How the Smallest House Taught Me the Biggest Lessons

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“I really have to go, Mom.  Like, NOW,” my son said from behind the bathroom door of my parents’ home.

“I’m hurrying!”  I’m sure I snapped at him.  I didn’t want the warm embrace of the shower to end so soon.  And all of the sudden, I was fourteen again, telling my brother to get lost so that I could enjoy just a few moments of peace, all by myself, in the confines of our only bathroom.

I grew up in a small house.

My house was a really small house, especially by today’s standards. Seven rooms, no basement, one floor, and just one bathroom for the four of us to share. I remember when Doug Stone released the country song “Little Houses” in 1994, the fall after I graduated from high school. When he crooned about brushing one another while passing in the hall, he wasn’t kidding. The quarters were tight, and they grew even tighter as we grew bigger.

My friend up the street had a small house, as well, but she had a bedroom in the attic.  That meant that she had stairs.  I dreamt about having stairs.  Someday, I promised myself, I would have a house with stairs.  I don’t remember dreaming of a mansion, but I did fantasize about having a bathroom where I could shower without someone banging on the door.  And if I could have a basement where I could hide from a tornado, that would be okay, too.

Looking back with more wisdom and experience, I understand that our small house on a small street in a small town was just fine.  It was more than fine, actually.  It was always warm and it was always cozy.  It was never too small to welcome a guest who stopped by, and it was just the right size for a small dining room table where a nourishing meal was served every night.  The love in our house was condensed into such a small space that it hung thick in the air.  We breathed it.  We felt it on our skin.

So during a recent visit, as I finished my shower at my parents’ house while my son impatiently waited outside the door, it struck me that, while my own kids have stairs and a second shower and a finished basement, too, all of those things I had wanted as a child, maybe they are actually missing out.  Growing up in a small space shaped the person I am today, so here are a few of the biggest lessons I learned from the smallest house.

1. The world does not revolve around you.

For the most part, my kids don’t have to accommodate other people too much during their normal routine at home.  If they need to use the toilet, we have three.  If they need to shower, we have two.  If they need a sink where they can brush their teeth, we have options.  If they want to watch something on television, we have two comfortable living spaces where they can do just that.  And many kids today are living in homes much bigger and with many more televisions than ours.

Life isn’t like that in a small house.

In a small house, you learn to wait and you learn to hurry.  It doesn’t really matter how much you might enjoy pampering yourself a bit more or how hard your workday has been.  At the end of the day, you have three minutes to get clean, partly because you are just one link in the shower chain and partly because everyone wants some hot water.  Small houses don’t have huge hot water tanks.  Everything about small houses is, well, small.

When you have one bathroom, someone is always beating on the door.  Always.  And while it’s annoying when you are the occupant and someone is knocking, you have also been the person beating on the door – too many times to count.  So you learn to hurry in order to accommodate someone else, even if you do so with loud sighs and eye rolling, in the hopes that they will return the favor later in the week.

When you live in a small house, you never expect to watch what you want on TV, unless you just happen to get home from school before everyone else does, which did happen during middle school and was kind of amazing.  Then you can watch Santa Barbara, a soap opera that you probably shouldn’t be watching anyway, without anyone complaining.  But most of the time, watching TV in a small house is an exercise in compromise.  You learn to watch things like Jeopardy and Animal Planet and old sitcoms that everyone in the family can enjoy.  You also learn the importance of the win/win.  Yes, you are missing the shows that your friends are watching, but you aren’t being forced to watch football or He-Man or something else that your brother would choose, and that, my friends, is a WIN.  You become skilled at negotiations and learn to stand by your word – “You can play video games for one hour if I can watch Beverly Hills 90210 at 8.”  That’s a no brainer.  DEAL.

A college writing professor once asked me if my parents argued in front of me often while I was growing up.  They didn’t.  He explained his observation that students who are skilled in the art of argumentation were often raised in the midst of conflict.  Nope.  Not me.  I grew up in a small house.  I just learned to debate and negotiate so that I could watch what I wanted on TV.

2. Don’t want anyone to know about it? Then don’t do it.

It is very, very hard to have secrets in a small house.

In a small house, your family hears everything.  They observe what you are doing, see what you are watching, and hear what you are listening to.  If your friends come over, no one sends you to the basement and closes the door behind you because there is no basement.  Your bedroom is close to the living spaces in the house, and you may even share a bedroom with a sibling.  People can see into your room every time they walk to the restroom, and your drawers and closet space might even be used to store things that aren’t your own.  People are in your stuff and in your space all of the time.  But it’s okay.  You never get comfortable with privacy because you never have any.

This can keep you out of lots and lots of trouble.

Our kids today believe privacy is their right, and it’s no wonder that they feel this way.  They have their own rooms, their own phones, their own e-mail addresses.  Many have their own bathrooms, their own televisions, and their own gaming systems.  Sure, privacy is nice.  But privacy is also where, in many cases, we make mistakes that have the most serious consequences.  Sure, my friends and I could have gone to other people’s houses to hide from our parents, but that feeling of never having privacy just became a part of who I was.  I imagine that my small house saved me from making at least a few very poor decisions.

3. If you don’t plan ahead, you have no one to blame but yourself (even if you try to blame your brother).

Getting four people ready for anything in a small house requires military-level planning.  It is impossible for everyone to “pull it together” at the last minute when everything that everyone needs is located in one very small place.  The timing of showers has to be coordinated and supplies have to be distributed so that various tasks can be completed wherever a mirror can be found.  Extra time has to be factored in if the ladies are washing their hair or shaving their legs.  And inevitably someone will actually need to use the toilet somewhere along the line, which can completely derail the entire schedule.

In a small house, if you don’t plan ahead, you may be going to school without brushing your teeth.  Or going to work with wet hair.  Or showing up with your friends only to find that your brother’s friends have already claimed the living room.  Or trying to study while everyone else is enjoying dessert with guests and loudly reminiscing at the dinner table.  Or bringing a date over when your family is being completely embarrassing and there is nowhere to escape in the house.

Kids with big houses will never understand the strategic planning that takes place in small homes.

4. Most of what you think you need, you don’t need.

Now that I have a home of my own, I am AMAZED that two teenagers and two adults lived in my parents’ teeny house and never really “felt” how small it was.  I chalk this up to my mother’s skills and wisdom in managing our household.

