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Finding Perspective In 2017- A Necessary Year of Tough Metamorphosis & Grand Adventure

As we reflect back upon our past year of life, one word stands out to me the most: CHANGE.

So much changed for me personally and for our family, both immediate and extended, in 2017. In many ways we have been pushed to the breaking point, and yet we have survived and thrived in this year of major life transitions. Even taking it piece by piece seems like a crazy whirlwind of a year, but here is a little of what the Bradshaws were up to, month by month.

January 

In January, we rang in the New Year with precious friends at Fort Sill. We had such a tight knit Army family in Oklahoma, and although we are spread out all over the world now, I know that those bonds and relationships will remain despite time and distance. What a very special season of life Jesus placed us in on Lauman Avenue.

I got to experience my first snow in the Midwest, and we had a blast tromping through the white streets.

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In addition to my job at Chick-fil-A, I began a new position as an adjunct instructor at Cameron University.

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This is one instance proving that perseverance pays off! The communications department chair told me he did not have any openings after we first moved to Oklahoma, but I essentially bugged him for months until something came up. What a blessing to have had the opportunity to spend a semester with a class of students whom I am sure taught me as much or more than I taught them.

February

My younger brother, Ethan, moved to Rogers, AR in February to begin his new job in cyber security with WalMart corporate- only 5 hours away! Luke and I made the drive up to help him get settled into his new home, and spent the weekend visiting with my Dad, who also made the trip out. I love this town, and seeing the Sam Walton Museum and other local sights was pretty cool!

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Here is a snapshot of our much needed Valentine’s Date Night, which you can read about here.

And, the Ladies of Lauman had a fun girls’ night at the local Japanese steakhouse.

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Despite the fun, this was a stressful month, as I felt a lot of pressure to choose where we would be spending the next 3-4 years of our lives. Would it be Austin, TX, my alma mater in Tuscaloosa, AL, Gainesville, FL or Baltimore, MD? Each campus offered its own appeal and a completely unique experience! After a few campus visits, it was up to me to decide which Ph.D. program would be best for my future career goals and which locale would be best for our family post-Army. I made this decision unilaterally, at Luke’s firm insistence. He believed that because I moved for him twice with the military, it was my turn to choose. He was good for his word and literally refused to give me the slightest bit of input, agreeing to move wherever I wished. He is always so kind and supportive of my goals, but can you say SO MUCH PRESSURE! Haha I am grateful we will be deciding our next move together. 🙂

To this day, I so clearly remember the plane flight to visit Gainesville…As I flew over Charlotte, I felt this nagging in my spirit to move back East, closer to family (9 hours as opposed to 17-24+). Sure enough, I fell in love with the campus and the program here, and after much reflection and prayer, I officially set our course for Florida. I knew Luke was interested in shipping/logistics, so I figured this state by the sea would serve him well also.

L & A Gator Flag

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Luke began his job search in this area right after I signed the acceptance letter for UF with a trip to Savannah, GA to attend the Service Academy Career Conference, a huge potential employment matching opportunity designed specifically for service academy grads to meet representatives from major corporations all over the world.

I tagged along, and we invited his brothers Jacob and Samuel and Jacob’s wife Adrianna to come along to simultaneously celebrate Luke’s 27th birthday. We had a great time returning to the city we fell in love with on our honeymoon and spent plenty of time exploring and celebrating once his official business was finished. I even ran into my long lost AOII sorority sister and bridesmaid, Lauren Killen (now Kirkconnell), for a meal. It was so wonderful to catch up with this dear friend.

March

March began with a progressive dinner party on Lauman Avenue.

Our friend group went from house to house and enjoyed a Mexican fiesta with a different course at each home. At the Gonzales’s, we sang a belated Happy Birthday song for Luke and had cake. It was SO MUCH FUN, and made even better because no one had to drive anywhere since we all lived within walking distance.

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Otherwise, March was an extremely tough month for us. In short, Luke’s parents announced their decision to officially separate after 25+ years of marriage, something we found out just before flying back to NC to celebrate his aunt and uncle’s 50th wedding anniversary weekend. Needless to say it was an extremely bittersweet, painful, weekend for Luke and his siblings and parents. I do not wish to share more details about this, but I do want to ask for prayers for all parties involved as we all continue to process and sort out what our new family normal entails moving into the New Year. I am extremely glad we live MUCH closer now and that I listened to that nudging in my spirit that led me to choose Florida, even before we had added incentive to be closer to home in this season.

Here are a few photos from the NC weekend visit, including one with a very reluctant leprechaun on St. Patty’s Day! Luke’s Uncle Howard and Aunt Sue were so surprised by their 50th anniversary dinner party. Their children, Ben and Natalie, did a wonderful job organizing everything.

In the meantime, our family has become closer than ever as we refocus on what is really important in life and prioritize our relationships with God and then one another over all else.

Our parents are always good about visiting us where we are at, and my Mom came to Oklahoma later in March to spend a few days with us. You can read all about it here.

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We spent some time playing tourists in our own town, exploring the area around Fort Sill. We saw several bison at the nearby nature preserve, ate some delicious meals, and simply relaxed a good bit.

April

They say April showers bring May flowers, and sure enough, the month began with a sad farewell to our dear friends, the McClellands. Bound for Fort Bragg, NC, this family has been super special to us ever since Scott and Luke were in the same class at West Point. We knew them during BOLC (Fort Sill the first time around) and again this time. It was a sad see you later, but how special to get to celebrate Aaden’s first communion together.

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In fact, it seemed a lot of this month was preparing to say goodbye while enjoying precious memories with friends in the meantime. Here are a few images from our ladies’ brunch at Kelly’s house, dinner with friends and coworkers, West Point Founders Day, and a rodeo in Texas!

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My Mom and brother came into town to celebrate Easter weekend with us at Fort Sill. We had heard great things about the annual Easter pageant at the Holy City of the Wichitas, and it truly was a spectacular sight. The play tells the living story of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection over a three-hour span, ending at midnight, to officially welcome Easter Sunday. Several friends joined us for church at Crossroads Baptist in Elgin that morning (I really miss this very special church), and then we had lunch at our house afterward. Read more about our wonderful Easter weekend here.

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Finally, I had our last class meeting for my public speaking students at Chick-fil-A for free breakfast day! What a wonderful way to wrap up the semester with a very special group.

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May 

May was a month of lasts– last game night, last neighborhood cookout, last dinner, etc.

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As hard as it was to say goodbye to so many special friends, God reminded me time and time again how lucky we are to have people in our lives who make saying see you later so tough. Until we meet again, I wish you well…I hope your light shines easily.

