Heavenly Grounds: A DIY/Real Estate Journey

August 2014, my husband rented a home off the coast of Northern California to celebrate our 15-year anniversary. It was probably one of the best weeks of my life. This property was among the most beautiful I had ever seen. The views were AMAZING, the sounds, the smells, the wildlife…  It literally took my breath away. The interior was beautifully decorated and furnished with every luxury to make us feel right at home. I doubt we touched a cell phone, watched TV, or tuned into anything that distracted our attention from the magic of our time together. Instead, we unplugged. We talked. We walked. We sat. We vision casted. We reminisced. (Of course we did some other stuff too, lol. But that’s for another time!!! 😊) The home gave us the means to focus our attention solely on each other. And the atmosphere set the tone for optimal enjoyment.

I took a million pictures, hoping to somehow capture, contain and even share some of the wonder of this place, but it just didn’t transfer. I wished EVERYONE I knew could just witness and experience it. I remember thinking to myself that one day I wanted to give this amazing gift to others. I wanted to somehow share the magic of my time here. I wanted people to experience a place where they could surrender all their daily worries and stresses. They could unwind and create memories with their loved ones that would add meaning and rest to their journey.

That house was over a million dollars!!! How in the heck could I own and furnish a home like that, let alone, GIVE or LOAN it to someone else??????  I mean think about it, the house was right off the ocean. The property alone was a TON of money. Now consider the decorations, furnishings, the landscaping, the upkeep… YIKES!!! After a week of sheer bliss, we returned to our normal lives at home. And as outlandish as it seemed, I kept that dream in my back pocket. Not to let it die, simply to rest for a while… And back we went to our regularly scheduled program…

If you know me, or follow my blogs, you know 5 years ago, we sold everything we owned, and built a home in the North Georgia mountains. It was a dream for us. We had vacationed there as a family for over 10 years. It was our happy place. But to actually live there was completely unplanned, yet completely miraculous.

We enjoyed every bit of watching that home being built by one of our favorite builders. It was hand crafted with so much care and detail. Upon completion, I couldn’t WAIT to furnish every square inch!!! I had a TON of ideas, but I was a stay at home mom, and we were limited to one salary. There was no way I could afford the purchases necessary to accent the gravity of this house. The walls were custom. The fireplace, showers, floors and cabinets were hand made. I could not obstruct its beauty with cheap décor. The only alternative was to birth these ideas I had in my brain with my own hands. And that is what we did.

It took almost 3 years to do it, but just about every room was embellished with colors, textures, wall hangings, and ideas that came straight from the heart. It was my goal that my family and our visitors would be submerged with a spirit of love, joy and peace each time they entered. We enjoyed countless good times, memories, laughs, and best of all, we were able to share them with our friends and family during our many gatherings.

(Swipe left to check out some of our projects here)

Our “forever” plans were recently interrupted by a job transfer for my husband and college endeavor for my son. We have successfully relocated to the Phoenix area. For several reasons, this was a bitter/sweet move. However, the sweet has been a full-circle kind of sweet.

For the past several months, we have been able to take that old dream out of our pocket and experience it in its full splendor. Our home has become the vacation rental property for families to enjoy. It has been an opportunity for us to share one of our favorite places on earth with others. Our walls are filled with meaningful accents that highlight our journey. There are pictures, window treatments, signs, walkways, landscaping all created with love, I’d dare say more meaningful than money could buy. It’s our best work. This house has become a gallery for some of our greatest DIY projects, and I am so blessed to be able to share them with others.

We simply named the home “Heavenly Grounds.” To us, that is exactly what it is. It sits on a mountaintop where views from miles away can be adored. It’s on a dead-end dirt road where deer, turtles, wild turkeys and even bears freely dwell. During the fall months, the leaves paint a new scene every day, while snow dustings cover the mountains during the winter. There are paths and trails once walked by my children and their beloved dog. My son got ready for prom there. My daughter enjoyed her cross-country party there. We hosted several gatherings there. We camped by the fireplace there. Read books, baked cookies, cooked smores, and counted stars there. And now others can do the same.

God has shown me time and time again that His ways are so much higher than mine. That He cares about the large and small desires of my heart. And that my wants are never too big for Him. I thought once I stepped away from my teaching career, I stepped away from a major opportunity to bless others and produce income using my greatest talent. I never considered all the other ways I could give of myself to still be a blessing. Though in a different location, I am so grateful to have the opportunity to share the splendor I experienced in California those years ago. It is better than any picture I could have taken.

I pray that you too take moments to dream. That you hold fast to the desires of your heart. Know that you don’t have to grind or toil to enjoy the journey of those dreams coming true. Know that His grace is sufficient. Write that book. Start that business. Pitch that idea. Apply for that job. Write that song. Know that if you make a habit or hobby of using your gifts and talents to spread love and joy to others, He will support it. May your dreams be too big for you to accomplish on your own and may you see them all come to pass…

Pics: Courtesy of Southern Comfort Cabin Rentals/Rachel Callihan-Cowart

LETTING GO… A Parent’s Guide to Enjoying the Journey

Last week, I had the amazing privilege of dropping off my son to the place he will call home for the next four years. While this was CERTAINLY difficult to do, (I mean, he’s my baby… my first born… He’s never been away from home for an extended length of time before…) it was one of the proudest moments of my adult life. I took him to one of the greatest universities in the country to live, eat, breathe, think, and grow on his own. How could I possibly have made it through this ordeal without completely losing it????? Well, I did it. He did it. And we are all off to the start of the newest chapter of our awesome journey. BUT HOW???? How can letting go be so easy?

