April 10, 2015

One Perfect Day

Do you ever have one of those days that just feels like one for the record books, in a good way? It's not like anything particularly monumental happened, but then again, maybe it did. 

Good Friday was just such a day for me. 

It started with a breakfast date with one of my dearest friends. What is it about feeling heard AND understood by someone that just makes life better? If you have someone who listens to you and gets you, you're pretty lucky. I definitely am. 

Then it was on to my hometown, where the beau and I had lunch with an old friend who is performing part of our marriage ceremony. Some of the time was spent catching up, and some was spent just chatting about marriage in general and what it all means. It's nice to be able to connect with someone who knew you at age 14 and still loves you in spite of it! 

Later, I got a wonderful visit from the mother of my preschool bestie. My friend lives in California now, but I've remained close with his family through the years and it was such a treat to visit with his mom and catch up. We have a lot of common interests and having an uninterrupted hour to discuss them was heavenly. 

Then it was off to the hairdresser for a trial run of my wedding day hair-do. I have to admit, this was the first time I've ever had my hair professionally styled....I wasn't sure what to expect. But the stylist came highly recommended and the entire experience was great. We settled on a style that I really liked and I got more comfortable with the whole veil scenario (which is kind of awkward the first time). 

Then my mom (who I rarely get to spend quality time with) and I hung out for a bit and ended up attending a dance recital for my other bff's 8 year old daughter. 

As she took the stage for the first time, I thought about the day she was born. My friend had invited me to be in the delivery room and it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. New life coming into the world. Somebody who just moments before hadn't been part of your reality, and then poof, there they are. As I watched her little personality shine on stage, my eyes filled up with tears. I squeezed my friend's hand to let her know just what a special moment this was.  

I thought about how it hadn't been that long ago we were just silly teenagers in high school. So much of the past 15 years has been a blur, from graduating high school to college and my twenties. Maybe it's because I'm getting married or maybe it's because I'm approaching my mid-thirties but I feel like I've hit a big wall in some ways. Like I finally realize life is just about the people who matter to us. And I don't want to miss anything important in the lives of those folks who are important to me. 

Is this normal? Do other people figure this out much earlier and I'm just a late bloomer? You don't have to answer...these are just hypothetical questions. However, if you have any wisdom to impart, please feel free to share! 

Have you ever had a day like this? When all things point you towards a feeling of wholeness and you are convinced you could die happy right there on the spot? 

April 9, 2015

Simple Ways to Celebrate Earth Day - Easy Projects for the Family to Enjoy Together

Earth Day takes place each year on April 22. Whether you consider yourself to be environmentally conscious or not, Earth Day matters. We all share this beautiful planet. Why not take some time to really appreciate and celebrate it?

If you'd like to celebrate Earth Day this year, here are three simple ideas that you might enjoy making with your family.

Citrus Bird Feeders 

I ran across this idea here and thought my backyard birds would probably love it....was I right! Such an easy project that the entire family can help with. 

All you need to create cute citrus birdfeeders is some type of fruit (I used large pink grapefruit), birdseed, oats, peanut butter and a little oil. Scoop out the fruit from each half. Then mix together the birdseed, oats, pb & oil. Spoon it into the citrus halves and use twine to hang them from your nearest tree. 

You can refill the fruit halves over and over again and eventually, everything goes back to nature. So cute! 

Pretzel Trees 

Earth Day is a great opportunity to start conversations about conservation. While making trees out of pretzels doesn't necessarily help the earth, it can give you a way to start talking to your family and friends about how to think more earth-minded. 

Plus, these treats are just so adorable! For the full how-to, check out this fun blog. 

All you need are pretzel sticks and candy melts. And it's just that simple. Seriously. Take this opportunity to spread some earth love today! 

Eggshell Seed Starters 

Spring is here and the time for planting is upon us. I love gardens but don't really have room for lots of plants in my small condo. Still, I enjoy starting and tending to seedlings for transplanting later on. 

