07 December 2016

Cookie Party Basics: the How, the Why, and Lessons Learned (plus recipe: Chocolate Mint Cookies)

Many years ago, when my husband and I were still relatively newlyweds, we went to church with a family that had a wonderful tradition. Every Christmas, they would decorate their house and invite everyone they knew to a great open house Christmas party. They had a Christmas village, complete with a model train chugging along a track around it, that filled one room. Platters piled high with every kind of Christmas treat you could imagine on every counter in the kitchen. Gorgeously-decorated Christmas trees in every room. Dozens of people filled the house, eating holiday treats, singing carols, and laughing together. And it was wonderful. The best part? Even though we barely knew this family, they made us feel entirely welcome and loved. We decided that one day we would be that family.

So when we bought our house, we decided it was time to start our own Christmas Party tradition. In fact, one of the things we loved most about this house was that it was big enough to accommodate a crowd, and open enough to allow for a good flow of traffic. Perfect for the party we'd been planning for years. A party as elaborate as the one we had attended years before was too much to take on, though, so we decided to keep it relatively simple. Of course, we would put up several Christmas trees and decorate the foyer with our Christmas village. And of course we would invite all of our friends, neighbors, and casual acquaintances. But the decorations would be modest, and I couldn't even think about making all of the food we'd enjoyed at that other party.

I decided to focus on my favorite easy-to-share holiday treat (Cookies!) and we had our very first Cookie Party in December 2009.

We invited everyone we knew, including all of the neighbors we hadn't yet had a chance to meet. We decorated four Christmas trees, each with a different theme. And I spent weeks preparing and baking 18-25 dozen each of 15 different cookie varieties.

Unfortunately, two days before our party, Snowmageddon hit the east coast, dropping 18 inches of snow overnight. Roads were closed. Everything was cancelled. Many people couldn't even get out of their houses. And I had hundreds of dozens of cookies that we couldn't possibly eat all by ourselves!

Luckily, by the evening of our party, most of the roads in town had been plowed, and people were looking for an excuse to get out of the house after being cooped up all weekend long. We had more guests than I might have expected (with the snow and all), but we still had roughly half of our cookies remaining when it was all over.  And I learned some priceless lessons:

#1 - Cookies are a powerful force. The promise of delicious homemade cookies can draw people out, even during a crazy snowstorm.

#2 - It's important to label each type of cookie, making a note of possible allergy triggers in each one, just in case you have guests with sensitivities. (I also avoid any kind of nuts in my cookies for the party, even though I have some phenomenal nut-based cookie recipes, because the risk of cross-contamination is too great.) And when inventing new cookie flavors, it's important to write down your process ... for those moments when your guests ask for the recipes.

#3 - Bite-sized cookies are better than full-sized cookies. Guests can sample all 15 (or more) varieties without a lot of guilt if a dozen cookies is equal to approximately 3 or 4 traditionally-sized cookies.

#4 - You can't ever plan for everything. Sometimes, the weather will catch you off-guard and throw your entire carefully-thought-out plan out of whack. (So now I don't bake all of the cookies at once. I prepare and freeze the dough into individual portions in advance, keeping track of how many of each variety I have. The day before the party, I'll bake up a few dozen of each kind to start us off, and then I just keep my oven going all day. As a cookie plate starts running low, I'll pull that cookie variety out of the freezer and pop some into the oven. We have freshly-baked cookies all day long, I'm not left with a ton of extras at the end of the day, and any dough left in the freezer can be saved for future fresh-baked-cookie cravings.)

 #5 - No matter how many you make, there are some cookie flavors that are more popular. You will most likely run out of Chocolate Mint Cookies, so make a double batch!

 You will need (for a single batch of cookie dough - makes about 15 dozen bite-sized cookies):
1 c. butter (softened)
1 1/2 c. sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. mint extract
1/2 c. cocoa powder
3 c. flour
1 (12 oz) package mini chocolate chips (optional)

In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar.

Add eggs, baking powder, salt, mint, and cocoa powder. Mix well.

Stir in flour (and optional chocolate chips, if desired). Chill dough 1 hour.

Form dough into 1/2-inch balls. (I use a mini cookie scoop, but you can do this by hand, if you don't have a cookie scoop.) Place on parchment-lined (or lightly-greased) cookie sheet, spaced 1 1/2 to 2-inches apart to allow for spreading.

Bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 8 minutes. Cool for 1-2 minutes on baking sheet, then transfer to wire rack to cool completely. Serve immediately, or store in an airtight container.

