Lessons I learned While Taping Leaves To The Wall

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If I was a "good" blogger—you know, the type who keeps an editorial calendar and plans out content in advance—I would have blogged about this four weeks ago, just in time for you to attempt it yourself. 

But alas, I am a lazy blogger and I do not have an editorial calendar for this space. Also: I decided exactly two days before Thanksgiving that I wanted to make a leaf wall, so I don't really know how the pros stage their Christmas parties in July. The optimist in me calls this Living In The Moment and the realist in me calls this Ordinary Procrastination.

I digress. I am having the worst writers block on the planet. Really. Truly. It's excruciating. I have no ideas. No words. No titles. No endings. Nada. My mind is like a giant cotton ball. When I stand in the shower rubbing rosemary conditioner into my hair—which normally triggers a paragraph or two like some weird pavlov's dog trick—my brain is empty. 

So here we are.

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Back when I was practicing photography, I never stressed out about writer's block too much because when the words failed me, I would turn to photos. I'd book a photoshoot, move my body around someone else's house chasing light, and then hop into Lightroom to make some magic. By the time I got bored with that, the words would return. Back and forth I went—words, pictures, words, pictures—a perfect game of creative ping-pong.

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I'm not doing much photography these days—which, as it turns out—sucks for both my bank account and my writer's block. I digress again. With no words in my brain and no photos to play with, I started thinking about my Thanksgiving day table, which sparked a flicker of creative energy in me.

I already knew we would outsource the entire meal to Whole Foods, so I was willing to devote time and energy to the setting and decor. In my head, I could see what it would look like. I had a distinct vision of leaves trailing down the wall, but five minutes into making this idea come to life, I started to doubt everything.

Hmmm, I thought. Does this look dumb?

I taped three more leaves to the wall. Self-doubt settled in, put up her feet, and leaned back with an arrogant smirk. 

Having only used the Instagram Stories poll feature once (to determine what people thought was worse: acne or a life without cheese) (they voted life without cheese, but I don't think they understood how bad the acne actually was) (this is a different blog post, more on that soon), this seemed like a good time to try it again. 

I took a picture of the wall-in-progress, and asked people to vote: does this look terrible or pretty?

Around 30% of people said it looked terrible right off the bat, which (and I'm embarrassed to admit this) sent me into a minor tailspin.

I briefly considered giving up altogether. Then I briefly considered arranging the leaves around the picture frame gallery that usually hangs on the wall—per twelve suggestions from strangers—even though I secretly thought that would look terrible (no offense).

After hemming and hawing for another half hour, which was no doubt a complete waste of time, I decided to listen to my gut and keep going. And what do you know ... the more leaves I taped to the wall, the more I liked it.

And I guess the moral of the story is this: there is a time and a place to ask for feedback, and there is also a time and a place to listen to your gut and make your own vision come to life for the sole purpose of creating something beautiful for yourself simply because you want to. 

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Trusting the vision in my head is something I'd like to do better in 2018. Not because what's in my head is always right, or always going to be pretty, or never going to fail, but because part of the creative process is learning to listen to your own voice, too.  


Tips + Tricks for Making a Leaf Wall:

1. If you're going to use real leaves, do yourself a favor and press them first. I pressed about 40% of the leaves, and the ones I pressed overnight worked the best (the others curled). To press leaves, I put them in between magazine pages and stacked a few heavy books on top. If that sounds like too much work, you can also buy fake leaves on Amazon for $6 and probably get the same effect. 

2. I used blue painter's tape to attach the leaves and it worked like a charm ... didn't leave any marks and was super easy to remove. I also tried glue dots on one leaf and there is still a teeny tiny piece of it stuck on my wall, so don't do that. 

3. Obviously I think the leaves look best on a plain wall, but if you have other ideas in mind, trust your vision! This was the closest I found online to what was in my head, but I also liked the look of this and this. If you want to be a real overachiever, you could gold dip the leaves beforehand and that would probably look stunning. 


I know; Thanksgiving is over. Feel free to pin this for next year. I only do crafts once in a blue moon but there's a 100% chance you will never see them on this blog before the actual appropriate holiday. Sorry about that. 

-Your Favorite Lazy Blogger

Make It Count

A few years ago I attended a photography workshop in San Francisco. I had been photographing families for a while, but found myself in a rut toward the end of 2015—my imposter syndrome at an all-time high, my inspiration at an all-time low.

I carpooled with two other local photographers whose expertise and related income surpassed mine on every level. As we sipped lattes in the car, chatting merrily on our way down the freeway, I wondered if I had made a huge mistake.

I’m such an amateur.
What was I thinking signing up for this?!
I don’t belong here.

Of course at that point, it was too late. I was in the backseat, and the car was driving to the city. I had no choice but to slap a smile on my face and pretend I belonged anyway.

Ninety miles later, we arrived at our destination—a charming house on a quiet street lined with bougainvillea. It was abnormally warm for San Francisco, and I immediately regretted wearing leggings.

Yan Palmer, photographer and workshop extraordinaire, greeted us at the door with the warmth and hospitality of your favorite grandmother. Freckles danced across her nose, and while I guessed she was slightly older than me, she looked like a sun-kissed teenager. She ushered us in and told us to take our seats in the living room where everyone else was already settled.

We sat in a circle and introduced ourselves, each taking a moment to explain why we were there. A few people cried. We watched a video and went through a booklet of Yan’s best photography tips, everything from lighting and posing to editing and workflow.

But the real magic happened later that afternoon, when Yan photographed Robyn and her family (whose living room we were sitting in).

“I’m going to shoot this one on film,” Yan said, strapping a fanny pack around her waist. She made a joke about looking hip while placing a few rolls of film inside.

Intrigued by her choice of camera, I hung back shyly as she started directing Robyn’s family in front of the window. She worked slowly. Thoughtfully. She offered clear direction in a quiet voice, placing Robyn and her husband on the couch into a resting pose. She pushed a side table out of the frame before adding the kids to their laps. Once the kids were in the frame, Yan began to speak in a glorified whisper. The room belonged to her. She metered the light, and began.