Eggshells are a great way to start seeds. All you need are clean, eggshell halves, potting soil and seeds and voila! Seedlings! Once they begin to grow, you can transplant them to a garden or larger container. The eggshells provide some nutrients to your young plants as they decompose and until then, they look so stinking cute! 

These are just three simple ways you can focus on the earth around us. There are plenty of others that have a greater impact...but it requires creativity and willingness to try! What other ways does your family celebrate Earth Day?

April 8, 2015

Heaviness & Light

What is it about love that both weighs you down and helps you fly at the same time? This week has been tough. After the passing of our boy Leon Spears (the greatest dog who ever lived) on Easter, I've felt sort of in a fog. There's plenty of good stuff to enjoy and look forward to as our wedding quickly approaches, but I still feel such a heavy sadness.

In my Tuesday yoga class, I shared how I was feeling with my teacher and she was very sensitive about the whole situation, taking me through poses and postures that are supposed to increase joy.

During our final relaxation (my favorite part of the class), she asked me if I'd like to have some heavy sandbags to rest on my abdomen. At first it seemed weird, but once I settled in and let myself get lost in the moment, it was nice.

I thought about how loss is like that sometimes....a heaviness that sits squarely across your gut, holding you down, making each breath more difficult than it should be.

To some people, the loss of an animal might not warrant such grief. Clearly those people never had a pet like Leon.

But loss is loss is loss. Whenever someone is dear to you and they go away, there's a sense of missing. When you love someone, it's like you're connected by an unbreakable invisible thread. No matter how far they might be or how long it's been since you saw them, the connection remains intact.

The spirit is such an incredible thing. We think the body matters so much, but really it's just the temporary house for something way more important.

I think the heaviness of loss can be good because it reminds us of just how connected we are to the ones we love. And there's a certain lightness that comes with that too...because when someone we love leaves this world, it takes one end of that invisible string into another realm. So there's a constant battle between sinking into the heaviness and allowing ourselves to float up to a place where we might begin to fly.

April 5, 2015

Obituary for Leon Spears

Leon Otis Spears, ten years old, of Knoxville, Tennessee passed over the rainbow bridge and into the arms of Jesus on a glorious Easter Sunday, April, 5, 2015.

A mixed breed dog, Leon had a beautiful black coat that shined and spots of white that gleamed in the sun. He had magnificent touches of the purest pink around his cheeks and nose and on his underside. Leon self-identified as a boxer, but unlike traditional boxers, he had a long majestic black tail with a tiny bit of purest white on the tip that whipped anything in its wake. According to one kindly man Leon met at yard sale, he was definitely 7/8 boxer. Maybe.

Leon's birthplace is unknown, but at or around the end of his first year of life, his home was Young Williams Animal Shelter on Division Street in Knoxville. At that time he was going by the name Frost and had been at the shelter for nearly 28 days, meaning he was near the end of the road if not adopted. But God had other plans.

On January 2, 2006, a naive girl visited the shelter seeking a dog to adopt. She didn't then fully understand the magnitude of this decision or how her choice would alter the course of her life, her heart and her family forevermore.

In the small room where that first meeting took place, she was struck by the pup's big dark eyes, turned up "pig" nose and cheerful demeanor. As he pressed his full body weight against her, tail thumping like mad, it was clear this dog was the one.

Leon was forced to spend at least two additional days at the shelter for a procedure that was not pleasant, but mandatory as required by the adoption facility as a way to control the pet population.

On the day he was to be officially adopted (aka his 'gotcha day'), his new mom had to attend a new adoptee orientation class and fill out necessary paperwork before standing in a long line with other folks who were adopting pets. When Leon Otis Spears stepped through the doors into the front lobby of the shelter, there was a collective gasp as each person murmured "that's the cutest dog I've ever seen."

Leon was brought home for the first time in a 1997 Ford Explorer that proved to be the source of much joy in his life, both for trips around town, to the park and across the state to see his family.

Like a prisoner set free, Leon nee Frost blossomed in his new life like a flower turning its face toward the sun.

