Monday, January 28

We cry because it's real

I know I'm not the only one who was sobbing during Downton Abbey this week.  And I know I'm not the only one who has tried to comfort herself by saying "It's just fiction.  It's just a story.  It's not true."  And I'm not the only one who has found very little comfort in that fact.

As I think about it today, I realize that good fiction has the power to touch us deeply when the stories are real.  They don't have to be true.  The characters don't have to be living human beings.  The settings don't have to be actual places on the map.  It's the stories that touch us, because they echo our stories.  They delve into themes that we find in our own lives.  They pierce our hearts in places where our hearts already bear scars.

Lee and Blake on our front porch, April 2007 (4th grade)

Last night's episode of Downton Abbey was almost too poignant for me to bear, for one year ago today I watched a similar story play out in real life.  One year ago today the son of one of my dearest friends and one of my youngest son's dearest friends, our next-door neighbor, was killed in a tragic accident.  Like Sybil, Blake was the youngest of three children.  Like Sybil, Blake was full of goodness and greatness.  Like Sybil, Blake brought out the best in other people.  Like Sybil, Blake was young and innocent and so dearly loved.

The story of Sybil's death bowled me over as it echoed Blake's story.

I'll tell you: the only thing that makes all this bearable is the knowledge that Blake's story is not over.  It's just begun.  Blake is not living here on earth with us any longer, but Blake lives.  Blake will live forever.  We will be with him again.

And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, 
and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (John 17:3).

If you'd like to know Blake's story, you can watch this video.  You'll be glad you did.

Did Sybil's story echo a story in your life? Please share it!  We are stronger for sharing our stories with one another.

Friday, January 25

How to prepare for a winter storm

We're under a winter weather advisory here in North Carolina, with forecasts for a "wintry mix" of precipitation.  It's been very cold here the last few days, so if the predicted precipitation arrives, things could get messy.

Having lived through many, many snow storms and ice storms, I thought I'd share some tips for weathering a storm as comfortably as possible.

If you're expecting a snow storm, your main concern is simply to make sure you're stocked up on things so that you can be comfortable staying at home. Stop by the library and the Redbox for books and movies.  Along with milk and bread, make sure you have plenty of food in the pantry and refrigerator. You'll also want to be sure that you have a good supply of other necessities in case you're snowed in, such as:
  • toilet paper and Kleenex
  • personal health and hygiene products
  • household supplies
  • OTC and prescription drugs
  • first aid supplies
  • pet food and supplies
  • salt for the front steps
Trust me, a snowstorm is not the time to discover that you're out of deodorant or saline solution or dog food. And be sure to have marshmallows for making hot chocolate and the ingredients for chocolate chip cookies--you may be stuck at home a while, and you want to be comfortable.

You folks from the North are now snorting and guffawing, finding it difficult to imagine anyone being concerned about an impending snow storm. But you see, here in the South, our cities and towns are not equipped to deal with snow. We just don't have the heavy equipment that y'all have up North. Y'all are used to having the streets plowed and salted right after the snow. Our towns are lucky if they own one plow. So if there's a big snow, some of us will be stuck at home until the weather heats up enough for the snow to melt.

Still, the prospect of a snow storm brings mostly warm, fuzzy thoughts of making snow angels and snowmen and snow ice cream. . . rosy cheeks and red noses and purple-tipped fingers and giggling and sleeping well at night after playing hard during the day.

An ice storm is a different matter. If ice is what you're expecting, then you should also be expecting a power outage. A few years ago we had a big ice storm and were without electric power for six days and six very cold nights. If a power outage is a reasonable expectation, here are some things you can do to prepare.

Consider your food situation

  • If you have a gas cooktop, you're golden. Be sure to have matches and/or an Aim'n'Flame so that you can light the burners manually. 
  • Make sure you have food that can be prepared on the stovetop, not in the oven, such as cans of soup, eggs, cheese and bread or tortillas, and meats that can be pan-fried or stir-fried.
  • Keep a manual can opener on hand. 
  • If your stove is electric, consider other options for cooking. If you have a camp stove, pull it out. If you have a grill, be sure to have charcoal or propane on hand. 
  • Be sure to have filling food that doesn't require any cooking. Cold people are often hungry people, so stock up on things like nuts, peanut butter, tuna, dried beef, etc.