Watching her work was like watching someone direct a play. She moved around the room to the beat of her own careful choreography, whispering commands, tucking tiny pieces of candy into Robyn’s bra strap. Her kids, following the trick, climbed into the comfort of their mother’s lap, smiling wide as they dug for treasure on her shoulder.

The final product was a photo of a mother holding her children while they reached up to her face, moving her hair out of their way. It showcased closeness, love.

It was ... genius.

But the most interesting thing I noticed during that session—and the main takeaway I brought home with me—was how few photos Yan took. She was shooting film, and every so often, she’d have to pause to reload her camera. After setting up a scene on the bed with Robyn and her kids, she took maybe 12-15 shots and called it done.

There were huge pauses between each click.

I couldn’t help but compare this to my own photography process. At the time, I typically took 300-350 photos during a family session. I never wanted to miss anything, and the beauty (and curse) of digital photography is that I didn’t have to. I could show up to someone’s house and push click every 10 seconds for an hour. My process was frantic, always overcompensating for the underlying fear that I had no idea what I was doing.

If I just keep smiling and clicking, they’ll think I’m a real pro!
Maybe I’ll start to believe it, too!

At Yan’s workshop, someone else asked a few questions about film. Yan was an open book—she told us how many photos she usually takes during a session, where she gets her film developed, why she prefers film over digital. I made a comment during this conversation about what I had noticed, stating the obvious.

“It seems like you’re a lot more intentional this way. You’re taking fewer images, but you’ve put more thought and care into each one.”

A few of the other photographers nodded their heads in agreement, confessing how many photos they usually took during a session. It seemed I wasn’t the only one clicking 300 times and hoping for the best. Maybe I belonged there after all.

Yan smiled at us.

“That’s true,” she said, “With film, you have to make it count.”

***

When Instagram first introduced Instagram stories, I was vehemently against it. This is so dumb, I thought to myself more than a dozen times the week the change was implemented. First the ads, then the algorithms, now this?! Instagram had been so pure for so long, and I guess part of me had hoped it would stay that way.

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I boycotted for several weeks.

Eventually the lure of the purple circle became too strong, and I started watching other people’s stories. I saw everything from their daily breakfast to their playlists to their outfits to their behind-the-scenes mothering. I was both intrigued and horrified by the people talking into their phones daily, a la selfie mode, creating their own little reality TV show among followers.

I became a regular voyeur, still refusing to be a participant. Every time I logged onto Instagram, I rolled my eyes, annoyed and overwhelmed by the tsunami of other people’s lives being forced on my eyeballs.

(It’s so much easier to blame Instagram for our own addictions, isn’t it?)

I held strong for a solid month before finally giving way to the desire to play the game like everyone else, to sit at the cool kid’s table, to belong.

Having never used Snapchat before, I fumbled around like a newbie, finding my footing. A few weeks into documenting my days via artsy boomerangs and 15-second video clips of my kids being adorable, I started to actually enjoy sharing my life this way, spontaneously and unedited.

I hated myself for liking it so much.

***

A friend said to me recently, “I’ve really been enjoying your long Instagram captions.”

It was a funny compliment, but one I appreciated nonetheless. I’ve been less active on Instagram lately, not necessarily by intentional choice but simply because I have felt quiet. The news continues to devastate me on a weekly basis—just as my heart recovers from one story, a new horror sweeps in to take its place.

A few of my friends have recently given up Instagram, either for the summer or the month or altogether. Their reasons vary from wanting to spend more time with God to wanting to spend more time writing to wanting a break from all the noise.

I’ve taken breaks myself at various points over the past 10 years since I’ve been using social media, and they have always been needed and fruitful. I find it's good and healthy to let my eyes rest, and to give my brain an intermission from the daily inner workings of every single person I know.

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The more challenging part, I think, is learning how to use social media without letting it take over my life—either from the creation side or the consumption side.

I am constantly asking myself:

How do I create in this space, meaningfully?
How do I consume in this space, meaningfully?

The temptation is there, always, to create and consume more than we need to. We have all the power at our fingertips—the ability to frantically capture pictures and videos of anything and everything. Look at me! I’m drinking coffee! I’m walking outside! I blow-dried my hair! My kid is being cute! My house is clean! I’m at the gym!

We could, quite literally, document ourselves all day long—our food, our drinks, our errands, our outfits, our hair, our workouts, our vacations, our children. We can pop our faces on the screen and share our thoughts about politics, motherhood, and everything in between. Nobody is stopping us. Nobody is really holding us accountable to what we share in that space. 

These devices we carry around in our pockets can house thousands of images and videos at a time.

They’re like digital cameras on speed.

And I guess where I’m going with all of this is … aren’t you tired? I am. I feel like I’m living in a crowded amusement park, and every time I think I’ve carved out a little nook for myself, more people come inside shuffling against my body yelling about treats and roller coasters. I feel like I’m suffocating in a space that seems to thrive on more more more.

So, what to do?

Option 1: I suppose I could ditch Instagram forever.

Or,

Option 2: I suppose I could make it count.

I could ask myself a few questions before sharing, like: what is the purpose of this picture/video/boomerang? Am I seeking validation from strangers? Am I simply adding to the noise? Is this content going to encourage anyone? Help anyone? Brighten someone's day?

I could ask myself a few questions before consuming, like: what is the purpose of this picture/video/boomerang? Is this content life-giving for me? Is it adding anything positive to my life? Is it making me feel insecure or inadequate or sad or empty?

If this seems overly analytical, a recent study stated that the average person will spend five years of their life on social media.

Five. Years. Of. Their. Life. On social media.

Let that sink in.

