From Noah with a Way-Too-Long Preface from Jennie

My Christmas cards were late this year.  I cried about it.  If you asked my level-headed husband, he would contend that the latest cards would arrive no later than two days after Christmas.  I would contend that means they might as well not have gone out at all.  To further complicate things, in the postpartum chaos that was Christmas 2013, I failed to save my Christmas card ledger with updated card recipients and corrected addresses.  I had to revert back to 2012, which doesn't seem like a big deal, but it's amazing how much can change in two short years. 

This is the point where everyone is saying, "Man, I wish I had her 'problems.'"  Because, you know, they aren't really problems. 

This Christmas was wrought with lots of little things that compounded together made it feel a little less "Christmasy" than usual, all punctuated by an actual problem on December 17th, a geocaching hunt - turned terrible eye injury for my dearest Sam.

So, on Monday, four days before Christmas, two days after I mailed our cards out, Sam had surgery on his eye.  To understand fully, his eyesight is like another child.  In January of 2013, he went from being legally blind to having better than perfect vision when he gave himself Lasik surgery for Christmas.  [Edited to say:  HAHAHAHA.  He is amazing, but pretty sure this did not come out the way I meant for it to.  He gifted the surgery to himself.  An actual doctor performed it.  Phew.]  And now, because of a literal thorn in his eye, his eyesight is potentially tarnished.  His ophthalmologist is optimistic (say that 5x fast).  For him, the hardest part is waiting and seeing.  It's a good life lesson.  I just wish I'd been the one with the thorn in my eye.  Goodness knows I have enough weird health issues this year.  What's one more? 

So, because of my own [lack of] organizational skills, Sam's eye injury (for which, by the way, if you have prayed him through, we are so very grateful), and my general winter blues that seemed to come a little earlier this year, we delegated the writing of our annual Christmas letter to one of the kids this year.  And if you didn't receive one in the physical mail, I apologize for the oversight and ask that you accept this electronic version as a substitute.  I'm asking for grace this year.  Lots and lots of it.  Wish I was as good as giving it to myself. 

Merry Christmas, my friends.  May your 2015 be the best year yet!

Dear Friends and Family,
It seems that Mommy and Daddy are pressed for something called “spare time” these days, so they have gotten very good at delegating tasks in order to get things done around here.  That means, this year our annual Christmas letter is coming to you from me, Noah, since 2014 was my first year of life.  (And I’m the cutest.  That’s not relevant, but it’s true.)
In January, I watched Mommy entertain all of us in the waiting room of her OB’s office at naptime with loose items from her purse while waiting for Daddy to come and rescue us from certain boredom and mischief.  It was the best when she found those loose Smarties she’d been meaning to clean out for weeks.  I took careful notes from my big sister, Leah, as I watched her lick the kitchen sponge, eat two-day-old mac-n-cheese off the floor, and paint real nail polish on her face like lipstick.  Then, we took our first of many homeschool “field trips” of the year – this time to the urologist’s office to check out Mommy’s kidney stones.  (This was not one of our most favorites.)
In February, we went to Disney World for ten days.  Sarah was devastated that she wasn’t tall enough for Expedition Everest, Leah slept in a pack-n-play in the bathroom, and Daddy and Mommy made me my very own nest inside of a suitcase for a bed.  It’s okay, they left the lid open.
In March, Leah turned two, but it didn’t mean much to me since I wasn’t even allowed to try the cake.
In April, I perfected my pterodactyl impression.  Sometimes it’s hard to get your point across as the fifth child.  When you screech like a baby pterodactyl, you get results.  We took a quick work trip for Daddy to Maryland, during which I sang (or squawked like a large birdlike dinosaur for the duration of the drive depending on who you ask).  April was also the month Mommy took all of us kids to Target and made it to the cafĂ© for popcorn before she realized she left me and my stroller at the customer service desk.  I forgave her.  Actually, I slept through this, but I heard the stories.
In May, I watched Mommy cry tears of joy over Ben finishing his yearly math work.  She’s a bit obsessed with completing what she starts.  Ben celebrated with a cup of hot tea and a book.  Sarah turned five.  I still didn’t get any cake.
In June, I grew some horns on my head.  It’s okay, they went away as quickly as they appeared.  I helped Mommy and Daddy decorate their 2nd grade classroom for VBS, and by “help,” I mean I laid on the floor and took a nap while they did all of the work.  Abby was elated they were her teachers this year.  Ben, Abby, and Sarah all stole the show in the VBS musical.
In July, we took another whirlwind trip to Maryland to hang out with Grandmom and Grandpop.  I got my first taste of a good, old-fashioned Maryland snowball.  Then we all shivered because it was only 74 degrees that beautiful July evening.  (You know, because we’re from Georgia.) We also began our newest family hobby – geocaching.  This would take us on many, many adventures this year.
In August, we took a trip to the Emerald Coast for Mommy’s birthday.  You guessed it, still no cake for me.  But, I did eat a lot of sand.  I really started bonding with Leah.  She teaches me the coolest stuff, like how to cover every square inch of one’s body with diaper cream.
In September, Mommy frantically tried to cram as much “official” school in with Ben, Abby, and Sarah (the now kindergartner!) before leaving for our Most Epic Adventure yet, meticulously planned by Daddy.  Ben started Bible Quizzing, which is great because that means I’m the man of the house for 1.5 hours a week on Tuesday mornings.  On September 30th, we set off on our full-fledged cross country trip.  It was the beginning of a long partnership between me, my carseat, and the baby carrier.
In October, we covered 7,105 miles, found 190 geocaches, stayed at 18 different hotels across 27 days in 17 states, left 2 blankies behind, visited 1 zoo (unless you count Vegas), lost 1 tooth, and landed safely at home with 7 happy, tired Sheppards.

