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. 

Video of our trip to Iceland

It took the bulk of my day to finish this video, but that’s only because iMovie is trial and error for me. If I would just fork over $300 for Final Cut Pro, my video-making could go more smoothly.

At any rate, I gathered all of the photos from our trip to Iceland, including a few videos, and compiled them into a nearly 12-minute long slide show/video. It’s lengthy, I know, but it serves as a scrapbook for our family. Please feel free to start it now and finish it later. Or feel free to watch it all in one sitting.

Or skip it. Whatever, y’all! You do you!

Enjoy 

Adventure in Iceland – Going home

We were all sad on Friday morning. Though we’d done and seen so much in three full days, we were just starting to get the hang of life in Iceland. We weren’t speaking the language, but the place had gotten comfortable. None of us wanted to leave yet.

Once we were all packed and ready for the airport, Jeremy took a moment to say goodbye to the neighborhood soccer pitch. Oh, the hours he could spend there.

We also said goodbye to the house cat. Since the cold snap ended, much of the snow melted near the coast and it was a comfortable 43 degrees with low humidity.

Unlike our flight to Iceland, which was entirely in the dark, we chased the sun home to the States. It was particularly nice since sunlight meant we could see Greenland.

One of my favorite photos from the whole trip was taken with my phone from the plane. This is UNEDITED. I took it with my cell phone.

Once the sun was dim, the moon showed up. She, too, was glorious.

I’ve spent the last week discerning my overall thoughts of Iceland. When people asked me what it was like, my first inclination is to respond with, “I don’t know,” not because I’ve lost my memory but because I don’t have the vocabulary to describe it. It’s an island made of volcanos and glaciers. It’s hot and cold at the same time. It’s confusing and mysterious. It’s vast and open. It’s impeccably clean and efficient – seriously, even the public restrooms. (As an American, I was embarrassed that we can’t be as considerate.)

People were friendly enough, but not in your face about it. To each, his own seems to be the Icelandic way, and I’m libertarian enough to appreciate it.

But what was it really like? 

Well, I’m not a fan of its tax code on matters of economic principle, but Icelanders seem okay with it. As long as we could grocery shop and make wise choices financially, the priciness of traveling in Iceland wasn’t a bother.

The little churches everywhere? Love.

The language? Gosh. It would take months to get a handle on basic conversation and years of immersion to speak it fluently. Our AirBNB host is British and he said it took him three years to learn Icelandic. For purposes of travel, though, the language wasn’t a barrier because much of the signage was in Icelandic and English, and everyone we encountered spoke English. (Google Translate helped with the rest.)

I can’t say much about Icelandic cuisine because we didn’t patron a true restaurant with Iceland food. Sure, we ate at IKEA twice, but that doesn’t count. Since we were traveling with the boys, we opted out of authentic restaurants  and instead chose to grocery shop and save our money. (That wouldn’t be the case if Chuck and I had gone without the boys. Choosing restaurants to try is a favorite part of our travels together.) That being said, grocery shopping was still an adventure for all four of us, and it’s there where we relied on Google Translate to identify basic items such as coffee creamer and yogurt. For three days worth of breakfast and lunch items, we paid $63. Compare that to ONE MEAL we had our first day in Iceland, which was $101, a poor decision we made in fatigue and hunger.

But these things – food, language, budgeting – are secondary, peripheral matters. The long term affects of our trip to Iceland are rooted in the moments when we watched a geysir explode from the earth, when we slipped into a geothermal bath while our eyelashes collected snowflakes, when we stood in the place where two plate tectonics meet…

Waterfalls and frozen streams and Icelandic horses. 

A lava rock beach on the North Atlantic coastline. 

Five hours of daylight with the longest and most vibrant sunrises and sunsets of your life.

On our drive home from the airport we remarked that it didn’t feel real. Did we really just go to Iceland? I mean, who does that? Who chooses to vacation near the Arctic Circle, on a whim, no less, because we found some cheap airfare and had the days to spare? Who decides to take a chance on an adventure and go to a place where everything seems uncertain?

Well, I guess we do.

 

 

Adventure in Iceland – Day Three

One of the best pieces of advice we got from our AirBNB hosts was to avoid the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa trolling with tourists. It’s likely you’ve seen an ad for it, and it was mentioned in nearly every video we watched and every blog post we read while researching the trip.

However, as our host said, you won’t find Icelanders there. It’s a tourist trap, complete with high prices and required reservations made well in advance. Instead, we were encouraged to find a local place, and that’s exactly what we did. We got up early Thursday morning, before the sunrise, and drove north to Krauma Geothermal Baths.

Boiling water coming from the frozen tundra – Iceland really is the land of fire and ice.

