How we ended the school year well and kicked off summer

21 June 2022

June has wrapped up her first year of elementary school, which means we’ve been in transition-to-summer mode! Just as we marked the beginning of kindergarten, we wanted to mark its end as a family, too. She had a wonderful year with the best teacher and sweetest class – more than we prayed for by every measure – and so celebrating was easy. Here’s what we did:

1. June got to choose our meal. She chose spaghetti, which in our house means Rao’s sauce and frozen meatballs – easy easy. I added cheesy garlic bread (again, frozen), her dessert choice of chocolate lava cakes with vanilla ice cream and raspberries, and “special drink” (sparkling cider, which is the preferred beverage for every special occasion around here).

2. We set a fancy table. That pink gingham tablecloth has been my go-to for years. We added place cards by June, popsicle plates, taper candles, and flowers from our yard (!). Always love setting a table with my girl.

3. We read good words over her. We’ve started the tradition of asking her teachers to write a note each year in a picture book, and at dinner, we read their beautifully-encouraging words. She beamed the whole way through.

(We chose this book for the tradition. I looked at lots of options, and though I wouldn’t say this book is the absolute best story, it’s sweet, the illustrations are lovely, and the pages have enough negative space for notes. For message, my first choice would have been this book, but alas, there’s not enough space for notes on the pages.)

4. We brainstormed summer fun. Also at dinner, we went around the table and took turns adding adventures to our summer fun list. I’ll take the ideas and form them into a list we can print for the fridge in the next week or so.

5. We filled in her school years memory book. I ADORE this simple and lovely book. Over the weekend, she and I spent some time filling in the prompts for the end of the school year and adding photos and artwork.

6. We hung our summer calendars. I printed oversize prints of this free summer reading chart and this $5 summer calendar. The illustrations by Camp Castle are so sweet, and the extra-big size just makes them fun. June got busy coloring the edges while I filled in our plans for June, July, and August. Hanging a summer calendar was a game-changer in 2021, so doing it again was a no-brainer!

Happy first day of summer, friends! If you recently closed out a school year, did you mark it in a special way? I’d love to hear!

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To the middle-of-the-night parent

17 June 2022

There is one detail about our family life that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about John as a father and, really, as a person, and here it is: when our kids cry out in the middle of the night, they call for Daddy.

Photo by Graham, from Annie’s newborn session

I know this is unusual, because every time it comes up in conversation the other person is staggered. Moms are simply the default middle-of-the-night parent, it seems. And this makes sense, to a certain extent: if you’re breastfeeding, you are the one that’s needed in the middle of the night. And then, as with many other patterns, it simply… continues.

That’s not what happened in our family. It turns out I am a very deep sleeper, and so when June was born, I would sometimes sleep through her baby cries (even though she was in the same room as us). John, though, would hear her. He would go to her in her bassinet, change her diaper by the dim light of the cracked bathroom door, re-swaddle her, and then deliver her to me to nurse. Every night, often multiple times a night, without fail.

Maybe it’s that imprint of him coming to each tiny baby’s aid from their earliest days, or maybe it’s the relentless gentleness, attention, and care he’s paid them every day since. For whatever reason, when it’s dark and our children are scared, or cry themselves awake from coughing, or vomit into their favorite stuffies and blankets, or bolt upright in bed, suddenly desperate for a sip of water, Daddy is the one they call for. They know he will always come, and they know he will always take care of them. He’ll turn on the nightlight, he’ll bring them water, he’ll change the sheets and pajamas and find new stuffies and tuck them back in. All, many times, without Mama even knowing anything is happening.

One day, our children will realize how extraordinary their father is, and how lucky they are to have him: a Daddy who loves deeply, and sacrifices deeply – a Daddy who loves them so deeply he’d never call it a sacrifice. But I know this now, and this weekend I’ll honor him and all of the other extraordinary dads loving and sacrificing quietly, gently, day in and day out. Happy Father’s Day. xo

Our tenth anniversary glamping trip at Gold River

13 June 2022

Are we getting soft in our old age? Perhaps. But for year ten of camping with our friends – ten years of wide-open wonder and crisp air and melty s’mores and fireside chats, but also packing and hauling and uncomfortable backs – we opted to celebrate in style, with a glamping weekend at Gold River Camp at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, near Marion, NC. It was a delight. And you’re darn right we had matching tees. I’d love to share a few photos, if you’d like to see!

We arrived to Gold River around 5pm on our early June weekend. It’s a small, private campground that’s only about a year old; they offer cabins, RV sites, yurts, platform tents, and traditional campsites. Booking is all through Airbnb. The owners are onsite, but interaction is minimal (we unlocked our cabins with a code). We stayed in the Bower and the Cottage, which are connecting “cabins” – ours was one open room with a bed, a futon, and a bathroom with a shower; the Ray’s side had a living room area with a futon, a separate bedroom, a bathroom with a tub/shower, and the teeny kitchen. I put cabins in quotes because they’re really more like tiny houses – not a log in sight :)

The beautiful thing about not having to set up camp the way we usually do? We could start exploring right away! And there’s lots to explore at Gold River. The kids made a beeline for the creek, and though that was definitely a highlight of our stay, there were also Eno hammocks, Adirondack chairs, fire pits, and tables and chairs dotted around the property for anyone to use. (Less glamorous but maybe more important: trashcans were also always nearby – and were emptied multiple times throughout each day – which was convenient and appreciated.)

