Thanksgiving 2019

We were happy to host family for Thanksgiving dinner, and it ended up being the first year we mixed both sides of the family. Unfortunately, Hayli couldn’t make it, but we had Tom Jr. here alongside my parents, Grandpa Thomas, and Mamaw. I was happy to cook, happy to serve, and happy to have people in our home. Of course, I was wiped out after the fact, but that’s what comes with the territory.

Mamaw was a surprise late addition to our Thanksgiving dinner, but I’ll always take what I can get when it comes to spending time with her! This photo was the only group photo I took.

The only other photo I captured from Thanksgiving was this one of my and Mamaw’s wedding rings. I never realized how similar our rings are, and in truth, this isn’t Mamaw’s original wedding band. She said they traded in her original bands for this one years ago.

My ring is on the left, hers is on the right.

We had two extra visitors for the holiday, though they didn’t join us for dinner. We were pleased to open the Hamster Hotel for our sweet friends who were traveling for a week. Thankfully, Major and Salem are uninterested in the hamsters!

Bruno is on the left and Starr is on the right.

Being nocturnal, they’d sleep all day in their cozy houses and roll around in their balls at night.

Starr is on the run!

They left this morning, and I honestly miss them.

As you can see from the photo, we’ve decorated for Christmas. This is the earliest we’ve ever put up a tree, that I can recall. Again, we’ll host family for Christmas and I couldn’t be more pleased about it. I can’t wait to have my nephews here.

We have a few more weeks of school and then we’re tapping out. We’re all exhausted and ready for a slow-down. I, especially, need to pull back and realign. I did a poor job in 2019 limiting the things I said “yes” to. I broke my own inner vows about being less busy. I got tired of hearing myself tell other people that I was too busy. It’s all so counter-productive. As I plan for the spring semester and map out story ideas for the magazine, I need to work smarter and not harder. I’m pretty sure that will be my New Year’s resolution.

Autumn 2019

More has gone on here than our trip to England and Wales, so it would be a shame to make it seem like that’s been the entirety of our October and November. It would be terrible if you missed Jackson’s Halloween costume when he dressed up at a retired clown.

He and his friend, Libby, trick-or-treated together again this year, and Jackson received many compliments on his costume!

Jeremy competed in another chess tournament and brought home two more trophies. Between soccer and chess, the shelves in his bedroom are filling up quickly!

In early November, we went to see Ryan Bingham at the Tennessee Theatre, which was a fancy venue for his style of music, I have to say. But that meant Corey came to visit and that’s always worthwhile!

The following weekend we took a quick trip to Chattanooga to celebrate Matt’s 41st birthday, which meant I got some time with Amy!

We became instant friends after Matt started dating her in 2000. So much of my early years of motherhood unfolded alongside Amy’s. Now, whenever we squeeze in a visit, we unload all the toils and joys of raising teenagers, which is a far cry from naptimes, midnight feedings, and what happened on the latest episode of The Backyardigans.

These three have been friends since middle and high school.

In other news, Jackson wrapped his fall session of equine therapy, and Jeremy finally got a proper haircut. I decided it was time he started seeing my stylist. His hair deserves it, after all.

Peak colors didn’t show up in East Tennessee until early November, but when they finally popped, they were bright and vibrant. I snapped this photo while on a run one foggy morning.

Lastly, we had a brief and glorious snowfall that dropped the same day as Disney+. It was a Tuesday, but it felt just like Christmas morning. Somehow we managed to do some school work.

However, I did notice that this was the first year that the boys didn’t race to play in the snow upon waking up. The last time we had a decent snowfall was January of this year. It was gorgeous, and the boys couldn’t wait to play in it. This time, however, they didn’t mention sledding or a snowball fight. They didn’t even have the curiosity to go outside and touch the flakes. It felt significant, like a piece of their childhood was over.

Maybe that won’t be the case if we get another big snowfall, something grander and long-lasting. Or maybe it means I need to suit up and go out with them.


Thanksgiving is this week, and we’re going to have a full house of family members on Thursday. For the first time in 20 years, we’re mixing sides. We’ve always taken turns – Thanksgiving with one side, Christmas with the other. We’re on the same rotation as my sister and her family, and doing it this way kept holidays fair and uncomplicated.

But as family members have passed away, and others have moved closer to us, it seems silly to keep things separated. We can all be together. We can all share the table. On Thursday, we’ll have ten people here, and I’m happy to cook for all of them.

Family, the 4th, and Starcourt Mall

My Uncle Bob and his wife, Carie, came to visit the week of July 4th, and I was more than happy to host them, Grandpa, and my parents for a feast. We made a low country boil and enjoyed homemade ice cream. Chuck did a ton of the work, bless him, so he deserves a lot of credit. Now that I think of it, I’m open to low country boils instead of turkey for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

We took a family photo after dinner, per usual.

Jeremy and Uncle Bob went a few rounds on the chessboard. In the first game, Jeremy beat Uncle Bob in three moves. Not sure he was expecting that! I think a stalemate was the second result.

