When Christmas is Said and Done

I hope that you had the merriest of Christmases!  We visited family on both sides, exchanged gifts, ate significantly more than we ought to have eaten, and had a beautiful day.  By evening, everyone was exhausted.  (I'd blame this on my oldest daughter who set her alarm for 5 A.M. to make sure we started Christmas on time, but that wouldn't be the whole truth.  Perhaps 93% of the truth, but not the whole truth.  Christmas is tiring, no matter how you slice it.)

A lot of emotion goes into Christmas each year.  Everyone has expectations, whether for an anticipated gift, or how others will receive a gift, or how the meal will turn out, or how extended family will get along. For some, this Christmas might be the first one they've spent without a loved one, and their ache is as deep as others' cheer.  Some will have put intense energy into planning and preparation, only to feel empty by how quickly the torn wrapping paper was gathered and thrown away.  Kids are strung out on sugar and glazed over with anticipation -- and often more prone to melting down.

It can be an absolutely beautiful time, but it's also a lot to process.

That's why I like to pull back each Christmas season to be quiet and reflect.  Sometimes we make the holidays more complicated than they need to be.  At Christmas Eve service, my pastor said, "Remember, there's nothing that you can do to make Jesus love you more or less.  His love for you isn't based on your performance; it's based on His nature."

I know this in my core, yet I need to hear it spoken sometimes.  When I'm good, my goodness doesn't earn me God's favor.  When I'm selfish and bristly and cranky (say, like when I get woken at 5 A.M.), my bad behavior doesn't undo God's unconditional acceptance of me.  My right-standing with God is because of Jesus, plain and simple.

That's what we celebrate Christmas.  Emmanuel, God with us, came to earth to make us right with Him.

So, now that Christmas officially has passed, we'll assimilate the new gifts into our homes, take down our trees, unstring the lights, stow away the wrapping paper, say goodbye to family until the next time we gather, return the sweater that didn't fit, and detox from our Christmas diets as we head into the new year.  We'll do all of it, like we do each year, because another Christmas is said and done.

But the reason why we celebrate in the first place?

Hark the herald angels sing, "Glory to the newborn King!"
Peace on earth and mercy mild, 
God and sinners reconciled

Yes, even though the day passes, the reason that we celebrate lives on.  Even if you've had a Christmas that fell short of some expectation, we can take comfort.  The reason for Christmas -- God himself, whose love is unconditional -- never disappoints.


You Know You Live in a Small Town When.... (A Story of a Lost Dog)

A family in our town recently lost their dog.  I know this not only because dozens of bright green signs were tacked onto telephone polls and hung at highly-trafficked intersections, but also because local friends forwarded Facebook posts that alerted residents to be on the lookout.  Even our local paper covered the story.

This dog was being sought hard.  

When I was checking out at Wal-Mart yesterday, the cashier who rang up my order began to chat.  "Did you hear the good news yet?"  Unsure of what she was referencing, I shook my head no.  "That missing dog.  He was found!"

After being lost for 14 days, the prodigal dog has returned -- right in time for Christmas, nonetheless.  And our whole town, from Wal-Mart cashiers and beyond, rejoices.


Let's Chat: End of Fall Semester Edition

Friends, it's legitimate.  I recently submitted final grades for the semester and now it's officially break from classes.  You know what this means, right?  It's time for a fireside chat!

Except I don't have a fireplace, so this picture will have to suffice.  And we're not in the same physical location, so our "chat" will be rather unilateral.  But if we were sitting together by a fireplace, I'd hand you a mug of steaming hut cocoa or coffee (your choice), and we'd let the conversation naturally meander, like good conversations should.

Passing Time.  Let me be the millionth person who recently has said this: Time is passing quickly.  About two weeks ago I wrote a post about cutting the grass for the final time, then the semester pulled me into an alternative universe so I haven't written here for a while, and then -- just yesterday, in fact -- my children had a two-hour delay due to the first snowfall.  Somehow, in the time it took me to blink, December not only has arrived, but has reached its halfway point.  We're on warp speed.

Keeping Perspective When You're Worn Down.  I always feel a little crunched, a little off-kilter, and a little on-edge during the final weeks of the semester.  So many decisions must be made.  I check email more cautiously than normal, wondering if there's going to be a message with a vague, yet telling, subject line like "Question," from a student who's on the cusp between grades and arguing for the higher.

