Sunday, May 31, 2009

Spiritual Sundays: Changes

Monkey and me at his preschool graduation. Hard, but so good!

I think that it is safe to say that, quite simply, change is hard. No matter what the change, something as small as switching shampoo to a life change like moving across the country- it's hard! I think that most of the time it has to do with a basic fear of the unknown. Take the shampoo for example- you've used the same shampoo for a month, you know what your hair will look like when you're done, you know the smell, the way it will suds up. But a new shampoo- will your hair be shiny? Tangly? Drier or more oily? More wavy? Straight? Will it rinse out easily or take a few passes? Will your hair smell the same as the shampoo or will it react with your body chemistry to smell different?

It might seem like a silly comparison- okay, it IS a silly comparison! But it just goes to show that anything that is unknown can make us nervous. It can make us long for our old shampoo- it can make us want to slam on the brakes and just stay put, because- well, what if?

One of my favorite sayings is, "That which doesn't change remains the same." Well, duh, right? But the reason I like this saying is that it shows you that no matter how scary or nerve-wracking or intimidating a change may be, you always have to consider the alternative. You could just slam on the brakes and stay put. You could throw it in reverse and stick with what you know. But would that really be better than taking a step into the unknown?

Let me back up and let you know a little bit about why this topic has been on my mind lately. Friday was an eventful day for us- my baby boy (my oldest) graduated from preschool, and we had a party for some of our best friends (also our neighbors) who are preparing to move to California. Going to these two events with the tears and heartache at moving to another stage of life, there was a part of me that just wanted to yell, "STOP! This is all going too fast! Slow down! Where did the time go? I feel like I missed something!" And yet I had to remind myself- that which doesn't change stays the same.

I started thinking about my baby boy and my friends. What were the alternatives to this painfully uncomfortable change? Would I want my son to stay my baby forever, and never have the chance to grow up and learn and progress and experience all the joys that childhood and young adulthood- and eventually adulthood- have to offer? Of course not! Would I want my friends to stay in a place far from their family and take employment that was unfulfilling and did not allow them room for growth and forward progression? No way! I love these people, and regardless of all of our heartache over the matter, the time for change has come, and that time is now, no matter how hard it might be.

I had something of a reality check yesterday while attending a family function that kind of helped me put this all in perspective. My sister-in-law recently had a beautiful baby boy, and there are 3 more of my sisters-in-law plus me who are also due within the next year. As I sat outside and watched all of our children run around and play in the water together, I couldn't help but marvel at the beauty that all of these changes have brought to our family. I thought back to the days when I joined this extended family and I had only 1 nephew. Now there are 16 little ones running around, playing, and getting into mischief (well not all of them are quite old enough for the running and mischief, but you know what I mean!) and 4 more on the way. I can't even begin to express the joy I felt at watching them, unknowingly building bonds of love and friendship that will last them the rest of their lives. What a beautiful example of change this is, and how change can bring unimagined joy into parts of our lives we didn't even know were lacking.

So I guess that my point is this: We cannot stick our heads in the sand and wish the change away. Is it okay to cry and get emotional? Absolutely! That's what gives our life experiences meaning and cements the memories into our hearts. But once the tears have dried, we must look ahead with hope, hope that the new memories we will make will be just as sweet as the ones we are leaving behind- perhaps even sweeter. We must take the opportunity to look ahead to upcoming changes and prepare ourselves by enjoying life in the here and now.

For example, with my new baby due in the fall, I have realized what a precious time these next 3 months will be in my life- it will be the last time I will have just my two children and me at home, because in September they will both start school (preschool and kindergarten) and I will have a new baby to look after. It will certainly be a joyful change to send them off to school and to welcome a new addition into our family, but I am sure that there will also be a part of me nostalgic for the days of summer when it was just our family of four. Looking ahead to this change has helped me to focus a little bit more on cherishing the time before the change, because I don't want to have to look back and wish I had savored it a little more.

So I have decided that I will take this opportunity, before life turns upside-down yet again, to appreciate what my life is now. I will cherish each moment, and anticipate the excitement of stepping into the unknown. I will remember the joys that have come from past change and look forward to the joys of the future. I will cry, but then I will smile, because change? Well, change is hard. But no change would be even harder. And in the end, change is really good.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Michelina's Deal at Kroger- Sweet Steal!

