February 17, 2015

An Open Love Letter to Talbots

It might seem like a crazy thing to write a love letter to a retail clothing store, but maybe I'm just feeling crazy enough to do it.

It all started with my quest for the perfect pair of pants. It was winter in Tennessee, but a sort of on-again, off-again winter with warmer than usual days and temperatures that felt like spring. And I needed some middle of the road professional looking pants I could wear to work for meetings as well as just around town. Not jeans and certainly not anything that might be construed as gym attire.

I had hit up all my usual shopping spots without any luck when I remembered my mom telling me how she had found a great pair of Talbots pants at our local Goodwill. I figured that since I didn't really have time to wait for the perfect pair of pants to appear at my favorite thrift shop, I'd head straight to the source.

This was my inaugural visit to a Talbots store. My first impression was how bright and clean it was, with neat rows of preppy clothing displayed around the walls. The next thing that struck me was how genuinely friendly the staff seemed to be, and how helpful they were.

As someone who mainly shops at thrift stores (and occasionally Target), I tend to forget (or never knew in the first place) what it's like to have salespeople actually pay attention to me and offer to help. Even though that first visit didn't yield the pants I was looking for (I'm so tall!), it made an impact on me.

The next time I stopped by, I took my parents along. My mom was looking for a dress to wear to my wedding and as someone who also mainly shops at thrift stores, she was impressed by how attentive the staff was and just how much they seemed to want to help. She mentioned to the saleslady that one of her favorite pairs of pants were from Talbots and the lady asked "which Talbots store do you usually shop at?" My mom and I looked at each other and smiled, knowing that the answer was none of them.

Anything we've ever had from Talbots (or any other "namebrand" stores) was thrifted. Growing up, we scoured the racks of our local Goodwill (aka GW Boutique) to find J.Crew, gap, and other seemingly fancy labels.

How else would an awkward 7th grader such as myself have gotten  a DKNY fashion week t-shirt? (this was before the internet after all). In all my life the only J.Crew clothes I've ever owned were second hand. My favorite pair of (thrifted) pajamas is from a store called J.Jill and I've never set foot in that establishment. Basically my experience has been that if I couldn't find it at a thrift store, I didn't buy it. And that has its definite benefits, including saving money plus the thrill of the hunt.

But thrift store shopping has its downsides too. If something you love doesn't fit just right, there's never the option of trying it another size. You just have to hope for the best. Finding something great at a thrift store in your size without a huge hole or stain is like having all the stars align.

And the experience of thrift store shopping isn't glamorous at all. If you're lucky, the thrift store has shopping carts. Otherwise, you have to browse while carrying your haul. There may or may not be a dressing room, which may or may not have a door that locks. And nobody waits patiently outside your door (on which they've written your name) to see if you need a different size.

Not so at Talbots. They whisk you into the lovely (well-lit) dressing room where you are checked on again and again to see if you need anything. Sometimes they even bring you clothing they think you might like just for the heck of it! That's how I ended up with a perfect chambray shirt (the last one in my size) which was also on sale (Praise the Lord!).

Then there was my most recent experience at Talbots....the one that cemented the store's place in my heart for all eternity. I needed a denim jacket for a western-themed event I was attending for work. But I didn't want it to look costumey. I figured if I was going to buy something, it might as well be nice enough to wear again and again. I was actually headed to the mall when I thought about Talbots.

Since my time was limited, I decided to call and see if they had anything before stopping by. A friendly salesperson named Katherine answered the phone and told me, "yes they had just gotten some denim jackets in stock and she would hold one in my size." When I arrived at the store, the doors were locked. Apparently they closed well before I called, but since they knew I was on the way, they waited for me. Not only that, but Katherine also gave me great advice about my purchase and offered me a special promotional price that was set to begin the next day.

Such a positive experience! I left there thinking about how I wanted to write a blog post about it, but got busy and moved on to something else. Then this week I received the loveliest handwritten note in the mail from Katherine saying she'd enjoyed helping me and she hoped my event went well. I was floored!

This is what great customer service is all about. It isn't kissing up to someone in the hopes they will buy something. It's about providing them with a service that adds value to their life. It's clear how much that matters at the Talbots in my neighborhood.

I'll probably always enjoy buying some things thrifted. And I might not be able to afford an entire wardrobe of clothing from Talbots. But when I want a certain kind of pleasant shopping experience, I know where I can find it.

February 5, 2015

How to Host a Valentine's Day Cookie Decorating Party

Baking has never been my area of giftedness. I love to cook, and feel like I'm pretty good at it (mostly), but practically every recipe I've ever attempted that involved baking was a disaster. I think it has to do with the fact that baking is more of a science and I don't like to follow recipes.

But I do enjoy the creative aspect of baking. I think it stems from my great-grandmother who baked and decorated beautiful celebration cakes for many years. Once she let me decorate a doll cake (where the doll's dress was the cake) and I was mesmerized by the piping bags and how the perfect streams of icing flowed out them, creating little squiggly lines and flowers.

Today I'm joining my friends at Knoxville's WTNZ-Fox43 to talk about Valentine's Day. But since baking up beautiful and delicious treats isn't my specialty, I had another idea. What if you could take the pressure off yourself, avoid the baking and just get to do the fun part: decorating!

I'm sharing my idea for hosting a Valentine's Day cookie decorating party using your favorite store-bought cookies. It might seem like cheating and if you're a baker extraordinaire, this might not appeal to you. But I think it combines my favorite things: an easy project + getting to be creative.

