Friday, February 27, 2015

February 2015 Favorites!

Ahh... I can hardly believe that the shortest, longest month is about to come to an end once again. :) Do you feel that way about February? I have had a number of friends tell me this month is one of their least liked of the year. For those of us in the north of the Northern Hemisphere, poor February gets a bad rap! I am surprised when I see pictures of spring already emerging in other parts of the world not so far off from our own latitude. Shirley has forsythia buds bursting and crocus blooming over in England already. And Alicia is rather put out that spring has arrived - so completely it seems, from her stunning photographs - in Portland, Oregon.

Not so here. Though we are not buried under feet of snow as they are in the east - and even a wee bit in the south east (they all seem to be having so much fun with it!) - we are still cold, still very much winter.

Here are some of the things that have kept me smiling as I wait and watch the days grow longer in length.

Bodycology: Floral Rush


Springtime in a tube, that's what it is! I bought this in the body wash and body spray at Target a few months ago. They were out of the lotion at the time, but I picked this up the other day when I was going back for a refill on the body wash. I'm not totally out of the first body wash yet, but I don't want to run out! So, so good and this large tube of lotion is less than $3, I believe, at Target. Delightful. 

Trader Joe's Wintry Blend coffee:


I picked this up last week at TJ's. It was $7.99, not on sale. My favorite in this assortment is the Wintry Blend. My family - all of us coffee drinkers now - doesn't seem to care for Trader Joe's regular, french roast which is our favorite Starbucks blend. That's too bad, because Trader Joe's price is so much better. But this little can of the Wintry Blend is nice and it looks like it comes in a larger can too. I'll have to have a look for the larger can the next time I'm there. All of the coffees in this little sampler were good; have a try if you get the chance!

Beverage Warmer!!

And speaking of's the little things, isn't it? I love my hot things HOT: soup, tea, coffee, dinner... if it's meant to be hot, I like it to stay that way. I was regularly getting up to warm my mug halfway through drinking my morning tea before I found this little winner. I usually don't care for plastic, electric devices... I don't know... I think it looks pretty tacky. But when I was out doing some Christmas shopping back in December at Bed Bath and Beyond, I saw this item in the stocking stuffer section for under $5!! It was too good a price not to give it a try. After I brought it home and started using it... and started moving it around with me and plugging and unplugging it in different spots, I just went back and bought another! :) So now I have one near my "morning spot" and one at my vanity. I could actually use another upstairs at my desk... but I haven't made another trip out to BB&B to see if they have any left. Well worth it, though! And tacky or not, it's definitely a favorite of mine!!

Mineral Oil


Beauty bloggers and vloggers will often refer to certain products as their "holy grail" products; items they purchase again and again because they perform or out-perform the competition.  Well, plain mineral oil is that for me in terms of keeping dry skin at bay in this winter weather - or even year-round, actually. I pick up Target's Up & Up brand because it's under $2 and it works perfectly. I smooth it on after every shower or bath and my skin is amazingly soft. I mean, I am even surprised at how soft it has become. I used to have trouble patches where I had dry skin where it would get tiny bumps, especially on the backs of my arms and backs of my thighs. But no more at all! Elbows and heels are soft too. Any flaky, itchy skin I would get from time to time on my legs also because of the dry winter air is no longer a problem either. It just works. 

I'm sure a number of kinds of oils would work if used religiously. I just mention mineral oil, because it is so inexpensive and you can also add a drop or two of an essential oil to it if you want to add a bit of fragrance.

My New Bag

I was so happy to find this bag that I found new, never used, at Savers this month. Tags inside showed me that it is a "Just Fab" bag, which after doing a quick search, I learned is an accessory subscription service. I think it's something like $40 a month and they send you bags or shoes or something like that. Subscription services seem to be all the rage right now, don't they? I don't have that kind of discretionary income where I let someone else pick a bag or shoes or makeup for me. I get that it would be a fun surprise. And my understanding is that with some services, like this one from Just Fab, if you don't like what they send you, you can send it back. I suppose if you hate shopping, don't have the time, or can't figure out your style, or want to change up your style and need some help in doing that, it might be a fun thing to try. Me, I'm happy that I got this bag for under $15, because I'm guessing someone that got it for their subscription, didn't want to take the time to send it back! :) The purse I had been using was a pretty good size (this new one is the biggest one I've carried in years), but it was heavy. It was even heavy by itself with nothing in it and it was hurting my shoulder. I like that this one has a cross-body strap and it's much lighter despite its size.

Custom Journal/Planner

And last, but not least, is my journal that is actually a planner from I already talked about it here and here, but I have started using it and I am quite happy with it so far. You'd think that I was an affiliate for the company, but I'm not. I just love that I was able to design my own cover and customize the inside. Such a treat from beginning to end! :)

So those are some of my favorites of this past month. Let me know if you give anything here a try! Did you have anything that added some sparkle to this month for you?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

February Reads 2015

Here are the books I finished this month and a few of my thoughts on them. I suppose, first though, I should preface this by mentioning that my definition of "finished" does not mean that I necessarily read it all the way through. In this instance it means, "I'm finished with it." :)

There are just too many books in my never-ending queue to slog through books I just don't like. If I read between, say, 50 and 100 pages and I'm still not interested, I call that book "finished," because I know enough about it to know that I will not want to read it again and that is enough for me.