Of course, before we arrived, we warned the boys that they’d need to shower before getting in the baths, and we didn’t mean showering with swimsuits on. Nope. Fully naked. In open showers. Because Europeans don’t care about nudity the way Americans do.

Jeremy wasn’t pleased.

Fortunately, we were the only ones there, minus a couple of Icelandic women who were leaving just as we arrived.

It was… a dream.

There are five baths at varying temperatures, including one cold bath that’s pure glacier water. Everyone except me dipped a toe or leg in that bath and reported that it was pins-and-needles cold.

But the warm baths? Delightful.

This photo is currently the screensaver on my phone:

Though it would’ve been a quicker drive to the Blue Lagoon, Krauma was well worth it and confirms what we always believe about traveling: do what the locals do. 

Another perk of driving north to Krauma was being able to go in a different direction than we’d already gone (south to Reynisfjara Beach and east to Gullfoss).

The weather wasn’t all that clear north of Reykjavik, so I wasn’t sure what we’d find once we got back to the city. Fortunately, again, it was perfect!

Spotted: Church cat

Finally we could see Leif Eiriksson and Hallgrimskirkja in the daylight.

The views from the tower in Hallgrimskirkja were breathtaking. So thankful for a clear(ish) afternoon!

I approve of Iceland’s love for color!

Back on the ground, we walked around a little longer since it wasn’t raining. I think I’d like grass on my roof too, please.

Spotted: Bookstore cat

Next we drove back to our little town of Hafnarfgjordur to visit Pallett, the coffeeshop owned by our AirBNB hosts.

I ordered a Flat White, which was the best Flat White I’d ever had in my life. I wanted a second one, but it was getting late and caffeine-induced insomnia is not my friend in other time zones.

Our final stop on Thursday was a local mall, mainly out of curiosity.

Prices at the LEGO store were significantly higher than in the States. We definitely window-shopped.

We grabbed dinner for the second time at IKEA and headed home to pack. As expected, the trip flew by. Boo.

Next: Friday and going home. 

Adventure in Iceland – Day Two

When we got back in town Tuesday night, after our excursion to Reynisfjara Beach, we went to a local grocery store to buy food for the rest of the week. We had already made a mistake by eating on the fly Tuesday late-morning, jet-lagged and un-researched. This is a huge fail when it comes to visiting Iceland on a budget and we resolved to be better the rest of the week.

(I think I’ll make a separate blog post about traveling to Iceland on a budget, so if you’re interested in that, stay tuned.)

Since we had eggs, toast, cereal, and milk in the house, breakfast was a cinch. Once they boys were dressed and fed, they went outside to the backyard to pet the cats.

The first stop on Wednesday was along the Golden Circle to Thingvellir National Park, which you can see noted on the map below:

Thingvellir is important to Icelandic culture and history, as well as its geological and ecological significance. It is literally where the North American tectonic plate and Eurasian plate meet.

Iceland is notoriously vibrant and green in the summer, and despite the snow, you could still see the beautiful moss growing everywhere.

If you continue on the path you run into Oxararfoss, an up-close magnificent (frozen) waterfall.

One of my favorite photos from the trip – this is my whole heart right here:

I can’t emphasize how clear the water is. I mean, if you want to drink from it, go ahead.

Oxararfoss is right behind us. We walked across frozen water to get to it. I’d love to see it in summertime!

After climbing out of the crevasses, we got back in the car and headed to Strokkur/Geysir. The Golden Circle is a heavy tourist area, so unlike much of our experiences on Tuesday, we were among fellow travelers most of Wednesday.

Imagine boiling water bursting out of the Earth and running down a frozen tundra. That’s Geysir.

This is Strokkur, a reliable hot spring that erupts every four to eight minutes.

Even with steaming hot water erupting from the Earth, there is plenty of frozen bright blue water to be found.

The last place we visited along the Golden Circle was Gullfoss, Iceland’s largest waterfall. Of course, it was mostly frozen so I’d love to return in summer to see it in full color and motion.

Our five hours of daylight were fading fast, so we hoped in the car back to Reykjavik to explore the city at night.

But first, sunset.

Icelanders take their Viking history seriously, so Thor is everywhere. EVERYWHERE.

It was foggy on Wednesday night, so we knew we’d have to come back to Hallgrimskirkja Church the next day and hope for clear skies.

Next: Krauma Geothermal Baths and Reykjavik in the daytime

Adventure in Iceland – Part Two of Day One

Continued from previous post: Adventure in Iceland – Day One

The goal of Tuesday was to get to Reynisfjara Beach near Vik, which National Geographic rated as one of the Top 10 Non-Tropical Beaches to visit on the planet. It’s known for its black sand and lava stacks.

Of course, right before you reach the beach, you pass a church.

We reached the beach during Iceland’s long sunset, so the rocks were glowing bright orange, which washed out the tufts of green moss and grass.