In November, I finally got to eat birthday cake.  Hooray!  But since my birthday is all the way at the end of the month, I kept my belly full of raw onion in the meantime.  (It’s the only thing I can reach in the pantry.  Leah taught me this too.)  My personality really started to shine at age One.  I love being mommied by my big sister, Abby (she even changes my diapers), and Sarah and Leah really know how to make me giggle.  I just tackle Ben.  He’s a good sport and lets me win.  Also, got my first set of black eyes.  The fireplace won that contest.

Finally, December.  I hope this month finds you well.  I have had to sit still for far too long typing this up, so I’m going to step away from the computer and run around the house, flashing my dimple, and stirring up mischief.  That’s what little boys do. 

Mommy and Daddy said it would be polite to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a blessed 2015.  If you ever find yourselves in central Georgia, please come play with us! 
Love all year long,
Noah (and Sam, Jennie, Ben, Abby, Sarah, and Leah too!)

Be a Noticer (It's my blog - I'll make up words if I want to)

I missed the month of November.  No, really, what happened to it?  By the time I realized I wasn't listing out my daily gratitude for all of social media to read, the month was half gone.  And I can't start something halfway.  That's not my style.

Anyway, gratitude isn't something that should be confined to November anymore than celebrating [the birth of] Jesus should be confined to the month of December.  This is exactly the reason I made the executive decision as the self-dubbed Christmas Party coordinator for our Sunday School class to postpone our Christmas party until January.  Because what better to wipe away some Winter Blues with a party celebrating the reason for our hope?  There isn't one.  Thank you.  Gratitude is a choice.  A lifestyle.  And to balance out my last post which, to be honest, started out a little drearily, I'm tipping the scales toward the positive.  You know, like a yin for a yan, except not, because the whole Baptist thing. 

I've called out some folks in posts before - the ones who work hard Whatever They Do - the ones who show kindness to strangers whether its convenient or 100 degrees outside (and I know about these people because the stranger was me).  These are my favorite kind of people.  The ones who do it without glory or accolades.  The ones who are simply serving others because it's who they are or maybe who they have inside of them.  The ones who do the thankless tasks. 

"Thankless tasks" was a term my high school journalism teacher used on a regular basis.  I'm so glad he did because it really stuck with me.  He always noticed when someone would tidy up the newspapers or clean out the supply cabinet or wipe down the tables and sweep up the x-acto knifed shreds of paper on the floor.  Now, I intend to notice when others do the thankless tasks.  They aren't "thankless" at all.  It's like laundry.  It really piles up quickly when no one does it.  But no one really notices until everyone's out of clean underwear.

I'm an observer by nature.  I think most introverts are.  I watch people.  (Whoa, creepy.)  But I like to think I am an notice of the people who do the thankless things.  I always want to make them brownies or write them a card.  If I were endlessly wealthy, I'd give them all a gift card for some pampering or fine cuisine (everyone likes Sonic, right?). 

The welcome team at church that gets there 45 minutes before everyone else to man the doors and make guests and members feel at home.

The sanitation workers who faithfully remove the trash from my curbside week after week so that I don't have to carry it off to a dumpster.

The young man who bags my groceries at Publix and insists on helping me out to the car with them (without promise or hope of a tip) just because its their store policy to do so.

Every Chick-Fil-A employee who responds to my thank you with "My pleasure" like they sincerely mean it.

The young men walking in front of me who look behind them before running off and hold the door like gentlemen.

The janitorial staff.  Everywhere.

The receptionist that takes the most flack in the office, but always wears a smile.

The hospice nurse whose job it is to help people die comfortably.

The labor and delivery nurse whose profession is usually so joy-filled, but who sometimes also has to walk through the very darkest of hours with their patients.

The behind-the-scenes decorators who make seasons come alive and patrons feel warm and welcome.

The UPS man who works relentlessly during the holidays.

The volunteer soccer and basketball coaches who give up at least three hours a week to devote to each of my kids.

The volunteer firefighters who sacrifice family time, holidays, and sleep in their own beds to keep my family safe if the need arises.

The librarians who greet my kids like they are genuinely happy to see them walk through the doors and provide programs above and beyond the duty of a library.

The bathroom attendants at Target who make it a not-so-icky public bathroom into which I can take my brood to relieve themselves.

The cashier who works retail during the holidays but does not once, ever, grumble about working retail during the holidays. 

The Sunday School teachers and nursery workers who faithfully show up every Sunday to pour into my kids and the other kids at our church.

The spouses who stay on the homefront and singlehandedly care for their families day after day after day because their other half is somewhere far away, safe or not, protecting all of our families.

Do you see what I'm getting at here?  Maybe I'll get them all a hug this Christmas.

