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Some of my favorite dates with Mark have been fairly simple ones at home. In the years when our children were really young or our budget really tight, an intentional evening at home together after tucking the kids in bed was our salvation. Some evening, it meant simply pouring a glass of wine and sitting on the sofa without phones or computers. Some nights, we waited to have our own dinner together. Either way, they were a gift for our relationship in busy years.

When Mark and I do make space, our conversation can easily slide into talk about the kids or work or about some logistical solution our home needs. Sexy, right? Wrong. Those necessary conversations are practical, helpful, and foundational for building a home, but my advice (based on experience), leave it for another time. Date nights, whether enjoyed at home or out and about, should be a respite from the logistics, a place of connection where you remember your relationship apart from the logistical juggle of parenthood or work or whatever other life circumstance. I imagine it’s natural in a lot of homes to give ourselves so fully to our work (in and out of home), that we feel too spent to connect beyond sitting in PJs and watching a show together. Or is that just us? Wink.

Whether you are staying in or going out, I will be sharing ideas here more often to help keep date nights sacred. And to keep all of us from slipping into the talk that feel comfortable (work, home life, etc), I’ll be adding a few conversation starters, too. If you all love being in the kitchen, this is one of my very favorite date night recipe and idea books. Be warned, these are not recipes to throw together at the last minute, but they are delicious and worth their time for something special.


CHARCUTERIE AT HOME

You know I love a good Charcuterie board, but they’re such an easy option for a date night at home, even at the last minute or mid-week. Although I adapt it regularly, I like to generally stick to a 4-3-2-2-1 board––4 fruits/veggies, 3 cheeses, 2 meats, 2 sauces/dips, 1 bread/cracker. If you have a luxe food market nearby, consider asking their cheese specialist or even their sommelier for a wine pairing. If that’s too complicated or over your budget, consider a simple cheeseboard or dessert instead. I love the charcuterie board because you can prepare it earlier in the day, wrap it up, and keep it in the fridge until you’re ready for it.

MOOD

In terms of mood, after the kids are tucked in bed, consider using the coffee table instead of the dining table. Spread a throw over the floor or sofa––I love something thick and cozy this time of year, like this fur throw blanket. Light a few candles nearby. Turn on a favorite playlist. Swipe on a bit of red lipstick.  Set the table with the char board and pour a glass of wine.

CONVERSATION STARTERS

Some days can be harder to make the shift from work or home life than others, so consider ways to let go and focus on one another. If it was a hard day, set a 5-10 minute timer for you both to rant and release. Then re-focus the conversation to one another. Here’s some ideas:

  • What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you?
  • What’s a memory that always makes you laugh or smile?
  • What’s your favorite part of our marriage?
  • If you had 30 more minutes in a day, what would you do?
  • What’s the sexiest thing about me?

Who knows where you’ll go, but have fun!

I will be the first to admit, I am not always very good at protecting or preparing for dates with Mark, often finding myself at loss for ideas or in a rut or too tired to “get ready to go out” at the end of a busy day. But before we head down the list of why it can be difficult to protect this time in marriage (babysitting, exhaustion, budget, etc), let me say what we all know: life is hard. It is rewarding and beautiful and life-giving, but the work and even circumstances can be very hard.

At some point in the early years of mothering, I realized that at the end of a day of holding, nursing, rocking, swaddling, snuggling children and babies, I had little need to be touched or to touch. At the end of a day of reading aloud, or listening to child chatter or sibling squabbles or having conversations all. day. long. with our children, I sometimes had little energy to begin yet another meaningful conversation with Mark, apart from a regurgitation of the day’s events. And as a mother trying to build a business, at the end of the day, there was always a separate TO DO list waiting for attention, a feeling of incompletion inside of me, making it difficult to simply stop and be with Mark. With fatherhood and career and maintaining different details in our home, he had his own set of exhaustion making it hard to protect this time for our marriage, too. I know everyone’s specific circumstances will vary, but this is just a glimpse at some of the factors that tug at intimacy in marriage.

