Boo Your Neighbors: A Halloween Chain Letter In Real Life

You know what's harder than choosing a costume for Halloween?

Waiting for Halloween.

By this point in mid-October, my kids are whipped into a fun-sized frenzy. Costumes are paraded nightly, and their merits debated. Halloween classics are read (the Great Pumpkin feels less offensive in print), Halloween-themed TV shows are watched (our family favorite is the The Backyardigans - It's Great To Be A Ghost). At least three times every day, someone asks me, with an exasperated sigh, "Is Halloween tomorrow now, Mommy?"

Anticipation can be excruciating.

But fear not, gentle parents. I have a solution. Channel that pent-up energy and Boo Your Neighbors.




Under the guise of darkness, choose two of your favorite neighbors (preferably those with kids, but I imagine kids of all ages would enjoy this). Quietly creep to their doorstep and leave a bag of treats*, a You've Been Boo'd sign and an explanation of the game. (Both are below.) Try not to giggle as you sneak away.

And then watch and wait, as Boo signs mysteriously show up all over your street between now and Halloween.

It's like a chain letter - only with candy instead of a curse.

You can download PDF's of the the Boo sign and game explainer below. Or make your own! Use some more of your kids fevered excitement and let them go with markers.

Halloween Boo poem and directions
You've Been Boo'd sign

Happy Haunting.

*We all know you have an open bag of Halloween candy in your house right now. It's OK. No shame.

Seasons Change



Cold is coming. That’s what the meteorologists say. Never mind that it's only the second week in September and that most everyone in the Upper Midwest is near panicked about summer's end. Nope. Weather don't care. A Canadian cold front is coming in with a left hook. Highs in the 50s with a cold rain, they predict. Gray. Maybe even frost in the outer suburbs.

Teach us to number our days of sun, Lord, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

The dire forecast certainly sent a tingle of terror down my spine. But more than that, it gave me permission to wallow in the last few days, which were perfect to the point of myth. Blue skies, crisp breeze, bright sun that caressed my skin with warmth. “There, there, baby. I’m not gone yet.” The purple and orange coneflowers hosted a honey bee frat party, and the pool was filled, one last time, with laughing, splashing children.

It was glorious. And I relished it more because I knew it was about to change.

This is the lesson of the seasons: change is constant. So you best keep your eyes wide open for the gift of today.

My kids started school last week. There was the normal adjustment: Teyla started first grade - she's gone all day now, riding the big yellow bus to and from school with her older brother - and Kieran is in preschool three mornings a week. But for the most part, this is a well-worn groove. We know this dance. We all get up between 7:00 and 7:30, we leave the house at the same time each morning. I know every possible route to Natalie's private school, I can guess what each child wants for lunch. Everyone gets home around 4:00. It's safe. Predictable.

But I see signs of change ahead.

Next fall, Natalie starts high school, and a public high school at that. Connor will transition to middle school. And Kieran, my baby, will start all-day, everyday kindergarten.

Whew. Left hook to a momma's heart. That's a lot of transition coming for me in 2015. Good stuff, even great stuff. But all of it involves heaping piles of change.

Which is why I'm savoring this year, The Year Before. I'm 42 now. I have experience with seasons. I have learned to step back and use all my senses to treasure today. Natalie, tall and tanned, embracing her new role as oldest on campus. Basking in her last year with her friends before the high school diaspora. Connor, relaxing in to his second year at his new school. Deepening friendships, growing comfortable with routines and expectations. Teyla, delighting in first grade and the new friends and the new teacher. For her, it's all discovery and giggles. Even Kieran, dipping his toes in the educational pool and then happily joining me back at home, where he can snuggle and play guys and do karate without a single distraction or care.

I've said before, these are the good days. I know it.

And this year, I'm savoring it. Open wide my eyes. Listen. Laugh. Drink it all in, every last bit.

Because I love every season. But the one I'm in is always my favorite.

A Lament for Summer

Subtitled: The First Person to Rejoice Over the Return Of All Things Pumpkin Gets Slugged



Take back thy fall leaves on the ground
Take back thy colors all around

Take back thy pumpkin spice latte
Take back thy apple scented days

Take back thy scarves, thy boots and coats
Take back thy caps (you know, eh, toques)

Take back thy cool nights bright with moon
You come too quick, you come too soon

Take back thy school bus rumbling through
Take back thy chill morns wet with dew

Take back thy pumpkins, gourds and wheat
Take back thy cheers and football cleats

Take back this season, though but fair,
’Tis not the time for autumn’s prayer

I need more heat and pool and sun
More golden days beg to be spun

Give me sloth and hair that's wet
I'm not done with summer yet

But in four weeks, come back, thou fall
Your glory, then, I welcome, all

Just kindly sibling winter ditch
That season really is a ...
That season really makes me twitch

My sincere apologies to dear friends who are real poets, but that picture at the top is one I took on Labor Day - the sumac are already turning crimson. Thus, passion was unleashed, and this ditty was born.

The Golden Days


The wind blew crazy Sunday morning. The treetops pirouetted against the sapphire sky and the leaves skittered along the pavement and the dragonflies stayed low to the grass and tried in vain to make headway.

I went outside in my pajamas just to feel its wildness on my skin. It lashed my eyes and twisted my hair and snuck down into my soul, where it tugged like a hurricane. Faster, faster, it whispered. I bring change on my wings. You cannot stop me. 

And I whispered right back, I know, alright? I know. But I have two days left.

Simmer down, wind. Simmer down.

----------

Summer has been golden this year - piled high with laughter and sunshine and laziness like a triple-scoop ice cream. I've fairly rolled around in it like pig in slop. We didn't go on any big trips, choosing instead to stay close to home and do ... well, a whole lot of nothing. We swam every chance we got, we spontaneously met friends at the park which turned into pizza dinners at someone's house which turned into sleepovers "please mom please mom please." The big kids spent days watching YouTube videos of other people playing and narrating Minecraft, sort of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 for the next generation. The little kids went camping in their bedrooms, which essentially meant cramming backpacks with two of every toy in the house (tiny little Noahs) and then leaving them for me to discover under beds, in closets, in bathtubs. Teyla spent hours crouched low in the yard, one finger out, patiently willing dragonflies to land on her. Kieran taught himself to swim in our pool, going from life-jacket-only in June to jumping off the diving board by himself in August, part ninja, part fish, bobbing up from sparkling water with a smile and a yell.

It was the best stuff of life.

These are the sweet days, I know it. Natalie turned 13 in July. She's almost as tall as me and her thick mane of chestnut hair stretches long down her back. She takes selfies like its her natural language (which it is, I suppose) and she texts with friends from school and when I hug her good night, I close my eyes and hug tight because just a few days ago, she was my baby, and now she's emerging woman. Connor is as wirey and bronzed as some mythical snake. He does perfect dives into the pool and when he laughs, he wrinkles his nose and throws his hair back and his sun-streaked blond hair shimmers.

This summer shone brighter than the sun.

I've told many friends that I'm in a near panic about going back to school this year. I'm not ready to return to early to bed and early to rise, I'm not ready to pack lunches every day, I'm not ready to return to schedules and traffic and deadlines. I've grown quite accustomed to waking up whenever I want and doling out breakfast between 10:00 and noon and serving chips and homemade salsa for lunch and eating dinner only when everyone is hungry. Bedtime lately has been well after dark, almost always after 10:00, if I'm honest and feeling brave enough to admit that on the Internet. I'm not ready to give up days where getting dressed means putting on a dry swim suit and we can fall asleep on chair cushions watching the clouds meander across the sky.

Mostly, I'm not ready to give up my kids. I will miss each one of them when they go back to school on Tuesday. I will miss the time we've spent together this summer, just being. I will miss them as they are in this season, this moment - tanned, laughing, bored, relaxed. I will miss them so much my soul will ache.

So simmer down wind. I know I can't control you, and I know you are a harbinger of change. But I've got two more days. Still time for one more swim and one more snuggle.

I don't intend to waste a moment of this golden summer.