To host a Valentine's Day Cookie Decorating Party of your own, you might need:

- Cookies (of course!)
- Frosting (white)
- Food coloring (to tint the icing)
- Chocolate chips (for melting or decorating)
- Sprinkles, nonpareils, jimmies, colored sugar, etc.
- Candy (whatever you want)

It's really all about letting your creativity run wild. And with the cookies as your canvas, how can you go wrong?

For this cookie creation, I started with some chocolate chip cookies (from the grocery store bakery). I found some neon pink frosting (or you could get white and do a custom tint with food coloring) and spread it thickly between two cookies. Then I rolled the edges in sprinkles. Pop it on a skewer for a cute cookie pop or into a cellophane bag. Tie it up with ribbon and it's an instant Valentine's Day treat.

For something a little bit more fancy, you might want to create tuxedo cookies. I started with the grocery store equivalent of Thin Mints (grasshopper cookies?), and piped a line of white frosting down the center. The sugar bows were found in the cake decorating section of my grocery store. See how the white frosting makes the shirt and the cookie is the jacket? Too cute! 

Another easy cookie to decorate is the humble Oreo. I dipped some in white chocolate (tinted pink) and gave them a sprinkling of gold sugar. I think it has an elegant look, don't you? 

This was such a fun project because it let me get creative, but I didn't feel any pressure to actually bake anything. I think I'm onto something. 

Valentine's Day is just around the corner and it's such a fun holiday because it lets us celebrate love! Don't get stuck in a rut of boring candy or feel like you have to spend a ton of money to make someone feel special. DIY some decorated cookies as gifts or even invites a few friends over to decorate cookies together! 

February 1, 2015

What We Believe Shapes Us

Lately I've been saying I'm on a health journey, but in a lot of ways this sounds kind of funny. Life is a journey regardless of our health. But when I say I'm on a health journey, what I mean is that I'm more focused on my health than I might have been in the past. Maybe calling it a journey is fitting because I was at point A. and I'm trying to get to point B.

Also, it sounds better to say I'm on a health journey than I'm on a health kick, on a diet, or 'shedding for the wedding.' And while part of me is really excited to be able to say I'm on this journey, another part of me is just disgusted to be here.

My whole life has had lots of peaks and valleys concerning my health, specifically my weight, starting all the way back in 6th grade when a kid named Scott said I was fat. Who is Scott? Just a random guy I went to school with. He wasn't particularly mean or anything, but as fate would have it, his words helped to guide me down a path that I wish I'd never been on.

It was your average Friday night in 1994 and my friend Nell and I were calling boys. Before cell phones and the Internet (you probably remember it), pre-teen girls used to call boys from landline phones on Friday and Saturday nights. At least we did.

And this particular night, we called Scott.

Nell actually called him up to find out if he had a crush on our friend Jen. And while she had him on the phone, we decided to take stock of his opinions about other people we knew, if certain guys were dweebs, if particular girls were cute, etc. Then I pretended to get off the phone so Nell could ask him what he thought of me.

"Kate's fat," he said, nonchalantly.

I was devastated. This was a completely new revelation to me. Up until that moment, it never occurred to me that I might be fat. "Was I fat?" I wondered. And even if I hadn't been before, was I now that he said it was true?

I'm not sure why we cared so much about his opinions, although I think he just happened to be the guy we had called. And I'm not sure why his saying I was fat was such a big deal to me. But it was. I mean, it's obvious how much of an impact it made if I can still remember the whole experience in great detail.

It's hard to sum up the next twenty years after that night. Let's just say they included a lot of bizarre fad diets, shopping in the plus size department, well-meaning lectures from my dad about the importance of a regular exercise regimen, and cupcakes....oh the cupcakes.

It's not that I blame a 6th grade boy for my body image issues. There were plenty of other contributing factors that created a warped sense of my self-worth. But that's at least the first memory I can go back to where I felt like there was something wrong with my body and how I looked. Before that, I was just innocently oblivious.

What we believe about ourselves shapes us in ways we don't even realize. Growing up, I was made to feel pretty wonderful by my family. They told me I was smart and they told me I was talented. They told me I could do anything I wanted to do in life. And I believed them. Thank goodness I had such positive stuff poured into me from an early age. I like to think that carried me through a lot of other times, when I believed things about myself that were much less positive.

Like how I was surely fat, if a 6th-grade boy said I was. That belief took hold of me and hasn't let go. Which is why I'm on this dang health journey today. And seriously, I'm not blaming him. I was heavier than some of the other kids and I'm sure someone else would have made note of this eventually.

But what makes me the saddest is that this created a belief in me that my value was diminished.

And this is just ridiculous. Our value can't be diminished. Period. End of story. And even as you read those words and somewhere deep down in your heart you know they are true, there's still that small voice that says, "but if I were only [thinner, richer, prettier, more successful, etc] my value would be greater.

Not possible.

Your value couldn't be greater.

It's like infinity.

Nothing you do can add to it and nothing you don't do can take away from it. I wish I had understood this in the 6th grade.

And by the way, when I first sat down to write this post it was going to be about my first time taking a Zumba class. I guess some of this other stuff just wanted to come out. So there you go.

And that's where I am on my journey.

Where are you?

January 29, 2015

Simple Ideas for a Football Watching Party

The Professional Football Championship game is this Sunday and while we can't mention it by name, you know exactly what I'm talking about. I'm joining my friends at Knoxville's Fox43 to share some simple ideas that you might want to try while watching the Big Game on Sunday. 

