Skip Right Into The Sound of Music!

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I grew up on The Sound of Music, sitting in front of my TV and singing along with Julie Andrews while I wondered what it would be like to live the life of a nun, to be sixteen-going-on-seventeen, and to flee over the mountains from the Nazis. Anyone else? My husband also watched this classic film as a child, so it was a no-brainer to add Panorama Tours' Original Sound of Music Tour in Salzburg, Austria, to our Europe itinerary.

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, which means that I may receive a small commission if you make a purchase through one of the links I've provided here--at no additional cost to you. Please check out my disclosure policy for more info, and thanks for your support!

Our half-day tour began in central Salzburg. Our guide was very informative and entertaining (and actually looked a good deal like Maria! Coincidence?), and this was a singalong tour! We listened to the Rodgers and Hammerstein soundtrack and sang while we drove.

One of the first sites we drove by was Nonnberg Abbey, a working convent where the historical Maria was a nun and also married Captain von Trapp. We also drove by Frohnburg Palace, the yellow villa which served as the front of the Von Trapp family's home in the movie.

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Leopoldskron Palace was the filming location for the back of the Von Trapp residence. The boating scene and garden scenes took place here. Lovely view!

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Nearby at Hellbrunn Palace was the famous gazebo which was the rendezvous point for Leisl and Rolfe's night-time romantic meeting and the spot where Maria and Captain von Trapp shared their first kiss.

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We headed out of the city and towards the Lake District. At one point our bus driver continued to circle a roundabout until everyone on the bus was loudly yodeling! Here is the town of St. Gilgen and Lake Wolfgang, which can be seen in the opening shots of The Sound of Music.

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We spent some time in the quaint town of Mondsee...

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...where the wedding of Maria and Captain von Trapp was filmed at the Mondsee Abbey Church. It's grand exterior--with chevron detail added before chevron was chevron!--was not seen in the movie, but its ornate sanctuary provided the perfect backdrop for Maria's slow and reverent trip down the aisle in her long dress to the sound of organ music and nun's voices.

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We spent a little time sitting by Lake Mondsee eating a scrumptious apple struedel. 

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Then we headed back into Austria to the stately Mirabell Gardens. Pictured here are the famous "Do-Re-Mi" steps.

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We reenacted scenes from the movie to the best of our memory as we explored the gardens, and this concluded the official portion of our excellent guided tour.

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But we continued to explore on our own and identified another bridge on which the Von Trapp children frolicked in the film, and we also found the Residenz Square Horse Fountain, where Maria sang "I Have Confidence In Me."

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Feeling as though we'd stepped right into one of our favorite movies was simply the best, but we enjoyed some of Salzburg's other sites as well. We hiked up to Hohensalzburg Castle...

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...and enjoyed the view of the city below.

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We'd chosen to stay in the town of Grodig, nearby Salzburg, at the cutie Hotel Sallerhof. Aside from an unfortunate do-we-leave-the-windows-open-and-get-eaten-alive-by-mosquitoes-or-keep-them-closed-and-burn-up dilemma our first night there, we were happy with these lodgings and especially with breakfast! And providentially our second night at the Sallerhof, it rained!--no mosquitoes. 

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What a lovely little town! Isn't my husband the cutest sitting on that heart-shaped bench? (I'm not sure "cute" is what he's going for, but nonetheless...)

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I've got two words for you: wiener schnitzel. This is a thin, breaded, pan-fried veal cutlet served with lemon and parsley, famous in Austrian  cuisine. As in the case of my delicious dinner pictured here, pork is often substituted for veal. (Whew! Not so hot on the whole veal thing.)

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Our final day in Austria we decided to hike a section of the Untersberg, which separates Austria from Germany and served as the filming location for Maria to sing "The Hills Are Alive" and for the Von Trapp family to escape over the mountains "into Switzerland" in The Sound of Music. Little did we know as we set out that we'd see more of these "staircases" than we ever cared to on our three-hour journey to the top. The climb was taxing, and we saw few other people, lending an air of mystique to our adventure. 

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The view from the top was amazing! We were on a bit of a schedule, so we happily took the cable car back down to Grodig, where we grabbed our luggage, ran to catch a bus, hurried to find the next bus... But that's a story for another day!

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Hello, Ravello!

