Reflections in a Coffee Mug

Okay, I admit it. I like to be appreciated.

I have always prided myself on not needing “the approval of man”, and have relied on my own sense of self-worth and the belief that if I was doing what God called me to, then that should be enough.

But, I was betrayed. By a coffee mug, of all things. And not one of those mugs with a pithy saying on it, either.

Nope.  Just an ordinary mug decorated with an ” I Heart E-ZineArticles” logo.


The mug arrived in the mail last week, quite unexpectedly, with a note thanking me for my contributions to the online article directory. Now please understand, I contribute articles to this site in order to promote my business. I’ve never given much thought to what they get out of the deal and certainly never expected any thanks.

(Honestly, I think they only noticed me because of two recipes I published that have generated over 1600 hits in the last few weeks. And they are totally unrelated to the business. But I digress….)

But, here’s what surprised me. I didn’t need a new coffee mug. It’s not even very attractive. But something inside of me was beaming when I opened it.  Someone has read my articles and thinks they are worthwhile! And they want me to write more!

Never mind the fact that writing more was in my plan all along; suddenly, I felt compelled to churn out more words of wisdom and instruction just as quickly as I could. All because of a coffee mug.

If I truly didn’t need anyone’s approval or appreciation, then I wouldn’t have given that mug a second glance.

But I did. I’m not the same person I was 15 years ago…and perhaps I’m the last one to realize it. As I set forth on my new business venture, I’m surprising myself at how many fears I have to conquer that I never knew I had.

And I find myself needing a little pat on the back for each small step that I take. Again, not who I thought I was. But it is, apparently, who I am now. Or maybe I am just uncovering my authentic self, as Sarah Ban Breathnach calls it in her book Simple Abundance.

But, I would also venture to guess that I’m not the only one.  Maybe it’s just the strong, independent types who don’t like to admit that they need a little affirmation. Just about everyone performs better when their efforts are recognized and rewarded, whether they admit it or not.

I think those editors over at are onto something.

A little affirmation goes a long way.

Coffee, anyone?

The Secret Garden

A mysterious garden hidden behind a high brick wall, a key stashed away in a forgotten room, and a young, bored and curious girl set the stage for an exciting and engaging story. My favorite childhood novel was Francis Hodgson Burnett’s classic The Secret Garden. I think at the time I was drawn in by the mystery of the secret and my fascination with wild, unkempt English gardens. That must explain the state of my own yard today!

secret garden naiwe great books

My mother was an avid member of the local Garden Club and even involved me in some of the youth flower arranging competitions. I think these activities nurtured in me a love of growing things, as I always had flowers on my windowsill while I was growing up. Nonetheless, I dreamed of the day when I, too, would have a large expanse of garden to till and plant and watch with joy as the beautiful mass of color burst into life with the warm winds of spring.

Alas, by the time I had such space to enjoy, the responsibilities of every day life had crept in to steal my time and prevent my enjoyment of reckless abandon in the garden. So, while I love The Secret Garden I think I also envy Mary Lennox, who has the time and space to toil endlessly in the garden and then to enjoy the fruits of her labor.

She is also able to lure her chronically ill cousin Colin out of doors and he discovers the healing power of the garden. I can relate to that power -  there is no quicker way for me to release tension and feel utterly relaxed than for me to spend a few minutes puttering in my garden.  A case of the blues can be cured rather quickly by a few minutes in the sunshine and a freshly picked bouquet of flowers.

There were life lessons to be learned from the story as well.  People are not always as they first appear, keeping secrets can be detrimental to the healing of the soul; and in gardens, as in life, hard work  leads to more beauty whereas neglect and apathy eat away at the soul.

As the gardener reminds the children, “Where you tend a rose, my lad, a thistle cannot grow.”  What a perfect philosophy for life : focus on nurturing the beautiful aspects of your life and there will be little room for the pain.

This post was written for the Great Books Week Blog Tour

Helping the Orphans

My boys came home from a youth group retreat yesterday tired, hungry, and talking about orphans. While I had hoped that the weekend would have a spiritual impact on them, I wasn’t expecting this.

“Did you know,” my oldest reported,  “that if only 7 % of the Christians in the world would adopt an orphan that there would be no more orphans?”

Brace yourself, I thought, wondering if the next sentence was going to be plea to enlarge our family. It wasn’t, but the impact of that statistic is staying with him. He wants to go somewhere and do something to make the world a better place.

I remember that passion of youth that longs to change the world. My husband and I were foster parents for several years before we started our own family, and we even discussed the possibility of adoption at the time. However, we were blessed with three wonderful birth children and laid the idea aside.