Here, Taste This : Thai Quinoa Salad with Peanut Lime Dressing

If I had to give this summer a theme, it would be - Just Go With It.

If not observing strict bedtimes makes your evenings stress-free, just go with it.

If watching "Days of our Lives" every night while you clean the kitchen brings you an odd sort of comforting joy, just go with it. (EJ DiMera is in prison, Sami is on a rampage, John Black is in a coma, Hope's eyebrows still shoot sky-high at the end of every scene she's in. All is as it should be in Salem. It makes me strangely happy.)

If staying off social media is a breath of fresh air, just go with it.

And if you discover a salad you like so much, you make it every week, just go with it. Variety is over-rated anyway, right?

We first met, the salad and I, at a friend's house back in March. I was smitten with the first bite: nutty quinoa, crunchy cabbage and peppers, bits of carrots and red onion and cilantro and peanuts - held together with a Thai-inspired dressing that is the perfect blend of natural peanut butter, ginger, honey, soy sauce and lime juice. It bursts with color, texture and oh-my-word-you-have-to-smell-this aroma. It's the kind of salad that pairs perfectly with grilled chicken or, my favorite, spicy shrimp. Or you can just eat it for lunch every day for the entire summer. Like you do.

Just go with it.


Thai Quinoa Salad with Peanut Lime Dressing

3/4 cup uncooked quinoa
2 cups chopped red cabbage
1 red bell pepper, diced
1/4 red onion, diced
1 cup shredded carrots
1/2 cup peanuts
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1/4 cup diced chives

Dressing:
1/4 cup natural peanut butter
2 tsp fresh grated ginger
3 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp honey
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp olive oil
juice of 1 lime

Directions:
1. Rinse quinoa with cold water in a mesh strainer until water runs clear. This removes the bitterness sometimes associated with quinoa. In a medium saucepan, boil 1-1/2 cups water. Add in quinoa and return mixture to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to low and let it simmer for 15 minutes or so, until quinoa has absorbed all the water. Remove from heat and fluff with a fork. Place in a large bowl and set aside to cool. (Note: This should result in about 2 cups of quinoa.)
2. Make the dressing. Mix peanut butter and honey in a microwave safe-bowl and heat in microwave for 30 seconds, so they will be easier to combine. Add in ginger, soy sauce, vinegar, the oils and the lime juice. Stir until mixture is smooth and creamy.
3. Add dressing to quinoa. Stir to combine.
4. Fold in the cabbage, red pepper, onion, carrots, peanuts, cilantro and chives. Garnish with extra peanuts, chives and lime slices, if desired. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Tips:
1. Hello Salad Adaptable. Do you have cashews in your cupboard instead of peanuts? Sub 'em in. Want to try honey-roasted peanuts in place of the naked version? Do it. Want to skip the cilantro because it makes you gag? Sigh. If you have to.
2. Go make this. Right now. That is my biggest tip.

The Parenting Fog


I call it The Parenting Fog.

It's easy to slip into, especially in the summer. We get home from a camping trip, we finish up a week of VBS, the relatives leave after a fun visit - and everyone collapses. Fun plus exhaustion plus emotional hyperactivity minus sleep minus vegetables equals a deflated balloon of a person. So everyone retreats to their own corners.

In my house, that means the big kids ingest hefty doses of screens. Connor plays Minecraft eight hours a day, Natalie watches equal amounts of "Good Luck Charlie." The little kids split their time between Netflix and playing "school" which involves getting out every type of toy we own and putting one of each kind into a backpack to shlep around their bedrooms. And me? I stare at Facebook and various news websites for hours on end.

In the back of our little brains, the whole engine is going "chug, chug, chug, put this memory over there, chug, chug, file this big thought, chug, chug, do that better next time, chug, chug."

I maintain it's a necessary and even healthy stage of summer survival.

The only problem is: like a bad houseguest, it tends to overstay its visit.

I know this, because last Wednesday - after two weeks of family visiting us plus Fourth of July celebrations plus a week of VBS plus Corey leaving for North Korea the same day the last family members flew home - I entered that stage. I descended blissfully, I'll have you know. "Have at the screens, kids," I mumbled before sitting at my desk with Facebook open. The fog enveloped me like a blanket, and I sighed with pleasure at the nothingness.

But by Saturday, the sun was breaking through. The fog started to dissolve a little. I could make out shapes. What is that - a child? He's hungry? Bizarre. Do I have children? What day is it?

And slowly, ever so slowly, I felt strength and determination return.

That is the moment I decided - hey, this mothering gig. I'm not doing a great job at it - unless you count throwing cheese sticks and granola bars at the fog shapes and calling it a day. Maybe I could get off my arse, put limits on screen time and actually BE with my children.

Novel, no?

So Monday, I started over. I parented with intentionality again. I made breakfast for my kids and listened to their stories, instead of retreating with my coffee to my desk. ("I wonder if anyone on Facebook has posted something in the last five minutes?") I made plans to get out of the house. We spent an afternoon at the park on the beach. We dug holes in the sand and ate chips under the trees and marveled at the fall-like temperatures. We took Teyla to gymnastics lessons and instead of pulling out the phone, Kieran and I played tag and catch and let's see who can hit the wall harder. We went to the final baseball games of the season and cheered Connor and his team and basked in the just-warm-enough sunshine and gaped at the best summer sunsets.

It only took a few days for me to remember - oh yeah, I actually like this parenting gig. It's hard and at times it's tedious and at times it's maddening. But it's summer and I don't want to waste one glorious golden moment with the people I love.

Bring on the second half of the best season, I say. Here comes the sun. And it always brings grace with it.

On Being Creative


It was one of those gorgeous summer evenings, when the concept of time relaxes into a hammock with a lemonade. The sun slanted through the leaves, the tree frogs started singing, the breeze blew just strong enough to dry the sweat on my neck and keep the mosquitos at bay. It made weeding the planting beds almost a joy.

But my four children weren't as lulled. When I finally walked inside the house at 7:30, they were famished. "What's for dinner, Mom?" they asked with varying degrees of desperation.

I opened the fridge and surveyed the leftovers. Half a cup of mac-and-cheese. Some chicken fajita slices. The pasta and ham dish I had made the night before to a lack of fanfare. Not enough for a meal.

Then it's breakfast for diner, I thought to myself, and I reached for my recipe box to sniff out some ideas. Initially I was drawn to the waffles. Peanut butter waffles are good with bananas and offer some protein. Oatmeal cinnamon waffles with yogurt and strawberries are always a hit.

But then I saw Ina Garten's Omelet for Two, and I instantly knew: this is it. I pulled out the thick-cut, applewood bacon and set it to sizzling on the stovetop. I chopped potatoes, onions and jalapeño and heard the Barefoot Contessa music in my head. It felt good to cook, even after a long day bent in half, even though my fingernails still bore the tell-tale signs of tiny black crescent moons. I tasted a bacon crackling as I spooned them out of the pan, and I heard Ina say, "How good is that?" The potatoes sizzled in the bacon grease and I whipped together a batch of biscuits to satisfy the kids.

By the time we sat down to eat, I was renewed. The act of cooking - the weight of the knife, the crisp of the vegetables, the smells of the jalapeño and the onion cooking in the pan - it had reinvigorated me.

Creativity is life-giving.

Recharge


Yesterday was a gloriously odd Monday - I had nothing to do. Two of my children were at school, but the one who requires me driving her back and forth had the day off. Bible study was cancelled because of Easter. It was a perfectly beautiful, completely empty-of-duties type of day.

My first thought was - I should write. Words are stirring again in my soul. Lately, it's the lack of time more than a lack of desire that keeps me absent from the page. But when I sat down in front of the computer, the muse hid her face. Nothing grabbed me. I spent two hours halfheartedly rearranging paragraphs and tinkering with words (and checking Facebook and reading blogs and my favorite news sites) before I gave up.

I decided to give my brain a break and work with my hands.

This is a lesson I've learned slowly, but it has become solid truth for me. Those of us who play with words, who talk, write and read for a living, sometimes the best thing we can do is walk away from the letters and create with a different medium.