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The legendary Amalfi Coast consists of thirteen towns nestled in the seaside cliffs of southern Italy, giving  tourists endless options of itineraries through this breathtaking region. Greg and I were very happy with the three days we spent in the area several summers ago, having chosen to stay in the higher elevation and less tourist-oriented town of Ravello. From there we took a half-day hike to a monastery and the town of Minori, date night to lively Amalfi, and day trip to the breezy island of Capri. Hop on the back of my Vespa, and let's go!

 

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Rooming in Romantic Ravello

The small town of Ravello had charmed my husband on a business trip several years earlier, so he was excited to take me there.

 

We'd had quite the day's journey from Milan to the Amalfi Coast, including a train stop at a platform surrounded by trees and not a human in sight! We hiked with our luggage down into the town and then faced another challenge--to locate the bus that would take us down the coast. We finally noticed a tiny sign in front of the pottery shop advertising bus tickets (Because that makes sense, right?), and we were soon on our way. (See photo--would you have noticed that little sign?) Our first glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea dazzled me, but when we stopped in crowded Amalfi for a piece of pizza and another bus ticket, I admit that I was less than enchanted. The surroundings were beautiful, but the place was packed and unfortunately felt a bit like Oceans of Fun on Memorial Day. 

So when we stepped off the bus after our ascent to Ravello, I breathed a sigh of relief. People milled about and admired the gorgeous view of the coastline, but it felt slower-paced, more peaceful, and more authentically Italian.

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We'd debated staying in a number of hotels but had decided to go with a property we found on Airbnb, which was less expensive than many of our other options and ended up being simply delightful. It was a bit of a walk from the bus station and main part of town, but we didn't mind this and appreciated that the neighborhood was quiet at night. Check out the amazing view from our window!

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Several rooms shared this cozy patio overlooking the ocean, and our host served us pastries and the most wonderful cappuccinos for breakfast each morning.

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The most prominent feature of Ravello's town square is its cathedral, which held mass each evening as we walked by; one night we watched a Catholic parade while we ate at an open-air restaurant. This part of Italy is known for beautiful hand-painted pottery and lemons, and there's an abundance of both in Ravello, including these lemons as big as grapefruits!

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We visited the Giardini Caffe Calce several times because of its pleasant garden and delicious pizza--cheese for Greg, artichokes for me. Though we waited until 8:00pm to venture into a restaurant for dinner, we received some funny looks...because the rest of the town didn't begin their feasting until closer to 9:00pm! (Don't tell them we usually eat at 6:00pm!)

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The Mysterious Monastery in the Clouds

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At the suggestion of our host we decided to take a half-day hike to a location I'm calling "The Mysterious Monastery in the Clouds," so named because since we've returned from our trip, I haven't been able to track down any information on this place! It was once either a monastery or convent and is now simply an enigma. We could see this old structure from the entrance to our B&B, so we set out on our journey with a simple map and some lunch.

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On our way we gawked at local agriculture, including green beans, grapevines, and tomatoes drying in the sun.

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Once out of town we encountered no one on our hike until our descent into the town of Minori several hours later. Well, we did run into a fluffy, white stray dog trotting along the path, and we invited him to join us, but he was on a mission and couldn't be deterred.

We sat down to enjoy some lunch. No PB&J's for us--we'd stashed one of those mouthwatering pizzas in our backpack!

Revived, we continued on our way and arrived at our destination! We explored the area around the old monastery...

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...and admired the birds-eye view of the town of Minori and the billowy clouds that seemed almost within reach.

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We headed back into the woods and hiked down towards Minori, admiring the lovely greens all around us. Soon we were joined by a pack of pesky bees--not the sting-you-till-you-scream kind but rather the latch-onto-you-and-give-you-the-heebie-jeebies kind. We decided to try to run away from the bees, but they swarmed ferociously right along with us! I felt like I'd witnessed this scene in a cartoon.

The bees left us alone as we reentered civilization. Whew!

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I loved seeing the pretty mosaics and carved doors as we walked through Minori's streets with a nice view of the town of Amalfi and the sea.

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Here we are with Minori behind us, loving the sea breezes coming our way!

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I had to get my picture taken next to this wall of brilliant purple morning glories, but immediately after I'd been photographed, a black snake slithered out of the wall right where I was standing! Yikes! Time to move on down the road!

We stopped to admire Minori's basilica and eat some gelato while we watched locals drive by on their motorbikes. Then we began our climb up the many stairs towards Ravello.

