Looking Ahead to 2023


Whatever this past year has held -- whether joys or sorrows, steadiness or unpredictability, fulfillment or disappointment -- we can walk into 2023 trusting God walks with us. He's faithful. He's good. His ways are wise and loving. I'm so grateful.

See this picture? This photo was taken this morning. My small-town central Pennsylvania self has made it to the West Coast, and that windblown hair is compliments of a misty Pacific Ocean breeze.

Here's to a new year. Here's to unexpected moments, fresh experiences, and hope. Here's to a God who's powerful enough to create this beautiful vista and intimate enough to know every windblown hair on my head.

I've had a lot of questions for God this past year, many along the lines of "what the heck?" It's been that kind of year, honestly. And yet, as we stand on the threshold of a new year, I sense that if God's mercies are new morning by morning, how extra sweet those mercies will appear as I reflect back over my life, year by year. Even those "God, what the heck?" years.

Happy New Year, my friends!

The Rougher Path


Yesterday I visited a beautiful walking trail. The path was clearly defined, making it an easy route. After walking a brief while, I noticed a clump of mud caked on the edge of my boot, likely leftover from our weekend trip to get our annual Christmas tree.

I scraped my boot against the smooth grass multiple times, but it didn't remove the mud. Then I stepped into the rougher section next to the easy path, an area riddled with reeds matted to the ground and low, weedy jagger bushes. With one definitive boot-scraping swipe on that surface, the mud was gone.

I'd like if there were no life lessons embedded in this story. I'd love to report that my current life paths are all easy and smooth. But that's not quite true. As soon as I saw that mud removed -- that exact moment the ugly clump dislodged itself when I applied some rough friction -- I sensed God's nudging:

Robin, the rough paths you walk often do the best job of cleaning you up.

The current struggles I'm facing? They're not for nothing. Hard times have a way of developing faith and building fortitude. I'll be honest: I like smooth, easy paths. But when I have to walk rougher ones, then I pray God will let them do the important work of removing some crud from my life.


The Pie Crust Cookie: A Thanksgiving Tradition

Each Thanksgiving when I was little, my mom used to roll out the extra pie crust she had trimmed from the edges of her pies, sprinkle it with cinnamon and sugar, and give us a "pie crust cookie." The tradition continues in my own house, except now I make an entire extra batch of pie crust to roll out for this purpose. We eat it for breakfast. It's amazing.

Long live the pie crust cookie!


That Final Time Cutting the Grass


No matter what's happening in my life, I always feel better after I cut the grass. Perhaps it's the hour and a half where I can simultaneously think and not think all at once, the prescribed walking back and forth along a perfectly charted route, the satisfying lines left in my wake, the sense of accomplishment from taming an unkempt and wild space and having just one thing in order.

Grass cutting changes with the seasons. I love it in the spring, when the greenness nearly hurts my eyes and the smell of fresh, earthy life feels so novel after months of dormancy. I love cutting grass in the summer when being outdoors is a natural extension of living. And I love cutting grass in the fall when the trees blaze with color and the lawnmower blades mulch the fallen leaves underneath my feet as I walk.

But that final time cutting the grass each season? That's another level of special.

All through the month of November, I raked leaves, dragging them on tarps from the backyard to the curb for the township leaf-sucker truck. The raking process moved in waves -- faster for the red oak in the front yard than the poplar, slower still for the Bradford pear trees in the back and side yards. And then at one point after an especially windy night, all the leaves that still had been clinging to their branches tenaciously were down.

Everything was perfectly poised: it was time for the final raking, the final blowing, the final time strapping on the cross-body leaf-sucker. Once all of this was complete and the flower beds and gardens had been cleared from the residual crackling-brown fall debris, it was then time for the best moment: the final grass cutting.

I can't tell you how much I savored this. The weather forecast had called for a dusting of snow later that afternoon, and I wore a tossle cap and heavy-duty hoodie to ward off the damp pre-snowfall chill in the air. With each line back and forth, I felt like I was tucking in the yard to sleep. Rogue leaves that had escaped the reach of my rake were chopped up, mulched into the grass, crunched underneath my feet as a perfect nutrient to lie dormant until next year's spring.

As I reached the final section of yard, the snow began to fall, first tentatively and then in earnest. My neighbor walked his dog past my house, his head tucked down to protect his face from the onslaught, perhaps looking at me crookedly for cutting my grass in the snow, and I shouted to him over the drone of the lawnmower and into the swirling snowflakes, "I am having SO MUCH FUN!"

And I was. It was an entirely true statement, one that gushed out of me and made me laugh. At one point (not too long ago in my mind), I was young and (maybe) even a little bit cool, and suddenly I'm 44 and inordinately excited about putting my yard to bed for the winter.

Oh, the simple things that bring joy! I'm probably right on the cusp of getting interested in bird-watching or some other middle-aged hobby. (Stamp-collecting? Pickelball? Who knows.)

I'd like to tell you that I reveled in the symmetrical lawnmower lines as I sipped hot tea after storing the lawnmower in the shed, but those lines quickly became invisible. That forecasted "dusting" resulted in four inches of snow that buried my final freshly-cut grass. But I knew. I knew those lines were there, that the yard was in order, that the leaves had been tamed, that our small parcel of land on this vast earth was perfectly poised to settle into its winter slumber.

And that was exactly what I needed that day.


You've Got to Go Through

I spoke with a friend at the gym this morning who's going through a hard time. The details she offered weren't overly specific, and they didn't need to be. In between our sets of TRX mountain climbers, rowing, and sit ups, she simply told me the bare bones of her complicated and challenging circumstances.

