Wednesday, December 14, 2016

orange chocolate cake and the power of parchment paper

Our daughter was just three months old when New Year's Eve 2012 came rolling around. After six years of hosting some pretty bumping New Year's Eve parties, Stephen and I weren't ready to throw in the towel and surrender to pjs and Chinese takeout just yet. Our childless and carefree friends graciously accommodated the needs of our newborn, and we decided on a progressive dinner that would end with dessert back at our place so I - I mean Charlotte - could be in bed at a reasonable hour.

I had been googly-eyed over this cake for about a year, waiting for just the right occasion to knock the socks off my guests. I envisioned cheering, applause, and maybe even chanting as I presented four layers of rich chocolate cake, oozing with whipped orange cream, slathered with chocolate-orange buttercream, and topped with candied orange peels. This would be the night. People would be talking about this cake for years to come, requesting Joy's Orange Chocolate Cake for birthdays, holiday parties, probably even a miniature version for an anniversary dinner.

No? Did I go too far?




I consider myself a semi-experienced baker, meaning I don't roll out fondant frosting, but I gave up boxed cakes years ago and surely know how to follow a recipe and beat some buttercream.

However, I have a bone to pick with recipe writers: if the recipe requires additional baking supplies, those items ought to be listed with the ingredients or at the very least, underlined, bolded, and printed in size sixteen font throughout the recipe.

You can tell where this is going.

December 31, 2012. Cake baking day was here.

I read through the ingredients - for the cake, the whipped cream, the buttercream, and the orange peels (Whew.) I made my list. I went to Kroger.

My ingredients were laid out. My apron was on. My three-month-old was sleeping. My recipe was opened. My oven was preheating.

Step 1: Preheat oven to 350° F. 

Already ahead of you.

Step 2: Line bottom of two 8" pans with a round of parchment paper.   

Parchment paper?

(Insert cuss word of your choosing.)

Looking back, I should have gotten in the car, driven back to Kroger and bought the parchment paper.

Better yet, I should have sent Stephen.

But if I had, there would no story to tell right now. No one wants to read about the four-tiered, picture-perfect chocolate cake I made on my very first try. Lame.

So alas, I plowed ahead sans parchment paper. Those cakes looked so good sitting in the pans, cooling on the wire rack. I wasn't even anticipating the disaster awaiting me. Fool.

Friends, hear me now, listen to me later. (My dad use to say that. I think it might be applicable here but am not totally sure.) You must use parchment paper if you want your cake to come out of a pan in one piece.

Mine did not. It came out in many pieces, crumbling in my hands, and falling onto the table. 

Cooking exposes a stubbornness I don't normally see in other areas of my life. I will rarely - perhaps never- trash a mistake and start over. Maybe it's the time I put in, more likely it's the money, but the thought of tossing that cake, buying parchment paper, and starting over never crossed my mind - nor did buying root beer and vanilla ice cream and calling it a day.

Instead, I stacked those four shattered cakes, piecing together crumbling bits, and counting on the orange whipping cream to hold it all together. I slathered the top with chocolate-orange buttercream and added the lovely finishing touch of candied orange peels. I mean, it just would look silly without the orange peels.

And when it was all done, it looked like this.

Photo courtesy of my trusty flip phone

This.

This is what I made.

And six hours later, I served it.

Do you think less of me right now? Or maybe more?

There wasn't the applause I'd imagined as I shamefully set that blob in the middle of the coffee table and handed out forks. But from there, we just went at it, kneeling around the table and allowing the cake to finally succumb to gravity.

We devoured every crumb of that imperfect mess, and it was amazing. It also caused me to question why I ever dirty more dishes by cutting individual slices.

There are great lessons to be learned from this - lessons about embracing imperfection, making the best of disappointment, surrounding yourself with friends who don't take life too seriously. Those are noble lessons but secondary to the real nugget of wisdom I am offering here.

Use the dog-gone parchment paper when you make cakes. Please. If you do, your cake will look like this. 


Ahhhh. Much better.

I will say up front that this cake is a labor of love, as is any amazing cake. Don't plan to bake this when you are also cooking a full dinner for guests. Make this for an occasion when dessert is your only responsibility.

Chocolate Orange Cake
Recipe from Little Red House

Chocolate Cake
*Note* This is my go-to chocolate cake even when I'm not piling it with orange goodness.
  • 2 ounces semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 3/4 cup boiling water
  • 6 tablespoons butter, melted, plus more for the pans
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 1/4 cup cake flour (I have used all purpose flour, and it was still yummy!)
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt 
  • PARCHMENT PAPER
Preheat your oven to 350°F.

Line 8" cake pans with parchment paper. Butter the paper and sides of the pan.

**Important Note** The originally recipe has four layers, but as you notice in the picture above, my cake only has three layers. Here is why: My cake pans are actually 9", so ever since that fateful day, I only make three layers for this cake. I'm pretty sure making four, super thin 9" layers contributed to the flimsiness of my cake. If your cake pans are 8", by all means make four layers. If your pans are 9",  I would highly recommend only three layers. Clear as mud? Good. Carry on.

In a bowl (I use a glass, liquid measuring cup), combine chocolate, boiling water, and cocoa powder. Let it stand, stirring occasional until the mixture is smooth.

In another bowl, mix your flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

In another bowl, use an electric mixer to beat butter and sugar until combined.  Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat until the color lightens -  about three minutes.

Slowly add buttermilk, vanilla, and chocolate mixture. Beat until well combined.

Add the flour mixture and beat until just combined.

Divide between your pans. This will be about 1 1/4 cup per pan if you are making four layers and closer to 2 cups per pan if you are only making three layers.

Bake for 12-15 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.

Repeat as needed depending on how many cake pans you own. 

Cool cakes completely before frosting.


Orange Whipping Cream
  • 2 cups whipping cream
  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar
  • 2 teaspoons orange extract
  • zest of 1 orange
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Whip the cream on high speed until soft peaks begin to form.

Add the powdered sugar, orange and vanilla extract. Continue whipping until you reach a fluffy, creamy consistency.


Chocolate Orange Buttercream
  • 8 tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder
  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon orange extract
  • a few tablespoons of milk
Beat butter, cocoa powder, powdered sugar, and orange extract. Add one tablespoon of milk at a time until you reach a consistency you like.


Candied Orange Peel
  • 1 orange
  • 1/2 cup sugar
Using a vegetable peeler, shred long strips of orange peel, and place them in a medium saucepan. Cover with cold water and bring to a boil over medium heat. Drain the water and repeat with fresh water two more times. This gets rids of the bitterness from the peel.

Place the sugar in a clean saucepan with 1 cup of water. Stir to combine. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally until the sugar is dissolved.

Add the orange strips to the boiling syrup and reduce the heat.