My mom shopped from a list of what we needed, and I don’t remember ever buying much extra. If she didn’t have an immediate need for something AND know exactly where she could store it, she didn’t buy it. I can remember my mom declining invitations to go shopping, and this baffled me because shopping seemed fun. She said, “If I’m not going to buy anything, then why would I go there?” She didn’t get sucked into “window shopping” because “window shopping” usually becomes “actual shopping.” And I still fall for this ALL. THE. TIME.

I spend impulsively sometimes.  I buy things I don’t need sometimes.  I buy things that I can’t use now but hope to use later sometimes.  I can do this because I have a little extra room to store things, but extra space can encourage excess spending.  Small-house people can’t just buy more things.  They truly understand the difference between a need and a want.  They also know that buying one thing will probably require them to get rid of something else, and that trade-off often isn’t worth it.  The value of the things that they choose to save is very clear, and there is no need for extra gadgets when another simple tool will do the trick.

My mom also kept our house very tidy.  Although she treasures family heirlooms, she has always been able to “clean out” without getting too hung up on emotional connections to objects.  In a small house, there is just no space for clutter.  Everything has a place, and when things are out of place in a small home, you literally have to move them or step over them all the time.  You can’t stuff them in a closet or in the basement or in the “guest room.”  When you live in a small home, you learn to recognize the true value of the things that you have, to buy only what you need, and to respect your space by putting things away.

5. Get over it.

In a big house, people can hide from one another.  They can remain angry or sad or frustrated for a long time without really dealing with the problem at hand.  In a small house, you can’t do that.  You are going to be sitting directly across from the person who hurt your feelings at some point later that day.  There is really no place else for the two of you to go.

You are going to need that person to let you use the bathroom because there is only one.  You are going to eat at the same table because there is only one place to eat.  You are going to watch television together because your bedroom is boring and all of the entertainment is in one room.  You have to have hard conversations or your own life will be miserable.  You have to get over things and move on.

That’s not a bad life skill to learn.

I’m not saying that kids who grow up in big houses won’t learn these life lessons in other ways, but I do wonder if they will learn them the hard way, from people who don’t love them as much when they leave the safe boundaries of home.  And if they don’t learn to be humble, to compromise, to share openly, to manage their time and their space and their money, and to resolve conflicts as a natural part of sharing a home, I wonder how we should be fostering these skills and if a deficiency in them might impact their relationships and experiences in the future.

My mom was never one to listen to the radio much.  She had her Barry Manilow albums that we listened to instead.  But I remember that she loved the lyrics to Doug Stone’s song:

But you know, love grows best in little houses,
With fewer walls to separate,
Where you eat and sleep so close together.
You can’t help but communicate,
Oh, and if we had more room between us, think of all we’d miss.
Love grows best, in houses just like this.

In reality, the most consequential lessons we learn are often from the little things – the close-up, intimate interactions with people that force us to change who we are, decide what we value, and reflect on how we respond to others.  Maybe more walls and more bathrooms and more TVs and more staircases are making our job as parents more difficult, forcing us to be more intentional about promoting certain values and skills.  I don’t know.  But I do know that tonight I will take a long, hot shower with no one banging on the door.  And, because of my childhood, I will appreciate every minute of it.

 

 

Doug Stone. “Little Houses.” Greatest Hits, Vol. 1, Sony Legacy, 1994

The Homework Assignment Your Kids Must Do This Summer

Awaiting

I have been teaching high school English Language Arts for over fourteen years now.  Throughout those years, I have assigned hundreds, maybe even a thousand, homework assignments to bright-eyed students who have stuffed the work into backpacks and recorded due dates in tattered planners.  I never thought to keep an ongoing record of how much work I have assigned over the years.  But I do have a fairly accurate idea of how many students have thanked me for giving them homework in high school.  That number is somewhere around, oh, I don’t know . . . Let’s just say it is a very, VERY low number.

And I get it.  Nobody likes homework, especially when the skills that are being practiced may not always seem relevant to a teenager’s life in the present.  Most sixteen-year-olds, even the most diligent and scholarly, would rather be sleeping, eating, or dating than writing a detailed literary analysis for me, and I understand this.  Plus, I live with my own tween/teen boys, and I am fully aware that we are all smarter as teenagers than we will be at any other point in our lives.

But some assignments are different, and I want to tell you about one of them.  I receive actual thank you notes from my students for assigning this senior citizen interview project.  EVERY.  SINGLE.  TIME.  It is an incredible way for your child to disconnect from technology, practice face-to-face communication skills, and LEARN really important historical information.  It can strengthen family relationships and may even help students retain some academic skills over the summer.  Students of all ages can participate.  I encourage YOU to assign your own children or grandchildren this project over the summer months.

Now that I’ve gotten you really excited about this project, you may be expecting your kids to feel excited about this, too.  Maybe they will cheer and give you warm bear hugs when you tell them that you found this great summer homework idea on a random teacher’s blog on the Internet!  This is not going to happen.  My teacher experience tells me that your kids may make some unhappy grumbling sounds or mumble something indiscernible under their breath or roll their eyes.  Or maybe they will do all three while also shaking their heads as if you are a total disgrace to parents everywhere.  This is a perfectly normal reaction.  Do not surrender!  The “thank you” will come later.  I promise.

You won’t regret this.  Just trust me.  Or trust Adam, one of my amazing students:

Grandma Adam B

Or believe Amarah, another one of my incredible students:

My Grandmother by Amarah

I even completed this project myself after assigning it to my students several years ago.  I interviewed my own grandmother using the original assignment, which led me to continue calling her to ask her more questions that had not been on the list.  Eventually this morphed into a binder that included my grandmother’s answers, my family’s special personal memories, photos, and recipes compiled as a gift for my grandmother for Christmas.  I read through that book this morning while preparing this blog, and it remains one of my favorite gifts and keepsakes ever, especially now that my grandmother has passed.

Dear Grandma

So let’s get this homework assignment started!

Step 1:

Schedule a time for your children to interview a senior citizen.  I encourage my students to choose a family member if possible, but I know that this isn’t possible for everyone.  Interviewing an older friend or neighbor will also be very educational.  Older generations, like great-grandparents, have even more historical details to share, so do not overlook them when choosing someone to interview.