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I can’t help but read that statistic and think of all the other things I could be doing with five years of my life. I could go back to school! I could travel the world! I could learn to cook food that is not spaghetti! I could read 500 books!

It’s amazing, isn’t it, how all those minutes add up over time? 10 minutes on Facebook here, 15 minutes on Instagram there, a few minutes checking Twitter before bed.

It’s ... alarming, isn’t it?

If I’m going to spend five years of my life on social media—and Lord, I really hope I don’t—but if I do, I want it to mean something.

I want to write stories that make you think and pair them with pictures that make you smile. I want to encourage you, I want to cheer for you, I want to spread hope like wildflowers. I want to tell you about the hard parts of marriage and the best parts of motherhood and I want to tell you about Jesus and my new favorite non-dairy ice cream. I want to commiserate over mom guilt and adult acne and the way our kids are all growing up too fast. I want to speak life into you. I want to use this phone, this tool, this platform, this gift, to turn the mundane aspects of my daily grind into a psalm.

I want to walk beside you, on this very weird Internet thing, and be an uplifting voice in your day. I want to take huge pauses in between each click. I want to be intentional. I want to be slow. I want to be a good steward of this space. 

I want to make it count.

Morning Pages

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After I finished Whole30 a few months ago, I started getting up at 6am to write in the mornings. Pumped on adrenaline and confidence after going thirty days without sugar (or dairy, or bread, or alcohol), I was convinced I could do anything I set my mind to—including waking up before the sun.

This quickly became my favorite habit, starting each day by candlelight in my quiet office. I wrote lots of things … lists, prayers, essays, e-mails to my kids. I consumed entire cups of hot coffee, a miracle in itself. After an hour or so, I’d greet the kids with a smile on my face, refreshed and ready to start the day. My tank was full. There is something to be said for consuming 200 milligrams of caffeine before seeing your children on any given morning.

But then school started.

Gone are the days of eating Cheerios on the couch and watching cartoons in our pjs. Our new routine forces us out the door at 7:45am, which means the minute our feet touch the floor we are hustling to finish breakfast, get dressed, brush our teeth, comb our hair, pack snacks, remember the homework, get our shoes on, etc.

Then, soccer started.

Gone are the lazy afternoons of jumping on the trampoline for hours on end. Three nights a week belong to soccer, which means our afternoons are short, our dinners are rushed, nobody can ever find the soccer socks, and bedtime has become later and later.

I fell off the bandwagon, is what I’m trying to say.

It started slow, after a late night of soccer. I moved my alarm up to 6:15 thinking those fifteen extra minutes of sleep would buy me the rest I desperately craved. Then 6:15 became the new normal and when my husband left town for a week, I bumped my alarm up to 6:45 because the stomach bug was running through our house and do you know how exhausting it is to solo parent while also cleaning vomit out of the carpet? Very. It’s very exhausting.

Once 6:45 became the new normal, it started to get cold, which made it even harder to get out of bed, which meant I started snoozing the alarm until 7. I needed to wait until the heater kicked on, obviously.

I’m failing at writing in the mornings, is what I’m trying to say.

I was feeling pretty bad about it until I remembered Daylight Savings is this Sunday. Imagine that! An extra hour falling out of the sky—a fresh start, a chance to reset and re-dedicate myself to the morning pages.

I know social media will be full of memes about children getting up early come Monday, but the good news is: we are in charge of our own attitudes. I might be tempted to roll my eyes when I hear tiny feet running down the hallway at 6:15. I could be annoyed with the interruption, throw my hands in the air and give up. Or, I could toss some Cheerios on the couch, turn on Paw Patrol, head back to my candlelit office and shut the door. 

I think I'll choose the latter.

Want to join me? Monday morning, 6am. Let’s do this thing. 

Worth It: A Backyard Trampoline

A lot of people have asked about our trampoline, but they typically ask the same three questions:

1) Does it ruin the grass?
2) Does it take up the whole backyard?  
3) Is it worth the money?

The answer, for all three—for us—is yes

Yes, there is a ring of dead grass hiding underneath the trampoline. Yes, it takes up half of our very small backyard. Yes, it was absolutely worth the money. 

Every afternoon around 4 or 5, I throw the kids in there and zip them up like monkeys in a cage. They jump for an hour, sometimes more, with little supervision. You can see the trampoline from our kitchen and master bedroom so I'm usually floating between the two rooms—working, cooking, cleaning, folding laundry, listening to Voxes. Sometimes they bring their "babies" with them (i.e. stuffed Paw Patrol characters) but usually it's just them and a few soft soccer balls/basketballs. They invent games. They do "flips" (Everett can actually do a flip, Carson just somersaults and calls it a flip). They run, chase each other and jump their brains out until the soles of their feet are black and sweat is dripping off their heads, at which point they go straight into the bath, and then it's time for dinner and bed.

Voila! We just killed the afternoon. 

Honestly, I do not love the look of a trampoline in our backyard, but entertaining my children > aesthetics. Anything that helps us survive 4-6 p.m. in this house is worth its weight in gold. We've had this trampoline for over two years now and it's bought us approximately 400 hours of entertainment. Sold!

Do you have a trampoline? Was it worth the money / hassle to set it up?

The gift of Interruption

"The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one's 'own,' or 'real' life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one's real life -- the life God is sending one day by day." - C.S. Lewis


I can’t recall what song was playing, but I remember singing along with the radio when I saw her body being flung like a rag doll into the air bag. My sing-a-long was interrupted by the sound of glass shattering, followed by my own gasp.

Our light turned green and we coasted around the accident to the side of the street, where my first instinct was—uncharacteristically, I should say—to jump out of the car. I wasn’t the only one. A small group of people quickly flooded the four-way intersection. All around me cars were left running in park with the doors thrown open.

I ran to see if the lady who had been hit was okay. Before I reached the car, someone yelled, “Call the police!” and my fingers began dialing 911. I answered a dozen questions, quick to note the sketchy characters stumbling out of the other car, a truck, which was parked across the street. No visible injuries to that party; they were too busy removing what looked like beer cans from the inside of their vehicle, tossing them into the bed of their truck.