This season, I challenge you to be a noticer.  Not because I told you to.  But because it's a life-changer to pour into someone who is tired or lonely or downcast or weary or none of those things at all.  It's nice to be thanked.  It's just right to notice the people who do the thankless things.  Who give of themselves and expect nothing in return.  Let's give them something.  Let's give them our gratitude. It's as simple as a few life-giving words. 


Others. All of them.

I hugged a homeless man the other day.  This isn't breaking news.  People do this all the time.  I'm just not usually one of them.  He and his sign caught my eye in the parking lot, and I did a full-on U-turn to get back to him.  I don't know what came over me - I'm guessing he really tugged at my heart that day because I had just finished reading the weather, and we were in the middle of a record-breaking cold snap here in Georgia.  He was an older gentleman with a sign that read "Family in Need" scrawled on a tiny piece of cardboard. 

I will be the first to admit that if they handed out scores for "social awkwardness" I'd score an A+ every time.  I fumbled over my words as I spoke with this man and offered him whatever I could find in my car at the time.  I said, "I'm so sorry.  It's so cold."  Then I said something which, in retrospect seems really stupid.  "Are you okay?"  He kept looking down at the ground and said, "I'll be okay."  I said to him, "I'm going to give you a hug."  And I hugged him and his jacket that was far too thin for the windy, cold conditions and said, "What else do you need?" 

He looked up for the first time and said, "That was it."

And right there, next to that homeless man, I cried.  We parted ways and his salutation was, "God bless you."  For all the things he lacked, what this man said he needed was a hug.  That was the simplest gift I have given in a very long time.

I wasn't going to tell this story.  I didn't even tell Sam that it happened.  I can't get this man off my mind.  And not just him, but all of the people who are in need and hurting.  Not just because it's Christmastime or cold, but because this world.  It's so broken. 

Right now without even straining I can think of people I know personally who have very recently lost a parent, who continue to endure unemployment, who have received devastating health news, who find themselves alone this holiday season because their cowardly husband opted to abandon his wife and children.

Can I tell you the one thing these people have in common that make their stories not-so-grim? 

They have Jesus. 

Every one of the people I cited above has every right to be hopeless and depressed by the world's standards.  But, each of them exemplifies a light in the dark that simply isn't possible without Him.  We aren't promised a life free from sorrow or pain or suffering, in fact, quite the opposite.  We are promised trials.  The good news is that whatever we are facing, no matter how painful, Jesus has been there first.  We aren't in this alone.  And that sheds a whole new light on dark times.

As a child of God, I endure this broken world and it rocks me to the core to see the hurt and the pain brought on by sin.  It's hard.  I cannot even imagine what it must look like without viewing it through the lens of the hope of Jesus.  But this world is not my home.  I have a hope that springs eternal. 

In the meantime, I plan to show a little of that hope to the people I encounter.  This Advent season, the herd of Sheps is taking it to the community - with a whole lot of random (and/or secret) acts of kindness.  We started a little early, in fact, because we were so excited.  We have been given much, and because we are entrusted with much, more is required of us.  We understand and we feel compelled to "pay it forward" of sorts.  But, it's not us.  It's all Jesus. 

We are stealing ideas from the following amazing resources:

Light 'Em Up! ~ from
Random Acts of Christmas Kindness ~ from Coffee Cups and Crayons blog
100 Ways for Your Family to Make a Difference ~ from We Are THAT Family

I can already tell this is making a difference in our lives.

Others, Lord, yes others
Let this my motto be,
Help me to live for others,
That I may live like Thee.
~from Others, by Charles D. Meigs

Wishing you and yours the very best this Christmas season. 

After All It's Just a Name - The Sequel

I am an unapologetic Aldi shopper.  If you don't have these stores in your area, let me explain.  It's a no-frills grocery store.  The food is stacked along the aisles in the same boxes in which it was shipped.  There is little to no variety.  Want salt?  You get the Aldi brand.  Want barbeque sauce?  You get the Aldi brand.  (Although, lately they do also carry Sweet Baby Rays.)  The prices are ridiculously cheap because you aren't paying for names.  The quality is excellent on most things, and even if it's not, you're only out a fraction of what you would have paid to try it at a "real" grocery store.  You also aren't paying for a bagger to bag up your groceries and help you out to the car, because they don't have them.  Or bags for that matter.  If you want those, you pay 5-10 cents each.  You also pay a quarter desposit on your cart that you only get back if you return it to the corral on the side of the store.  It might sound like this isn't a great place to shop, but I love it.  I can cover the entire store in under 30 minutes, with all the kids in tow.  I don't have to make decisions (like, "Ugh!  Which barbeque sauce is the best deal?").  I don't have to coupon because they don't take them and you don't need them anyway.  But best of all, I don't have to hand over my firstborn child as payment after I purchase a full cartload of groceries.  I went to the grand opening when our local store opened because I was so excited it had made it down here.  I grew up with my mom shopping at Aldi, so I was familiar and so grateful when I became a mom to five little mouths that I have this store nearby. 

You might need to know this about me - I am not a name dropper.  I'm an unapologetic bargain hunter, a trait I learned from my mother.  In fact, I might go so far as to say that I get a little pit in my stomach when I think about the amount of money people waste on names.  It's all perspective, I know.  People probably think the same thing about our travels.  At least, when we travel, we see things and experience things that broaden our world.  I might contend that placing a huge significance on branding ourselves with designer labels does the opposite.  (How to say that without sounding like a jerk, I'm not sure.)  I get wanting good quality, but good quality at a good value is very important to me.

