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Cloistered Away | Ginger CookiesCloistered Away | Ginger Cookies

I look forward to this season every year, when the home twinkles and the hearth glows, when the kitchen smells of spices and baked goods or a simmering pot on the stove, when the children and I begin afternoon tea with Advent read-aloud and crafts, when we thoughtfully plan out our gifts to make or purchase for dear and near ones. And yet this particular holiday season has been different. I have been away from my home far more than I have been in it. I actually counted the days yesterday and discovered six precious days at home in December. My heart sunk a bit. I don’t regret my days away, as they were meaningful and necessary in their own manner, even when they were unexpected. But without recognizing it, I have found myself chasing home, chasing Christmas this year. I have found myself rushed to do, do, do, to somehow catch up with time, compressing 20 days at home into six. But that pace begins to suffocate me after a while, it squelches the soul, the connection. Instead I am letting go of my own plans this year, releasing it even as I type this out. I’m releasing the unfinished baking and making, the imperfect gifts and lagging Advent readings, the crafts that were never begun, and all of those quiet afternoon cups of tea and read aloud. I’m releasing it all to embrace what we chose instead this year: to serve others in need, to offer my children a small opportunity with theater, to light candles and sing Christmas hymns and carols by candlelight most evenings, to enjoy many afternoons building forts in the woods with friends, to spend time with cousins and grandparents, even a great-grandparent during Christmas, to make wreaths and garlands for other homes instead of my own. Christmas doesn’t have to be perfect to be good. Sometimes the imperfect, the unexpected events and happenings are what make it good (and also sometimes uncomfortable for me).
Cloistered Away | Ginger CookiesCloistered Away | Ginger Cookies

Earlier this week, Olive and I spent the day at my sister’s house, baking gingerbread cookies, writing Christmas cards, and crafting with them. As it happens, we also enjoyed tea––a new loose leaf blend gifted by a dear friend, in a new Japanese tea kettle and hand thrown cup gifted by TOAST. I plan to use both often this winter, ideally with these cookies and heaps of gratitude. Kristen’s ginger cookies are my favorite cookies. Period. I prefer them extra gingery, rolled in raw sugar, soft and chewy, slightly cooled from the oven. The fresh ginger is absolutely wonderful. Rolled out and left in the oven a tad longer, this recipe also creates a perfect dough for cookie cutting, too, and as we have it, perfectly imperfect cookie decorating also. In the event you’re looking for a small afternoon craft or something delicious to share with loved ones, here’s Kristen’s simple recipe for you, a salute to letting go and receiving the day or season at hand, perfectly imperfect. They are tasty and heart-warming in every season or month of the year.

KRISTEN’S GINGER COOKIES

  • 2 1/4 cup flour
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 – 1/2 cup fresh ginger, peeled and grated
  • 3/4 cup butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup blackstrap unsulphered molasses
  • 1 egg
  • raw sugar for topping

In a bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, and salt. In a separate bowl (or mixing stand), mix together the fresh ginger, butter, and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the molasses and egg. Add in the dry ingredients. Taste and check the ginger flavor of the batter. Add more if necessary (sometimes I add up to 1/2 cup of fresh ginger). Chill for at least one hour.

To bake, preheat the oven to 350 ºF.

For softer, chewier cookies, roll a spoonful of dough between your hands into a ball. Roll the ball in the raw sugar and place on a baking tray 2″ apart. Bake for 10-12 minutes.

For cookie cutting, lightly flour a surface and rolling pin. Roll out the dough evenly, about 1/4″ – 1/8.” Bake for approximately 15 minutes for a crispier cookie, checking not to burn. Cool entirely before icing.

ICING

  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 1-2 Tbsp milk

Wisk together. It will have a thick, glue-like consistency. Pour into a piping bag to decorate.

 

 

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Few things make my heart swell more with gratitude than when people I love gather around our table, especially when it is glowing with beeswax candles rolled by our children and smothered with fresh greenery and a collective of friends’ savory and sweet dishes. I do often wonder what our children will remember about our holidays, about our table. Although I have no way of knowing right now, I hope they will remember this: simple, thoughtful preparation; heaps of accumulated story and laughter; and of course, that a warm, cozy meal with others always contrasts beautifully against the cold, wet night.

