An Extended Family Trip to the Florida Keys

31 January 2024

You may recall that one of my informal “resolutions” for 2023 was chronicling our trips on EFM within a month of returning home. I’m happy to say that I stuck to it, including for the Articles Club retreat, our road trip to Serenbe and Watercolor, weekend trips to the Biltmore and Beaufort, our anniversary weekend in Charleston, and a long weekend in Boone. It’s a resolution I’m carrying into 2024, so expect more prompt travelogues coming your way in the months to come :)

But before we kick off 2024 travel, there’s one trip from 2023 I have yet to chronicle: Thanksgiving week in the Florida Keys with my extended family. I’d love to share a few photos and details, if you’d like to see!

Like last year’s trip to Watercolor, this Thanksgiving trip was in honor of a major wedding anniversary for one of our parents – in this case, my parents’ 40th (albeit two years delayed!). They graciously paid for most of the trip, and once we jointly decided on the Florida Keys as our destination, they handed over the reins to John to plan the details.

This was an honor and something he was happy to do (travel planning is one of his hobbies!), but it was also intimidating! Though my family travels a well-worn groove to Maine each year, we haven’t done much other group travel. Within our numbers we have different accommodation, budget, and activities preferences, and so it was nerve-wracking for John to feel he was making decisions for a varied group, for a destination we’d never been to, and for an expensive (!) and milestone trip like this.

But of course, he did an amazing job. My expectations for the trip as a whole were exceeded and I think it’s safe to say everyone had a great time.

Where We Stayed in the Florida Keys:

After researching the many (many!) towns that make up the Florida Keys, we settled on Marathon for our home base. We were looking for cottage-style accommodations (versus hotel rooms), which limited our options. We ultimately decided on two side-by-side beach houses at Tranquility Bay in Marathon and were very pleased with the decision.

The beach houses each had a full kitchen, a dining room table, a living room area, three bedrooms, three bathrooms, and upper and lower porches. The upper porches had expansive views of the ocean and the lower porches had wide steps down to a grassy lawn that led to the beach and pool.

Getting to the Florida Keys:

Since we were joining up from various points in the country, getting to the Florida Keys was an adventure in itself. We opted to meet up in Fort Lauderdale on the Sunday before Thanksgiving before caravanning down to Marathon the next day. My sister and her family drove from Charlotte, and the rest of us flew into FLL from our respective home airports: Nashville, Raleigh, and Hartford.

We rented an SUV at the airport and got everyone to the Pelican Grand Beach Resort in Fort Lauderdale, where we were staying the night. We had plenty of time to eat lunch by the pool, wade in the waves on the wide beach, and have an outdoor dinner that night along the canal at Casa Sensei.

We chose the Pelican Grand because it had suites, which is always helpful for traveling with kids, and because it was right on the ocean with a pool and lazy river. We ate breakfast the next morning in their restaurant, which was convenient and yummy, but, you know, expensive :)

After breakfast we packed up and drove about an hour to Gator Park in the Florida Everglades – another National Park to check off our list!

We bought tickets (no reservations required) for an airboat tour of the Everglades and it was… perfect. And perfectly hilarious. Our boat captain was straight out of central casting – everything you could hope for in a gator guide. He had a deep, gravely voice, skin browned from years in the sun, and personal names for all the gators. He expertly guided us through the reedy channels and opened the throttle as we skimmed over the marsh grasses. We saw LOTS of gators, many swimming right next to the boat. Annie slept through the whole thing :)

Things to Do in the Florida Keys:

After the gator tour and a quick lunch, we drove the remaining 2.5 hours south to Marathon for our next four days in the Keys. We worked hard to create an itinerary that reflected everyone’s interests, and it paid off – we pretty much stuck to it!

After checking in on Monday around 5pm, we headed to dinner on-site at the Butterfly Cafe, Tranquility Bay’s nicer restaurant. We ate outside on the porch at a verrrrry long table, and it was delightful.

The next day (Tuesday) we spent the morning moving between the pool and the beach, where there was cornhole, a giant chessboard, and a volleyball net. We ate lunch on the beach, too, at TJ’s, the resort’s other (more casual) on-property restaurant.

This was a very relaxed day — Annie napped at the house in the afternoon, and the rest of us read, played games, visited the beach, chatted, and swam in the pool. Kim, John, and I even made it to Tranquility Bay’s gym, which was actually really fun to do together :)

For dinner we headed to Burdine’s Waterfront, a casual bar and grill at a marina where we had hush puppies, cheeseburgers, shrimp burgers, key lime pie, and delicious fries — and a gorgeous sunset! We finished the evening with a round of mini golf and games back at the house.

