San Diego Spring Break

We spent spring break in San Diego this year, something you surely know if you follow me on Instagram or Facebook. Ever since we got back, almost two weeks ago, I've worn the silliest grin, even as we re-entered daily life and Corey left on a work trip and Minnesota had the audacity to (gasp) snow. I didn't care, not much anyway. It was a great trip, and I'm still basking in the glow.

I intended to do a photo-heavy post to sum up our trip in one fell swoop. But then I downloaded my pictures and looked through them all and I realized: I have more than one post here. This is the good stuff. I don't want to skimp on this in a rush to get to the next thing. So permit me a few days of snapshots and stories, like we used to do in the dinosaur age of blogging. This is the story of my family and our experiences, and the beautiful thing about sharing these memories here is that my story is often your story too.

Travel is getting easier.

We flew from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, even though our eventual destination was my brother's place in northern San Diego, because LAX has more flights and it's easier to redeem frequent flyer points at the busy airports. Our kids are pretty used to flying at this point; Connor has stopped packing weapons in his carry-on (there was that one time we forgot to tell him he couldn't take a pocketknife on the plane; thank you, Lord, for giving us TSA agents with a sense of humor), and since Corey is TSA-Pre, he can take the kids through the expedited security line, which makes everything easier.

Still, California is a good 3.5 hour flight away from home. It used to be, I packed snacks and new toys and a coloring books and a variety of clothes, diapers and blankets just to get us through.

Not anymore. At some point, on our way out, I looked across at our family row, three deep on either side. Natalie was reading a book, Teyla was playing on her Leap Pad, Connor was playing Minecraft on the iPad. Corey was working on his laptop, I was reading a magazine and Kieran was asleep on my leg.

No one was fidgeting, no one was fighting, no one had just dropped their marker for the 30th time and wanted me to bend myself into a pretzel to retrieve it from under the seat. They were all taking care of themselves. They were happy and peaceful and able to sit still without reminders.

"Oh my word. We've made it," I whispered to Corey, nodding at the relative peace around us. "I never thought we'd get to this stage, but here we are."

And then my heart burst into a million tiny pieces of confetti, because it's true. Don't give up hope, parents of toddlers and preschoolers. You'll make it too.

California is still my home.

I said on Facebook: Every time I walk out of LAX, I inhale deeply and smile. I know that distinctive smell is 95% smog, but it is so familiar and distinctively Southern California, I can't help it. Happy to be "home."

And this is true. My heart skips a beat when I spy the Pacific Ocean, racing alongside us as we head south on the 5 toward San Diego. The familiar hills, the bright flowers, the traffic on six lanes of freeway, the Tejano music on half the radio stations. It all reminds me of the decade we spent living and rooting ourselves in California. A spring break trip to San Diego would be awesome for anyone, but for Corey and I, it was also a sweet reunion.

When you've been surrounded by snow for 3.5 months, all it takes for a morning of fun is green grass.

Our first day in Carlsbad, in northern San Diego County, we decided to take it easy. We investigated the many playgrounds in my brother's adorable neighborhood. The kids were thrilled just to be running on green grass. Teyla performed a full dance recital for Corey and me, as we sat on a bench in the sunshine and drank our morning coffee.

Connor launched foam rockets, one of the many outdoor doors we were encouraged to borrow from my brother's garage. Natalie led her siblings in a game of pirates versus ninjas. It was glorious just to be outside and not be cold.

That afternoon, at yet another park, the kids took turns rolling down the hills.

It wasn't until they stopped and said, "Our arms itch!" that I remembered Southern California grass is coarsely cut. Each of our downhill rollers had tiny scraps and scratches all over their arms, like a thin road rash.

Note to my SoCal friends: in Minnesota, the worst a downhill roll will do is stain your jeans.

Up next: Familiarity vs discovery, we make our kids work on vacation and staying with family. 

How to Make Vacation Re-Entry Pleasant Instead of Painful

We arrived home from spring break a few days ago, suntanned and satisfied after a week away from snow and schedules. Re-entry isn't fun - who wants to go back to school when, the day before, you were playing at a park next to the beach, eating In-N-Out burgers and fries? - but thankfully, our last few days have gone about as smoothly as one can expect.

And that, my friends, isn't something I used to be able to say. A few years ago, I got serious about setting myself up for success when it comes to vacations. Being on the backside of an anticipated fun event is hard enough; adding a rough return home to the mix was like a double whammy. Instead of winding up rested and refreshed, I squandered my good vacation vibes trying to get up to speed with my normal life.

Here's my recipe for a pleasant versus painful re-entry.

Before I Leave
Bottom line: I have to do more work before I leave on vacation to set myself up to be able to relish it on the back end.