Some books can get slow in the middle for me, but if I have really enjoyed the beginning, I have often developed a trust in the author and press on to see it through to the end. Other books that are just so-so to me, but that I continue to try, sometimes just run out of time. I get at least 90% of my books from the library and my initial time allowance is 3 weeks. I can renew twice if there are no holds from other readers waiting, so I have potentially 9 weeks to read a book and if it's not read by then, it's just going back. I will mention in my notes if I did not completely finish the book and why.

So, in no particular order, here is what I read this month:

I saw this book over and over again while pulling holds when I volunteer weekly at my local library. I was curious, because this promised to be an unusual romance. I lose interest pretty quickly in run-of-the-mill, chick-lit romances. Synopses on the backs of those books sometimes pull me in, but I rarely enjoy things that are just too predictable. Courting Greta, though, is a love story about a new, computer teacher at a high school and his romance with the not-so-feminine, high school gym teacher, our heroine. It's rare that the heroine of a romance is not "pretty," but even more rare is a hero with a disability. Samuel Cooke has a form of spina bifida that causes him to live a life with crutches and braces or use a wheelchair to get around.

I don't want to give anything away with this book. I liked it, but I didn't love it. Samuel Cooke annoyed me and I never grew to like him. Part of me wonders if this was on purpose; perhaps this is what made him more real than a hero of a conventional romance and perhaps that is a mark of a good author? What felt real was that sometimes you just never know what someone will see in someone else that will be attractive to them - and I'm not talking about physical attributes even though that would seem to be the most obvious conundrum of the novel. No, I am talking about personalities and character. How much do you put up with in a person? How patient are you with a person's past issues that creep into their present? These were things that the book had me thinking about even after I finished the book - and I did complete this one! :)

There are some interesting plot twists here and the pace is pretty good. I would recommend this book. In the end, it will have you thinking.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This is one that I think I read a little more than halfway through. There are some things about Osteen's theology that I don't agree with. In my opinion, he makes too many sweeping statements and though he does provide Scriptural references when he quotes the Bible, I find that sometimes he takes Scripture out of context and applies it in a new way to what he is talking about. I don't always think, "That's wrong!" but I do sometimes think, "Hmm... I don't know if that is quite what was meant here." Not all of his statements are like this. If they were, I wouldn't bother with reading the book at all. Many of his assertions ring true and his application of God's Word seems right. But if you aren't very familiar with Scripture, I think you might miss some of those instances where it seems to me that he is using Scripture to make it mean what he wants it to mean and perhaps not what it was originally intended to mean.

 Additionally, Osteen provides no citations for the anecdotal studies he refers to. So he'll say things like, "Science has shown that...." or "Recent studies on happiness reveal..." and there is nothing to back that up. I have written here a number of times about my interest in the science that is developing around the brain and happiness. There are plenty of sources out there and the statements Osteen makes do line up with things I have heard and read. But I feel like his claims would be more credible if he would cite the studies he is referring to. 

 I appreciate Osteen's zest for life and his positive outlook that he so willingly shares. I read books like this when I need a fresh perspective. Some of his stories are fun and funny and he is encouraging, if nothing else. That says a lot of a person, because everyone could use encouragement from time to time.

Rating: Goodreads calls 2 stars, "It was okay," and that is what I would rate this book.

Oh, I LOVED this book! First of all, it was a perfect combination for me: set during WWII and it is an epistolary novel, that is, it is written in a correspondence of letters. Adding to the charm of this book is that at the writing of the book, the two authors who wrote it had never met one another and began the book by e-mail correspondence. In fact, they began by writing in character to each other via e-mail over the course of a few weeks and then decided to develop their story more fully, which bloomed so delightfully into this book.

I love the writing in this, the tone of the characters' voices, the prose, the historic details. Loved every bit of it. And I cried at the end. I don't do that too often with books (probably because I often avoid books that I think will make me cry!), but when I do, it is because it felt real. This felt real and beautiful. Read it!

Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bob Goff does things that not very many people do. He is quirky and - his word - whimsical. This book is a collection of stories about some of his odd and interesting adventures. Then he ties in a little lesson about what he learns about Jesus through it. I think Goff would be more fun to see and hear his stories in person. The word that kept coming to mind as I read this was, "mild." Not that some of his stories aren't extraordinary, but I guess the way he applied his experiences to his thoughts about God had a bit of a greeting-card feel to them. I don't know how to better describe it. I got about two-thirds of the way through this book before it was due back at the library because there was a waiting-list. Many people love this book. I liked it.

Rating: 3 stars

This little book is a quick read. It's fun and contained some new perspectives on creativity that I hadn't thought of before. I think that's why I liked it so much. I've read a lot of books on creativity and this one reignited a spark. This is marketed as a "gift" book in book stores and it really would make a great gift for anyone. As with so many books, I got this one at the library, but I may end up buying it. It is something I can see picking up again and again for some good reminders. And because it made me happy. :)

Rating: 4 stars

And finally, speaking of happy, I finished this book too. Harris is an engaging writer, having written for many years for television news. He's kind of crass but, as he already knows, that is part of what makes his book on meditation so different than what is already out there. This is a book on meditation for Everyman. If meditation seems frou-frou to you or "airy-fairy" or just plain weird, have a look at what Harris has discovered. There's a reason it's a New York Times bestseller.