Gretchen Rubin, in her inspiring and fascinating book, The Happiness Project, writes:
Long ago, I read the writer Dorothea Brande’s warning that writers are too inclined to spend their time on wordy occupations like reading, talking and watching TV, movies and plays. Instead, she suggested, writers should recharge themselves with language-free occupations like listening to music, visiting museums, playing solitaire or taking long walks alone.
So yesterday, I did just that. I turned off my computer, which is more serious than simply walking way, and I stepped outside into the gorgeous sunshine. I grabbed my garden shears and my green gloves with the hole in the finger and I set to work cutting back the dead plants in the garden. I snapped off tall hydrangea limbs, brown and brittle, topped with delicate chestnut mop heads. I cut down spires of autumn joy sedum and discovered tightly coiled green shoots right below them, ready to burst forth. I clipped the grasses that stand as tall as a sentry mid-summer, but which now bend crooked and worn after a winter of too much snow. I stopped to rub my back now and again, because I'm 42, and when Kieran said, "Mom, there's a worm!" I walked over to find a baby garter snake on the cover of our pool, desperately trying to make the climb to the surface but unable to scale the near-vertical wall. (We got him out and deposited all five inches of him down near the creek. I only shuddered once.) (Hashtag Minnesota mom.)

At lunch, I came in and decided - nope, still too many words. So I did some laundry and I washed and stored the kids' winter gear - which means, yes, I've cursed the entire Midwest to a freak late-season blizzard. I'm sorry. It was me. I laid Kieran down for a nap and I slept a bit myself. I went back outside and just sat in the sun and listened to the birds sing, carefree in the care of God. I flipped through a magazine and admired the pretty pictures, sort of a nondigital Pinterest.

By day's end, my body was spent - but my soul was oddly filled.

It was a good day for a writer, even though I hadn't written a word.

Mourning on Easter


These are dark days for those of us walking the milestones of Jesus. The final week, the last supper, those torturous hours in the garden. It is darkness and dread and fear and suspicion. The air is thick with shrieking evil, and though our eyes perceive it not, our soul knows full and well: this is the end.

Have you grieved through Easter? I have. And Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, they were cool balms on my raging wounds. They reminded me that it is not all celebration and happy endings and easy answers in the kingdom. No, there is plenty of despair and desperation here. Even the Man-God cried out for relief from it.

We are not alone.

We are not alone when we sob into the carpet, we are not alone when we think, "I can't do this! I can't stand one more minute of this pain!" We are not alone when we are numb and lonely and the fog hides us from life, from love. We are not alone when the easy answers make us spit with rage, when we shake our fist at heaven and shout, "How dare you? HOW DARE YOU allow this?"

This is why Jesus came. He came as Emmanuel, God with us, and he entered our torment because he couldn't stand to see us being crushed by it. He took the burden on his own shoulders, and even now, he stands with us - with you - right under it.

Yes, Sunday is coming, and Easter's glory outshines our pain.

But the celebration is flat without the agony of the shadow weekend. It is the darkness dissipating that makes us fall to our knees in wonder and relief and worship. The deeper the wound, the more deeply we are filled with joy, and we learn firsthand what Jesus' first disciples knew: that sorrow is the depth that adds dimension to our rejoicing.

Blessed are those who mourn.

San Diego Spring Break, Part 2

Part two of the memories, stories and lessons from our spring break trip to San Diego; part one - including how travel is getting easier for us these days and the simple joys of being outside in March - can be found here

Not everything on vacation has to be about us.

I love taking our kids on vacation. I love anticipating the fun and making plans. I love being in a different setting - especially when that involves escaping winter - and I love the memories and connections that happen when we have time to be fully together.

But I do worry that vacations will becomes just one more extravaganza for my kids. We have so much already, and I will fight to my dying days the entitlement that privileges seem to breed.

So when Corey told me his organization, Feed the Children, happened to be hosting on a charity event when we were in San Diego, I jumped at the chance to take a day off from focusing on us and focus on others instead.

Thus, our second full day in San Diego, we found ourselves standing outside in the bright sunshine in a parking lot just a few miles from Mexico, loading boxes from Feed the Children into the cars of 800 military families who had been preselected by the Armed Services YMCA.

Two Feed the Children semi-trucks were the backdrop - along with a battalion of Navy and Marines servicemen and women. We worked alongside them to hand out a trio of boxes that contained food, household supplies and a special box from Avon for the women of the house.

Truth: our kids were a little intimidated to be surrounded by so many "soldiers," and yes, there were a few moments of "I'm hot, I'm hungry, how much longer?" But for the most part, spending a morning serving others was a great adventure for our little tribe, and hopefully, by taking their focus off themselves for a few hours, it made the fun to come even more meaningful.

My ideal trip is a mix of familiar and foreign.

I discovered something on our trip to San Diego. The perfect vacation, for me, combines familiarity and discovery. Traveling to a city that's completely unknown is too much chaos at this stage of life to enable relaxation. I like going to a place where I already how to get around town, where I already have a few destinations in mind, where I don't have to scramble just to find a place to grab lunch.

San Diego is that sweet spot for us. We know the traffic patterns, we know the cities, we know the locale of our favorite restaurants. We have friends to visit and favorite haunts to swing by. But since we stayed with my brother in northern San Diego County, about 45 minutes north of where we used to live, there was also plenty to explore.

My brother's neighborhood, in particular, delighted me to no end. I took a walk every day; one morning, I even walked to Trader Joe's, which sits at the business end of the mixed-use development, and bought cream for my coffee. I mean, really. I walked to Trader Joe's. I constantly poured over the variety of housing styles in his neighborhood. On Facebook, I showed off four of my favorites. We visited new beaches, new parks, new restaurants. We made memories and discoveries without the stress that sometimes accompanies exploration.

Maybe best of all:

Staying with family on vacation is the frosting on the perfect vacation cake.

This isn't always possible, but for the record: I highly advise having family live in popular tourist destinations. My brother, Michael, and his lovely wife, Kristen, were impeccable hosts - letting us use their house, their kitchen, even their laundry. Our kids adored having cousins to play with, not to mention all the new toys to play with - including this dream playhouse in Michael's backyard.

Because we stayed with family, we were able to pack healthy lunches for our adventures, instead of eating out every meal. Because we stayed with family, we were able to swim in the neighborhood pool and have floaties for everyone. We used their toys when we went to the park, their towels when we went to the beach, their fridge to store our leftovers.

And the crowning glory: because we stayed with family, our kids had extended time to play with their cousins and get to know them. That was the real joy of this trip - building new connections with family.

Up next: a few of our favorite things to do in San Diego.

San Diego Spring Break

We spent spring break in San Diego this year, something you surely know if you follow me on Instagram or Facebook. Ever since we got back, almost two weeks ago, I've worn the silliest grin, even as we re-entered daily life and Corey left on a work trip and Minnesota had the audacity to (gasp) snow. I didn't care, not much anyway. It was a great trip, and I'm still basking in the glow.

I intended to do a photo-heavy post to sum up our trip in one fell swoop. But then I downloaded my pictures and looked through them all and I realized: I have more than one post here. This is the good stuff. I don't want to skimp on this in a rush to get to the next thing. So permit me a few days of snapshots and stories, like we used to do in the dinosaur age of blogging. This is the story of my family and our experiences, and the beautiful thing about sharing these memories here is that my story is often your story too.

Travel is getting easier.

We flew from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, even though our eventual destination was my brother's place in northern San Diego, because LAX has more flights and it's easier to redeem frequent flyer points at the busy airports. Our kids are pretty used to flying at this point; Connor has stopped packing weapons in his carry-on (there was that one time we forgot to tell him he couldn't take a pocketknife on the plane; thank you, Lord, for giving us TSA agents with a sense of humor), and since Corey is TSA-Pre, he can take the kids through the expedited security line, which makes everything easier.

Still, California is a good 3.5 hour flight away from home. It used to be, I packed snacks and new toys and a coloring books and a variety of clothes, diapers and blankets just to get us through.

