The words that change us

Friday, May 31, 2013

There are moments in my life that I can distinctly call out as a time when my life was altered in some way; took course on a branch route that it could never return from.  Visiting Honduras when I was sixteen, when Brandon caught my floating kiss in high school and my heart never looked back, choosing to go to Susquehanna for college, studying abroad in Costa Rica, joining Teach for America, becoming a mother. These are the forks in my life road that led me to today.

And all along the way there have been smaller moments that have slipped into my heart and brain and have never left.  They were not life-altering per say, but they have forever had an impact on the way I think and how I make choices.  They have stopped me in my tracks in that moment and have come sneaking back into my mind on an almost daily occurrence to whisper - this is what you believe; this helps define who you are; or who you hope to become.

These are a few of the words that have changed me -

When I was in my teens, we were visiting my Uncle's cottage and my baby sister and I were disagreeing over which movie we were going to watch.  My Uncle said to me, "Let her choose, Tabitha.  You were chosen to be the oldest sister so as to make life easier for the younger ones."  I have never forgotten that and the truth that I believe lies behind it.  I got to go through life first so that my sisters could watch and learn from my mistakes and so that I could ease their time through theirs.  It is a great responsibility to be the oldest sibling, but one that I cherish.

While I was in college, I randomly picked up a magazine and started reading an article about a woman who had battled cancer and won.  I wish I could remember her name, but I only remember what she wrote.  While retching in the middle of the night after chemo and she was feeling so sorry for herself but then suddenly thought, 'this sucks - but there is still someone worse off than me.  Someone who has a worse prognosis, someone who doesn't have a chance. There is always something to be grateful for.'  I have never been in an situation as grave as this woman's but to this day when I am feeling sorry for myself because of some inconsequential hardship, I think of her words.  There is always something to be grateful for no matter how difficult it may be in this moment. Always.

I read What is the What  by Dave Eggers about the Lost Boys of Sudan.  The book was an amazing read and a serious reminder of how much the human spirit can endure, especially the resilience of children.  There is a part in the book when the lost boys come to the US and get their own apartment and are astonished that turning on a faucet brings them clean water.  That it could be that easy to have access to fresh, clean water.  I think of this every single day.  That I can turn on faucets in my house to get clean water and all over the world there are people who cannot.  For all the things that we use clean drinking water for (showering, kid exploration, the slip&slide, cleaning, watering the garden...) I remind myself of the kids and families all over who don't even have it to drink.

When we traveled to Thailand, we took a cooking class with a woman named Poo from the Klong Toey Slum in Bangkok.  During the class, she was telling us how she had more success now in her cooking class because she started cleaning up the chicken; removing the skin and hair as was suggested by her friend and business mentor, Anji Barker - an Australian expat.  When I told her, 'ew, you were leaving the hair on it?' she said, 'The difference is that you eat for taste; in Thailand, we eat for full.'  At every meal, I now remind myself how lucky we are to be able to eat for taste instead of full.

And when everyday when I look in the mirror, I think of Dr. Maya Angelou's experience when she told the story that the women in Africa wept for her because she didn't have stretch marks and they thought she was childless.  They told her that in their society, stretch marks were a badge of honor.  That carrying the marks of motherhood is important because even if the baby passed away or you get kidnapped and taken to another village and can't speak - the marks will still tell your story and she would get the proper rites at burial.

Similarly, I think of Tyler Knott Gregson's poem when I see laugh lines on anyone's face and now the wrinkles and lines that are showing on my own face -

I will measure 
my success in this 
and my worth 
as a man
a friend
a lover
and most simply 
as a
human being
by counting 
the laugh lines
on your
when old age
-Tyler Knott Gregson
Typewriter series #424

When I feel frustration over not being able to do things that make me feel calm and fulfilled (like writing, meditating, or yoga) without the distractions that come from little hands and voices I think of this quotation from Buddhism for Mothers: 'The carry-over of the practice is more important than the formal practice itself.  The time you use the petrol is not at the petrol pump.'  