Your children should ask permission to interview this person, meet when it is convenient, and explain that the person is free to share as much or as little as she feels comfortable.  Audio or video recordings are wonderful keepsakes, but only if the senior citizen approves.  This year, a student submitted her interview as an audio recording instead of in writing.  I was going to ask her to transcribe it for me, but before I knew it I had listened to the full twenty-six minutes!  (I had over 100 to grade, so assessing audio recordings was not time efficient.)  Listening to her interact with her grandfather was incredibly engaging.  You could literally hear their admiration for and understanding of one another growing as they talked.

(Note: If your children see their grandparents often, they are likely to say that they already know their grandparents very well.  Ignore this.  I knew my grandmother well, but I did not know that she pole vaulted in high school!  My grandma did that?  NO WAY!  My students ALWAYS say they learned new information, even students who live with their grandparents.  Think about your normal conversations.  We typically don’t dig very deeply into personal details.)

Step 2

Choose questions.  I usually provide a list of questions for my students to pick from based on what they already know about their senior citizen.  For example, asking about how weddings and marriage have changed can spark a very interesting conversation with some interviewees, while that question might be too painful for others.  Help your children choose appropriate questions.  I’m adding extra questions here beyond what I use with my students so that you have plenty to choose from.

Encourage your children to ask follow-up questions or to ask for more explanation.  This is a great conversational skill to learn!

This list has been edited and revised multiple times since 2001, so I don’t recall which questions I created, which ones I added from other sources, and which ones were from the original assignment created by a teacher at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis North Carolina where I taught many years ago.

  • When and where were you born?  How did your parents choose your name?
  • What is your definition of a hero?  Who is someone you would consider a hero and why?
  • What major historical events have occurred in your lifetime?  How did they change the world?  How did they affect you personally?
  • What are the advantages of being a senior citizen?  What are the disadvantages?
  • What advice for living a good life would you give today’s teenage generation?  What would you warn me to stay away from?  What would you suggest I spend more time doing?
  • How do you feel about teenagers today?  What do you like and dislike about them as a group?
  • How do you see families changing in today’s society?  How do you feel about that?
  • Tell me about your own parents.  What impressed you about them?  How were they similar to and different from parents today?
  • If you could change one thing about society today, what would it be?  Why?
  • What are a few of the most memorable aspects of your childhood?
  • What was your favorite toy as a child?  Why?
  • Share a holiday memory from your childhood.
  • What kind of entertainment did you enjoy when you were a teenager?
  • What does being an American mean to you?  What is the greatest responsibility of being an American?  What is the greatest privilege?
  • How was your parents’ culture a part of your childhood?  Did you have any special traditions or recipes that were tied to your ancestry?  Did you share these with your children?
  • What are the most significant changes that you have seen in society throughout your lifetime?  Do you consider these changes to be positive or negative?
  • How has your own perspective on life changed since you were a teenager?  Why?
  • What was your wedding like?  How was it different from weddings today?  How long have you been married, and how old were you when you got married?
  • What advice would you give a couple that is just starting their marriage?
  • What advice would you give a teenager who is starting to date?
  • How much have prices changed since you were a teenager?  How much did a gallon of gas cost?  A new house?  A new car? A candy bar?  How much did your first job pay?
  • What is the one rule of life that you live by and that has guided your actions?  Why?
  • What is the best gift that you ever received?  Why is it memorable?
  • Describe any memories of wartime that you have.
  • How did you spend your free time when you were a child?  Do you think kids today are lucky or unlucky to have their own televisions, computers, and cell phones?
  • If you had a chance to do something that you have not yet done in life, what would it be?  Why?
  • How have schools and education changed since you were a child?
  • When you were a kid, who did you look up to?  Why?
  • What is something that you remember disagreeing with your parents about when you were young?  Looking back, who was “right”?
  • Tell me about a funny memory from your childhood.  Tell me about a happy memory.  Tell me about a sad memory.  Tell me about a time you were afraid.  Tell me about a time you felt proud.
  • Finish this sentence.  “Looking back, one thing I wish I had known as a young adult was . . . “
  • What advice do you have for someone facing a really hard time in life?  What has gotten you through your hardest times?
  • Are their any special heirlooms that are being passed down in our family?
  • Do you have a favorite song, book, meal, color, quotation, or religious verse?
  • You know me well.  What are your goals and wishes for my future?

Step 3

Preserve it.  Maybe your child could type the interview and share it with someone else who will appreciate it, if the interviewee doesn’t mind sharing.  Maybe your child could use the interview to write a special letter to the person who was interviewed.  As a teacher, I assign my students to write a reflection essay.  I don’t give them a specific topic because each student walks away from each interview with a different takeaway and a different emotional response.  However, students could be assigned to write about several lessons they learned or ways society has changed or answers that most surprised them.  Some students have also chosen to write beautiful poems inspired by their interviews as part of a creative writing project at the end of the year.

Step 4

Show gratitude.  I require my students to write a thank you note to the person who was interviewed, and I encourage them to share their final essay with that person, as well.  They typically walk away with a deeper appreciation for the person who was interviewed, so they are eager to share their thanks.  They sometimes write me a thank you note, as well!  (No more eye rolls!)

Friends, I am telling you that you will not regret sharing this homework assignment with your kids.  This year, one of my students worked so hard on her reflection essay that she revised it over and over again until she felt in her heart that it truly honored her grandmother.  Multiple students told me that they thought their grandparents really didn’t like teenagers or that they thought teenagers and senior citizens had little in common, but they discovered that their assumptions were completely wrong.  Many had no idea how much adversity the senior citizens they interviewed had overcome.

This assignment always reminds me that English Language Arts is a humanity, and that the humanities are important because they teach us how to be human.  Students have left my classroom as better writers and students have left my classroom as better editors and students have left my classroom with better test scores.  That is all very good.

But if students leave my classroom as better people, then maybe I have truly done the job that I’m supposed to do.

Awaiting

 

 

I Remember When the Lights Turned Black

Baby Carson

All day long, there was bleeding. The nurse smiled warmly whenever our eyes met. Her name was Mary. My name. The name of my aunts and my grandmother. She smiled, and I felt safe with her, but when she looked away from me, there was worry in the lines of her forehead. I noticed it. I noticed how her brows pulled together like magnets every time she examined me. I noticed that my nurses seemed more interested than the last time I stayed here, quietly fluttering in and out of the room like butterflies. I noticed, but I didn’t really care, because I was holding the tiny, warm ball of you in my arms.