Anyway, as a mother of five children, I am no stranger to the fact that kids these days place the utmost importance on brand names.  This is not a new phenomenon.  I've written about my seventh grade branding experience before.  It's a good one (in my not-so-humble opinion).  Maybe it's because it's Christmas, and I'm being inundated with advertisements for insanely expensive crap toys, clothes, and video games.  Maybe I'm just a grumpy person.  Maybe it's because I'm tired of my son getting grief because of where his mother grocery shops.  Or maybe because my perspective is slowly shifting to things eternal, but I'm just weary of the name dropping. 

Seriously.  Who cares?

Let me tell you about the people who shop at Aldi.  I have met and spoken with each of these people at the store.

The Mennonite families who drive an hour each way to do their shopping because the savings in groceries far outweighs the money spent on gas.

The immigrant who speaks broken English who paid in change and had to put back items because she went over what she had in her wallet.

The elderly couple who spends a fortune on prescription medications each month but was thrilled to find a way to save on groceries.

The man who paid for the groceries of the stressed out mom in front of him.  Because he could.

The Vietnam War Vet who gives his cart away to the next customer, every time, with a wink and a smile and insists that they don't give him a quarter in return.

Large families.

Small families.

Rich families.

Poor families.


They shop there because it's smart to shop there.  And if some smart-mouthed tweenaged boy has a comment about my grocery shopping choices, he ought to come say it to my face.  Because apparently, that chaps my hiney.  My pragmatic eleven year old has no trouble listing out the benefits of practical spending choices, but geez.  Is this really what eleven year olds talk about these days?

Please, please, please, let's teach our kids about the things that matter.  And the things that don't.  I mean, really don't. 

Because we ALL have so much more than we deserve.
P.S. - I received no compensation from Aldi for this blog post.  I really, truly am grateful for this store.  That's it.

Death Valley and Lone Pine

The roads to Death Valley from Vegas were surface roads, no interstates.  We drove through what felt like an endless expanse of desert wasteland.  (Maybe wasteland isn't the right word, but that's what it feels like to an east-coast girl who is used to seeing green - pretty much everywhere.)  As we neared the entrance to the park, we watched the temperature rise on our dashboard thermometer.  95, 96, 97, 98.  That was the high on October 10th.  We continued through the park gates to our first destination, a drive through the one-way Twenty Mule Team Canyon.  It was other-worldy (a term I would come to use a lot on the trip) as we drove through mountains of parched rock that rippled like windblown sand dunes.

Ready to really feel the heat, we parked at Zabriskie Point and walked to the top of the panoramic apex overlooking the incredibly unique Amargosa Range.  The views and sights were unlike anything I'd ever seen before and unlike anything I imagined I'd see in Death Valley.  I honestly expected a big park full of sand.  I had no idea how much "beautiful" we would find there.

(Can I tell you that the reason I love this photo is that Ben lent Abby his sunglasses so her eyes wouldn't hurt from the glare?)

As it turns out, 98 does feel hot, but not Georgia 98 hot.  I did not even sweat on the 1/4 mile trek up the hill.  If I walk outside to get my mail on a Georgia 98 day, I sweat before I get halfway to the mailbox.  The good news about Death Valley is that the function of sweating actually works.  When you perspire, it evaporates and your body gets cooled off.  Unfortunately, it sucks the moisture right off and out of your body so there's the prone-to-dehydration thing.  Can't win them all.

I thought a lot about pioneers and explorers on this trip.  I was creeped out on some of those roads, driving with every provision I needed in my van, knowing exactly what was ahead of us.  I cannot even fathom the wild, adventurous spirit of a people so bold to explore uncharted territory like Death Valley, California.  Shoot, I get nervous to go to a new McDonald's because it might not be like the other ones I'm more familiar with.  I'm pretty sure I'd have been the first to die of typhoid or get bit by a rattlesnake on one of those excursions back then.
It was, indeed, a full day at Death Valley -

As the sun started to set, the temperature seemed to plummet.  The car thermometer still read 89 degrees.  We were shocked as it felt almost cool outside.  We found some actual sand dunes and played on them until the sun had long since set, and we headed on our trek towards Mammoth Lakes across yet another mountain range at the end of a long day.

I was unprepared for the treachery of the road that we would be traversing between Death Valley and Mammoth Lakes.  Thankfully, Sam was at the wheel, and he is completely unafraid of anything.  (Now I know where our fearless children get their courage.  Lord knows it's not me!)  The first sign of civilization and a place to stop for dinner was a little town called Lone Pine in the valley between two mountain ranges, just a few miles due east of Mt. Whitney, which we could see on the horizon as we drove north.  The choices were slim - and despite having eaten at a Burger King for lunch, we found ourselves at a Carl's Jr for dinner.