But in the back of my mind, I wondered….

One weekend about 9 years ago, I went to a retreat where the speaker shared about adopting from China. I began to ponder – did it really matter to those kids that we kept for a few weeks or months at a time? If you really wanted to make a difference in a child’s life, you would adopt one, I thought.

I returned home that afternoon to the chaos that only parents of several preschoolers can appreciate. I sat down for just a few minutes when the doorbell rang. Imagine my surprise to see standing there, towering over me, a young man that we had fostered seven years before. “I was in the neighborhood and wanted to stop by,” he said. What timing!

Yes, I got the message. It DOES make a difference whether you choose to  foster, adopt, or help those who do.

amazimaMy sons were inspired by the story of Katie Davis, a young lady whose heart for Uganda lead her to establish Amazima Ministries. She was so moved by the need of the orphaned children in Uganda that she began a sponsorship program so that these children can be fed, educated, and loved.  For a sponsorship of only $300 per year, a child receives a uniform, socks and shoes, an education, two hot meals an day, and minor medical care. I certainly couldn’t provide that much for $300 here in the States!

So, how will you help care for the orphans?  Whether you adopt a child, sponsor an orphan, or support a friend or family member who adopts, you ARE making a difference.

And the children will thank you.

Virtual School

As my 25 year high school reunion approaches, I’m thinking about how our world has changed over the years. One of my prized graduation gifts was a huge, silver boombox that probably weighed 10 pounds…complete with radio, stereo sound, and cassette player. It provided hours of enjoyment through college and beyond.   boombox2

And now my 12 year old walks around with his Ipod touch in his pocket, downloading music instantly and volunteering to order pizza for dinner for the sheer joy of being able to do it with his wifi connection.

Those of you who have read this blog for a while know that we were wrestling last spring with finding the appropriate educational experience for our now 10th grader. The choices in our small city are fairly limited and none were just the right fit. What did not occur to us at the time was that the same technology that has made my boombox obsolete and made Facebook a household word has also transformed the face of education. No longer are we limited to schools and teachers that are within driving distance. With an inexpensive computer and an internet connection, the whole world is literally opened up to us.

This year, my son is enrolled in Veritas Scholar’s Academy, an online school with live, interactive classes. His instructors and classmates live from Hawaii to Bermuda, and everywhere in between. At first I was leery of the concept of online classes, and didn’t think of it as “real” school.  I couldn’t imagine how a teacher would explain a complex algebra problem online. Until I learned about the digital scribe. This special tool allows someone to work a problem on paper as it is simultaneously appearing on the computer screen. Thus, the kids can take turns working problems and the teacher can see exactly what they are doing.

What about class discussions, I wondered? Never fear; each student has a speaker and microphone. Debates have been an almost daily occurrence in his rhetoric class.

Because each class meets twice a week with study time in between, his schedule is much like that of a college student. He can’t miss the bus in the morning, but he can still oversleep and miss class. He may not see his classmates face to face, but he gets to interact daily with people from all over the country.  The online option has allowed him to continue studying the subjects that interest and challenge him under some of the best teachers and without having to move away from home or break the bank.

I walked by him yesterday during what I knew was a class period. I heard nothing and he was looking at a book. “Aren’t you supposed to be in class?” I asked. “Yeah, we’re working on homework right now,” he replied. Right then, I heard a young lady ask,        “Mrs. S., I don’t understand this …”

And it hit me…it IS “real” school, and this is one of its new faces.

Summer’s End

After a summer away adjusting to life in the sandwich generation and debating how to balance the blog and the new business, I decided that the blog was too therapeutic to ignore any longer. My thoughts the last few months have created a traffic jam in my brain, and the occasional leaks of incoherent ramblings ( I’m sorry, my friends who had to listen!) simply confirmed the necessity of regularly processing  my thoughts into words.


It was a different sort of summer at our house, as the effects of children growing older altered our typical family plans. My family has a reunion over the fourth of July every year, but this year our immediate family was represented only by the mother-daughter contingent. Our 15 year old spent his first summer away working at a summer camp and our 12 year old and Dad had Boy Scout camp scheduled the week of July 4. It was a pleasant trip for the two of us, but bittersweet as I realized that our days of traveling there as a family are probably over, at least for the next few years. Talking with my aunts who grew up overseas and spent their high school years in boarding schools, I gained a whole new perspective on the concept of the empty nest.  “Why does everyone always say, “When they’re gone, they’re gone?” quipped one aunt. “Here we are!  We didn’t go anywhere!”