Maybe you're just a big football fan or maybe you're a die-hard fan of one of the teams playing. I can't say either is true for me, but I do enjoy socializing and what's not to love about tasty snacks and drinks? 

Goal Post Punch

One recipe that is perfect for football watching is something I've dubbed 'Goal Post Punch.' It's simple to make, with just two ingredients. What's more, if you don't happen to like my ingredient choices, you can pick some of your own! 

To make Goal Post Punch, you need some type of fizzy cola and ice cream. I chose Boylan Creme Soda made with cane sugar and poured it over a couple scoops of talenti gelato in German Chocolate Cake flavor. So good! Plus, did you notice the cute football laces on the side of the cup? I created those with sticky labels cut into strips. 

Some other combos for your own Goal Post Punch include: 

Coca Cola + Vanilla Ice Cream (classic)
Cheerwine + Cherry Sorbet (fruity)
Root Beer + Butter Pecan Ice Cream (oh so sweet)
Dr. Pepper + Neapolitan (retro) 

Touchdown Dip

This is another super simple recipe, but it has a twist! You've probably had the layered Mexican dip that is so popular to serve at tailgates and other parties. Instead of making it in one big bowl, why not make smaller individual sized servings in plastic cups? 

It eliminates the issue of double-dipping plus everybody loves to have his or her own individual serving. 

Include things like refried beans, guacamole, sour cream, shredded cheese, salsa and anything else you might like! Top with tortilla chips for a great game watching snack! 

Half-Time Snack Mix

There's nothing quite like the combination of salty and sweet. Come on, you know you love it. Since football watching is all about snacking, here's an idea for a healthy-ish snack you can serve your guests, no matter which team they are cheering for! 

I grabbed some paper take-out containers (in each team's colors) and filled them with popcorn. Then I added a few handfuls of candy coated chocolates, in corresponding team colors. Serve colored versions representing each team so that in case you have party guests cheering for rival teams, you can make them both happy. 

If there's anything left, you've got ready-made to-go containers to send home with your guests. 

Extra Points!

Here is one extra thing you might want to try! 

Printable Bingo Game - This is such a cute idea and only requires downloading and printing it out. I found this version at the Hallmark Think.Make.Share blog, but you could make your own if you're artsy! 

I hope you enjoy the game! 

January 15, 2015

How to Host a DIY Spa Party At Home

Winter brings dreary days and cold weather. I don't know about you, but it can get downright depressing. There's a combination of let-down and relief after the holidays come to an end. But the stretch of time from January to March can really usher in the blahs. 

So, what better way to chase away the blahs than with some pampering? Fancy spa treatments can be expensive, but there's no reason you can't have a DIY spa party in the comfort of your home. 

Here are three simple spa treatment recipes to truly pamper and nourish your face, skin and hair this winter. Enjoy! 

1) Java Joy 

This simple body scrub is made with one of my favorite things: coffee. Did you know that the caffeine in coffee can combat cellulite and other skin imperfections? Give your skin a thorough pampering with this scrub. 

To make it, all you need is: 

- Coconut oil 
- Castor oil
- Coffee (finely ground)
- Sugar
- Vanilla 

Mix 1/2 cup finely ground coffee with 1/2 cup sugar. Add 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract and mix. Then slowly add in the oils (2 Tablespoons of each) and incorporate together with a fork. When the ingredients are thoroughly mixed, transfer to an air-tight container. 

Use this scrub on your body, paying special attention to problem areas such as thighs, backs of arms, elbows and knees. It leaves skin oh so soft and smells like a frappuccino without all the calories. 

2) Luscious Locks Honey Hair Mask 

Our hair can definitely take a beating this time of year, with all the cold dampness outside and the dry heat inside. This simple mask treatment can be done as preparation for a special event or just incorporated as part of your regular beauty routine. 

To make it, gather the following ingredients/tools: 

- Coconut oil 
- Raw Honey 
- Small cooking pan 
- Bowl 
- Spoon
- Shower cap
- Towel 

Mix equal parts coconut oil and honey (more or less depending on the length and thickness of your hair). Heat the mixture on low in the cooking pan until it is warm, but not hot. This will help it to penetrate your hair follicles. Apply the mixture to wet hair until fully coated. 

Twist hair into a bun (if long) and put on the shower cap. If you have a hood hair dryer, you might want to sit under it for 20 minutes of so. Otherwise, let the mask soak in for 30 minutes. Rinse it out in the shower and wash your hair as normal. 

3) Best Face Forward Oil Cleansing Regimen 

When I first heard about the oil cleansing method (OCM) for washing one's face, I thought it sounded crazy. Why would you ever put oil on your face? But then I tried it and haven't looked back. In fact, I've become something of a pusher when it comes to OCM. I spread the oily gospel wherever I go (if given the chance). 

This is something I suggest practicing every day, but if you're wary, just try it once and see what you think. 

Here's what you need: 

- Jojoba oil 
- Castor oil 
- Tea tree oil 

There's really no perfect recipe...it varies depending on your skin type. Jojoba is a moisturizing oil, castor is more drying. And tea tree is antimicrobial to fight blemishes. My usual combo is about 1:1 jojoba:castor with maybe 1/8 part tea tree oil. If you need more tea tree you can always add it. And if you have sensitive skin, maybe use less. 

The method is simple. Mix your oils in a small bottle and shake well. With very clean hands, pour out a quarter sized amount of oil in your palm and start rubbing your hands together to warm up the oil. Now apply liberally to your face. You don't even have to take your makeup off first, this will remove it for you. 