Not anymore. At some point, on our way out, I looked across at our family row, three deep on either side. Natalie was reading a book, Teyla was playing on her Leap Pad, Connor was playing Minecraft on the iPad. Corey was working on his laptop, I was reading a magazine and Kieran was asleep on my leg.

No one was fidgeting, no one was fighting, no one had just dropped their marker for the 30th time and wanted me to bend myself into a pretzel to retrieve it from under the seat. They were all taking care of themselves. They were happy and peaceful and able to sit still without reminders.

"Oh my word. We've made it," I whispered to Corey, nodding at the relative peace around us. "I never thought we'd get to this stage, but here we are."

And then my heart burst into a million tiny pieces of confetti, because it's true. Don't give up hope, parents of toddlers and preschoolers. You'll make it too.

California is still my home.

I said on Facebook: Every time I walk out of LAX, I inhale deeply and smile. I know that distinctive smell is 95% smog, but it is so familiar and distinctively Southern California, I can't help it. Happy to be "home."

And this is true. My heart skips a beat when I spy the Pacific Ocean, racing alongside us as we head south on the 5 toward San Diego. The familiar hills, the bright flowers, the traffic on six lanes of freeway, the Tejano music on half the radio stations. It all reminds me of the decade we spent living and rooting ourselves in California. A spring break trip to San Diego would be awesome for anyone, but for Corey and I, it was also a sweet reunion.

When you've been surrounded by snow for 3.5 months, all it takes for a morning of fun is green grass.

Our first day in Carlsbad, in northern San Diego County, we decided to take it easy. We investigated the many playgrounds in my brother's adorable neighborhood. The kids were thrilled just to be running on green grass. Teyla performed a full dance recital for Corey and me, as we sat on a bench in the sunshine and drank our morning coffee.

Connor launched foam rockets, one of the many outdoor doors we were encouraged to borrow from my brother's garage. Natalie led her siblings in a game of pirates versus ninjas. It was glorious just to be outside and not be cold.

That afternoon, at yet another park, the kids took turns rolling down the hills.

It wasn't until they stopped and said, "Our arms itch!" that I remembered Southern California grass is coarsely cut. Each of our downhill rollers had tiny scraps and scratches all over their arms, like a thin road rash.

Note to my SoCal friends: in Minnesota, the worst a downhill roll will do is stain your jeans.

Up next: Familiarity vs discovery, we make our kids work on vacation and staying with family. 

How to Make Vacation Re-Entry Pleasant Instead of Painful


We arrived home from spring break a few days ago, suntanned and satisfied after a week away from snow and schedules. Re-entry isn't fun - who wants to go back to school when, the day before, you were playing at a park next to the beach, eating In-N-Out burgers and fries? - but thankfully, our last few days have gone about as smoothly as one can expect.

And that, my friends, isn't something I used to be able to say. A few years ago, I got serious about setting myself up for success when it comes to vacations. Being on the backside of an anticipated fun event is hard enough; adding a rough return home to the mix was like a double whammy. Instead of winding up rested and refreshed, I squandered my good vacation vibes trying to get up to speed with my normal life.

Here's my recipe for a pleasant versus painful re-entry.

Before I Leave
Bottom line: I have to do more work before I leave on vacation to set myself up to be able to relish it on the back end.

Clean out the fridge (1-2 days before departure)
There is nothing more disheartening that coming home from vacation to find rotting bananas on your counter and sour milk in your fridge. So now, a couple of days before I leave, I go through my fresh food supplies and decide what can stay and what needs to go. Sometimes, that means my family eats a dinner of leftovers a couple of nights in a row so we don't waste food. (I hate wasting food.) Sometimes, I have so much fresh food, I decide to give some of it away to local friends rather than have it languish in my empty house. And always, it means I allot myself 30-45 minutes the day of departure to put freezable food in the freezer - this includes all bread, cheeses and leftovers. And if I have time, I deal with the remaining produce in my fridge that won't keep. Last week, I put all our berries in the freezer; at least that way, I can use them in the future for smoothies or muffins. I froze a bag of pre-cut broccoli; that will go in broccoli cheese soup. I even froze the rest of the container of spinach for smoothies. I also put a bowl of pears on my counter into the fridge. The only thing I forgot was the bananas in my pantry, but banana bread to the rescue, yes? Nothing wasted.

Make sure I have at least one meal ready to go (1-2 days before departure)
You know what's disheartening? Stepping into your house after a long vacation at dinner time only to realize: there's nothing to eat for dinner. Sure, we could hit up a restaurant, but if we're coming home after vacation, we've just eaten out ad nauseum. And no one has the energy to control the kids at a restaurant after a long day of travel. In the past, a dinner of eggs and toast came to my rescue. But these days, I try to make sure there's something in my freezer that I can reheat the night we come home. Last week, it was a frozen Pioneer Woman lasagna. I put it in the oven right after we walked in the door, and it cooked while the kids ran crazy and the adults unpacked. Ninety minutes later, we sat down to a real meal that didn't include fries or chicken fingers.

Bonus tip: Make sure you at least have milk and cereal in your house before you leave, so you don't have to run out for breakfast the next morning either.

Clean the house (1 day before departure)
A clean house calms me. A chaotic house makes me crazy. Ergo, I now make the day before we leave on vacation a cleaning day. I don't go crazy, but I do clean the bathrooms, dust the major surfaces, vacuum and Swiffer and make sure my kitchen counters aren't sticky and the sink is wiped down. Walking into a house free from clutter and dog hair makes me think: Ahhh, it's good to be home. I can linger here in this vacation mode for just a few more days.

Launder sheets and towels (day of departure, if you have time)
If I can, I like to do it the morning we leave. As soon as I get up, I strip my bed and wash the sheets. (I don't worry about the kids' beds. They don't appreciate clean sheets like I do.) I also grab all the towels after morning showers and cycle them through. I figure, even if they aren't hung up (read: I threw that last load in the dryer as I was walking out the door), it's still nicer to come home to fresh.

Take out the garbage (day of departure)
One time, I forgot to take out the kitchen garbage. In the summer. Before we left on a two-week trip. It took me bottles of Febreeze to remove the smell of rotted chicken that seemed to pervade every surface in my home. Never again.

Start the dishwasher (day of departure)
Dishwashers get stinky too, yes? Especially if they are loaded with cereal bowls coated with milk. So even if the dishwasher is only 1/4 full, I start it right before we leave. Because I don't like stinky.

Once I Get Home
Bottom Line: Cash out the pre-vacation work.

Have the Hold Mail delivered
I always have my mail held for the time I'm gone and then have everything delivered the day I get home. That way, I can get through the stack of junk right away. It's usually waiting for me, wrapped in a big rubber band, in my mailbox.

Unpack
I used to wait to unpack. "I just don't feel like it yet," I said to myself. You know what happened? Five days after the trip, I was still living out of a suitcase. Ain't nobody got time for that. So now, I unpack within an hour of getting home. And I ruthlessly unpack everything. Laundry goes into the laundry room, clean clothes get folded or hung on hangers, toys get put away, DVDs reunite with their cases (they live in an old-fashioned CD carrier while we are away; less bulk). Yes, it's a pain, but once it's done, you can relax and enjoy being home and bask in all the good memories.

Do laundry
If I don't start the vacation laundry right away, I will put it off forever. So I gather and sort it as soon as possible and throw in a load before I go to bed that first night. It means I have to fold and put away the next day, but if my house is clean and I have food for meals, it's the only real chore I have to do that day. I can manage that.

Clean your schedule for a day or two
Obviously, this one isn't always possible. But when we arrived back this week, I discovered - to my utter delight - that because many districts around us are on break this week, almost all of my regularly scheduled activities have been cancelled. So I had no Wednesday night church events, no Thursday morning workout classes, no Friday morning mommy and me class. I didn't plan this, but now that I've experienced this slow-and-easy re-entry? I would plan it this way in the future, even if it meant bowing out of normal life for a few days. It's been so much nicer than trying to hit the ground running. The whole family has been able to rest from the time change and enjoy being home without being rushed somewhere. Instead of being stretched and depressed, we are savoring a spring break well spent.

