Here's to new beginnings....

One of the things we did while I've been away was to witness the beginning of a new family.

Our friend Doug has been waiting a loooong time for the right woman to come along. He finally met her in Nicole, and they were married this weekend, just a couple days shy of the anniversary of their first date, January 1, 2008.

Moments like this give me hope for the future. '08 was bleak for many people in many ways, and if you watch too much nightly news (I try to avoid it), 2009 holds the possibility of being even worse. And yet, there is joy and optimism to be found if you take the time to look for it. Happy things like the beginning of a new life together, or the beginning of a little life ( other families, not in mine!).

It reminds me of the writer of Ecclesiastes who points out that "to everything there is a season..."

There is a time for everything,

and a season for every activity under heaven:
a time to be born and a time to die,

a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,

a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,

a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,

a time to embrace and a time to refrain,
a time to search and a time to give up,

a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,

a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,

a time for war and a time for peace.

There will be times of abundance and times of little. One follows the other sooner or later. So, with the dawn of a new year just around the corner, let's toast to new beginnings and the hope they offer that things will indeed be better.

I know at least two people who will say they already are.


S-i-l-e-n-t Blog, Lonely Blog

S-i-l-e-n-t Blog, Lonely Blog,
Sorry I've been gone so long.
Hurrying, scurrying hither and yon,
Preparing for family, "here we come"
Crazy time of year, busy time of year.

S-i-l-e-n-t Blog, Q-u-i-e-t Blog,
Trying to get everything done.
Shopping, cleaning, family time,
Not much time for thoughts of mine.
Crazy time of year, busy time of year.

S-i-l-e-n-t Blog, Q-u-i-e-t Heart,
Keeping things straight from the start.
Radiant smiles on Bug and Boo's face
Learning to see God's abundant grace.
Special time of year, holy time of year.

(My apologies to Joseph Mohr, the composer of the original and much better carol.)
I'm sure you can relate--for the past three weeks my lists have had lists and the countdown to Christmas seems to have happened at double-time. With everything else to be done (especially when I tend to procrastinate in direct proportion to the degree I'm overwhelmed with it all), it didn't seem appropriate to spend much time here.
So I'll spend the rest of this week trying to keep our focus where it belongs (at 3 and 5, it's not easy to keep the boys perspective in the right place this time of year!). This weekend we'll be attending the l-o-n-g awaited wedding of Hub's last unmarried college roommate. And after that, hopefully things will fall back into the old rhythm where I can manage to get some thoughts down a couple times a week.
In the meantime, I hope you're having a blessed Christmas week, and that whatever else you may be doing, you'll have some time to remember the babe whose birth changes the world forever, one heart at a time.

Twice a year...

I love these guys. (Well, I love these guys all the time, despite how the title makes it look!)

And I can't imagine my family made up of any other people.

But twice a year I wish I had a reason to shop for these...

I don't even think of it until I happen past the children's department this time of year. Rack after rack of shiny, floaty confections and no one to inflict my nostalgia upon. Even my niece is all grown up and past the frilly dress stage. I need someone to shop vicariously for!

What do YOU cook...?

...when there's no food in the house?

According to StatCounter, one of the searches that has brought the most people to my blog in the past few weeks is "What to cook when there's no food in the house." It leads people to my previous post about stocking a pantry.

I know having a stocked pantry is a great philosophy and it really does work to always be able to pull a meal together, but I've been thinking...what do you cook if your pantry isn't stocked and you can't manage a trip to the market? What can you whip up when you're scanning the cupboards and the fridge for whatever remnants you can find that can be turned into something tasty (and hopefully filling and nutritious too!)? In this economy, I think there will be days when supplies are lower than we're used to and we still need to pull off something to feed the family.

I know a lot of people do breakfast for dinner--eggs, pancakes, french toast. I'm not a hot cereal fan, but there is a returning interest in oatmeal--an oatmeal bar with various toppings could be fun...brown sugar, butter, cinnamon sugar, raisins or other dried fruit (apples, berries, dates, etc) nuts...other suggestions?

If you learn to make a basic white sauce from scratch (butter, flour, milk), you can always throw together something to serve over pasta or rice. For a pasta sauce, you can add garlic and/or herbs, or melt a couple of ounces of any bits of cheese. To make it a meal, you can add leftover chicken and/or veggies. My mom would make creamed tuna or creamed chipped beef on toast, both with the same basic sauce. Here's a link to a 5-star version on; if you read the comments, you'll get lots of ideas of ways to use this sauce.

In one famous story of "what to cook when there's no food in the house," in the midst of a famine, a widow had just enough for flour and oil for one final meal for herself and her son. In fact, she encountered Elijah when she was gathering sticks to use to cook what she expected to be her final meal. Elijah told her to use her meager supplies to make bread to share with him. God blessed her faithfulness and she had enough for the three of them until rain returned to the land and the famine was over.

Times can seem (or actually be) very bleak right now, but as we follow His leading to share what we have with others in need, God will be faithful to meet our needs as well.

So, what do YOU cook when there's "no food in the house?" Can you make a great soup from odds and ends? Do you have a formula for a casserole to feed a family? What's your go-to meal when the cupboards are bare? Where do you find ideas or inspiration?

Here are a couple of sites that might be helpful:

  • Kraft Foods site--lets you type in ingredients you have (and don't have) and it will suggest recipes
  • The Betty Crocker website does the same thing--list ingredients you have and what meal you're trying to prepare.
  • Recipeland--I typed in 'kidney beans, tomato sauce, cheese' and it came up with 195 recipes. 48,000 recipes in their database. There's a good chance you can find something to make with whatever odds and ends you have.
Feel free to share a recipe or share a link of your own.

The Advent of Advent

Did it sneak up on you? I knew it was coming but it's still hard for me to be 'ready' right on the heels of Thanksgiving (especially since we were out of town all of last week).

Last year was the first time we did anything specific with Advent in mind. Bug was four, and while not wrapped up in the Santa thing (which we've never told him about but it really can't be avoided altogether), had caught on that he was going to get presents on Christmas. I wanted to do something to help them understand the real reason for the whole season of celebration.

So I started an advent/nativity set/Christmas tree tradition that walks us to Christmas a little at a time. The kids got more excited than I expected them to about pulling out the ornament for the day and putting it on the little tree.

With the state of the economy--the state of the world!--it seems even more appropriate this year to take the focus off the shopping and the wrapping and the going and the doing, and bring it back to a stable in Bethlehem where the greatest gift of all time was revealed to a waiting world.

I love hearing other ideas for finding the meaning in this special time that is sooo full of meaningless. Kristen at We are THAT Family posted the unique advent schedule she's planning with her family. She shared it in .pdf format so you can use it or adapt if for your own family. Have you seen any other good advent ideas out there in the blogosphere?
What are some of the things you'll do this year to keep the meaning in the moment?

You think YOU've got Family Problems?

It's ironic that the time of year that's supposed to be about family togetherness, thankfulness, good cheer is--all too often--an unfortunate reminder of just how flawed most families are. It's certainly nothing new.

Remember Joseph? The son of clan patriarch Jacob (who got the title of "oldest" son by tricking his father and brother), Joseph was clearly daddy's favorite. And he had no trouble reminding all his brothers of that fact.

When they tired of listening to him gloat and feeling "less than," they threw him down a well. They at least had conscience enough not to leave him there to die, so they sold him to a passing Egyptian caravan to be a slave.

He did work his way into a place of favor and
when his family needed his help years later when faced with famine, he forgave them and took them in with the famous line "What you intended for evil, God intended for good."

