With Unclenched Fists

I’ve been a conscientious person for as long as I can remember.

From matching outfits since age 2 to feeling sickeningly anxious about going into school without my homework finished, that sort of became my reputation. I liked order, sensibility, and using time – as I saw it – well.

I always had expectations of myself. And that often transferred to me having expectations of (and desiring some control over) how I spent my time – and, specifically, what results I gained from it.

That creates some problems.

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When Thomas and I went to separate colleges, we talked for days about how our weekends together would be. If I made the trip north, I imagined dinner together, splitting a gelato at our favorite coffee house, then waking up early to make breakfast and go to Target and imaginatively pick out what doormat or desk our first house would have.

But I’d get up there, and we’d be indecisive on a restaurant. Then the gelato place would be too crowded with chai latte sippers for us to sit and actually enjoy said gelato. We’d stay up until 2 a.m. watching a movie with a terrible plot and wake up at 10 the next morning – my favorite time of the day sacrificed to sleep. And pretty soon it would be time to leave and I would think, “What happened to our weekend?”

My expectation wasn’t met. The result wasn’t enough.

I was so fixated on the “perfect” plan, making me unavailable to letting the weekend unfold for what it was. An informal dinner, yes. A late night, yes. But still a precious weekend. Not wasted time.

For many of us, the natural reaction is to face new (or even routine) situations with clenched fists, demanding a certain result. Not a loud, openly assertive kind of demanding, but the quieter, passive-aggressive kind.

Maybe you expect vacation to restore you back to zero stress. Maybe you have high hopes for that new job with a vague title. Maybe you’re putting in a whole bunch of time to a project that doesn’t seem to be giving you the results you want.

When we throw weight behind these expectations, consciously or not, our exterior toughens.

Our fists close tighter. We become less open-minded, more resentful, and more tired.

Not that planning is a bad thing, or working hard is useless. I don’t believe that. But my expectations have frequently caused me to be closed off to opportunities that offer inherent beauty – the kind of beauty I don’t see because my hands aren’t open to it.

My goal is unclenched fists.

I still want to be a conscious person; that hasn’t changed. But instead of trying to force the outcomes in a certain direction – my direction – I want to loosen my grip. Accept what happens with grace and humility, rather than stubbornness and irritability.

If we do that, if we can risk not knowing and keeping an open mind and appreciating things for what they are, I think we’ll find beauty.

Lessons of a Dining Room

If you’ve been around me at all in the past two months, then you’ve probably heard me talk about my new dining set.

A few friends graciously gave us their old dining table and chairs. Previously, we only had two patio chairs that were too low for the table and made us more inclined to eat on the couch (read more of that post here).

They unloaded the set on a sunny Thursday in late August. The wooden table and chair frames were burnt orange, and the cushions – with hardly any cushion at all – were wrapped in floral fabric, circa 1976. They needed a little love, and it was going to be my project.

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Now I love the idea of DIY. But sometimes I’d rather buy stuff than get grumpy over shoddy end products that make me want to pout.

In this case, though, I was determined to revamp this set and finally give ourselves a dining room. Too many times, I had wanted to cook for people but always talked myself out of it over lack of seating and a table to gather around. So we picked up two cans of paint, and I waited until JoAnn’s had a nice sale to get the fabric I’d been eyeing. I did a little Googling, a little sanding, painting, cutting and stapling.

I made progress because I was desperate to finish something and be proud of it.

I was tired of screwing up another loaf of bread, I still hadn’t put together a wedding album from last year, and the stalks of my basil plant were becoming twig-like, a sure sign of horticulture failure. This dining set was my hope of homemaking redemption.

But I like to think the upgrade wasn’t entirely in vain.

It felt so slow. I’d work on a couple cushions one night. Sand, then paint a coat, wait. Paint another coat, wait.

I saw the potential, the movement, but I yearned for the satisfaction of completion. And that’s not dissimilar from how I approach the learning process in other scenarios, too. Whether I want to be more diligent in prayer or be a better cook or curate an inviting home, I thirst for results, for the finished product.

I want to be inspired every time I speak to God. I want those pancakes to be as tall as Joy the Baker’s. I just want to find an area rug that doesn’t cost me a month’s rent and have a steady supply of fall-scented candles and patterned dish towels.