Dough balls can be frozen prior to baking for future use. Place dough balls on parchment-lined cookie sheet (no need to leave space between cookies, as they won't spread in the freezer!), and freeze 6-8 hours. Then transfer to Ziploc freezer bags to store in your freezer for up to 6 months. (Actually, I've kept cookie dough in my freezer for over a year with no problems, but they're less likely to develop a freezer burn taste if you rotate your cookie dough stash frequently.) When you're ready to bake the frozen dough, you can either thaw the dough balls completely and then bake as usual, OR bake straight from the freezer at 325 degrees Fahrenheit for 12 minutes.

Variation: You can also make larger cookies, if you don't want the bite-sized version. Form dough into 1-inch balls. You'll need to press the dough balls to flatten slightly before baking (or they won't fully bake in the center), and you may want to bake for 9 minutes, instead of 8.

06 December 2016

Cookies & Cherished Memories: Why I'm Making 400 dozen Cookies this Holiday Season

I've spent the last several weeks (I actually started making and freezing cookie dough back in October this year) filling my cookie freezer with little balls of deliciousness, all portioned out and ready to bake for our annual Christmas Cookie Open House this Saturday.

Yes, I have an entire chest freezer in my basement devoted to holding cookie dough in anticipation of our party. See? This is what it looked like last Wednesday, with about 280 dozen cookies. The official cookie count right now is 349 dozen and 4 cookies (but I haven't yet portioned out and counted the dough I just mixed up, so it will be going up again as soon as I finish writing this post).
This annual cookie party is my favorite holiday tradition. Not just because I enjoy eating dozens of cookies while visiting with family and friends (although I do enjoy that). Not even of the shocked looks (and total sense of accomplishment) I get when I tell people that I make hundreds of dozens of cookies for the party. It's my favorite because every single cookie I make reminds me of a dear friend or family member. In fact, I invented many of my recipes specifically for these friends and family members!

People know I love to push my limits, so they often give me cookie challenges. "Can you make a salted caramel cookie?" "Can you make an egg-free sugar cookie so my child with allergies can participate in the cookie decorating fun of the holiday season?" "Can you create a cookie to represent each of the Hogwarts houses??" So far, I haven't failed any of these challenges. And every time I pull out my recipe box and my mixing bowl, I get to think about the people who inspired each new recipe, and how blessed I am to have them in my life.

Since many of you can't come to the party (due to distance and other commitments), I've had more than a few requests to share my recipes. So over the next few days (or many days ... I have a lot of cookie recipes!), I'll be posting my favorite recipes, complete with stories about the people who make each cookie special to me.

Some of the cookies we'll be featuring at this year's party (I'll share the recipes for each):
* Lemon Snowball Cookies (both regular and gluten-free vegan varieties)
* Cinnamon Roll Sugar Cookies
* Chocolate Hazelnut Cookies (made with imitation hazelnut extract, so they'll be safe for my friends with nut allergies)
* Salted Caramel Sugar Cookies
* Chocolate Mint Cookies
* Lemon Basil Cookies
* Maple Bacon Cookies
* Gluten-free Chocolate Cookies (vegan)
* And the 4 Hogwarts Houses in cookie form  (each house will get its own blog post)

24 November 2016

Happy Thanksgiving! Recipe: Gluten-free, Dairy-free, Egg-free (vegan) Pumpkin Pie

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! I love this time of year: Gathering with friends and family to contemplate our many blessings while enjoying delicious foods we only have time to make once or twice per year. One of my favorite parts about the Thanksgiving feast is the dessert. Especially pies. I make pies of every flavor, and I try to make a new one each year.

This year, since my diet is severely restricted with my brain tumor deciding that I'm suddenly allergic to nearly everything I try to eat, I thought I would have to skip the pies.

Luckily, as my friend pointed out on Facebook, I'm one of those "creative cooks" that can put together my own recipes when I can't find the right one. And since pumpkin is not only an integral part of Thanksgiving celebrations but also the one of the main safe staple foods in my diet, I present to you ...

Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free, Vegan Pumpkin Pie
(It took 3 experiments before I figured out which ingredients, in which configuration, would yield a pumpkin pie that rivaled my mom's traditional pumpkin pie recipe. This one doesn't have exactly the same texture, but it's close!

You will need (for the crust):
 1 c. gluten-free flour (I used Bob's Red Mill all-purpose gluten free flour)
2 Tbsp. cornstarch
1 tsp. salt
1/4 c. grapeseed oil
6 Tbsp. ice cold water

 You will need (for the filling):

1 can coconut milk
4 Tbsp cornstarch
1 Tbsp Ener-G egg replacer
2/3 c sugar
3/4 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp salt
1 can pumpkin
2 Tbsp flax seed 
6 Tbsp warm water

In a medium-sized bowl, stir together flour, cornstarch and salt for the crust. add oil, and stir until mixture is crumbly and oil is worked in throughout. Add water and stir just enough to moisten. 

