Why I'm Done Sending Christmas Cards

Last December, I had a flitting moment of genius.

Back story: Thanks to the pre-Christmas insanity, with all the baking and gift buying and decorating and wrapping and mailing, I was turning into Mrs. Grinch. Which is sad, really, because taken individually, I like each of those tasks. I like to bake. I like to buy gifts. I like to decorate and wrap and enjoy the season. It's just that it's too much, too fast, and the pressure sucks the joy out.

I wished I could postpone some of the activities until after Christmas, when the rush comes to a dead halt and I still have a week of winter break to enjoy. But the kids have this thing about opening gifts on Christmas morning (go figure), and it's somewhat anticlimactic to put up a tree on December 26.

And that's when it hit me - why send Christmas cards when I could send New Year's cards and actually enjoy the process of designing and mailing letters to our many far-flung friends? There's no law that says the cards have to be received before December 25 to count. Holiday cards are tiny bubbles of happiness whenever they arrive.


Thus, I sat down on December 27 last year and throughly enjoyed ordering these cards from Shutterfly.

This year, I'm in the mood to try something new, and my favorite Christmas cards came from friends using Minted. I've been shopping the site the last few days, in-between snuggles and games of Zingo and skating sessions on the new backyard rink.

I've narrowed it down to these options:





You might notice, I'm all about the fun and bright and the whimsy. But honestly, how am I supposed to choose? Minted has more than 250 New Year's photo cards. I'm a notorious waffler when it comes to stuff like this. Because I love it all.

Which one do you like best? No guarantees, but maybe it will help me make up my mind.

Minted is compensating me for reviewing their New Year's cards, but my choices and opinions are entirely my own. I'll be sure to let you know what I think of the cards once they arrive, too.

Among Us

"There were sheepherders camping in the neighborhood. They had set night watches over their sheep. Suddenly, God’s angel stood among them and God’s glory blazed around them. They were terrified."

I read that familiar passage from Luke last night, after I collapsed into bed, a weary but happy heap of holiday hope.

For the first time ever, the words "God's angel stood among them" jumped out to me. I was startled awake.

In the pictures we see in our Bibles and in famous artwork, the angels hover over the hillside, with the shepherds and the oddly non-terrified sheep below. It's intense, for sure; I'm not sure how I would react if a blazing being suddenly appeared in the sky above me, like a comet plunging to earth.

But I know for sure how I would react if that same blazing being suddenly appeared right next to me, feet on the same soil, elbows close enough to touch.

I would be beyond terrified. I would gasp and jump back and probably tremble with the adrenaline surge of my life.

With me? Right here? In my space? It's too much. It's too real. I can't comprehend it.

But that's what the Bible says happened. The angel appeared among the shepherds, and eventually, an entire regiment of angels joined him. God's glory lit up every blade of grass, every stubble on the shepherd's face, every bruise and smudge of dirt and smear of sheep dung.

It's too real. Holy among the unclean. God's messengers with the outcasts.

Maybe God did it that way to signal something.

Because, just a few miles from that hillside, God had moved into the neighborhood. He came to dwell in our mess, in our gritty reality. The outsiders moved in faith and sought out the baby in the manager, and they became insiders, privy to witness the greatest miracle of all time.

God among us.



He is here.

Here, Taste This : Chocolate Mint Brownies

If I have any cooking mojo at all, I got it from my Mom.

She's an old-school, from-scratch, homemade-is-best wonder. Her Sunday dinners are legendary, she once had a small business selling her cinnamon rolls, and it's not a birthday in my house unless I have pan of her chocolate cake baking in my oven. It's the scent of celebration to me.

When I was a kid, our kitchen was a virtual machine each December. My Mom would make close to 20 kinds of cookies and several types of candy. (And that doesn't include the cinnamon rolls for Christmas morning, the ice cream cake roll for the Sunday dinner before Christmas, the Hannukah meal we all loved, etc.) (I have no idea how my siblings and I aren't all obese.) She gave away a lot of her bounty, packing plates of sweets for teacher's gifts and staff presents. And we kids, we were fine with that.

As long as she didn't give away a SINGLE Chocolate Mint Brownie. Because those double-iced, rich and minty, buttery bites were our favorite, and they were not for sharing. They were ours. ALL OURS.

So today, I'm sharing the recipe with you. In hopes that you'll make them for your own family and watch them turn into mini-Grinches after tasting them.

Because I'm clearly not sharing the pan I made this week.

Warning: This recipe uses more than a pound of butter and half a dozen eggs and more than two pounds of sugar. And it is worth every single calorie.


1-1/2 cups butter, softened
3 cups sugar
6 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla
2-1/2 cups flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup cocoa powder

1. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs and vanilla and beat until combined. Mix in flour, salt and cocoa powder.
2. Spread in a 10x15 jelly roll pan.
3. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 25-30 minutes.
4. Cool throughly.

1. Yes, that's 3 sticks of butter, Marge. It's worth it.
2. I don't have a jelly roll pan, so I make these in a half-sheet cake pan. They turn out fine. Just cook them a little less. The edges want to crisp up before the middle is done.
3. This makes a lot of brownies. I cut them small, because they are rich, and I get about 7 dozen. Theoretically, you could half this recipe and make it in a 9x13 pan if you'd rather not have such a large batch of goodness in your house. But why would you do something so miserly at the holidays? Why?
4. I put my brownies in my garage to cool, because it's cold out there. A fridge would work if you live in a place where you can feel your toes in January. You want them to be almost chilled before you go on to the next step. (The brownies. Not your toes.)

Mint Icing
1/2 cup butter, softened
2 cups powdered sugar
2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon peppermint extract
green food coloring

1. Beat butter until fluffy. Add sugar in small amounts until throughly mixed.
2. Add milk and beat until icing is fluffy. Add peppermint extract and a few drops of green food coloring at the end. The icing should be buttery, fluffy and mint green.
3. Spread on cool brownies. Chill.