May also brought another visit to Rogers, AR. Luke flew out for another Service Academy Career Conference, this time in Washington DC, and since I had wrapped up my job at Chick-fil-A to begin prepping for the move, I took advantage of the opportunity to head up and visit Ethan.

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We went hiking and out to eat, and while he worked during the day, I visited various coffee shops around town to work on writing my Christian fiction novel for young adults. Luke joined us for the weekend after the conference, and we explored the nearby tiny town of Eureka Springs (Little Switzerland) together. Read more about our Arkansas adventures here.

I also headed to my hometown, Huntsville, AL to surprise my MOH, Jessica, for her Gender Reveal Party. She had no idea I would be able to make it, so it was really fun to see her. Plus, I was Team Blue, and she is now the mother of a happy, healthy baby boy. #CalledIt

Meanwhile, Luke was wrapping up his job as a Battery Commander of a basic training unit, and I was so proud to attend the graduation ceremony he officiated. He is such a great speaker and leader! #ProudWifeMoment

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June

Officially moving month, June brought our final days at Fort Sill. We spent the first two and a half weeks wrapping up everything Army related, carefully supervised the packing and loading of everything we own, and cleaned our rented base housing from top to bottom.

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I continued to work on my novel despite the chaos, and even attended the Southern Christian Writers Conference where I ran into my old professor and mentor from the University of Alabama, Dr. George Daniels.

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The last week in Oklahoma, we were nomads and lived with our downstairs neighbor, since we had to be out of our home before Luke was officially free to leave town. My goodbye dinner with Kirsten, my CFA co-worker and friend, was another tear jerker. I miss this girl!

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Our last dinner as the Ladies of Lauman (already missing Rachel!)

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Pokeno night with my sweet church/Army wife friends, Lindsay and Brooke. Miss them so!

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In exciting news, Luke officially signed his employment contract with Target during this time frame! He was a man with a plan, and we felt so grateful God brought this opportunity to us with plenty of time to prepare.

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There was something so gloriously sweet about watching Luke’s last official ceremony as a Battery Commander sitting beside my good friend, Lydia Redmond, and then going with him to out process for the last time; he looked so handsome in his active duty uniform. A wave of emotions hit me as I realized this was it, the last time he would ever wear this uniform.

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The Army was all we had ever known in the 7 years of our life together. When I met Luke he was a West Point cadet, and from then on, the Army was our life. Luke went from a Cow to a Firstie to Second Lieutenant, First Lieutenant, and Captain, and he did one heck of a job serving his country. I will always be so proud of him. However, it was bittersweet because we were equally excited for our next chapter and transition to civilian life. For many reasons, I knew Luke was/is completely at peace with his decision to ETS, and so life as we know it was forever changed.

As I followed him in his brand new Chevy Equinox (bye bye, Old Bessie; you will always be the very best Chevy Silverado around) onto the interstate, I took one last look in my rear view mirror at Fort Sill. It was a year so well spent; God so clearly had us in that place for that exact season, but not a moment longer.

Fun Fact: Our PCS move was literally the most ambitious ever. Here is a road map of our travels from Point A to Point B (and everywhere in between!)

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To begin our adventure, we headed up to Arkansas one last time as our moving day was June 19th- Ethan’s 24th birthday!

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We took him out to dinner, bought him a gift and a birthday pie, and spent a great 24 hours together (No, the boys didn’t plan to match. LOL). I sobbed the next day when we had to leave because I do not know when I will see my brother again. It could easily be a long, long time with all of us in new jobs and living very far apart. We are praying our paths will cross in 2018, sometime, somewhere.

We went to see Greg and Jenae Young at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri next. They were some of our very best friends at Fort Benning, GA, and we had not seen them in over a year.

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We went out to eat Korean food (they now live in Korea, per Uncle Sam’s orders), and had a great evening reminiscing and playing board games. I am so glad we got the chance to reunite with them.

On our way South, we stopped in St. Louis, Missouri for only 2 hours and for 2 reasons: 1. To see the arch 2. To try the ribs. We did both and felt satisfied checking this city off the bucket list.

48 hours later we made it to Florida for a long weekend of house hunting and one piece of delicious key lime pie!

We decided to purchase our first home here for a variety of reasons, but namely rent is super expensive in the area, and we wanted to start building equity. Plus, we really, really wanted a house after years of Army/apartment housing. It was a hot, hot, hot seller’s market (literally and figuratively…temps here in June are no joke!) and we lost one bidding war before winning a second with an offer well above asking price. Mission accomplished. (I thought we had a lime tree based on the photo above, but turns out this is an orange tree! Haha they were just tiny at the time.) We checked out of our hotel and drove the 9 hours back to Huntsville to spend some R&R time with my family, including a great day trip to Chattanooga with my Mom.

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July 

June faded into July in a blur of lazy days; we spent the 4th with my Dad and grandmother, enjoying the pool at my uncle’s house followed by a fireworks show.

Luke worked the house sale from afar, and I continued to edit my novel. Meanwhile, we played cards, stayed up late, ate out way too much (to the point we were literally begging any family member to cook for us; shoot we would cook! Just let us use your kitchen.)

We then traveled to NC to spend some time with Luke’s side of the family. His mom rented a pontoon boat, and we spent a very nice day on the lake. We also took our sister, Hannah, and her boyfriend, Will, to Carowinds for a belated birthday trip and went to a Jason Aldean concert in Charlotte. Luke really enjoyed growing out his post-Army facial hair.

On the 15th we flew out of Charlotte for a two-week journey to Italy! We had planned this trip for over two years, and worked so hard to live mostly off of one income in order to make this happen.

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We saw Rome, Venice, and Florence as well as Burano, Murano, Tuscany, and Positano. Here are a few of our favorite images from this vacation for the memory books.

August

After returning from Italy, Luke and I had to work out several kinks with our pending home. The whole thing needed new plumbing, a new roof, and some other minor repairs, equivalent to thousands of dollars. We had a couple of scary days when we thought the sale might fall through, but through much prayer and perseverance, it all worked out. However, we could not close a single day before the Thursday the week before we both started our new jobs. Talk about mega stress overload!

We visited Luke’s brothers in Charleston and then stayed in a hotel in Florida for a couple days leading up to closing.

Meanwhile, I sent my finished novel out to several publishers and am anxiously holding my breath…publishing a novel turns out to be a very long multi-month and even multi-year process, so stay tuned. I just feel so satisfied to have completed this lifelong goal of writing the book I felt called to write.

And then, we went to see a man about a house!