I am continually growing and changing, even now as an adult - maybe even more so now that I am confident with who I am and who I hope to be.  My ears are always ready to hear or read the next words that will help define my character.  That will help me make sense of this life in the terms that I hope to live it.

What are some the words that have changed you?

An 'Outdoors Kid' - the pros & cons

Thursday, May 30, 2013

We live in western Pennsylvania.  We actually live, now, in the town that Brandon and I were born and raised - just outside of our alma mater school district which seems almost like a crime to anyone that knows us. Although we align ourselves to all things Pittsburgh (sports especially), we are located in the 'middle' of what James Carville (Democratic political strategist) was referring to when he said, "Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west, and Alabama in the middle."

We are 'country.'  And our kids are living proof of all that country blood in their veins, as it is no more evident then when I lay in bed and reflect on the day.  I have come to find in three short years - my children's overall temperaments are almost directly proportionate to the amount of time that they got to spend outside on any given day.

As in all things, there are pros & cons to having an 'outdoors' kid.  The cons range from things like having to find ways to burn energy in the winter when they can't get outside.  And cleaning up enormous indoor messes from attempting to keep them occupied on rainy days.

And the constant tattoo'ing of bumps and bruises.  From skinned knees, to thorn pricks, to bug bites - we do a daily bruise check while getting ready for bed, just to make sure we get an accurate tally of all of the booboos.  This past week, I had to attempt to explain to the Pediatrician why our 15 month old daughter has a scraped up knee (from falling on the cement patio) and a gash and bruises on her forehead (from trying to climb out of the wagon in the stone driveway).

But the Pros are almost infinite - and we are very lucky to have the space in our own yard to be able to let the kids run wild and free everyday, when the weather permits (and even sometimes when we just bundle up or rain-gear up and go out anyway).

My personal top favorite pros to raising 'Outdoors Kids'

Water play:  One of our parenting lessons learned fairly early on was 'If the kid is unhappy - put him in water.'  I think this is well-known parenting advice, and although our kids spend a decent amount of time in the bath and occasionally 'washing' the dishes - there is no better (and easier to clean up) place to explore with water than outside.  Water play keeps them occupied and just happy longer than almost any other activity .

Energy Burning:  We try to get outside as early as 9:30a each morning if we can.  The sooner the kids can start moving their bodies and exploring - the better.  Part of the reason that they have 'better' days (emotionally) is because they are burning up energy that otherwise seems to turn into tantrums when they can't tire themselves out sufficiently.  Burned energy = happy children in our house.

Imaginative Play:  It seems that being outside is the place that encourages my kids the most to be imaginative.  Although we have fantastical play inside - when we are outside there is more space and more props to push their imaginations further than normal.  We have a 'secret hideout' where the kids explore and build and fight off dragons.  Grey plays 'ninja fighting' or 'robot boxing' on the trampoline by himself, Gemmi digs in the mulch and carries it to various places on the patio, giggling and sighing the whole time.

When the kids are outside, I get more opportunities to just watch their little minds than I do when we are in the house or visiting somewhere new.  They don't need me to constantly 'watch this!' or 'help me do this!'  They just play - and its amazing.

The organic learning:  This is my favorite part about having 'outdoors kids.'  There is so much learning happening everyday, with no pushing on my part from ideas I saw on Pinterest or worries about them getting new things in their minds.  All the questions and conversations happen organically because of things they see, hear, smell, find, step on barefoot, and occasionally put into their own mouths.