As a parent, letting go is not easy. It has never been easy. But if you think about it, we have been practicing “letting go” for a while now. When it was time for them to get out of our bed and into their own. When it was time to transition them from breastfeeding to a cup. When they advanced from diapers to “big-boy” pants. When they went from crawling to walking, being at home to going to preschool, training wheels to “big-boy” wheels, baby teeth to permanent teeth, elementary, middle and high school, all have moments in which we are constantly letting go.

Where the ease comes is knowing that in order for them to grow into the beautiful person God called them to be, we HAVE TO let go. We cannot hinder their maturation because of our selfish (let’s face it 😊) desires to hold on to the beauty of this amazing stage and not let them advance to the next. The intimate moments of breastfeeding were SO miraculous to me. I breast fed both of my children for a year, and I cherished that bonding time I had with each of them. Similarly to having them in the bed with me, or at home with me, and even in my belly. However, at some point, holding on to those moments, verses setting them free can become detrimental to their development.

My ability to let go, rests in two things: preparation and faith. Throughout the process of their growth, I have come to invest heavily in preparing them for the upcoming chapter of life. While enjoying the crawling phase, I am mindful that ultimately, our goal is for him to walk. Though he is SOOOO cute crawling around at top speeds on all four legs and I would love to hold on to these precious moments, I have to prepare him to not grow comfortable with being on four legs, but two. It is scary. I mean, what if he falls, he will hurt himself. He is several more feet off the floor on two legs than four. There are many more dangers at that height, I will have to buy him shoes, and he will walk so slowly and wobbly for quite a while. This is all so true, but not enough to stop the need to advance him. As parents, we need to do as much as we can to prepare our children for the next phases in their journey. When we do that to the best of our ability, we can rest in that preparation when ‘go time’ comes.

Finally, we have to have faith. While parenting, we become heavily reliant on our ability to control the situations in our child’s life. As long as they use our methods and do things our way, in our presence, they will be safe and free from harm. We shackle them (with good intentions of course 😊) to our best practices we deem THE ONE TRUE WAY. While we certainly have our child’s best interest at heart, we must have faith in not only all we have taught them, but in a God who has them in the palm of His hand. Surely, we don’t want them to fail. It is gut-wrenching to watch them fall off that bike all 25 times after removing the training wheels. But I often ask the question, “DID THEY DIE THOUGH????” As silly as it sounds, it is so true. They did not die, they got better. They got up, brushed themselves off and went right back at it until they nailed it. Have faith in the learning process. Have faith in all you taught them, and ultimately, have faith in God.

Though we are only on week one of this great college journey, I am excited about the growth that will happen. My son knows we are here to guide and help him throughout his adventures. However, the training wheels have been removed and ultimately, I have had to relinquish the reigns and come to terms with a lifetime of increased ‘letting go’. As time goes on, I will find myself letting go even more as he pursues a career, a home, a wife, family and life of his own. The thought of it can be overwhelming, but the other side of birth, bottles, diapers, training wheels, baby teeth, and kindergarten, are great adventures that help them become all God has called them to be. I am SO grateful to be a part of the great preparation process. And now I will rest in faith that he will continue to exceed our greatest expectations. In the meantime, we will be right here in the stands cheering him on through his amazing journey.

No matter what chapter you and your child are currently scripting, know that letting go is all a part of your beautiful story. May you enjoy it to the fullest!!! 😊

BEYOND THE LABELS…

Black, white, doctor, Christian, teacher, stay-at-home-mom, parent, honor-student etc.… These are all labels at which we can be identified. They are titles we wear with honor like a badge for all to know who we are, where we’re from, and what we’ve accomplished. They are a major source of pride at which we may have spent years of time, money and labor to attain and require a certain level of respect from people to address us as we live by the standards of the weight they carry.

What about the labels that are not so honorable? The titles we have been assigned. The tags that carry a negative connotation and sometimes even stifle our ability to thrive. Single-mom, at-risk youth, divorce’, overweight, retarded, hot-tempered, emotional, 3rd string, nerd, dead-beat dad, naïve, etc.…

From an early age, our children run the risk of being tagged with various labels that can define the way others see them and more importantly, how they see themselves. They can be given by teachers, peers, mentors, coaches and even us as parents.

When my son was three years old, we noticed he was not meeting the typical developmental milestones for children in his age group. He wasn’t talking, making eye contact, showing signs of expression or interactive response.  Doctors and school officials performed several tests to further investigate these concerns. Thereafter, they diagnosed him with autism. And there it was, my son had been labeled. The experts in the field, used professional, fact-based information to determine that he was socially/developmentally “disabled.”

My husband and I were devastated to receive this news.  We were so young. So new to parenthood. We were clueless. The only word we heard was “disability.” The depth of that term left so many uncertainties and filled my imagination with limitations to abound. After grieving for a few days, feeling sorry for myself, and researching aimlessly on how to solve this problem, I prayed. And then, believe it or not, I LISTENED. I heard the Lord tell me so clearly, that He was the God of possibility. That in Him, we are ABLE to do ALL things. So if the Word was true, the term “DISABILITY” was contrary to His Word.