So how do we care for one another within our marriages (sexually and emotionally) when we’re in the thick of busy, difficult circumstances? How do we keep our marital relationship from falling flat, from feeling like another thing on the TO DO, or from being merely a logistical partnership? The answer can be complex, but I know it begins with regular date nights, or protected time for one another. Logistical connection is not the same as relational connection. Here are just a few ways to practically safeguard time together, regardless of what tugs you away from it.

HOW TO PRIORITIZE DATE NIGHTS IN MARRIAGE

Por qué no? / Why not? Pause for a moment and consider what may be specifically tugging at your martial intimacy right now. Of course, I mean sex, but I also mean emotional intimacy, too––time alone together. Don’t over analyze it. Just narrow down what factors may be working against you, so you know how to prepare in spite of them.

Keep it Simple / I know, such a cliché. But the goal is to create a habit of time together, and the only way that happens is with realistic, regular follow-through. What’s your style? What is fun for you right now (because that may change in different stages of marriage)? Don’t undermine the power of having a drink together on the porch or going for a drive out of town to eat just to have more car-time talks without kids.

Make Space in Your Budget / If you don’t have space in your monthly home budget for date nights––do it! Live within your means, but mark guilt-free money to use on time together. It pays enormous dividends. If you only have $50 available for the month, figure out the best way to use it (i.e. one dinner out with a friend to babysit, or a weekly bottle of wine together at home). You get the idea.

Alternate Going Out with Staying at Home / Mark and I have always enjoyed being home, especially in the years where our children went to bed before 7:00. So instead of committing to a weekly babysitter, we alternated weeks of staying home and going out, sometimes only going out once in a month. If you’re hiring a babysitter, it adds up quickly, so we were often able to do something that felt like more of a splurge on the nights we went out.

Freshen Up Beforehand / This is especially important for date nights at home. Mark and I have so much empathy/compassion for one another’s work. That said, changing out of the clothes we both wore all day, adding a bit of lipstick or under-eye concealer to a tired face, or even brushing our teeth or popping into a quick shower helps prepare us for a shift in roles, to put aside the the other roles for this one. It is a way we can help turn a simple glass of wine on the sofa together into focused intimacy––even if we had to stuff the unfolded clothes on the sofa into a basket and move it to the other room. Clearly, I speak from experience. Wink. Freshening up even in the smallest way helps us both let go of the day and relax into one another.

Think of One Question / Conversation can easily slide into talk about the kids or work or about some logistical solution our home needs. Sexy, right? Wrong. Those necessary conversations are practical, helpful, and foundational for building a home, but my advice (based on experience), leave it for another time. Hashing out the days’ events (especially the really hard ones) is not inspirational or sexy for either of us. Date nights, whether enjoyed at home or out and about, should be a respite from the logistics, a place of connection where you remember your relationship apart from the logistical juggle of parenthood or work or whatever other life circumstance. To avoid devolving into the parenting/work/other people’s lives conversation, have a question or two on hand ahead of time, ideally something open-ended to lead into more conversation. Some we use: What have you been dreaming about/hoping for this week? I know [insert hard circumstances] has been difficult this week, how are you doing? If you could transport us to any place right now, what would you where would we be? What would we do? 

Add Something Unexpected / Marriage can become so familiar, so comfortable that we can sometimes lose interest in one another. If your date nights feel the same as every other night (i.e. sit on the sofa with a favorite drink and watch a movie/show), it’s time to change it up! Add a surprise element––maybe something sexy, maybe something tasty, maybe an overnight date, maybe a morning date. Be creative.

Disclaimer / If your marriage is in crisis ( a good sign is not wanting to spend time together for whatever reason), I highly recommend digging into that a bit more with a trustworthy counselor. Counseling tends to have a stigma in our culture, a mark of failure or insufficiency, but in my opinion every marriage needs counseling at various points. Every marriage, even the healthiest of them, endures hard things, and counseling (for the individual or couple) can be an important to help process how we continue to grow in a healthy way regardless.

