March 28, 2017

Do not read this blog.

Attention everyone. Or anyone who might be reading this. Which might be no one. This is a public service announcement. There are certain people who probably shouldn't read this blog. Thus, here is your warning. Read at your own risk.

Do not read this blog if your parents loved you perfectly, if you have your faith completely figured out, or if you can tuck the front part of your shirt into your jeans exactly like a J.Crew model and still look skinny.

Do not read this blog if you wake up without an alarm clock, if everything in your house matches, or if your vehicle still has "new car smell." ...kidding, I'm just bitter and mildly jealous of anyone with a car that doesn't smell like a fourteen year old chihuahua.

If you judge people who go to counseling or have a therapist, definitely don't read this blog. Sometimes the strongest thing you can do is reach out for help. This is not a weakness.

Do not read this blog if you have vividly white teeth in perfect rows, or if your eyebrows are arched just so without any tweezing, or if you never have to shave your toes.

If you think gay people or black people or fat people or any people for that matter are less than not read this blog. Actually, on second thought you might learn something. About kindness and love. So you can read this blog.

If you never had a fat phase, or an awkward phase, or an ugly phase or a bad hair phase, please don't read this blog.

If you're wandering or wondering, read this blog. Got family dysfunction? I got it too. You may read this blog.

If you floss every day, you can maybe read this blog. And teach me how.

If you've ever felt a million miles away from someone you loved most in the world, while sitting in the same room with them, you can read this blog. Got a broken heart or a broken relationship or a broken spirit? Please read this blog. Start with this. And maybe this.

If you don't cry at that coffee commercial where Peter comes home for Christmas, please avoid reading this blog.

If you've ever had the rug pulled out from under you, been backed into a corner, had your life turned upside down, or received the short end of the stick, please read this blog. And be my friend.

If you sometimes say the wrong thing, end up feeling silly or wish you could rewind the past ten minutes for a do-over, definitely read this blog. You're among your people.

If you feel like a has-been or a never-was or you're afraid you'll never reach your full potential, or you think you might have peaked in high school, read this blog. There's hope for you and me.

Life is what happens while you're too busy waiting for life to happen. When we finally accept this, it will be a great epiphany....I just always manage to forget. If you're reading these words, there's hope for you. Even if it feels like your last crumb of hope was eaten by a cartoon mouse in an ironic sort of way. There is hope. I promise.

And for the record, anyone who wants to can read this blog. That's all.

March 22, 2017

Creative Ways to Set a Spring Table

When I was a kid, I used to love setting the table before dinner. Instead of eating in our home's formal dining room, we normally ate around a plain wooden table in the middle of our kitchen. It wasn't fancy china or exquisite linens that I used to adorn our eating surface, but instead my mom's old woven placemats and pottery dishes, beige rimmed in baby blue.

Our meals weren't gourmet, but the act of gathering together was meaningful anyway. Memorable.

“If the home is a body, the table is the heart, the beating center, the sustainer of life and health.” 
― Shauna NiequistBread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes

I hardly ever get to set the table anymore. My husband and I sometimes eat in the den, on trays in our laps. When we do use our dining table, it's still just the two of us and we rarely put down placemats or light candles. But that's okay with me. Meals don't have to be fancy to matter. When you are gathered with those you love, this is what matters most.

Although, sometimes it's still fun to set a lovely table and spring is a great time for this. Whether you are hosting a large gathering of dear friends or just dining with one or two special someones, there's no reason you can't get creative and set a lovely spring table.

Here are some of my best tips for setting a spring table. I hope it inspires you to get creative and think outside the box at the next meal you host for friends and loved ones.

Creative ideas for setting a pretty spring table

1) Choose a color scheme and stick with it - 

Not everyone loves the typical springtime colors of bright yellow, pink and aquamarine. Perhaps you are drawn to more muted hues. For my latest lovely spring table, I opted to use shades of the Pantone 2017 color of the year "greenery." Green is my favorite color and there are so many shades of it to enjoy, from chartreuse to brighter acid-green shades to pale tones of moss, fern and olive. 

2) Shop your home before hitting the home decor store - 

Unless you're a complete minimalist, I bet you have lots of items around your home that can be re-purposed to create a lovely table setting. Just from where I'm sitting in my home, I see baskets and vases, pitches and glass containers, plus plenty of green plants. All of these things can be used to set a lovely table! 

You don't have to hit the home decor store or spend a penny to set a lovely table. Shop your home, including things you may have tucked away. 

3) Mix and match - 

Few of us have the luxury of owning entire sets of matching china, stemware and silver. If you're like me, you've collected odds and ends over the years. Clear off a space on a table or counter and gather up various plates, chargers, table linens, etc. Pretend you are a magazine editor and look for things that complement each other as you're building your table setting. 

And as Tim Gunn likes to say, "make it work!" So what if you only have three brown transferware plates. Mix them into the lineup with all white dishes for a little unexpected surprise. Got several different patterns of floral china? Unify them with gold or silver chargers. 

Something else I like to mix and match is cloth napkins. I have amassed a great collection of odd silk and linen napkins in different shades of green. These are perfect for a spring table, but can also work during the winter holidays too. 

4) Incorporate natural elements - 

I like to do everything on a budget, so I rarely spend a lot of money on floral arrangements. But a sprig of greenery can go a long way. I've been known to take my scissors and walk around the yard, snipping a few pretty pieces to use in my tablescapes. Even a so-called weed can sometimes look really pretty when presented in the right way. 

5) Leave room for the food - 

We've all seen the picture perfect tablescapes in magazines and on blogs. But I often wonder how realistic these are for actual meals. When setting your table, leave some space for the food. Make sure everything has a bit of breathing room. If people are too nervous to move for fear of elbowing a compote, this can cause undue stress. 

And finally, have fun with it! So what if things aren't perfect. Setting a table before sharing a meal you've prepared is a special expression of love for your family. Be grateful for the moment and don't take things too seriously if your end results aren't magazine worthy. This is real life after all. 