Let the strips simmer for about twelve minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let the strips cool in the syrup at least one hour. Remove from the syrup when ready to use.


Assemble the Cake
Cake 
Whipping cream
Cake
Whipping cream
{Optional layer of cake}
{Optional layer of whipping cream}
Cake
Buttercream
Candied orange peel


P.S. Despite the fact that Sheena did not underline and bold the words parchment paper, her recipes are some of my all time favorites on the world wide web. I wrote about another one of her cakes on this post. She taught me to make homemade Greek yogurt, Lara bars, and a lot of really good tacos. I have never made a recipe I didn't love. Check her out.


Happy Christmas from 44 & Oxford!


Totally busted by the four-year-old during the photo shoot.

What whipped cream?

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Confessions of a Fun Mom


I let my kids play in the rain today.

I'm such a fun mom.

It wasn't even a run-around-the-patio-and-get-back-inside-before-you're-too-wet kind of play. It was twenty minutes of pouring rain, barefoot, splashing, soaked-to-the-bone kind of play.

I watched those darlings squeal with glee as they hid under the awning, screaming in tandem, "ready, set, gooooo!" Two sets of little legs charging into a wet wonderland of puddles, and I thought to myself, "Look at me go, being all laid-back and type B. I'm gonna have to write about this so all the world will know what a fun mom I really am."

When much of the day is spent doubting myself, frustrated by my impatience or lack of creativity, a #momforthewin moment is such a breath of fresh air. There were no umbrellas and no rain coats; I'm that kind of wild mom. There was laughing, jumping, hugging, and even one moment my daughter shouted, "This is so much fun!" My heart melted, snapping dozens of mental pictures because the ones on my phone would never capture the magic of this moment.

Then it was time to come in.

The next thirty minutes reminded me why I carefully choose my fun mom moments. Those two precious children, who seconds earlier optimized childhood innocence, quickly plummeted into the depths of toddler hell. Fun mom vanished and crazy mom came charging on the scene as we transitioned back to reality.

This is the downside of fun mom moments - they have to end. Despite the fact that I just threw caution to the wind, allowing my children to play in the rain or eat ice cream for breakfast, or, heaven forbid, use glitter in the house, they do not respond with an extra dose of cooperation. Good grief. Where's the gratitude?

Instead, they turn me into crazy mom, standing in the rain, threatening a weeklong time out. Once inside with the doors locked, they squirm as I wrangle off wet clothes. Then, they proceed to flee in all directions as I corral their naked booties up the stairs. Inevitably a child slips. I'm forced to fake empathy when I really want to giggle and say, "Karma. Booyah." The whining explodes into high gear because they are cold, and I now transition from crazy mom to silent mom - the most frightening mom of all. I stop reasoning, stop threatening, and methodically move through each task without a word. I show no emotional response when the one-year-old pees on the floor or the four-year-old wants to wear her Easter dress for naptime. I ignore all questions and comments as I clean the floor and silently zip the back of a sleeveless, floral dress. I complete my motherly naptime duties, only breaking the silence to robotically read Goodnight Moon. Blankets are distributed, curtains are drawn, and water cups are in place. When a song or back scratching is requested, I barely shake my head; they can read my eyes.

I exit the room and exhale.

Naptime has now been delayed a half-hour which undoubtedly means they will awaken a half-hour earlier than usual. I will spend this snippet of "free time" cleaning the grass and mud tracked in by little feet and starting a load of wet laundry that will sit in the washer until tomorrow. Farewell to my aspirations of being productive during naptime. I was going to write or prep dinner or remove the toenail polish that has been chipping away since August.

Change of plans.

All because I had to be a fun mom.

Moms, there are consequences to our recklessness. These children will not express gratitude by eagerly obliging to our every directive. They will want fun mom every moment of every day - chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast, finger painting in the afternoon, and fort building before bed. Most frightening of all, they will begin to expect it. As if I can afford Dippin' Dots every time we go to the zoo.

Take heed. Backfire is inescapable.

If you push them  "Higher! Higher!" on that swing, they will fall off.

If you let them wear three tutus, pajama pants, a cowgirl hat, and life vest to the grocery store, you will see your boss.

If you let them skip naptime to stay all afternoon at the pool, they will not nap again for a week.

If you let them have a picnic on the family room floor, they will trip, spilling drinks and catapulting mac-and-cheese across the room.

If you buy them that 25¢ plastic ring, it will break on the car ride home and their world will end.

Consider yourselves warned.

And now, go do it anyway.

Heaven knows, we all need fun mom every once in awhile. Crazy mom and silent mom have their place and time, as do eat-something-green mom, no-you-can't-wear-shorts-in-December mom, drill sergeant mom, and pour-me-another-glass-of-wine-mom. Those moms are necessary, part of the gig for us and our children, but they won't be enough to keep us plugging along, pouring our very best into motherhood.

The repercussions of our carefree shenanigans will smack us in the face from time to time. But inevitably, the dust will settle - the puddles will be cleaned up, the tantrums will subside, and the schedule will return to normal. The chaotic memories will lessen, and we will be left replaying the scene right before the fun mom moment imploded in our face - the one where our mental camera was on burst and motherhood was exactly what we wanted it to be.

We will be filled with all the mommy feelings because our children are doing the kid thing right.

All because we had to be a fun mom.


This essay was originally published in The Tribe Magazine.


Sunday, November 6, 2016

decorating shelves on a sinking ship


Four months ago we moved into a grown up house - the kind with bedrooms upstairs, laundry in the basement, and a real garage that covers our cars. We traded the simple, landominium life for a life of yard tools, multiple toilets, and a mailbox that opens without a key. 

Fortunately, our home doesn't need much "work." Stephen and I are more "move-in ready, paint a few walls, hang a few pictures" kind of people. We don't tear down walls, expand windows, or reclaim wood to build barnyard doors for our pantry. We have moved at a snail's pace in turning our house into a home, and I have every intention of playing the "we just moved in" card for the next two years.

The truth is, it's just not my thing. Furniture shopping gives me anxiety, and finding cute knick knacks for every surface of my home makes me want to cry. When people start talking about window treatments and throw pillows, I only hear the teacher's voice from Charlie Brown. 

I find no enjoyment in hauling home seven rugs to unroll, shove under furniture, reroll and lug back to the store because I didn't get the right size or right color or right padding. Last week I brought home a rug so thick I couldn't open my front door. Good grief. 

And don't even get me started on the white, built-in shelves on either side of our fireplace. They're meant to be adorable, but those suckers taunted me for months as they collected dust and tools and toys. I knew what I was supposed to have on those shelves. I needed little vases, interesting books stacked in different directions, bamboo, a giant letter B, an inspirational quote hand painted from an Etsy shop, and probably some pictures of my children in a flowery meadow. I could just die thinking about it.

