lukeandmanda

The most amazing love story since Romeo and Juliet haha

A Visit to the Natural State, Our Pending Transition & More!

With our move to Florida just a hop, skip and a jump away now, we decided to make the most of our time out West and closer geographic proximity and took most of last week to visit my brother, Ethan, in Arkansas.

Well, I spent most of the week with Ethan. Meanwhile, Luke drove up with me and then flew out of Fayetteville, headed to Washington D.C. for the Service Academy Career Conference. He is evaluating a few different career opportunities in the civilian world, and the SACC was great for connecting him with different companies in the area and providing networking opportunities. He also got to catch up with some former West Point classmates!

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Ace (holding up the peace sign in the first picture) was a groomsman in our wedding, and we unfortunately haven’t seen too much of him due to Uncle Sam positioning us at different duty stations. I think the guys had some fun amidst all of the work they had to do!

I got to do some work of my own in Arkansas. While Ethan was at his 8-5 job each day, I went on a hunt for the best coffee shop in his small town of Bentonville. I am trying to finish writing a Christian fiction novel based partly on my own childhood, and I am currently close to 80,000 words in. Once I get this first draft completed, I hope to find a publisher who might be interested in helping me to complete this project! I feel God calling me to write this, so even if it doesn’t sell a copy, that is OK. My hope is that it will be a help to someone out there; it is primarily targeted to teenage girls who may struggle with self esteem issues.

Here are a couple of the contenders for best coffee shop!

Fork & Crust (pictured above) has literally a dozen different pie choices in addition to quiche and a couple of other brunch options! At 10 in the morning, the shop was very quiet, and I enjoyed my slice of strawberry rhubarb and hot tea in peace, without the hustle and bustle of a busier place like Starbucks. The only downside? I could not get the Wi-Fi to connect. It was OK for the writing portion, but for the Internet research piece, it was a no go.

Iron Horse Coffee Company (pictured below) is technically in Rogers, AR as opposed to Bentonville. Ethan and I met for lunch down there, so it was a perfect spot to spend the afternoon. I sat outside at a patio table for much of the time, and when the rain began, I moved inside. Their banana nut bread and coffee were heavenly, and the Wi-Fi was spot on.

Kennedy Coffee Roasting Company (not pictured) was another fantastic option! It had a very modern feel, and even during lunch hour was mostly quiet. It is divided into two different rooms, and I selected the one with smaller tables and more people working on laptops, which was perfect for my purposes. The other room had longer tables for group sessions and lunches. I cannot attest to the food here (I was absolutely stuffed from lunch), but it sure smelled delicious!

There are SOOO many quaint coffee shops and places to choose from in this area that I could not have visited them all if I tried. You would have to be there a month! I walked through Onyx Coffee Shop in Bentonville one evening and tried to go there, but it is right in the middle of downtown, so parking was extremely crowded. Otherwise, it looked like a neat spot!

I also visited tried and true Starbuck’s one day, mainly because it was half off frappucino week AND I had a gift card. (Thanks for the awesome Easter present, Mom! I got two drinks for the price of one.) However, I must say, Starbuck’s was my least favorite place to write of all. It was loud and echo-y in this particular store, and it was hard to concentrate. I ended up venturing outside for a bit just so I could hear myself think. When given the choice, I choose Mom &  Pop or small business all the way! I just wish Lawton had some of the cool places that Arkansas offers; here, I mostly write at home or at Starbuck’s.

Ethan was able to meet me for lunch both Thursday and Friday. On Thursday, we tried Hammontree’s in downtown Rogers. They sell the BEST gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches and homemade tomato bisque soup. I tried the caprese sandwich, made exactly as it sounds, with fresh mozarella, tomato, basil and a drizzle of light balsamic vinegar.

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On Friday, we met at Smash Burger. I know this is a chain, but I had never eaten there before, and my first time was incredible! I ordered a burger topped with Swiss cheese, mushrooms and truffle mayo, and paired with fries coated in olive oil and rosemary, it was delectable. I was a bit spoiled on food options while in Arkansas; as mentioned, Lawton doesn’t have nearly as many choices, so I enjoyed every bite!

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That evening, Ethan and I went to Table Mesa Bistro, a Latin American style restaurant. I can vouch for their homemade guacamole, pineapple pico de gallo and chicken and steak fajitas! My brother got the Mahi Mahi tacos and said those were delicious too. We topped it all off with dessert at Coldstone Creamery.

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I loved exploring the neat sites in Bentonville. On our last visit, we did the Wal-Mart Museum and some other typical things, so this time we had more time to go off the beaten path. I loved all of the street art that can be found along the Crystal Bridges Art Trail and also just around town! The best way to describe Bentonville is that it honestly feels like a mini Austin meets small town USA; hipster and eclectic with lots of Mom & Pop artisan shops and that old school, traditional feel with the town square, kids out playing unsupervised etc. Ironically, it is WM Headquarters, and rumor has always had it that Wally World put these kinds of places off the map. This is certainly not true in a town that has more than 7 WM stores in addition to countless boutique style shops; you can find everything from exclusive yoga studios to spice & tea stores to bike shops and clothing stores. It is a mecca for small town shopping and for family living. Families of all ages meandered the Greenway, gathered by the central fountain to hear music after dinner and to eat at some of the higher end places along the downtown strip.

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**Note that the Tortoise won the race! The hare, which thought he had it all locked up due to his natural agility, sat back across the sidewalk, scratching his ears. Meanwhile, the tortoise made it all the way to the gate! Perseverance is always the winner; slowly but surely, one step at a time, you can do it! And, often, the person who works the hardest will win, regardless of natural talent.

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Look closely at this old car sitting in the middle of town. It is covered with more than $5,000 of pennies and nickels, a town landmark!

When Luke got back from his trip at 11:00 at night, we knew he would want one of two things: his favorite scotch or sleep! Ethan and I had identified this cute little bar, Scotch & Soda, and when we suggested a pit stop on the way home from the airport, Luke was all too happy to go along for the ride! Something about a drink makes a two-hour late evening flight, sandwiched between two not-so-small people, seem so much better! We had fun talking and catching up until last call an hour or so later.

Since we were out late (and are old people now), we slept in a bit the next morning and then enjoyed a leisurely lunch at a local pizza place before heading to explore Eureka Springs about an hour away. We made a couple of stops on the way, one at the Inspiration Point overlook (what a view!) and another at Thorncrown Chapel.

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Thorncrown Chapel has received numerous awards and accolades for its unique architectural structure, and the windows and natural light pouring in make it the perfect, serene setting for worship. The volunteer instructed us to take seats in the pews and just soak in the beauty. Soft classic Christian hymns played in the background, and it was nice to take a moment to reflect and pray. Luke was so enthralled by the structure that he wants something similar in the way of a sanctuary within our future dream home! It was the perfect indoor modern amenities meets nature.

We finally reached the tiny town of Eureka Springs, deemed “Little Switzerland,” since it is nestled in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, and the structures are literally chiseled into the stone on the hillside. There is a LOT of walking in this small, hilly town, but it is worthwhile! If you have been to Gatlinburg in the Smoky Mountains, that is a fair comparison for the town itself; lots of small ice cream shops and soda fountains, tiny shops and tourist sights. I could not resist buying a University of Florida Christmas ornament in one of the stores; I know it is only May!

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This 300-ft. statue of Jesus is best viewed from atop the Crescent Hotel. Built in 1886, the Crescent Hotel was considered one of the grandest of its day.  It was the perfect day trip adventure, and we all got a little sunburned. My naturally blonde hair is starting to lighten up for the summer too, and this day gave it a boost!

On the way back from Eureka Springs, we stopped at the Pea Ridge National Military Park for a driving tour. To tour the museum it costs $10-$15 per person, but if you go after 4:00 p.m., you can tour the park until sunset at no charge. We chose to save a bit of money and just do the outdoor portion.

Commemorating one of the lesser known battles of the Civil War, this park told a neat story and had about 12 different driving stops with placards and sights. I will say it is a one hit wonder though, and I would not have any desire to go back again. Luke enjoyed reading some of the history and made a great narrator with his extensive knowledge of military history. If he had not been there, it would probably not have been as compelling and I would say, stop if you are in the area, but if you are limited on time, this is not necessarily a Must See. We had a good time though, driving around and looking over what are now just empty fields and imagining how they must have been in the dead of winter when the battle between Union forces and Confederates raged.

Saturday was a full day, and we quickly changed clothes for dinner that night at Tavola, a wonderful upscale Italian place owned by the same people as Table Mesa Bistro, our dinner of choice on Friday. One of their signature touches throughout their restaurants is special fruit infused water, and since I am a sucker for this anyway, and we were all very thirsty after a hot day of exploring, we went through several pitchers! The dinner was incredible, from the cheese board appetizer to my homemade gnocchi, Luke’s fresh sea bass with prawns and pasta and Ethan’s classic spaghetti and meatballs. We had a slight incident with the tomatoes on the cheese plate; apparently, we kept stabbing them the wrong way so they squirted all over the table (and our outfits) making a mess. Yikes! This was as amusing as it was ridiculous, so we shared a good laugh while requesting extra napkins to clean it up.

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As evident by the empty dishes, you can see we thoroughly enjoyed our food! We took a short walk along the Garden Trail to lose a few calories before adding them right back on with dessert!

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Ethan was a great host as he showed us around the town, and he took us to The Hive for dessert. It partners as a small art museum, and so we sipped our drinks and walked around viewing the exhibits for awhile.

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Like everything else, the dessert was delectable!

Stuffed and happy, we called it a night and went back to Ethan’s house to watch some TV and unwind before bed. The next morning dawned bright and early, and I went out to get breakfast for us. Luke had an English soccer game he wanted to catch, so we agreed to do a later church service and have doughnuts for breakfast. Ethan had been telling us all weekend how good Love’s Doughnuts, a local place, is. The guys at work bring in boxes, and Ethan’s favorite is the sausage kolache. I, however, swear by Krispy Kreme, and since we don’t have one in Lawton, I was bound and determined to have some! We ended up getting both and the Battle of the Doughnuts ensued as we all voted on which was better.

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They were all so good that I’m not sure there was a clear frontrunner! From Love’s, I tried a blue iced doughnut covered in Fruity Pebbles for a creative and unique twist, and Luke and Ethan ate the sausage kolaches. I think I am still a sucker for KK, but it was nice to try something new! I have to admit the Love’s doughnuts were fluffier, bigger, and airy, but I liked the icing on the KK better. Ethan pointed out the Love’s doughnuts weren’t hot, while Krispy Kreme was, and that could be the differential. There is something about hot doughnuts….yummy!

We headed to Cross Church for service since it is close to Ethan’s place. It was a bit bittersweet since it was Mother’s Day and they were honoring all the Moms, and ours wasn’t there. But, I had mailed Mom and my MIL cards earlier in the week, which they received, and we were able to talk to them both later in the day.

Mom Facetimed with us for awhile before brunch at The Press Room, and it was nice to see her and wish her a happy holiday from all three of us at once. Brunch was wonderful; they specialize in a few dishes here, so the menu isn’t extensive, but each thing we tried was delicious.

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It’s about a five-hour trip back to Oklahoma, so we left shortly after lunch. We had an absolutely fantastic time with Ethan and are grateful we were able to get that time together. There is nothing in this world like family!

Monday marked back to work for Luke and piles of laundry for Manda! We are working hard to get our house back in order….only to tear it apart again soon! The movers are coming to do a walk through shortly to assess our belongings, and my friends Rachel, Lauren and I are attending a move out session with Corvias Military this afternoon to get a sense of their expectations for moving out of our on post housing. Rachel leaves before me again (so sad!), but I am grateful we were stationed together with the Samplers not once but TWICE now.

My groceries tell me our move is coming soon as well…When things start to expire on or past Move Out Day, you know it’s time to stop shopping and start clean-out the-freezer mode with upcoming meals.

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Hope you all have a fantastic week, wherever in the world you might be! Until next time….I may be writing to you from the land of oranges, the beautiful Sunshine State! 🙂

xoxo

Manda

My Reflections on 4/27/11- The Day I Thought I Would Die

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who[a]have been called according to his purpose,” Romans 8:28

April 27, 2011 was a typical Wednesday afternoon in Tuscaloosa, AL. The clouds had been a bit overcast, and there was a certain humidity in the air that was a little unusual. But hindsight aside, I had no idea that this day would alter not only my life, but thousands of others as well.