I picked myself up and decided that I was going to turn my brain off on this matter and be led by the Holy Spirit on EXACTLY what my son needed in order to prosper in every area of his life. I must say, this journey has been one of the greatest, yet toughest of my life. However, I am a teacher. I am a Christian. I LOVE children. My husband and I were well equipped for the road ahead and we took it step by step.  We were not going to let the label given by the doctors trump the label given by the Word of God.

For the last several years our family took each stage of this process day by day. Every step was completely new to us. Every challenge required a custom plan that I couldn’t find in a book, online, or from friends. I completely surrendered to the Holy Spirit. For an example, there was a season when my son would cry over everything. Each day there would be an instance at school or at home that seemed very feasible, but for some reason it was overwhelming for him. Now my natural response would have been, “suck it up. You are a big boy! You can’t be crying over this little stuff!” However, that would have broken him. Nevertheless, I still couldn’t allow him to let his emotions govern his behavior. The Lord simply gave us positive incentives for him to work toward in order to stop crying. Sounds super easy, and IT WAS. GRACE. He stopped crying and hasn’t had a problem since.

Of course, over the years, my son has battled many other struggles throughout his developmental journey, such as staying focused in class, managing time properly, playing well with other kids, using language appropriately, articulating his thoughts accurately, participating in group activities, building confidence and so many others. Most of them didn’t come with a two-week solution. Many of these challenges took YEARS to conquer and some of them required extreme decisions in order to ensure his success.

When homework and daily routines became a bit overwhelming, I stepped away from a 15-year career in order to be at home. We downsized our living expenses and even moved to a smaller home in a rural area in order to meet the growing needs of our family. And as always, we saw God’s hand throughout the entire process. We had all the tools, and resources; we knew the places to be and times to be there. He blessed us with amazing teachers, pastors, friends, coaches, classmates and role models to help aid and support us throughout our experience.  This was certainly a team effort. And whilst we had great individuals involved in our mission, we never made his diagnosis public. We never gave explanations, concessions or excuses for his performance or behavior. As a matter of fact, we never even muttered the word autism in his presence. He had NO clue. We simply assessed his abilities and held him to the standard of excellence. If you can be great, BE GREAT. If you can’t be great, let’s do whatever we can to help you be YOUR greatest.  

Cole’s diagnosis was given when he was 3 years old. Last week he turned 18. And last month he walked across the stage to receive his diploma. In that moment, on the football field of a school in North Georgia, my closest family and I held a sign with the words “GO COLE” in HUGE capital letters. He sat in the front row in the top 10% of his class. He wore a sash around his neck that said, “HONOR GRADUATE,” along with a gold cord for his involvement in the National Honor Society and a purple one for the National Technical Honor Society. Earlier that week, he was given several awards along with $40,000 in local and national scholarships. Two weeks before that, he was named Prom King of his high school, earlier that year he was named Most Valuable Runner of his cross-country team and set 2 new school records for his times in the 1600- and 3200-meter run. He founded the chess club, was active in FCA, TSA, academic club, and volunteered to run the live broadcast of the boys’ and girls’ basketball games. He started his freshmen year with few friends, little to no involvement, while struggling to keep up socially, academically, and certainly athletically. By his senior year, he had grown the respect and admiration from so many. They simply loved him to greatness.

During his journey, no one had a CLUE of the tremendous effort it took for him to reach his goals.  The extra hours it took to complete his homework assignments, the weekend/off season practices he devoted to or the level of commitment it took for him to stay on top. He quietly pressed his way…

In February of this year, after two weeks for testing and meeting with several school and state officials, Cole’s autism diagnosis was reversed. Teachers and staff members were thrilled for him and all the progress he made over the 15 years of his journey. Shortly after that meeting, we carefully revealed to Cole of the label he was given early in his life. He was so shocked. So proud. So grateful. We reflected for HOURS, making sense of all the various steps we had taken, and all the beautiful people who were so helpful throughout.

In the fall, Cole will attend Grand Canyon University, in Phoenix, Arizona. There, he will study Electrical Engineering and Technology. We are beyond grateful for the first part of his incredible journey and how God used him to defy the labels given to him early on and replaced them with ones that carry great honor. I cannot wait to see what is in store for his bright future.

As we all endeavor to establish our identity, as we go on our own growth and developmental adventures, take on many different roles, hats and labels, I pray that we will BOLDY seek out the labels given to us by our Heavenly Father. I pray that if you or your loved one has been assigned a label, description, prescription, diagnosis, or title that doesn’t line up with what you know is true,  I dare you to push past the limitations of that label given to you (even by the experts in the field).  That you fight the good, and sometimes seemingly long fight of faith. And that you run your BEST race… not to the best of YOUR ability, but to the best of HIS ability!!!!! That tag doesn’t have to be a life sentence. YOU WERE BORN TO WIN!!!!! †

SEASONS CHANGE…

By now, we are all ready for Spring to hurry up and grace us with her presence. We’ve enjoyed our dose of snow and cool boots and sweet scarves. It is time for some sun shining, birds chirping and buds blooming. Interestingly, we all forget how we embraced the idea of November and December and Christmas and snow and holidays and family gatherings and all the great things that make winter a beautiful wonderland of sorts. We are now filled with the hopes of what a new season will bring. Nevertheless, by the time summer rolls around, temperatures rise to 90+ degrees, we will once again find ourselves crying the blues and looking ahead to what’s next.

