breaking it down

breaking it down

A month ago, a friend messaged me to tell me she had won a free session at a painting class. She asked if I would like to come along, and we could split the cost of a second class.

I have wanted to do this for a long time, so I jumped at the opportunity. We put the class on our calendars, and the date finally rolled around last week. She had thoughtfully chosen a class with a painting she knew I would love. It was a full moon shining brightly against a dark sky at dusk. A barren tree wrapped its limbs around the moon.

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When we arrived, we were among several dozen painters — many of whom seemed to be regulars at this place. We found our spots in front of our blank canvases. In the front of the room, the finished painting was displayed on a large flat digital screen.

It was intimidating to look at the beautiful piece of art that we were going to paint and try to imagine how we could possibly be talented enough to transform the large white canvas in front of us into the spooky fall scene. Should we begin with the tree or the swirling background? How would we make those craters on the moon? Look at all of those limbs! How would we possibly paint each one to look like the tree in the original?

My mind was racing to try to figure out what to do first, when thankfully, our instructor began the class. She gave us Step No. 1.

She told us to place a cup against the canvas and trace the opening with black paint. Next, we were to paint the entire canvas — minus our white circle — black.

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For the next two hours, she gave us our instructions one at a time. After each step, we would try our best to copy her work. We would look at the original and then back at our own. We would glance at the paintings of the people next to us, hoping maybe they knew the “right” way to paint. Every so often, we would get up and stand back to look at our own painting from a distance. Even as we added layers of silver, gold and bronze, it was hard to believe that we were creating something that might compare with the beautiful piece of art in front of us.

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Eventually, we got to the hard part. We needed to paint the tree. Thankfully, our instructor pulled out a white board, and walked us through it. We started with the trunk and the major branches. We added more branches and smaller limbs. We filled in the tree to make it thicker.

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Finally, we put the finishing touches on our tree. We added shimmering gold highlights on top of the black branches.

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It was tempting to compare our own paintings with those of everyone around us. But then we realized that each one was beautiful and still unique. It was so interesting that we all followed the exact same instructions, and yet our end results were our own. More than that, it was amazing that just by breaking down something that seemed like an impossible feat, we were able to create our own masterpiece.

I’ve been thinking about this concept a lot the past few days. One of my strengths is actually the art of breaking things down. When I feel intimidated by a big assignment at work or a challenging situation at home, I often start by writing down every step it would take to get to the end result. Then, I work my way backward, giving myself deadlines for the last step, then the second to last step and so on, until I’ve reached my starting point. I feel a great sense of accomplishment when I complete even one step along the path.

But I’ve realized recently that I have several big projects on my to-do list that feel like that finished painting to me. I’m so intimidated by the image of the end result that I can’t even get myself to begin. I put these projects on my mental to-do list, but it’s like I really have no intention of ever getting them done. I’ve realized that getting started is the hardest part. What is Step No. 1?

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been thinking about how I could try to tackle one of these projects in a month, rather than a year or in some cases, a decade. That painting has really inspired me. With November right around the corner, what if I were to break it down? I could set aside 15 minutes each weekday to work on the first project. I’m excited to see how far I can get by the end of the month.

I’m going to hang up my painting as a visual reminder that I can do this. Just take it one step at a time.

 

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Soaking in October

Soaking in October

On Sunday afternoon, our 6-year-old and I were walking along the trail behind our house. She had her little arm wrapped tightly around my waist. I held her close with my left arm around her neck.

“Mom, this is the best weekend ever,” she sighed.

It wasn’t the fall festival we had attended the night before. Or the trip to the party store to buy her Halloween costume.

Nope. The title of Best Weekend Ever had been achieved when I stopped to pick up a bright red leaf on our path. “Look how perfect and beautiful it is,” I told her.

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She found one a few feet ahead. We kept collecting as we made our way to the park. Three more reds. Then an orange. “I hope we can find some yellow ones,” I said.

She planned how we would press them all inside a book. We would need different pages for each color. One for red. Another for yellow. One for orange. And we would need a whole section for dark purple. We walked slowly, making sure we didn’t step on any leaves that we could add to our collection. The sun was shining brightly, warming up the crisp fall air.

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Earlier that day, the two of us had sat on the front lawn carving pumpkins. She was finally old enough to create her own design and handle a real knife with only a bit of assistance. I fought the urge to help. To make the carving go a little faster.