What I forget is that – like those chairs – progress and what we perceive as improvements are not always immediate, tactile, buy-them-at-TJ Maxx things.

They could be. For example, I could make a day trip and load up a cart with throw pillows, placemats, glass vases and bowls. New, little sentiment. My home might be pretty, but it may feel forced by perfection’s pressure. And my heart just might take on that same shape, as well.

My parents’ home intrigues me because it features new paintings next to old clocks. A modern red couch, lit by the same lamp that was there when I was ten. It is warm, decorated for the seasons and a complete evolution from their 35+ years of marriage.

I believe making a home or uncovering what we’re good at, what we’re crazy for – is all about developing our character.

It’s about a life of curation, not instant gratification. A collection of lessons and learnings in process, not necessarily end products.

Because a dining room is not about the furniture; it’s about giving people a place. Time in prayer is not about getting all the answers; it’s about being re-connected to the source of who we are. Baking awesome bread is not about having luck once; it’s about knowing the dough from kneading it again and again.

I have to think that magic happens when we give ourselves permission to be imperfect, in progress. 

And I’m not very good at this, but you know, I’m working on it.

So go ahead. Curate your home, make your art, bake your cake, and enjoy the results. But don’t neglect to see value in the slow. To notice the points along the way that ground you, teach you, and bring you joy.

Writing Update + Reader Survey

Last week, I started an online course called “Find Your Writing Voice.”

The goal is to have a bit more clarity in terms of who I am as writer, what I bring with me to the page, and what I most want to say.

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Lately, I’ve been pulling inward with my writing, penning weekly letters, journaling daily. And now, I’m completing assignments for this course.

It was important for me to sign up for a couple reasons. I want to improve my writing – for me, and for you. And I don’t want my love of writing to go stale. I want to invite you in without giving you fluff, or redundancy, or a shallow, filtered version of what I really want to say.

So, I’m pulling inward. Not indefinitely, but just for right now.

But in the mean time, can you help me? I put together a quick reader survey and would be so appreciative if you took a few minutes to fill it out. I just want to know a bit more about who is reading and how I can try to serve you better.

If you know of anyone else who might enjoy taking a look, feel free to pass it on. And truly, thanks for reading.

To Find Your People

I don’t remember where exactly I heard it, or when, but I’ve heard before that our two deepest desires are to be fully known and fully loved.

Maybe it was Donald Miller quoting Viktor Frankl, but I’m not sure.

Fully known. Fully loved.

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What comes to mind are all the reasons for us to stay un-known. It’s safer that way, on many levels. It doesn’t require any vulnerability. Any bending.

The world teaches us to be strong. To fake it until you achieve some arbitrary status or position.

It preaches kindness. And generosity. Honesty, maybe. But sensitivity and grace and a sincere openness with our lives? Not often.

I’m reading an e-book right now, and the author writes about how we get used to NOT listening to ourselves (and, therefore, not letting others know the “real” us). She uses the example of someone going into work upset about something – stewing and contemplating and anxious – and the minute someone asks how she’s doing, she replies, “Oh, great, how are you?”

It’s really easy to bury ourselves.

All this to say, I am so thankful I’ve found people to help me unbury myself, allowing me to be known, and loved.

It’s clear to me (looking back) that some of my closest friendships resulted from a life shift of sorts. Going to college, taking on a long-distance relationship, getting married, and the like. In all of these stages, I desperately wanted to find “my people,” whether it was an outright hunt or more subtle effort.

Sometimes it didn’t come naturally. At the start of college, I was on a serious friend hunt. I laugh with my fiery, red-haired friend that I saw her the first night of bible study and thought, “Wow, she looks so unique. I wonder if we could be friends.”

So painfully unnatural. But we sought each other out, and it worked. She, along with a few other friends, can make me be so honest it feels like I’m naked in the coffee shop.

And other times we find our people in a gradual way, with dynamics changing as slowly as the tides. Some coming, some going. In our houses with brownies, at the park, standing up with them at weddings and sitting in church pews weeks before we even realize they’ve been there all that time.

Sometimes it’s a friendship rediscovered, reinvigorated with new experiences and close calls shared.

