What’s making me smile right now

30 March 2020

Hello, friends! I missed you last week! Like many of you, I’ve found myself much busier than usual since our kiddos’ school closed. We’ve had our babysitter over several mornings a week, but there’s still a lot of creative scheduling (mornings, evenings, etc.) needed to fit in an almost-full work day on my part. John has also been working far longer hours than normal, as his industry is currently roiling. Unfortunately, that’s meant less time here.

I find it so interesting that this virus has impacted people in such opposite ways, particularly in terms of time — some people are attempting to work full-time, parent full-time, and homeschool full-time, while others are out of work, have seen all their commitments snatched from them, and have suddenly found themselves with hours to fill. Both are challenging in their own way.

Similarly, John and I were talking yesterday about how different this experience would be if our kids were any other age – particularly high school age. In high school, families are usually scattered by sports, friends, and activities – plus, you can’t pay some teens to spend free time with their parents :) While I’m sure there are many difficulties to having older kids in this crisis, I hope so much that those parents are also able to soak up the fleeting sweetness of having their big kids suddenly and unexpectedly held so close (especially knowing that they’ll soon go off to college or perhaps move states away…) From my seat as a mama who currently always has my kiddos close by and tears up thinking about when it will be different, that sounds breathlessly dear. (On that note, I’ve recently read two interesting pieces on the silver linings of this pandemic for families: here and here.)

Aside from the work and childcare chaos, our life remains much the same. We’re used to spending much of our time together, and our kids are too young to have many cancelled activities. As introverts, we’re used to staying in most nights; living far from our families, we’re used to connecting virtually.

While of course I’m incredibly grateful that we haven’t experienced more upheaval, in a strange way this has niggled me a bit. This pandemic is a landmark event, one that we’ll be telling stories about and feeling the effects of for years. At the end of it, I don’t want to remember it as just a few months when I was grumpier and more anxious than usual. I’d like to be able to say that despite the difficulties, the extra stressors, and the uncertainties, we were intentional about squeezing love, sweetness, and joy from a truly awful time. I’d like to be able to say that we did everything we could to help the world heal and to be more generous than felt comfortable. I’d like to be able to say that we used the new pockets of time – like John’s former commute – to enjoy each other’s company. I want there to be plenty of good to remember.

So that’s where I am right now. I hope you’ve had a little time to sit with your thoughts and feelings in the last few days, too, whatever they might be. I hope you’ve been able to squeeze whatever good is possible from the last few days, whatever that might be. And if Em for Marvelous is part of what you look forward to, I have some happy news for you. I spent a little time this weekend brainstorming what I’d like to share with you in the months to come – how I might be able to help you in this strange season in a unique way – and I’m looking forward to chatting more as time allows. A few of the things in store: a series of micro posts about meal planning improvements we’ve recently made, our Easter plans (basket talk coming tomorrow!), a massive photo organization how-to (!!), and a COVID-19-themed Marvelous Money entry – and that’s just what I hope to cover in April :)

For today, I’ll leave you with a few things that have been brightening our days these last few weeks. In the comments, I’d really love to hear a few of yours! Here are mine:

— listening to worship music almost constantly at home (mostly this playlist)
— a Marco Polo group with John’s extended family
— virtual game nights with my family (Scattergories Categories is a winner)
— daily walks in our neighborhood
— all of the gorgeous flowering trees – dogwood, cherry, Kwanzan cherry (my favorite!), redbud, tulip magnolia, and more
— warm chocolate chip cookies most nights
— watching happy movies like The Parent Trap (both versions), The Sound of Music, and The Holiday while working on puzzles
— fun free drawing printables from Camp Castle (sign up at the top here)
— family hikes and bike rides (though I love our stationary bike, it feels so good to be back outside!)
— the Georgia Aquarium live feeds (in honor of our canceled vacation)
— planting our vegetable garden and adding a few more bushes to our back bed

Finally, for my working friends grateful to still be in a stable job, a small suggestion: take a vacation day now, if you can. I know it might seem strange to take vacation when you already feel like you’re not getting enough work done, or when your employer needs your best more than ever, or when you can’t do anything particularly exciting with your time. On Friday, however, did just that. I had scheduled this day of vacation weeks before our current crisis hit, and last week I considered canceling it – but I’m so glad I didn’t. I hadn’t quite realized the weight of wearing the “employee” and “mama” hat simultaneously in a way that I almost never do, for myself and for my children, and it was glorious to just wear one for the day. We splashed in a creek, we had a picnic in the back of my car, I read many more chapters of my current book, we took a walk… I felt buoyant all day. So if you can, don’t wait to use all of your vacation days “when this gets better.” Take some now. You will be so glad you did.

And now friends, please add what’s making you smile to the comments. I can’t wait to hear, and am sending you love!