I mostly listened. At the end, I offered a comment which felt rather lame it was so obvious. "I'm so sorry that you're facing these challenges. You're really in a tunnel right now."

She nodded and shrugged, then said, "Well, when you're in a tunnel, you've got to go through."

Such true words. I sometimes wish they weren't, but I think we've all found that we must walk through some long, dark tunnels before we see light again. We have to go through.

Not around. Not over. Through.

Later today I thought more about her statement. A verse from a beautiful psalm rose to my thoughts: "Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me."

Tunnel. Valley. What-have-you. The exact type of cavernous route doesn't matter. What matters is that even if we feel alone, we're not. God is with us. He's there in the tangled circumstances. He's there when we feel weary and confused. He's there when we're in need of comfort. He's there with his rod and staff, those kind offerings of his support to lean upon and his guidance to direct our steps.

When we're in a tunnel, we have to go through. Thankfully, we never have to go through alone.


Not Instant, But Definitely a Mood Changer

I just finished cutting the grass. Some people dislike this task, but I revel in it. I'll gladly walk our property for 90 minutes behind our push mower so that, once finished, I can stand with utter satisfaction, admiring the perfect lines and order left behind.

I've loved lawn-mowing for years, maybe decades at this point. I love mowing in the spring when the world is fresh and newly green. I love it in the heat of summer as I wipe my brow and soak in sunshine. But I've come to increasingly appreciate cutting the grass during the fall, knowing that September's hint of color will lead to October's riot of hues, and all will fade into November's earthy rusts and browns before settling into the sleepy cold winter when the lawnmower will finally rest.

But (thankfully) we're not there yet. Right now, we're immersed in such autumn beauty that I sometimes have to pause to take it in.

I wasn't in any particular mood before I cut the grass today. Nothing was inherently wrong. Nothing was especially right. It's just a random Thursday. But while I cut the grass, the day took a different shape. I passed the time as I paced the ground with quietness of heart, even as the engine droned. I prayed. I admired the blueness of the sky, the reds and oranges and yellows of leaves, the not-yet-dormant green of the lawn, the earthy aroma of grass clippings and a hint of gasoline. (Don't judge. No huffing, kids, but I love a good whiff of that gasoline smell.)

It wasn't instant, but my time cutting the grass today was a mood changer. It always is.


Beating Yourself Up Over an Unproductive Day?

I've been productive the past few days. In the late evening hours, I've folded laundry when I rather would have gone to bed. I've tamed the beast of my email inbox. I've graded speeches like it was my job, which is useful, because it is my job. Today, I even took a break from grading by emptying the dishwasher.

If you just look at a snapshot of this singular day, I've been a medalist in the To-Do Olympics, a machine, a girl on fire.

But there are plenty of days unlike today. There are days when my greatest accomplishment is reaching the end in one piece, days when I don't have much to show for myself.

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 at how much I've accomplished!" Subconsciously, I almost automatically couple this thought with another: "Aren't I a good person?"

This is a problem. If I feel like I'm a better human on productive days, the logical corollary is that I 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'm making 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.


When You Can't Shake It, Replace It


The other morning I woke up with a song stuck in my head. (To make sure it doesn't get stuck in your head, I won't tell you what it was. You have enough things going on.)

I don't easily get rid of a song in my head, apparently. It lingered, playing on endless loop in my mind as I got ready for work. The only way to stop the cycle was turning the radio on while driving to work. I couldn't seem to shake the song on my own, but I could replace it.

This seems like good life advice. When you can't shake it, replace it.

I'm trying this premise to help me with what I eat and drink. For example, when I struggle to shake a Dr Pepper craving, instead of relying on willpower, tenuous as it sometimes is, I try to replace it with a large glass of water.

I find this premise good for my thought life, too. When I'm worried about a bad outcome, I replace worry with prayer. When I'm discouraged, I try to replace those downward meditations by remembering something I'm grateful for.

It's not avoidance. It's strategic. Just like I can't hold two songs in my head at the same time, I can't simultaneously drink Dr Pepper when I'm drinking water. I can't simultaneously dwell on something negative when I'm focused on something positive.

Think about how lifeguards call out walk! when someone runs on the pool deck. They're not calling out, "Don't run!" They don't even mention the undesirable behavior. Instead, they simply call out the good behavior they want to see: walk!

That song stuck in my head? I didn't get rid of it by willpower. It left my thoughts because it was replaced.

When you can't shake something bad, don't just try to muscle through it. Instead, replace it with something good.


In All Things, At All Times, Having All That You Need

A few weeks ago, the university where I teach issued a small standard pay increase for employees. Understandably, any increase is better than the pay freezes we've experienced in years past where our salaries remained entirely stagnant, but it doesn't come remotely close to matching the current high rate of inflation. It also doesn't account for merit. Individuals who did their jobs fabulously and individuals who cut corners received the exact same increase.

Generally, I don't dwell on my salary. I'm fortunate; our needs as a family are met. But on occasion (most notably in late summer or early fall when raise information is distributed), I think more about what I earn. Many new college grads start their careers earning salaries that match (or are higher) than what I make after 22 years of teaching. I ask myself: Is this just the reality of having a career in the liberal arts? Is it the universal plight for non-tenure-line teaching professors?

Then my wondering gets more personal: With over two decades of experience, several teaching awards, and stellar evaluations semester after semester, don't I deserve more?

My focus goes downhill. Instead of being immensely grateful for all the good things (including the basic fact that I'm fortunate to have an education and a job), I feel frustrated. Instead of focusing on how I enjoy my career, love my students, and find my department to be supportive and collegial, if I dwell on salary alone, I feel shortchanged.