1. If you don't have green food coloring, it wouldn't be the end of the world. The peppermint extract ensure they taste minty. But the green color adds to the overall effect.
2. If you haven't cooled your brownies sufficiently before adding this icing, it will melt and spread out in a puddle. Not that I've ever done this (cough), but I've heard it can be a mess. Patience is your friend.
3. Once they are iced, put the brownies back in your garage or your fridge. You want this icing to be nice and cold before you add the pièce de résistance.

Chocolate Ganache
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
6 tablespoons butter

1. Combine chocolate chips and butter in a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on high for 1 minute. Stir well. If chocolate is not all melted, microwave for 30 more seconds and stir until no chunks remain.
2. Stir mixture until silky and let cool until it's not hot to the touch.
3. Spread over the mint frosting layer of the brownies and chill one last time before cutting.

1. If you have an off-set spatula, this is when you want to use it. It's a huge help in spreading this silky chocolate over the mint icing. Use a light touch so you don't combine the two layers.
2. Chill throughly before you cut, and if you want the brownies to look purty, use a sharp knife dipped in hot water between each cut.
3. I leave an edge around my pan, because the icing doesn't always reach.
4. The first few brownies you remove will probably be a mess. That's OK. Eat them and move on. Once you have space for the spatula, they will come out easier.
5. Store these brownies in the fridge for the best results. That chocolate ganache gets gooey in a warm kitchen.

Innocence Lost

I didn't live this past weekend as much as pray to wake up.

I think many of us felt that way, after the nightmare of last Friday. How can we go on, with hearts shattered by sorrow? It is too much. It is pain beyond imagination, evil beyond description.

So we lament, and our souls don sackcloth and ashes and we seek respite in the sweet innocence of children.

That is how I cope, now that I'm a parent. Natalie was just 6 weeks old when evil tore into the Twin Towers, and life was forever marked by before and after. I cradled my newborn and kissed her head and I didn't put her down for days. My tears wet her hair, and I would occasionally look away from the TV and look down at her tiny body as she nursed, and she would be staring at me with her hazel eyes, a gaze of pure love and trust. And fear dissolved away, like snow in the rain.

It's always been that way. During the darkest days of our marriage, Connor was a newborn, Natalie a toddler. I sought refuge in their simple routines, in their laughter and innocence. And this past weekend, I found myself touching Teyla's curls more often, embracing Kieran's constant touch. I let the laughter of Natalie and Connor wash over me like a healing balm.

They know little of evil, these children of mine. We don't watch the news, and their lives are sheltered and safe, as it should be.

As it should be.

But Natalie, my oldest, she is 11 and in sixth grade. She has entered the in-between land where she is not yet adult, yet not quite child. I knew, last night, I had to tell her. Her teacher sent a note home Friday afternoon and said the entire school staff was broken with the news of the day, but they declined to tell the students themselves, believing that was a task better left to the parents.

I swayed on that cliff for three days. A large part of me wanted to keep Natalie's bubble of naivete. Life's malignancy will stain her soon enough, and Corey and I both know there is a trickle down effect in a group of siblings. By keeping Natalie blissfully unaware, we protect the collective.

But the deeper part of me knew this was the time. She is in sixth grade. Many of her classmates are the youngest in their families, exposed to so much more than she. I didn't want her to be the only one at prayer time this morning wondering what Miss Johnson was talking about.

So last night, in a brief moment alone as I cleaned up the kitchen, I looked her deep in the eyes and told her of Friday. Just the barest details, but enough. And I watched her face crumble with disbelief and then horror and then utter grief. Her eyes pooled with tears and she threw her head on the counter and started to weep.

I walked over and held her. And I wept too.

Eden is fouled.

Innocence lost.

It should not be.

Here, Taste This : Mini Turkey Burgers with Sweet Potato Fries

This fall, I'm earning my black-belt in solo parenting. Corey's been gone all but five weeks since August. That's a pace of travel that's ridiculous even for him. He's home on the weekends, but I'm on my own when it comes to managing the school week and all that comes with it.

I think it's an understatement when I say: I've had to figure out a new way to do dinner when it's just me and four kids. I don't have the energy, time or focus to cook the way I do when Corey is home. And honestly, why bother? The kids don't eat that without a fight anyway.

But I also don't want to serve cereal or frozen pizza every night for dinner. It's fine on a really bad day. But this is my life right now; eating junk all the time isn't sustainable.

Enter: The menu of kid-friendly-but-still-healthy food. To make my list, recipes must be quick to make, easy to clean-up, be mostly real food and be something both the kids and I would want to eat.

The recipes I'm sharing today top that list. They are kid-friendly, even kid-sized, yet tasty and healthy. I originally got these recipes from Everyday Food (which has been discontinued with the December 2012 issue, a fact I am still in mourning about) (really - mourning), but I've adapted them quite a bit to make them even easier. Serve this with some apple or orange slices and some sugar snap peas to round out the meal.

Mini Turkey Burgers

1 pound ground turkey
1/2 cup cheddar cheese
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1/2 small onion, grated OR 1 tablespoon dried onion
salt and pepper
1-2 teaspoons olive oil
12 whole wheat dinner rolls or mini hamburger buns

1. Combine ground turkey, cheddar cheese, bread crumbs and onion; season with salt and pepper. Mix gently. Form 12 small patties, about 2 inches each.
2. Heat olive oil in a medium-sized skillet over medium heat. Cook patties until browned and cooked through, flipping once, about 5 minutes per side. Serve on dinner rolls with lettuce, tomatoes, ketchup and mustard on the side.

1. The regular lean turkey works best for turkey burgers; the extra lean stuff is too dry.
2. I use regular bread crumbs, but you could use seasoned if that's all you have.
3. These reheat well for lunch the next day; just pop the burger in the bun into the microwave for 30 seconds.