Clean out the fridge (1-2 days before departure)
There is nothing more disheartening that coming home from vacation to find rotting bananas on your counter and sour milk in your fridge. So now, a couple of days before I leave, I go through my fresh food supplies and decide what can stay and what needs to go. Sometimes, that means my family eats a dinner of leftovers a couple of nights in a row so we don't waste food. (I hate wasting food.) Sometimes, I have so much fresh food, I decide to give some of it away to local friends rather than have it languish in my empty house. And always, it means I allot myself 30-45 minutes the day of departure to put freezable food in the freezer - this includes all bread, cheeses and leftovers. And if I have time, I deal with the remaining produce in my fridge that won't keep. Last week, I put all our berries in the freezer; at least that way, I can use them in the future for smoothies or muffins. I froze a bag of pre-cut broccoli; that will go in broccoli cheese soup. I even froze the rest of the container of spinach for smoothies. I also put a bowl of pears on my counter into the fridge. The only thing I forgot was the bananas in my pantry, but banana bread to the rescue, yes? Nothing wasted.

Make sure I have at least one meal ready to go (1-2 days before departure)
You know what's disheartening? Stepping into your house after a long vacation at dinner time only to realize: there's nothing to eat for dinner. Sure, we could hit up a restaurant, but if we're coming home after vacation, we've just eaten out ad nauseum. And no one has the energy to control the kids at a restaurant after a long day of travel. In the past, a dinner of eggs and toast came to my rescue. But these days, I try to make sure there's something in my freezer that I can reheat the night we come home. Last week, it was a frozen Pioneer Woman lasagna. I put it in the oven right after we walked in the door, and it cooked while the kids ran crazy and the adults unpacked. Ninety minutes later, we sat down to a real meal that didn't include fries or chicken fingers.

Bonus tip: Make sure you at least have milk and cereal in your house before you leave, so you don't have to run out for breakfast the next morning either.

Clean the house (1 day before departure)
A clean house calms me. A chaotic house makes me crazy. Ergo, I now make the day before we leave on vacation a cleaning day. I don't go crazy, but I do clean the bathrooms, dust the major surfaces, vacuum and Swiffer and make sure my kitchen counters aren't sticky and the sink is wiped down. Walking into a house free from clutter and dog hair makes me think: Ahhh, it's good to be home. I can linger here in this vacation mode for just a few more days.

Launder sheets and towels (day of departure, if you have time)
If I can, I like to do it the morning we leave. As soon as I get up, I strip my bed and wash the sheets. (I don't worry about the kids' beds. They don't appreciate clean sheets like I do.) I also grab all the towels after morning showers and cycle them through. I figure, even if they aren't hung up (read: I threw that last load in the dryer as I was walking out the door), it's still nicer to come home to fresh.

Take out the garbage (day of departure)
One time, I forgot to take out the kitchen garbage. In the summer. Before we left on a two-week trip. It took me bottles of Febreeze to remove the smell of rotted chicken that seemed to pervade every surface in my home. Never again.

Start the dishwasher (day of departure)
Dishwashers get stinky too, yes? Especially if they are loaded with cereal bowls coated with milk. So even if the dishwasher is only 1/4 full, I start it right before we leave. Because I don't like stinky.

Once I Get Home
Bottom Line: Cash out the pre-vacation work.

Have the Hold Mail delivered
I always have my mail held for the time I'm gone and then have everything delivered the day I get home. That way, I can get through the stack of junk right away. It's usually waiting for me, wrapped in a big rubber band, in my mailbox.

I used to wait to unpack. "I just don't feel like it yet," I said to myself. You know what happened? Five days after the trip, I was still living out of a suitcase. Ain't nobody got time for that. So now, I unpack within an hour of getting home. And I ruthlessly unpack everything. Laundry goes into the laundry room, clean clothes get folded or hung on hangers, toys get put away, DVDs reunite with their cases (they live in an old-fashioned CD carrier while we are away; less bulk). Yes, it's a pain, but once it's done, you can relax and enjoy being home and bask in all the good memories.

Do laundry
If I don't start the vacation laundry right away, I will put it off forever. So I gather and sort it as soon as possible and throw in a load before I go to bed that first night. It means I have to fold and put away the next day, but if my house is clean and I have food for meals, it's the only real chore I have to do that day. I can manage that.

Clean your schedule for a day or two
Obviously, this one isn't always possible. But when we arrived back this week, I discovered - to my utter delight - that because many districts around us are on break this week, almost all of my regularly scheduled activities have been cancelled. So I had no Wednesday night church events, no Thursday morning workout classes, no Friday morning mommy and me class. I didn't plan this, but now that I've experienced this slow-and-easy re-entry? I would plan it this way in the future, even if it meant bowing out of normal life for a few days. It's been so much nicer than trying to hit the ground running. The whole family has been able to rest from the time change and enjoy being home without being rushed somewhere. Instead of being stretched and depressed, we are savoring a spring break well spent.