It was 9pm (12am EST) and the whole crew was tired and hungry.  Sam went ahead in to order, while I collected everyone's shoes out in the van, emptied them of sand, and put them back on.  They had sand everywhere on their bodies.  Leah went to use the restroom and actually left a pile of sand on the bathroom floor that she'd been carrying around in her undies.  Twenty minutes, a potty break for everyone, and a few laps around the restaurant later, we still hadn't ordered.  We just stood there, staring blankly at a fast food menu that looked all too much the same as what we'd just eaten earlier in the day.  The sweet manager offered up a few specials.  Those sounded perfect.  We finally put our order in, requested a few water cups, and had a seat.  Our food came up, and we watched as the manager filled up our giant fries container, eyed our family, and then poured another entire extra scoop full of fries on the tray before bringing it out to us.  It was a super sweet gesture.  About ten minutes later, a different employee brought out a bag full of six, giant, soft chocolate chip cookies.  She handed them to me and said, "These are on the house."  I didn't know what to say, but I am pretty sure I at least said, "Thank you."

We were blown away by their generosity.  Then it hit me.  I wonder if they thought we were poor.  It took us 20 minutes to make a menu choice, and we only ordered after she told us about the specials.  We all drank water.  I don't even want to know what my hair looked like (for the majority of the trip, actually).  We literally had dirt coming out of our underwear.  Sam surmised that they just liked our family.  That might be true.  We are pretty likeable.  But it might also be true that they thought we were poor.  Whatever the reason, we trucked some chocolate chip cookies.

Carl's Jr in Lone Pine is getting a thank you note.  The first of many memorable customer service encounters for the trip.

I said a few posts ago, you can find awesome all over the place.   We experienced that this trip, no doubt, both in Creation and in the Created.  North, south, east, and west.

Everybody Have Fun Tonight

On Day 9 of our epic westward adventure, we left Las Vegas, Nevada en route to Death Valley National Park.  This might be weird, but growing up on the east coast in the land of more than enough humidity (Maryland) and living now in the land of hot and definitely more than enough humidity (Georgia), I have always wondered what it really feels like when it's 120 degrees and dry.  Strange as it sounds, I was ready to leave Vegas and experience Death Valley.  (Also, news flash, I'm boring.)

The Southwest is an interesting place.  My world is small and having truly experienced living in only Maryland and Georgia, I don't have much to which I can compare.  That said, when I moved from Maryland to Georgia, I was awed by the amount of empty space in between cities and towns down here.  Miles and miles of pine trees and farmland fill in the expanse between "metro areas" (if you can call them that).

Then, I went west.

Doesn't even compare.

I have always complained about the boring drive between Macon and my in-law's exit on I-16 here in Georgia.  It's 77 interstate miles, along which we can stop about halfway for a bite if need be at Cracker Barrel, Longhorn Steakhouse, McDonald's, Zaxby's, Ruby Tuesday, Arby's, Wendy's, Burger King, Subway, and a number of other fine dining establishments.  We pass a rest stop and there is gas at just about every exit if we needed to stop for it.  We literally drove a stretch of legitimate interstate in Utah a few days prior, where for 110 miles there were two exits and not one single toilet or gas station.  You can forget grabbing a bite to eat.  Rocked my world.

So, as we headed out of Vegas, we considered somewhat correctly that the options for dining west of the city might not be plentiful.  We landed in the city of Pahrump, NV around lunchtime, and counted our blessings that we could at least grab some Burger King.  20 nuggets, a few burgers and fries, and thirty minutes on the playground later we loaded up the trusty van and noted that our windshield was totally caked with giant, desert bug guts. To my father's chagrin, I'm sure, we had neglected to top off that particular fluid before we left, and so our windshield washer fluid reservoir was empty.  No fear!  There was a brand new Dollar General on the way out of town.

I ran in and grabbed a gallon of fluid and a few other random roadtrip essentials, the collection of which was totally cart-worthy, but I didn't want to tempt myself into buying more items with cart space so I precariously toted my items in just my arms.  I walked up to the register and saw a line about five people deep.  The first customer was attempting some sort of extreme couponing feat, it appeared, and I imagined I'd be standing there for a while.  In true Jennie style, I started checking out the purchases of the guy in front of me - neon pink posterboard, can of spray paint, random snacks, garden hose nozzle.  I daydreamed that he was probably about to have a yard sale.  And Lord knows that garden hose nozzle was going to get a workout at his desert home where he was undoubtedly trying to grow flowers in a flower box.  I wondered if he noticed my random collection of Sunny D, granola bars, boxer briefs, and washer fluid and if he was imagining a scenario in which I might use all of those things.  (Does everyone make up stories about strangers?  Or just me?)  He was wearing shorts, a floral Hawaiian shirt, and one of those fishermans hats that ties under your chin.  His face was scruffy with salt and pepper whiskers and he had lots of wrinkles around his eyes, those lines I affectionately refer to as smile lines. 

As I was observing all of this, the song playing overhead ended and "Everybody Have Fun Tonight" came on.  It only took about 20 seconds for the guy to start all out getting down.  Eighteen inches in front of me, this dude was dancing like no one was watching right there in Dollar General.  I was rendered speechless.  It was awesome and awkward.  I was both inspired and embarrassed.  As I sat there not sure if it was rude to keep watching or more rude not to, it occurred to me that some day, some day, I want to be so carefree that if the mood strikes me to dance in the Dollar General checkout line, I want to be brave enough to do it. 

That courageous, carefree dude impacted me that day. I mean, really, what's stopping me?  What the people in line behind me that I'll likely never see again will think of me?  What if they walk away inspired to do the same?  What's the worst that could happen?  They laugh at me?  Big deal, right?  That man didn't care what I thought.  The only thing worrying about what other people think gets you is a big load of missed opportunities.  Not caring means you get more out of life.  He was living that moment to its fullest.