The victim, an elderly woman named Dolores, appeared to be okay, and a few of us remained in the street for a minute hovering around her damaged car. One lady wearing teal scrubs asked Dolores a few questions. “She’ll be fine!” she said to me before returning to her vehicle.

Another young woman gave me her phone number, insisting she caught the whole accident on her dash cam. “I can’t stay, but you can give the police my phone number!” she said as she ran off.

I stuck my head in the car and asked Dolores if she was okay. Her hands were shaking. She didn’t look fine to me. The group of helpers scattered as quickly as they appeared and in a matter of minutes I was the only one left standing in the middle of the intersection, next to a puddle of glass, trying to comfort someone else’s grandma.

“Are the police coming?” she asked, her voice just as shaky as her hands.

“Yep, I called them myself,” I said with a smile. “They’re on their way, and I’ll stay with you until they get here, okay?”

She told me she didn’t want to be a bother, and asked if I was sure. I told her she wasn’t a bother, and that I was. I took her cell phone and offered to call a family member. She asked me to call her daughter Tara. I left a voicemail.

Traffic started building up around us, and a man finally got out of his car and shouted, “Hey! Can she get out of the car?”

Her door was jammed, and although I have no medical training or knowledge whatsoever, I’ve seen enough episodes of Grey’s Anatomy to know that regular citizens are not supposed to move the injured after an accident like this.

“I don’t think we should move her!” I yelled back.

Dolores had mentioned having a lot of pain in her legs, and I didn’t want to risk doing further damage to possible injuries. My husband Brett, who had been keeping an eye on the guilty truck, ran over from across the street to assess the situation.

“We need to get her car out of the middle of the intersection,” the man told Brett.

We asked Dolores if she could steer, and she nodded. Brett suggested I get in the car with her, so I climbed in while they pushed us to the side of the road.

“That’s it,” I directed, “A little more to the right …”

Once we settled next to the curb, Dolores asked for her glasses.

“Where are they?” I asked.

“I was wearing them when I got hit … I think … I think they were hit off my face. I don’t know where they are,” she stammered.

A minute later I found them tucked underneath my seat. I held them up in victory.

“Oh thank you, dear,” she said, putting the frames back on her face, looking at me clearly for probably the first time.

She started asking questions: where I live, what I saw, where I was going that night. I told her we were on our way to dinner. I did not tell her my mother-in-law was home with our kids, or that she had been there all day and was doing us a favor by staying late. I did not tell her we were starting Whole30 in the morning and that I had been dreaming of my last meal (chicken tacos) for the past three hours.

Over and over again she thanked me for staying with her, telling me I was kind. Over and over again I reassured her I had nowhere important to be. It was the truth.

The fire trucks arrived thirty minutes later, and a police officer twenty minutes after that. When I watched the firefighters pull Delores from the car onto a stretcher and she shrieked in pain, I was thankful we hadn’t attempted to move her ourselves.

It wasn’t until a week later when I spoke to her daughter that I’d learn she had fractured her pelvis.

I also learned she was 88.

-----

I open Voxer and find a new voicemail from a friend, the fourth one this week. She is crying, confiding in me that her son has been biting other kids. She tells me how hard and exhausting it is, how she’s read 100 articles about what to do. She describes all the methods they’ve tried, the discipline strategies they’re implementing. She is worried this is all people see when they look at her son: a biter. She tells me about all of the other wonderful qualities her son possesses—his friendly and outgoing personality, his adaptability and spunk. I hear a mixture of guilt and sadness and frustration in her voice. I feel helpless. I want to reach through the phone and hug her.

A tear rolls down my face while I listen.

And then she says, “I’m sorry I keep calling you and crying. I don’t mean to burden you with this.”

-----

I sent Dolores a get well card a week after the car accident. A few days later, we spoke by phone. And a week after that, a card turned up in my mailbox.

Dear Ashlee and Brett,

It is seldom I am at a loss for words, but at this time, I am. My everlasting gratitude for the attention and care you showed me at the scene of my auto accident. What a beautiful world this would be if there were more of you.

In sincere appreciation,
Dolores

A $100 gift card was tucked inside to a restaurant Brett and I had been wanting to try. I felt guilty accepting something so extravagant for such a small deed. We were an hour late to dinner, who cares?

But to her, I realized, that hour was everything.

-----

I’m sitting at the head of a long white table, jotting down one more note in my journal. The air conditioner is blasting cold air on my shoulders, and the little hairs on my arms prick up as 20 women wander in, chatting and giggling, to take their seats. I’m leading them in a 7-week bible study on the topic of friendship.

Today we’re talking about showing up and the willingness to be interrupted.

Prior to this study, I’d never really noticed that quality in Jesus before. I mean, I’ve read the bible; I know the miracles. But I never paid much attention to the fact that almost every miracle Jesus performed was completed on the way to somewhere else. His whole life on earth was, essentially, a series of interruptions.

For example, one day while he was sitting with his disciples, a man burst through the doors begging Jesus to raise his daughter from the dead. On the way to that house, a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years reached out and touched his cloak. She was healed, as was the man’s daughter, and when Jesus went on from there, he encountered two blind men and a demon-possessed mute. He healed all three.

Four miracles back to back, each one an interruption.

Right before this happened, scripture says Jesus had been “reclining” at the table. That’s my favorite part. How many times have we mothers sat down to recline for a minute when someone suddenly needs a snack, a puzzle, more batteries for their toy, a new diaper?

Jesus feels us, I joke.

We spend the rest of the morning talking about interruptions as it pertains to friendship. One woman, Sherri, tells us about a friend of hers who always says, “It’s never a good time. So just call me anyway!”

It’s never a good time.
Call me anyway.

I love that.

