June 16, 2014

You bring the watermelon!

I did not coin the phrase "scruffy hospitality." I'm not sure who did. But I randomly ran across this post last week. I don't know anything about the author of the blog or anything else he writes about.

I just loved that phrase: scruffy hospitality

We live in a culture of surface-level perfection. Where images from Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel and Pinterest have silently coerced many us into thinking that if our homes don't look like they came straight off the pages of a catalog, we dare not let anyone see or they'll realize we're actually human. That we don't keep our reading material (which happens to all be bound with coordinating-colored covers) neatly stacked in largest-to-smallest order next to a vase of beautifully scented flowers (picked from our perfectly manicured garden) on our newly 'upcycled' end table (freshly painted with Annie Sloan chalk paint).

I grew up in a rural farming community. It was a lifestyle that's foreign to the majority of people my age - everyone learned how to work hard, drive when they turned 12, make calls using a rotary phone and came in for tea break at 3pm. People used to just stop by our house - to deliver a message, a package or just to say hello. Maybe it was because we didn't have the convenience of cell phones and it was just easier to stop if you were out and about. We did the same thing to other people. And there was always a glass of something cold, or some tea, or a snack waiting. Everyone was welcome, and we'd stop what we were doing just to visit. We practiced scruffy hospitality. We built relationships.

When was the last time you invited someone in, spur-of-the-moment, just to chat?

Instead we decide our house is too messy, our space is too small or our food isn't good enough. And we miss the opportunity for good conversation, new friends and deep relationships.

Our house is far from perfect. If you would have stopped by tonight you would have seen this greeting you in our lovely foyer:

And this soaking wet child in our backyard or screaming while running wildly through the house:

You may have also noticed the dead bird on the driveway, the weeds in our landscaping or the two-months-worth of collective dust on our shelves. Would that stop you from sharing a cup of coffee, pizza, or s'mores over a backyard fire with us?

What if we quit making hospitality about us and our house and our food and started making it about others and how we can be a blessing to them? What if instead of reading blogs about how to cook the perfect meal or pinning tablescapes on Pinterest, we just had another family over for brats and asked them to bring the watermelon?

Our crazy, fast-paced culture needs a little more "scruffy hospitality."
More friendships and less perfection.
More conversation and less cleaning.
More relationships and less planning.

Who can you be a blessing to? Ask if they can bring the watermelon ;)

March 3, 2014

Meili's first "China Night"

It often feels like our little spot in South Dakota is just about as rural as you could possibly get. We are 60 miles from the nearest mall and 200+ miles from the nearest Ikea, pro-sports venue and Trader Joe's.  It's safe to say this isn't the most diverse community. But thankfully, we do have the state's largest university and upon closer inspection, we've discovered our tiny town is quite a bit more varied than people realize.

The university attracts people from many different cultures, and occasionally we have opportunities to recognize and celebrate some of the ethnicities that are represented here. We always enjoy the International nights, and of course now, especially China Night. Last year we attended right before we left to get Meili. 

This year, we were thrilled to be able to take her along.

When we were in China, I purchased Chinese dresses in multiple sizes so the girls would all have one to wear during Chinese New Year's events. (Unfortunately I didn't think to buy a set for each girl, because of course, they're getting stained and ripped when the older girls wear them.)

China Night is sponsored by the Chinese Student and Scholar Association, and features authentic Chinese cuisine (15+ different dishes) and a program that highlights different aspects of Chinese culture. 

We were a slightly curious about how Meili would react in this environment; first, because she typically goes crazy in large crowds and second, because about half of those in attendance are native Chinese. Meili doesn't have a lot of experience with other native Chinese children, but when she has it's been interesting. We left her with friends who have two boys from China and she marched right in, got comfortable and waved "bye-bye" to us. We aren't sure if it was a fluke, or if she felt comfortable around them because they were Chinese.

Either way, we were curious about her reaction to China Night.

The verdict?
She LOVED it.

She ate more food than I have ever seen her eat in one sitting before (we thought this was interesting since in large crowds she's usually too distracted to eat anything at all). Seriously, it was almost a full plate of food. And she had even had a large snack before we got there!

She was totally captivated by all the people, especially other Chinese children and even seemed interested in the performances. All four of our kids found a little corner and danced to the music together. A woman sitting next to us commented on our beautiful family and well behaved children. She even jokingly asked if Meili's name was "Sparkle," because she said it just seemed like it would fit her. Of course, she didn't know Meili's Chinese name meant "like crystal, or sparkles."

