Leah O'Connell

for photographers, motherhood, personal

Top 10 Discoveries of 2023

I'm Leah!

I’m obsessed with stories of family, creativity, and simple joys.  A nostalgia nerd, educator, wife, and mom of 3, I believe life’s most fun when you’re dreaming big and having kitchen dance parties. 

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Full disclosure, I first got the idea for this from one of my favorite podcasts – The Lazy Genius. I weirdly enjoy these types of episodes and proceeded to come up with a list of my own so easily, I couldn’t not share it. My top 10 discoveries of 2023 include the art, products, practices, and tools that have made my life brighter, easier, or more beautiful over the last year.

Maybe they’re a little silly, but I’m not joking when I say the little things are the big things. It’s kindof my mantra.

top 10 discoveries, favorite things from 2023 by leah o'connell

1. The poem “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith

I first heard this poem read by the poet herself on an episode of Adam Grant’s Work/Life podcast while I was driving and it hit my guts deep. I stopped and replayed it at least 2 more times. This poem has stuck with me in the way that good art does when it’s honest.

The poem went viral (apparently) back in 2016 and I had no idea – which just goes to show the ripple effect of making beautiful work for the world.

2. Long-form newsletters

This was a newfound 2023 obsession (and why I hopped on the bandwagon to make one myself). As I worked to redefine my relationship with social media and committed to more depth in what I consumed (despite long nursing sessions with a newborn and a phone in my hand) I turned toward long-form newsletters to engage, enrich, and enlighten. Some of my favorites include Rachel Larsen Weaver’s Here and Now, Ann Hadley’s Total Anarchy, and Ashlee Gadd’s The Second Act. Sara with Behind the Lines shares a hilarious copywriting-related newsletter called Tuesday Table of Contents and Jen Olmstead’s Friday morning marketing newsletter is a fantastically entertaining marketing lesson via story every week.

3. Spinning

I’m so late to the trend. But I got a Sunny spin bike for Christmas after being influenced via this post years ago and its giving me life. I don’t care that it’s not a Peloton. It’s great. I rarely get to spin for more than 20-30 mins but whew it feels good to get that heart pumping after years of throwing light weights around from my pajamas in my living room.

Sure, I’m still exercising at home, but I like it that way. This just feels like a slight level-up. I’m working on a playlist you can find here, if it’s your thing, too.

top 10 discoveries, spin bike

4. How to do my eyebrows

It’s true, I watched my first makeup tutorial in my life last year and finally learned that there’s an actual technique to doing your eyebrows (??!). Those sparse early 2000’s overly-plucked brows were staring at me with a liiiiiitle too much aggression so I decided to spend 5 whole minutes of my life on youtube learning this new skill one night and its made my brows a happier place. Still playing with finding the perfect pencil – taking suggestions – but I count this a victory. Do not follow me for fashion tips.

5. Morning pages

I’ve been hearing rumblings from artists about the work of Morning Pages for years, but finally got myself a copy of Julia Cameron’s The Artists Way and learned for myself. I confess I didn’t read the whole book – it’s one of those you can digest in small chunks or pick up here and there. But last year I tried the practice of long-form stream of conscious writing and noticed right away how it helped me dig through the cobwebs and get to my real ideas, my real feelings, and my real inspiration.

Since one of my goals last year was to lean back into writing, Morning Pages were definitely part of my top 10 discoveries that added to my artists toolbox. (I share more about it in an early ep. of The Firefly Letters)

6. Very good presets

The preset market for photographers has exploded, but there’s a lot of junk out there.

The owner of this preset shop is an good friend and incredibly talented photographer who also has a heart for service. The presets are made to mimic film and they do a great job at it. They are clean and affordable and most importantly, made by a trustworthy source who truly wants to see the photography industry uplifted. I started using them last year as I worked toward refining my editing style and have really loved the difference.

7. The right way to make protein balls

When a neighbor brought over these lactation bites for me after our third baby was born, I was hooked. I make protein balls pretty often to have around for snacks, but I’ve always just thrown the ingredients together, rolled them in balls while enduring the extreme sticky mess, then watched as they got hard and crumbly after a few days. In other words, I’m often a no-recipe gal when it comes to protein balls – how hard are they to mess up?! BUT the ones my neighbor brought me stayed fresh and held together deliciously for so long that I needed to know the trick. And guys, it’s so simple. Before rolling, you refrigerate the mix. Then once they’re rolled, you freeze them for 10 mins. From there, back to the fridge and those babies are wonderful for weeks. It’s magical.

8. Primary clothing

Primary is now my absolute go-to for kids clothing in any season. I love their mission to make clothes in all colors for all kids and the quality is awesome without being pretentious. I’m always filling the gaps in all three of my kids closets with these staples, including shopping great end of season sales for their next size up that I know will stand through all the play.

My daughter is really particular about the softness of her clothes (iykyk) and Primary passes the test. I may never buy a different brand of kids winter coat (she has this one in blueberry) and we even got their Christmas pajamas (which my kids continue to wear in all seasons).

9. Everything but the bagel seasoning

Again, a small but mighty addition to my top 10 discoveries. I didn’t know what the fuss was about but got crazy one day at Trader Joes and picked up a bottle of this sneaky seasoning. I add it to a piece of avocado toast in the mornings and it makes for some delicious up-leveled grilled cheeses. I swear that sprinkling it on things makes it feel fancier. Like I’m trying harder than I am??

10. The perfect low-key Charlottesville family-day spot

With three kids that span 8 years, one of whom was a newborn in 2023, we’re now constantly on the hunt for little family outings everyone could enjoy. We wanted a place we could enjoy the outdoors and have a soft spot for the beach, but central VA isn’t really for that. However, Walnut Creek Beach is the cutest little tucked away gem that became a favorite in 2023 for an easy half-day adventure.

Pros to this little beach are that it’s shallow enough for the kids to wander and play in safely and is rarely crowded. You can throw in some rafts to play or float on in the deeper water, or canoes/kayaks to explore further out on the lake. We would toss a few apples and snacks in a cooler along with water bottles, towels, and sunscreen, add a few diapers and wipes, get in our suits, and hop in the car – it was so freeing to be able to leave the house without it being a huge deal. A little mini beach day right in the heart of Charlottesville = major discovery win.

Walnut Creek is a favorite session location as well, but I have yet to do one in the summer in the water. Splashing around is the best way to end a hot summer session and would be so fun to incorporate into a playful family session. If this feels like its calling you, reach out!

You may also like:

My 2024 Book List

Charlottesville gift guide

Planning maternity leave as a family photographer

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Hi, I'm Leah.
Family photographer, writer, educator.

I’m  one of the first to meet your newborn baby, the one who won't judge your clothes baskets and unmade beds, and the one who can capture the way your husband looks at you with a twinkle in his eye after 12 years of marriage. I believe in honoring people and telling stories.

I believe art has the power to light up the world in dark places, starting at home.