Sweet Potato Fries

2 sweet potatoes, for about 2 pounds total, peeled and cut into 1/2-by-2-inch sticks
2 tablespoons olive oil
Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper

1. Preheat over to a rip-roaring 450-degrees. Toss potato sticks with the olive oil; season with salt and pepper. Arrange in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet.
2. Roast, flipping once, until tender and starting to brown, about 25-30 minutes.

1. If you're this whole meal, get the sweet potatoes in the oven before you start the burgers. That way, they'll be done about the same time.
2. Serve these as fast as you can for maximum crispness. Sweet potato fries tend to get soggy quickly.

Gifts Tweens Want To Get

Chances are likely, you have one in your life.

And buying a gift for them makes your heart quake with terror.

Fear not, gentle friends. Tweens are not another species. They are just changing. (My daughter is so tired of me saying that.) I believe it is possible to get them a gift for Christmas that won't get returned. (Hi! I'm Kelly! I'm hopelessly optimistic!)

This list was put together with help from my own 11-year-old daughter and a dear friend who has three boys between the ages of 12 and 16. Experience breeds confidence, yes? And talking to real tweens (and teens) about what they want means it's credible.

One note before we begin: My friend and I have ulterior motives with these gifts. We don't just want to delight the tweens in our life; we want to draw them in, to build relationships with them and get to know them. So we've weighted gifts that allow us to scheme for quality time.

Shall we start with the boys?

1. Army Surplus
Your local army surplus store is tween boy heaven.

Not only do they have all kinds of trinkets and gear, like customizable dog tags, Navy SEAL iron-on patches, compasses, camo hats and flight jackets, but they have male-friendly storage containers, also known as retired ammo boxes. My friend says her boys use those beat-up metal boxes to store everything from Legos to books to video games at her house. Genius gift. Cool and practical. (If you can't find an army surplus store near you - maybe you live in Berkley? - you can always shop online.)

2. Airsoft Gear
If you are a pacifist, look away. LOOK AWAY! But if you are the parent or relative of a tween boy, you probably already know what I'm going to say: Airsoft is hugely popular with boys between the ages of 9 and 19. For the uninitiated: it's basically a BB gun that shoots tiny plastic beads. Boys will spend hours chasing each other through the woods seeking nothing more than the thrill of putting the hurt on their friend or sibling. You can find Airsoft gear at your local sporting goods store or, again, online.

3. Fan Gear

Think outside of the pro sports team box here. What about a local minor league baseball team? Or a sport that doesn't get as much attention in your area? Or - my favorite - what about gear for the high school they'll someday attend? Talk about a great way to build up your community.

4. Events
This ties directly back to scheming to get quality time. Instead of a gift that might break in a week or get returned the next day, buy tickets to an upcoming game, be it pro, semi or high school. Buy passes for that movie that you know he wants to see and go with him. (Hint: The Hobbit opens December 14.) Hit up some balls at a batting cage. Sprain your ankle at an indoor trampoline park. Give him a gift card to his favorite store - but then promise to take him on that shopping trip and go for burgers and fries afterwards. Experiences are priceless to tweens, and your investment in that relationship is the real gift.

BONUS: Stocking Stuffers for Tween Boys
- portable iPod speakers
- sunglasses
- iTunes gift card
- handheld video games like this Simon Electronic Carabiner
- action-oriented games like Bop It

On to the girls. A quick note. These ideas - and more - were originally published in my Gift Guide for Tween Girls. You can always check that out if these highlights don't strike your fancy.

1. Digital Camera
This is what we got Natalie for her birthday this year: a purple (color is critical to tween girls) Kodak EasyShare Mini Digital Camera.

It's been a great gift; the EasyShare is user-friendly, small, lightweight and not pricey. But really, any camera similar to it would work.

2. Scrapbook Kit
If the tween girl in your life already has a camera, the logical next step is to record those memories. My daughter loves crafts, ao a physical scrapbook would be the easiest entry point.

Try something like the American Girl Crafts Super Scrapbook Kit. (All of the American Girl Crafts are high quality, I've found.) Or, if the girl you're buying for isn't into stickers and glue, you could always move directly to digital scrapbooking. Getting her a gift card to an online photo site like Shutterfly or Snapfish would let her create a photo book of her best friends, her summer adventures or even her Christmas break.

3. Funky Furniture
A few years ago, Natalie was given a (purple) chair for her birthday. It's similar to this hang-a-round chair at Pottery Barn Teens.

It's round and cozy and foldable, so it's easy to move or store. It's the perfect place to curl up on a rainy Saturday and read a book or three. (Or a great place to keep your Shriveled Balloon Collection, which is what Natalie's chair is doing right now. Keeping it real, folks.) Pottery Barn's chair is obviously a tad high on the price spectrum, but you can find all sorts of fun chairs or beanbags at Target, Wal-Mart or Ikea. I would never have thought of giving furniture as a gift, but done right, it can be practical and cool.

4. Activity for Two
Find an activity your girl loves - or something that will challenge her to learn something new. Social media sites like Groupon and Living Social can be fun for this; they offer great deals on services or experiences you might not have considered. What about an afternoon of paddle boarding? Or rock climbing lessons? Tickets to a Circque de Soleil show? Take her to tea. Go get a pedicure. Go on a sleigh ride. Give her a gift card and then take her shopping for some new boots. Again, the time you spend together will be the real gift - for both of you.

BONUS: Stocking Stuffers for Tween Girls
- fun tights
- lipgloss, nail polish, bubble bath
- Gussy Sews hair accessories or seasonal zipped pouch
- small Starbucks tumbler
- fuzzy socks or slippers
- Perfectly Unique, a fun and fresh look at aligning our body image with God's view of us, by the irrepressible and talented Annie Downs

Looking for more gift ideas? Have I got a deal for you! Some of my favorite blogging friends are posting gift guides today, each with its own flavor and speciality. Take a gander.
Sarah Bessey : Sarah's Favourite Things
The BlahBlahBlahger : Gifts for Wine Lovers
O My Family : Gifts for Toddlers
Joy In This Journey : Healthy Gifts
Fried Okra : Stylish Gifts for Him and Her
Nish Happens : Gifts for the Adventurous
Love Feast Table : Gifts for Him

Me and my Shadow

I have this shadow.

