Tuesday, August 12, 2014

It is well with my soul

It is the eve of another first day of school, and I'm in a weird place.

Well, not literally. I'm in the rocker by Bella's bed, and we are arguing over whether or not shadow-puppet-making is appropriate pre-sleeping activity. I'm losing. As usual.

But, gone is the excitement of seeing friends who've been missed through summer months or the exhilaration of planning outfits and daydreaming about makeup looks and hairstyles. Gone is the apprehension of an unknown teacher or a less than appealing class on my schedule. And gone is the nervous nausea of the new teacher, the gut-wrenching agony of what-ifs and to-dos that induced insomnia for at least my first three years of teaching.

That is not to say that I am not all of these things on some level. I am excited and exhilarated. I am apprehensive and nervous. A little. Like, just a tiny tad. In a strange way.

I feel good things coming for this year. I feel prepared and comfortable, positive and peaceful about the months to come.  My only real nerves and apprehension are that I'm either jinxing something or forgetting something massive, that my bliss is ignorance.

Today, as I left my classroom around 6 pm after spending days getting ready for tomorrow, I looked around my room and I saw possibility. Hope. Desks in rows straighter than I'll see again until August 2015. And all I could think was, "It is well with my soul."

I am enshrouded in this sense that my life is as it should be, that I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be and I'm doing exactly what I'm supposed to do.

I mean, I'm wearing a temporary tattoo for the Amity faction from Divergent.  Everything's gotta turn out great.

I'm not giving it any other option. It is well with my soul, and it will continue to be so.

~Happy back to school!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Life as of Late: Striking a Balance

This summer has challenged my pursuit of the intentional life, a life where I feel in-tune and connected to the moments as they fly away.  We have had a lot of fun and made a lot of memories, but I have had to work hard to make sure all that happened.  It has definitely been intentional--as in I had to basically force myself to take a time out from my responsibilities to my education and make an investment of time in my family and my own well-being.

It's been rough, but even the workload from my graduate courses has been contributing to my spirit; though stressful and time-consuming, I truly love what I do.  I love the reading and writing and researching that come along with advanced studies in English.  It's why I look forward so much to teaching at the college level, and why I dream about someday pursuing my Ph.D.  The unexpected thing has been how interested Adam has been in a lot of my studies.  He has asked questions and listened patiently as I explained the plots of several books, and even filled in some gaps in my knowledge of British history.  It was kind of endearing to see how proud he was of me when he practically forced me to explain one of my theories about Uncle Venner from The House of the Seven Gables to my mom during breakfast on vacation.

So while life as of late has involved lots of sitting and turning pages and squinting at computer screens, it has also brought a tremendous sense of accomplishment and balance to me and my little family. Here's a rundown of what has been making us feel so great.

A New Favorite Book! 

In some ways, that's not saying much because I have quite a few favorite books.  But in other ways, it's pretty spectacular because it's been a long time since I have added to my list of favorite classics. Interestingly, this one was published around the same time as one of my other all time faves, The Great Gatsby.  I haven't read anything else by Willa Cather (I know, I can't believe it either!), but I feel like I will now...once I get finished with all the other reading I'm required to do during the next ten months. If you'd like to learn a little bit more about this spectacular novel, check it out on Goodreads.

Other books I've read and actually liked this summer: Oroonoko, A Simple Story, Northanger Abbey, The House of the Seven Gables, The American. And a killer Hemingway story called "Big Two-Hearted River" from In Our Time.

Some New Favorite Recipes & Kitchen Organization! 

I've been cooking up a storm!  I'm actually kind of proud of myself.  I really enjoy cooking, but it's one of the first things that goes when I get stressed out and overwhelmed.  It's so easy to get in a habit of ordering out.  Last week, we really enjoyed feta-stuffed chicken burgers and lots of grilled veggies.  We also had chicken stir-fry with broccoli, yellow bell peppers (the red ones at Kroger looked old), and cashews.  

As an evening treat, we tried popcorn sprinkled with PB2, and it turned out really delicious. If you haven't tried PB2, I highly recommend it as a diet alternative to full-fat peanut butter. I know there are some debates out there regarding its elimination of the healthy fats in the original, but as long as your diet is balanced elsewhere and it is used during dieting rather than over the course of your lifetime, I don't see the harm. 

Another simple treat we tried just today was pretzel nuggets drizzled with melted chocolate chips. Of course some of us ate more chocolate than pretzels during the process, but it was a really fun low-point snack to make with Bella.  

I've been making my meal plans and grocery lists on Google Docs these past couple of weeks, and I have to say that I love how organized it makes me.  Tracking points and keeping track of recipes has been effortless.  Keeping my plan, recipes, and list all together has helped me stay focused on healthy eating, and I have lost five pounds since I got back on Weight Watchers, so it seems to be working!  I really like the portability, too, since I scan foods in the grocery store with the WW app and then can switch back over to my grocery list in the Docs app.  I think it will be great during the school year, because I can recycle weeks that I've already created.  Here's what the upcoming week looks like, in case you're interested: 

Getting a Little Crafty!