I left that place with a smile on my face.  This was just the beginning of one of my favorite days on the entire trip.  I like to think that smile-line streaked man who danced his tush off was a large part of that. 

If only I could find him and send him some brownies. 

More to come, like what Death Valley actually felt like - because when you get inspired, words flow.

Awesome All Over the Place

There's not enough time in the day or words in my vocabulary to adequately describe the adventure from which we just returned.  I could tell story after story about the places the went, the amazing sights we saw, and the silly things we talked about and experienced along the way.  I'd love to do that, in fact.  I hate to over-commit, but I'm considering jumping into November's NaBloPoMo (like it's 2010 all over again).  It might not be too difficult considering I'm a night owl even worse now than I was before we spent a week in the pacific time zone.  My body desperately wants to believe it's only 9:30pm right now.

What's interesting to me is that the most unexpected things from this trip were the positive encounters I had with people along the way.  I'm not really a people person.  At least, that's what my mom has always told me.  (She would know.  She's an extrovert to the max.)  But, I'm finding that people are pretty cool.  All over the place.  Not just in my circles.

I've always blamed my standoffish-ness on growing up in the not-overtly-friendly Mid-Atlantic.  I don't think this is necessarily true.  Sure, people are probably less gregarious there, but I think the "problem" lies squarely on my own shoulders.  I'm learning that a smile and a few spoken words are relatively painless to offer.  And the reward is usually far greater than any effort I put forth to engage another human.

We were in Albuquerque, New Mexico when Noah developed a pretty heinous diaper rash.  I offered to go to the store to pick up some diaper cream (and some, ahem, Wild Cherry Pepsi because caffeinated beverages were essential for our sanity).  Grocery stores are weird out there, and since they were all unfamiliar I just went to the closest, an Albertson's.  The prices were excellent, so I snagged a couple 12 packs of "pop" (because when in New Mexico, say as the New Mexicans say).  When I got to the register, I panicked a little.

"What if I need an Albertson's card to get the sale prices?  What if I have to sign up for a card and all of the people behind me get mad?"

I looked at the young couple behind me.  They were probably in high school, buying a cart full of candy.  Then I looked at the man in front of me.  He was a grumpy looking Native American man wearing a baseball hat and jeans.  He was buying three packs of cinnamon rolls with bright orange $1 stickers on them.  I did something out of character for me.  I engaged.

"Excuse me, sir.  Do you have to have a card to get the sale price?  I'm not from around here, and I don't really need an Albertson's card."

He turned and looked at me.  He smiled.  All at once that grumpy look on his face melted away.  He replied, "I don't think so, but I have one.  I'll slip it to you after I use it.  Then you can slip it back to me."

It was nice of him.  I giggled (I always do), and said, "Thanks.  I really appreciate it."

When it came time for him to check out, he handed his card over to the cashier who gave it back to him after he scanned it.  Then, my favorite part, the sweet Native American man took the card and passed it behind his back to me while maintaining eye contact with the cashier in a covert-ops kind of way.  I stifled a giggle so as not to give away his secret and grabbed it from him. 

I checked out in about 15 seconds because I only had a couple items, and walked to hand the sweet man his card back who was waiting a few paces from the exit door.  As I extended my hand to give it back, he shook his head and widened his eyes.  I looked around to see who was looking and said, "Oh, did you want me to slip it back covertly?"  He smiled again and nodded.  So I passed it behind my back to him.  We went our separate ways in the parking lot.  We'll never see each other again.

It's a silly story, really.  But it made my night.  I'd have missed that little encounter if I'd kept my head down.  You see, I'm learning that people are awesome.  If you give them the chance to be.

Be awesome today.  Just start with a smile.


Honestly, don't even bother reading this one.

Today, I'd had enough.  I was going to accomplish something besides the washing, drying, and piling laundry, doing dishes, teaching kids, and attempting to dig out from a house full of clutter that definitely finds its way to the wrong place a lot faster than the right one.  So I plunked Noah down in front of Sam and said, "I need to be away from him for like ten minutes."  I picked a simple task - thinning out the magazine stack.  I have only subscribed to one magazine in recent history (All You) because it has a ton of coupons and easy-to-read articles...which was really great...back when I had time to both coupon and, well, read magazine articles.  Each one contains a fun little puzzle page at the back with my favorite crossword puzzles.  I love these particular ones because they aren't too difficult that I can't finish them, but they aren't so simple that I don't have to think about them.  I made a stack of the oldest year of magazines and decided, by golly, I was doing those puzzles.  But not at the moment.  Talk about becoming derailed.  No, that's ridiculous.  What I was going to do made so much more sense. 

I thought to myself these would be great to take on our upcoming cross-country field trip.  Sam and I could work on them together as we traverse the country with the wind in our hair and five kids sitting silently and happily in the back seat. 

But, seven extra magazines might be a bit bulky.  Packing space is at a premium for this thing, so, I set out on my little project.  I pulled each puzzle page and solution, trimmed them with scissors, and taped the puzzles, two to a page, to computer paper.  Then I taped all of the solutions to another sheet and laminated it so it wouldn't get ruined.  While I was doing all of this, Sam walked in holding the Noah that I'd delivered to him for my ten minute break and just stared at me. 