Although we don't exactly "fit in" with the other Chinese people in our area, we're thankful for the opportunity to expose our biological kids and Meili to little pieces of Chinese heritage without having to go far from home.

We just hope she'll enjoy it this much next year!

March 1, 2014

This time, last year: the one-year ago post

Tuesday of this past week marked the first anniversary of one of our most life-changing events: the day we met Meili. We let the day come and go without much fanfare and instead enjoyed a few interactions on Facebook with the families we met and traveled with in China. There's not really any protocol for how to celebrate such a day, though many families do have big "gotcha" day parties, and maybe we will do that when Meili is old enough to realize what it's about. But this time, we just needed to quietly reflect on what the last year has been for us. 

It has been a enormous mix of emotions that no one who hasn't adopted could begin to understand. Just like how you can't truly understand what's like to be a parent until you have your first child, only parents who have adopted really understand the fear, joy, heartache, love, pain and reality that is adoption. Last week, when talking to a friend who is in the process of adopting from China, I off-the-cuff compared the whole thing to a grab bag. You know…one of those little things you used to buy as a kid at small-town Crazy Days events. It just came out as we were talking, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was a decent analogy:
They're sealed tightly, in bags you cannot see through. You can only feel around a bit to get some idea of what might be inside. You choose one without really knowing what it is, hoping that you've made a good choice but having no way of knowing for sure. And when you finally get a glimpse, you find an unusual conglomeration of things inside; some good, some strange, maybe something you really like, something unexpected. 

And that's how the last year has been for us. There has been joy - if you know Meili you know that her smile can light up a room. But behind that smile lies 3 years of neglect, malnutrition and only God knows what else. We're left picking up the pieces from a past we know nothing about, and that hasn't always been easy. We've rejoiced when she learned how to chew, feed herself with a spoon, take off her own shoes and cut with a scissors. But at the same time we silently wonder why she can't put together a simple puzzle, has difficulty speaking and often can't follow directions.

Is it because she's a 3 year old who has only lived here a year? Is it because of her difficult past? Is it because we're missing some diagnosis?

We don't know.

And living in the not-knowing is sometimes hard.

Our friend Joel, who traveled with us, has been re-living our days in China with his blog. He describes this day so much better than I do:

I’ve come to think of adoption as life accelerated. Condensed, concentrated. And although life is good, it’s also hard. And it’s not just hard because we too often make it so through moronic choices. We’ll all undoubtedly make a lot of foolish decisions in our lives and thereby create incredible messes out of things. 
But here’s the real kicker: Even when we do manage to do mostly the right things, life will still often kick our tails, and that fact can really shake, sift, and test our faith. When dark days accompany our best and valiant efforts, doubt can first begin to gnaw at our heels, and then, as the dark days string together to form entire gloomy seasons, it can continue to encroach on our entire belief system and even threaten at times to overwhelm it. 
Shrouded by shadows, sometimes all we can do is whisper weak petitions into the space where we think God ought to be and hope that he’s there to hear. Our desperation drives us back to home base, where we feel safe, and there we wait, and, not knowing what else to do, we continue to tell ourselves to just keep on believing even when it’s terribly difficult to understand why we should. 
God does hear, and sometimes he receives our lamentations and sets them to ukulele music, turning the whole thing into a glorious blend of desperate words and happy, toe-tapping tunes. And when the sun shines, it shines so brightly that you forget your doubts and fears and regrets. Until the next time. 
That’s life. Bittersweet. Heartbreak rolled up in joy into a nifty little journey that you would always choose to do all over again if given the choice. Because as bad as the bad gets, the good is always better enough to make it all worthwhile.
Adoption is all of that, times ten, and on an accelerated schedule. (Full post here) 

And so that's where we are. "Heartbreak rolled up in joy" on our "nifty little journey"…where every day is an exercise in trust in the Father who, through a miraculous string of events, has put this child into our family, despite the fact that we had no money for an adoption and live halfway around the world.

One year later, one day at a time.