I mean, I mostly feel valued. I really do. Just not with with financial compensation, and that's obviously important. So all that leads me to this:

Last weekend as I was putzing in my garage to work on a project, contemplating the meager salary increase without any real appreciation, I realized that I would need a miter saw to cut trim for the project. I Googled "miter saws" to check prices at Lowes and Home Depot. Then, I opened Facebook where I'm part of a Buy Nothing group and immediately noticed that the top post was offering a free miter saw.

The exact minute I realized I needed to use a miter saw -- which happened to be the exact minute I was descending into a mental grumble session about my salary -- was also the exact minute that a random local stranger was offering a free miter saw to anyone who needed it.

Once again, in the strangest of ways, I am reminded of God's incredible, uncanny provision.

And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.

2 Corinthians 9:8


Got Tons of Cherry Tomatoes? Easy Ways to Enjoy.

I'm unsure how much longer this bounty will last, but we're having a wonderful final crop of cherry tomatoes. There's something wholesome and satisfying about going to my backyard and picking my lunch.

In case you have an ample late-summer harvest, too, here are two ridiculously easy ways to enjoy:

1) Caprese Salad: slice cherry tomatoes in half, then top with fresh basil, fresh mozzarella, and a balsamic vinegar glaze.

2) Light Tomato Salad:
slice cherry tomatoes in half. Season with salt and pepper, then drizzle with olive oil. Let marinate for 10-15 minutes before enjoying.


Restore and Renew: Post Talk Update

Two weeks ago I had the honor of speaking to roughly 160 women from over 20 local churches at a beautiful women's gathering. At that point, although I otherwise had recovered from my July bout with Covid, I still had been battling "Covid brain" with uncharacteristic fogginess and labored thinking. When I exited the stage that evening, I honestly wasn't sure if I had been coherent.

All of my speaker senses were dulled. I had no internal compass for how long I had spoken. Was it five minutes? Two hours? The post-talk spiral began. Did anything I said make sense? Even though I'm decidedly single-lingual, was I entirely certain I spoke in English the entire time? Was it possible that I accidentally insulted someone's mother?

I didn't know. That mental Covid haze was thick.

Then I received a link to a recording of my talk. I clicked on it warily, but was pleasantly surprised to observe that I uttered (mostly) real words! I had spoken in full sentences. Thank you Jesus for this miracle of coherence!

The introduction of the talk wasn't recorded, so the video doesn't capture my heartfelt confession that I secretly desire to host my own HGTV show. Nor does it capture a series of before-and-after pictures from my home projects, but the rest of the talk is intact.

You can view the talk here. I hope you enjoy! Be encouraged today that God's in the business of renovation.


The Hazy Days of Late Summer

I'm not sure when I became aware of this small life pleasure, but I get weirdly excited when I flip a calendar page to a new month. It's refreshingly crisp and clean without any of the hash marks I scrawl diagonally across each block to stamp a day's completion.

Soon we'll turn the calendar to September. This is one of the most satisfying flips. Don't get me wrong: I like summer, but when we reach the sultry end of August and my kids are poised on the brink of a new school year and I'm poised of the brink of a new semester, I'm antsy to take the plunge.

We languish -- languish, I tell you! -- during the final days of summer. We visit WalMart too many times to buy color-coded folders and notebooks. We agree to an accordion file for the seventh grader, even though I'm relatively positive she's never going to use it. The kids molder in strange emotional mixtures of anxiousness and excitement, not quite sure how to feel at any given moment. They litter the kitchen table with printed copies of class schedules and locker combinations. The evening before school, somebody realizes that they've outgrown their shoes.

Everyone's a little prickly, a little agitated, a little short-tempered with the looming weight of transition. When they irritate one another, I discretely pull the offended party aside and remind them about grace and space. "You know how your sister is feeling. She's a bit on edge. I know she's frustrating you right now, but give her some grace and space." When they irritate me, I take a walk around the yard, wishing we could just rip off the band-aid and start this blasted school year already, then I remind myself about grace and space, too.

And finally -- when I don't think we can endure one more day of waiting for life upheaval -- it starts. School buses arrive. The kids disappear and return eight hours later, full of new knowledge about all the things that had been weighing on their shoulders: who their teachers are, how to get to the music room, what to do during the gap between drop-off and homeroom, who to sit with at lunch, how to contact their advisor to correct the mistake of their math level.

Once they get home, they're tired to the marrow (which is precisely how a first day tires both students and teachers alike), but they're wiser. They've survived a day and lived to tell about it.

In the meanwhile, I roll through the same process on campus. My own week is full of firsts: checking my phone to make sure I'm entering the correct classrooms, making roster adjustments as students drop and add, and learning dozens of new names. 

But when we turn the calendar page to September? Well, by that point, we'll have nearly two weeks of school under our belts. We have the rumblings of a routine. There's a new daily rhythm taking shape. The angst of late August days starts to fade.

Yes, we're ready for the calendar flip.


Twenty One Years

I'm still languishing in a Covid-brain haze, so my thoughts about celebrating 21 years of marriage won't be as articulate as I'd like them to be. But perhaps that's just the way it is. Marriage is full of the very real days -- the I-see-you-at-your-worst days, the I-love-you-when-you're-not-you're-best days.

I'd choose Joel all over again. No doubt.

Here's to 21 years!


Dragged Away By Wild Horses Until I Feel Better

Despite being fully vaccinated, everyone in my family has Covid. We were on a trip when symptoms first emerged, all five of us sleeping in the same hotel room and breathing the same air, so the spread seemed inevitable.

Now we're back home and quarantining until we're safe to reenter society. Thankfully, the kids' mild symptoms already have run their course and, as of this morning, Joel seems to have turned a corner. I'm still dragging, though.