It follows me wherever I go. Sometimes, it lags behind. It might take a few minutes to catch up to my new location.

But it always reappears.

Especially when I sit at the computer for a few minutes. Or try to cook dinner. Or take a shower.

It is my constant companion.

It isn't a perfect copy. It's about half my size and it has way more energy than me.

And it talks different. It says like things like, "Hi Mama! You taking shower, Mama? You on da compooter Mama? Wook at me, Mama! I firefighter Kieran!"

It even appears at my side in the middle of the night, with a hand on my face and a tousled head on my shoulder.

Occasionally, my shadow disappears. Sometimes it's because it's playing Legos or reading a book or building a train track.

But more likely, it's because that shadow is climbing a counter stool to get into the treats cabinet and stuff handfuls of mini peppermint marshmallows in its ample cheeks. Or maybe it can be found pouring an entire bottle of bubble bath into the tub. Or maybe it's coloring on the legs of the kitchen table or dialing the phone or digging in the house plants in search of secret treasure.

I don't like it when my shadow disappears.

I prefer to keep it close to me. That's the point of a shadow, after all. It's always there, invited or not. It's steadfast and devoted and perfectly happy just to be with you.

Funny thing about shadows: when they show up, the sun shines.

Welcome to The Parent 'Hood, a weekly blog round-up of all things parenting. I host this carnival every Monday (er, sometimes Tuesday), along with some of my favorite blogging buddies (FriedOkra, Vita Familiae, To Think is To Create, Joy in this Journey, Lovefeast Table and O My Family). Post your link using the tool below, and your post will show up instantly on all the host blogs.

A few bits and pieces:
1. Today’s link-up will run from this morning through next Sunday night. A new link-up will start next Monday morning.
2. Link the unique URL of your parenting post, not the homepage of your blog. Otherwise, your parenting post will get buried under new content on your homepage and be hard to find when readers click through later in the week.
3. We ask that you please include a link somewhere in your post back to The Parent 'Hood, via this post or The Parent 'Hood welcome post on any of the other hosting blogs.
4. If you're on Twitter, hashtag Parent 'Hood posts with #TheParentHood.
5. Share your own posts and read and comment on other blogs. Any good 'hood is all about community, right? Read, comment and enjoy as you have time.

Here, Taste This: Tex-Mex Enchuritos

I am so over turkey.

And leftover mashed potatoes. And green bean salad.

Anyone with me?

The goal for the week after Thanksgiving is to use up the danged leftovers and then move on in the flavor department. Introduce something new, something spicy, something our forefathers would never have thought of.

Let's make some enchiladas, filled with spicy beef and sharp cheddar and covered with a fiery chipotle sauce and baked until crispy and bubbling.

Only, technically, enchiladas are made with corn tortillas, and I'm not a fan, probably because it's hard to get good corn tortillas here in the Upper Midwest. So I make these with flour tortillas. Which means I'm really making something more akin to burritos here.

Let's call them enchuritos. The purists will be pacified.

photo courtesy Everyday Food

Tex Mex Enchuritos

3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup flour
30 ounces chicken broth
3 tablespoons chili powder
2 small chipotle chiles in adobo, minced
2 tablespoons adobo sauce from the can
1-1/2 cups water
1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1.5 pounds lean ground beef
Coarse salt and ground pepper
10 flour tortillas
3 cups shredded cheddar cheese
Chopped cilantro

1. First, let's make the sauce. In a medium saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium. Add the flour and whisk together; cook 1 minute. Add broth, chili powder, the minced chipotles and adobo sauce, and water. Bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Reduce heat, and simmer until lightly thickened, about 10 minutes.
2. Next, let's make the filling. In a large nonstick skillet, cook beef, onion and garlic; season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir occasionally until cooked through, about 10 minutes.
3. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Spoon 1/2 cup sauce in bottom of an 9x13 baking dish, enough to just cover the bottom.
4. Time to assembled the enchuritos. Fill each tortilla with a heaping 1/4 cup beef mixture and 2 tablespoons cheese; roll up tightly. Set each enchurito, seam side down, in the baking dish. When the dish is full, pour remaining sauce on top; sprinkle with cheese. Baked, uncovered, until hot and bubbly, 15-20 minutes. Serve garnished with cilantro.

1. For the chicken broth, you can either buy 2 15-ounce cans or one of those resealable boxes and just measure what you need.
2. If you've never bought chioptles in adobo, don't be scared. They are awesome. You'll find them in the Mexican food aisle, and you can freeze the chiles and the sauce that remain after this recipe. I use chipotles in all kinds of recipes; I love having a few stashed in my freezer at all times.
3. Stuff those enchuritos in your baking pain in whatever direction you choose. I usually end up with the majority lined up the long way and a few stragglers lying along the bottom. Doesn't matter. It all tastes good.
4. If cilantro is the herb from hell to you, you don't have to use it.
5. I always serve this with a crunchy green salad, as show in the picture. It's the perfect accompaniment.

I Don't Understand, Charlie Brown

I realize what I’m about to say is un-American. Or worse, un-Minnesotan, since Charles Schultz hails from this state. (All of a sudden, all those Zamboni jokes make sense, don't they?)

But I don't get the enduring reverence for Charlie Brown.

A few weeks ago, our family watched the annual airing of the Peanuts special “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” My kids have seen it a few times, mostly when they’ve decided to check the DVD out of the library - in June, naturally. But it’s been a few years, so watching it this fall was like watching it for the first time.