February 19, 2014

Simple Steps: Make your own vanilla

Over the course of the last year, I've had to really prioritize my real food efforts. There's been times when I just couldn't handle the demands of four kids, household tasks, school commitments, work and Meili's medical & therapy appointments well enough to continue to do things like make my own ketchup. One of the toughest things about eating the way we do is the lack of quick, easy foods. For example, to have ranch dip for our veggies, I have to make my own mayonnaise (because the only ones available at the store are made with canola oil), combine it with sour cream (which thankfully I can get at the store), measure out all the spices, mix it together and let it chill for an hour.

Almost everything we eat requires a multi-step preparation process.
It's a lot of work, though overall, it's worth it most of the time. When something's gotta give, it's usually the ketchup, or the mayo, or homemade cereal. However, there are a few things that are SO easy and cost effective, it would be crazy NOT to do them. 

Making your own vanilla is nothing novel. There are a thousand other bloggers who have written about how to do this. Still, I'm going to share how I do it because it's working so well, and because if you're eating real food, chances are you use a LOT of vanilla since the foods you eat don't have added flavoring, so having a large amount on hand is a must.

First, let's look at what this helps us AVOID: 
(Definitely avoid artificial flavoring - it's exactly that - artificial! Don't eat it. Period.)

Tones "pure" vanilla extract - the cheapest one. $2.50/oz

See anything in there that seems out of place? 
Yep! Corn syrup. Someone please tell me why on earth you need corn syrup in vanilla?!? It's likely made with genetically modified corn, so now you've got added sugar and GMOs. 

Watkins brand "pure" vanilla extract - $2.65/oz

Glucose syrup = added sugar. Again, unnecessary.

Morton & Basset Pure vanilla extract - $3.40/oz

This one touts no added sugar, non-irradiated and gluten free - awesome!
But kind of pricey.

Moving on to the health food section….

Simply Organic - $2.50/oz
Singing Dog - $3.37/oz
Frontier - $2.25/oz

All the ingredients in these are easy. Water, alcohol, vanilla bean extractives. Nothing wrong with that. It really surprised me that the Simply Organic was the same price per ounce as the Tones. If I was going to buy this at the store, Simply Organic or Frontier would probably be my first choice. The only thing I'm curious about is that the alcohol content is not listed in either of these. Thirty-five percent alcohol is standard in most extracts (like all the ones I found) and it should not be less than that. Hopefully it isn't in these two. Premium vanillas typically have a higher alcohol content because alcohol extracts the flavor better than water. 

SO…..to make high quality vanilla, you just need some alcohol!

And vanilla beans, of course :)

My ingredients were: 
Bottom shelf vodka. You don't need to be fancy here. This was $11 on sale.
Vanilla beans. Purchased 1 pound of organically grown (though not certified organic) from a very reputable seller on ebay for $25 and split it with a friend = $12.50


I intended to make two quarts, so while you can do this all in one container, I wanted to try two different methods so I used two jars, which I already had.

You want to expose the inside of the bean to the alcohol to get maximum extraction. For the first jar, I took half the beans and sliced them down the center, lengthwise. A good knife is helpful here!

I added these to one jar.

They were a little bit tall, but I just smashed them down.

For the second jar, I sliced all the beans crosswise into smaller, one-inch segments.

They definitely fit better this way.

Next step is to add the vodka. You can also use rum, but Vodka was cheaper and seems to be the alcohol of choice for this project.

And that's it!
Put the lids on tightly and shake them up well.
Now the key is TIME.
For the vanilla to be properly extracted, I waited four months. Many people wait six, but since I had smaller jars I didn't need to wait as long. Store them in a cool, dry place and shake them up once a week or so. I kept them in my laundry room and shook them up when I did a load.

After four months, a visual comparison showed that the jar with the cut up pieces was much darker, so I started using that one first. 

At this point, we've made 64 ounces of vanilla for $23.50. That's about 37 cents per ounce!

New vodka added to the first jar
It's already crazy cheap, but it gets better.
After using half of the first jar, you can add more vodka.
Then put that one back to age and start on jar 2. When jar 2 is half empty, you can add more vodka, let it age, and bring jar 1 back out again. I've done this successfully with the rest of the second bottle of vodka (another $11), bringing my total cost to $34.50 for 128 oz = 27 cents/oz! (since the beans take up some space, the total useable vanilla is slightly less than 128 ounces, but it's still an amazing deal!)

Doing this, you should be able to have a continuous source of vanilla after the initial extraction period. When it seems like the vanilla is getting weak, simply start over with new beans.