I can't believe I actually took the time to do it, but we made our first seashell stepping stone.  It was actually way easier than I thought...probably because Adam gladly did the hard work of mixing up the concrete.  We only had enough concrete on hand to make one, but we are going to make more because it was so easy and fun! We used a disposable baking pan as the form, so it ended up having these really cute scalloped edges, and because it was quick set concrete, we were able to remove it from the pan after just a few hours.  

Obviously we have more than enough shells to do this again...

How stinking cute is this?

Bella also finally decorated her daisy pot and planted the flowers.
Now I just have to overcome my black thumb and help her get them to grow. Oh, boy. 

Lots of Planning, Listing, and Pinning!

One of the things I have learned from meditation is that when thoughts arrive when you don't want them or need them, you have to address them anyway and then let them go.  So when you're meditating and you start trying to remember if you put butter on the grocery list, you acknowledge the thought and file it away for later as quickly but gently as you can, so you can get back to the important business at hand.  Thinking about August has been like that for me all summer.  It keeps creeping up and threatening to derail my focus, but I address it and let it go.  

This means anytime I think about something that needs to be done around the house or something I need to work on for school, I have to do something about it, but that "something" can't be too intrusive because it's not yet the time or place for me to worry about it.  For me, that means planning and listing. I try to give my mind over to those topics when I'm doing something mundane like washing dishes or vacuuming.  Then, I go to my running list on my phone and add whatever seems pertinent before moving on.  I know I can safely focus on today and that those thoughts of the future have been preserved.  Because I'm a big time planner, this is really important to my sanity.  Pinterest works in much the same way for me. When I know I'm pinning things for my classroom or for the re-decorating and cleaning projects I'm planning for next week, it's safe for my brain to move on. And that helps me on an even bigger scale because it allows me to live in the moment, something that can be hard for my planner's brain to do!

It's pretty harmonious around here. Striking this balance helps me feel powerful, effective, and well-rounded.  Gotta love summer, right? Here's to hoping my tune is this positive a month from now!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

My life in these verbs

Thanks to Ashley at Mrs. Mama for this idea. She's the only blogger I read consistently. Click here to check her out!

Making: Well, we haven't started yet, but we have gathered the materials to make seashell stepping stones for the yard using shells we collected last week at the beach. There were so many shells all over the place every day, and I was really surprised at how disinterested Arabella was in picking them up. She changed her tune a little when I told her we could make something with them when we got home. 

Cooking: I have actually been cooking! The past few months were plagued by a cooking rut, but my recent (like, in the last couple of days) rededication to Weight Watchers has motivated me to get back at it. I started out by choosing recipes from the WW site on Sunday before going to Kroger. Tonight we had chicken with grape tomatoes, garlic, and basil, grilled in foil packets, along with brown rice and fresh veggie kabobs courtesy of Nana and Poppy's garden. 

Drinking: Lots of flavored water and coffee. I'm trying not to drink pop, even though I drink diet and it's usually caffeine-free. I'm in love with Simple Truth blueberry blackberry flavor and the Metro Mint brand orange spearmint flavor. I also like Skinnygirl white cherry. 

Reading: Today is actually my day off from reading since I had a writing assignment due. Yesterday I read several short stories by Charles Chesnutt, Kate Chopin, and Ernest Hemingway. I liked them all very much. Tomorrow I begin the novel The Professor's House by Willa Cather. 

Wanting: To go shopping. Both my budget and my diet are keeping me in check on this one. I don't need any clothes for work, but there's just something about going back to school that fuels the shopping bug. I guess years of advertising and ingrained consumerism are working on me. I'm hoping that I can make it until late September or even October before I really invest in my wardrobe. Even then, I know I will be as thrifty as possible, and I will hopefully be a few sizes smaller!

Looking: At beach photos. I've spent a few hours tonight getting photos from both of our phones and our camera into our Dropbox and on Shutterfly. I usually procrastinate a ton on uploading photos and doing anything with them, so I thought now would be a good time to get the ball rolling. I plan to make a 20x30 collage print with the best ones and get an extra copy to display in my classroom. 

Playing: Anything outside. I'm trying to get Arabella outside every day for as long as I can get her to stay there. We have spent some time at a couple of parks this month, and obviously we were outside a ton last week in Ocean Isle. Today was gorgeous and cool with a great breeze, so she played in the backyard with the dog while I worked on my assignment. This evening, she rode her bike a little. She gets really frustrated with it and tries to give up, but she did the best tonight that she has ever done with it. 

Wishing: For everything in the next year or so to work out as I'm hoping. This fall, I'm taking Shakespeare and Technical Writing (two separate courses, though the combination might prove interesting) and teaching about four times more AP kiddos than last year, and I'm scared to death. I'll take two more classes in the spring, plus studying for and *hopefully* passing the exit exam. In the midst of all that, and no one better tell my mama this because she'll kill me, I'm hoping to have another baby next year. Plus, after this upcoming school year, I hope to be teaching College English. I feel like if I can make it through the next two years, I can make it through anything. 