My nerves tend to be unfounded, as these issues always work themselves out.  Moreover, I did some quick calculation based on the number of students I teach and the number of students who contacted me with an end-of-semester crisis, which only turned out to be 3%.  In other words, the semester ended smoothly, daresay easily, with 97% of the students I taught.  (It's important for me to remember this when the 3% seems noisy and threatens to occupy 100% of my thoughts.  We never need to give something so small that much mental space, even it it clamors for it.)

I taught delightful classes this semester, too.  When I'm in a classroom, I'm alive, and this makes me realize that I'm doing what I ought to be doing.

Christmas Cards.  Oh man.  Every year I realize that people send Christmas cards, and every year I think, "Robin, you should be one of those people," and every year I also realize, "But, I don't want to be one of those people, because those people clearly are adults and I'm not functioning on that same level."  Why this simple task of goodwill and cheer challenges all my resources each year, I'm not sure, but it's the hardest hurdle for me to scale.

Am I alone with this?  Do any of you struggle with sending Christmas cards?  It's my holiday Achilles heel.

You'll Love Me for This.  Do you have a Trader Joe's where you live?  If so, have you tried their English Toffee?  It's only sold during the Christmas season, which is good, because if it were available year round I'd have a problem.  It's glorious!  It's addictive!  It's unsurprisingly chock-full of calories and fat, but if you ignore that part and feign illiteracy when you see the nutrition label, you'll find that you can be an overachiever and eat much more than the recommended serving size.  Try some.  It's worth it.

On Counting Down.  With ten more days to Christmas, there's still much to do.  Over break I need to prepare next semester's courses and complete writing for work, and of course, there's still Christmas shopping ahead.  But mostly, I want to catch my breath.  I want to have evenings when I sit in our family room by the glow of the Christmas tree and soak in these moments -- the handmade Popsicle-stick ornaments on our tree, the feel of my younger girls' heads leaning on my shoulder as we snuggle under a blanket on the couch and read books together with Nat King Cole singing in the background.

I want to slow down my pace so the next ten days aren't on warp speed, so I feel them passing, so I can consciously reflect on the miracles of this season.

And, friends, that's what I wish for you during these days, too.  Thank you for the gift of being a reader here!  (And seriously, get some English Toffee.  You'll thank me later.)


On Cutting the Grass One Final Time

On Black Friday I didn't go shopping, although I originally had thoughts that I might.  The day simply didn't work out that way.  Instead, I worked in my yard.  It sorely needed it.  There were leaves to rake, plants to cut back, sections of the garden to turn under, and grass to be mowed.

I've written before how I always feel better after cutting the grass, and I've shared that my yard is one of my favorite places.  The older I get the more I realize that working and walking in my own back yard, no matter the season, brings a peculiar calmness and clarity to my thoughts.  Some special alchemy is at work -- as I work to bring order to the landscape around me, raking here or pruning there, order settles in the landscape within me.  I think.  I pray.  I solve problems by not even thinking about them.  I become more aware of the air I'm breathing.  I feel more rooted, more connected, daresay, more happy.

So, on Friday, as people were scoring fabulous deals on appliances, getting shiny new TV's, and battling crowds to save 50% on their entire Old Navy purchases (all wonderful things, perhaps with the exception of the crowds), I was cutting my grass, one strip at a time, enjoying the lines I was leaving in my wake.

I was raking over the cherry tomatoes that had fallen off the vines when I yanked the plants out earlier this month, remembering how deliciously they paired with fresh basil, balsamic vinaigrette, and mozzarella all summer long.  I was wondering if I'd plant more zucchini plants next spring, or whether we should try yellow squash, too, or if one cilantro plant would be enough.

I was wiping my nose on my sleeve because I forgot to tuck Kleenex in my hoodie pocket, and I was thankful for my leather work gloves because my hands would have taken a beating without them.  I was burning brush in our fire pit, and dragging leaves on a tarp to the front curb for the magical leaf-sucking-truck that occasionally visits our street, and noticing that hydrangea blooms, even when browned and brittle, still look elegant.