Before I continue, I feel compelled by my distaste for all things controversial to say: I don’t hate Charlie Brown. When I was a kid, I used to check out the Complete Collection of Peanuts from the library at least once a year. I had a small thing for Snoopy. And my kids are so used to me listening to the music from Charlie Brown Christmas each winter that they’ve started saying “This sounds like Charlie Brown” whenever they hear jazz.

So I'm not a jerk, OK?

But I can't say the same about most of the Peanuts gang. They aren't just jerks; they are bullies, especially to Charlie Brown. The Halloween special revolved around them calling each other blockhead and idiot (two words that would get kids in major trouble in our house, if they dared fling them like the Peanuts gang) and mocking Linus’ childlike faith in the Great Pumpkin. Charlie Brown got no candy in his trick-or-treat bag – only bricks. Lucy pulled the football away from him – again - even after promising not to. The few times the kids were kind to each other – like when Lucy goes to get her sleeping little brother out of the pumpkin patch, where he’s shivering with cold – the compassion was colored with huffs and eye rolls.

The humor is grown-up and very 1960s. Jokes about women’s lib abound, and when Linus and Charlie Brown debate the existence of the Great Pumpkin versus Santa Clause, Charlie brown quips, “We’re obviously separated by denominational differences.” Corey and I snickered. But the kids didn’t even flinch.

Frankly, the only somewhat entertaining part of the special was Snoopy’s foray into the world of the Red Baron. And even then, our kids didn’t really understand it. “What is he shooting? Why are there bullet holes in his dog house? If he crashes, will he die? Why is he crawling around on the ground now?” It made no sense to them. But they liked that he made silly noises and shook his fist at invisible enemies.

I know the Christmas special has more redeeming qualities. And I'll admit that my kids watched The Great Pumpkin more than once, even though they didn't get most of the jokes and they were saddened and a little angered by the constant meanness. But to my eyes, it appears the culture lore of Charlie Brown is one of those traditions that is cherished more for its nostalgia than its intrinsic value.

Am I wrong? Tell me I am. Explain.

Thankful (A Partial List)

image via 3 Wishes Creation
I am thankful for food, because cooking is one of my favorite forms of play. I spent eight hours in my kitchen today, and tonight, I wear the satisfied smile of an artist who spent time with her muse.

I am thankful for the dried Play-Dough on my floor, because it kept my toddler occupied for 30 whole minutes.

I am thankful for my camera, because it allows me to collect everyday moments and keep them forever, like polished stones in my pocket.

I am thankful for poets, because their words scatter into the crevices of my soul and crack wide the soil packed hard by routine practicality.

I am thankful for my body, because it is strong, if a bit lumpy, and it has born four babies.

I am thankful for Zumba, because I come alive when I dance.

I am thankful for flannel sheets.

I am thankful for my home, this gift I scarcely dared hope for during years of transition. It is nothing like what I used to envision, yet it is everything I've ever wanted.

I am thankful for the gap in Teyla's front teeth, because it is adorable and it reminds me that perfection is not required for beauty.

I am thankful for Connor's infectious laugh, because it lights up the very air with joy.

I am thankful for new friends who enliven, encourage and energize. I feel like I've stumbled onto a secret cave of treasure, and I stagger under the exquisite richness around me.

I am thankful for old friends who knew the me I used to be, who see the me I am and who give me hope I will be the me I want to become.

I am thankful for my siblings, scattered though we may be. They have grown into some of my favorite people. If the four of us lived near each other, we would surely end up like the Bravermans, and I'm not sure anyone needs that much drama in their lives.

I am thankful for music because makes the intangible beat of my heart real.

I am thankful for parents who's unconditional love was as common and expected as the bottomless tin of homemade cookies in the kitchen cupboard, third drawer down. To have love be as ordinary and as decadent as a Chocolate Crinkle is a gift I still can't measure.

I am thankful for Natalie, who picked up every room in the house tonight just because she knows clutter drives me slightly batty.

I am thankful for Kieran's zest for life, even if he wakes me up at 6:00 AM to show me his "new" big boy bed, for the thousandth time.

I am thankful that the sun rose again this morning. Glory.

I am thankful Corey is home this week, because now I am whole.

I am thankful for a God who redeems and renews and restores, who wastes nothing, who loves without end, who is defined by grace.

I am thankful. My soul overflows with gratitude.

Lord, may it always be so.

Without You

photo courtesy 1000 Words Photography
Solo parenting is grueling work.

Because of his new job, Corey has been home only four weeks since August. The kids and I are finding our stride, learning how to thrive in this environment instead of just survive it. This is my life; to grit my teeth and push through with grim determination would be to despise the gift.

But there's no denying it's exhausting to parent four kids alone, day after day after day. I'm the only adult around to make the meals, break up fights, give the baths, read the books, laugh at the jokes, listen to the stories. It's just a lot to do, and most nights, I fall into bed thoroughly spent.

But I have found something that makes solo parenting even harder - the dryness of being disconnected from my spouse.

I fist noticed the parched surface of my own soul in September, about the time I wrote this post. I felt weary to the core, drained. A Southern friend might say plain tuckered.

To be sure, no one expects to have loamy top soil in this stage of life. This is the time of sowing and weeding, a season of work. But I started to notice it wasn't just the surface that was parched. My well was dry. There was no refreshment in the deep places.

And that's when I realized: I miss my husband. I don't just miss his help with the kids or his companionship at the end of a long day. I miss him. I miss our closeness, I miss our jokes, I miss the knowing and the being known. We were growing apart, as quietly and steadily as two boats without oars.

This realization hit me like a bolt.

Corey and I are good at living separate lives. We did it for years before we had kids. He worked long hours for his job, I worked weird hours for mine. We drifted. We got used to being roommates. We grew accustomed to a dry, barren relationship. We could function as a team to take care of the house, pay the bills, even lead the young marrieds class at church. But there was nothing behind the mask.

We didn't like it; no one gets married and hopes for an empty shell of a relationship. But we accepted it as normal. Everyone has struggles, right?