I was a sophomore at the University of Alabama, and it was the week before finals. I had pulled an all nighter studying the previous evening and was exhausted, with more studying ahead.

My mom sent me a few texts about the weather during the day; apparently tornado warnings were in effect all over the state, but as any young, naïve college student such as myself might have told you before April 27th, tornado warnings in Alabama are as common as pop quizzes.

As the newly selected News Editor of the student newspaper, I planned to head to campus to edit the day’s stories. But, when I called my assistant editor around 2 p.m., I distinctly remember him saying, “Amanda, do not drive over here right now. We are all about to die! ”

I figured he was exaggerating, but the wind had picked up a little and I could hear it through my bedroom window in my second story apartment. As I sat down on the bed to finish sending some emails, I heard a tornado siren. My roommate came in and asked me to go downstairs with her to wait out the storm. I remember becoming a little frightened at this point, and this was the first time I uttered a quick prayer, “Lord please keep us safe,” I silently thought while trying to devise a plan to finish all of the work that loomed ahead after the storm passed.

I quickly grabbed some sandals, a jacket and my cell phone. When we got downstairs, our neighbors were watching the local weather. I saw a huge funnel cloud on the screen that was clearly picking up speed as the meteorologist described the storm’s path across Tuscaloosa. My heart began to beat faster. All of a sudden the power went out, and the TV went black. Simultaneously I saw a huge bolt of lightning through the glass doors to their balcony.

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I texted my boyfriend and told him I was really scared, as I hustled to get inside the closet with the others. There were about 9 people in total, squeezed into the narrow space. We huddled together on the floor sinking as low to the floor as possible. I was fervently typing text messages, but nothing would send due to lack of service. I was still trying to text, and then I heard the roar of a tornado. It was as if everything happened at once.

My body became paralyzed with fear. I could no longer read or type. I hunkered down in the closet and prayed for dear life. I could hear my roommate whimpering beside me, as the air pressure intensified, and glass shattered. It was as if all of the air was being sucked out of the closet. My ears popped from the pressure. I thought the tornado was going to suck all of us up into it at any moment. I knew I was going to die. And then just as suddenly, it was over. We slowly ventured outside and found broken tree limbs scattered about. One girl found a chair inside her car. All around us, trees were down. Pieces of siding and roofing had come off of some of the buildings. But, that wasn’t the worst of it.

A few brave souls ventured out onto 15th Street, which was a main area of town populated with restaurants and businesses. They came back almost immediately. “It’s all gone,” they were saying, incredulously. “Everything across the street is completely flattened.”

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As I walked to the edge of the complex, I saw the stop sign was almost lying down, and the apartment’s gates twisted sickeningly inward. The car dealership next door had collapsed in on itself, and across the street, the homes and trees that made up the skyline were simply gone. It was so deadly quiet. The verse, “Be still and know that I am God,” from Psalm 46:10 encompassed my spirit, and I knew at that moment that despite the total wreckage and decimation of a city, He had a plan for my life and the lives of those around me. He would again form beauty from these ashes.

I later learned there were 64 fatalities that day, six of whom were UA students like myself. One person died just 250 yards from where I lived. For a while, I struggled with why I lived when so many others perished.  I have had faith since I was a young child; I was baptized at age 5, as the youngest person my pastor had ever baptized. But, I didn’t understand the purpose in this yet. But, then again, I didn’t have to. I just needed to trust God to work something even as ghastly as this for His glory. I then accepted that God has a purpose for my life, and know with 100% confidence that I am alive for a reason.

In the aftermath of that horrific day, I made a renewed commitment to share Jesus with all of those around me in my words and my actions. April 27, 2011 reaffirmed for me the brevity of a human life. Even when it seems that you have the whole world in front of you, and nothing but time ahead, everything can vanish in the blink of an eye or in the roar of an EF-4 tornado. A near death experience helps you take less for granted and realize that in that final moment of your life truly nothing else matters–not a career, not family, not friends, nothing, but your personal relationship with the Savior. As long as you have that relationship, you can release that paralyzing fear of death once and for all through the knowledge that your final destination is already mapped out. I find comfort knowing that even though I don’t know the number of my days, God does, and He has a purpose for each and every one! Keep your eyes on the prize, and you will find Him there, beside you, every single time, when chaos reigns, when tragedy strikes and when nothing else matters but the cross.

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“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD. “plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you a hope and a future.” — Jeremiah 29:11

 

**Note The tornado photo credits are not my own. I pulled them from a news site several years ago, and I cannot remember which one currently. The story ran all over The Associated Press for over a week and in local news for much, much longer. Our student team of Crimson White reporters won awards for diligent reporting in the aftermath of this tragedy, and I was proud to be part of the team writing some of the stories that we were never supposed to have to cover and were by far our hardest, most emotional to ever write.

 

 

 

 

Easter Weekend Reflections, A New Family Tradition and Exciting Changes Ahead

At our house, we absolutely adore holidays (mostly Amanda, but Luke gets into them some, too.) We love decorating, sharing food and fellowship with friends and family, and just the opportunity to unwind from work and the daily routine and focus on things that are truly important in this world.

Easter is one of our very favorites because it is the true meaning of all joy: Jesus’ resurrection and victory over death and the only way that we too can conquer death and have eternal life in Heaven with Him. We invited my Mom and brother out for Easter a few months ago, and we were excited at the idea that we could all reunite in the same city and be together again after my brother’s big move to Arkansas to work for Wal-Mart corporate.

Additionally, the military has opened our eyes to a lifestyle where many people don’t get to go home for holidays or have others nearby to share them with, so we always try to open our home to as many people as possible when we stay in town, just as they do for us. We always see it as the more the merrier! Our space-constrained historic on post housing is not really equipped for hosting large parties, but we always find a way to just make it work. God has really been speaking to my heart lately about maximizing meal time and inviting other families into our home to break bread with us. So, with that being said we prepped for a group of about 8-15 people, not sure who would actually be able to join us but utilizing the opportunity to reach out to church family, neighbors and co-workers.

In the end, we had this wonderful group join us for Easter Sunday.

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And, we had a blast!

Now, to back up. My holiday weekend started early Friday morning. I knew I would need most of the day to prep, so I ran to the commissary to skip the lines and get the ingredients I would need to make the various dishes. Then, I knocked out some work for Chick-fil-A while my cleaning lady helped prep the house. (Yes, I cheat and get her to come about once a month just to help out, and it is SO WORTH IT and is such a STRESS RELIEF. I could not have picked a better time to book because I knew we would be having company, and she even helped me put my tablecloth on and fix some of the little decorations on the table. Absolute life saver!!)

After she left, my good friend, Rachel, and I headed out to pick up the food table and folding chairs from my church. Can I just say that THIS happened recently?

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Since we had literally just traded in our truck for a more gas efficient Chevrolet Equinox, Rachel was so sweet to drive me in her husband’s truck to haul the table and chairs. We LOVE our new car, but will most certainly miss the truck for occasions just such as this.

It all worked out though since we made it into a girls’ day, tried a new (to us) Thai place in Lawton and then visited Hobby Lobby. We both wanted some pretty Spring flowers, so we also went to Flowerama. They do fresh flowers for Chick-fil-A each week, so I knew she (Jackie) could help me design a pretty centerpiece for Easter. I was trying to decorate on a pretty tight budget, so I took my own basket and plastic eggs in earlier in the week, and THIS is the design she came up with for less than $15.

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They are so talented at Flowerama, so I definitely recommend them for any floral needs around Ft. Sill. And, they work with any budget and create beautiful custom designs.

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I spent the rest of the afternoon moving furniture, arranging tables and chairs and trying to maximize space. The group of 9 (10 with baby) we ended up with was the perfect size for the space. I used my dining table and just butted a card table up to the end for a couple extra seats, and then displayed appetizer, dessert and food tables in the living room to keep a nice flow. Our kitchen is very tiny and gets very hot, and so any time I can redirect people from gathering in there, the better. 🙂

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I got the colored flower-shaped chargers on sale at Hobby Lobby, and I loved them because the variety of colors would be pretty for many occasions beyond just Easter! The mix-match end result was vibrant and eye catching.

I went with paper goods this time for easier clean up, festivity and cheer, and I am so glad I did. It was certainly worthwhile last night when we just swept everything into the garbage including the tablecloths. Forget handwashing crystal glasses until the wee hours. Even the silverware (in the adorable bunny shaped container–thanks Hobby Lobby!) was plastic. I got a couple pieces such as that silverware holder that I plan to save and use again next year.

After finally getting my table set up, I ran to get ready for West Point Founder’s Day Dinner, which was held at the Patriot Club on post Friday night. We had a good time reuniting with some of Luke’s classmates he hadn’t seen in years and meeting some other grads. It was kind of special and also bittersweet because it was our last official Army gathering while Luke serves active duty (MORE ON THAT IN A MOMENT! Or skip to the end of this post to find out what’s next for our little family).

Saturday morning dawned dark and early as I got up to start prepping some of the cold foods while waiting for my Mom and Ethan to arrive. Since they would only be visiting for about 30 hours, I didn’t want to spend the whole time cooking.

I made really good progress, and Luke helped tidy up the house for them to arrive, so team work makes the dream work! When they arrived just before lunch, I was at a good stopping place and we headed off to explore.

We went to Ann’s Country Kitchen for lunch (best homemade pie this side of the Mississippi!) and then out to the Wildlife Refuge for a bit of hiking.

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It was a perfect day for the outdoors, a bit overcast but not rainy, and temperatures were comfortable in the 70’s without being unbearably hot. Of course this time of year in Oklahoma, snakes and all kinds of critters are out and about, so the guys kept a good eye out for us. We hiked to the end of a short trail with a pretty natural waterfall, and really enjoyed our little adventure. Ethan and Luke climbed up to the top, while Mom and I preferred to relax toward the bottom.

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(Those tiny little figures up there are the two of them. Ethan is to the right in the blue shirt!)

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We really enjoyed each other’s company, and my brother got to utilize the skills he learned as a certified rock climbing trainer, so it worked out well. We then walked over to look off above Treasure Lake near the trailhead and then finally headed to the Holy City where they were setting up for the Easter pageant scheduled for later that night.

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We had heard rave reviews about this pageant all year, and apparently people drive from all over the region to see the performance at the Holy City of the Wichitas. When the pageant first started, it began at 3:00 a.m. and ran until sunrise, when Jesus would Rise. Now, they begin around 8:30 p.m., and Jesus rises at midnight to officially welcome Easter Sunday.

We had an early dinner reservation at the Dry Beaver Supper Club (some of the best steaks in Texoma, but it’s only open one night a month!), and after savoring shrimp, steak and homemade bread pudding, we headed back for the pageant. We brought folding chairs and set up on the hill overlooking the City. The pageant organizer we met earlier in the day suggested we bring blankets, and Mom and I both did because we get cold easily. But, at a balmy 74 degrees, the guys didn’t think they would at all need blankets. We were wrong! That wind was whipping, and the hills get cold at night. Even though the forecast showed 74 degrees, it felt much cooler. Poor Luke shivered his way through the second half of the pageant, but stubborn male that he is, refused to share my blanket. haha.

The production was lengthy but well worth it, as it depicted Jesus’ life from birth to death and Resurrection. Definitely a Must-See if you are ever in the area.

We got home after midnight, so Easter Sunday was again a dark, early one for me as I got up to finish the food prep. I found a new themed breakfast recipe I wanted to try also–Resurrection Rolls or “Empty Tomb Rolls.”

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Basically you put a buttered, cinammon-sugar covered marshmallow inside the roll, wrap it up and bake it, and the marshmallow bakes away leaving an Empty Tomb! I thought it might be a neat concept that we could use when we eventually have kids to teach them about Jesus and how his body disappeared from the grave. They were soooo delicious and easy! I paired them with some boiled eggs, and wah-laa, perfect Easter breakfast. I will definitely be making these every year, children or no children. I have linked the recipe above if you want to give it a look.