I was feeling productive in that easy cadence of relaxed outside work -- seeing a distinct difference between where I'd been and where I was headed, but feeling feeling no rush because the leaves that didn't get raked would still be there tomorrow, if need be.  

Every once in while I thought about shopping: what if my hands were manicured, not dirty?  What if I were wearing cute clothes, not my old boots and work jeans?  What if I were sipping Starbucks?  What if something great was out there, wherever "there" was, and I wasn't doing it, seeing it, or experiencing it?

But then I'd look at my surroundings and realize that, really, I had all that I needed.  I wasn't missing out.  There wasn't some better, more glamorous day that I should be living.  I was right where I ought to be, right where I wanted to be.

I was right in my own back yard.


Yet Another Baking Success

So, my daughters found these adorable Wide-Eyed Turkey Cupcakes and decided that we must try them for Thanksgiving this year.

So we did.  And, as usual, we nailed it.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!


When You Focus on What You Have

My family faced several challenges this week: my husband had a run-in with a deer that damaged our car, our water heater broke, and we've been sick with bronchitis and head colds.  I could be dwelling on these things -- they've been inconvenient and costly, after all.

But, I'd rather focus on better things, like the fact that the gentleman behind me at the grocery store this afternoon handed me a $5 coupon and said, "This only works on orders over $40, and I'm not spending that much today. Here, this coupon is for you."

I could focus on the teacher who sent a kind email about our daughter's good attitude and work ethic.  I could remember that I have health insurance so my inhaler and antibiotic only cost a fraction of their original cost.  (And I have access to reliable health care!)

Joel wasn't hurt when the deer collided into our car!  We have a vehicle, even if it's older and dented!  We have clean water every day of our lives, even if that water was temporarily cold!

So much changes when you focus on what you have, not on what you don't.


This Season's Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

There's been a little buzz in our community lately.  You see, an 80-year-old Norway Spruce located in our town was selected as this year's Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.  Thursday morning the tree was cut down and began its commute to New York City.  People young and old stood in clusters along the street to watch the undertaking.  I felt surprisingly privileged to pass exactly when I did on my morning commute -- right when traffic was backed up long enough for me to capture my own picture as the tree was lowered onto a flatbed truck.

The tree was located blocks from my house, which means that I've passed it thousands of times.  The funny thing is that I've never noticed it.  Not once.

But, clearly, someone did.  Someone saw its beauty and potential, and singled the tree out as being worthy of prominence.  Who knew?

It makes me wonder about my surroundings in the happiest way.  What other wonderful things are hidden in plain sight around me?  And if I look more intently, can I be the one to find the potential?


What Are You Looking Forward to?

The other night as I sat surrounded by papers at my dining room table, I looked up at my husband as he walked through the room.  "I don't have anything that I'm looking forward to," I said.

Of course, I was looking forward to finish grading the stack of essays that I was working on, just like I had been looking forward to finish grading the stack of speeches I had been working on before that.  But these aren't real things you legitimately look forward to.  They're simply tasks that must get completed, so you can move onto the next tasks that must get completed.
Because I'm rationale like this, the next thing I said to my husband was, "I think I need Skittles."  (Because, clearly, when you're having an existential crisis about purpose and work-life balance, Skittles always help.  They really do.)

Joel got me Skittles, and I continued to plow through my grading.  But, in the recesses of my thoughts, I dwelt on the fact that I wasn't looking forward to anything.  I hadn't meant to blurt out that sentence, but I did.  It made me pause.  It's healthy to look forward the future.  When you're looking forward to something, you're invigorated and energized.  You have more accurate scope and perspective.

So, I made a point to document several measurable things that I can look forward to.  They're small items, like planning what I'll do the afternoon before Thanksgiving break when my kids will still be in school, but I'll be free to leave campus early.  (I'm going to have an afternoon to myself!  I can spend those hours however I want!  See?  The anticipation is already building.  It feels so healthy.)

Today, I asked my students what they're most looking forward to over their own Thanksgiving breaks.  One by one they offered responses: seeing family, reuniting with a beloved pet, eating their mom's stuffing, sleeping in their own bed, going shopping on Black Friday with a friend, or showering without having to wear flip flops in a communal dorm bathroom.