Yes, I feel fine. Yes, I’m tired, but I didn’t sleep well last night. My body felt heavy, and I was uncomfortable, and maybe my chart mentions that I just gave birth to a child this morning. No, I really don’t need anything. Unless you can stretch time – can you do that? I only want more time today. Could you make this day the longest one? I need time to soak up every detail of these moments, to absorb them into my memory. Time to properly welcome this newest human to our family and our planet. Time for my skin to speak promises to him. Promises of safety and of love.

Yes, I can take a break, if you think I need to. Here, you take the baby. Yes, I can sit up straight and stand and walk to the restroom by myself, but thank you. I’ve done this before and everything was simple and maybe we’ll go home tomorrow. I have a new baby, and everything is good. It’s SO good. Really. I’m just fine.

Except – why is this room spinning? And everything inside of me just washed to the bottom. Where did the lines go? Where are all the corners? Walls or floors or ceilings, a blur of colors, and that loud sound, don’t you hear it? I need to lie down.

There. That’s better. I’m fine.

Please give me my baby.

That was the beginning of a very slow and a very fast day, a day that felt so long and so short and so high and so low and that almost ended in tragedy. But here’s what I want you to know, Son. Even if that day a dozen years ago had ended differently, even if I had been given only one day to know you, only one day to love you, even if I had held you close for just a single day, it would have been worth it. If I had lost all of the special moments we have shared since you were born (a painful thought that ripples through my heart like a shock), I would have no regrets.

Because . . . YOU.

I remember those hours, from the welcoming beams of dawn until the last gleams at dusk, so vividly. I remember your first cries and the warm wave of relief and the explosive joy that felt like tears when I first held you. I remember loving you all day long.  I remember the lights in my room suddenly turning black and I remember the quick strings of urgent words as we rushed into surgery through sleepy hospital halls and I remember the fear that smoldered in loving eyes and the heavy air that hovered low around my bed.

And I remember the overwhelming peace, the comfort that embraced me. The quiet contentment in my mind. I remember that this normally anxious spirit was not afraid of what would happen despite an outcome that was still unclear.

What I remember most is that March 31 was one of the very best days of my life.

Because . . . YOU.

You were not a gift made for me, not someone to be owned, but a beautiful spirit entrusted to our care, to be loved and taught and shared with the world, and then returned to the God who designed you. I didn’t know, on that day, if I would see you in the morning, if you would ever really know who I had been.  But I have been given so many more days to enjoy you, and my heart swells with gratitude and with the hope of so many more.  Your light stood out in my darkness, and the little spirit that I welcomed grows bigger and brighter and bolder each year.

Love you always,

Mom

Mary Lou Retton, Commodore 64, and a Pack of Lucky Strikes

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I grew up in a house that was too small for secrets.  There were no secluded hiding spots or private spaces.  Time alone was so rare that it almost felt uncomfortable.  And even when you thought you were having a private conversation, someone was always within earshot.  Usually, that person was your little brother.

There wasn’t much the four of us didn’t know about each other.

So I was surprised when, on a crisp November day while my boys and I were visiting my parents, my dad revealed a treasure box that had been covertly concealed in a closet.  Even in our teeny tiny house, he’d kept a secret – a stash of yellowed newspapers and vintage magazines that he had squirreled away over the years for their historical or personal significance, including several Sports Illustrated magazines from my childhood.

You guys, MARY LOU RETTON.

My memories of the spring and summer of 1984 are limited.  I had just turned eight years old.  My second grade teacher had been creative and unconventional, and she would remain one of my favorites forever.  (She played the guitar, produced a play every season, and sang “Puff the Magic Dragon.”  Standardized tests weren’t holding us hostage yet.)  I owned a Michael Jackson t-shirt that I vaguely remember wearing often.  Probably too often.  I honestly don’t remember much more that that.

But I DO remember watching Mary Lou Retton win gold in the summer Olympics, right here in America.  I remember seeing her on the Wheaties boxes at the store.  (She was the first woman on the front of the box, by the way.)  She was smiley and spunky, and she grew up just a couple of hours away from me, which in Appalachia means that you might as well be neighbors.  We claimed her, and she would become one of the most beloved athletes of all time.

So when my dad pulled out his treasures, I went straight for the Sports Illustrated dated August 13, 1984 to read the articles about Mary Lou.  But I didn’t even read them.  I still haven’t read them, actually.  (I’m so sorry, Mary Lou.  I will.  I promise!)  When I opened the cover and saw the first advertisement, I quickly became engrossed in what this relic from the past reveals about the American experience just a few decades ago.  Is this really what life was like when I was a child?  Whoa.  Apparently, growing up requires so much concentration that we don’t even notice the changes of life swirling around us.

It does surprise me how much some areas of our lives have been transformed.  And it’s equally amazing how much some things that need to change really haven’t changed so much at all.  See for yourself!  Check out this walk down Memory Lane courtesy of Sports Illustrated magazine, August 1984.

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The Marlboro Man was to 1984 what The Most Interesting Man in the World is to 2018.  He was cool.  He persuaded us to believe that indulging in unhealthy habits isn’t immature or irresponsible; it’s manly.  (We are all still recovering from the devastation this myth creates in our society…)  In the 80s, kids loved their candy cigarettes, and there were women who could not resist a man who smelled like a campfire and sounded like he was coughing up a lung.  But the Marlboro man wasn’t lonely in Sports Illustrated.  There were almost as many cigarette ads as articles.

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There was this one, which makes a pool party look like a lot more fun than smoking, but whatever.  I guess the ladies only came when they heard there would be cigarettes?

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And there was this guy.  He had no idea how to ride a motorcycle until he smoked a Kool.  I bet he didn’t have hair like that B.K. (Before Kool), either.  I might even consider smoking a Kool to grow thick hair and have deep thoughts like that . . .

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And there were these.  Hey, at least they are low tar.  A lot of tar sounds gross, but a little tar, well, that’s perfect.

You guys, there were SO MANY tobacco ads in this Sports Illustrated.

Interestingly, according to this article on nbcnews.com dated May 24, 2016, “roughly 42 percent of U.S. adults smoked” about fifty years ago, down to around 15% today.  Which suggests that maybe, just maybe, sometimes government regulations imposed on profitable industries that care more about money than actual Americans can be the catalyst for significant and positive shifts in our society.

