September 18, 2014

Simple Non-Alcoholic Drink Recipes to Make

I love a delicious cocktail, but sometimes an event (or a person's lifestyle) calls for something non-alcoholic. There's no reason to think that just because alcohol isn't involved you can't serve unique and delicious beverages. This morning, I'm joining those folks at Knoxville's Fox43 to share three simple recipes for delicious non-alcoholic drinks. Check them out!

Simple and Delicious Non-Alcoholic Drinks

1) Power Tea 

This drink would be perfect for tailgating, especially while preparing to cheer on the Tennessee Volunteers. Even if you aren't a Vol for Life, you can still enjoy this tasty concoction. You might want to change the name though! 

Power Tea Recipe: 

Brew 1 gallon iced tea (I used Tazo orange flavored). Stir in 4 cups orange juice. Add 1 liter orange flavored sparkling soda. Stir together, serve with ice and enjoy. 

2) Mocha Madness 

For all those coffee lovers out there, this non-alcoholic drink might give you a little buzz...but caffeine is the only source of its spirit. To create it, brew a pot of coffee. While the coffee is still warm, sweeten it to taste. After it cools, stir in heavy whipping cream to your liking. Some people enjoy a darker coffee, while others enjoy a little coffee in their milk. To this, add two small scoops of mocha ice cream (or mocha gelato). As everything melts together, you get a wonderful mixture! 

This drink would be wonderful for your next book club or game night! 

3) Cheers Darling Hibiscus Mocktail 

This recipe was the simplest of all, but the drink is so refreshing! You start by placing a preserved hibiscus flower in the bottom of your glass. I tried several package stores as well as a gourmet chef's market before finally finding hibiscus at a local grocery store (The Fresh Market).

The blossoms come packed in syrup and sort of taste like raspberry. You can eat them, but I don't think I would. From here, just pour a carbonated drink of some kind over the flower. I used a hibiscus flavored sparkling soda (Onli brand, purchased at Publix). This makes the loveliest drink and so easy!

This could be great for a baby shower or bridal luncheon. Of course if you want to make a more adult version, you could top the hibiscus flower with champagne or another type of sparkling wine.

Cheers, darling! 

September 14, 2014

What I Want

I want to pay more attention, not less.
I want to get wiser instead of smarter. 
I want to listen more and zone out less. 
I want to spend more time with people I love and less time with people I have to impress. 
I want to give of myself, my time, my energy, and my resources without ever worrying that there won't be enough to go around. 
I want to cook beautiful, delicious, decadent meals for my family and never take a single photo for Instagram. 
I want to travel to distant lands, and have new adventures. 
I want to create new inside jokes with old friends. 
I want to eat cold spaghetti out of a bowl while standing in front of my grandma's refrigerator. 
I want to wear my fancy perfume, the one I've been saving for a special occasion. 
I want to stand up straighter. 
I want to laugh 300 times each day. 
I want to create more and consume less. 
I want the days and hours and minutes of my life to count for something. 
I want to do a cartwheel. 
I want to stop judging everybody so damn much. 
I want to stop judging myself most of all. 
I want to send more letters and postcards. 
I want to find an authentic Hermes scarf at a thrift store for ninety nine cents. 
I want to have more picnics
I want to see each person, really see him or her, and quit lumping them all together as some collective 'other.'
I want to learn once and for all that the value of an experience has very little to do with its monetary measure.
I want to accept the past for what it was, realize it's over and let it go.
I want to remind myself that nothing is impossible if you refuse to give up.
I want to make the world's best deviled eggs.
I want to give more than I take.
I want to leave things better than I found them.
I want us to agree that I can want what I want, and you can want what you want and neither cancels out the other.
I want to throw away the rule book and declare us all winners.
I want to remember every day that all of this is worth it.

Now your turn. What do you want? #WhatIWant 

September 11, 2014

Memories of College Days Gone By: Transportation Woes & Blinky

The other morning I found myself stuck behind a school bus while hurrying to a business meeting. It wasn't just any ordinary school bus. The bus I was stuck behind happened to be a University of Tennessee transit bus, one out of a fleet of many like it that zips around campus taking students to and from class or wherever glamorous places they happen to be going.

I found myself reminiscing about my own college days and feeling a tiny bit bitter because we didn't have such fancy (or reliable) transportation.

8 a.m. class on the other side of campus? Back then, it meant waking up extra early and hoofing it [a fancy term for walking]. Nowadays students probably have an app on their smartphones that alerts them to when the bus is coming so they don't have to spend even an extra minute waiting in the elements.

I'll never forget my cousin, who was older by six years, telling me about her first day of college experience. She got up early and put on a cute pair of sandals with her linen walking shorts (people, it was 1994). She said by the time she got to class, she was a disheveled mess complete with blisters, sweaty hair, and other war wounds.

I vowed never to experience this during my college days, but probably took it to the other extreme by wearing stretchy pants and t-shirts way too frequently. Once, while eating lunch with a group of girls from my sorority, a friend glanced my way and asked me, "Didn't you wear that shirt yesterday?"

Without missing a beat, my roommate piped up and said "Yeah, and she slept in it too." Not my finest fashion (or hygiene) moment.

But back to the issue of transportation. It kind of makes me feel like a grandma or grandpa with the proverbial story of walking to school up hill both ways in the snow. "In my day, there weren't any high falutin' buses. We had to walk to class (uphill both ways)."

The thing is, walking was good for us. I actually miss all the walking I did in college. And I enjoyed getting to walk with people, and talk to them while we walked. Nobody had his or her phone out because cellphones were for 'emergencies only' and mainly just used at night, when the free minutes kicked in.

[Another side note - My freshman year of college, I was the only person I knew with a laptop computer and I never once took it to class with me...that's what my spiral bound notebooks were for, duh.]

In so many ways, I'm grateful for what we didn't have back then. I'm grateful there was no social media, no Twitter or Facebook, no Instagram.

[As if! Our Blinky van was never this cool looking]
One thing we did have while I was in college that I doubt still exists on UT's campus is Blinky. Blinky was a 15-passenger Ford van with a blinking strobe light on the roof. This phantom cab of sorts made one wide continuous loop around campus after dark, picking up and dropping off mainly unaccompanied ladies and people on crutches so they wouldn't have to walk unsafely to their destinations. I spent many a night outside my dorm or the dorm of a friend, scanning the horizon for that dimly blinking light, hoping that Blinky was on its way. Blinky drivers really made the experience what it was too, some not speaking a word while others talked your head off, taking each curve on two wheels.