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The day after closing, we had Army movers, the cable guy, and four other contractors all milling about the property, trying to get everything set up for us. It was a mad house! But, somehow we survived. We did not get everything fully unpacked/organized for a month or two, but we were in.

We started our new jobs Monday, me at UF and Luke at Target.

A few photos from orientation days! #DocumentingTheJourney

 

 September

Oh, September…the 1st brought our 4th wedding anniversary (yay!); hard to believe it’s been that long already. Seems like forever and just a short time all at once.

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Luke always works so hard to make anniversaries a special day for me, and he succeeded yet again! We knew it would be the last date night we would get for awhile, which made it even more precious when we got all dressed up for a nice dinner out.

It was the perfect getaway from the boat load of changes we had been experiencing each and every day since our move just 2 weeks before. Suddenly we were thrust into this whole new world with no clue which way was up. I blogged more about this here, and I am so glad I did, because it is hard to fully put into words now all of the emotions I was experiencing then.

I’ll just say the first semester of a Ph.D. program is notoriously difficult, isolating, and incredibly stressful. It pushed me to my limits, changed my thinking, took me to the next level as a scholar. It was such a painful process at times! Mix in working opposite schedules to my husband, and I felt like a zombie on autopilot for most of this month. Change is hard for anyone, but when you take all of our changes in 2017 and compound them, you get the perfect storm that was our first few weeks here in Florida. It took me a little while to sort through all of this.

Here are some photos after the first week of perspectives class! We all went out to lunch to celebrate.

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Unfortunately, Hurricane Irma drove us from our new home a couple of weeks later. We evacuated to Huntsville and spent some time with my family in hopes of avoiding the storm (which ended up chasing us up that way! Lol).

They say that hurricanes bring babies, and sure enough, my friend and MOH Jessica went into labor during that time, a few weeks early. Luke and I got to stop by the hospital and visit with her and Will, and even though we have not had the pleasure of meeting baby Wesley yet, he is simply perfect. I am grateful for the hurricane for that moment alone.

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My cohort is full of some incredible people from diverse backgrounds, many of whom  have expressed feeling alone here in FL at first too. The military spouse inside me played social coordinator and tried to plan some fun activities to get all of us together and outside our comfort zones. A faculty member has said we are one of the closest classes  she has ever seen, and I must say I agree with that statement. My fellow classmates are definitely a blessing to me– just another sign God knew exactly what He was doing in moving us here to this place at this time for this purpose. Here we are celebrating Donghee’s birthday, a very fun occasion!

October 

Another month passed in a blur, although I was definitely getting my bearings better and began to figure out this whole Ph.D. program thing…a mixture of wine nights and papers, a couple beach trips to both St. Augustine and Cedar Key, adjusting to new schedules, and tons of girls’ days unfolded.

The fun side of home ownership (note my sarcasm) included the need for a new HVAC much sooner than anticipated. My MIL wasn’t faring much better when a tornado hit her property later in the month and took out a good chunk of her barn! Yikes. It was not a great month for us, but fortunately, no one got hurt, and at the end of the day that is what truly matters.

On a brighter note, I turned 27, and we hosted our annual Halloween party on my birthday for the whole class. It was really fun getting to wear our Carnival masks that we bought in Venice!  And, the party gave us an added incentive to get our house (mostly) organized.

To be honest, behind the smiles in the photographs, my birthday was a tough day. I remember sitting at the hair salon that afternoon crying my eyes out. I felt so lonely here despite the camaraderie with my fellow cohort members. I missed my friends from home and my mom and even my husband; with opposite schedules it sometimes feels as if I see him less than in the Army. But, that evening, I was reminded just how blessed we truly are here with my class gathered at our home.

 

We laughed for hours playing the Werewolf game, and I think everyone truly had a great time. They also brought me the sweetest, most unexpected gifts. What a blessing it is to have these people in my life! Yes, this is a season of change. Change is hard. But, there is almost always something better waiting on the other side! You just have to get there.

Here we all are celebrating our SECOND perspectives paper down! Just one to go…The semester both flew by and somehow crawled, depending upon the day.

My mom recently talked with me about periods of metamorphosis. Before the caterpillar goes into the cocoon, he feels perfectly happy being a caterpillar, exploring out in the sunshine. Thus, he feels confused and unhappy, when he finds himself suddenly cramped up in a dark place all alone. But, something so much more beautiful emerges at the end of that painful period when he transforms into a butterfly. Suddenly, that little caterpillar can do what he never dreamed to be possible before: he can fly! Life is cyclical, and so the hard times never last forever. I think this first semester, for me, felt like that caterpillar going into a cocoon. I felt more lost and lonely and unsure than I had in my memory. And yet, I grew. I feel as if I have emerged stronger from the experience.

October was a season of pruning back the weeds, both figuratively and literally. Something beautiful may lie beneath a bunch of thistles if you are just willing to put in the work to find it.

November

November brought so much to be thankful for, which I explain more here.

For one thing, a little puppy named Bear was coming into our lives not too far in the distant future. Meeting Bear for the first time…he was so little. He could fit into my palms! (Jeremiah 29:11 right here.)

We took a girls’ trip to St. Augustine on Veteran’s Day and enjoyed a great lunch and explored the first Spanish fort at no charge due to the holiday. It was a blast but SUPER WINDY! Haha

Luke and I also spent a fun afternoon exploring Marjorie Kinaan Rawlings’ home, citrus grove, and (now) state park. The house is usually closed on Luke’s off day, but we happened to catch a very nice tour guide who had come in to take a private book club through. We became honorary members for the day and enjoyed hearing about this famous author’s history of living and writing right here near our own town!

I attended my first football game here with the Graduate Christian Fellowship Group and learned how to chomp (Go Gators!).

Then, my Dad and grandmother came to visit for Thanksgiving.

Luke had to work, so we had an early lunch, and then I took them to explore the local state parks to see the real alligators, to St. Augustine for an epic marathon of Black Friday shopping, and to some of my favorite local restaurants, such as Satchel’s (the best pizza around!) I sent them off with a big box of oranges and lemons from our own trees which have bloomed and cried buckets (I’m just a blubbering sentimental mess when it comes to family these days). But, we soon resumed our new normal as I prepared for finals and Luke worked hard getting food out for the holidays at Target. We truly have so much to be grateful for this year.

December

Well, I did it!! I survived perspectives, the hardest class of the program, and turned in all of my final projects. I also got accepted to my first conference in health communication. I cannot tell you what a high that was for me–followed by previous lows of not getting IRB acceptance on the first or second go round. Another huge high for us was Luke’s official acceptance into the UF MBA program, which he will begin in January. We are now college sweethearts X 2, this time at the same university together!

