Years ago, having burned out from years of overdrive in holiday giving — finding the perfect gift for too many people, making stacked Shaker boxes of elaborate homemade sweets whose production wore me out — I devised a strategy for pleasurable, stress-free giving that avoids combing through “holiday gift guides” for cool things nobody needs. It eliminates angst while allowing me to give meaningful gifts to people I love.

It’s more or less composed of three elements, of which I give various permutations (and perhaps a special something or two to a special someone.) It means I always have something on hand to take to a holiday party or meet up with friends.

The baseline: I give money to a charity like the Robin Hood Foundation and use Paperless Post to design and send cards announcing a gift made in my friends’ names. OR I write the note in a paper card and tie it with a ribbon. More details about designing your own gif card and message here.


I make simple, long-keeping food gifts in big batches, then pack them as needed into boxes, bags or jars. Apricots in Cardamom Syrup has become a favorite. (I give jars of it as gifts AND keep some to serve as dessert at my dinner parties — they are great as is and roasted.)


Ellen Silverman

More Homemade Food Gifts here.


And I give books. They are easy to buy and, when matched to the right recipient, give a nice bang for the buck.

In addition to the trove of books offered in Improvised Life’s store, here are this year’s favorites:

Devotions, Mary Oliver’s selection of her favorite poems from twenty-six books written over five decades, is pure magic. Read about it here.

My copy of Insomniac City is peppered with tiny post-its flagging its many sublime hunks of joy and wisdom. Bill Hayes’ extraordinary memoir intersperses encounters with New York City, where he moved after the sudden death of his partner, and his unexpected six-year love affair with renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks. A gem. More about it here and here.


David Saltman’s Houdini Unbound is perfect for anyone you know who loves to get lost in fiction, Houdini, espionage, adventure, magic. Read more about it here.


Everyman’s Library Pocket Poet series, was founded in 1906 and relaunched in the US in 1991, beautifully designed by Barbara deWilde. For a measly $13 you can buy a finely curated selection of poems by Dickinson, Rilke, Blake…to name a few.  Give one, or a stack. Read more about them here.


I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like getting a blank moleskin notebook  to draw, keep a diary, jot ideas and dreams. They come in a million colors.

The most unusual cookbook I came across this year was Scraps, Wilt & Weeds: Turning Wasted Food into Plenty, by Michelin star chef Mads Refslund and forager Tama Matsuoka Wong. Refslund  weaves a powerful philosophy of ecology into his cooking that has led him to create gorgeous, do-able dishes out of the foods  we routinely throw in the trash. It’s full of interesting ideas and techniques. I wrote about it here.

Cool Tools, a HUGE catalogue of possibilities that rounds up the best-of items from all over the place. Its descriptions are literary, its selection attuned to creative minds. Think Whole Earth Catalogue for the 21st century. Read more about it here.

A Year with Rumi is 365 days of excerpts from the 13th century Sufi mystic’s greatest writing, translated by the great Coleman Barks. Open it anywhere for a perfect reminder of what you need to hear.

H is for Hawk, Helen McDonald’s tale of grappling with numbing grief by training a fierce goshawk, as gripping and unusual a tale of personal transformation as we have read. More about it here.

Sally Schneider

For more Improvised Life gift ideas, scroll through this page.


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2 replies on “Improvised Life’s Not Shopping Holiday Gift Guide

  1. I usually read through your sendings and feel grateful — but today’s suggestions made me feel especially good — as I am of a thrifty mindset and hate throwing away or wasting anything.

    Hoping you have a glorious season of improvising in new and pleasing ways. I intend to continue finding inspiration in every single screen full of “improvised life” past, present, and future.

    Please know your work is appreciated and that it lends to my every day a sense of uplift and joy.

  2. Thanks so much for taking the time to write. I never really know what will resonate when I write, and a down-sized holidays could go either way. But the approach has brought a lot of joy to me over years of holidays, and seems to resonate, as I see it being passed around (: And I’m really really happy to hear that Improvised Life lends your “every day a sense of uplift and joy”. Yay and Wow!

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