Or maybe I’m misunderstanding the statistics.

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Remember when Kmart was king of the department stores and Walmart was just invading the Midwest?  Really, did anyone who banked on the success of Velcro shoes get ahead?

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Yes, there was a time when everybody wanted a Commodore 64.  Who thought technology would expand beyond THIS?  Just look at those graphics!

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What?!?  AT&T made personal computers?  Based on the ABSOLUTELY HORRIBLE customer service I experienced with them recently, I’m not surprised they’ve experienced some failures.

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Even with the advancing technology, in the 1980s computers still seemed unnecessary to most of us.  As if every family would need its own computer!  Please!  That would be as crazy as having phones that weren’t attached to the wall!  Or computers that would fit in our pockets!  Just the idea was hilarious.  Electronic typewriters were the perfect middle ground for most of middle America.  We liked change.  But not THAT much change.

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Rolls of film?  My kids would have no idea what this even means . . .

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Friends, here’s a true story: I almost surrendered while trying to open a package of Tide pods yesterday to wash our clothes.  I’m not even joking.  The childproofing was so advanced and creative that it took me several minutes to figure it out.  In 2018, we live in our own personal prisons to keep our children safe.  But in 1984, I was eight years old, and I was sitting in the front seat, probably on my knees, without a safety belt.  Really, I might as well have been driving.  According to this ad, only 15% of Americans were buckling up in 1984, so I was in good company – and my parents were perfectly wonderful – and totally normal to allow this.  I remember people protesting when seatbelt laws were first introduced, but those regulations have saved a whole lot of lives.

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A few things I found in this SI issue did disturb me.  I’m not sure this ad campaign would fly today.  I’m pretty sure that secretaries have other things to type at work . . .

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And I’m confident that the photographers at the Olympics could have shared a more appropriate photo of the Romanian women’s gymnastics team than this.  REALLY?

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And I’d love to tell you that thirty years since this letter to the editor, at least one woman has qualified to officiate a regular season game for major league baseball, but as far as I can tell, that hasn’t happened.  It’s been THIRTY YEARS!

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And this guy wrote an editorial about how, in his opinion, Americans weren’t the most hospitable hosts of the Olympics because, well, maybe our culture is generally kind of selfish and maybe we think that America should always be the center of attention.  Maybe we weren’t as welcoming and open minded toward people from other countries in 1984 as we thought we were.

Whew.  Thank goodness those attitudes have changed, right?  (*sigh*)

So everything wasn’t perfect in 1984.  There were problems, some that we’ve almost extinguished and some that we have not.

But we did have Velcro shoes.

And Mary Lou Retton.

And that alone makes up for a lot.

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Ten Lessons I Learned When Life Tried to Drown Me – Part 2

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Don’t worry!  If you missed Part 1, you can check it out here.  If you already read that post, thanks for coming back!  I know the anticipation was killing you, especially since I am a day late . . . Here are five more lessons I learned when life tried to drown me in 2017.

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6. You can’t change people.

We’re approaching the end of January, and gym attendance has already dropped dramatically since January 1.  In fact, according to statisticbrain.com, 67% of people who have gym memberships don’t even use them.  If you are still plugging away at your new year’s resolutions, kudos to you!  Statistically, you were probably more likely to have been hit by lightning or killed by a hippo, but you persevered!

Resolutions are tough because it’s hard for us to change what we are accustomed to believing or doing.  Change is not impossible, for sure, but it’s difficult, even when we really WANT a change to take place. Here’s the point: If it is incredibly challenging just to change yourself, then how would you possibly be able to change another person who sees no reason for an adjustment in the first place?

Let me say this (to myself) one more time.  YOU. CAN’T. CHANGE. PEOPLE.  You can love them.  You can encourage them.  You can share your wisdom and experiences.  You can listen.  You can care about them from the very bottom of your heart.  But you can only change yourself.  You can play a supporting role for other people when they decide to change themselves.  And that could be . . . well . . . never.  Changing them is not your responsibility.  Thank goodness.  Because you can’t do it.

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7. Grief is like a cloud.

Grief is like the clouds in the sky.  At first, the clouds are thick and heavy, and very little light slips through.  The days are foggy and dark, and time feels long and slow and kind of blurry.  Fortunately, as the weeks pass by, the clouds break up and the sunbeams win.  Brightness, clarity, and sunshine become normal again.  The clouds become lighter and fluffier, and they blow by gently, and sometimes you don’t even notice them at all.  Some days there is not a single cloud, just a bright blue sky, and those sunny days are more magnificent than they ever were before.

But clouds always return.  They always blow in and out of the sky.  They are smaller and farther between, but they are never really gone.

Sometimes you can feel a storm cloud rolling in before you see it, like older people say they feel the rain in their bones.  Other times, a single dark cloud surprises you.  It shows up out of nowhere in the middle of a clear blue sky.  You are having a picnic or swimming in the pool, playing with your kids or laughing with friends, and you unexpectedly find yourself running for cover.

But the sunny days, after a while, far outnumber those sprinkled with clouds.

There is no timeline for grief, no good way to measure or explain it.  Be patient with friends who have experienced a loss. It’s okay for you to ask them how they are doing, even after time has passed.  You aren’t going to remind them of something that they have forgotten.  Most likely, there is still at least one cloud in their sky, and they might appreciate that you recognize that.

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8. Your value does not depend on your success or your failure.

After several disappointing team losses recently, my son was feeling defeated as an athlete.  I could see it.  He didn’t need a lecture on how to improve his skills or a play-by-play account of the team’s mistakes. He already knew that stuff, and I’m not his coach.   What he needed from mom was encouragement.

We talked about the season and his goals and his improvements.  We talked about some camps and some training he might like.  But his disappointment was heavy, despite his usual resilience.  I wasn’t really sure what else to say.  And then these words spilled out of my mouth, “I know disappointment is hard, but do you know what would make this experience really tragic?”

He raised his eyebrows and looked up from his phone.

“If your value as a person were actually tied to your wins and your losses.”

I don’t really know where that came from, but my first thought was, DANGTHAT was some good parenting!  Yes, I nailed it!  Then my throat tightened just a little bit because the message was also convicting.  Because sometimes I forget that my own value as a human being isn’t tied to what I do for a living or what I have in the bank or who likes me or how many mistakes I’ve made or what I mark off my to-do list each day.