This is not just a how-to book, but it's got a great narrative attached to it that pulls you along for the ride. It helps that Harris works for ABC and his colleagues are familiar, household names: Peter Jennings, Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters, etc.

If you haven't read it yet, you should. Even if you aren't interested in meditation, it's a great read. But don't be surprised if you find yourself sitting on a pillow on the floor with your eyes closed, giving meditation a try!

Rating: 4 stars

Well friends, what was your favorite read this month? Let me know or connect with me on Goodreads so I can look at what you're reading!

Monday, February 23, 2015

Famous Easy Vegan Chili Recipe!

Happy Monday, Everyone!

I've got a busy day in store, so I am going to be tossing some chili into my slow cooker this morning to save me from having to prepare it later. I went back through my recipe tags and was really surprised to find out that I have never posted my FAMOUS VEGAN CHILI recipe here! :) Okay, maybe it's just famous in my family. But seriously, this is the recipe I have used ever since... well, ever since I learned how to make chili and it's the recipe I often give to folks who ask me for vegan recipes when they want to try something vegan but don't know where to start. I share this with them because I know it by heart because it's SO simple and really, really tasty. Here's something I tell people when I give them the recipe: It's all TWOs.

Famous Vegan Chili

2 large onions, chopped
2 cans (or 4 cups) pinto, black, kidney, or garbanzo beans or a combination (don't drain)
2 cans diced or stewed tomatoes with juice
2 T chili powder
2 t salt
2 t cumin
2 t oregano
2 t garlic (powder or minced)

(optional: burger crumbles)

Dump, dump, and dump. Into the slow cooker it goes on low for 6 to 8 hours. If you need to cook it for only 4 hours, I suggest sauteing the onions first. Also, this is perfect and fast on the stove top too. You don't have to use the slow cooker; just saute onions and the garlic if it's fresh, add the rest and simmer at least 20 minutes to let the flavors blend, but it can sit on the stove for a long time just simmering away, steaming up your kitchen and making mouths water. This recipe doubles and triples perfectly; it's an easy potluck dish to bring. It's also nice and easy for when you want to have a few friends over for dinner or want something nice to eat around a campfire. No fuss, no muss; just so easy. If you have any leftovers, you can top a veggie dog with this and some fresh, chopped onions too!

I almost always serve this with cornbread. I'll be happy to share the recipe if anyone is interested. In the meantime, I'm off to tend to my busy day. Hope your week is off to a great start!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Planner/Journal Play for the Weekend

It's 4:56 pm on Friday as I begin my post, which means the weekend is upon us. Lovely weekend. Hopefully it will mean some r&r for you. That's not always the case, of course. Lots of errands get run on the weekends and I may have one or two tomorrow as well. But I have finished the majority of my coursework early this week and plan to find time for some fun.

This... THIS arrived today!!

I mentioned in this post that I was waiting for my planner that I got to custom-design (to be used as my new journal) from to arrive. I thought I was going to need to wait 3 weeks, but it has arrived much sooner than that - just one week to be exact! The timing is perfect, because the planner is actually dated to start this Sunday. I'll have time to do some decorating and setting things up just in time for the new week. good. :) I got to add a message on the first page with my personal info listed below. I included that wonderful quote from Flannery O'Connor, because it's my journal... and that's just how I feel.

We also have some impromptu plans for tomorrow that just popped up! I was curious to know if there was a calendar of local literary events in the Twin Cities, and of course there is. Actually there are a couple of them out there. I liked the Rain Taxi website and was able to link their literary calendar to my Google calendar so I can have a peek at upcoming bookish events whenever the urge strikes. Their page is sponsored by local booksellers, most of which I am not familiar with. I am such a library person that I don't often go to bookstores, though I love them. I would just be broke if I frequented them, so I don't (sad, but true). That said, I know they often have events and I do like to treat myself to a little something and lend the tiny bit of support that I can when I do manage to check out a bookseller. Maybe tomorrow will be the day, because I saw that there is an Open Mic event happening at Subtext Books on the corner of Selby and Western in St. Paul. Poetry, spoken-word, stand-up, music? Who knows what will be there, but it sounds like a fun, creative, and free event to check out at 4pm.

The Academy Awards are this weekend, but sorry Oscar, so is the Downton Abbey finale. I'll be tuning into PBS instead.

So what are your plans? Reading any good books? How about writing a letter or sending a postcard. There are still 8 days left of the Month of Letters and the new Chinese New Year/Lunar Calendar stamps have arrived. So pretty, if a little bit cryptic in design considering this is the Year of the Sheep/Goat/Ram.

Well, that's it, friends! Off to get the weekend off to a good start; I hope you enjoy yours as well!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Thinking Yellow and Joyful, & Chic!