It can be hard to imagine that some bad family dynamics can be used for good, but at least there's always that glimmer of hope. I know I've got a long list of ways my family was (and is) far from perfect. Some of those experiences taught me things to avoid in my own life; some give me better understanding of others. I've learned to fight fair--not to say things I really don't mean/will really regret, not to pull out the most hurtful remarks just to win a fight.

And maybe most important, I've learned that harboring grudges does nothing for me. Forgiveness isn't about setting my "hurter" free, it's about setting myself free from the bondage of the past.

A few years ago I was reminded that I've done my own share of hurting; Jesus went to the cross because of the wrong I've done. But my forgiveness is complete and He doesn't hold any of it against me. May this Thanksgiving be just such a reminder for you.

Nutted Wild Rice

This is a recipe I created a number of years ago to go as a reminder of the forgiveness Joseph offered his brothers. The combination of the grains and fruits and nuts is symbolic of putting aside differences and coming together.

1 cup mixed long grain and wild rice
2 1/4 cups chicken broth
1/2 teasp. curry powder (this isn't a curry dish, the curry powder just adds a nice depth)
1/3 cup diced, mixed dried fruit (peaches, apricots, apples, raisins, etc)
1/3 cup toasted slivered almonds
1/3 cup toasted pecan or walnut halves
3 tbsp butter (optional)

Bring chicken broth to rolling boil; add mixed rice and curry powder.

Return to boil, then reduce heat to medium, cover and simmer for 30 to 35 minutes or until liquid is absorbed and rice is tender. Remove from heat.

Stir in fruit and nuts, cover and let stand for 5 minutes.

Add butter; fluff with fork before serving.

It's a great side dish with turkey (could be a really nice change of pace to go with the leftovers); throw some chopped turkey in to heat through in the last 5 minutes of cooking and it can be a one-dish meal.
We're heading out for most of the holiday week. Although we're going to a very civilized place, internet reception will be spotty at best (whatever will I do?!).

So if you're looking for something new to read, head over to
5 Minutes for Mom and read a little more about me and why I blog.

I have one post in the works that will help you face any family challenges and use up some of your leftover turkey in a yummy new way, so check back for that.

And if I'm not around to respond to comments or visit your blogs, have a blessed holiday. I look forward to catching up with you soon.


You Can't Cook if There's No Food in the House

Note: If you're here because you googled "no food in the house," take a look at this post for some more ideas.

My mom wasn't much of a stocker-upper. We did our grocery shopping weekly (and I do mean we--all four of us would head to the grocery store every Saturday morning); she'd plan out the week of menus and get mostly just what was needed for that week. It was a good system, if you don't mind shopping every Saturday.

With my aversion to grocery shopping though (and my desire to only buy things on sale which means buying several of certain things when they're cheap), I slowly but surely have created my own loose pantry list.

I think I first got the idea when our college group went to home of our college advisors. I know they weren't perfect, but she was very much a living example of Titus 2 and Proverbs 31 to me. And on her refrigerator hung a pantry list that included marshmellows and chocolate syrup. It never occured to me that I could personalize my "staples" that way.

Having certain ingredients on hand can help you be prepared to fix a meal without the bother of a special shopping trip. Look over the following items for those that suit your household's tastes and your cooking abilities. There are lots of good places online to get sample pantry lists you can modify for your own use.

Make a list with these categories and specify the things you will keep in your pantry or freezer. Make several copies of it and keep one in the kitchen (on the inside of a cupboard door or on the refrigerator). When you've used the last of something, be sure and add the item to your next grocery list. Whenever possible, stock up on these frequently used items when they go on sale--even if you haven't run out yet.

Flour; sugar (granulated, brown and powdered); shortening; cooking oil; margarine or butter; baking powder; baking soda; vinegar; baking mix (like Bisquick, etc.) eggs; milk; canned tuna or chicken; canned beans; peanut butter; canned tomatoes or tomato sauce, tomato paste; frozen veggies; frozen meats, etc.
oregano; sage; pepper; salt; chili powder; garlic powder (or crushed garlic); onion powder (or dehydrated onion); bay leaves; dried soup mixes (onion, garlic and herb, etc); basil; rosemary
soy sauce; Worcestershire sauce; ketchup; molasses; cream soups (cream of mushroom, chicken, celery, etc); prepared mustard; salad dressings; other marinades
potatoes; rice; pastas (linguine or spaghetti, rotinni or corkscrew, other fun shapes/flavors); a few packages of rice or pasta-and-sauce side dishes
Holiday-themed pasta, cake mixes, sprinkles, canned pumpkin, cranberries….

If you keep all of those kinds of things stocked, and you shop as needed for fresh produce and meats you should always be able to put together a basic meal. My "I have no idea what's for dinner tonight" meals include chili (tomato sauce, kidney beans, ground meat, spices) and a variety of dishes using some combination of meat (chicken, canned salmon) pasta, sauce (marinara or alfredo) and a veggie.

Another standard that I can always throw together in a pinch is a simple red sauce. With just slight variations I use it for spaghetti, pizza, lasagna, even chicken parmesan. It tastes better than prepared spaghetti sauce; it's cheaper, and almost as quick. And because it's made with basics from my pantry, I can always prepare a tasty meal at a moment's notice.

Red sauce
10 oz can tomato sauce
6 oz can tomato paste (for spaghetti or lasagna, use 2 cans sauce to 1 can tomato paste.)
1/4 teaspoon crushed garlic (or 1 clove minced fresh garlic)
1/4 cup dehydrated onion (rehydrate in 1/4 cup hot water)
1/4 cup chopped green pepper (buy when on sale, slice or chop, and freeze for future use)
oregano, basil, rosemary; bay leaf; salt and pepper

Combine ingredients in skillet or saucepan. Add seasonings; simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. If desired, brown ground meat (turkey or hamburger), add to sauce and simmer for an additional 10 to 15 minutes. Prepare pasta according to package, add sauce. Serves 4.

For pizza sauce or bread stick dipping sauce, use 1 can tomato sauce to 1 can tomato paste, season to taste, spread on prepared crust and add favorite toppings. Bake according to directions for crust.

There's one other level of satisfaction from having a well stocked pantry that's a little less tangible, but in our current economy it's gaining importance. Sometimes, when something comes up and it's clear there's going to be more month than money before the next paycheck, there's a quiet confidence in knowing that even if I can't swing a shopping trip this week, we will eat and I even have enough to share with a food drive or someone in need. And anything I can do to help eliminate one small bit of worry or stress is well worth the effort.

She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.
When it snows, she has no fear for her household;
for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
Proverbs 31:20-21
Next up--brine yourself before you brine your turkey!

Shopping for savings

Last year when we did our taxes and I took a good look at the itemized summary from the bank, I was surprised and somewhat disheartened to see just how much we'd spent on casual meals over the year. It would be one thing if those meals had been memorable or could count as "entertainment" in and of themselves. But they really didn't. Lack of planning, lack of energy, lack of creativity, (lack of desire to clean up after) all added up to a lack of wisdom in where and how our food money was spent.

If you're like me, the first area to cut back when money gets tight is eating out. And if you're like me, now is definitely one of those times of life when we need to be watching our spending carefully. So that means cooking at home more.

One thing I do know, is that it's hard to cook when there's no food in the house. When I was in college I rented a room from a family with 5 daughters. In addition to teaching me that I'm not cut out for the large family thing (too much noise and commotion for me!), I also found out that I don't want to be in a situation where I have to go to the market every day for dinner fixings. It costs more in time and money to always be doing dinner on the fly.
In case you missed it, I really don't like grocery shopping that much. So, out of self-preservation, I've had to create some strategies that allow me to spend as little time (and money) as possible when shopping for food.