For dinner on Friday, we threw together spaghetti, sauce, and meatballs, frozen garlic bread, and cut veggies and dip (prepped at home to keep things easy!). We toted our plates down to the pavilion, a covered, open-air common space in the center of the camp. There were tables and stools to perch on, and best of all it was just feet from the babbling creek. After admiring fireflies from our front porch and getting kids settled in beds, the adults claimed a fire pit to close out the night.

Saturday morning dawned absolutely gorgeous – warm, sunny, clear. We had a quick breakfast of eggs, sausage, and fruit before packing up and heading to Toms Creek Falls. This hike was almost too easy for our taste – it’s a pretty much flat out and back that took about 20 minutes each way – but hiking in quickly meant we could spend plenty of time enjoying the waterfall at the end. And the waterfall would have been worth a much longer hike! We had great sight-lines to its dramatic plunge. The kids clambered over rocks all the way up to the pool at the base and there were sunny spots to enjoy snacks on, too. I just put my feet in but the water was coooooooold.

From there, we had lunch at Hillman Beer in Old Fort before heading back to Gold River. What a cool spot! Retrofitted from an old factory, it’s a cavernous, open-air space nestled right next to a creek (lots of creeks on this trip!). The food was delicious and it was neat to see all the brewing equipment through big glass walls.

Back at camp, a few of the littles napped while the rest of us spent the afternoon at the creek. (As a reminder, on this trip our kids were 7, 6, 4, 3 x 2, and almost 1 x 2.) The water was about a foot deep at its deepest, so it was easy for the kids to enjoy floating downstream, digging in the sandy bank, and splashing in the shallows. The adults supervised from camp chairs in the water, and this is possibly the most treasured part of camping weekends for me: sitting and doing nothing besides enjoying the surroundings and the company, with not even phantom tasks or the pull of household chores or a laptop to distract. It’s an opportunity to slow time way, way down, and it is good for the soul.

Dinner that night was the traditional hot dogs over the fire, with chips, veggies, and baked beans on the side, plus another round of s’mores for good measure. Bedtime is always easier on the second night: the initial buzz of excitement has burned off, and everyone’s exhausted from being outside all day :)

Sunday was another gorgeous morning, and we carted our pancakes and bacon down to the pavilion to eat by the river, pajamas and all. I think the kids spent the next three hours before checkout entirely in the Eno hammocks, ha. Most of them fell out multiple times, but good times were had by all.

Gold River will certainly go down in history as one of our favorite camping memories – the kids proclaimed it to be “the most fun ever” many times over throughout the weekend. If you’re nervous about camping but itching to give your family an outdoors experience, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Though we’re planning to return to our more rustic roots in 2023, I’m sure we’ll be back to Gold River at some point in the future!

Any questions about camping, in North Carolina or with kids? I’m always happy to help!

How to be a more relational writer

6 June 2022

When I wrote my three-part blogging series last year, I promised a fourth post with my best writing tips. This was inspired by a kind reader, who wrote this in a past survey: “You seem to care so much about your readers! How did you get to be so relatable? I think you could be a therapist!”

I’m generally not in the practice of repeating kind things people say about me, but this comment has stuck with me for years.

Because I do care about my readers – very much! But what this comment helped me realize is that not only do I care about my readers, but I’m able to convey that care through my writing. It’s a skill I’m very grateful to have, and one that I’ve honed throughout my life. In the spirit of passing along what I have to offer (which is my heart for showing up here!), I took some time to analyze what, exactly, helps make my writing relatable, relational, and enjoyable to read. We talk about some heightened topics here, and I think it’s in part these tips that allow me to do that in a way that is – and also feels – open, friendly, and welcoming.

Whether you consider yourself a writer or not – whether you have a blog or write for your job or not – whether you write to record your own stories or for an audience – being able to communicate in a way that draws people in is always a good thing. I hope these tips are helpful!

1. Read. A lot.

Perhaps surprisingly, I am the last person you’d want to diagram a sentence or define a past participle. Instead, (almost) everything I know about sentence structure, cadence, and grammar comes not from high school English but from a lifetime of absorbing good writing in book after book after book.

If you consume enough beautiful and skilled writing, all that has been stored up in your brain and heart will eventually start to overflow into what you produce.

2. Choose your topics with care.

I could not write in my preferred style about every topic, and so when I consider writing a post, I ask myself whether I can speak honestly, candidly, and authentically about it. Why do I want to write about this? What’s my motivation? What do I hope to convey? How might I be able to help readers with what I have to share? What unique perspective can I bring to the topic?

Answering these questions helps ensure that not only are my posts technically proficient, but hopefully interesting and edifying for any readers.