 With homework and all, it took me a little while to get back to this post that I began earlier today:

I have just braved "The Walk of a Thousand Winds" to arrive here at the Roseville Ramsey County Library. The girls and I gave it that name a few years ago, because for some reason, no matter what the weather, the walk from the parking lot to the front entrance of the library is always windy. Today that also means it is brutally cold! I just checked and it is currently -8 F. I remind myself that we had days upon days of this weather last year and am so thankful that we were blessed with such a mild January. But cold is cold!

Today is Ash Wednesday in the liturgical year. While my theology aligns more with the Anabaptist tradition, I come from a Lutheran/Methodist/Catholic background. My dad's family attended either Methodist or Lutheran churches and my mom was raised Catholic until she married my father. Ash Wednesday is recognized in the Lutheran/Methodist churches in which I was raised, but Lent is more of an optional observation; a season of contemplation. I like that about it.

Last year, however, I had a devotional of readings that I was following and the theme focused so much on the sacrifice and suffering of Christ that I was beginning to feel bad and depressed. I went with it for a while, reasoning that this kind of meditation would make the joy of Easter that much more meaningful to me, but then I just couldn't take it anymore. I am blessed to live on this side of the resurrection and in the joy of that. I do think often of what Jesus did for me - every Sunday, in fact, when I enjoy Communion. But Jesus did what He did to give me the freedom to live in the power of a post-resurrection life, not to laden me with crucifixion guilt. I am reminded that His is a free gift and a gift isn't truly a gift the giver is always reminding you of the cost.

My mom's church is taking a more positive spin on the Lenten season, focusing not what individuals can give up, but instead what they can give. Here is a handout they received at church this weekend:

I like this approach!

This year, I am staying in celebration mode right on through to the biggest holiday in the Christian calendar! I am "Thinking Yellow." That's the phrase that comes to me when I think of being in a good mood. You know: sunshine, happy faces, all that. :)

We've been back in Minnesota for 3 years now and in our home for 2 1/2. We painted the girls' bedrooms when we first moved in because they were literally a mud-brown color. Since then, though, I've gotten to paint a room each summer. The first room I chose was the kitchen (which was just a lighter shade of mud...) and last summer I painted our bedroom.

Our master bedroom is in the basement and after the long, cold, cold winter we had last year, I knew what I needed to do. Yellow isn't even my favorite color, but in a room with one casement window, I found my color, "Straw Hat," and eagerly painted my bedroom yellow! I have not regretted it for an instant! No matter gray skies or snowy days, my bedroom is always sunny and I LOVE it! Color has a true effect on us and at this time of year, I'll take all the help I can get!

I don't have a Word of the Year this year, but a phrase actually. I've kind of hesitated sharing it because one half of the phrase seems frivolous, but I find it to actually be very important. My phrase is, "Consistently joyful, consistently chic."

Now, if you were to run into me out and about, there is little chance that you would find me wearing high fashion - it's simply not practical in this climate, dahling. ;) But when I think of chic, I think of a phrase Jennifer L. Scott uses in her book, Lessons From Madame Chic which is, "Look Presentable Always." And that is something to me that is very important.

Having been a stay at home mom for the last 18 years, I have always found it important to get up and get ready for my day as if I were going to a job outside my home. I can't say that I always do it at the same time every day (on days when I work out, I wait to shower and do "all the things"), but it gets done. I just don't feel good about myself if I haven't fixed my hair or gotten dressed.

I know not everyone is like this. In fact, some women are the complete opposite of this and don't want to be bothered with all the messing about. And more power to them. Some women are most comfortable in jeans and a sweatshirt. I'm actually not. I do wear jeans, but they are more often - nowadays - nicer. And I will wear a sweatshirt occasionally, but these days, honestly, it's mostly for camping! That's just what I'm more comfortable in - strangely enough, being more dressed up than not. It lightens my mood and keeps me smiling.

So, I welcome the Lenten season and am excited that it means that spring is on its way. I'm looking forward to Easter, but I'm thankful that I'm living in the reality of its promise every day. And until the warmer weather arrives, I'm thinking yellow, joyful, and chic!

Friday, February 13, 2015

Time for Some Paper and Journal Love

So after all that talk about all the e-products I've been using lately, I thought it was time to share the paper love. This is a perfect month to do that because not only does Valentine's Day fall in this month, but it is also International Correspondence Writing Month AND A Month of Letters. Both of these cool sites challenge you to write one letter every day during the month of February! I won't even try to participate in the challenges, because I simply do not have the time with all the reading and writing I'm already doing for school, but I love the idea that there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of personal letters being floated around the planet this month to cheer their recipients.

I do plan to participate in my own, little way. I have already mailed out my stack of Valentines to a few people and I picked up these note cards at my local Dollar Tree this month. They are each a package of 8 note cards for a dollar. I love the designs as much as if I'd spent six or eight dollars on them, which is easily what note cards from gift stores can cost. I always like to have note cards on hand. Usually, there is not nearly enough room for all I want to say, but I often add paper to continue my conversation with my recipient.