I know these are just silly stories. But there's more to it than that.

Each subsequent generation will have different experiences. And each will probably think they had it harder than the next one. And in some ways maybe that's true. But I know that kids today face different challenges. In many ways, I think it's harder now than ever before.

One day people who haven't even been born will teleport to their college classes and their parents will bemoan the way they used to have to ride only solar powered buses (the audacity!).

But for now, I'll reminisce about the way it was for me. And maybe you have some fond memories about the way things were in your experiences. I hope so!

September 10, 2014

Why You Should Always Marry the Funny Guy

As a bride-to-be, I've spent a lot of time thinking about marriage...what it means, and what it might be like. Even before I was engaged, I thought about it. Heck, before I ever met my beau I thought about it then too.

As a little girl, I sometimes imagined the man I might date and eventually marry. In my teen years, I had a ridiculous list of qualities that I wanted in a mate...written on a sheet of paper torn from a composition book, now lost (thank goodness). I'd be too mortified to read what my 14-year old self sought in a life partner, let alone want to share it with y'all.

Whatever was included in that magical list of must-have qualities, I'm positive I thought it was a combination that would equal true love and happiness.

I'm sure lots of researchers would say there's a science to matchmaking. That based on a thorough list of qualities and personality traits, it can be determined what partner might be best for you. I haven't done online dating but I was always intrigued by how those types of sites pair people up. I've known several couples who met online and are very much in love so I'm not disparaging that method at all, but I just wonder how a computer can determine who might go with whom.

When I first met my beau (soon to be husband), I never considered him to be someone I'd end up dating or potentially marrying. He was friendly enough, but I thought he had terrible fashion. When he finally asked me out on a date, I said yes because it had been so long since I'd had a date and I was caught up in the excitement and terror of getting ready to graduate from college a few weeks later.

Over the next decade, our relationship has deepened and gone through all sorts of wonderful and challenging periods. Hopefully we've both changed for the better. But one thing that has not changed and I hope never will is his ability to make me laugh.

I don't mean the kind of jokes that you politely chuckle at to spare someone's feelings. I'm talking about belly laughs. The kind where you can't believe something could be so funny and you need to say "please stop, it hurts to laugh anymore."

Whether it's something he's doing on purpose to be funny (ask him to tell you about the high society of Birmingham) or just being himself (accidentally using the dog's toothbrush, mixing up the meanings of popular phrases "pigeon hole" vs. "pigeon toe", etc), he never ceases to make me laugh and laugh.

Of course I think he's attractive to look at too, but we all know that looks can change, as can any other physical qualities.

I'm no relationship expert. I've really only had the one so there's not much for me to compare it to, but I know we've been able to laugh our way through some trying times. And I'm certain more challenges are ahead. But it'll be okay. Because we can laugh about them. Eventually.

So if you find yourself looking for a mate, my advice is to find one who makes you laugh. And keep him/her around for the long haul.

August 19, 2014

You've got this. You can do it. Keep going.

I was the first baby born in my mom's group of friends. When I came along, she was only 24, an age that seems increasingly younger and younger the older I get. 24! So young.

She had a tight-knit group of pals who were a big part of my early years. Her childhood best friend has always played a key role and I called her Aunt Becky for a time [sidenote: Is that a southern thing? Calling a family friend "auntie" or "uncle"?] Anyway, I somehow outgrew calling her "aunt" and settled on calling her my godmother. It has more pomp and circumstance, don't you think? We're nothing if not over the top (in the very best way).

My mom had another childhood friend named John, who for some reason I called "Poppin' John." I don't know for sure how this moniker came to be, but I think it had something to do with the Smurfs, or Papa Smurf, or perhaps the popular dish hoppin' John?

The point of this story is that even though many of my mom's girlhood pals have gone their separate ways, many of them still keep in touch. Through the magic of social media, I'm in touch with some of them as well, even if I don't see them as often as I'd like. Poppin' John, who is now just John, shared the most wonderful story today on Facebook and I re-posted it on the SBS Facebook page.

I wanted to share it with you too, in case you don't frequent the social medias or maybe missed it.
John shared how he was taking a run while on a business trip. As he neared his hotel, a lady in a McDonald's parking lot hollered out to him "You got this! You can do it! Keep going!"

He said he was so encouraged that it caused him to run up a hill he didn't think he could have mustered before.

He challenged his Facebook friends to "be the encouragement that somebody needs today." It hit me squarely between the eyes. This is what I want out of life.

Be the encouragement.

If my blog is nothing else but this, I will feel like I've achieved my goal.

I so want to use this space as a place to encourage others. It's not about the Pin-worthy outfits or meals I photograph in just the right light. It's not about the swoon-worthy DIY projects I do or the way every room in my house looks like an Anthropologie catalog. None of these things are even true by the last outfit was a Wal-Mart t-shirt, my last meal was at S&S Cafeteria, I haven't DIY'ed in ages and my house is great, but nothing that a design blogger would gasp about.

So many days, sometimes several times a day I find myself needing to hear the words that lady yelled at Poppin' John. You got this. You can do it. Keep going. 

And my guess is that you do too.

Why do we need to hear this so much? I think it's because we're so hell-bent on believing the worst. That we don't got this. We can't do it. And why not just give up?

Honestly, I feel like giving up sometimes. There are sad things all around us. And it's easy to get dragged down by it all.

But the truth is always true. We were created with a purpose. And while this life seems really hard sometimes, there's always good stuff around the corner. We can expect good things. Because we've got this. We can do it. So let's keep going.

August 18, 2014

Wanting Less

I have a love-hate relationship with magazines. As I type these words, there is a pile of them collecting dust in the next room...some from two and three months back that I haven't yet read. You could say I'm saving them for a day when there's unlimited time to sit and flip through them at leisure (as if that time actually exists in our reality!). 

Or maybe the magazines go unread because sometimes they make me feel sort of funny. Like maybe my life doesn't quite measure up because it doesn't look the way the glossy pages say it should. 