At the end of finals week, Luke and I went to NC for a weekend so that he could be a groomsman in his childhood friend, Logan’s wedding. The weather cooperated just perfectly for a white wedding, and we loved getting to see relatives and friends.

Right afterward, we came back to Florida and picked up our precious labradoodle, Bear. We have a blog post on bringing Bear home, so for now, I’ll just leave you with this picture with Santa Paws. Too much cuteness to choose from!

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More change, but so very positive. I continue to repeat that God knows what we need when we need it, even if it’s uncomfortable at first. Life as a new puppy parent isn’t exactly restful, but it is wonderful all the same as we find our new rhythm as a family. Finally, my mom and MIL, BIL, and SIL all came to visit us in Florida for Christmas this year! We had such a blast recreating old traditions and starting new ones. Besides, if you cannot have a white Christmas, why not go for sunny and 75? 🙂

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This was a long way round to emphasize that for us, 2017 was full of change. I have learned to rely upon myself and God in a way that I probably didn’t before when Luke filled more of that gap for me. I think He is using this season to draw me ever closer to Him, to help me to reach my fullest potential, just like the butterfly. I think He is using this season to grow our marriage, to help us to appreciate quality of moments over quantity, to be intentional about our time together, and to fully cherish the times we are together. On one hand this was a season of challenge, but looked at from another perspective, it was a season of tearing down to build back up, stronger, better, wiser. 

I asked Luke for his input on our year and he said that 2017 pushed him in 2 ways: first in gaining patience. Second in growing his faith.

You cannot become a butterfly until you have lived through the process of the cocoon. The dark times and the light made this year one of our very best (certainly most exciting) yet. The highs were high and in contrast, the lows were low. And yet, it is all about how you focus your attention and perspective…I choose to chase joy, to experience life to the fullest, even if this chapter may be both everything and nothing like I envisioned one year ago today.

I cannot wait to see what God has in store for 2018, because His plans are ALWAYS, CONSISTENTLY, FOREVER better than anything I could dream up. Luke’s grandmother was recently hospitalized following an emergency surgery after breaking her hip…(yes, we have had a few sick relatives this year, too. It’s been a Bear of a year–pun intended.) Anyway, we had just been visiting the weekend before, and I remember distinctly asking her what her favorite decade of life was. I expected her to say maybe as a young wife, a mother, or even during her golden years of retirement before dementia and declining health. But her response to me was simple: “Today is the very best day. Right now. Every day that I am alive is just such a wonderful blessing.”

This wisdom touched my heart because she is so right. What is the best year of my life? This one. Today. 2017, for better or worse, has been the very best….and oh how incredible that God promises us the best is always yet to come.

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Happy New Year from our little family to yours! Thanks for being part of our journey. See you next year!

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Pilgrims in a New Land: The First Friendsgiving

Perspectives Last Class

Yesterday was a huge day for the UF first year doctoral students in mass communication. We completed our last class session and presentations for the hardest class of the program, Perspectives, and now it is smooth sailing. Well, almost. We still have to complete our final papers, but essentially WE MADE IT! **If you did a double take, yes some clever photo shop work was done to add that professor to the picture, and a couple classmates too! 😉

Life is good. Our kind classmate, Kelsy, planned a Friendsgiving celebration for the evening in conjunction with the last class and before people begin traveling for the Thanskgiving holiday next week. This turned out to be SUCH a special event, that I wanted to share a little snippet with all of you here on the blog. First, we had so much fun that we forgot to take any pictures (very uncharacteristic of me, I know.) But, I will go back to my journalism days and try to paint a word picture of this experience and why I will remember it so fondly for years and years to come.

Nine of us gathered together in the clubhouse at one of the local apartment complexes, from many different backgrounds and bearing many different dishes. It wasn’t a traditional Thanksgiving dinner; Kelsy had the brilliant idea that in bringing us all together, it might be fun to prepare dishes from our heritage for the potluck.

On the Menu:

  • Chicken wings (Jamaican Jerk and Lemon Pepper)
  • Kabobs (extra, extra spicy, but so colorful and delicious)
  • Chicken and rice with Indian-inspired spices
  • Deviled eggs
  • Green bean casserole
  • Chips and salsa
  • Popcorn
  • Rum from Barbados (and Coke)
  • Cherry pie for dessert

As you can see, we had a very eclectic menu, but all of the dishes were so delicious! One of my favorite parts of getting to know this cohort which has quickly transformed into a family is learning about the cuisine from different parts of the world. You can probably guess which dishes us Southern girls brought (me from Alabama and shout out to Brett from Mississippi for literally making my day with her deviled eggs, one of my all-time favorite dishes.)

I made my typical green bean casserole, yes the one from the French Fried Onions can. It is a favorite in our family (and in my friend Rachel Sampler’s family), so we have this dish at almost all of our holidays and celebrations. It was fun sharing this with new friends, and I was surprised by how much some of them loved it, even the non-bean lovers! I shared the recipe with them this morning, and here is a copy for all of you if you’re interested. Like I said before, nothing original, but super easy, affordable, and a great side item.

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Green Bean Casserole

(Note: this picture came from the recipe above. My food never turns out that presentation worthy, but it is always made with love!)

I also made this no bake cherry pie.

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(Again, not my picture!) It was really yummy, and we ate every bite, but I will say as the recipe stands, it was very runny. I made it the day before and chilled overnight, so I was surprised that it did not solidify. I am an ingredient follower to the T, so I know I did exactly as these instructions say. Many of us got second (and third) helpings, so it is a sure hit, but there may be a way to tailor something to make it more pie-like and less liquid in texture. 🙂 But I digress.

As we filled our plates with heaping helpings of wings (for me), chicken and rice, green bean casserole, and cherry pie, the group was in high spirits. We shared much laughter, inside jokes formed over the course of a semester lived side by side in a high stress program, and so many stories. It was my honor and privilege to say grace before the meal even though we all come from very different walks of life and not everyone is a believer. It was so special to pray over the group and thank the Lord for so many blessings this year.

The rum from Barbados added a special spice to the gathering, and as we ate, we played simple and yet hilarious table games. If you know me at all, you know I can’t carry a beat to save my life, but I tried my hardest in an interactive version of Scattergories (this isn’t the right name, but it’s the best way to describe it,) and everyone howled when I messed up time and time again. But, we all did. Every bit of laughter and humor was shared in love without the competitive, cutthroat vibe that so many programs are known for having. We are in this together, and that cohesive feeling of support is immeasurable in this new environment.