Form into a ball, and place between two sheets of waxed paper. Roll dough thin - into a circle large enough to fit your pie tin. 

Remove top sheet of waxed paper. Place pie tin, inverted, on top of pie crust. Flip the whole thing over, so the crust is now in the pie tin. Peel off the waxed paper (if making more than one pie, you can use this waxed paper for rolling out several pie crusts before discarding it). Crimp edges of the crust. Set aside.

In a small bowl, stir together flax seed and warm water. Set aside.

In medium bowl, mix together coconut milk, cornstarch, egg replacer, sugar, and spices. Stir in pumpkin and flax seed mixture. Mix well.

Pour filling into pie crust. Bake at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 minutes. Without opening the oven, reduce heat to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Let bake for an additional 55 minutes. 

Cool 30 minutes on  wire rack, then chill in the refrigerator for 3-4 hours, or until fully set.

09 November 2016

Love & Life & Embracing Differences

Over the past few years, I've started a lot of my blog posts (and Facebook status updates ... and updates on basically every social media platform) with apologies for my long, unexplained absences.

I always have a solid explanation for why I've been missing in action.

Life has been busy ...

I've been sick ...

I didn't have access to the internet ...

Things were just a crazy, mixed-up muddle of a mess ...

While these excuses have been 100% true, they don't tell the full story. And I feel like I need to tell the whole story. I've started this blog post dozens of times over the past couple of years, and I've never finished. But I promised myself that I would do it this time, so I've been sitting at my desk for nearly 36 hours, typing and deleting and typing things over again, until I can get it right ...

You know about my brain tumor. You may have even read the long, multi-part story about it. And all of the follow-up stories about how dealing with a brain tumor can be difficult & scary sometimes.Yet I know how scary the phrase "brain tumor" can be, and I don't want to worry people that I care about, so I've adopted a habit of downplaying things maybe a bit more than I should.

But I'm tired. And I'm scared. And this is a super-heavy burden to carry on my own, so I'm just going to lay it all out right here and hope that the load won't be quite so heavy when I have to pick it up again ...

Here are the things you need to know about me:

1. Because my brain tumor is in the brain stem, it literally messes with every single signal that travels from my brain to the rest of my body. Every single one. So if my elbow hurts, the injury is almost never actually on my elbow. And I have to go over my entire body to find the bruised shin or stubbed toe that's causing my elbow to hurt. And even the smallest emotional stress translates into super-intense physical pain.

2. Remember when you were really little and your mom told you "Don't make faces, or your face might freeze that way!" and you laughed at the silliness of the sentiment? ... Yeah, I have to be very careful about how wide I open my mouth when I yawn or something. Because, yep. My face might freeze that way. (I've totally stopped eating grapes, because if I accidentally eat a sour grape and my mouth puckers involuntarily, it might stay that way for an hour or two. And it hurts. A lot.)

3. Because my brain has to constantly adjust to the chaos of mixed/misinterpreted signals, it auto-corrects just about EVERYTHING. This can be a good thing. For example, I've never experienced jet lag, because as soon as I look at a clock in the new time zone, my brain adjusts to the new time. But it can also be a weird thing. For example, I have a really hard time hearing accents, though my family swears I pick up every accent I hear. (The kids love to entertain their friends by talking to me in different accents to show how my replies will match whatever accent they're adopting - including totally made-up accents.)

4. Optimism isn't optional for me. My brain doesn't know how to process fighting or negativity. I feel every harsh word as an intense, physical pain. Like hot skewers rammed through my body kind of pain. And if I get around people who are fighting, complaining, or yelling, my body literally shuts down. As in collapsed on the floor, still fully conscious but unable to move, speak, or even breathe properly. (When my kids were toddlers, they totally took advantage of this fact, because they realized that, if mommy told them "no," and they wanted to do it anyway, they just had to scream until mommy was paralyzed on the floor and couldn't stop them from doing it.) And it doesn't matter if people are fighting or yelling at me. Any fighting that happens where I can witness it is enough to literally paralyze me.

5. I'm totally not kidding about the brain auto-correcting thing. A few months ago, at my middle daughter's choir concert, I suddenly had a brilliant epiphany that could potentially solve all of the world's problems: "You know how, when everyone wears the same uniform, all of their physical characteristics blend together and you can't tell the difference between height, skin tone, or body shape anymore? We could all just wear uniforms every day!!" My oldest daughter and my husband laughed for about a week at that one. "That's not a real thing!" ... Which is how I discovered, at almost 40 years old, that my insistence that we could fix the world if we'd just stop looking for reasons to divide ourselves was truly insensitive and hurtful to those facing attacks on a daily basis. And my heart is absolutely breaking over this realization. (p.s. Now that I've realized I have this processing issue that totally isn't a normal way to view the world, I feel like I need to apologize to any that I might have inadvertently offended. If I ever made you feel like I wasn't taking your struggles seriously enough ... If my genuine inability to see the divisions our society faces has caused you pain ... I apologize from the bottom of my heart. I've learned that I need to more frequently check my perceptions against what's "normal," and hopefully I'm getting better. But if I've hurt you, please don't hesitate to say something to me!)