The next day (Wednesday) was our day trip to Key West! I was a little unsure of what to expect because, you know, Key West is known for being kooky, but it was a great day. We started by touring the West Martello Gardens and Fort. The botanical garden is on the site of a former Civil War fort; admission is free and it’s beautiful.

We then drove a short distance to the Truman Waterfront Park, home to the US Coast Guard cutter Ingham, now a floating maritime museum.

As many of you know, my Dad was an officer in the Coast Guard for most of my life, and even served on the Ingham briefly during the Mariel boatlift. It was incredibly cool and meaningful to get to tour it with my kids and to share this important part of our family’s life, and I can only imagine how special it was for my Dad to get to do it with all his grandkids.

After about an hour and a half on the ship, we walked over to Kaya Island Eats for a late lunch. Fish tacos under a shade canopy hit the spot.

While we considered taking a photo with the famous Southernmost Point Buoy, the line was insane – so we hopped back in the car for the hourlong drive back to Marathon, which all of the kids took as an opportunity to nap. Once home, some of us went in the pool and we made tacos for dinner at the house.

The next day was Thursday – Thanksgiving! And what an unusual Thanksgiving it was :) We watched a bit of the parade in the morning, then set off for a kayak adventure through the mangroves of Boot Key (we booked our rentals through Key Kayak).

It was incredible! We saw dolphins, leaping manta rays, and manatees so close we could touch them (!!!) while on our two-hour tour. (For those wondering, I had Annie and June in one tandem kayak and John and Shep were in the other, while the rest of the fam took either tandems or singles.)

We headed back to the house to rinse off or hop in the pool while some of the grown-ups got Thanksgiving dinner ready. We had opted to order a meal from Publix catering, and while we were all pleasantly surprised at the quality and tastiness, it was more challenging than we expected to get everything warm and on the table at once. (Little things like not having tin foil tripped us up!) But we did it, and we were more than thankful to get to celebrate together :)

We closed out the day by catching the sunset from Seven-Mile Bridge, a Florida Keys classic if there ever was one, and with a performance by the kids of their original song about my parents – set to the tune of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by the Beach Boys, which was their wedding song. John’s credited on the liner notes as a co-lyricist :)

On our last full day in the Keys we had yet another very special adventure: a dolphin encounter at the Dolphin Research Center! Needless to say, the kids were incredibly excited about this and I don’t blame them: this was something I desperately wanted to do when I was their age. (As an aside, granting my kids a wish that went unfulfilled in my child is an interesting experience: there’s joy and delight in doing it, yes, but it can also bring up worries about “spoiling” them or whether they’ll truly appreciate what they’re being given. But I DIGRESS.)

For both our kids and the kids inside us, this was a delightful excursion. We got to get in the water with the dolphins, touch them, lead them in skills, hold hoops for them to swim to, watch them leap out of the water, and learn more about the center and the research and rehabilitation they do. Very, very cool. We had lunch at Island Fish Co (good, but not my favorite), then headed back to Tranquility Bay for naps and more dips in the pool. Our last meal was a spaghetti dinner in the cottage – easy!

We packed up on Saturday morning and went our separate ways – some flying and some driving.

Though I wouldn’t want to spend Thanksgiving in the Keys, or even at a destination, every year, it was a fun adventure to do it this year. We squeezed in many memorable moments in celebration of a very wonderful anniversary, and I’m grateful we could be together. (And grateful to my parents for making it happen, in more ways than one!)

If you have any questions, I’m happy to answer them in the comments! Thanks for letting me share, friends!

The Articles Club Guide + Modeling Friendship

23 January 2024

If you’ve been around for a few years, you know that most years, in the fall, I share a post marking another year of Articles Club. Last year, I missed that post – but it was for a good reason! Behind the scenes, a few of us were working on a very special guide, and I waited to post until it was ready. And now it is!

Meet: The Articles Club Guide! Over the last eight years, we’ve fielded many questions about our beloved AC:

What is an articles club?
How can I start one?
How can I find people to join?
How have you kept this going for so long??

We are genuinely happy to answer these questions – all of us want to spread the good news of articles club! – but also, if you’re really interested in starting your own group, I don’t just want to answer a few questions: I want to dump everything I’ve learned, and all of my considerable enthusiasm for what this group has meant to my life, into your lap, in the hopes that you will, indeed, go on to start your own.