And then God used a variety of circumstances to burn our false front to the ground. Nothing remained but ash. We mourned, with broken hearts and deep humility.

Funny thing about firestorms, though: they leave behind fertile ground. When the new growth began to appear, we could scarcely believe the blessing of a second chance. The last nine years have been the best of our marriage, because now we know that we squandered our first 10 with indifference and resentment. Now we know what can happen if we aren't intentional about letting God deal with us, if we aren't intentional about staying connected. If we don't love each other well.

I say all this so you understand my horror when I recognized the dryness of my soul. It wasn't because I was busy (I was) or the kids were whiny (they were) or I wasn't getting enough sleep (I wasn't). The underlying problem, the root of it all, was the lack of togetherness with my spouse. Nothing could make up for that, and without it, nothing else seemed to work.

Thankfully, once we had a diagnosis, Corey and I were able to tackle the problem together, and today, we are working on keeping connected even while apart. We don't want to go back.

After 20 years together, even in the lean seasons, he is the other half of me.

Maybe this is what is meant when God says he'll make you one.

Welcome to The Parent 'Hood, a weekly blog round-up of all things parenting. I host this carnival every Monday (er, sometimes Tuesday), along with some of my favorite blogging buddies (FriedOkra, Vita Familiae, To Think is To Create, Joy in this Journey, Lovefeast Table and O My Family). Post your link using the tool below, and your post will show up instantly on all the host blogs.

A few bits and pieces:
1. Today’s link-up will run from this morning through next Sunday night. A new link-up will start next Monday morning.
2. Link the unique URL of your parenting post, not the homepage of your blog. Otherwise, your parenting post will get buried under new content on your homepage and be hard to find when readers click through later in the week.
3. We ask that you please include a link somewhere in your post back to The Parent 'Hood, via this post or The Parent 'Hood welcome post on any of the other hosting blogs.
4. If you're on Twitter, hashtag Parent 'Hood posts with #TheParentHood.
5. Share your own posts and read and comment on other blogs. Any good 'hood is all about community, right? Read, comment and enjoy as you have time.

Here, Taste This: A Symphonic Thanksgiving Dinner

I do it every year.

When the November magazines show up in my mailbox, and the glossy cover photos showcase updated Thanksgiving classics, I think, “Maybe this is the year to tinker with my menu.” I start to daydream about change. That brown-sugar glaze looks amazing. Maybe I should add another vegetable dish, like that one with
the Brussels sprouts and pancetta. Wow. Check out that pear and custard pie. Do you think it’s crazy to make four different desserts for my family of six?

But then, when I'm forced to make a decision, I can never deviate from the tried and true. I came up with this menu a few years back, after much trial and error. And it is, quite simply, Thanksgiving perfection. I can't bring myself to part with or add one single dish.

Here's why:

1. It’s a symphonic menu - meaning, it is more than the sum of its parts. If I remove even one dish, the meal loses something. If I add a dish, I have too much food. Put together, it’s the perfect balance of savory and sweet, crispy and creamy, fresh and rich. It touches on every Thanksgiving must-have, sometimes in unexpected ways, without overwhelming the table with any one food group. Bonus: It's a gorgeous meal, with all the reds and oranges and greens and browns.

2. Almost every dish can be made the day before Thanksgiving. Even for people like me who love to cook, this is a sanity saver. It allows me to enjoy the day of Thanksgiving, and spend most of it playing games with my children or going on a frosty hike through the woods, instead of standing on my feet in front of the stove for eight hours. You might say, it enables me to have a slice of Sabbath with my pie – and Sabbath is fuel for a thankful heart. Bonus: If you only have one oven, a menu like this is almost a necessity. Having the side dishes already prepared and ready to reheat in the oven while the turkey rests takes a lot of mental gymnastics out of the day.

3. It's all tasty enough to make you want to slap yo mama. Or whatever they do where you live. In Minnesota, if a meal is really amazing, someone might say, "Uff-dah." Which is Swedish swearing. Or so I've been told. I'm not native.

Are you ready? Here we go: the ultimate Here, Taste This, Thanksgiving edition.

Alton Brown's Roast Turkey
Nothing trendy here. No figs in the stuffing or deep-frying the bird or roasting it upside down. Nope, it’s just turkey, Alton Brown-style. It’s brined – which is really the key to taking a turkey from OK to O-WOW – and then cooked at high heat in your oven. The recipe videos are especially helpful to me. (And highly entertaining. "Stuffing, by and large, is evil.") I watch them every year – it’s my own Thanksgiving tradition – so I can be re-educated about the science behind cooking a 15-pound bird in my oven. Also? If you doubt me, believe the good people on the Food Network’s website. This recipe has five stars and almost 3500 reviews.

Cheater method (which I'm totally doing this year). Get yourself an already brined turkey from Trader Joe's, then follow the second half of Alton's recipe. (Alton, forgive me, but I know not what I.... Actually, I totally know what I'm doing, and brining, while genius, is a butt load of work. This is much easier. Thanks for your understanding.)

White Wine Gravy
Gravy is one of those dishes I feel free to play with, but this recipe is close to what I do. I really like the white wine undertones in this. I don't serve wine at Thanksgiving, so I don't offend my conservative Baptist in-laws. I totally serve wine at Thanksgiving these days, because I like wine with my turkey. But IF YOU DON'T, this gravy almost makes up for it.


Delicious, Creamy Mashed Potatoes
The Pioneer Woman's recipe. Seriously. These are a revelation. And so easy. I especially love that I can make them on Wednesday and then pop them in the oven to warm on Thanksgiving and yet they lose nothing in the process. They are just as good the second day as the first.

Roasted Harvest Vegetables
From one of my favorite magazines, Everyday Food. A medley of carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash and garlic are roasted at high heat the day before Thanksgiving. (Note: If the aroma of this dish could be made into a perfume, I would wear it.) Just reheat before serving. Again, nothing is lost in translation.