I finally had to call in backup, asking a friend to decorate them for me. She spent an hour walking around my house, gathering items I didn't even know I had from packed boxes and slowly piecing together picture perfect shelves. She left me with the task of completing two final shelves. This was two months ago. One is filled with cable cords; the other is lined with trucks and dolls. Done.

The irony is that despite loathing interior home design (we'll save stories regarding the exterior for another post), I am becoming obsessed with it, and not in a "haha, look at crazy Joy" kind of way. It is an obsession that has quickly begun to steal my joy. I am either overwhelmed by the next item on the to-do list or questioning the item I just crossed off. What should we hang up here? Did I spend too much on those pillows? I should probably return them and get the ones at IKEA instead. Can I afford that rug? Maybe I should move those shelves a little to the right.

I am constantly dissatisfied, focused on what I don't have, and feeling like a failure because our home will never make it in a world if Chip and Joanna are the standard. 

A great tension exists in my life as a follower of Christ. There is a desire for an impressive, yet child-friendly home, filled with lovely things and plenty of room to welcome guests. This is set up against the reality that my home and the stuff inside count for nothing. I'm doing a crumby job of balancing this tension and have been in a constant dialogue with the Lord about how this all plays out.


How do I create a home without letting discontentment consume me?

How do I make decisions without becoming obsessive, particularly when there are countless options?

How do I find joy in a task that brings out insecurities?

How do I shop and be a responsible steward of the money God has given us?

How do I buy a new sofa, pick paint colors, and decorate a front porch in our suburban home while being brave enough to look at poverty and find my place in a broken world?


This tension is so thick and so heavy I get lost in it. I go through cycles of purging, loathing excess, and utter disgust for our boxes filled with stuff we never use. I enter a state of constant awareness that everything I buy will one day end up in the trash, but ironically, find myself wandering the aisles of Hobby Lobby just days later in search of decorations to fill a guest bedroom.

These past months have been filled with so many more questions than answers. God has not asked me to wake up each morning in a state of sorrow, apologizing for all I have that so many do not, but He is asking me to do something.

I have been working through the Bible reading plans provided by She Reads Truth. We recently finished reading through I, II, and III John. A few weeks ago we read these words:


Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him... 
The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever. 
I John 2:15 & 17


This world is a sinking ship.

There is no doubt about it. I am living on a sinking ship that will one day go under, and Satan is urging me to cling to it, to tie myself to it. I know better.

Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. 
Jonah 2:8

Satan is getting such a kick out of filling my mind with lies and shame.  


Your home isn't good enough. 

You never should have bought this place. 

You live in this lovely home but are still complaining? 

Don't you know how much you have? Shame on you. 

Once you have this house together, you can invite people over. 

You deserve more. You deserve better.

Look around. Keep comparing yourself. You're not cutting it. 


I am calling him out on these lies. Instead, I will cling to my Jesus even as I decorate shelves and hold up paint colors. I will invite friends into our work-in-progress because I refuse to be someone Satan uses to perpetuate his lie that homes must be perfect. I will stop counting on this sinking ship, this fading world to bring me joy and affirmation because I do believe God can change a dissatisfied, greedy heart like mine. He can take my mess and transform me into a woman who believes, "The Lord is my Shepard, I have everything I need" (Psalm 23:1).

I am quite certain this will be a daily lesson - truth spinning in my mind, but not always playing out in the quiet of my heart and intensity of my actions. I imagine myself reading this post again and again over the next months, maybe years, as I plead with Jesus to be my one delight, my one obsession. I will keep talking to Him about this tension because He hasn't put it in my heart to ignore.

Monday, September 26, 2016

butternut squash soup

I know you're all going as fall crazy as I am, so it is with great pleasure that I add to your fall frenzy by bringing this pot of goodness into your lives.

Our home will see a giant pot of this soup three to four times six to seven times every fall. (I've already made it twice.) It most certainly makes my list of top-three-most-requested-recipes from all the happy people I feed it to. I make it for casual weeknight gatherings, bumping fall festivals, Thanksgiving dinner, and if you have a baby or a bad day anywhere between September and December, I will bring you this soup.

Unlike most butternut squash soups, this one stays chunky - no pureeing. In the end, your bowl doesn't look fancy or quite as photo friendly, but I have watched children and grown men plow through three bowls of this goodness.

You have to try it.


It's a recipe worthy memorizing, and with only six ingredients (plus salt) it can be a go-to for nights you are standing in the grocery store desperately coming up with a dinner plan. However, for the sake of complete honesty here at 44 & Oxford, I will warn you in advance of this recipe's one and only downside. It needs to simmer for about an hour. You can get away with 45 minutes but really no less. So just be sure when you're standing in that grocery store, it is 4:00 pm and not 5:45 pm.

Feel free to do all your chopping the night before to cut down on the prep time.

The original recipes calls for 6 tablespoons of butter. I have never used that much. I have no problem dropping sticks of butter into my biscuits, pie crusts, and sugar cookies, but I just can't do it to my soup. Your call.

This recipe serves 4, but you'll probably want to double it.

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 4 cups butternut squash, diced into small squares (You can easily get 4 cups from one large squash, probably more. Adding more is perfectly acceptable.)
  • 2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 large celery stalk, diced
  • 6 cups chicken broth
  • Salt 
Melt the butter in a soup pot.

Add the squash, carrots, onions, and celery. Stir them all up to help coat the veggies with butter.

Cook over medium-high heat, stirring often, for 8-10 minutes.

Add the broth and season with salt.

Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, uncovered, for one hour.

I stay pretty simple with this soup, but I suppose some grated Parmigiano-Reggiano would make a nice finishing touch. Or better yet, grab a crusty loaf of bread before leaving that grocery store.

Monday, September 5, 2016

doing our mom thing: tapas and sangria style

It's been over a year since Stephen started talking about the collaborative work he was doing with a university in Mallorca, a small island floating off the coast of Spain in the Mediterranean Sea. 

"Maybe they'll invite me to come, and we can all go to Spain," he casually mentioned.

I probably nodded, only half listening, with no expectations of such an outlandish thought coming to fruition. Stephen tends to casually mention vacations on a semi-regular basis, most of which are to destinations requiring four layovers and a six time zone adjustment. I've learned to smile, nod, and wait for the plan to collapse on its own.

I guess I figured if this university did invite him, I wouldn't have the guts to drag two toddlers along and would end up staying home. I never thought I'd actually go to Spain. Truthfully, I don't even remember agreeing to go. I think Stephen swept in during a frantic mama moment when I was just saying "Yeah, sure," to anything.

Even after the tickets were purchased, my enthusiasm remained minimal.