March 17, 2017

What I've Learned - 2017 Edition

I was almost a St. Patrick's Day baby. Born just a day late on March 18, I've always wished for a March 17th birthday. The same way I've wished to find any sort of Irish ancestry in my lineage. I guess my pale skin and reddish hair have always made me long for some connection to the Emerald Isle.

In honor of the 35th anniversary of my birth, I thought I should share a few things that I've learned. I originally thought of calling it "35 in 35: What I've Learned in 35 Years on Earth." But then I tried to think of 35 actual good things worth sharing and it got super hard after about number seven, so I scrapped that idea.

Trust me, I still have plenty more to soak up and hopefully more years in which to do it. This isn't even for you so much as it is for me, to document and remind myself to be thankful when I look back on it later on.

Here goes nothing....In no particular order.

1) Always get there early. Not awkwardly early which I am wont to do, but just early enough that you have time to spare in case any unforeseen hiccups should present themselves. It shows people you value their time. And you never know who you might get to meet.

2) Along the same lines as number one...value people's time. It's your most priceless resource and wasting people's time is like smacking them in the face with a fish. Rude.

3) Don't get too caught up in long-term plans. It's not bad to plan and have goals, but sometimes this can cause you to miss out on the little moments that make up your life. Instead of trying to work toward something so far in the future that may or may not happen, focus on how you can make people feel in each tiny interaction you have with them. If you do this, it will add up to a pretty great experience. And people will like you. I'm not saying I always do a great job at this, but I have been lucky to encounter people who do and I'm trying to be more like them.

4) Drink more water. Always.

5) Memorize this phrase: "It's not about me." This applies at least 75% of the time, probably more. When someone is rude. When someone cuts you off in traffic. When your spouse is in a bad mood. Usually they are just doing the best they can and you happened to get caught in the cross fire.

6) Give yourself permission not to engage with people who bring you down. You can only do so much and your own joy and peace is too valuable. Don't throw your pearls before swine.

7) Wear the best quality shoes you can afford. Even if they are second-hand. Your feet will thank you.

8) The more stuff you have, the more stuff you have to take care of. This takes a lot of energy. I am far from minimalist, but I am learning that a cluttered house stresses me out and having a bit less is more peaceful.

9) Don't go to McAllister's (or any other busy lunch spot) and have a 48 minute call on speaker phone where you plan your Spring Break vacation menu. This is rude to other patrons who might not want to hear about it. And what do you mean nobody likes Oreos? Who are you?

10) Realize that the little spot cleared out for you in the world is small but important. Wiggle into it and figure out how you can make the most of what you're given, but don't take over or spread out too much to where you crowd somebody else.

11) Live in a way that would make your great-grandparents proud. This includes picking up cigarette butts that people have thrown out along the edge of your driveway.

12) Don't get in such a hurry. Refer to #1. You'll save yourself a lot of stress just by arriving early.

13) Honor the miracle of your body and all its many functions. You'll miss these when they don't work so well anymore.

14) Pay compliments and really mean them.

15) Don't huff and roll your eyes when you end up behind a slow walking person at the grocery store.

16) Live in such a way that it let's other people know it's okay to be [broken, sad, angry, lonely, whatever]. Don't be ashamed if you are in therapy, taking medication, seeking help.

17) Never pay retail prices for jewelry. Visit your local pawn shop. You'll be amazed at what you can get for a fraction of the cost.

18) Plan and take vacations. Your best friend might move to California and you'll mean to visit him for 14 years but if you never actually plan and do it, you will majorly miss out.

19) Practice standing in front of the mirror and trying to really love what you see. Don't just tolerate yourself. Celebrate the fact that you are a miracle.

20) Don't let someone who can't or won't acknowledge your pain cause you to doubt your own experience. If something bad happened to you, you can feel however you want about it. Be true to your deepest hurts. It's the only way they will ever have a chance at healing. Don't expect a drowning person to save you. Some people are drowning so deep in their own stuff, whether anger, guilt, sorrow, ignorance, etc. that they can't save themselves, let alone throw you a lifeline.

21) Recognize the beauty and glory of friendship. Just the word sounds trite because we've boiled it down and slapped it on every piece of craft fair home decor we could find. But the next time you feel like someone really sees you, really understands what you're going through, truly gets you...that incredible connection is something to be held in high regard.

22) Dogs. Or cats. Pets in general. Get some. So you say you're not an animal person. Maybe that's true. Maybe you have other ways of coping with what life throws at you. For me, it's dogs. My husband and I agree that our first year of marriage would have been much less stressful if we'd had a dog. It just brings me so much joy. After my Leon passed away, I didn't think I could ever love another dog again. But thankfully my heart felt ready the following year and now our bench is two dogs deep, with hopefully more on the way.

Always keep learning. Always keep loving. Especially yourself.

March 13, 2017

The Best Revenge

Whoever said "living well" is the best revenge obviously never ran into her ex-boyfriend on a humid, July day at Wal-Mart, hair frizzed to the max, wearing a stained Goodwill t-shirt and two different socks. That would have been me. Mind you, it was a long time ago because I have had the same boyfriend since 2004 and he's now my husband.

I was never one of those people who dated recreationally. I had crushes in high school, and I was once asked to accompany a sweet, but awkward boy to the homecoming dance, but it wasn't particularly memorable. My prom date was my best friend (thank goodness) and after graduation, I went off to college with the hope of finding true love. It just took me a few years to do so.

But for one fateful season between my freshman and sophomore years of college, while back in my hometown working a summer job, I sort of dated a guy. Mainly we just spent a couple of months talking and hanging out on his front porch swing on muggy Tennessee nights, eating atomic fireballs. Our first official date was to the sno-cone shop, aptly named "Sno-Daze" and over the course of the summer, we saw exactly one movie together at the theater, The Fast and the Furious. 