Spend at least 3 minutes rubbing the oil all over your face. Maybe five if you have time. I like to make sure and get it into all areas, especially problem spots. 

Now, I also keep a jar of baking soda next to my bathroom sink for various things. It's great for exfoliation in conjunction with OCM. 

Add a little baking soda to your hands and rub that only your face as well. Be careful around the delicate eye areas, but spend some time exfoliating to remove flaky skin. 

The clean oil works against the natural oils on your face, dissolving the bad stuff but keeping the moisture. Have you ever felt that tight feeling from using a drugstore facewash or astringent? The problem is that once you strip your face of its natural oils, it goes into overdrive producing more, thus keeping the oily cycle going. After doing OCM for a few years, my skin hardly produces much excess oil. 

After you've exfoliated, take a washcloth and wet it with hot water (as hot as you can stand). Use this to wipe your face completely, removing all the oil and baking soda. My face is usually a little bit pink from all the rubbing, but it feels so clean and fresh. 

These are just three ways you can pamper yourself at home. For your DIY spa party, why not invite a few friends over and let them do the treatments too. Provide the ingredients and let them mix their own scents and flavors. 

A few things you might for a DIY at-home spa party include: 

- various small containers (jars, bottles, plastic bags)
- essential oils (for fragrance)
- extra towels
- bowls of water for rinsing 
- spray bottles of water
- salt/sugar/epsom salt for scrubs 
- lemons/honey/avocado for masks

Winter won't last forever! Spend some time pampering yourself and enjoying the little things that each day brings. Before you know it, spring will be just around the corner. 

January 1, 2015

Eat up for Luck and Prosperity in the New Year!

Southerners have many traditions tied to food but one that is probably most popular has to do with ringing in the New Year. Black-eyed peas and greens are two foods that are traditionally eaten, but who says you can't try a new twist on an old favorite?

I'm sharing three new ways to try black-eyed peas and greens to usher in health & good fortune in 2015. I hope you enjoy! 

1) Crunchy Baked Beans & Greens

This is a variation on black-eyed peas and collard greens that would make a great healthy snack.

Drain and rinse two cans of black-eyed peas. Toss with a couple tablespoons of olive oil and arrange on a baking stone or cookie sheet. Sprinkle with your favorite seasoning mix. Roast at 250 degrees for a couple of hours until the peas are crunchy.

Rinse and dry collard greens. Tear a few leaves of collard greens into smaller pieces. Arrange in a single layer on a baking stone or cookie sheet. Spritz or brush with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt.

Bake at 300 degrees until the greens get crispy and dry (approx. 15 minutes). Serve immediately with crunchy peas and enjoy!

2) Tennessee Caviar Cocktails

This is a beloved appetizer that always gets eaten up at parties and gatherings whenever I make it. A variation on another recipe (called Georgia Caviar), it's simple to make and so delicious!

Mix 2 cans of black-eyed peas (drained and rinsed) with two cans of Ro-Tel tomatoes. Stir in a cup of raw, chopped collard greens (sliced in strips). Add 2 cups of Zesty Italian salad dressing and stir everything together. Chill before serving and let the flavors mingle for maximum impact.

Serve in individual cocktail glasses with a pickled okra garnish.

3) Black-eyed Pea Burgers

For a great main dish to enjoy on New Year's Day, try my black-eyed pea burgers.

To make them, you'll need two cans of black-eyed peas, 2 cups of bread crumbs and an egg.

Drain the peas, but reserve the liquid. Mash peas with a fork until they are thick and crumbly. Stir in the egg and gradually add bread crumbs until you get the consistency to make patties. Add some of the pea liquid as needed.

Pan fry each patty in a skillet over medium heat until the outside is seared. Then bake at 350 degrees for an additional 10 minutes until centers are cooked throughout. 

Serve on a bun with raw collards instead of lettuce. Another variation is to serve without a bun atop a bed of sautéed greens.

Eat up and enjoy good luck and prosperity in the New Year! 

December 24, 2014

Such a place as fairyland

“There is such a place as fairyland - but only children can find the way to it. And they do not know that it is fairyland until they have grown so old that they forget the way. One bitter day, when they seek it and cannot find it, they realize what they have lost; and that is the tragedy of life. On that day the gates of Eden are shut behind them and the age of gold is over. Henceforth they must dwell in the common light of common day. Only a few, who remain children at heart, can ever find that fair, lost path again; and blessed are they above mortals. They, and only they, can bring us tidings from that dear country where we once sojourned and from which we must evermore be exiles. The world calls them its singers and poets and artists and story-tellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland.” 

― L.M. MontgomeryThe Story Girl

December 23, 2014

What I Want for Christmas - My Grown Up List

The other night I went to a holiday party providing free photos with Santa for kids and families. My friend brought her young niece who sat on Santa's lap and posed for a photo, but promptly informed my friend that while that Santa was pretty good, he wasn't the 'real' Santa because the real one (another Santa from a previous event she attended) knew she was seven years old and that she had trouble keeping her room clean. She didn't feel the need to tell the second Santa what she wanted for Christmas since he clearly wasn't the real one. It was way sweet.

I remember the magic of believing in Santa Claus. One Christmas I left my teddy bear in the living room chair to keep watch for him in the hopes that he could report back to me what he saw.

I knew Santa had to be real because my little brother and I would carefully leave out some sort of snack (off-brand Cheez-its or animal crackers from the Dollar General Store perhaps) and be oh so excited the next morning to find that "he ate them!!!"