For all the reasons why I’ve been able to find my people – who currently span from Arizona to France to five minutes from my house – I am so so grateful.

So maybe that’s what this post is about… an ode to friends. To my friends (and family) who allow me to listen to myself – who encourage it, even – so I can make a little more room for them to know me, too.

Welcome Home

A few weeks ago, the husband and I returned from our second vacation of the summer.

In early June, we traveled to Florida with my family. We invaded a 15th floor condo, beach bummed all day, mediated spats between boys ages 6 and 3, and read the same two Bearenstein Bears books over and over again to those boys.

We ate out a ton, and then bummed it some more. This has always been my family’s picture of vacation. It’s not that we’re inactive or unwilling to hike trails or cruise on the lake or visit historical monuments. We just seem to be our best selves, together, when we have emotional and mental space that only the beach seems to bring. It was lovely.

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Three weeks later, we left for another vacation –  again to Florida –  but with Thomas’ side of the family.

I learned to paddle board, despite not being able to stand for more than 10 seconds in the ocean. We kayaked in the bay, and laughed and cheered as Delilah pranced her way through and over low waves that lapped up hard against her chest. And we bought way more ice cream and waffle cones than we needed. This vacation, too, was meaningful in very distinct ways.

The first trip challenged the subconscious urge to check social media and email and instead dedicate myself to one novel. I wanted to slow down, and write more and remember what it was like to simply be without accomplishing something.

The second trip emphasized people. We now only see some family members a few times a year, so those were days to enjoy each other, catch up and do as families do. And because I didn’t want to be left out, I ended up hopping on a paddle board, too.

You’ll hear sometimes that photographers view life through a lens, mentally capturing important moments.

I began noticing in high school that I perceive these moments as pieces of narrative – small snippets of eloquent language that appear on a simple, imagined pages. Not so coincidentally, I experience this when I’m most aware of my surroundings. When I’m quiet and pay attention.

Like when I watched my sister-in-law shape her small baby bump with both arms, while my brother wrote out ’16 weeks’ in the sand for a photo op. It was so full of hope, a beautiful sign of my healthy baby niece.

Or the day when we so perfectly timed arriving at the beach just as a rain shower was brewing. The beach was nearly clear of people, except us. We set up all four umbrellas and hunkered down, getting completely drenched. I think we were gloating a little when the sun came out 15 minutes later, the beach to ourselves.

At one point as the sun was setting on the second vacation, I laid down on a blanket and just looked up. I was sure I could see the roundness of the earth in the sky. The sunset displayed itself in large ribbons of orange and pink and purple, and it felt all at once like a corny moment, and a sacred one. Simply because I was quiet and looked around.

This method of perceiving the world can be humorous. Like deciding to drive 14 hours through the night to get home early in the morning.

7pm felt like adventure. I took the first shift of driving, and I was chatty. Excited to be on the road and looking ahead to an entire relaxed day to myself.

10pm felt like bedtime. I questioned whether I’d be able to make it to midnight, and whether we should just get a hotel for the night. And then it was time for Thomas to drive.

3am felt like a craned neck from a poor nap. We snacked on the odd combination of oyster crackers and tropical Skittles. I took over driving again an hour and a half later.

5am felt like a whisper. A slight fog and cooler temperatures greeted me with the blue of early morning. The car was so quiet, with everyone asleep. In one way, it was soothing. In another, it was as if this whisper was more of a taunting. I was so tired. My stomach hurt from weird eating times and lack of sleep, and I so wanted to see home.

And when we finally did, it was glorious.

Things are not always glamorous, even on vacation, when we will them to be. I often put pressure on vacation – making a mental (or written) list of things I want to achieve, or an emotional state to aim for. But even on vacation, our moments are our moments.

And I’ve found that the best ones are a result of quieting things around me, rather than controlling them. Accepting them, rather than trying to find a way around them. Not wishing for something else.

Because let’s face it. Tropical Skittles and a dog sleeping in the back seat is a pretty sweet scenario. Even at 3am.

Around the Table

I just finished a book called Bread & Wine by Shauna Niequist.

I was breathing in the words, becoming engulfed by this book to an obnoxious extent, where I finally started prefacing my statements to Thomas with “I’m sorry I keep talking about this book, but…” Finishing it last week was a sad day.