I didn't look at one travel book. I read nothing online. I didn't even get a pedicure. Instead, my thoughts were consumed with the hours I would be held captive in an airplane, forced to restrain a one-year-old boy whom the airline deemed a "lap child."

I suppose "thrashing, wailing, running down the aisle child" wouldn't fit on the ticket.


I'll spare you the details of the meltdowns and tears, mostly from me, and just say I wouldn't wish eleven hours on three flights with a one-year-old on my worst enemy. But indeed, we're here. We made it, and whenever I remember I have to do it again in less than a week, I drink another glass of sangria and consider the likelihood of a local school needing an English-speaking literacy coach. Might be worth investigating.

*****

Whenever I am fortunate enough to find myself on the other side of the world, I am smacked in the face by my own smallness. Our first week in Mallorca was spent just blocks from the beach, our toes washed over by the Mediterranean Sea seven days in a row. The power of salt water far as my eyes can see reminds me that my life is such a speck on this great earth.

I need to feel like a grain of sand every so often.
  

Somehow the day in and day out of routine life leaves me drowning in myself - my town, my neighborhood, my home, my head, my comfort. I start thinking I'm it.  But watching a small, unfamiliar part of the world carry on its life brings me down to size.

On this trip, my eyes have been drawn to moms. There is something so grounding about seeing moms on the other side of the world doing their mom thing, especially because it looks so much like my mom thing.

We spent the morning walking around a small town filled with narrow streets, cute stores, and cafés galore. I spotted a mom walking the perimeter of a café, bouncing her fussy baby and pointing out each passing car. 

How many mothers have missed meals because we were entertaining a child who had no interest in sitting down for a leisurely lunch?

The other night we piled our two darlings into car seats that followed us nearly 5,000 miles across the Atlantic and into the backseat of a Mercedes Benz. This is what happens when the hubby is in charge of booking the rental car. We ventured into Palma, the capital city with just the right mix of urban flare, European charm, and historical beauty, including a massive 13th century Gothic cathedral overlooking the harbor. 



With the help of Google Maps, we wound our way through busy city streets and narrow cobblestone alleys to find a tapas restaurant. There was an outdoor seating area right in the midst of a busy square - two requirements when traveling with children. The meal was fantastic. Round one - quiche, meatballs, and a meaty, cheesy hot baguette. Round two - another meaty, cheesy hot baguette, bacon wrapped dates, mushrooms, and chorizo.

Our children's restaurant etiquette maxed out about the same time they devoured the last two bacon wrapped dates. Stephen hung back to pay the check, and I swept the darlings out before Andrew crawled under the table next to us, again. There was another family with three young children running circles in the plaza. Charlotte and Andrew quickly  joined, and I exchanged smiles with their mom as she sat on a bench, undoubtedly just as relieved as me for a few moments of easy entertainment - children squealing with delight, chasing one another with no hope of actually catching someone. 

It was precious. Too precious to last more than a moment. One of the girls fell, crying out in pain loud enough to catch the attention of nearby diners. She ran to her mom who responded with compassion and pulled a Band-Aid from her purse. But I could read her mom sigh. "Calm yourself. It's only a small scratch, and you're interrupting dinner for all of these people." 

How many mothers have pulled Band-Aids from our purses, comforting a screaming child while really thinking, "Oh good grief. Toughen up and quiet down?"

We ended our night at a park right in the middle of the city. It was nearing 9:00, but you'd never know by the masses of children still running wild. I stood next to our stroller watching Charlotte climb and Andrew spin a steering wheel. On the bench next to me was a young mom, cradling her newborn who was swaddled tightly and still wrinkly.  The mom was pretty, wearing a black dress with small white polka dots and cinched around the waist. Her shoulder length hair was strawberry blond, and her bright red lipstick told me she surely needed a night out of the house. I couldn't help but wonder if earlier today she was losing her mind.  Did she pass the child off to dad, announce that tonight they were getting out of the house, and go take her first shower in days, perhaps weeks? I bet she actually dried her hair before pulling out that favorite lipstick with no care for where they actually went tonight.

And here she was, on a park bench, struggling to get her little one to nurse. She spoke softly in a language I didn't understand, perhaps German. I decided it couldn't be her first child; new moms aren't confident enough to nurse a newborn in a park (well, maybe in Europe they are). Sure enough, moments later, a toddler came running to her leg, followed by dad, who slipped his arm around mom, peeking down at the baby.

How many mothers have thrown on a cute dress and sassy lipstick just to sit on a park bench simply because we had to get out of that house?

I love moms. 

We're all just doing our mom thing, even here, on this tiny island I'd never heard of until a year ago. In the midst of unfamiliar, surrounded by street signs I can't read, outlets I can't use, and people eating ham and cheese sandwiches at ten in the morning, I can still see the familiarity of motherhood.

I don't understand a word you're saying to your child, but I know your purse is filled with snacks and Band-Aides.

I can't begin to guess what you make your child for lunch each day, but I know you'd love to sit in a restaurant and enjoy your entire meal without a child to entertain.

I don't know what television shows play on repeat in your house, but I know you find yourself humming cartoon theme songs while washing dishes.

I don't know the books you read each night, but I know you sneak in to watch your child sleep even when you're exhausted. 

I don't know when your child will start preschool in this country, but I know you want your child to grow to be gracious, thankful, and kind, but you're also worried what an unkind world might throw their way.

I know there are days you love doing your mom thing and days you feel like a monkey could be doing a better job than you. 

I know because I feel it - in my town, my neighborhood, my house on the other side of the world. I'm just doing my mom thing, too. But maybe I need more tapas and sangria to get me through the day.









Monday, August 15, 2016

Present Over Perfect Birthday Giveaway



44 & Oxford is celebrating its first birthday this week!  What a perfect time for our first giveaway! 


Last week, this much-anticipated book arrived in my mailbox; I've been gobbling it up. Good thing I ordered two copies - one for me and one for you. I have a massive girl crush on the author, Shauna Niequist. and when asked the "who would you have dinner with, dead or alive" question, Jesus, John Lennon, and Shauna Niequist top the list. Check out all things Present Over Perfect right here.



Today through Thursday, August 18, 
you can enter below to win the following prize package. 

  • Hardback copy of Present Over Perfect
  • Present Over Perfect Devotional Journal Download
  • eBook copies of Cold Tangerines, Bittersweet, Bread & Wine, Savor

Connect with 44 & Oxford through any of the outlets below.  Click on the arrows for more information on how to enter.

I will announce the winner this Friday, August 19!


  a Rafflecopter giveaway

Happy Birthday 44 & Oxford!  