We loved the service at Crossroads Baptist. Pastor Curtis did an excellent job as always, and the service ended with a baptism, which was so fitting. Of all the things in Oklahoma, this church family is one we will miss the most. It was great to have my Mom and brother join us for church, along with a couple of friends.

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Lunch wasn’t until 2:30 to give us some post-Church prep time, so I decided to do a few appetizers and have people come whenever.

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This pink sparkling punch was one of the easiest and best I’ve made, and people seemed to LOVE it. I’ve linked the recipe here, in case you are looking for a nice Spring-y recipe; the mint sprig garnishes really helped to dress it up.

All of the food turned out pretty well, I think! Most of my recipes were tried and true, but I did try a new dish: Pineapple Casserole. My boss’s wife gave it to me, and it was really delicious with the Ham. 🙂

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My sweet friends all brought the most delicious dishes, and these bunny cupcakes by Rachel, were some of my favorites of the day. They are just so darn cute! I had “Make-Your-Own Mini Strawberry Trifles,” and so these two dessert options were more than plenty, and really hit the spot.

 

All in all, it was the perfect Easter Sunday. And, as mentioned, one of the best parts was that clean up was such a breeze. 🙂

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As the work week begins again, we have some exciting news…We will only be in Oklahoma for about 9 more weeks total. Our time here has gone so quickly, and we are now officially beginning our transition to leave both this post and the Army as a whole. (Well partly–Luke still owes them 3 years of Reserves time, but he will be leaving Active Duty service this summer.)

What’s next?

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Team  Bradshaw is moving to Florida!!! Amanda will be starting her Ph.D. in Communication at UF this Fall, and we are ecstatic about this upcoming move. In addition to the Reserves, Luke is also actively looking for a civilian job utilizing his systems engineering degree, so if you know of anything in the central Florida area, give us a shout! We are excited to be closer to family, and while it is bittersweet to leave all of the wonderful people we have met here and grown close to in a short time, we look forward to staying connected through social media. We are anticipating lots of beach and Disney World visitors, too, and are even fixing up TWO guest rooms. So, make plans to come down and see us.

I will write again soon as I transition out of both teaching and Chick-fil-A and devote my time to (hopefully) finishing a book I began writing last year and orchestrating our move in addition to finalizing an exciting international vacation that we see as a big Second Honeymoon in the time between leaving OK and settling in FL. More to come about our big excursion to……ITALY. 🙂

 

 

Life As We Know It Oklahoma Style-March 2017

 

Bison

 

My mom came out to visit us this past week, and she joked that we live in the middle of nowhere. Which is true. But, where else can you drive just a few miles to find a beautiful herd of bison in the world famous Nature Preserve nearby? You can find beauty in just about everything and every place that God has made if you just take the time to look for it. And with these bison, we didn’t have to look far! They were just enjoying a snack on the hillside, within two car lengths of us. They didn’t appear threatened and just munched on as if we were not there, giving us ample time to admire and photograph them! It was quire remarkable.

When we were first told we were moving to the Midwest, Luke and I heard horror stories about the area, the post, everything. But, instead of believing those stories, we chose to reserve judgment, and I am glad we did because we have found ourselves in the middle of a wonderful adventure! Since I’ve lived here, I have had countless people ask me how I like it, some with smiles, others with grimaces. My response? The motto of an Army wife: Every place is what you make it. So, yes, we love it here.

I said the same thing about Fort Benning. I am not being insincere, just stating a fact because there is something to love and learn about every place you may find yourself in this world.

Oklahoma isn’t our forever home; we know that. But, we also are trying to make the most of it while it lasts! That’s why when my Mom decided to come for a visit, I requested a few days off work to play tourist in my own home and see what there is to see of this place! Since it’s Spring Break too, I did not have to worry about teaching, and there is something to be said for immersing yourself in nature and just spending some time unwinding with family that is restorative.

So, adventures we did have! We did the usual Girls’ Day stuff-lunch out and pedicures, a little retail therapy and milkshakes at Chick-fil-A. But, we also went on a couple of excursions around post, to Geronimo’s Grave and to the Nature Preserve, including a short hike. Mom is the photographer, so she snapped bison and longhorns and unique flowers to her heart’s content. Even though it was rather chilly several days (don’t let that sunshine fool you!) we wore layers and still ventured out of doors for big chunks of the day. Here are a few scenes from our eyes recently:

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She reminded me there is beauty in taking the road less traveled and in stopping to smell the flowers-literally. It was neat to see things from her eyes and take the time to notice the small beauty in things around me. The little well house and creek in the photographs is known as Ambrosia Springs and is literally only a few blocks from my house, but I had never been there before because I never thought to turn down that road. Most of my journeys are purposeful, and I realized all the things I could be missing by keeping my eyes so focused on the destination. When you live somewhere and see the same scenery day by day, you can begin to take for granted even the remarkable!

In other news, things have been going pretty well for Luke and I overall. We do have a few unspoken prayer requests at the moment. We will share more when the time is right, but for now, if you find yourself thinking of us or our family at all, please say a little prayer in our direction. Those prayers are appreciated more than you may know! We are grateful for God’s providence and direction in this season of our lives and draw comfort knowing He is beside us every step of the way in this amazing journey called life.

We currently live in Mayberry–I’ve said it before, but I quite literally feel like we have found the most perfect little neighborhood and community here on our block. It’s like one of those streets on old TV shows where someone is always walking a dog or playing with kids or grilling out. When you can see three of your good friends within a stone’s throw of your house (even if one does like that tacky orange Tennessee flag blowing in the wind!), you are blessed.

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We recently held a Progressive Dinner Party for our friend group, because what better place could there be to hold such an event where literally no one had to drive?! We had never been to one before and weren’t quite sure how it would go; we just knew we wanted to do a Mexican Fiesta theme and assigned each house with a different part of the meal within that theme. We started at the Samplers’ for appetizers, ventured to the Yosuas’ for soup, came to our house for the main course (with help from the Redmonds) and then finished at the Gonzales’ for dessert and Luke’s belated birthday celebration.

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I am certainly going to miss this bunch. We are more than just neighbors but good friends. We take food to each other when we are sick, celebrate birthdays together, go through joy and sorrow and day-to-day life as a tight knit group. Something about the military brings you together to become close friends rather quickly.

We’ve gone tromping through the snow together, hosted an awesome Gender Reveal party for Kelly’s fetus and have celebrated the comings and goings of the various seasons together this past year or so. And, something about this neighborhood feels special. I have never lived in a place quite like it. Luke and I felt fully welcomed from Day 1 from some of these neighbors and others who lived here before and have since moved on, and in turn, I am trying to do my part to welcome all of the new neighbors that come and go.

But, as suddenly as we all moved here, we will all begin to leave, one by one as this is just another Pit Stop. There is always a moving truck on our street, at least once a week, the nature of the military. For our group, this goodbye cycle will start next month. It makes me sad to think of everyone moving on to begin new adventures but also excited for a new chapter. In the meantime, I am enjoying our life here, our circle of friends and the neighbors who feel like family.

More soon.

 

 

Strawberry Shortcake With Two Spoons

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Last night, we had the most delectable strawberry shortcake with real whipped cream. As we are coming upon our 7th Valentine’s Day as a couple (fourth married), I want to explain why this kind of image is so important to us and for sustaining our love for each other “forever and always.”

Dessert is a treat…often we are counting calories (and dollars), so if we do go out to eat, which is fairly rare these days, we don’t indulge in dessert.

Also, because we are two busy, young, working professionals, we are usually running from Point A to Point B and most often never take the time to add another course to our meal. We simply don’t have the time to eat it.

Last night was different. We celebrated our official Valentine’s Date a few days early by visiting the Apache Casino Hotel’s 360 Restaurant. (There are not a lot of date places in Lawton, but we have heard great things about this one and wanted to give it a try. And, it was just like I pictured–nice, spacious, modern and delicious!) But, I’ll get to that in a moment.

Leading up to this date, we have had a very, very hectic few weeks with zero time to breathe in between. Lots of traveling here and there, not much relaxing on the weekends, combined with Luke getting sick for over a week in late January meant we had not had much couple time alone together in a WHILE. For those of you with kids scoffing at the idea that a married couple without kids must have all the time in the world together, that’s simply not our reality, at least in this season.

There are many days our work schedules are totally opposite and depending on Luke’s Army field schedule, we may see each other 1-2 hours or less on week nights (if that) before we drop into bed exhausted. And, even that time is not uninterrupted conversation time; we are rushing to get dinner ready, I am prepping my lesson plans and Luke is working to complete his PMP (professional project manager) certification. Needless to say, we were in sore need of a good date night.

We had it planned for weeks; Luke took me to the mall late Wednesday night to get my Valentine’s Day gifts, and I picked out the perfect red dress for our big night out. That is truly all I wanted this year–a new outfit!

This may sound silly, but I cannot impress upon you enough how excited I was to get all fixed up for this date. Luke and I both wear uniforms to work every day, and thus do not have much opportunity to wear “regular clothes.” The idea of having an hour plus to get ready, put on my make up, wear my hair down for once and wear my fancy new dress made me so happy.

To be very honest, I have felt a lot like an old frumpy married lady lately. I come home after a long day with my typical ponytail and my make up worn off my face from hours of wear, and then I change into lounge wear for the evening, and I feel that these are the only two bedraggled states my husband sees me in 90% of the time; not exactly attractive!

Last night, I felt like ME again. It’s amazing what difference taking the time to get ready can have for your self confidence. I know beauty is internal, but occasionally I like to look my best externally as well.

Anyway, I wasn’t even sure this date would happen because Luke came down with a stomach bug the night before. Fortunately, it was a 24-hour thing, and he was OK to go for dinner. I said half tongue in cheek that I feel Satan has been attacking our marriage lately. For the last few weeks every time we have something fun planned, literally every time, something happens, whether that be a work commitment, illness or other obstacle. When Luke called to tell me he wasn’t feeling well Friday morning, my stomach dropped, because I hated that he might be sick and was also sorely disappointed about our date possibly being canceled. I was so excited that he was so much better by early afternoon and fully up for going out! I had begun a Plan B V-Day celebration in my head–wine, fancy dishes and a home-cooked dinner, but there is just something about going out that is extra special for an old married couple like us.

So, we were playing the radio, both excitedly getting ready in our cramped cozy single bathroom, when I went to put on my dress and found that the lady at the mall forgot to take off the ink blotter security device. If we broke it, the dress would be ruined. We didn’t have time to go back to the mall, and there was a time I would have completely lost it over my expectations for both the evening and my attire being ruined. Fortunately, I have matured a little and was able to put aside the disappointment and pick another outfit. I knew I would have to rewear something, which is what I usually do, and had been hoping not to do for our special night, but I decided to settle on a dress I had bought for our cruise last summer and used my new brown booties (another part of my V-Day shopping excursion) to accessorize. The final effect (while not super Valentines-y), at least made me feel human again! I think we cleaned up pretty well; isn’t my date handsome in his charcoal sports coat, gray undershirt and perfect Justin Bieber hair flip? 😉

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I had to rework my jewelry scheme; the rhinestone bracelet, dangling earrings and black clutch didn’t go anymore so I settled on simple heart shaped brown dangly earrings with touches of navy and my gold Michael Kors watch (Christmas gift from Luke last year.)

Someone commented on our Facebook photo that our outfits matched, and I thought how ironic because it was absolutely not planned!

Dinner was incredible (and came with an incredible price tag), but for once it didn’t matter. We treated ourselves to not one but TWO appetizers, a couple of cocktails, dinner AND dessert. The whole meal lasted almost two hours, and we had lively conversation the whole time. I cannot tell you how much I needed this connection; in the day-to-day chaos of just surviving, I miss that kind of deep heart-to-heart discussion about our lives, hopes, dreams and future. It was literally the perfect Valentine’s Day with my husband, even without the red dress my heart had been set on.

At the end of the meal, Luke didn’t partake of the shortcake; he is not big on sweets, so I was happy to help him out by eating his part too. I savored it alone; I’m just so giving like that! 😉

We came home, and he opened a couple of his gifts. Because his birthday is in the next couple of weeks, I usually just order him a big batch marked V-Day/Bday and let him open a few at random. He found a Sonos Play 1 Speaker so we can continue to blast music throughout our house (some of our most fun couple time is getting ready and/or doing chores together with music in the background!), some undershirts (I’m nothing if not practical,) and a big stand-up party cooler he’s been eyeing for awhile. Our neighbors and good friends let us borrow theirs for New Year’s, and I knew I would get him his own when I saw how much he enjoyed that.