I mentioned in the title of this post feeling like a pilgrim in this new land, and at times I really and truly have.

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It’s not that Florida is so very far away but just a brand new life experience with a level of challenge and rigor that is unmatched in my professional experience. We came here knowing no one and have banded together despite personal and professional obstacles to survive and thrive and make this place home. And, that is such a special nearly indescribable feeling.

As I met the eyes of others around our dinner table, now my friends, many expressed feeling this exact same way. We shared our gratitude for camaraderie and shared sense of community in these final days of Semester 1. It is something many people don’t expect going into a Ph.D. program, an experience that is traditionally known to be extremely isolating (did you know depression rates are extremely high among Ph.D. students nationwide? Part of it is the nature of programs like this.) But in removing that element of isolation some, most of us are feeling much happier than expected even despite extreme stress still to come with upcoming finals and conference deadlines.

While I know each and every one of us has individually had our very tough moments and times of doubt these past few months, we have come through it all with one another to lean on. One articulate friend shared the Biblical reference that iron sharpens iron, and in that way so we sharpen one another–a whole tiny Army here in Gainesville together. So in this way, we came and gathered from many far away lands to include Saudi Arabia, Barbados, Jamaica, Korea, China, and all over the USA to share a meal and holiday in our life together. For some, it was their very first Thanksgiving dinner. I am honored to have gotten the chance to break bread with them.

At the end of the meal, in this modern apartment complex with tangerine leather couches, a complete kitchen and mini fridge, pool table (which I enjoyed earlier in the night), and a TV with ESPN, we turned on our disco ball; yes, you read that right we had a disco ball. And amidst brilliant hues of red, green, blue and gold, we stood up one by one (some to the microphone! this was legit), and others just to project their voices in a sincere expression of thanks. We were asked to share exactly what was on our hearts– what we are thankful for this year. And, y’all, I  am breaking out of my comfort zone by sharing my video(s) here with you. (I’m not that long winded, I promise! Just had a couple of distractions.)

I am in communications but am not a technology pro, and I do not wish to pay $8/month for the privilege of embedding these videos in the site; sorry WordPress, we are budgeting! Ha. But, you can follow each of the links below in order to Youtube and learn exactly what I am thankful for this year and hear from my heart about the 3 things I sincerely treasure.

What I Am Thankful For This Year Part 1

What I Am Thankful For This Year Part 2

Here are a few screen grabs from Kelsy’s videos, our only “pictures” of the night.

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As we played Phase 10 into the wee hours amidst a professional modeling photo shoot, my heart simply overflowed with joy at the love and friendship that can be found at the most unexpected times, in the most unexpected places. I could have spent Friday night hammering out research work–and trust me, I have plenty to have made that happen. And, I have spent many Friday nights and other nights of the week in this way with so many more to come. But instead, all of us put our own agendas aside for a time to come together to play and laugh and love.

You read that right above: a professional modeling photo shoot. I simply have to elaborate on this but don’t think I can do it justice. About 8:30 p.m. in the middle of a profound speech of gratitude from my classmate, a woman came into the room looking for “Antonio.” We affirmed he wasn’t there; she disappeared for a while and came back with two men, presumably Antonio, and the three sat for awhile by the pool table and preceded to clap for our remaining speeches. Why thank you, thank you very much. (Awkward?!) A rather rotund woman in a striped dress showed up a half hour later with a white background, professional lighting, and camera.

Within the next three hours the room was literally transformed to include a professional beauty salon (complete with two hair stylists and make up artists) and photo studio. About 20 women came one by one to be photographed along with many bystanders, some of whom asked us for refreshments and wanted to join in Phase 10. It was the darndest thing. The modeling was quite intense, coming from a former modeling instructor that’s saying something, and we sorted through our cards amidst screams of “Work it, girl, do your thing, show me those cat eyes.” Meanwhile, a procession of mermaids, dancers?, and girls in bikinis and fur wraps meandered through, patiently waiting for their turn behind the lens. We are not really sure the photographer knew what she was doing, and I would simply love to see those photos someday. It was quite amusing to say the least, and at the end of the night one of our classmates even found a new salon recommendation, and we have yet another memory to share at graduation 3 years from now.

So, that was my Friendsgiving experience, the good, the bad, and the ugly. There wasn’t really any bad or ugly actually, just a positive, uplifting time. The speeches were my favorite part of the night, many much more eloquent than mine, and listening to each classmate’s heart, one by one, I felt grateful that if we are going to be pilgrims here completing this Ph.D., at least we are pilgrims together. #TheFirstFriendsgivingOfManyToCome #AnnualCohortTradition #OneStepCloserToDrBradshaw

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) 😉

 

Captain Luke Bradshaw’s Promotion Weekend

 

Well, it’s Tuesday night, and we have just about recovered from the excitement of this past weekend, which was certainly one for the memory books…Luke is officially a Captain in the U.S. Army, and as his wife, I could not be more proud. We are so blessed to have family and friends who care about us and who helped to make his big day last Friday so special; near or far, each of you have such a special place in our hearts, and your well wishes truly made our weekend as we began this new journey as a family. His career will be changing a bit in the months to come, but your love and support have fully prepared him to step up into whatever role may be next.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so a majority of this post will just be some photos that share a special story in and of themselves. I must begin of course with credit to the photographer, my lovely friend Brooke Rutherford. Also a West Point Army/Field Artillery wife, Brooke said goodbye to her own husband for 9 months just three days before these photos were taken. While a deployment is never easy, it is an especially difficult undertaking with two little ones at home. Brooke went to a lot of trouble to arrange a babysitter (special shout out to our mutual friend Nikki and her mom who graciously agreed to watch Brooke’s kiddos, even though Nikki just had her first baby within that week!) while Brooke came out to photograph Luke’s big day. Super Woman that she is, Brooke even had the photos edited and posted for us later that same night, knowing I would be eager to see them. The Army Spouse Club is such a special sisterhood, and I am fortunate to have already made some relationships with women here whom I already know will be my friends for life.

Without further ado, here is a glimpse into Luke’s ceremony from Brooke’s perspective. Logistics issues and an almost-panic attack (on my part) aside that she wouldn’t be there for the ceremony, she managed to capture every moment.