Several health-related set-backs had the potential to derail his happiness as he was stricken with the mange early on, but in the face of all obstacles, as he would for the next decade, Leon met each situation with joy, gratitude and dignity.

In his early years, he had several important role models to help shape his character, including his uncle Commodore, a wise black lab; a sister Zelda who constantly encouraged him in every sort of mischief; a cat Scarlett who treated him with general disdain; and his brother from another mother, Jordan, a boxer/lab mix who lived next door.

Important human companions in Leon's life include his former co-worker and best buddy Reid; dear friend and futon companion Mr. Henry and Aunt Terry who always moved aside in the good-natured way so Leon could get to Mr. Henry faster.

Leon's life was full of adventure, including one memorable boating excursion with his buddy Jordan's family. He traveled to exotic locales such as Cookeville, Tennessee, Murfreesboro, and Cleveland. Highlights of each trip included seeing cows alongside the road, stopping at drive-thru windows for special treats, and having the entire backseat of the car to himself for stretching out.

He was employed for a time in the University of Tennessee's Art Department but was let go for undisclosed reasons (there was talk of discrimination of the species variety).

Leon then flourished in his new role as HR Director of Screen Door Media where he supervised one employee, Mister Phillip.

One might say Leon and Mister Phillip had an adversarial relationship, but deep down each loved the other in a unique way. Some of Leon's fondest memories of Mister Phillip would probably be when he had to pick up his poop and keeping him company during horror movie marathons. Prior to his passing, Leon was very much anticipating his momma's upcoming wedding to Mister Phillip and had finally come to terms with the fact that he would have to share his king-sized bed with his new dad from hence forth.

Other special friends to enter Leon's life would include Bentley, a 12-year old rescued Yorkie, and Donatella, a box turtle with an approximate age of 40 years old.

In early 2014, Leon was diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy, a condition that causes nerve damage. Even after losing the use of both back legs, Leon's spirit was always strong and his positive attitude never wavered over the next year.

He left the world surrounded by his family and was laid to rest in the middle of a green pasture at his great-great grandparents' farm in Baxter, Tennessee.

Leon is survived by his Gramma Cindy and Grandpa Burton, an uncle Will and aunt Camille, Mister Phillip and his beloved Momma.

Said his momma, Kate Spears of Leon: "I never knew my heart could hold this much love. I thought I was just getting a dog. I ended up getting a precious companion who looked at me with more kindness, more adoration than I've ever experienced. He increased my capacity to give and receive love and for this, I will always be grateful."

Spears went on to say, "If I had a dollar for every time Leon and I were out in public and someone commented on how cute/sweet/adorable/great-looking he was, I'd be rich many times over. He spread joy everywhere he went. He lived a life of joy and it made the world a better place...or at least my world." 

"Loss of a dear friend is devastating, but I'm so glad I never have to face the reality of a life without ever knowing Leon. I'll always carry him in my heart." 

My Sweetest Friend

I'll be kind, if you'll be faithful
You be sweet and I'll be grateful
Cover me with kisses dear
Lighten up the atmosphere
Keep me warm inside our bed
I got dreams of you all through my head
Fortune teller said I'd be free
And that's the day you came to me

Come to me my sweetest friend
Can you feel my heart again
I'll take you back where you belong
And this will be our favorite song
Come to me with secrets bare
I'll love you more so don't be scared
When we're old and near the end

We'll go home and start again

March 26, 2015

Spring Cleaning: Non-Toxic DIY Products to Make at Home

Spring is here and it's time to sweep off the porch, throw open the windows and enjoy the sunshine. But what if like me, your home got a little dank and dusty through the winter months?

There's no better time than now to begin your spring cleaning. I definitely need to do mine! Don't you just feel more at peace when your home is tidy and clean? Clutter and grime breeds chaos and stifles creativity for sure.

I'm trying to be healthier and I know that goes beyond just what I eat. So many of the products we buy have harsh chemicals that aren't good for our skin and lungs. I've been guilty of mixing the wrong things while cleaning the bathroom and my home smelled like a swimming pool.