When our guests had gone and it was finally dark, we lit up a few low-key fireworks and sparklers, which pale in comparison to the week-long firework displays that went on all around us. Our equine and canine neighbors were not pleased!

The next morning, we took Bob and Carie on a short hike so they could get a good view of the Foothills from above. If I’ve not mentioned it before, I absolutely love where we live.

I think Major had the most fun.

When our guests were gone and the holiday weekend was free from responsibility, Chuck, Jackson, and I took to Netflix to binge the third season of Stranger Things.

MAN OH MAN did the nostalgia get me. When I say they nailed the 80s, they really did. The main new set of the third season is a MALL, and the set design was on point at every turn. Starcourt Mall was all 80s all the time. I won’t give any spoilers other than I liked this season more than the last (though not as much as the first, which was near-perfect). I was in tears when it ended.

If you’re a Stranger Things fan, you may enjoy these two articles (here and here) about the theory that Hawkins is actually based on East Tennessee. Fair warning – they include spoilers.

Christmas 2018

Honestly, we did our best. It was a tough year, so it’s hard to be festive during a time that’s meant to be shared with family. Chuck and I focused on the boys and kept our days lazy.

We had Tom Jr. with us for several days, Chuck’s cousin who lives in a nearby home for adults with developmental disabilities, as well as a quick 24-hour visit from our niece, Hayli.

Per usual, the gifts we give our boys are minimal but exactly what they wanted or needed. The Four Gift Rule is still in play, though sometimes there’s an extra small thing or two thrown in.

Jackson’s expression was priceless when he opened a pack of international flag bunting to hang in his bedroom.

Jackson has had a terrific year with good grades and a cheerful attitude, not to mention the dozens of times he made the right decision in a moment of tension or stress. He will be 13 this year, a number I cannot even imagine for my little Jack, but after hearing him say over and over again, “I’m going to start saving for a Nintendo DS,” I suggested to Chuck that we go ahead and surprise him with one. We’ve actually never bought a device of any kind for our kids, so it was a big treat.

He was speechless.

I’m not sure he could’ve smiled bigger.

Jeremy, too, was surprised to find two new soccer bags, a Liverpool soccer ball, and a note in a water bottle that informed him we’d signed him up for an indoor soccer season. His reactions were also satisfying.

I captured both of their reactions on video:

My favorite photo from the day is this one: Jackson is reading one of his new flag books while Joshua, his Build-a-Bear bunny rabbit, enjoys his new Miles Morales (Into the Spider-Verse) outfit.

Jackson was thrilled to learn we had not forgotten about Joshua.

I made a simple meal and enjoyed visiting with Hayli while I cooked. We took a quick photo together with my cell phone (forgive the low quality), and after we said goodbye to her, we all slid back into pajamas (for those of us who got dressed for the day) and watched Christmas 2018 fade away.

It wasn’t terrible, but it was different. It will always be different after family members leave us. Fortunately, the low-stress method was the right way to go. No muss, no fuss.

However, if there was one lesson I learned this holiday season, it’s that staying home and keeping it simple is fine, but opting out of traditional Christmas in favor of traveling is better.

Thanksgiving 2018

My parents are moving back to Tennessee, and since they are already in the process of the move, it made sense for my sister and her family to spend Thanksgiving here. It helps that I don’t mind hosting and cooking and making everyone as comfortable as possible. 

I made all the usual dishes, including the same turkey recipe I’ve been using since 2007 – Tyler Florence’s Maple-Roasted Turkey with Sage and Bacon (minus the stuffing). I’ve been tempted to try other recipes, but so far, trying new things doesn’t get enough votes. 

We spent time doing all the usual things – watching football, playing games, and eating until our pants get tight. I tried to make enough food so that we’d have leftovers for a second full day. I was mostly successful!

I also took a few photos of Jacob since it’s his senior year, a reality that I’ve yet to accept. It’s hard to believe the first grandchild in the family is graduating high school. We are all so proud of him!

This is my favorite photo from the long weekend: 

We drove to Sevierville to let the boys swim and to check out my parents’ new rental house. I am beyond thrilled that they’re moving back to this wonderful state, particularly since I haven’t lived near my family since 2005. They should be settled in by Christmas.

Other than the fact that none of the teams we root for won this weekend (minus MTSU), we had a lovely, relaxing Thanksgiving together. As always, the time goes by too quickly. 

The moment I thought all was lost

Last week I had a near heart attack when this site went blank. A corrupt plugin (or perhaps a plugin update?) looked to have wiped the site of all content. No blog posts. No photos. No pages.

Nearly ten years of content was seemingly gone. I refreshed and refreshed and refreshed, but the browser still showed PAGE NOT FOUND. I got emails from students who were trying to access class pages, which had an easy workaround. But, the thought of losing all those photos? All those stories? Despair does not fully explain my emotional state over the last few days. 

Fortunately, thanks to a rolling month-long back-up, my site was restored yesterday minus the updated class pages from Friday morning. Everything seems just as it was, for which I’m grateful. 