Over the past too-many-months, I have witnessed attacks against people who are Muslim, Black, Hispanic, Jewish, Women, Transgender, Mormon, LGBT, Refugees, Disabled, Athletes, Native American (I could go on and on) ... And although I don't personally identify with most of those categories, I am amazingly blessed to have wonderful people in my life who fit each of these labels. And so many other labels that ultimately don't matter at all. Human is human, and no matter how you slice it, we're all part of the same family. And my wonderful, annoying brain tumor won't allow me to separate myself from "the other," even if I wanted to. So every single time I hear someone I love and respect lobbing attacks at "those people" - no matter which group of people they're hurling hatred at, and no matter how far removed from my personal experience that particular group may be - it hurts. A lot.

And I wanted to speak up. I wanted to stand tall and raise my voice and use my strength and my privilege to be a protector for my friends and acquaintances who genuinely feared for their safety and the safety of their families. Instead, because of my stupid brain tumor, I spent too many days paralyzed, unable to get out of bed, unable to function, because the negativity was just too strong.

I literally couldn't speak up. I couldn't move. I couldn't act. I couldn't even breathe. I've cancelled plans with friends and neglected important household tasks because I literally couldn't function properly. And I've spent more nights than I care to count staring at the ceiling, wondering if this night might be my last. (Because when breathing isn't an automatic response ... when you have to consciously remind your lungs to expand and contract to bring in the necessary oxygen ... falling asleep and letting that conscious effort lapse is frankly terrifying. I never know if I'll actually wake up again.)

And I've felt so guilty that I wasn't being more proactive in supporting those who needed my support. So over and over again (dozens ... maybe even hundreds of times), I've started writing this blog post to explain. To assure you that I'm here. I'm watching. I'm praying for you. And I'm doing what I can - even if all I can do is send virtual hugs and lots of real love. But as much as I feel the need to explain myself, I also don't want to be that girl who just makes excuses for her lack of action. And I don't want to play that "me first" card, making the genuine pain and fear that so many are facing all about how those attacks and threats to others hurt me too. Because while it's true that an atmosphere of hate hurts every single member of our human family, it's not okay for me to put my own comfort and safety above those friends and family members who have been targeted.

So I hope this post serves as an explanation, and not an excuse. I hope you know that I'm here for you, even if I can't always carry your burdens as well as I'd like to. I'm praying for you, even if I can't speak. And I'm thinking of you always.

With that said ... I hope you'll understand if I shift the focus of my blog and my social media presence for the time being. I need to go back to actively looking for the things to be grateful for, even if it looks like I'm focusing on superficial things instead of the deeper issues facing our world today. So I will tweet about books that I love and books that I'm excited to read. I will search your twitter feeds for reasons to celebrate your milestones and send ample hugs and love. I will post recipes inspired by my amazing friends and tell the stories of how those recipes came to be. In a world that's often too weighed down by criticism and hate, I will focus on all the little ways I can share love.

I love you all!

20 June 2016

Broadway and Brain Tumors: Why Meeting a Celebrity Meant So Much to Me

As you know, on May 28, the anniversary of the day my life fell apart, I decided to replace the sad with happy memories and took my family to New York to see She Loves Me on Broadway. (It was fabulous, guys! If you have a chance, you totally need to go see it!! And you should take me, because I absolutely want to see it again. And again.)**

After the show, I had my first ever shaking-with-giddy-excitement-over-meeting-a-celebrity, total fangirl moment. Because (eep!!) I got to meet Zachary Levi! (And yes, he's as genuine and nice in person as you'd expect.)
I was shaking so hard while waiting for the actors to come out after the show that my children were openly mocking me. (They weren't the only people laughing at me. Really, I caught smiles on the faces of all the total strangers around us as they watched this grown woman literally bouncing with excitement. I'm sure many of them went home and told their friends about the nutty woman with an insane celebrity crush.) And in my defense, a large part of the shaking was due to the fact that I forgot to take my brain tumor medicine (the one that controls my intense muscle spasms), so my brain was sending all kinds of wonky signals, and my excitement translated into spastic shaking. But I can't blame it all on my brain tumor. I haven't been this excited in a LONG time, guys!