This spring, I'm trying my hand at making some all natural cleansers to use on my home. And I thought I'd share them on the blog too.

DIY Cleaners for the Bathroom

The bathroom is one of those areas in my home that I want to be clean, clean, clean. So I've been hesitant to use all natural cleaners because I was afraid they might not do the trick.

After reading about tea tree oil and its disinfecting properties, I'm going to give it a try.

To create a toilet scrub that freshens odors while cleaning, mix a half of a cup of baking soda with approximately 15 drops of tea tree oil. Pour that into the toilet bowl. Then, add 1/4 a cup of white vinegar and get to scrubbing. The vinegar and baking soda creates a fizz and the tea tree disinfects.

You can also mix some vinegar and tea tree oil in a spray bottle to use for routine cleaning of the seat and tank of your toilet.

The spray bottle of vinegar also works for your shower and sink. I keep a little jar of baking soda near my bathroom sink that I use to exfoliate my skin after washing my face but I learned that if a little bit fell into the sink, I could rub it around to clean that as well.

Cute salt & pepper shakers from the Dollar General Store make a great container/dispenser for this!

Got a cast iron bathtub with rust and stains? Did you know you can use half a grapefruit and some salt to clean it? Sprinkle the salt liberally and use the grapefruit half as sort of a scrubber. Get lots of juice in there and add more salt if needed.

DIY Cleaners for the Kitchen

Clean kitchen countertops with your spray bottle of vinegar and a little water. If you have granite, stone, or marble counters, substitute the vinegar with rubbing alcohol. You can also use vodka and I prefer the vanilla flavored version because of the great scent.

Cutting boards can be a breeding ground for bacteria. Use half a lemon to clean both plastic and wooden varieties. If it has stubborn stains, put some iodized salt on first and scrub that with the lemon to really get it good and clean.

If you need to clean cast iron, use olive oil and salt to make a paste. Then scrub well either with your fingers or a stiff bristled brush. You can rinse with warm water before re-seasoning your pans in a warm oven. NEVER use soap on your cast iron as it removes all the good baked in seasoning. Cast iron cookware can get to 400 degrees after just 4 minutes in a medium oven and it's sterile at 212 degrees.

Got an older fridge that needs some TLC? Use about a half a cup of baking soda mixed with warm water to clean it. The warm water will soften dried on food and stains while the baking soda is a mild abrasive to rub them away.

These are just a few of the simple recipes for cleaning products you can create for your home this spring. When you get ready to work around your home, consider your health and wellness. Choose products that contribute to your family's health and safety...not harsh chemicals that could do harm! Think outside the box next time and make your home really shine!

March 19, 2015

Thursday Three: Yoga & Jesus, Strange Wedding Traditions and De-Cluttering Your Home

I frequently see bloggers who regularly post a round-up of interesting links they stumble upon from across the Internet. Sometimes I click these links and sometimes I don't...depending on what they are.

Usually I'd rather hear from the bloggers themselves, as opposed to being directed to some other article or post. Sometimes, it's a great way to find out about different things that are going on or to find information I might not have found on my own.

I certainly don't think that everything I find interesting is of interest to you...but some of it could be.

I'm not sure if this is something I'm going to do regularly, but today I have three links for you that might be of interest.

The first one, I stumbled upon while doing a Google search of this phrase: "Should Christians Practice Yoga?" As a Christian who has been doing yoga, I know what I believe about this. But I was pretty surprised to find lots of folks in Internet land who are against it. Besides that, I know several folks in real life who are anti-yoga.

This article doesn't dig too far into it, but I love the imagery it evokes and since Easter is coming, I thought it was apropos.

The next one was sent to me by my best friend in California. It contains some silly origin stories about wedding traditions. I'm not much of a stickler for tradition and I'm not at all superstitious, but these are fun to read. My bridesmaids all have different dresses so we'd be out of luck in Ancient Rome, and my beau has a bad back and won't be carrying me across any thresholds (unless I get a running start and leap really high). You might get a kick out of them.