Ours was not true love, or really any love at all. Just attraction and infatuation. I should have known there was a shelf-life to that type of thing, but having had absolutely no experience in that arena, I was shocked when he stopped taking my calls about a month into the fall semester.

So, let's just say that when I bumped into him at Wal-Mart the following summer, clad in grungy clothes, with my mom in tow, I feel certain it didn't induce some type of woeful regret on his part. I tried to put on a devil-may-care attitude, but the whole thing just gave me a stomach ache.

You see, I come from a long line of people who cannot. let. things. go. Figuratively and literally. This applies to our feelings about situations as well as items we have come to own. I am incredibly jealous of anyone and everyone who can simply move on. That just isn't me. I will hash and re-hash the same scenarios for years, often never getting any closer to understanding the how and why.

Sometimes I jokingly refer to myself as Nancy Drew, but in truth, I'm more an Encyclopedia Brown...getting all the facts down in my trusty notepad and solving the case during dinner, sometimes before dessert.

But so many times in life, we just don't get the facts we need to solve anything. This is a common underlying theme for me. I'm reminded of a quote from my all-time favorite TV show, Sex & the City when Miranda says, "Carrie, we can analyze this for years and never know the answer. I mean, they still don't know who killed Kennedy."

I'll never know why my summer fling dumped me at the end of August without any explanation. It's just one of the many, many things I will never know. And it's not something I really ever think about...I just figured you'd get a kick out of my embarrassing nostalgia.

Are you ever afraid there are other questions that will never be answered for you? Important questions. Questions that you feel you deserve answers to.

Like why somebody who was supposed to love you for much longer than a summer vanishes from your life without any reason. Or why somebody did or said something that hurt you, but can't or won't explain their motives. Or why people can't or won't simply acknowledge things that might give you some peace. Even if it's not the explanation you dreamed of.

Living well is not the best revenge because no revenge is good. You think it's going to make you feel better, but it never does. Being happy with your own life helps. Not because you're shaking your proverbial fist in an "I'll show you" sort of way, but just being genuinely happy with things. There's a peace that comes from having a life you want to focus on, with people you care for, and things you feel passionate about. Before too long, there's no room (or time or energy) to hold those grudges that once took up so much of your space.

That doesn't mean you won't always wonder about the questions left unanswered. But hopefully they won't keep you up at night.

March 8, 2017

Fun & Simple Ideas for National Popcorn Lovers' Day

For many people, March 9th is just another day at the old grindstone. But for those of us fun-loving folks, who are always looking for a reason to celebrate the ordinary moments in life, it's National Popcorn Lovers' Day. No really, it is.

Did you know Americans consume 14 billion quarts of popped popcorn annually? That's 43 quarts per or about 10 gallons per year for every man, woman and child.

In honor of this festive occasion, I'm sharing three simple ways to enjoy popcorn, one of my favorite snacks.

DIY Popcorn Station

One of my very favorite ways to serve popcorn at a party is with a DIY popcorn topping station. There's just something about giving your guests a bunch of different toppings that is so much fun for them. Maybe it's because as adults, we don't get to have as much whimsy in our lives as we'd like. 

To set up your own DIY popcorn topping station, you'll need enough freshly popped popcorn to feed your group and assorted topping options. 

Possible popcorn toppings to have on hand include: 

Popcorn salt & pepper
Assorted herbs & spices
Nuts (pine nuts, peanuts, slivered almonds, pumpkin seeds, etc.)
Shredded cheese
Dried fruit (raisins, cranberries, apricots, etc.)
Chocolate chips or other candies 
Cinnamon, brown sugar, nutmeg

To pop the perfect batch of popcorn on the stovetop, cover the bottom of a 3- to 4-quart pan with a thin layer of vegetable oil (not butter, it will burn). Place 3 kernels of popcorn in the pan, cover with a loose lid that allows steam to escape, and heat. When the kernels pop, pour in enough popcorn to cover the bottom of the pan, one kernel deep, cover the pan and shake to evenly spread the oil. When the popping begins to slow to a few seconds apart, remove the pan from the stovetop. The heated oil will still pop the remaining kernels.

Set out your popcorn in a big bowl. Arrange your toppings nearby for easy access. I like to have those little brown paper lunch bags so people can add the popcorn and toppings, and shake up everything in the bag to mix it. If you don't make your popcorn from scratch, you may need to have a spray bottle of oil on hand to coat the corn and give your toppings something to stick to. 

One of my favorite popcorn topping combinations is garlic salt + parmesan cheese with a little dried oregano or chive. So delish! 

Also, if you happen to live near a Trader Joe's, you might want to pick up a bottle of their latest product, Everything but the Bagel seasoning. If you're a fan of everything bagels, you're going to love it. And apparently, in some markets, it's flown off the TJ's shelves. The Knoxville TJ's had some of it as of this post's publication. 

Something Sweet - White Chocolate Pudding Popcorn 

I wanted to include a sweet popcorn option in my Popcorn Lovers' Day round-up, but didn't want to settle for the standard caramel popcorn fare. Then I came across this recipe for vanilla pudding white chocolate popcorn and had to try it. It only requires a few ingredients and is super easy! For the full recipe, click here. 

Basically, you stir together melted white chocolate and instant vanilla pudding and then coat your popcorn with the mixture. It sets up and you can top it with sprinkles or add other candy treats. 

Caramel Popcorn Cocktail 

Finally, a tasty beverage that incorporates your favorite classic snack, caramel popcorn. Start with your choice of caramel topping and put about a teaspoon in the bottom of a glass. Add a shot of vodka and top with cream soda. Skip the vodka if you want to make this kid-friendly (obviously). 

Garnish with some caramel popcorn on a toothpick. Drink up! 

What's your favorite way to enjoy popcorn? I hope you enjoy National Popcorn Lovers' Day. Happy popping, ya'll! 

Many of the images were used with permission from the Popcorn Board. Click here to learn more.