But then sometimes I read something in a magazine that makes me feel oh so encouraged, and not at all like there's anything 'less than' about my experience. More is one of those magazines for me. If you've never read it, I highly recommend it. It seems to have more substance than fluff. 

The latest article that I'm really digging was from the July/August 2014 issue of More, penned by Sandy Hingston. Titled "The joy of wanting less," the article details the author's experience of cleaning out different random spaces in her home on a whim and the feelings that came about. 

Basically, she comes to terms with the fact that her current house is where she'll most likely spend the rest of her days and realizes that if this is the case, why not go ahead and make it exactly what she wants it to be. 

I've shared my own struggle in this with a good friend. I told her once about wanting to re-paint the walls in my house, but how I was paralyzed to do anything because of the hassle that it would require. My thought was if I was probably moving sometime in the future, did it really matter anyway? 

This points to a much bigger issue that I've long struggled with...believing the lie that my life was in some sort of holding pattern and that it hadn't officially begun yet. 

Here are some of the other ways this has played out for me: 
  1. Saving a fancy dress for some magical event that never seems to come
  2. Not wanting to wear good perfume except on really special occasions, as not to waste it
  3. Waiting for the perfect time to visit a dear friend across the country (for the past 10 years!)
  4. Not inviting people over to my house because I'm not happy with how it looks (thanks to all those magazines with the picture perfect homes)
  5. And, so on and so forth 
I think a big reason for this is that there are lots of things about my life that don't look the way I thought they would when I reached this point in time. We tell ourselves that life should look a certain way when we are out of college, or perhaps reach a particular age. And when it doesn't, there's this idea that the life we are experiencing isn't real because it doesn't look the way we thought it would. 

It's such a trap we fall into. We're missing out on the joy that could come from experiencing every moment because we're waiting for the moment that supposedly hasn't happened yet. 

In the More article, the author talks about letting go of the dream of being the next great novelist, or having a house by the beach, etc. And in doing so, she can stop living for the next thing, but really enjoy what's right in front of her. 

"When you're not ceaselessly anticipating what comes next, you take better care of what you've got." 

I'm happy to say that I've painted my house. And I have gotten new carpet, plus a new rug AND throw pillows! These are small things that bring me such joy because they make my home a more pleasant place. 

And maybe I'll live here forever or maybe I'll move in two years. But either way, I'm not waiting for something that may or may not happen. 

I love this quote from the article too: 

"Being driven all the time to want else, to want more, is exhausting." 

I completely agree.

Is there something you can't seem to move forward about? I hope you feel encouraged that when we let go of the "shoulds" it frees us up to enjoy so much more possibility.  

August 8, 2014

College Memories: Nostalgia for Years Gone By

You know how when you're younger and you hear old people talk about how things have changed, and how they used to be and maybe how they long for things that once were. When we're young, we're so naive...we think "but it won't be like that for me."

Then you find yourself at 32 years old, shopping for tweezers to pluck a few errant chin hairs and are smacked right in the face with the reality of what those old people were talking about.

Tonight I stopped by the brand new Wal-Mart that just opened near the University of Tennessee. Classes haven't started yet, but there were a few random students and their parents shopping for rugs and lamps and such. I didn't really need anything (does this ever stop me from shopping?). But mostly I just wanted to check it out and see what all the hype was about.

It was really just your average Wal-Mart. But the fact that it's so easy to access from campus is sort of strange to me. Maybe it's because when I was in school, piling into a friend's car and making a late night trip to Wal-Mart was something of an adventure. Then, the closest one was at least a 15 minute ride away. Plenty of time for talking in the car, maybe listening to some awesomely bad music from the early 2000s.

Nobody told me how much I was supposed to enjoy those times while they were happening. I'm not sure who this wise person might have been, but at the time it was the farthest thing from my mind. Those four years flew by in a flash. From my first day of college when my parents and best friend left me crying on the front steps of Hess Hall (they were crying too) to the day I graduated with so many dear friends and family cheering me on.

I feel so grateful for those experiences and I certainly don't take them for granted. In a way, my time at college was extended because the fall after I graduated, I accepted a full-time job in the same department where I'd studied. I spent seven more years working for the university and also was able to get my graduate degree.

When I left that position a few years ago, the University had been where I spent almost every day of my life for eleven years.

What's more, I live less than one mile away from the place to this day. I've watched so many things change about the campus and the surrounding areas. Some for the better and some, I'm not so sure. I still don't know if this whole Wal-Mart thing is actually necessary.

Lots of beloved spots have shut down, with new ones (or parking lots) popping up in their places. I don't like to live in the past, but this time of year always makes me reminiscent for college days. When those students head to class in a few weeks, most won't think for one second about how one day they could be the chubby 32-year old buying tweezers while younger, cooler people who haven't even been born yet peruse rugs and lamps with their parents.

Do you ever find yourself looking back at memories of school days? Or maybe you hated school or have bad memories of that time. Be encouraged my matter what's behind, there's surely something better ahead!

August 7, 2014

Back to School Teacher Gifts Under $5

Summer officially goes until beyond Labor Day, but many schools around the country (or at least around the south) are back in session. Knox County (where I live) students will head back into the classroom on Monday and that's where they'll stay for the next ten months or so until summer rolls around again.

During each school year, teachers are hard at work shaping those young minds. Since I grew up with a mom who also happened to be a teacher, I got to see firsthand the impact my mom had on her students.

Even now that some of her previous students are all grown up, many still say she was their favorite teacher. We've all had a teacher (or several if we were lucky) who made a difference for the better. And he or she probably didn't receive the thanks they deserved....or the pay. While a bigger paycheck for your child's teacher might not a reality, there are plenty of other ways to show your appreciation for their dedication.

There's no reason to wait until Christmas or even the last day of school to give teachers a small token of thanks. And it doesn't have to break the bank. Here is a whole round-up of back to school teacher gifts under $5 that are sure to please even the strictest of folks.

Go Germ Free - 

Teachers' days are spent with students who pass germs around like wildfire. Hand washing is a must, but why not make it less of a chore?

A bar of soap wrapped in pretty craft paper and tied with twine makes a great back to school teacher gift. Another simple idea is to buy a decorative soap dispenser and pre-load it with great smelling liquid soap. Your teacher (and his/her immune system) will thank you! 