Being a grown-up, Christmas now has a different meaning to me. There's still plenty of magic to behold, but you have to look a little closer to see it. You have to actually stop to take time to look for it in the first place.

If Santa were really real (and not my dad) or I could go back to believing like I used to, what would I ask of him?

This is my grown-up Christmas list.

1) An email inbox that doesn't grow exponentially overnight
2) More lazy Saturdays spent doing absolutely nothing
3) A heart that forgives, but also forgets
4) Not being out of breath when I have to do 60 seconds of jumping jacks
5) For Rayna and Deacon to just end up together once and for all
6) To sit down for one more Christmas morning breakfast at my great-grandma's table, and in the spirit of holiday magic, I'd abandon my vegetarianism to eat the saltiest country ham you've ever tasted, with red eye gravy
7) A new Harry Potter book nobody's ever read before
8) Renewed health for my family - physical, emotional, spiritual, the works!
9) A Barbie Dream House
10) To be with friends old and new, to share memories and stories of times we've enjoyed together

I hope you get everything on your list this year my friend! xoxo - Kate

December 15, 2014

Southern Christmas Traditions - Southern Living Sweets to Eat & Read

I have such a sweet tooth and when Christmas rolls around, I just can't resist indulging in some holiday sweets. There are so many great recipes out there for holiday goodies, but I'm running a bit behind this year, plus it would be impossible to try them all.

Since I've had some baking fails in my life, I try to stick with recipes that are tried-and-true and you don't get any better than the Southern Living test kitchen.

These culinary wizards work all through the year on confectionery creations, testing and making sure that they can share the recipes in good faith. Thank goodness for them is all I can say!

Here's a wonderful recipe that would be fun to recreate with your family this year and who knows, maybe you should make a few extra to leave out for the man in the red suit.

Minted White Chocolate Balls

Makes 32 cookies • Hands-on 30 min. • Total 1 Hour
(Coat in chocolate two at a time)

  • 56 vanilla wafers, crushed (less than 1 [11-oz.] box)
  • 1 cup chopped pecans, toasted
  • ½ cup powdered sugar
  • 2 Tbsp. unsweetened cocoa
  • 4 ½ tsp. light corn syrup
  • 6 Tbsp. peppermint schnapps
  • 3 cups white chocolate morsels
  • Crushed peppermint candies for coating

1. Stir together first 6 ingredients; shape into 32 balls.
2. Microwave chocolate in a bowl at HIGH 30 seconds; stir. Microwave 20 more seconds or until smooth, stirring once.
3. Coat balls in white chocolate. Sprinkle with crushed hard peppermint candies immediately afterwards.
4. Place in parchment paper-lined pan. Chill for 30 minutes or until set.

Yum! For more great recipes like this, pick up the December issue of Southern Living Magazine, on newsstands now. And if you want even more great southern Christmas fun, consider the wonderful new book Southern Living Christmas All Through The South: Joyful Memories, Timeless Moments, Enduring Traditions. It is a gorgeous sight to behold and would make a wonderful gift for your favorite southerner or yourself!

**This post contains an Amazon affiliate link, but please don't feel any pressure to click on it**

December 14, 2014

Not Holding On -- Just Letting Go

We're in the thick of the holiday season, which seemed to have started somewhere around October 1st this year...always earlier and earlier. The hustle and bustle that come with November and now December can make it easy to lose focus on what really matters.

To be completely honest, I struggle to maintain healthy perspective. One minute, my eyes are glazed over at the sight of bright and shiny things on display in my favorite department store window...the next minute, I'm crying about a story of a family spending the holiday season in a local mission.

Do you ever have trouble finding a balance between all the extremes we're faced with on a daily basis? I have rich friends and poor friends, but all have a story and not always with a happy ending. Life never stops, not even for Christmas, a day for many folks that's simply known as Thursday.

It sort of tends to shine a big spotlight on things or at least that's how it feels. Things that we've basically accepted as the norm the rest of the year can feel larger than life at Christmas. Family strife, relationship woes, estranged friends, lost love. Misunderstandings, hurt feelings, resentment, and just being plain old mad at the world.

I've got just as much of that stuff as anyone and sometimes it really brings me down.

But no matter what, the scale is always tipped in my favor. I've got so much to be thankful for and I don't mean that in a trite or cliche way. So much. And yet I still manage to hang onto the past hurts that really weigh on me.

Holding on is hard. Remember the monkey bars on the school playground of your childhood? Even though I'd start out strong, I could never make it all the way across. A couple bars in, I'd find myself just hanging there, holding on as tight as I could. But alas I wasn't very athletic and instead of holding on any longer, I'd let go and drop to the ground so the next person could take his or her turn.

Could letting go be that easy? For so many of us (myself included), we keep hanging on...and often to things that don't serve our best interests. What would happen if we just let go?

I've mentioned before that I'm attending a yoga class and it has really stretched me (literally and figuratively) outside of my comfort zone. Sometimes the teacher will instruct us to do a pose and I think my body just won't move in that way. And then I'm surprised when it does. When I first do a posture, it feels sort of uncomfortable. But then my teacher will tell us to really sink into the stretch, and what felt nearly impossible a few minutes before starts to get easier.

Maybe letting go isn't so easy after all. Or maybe it gets easier as we practice it, sinking in a little more each go around. I guess it just depends on what we're holding onto.

I wish for you the same thing I wish for myself not just during the holidays but all the time...perspective to see clearly what truly matters and courage to let go of things that don't.