When Hubs and I were first married, my trips to the supermarket depended upon when the checking account could finance a basket full of groceries. Eventually I discovered that with a little planning, it's possible to have a well-stocked pantry and money left in the bank. You don't have to do all of these things; incorporating just one or two new strategies can make an impact on your bank account.

I've learned to plan my menu around what is in season and inexpensive; to buy basic foods that can be used a variety of ways and to keep certain items on hand all the time so there is always a quick, inexpensive meal option. I read the newspaper ads for the best deals on groceries and I stock up on pantry items when they're on sale.

Some shopping pros suggest using a small spiral-bound notebook with one page each for items you commonly purchase. Track the prices, both sale and regular, at the stores you typically shop, and then buy the items (including meat and produce) only when they're available at the lowest price. (Here's a great source for a printable grocery-tracking booklet.)

I know that I never need to pay more than $1.99 a pound for any of the kinds of meat I typically use; whole chickens are often available for as little as .59 per pound, and nearly everything is on sale at some time. I buy fresh fruits and vegetables at their prime season, always trying to stay below .99/lb.

I became a coupon clipper. With some planning, I spend less than three hours a month in the grocery store. My grocery shopping preparation goes like this:

  • Check my master pantry list for items we are out of or low on.
  • Pull the coupons from the Sunday paper.
  • Quickly scan the coupons, keeping only those for items I know we'll use, discard the others. (If you get really serious about couponing, you can ask friends and family to keep their coupon inserts for you.)
  • Check store ads to see what items are on sale (I actually cut out the little picture from the paper so I am sure I remember the brand, size, quantity limits, etc. I use the pictures as my "list").
  • Organize coupons, etc according to the layout of the store--dairy items together, frozen items, produce, meat, etc. (This helps ensure that I don't forget anything and I'm not traipsing back and forth searching for things.)
  • Put list/photos, coupons and ad information together for when I'm ready to shop (often in an otherwise to-be-discarded junk mail envelope.

Shopping this way helps eliminate impulse buys. My policy is to only buy things that are on sale and pretty much only things we use on a regular basis. My pantry isn't full of odd items that were "a really good deal" that we'll never eat.

Because I shop so seldom and only buy items at or near their lowest price, I stock up. I'll typically buy 3 or 4 each of the non-perishables on my list. That way I'm sure to always have what I need for our most typical menus and won't have to run to the store for something to complete a recipe. When I get down to the last one or two, I start watching for it to be on sale again.

There are a lot of great sites that can help you become one of those shoppers where the stores almost pay you to take things home. The Grocery is helpful because it lets you know what the lowest expected price is over a several week span as well as when there are coupons to use on those items, so you really can buy things at the best possible price. I think it's helpful to have the 'pros' do all the legwork for you until you catch on to the system.

It takes a little more effort to be intentional about shopping and saving money, but once I got the hang of it, I've been surprised to find that shopping carefully and cooking at home can save both money and time, leaving more of each for more interesting and meaningful pursuits!

Go to the ant...Observe her ways and be wise, (she) prepares her food in the summer and gathers her provision in the harvest. Proverbs 6:6-8

Up next--planning your pantry

Cookin' up something

The Holidays are coming. Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and about a dozen events in between today and New Years day. The one thing most of them have in common is the tradition of lots of homemade food.

Whether you are a day-in, day-out cook or not, there's something about The Holidays that draws out our inner Martha Stewart (or at least Rachel Ray or Sandra Lee) and pulls us into the kitchen.

True confession time....

I don't really like to cook.

Actually, I do like to make fancy desserts and special occasion dishes; it's just those daily breakfast, lunch and dinner meals that I can't get all excited about.

In the years before I was married my pantry contained thirty varieties of tea, a huge assortment of spices, flour and sugar (I had a set of canisters--I knew what to put in them), various types of pasta, and several boxes of Jell-o.

During that time, as near as I can recall, I lived primarily on yogurt, stuffing mix, ramen noodles, and macaroni and cheese.

And I ate out.

A lot.

It wasn't that I didn't know how to cook. My mom started teaching my sister and me kitchen basics before I reached junior high school. She worked full time and would often leave instructions for minor dinner preparations. We started with simple things like peeling potatoes and putting them on to boil, mixing up cornbread or baking powder biscuits, and graduated to preparing a baked chicken or simple spaghetti sauce from scratch.

By high school, my sister and I were each responsible for dinner one night a week. We chose the menu and prepared the meal, learning lessons about how to plan a balanced menu and get all the food to the table hot at the same time.

After I moved out on my own though, I found that the fresh foods I was used to eating spoiled before I could use them up. I also learned that I would rather go to the dentist than to the grocery store. It's hard to prepare a real meal if there's no food in the house, so I just never got into the habit of cooking.

But a funny thing happened after I got married. I still didn't like to cook (or shop for food), but suddenly, I felt responsible for making sure my husband had nutritious, good food to eat. Before the wedding, I didn't mind if we ate fast food several times a week. After, it bothered me that he would be content eating cold cereal two out of three meals a day. Add toast and PB&J or grilled cheese and you've got the boys' default menu too.

I'm still not fond of grocery shopping, and I don't like spending a lot of time in the kitchen either. But I do find an unexpected sense of satisfaction when I prepare a tasty, healthy meal for a fraction of the price of eating out. And now that we've added kids to the table, it's even more important than when it was just the two of us (and frankly, eating out with kids isn't the relaxing experience it used to be).

God is the ultimate example of providing for those in His care. We demonstrate our care for those we love, and thus reflect God's love as we make efforts to provide healthy, appealing foods for the people we care for. While this is a factor all the time, I'm trying to remember it especially as I begin holiday preparations. I want the meals and goodies and celebrations to be more service than stress and ultimately one more gift to offer my loved ones.
"My God shall supply all your needs according to his riches in Christ Jesus."
Philippians 4:19

"She gets up while it is still dark; she provides food for her family..."
Proverbs 31:15a

Up to simplify shopping--and save money while you're at it!


Since we haven't been much of anyplace in a loooong time, we decided to take a last-minute mini-trip to Grandma's in honor of having a couple of days off this week.
Got a room at a nearby motel that we've stayed at before (and had internet). But this time we got a second-floor room (farther from the front desk and the only wireless signal). When I called to see why I couldn't connect, the night-guy didn't tell me that the rooms aren't wireless and he didn't tell me that they had dsl modems to use.
So, all my grand plans to type to my hearts' content after all my guys were sleeping didn't materialize. Maybe I needed sleep more than I needed to be on the computer!

The mind of man plans his way, But the LORD directs his steps.
Proverbs 16:9

All that to say, check back tomorrow-ish. With all the shopping/cooking/feasting on the horizon I'm working on a couple things about finding purpose in the process.

A Woman of Strength

I stopped by Lysa TerKeurst's site Monday and she was telling how her usual 4 mile run turned into a half marathon by accident. I can't imagine!

I've kind of always hated strenuous physical activity. I used my asthma to be virtually excused from most running-related PE classes. When I got to high school and we got to choose which sports we'd do for our PE classes, I chose things like played doubles tennis (you only had to cover half the court), badminton and bowling (I can still keep score without using the computerized scoring system.)

Eventually I all but gave up the "E" word (exercise). I don't know who first said it, but I heartily agreed with the sentiment, "Whenever I get the urge to exercise, I lie down until the feeling passes."

