February 27th, 2017

Duane’s day off is Friday. So, this past Friday, I enthusiastically suggested breakfast out + a photography tour of downtown Raleigh.  (It should be noted here that he also agreed to this idea enthusiastically.)

Our first stop: Cafe Lucarne in City Market, a pretty minimalist place with minimalist food, yet BIG on flavor. A  friend of mine raved about the avocado toast there, but my sweet tooth needed something that wasn’t green, so I had the ricotta toast with roasted apples + honey. It was delicious.  Duane had a chicken sandwich with house-made honey bbq sauce that was also REALLY good. The staff was really pleasant, too. You should go.









After Cafe Lucarne,

various + sundry places out and about in #downtownRaleigh:










IMG_5216 - Version 2



























Raleigh circa 1959.


How much is that doggie in the window?

Then, there were the camellias. It’s Friday, I’m in love.






Good gracious.

Nature always wins.





Happy Monday!


Worth Noting

April 12th, 2016

worth-notingI’m saying goodbye to an old favorite today–Friday Favorites, in fact.

Let’s face it: I’m not the most regular at blogging. So, posting my favorite things every Friday was a little more than the pea-sized organizational part of my brain could handle.

But, I’m excited about starting a new series called: Worth Noting. (Ahem, notice the title is not Worth NOTHING…that would be a very different series.) Each month, I’ll pass along to you the things that are Worth Noting in my world.








Here’s what’s been Worth Noting lately:

Worth Eating // This Chocolate Nutella Cake. I made it for Abby’s 12th birthday. It’s the best homemade cake I’ve ever made and I’ve been making them for birthday parties for 13 years now. You must try it.

Worth Reading // Lila by Marilynne Robinson. You have to be prepared to do some *pushing through* whenever you read her books (think: Charles Dickens), and Lila is no exception. But it’s worth it. There are gems everywhere, like this one:

“But Lila had seen plenty of times how a bird will hatch or a calf will be born, and pretty soon they know things they couldn’t be taught, they’re up on their legs, all scratching or suckling, and their eyes are all bright with it. The world is so fine. That’s when children can play with them because their eyes are bright, too, and they’re finding out how clever they are. Then pretty soon, the critters are just critters, livestock. And the children are just folks trying to get by.”

Breaks my heart every time.

fall, apple, candy-apple




Worth Listening // The Oh Hellos. Check them out here on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert. You won’t be disappointed.

Worth Quoting //  Accepting Grace in Life’s Worst Moments by Alison Hodgson. The complicated spiritual journey of a family after their house burns down.

 “Time and maturity had taught me the only thing I can do is open my arms to lay down my shame and keep them open to receive forgiveness.”

Worth Playing // Water Wow by Melissa + Doug. Oh my word, these are so fun. Jonathan loves them, and he definitely isn’t into coloring.  They are mess-free and the perfect on-the-go toy for long car rides.




Worth Instagramming // @nothingisordinary_

If you’re on IG, you should follow them (you can follow me, too, @onneutralgrnd).

The moderators curate really great photos for carefully crafted photography grids based on a particular #hashtag for the day.  Last week, they were letting their regular users create their own grids with any photo tagged #nothingisordinary for a chance to be featured as Moderator of the Day. They didn’t pick any of my grids, but I had a blast doing it.





What’s been Worth Noting where you are? I’d love to know about it. Let me know in the comments below.

Have a good week.



Top 10 Things That Happen When You Have 4 Kids

February 24th, 2016

By today’s standards, we have a big family.

We have 4 kids–not very many when you consider the broad scope of human history.  But today, it’s kind of a big deal.


When people find out I’m a mom of 4 (beauties), first they look at me like I have a horn protruding from my forehead, which is  followed by a slightly muffled gasp, which I suppose means: You’re crazy. (Well, we are a little.)

The most common response that people say out loud is: Gosh, I have 2 kids and I can barely handle them!

Yes, parenting is hard. Parenting 2 is hard. Parenting 4 is hard. And, I’m pretty sure parenting 1 is hard, since I was an only child–my mom is raising her arms right now and belting out an AMEN.

But there’s just something different once you get beyond 3 kids. Things get a little tricky.

