can be great, a tiny bit of love shared from one soul to another.  Like ripples in a pond made by a tossed pebble, our tiny acts of kindness spread outward in ways we cannot measure.

This blog is my ripple in the pond, my unique expression of a “small, calm thing.”  My ancestors come from Norway, Sweden and Denmark, and the Nordic culture and landscape inspire me when I consider how I want my life to feel:  Open, spacious, peaceful.  I want to incorporate as much of this Scandinavian influence into my daily round as possible, both to connect with and honor my ancestors and to create this desired state of being.  Along the way I will share recipes, ideas and insights that inspire me.  I hope that you will find warmth and comfort here in my cozy online kitchen as I explore what Nordic living means to me.

Embracing Winter


“Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire:  it is the time for home.” -Edith Sitwell

In the Scandinavian countries there is a concept called “hygge” that has no literal translation into English. Some say the closest definition might be something like “coziness”, but it goes a bit further than that. Hygge is an attitude of acceptance and gratitude for the inner warmth that winter offers us. It’s an opportunity to embrace the darkness of the winter months with gentle, soothing pleasures of the soul. Candlelight, sitting by the fire under a warm blanket, steaming hot chocolate, a cozy stew and a glass of red wine for dinner….all very hygge.

“Hygge seems to me to be about being kind to yourself – indulging, having a nice time, not punishing or denying yourself anything.” –Helen Russell, author of The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country.

 I know a lot of people who spend winter wishing it were spring. Instead, let’s follow the lead of our Nordic friends and happily sink into winter this weekend. Stock wood for the fire. Get out your flannel, your coziest blankets and a good book. Prepare something warm and nourishing in your kitchen, light the candles and enjoy a glass of wine. Forget spring for awhile, it will come in good time.  Be gentle with yourself and embrace the gift of cold and darkness that winter brings.