Tasty Treats & Delicious Drinks - 

You've heard the way to the heart is through the stomach, but a shiny red apple just won't cut it for today's teacher. Their schedules are packed to the brim so they usually appreciate a snack they can eat on the run. These individual servings of popcorn are a healthier alternative and come in a variety of unique flavors. Plus popcorn is a whole grain, right? 

Another simple and affordable teacher gift option is to fill a pretty jar with something you know the teacher will like. Whether it's a variety of gourmet herbal teas, classic candy options or even some sort of homemade treat, the contents will be appreciated and the jar can be used again. 

Sweet Stationery - 

Teachers have to write a lot of notes...the ones you want to receive about your child's latest amazing accomplishment as well as the less than brag-worthy behavior. With school budgets already stretched thin, teachers usually end up paying for these types of things out of their own pockets or going without. 

There are so many great stationery options available, for a steal! 

Super School Supplies - 

Another category of items that make great back to school teacher gifts are school supplies. Again, much of these types of things are often paid for out of teacher's own pockets. So every little bit can go a long way to help a teacher out and make him/her feel appreciated!

This only scratches the surface of great back to school teacher gifts you can buy on a budget. It takes a little creativity, but even for $5 or less you can find some fun things. 

Other affordable back to school teacher gift ideas:
  • Gift cards to a favorite restaurant or coffee shop
  • Treat basket filled with snacks
  • Extra rolls of paper towels or boxes of Kleenex
  • Lip balm and hand lotion
  • Manicure sets
  • Gift certificate for a massage (perhaps several parents can pitch in on the cost of this)
  • Bouquet of flowers from your garden or local grocery store florist
What other teacher gifts can you think of? If you're a teacher, what types of gifts would you most like to receive? 

July 31, 2014

Homesick for Somewhere We've Never Been

Our language can be so confusing. I wonder all the time about how certain words translate. The word homesick is one I wonder about. If you didn't have an understanding of what it meant, would it be hard to make sense of?

A vivid memory I have of feeling homesick was in elementary school. It might sound crazy, but oftentimes when my class had a substitute for the day, I was homesick for my teacher. I must have taken a lot of comfort in the familiar and when my teacher was away I missed her.

I woke up the other morning with an uneasy feeling. I told my beau about it and he reassured me, but asked if I knew what might be causing my anxiety. I couldn't put my finger on what I was feeling until I was alone in the car, but that's when I realized I was homesick.

It's a sinking feeling, heavy and cold. You can't see it and you can't predict when it will surface. But when it does, there's a sort of nobody ever really knew you and nobody'd miss you if you were gone. It sounds like the end of the world, and when it settles on you it feels that way too. But the good news is there's a simple cure.

The best way that I can think of (or at least what works for me) to quit being homesick is to spend time with somebody who loved you before you were born. When somebody loves you before you're born, it means they've known you as you always were. And no matter how you were or how you are, it means they love you anyway. I'm lucky to have a few people like this in my life.

But some of those somebodies who loved me best aren't around anymore. And I think without even realizing it, I found myself homesick for them and the places they once were.

I'm homesick for my granny's house. Not for the building that still sits atop a little hill in the country. Nor the walls and windows and front porch covered in bright green Astro turf. Not even for the big flat rock under the hickory nut tree that my uncle loaded up and hauled off after she died.

But I'm homesick for the nights spent scootched up next to her on the couch, watching Wheel of Fortune. I'm homesick for her pink formica kitchen countertops...covered in flour as she rolled out biscuit dough for my breakfast. I'm homesick for her cheesy scrambled eggs which tasted better than any I've ever had since.

When I found myself feeling homesick the other day, I imagined myself at my granny's and I felt a little better. I pictured her in Heaven and thought about how because so many people who have pieces of my heart are there that some of my heart feels like it's in Heaven too.

I'm homesick for Heaven even though I can't describe it or envision it. I have no idea what it looks like or feels like, but there's a part of me that wants to be there sometimes. The older I get, the more people I've loved will go there. And that's a sad/happy sort of feeling.

It's a powerful thing to know that somebody loved you before they even knew you. If you have the chance to love someone like that, I hope you will.

It's definitely how I feel about my younger siblings, and cousins, and dear friends' babies, who are growing up before my eyes. Maybe one day they'll be homesick for me. I couldn't imagine a greater honor.

July 30, 2014

Choosing a Pet Sitter for Your Dog: Leon Takes a Mini Vacay

[This post was sponsored by DogVacay. All opinions are my own.]

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a company called DogVacay wanting to send me on a mini vacation while my dog Leon enjoyed a mini vacay of his own.

Before that, I wasn't familiar with DogVacay, but then again I haven't used a pet sitter before for Leon so it's not really something I have ever sought out.

DogVacay is a website (they also have an app) that connects pet owners with qualified pet sitters who live nearby. You can read reviews of pet sitters in your town, city or zip code and when you find one you like, it's easy to book a stay for your pet. Each pet sitter has different specifics, but there are options of pet sitters who will let you bring your dog to their home or sitters who come to your home.

I'll admit, I was skeptical at first about leaving my sweet Leon. Not because I didn't think the folks at DogVacay were qualified, but because he has had some health issues in the past six months or so that have made life a bit more challenging.

When I explained this to the rep from DogVacay, and that I didn't think I could participate in the Mini Vacay promotion, she was so sweet. She explained that they work with lots of owners of special needs dogs and that she was sure she could find me a sitter who would be a good match.

It just so happened there was a great pet sitter who lived practically in our neighborhood. I made contact with the pet sitter (her name was Happy) and she was available for the date of our mini vacay. After a few back and forth messages via DogVacay, I booked our reservation. All payments are made through the website, which is nice because then you don't have to exchange money when dropping off your pet.

Instead of taking Leon to Happy's house, I asked if she could stay at our place and she was glad to oblige us. He has some neurological issues that cause his back legs not to function correctly, so walking can be tough. I thought it would be easier for him to be in his familiar surroundings.

When Happy arrived, I liked her immediately. She was really sweet and interacted with Leon like they were old friends. We chatted for awhile to go over a few more things, and then my beau and I were off for our mini vacay.