That’s not always practical on a large scale. So — we made a guide! After brainstorming as a group, four of us got together and wrote out everything we know about starting and sustaining an articles club. Here’s a glimpse at the table of contents:

Fun, right? We put everything together into a beautiful package and you can purchase it right here for $20. All proceeds will go toward funding our annual weekend together, so rest assured you’re contributing to adult friendship bracelets, brownies-still-gooey-from-the-oven, and a polar plunge off the lakeside cabin’s dock. (Eep! We’re going with a Parent Trap theme this year, so it only seemed appropriate. Bathing suits will be worn. Fingers crossed no towels get stolen from the shoreline.)

So far, we’ve spun off three other articles club groups across state lines, and few things bring me more joy than knowing we’ve played a small part in spreading the joy we’ve experienced to others. In a world shadowed by loneliness, this feels like a small way to beat back the darkness.

Speaking of darkness: I was putting June to bed the other night, and she was telling me how she doesn’t like it when she’s trying to fall asleep and it’s quiet downstairs, but “my favorite nights are when you have Articles Club because I can hear everyone laughing.”

My heart!

My children may grow up in a world where true friendship – friendship that sits with you when you’re broken, and makes you laugh til you cry, and follows up on your prayer request, and doesn’t gatekeep anything – is rare. But hopefully, because they’ve seen it modeled by my beautiful friends, they’ll know what they’re looking for – and maybe even be inspired to create their own candlelit nights around a messy table, with good food and lots of laughter, for others. May it be so.

You can find the guide here, if you’d like! xo

My 2024 Reading List

16 January 2024

My 2023 reading list, the fourth iteration of this experiment, was a smashing success.

I finished 20 of the 24, chose to DNF two others, and have purchased one of the remaining two to read as soon as it works its way to the top of my book stack. This made it (by far) the list I came closest to completing perfectly, and I think it was because I was ruthless in weeding out books I felt I was supposed to read, and instead made sure every book was one I couldn’t wait to read.

I’ve gone over and over my 2024 list – adding and subtracting titles for weeks – in order to assemble an equally-enticing plan for the year ahead. I think I’d done it, and would love to have you join me in reading anything below that strikes your fancy!

(If you’re new, this is the very lowest-key of book clubs: I consider it a delightful exercise in thoughtfully planning my reading a year at a time (12 fiction, 12 non-fiction), and though I’m often at the whim of my library holds, it’s helpful to always know where to turn when I’m ready for a new book!)

Without further ado…

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The Armor of Light | This newest installment of the beloved Kingsbridge series came up in my library holds at the end of the year, so it was an easy first pick for this list! If you love sweeping epics and memorable characters that you can luxuriate in (Armor of Light is 700+ pages), this series is for you.
The Great Dechurching | John and I are leading a book study on this at church starting this month. It’s a thoughtful look at why we’ve seen the biggest historical shift in church attendance ever over the last 40 years – and what can be done to bring people back with love and care.

To Say Nothing of the Dog | I’ll be reading this along with the Everyday Reading book club. “Ned is a professional time traveler but he’s so overworked that his boss finally sends him to the Victorian era to hide out and get some much needed rest. Naturally, very little resting goes on and instead time travel goes wild.”
How to Know a Person | I admire and am grateful for David Brooks and have read several of his books. This is his newest one, “a practical, heartfelt guide to the art of truly knowing another person in order to foster deeper connections at home, at work, and throughout our lives.”

Go As a River | When Stephanie tells me a book is her favorite from the year, it goes on my list.
The Reason for God | I knew I wanted to put one of Tim Keller’s books on my list in light of his passing last year. This is arguably his most well-known, and one I haven’t yet read.

Flying Solo | I enjoyed Linda Holmes’ first novel – a charming and spunky love story set in my beloved Maine – when I read it a few years, and her second sounds similar.
The Anxious Generation | We have pre-ordered three copies of this book – partly as a miscommunication between John and me, but mostly because we know it will be prescient and important and we’ll want to loan it out to anyone who will read it. If you appreciate all the work Jon Haidt does in the realms of adolescent mental health, political polarization, freedom of speech and inquiry, play-based childhoods and more, you’ll want to put this one on your list, too.