I have to give a shout out to my dear friend Lydia who kept me grounded this week when I was struggling that Luke and I have been apart more than we are together lately, and for helping me order and wrap all the gifts and prep for our big Valentine’s Day evening. She is truly a godsend in my life at Fort Sill.

I am going to get off of here now, grade a few papers and enjoy this beautiful sunshiney day with my husband. It’s 80 degrees with not a cloud in the sky, and for once we are both off work!

If you are in a long term relationship, I encourage you and leave you with this thought: There will be seasons that are hard, seasons that are lacking in quality time, seasons that seem bumpy. But, there is always strawberry shortcake, something to look forward to, something to get you through and something that just truly makes it all worthwhile. Of course, too much dessert can make you sick, and you may begin to take its value for granted. But, an occasional, well timed, intentional treat for just you and your spouse is literally invaluable in my book.

Disclaimer: Please know and truly understand that someone’s rosy social media pictures are not always accurate depictions of what is going on inside. Remember you are seeing their strawberry shortcake moments nearly exclusively and there are hard times and real struggles between the happy snapshots. But, it’s those hard times and getting through them together that makes or breaks a couple, in my humble experience.

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Happy Valentine’s Day from my heart to yours!

Manda

Why “I’m Too Busy” Just Doesn’t Fly This Year

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Cheers to the blank slate of 2017, a slate that began slowly amidst relaxing holiday celebrations and snowy days in, but is quickly ramping up to be a full plate for both Luke and I.

I begin teaching at Cameron University on Tuesday, and while I am beyond excited, it has been challenging to create an entire syllabus and all of the content for a course I have never taught before with only three weeks’ notice. I think I am almost there, and while this will be a learning experience for me as an instructor, I am excited about the public speaking and business knowledge I have the opportunity to impart upon my 15 students this Spring. One of my students is actually deployed overseas for the first two months of the course, and because I have a special heart for the military and want to do the best job possible in all circumstances, I know making sure he is up to speed with the curriculum will be yet another challenge (and reward) to my new role.

Meanwhile, my full-time Chick-fil-A marketing job is also ramping up full speed ahead to meet some lofty yet attainable brand growth goals for the 2017 calendar year and the Chamber of Commerce Ambassador group is kicking off the year with a running start, too. On his part, Luke is coaching little league basketball for our Church team and continuing his full-time XO job with a basic training unit here at Fort Sill. They just began a new cycle, and with the trainees back from the holidays, I know he has some long days ahead.

Yet, despite these professional commitments, my focus is mostly on priority management in the coming weeks. I do not want to let my relationship with God, my husband, or friends and family slip by the wayside just because I have a lot going on in my career. I correspond occasionally with a highly respected professor, the Director of a huge research facility, and the direct mentor and supervisor for at least 20 students. His calendar books up a month ahead of time, so to even schedule a phone call takes some shifting and adjusting. And, yet, he always makes time to converse with me. He even has a “Zero Inbox” email policy, and always responds to every single email he receives (which must number in the hundreds per week at the very least) within 24 hours of receipt. I realized then that if an individual who is THAT busy and pressed for time can take time to maintain communication with others, than certainly I can do the same.

You see no one who really wants to converse with you or see you is “too busy.” There ARE enough hours in the day; it’s just about how you prioritize your day. I may not be blogging as much in 2017, but I am only a phone call or text message away for my friends. You never know what someone else is going through and I don’t want to miss any of the important milestones or moments or even just every day need for friendship and companionship because I am “busy.” Those who value your presence in their life will make time for you, and those who don’t may not. This is not to say there aren’t seasons of our lives when we have to focus more internally, on self care and immediate family, due to various trials and obstacles. But, as Americans, we are ALL busy. We rush at breakneck speed to get all of these things accomplished each day. But is checking off each line item on that To Do List even half as important as beginning and maintaining lasting relationships?

At the end of the day, people may not remember what all you did, but  they will always remember how you made them feel. Much as Jesus made time for everyone, most especially those who were hurting, sick or suffering, I too want to make time for those around me. How many times do you get a text, glance at it, and decide to “respond later.” Then, weeks go by and you think of that person and realize you never responded. What if I choose to be like that professor, and whenever it is within my ability to do so, I will simply respond right away to the messages I receive?

At my adjunct instructor training, the Dean found it pertinent to remind all of us to “be kind to the students.” Apparently this past semester they had some issues with various adjunct instructors who just refused to respond to student correspondence in a timely manner because they were “busy.” Sure, as adjuncts, we have full-time day jobs and myriad responsibilities, but by committing to teach, I am also making a commitment to my students that I will be there for them with whatever they may need. I am supposed to be a source of support and guidance for them as they work to complete this next step of their college degree. And, I can’t be supportive if I am simply “busy.”

Likewise, Luke has committed to the kids and parents on his basketball team. He spent some time this weekend letting them all know that the game was cancelled due to inclement weather. It is his responsibility to communicate that information so that no one braved treacherous snowy roads only to arrive at an empty gym.

Perhaps because I am a communicator by trade, the art of communication is one that I value so highly. It is as much about valuing another person and his or her time and thoughts and feelings as anything else. If you take the time to type out a text or call a friend only to receive no response in return, you may wonder why bother. So if someone takes the time to reach out to me, I want to be certain I am responding in turn.

Sometimes, former acquaintances will reach out to me about one thing or another–advice on majoring in journalism perhaps, or Teach for America, or marketing…and when those situations occur, I cannot always be of much help but I do try to at least give the issue some thought and provide a detailed response with my thoughts. I feel like it’s the very least I can do when I consider what all has been done for me in my own life and career.

A person I hold in high esteem once moved several mountains for me to have a particular career opportunity. This person could have easily not given me the time of day. Her career was very established, and she did not have to take the time for me. She didn’t even know me personally. When I asked her why she did it, why she took time out of her day to make phone calls and send emails on my behalf to her superiors, her response was simply, “When you get where you’re going, you turn around and help those who are following the path behind you.”

How insightful is that!

2017 is a new year and a new start and one I plan to take full advantage of. One of my goals this year is timeliness, especially in my correspondence and relationships. Why put off for tomorrow what can and should be done today? I’m not too busy, and if you really think about it, you probably aren’t either.

Here’s to making 2017 the best yet!

Amanda

 

Becoming Bold: Bring on 2017

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2016 was a year of both endings and new beginnings, a strange year, split exactly in half with the first half occurring in Fort Benning, GA and the second in Fort Sill, OK.

This past January, my good friend, Michelle, and I were out to lunch at Thai Thai one of our usual restaurants on our weekly lunch rotation. We were both in a state of transition and wondering what the next year might bring for each of us. I wonder where we will be this time next year….And, I must say that my year ended up everything and nothing like I had envisioned over that plate of sweet and sour chicken and our favorite cream cheese roll appetizer.

I grew stronger this year–mentally, physically, emotionally. 2016 brought many challenges as well as opportunities and adventures.

The first half of the year brought another unexpected eye surgery preceded by countless trips to my traveling ophthalmologist who works several hours away, and I was able to handle this obstacle with a grace I have not possessed with my five previous operations. I was somewhat proud of how calm and collected I was in the face of this adversity. Here is some of the background behind that and the condition I was born with, known as strabismus. It is a condition I have lived with and battled my entire life, and one that I eventually hope to publish a book about in order to encourage others with a similar struggle. But, that is a tale for another day.

In May of this year, we picked up our entire life and left our comfort zones, my job, my sense of community and moved farther away from my hometown than I have ever lived before. We are no longer a quick four-hour drive from family, and creating our new home in the Midwest was both scary and exciting.

The transition out of my job was a whirlwind; I worked until the Monday I left town, our possessions already loaded on the moving truck. I produced six new commercials, trained my replacement and hosted a huge event during my last few days of work. I am always committed to doing my very best at work and felt a very strong sense of loyalty to my company. Thus, I had a hard time adjusting to no longer having that role. As Luke and I traveled around to see family, to vacation in the Bahamas, to our new life, I still felt a need to check in, wanting to make sure my former bosses and staff were doing well. It was a very strange feeling, like ripping off a part of myself, my identity, everything I had invested in and worked so hard for over almost three years. And, it was now going on without me.

In its absence, I found a new sense of peace and a new sense of identity as I began to recognize my preconceived ideals, ingrained for most of my life, that what we do or what job we have can define us as a person. Without my job, I felt that my identity did not exist to the same capacity. It is hard to explain, but Jesus used the time after we moved here, the time when Luke was so sick and I was so scared to learn to rely upon Him alone for my sense of worth and identity. I had more than a month off of work, something I was not used to, and without the busyness of my job to fill my days, I spent more time in the Word, time reflecting and journaling. I used my time to find out more about who Amanda is and what she believes as opposed to what society tells me I should believe and be.

I learned that while it is important to work hard at my Earthly job, and I will always have that same work ethic where I give 110%, my job is not my most important mission to fulfill in this life.

“Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes 2:11.

My identity and worth is as a Daughter of the King of Kings. No salary, no job title, no duties or responsibilities or bonus compensation defines me or my worth. Or yours. We are all equal in the eyes of God and equally valuable no matter what tasks our hands may find to do. Our job is simply to work at it with all of our heart.

When I started with Chick-fil-A, I saw immediately that I was right where God wanted me. And, He had so many lessons for me to learn in this season and still more to come. As I look back over this past six months, I can say that God is shaping me and defining me in new ways.

A few things that God has spoken to me that have really resonated these past few months:

“Look for the gift of being lonely. Look for the gift of solitude and silence.”

When I first moved to Oklahoma, I was the New Girl again. I didn’t have friends here yet and I was just getting to know my coworkers. Luke got pretty busy in his new job and I found myself alone a lot. And, I found the huge rewards in that time, in getting to know myself in fellowship with Jesus. I have found a new meaning to introspection and am grateful that I began this season somewhat alone, which forced me out of my comfort zone in this area.

“Every difficulty is an opportunity to prove God’s sufficiency to others.”

“Life is a journey, and the less we try to control it, the happier we will be.”

“His grace is enough for me.”

“The Devil’s lies and false accusations are powerless in my life. I stand on the truth of the Word.”

“The enemy will not be victorious in my life.”

“God always fulfills his promises in His appointed time.

These are just a few of the revelations I have been reflecting on during my bible study and devotional reading that I thought to share, both to bookmark where I am in this journey and to possibly encourage you as well.

Oh! What adventures we have had in 2016. We have been so very blessed, no question about that. Here is a look back over the past year.

We started off right with another Roll Tide victory as we rang in the New Year with our friends Michelle and Jeffrey in our apartment in Phenix City.

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A few weeks later, our good friends Jessica and Will came down to visit us for a weekend. It was so nice to spend some time with them, go out to dinner, Escape from the Room in Columbus and attend a hockey game with our Army friends and neighbors, Jenae and Greg. Attending hockey games was one of our favorite pastimes in GA, one that we miss here in OK.

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February was a busy, busy month as we celebrated Luke’s 26th birthday and traveled to NC to celebrate his sister Hannah’s college scholarship signing day for soccer. It was also my friend Jenn’s Confirmation Day at church, so we took her out to lunch to celebrate.

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With March came Easter, and my Dad and grandmother visited us for the weekend!

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In April, I had my last eye surgery to date. My mother-in-law came down to stay with Luke and I for a few days. We had a fun trip to Pine Mountain to get lunch and go shopping on the last day of her visit before I had to return to work and she had to get home.

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A few days later, I had word that we were officially moving to Oklahoma. The timeline had been up in the air until Luke’s unit was officially shut down at Ft. Benning and our orders sent us on ahead to Ft. Sill. I gave my boss notice and began to organize our home for the move. My heart was a little tougher–I had trouble adjusting to the idea of leaving this “home away from home” where we started our marriage, built strong friendships and a great life together.

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This was one of my last days of work filming our last set of commercials. It had been a great day getting more than 35 actors through and scenes shot. I knew I would miss my coworkers!