Consider your heating situation

  • If you have a wood-burning stove or fireplace, be sure you have plenty of wood. Bring wood into a sheltered area now--before it gets wet. 
  • If you have a gas-burning fireplace, make sure you know how to light it manually. 
  • If you have a kerosene heater, be sure that you have plenty of kerosene on hand. 
  • Be sure that you have plenty of blankets readily accessible. You don't want to be hunting around in your attic when it's 10 degrees outside and the power is off. 
  • Run your heater now while you have power.  Get your house nice and toasty while you can.  If there are drafty spots in your house, block them off as much as possible.  
  • Plan what parts of your house you can block off if you do lose power.  For instance, you may want to have everyone sleep in the one or two warmest rooms in the house.  If you have an air mattress, you may want to go ahead and inflate it in case you need to use it.

Consider your lighting situation

  • Be sure to have candles, oil-burning lamps, and flashlights on hand and easily accessible. 
  • Make sure you have plenty of matches for lighting candles and lamps.
  • Stock up on extra batteries.
  • If you have a camping lantern, bring it inside now.

Consider your water situation. 

If your water supply depends on electricity, be sure you have plenty of water on hand.

  • Fill jugs and bottles with potable water. 
  • Fill your bathtub with water. Toilets will operate as long as there's water with which to fill the tanks. If need be, you can always keep your toilet running smoothly by refilling the tank with water from the bathtub.

Consider all other electrical needs

If you're dependent on electricity for something, do it now while you've got power.

  • Do the laundry. Run the dishwasher. Put some brownies in the oven, a roast in the Crock Pot, and bread makings in the bread machine. 
  • Fully charge cell phones, laptop computers, electronic games, camera batteries, etc. 
  • Wash and blow-dry your hair. 
  • Grind your coffee beans. 
  • Without power, you won't have internet access, so be prepared.  Print out anything that you might need that you usually look up online, such as phone numbers (including the number of your power company, so that you can call to report your power failure) and recipes. You might also want to print out some things to keep children occupied: word searches, crossword puzzles, Sodoku puzzles, mazes, pictures to color, etc.  
  • If you have a non-electric version of something, make sure it's readily accessible (corded phone for your land line, French press for your coffee, etc.).  

Consider your attitude.

If you're prepared, being stuck at home can actually be kind of fun, but a bad attitude can kill the joy. We're accustomed to our conveniences and electronic distractions, so a good attitude about going without them is important. This would be a great time to read aloud the Little House books or biographies of people like Abraham Lincoln or the soldiers at Valley Forge.  It's an opportunity to pull out those board games that have been collecting dust. Just be sure you have a print dictionary to use for that killer game of Scrabble!

One last thing: just imagine what a winter storm means for those who are less fortunate than you. Now would be a great time to make a donation to a homeless shelter in your area. Even the smallest donation can make a big difference to a ministry where tight budgets are stretched even tighter by great need.  

What's your best tip for preparing for a power outage?  Please share!

**I'm joining Amanda at Serenity Now for her Weekend Bloggy Reading party.**

Monday, January 21

A time of being unplugged

Life can be complicated, can't it?

Work to do.  Children to parent.  Homes to run.  Projects to finish.  It's easy to feel as if every hour of every day is filled to overflowing, with absolutely no time for some really important things.

Like tending to relationships.  Building partnerships.  Celebrating love.

But this past weekend, I put aside everything else and flew off spend the weekend with my sweetheart. You see, Jack's been working in Canada quite a bit lately.  Last week he was working in Toronto; this week he's working in Vancouver.  So instead of his flying to North Carolina for a few hours at home, I flew to Toronto to be with him.

Canada?  In January?  Don't I know that January calls for visits to places like the Caribbean?  Well, yes, I know that.  But Jack wasn't in the Caribbean.  He was in Canada.  And the locale is not nearly so important as the company.