You could even use fancy vodka if you feel like that would give you super-premium vanilla and it would still be a significantly better deal than anything you can buy in the store.

Simple, easy, high-quality and no additives. That's the best way to do real food!

February 8, 2014

The first fix!

Disclaimer: This is not now, nor will it EVER be, a blog about fashion. There are a lot of people who are gifted at making themselves and others look fabulous and I am NOT one of them!

So, have ya'll heard about this interesting little thing called "Stitch Fix?"

I hadn't, until a couple weeks ago. A mom who was in China the same time we were was raving about it, and she always looks adorable, so I thought I would check it out.

Here's how it works:
1. You fill out a comprehensive style profile - what you like, what you don't like, your sizes, your preferred price point, etc. You can even link a pinterest board of your favorite styles, if you have one.

2. A personal stylist evaluates your preferences and hand-selects five pieces specifically for you.

3. It's all sent directly to your doorstep. You can try on all the pieces at home, with other clothes you already have, and you send back what you don't want.

4. There's a $20 "styling fee" for the services but it counts as credit toward any purchases you make.

I was intrigued. If nothing else, it sounded like something fun to try, and it's still way cheaper than the gas it takes to get to my nearest mall.

I have 5 goals when it comes to picking out clothes:
1. Not look TERRIBLE.
Easier said than done. You'd be surprised at the amount of effort it takes me to find something that makes it look like I have even a hint of fashion knowledge. I really am almost completely clueless.

2. Not be cold.
For 6 months out of the year, my home is a tundra. Icy cold. I hate being cold. Hate it. Hate it.

3. Look semi-decent for my husband.
I mean, the poor guy does have to claim me and all. It's nice for him if I'm not still wearing a robe and slippers when he comes home.

4. Spend as little money as possible.
Seriously, I would buy all my clothes at Goodwill or our local consignment store if I could. But….

Here's the BIG problem: I am almost 6 feet tall.

5. Find something that fits.
My legs, arms and torso are crazy long. 99.9% of items in any given store will NOT fit me.
So, I figured if I gave Stitch Fix a shot and they were able to produce items that actually fit, it might really be worth it.

Here's what they sent me:
Pardon my awkwardness in front of a camera. Even if your hubby is taking the pics, it's still weird.

The first shirt was thermal henley by Tart. You can't tell in the picture, but it has a shimmery gold look all over. It was actually quite gorgeous, for a henley.

They also send you with this handy little card, to show a couple ways you can wear your items:

I actually had enough in my closet to almost replicate the one on the left:

Nevertheless, even though the sleeves were long enough, the rest of it was not. It barely touched the top of my jeans. Goal # 5 FAIL. It went back.

Next was a really great pair of jeans:

I actually loved these - Sold Design Lab Sara jeans. They were made out of a super-stretchy, jegging-like denim material, but you couldn't tell at all, and they were a very dark denim, which I love. They also had a 34" inseam, which is the minimum I can wear. Sadly, they were $118. Goal #4 FAIL. I'm pretty sure I didn't choose that price point for jeans, but maybe the options were limited in long inseams. Either way, unless they are the world's most amazing jeans, that's too much.

The next item was my favorite:

The Under Skies chevron tunic. Perfect solution for us tall girls. Seriously, I don't know why I don't own any tunics! It was long enough, came with a belt to make it look more fitted, and was a gorgeous fun print and color. I don't know if I would have picked it out for myself, but I'm glad Stitch Fix did - this one was a keeper. Plus, I'd had this fun ring for along time but don't have much to wear it with:

I also liked how the sides came up a little. Kind of made it feel like the length of my legs flowed upward rather than being "chopped off" by a straight hemline.

Jon approved and although it wasn't super-cheap, I think it will be a versatile piece I can wear a lot. WIN.

The RD Style drape front cardigan:

Ugh. I do NOT like this drape-front cardigan craze. I like the color and fabric, and the sleeves were long enough. I even like the style! But these just.do.not. look good on me. They make me look totally shapeless. Goal #1 FAIL.

Nope. Not a fan.
It went back.

Last was a cute pair of earrings:

I didn't even try these on because I knew they'd be going back. They were $28, and when it comes to jewelry, I'm a cheap-as-it-gets kind of girl. Like more than $5 on anything (except maybe a huge statement necklace) is too much. I will request no more jewelry if I do another Stitch Fix.