And isn't that the whole point of a vacation?

Practicing Sabbath

This post was originally published at my friend Megan's blog, as part of her beloved Lenten series Waiting Tables.



If you read Laura Ingalls Wilder iconic "Little House in the Big Woods" at some point in your life, you probably remember the following story.

Pa told it to Laura one Sunday, when she dared to run and play with her dog Jack after dinner, before the sun had set, when Sabbath was still being honored and no fun or work allowed. Rather than punish her, Pa took her in his arms and told her about a Sunday when her grandpa and his two older brothers could not endure the continual sitting and quiet Sabbath seemingly required either. The day before, they had finished work on a beauty of a new sled. But since they finished it after dark, they hadn't been able to use it. And despite their noses being in catechism books and their bodies being on a bench besides their father reading the Bible, all they could think about was that sled. So when they saw their father fall asleep, with his head on the back of the chair, the boys silently filed out of the room, out to the shed where their new sled sat waiting. They intended to slide it just once, silently, and then head right back inside. But as fate would have it, a big black pig stepped into their path just as they neared their house, and since they couldn't stop or turn, that pig ended up on the sled with the boys. "Squeeeee! Squeeee!" went the pig, the rest of the way down the hill. The boys could see their father standing in the window, watching them, as they swooshed past the house carrying the screeching hog. When the ride was over, the boys put the sled away, slunk back indoors to find their father reading his Bible. No words were exchanged. But that night, when the sun set on the Sabbath, he took them out to the woodshed where he "tanned their jackets."

Pa ended by saying, "So you see, Laura and Mary, you may find it hard to be good, but you should be glad that it isn't as hard to be good now as it was when Grandpa was a boy."

We laugh, but it has a ring of truth to it, even today in 2014. Sabbath may no longer demand 24 hours of sitting still. But it can feel like one more task on our to do list, one more badge we need to earn. Stifling. Boring. Rigid. A burden.

But that, my friends, is not Sabbath. That is the bare bones of the animal, picked dry and brittle by the devouring vultures of legalism. True Sabbath is a lithe, laughing, gentle beast, that woos us to come and play.

Sabbath is supposed to be the best day of the week, not the worst.

I know this, because three years ago, God gave me a year to study and practice and absorb what He means by Sabbath. To get the healing shalom of it right down into my marrow. It has become gift to me. Grace. I do not always observe it well, and certainly, I do not do it to the extent I would wish. But I do live by its rhythm and rhyme. And it has changed me.

So this Lent, if you want to make Sabbath part of your commitment, I want to bless you and give you a high five and a hug and say, "It's worth it. It's worth it."

And if I may humbly direct your gaze to the aspect of Sabbath that most surprised me, consider this: Sabbath is about delight.

Dan Allendar, in his book Sabbath, writes. "Sabbath is our play day - not as a break from the routine of work, but as a feast that celebrates the superabundance of God's creative love."

Does that make your breath catch a little? Sabbath is designed to restore us, to renew us. To let us set aside the drudgery of the every day and allow ourselves to wallow in delight.

So I ask the question: What delights you? What restores you?

And while you ponder the answer, let me stir this into the mix. In my favorite Sabbath book, author Mark Buchanan said Sabbath's golden rule is "to cease from that which is necessary." Don't do what you ought to do. If it something you must do, that you feel an obligation toward, then it is work and not restorative. Choose something that you want to do, something that makes you come alive.
Sabbath is a reprieve from what you ought to do, even though the list of oughts is infinitely long and never done. Oughts are tyrants, noisy and surly, chronically dissatisfied. Sabbath is the day you trade places with them: they go into the salt mine, and you go out dancing. It's the one day when the only thing you must do is to not do the things you must. You are given permission - issued a command, to be blunt - to turn your back on all those oughts. You get to willfully ignore the many niggling things your existence genuinely depends on - and is often hobbled beneath - so that you can turn to whatever you've put off and pushed away for a lack of time, lack of room, lack of breath. You get to shuck the have-tow and lay hold of the get-tos.
Keep in mind: what restores me may not restore you. And what restores me this week may smell like an "ought-to" next week. Many Sabbath celebrations are built on routine: the lighting of candles, the breaking of bread, the singing of praises and wonder. But there is also a continual discovery to it, a creativity that all things made new.

A few practical tips:

1. It doesn't have to be Saturday.
For centuries, the Jewish people have celebrated Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. After Jesus' resurrection, the early church moved the celebration to Sunday. But let's be honest: for many of us, Sundays are not a restful day. So don't celebrate Sabbath then. Pick a day, or an afternoon, or an hour, when you can create the space necessary for Sabbath to breathe.

2. Let the themes of rest, renewal and restoration guide you.
Answer the question: What restores me? What would rest look like at this point in my life? I heard one man who leads Sabbath retreats say many of his participants fall asleep during the first session of quiet, and then wake up, horrified and embarrassed. He always reassures them it is good to sleep, for it means they finally feel safe enough to let go and surrender to their weariness. Maybe what you need most is a good, long nap.

3. It might take some work to truly rest.
If you truly want to carve out time to rest and restore, you will probably have to prepare in advance to get the most out of your time. If you've ever seen "Fiddler on the Roof," you've seen this play out. Everyone hurries, hurries, hurries on Friday to get all the shopping done, the house cleaned, the food cooked, the animals fed so that they can stop at sundown and Sabbath for the next 24 hours without the most pesky "oughts" bothering them.

4. If you have young children at home, you might need to get creative.
I hear the heart cry of every young parent at this moment, because I'm right there too: How in the world do I do this with young kids at home? My answer: I don't know, exactly. As I've worked at incorporating Sabbath into my own life over the past few years, I've found that I can't expect a full 24 hours at this stage of my life. Sometimes, my husband and I will trade a few hours on the weekend to give each other space to Sabbath. Sometimes, I create my own space during the week by placating my kids with Netflix and Goldfish. Sometimes, Sabbath is more about an attitude for me than a physical expression. Even that is healing and restorative for me. Baby steps. Because every move toward Sabbath is a good one.

On Sleepovers and Waking Up to Change

This past weekend, Natalie hosted a sleepover for two of her closest friends. The way the schedules worked out, the girls were here for a full 24 hours, which normally I would say is A Bad Decision, given what I know about sleepovers and tween girls. But the extra time turned out to be a secret bonus: since the girls knew they had a big budget of hours to spend together, they didn't force themselves to stay up all night to make the most of every opportunity. Ergo, they slept from midnight to almost 7:00 AM, and they were a complete delight on Saturday instead of cranky zombies.

Also: they baked homemade mini donuts and then whooped it up with the sprinkles. Can't hate that.

It sounds funny, but at some point last year, I woke up to the fact that I'm a mom who's oldest kids are rapidly approaching the teen years. And I don't mean I gently woke up, as on a spring morning with the birds singing outside my window. I mean woke up like my alarm went off with its loud "BLEEP BLEEP BLEEP" and I simultaneously have a heart attack and win a gold medal for cartwheeling out of my bed and slamming the snooze button while doing the splits.

It was startling, is what I'm saying.

I think it snuck up on me because my focus has been fixed by necessity on the younger ones. The baby years are singularly absorbing, the toddler years are joyfully and exhausting. Natalie and Connor were mostly in the sweet spot, the easy and uncomplicated years between 6 and 10, when they are old enough to get dressed by themselves and brush their own teeth (theoretically), but they still want to be with you and they have awesome imaginations and they are completely unselfconscious.

I think I forgot they are changing too, even if it's at a slower pace.

But you know what? After I got over the heart-pounding moment of recognition, I found myself falling in love with the ages my kids are today.

Yes, Natalie is only 18 months away from high school. (I'm not really OK with that at all, but I keep saying it to myself to see if I will eventually get over the shock.) But she is still my girl, she is sweet and loving and responsible and generous. What's more, now she is genuinely funny (versus the knock-knock joke funny of second graders, which we all know is a special kind of torture) and she sends me cute emoji texts and she gets totally embarrassed when her friends follow me on Instagram, which is endearing.