March 5, 2017

The Sunday Night Blues Club

What is it about Sundays that makes the day start off so great, with so much possibility, and then end with such a feeling of dread? Apparently I'm not alone. One recent study found that more than 75% of the people who responded feel it too. Are you one of them?

I can see how Sundays might hold a certain amount of stress and anxiety for people who hate their job and the idea of returning to it on Monday morning. I happen to really enjoy the work I get to do, so it's not that for me.

There's just something unsettling about Sunday night.

I think some of it has to do with my Sunday experiences from childhood.

Some Sundays were spent with my entire family, gathering for a big meal after church. We'd eat til our bellies were full and then the adults would nap or talk while the kids played. These Sundays didn't fill me with any sort of dread, except that I hated for all the fun to come to an end.

Then there were other Sundays on the weekends I spent with my biological dad. Most of the time, we'd spend Sunday lunch and some of the afternoon with my great grandma, which I enjoyed a lot. But when our visit came to an end, I knew it was only a matter of time before he took me back home, and back to my regular life.

Don't get me regular life was good. But sometimes it was tough to try and straddle the fence between both worlds. It was almost like I saw myself as two different people...playing two different parts.

I think that's the toughest thing about divorce. As a kid, you want to feel a certain level of security from your surroundings and part of that comes from having all the people you love most gathered together, interacting. As strange as it sounds, I think it has to do with this feeling that there is strength in numbers. That there are enough people around who love you and won't let anything bad happen to you. Isn't that what family is all about?

Of course this isn't always possible.

I worried a lot as a kid. About a host of different things. Bizarre things. Things you probably wouldn't believe even if I told you.

For example, when I was really little, some teacher in a church Sunday school class told us that one day Jesus would come back to earth to save everyone. And she told us that he'd be riding on a majestic white horse. What's more, he'd be bringing an army of horses with him and when he snatched up all the Christians into the sky, we'd each ride on our own horse back to Heaven.

I don't know about you, but the thought of this scared the $hi# out of me. I had ridden horses before with my grandpa, but not by myself. I didn't even know how to ride a horse by myself across a pasture, let alone ACROSS THE SKY.

So naturally I added this to the top of my list of things to worry about, and spent lots of time and energy being concerned about it.

In many ways, my propensity to worry has helped me get where I am in life. It has driven me to do more, to be better, to achieve things. But I don't always get to enjoy these achievements as much as I'd like because it can feel like I'm always worried about the next thing.

And thus, here I sit, on a Sunday night, feeling those little persistent worries creep in.

I have no idea why I'm sharing any of this malarky. For real. But I guess I was thinking that maybe if someone else out there feels this way, you might realize you aren't alone.

So how do you combat these feelings? I'm sure there are plenty of solutions. I have no idea what might work for you. Here's what helps me:

- Marry a funny guy. Or girl. Or if you opt not to be married, at least choose a partner who can make you laugh. It goes a long way in helping me with feelings of anxiety and the blues.

- Adopt a shelter pet. Or two. My dogs make a huge difference contributing to my feelings of peace and calm. Even the dearly departed ones.

- Find a spiritual community. Maybe this is a church. Or a group of other like-minded folks. It helps to be part of something where you're united in the common good.

- Consider getting some counseling. If you have issues to work through (and don't we all?), having someone to talk to really helps.

If you stumbled on this post, and anything I've written resonates with you, I hope you feel a little bit less alone. And I hope you don't spend any of your precious energy worrying about silly stuff like I have. I mean, here I am, thirty years later, and I still haven't had the chance to ride my sky horse.

March 3, 2017

A Sticky Situation

I had to get a new cell phone over the weekend. The screen on my old one went completely dark and the guy at the Verizon store told me it was beyond repair. This type of thing can be very stressful. What is it about the relationship we form with an inanimate object that gives us so much comfort and identity? Sad, huh? 

My husband jokingly said while we were sitting at the counter waiting for the salesperson, "remember when a phone was just a thing that hung on the kitchen wall?" 

We've come a long way baby. 

As a sidenote, I think the salesman upsold me on the fanciest, most expensive phone out there but I didn't realize it until things had already progressed too far. 

By then, I had already decided I liked the phone. I told him I needed a phone for my business (probably a mistake) and he said without skipping a beat, "You're in luck because this is a business phone." Is that even a thing? 

Of course just the phone itself isn't enough also needs the fancy protective case which now does not come equipped with a glass protector. That's sold separate for an additional $40. 

After the guy got everything packed up and ready for me, I paid my bill and left the store, placing the new phone in my purse as I went along about my day. 

Last night when I was using my new phone, I noticed there was something sticky on the case near the mouthpiece. Not knowing what that could be I remembered the phone salesperson using a piece of rolled up packing tape to remove any lint from the screen before applying the screen protector (high tech, I know). 

I thought maybe some of the tape adhesive had gotten stuck to the phone, causing it to be sticky. I figured it wasn't that big of a deal and so I took a wet tissue, wiped it off and went on with my business. 

This morning I was driving to work and my phone started ringing. Except I didn't realize it was ringing because I didn't know what the ringtone sounded like. I thought it was a pretty song playing on the radio. Business phone, my foot. 

When I got to my destination, I pulled my phone out of my purse to check my message and noticed that once again there was something sticky near the mouthpiece. 

I thought, "Okay this is ridiculous. I have paid too much for this phone for it to have some kind of weird sticky stuff oozing out of it." 

I went through every possible scenario in my mind as to how the sticky stuff could have found its way on there. 

Maybe it was something the sales guy had used in the cleaning process like I thought with the tape. Maybe he didn't get all the packaging materials and clear plastic films removed from the case before he put the phone into it. 

I thought and thought and thought about what could be causing this problem and what the phone salesperson might have done to cause it. 

