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.

07 April 2016

The Natural History of Us: Review, Excerpt and Exclusive Recipe!!

TNHoU - blog tour banner
Rachel Harris' THE NATURAL HISTORY OF US is already getting swoons from readers everywhere! We can’t wait for you to get your hands on it. Known for her sweet romances, Rachel's THE NATURAL HISTORY OF US, is no different! Check out everything we have for you on this amazing title and then go grab your copy today. Justin and Peyton’s story is sure to put a smile on your face and keep you turning pages long into the night!
The Natural History of Us - coverOne class assignment. One second chance at love. The school player is all in. Now he needs to win back the sweet commitment girl who's forever owned his heart.
Justin Carter has a secret. He's not the total player Fairfield Academy believes him to be. Not really. In fact, he used to be a one-woman guy...and his feelings for her never went away. Too bad he broke her heart three years ago and made sure to ruin any chance she'd ever forgive him.
Peyton Williams is a liar. She pretends to be whole, counting down the days until graduation and helping her parents at the family ranch. But the truth is, she's done everything she can to get over Justin, and salvation is just around the corner. With graduation one short month away, she'll soon break free from the painful memories and start her life fresh. Of course, she has to get through working with him on one last assignment first.
For Justin, nothing ever felt as right as being with Peyton, and now that fate's given him a shot at redemption, he's determined to make the most of it. And for Peyton...well, Justin Carter has always been her kryptonite.

My Thoughts:

TNHoU - Tour Teaser 3I'm a sucker for second-chance-at-love stories, and this one doesn't disappoint.

Justin and Peyton used to be in love, once upon a time back in freshman year. And they still are. But it's a secret. So secret that they haven't even told each other. But now they're partners for a school project, and Justin finally has a chance to make up for his freshman-year mistakes and win Peyton back.

Justin won me over from the very first chapter, and even though I totally understood why Peyton didn't trust him with her heart, I was absolutely cheering for them to reconcile. Which is saying a lot, if you know me. I've never been a fan of "the bad boy" as a love interest (give me the nice guy any day!) so I'll admit that I wasn't 100% certain I'd be able to love this match-up. But Rachel Harris is a master of character development, and it was obvious right from the start that Justin wasn't really the player everyone at Fairfield Academy thought he was. But his secret nice guy status was obvious in a way that didn't have me rolling my eyes or feeling like he was a cliche. And I could honestly cheer for this not-a-bad-boy-at-all to win back his true love.

At the same time, I wanted to be best friends with Peyton. I could totally relate to her side of the story too, and I absolutely understood why she wouldn't want to trust Justin's intentions after all this time. As much as I wanted them to get together again, I never felt like the conflict was drawn out artificially.

I loved the first book in this series (THE FINE ART OF PRETENDING), and I swooned over THE NATURAL HISTORY OF US. I just wish I could fast forward through time, because I don't want to wait to read more about the kids from Fairfield Academy!


    Trust me. You want this book! Here's an excerpt to prove it:

Dropping my arm, Aly slides over to the goods. “Justin put me in charge of all things snackage this weekend since it’s my thing, and I want you both to give me your honest opinion.” She selects two giant squares and sets them each on a napkin. “Tell me if they’re too bold or too much.”

“I feel like those two words will never apply to chocolate anything,” I confess and accept the gift of fudgy goodness.

The brownie is moist, that’s obvious just from looking at it, and when I lift it to my mouth my fingers sink into the soft texture. My taste buds prep themselves for a happy dance. Then the rich scent of cocoa hits my senses and I close my eyes in bliss.

“Holy crap!”

A surprising burst of orange hits my tongue and I moan, taking another bite, hoping my sprung-open eyes tell Aly everything she needs to know, because I refuse to stop eating for something as silly as words. Seriously. Roll out a sleeping bag, call it a day, I’m good to go camping in the kitchen.

“You like it?”

I exaggerate a head nod, and Aly bounces on her sneakers. “Really? See, normally, I’m a brownie purist. Cookies, cupcakes, tarts; I go wild with those, but brownies are my religion. But the other day I saw a recipe on Pinterest and it sparked my imagination.” She raises an eyebrow and says, “That site is addictive… for realz.”

“They’re incredible,” I mumble, mouth filled with orange-flavored chocolate. “What’s in here? How did you get it to taste like this? I swear it looks like a normal brownie.”

Aly leans in with wide eyes. “The secret is orange marmalade. Fun, right?”

