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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Life Margin Tip #3: Know What Refreshes You

I haven't yet met someone who doesn't want to achieve a lifestyle where the physical, social, emotional, and spiritual components are healthy and balanced, like smoothly spinning gears.  That being said, I rarely meet someone who feels like she's regularly living that balanced lifestyle, myself included.  This lack of balance was my impetus for writing this post about the necessity of reclaiming life margin.

To this end, each day this week on the blog I've been exploring how I can create the open space I need to thrive.  (If you're new or if you've missed a post, let me invite you to check out the first two life margin tips: 1) Seeking and Accepting Help and 2) Saying No.)

Today we'll look at a third practical tip: Knowing What Refreshes You.

This tip sounds unnecessarily basic, doesn't it?  But how many times have we stumbled upon a spare hour and wasted it by mindlessly scrolling on Facebook with a vague sensation of discontent instead of using that hour well?

Simply put, I'm not always in tune with what I really need.  Sometimes I eat because I'm bored, not because I'm hungry.  I watch TV because I'm too tired to do anything else, when perhaps I should just go to bed and get a good night's sleep.  I fritter away small segments of time and reach the end of the day, unsure of where it all went.

Now, today's tip is not about squeezing more activity into our days or increasing our productivity.  Rather, it's inviting us to assess whether we're building life-giving elements into our schedules, those endeavors that invigorate us.

I've taken inventory.  I know what refreshes me.  Writing regularly, whether in a journal or on this blog, transforms my swirling thoughts into a coherent shape and brings clarity into my life.  Exercising boosts my mood and physical health.  Spending time outdoors draws my attention to nature and breaks the constant pull toward a screen-saturated lifestyle.  Immersing myself in a DIY project lets me tap into creativity.  Spending time praying and reading devotionals in the morning brings hope, lifts my spirit, and grounds me for the day ahead.

And I didn't even mention organizing closets.  Oh, I love a good hour of closet organization!  Don't get me started!  The more ordered my space is, the more ordered my life feels.

Beyond this, the older I get, the more I need adequate sleep each night.  Gone are the days when I could stay up until one or two in the morning and still function the next day.

These are the things that refresh me. 

Of course, I'm not suggesting that I don't occasionally crash on the couch at the end of a tiring day and mindlessly watch back-to-back episodes of Fixer Upper or Chopped, staying awake against better judgment because I "need" to see the final house transformation or learn which chef's dish is on the chopping block. 

I still do that.  (Have I ever told you that I once watched four-and-a-half successive episodes of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives on a particularly weak-willed Friday night?  I'm not proud of this fact.)

I'm learning.  I'm learning that establishing life-giving elements in my routine, even if that routine seems impossibly full with work and responsibility, increases my sense of life margin.  (Case in point: although it sounds counter-intuitive in terms of time expenditure, I often feel less harried on days when I take the time to blog than on the days when I don't.)

Today, would you take inventory of what refreshes you?  Do you thrive when dinner is prepared early so you're not scrambling at 5:00 in the afternoon?  Do you need to call a friend or schedule a date night with your spouse?  Do you simply need to pamper yourself, like getting your hair cut or your nails done?   

Take inventory, and then take action to build these life-giving elements into your schedule, even if in small increments.  Sometimes adding good things can expand your life margin, too.

Image compliments of Brian A ChicagoSage (flickr.com)

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Life Margin Tip #2: Just Say No

For the past several days, I've written about reclaiming life margin, that open space in our lives and schedules where we have room to breathe and be.  I'm on the hunt for practical ways to find balance, which prompted yesterday's post about seeking and accepting help, my first tip for expanding life margin.

Today I want to explore a second useful strategy: Saying No.  (Seriously. We can do this.)

Contrary to how we often use the word, no can stand on its own as a complete sentence without explanation, guilt, or capitulating.  We're allowed to say no.  We reserve the right to guard our time, which is a valuable form of currency.  Once time is spent, it's spent.  We don't get it back. 

Recently I was asked to speak at a mom's group, which is something that I love to do.  I considered my schedule and knew that now wasn't the best time to accept more responsibility.  When I declined the offer, the world didn't end.  I didn't wither under anyone's judgment.

We say yes out of a desire to help and serve, which is admirable.  Occasionally we say yes out of habit.  But sometimes we say yes for less desirable reasons like feeling pressured, wanting to avoid disappointing people, or fearing that we'll miss out if we say no.