Some of the fun things we did included:

Browsing for Treasures at a Favorite Antique Store 

Blue velvet anyone?  

Obligatory Antique Store Selfie 

Antique Store Selfie wearing wacky hats (my beau looks impaired here, no?) 

Taking a walk around a neighborhood park and checking out the sights, including this cool yard sculpture of a Moose by local artist Kelly Brown 

 Dinner at one of my favorite restaurants, Knoxville's Sun Spot
[Tilapia with corn and grits]  

You might be wondering about our "vacation." For the sake of full disclosure, it was actually a stay-cation spent around our town, but even that can be so refreshing from time to time. And since Leon's been having his health issues, I have kept my time away from him at a minimum. So it was nice to leave him in great hands and not have to worry. 

While we were out, Happy took a few pictures of Leon so we could see what he was up to...DogVacay calls these photos "pup"dates. Too cute! 

The peace of mind it gave me let me relax a bit and enjoy my mini vacay!  

When we arrived home, Leon and Happy seemed to have had a great time together. He was calm and not the least bit anxious. As an over-the-top dog mom, this made me feel so relieved. 

When you love your pets as members of the family, leaving them with strangers can be tough. But having someone who genuinely seemed to care about him made it much, much easier. 

Whether planning another short stay-cation or even a longer, extended trip, I'm so glad to know there's someone in the neighborhood I could call on to watch my guy. Plus, if Happy weren't available, there are several other options of Knoxville pet sitters who come highly recommended from DogVacay. 

When it comes to our fur babies, you just can't put a price on knowing that they are loved and cared for when we aren't around. Even though my first DogVacay experience was provided as a courtesy from the company, I would have paid for the experience 100%. Leon loved it and so did I. 

Thinking about trying DogVacay for a mini vacay of your own? Use the coupon code SOUTHERNBELLE to receive $10 off your first reservation. And don't forget, all DogVacay reservations include free pet insurance, 24/7 customer support and daily photo "pup" dates so pet parents can feel peace of mind knowing their best friend is in good hands.

Do you ever leave your dog with a pet sitter while you're out of town? Maybe you've used DogVacay. I'd love to hear about your experiences! 

July 28, 2014

Our Dreams: The Only Reality We Ever Know

"I believe in the dream. I think we only live through our dreams and our imagination. That's the only reality we really ever know.

— Diana Vreeland in A Question of Style: A Conversation with Diana Vreeland by Lally Weymouth, Rolling Stone Magazine, 1977.

Have you ever found yourself awake in the middle of the night after a scary dream? This happens to me sometimes and it's hard to shake that feeling of fear. I try to tell myself it's just a's not reality.

But then I ran across this quote from the iconic Diana Vreeland and it got me thinking. About dreams. And what's real vs. what isn't.

For so much of our childhoods, we are told that our dreams aren't real. Especially the scary ones.

"It was just a wasn't real. It can't hurt you."

What if somewhere along the way, we started believing this about all our dreams?

I'm not talking about nightmares starring the boogie-man. I mean the dreams that are rooted way down deep inside of those dark secret places where they can barely get enough air to breathe.

What comes to me is a question, one that's somewhat difficult to ask...but asked it must be.

Do you think your dreams are silly? 

I guess in order to think anything about your dreams, you must first know what they are. [If you aren't sure, maybe spend some time looking inside your heart. You'll find a dream (or two hundred) in there.]

So, about that dream of yours....Is it something you've held out hope that maybe, just maybe, one day might be possible?

Is it something you can imagine yourself doing, week in and week out, in the face of any and all opposition, whether you ever earn a red cent from it or not?

Do you tell yourself your dream can become a reality or do you dismiss your deepest hopes for fear they might be silly? I think fear of being seen as silly is a terrible thing. Just consider what wonderful adventures you might have if you'd only allow yourself to look a bit silly in the process.

Beside my desk is a small postcard with a drawing of a trapeze artist. On it is a quote that says: "It is only by risking ourselves from one hour to another that we live at all."

What are you risking these days? I don't mean your stock market investments. I'm talking about your reputation.

Are you more concerned about what people think of you to the point that you'd let fear of looking silly be a good enough reason to by-pass the possibilities of your dreams?

Unlike those scary dreams that plague my sleep, the dreams of our heart are very, very real. As Dame Vreeland said, our dreams are the only reality we know. So doesn't that mean we can use them to shape our lives? I say yes to that. 

July 25, 2014

Fashion Lessons from My Childhood: Wearing Boots with Dresses

[This post was sponsored by Country Outfitter. All opinions and adventures are my own.]

I've always loved fashion, particularly shoes. Maybe it's because a good pair of shoes can make you feel like you're going places. In particular, I love boots. Always have. Come to think of it, some of my life's most defining moments took place while I was wearing boots. Do you ever think about your past self? A younger you, who might have been a little bolder or a little less scared to try something new. When I think about my childhood self, so many of the memories that come to mind include vivid imagery of what I wore. 

I think there's something we can learn from our childhood selves. After all, isn't that who we've been all along? I'm looking back at some of my childhood fashion choices to hopefully gain a little wisdom from my younger self. 

My first pair of boots were pink cowgirl boots. Honestly, I was so young, I really don't remember wearing them. But they are simply fab. I like to think I took my first steps in them. Who's to say it isn't true?

Another pair of boots that I loved like crazy as a child were white leather ankle boots with fringe around the tops and round silver buckles. My aunt and uncle (who were just dating then), took 5-year old me to the county fair and of course, I wore my white boots paired with a denim mini-skirt [What is it about little girls wearing boots with dresses? So adorable!]

We were riding in my uncle's truck, which I'm sure he'd cleaned thoroughly to impress his date (who would later become my aunt). I was riding in the middle between them. Glancing down, my boots were so beautiful and if I kicked my feet just so, the fringe fluttered in the wind. 

"Kate, don't kick your feet, you'll knock open the ashtray," my uncle warned. 

I hated to disobey him, but my boots looked so pretty as the sunlight glimmered on the shiny silver buckles. What could it hurt to give my heels another little kick? My white leather boot-clad toe hit the truck's ashtray compartment, which practically exploded, blowing ashes all over my boots (and me). My uncle was not pleased. 

Lesson learned: Sometimes you should listen the first time. 