It was a perfect day - or as close to perfect as I could imagine - and the absolute best way to celebrate the end of a REALLY hard year
I got to see one of my favorite musicals,
featuring one of my favorite actors,

surrounded by my favorite people in the world! 
Me with my family (and Jessica), meeting Zachary Levi! (The lady in the sunglasses up in the corner was totally giggling at my spastic fangirling the whole time! - Luckily, I think she was more amused than annoyed.)
 And we even went out after the show to get some vanilla ice cream as a treat. (If you don't know why that's significant, you really need to listen to the soundtrack! You can buy it on Amazon and iTunes!)

I came home from New York two weeks ago with a smile on my face that I'd thought I would never find again. For the first time in a year, I finally allowed myself to hope for good things. For the first time in a year, I felt like myself again. And I couldn't wait to tell everyone I knew all about it!!

But when the teasing over my "celebrity crush" started, I realized that without a LOT of backstory, I really couldn't explain why meeting this particular actor was so significant to me. (Yes, it will be long and rambly. So I'm highlighting the main points in a larger font for those who want to skim through.)

So why was meeting Zachary Levi so important to me? No, it's not because I think he's attractive.*
 *Of course I think Zachary Levi is attractive. 100% of the people who didn't already know who the actor was thought that this picture (the one my husband, Phil, drew to commemorate our trip to see She Loves Me) was a portrait of a younger Phil, instead of a picture of Zachary Levi. Ummm... yeah. I think the actor is attractive, guys. But that's not the point.
I know I promised pictures and a recap of the trip a long time ago, but I felt like I really needed to tell the whole story ... and it's taken me weeks to get up the courage to share details I haven't even admitted yet to my own family. I tried to write a totally superficial Yay-I-Met-a-Celebrity blog post, but without the story behind my excitement, it just felt wrong. Not just because all of the constant teasing about my "crush" has gotten a little tiring (seriously, guys, the reason my husband isn't "threatened" by my obvious excitement at meeting the actor is because he knows the story - he knows my excitement isn't about a "crush"). But beyond the desire to explain myself, I had to share because recently I have seen good friends being attacked for sharing opinions without first demonstrating their "right" to speak on those issues. I've seen friends being mocked for enjoying things simply because they don't look like the "type" of person who would like those particular things. I've talked to friends who are afraid to speak up about matters both important and trivial because of how someone somewhere might respond.

And I think it's important for us to realize that we don't always understand what's going on in someone else's head.

That thing you think is silly or unimportant? It might just be the most important thing in the world to someone else. And that person who "has no right" to talk about the issue you're so passionate about? They might understand more than you think.

So get comfortable, guys. I'm going to explain why meeting Zachary Levi meant so much to me. And why I'll be forever grateful to this actor who probably has already forgotten me.

You already know about my brain tumor, right? 
Because that's kind of important to this story. And I won't go into it here, because I shared the whole saga a few years ago on this blog. If you want to read all about it, here are the links: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 / 6  (Go ahead. I'll wait.) Okay, are you all caught up? Good. (For those of you who didn't want to read the whole six-part story, I'll sum up: I have a brain tumor. It's "as benign as a brain tumor can be," but the fact that it's in my brain stem causes a lot of problems for me, as the signals from my brain get all jumbled up on the way to make the rest of my body function. And since my brain surgery in 2006, where they were able to remove 60%, but not all of the tumor, the remaining tumor doesn't show up in MRI scans. Sometimes it's severely frustrating to try to get new doctors to take an invisible tumor seriously, but I've been blessed with some phenomenal doctors along the way. And I'm surviving each new challenge as it comes.)

What I didn't tell you (what I didn't tell ANYONE) was that, although our move to Albuquerque was a huge blessing, in a way, because it put me in the right place to meet the doctor who knew how to treat the most debilitating of my brain tumor symptoms, the climate in New Mexico was pretty toxic for me. The combination of high altitude and dry air made it nearly impossible to breathe. (A lot of people with asthma move to dryer climates to make breathing easier. Not me. My airways close when there isn't enough humidity. Just one of the many reasons my family jokes that I'm built backward.)

And several of my other random brain tumor symptoms were getting worse. The new medication my NM doctor prescribed helped to control the intense muscle spasms, so as long as I didn't miss a dose, I didn't have to worry about the constant pain. But the dizzy spells and blackouts, the blurred vision, the nausea, the moments of panic when all of a sudden nothing around me looked even vaguely familiar, ... all of those symptoms were coming more frequently.