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The beauty of quiet time

19 March 2020

It honestly never occurred to me to write this post until I was chatting with some of June’s friends’ parents at a birthday party a few months ago, and the conversation turned to the topic of naps. As in, did our children still take them, and how did we feel about it. At the time, June occasionally took an afternoon nap, but on the days she didn’t, she still had an afternoon quiet time. I said this casually, not thinking much of it, but the reactions were astonishing: none of the other kids there did this, and the parents seemed to have never heard of such a thing.

Having grown up with regular afternoon quiet time myself, I have to think that this is an aberration and that many more parents than John and I are enjoying daily quiet time at their homes, but in case they are not, let’s talk: about quiet time, why it’s so wonderful, and how it works in our family!

MagnaTiles are a downstairs activity, but this picture felt appropriate!

A little chronology: at around age 2 3/4, June moved to a big girl bed, and she would reliably nap for 2-3 hours like clockwork in it (her bed is pretty high off the ground, so she never attempted to get out of it solo).

Around 3 1/4, she started resisting going down for a nap, so we pivoted and did a quick rebrand: nap time was now “Big Girl Quiet Hour,” and she could have a book in bed with her. This satisfied her: about half the time she’d fall asleep, and the other half she’d flip through her book, sing and talk to herself, and play with her stuffed animals.

Originally, the three rules of Big Girl Quiet Hour were that she needed to 1) use a quiet voice, 2) stay in her bed, and 3) not touch the things on the walls. Around age 3 3/4, we relaxed the rule about staying in her bed, and she’s now allowed to move freely about her room and do whatever she’d like, as long as she’s quiet (the singing does sometimes get kind of loud toward the end!).

Though it’s called Big Girl Quiet Hour, it typically lasts 2ish hours, sometimes even more – and she’s happy as a clam the whole time. (In fact, she’ll sometimes ask if it’s time yet to go up for BGQH yet – possibly because it’s a stretch when she doesn’t have to worry about her brother messing with her stuff ;))

What does she do? She plays with her stuffed animals (they are often laid out in elaborate schemes on the floor when I come to get her, adorned with things like pipe cleaners and construction paper bracelets), draws/colors/cuts paper, plays with her doll house, looks through and organizes her treasure box, sings, dances, and flips through books. Occasionally (about 20% of the time) she’ll get in bed and actually sleep.

June is the first child we’ve transitioned to quiet hour, so I can’t say how well it works with any of my other children, but you can bet I’ll be transitioning Shep to a Big Boy Quiet Hour just as soon as he’s done with an afternoon nap :) In addition to encouraging her imagination and growing her ability to entertain herself, I think a mid-day reset is helpful for attitudes all around, and helps us to come back to each other refreshed and ready to re-engage. Particularly for two introvert parents, this is important!

Note: my kids are generally at preschool during the day, but this is our pattern on weekends, vacations, and days off! And in the past few days of school closure, it’s worked beautifully, too. Actually, knowing I can lean on this well-oiled routine has been a lifesaver amidst the new work-from-home-with-kids normal, so if you find yourself in the same boat, I hope this might be a particularly helpful thing to try right now.

Janssen has some great tips here from her experience with four girls if you’re just starting out. My best tip is simple: start as soon as they begin giving up naps! (If that ship has sailed, she suggests starting small and working up from 30 minutes.) I know I have lots of younger readers, so be sure to tuck this nugget away in your proverbial pocket for when the time comes!!

I’d love to hear: does quiet hour happen at your house? What are the parameters? If you still have all nappers, have I convinced you to try it in the future — or were you already like, duh, of course I’m going to have quiet hour? :)

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My chalk paint desk and downstairs command center

16 March 2020

Hello, friends! How are you feeling? We are fine – mostly staying home, playing outside in our neighborhood or going for a hike, and taking the whole idea of working-remotely-with-kids one day at a time. This weekend, I worked on a few projects around our home: tidying corners where clutter had built up, sorting out spring clothes for both kiddos, and continuing to work on our loft. We’ve also FaceTimed family, worked on the invite for my meal-planning potluck (something to look forward to many weeks from now!), read more than usual, and watched Bridge of Spies. Thinking of getting a puzzle next :)

Ready for a little distraction? This post seems particularly appropriate for the times we’re in. It’s a project you can do at home, that makes the home you’ll be spending a lot of time in more lovely! Today, I’m sharing the full process of rehabbing my desk with chalk paint (some of you may have seen peeks on Instagram already!). I hope it’s helpful, especially if you’ve considered a similar project but felt intimidated, like I did.

Here’s the before. This desk was in my childhood bedroom (and my Dad’s childhood home before that!), so it’s been around the block. For most of its North Carolina life it’s lived upstairs in our loft, but in a game of furniture musical chairs it was moved downstairs in the hopes that it could become something of a command center and work-from-home spot for me.