"Soooo.......what's going on in here?"

I was sitting there on the living room floor amidst a pile of magazine scraps and re-taped crossword puzzles, and I suddenly realized how utterly stupid I must have looked.

And, yet, it had seemed like such a good idea when I set out.

Sam smiled and tried to humor me.  He did some nodding.  He asked if I was going to laminate the crosswords puzzles too so I could do them in dry-erase marker and reuse them when I was done.  Maybe even sell them.  Start a little cottage industry.  I could really recover my investment from that magazine subscription. Yeah, pretty sure he was scoffing.

I shook my head at myself, packed up the project, and we fixed dinner.  A couple of hours later, I looked at those crosswords puzzles taped to paper and I busted a gut.  What in the world what I thinking???  Hahahahaha.  That was so dumb.

Sam, always at the ready to joke around, joined in the fun.  "I didn't know what to think.  One minute you're crying because you don't have time to do anything...and then, the next, you're taping crossword puzzles to a piece of paper."

Then, in an instant, as fast as I started laughing, no kidding, I literally cried again.  Because the whole reason I wanted to do a project at all came flooding back to me.  Because I needed something, anything that was just for me.  And I'm tired and basically just a mess.  A mess who apparently felt owed five minutes of time to do something completely alone and without interruption even if it was stupid.  Like cutting and taping crossword puzzles. 

Now, I'm laughing again. 

It must be extremely difficult to be married to me.
Basically, this post is dedicated to the man I love, who loves me in spite of violent mood swings and strange quirks. 

We'll see, though, if I let him do those taped crossword puzzles with me on our out-west adventure.  That'll really show him.   

This post is also dedicated to all of the single-parents out there.  I spent 4.5 days this week alone while Sam was away on business and, apparently, 4.5 days is how long it takes for me to go completely insane.  Hats off, my friends.  You are the strongest, most amazing people I know.

Goodnight, everyone.

Tomorrow, maybe I'll start a rubber band ball. 


The Best Mess

I've been quiet around this blog for a multitude of reasons.  None of them are probably good reasons, but they are reasons nonetheless.  We went "back to school" (or back to the kitchen table, the living room floor, and even occasionally my big, comfy bed, as it were) in August, and being on the horizon of an epic fall adventure with the family, I determined in advance that we would hit it pretty intensely for the first two months.  So far, that's going well.

This is the first year I've been "schooling" three kids, which has presented its own challenges.  As has trying to school three children with a precocious two year old and a mobile nine month old running and crawling about.  Nevertheless, we press on.  Because that's just what we do.  Because quitting and giving up and "I can't" are forbidden in this house.  Even, and especially when it's hard.  I'm a bit of a taskmaster in that way.

Things I am not a taskmaster about:

1.  Keeping a clean house.
2.  Following curriculum instructions exactly.
3.  Drinking water instead of other tastier, bad-for-you beverages.

As I type, Sam is in St. Louis for five days, I am "down" with strep throat, and my house is a total disaster.  I seriously hope I don't get in a car accident or fall out with a kidney stone emergency because if someone came into the house right now, I would die.  Of embarrassment.  But my kids are awesome.  So I do have that going for me.  Aside from a few minor mishaps, mostly involving a particular two year old's solo bathroom misadventures that are best left untold, they have cared for themselves well the past two days while I was laid up in bed watching Parenthood and being a weenie over a fever.  (I don't handle fevers very well.)  While this was the perfect opportunity for me to become derailed, yet again, we press on.  At the risk of sounding too much like a Pixar character, we're just going to keep pressing on.  Just keep swimming.  Progress is progress.  Even if it's imperfect.

Most days I feel like a mess, but that's okay.  Because life is messy.  (Just take a look around my house.)  In my Ready, Set, School post in August, I mentioned grace being the theme of the year.  Oh my goodness, is it ever.  I'm loving grace.  It's all going to be okay.  In the middle of the mess, I'm digging in.  I'm experiencing this life.  Imperfect though it may be. 

Imperfectly sandy.  In every nook and cranny, even.

Sometimes the mess is in the form of a mysterious sticky substance in the two year old's hair.  "What is that, Leah?" - "I don't know. Oh. It's milk." - "Why did you rub milk in your hair?" - "I don't know."

Sometimes the mess isn't a mess anymore because the big sister steps in to comfort a suddenly-scared-of-the-dark little sister with a tight embrace until they fall asleep in each others arms.

Sometimes we're just a sweaty, geocaching mess.   

Sometimes Mommy and Daddy try to soak up a little too much life and Leah has to lay down in the middle of feeding turtles and take a little rest.  (She's not actually asleep here.  But we aren't exactly sure what she was doing.)

Sometimes, I'm so distracted by the rest of the mess that I forget to feed the baby and he has to eat drawer handles for lunch.  (Objection, relevance?  Sorry.  I just love this picture.)

Sometimes we forego elaborate birthday celebrations in favor of finding 11 geocaches on an 11th birthday. At night.  In the Target parking lot.  And behind small businesses.  In the trees.

Sometimes what was a big, huge mess last year turns out to be this year's greatest joy.  This kid, right here?  I could not be more proud of the young man he is becoming.  I look forward to each day I have with his goofy sense of humor and his dizzying intellect and his tender heart for his little sibs.  