I spent an entire day in the emergency room, hooked up to monitors while the nurses and doctors puzzled about why my oxygen levels kept dropping so dangerously low. They ran test after test and couldn't find anything wrong. No obstructions, no inflammations, nothing that should be interfering with my oxygen absorption levels. But I noticed the pattern the ER staff were missing. Because I'd experienced it before. The scariest of all my brain tumor symptoms: I literally forgot to breathe. Every time I started to relax, every time I began to drift off to sleep and stopped consciously thinking about my breathing, I just stopped. This wasn't a struggling-to-get-air-into-my-lungs kind of thing. Sometimes, my brain just doesn't send the right signal, and breathing isn't always the autonomic response for me that it is for most people. I literally forgot to breathe until the monitors started beeping to warn me of the dangerously-low oxygen levels. This hadn't happened for a long time, but now I couldn't get my brain to reset back to the default breathing settings, and I felt like I was in that old joke, where the dumb blonde had to have a post-it note to remind her to breathe.

I had increasingly-frequent occurrences where the words and thoughts in my brain became a jumbled mess when I tried to hold a normal conversation. And some of the stranger moments do kind of make me giggle. Like when I tried to tell my husband "I love you," and instead muttered "I'm craving tater tots." (I didn't actually want tater tots at the moment.) Or when the words "peanut butter" suddenly had the power to reduce me to a sobbing mess. (This one still happens frequently and with no warning, though we've discovered that with the right inflection, "peanut butter" isn't always a devastatingly-sad phrase. But if you offer me a peanut butter cookie and I collapse into a puddle of tears on the floor, please don't take it personally!) ... As funny as these things are, it's also freaking scary to have so little control over your own mind.

By the time TWELVE STEPS was published in March of 2014, I was having more bad days than good. And the last time I'd experienced this intensity of symptoms was in 2005, when my tumor had started rapidly growing again (leading to my brain surgery in early 2006). But now, because the remaining tumor was invisible to scans, I had no way of knowing if the increased symptoms meant my tumor was growing again or just a result of stress or because I was living in a not-good-for-me climate. 

I knew that worrying about it wouldn't help anything. And with the publication of my book, I suddenly had the added pressure of being a semi-public figure, so complaining was out of the question. As an author, it was my job to smile and be happy. And as a mother, it was my job to protect my children from the scary parts of life. So I pushed through with a smile on my face, carefully hiding the fact that I was beyond terrified.

I was afraid to even write about my fears in my journal, because what if my husband, or one of my kids read it? Since there wasn't anything we could do to make things better, worrying them with "what if Mom dies?" didn't seem like the best course. So I created an anonymous profile online, totally unconnected to my real online profiles, that I could use to interact with other brain tumor survivors on a message board for the American Brain Tumor Association. And when it was too hard to keep silent, but totally impossible to even think about placing this burden on the shoulders of those who loved me ... I would go online and post an anonymous "diary entry" to confess that I worried about these things.

And then, just in case, I started quietly preparing for the scariest "what if" scenarios. On my good days, I spent hours in the kitchen, creating custom recipes for friends and family (because who hasn't been comforted, when they miss someone they love, with a bite of Grandma's famous pound cake?) ... I started playing matchmaker for my friends, so they'd have each other to hang out with if I suddenly wasn't there to go to lunch with ... I stepped up my efforts in teaching my kids ALL the life skills, so they wouldn't have to subsist on boxed mac-n-cheese if I suddenly wasn't around to make dinner, or wonder how to remove ketchup stains from their favorite sweaters if I wasn't there to help with the laundry ... And I looked for every opportunity to let my friends and family know that I truly believe this life isn't the end. Even if I'm not here tomorrow, I'll never be truly gone. 

But I was afraid to sleep at night because what if I forgot to breathe while sleeping? I might close my eyes and never open them again. Honestly, I wasn't afraid of death ... But what if my family wasn't as prepared for it as I hoped they would be?   

So for months, in the quiet, middle-of-the-night hours when everyone else was sleeping and the "What If?" monster had me worrying that sleep might be deadly, I would sit at my computer and write ... or catch up on emails ... or read through the reviews for TWELVE STEPS. (Side note: NEVER read the reviews of your own books! Even though most of them were positive, and it meant so much to hear how my words had touched someone else, those way-too-tired middle-of-the-night hours drew my focus to the handful of negative responses that told me I wasn't good enough.) ... So when trying to be productive didn't work, and I was still afraid to sleep, I kept myself awake by scrolling through random YouTube videos.

I discovered this video of Zachary Levi (and Sara Chase) singing "Things I Never Said" from his first Broadway musical: First Date. Which led to all kinds of research about First Date, because I simply had to know where this song fit into the story. (If my internet sources are correct, this is a letter that his character carries with him - written by his deceased mother. Which, for obvious reasons, hit me quite hard.)