How often do we have these same reflections in our daily lives? While single, we can’t WAIT for God to bless us with the perfect partner to share our lives with. We are thrilled about the new promotion we just got. We celebrate the monumental experience of buying our first home. And can’t even contain the joy of our first child. However, as the days go on, the tasks pile up, or even boredom sets in, we find ourselves looking forward to what’s next.

I certainly understand and subscribe to the idea of moving forward.  The future forecast always seems to bring about hope and growth and newness. However, where do these hopes of promise leave us in our current season? How do we not grow stale? Bored? Frustrated with the “right now”? How can we maintain our contentment and appreciation while we wait on the next season?

I remember when I was pregnant with my first child. I was SOOOO happy at the thought of carrying a life inside me. How miraculous!!! As time went on, I got bigger, well let’s say, HUGER and HUGER and tired and grumpy and when I tell you I couldn’t WAIT to deliver the baby… I COULDN’T WAIT!!! Speed along to his arrival, I was ELATED!!!! OMG!!! Happiest days of my life, right? OF COURSE. Then the real work began. The real commitment. I soon looked forward to toddler time… at least then he could walk and talk and do things on his own, right? UUUUGGGGHHH. That season brought about a whole new slew of challenges. Speed this along 17 years… As I sit here and consider that this same child is now a senior in high school, that he will be graduating in a few short months, and moving onto college to start a life of independence… What I wouldn’t give to see him walking around with drool running from his mouth, hobbling in his overalls with a saggy diaper…

Moral of the story is that as we look to brighter days and new seasons, whatever season of life we are in, good or bad, we have to know that the season WILL change, that things get better, that tough times don’t last always, that people grow, that increase will come, and spring is indeed on the way! We must know that every single day and every moment of our journey, good or bad is one to embrace, learn, and grow from, but most importantly, to enjoy.

This may be tough because some of us reading this right now are in the hardest of winters. Perhaps you are enduring a season of illness, a tough marriage, a financial hardship, a job you don’t like. I get it. However, you have to dig deep, and for some of us REAL DEEP, to see the lesson, the beauty, the growth and opportunities that lie in the moments of this part of our journey. How can we get better here? What tools will I gather for my next season? What can I do to enjoy this season right where I am?

As we look on with great expectation to the next chapter, it is so important that we not just endure this undesirable time in our life. We can’t fill our mind with thoughts of stress, depression, doubt, boredom, and gloom. Life is about seasons. While every day won’t be one on the mountain top, we can do our best to maintain a mountaintop outlook. We can see the beauty in the moment and focus on the good times we have. We can learn and grow during these seasons, so we can carry our new insight into our next season and share with others. If we are too busy focusing on the spring, we can miss out on the beauty of winter we were so excited about in the beginning. If you are single and desperately waiting to get married, ENJOY your freedom and not having to cater to or be responsible for another human. If you are a stay at home mom looking forward to getting back to work, though it is a challenging right now, ENJOY not having to get up every day and report to an office. If you are living in a tiny apartment and can’t wait to get your first home, ENJOY not cutting grass or having to heat such a large area. Or a new graduate, eager to start your first job, ENJOY not having to pay student loans and living with your parents during this last stretch of time…

As I look forward to my son graduating from high school, I realize these days won’t be here for long. I can only imagine how much I would miss if I wasn’t intentional about making every moment of this season count. While I am driving him to yet another senior obligation, early morning SAT exam, academic banquet, athletic event, I am careful to embrace the beauty of our time together. As you go about your season, I pray you can squeeze out moments that make you smile. Times to help you grow. Lessons you can take into your next season. That while you look forward to the what’s to come, you enjoy every drip drop of the portion of the journey you are on right now. This season will not last forever. Enjoy it while it’s here! Spring is on the way… 😊 🙂 🙂

The Power of a Village… THANK YOU!!!

Let me start this blog off by saying this: by no means is my son an Olympic athlete. He started running cross-country a couple years ago as a means to stay active and be a part of a team. Last week he had his first meet of the season. Up until then, he had regular practice each day and even ran some in the summer. He also grew quite a bit over the last few months and was excited about his new “man” strength! 😊 But somehow for the first time, before the race, I saw fear in his eyes. He was so nervous and spoke of pain in his ankle and shin, and just lacked confidence. Nonetheless, as always, we were on the sidelines cheering him on expecting a successful run.

After his race, he was near tears. He was so disappointed in his performance. He was passed by some of his underclassman teammates, finished with a lower time than his previous year and placed 56th overall. He was devastated. We of course, cheered him up, encouraged him and helped him refocus his attention toward the upcoming races as best as we could.

That next week went on like a typical week. The kids went to school, practice, church, and we had our normal family time each day. Oh yeah, we also had a little Labor Day get-together at our house, but other than that, the week was normal. Hindsight, I’ve come to reflect, that our week was anything but normal.

That Sunday, our pastor preached a message about the power of the Spirit. He talked about telling your body and your mind to line up with what God says about you. That Monday during our get-together, one of his great mentors went on a run with him, while some of the other fellas sat on the porch with him and watched a couple of his favorite shows. They spoke life to him and just treated him like the awesome young man he is. On Wednesday, he went to youth Bible study, where the pastor talked about “believing”/ having faith over fear and doubt.