Connor draws comics like it's his job right now (which he hopes it will be, someday), and he shares them with me and explains each panel so patiently. "And here he falls down and then it's all 'aaahhhh' and the bomb explodes and then this darkness is where the ninja dies.'" And I smile and nod and feign understanding. Because it's not about the drawing, it's about his imagination, right? And that I get that spades.

Just last week, I unearthed a bizarre belief deep down in my subconscious, which was: once we are mature, we stop changing. I have no idea where I got this, because I'm fairly certain no adult ever told me that. When I stumbled upon this belief and and held it up to the light, I laughed a while with God because - to live is to change. Even now, at 42, I'm shifting, evolving, learning, growing in my soul and my world view. And I love it. Change isn't always easy but it's exhilarating.

And so it is with my children. Change is constant. For sure, trying to keep up with the growth of four kids at once is like trying to watch four TV programs at the same time, as I often say. I'm bound to miss key twists in the plot, because there's only so much I can absorb at once.

But oh. To be on this ride. What a joy.

---------

So as long as we're talking about change, let me ask you a question: how old are your kids and what is their bedtime? We are not an early-to-bed family, so generally, the kids all have the same bedtime because a. it makes it easy for us to enforce and b. we rarely make that bedtime anyway. 

But it occurred to me this weekend that Natalie, at 12, probably doesn't need to aim to be in bed at the same time as Kieran, who is 3. At what age is it right to make the shift to a later bedtime? 

(I'm going to post the same question over on my FB page, where there is usually more discussion. So if you want to comment there, feel free to hop over and join the conversation.)


To Hear God


It wasn't until we had settled into our seats - tucking purses away, smooshing winter jackets into an extra chair, pulling the coffee tumblers out - that I noticed the family in front of us at church.

The parents were sandwiched between children, four in all, three girls and a boy. I was quickly drawn to the oldest girl holding her youngest sister, because the little one had glasses strapped over almond-shaped eyes characteristic of those with Down's. She plugged her ears with her fingers when the music started, the loud drums and the reverberating guitar quite too much for her nerves. Her older sister took it in stride and gently swayed to the music. Mom and Dad, a few seats down, held out their hands at various times, the universal sign for "Do you want me to take her?" The older girl, maybe 15, just smiled and kept swaying.

When the music finished, and we sat down, the parents dispersed paper and crayons for the middle kids and gently fit large headphones over the ears of the youngest girl, now carefully cradled in her father's lap. I kept watching them, even as I listened to the sermon, because who can look away from love?

And then I felt it, a quiet tugging in my marrow, a whisper in the space I've created recently for the Holy Spirit to speak. "They are doing it. A job well done."

"I know," my spirit replied, more with a smile than with words. "I see it."

"Tell them," the voice whispered back. "They need to hear it."

Straight away, my eyes filled with tears. I have no idea why, but that always happens to me when the Word speaks right from the center of my being. I am simultaneously terrified and exuberant. It is no small thing.

My first thought: "Yes! Yes, I should tell them. Who wouldn't want to be told something like that?"

Immediately followed by: "Oh my word, I can't tell people I don't even know I have a Word From the Lord for them. That's so ... Pentecostal." (At this point, the Holy Spirit smiled. I felt it.)

"Plus, what if they are doing all this as a front? What if they yelled at their kids all morning? What will the kids think if they hear me say, 'I feel like God wants me to tell you that you're doing a great job' and they think God condones something that isn't good? I shouldn't insert myself."

And so the wrestling match went, for 20 more minutes. By the end, I was pinned by the Spirit. (Which might be the real meaning of the Greek phrase "to be filled" we see in Ephesians 5.) If I say I want to hear from God, that I want to create margin in my heart, mind and schedule to listen and act, how dare I reply with pithy rationalizations that allow me to do nothing?

So it was, at the end of the service, that I stood tall and silent for a minute as the crowd around me gathered coats and voices, and then leaned over to the woman in front of me and said, "Are you new here today?"

She didn't hear me at first. (Of course not. That's how the Holy Spirit plays with me.)

I cleared my throat. "I'm sorry, are you new?" I asked with a louder, almost frantic tone. "I loved watching your family during church today."

At this, the mom turned and smiled. "Oh, we aren't new. We're just visiting today, for the baptism, to support some friends. We normally attend Bethlehem. I hope we didn't bother you too much with our chaos."

"No, not at all," I said. "In fact, I sat here and thought, 'you are doing such a good job.' And I think God wants me to tell you that. You are doing a good job."

She smiled, "Thank you. That's very kind."

And then the after-church rush pulled us apart and the conversation ended.

Did it matter to her? I don't know. I doubt encouragement ever goes unappreciated.

But I know it mattered to me, desperately. Because I want to hear God, and I think the Spirit talks most to those who have ears to hear.

Why I'd Rather Write on Facebook than Actually Blog


If there is consistency in my life, a thread that runs through the whole panarama, it is writing.

In elementary school, I penned books of sincere, maudlin poetry. In junior high, I filled journal after journal with observances, annoyances and my overwhelming fear that I would die without ever kissing a boy. In high school, I wrote and eventually edited for the school newspaper, and in college, I wrote and then edited and then managed our monthly magazine. Upon graduation, I took a job as the editor of a beachside newspaper, my first "I can't believe I get paid to write" job. Eventually, I landed at NBC, writing and producing stories and sometimes newscasts, in a dizzying attempt to court fickle Nielsen.

These days, I write here. Or at least, I imagine I do. Lately, I've struggled to write, to do the work, as a good friend says. I find myself facing a wall of fear every time I sit in front of the glowing empty screen, a fear that's murky enough to defy examination but real enough to send me scurrying back to Facebook, where I can read and write pleasant little nothings without having to do battle.

Then, last week, I read an article on The Atlantic about Why Writers Are The Worst Procrastinators, and my whole being practically vibrated with resonation. Because the author, Megan McArdle, somehow saw fit to peak into my brain and heart and write what she saw. After describing in excruciating detail the lengths most writers will go to put off the work of actually writing - "In the course of writing this one article, I have checked my e-mail approximately 3,000 times, made and discarded multiple grocery lists, conducted a lengthy Twitter battle over whether the gold standard is actually the worst economic policy ever proposed, written Facebook messages to schoolmates I haven’t seen in at least a decade, invented a delicious new recipe for chocolate berry protein smoothies, and googled my own name several times to make sure that I have at least once written something that someone would actually want to read." - she postulates this theory:
Over the years, I developed a theory about why writers are such procrastinators: We were too good in English class. This sounds crazy, but hear me out.

Most writers were the kids who easily, almost automatically, got A's in English class. (There are exceptions, but they often also seem to be exceptions to the general writerly habit of putting off writing as long as possible.) At an early age, when grammar school teachers were struggling to inculcate the lesson that effort was the main key to success in school, these future scribblers gave the obvious lie to this assertion. Where others read haltingly, they were plowing two grades ahead in the reading workbooks. These are the kids who turned in a completed YA novel for their fifth-grade project. It isn’t that they never failed, but at a very early age, they didn’t have to fail much; their natural talents kept them at the head of the class.

This teaches a very bad, very false lesson: that success in work mostly depends on natural talent. Unfortunately, when you are a professional writer, you are competing with all the other kids who were at the top of their English classes. Your stuff may not—indeed, probably won’t—be the best anymore.

If you’ve spent most of your life cruising ahead on natural ability, doing what came easily and quickly, every word you write becomes a test of just how much ability you have, every article a referendum on how good a writer you are. As long as you have not written that article, that speech, that novel, it could still be good. Before you take to the keys, you are Proust and Oscar Wilde and George Orwell all rolled up into one delicious package. By the time you’re finished, you’re more like one of those 1940’s pulp hacks who strung hundred-page paragraphs together with semicolons because it was too much effort to figure out where the sentence should end.
My heart almost burst with recognition.

I write, in my head, all the time. Constantly. I rearrange words and record lines of dialogue and get the lead just so. I come up with idea after idea, and I feel so proud of my imaginary work. And then I sit down to write, to do the work, and I freeze up, because now I'm face to face with the very real possibility that what I write will be drivel, that the beautiful concept in my head will end up squished and bloody as a newborn baby after it descends from my brain to the screen.