This week at Kroger the Michelina's Budget Gourmet Entrees are on sale 20 for $10- that's $0.50 apiece! I was a bit skeptical, but for that price I had to at least try them. I picked up two during my Kroger trip yesterday, and I had the Chicken Fried Rice for lunch. It was small, but very tasty, and certainly enough for my lunch when paired with my usual fruit and yogurt on the side. 

I decided it was too good of a deal to pass up, so today I went back and used a Kroger coupon I'd gotten in the mail for $2 off a $10 frozen foods purchase and bought 20 more! So for a mere $8 I have more than 3 weeks worth of lunches, and they'll make good snacks for my always-hungry husband. Not bad!

I believe the reason these are on such a low markdown is because Michelina's is changing their packaging. Be sure to look for the Budget Gourmet in the blue box (see photo above), and check freezer endcaps because that's where I found the best selection- most of the ones in the regular frozen entrees section had been cleaned out. 

Happy shopping!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Spiritual Sundays: From Heartbreak to Triumph- When Dreams Come True

This post will be slightly different from my usual Spiritual Sundays posts, as this is more inspirational that spiritual. I have had the privilege to have a front-row seat for an unfolding story that has warmed my heart and made me believe that maybe- just maybe- dreams can come true. It is a story of dreams deferred, hope ignited, heartbreak, and hope rekindled once again. I hope that this story warms your heart as it has mine, and I hope it causes you to stop and think about what you believed was possible.

I wrote the first part of this story at about this same time last year, in response to a tragedy:

May 2008

I just had to take a moment this evening to write about the terrible tragedy that occurred at Churchill Downs, the Kentucky Derby, yesterday afternoon. It may have been hundreds of miles away, but it was close to my heart.

The Kentucky Derby had always been something of an event in my home growing up. My mother spent a good part of her childhood at the Santa Anita racetrack, perching on the rail, mingling with jockeys, sneaking into barns to peak at champion thoroughbreds. She dreamed of one day galloping a horse along the back stretch at breakneck speeds, a fantasy she played out as she would fly with her horse Dina across the desert wilderness of 1960s Southern California. One of my favorite pictures of my mom is mostly a blur- the landscape around her fading into a wash of colors, the only thing in focus is a beautiful young woman crouched atop her speeding mare, hair blowing in the wind and a smile that seems ready to erupt into a squeal of pure delight.

Despite her passion, however, racing had always remained a spectator sport for my mom. She has had horses off and on throughout her life, mostly as a hobby, occasionally as a means of employment, always content to just be near the magnificent creatures that she loved. The blue grass of Kentucky seemed to be a watercolor dream that we got to share with her once a year, the first Saturday in May, when the TV came on, bringing the championship horses back into vivid color, and she would giddily pore over each entry in the Kentucky Derby.

The yearly event was always something I enjoyed, because I too share in my mom's passion for horses. But more than anything I think I just loved to see her so excited about it. As I have grown and moved away from home, I'll admit, I've missed a few years. But this year was different.

Earlier last year, my mom had the opportunity, for her 60th birthday, to travel to Kentucky. For a few days, she lived the dream. She toured the barns, she walked Churchill Downs, and she attended the Keeneland Sales. I spoke with her on the phone, once or twice during her trip- very briefly, of course- and she sounded nearly breathless with excitement, trying to tell me everything at once, yet hurrying to speak quickly so that she could get off the phone and re-immerse herself in the atmosphere. I couldn't help but smile during those conversations, thinking that my mom sure didn't seem like she had just turned sixty. It was the trip of a lifetime.

Shortly after that trip of a lifetime, my mom stumbled upon the opportunity of a lifetime. Her name was All Her Tricks, an unassuming bay thoroughbred mare with an elderly owner who was ready to retire. She was a beautiful horse, at a ridiculously low price. A price that became even more ridiculous as my mom started to research her bloodlines, consisting of Thoroughbred racing royalty. It was too good to be true, but there she was, the mount to carry my mom right into her blue grass watercolor fantasy. Perhaps it is true that when you have a dream and the time is right, the whole universe really does conspire to help you achieve it.

And so Tricks joined the rest of my mom's brood, a shining Thoroughbred princess living just down the barn aisle from a Tennessee Walker, an Arabian, an elderly Morab, and a middle-aged quarter horse. Tricks was kind enough not to be judgmental, and she quickly found her place amongst the herd as my mom worked just as quickly to find her a suitable mate.