So we walked and talked and laughed and shopped and visited museums and ate wonderful food.  We did touristy things like going to the top of the CN Tower, where Jack snapped this photo of me:

Look at those rosy cheeks!  That's what happens when you walk around Toronto in January!

We even tried taking an iPhone photo of ourselves:

Clearly, we need to get our children to teach us how to do this.

There's one thing I didn't do this weekend, though.  I didn't do anything related to my blog.  To be honest, I didn't really plan that.  In fact, I took my computer with me, but I left in my carry-on bag the entire time I was in Toronto.  It's not that I needed a break from blogging.  It's just that I needed concentrated time with my husband--the kind of time we simply can't have if I'm glued to my computer.

Don't get me wrong.  I love my computer.  I love all the things I can do with it.  But this weekend, it was good for my computer to be nothing more than a weight in my suitcase.

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1). 

How about you?  Do you ever unplug from one activity in order to plug into another?  I'd love to hear about it!

**I'm sharing this with Amanda at Serenity Now for her Weekend Bloggy Reading party.**

Wednesday, January 16

The secret to making granite countertops sparkle

I'm in deep-clean mode right now, which led me to peruse the aisle of cleaning products at the store.  I found a cute little bottle of granite cleaner and was shocked when I looked at the price: $5.99.  Seriously? Six dollars for one small bottle of cleaner?

As I mulled this over, I realized what has happened.  Many of us have bought new houses with granite countertops or remodeled kitchens and installed granite countertops, so we're acutely aware that granite countertops are expensive.  That is true.  But we've gotten a little mixed up and assumed that, because they're expensive, they are also precious.  And that is not true.

Granite countertops are not precious.  They do not have to be treated with kid gloves.  After all, granite is the substance from which many tombstones are made.  Ever visited an old cemetery?  If so, you've likely seen pieces of granite which have been exposed to all the forces of nature for hundreds of years, yet you can still see the intricate carvings on the surface.

If granite can withstand all the forces of nature, I think it can withstand less-than-kid-glove cleaning techniques in our homes.

Want to make your granite countertops sparkle?  That's easy.
  • First, what NOT to do: don't chop food directly on the granite.  Granite is sturdy but it certainly can chip.  And hard stone is bad for your knives.  Use a cutting board.
  • When you're ready to clean your counters, wipe counters off with a damp cloth.  I use my dishcloth and soapy dishwater for this.  Any cloth will work, but microfiber cloths work particularly well for leaving fewer streaks.  
  • For guaranteed sparkle and shine, lightly spray the counters with furniture spray, then wipe with a clean cloth. I like lemon Pledge, the brand I've now used in my home for nearly 28 years.  Be sure to wipe the counters completely.  (Note: Some people have asked if Pledge is food-safe. My thought is that no cleaner is really food-safe, so I dry my countertops completely.)
Now stand back and admire your sparkling countertops!

Do you have any specialty cleaning tips?  I'd love to hear them!

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Monday, January 14

Valentine's Day Decor

Valentine's Day is fast approaching!  I love decorating for Valentine's Day.  After all the excitement of Christmas, it's fun to have a little holiday to celebrate, don't you think?

Here are tutorials for a few simple projects for your Valentine's Day enjoyment.

Click on the links below for easy, inexpensive tutorials for each of these projects.

Do you decorate for Valentine's Day?  Have any special decorations you'd like to share?  Please tell us about them in the comments!

Saturday, January 12

My new photo and why it's important

A few days ago I confessed that I have real trouble with posing for a photo and asked for your help.  Boy, was I grateful for your response!  A number of you offered suggestions that I'd never heard before.  Now I'm actually looking forward to the next time I get my picture taken.

I also asked y'all to tell me which of the acceptable photos you liked best.  There was one clear winner of that poll.  And then, much to my delight, my friend Amanda Padgett of Everyday Elements offered to edit that photo for me.  This woman knows her stuff, and she loves to teach people how to use their cameras well and how to edit their photos.  Check out her website here.

So here's my new photo:

So why is this photo so important?  Because this is a big year for me.  Drum roll, please.

This year--2013--I will be 50 years old.

Half a century.