  • They've learned that you duck your head to go under, and you can jump over or off, you walk sideways to go down a steep hill, and go around things that look tricky or dangerous.
  • They know that a fire is hot so you don't get too close, but it is good for staying warm and cooking food.
  • We know to watch out for 'jagger' bushes and grass because if you step on it barefoot, it will pinch you.  
  • Grey said to us last night in the car, "You know a Mourning Dove sings a sad song like this, 'Whoooo, who, who, who'." 
  • Gemmi learned (the hard way) that red ants bite but black ants will happily crawl all the way up your arms while you giggle.  
  • We hold worms and caterpillars and frogs in our hands and give them names - then we put them back safely where we found them so they can be with their family.  
  • The kids know that we don't kill spiders because they eat bugs, so we put them outside when we find them in the house - and its okay to watch a bumblebee but not to touch or play with it because they'll 'bite' you.  
  • They learn about the way of the world; that plants drink the rain to grow tall and strong, that there are seasons with grass when it is hot and seasons when it is cold with snow and seasons in between when its a little hot and a little cold and everything is changing; and that everything works together to make our world - Grey recently announced, "Mum, it's raining - the worms are going to come out to eat.  And then the birds are going to come out to eat the worms."
  • We know that gray clouds means rain is on its way. 
  • They've learned about tools - that a tractor is for mowing, and a rake is for raking, and a shovel is for digging - but sometimes a shovel is for picking up a dead mole that Trixie played with too rough.  And then we use the shovel for moving it to the woods where we say a little prayer for it - something like, "Dear God, we found this dead mole.  Keep him safe and happy in heaven.  Amen."
  • Grey says that 'it smells like tractors outside' if we smell fresh cut grass and he'll announce other smells to Gemma- like "Smell that Gem?  It's a skunk!"  or "That smell is horse poop, Gemmi!"
  • And every night we look for the 'that crazy moon' and try to guess if its waxing or waning - and then we double check it on our lunar calendar or our moon viewfinder to see if we were right.  

It may mean that my kids clothes are generally ruined faster than most, that they have more bumps and bruises than other kids their age, and quite frankly they are usually pretty dirty - but we are so glad that we are parents to some 'outdoors kids.'

Creating a Family Yearbook: Tips from two Moms

Thursday, May 16, 2013

I am very excited to introduce you to one of my oldest friends, Jessica, today as we are going to discuss our methods for creating family yearbooks for our families.  When I got to thinking about doing a post on the yearbook I created - I couldn't stop thinking about how disingenuous it would be to do the post without consulting with Jessica, since she was the one that encouraged and inspired me to put the effort into finishing.

For a little backstory, Jessica and I became friends in high school and spent our afternoons together writing in composition books about boys we had crushes on and sneaking to the mall to secretly buy compacts and lip gloss.  Thinking of those innocent, girly moments makes me so hopeful that someday in those awkward initial teenage years - maybe Gemma will find her own Jessica to share and giggle their way through that stage of life.

I started thinking about making a yearbook for our family after seeing this pin and also after looking at Jessica's yearly photobooks she creates for her daughters.  She is a Shutterfly girl (like me) and her books are so beautiful capturing all of the milestones and important moments in her girls' year between each birthday.  And shortly there after I realized that I have so many photos saved digitally but not really printed anywhere and that was the fire that got me started thinking about creating our own family yearbook.

I am excited to discuss this topic alongside Jessica since we have two different approaches to creating our yearbooks.  When I was feeling uninspired after my initial start - it was Jessica who talked me through some of her design layouts and templates that got my mind spinning again to continue working on it.  It's a daunting task; to look at your year's worth of photos and get them organized - but I think all you need is a little encouragement and proof that it can be done to keep going.

From the interviews below; I think it will be helpful to get familiar with each of our styles and figure out which feels more like your own -

Jessica's approach is simplistic with a focus on the pictures.  She likes symmetrical templates with clean, straight lines and even spacing.  Jessica keeps her book streamlined and flowing by ordering her pictures chronologically (highlighted with the date) and using minimal to no captions.  Her main focus is on the photos and the people in her family.

Tabitha's approach is similar to the layout of a high school yearbook.  She likes customizing templates by changing photo size and adding stickers.  She organizes the pictures chronologically but groups together common events when applicable (house projects, bathtime photos, etc).  Tabitha uses lots of captions and text throughout.  Her main focus is on the events and the things that her family does during the year.