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I gave Mark a wallet for father’s day in June with the last line from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” I might have inscribed the last seven lines, if it would have fit, and so I inscribed the words on my memory instead, and of course here with you.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

I do not know what it is to set sail onto the sea without knowing where I am going, as Ulysses and so many great explorers and adventurers across time have. And yet––metaphorically, I do. I know what it is to face a new homeschool year and wonder where our family might land, or what it is like to bring a new baby into the earth and wonder who they might become and whether I can stay the course. I know what it is to stare at a young business or a forgotten house and feel compelled to go and do something with it, even when I’m unsure where it might take me, or how it might remake or destroy me. Perhaps the point of living isn’t so much about where we are going, but the fact that we are going at all. To live purposefully in any manner requires courage.

Wherever you find yourself on this Monday morning, cheers to you, to your heroic heart. May you find strength of will to accomplish the things in your hands today and the courage to seek, to find, and not to yield.

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I love date nights at home. Honestly, I’d choose a quiet night at home with Mark over going out almost anytime. We started these dates when our children were babies and went to bed early. It felt expensive and tiresome to regularly set up babysitting, never mind looking for the perfect window between feeding a baby. Home felt simpler.

Once a week, we’d tuck our children in early as usual, turn off our cell phones and computers for the night, pour a glass of wine, and unwind together. Over the years, as our family has changed, so have these dates. Our children aren’t ever asleep at 7pm, making it trickier to schedule, but I also have a bit more energy to spice these evenings up with special desserts or cocktails or snacks. I’ve also planned them for different times of day, like I previously wrote here. Of course we still go out occasionally for dinner or concerts or special events, but honestly these times at home still win in my heart.

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For Valentine’s Day this year, I’m planning a tapas style meal, full of dips and sauces, breads, roasted and raw veggies, cheeses, meats. These small plates are textural, sensorial, entirely engaging, and dare I say sexy? Paired with your favorite wine, they’re perfect for a late evening rendezvous. And the best part for busy parents everywhere? They’re relatively easy to make, since you can make much of it ahead of time and most of it can be served cold. Here’s a few ideas to get you started:

roasted asparagus + tomatoes 

kalamata olives

fresh green pesto

spiced pinot noir + goat cheese turnovers [best straight from the oven]

brie cheese

caramelized onions

sautéed mushrooms 

sliced french baguette [toast them if you prefer crunch]

Italian dry salami + prosciutto 

sweet red pepper relish

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HELPFUL NOTES

+ I made the spiced pinot + goat cheese turnovers last weekend, and they are truly swoon-worthy. I prefer them best straight from the oven when the creamy goat cheese and sauce run out from the pastry. If you’re needing a gluten-free option, consider making the choux pastry dough from this book.

+ Add cold meats and cheeses when possible to save time. For a fancier meat option, try sliced beef tenderloin. My favorite recipe is in this book, as well as tons of other inspiration for seasonal date night meals.

+ Use high-quality jarred sauces for an easy stand-in on homemade ones. I snatched this sweet red pepper relish from this month’s Hatchery box. Since it was in a sample size already, I simply popped the lid and added a spoon for serving.

+ Take a few moments beforehand to style all of the ingredients on one board, tray, or tablecloth. It will feel a little more special than the average dinner at home.

+ Eat by candlelight and turn on soft music. It feels cliche, but it can successfully drown out the distractions of an unclean kitchen or a pile of toys lingering nearby.


As a partner with Hatchery, I receive a small portion of whatever is purchased through the links. As a perk, any friends + family of Cloistered Away can get their first Hatchery box for $10, using the code CLOISTEREDAWAY. All images and thoughts are my own, as always. Thank you for supporting the businesses that help keep this space afloat. Happy Valentine’s Day. 

 

 