Written in a memoir style, Bread & Wine is about the connection that happens around the table, over food. Shauna recounts recipes that take her back to her childhood, like blueberry crisp. She talks about what her friends (and their famous dishes) mean to her and how she’s learning to maintain a healthy perspective about feasting and fasting. And she includes all the recipes, so it’s pretty much a memoir/cookbook combined, and I was in heaven.

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In the book, she emphasizes how she feels the most joy and experiences God most clearly when she cooks for people, when they sit around her table and linger. The company, the nourishment, the flavor – all of it combined makes her feel alive.

It made me think about our current dining room situation. On the rare occasions that we do have friends over for dinner, we sit at the table…with two patio chairs and the office chair on wheels. We have yet to purchase dining chairs. Call us cheap or lazy (or maybe both), but we just haven’t.

So most meals are eaten on the couch. There’s nothing wrong with that. My brother offered us his dining chairs because he and his wife eat at the coffee table every night. We might do that, too…if we had a coffee table (see last sentence of the previous paragraph).

But for now, we practice the art form of balancing plates on the couch’s arm rests, hoping the salsa doesn’t go rogue and passing drinks back and forth, all while we watch the news, or a cooking show, or maybe Netflix. Like I said: art form.

We’re not unfamiliar with sitting around the table. I have many memories of my family eating dinner together, first at a somewhat rickety, wooden table in the kitchen with a long bench, perfect for sharing (read: invading) people’s space. I remember bickering with my brother and convincing Mom to let me have chocolate milk because I despised the plain stuff on its own. Then we had to move to a larger dining table when the family began to grow…boyfriends and wives and now grandkids who are phasing out the airplane-in-mouth technique. Growing still.

Just last week on vacation, we still took up too much space in the condo dining room, and two had to sit at the counter. But still, there’s something special about being all together and having to wait your turn to be passed the salad.

Tonight was particularly tricky for us, though, with grilled chicken and long stalks of asparagus. The couch wasn’t going to cut it, so we cleared the half-open pieces of mail and car keys and books to the other side of our round table (where our patio chairs were not), dusted off the surface, and ate there.

It wasn’t revolutionary or anything. But we looked at each other more. We asked more questions. The Barefoot Contessa and Brian Williams weren’t distracting me. And even though we sat low in those patio chairs, I really enjoyed myself.

I’m not sure I believe there’s some magic in sitting at a table. Community and conversation and hospitality can happen at the table, on the couch, or on a blanket in the grass.

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Photo Credit: Top Inspired

Maybe the key is about our focus. We who cook spend a good chunk of time on the meal, so we might as well be focused enough to really savor it – and appreciate who we’re with.

When I think about the first house we’ll own, I dream of having a big table outside that can seat at least eight, maybe ten. We will string up twinkle lights overhead and offer much dessert to make people feel glad they came.

But for now, I’ll start perusing Craigslist for regular dining chairs to occupy our table meant for four. Patio chairs were meant for patios.

Upon One Year

Just over one year ago, I was working a fundraising event for an internship, so, naturally, it was an occasion for mingling (awkward) and meeting new people. A staff member introduced me, saying, “This is Mallory. She’s got a wedding coming up in just a few weeks!”

The lady smiled a big smile – a squinty-eyed smile – tilted her head slightly and exclaimed in a squeaky tone, “You’re so young!”

I didn’t know how to respond.

People have a lot of opinions about marriage and the first year, in particular. Some messages are foreboding, like: You just need to make it through the first year. We also talked to people who said the first year is a dream; it’s year 10 when things get rough. What I’ve concluded is that everyone’s experience is a bit different.

As of today, Thomas and I are one year in.

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This past year, we’ve called two places home (and, seeing that the move was around Christmas, we set our tree up twice). We adopted a spunky dog, maintained distant friendships, experienced job acceptance and rejection. We’ve developed deeper bonds with siblings, ate a ton of beer pretzels and discovered the impact of a man’s desire to financially provide. We’ve argued over small things, like whether mangoes belong in a salad (more on that one later), and big things, like not feeling appreciated.