By Thursday of this week, it was time for another race. On the way to school we gave him the typical pep talk, prayed and encouraged him to do his best. Later that day, as he stood at the starting line with 100+ young men, we weren’t sure what to expect, but we were hoping for the best. As always, I made the 1-hour drive to be on the sidelines, while his dad got permission to leave an hour early from work to be there as well. When the gun went off to start the race, I saw a difference in him. I saw a confidence. A determination. As he fought his way to get toward the front of the pack, I was excited about how this race could go.

For the next several minutes, I watched him run through the woods, up and down the hills, and on the track with boldness. It was nearly 90 degrees outside, the terrain was steep, rugged and rough. He reflected later that on his toughest hill, we wanted to take a break and just speed walk a bit. But he remembered what he learned that week. He simply “believed.” He commanded his body and mind to line up. He listened to the cheers of his teammates and his parents. He realized that for the first time in his cross-country career, he was the lead runner of his team. It propelled him further. He gained momentum. At the last few meters of his race, I saw the fierceness in his eyes. He flew across that finish line with the fastest time he’d ever run, the highest ranking he’d ever had and the proudest he’d ever been.

He later recounted all the small things that pushed him to be great. And though I’d like to think he has an awesome team at home, I fully understand that, as parents we couldn’t possibly do this journey alone. That it is not just the training, love, wisdom, discipline he gets inside the four walls of our house, but it is the weekly Word he gets on a continual basis from our awesome pastor. It is the pep talk he gets from his loving Aunt when he sees her in the summertime, or the love he gets from his Grandmother that cares for him in our absence, or the visit from his Grandfather and Uncle, the beautiful people he sees at church that impart love and affirmation, the teammates that cheer him on from the sidelines, the ladies that served in the nursery and youth department, the teachers that encouraged him to be great, my colleague who drives 3 hours to cheer from the stands, the babysitters that cared for him with love, the positive TV shows that line up with the things we teach him at home… are all forces working hand and hand toward his success.

As parents, we are called to the beautiful yet sometimes challenging task of loving and training our children to become all God has called them to be. It is indeed a journey that lasts a lifetime, however, we also need to remember that it is a collection of the amazing people who surround them, who impart knowledge, wisdom and love that will aide in that journey as well. As graduation draws near, I am beyond grateful for the AMAZING people who have loved on our children past, present and future. I see the fruit of their seed come to life daily. I am also intentional about putting these type of people in their path from birth throughout.

If you are privileged enough to be a teacher, coach, aunt, uncle, mentor, pastor, or any position of influence over children, never doubt the power of your influence. My son still has the trophy given to him by his 2nd grade teacher. He remembers the $100 his uncle sent for his fundraiser, or the encouraging card his Godmother sends each birthday. He remembers when his mentor came to his chess meets, or when his Uncle took the time to read his comic book. You have more power than you know. Your words and acts of love STICK.

Parents, I pray you SUMERGE your children with love and encouragement inside and outside the home. Recognize that this is not a task you can do alone. That every single fabric of their life will leave some sort of imprint. May their journey be filled with people, places and things that bring hope, inspiration and love. In the meantime, thank you so much to all the amazing people all over the country, past and present who have left a beautiful imprint on my son and daughter’s life. You mean more to us than you know. You truly have made a difference in their life and ultimately are the hands and feet of God.

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Cover photo: Quotesnew.com
Text photo: Jenni Dixon

19 Year Anniversary: Fight or Flight???

My husband and I celebrated 19 years of marriage last weekend!!! It was truly a major milestone!! Both of us come from single parent homes and are really figuring this all out as we go. Nevertheless, over the years, I’ve had many people say they look to us (and other couples) and see their #marriagegoals, an awesome union, the perfect little family… I mean, I work from home, my husband has a great job, we live in a cute little house in the mountains, we have two awesome kids, we’re all healthy, we live debt-free, and we love God… I mean, we kayak on the weekends and eat at the dinner table together every night for goodness sake!!!! WHAT AN AWESOME LIFE, RIGHT????

I have to admit, though all those things are true, this year was probably one of our toughest. It shook our marriage to its very foundation and had us considering some hard-core questions. It wasn’t because any THING happened. Nobody cheated, nobody lost their job, we didn’t file for bankruptcy or suffer from some major illness. It wasn’t that at all. Honestly, I can’t attribute this wall we hit to anything specific. Perhaps a build up of a ton of tiny little things, or even small transitions over time. Perhaps the fact that we have two teenagers in our home, or that we live two hours away from most of our affiliations, maybe that we were both growing at two different speeds and… I DON’T EVEN KNOW!!!! But whatever the case, the tension was mounting, we couldn’t see eye to eye on anything and the opportunities for disagreement seemed to abound.

This was heartbreaking, because, my husband and I have been best friends since I was 18 years old!!! Our connection has been so genuine and so rare. We do EVERYTHING together. We have SO much fun. We have an amazing history, and more importantly, what we have built and accomplished together is incredible.