In May, the end was truly here for our time at Ft. Benning. I was sent off with a lovely going away dinner with my bosses at Buckhead Grill, one of our favorite restaurants, and a going away lunch with my team. They almost made me cry with their thoughtfulness and generosity. It was certainly a tough goodbye.

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And so, just like that, I said a final Good bye to my train car-shaped office on South Railroad Street. It was truly the ride of a lifetime. Until next time, Phenix City.

I came in the next morning to wrap up the Bible study I had organized with my coworkers at ironically, place of all places, Chick-fil-A. We had been meeting every Tuesday before work during the past quarter to share our love of God’s word and some fellowship before beginning the work day. The last one was tough because I wanted to continue to see God work in the lives of these sweet ladies; fortunately, with social media, I can still do that, even if I am no longer working with them every day! You see I am in a t-shirt here because my car was literally packed to the brim for our long journey and immediately after our study, I was hitting the road for good!

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May brought so many adventures, a week spent in my hometown of Huntsville, a week in Luke’s hometown, Hickory, NC (and his brother’s wedding to boot), and a few days in the Bahamas, just the two of us. Here are just a few snapshots!

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We finally made our way to Ft. Sill on the first of June. We drove separate cars of course, and I was excited albeit anxious to reach the destination and begin our new life. Little did we know Luke would get so sick.

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By the time we reached Arkansas, Luke was not doing well at all. He was having some stomach issues and we thought it was just a stomach virus. 10 days later with no food or drink, three hospital visits and several tests and scans we are pretty sure it was not just a minor stomach bug. But, we made the last leg of the trip, thanks to God alone with Luke throwing up the whole way and still managing to drive his own vehicle. We were so relieved to check into our hotel and to see the Welcome sign for Lawton.

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The days that he was sick and I moved into our home alone are hard for me to think back on because I felt so alone, scared and worried about him. He is not the type of person to lie in bed all day, and for over a week straight he was too weak to do more than exactly that. It was terrifying not to know a soul in town. Some kind West Point wives offered to help through social media, and I am very appreciative. Our friends and family from the Southeast were very supportive virtually, and his Mom and brother were on standby to board a flight at any time. But, our biggest comfort came from the ever constant presence of Jesus. We might have been alone in a new land, but God was here with us, walking beside us every day.

The day Luke finally got better was a miraculous one. He had been given antibiotics at our last ER visit, but had been on them for a few days without much in terms of results. He was still severely dehydrated and could not even hold down broth. I had to meet the movers the following day and would have to leave him alone at the hotel for an entire day. Before this, I would only leave in short two or three hour stints to clean the house and return to help him, but I knew this would be impossible on Move In Day. The night before, I messaged all of our friends and family in a group text and requested for everyone to please sign up for an hour to pray for Luke the following day.

We ended up with two people per hour because everyone was so eager to do what they could for us. I felt better knowing that others would be praying incessantly on his behalf while I completed our move in. And, I tell you the truth when I say that when I returned to the hotel that evening, he held down his dinner for the first time in 10 days! Do not underestimate the power of prayer!  Luke made a very swift recovery, was out of bed the following day, and helping me move out of the hotel the day after. God is good. Some may argue with me about timing, about a sickness running its course, about modern medicine, and while all of this may be true, I faithfully believe that God had his hand on Luke that day and heard all of our unceasing prayers. I could not let our 2016 story go by without sharing this God experience with you because it was truly life changing for our family. We still do not have a definitive diagnosis for what made Luke so ill; our best guess is some sort of parasite perhaps? But, God knew. And God healed.

And so, we began our life in Oklahoma six months ago with a clean slate, full of endless possibilities. What would we do with it?

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In July, my mom and brother came out to visit for Independence Day Weekend. We had a great time with them! The week after, I began my new job with Chick-fil-A and began to complete my training. I am very excited to be taking on my new role as the Director of Sales and Brand Growth this coming year.

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In August, we set out for Freedom, OK to attend our first Rodeo, Oklahoma style! There is a whole blog about that adventure and the inspiration for our Christmas Card here, so I’ll just leave you with this image.

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September 1st brought our three-year anniversary. Since it was the leather anniversary, our gifts could not have been more fitting–my purple leather cowgirl boots and Luke’s brown leather hat depicted above. We went out to eat at Woods and Water Winery in Anandarko to celebrate at the recommendation of a coworker. They had delicious food and cocktails!

Later in the month, we officially joined our church, Crossroads Baptist in Elgin, OK. We love it!

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October brought unseasonably warm weather, Luke’s promotion to Captain, Manda’s 26th birthday and our annual Halloween party in addition to our good friends Rachel and Kevin Sampler moving just down the block from us!!!

 

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November was mostly uneventful except I joined the Lawton Chamber of Commerce’s Redcoat Ambassadors team AND completed my very first 5K. This was a huge goal for me; here is another blog post about it if you care to read more about my journey to running the race. We then celebrated Friendsgiving with our Sunday School class, and then my Dad and grandmother came out for Thanksgiving.

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December has brought frigid temperatures to our neck of the woods! I excitedly headed home to Alabama for my brother’s college graduation on the 7th, in hope of warmer weather, but no such luck! It appears Winter may be here to stay. It was great to celebrate Ethan’s accomplishments with our family though.

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Christmas is coming now, and we cannot wait to celebrate all of our blessings, our journey through this year, the trials we have walked through and the lessons we have learned.

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As 2016 culminates, I can say that I lived out my word of the year that I established last January at that long ago lunch. I wanted to be “bold” this year. And, in my transition, in my adventures, through good times and bad, I can truly say I am on my way to Becoming Bold. I want to live boldly for Jesus, live out my faith and my life in a way that is impactful and meaningful for those around me.

I am excited and thrilled to have a new platform to live boldly through my work at Cameron University. I will be an adjunct professor of Advanced Professional and Business Speaking this Spring and look forward to mentoring and teaching students to shine throughout the coming months!

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xoxo and all the best for 2017!

Manda (and Luke) 😉

 

Weekend with the Bradshaws

Well, it’s been a busy weekend in our neck of the woods! I should really be working on finishing my brother’s college graduation gift (due next weekend-Yikes!) or getting my house cleaned for the week or prepping Christmas gifts. But, I am taking a moment amidst my quickly rising stress levels to write, an activity that is always therapeutic for me!

The weekend began with a bang–or rather a quiet evening in. After very long work weeks on both of our ends and an incident with Luke’s truck breaking down mid week, we were just plain tuckered out. We had planned to go to our good friend Kevin’s birthday cook out, but the evening proved to be dreary and rainy, and his wife, Rachel was sick. So, that was rescheduled for today. Luke and I briefly considered going out to eat just the two of us, but quickly nixed that idea in favor of a warm cozy evening at home as opposed to getting all dressed up and venturing out into the rain again. I get my chicken fix every day at work and was in the mood for something different, but Wing Stop came to mind and is a different type of chicken. So, we decided on quick take out that I could grab on my way home! We had a great time relaxing together with the glow of our Christmas tree in the living room providing a perfect backdrop. We watched a feel good Hallmark movie and unwinded from the work week for a few hours before dropping into bed before 10:00 (yes, I know we are old now!)

Saturday was booked solid, so we got up early to finish decorating our tree. We enjoyed hanging up all of the ornaments that have been near and dear to us over the years. I think the final product turned out pretty cute!

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When my grandmother was here for Thanksgiving, she helped me set up my nativity scene as the centerpiece for our mantle here. We really like the placement of the nativity scene, as it is a reminder throughout the season that Jesus is front and center and really what it’s all about!

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We are continuing to add to our ornament collection, and I fell prey to my own profession: marketing! After seeing a Facebook ad every couple of days for the past few months advertising a free wooden photo ornament from Photo Barn, I could not resist designing one for us! Valued at $26 plus shipping, I got the ornament free and just paid $9 for shipping and tax, which is a steal! I used photos from Luke’s promotion ceremony to Captain and chose the Field Artillery Red ribbon hanger. I can’t wait to see the finished product in a few weeks. Here is a link to their site if you want to check it out, as I think this deal is still running!

After decorating the tree, we headed for Church Directory photos at our church, Crossroads Baptist in Elgin. We love this church and the church family, which has been so friendly and welcoming. We greatly value our connection to this community, and so it was special for us as a transient military family to be included in something as lasting as a church directory. We have not taken these photos before as a couple and enjoyed getting dressed up and posing for our photo. We even get a free 8X10 which I will have to share with you when it comes in!

Then it was time for a little retail therapy. We grabbed a quick lunch at the White Buffalo since it is located inside the mall, and then perused the stores for our Angel Tree purchases. The Chamber of Commerce collectively adopted a few teenagers this year, and I volunteered to help shop for the gifts on behalf of the group. Luke and I had fun selecting special items that we hope might be treasured gifts under the tree this year.

We then looked a bit for ourselves since we needed tacky Christmas sweaters for a party next week and our annual family Christmas ornament. Each year we purchase one ornament together, preferably one with the year on it, to mark another holiday together. Here are the ones from years past:

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This year we did something a little different and selected a sterling silver bell from Reed and Barton. The year 2016 is engraved on the side and every time we hang it on our tree, its sweet tinkling melody will remind us of this holiday.

We hadn’t rested too much and were tired from all of our running around so we headed home in search of quick naps before a holiday event that evening. (I admit to catching up on my latest show–This Is Us. I am simply addicted and Hulu provides the perfect channel to catch up on episodes since my Tuesday evenings are usually busy. If you haven’t watched this show, I recommend you check it out! It reminds me a lot of another favorite, Parenthood.)

Saturday evening was the Redcoat Ambassadors’ Christmas party for the Chamber of Commerce. Since I am officially a member of this organization now, we were invited to attend the first annual Christmas Cabaret at the Lawton Country Club. We enjoyed getting dressed up, mingling with fellow Chamber members and eating really good food, although we didn’t end up hitting the dance floor. Here are a few photos from the event:

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This morning, we attended church and went to lunch with a couple of our good friends here, Josh and Kelly and their baby Cora. The pastor provided a good reminder for why we celebrate Christmas and where our focus should be–on Jesus as the reason for the season. This was helpful for me to hear as I am trying not to become too stressed out with the material or financial aspects of the season.

This afternoon, two exciting things are happening.

  1. My massage therapist, Jessica, is back after being on maternity leave for over a month!!! I am beyond excited to see her. She does mobile massage therapy and comes right to my house, which is such a blessing. Her business, Peaceful Bliss Massage Therapy, provides great quality for a great value, and if you live in the Ft. Sill area, I highly recommend you look her up.
  2. We are heading over to Rachel and Kevin’s this afternoon for the rescheduled          birthday cookout from Friday. We got to see them on his actual birthday on Wednesday when they brought some chocolate cupcakes and much needed cheer over to share with us after the incident with Luke’s truck breaking down. But, it will be fun to celebrate for a little bit longer and with some of their other friends here as well!

(**Note: In good news, it is such a blessing that Luke’s truck is back up and running! It turned out we had to replace the alternator, but all things considered, it could have been much much worse the way that the engine died on him mid drive Wednesday night. We are thankful to be a two vehicle family once again without having to imminently purchase another vehicle!)

The rest of the afternoon will be spent working on gifts and making preparations for my trip to Alabama. I leave mid week and will be gone for several days to see my brother, Ethan, graduate from college! I am so excited to see family and friends and to have this time to celebrate him. I will write more once I return!

Have a great week!

xoxo from Oklahoma,

Amanda

 

I am thankful for…being born with crossed eyes; A Strabismus Saga

There. I wrote it. The sentence I never thought I would write–a condition I never thought I would be grateful for. But, I am thankful for it. Because the things I have overcome have made me who I am today. Someday, I hope to publish a book about my experiences in a way that will help and inspire others, especially young girls who have been diagnosed with strabismus or “crossed eyes.” It impacts 6 to 12 million people in the U.S. alone, but it is a disability that is rarely discussed. People tend to laugh behind hands at the cashier in the grocery store or the elderly man who may have an eye looking in an opposite direction, but that is as far as it goes. Here is a little of my own strabismus story and why I am thankful for it today, inspired by our pastor who explained the importance of having a thankful heart ALL THE TIME, not just when things are going well or poorly.