And because I think Zachary Levi has one of the best voices ever (seriously, can we start a petition to have him release an album or twelve?), and because this song had suddenly become a bit of a theme song for me, the next obvious step was to Google "Zachary Levi singing." Which led me to this video of his NerdHQ appearance in June 2014. (He sings a tiny bit of "I have a dream" from Tangled when an elementary school teacher requests a song for her students from Flynn Rider, which is why this video came up when I googled "Zachary Levi singing," but if that was the only bit of the video I'd seen, I wouldn't be telling you this story right now.)

Of course I watched the whole video. What else was I going to do in the middle of the night, when I literally couldn't sleep, even though I was beyond exhausted?

About 45 minutes in, Zac said, "I feel a little bit of a pressure sometimes to always be happy. And I'm not. ... I'm not always happy. ... Life is hard. And it doesn't matter who you are. It doesn't matter what level of success you've risen to or fallen from or whatever. It's hard. And I do feel like God has created me to bring happiness, so when I feel like when I'm not doing that, I feel like I'm failing. And that's hard."

 Yes! I'm a natural optimist. I like to look for the rainbows and silver linings in every dark cloud. I appreciate the dark clouds for the soft way they filter the light. And overall, I'm a pretty happy person. Except when I'm not. But my job is to lift and support others, to help them find the happy moments in all of life's little (and big) trials. And if I can't do that ... what am I here for?

The words he spoke were obviously things I needed to hear, but I've heard the words before. I've voiced these thoughts myself countless times. It wasn't anything new. But when he started to tear up a bit, and then felt the need to poke fun at himself for showing that emotion, something clicked. This was a truly genuine moment. He wasn't just playing a part. He understood that need to always be the happy one. 
Suddenly, I didn't feel quite so alone.

I can't even count the number of times I've re-watched this video in the past two years. Over and over and over again, I've used it to remind myself that I'm not alone. That I can keep going, even when things are so hard that I'm afraid I might break. That I don't actually have to carry the whole burden myself, and I'll still be worthy of love if I'm not strong enough to always be the strong one.

So when the opportunity presented itself to see She Loves Me, and when everything fell into place to give me the perfect, happy, worry-free day I needed after such a difficult year, it felt like the Lord was giving me a sign ... telling me that it's okay to let go a little bit ... that I don't always have to be the one to carry the full burden. 

 But here's the thing, guys. My day wasn't perfect because I met Zachary Levi. (sorry Zac!) He just happened to be a part of my perfect day. 
The day was perfect because, for the first time in a year, I dared to hope for positive things, and happy things happened. The world didn't come crashing down around me. For a year, every time I've posted an update recounting the blessings I've seen in the challenges we've faced since our house was destroyed, I've received bad news (another delay ... a failed inspection ... a persistent illness that knocks me out when I don't have time to rest...) I was afraid to hope for good things, and it was slowly killing this girl, who thrives in a "rainbows and bubbles world. But for one day, everything went exactly according to plan. We woke up on time and got on the road precisely when I had planned. We didn't hit traffic on our way up to New York. We had time to get lunch at the gourmet grilled cheese shop I'd been looking forward to trying, and to walk in Central Park before the show. The musical was everything I hoped it would be - the roles perfectly cast and every song performed even better than the soundtrack (from a previous revival) I had grown to love. (There's always a fear that the New Version won't measure up to the familiar one ... But I discovered that I loved this revival even more than the one I already loved!!) ... Then, I got to meet Zachary Levi, and he was genuinely kind - taking time to answer my daughter's questions about performing on Broadway (her dream), chatting with everyone in the crowd, and posing for lots of pictures with everyone. ... For an entire day, I could smile and laugh and giggle with some of my favorite people in the world, and even though I forgot to take my brain tumor meds, my body didn't shut down on me. 

It was perfect because, like that YouTube video that gave me hope when I struggled to find it two years ago, She Loves Me is full of messages of hope and love and trusting in things to work out the way they're supposed to, even when you're faced with a challenge that, at first, appears to be the worst thing that could possibly happen. 

It was perfect because for a full year, every time I dared to dream, life would throw me a curve ball, and I was literally breaking under the weight of all my crushed hopes ... but then I got to spend a whole day laughing with my family and one of my best friends. And for one day, it didn't matter that we had yet another delay on our house construction ... or that my health is still on the shaky side ... or that I continue to face dark paths with scary challenges and no sure guarantees.
My only regret is that, in my fangirl-flailing over meeting Zachary Levi, I got all tongue-tied and didn't say the things I wanted to say. I wanted to tell him thank you. To let him know that his words had helped me through a very difficult time. I wanted to let him know that he made a difference. Because, as an author, it always means so much to me when I get that kind of feedback from my readers. But I couldn't figure out how to express it without going through the whole story. So I didn't. ... And I know it's unlikely that he will ever stumble across this blog, but Zac, if you read this: Thank you!
A perfect day = Smiling and laughing with my favorite people in the world!

