Looking Back. Thinking Ahead.

I love the concept of a new year for a multitude of reasons.  It's an opportunity to get back on track with healthy habits.  It's an invitation to organize, reduce, and repurpose.  It's a fresh page on a fresh calendar.  But best of all, it's a clean slate mentally.  Technically speaking, tomorrow -- January 1 -- is merely the day that follows today, but mentally, it's a day full of promise.

As I'm looking at 2015 with hopefulness for what lies ahead, I'm also reflecting back on 2014.  Earlier this morning, I read through my blog posts from 2014.  What an extraordinary opportunity to review my life seasonally and remember moments I otherwise would have forgotten.

I've culled a collection of my favorites -- some encouraging, some humorous, some practical -- to commemorate the year, and I invite you to visit (or revisit) as many as you'd like.

The Antidote for Envisioning a Different Life
Life Will Continue Even If You Don't Get an "A"
The Adventure Waiting to Happen Right In Our Own Neighborhood
Days Like This In Pennsylvania, In Istanbul, and In Between
Recovering from the Birthday Season
When I Wouldn't Want to be Anywhere Besides My Backyard
The Happiest Funeral You'll Ever Attend
The First Mile is the Hardest
Giving New Life to an Old End Table
Creative Ways to Fill a Frame
Creating Beauty for Beauty's Sake
When Your Kids Remind You of Chickens
Just Say No
When You're THAT Mother (and when your kids are THOSE kids)
No Neighbors Were Harmed in the Making of This Blog Post

Thank you for your continued readership and support, my friends!  Remember, no matter where 2015 takes us, when we walk with the Lord, we'll never face a step alone. 

Happy New Year!

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The Morning After Christmas

It's the morning after Christmas.  The opened presents have been moved into piles, the few gifts designated for returns have been matched with their gift receipts, and the shreds of wrapping paper have been cleaned from the floor.  Space has been cleared in the refrigerator, and leftovers from Christmas dinner have been transferred neatly into Tupperware containers.  Our guests have left, the first load of laundry has been started, and it's just our family of five once again.

Back to normal.

The past week has passed in a blur -- closing the semester, getting sick, recuperating, holiday baking, last minute shopping, late night gift wrapping, welcoming family, attending Christmas Eve service, watching Christmas morning unfold through the eyes of my children who were hyped up on sugar and life, and navigating Christmas afternoon as new toys and games and books were explored.

It was a beautiful Christmas with family, and last night my husband and I turned into bed early, happy but exhausted.  This morning I woke and realized how quickly the holiday had passed, how abruptly everything had ended.

Even so, there's something wonderful about today.  The sun shines brightly.  I hadn't noticed the absence of sunlight during the past several days, but now that it shines I realize what I've been missing.

Baby, it's cold outside, but with that sunshine, I don't particularly mind.  Another day has dawned, and it's a new and hopeful one.  Christmas has passed, but warmth and cheer remain.

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I Know. I Love You Anyway.

My week hasn't gone as expected.  My semester has finally ended, but the race to the finish line resembled a limp more than a sprint.  I submitted final grades and processed my instructor feedback while lying in bed, coughing, feverish, and chilled.

Even though I'm slowly recovering, instead of experiencing happiness and closure with another semester in the books, I feel tired and deflated.  Most everything hurts.  Food has no taste.  Reading hold no excitement.  TV seems dull.  Mornings blur into afternoons, afternoons blur into evenings, and nights last too long.  I've fallen behind on laundry, cleaning, and meal prep.  I haven't finished Christmas shopping.  I haven't started writing Christmas cards.  I have no motivation.

This morning I laid in bed, looked up at the ceiling, and thought, "God, I'm a mess right now."

It freed me to admit this truth.  I know I'll functional normally again soon, but at the moment I have nothing great to offer.  I'm not productive.  I'm not engaging.  I pretty much I take up space and cough.

When many good things -- like health, energy, and my contributions to my family -- are stripped away, I'm reminded that I can't base my worth on my performance and productivity.  My performance, quite frankly, stinks.  And even if I was trucking along, doing my thing, crossing items off my list, and feeling with it instead of woefully out of it, I still shouldn't be basing my worth on my performance.

Performance is a poor measure of worth and significance.  It's subjective and fickle, likely to leave you tossed and adrift, anchorless and susceptible to either pride or shame.

So, as I looked up at my ceiling and thought, "God, I'm a mess right now," I sensed God simply say, "I know, Robin.  I love you anyway."

It's never been about what I bring to the table.  Whether impressive or lacking, my efforts and contributions never are the determining factor of God's love for me.  His love is relentless.  It's based on His performance of living, dying, and rising again, not my performance.

I could cry at this glorious truth, but it's never wise to cry when you have a nasty head cold. 

Emmanuel.  God with us.  Coming into mess and filth in a manger two thousand years ago, and still entering our messes today.

Image compliments of MTSO Fan (flickr.com)

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Be Nice to the Wal-Mart Lady

I'm in Wal-Mart this morning to pick up a few items, but I don't want to be.  The only place I actually want to be is back in bed underneath my covers. 

I'm wearing black yoga pants, my hair's secured in a sloppy ponytail, and I haven't even bothered to swipe on Chap Stick.  My eyes sting, my head hurts, my throat is sore, and the store feels entirely too warm.  The end of the semester has approached, and with it, a pre-holiday immune system collapse.