And isn't that the whole point of a vacation?

Practicing Sabbath

This post was originally published at my friend Megan's blog, as part of her beloved Lenten series Waiting Tables.

If you read Laura Ingalls Wilder iconic "Little House in the Big Woods" at some point in your life, you probably remember the following story.

Pa told it to Laura one Sunday, when she dared to run and play with her dog Jack after dinner, before the sun had set, when Sabbath was still being honored and no fun or work allowed. Rather than punish her, Pa took her in his arms and told her about a Sunday when her grandpa and his two older brothers could not endure the continual sitting and quiet Sabbath seemingly required either. The day before, they had finished work on a beauty of a new sled. But since they finished it after dark, they hadn't been able to use it. And despite their noses being in catechism books and their bodies being on a bench besides their father reading the Bible, all they could think about was that sled. So when they saw their father fall asleep, with his head on the back of the chair, the boys silently filed out of the room, out to the shed where their new sled sat waiting. They intended to slide it just once, silently, and then head right back inside. But as fate would have it, a big black pig stepped into their path just as they neared their house, and since they couldn't stop or turn, that pig ended up on the sled with the boys. "Squeeeee! Squeeee!" went the pig, the rest of the way down the hill. The boys could see their father standing in the window, watching them, as they swooshed past the house carrying the screeching hog. When the ride was over, the boys put the sled away, slunk back indoors to find their father reading his Bible. No words were exchanged. But that night, when the sun set on the Sabbath, he took them out to the woodshed where he "tanned their jackets."

Pa ended by saying, "So you see, Laura and Mary, you may find it hard to be good, but you should be glad that it isn't as hard to be good now as it was when Grandpa was a boy."

We laugh, but it has a ring of truth to it, even today in 2014. Sabbath may no longer demand 24 hours of sitting still. But it can feel like one more task on our to do list, one more badge we need to earn. Stifling. Boring. Rigid. A burden.

But that, my friends, is not Sabbath. That is the bare bones of the animal, picked dry and brittle by the devouring vultures of legalism. True Sabbath is a lithe, laughing, gentle beast, that woos us to come and play.

Sabbath is supposed to be the best day of the week, not the worst.

I know this, because three years ago, God gave me a year to study and practice and absorb what He means by Sabbath. To get the healing shalom of it right down into my marrow. It has become gift to me. Grace. I do not always observe it well, and certainly, I do not do it to the extent I would wish. But I do live by its rhythm and rhyme. And it has changed me.

So this Lent, if you want to make Sabbath part of your commitment, I want to bless you and give you a high five and a hug and say, "It's worth it. It's worth it."

And if I may humbly direct your gaze to the aspect of Sabbath that most surprised me, consider this: Sabbath is about delight.

Dan Allendar, in his book Sabbath, writes. "Sabbath is our play day - not as a break from the routine of work, but as a feast that celebrates the superabundance of God's creative love."

Does that make your breath catch a little? Sabbath is designed to restore us, to renew us. To let us set aside the drudgery of the every day and allow ourselves to wallow in delight.

So I ask the question: What delights you? What restores you?

And while you ponder the answer, let me stir this into the mix. In my favorite Sabbath book, author Mark Buchanan said Sabbath's golden rule is "to cease from that which is necessary." Don't do what you ought to do. If it something you must do, that you feel an obligation toward, then it is work and not restorative. Choose something that you want to do, something that makes you come alive.
Sabbath is a reprieve from what you ought to do, even though the list of oughts is infinitely long and never done. Oughts are tyrants, noisy and surly, chronically dissatisfied. Sabbath is the day you trade places with them: they go into the salt mine, and you go out dancing. It's the one day when the only thing you must do is to not do the things you must. You are given permission - issued a command, to be blunt - to turn your back on all those oughts. You get to willfully ignore the many niggling things your existence genuinely depends on - and is often hobbled beneath - so that you can turn to whatever you've put off and pushed away for a lack of time, lack of room, lack of breath. You get to shuck the have-tow and lay hold of the get-tos.
Keep in mind: what restores me may not restore you. And what restores me this week may smell like an "ought-to" next week. Many Sabbath celebrations are built on routine: the lighting of candles, the breaking of bread, the singing of praises and wonder. But there is also a continual discovery to it, a creativity that all things made new.

A few practical tips:

1. It doesn't have to be Saturday.
For centuries, the Jewish people have celebrated Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. After Jesus' resurrection, the early church moved the celebration to Sunday. But let's be honest: for many of us, Sundays are not a restful day. So don't celebrate Sabbath then. Pick a day, or an afternoon, or an hour, when you can create the space necessary for Sabbath to breathe.

2. Let the themes of rest, renewal and restoration guide you.
Answer the question: What restores me? What would rest look like at this point in my life? I heard one man who leads Sabbath retreats say many of his participants fall asleep during the first session of quiet, and then wake up, horrified and embarrassed. He always reassures them it is good to sleep, for it means they finally feel safe enough to let go and surrender to their weariness. Maybe what you need most is a good, long nap.