Enjoying: Summertime! There simply isn't anything like it. Summer vacation is a poor reason to become a teacher, though I've heard some people confess it as their motivation, but it definitely makes up for the stress of August to May. 

Waiting: For Arabella to fall asleep. The last month has gotten our routine all out of whack. And what little bit of routine we clung to was destroyed by late nights and sharing a bed on vacation. I've spent the last two nights insisting that she sleep in her own bed and she's resisting. 

Needing: A great idea for my next big paper. I got a good grade on my last one and I was super proud of it. I had an idea for the biggie, but when I ran it by the professor, he said he liked it but that I should branch out and write this one about a different book rather than focusing on The House of the Seven Gables all month. I don't really want to LOL. I have a vague notion about Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River," but I don't have time for vague notions since the annotated bibliography is due Friday. And it's a major conference-style paper, which I've never written before...basically, it's like a twenty-minute speech. Cray. 

Smelling: Coffee. Specifically Peet's Coffee, Major Dickason's blend. It's a dark roast that I make in the Keurig, and that I definitely should not be drinking at 11:00 at night. 

Wearing: Shorts! I don't usually wear shorts, and I still avoid wearing them in public, but I have embraced at least wearing them around the house this summer. I got a couple of pairs of Everlast shorts at K-Mart a few weeks ago and I'm loving them. I also have some that are technically pajamas that I wear around here on lazy days when I have reading and writing to do. And since it's cold tonight, I'm wearing a new jacket I got last week on one of our trips to Sunset Beach. Because that's the beach where we got married, I love that this jacket says "Live Love Forever." 

Following: I've started following the Tone It Up girls on Spotify to get their workout playlists. I use the free version of Spotify, which means I can't download the songs to access them offline and I have to use the random shuffle on playlists, but I don't mind one bit. I also follow fitsugar playlists, which include music for cooldown and relaxation. And for our vacation, I found some cool roadtrip soundtracks on Spotify as well. 

Noticing: My blonde roots are coming back in. I'm going to try to hold off on coloring it for a few more weeks since I've spent way too much time and money on dying the underneath purple this summer. P.S. next summer, I might dye all my hair purple. It makes me so happy. 

Knowing: That summer is almost over. But that's okay. I'm ready for my Spaniard to get home! I will probably be camped out on her front porch before her flight even lands. No joke. 

Thinking: About what tattoo I want to get next. Adam has a great idea to get a compass on his shoulders with the coordinates for the spot where we got married. I was planning to get a tattoo in homage to my mama, but since he's getting one about us, I kind of feel obligated. And since he's going with the beach theme (seems like that's on our minds a lot lately, LOL), I thought I'd go the same route. I found a quote a like from a Tyler Knott Gregson poem: "the ocean was always you." I've also always liked the idea of his "You are the poem I never knew how to write and this life is the story I have always wanted to tell." Still undecided though. 

Pinning: Weight Watchers recipes, tattoo ideas, and school stuff. My Pinterest followers are probably super annoyed with me right now. 

Giggling: At this video a former student sent me on Twitter. I'm going to use it on the first day of school. 

Feeling: Empowered and at peace. 

June Goodbye, Hello July!

**Though published in July, this post was started in June amidst internet issues. When I logged in tonight to write a post, I found it hanging out in the drafts. Enjoy!

I'm tempted to ask, "Has there ever really been a bad June?" I mean, it's the harbinger of summer dreams and perfect time for sipping tea. But I do know that I have had a couple of pretty yucky Junes in my life. With that in mind, I look back on the last month with a tremendous sense of accomplishment and peace. It was a pretty exceptional 30 days.

It all started with Adam's birthday, which we celebrated by having dinner with friends and buying a new car. Yep. I got a car for Adam's birthday. Ha ha. It wasn't quite under the circumstances we originally planned, since we wanted to wait until next year, but ye olde Grand Prix decided it didn't like us anymore and we drove away with this gem.

Notice how I don't have any photos of his birthday dinner, but I have one of our car. 
In my defense, he took this and sent it to me. I promise. 

Now, as I've mentioned before, it has been a busy summer with my coursework, too. Still, we have manage to put 2000 miles on this bad boy since June 2nd. Remember, I'm not working. That's pretty impressive. So, in the midst of studying in about a gazillion random places, like friends' couches  and coffee shops...

we have also had adventures! 

the aquarium 

the Lexington Legends

the nature preserve 

storytime at the library


playing at the park with Aunt Shelley

and finishing up the fish pond

With all that excitement, I say bring on July!!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Make Something Monday

A lot has been happening around the Prater household here lately. May is always such a busy time, and with all the snow days we had this year, that excitement bubbled over into June. The end of the school year has such a liberating feeling, palpable in the hallways and classrooms for weeks as the days dwindle down. I remember loving those end-of-the-year butterflies as a child, and now they never end as I pack up my own classroom and head home for the summer.

This year, in addition to the normal frenzy of senior ceremonies, final grades, classroom checklists, and professional development days, I've been taking a killer online class. I whined about it to anyone who would listen for about the first week, as I filled half a notebook and ran ink out of two ink pens. Now that it's a little over halfway finished (and I got a 95% on the midterm exam!) and I'm not working every day at school plus juggling five or more hours of British Literature work on top of it, I'm finally starting to settle into my summer pace. It's not quite as laid back as my normal summer would be, but it's a start.