It was a close call though, folks. I did well to keep calm.


I am still making my way through photos from our UK trip, so those will be posted soon. In the meantime, we’ve enjoyed several events, including having my mom here with us. (They will be Tennessee residents again very soon! Cue happy dance!)

Halloween came and went with only Jackson celebrating. It’s strange to be letting go of that holiday, and even Jackson said this was probably his last year to dress up.

We joined a friend of his for trick-or-treating, and I enjoyed the night the best I could knowing we’ll probably never do it again. He’ll be 13 years old next year and his interests may be entirely different by then. 

Salem and I, on the other hand, will always celebrate Halloween.

Last weekend brought a lovely treat for my family and me. The De Gracia family enjoyed a getaway weekend in the Smoky Mountains and dropped by our little town on their way home so we could grab dinner and I could take their photos for the second time. Nortasha and I were neighbors from seventh to ninth grade in Atlanta, and we reconnected on Facebook a few years ago. 

Honestly, this is the primary reason I stay on social media, despite my many temptations to disconnect. Growing up an Army brat meant making friends in new cities, states, and countries every few years. To reconnect with those people has been a true gift. 

Finally, we have a beautiful and meaningful addition to our yard. In honor and memory of Chuck’s mother, sister, and father, my parents gifted us a Japanese maple tree. It is completely perfect, and we are grateful. 

Jackson goes to Disney World

After our day at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (and subsequent day of rest by the pool) it was finally Jackson’s turn to go to Disney World! He’d been counting the days and the day had finally come.

My brother-in-law fixed him up with a lanyard for pin trading, which he’d already worn the night before to Disney Springs. An affinity for Donald Duck has grown in recent months so he decided to decorate his lanyard with Donald-specific pins. From what I understand, he was diligent about keeping to his goal.

A character lunch ensured he met the Fab Five – including Donald Duck!

Jackson loves fast rides, so Space Mountain was one of his favorites!

Jeremy had a hard time knowing what he was missing, but he understood it was his brother’s turn and he had already experienced Disney World with his cousins.

I love this photo of him passed out asleep with Donald Duck on his lap 

Fortunately, after getting back to our house late Friday night, our family spent Saturday with us and saved Sunday for the long drive home to Chicago. That meant there was time for Wizard Chess.

Donald Duck pin success!

Thank you, Becky, Jeff, Jacob, and Owen, for taking Jackson to Disney World! To use his words, the trip was MAGICAL. (And thanks for all the cell phone pics!)

A second spring break

As homeschoolers, we do what we want. It’s glorious. It’s magnificent.

Our first spring break was spent at home, and truth be told, we still did math and reading while on hiatus from our homeschool cooperative. It wasn’t a full respite because we knew we had a second break coming – one that involved travel and excitement beyond compare.

Several years ago my sweet sister decided that she needed to take my children to Disney World since we weren’t going to. NO PROBLEM, I said, and threw some money her way. In 2015, Jeremy joined her family at Disney, and eventually, it would be Jackson’s turn.

This was his year.

On top of the Disney adventure, we decided it was also time to fork over the cash and visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, somewhere I’ve wanted to visit since it was built. Both Jeremy and Jackson are fans of the books and movies, so we’ve been counting the days until we could finally head to Orlando.

There is much to say about the experience, but in this particular post, I’ll be brief. I was overwhelmed to the point of tears, and not I’m not exaggerating. (Chuck has photographic proof, which I won’t be sharing publicly.) Since reading the first book in 2001 and seeing the final film in 2011, to watching both of my children fall in love with the series and love it as I do, going to Hogsmeade Village and Diagon Alley was an experience that spotlighted nearly two decades fandom. 

The impeccable detail of these two scenes left me fully satisfied, feeling like I’d actually walked into a magical world and lived there for one full day. YES, I bought a wand (Professor McGonagall’s). YES, I bought a Chocolate Frog. YES, we rode the Hogwarts Express. YES, we tried Butterbeer.

There is much to say about how it all felt, but I know what you really want is to see photos. They’re coming. I’ve got a few things to check off my to-do list before I tackle editing them.

Chuck, Jeremy, and I returned home late Wednesday night, leaving Jackson in Orlando with my sister and her family. He still had Disney World to experience, after all. From what I’ve seen in texts and Snaps, he’s living his best life. He’s loving every minute. Two magical experiences in one week is too good to be true for an 11-year-old. 

And yet, it’s all real. 

Christmas in Wisconsin 2017

Since our experience in Hilton Head two Christmases ago was so positive, we decided to do it again. However, instead of warm, we went cold. Wisconsin cold.

We met in Chicago first to regroup and make cookies, then we caravanned north.

We stayed in Lake Geneva, courtesy of my sister’s in-law’s timeshare (Thank you, Mary Ann and Ed!). We did all of the things one might do over the Christmas holiday: puzzling, reading, board games, eating more sweets than necessary…

To our delight, it snowed on Christmas Eve, which made our time in Lake Geneva more beautiful.