While I like note cards, I do wish I could find, with greater ease, a better selection of sheets of paper stationary for letter writing. I have found some on Amazon, but haven't purchased any yet, because while the designs I found there are cute, I would like some more elegant designs. I suppose I could do something with images via PicMonkey or something like that and make my own. I suppose people do more of that these days. But I do miss the selection of designs when I was in my twenties and Minneapolis had the amazing stationary and gift store Uptown called "Polka Dots and Moonbeams." Later, the store changed hands and moved around the corner and across the street into a larger space near the Uptown Theater. They changed their name to "A Fine Romance." No matter what they called it, that store was a dream. I was a poor thing back then, but I always managed to come out with a small stack of cards: black and white photos, romantic illustrations. These found their way onto the wall in my bedroom and I faithfully took them down and back up as I moved around from apartment to apartment in those early, young adult years.

Speaking of photos, I recently found this wonderful tutorial on YouTube explaining how to design your own cover using PicMonkey for a custom planner that you can order via

But Nicole, you say, you just wrote about how you are not using a paper planner right now, but instead are using your Google calendar, Ultimate To-Do List, and Evernote for your planning! Yes, dear reader, that is true, but I have kept a paper journal since I was a child (with more regularity upon entering college) and imagine I will write until the day I head for my heavenly home.

 The whole experience of journaling is one that I love in each of its phases. I love picking out a journal that will be with me for a number of months. I love the writing process, filling in all that space with words and pictures, sometimes taped in, sometimes drawn. And I like thinking about what I want for my next journal as I get closer to the end of the present journal. What did I like about this journal and why? Do I want the same thing? Do I want something different? I've used smaller journals and larger journals. I've tried using loose-leaf paper and a three ring binder (I didn't really care for that). I've used bound journals, journals with fabric covers, and plain three-subject notebooks. Some of those covers remained plain, other times I have covered them with images I liked and then protected it with clear, Contact Paper.

This time, I am trying something NEW by purchasing a planner to use as my journal! I LOVE calendars and not only do I always write the date for each entry I make (of course), but I like to keep track of the weather when I remember to. So, when I saw that Personal-Planner not only lets you choose the type of layout for your weeks (boxes? rows? ruled? grid? blank? - it's your choice!), they also have the option for little weather modules on your days and a little module you can select for recording your workouts. There are a LOT of cool design choices. It was so fun to build!

The only thing I am kind of concerned about is if I will have enough space for my writing. To try to alleviate that problem, I chose to have all three optional back sections of the planner to just have plain, ruled paper. They have many things you can choose to have back there including things like maps and even coloring pages. But I knew that if I wanted this "planner" to serve as my journal for a year, I would need a bunch of space for those days when I have more to say/think about.

I am having to wait 3 weeks for my journal to arrive, as Personal-Planer is not in the U.S. and I can hardly wait! Thankfully, I still have some pages left in my current journal and I was also able to start the month of my planner in the month of my choosing, so I chose March. I'll be sure to share when it arrives!

Another of the of the joys of journaling and letter-writing is the tactile experience. Elsie from A Beautiful Mess blog just put out this video about hand-lettering. I don't know that I necessarily learned anything new from this video, but it is fun and she does discuss a few types of pens that you can try to achieve different effects.

Well, I think I've waxed poetic long enough on my love for paper. I am writing this today from the St. Paul Public Library in downtown St. Paul. It is a big, beautiful building with lots of wonderful, old rooms. But the parking meter will be running out soon, so I better head home and figure out dinner.

Have a fun Valentine's Day this weekend, friends. Whether your day is full of romance or friendship, fill it with love. We can never have too much of that! :)

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Vegetarian Mardi Gras Menu!

We don't generally celebrate Mardi Gras in a big way around here, but I thought this year we could at least observe the day with some good, Southern food.

Pancakes are a traditional food of Fat Tuesday. They contain fat, milk, and eggs: all the things that people would try to eat up before the season of Lent began.

So, tonight we'll have what my sister and her husband affectionately refer to as, "Brinner," or "Breakfast for Dinner." Along side the pancakes, we'll have fried okra. When we lived in Florida we could find fried okra in the freezer case at the grocery store. Not so in Minnesota. We do have okra, though, so I'll just make it from scratch.

And boiled peanuts. Having spent some of my youth in South Carolina, I was thrilled when I found that boiled peanuts were not only also popular in Florida, but that they sold green peanuts in the produce area of the supermarket too, so you could make your own at home. I didn't even bother to look up here, but I was amazed when my dad stopped by with some a few months ago. He'd picked some up in a can at Walmart. I'll confess to not being a huge Walmart fan, but you can bet I'm going to head in to pick up a few cans for Tuesday.