Later as I was slipping my new phone into the side pocket of my purse, I remembered something. To try and protect my new investment, I had been storing it in a single side pocket on the inside of my purse. I reached into the pocket, feeling all the way down to the very bottom and found a glob of sticky substance. 

Who knows what piece of random candy might have found its way in there before adhering to the lining of my purse, but it was certainly my doing. All along the problem with the stickiness had been caused by something I did. 

Thoughts to ponder...when I was confronted with the situation, I felt certain it had been caused by somebody else. I never even considered the stickiness on my phone had to do with me. 

How often do we neglect to see our own role in a problem? How often do we refuse to see that the problem we're dealing with might have been caused by ourselves? How often do we want to look at every other person or thing and say that maybe they are causing our problem. 

When it's really our own fault all along. 

This applies in so many areas of my life. 

So many times I feel frustrated about a situation and it feels completely natural to look at all the other people involved and point at all the things I wish they could do differently. 

And sometimes, they are part of the problem. And sometimes my frustration is their fault. But sometimes, just like the sticky goo on my cell phone, it's something I'm doing that causes my frustration.  It's not always so easy to see this. But it's a good thing when we get a little bit of clarity and have that "Aha!" moment. 

No matter what, I have a role to play in any given situation. Instead of immediately putting the blame on somebody else, and launching a Nancy Drew style investigation as to where to place blame, maybe I should just consider myself first. 

February 8, 2017

Fun & Simple Valentine's Day Party Ideas for the Entire Family

Love is in the air and Valentine's Day is just around the corner! This is one of my favorite times of year. All the sugary sweetness, pink hearts everywhere, and people freely declaring their love. 

Thinking about throwing a little Valentine's Day soiree of your own? Here are some simple (and affordable) ideas the entire family will enjoy! 

1) Scale Down

There's just something about tiny things that are so cute! Valentine's Day is a great occasion to enjoy all sorts of petite treats. Plus, they are smaller so you can eat more of them. 

I found some really great selections at my local Aldi store, including these cute heart-shaped jam cookies. If you have a pedestal plate or a tiered serving plate, that would make your sweets look even more adorable. 

Another great tiny dessert to create for Valentine's Day is a mini strawberry shortcake. I picked up some really cute small parfait cups at Party City. It's all about presentation and these help you make your presentation really special. 

2) Add Some Flair

Sticking with the smaller scale, I picked up some mini muffins at Aldi as well. These are fine for store-bought, but the way to really jazz them up for a Valentine's Day party is with a little flair. 

Add some festive picks or candy accessories to give them that semi-homemade look. 

Other variations on ways to make store-bought treats more special...

1) Attach heart-shaped marshmallows to the top with a toothpick for a really sweet looking treat. 

2) Slather on some frosting (homemade or store-bought). Sometimes local bakeries will sell containers of their frosting for home cooks. This is a great way to jazz up a store-bought or box mix cake. 

3) Serve it up in Style

As I said earlier, and many times before, it's all about presentation. Two completely identical food dishes can be presented in different ways and you will think one tastes better if it's presented beautifully. 

Something easy to serve for a Valentine's Day party is popcorn. It's cheap and easy to make or you can buy it already popped. 

I melted some chocolate & white chocolate chips (tinted pink with food coloring). Then I drizzled it over the popcorn and added some pink and red candy pieces. Voila! Easy and delish. 

And to serve, I picked up some really fun little paper cones and a cute serving tray from Party City. For just a few bucks, I took this simple party food up a notch. 

You could serve plain popcorn in a boring bowl and nobody would bat an eye. But give it some pizzazz and you'll have all your guests raving.  

Valentine's Day is such a great time to share your warm and fuzzy feelings with the ones you love most. It doesn't have to be about a romantic (and expensive!) dinner out. You can enjoy Valentine's Day with loved ones of all ages, with tasty treats for everyone! 

January 25, 2017

Simple & Delicious Drinks to Help Beat the Winter Blues

Winter can be downright depressing what with the dreary short days and cold weather. The holidays are over, which is something of a let-down and spring feels so far away. 

Even though Knoxville has been experiencing a relatively mild winter these past few weeks, cold weather is supposedly coming. 

I've ramped up my Vitamin D intake and am trying to be kinder to myself and those around me during these harsh times. I'm also trying to drink more water. But water gets boring and sometimes it's fun to enjoy a special drink, especially when winter really gets you down. 

I'm sharing three of my favorite drinks to help you get through the most blustery winter day. Just think, March will be here before we know it! 

Morning - Rise & Shine Breakfast Smoothie

I tried to get on the green drink bandwagon, but many of the recipes I tried weren't really for me. There's something about sipping kale through a straw that I struggle with. 

But I found a great recipe for a breakfast smoothie that incorporates a little bit of green (spinach) with some yummy fruit for a tasty combination. I even added some hemp seeds for extra protein. 

To make it, you'll need: spinach + pineapple + banana + mango

One tip is to use frozen fruit instead of ice and your smoothie will be frosty and delish. 

Afternoon Pick Me Up - Dirty Chai Latte 

I only recently discovered my love of chai, which is the word for tea in many parts of the world. Chai (rhymes with 'pie') is a centuries-old beverage which has played an important role in many cultures.

Chai from India is a spiced milk tea that has become more and more popular in the past few years. It is generally made of:

• rich black tea
• heavy milk
• a combination of various spices
• a sweetener

The spices tend to vary depending on what region of India you happen to be in. The most common are cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and pepper. Indian chai produces a warming, soothing effect, and goes a long way on those cold winter days. I first tried it at a local coffee shop in my hometown and now I'm hooked. 

Add in a shot of coffee and it becomes a "dirty chai." 

You can make your own from scratch or take the easy route, as I have with a store-bought chai option from Tazo. 

Evening Nightcap - Honey Bee-tini 

I first tried this amazing drink while staying at the Fairmont Hotel in Washington, D.C.'s Georgetown neighborhood. The hotel even has its own bees on the roof that produce the honey for the cocktail. 