And I, myself, am learning. I’ve learned to cut T’s hair and almost make the lines on his neck symmetrical. I’ve learned to like some red wine (the sweeter stuff), navigate Kroger like a champ and cook breakfast for dinner in a pinch. I now understand that dogs love to chew jute rugs and recycling only works if you take it to Goodwill instead of letting it pile up in the laundry room. I’ve cracked two phone screens and, therefore, learned I can’t have nice things. I’ve also learned weddings are way more fun when you’re married.

Through it all, I’ve made a definitely incomplete, non-exhaustive list of some revelations. They’re not new concepts, but new for me in this present context. And, as we know from grade school, context is everything.

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I am painfully aware of my own flaws. Marriage gave me an excuse to have someone to gripe at no matter the time of day. I see his messes on the dining table and get frustrated, yet can completely ignore the wreck that is my side table. Interesting how that works.

The grass is green where you water it. Not on the other side of the fence (I didn’t coin this analogy, but I wish I did). Covenant means appreciating him for who he is, rather than being dismayed over who he isn’t. It means choosing to not talk bad about him, even in jest. If I’m not an advocate for him, who will be?

Togetherness matters. There is a time for day jobs, for evening commitments and separate directions. But at some point, you have to start talking. And listening. In dating life, this was easier. We were apart some days and together some evenings. The division of time made sense. When we got married, we had to figure that out again.

Be ready to dole out the grace.  In his book The Meaning of Marriage, Tim Keller writes that Jesus is the only reason we can continue to forgive our spouses and demonstrate grace without feeling entirely empty after we do so. His grace for us gives us the security and power to give it to others. I try to remember this when I see dirty dishes sit in the sink, rather than the dishwasher.

Do I practice these ideals every day? No. The last thing I want you to think is that we’ve figured this out. That would be pretty unbelievable.

But in this last year, we’ve made little steps towards realizing these things.

Maybe it’s true – years 5, 10 or 40 could turn out to be really hard. We’ll take them as they come, but today, I’m grateful for the milestone.

I’ll be sure to take good notes on what I learn this next year.

Purpose Where You Are

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about addressing the fact that our lives don’t always feel significant…”shiny” is the word I used. I gave a hint that I was experiencing this myself but wasn’t quite  sure how to explain it without feeling very pessimistic. Seeing that I’m not a pessimistic person (generally), I decided to wait. So here’s what I think about it all:

The idea of a shiny life is fairly standard. It may mean big houses with attached garages and cars under 100,000 miles, but it doesn’t have to. Sometimes I envy those who travel the world in a year with a couple backpacks, social entrepreneurs with one really good idea or authors with a ton of them.

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Regardless, the message of chasing your dreams, acting upon your good ideas, pursuing passion disguised as work and living as an empowered go-getter is everywhere, from the college classroom to internet memes.

What I recently learned, though, is that if you ask the average baby boomer, or even the generation that came after, if they experienced this same bombardment of uncovering “what you were made to do,” they would likely say no. They worked to work.

I won’t go into what mentality is “right” or “healthy” (seeing that I’m not sure, myself). But it’s interesting to me that this work entitlement seems to be strongly correlated with younger generations – my generation. So we graduate college, and many of us want to work a job that doesn’t feel like work at all.

I’m an idealistic person. I believe in passions, coming into the fullness of who we are, and using our gifts well (and if we get paid for those gifts, even better). But when I graduated and began working full-time for a small marketing company, idealism and realism clashed right in front of me.

Let me pause and say this: I enjoy my job. I love meeting different people and figuring out how best to convey someone’s message. My boss opened this door for me and took a chance on me fresh out of college. For that, I am so grateful.

But work still does feel like work most of the time.

Here’s why: devoting yourself to anything for eight hours a day feels like a loss of freedom at first. Especially when you just left college. This job challenges me and pushes me daily to be organized, tactful and composed under pressure. College, though difficult at times, never tested me in the way this full-time job does. I like it, but it still feels like work.

The most promising realization I’ve had lately is this: it’s ok that work feels like work.

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I’d love to be a missionary one day. I’d love to live overseas for six months, a year maybe. I’d love to write and encourage for a living, and lead others to uncovering and pursuing their own passions. But even these things would still feel like work at times. And in those moments, I’d probably forget that I once considered those things shiny.