After some months of trial and error, a handsome (and somewhat famous) stallion named Birdstone was courted and Tricks moved away to be with the hopeful soon-to-be father of her foal. Just weeks before the Kentucky Derby, my mom sent me a message with the exciting news- Tricks was expecting! An ultrasound had confirmed that she was with foal.

And so the Kentucky Derby arrived, this time with more excitement in our family than usual, because not only had we set a foot a foot in the racing world, but our little girl Tricks had family running in the race! My mom called me with the names- watch out for Eight Belles- she's Tricks' aunt (sister of her mother) and Visionaire- he's Tricks' half brother.

I watched all of the pre-race coverage, and talked with my mom on the phone while we watched together. Every time Eight Belles would come up, we'd get a little giddy. I listened to the commentators make their predictions, and I thought to myself, Eight Belles is going to do better than they think. They just don't think she'll do well because she's the filly and all the commentators are guys so they're just sexist. She's going to do better than they think. I just had a feeling about it.

As the race began, I held my breath, but I was smiling inside. My inner smile turned into an outward grin as the pack approached the final stretch and our little filly Eight Belles- seeming more like a family member to me than just another racehorse- made her move to second. I hadn't expected her to win, but watching her hold that second place just made my heart leap for joy. It was as if she and I had shared in a secret, and I had just known she could do it. As she crossed the finish line taking second place, my heart was galloping right along with her and I cheered aloud, "She did it! She got second! That's my girl!!" I was sure that somehow sweet pregnant Tricks was proud of her aunt and the valiant race she had run against the guys. I was basking in the glow of her accomplishment when Big Brown spooked, throwing his jockey, and the commentator said that a horse was down on the track.

I was immediately concerned, and then they said it was Eight Belles. My heart caught and I strained to see and hear what was going on. I know enough about horses to know that if a horse is down- really down and not getting up- that something is terribly wrong. Still, there was a voice in my head that wouldn't let me believe it could be that bad. I mean, she had just run an incredible race, healthy, strong, beautiful Belles- maybe she just had a sprain, and she's just tired so she can't get up quite yet...? I kept my breathing even and my thoughts careful, even as I heard the words, "heart attack," and "aneurism." Then the news came from a shocked and flustered vet- two broken ankles, had to be euthanized. Two broken ankles? How could she break them both? Euthanized? It took a moment for the word to register. Eight Belles was dead. Less than 2 minutes after a glorious finish and she was now lifeless on the very ground her hooves had pounded moments before.

I collapsed to my knees in front of the television, my hand clasped over my mouth, tears brimming behind my eyes. I just didn't understand. It didn't make any sense.

I waited nearly a half hour before I called my mom. I know her well enough to know that she wasn't going to be able to talk for awhile after something like that. She would collapse in tears to even hear of a horse being hurt in a book or a movie. And for it to be Eight Belles, the filly that represented the dream she had held in her heart for so many years- I just knew that it would be too much for her to bear. As I reeled from the tragedy of it, I fought with the need to get more information and the aching desire to turn off the tv. Why were all of these people celebrating? Didn't they see what had just happened? Why are they laughing and hugging one another? I was confused with the dissonance between the cheery images on the screen and the shock and pain that filled my heart. Certainly they couldn't be blamed- their dreams had just been realized. But for another trainer, another jockey, another owner and their family, their dreams had just been shattered into a million awful pieces. It didn't take long for me to see that I wouldn't get any more information from the television, and I turned it off, unable to watch the ceremony in the winner's circle. Big Brown will go for the Triple Crown; Eight Belles would never run again.

There are many people placing blame in this tragedy, faulting the jockey, the trainers, the breeders. But at the end of the day, at the end of that race, at the end of the finish line, Eight Belles was a beautiful thoroughbred who ran the race of her life. I know horses well enough to know that they won't do anything well that they don't want to do. And Eight Belles wanted that race- you could see it. Perhaps she didn't plan the ending, but I doubt she would regret it. She will live on in our hearts and our memories, and perhaps in the tiny heartbeat of a little foal whose great-aunt was a true champion.

Well, that little foal was born in the early morning chill of March this year, a beautiful little brown colt with red eyelashes. He is strong and playful, and has been given the barn name of Little Red while his official registered thoroughbred name is awaiting approval by the Jockey Club. On a visit to my mom in March, I got to see him frolicking about in a late spring snow and pestering his poor mom to death. He already loves to run, and I can only imagine what he'll do when finally put on flat ground away from the hills of West Virginia. He is spunky, yet eager to please, and was still a little shy around strangers when we first met. However, he warmed right up to my 4-year-old son- probably just happy to see someone around who was smaller than he is!