Failure. I fear it. I avoid it. I despise it. So I slink away from the challenge and go fold laundry instead. Because at least then, I know I'll end up with something to show for my work - like a pile of neatly pressed towels - instead of a page of messy, incoherent crap that looks nothing like I had imagined.

Maybe you relate to this? For you, it might not writing. Maybe it's getting off the couch and starting to exercise again. Maybe it's changing, really changing, the food you eat. Maybe it's the art supplies you've stuffed in the back of the closet with a huff and a sigh. Maybe it's going back to school to finish that degree or entering that songwriting contest or looking for a new job that really excites you.

Whatever it is, I know this: doing nothing to avoid failure ensures failure of the deepest kind. We must try. We must fail. We must learn. We must grow. And we must never give up.

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says:
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.
Amen? Here's to more having fun.

Eyes to See


I didn't grow up in a church that celebrated communion each week. It was a monthly practice usually, "because we don't want it to become common." When the basket full of broken crackers reached me, I took one and held it in my lap. When the juice tray was passed, I took it gingerly and full of trepidation, sure I would upend it with one clumsy move and spill the blood of Jesus down my dress and across the aisle. I waited to partake of both, waited for the minister up front to solemnly say, "Take and eat. Do this in remembrance of me." And the whole auditorium would move, as one, in a silent ritual that seemed to me both holy and mundane.

Despite the fact that it was only once a month, it was still common to me. An ordinary thing we did, part of the rhythm of my life.

I was young, so I don't condemn my memories. I didn't have the depth to appreciate the mystery. And mystery isn't perceived by looking at the surface. You have to have eyes to see.

----------

Sunday was communion Sunday for my church family, and in our gathering, no trays are passed. Instead, we walk forward to receive the body and blood from the hands of our brothers and sisters.

The band played an earthy "Nothing But The Blood" as The Church lined up to remember. Teenagers in hoodies and sweat pants shuffled next to grandparents in suits and sweater sets. A young mother swayed in the line, a tiny head cradled in the crook of her arm. White. Black. Asian. Latino. The residents of a group home walked forward with jerks and crooked limbs and smiles that went from side to side. The pure in heart. And I couldn't stop the tears and my soul sang, "How beautiful you are, Lord. How beautiful you are."

Near the end, I slipped into the line, with Corey and Natalie, and I took a shard of bread from from one of my sisters who looked me in the eye and said, "This is the body of Christ, broken for you." And I dipped it in the cup held out to me by another sister, and she smiled at me and said, "The blood of Christ, shed for you, Kelly." And I took and ate and wept and was made whole.

I still don't understand the mystery. But I no longer need to. The blessing of age is knowing glory is most at home in the common, if you have eyes to see.

Here, Taste This : Citrus and Avocado Salad

Grapefruit might be my favorite fruit. Right next to peaches. And mangoes. And perfectly ripe strawberries. And juicy sweet blueberries.

I like fruit, is what I'm saying.

But I do think citrus fruit is perfectly gifted to be in season right now, when deepest, darkest winter has set in and we are all fogged in by the relentless grind of being indoors and eating root vegetables at every meal. (Californian friends, just nod and act like you know what I'm talking about.) A bright pink grapefruit, a sunny orange, even a gleaming lemon, remind us of summer days and warm breezes and a sky as clean and fresh as the juice dripping down our chin.

This salad can be a butt-load of work, I'm not going to lie to you. (Of course, I have time-saving tips; see below.) But it so exquisitely combines the tang of citrus with the butteriness of avocado and the zip of pomegranate seeds, it's worth it.



(my apologies for the pitiful picture; apparently, I have few pictures of this salad because I'm too busy eating it immediately)

Citrus and Avocado Salad with Pomegranate Seeds

3 oranges, segmented
2 grapefruits, segmented
2 avocados, sliced
1/3 cup pomegranate seeds
spring greens or spinach

Dressing:
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
pepper to taste

Directions:
1. First, make the dressing by combining all the dressing ingredients and blending until emulsified.
2. Section the fruits and slice the avocados. (More on that below.)
3. Place greens or spinach on plate; arrange citrus and avocado on top. Sprinkle on the pomegranate seeds and drizzle with dressing.

Tips:
1. Segmenting citrus sounds so scary, doesn't it? "Here, Dr. Watson, take these grapefruit in the back and SEGMENT them." But it's not, I promise. It takes more patience than skill. Here's a great video by Mario Batali that shows you exactly how to do it, accompanied by kicky jazz and snarky subtitles.

2. My favorite time-saving tip of the year: If you have a Costco near you, look for their cups of ready-to-eat grapefruit in the cooler section. They are already segmented pink grapefruit stored in juice and OH MY WORD, they are the best. I bought my first box to use for this salad, and  I've turned into a raving grapefruit lunatic, now that I can eat them all the time without any prep work involved.
3. You know how to deal with avocado, right? Again, not hard. Just takes patience. Here's another awesome video that shows you the basics.

4. And here's where I would show you a video of how to get pomegranate seeds out of a pomegranate - which, OK, I'll show it to you anyway, because it's just cool and clever, and it's a fun thing to do with kids, if you have some who are interested in cooking. Plus, the pomegranate is one of the most gorgeous, sensuous fruits out there. Did you know many cultures believe it was the fruit that the serpent used to tempt Eve?

BUT! If you don't want to go through the trouble, you can now buy pomegranate seeds in most grocery stores. Look for fresh arils in the produce section, often under the brand name Pom-Poms.
5. One last tip: I'm a dressing minimalist, so I usually make half the dressing called for, or I save it for another day. This salad is delicious enough just with the flavors involved. It should not be drowned in goop. If you do, I will be forced to give you the disapproving dog face.

You've been warned.

On Raising Boys and Other Feral Things


I was sitting at my desk the other night, when Kieran emerged from the bathroom. He was nekkid from the waist down, clutching his nighttime pull-up and his polar bear fleece pajama pants. Pretty routine for this boy; if I had a dime for every time I found him without pants lately, I could fund his college education. I started to help him put his bottoms back on when I saw his left foot was splattered with liquid.

My mind pressed rewind.

One minute earlier a tinkling sound had come from the bathroom. I had ignored it, thinking he was using the potty. But the discovery of the wet foot led to a wet leg which led to a scurry to the bathroom where I found an empty potty.

"Kieran! Did you go pee-pee?" I tried to keep the terror from my voice.

"Yep!" he answered proudly. "In der."

And he pointed to the shower.

My shower.

Sure enough, there was a splatter of liquid gold still trickling to the drain.

"Buddy! What did you go potty in the shower instead of the toilet?" I asked, completely befuddled.

"I dun know," he shrugged.

Boys. They are feral things, wild creatures we welcome into our hearts only to find pee in the shower and exactly zero underwear in the wash. (Because it's too much work to go get a clean pair after the shower, Mom.)

I am confused by them but equally delighted. My three-year-old Kieran wipes his snotty nose on my shirt sleeve and then says, "I wuv you so much, mama" and hugs my neck hard. My 10-year-old Connor has to be reminded every day to brush his teeth, every day, as if it's a new task we've suddenly given him instead of a twice daily routine he's been doing since he was three. But he also shows me the new comic strip he's drowning and lays his head on my lap each night before bed with a quiet, "Will you pray for me, Mom?"

I can't predict them, and Lord knows I don't understand their native ways. (Why is burping so funny?)

But I love their otherness, and I can't imagine my life without their hugs, their adoration and their boy grunts and giggles.

Even if it means there's occasionally some pee in the shower. At least it's not on the front rug, right?

Here Taste This, Polar Vortex Edition : Chicken Spinach Soup with Barley

So it's Monday, and my kids are home from school again. This is the fourth school cancellation day this month, and I feel certain day five will come tomorrow. It's not that I disagree with it so much; temps of -20 and wind chills of -45 are not to be trifled with. It's more that it's insanity. Even for Minnesota in January, this is wicked cold.