Today marks what I consider to be the first day of my summer break, even if I'm still taking classes. It's Bella's first week off pre-school and it's my first full week at home. I still want us to stay in a routine, and I want us to keep being active, something I will have to be even more mindful of myself since I'm spending so many hours on Blackboard. I found a summer calendar for kids on Pinterest and modified it to fit our summer plans. Today was "Make Something Monday," so we headed out bright and early to get started on our project: leaf rubbings!

I was such a nerdy kid. This was one of my favorite artistic things to do when I was young. I'm glad I passed the activity on to Bella, especially since she loves arts and crafts so much, but I have to say that she enjoyed collecting the leaves more than the rubbings themselves. Here's what we did.

We walked all around the yard picking leaves from different plants. 
Luckily, we have great landscaping here. At our old house, this would have been really hard!

Next, we gathered our materials inside. 

white paper
card stock or construction paper

Then, we arranged the leaves on the card stock. Bella made a pattern.
When I was little, I made pictures with the leaves. I tried making a princess today.
It didn't really work. 

Finally, put white paper over the leaves and rub with crayon. 
This works best if you take the paper off the crayon and rub the sides on the paper. 

When you're finished, you're left with all these neat details of the leaf underneath!

I cut mine into squares to use as notecards, to-do lists, and grocery lists. 
I copied a daily cleaning plan from Pinterest on this one and stuck it on the fridge. 

"Make Something Monday" turned out great. We ended up outside most of the morning. I actually got a sunburn, only the second of the year! I was pleased to learn that our wifi reaches the swing set in the bottom corner of the yard, so Bella played while I worked. She also had fun with her hopscotch sprinkler while I worked some more from the deck. 

But the best part of the day came after dinner (grilled bratwurst and corn on the cob...I'm tellin' ya, it's full-swing summer here!) when we finally drove to a nearby wildlife preserve. Listen, I accidentally found this place when I got lost doing homevisits a few years ago, and I've been meaning to go ever since. Like, I think three years ago. Seriously. I've asked people about it, and I've never, ever met a single person who says they have been there. Well, we went. It's only ten minutes from our house now, and it. is. amazing

The trails close at dark so we didn't have a ton of time, maybe an hour, and none of them were labeled with lengths, so we weren't sure how far into the woods we'd be when the sun set. Before it was all said and done, we found four other trails, a pond, a shelter house, and a sign for an amphitheater. We also saw and heard a gazillion birds, 2 frogs, 6 deer, 1 creek, 2 different blackberry patches, and more honeysuckle and other wildflowers than I could count. I have a new favorite place, and it's not just the cafe downtown that I also finally got around to visiting. I feel like a tourist in my own town. Summer, here we come!

I mean seriously, how beautiful is that trail? 
And there was no one there!

If you're reading this and you live around here, don't ask where this is and don't tell anyone else I ever mentioned it. I want to keep pretending like it's my own private backyard! :-)

I think "Make Something Monday" might just make us a few memories this summer. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Top Ten Books About Friendship

I am more enamored with my friends right now than almost ever before. The strength and dignity of my grow-up-best-friendships astound me. In particular, my two best friends are absolutely my rock. They keep me in check, which is no small feat. Individually, we have been through some of the roughest experiences women can face, but we've held each other up, sometimes literally and always figuratively. These women are the greatest influence on my life, and I can never repay them for the support and guidance they have provided me.

But even beyond the besties, I have some pretty amazing friends. I am blessed that many of them are my co-workers. And even on days like today, when the answers aren't easy and I'm squinting my eyes to will away imaginary battle lines, I love them all. 

With an intro like that, suffice it to say that this week's Top Ten Tuesday topic was a timely one. 

Top Ten Books About Friendship 

1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Like most phenomenal books, this one can't really be "categorized," I think. It almost seems a disservice to its essence to boil it down and say it is a book about friendship when it is about that and so much more. But at its core, I feel like this story of the Holocaust, narrated by Death himself, is about unlikely friendships and the heights to which they allow our hearts to soar. 

2. Looking for Alaska by John Green. I'm not trying to double-dip by using a book from last week. I tried to diversify. But the friendships depicted in this YA stunner are just too gritty and honest to overlook. 

3. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. A toddler wanders into a graveyard and is befriended by ghosts who raise him into young adulthood. The coolest friends ever. Makes me think a little of this movie The Box Trolls that I can't wait to see. 

4. The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. This is one of my favorite books of all time. The protagonist helps customers in a florist shop communicate with others through the near-forgotten Victorian language of flowers. She gains friendship, love, and insight along the way. Beautiful. 

5. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. I was the kid who created imaginary worlds in the woods to entertain herself and her friends. The kids in this book lived my childhood, but more poignantly and more tragically. The title itself evokes a feeling of childlike wonder. Love. 

6. This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales. Though it starts out as a story of bullying and isolation, the plot and character development quickly reveal the redemptive power of friendship, particularly friendships forged through music. The accompanying playlist is pretty stellar, too. 

