New Things Conquered in 2018

I’m a list maker. Not only to-do lists or grocery lists or prayer lists, though… I keep lists of books I read each year, lists of goals I set, lists of new things I’ve tried.

In 2018, I tried my hand at a few new experiences:  baking Arnold Palmer cupcakes (that tasty mix of sweet tea + lemonade) for a family member’s birthday; fermenting watermelon rind (for the pro-biotic value); and making homemade biscotti–to name a few. I also baked sweet potato bread for the first time–for a friend’s birthday and then also as a gift to my spiritual director, Elaine.

pickled watermelon rind

Watermelon rind in the fermenting process

All those new attempts were food related, weren’t there? Well, here’s one more new-to-2018 experience that also took place in the kitchen:  making my own Amish Friendship Bread starter.

I first heard of–and baked with–Amish Friendship Bread starter a few weeks before I gave birth to Garfield, when another mom gave me a batch. I let the process of feeding and dividing the starter–and then sharing and/or baking with it–fall by the wayside, though, once I had a newborn and toddler. {I also had two children in cloth diapers for three months.}

Then I read a sweet novel called Friendship Bread last year and started thinking of baking with this concoction again. The novel garnered such a following that it spawned a website–www.friendshipbreadkitchen.com. Since I now had access to many recipes utilizing the starter, I thought I would give it a try.

I followed the site’s instructions to create my own starter (yeast, milk, flour, sugar) and, within ten days, I had many cups of the starter to use for baking. I also learned from a former church friend (still my friend, just not at the same church) that I could freeze the starter so I wouldn’t have to use or give it away all at once.

blurry fireworks

I’ve had active starter since early this fall and have baked it in pizza dough, snickerdoodles, sandwich bread, blueberry muffins, strawberry bread (not nearly as good as it sounded), another batch of biscotti, and chocolate mint cookies. The cookies tasted good but had a face only a mother could love. The six dozen I baked yielded only about two dozen pretty enough to offer at a cookie exchange, but the boys scooped the rest up throughout the following week and let nothing go to waste.

But my favorite way so far to use this starter has been cinnamon rolls. They need a night to rise, but they are worth the wait. After making them once for my family, I decided I’d contribute these to Christmas festivities at my family’s home back in Mississippi. They were well-received there, too.

You can find more recipes at the friendship bread kitchen website, but not all are equally good. I did share one batch of starter with my friend Lauren, so hopefully she can begin creating her own AFB starter delights, too.

And outside the kitchen… I got published in two new-to-me periodicals (Woman’s World and Purpose magazines). I made bracelets for an outreach to party-goers attending a local rave. I performed two new roles for Cru, one of which finished in October. I volunteered with Jobs Partnership and re-purposed new cakes of soap from soap crumbles. Along with my family, I experienced a Jewish Passover Seder just before Easter.

The Lord has been so, so good to bring such sweet gifts into my life. I’m trusting that there will be more sweet things to taste, to experience, and to bake in 2019.

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The Loaf of Christmas Bread

Standing on our neighbor’s tiny porch (although still bigger than our nonexistent one), I wondered how long we’d stay and chat. We needed to finish cleaning the kitchen, to do our Advent reading with the boys, to get them to bed.

I’d baked a loaf of homemade bread as a gift to our neighbor, a single woman living alone, last year. She appreciated it tremendously, so I thought I would make one for her this year as well. I’d like to think of this as a new tradition–sharing bread when we celebrate the birth of the One called Bread of Life.

By the time I finished baking, cooling, and wrapping it in foil, the end of the evening drew near, and there were chores to do.

bread loaf in hands

But I wanted to give the bread to M. while it was still fresh, so the four of us trudged to her house together once I had our gift for her all prepped. As we handed over a Christmas card and the still-warm loaf, we struck up a conversation. As she stood talking with us, wearing her bath robe, she began to share more and more about her life.

M. explained how she’d almost lost her job this year, but in the end, she’d held onto her position as the company where she worked got bought by another one. She spoke about work she’d had done on her home, the surgery she’d had last spring…In all this, she expressed gratitude. At one point, she began to cry, overcome with emotion about the ups and downs of 2018.

Looking at the bread, wrapped in aluminum foil and nestled in a bag, I idly wondered if she would eat it. Then I remembered. The bread isn’t the important part of this budding Christmas tradition with our neighbor; it’s the visit. The conversation. The intentional step to bake something good with her in mind and then deliver it to her.

M. didn’t stand out on her porch talking with us about the time she got robbed at gun point or the transitions she’s experiencing at work because we brought her bread. She engaged with us because we shared ourselves.

It’s true, y’all. Presence trumps presents. Every time.