Last week, with the Kentucky Derby approaching once again, my mom called me with news- she wanted me to know that, as a newspaper article had put it, "the 'birds' are coming to town"! Two of Birdstone's babies, Little Red's half-brothers Summer Bird and Mine That Bird, would be running in the Kentucky Derby. Both would be long shots, but to even be eligible for the Kentucky Derby a horse has to be in the top 20 horses in the nation, as far as their earnings go, so it was definitely a boost of confidence in our hopes for the value in Little Red's breeding.

I wasn't able to watch the Derby yesterday, as I had a prior commitment to attend a dinner at church. But I watched all the pre-race coverage, hearing very little about the largely unknown "Birds", and called my mom before I left to ask her to call me on my cell to let me know how the race turned out. I reluctantly turned off the television after the national anthem had been sung and headed out the door.

Post time was at 6:24, and as I talked and laughed with friends at dinner, I alternated between checking my watch and my phone, eagerly awaiting the call. After all, it was the Kentucky Derby- you just never know what might happen. Just after 6:30 my phone rang. I stepped out in the hall before answering. My mom's voice came over the line, cracking with emotion as she said, "Kasey?" Suddenly remembering last year's outcome, my heart started to sink, but then she said in a voice thick with emotion, "Mine That Bird won the Kentucky Derby! He WON!" I was in shock. I said, "WHAT? HE WON? HOLY CRAP!"

I tried to get more information but the cell phone reception inside the church was bad, and my phone dropped the call. I immediately ran outside to call her back. I couldn't get ahold of her for awhile, but I kept trying because I was dying to know the details. When we were finally able to talk again, she filled me in: he was a 50-1 long shot, came from out of nowhere, and cleared the rest of the pack by 6 3/4 lengths. It was remarkable.

When I got home, I couldn't help but laugh when I watched the footage, because it was so improbable, yet so incredible. I was also so in awe of the fact that cute Little Red, goofing off in a field on a hill in West Virginia had a big brother who just won the biggest horse race in the world, and did it in such a miraculous and astonishing way that his name will go down in history. I thought of my mom, of her dream that seemed to be growing bigger and closer by the second. A dream that had been deferred for so many years, and was now being realized during a time of her life in which most people are planning their retirement.

This story has certainly not ended- really, it is just beginning. And it gives me hope that when we believe in our dreams, even with a guarded caution, they can come true. We can even put them off until we are sixty years old and still have a chance to do what might seem to be impossible. My mom is not a sheik in Dubai, nor is she a millionaire on a breeding farm in Kentucky. She's just someone who listened to her heart and followed her gut, did her homework and crossed her fingers, and hoped for the best but didn't hold her breath. Her story is just beginning, and I can't wait to find out the end.

My mom in DC in front of one of her favorite statues. You GO, Mom!

Friday, May 1, 2009

My New Clean House

I have always said that the thriftiest and simplest thing you can do to improve the look and feel of your home is to CLEAN IT! I also wrote earlier about how I kind of caught the cleaning bug after coming back from my mom's house, and I just wanted to share with you what's been working for me these last few weeks with getting and keeping my house clean.

The first thing I did was to make a list of all the regular chores that needed to be done to have a clean house, things like vacuuming, dusting, dishes, laundry, etc. Then I took my list and broke it down into things that needed to be done daily, weekly, and monthly. I kept it pretty basic, focusing only on those things that would really bug me if they weren't clean. My list looked like this:

- dishes
- empty dishwasher
- kitchen surfaces wiped down
- vacuum downstairs
- 1 load of laundry
- make bed
- 15-minute pick-up
- 15-minute declutter

- clean master bathroom
- clean kids' bathroom
- clean hall bathroom
- dust downstairs
- dust upstairs
- vacuum upstairs
- mop kitchen
- take out trash

- wash bath mats
- dust moldings and baseboards
- clean windows

Again, I kept it simple and just tried to include those things that I really noticed when they weren't clean. I'm sure it's not a complete list, and there will probably be more things that I will want to include, but for now it seems to be doing the trick.