To create your own bee-tini, mix equal parts vodka, tequila and lemon juice. Add in a teaspoon of honey and garnish with fresh honey comb. 

Great for those winter nights when your throat is feeling scratchy. Plus, it's just spirited enough to help you hang in there til spring! 

The world might feel like a harsh place right now, but let's all hang in there and hope that sunnier days are ahead! 

January 15, 2017

No Mold for our Brokenness

My first "real" job was as the administrative assistant at a good sized real estate company in my home town. I had just graduated from high school and was headed off to college that fall, but needed some work for the summer.

I was replacing a soon-to-be-retired older lady who had held the position of office admin for many years. She had her job down to a science and trained me on all the ins and outs of the real estate world. We hit it off pretty well and became friends.

In the process of getting to know each other, I learned she was a ceramics artist. In her possession were hundreds of ceramic molds, used for casting all sorts of various ceramic creatures, vases, and other objects. Having just moved to a new house, she needed help transporting them safely and I volunteered.

I didn't quite know what I was in for. Each heavy, white chalky mold had to be carried individually with utmost care so it didn't get chipped. She explained to me that even the smallest chip in the mold could ruin a future casting. After several hours, we finally finished transporting the molds and she treated me with a trip to Sonic as a way to say thanks.

I'm not sure why this memory has stayed buried for so many years (16 to be exact!), but it came to me tonight at the grocery store of all places. There was a heavy-set man in the deli area, carefully inspecting some overpriced pre-packaged crab cakes. I must have gotten my cart a little too close to him because he moved quickly on, apologizing for blocking my way.

"It's fine," I said. "I'm in no hurry."

"Oh, I know how it works here," he said. "You gotta keep moving along and stay outta people's way."

This made me feel sad and I wish there had been something else I could have said to let him know he really wasn't in my way or any bother at all.

Then, when I got to the checkout line, I noticed the guy ringing up my groceries had a black eye and half his face was bruised and swollen. I immediately tried not to let him think I was looking at it. And even though I really wanted to ask if he was okay, I instead launched into the story of how I was nervous to show my face at that particular store after breaking a huge bottle of wine in the checkout line during my last visit.

He told me it was okay, that it happened just about every day.

As I left the store, my heart felt so heavy for the two guys I had encountered. Without knowing any of their stories, I just felt like maybe each was carrying his own heavy load.

What does this have to do with my memories moving the ceramic molds? My encounters at the grocery store got me thinking about molds. How each mold was created to form just the exact right ceramic casting you wanted to create. And how if even a small chip got in the mold, it would potentially ruin the piece of art.

There's no mold for our brokenness in life. Each little chip we've gotten over the years causes us to look a tiny bit different from each other. And over time, our brokenness changes us in big ways. The only uniform thing about brokenness is that we all have it. From the ones of us who don't know where tonight's meal is coming from to those of us who just polished off a fancy steak dinner.

We try so hard to shine ourselves up and put our best versions forward.

What looks like perfection, right down to the Ralph Lauren 400 thread count sheets, is often falling to pieces around us. Each of us carries our hurts inside. And sometimes those hurts are so big, they take up more than their fair share of space, squeezing and pushing their way out, causing us to transfer them, hurting the ones around us.

You can never know what kind of hurt someone is carrying just by looking. Even with the ones you feel closest to or think you know best.

Seeming like you have it all together is not indicative of reality much of the time. The ones who get dressed up and sit quietly in the church pew, singing "Holy, holy, holy" in full voice are often the same ones who come home and cry in their driveway, yell at their dog, or snap at their husband. Let's just say I would know.

I don't believe God causes our suffering or wants us to hurt. I do believe our brokenness can help us love each other better and understand each other more.

But we have to acknowledge it. To give it a name and let it be.

This can be hard when so many things about our lives seem good. I often get mad at myself for focusing on any sort of problems or challenges because I think "My issues are not nearly as bad as the next person's. I haven't really earned the right to feel this way." 

I think this is dangerous because it keeps us from acknowledging our truest feelings and hurts. Even if there's nothing we can do about them. We just never know when something we experienced can cause us to have a unique perspective and maybe even offer a tiny bit of comfort to someone else going through the same thing.

And then, even in the midst of the brokenness, a little beauty can grow.

January 14, 2017

Love, Life, and La La Land

On New Year's Day, my husband and I went to the movie theater to see the new film La La Land. Just after Debbie Reynolds passed away (rest her soul), I found myself watching that famous song and dance sequence from her iconic film Singing in the Rain and remarked to my husband that I wished Hollywood would bring back the musical.

This was before I knew anything about La La Land. Then I randomly came across a December issue of "Parade" magazine with it featured on the cover. It's so funny how things like this happen.

I wasn't sure if my husband would like the film. He's not mad for musicals the way I am. But instead of sitting there worrying if he was enjoying himself, I got lost in the story.

**Spoiler Alert** If you plan to see the film, but haven't yet, you might not want to read any further. Although I'll try not to give too much away.

The story of an aspiring actress and an aspiring musician, the movie stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. It won a ton of awards so it's probably already on your radar.

The colors are vibrant, the music will stay in your head, and the story will break your heart in the most beautiful way.

It brought both me and my husband to tears. What can I say, we're just a couple of romantic softies.

At first, I was not happy with the ending at all. But in some ways, it was true to the musical genre. I grew up hearing the music of musicals, especially Camelot, a favorite of my mom's.

It wasn't until I was around nine or ten that I fell head over heels in love with musicals, thanks to my grandpa. I was staying with my grandparents for the weekend and my grandpa took me to the video rental store inside of Kroger to rent a VHS tape. Most of the kid movies in stock seemed too babyish for me and I remember asking him to help me choose a more grown-up film.

He pulled a VHS tape with a red cover from the shelf and said, "Here, you might like this."

"What's it about?" I asked.

"It's been awhile since I saw it, but mainly a bunch of kids in New York. And it's a love story."