7. The Pact by Jodi Picoult. Gah. My first Jodi Picoult book, the one that would lead me to read every book she ever wrote. Grown-up friendship, childhood friendships, teenage friendships...it's all here friendship-wise. I vividly remember being sprawled across my bed on my belly, the thick mass-market paperback cramping my hands as I devoured the ending to see what would happen. And I would be lying if I didn't also vividly remember the tears. All the tears. 

8. The House of Tomorrow by Peter Bognanni. Again with the unlikely friendships, I know, but the quirky relationship that develops between to polar opposite boys as they form a punk rock band is filled with ups and downs to match their amateur attempts at guitar riffs. And again, like all great books, this one also begs us to consider philosophical quandaries, like: at what point do we end our obligations to our family members and their legacies to create our own? 

9. 34 Pieces of You by Carmen Rodrigues.  This one reminds me a lot of Thirteen Reasons Why. But when these teens are left to piece together the secret life of their friend Ellie, it brings them all closer together, even while exposing the darkest parts of their individual stories. 

10. City of Bones by Cassandra Clare. Okay, so there's love and supernatural elements and action and stuff, too. But don't you think Simon and Clary are pretty awesome friends? And the friendships that evolve between these two and the rest of the gang end up being just as enviable. 

And that's saying a lot, considering I've got the best friends on the non-fictional planet. :-)

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Live the Y2K Life

This week, as part of their on-going Remember When... series, E! Online conjures images of mass hysteria by referencing Y2K. 

Yes, E! I remember this. I remember spending the better part of a year hearing the hype on the news and in the grocery store and at school. I also remember being fourteen years old and quietly questioning the hazy logic behind the doomsday theory, as well as my parents' reassurances that nothing was going to happen. 

We didn't stockpile or hoard water or otherwise prepare, which sorta scared me because even though I was sure we were going to wake up to business as usual on January 1, 2000...what if we didn't? Didn't it seem a little irresponsible to ignore the warnings, to scoff in the face of the slight possibility that all those experts and crazed consumers were right? 

The only difference I noticed was that, despite their apparent lack of concern, my dad's siblings and their families spent that particular New Year's Eve with us. It had never happened before, and it never happened again. Guess we were gonna starve together if the Y2Krazies were to become validated. 

For the record, I also remember the Hale-Bopp comet catastrophe a few years prior to Y2K stealing the spotlight. And in addition to various references to prophets and religious leaders on the news throughout the decade that would prove Y2K was a falsehood, I remember the debacle of December 21, 2012. (Perhaps it was the abundance of cable documentaries and books in the new age section, but I was a little more nervous about that one. I just thought Hale-Bopp was kinda cool.)

I have always suspected, and Wikipedia confirms, that humanity has been obsessed with the end of time since...well, since basically the beginning of time. Beyond the Bible or any other sacred text or set of beliefs, there seems to be something rooted in our psychology that makes us question our tenuous grasp on existence. The pragmatist in me also realizes that many individuals and groups stand to profit from doomsday predictions, through inflated sales and inflated egos. 

But whoever the prophet and whatever the motivation, the prolific amount of predictions throughout the decades do reveal one truth: we should all be mindful of how we are living, just in case one of these guys bumbles around and actually gets it right. 

That isn't to say that I'm going to raise my daughter Doomsday Preppers style, though Adam sure would like to. If only because he thinks it's cool to know that you can use discarded cooking oil from fast-food joints to create makeshift diesel, and he'd build a bunker just to prove he could do it.  But that is to say that I want to live a life that is full to the brim, whether it's a comet or old age that whisks me away to the next destination. 

So if nothing else, I guess Y2K got that one thing right. I bet, for at least that one year, some people were more open-minded, more loving, more thoughtful. I bet they hugged their children a little tighter every night. I bet they took lots of photos, or took care to create more moments worth being photographed. I bet they wrote in their journals and called their parents and sang every time they got in the car and took longer bubble baths. I bet they played baseball in the yard before they washed the dishes and drove across town for frozen yogurt for dessert. 

And I bet I just didn't notice a difference because that's how my parents raised me to live every day of every year, impending apocalypse or not.  

I pledge to raise my own child like it's Y2K every day. Who's with me? 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Ten Books I Almost Put Down, But Didn't

Head over The Broke and The Bookish for this Top Ten Tuesday and more! 

It took me a long time to realize that I don't have to finish every book I start. Maybe not a good rule for grad school assignments. But in real life, in the realm of books I read simply because I want to, it's not like the author is twisting my arm and forcing me to turn the next page. I'm not sure why it took me twenty years to realize this simple fact, but I try to impart it to my students as well. I'm a firm believer in book abandoning. 

At the same time, I take abandonment very seriously. (What a weird sentence that could be if taken out of context.) I always try to read far enough to make an informed decision. While I don't want to waste precious pages on boredom when I could be on to the next title, I also don't want to find later that I put down the book just before the moment that could have redeemed it. It's a delicate balance, one only bibliophiles understand. There's no set number of pages. Sometimes you just know. 