Green Bean, Watercress and and Crispy Shallot Salad
Another Everyday Food contribution. This is a simple salad -- blanched fresh green beans tossed in a light lemon-Dijon vinaigrette and topped with pan-fried shallot circles. Best: It's best served room temperature. Nothing to reheat here. Just prepare the different parts on Wednesday and toss before serving on Thursday.

Zesty Cranberry Sauce
I love cranberry sauce, and this homemade version is so good, I sometimes eat it for dessert. (True story.) I can't find the recipe online; I've had it so long, I'm not even sure where I got it. But it's easy and short, so I'll just give it to you here.

1 12 oz bag fresh cranberries
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/3 cup water
1/3 cup orange juice
2 teaspoons grated orange peel
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

Combine everything in a medium pot and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until cranberries begin to pop, about 8-10 minutes. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

Nannie's Pumpkin Pie
In my opinion, pumpkin pie is more necessary than turkey for a real Thanksgiving. I know some people don't like it, to which I say: What is WRONG with you freaks? 

Maybe it's because you don't have my Nannie's recipe for pumpkin pie, which has the perfect blend of sugar and spice. According to family lore, Nannie got the recipe off a Kroger's can of pumpkin in the 1940s, when food was being rationed for the war. It has simple ingredients and it's easy to make and it's practically fool-proof.

15 oz canned pumpkin
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1-1/2 tablespoons melted butter
1 tablespoon dark molasses
1-1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
3/4 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon salt

Mix all ingredients well. Bake in an unbaked pie crust at 450 degrees for 10 minutes, and then 350 degrees until set, about another 45 min.


The frost catches me by surprise.

Living lace peaks from the corners of my window panes. It highlights each strand of grass, sparkles on the neighbor's roof, grows in my lungs when I breathe deep of the crisp morning air.

The sun glow pink behind the fir trees, and my toes glow pink from the chill of the frozen bricks.

It is morning in November.

I think it odd that the frost delayed its appearance until now, so late in the fall, after so many cold nights.

Then I remember: the clouds. For weeks, they've lingered, thick and numbing.

Frost rarely grows without the light of the moon glittering like a diamond in the darkness.

I inhale deep. The sharpness of clarity etches me.

And like the frost, I catch the sun.

Linking up with Amber's abstraction on frost and Heather's call to Just Write, because this piece from one of my favorite abstract-and-writerly friends cleared the fog in my soul and let light shine on me like hope.

Here, Taste This: "Homemade" Mac and Cheese

My real-food, Paleo-eating, health-conscious friends should look away for this post.


Look. Away.

Because today, I'm sharing with you the recipe for my homemade macaroni and cheese, a dish so bubbly with cheesy goodness, the mere mention of it triggers spontaneous praise from my children. It's one of their favorite dishes, and when Corey is on the road, I may even serve it and call it dinner.

But. ...


Can you come closer to the screen? I feel the need to whisper.

The thing is, it's not really a from-scratch sort of thing. In fact, it begins with a box of Kraft Deluxe Macaroni and Cheese, which appears to have enough orange food dye in it to make us all glow like Lorax. I am not proud of this, so I keep it a secret; some might say I live in denial.

But I do know there's a fair bit of stirring and measuring and pouring, despite its questionable origins. And wholesome ingredients like cheddar cheese and sour cream are added to the processed cheese sauce. So it's practically homemade, right?

One bite, and it won't matter anyway. Not even to Michael Pollan himself.

"Homemade" Mac and Cheese

1 14-ounce package Kraft Deluxe Macaroni and Cheese
2-1/4 cups hot water
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1-1/2 cups cheddar cheese, shredded
1 cup sour cream or Greek yogurt
1/4 cup Panko bread crumbs

1. In a 1.5-quart casserole dish, whisk together the hot water, pepper and cheese sauce from the box. Ask for forgiveness for using cheese sauce from a box.
2. Stir in dry pasta from the box. Note to self that dry pasta always comes from a box, so this can't be all that bad.
3. Stir in 1 cup of the shredded cheddar cheese. Reflect that cheddar cheese is real food; wipe all thoughts of step one from your mind.
4. Cover casserole with lid; bake at 375 for 25-30 minutes. Carefully remove casserole from oven, stir in the sour cream, sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 cup cheddar cheese and the Panko crumbs.
5. Bake another 10 minutes, uncovered, until bread crumbs are golden and macaroni is bubbling.

1. Kraft makes several variations of Deluxe Mac and Cheese. Any of them will work, but I think the original is the truest version. 

2. I often use a mix of cheddar and jack cheese instead of pure cheddar because it happens to be what I have in my fridge. It's still wonderful, but it does tamper with the intense cheese flavor a bit. You've been warned.
3. As noted above, you can swap Greek yogurt for sour cream. The end result will be richer and tangier; good for adults, maybe not so palatable for kids.

Big Boy Bed

It happened so fast, I didn't have time to dread it.

After yet another night of Kieran thrashing between us, Corey announced one morning, "I think Kieran's ready for a big boy bed!"

And instantly, I knew he was right.

Kieran had been waking up at 3:00 AM for months, disoriented and calling for mama. I was too exhausted to deal with it at that hour, so I would scoop him out of his crib, carry him back to my bed and sleep restlessly the rest of the night as he cuddled and nuzzled and tossed and kicked his way to 6:30 AM.

It wasn't the best sleep, but it wasn't the worst either. This tired mama can sleep through just about anything, including a knee in the ribs and a finger in the ear.

But Corey, who sleeps in a hotel bed almost as often as his own, wasn't as amenable. So it was he who gently reminded me that all our kids did this between age 2 and 3, that the best solution was to get them into a twin bed so I could climb in with them when they need some midnight snuggles, and eventually, they would start sleeping through the night again without mama skin contact.