Once we decided we liked it in that spot (yay!), I considered my painting options. I had already decided to try Annie Sloan Chalk Paint – which, despite the name, is not chalkboard paint but a unique finish that can paint over existing surfaces (including stains) without any prep work.

Annie’s paint has a more limited palette, so I quickly narrowed my choices down to Louis Blue (a gray-blue) and Oxford Navy (a dark navy). Instagram was split when I polled, but in the end I thought navy was the more fail-proof, classic choice (and nicely picked up some of the navy tones in our gallery wall).

Though I may appear it from the outside, I actually don’t consider myself a particularly crafty person, and I was nervous to dive into this project – it seemed like there was no going back once I put brush to desk! I did ask my local retailer a few questions before getting started, and I also watched one of Annie’s beginner videos online, which was confidence-building :)

Of course, as soon as I splashed on the first brush stroke, I immediately said to John, “this was a great idea,” ha! The vibrant paint reminded me that the desk, while serviceable, was actually not in very good condition and didn’t have much to recommend it in terms of finish. It was scratched, stained, written on, and faded, as you can see:

But let’s back up. The first step was to take everything out of the drawers, remove the hardware, and wipe everything down (my paint retailer recommended Fantastik). The neat thing about chalk paint is that it has zero odor, so it’s safe and palatable to do this project indoors!

Next, I brushed on the first coat of paint. You can buy a (very expensive) Annie Sloan brush, but I just used my preferred wall painting brush, one with a short handle like this. The paint washed out of it easily with soap and water. Per Annie’s advice, I splashed the paint on liberally and casually, brushing a fairly thick coat in all directions (but trying to smooth away globs when I saw them). Here’s what it looked like immediately after two coats, and the next morning:

A few days later, I added the wax layer. (A tricky part: you have to make sure that you do NOT touch the piece before you apply the wax – even minor touches show up as white scuffs.) To apply the wax, I used a cheap wooden brush. I found it hard to get the wax out of the bristles, so I just used two (they’re like fifty cents) and threw them away after use.

Disclaimer: this was my first chalk paint project, and I’m still not exactly sure I did the wax layer 100% correctly, ha! They say to use a “lint-free cloth” to buff it in, which does seem to be important because the first cloth I used shed some fibers. I switched to an old pillow case we’d cut up as a rag, and that seemed to work fine. (I threw away the pieces I used after each layer here, too.) As opposed to the paint, the wax was a bit stinky.

I rubbed in the two layers of wax a few days apart. I considered doing a third on the top just to give it additional layer of “hardness,” but the paint retailer shared that I likely wouldn’t get any further protection, because each layer of wax kind of melts the layer underneath it. Here’s a snap of the desk before the wax went on, and then the amount of wax I applied before rubbing it in:

Any chalk paint experts want to tell me if I was using the right amount of wax? :) After both coats were applied, I waited the full two weeks to reassemble the desk and place things on top, which allowed the finish to harden. In the meantime, I ordered this more subtle brushed hardware, and I really like how it looks with the piece!

I’ve used the desk for a few weeks now, and I’m happy to say the finish holds up really well – no scuff marks or dings or anything like that. I think chalk paint was a great choice for this piece and I’d definitely use it again! Here’s my breakdown of the pros and cons of chalk paint, and a few photos of the finished look.

— Easy to use, despite my initial hesitations.
— A more limited palette of colors to choose from, which helps with paint chip paralysis.
— The painting technique itself is freeing and fun! It doesn’t really seem like you can do it wrong.
— You don’t have to do ANY sort of surface prep, which majorly cuts down on time and effort for an older piece.
— It’s odorless, so you can paint indoors.
— Seems to be good quality and hold up well, at least so far.

— The paint is more expensive than normal wall paint, plus you have to buy the wax, too.
— The paint colors are limited.
— The finish is not smooth – it has a texture to it. I don’t mind it, but it wouldn’t be right for all projects.
— It seems to attract lint and fuzz, or at least, it seems to show up more to the eye. This might be because I chose a dark color!

So far, I’ve just pulled up one of our dining room chairs whenever I’ve wanted to sit at the desk. I’m considering tucking a little stool underneath instead, but this has been working great so far!

Curious what I’ve stashed in the drawers? The wide one has post-it notes, notebooks, notepads, notes and samples for work, tape, and a stapler. The top drawer has washi tape and sticker books. The middle drawer holds cards, postage, our address stamp, and my perpetual birthday calendar. The bottom drawer holds my hard drive, larger envelopes, my label maker, a crossword puzzle book, and various other supplies. On top, I have my favorite pens, my PowerSheets, and my laptop, and in the tin, I keep coupons and paperwork that needs action.