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

the best berry crisp and a birthday giveaway

At this very moment last year I was scrambling to upload pictures on image hosting sites, embed links into codes, and live chatting with GoDaddy Help Center nearly every night. I kept saying words like widget and favicon like I knew what I was talking about. The techy components of creating 44 & Oxford were killing me; my pout face was in high gear, and I quit no less than a dozen times. All I really wanted was a pretty place to write; I didn't realize I was signing my life away to HTML codes and Java Script gadgets. (For the record, I still don't know what I'm talking about.)

All glory to God, each glitch was worked through, I found my pretty place to write, and 44 & Oxford is celebrating its 1st birthday this month! I said in my manifesto that it is my goal to encourage, amuse, and challenge readers. I hope I have succeeded. I am grateful for the dear people who have read, commented, and contacted me. How I wish I could have you all over for dinner and drinks to celebrate. Or brunch. I love brunch.

But instead we'll celebrate world-wide-web style with a good recipe and a birthday giveaway. But you know I can't get to the recipe without a story. Every good recipe has a story.

*****


For years people kept talking to me about this book, Bread & Wine. I had three different friends, from three different circles, contact me to say they kept thinking of me while reading this book. When it finally ended up in my hands, Christmas 2014, I understood why. I was reading my life, thoughts I had never put into words but connected with so deeply.

The author, Shauna Niequist, loves food and loves writing. Wait. I love food and writing. She believes the best moments of life happen around a table. Wait. I believe the best moments of life happen around a table. She feels God's presence when she opens her table, taking time to slow down and be with others. You can imagine how I feel about that.

This book affirmed passions I'd considered secondary. I'm not a chef, and I'm certainly not a Pinterest worthy party thrower; I haven't dedicated my life to the art of entertaining, and you will never see my tablescape on the front of a magazine. How ridiculous to be passionate about having friends over for dinner, yet I've always been keenly aware of how the junk of life filters out and the goodness of God fills my soul when good food, good wine, and good people gather at our table. I guess I didn't know other people felt the same.

Am I being overly dramatic when I say this book redirected my life, challenging me to grab onto my love for food and just run with it? To embrace my love of fancy dinners, casuals brunches, pizzas in the family room, too many cooks in the kitchen, crowded dining room tables, second bottles of wine, and guests that stay too long? 

Days after I finished Bread & Wine, I declared my intent to cook through all 29 recipes in 2015. I got started right away and made this berry crisp, the first recipe in the book, for our New Year's Day breakfast. Since then, I have made it for reunions, a slumber party, a retirement brunch, casual Tuesday morning pancake dates, beach vacations, and just last weekend I brought it to a new mama.

I could eat this every day.

Berry crisp is often considered dessert, and I would never say no to warm berries with vanilla ice cream oozing down and around every nook and cranny. But if you replace that ice cream with a scoop of plain Greek yogurt, you can feel virtuous about eating this for breakfast, every day.

Don't let the almond flour intimidate you; it adds such great flour that all-purpose flour lacks. The olive oil instead of butter is genius, and the maple syrup gives the perfect subtle sweetness.  Fresh or frozen berries work equally well, so swap in any berries (or apples) and eat this twelve months a year.




The Best Berry Crisp from Bread & Wine by Shauna Niequist
  • 4 cups berries of your choice
 Crisp Topping:
  • 1 cup old-fashioned oats
  •  1/2 cup raw, unsalted pecans, halved of chopped 
  • 1/2 cup almond meal
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp. salt

Preheat over to 350° F.

Mix the ingredients for the crisp topping.

Pour the berries in an 8x8 pan (or something similar in volume), and layer the crisp topping over it.

Bake 35-40 minutes, maybe a bit longer if you're using frozen berries.

Serves 4-6 (Less if I'm eating it.)




And now...


What a lovely coincidence that Shauna's new book, Present Over Perfect was released just yesterday, perfect timing for 44 & Oxford's first giveaway! She probably timed it that way.


Starting next Monday, August 15-Thursday, August 18, you can enter to win the following prize package:
  • Hardback copy of Present Over Perfect
  • Present Over Perfect Devotional Journal Download
  • eBook copies of Cold Tangerines, Bittersweet, Bread & Wine, Savor
  •  
More details about how to enter will be rolled out Monday!




Sunday, July 17, 2016

don't look down

Just keep walking.  Just keep walking.  Baby steps.  Slowly.  Keep moving.  And whatever you do, don't look down.




As is evident in a few recent posts, I am in a rather emotional and transitional season of life.

I have this vision of myself walking, one slow, shaky step at a time, along a narrow, windy, cliffside path - mountains towering on my left and a two thousand foot drop to my immediate right.  Holding my breath and forcing my eyes to look ahead, I carefully lower my body weight into each step before committing to the next forward movement.

No need to pity me. 

This is a cliff I've chosen, one I've expected and have even been looking forward to. No one has forced me here or dared me into an act of stupidity.  This isn't an example of uncontrollable life circumstances that have suddenly flipped my world upside down.  I am a willing participant. 

So far this journey has been alright.  I'm still pretty motivated and energized, but I can feel reality starting to creep in.  I have suddenly become very aware of the fact that this cliff could go on longer than expected and my composure is wearing thin.

This is life right now.

For months - maybe years - I've been eagerly awaiting the thrill of change, and oh boy, it has arrived. The well traveled, clearly marked trails have disappeared, the path has narrowed, and it is just me, the rocks, and a long way down.  

I have wanted to take a pause from a twelve-year career to stay home full time with my young children.  Check.

I have wanted to live in an actual house, not a landominium (and yes, that is a real word despite that red, squiggly line Microsoft Word insists upon) but an actual house with a yard, a garage, and enough rooms that my son's Pack-n-Play won't need to be set up in the bathroom. Check.

I have wanted Stephen home by five rather than commuting an hour plus each night. Check.

And it's happening. It's all happening - like right now, at the same time. And as thrilling as these changes are, this path is dangerously narrow, and I am very aware of the potential to plummet to an untimely insane asylum. In less poetic terms, I am very aware of the potential to freak out, scream the f-word, and start throwing everything we own into the trash. I could so easily be overwhelmed and scared, and rightly so. I've got a lot on my plate.

In my moments of greatest clarity (AKA - when the children are sleeping and the dishes are done),  I would also describe this terrifying, narrow edge as a sweet spot. There is a rush in knowing I cannot do this on my own. I know I will never make it past this cliff to the other side of this transition with even a shred of grace and dignity left if not for my Jesus. Oh, and I mean it. If left on my own, I would literally be a heap on the floor crying over every detail that turns into a unexpected bump.

Moving truck not in Oxford the day I scheduled it to be? Me. Floor. Tears.

Hot water heater not working? Me. Floor. Tears.

20-month-old not napping? Me. Floor. Tears.

Screen door on the new house breaks during move in day? Me. Floor. Tears.

You get the idea.