 

 

Celebrating the Season With Books

One year in middle school, I asked for glitter perfume for Christmas. I tried explaining that to Woodrow today as we discussed his Christmas wish list.
Huh? He said. You mean it sprayed out glitter with the perfume?
Yep. I don’t know how well it worked; I didn’t receive any that year and never saw it advertised again in magazines or catalogs.
Christmas with tiles
To look at Woodrow’s short list of wished-for presents, you’d think we were raising Tarzan:  a Gator machete (the junior version, that is); another knife along with its case; a Jungle Hunter II slingshot.
We had a long conversation about the machete, y’all. He’s more or less persuaded me. I also plan to get him a book of Ansel Adams photography, since Woodrow is a budding photographer himself. And for his stocking? A couple canisters of French fried onions. Yes, the kind that go on top of green bean casserole. He and I love to eat those things right out of the can.
Still working on ideas for Garfield…he often asks for money to buy more collectible Hot Wheels. And both boys have asked for dry sacks for outdoor adventure, particularly camping. I tell you, it’s almost dangerous to go to REI with my family.
Christmas cookies
Apart from gifts, we have other holiday rituals–including Advent giving, which I’ll blog about in the near future. Soon, I’ll pull out our stack of children’s Christmas books that we’ll read throughout the season. In case you’re searching for Christmas books to share with children–your own or others’–here are some we’ve enjoyed. Naturally, they cover different age and grade levels. 
These stories are oriented around giving, serving, family, love, and the Christ child. In other words, they are primarily “non Santa” books.
And every year I try to read (on my own) a collection of L.M. Montgomery’s, Christmas with Anne and Other Holiday Stories. Heartwarming, endearing, and predictable… Each one lifts my spirits year after year.
Happy holiday reading!
 

A Little Risk Brings Sweet Reward

A certain Ukrainian proverb goes something like this:  He who doesn’t risk, doesn’t drink champagne. In English, we’d probably say Nothing ventured, nothing gained. 

Either way, the point seems clear…If we take no risks, we’ll have no reason to celebrate.

champagne

Which is why I listed Write + submit, submit, submit! as one of my 2018 goals. Every time I offer something I’ve written for publication–whether for a paying market or not–I’m risking rejection. I recently started some additional work with Cru, and it involves writing (and being edited by other people). I’m still rounding the learning curve in both these new roles, so I make mistakes. Of course. 

I took a risk in raising my hand to volunteer for this ministry work, just as I take a risk in submitting my writing.

The risk pays off, even if only in experience gained. But sometimes the risk results in other gains, too.

mug and magazine

Woman’s World magazine published a little blurb I wrote in their “Circle of Kindness” feature; you can read it in the June 11 issue (see it up there?). I’ve often written stories about kindness, and this one tells of a good deed performed as a service to me. I’ve sent at least 7 stories to the “Circle of Kindness” feature; now I get to see one of them in print.

The other little present in the photo? A gift from the Distinguished Young Women of Mobile County scholarship program I judged (along with 4 other individuals) this past weekend in Alabama.

As a high school student, I competed in this program (called Young Woman of the Year back then) and earned enough to pay for 2 semesters of college. I’ve judged programs in Florida and Georgia and invested thousands of hours volunteering for this program over many years in Florida. Although I no longer serve any particular program, I always appreciate an opportunity to judge.

There was a bit of risk involved with this, too. Months ago, feeling that I needed to unearth more outlets for myself (apart from serving my family and serving with Cru), I contacted a volunteer with the Distinguished Young Women program in my hometown. I asked her if she would mention me as a potential judge if she interacted with volunteers from other programs in need of judges (so far I haven’t been able to judge in my hometown).

That request could have come to naught, but she did pass my name along, and, in March, I received a phone call asking me to judge in early June this year. If you’re reading this Ms. Audra, thank you! 

If we take steps of faith in obedience to God’s leading, that’s the victory. Obedience in itself is a blessing. This weekend, God heaped on a few extra blessings, too. Now I’m off to celebrate–not with champagne but with herbal tea in my new Distinguished Young Women mug.

Cheers!

 

 

Serving, Volunteering, and Meeting My Own Needs

I’m finished with volunteering. I uttered those words about a year and a half ago to more than one friend (okay, I think it was just 2). I had devoted so many hours to planning for and leading the Cub Scout den for my younger son. I wanted more freedom in my time, in my schedule, to help and serve whenever the opportunity arose–instead of in some formal, official volunteer capacity.

bag of plastic eggs
Plastic eggs the boys and I stuffed for an Easter egg hunt/outreach at Cru headquarters in March.