December 12, 2014

Classic Holiday Fashions for the Southern Gentleman from Onward Reserve

The holiday season is such a festive time, but it can be stressful too. Socializing with co-workers is one thing that tops many peoples' worry lists. This year, I've been invited to a couple different work-related soirees, but instead of going solo as I might have done in the past, I get to bring my southern beau. 

He's definitely a jeans & t-shirt kind of guy, so the thought of dressing up for a bunch of different parties isn't his cup of tea. Maybe you have a spouse or partner who falls into this category. I decided to enlist the help of an expert, in this case the fine folks at ONWARD RESERVE. 

A luxury and specialty retailer, ONWARD RESERVE was founded by T.J. Callaway and has three locations in Georgia (Athens, Buckhead, and Thomasville) as well as Charlotte, North Carolina and a Chattanooga, Tennessee pop-up shop.  

In an effort to provide consumers with the very best in lifestyle brands as well as up and coming collections, T.J. Callaway established ONWARD RESERVE in 2012, after leaving a successful career in investment banking. Some of the designers and international brands carried by the shop include: Barbour, Peter Millar, Dubarry, Vilebrequin and others. However, the stores also pride themselves in offering unique finds from brands like Smathers & Branson, Fulton & Roark, Martin Dingman and Token & Icon.

I sat down with Virginia Johnson, the creative director of ONWARD RESERVE to talk about some style options for a dapper gent this holiday season and beyond. 

SBS: The holidays are here and that means parties. Are you getting excited? 

OR: Who doesn’t love holiday parties? I especially love another excuse to get dressed up! 

SBS: I love getting dressed up too, but my beau isn't quite a fan. Can you help me guide him toward some fail-safe options for our holiday social calendar? 

OR: Guys may not have the same love for getting dressed up as girls do, but at Onward Reserve we make it easy to shop for things that he’ll want to wear. 

For a fun festive look these “Party Pants” are sure to be a hit:

Pair the party pants with this quarter zip sweater:  

SBS: I'm loving those pants up there, but they might be out of my beau's comfort zone.

OR: If he’s a little more conservative try these cords

with a classic button down, like this  

and a cashmere sweater for warmth. 

SBS: What if the holiday party is a bit more dressy? Not black tie, but not super casual either.

OR: The occasion may call for a blazer, in which case I prefer to ditch boring navy and go for a cool tweed like one of these beautiful Martin Dingman jackets.

SBS: That's gorgeous! Okay, one last question. What about footwear? My guy lives in Chaco sandals most of the year, but they aren't really holiday gathering appropriate...if you know what I mean.

OR: If you’re going to be partying all night-he’s going to need great looking, comfortable shoes.

These are perfect: 

SBS: What great options! Thanks so much Virginia for sharing your ideas about holiday fashion for the guy who wants to look great and feel confident (and comfortable) at the same time. Is there anything else you'd like to share with Southern Belle Simple readers? 

OR: Onward Reserve currently has 5 retail locations. Our stores are a fun, comfortable place for guys and their better halves to shop. Grab a beer, watch the game and get some holiday shopping done!

Happy Holidays y'all! 

** I was not compensated in any way for this post, nor are these affiliate links. Just wanted to share some cool stuff with you.** 

December 11, 2014

Local Holiday Gift Ideas - Hostess Gifts for Christmas

This time of year, you might be invited to a holiday party (or seven). Throwing a Christmas or New Year's party is fun, but it's also a lot of work. That's why it's nice to show your appreciation for your host's hospitality with a great hostess gift.

I was taught that you never show up to a holiday party empty-handed, whether you contribute a pot-luck food item, a great bottle of wine or just a little trinket for your host.

It's a great way to let your host know you care and it's also a way to help ensure you'll be invited back! If you're looking for some unique holiday hostess gifts with a local twist, look no further!

I went to some of my favorite local businesses in Knoxville, but your town probably has some great ones as well. I hope you'll be inspired to shop local this Christmas season and help small businesses keep their lights on!

1) Local & Regional Art for the Holiday Hostess 

Some of my favorite gifts over the years have been handmade items. There's a great gallery in Knoxville called Liz-Beth & Co. that stocks a wonderful array of local and regional pieces. 

Some possible gifts to consider for a holiday hostess with the mostess: 

Pottery - Not only are these pieces handcrafted locally, but they are also made with Tennessee clay. The glasses and wine carafe would be a great gift together or separate. You could also throw in a bottle of your favorite local wine or some great local cheeses or charcuterie for a ready-made holiday appetizer sampler. 

Jewelry - Small jewelry pieces are another great hostess gift option whether for the holidays or all through the year. These dyed-silk wrap bracelets with assorted charms are beautiful and would be perfect for women of all ages. 

Something for the host - Maybe your host is a dapper gent...or perhaps the guy you're looking to make a good impression on is your boss, hosting you for your office Christmas party. If he appreciates the finer things, consider one of these handcrafted wooden pens by artist Russ Bell

Made from a variety of exotic woods, each pen is different and features a unique cigar band decoration. There are also options made from the wood of whiskey barrels. Other gift items for the host include cuff-links, a massage gift certificate or tickets to see a favorite team.

2) Holiday Hostess Gifts with a Personalized Touch 

I've always enjoyed receiving gifts that were personalized. There's just something about stuff with our names or monograms on it that we seem to love here in the south. 

A great local shop in Knoxville makes all your personalization dreams come true...Me and Co. Run by the lovely and talented Michele, this shop is adorable. You can buy gifts and things in-store to have personalized, as well as bring in any items from anywhere. 

Another fun item to gift a holiday hostess is a personalized Christmas platter or plate. Present it with your favorite Christmas cookies and then let your host find her name underneath! It's the gift that keeps on giving. 