This bout of Covid reminded me that I'm not good at resting, at least not initially. Yesterday morning I lamely attempted to work in the yard and tend to plants that had been neglected during our time away, but even that small effort sapped my strength. When I shuffled back into the kitchen to get a glass of water, Joel took one glance at me and said, "Looks like you've hit the wall." (He had this backwards. The wall hit me.)

Today I've been smarter. I've stayed in bed all day, taking Tylenol to ward off body aches and chills, drifting in and out of sleep, periodically flipping through a book and magazines, and staying hydrated. My cat, Peanut, has stationed herself at my feet, faithfully watching over me when she's not napping herself.

I've listened to sounds of people living their lives -- cars driving down the street, a neighbor cutting the grass -- but everything feels hazy, like I'm moving and thinking more slowly than the rest of the world.

Part of this cognitive impairment, I'm sure, is attributable to the virus itself. I'm guessing that another part is self-induced. Last night I couldn't fall asleep easily, so after coughing, tossing, and turning for over an hour, I grabbed my phone against my better judgment. My Covid-ridden brain remembered I once saw a YouTube video of David Beckham perfectly catching a stray ball while spectating a tennis match, and I had a sudden urge to watch that clip.


Of course, this spiraled into me watching a compilation of Top Ten Blind Auditions on The Voice (I don't even watch that show), then finding random videos of celebrities impersonating other celebrities (Chris Hemsworth does an uncanny Chris Pratt impression), followed by videos of actors who are surprisingly good dancers (Tom Holland has moves), and then rabbit hole descent into Pinterest tutorials all titled something like "Ten DIY Summer Wreaths" or "Organizing on a Dime."

At some point in the mindless scrolling, I absolutely realized I was sabotaging my sleep. I had this exact thought: But Robin, at this point, you know that not even wild horses could drag you away from this collection of Office bloopers.

And then I promptly had this thought: how weird is that expression? Wild horses? When's the last time I was trying to achieve something and actually was thwarted by a herd of wild horses? Well, I was thinking about getting groceries but, you know (hapless shrug), wild horses...

I'd like to blame this derailed train of thinking on the low-grade fever, but people, I'm pretty sure this is just how my mind works at 2 in the morning.

So, if you're looking for me over the next few days, I'll be holed up in my bedroom. I have an excellent guard cat and an endless supply of diversion until I'm back on my feet again. And when it's time for me to safely rejoin society after quarantine? Not even wild horses will keep me away.


How to Spend a Summer Day


I've heard a few people recently express disbelief that summer is moving so quickly. Why, we're already in the middle of July! I understand the sentiment; I've been through Wal-Mart with their premature back-to-school displays aggressively looming, after all. But for me, July always feels like the start of summer. 
Since I teach until the end of June, July is the month where I finally let my guard down, complete the projects that I've been meaning to get to, and unwind before fall semester preparations start in earnest when we shift into August. We gather family for a happy picnic and fireworks on the Fourth of July. We tend to the garden but don't need to cut the grass as often since it's not growing much.

This past weekend, like one weekend every other July, I join our street's community garage sale, making hundreds of decisions about how to price hundreds of items. This year, I was thankful when the projected forecast of 40% rain passed without a single drop. I revel in the lightness that comes from watching old things being moved out and the wad of cash folded up in my left shorts pocket getting thicker as the day grows longer. 
At the end of every garage sale weekend, I break down the tables, arrange one plastic bin of good items to earmark for next year's sale, gather the remaining leftovers in bags for Goodwill, and carefully sweep the garage floor. We can park cars in our garage again. I feel like I've lost ten pounds. I keep inventing reasons to walk into the garage to appreciate its emptiness and order.

I have other projects to complete this month. I plan to paint an accent wall in our office. I have a few pieces of old furniture that I'll refinish and sell. There's writing to be done, and I'm preparing for a speaking engagement in August.

But yesterday I did none of that. Yesterday, I exercised in the morning, then negated that exercise by buying myself a Dr Pepper from the McDonald's drive through (large with light ice, nonetheless), and then read an engrossing book, cover to cover, as I laid on the couch.

Occasionally, I sensed a niggle in the back of my mind. What am I neglecting? Shouldn't I be doing something? 
I had to quiet that self-censure, reminding myself that I was doing something. I was enjoying a summer day.


On Beach Trips

For the past decade or so (with the exception of the Covid years), we've taken a shared vacation with my husband's parents, his brothers, and our nieces and nephews each summer. Typically, we've stayed around the Rehoboth or Bethany Beach areas in Delaware, but this year my brothers-in-law booked a beach house near the southern edge of North Carolina on Carolina Beach. This new location added driving distance, but made up with warmer water.

The location doesn't matter much, I've found. As long as there's a beach and a house, we're set. The years blur, but themes emerge: games of Yahtzee with my mother-in-law on a porch, piles of sandy flip flops discarded at the entryway, mismatched beach towels hung to dry over a clothesline, sunscreen bottles tossed into canvas bags, help-yourself dinners of spaghetti or tacos because these meals are easy to prepare for a dozen people, strolls to collect shells, and the obligatory picture of all the cousins together.

We've been taking these trip long enough to notice how afternoon nap times for the youngest children have been replaced with all the kids staying up late, lingering around the kitchen table with tortuously long games of Phase 10 or progressive rummy. Instead of supervising as our toddlers splashed in the shallow surf and made sandcastles, as we did during years past, we parents now lounge and catch brief naps in the sun as our teenage kids charge into the waves and play Spikeball.