Once my school days were past, I figured I was home free—no one would pressure me to participate in sports or to "exercise." I fell well within the normal/healthy weight range for my age. I could walk the half-mile or so down the street to get an ice cream cone or a muffin without any trouble, and how strong did I need to be to work at a computer, anyway?

Apparently, I needed to be stronger than I was! When I began to have chronic neck and shoulder pain both on the job and off, I was sent to see a specialist. He confirmed that I had tendonitis and was on the verge of carpal tunnel syndrome. I hoped (and expected) his first recommendation to be to change the configuration of my workspace, which I suspected was the source of my trouble. But the first thing he said when he saw my poor grip-strength was that I needed to be stronger.

"Exercise." he said.

"Work with weights." he said.

"WHAT?!" I thought, "I work at a computer!"
I left that job a few months later, and most of my pain went with it, so I kind of forgot about needing to be stronger.

Until I had my first child, that is.

It doesn't take too much strength to carry around an eight or ten pound baby, but they don't stay that small. As Bug grew, I noticed how weak my lower back was. I was a little concerned about being one of those women who threw my back out lifting my son and initiating a lifetime of back troubles.

When Bug was just over a year old and I could no longer put off trying to get rid of the rest of my "baby fat," we purchased a coupon book that had lots of local services. Mixed in with the free oil changes and haircuts was a month's free membership to a women's-only gym that I'd heard good things about.

When I told Hubs I wanted to go, I know he held his breath for fear I'd snap back to my senses and put the notion out of my mind. (As gracious as he always is, I knew it bothered my athlete husband that I never shared his passion for working up a good sweat.)

My first day, I got to the "pull-up machine"—a simple bar that you grasp with hands together and pull up to shoulder height, then push down as hard as possible to maximize the resistance. I couldn't believe when that same old weak shoulder resurfaced! I hadn't worked at the injury-inducing job for almost eight years, and didn't do anything else I could think of to hurt it. But it was clear with each pull and push that my dominant right arm was struggling to carry its share of the weight!

I faithfully worked out four times that week though, and the second week my right shoulder didn't bother me a bit! (I guess the good doctor knew what he was talking about after all.)

After just a couple weeks I dropped one size and reduced my body fat percentage. But I was especially happy to see the increased flexibility and general strength, which was important for being able to sit cross-legged on the floor for assorted toddler activities. I have to admit that since Boo came along, I haven't managed to make fitness a priority; I need to change that.

It's easy for me to feel that it's more important to focus on inner strength rather than outer strength. And it probably is. But if I see my body as God's dwelling place and an important aspect of being ready to serve, then I need to put my external well being on par with other qualities I focus on.

"She girds herself with strength,
And makes her arms strong."
Proverbs 31:17

How do you keep yourself strong? Is it a challenge or a priority to you?

On voting. (No politics allowed)

"Hey Hun, I'm heading over to Roger's* garage to vote."

"Where's Roger's Garage? I've never heard of a mechanic's shop as a polling place."

"No, not Roger's Garage, Roger's garage...the garage at Roger's house. That's where our polling place is."

Ok, so that fictitious conversation didn't really take place after breakfast this morning, but it could have. The only places I've ever cast a ballot has been a school or a church.

Have you ever walked down the block to vote in your neighbor's garage? Maybe it's commonplace, but when I flipped over my sample ballot to see which school to report to, I was really surprised to see the location read "Garage, 123 Main St."
You'd think that maybe we live in a one horse, one-school, no-church town or something that we have to resort to having voters report to their neighbor's garage, but nope. Nearly 90,000 people, most in single family homes (so it's not like we're so densely urban there's no choice!). I live less than 1/2 mile from at least 5 schools, and probably as many churches.
But, even though it's not the posh accomodations of the school library, after I drop Boo at preschool, I'll be heading over to 'Roger's garage' to cast my ballot.

What about you? Have you voted?

I remember turning 18 just days before the deadline to register for that year's presidential election. I'd had political opinions since the campaign to elect Snoopy for President when I was in first or second grade. I was really excited to finally be able to contribute my little opinion to the fray.

Eight years ago, a newly-minted American-citizen friend of mine got to cast his first vote for an American president. I was touched by the sobriety of the experience for him. To have come from a nation where elections are more sham than sure, it meant the world to him to join the democratic process of his chosen home. Sadly, the import of it all was lost on most of our peers.
Now that Civics education is not a priority in schools**, I'm afraid the generation or two behind me is losing the significance of being able to voice our opinions at the polls. We're far enough away from changing the constitution to allow ALL American citizens the vote, regardless of gender, ancestry, etc. that I think we've lost some of the sense of absolute privilege that we share.

I know there's some sentiment that "one vote doesn't count," especially in the shadow of 'hanging chad's' and such, but ask the citizens of Washington if a handful of votes really makes a difference.

I lived in Washington in 2004 when the gubernatorial race was decided by 129 votes after counting, recounting and recounting the recount. I didn't feel like showing up to the polls that night. Hubs had to work late, I was sick and had a squirrely one year old to bring with me. But I kept hearing "if you don't vote you have no right to complain" in my head. I dragged myself and Bug down the road (in the rain of course, it was Washington after all) to cast my ballot.

As the days dragged into nearly 6 weeks before the election was called, I was glad that I had done my one little part. If just the equivalent of the people from my church stayed home (or showed up) that night, the outcome could have been totally different.

I'm not going to get into the issues or the candidates or anything like that. I'm just going to voice my point of view that however flawed our system may be with the popular vote not necessarily declaring the outcome if the electorate goes differently, or because we vote in garages instead of hallowed halls, I am grateful for the opportunity and I hope you'll join me at the polls.
1 Peter 2:13-17
Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.

I'd love to hear about your voting experiences, but please don't post any comments with political points of view or candidate preferences. That's not really the point here.

* Not his real name.

**I have no idea what's on the rest of this site and don't endorse or dispute any of the content; I just thought this particular article addressed the topic well.

Not so happy anniversary

One year ago today was the single most stressful day I've ever had.

The day after Boo's birthday, my uncle went in for an out-patient gallstone removal. By Wednesday he was in ICU with pancreatitis. By Friday he'd gone into cardiac arrest and didn't regain consciousness.

When the call came to meet the rest of the clan at the hospital on Saturday “to decide what to do about Al,” I knew the expected outcome from the very nature of the invitation. After all, no one has to ‘decide what to do’ about a loved one who can decide what to do for themselves, right?

The burden of deciding life and death for someone weighs heavier than anything I’d ever experienced. It would take much more than a single blog entry to explain the full spectrum of emotions and experiences of that day. So many things at play--doctors detached information, family dynamics, age and life experience vs. relative youth and (naive?) optimism...

For me though, the whole day hinged on the moment that afternoon that Al unexpectedly regained consciousness. I didn't understand why the "elders" of the group didn't go to see him when we received word. Finally my sister and I went upstairs, in essence to say our goodbyes.

She and I stood on different sides of the bed and he looked back and forth to us as we each talked. He responded to our conversation by raising his eyebrows and making facial gestures. It was clear he wanted to speak, but with the tubes in his mouth, it was basically taped shut. I placed my hand on his right shoulder; the only spot that seemed to be free of tubes and monitors. I don’t know if he felt it too, but I had an overwhelming need to be tangibly connected to him at that moment. I hoped my touch would be comforting.

My sister did a better job with the conversation than I did. “Are you in pain?” she asked. He replied with closed eyes and a slight shake of his head. “Has the doctor been in to tell you what’s happening?” A look of bewilderment mingled with a tinge of panic accompanied another shake of his head. A lot of the conversation isn’t clear in my memory—it was hazy even at that moment as I tried to process how to look my dear uncle in the eyes knowing he was about to be disconnected from us in the most permanent possible way and no one had explained it to him.