I think about how rarely I call people on the phone. I text, I vox, I e-mail. All communication from me is sent in a leisurely, get-back-to-me-when-it’s-convenient-for-you fashion. And to be honest, that’s how I prefer to receive communication back. I don’t want you to interrupt my day. And I don’t want to interrupt yours.

It’s 2017. This is what people do.

We get in car accidents and feel terrible for interrupting a couple on their way to dinner. We cry on the phone and immediately apologize for interrupting someone else’s pleasant day.

I’ll be honest here. I try to avoid interruptions as much as possible. I drive past car accidents all the time. I often ignore homeless people on the street, either because I don’t have money—or, most likely—because I don’t “have time.” I do not ever answer my phone if I don’t know the number (sometimes I don’t answer even if I do know the number because if it’s important I assume they’ll leave a message and I can call back later). At the heart of it, this is selfishness. I value my time and energy, and I want to remain in control of how I spend those things. 

But Jesus was never annoyed by interruptions; he welcomed them with open arms. He stopped every single time. Jesus was always on the go heading to a new city, but no matter where he was going, the most pressing mission always became the one right in front of his face. Every interruption was a gift; an opportunity to love someone, to offer hope, to provide a miracle on the way to dinner.

There are 24 hours in a day. Think of everything we might be missing by making ourselves unavailable.

It’s never a good time.
Let’s call anyway.  

When the world is ugly

I started coloring the week after Trump got elected.

I’m fairly certain adult coloring was trendy before that, but make no mistake: the 2016 election was the thing that drove me into a Target store, stress eating popcorn, grabbing coloring books and markers off the shelf as if my life—or at least my mental health—depended on it. Experts proclaim adult coloring to be “therapeutic” and a successful way to reduce anxiety. I know this because once upon a time, I pitched four book ideas to an agent, and one of them was a coloring book for moms. I did my research; I read the articles. Plus, I don’t know about you, but I can only color so many Paw Patrol sheets before my mind goes completely numb.

But I digress.

Adult coloring seemed a hell of a lot cheaper than booking appointments with an actual therapist to rant about politics, which is why, on the same day I picked up a coloring book at Target, I instituted 5pm as the official “Art Hour” in our house.

Every day went like this: Carson woke up from his nap, hair all awry, and I carried him to meet his brother on the couch where they sat side by side eating goldfish crackers out of matching snack cups while watching one episode of the PBS show du jour. If I remember correctly, last fall Curious George was all the rage. (They’ve since moved on to Cat In The Hat.)

I covered the coffee table in wrapping paper while the show played, careful to only place washable markers within arm’s reach. I tossed Paw patrol coloring books, Elmo sticker books, and a handful of plain white paper on the table.

As soon as the show ended, I turned the TV off and turned Pandora on, rotating every other day between Delta Rae and Trevor Hall stations. I closed my computer, the news, all social media apps, and tried really hard not to think about everything I’d read that day for thirty whole minutes. Sixty if I could keep the kids interested that long.

Everett colored, Carson scribbled, and I placed all of my anxiety into a collection of fine-tip markers, moving them up and down and all around shading in flowers and butterflies.

***

A couple months ago, I learned that my friend’s daughter, Riley, was having a hard time in fourth grade. Her family had just moved to a new town, and some of the girls at the new school were picking on her.

I felt oddly protective of Riley, even though she’s not my kid. I’ve never even met her. But her mom has been writing with me for almost three years now and when her mom feels the heartache of motherhood, I feel it too.

I asked Riley’s mom if it would be okay if I sent a letter and care package to Riley in the mail. She said yes, and I got to work. As I sat down to write a letter to Riley, my mind transported back to a scene from my own 4th grade. It was a field trip day, and we were on a bus, although I cannot remember where we were going. I do, however, remember a girl making fun of my outfit. I went to a private Christian school with uniforms, so any time we had a “free dress day” it was a pretty big deal. My outfit had been carefully chosen. I can’t be certain, but I am 90% positive I was wearing a vest of some kind.

My friend, who was sitting next to me on the bus, looked at the girl who was teasing me and said, “Hey, cut it out. What would Jesus do?”

(Cue all the jokes about Christian school cliches, I know.)

(Wait for it.)

The girl looked me up and down, sneered, and said: “What would Jesus do? More like what would Jesus WEAR?”

(I cannot even type that without laughing.)

Obviously today, at 31 years old, this story is hilarious to me. But at nine? I was devastated. I told Riley all about my experience and reassured her that 4th grade is hard and sometimes girls aren’t nice. I’m usually not one to dole out advice, but considering the 20+ year age gap between us, I felt slightly obligated to shed some light on the situation. After all, I’ve learned a thing or two about coping skills since I was her age. With my pen to paper, I started drafting a list of what Riley could do to feel better the next time someone picks on her.  

Riley’s Feel Better Plan

1) Eat some candy. Not too much, but a little bit of sugar can work wonders.

2) Color a picture. When the world is ugly, sometimes the best thing you can do is make something beautiful in response.

3) Write your feelings. This could be a story, a few words, or just a bunch of sad faces. There’s no right or wrong way to write your feelings. Your mom is really good at this; she can help.

4) Put on Dr. Pepper chapstick. This is actually the most important step. I can’t explain it, but when I was in 4th grade, this was my superpower. As soon as I put it on, I felt 100x better. Keep this in your backpack at all times in case of emergency!

I folded the three-page letter and tucked it into a padded envelope with a coloring book, journal, pack of jelly beans, and tube of Dr. Pepper chapstick (which was surprisingly hard to find). I said a little prayer for Riley and dropped the package at the post office.

***

I am sitting in my tiny living room surrounded by women with their hands on me. It is 2012 and I am weeks away from meeting my first baby. There’s a hand on my thigh, my ankle, my pregnant belly, a few on my back. I have just taken my turn sharing my testimony and they are praying over me to close the night. Camille leads the charge, her hand firm on my shoulder.