Such as…when a Cru colleague who lived out of town needed help one weekend cleaning up the condo she owned and rented out in Orlando, to prep it for the next tenant. I relished watching the boys pitch in with competency and confidence as we scrubbed and vacuumed and swept that day.

Or when a friend needed help packing up her family’s home to move from Orlando to another Florida city. I spent a few hours one Saturday morning emptying closets and bedrooms and loading kitchen items into the moving van (and came home with lots of dishes she no longer wanted, which we use daily). Or when we have frequent opportunities to make a meal for a family with a new baby.

pink polka dot cup

I just wanted to be a helper of others, without any title or specific role. Hence, quitting “volunteer work.” In February 2017, I handed over the Cub Scout role to my husband, who continues leading Garfield’s den. My schedule now held more blank space, and now I could say “yes” to more. Saying “yes” to some opportunities necessarily means saying “no” to others–life can be mutually exclusive that way sometimes.

I found myself even wanting to do actual “volunteer” work once in a while, and more than the quilt tops I sew that become sleeping bags for homeless individuals. (I currently have 4 of those waiting to be hemmed and mailed.) I have a need to help meet needs, and I believe God designed me that way.

So, last November, after hearing a woman at our church discuss her service with a faith-based non-profit called Jobs Partnership, I went home, found their site, and sent a message. I wanted to explore the possibility of assisting with their programs, geared toward helping unemployed (or under-employed) people gain “soft” skills to become more marketable.

watercolors from website

I knew I wouldn’t have the availability to serve as a coach, a months-long commitment involving meeting at least weekly. But I checked lots of boxes on the online form to indicate interest in helping in other ways. Right after the new year, I spoke with Beverly, one of their coordinators. And we put me on the calendar to speak on April 24 to the Jobs Partnership participants on the topic, “Communications.”

That was last week, and I just want to say–It was so much fun! Truly, I feel a part of me comes alive when I get to do public speaking, especially if it’s rooted in the message of God’s Word. {When I wrote a letter to myself on my birthday this year, I told myself to do what makes me come alive–so I’m doing it!} We discussed speaking the truth in love, being good listeners, being slow to anger. In the presentation, I included several personal stories of successes and failures in communication in various work roles.

garden spot

Such as one particular day I arrived at the school in my hometown where I’d been substitute teaching after returning home from Romania…I didn’t have a full-time job; I was young and single, living at my parents’ home. So I grabbed hold of every subbing opportunity I could find in order to make a little money.

On this day, I’d come to sub for a teacher heading to a conference. He had requested me as a sub through another person, instead of face to face or over the phone, which is how I always got requests for sub positions. I had eagerly written this job down on my calendar. Only, when I arrived, I discovered a different sub arranging worksheets for the day with the teacher before he left for his conference. He didn’t realize I’d gotten the message, or didn’t realize I’d planned to be there. I don’t know how the wires got crossed, but they did. I stayed calm, though, disappointed as I was. I knew I could risk other jobs at this school if I acted less than professional in this situation. So I listened, showed understanding, and went home. Then I prayed and cried about it.

pinecone heart

The Jobs Partnership students stayed engaged throughout our discussion; one woman even approached me afterward to talk about editing and proofreading. I left with my cup overflowing. In a few days, I’ll serve with Jobs Partnership again–this time, working on interview practice.

Because helping meet a need meets a need in me.

 

At-Home Haircuts, After All

Well, he did it:  Garfield acquiesced to another at-home haircut. After the last (horrendous) haircut session–filled with fears and tears–we’d discussed taking him to a salon for a professional haircut the next time around.

However, after about 6 weeks (during which time I gave Mike 2 haircuts), when I mentioned we needed to get haircuts done again, he told me he preferred to have me do it after all. Perhaps the known factor won out over the unfamiliar.

shoes hanging from wire

I promised him that I’d be extraordinarily careful about his ears and about staying patient. We prayed and then, making my voice as calm as I possibly could, we started in on the task.

And together, he and I made it work. No tears, no fuss, no muss. There’s no guarantee that next time will be smooth, but I hope one truly peaceful haircut will help set a new pattern. For us both.

calvin new hair cut
Garfield, sporting a new haircut at his first soccer practice of the season.

I tried an approach with Garfield that I’d read in a midwife’s memoir. In her book, she mentioned coaching women in labor with what she called P.E.P. Here’s what that means:  P = Progress (“Look how far we’ve come! Every snip of the scissors gets us that much closer to being finished.”) E = Encouragement (“I see how still you’re being; that really helps me get the job done.”) and P = Praise (“You’re being so cooperative! I know it’s not easy, but you are really hanging in there.”) 