Like all summers, I bring my tote bag of books. This year, I sat on the porch, propping my feet up on the railing, listening to the waves, and breathing in the restorative ocean breeze as I plowed through three novels about fictional people with fictional life complications as they summer in Nantucket. For a little while, I forget the complexities of my own life.

We play mini golf one evening. We leave partially drunk water bottles that nobody can confidently claim as their own on end tables and countertops. One rainy morning some of us visit the aquarium while others take a nature walk along a trail and get bit by mosquitos and chiggers. I wear a swimsuit continually, substituting a new tee shirt and shorts each day, and let my hair go untamed with saltwater-styled waves.

We occasionally ask, "What day is it?" or "What time is it?" but the answers to these questions don't really matter. Measurements of days and hours don't carry the same weight when you're on the beach as they do in regular life.

This beach trip is different than years past. It's the same as years past. It's wonderful.


You'll Feel Better Knowing That You're Done

Yesterday marked the last day of school for my kids. I could reflect upon how I now have a rising high school senior, a rising high school freshman, and a rising seventh grader, but I'll save that for another day. Today, I'll continue to pretend I'm young.

This morning I was sitting at my computer grading assignments for my summer semester when my youngest asked, "Mom, do you want to go on a bike ride with me?"

Now, I'll always say yes to a bike ride with my kids. Perhaps this is because during the pandemic I watched them molt into furniture as they were glued to devices for ungodly amounts of time, so anytime any child suggests physical activity, I'll ride that positive wave. Moreover, today happens to be one of those perfect days -- warm without being hot, breezy without being windy, sunny without being oppressive.

It's utterly gorgeous. I cannot overemphasize the loveliness of today's weather.

I told her that I'd love to accept her offer, adding that we could either leave right now, or I could go in a half hour once I finished my grading.

"Oh, I'm fine waiting a bit," she said. "You'll feel so much better on the bike ride knowing that you're done with your work."

Her words made me smile and pause. She's right, after all. And, on occasion, you've parented long enough to realize that your kids have actually internalized some of the lessons you've tried to teach them, even to the point that they use those lessons to wisely advise you.


When the Grocery Line Gets It Right

Some people are skilled at picking fast lines in the grocery store. I don't have this gift. I'm gifted at picking a line that looks like it would move quickly, only to find that the person ahead of me is paying by check, but they forget their pen, and once the cashier hands them a pen, they drop that pen, and after they slowly pick up the pen, they pivot course and decide, "Oh! I meant to pay in cash. With pennies, actually. Let me count them out for you. What's the total again? Thirty five dollars and sixty three cents? I have that exact amount. I think."

Such was the case when I ran to the store to pick up one last-minute item recently. My lane looked like it would move swiftly, but after a minute or two, I realize that we weren't going anywhere. Nobody had inched forward. Nobody was any closer to the register.

That's when I noticed the woman at the front of the line. She repeatedly swiped her credit card, only to be met with angry beeps from the register that the transaction wouldn't process. A man ahead of me began tapping his foot. The woman behind him made eye contact with me and shook her head. Mild frustration was settling. These people, like me, had places to go.

But that's when something wonderful happened. One member close to the front of the line stepped forward. "I think you're inserting your card upside down."

The woman glanced at her card, flipped it over, and tried once more. Success! As the receipt printed, she turned to the line behind her and line and said, "I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to hold you up!"

The toe-tapper smiled and said, "Not a problem." The woman who had been shaking her head changed her countenance and said, "It's okay. We've all been there!"

And the woman at the front of the line went ahead with her day just as she should, without judgment, without anyone behind her adding another layer of frustration in response to an inconsequential mistake.

My grocery store line? We weren't the fastest, but we did get it right.


Don't Miss The Peonies

Friends, I haven't written this entire month, and we're quickly nearing its end. Let's see, what's happened over the past weeks?

I finished my spring semester and posted grades, then I started teaching two new classes during the summer semester. We celebrated three family birthdays in the span of two weeks. (We eat a lot of cake during the month of May.) I attended track meets, a spring middle school choir concert, and a middle school art show. I watched my oldest daughter attend her first high school prom. I took my car to the shop after the brakes failed. I emptied, painted, paired-down, and then reassembled our bedroom closet. We began hosting weekly summer dinners with football players at our house for my my husband's job as team chaplain. Like I do every May, I conceded to inevitable failure of being behind with end-of-year emails that my kids' schools relentlessly keep sending. With heaviness of heart, like the rest of the country, I attempted to process the news of yet another school shooting.

In short, somehow the past month got filled up. Months do that.

Even in the bustle, or perhaps because of the bustle, I take time for one daily ritual: an evening walk around our yard. If May is busy with birthdays, semester shifts, and end-of-school countdowns, our gardens offer visible reminders to slow down and savor. Our peonies are especially beautiful -- elegant and vivid, but oh-so-friendly with their sizable blooms.

They don't last exceptionally long, but that's a part of their charm. I appreciate them more because they aren't here forever.

So, as we wrap up the month, let me share these beauties with you. I hope you find them beautiful, too.


The Simple Power of a Compliment


We've reached the final two weeks of classes for the spring semester, which means two things:

1) It's fair game for a snowfall, which is exactly what happened earlier this week across central Pennsylvania as if one final shipment of snow was being delivered late. (You know, supply chain issues.)

2) Everyone is tired. Students are tired. Professors are tired. All the people are tired.

I make a habit of offering my students end-of-semester pep talks, reminding them that they're covering distance as they keep putting one foot ahead of the next, encouraging them that the finish line will soon be within sight, declaring that they can do this -- that they can do hard things. It's not uncommon for me to notice students nodding along, visibly reinforcing for themselves what I'm speaking over them, and on occasion, like this past week, I even catch a student wipe their eyes as defenses come down and their exhaustion slips out in the form of a few unbidden tears.