Here are the Top 10 things that change when you have 4 kids:

10. You cannot fit your whole family into any car that’s remotely cool. It’s minivans all the way–for years. The first time I was ever called Ma’am was in a drive-thru window at Starbucks, a few days after I started driving the MomMobile. Mind you, I was 28 at the time. Sheesh.

9You can no longer fit your family into 1 hotel room. Two double beds and a sleeper sofa just aren’t going to cut it. So go ahead and add that extra room to the budget when you’re making your vacation plans–or not, because…

8. You can no longer fly on airplanes. Well, I guess  some of you could, but for most, 6 plane tickets is equivalent to feeding your 13-year-old son for a month. Dinner wins.

7. Four bedrooms or bust. A 3-bedroom house just won’t work anymore, unless your kids are the same gender and can share bedrooms.

6. You always double a recipe. Always.

5.  If you remember to do something for some of your kids, you’re inevitably forgetting to do something for your other kid(s). 

4.  Your kids will never have matching socks. Ever.

3. Your kids will never, ever agree on what movie to watch. Ok, this probably happens in every family, BUT the more people there are, the more opinionated the room becomes. Just saying.

2. You’ll have a greater chance for heartbreak. The more kids you have, the greater the chance that someone (or two…or three) will break your heart along the way, but…

1. You’ll have a greater chance for JOY.

A wise friend once told me #2 and #1.  I didn’t understand it at the time, because I was just starting to have kids, but now it resonates. There are things my kids do or say sometimes that make me feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach. There are things I say to them that I later regret.  That’s heartbreaking. And I’m sure there’s only more of that to come as they get older.

BUT, the JOY multiples with each one. The way they look when they’re sleeping, the times they cheer for one another, the times they win poetry contests and geography bees, the times they laugh, the inside jokes, the times they still say: I Love You.

I get those times x 4.





Intentional Friendship

January 19th, 2016


*This is the second post in my series about becoming more intentional in 2016. Read the first post here.

There’s a group of women that gets together monthly in my neighborhood. The week before Christmas, they invited me to come to their White Elephant party. I decided I would go, even though I only knew one of the women going, and the rest of them had been meeting for years.

No one likes being the new girl. I’m not going to lie: I had a knot in my stomach walking up the sidewalk to the party. I talked myself into knocking on the door and the owner of the house–Amanda–greeted me warmly. I flashed a genuine, but nervous smile, and then we exchanged the universal small chat that ALL moms do:

Oh, your son’s in 4th grade; so is my daughter. 

Who’s his teacher? Do you like her?

Actually, I think they’re in Science Olympiad together.

What’s his name again?

Amanda and I walked through the foyer together toward the party, following the sounds of  loud laughter, the kind that old friends do. We stopped at the edge of the kitchen island, arrayed with platters and plates full of delicious, bite-sized party food. Amanda interrupted the conversation to introduce me, and almost all at once, everyone turned their heads to look at me.  The only thing I could think to say was:

Hi, I feel like I’m in middle school.

(Good Grief.)

But then, everyone laughed. 

(How do you spell R-E-L-I-E-F?)

They laughed, because they all knew what is what was like to be me.  To be the new person. To walk into a room full of strangers. To meet new people. To want new friends.

It’s almost as scary as middle school.




I’m in my late 30s, and admittedly, it’s nowhere near as hard to meet new people as it was in middle school. (I thought I was going to die every day in 1991). But sometimes I still have to talk myself into it.

Here’s the thing: I want meeting people and making new friends to be organic. I want it to be easy. But, for one thing, our society isn’t set up that way. It’s hard to “do life” together {sadly} because we go to different jobs, live in different neighborhoods, and our kids go to different schools (even if they live in the same neighborhood).  At best, we have friends in each of these circles, but they do not overlap.

Somewhere in my mid-30s, I abandoned this idea of organic relationships. I realized that I could not wait to be on the receiving end of someone else’s invitation, phone call, or text. If I wanted deepening friendships, I realized I needed to replace the word organic with intentional; I needed to pursue friendships instead of waiting for them to come to me.