Even so, several moments of our time with him are etched into my mind with laser-clarity. Almost as an afterthought I remembered to tell him, “Thank you for sending the gift card for Boo's birthday. It was really thoughtful of you.” If I had any doubt that he was fully conscious and fully comprehending what we were saying, it was completely erased when he raised his hand from laying on the bed and moved it to his heart as if to say “I love Boo.” I nearly lost all composure. “We love you too.” I choked out, stroking his shoulder.

To make an intensely long story more blog-appropriate, I'll skip the details to say that we were finally able to convince my dad (as next of kin) to talk to my uncle himself. My dad explained what the doctor said about the pending need for dialysis as his kidneys were failing and the probable need for a long convalescence should he recover enough to leave the hospital at all.

At the end of all those details, my dad asked "Are you ready to go?" Al shook his head "no." "Do you want to continue to fight this?" He nodded his head yes. Despite the conversations they'd had in the past, when faced with the actual decision to choose between life and death--even with the uncertainty that life going forward could be like the life behind--my uncle chose life.

I experienced a palpable relief as I learned that the decision was made by the only one who really mattered in the equation. We got to spend some unburdened moments with him before we left the hospital that evening with a promise to return in the morning.

I was preparing to head to the hospital when I got the call that he passed that morning. While I was (and am) so sad that we never had that next visit, I was (and am) glad that he left this world on his terms, not anyone else's. When a person knows the Lord these goodbyes are sad but not without hope. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case with my uncle; I think that's why the events of the day were so weighty.

I learned some things from that terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day that have changed me forever. I learned that the will to live is far stronger than we recognize. I learned that decisions we make when we are healthy may not be how we feel when we are not healthy. And maybe most significantly, I learned that "quality of life" means something entirely different when it's your own life that's in question.

Thinking of you, Uncle Al. You are missed.

Birthday, Simplified

I think having a child whose birthday is near Halloween is second only to Christmas for having too much going on in one week.

I won't even bore you with the list of fundraisers, Harvest parties, pumpkin patch visits (two of each) and other things that have been on the calendar between last Thursday and this Friday.

Boo's birthday is right in the middle of all of that. I suppose I could capitalize on the built-in occasions, but my birthday philosophy is that it's the one day that's just about that person. All the other holidays/occasions/celebrations we share in some way.

But in our family, no one shares a birthday, so it's the one time we're guaranteed a "You are special." I'm even working toward making the birthday our primary gift-giving occasion.

I try to make a really special cake, have a fun (not necessarily over the top, but special) party, well-thought out gifts, etc.

This year though, with everything else going on, I'm having a hard time living up to my own expectations. But instead of becoming crazy birthday mom who is so harried by all the plans that no one enjoys it, I decided to lighten up.

We met my parents at "The Pumpkin Capital of the World" last week to get in an early celebration with them (sandwiched between Bug's Harvest party in the am and the Trick or Treat/carnival that evening).

I had an inspiration walking through the mall and purchased a "Cookie Cake" instead of burdening myself with making a cake for the get-together. The kids always beg for one and we finally had a good reason.

We're having a simple "friends" party next week with the kids from just two other families. I don't even know where we'll have it or what we'll do, but I know the who and the when and I'll figure the rest out by then.

I almost didn't make a cake for his actual birthday, but Bug would have missed it and Boo wanted something "with fire on top." I kind of forgot that it didn't have to be from scratch and it didn't have to be fancy.

I let Boo choose from my assortment of interesting Bundt pans and doctored a cake mix to create a Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough cake (that smells awesome). I might not even frost it!

Gifts all came from the stash that I've accumulated shopping Target's 75% off toy sales, so there's been no shopping required.

It's not easy to let my ideas of "the perfect birthday" go, but really, the main thing is that Boo knows how special he is, how loved he is, and how proud we are of the boy he's becoming. Happy birthday Little One!

I don't always let myself off the hook. I'm one of those perfectionists who gets immobilized by the idea of things not going as I envision. Too often, I sacrifice sleep (and thus any ability to be patient, calm and cheery the following day) in an effort to make every detail of something just so.

I'm only of late catching on to the fact that often I'm the only one who will miss the detail because no one else expected it to begin with.

The boys don't care if I hand-carved a cake into a skateboard, they just want something to plant some candles in. My sister and niece aren't expecting the perfect hand-crafted gift for their birthday or Christmas, it's just nice to have something to make them feel connected to us when we're so far apart (I'm putting this out there now as motivation to be sure to get the gifts I've been collecting into the mail).

As moms I think sometimes we want so much for our families that we lose sight of how little it really takes to have a happy birthday or successful Saturday.

What are your birthday "must haves?" What ways have you found to make it special and keep it simple? I know there's a lot of creativity out there...share!

Or, what are some ways you have (or need to) let yourself off the hook and simplified?

Imperfectly Real

The center stone of my wedding set has a 'feather.' That’s a rather romantic name for what amounts to a chunk of diamond missing where one facet should be. I don’t know if the feather was always there—the set belonged to my husband’s mother before me.

The jeweler called about it when we left it to be sized. He put the diamond under his loupe and made a diagram of all the imperfections that make this stone unique. Someone else may have a ring that looks like mine, but like snowflakes and fingerprints, no two diamonds are exactly alike. I know what distinguishes mine from others.

In a diamond, the nature and quantity of inclusions can diminish the value of a stone, but in our modern age of lab-created colored gems, expert Walter Schumann explains, “Inclusions are common. They are not indicators of lower quality, but show the difference between a natural stone and a synthetic stone.”

I think we're a lot like diamonds. Our imperfections may not be visible to the naked eye, but the unique pattern of our lives is what sets us apart from one another.

I'm grateful that God sees me the way a jeweler sees a precious stone. My flaws or lack of maturity--bad attitudes, sharp tongue, overdeveloped sense of independence--don’t diminish my value to God. They show that I'm 'real' and leave room for Him to continue His work in me. But unlike gemstones, I am not in my final state. My 'feathers' can be filled and my 'inclusions' eliminated as the Master Jeweler continues his work in me.

"Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me." Philippians 3:12

"But they might laugh at me"

I figured one of the pluses of having two children of the same gender was getting to use some of my favorite wardrobe pieces from the first a second time.

So when it was finally cool enough on Sunday to wear long pants, I happily went to the bin and got two of my favorite pairs of pants that Bug wore first. One is a cute plaid in nice fall colors and the other is navy with white whales embroidered on them. Boo wanted nothing to do with either one.

"But they might laugh at me." I never expected to hear that from my almost 3 year old boy as he fought my clothing choices for church and preschool!

I couldn't help but wonder where he got that sense of self-consciousness at such a young age! First, I don't know that anyone has ever laughed at him. He does get lots of comments about how cute he is (especially the strawberry blond curls). And since I can still get away with it at this point, I admit to dressing Bug and Boo alike on occasion, which engenders more attention of the "look how cute" sort.

Funny that he's self conscious about what he wears and kind of wanting to blend-in in that sense when he doesn't seem the least bit aware of the attention he garners as he runs full tilt through the church or makes his astonishingly loud chirping/screeching/shouting boy noises.

While I'm sad that many of my favorite plaid pants and hawaiian shirts (not worn together!) may ultimately only be really nice hand-me-downs for some other adorable preppy-style boy, I'm more sad that he's not even three but he's already influenced by what other people think.