 

backyard-1Although Mark and I try to have at least a weekend or two a year to ourselves, we generally go away for those days, holing up in a place where someone else makes our bed and food, and we can slip out of most every typical role and routine, parenthood included.  As I mentioned before, this week was different. We certainly worked. We still made our bed each morning and cleaned our home. We rearranged furniture and cleaned out neglected piles and closets. Mark painstakingly installed floating shelves in our kitchen (which look incredible–I can’t wait to share), while I painted the rest of our cabinetry (white, of course) and left for work at the college on my two usual days. Some friends lamented us, wishing us to spend the week in real vacation mode–and honestly, going into the week, I felt a tinge of my own sadness, too. However, remaining home this week was pleasantly surreal. Void of the usual [running, squealing, laughing, fighting] noises, I could hear our home’s more subtle sounds, the way our old windows vibrate when the AC runs or the way our floors creak under our footsteps. I listened to the birds chorus each day’s beginning and the locusts hum its end. I moved through ordinariness almost seamlessly–without bodies draped over me or “emergency” helps like finding shoes or snacks or a babysitter. I listened to the audiobook Paris in Love, a memoir of a couple (both professors and writers) who decide to move their family to Paris for a year. Distracted by James’ description of patisseries, and Parisian style, art, and architecture, I lost track of how long I painted. On a side note, when possible, always listen to an audiobook while painting. I had a night out with girlfriends and went on a movie date with Mark. Of course, Mark and I also enjoyed uninterrupted conversation and time together, too, and for the first time in a while, we could discuss and dream possibilities instead of merely what we had scheduled for the day. We ate our meals together, sometimes with other people, sometimes just the two of us. When I picked the kids up on Saturday, ready to squeeze and kiss them, I realized the most restorative part of last week was remembering life with just the two of us, before the decade of parenthood, before the home renovations and interstate moves. Just the two of us. This week, I remembered the quality of our life isn’t about what we’re doing; it’s about whom we’re living it with.  A good note, I’d say.

 

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I remember the night you called me, your voice awkward and intentional, “I need to see you. We need to talk.” I assumed it was the end of us, what little of us existed after a date and a smattering of lengthy conversations. I couldn’t imagine otherwise what could be so pressing. I sat at the kitchen table in my PJs, making notes on Waiting for Godot or some other drama, distracted by the waiting, pretending to ignore the looming let down. When you arrived, you sat by my side and asked to walk with me in the night, a privacy I didn’t feel necessary for a “let’s just be friends” conversation. I was annoyed but obliged anyway. I did love your friendship and wanted to pretend that was enough. We strolled the vacant street together slipping in and out of shadows for a mile before you stopped by a pond and asked me to marry you. Thousands of words spilled into that night, but thirteen years later all I can seem to remember is “yes.”

 ———————–

The terrain of marriage rises and falls like those golden Californian hills. Yet somewhere on that misty, unknown horizon, oak trees grow. Their misshapen and varied limbs raise to the sky, rooted and strong.

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As parents, Mark and I have learned to be creative about our “dates.” Every other week we have a legitimate night-out to ourselves, but between those evenings, we squeeze whatever random moments we can. Fortunately, we’re both pretty simple people, both of us more often enjoying casual intimacy over fancy, crowded restaurants. So when my sister offered to take my kids to the movies on Saturday morning in exchange for watching her daughter (who would mostly be napping), I took the opportunity to create a little impromptu lunch date for us. I roasted cherry tomatoes and asparagus, pulled out a little brie, a baguette, and a bottle of wine (midday? gasp.).

Typically, I’d take a blanket outside, but since our weather has been cold and damp still, I opted for an indoor picnic instead. Using one of our throw blankets, I spread our small feast across our bedroom floor–the perfect casual, romantic lunch. It was brief compared to a typical evening date but such an ideal way to spend together and connect.

This Valentine’s Day will be particularly special for me and Mark since we’ll be closing on OUR NEW HOME. Crazy, right? It’s a cozy 1930’s craftsman needing a lot of attention and love, but we’re so grateful for this gift. The best Valentine’s Day gift really. We’ll be celebrating by having another indoor picnic (by candlelight) in our empty place, just the two of us. I’m pretty excited. What are your plans for this weekend? Remember, simple can be just as romantic (even if you pick up dinner).

Coyote Handle Board was gifted from Given Goods, a fair-trade business supporting artisans in developing countries. All thoughts and images are my own. 