Then I was 12 and wanted my first real grown up pair of cowboy boots. I begged my grandpa to take me to a boot shop nearby to get some. As an only grandchild on that side of the family, I was used to getting my way. But real cowboy boots were expensive and my grandpa wasn't convinced. Finally, I wore him down. 

When we went to pick out a pair, I tried all sorts of brown and black options. Feeling like they just weren't special enough, I kept looking. Finally, I spotted the pair that I knew were the ones. Soft gray leather with colorful cut-outs on each side. And not just any cut-outs. Neon green cacti and bright blue coyotes howling at a neon yellow moon. It was the 90s. Neon was kind of a thing. What makes me sad about these boots is that my feet were still growing. The next summer, I outgrew them and never wore them again. But I'll never forget the feeling they gave me...even if it didn't last long. 

Lesson learned: Savor every moment and every never know when something great will fade into the past.

As I came into adolescence and the joys of being a teenager, I struggled to figure out who I wanted to be. Boots with dresses were a big part of my wardrobe. One day I'd wear a black velvet baby doll dress with black patent leather ankle boots a' la Cyndi Lauper. The next, I might find myself in a dress printed with farm animals paired with slip on Keds booties. My style (like my angsty teenage moods) was all across the board.

So you might be wondering what's the lesson to be learned here? We don't always figure everything out when we want to. But in time, life unfolds and good things will come from it. At 32, I'm still trying to figure out who I want to be. And I think that's a good thing.

Another hard life lesson I learned while wearing boots took place in college. My sorority was having a hoe-down themed date party and there was a guy I liked and I wanted him to accompany me. His name was Frank. Little did I know that Frank had a girlfriend on the side who also happened to live in the same dormitory as me.

I took him to the party and probably fawned all over him, acting a little too silly...the whole time not knowing that after the night was over he would be going back to the dorm room of another girl. When I found out I was mortified and pretty mad. I confronted him, but he wouldn't come clean. Not much came of it after that. He ended up staying with her and we parted ways.

But the lesson from the boots was this: Don't settle for someone who doesn't think you're amazing. There's no reason to play second fiddle or be with someone who'd rather be with someone else. 

Thankfully, memories of Frank have faded into the past. There's only one guy in my life now and I'm glad there's only one girl in his life: me.

Another great lesson learned from the Frank fiasco was how important it is to have great girlfriends in your life. My friend Jill had some particularly choice words for Frank the next time she saw him and it made me feel supported to know that someone was looking out for me.

When I look back at all these stories, it strikes me how often I've worn boots with dresses in my life. This fashion statement, with all its iconic southern style, sort of sums up for me what it means to be a woman.

Wearing a dress feels oh so feminine and lady-like, but the boots remind the world that there's a toughness too. Isn't that what being a woman is all about? Finding that perfect balance of strength and softness?

These are just a few of the many life lessons I've learned, and what I wore. Do you have any memorable shoes that made you feel like you were going places? Maybe you had a favorite pair of boots that you loved. How do you like to wear boots with dresses? 

July 24, 2014

Preserving Fruits and Vegetables: How to Can

Growing up in the south, with grandparents who farmed, canning and putting up summer vegetables was a big part of my childhood. Of course I was too young to really know what was going on, but I remember how hard my grandmothers worked alongside my mom and aunt as they washed, peeled, cooked, cooled and canned various crops.

I've wanted to can for some time now, but was pretty intimidated by it all, after hearing horror stories of pressure cookers exploding, food spoilage and contamination. When a sweet southern lady invited me to spend a day with her and learn how to can, I jumped at the chance!

**NOTE: This is in no way an extensive resource for canning...just my experiences. I'm linking to some great information for you if you're a novice canner or hoping to try it out. Read on!

Pressure Canning vs. Water Bath Canning 

For my first lesson in canning, we selected green beans as our test subject. Depending on what you want to can, you will have to choose your method. Green beans require pressure cooker canning because they are a low-acid food. Click here for more information on this type of canning.

Water bath canning might be better for beginning canners since you are more likely to have a large stock pot vs. a pressure cooker. I've since added a pressure canner  to my wedding registry! Water bath canning is best for high-acid foods, which are easier to preserve. Click here for more information on water bath canning.

Both canning methods require some of the same basic tools. For any kind of canning, you will need: 

1) Either a pressure cooker or a stock pot for water bath canning
2) Jars - glass Mason jars (Ball® brand or other). 
3) Jar lids (this is the round, flat part) and jar bands (this is the part that looks like a ring)
4) Jar lifter - to remove hot jars from the canner
5) Jar funnel - to help you get your food into the jars more easily
6) Lid magnet or tongs - to remove lids from the hot water prior to placing them on jars

Basically, you follow your recipe depending on what you are trying to make. Be careful if you are using recipes from vintage cookbooks. Many of the older methods that were once used for canning are now considered unsafe or unhealthy. If your cookbook is more than 20 years old, take that into account and be sure to process your jars even if it doesn't call for it.

Here are a few other things to consider as you are canning: 

Canning Do's & Don'ts - 

It's important to remember you must use jars made for canning. Do not to re-use old Mayonaise jars or any other types of jars that had food in them bought from the store. These are not made to hold up to the heat of canning over and over again.

Also, don't ever re-use lids, but you can re-use bands.

Jars must be clean (really clean!) and hot before you put food into them. When I canned green beans, we filled the kitchen sink with hot water and submerged the jars prior to filling each one with green beans.

Lids must be hot too, before putting them on the jars so you'll want to keep them in a small pot of hot water. 

My best advice is to gather all materials before you begin. And make sure you have plenty of time to devote to canning because it's not something you can rush. At one point, the pressure cooker we were using wasn't sealed all the way so we had to stop and start all over. Then one of my jars didn't seal because two lids got stuck together. Little things can go wrong, but it's a learning process.

After a successful first attempt at canning green beans (13 out of the 14 jars I canned sealed properly!), I feel much more confident. I haven't tackled any other canning projects yet, but I think jelly might be my next thing to try. I feel silly for being so intimidated and avoiding it for so long, but now that I can can, I feel like I'm keeping part of my family legacy alive. I'm nowhere near achieving the master cook and canning status that my granny might have had, but I'm working on it.