I never expected to have to start to work on my preschool son's sense of independence and confidence. He's outgoing and strong willed and imaginative and bold. And surprisingly sensitive to other's opinions of him. I'm not really sure what to do with that.

His brother has never had trouble not 'following the crowd' if he doesn't want to. He still needs to be reminded of the right choice from time to time, but he's not easily persuaded to do something he's already decided against. I love that about him because I can relate so well. (And I hope that some of that might rub off on his little brother as they get older.)
I think we might need to read some stories about Daniel and David. The Philistines did laugh at David, but he still took down the giant. With the right perspective, I know my bold, fearless Boo could slay giants too.

(btw--is it terrible of me that I found a way to get him to wear some of the clothes? He's all about skating--as in skateboards--yes, I have a 3 year old wannabe skate punk! I got him to give in to the cute palm tree bermuda shorts by calling them "board shorts" and telling him that they're the kinds of shorts that skateboarders wear. Bad mom?)

On Being Grateful for the Raisins

Today, I made a special effort to make homemade muffins for the boys for breakfast/snack.

I have a big thing of oatmeal that I want to use in creative ways (because I myself can't stand it as mush). I also always have a half an apple around that Boo didn't finish and I'm tired of throwing them away.

So I found (what I thought was) a great recipe for Oatmeal Apple muffins.
I learned:
  1. They pretty much only like muffins with frosting. Which is kind of just a cupcake.
  2. They only like raisins if they are NOT in a muffin.

So, what was meant to be something special for them ended up feeling like a wasted effort. As did the pasta I made for lunch (which they ended up having for dinner because I wasn't going to strike out a 3rd time and if they get hungry enough, the meal they didn't want at lunch looks pretty good).

It was one of those days where I know I'm experiencing what my mom did. The days that all moms know. You buy the teenage girls something special; they hate it and won't wear it. You plan a special afternoon with your pre-teen boy and all he really wants is to ride his skateboard in the street with his buddies.

There's no gratitude for the thought or intention; just a rejection of the effort and a stubborn resistance to whatever wasn't up to their standards or in their plan.

In the end, my frustration today wasn't as much about my efforts being rejected as much as it is my concern that maybe I give them what they want so often, they don't understand the concept of being grateful for the things they don't want.

Like at Christmas when they're looking for that one special gift. It might be in the pile, but sometimes they go through a lot of other gifts before they get to that one. Often, the things that were overlooked and unappreciated become favorites as time goes by, but in that moment they aren't grateful.

I know I do the same thing with God. I ask for the things I want. I get what I get. Well actually, I get what He thinks is best for me. And sometimes what I get is a steak dinner instead of the Lucky Charms and milk that I was craving. It's hard to believe that sometimes I'm not grateful for the steak at the moment.

But I want to be.

I want to trust that my heavenly father knows what I really need and gives to me accordingly, even when it feels like I'm just not getting what I want.

As I learn to be grateful for the things that I don't think I want, maybe I can teach my children to be grateful for the 'raisins' too.

Matthew 7:11
"If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!"

Muffins of Gratitude

I'm going to make these muffins in the future when I need a reminder to be grateful for what God brings into my life--whether it's what I think I want/need or not. (And despite the protestations, they're actually very moist, tasty, quick and healthy.)

1/2 c. pancake mix (I used Krusteaz Oat Bran Pancake mix)
1 c. uncooked oatmeal
1/2 c. brown sugar (I was out; white worked fine)
1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon (omitted since the pancake mix had some and the kids aren't fans)
1 tbsp. flax seed meal (optional)
1/2 c. peeled chopped apple
1/3 c. raisins

1 c. lowfat milk
1 egg
1/4 c. oil (I substituted applesauce)

Heat oven to 375 degrees.

Spray bottoms of muffin tins with non-stick spray. Combine pancake mix, oats, sugar and cinnamon. Stir in chopped apple and raisins.

Stir together remaining ingredients. Add to dry ingredients, mixing just until dry ingredients are moistened.

Fill muffin cups 3/4 full. Bake 15 to 20 minutes. Makes 1 dozen.

Magic Mirror

I stopped by a community garage sale hoping to find a lamp or two to help illuminate our dungeon of a north-facing living room.

I didn't find anything suitable, but there was one item I really wanted to bring home. In the clothing department they had a full-length mirror hanging near the cashier. Now, I'm not really the full-length mirror type. In fact, until we moved to this house with the mirrored closet doors (yes, 8 feet high by 9 feet wide worth of mirrors), I have never had a full length mirror at home.

But this mirror, it's special. It was probably meant for a little girls room; the 1 inch wide white frame is separated at one corner, but that doesn't interfere with its special properties.

This mirror is magic! Honestly, it makes my size 12 hips look like size 4! I pointed it out to my friend Terry who was helping with the sale; she liked that it gave her skinny ankles.

It was really tempting to buy the mirror. After all, how great would it be to leave the house every morning feeling skinny? I told Terry I wish I could give everyone else lenses made of that mirror so that's what they'd see when they look at me. But of course, I'd be bound to catch a glimpse of my actual reflection in the car door or a window someplace and see reality after all.

So I left the mirror there (but I might visit it before the sale is over, just to get another look at the me I want to be). Sometimes people use a photo of themselves when they were the weight they want to be to motivate them to keep working at it; I wonder if the magic mirror would do that for me?

As I was driving away I realized there is someone who sees the best in me even when it's buried under all kinds of excess 'fluff' and flaws. God sees me already in His image. "Therefore if anyone is in Christ, (s)he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come." 2 Corinthians 5:17

In His eyes I am already the best version of myself, and every day He works in me to help me actually be conformed to that. And jeans size aside, I really do want to be my best inside self even more than my best outside self. Maybe if I can see the reflection of myself in His eyes, I will get ever closer to my best.

Cross Cultural Experience

In a nod to the excesses of the past few years, MTV created a show that featured unbelievably wealthy parents indulging their indescribably spoiled children with "Sweet 16" parties with price tags in excess of the cost of the average family home in at least 70% of the country.

Two years later some of those families are starting to see that they've created mini-monsters who are so used to being coddled and catered to that they run the risk of living at home and sponging off their parents for a good long time. So the parents have joined forces with MTV to give the kids an experience intended to "unspoil" them. The kids, now 18-ish, are sent to live for a week in situations varying from reindeer herding in the frozen tundra of Norway to picking up elephant dung in the jungles of Thailand.

It remains to be seen whether any of those young people really are changed long-term, but it got me thinking that it isn't only the exceedingly wealthy who benefit from seeing "how the other half lives."

I've had a few different kinds of experiences. When I was very young our church put on the evening service once a month at the local Rescue Mission. It wasn't the most comfortable experience for a young girl, but it was probably a good training ground for the days when I reached high school and my parents went into full time rescue work.

I worked with youth for many years and had the opportunity to go on various trips to serve in different capacities in Mexico. They were each significant in their own way, but there was one episode that really stands out as having a life-changing effect on me.

On one trip, a couple of us left the main group and accompanied a local missionary to a small village to conduct a children's Bible club. We drove down a rough dirt road past a row of tiny corrugated shacks. Children poured out of the humble dwellings, eagerly surrounding the station wagon.

We played some games while Elizabeth, the missionary, prepared for the class. Jose, a shy little boy about six years old took my hand as we led the group into the trailer for story time. He climbed into my lap so he could see the flannel board.

What happened next was one of those moments frozen in time where a half-dozen thoughts and feelings come flooding in all at once. As Jose turned to look at me, for just a moment, Jose's face faded away and it was no longer Jose in my lap, but Jeremy, a former student of mine; a young man who lived in a different set of difficult circumstances.