Why do you make a family yearbook:
J:  I like to have photo sessions with the girls - I'd get them all dressed up and take like 150 pictures and pick 1 or 2 to display in the house.  I'd always have a bunch of goofy ones, that I wouldn't want to enlarge but wanted to have printed, but printing a bunch of pictures is useless to me - they just end up in a box in the closet.  So, my original intent for 2012 was to have the photo session in the book and sort of do a coffee table/'proof book' kinda deal.  As I started to make it, I realized I didn't want to skip the holidays or random candids (bathtime, playtime, dinner...) that occasionally would result in a really good picture.

T:  We do a lot of things during the year - that's how we mark time passing in our family; by the things we do and the places we go.  Outside of social media (and the blog) the pictures that we take throughout the year go almost nowhere.  Our kids don't really spend time looking at pictures, nor do we spend time as a family looking at pictures together of things we've done.  This makes me very sad - so I wanted a way that we can sit together to look back at all the things we do together as a family.

What is something you like to remember when you're making your books:
J:  I try to remember the purpose of it...I'm not entering a contest, so it does not have to be perfect.  It will be perfect for me, due to the content.  It's for me to remember when we were just a young family and how my girls' grow up and how we grow old.

T:  I try to remind myself that I don't need to include every tiny thing that has happened to our family throughout the year.  I remind myself not to stress about how to include all 64 pictures that I took during our 'mud pie' session this summer.

What size & type of yearbook do you have:
J:  8.5x11 Landscape Hardcover with a Padded option (additional $4.95, but it makes it look a little more professional)

T:  I went with the 12x12 Hardcover.  It's huge and at first I was little taken aback - but its since grown on me and I've come to really love the dominance of it.  It's size definitely sets it apart from any other book we have and makes it feel sort of magical.

How do you start the book (title page, beginning pages, etc):
J:  I start my book by totally skipping the first page in hopes that by the end inspiration will strike.  I started my 2012 book out by spending a few hours trying to describe what my intent was for the book...failure.  I read it a few weeks later and thought...who cares?  I know what my intent was...just put more pictures.  So I came back to the first page when I finished the rest of the book and put 12 pictures around the perimeter of the title page of pictures of the girls throughout the year (I think all of them were instagram pictures!) and I put them in black & white to look 'classy' - hahha!

T:  I start my book with sort of an introduction to what our family was like for the year.  So the title page has a picture of all four of us, followed by a page of Brandon and I that we answer a few questions together (like, What was our hardest challenge that year? and our favorite husband&wife moment..etc).  Then I even gave the pets a page with their own glamour shots (hah!) and the kids each get their own page with a bunch of my favorite pictures of each of them.  It includes a little blurb about their knicknames, likes/dislikes over the year & milestones.  (I totally borrowed that idea from Jessica's daughters' individual books - thanks Jess!)

How do you make transitions through the book?
J:  I start with choosing the pictures I want, and since I am doing it by date, it sort of has its own flow.  I try to make the 2 page spreads coordinate - sometimes they do, sometimes they don't.  I guess I am describing what I did with the date/chronological order set-up.  That really simplified things for me, and it put the focus on exactly what I wanted it on:  my pictures.

T:  It took me a while before I figured out how I was going to transition from month to month and then I started noticing that I had a few pictures each month of things we did or places we went that didn't necessarily warrant an entire page in the book, but they were certainly things I didn't want to leave out.  That lead me to making a month page at each transition to include a couple pictures from things we did that month and a little note about the day or trip.

What is something you wish you would have known when you started the book:
J:  The only thing I really wish I had known was that the internet is not always reliable and I should save more often than I'd probably like to (since that also takes a little time for the saving process to do its thing).  I did lose a page or two (or ten) and had to recreate them by not saving every 10 minutes.

T:  I think I would have made sure I was uploading pictures to the site regularly before I started making my book.  Especially now that I'm working on older years - so many of my pictures from years gone by are on various hard drives or were only partially uploaded to the site...I've seen it takes a lot of your focus and creativity away when you have to stop every few minutes to go try to locate a picture you want to use.  I'm working on uploading pictures more regularly now for my future self.