At this point in my life, I've accepted that I'm going to disappoint people.  This is inevitable, so I simply need to choose the right people to disappoint.  I'm going to miss out, so I want to miss out on those activities that aren't essential.  The challenge, it seems, is having the wisdom to discern the difference, which is why I often pray in alignment with Psalm 90: "Teach us to number our days so we might gain a heart of wisdom."

I want to say yes to the opportunities that are best, not simply the opportunities that present themselves.  I want to show restraint and not crowd my days with tasks and activities that might seem urgent, but actually aren't all that important.  Besides, sometimes God simply calls us to rest so we can regain our focus and strength.  (You see the cycle.  To say yes to rest, I have to say no to something else.)

Practice with me, would you?  Just let the word roll off your tongue:  No.  No.  No.

Perhaps you need to say no to cooking dinner one hectic evening and order take-out instead.  Perhaps you need to say no to an invitation to volunteer, a request to take on a project, or the self-imposed expectation that you must sew your child's Halloween costume.

Your world won't end if you say no.  On the contrary, a healthier life margin likely will begin.

Today's action step: Reclaim some necessary life margin by saying no. 

Image compliments of sboneham (flickr.com)

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Life Margin Tip #1: Seek and Accept Help

Whether I'm thinking about carrying all the groceries from the van into my house in one trip, increasing the number of courses I teach, or tackling that final load of laundry for the evening, I generally have a "can do" attitude.  Normally this is an admirable stance -- one infused with gumption and optimism, right along the lines of Rosie the Riveter's "We can do it!" and Bob the Builder's "Can we fix it? Yes we can!" 

The problem, of course, is that sometimes I can't do it.  I can't add more to my schedule.  I can't take on more work.  I can't pour out when I'm empty myself.

We all recognize the importance of life margin, so this week on the blog I'm exploring how I can practically reclaim some "white space" in my schedule and life.  (Friends, I need it, and based on feedback I've received, it's becoming clear that some of you are in the same boat.)

So, without further ado, let me share the first strategy I'm implementing to improve my life margin: Seek and Accept Help.

Two weeks ago I placed a desperate call to a young woman in my church and asked if she could babysit for the afternoon.  I was treading water with work, staying up late each night to grade, and convincing myself that what didn't get crossed off the to-do list today would surely get done tomorrow even though I knew the mushrooming tab of "tomorrow's work" was larger that I'd be able to pay.

This lifestyle has taken a toll.  Physically, I'm burned out.  Mentally and emotionally, I'm spent.  Relationally, I'm not the best wife, mother, or friend that I could be.

But my pride balked at admitting defeat.  Since the birth of my oldest daughter (now nine years old), my husband and I have worked opposite schedules and juggled childcare primarily by ourselves.  We've managed for nearly a decade!  On top of that, this is the last year before our youngest daughter enters school.  Can't I just keep going?  Can't I just suck it up for one more year?

I honestly considered those questions.  The answer was NO.

I've finally accepted my limitations.  I've acknowledged that I can't healthily finish my work unless I call in childcare reinforcements for at least several afternoon hours each week.  I've also accepted that there's a trickle-down effect; I can't be the the type of mother I want to be (patient, thoughtful, fun, creative) if I'm continually frazzled and overworked.

Perhaps most importantly, I'm accepting that there's no shame in this.  It's okay to seek and accept help.

Which leads me back to my babysitter, whose name just might be translated "lifeline."  She's going to watch the girls on Wednesday afternoons so I can work, uninterrupted and without guilt.  I gain time.  My girls gain a few hours with an awesome young woman.  (Incidentally, I used to babysit her when I was a college student, which boggles the mind.)  My babysitter gains spending cash.  Win-win-win.

It's a small step, but I feel more hopeful when I enter the week simply by knowing that I've scheduled hours when help is on the way.

What about you?  Do you ever find it difficult to admit that you need help?  What's one area where you could seek and accept help this week to improve your life margin?

Image compliments of Patrick (flickr.com)

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Now that we're talking about "life margin"

A dear friend recently told me that while training for a marathon, she used to mentally will chained dogs to break free and attack her so she'd have a legitimate excuse to stop running.

On more than one occasion this past month, I've thought that it would be refreshing -- downright nice, even -- to be admitted into the hospital so I'd have a legitimate excuse to lay in bed and have somebody bring me food that I didn't have to prepare myself. 

As I talk with friends and coworkers and fellow parents at preschool pick-up or soccer practices, I've sensed that I'm not alone.  I'm not the only person looking for some excuse to slow down the frenetic pace or searching for the permission to stop.  Maybe you're in this spot, too.

In my last post I wrote about the necessity of creating life margin, that coveted white space where a person can breathe and think and be without continually being over-scheduled, in demand, or on call.  Intuitively, we know this is important, but how do we get there? 

If we're accustomed to living life at full throttle, day in and day out, how do we learn to downshift?  If we're in the thick of a busy season and can't change that fact, how do we stay afloat?  (Besides from willing chained dogs to break free and attack us so we can be admitted into the hospital and have an excuse to lay in bed and have somebody bring us food, that is.)

Clearly, I don't have this figured out, but I want to figure it out.  I want to tackle these questions and explore ways that I can push back and reclaim some margin. 

So, that's what I'll be doing this week on the blog, and I'd love for you -- especially if you've been struggling with a lack of life margin -- to hang out with me.  Bit by bit, let's find some margin together, okay?

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Creating Margin: The Necessity of White Space in Life

Yesterday afternoon after my husband cut the grass, I spent an hour raking the clippings.  Some people might not appreciate the mindlessness of raking -- all that repeated reaching and pulling, all those piled clumps of grass dotting the yard -- but, for me, the task offered something that I haven't experienced in a while: margin, that precious white space in life when I'm free to breathe deeply and think unhurriedly.

We live in a culture that extols productivity and drive.  While these both are good traits, elevating them to such a high status makes us believe that busyness is the norm, something inevitable, something that correlates with importance, something we ought to be experiencing.

But if we buy into this worldview (one which often goes unchallenged), it can cloud our self-perception.  We assume that if we're not insanely busy, we're probably lazy.  If our schedule isn't packed, we're likely not doing enough.  If we're well-rested and managing our lives, then we must not be hustling or living up to our potential.

Something whispers and prods: do more, do more, do more.  You always can do more.

I take little pleasure in acknowledging that most of my days are filled to the brim during the semester.  Much of this can be attributed to my current phase of life: raising three young kids while working full time (partially from home) as a college lecturer with a full teaching load.

Sometimes, however, my lack of margin stems from choices I make, like taking on too much or neglecting to tap into those things that bring rest to my soul. 

This afternoon, though, I pushed back on my schedule and reclaimed an inch of margin, one systematic swipe of my rake at a time.  I noticed the shifting colors along the mountainside behind my house, felt the pressure of the rake in my hands and the blister forming on my palm, and breathed the October air. 

My senses were wholly attuned to my yard, one of my favorite places on earth, and my thoughts and emotions, which recently have been scattered, fell into alignment.  As I reflected on God's instruction to be still and know that He is God, the simplest of tasks -- raking grass clippings -- elevated from being mundane to being holy and healing.

We need white space in our lives -- moments when nothing is scheduled, moments when nobody is pulling on us, moments when we quiet ourselves and reflect.  These moments don't come naturally; we need to seek them out and guard them jealously.  We need to push back on the unspoken assumption that busier is better. 

We need margin.

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It's Officially Acceptable to Wear Boots

I'm a person who attempts to use every last ounce of everything, whether leftovers in the fridge or scraps of scratch paper.  I'm not sure whether this stems from frugality or obsessives-compulsiveness.  I squeeze tubes of toothpaste until they're flattened.  I pump detergent from containers that seem to have none.  I meld the smallest slivers of soap onto new bars.

I take great pleasure in using things up and holding out on replacing a product until I can say with certainty that its essence has been extracted.

In this vein, although my fashion sensibility has been prompting me to integrate boots back into my wardrobe ever since the semester started, my practical side has urged me to wear my warm-weather clothes and shoes for as long as possible.  I'm tethered by a sense of responsibility.  Extract every possible ounce of summer.  Don't prematurely jump into the next season!

Incidentally, boots don't listen to practicality.  (Well, technically, boots don't listen at all.  They're boots.)  Still, I've discovered that this otherwise inanimate form of footwear has a surprising ability to call to you from the back of your closet, pleading to be worn with a cute skirt, skinny jeans, or casual leggings.

Until this point, I've demonstrated great restraint.  Early September?  Not yet.  Early September is merely an extension of August.  Mid September?  Hold off a little longer.  What about the first day of fall?  That would be fitting.  Poetic even!  No, it's still warm.  Keep waiting.

But now we've already settled over a full week into fall.  The sidewalks on campus are festively littered with leaves that fall like confetti, and no one can deny the chill in the air each morning and evening.

It's time.  Oh yes, I've waited long enough.  Gratification will be delayed no longer.  I've granted myself official permission to wear boots.

Photo compliments of SG_Design (flickr.com)

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