It has been exactly the little command center I needed and I’m so happy to have this stuff right where it’s most useful!

I’d love to hear: have you ever used chalk paint? Do you have a piece you’d try it on? Do you have a command center, and if so, what to you do/keep there?

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Em’s Marvelous North Carolina Bucket List

11 March 2020

North Carolina gained an estimable new resident when my friend Madeline moved here last year. When she mentioned she was hoping to explore more of her adopted state in the coming months, I immediately volunteered my services as informal tour guide. We have gained much from her presence, and now it’s time for NC to give a little something back to her through new experiences, memories, stories, and delicious tastes!

John and I put our heads together and came up with this list of our absolute favorite North Carolina places, foods, sights, and experiences. It goes without saying, but even this lengthy list hardly scratches the surface of all the wonderful things the Old North State has to offer — but it’s a place to start! (And, it must be said, it’s Triangle-heavy, since that’s where we both reside.)

Though many of you live places other than North Carolina, I hope this serves as a helpful guide if you take a trip to our state! From the mountains to the sea, from barbecue to Laotian dim sum, it’s truly a wonderful place.

In no particular order and without further ado…

1. Attend a service at Duke Chapel.
2. While you’re there, stroll through Duke Gardens (we love to bring a picnic from nearby Foster’s Market).
3. And, if you can finagle it, watch a men’s basketball game in Cameron.
4. See an outdoor summer movie at the North Carolina Art Museum Art Park (go early to wander the grounds and see the outdoor art installations).
5. See an outdoor movie or concert at Koka Booth Ampitheatre.
6. Take the ferry to Bald Head Island for the day (or a week). Rent a bike and ride all over.
7. Stay at the European-feeling Old Edwards Inn in Highlands.
8. Swim in the Eno River (we prefer the Few’s Ford access, and like to pack a picnic from nearby Picnic!).
9. Eat a BLT at Merritt’s.
10. Plunge into the icy waters of Sliding Rock, a natural water slide on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
11. Catch the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra at an outdoor concert (often in September).
12. Order a chocolate souffle to-go from the Fearrington House Inn and eat it in the Adirondack chairs facing the cow pasture.
13. Visit the quaint coastal town of Beaufort — eat at Beaufort Grocery, see the wild ponies on Shackleford Banks, and stroll the charming streets.
14. Walk the beautiful neighborhoods of Raleigh: Oakwood, Mordecai, and – my personal favorite – Hayes Barton.
15. Cheer at a Durham Bulls game (best ballpark snacks you’ll ever have!). Park in the parking deck and walk through the beautiful American Tobacco Campus to get to the game.
16. Sip a farm-inspired beverage on the edge of the growing field at the Honeysuckle Tea House.
17. Hike a Southern bald. We’ve done Black Balsam Knob, and have our sights on Grassy Ridge.
18. Experience the magic that is Brewery Bhavana: flower shop, brewery, bookstore, and dim sum restaurant in one.
19. Experience the magic that is the NC State Fair: goats, biscuits, giant watermelons, and more.
20. Check off at least one of James Beard Outstanding Chef award winner Ashley Christensen’s restaurants. (You can’t go wrong with any of them, but we especially love Chuck’s and Death and Taxes. Okay, and Poole’s.)
21. Walk the paths of the WRAL Azalea Garden. It usually blooms right around Palm Sunday and Easter!
22. Climb the fire tower at Hanging Rock State Park.
23. Pick apples in the mountains (try Altapass or Justus Orchards).
24. See a show at DPAC, the Durham Performing Arts Center (it’s where we saw Hamilton!).
25. Get an ice cream sandwich at Parlour.
26. And a cone at Maple View, complete with view of the generous cows who provided the milk.
27. Visit the Saxapahaw General Store (get a BLT there, too!).
28. Eat at Vin Rouge, a French restaurant transplanted into Durham and a vanguard of the Triangle’s impressive restaurant scene.
29. Drive the NC peach trail, including a stop at Kalawi Farm Market for a basketful.
30. Feed the giraffes lettuce at the NC Zoo.
31. Grab a bagel sandwich at Benchwarmers in Transfer Co Food Hall.
32. Last but certainly not least, spend at least a weekend in Asheville. Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway, tour the Biltmore (it’s so worth it!), hike at Crabtree Falls, white water raft, and for the love of everything good, eat at White Duck Taco.

And now, a few things still on our bucket list: Jolie and Poole’side Pies, the Front Porch Artwalk in Mordecai, a Snap Pea adventure dinner, the Lost Colony performance in Manteo, Chef and the Farmer, Joyce Kilmer forest, the Oakwood Lantern Light tour, and the Fried Turkey Sandwich Shop :)

Now, friends, I know you’ve got them, so let’s hear your additions in the comments! What would be on your North Carolina bucket list?