We went for a walk around the quiet town on Christmas Eve just as everything was closing for the night.

It was SO COLD, so we wrapped up our evening walk and went back to the hotel to get back in pajamas and settle in for the night. Come Christmas morning, we had no new snow, but the frozen tundra of Wisconsin was still gloriously white.

The four boys woke up ready to open presents!

Because they had already been given so much this year and every year, I did well to stick to the Four Gift Rule – something they want, something to read, something to wear, something they need. To have a small pile of gifts and not hear complaining is a GLORIOUS THING.

Iceland beanie!

My sister honored my grandmother, who passed away in March, by having some of her collectible spoons made into jewelry for my mother, herself, and me.

And when the gift-giving was over, we disbursed to read and work on the puzzle, which we were determined to finish by Christmas night.

We left Wisconsin the next morning and returned to Chicago, where we had one more day together before going our separate ways. I value our time together so dearly since we don’t live close to one another.

We all know what happened next. The drive home on Wednesday was overshadowed by my growing fever and vomiting in the car. The next day Chuck came down with the flu, and the day after that, it was Jeremy’s turn. We were fever-free by New Year’s Eve, but the whole of last week is a complete fog. Somehow it turned into 2018.

Ultimately, I’m thankful we were all well for Christmas! Where shall we go in 2019?

Favorite Moments of 2017

There are three primary reasons why I have kept this blog active for more than 12 years. First, I created it so our birth families could watch the boys grow up. I started a website when Jeremy was two, and though it’s morphed over time and changed locations, I’ve been faithful to update it with pictures and stories.

Second, our family members and friends live far and wide, and while social media fills a lot of gaps for all of us, not everyone is online. (Hi Great-Grandpa!)

Finally, and most importantly to me, this blog serves as a scrapbook of our lives. As a photographer and storyteller, this medium fulfills a cathartic need to document certain events and put them in some sort of order.

As I look back on 2017, the high points are noticeable. They practically scream at me. The year was mostly good, really good, so that the things I’d characterize as “bad” are simple to identify: no one dropped a million dollars in my lap and I didn’t score a book deal. That’s really all I’m missing.

Signs of Life in February

The year got off to a rough start for our country, and my task as a mother and citizen was to calm down and refocus. I wrote a heartfelt piece about not losing our minds as our country experienced a transfer of power, and then I spent all of February looking for things that encouraged and inspired me. I called it the Signs of Life series, a phrase pulled from an old Steven Curtis Chapman song I used to listen to as a teen.

Some days were easy. Signs of Life were everywhere. Other days were less so. Sometimes it was just, “I’m alive and I’m healthy,” which is no small feat. The result of February’s focus was the realization that I spend a lot of time looking at the negative and it has a large, looming effect on my everyday life. However, if I step back and scan the horizon for goodness, I’ll find it.

Jacob and Owen in June

In June my sister and her husband went overseas on a trip, which meant I got to keep my nephews for a whole week. (The only thing that gave me pause was the grocery budget! How would I keep these four boys fed?) I couldn’t wait to have them here, and just as I hoped, the time we spent together was perfect.

We took those Chicago boys and went full Tennessee. Bouldering, race car driving, eating the best food, and lots of it. Swimming in the river and playing cards at night. All of it. More of it. Every day.

Destin in May

At the end of the school year we high-tailed it out of town to get in a beach trip before the rest of the country. (Perks of homeschooling!) We chose Destin because our boys hadn’t yet seen the Gulf of Mexico, so their experiences with the beach and ocean were always whatever we found on the eastern coast. Jeremy in particular couldn’t get there fast enough. He’s our beach bum, ocean-loving, wanna-be Florida resident. As soon as we pulled up to the Gulf, he was done. How soon could we move? 

If he wasn’t in the water…

…he was looking in the water.

The boys went parasailing for the first time too.

It was our most relaxing beach trip to date, and Jeremy has been begging us to go back ever since.

The Solar Eclipse in August

Since our house was positioned in the path of totality, we had an impromptu eclipse party!

Friends came in from out of town, across town, and up the street to watch the solar eclipse. With plenty of water and pizza to keep sweaty kids hydrated and energized, we spent the afternoon hanging out and watching the sky turn weird. It was the best!

Iceland in November

Last, but certainly not least, is our incredible and bizarre trip to Iceland. We walked into 2017 with no thoughts of international travel. We went into the summer with no thoughts of international travel. Heck, we walked into September with no thoughts of international travel! But life is strange that way. Sometimes opportunities come around, and if you take a little courage, you realize that saying yes is the only possible answer.

We spent the last bit of November and the first day of December exploring the southwestern parts of Iceland. It was a dream.

As wonderful as 2017 was for our family, the irony is that we are limping into 2018 a handful of pathetic souls. On the road home from our Christmas in Chicago and Wisconsin, I fell sick, then so did Chuck, and finally Jeremy. Two bouts of flu and a bacterial infection do not make for a restful winter break.