And finally, the last link is to an article in NY Magazine about how when you're raised not to be wasteful and save things for a rainy day, it's hard to de-clutter. I struggle with this concept all the time...why get rid of something when it's "perfectly good?" Just something to consider.

March 16, 2015

A Job Well Done

Do you ever feel like what you're doing doesn't matter? Do you think about the way you spend your days, your hours, your minutes, and what it all means?

Sometimes I think we try too hard to see the big picture and other times we can't see it big enough. One of the things I love most about the south is how we put so much meaning into everything we do, but maybe this also serves as a stumbling block.

Nothing is ever as simple as what it seems.

I have a friend who is always pushing me to do more with this blog. It's just her nature to be a pusher...and thank goodness for it because don't we all need someone like that in our lives? She has grand ideas and big dreams for me and Southern Belle Simple....whether that looks like writing a book down the road, or something else.

And I have grand ideas and big dreams for Southern Belle Simple too. Sometimes.

And sometimes I just want to go about my business writing a little blog in this teensy tiny corner of the Internet. And who cares if anyone reads it or not?

When I spent some time with my friend recently, she was doing her usual pushing (seriously, it's all coming from a place of love) and I pushed back a little, saying to her that I don't care about taking things to the next level...what if I'm perfectly happy just doing my thing?

My grandpa went to work at age 16 for the Kroger grocery store in my small hometown, where he was started out sweeping floors. Over the never nearly 40 years, he worked his way up to being the head butcher. He went to work every day and cut meat. There were folks in the town who came to him specifically because of the way he met their butchering needs. In fact, the grandfather of one of my dearest friends never let a chance pass to tell me how my grandpa always took care of him at Kroger. And of course my grandpa remembered his order exactly, an eye of round roast.

There was nothing flashy or glamorous about my grandpa's daily routine. I'm sure he never got paid what he was worth and I'm sure he didn't get any real perks. But I know he took pride in doing a job well done. And that was enough for him.

From him, I learned the importance of hustling, that is, working hard to seize every opportunity that comes along. While his career certainly had its challenges, I am pretty sure he had a feeling of accomplishment in serving others and making sure they had what they needed.

My grandpa's job wasn't who he was, it was just something he did. And even though he did it well, it didn't define him as a person.

But nowadays, so often it feels like we are defined by what we do. Or more often, what other people think about what we do. I've been caught on that hamster wheel for sure.

Sometimes I think about just how insignificant I am....and then other days I feel so burdened to try and make a difference with this great opportunity I've been given.

There's honor to be had in doing a job well done. Even if it sometimes seems small and insignificant.

I like to think that when we're born, there's a small space for us in the world. And as we grow and become who we are meant to be, we will stretch out into that space, filling it and hopefully pushing past its boundaries to really challenge ourselves.

Life goes by so fast. The longer I'm alive, the less I realize I understand. And that's okay.

Whatever happens, if it means something to you, it matters.

Drink it Up: A Honey of a Cocktail

I had the most delightful cocktail recently while traveling and I just had to share! If you aren't familiar with the Fairmont family of hotels, they are pretty special. For example, did you know that Fairmont Hotels have rooftop honeybee hives?

Each property is different, but the Fairmont I've stayed in is located in the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C. The hotel welcomed 105,000 Italian honeybees to its roof in 2009 and the area is now buzzing with three honey beehives. Not only do the bees enhance the hotel’s culinary program, it also provides a way to foster educational opportunities with local school students.

This spring, about 10 public schools in DC will have their own beehives and students will have a chance to learn about beekeeping and harvesting honey as they experience it firsthand.

We need bees because they are responsible for pollinating more than 80 percent of flowering plants, fruits and vegetables. So it's neat to see organizations doing their part to help. And I did my part to help as well by purchasing the Fairmont Georgetown's signature cocktail "The BeeTini." A portion of the proceeds from the drink support the DC Junior Beekeepers initiative.