Images by Tim Douglass.

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Dearest children,

We are now several weeks into our school year and have been reading oodles of fables together lately, samples from the more familiar Aesop’s Fables to India’s Jataka Tales to West African Folklore, and while the characters and cultures these tales represent dramatically shift, the themes within them often do not. Each in its own manner offers a simple lesson on how one ought to live or possibly in some instances, such as the devious Anansi or other foolish characters, how one ought not live at all. Perhaps one day we will think on your childhood summers in a similar manner, unique versions of the same narrative, personal tales and images that become a tonic when life demands us to be more focused and diligent.

Naturally, as you each grow older, life will require more diligence of you. It is the mark of maturity, the preface to adulthood. While you are young, I hope to store enough adventure and courage in your thoughts and heart so that you learn to seek it on your own someday, a tonic for the harder parts of adult living. You are children now, and while I can’t imagine it differently, you will not always be. It is the nature of every living thing to change and grow, and so it is with you. Part of this portrait project has been a catalogue of this change, a small way to bottle your childhood for all of us to enjoy when it is gone. Maybe one day, like the simple fables, you will sift through them and discover lessons tucked beneath our play, travel, and silly stories. At the very least, I hope as adults, they will remind you to leave space for frivolity, room to cast off form and simply play or explore possibilities when necessary. Wisdom and discipline require the balance of a wild, courageous heart. These too are lessons for us in how one ought to live.

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You will soon discover that some seasons in life will force you to create or make something with very little. You may feel overwhelmed by possibility and endless choices. Perhaps then you might remember the feel of our paper roadmap in your hands, not a smooth, glass computer, but paper, bound and wrinkled with use. You might recall the way you traced your small fingers over red and blue and green lines, each one overlapping and leading some place distinct. Like that map, your life also will one day freely spread across veins of unknowns. It will require courage, as doing anything new or unknown often does. I hope then you will also remember your toes in the cold Pacific Ocean or climbing the red rocks in Southern Utah or picking fresh blueberries on the mountainside of North Carolina or even random no wheres on the road in between. All paths lead to distinct, unknown places, and you will need courage and wisdom to get there. Like our own summer travels, you’ll discover in life also, the longer, harder journeys often have the sweetest rewards.

As a mother, I am learning my own lessons of sorts, the hardest being how to slowly release you. My maternal instinct naturally cringes at watching you climb or slide down boulders, walk across waterfalls, or coast down rapids, but right now we are with you and have the privilege to participate with you. It’s exhilarating to see how you come alive with accomplishment and how you manage unknowns. These moments, too, are a gift, ones I will return to when you are older and off on your own adventure without us. I am grateful it’s not time for that quite yet. Travel has been one of my favorite experiences with you all. While I know most lessons from your childhood will come through our everyday living. I expect our summer adventures will always hold a special place in each of our hearts. I’m so proud of you.

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Although the American West has my heart, this summer we traveled East, leaving Georgia and South Carolina as the only states we haven’t visited in the Southern half of the U.S. While your father and I were in Taos, you all were at grandparent camp with Nina and Papa and your cousins. They make that time so special for you with night swims, library trips, art projects, and fun excursions. You each look forward to this week all throughout the year. And of course, I don’t have a portraits of you that week since I wasn’t there. At the back end of summer we visited PoPo and JoJo, who took you to a trampoline park and introduced you to eating crab legs. Olive, I had to sit there and crack every one for you, to which you’d turn and say, “can I have some more of that white meat?” as though it were just that easy. On the other hand, Liam and Burke, you loved having a meal that required tools in order to eat.