And, my son who was “gone” for the summer was really only gone  a week at a time, as we picked him up each Friday night and brought him home long enough  to sleep and wash his clothes and take him back again on Sunday.  I was truly amazed at how smoothly the transitions went and how naturally the family dynamics flowed back and forth with and without him in the house. It gave me hope that the transition to college, early or not, will be a positive experience.  We were also thrilled to see the independence and responsibility that he exhibited at camp.  Some of that has dissipated as he has been home for several weeks now, and I’m forced to ask myself – does he feel too safe and comfortable at home?  Will I have to be that mean mother bird that pushes her baby out of the nest? I hope not.

Summer, for me, always seems to be a time to slow down and reflect on the past year. I guess I’ve been in the educational mindset for so long that the new year for me begins in the fall. And so, as summer draws to a close, I am making my lists of all the things that I’ll do differently this year and all the activities that my kids and that we as a family need. My husband and I were fortunate enough to get a weekend away with time to talk about what our priorities are for each child and for us for the coming year.  As Ecclesiastes 3:1 states,” There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.”

The trick, as we all know, is not trying to fit every activity under heaven into this one season!

When Life Throws a Curveball…and You Land in the Sandwich Generation

It all started last Sunday morning, with my husband tentatively telling me that he’d had a disturbing dream the night before. “I don’t know if I should tell you this, ” he said (as I got that queasy feeling in my stomach), “but I had a dream last night that your dad died.”  Not the way you really want your Sunday morning to start…or any other morning, for that matter.  However, since he has not been known to have prophetic visions before, and does often have unusual dreams, I didn’t think too much more about it.

Until Tuesday night.

My phone rang and my mom’s shaky voice on the other end was telling me that Dad was on the road somewhere about an hour from home and that the last people he saw noticed he was slurring his words before he left.  The conversation I had had with my husband came back to mind with gut-wrenching horror -  it couldn’t really have been true, could it? And why would anyone let someone who was obviously having difficulties get in their car and drive home?

Oh, yeah. We’re talking about my dad here – one of the last of the  Marlboro Man I can do anything and nothing can stop me generation.

For forty- five painful minutes I had visions of my dad’s car wrapped around a tree somewhere on a rural road as he lay helpless. But against the odds, he showed up at home, still not sure he needed to go to the hospital, but no longer protesting as my mom quickly drove him there.

Miraculously, he emerged with only a mild stroke affecting his speech and no paralysis, and is getting more of his words back every day. We expect a nearly complete recovery, but things will still never be the same.  We have come face to face with the frailty of life, and that even our seemingly invincible dad is getting a few chinks in his armor as he ages. I have watched my mom struggle to handle the monumental tasks that suddenly dropped with a crushing force on her shoulders.  And  I wonder…how much can I do when I live 10 hours away?

sandwichgenerationBecause I have a wonderfully supportive husband and terrific local in-laws who adore my children, I was able to escape my mom duties  to come home and help my parents.  But, I’m only here for a week, and the need is much greater than I had realized. I am beginning to feel the pull of the sandwich generation – people torn between raising their own family and helping their parents as they age.

How do you find the balance between pouring your efforts into raising  the children God has blessed you with and giving back to the people who gave unselfishly to you as you grew up ?  Particularly when you don’t live nearby? According to the Pew Research Center, there are over 10 million people in the US juggling this load every day. So, I am certainly not alone. And I do have a sister, who lives only four hours  from my parents, but she has four young children and a job, so it’s not any easier for her to be here on short notice.

I find myself re-evaluating the life decisions I made years ago – should I ask my husband to leave a job he enjoys,  uproot my kids, and move closer to home?  But then we leave my husband’s parents behind, and his only sibling does not live in town.

There are no easy answers in a culture that prides itself on independence and freedom of choice. If I had understood in my early 20’s the choices that I would face 20 years later, would it have made a difference in the path I chose? I don’t know. Experience is the best teacher, and wisdom is rarely bestowed upon the young.

But of this much I am sure –   life is precious and can be snuffed out without warning.  We were granted a reprieve this time, and it will make every day together that much sweeter.

Educational Excellence in a Personal Environment

Educational Excellence in a Personal Environment

That is the motto of the University of West Georgia, which we visited last weekend, and is also in line with our family’s values.  They have one of the few residential early-college entrance programs in the country. These programs are designed for gifted high school students who are not sufficiently challenged in their home high school.