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“This is not our home,” Mark told the kids, pointing to the house we’d lived in the last seven years — the only house they have known or remember. It was Thanksgiving weekend last year, and we were sleeping in the backyard, snuggled in our sleeping bags and tent. Mark was trying to speak to them about the kingdom of God, this abstract thing we pursue yet cannot see. “I know that’s weird to say since we eat and sleep here, but our home — our real home — is the Kingdom of God. This is just a house.” He pauses, expecting this statement to segue into a larger dialogue, but the kids just shrug and begin making silly faces with their flashlights. They were camping in the backyard after all. “Good talk,” he sighs and tosses an exasperated glance toward me. I thought about these words this morning, these words left suspended in the cold November night so many months ago, and I realize now, they were meant for us.

We didn’t really have a plan when we put our house on the market in March — so unlike the both of us. Always working hard to live within our means (cash budget, debt-free), Mark and I had found it more difficult to pay our bills and expenses since the previous year when we lost more than half of our income overnight. Although our life wasn’t lavish, we lived with more than we needed, and those little details were the first things to go. We sold our nicer SUV and bought an old Suburban. Mark picked up extra writing jobs in addition to full-time teaching and part-time graduate school. I went back to work part-time, tutoring college students in writing in the late afternoon/evening when Mark could watch the kids. I continued homeschooling during the day. And unexpected money came in the mail like manna. Sometimes we laughed and sometimes we cried. We were tired, but making it. Barely making it. And then the house. Our boys were 1 and 2 when we moved here, and this was the girls only home. It was a second home for so many of our friends, a collection of meals and prayer and discussion and parties and play. Our hearts were hungry for adventures and other unknowns we couldn’t always quite articulate. But somehow it seemed to always come around to this: should we sell our home? We decided to list it through the spring and summer, and if it sold, we would move. Otherwise, we’d stay. This was our coin toss, our fleece. It sold after three days on the market.

Mark and I had always joked with Kristen and Tim about cohabitation. Kristen is my younger sister and she’s married to Tim, Mark’s younger brother. (Don’t worry. It’s legit. Nothing weird, just lucky for us.) We live only 1/3 of a mile apart and our lives already overlapped in so many ways, it almost seemed easier. When our house sold, we decided to try cohabitation. We would move into their home, sharing the mortgage, bills, groceries, and space, for a one year trial period. Our four kids would share rooms with their two (girl/boy rooms) and each couple would have their own rooms. And now here we are after a difficult month of moving, cleaning-out, and giving away — the not so effortless combining of our two households into one.

Why am I telling you this? Why am I sharing this now? Because sometimes media deceives us. We see in part without the perspective of the whole. We consume and swoon over the pictures and the poetry without always understanding its origin, its birthplace. And then we compare ourselves, our families, our decisions, and believe what we have is not enough. I’m just as guilty as anyone else. So as I share handfuls of pictures and places of our life the last month, I want you to have context of what it cost us to get there. No one forced these decisions, the house sale, the move. We chose it based on a coin-toss and a longing for more of that abstract Kingdom, hoping to show our children what can’t always be discussed in a backyard tent– this is not our home.

These single days of the year we set aside to salute the parents in our lives feel to me a bit like fitting a blue whale in my 5′ bathtub. I usually try to make the most of it with more decadent breakfasts or planned adventures, but this year, most of the ideas I planned for the day fell apart; my small gift was back-ordered; the house was a mess; the kids were bickering; and so on. Sigh. Can we please reschedule Father’s Day for next week? In effort to salvage dad’s day, as we were finishing our simple breakfast on our regular dishes in our normal way, I asked the kids to share what they love the most about their dad, for him to hear their voices, their love:

Olive: He buys me cupcakes! (Although neither of us think this has actually ever happened, Olive is convinced.)

Blythe: His snuggles.

Burke: His jokes and when he takes us out for doughnuts.

Liam: He lets me tear down things with him.

Although these words are hardly encompassing of Mark’s fatherhood, it reminded me how uncomplicated it is to tell someone they’re important.  Fancy and fun always entertain, but the heart is actually quite simple. So today, among the frenzy and normalcy of our day, I celebrate you, Mark. I love your story-telling, horse-playing, directive but humble fatherhood. You are quite an exceptional dad, and I’m glad to be with you in all. this.

Dads, we also celebrate you, who have for years taken bathtub-sized compliments for whale-sized work. We get it now.

Happy Father’s Day.