Oh, thank you Jesus for being a God of details. I believe you can move mountains, but so often I don't need mountains moved, I need details to fall into place. I need the moving truck in the right city. I need friends available on moving day. I need a babysitter on closing day. I need the screen door fixed so I can get some natural light into this new house. I need to find the damn peanut butter aisle in a new grocery store that was clearly designed by someone who has never shopped with children. I need energy to be productive in the evening. I need creativity to engage my children. I need a friend. I need a nap.

It's terrifying. It's exciting. It's exhausting. It's challenging. It's refining. It's revealing.

But I am determined to not look down, to not focus on the potential for failure. I'll keep moving along this sweet spot, even on the days it doesn't seem so sweet.

I want to love it. I want to be a woman who thrives on the adventure, the unknown, the possibilities that come with change. But today, I look forward to the other side, to a bit more breathing room to stop and take in the view.

Until I get there, I just can't look down. 


Sunday, May 29, 2016

eat this for breakfast, soon

Stephen has one of those jobs where about three times a year he just has to go to some "work conference" in some boring location like Portland, Baltimore, or Scotland.  His direct flight is paid for, and he usually has to stay in a swanky hotel with giant bathrooms or beaches on the roof.  Lame.  And if that weren't enough, he eats at all these local hot spots all in the name of "networking." What a drag.

Teachers go to conferences, too.  The past two summers I attended the All Write Conference at Warsaw High School in Warsaw, Indiana.  My favorite session was the one in the band room.  I also went to the Indiana First Grade Teachers' Conference a few times.  That one is usually at the Holiday Inn Express.  Nice continental breakfast.  The best part is that we get a whole hour for lunch, AND we get to leave "campus" to enjoy a local hot spot like Cracker Barrel or Applebee's.  A whole hour!!!  No students to drop off, no parents to call, papers to copy, and no line at the teacher's bathroom.  Oh, and the school does pays gas mileage, but only for one car, so we all have to cram in.

I like my conferences, but they are a little different than Stephen's.

Every once in awhile, the stars align in my favor and life just works out that I get to tag along.  (I wonder why Stephen has never tagged along to any of my conferences.)  Two years ago, we called on the grandparents for babysitting duty and spent Memorial Day weekend in San Fransisco.  Stephen spent the better part of the day at his conference while I'll explored the city, and then we met up in the evening for amazing food.  Not too shabby.

Our last morning there, we walked through Little Italy and had breakfast outside at Caffe DeLucchi.  Stephen ordered a polenta, gorgonzola, and egg breakfast that was so simple but so delicious we've been talking about it for two years.  It was so easy to recreate, I wonder why it took us so long!

He's so cool.


Let me first talk about polenta. 

Polenta is ground cornmeal, and can be served creamy, like a porridge, or can solidify and be baked or fried.  It is a staple in Italian cooking, and as general rule of thumb in our house - if the Italians eat it, we're gonna eat it, too.  Similar to most grains, the cornmeal cooks low and slow until the texture is creamy and the grains are tender.  

Good news - this is a simple recipe.  Make polenta, an egg, and bacon.  Pile it in a bowl with blue cheese and honey.  Done.  (And that is why I'll never write a cook book.)

If that is too vague, here are a few more details.  

Serves 4
  • 4 cups water
  • teaspoon of salt
  • 1 cup polenta
  • 4 eggs
  • 8 strips of really good bacon
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/3 cup crumbled blue cheese (gorgonzola is perfect)
  • a drizzle or two of honey

Fill a medium size pot with the 4 cups of water and bring to a boil.

While you wait for it to boil, start cooking your bacon in a frying pan.  Set bacon aside to drain on a paper towel-covered plate, but don't get rid of all the bacon grease yet!

Once the water boils, add salt.  Slowly pour in the polenta, whisking constantly until the mixture thickens and there are no lumps, 1-2 minutes.

Turn the heat to low and continue cooking the polenta about 20-30 minutes.  Stir often.  If the polenta becomes too thick to stir, add a small amount of water. 

While the polenta is cooking, empty most of the bacon grease from your pan but leave just enough to cook your eggs.  I like a runny, sunny-side up egg, so I usually cook it for 3-4 minutes and throw a lid on the pan for the last minute.  Poached eggs would be lovely as well (and in looking back at Caffe DeLucchi's menu, that's how they prepare their eggs).

Just about this time, the polenta should be creamy.  Take it off the heat and stir in butter until melted.   Season with salt and pepper, and be ready to serve the immediately.

Assemble your plate with a good size scoop of polenta, your egg and crumbled blue cheese.  Top it off with a good drizzle of honey, salt, pepper, and bacon.



Yum!  You will not be disappointed.

Have a great weekend! 

Friday, May 20, 2016

we had a great run



I had one thing on my list for my tenth birthday: an overhead projector.

I know many little girls play school, but I'm just going to say it - my school setup was legit. 

When both of your parents are teachers, they score all sorts of goods like unused lesson plan and grade books, real math textbooks, spelling workbooks, and those cool chalk holders that held five pieces and made straight lines across the board. (Yes? Anyone remember?) In addition, my weekly allowance was usually spent on shopping sprees to the teachers' store, and nothing thrilled me like new school supplies. I had dry erase boards (I was so ahead of my time), a calendar complete with decals for all the holidays, a weather chart, desk name tags, rubber stamps, pointers, and those EZ Grader cards teachers used to calculate a students' percentage score. 

I would fill the grade book with the names of my friends, and you could always tell when I was mad at one of my girlfriends by the string of Fs next to her name. I lectured students dolls when they were off task, and I handed out stickers for good behavior. There were many July days when school started in my basement at 8 am and continued on a regular school schedule all throughout the day, complete with bathroom breaks, lunch, and recess. I had this teaching thing down.

In what goes down in history as my greatest childhood present ever, my dad was able to snag an old overhead projector from his school. I was the envy of the neighborhood girls, and when I wasn't in the middle of a riveting long division lesson, the transparencies were used by all my friends to doodle the names of all the boys we loved. Hmmm. I wonder if those transparencies are still in my parents' basement.

It was clear pretty early on in my life I was destined for the classroom. As discussed in my first blog post, the writer in me dabbled with a career a journalism, and I actually entered college as a journalism major. When it came time to sign up for journalism-related classes, I wasn't feeling it. Days later I sobbed my way through an episode of Oprah honoring teachers who had changed the lives of their students.  I called my mom to tell her I was changing majors. 

"Yeah," she said.  "I knew this was coming.  You're meant to be a teacher."

*****

Surely you've seen those Facebook posts that break down a teacher's salary into an hourly wage only to find that a fifteen-year-old babysitter could make double my salary. No one teaches because of the money.  

We teach because of the kids.