Imagine my surprise and delight when these ten books that I almost abandoned ended up being worth the wait.

1. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I have this thing about dystopian stuff. Books, movies, thoughts in general...I don't like it. I have these awful visions of my dad watching those horrid Mad Max movies or whatever, and I can't deal. The YA genre is starting to win me over just a little. The Hunger Games was my first foray into reading something so uncomfortable for me. I did okay throughout the exposition, but once the games began, I was disgusted beyond belief. I think it's my abnormal ability to empathize with fictional characters. I was appalled. The world is in love with the concept of children senselessly killing other children for the amusement of those of higher social standing? WTH? But at the insistence of my colleagues, I carried on, skimming through the more gruesome scenes until I was so invested in the main characters that I had no choice but to slow down and really process what was going on. And cry. A lot. Once the intricacies of the political dynamic emerged more prominently, and I understood what Collins and her characters were trying to teach me, I became a fan. 

2. The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

I wasn't being a savvy consumer when I picked up the hardcover of this book at Kroger one weekend. The hubs and I were away on one of our bed and breakfast weekends, and I wanted something to read while relaxing in the rustic cabin in northern Kentucky. I am a Jodi Picoult lover, but somehow I had missed the release of this novel and was so excited to stumble across it. However, once we got in the car and I realized I had just forked over the ridiculous hardcover price for Holocaust literature, I was pretty mad at myself. The only thing I hate more than dystopia is the Holocaust. While the middle third or so of the book was survivor testimony-style (albeit fictional, still painful), I thoroughly enjoyed the modern-day frame and the ethical and legal dilemmas faced by the main characters in true Picoult fashion. 

3. Looking for Alaska by John Green

This book did not prepare me for the John Green fangirl I would turn out to be. I actually read it in its entirety aloud to a class of mostly boys. If you've ever read it, you know how...um, awkward....that could be at times. They, like me, enjoyed portions of the plot and the voice of the narrator. But we collectively felt long lulls that led us to contemplate picking another book instead. I even checked out something different from the library and read the first few chapters one day, asking them which they preferred. They voted to finish Looking for Alaska, though I think it was only because it sounded better than starting over from scratch with something else. Whatever their motivations, I'm glad they chose as they did. By the end, we were reeling with emotion and very happy that we hung around to read about what happened "after." If you haven't yet, I recommend it. 

P.S. Same thing happened with The Fault in Our Stars. Except I didn't want to read it because I hate reading about kids with cancer almost as much as dystopia and the Holocaust. I didn't realize how finnicky a reader I am until just now. Like, literally right this second. 

4. The Last Song by Nicholas Sparks

Back when I was a book snob who didn't dare touch YA unless I was being paid to shelve, all I knew about Nicholas Sparks was that I liked to watch The Notebook. Then BFF Rach loaned me The Last Song from her classroom library. I picked it up and put it down, reading superficially and feeling sort of obligated because I knew she was going to ask if I'd liked it. Obviously, this was before we were BFFs because now I'd just tell her I couldn't stomach the darn thing. Ha ha. Honestly, I'm glad I finished it, though I remember little other than it being set near where Adam and I got married, which I thought was kind of cool at the time. However, the reason I'm thankful to have read it is that it broke the Sparks ice for me, which led me to read Safe Haven and a few others which I actually do remember and legitimately enjoyed. 

5. Love is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield 

I don't really remember how I happened to own this one or what caught my attention about it. Probably the title. I like metaphors, love, and mix tapes. That's probably what got me. It's a beautiful true love story, raw and honest, and the organization of the story (with mix tape track listings at the start of each chapter) was inventive. I'm happy to have read it because I'm not generally the non-fiction type, so I'm always pleased when I find something that surprises me and pushes my normal boundaries. 

6. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway 

Ironically, this ended up being one of my all-time faves, right up there with Gatsby. I wasn't captivated initially, but I learned to like Hemingway's signature starkness and adapted to the style after some work at sticking with it. Like most novels worth loving, this one taught me something without outright effort. And some of the most beautiful descriptions are hidden in Hemingway's prose (here's looking at you, "curves like a racing yacht"). 

7. Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson

This was another co-worker recommend, though it was vaguely on my radar already. I couldn't get past the narrator at first. I mean, what twenty-something woman wants to know the innermost thoughts of an adolescent boy as he watches cheerleaders at a car wash? No thanks, right? Well, after taking a break for a few years, I picked it back up when several students in my class elected to read it for literature circles, and honestly, I was only motivated because I wanted to be able to discuss it with them and didn't trust them to really read it. Turns out, they did. They liked it. And I did, too. 

8. The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold 

Kinda snarky, but I'm glad I didn't put this book down so I wouldn't make the mistake of recommending it to a student. They all love to love The Lovely Bones, and using the same logic I'm sure they would use too, I picked up The Almost Moon thinking it would be as good. Wrong. Weird. So weird. I mean, the main character kills her mother and spends the rest of the book doing awful things trying to cover it up. Awful. Hate. 