Don't we all need encouragement when we're running and we're weary? Don't we all want to know that someone notices our effort and is cheering us on? Don't we all hope to hear someone tell us "you've got this" when we doubt our strength or capacity to go out and get it?

The funny thing is that I'm used to offering this encouragement, not necessarily receiving it. During the past week, though, I've received unexpected notes of encouragement that have put wind in my own sails. One message came from a student I had ten years ago. He emailed out of the blue, expressing that he had been cleaning out a closet and stumbled upon a folder filled with essays and assignments from my class. "I admit, my undergrad is all a bit of a blur," he wrote. "I can look at my transcript and remember my classes but the names and faces of those who taught me are for the most part all forgotten. Yet, I’ve never once forgotten you or your class. It may have been 'just an elective' I had to take to 'check off another box' to graduate, but it was a pivotal experience in my academic and personal growth."

I was floored. Humbled, really. What a gift for him to not just think these thoughts, but to take a moment to write them to me. It made me wonder, how often do I think nice things about people, but neglect to take the next necessary step and tell them? It reminds me of the adage: "Unexpressed gratitude is like winking at someone in the dark. You know what you think of them, but they don't."

At this eleventh hour in the semester, I feel fresh motivation. I'm encouraged to pay it forward and tell others when I think well of them. Some compliments we hold within our hearts and heads are too good to remain there. There's simple power in a compliment that's actually spoken.


If You Can, Take the Trip


I don't know who I am anymore. For the past five weekends in a row (FIVE IN A ROW!) I've had random travel plans, so this marks the first weekend I've been home in over a month.

Truth is, I like spending weekends at home. I really do. A weekend at home serves both as a mop-up from the prior week and a springboard into the next, a brief moment to get caught up on life, a comma in the chronology. But upon reflection, I'm quite pleased I've made these recent road trips.

Last weekend, for instance, I visited my dear friend in West Virginia. We spent all day Saturday talking, binge watching a show on Netflix, and strolling through her neighborhood between episodes. We made fajitas, ate them while sitting on the couch, and then splurged on ice cream. We discussed everything and nothing: work-life balance, parenting challenges, matters of faith, why it's so difficult to get acclimated to carrying a new bag, whether she'd win if she competed in the Amazing Race, and how I'm rethinking cardigan-wearing.

You know, all the important stuff of life.

Weekends at home are great, but I can't say that I'll remember any of them specifically. But these random travels, these actual experiences, these post-Covid moments that are beginning to feel normal again after such a long absence? These I'll remember.

If you can, take the trip.


Dressing for the Weather You Actually Have

After being teased by warmer temperatures that hinted of spring, this week our central Pennsylvania weather plummeted again. On Monday morning, with temperatures hovering in the low-20's, I pulled my heaviest winter jacket, knit hat, and gloves out of retirement from the closet.

As I walked across campus, occasionally I passed a student who apparently hadn't gotten the memo about the temperature drop at all. They were entirely unfit for the cold. They looked miserable, curled up into themselves and shivering in their sweatshirt and jeans, and understandably so. They had nothing to insulate them from the bitter chill.

I thought of this as I walked. Because I dressed for the weather I actually had -- even if it wasn't necessarily the weather I wanted -- I was fine. I was comfortable enough. I was protected and prepared. Even though I didn't love the temperature, I hadn't caused myself any unnecessary suffering by pretending that it was warmer.

There's life application embedded here. Like these students in the cold, we all pass through seasons where our circumstances definitely aren't what we'd choose. Just wishing that it would be warmer doesn't make it warmer. But putting on a coat makes you warmer.

It made me wonder: How many times have I been in the midst of an unpleasant season in life and forgotten or refused to bundle myself against it?

When we face struggles -- perhaps especially struggles that seem like they've been going on far too long, much like lingering winter when we're longing for spring -- what can we do to be prepared? If our circumstances aren't comfortable, how do we get ourselves comfortable as we're going through them?

I think one secret lies in Ephesians, which advises us to put on the full armor of God when we face our darkest, coldest, worst days. Much like we'd put on a garment, we're instructed to put on the intangible, yet life-changing elements of truth, righteousness, readiness, faith, and salvation. This doesn't stop us from facing challenges; rather, it allows us to stand our ground, and when those dark days have finally passed, to still be standing.

To be certain, I'm ready for warmer weather. Bring on sunshine, temperatures in the 70's, and as an added bonus, low humidity so I can have a decent hair day. But until that warmth comes, I'll dress for the cold. In the same way, I'm ready for some circumstances in life to change, but until those bitter areas warm and thaw, I'll put on the full armor of God. I'll prepare, I'll bundle up, and I'll fight those battles so when all is said and done, I'm still standing.


On (Middle) Aging, Eye Cream, and a Handsome Italian Salesman

Recently we traveled to Naples, Florida for spring break. My parents, who live in Florida year-round, were gracious to let us stay with them, eat all their food, and track sand and toss beach towels throughout their house for five days.

One morning we visited an outlet mall, and I separated from my family to explore a few stores at my own pace. You know how outlet malls strategically place kiosks in the walkways? Typically, I'm skilled at passing by without engaging or making eye contact, and therefore, not getting sucked into sales pitches I'll inevitably need to say "no" to. But somehow, on this particularly sunny Naples day, I got sucked in.

The kiosk was selling eye cream that (to my knowledge) was made of ancient Dead Sea salts, fairy dust, raw kelp, gold powder, peptides, ceramides, and essence of unicorn horn. The man who applied it to my exhausted under-eye area was an especially handsome Italian in his mid-twenties. Given his job selling eye cream to middle-aged women (no subtlety in that business approach), he was slightly flirtatious, and to my horror, I intended to respond to a question in a friendly manner, but instead offered a reply that could have been construed as flirting right back.