You should definitely make this lovely drink...or better yet, if you have the chance to visit DC, try one at the Fairmont!

Fairmont Georgetown BeeTini

- 2oz Finlandia vodka
- 3/4 oz Sauza Tequila
- 1/2 oz lemon juice
- 1/2 oz honey syrup spoonful of honeycomb
- Optional lemon or lime wedge

Mix all ingredients in a shaker with ice Shake for six seconds Strain while pouring into a martini glass Garnish with a spoonful of honeycomb A lemon or lime wedge may be added for more citrus.

Enjoy! (repeat as necessary!)

March 14, 2015

Returning to Possibility

Recently, I did some traveling for work. Even though some parts of the experience were a little hectic (cancelled flights, weather woes, an unexpected night spent in a city that was neither my destination nor my point of departure), the trip went pretty well.

Getting ready for a trip can be such an exciting thing. Especially if it's a trip you're looking forward to taking. Visiting a new place, seeing different people, and enjoying unique cuisine all add to the sense of adventure it brings...even if the trip for business instead of pleasure.

I love the city I call home, but I also love to travel and experience life from a new perspective. I'm a chronic people-watcher so I always enjoy getting the chance to observe different folks doing what they do. Sometimes I get so focused on my own little daily routine, I can forget that there's a whole big world out there with all sorts of folks who are also focused on their daily routines. When I travel, I'm always reminded of this.

Heading to the airport, bags packed and money in pocket, it felt like something different was on the horizon. A change of scenery, a change of pace, a change of routine can be so good for the soul.

Breakfast in a fancy hotel restaurant, with your own pot of coffee and a thick Sunday New York Times. Crisp linens that I didn't have to launder. My toiletries, neatly lined up along a marble bathroom vanity. A penthouse view of a bustling city. Tiny bottles of shampoo and lotion that magically reappear new & filled each day. A fully stocked bar and gift shop, only an elevator ride away. Someone else who pays the water bill on a giant sparkling tub perfect for bubble baths.

These are just a few of my favorite things about traveling.

My trip was quick, but it gave me the chance to see some things, meet some folks and experience a different setting. And that stirred up something in my creative spirit.

After finishing my last business meeting, I hailed a cab near Washington D.C.'s Union Station and headed to Reagan airport for my flight back to Tennessee.

During the cab ride, I started thinking about traveling and returning home. There's something about travel that gives me a renewed sense of possibility. But it's really more about coming home than it is being somewhere else. After coming home from a trip, I almost feel like I have been given a fresh start. Like it's New Year's Day or something.

Our lives are totally what we make of them. Each minute of each day. Granted, there are plenty of things that are out of our control, but the important stuff (like what we believe and how we treat each other) is ours alone.

You don't have to fly to far away lands to gain a new perspective on things, but sometimes it does help. Albert Einstein said that there are only two ways live life....either everything is a miracle or nothing is.

I like to say that every day is an adventure. In fact, I've had this motto for many years. We can wake up each day and see the opportunities as a great adventure we get to have.

Or we can see it as a never-ending list of tasks we must slog our way through, just barely surviving, always holding our breaths, waiting for the next escape.

Which do you choose?

March 12, 2015

Fun Staycation Ideas that are Simple & Affordable

Spring means spring break, but not everyone gets to fly away to some tropical paradise. If like me, you are spending your spring break as you would any other week, why not look at it as an opportunity for a fun Staycation?

So what if many of your friends are traveling to someplace fabulous. You can still have a blast staying home...all you need to do is think outside the box.

One great idea for a staycation is to have an impromptu party. I'm sure you have other pals who are not traveling and if you get together with them, it will definitely take the sting out of your being stuck at home.

But not just any old party will do...get creative and throw a Swap Party for your pals. Not only is it a great excuse to clean out your closet and home, but it's a free chance to get some new (to-you) stuff!

How to Throw a Swap Party 

First, you'll want to decide who to invite. Choose enough people that there's plenty of opportunity for variety in the items up for swap, but not too many that it becomes chaos.