In July, we spent a week in Asheville with good friends in a beautiful cabin generously lent to us. There the older three white-water rafted, while Olive and I enjoyed our own time together playing with friends, reading together, and picking blueberries for dinner. Blythe, Dad says you giggled the entire time on the rapids, and I can’t wait to do it again when Olive is a bit bigger. Blueberries grew right off the back porch, and each day before meals you all would take bowls and fill them. Liam, you often led the initiative knowing it might amount to blueberry pie or pancakes, which it did.  We hiked beautiful trails, although Burke, you informed me you prefer the Rocky Mountains in the West, to the dense forests of the East. I appreciated having this little inlet into your thoughts. We only briefly strolled the downtown area, visiting the general hardware store and listening to the rotating musicians play outside its doors. We also ducked into a small art gallery before it began to rain and we headed home. We rode bikes through the incredible Biltmore Estate and walked through the warm house, if you can even call it a house. On our way home, we visited Dave and Kara in Alabama, where we again hiked gorgeous green woods, played with new friends, went to the science museum and walked around large space rockets. As they prepared for work one day, Olive asked them, “you have to work during the summer?” and I realized how special this warm season really is for us. We have chosen a smaller life in effort to have time, and I don’t regret it one bit.

We went to Houston with your father, and while he attended meetings at Rice, we cruised through both the Fine Art and Natural Science Museums and swam in the hotel pool–a rare luxury.  At one point we attempted a midday walk around Hermann Park and nearly melted, and opted to go back to the room and watch episodes of Shark Week instead. When we finally returned home, you all attended a local drama camp, where you made your own costumes and participated in a small musical. Liam you sort of despised the singing and dancing parts but loved making costumes and developing the set. Burke, you were the laugh of the show playing the giant with an over-sized head. Girls, you both adore singing and dancing and felt right in your element. What a great finale to summer’s end (and a helpful way for me to get a few projects in order before the school year began). I’m so grateful for every bit of it. And for you.

With all my heart,

Mom

practicing sabbath

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.  — Ecclesiastes 3:1 

After our trip alone to Taos this summer, my husband and I realized we needed more boundaries between work and rest. Our current season of life doesn’t naturally afford stops (apart from night sleeps), so we needed to intentionally carve out time to restore spiritually, physically, and relationally. We have always been intrigued by the idea of Shabbat (Sabbath), a traditional Jewish practice of rest, family togetherness, and spiritual attention, but with our Protestant backgrounds, this concept was intimidating and foreign. Over the last couple of years, we have talked with several friends about the ways they practice rest within their homes, and this summer, we took more to read and learn about importance of Shabbat.

I’ve always thought about time in terms of utility, something used for something else entirely. In his book, The SabbathRabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel describes time not as a commodity, but as something holy in itself. He refers to Sabbath days as cathedrals of time which create a sense of longing within us, and poetically notes, “[Shabbat] is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.” Sabbath is the enjoyment of time itself and the weekly recognition that time is a gift from God.

Last month, we began our own formal practice of Shabbat in hope of living deeper in Jesus together and not allowing our lives to be ruled by work. In just a few weeks of practice, already the Sabbath, especially the Sabbath meal, has become a place of longing and expectation for all of us, even the children. My husband let go of his Saturday work, and I have limited the amount of my own. It is helping us create the boundaries we have longed for, but more importantly, it is teaching how to trust God with our time, to know when to stop working and to celebrate. We are building the habit of saying enough to our work and the “acquisition of the things of space.” We are obviously still learning, but this is a good beginning. Below I have shared a little bit about how we prepare for this time as a family. Naturally, it will look a little different for everyone, but I hope there will be something to glean for you, something to help you treasure the holiness in time.

practicing the Sabbath | Shabbat mealpracticing the Sabbath | Shabbat meal

PREPARATION

On Thursday each week, the children and I write out our weekly meal plan and shop for groceries after school work is finished. On Friday mornings, we work through whatever schoolwork we can complete, and we stop at lunch time. Friday afternoon is for deep cleaning our home: putting things away, but also larger jobs like washing floors and scrubbing down the bathrooms. It’s shocking how dirty our home can become during the week. I often turn on loud, upbeat music for us to enjoy and we pause for an afternoon snack somewhere along the way. This cleaning period requires most of the afternoon, and then we transition to preparation for our Shabbat meal.