Today is the first day since Tuesday night that I’ve felt human. I am coughing and weak, but I can walk across a room without crying. Though I feel robbed of a week of productivity, I will effort to overlook my messy house, unfinished work, and those cabinets and closets I wanted to sort out. Better to rest than to relapse, right? For the first time in five days, no one has a fever, just in time for New Year’s Eve.

Speaking of New Year’s Eve, there will be no hugs and kisses at midnight, I can assure you. We’ll just wave at each other from across the room and offer a thumbs up in solidarity. 

It was a good year. 

Medal No. 17, Stranger Things 2, Halloween, NaNoWriMo

In the interest of time and space, here’s a recap of how I ran 13.1 miles in the pouring rain and ruined my phone, how we celebrated Halloween and Salem’s Supposed 10th Birthday, and why I’m taking another stab at National Novel Writing Month with my third novel.

My goal to run 20 half marathons by the time I turn 40 is moving along nicely. On Saturday, the day it monsooned in East Tennessee, I ran my 17th long-distance race. Before readying my cell phone for a wet run in ziplock baggies, I snapped this photo of the windshield.

Oh, the irony.

Fast forward two and a half hours and I crossed the finish line fully drenched but pleased with my run. It wasn’t until I was safely back in the car that I realized water had seeped into the baggie and, therefore, into the phone.

{insert expletives here}

I tried to make a call and couldn’t. The camera wouldn’t work. The speakers wouldn’t work. I was so mad at myself for deciding to run with the phone. I thought listening to an audiobook would distract me from the rain (it did!), but I also thought I’d taken enough precautions to keep my phone dry (I didn’t!). I drove home and immediately put the phone in a bag of dry rice for 24 hours.

The screen is streaked and the phone works fine, from what I can tell, but the forward-facing camera still does not work, which is the CRUELEST IRONY OF ALL for a photographer.

Still, I earned Medal No. 17, and I plan on getting Medal No. 18 in two weeks.

In between the race and Halloween, Chuck, Jackson, and I binged the second season of Stranger Things. (Jeremy opted out.) I loved it as much as I hoped to, but I was disappointed in the amount of profanity in the second season, particularly since Jackson was watching. Every episode I reminded him, “We don’t talk this way, remember?” It was just too much, and frankly, unnecessary. That complaint aside, I thought the plot of Season 2 was an excellent continuation from Season 1, particularly with the inclusion of Max. (I could’ve done without Max’s brother and about 85% of Episode 7.)

This, by far, was my favorite scene. I melted:

Halloween rolled around and we took Jeremy (as Ron Weasley) and Jackson (as Big Nate – his imaginary best friend and book character) to our friends’ house to trick-or-treat. I don’t have a photo of them because I didn’t bring a camera.

Actually, that’s not true. Here is a photo from trick-or-treating:

Only the front camera works (i.e., the selfie camera), and it’s actually terrible.

Oh well.

Before Halloween got away from us, we took a few minutes to celebrate Salem, our wonderfully fat black Halloween cat. As I’ve mentioned before, we have no idea when his actual birthday is, unlike Major, whose birthday is December 9. So, we selected October 31 for our favorite feline and celebrated what might be his 10th year on Earth (we aren’t sure about that either) by giving him a can of tuna.

Finally, since today is November 1, I am making a second attempt at finishing my third novel during National Novel Writing Month. I’ve participated three times before and was successful in both 2013 and 2015. Last year was a wash, but here’s to trying again! (Maybe I only write novels on odd years?) I fully admit to starting the month ahead of schedule because I still have 3,000 (or so) words from last year that I’m recycling. There’s only one story to tell right now, so I’m not starting a new one.

Anniversary week and fall break

Our anniversary fell on a Saturday this year, and while last year’s anniversary celebration was bigger and better, this year was just as sweet. There was no trip, no big event to signify No. 17, no big gifts or hurrahs. Just a lazy day at home and a lovely dinner in town, just the two of us. Contentment means life is good wherever you are.

Our anniversary kicked off fall break, so the week has been punctuated by long runs (me), hunting (Chuck and Jeremy), and lots of sleeping in and reading (Jackson).

Yesterday we went to Dollywood, the one thing we said we’d do over fall break. We had season passes in 2011, and I’m pretty sure we took the boys again in 2012 or 2013, but my memory fails me so I can’t be sure. Regardless, it’s been a minute since we’ve been to Dollywood.

Much like our experience last summer at Hershey Park, we rode a few coasters together, then the old people bowed out. Jeremy and Jackson love riding roller coasters together, which is a gift to these two parents. Have at it, boys. Have at it.

As the day wore down and the crowds increased, we ran into Jimmy and the kids (Lesli arrived later, but we missed her!). Since Jimmy was flying solo for a couple of hours, we stepped in as co-pilots for a few rides.