With power in her voice, she lays out a specific prediction.

It feels like an earthquake in my bones.

A few weeks later we exchange e-mails, and this is what she says:

I felt tingles when I prayed that prayer over you. I felt so strongly that it was the Holy Spirit; it wasn’t anything I planned on saying. I’ve been thinking of you a lot and your transition to motherhood. I feel like motherhood is going to be a broad calling for you, not just with your precious baby, but there are going to be many girls that will look to you as their mother. There will be girls that will feel drawn to you for mentoring, advice, encouragement, and spiritual leadership. You are a magnet and God is not going to pass on giving you opportunities.

I did not have the slightest clue what Camille’s prayer would mean for my life, but I let her e-mail live in my inbox for five years just in case.

***

Every time I log on to Twitter, there is a new thing to be angry about. A fresh outrage. 100 recent injustices in the news. Corruption. Terror. It’s everywhere. All of the time. And no amount of adult coloring is going to erase it.

The hardest part of having a book come out in this type of political climate is that you start to feel really, really stupid. You start to ask yourself questions like, do these words even matter? To anyone? There are bombs going off in Syria and terrorist attacks in London and do not even get me started on the horrifying joke that is our current administration.

Every day I lead a team of women who are committed to encouraging mothers through the art of storytelling. I used to think it mattered. A lot. I wouldn’t have worked this hard, for this long, for this little money, if I didn’t think the work was worthwhile. But lately I find myself asking, is this necessary? Does anyone even need this?

Everywhere I turn, the world is ugly. And the louder the news gets, the quieter my voice becomes. The world is on fire and here I am typing away, wasting my damn time.

***

I want to tell you something about God. Something you probably won’t believe if you don’t believe in God, but something I feel pressed to tell you nonetheless.

You see, God has a solid track record of affirming my work right when I’m at the peak of despair. It’s usually when the enemy is speaking directly to my soul, leading me to believe that I’m a horrible writer, a horrible leader, and a horrible person. Your work doesn’t matter, he hisses late at night. You are nothing, this work means nothing, you should just quit now. You’re a joke, an imposter. You should find better things to do with your time. Everything you've ever done is meaningless. I hear him at 3am while I toss and turn under the sheets. I pray him away, but the words burn in my head till I wake up.

This silent battle continues for weeks in the middle of spring. The devil in my ear, magnifying my insecurities and squelching my confidence. He's determined to cast doubt in my mind and plant fear in my heart and make me question everything I have ever believed.

And then on a Friday morning in May, like a ray of light, a short story appears in my Instagram from a woman named Callie.

She has left me 12 long, private messages. I begin reading, and learn that Callie had spent the day at the hospital being thoroughly checked for breast cancer. She left her preschooler and newborn at home with her husband, crying as she left. On the way out the door, she grabbed her copy of The Magic of Motherhood and shoved it in her purse. 

She tells me how she felt panicked in the car, and turned on the Coffee + Crumbs podcast to keep her company. She tells me how she read the first three chapters of our book in the waiting room, blissfully distracted.

She writes:

As I trailed behind the doctor into a new room, it really hit me. I picked that book up today so I wouldn’t be alone. Today I needed a friend, a support crew. Something to feel connected to before I received what could be life-changing news.

As I sprinted out the door earlier, it was your written friendship I grasped. I hadn’t even realized how much I didn’t want to be alone. But there I was, supported, in a pale pink waiting room, by stories and writers I’ve never even met.

Callie was quick to tell me she was fine and healthy (praise God!), but I had tears streaming down my face all the same. Here I am, a mom of two young kids in California, questioning the very work the Lord has put in front of my face. There she is, a mom of two young kids in Australia, clutching the same work in her hands on a day when she felt alone and scared.

There God is, in everything, all of the time, connecting the dots and weaving the story together, making sure His voice is always louder than the one I hear hissing in the middle of the night.

***

“The E-mail” lands in my inbox on a Wednesday morning. Aggressive. Rude. Unnecessary and not constructive in the slightest. I’ve been writing on the Internet since 2009 and you’d think this stuff wouldn’t phase me anymore, but it does.

I am human, after all.

She is angry that we use the word “motherhood” on our site when we have not launched grown children into the world. She is offended that we have the nerve to write about our experiences when our children are so young and our scope is so narrow.

But really, at the heart of it, her message is loud and clear: your work is meaningless.

If God can deliver messages through people on earth, I suppose it should be expected that the enemy would do the same.

A careful response is crafted with help from my team—peaceful, but firm. I click send and the e-mail immediately bounces back.

Of course she used a fake e-mail address.

(They always do.)

“Coward!” I shout as I slam my laptop shut.

Angry at the amount of energy I have just wasted, I stand up and look around. I need to fix the morning, to redeem the day. This situation calls for something more than a coloring page, but I’m pretty sure if I start writing my feelings, a high volume of the f word is going to come out. I grab my own Dr. Pepper chapstick and roll it back and forth in my hand for a minute before applying it.

(You didn’t think I only bought some for Riley, did you?)

I know what I need to do.

I need to make something beautiful.

My eye catches a plastic Target bag sitting near the front door. It contains small gifts that should have been sent weeks ago. I go back to Instagram and re-read a string of messages from another stranger named Brittany, fresh tears forming in my eyes. Brittany and her sister had been pregnant together, due the same month and year. Two days after Brittany delivered a baby boy, her sister delivered a stillborn daughter. I try to imagine this; my close friend and I had our second babies just a few weeks apart. What would we have done if only one baby had survived? The grief is unthinkable.

I grab some tissue paper from the hall closet, pivoting into my office to retrieve one of the few remaining signed copies of The Magic of Motherhood from my bookshelf. I sit down at the dining room table to sign a card before tucking a journal, two candles, two face masks, and the book into another padded envelope.

I say a little prayer for both sisters, and drop the package at the post office.