Beyond the occasional muttering of excuse me as I navigate my cart around another, I have no intentions of talking with anyone.  I'm banking on anonymity and disassociation from any human interaction in real-time, even as my thoughts -- jumbled as they are from lack of sleep and sickness -- seem to continually cycle back to a complex situation at work and a recent phone call about a family member's health concerns.

Alone with my congested thoughts, I wheel my cart to the self check-out.

But there's that employee, the one wearing the festive holiday sweater under her Wal-Mart vest.  She's determined to monitor and engage.  She stands beside me as I check out, telling me how to swipe the items across the scanner.  I nod silently.  She sees I've purchased masking tape and asks where I found it.

"The home office department."  My words come out scratchy, and they sound more like a question than a declarative sentence.  I'm find her question to be both obvious and odd, being that I'm the shopper and she's the employee. 

She reaches into my shopping bag and pulls out the tape as I'm waiting for my receipt to print.  "I thought it was freezer tape.  Are you sure it's not freezer tape?  It looks like freezer tape, but I guess it's just masking tape.  I never can find freezer tape." She continues the conversation with herself, clearly not picking up on any of my social cues.

I blink.  I don't want to be having this conversation.  I've never heard of freezer tape.  I don't want to discuss whether it might be located in the cookware section or near the aluminum foil in the grocery department.  I just want to reclaim my masking tape and carry my gallon of milk and bag of deodorant, toothpaste, and Tylenol to my car, drive home in the rain, and get back inside of my house so I can kick off my wet shoes, sink into my couch, and cough in private.

When I've put the receipt away, she's still holding the masking tape in her hand.  She hands it back to me with a smile.

I smile back.  A bit tautly, but I make the effort.

Maybe the one thing God wants me to do today is to be nice to the Wal-Mart lady.  Maybe the best way to spread peace on earth and goodwill toward men is simply to be gracious to the person who innocently annoys me by digging through my shopping bag and asking questions that seem unnecessary when I'm sick and tired and stressed.  Maybe I can get out of my own head long enough to think of someone else's problems.

"I hope you find your tape," I say.  She beams and reminds me to take my milk, even though I've already lifted it back into my cart.  And then I head out of the overly-warm store and walk back into the rain.

Image compliments of Iryna Yeroshko (flickr.com)

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The "Just So" Christmas

I'm not sure why I expected anything different, but decorating our Christmas tree was chaotic this year.  My husband carried the bin of ornaments up from the basement, and the girls descended upon it, grabbing, jostling, and announcing, "I remember this one!"  Ornament hooks spilled and embedded their way into the carpeting.  The lower half of the tree received 90% of the ornaments.

Partially through I considered that we should be more festive and less rushed.  I had forgotten to turn on Christmas music.  The rest of the house was a mess.  Everything was happening too fast.  Instead of being thoughtful and deliberate, we were colliding our way into Christmas.

And, realistically, I was the only one who was bothered by this.  Not my husband.  Certainly not my kids.  They were too busy hanging bulbs and angels, too caught up in the glittered and mismatched ornaments that they had made during Christmases past, too curious as they looked at Baby's First Christmas pictures and wondered which one was them.

No, it was just me.  In my mind, I had a picture of what a house should look like when a Christmas tree is decorated, and that mental picture didn't include a kitchen table that hadn't yet been cleared from lunch, or a sink full of dirty dishes, or a family room carpet that was in dire need of vacuuming.

Each year I somehow expect that I'll feel entirely prepared for Christmas each year -- that presents will be neatly wrapped in advance, and we'll host dinner parties where I'll wear something with exactly the right amount of sparkle, and I'll have uninterrupted time to reflect on the real meaning of the season in an organized and tastefully decorated environment.

That never seems to happen, though.  Instead, there are brief moments of Christmas wonder in the midst of regular life.  My kids pile onto the couch and we share one blanket as we stumble upon the second half of A Christmas Carol on TV.  I overhear my youngest talking to the Baby Jesus figurine in the manger.  We take a detour to pass the "crazy house" that has hundreds and hundreds of lights.

Christmas will never slow down for us.  It's never going to be "just so."  I'm the one who needs to slow down and discover those moments of holy wonder, reflection, and worship right in the midst of regular life.


A Lazy Girl's Guide to Ironing

We all hit stretches of life when multiple deadlines, events, and obligations coalesce at once, creating a particularly frenetic daily pace.  I'm there right now.  I know I'm going to make it, but I find myself weary with the most basic tasks, like getting into the shower, or getting back out of the shower, or remembering whether I actually washed my hair or whether I just thought I had washed my hair while I'm in the shower, or putting on clothes, or making myself presentable in the morning. 

On days like this, I seek shortcuts to make even the smallest tasks easier.  Take ironing, for instance. 

When it comes to ironing, I'm admittedly lazy.  Thus far in life, my primary two strategies to make ironing easier could be broadly categorized as avoidance: 1) I don't buy many clothes that require ironing, and 2) I try to reach the dryer immediately after the cycle is done so any slightly-wrinkled clothing can be shaken into submission and declared good enough.
Maybe you're like me in this regard.  Maybe you use your iron to seal kid's crafts with melted beads more frequently than to press button-downs.  Maybe you live in knits and jeans and yoga pants. 