I begin by making our weekend cake, a rotating baked dessert we can enjoy all weekend. The children begin by setting the table with a large, white linen tablecloth; our china that we picked up at an antique store in Kansas City ages ago; cloth napkins; candles; and fresh flowers. They often make name cards, practicing their cursive on nice white paper, and position silverware and glasses near each place setting. We fill bottles with water to refrigerate for dinner and begin chopping vegetables or preparing meat. Since it’s still quite warm here, we’ve mainly prepared fish that we can grill for these dinners, although I look forward to oven roasts for colder days in upcoming months. We often roast some vegetables and make a complimentary salad. Although we’re hoping to make our own challah bread at some point, right now, we pick up a couple of loaves of baked bread from the grocery bakery for ease.

When dinner prep is complete, I fill two more glass carafes, one with red wine and another with Italian soda for the children. We quickly wipe down counters and wash the dirty prep dishes, although some weeks we run too close to dinner-time for this and clean-up happens afterward. We all get dressed for dinner, freshening up and putting on something nicer than our ordinary daily clothes. This dinner is special for us, and we want to dress accordingly. Our home is generally very casual and our family dining out is as well, so our Sabbath meal is also a great way to teach our children simple rules of dinner etiquette, such as placing a napkin in your lap, keeping your elbows off of the table, or requesting/waiting for someone to pass food to you.

My younger sister, Kristen, is married to my husband’s younger brother–I know, crazy! Brothers married to sisters. Since traditionally the Shabbat meal is intended to be a family event and they live nearby, each week, we all share this meal together.  Before grocery shopping, Kristen and I talk about which meal we want to make and divide up the dishes. Sharing the meal preparation is such a gift! They arrive to our home, dressed, and we all sit down in our named places. Everyone has a place at the table, toddlers included.The baby might be playing in her infant seat or on a palette of blankets on the floor near the table. When she’s restless, we all take turns holding her.

THE MEAL

practicing the Sabbath | Shabbat mealpracticing the Sabbath | Shabbat meal

The first part of our meal time is quite formal. My husband wrote down several Messianic Jewish prayers on a notecard that we use, including a blessing of the meal, lighting the candles, sharing of communion, a formal hand washing as a posture of our hearts, and a formal blessing of sons, daughter, mothers, and fathers. Communion and the blessing of the family parts is by far my favorite portion of this time in our meal. Although brief, it celebrates and recognizes each family member and declares noble truths over each person.

After the blessing and prayer time, we pour drinks, serve plates, and eat. This part has been the greatest surprise for me. The adults and children slowly enjoy a nice meal and conversation together, even the youngest ones. It is not rigid or dogmatic but a natural enjoyment of all of our work and effort. As the children finish their meals, they head off to play, while the adults linger and talk together.

After the mealtime when Kristen and Tim leave with their family, our own family piles on the couch for a movie night together. Bedtime is pushed back due to our movie night, a pleasure for all the children, with the intention that everyone can sleep-in the next morning. From the moment the Shabbat meal begins, work ceases. We do not check emails or any other work related thing (unless an emergency) until after sundown on Saturday. This can be the most challenging part, especially since I work from home, So I usually tuck my planner and notepad away and stay clear of the computer during those hours. Although difficult at times, this has been the most restorative practice for me.

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The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. — Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath

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THE SABBATH DAY

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Sleeping-in on Saturday morning is highly respected by everyone in our home (a perk of older children). Our youngest child is six (and often one of the last to wake up), so everyone is old enough to entertain themselves quietly until everyone is awake. During the Sabbath day, our routine is not open and flexible. We usually begin with fresh fruit pancakes my husband and Burke make together, and after that we relax as it seems fit for the day.

As the weather cools more in the next few months, we hope to make day-trips to hike, but until then and while we’re indoors more, we tend to read or play games with sporadic walks or trips to the park during cooler parts of the day. I often let the kids have time playing video games (since we rigidly limit this during the week).  Whatever we do, the point is to do it together and enjoy time without the obstacles of home projects or work.