I nod my agreement and gather every possible crumb, pressing my fingertip into the moist morsels and licking without shame. I consider tonguing my napkin, too, but decide that may be too weird, so instead I break the edge off Cade’s remaining sliver and smile around my bite. He laughs and hands the whole thing over, blowing me a kiss.

He’s good people. 

Aly watches our exchange with happy yet curious eyes, and I can’t help wondering how much she knows. She and Justin parted as friends, surprising since other than me, I never knew him to have friends who are girls. 

“These are delicious,” Cade tells her, and she smiles in gratitude.

“Thanks. When you have a wicked sweet tooth, you learn how to bake pretty quickly.”

I was beyond honored when Rachel asked me to be Aly's kitchen stunt double - to create not just one, but TWO fabulous brownie recipes for Aly to bake in this chapter of THE NATURAL HISTORY OF US. And they really are as delicious as Peyton describes them. Here is the recipe for the Dark Chocolate Orange Brownies, so you can make them yourself. (It's a perfect treat to serve when your book club reads THE NATURAL HISTORY OF US!)

Dark Chocolate Orange Brownies: Aly's recipe from THE NATURAL HISTORY OF US

You can order a signed and/or personalized copy of THE NATURAL HISTORY OF US now through April 8th HERE! (That's TOMORROW!! Don't miss out!)

TNHoU - Signed Books

And if you haven't read it yet, go grab a copy of Rachel Harris’s



You don't have to read the first book in order to enjoy THE NATURAL HISTORY OF US, but if you haven't already read THE FINE ART OF PRETENDING, you absolutely should. I loved that one too! I absolutely want to be best friends with Aly, and I'm so glad she was back for THE NATURAL HISTORY OF US! And if you liked the brownie recipe from THE NATURAL HISTORY OF US, check out the Chocolate Peanut Butter Truffles recipe I created for THE FINE ART OF PRETENDING! 

Rachel Harris - Author photo About Rachel Harris: New York Times bestselling author Rachel Harris writes humorous love stories about sassy girls-next-door and the hot guys that make them swoon. Vibrant settings, witty banter, and strong relationships are a staple in each of her books…and kissing. Lots of kissing. An admitted Diet Mountain Dew addict and homeschool mom, she gets through each day by laughing at herself, hugging her kids, and watching way too much Food Network with her husband. She writes young adult, new adult, and adult romances, and LOVES talking with readers!    

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TNHoU - Tour Teaser 2

Rachel Harris’s THE NATURAL HISTORY OF US– Review & Excerpt Tour Schedule:
March 28th
A Leisure Moment – Review
Home.Love.Books. – Review
Swoony Boys Podcast – Review & Excerpt
March 29th
A Crave For Books – Review
Becky on Books – Review & Excerpt
Angel Reads – Review
Lovin' Los Libros – Review & Excerpt
I Read Indie – Excerpt
March 30th
Bookish Things & More – Review & Excerpt
Stuck In Books – Review & Excerpt
Reading Adventurously – Review & Excerpt
Typical Distractions – Review & Excerpt
Crazii Bitches Book Blog – Review & Excerpt
March 31st
Dazzled by Books – Review & Excerpt
Kindle and Me – Review & Excerpt
The Cover Contessa – Review & Excerpt
Book Groupies – Excerpt
We All Make Mistakes in Books – Review & Excerpt
The Bibliophile Confessions – Review & Excerpt
Ticket To Anywhere – Review & Excerpt
April 1st
Bookaholics Reading Haven – Review & Excerpt
Books Eater – Review & Excerpt
SprinkleofBooks – Excerpt
Melena's Reviews – Review & Excerpt
Ficwishes – Review & Excerpt
Gaga Over Books – Review & Excerpt
My fictional escape – Review & Excerpt
April 2nd
Caitlin Audet – Excerpt
Andi's ABCs – Review
Defiantly Deviant – Review
Book Briefs – Review
April 3rd
Cheyanne Young – Review & Excerpt
Short and Sassy Book Blurbs – Review & Excerpt
Ashleyz Wonderland – Excerpt
April 4th
Bookaholics Not-So-Anonymous – Review & Excerpt
Addicted to Books – Review & Excerpt
Bookish Escapes – Review & Excerpt
Adventures of a Book Junkie – Review & Excerpt
Tween 2 Teen Book Reviews – Review & Excerpt
April 5th
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27 March 2016

Lime & Coconut Cream Pie

This Lime and Coconut Cream Pie is a variation of the Strawberry Cream Pie I made for Pi Day. With the green-tinted coconut, and a "nest" full of jellybean eggs, it's a perfect Easter treat. :)

You will need:
1 pie crust (recipe below ... or store-bought is fine)
1/2 c. coconut, tinted green
2 c. non-fat, plain Greek yogurt
1 pkg. lime Jello
jelly beans

Bake the pie crust for 10-12 minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit, until lightly golden brown. Sprinkle half of the coconut on the bottom of the crust.