With each response, more smiles, nods, and laughter emerged from around the room.  (My students are in tunnel vision, too, after all.  This little conversation helped us all.)

Sometimes, we simply need to step back and change our view.  I can't change the fact that my work load is intense at this point in the semester; it's par for the course in academia.  But I can choose how I adjust my vision.

Look up.  Look ahead.  There's much to look forward to.   

Image compliments of ThomThom.net


W.W.J.D. (What Would Joanna Do?) Farmhouse-Style Decorative Shelf

As I mentioned in my last post, I have a soft spot in my heart for garage sales because you never know what you're going to find.  Take this wood-and-wire-boxlike-sifter thing, for example.  I found it at a garage sale, and I had no idea what it was.  I simply knew that it was interesting, and that Joanna Gaines wouldn't have passed it up if she had spotted while antique shopping in Waco.

So, I offered $2 and walked away as the proud owner of... whatever it was.

Eventually, I figured that the best way to re-purpose the box would be to use it as a decorative shelf, and even better, I knew just the place to hang it.  Earlier in the summer I refinished a simple wooden cabinet that Joel and I had purchased at Target shortly after we got married 16 years ago.

The cabinet had been sturdy and solid, yet bland, so I reverted to the easiest solution: paint.  The piece looked more polished when its original finish was updated with dove-gray paint, and as an added touch, I completed the piece with a lattice stencil pattern.  After positioning the cabinet into a corner of our family room, I knew that the garage sale box-sifter would be a perfect compliment to hang above it.

Using a Valspar paint sample from Lowes (Cathedral Stone), I painted the box a slightly deeper shade of gray than the cabinet.

Then, to add texture, I applied a light coat of liming wax on top of the paint.  Using short strokes (and an old paint brush), I tapped the wax in parallel strokes and then gently buffed it until the wax resembled wood grain.

The result?  A soothing weathered finish that looks more like a stain than an opaque paint.

I hung the finished box above the cabinet and accessorized with simple accents, like my newly-upgraded tray, a white ampersand figurine (TJ Maxx), a black metal lantern (purchased at a garage sale for $1), several faux succulents (found on clearance at Michaels craft store), and geometric wire metal wall hangings (given to me for free at a garage sale because the original vases were missing). 

The entire space is neutral and calm.  I love how the terracotta pots provide a pop of orange, how the greenery adds life, and how the repeating black metal accents provide contrast to the softer gray and white tones.

As added confirmation, I saw a similar wood-and-wire shelving unit at Michaels shortly after finishing my own piece.  It has three separate shelves and a more decorative border, but it also was originally priced at $79.99.  I tell you, it made my $2 investment seem all the more worthwhile.

So, moral of the story: if you're shopping at a garage sale and you find something interesting, take it home with you.  (Even if you don't know what it is.)

Do you love DIY transformations?  Want to see more and be notified of new posts?  Like Robin Kramer Writes on Facebook.  Or follow me on Twitter.  Or check me out on Pinterest.  Golly, I'm also brand new to Instagram!

And while you're here, check out some additional fun DIY projects:

Creative Ways to Fill a Picture Frame

How to Hide Unsightly Computer Wires

What Pennies and Paper Clips Can Do: Homemade Curtain Weights

Thanks for joining me here today! 


Amazing Garage Sale Transformations: Seeing Junk in a New Light

You know you're serious about a hobby when you turn it into a verb.  That's the case with me and garage sales.  I love garage sales with such intensity that they're no longer merely a thing, but rather an action: garage saling.  (Or would it be garage sale-ing? Even though it ought to be a legitimate term, there's clearly no correct way to spell this.)

Take this particularly large garage sale that I stumbled upon this summer.  It had only one sign pointing out its location, but then it appeared on the horizon like an oasis in the desert.

You see, long ago I realized that when shopping at garage sales, you can't look at the merchandise for what it currently is.  Rather, you need to regard it for what it could become.  You're scouting out potential.  You're envisioning what could be.  It's terribly exciting.  (But don't ask my children or my husband if they share this sentiment.  They hate garage sales.  Poor misguided souls.)

Here are my favorite scores and DIY transformations from this summer's adventures.