But, despite our best avoidance efforts, what if there's one persistent wrinkle on an otherwise acceptable garment?  What if a shirt's collar or a skirt's hem needs a simple touch-up?

Well, if you're anything like me, these minor dilemmas provide the perfect time to rethink what we mean by the word iron

On more than one occasion, instead of dragging a cumbersome ironing board from the laundry room, I've headed to the bathroom, heated up my curling iron with the click of one button, and run that iron down the crease.  It's that simple.

Real ironing?  Ain't nobody got time for that.  But using your curling iron in a pinch?  Well, that's a lazy girl's guide to ironing.
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The Student Who Stayed Behind

As I gather my belongings at the front desk after all other students have left the classroom, one student stays behind.  He holds his baseball hat by its curved brim in one hand and lightly smacks it into his open palm before he speaks.

"Now that all of your grading for me is done," he begins, "there's something I'd like to tell you."

I'm accustomed to students making appeals at this late point in the semester.  So accustomed that I warily scan my inbox for messages with the brief, yet telling, subject line that reads Final Grade.  (If only students consistently demonstrated as much rhetorical vigor throughout the semester as they do when they're requesting extra credit at the end.)

But this student wasn't making an appeal for me to consider his grade more favorably.  He was simply taking a moment to thank me for turning a class that many students dread -- a class that he had avoided for seven semesters, in fact -- into a rewarding experience. 

"You should know that you're the best professor I've had."

In that one moment, I'm filled up so deeply.

Fifteen weeks ago before the semester began I visited this classroom, then empty, to scout out the layout.  I had stood at this very spot and read aloud from my roster, calling out the name of each student, praying for their studies, for their physical and emotional wellness, for their choices, for their futures, and asking for the wisdom necessary to offer the most fitting instruction, encouragement, and correction into their lives.

In the weeks that have followed, I've planned lectures, and taught classes, and offered feedback, and assigned grades, and doubted my efficacy, and held small philosophical debates within my own head ("what is a B, exactly?"), and poured out energy and time and concern and love because I don't merely want to teach a public speaking course; I want to create better thinkers and communicators.  I want to impact lives.  I want students to know that even on a campus of over 40,000 students, they're seen.  They're heard.  They're known.

And that's exactly what this student did for me, with his baseball cap in hand.  Once again I'm reminded why I do this job.

Image compliments of Max Klingensmith (Flickr)

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Finishing Strong

This past Sunday evening I found myself succumbing to melancholy.  We had just spent a wonderful time with family for the Thanksgiving holiday, and for several days I mentally had separated from work long enough to ponder more pressing life matters, like what's the best method to crimp pie crusts, and how I should approach Christmas decorating, and why Black Friday is creeping into Thursday, and whether I should purchase a new comforter for my bed, and what room of my house I would choose to renovate if the Property Brothers just happened to offer their services for free.

But when Sunday came, these frivolous thoughts were replaced with thoughts about the final three weeks of the semester and the lectures, meetings, and grading that accompany them. 

Oh, real life.  You hit hard.

Still, after ten years of teaching at the university I've worked through this cycle enough times to realize one thing: starting again is rarely as bad as thinking about starting again.  It's the mental game that gets to you, the overcoming of inertia.

Life is just one long series of overcoming inertia, isn't it?

I'm heartened by the email I received from a colleague today reminding me to finish strong. So, for these next two and a half weeks, that's what I plan to do. 

Just finish strong.

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Don't Skip Thanksgiving on the Way to Christmas

It's snowing here.  Really snowing.  To put matters in perspective, two days ago I cut the grass one final time on an unusually temperate 60 degree November day, and today my children are bundled in their snow suits and already have dragged the sleds from the garage.

Meanwhile, I'm inside preparing for Thanksgiving -- cleaning, checking recipes, and making one final grocery list.  I've been determined to celebrate Thanksgiving before mentally jumping ahead to Christmas.  Hold off on Christmas decorating.  Refrain from Christmas carols.  Just wait. 

I caution myself on premature holiday festivity.  I don't want to shoot until I can see the white of Christmas' eyes.

But this snow!  I know it threatens Thanksgiving travels across the northeastern states (please be safe, travelers), but at this very moment I'm inside and have nowhere to go.  It's an invitation to stay put, hunker down, and cozy up.

And, for me, it's the absolute tipping point that's pushing me over the edge past a Thanksgiving mentality toward Christmas cheer.

Hot cocoa and garland and twinkling lights and Christmas specials on TV?  Game on.

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On Giving Up Caffeine (and failing)

I stopped drinking caffeine last year over winter break.  Although I've never been a coffee drinker, I've always harbored a few beverages of weakness: namely, any cherry-flavored cola (Dr. Pepper, I'm looking at you) and sweet tea.  Oh, sweet tea, I'd drink a gallon of you without flinching.  I'd hook myself up to a sweet tea IV.  I'd write a haiku in your honor.

Sweet tea, fine and sweet,
Glucose steaming through my veins,
Liquid sugar love.

At the onset, it wasn't an intention break-up with caffeine.  I was simply getting a reasonable amount of sleep, which doesn't always happen during the semester, and the extra jolt of caffeinated energy wasn't necessary.  Once two weeks passed without any caffeine consumption, I delicately danced with the idea of foregoing it for the long haul.  My decision was made at the start of the new year when I drew a proverbial line in the sand:

I would be a person who didn't drink sugary, caffeinated beverages.