Around the same time, I met a fellow pastor’s wife who was interested in getting a small group of other pastor’s wives together monthly to talk shop.  She wanted it to be a group that moved past the chit-chat to the real stuff–the hard things–and how Jesus was meeting us with His grace.

By the second week of meeting, we had collaged a summary of our life stories to share with each other. I was very uncomfortable. It felt like too much too soon–certainly NOT organic–although she was very careful in inviting us to share as little or as much as we wanted. But we all decided to take the plunge, to risk being known, possibly more than we wanted to.

It felt like a major turning point for me. As I listened to each of their stories and shared my own, all of them mixed with pain and joy, I began to understand that the foundation of intentional friendship is vulnerability.


It’s a risk, or course, to be known exactly as you are. But the older I get, the less interested I am in the ways I think I’m supposed to be for someone to like me. I’m less interested in hiding, and more interested in being known. I’m less interested in waiting around, and more interested in saying, “Hey, let’s be friends.” (Kinda like you did when you were 7.)

C.S. Lewis had some fantastic reflections on friendship. Here’s one of my favorites:

“In friendship…we think we have chosen our peers. In reality a few years’ difference in the dates of our births, a few more miles between certain houses, the choice of one university instead of another…the accident of a topic being raised or not raised at a first meeting–any of these chances might have kept us apart. But, for a Christian, there are, strictly speaking no chances. A secret master of ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,” can truly say to every group of Christian friends, “Ye have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.” The friendship is not a reward for our discriminating and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each of us the beauties of others.” 


Intentional steps toward friendship does not negate a God who is mysteriously at work behind the scenes. It’s a step of faith, trusting that the God who created us for relationships, has beauty in store for us when we enter into the lives of others as friends.

That doesn’t mean it won’t hurt sometimes. Others let us down + we let others down (often). But our hope rests, not in what others can do for us, but in our identity in Jesus, who has set us free to love.

So, in 2016, may there be more White Elephant parties with strangers, more invitations for coffee + wine together, more intentional phone calls, and more opportunities to see what God is up to in the people I call friends.

/ / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / /

P.S. I don’t go to the pastor’s wives group anymore. But not because I don’t want to–my family moved last summer.

We moved to Raleigh. But guess what? I’m intentionally meeting monthly with 3 other incredibly beautiful women who God has put in my path, in this place, right now, to reveal the beauty He has in store for us all through friendship.

I can’t wait to see what happens.

My Word for 2016: Intentional

January 5th, 2016

I’m not much of a New Year’s resolution person.  I hardly ever make resolutions because I know I won’t keep them. I’m not very disciplined, or maybe, I’m taking care of 4 children and have little time for setting goals, let alone keeping them.

But something was nagging me at the end of 2015. I felt like I was constantly reacting to the flurry of the day’s activities–the tyranny of the urgent– rather than planning to meet that  activity-flurry, spinning like a 200 mph tornado, head on.

One day, I remember saying to myself: I’m just not going to clean anymore. I can’t fit it in. Weeks later, I told Duane about my little plan, to which he replied: “Hmmm, that’s interesting.” So, I guess it’s not a good plan?

I also sensed a gentle conviction that planning ahead would actually not just make me feel more in control of the day, but it would be a kind and gracious act for the 5 other people in my house.

The word that kept swirling around in my head was I N T E N T I O N A L. How could I make changes in my home that would leave me feeling less like a flightless bird frantically flapping her wings?



Several areas came to mind as I thought about becoming more intentional in 2016.





(I’m covering F O O D today. Stay tuned for forthcoming posts on the other topics.)

First, food. I really wanted to change the way I approached food. I felt like the lack of  planning in this area resulted in a lot of carb-consuming. When the kids got home from school, I threw out a bowl of pretzels or graham crackers (with a side of fruit…thank you very much), which basically left them still hungry with a carb-coma to boot. I especially noticed it in my 13-year-old boy, who now eats twice as much as everyone else. He needed more.

So, in the last few days of 2015, we only had one child–3 had gone off to greener pastures to spend time with friends and family. It gave me a much-needed breather to actually think through the changes I wanted to make for 2016.

Pinterest became my best friend in the waning days of 2o15. I looked up a ton of recipes for protein-laden snacks, smoothies loaded with greens, and sweets minus the sugar (ahem, we’ll see how that one goes).