3) Snacks & Treats for the Holiday Hostess 

When it comes to last minute holiday hostess gifts, you just can't go wrong with food. Depending on your host or hostess, the party menu might be set in such a way that the idea of adding an unexpected cheeseball induces stress. So maybe you take edible gifts that don't have to be eaten right away. If you know your hostess would approve, take some snacks and munchies to share with the group. 

My go-to these days is anything from the Captain Rodney's line of products. A wonderful Tennessee company based in the quaint hamlet of Bell Buckle, Captain Rodney's has great glazes and sauces, and my personal favorite...pepper jelly. 

I heard Southern food writer extraordinaire Julia Reed speak about her love for this southern delicacy, but I was already a fan. You've probably had it...a huge brick of Philadelphia cream cheese drowning in pepper jelly, eaten with club crackers. Is there anything better?

Another great Captain Rodney's product is the Boucan Glaze. I guarantee the recipe shown below will change your life. Well, maybe. But it's pretty darn good. I get mine at Linda's Hallmark in Knoxville, a great local business that is not your ordinary Hallmark shop!

These are just a few ideas for holiday hostess gifts. Get creative this Christmas season and make your party hosts/hostesses feel truly special by giving them a thoughtful gift. You won't regret it!

November 20, 2014

Peace vs. Chaos: Which Do You Choose?

For the past four or five weeks, I've been taking a yoga class at my gym. Ew, I just threw up in my mouth a little at that sentence...trust me I'm not a health nut or very fit so please don't feel put off. There was a time when I'd have quickly closed the browser window instead of reading much of anything relating to health & fitness...it all just seemed so intimidating and unattainable to me.

In fact, I've been on health & fitness roller coaster the last several years. First I adopted a vegan diet and lost a significant amount of weight. Then I switched to being vegetarian and slowly stopped making as many healthy choices and gained some of the weight back. Now I just want to feel healthier and not worry so much about what the scale says.

So, a few months ago (thanks to the encouragement of my beau), I joined a gym and started working with a trainer. And in addition to the training and use of the facility, my gym also offers lots of different classes, including yoga, which I've been attending.

The yoga class meets for about an hour and honestly, it's become one of my very favorite hours of the entire week.

In the past I would have been one of those people who thought yoga was weird and a waste of time so I'm kind of proud of myself for embracing it. Each class includes some stretching and poses, nothing too hard since the participants are mainly beginners.

My very favorite part of the class (no joke) comes toward the end when we're winding down and usually lying on our backs with eyes closed. The teacher says "Now, give yourself permission to do absolutely nothing." I wait all week for this moment and when it finally arrives, I relish it.

If you have an abundance of free time on your hands, you might not appreciate this the same way I do. But for me, it's one small opportunity to do nothing. And these days, those don't come around very much. We're so ultra-connected all the time. Even when we're supposedly doing nothing, we're always doing something...checking email on our phone, texting, making grocery lists in our heads, or whatever.

Do you ever give yourself permission to do nothing?

I mentioned to my yoga teacher how much I enjoyed this part of class and she made a comment that really stuck with me. She said: Pretty much everything we do in life is either moving us toward peace or toward chaos.

My hour of yoga definitely moves my week in a more peaceful direction. But I'm sure there are plenty of other things I do that move me toward chaos.

Saying yes to things I should politely decline. Beginning a conversation with the intent of showing someone why I'm right and they're wrong. Spending time with certain people. I'm guilty of moving toward chaos for sure.

But I like looking at it as a spectrum we are constantly moving back and forth on, never completely one or the other. Life's never 100 percent peaceful or 100 percent chaotic...instead it's always a big old mix of everything in between. But when I look at each moment as an opportunity to move a little closer to peace, that encourages me.

What are some other ways you can choose to move toward peace in your life? I dare you to try one of them today. Even if it's hard. You won't regret it.

November 11, 2014

Somebody's Got You

The other day I said to my southern beau, "if we end up having a child, would it be okay if we named it Leon?" In case you weren't aware, Leon is my dog...a 9 year old rescued boxer mix who captured my heart from the first moment I saw his bright shining face in a photo on the website of our local animal shelter.

Leon chilling in bed - He has his own Facebook page by the way!
Since bringing him into my home, my heart has opened up in places I didn't even know existed...places that are now filled to the brim with love for his smelly 70-something pound self.

We may or may not name our future child Leon, but that's beside the point. Earlier this year, Leon started walking funny. We first noticed it when visiting my parents. He was dragging his back feet and happened to walk across their jute rug, leaving the tops of his paws raw and bleeding. Then we noticed that he had trouble using the bathroom because his back legs didn't want to support him when he tried to squat.

After some tests and Internet research, we figured out that he probably has a degenerative disorder, much like multiple sclerosis in humans, causing nerve damage in his hind quarters. It creates loss of sensation in his feet which is why he drags them and often walks on his back knuckles.

It's pretty hard to watch your sweet able-bodied pup go from leaping up multiple steps in a single bound to needing to be carried just to get out of a doorway. But his spirit is still just as sweet and so far it doesn't phase him too much.

Leon and I lived alone together for nine years and nearly every night we've slept side by side, first in a queen and now in a roomy king sized bed. Since his condition has gotten worse, he really can't get up into the bed by himself so I find myself hoisting him up several times a day.

