Thursday, May 28, 2015

Moving Toward Mystery

Throughout May I had the privilege of sharing my story at A Sacred Journey, a website devoted to "sacred conversations and the pilgrim's journey." I stumbled upon the site way back in January, as I was compiling a new reading list for 2015. Lacy, founder of A Sacred Journey, is also author of the book, Pilgrim Principles: Journeying with Intention in Everyday Life

Lacy's book appealed to me for how it incorporated the messiness of what many spiritual journeys are, with the practicality of daily practices.  She presents seven over-arching spiritual principles, outlined in a daily reading for each day of the week, over the course of 7 weeks - just the kind of structure that appeals to a busy mama and list-maker like me! If you haven't check out Pilgrim Principles yet, I encourage you to do so. 

After reading Lacy's book, I emailed her to thank her for this literary contribution to the world, and to ask more about her journey as a writer, blogger and author. As our emails continued to go back-and-forth, the opportunity was presented for me to be featured as one of her "Pilgrims in Residence." This would be an opportunity for me to talk about my own spiritual journey - the ups and downs, the wandering and wondering, and where it all has lead. 
Lacy wrote, "The story Noelle's been sharing all month is exactly the type of journey I want to share with and awaken in others—one which moves us toward mystery, and, consequently, draws us closer to our true selves and the Divine." 

It was an honor and a revelation to write this series. If you missed it, please consider giving them a read now. Each part is very short, but captures so succinctly so much of my life and spiritual journey over the past decade. I would be honored to share this story with you!

Moving Toward Mystery, Part 1: My Journey of Redefining the Divine
Moving Toward Mystery, Part 2: Struggling in a Foreign Land
Moving Toward Mystery, Part 3: When It All Fell Apart
Moving Toward Mystery, Part 4: Searching For Deeper Meaning

Finally, if you've ever felt a pull to write out your own story - or just to write in general - I would love to have you join us for our next 30 Day Writing Challenge. The next session starts July 5th, and you can find more details here

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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Healthiest, Tastiest Vegan Blueberry Zucchini Muffins

Several weeks ago, our family made a rather drastic dietary change. After years of listening to nutritional information and food research from friends and family much more mindful about what they were putting into their bodies than us, I finally got interested in making some intentional choices for our own family. As I researched and read, watched and conversed, I became increasingly convinced that a Plant-Based Diet was the most wholesome, healthiest way to eat. 

And so, we went from being the family that had gobs of sweets piled high on dessert tables at an event, mac 'n cheese for lunch and pizza for dinner, to a family whose daily consumption is focused primarily on fruits, vegetables & nuts. I have tried dozens of new recipes in the past several weeks, re-learning what it means to feed our family. Some recipes have worked & many have needed lots of tweaking before their flavor and their content was just right. 

Today, I'm excited to share what I would consider to be one of my first true successes in vegan baking. These Vegan Whole Wheat Blueberry Zucchini Muffins are delicious, nutritious and filling. A perfect breakfast on-the-go or afternoon snack! 

Here's what you'll need: 

2+ cups grated zucchini (2 medium zucchinis)
1 cup applesauce

1/2 cup honey (substitute 1/2 cup maple syrup if preferred)
1/2 Tbs vanilla 
3 Tbs flaxseed meal 
9 Tbs lukewarm water
2 Tbs cinnamon
2 tsp baking powder
2 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup frozen blueberries

If you're new to vegan baking, flaxseed meal is probably not an ingredient you keep stocked in your pantry. It was a new discovery for me as well, but now it's a staple. Why? Because 1 Tbs of flaxseed meal whisked together with 2 Tbs of water magically turns into a gel-like substance that acts as a perfect egg replacement! Now, ready for those yummy muffins?!

Here's what you'll need to do: 

1) Preheat oven to 350 F and grease muffin pan.

2) Thoroughly whisk together your flax meal and water. Set aside for about ten minutes. It should form a gel-like substance that will act as your egg replacement. 

3) While flax meal mixture is setting, finely grate your zucchini. Use a paper towel to sponge away a majority of the excess moisture. Too much extra zucchini juice will equal very gooey muffin insides! 
4) Combine all wet ingredients, including flax mixture and zucchini, mixing thoroughly.
5) In a separate bowl, combine all dry ingredients, mixing thoroughly. 
6) Mix dry and wet ingredients until well combined. Your mixture will be quite thick & dense.

7) Fold in frozen blueberries. 

8) Fill muffin cups 3/4 of the way full or so (these will not rise much at all while baking), then bake at 350 F for 30-35 minutes. Tops should be golden brown and insides dry when "toothpick tested".