I was sold. We rented the tape and I couldn't wait to get back home to watch West Side Story. 

That first weekend, I probably watched and re-watched the film at least five times. Then, each subsequent weekend I visited, I would beg my grandpa to let me rent it again and again. I wanted to be Maria with her beautiful dark hair and white dress, at the dance with Chino but dreaming about Tony from afar.

We must have eventually gotten our own copy of West Side Story because I introduced my younger brother to it and he was hooked as well. Just last summer, while on a beach vacation with our parents and significant others, the movie came on TV and we could still recite nearly every word of dialogue and song.

Once I realized that musical films were a thing, I tried to see every one I could find. Cinderella, Oklahoma!, and Godspell quickly became favorites, along with A Chorus Line, Annie, My Fair Lady and Guys and Dolls. Actually, I don't know if I've ever seen a musical I didn't like. I've even been lucky enough to perform in a couple of them, including during high school and for a local community theatre.

Right now as I type this, the soundtrack to The Sound of Music is on my retro record player. Earlier this week, I scored a copy of The King and I at my local Goodwill.

There's just something so magical about stories set to music. And the way the actors burst into song to express what they are feeling brings something inside me to life.

Plus it's so comforting. For me, listening to musical soundtracks is like spending time with old friends.

There are so many hard things in the world these days. I'm not saying musicals are the answer, but they help me get through the day. Many an evening after a long day at work, or a Saturday while doing odd chores around the house, I can be found listening to my musical soundtrack records.

It wasn't too long ago that I told my grandpa about my getting a record player and that I was starting to collect musical soundtracks. He said, "but can't you get pretty much any song you want on your computer?"

Yes, but it's just not the same.

January 11, 2017

Ways to Serve Your Community

I've always loved the quote "Bloom where you're planted." It serves as a great reminder that even though we may not exactly end up in the spot we thought we would, there's still an opportunity to add some beauty by blooming no matter where we are. 

In my opinion, this is especially important lately as things around the world and in our own neighborhoods are becoming increasingly challenging for some of our friends and neighbors. If I can add even just a little bit of beauty or make someone's situation feel a tiny bit more hopeful, I want to do it. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a Federal Holiday. For many years my family took this three-day weekend as an opportunity to go away to a cabin in the woods and spend time together. There's definitely nothing wrong with that! Sometimes a bit of relaxing and refreshing can make a huge difference. But lately, many organizations around the country are encouraging folks to view this day as a chance for service. 

Here are just a few simple ways you can serve your community, on MLK Day or anytime. 

Create Care Packages for Neighbors 

It might seem like a small thing, but to a neighbor or member of your community who is older or not able to leave his or her home for whatever reason, care packages are often appreciated very much. 

Neighbor care packages might include things like snacks or treats, magazines or crossword puzzle books, and hand lotions, tissues, or lip balm. When giving the gift of snacks, make sure you find out if your friends have any dietary restrictions or allergies. 

When delivering the care packages, maybe allocate some time to spend with your neighbor as well. The gift of friendship is the best gift of all, and for many of our older neighbors who don't get visitors, a smiling face and a listening ear can be a godsend. 

Collect Items from Nonprofit Wishlists 

Most area nonprofits that serve the community have wishlists on their websites. I try to familiarize myself with these so that when I run across various things they need, I can pick them up. 

For example, most of the local animal shelters accept donated items such as newspaper, old towels and blankets, and pet food. If you're doing any New Year cleaning out of your home, make sure to donate items like these where they can help someone else! 

Thrive, a local nonprofit serving the Lonsdale community in Knoxville, is currently collecting garden tools for their community garden. There's a wishlist on their website with all sorts of things you might have collecting dust in your garage, from garden tools to bags of mulch and the like. 

Spread the Love! 

Valentine's Day is just around the corner and I bet there are plenty of folks who won't get a card this year. Why not write Valentine's Day notes of encouragement to all your neighbors? Or maybe contact a local retirement home and ask if they  have any residents who could use cheering up. 

It just takes a few minutes to sit down and write a few lines in a card. And for the cost of a stamp, you can really brighten someone's day. There's still plenty of time to do this between now and February! 

**Disclaimer: These suggestions are just as much for me as they are for anyone else. I don't always do such a great job at serving my community. Sometimes I just want to come home after a long day and veg out in pajamas. But I know it will be worth it if I can just try a few of these things!**

For my local friends, here's a link with more Knoxville volunteer opportunities than you can even imagine! And no matter where you live, I'm sure there are nonprofits and other organizations looking for a little help. 

January 10, 2017

Breaking Things that are Fragile

Do you know the difference between peace and chaos? At my house this morning, it was a split second. The time it took for a bone china bowl to slip from my husband's hand as he was taking it out of the dishwasher. The bowl then clanged loudly against a ceramic souffle dish, causing both to shatter. 

The noise was enough to startle me and both our cantankerous aging dogs. In all fairness, our rescued Yorkie Ruthie is only five, not nearly old enough to be considered a senior citizen. But she and her recently adopted sister, Sweetie, a shelter chihuahua who might be upwards of 13, were startled nonetheless. 

We did what any good married couple worth their salt would into a huge argument of course. If you can't tell, I'm being sarcastic. Even as it was all unfolding, I thought to myself this will definitely make it to the blog. Making matters worse, my husband picked that moment to yell, "Well I guess now you're going to write mean stuff about me on your blog!" 

Who knew mind reading was a skill of his? 

No, but really. He completely supports me and my desire to share certain stories online. And I would never set out to write anything mean about him (or anyone). Usually he is involved in the stories I tell, but it's all about our learning together...working together and trying to be better, together. It's not about fault-finding. But truth finding. To gain wisdom, and understanding. 