What do you like to experiment with when working on the book:
J:  My yearbooks are pretty simple, some pages only have 1 picture on them.  I also don't like to use a lot of words because I end up looking back at what I wrote and thinking - 'you are suck a dork.' hah!  To avoid that self-criticism, I only put the date on the page.  At the end of the book, I do a page or two of photos that I like but didn't make the actual book and I make every effort to completely randomize them.  Outside of that, I do really like the new photo effects that Shutterfly offers (vintage, fade, sunshine, etc).

T:  At first I was really hesitant to do any customization or use any of the embellishments that Shutterfly offers.  And then I just dove in head first and fell in love.  I love jazzing up the background to include stickers to highlight whatever the event or activity is on the page.  I'm surprised that I like stickers so much (who knew?!) but I really had to just jump right in and I'm glad I did - I think it brings a fun and silly element to the book.

monster hand stickers (left) and summer-y stickers (right)
still T:  I also realized mid-way through book creation that there are things that I write on the blog that don't go anywhere else (like posts from an important day, or about my kids, or Brandon, or about us) and I really wanted them to have their own place in print somewhere.  The yearbook seemed like the perfect place, so I included some of my favorite posts from the year on dedicated pages throughout.  Sometimes I had them on top of a picture (faded out a bit) and other times they were just stand alone with a plain background.

How often do you work on your book:
J:  I try to work on my book every couple of months so I don't get too far behind and overwhelmed, then I am not thinking about the page I am working on, but more about how much I still have to do!  Plus, I only get small chunks of time to work on it anyway.  When I start, I just try to pick the pictures and the order that they will be in the book.  I found that if I spend too much time on the background or stickers, etc - it's typically wasted since I end up changing everything over the course of the year.

T:  ugh - I'm the worst.  I waited to start my book in late December last year and didn't get the whole thing finished until mid-April of this year - hah!  I think I'll probably do the same thing though now, sort of just seems to work since then I am in the same creative mindset for the whole book.  I am going to try to stay consistent with uploading pictures throughout the year though so that at the end of this year - I only have the book to work on instead of both uploading and book creating.

What does a yearbook give you that you don't get otherwise:
J:  I now have something visual that I can keep over the years..the final printed product is nice compact, clean looking book that documents our year and I can keep it in our living room for visitors to enjoy.  No messy boxes of mixed up photos or photo albums filling up my closet...and I can share the select pictures without all the blurry or bad ones that for whatever reason I can't bring myself to delete!

T:  Happiness.  hah!  But it honestly makes our whole family happy to look at it - and we laugh at the funny pictures and memories.  I loved our 2012 one so much that now I'm working on one for previous years (2011 & 2010 at least) because there are so many pictures that Grey doesn't have access to when he was a little baby.  Its such a nice visual reminder of how happy we make each other as a family.

We hope this post helps other Moms see that a family yearbook is a completely attainable and worthwhile goal for your family.  Jessica and I both use Shutterfly - but we are not getting endorsed in any way for this post - we just use what has worked best for us in the past and have had great experiences with them.  There are lot of different options for book-making (like Blurb) or some folks use photoshop, and there are certainly people who do better with the traditional scrapbook with real materials.  Whatever works best for you - and maybe it will take trying a few different options out yourself.

As a sidenote - if you need a reminder that YOU (the mumma) should be included in your yearbook now matter how you might not look your best or if you're still carrying around some extra baby weight (ahem, tabitha), or you're making a really weird face in all the pictures from the fourth of July...READ ONE OF MY FAVORITE POSTS by Allison Tate and then get yourself in there!!

Lastly, your yearbook doesn't have to look any particular way or be some extravagant thing - it only has to be manageable and realistic for what you can do (in both time and creatively).  There are so many possibilities and options - but the only thing that really matters is that its about you and your family.

You can do it!!