Without question, the eye cream was amazing. He handed me a mirror so I could view my reflection, and half of my face belonged to someone who was a decade younger and no longer tired. Somehow, miraculously, the skin beneath my eye was bright, taught, smooth, supple, and a host of other adjectives I don't typically use when describing my under-eye area.

The cream was $399. He whispered conspiratorially that he could offer me a special price of $299, and then broke down the cost into a monthly expense (under $13 per month!) if I used the bottle for two years, which was how long he claimed it would last, although, to me, this seemed impossible for such a small bottle.

Regardless, my eye looked amazing, and my family was nowhere to be found, and the Naples sun was so sunny and the Gulf breeze was so breezy, that I let the handsome young Italian apply the cream to my other eye. I immediately felt younger and confident, but I knew something that he didn't: namely, while I might be many things, I am not a splurger.

To be sure I wanted the the eye cream, but I managed to awkwardly extract myself from his charming, yet exorbitantly priced, sales pitch. A half hour later when I reconnected with my family, Joel instantly commented that my eyes looked good. (By way of context, despite his ample wonderful qualities, he once didn't notice for over a week that I had gotten a haircut that lopped off seven inches.) In the off chance that you were wondering, yes, this compliment did, indeed, make me curious about how "less good" my eyes typically look to have him perceive the difference so quickly.

I told you all of that so I can now say this: Florida does strange things to me.

Perhaps my musings about the eye cream were accentuated because my birthday fell during spring break, and I might have subconsciously been contemplating aging. Perhaps it was because I reread my two favorite romance novels during the trip, and I might have been emotionally amped up on period-piece courtships. Perhaps it was the stark change in my clothing choices, including the sudden reintroduction of beachwear. (Is the tee shirt and athletic shorts I pulled over my swimsuit really the look I'm going for? Could I be a woman who wears a cover up? A flowy sarong? A wide brimmed hat instead of my ball cap? Pennsylvania clothing choices do not coalesce with Naples realities.)

Or perhaps it was because my oldest is nearly 17 years old, and by virtue of being an active nearly 17-year-old, she falls out of bed with the smooth skin and strong body that I didn't even know I had when I was nearing 17 myself. That eye cream merely teased me with the promise of having the skin she currently possesses.

Regardless of the contributing factors, spring break stirred within me a desire to capture remnants of my youthfulness before it utterly fades. I try not to lament the passage of things, the daily movement of these vanishing days. But is it too much to ask for someone to maybe take a few pictures of me, being gentle with my underlying vanities and insecurities, while also exhibiting skill and patience to find the most attractive backgrounds and flattering camera angles? (This, I know, cannot be done by a member of my family who, depending on age, will either point and click once, take a burst shot of a hundred exactly identical crooked photos, or flip the phone's direction and fill my camera roll with dozens of goofy close-up selfies.)

My generation preceded themed weddings inspired by Pintrest and elaborate gender reveal baby showers, and I don't regret that I didn't experience these things. But, if I'm entirely honest with myself,  I do envy the younger generations' penchants for authentic photo shoots. They have senior pictures that aren't posed in front of blue vinyl pull-down drapes, wedding albums that reflect personalities, and happy-sigh-inducing black and white photos of newborns in their arms.

This Florida trip made me realize that I'd like to have a few pictures where — oh, I don't know — I look the absolute best I've ever looked, while simultaneously not looking like I'm trying real hard to achieve it.

It's quite simple, really.

Of course, the minutia of daily life and routine has a way of snuffing these desires out. Since I've returned from Florida, I've resorted to the comfortable, yet mundane, rhythms of working, parenting, meal-planning, dishwasher-emptying, clothes-folding, and couch-crashing at the end of a day. I'm no longer actively contemplating whether I could pull off a sarong. I suspect it's safe to assume that very few of us live glamorous lives.

But that week away from home in Florida? And the themes of romance novels, and the hint of Gulf breeze blowing through my hair, and the handsome Italian who introduced me to that magic potion of an eye cream that restored my youth, even if just for an afternoon? Well, it teases me, flirting with my sensibilities, and makes me believe that life, occasionally, really is a little more exciting with a hint of glamor or an indulgence in beauty.

To be certain, I don't lament aging. Middle-age has brought with it too many wonderfully hard-earned life lessons and valuable skills to bemoan that it's also made its mark on my appearance.

I'm content. I really am. But apparently, I also wouldn't mind owning a $399 eye cream.


Just As Flawed and Human As Us

In the dark hours of night, sometimes I lay awake thinking about the many things I want to impart to my kids. They're in middle and high school, which aren't the easiest times. The simpler struggles of childhood, which demand a parent's physical energy, have been replaced with complex adolescent struggles. The adage is true: little kids, littler problems. Bigger kids, bigger problems. The stakes are higher, the hurts are deeper, and as a parent, it's painfully apparent that while you can do a great deal to help, you can't perfectly protect your kids.

You can't always protect them from getting hurt or having their hearts broken. You can't always protect them from battling their own struggles, grappling with their own insecurities, or fighting their own battles. You can't protect them from the consequences of their actions. And while you can instill values, model behaviors, and teach important principles, you can't always prevent them from making bad choices or hurting others.

Because these kids of ours? They're just as flawed and human as we are. And these lives of theirs? They have to learn lessons that emerge directly from pain and personal experience, not just advice. I'd love for my kids to learn from past mistakes — preferably someone else's. The reality, though, is we're all thick-headed enough that learning often comes most powerfully from our own lived mistakes.