I wasn't even mad that the bowl(s) got broken. In the past, I would have been. This is something I'm making a conscious effort to work on. Not getting my feathers ruffled about things that don't really matter. Two broken dishes? In the grand scheme of life, the world, rapidly melting glaciers, starving children, war and other terrible things, two broken dishes are not even the tiniest fraction of a blip on anyone's radar. 

But my husband expected me to get mad. And I guess he had every right to, based on how I have reacted to these types of things in the past. So he got defensive. And this led to our misunderstanding each other, which led to the fight. 

But it didn't take long for us to talk it out, work it out, hug it out, and so forth. 

All of this reminded me of the fragility of things. That when you use things daily, like china bowls, or Royal Doulton souffle dishes, there's a good chance they might get scratched, chipped or even broken all to pieces. 

The bowl was nothing special. One of seven like it that I'd picked up from the clearance shelf at Belk. No local stores carried the bowls that came in our china pattern, so I found a suitable substitute for a steal. This is actually the second of these that has been broken, so now I think we're down to five. But I wasn't particularly attached to them. 

The souffle dish was more unique. My mom had purchased it from an estate sale and given it to me as a gift. If you're thinking I don't seem like the kind of person who makes souffle, you'd be correct. We have used the bowl for serving side dishes, salads, and even my husband's occasional late-night cereal habit. So yeah, if you'd ask me if I wanted you to smash it with a hammer, I'd have said no. But even so, having it get broken was not that big of a deal. 

This is the risk we must take when we put our valuables to use. Daily handling, the routine maintenance and care they require, and storage of them may cause them to be destroyed. Well at least certain types of things. 

The good news is that with our inner valuables, unlike our dishes or knick knacks, they are much stronger and harder to break. While I can't promise you won't find yourself staring at them in pieces on the floor, I know for sure that they don't end up in the garbage. When something inside you is shattered, this is a loss for sure. 

But it's only a loss in terms of what you knew. When it comes to our most precious things, nothing can ever really be lost from us. These things might change shape, or take on new forms, but what's at the heart of them is always there. As if it were deep inside our bones. 

I'm actually writing a book about this very thing. Well, trying to write a book. We'll see how it goes. I thought maybe if I put it out there and shared this fact with you, it might hold me more accountable. My book writing has gotten pushed to the wayside lately. But it's a new year, and I'm hoping to be able to bring it back to the forefront. Say a little prayer for me it crosses your mind. 

Happy 2017 friends! 

December 28, 2016

Fun & Simple New Year's Traditions

I have a love/hate relationship with New Year's Eve. It's one of those festive holidays that feels like it should be celebrated while dressed to the nines, at some swanky party with other glam looking revelers. But then I also secretly want to be at home in my pajamas, eating comfort food and watching favorite movies til the stroke of midnight.

No matter how you're celebrating New Year's this year, I've got some fun and simple ideas and traditions that you might want to incorporate into your festivities. Be advised that most of the New Year's traditions involve good old fashioned superstition. It's all in good fun of course, but I don't know if I really believe any of it. Still, there's something comforting about traditions you enjoy again and again.

Put Together the Perfect Charcuterie Tray

Charcuterie has to do with prepared meats like salami, sausages, and pate. A charcuterie board or tray is a great option for a New Year's party because it can include a little bit of everything and something for everyone. Whatever your favorite tastes and flavors may be, your charcuterie board can incorporate whatever you like. Some offerings you might want to include are: 

  • Deli meats (prosciutto, ham, salami, corned beef, etc) 
  • Assorted cheeses (hard and soft)
  • Dried fruit (figs, apricots, pineapple, raisins, and plums) 
  • Nuts (Marcona almonds, cashews, pecans, walnuts) 
  • Honey
  • Crostini or crackers 
  • Pickles (sweet and dill) 
  • Olives (green, black, kalamata, etc) 

Arrange your charcuterie platter in a way that is pleasing to the eye, and your guests will love it. Start with a cutting board or large tray. Anchor it with a few bunches of grapes and some wedges of cheese. Then add your meats. Layer in different dried fruit, nuts and pickles. Use fresh rosemary for a garnish. Throughout the night, you can replenish your offerings as they run low, but guests are sure to love all the delicious options that a charcuterie tray can provide. 

Eat Black Eyed Peas & Greens for Luck 

Eating Black Eyed Peas is one of my favorite New Year's traditions. If you want an easy recipe that incorporates both, check out my Tennessee Caviar (adapted from this). 

Stir together 2 cans of black eyed peas (drained), one can Ro-Tel, and one can yellow corn (drained). Add 2 cups of zesty Italian salad dressing and stir well. Refrigerate for at least one hour, up to overnight. You can also add shredded kale or spinach as a garnish. 

Beans and greens eaten on New Year's are said to bring good fortune because they resemble money (coins and dollars). Who couldn't use a little more of the green stuff? Eat up! 

Eat Round, Sweet Foods in Honor of Life's Continuous Circle

From donuts to cookies, or cakes, many cultures enjoy sweet round foods as part of their New Year's celebrations. It may be because they represent the circle of life, the way things flow from the end of one year to the beginning of another. 

Cream puffs or profiteroles are a great option for a New Year's party. You could even set up a cream puff station and let guests add their own toppings. Offer things like chocolate and caramel dipping sauces, whipped cream, and sprinkles for a fun DIY dessert bar. 

Eat 12 Grapes at the Stroke of Midnight for Good Fortune in the New Year

New Year's traditions in Spain include eating 12 grapes at the stroke of midnight. Supposedly this began after a grape surplus in the early 20th century. The idea is to eat all 12 grapes while the clock is striking midnight. Each is supposed to represent the months of the coming year. 

To make your New Year's grapes feel a bit more special, try sugaring them. Rinse grapes and then dust them lightly with caster sugar or powdered Jell-O for a bit more flavor. As they dry, the sugar will crystallize and create a lovely treat. 

Whatever you do eat, don't eat lobster on New Year's...since they move backwards, it's said that eating this can cause you to have regrets in the New Year. And we don't need any of that!