I hope to have more to share about this part the longer we celebrate this day.  I’m curious, do you practice the Sabbath or another time period of regular rest in your home?

Recommended readings on Sabbath: || 1 | 2 | 3

To read more about our family practice over the years: Here and here.

 

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So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their endings.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

We’re nearing the final days of May, a little shocking for me since this month has been so atypically cool and rainy. Still, I’m ready. We’re all eager to wrap up our school year, including the mister who will be finished with his own at the end of next week! I love my children. I love homeschooling. But I’m always a little weary by this point. Summer is the season where our family recovers and restores, and after a full summer expended on home projects last year, this one is long overdue.

I’ve often written about seasons here, both the literal and figurative sort. After an enormous financial loss a few years ago and two moves later, I’ve found regular comfort at the thought of seasons, the perspective that extremes of any kind–whether the heat from the sun or the hardship of our circumstances–do end or change at some point.

I know my weariness may come by surprise to some of you, as life via this space is edited and only seen in part. I select and write about bits and pieces, hinting at the whole. They are honest snippets of a larger story, but rarely reveal the grit of the day: the unwilling children, the unmet goals, the doubt, and even at times the tears. And we have a good mix of all of it. I hope that offers someone encouragement.

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As I have thought about it recently, so many of our current family goals are long-term oriented: parenthood, homeschooling, home renovation. Although we deeply care about each part, the truth is: parenting is hard. Homeschooling is hard. Living in a partially-finished home is hard. My husband works a full-time and a part-time job to keep our family afloat, so that I can stay home with our children and homeschool them. I write and photograph part-time (often at odd hours or on weekends) here and elsewhere, to help fill in financial gaps for things like soccer or ballet lessons or orthodontic braces. We are a team, a duo working in tandem with one another in every capacity, and by this time in the year, our endurance is waining.

I cried over coffee with him this morning. I don’t cry very often, but this one I could feel coming, my fingers grazing the borders of our capacity for too long. I had begun to lose heart, lose focus. In this place doubt feels the loudest. He listened and then gently offered encouraging perspective. We’ve had so many drastic changes over a short period of time and have adjusted as many circumstances as possible to uphold the people and ideas we love most. I love him for always leaving me with laughter and words that point me to Jesus.

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Whoever we are, whether parenting or homeschooling or planning a career, whether working through financial pitfalls or sickness in ourself or in someone we love, life requires endurance. It requires intermittent pause and breath and water–literally and figuratively–ways to gather perspective and restore our souls a bit along the way. I realized this year, I had stopped prioritizing these little pauses for myself. Focused on needs and work at hand, I had stopped exercising or making regular time for reading and praying or taking care of my overall health. I naturally gained a bit of weight and felt more sluggish in thought. I missed feeling strong, clear of mind and heart. So earlier this month, I began finding quiet for myself again. I began running/walking and practicing some yoga on my front porch a few times a week again. These simple moments and movements allow me time to stretch and pray and listen, to quiet the swirling lists of TO DOs and demands. Although these moments won’t solve life’s conflict, they give me courage and ultimately remind my heart to endure. Be strong and courageous, friends.

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This post is sponsored by Hooked Productions, a small family-run business in upstate New York which designs and creates eco-friendly clothing, using bamboo and organic cotton. I love their motto: “live the life you love. love the life you live.” Thank you for supporting businesses that help keep this space afloat. As always, all thoughts are my own. 

Images by Kristen Douglass of Fidelis Studio

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Last weekend our family traveled several hours west to spend a few days with friends near the Frio River.  I always love visiting that place. Tucked away from cell phone service and internet access, it is a gift of quiet connection in our increasingly noisy, constantly attached world.  Each of our hearts and bodies wander and breathe more slowly, more deeply again, and we connect again in the simplest manners: conversations around a fire, simple meals, difficult hikes and refreshing play near the water, with sand or rocks. We are together and untethered at once, a rare gift for modern families.