All-in-all, it was a really fun thing to try, and absolutely love the chevron tunic. I've heard from others that they get better and better at determining your style as you give them feedback about each Fix.

Would I do it again? Yes, I definitely would, but it might be more of a "special occasion" kind of treat for me. Maybe once a season? They also have a great referral program, so if any of your friends try, you get a little credit for your next fix :)

Are you ready to try? Get your stitch fix HERE!

Have fun!

February 5, 2014

How to get your kids to READ!

We had our three biological children all in the short span of three and a half years. Our oldest two are just over 16 months apart and our second child was a bit….difficult. Or, a lot difficult. I often wondered how someone so small could conspire to so perfectly interrupt my sleep the very minute after I drifted off. I honestly don't even remember much about her childhood because I was a total zombie for the first 18 months of it. Then magically, at 18 months, she started sleeping. All night. Every night.

And right about then, I found out I was pregnant. 

Needless to say, there were lots of things I didn't get accomplished during those years. One of them, one of my biggest regrets as a parent, is that I didn't read them more books. Don't get me wrong, we did read books, but it was all too often interrupted by a diaper that needed to be changed, a toddler who was hungry, or me falling asleep because I hadn't slept more than 2 hours in a row for months. I remember my mom reading piles and piles of books to us as kids, but that just didn't seem to happen much for my children.

I honestly thought I was doomed to have kids who hate to read.

When our oldest, in second grade, showed pretty much zero interest in reading, we decided we needed to take some action. And now, he's a crazy, reading machine!

Here's what worked for us:

1. Find the right books
I listed this one first because I think it's the most important. Just like adults, kids don't want to read about something they aren't interested in. We started out with shorter books - mostly about animals they liked. Luckily, our library has a pretty good collection of animal books and you usually find a book about specific ones. When they get a little older and move on to chapter books they read on their own, we search online for a series about topics they're interested in, or ask our local children's librarian, who has given me some great suggestions.

Once we find a book or a series we like, we often visit this site:

You can enter which books you like and it will make suggestions for other good reads!

2. Make reading time special
We tried to make reading time a "treat" by allowing our kids to read instead of going to bed. It's a great way for them to wind down for the evening and gives us more quiet time as well. We set them up with good reading lights by their beds and they will happily go to bed by 8:00 if it means they can stay up reading until 9:00. (You don't have to tell them that you adjust their bedtime to account for the hour of reading ;) )

3. Create the right environment
Homes that constantly have a TV on will constantly have kids watching it. We have fought the battle and waged a major war against the screens! I will be the first to stay that it doesn't work all the time, but significant progress has been made. We could not stay on top of who had how many minutes of screen time on which device and whose got taken away as punishment and so and so was playing the iPad but so and so was just watching, and can I play this? can I play that? We were DONE. We now have no screens on in our house Monday - Thursday. None. No TV, no computer, iPad, iPod, DS, whatever. When they know it's not an option, they gravitate toward other things - like their books.

We also don't allow them to watch endless movies in car trips. They alternate between movies and listening to a book on CD. It's not exactly like reading, but it does get their imaginations going.

4. Set a good example
You knew this was coming, didn't you? Mom's and Dad's who have their faces buried in their smartphones all day can't expect their kids not to want to do the same. If I'm honest with myself, I have to admit this is probably the hardest one to do. But just do it. Just put the iPhone down!

This is a little bit harder if you read on your tablet. But kids are pretty smart - let them see what you're doing - they'll quickly figure out the difference between reading a good book and thumbing around on Facebook. Or, just go old-school like me and use the ones made from real paper.

Our current reads: mine are the paperbacks, Jon's is the digital (written by a high school classmate of his!)

5. Make it fun
There are a lot of ways this could be accomplished, but for us, the AR (accelerated reader) system they use at school has been perfectly adequate. Our kids LOVE trying to rack up AR points and hit their next goal, get their next prize, or help earn the next classroom party. Reward charts at home would make an easy substitute if your child isn't inspired by the AR program, just cater the rewards to your individual child.

Honestly, writing a parenting post is a little out of my element. I have teacher friends and super-mom friends who are WAY more qualified to suggest tips than I am. But, this is one thing that has actually worked for us, so take that for what's it's worth and get those kiddos reading!