A few more tips: I've tried this batter in bread-form and it doesn't work as well. The insides have a hard time baking through. These are great for freezing, though! I tend to freeze half my batch each time I bake these. 


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Friday, May 22, 2015

May Flowers

I've never had a great memory, but I swore the old rhyme from childhood went like this: "April showers brings May flowers." Either my memory is failing me again, or someone forgot to tell the gods this simple little rule. Because around here, the saying would more accurately be closer to, "April showers bring May monsoons and madness and moments of utter desperation and money problems and messes and many moments of anxiety or sadness."

I know, it's a mouthful. What can I say? It's been a draining month. It's been a month that makes you wonder if the previous months were actually real, that makes joy and peace seem eternities away. A month that reminds you of every old, "I told you so!" and buries you in piles of self-defeat and despondency. A month that seems intent on sapping all strength, on reversing all progress, on undermining all growth. 

Have you ever had a month like that? A month when you get to the register and learn you don't have enough money to pay for the groceries in your cart. A month when teeth fail and require emergency maintenance or hearts race and require emergency care. A month when dreams die and business ventures fail. A month when yelling and crying start to feel like more of a norm than laughter or rest. 

The truth is, I have months like this a couple times a year. Maybe it's the melancholy in me. Maybe it's something I'm doing wrong. Maybe it's just life.

It was with this heaviness that I began listening to a talk the other day while working on bowtie orders. I habitually flip on a Ted talk or podcast while whittling away at orders, and had recently found myself completely zoning out for large portions of the talks, too mentally and emotionally fatigued to take anything new in. I had largely been in this zoned out state, when all of a sudden my ears perked up and my heart melted inside me. Here's what I heard:

Look, I don't know about you, but this is not the Gospel I grew up with. At least not the one I was ever able to hear. I heard a lot about my sins, and a lot about certain prayers to pray and certain things to do and certain words to read.  I heard a lot about heaven and hell, a lot about my inherent sinfulness and about how God would pardon that if... And sometimes this message was very explicit, but sometimes it snuck it's way past words like "a free gift" and "amazing grace" and, instead of freedom and grace, we found ourselves bound by a lot of rules and requirements.

I stopped my work and stood in tears. Later I would text a friend and say, "If I could find a church that teaches this Gospel, I'd be there every Sunday."  It was the first time in many years that any part of Christianity deeply resonated with me. The first time, perhaps ever, that the Gospel felt truly good.

I remember years ago - while living as a missionary and fulfilling so many of the "Good Christian" boxes - emailing a few trusted Christian mentors with this nagging question, "What is so good about the Good News?"  A few years before that - while living at a Christian leadership school and leading daily Bible studies - I sat on a hill, sad and confused, and cried out to God, "Why is this so hard? Why don't I feel any joy or peace?" Even then, zealous and devout and recently converted, I couldn't quite grasp what was so good about the Good News.
And how could I? I was living and breathing a Gospel that said God would only accept me if I said the right words, with the right attitude and then proceeded to show my sincerity through a life of right actions. I was living a Gospel that bound me to service and repentance and never enoughs. I was always hunkered down or bowed down, often feeling down and depressed and unworthy of this "gift of grace," which looked more like finding the right doctrine statement and sticking to it. 

I am not writing any of this as a theologian or even as someone who would openly claim the label "Christian." That label is far too tainted and far too tender for me these days. 

I am writing this, though, as someone who loves God. As someone who spent much of my life thinking I was earning and proving and pleasing a diety that cast people into pits of fire for not using the right words. As someone who gave all of my youth, endless hours and years of life, to a system that said, "We know all the answers. And only our answers are right." As someone who did everything by the book, checked all the boxes, and realized that my heart was still dead. 

It was still dead because I was believing in the wrong Gospel. In the wrong God.

And so at the end of a very hard month, I am holding onto these words, "The Gospel is not an announcement of all the terrible things about you, the Gospel is an announcement of who you are, an announcement of your true self. It is Good News because it is a massive reminder that you are a child of God."  This is freedom. This is grace. This is life everlasting. And I am longing to know this God, this Good News more and more. 

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Monday, May 18, 2015

Summer Fun Plan

Every summer, in an effort to make the most of my husband's time off and the extra hours of sun and warmth in each day, we come up with a "Family Fun Plan." Our first summer, this consisted of a big sheet of butcher paper listing weekly adventures prominently taped to our living room wall! Last summer, we got a bit more sophisticated and wrote our list out on a poster board and mounted it in our family Art & Learning room. With summer again just around the corner, I decided simply to use a plain 'ole sheet of paper with fringes along the bottom that the kids can tear off listing various summer fun activities. And today, I get to share this printable with you! 