Of course, life can't always be perfect. And the past few days and weeks have been hard. As days and weeks are bound to be. And even though I know it's nearly impossible to recreate a "perfect" moment, I've been wishing that I could afford a trip to New York to see the show one more time. To lock the scenes into my memory for days when I need to access those perfect moments again. But a trip like that is expensive. And with every penny going toward rebuilding my house, I really can't justify the cost.

** This morning, I finally admitted to myself that it's not going to happen, no matter how much I wish it ... But as I was writing this blog post, a notification popped up in my Facebook feed: She Loves Me will be showing in a live-stream broadcast from BroadwayHD on June 30th!!

It's just a little, totally "unimportant" thing in the grand scheme of life, but this news fills my heart with happiness. I'll get to relive those memories without breaking my budget. 
A perfect reminder that the Lord is on my side. And He loves me.

27 May 2016

God Loves Me: or Why I'm Selfishly Happy for Zachary Levi's Tony Award Nomination

This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of the day my world fell apart.

On May 28, 2015, the insurance company called to say that they wouldn't pay a single penny to help us rebuild the house that had been destroyed by mold and water damage (from a series of broken pipes), because my husband's military service had taken our family away from the area, and we weren't physically in the house when the damage occurred. I sat on the floor of the Javits Center in New York City (where I was visiting for Book Expo America) and sobbed, because I knew there was no way we could pay for the necessary repairs ourselves on my husband's military paycheck.

Our dining room in May 2015

It's been a crazy, insanely-difficult year full of disappointment, frustration and more heartache than I thought I could handle. But it's also been a year full of amazing support from friends, family and the amazing authors, agents, and editors in the publishing world who lifted and carried me - sometimes literally - when I didn't have the strength or ability to do it on my own.

From the awesome publishing folks who literally lifted and held me up until I had the strength to stand on my own when I was falling apart at BEA to the authors, agents, editors and readers who held an auction to raise funds to help pay for the mold removal ... the loan officer who worked late into the night for more months than I want to count, looking for ways to make the financing work so we could get the loan we needed ... and the contractors who have become friends as we've worked together to rebuild ... I've been blessed with more miracles than I could have ever imagined this year.

And yet ... I've struggled.

I'm a natural optimist, and as the name of this website implies, I prefer to look for the blessings in life's struggles. I'm usually pretty good at finding the miracles wrapped up in each challenge. But this time, being able to see the blessings just wasn't enough. Being grateful for the daily miracles kept my head above water, but just barely. And I still felt like I could barely catch a gulping gasp of breath before the waves crashed over me again, as repeated delays and unforseen difficulties pushed the rebuild farther and farther out.

But this weekend marks a full year that I've kept going. I've survived. And I can almost see the finish line ahead.
Our dining room in May 2016

To celebrate, I'm taking my family back to New York City. And this time, we're going to have only happy memories. We're going to see Zachary Levi (one of our favorite actors, who has probably the best singing voice ever) in the revival of She Loves Me (a musical based on one of my favorite stories - the same one that inspired the movies Shop Around the Corner and You've Got Mail).


To be honest, money is still extremely tight, and I've struggled with extreme guilt over spending our dollars on something just for fun when we're still working to pay for all of the unexpected costs of rebuilding a house from scratch. But this musical isn't just a fun family activity. It's a symbol for so much more. This is a life "do-over" in more ways than one.

Four years ago (in 2012), one of my favorite singers was playing the lead role in a revival of another of my favorite musicals on Broadway, and my husband was going to surprise me with tickets to see the show for my birthday (May 27, 2012). But that musical closed early - the weekend before we were planning to go - and I never got the chance.

So when I saw that Zachary Levi was playing the lead in She Loves Me, and we had an opportunity to get a military discount on tickets for this weekend's matinee, I had to find a way to scrape the money together. I bought the tickets, circled the date on my calendar ... and prayed with everything I had in me that this show wouldn't close early.

Yet, a small part of my optimism-starved soul was totally braced and prepared for the crushing disappointment of another show closed early. I don't know if I could have handled that.

So when the Tony Award nominations were announced at the beginning of this month, and She Loves Me  walked away with EIGHT nominations (including a Best Actor nomination for Zachary Levi!!), I cried so many happy tears. It felt like the Lord was telling me "I haven't forgotten you. If this is important to you, it's important to me." 

*Note: I've heard that Zachary Levi does a meet-and-greet with the fans after each performance and I'm REALLY  hoping for a chance to get an autograph (Phil is drawing a special picture for me to bring along for an autograph, just in case I get a chance) and maybe take a picture with him. I know I'll still have fun if that doesn't happen, but I'm still hoping. And praying.