I got a NutriBullet for Christmas, which is honestly the best invention since Pinterest. I can make a smoothie in about 30-seconds flat and clean it up in even less time. I bought all the bells and whistles, too, that make smoothies stick to your stomach: protein powder, chia seeds, almond milk, spinach, Greek yogurt.

Y’all, it’s been fun. I look forward to them every day.

Here’s one I made this morning:

Pineapple Banana & Coconut Cream Smoothie (Vegan & GF) from AverieCooks. It was SOooo GOOood.


Source: AverieCooks


I also follow Simple Green Smoothies on Instagram for recipe inspiration.


This is @simplegreensmoothies Strawberry Daiquiri smoothie made with spinach, strawberries, grapefruit, and dates.

Follow @simplegreensmoothies HERE.


Onto after-school snacks.

I’ve already made THESE.


Peanut Butter Banana Smudgies

Source: PopSugar

You pop them in the freezer for an ice-cream sandwich effect, except with healthy stuff in the middle!

Today, I’m also making another freezer treat: Cherry Almond Coconut Protein Balls .


Source: PopSugar

Feel free to check out my Pinterest board, New Year New Food, for more healthy snack ideas.

Even before 2016 started, I started changing the way I make dinner. For the months of November and December, I entered the vast wide-open land that is freezer meal prep. All I can say now is, after  a few wobbly baby steps in this new territory, I’m a believer!

I used 2 different plans from the blog I Am That Lady. Each plan cost about $3 to download and are specifically tailored to shopping at ALDI, although she’s adapted some of her shopping lists for a regular grocery store if ALDI gives you the creeps.

I made approximately 15-20 meals over the course of 2-3 days (you’re supposed to be able to do it in a 5-hour block, but who has that kind of  free time?), and never thought about dinner again for the rest of the month. 

I know some people get together with their friends for prep, so that it’s not so overwhelming. That might be something I try in the New Year as well.

I’m taking a break from freezer meals in January to focus on overhauling all of the food we eat, but I’m kinda sad about it. I’m going to miss the sigh of relief when that moment of internal panic strikes around 5 o’ clock  that screams: You haven’t started dinner yet!

Only the Freezer Meal can quiet that voice.




I’m looking forward to planning some new things this year, things that have never been.

Later this week, I’ll share some more of my thoughts about becoming more intentional about relationships.

Let me know what you’re cooking up, too. I’d love to know.

Oh, and Happy New Year.






Free Christmas Printable

December 15th, 2015

I think I’ve found a new hobby. The company I work for asked me to design some printables recently, AND NOW I CAN’T GET ENOUGH. I’m dreaming in clip art.

Feel free to download this image and print away. And, I’d love your feedback. What do you like/not like about it? Too much? Too little? (I can handle it…{I think.}) You may need to re-scale it in your print settings to fill the page adequately. I rescaled mine to 145% and it fit an 8.5 X 11 sheet perfectly in landscape format. (I’m still figuring this all out.)

Merry Christmas!



Uneven Places

November 3rd, 2015

I met him half-way to walk him the rest of the way home from school.

Our hands met for a while, then fell, like all of the sudden he remembered that he was nine, and goodness, someone might see him.

We pressed on into the sunshine, carried along by the crisp autumn air–leaves rustling, the sound of acorns crunching under our feet.

Leaves in Grass


He told me about Indian Dance, the piano piece he’s practicing for his keyboarding recital at school. He looked up at me while he talked.  I looked down at his face as I listened, sometimes noticing our feet stepping together on the hard sidewalk that goes home.


He said, “Mom, you know that game: Step on a crack, break your mom’s back?”

“Yes, I do.”

He said, “Well, when I was younger, I never stepped on the cracks because I didn’t want it to be true.”

<Gasp.> “Wow, Stephen. Thank you. That is very sweet.”

He said, with a shrug: “Yeah.”




I’m not sure what we talked about next. My mind was quiet after that, my heart full. Sometimes, it’s the tiniest moments that renew your resolve to parent well.