3. Strive for precision.

Was it a perfect day? Or was it another kind of day? The poet in me (trained to observe and relate what I notice with details that illuminate) – as well as the Enneagram 5 (lover of exactitude and precision) – ensure that what I share is not only interesting to read (a “perfect” day doesn’t really tell you much, does it?) but also trustworthy.

If generalities read as laziness or sloppiness, precision reads as care – I took the time to find the correct, accurate wording. This doesn’t mean I have to share every detail in every story, but that because what I do share is precise, you can trust it.

4. Look for what might be unintentionally offensive.

Speaking of Enneagram 5s: we are known for being perceptive. This is a quality I surely learned from my Dad, who received his PhD in international diplomacy. I am good at seeing what others might find offensive, the little nuances that either bring someone in or push them away, and I care enough to remove them from my writing as much as possible.

Here’s just one example. In this post, I wrote the line, “I’ve found that it IS possible to think deeply and feel passionately about something without broadcasting my thoughts to the widest possible audience.” In my first draft, that line read, “Contrary to what some people would have you believe, it is possible…” but upon re-read, that seemed needlessly antagonistic (“some people” might make a reader wonder who I’m talking about with thinly-veiled contempt). I then edited it to, “Contrary to what the world would have you believe…” That felt less personal, but in the end, where I landed (turning it back on my own discovery) felt the most neutral.

5. Come back for edits.

I never publish a post the day after I write it. After I get out my first draft, I’ll come back on a second day to read through what I’ve written, adding to it and tweaking sentences for clarity, simplicity, tone, and impact. Returning with fresh eyes helps me catch errors and get to the heart of what I really want to say. If I published first drafts, you’d think I was a very different writer :)

6. Simplify and clarify.

In the editing process, I remove pointless adjectives, words I’ve repeated too close together, and other generally unnecessary words or phrases. I check tenses and agreement. I smooth out phrasing.

All of these things make my writing easier and more enjoyable to consume for the reader. Mistakes are distracting; good grammar helps a reader feel taken care of. As C.S. Lewis put it, “A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling.” Even if you don’t think of yourself as a grammar connoisseur, your brain will get tripped up by confusing sentences and sloppy punctuation. Over time, you might think less of my ideas or of me as a narrator because of this, even if you couldn’t quite put your finger on why.

7. Begin in medias res.

Chalk this up to one thing I did learn in school! In medias res is Latin for “in the midst of things,” and it’s a technique where the writer begins in the middle of the plot, filling in details gradually. I’m using the term loosely here (my posts are not exactly plot-driven), but what I like about this technique is how it engenders closeness between the writer and her readers. It’s a way to reinforce community.

When I mention “Kate” or “the island” or June’s baking without explanation and you, the reader, know who or what those things are, that reinforces for you that you’re a part of this community. You’re an insider. Writing in this way makes EFM feel more like a continuous conversation between friends than a first meeting with a stranger.

And if you are reading a post and run into something you’re not familiar with, but it feels like you should be, hopefully it makes you want to stick around and explore a bit more! :)

8. Talk tentatively.

This is a big one, and another one I learned from my Dad. Talking tentatively helps to project a blend of confidence and humility – in my case, that I have confidence in what I’m sharing (or else I wouldn’t be sharing it!) and also that I recognize there might be nuances and perspectives I haven’t yet considered.

This might sound like: “it might be helpful to,” “this can be a good way” “you might want to…,” or “I find that…” It also looks like turning from prescriptions towards observations and wisdom earned from personal experience. For example, consider the difference in these three lines:

You should wear a sun hat.
It’s good to wear a sun hat.
I like to wear a sun hat.

Personally, I’d bristle at the first sentence if I read it in a blog post, and I’d side-eye the second. The third makes me lean in – I want to know more. Why, writer, do you like wearing a sun hat? Might I also like wearing a sun hat? Much like whispering when you want a child’s attention instead of yelling, sharing a personal conviction from humility makes others more likely to listen with an open mind.

9. Remember rules are made to be broken.

These rules, yes, but even rules of grammar. When you’ve established a pattern of good grammar, you can break it for emphasis. A run-on sentence can communicate overwhelm or urgency or excitement; a pop culture expression or spelling can help strengthen community (you and your reader are part of the same group if you both understand what’s being said!).

10. Stay humble and curious.

In the end, all of the skill in the world isn’t going to make someone seem caring for long if they don’t actually… care. To be a good writer, you must stay curious: about why things are the way they are, about why people think and act the way they do, about why people care about what they care about. If you ask for your readers’ opinions or thoughts, sit with the answers.

Here’s the good news: I am not a particularly special person, nor even close to the best writer. But this corner and this practice is where I’ve chosen to put in some of my 10,000 hours, and so I hope today’s tips are at least an interesting peek behind the EFM curtain. As always, thank you for being here and for reading my earnestly caring, but always imperfect, writing :) I am grateful for you!

Part One: Nuts and Bolts
Part Two: Content
Part Three: Grab Bag