On one morning, while hiking alone with my boys, we stopped to take in the view, to rest and appreciate our moment, our smallness. Liam turned to me and asked, “mom, can I take your picture with your hands to the sky? You’re always so free up here.” For all we hope to learn and notice about our children as parents, it is always the most humbling that they see us, too.

Although often brief and simple, I’m grateful for these small adventures with our children, the way they remind us to slow down and enjoy one another right now, to pause and welcome a new season.

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Cooking is both simpler and more necessary than we imagine. It has in recent years come to seem a complication to juggle against other complications, instead of what it can be—a clear path through them.
— Tamar Adler, An Everlasting Meal

When we sold our last home–a mid-century ranch we had renovated and transformed over a seven year period–the couple moving from Germany asked to include our large farm table in the sale, too. My husband looked at me with eyes that said, “well, what do you think?” and it took only as long as my mouth needed to form the word no to answer.  They could have the newly refinished oak floors, the limestone countertops, the fridge we had bought for our first home, my favorite dining room light fixture, the large garden we had built from scratch and the new Oak trees we had planted to take over after our old, tired Oaks gave way–but the table felt sacred to me. It was more than wooden utility. For me, the table is story. In the cup rings, scratches, and uneven stain, I see hundreds of meals shared with friends and family, the school days and watercolors, the birthday parties and candle-lit dinners, the celebration of new marriages and babies, the tears of hardship and the stories of courage and belief. For almost a decade, this table has soaked up our life-spilled stories and days and every crumb we’ve shared in between. This piece was moving with us.

Yet somewhere in all of the transition and pace of last year–in the repairing of our new home, establishing new rhythms, and the haste to make ends meet financially–our family table became buried beneath tools and dust and projects and life, and our mealtime and cooking practices were buried along with it. Meals became forced and hurried, as did the connection we had with one another around it. Even this, the wandering and forgetting, is part of this table’s story.  By the end of the year, I yearned for the leisure of this space, the connection with one another through food and conversation, even the messy and loud sort. I had realized that in all of my efficiency of routine to get things done, to simply take care of needs, I was skimming off some of the richest parts, the creme of our family life, our togetherness. We were becoming a familiar modern story of fast-food and moving meals.

I realize my story also belongs to many of you, not a tale about a piece of furniture or a specific food group, but one about a way of life, a connection with meals and togetherness. As Edith Schaeffer wrote in The Hidden Art of Homemaking, “Meals can be very small indeed, very inexpensive, short times taken in the midst of a big push at work, but they should be always more than just food.” Your family mealtime might take place at a beautiful formal dining table or perhaps around a kitchen island, a card table, or breakfast nook. Whatever the spot, a family meal doesn’t always require a dining room, fancy food, or a tablecloth, and although I prefer the slower, longer meals, it doesn’t always have to be that either. The true beauty is that the family table takes on as many shapes and forms as the people who fill them. The point is to keep returning, to keep nurturing that mealtime togetherness regardless.

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At the end of last year, my husband and I began to evaluate our home-life, looking to mend the connections, relationally and practically, that had been neglected and strained during all of our change the last few years. Our family table seemed to be a simple place to begin, a place that we all longed for and needed for its regular meals and togetherness. Like few other things, the table nurtures and nourishes us. It cultivates story and memory with one another. It reminds us, even in a ten minute lunch, how to pause and receive. Below I wrote out some of the ways we’re reprioritizing this space and using our time around the table together. They will of course look different in your own home, but I hope they will somehow inspire you to keep nurturing your meals and the people you share them with.

start the day together // Since Mark leaves for work each morning just after 7am, we’ve been waking the kids up at 6:45am to come to the table, eat a simple breakfast, read this, and pray together. This time is usually quite simple and only 15 minutes or so long, but it’s become a sweet consistent way to begin/reset for our day.

add fresh florals // Fresh flowers and greenery are always one of the first meal details to cut from our budget. While they’re not a practical necessity, fresh flowers naturally draw attention to a space, to a place. I’ve noticed as my children are getting older, they notice and appreciate these details, too, “ooh, pretty flowers, mom!” This year, I decided to take a bit of our grocery cash each week to set aside for a few fresh blooms and leaves. It’s a small thing, but significant in nurturing a specific space, I think.