The best way to fight back - besides a trip to the Caribbean - is soup. So today, I'm breaking with my self-imposed rule to do "Here, Taste This" on Fridays, and I'm posting a Polar Vortex edition. Because this soup is perfect for these frigid days. It's fast, simple, healthy and it will fill you with warm goodness.



Chicken Spinach Soup with Barley
adapted from Everyday Food

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
4 carrots, diced
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
6 cups chicken broth
1 cup quick-cooking barley
5 cups raw baby spinach, roughly chopped

Directions:
1. In a large Dutch oven or soup pot, heat oil over medium-high. Add carrots and onion. Cook until just tender, about 8 minutes. Add chicken, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring, until chicken turns white on the edges, about 2 minutes.
2. Add broth and and bring to a boil. Add barley. Reduce heat to low, cover the pot and simmer the soup until barley is tender and chicken is cooked, 10 to 12 minutes.
3. Remove cover, add spinach and stir until the spinach is just wilted, about 1 minute.
4. Season to taste with more salt and pepper and serve.

Tips:
1. The key to this soup is quick-cooking barley. Most grocery stores stock it, but you might have to ask where they keep it. Some keep it by the oatmeal, others in the soup aisle. Quick-cooking barley has all the nutrition of pearled barley, only it's flattened so it cooks in much less time. It should look a little like oatmeal when you pour it out of the box.
2. I like pepper, so I add lots of it just before serving. Be sure to taste the soup before you serve it and salt and pepper to your taste.
3. Serve with crusty bread and cut-up pears and apples. Eat next to a roaring fire and smile smugly at the wind howling outside. The cold can't touch you now, baby.

Expectations

Expectations are tricky buggers.

Often, we don't know they are there, lurking beneath the surface, until they aren't met. And then they pop out like some sort of demon-infested honey badger and unleash venom on us and the people around us.

Take the cold, for example.

Here in Minnesota, we are enjoying our third day of school cancellation this month because of wicked wind chill. This morning, had my kids been waiting outside for the bus, the air temperature (-13) combined with the gusty wind would have made it feel like it was -45 outside. You know, colder than the surface of Mars. Exposed skin freezes in less than five minutes in temperatures like that. So we are staying inside today, enjoying a surprise morning of extra sleep and extra cuddles. The sky outside my window is piercing blue; there's no other word for it. The sun is crystalline and the whole world glitters like a diamond. A brittle, cold, sharp diamond.

But then again, it's January. I expect this in January.

Come April? It best not be -13 in April, with the snow piled high on my roof and bitter winds blowing from Canada. Because in April, it should be spring. Winter should have gasped its last by that point, and warm sunshine should be coaxing out the buds, and the birds should be trilling with joy.

I don't expect cold in April. Ergo, it makes me crabby when it happens. For proof, see pretty much every post I wrote April 2013.

Of course, my expectations were different when we lived in San Diego. Then, anything below 60 made me whine, no matter the month. Corey and I both laughed at ourselves when we were at an outdoor Christmas event in Balboa Park one year. We were shivering uncontrollably, even though we were wearing coats and mittens. The temperature was 45.

Which is the second tricky thing about expectations - they evolve. Life pushes and pulls them, like so many waves imperceptibly moving you downshore from your towel. It's wise, I think, to stop and notice this and recalibrate, when you can. It minimizes frustration and maximizes peace.

For example:

Because of Corey's travel schedule, I no longer expect him to be home. I expect him to be gone. This is huge, because I don't grouse nearly as much about solo-parenting when I view it as normal. Having him home is an added extra, a treat that isn't for every day.

Because of my children and their relentless desire to be with me, I no longer expect to get an unbroken night's sleep. It's been months, if not years, since I slept straight through. Thankfully, I fall back to sleep fairly easily, and maybe because I'm so used to sleeping with tiny bodies who dream they are punching kangaroos, I can sleep through a lot. I just no longer expect to sleep for more than two hours at a stretch.

Because of my own wrestling with God, I no longer expect to figure Him out or to "be right." I have grown to accept He is wild and big and, above all, boundless in grace and love. I don't expect a controlled God anymore, a God that can be explained and predicted. I expect awe, frustration, joy. I expect the opposite of what I would reason with my brain. I expect the unexpected. And I've never been so excited about the adventure of following Jesus.

What do you expect? It's an important question. And a good one, for a cold day in January.

A December to Remember

So winter quiets me. But you know what? It doesn't quiet my children. It doesn't mute my life. Winter slows the core, like sap in a maple. But it doesn't ever freeze solid.

All that to say: a whole lot of living happened the last few weeks, while I was transitioning from December's sparkle and bustle to January's possibilities and paralysis analysis.

Last month, we managed to buy our Christmas tree, decorate it, put the holiday lights on the house and arrange the front porch pots full of winter greenery exactly two day before the first snow storm of the season. (And exactly one day before Corey left for North Korea. More on that later.)

In a flurry of caffeine and sugar induced hyperactivity, the kids and I mixed, scooped, baked and decorated all our Christmas cookies - all 20 dozen of them - in one day.

Sadly, all that baking didn't preemptively burn off all the cookie calories. (And I still have some chocolate mint brownies, if you want one. I'm done.)

Christmas was more relaxed than it has the right to be. Our kids don't wake up at the crack of dawn anymore, and since we don't have tons of family in the area, the day was more about playing with the new toys, taking naps and walking together through the snow-covered neighborhood than craziness.

There was also a lot of laughter. I love that kind of Christmas.

And then we got even more relaxed. Corey enjoyed some vacation after his Korea trip. We got the backyard ice rink ready for business. We tortured ourselves with a 1000-piece puzzle. We slept in and saw "Frozen" twice and we went sledding and we had an epic snowball fight on an above-freezing day.

The cold never bothered me anyway.

And then we rang in 2014 with our annual cheese and chocolate fondue extravaganza. Because what we really need after a month of rich foods and extra treats is - cheese and chocolate!

Not pictured in any of the collages above: the whiny moments, the exhausted meltdowns, the cries of "I'm bored" coming from the middle of a mountain of new toys and the five or ten extra pounds left by the holidays. They were there, woven into the fabric of reality. But that's not what I remember when I look back. I mostly remember a Christmas break almost magical in quality. Corey was home for three weeks in a row, which hasn't happened since July 2012. We were just ... together. It was glorious.

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The photo collages above were all created with the help of my favorite monkey on the Internet, PicMonkey. Ever since the demise of Picnik two years ago, PicMonkey has become my go-to for basic, easy and painless online photo editing. It's the perfect solution for people like me who want to touch up photos, maybe make a collage or add some text but who don't want to go to the trouble, time or expense of mastering Photoshop. The basic service is free, or you can pay a small monthly fee to upgrade to more editing options. Maybe my favorite part is PicMonkey's sense of humor and general cheekiness. Any website that has a monkey winking at me is alright by me, you know?

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Winter Always Quiets Me


Winter always quiets me.

At first, it's a quiet born of distraction. December's hustle consumes. I am mesmerized by the sparkle, absorbed by the traditions, seduced once again by Immanuel made new. It's a roller coaster that allows no time for reflection until the ride comes to a end, gently slowing, returning to where it all began.

And then it's January, and I'm flat worn out. I'm satiated, almost gluttonous with the richness of the past few weeks. I'm ready to fast, to cut back and reign in. The snow falls fresh, and the hustle is but a distant rattle of a train long passed. The silence of winter is palpable, you can sink into it if you sit long enough. Even the busy thoughts - I should fold the laundry, what happened to that homework paper, maybe I should write something - get swallowed up by the stillness. Instead of doing, my soul listens.

That is a good quiet.

But there's another side to winter's noiselessness. It's the chill of apathy, the freezing fingers of fear. It's when the polar vortex of lies slips in through the cracks and works its way into your bones without you really noticing. All of a sudden, I find myself chained to the couch, huddled under a familiar old blanket, drowsy and dull. Goals and dreams have no power here. I am rooted in fear, not rooted in love, and I am stiff with cold.

That is a bad quiet.

Wisdom is recognizing which quiet has captured me.