Here's a complete resource for canning, if you want to check it out! 

July 21, 2014

When Your Family Hates Your Cooking

In the south, the way we cook and the foods we eat matter a lot to us. I think this is probably true of other cultures besides the south, but since this is my only point of reference, that's all I know. Not only is our food sort of central to our traditions and celebrations, but the act of cooking can also be such a meaningful expression of love.

Take for instance the last meal I made for my southern beau. I carefully washed and chopped vegetables. I heated some fancy olive oil in a skillet, making sure it wouldn't burn. I added garden fresh herbs. I whipped up half a dozen farmers' market organic cage-free eggs (you know the kind that come from chickens who live in penthouses and dine on silver trays).

In case you were wondering, the end result of this culinary process was supposed to be something like a frittata. I worked my kitchen magic, all the while thinking about how much I love my beau and how making him a special meal would in turn make him feel special too.

He ate in mostly silence and when I asked him if he wanted seconds, he replied "I didn't really like it, honey."

I was a little devastated.

Am I the only one who has felt this way? Why is it that we put so much meaning into preparing a meal and if our family loves it, we feel so great but if they hate it, we feel awful? I know it's nothing personal against me. And it's not like my beau hates every meal I cook. But there have been a few things over the years that have gone down in history as being the 'worst of the worst.'

Most recently, it was my frittata fiasco, but before that were some other dishes he didn't like, including a red cabbage dish that was utterly inedible.

I know that a few kitchen missteps don't make me a bad cook. Yet these things still leave me feeling sort of dejected. But why? I think this feeling comes from the amount of pressure we put on ourselves to create the perfect meal, bake the most beautiful cake, plan the Pinterest-worthy party, etc. It's a lot of pressure.

Before ever starting one of my own, I used to read blogs religiously. The first blog I stumbled upon was Apartment Therapy and its sister site, The Kitchn. Founded by an adorable married couple, the blog was all about creating a beautiful life in a small space. I ate it up. I bookmarked every post that applied to me, printed tons of recipes and tried to soak up as much inspiration as possible.

Then not too long ago, I read somewhere that the blogs' founders were divorcing. The husband gave an interview saying that the pressure of trying to create the perfect life had contributed to the downfall of their marriage. And this made me so sad for them, because from the outside it appeared they had created this perfect life for themselves...but I guess it was never enough.

When is this bubble going to burst? This "my life is only worth something if it looks good enough to showcase on social media and the Internet" bubble. It just can't sustain itself. I'm afraid it's already making people feel like crap and it will only get worse. Even the current trend of the "Pinterest Fail" is a bit worrisome to me. So you tried to reconstruct some Disney character out of fondant and it turned out looking like Al Capone. Did it taste okay? Did you try your best and put your heart and soul into it? So what if the end result wasn't exactly like the inspiration photo on Pinterest. Does that really mean your effort was a failure?

My goal with Southern Belle Simple is to create a little bit of lovely in the world. But even more than that, my goal is to tell my story. Not in a way that makes me look better, but just who I really am. And apparently I am a person who gets too overzealous with herbs which have the potential to render my frittatas inedible.

So what? It doesn't say anything about my character. And my beau still choked it down...which means it wasn't even really that bad.

I'm sure everyone who cooks has made something that someone didn't like. It doesn't mean they had to throw in their apron.

We've got to give ourselves a break. And I'd hate to think of all the wonderful things we'd miss if fear of failure kept us from trying.

July 9, 2014

Simple Tips to Make a Family Reunion More Fun

Summer is family reunion season. In fact, more than 65% of all family reunions take place during the warmer months. Whether you're planning a family reunion this year or just looking for ways to re-connect with your loved ones during the summer, here are some simple tips to make it more fun for everyone.

1) DIY Creative Family Tree Art

One of the biggest reasons some folks are hesitant to attend family reunions is that they feel like they won't know anybody or they won't know what to talk about. With families spread around the globe, it's not uncommon to have relatives you've never met.

A way to break the ice at your next family reunion is to create DIY Family Tree art. Not only does it allow everyone to get their creative juices flowing, but it also provides a way to start talking about who's who and how you each fit into the family tree.

All you need is some poster board or cardstock. Your family tree art can be large or small, simple or elaborate. If you're very artistic, you might want to draw portraits of each family member. Or maybe you can represent them with stickers (like my example above), photos, or just text.

Making a family tree is also a good way to teach kids about the members of their family and how everyone is connected. Even if you aren't headed to a reunion this summer, this project is something for your family to do together. Then, as new members of the family are born or marry into your clan, you can add them to the tree.

2) Genealogy Guessing Game 

Another way to break the ice and learn more about each other at a family reunion is with a genealogy guessing game. I found a simple template on Microsoft Publisher and printed it off at home, but you can also just use index cards. Put names and photos of members of your family on one side of each card and fun facts about them on the other.

You can use these in several different ways. First, you can play a game where you try to identify which family member is being described based on the facts, then flip the card over to check and see if you were right.

They can also function as flash cards prior to the reunion so you can get a better idea of who will be there and what you might want to talk to them about.

You could even make the cards with photos on one side before the reunion and then have everyone who is there write some fun facts about themselves on the back of their card. Possibilities are only limited by what you can think up!

3) Create a Totally Cool Family Time Capsule 

This is another idea that would be fun to try whether you are attending a family reunion or not. Creating a family time capsule is a great way to capture a slice of your family's life right now.

Think about what types of objects (or photos of them) you'd like to include. A family time capsule might be filled with things such as:
  • medals or awards recently won
  • favorite family recipes
  • graduation mementos
  • something from a favorite collection
  • lost teeth
  • small items with sentimental value
  • coins
  • a letter to your future self
  • souvenirs from a special vacation or trip 
  • post cards
  • beloved family photos 
  • flash drive with photo/video files
When you have all your time capsule items gathered up, you'll need some sort of container that can be sealed for at least a year, but maybe more. If your entire family is participating in the time capsule, limit each person to a couple of items. Then pack it away and don't open it back up until the next family reunion. 

Then, you'll have something to look forward to as well as something to talk about when you look back at how much everyone has changed since you sealed the time capsule.