The two most important parts of making a family summer fun plan are: 
A) Gathering opinions, wishes, ideas, etc. from all family members and 
B) Setting a budget.
This summer, we are even tighter on money than usual with the pending adoption of our third child. So, we have set our budget very low and will be looking to lots of local and free options to help us make memories this summer!   

Interested in making your own Summer Fun Plan? 
Here's what to do: 
Before school is out or the summer sun shines in all its brightness, gather the family and solicit ideas from each member about what they’d like to get to do this summer. Make this a natural opportunity to talk about finances and to set a budget as a family for how much can be set aside as “Summer Fun” money. With that amount in mind, agree on ten family adventures - one for each week of summer! Or, if you’re low on time or energy, use the ideas I have listed below to kickstart your summer fun plan. You can choose to rip one off every Saturday, or whenever the Boredom Bear comes growling through your home. Above all, enjoy making memories as a family this summer! 

Please feel free to use this printable & share with friends! 

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

When Beauty Looks Bad in a Bikini

Last summer I did the unthinkable: I trained for and then completed a half-marathon. It sounds absurd to even say, eight months, a dozen doughnuts and a long, motionless winter later. But it's true, and I have the medal to prove it!

Completing a half-marathon is not an accomplishment I ever fathomed being able to reach. I ran track for a couple of years in high school, but pretty much swore running off ever since. I hated that burning feeling in my lungs and the sheer exhaustion after, oh, maybe a quarter of a mile. All through college and my mid-twenties I stuck to Pilates and the occasional bike ride, mostly counting walking as my daily form of exercise.

It's not that I am an undisciplined person or totally out-of-touch with my health. In fact, discipline and an obsession with my body defined over a decade of my life. I spent all of my teens starving or binging or trying to sweat adolescents away, striving toward an ideal that was really just an unattainable illusion. Starting as an eleven-year-old, I began manipulating my caloric intake to try to shrink my widening pubescent hips and flatten my feminine tummy. I became well-acquainted with diet and exercise as a part of life - and in many ways, they were my life. 

Some good friends, a great husband, and perhaps a little more maturity, finally freed me from this constant obsession. But for a time, calorie counting and exercise remained to me what I can only imagine alcohol is to an alcoholic. I could not partake in moderation. I could be mindful about making healthy food choices, but if I began to associate my daily meals with a size goal or even a weight loss hope, it was all downhill. I was so afraid of tumbling down that same life-suffocating spiral I had lived for so many years previously, that I more or less avoided gyms or food labels for the next several years. 

Then one day, I realized something profound had happened. I awoke to a new sense of freedom and wholeness. For the first time in my life, I found myself actually forgetting to eat (this was, previously, a phenomenon I thought only skinny girls made up to torment the rest of us!). To go from having thoughts of food constantly on play in my mind to actually forgetting about food for hours on end was nothing short of a miracle to me. 
What's more, for the first time in my life I actually loved my body. I was comfortable with the curves and the imperfections and finally, FINALLY, was not spending all my energy dreaming of a day when, at last, my body was beautiful. I could look in the mirror and genuinely see beauty looking back at me. Can someone spell, M-I-R-A-C-L-E?!

I have never taken this freedom lightly. It remains to me a miracle, something I am deeply grateful for, something I think and talk about as though on sacred ground.  

And so, when I set the goal to train for a half-marathon last Spring, it was in this freedom that I walked. I did not fantasize about long, slender Greek Goddess legs or even hope that I would lose extra weight, which surely would have been my main concern in earlier years. My focus was on the impossible task of running for just over 13 miles straight, and that was more than enough for my mind and will to handle.

So run I did. I ran and ran and ran. May turned to June, and June turned to July, and by the beginning of July I had already logged hundreds of miles and was walking on legs completely foreign to me. They were far from Greek Goddess legs - but things were firmer, a little less wiggly. One day, I took off my shirt and realized I could faintly see muscle definition in my tummy, almost like a six pack was trying to squeeze through a pile of bread dough. It was there, even if faint. 

Naturally, I ran to the store and bought the first bikini of my life. True story. I had never worn a bikini in public, at least not past my pre-teens, and now at 31 and two children later, I finally felt the right to bare my belly for all the world to see. I wore my bikini proudly all summer, in many ways marveling that this was my life. That imperfect, full-hipped, self-conscious 'ole me was actually wearing a bikini. Several times over the summer I patted myself on the back, not for being in such great shape, but for being so courageous and wearing that bikini. 

When summer said its goodbyes in yellows and oranges and reds, I snuggled up in scarves and sweaters and talked to my daughter about how beautiful every part of her body is. We talked about loving ourselves and beauty deeper than appearances, until I completely forgot about the bikini in the bottom of my lingerie drawer.