In that instant I realized that but for God's providence, my friend could be this little boy in Mexico. Living a life with little education. Little in the way of comforts. Little hope of a life any different than what Jose's family had.

Or it could be me.

But it's not.

It's not by chance that I was born in Lansing, Michigan rather than the jungles of Ecuador. It is no fluke that I had the opportunity to be educated. Nor was it simply coincidence that my mother consistently took us to church and that I have grown in faith since a young age.

The responsibility of God's graciousness to me struck me like it never had before. I am in awe of all that God has entrusted to me. He has a plan for me. I can lose sight of that if I compare myself to others who seem to have more than me.

God chose me to be born in America, to be educated, to know Him. I can best be used by Him right where I am, with the opportunities and gifts He has provided me.

I think God has placed each of us just where we can best accomplish His work. We may not feel rich, but we don't have to wait until we have a certain amount of money or education or experience to be used by God. As we give out of our poverty--poverty of pocket, poverty of spirit, or poverty of experience--the Lord will bless our offerings and magnify them to His glory.

Now Jesus sat opposite the treasury and saw how the people put money into the treasury. And many who were rich put in much. Then one poor widow came and threw in two mites...So he called his disciples to Himself and said to them, "Assuredly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; for the all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood." Mark 12:41-44

Cheese Pennies

These simple, flavorful little crackers are a reminder that the Lord can use what we give Him out of our poverty even more than a great amount given out of our abundance.

2 cups (about 16 oz) finely grated cheddar cheese
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, room temp.
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon cayenne

In a medium bowl, cream butter until fluffy. Add grated cheese and blend together well. Sift together dry ingredients. Add to cheese mixture a little at a time, mixing until a stiff dough is formed.

Shape into logs about 1 inch in diameter. Place on waxed paper. To slice into "pennies," use dental floss (non-minty) or thread. Slide under log, cross ends over top of log and pull, slicing through.

Gather pennies back into log shapes or place on plate and cover with foil. Refrigerate overnight or freeze for a couple hours before baking (they will bake more evenly if all the ingredients have reached the same temperature).

Place on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake in a 375 degree oven for 10-12 minutes. Cool on a wire rack, store in an airtight container.

Photo and recipe originally appeared in "Tea and Inspiration," copyright Mary Pielenz Hampton. All rights reserved.

Making peace with Ronald McDonald

Ok, I'll admit to being a bit of a junk food snob. Since Bug was big enough to eat real people food, we've been picky about our fast-food stops. For a long time it was pretty much only Wendy's because they were the only ones to offer fruit, and Hubs and I could tolerate their other menu items--baked potatoes, assorted salads (and a Frosty here and there didn't hurt either).

Except for one occasion on a road trip and in need of a rest room, Bug hadn't ever played at a McDonald's playland. We figured he wouldn't miss what he'd never experienced, and just weren't ready to begin the endless cycle of "There's a McDonald's, can we go?" While I am a closet chicken-nugget fan, we've always been kind of anti-Happy Meal for my kids.

When we first moved here, a lovely lady from the church offered to take the boys for the evening so Hubs and I could go to Home Depot to begin to make some decisions so we'd have a kitchen we could actually use. She took them to the local McDonald's playland.

And so it began. It took a while, but little by little I'd find myself dropping by Ronald's joint for various reasons:
  • We got stood up for a babysitting/playdate and I had to do something to appease Boo.

  • Rainy days and Mondays often find me needing to let them burn off energy without jumping off the furniture.

  • I need some time to get some business correspondance done.

Now, instead of seeing it as a corporate evil, intended to fill my children's bellies with questionable nutrition and my mini-van with toys promoting movies my kids will never see, I look at it as a tool. I'm now in danger of going often enough to bore my kids because I'll go when:

  • I need a mommy play-date; we'll invite another family and the kids can play while the grown-ups chat.

  • I have work to get done; writing, bill-paying, catching up on magazines, etc.

  • Bible study is tomorrow and I haven't finished my lesson yet.

Unexpectedly, I've met other moms who work at home and take advantage of the typically clean, indoor play area for the same reasons I do. I think it's just a matter of time until there's an organized "Bring your work to Mickey D's" day!

BTW--there are some yummy healthier choices on their menu too. We especially like the fruit and yogurt parfait (although I miss the bigger size they used to have), apple dippers or the Apple/Walnut/Grape salad.

So Ronald and me, we're on pretty good terms now. If you're looking for some adult contact and a way to let your little ones burn off some energy, stop by your local "Golden Arches."

What are some things you thought you'd never do, but have compromised on in favor of saving your sanity entertaining your kids?

Good fortune

I had lunch with my parents yesterday; we celebrated my belated birthday and an early anniversary for them. Since the boys were meeting us later, and they don't eat Chinese food, we took advantage of the opportunity to indulge.

One thing you need to understand about my mom is that she knows scripture nearly as well as any seminary grad. She's one of the most biblically grounded, Godly women I've ever known. So when I opened my fortune cookie and she said, "God can even use a fortune cookie to deliver encouragement." I decided to accept it for the optimism it offered instead of downplaying it or thinking of it in the same light as a horoscope.

Here's hoping "that's the way the cookie crumbles!"

The Voices Inside my Head

No, they aren't the kind of voices that will find me committing an act that will land me on the evening news! If you were riding in my car or visiting my home you'd hear them too.

Two little voices and one bigger voice and I love hearing each one of them. Each of them. One. at. a. time.

I told Hubs the other day that I think men are lucky because they can pretty much only hear one thing at a time. Which explains why my dad never responded to anything anyone ever said while watching football or baseball.

I, on the other hand, have a hard time tuning any of them out. I think women are God-wired that way so we can fix dinner, direct one child to their lost favorite-toy-of-the-moment, listen to another spell p-r-e-c-i-p-i-c-e while catching the evening news and hearing about hubs' day at the office.

The problem for me is when I don't get enough sleep (does anyone ever get enough sleep?) or when life is stressful (is it ever not?), when those voices are all speaking at once they rattle around my head like the mirror-polished ball in a pinball game, bouncing off my problems, ricocheting off each other and colliding again in a cacophany of cerebreal chaos.

In other words, it's beginning to make me crazy!

One of my defenses of late is to find silence wherever I can. When The Voices are all out of the house I turn off all the other noisemakers. Sometimes I have a cup of tea and just sit with my thoughts, hoping maybe some of the mental clutter will clear itself out and when The Voices return there will be neat compartments in there for those sweet voices to land.

This afternoon I leave for our womens retreat. More than fine teaching, fellowship, food or other fun, what I am most looking forward to is some q u i e t!

The Shortest Season

It's officially autumn! I know it might not seem like it yet, seeing that it's going to be in the 90's today and there's barely a hint of any of the fall colors in the foliage around here.

I remember the bold autumns of my childhood in Michigan and the only slightly less impressive displays in the northwest where we spent nine of the last eleven Septembers.
I miss those days, but I appreciate the more subtle changes that take place here: the bright summer sunshine gives way to a deeper golden glow that casts a rich light over everything; the soft summer breeze picks up a cool edge that rattles across the pavement with the fallen leaves.

I once heard that a tree shows its true colors only once photosynthesis has stopped and the green of the chlorphyll gives way to the gold or crimson or russet specific to its variety. I find that so interesting--a tree spends most of the year growing and storing energy and only once it begins to rest can you see its "true colors." And it always seems a tad unfair that just when those colors start to show, a rain storm or brisk breeze strips the trees of their most authentic exhibition.
People are often described as being in a particular 'season of life.' If there are parallels, our prime years would be autumn, right? At about the point we've passed the summer season of youth, we've reached the place where we can live off the wisdom we've gained through our experiences. We aren't as worried with impressing anyone, even though we've developed some of our most impressive characteristics--a lack of self-consciousness, a new self-confidence, wisdom that overcomes insecurity, grace to let others make the mistakes we've already learned from--just to name a few.