The Mystery Guest | This is a follow-up to The Maid, one of my favorite books from 2023!
Die With Zero | This book, another one of Janssen’s picks, sounds tailor-made for me: “Die with Zero presents a … guide on how to get the most out of your money—and out of your life. It’s intended for those who place lifelong memorable experiences far ahead of simply making and accumulating money for one’s so-called ‘golden years.'”

Killers of a Certain Age | My friend Pressley recommended this to me based on my love for The Maid!
Everything Sad Is Untrue | And this middle grade/YA book was one of my friend Bethany’s favorites from last year. It’s good to have reader friends :)

Tom Lake | Ann Patchett’s newest novel is set in Northern Michigan, which makes it the perfect pick for July, when we’ll be visiting family and our beloved cottage there. My friend group has given this one mixed reviews, but I loved The Dutch House and so am willing to give it a go!
All Thirteen | A YA non-fiction account of the rescue of the Thai boys’ soccer team from a few years ago, this another pick from the Everyday Reading book club. I may read it aloud to June and Shep!

Tress of the Emerald Sea | Brandon Sanderson is a fascinating and prolific figure in publishing, but I’ve never read any of his work. This book, which was written and published as part of the #1 Kickstarter campaign of all time, is described as a “rollicking, riveting tale―a standalone adventure perfect for fans of The Princess Bride.” Yes, please.
The Boys in the Boat | This true story of nine Americans and their “epic quest for gold” at the 1936 Berlin Olympics will coincide perfectly with the 2024 Paris Olympics! And then I can watch the movie, which I hear is excellent.

Rebecca | We did a “favorite things” exchange for Christmas at work, and I received a copy of this novel. The giver said it was her all-time favorite classic, and on a team of writers, that’s high praise!
When Breath Becomes Air | This book, which came out in 2016, has been on my radar since before it was published. Still, it never made it onto my bedside table, because I didn’t think I’d be able to get through it (The Year of Magical Thinking nearly did me in). It’s time. I’m sure I will cry buckets of tears but will also come out on the other side in awe anew of life and love.

Her Fearful Symmetry | Erin Napier says this oldish novel (2009) is one of her very favorites. It’s by the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, which I loved, and set near a cemetery – the potential for slightly-spooky vibes seemed perfect for Halloween month.
Empire of Pain | I debated whether to put Demon Copperhead on this list, which is a hefty and polarizing read in my circle of friends, but ultimately chose this adjacent non-fiction account of the Sackler family, who made and marketed the painkiller that was the catalyst for the opioid crisis. (I’m sorry, Kelly!)

Delicious! | I’ve read and loved all of food critic and magazine editor Ruth Reichl’s memoirs, and have heard this novel by her is equally as good!
Raising Passionate Jesus Followers | This book is written by John Mark Comer’s parents. While there are a lot of books about raising children in the Christian faith, this is a unique opportunity to hear from the parents of someone who has impacted my faith.

Little Women | Readers were shocked when I admitted to never reading this classic; one of you chimed in that the week between Christmas and New Year’s is the perfect time to read it. I’m going for it! (Never seen any of the movies, either!)
The Power of Moments | A final pick with the Everyday Reading book club, though this one has been recommended by several other sources, too. It explores why “certain brief experiences can jolt us and elevate us and change us—and how we can learn to create such extraordinary moments in our life and work.”

Honorable mentions I’m hoping to squeeze in, as well: The Measure; Don’t Think, Dear; Belgravia; The Paris Agent; Confronting Christianity; There Are No Grown-Ups; Nora Goes Off Script, and Happier Hour.

I’d love to hear: Have you read any of these books? Would you like to read any alongside me in 2024? Let’s chat!

January 2024 goals

9 January 2024

In this month, the first of the year, my attention is narrowly focused. I am aware that the demand of writing weekly on The Connected Family for a paying audience could easily become a stressor if I don’t carefully manage it, and so here at the beginning of the year, I consciously restrained myself on almost all other goals to create the space to start strong and get ahead in this one area. It’s a bit challenging (I’m excited about every one of my goals!), but I know this short-term narrowing will give me the most peace of mind and pave the way to branch out a bit more in the months to come.

Also, while we’re talking about TCF, I thought it might be helpful to do a little expectation setting here at the start.