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I felt like the house was literally screaming at me with its piles of dirty laundry and counters covered in dishes. Messy rooms and dirty floors tried to convince me to come inside. Thankfully, I ignored all of their jeers as we separated pumpkin seeds, washed them and set them in the sun to dry.

Earlier in the weekend, I had convinced a few of my older kids and some of their friends to join us in making caramel apples. At first, I had decided just to provide a snack of homemade caramel sauce and some apples when they got home from school.

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But then I realized I couldn’t even remember the last time we had made real caramel apples. I knew we had done this when they were little. But no one — including me — could remember unwrapping the caramels and cooking them over the stove to cover our apples. I couldn’t remember ever melting chocolate or buying mini chocolate chips and toffee bars to use as toppings.

“Why not?” I asked myself. Why do I want to hurry through this? Sometimes it seems like they are too old to start a new tradition. But these are the days they will actually remember.

I’ve reached the point in my parenting journey that I’ve realized these opportunities are numbered. We only have two more Columbus Days with all of our kids living at home to take a trip to the corn maze. We only have three more Christmases before our oldest son goes off to college.

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I know I don’t have that many more Octobers until our youngest daughter won’t want to sit on the front lawn and carve pumpkins with me. How many more autumns will she see the joy in analyzing leaves for our collection?

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With our three oldest kids, it can be a struggle to get them to participate in these seasonal rituals. I consider myself blessed that I still have one little one who wants to jump in leaves or build a sand castle.

Other times, I simply require it. “We’re going to have some Forced Family Fun,” I warn the older kids before we head off to the zoo or a family hike or the pumpkin patch. Even if it’s not their top choice of what to do, these adventures often result in hilarious memories together.

Sometimes I wish I could extend the time or put it in a bottle so I could pop it open and experience it again later. Instead, I’m learning to soak it up. We live in an area where we get the joy of changing seasons. So, why not?

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Buy the real caramels. Drink apple cider. Walk slowly. Pick up leaves. Clean off the pumpkin seeds.

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How about you? Do you have any October traditions? Have your kids outgrown any of the activities you used to love to do? How do you convince your older kids to take part in family traditions?

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under pressure…

under pressure…

A few weeks ago, I came home from a long day, excited that dinner would be cooking in the crock pot. When I walked in, I was confused to find all of the liquid from the crockpot in a puddle on the floor. My crockpot had cracked. It was dead.

This might not be a big deal to some people, but my slow cooker is the closest thing I have to a personal chef. When I’m organized, I use it several times a week to prepare dinner while I’m at work or running the kids from one activity to the next. The six of us consume a large amount of food on a daily basis, and the crock pot is my secret weapon to keep us well fed.

Since the crock pot’s death, I have been contemplating how to carry on with dinner as we know it. I actually love spending a Saturday putting together crock pot meals in freezer bags so I can quickly get dinner started before leaving for the day. I wasn’t sure how many more weeks we could survive without my trusty slow cooker to help feed my hungry family.

However, I also didn’t want to rush out and buy a new one because I had become fascinated with the idea of buying an Instant Pot. My friend — also named Emily — had been posting on Facebook about her new Instant Pot. Even though I didn’t really know what it was or what it would do, I was pretty sure I wanted one. I started doing some research and realized this would have to go on my Christmas list. I wasn’t ready to spend $100 on an appliance for myself, even though I knew it would be well used!

Then, last week, I sat down at my desk and saw a $100 bill tucked under my computer. I had been hiding last year’s Christmas money for just the right moment when I really wanted to buy something for myself. This was it!

I have now been cooking in my “Instant Pot” for more than a week. Actually, that is the brand name for an electric pressure cooker. I bought mine at Costco, and it’s called a Power Pressure Cooker.

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I found out quickly that a pressure cooker is totally different from a slow cooker — although I made sure the one I bought had a “slow cooker” function. This thing has taken over all of my dormant brain cells trying to figure out how it works. Here are a few things I’ve learned so far:

  • Just as the name suggests, the pressure cooker cooks food super fast. It can cook a whole chicken in 30 minutes (plus the 15 minutes or so it takes to build up pressure).
  • Unlike a slow cooker, it seems like it’s best to cook different types of food in stages. You can brown your meat by leaving the lid open. Then add liquid and other ingredients and switch it over to pressure cook.
  • It has a million buttons with labels for different types of food. So far, I’ve found recipes with instructions that worked.
  • It cooks hard boiled eggs perfectly. The shells basically fall off when they are done. If this was the only thing this machine did, it would be worth the money to me.
  • It also cooks rice perfectly. Super fluffy. I would say it cooks rice in half the time… for example 20 minutes to cook rice that typically takes 45 minutes… but you also have to add another 10-15 minutes for the appliance to build up pressure. The great thing is, you can throw in the rice and water and leave it alone. You don’t have to watch a pot on the stove.
  • When it suggests to steam broccoli for only two minutes, it’s serious. I opted for five minutes, and my two heads of broccoli were disintegrated.
  • You can start with frozen meat, and still have a meal on the table in less than an hour.
  • Once the cooking cycle ends, it will automatically switch to “warm.” I love this feature because I can still throw dinner in the pressure cooker and then leave the house to drive the kids around or go for a walk, and dinner will be waiting when I get back.
  • It cooks veggies so quickly that you can cook your main dish and still have time to clean it out and make a side dish if you plan everything just right.
  • It also can handle desserts, like cheesecake or creme brûlée. I can’t wait to give this a try!

 

So far, in addition to the items mentioned above, I’ve made chili, chicken breasts, and beef with potatoes and carrots. Unlike the crock pot where meat can end up like mush, my beef actually came out with a bit of pink in the middle.

I still miss the slowness of my crock pot. I got in the habit of putting in dinner in the morning and enjoying the smell of it cooking all day. I haven’t tried the “slow cooker” button yet, but I’m really hoping it works. On the other hand, I love being able to throw together a meal quickly when I don’t have time to put it in the crockpot before I leave in the morning.

If you want to see a hilarious video of what happens when you release the steam, here’s me freaking out that my kids will burn their hands…

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How about you? Have you ever used a pressure cooker? Do you love your crock pot?
 
 


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for the love of chalkboards

for the love of chalkboards

When I was a kid, our house had a large chalkboard in the family room. I remember spending hours writing and drawing on that dark green slate as we played games of school or house. I didn’t know any other kids who their very own chalkboard, so I thought our house must be cutting edge.

I have no idea where my parents found that chalkboard or what inspired them to hang it on the lower third of the wall so it was the perfect height for their children. I like to think they were on the forefront of interior design trends.

These days, I love decorating with chalkboards. I have so many of them that I’m going to be in big trouble when they are no longer a thing.

Like my other artistic passions — doodling, rock painting and using my Silhouette — I think I love chalk art because the expectation is that it won’t be perfect. It’s just a chalkboard! Plus, you can always erase and start over if you don’t like your first attempt.

I love chalkboards because it’s fun to update your artwork with the seasons. You aren’t stuck with one boring piece that never changes. You can get lots of ideas for chalkboard art on Pinterest. (That’s where I got this one!)

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You can write out whatever message is on your heart…

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Or leave someone a note or reminder…

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If I want my handwriting to look really perfect, I will cut out a quick template on card stock using my Silhouette and trace the letters that I want to write…

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There’s just something about a message neatly scripted that makes me happy every time I see it. I keep thinking that one day I will paint an entire wall in my house in chalkboard paint… Of course, that’s about the time it will go out of style. Or maybe I’ll just be ready for the next time it comes around.

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What about you? Do you love creating chalkboard art?

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life lessons in a corn maze

life lessons in a corn maze

On Columbus Day, our family visited a giant corn maze that is a few miles from our house. The first time I took the kids there six years ago, the three older ones were 9, 7 and 5, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I gave them my no-fail instructions for conquering any maze. Just stay to the right, and we’ll find our way out.

Within a few minutes, I realized this was not going to work. The maze had twists and turns and paths that divided in three directions, and then three more directions. We had barely started, and I was starting to panic, wondering how I would get these three kids through this convoluted maze. I remembered seeing people picking up a sheet of paper back at the entrance. I wondered why they would want to carry a coloring sheet through the maze. Now, I realized that detailed photo wasn’t a coloring page. That was the MAP! And those lines weren’t the outlines of a photo. Those lines were the PATH!

They had actually carved an intricate design into a field of corn. There were six checkpoints hidden throughout the maze, and we would need to walk along the outlines of the design to find them.

Once I got a grip on the rules of this challenge, I loved every minute of it! I’ve always loved solving a puzzle, working my way through a maze or following a map. Finding each location and stamping it on our sheet was the next best thing to finding our way to a hidden treasure.