clear and clean the table // Without paying attention, I’ve realized it’s easy to simply get up and walk away from the table after a meal, leaving the dishes and crumbs right where they were. (I’m sure that’s not the case in your home.) Additionally, our table, naturally located in the flow of foot traffic, also becomes an easy place to drop mail, keys, library books, unfinished school work, etc.  Although it seems obvious, no one enjoys gathering around a dirty or cluttered table. Take time before and after meals or other activities to clean up. Each of our children have specific jobs around mealtime preparation and clean-up. Currently, our girls (ages 5 and 8) are in charge of the table space right now, making sure it’s prepared and cleaned afterward, while the boys (ages 9 and 11) clean and clear the kitchen workspace and dishes.

make time to share // When we lived with my sister and brother-in-law for a year, there were ten of us at each meal (if no one else joined us). We needed a way to connect with one another in a very simple way, so my brother-in-law, Tim, began a tradition called “best/worst.” Each evening, one person begins by sharing the best and worst parts of their day, then they choose someone else at the table to do the same. This person shares and then chooses the following and so on until everyone has had a chance to share. We still practice this several nights a week, and I’m always surprised to hear the highlights of their days, often they’re far more simple than I expect, sometimes event the food iteself.

read // Reading anything from books to blogs to IG or Twitter accounts has been such an inspiring way to connect with mealtime again. In terms of books, I have read or am reading: The Hidden Art of Homemaking,  An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Grace and Economy,  and Bread and Wine— all of which I highly recommend. I also love reading and learning from my favorite cookbooks: Vegetable LiteracyIt’s All Good, The Kinfolk Table, Sunday Suppers, and more recently, Clean Slate.

include the kids // Perhaps this is another obvious point, but having the kids participate in meal-planning and meal-making naturally slows us down, gives them familiarity with different cooking practices, and cultivates expectancy about the meal itself. Depending on their age, they might chop or process vegetables. They can sauté the onions, line the parchment paper in the pan, stir a pot of soup, kneed dough or butter the bread. Create space and time to have your children with you in the kitchen. Teach them how to protect the fingers while chopping or properly wash the food beforehand. Give them cookbooks to flip through and discover what they might like to try.

What are some of the ways you/your family connect at mealtime?

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For years, my sister and I have talked about having a fancy party with our kids on New Year’s Eve, but each year something happens–sickness, travel, or life–and the evening comes and goes just the same. This year, our three nieces came to stay with us the four days leading up to the New Year, making it the perfect finale to their visit and our crazy Christmas holiday. We all wore our best clothes, and I styled each of the girls’ hair as they wished with a dab of lip gloss and blush. We made the simplest finger foods and served them with bubbly drinks and party headbands and hats. Tim set up a photo booth and we danced our hearts out in the dining room until everyone was tired (about 30-40 minutes later–wink) and decided to sit near the fire instead. Good friends popped by with their toddler to join the fun and we dropped the ball and saluted the new year at 8:30 pm–with flutes and yelps and kisses. Welcome, 2015. xx

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This time of year always feels concentrated and rich, like a dark chocolate truffle–something special meant to be taken in slowly. Like so many of you, we are busy, busy this month, and I’m trying my best to move through it intentionally. Some days that means creating a TO DO list, and other days that means chucking it just being present in the moment, glorious or not.

This weekend, we traveled to a nearby tree farm, where the kids picked out their favorite tree–a somewhat challenging undertaking with four differing opinions. At home, Mark started a fire and turned on Christmas music. We set up our manger scene, complete with a broken baby Jesus, headless Joseph, missing angel, and an armless shepherd. It might be time time for a new one. (Wink.) The kids drank hot cocoa and cider as we unraveled strands of lights and wrapped our tree. We only put a few ornaments on this year, including their past handmade ones. It’s feels simple, and more importantly, uniquely our own.