So, that's a carb, and a veggie, and a protein. And there you have a vegetarian Fat Tuesday celebration dinner. I can hardly wait! :)

Photos courtesy of

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Beautiful, Powerful Amena Brown

I had the pleasure this weekend, of being introduced, via IF:Gathering 2015 to Amena Brown and her work. Let me tell you, I LOVE spoken word art and, in particular, the spoken word poetry of Christian artists. Amena Brown gave shared an amazing piece with us this weekend about being Strong and Courageous, as the theme from this year's IF:Gathering was from the book of Joshua. I can't find the video of her performance though; perhaps it is too soon to have been released. In the meantime, here are a couple of wonderful pieces she's done in the past. Enjoy!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

First Week February 2015 in Review

A full, morning Snow moon
A true-blue winter morning
Sunshine and feather frost
(the new recipe I tried this week)
A trip to Savers for treasure hunting...
...yields a couple new dresses 
(the one I'm wearing is a Banana Republic sweater dress)
and a brand new purse (at a thrift store price)!
Friday and Saturday IF:Gathering
that touched my heart and kind of
blew me away. I'm still processing.
So many new babies at IF:Gathering! Such a delight!
It's Sunday afternoon. Paul is playing worship music on his guitar in the room behind me. Eve is rummaging around the kitchen for something to eat after working up an appetite on her violin, and Maia is in her room... um... I don't know, probably creating something interesting. I don't always know what will happen when she goes into "the lab." 

I'm having a look at the week ahead, perusing recipes and figuring out this new week's balance of the lessons I need to learn and the lessons I need to teach. I generally like this time of the week... just a few hours before "Downton Abbey", my reward for a job well done. 

Mardi Gras is this week, so I'm looking for something I might make for that. Preparing Valentines will happen this week too. Since Valentine's Day falls on a Saturday this year, it's a great day for preparing a yummy brunch to share with your Valentines.

A note on the English Pea Salad: I made it with my homemade vegan mayo, sunflower seed sour cream, and Follow Your Heart Monterey Jack cheese. I also used frozen peas instead of canned for my family's sake, but, oddly enough, I ADORE canned peas and I think it would have been better with them. Canned peas may be the only canned veggies I like, outside of using canned tomatoes. I think they are just a kind of nostalgic comfort food to me. I like fresh and frozen peas too, but there's just something about the canned...

Anyway, I also felt that the recipe was a bit heavy on the dried basil, so if you try it, I would suggest adding the basil a teaspoon at a time to taste instead of adding 3 tablespoons all at once.

Well, that's it. Must get to my planning. Hope your weekend has been special and your week is getting off to a good start!

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Favorite Online Planning Tool: Evernote

Last week I talked in this post about my planning and how and why I am currently using electronic planning more than paper planning, despite my predilection for the paper experience.* Today I thought I'd talk about one of the other tools I use on a regular basis in addition to my Google calendar that is making a difference in how I manage my time. That tool is Evernote.

Evernote has been around for quite a few years now, since 2008 in beta according to the Wikipedia page. I think I heard about it in 2009 when Amy Cowen of the former Creative Mom Podcast mentioned it as a note taking tool she was enamored with. At the time, I couldn't imagine using it, but then again, I didn't even have a cell phone then!

Note taking software is what Evernote is though, and I think I got a web account in the fall of 2013, though I don't think I used it much until the now defunct Springpad (kind of a mix between Pinterest and Evernote) folded and offered to automatically migrate all the info I had there over to Evernote. I also have downloaded the desktop version of Evernote, but have not used it yet.

Initially, I was kind of intimidated by Evernote, because so much of it is just text. I thought I wouldn't use it much and that it would be hard to find things. I liked Springpad because it was more visual and Evernote's "plainness" was just unappealing to me.

Now that I use it more often, though, I find that I use it more and more, practically daily even. And I know that I'm not even using all the features it offers. In fact, if you're perusing this post looking, perhaps, to find new or clever ways to use Evernote, you can probably stop reading now! I've only scratched the surface, I know. I learn more how to use it all the time.

If you are familiar with Evernote you know that it allows you to make notebooks, just like you would have files on your hard drive. And you can store notebooks within a notebook too, again, similar to folders in folders. But, because it is in the cloud I can access my notebooks wherever I go and, like so many productivity apps, it syncs across all my devices.

Some of the things I use Evernote for are:

  • My regular grocery lists. I have a list of items I regularly purchase at the various stores where I shop. I have made a master list in the order in which I move through the store. Evernote will format check boxes for you, so before I go shopping I actually just check everything I need. When I go shopping, I UNcheck the items as I go. I used to use a paper master shopping list that I kept posted on my refrigerator and I would check things as we needed them. Now I do the same thing on my phone whenever I think of something or whenever we run out. Then, before I head out to shop, I look over the list one more time, as it helps jog my memory of other things we need. I can add and subtract items easily as needed and the list is just always there, ready to go. I don't have to re-print copies or make new lists for each shopping trip. I have a list for Trader Joe's, Aldi's, Cub, Costco, and Mississippi Market (our health food co-op).
  • My random shopping lists. I make notes of things I want to pick up at Target the next time I go. I also have a list for the home improvement store or any other place I may be stopping at in the near future that I don't want to forget particular items.
  • Recipes! Yes, I use Pinterest for recipes too and I don't think I'll be transferring them all over to Evernote, but the thing I like about Evernote over Pinterest for recipes is that you can clip the recipe right into Evernote. You don't have to take the extra step of leaving the pin on Pinterest to go to the original website for the recipe. This feature is not just for recipes, obviously. Evernote can clip any kind of page or article you want to save for later reading. So, now I have a new notebook, for example, called, "Happiness/Inspiration" where I am clipping favorite online articles with information that I may want to refer to again. Additionally, this is where you can start to make Evernote look a bit prettier too, for all the visual folks out there. My recipe collection is growing more delicious by the day and I have them with me wherever I go. Plus, I can share them across all kinds of social media too; I have shared many recipes this way without needing to copy a recipe or find a link.
  • I can put photos, audio, or even handwriting into Evernote. I've only used the voice feature once when I was reading some homework while sitting in a parking lot waiting for my daughter. I wanted to take some notes on what I was reading, but I didn't want to key it all in on my little phone keyboard, so I made an audio file for later. Nice! :)
  • I make lists of books when I'm in the bookstore to add to my Goodreads "to-read" queue later.
  • I have blog topic ideas listed in another notebook with other blogging articles, etc.
  • I have school notebooks for my classes. I kind of go back and forth saving things for school in here and in Google Docs. I don't really have a preference in regard to this yet.
  • I have all my cleaning zone notes here as well in a notebook labeled, "Projects Around the House." These are my master lists for each zone and I transfer the tasks over various days of the cleaning week using my Ultimate To-Do List task manager.
  • I have gift list ideas in another notebook.
  • Some of my other notebooks are: EduTech, Explore Minnesota (with fun ideas for local trips), Holiday Plans, Job Search, Menus, Travel, and Vegetarian Hit List, where I have links to favorite vegetarian/vegan restaurants (and their menus) where we have been or those we want to try around the Twin Cities.
  • And, of course, I just use it for random notes.
As I look over the notebooks I have listed here, I realize that I am using Evernote in a similar way that others are using paper life planners. I just have online notebooks where others have tabs in their paper planners.

I'm sure there are SO many more ways people use Evernote. And there are other note taking apps that people really like too. I watched a few YouTube videos that helped get me started and generated some ideas for me. Most of those videos, though, are often business related. I'm not yet back out into the working world and so I wonder how other SAHM's or homeschooling parents might use this tool? Or even if you do work outside of the home, do you use Evernote? What are your favorite features?

*I do still have a Susan Branch 2015 paper wall calendar (I was going to link you directly to the calendar on Susan's site, but they are all sold out there, so here is the link on Amazon) in my kitchen. I adore pretty much everything Susan Branch does and my kitchen would not be the same without it! I don't really use it for planning though. It is there to let everyone in the family know what is going on; to make sure we are all on the same page.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

My Own Social Experiments

Back in 2011 I wrote here, "But I love projects. I really do!  For me, they make the ordinary extraordinary." I found that quote by searching under one of my tags, "projects," because I've written about them more than once. And my sentiment about them has not changed; I still love projects!

When I speak about projects, though, they are not always hands-on affairs, though often they are. There are plenty of projects available online. Some that I have participated in have been knit/crochet-alongs, photography projects, sketching projects, read-alongs and more. Of course, there are individual projects too. I have pushed myself to blog daily, run, pray, and more. In fact, any time I set a goal, I think of it as a kind of project. This is why I don't shy away from new year's resolutions whether they be health and fitness related, education related, or creativity related. I am always excited to see where a new project takes me.

Two weeks ago I gave myself a short, fun project. My social experiment was to smile at everyone I saw for one week. And do you know what I found out? It was harder than I thought it was going to be.

For me, I found it kind of awkward to give a big smile. Most of my smiling at strangers, I find, is more of a closed-mouth, brief upturn of the lips. But a big, genuine smile was more challenging to create because, lets face it, not a lot of people smile when they are out and about.

In fact, one of the other challenges I faced was just getting people to make eye-contact with me. I was surprised to see how we all go about our business - being together in a shared space - without actually looking at each other, or at least looking at each other eye-to-eye. The habit is mine as well and I had to remind myself when I was out to actually try to look at people. Sometimes I honestly forgot and I would realize, upon coming out of a store, that I had not actually looked at anyone! Even the cashiers who helped me rarely made eye contact with me and if they did it was very brief, indeed. This brief, half-a-second looking is much more common than actually maintaining any gaze and that was a problem I encountered too. If we actually did make eye-contact, the person was so quick to pull his or her gaze away that I didn't even get a chance to smile.

But I did manage to share a few smiles over the week and I even got a few in return. I plan to try this more an more. Science has a lot to say about happiness in general these days and even a few things to say about smiling in particular. Science, in fact, is one of the driving factors for my newest undertaking, meditation.

Perhaps you saw in this post that I plan to practice at least 10 to 15 minutes of meditation daily during the month of February. I hope that after this practice time I will like it well enough to continue. That is the draw: what will I discover?

I have tried meditating off and on over the years, but for hardly any time at all. As with most things you want to do well and appreciate the benefits of, you simply cannot dabble. You can't expect to become a runner by running once every few months. You can't expect to get in shape by trying to live on salads for a week and getting to the gym once. You can't expect to paint well or play the violin well or ride a horse well or anything unless you devote time and attention to the activity.

I have heard for far too long over the years of the many, many benefits of meditation, but I have never experienced any of it for myself because I haven't stuck with it. Likewise, with making a concerted effort to change my thought patterns to more positive thinking as well as the things I have done to manage anxiety, I have had to practice.