The stacks are impossible to resist. They beg to be climbed.

Tucked away in the highest stacks are hundreds of nests. Supposedly there are puffins as well as seagulls nesting in the crevasses, but I didn’t see any.

The rocks lost their glow as the sun sank behind the horizon, so the rocks when from orange to gray. I absolutely love this photo of Jeremy. I mean, goodness.

Jackson asked to use one of my cameras, so for a moment, I indulged him.

I guess we need proof that I was on the trip too. I took a selfie on this beach, but mainly so I could capture my explorers behind me:

Once the sun fully set, we said farewell to the North Atlantic Ocean and headed back to Hafnarfjordur. The moon was bright in the sky on Tuesday, which was a lovely goodnight to our first full day in Iceland.

Next: Thingvellir, Geysir, and Gullfoss.

Adventure in Iceland – First Part of Day One

So it went something a little like this:

Him: What are your thoughts on Iceland?
Me: I have no thoughts on Iceland.
Him: Let’s go to Iceland.
Me: Okay.

Chuck was gone on assignment for much of August, all of September, and a good chunk of October, so we decided we needed a little getaway to reconnect as a family and do something fun. The original idea was to go camping, but somewhere along the way we decided on Iceland. Boil it down to cheap airfare, a little research on how to travel Iceland on a budget, and a lot of nerve to do something out of the ordinary.

Chuck and I love traveling together. It’s something we do really well as a couple. But traveling internationally with the boys? Heck. They’re old enough to carry their own bags. Let’s just see how it goes! We booked the trip the first week of October and didn’t tell Jeremy and Jackson until mid-October just in case something fell through with getting their passports. We didn’t tell family and close friends until sometime in November. The reaction was got from everyone – including the boys – was, “Huh?”

Yes, we’re going to Iceland. Why not?

Suddenly the trip was upon us and we arrived on Monday afternoon in Pittsburgh, which is one of the hubs for WOW Air, a fairly new low-cost carrier based in Iceland.

We left Monday night on a plane that was half-full, which meant we all got to stretch out. Even Salem got his own seat.

At some point during the flight we saw the Northern Lights. It is unfortunate that I couldn’t roll down the airplane window for a better photo. You’ll have to take my word for it that they were more beautiful than what you see below.

Six hours after taking off, we landed in Iceland. In the US, it was around midnight, but in Iceland, it was 5 a.m. We got our bags, the rental car, and took our zombie children to the AirBNB we rented in Hafnarfjordur, a small town just south of Reykjavik.

The Garden Flat was on the bottom floor of a three-story house owned by a British couple, who were currently in England. The hosts live on the second floor and own a coffee shop in town. We didn’t meet them right away (it was early, after all), but we eventually ran into them and were so grateful to pick their brains about places to go and what living in Iceland is really like.

We didn’t see much of the outside when we arrived since it was dark. The inside, however, was straight out of IKEA.

(The boys had their own bedroom with twin beds, though I didn’t take a picture of it.)

Since sunrise wasn’t until 10 a.m., we elected to nap for a couple of hours and crossed our fingers for good attitudes afterward. Needless to say, it took some time to pull the boys fully out of a slumber.

Once the sun was up we got a good look at the neighborhood. It was delightful!

This is the “friendly Hafnarfjordur cat” in the aforementioned note:

Spotted: Icelandic Black Cat.

The weather in Iceland is unpredictable, but when we arrived it was clear and in the 20s. Since the forecast for Tuesday was mostly good, we took the opportunity to make our farthest trek to Reynisfjara Beach, the black sand beach near Vik. There was plenty to see along the way, so off we went.

Within 20 minutes we were away from the coast and headed for curvy roads and breathtaking views. There were plenty of pull-offs to get out and take pictures. The fresh, crisp air helped wake us up too.

The first waterfall we came upon along the southwestern edge of Iceland was Urridafoss.

Of course, everything is frozen! Elsa got here before we did.

Back in the car, we continued south towards Vik and came upon a pasture where short, furry Icelandic horses were waiting for us to pet them. We couldn’t let them down! Chuck pulled over so the boys and I could introduce ourselves.

Theses horses everywhere, and while some of them graze away from the road, there are plenty who meander about waiting for tourists to give them love.

With only five hours of daylight to play with, we were selective about our stops. There were plenty of places to pull over and explore, but we really wanted to make it to Reynisfjara Beach before sunset. Seljalandsfoss was a must-see though. As soon as we pulled up to it, the boys recognized it from videos we watched while researching the trip.

Again, Elsa got here before we did:

Fortunately, we didn’t need to take the stairs.

 

With only a couple of hours left before sunset, we got back in the car and headed for the coast.

Next post: Rejnisfjara Beach.