Nonetheless, the devastation of our divergence took a toll on everything. It seemed like a dark cloud followed us everywhere we went. The fact that we knew the Word, that we had super friends, ministers and pastors we could turn to, we couldn’t even identify a problem to fix! I imagine this being the part in a person’s life where hopelessness sets in. Where you just say, “We grew apart,” “We just fell out of love,” “We decided to go our separate ways.” And though I admit, I was SOOOOOOOO frustrated and overwhelmed by the tension and stress, if you know me, you KNOW, I was NOT about to give up!!!!

19 YEARS!!!! 19 years of building life together. Making memories. Working through all other MAJOR obstacles. Building and growing. And most importantly, the kids. They were watching us. They were counting on us to step our game up and work this Word. To help them believe in the love we teach and preach about every day. NO SIR!!!! We could not let them down!

For the last several months I committed to doing my part in getting myself together. I read books and devotionals, talked to AMAZING friends, listened to teachings, filled my social media feed with encouragement and even created some alone time to focus on my own personal growth. I took the magnifying glass off my husband and put it on God. During this time, we still had disagreements. We still had rough days, but by now, my faith was so strong, I was confident that relief was on the way.

About that time, I saw an ad for a marriage conference come across my screen. It was called SPARK and it was being hosted by Joel Osteen in Houston, Texas. It just so happened to fall on our anniversary weekend. Though we had bought books to read together, committed to a marriage challenge and were both doing our own individual growth plans, we knew we needed something BIG to get us the proper tune-up. We both knew this conference was IT!!!!

My husband took care of all the accommodations and last week we flew to Houston for a life changing experience. We were in an auditorium with thousands of other couples. Newlyweds on up to people married for 50+ years. The atmosphere alone was inspiring, not to mention the amazing speakers and the wisdom they shared with all of us. My husband and I gleaned so much.  It was EVERYTHING we needed to get us back on track. We spent a couple extra days there just talking and refocusing. We got our first couple’s massage and did some of our old favorite things like walking on the beach, going out to eat, shopping, and just spending uninterrupted time alone to recharge and restore.

I considered how many couples experience hardships that cut deep, that shake the core of their marriage. Some of them have had affairs, suffered job loss, illness or even just hit a wall on their journey. It seems SOOOOOO much easier to quit. Like starting over would wipe away the deep pain they experience on a regular basis. “It’s not fair!”  “I don’t deserve this!”  “I can do better all by myself!” I get it!!! But quitting is NOT an option!!!! You have to FIGHT for your marriage! You made a promise before God and all the other witnesses that you would love each other for better or worse, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer. Now I know today contracts/covenants don’t hold the weight they once did, but that doesn’t make them any less weighty. What is the boundary on your “worse?” Does your “sickness” have a limit? Does “poorer” not include being unemployed for 6 months? We have to go the distance. We have to be committed to doing whatever is necessary to make this partnership work. No matter what.

Interestingly, when our brakes go out on our car, we don’t throw the entire car away. Most of us take it to the shop upon the first squeak. Some of us wait until the light grind, but we never just let the brakes go all the way out; and we don’t leave the car abandoned and go out and buy a new car, with new brakes. Yet too many times at the first sign of discomfort we are ready to trade in the old for “better.” Instead, we must be willing to do the regular maintenance necessary to keeping the car in tip-top shape. When it needs a tune up, tune it up. When it needs a small repair, do it. New cars are great, but their brakes wear down as well. They will need tune-ups as well.

People ask all the time how we made it 19 years. They see us and think we don’t have any real problems. We got it made. I have a GREAT husband, he has a GREAT wife. We don’t know struggle. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. We have our tough times. We have persevered through some MAJOR adversities. The difference is we have made a commitment to NEVER quit. We will take this baby to the shop over and over again. We will perform repairs and continual tune-ups over and over again. We will get up and fight every day to have the happy marriage we always dreamed about.

When times get tough, remember to give each other grace. Read a book, seek counsel, go to a conference, whatever is necessary to keep your marriage healthy and happy. Give your spouse the insurance policy that if he/she gains a few pounds, goes through menopause/post-partum depression, loses their job, gets sick, grows at a different pace, YOU will be right there fighting for them. Believing the best. Helping them win…TOGETHER, through the good and the bad.

No matter how tough it gets, there is grace for us to conquer our storms. And no matter what, quitting is NEVER an option!!!! As for me and my husband, we are going ALL THE WAY!!!! I am so grateful for 19 years and I am SO looking forward to the next 19!!! Here’s to you and your Happily Ever After…with your no- quittin’ self!!!

CHOOSE JOY: How to Overcome a Season of The Blues… (My Journey Through The Valley)

Ok, so it has been a couple months since I posted. I wish I could tell you it was because I was out enjoying my journey to the fullest. But if I can be honest with you, it was actually just the opposite. I was in the dumps, overcoming the blues… my peace was under attack and I have to tell you, it was a major struggle. Though it took just about 2 months, now that I have come to see the light, so to speak, now that I am back, I want to share what I have learned from my experience. Because let’s face it, we all have our rough patches, walk through valleys, experience pain and drama and let downs. And though I consider myself one tough cookie, and a pretty happy person, sometimes, these occurrences/circumstances/ordeals/setbacks/rough patches can indeed try to steal our joy. Sometimes these situations are devastating and a mere “suck it up buttercup” just won’t do.