In a medium-sized bowl, stir together yogurt and Jello. Pour on top of coconut and spread evenly.
Arrange remaining coconut on top. Create a "nest" in the center of the pie and fill with jellybean "eggs." Chill for 4-6 hours, until set. 
Pie Crust Recipe
You will need: 
1 c. + 2 Tbsp. flour
1 tsp. salt
1/3 c. oil
1-3 Tbsp. VERY cold water
In a medium bowl, stir together flour and salt. Drizzle in oil and stir with a fork until it resembles coarse crumbs. Add water, 1 Tbsp.  at a time, just until dough comes together. Press into a ball, then roll out and place in pie tin. (I find it easiest if I roll the dough between two sheets of waxed paper, because it doesn't stick to my countertops, and it's super-easy to transfer to the pie tin this way.)

14 March 2016

Super-Simple Strawberry Cream Pie Recipe

Happy Pi Day, everyone!

This holiday is a big deal in our house. Because we love pie, in all its wondrous varieties! Today, for breakfast we had walnut biscuit "pies." (I tried doing a pecan pie-like filling inside a biscuit crust, and they actually turned out to be more like muffins ... but they were still delicious.) The kids were all disappointed that the school cafeterias didn't offer pie as an option ... But we made up for it at dinner with TWO beef pot pies. (Yum!)

But my favorite part of every Pi Day is creating new and delicious pie recipes. And this year's recipe is the easiest one ever! Only four ingredients, and less than twenty minutes prep time, but it tastes good enough to make people believe you slaved for hours.

Super-Simple Strawberry Cream Pie

You will need:
1 pie crust (recipe below ... or store-bought is fine)
1/2 lb. strawberries (or more, if you want an extra berry burst)
2 c. non-fat, plain Greek yogurt
1 pkg. strawberry Jello

Bake the pie crust for 10-12 minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit, until lightly golden brown. Slice strawberries and arrange approximately half of the berry slices on the bottom of the crust.

In a medium-sized bowl, stir together yogurt and Jello. Pour on top of strawberries and spread evenly.

Arrange remaining strawberry slices on top. Chill for 4-6 hours, until set. 

Pie Crust Recipe
You will need: 
1 c. + 2 Tbsp. flour
1 tsp. salt
1/3 c. oil
1-3 Tbsp. VERY cold water

In a medium bowl, stir together flour and salt. Drizzle in oil and stir with a fork until it resembles coarse crumbs. Add water, 1 Tbsp.  at a time, just until dough comes together. Press into a ball, then roll out and place in pie tin. (I find it easiest if I roll the dough between two sheets of waxed paper, because it doesn't stick to my countertops, and it's super-easy to transfer to the pie tin this way.)

16 January 2016

Confessions of a Semi-Absent Friend (It's Not You. It's Me.)

As you know, 2015 was a a really difficult year for me.

The holidays (from Halloween, clear 'til the New Year) were especially hard, and I really struggled to capture the spirit of joy that usually comes so easily for me. For the first time, I experienced the seasonal depression that hits so many during the holidays. And though I tried to keep up the cheerful attitude I'm generally known for, I'll admit that I spent many hours hiding in quiet corners to cry so I wouldn't bring anyone else at the party down.

But the thing is, I don't think I was really fooling anyone. Though I tried to keep up a carefully-cultivated mask, though I wore a plastered-on smile and forced a chipper tone into my voice when answering the unavoidable "how are you?"-type questions, I know my recent aloofness has caused some hurt feelings.

And I want to apologize for being a semi-absent friend.

"When you cannot do what you have always done, then you only do what matters most." This quote by Elder Robert D. Hales has become my mantra in recent months. I've had to remind myself daily that I'm not a bad person just because I have to say no to things I've said yes to in the past. Still, I've been saying "no" so much more than I want to. And I've heard enough quiet murmurings to know that some of my friends and family are starting to think they aren't in my "what matters most" category.

So at the risk of sounding like I'm having a prolonged pity party, I wanted to explain why I've been absent lately. Why I'm not on Twitter or Facebook or this blog cheering your successes and mourning your losses with you. Why I've not attended so many social engagements, even when I said I'd really try to be there. Why I'm no longer the one jumping to volunteer when I see a friend in need, even when I desperately want to be there for you. And why I might quietly slip away from a conversation just when you start thinking that everything is back to normal.