Specify what types of items you want the swap to include. Clothing might get tricky unless everyone is around the same size, so I think accessories might make a good swap. This could include fashion accessories like jewelry, scarves, and handbags as well as accessories for the home like photo frames, book-ends, and vases.

Once you've settled on your guest list, extended invites and decided on specifics for the party, it's time to get down to the details of how the swap will work.

The best way to keep a swap party fair is to make sure everyone brings roughly the same number of items and that they are also in good condition. Make it clear in your invitation that this isn't the time to pawn off ratty old things. It's more a chance to pass along gently used items that you don't have much use for anymore.

One way to manage the swap is by using a point system. Larger, more expensive items could be worth more points and everyone can get points to shop with based on what they bring. You could also have the swap be for like items. For example, if you bring a purse, you get to take a different purse home. But this might take more planning to ensure that there are enough of the same types of items to go around.

Ultimately, it's just a fun way to spend some time with friends and hopefully gain a few new things at the end of the evening.

Serve some snacks and maybe a signature cocktail to make it more memorable!

Tropical Cocktails - Not Just for Vacation Anymore! 

Even if you aren't beaching it for Spring Break, there's nothing that says you can't bring a bit of the tropics to you! Another way to enjoy a staycation is to make up a batch of fruity cocktails...to share or keep to yourself.

Come home from work and unwind while channeling your inner beach goddess.

It could be something simple using whatever you have on hand. I recently mixed up some Simply Raspberry Lemonade with Vodka for a great little martini I'm going to start calling the Tropi-Tini Raz-Bikini. Seriously...try to say that without giggling.

Rim your glass with a little colorful sugar, add a paper umbrella and you'll swear you were somewhere warm and sandy! Okay, maybe not. But a staycation is still just as good a reason as any to sip a fruity cocktail! 

Challenge Yourself 

Finally, look at your staycation as a chance to get some things in order. Maybe there's a big project you've been putting off, but would like to complete. 

Or what if you just need to set some new goals and create new routines to help yourself achieve them? 

Another fun staycation challenge is to finally tackle some of the projects and recipes you've pinned to Pinterest. Do you ever feel like you pin and pin, but never actually make or do any of the stuff? I challenged myself to make a couple recipes for fun St. Patrick's Day treats I had pinned last year but never got around to making. 

There's just something so satisfying about challenging yourself and rising to the task, only to be able to check that thing off your list as complete. Maybe it's just me, but I like this sense of accomplishment. While it might not be as glamorous as a Caribbean cruise, everything is relative....and as my grandpa loves to say: "All you get out of life is what you enjoy." If you enjoy crafting or baking, or hiking or anything else, I hope you'll take some time to do that stuff! 

And when your friends come back from Cozymel with all sorts of stories to tell, you'll have plenty of your own to share of your staycation adventures!

March 5, 2015

Resident Birds

Each year, when winter winds begin to blow, I like to feed the birds. I always intend to put out birdseed for wild birds every month of the year, but you know what they say about the road to Hell being paved with the best of intentions. However, when it's really cold out, I know that food is scarce and I try to keep my feeder filled.

It's a way I honor the memory of my great grandmother, who also enjoyed feeding birds off her back porch. Her name was Aline (pronounced al-een), but I called her 'Great.'

She was a short, stocky woman with spindly legs and she always wore those little housecoats that zipped up the front, knee-highs that drooped around her ankles, and vinyl house shoes that were meant to look like leather. A native Texan, she was dealt a tough hand in life, but always persevered. Early on, she worked as a cook on the railroad before moving her family to Oak Ridge, Tennessee where my great-grandpa could find work. At that time, Oak Ridge had really just been established and for folks like my great grandparents (both sets on my dad's side), it was the land of Milk and Honey.

As long as I knew my Great, she scrimped and pinched pennies to make ends meet. She was a coupon clipper and a fan of cheap foods like Vienna (Vy-eenie) Sausages. But she always put aside a little extra money to buy me bubble bath from the Avon lady and she always made sure to have money set aside for birdseed. I think of her every time I see a Chickadee because those were her favorites, even though she said they sassed her when she talked to them.

