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.

Idols

We experience God in different ways.

Obviously.

This past fall, I watched a simulcast conference thing with a couple of hugely popular Christian teachers. They had to decide whether or not the conference would feature a music set. Ultimately, they decided against it, saying that it’s easy to let worship be a result of a specific mood or environment that music often sets. They wanted people to praise God because he’s God. No fancy stuff attached.

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Photo Credit: Wai Shaw of Flickr Creative Commons

So yeah, I sometimes fall into that camp. I like my music, and it definitely draws me near to God when I let myself really listen to the lyrics, the movement.

Books do the same for me. I have a growing list of books I want to read, categorized as Christian non-fiction because I gain a ton from other people’s words and experiences. I love being poured into that way.

I also experience God in hearing how he works in other’s lives. Recently, I’ve felt a lot of joy over Thomas being able to pray with kids at work and give the gospel to them straight. That is so cool.

The heart problem, though, is that all these things have not been God himself. They’ve been substitutes, rather than complements.

I’ve taken my favorite books and made them the bible.

I’ve taken powerful songs and made them prerequisites for drawing near.

In the beginning, there was God. At the end, there will be God. And I think to myself, “Isn’t that enough?”

I’m working on it. Maybe it’s just the human way of seeking something tangible related to faith. I may not see God face to face, but I can read about how he’s moving, regardless. I can listen to something beautiful and be reminded of beauty.

But he alone is enough.

So I’ll repeatedly need to get back to the basics. Just God, and without the fancy stuff.

If any of this relates to you (particularly those of you in modern or contemporary churches), I’d encourage you to read this article. It’s a good one. 

Why I Cook: A Manifesto

A funny thing happens when you move out.

All of a sudden, Mom’s not there to make a full meal every night consisting of a protein, starch and green veggie. Someone has to do it. And by that I really mean get dinner on the table, green veggie or not.

The kitchen is one room in the house I really take ownership of. The guest bedroom is extremely unorganized, my bedside table is a wreck, but my kitchen actually makes sense.

I’m thankful that cooking and baking are not burdensome. I enjoy both, as long as I have time to do so and don’t feel rushed. Lately it’s become even more clear to me why I cook and why I bake. So here it is, my kitchen manifesto. Or something like that.

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I cook because I love to eat. Bacon, potatoes, brussels sprouts, rice, cheese, pasta, chicken and wine. Good white wine. Rolls, kale, pizza, brownies, muffins. You get it. And if I don’t have the budget to get these things at restaurants (I don’t) then we need an alternative. Cooking is the alternative.

I cook for the pride of making something really delicious. When I look at my pretty plate of food, or have onions sautéing on one burner, sauce simmering on another and who knows what in the oven, there is something magical about it all coming together. And when it happens to come together at the same time, it’s pure glory.

I cook because it keeps me humble. I’ve made beer bread that was terrible, and some ultra healthy zucchini bread that was even more so. Rolls have turned out tasting too much like yeast and muffins come out too bland. Chicken underdone. Noodles too soggy.  It teaches me that I have so much to learn.

I cook for Thomas. Because he can do better than frozen pizza and buttered noodles, dang it.

I cook as a creative outlet. Monday through Friday, much of my time is spent on the laptop. Evenings and weekends roll around, and I tend to unplug. Kneading dough for pizza tonight felt so great because I could touch it, mold it how I wanted. Finding external ways to express creativity is healthy.

I cook for tradition and to carry on the recipes that both my mom and mother-in-law hold so dear to them. From breakfast casserole to cinnamon rolls to brown sugar thighs, these recipes are worth sharing. Plus, it gives us something to talk about when we’re together.

I cook to share love. And joy. And goodness. Because a tasty bite can instantly provoke feelings of peace and satisfaction. One good dish may not save the world, but it can change how we view the world and our own problems, even if it’s for a mere moment.

Your hobby, or maybe just whatever you do day-to-day, matters. It really matters. What you cook, play, study, teach or sell, these things are important things, and to identify why we do them can be reassuring.

Sometimes we do them for the wrong reasons…because we feel like we have to or the world would fall apart if we didn’t.  And other times we do them because we just plain like it.