Success! Giving the boys their haircuts was, no kidding, one of the highlights of last week. I’ll be considering other aspects of parenting where I can apply some P.E.P.

wilson new hair cut
Woodrow with his new haircut.

 

 

When Hospitality Gets Messy

My family and I walked into our house to find a mound of damp, sandy beach towels–our own–piled on the kitchen floor, near the laundry closet. The closet doors were open, and the ironing board took up the kitchen floor space not covered with brightly-colored dirty towels.

sweet home bouquet

We hadn’t just returned from a trip to the beach–rather, we’d just gotten home from visiting Mississippi (and attending the finals of a scholarship program with which I volunteered for many years). The family staying at our house, one we still hadn’t met at this point, had left the towels tossed on the floor–which surprised me, particularly since I’d let them know we’d be returning home that night.

I had chosen “hospitality” as my word of the year that year. I felt weak in the area of hospitality, and if you’d asked me to explain that, I’d have said I didn’t love going to the effort of having extra people over for dinner. So, for that year, I aimed to be more intentional with hospitality and to do so in ways that would stretch me.

welcome to our home sign

Months earlier, I’d read in our Cru online newsletter that a family (formerly connected to Cru) would be returning  from overseas and needed to find a place to stay for about a week. This family of 4 needed to be housed in our part of town so as to be close to a family member at a nursing home. The specific dates they needed temporary, free shelter–for 8 days, according to the online ad–coincided with the dates our family would be out of town. Brilliant. We could open our home, help meet a need, and not be too crowded in our townhouse while 4 extra people lived there.

I began corresponding with the wife, who’d submitted the ad, and later learned that my husband had met her years before, although they weren’t friends. We worked out the details:  where I’d leave a house key, pool entry key, etc. I would make sure clean sheets covered the beds as we left.

However, not long before their house stay was to begin, I wrote the mom to confirm. Finally I got word that their stay was going to be longer by 3 days, the dates would be different than first stated, and they would overlap us for some time. Surprised she didn’t ask if this would be OK, I adjusted. We set up an air mattress in our bedroom for the boys, while the 2 teen daughters slept in the boys’ room and the mom and dad took the guest room/home office.

basket with books

The dirty towels left on the floor weren’t the only reason I mumbled to my husband that this family was treating our home like a hotel. They also left a bag of trash in the hall, along with a sack of clothing, on the early morning they left. I kept the clothes for several months, wondering if they’d ask me to mail them somewhere, before finally delivering them to Goodwill. They left dirty sheets on the beds, along with a note that thanked us for letting them “crash at our pad.”

This wasn’t my first foray into letting strangers stay in our home while we were out of town. Years before, while pregnant for the first time, I read another ad in the Cru newsletter requesting short-term housing for a family visiting for a wedding. The contact person, a Cru staff woman, sought housing for this family in our neighborhood, and Mike and I planned to be gone (again for the scholarship program–this time I was judging) over that weekend.

The day before we headed out of town, the contact person came to look over the house. She told me that, instead of 2 couples and a baby (which I thought were the ones visiting our home), there was a couple, a mom with her baby, and a single man. Hmmm…How was I going to make this set-up work in our 3-bedroom townhouse that, at the time, contained only 2 beds?

black and white throw

I scrounged extra sheets and set-up our pull-out sofa, not the most comfortable option. Everything was ready as Mike and I left town. Our only requests for this group were not to wear outdoor shoes inside, not to smoke inside, and not to use the master bathroom (there were 2 other options). When we returned from the weekend, we discovered a battered box of slightly crumbly candles left as a thank-you gift–and the toilet paper roll from the master bathroom removed.

I suppose they’d run out of t.p. and, instead of going to the store down the street, they’d simply removed the roll from the bathroom they weren’t using. I’d have rather they kept the candles and sprung for a four-pack of toilet paper instead.

In Matthew 25, Jesus speaks to His followers about taking in strangers–and how performing this act of service is, in essence, serving Him. I wanted to serve Him. 

blue and yellow doors

I got over the dirty towels and missing toilet paper, and later we housed a mom who needed a place to stay (on her own) for 13 nights. Ellen (not her real name) spent the days with her family at home but needed a place to sleep for that time period. She was the most grateful house guest we’ve ever hosted. We’d first met Ellen when our church sponsored some families from the school where we held services. When Ellen contacted our pastor for help, it seemed natural for us to open our (not well-decorated) door to her.

And this is what I learned..Hospitality is more than entertaining people, more than hosting in a beautifully-appointed home. Hospitality is offering a welcome place of shelter–for a meal or for a week–to one who might need some nourishing. 

I hope when I meet Jesus face to face, He says, “Hey, I noticed you took in those strangers! Well-done, you. And don’t worry; I have plenty of toilet paper here.”