9. When She Woke by Hillary Jordan 

The parallels were almost too heavy-handed at times, but this futuristic twist on The Scarlet Letter makes for an excellent companion to the classic version. I really enjoyed the concept of chroming, and it's cool when kids see the connections and it sparks ethical debates about our own roles in the misdeeds of others. I can't imagine living in this (again, dystopian) world, but I'm glad Jordan dreamed it up for us. 

10. Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

Oh, how I loved this series! I didn't read it; I consumed it. It was unhealthy, seriously. Like, I'm not sure how I managed to function. But at first, I wasn't sold on the idea. It seemed...fluffy and a tad juvenile. And don't even get me started on the horrendous attempt at a movie. I was outraged. But this book, it just...ah. I'm at a loss for words. 

Seems like a good place to stop then, huh? What books are you glad you read? 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Parenting Hacks

Parenting. It's all about trial and error. Or at least it is in the Prater household. And it has been this way since Arabella graced our lives with her brilliance in 2010. Trial and error could be my middle name. But Margaret Trial and Error Prater is longer than the name my mama blessed me with in the first place, which is a tall order in and of itself. But, as usual, I digress.

I tried nursing, but ended up bottle feeding. I tried following the rules of using the crib, but ended up with a baby in my bed. I tried making homemade baby food, but ended up with good ol' Gerber. I tried to avoid television until she was two years old, but ended up singing along with Bubble Guppies anyway. And so the pattern continues today. 

I will be the first to admit that my little darling is extremely spoiled and her behavior suffers more than a little bit from my inconsistencies as a parent. She is very much accustomed to being doted on, and not even just by her parents. Extended family members, family friends, strangers...they all praise her for being so cute, and sweet, and smart. And doesn't that just automatically mean she should be rewarded by her every whim being catered? Three suckers after a haircut. Three bedtime stories. Three toys at Wal-Mart when Mamaw told her she could pick out one. Three quarters for bubble gum. And Heaven forbid I ask her to lower her voice in a public place or otherwise make her mind the rules; I mean, I'm practically Hitler incarnate. 

Can't you tell? I'm totally scary. And she's terrified. :-P

However, along the often tumultuous way, I have learned a few tricks to help our family survive hectic moments and avoid potential tantrums. (One or two may involve learning to ignore grandparents.) The biggest battles we have faced recently have involved her clothing. Arabella is very opinionated and particular, especially when it comes to fashion. I'm assuming it's still called fashion when you're talking about four-year-olds and Garanimals coordinating separates?

Now, I have a philosophical dilemma when it comes to her clothes. I realize the relative un-importance of matching clothing. I realize the great importance of empowering our children and fostering independence. However, I also feel like if I am going to spend money on clothing that looks nice, and I'm going to take time to wash and fold and put away those clothes, my child should look like all that happened before she stepped out of the house. I understand how shallow that may make me, and I accept it. It's just one of the things that my husband and I value. When we are playing outside, go crazy with that stained yellow shirt, Dora cap, and Crocs. But when we are going to dinner or school, I would prefer something a little more...conventional. 

So I've started matching up outfits when I'm doing laundry. Rather than put all the tops and bottoms in separate drawers, I pair them up as I fold them and lay them out on the shelf in her closet. Right now, she has two weeks worth of school outfits ready to go. This way, she is still expressing her autonomy in picking out what she wears to school (and, as of right now, she is still avoiding the sparkly leggings I bought a month ago that I am dying to see her wear, but I'm letting it go...slowly) and I am still smiling when she gets dressed because she doesn't look like what my mama would call a "throwed-away baby." 

We have also started picking out her clothes at night, and I have reinforced the concept that she has to put that outfit on in the morning. This seems so simple, but for a while she was picking out clothes and then changing her mind at the last second, refusing to get dressed and spending lots of time in the closet picking out something else instead of brushing her teeth. Ah, the mornings of motherhood. 

She still refuses to wear hair bows or headbands, but I did insist on a hair cut when she got her ears pierced last week. Small victories. 

Do you ever feel like you're parenting via trial and error? What parenting hacks have you discovered that work for your family?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Being Mindful in May

As long as I can remember, I have been in love with the feeling of the end of the school year. Not just the emotional feelings of anticipation and reflection, but the literal, physical feeling in the air. When I think of peace, when I go to my happy place, it isn't the beach or forest or mountain peak; no, it's Ward Elementary School, doors and windows open, a breeze so warm you could smell it coming, and classrooms bathed in sunlight. That, my friends, is my bliss. (Also, I've never admitted that to anyone since it reveals what a colossal nerd I really am.)
My end-of-the-year days as a student were obviously very different from those same days I now experience as a teacher. At the end of each of the past five years, rather than relishing in the delicious atmosphere of a school in late Spring, I have trudged through the swamp of grades and year-end tasks. I have loathed the hours wasted counting floor tiles while pacing during state assessments. I have cringed while clicking calendar invites for seemingly endless meetings and practices and professional development days. I have given in to counting down right alongside my students, if not for them. 

Yesterday, a senior told me we had twenty-four days of school left. I corrected her: Twenty-two. 

So what happened? Do I hate my job? No. Do I hate my kids? Quite the opposite. What's my deal? 