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

I found this quote courtesy of The Princess Diaries in that awkward middle school stage when I was gawky, skinny as a rail, with braces on my teeth and glasses on my face. I felt that I looked almost exactly like Anne Hathaway before the makeover. And, to make matters worse, I had low self confidence for a large part of my childhood, which I attribute mainly to my strabismus, otherwise known as a Lazy Eye. I have lived with strabismus my entire 26 years of life. It is affecting my daily life now less than it ever has and I can only pray that this time the cure will be lasting. But, sometimes I still worry about the relapse that has occurred every single time that I thought I was in the clear before.

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You see, my eye turned inward to such a severe extent as a baby, that when combined with excessive vomiting, my pediatrician told my parents I may have a brain tumor. An MRI ruled that out, and I was instead diagnosed with a simple case of Acid Reflux and a not-so-simple case of strabismus. While neither of these conditions are life threatening, the strabismus in particular made life pretty uncomfortable. Not only would my eye turn in, an odd kind of squint in which my eyes would literally appear to be looking in different directions, (a condition known as Esptropia) , but the doctors were worried about the potential negative affects on my vision, particularly amblyopia or a permanent loss of vision in one or both eyes. My parents were determined to get me the best possible care, and thus began the continual trips to UAB in Birmingham and then to Vanderbilt in Nashville. They found the best possible ophthalmologists at the time, and a teaching physician at Vandy recommended glasses to help correct the vision. At that time, my diagnosis was so complex that surgery was not an option, and my doctor told us that she would not have been comfortable operating.
As I was a small child, so many details of those first visits are unclear to me, but I remember the special outings to the Zoo after the appointments, I remember the dilating eye drops that stung a little and then made my eyes very blurry and the nice doctor with the long braid down her back. Before I started Kindergarten, my mom, brother and I took a trip to an Optical Shop in Twickenham and I was able to pick out my very own first pair of glasses. I chose a pair with multi colors and little Dalmatians on the side, likely due to my love for the Little Dalmatians. While the glasses would help correct the eye turning, I began Kindergarten as the Kid that was Different, which at age 5 is no fun. Most of my classmates had never seen glasses, although a few of my peers did get them a year or so later. Several kids wanted to touch my new glasses, and my Mom said I came home from school the first few days with the lenses so smudged I could not see through them. She actually had a major argument with my very first Kindergarten teacher who would not allow me to clean my little lenses with a cloth due to the fear of a major classroom disruption. The same teacher also would not let us wash our hands when we went to the bathroom(another story), and my Mom ended up moving me to another class early in the school year. That’s when I met Mrs. Fussell, whom I loved. My glasses were expensive so I remember at such a young age having to be so careful of putting them in my case when we would take naps. My new teacher let me clean them with no issue during the school day. However, I was very, very shy in those days and had trouble making friends with the other kids. I very much felt like the odd one out- how much of this is due to the strabismus as opposed to other personality factors, I don’t know. But I know at that time I felt isolated in my smeared bubble and much preferred the comfort of the musty library stacks to the lunch table, recess and conversation that other kids so easily shared. I felt very awkward and shy. I had a couple of friends that I cherished very, very much, but mostly kept to myself otherwise. In 1st grade I was moved to a gifted class for part of the day, but as the youngest kid in the class, I didn’t really find a place there either at first. Every few months we would make the two-hour trip to Nashville to see my eye specialist. My eye was still turning inward, and big medical words were thrown around that I didn’t understand. Around 2nd grade, my friends began to discover boys, and I developed my first crush too- not that I ever would have been brave enough to talk to him! If I even passed him in the hallway, I found an urgent need to run away. I preferred to sit and read a book alone whether at lunch or recess and made countless trips back and forth to the library! In 3rd grade I read Black Beauty and Pride and Prejudice for the first time, and that year I won an award for the most Accelerated Reading points in the whole school! I got to take a limo ride to a lunch restaurant of my choice in Huntsville, and my dad and a friend went with me. It was a lot of fun. But besides my grades and reading, I was far behind my peers when it came to social interaction.

Then, sports happened. Ugh. My parents signed me up for dance, basketball and soccer, and we soon found that I was entirely unskilled in these areas. My hand eye coordination was almost non existent, which I later found is a result of the strabismus in many cases. With the turning eye, the vision does not develop normally where both eyes can see an individual, slightly different image in each eye and fuse them seamlessly together – what is known as normal binocular vision. Instead, because one eye turns (in, out or up,) that eye usually suppresses an image entirely in one eye to avoid double vision. That is what my eye did. I remember being so very frustrated at not being able to catch a ball, shoot a hoop or dribble correctly. But I kept at it with my parents’ mantra “Winners never quit.” I was chosen last for any PE games which certainly did not help my self esteem any. But, I didn’t really blame the other kids for not picking me because I was truly so bad at game. Alternately, my brother was so very talented at sports that it became hard not to play the comparison game.

Our class entered middle school in 5th grade, and while I had broken out of my “shy shell” and had more girl friends, I had not yet had a boyfriend and began to wonder if I would ever get one. The boys I liked didn’t like me back. My appearance was still nothing to look at, in my opinion, I still wore the glasses, and while my eye turned less, it still occurred more frequently than I or my doctor would have liked. I distinctly remember sitting in a history class one day minding my own business after a test. I was kind of staring off into space, daydreaming about something, when suddenly a loud and blunt classmate yelled out “What is Amanda looking at? It’s like her eyes follow you all over the room or something .” A few snickers ensued, and then the teacher came back into the room. I was mortified, and it took everything in me not to cry on the spot.

The weirdest guy in the class took a liking to me that year, and we sat beside each other in that same class. I thought he wasn’t cute and smelled badly, but he flirted with me all year. I tried to be nothing but kind in return because I knew how it felt to be made to feel less than, but I was not in the least bit interested in him romantically. I felt so alone because all my friends had boyfriends by then and no one besides this guy had ever even asked me out. So I again retreated to the library. Every day after school I would check out books to read home on the bus- Harry Potter, the Babysitter’s Club, Sweet Valley High series. I was an office aide and likely the teacher’s pet in many classes as I tried my best in every class and genuinely loved my teachers. I had some very sweet and loyal friends and continued to try my best at sports . I played for our middle school soccer team– mostly warmed the bench–and a Rec league team. I finally talked my mom out of dance and basketball, and my dad became a Retired Champ for hanging in there with me for so long as the Coach; he had coached us for several Seasons and we were so terrible we would do well not to have the score board turned off on us–no lie!

My brother was a super star athlete on the other hand, and when my well meaning parents praised him about sports, I couldn’t help but feel badly through no fault of his. He was my Defender though and I know of at least 2 fights he entered into because someone made fun of my eyes/glasses. This wasn’t as dark a period as it sounds because aside from the lack of talent in sports and zero luck in the boy dept, I was excelling in school. I joined several extracurricular clubs and set my sights on getting into college. I focused on my female friendships which really blossomed, and on my family, and most importantly on Jesus. When I would occasionally feel lonely or left out, I would pray for my someday future husband whom I still believed I would find/have.

The summer after 8th grade, I got the best news of all! My esotropia appeared to have corrected. The glasses had worked, and my doctor said I had “outgrown them!” I am 26 now and haven’t worn glasses or contacts since, so she was right in that respect. I was so so so excited! I thought my appearance would be drastically improved now, and I could not wait to start high school as the new me. Well, 9th grade began much as before. I had grown up with all the boys I knew, and I assume they still remembered me as the awkward girl I had been for years. I quickly saw I didn’t have much of a chance with the cutest guys in our grade, some of whom I secretly liked. So, I again focused on my grades and female friendships. I found the high school world easier to navigate, especially once my braces came off in 10th grade. I had a couple of guys (not from our school) ask me on dates! I was happy to go.

Well, I had still been seeing my ophthalmologist and she saw a new problem developing, one that while rare, does happen. My eye that used to turn inward had now developed exotropia (an outward turning.) It was infrequent but she wanted to watch it/monitor it over time. Well, on my first date with a jock from another high school, I remember going to eat at the Parkway Place Mall food court. My mom had helped me with my hair and make up, and I felt really pretty. Halfway through the date, he was telling a story and I was listening intently, making what I thought was good eye contact. All of a sudden he looked over his shoulder and back at me, and exclaimed, “What are you looking at?!”  I was mortified when I realized what must be happening with my eyes, something that was totally out of my control. I tried to make light of it and told him I had some issues with my eyes. I turned bright red, and I know I stuttered. I tried my best to control my wandering eye, but to no avail. He was kind, but we did not go out again. I have since learned that people with strabismus often encounter these kinds of embarrassing situations when dating, and that it continues to erode one’s self confidence over time. My experience confirmed this on more than one occasion.

We continued seeing my doctor, and she said we may could eventually consider surgery but to keep monitoring it. I was 16, driving my first car and wanting more than anything just to be “normal.” As the year went on, my eye started doing a weird upward gaze in addition to the outward gaze. This happened in both eyes at times, so I developed an over compensation habit of tilting my chin downward when I took pictures or talked, in an effort to make my eyes look normal. Although my eyes no longer tilt up, I have not entirely broken the habit to this day. In the midst of all this, I had several more dates, including one with a very cute guy I met on a family beach vacation, and finally found my first boyfriend. If the strabismus bothered him, he never commented, and I was relieved that my ugly duckling stage had at least evolved enough to have a full fledged boyfriend. I was so embarrassed by the strabismus that I hated to talk about it at all and wanted what I had been through so far to be a secret. Looking back this was silly, since my classmates who had known me for years obviously knew I had vision problems. I was accused a few times of “rolling my eyes” at friends, teachers  and even family members when that was not my intention at all. I literally had no control over my eyes at times. Anyway, I decided to have my first corrective surgery early in 2007 since the vision problems were continuing in addition to cosmetic ones.

My ophthalmologist, still uncomfortable operating, referred us to a teaching surgeon at Vandy. He was very skilled with strabismus and boasts an impressive resume. The surgery was in Cool Springs, TN and I remember going to sleep, and waking up in what I felt at the time was excruciating pain because it was unfamiliar to me. After surgery, your eyelashes are stuck together with a gunk / build up that makes them hard to open, and that was scary. (Just imagine being stabbed in the eye and then waking up worried you might be blind when everything is dark!) As far as surgeries go, the pain and recovery isn’t terrible. For me, the first surgery was the worst because multiple muscles were worked on, and it was a new experience for me. We drove the 1.5 hours home, and I rested for a couple of days. They gave me some pain meds but after 1-2 days, I was good on just Motrin. My mom had endlessly researched beforehand and she had found a genius idea to freeze sponges to put on my eye instead of using traditional ice packs! The sponges are softer and conform to the sensitive skin of the face better. We also used these for wisdom teeth removal surgery with great success.
I used the sponges and some special eye drops for several days and then went back to see my doctor. The big thing during post strabismus surgery recovery is to use an over-the-counter eye wash multiple times a day to keep the eye clean. As the sutures began to dissolve (he used temporary sutures), I felt an unbearable itching that I couldn’t scratch! I remember being in the car with my then-boyfriend and he had to physically hold my hands down to keep from scratching. No swimming or eye makeup for a while post op, and your eye remains very red for about 10-15 days. I did my surgery over summer break so I didn’t have to go back to school that way.

Afterwards, I felt my vision improve drastically and for the first time, I had some semblance of real depth perception. All was well until my symptoms returned a year or so later. I had my second corrective surgery with the same doctor, again at Cool Springs. He wanted to operate on another muscle to correct my double vision issues. This surgery occurred in the Spring/Summer of my Senior Year of high school, and if memory serves it was just before I went off to college. I was so excited to go to Bama, a place with plenty of cute boys who would not know about all of my eye issues. I thought I looked a lot better than I had in middle school, although direct eye contact was still a bit of a struggle for me, as outgoing as I had become. I still did the chin tilt, but I had no glasses, and cosmetically, my eyes looked great!