This lasted for four and a half months.  Then I reached finals week -- and the seemingly insurmountable amount of grading that accompanies finals week. 

The relapse was swift and complete.  In four days, I drank three of these bad boys:

There are people who taste something sugary, grimace, and proclaim it to be "too sweet."  I'm not one of these people.  I loved every unhealthy drop.  Liquid sugar love, indeed.

Now, all of this leads me to today's contemplation of health, which has been brought to the forefront of my thoughts for three key reasons:

One, over the weekend, I accompanied my husband to Philadelphia where he ran his first full marathon (3:37, nonetheless!)  It took me a while to place my finger on this, but spectating the event made me want to participate in the event.  Moral of the story (beyond the fact that I'm exceedingly proud of my hot husband): if you place a competitive person in a position where she's relegated to watching the competition, her competitive nature is going to be drawn out.

Two, since my husband and I traveled to the race without our children, I had an uninterrupted opportunity to think, dream, and set goals.  Essentially, during the three hour ride home I pretty much convinced myself that I should (and could) get in phenomenal running shape. 

For the record, I also convinced myself that it would be possible to clean, organize, and decorate my entire house until it resembled the Fixer Upper farmhouse, cook more healthily, read more expansively, tackle a lagging project at work, and chip away at some of those Pinterest projects I've been contemplating -- and that I should complete all of these things this very week.

I'm balanced that way.

Three, we're entering the stretch of Holidays Which Revolve Around Food.  If I could just get ahead of the game by taking proactive strides with my health now, not a month from now when everyone climbs on the "get healthier" New Year's bandwagon, my January self would be thanking my late-November self.

Of course, reality sets in.  When we arrived home from our travels, we unpacked, started a load of laundry, and got swarmed by the kiddos who hadn't seen us for a day.  Almost immediately, I came down with the type of head cold that causes you to litter your side of the bedroom floor with a dozen crumpled Kleenex, all thrown overboard during the long hours of the congested night.

Still, despite the head cold, the daily realities of parenting young children, and the lingering grading that I need to complete during this Thanksgiving break from classes, for the past two days I've managed to do something.  I've put on my work-out clothes and followed though -- running a few miles yesterday and doing a Jillian Michaels DVD today. 

I feel like I think I'd feel after having fallen off the exercise wagon since my trail run several weeks ago: a bit sore, a bit sluggish.  But I'm moving.  I'm headed in the right direction. 

Even as I vacillate in that awkward space between extremes ("I should get in the best shape of my life," versus "Wow, I really like cookies"), I'm reminding myself that small changes -- whether with caffeine, food, exercise, or any other life goal -- can lead to real results if they're repeatedly done.

I'm not making a declaration about giving up caffeine right now.  And I'm certainly not making a declaration about giving up cookies.  (My momma didn't raise no fool.)  But I am making a declaration that it's okay to fail. 

I don't care how many times (or for how long) I fall off this wagon.  I'm getting back up on it today.


I love simple. Simple is good.

Earlier this morning while walking between classes, I noticed how the sunlight glinted off a railing and illuminated the few snowflakes swirling in the breeze.  You could argue that there's nothing special about a railing or its shadow on a sidewalk.  You could note that there's nothing noteworthy about a snowfall so light that it sputters and stalls almost before you realize it's happening in the first place. 

You'd be right.

Yet, it was beautiful in its simplicity.  I think of Ernest Hemmingway's words about the power of observation.  He writes, "If a writer stops observing he is finished.  Experience is communicated by small details intimately observed."

I surmise that part of being satisfied with your own life is ensuring that you're present, that you stop rushing long enough to intimately observe the small details, like the way snow dances its way between a railing's spires in the slanted rays of the morning sun.

I love simple.  Simple is good.

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No Neighbors Were Harmed in the Making of this Blog Post

My oldest daughter is highly motivated by extrinsic rewards.  Ultimately, this means that when her elementary school launched a fundraiser for which the top cookie dough sellers could win a free limo ride to a pizza shop for lunch, she immediately was on board.  (Let me pause to point out the obvious: prizes for fundraising have become exponentially classier since I was in school.)

So, like supportive parents of a budding door-to-door salesperson and aspiring limousine-rider, my husband and I spent several evenings escorting her through the neighborhood as she gave her doorstop pitch and filled up her order form.  Consequently, a few days ago I spent another evening driving throughout the neighborhood, all three kids in tow, to deliver handmade thank you notes and the twenty tubs of frozen cookie dough that our good-natured neighbors had purchased.

By the end of the evening after exiting and entering the minivan twenty times (which never is a streamlined activity, especially when accompanied by children), we still had six undelivered tubs of frozen cookie dough in the back of the van. 

To expedite this story, let me insert a brief timeline of events:

Nearly one day later:  My husband asks how the delivery had gone.  I think, "Delivery?  What delivery?  Oh, the cookie delivery..." before answering, "Yeah, a few neighbors weren't home so we never finished that.  I left the rest of the boxes in the back of the van."

Twenty seconds later:  Googling of "safe temperature for frozen cookie dough."