The kids give this job value, and they ensure one day never looks like the next. They make us laugh, they make us think, and they stretch our minds to keep learning. They freak out with excitement when we make applesauce and gingerbread houses, and they scream in disgust when we dissect owl pellets and carve pumpkins. They ask questions I don't have answers to, they clap at the end of really good books, and they love me even when I'm crabby. They have millions of stories to tell (but never have anything to write about during writers' workshop...???) and usually just have to tell their stories right in the middle of a mini lesson. They're honest and funny and curious, but they are also exhausting and frustrating and kinda annoying every once in awhile. 

They ask so many questions and always need to go to the bathroom right after we finished a bathroom break. They forget simple routines like how to sign up for lunch, how to roll dice so they don't fly across the room, or how to put books back in the CORRECTLY LABELED TUBS!!! They get loud and silly and squirrely, and by golly, there are so many of them all in one room! And then, just when teachers thinks we might lose our minds, we remember we have a staff meeting after school, a parent conference during prep, and data charts that need updating by Friday. We have report cards going home next week, a newsletter that should have gone home today, and Halloween decorations hung up in the hallway even though it's December.

Oy.

On those days, we survive until 2:30, get those darlings out the door, and stumble into a coworker's friend's room.  We plop down into chairs that are too small for us and hope someone has a good story to tell. We count on each other to remind us why we do this job. 

Yesterday I said good-bye to the kids. That was hard.

Today I said good-bye to my friends. That was worse.

These are my girls - the ones who have made the rough days tolerable and the good days even better. 

When you work alongside people for eight years, the line between personal life and professional life is quickly blurred, and pretty soon you're just family.We laugh, cry, tease, celebrate, annoy, apologize, advise, and endure. Then we come back tomorrow to do it all over again.

There have been babies, parent illnesses, and deaths.

There have been new homes, engagements, ex boyfriends, first dates, second dates, and weddings.

There have been an insane amount of group texts (most of which I never join).

There have been overnight conferences, dinner celebrations, and life-changing desserts.

We've sent kids to college and to kindergarten and to sitters for the very first time.

We've raced down the hallway in trash cans and built human pyramids.

We've endured the wrath of angry students' parents and a hand slapping from the boss.

We've pulled off some good pranks. (Do stolen cars, flipped desks, tuna cans, and dirty diapers ring a bell, BECKY?!?)

We've lost kids on fields trips (What?!!? NO! That never happens....), and danced our hearts out for some of the greatest Talent Show teacher acts in the history of Connersville.

We've sent text messages to our boss that were intended for our husbands - oh wait, that was just me! (Ugh.)

And for nearly eight years, we've sat around a lunch a table - in a room the size of a closet - and lived life together. 

We had a great run, and I couldn't have done it without them. 



Sunday, May 15, 2016

my last sunday night


Every teacher dreads Sunday nights.

We love our jobs, we love our students, but we hate Sunday nights.

The weekend always goes by too fast, and we never get through all the work we bring home in our giant, teacher bags that will most certainly lead to massive chiropractic bills in the near future.  We pack up lesson plans, papers (both graded and ungraded - oops), quarterly awards, Cheerios for math lessons, juice and cookies for writers' celebrations, newsletters, data spreadsheets, teacher manuals, curriculum maps, books and more books and probably a few more books, and get to bed before any of the good shows come on because 7:45 AM is so sticking early to be standing at a door, happily greeting small children.  We usually feel better by 8 AM Monday morning and are back in the groove by 8:15, but oh, Sunday nights are the worst.

Tonight I have a different kind of dread; the kind of dread that comes with change and good-byes, the kind of dread that comes when you're terrified but confident all at once, the kind of dread that comes when facing a week filled with last times.

Tonight is the last time I'll sit up on a Sunday night thinking about my school week ahead.

After 12 years in education -- about 480 Sunday nights -- I have resigned from my job.

I hope that one day I will be back in the classroom, but for now, I am going to be staying home full time with my darlings, and I am thrilled. 

But, oh the feelings.
All. The. Feelings.


*****


In early August of 2008, my mom drove with me from Chicago to Connersville, Indiana, a small rural town in what I would describe as the middle of nowhere. I've heard people call it a "city," but they are really playing fast and loose with the word "city."

Stephen and I were weeks away from moving from Chicago to Ohio for Stephen to begin a doctoral program in clinical psychology, and I still had no teaching job. As the sole bread winner for the family and with elementary schools starting in ten days, I had past desperate and was pleading with the Lord for any job, any grade, anywhere.

A few days earlier, I had received a call from Fayette County Schools in Connersville inviting me to an interview.  They were unable to tell me what school or what grade they would have openings.  (What? Didn't school start in two weeks?!?!) I was told I would have to wait until after registration day. (Registration day?  In August?!?!) After teaching in a school district where we had class lists given to us in May, I was confused by terms like "anticipated enrollment," and "possible teaching opening."

But as I said, it was the ninth hour.

As my mom and I drove into Connersville, I fought back tears. The town was so different than anything I'd known, and let's face it - different is scary. There were couches on front lawns, abandoned buildings, more pick-up trucks than I'd ever seen (some adorned with Confederate flag bumper stickers), and a lot of country roads - like the kind with no lines down the middle. I knew there wouldn't be a Trader Joe's for miles.

Three days before school started I was offered a job as a first grade teacher at Eastview Elementary.  Whew. Stephen and I would get to buy food and have heat that year.

The night before school started I was (frantically) working in my classroom when a shirtless, shoeless, and nearly toothless man knocked on my window, inquiring about who his son's teacher would be this year. I proceeded to dialog with him as I crouched down to a small opening in my window, and if I can be vulnerable here, I'll admit that every part of me hoped I wasn't his child's teacher. Fear and pride can bring out the worst, and I was consumed with both.

About ten minutes later I saw this same man and his son in the building (need I again emphasize the shirtless, shoeless part?) and was relieved to know he'd found his teacher (and it wasn't me). I remember thinking in that moment, "Surely, this is not the place for me.  But just one year.  One year, Joy. You can do this for one year."

Fast forward seven months to spring break -  a week I had set aside for job applications.

I sat in our little apartment with my resume opened on my laptop. I began searching for job openings in local school districts, but after about ten minutes, I wasn't feeling it.

Close laptop. Try again tomorrow.

The next day I again started browsing through local school listings. I still wasn't feeling it.

Close laptop. Try again tomorrow.

By the end of spring break, I'd applied for zero jobs and hadn't so much as updated the address on my resume.

It wouldn't be so bad to stay in Connersville one more year. The forty minute commute was tolerable, I liked my partner teacher, and the idea of being the "new teacher" again was exhausting. Surely, I could manage another year.


Eight years later


I guess it would be fair to say I fell in love with this little town of Connersville. (I still can't call it a city.) I never ended up applying for any other jobs, and even once Stephen finished school and the opportunity to stay home full time was available, I didn't jump at it.