For an example, surely you can have a bad day at work, or a heated exchange with your spouse, or leave your favorite scarf at the restaurant, or your kid gets a bad grade on his report card and this can be super frustrating. However, you can make a few adjustments, take a few deep breaths and bounce back soon after. But what about the more devastating experiences???? The big blows that throw you off your rocker, that shake your entire world. Like a death of a loved one, a CONTINUAL exchange with your spouse, a child who is perpetually in trouble, a job loss, a bad medical report, etc… How can we overcome the devastation that comes with these situations, especially when there is minimal evidence the circumstance will change?

Well without going into the details of my ordeal, I will confide some of the ways I was able to get my joy back and how I plan to maintain it. First of all, I realized quickly that my mind was completely filled with sadness, frustration, and even anger. Once that happened, there was no room for me to see anything with the right perspective. EVERYTHING seemed wrong. Everyone was bad. My efforts were worthless. Nothing had value to me. There was a fog clouding my mind and because of it, my vision was blurred. My perspective was off. Regardless of the fact that I otherwise had a pretty great existence, I literally could not see that. I was consumed by my grief. Overwhelmed by my doubt. Immersed with fear and frustration. I WAS going to church, I WAS reading the bible, I was doing all that blah, blah, blah. But my situation was there every day looking at me in the face like a huge dark cloud of reality and all I could do was roll around in it with self-pity assuming it would never get better.

So, let’s start there. Let’s assume that your situation doesn’t get better. Maybe that child won’t come to his senses for 5 more years, the bankruptcy has left you with bad credit for 7 years, your spouse won’t get the job he’s been believing for for another 5 months… how can you keep your spirits up? I submit that though those situations can bring devastation to you and your need for control, your peace and joy cannot be contingent upon them getting better. Once I came to that realization, operation Get My Joy Back, was in full swing!!! Here are the four steps I took to help me stop, drop and roll out of my gloom.

  1. Eliminate the waste/Take out the trash: In order to get rid of my stinkin’ thinkin’ I had to get rid of the negative influences that were clouding my vision.  It wasn’t deep. I mean, I don’t hang around or have regular exposure to negative people, but I had to eliminate the subtle contact. Like the images on social media, some of the TV shows, the songs, news, and even the conversations with people who were regularly complaining about their own drama. It was too much. Some of those songs will have you ready to jump off the mountain you are supposed to be moving!!!! They will subliminally fill your head with images and ideas that are not related to you. For example, some of the regular commercials on TV will make you think EVERYONE is depressed, EVERYONE has cancer, EVERYONE’S man cheats on them!!!! SOOOOO NOT TRUE!!!! TURN IT ALL OFFFFFF!!!!! TUNE IT ALLLLL OUT!!!! Those images will only hinder your path to mental clarity and set you back miles on your journey.
  2. On the contrary, immerse your mind with positive: Pretend your mind is a cup. As much as you possibly can, overload that cup with positive images, messages, thoughts, words, ideas and people. During my time in the valley, I ordered 4 new books, read great magazines, followed several sites that uploaded positive quotes and images, watched a series of faith-based movies, listened to Joel Osteen every time I got in the car, listened to uplifting music and conversed with positive people.  It is SOOO easy to want to call your best buddy and unload your issue on them. Often times they will even help you sit in your stew. But I connected with a friend of mine who challenged me. Who encouraged me. She helped me lift my spirits and help me get my eyes on what was important. Surround yourself with positivity. Great sources that will help center your focus upward.
  3. Minister to yourself: I know this is so cliché, but I was on a plane recently and the flight attendant went through the whole spiel about “securing your oxygen mask FIRST before trying to take care of others’…” That really spoke to me. It is SOOOOO important that we minister to ourselves, not only during the tough times, but REGULARLY. I dare say, EVERY DAY!!!! During my frustration, I went to the movies, went on long walks, had some quiet book reading in the coffee shop, took long hot baths, went window shopping, baked, and even went on a weekend getaway with just myself. Whatever you enjoy doing, which more than likely, you have somehow forfeited… DO IT!!!! It is therapeutic. It is necessary. These are the things that help you ENJOY life and should not take a back seat to busyness. Furthermore, intentionally doing some of these things on a regular basis, is a great way to stay out of the rough patch.
  4. SEEK THE LORD: Jesus is the ultimate supplier of joy! Seek Him first thing every single day! I personally don’t answer a text, a call, open social media, exchange with humans at all until AFTER I pray and read the Word/devotional each morning. If you don’t have a daily regimen or don’t know where to start, Pray in the shower. Download the Bible App on your phone. Read a chapter of the bible a day. Find a devotional that ministers to you. Get a good bible based book. Whatever the case, I have found that no person, no thing, no idea, no quote, no method can renew my strength, feed my spirit, restore my joy like Jesus. No house, no spouse, no clothing, no weight loss, no achievement, no surgery, no drug, no degree, or pursuit can provide the lasting joy like a relationship with Christ. Once I surrendered my worry, doubt, frustration, fear, anger and sadness over to Him. Once I took my hands off the wheel and released the need for control, I was able to allow His peace, hope, joy, faith, and love to fill my heart completely. And the best part is, He was right there all along. When He has preeminence in your life, it is difficult for outside forces to get in…

Now. Does that mean that we will never experience a rough patch ever again? Of course not. But I am confident that as I used these steps to recover my joy, if I make them a regular practice, I can use them to maintain my joy, regardless what the circumstances are around me. No doubt life can be tough. We have a TON going on and so many things coming at us each day. However, joy is a choice. It is contingent upon nothing other than our decision to activate it… Here’s to getting back out there and making the decision to ENJOY EVERY DAY OF YOUR JOURNEY!!!! As for me… I CHOOSE JOY.