Five seconds later:  A sentence is uttered by my husband that contains nuggets like "the garage had to reach at least 50 degrees" and "potential foodborne illnesses" and "unsuspecting neighbors."

Two seconds later:  I think, "Come on; nobody will die," but recognize that it might appear a bit callous to verbalize this much lack of concern for the physical wellness of the very people who just shelled out $16 to buy cookies from my kid. 

One second later: I crumple into my seat with the dawning realization that this is one of those mistakes that'll lead me to sheepishly return to my neighbors and pay them back for the stupid, overpriced, now-thawed-and-ruined tubs of cookie dough that I'll toss into my trash can to prevent salmonella poisoning all in the name of ethical fundraising.

Now, a well-adjusted person might think that $96 is a relatively small price to pay for the peace of mind that you're not poisoning your neighbors, but apparently I'm not well-adjusted enough. 

Whether accidental or not, I hate the thought of wasting money.  It grates at the center of my thrifty, squeeze-every-ounce-of-toothpaste, make-every-dollar-count mentality.  It forces me to grapple with issues deeper than the dollars themselves -- my inability to control every situation, my imperfection despite good intentions.  It confronts me with the choice to either beat myself up (which I did for a day) or to acknowledge the error, trust God with my financial well-being, cut the losses, and move on healthily, which is where I ultimately arrived after a near textbook-like progression through the five stages of grief.

It began with denial (I tell you, the cookie dough is fine), then moved to anger (stupid PTO fundraiser), then bargaining (how risky is warm-ish raw cookie dough really?), depression (I suck), and finally, acceptance (it's okay; it's just money; all is well). 

Yes, all that from a half-dozen tubs of raw cookie dough.

* That "free" limo ride and lunch?  Goal attained; it's happening this week.

DISCLAIMER: No neighbors have been harmed in the making of this blog post. Just my pride. And my bank account.


When You're THAT Mother. (And when your kids are THOSE kids.)

I've been that mother.  The mother who carries a bag of McDonald's food as she drags a crying child across the sidelines while running late to soccer practice.  The one who forgets to play the role of the tooth fairy, or return the library books, or RSVP to donate napkins for the class party.  The one who sends her kid to school in shorts and a tee shirt because it was warm yesterday without once considering that it might be cool today.  The one who loses her patience and raises her voice because her children are losing their patience and raising their voices. 

I've been that mother who pretends she doesn't hear her children wake up so she can lie in bed for a few extra moments, clinging desperately to grogginess.  The mother who says, "I'll be there in a minute," when she actually means ten.  Maybe twenty.

I've been that mother whose last nerve has been rubbed raw.  The mother who wonders if she actually has more than one nerve to rub, or if she suffers from a nerve shortage and her kids keep aggravating the same one. 

I've been the mother who's thought that parenting wasn't supposed to be this way, who's suspected that she's not cut out for this role.

My kids have been those kids.  The ones crying in Target.  The ones yelling in the grocery store.  The ones balking at homework at the kitchen table.  The ones lying on the floor and angrily kicking their feet against the air in protest.  The ones you fear might be feral.

My kids have been those kids who hit their siblings.  Those kids who slam the door, who complain, who disobey, who don't share.  Those kids who respond to the instruction "Please don't touch that..." with a metaphorical throwing of the gauntlet in the form of one enormously strong will and one tiny extended index finger reaching directly toward whatever's off limits.

Yes, I've been that mother.  The one who rubs her daughter's back and holds her hair away from her face as she throws up in the middle of the night.  The one who lays on the floor and plays six successive rounds of Candy Land.  The one who's worn tracks in the hallway carpeting while rocking babies and pages in storybooks from reading aloud. 

I've been that mother who lets a child spit used chewing gum into her open palm when a trash can isn't available.  The one who slips into bedrooms at night to peek at her children's sleeping forms one last time in the dim glow of the nightlight.  The one answering, "Who's there?" when a voice from the back of the minivan prompts, "Knock, knock."  The one who bites her tongue and holds back the anger when she'd rather explode. The one on her knees praying, or on her feet clapping, or at their sides encouraging. 

I've been that mother who responds, "You can tell me anything.  Always."

Yes, my kids have been those kids.  They've been those kids who remember to say I'm sorry when they step on the back of my shoe while they're following too closely behind me.  The ones who bring tears to my eyes when they nail their one line in the Christmas pageant.  The ones who yank flowers from my landscaping and offer them a gift.  The ones who help me find my car keys, remind me that I need to pick up eggs before leaving the grocery store, or spontaneously lavish me with a kiss.

They've been those kids who delight and impress and surprise me with how big, how smart, how kind they're becoming.  The ones who cause me to realize that even in the midst of this chaos and daily minutia, my heart overflows with fullness.

We've all been that mother.  Both of them.

We've all had those kids.  Both sets.

Let's give grace to that mother when she's having one of those days, offering empathy or a word of encouragement that she'll make it, that she'll live to parent another day, that it will get better.  Let's give the benefit of the doubt to those kids we can hear in aisle five when we're in aisle eight. 

Let's extend this grace even if we are that mother and those kids are our kids.  Perhaps especially if we're that mother and those kids are ours.  After all, it's in our worst moments -- those moments when we feel we deserve love the least -- when we need it the most. 