Christmas tree topper turned into a bookshelf decoration:  I've noticed that many garage sales are trying to get rid of Christmas decorations -- and that many of these Christmas decorations aren't worth buying.  Still, there are exceptions to this rule.  Take this tree topper, for instance.  I had no need for its present function as a tree topper, but its geometric shape reminded me of decorations I've seen in Home Goods or TJ Maxx. 

By removing the metal coil and using silver spray paint, I now have a modern bookshelf decoration that cost me only 75 cents.

Wooden magazine rack turned into a jewelry organizer:  I loved this wooden magazine rack, and I really liked its sensible price of just $1.  I knew it could be used for a different purpose in my closet.

I updated the rack with a fresh coat of eggshell blue paint, and then I screwed cup hooks into the base in equally-spaced increments.  Now the magazine holder displays my necklaces, making it easy to accessorize while I get ready in the morning.

Ugly picture turned into a cute picture: This old floral picture was discarded in the "free pile" at one garage sale.  I understand.  With its pastel print and dull mat, it wasn't much to look at.  Still, the frame was solid, the glass was intact, and the scalloped mat had potential.

Once I returned home, I wiped down the frame, freshened the picture mat with a coat of white spray paint, and added butterfly-patterned scrapbook paper.  The picture now hangs above my youngest daughter's desk.

Halloween-specific decoration turned into neutral fall decor:  Although I love fall, I've never been a fan of Halloween.  I spotted this Pottery Barn Kids ceramic jack-o-lantern for $3, though, and immediately sensed that it could be transformed.

With a few coats of white spray paint (and the jack-o-lantern face turned to the back), nobody knows that this neutral pumpkin decoration used to be designed for Halloween.

Outdated tray upgraded to a modern design:  When my friend moved to a new house, she gave me this tray.  The size was practical, the tray was well made, and the curved handles softened the square lines.  The only drawback was that I didn't love the cafe scene featured on the tray's base.

Of course, this proved to be an easy cosmetic fix.  I purchased a gray plastic place mat at the Dollar Store, cut the mat to size, and set it inside the tray.  Instant transformation!  As an added decorative touch, I also wound jute rope around the handles to accent their curves.

Dated picture frame refreshed with a black and white photo:  This picture frame was priced at just 50 cents at an end-of-season yard sale.  Its artwork -- a primary-colored abstract pattern -- didn't catch my eye, but the frame itself was nice.

The picture frame looks more mature now that it features a black and white photo -- one of my favorite pictures of my husband and me after a football game.  For extra dimension, in the lower left corner I added a decorative ampersand figurine that I found in a clearance bin at Michaels.  While a small tweak, the ampersand adds a little extra something and makes me smile. 

Old Basket Made Over with Spray Paint:  When I stopped by this garage sale early one Saturday morning, the woman running the sale had nothing priced.  She looked at me and confessed, "I don't know what I'm doing.  Do you have any idea how I should price things?"

If you've ever held your own garage sale, you know that pricing can be mentally exhausting.  So. Many. Decisions!  You want items to move, but you also don't want to give them away. Understanding her predicament, I browsed her tables and offered pricing suggestions.  As a token of thanks for my time and help, she gave me this interesting basket free of charge.  I've upgraded it with gray spray paint for a cleaner look, and it now holds a potted plant in my bedroom.

Random Wooden-and-Wire Box turned Farmhouse Shelf:  In what might be my favorite transformation of all, I found this wooden box lying in the grass at one yard sale.  I didn't know what it was.  The woman selling it didn't know what it was, either.  It just looked interesting.

When I asked how much she was asking, she shrugged noncommittally and said, "Make me an offer."  I said, "Two dollars?" and the wooden box was mine.

I brought the box home and placed it in the back of the garage so my husband wouldn't also ask what it was, because clearly, nobody seemed to have any sense of its purpose.  Eventually, I started calling it a sifter, even though I don't know what it would sift.  It just seemed right.

After deliberating for quite some time, I opted to paint the box a neutral gray and use it as a shelf above a cabinet in my family room.  (Check out the tutorial and the finished piece here!)

Now that it's fall, garage sale season has come to an end.  At the risk of sounding terribly melodramatic, part of my soul has separated from my body.  But I cling to the fact that people will hibernate all winter, amassing items for future sales.  And soon enough, off in the horizon, those signs will start to appear once more.