I pledged just a few short months ago to stop wishing my life away. I realized just a few short weeks ago that I'm older than I ever wanted to be, my "baby" is growing up, and I'm already nearly 25% finished with my career. Why in the universe am I counting down days? 

It's just too easy to go with the flow of the countdown. We are constantly waiting for the next day, the next week, the next phase of our lives. We can't be content with the here and now; it's why we surround ourselves with distractions and entertainment all day, rather than allowing ourselves to just be, to exist and celebrate that existence. It's why I'm planning for tomorrow before I've tucked away today. It's why I know that we now only have twenty-one days of the school year remaining. 

So today, on the first day of May, my former favorite month of the entire year, I am recommitting myself to mindfulness. For each day of Mindful May, I vow to really look my students, each one, in the eye, and know that once these twenty-one days are gone, my classroom and my life will never be the same because of them. I vow to make these days as meaningful and positive as possible, and to be as kind as I can in the short time I have left with these classes. I vow to be mindful of the sunshine, to open the windows even if it means I might get in trouble, to make for my students the memories I have of my own favorite teachers through the years. 

May your month be as mindful as I intend mine to be. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

A Cool New Journal and Cool New Things to Journal About

Hello, my name is Maggie and I have recently become a Zulily addict.

Okay, maybe it hasn't reached that level of "I have a problem"-ness just yet, but I have to say that resisting the urge to open the app daily is proving difficult. If you haven't heard of Zulily, it's a site/app that offers deep discounts on name brand items with a new selection daily.

So far, I've scored two summertime rompers, purple rhinestone flats, an Under Armour t-shirt, and three graphic tees for Arabella, as well as a super affordable Under Armour jacket and the neatest journal ever for myself!

Ever heard of WAFF journals? I hadn't.

I'm guessing it's short for WAFFle? Idk and idc. I love it. Mine is black, and I have had way more fun than any self-respecting twenty-something should simply arranging and rearranging words on the front and back covers. 

Just in time to break this puppy in, I've rediscovered an old favorite source of writing inspiration: The Observation Deck. I bought mine circa 2007 when I was working at CoffeeTree books during college, and it was recently spotted sporting a healthy coating of dust on a shelf in my classroom. The neat little box opens up to reveal a deck of cards (think: pull one at random) and a guide booklet that explains what each card is intended to accomplish for you. Without the cards, you have a nifty book of prompts. Paired with cards, it's more random and game-like. 

My Creative Writing kiddos tried out the "Explore the Underside" card earlier in the week and took photos outside our school to spark their writing about unexpected perspectives. I'm trying to get them amped for National Poetry Month, as well as a visit with Kentucky Poet Laureate Frank X Walker, so The Observation Deck was a well-timed find. 

In my quest to be an authentic writing role model for my students, I pulled out the deck during class today while they were working on other things. Perched atop an empty desk, I hinted at what I was writing about (the card was labeled "Squint" and that's literally what I was doing) and shared favorite lines with them ("What is a clock but a circle by which we live and die?"). 

For more prompt-driven inspiration, I often use writingprompts.tumblr.com. As an educator, these are awesome because they are visual AND already tied to Common Core standards. As a writer, they offer a variety of styles and genres from which to choose. I can't recommend this website enough. It. Is. Great. 

I'm also really looking forward to my upcoming trip to Orlando. I coach the LifeSmarts team at our school, a competition that covers real world topics and educates students on concepts they will encounter outside of school. This is our fourth trip to Nationals in six years, and we are going to Disney World! Not gonna lie, it's bittersweet to go without Arabella, and it's nerve-wracking to travel as the sole adult (I've always had the ability to take an assistant in the past), but I'm excited because I plan to write about it the whole time. 

It's crazy how motivating something as simple as a new journal can be! 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A Walk in the Park

No, literally. Spending time with Bella this evening really was a walk in the park. No idiom intended.

Truthfully, I wasn't crazy about the notion at first. We have been really rushed and busy around here for the last week or so, and Bella has been up way past her bedtime (and missing her bath) the last TWO nights in a row...I know, I'm terrible. So I really just wanted to relax, pick up around the house a little, and (because of something I wrote with my creative writing students today in class) watch the old BBC version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with B.

However, when we finally got home this evening, it was just toooooooo gorgeous outside to hole up doing chores and watching television. Plus, I really wanted to hang out with Estefania. So I kicked it into overdrive and buzzed around the house: starting a load of laundry, making beds and turning off lights I missed this morning before work, picking up toys, putting away clothes, and laying out pajamas for bath time (no excuses tonight) and clothes for tomorrow. Twenty minutes later...

Park, here we come!

How beautiful is that sky? 
And of course, that girl! ;-)

These ducks (I think?) were really weird! 
Their faces looked sort of like roosters....

She stood on several tree stumps,
saying "Treeeeeee stuuuuuump" instead of "Cheese!"

Another plus, I'd already met my step goal when I left work, so this fun and invigorating walk pushed me to a total of 15,498 steps as of right now. I'm kicking Adam's butt!

Sometimes life really is as simple as a walk in the park.