The fact that I am losing my job does not diminish my personal value. Yes, teaching is very important to me, and, yes, I love helping teenagers, and, yes, I am proud of what I have accomplished over the past fourteen years, but my job does not determine my value.

The fact that I am going through a divorce does not diminish my personal value. Yes, it dramatically changes what I imagined for the future, and, yes, it has been a painful experience, and, yes, family is incredibly important to me, but my relationships do not determine my value.

The fact that some people don’t enjoy my writing does not diminish my personal value.  Yes, rejection stings, and, yes, I wish everyone liked me, but what other people think does not determine my value.

Your value, the true measure of who you are, is separate from your parenting, your marriage, your friendships, your job, your hobbies, your paycheck, and your successes. Every one of those things can be stripped away from you, yet you would still BE.

You.  Would.  Still.  Be. 

And if that leaves you wondering where your value actually comes from, maybe it’s time to slow down and reflect on who you truly are and where you put your faith and what that really means.

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9. The opinions of other people matter.  Sometimes.

When I hear my high school students say things like, “I don’t really care what people think,” or “Other people’s opinions don’t matter to me,” or “Nobody is going to tell me what to do,” that can usually be translated into “I am making some very poor life choices right now.” The reality is that I rarely hear those words strung together by students who are experiencing success at school and in life at that moment.

But I specifically remember one girl in my English class who wrote that whenever she makes a decision, she asks herself what her Aunt Diane would do.  Her Aunt Diane’s opinion matters.  She trusts it.  Every person needs an Aunt Diane.

There are people in our lives who play an important role in encouraging us to make the best decisions and in holding us accountable when they see danger lurking around us. Their opinions matter to us, even after they are gone.  (My grandmothers’ voices still play a powerful role in my life.)  But there are a whole lot of other opinions that don’t matter, voices that serve only to distract and discourage us, with no true concern for our well being at all.  There are people who don’t even know us and people who have not earned our trust that complain, criticize, and try to convince us to give up on the good things we are doing.  It’s so important to discern the opinions that matter from the opinions that don’t.

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10. Bravery is not what people think it is.

The bravest people I know do not fit the image of bravery that American culture has created. We like to associate bravery with physical strength and tough words and a lust for adventure,  but brave people are often quiet and humble.  They often suffer and sacrifice in ways that other people don’t even notice.  And bravery doesn’t always sound like we expect.  Saying “I am not perfect” is braver than saying “I don’t make mistakes.”  Saying “I was hurt by what you did” is braver than saying “That didn’t matter to me.”  Saying “I made a mistake” is braver than saying “I don’t see a problem.”  Saying “I can relate to how you feel because this happened to me” is braver than saying “Call if you need me.”  Saying “Actually, life is hard right now” is braver than saying “Everything is fine.”  Bravery can be big and loud, but it can also be quiet and unassuming.  Be sure to notice and appreciate (and maybe even try to experience) both kinds.

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Thanks so much for reading this post, sharing the blog with friends, and weathering the storms of life together!  (We all need a village, right?  Don’t tell me you forgot #1 already!)  Here’s to hoping, but not expecting, to win the lottery in 2018!

*Pictures created using Bitmoji.

Join the conversation!  Which of these ten lessons resonated with you the most?  Comment below or on the Still Chasing Fireflies Facebook page!

Ten Lessons I Learned When Life Tried to Drown Me – Part 1

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Without a doubt, 2016 tried to kill me.  On December 31, my match was lit and ready to set that calendar on fire.  I vaguely discussed some of the challenges of that year in this post last January, expecting (OOPS! – see #5 below) that 2017 would be the BEST. YEAR. EVER.  I thought everything would fall into place last year.  I thought things would change and the world would start to make sense again.  Plus, I totally deserved to win the lottery or something after keeping my head above water during the year that nearly drowned me.  And life usually gives us exactly what we deserve, right?  (Bwahahahaha!  I may have just laughed so hard that Diet Coke came out my nose . . . )

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In reality, what life often gives us feels a little more like this . . .

Hippo Me

Truth be told, the past year was better in a whole lot of ways, and I wrote about a few of the highlights on the blog throughout 2017.  But I’m still in the midst of a difficult divorce, and I just learned that the school where I’m working must close, so this post  would be a big fat lie if I did not say this: I didn’t win the lottery in 2017.  And my joy, as refreshing as it was to rediscover it, was often still entangled in a web of uncertainty, disappointment, and hurt.  It turns out that flipping a page on a calendar (or burning the whole thing to ashes . . . ) doesn’t really fix everything, at least not instantly.  But one thing is for sure: I’m supposed to learn something from these experiences.  The years that tried to kill me have taught me that there is beauty in the tremendous growth and wisdom we gain when wrestling with unexpected challenges.  Here are a few more lessons I’ve learned from my WWE match with life.  (By the way, I think I may be winning . . .)

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1. Stop apologizing already and use your village.

Humans were designed to live in communities, both physical communities and social ones.  Individually, we are unable to compensate for our own weaknesses, but together the gaps created by one person can be filled by another until there are no gaps left in the community at all.  That’s a beautiful thought, right?  And you aren’t weak because you have a need.  You’re just human.

But human nature also makes us act a bit like toddlers, little kids who want to do everything independently, even when they aren’t really capable.  They want to pour the gallon of milk that they can hardly lift off the table.  They want to tie their shoes before anyone has taught them how.  They want to swing the bat their way and dunk the ball in the hoop despite being only two feet tall.  For the grownups, it’s maddening.

We cringe at that behavior, but think about the crazy things we do just to prove that we can do them.  We consider it an accomplishment to handle everything on our own.  We drive ourselves to the emergency room when we are practically dying.  We try to manage impossible schedules without asking another parent who is going to the exact same place to give our kid a ride.  We agree to things that we don’t want to do so that we won’t look incapable of juggling one hundred and fifty seven responsibilities at once.  Seriously, it’s ridiculous.

If you are lucky enough to have handled everything on your own until now, you win a . . . well, nothing actually . . . but, really, that’s pretty amazing.  Still, I will advise from experience that you should start building your village today because everyone gets caught in a storm with no umbrella eventually.  (Or wakes up seriously sick with a kidney stone in the middle of the night . . . We all have our own issues . . .)

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2. Don’t just sit there and expect people to build a village around you.