Even though it is a medium-sized state university, every staff member, including the president himself,  is required to teach at least one undergraduate class per year. To us, that clearly demonstrated the commitment to the personal environment; there are no administrators sitting in offices, ignorant of the “real world” of student life. The president, Dr. Sethna, is passionate about the early college program, known as the Advanced Academy, and the students who are part of it. He encourages many of them to collaborate on research with their professors, and some high school students have the opportunity to present papers at national professional meetings.

The Advanced Academy students that we met seemed to be much like our son – bright, discontented with high school, a little bit geeky, and eager to face the academic challenges of college classes at an early age.

univwga-picThe academic experience appeared wonderful, while the buildings themselves were…not. I am inspired by beautiful surroundings, and 1970’s era brick buildings are not my idea of beauty. But, as my son pointed out, he doesn’t care about the  buildings, and he’s the one who would be living there.

So, what’s not to like about a high school experience where the students are among the nation’s brightest, are taught college level courses in small, seminar style classes by full professors, and who graduate high school effectively as college juniors, often with wonderful scholarship opportunities?

It is four hours away from our house.

My then-16 year old would move away from home before he even learns how to drive.

I tear up just thinking about it. We would only have 16 more months of life together as a family as we now know it.

But, what is the cost of keeping him here? For no choice is without a cost, and a decision to keep him here is a decision to close doors for him that might not open again.

Can we offer him a stimulating, excellent education with peers like himself while still keeping him at home? We’ve been trying, but the options are few and looking less promising all the time.

One alternative we have just discovered is an online classical school. It offers classes in line with our educational philosophy that he could not get anywhere locally. The online school offers educational excellence, but is it a personal environment? Depends on how you define it, I guess.

The wonders of modern technology would allow him to take classes in real time and hold discussions with the teacher and a small group of students during class. They can share written material via an online whiteboard and comment on each other’s work.  It’s almost as good as really being there. Almost.

But there are no friends to eat lunch with or to hang out with on the weekends, except in the virtual chat rooms. No sports or clubs with friends from class.

Virtual friendships are great, but everyone needs some friends with skin on.

And I need some more time with my son at home.

Choices, choices. Wish life didn’t have to be so hard.

Choices are the hinges of destiny.


Walk a Mile in My Shoes, or What To Do With a Gifted High Schooler

I never understood before how the parents of young Olympic athletes in our country could fathom allowing their child to move away from home while still a child, live in a dorm with other highly driven and dedicated athletes, and only visit their families a few times a year. Now, we were not blessed with gifted athletes in our family, so it was always just an academic discussion, a “what-if” scenario where my husband and I were sure that we would never make those choices for our children. Family is too important and the gold medal too elusive — the cost was just too high. Well, you know what they say about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes….

We still do not have an Olympic-caliber athlete in our home, but we do have a brilliant young son who has hit an academic wall of sorts; the kind of wall every mother thinks she wants to face. When I called the guidance counselor to explain that he just didn’t feel challenged in his honors classes, she responded, “Well, that’s a great problem to have. That’s wonderful!” Only it isn’t. It means that he faces the very real possibility of being unchallenged for 3-1/2 more years before college. That he could cave to the pressure of the masses and just stop caring, never to be all that he is capable of becoming.

So, how do we stave off this potential disaster and help him find a way to stretch himself and his mind? We have met with the teachers and guidance counselor, but their solution seems to be to let him continue on the current path. After all, he is making A’s, so why are we complaining? Also, their hands are tied by local regulations so they can’t let him skip ahead without extensive and expensive testing which they seem unwilling to do.  The other students are already calling him “the kid who knows everything” because of his great vocabulary. He insists that he doesn’t; that there is plenty left for him to learn, but it falls on deaf ears when he appears light years ahead of the rest of them.

He needs a peer group of students who love learning as much as he does and who can feel the thrill of the academic challenge. And where can we find that for him? One option we are seriously considering is an early-college entrance program. There are only a handful of programs like this in the country, where gifted high school juniors and seniors enroll in a particular college, but all live together in a dorm just for them, with more restrictions than the regular college students but all of the academic opportunities.

Yes, I have shed many a tear over this, wrestling with the idea that my first-born may be leaving home two years sooner than we expected. He has a close relationship with us and with his brother and sister, so it would be a tough transition. It’s all still in the discussion stages – no bags packed yet-but when I watched the promo video for this program, I knew. When he watched it, his face lit up. His dad got excited about all of the opportunities it would offer him. Next week, we will attend a Preview Day to get a taste of life on campus.