We are blessed enough to be living in a time when neuroscience is really exploding. I love hearing about new discoveries that are being made about the brain.

Perhaps you are familiar with Amy Cuddy's famous 2012 Ted Talk, "Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are." This is one of the interesting things I am talking about (and includes smiling!). Our brains work in such amazing ways; we are not always aware of how or why they respond the way they do, but we are learning!

Recently, I caught part of a program on our local National Public Radio station, Minnesota Public Radio. The program airs daily and is called "MPR News Presents" and it is broadcasts of talks given by various people on any number of topics. This program aired on December 31, 2014 and was a talk given in October 2014 at Augsburg College in Minneapolis by neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson called, "Hardwiring Happiness." I didn't get a chance to listen to the whole show, as I was heading into Trader Joe's. I am planning to listen to the whole program right after I'm finished with this post! The part that I did catch that was so interesting to me, though, was a part about how studies are showing that our brains can literally change shape with our thinking. Our brains are constantly being rewired for good or ill and now we know we can play an active part in that. This resonates with me deeply, because I do believe that I have made changes in my thought patterns over the last few years that have really enabled me to respond differently now to circumstances I experience today than the way I used to respond to them.

Here is what I hope to gain with meditation: I am not looking to free myself of all thoughts. What I do hope to gain is a greater sense of control over my response to the myriad of thoughts I experience on a daily basis.

I read this recently somewhere: Just as you do not need to let other people's negative opinions of you or comments to you affect your sense of who you are, you also should not let their positive opinions affect you either. That was new and interesting to me. It's not that we can't enjoy and be thankful for a kind thing someone says about us or to us, but if we let that begin to shape our opinion of ourselves, then we are giving that person too much power. Because, of course, if their opinion of us were to change then we would let that affect us as well.

No. My identity is in Christ and I know what He did for me and how valuable He believes I am no matter what anyone thinks of me. This is more than enough.

I now apply this thinking to my own thoughts. Some thoughts are positive and some are negative, but they are just thoughts unless they are grounded in the reality of what is happening right now. So, some days I wake up feeling low, but I can understand that this is just a thought or a feeling (caused by any number of things: lack of sleep, hormones, a virus, etc.) in my physical being. It is temporary and I don't need to allow it to lead me around by the nose. I can, instead, choose different thoughts and I can choose to remain in the present in order to appreciate my life right now. This is the tool of meditation. Practicing remaining in the present is a gift. Then when I am tempted to worry, for example, because, oh, am I tempted to worry... I can remember that first I give my concerns to God in prayer. And then the tool of meditation that I practice and hone on a daily basis will come into play and help my mind remain where I am right now and not wander off into some scary, imagined future.

This is what I believe meditation can do for us. This is what I am willing to invest time in to see if I am right. And I also am wondering if I will discover anything else along the way. I don't know because I've never tried. But now I'm about to learn. See you on the other side!

Sunday, February 1, 2015

A Warm February Welcome ~ Musing on the Month to Come

Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit!

I love this sparkling month. As a bona fide romantic, I most certainly love the top half of the month: the lead-up to Valentine's Day, the pink, the red, the white. Even if you're not in a romantic relationship, you have relationships and it's a lovely excuse to let people know how much they mean to you. And, as I'm sure I've written here before, I'm particularly fond of Valentine's Day because I've always loved small things and I love giving small things to celebrate: a postcard; a small ATC; a little sketch; a bookmark (perhaps in a previously enjoyed paperback book); a beautiful, polished stone; a hen and chicks succulent in a wee pot; a poem (written or copied or discovered!); a chocolate bar with a love note. Valentine's Day to me is not about huge, romantic expressions, but about small tokens of sincere affection. What's not to love?

In February, I also love how you really begin to notice that the days are growing longer in North America this month. Sometimes in Minnesota, the sunny day means it's actually pretty darn cold outside. But that's okay. The sun comes in through our big, picture window in the living room and casts beams across the floor. The kitties and I follow the light around the room, finding the perfect place to bask.

The kitties watch the birds, squirrels, and crows through the window while I plot journal and plan, listen to podcasts, pray, work on homework, read, cook, knit, study Spanish, do yoga, meditate, seasonal decorating, think, and be inspired! There is no shortage of things to do. In fact, spring will mean that I've got more things to add to my list. So for now, winter is still meeting my needs just fine. I have to admit that I am thankful that there have been far fewer shoveling days thus far this winter and that has made a difference. But, in general, I am pleased to be welcoming another February. 

In addition to the regular goings-on, here are a few extra things that I am looking forward to this month:

  •  Daily meditation practice - at least 10-15 minutes daily (more on this in another post)
  • Attending IF Gathering at church
  • On the hunt for small things for Valentine's Day!
  • Valentine's Day - brunch at home and dinner date with my honey. We'd like to go to the newer French Meadow Cafe in St. Paul. I love the one in Minneapolis - such great vegan options - and now there's one even closer! Delicious!
Those are the things I'm thinking about right now. Do you have any fun plans for this frosty, sparkly month? Let me know in the comments or on Facebook. I'd love to hear about them.

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