I once read a string of comments on the Today Parenting Blog in which some moms lamented that neighbors aren’t thoughtful anymore and that people with a caring village are just lucky and that no one ever helps them when they need it.  Now, maybe these ladies live in towns where everyone looks a bit like the Grinch and no one shares a casserole anymore, but I find that a little hard to believe.

I find that a lot hard to believe, actually.

Remember the famous line from Field of Dreams?  The voice that Ray hears over and over as he envisions his own baseball diamond says, “If you build it, he will come . . .”   So he builds it, and people come.  Even ghosts come, for goodness sake.  Most of us aren’t interested in attracting dead baseball players, but the advice is solid: The magic is secondary.  First, you have to do the hard work.

If you don’t have a village, start by envisioning the community you want to create.  What kind of friend are you wishing to have in your life?  Then – and this is the secret that the ladies I mentioned above may have missed – YOU HAVE TO BE THAT FRIEND.  You have to make the first move.  You have to start the conversations.  You have to help the mom who looks frazzled.  You have to notice the stressed out woman and buy her a coffee.  You have to invite the neighbors over for dessert.  You have to show up when it is totally inconvenient.  You have to send a card to someone who needs a lift.  YOU have to lay the foundation for the village that you want to live in.

If you build a baseball diamond, baseball players will find it.  (Maybe not ghost ones, but ghosts are creepy anyway.)  And if you build a village that starts with you being the kind of friend that you want to have, then you will attract the kinds of friends you are looking for, too.

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3. You can survive more than you think you can.

You know all those people who have overcome huge challenges only to move forward and contribute to the world in positive ways?  You read about them or see them on television, and their optimism and fighting spirit seem superhuman.  Their stories are uplifting and really do motivate us to be better and stronger and more hopeful than we were before.

But at the end of the day, they’re people, not superheroes, people like you who are just trying to make something good out of an otherwise crappy situation.  Hopefully, you would do the same thing, too, if you were faced with a similar adversity.  And although your resilience would inspire others in really wonderful ways, you probably wouldn’t feel all that inspirational – because moving forward after a crisis really just feels like, well, survival.  You have the strength to survive hard things, too.  You are no different from those people.  You have the power to thrive and to inspire others and to make something good come from your own despair.

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4. It’s important to stay busy.  But not too busy.

Balance may be impossible to achieve, but it’s certainly something to aim for.  This is especially true when you are faced with hard times.  Unfortunately, many people who encounter scary hurdles resort to extremes – either staying so busy that they never face their problems and emotions, or isolating themselves so much that they are more apt to sink into a very dark place.

As Winston Churchill famously said, “If you are going through hell, keep going.”  The danger of standing still, of course, is that you will never come out on the other side.  Spending time with friends and family, contributing within the community, and finding your bigger purpose can help you to feel contentment and joy.  But quiet time for reflecting, reading, journaling, connecting with your faith, and talking privately with close friends is also really, really important in order to move forward.  It’s okay to give yourself time to process and time to be alone, just not too much.  I’m still seeking this balance.  So should you.

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5. Your expectations will shape your outlook.

One of the greatest barriers to finding happiness after a loss is accepting that your life no longer looks like the photo-shopped image of the future that you had already plastered in the album in your head.  It can be very, very difficult to let go of the expectations you had for today and for the future so that you can appreciate the beauty of what you actually have – which is still probably pretty awesome in a lot of ways.  And the longer we hang onto expectations that are no longer realistic, the more time bitterness and anger have to make themselves really cozy in our hearts.

During a run this week, I tripped on an uneven sidewalk and skinned myself up.  It was totally embarrassing, and, DANG, a skinned knee hurts more than I remember!  (So sorry, kids, for telling you to suck it up . . . )  While I was bandaging a few scrapes, I inadvertently knocked my phone in the water.  So my kids came home to a limping mom with a bag of ice in one hand and an iphone in a bag of rice in the other.  “You had a really bad day,” they said.  And I probably should have felt like I’d had a horrible day, but I didn’t.  (Disclaimer: I definitely can’t say that I always handle situations like this so calmly!  I nearly threw my computer out the window just a few minutes ago when the wifi stopped connecting. . .)  Here’s the thing.  When you stop expecting life to be perfect, some of the situations that might have seemed tragic in the past lose their power.  And sometimes overcoming some of the bigger problems in life brings a healthier perspective to the smaller issues and helps you to focus on the positive.

It’s important to have hopes and dreams, to work hard to achieve those, and to maintain high standards for your life, but make sure that your expectations aren’t setting you up to be an unhappy person.  Accept that life isn’t perfect.  That you can’t always have what you want. That people will make mistakes.  That things will happen that aren’t fair.  That you can’t predict the future.  All of that sounds pretty bleak, right?  It really isn’t.  Life is full of wonderful things, as well.  But these truths are, well, REAL, and we often prefer to live in the pretend rather than in the reality, which creates unnecessary disappointment.  Expect problems to happen, because that is just life, but also recognize that the overall quality of your life isn’t determined by a single problem, even if that problem is a big one.

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You can read Part 2 of this post here!

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*Pictures created using Bitmoji.

 

Friday Favorites: What We Loved This Christmas

image1You did it!  You survived the holiday madness once again!  I truly hope that your Christmas was everything that you wanted or needed it to be.  If this year was wonderful for you, I am so happy for you.  I celebrate your happiness with you!  If this year was one for the history books, please trust that next Christmas may look completely different, that it may be much better even if your life has changed, even if you can’t begin to imagine what “better” might look like yet.  Keep on keeping on, and soon you will be an encouragement to someone else who is right where you are now, and what an incredible gift you will be!

Speaking of gifts, every year I tell my kids that Santa will be cutting back at our house, and every year Santa fails to follow through with this plan.  This year was no exception.  When I pointed out to my children that baby Jesus himself received only three gifts, my quick-witted oldest son responded, “Yes, Mom, but one of those was GOLD!!!”  (Seriously, though, my kids aren’t the problem.  The problem is ME!)

I think we can all agree that Christmas has become far too entangled in American commercialism and materialism, but, even so, it’s fair to say that the gifts that we give one another, at Christmas or at any time, do matter.  Yes, we spend too much money and, yes, we spoil our kids with too many presents, but the perfect gift, even if it is very inexpensive, is a powerful way to say I know you and I love you.  And these words are coming from someone whose LEAST appreciated love language is gift giving.