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A couple of notes on the pinning ceremony; the Colonel was kind enough to loosen the shoulder boards for me and gave me a quick run through in advance. Thank goodness too, because it’s been awhile since I did this with the LT boards, and they can be a bit tricky! Also, my heels kept sinking into the grass, so I tried to stand on my toes the whole time haha. I didn’t realize the ceremony would be outside until the day of, and although the day was slightly chilly with a breeze, it was a beautiful day for a ceremony! No rain to speak of, and the cloud cover provided great lighting for photos. Plus, I got to wear my red Field Artillery officer’s wife dress; I picked this out on sale over the summer for just such an occasion, and I was thrilled to get to wear it, short bell sleeves and all! I was a little afraid October in Oklahoma might be too cold, but Antonio Melani is one of my favorite designers, and his clothes seem to fit me the best, so I really wanted it to work out. Well, all’s well that ends well. 🙂

After the ceremony, Luke gave a short and sweet speech. I was so happy to hear him thank God first and foremost. He also mentioned me as his Rock and every other person in the place….except his own parents! They noticed that somewhere in all of his efforts to include everyone else in the audience he accidentally skipped two of the people who have supported him the most throughout his life. He referred to his “folks” (i.e. Kevin and Sally) but didn’t say Mom and Dad by name so they thought he meant the entire extended family. Fortunately, they didn’t take offense and pointed it out later in a joking manner! :0

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It was time to eat! Luke let everyone know to join us inside for wait for it….Chick-fil-A! No real surprise there that we would serve the very best for his big day (and I may have a connection or two!)

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Luke’s favorite Chick-fil-A menu item is Chicken Minis, and since we held the ceremony right around brunch time, we were able to feature those along with the more classic lunch nuggets, fruit and lemonade. We also had my personal favorite CFA “secret item;” the Chilled Grill Sub. I say it’s a secret, but it is actually available to everyone, just on the catering menu only. This cold sub is served with Honey Roasted BBQ sauce and is simply delicious! My bosses from my Chick-fil-A family, Angie and Jonathan, came out to support us and personally served the food throughout the whole event. They did such a nice job, and Luke and I really, really appreciated that they were there for us.

CFA catered the entire event except the cake, which we ordered from Johnson’s Bakery. We had originally wanted to use Cool Cakes by Lindsey (Shout out to Lindsey DeLozier from our Sunday School class,) but she was booked solid that weekend. Johnson’s came through for us though and the classic sheet cake (half vanilla/half chocolate) with buttercream icing served us nicely.

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Anticipated numbers fluctuated a bit, and we planned for 40 people at the reception. I even added a tray of food the day of just to be sure we had enough. Well, we ended up with more than 40 because we ran out of plates toward the end! We found some extras, and it all turned out OK, but we were so honored to have everyone there to celebrate with us.

Luke’s commander Grant Redmond and his wife Lydia and daughter Ella came out for our big day (also our dear friends and neighbors!) Lydia has been such a Godsend here, and she let me borrow her fridge to store the cake since my own fridge was chock full of food for our out-of-town guests! She also let me get ready and shower at her house the morning of the ceremony because it was important to me to let my in laws have the space to take all of the time they needed to get ready at our house; our home on Fort Sill is charming, but it’s one drawback is that it only has one bathroom. It can make for cramped quarters any time, but entertaining becomes more challenging for sure. Lydia came through in a big way for us (even if she is a Tennessee fan!) I hate that we didn’t get a photo of all 5 of us, but here is a pic of us girls, anyway!

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We had family come from far and wide to celebrate with us for the weekend. Luke’s parents, Kevin and Sally came in from North Carolina with his Uncle Howard and Aunt Suzy, his Aunt Mary flew in from Ohio and his Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Susan made a long detour in Oklahoma on their annual trip from Alaska to Florida. Thus, I thought it might be the perfect day to drag everyone utilize Brooke’s talents to get a few photos of all of us together by the historic cannons and artillery vehicles on base.

The guys are especially not big picture fans but I promised them that they will treasure them for years to come, and I really think Brooke outdid herself. Here are a few of my favorites from our photo shoot!

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Luke and I striking a pose.

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Luke and his father, Kevin.

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Luke and his mother, Sally.

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The four of us all together…We were really missing his sister, Hannah, and his brothers Jacob, Samuel and Milos and their wives, Adrianna and Lauren.

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The whole extended family that came to visit- from L to R: Aunt Mary, Kevin, Sally, Uncle Jimmy, Aunt Susan, Luke, Amanda, Uncle Howard and Aunt Suzy

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Uncle Howard and Aunt Mary both served in the Armed Forces as well, so this was an especially big day for these guys. So honored and proud to be part of this patriotic family.

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Just Luke…We couldn’t resist getting a couple of individual snapshots!

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Luke with all of the women in his life–well most of them anyway! 😉

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And the guys!

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Aunt Susan liked this particular cannon because it matched her outfit…This is where all the men began to sigh. Haha

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Proud wife…Luke took this photo because “Happy Wife, Happy Life.” Haha just kidding; sort of.

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Posing solo…

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These two photos were meant to emulate the traditional Trophy Point cannon photo we never took at West Point. Luckily we had plenty of cannons around to accommodate!

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I wanted to show the entire area as well as our family, and I think these last pictures turned out super cute! Thank you again, Brooke for your hard work and for being such a good friend to us here at Ft. Sill.

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The rest of the weekend was so much more stress free! We chilled in our pj’s and played cards, explored Geronimo’s Grave, ate some delicious food and just enjoyed being together as a family.

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Meer’s is our absolute favorite burger joint in town, and taking visitors here is becoming something of a tradition. You really can’t get much better than this hole in the wall for a stellar piece of beef!

Sunday we enjoyed taking the family to our new church home, and they got to meet the friends in our Sunday School class, which is one of the most tight knit classes I have ever attended. They are such a blessing to us, week in and week out. Then, we explored Mount Scott with Brooke’s son Luke (told you we’d get you back for the photo shoot, sweet friend!) The views from up there were amazing.

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And, that’s a wrap! We are now back to our work week grind, but I could not let this event go by without writing a blog about the fun time we all had…and of course, huge props to my husband, Luke, for his accomplishments thus far. I know he will continue to succeed no matter where life may take us!

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Finding Freedom in Freedom

Did you like my play on words there? 😉

I realized that I never published my promised update about mine and Luke’s anniversary trip to the rodeo in Freedom, OK a few weeks ago. It was one of our most unforgettable trips, so I most certainly have to share.