***

I am sitting at a candlelit dinner with 20 women, taking turns passing a giant amethyst rock clockwise around the table. The rules are simple: whoever holds the rock shares something they’re scared to say out loud. No skips.

(I severely underestimated how emotional this conversation would be.)

The stories are more heartbreaking than I imagined—tales of miscarriages and near-death experiences, alcoholism and eating disorders, broken marriages and postpartum depression. Five minutes in, I stop fighting the urge to cry. It is pointless. I cry on and off for the duration of the dinner, secretly wondering if there are traces of mascara smeared all over my face.

It’s Chrissie’s turn now—a woman I have known for exactly one hour. Her story is perhaps the simplest of all: she is lonely. With three young children under her care, she often feels too anxious or overwhelmed to attend playdates and mom groups. She’s home a lot. She tells us how someone tagged her in the event post on Instagram, and, in preparing to attend, she hopped on Amazon and purchased our book.

Her eyes meet mine, and she begins to tell me how our book has had a profound impact on her life over the past few weeks. She tells me how, for the first time since becoming a mom, she felt understood. Encouraged. Not alone. She is crying now, and I’m crying watching her cry, and she says, “I feel like the women who wrote these stories are my friends.”

I am speechless.

Her words echo in my mind as I fall asleep, keeping the hissing at bay.

I know he'll be back soon, but tonight, I rest.  

***

Last I checked, the world is still ugly. I think it will be until Jesus comes back. My coloring pages aren’t really helping anyone, but my other art is. I believe that. I have to believe that. I believe it because no matter how far back I look in the rearview mirror of my life, there God is. Over and over again—laying out the plan, opening the map, and telling me which way to go. I never see the whole picture, but I always see enough to take a leap of faith (even when I'm terrified). 

I wish courage came before obedience, don't you? 

Until then, let's keep going, Lord.

Only by Your grace, may I look around this ugly world and keep making beautiful things.

Introverting at the Grocery Store

Whole30 undoubtedly reinvigorated my love for grocery shopping. I have actually always loved grocery shopping, which is a little strange given my ineptitude for meal planning. I find the art of choosing produce rather relaxing, and I like to take my time wandering the aisles, always stopping for a sample when one is available. And, when it’s 108 degrees outside, I find large air conditioned buildings to be straight up delightful.

Which is why, last Thursday night when we were out of everything from bread to fruit to eggs, I hopped in the car and drove 25 minutes to my favorite grocery store, singing along with a Spotify playlist the entire way.

Sometimes after a long day with the kids, I just need to introvert at the grocery store for an hour, you know?

I walked up and down the wide aisles at a leisurely pace, nobody begging for snacks or whining about sand in their shoes. I took my time reading labels, and even stopped to admire the canned cocktail collection for a bit, settling on the Common Cider blackberry sangria to add to my cart. Two smiling employees asked if I needed help finding anything, but I didn’t.

I knew my way around that store like the back of my hand.

My love affair with Nugget Markets can be traced back to my very first pregnancy. A typical first-time mom, I had read online that deli meats were not recommended for pregnant women, a real tragedy since turkey sandwiches were my number one craving.

I can’t remember who suggested this, but someone told me I should order deli meat from the Nugget deli counter because they cook and carve all their meats in house.

Not one to doddle, I marched my pregnant booty into the grocery store, asked the deli guy about listeria, concluded it was safe, and ordered a turkey sandwich the size of my head with a bag of Cheetos on the side.

It was everything I hoped it would be and more.

I repeated this little trip, if I had to guess, probably close to 90 times throughout my pregnancy. Me and the deli guy? We were on a first-name basis. He knew my sandwich order by heart. In fact, on our way home from the hospital after Everett was born, we stopped at the Nugget for (you guessed it) turkey sandwiches. I remember sitting in the backseat, staring at our four-day-old baby, patiently waiting while Brett ordered our favorite lunch.

The Nugget deli and hot counter became our family tradition twice a week. Every Sunday we’d stop after church and order sandwiches for lunch, and every Tuesday night Brett would pick up tacos (2 for $7, served with rice!) on his way home from work. It was such a simple, ordinary habit, but at a time in our life when everything was changing, I took great joy in the comforting routine of Sunday sandwiches and Tuesday tacos.

Fast forward five years to last Thursday and I was transported right back to that place of familiarity: friendly cashiers, perfectly ripe produce from local farmers, that inexplicable family-owned charm. I exhaled right in the middle of aisle eight with a package of (non Whole30 compliant) organic chocolate chewy banana bites in my hand. 

My husband was at home completing the 24-step bedtime routine while I wandered down the aisles freely. We "divide and conquer" pretty often, but I couldn't help but feel like I got the better end of the deal that night. I mean, as far as chores go, this was practically self-care. 

I think I might make Thursday nights a regular date with myself. A good Spotify playlist for the car + chocolate banana bites as my commission? Yes, please. They even have a coffee bar next to the door! Maybe next time I'll bring a book and sit with a decaf coffee for a few minutes before I shop. 

Introverting at the grocery store -- who knew it could be this good? 


My favorite Whole30 items from Nugget Markets:

Primal Kitchen condiments and dressings. Well, this is embarrassing, but pre-Whole30 I bought a bunch of Primal dressings online (and paid a small fortune for them!). I was super panicked that I wouldn’t be able to find them local, and didn’t want to be stranded on day two with no salad dressing. Imagine my surprise when I went to Nugget a few weeks ago and not only were Primal products showcased on display, they were on sale, too! 

Sugar-free marinara sauces. The pasta aisle at Nugget is my FAVORITE. While you can’t have pasta on Whole30, you can have marinara sauce (we did ground turkey + marinara sauce + zoodles a lot). Nugget has a ton of sugar-free, locally made sauces.

All the vegetables, all the fruits. When it comes to fresh produce, no grocery store compares, in my opinion, to Nugget Markets. I love how they partner with local farms! Their stone fruit right now is SO GOOD. They have every fruit and vegetable imaginable, and all of their organic options are right in the front of the store for easy access. 