For the last few years, my intention has been to share two posts a week on EFM. I didn’t always realize it, but that’s been the goal! With splitting my time between two platforms, going forward I plan to share one post on EFM and one post on TCF each week. TCF will be the home for all things family culture, kids + tech, and low-screen living – a deep well, considering everything that feeds into it! EFM will hold the rest: my goals, our travels, personal finance, faith, books, home updates, recipes, etc. My signature deep thoughts will feature on both :)

While this is, theoretically, the same amount of content, I recognize that only paid subscribers will now have access to all of it, and that is a change from the past 15+ years of blogging. I’m grateful to each of you that’s able to take the leap with me on this new venture. I also understand it’s not in the cards for everyone right now for various reasons, and that there might be disappointment that comes along with that. Please know I am very grateful for you and your support, in whatever form it takes.

And now, on to January!

My labor-of-love book ornaments! They capture the favorite books of our three kids from this past year: Magic Tree House, The Circus Ship, and The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street.

On my calendar:
— Our 19th dativersary! We’re taking a pottery class (part of John’s Christmas present!) to celebrate.
— A goals night with our church community group. They asked me to lead a little session and I’m delighted to – it’s always an interesting challenge to translate CWM’s teachings for a new (and guys + gals) audience.
— June’s birthday celebrations. She chose a “day of fun” this year (versus a party), and so we’re following her lead to visit the Museum of Life and Science, have lunch at Noodles & Co, play at a ninja gym, and have her very first sleepover with her BFF.

What I’m loving right now:
— As a mom who works outside the home, I loved this essay from Coffee + Crumbs – and then one of my dearest friends texted it to me saying it had struck a chord with her, too!
— I recently discovered that you can buy Olive & June items at Target. Did you know this? Their cuticle serum and polish remover pots were sitting right there in my local beauty section. Both are items I use and love! (I keep the serum in my bedside table drawer to apply right before I go to bed.)
— Alstroemeria. They are not, like, the most beautiful flower God ever created, but they are in every single grocery store flower bin and they last for – I kid you not – a month in a cut vase. Perfect to brighten up cold January days.

As a reminder, you can find allll the things I’ve loved over the last few years neatly organized right here!

What you’re loving right now:

This is where I highlight a few items here that have been popular in the last month with fellow readers, based on my analytics. Here’s hoping this will help you find something you’ll love!

Heavenly Hunks, and rightly so.
— These stretch twill cropped pants in a faded green, one of my favorite purchases of 2023.
— The delicious-smelling and effective tangle spray we use for Annie.
— My daily face sunscreen! One of the products I MOST love to push on others :)
— The snack box June uses for school. I bought one for Shep’s stocking but it didn’t fit, so I just set it aside for his Easter basket!

What I read in December:
The Hiding Place | Essential reading, for Christians and everyone else. The courage and moral clarity of Corrie and her family – who risked their lives to save Jews and underground workers in World War II and were sent to concentration camps for it – is frankly shocking to our modern sensibilities, but so needed.
How to Stay Married | This book was making the rounds of our community group and so I hopped on the bandwagon, too. A (true) tale of a wife’s infidelity and the havoc it wreaked on their marriage, it’s an unflinchingly honest and specific look at what contributed to drift in their marriage (on both sides) and how they fought to stay together. (And, weirdly, it’s funny.) It’s also a window into what the church and community can and must do well to help real people in the very real tragedies of their lives.
The Magician’s Elephant | June passed this Kate DiCamillo book to me after reading it and I enjoyed it! It’s a short, moody tale with poetic language and a happy ending. I’d recommend for third grade-ish.

Revisiting my December goals:
Finish our 2015-2019 photo album (Not done yet but I am chugging away! I don’t have the heart to officially put it on my goals list for January, but do plan to continue working on it when I can!)
Prepare well for my family’s visit
See what I can do to continue to customize The Connected Family’s home on Substack
 (I did a little more customization but am also embracing simplicity for the moment! Banking on quality content over fancy graphics here at the start :))
Plan out content for Q1 of TCF, including brainstorming at least 100 newsletter ideas (Confirmed I will not run out of things to write about, ha!)
Tackle our laundry room
Tackle our downstairs linen closet
Savor the Christmas season by focusing on loving the ones I love most, and loving those who need it the most.

January goals:
— Kick off The Connected Family well with five weekly posts
— Write ahead to complete drafts of February’s TCF posts
— Complete at least 85 hours of deep work
— Send an inquiry to our top builder candidate
— Begin the Bible Recap reading plan
— Read the first three chapters of Outlive
— Take the Birds and Bees course
— Prep for our Valentines mailbox

I also am tracking a daily habit of making kid lunches the night before in my PowerSheets, which has been going well so far!

Grateful for you, friends! Please feel free to comment on anything I’ve mentioned here or anything else on your mind!

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