Over the next few days, I thought about how much I’m in the car, dropping off here and picking up there. I’ve thought about how the older kids go to school a whole 2 hours before the younger two. I’ve lamented over my choppy schedule and daydreamed about a more streamlined one.  Of  course, it’s okay to rearrange and fix and plan to smooth out the rough spots, but on THAT day, the day that we walked home from school together without anyone else, I realized that the uneven places in my day were a gift.



I don’t have to leave  to pick up another child YET AGAIN, I get to.

I get to walk in the sunshine, mind finally quiet for a few minutes, to pick up another child.

Sometimes we run home to see who can get there the fastest. Sometimes I carry his book bag for him. Sometimes he complains about walking home.

And sometimes, he even tells me that he walks over the cracks.




Return, O my soul, to your rest;
    for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.

Psalm 116:7

Photo Feature Wednesday: NC State Fair

October 21st, 2015


I have a love/hate relationship with state fairs.

On the one hand, there is so much color, light, people-watching–it’s an (amateur) photographer’s dream come true. It’s honestly one of my favorite places to take pictures.

On the flip side, the waiting, the whining, the wading through crowds…not on the top of my list for state fair experiences.

This year, as a Welcome to Raleigh boost for our kids, we decided to take them to the NC State Fair. (I’m still debating the merits of this decision.) There were some HIGHS and some definite LOWS, but in the end, I got some really GOOD pictures, which is why I go. (Though I have to admit, soaring down the SuperSlide with Jonathan in a potato sack was well worth it.)

Enjoy the photos. You only get to see the good ones, not the waiting or whining or wading (though that would be an interesting documentary project–maybe next year!). It’s the Internet, for goodness sakes, we only report the happy stuff.



Notice 13-year-old on the left. How do you know he’s 13? The cool sideways cap.










fall, apple, candy-apple


IMG_2505 IMG_2506




Who are the crazy people that ride this thing?

Who are the crazy people that ride this thing?



Look, even dad came to the fair!

Look, even dad came to the fair!

state-fair, north-caroline, ferris-wheel


carnival, fair,


IMG_2569 - Version 3


IMG_2569 - Version 2


And, last but not L E A S T, my very favorite picture from the state fair wasn’t even taken by me; it’s a rogue shot by Aidan:


geico, lizard

What a clown… I mean, gecko?!


Which one is your favorite?

So long, NC State Fair. Thanks for the memories. I would say Until Next Year, but I don’t think there will be a Next Year. We need to recover. : )

Grief Observed

August 31st, 2015


“Everybody wants you to be okay.”

A good friend of mine says this to me often. It’s her observation on sadness.

Sadness makes the people around you uncomfortable. It’s awkward. It makes people feel like they should say something, but what?

Unfortunately, being uncomfortable with sadness is alive and well in the Church, even though the Bible recounts story after story of blood, sweat, and tears. In Philippians Chapter 3, Paul reminds us that secret of knowing Christ is “to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.”

In other words, there is no resurrection without death, no death without pain. That means, to know Christ—to really know Him and the power of His resurrection—it will hurt. We will suffer. It’s not an “if”, but a “when.”

claireandsean sunflare


 “There is no resurrection without death, no death without pain. “

Of all people, Christians should “do sadness well,” but I think sometimes we don’t  because we’re confused. We know we’ve been given this beautiful gift—this HOPE, that is an anchor for our souls–that does not disappoint. Like my friend Kristi says so pointedly: this “hope is not a commodity, it’s a Person.” His name is Jesus.

So, yes, we do not grieve likes ones without hope, but that doesn’t mean we don’t hurt. But I think we believe that if we have Jesus, he’s the band-aid for all our wounds. We can smile even when we hurt, because we have Jesus.

The problem is that Jesus isn’t a Mickey Mouse band-aid that instantly soothes our scrapped knees. He’s the master Physician—the Great Surgeon—who cuts deep to fix what is really wrong, so that real healing can take place.


“We do not grieve like ones without hope, but that doesn’t mean we don’t hurt.”

This summer, my family moved to a new town. At our new church, I stood singing familiar hymns,  songs sung for hundreds of years, but I sang them in a new place with new people. As I sang, I felt tempted to not let sadness overwhelm me (especially NOT in front of others)—I wanted to “be okay.”