On those days, let's remember that this parental narrative we're writing isn't one-sided.  We're not just THAT mother.  Our kids aren't just THOSE kids.

If You Haven't Been Productive Today

I've been productive this entire week.  In the late evening hours, I've folded laundry and emptied the dishwasher when I rather would have gone to bed.  I've tamed the beast of my email inbox.  I've graded essays and speeches like it was my job, which is useful because it is my job.  Essentially, for four straight days I've been a medalist in the To-Do List Olympics, a machine, a girl on fire.

Then I reached today.  It's four o'clock in the afternoon, and perhaps my greatest creative contribution is that I completed the writing of a Facebook status update.  I don't have much to show for myself.

During those days when I'm firing on all cylinders, I keep a mental tally of hurdles jumped and tasks completed, no matter how insignificant.  I finish the day satisfied: "Look how much I've accomplished!"  Subconsciously, I almost automatically couple this thought with another:  "Look how much I've accomplished; aren't I a good person?"

This is a problem.  If you feel like you're a better human on productive days, the logical corollary is that you'll feel like a worse human on unproductive days.

And as we all know, unproductive days are like bad pennies.  They periodically turn up.

This afternoon, I made a choice not to link my worth with my level of productivity.  I'm more valuable than just my output, and the same goes for you.  Your worth can't be lessened by an unfolded basket of laundry, or an unfinished project, or that kitchen sink full of unwashed dishes unless you let it.

If you're beating yourself up because you haven't been productive today, would you be kind and let yourself off the hook?  You're worth more than your output.

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The Trail Run

I don't often feel like I've been flung into a scene from the Hunger Games, which is fortunate since my skills with a crossbow aren't up to snuff, but several weekends ago I found myself racing along rugged terrain with little on my mind except survival.

You see, my husband, Joel, is training for a marathon, and he decided to shake up his typical weekend training by entering a half marathon trail run.  Being inclusive, he also signed me up to run the 10K version, which immediately prompted me to google "10K distance" and then to grapple with the disparity between its length (6.2 miles) and my fitness level, which I was generously capping at 4 to 5 miles.

During the weeks leading up to the race, I stepped up my game and squeezed in several late-evening runs that mostly focused on speed, not distance.  Go faster, not farther, I told myself.   During one especially motivated run after one especially frustrating day, I went all out in a quest to know what it would feel like to run a sub-seven minute mile.  (In case you're wondering, it feels like pain.)

The day before the race, Joel received an update that the race lengths weren't entirely  -- oh, how would you word it? -- standard.  The half marathon would be slightly shorter than your typical half marathon, and the 10K would be slightly longer than your typical 10K.  (To quote: "The exact distance is approximately 6.7 miles.") 

If one can be simultaneously concerned, charmed, and baffled by the arbitrary nature of distance, I was.  My confidence wavered: Is it even legal to have a 10K race that's a half mile longer than 10 kilometers?   (Don't let that decimal point fool you into thinking that what follows doesn't matter.)  My love of precise wording bristled: How is an EXACT distance APPROXIMATELY measured? 

Then I settled on one final thought: This is going to be quite an adventure.

And that was an accurate sentiment.  After the pre-race safety meeting, during which the organizer encouraged us (twice) to wait for help and avoid panic if we ended up in a ditch, we lined up and waited for the gun to sound.  The first 1.5 miles ascended a steep gravel incline along the scenic Pennsylvania mountainside -- a morning wake-up call to be aware of your cardiovascular system -- and then we were directed onto the trail itself.

Somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind, I envision a "trail" to be a gently rolling dirt path, one nicely situated in a peaceful bucolic setting, perhaps next to a babbling brook or a pleasant grove of shade trees.

This wasn't that type of trail.  This trail was a rocky, muddy, root-strewn, leaf-covered path marked by small flags to keep runners on track as we plunged down sharp hills and climbed steep inclines.  I jumped over crevices, climbed rocks, and raced across occasional chicken-wire covered planks that were propped over streams.  I fell, got back up, kept running, got disoriented, fell again, shook it off, and just kept running.

For an hour my thoughts were grounded solely in the present; I only could think far enough ahead to where I should place my next step.  Tree branches, rocks, ditches, and sharp turns appeared immediately in front of me and forced to absorb and assess my surroundings as quickly as possible, something both chaotic, invigorating, and surprisingly peaceful.

You know you might multi-task too much if a frenetically-paced trail run brings you to a place of deep inner calm.

Unlike road running, I had no idea how far I had traveled or how fast I was moving.  I simply ran.  I ran until I was alone on the trail, unconcerned with where I was in the pack, just conscious of each step, until I crossed the finish line and looked for Joel.

We were both a muddy mess, and we accepted the complimentary Gatorades and ate our complimentary lunches off of Styrofoam take-out containers as we sat in the grass, stretched, hashed out our experiences (I lost my sunglasses at some point.... You fell too, didn't you?), and waited for the results where I was pleasantly surprised to find that I represented the decade of women in their 30's well. 

Apparently, back woods trail races of questionable distances where you just might end up in a ditch must suit my running style.

I should add that Joel also was a medalist in the men's division, which didn't surprise me.  The difference between us lies in the fact that he's continued his training, whereas when I crossed the finish line I stopped exercising entirely and have replaced those efforts with an attempt to eat my body weight in leftover Halloween candy.