This is ridiculously hard to watch.

I spend a lot of time on my knees for my children, talking to God with all my messy impatience and brokenness. And I spend time on my knees in silence punctuated by tears when the rawness is too much for words. God can handle this honesty. Daresay, He wants this honesty.

Even when my heart is heavy, I'm confident in this: God loves my children more than I do. And if you have kids, God loves your children more than you do. Our flaws aren't too much for God to handle, and neither are our children's. Just like our hurts aren't too deep for God to heal, neither are theirs. Just like our problems aren't too convoluted for God to untangle, neither are theirs.

It's hard to watch and wait in the wilderness phases, especially if its our kids who are out there wandering, but God is with them. God is there.


What Paint Can Do: Waking Up a Tired Bench

Years ago, I bought a wooden piano bench at a garage sale for a few dollars. Although its paint was chipping, the bench itself was solid. I brought it home, painted it pale blue-green, and placed it in my bedroom as a place to sit when I put on my shoes.


After a while, the bench's familiarity rendered it nearly invisible. It was something that was there, but not noticed. Plus, during the height of the pandemic, for nearly a year I didn't leave the house often, so who needs a bench to sit on when putting on shoes when you no longer wear shoes?

But recently, for whatever reason, I looked at the bench and actually saw it. I appreciated its compact sturdiness with fresh eyes, but the color, although pretty, receded tiredly into the walls. I didn't want to change the bench significantly; I simply wanted to brighten it. To do this, I painted three stripes in complimentary colors to hug the side and back.

I already had two colors on hand from other projects, but I bought a sample of soft blush paint from Lowes for the third accent color. (Paint samples offer the perfect amount of paint for small projects, can be tinted to any color, and cost only a few dollars.) Thick painters tape ensured crisp lines and equally-spaced stripes. Honestly, the most time-consuming part of the project was letting each coat dry completely before taping the next section for subsequent stripes.

The process was quick and easy, and I love the end result:

The stripes add just enough extra detail to make the bench worthy of notice. Do you have a piece of furniture that's become invisible to you? Take a look at it with fresh eyes. The simplest touch-up might make all the difference to bring it back to life!

Bench color: Delancey Green (Sherwin Williams)
Outer stripe: Green Water (HGTV Home by Valspar)
Middle stripe: Romance (Valspar)
Inner stripe: Belle Grove Sorbet (Valspar)


Winter: A Roller Coaster of Blah

Every so often, Facebook likes to remind me of a memory that happened  on this particular date from years past. Apparently, ten years ago today when my children were watching cartoons, I overheard a line spoken by the narrator on Curious George that amused me:

"Winter. It was like a roller coaster of blah."

Even a decade later, I have to give credit. That's a fantastic line.

Generally speaking, I don't dread winter, but I'm less enthralled with it when we reach February, blandly deadened to it during March, and downright huffy when it lingers into April (which its been known to do in Pennsylvania). By then, I want color and warmth and Vitamin D. I want open windows and short sleeved shirts and not to have my garage floor encrusted with a layer of salty winter sludge.

But for now, we simply ride out the cold and trudge ahead through February, knowing that this month, which is simultaneously the shortest and longest one of the year, is just that: a trudge.

Occasionally, when I'm feeling impatient, I chip at the ice crusted along my driveway with the snow shovel, trying to help nature along. Out of habit, I bundle up when walking on campus, remembering the adage that there's no bad weather, only bad clothing. And each evening when I'm settling down for the day, I'll enjoy the cozy comfort of my steaming mug of hot tea and appreciate the merits of reading a good book while curled up under a blanket. This is how you get through February. One day at a time. Bundling up. Hunkering down.

In about a month, we'll turn the clocks back and immediately the idea of spring will be less foreign, more tangible. Until then, though, we ride this roller coaster to its end.


Just Add Free Time

Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn't the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.  — Robert Benchley

I'm teaching fewer classes this semester than I taught last semester. In fact, due to a unique scheduling situation, I'm currently teaching fewer classes than I've ever taught during any semester in my seventeen years of college teaching.

In short: I have more free time than I've had in nearly two decades. It. Is. Amazing.

Of course, work always finds a way to take the available time you have to complete it. It's fluid. It reminds me of the "cats are liquid" theory where any cat can conform its body to fit any vessel.

That's how work works. Give it an hour, it'll take a hour. Give it a day, it'll take a day.

For example, when I left campus yesterday, I had four hours of grading to complete. Four hours later, I still had four hours of grading to complete, except that I now had more knowledge about pre-diabetes since I had Googled the condition after reflecting on how much sugar I consume, and I had spent twenty minutes wandering Rural King to admire their baby chicks and eat their free popcorn, and I realized that the last time I had completed an entry in the wedding anniversary book my mother-in-law gave me as bridal shower present was when we celebrated 13 years of marriage. That was in 2014.

Just in case you were curious, my anniversary is in August -- and to point out the obvious, it's February, so nothing significant triggered me to look at book commemorating my wedding anniversaries. I just happened to be sitting cross-legged on my office floor in front of my bookshelves, surrounded by various piles (read! re-read! who-are-you-kidding-you're-never-going-to-read-this), and I stumbled upon the anniversary book, right next to my wedding scrapbook and our old high school yearbooks. (Fun fact: in addition to soccer and track, yesterday I also rediscovered that I had been in student government as the treasurer of my junior class.)

Of course, even though I can't remember exactly what I did last week, much less last year, it became top priority for me to remedy those blank pages and document our last seven years of marriage.

And I told you all of that so I could now tell you this:

Today I completed four hours of grading.

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