Since then, we’ve spent many Columbus Days at this particular corn maze. My husband had the day off work this year, and we didn’t think we were going to be able to go. But the stars aligned and by mid afternoon, we were able to take a quick trip for our annual maze adventure.

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This year, the farm had created three mazes. We made our way through the first and easiest one together as a family. We took turns giving different children the role of navigating us through the maze.

The second maze was much larger and more detailed. This time we decided to split into teams and see who could find all of the checkpoints and finish first.

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Our 6-year-old daughter and I quickly formed the first team. We are both highly competitive and love puzzles. We both struggle with perfectionism, so we knew we could count on each other to give this our all.

Our 15-year-old  son asked if he could go with our 12-year-old daughter. He knew that map reading wasn’t his strength, and he should team up with his sister who had proven her map reading skills in the smaller maze. She also tends to make every adventure more fun with her crazy sense of humor. Even if they didn’t win, these two would have fun together.

That left my husband and our 14-year-old son to form the last team. My husband was the only one in the family who hadn’t even bothered to pick up a map. And our second son is highly analytical and competitive, but also enjoys just hanging out with his dad. They are the two that could sit out in the middle of a field and talk for hours. They can forget about schedules and bed times and routines, as long as they are engaged in a good conversation.

Off we went. My Mini Me and I got off to a running start, map in hand, analyzing the best route. Our first objective was to lose our competition and keep the others from simply following us. Our focus and drive served us well, and the 6-year-old and I made it through the maze before anyone else. Three minutes later, out came our oldest son and daughter. We all sat on a bench goofing around for another 15 minutes before the last two meandered out. They didn’t seem to care much that they were last or how long we had been waiting. They had talked about drum sets and baseball and managed to unpack a few burning questions about life while roaming around the maze.

As the kids have gotten older, I have started calling these types of family adventures #forcedfamilyfun. The kids usually protest when I tell them my plans to go somewhere just as a family without any friends. But they also usually end up having fun. I assumed that after two mazes, I had pushed my limit on forced family fun, and we would be ready to head for home.

Much to my surprise, the entire family wanted to do the third and most challenging maze. In the other two mazes, the checkpoints were marked on the map. Each station came equipped with a paper punch hanging from a string that you would use to mark your sheet. In the third maze, the checkpoints weren’t labeled on the map. We would need to find them just by wandering through the maze.

Also to my surprise, everyone wanted to stick with the same teammate. No one wanted to reshuffle just to improve their odds. We all enjoyed the first experience and were ready to try again.

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We all headed in. I did my best to keep my eyes glued to the intricate map so I could see where we had been. I walked with it right in front of my face and turned the map as we turned. We found our first checkpoint, but then I quickly lost track of our place on the map. We both started to panic. It was hot, and we were thirsty, and I was certain we were going to die. After what seemed like 100 hours of aimless roaming in the dessert, we found one more checkpoint. We both looked at each other and said, “We’re done. Let’s try to find some sign of civilization and get out of here.”

We wound our way through the maze until we could hear the sounds of people talking. We sprinted toward the sounds and rushed out of the maze. We breathed a huge sigh of relief that we had survived. We headed toward a play structure and looked for the others. A few minutes later, my husband and son came out. I was sure they had given up, as well. About 10 minutes after that, Team Two, our son and daughter emerged. They said they had found four of the six checkpoints, so we declared them the winner.

We all happily headed toward the snack bar and bought apple cider donuts and caramel corn. As we headed to the car, we asked my husband how many of the checkpoints they had found. “Oh, all but one.”

WHAT?! You guys won?!?

So, it turns out the laid back relational team that didn’t even want to pick up a map were the winners when the challenge involved roaming around aimlessly. Apparently, the map actually made the challenge harder for them. They seemed to have some inherent sense of direction that was impaired by trying to look at a map.

The middle daughter and oldest son could use their fun-loving spirits and goofy personalities to keep their cool and still come in second place, with or without the checkpoints on the map.

And my overachiever daughter and I? We could only survive with the written guidebook and carefully sketched out plan. We could follow the map with ease, but had a panic attack at the thought of wandering around without directions.

I’ve been analyzing this scenario all week, trying to find some important statement I learned from this experience. I don’t really have one. But it was a great reminder of how we are each uniquely made. We all brought a different set of skills to this adventure. Some of us are great at navigating. Others keep us laughing. And others are there to talk and listen. Put them all together, and you have an amazing thing called family.

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How about you? Are you the expert navigator? The fun loving adventurer? Or the laid back wanderer?

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