Be still my heart when Catherine, the sweet, shy introvert who takes her time with people, insisted I ride a kiddie coaster with her! Foolish to resist, I agreed enthusiastically and off we went to stand in line. She instructed me on how to hold her close on the ride – just like Mama does – and even held her arms in the air on the last go around. I’ve been around this little one since birth, since she eagle-eyed me in the hospital: 

Now she snaps pictures with me willingly, not shy, not reserved, and I couldn’t be happier:

The other thing I’ve done over fall break is clean out the boys’ closets and dressers. They are blessed with so many hand-me-downs that I haven’t bought clothes for them in years. After sorting through the many things I found underneath Jackson’s bed, I held my breath at this last little gem – a note from Jeremy to Jackson, many years old now:

It is a sweet reminder that while we may be in a rough season of picking and prodding, there is love there. Thank goodness, y’all, because 11 and 14 are tough ages. I’ll take every reminder I can get.

Jackson turns 11

Jackson has been counting down to his eleventh birthday since the calendar turned to 2017. It’s fair to say he is obsessed with it, even beyond the general obsession kids feel about their birthdays. Yes, it’s about gifts and special food and all the extra attention, but it’s about that deeper feeling – that you are so well-loved that an entire day is designed to celebrate YOU.

Instead of a big party, which we did last year for his tenth, we kept it low-key and all in the family. He chose an ice cream cake from Dairy Queen (his request) and I made egg salad sandwiches for dinner (again, his request). We also watched Stranger Things over the course of three days (fast-forwarding through the mature bits with teen romance!) because turning eleven on June 11 meant he was old enough to see what all the fuss was about. (He loved it!)

Then we made him search the house and yard for his gifts (yes, his request).

We are a Packers family, yet, here we are:

There’s also a Steelers jersey in our house now, courtesy of my parents! Blasphemy!

Yet, Jackson loved it all. Just look at his face when he discovered a pair of Hufflepuff socks –

And a Hufflepuff house banner –

And a Bucks jersey –

That’s the sign of a happy little heart.

Later in the day we enjoyed a visit from Chuck’s dad and a FaceTime session with my parents.

I also read all the well wishes people sent through social media and texts, which brought a huge smile to his face. Thanks to everyone who took the time to tell him Happy Birthday. You warmed his heart and mine.

 

Parasailing and Fishing in the Gulf

After two full days on the beach we ventured into town so the boys could go parasailing. At first they acted nervous, like what they were about to do was dangerous, but then I reminded them that last summer they rode nearly every roller coaster at Hershey Park with no fear whatsoever.

In no time they were hooked up and taking off.

The boys felt much better about parasailing once Chuck got a last-minute invite to join them at no extra cost.

I’ve been parasailing before. Actually, Chuck and I went parasailing back when we were teenagers. Since I had my camera, I was happy to stay in the boat and document their experience.

And then, dolphins!

Wednesday was our last full day in the area and Chuck had yet to fish, which was the one thing he wanted to do. Originally the boys and I set up our spot on Navarre Beach, where I laid reading Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald and the boys went off to swim, but the lure of pier activity was too great. Within a half hour both boys had joined Chuck on the pier and I laid in the sand finishing my book (which was fantastic).

It may look like the boys were bored, but they weren’t. They were busy counting sea turtles.

By the time we left Navarre Beach, they’d seen somewhere in the double digits.

Our vacation in Destin was exactly what we needed – lots of relaxation, a couple of fun activities, and, most importantly of all, time together. The Gulf was breathtaking, and it bolstered Jeremy’s continued interest in marine science. Honestly, when he wasn’t eating, sleeping, or parasailing, he was exploring.

Jeremy had a hard time saying goodbye to the water, especially since I don’t know if we’ll return this calendar year. On our way out of town we stopped at the last pier before turning northward. We got out of the car for one last look. This place is so easy on the eyes.

Luckily for me, there was one more thing to look forward to: The Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum in Montgomery. More on that tomorrow.

 

First Romp in the Gulf at Miramar Beach, Destin

Our life feels crazy sometimes, but after nearly a decade into Chuck’s job, I’ve learned to go with the flow. Our original plans for family vacation didn’t involve Destin, and then the back-up plan to Destin didn’t include Chuck. All the whiplash in the planning phase came to a head two days before our planned departure.

Long story short, we spent four days at Miramar Beach in Destin and it was perfect.

The boys had never been to the Gulf of Mexico, but they knew the water would be bluer and clearer than the Atlantic.

Jeremy, our ocean-loving son, couldn’t believe it.

It was chilly on Sunday night, and the wind was steady, but that was no deterrent for two eager boys ready to swim and explore.

They were so happy. Instantly. All at once. They, too, have learned to live at the whim of our unpredictable schedule, not knowing how one thing or another may pan out. But at this moment, with feet in the sand and bodies in the water, they were happy.

We had an hour or so until sundown, but that was fine since we had days of bright sun ahead.

The next morning we reserved a set of chairs with plenty of shade and planned to spend the entire day on the beach. It was a Monday morning. We had nowhere to be and nothing to do. The water was calm and clear.

The perk of traveling before schools are out for the summer is having a lot of space to ourselves. Homeschooling for the win!

Jeremy brought a collection of jars and containers to gather specimens and whatever Gulf treasures he found.