My beau and I enjoy watching our birds gather around our patio to chow down on the food we provide all through the winter. I'm definitely no ornithologist, but I can identify most basic birds (which seems to impress him). We talk about the different species and what they are doing, imagining where they might live and who their bird families are.

A few weeks ago, he asked me about why some birds stick around during the winter while others migrate to warmer climates. I had never really thought about it before, but a few days later, I ran across a magazine article that explained this phenomenon.

Again, I'm no scientist, but I managed to glean this...Some birds are migratory and move to a different location during months of the year when the weather turns cold and food is scarce. Other birds are called resident birds and stick around the same area all year long.

It got me to thinking about how different challenges we face cause us to react. Sometimes things happen that cause circumstances where we just need to walk away for a moment. You've probably experienced that. I certainly have. With wedding planning in high gear, plus life's daily stresses, my beau and I have had to take a couple of time-outs lately to cool down and work out some issues. Eventually, we come back together and talk it out...trying to see where the other is coming from and ultimately remaining committed to one another and the life we are trying to create.

And sometimes, there are challenges in life that cause us to pick up and move. Just like my Great did all those years ago when she wanted a better life for her family. I don't know what their lives might have been like had they stayed in Texas, but I know her son (my grandpa) had a most wonderful experience as a kid and then teenager growing up in Oak Ridge. He was a star football player, had the opportunity to go to college on a scholarship and most importantly of all, it's where he met the love of his life, my grandma.

But what about those times when we need to stay and stick it out. This winter, as I watch those resident birds gather around the feeder on my porch hoping to get a little bit of food, I think about how they are determined to make it another day.

I read where the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has been tracking changes in bird migration behaviors and that more and more birds are opting not to migrate at all. Experts aren't sure if this is because of climate issues or the increase of folks who supply birdseed in feeders. I like to think that the birds are getting tougher.

Seasons come and go, we are faced with difficult situations at every turn. Friends and loved ones get sick and pass away, jobs are won and lost, it's so easy to lose sight of our purpose. It's not a matter of if hard times are going to come, but when. And they will. But I want to be one of those resident birds who stick it out through thick and thin. That's the kind of friend I want to be, the kind of wife, the kind of sister and daughter...I don't want to be someone who flies the coop when the going gets tough.

I come from people who faced adversity and lived to tell the tales. My people didn't pack it up and pack it in unless it was really necessary, and then they made the best of all things. If it means doing the hard stuff day after day, hoping for something better, so be it. Eventually the reward will come. When the days are long and the weather warms, all those resident birds will sing a triumphant song...we made it! Another winter and we lived to tell of it. And we'll be there too. Singing along.

March 3, 2015

Engagement Photos by Zach and Sarah Photography - Tennessee

A few weeks ago my beau and I traveled to my hometown for our engagement photo session. With the wedding just around the corner, I felt like we waited too long to do the engagement pictures, plus we'd ended up rescheduling them about five times because of uncooperative weather. 

But the engagement shoot was part of our wedding photo package so we went with it. Other than various snapshots over the years, we don't really have any fancy photos together. Ultimately, I'm glad we ended up doing it because I liked the pictures and I feel like they captured our personalities. 

Sometimes engagement pictures I've seen are so cheesy...we're not really into all that posed stuff. But we had a great photographer (Zach and Sarah Photography) who did a fantastic job making us feel comfortable.

The day of the shoot, we drove all over my small hometown in search of cool spots for photos. It definitely gave me a new perspective on some places I've driven past my entire life. Each time our photographer Zach would see something he liked, we'd pull over and snap a few pics. It was a chilly, sort of overcast day and I wasn't sure how it would all turn out. But I'm pretty happy with them. 

Before too long, we'll have wedding pictures to share...but for now I'm enjoying looking through these. For more pictures by Zach and Sarah, check out their blog!

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.