It's not you. I promise.

It's me.

And I know that's the world's most unhelpful cliche, but it's the total and honest truth.

I want you to know that I'm not sitting around feeling sorry for myself. I'm not sinking into a deep depression or wallowing in a pool of self-pity and resentment. And even though I might break down in uncontrollable fits of private sobs more often than I want to admit these days, I really will be okay. And I'm getting better, but it will take some time to replenish my natural well.

As you know, I'm a certified optimist. I can find the good in any situation, the positive spin on even the most negative circumstances. And even though circumstances have been HARD for the past eight months, I can see so many wonderful blessings that have come from our struggles. And truly, even though I don't know how I have the strength to get out of bed some days, the Lord has blessed me with the strength to keep putting one foot in front of another, and we've found a way to do all of the truly essential things.

But here's the thing: Things are more difficult right now than they've ever been. And although I can still look at each and every trial and find the good hidden there, I'm exhausted. I simply don't have the energy to project that positive spin for an audience.

I'm not sure when we'll be able to go home again. Work has come to a screeching halt on our house, as we wait for reports from the structural engineer (so that the rebuild can be done safely and securely, and we don't accidentally end up with nothing more than a pile of rubbish where our home used to be). We have no more money to pay for work to continue. The funds we've raised, the loan we were able to acquire, and the small amount we had in our savings have all gone to pay for the mold removal. We're hoping to be able to get a new loan to refinance our house and be able to pay for the rebuilding, but the bank can't process the paperwork until they have the report, and we won't know if we even qualify for the loan until they process that paperwork.

And yes, I know that I have been so richly blessed in so many ways. I'm still beyond overwhelmed by the generosity you showed in our gofundme campaign. And yes, I have faith that somehow, in some way, things will work out.

I don't know how.

And to be honest, I'm terrified. And feeling more than a little bit lost. But the natural optimist in me keeps pointing out the blessings, and that keeps me from collapsing under the weight of it all.

The thing is, my little cup of gratitude, overflowing as it may be, isn't big enough to fill my well right now. And I just don't have enough optimism to share.

So when you ask me for an update on my house, and the only news I've had to report for months is that work has stopped and I don't know when or if we'll be able to afford the next step ... Or when you ask me if I'm going to make cookies for everyone in the neighborhood this year (as I used to do every year at Christmas), just hours after I was crying in the grocery store because I wasn't sure I'd have enough money to feed my family that week ... Or when you invite my children to join you for an afternoon of fun and it's only $10 per person, but that's $40 more than I have in the budget ...

Yes, I will still see the blessings there. I will still see the silver linings in every cloud and the rainbows shining after every storm.

I will be excruciatingly grateful for the most amazing contractors in the world, who have gone out of their way to personally let me know that I'm not alone, and that they will do everything in their power to make sure we WILL find a way to rebuild our home.

I will blink back a few tears of joy over the fact that everything on my grocery list was on sale and each item carried extra gas reward bonus points
 enough to allow me to fill my tank for only fourteen cents per gallon.

I will thank the Lord that you love my children enough to want to include them in the fun times, and that you recognize how desperately we need some fun right now.

But I don't always have the energy to keep smiling.

I don't even have the strength to explain to you that you didn't make me cry, and that I didn't mean to burst into a sobbing mess just because you showed me the beautiful kitchen you just finished remodeling.

And I'm struggling so hard just to keep my own head above water that even though I see you struggling too, and I desperately want to lift you, I know that we'll both go under if you're relying on me.

But I'm not really absent. I'm still here, quietly cheering for you on the sidelines. I pray for you. I think  of you.

And little by little, I'm filling my well. One tiny drop at a time. Until someday soon, I hope, I'll be ready to step out of the shadows and reflect the sunshine I see in our lives every single day.

Please be patient with me until then.

And please know that I love you.


26 December 2015

Merry Christmas!

As you probably know, this has been a tough year for us, and I've been struggling with finding the Christmas spirit in a way that I've never struggled before. So I'm especially grateful for friends who love me enough to reach out and let me know they care.

Two weeks ago, we came home from a visit to see the Washington DC Temple Festival of Lights,

and there was a small package on our doorstep. Inside was a small, ceramic lamb. No note. No explanation. Just a lamb. As my children wondered what it could mean, I felt the first flutterings of the Spirit I'd been missing.