So, in a matter of days, we bought a bed frame, a mattress, a waterproof mattress cover (for lo, the potty training days are still ahead) and bedding that is so perfectly little boy, I almost clapped my hands in delight. (Pottery Barn Kids has my number. That's all I will say about that.)

And then Corey started to disassemble the crib, and my heart started to come apart too.

That crib, it was never really my style, being a hand-me-down and all. And it's a bear to move, seeing as the bolts have to be inserted one way and tightened another.

But it faithfully cradled each of my babies, and I've spent hours and hours of my life bent over its side rail, stroking little heads and whispering quiet lullabies. I've contorted my arm to fit in the side, when Kieran and Teyla just had to hold my hand while falling asleep. It's been a symbol in our home these last 10 years, of our stage of life and of our blessings.

And now it was being taken down for the last time.

But I didn't have much time for melancholy, because when Kieran first beheld his new bed, he almost exploded with joy.

"It's mah big boy bed! Mah big boy bed!" he shouted over and over as he bounced with utter delight. "And dis a crane! And a dumm truck! And a ex-cob-ator! I wuv mah big boy bed!"

Who can resist that?

Time is relentless. Part of my heart will always lie with the crib, now stacked patiently in the guest room, awaiting a new family.

But a bigger part of my heart is right here, with the big boy, in his big boy bed.

Welcome to The Parent 'Hood, a weekly blog round-up of all things parenting. I host this carnival every Monday, along with some of my favorite blogging buddies (FriedOkra, Vita Familiae, To Think is To Create, Joy in this Journey, Lovefeast Table and O My Family). Post your link using the tool below, and your post will show up instantly on all the host blogs. (How cool is that?)

A few bits and pieces:
1. Today’s link-up will run from this morning through next Sunday night. A new link-up will start next Monday morning.
2. Link the unique URL of your parenting post, not the homepage of your blog. Otherwise, your parenting post will get buried under new content on your homepage and be hard to find when readers click through later in the week.
3. We ask that you please include a link somewhere in your post back to The Parent 'Hood, via this post or The Parent 'Hood welcome post on any of the other hosting blogs.
4. If you're on Twitter, hashtag Parent 'Hood posts with #TheParentHood.
5. Share your own posts and read and comment on other blogs. Any good 'hood is all about community, right? Read, comment and enjoy as you have time.

Comments as Love

Every Friday morning, for 45 precious minutes, between Zumba and preschool pickup, I sit alone with my laptop in the cafe of the local community center, and I determine to write.

It goes something like this: I check Facebook and Twitter, to calm my mind. Then I follow a few links, and read a few posts, "to prime the pump," I tell myself.

And before I know it, I'm too involved in other people's stories to tell my own.

This is a hazard, to be sure, one rightfully guarded against. It's why many bloggers I respect create content first thing in the morning, before checking email or social media or their to-do list.

But this morning, it hit me: Commenting on the blogs that I'm reading, sending emails to people I love, even posting on Facebook, this is writing too. It's not creating content for the masses. This is reaction, not action. But it's still using my words to love well. It's sharing the journey and whispering encouragement and saying, "Me too!" It's writing with laser-directed focus on others, not me.

I would do well to remember this. It is good to create something from nothing. Writing takes work and practice and discipline, and I am trying to get better at that.

But using my time and words to applaud the gift in others, that is writing too.

Disclaimer: I am not writing this to get you to leave me a comment. Rather, I am hoping it frees you to spend your words lavishly this weekend, loving others. If writing is your gift, give it away. 

Family Pictures

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a family picture is worth a million.

And even then, it only tells part of the story.

A few weeks ago, on a warm Friday in September, one of our dear friends drove from Wisconsin to take our family photos.

We ended up with several shots worthy of a Christmas card.

But those photos are a mere snapshot, a frozen second in time.

They don't tell the whole story.

Behind the scenes, Kieran was having a rough day. He hadn't taken a nap at home, opting instead to sleep in the car during the afternoon school drive. He woke up about half an hour before our session began, cranky and disoriented, liable to burst into tears at the slightest provocation, sucking his finger like it was a drug.

Teyla was grumpy too, but her scowl was due to our photographer, Nicole, having the nerve to be married to Josh, Teyla's true love. So instead of being amiable, Teyla spent our entire time together scowling and glaring at Nicole. The only way we could get her to smile was to tickle her, or let Nicole frame the shot, then have Josh click the shutter.

It was hard work. And not the best time of our lives.

But you know what? Our family does not let the grumpy win. It was so bad, it started to get funny. I started to laugh at the absurdity of it all.

We started to get goofy.

Which begat "let's beat each other with the letters that spell family."

And then Kieran decided he was so over this photography thing.

So we took one last picture and called it a day.

But you know what? It's all good. This is us. We aren't just the polished, smiling family on the Christmas card. There is so much more to our story. One photo can't tell it all.

And that's OK with me. Because the beauty of life is writing this story story together, one day, one snapshot, at a time.

Photos courtesy 1000 Words Photography and the incomparable Nicole Wilke


Welcome to The Parent 'Hood, a weekly blog round-up of all things parenting. I host this carnival every Monday, along with some of my favorite blogging buddies (FriedOkra, Vita Familiae, To Think is To Create, Joy in this Journey, Lovefeast Table and O My Family). Post your link using the tool below, and your post will show up instantly on all the host blogs. (How cool is that?)

A few bits and pieces:
1. Today’s link-up will run from this morning through next Sunday night. A new link-up will start next Monday morning.
2. Link the unique URL of your parenting post, not the homepage of your blog. Otherwise, your parenting post will get buried under new content on your homepage and be hard to find when readers click through later in the week.
3. We ask that you please include a link somewhere in your post back to The Parent 'Hood, via this post or The Parent 'Hood welcome post on any of the other hosting blogs.
4. If you're on Twitter, hashtag Parent 'Hood posts with #TheParentHood.
5. Share your own posts and read and comment on other blogs. Any good 'hood is all about community, right? Read, comment and enjoy as you have time.