This was our view at lunch… We suffered through it.

We spent a little bit of time in the touristy areas of Destin, but not a ton because the beach was so perfect. Whenever we were around water, this was Jeremy:

We were thankful for the weather, thankful for the thin crowd, and thankful we could all be together.

And we still had a few days to go. More pictures later!

CS Lewis Doodles

For those of you embarking on a spiritual journey for Lent, I want to suggest a delightful YouTube channel you might enjoy, particularly if you appreciate the works of C.S. Lewis.

I have no idea who’s behind the channel or what prompted this person to share essays and book excerpts from C.S. Lewis in doodle form, but I’m pleased as punch that he/she did.

The CSLewisDoodle Channel is a collection of 35 videos (so far) that literally draw out the words of the writer. Below is “The Necessity of Chivalry,” an essay published in August 1940 during the Battle of Britain, in doodle form.

My favorite doodle videos are of The Screwtape Letters. They are acted out – like a play – complete with drawings that feel like you’re watching a graphic novel come to life.

Perhaps these videos can be a companion to something you’re already doing, or maybe you endeavor to watch one a day throughout the 40 days of Lent. For me, they make C.S. Lewis more accessible, as the combination of words and pictures create a deeper level of understanding.

However you use them, enjoy.

Christmas 2016

Christmas celebrations began on Saturday night with Jeremy and Jackson exchanging their brother gifts – a tradition my sister and I had and one we’ve passed on to both sets of boys. They use their own money and we take them out separately to shop.

Christmas morning was slow-moving. Because the Packers game in early December was the big family gift, the boys knew that wrapped gifts would be minimal. Per the Four Gift Rule, they both still received a book, clothing (Packers socks), and something they needed (an iPod charger for Jeremy, pajamas for Jackson).

There were fun things in their stockings – a particular favorite were these goofy glasses. Thank you, Corey!

Jackson was so pleased to receive some South Dakota State University gear from my parents. Random team, you say? Nah. Jackson loves the SDSU Jackrabbits!

We had one other surprise for the boys and that was an upgraded game system for the whole family. We all enjoy playing video games, and the last time we bought a new system was in 2009. They didn’t see that one coming for sure.

Christmas was mostly good, but it was also challenging. It’s hard to celebrate a holiday when there are two people missing from the family. There’s a tender balance between forcing Christmas cheer and making sure your kids’ holiday isn’t overshadowed by immense grief.

Still, we are thankful for those who are still here and happy to share a warm meal with as much gratitude as we can muster.

We tried very hard for a family photo of all six of us – the pets included – but Major is wholly uncomfortable sitting in close proximity to Salem. Hence, the ever watchful side-eye.

Merry Christmas from our family to yours! Many blessings for a fruitful, healthy New Year. 

 

Pre-Christmas Fun

Desperate to find Christmas spirit (whatever that actually means), we fled to Pigeon Forge last night to enjoy the holiday lights. That was my original goal. Since neighborhoods don’t collectively provide outdoor illumination displays the way they used to (we are guilty of this), driving longer distances to see Christmas lights is necessary, and Pigeon Forge knows how to do it.

We drove up and down the strip, then parked at The Island so we could walk around a bit and find dinner.

The lights and fountain were lovely, exactly what I wanted to see.

Though we had no intention of shopping, Jackson discovered the Build-a-Bear shop almost immediately and began his lengthy speech about how he’s always wanted a Build-a-Bear (true), how Jeremy has one and he doesn’t (true), and how happy he’d be to help pay for it with his own money (sure!).

Meet Joshua:

We also picked up a new shirt for Two, Jeremy’s monkey, who used to have a more prominent role in Jeremy’s life. Here they are on a plane together in 2010:

Anyway, we’re happy to welcome Joshua into the family, and Jackson is very excited to introduce Joshua to Jelly, Owen’s faithful bear who is well-traveled.

Dinner happened at Dick’s Last Resort, a highly inappropriate restaurant if you don’t have a sense of humor. I won’t share all the photos from dinner but rather confess that what I needed more than Christmas lights was a lot of laughter. Mission accomplished.

My heart feels lighter after last night’s excursion, so it was the right call to go (thanks, babe!).

After uploading photos I realized I still had some images that I didn’t share from our brief trip through Chicago earlier in the month, particularly from the morning we spent at the Naperville Christmas Market. (Jacob was at a swim meet and unable to go with us! Boo!)

While there, Jeremy learned that freshly made marshmallows (dipped in chocolate) are WAY BETTER than store-bought.

I miss these people all the time. So thankful we had an extra few days with them… 

The Miller family goes to Lambeau

This weekend I crossed something off my Bucket List: A Green Bay Packers game at Lambeau Field.

It all started with keeping the game a secret from the boys for more than two months. When we finally had the big reveal, I was shaking with excitement. Their reaction was nothing short of pure joy.

They had neither a clue nor an inclination that we’d ever take them to a Packers game, much less a Packers game at Lambeau, but when the tickets were given to us so generously by the author whom I worked with, it was the gift of a lifetime.