And there you have it, my friends: the exact approximate true story of the trail run.


October comes to an end. The chocolate consumption begins.

Thoughts on the end of October and Halloween, stream of conscious style:

Recently I've been lamenting the fact that we don't keep nearly enough chocolate in our house at any given time.  Last night was our community's trick or treating, which has turned my mourning on this issue into songs of rejoicing.

Each year while buying Halloween candy, I vacillate between two distinct approaches.  Dare I buy candy I really like so I can splurge in the case of leftovers, or do I play it safe and buy something that nobody wants, like Mallo Cups or Necco Wafers or root beer flavored Dum Dums so there's no aftermath of temptation?  Of course, within seconds I realize that this is a non-issue entirely -- I'm going for the good stuff.

I admire a child who systematically plans her Halloween route in advance to trick or treating.  On paper.  Drawn mostly to scale.  With a back-up plan in case of detours.

A few days ago my six-year-old suggested that if I wanted a costume, I could dress up as a mommy.  In appreciation of her simplicity, I replied, "That's perfect; I love the idea of just being myself." She looked at me oddly and added, "Well, you'd still have to wrap yourself in toilet paper."  

Mommy. Mummy.  Further evidence that one vowel makes a significant difference.

And on that note, let the pillaging of my children's candy begin!  (Don't judge.  I'm sure that you do it, too.  It's a parenting right of passage.)

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How to Go From Chronically Messy to Clean and Organized

It's a pleasure to introduce you to Susan Penning from the DIY blog Living Rich on Less.  Susan and I both share a love for up-cycling and immersing ourselves in a creative projects.  Let me tell you: this woman has a smart eye for design, and it's coupled with the practical know-how that's necessary to bring projects to completion. 

Recently Susan launched a new endeavor, which I'm eager to share with you today!

I am thrilled that Robin is letting me steal her space today to share a project I just finished that has completely changed my life and will change yours, too.

I actually met Robin in person a few years ago at the Allume Conference, an event geared specifically toward Christian women in social media. Robin is so sweet and genuine and I am blessed that I was introduced to both her and her blog. Plus, we don't live that far from each other, which means, Robin, we must do lunch together soon. :)

In the meantime ... about that project ... Do you often feel like your finances, schedule and even your thoughts are out of control? Does the clutter and chaos in your home give you stress and anxiety when what you really want is joy, peace and rest? Do you feel like your family's health and well-being are suffering due to a lack of organization?

I can totally relate.

For many years, I tried without success to keep myself organized. I'd do well for awhile then "fall off the wagon." Things would pile up and my schedule, home and life would spiral out of control again. I had trouble keeping track of stuff, trouble getting projects done on time, and trouble keeping anything neat for very long. I'd vow to do better next time. I'd embark on one epic cleaning and organizing binge after another, and the cycle of struggling would continue.

It wasn't until I was injured by the clutter in my own home – yes, I was physically injured by my own mess – that I was ready to do whatever it took to get organized for real. I started to get serious about finding organizing solutions that really worked for chronically messy and busy moms like me.

I discovered that if I regularly practiced a few basic strategies in five key areas of organization, everything else in my life seemed to fall into relatively good order. I began to experience lasting joy and peace and I even started noticing that my home seemed more comfortable and my family was happier, too.

I shared my tips with friends and family members and they encouraged me to write a book about them. So in an effort to help others like me keep their crazy busy lives organized, I wrote the electronic book, "Organized for Real: How to Conquer Life's Top 5 Chaos Hotspots."

This super-affordable e-book is jam-packed with 76 pages of helpful (and practical) information about how to organize your mind, your schedule, your food, your finances and your home. And it is available for purchase now!

I am so excited about this e-book because I truly believe it will be life-changing for many of you. The principles in this book have rocked my world! To find out more details about the book, check out my brief video.  To get your copy of my e-book, "Organized for Real: How to Conquer Life's Top 5 Chaos Hotspots" and start creating the margin and beauty in your life that you crave, click here.

Note: This e-book is currently on "early bird" discount at 50 percent off for a limited time! Be sure to snag your copy now.

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CHALKING it up to one unique opportunity.

Every so often, I'm caught off guard by unique opportunities that present themselves because of blogging.  This was the case when I received a message earlier this month from Laurie Pinna and Dave Conley, two Florida-based chalk artists.  They had discovered a photo of my daughters eating ice cream in a 2011 blog post and hoped to recreate the picture for their entry in the Clearwater Beach Chalk Festival. 

When they asked if we'd grant them permission to use the image, we agreed happily.

After all, I am the woman who once wrote a brief dissertation about chalk revealing that I periodically brainstorm other potential occupations besides writing and teaching college students: among them, being the person who transcribes the daily specials on the chalkboard in restaurants.

You see, chalk not only influences my career aspirations, but thanks to the artistic talent of Laurie and Dave, it also has captured a lifelike representation of my two oldest daughters on a 12' by 12' square of pavement over one thousand miles away from home.

Before I explain their fascinating process, let me note that these folks have some serious chalking skills.  Case in point: when I tried to recreate this picture, this was my end result:

The contest took place this past weekend, and each evening Laurie emailed updates on their progress.  At the onset of the first morning, they primed the area with a base coat of Tempra paint, which essentially is liquid chalk, and then establish a grid pattern to keep the image in proper proportion. 