But then I was reminded that this is not Jesus’ design for us—to hide our humanity, to paste on a smile, to always be okay. But, His plan IS to transform the suffering into resurrection, the weeping into joy, the deserts into streams of water.

What I really want, though, is the second part without the first, but it doesn’t work that way.


Our pastor recently reminded us of Psalm 84:

Blessed are those whose strength is in you,

whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.

As they pass through the Valley of Baka (weeping),

they make it a place of springs;

the autumn rains also cover it with pools.

They go from strength to strength,

till each appears before God in Zion.

A funny little thing happened after that. I started seeing “pools in the desert” all over the place. He hasn’t necessarily taken the hard parts away, but He’s sustained me, even poured out His blessings on Me, in the middle of it.

That’s how He is.

He doesn’t want me to “be okay.” He wants me to weep when it’s hard, and then train my eye to see the GRACE He offers–the pools in the desert.

After a night of little sleep, I told a friend of mine that I didn’t think I’d be able to see the pools that day, because my goggles were foggy. WE had a good laugh over that.

I suppose that’s part of the pilgrimage, too. Knowing that I won’t always trust perfectly, but He will faithfully wipe the fog away from my Dollar Store goggles, and  even replace them with a new pair. (Speedos, perhaps?)

-As they pass through the valley of Weeping, the autumn rains cover it with pools…


The Unlikely Hero of Family Game Time.

May 28th, 2015

As my kids get older, it’s getting harder to find an activity that everyone enjoys. Movie tastes are changing, for instance. The older boys want Avengers and the Hobbit, while Abby wants to see Annie and Home. We used to plop them all in front of a screen, and whatever Disney/Pixar film was out at the time was everyone’s favorite.

(And then, there’s Jonathan, whose new favorite movie is CARS, which is “so-ten-years-ago” according to the older kids [funny how I find them glued to the couch next to Jonathan whenever it’s on…hmmm.])

It’s the same with games. Candy Land used to be a crowd-pleaser. Not anymore.  Now, he wants to play Monopoly, she wants to play Clue, and the other one just wants to listen to his iPod (for Pete’s sake).

So, last night when we pulled out a new game for family time, I was skeptical.


Enter Story Cubes. The rescuer. The hero. The redeemer of adolescent family time.

slogan bracelets


You should have seen how fast everyone gathered ’round the coffee table to try it out.

Honestly, I was still skeptical. I thought interest would last for about 5 minutes, but guess what? Wait….for….it.

Everyone loved it, and I mean everyone. Mom, Dad, Adolescent #1 and #2, as well as our 9-year-old (who wishes he was an adolescent,  for the record.) Jonathan even squealed with delight from the confines of his bedroom when he heard us laughing.

The game is actually very simple. There are 9 cubes with pictures on each side of the cube. One player rolls the cubes (like dice) and whatever images the cubes land on are the pictures you use to tell a story. The first player chooses  which image to start with and begins the story with “Once upon a time.” Each successive player chooses the next cube to continue the story, until all 9 images have been used. The key is to tell a story that connects all 9 images.


Warning: when you play with a 9-year-old, there will be countless natural disasters, endless casualties, and fish parachuting  from burning buildings.

Just be prepared.

Here are some delightful one-liners from last night’s edition (paraphrased, because do you expect me to remember them word-for-word? It was almost 9 o’clock.):

“When lightning struck,  the people gained electrical powers.” (9-year-old)

“A giant Scarab beetle attacked all the people down by the river.” (Mass casualties)

” Everyone escaped the burning building, except for the sleeping mailman, but when a bee buzzed by his head, he woke up and parachuted to safety.” (Hero of the story: a bumblebee).


Okay, so these are pretty silly examples, but I honestly loved how the game forced us to work together and use our imagination(s).

AND, you can play it for a short amount of time, or for however long attention spans permit.

I also like that it’s pocket-sized,  so you can take it with you wherever you go–to the park, on a road trip, to a restaurant, etc.

Family Game Time Revived.

        * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

// What are games that your family likes to play together? // 

// If your kids are at different ages and stages, how do you spend time together as a family? //

I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below.