Do you love garage sales?  Drop a comment and share your favorite transformation from today's post!

And while you're here, feel free to check out a few past DIY projects:

Top It Off: Easy Cafe Curtain 

These Ugly Carts Won My Heart: Bar Cart Upgrades

What to Do When You Inherit Old Artwork

Bare Walls? No Problem. Inexpensive Wall Art Ideas


When Beauty is Placed Right at Your Feet

Title: When Beauty is Placed Right at Your Feet

Subtitle: Sometimes you simply need to look down.


The Saga of the Lost Key Chain

There's one reliable indicator in my life that alerts me when I'm overextending myself: I start to misplace things.  It happened this past Friday when I couldn't find the key chain that holds my office key and flash drive.

When I realized it was missing, I retraced my steps as thoroughly as possible.  (I've lived this cycle before: the losing of items, the painful realization of loss, and the inevitable frantic searching that follows.)  I emptied my work bag and purse, revisited the five classrooms where I teach, checked various lost-and-found repositories on campus, scoured my house, rummaged through jacket pockets, and searched the crevices in both our car and van.  And intermittently I prayed, "Lord, please help me find this key chain."


Jokingly, I posted a desperate Facebook probe asking friends where they'd be hiding if they were my key chain.  I received helpful offers, like colleagues who volunteered to check my office and reminded me to ask custodians and tech workers in campus buildings.  Other friends provided funny suggestions: Girl, they're always under the couch!  Or, Look in your refrigerator.  Or, They'll be in the last place you look, so look there first.

But they weren't under the couch, or in my refrigerator, or in any of the places I searched, no matter the sequence.

One other Facebook friend replied, "For there is nothing covered that shall not be revealed; and nothing hid that shall not be known. (Matthew 10:26)."

That's when I started to pray more earnestly in alignment with scripture.  "Lord, you know all and see all.  You know the exact location of this key chain.  I've exhausted every option, and I ask you to bring this key chain into the hands of someone who will return it."

That's all.  I said amen, and then for the first time since I had realized the key chain was missing, I relaxed.  Several minutes later, I checked my email and saw a new message.  Its subject line immediately jumped out: "Found Key and Flash Drive."

You don't say. 

After all, the Lord cares about the things that matters to us, even if it's as small as a key chain.  Even more, he delights in finding what is lost.


An Unexpected Classroom Intervention

With only five minutes left until the end of class, I ask a student to go to the front of the classroom for a quick "stand and deliver" exercise.  He's asked to speak about a topic of interest for one minute, devoid of any verbal fillers, like uh or um, that might distract the audience from his message.

He chooses to talk about how he settled on his major.  He begins, "I've always looked up to my father, so when I thought about what to study, I looked to his career as a model.  He's a chemical engineer.  He has a PhD in it, actually.  When I enrolled here, it seemed natural to follow in his footsteps and major in chemical engineering, so I did.  Except now I'm two years into the program, and I realize that I don't love it.  I'm much more interested in computer engineering, but I worry that I'm too far into my courses to change."

I glance at my watch and I realize that he's already reached his time limit, but nobody in the audience is antsy.  They're rapt with attention.  One student ahead of me nods her head in understanding, then kindly interjects, "You're not too far."

Other students immediately echo the same sentiment:

"No, you still have time to make a change."

"You're preparing for the rest of your life.  Don't settle -- do what you're passionate about. "

"Don't keep going down a road that you know is wrong.  Changing your major might seem drastic to you now, but it makes sense to correct your course.

The whole class rallies behind him.  I sit quietly, filled to the brim at this outpouring.  He listens, nodding intently, as classmate after classmate echos that he's not as trapped as he thinks he is.

We all thought that he was going to the front of the classroom for a brief speaking exercise.  Instead, it turned out to be the most unexpected intervention from 26 of his classmates, who at that moment, were the best audience I've ever seen.


We Shouldn't Wait Until They're Leaving

A woman who works in my department is leaving her position and starting a new job next week.  This woman is stellar.  With work, she's helpful and competent.  Socially, she's kind and gracious.  Personally, she's remarkably classy, from how she dresses (always stylish) to how she speaks (her voice is like velvet.)