3. It might take some work to truly rest.
If you truly want to carve out time to rest and restore, you will probably have to prepare in advance to get the most out of your time. If you've ever seen "Fiddler on the Roof," you've seen this play out. Everyone hurries, hurries, hurries on Friday to get all the shopping done, the house cleaned, the food cooked, the animals fed so that they can stop at sundown and Sabbath for the next 24 hours without the most pesky "oughts" bothering them.

4. If you have young children at home, you might need to get creative.
I hear the heart cry of every young parent at this moment, because I'm right there too: How in the world do I do this with young kids at home? My answer: I don't know, exactly. As I've worked at incorporating Sabbath into my own life over the past few years, I've found that I can't expect a full 24 hours at this stage of my life. Sometimes, my husband and I will trade a few hours on the weekend to give each other space to Sabbath. Sometimes, I create my own space during the week by placating my kids with Netflix and Goldfish. Sometimes, Sabbath is more about an attitude for me than a physical expression. Even that is healing and restorative for me. Baby steps. Because every move toward Sabbath is a good one.

On Sleepovers and Waking Up to Change

This past weekend, Natalie hosted a sleepover for two of her closest friends. The way the schedules worked out, the girls were here for a full 24 hours, which normally I would say is A Bad Decision, given what I know about sleepovers and tween girls. But the extra time turned out to be a secret bonus: since the girls knew they had a big budget of hours to spend together, they didn't force themselves to stay up all night to make the most of every opportunity. Ergo, they slept from midnight to almost 7:00 AM, and they were a complete delight on Saturday instead of cranky zombies.

Also: they baked homemade mini donuts and then whooped it up with the sprinkles. Can't hate that.

It sounds funny, but at some point last year, I woke up to the fact that I'm a mom who's oldest kids are rapidly approaching the teen years. And I don't mean I gently woke up, as on a spring morning with the birds singing outside my window. I mean woke up like my alarm went off with its loud "BLEEP BLEEP BLEEP" and I simultaneously have a heart attack and win a gold medal for cartwheeling out of my bed and slamming the snooze button while doing the splits.

It was startling, is what I'm saying.

I think it snuck up on me because my focus has been fixed by necessity on the younger ones. The baby years are singularly absorbing, the toddler years are joyfully and exhausting. Natalie and Connor were mostly in the sweet spot, the easy and uncomplicated years between 6 and 10, when they are old enough to get dressed by themselves and brush their own teeth (theoretically), but they still want to be with you and they have awesome imaginations and they are completely unselfconscious.

I think I forgot they are changing too, even if it's at a slower pace.

But you know what? After I got over the heart-pounding moment of recognition, I found myself falling in love with the ages my kids are today.

Yes, Natalie is only 18 months away from high school. (I'm not really OK with that at all, but I keep saying it to myself to see if I will eventually get over the shock.) But she is still my girl, she is sweet and loving and responsible and generous. What's more, now she is genuinely funny (versus the knock-knock joke funny of second graders, which we all know is a special kind of torture) and she sends me cute emoji texts and she gets totally embarrassed when her friends follow me on Instagram, which is endearing.

Connor draws comics like it's his job right now (which he hopes it will be, someday), and he shares them with me and explains each panel so patiently. "And here he falls down and then it's all 'aaahhhh' and the bomb explodes and then this darkness is where the ninja dies.'" And I smile and nod and feign understanding. Because it's not about the drawing, it's about his imagination, right? And that I get that spades.

Just last week, I unearthed a bizarre belief deep down in my subconscious, which was: once we are mature, we stop changing. I have no idea where I got this, because I'm fairly certain no adult ever told me that. When I stumbled upon this belief and and held it up to the light, I laughed a while with God because - to live is to change. Even now, at 42, I'm shifting, evolving, learning, growing in my soul and my world view. And I love it. Change isn't always easy but it's exhilarating.

And so it is with my children. Change is constant. For sure, trying to keep up with the growth of four kids at once is like trying to watch four TV programs at the same time, as I often say. I'm bound to miss key twists in the plot, because there's only so much I can absorb at once.

But oh. To be on this ride. What a joy.


So as long as we're talking about change, let me ask you a question: how old are your kids and what is their bedtime? We are not an early-to-bed family, so generally, the kids all have the same bedtime because a. it makes it easy for us to enforce and b. we rarely make that bedtime anyway. 

But it occurred to me this weekend that Natalie, at 12, probably doesn't need to aim to be in bed at the same time as Kieran, who is 3. At what age is it right to make the shift to a later bedtime? 

(I'm going to post the same question over on my FB page, where there is usually more discussion. So if you want to comment there, feel free to hop over and join the conversation.)