4) Host a Family Photo Swap 

The thing about family photos is often there is only an original copy. To ensure that nobody has to fight over the awesome picture of great aunt Priscilla, I propose a photo swap.

For $10 or less, you can make black and white copies of lots of your beloved family photos at a local print shop. I took mine to Kinko's and did them this way, but you could even scan photos on a home scanner and print them off at a photo studio.

Gather up your photos and make some copies! Then you can divide up the prints so each person at the reunion (who wants one) can get a batch. Ask everyone to do this so you end up leaving with some great photos too.

If you just want digital copies, you could also have everyone scan the photos in and share them via an online file sharing service such as Dropbox.

Some of these ideas might be a little bit cheesy, but isn't that what family reunions are all about?

The bottom line is that a family reunion gives you a chance to reconnect with all the people who share your heritage. Some people go all out with themed family reunions, exotic beach getaways or mountain retreats. My family had a fun reunion years ago at Norris State Park. I don't think we did any activities, but we enjoyed ourselves all the same. Whether your reunion is uber fancy or oh so simple, I hope you enjoy connecting with the folks in your family! 

July 7, 2014

How Old is Too Old?

Age is such a funny thing. It's not really real you know. So much meaning and weight gets tacked on to how old we are. I'm not saying I'm against celebrating birthdays, or even having big blowout celebrations for milestone birthdays. Those things are worth celebrating.

But what does age really matter?

This weekend, I listened to a podcast called Pop Culture Happy Hour about being too old for youth culture and toys. It raised some interesting points about how we outgrow certain things from childhood and not others.

I guess it depends on what type of childhood you had, but mine was pretty great. There was no shortage of time for me to play, especially with my grandparents who always seemed happy to oblige me. I had lots of favorite toys. But more than just the toys themselves was the opportunity they gave me to imagine and dream up all sorts of things.

Transitioning to adulthood is a natural process of growing up. Toys are abandoned for other pursuits. But why does it feel like using our imagination should be outgrown too?

On the podcast, the hosts talked about some of the things they did as children, including re-enacting the mini-series Roots using Matchbox cars. Another described how she and her sister would rake leaves into a giant game board and act like superheroes.

These stories spark something so strongly in me because they remind of similar things I used to my game of "Drive-Thru Window" in which I'd be inside the house near the bedroom window and my grandpa had to go outside and walk up to it. Each time, he'd be a different made-up character, placing outrageous imaginary food orders that I'd have to whip up. We played this for hours.

As I sit here typing this post, my desk holds a couple of small plastic Hello Kitty happy meal toys, as well as my childhood watercolor set and a plastic penguin figurine that when you remove the head reveals a stash of crayons (also a beloved childhood toy). It's not so much that I want to be surrounded by toys, but maybe I just like the whimsy they inspire.

As my southern beau likes to say about me, "you do require a certain amount of whimsy."

Yesterday we got to spend some time with a wonderful lady who happens to be 85. She's a dear family friend and the adventures (and tragedies) her life contains would fill several volumes. But what struck me most about her is her youthful spirit. She was widowed at age 43 (so young) and never remarried. Then she went to college at age 70 and graduated with a degree in art. She certainly doesn't seem to think that she's too old to do anything her heart desires.

In passing, she made a comment about yodeling and when my southern beau found out she yodeled, he asked her to do it for us. She then belted out "I Want to be a Cowboy's Sweetheart" complete with yodeling and harmony. It was amazing! And it just served as another reminder to me that who we are isn't really defined by how many years we've been alive.

[image via]

July 3, 2014

The Difference Between a House and a Home

Last week I spent some time in my hometown and during my stay, we stopped by my great-grandparents' house. This is the house where they lived for nearly as long as I can's the house where I spent countless Christmas mornings eating a huge country breakfast as well as other holidays as well as ordinary days.

They haven't lived in the house for a few years. My great grandma passed away in the summer of 2003 and my great grandpa died in 2010. Since then, their sons (my grandpa and his brother) have been renting the house to various tenants. The most recent tenant just moved out and since the house was vacant, I wanted to go see it.

Driving the familiar route to the house, I almost convinced myself for a second that my great grandparents would be there. I know this is crazy, but when something is so familiar to you as being one way, it can be hard for our mind to accept that things have changed.

When we first pulled into the driveway, the house looked the same. Then, on closer inspection I began to see all the little things that made it perfectly clear my grandparents hadn't been there in awhile. The yard, which they were meticulous about caring for, was littered with little sticks and a few scattered weeds. My grandma's hanging plants were gone and so were her 2-liter bottle whirlygigs. There was no compost pile, no garden. No Mercury in the driveway.

Things only became more obvious when we walked inside the house. The previous tenant had moved out and left a ton of his stuff, which was scattered from room to room. Walls had been re-painted in colors my grandma would have hated. Floors re-carpeted in a variety of patterns and styles. I went from room to room, looking for anything that might be a sign of the life that my grandparents had lived.

Their bedroom, which had been turned into a child's room, was painted teal green with purple accents. The carpet was a modern berber, unlike the plush psuedo-shag that had once lined the walls.

I opened the door to what had been their bedroom closet and saw that its floor was still covered with the carpet I remembered. Now if you aren't sentimental or kind of a germaphobe, this next part might not make sense to you.

I got inside the closet and sat on the floor. I felt the carpet under my fingertips. It felt the same. I leaned down until my face was inches away from the floor and smelled the same. For just that second, nothing in the house had changed. My grandpa could have easily been in his chair, reading his Bible. My grandma might have been in the kitchen, scrambling eggs with a mess of poke sallet (which she knew I loved). The local a.m. radio station might have been playing so they could hear the obituaries and see which families they needed to call on to pay condolences.

But then they were gone again...the house was different and I was left having an allergy attack with a nose full of dust mites.

There's a big difference between a house and a home. A house is a place where you live. And I will always think of that particular house as my great grandparents' house. But it's painfully obvious it is no longer their home.

A home is a place where you come alive. My grandparents weren't alive in that closet...that's not why the smell meant something to me. They are alive in my heart. And that's why it's just as easy to for them to be at home in my heart, because they are still alive to me in there.

We might live lots of places in our lifetime, but our true home is not somewhere that can be seen or smelled. Home is where the truest part of us resides.

[images via flickr Creative Commons license  12, 3, 4, 5]