Sometimes the mess I should have recycled months ago becomes the best toy on the premises.

Sometimes I rag on my precious middle child and her wild counterpart two year old sister, but the truth is, they're both pretty awesome.  Sarah has requested the job of putting Leah down for her afternoon nap.  She reads her a book (or four), then lays down with her for a few minutes until she goes to sleep.  Sometimes they both do.  You guys...I'm dying.  This is the child whose door I would have to stand guard at for literal hours to get her to take a ten minute nap.  Those messes you battles for hours at a time?  In three years, you'll likely reap some sort of reward.  The hard work is almost always worth it.

Sometimes it feels like I'm neglecting my littles for the sake of education or basic sanitation practices or those darn meals that need to be made.  THREE TIMES A DAY.  Then I look in the [disastrously messy] playroom and see this kid playing contentedly.  In her snowflake shirt.  In September.  And I smile.  Because, man, I love this mess.

You know why this mess is the best?  Because it's the mess God gave me.  This is my life, and I am forever grateful for every imperfect minute of it.
And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him. ~Colossians 3:17

Ben Eleven


It's fleeting.  It's precious.  Some days it drags on slower than a slug dipped in cough syrup, and then, suddenly it's been eleven years.

Eleven years.

If I were to write a blog post for each of my kids' birthdays, I'd spend my life writing birthday blog posts.  (Large family humor, it's a bit of an exaggeration.  This is true.)  I do, however, feel led to address these offspring of mine on their birthdays from time to time.  This year, this eleventh year, is one of those times.

This past year with Ben has been a game changer.

This kid rocks.

Each year of childhood has its challenges.  Newborns don't sleep.  One year olds can't talk.  Two year old are highly volatile.  Three year olds are stuck between toddlerhood and childhood and that's frustrating for everyone.  So on and so forth.  Six year olds lose all of their teeth.  Seven year olds grow new, huge ones back in their places.  Nine and ten year olds know everything and are anxiously awaiting that rite of passage into the age of "middle school."

Middle school.  Yikes.  Not anyone's finest years, am I right?  I think back to when I was eleven.  I bought my first pair of Reebok classics with my own money because it seemed really important to have name brand shoes in middle school.  I walked those gigantic, bright white size 10's down to the bus stop on my spindly little chicken legs.  Everything about me was at least as awkward as those shoes.

This doesn't seem like that long ago.

It was 1994.  20 years ago.

I think the most alarming thing about Ben turning eleven this year is all of the math problems I've associated with it.  If he follows a traditional path and goes to college after his senior year of high school, I only have seven years left with him in my home.  This is less than half of his entire life up to this point.  And I know how fast eleven years has gone.

When Ben blessed us with his presence on September 5, 2003, I was 20 years old.  If Ben were to follow that particular path, he could be a dad in a mere nine years.  Say what?

Wasn't he just born yesterday?

Yes.  Yes, he was.  That day changed the entire course of my life.  Retrospect has given me the gift of seeing now that it was only for GOOD. 
My Amazing Ben,

The moment I found out I was pregnant with you, I knew I had become "a mom," but it didn't hit me until we left the hospital that your dad and I were fully responsible for you.  I admit right up front that I didn't know what I was doing.  I still don't.  I hope it's not obvious and that I at least fake it well, but I'm going to need lots of grace, especially from you, my dear, oldest child.  Although I've never been "an oldest," I see now what's expected of you and how much we had to learn as we reared you, and it's not an easy job.  The good news is, you kind of rock at it.

I've watched you grow now for eleven years.  I cannot believe it's been that long since that day we first met 8lb 13oz you.  Such a plump, precious baby with a head full of dark, dark hair that had everyone questioning if there had been some sort of parental mix-up.  You still have the thickest, most enviable mop of dark, dark hair, but you're no longer as plump as you are a strapping young man.

I won't dwell too much on Baby Ben, but I do want to highlight a few things from this past year because I am so, so proud of you.  In your tenth year, you learned personal responsibility (should I bring up the math lessons here?), you learned the value of a good attitude and how it affects your performance, you laughed so much, you learned to take a joke and even how to make some at your own expense, you become a big brother again, and you continued to grow and develop your relationships with three little sisters who all adore you.  You grew in wisdom and in stature.  Hey, we can even share shoes now.  You have exhibited maturity in ways far beyond your years, and you've cut loose with giggles and sillies that could not be more appropriate for a boy of ten.  You have hit your quota of words by 10am on countless days, but you keep right on chatting.  You might make an amazing radio personality someday.  You have helped in the kitchen, folded a million towels, cleaned toilets, unloaded dishes, cleared off tables, babysat.  You're going to make the most amazing husband and father some day. 

I cannot believe you are eleven years old, but I'm glad you are.  Because even though I thought I was unprepared for the awkward middle school years, I'm finding that I enjoy you more with each passing day.  You are a hoot!  I love your sense of humor.  (I'm claiming that one.  You're welcome.)  Keep making me laugh, Ben.  Keep loving on your little sisters and brother.  Keep being a brother worth admiring.

Just for fun, here's a little photo overload of your past ten years.  Maybe when you're a dad you'll realize why this made your dear old mom cry.

I love you, Ben Eleven (nope, not as nice a ring as Ben Ten). Keep smiling and making me smile.  You are one awesome young man.  I'm honored to be your mom.


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