Texoma has many, many rodeos but there is none quite like this one. Nestled on the banks of the Cimarron River, Freedom is a tiny blip on the map; the town is so small there is no stoplight at all. There are no hotels in the quaint little Main Street area, and the closest place we found to stay was actually 45 minutes away. A throwback to Old Western days, all of the storefronts maintain an authentic Western facade, and there is literally no cell phone service for miles. We spent two nights and three days in total freedom of no connectivity, no worries about work and the outside world. In a rare throwback, it was just us, exploring Oklahoma and enjoying (my) first real rodeo–the 79th Annual Freedom Rodeo and Old Cowhand Reunion!

boots If you’re going to a rodeo, you have to look the part! These beauties were my Anniversary gift from Luke! We have always given one another “traditional” anniversary gifts. (Year 1- Paper, Year 2- Cotton, Year 3- Leather.) It worked out really well that we could incorporate our gifts into our trip. Luke got a cowboy hat!

We both took three days off work and headed out for Freedom, a 3.5 hour drive away. As we drove down winding country roads, past the massive wind turbines that are so common in this part of the country, and farther and farther from modern civilization, we relaxed into peaceful, companionable silence at times and excited chatter at others as we discussed all topics from future dreams to current ones. Then of course were the loud, off sync singing sessions to our favorite songs on the radio! There is nothing like being “stuck” in a car for a few hours to get in some good quality one-on-one time with nothing but miles and miles of green, gently sloping hills, a lot of soil and cattle.

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After we checked into our hotel, we were ready for the first night of the rodeo!

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We grabbed a quick dinner at a local Mexican restaurant, and the rain began to pour. It had been gray and cloudy all day, not ideal weather for our long-anticipated rodeo weekend. But, as we drove the 45 minutes to the town of Freedom, the sky really fell out. We were about 10 minutes out and hopelessly anticipating a cancellation of the whole event. However, the sky cleared up as we were pulling into the parking lot, and in spite of a few sporadic showers during the evening, the show went on! It was less crowded than a normal Friday night at the rodeo, according to the locals, but it was lovely just the same!

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I thought Luke truly looked like a real cowboy; he looked ruggedly handsome, and we got compliments from a few of the very sweet hospitable residents of Freedom on what a cute couple we made!

We called it an early night after the rodeo since we were exhausted from traveling, and because the events did not start until noon the next day, we enjoyed sleeping in and a leisurely breakfast at the hotel before heading back to Freedom for the Chuckwagon Feed on the town square. You have to keep in mind that the Freedom Rodeo is entirely a volunteer event, and church ladies, local stores and even McDonald’s made it possible for every single person to enjoy lunch free of charge! The sense of tightknit community here was impossible to miss, and just like in days gone by, we could tell it is the kind of place where you never leave as a stranger!

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During our brief stay, we met some of the kindest old ranch hands, business owners and rodeo fans. The Freedom Rodeo is considered part of the PBR circuit, so the clowns, commentators and many performers were professionals who come back year after year because it is their favorite rodeo to participate in!

After lunch, we enjoyed just exploring this tiny town! The charm of these buildings drew me in, and I could have taken pictures here for hours. Here were a few of my favorites:

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“You plug ’em, we’ll plant ’em!” The undertaker’s sign truly cracked us up! While we waited under some much-needed shade for the Longhorn Steer Drive to begin on Main Street, a crusty old man in denim overalls approached us on the steps of the Post Office. He spent a few minutes describing days gone by; he has spent his entire life in Freedom, OK. Born and raised, he spent many a day ‘rebel rousing’ in these streets and hanging out at the Cimarron Saloon. He told us of his Pa’s many “punishments” including forcing him to eat raw meat and plow a field under the hot summer sun after he had one too many as a teen and was too sick to help with a pre-planned project. As he described his life between a piece of straw perched precariously between his teeth, leaning against the blue mail box, I could not help but think of what life must have been like here one century ago. Kids played in the street near the General Store, dressed in period clothing for a skit that would be performed later in the afternoon. “Saloon Girls” swarmed the street in front of the saloon, and the butcher stood slicing his meat under a small awning. With no modern amenities in sight, life seemed simpler for a moment, easier. More free.

The Longhorn Cattle Drive is one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the weekend. They bring this herd up from Texas, and it was over so quickly that I am very glad I snapped a few photos to truly appreciate the magnitude and sheer size of these Longhorns.

Next was the Bank Robbery and Shoot Out, a skit performed again by volunteers of the town! This was Luke’s favorite event of the weekend, and it was quite a sight to see. I was grateful for the complimentary ear plugs because rounds (even blank ones) are quite ear jolting.

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At the end of the reenactment, Luke  I could not resist getting a photo with the Outlaws AND Sheriff’s deputies!

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We had a few hours to kill before the evening’s rodeo activities began, so we decided to do a little exploring. We had heard talk that the Alabaster Caverns State Park was something to see, so we went down into the Cave for a brief tour. The coolness of the darkened cave felt heavenly compared to the hot Oklahoma sun that had been beating down on us all day. (Rain, Rain, Go Away!) It was nothing but clear blue skies the entire rest of the weekend!unnamed

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The recommendations had been right–it was a sight to see! The guide had us experience “total darkness” for about two minutes, and I was shocked at how pitch black it actually became. You could not see your fingers in front of your nose!

We got in a much needed nap (Yep, we’re old folks now!) and headed back for the closing night’s festivities.

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The Cimarron was illuminated by the most incredible orangey-red sunset; this photo truly does not do it justice. The skies out here are expansive and the sunrises and sunsets go for miles and miles.

Our last night at the rodeo was much more crowded than the first; it seemed like everyone for 50 miles was there to cheer on the local boys (and gals!) And, others, like us, had traveled much farther, some coming from Texas, Arizona, Kansas and Arkansas.

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I didn’t quite know what to expect, but found myself enjoying the competition, the fast events, the clown’s antics. Laughs and good times were held by all, and even though only one rider qualified in the bull riding event, it was still quite an experience!

I was saddened to head back to Reality the next morning, but so grateful for the opportunity we had to get away from it all and spend one weekend together in Freedom.

Well, I am off to some adventures for THIS weekend, now. (Nothing quite so grand, but looking forward to some relaxation with the hubby.)

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It’s the Little Things

First, let me just say that The Lord sure knew what He was doing when he created a day of rest after a hard week of work! Lately the work days simply blur together in a fog of long (VERY LONG) days, especially for Luke who gets up hours before the sun for his morning PT and meetings. We see each other briefly in the evenings before I go to work on graduate school and dinner. Then, we watch a TV show or two and hit the bed, rarely past 10:00 these days. Our little evening routine is nice because we get to catch up and unwind from the day before the exhaustion sets in to begin anew in the morning.

Since it is the month of Gratitude, I have been keeping a gratitude journal to remind us of all of the things that we have to be grateful for despite that mundane feeling that can creep up when you have adult responsibilities, bills and jobs! I am also trying to surround us with small reminders of the blessings in our lives in and around our home. The things pictured below give us a small boost of joy even on the most difficult days. Maybe you keep a few of these in your home as well?