Good luck Mummas; the treasured memory keepers :)

Kitchen facelift project

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Brandon and I love starting projects.  We love the planning, the envisioning, and the initial super-excited-we-can-do-this-whole-thing-in-a-day feeling.  So all it took was a shared 5 hour energy at the Home Depot one afternoon to decide that we were going to give our kitchen a much needed facelift.

Our kitchen really isn't in bad shape outside of the obvious cosmetic needs.  The kitchen has remained largely untouched since we moved here in July 2011.  It was the last room in the whole house still containing painted stencils (!) and it seemed like it was sort of a either 'go big or don't do it at all' situation.

the MLS picture for our house!

the MLS picture for our house!

the MLS picture for our house!

 But after our energy jolt - we decided we could give it a little update without gutting the whole thing and starting from scratch.

after we first moved, nothing changed?

high table, cafe curtains, blinds, etc

The main issues we had with our own kitchen was that it felt very unorganized and cluttered - we always had unopened  mail and paper cluttered on the table, my little kitchen desk was a dumping zone of post-its and clutter.  Not mention the kitchen felt outdated with the hardware, stencils, and light fixtures.  And truthfully, with no back-splash  it felt a little unfinished.  All in all, it just wasn't a reflection of us (at all) but up until this point, it hadn't bothered us enough to do anything about it.  (We generally like tackling big projects that we rip walls out, and install wainscoting .

So, we surveyed the room briefly and noticed a few things that needed to change to assist in our kitchen beautification project:

  • remove the cafe curtains from the windows
  • remove the blinds
  • curtains?
  • knock out the desk in the corner
  • remove the glass door cabinet (above the desk)
  • change out the high table in the nook
  • remove bread/toaster 'garage'
  • change the cabinet hardware
  • clean the cabinets
  • consider a back-splash
  • paint
  • change the light fixtures
  • new counters?
My mom was visiting that day and was a big help - she got started removing the curtains and blinds while Brandon and I tore out the desk and removed the glass cabinet without harming it. 

holy empty space, batman
As soon as the blinds were removed from the windows, we were all in shock.  It was almost criminal that we had not had those windows open wide to see our view and soak in all that natural light!

And while we were moving up my in-laws old kitchen table (that was being hoarded in our basement) to replace the high table we have been using for the last two years - I started looking up pinspiration and found this pin that was captioned " Airstone backsplash. Easy to DIY! $50 for 8 sq ft at lowes!" got us intrigued:

After a trip to Lowes, we were ready to start puzzling together our new airstone backsplash.  The pin was correct in both the price and the 'easy to DIY' part.  We were able to finish a whole section in just one evening.  And the following day, I worked on getting the hardware changed out between calls and emails.

stencils still intact!
The next morning, my Mom got to painting over the stencils in a color we picked out two years ago (Hearts of Palm by Sherwin Williams)

Over the course of a few evenings (and some nights well past our bedtime), Brandon and I continued to work away with the airstone laughing while we made up our own terms on how to put them together ('I need a little nugget one' and 'This one just needs a little shave off, please').

I got to hanging some long curtains (Lowes) around the nook (I use this method which makes it so easy) and Brandon and his Dad changed all the outlets from beige to stainless steel.  We decided that we'd airstone the entire empty space from where we removed the desk and glass cabinet - which we think was a high impact decision.

We've finally finished up the project and have been enjoying it so much.  This is not a home design blog  - so I figured the best way to display our new facelifted kitchen was to show some pictures of us living in it (dirty dishes, smudges, and all)!

After all those changes, we realized our countertops don't look half bad, and we're going to hold out on changing that for awhile.  We've also been eating most of our meals in the kitchen now with our bigger table and has actually also cut down on our clean-up time.

We are so happy with our kitchen facelift project (and also happy that it's done!) I think best of all, we love that it feels like us - and feels finished.  Can't really beat the view in the morning either, when I sneak down all by myself with a cup of coffee and my laptop and see the fog hovering over the valley.  It's really sort of my favorite part of the day.

And now for the big comparison: