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.

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