 

Photo cred: Stephanie Archer

The Most “Unloveable” People Need Love the Most…

I was watering my bushes a few days ago. I noticed that after a year and a half of planting and watering just about every day, some of the bushes were beginning to grow and the buds were actually blossoming! I was THRILLED at the SIGHT of life, because up until now, though I was diligent with their care, my flowers seemed pretty unresponsive. The new blooms motivated me to water more. I even watered the couple with the biggest blossoms a bit longer because they had become my prize. I then looked over to the four that were not blooming and I grew frustrated. I didn’t even want to waste my time watering them. Something must be wrong with them if they couldn’t produce the same results after the same care! THE NERVE!!!! I mean, they have given no evidence of even THINKING of blooming!!! I even considered uprooting them and planting something more “suitable” for success.

At that moment, the Lord showed me the correlation between my frustration about the non-budding bushes with how often times we as a society can become toward others that behave in a similar manner. Think about it. How easy is it to write a person off, to become offended, to hold a grudge or withhold mercy on a person who acts in an unbecoming manner that may be different from otherwise attractive behaviors. How often are we repelled by a co-worker, a neighbor, a child, even a spouse who seems to have missed the mark on seemingly obvious objectives. ESPECIALLY when you have gone out of your way to extend an extra amount of mercy toward them… THE NERVE!!!!!

I remember my last year teaching, I had a student in 1st period named “John.” Since I actually loved teaching and even more so, LOVED the students, I never had many discipline problems. My students could see my sincere care and determination for their success, it created a mutual relationship of love and respect. However, “John” was one of the toughest in all my career. He showed up late just about every day, he sat in the front row and attempted to sleep regularly; when he WAS awake, he sat there, unprepared and unmotivated to do ANYTHING, and often times became a MAJOR distraction. Though I had to continually redirect him, something in me could not give up on “John.” This kid challenged me to my CORE, but I knew he was capable of fulfilling the tasks put before him. It was his senior year, he had made it this far, and I was NOT about to let him FAIL. He required EVERY drip drop of my patience, but I wouldn’t accept less than his best and I encouraged him to get through.

I realize extending this kind of grace takes an enormous amount of tolerance, perseverance, and strength. People can be super- extra difficult at times! It is SO easy to just throw our hands up and quit. I mean, even if “John” MAKES it out of high school, even if those plants do get a little stronger, it is so much easier to devote the energy to a person/plant that appreciates the love, or at least shows PROMISE of success.

I remember my students asking me that same question… “Mrs. Harper, why do you keep working with “John,” you know he’s not even going to graduate! He doesn’t even care!” What they didn’t know, and what I didn’t even know until later, was that John’s dad walked out on their family the year prior. It had a devastating impact on them emotionally and financially. His mother had a to carry a weight that was too much for her. They lost their home, and were forced into some very unbearable living conditions. This certainly took its toll on “John” and he began to act out, lose interest in school and everything else.

From somewhere deep inside, without knowing this prior, I was devoted to seeing “John” win. I remember explaining to the class that if we all treated John the way he deserved to be treated based on his behavior, he would see frustration and annoyance from his teachers, his mother, his classmates, his family and everyone in his life. How would that make him feel? How could he POSSIBLY blossom in that case? But what if we treated him like we hoped he would be. What we wanted him to become? What if we loved on him. What if when he acted out, we didn’t retaliate with anger, but redirected him with compassion? Considering how challenging his behavior was, this seemed a near impossible task. But I was up for the mission and was sure to model it in front of my students.

I know this is not easy. I know. But what I have come to appreciate is the one who is the most challenging, the one who is the most unloveable, the one with the threat of failure, is the very one that needs love the most. We simply cannot give up on people who don’t have it all together, who present a challenge, even those who act out. That is the expected response. That is what they are used to. That won’t help promote a change or motivate them to rise higher. We must reach deep into our hearts… DEEP (lol) and find that compassion. Extend that mercy. Overlook that offense. I am convinced that love never fails. I am settled that if we rise to a higher place, we can win over the hardest of hearts.  We can inspire that tough individual to overcome.

I will never forget graduation 2014. I sat on the field during the commencement as a proud teacher of the graduates. We were to sit with them, help supervise, and escort them off the field after the ceremony. One of the proudest moments of my teaching career happened at the end as the graduates engaged in a procession off the field. “John” came up to me with tears streaming down his face, beaming with pride and gratitude. He looked me in my eyes, and with all sincerity told me, there was no way he would have made it to this moment without me. He apologized for being so difficult to handle and concluded his message with, “thanks for never giving up on me!!!” It was the last class of my career, but that lesson was one of the greatest of them all.

Though you may put forth great effort, though you may not always understand, though that difficult spirit may push you to your limit, somehow go to that place deep down in your heart and activate that compassion, extend that mercy, muster up that hope, water those plants and love the seemingly unloveable. It may just be the very ingredient necessary for them not to fail…

 

 

Photo: picturequotes