What I’m learning is that I can absorb the skills, tools and grit I’m developing now and have confidence that I’ll use them later on in life, as well. Maybe when I do those things I mentioned above.

In wallowing in the fact that we don’t live what we perceive as shiny, we rob ourselves of joy. An attitude of thankfulness turns into doubt: “Am I wasting my time? Do I deserve something better?”

I don’t want to live in those questions.

So to you, wherever you are right now: it’s ok to use your positioning to identify holes in the world and uncover what you’re suited to do. But please don’t miss out on where you are currently. Even purposeful dream jobs are dull sometimes.

The other day, I was writing in Thomas’ birthday card, and a simple message articulating all of this presented itself clearly on paper.

“I pray this year finds you hopeful for the future, but fills you where you are.”

This is my wish for you, too.

What May Not Be Shiny

This weekend helped re-charge me.

Over the last few months – with graduation, moving into a new home and starting a full-time job – I’ve experienced a wide range of emotions.

I’ve been extremely grateful. Anxious about choosing the right path. Hopeful for the future.

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I’m still processing through these things, and I’m not quite sure, at this point in time, what I want to tell you abut them.

But this weekend just filled me up.

It could have been the sleeping in on Saturday morning, Thomas finishing the semester that morning and running errands with him, being witness to a wedding that afternoon or having 20 kids show up for youth group when I normally get 12.

Do you ever catch yourself wishing your days were shinier? Do you consider your routine insignificant or downright boring? Do you wish you lived a different life?

My weekend wasn’t shiny. But it was steady and sure.

That thought’s been rolling around in my head for a few weeks now. Again, I’m not sure what it means yet, but I’m willing to probe.

As you go about this week, remember that it may not be shiny, but that doesn’t make it less important. Your work, your meal planning, your taking the dog out and cheering on nephews at baseball games.

This is the stuff that is steady, sure.

A Place to Gather

When we first got married, I thought I had a “vision” for our home.

I had a subscription to HGTV magazine, was an avid pinner all throughout college and frequented many blogs about home decor, craft projects and furniture makeovers. It was all very aspirational.

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So when we rented our first house, likely styled in 1972, I was a little peeved at my rusting stove, the carpeted bathroom, and the lamp in the corner that looked like it belonged in Narnia.

Despite my home being less than magazine-worthy, I discovered I loved having people over. Parents came for dinner. A sister came to play with the dog. Friends came from out of town to sleep on the floor and hang out with us.

Around the same time, I listened to a podcast with a couple writers who were talking about their homes. One expressed her desire to have a home that is a natural gathering place. Always welcoming. Always available. A place that provided respite for people who just wanted a break.

That podcast gave me some clarity. I realized that regardless of what my home looked like, I could determine how people who entered it would be treated.

Since then, I’ve experienced a cheesy amount of  joy in hosting. You know how some things in life just fill you up? For me, this is one of them.

One of Thom’s friends lives a few hours away. He came to visit a few weeks ago, and a home-cooked meal and a futon with clean sheets seemed to give him a sense of peace…a piece of home.

The very next night, we went to dinner with my brother, his wife, and a couple cousins. Afterwards, they came to our house to eat dessert and play games. We sat on the floor and played Yahtzee, watched basketball and laughed much as everyone confessed quirks they discovered about their spouse upon getting married.

And last weekend, we hosted eight middle-school girls from the youth group. They decorated cupcakes, made a mess of my kitchen and belted out every song lyric from Frozen. Afterwards, one of the youth boys stayed an hour or so – processing what it will be like to go to college next year and telling us his big dreams of inventing electric jets.

This is such good stuff. It’s not perfect, but it’s good.

Cooking dinner or dessert, putting sheets on a spare bed and letting people sit on your couch are small things. Sometimes we turn them into stressful things when we think about how to perfectly time the meal, or how the guest bedroom is a dumping ground for everything that doesn’t have a place and is in no way, shape or form fit for company (just me?). Fight against those stressors.

We don’t vacuum as often we as should, my kitchen sink disposal sometimes smells bad and we still only have two patio chairs that suffice as dining chairs right now.

But we welcome people anyway. That’s my new vision.