We drove to Chicago on Friday to spend two nights with my sister and her family, then we woke up painfully early on Sunday morning and drove to Green Bay.

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Just as we entered Brown County, it started snowing. All we needed to make the experience perfect was a win over the Texans.

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The Tundra Line was a crowd pleaser:

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The stadium was everything I hoped it would be.

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Our seats were fantastic and I spent every minute carefully memorizing each detail around me.

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As the announcer said, “It’s a beautiful day for football!” — 30 degrees and snowing!

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Shortly before halftime we slipped upstairs to the rooftop to get the best view of Lambeau:

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After a quick bite we returned to our seats to watch the second half. We were cold, but none of us cared. The final play was perfection:

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I stayed in the stands as long as I could.

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We walked the grounds a bit to visit Vince and Curly before going back to the car. I didn’t want the afternoon to end.

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Finally, we hit up the Barnes &  Noble so I could see the book on a real retail shelf. I owe all of this to the author, Jim. It was the experience of working with him and learning about the team that made me a fan.

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I guess the only thing missing is a meet-and-greet with our local Packer, Randall Cobb.  A girl can dream though.

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Thanksgiving 2016

My goal for Thanksgiving was simple: Keep it low key. Even though I cooked the full meal and didn’t skimp on the menu, the rest of Thanksgiving was simple and laid back. My sister and her family came into town, we shopped, she helped in the kitchen, and we saw a movie. Things just flowed along, and I didn’t bring out my camera once, evident by the poor quality photo of our dinner, complete with catching Jackson mid-blink.

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I wanted to enjoy myself, so that meant keeping plans to a minimum. It worked, too, because we had a lovely few days together.

When Jeremy and Owen weren’t gaming, they were enjoying their mounds of Pokemon cards.

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Jacob DROVE me to get donuts. I wasn’t nervous at all because he’s an excellent driver. It was weird though, because it’s Jacob. He was just born a few years ago, right?

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Jackson used his money to buy another pillow pet – this time, he chose a West Virginia Mountaineer. I was pleased!

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And Jeremy finally saved enough money to buy an iPod Touch. He’s been waiting nearly two years for this moment.

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In hindsight it might have been nice to set up the tripod and capture a full family photo with all eight of us, but I really liked keeping my duties to a minimum. Maybe next time 🙂

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Oh, 2016. I’m already tired.

I got in late last night – 2 a.m., to be exact – after attending a college conference at Montreat as a discussion group facilitator. Montreat is a 4,000-acre retreat center outside Asheville, North Carolina, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and a beloved place for many folks that I know. (Click here for a hundred years of history.) I’d never been to Montreat before this week so my expectations were all over the place. One thing is for sure: I should’ve packed a better winter coat.

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One of the first things I noticed upon getting my feet wet at Montreat was that I am indeed a whole generation apart from the attendees. I’m not sure why that fact didn’t register earlier in my brain, but when I did the math and realized that Jeremy is only six years younger than the college freshmen, while I am a solid twenty years older, it put the entire event into perspective. While we’re all still sorting out aspects of our faith and belief systems well into adulthood, most of these students are closer to the starting line. I remember that place. It’s both scary and beautiful.

As a board member at UKirk UTK and supporter of the retreat concept itself, I applied to be a group facilitator months ago along with my board co-chair. The fact that Nadia Bolz-Weber was one of the keynote speakers offered a slight pull. (I don’t identify as a Nadia groupie, which is a real thing, but I enjoy her perspective for the most part.)

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And though I may be in the minority, I also enjoyed and appreciated the other keynote speaker, Jason Brown, former center for the St. Louis Rams, who spoke about his evangelical interpretation of John 3:16 and how leaving the NFL to start a farm to feed the hungry was an act of wild obedience.

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As a discussion facilitator, my primary roll was to ask questions, to encourage discussion, and tuck little nuggets of thought into the brains of young people. I led them to no conclusions, minus two: 1) Loving one another is our greatest and hardest calling, and 2) Live in the tension between faith and doubt because that’s where growth happens.

The organizers of the conference made sure we were placed in groups with strangers, which meant no UTK students were in my group and none of group members knew one another prior to the event. Since I can be honest in my own internet space, I’ll tell you that some of the discussion remarks gave me pause. Some students said things I disagreed with, while a couple of students said things that worried me. A few said things that made me want to question aloud whether or not they had ever truly suffered. But I kept all those thoughts to myself and continued to give them an open floor to speak. That was my job, after all. I silently loved them through the disagreements, knowing full well that some of their – and my – hardcore tenets have yet to be tested.

The tests are coming though.

On the whole, I enjoyed my first experience at Montreat. I loved meeting other UKirk folks and I especially enjoyed getting to know our own UTK students a little better. I really do care for them. I want the world for them, and I’m happy to play the tiniest roll in their journey.

For now, I need a good nights’ sleep. A really good one. I need to get my boys back on track with school and I need a date with the hubs. This was a great way to start a new year. Cheers to 2016 and whatever it may hold.