I've always thought these things about her, and now that she's leaving, I made a point to tell her.  Which is good, but only kind of good.

Wouldn't it be better if we offered our compliments to others right as we think them, rather than holding onto those compliments until the perfect time?  It's like winking at someone in the dark: you know how you feel about them, but they don't.

I'd rather let them know up front -- before they're leaving.

So that's why I paused while writing this post to walk down the hallway and tell a colleague that the presentation he gave yesterday was excellent.  Why wait?  Why hold out doing and saying good when it can be done now?

Now is better.  Don't wait until they're leaving.


How My Kids Became the Most Annoying Customers in Walmart

Title: How My Kids Became the Most Annoying Customers in Walmart

Subtitle: I offer this as a warning.  At all costs, avoid the aisle where cow bells are sold.


Question: How Do You Do It All Well? Answer: I Don't.

Last week I received a message from a friend.  She and I both work full time.  We're both raising three daughters.  We're both married to men whose jobs require late or nontraditional hours, so we navigate many dinners, evenings, and bedtimes with our kids alone.

She's several years younger than me, though, and her children are several years younger than mine.

On that premise, she asked: "How do you do it all well?  I know I'm where I'm supposed to be, but I'm in the thick of it.  I need to look to women a bit ahead of me who haven't shrunk back in spite of motherhood, but have stepped up, so to speak."

I wish that a picture could have been taken of me the exact moment I read her message.  I was standing in my kitchen, stress-eating a handful of crackers because I couldn't find any chocolate to stress-eat.  I was nowhere near finished with my work for the day.  Dinnertime was near, yet I had no meal planned and limited groceries.  One daughter needed to be picked up from swimming intramurals.  Another daughter needed help with math homework.  We had an event at church that evening, plus I had entirely forgotten about a Girl Scout ceremony (conveniently scheduled at the exact same time as church) even though I had received multiple reminders about the ceremony, all of which I had forgotten to RSVP.

How do you do it all well?

The answer to that question was straightforward: You don't.  You just don't.  You learn to do most of it well enough, but you never quite do all of it to your high expectations.

Because "it" is huge.  The "it" in "how do you do it all well?" is mammoth.  It's comprised of unwieldy to-do lists for work, home, and, if you have kids, each individual child.  The "it" represents hundreds of daily decisions, both small and large, from what to serve for dinner, to how to proceed with a conflict at work, to how to discipline a difficult child's behavior while still showing love.  "It" stands for the dishwasher that needs to be emptied, the school picture order form that needs to be returned, and the class that needs to be taught the next morning.  "It" means that you have answers to all possible questions, like you're a human Google who can provide detailed weather reports so your kids know exactly how to dress each morning, or identify the species of a native deciduous tree by its leaves so you're poised to assist your middle schooler who's completing a science project.

Inherent in the "it" is that you take care of yourself (obviously!) and prioritize your marriage (so important!), while also spending quality time with each child to invest in their academic, social, spiritual, physical, and emotional well-being.  And, in those cozy spare moments as you ease into bath time and approach the sweet bedtime hours, "it" nudges that, while you're at it, you ought to read with your children for 20 minutes (keeping a log of book titles, of course) because, friends, reading is good and educational and fun!

So, as I paused at my kitchen counter reading her message and processing how I do it all, I laughed aloud -- one of those slightly manic laughs that, if witnessed by an outside observer, would make them question whether I was entirely balanced.

But clearly I was not balanced, because if I had been, I would have remembered the hidden stash of chocolate chips in the freezer, and I would have been stress-eating those instead of crackers.  Regardless, I formulated a response:

Dear friend, you don't do it all.  Somehow, you learn to live comfortably in that realization. Not throwing in the towel, not giving up, but also not holding yourself to impossible standards.

I poured out words that I wanted her to hear, not just in her head, but also in her heart:

You have amazing capacity. You've established a diligent work ethic that sets you apart, and your high level of competence has been rewarded by getting entrusted with more work. On top of that, God's blessed you with three spirited children who bring such joy, yet require such time, energy, and effort. And you have a husband and a marriage to cultivate! And there's church and ministry! And there is laundry -- so much laundry! -- and dishes and meal prep. And you still need to shower and groom!  There's no wonder why you feel as if you can't do it all -- there is only one of you.  And even in your amazingness, it's not feasible to always have all of these plates spinning well. There's going to be some wobble.