Kind of like what I did with my chalked artwork above, which clearly demonstrates lifelike details and realistic scale.  Clearly.

By the end of the first day, the images were sketched and the shading had begun.

The work progressed during the second day with additional layers of chalk to create depth and precision.  (I'm blown away by the sheen captured in the hair!)

Converse to the Sistene Chapel where Michelangelo painted while lying on his back, chalk artists work while on their hands and knees, often in the shadow of passers-by who pause to talk with the artists about the subject and the process. 

By the end of the second day, the majority of the picture was colored.  (Let it be known that if there was a spike in the sale of ice cream at this particular festival, we are responsible.)

During the third and final day, Laurie and Dave refined details and made touch-ups before rising to their feet, stretching, and basking in a job well done.  Granted, I'm a biased observer due to my deep love for the subject matter, but isn't their work remarkable?

Although I'm separated from the beach by many months and miles, Laurie and Dave's artwork provides a window of remembrance into those carefree days of a summer vacation since past.  And isn't this one of the purposes and joys of art: to transport us to another time or place; to leave us not only with an image, but also with a feeling?

I can't thank Laurie and Dave enough for sharing their talent and inviting us to be a part of their experience, and I applaud their efforts and all the artists who demonstrated their creative work during the festival. 

Click here to view more pictures from this weekend's Clearwater Beach Chalk Festival or check out the website for the Florida Chalk Artists Association.  Chalk on!

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The Perfect Transition: Campfires, Marshmallows, and Putting the Garden to Sleep

Campfires are the perfect transition between summer and fall.  We gather around our fire pit during both seasons -- barefoot in the summer, bundled in the fall.  The key to a good campfire experience is patience.  You never rush the cooking of a hot dog or the roasting of a marshmallow.

No, you simply bide your time, rotate your skewer, and trust the flames to do their work.

See that sunburst in the background?  That's heavenly approval.

During these chilled October days, our yard slowly succumbs to the deepening autumn and we put our garden to sleep.  Our raspberry bushes no longer offer vibrant bowlfuls of berries like they did during the late summer months, and soon we'll cut them back. 

Our zucchini plants stop their production with these final offerings: two zucchinis (one the size of a club) that I'll eat with an end-of-the-season appreciation that comes with the sober knowledge that it'll be many long months until I can once again walk outside and pick a portion of my dinner from our garden.

In the meantime, we enjoy a different kind of harvest -- the weekend festivals at local farms where we take hayrides to pumpkin patches and apple orchards. 
It's so simple, these little moments that make up the seasons, these little moments that make up the fabric of lives that unfold in a small town. 
Just give me a campfire, and somehow everything seems right in the world.
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Life Margin Tip #4: Get an Aerial Perspective

I started this blog series about creating life margin mostly because I was failing to do so.  I've been burning the candles at both ends, holding too many irons in the fire, and trying to keep all the balls in the air.  (See?  I'm using three back-to-back idioms.  You know it's serious when someone does that.)

Given this overwhelming state of affairs, I've been searching for practical ways to reclaim some necessary open space in my life and schedule.  So far, we've looked at three key tips: 1) Seeking and Accepting Help, 2) Saying No, and 3) Knowing What Refreshes You.

Today I'm looking at a fourth and final strategy to reclaim life margin: Getting an Aerial Perspective.

Last week I had an afternoon meeting on campus.  Instead of snagging a parking spot an one of the lower levels of the parking deck like I normally do in the morning, I had to drive to the top to find an open space.  Way to the top.  Before rushing down the six flights of steps, I paused and surveyed the view.

It stopped me in its tracks.  I regularly notice the beauty of the campus, but this particular view was so pleasing, so serene, so calming.  I saw the traffic passing along the road from a distance.  I watched people gathering and talking from a distance.  I examined buildings where exams were being taken, papers were being submitted, deadlines were being established, and work was piling up -- both for professors and for students -- from a distance.

And from this distance, all the workings of campus seemed simple.  Because I wasn't in the midst of the situation -- because I was above it all -- I was able to see my world differently.

This moment tangibly reminded me of the benefit of shifting my life perspective, of moving beyond my pedestrian understanding of affairs where I see matters only from my limited human vantage point.  We're reminded in Isaiah that God's thoughts are not our thoughts and that his ways are not our ways.  His ways and thoughts are higher than ours.

Higher than ours!  He sees farther than we can.  He's able to discern the scope and scale and beginning and end in ways that we can't.  He's not overwhelmed by the details that threaten to overwhelm us.

At the same time -- and here's the beauty -- God isn't distant.  He sees our lives from that sovereign vantage point, yet he's available, moment by moment, for us to call upon when we're in the thick of things.

When I'm struggling, when stress weighs heavily, and when demands encroach on my life margins, I can't forget the most important factor: I can view these troubles from above. 

Thank you for joining me during this series on reclaiming life margin!

Creating Margin: The Necessity of White Space in Life
Now that We're Talking About Life Margin
Life Margin Tip #1: Seek and Accept Help
Life Margin Tip #2: Just Say No
Life Margin Tip #3: Know What Refreshes You
Life Margin Tip #4: Get an Aerial Perspective (you are here)

Airplane image complements of Grosler (flickr.com)

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