Until now. 
With summer just weeks away, and winter being so damn tasty, I found myself stepping on the scale the other day and being faced with the harsh truth that loving myself and accepting my body are a lot easier to do when I'm sun-kissed and lean from running all summer. 
Because the reality is this: the thought of wiggling and jiggling back into a bikini right now does not invoke feelings of self-love or self-acceptance - in fact, the thought just makes me desperate to dig out my old one piece or skip summer altogether! And at first I feel greatly ashamed about this, feel like I lived a lie last summer. I realize it has never crossed my mind that my willingness to wear a bikini was perhaps more of a realistic reaction to being in the best shape of my life, than an evolved state of self-love or freedom. Maybe the bikini was just about being in great shape, and had nothing to do with embracing imperfections. Even worse, maybe the bikini represented the old ways, the longing for more and more and more, even though more was never enough. 
And so I stand on the scale and wonder aloud, What about beauty deeper than appearances? What about looking in the mirror and finally seeing beauty? I look in the mirror as I ask these things and suddenly I know - I know, regardless of last summer's bikini days or this summer's one pieces, that something akin to a miracle has still come about in my life simply because of this: When I look in the mirror, I do see beauty, beauty just doesn't look very good in a bikini right now. 

Ten years ago, I could have never looked at my body with kindness and love, while being a bit too pudgy for a bikini. Never. I would have immediately gone on a diet, berated myself for eating so many sweets all winter and forced myself to wake up at the crack of dawn to exercise. I would have been swimming in pools of shame and self-hate and defeat. I wouldn't have been able to see my worth beyond the extra weight.

Today, miraculously, I can. That doesn't mean I wouldn't love to look great in a bikini (I mean, I am human). Or that I think there's anything wrong with getting in shape and honoring your body through good nourishment and exercise. But that's not the end of the story. Today, I can see more.
Today, I can see that maybe beauty is not defined by being able to wear a bikini. And maybe self-acceptance does not need tan lines and flat abs to know just how far we've come, and what a miracle living each day in freedom from calorie-counting and body-hating really is. And I'll take that over a bikini any day.  

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Monday, May 11, 2015

From Congo to Columbus

This is our adoption story, in video form: 


Half a world away, our son waits for us. Camryn Eric Juday is 12 months old, and lives in an orphanage in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. We began our journey, a story you can read about here, in February of 2014. Since then, we've cashed out IRAs, completed mountains of paperwork, and had our fingerprints scanned innumerable times.

My husband and I have wanted to adopt since as long as either of us can remember. In fact, our first date together began with an agreement (with a handshake and all) that we both were committed to adopting. There is a stirring deep within both of us that we were created to care for children. Traveling through, and living in, some of the neediest areas of the world sharpened our desire to care for orphans within the international community. We chose DRC, a country of great need. 

According to the International Monetary Fund, DRC is the poorest country in the world, with a per capita domestic product of less than $400, almost half of the next poorest on the list. In addition, due to the ravages of civil wars and AIDS, the number of orphans in DRC is sky-high: about 4 million, according to UNICEF. Clearly, these children are vulnerable, and need our help. 

In June of 2014, we were thrilled to receive a referral for a little boy.

At this point in his journey (May 2015), Camryn's file has passed almost all of the legal hurdles in the Congolese court system. Soon, he will be moved from his state-run orphanage to our agency's foster care home. There, he will receive proper nutrition and 24 hour care, amenities he is not guaranteed in his current home. With this upgrade, though, the costs increase.

Our family will be responsible for paying for his food and care each month, at an amount that is not insignificant. In addition to this, as an infant, Camryn has been sick several times, resulting in hospital visits. Most recently, his arm was broken (an occurrence we believe was due to negligence, not abuse), necessitating another medical visit. In addition to this, once the US clears all of the paperwork, at least one of us will be flying to DRC to pick Camryn up, a 2 week trip that will register somewhere around $6,000-$7,000. All told, we need to raise at least $12,000 to make this dream come true!

Would you consider partnering with us to bring Camryn home? 

Please visit our GoFundMe account to donate! 

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Thursday, May 7, 2015

Mama, You're A Superhero

"Well, what did you guys think of The New Family?," I asked when all four of us were buckled up and on the road again.

"Gooood," said my two-year-old softly, clearly fatigued from the three hours we had just spent in such a new, noisy environment.

"They were nice, huh?!" I said cheerfully, trying to prod a response out of my three-year-old.

Apparently needing no further encouragement, he enthusiastically chimed in, his voice full of awe, 
"Yeah, and their mama was a superhero!"