It’s not a done deal yet. But in my heart, I’m sympathizing with all the parents of young Olympic athletes out there. I get it now – they didn’t make those hard choices for their kids; the children chose because it was who they were created to be. Having a child with an exceptional gift or talent is certainly a blessing, but helping them to find the right outlet to refine their skills can be a bittersweet experience.

Don’t Get Comfortable

It finally hit me yesterday why I’ve been so wishy-washy lately. I have recognized how I was acting, but couldn’t put my finger on why it was happening. I kept blaming it on my “mid-life crisis” and getting more and more frustrated at my indecisive self. I’ve always been the leader of groups, the organizer, the generator of new ideas -what was wrong with me?

So, yesterday I was listening to an audioclass on writing a business plan and it hit me. The culprit was FEAR, pure and simple. I’m planning to move turtle fearoutside of the comfort zone I’ve been in for nearly 20 years. After much thought and prayer, I believe this is the right direction, but it requires learning some new skills. Part of me periodically fights the idea, preferring to remain in the safety and familiarity of the status quo. FEAR keeps many people from ever living up to their potential, and I could have easily become one of its victims.

Ever had one of those days where you get in the car and the lyrics of a song on the radio seem to be written just for you? God was speaking to me, loud and clear, through Brandon Heath’s song Don’t Get Comfortable. The words are not profound, but they were exactly the message that I needed:

Comfortable, don’t get comfortable. I am gonna move this mountain then I’m gonna move you in.

Okay, God, I get it. I can justify myself and make up great excuses all day long, but in the end, You are big enough to overcome all the obstacles that I can dream up. You have a great plan for me and I would be a fool not to let You carry it out.

Yesterday, this is not yesterday.
You were standing on my shoulders ; now you’re standing on the edge.

Where I was yesterday was the right place at that point in my life, but this is a new day and He has a new plan for me. Though I have stood securely in the center of His will, confident that I was where I should be, He is now asking me to take a leap of faith -and that’s not so comfortable!

You’ve been looking for a sign all this time.
If you seek you’ll find me every time.

I was looking for a sign; it just didn’t appear the way I expected. Did it really take this many months for me to be ready to hear what God had to say? How embarrassing!

I am gonna show you what I mean
I am gonna love like you’ve never seen
You are gonna live like you used to dream
This is your new song

Why do we doubt that God wants to do great things for us? We know how much He loves us, so why is it so easy to get caught in the trap of believing that we don’t deserve better?

So afraid but you don’t have to be afraid
Even if you make mistakes
You know that I’ll remain

How did He know that I’ve been literally paralyzed by fear and didn’t even recognize it? I guess my perfectionist side found it easier to create endless diversions and alternate plans rather than face the fact that I might make mistakes doing something new.

Do you want to live like you used to dream?

You’ve got a new song

I think (I hope!) I’m finally ready to push forward with passion and determination towards the new adventure God has for me. My new song is being written; how about yours?

dream reach for star stand on edge
It will cost you nothing to dream...and everything not to

Crockpot Brown Sugar Glazed Pork Roast

How can you save money on groceries, save time in your day, and still please the whole family? With a recipe that takes advantage of a cheaper cut of meat by cooking it all day in the crockpot, making for an easy dinner when you get home in the evening.

My oldest son LOVES pork loin, and when he saw a pork loin roast on sale in the paper, he began waving the ad in front of me. “Please, mom, please will you get this?” You’d think I never fed the boy meat, but he is a teen after all, so any meal eaten more than ten minutes before doesn’t count.

I realized at the store that this was a loin roast and not the pork loin that I usually buy on sale. Nonetheless, for $1.78 a pound, I was willing to experiment.

Since this son is gluten-intolerant, I have to adapt many recipes to make them work for our dinner table. In an online search, I found two recipes that sounded great. I took my favorite ingredients from each, eliminated the flour, and a new family hit was created:

Crockpot Brown Sugar Glazed Pork Roast

1 pork loin roast

1c. brown sugar

1 T. Dijon mustard

2 T. apple cider vinegar

2 cloves garlic

1/2 t. chili powder

1 t. salt

1/2 t. black pepper

1/2 t. cumin

1t. cinnamon

Place the pork loin roast in a crockpot. Mix all other ingredients together in a bowl to form a thick paste. Rub it all over the roast, set the crockpot to cook for 8 hours, and you’re done.

In the evening, I cooked up some rice in the rice cooker and heated some vegetables to go with it. The roast in its own juices over the rice was great, but if you like a thicker gravy, you could add some cornstarch or flour just before serving.

If you try it, let me know what your family thinks!