I love my job. God made me to be a teacher, and there is great pleasure in doing what you're made to do. Personally and professionally I have been stretched, changed, and knocked upside the head as I've become part of a community so different than any I'd known before.   

How foolish and arrogant I was to think Connersville wasn't the place for me? 

And now I am sitting here, on my last Sunday night, dreading tomorrow. I just want the week to start so it can hurry up and be over - so all the lasts, all the good-byes, all the blubbering as I throw out old committee binders and science units can just be over.

But then it's over, like really over.

You can only imagine the tears I am unashamedly weeping right now. But these tears should not be mistaken for doubt. I am confident about this decision, and the Lord has affirmed it over and over in so many ways.

I'm just also really sad because I love my job, I love my people, and I'll miss it so much.

And now I have to eat lunch with toddlers. God help me.




P.S. Prepare yourself because in about four days, an incredible sappy (but very true) post 
about how teachers change lives will be coming your way.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

she wanted the last piece of cake?


It didn't seem to matter the circumstance - the bigger piece of pizza, the last piece of cake, the Friday night movie selection, the Sunday lunch destination, or the college I wanted to attend - almost as if automatic, my mom would graciously let her preferences slip into the background saying "No thanks, you can have it" or "It doesn't matter to me, you pick."

As a child, I was blissfully unaware of the constant sacrifices my mom was making for me. It never occurred to me that she didn't want to watch Father of the Bride (again) or eat at Chili's (again), and frankly, it hadn't crossed my mind  until recently that she really would have liked that last piece of cake.

*****

"Is there more of that cake, mom?" my daughter asked.

Just keep washing dishes and pretend you don't hear. 

"Mom. Is there cake?"

Start singing to yourself.  Put something away in the pantry.  Head to bathroom.  Anything to avoid the question.

"Mom!!!  Is there cake?"

Ugh. She's so persistent.  I'm probably not supposed to lie.

"Yep, but only one piece left."

"If I eat all da tings dat are good for my body, can I pease hab it?"

 Shoot. She even said please.

Stephen and I often joke that our greatest display of sacrificial love for our children doesn't come in the form of 3am feedings, cleaning up puke, or playing Candy Land for the zillionth time.  It comes in the sharing of our food.  For Stephen this means handing over large wedges of blue cheese or breakfast meat.  For me, it is dessert.

I begrudgingly scooped that last piece of cake (chocolate coconut cake with buttercream frosting, mind you!!!) onto a Minnie Mouse plate.  I opened the fridge to grab the milk, and that's when I saw it - my saving grace - a small Tupperware with leftover frosting.  There had only been a small amount of unused frosting left; I'd almost thrown it away.  (Fool.)  But there it was, to cheer me up as a mediocre substitute for that last piece of cake.

I was taking no chances.  As soon as Charlotte got started on her cake, I grabbed that Tupperware and a spoon and headed straight for the bathroom.  I shamelessly closed and locked the door, and enjoyed every bite of that chocolate coconut buttercream while sitting on the edge of the tub.  It seems I should be embarrassed - I mean, I wasn't even eating an actually dessert, just frosting from a container - but instead, I was rather proud of myself.

I was proud of myself for sneaking away so casually, arranging the circumstances to give me at least four minutes alone with my frosting.  And proud of myself for reaching a new level of motherhood, a level where shame slips away because silence and dessert are just that wonderful.   At that moment, I felt a sense of comradery with all the mothers of the world - knowing I fall in a long line of mothers who have eaten dessert in the bathroom to avoid sharing with their child.

It took three years, but I had been officially initiated into motherhood.

As I sat in the bathroom, I began thinking about my ridiculous behavior over the past few years (all in the name of motherhood, of course).  Some of it out of intense head-over-heels love; some out of sheer exhaustion, the kind where I'd offer up my kidney for five minute without a baby on my hip and a toddler on my leg. And I soon started to wonder about my own mother's ridiculous displays of love and exhaustion.

Did my mom ever eat dessert in the bathroom?

Did my mom ever sit on the floor of my room staring through the bars of my crib to watch me sleep?

Did she constantly squeeze my chubby cheeks?

Did she announce to my brother and me that she was putting herself in timeout?

Did she try to imitate my laugh or purposely get me to say words I mispronounced just to laugh with at me?

Did she negotiate deals where I could watch one more episode of Daniel the Tiger (previously known as Mr. Roger's Neighborhood) but only if I promised to cuddle and not talk?

Did she skip pages in the really long, boring stories?

Wait, did she really want that last piece of cake?

Far too often I succumb to a good old-fashioned pity party, allowing pride and selfishness to shine through in all its ugly glory.  I go all crazy mom, ranting and raving about all I do for my kids - the meals I prepare, the toys I pick up, the poop and puke I wiped off myself, the sleep I don't get.

Certainly all that earns me the last piece of cake.

In my best moments, it is so easy to give, almost as if the Lord has been rewiring my gut response to willingly (perhaps even happily) give up my preferences for my children without a second thought.  But just when I start thinking too highly of myself and my sacrificial ways, I find myself hiding in the bathroom with a bowl of frosting, bitter about the cake that's probably been devoured (and not nearly appreciated as much as it should be) by a three-year-old sweet tooth.  Oh, I'm such a mess.

But Jesus tends to remind me of truth in my messiest moments, and today He is reminding me that He never stops giving His best to me; His constant, gut response is to give me the best, over and over.  He never tires of giving, and in fact, I think He finds great joy in it!

Isn't that one of the best parts of motherhood? We begin to grasp just how crazy Christ is about us, and we begin this transformation process where we find joy in giving our best, over and over.

So to all the moms who have read Brown Bear, Brown Bear no less than 53,482 times -

To all the mom who play hide-and-seek every day, pretending you can't find your child even though they hide in the same spot every dog-gone time (it was cute the first dozen times, but seriously, how are you gonna make it out in the real world with those kind of survival skills?!?!) -

To all the moms who give happily without thinking twice -

To all the moms who grit their teeth and give anyways -

To all the moms who have ever found themselves eating dessert in the bathroom because good grief, we're human and sometimes we just don't want to share!!!

And to my mom, who constantly said "No thanks, you can have it" or "It doesn't matter to me, you pick."

Keep doing what you're doing.

Keep allowing the grace of God to teach you what it means to love like crazy.

You have children who are watching and learning a lesson they might not realize for another thirty years.  You are showing them how head-over-heels in love Jesus is with them.

Well done, and happy Mother's Day.



P.S.  Sorry it took thirty years, Mom.  I owe you some cake. 



P.P.S.  In case you need some cake (or a bowl of frosting) this weekend, 
here's the recipe from one of my favorite food blogs!