I will never forget the day in Art class when I notice my vision had again reverted. It was the Spring of my freshman year, and my teacher was giving a lecture and I suddenly had trouble focusing. I kept seeing two of her and couldn’t focus my left eye. I felt it suppressing the information again, just as it used to, so that I would only be looking through one eye at a time. My stomach sank. This could not be happening again. My mom wanted a second opinion, and this time we did not go back to Vandy. Instead she found Dr. Irene Ludwig, a specialist in childhood strabismus who has written many papers on the subject and travels throughout the Southeast treating patients with my condition. We got an initial apt with her and she explained I had basically had a complete relapse. The other surgeon had done an outdated technique and she wanted to take an entirely different approach and use permanent rather than solvable sutures. We agreed, and that May, when I came home for summer break, I had the surgery just days before starting my annual summer internship. I was still scared of the anesthesia part of the surgery, but I knew what the pain and recovery would feel like, and realized it wasn’t so bad. I began my internship with no eye make up and a very red left eye. And, I met Luke Bradshaw two days later!

One of his very first questions to me was “What’s wrong with your eye?!” He thought I had maybe stabbed myself with a pencil or had been crying. I was used to those kinds of questions from cute guys at this point, and while it still rattled me, I wasn’t as phased as I would have been a few years back. I simply told him I had just had surgery. I felt very vulnerable and unattractive, not because he had done anything to make me feel that way but just because my experience with boys up to this point has been less than desirable. I had joined a sorority at Bama and enjoyed going to Date Parties and football games with several different very handsome fraternity guys, but at this point I was content just being single. I had stopped looking for a boyfriend honestly, and while I still prayed for my future husband occasionally, it was nowhere near the forefront of my mind when I actually met him!

Needless to say, Luke and I started dating, and the surgery was a success–so much so that I had relatively normal vision for more than 2 years! (for more on our love story, just reference the archives of this blog. I have truly found a man who has accepted me for me, just as I am, which is a blessing I thank God for every day. If you too are experiencing what I went through, do not give up hope on the dating front, as God has a very special plan for you too!)

As I was nearing my graduation from Bama, I started to notice the familiar signs, although far less severe than in times past. The problem with strabismus, especially strabismus that develops at a young age, is that your brain doesn’t develop with your eyes correctly. It thinks that suppression of one eye is normal and so it continues to try to override any corrective surgery (this is in layman’s terms). Strabismus surgery often has to be repeated if it is not performed until later in life, and one statistic I recently saw stated that the inward turning of an eye can cause lifelong effects if not properly corrected within the 1st year of life. I want to be very clear here: None of this is my parents’ fault, as they gave me the best care they could find, and drove hours to specialists  at the best hospitals in the South for years and years. They never complained about the time or costs involved and just wanted me to get better. But when I was growing up, all the doctors we saw recommended waiting for surgery until I was older. Now, 25 years later, patients get this surgery younger and younger, and while I know adult strabismus surgery also can have largely positive outcomes, I have a particularly long lasting and complex case. My eyes have been this way my whole life, and that’s hard to permanently correct.  I scheduled a fourth surgery date for June of 2013, just a couple of months before my wedding.

We thought that surgery was my last, as I experienced a very positive outcome for another 2 years. Then, in May of 2015, as I was planning Relay for Life at my job, I began to notice some familiar changes in my vision. My left eye in particular was having trouble focusing. It is interesting how when you have strabismus, you are so in tune with your eyes that you notice this subtle change right when it starts, and you can identify what it is (for better or worse.)

Again, this is no longer a cosmetic issue and hasn’t been since 2010. No one has seen my eye turn in more than 6 years, which is such a blessing. But I want my vision to be correct as well! I kept praying it was nothing and postponed calling the doctor until October. Things had gotten pretty bad during the preceding 4 months, and I had become scared to drive due to major depth perception issues. We scheduled a fifth surgery in Huntsville the day before my 25th birthday.  #fifthtimesacharm. As it was more recent, I remember this surgery well. Luke took off work, and my bosses were also very understanding. We stayed with my Mom who again froze sponge packs for me. One of our former church members/deacons came to the  Madison Surgery Center to say a prayer for a great outcome, and for all intents and purposes the surgery was highly successful. Anything less than a 10 result is highly successful, and I achieved a 6. However, 1 is ideal.

They make you take a 3D vision test beforehand, and you have to identify a set of 3D dots and animals, kind of a “which is the 3D object in this set?” test. At my worst as a child, I could always do this with ease. Last October, I was scoring 0/9 on the dots and 1/4 on the animals. I was terrified. After the surgery, I scored 2/9 on the dots and 4/4 on the animals. There is no question my vision has gotten far better than it was! But immediately after the surgery, I didn’t think my distance vision had substantially improved as it had in times past. Cosmetically, everything looked great, but I was concerned.  My doctor recommended four sessions of eye stretching to try to fix the problems I was having non-surgically. Eye stretching is like PT or rehab for the eyes. The tech puts some numbing gel in your eye and the doctor takes mini forceps and stretches it pretty intensely. It is uncomfortable, just as any PT is but bearable. It is done while you are awake, in office,and you do most likely need a driver to take you home if you are driving any kind of distance because your eye will tear up for a while and remain sore for several hours/days (at least mine did.) We drove 1.5 hours to see my doctor in Dothan mostly, at Eye Center South, in Huntsville again and in Birmingham. We followed her as she traveled. I had a mostly good experience except with the tech in Birmingham. He was not very nice and refused to use enough numbing gel. It was an awful experience and Luke was pretty rude to him at the end. If you ever have this done, stand your ground and insist on that gel!! Make them use enough until you are comfortable. Otherwise it hurts something terrible if they even touch your eye, much less stretch it as far as it can go. Anyway, we were told that eye stretching is successful in 50% of cases, and the doctor seemed quite happy with my stretching outcome. My last session was in December of 2015. She also instructed me to wear reading glasses for computer work and reading, which has helped tremendously.

But, in the Spring of 2016, as we were driving to visit Luke’s family, he asked me to take a turn behind the wheel. It was dark out, and I struggled tremendously with the driving- mostly seeing at a distance. That’s when I knew I needed to go back to Dr. Ludwig. Something wasn’t right. I saw her a few weeks later in Dothan, and during the exam, she said my left eye was still crossing at a distance. It’s so minimal and not cosmetically obvious, but enough for me to notice. As it was negatively affecting my distance vision, I scheduled surgery for April–my sixth one in as many years.

Ironically, I think going into my sixth eye surgery, I was more patient and less upset than I had ever been. I resolved to handle this with grace and to stop pitying myself and thinking “why me?” So many people have had it a whole lot tougher and manage just fine. Meanwhile, Jesus opened doors for me along the way to minister to others with this condition. At every appointment I found people in need of encouragement, so many much, much younger than me! Here is an excerpt from the book I am writing, based on some events from my own life as an example of how I might be impacting others through this experience.

Leading into the third surgery…

“Her Mom sat beside her as always, frantically Googling, using Web MD as a tool to hopefully prompt the doctor with some sort of clue, some sort of tip that would once and for all solve Samantha’s medical issue—permanently. “Samantha….” The nurse stood in the door of the hallway, and Sammy stood up, tucking her book into her purse and straightening her back. With a lift of her chin, she met the nurse’s eyes and managed a smile. She sat in the all-too familiar chair of the triage room and completed the eye exercises by routine. Look straight ahead at the letters, try to read them. Sammy was elated to find that the nurse had to skip down 8 lines with her right eye, that she could see almost the smallest letters on the screen with her left eye covered. Then she switched, and as predicted, her left eye was much weaker. She could only see about 5 lines down before the letters became too small to see. Often, on this test, she would inadvertently memorize some of the lines that she could easily read with her dominant eye, and Samantha would find herself reciting the right answers to the blurred letters on the screen. Then, the nurse would give her the funny red and green colored glasses and do the color blindness test. Samantha always aced this test and thought it almost comical that she had to take it every single time. No, color blindness had never been her issue; if only her strabismus could be that cut and dry, black and white. Then, came the part Samantha dreaded.

The nurse jotted some notes in the chart and picked up a black booklet with a giant fly on the front. One thing about going to a pediatric specialist meant that a now teenaged Samantha had to deal with the funny cartoon characters, a plethora of pictures and stuffed animals that filled the office. While usually comforting and familiar, Samantha hated this fly, this book and all of the other animals in it. “Please try to pull at the fly’s wings,” the nurse instructed. Samantha did so, knowing the nurse was now testing her 3D vision, the part Samantha always failed. She always managed to capture that stinking fly, perhaps because he was large enough to fill the entire page. If she’d grabbed his wings once, she’d grabbed them 1,000 times. The nurse, Nurse Molly her name tag read, opened the book and instructed her to analyze circles made up of dots. One of the dots was supposed to stand out to Samantha as three-dimensional. She knew this in her head. But, for the life of her, beyond the first two circles (left dot, top dot), all of the dots looked the same. Flat. The nurse would give her another minute. Samantha also knew this routine too well. Nod with sympathy and a false smile and switch to the four rows of animals below. Today, the animals looked flatter to Samantha than they ever had. But, perhaps from years of this exercise, she knew the rote answers. Monkey, Cat, Frog, Squirrel. The nurse closed the book, turned back to her chart, and Samantha again felt her eyes well up. An A-student, she never failed a test except this one. Over and over, year after year, Samantha could not pass. And now, post-surgery, after the operation that was supposed to correct this issue, Samantha still failed.

Nurse Molly moved to dilate her eyes, and Samantha gripped at the tissues her Mom handed her automatically. Despite having gone through dozens of dilations in her 17 years of life, Samantha hated this part. She always dreaded it, the brief burning and stinging sensation followed by the cold relief of numbing drops. It never hurt, and she was always relieved when it was over. But every time a nurse moved to pry her eyes open, Samantha found an inexplicable need to blink them shut. “Don’t touch my eyes,” she wanted to shout. “Just leave them alone! I’m done. Done with this appointment, done with this issue. I JUST WANT TO BE NORMAL!” But, as usual, she silenced these thoughts, summoned up her dignity and managed to get through the dilation with only a brief yelp. Nurse Molly led Samantha and her Mom to another waiting room, this one darker so that her now-sensitive eyes would not react to the light. Mom turned toward her, as if to begin a conversation, as if to apologize again for the strabismus, but Samantha immediately turned to her Nook, tilting it toward the lamplight. She always played this game with herself—try to read for as long as you possibly can, because once the dilation takes effect, blurriness took over, making reading an impossibility. Just another small torture of her condition—she was forced to sit in a waiting room for hours at a time without even reading to distract her. Samantha’s record was 29.5 minutes until the Nook blurred too much to read on. But, as usual during these appointments, about five minutes in, Sammy found herself staring blankly at the wall, reflecting on her condition. What led her to be here?

Be still my Daughter, and know that I am God.

She felt His voice in her very heart, in her being, and knew that God was there. That He had great plans for her, in spite of this—no THROUGH this—condition.

As if on cue, a child next to her started wailing, distracting her from her reverie. Samantha glanced at the family. The little boy wore thick Coke bottle glasses and appeared to be about two. The doctor must be doing refraction tests on him, Sammy thought. She watched what must be his Mom reach for him, bounce him up and down on her lap and point at pictures in a book. The Dad sat next to her, somewhat helplessly, and then picked up his cell phone and began scrolling. Samantha was just about to look away when the kid jumped up and ran over to the miniature picnic table set up with a small castle toy set. Her brother, Wesley, had a castle just like that when he was younger, and he and Sam would spend hours moving the gold and black knights around, over the drawbridge, crossing the moat and down the corridors. They would often make pretend and have battles; Wesley usually won. Sammy made sure of that. This kid seemed to enjoy the knights as much as she had, and she smiled. His Dad meanwhile, moved over closer to the Mom, and the two now sat side by side, right next to Samantha. She couldn’t help but overhear their conversation.

“I don’t know what to do, Nora. Doctor Johnson said….”The Dad sounded distraught.

The woman called Nora responded, “I just couldn’t bear for her to operate on Johnny. Not when he’s so young. Can you imagine how painful an eye surgery would be for him? I can’t put him through that unless we are absolutely sure.”

The Dad sighed. “Nora, if we don’t, you heard what could happen. This strabismus isn’t just going to go away. His eyes will turn for years, he’ll get made fun of at school, could develop amblyopia and go blind in one or both eyes. I say we do it.”