Whatever you do, I hope it brings you some kind of goodness.

The Art of Discipline

One of my goals for this space is that it is an authentic one.

A place where I can be honest and vulnerable and, just maybe, some of you will be vulnerable with me. I want it to be a place of safety and encouragement and a general openness about what the heck’s going on in our worlds, together and individually.

So let me be honest about where my mind is right now.

I don’t always enjoy sitting down to write. I’m oftentimes not too fond of how my posts unfold – the selection of words to somehow express the thoughts that I hang onto long after conversations have ended, the thoughts that sometimes wake up with me and lay to rest when I do.

And I have this bad habit that can plague a writer – or anyone – to only act upon inspiration. When I actually feel I have something to say.

Lately, I’ve felt “emotionally balled up.” Still not sure exactly what it means, but that’s how I described it to Thomas. Like I’ve been so busy churning out stuff during the day that when I get my couple hours in the evening, I just want to watch Dexter and eat a brownie. Not blog. Because finding the words to explain those thoughts would take too much energy, and it’s already 10pm. That’s what I tell myself.

But those thoughts and questions haven’t gone away. I’m reading Emily Freeman’s book A Million Little Ways right now. In it, she contemplates the art that God charged each one of us to make, though it takes various forms. She talks about the freedom that God gave us to add to creation with our art offerings. It’s prompted me to question what kinds of art I have to offer, if I’m using my skills in the most effective way, and whether I’ll have the courage to step up when it’s time for me to step up. To dream a little.

And that’s where I am. Twenty minutes ago, I had to wash dog poop off my hands (an attempt at a snowy walk that went rogue). Inside my front door, rock salt still needs swept up. But I tell you that to tell you this. Through the mess, it’s easier sometimes for me to throw up my hands at it all and eat the brownie. But here I am, with a quiet moment, letting myself write, and not because I feel inspired. And I already feel a little bit better.

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When The Hype Fades

The beginning of a new year seems to bring to the surface all the motivation we didn’t really know we had.

Suddenly the goals and ambitions that discouragingly crossed our minds in 2013 seem feasible in 2014. We get ambitious. And losing those pounds, starting that project and becoming a better friend/wife/etc. can actually be reached.

So far this month, I’ve read a lot of blog posts and articles about goals and resolutions: the beauty in sharing our personal goals, why not to share our goals, reflections on the past year and things we want to be true of the next one.

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Photo Credit: Emma Bilyeu

I’m a believer in change. I believe that people can reach their goals and they don’t have to let them fizzle as the deadness of winter kicks in.

But here’s the tough part: the deadness of winter kicks in.

We fall back into the comfort of routines. The comfort of worrying only about what’s on our plate each day, rather than what’s on our plate in addition to the fact that we’re not achieving what we’d like to. We get tired. We don’t feel emotionally connected to our goal. And the thing we were so pumped up about a mere month ago again seems like a daunting or logistical mess.

But for the many excuses I make for myself to not just start working towards a goal, there are a million people who I could compare myself to and envy what they have accomplished…simply because I want to achieve it, too. And I start to perceive those people’s lives as easy, glamorous or somehow more enticing than my own. Which is sad.

Jessi Connolly wrote recently, “It’s beautiful when the Lord ignites passion in us to do THINGS but it’s terrible and breaking when we’re measuring our worth against how things they happen for other women.” Read more of that post here.

I am so guilty of this.

In my life, discontentment manifests itself in comparison – and, ultimately, envy. I begin to notice my lack, rather than my plenty. My day as ordinary, rather than a gift. My goal as insignificant, rather than change-generating.

If only the pure energy behind our goals in January remained through the winter. If only we could just remember how good it felt to eat healthy, make tangible progress on our projects and be intentional in our friendships.

Then maybe we wouldn’t be so dead set on looking to others to see if they’re doing any better than us.

It doesn’t have to be like this. I’m sure of it. I’m just still working through how to stay on top of my goals through the blah-ness of winter and keep my zeal through the goodness of spring. And summer. And fall.

Join me in trying to figure this out. What will keep your goals from fizzling out?