That lamb looked like it must belong to a nativity set. Maybe someone who knew I collect nativities was giving us an extra-special "Twelve Days of Christmas." I immediately felt pangs of guilt for my selfishness in hoping that I would continue to get a new piece to the set each night. Because wishing for presents for yourself isn't what Christmas is all about. Still, I couldn't help hoping that the gifts would continue, and I found myself watching for the next piece each night.

They came.

Piece by piece, the nativity arrived from our anonymous givers.

And when a friend handed me a small package at church with the instruction that I should open it on Christmas morning, I was pretty sure I knew who my Secret Santa was. I quietly tucked the gift under the tree without saying anything to my children, to preserve the mystery for them. But for me, it meant so much more each night when I received the next piece of the nativity, because I was loved not by a faceless stranger, but by a family full of some of the most amazing people I know.

We kept the growing nativity in the middle of the dining room table, where I could see it several times a day. And each time I passed by, I thought of the hugs and smiles I receive each time I see these sweet children. The words of comfort and encouragement from my friend (their mother). I thought about the scrumptious Christmas cinnamon rolls they made for us.
I thought about how these children go out of their way nearly every day to make sure my kids know they have friends. And the way the father came rushing to our rescue with tools in hand two nights before Christmas, when the boys in my cub scout troop locked our cat in the basement room, for which we had no key. (We couldn't pick the lock, and I had to call an emergency locksmith in the end anyway, but the $250 emergency lockout fee was a little easier to swallow when we'd already exhausted everything we could do on our own.) Each piece of the nativity reminded me that I wasn't alone.

Sure enough, the final piece (the Christ child) was in the package we unwrapped Christmas morning. Along with a note and the story that inspired their gift.

I'll admit, I'm still struggling more than usual. This gift, as amazing as it was, didn't magically cure everything. (This isn't a Hallmark Channel movie, after all.) But I do know that I'm not alone.

No matter what happens, no matter how difficult things may be ... even if we can't get the loans we need and never do get back to our home ... I have friends by my side to help me through.

And somehow, I will be all right.

26 November 2015

Happy Thanksgiving! plus a new recipe: Peanut Butter Custard Pie

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! (And for my non-US friends who may not celebrate the day: Happy Thursday.) I am so thankful for all of you! Far beyond words. Thank you for your love and support. And just thank you for being you.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. A whole day set aside for spending time with family and friends. And for being grateful for what you already have. ... And, of course, for eating delicious food. 

My favorite part of the feast is the pie. I have fond memories of making pies with my mom when I was a little girl, and how my favorite tradition is making pies with my own kids. Every year, I try to invent a new pie recipe. This year it's a peanut butter custard.

You will need:
1 c. Peanut butter
1/3 c. Agave syrup
1 can evaporated milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 eggs
Chocolate chips
1 9-inch pie crust (or 12-18 mini pie shells*)

Place pie crust in baking dish. Cover bottom of crust with chocolate chips. In a large bowl, combine all other ingredients. Pour into pie shell. Bake at 400° for 15 minutes then reduce heat to 350° for about 40 more minutes, until knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

Serve with whipped cream or drizzled with melted chocolate.

* for mini pies, if you don't have mini pie tins, you can fill muffin tins halfway with aluminum foil, then line the muffin tins with foil to make 12 shallow pie tins

30 October 2015

Crockpot Gourmet Recipe: Stuffed Pumpkin

It's fall! And that means pumpkins! As you've probably guessed, I love pumpkin. I've already posted several pumpkin-based recipes on my site. (spaghetti sauce, chili, pumpkin custard) But one of our favorite fall meals is Stuffed Pumpkin. You can stuff the pumpkin with a variety of different fillings. This one, with cranberries and turkey, is like Thanksgiving dinner in a single dish.

You will need:
One pumpkin (about 7-8 inches in diameter, or whatever size will fit into your crock pot)
2 pound ground  turkey
Two onions chopped
2 tablespoons garlic
half cup Craisins
quarter pound mushrooms chopped
Half cup oats
1 tablespoon each oregano and basil

Cut the top off the pumpkin and scoop out the seeds. Brown the ground turkey. Add the onions and sauté until slightly tender. Add the rest of the ingredients and cook until mushrooms are tender and onions start to caramelize. 

Pack as much of the filling into the pumpkin as you can, pushing it down with a spoon to really smash it in. (You will probably have some leftover filling. The amount depends on how big your pumpkin is. Extra filling makes a great topping for baked potatoes or omelets ... Or you can do as I did and just eat while you wait for the pumpkin to cook.) 

Replace the top of the pumpkin. Place in a crock pot, and cook on low for 6-8 hours until pumpkin is soft. 

This is a complete meal. You don't even need side dishes!