“Tom,” Nora said. “Let’s just get through today, think about it, pray about it…” her voice trailed off. Nora’s eyes suddenly found Samantha’s and Samantha could see the glassiness belying tears, could feel her worry like it was physically present in the room with them. For a moment, she was transported directly into her own Mom’s heart. She could sense the helplessness, the desire to do anything to prevent your child from pain and being unable to.

Samantha couldn’t resist speaking up.

“Ma’am, I’ve had strabismus surgery before,” she ventured. “It wasn’t so bad, really.”

Nora immediately perked up, turning more fully toward her, peppering her with several questions at once.

“You have? What was it like? Did it hurt? Did it work?”

Placing her Nook aside, Samantha crossed her legs and turned toward Nora. She felt the Dad’s eyes on her as well as her own Mom’s while the kid continued to play on, oblivious.

“Yes, I had it last year. Dr. Johnson actually did it herself. It went very well. You wake up right afterward, and your eyelashes feel kind of glued down, very sticky. And then, when you open your eyes, it does hurt. But, she gave me some medicine for that. You use drops every day for a couple of weeks and wash out your eye to get all of the gunk out, and it’s red for several weeks. You can’t go swimming,” Samantha laughed briefly. “But, it’s Winter now, so you’re good there. All in all, it’s so worth it, ma’am. My vision got so much better, and they say the younger you can get it….Well the more likely it is to work. Because your brain doesn’t develop to see things out of two eyes at once.” Samantha nodded toward Tom and the castle. “In my opinion, if Dr. Johnson is advising it, I would say go for it.”

The relief coming from Nora and the Dad seemed palpable. Samantha really felt that they cared about her experience, what she had to say, that she had in some way made their decision easier. Nurse Molly appeared in the doorway then, calling Johnny for his second part of the appointment. The parents jumped up, and as the Dad lifted Johnny and the diaper bag up, Nora paused briefly, squeezed Samantha’s arm and made perfect eye contact. “Thank you,” she murmured before following her family into the exam room.

After their exit, Samantha turned back to her Nook, but she couldn’t see anymore. She set it aside for good, knowing her eyes would be blurry for the next few hours. “That was a good thing you did, encouraging that family,” Mom leaned over and whispered. Samantha nodded, blinking back her own tears and the idea that her surgery did NOT work. She still believed in the surgery though, firmly believed it could help Johnny. She also firmly believed if she would have had it herself at a younger age, before her vision was fully developed, if only her case had been less complex…Well, that was chasing a rabbit down a hole and not worth pondering at this point.

She quickly pulled herself out of her self-pity. After all, it was pointless. Maybe God put her here, today, back in this waiting room, just so she could help Johnny’s family in some way. Was that the point of all this, God?

Be still and know that I am God.

In that moment, Samantha was surer than ever that God had her here for a reason, that all of her experiences thus far had been leading up to this. That maybe, just maybe, she had helped someone today. And if that were the case, well, then it would all be worth it.”

One day I hope to publish my book. It has been hard to open old wounds to try to write parts of it as they occurred, but again, my hope is that it will help someone else in some way. #sixthtimesafix (Only time will tell.)
It’s been a really long road to get here, and for that I am grateful. Any suffering I experienced has only served to make me more kind, more compassionate, more understanding. And, I am thankful for it. But mostly, this is a story of Hope for others living with strabismus. Each and every surgery has helped and improved my life tremendously, even if the best part of the improvements have lasted just for a while instead of permanently. I can honestly say that my vision is much better now than it has been.

People don’t realize how much strabismus affects your life- driving, friendships, dating relationships, hand eye coordination, depth perception etc. even reading and studying! It is not just a cosmetic issue. I have backed into things, ran into signs in plain view, tripped over curbs, etc when I am having vision problems. (Sure, some of this may be a natural lack of grace or tendency toward clumsiness but strabismus causes a lot of it, too.)
If you or your child has strabismus, the important thing is to know you are not alone. This too will improve/pass. It may feel lonely, hard. You may feel ugly. But, know this.  You are beautiful even if one eye is looking sideways, and you deserve to find someone who will make you feel that way! You can find that person! Even if it’s not a romantic partner, you are a child of God first and foremost, and He creates nothing less than perfection. I feel called to share this strabismus story now in its latest chapter and hopefully conclusion. Although only God knows if it is.

While we have never been given a firm answer as to what caused my strabismus, we have concluded based on opinions from multiple specialists that it was likely birth trauma. I was in the birth canal far too long and finally had to be taken out with forceps and rushed to the NICU. I was not breathing when I was born, and I did not cry to the extreme fear and panic of my parents. I was also born extremely early and would have been considered premature by today’s standards. Genetics can also cause strabismus. No matter the cause, I survived and made it to where I am today because Jesus has a grand plan and a calling for my life. If you have made it all the way to the end of this story with me, know that Jesus has a big calling for you too!

When I got the news of my last surgery, I did not cry, scream or carry on as I have been prone to do in the past. It is what it is, a fact of life, a simple Road block that God has continued to leave in my path to help me mature and grow. Maybe the purpose is so that I can have some impact on others who feel so different and alone, maybe it’s something else. But I am doing my best to live with strabismus gracefully, away from fear and to encourage others to do the same. By God’s grace, I have a successful career as a public relations manager. I have given dozens of public speeches (being selected to give a high school graduation address was a highlight for me), and I can now give eye contact with the best of them. The insecurities don’t all disappear at once. To be honest, some still exist and may always to some extent. But when I separated myself from fear once and for all, I truly began to live. Today, I give no person the power to make me feel inferior or less than especially for a condition I was born with. Today, I have a happy, mostly normal lifestyle. I am very independent and most of my acquaintances would never know my eye ever turned or that I have any residual issues with it. My Vision is better than it ever has been. I feel nothing but grateful. I have been blessed with the best parents, the best doctors who know what to do, the best husband and a Country that allows us to have elective surgery like this. My surgeries were all mostly covered by insurance but either way, it is fairly cost effective.
If you are considering strabismus surgery after a discussion with and recommendation from your doctor, don’t hold back and don’t delay. Your life will truly be changed in an unimaginable way. The first time you look at an object with both eyes TOGETHER, it truly feels like a miracle! ☺️ And that is something to be grateful for.
Sincerely,
A strabismus survivor

Creating a Home of “Imperfect” Hospitality

Luke and I have been busy bees lately with a couple of big events back to back– his promotion ceremony to Captain, my 26th birthday and our annual Halloween party. We wanted to do each of these events “right” and celebrate with those close to us, but we were faced with one tiny problem…Our house is tiny. Literally.

A historic home on post, its charm doesn’t quite extend to closet size, open concept or entertaining. The rooms are chopped into smallish segments, and whereas our living space at Fort Benning could fit a sofa, loveseat and more, our living room here can barely fit just that same sofa alone, with barely any space to squeeze by on either size.

We debated not hosting our annual party, but it is an important event in our lives each year; we really enjoy dressing up in costumes and opening our home to our friends and neighbors, wherever we may be living. I told Luke we were simply going to have to make it work! And, we did.

halloween-2016

Somehow we had one of our biggest parties ever in the smallest space we have ever lived! And yet, everyone had a blast. (At least that’s what they told us. ;))

I’ve learned over the last few years that entertaining is less about achieving “perfection” and more about opening up whatever space you have along with your hearts to form relationships and share God’s love with your community. If I waited for “perfect” conditions here in my one-bathroom home, I would never find the space suitable to host a party or even a smallish dinner with friends! The best approach is just to push all the furniture out of the way, hide the breakables (and fire) from the kiddos, and just let everyone find space where they may!

luke-and-manda

A Pirate and His Parrot ^

Likewise, when Luke’s family visited, we squeezed 9 people in for three meals, many games of cards, lots of laughter and love. Did we have dining chairs, folding baseball field chairs, and desk chairs scattered about? Of course! Did it look “pretty?” Not necessarily. But, as I watched Uncle Jimmy tell a story, and all of the relatives were clutching their sides from the shared laughter, I knew it was worth it. I had to relinquish my version of a perfect matching table with everything “just so” in order to share those experiences with family. And we made memories we will not forget that weekend!

I will admit I was a bit fearful to move here, scared to “start over” rebuilding the kind of community and connection we had at Ft. Benning. But, that anxiety has long since faded as I have begun to find my place here at Ft. Sill. I joined the Redcoat Ambassadors through the Lawton-Fort Sill Chamber of Commerce this past month, and I am excited to see what relationships and connections I may form through this group; I can already tell they are a close knit family! I think so much of making a place into a home is a state of mind, as is happiness–it’s all about what you make it. The looks of pity that I received when I told some people in Georgia that we were moving to Oklahoma became my personal challenge to make this our grandest adventure yet! And it has been; Luke and I have joined a church that feels more like family, attended my first rodeo, run a 5K and so much more! This Spring, we have trips planned to Dallas and the Grand Canyon, and we cannot wait to see what else the Midwest has in store for us.

At a church conference a couple of weeks ago, I felt very convicted about building fellowship with those around me every day, those who walk beside us in our current season of life. I want to get to know my neighbors, my sisters and brothers in Christ as church, my coworkers, Luke’s fellow military service members; I want each of these groups to feel welcome in our home. My Sunday School classmate Sarah Hays is a genius at imperfect hospitality–except hers looks more perfect than anything!

Last Sunday, she squeezed more than 20 people into her home for “Friendsgiving,” and it was absolutely wonderful! She and her husband were kind enough to provide the main meat, and everyone brought a side or a dessert. They pushed their furniture aside, brought in some extra chairs, and literally opened their door to anyone and everyone who wanted to come! We ended up with more than enough food, and a great time was had by all! Plus she somehow made it look even better than Pinterest–a gal of many talents I am befriending purposefully to learn some of her hostessing tips! 🙂

Because I know what it is like to move to a new place and know literally nobody, I think I am more cognizant of this than most and understand the importance of building and sharing a community. Many of you that follow our story know that Luke was extremely sick when we moved to Oklahoma, and I moved into this house by myself. He could not get out of bed at the Marriott for almost 10 days–some of the scariest days I have known, and at points I felt pretty alone as we went from doctor to doctor searching for answers. I knew God was here with us of course, and some fellow West Point wives offered to help, but I didn’t know them yet or the blessing they would later be in my life (shout out Brooke and Nicole!). That is why when my neighbor asked if a friend of a friend could come to our Halloween party, a couple who literally just moved onto our street that didn’t know anyone here yet besides them, my reply was “Yes,” even though I had never personally met them. I will admit I hesitated briefly as my mind fell into that trap of worry about the “lack of perfection” my home offers. What if there just wasn’t enough room? Would it be too crowded, uncomfortable, did I have enough food? But I shook those feelings off immediately and said the more, the merrier! We squeezed everyone in just fine, and I am so so glad we did. Because that is one of the very sweetest families we have met here, and we have gotten to spend some more time with them since then, that I truly cherish. What if I had not agreed to a last minute addition to my “perfect” party? I would not have met a new friend! The space accommodated us all perfectly, especially since the babies seemed to prefer crawling on the floor anyway!

I want to be a friend to everyone, especially those who find themselves alone in a new place. My goal is to share Christ’s love with them. And, that is what I attempted to do through our Halloween party, what I want to do with an upcoming neighborhood Christmas Cookie Exchange as we team up to deliver bags of delicious goodies to those that live near us. That’s why I’ve stopped worrying about the dust, the undone laundry, the Halloween decorations that have long since been taken down. We both work full time and are doing the best we can. And, I want to share our home and ourselves with people in the meantime! The idea that hospitality has to be “perfect” is a myth I bought into for far too long. You don’t have to know someone well to open the door of your home and your heart; and it just might surprise you how very blessed you find yourself in return for having done so!turkey

I hope you all have a relaxing weekend and maybe build a connection with someone you don’t know! Luke and I are both working, but we believe in “working hard and playing hard.” Although we are going to be clocking a lot of hours through Tuesday night, we are so thankful my Dad and grandmother are coming to visit us here in Lawton on Wednesday. We will put the turkey in the deep fryer, the sweet potato casserole in the oven and then relax and enjoy one another’s company for a few days. If I don’t write before then, I hope you have a VERY Happy Thanksgiving. This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for much–my wonderful husband, my family, and our incredible community here in Oklahoma.

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