When you give a particularly meaningful gift, it’s not about the gift at all.  It’s about the thought, the time, the generosity of spirit.

There is no way that I could highlight every gift my kids and I got or bought this Christmas, but please know that we thought carefully about each gift that we purchased and truly enjoyed each present we received!  My hope is that by sharing some new ideas with you, maybe this will give you some gifting inspiration for the coming year.  Or for Christmas next year.

Seriously.  It’s only 361 days away!

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Yes, one of my favorite gifts in 2017 was a thermometer . . . Oh, wow.  I’m feeling super old in this moment . . .  I actually received this gift at a favorite things gift exchange hosted by my friend Jennifer, and then I loved it so much that I bought one for my brother and his wife, so I both got it and bought it!  To sum it up, you load the Kinsa app onto your smart phone and then the thermometer pictured above plugs right into your phone.  Here’s what I love: Each person in the family can have a profile on Kinsa where you can record their temperature readings as well as their symptoms.  This way, when the doctor asks questions like, “How long has your child been having these symptoms?” you don’t have to bumble around, looking confused and wondering if you just failed parenting because you can’t remember.  You can buy this on Amazon for around $14.

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This might be my ABSOLUTE FAVORITE gift that I bought this year!  What do you buy for a three-year-old who doesn’t need any toys because he already has all of the ones you bought his older brother for Christmas for the past nine years?  You make him a customized memory game on Shutterfly!  You choose which pictures to load, and you can create a theme if you want.  In our case, I used photos from our family vacation to Florida last summer.  We had fun playing the game AND enjoying the memories at the same time.  Note: The cards are bigger than the other memory games you may have at home.  I also ordered two sets to expand the game.  Shutterfly offers LOTS of discounts and promos, so watch for those before ordering. 

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If your name is Renee and you are my sister-in-law, you need to stop reading right now because your kids have not received this gift yet!  This is another fun, unique gift that I am so excited to share with my niece and my nephew.  You can find these mermaid tail blankets by visiting Blankie Tails, and they come in a variety of sizes and colors.  (Photo from the Blankie Tails website)  They also have different styles, such as a shark and a rocket ship, to appeal to different kids.  I ordered directly from Blankie Tails because they carry toddler sizes. (Seriously, a toddler mermaid.  It’s too much.)  However, you can also find some of their styles on Amazon, and I REALLY love that you can buy them and add the child’s name (if you don’t need toddler sizes – BOO!) at the Personal Creations website.

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Alex and Ani bracelets are trendy and fun, but there are three reasons why I like them more than any other bracelets I own.  First, they are extremely light weight and thin, which means that I can forget that I am wearing them, even when I am working.  Second, they are adjustable, which is very helpful for those of us who have tiny wrists and those of us who don’t.  Finally, each bracelet has a special meaning, so you can gift a loved one in a meaningful way.  My parents gave me this bracelet to add to a few others I already have, and it is lovely!  You can buy these at some jewelry stores, department stores, and boutiques or at Alex and Ani online.  Here is a pro shopper tip: If you live near a Nordstrom Rack, they often carry some of these bracelets at nearly half the usual cost, making them a much more affordable gift!

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My parents don’t really need or want any more things around the house.  There isn’t room for a lot of extras in their small home, and they have everything arranged just the way they like it.  This year, my brother and I bought them these kits to trace their ancestry.  The results will be fascinating for our entire family!  We bought these on Amazon when they were on sale, so look for discounts.  This is a great idea for people who don’t really want any more things, and I expect the results to spark many interesting conversations!

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My boys became somewhat obsessed with the game of croquet last summer, so much so that my brother and sister-in-law bought them this desktop croquet set, kind of as a joke.  It turns out that this little set with each ball about the size of a dime provided hours of holiday fun.  Who would have thought?  You will need a tablecloth to create some friction, but this game is a win!  You can buy it at World Market.

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You know how some people are naturally really good at finding JUST the right gifts?  Yeah.  Those people are my brother and my sister-in-law.  They bought me this print from RunawayPrints on Etsy and then framed it from IKEA.  This gift is so personal and so encouraging!  It doesn’t get better than that!  I love it.

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And . . . they also got me this super soft t-shirt from one of my favorite Etsy shops, Birch Bear Co., which you may remember me blogging about here.  I bought my sister-in-law a Christmas gift from this shop, as well.  There are so many cute options, and the business owner is incredibly kind.  I highly recommend Birch Bear!

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This year, the boys and I spent a little more time visiting with extended family, which was so nice.  We had more time to sit and talk, and we were able to make a couple of extra stops.  When I visited my aunt and uncle, not only was the company enjoyable, but they also let me raid the pantry!  Oh, my goodness, you guys . . . that is homemade apple pie filling.  HOMEMADE APPLE PIE FILLING!!!  And it was lovingly prepared by two people who are very special to me.  Best.  Gifts.  Ever.  Give the gift of your own skills and talents!

All of these are risk-free, no-fail gifts!  We love ornaments at our house because each one represents a special interest, event, or person, so an ornament that has some personal significance is the perfect gift any time of the year.  Don’t forget to look for them when you are on vacation, or consider making them yourself, as my friends Kelli and Jamison did for me!  Retro gifts are becoming more and more appealing to me and friends in my age group (you know, around 29), maybe because they transport us to a time when our greatest worries were how far the telephone cord would stretch and when a favorite song would play on the radio so that we could add it to a mix tape.  Anything that looks like the 80s, if you lived in the 80s, is fun.  Board games are favorites at our house because, really, they are the gift of time with one another; my awesome kiddos bought me Trivial Pursuit this year . . . maybe just a little harder than they thought!  And, of course, CHOCOLATE never fails to please, especially if you know your mom L-O-V-E-S dark chocolate with raspberry filling but thinks it costs too much . . . YUM.

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This last one is a gift that I bought for a dog-loving friend, and I also bought one for myself.  (Yes, that happens . . . )  My mother-in-law had given me a similar dish towel several years ago, and the statement makes me happy.  This is a very inexpensive gift that I found at Home Goods, which is a great place to find steals and deals that can still be meaningful gifts, any time of the year!

I hope that this post gives you some great gifting ideas for the coming year!  Thank you to everyone who so generously gave to my family this Christmas; we appreciated everything, especially all of the love!  Goodbye 2017!

~Mary Ann