I sat in the dark of our car for a moment, completely confused by this comment. I raise an eyebrow, glance at my husband for clarity and then, still confused, asked, "What do you mean, buddy?"

"That Mama is a superhero! Didn't you see?!"

It's then that it dawns on me that Kyler is referring to the traditional black burqa the mother of "The New Family" (as the kids would call this family throughout our relationship) was wearing for most of the evening. When she had first walked into the living room, with only a tiny slit of her eyes showing, I looked cautiously at the kids, hoping our earlier conversations had prepared them for this moment. They smiled as she greeted them in Arabic, seeming to sense the warmth behind the garb.

But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself! Let me back up for a minute and give some context for how we found ourselves in the living room of The New Family. 

Last Fall, we decided to get involved with a local organization that serves the refugee population here in our city. Having gotten a small taste of what it feels like to be a foreigner in a foreign land during our two years living in Thailand, we had become increasingly impassioned about coming alongside one of these refugee families as they made the difficult transition into a new life in the U.S. I knew from experience the anxiety of not knowing where to go for groceries, the discomfort of not being able to communicate at the doctor's or dentist's office and the anguish of knowing that I would always be seen as a foreigner just because of my appearance. And all this, after having chosen to move, with a stable home country to return to as needed, with plenty of financial and emotional resources at our disposal to ease the transition - in stark contrast to the desperate situation these families find themselves in. 

Shortly after signing up, we were linked with an Iraqi refugee family of eight - a mother, a father, and six children. We would soon learn that the sixth child was born only hours after the family arrived on American soil, the Iraqi mother being rushed to the hospital during a layover in New York City. We were invited for our first visit into the Iraqi family's home when the baby was four weeks old. 
I had done my best to prepare the kids for what they were about to experience, without over-emphasizing our families' differences. I wanted them to know that this family didn't speak the same language as us, that they probably had different customs and behaviors and attire. But I also wanted them to know and really embrace the fact that they were a family just like us, that they were intelligent, kind, courageous people, that we were intrinsically the same, despite any observable differences. 
And so we showed up for our first meeting around six in the evening, to a bottom-floor, corner apartment smelling of tea and spices. The kids had been eager all day to finally get to meet The New Family. We were welcomed with the kindest smiles and the warmest embraces, as though we had known each other for years. We did not know any Arabic and the family members knew minimal English, the youngest children and the mother knowing none at all. 

So we conversed with smiles and finger-pointing and a mutual understanding that life is a gift and the fact that this meeting between our two families was taking place at all, was a miracle. We stayed for three hours, pointing and smiling, watching the children interact and falling in love with the joy and courage of The New Family. When we finally leave, exhausted yet exhilarated, it is then that my son says: 

"That mama is a superhero. Didn't you see?!"

I told him at the time, "You're right buddy. She is! Can you imagine how much courage it took for her to bring her whole family all the way across the ocean to a country where she doesn't know anyone, doesn't understand what people are saying, doesn't know where to buy groceries or go to the doctor? And then to have a new baby just a couple hours after getting of the plane?! Yes, you're right. That mama is a superhero."

And now, with Mother's Day this weekend, I cannot help but think - not in any way to minimize the extraordinary courage and resilience of the Iraqi mother - that in some way, every mama is a superhero. 

I know it may sound a little too kum ba yah, a little too hand-holding and chirpy to be real. And I will be the first to admit that there are many moments, many days, when I do not see other mamas as superheroes. I judge them for their disengagement or their over-protection, for their lack of follow through or their strict discipline. I size up meals and outfits as though I'm a leading nutritionist and the world's most renowned fashion leader. I am not above any of that. 

And yet, I also believe with all my being that every mama has her story, her moments of rising above, of giving her all. Her days of unmatched courage and resilience, of sacrifice and love. I believe we are on this adventure of mothering together, and that esteeming one another as intrinsically the same, despite any observable differences, is the the greatest gift we can give one another this Mother's Day. 
And so, from me to you, Happy Mother's Day! You're a superhero, Mama!

More background: If, like I was, you're unfamiliar with the refugee population, these are families or individuals who have been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. Often they have lived for years in refugee camps before finally becoming among the 1-2% of people who actually receive refugee status and are resettled. They have typically witnessed unfathomable violence - many watching their own family members perish - have missed out on standard education, have struggled for survival in inhumane conditions. 

As I started thinking about Mamas & Superheroes, my creative juices went wild with images of a mama in the midst of her mundane, attired in full superhero attire. As amateurs, we were only able to partially capture these mental images, but still had a lot of fun trying! Here are a few more bloopers, because there were LOTS to choose from! :)

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