When we're feeling especially overwhelmed, don't we all need someone to tell us that the wobble is normal and inevitable?  That wobbling is not an indicator that we're failing, but rather, that we're somehow keeping worlds in motion?

I was reminded of a scene a few semesters ago when I had an undergraduate teaching assistant who handled some instructional and clerical tasks for a course I was teaching.  After our students had taken an exam, he emailed to ask if he could grade the exams by the end of the week, not the very next class session.  He was a terrific student and TA -- always diligent, always helpful, always on top of things.  He simply needed more time.  I immediately accepted his request: Of course you can have an extra few days to grade the exams.  It won't hurt anyone.  Your week is hectic; I know you'll get it done as soon as you're able.

Even as I responded, I realized that I was being more gracious with him than I would have been with myself.  I would have expected myself to grade the exams that night, regardless of my schedule.

In both of these situations -- my friend's challenge to balance work and motherhood, and my TA's challenge to meet a deadline -- I could easily understand their struggles.  They're remarkably competent people, both of whom have a lot on their plates.  It's natural for me to offer them encouragement and leeway.  How could I not empathize?

My responses made me wonder: If I can do this so readily for others, why can't I also give myself the benefit of the doubt when I face challenges?  Why can't I easily let go of my self-imposed expectations, especially when those expectations are arbitrary or unreasonable?

I think it's because, deep in my heart, I still want to do it all well.  I want my all plates to spin perpetually, not to wobble.

Sometimes I wish that we had audible cheerleaders who partnered with us, calling our attention to the many things we're doing well:

Remember that time you crawled out of bed at night to change the wet laundry from the washer into the dryer?  Remember that?  That was impressive.  How about the morning when you knew the exact location of your son's missing homework folder?  Not everyone would have remembered it was on the third step, sitting next to the pile of socks that you had gathered from the family room floor.  And what about that evening when you desperately wanted to watch an episode of Worst Cooks in America: Celebrity Edition, but instead you laid in bed beside your children, rubbing their backs and listening to them talk about their days?  You. Are. Amazing.

I don't think we celebrate or notice the many things we're doing well, though, because we're already rattling off the next set of expectations, like how we now ought to fold the clothes we had put the dryer, or wash the dirty socks sitting on the steps, or hold off viewing Worst Cooks in favor of checking email once more.

Let's break that perpetual cycle.  Let's notice the things we're accomplishing, not just what we aren't.

You might not be doing it all well, whatever "it" looks like for you.  Neither am I.  Nobody is.  We all have plates that are wobbling, falling, or shattering at our feet.  We mostly see our own messes up close, not everyone else's, which makes us feel more isolated.  Truth is, we're all in the thick of life.  Mess and struggle is inevitable.

So, let this post be a reminder to you -- just like it's a reminder to me -- that we can be kind to ourselves.  If you can't hear your own voice telling you this, then let mine resonate through the screen today:  Have you noticed how much you're doing?  You're killing it in so many areas.  You're doing it, my friend.

Maybe not all, and maybe not entirely well, but you're doing it.  And today, that's entirely a victory.


The Sidewalk Not Taken

My weekday life is highly predictable.  I wake early to exercise and shower before getting my daughters on the bus.  I drive to campus, teach my classes, eat lunch at my desk, check email, hold office hours, and then return home where I cycle through the evening routine: homework, dinner, clean-up, activities, baths and bedtime for the girls, and, once the house is still and quiet, I grade and prep my materials for the next day's classes.

Lather, rinse, repeat, day after day.  The routine works, but sometimes routines need to be shaken up.

So that's what I did today.  It's been glorious lately: low humidity, warm temperatures, and blue skies that highlight the emerging golden leaves.  It's like summer in September, and when you're experiencing summer in September, you don't need to eat lunch with a view of your computer.

Instead, you need to find an unoccupied bench, sit down, and eat lunch while enjoying the view of campus.  You might even need to quote some Robert Frost to yourself:
Two sidewalks diverged on a campus and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Take the sidewalk less traveled by.  Such a simple change, yet it does the soul good.

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