I'm older than I look (at least, that's what I've been told, even though I change life insurance categories tomorrow!), and while I do have a young family, I also have the advantage of a number of years spent growing and learning and acquiring (I hope) a degree of wisdom that will serve as a foundation for these years.
Yes, part of me would love to look in the mirror and see unlined skin and hair that doesn't need "highlights' to mask the ever-increasing silver, while another side is glad that I'm not the person I was in the 'summer' of my 20's. I'll take the warm, brilliant colors that I've earned over that perpetual green of figuring things out any day.

It is my goal to glow in all seasons with the rich colors that God created me to exhibit. I hope my "autumn" lasts a good, long time. How about you?


Budgetary Considerations

With all the talk of the economy in the news this week, it's hard not to be looking for ways to cut back or save, even if you still have a decent job and don't need to sell your house (at a loss) any time soon. Our budget isn't what it once was because I haven't done any freelance work in nearly a year, so I've been looking for ways to stretch what we've got.

Of course we’ve already made the usual adjustments. I cook at home more. Our version of entertainment is cheap (around $10 for a family of four) or free. Treats such as Cold Stone ice cream only happen once in a while and only when we have a buy-one, get-one-free coupon. I only buy things—including groceries—that are on sale (preferably 50% or more off).

But I needed to find ways to do more.

And, (drumroll please) I saved us more than $300 a month this week, without giving up anything!

A couple weeks ago a man from the cable company was walking the neighborhood. Normally I wouldn't talk to a ‘door to door salesman,’ in fact, I wouldn't usually even open the door! But I was expecting Hubs when I heard the knock and the first thing he asked was I liked my service and if I had any problems with it, so I decided to have a conversation with him.

I told him I liked everything fine, but wasn’t happy that my bill had gone up another $40/month recently and that all of a sudden we had ‘premium’ channels that I’d never requested. He said he’d take care of cancelling the unwanted programming, but it was the next thing he said that was really interesting.

I learned that by switching away from my home phone provider and adding telephone service to the cable internet and TV we already get from them, I'd be saving $100 a month! Forty dollars of the savings would come from lowering my cable bill (it is actually cheaper to have all three services from them than just the two) and $60 savings from eliminating the separate phone service.

Usually I don't like messing with my phone service. I suppose I’m a little brand loyal and it seems someone is always hawking a ‘better deal’, but when you add it all up, it doesn't really add up. (At least that’s what I learned in college when my roommate pretended to be me and switched long distance carriers without my authorization. It wasn't a better deal at all!)

I also took a look at our mortgage numbers and called to see if there wasn't something we could do to make that work better for us. Because I wanted to be sure we could always make the payments, we'd chosen to have a fixed rate so we could count on the payment amount. It turns out though that the variable rate attached to the mortgage is dropping the fixed rate and taking on the variable rate, I saved 2 percentage points and around $200 a month!
If we keep making the same payment we were making before, that will go to principle and we'll increase our equity and pay down the debt quicker. We will need to watch the interest rates and adjust accordingly, but they’d have to go up by at least those two points before we’d be back where we started. And this was all done with one phone call; no refinance paperwork, no appraisal.

Those were just two small changes that don't impact us on a day to day basis at all--no sacrifice, nothing to give up--but we'll be seeing big gains. It feels good to be one tiny step closer to 'the virtuous woman,' "She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night." Proverbs 31:18

What have you come up with to make the money you already have last longer and go farther? Do you have creative ideas for entertainment, gift giving or some of those other budget categories that aren’t necessities but are hard to avoid altogether? Tell us about it!

Right of Way

There's a little town next door to ours that lays claim to "the highest per capita income" in the state. Now I'm not really sure of that statistic--I can think of a few other places with just as few "shoddy" neighborhoods and just as many chic inhabitants--but that's what they believe of themselves to some extent.

We like visiting the downtown area because there are cute shops and wide, tree-lined walks with lots of streetside dining. It's a relaxing place to spend an afternoon or get an ice cream after dinner.
One aspect I am less impressed with though, is the driving. Twice today I drove through one particular intersection that I've learned to watch very carefully. It's a 4-way stop but you'd never know it. There seems to be a "law of the land" that supercedes state driving regulations and somehow authorizes the person with the fanciest vehicle to barely stop (if at all) and cut off the more lowly driver. (Guess which car I was in?!) Ironically, the car I was driving is the nicest we've ever had; but when put up against the Land Rovers and Mercedes, we don't measure up.

The first time I was cut off today, I was annoyed but didn't respond in any particular way. The second time, I saw the fancy SUV coming to the stop to my left and just had a feeling they were going to blow by me. The law here is that if two cars pull to an intersection at the same time (we didn't) the car to the right has the right of way (umm...that would be me). I went ahead and began to pull into the intersection, looking at the other driver looking at me and pulling out anyway. Once again it seemed like the law of "bigger/fancier" won again over the actual highway regulations. (And I have to admit I did honk this time.)

The sense of entitlement reminded me of an encounter I had a few years ago.

I hardly noticed the man as hubs and I walked to a table in the cafe at our favorite bookstore. He stood at the back of the line, perusing the overhead menu before placing his order. I recognized him as a familiar homeless man--many of the homeless have adopted this bookstore as their new daytime hangout. Coffee is cheap, refills free and you can curl up in a comfortable chair and read all day without anyone really bothering you.

After a few minutes, I got up to take my place in line to order. The shabbily dressed, unkempt, slight man was still at the back of the line. As I approached to take my place behind him, he turned to me as though expecting me to go first. He had been standing there quite a long time, so I indicated that he should go ahead of me.

The look of surprise on the man's face startled me. I realized that the man must be used to people generally looking past him as though he isn't really there, cutting him off, preventing him from taking a place in line--or a place in society--that the rest of us take for granted.

It brought tears to my eyes to realize how often we can diminish the value of other people because they aren't dressed as nicely as we are, or they don't speak the language as well as we do, or they pay for their coffee with money they've collected by recycling soda cans.

Dear Abby once said, "The best index to a person's character is how he treats people who can't do him any good and how he treats people who can't fight back."

Now, I'll admit that I do struggle in situations like the intersection when I know I have "the right of way," but I hope that I don't create my own entitlement situations where I decide that I get to "go first" because I fancy myself somehow more important.

"Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves." Phillipians 3:2

Poor Man Cookies

These unusual cookies can serve as a reminder to keep the proper perspective about our own importance and sense of entitlement.

3 eggs
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup sugar
2 3/4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt

vegetable oil for frying
confectioner's sugar for dusting

In large bowl, beat eggs, milk, sugar and salt together. Gradually blend in flour to form soft dough.

Pour dough onto waxed paper, cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes. When chilled, roll dough into a 1/4 inch thick rectangle. With pastry cutter or sharp knife, cut into 3-inch squares.

Cut a slash diagonally across each square. Carefully pull one corner through the slash. Repeat until all dough is used.

In a deep-fat fryer or heavy, deep sided pan, heat about 2 inches of oil to 375 degrees. Fry dough twists a few at a time for one to two minutes, until golden colored. Turn once or twice to brown on both sides..

Place twists on double thicknesses of paper towels to drain. When cool, sprinkle with powdered sugar.
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