The other day a young friend told me that 50 is the new 40.  I don't know about that, but I do know that I want to live this year with everything I've got.  I've spent too much time in the past 50 years concerning myself with what I didn't have or what other people have.  This year I want to learn in a new way to be confident that God loves me and that I have a special place in His great universe.

What about you?  Is there something special about this year for you?  I'd love to hear about it!

Tuesday, January 8

Word of the year

Although I'm not much on New Year's resolutions, I do find it helpful to choose a word or phrase of focus for each new year--something in particular to meditate upon and pray about.

As I've contemplated what my focus for 2013 should be, I've listened for God's guidance.  Through my reading, prayer, and listening, I think I know what I most desperately need this year.

I need to surrender.

I've always been scrappy.  I'll debate, I'll argue, I'll not go down without a fight.  And that attribute has served me well in many ways over the years.  But I'm realizing that it's also held me back from experiencing some of the riches of God's grace.

I write and speak about grace, about life in the Kingdom of God.  But when it comes to my own life, I realize that I need to be more trusting.  More certain of God's love and care.  More confident in God's provision for me and my loved ones.

There's nothing standing in my way.  God has proved himself time and again.  But I still need to relinquish my desire to have things my way.  I need to rest in the knowledge of the love of God.

God is so kind, so respectful of us.  He won't take the throne in our lives; He waits for us to crown him King and then marvel at the goodness of His rule.

So I'm setting my will toward surrender.  In the words of J.W. Van De Venter,

All to Jesus I surrender
All to him I freely give.
I will ever love and trust Him;
In His presence daily live.
I surrender all!
I surrender all!
All to Thee, my blessed Savior--
I surrender all!

What about you?  Have you thought of a focus for 2013?  Please share!

I'm joining Layla and Kevin at The Lettered Cottage for "This Little Word of Mine"
and Amanda at Serenity Now for Weekend Bloggy Reading.

Saturday, January 5

Photo shoot me--please help!

Or, on second thought, just shoot me.

Jack asked if he could take some photos of me the other day.  I just got my hair cut and was wearing a new sweater, so I figured it would be fun.  After all, if a guy's been married to you for almost 28 years and still wants to take your picture, why not?  And I have an eBook that will be released in a few weeks, so it seemed like a perfect time for a photo shoot.

The problem is that I'm not very photogenic, so here's what happened:

Or this.

Over and over.  It was like a whole photo shoot of outtakes.

He did get a few shots that were okay.  I like my hair in this photo:

I think this photo is better of my face, but I must have brushed my hair back with my fingers or something.

I have a new respect for both models and photographers!

Please help me here.  Does anyone have any secrets to photogeneticity?  Can anyone tell me how to keep your eyes open when you're being photographed?  How to look at the camera?  How to smile so that you look like so that you look sincere but not cheesy? Any thoughts on these photos?  I'd really appreciate your help!

Wednesday, January 2

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

2012 flew by, and here we are in a new year!  What joy there is in having a fresh start!

As I contemplated my goals and resolutions for this new year, I realized something important: once a year is not enough for me. One brand-new, clean-slate day per year is just not enough.
  • I'm not organized enough to proclaim the ways I'll be more organized this year.
  • I'm not goal-oriented enough to make a long list of goals for this year.
  • I'm not resolute enough to number the resolutions I need to make for this year.

I contemplate the new year, and I can easily feel overwhelmed and under-qualified. The fact is, I need a brand-new, clean-slate day every day.

And then I am reminded:

This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
His mercies never come to an end;
They are new every morning.
Great is Your faithfulness.
"The Lord is my portion," says my soul, "therefore I will hope in Him."
Lamentations 3:22-24

So many times I have put my hopes in my well-laid plans, in my desire to succeed, in my heartfelt determination to improve myself. And so many times I have had my hopes dashed as I failed to live up to my own expectations.

But oh! God is the One of whom the prophet could say "Great is Your faithfulness." His steadfast love never ceases; His mercies never end.

And His mercies are new every morning. Not just on New Year's Day, but on every day.

Which is just how often I need them.  How about you?

**I'm joining Amanda at Serenity Now for Weekend Bloggy Reading.**