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This plate was given to me at my first bridal shower, and it has the signatures and notes of encouragement several women who mean the world to me. Even though they are scattered all over the country now, this plate provides a reminder of their friendship, love and well wishes for our marriage. Even though we are far apart, I know that they are only a phone call or text message away.

 

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This little platter was the very first Fall decoration that I purchased for our home last year. The message is of course self explanatory, and I enjoy looking at it in my breakfast nook every morning as a small reminder to be glad and joyous for the start of another day and the chance to make a difference in someone’s life! Rather than count the things that are missing or dwell on regrets and missed opportunities, we are to GIVE THANKS in all things for the life that God has given us here and now in this season. This is a tough one sometimes, but it is so true! By thinking of the positive things through my gratitude journal, I find that truly there is so much that the Lord has provided for Luke and I during this first chapter of our marriage.

 

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This mug was given to me as a birthday gift from a sweet friend here in Columbus who knows some of the struggles of my heart on days when I am not feeling so grateful. She is always there for me, as a confidante and fellow Army spouse, and Luke and I are so blessed to have developed a close relationship with her and her husband over the last year. The message on the mug seems so simple, but it is too easy to dismiss the small things, which provide the greatest joy. This week, I found myself getting excited over the treat of a Dr. Pepper in my lunchbox, which provided a needed caffeine boost for the afternoon’s work. I had a blast giving out candy at a fall festival and making macaroni joy with sweet little ones. I enjoyed turning up the heat in my car on my daily drive to and from work to obscene temperatures Luke would never approve of if he was with me. (For those that know me, I am perpetually cold this time of year!) Finally, I rejoiced over the opportunity to get out of the office for lunch with a friend on Friday. Taking time to appreciate the little things can definitely make a big difference in your day.

 

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I have always been an avid reader, and this week I bought a new book from my favorite author and have especially enjoyed reading every night before bed with my husband. There is something about that quiet time and unwinding in a good story that takes your mind far away from little problems and worries. We sometimes share a funny quote or interesting part with each other, and I would not trade this peaceful companionship for all of the money in the world.

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My last “Little Thing” around the house is candles. I LOVE the way a candle makes the apartment smell so cozy. Most of my candles this time of year are Fall-themed, and the pumpkin spice or apple cinnamon aroma can really help you to unwind from the day and transition for an evening or weekend together. They are a favorite indulgence of mine, whether I am taking a bubble bath or enjoying a meal with the hubby.

These are just a few of the little things that are very prevalent in our lives right now. There are plenty of other things to be grateful for, such as the health and ability to work and provide for our family, the new opportunities we find every day at work,our relationship with friends, family, one another and Jesus, most importantly. Lately I have especially looked forward to the weekends, where we get to really cherish relationships and the PEOPLE that make up our life here that isn’t always possible during the hectic work week. Last night, for example, we invited a couple over for a cookout and to cheer the Tide on to victory over LSU, and what an amazing evening that was. (ROLL TIDE ROLL!) Today, we are blessed to head to a hockey game in Columbus with some other friends and grab dinner together. I am eternally grateful for the Army, which has brought us to this place for this time to connect with the people He knew that we needed in our lives.

Although this year brings a new challenge for for us as the holiday season approaches, and we will be staying at Fort Benning for both Thanksgiving and Christmas for the first time ever, we are trying to keep a positive focus on the chance to start our own traditions as a married couple. While we will certainly miss our traditional celebrations with extended family, we are thankful for the amazing friends here who will be helping us to celebrate, and that my mom is able to make the trip down for Thanksgiving Day. We will try to see my Dad and Luke’s side of the family as well at some point in December or January.

My point of this post is finding little ways to celebrate the joy of life every day, so I wish you much joy and happiness this week and always. If you took the time to read this post, THANK YOU for being a part of our lives and taking time out of your day to keep up with our little journey. 🙂

 

Welcome Fall! An update on the Bradshaws

With most of our friends and family so far away, I wanted to provide a brief update into our lives at this very moment! It is wonderful to connect with people who are near and dear to us from all over the country, and we are so grateful that the Internet and this blog provides a brief chance to interact with those we love from all chapters of our lives- childhood, high school times, college, Army life and beyond.

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First and foremost, we celebrated our first wedding anniversary on September 1st! We spent an incredible weekend in Atlanta, GA and got to witness the union of another sweet couple–my friends from high school. Going to a wedding on your anniversary is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience because it brings so many memories rushing back from your own big day. I would definitely recommend it if you ever get the chance. We also visited the Atlanta Zoo, the Natural History Museum and had dinner at the most amazing restaurant called Canoe. It is rated as one of the top 50 romantic restaurants in the United States, and we would HIGHLY recommend it. It is right on the waterfront, so you can enjoy an after-dinner drink and dessert by the river. We also went back last weekend for the Garth Brooks World Tour with Trisha Yearwood. (Tickets were Luke’s anniversary gift, and the concert was LEGEND wait for it DARY. The man’s truly a phenomenal performer, and Trisha Yearwood’s American Girl took me back to my childhood in a heartbeat.)

Married life is wonderful overall. It has its ups and downs of course, and I’d be lying if I said it’s always easy. But, it is truly incredible getting to come home to the one that your heart loves each and every evening. At this point, we don’t know how we spent the first 20 years of our lives without one another! We have settled into our cute little apartment, complete with a spare bedroom and man cave, in case anyone wants to come to visit! We have been blessed with several guests so far, and if you are reading this blog, know that our home is always open to you, too. Just give us a call! I have been trying out lots of new recipes on my guinea pig husband, and he seems to think I’m not too bad of a cook. So, please stop by for a meal sometime and give me a chance to use some of my wedding dishes and crystal glasses! (I am forever grateful that I did not register for a full set of china just yet, as I have nowhere to store it! With the Army, it seems to make the most sense to build up these things over time, as things often can get broken from one move to the next.) At our next post, we may go ahead and buy a house to fill with furniture, but for now, our cute little apartment is absolutely perfect for us.

As Fall approaches, so does my (Amanda’s) 24th birthday! Ooh, I feel old these days. As I reach my six-years-from-thirty benchmark, I seem to be checking off all of those pesky little boxes one by one– college degree, marriage, full-time job, graduate school. I read somewhere that 80% of life’s major “milestones” occur before age 30! I didn’t plan it that way, but it does seem that my life is following that trajectory too. But, for those who have asked or maybe WA