The next step was to lay out some routines for getting these things done. All of the things to be done daily, I worked into my daily routine. For example, when I get up, I get ready for the day, and before I go downstairs to get breakfast for the kids, I gather up a load of laundry to take down to the washer. If I do this early enough, then I can switch it to the dryer before we leave the house. After I brush my teeth after breakfast, I make my bed. After dinner, I make sure that the dishes get done and the table cleaned off. 

The most surprising thing I've learned is that I can time myself on a lot of these things and they take so little time. Last night after our dinner of spaghetti, I timed how long it took me from start to finish, including clearing the table, putting away leftovers, rinsing dishes and loading the dishwasher, washing a big pot by hand, and wiping down the table, and it all took less than 10 minutes. We all have at least 10 minutes! Especially on those evenings when I just feel dog-tired, I just tell myself, I can do this for 10 minutes, then I'm done, and I envision myself waking up in the morning to a clean, shiny empty sink and a tidy kitchen. That always motivates me to give that extra little bit.

The same holds true for the vacuuming- my downstairs is around 1000 square feet and it takes me just over 10 minutes to vacuum it, which I do either while the kids are playing outside after lunch or sometime in the morning while my son is at school. Knowing that these things only take a few minutes motivates me to get them done, because I know how much better I'll feel once I can look down and see a clean, crumb-free floor.

The last thing I've worked into my routine- rather cleverly, I'd say- is folding the laundry. This used to be my big hang-up (excuse the pun) just because I find it SOO boring! So what I've done is to make it fun for myself. When I put the kids down for quiet time in the afternoon I give myself about 30 minutes to eat my lunch and watch HGTV (I love HGTV!). When my lunch is done, I clean up and go grab the clean laundry from the dryer, and sit on the couch and continue watching HGTV while I fold. It's become my little treat time- because why else would I be sitting on the couch in the middle of the day watching HGTV? Now I make sure I do at least one load of laundry a day, because if I don't then I don't get my tv time! ;-)

So my next step after setting up my daily routines (which, if I did them all at once would take less than an hour and a half) was to set up a weekly routine for my weekly cleaning chores. To do this, I took a look at my life and tried to figure out which days made the most sense for these areas to be clean. I decided on Monday as a good day for cleaning my master bathroom, because I usually make a little bit more of a mess on Sundays getting ready for church. While I'm up there, I might as well dust the master bedroom as well, because that only takes about 5 minutes. Wednesdays are a good day for dusting downstairs and cleaning the hall bathroom, because the book club I'm a member of meets on Wednesdays, and my playgroup meets on Thursdays, so that would be the day I'd clean them on weeks when I'd host. Fridays are a good day for mopping the kitchen, because it takes a little more time, which I have on Fridays because my son doesn't have school on Fridays.

 I talked with my husband and asked him if he would be willing to take on a couple extra chores to ease my burdens during the week, and he agreed. I gave him 3 chores, each of which takes less than 10 minutes: taking out the trash (his job before anyway), cleaning the kids' bathroom (he gives them their bath every evening, so he's in there anyway), and vacuuming the upstairs (it's no fun to lug a heavy vacuum upstairs when you're pregnant!). His willingness to help has been a huge relief for me.

So, as you can see that gives me Tuesdays and Thursdays that are free of weekly chores. I can use my few extra moments on those days to get some of the monthly chores done or to catch up if I miss a weekly chore on a scheduled day.

The benefits I've gained from these routines are:

1. When I look at something that needs to be cleaned, I can put it out of my mind because I know it will get its turn sometime soon, and I don't beat myself up over it.

2. The house is in such a state that when I get up in the morning, if I really don't feel like doing anything on one day then I can skip most of it (with the exception of dishes!) and not fall behind.

3. When I give myself time to relax now I actually feel relaxed because there aren't a million things around me nagging for my attention.

4. My home feels much more peaceful and so does my brain! Not to mention that it's company-ready. We had some surprise guests last night and there was nothing to feel embarrassed about. Actually, I felt quite proud!

This is my own little system, and I must give a lot of credit to FlyLady for giving me the basic mental tools that I needed to establish it. 15 minutes at a time, housework done incorrectly still blesses your family, don't try to catch up- just jump right in where you are! I won't try to say that my house will always be perfect, because I'm sure I'll have those times where I fall off the wagon, but for now this is working and I feel good about it. I'll just keep plugging away and taking advantage of my convenient nesting instincts!

Do you have a system for housecleaning that works for you? Leave a comment and share!

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