He has a $40 dog bed located in my bedroom, and he enjoys sprawling on it, but sometimes he just wants to come up on the big bed. Usually all it takes is a little whine but sometimes he rests his face on the edge of my bed and looks at me with those big ol' eyes. It doesn't matter what I'm doing or how comfortable I am, I always get up and haul him up here.

I gotta say it's not a graceful act. He's wiggly and wobbly and I have to reach under his stinky little dog armpits and sling him up about three feet in the air, all the while trying to lift with my legs and not my back. But every time I do it, I always say the same thing. "Momma's got you."

Sometimes he cries from the floor in the middle of the night and I go through this dog-lifting routine while half asleep. When I wake up with him next to me, I often can't remember how he got there except I know he didn't do it by himself.

He doesn't have to worry about how he's going to get up on the bed, he just knows that I'm going to take care of it for him. In so many ways this is a picture of what love looks like. Messy, awkward, uncoordinated efforts that result in somebody feeling safe and cared for.

Lots of people in my life have been there for me like that...way more times than I deserve. It doesn't always play out exactly the same...it might be something as simple as an encouraging text or Facebook message from a friend. But even these seemingly little things remind me that there are people in my corner, people who've got me.

Sometimes I feel guilty thinking about all the people who've never felt loved or cared for like that. Even still, I know this is how God feels about all of us. But I guess if somebody who was supposed to love you treated you mean, it's hard to believe in God.

The best way I can even begin to remedy it is to add a little more love to the world. We all can.
It only takes noticing people. Well, not just noticing but also really seeing them. And looking past their "I'm fine" to see what hurts lurk below. It might be awkward or wobbly. And we might end up wondering how we got there. But let's do it anyway.

November 4, 2014

Big Sexy Hair & Marlboro Reds

This past weekend, I went to the most memorable 50th birthday party. It was unique, lively and one-of-a-kind...perfect for its guest of honor. When I first heard this party was in the works, I wasn't sure I could get on board with the theme.

"Big Sexy Hair & Marlboro Reds." 

A 50th birthday is definitely something to be celebrated but you might be wondering just what is so special about hair spray and cigarettes.

Let me back up a little. The party was for my Aunt Bo. Her real name is Karen, but as the first niece on that side of the family, I gave her the name Bo. 

I have racked my brain trying to remember what inspired me to start using this moniker, but I honestly cannot remember. Just all my life she's been Bo to me (and every other subsequent child in our family). 

My Aunt Bo is one-of-a-kind. One quality that comes to mind when I think of her is how fiercely loyal she is. As my brother likes to say "Bo would kill someone for you" (and he's only half joking). 

When I was a baby, my Bo was still in high school and all my life I've heard stories about how she'd skip class to drive to Knoxville with my grandparents to visit me and my mom. 

After my parents divorced and we moved back to the town my mom was from, I spent a lot more time with my aunt. As a kid, I vividly remember her taking me to Hardee's in the morning. She'd get a steak biscuit (with mustard) and a huge Mountain Dew while I'd have a two-pack of cinnamon raisin biscuits with orange juice. On my birthday, she'd always take me shopping for a new outfit at Goody's. 

It was also my aunt who let me drive a car for the first time...on a country back road through "the swamp" near our family farm. I was 11 years old and the car was some gray behemoth, probably an 80-something model Oldsmobile. I had no idea what I was doing and I floored the gas pedal, causing us to lurch forward. It would be several years before I finally learned to drive for real, but this early lesson gave me a feeling of accomplishment. 

Something else I'll always appreciate my aunt for is trying to help me straighten my hair. It was 1995 and Jennifer Aniston's "Rachel" hairdo was all the rage. My mom was at a loss for what to do with my frizzy locks, but my aunt would sit for hours, sectioning my hair off in small pieces, using a giant barrel curling iron to try and smooth it for me. I thought I was so beautiful with my bouncy straight mane...little did I know that it looked more like a lampshade. 

I can never chronicle all the things my Aunt Bo has done for me or all the wonderful memories we have together. Life has for sure had its ups and downs, but she is a strong person and she never stops doing good for the people she loves. 

My Aunt Bo and Me 

When her group of girlfriends decided to throw her a surprise 50th birthday party, they wanted it to be something she'd really enjoy. 

My aunt is quite frugal. She shops at Goodwill and buys off-brand items regularly. But apparently she has said before that no matter how poor she might find herself, there are two things she will never skimp on. You guessed it...Big Sexy Hairspray and Marlboro Reds. In honor of her dedication to these products, her friends centered her party around them. 

It was actually very lovely, even with the packs of cigarettes in the centerpieces. Only in the south, right? 

The southern aunt is something of an institution. I can think of so many people who had/have a special aunt with whom they made all sorts of wonderful childhood memories. Then you grow up and your special aunt becomes this awesome cheerleader of sorts, celebrating your triumphs and being mad with you when things don't go your way. It's like the next closest thing to your mom, but without all the bad memories of hating her when you were a teenager. 

My dad's special aunt was the first person to serve him Mexican food, specifically tacos, when he was a kid. He still tells this story and recounts his awe at this exotic dish. 

My beau has a special aunt too, like a second mom really, who is a very important part of his life.

I have other special aunts who've also impacted my life in different ways. I am so fortunate to have these folks in my corner and I'm glad I could help celebrate my Aunt Bo's big birthday! Here are some photos of her brunch party...

Me, my grandma & my mom before my aunt arrived 

My mom and her dear friend, who is also sort of like an aunt to me

the lovely brunch spread, complete with the most delicious cinnamon toast I've ever eaten 
Do you have a special aunt who means the world to you? Don't wait til a milestone birthday to tell her!