All the meat. Finding grass-fed beef and organic meat options at Nugget is a breeze. I also recently found out that you can purchase meat in-store and ask the meat department to marinate it or create a custom rub for you (!). YUM.

All the almond butter. We went through a jar of almond butter every 5-6 days on Whole30, and Nugget has a ton of options, a lot of which are locally made! 

Fresh to Market EVOO. Our go-to cooking oil for Whole30. 

Fresh to Market Apple Sauce. This was my favorite treat on Whole30! Anytime I was really craving something sweet, I fixed myself a little bowl of applesauce topped with cinnamon. I've actually kept this habit up post Whole30, too. It satisfies my sweet tooth, and doesn't make me feel super bloated like ice cream does. 

Fresh to Market eggs. These large brown eggs come from cage-free chickens raised on organic vegetarian feed (and are never given any added hormones, steroids or antibiotics). Breakfast, erryday.

Not on Whole30?

Do yourself a favor and just curl up in their bread and cheese sections. I mean it. Nugget Markets makes all their bread in-house and they stock over 400 varieties of cheese. Yes I said 400. I know. Your mind is blown. You could try a different cheese every day for one year and not run out (!). 

Do you also love introverting at Nugget Markets? What's your favorite item there?

p.s. This concludes alllllllll my posts on Whole30. I promise to go back to regular programming now. Thanks for sticking with me! 

*This post was sponsored by Nugget Markets, a local family-owned grocery store I love. 

The biggest lesson I learned during whole30

I want to start by telling you that I learned a LOT of things during Whole30. I learned there is sugar in (almost) everything. I learned that cooking real food for every meal results in a crapload of dishes. I learned that meal prep is key to staying on track. I learned that less is more, and sometimes the simplest recipes are actually the best recipes (much to my surprise and delight!). I learned that 80% of my social life involves food, and usually not-very-healthy food.  

I learned that I am both an emotional and mindless eater. Prior to Whole30, I ate all the time. I ate when I was happy. I ate when I was sad. I ate when I was bored. I almost always ate when I watched TV. And, 9 times out of 10, I ate whatever was quick, easy, convenient, and pre-packaged. If my kids were eating goldfish crackers on the couch, I ate a handful, too. If I made them mac-n-cheese for dinner, I'd eat some, too. If I was at a restaurant with a basket of bread on the table, I'd eat that because someone else had put it front of me. If I was at a birthday party, I'd eat a cupcake because everyone else was eating cupcakes. 

There is nothing wrong with eating bread.
There is nothing wrong with eating cupcakes.

But, if you're always eating bread and cupcakes (and chips and candy and whatever other crap you're mindlessly consuming in front of Netflix) without thinking about why you are eating those things, you might not be caring for your body as well as you could be. 

Prior to Whole30, my eating habits were not intentional, proactive, or mindful. Eating was just another thing I did, like walking or breathing. If my stomach growled, I grabbed whatever was within reach. If I was sitting down to watch a show, I'd make myself a bowl of popcorn, even if I had just finished dinner. I never meal planned. I never gave food a whole lot of thought, to be honest. A lot of times, I was not eating to serve a purpose for my body; I was simply eating for the sake of eating. 

We had Robin Long on our C+C podcast a few months ago and one message she repeated a few times that I really loved was this: Do the things you need to do to feel the way you want to feel. 

Simple in theory; not always simple in practice. It's easy for me to pop a waffle in the toaster and call that breakfast on the way out the door. It's less easy for me to make scrambled eggs with sausage, chop up fruit, and sit down to eat a proper meal at the beginning of my day. And I'll tell you what: only one of those options makes me feel good, both in the moment, and for the next several hours.

But the real lesson I want to share with you today is the biggest epiphany I took away from Whole30, and it has nothing to do with food and everything to do with me. 

I learned I am way more disciplined than I've ever given myself credit for. 

My greatest fear upon starting Whole30 was that I wasn't going to be able to do it. I was scared I would cave, or cheat, or give in to temptation by the second week. But I didn't. Not once. 

And honestly? It wasn't as hard as I thought it was going to be. 

Did it suck to go to a BBQ and not eat the pasta salad? Yes. Did it suck to go to the coffee shop and not order a bagel like I always do? You bet. Did it suck to not have coffee creamer for thirty days? HELLS TO THE YES it did. 

When it comes to most things, I don't consider myself to be a very competitive person. As in, I am cheering for you, always. I do not believe in the myth of scarcity; I believe wholeheartedly in the truth of abundance. I believe there is more than enough room for all of us, for all of our success, for all of our gifts and talents.

There is someone I am really competitive with though, and that person is me. When I committed to Whole30, I knew I was going to be competing against ... myself. I knew I was going to have to fight the lazy, sugar-addicted, quick-fix, mindless eater version of me. I really wanted the healthy version of me (or the "aspiring" healthy version of me), to come out on top. 

And she did (!).

Which leads me to believe just about anything is possible. If I can do Whole30, what can't I do? I thought this was going to be the hardest thing in the world for me to finish ... and it wasn't. 

Which leads me to believe:

If I can do Whole30, surely I can get up at 5am to write. 
If I can do Whole30, surely I can stick to an actual budget.
If I can do Whole30, surely I can run a half marathon (lolololol, just kidding).

... you get my point though. 

Nothing feels impossible to me right now. Before I started Whole30, I was feeling weak. Not physically, but mentally. I felt like my own health was spiraling out of my control, as if I didn't possess the will-power to do anything to change it. And that's simply not true. I had the will-power all along; I just needed something as bold as Whole30 to show me what I was capable of. 

My next venture? I'm going to take a stab at getting up early to write. My girl Katie Blackburn promised to be my accountability partner. 

And after Whole30, I really believe I can do it.

Especially now that I have my coffee creamer back.