 

 

 

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We peered into an interesting cemetery along the way and soon saw Ravello's famous umbrella tree ahead, assuring us we were almost home. We were exhausted after all those stairs when we finally reached our home base, but we'd had a wonderful adventure!

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Date Nights in Italy Eat Other Date Nights for Breakfast

One evening we took the bus to Amalfi for a date night! I'm happy to report that though the city was bustling, this was a pleasurable liveliness, not the overcrowded theme park feel of several days earlier. We walked around town, picked up some fruit, bread, and fresh mozzarella, and admired Amalfi's imposing cathedral.

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Our dinner of spaghetti with lemon garlic sauce, pappardelle with bolognese sauce, arugula salad with tomatoes, and crusty bread was truly fabulous. After dinner we walked out onto the dock to gaze at the twinkling city lights before heading back to the bus stop.

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The Beachy Island that Turned Out to Be Big

I simply couldn't pass up the opportunity to see the dreamy island of Capri, so we caught a ferry in Amalfi for the roughly two-hour ride to Capri, stopping along the way at several of the coastal towns to pick up more travelers. Look at that turquoise water!

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All of the towns along the Amalfi Coast seem to have expanded entirely upwards, especially Positano!

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When we arrived at Capri, we were greeted with brilliant colors, an awe-inspiring view of Capri's famous "three rocks," and hoards of people. Though I hate to admit it, I think I'd gotten caught up in a travel blogger's idyllic descriptions of the island's beauty and mystique and failed to focus on logistics! It was indeed gorgeous, but it was much bigger than I thought it would be, so it took a long time to get around. (I guess that's the power of the pen, and may we writers steward it well!)

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Nonetheless we enjoyed hiking across the island. The first public beach we investigated had about three beach towels occupying each square yard of beach, which is quite simply against my beachy religion!--one must have personal space at the beach. So we located a less-crowded "family" beach and floated in the water there for the rest of the afternoon with Mt. Vesuvius as our backdrop. All in all, it was a day well-spent and completed our Amalfi Coast experience.

 

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Meandering in Milan: Piazza del Duomo in Pictures

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I'm in a travel state of mind these days, reminiscing about a dreamy European adventure my husband and I took several years ago. Our journey began in Milan, Italy, where Greg was speaking at a conference held at the University of Milan. The university and our hotel were just a brief stroll away from the center of the city, Piazza del Duomo: "Cathedral Square." I entertained myself while Greg was conferencing largely by walking around this magnificent piazza and eating gelato. Join me on a brief pictorial jaunt, and make plans to meander through Milan yourself!

When you emerge from the Milan Metro at the duomo stop, you'll be met with the stately panoramic scene you see here--the cathedral in front of you, the monument of King Victor Immanuel II on horseback on your right, and the entrance to Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II on your left.

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The square's most impressive feature is, of course, Milan Cathedral, the largest church in Italy and the third largest in the world.

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The duomo's intricate Gothic details are impressive! 

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Saunter by the cathedral at night to get a different feel for this impressive structure.

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For a fee tourists can wander around the inside of the cathedral, which is impossibly grand with its huge pillars, marble floor, and beautiful stained glass windows.

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When you're satisfied with your exposure to the duomo, head into the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Italy's oldest shopping mall.

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The galleria is vaulted in glass and hosts numerous upscale retailers...

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...and a variety of restaurants! My mouth is watering at the memory of this black olive and mushroom pizza, and I also immensely enjoyed the pesto gnocchi and salad with prosciutto and artichokes that Greg and I tried at a deli.

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Grab a cup of melt-in-your-mouth gelato to eat while you stroll. Gelaterias exist around every corner, with a variety of tempting flavors to sample. My favorite find was lemon basil...

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...while Greg insisted on chocolate every time. Piazza del Duomo and the galleria were full of tourists when we visited, so there was also no shortage of street entertainers, from spray paint artists to people performing interesting acrobatic feats, like these men.

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The streets surrounding Milan's piazza are home to numerous buildings and statues of historic and architectural importance. See if you can find yourself in front of the Church of San Fidele or the Statue of Leonardo da Vinci.

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Looking for a fun day trip from Milan? Check out my account of the charming town of Varenna here.

Let me know what you discover during your own Milan meandering!

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Pioneer Woman for a Day: 10 Things To Do at the Merc

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If you’re a fangirl of all things Pioneer Woman like I am, you simply must partake in the ultimate immersive Pioneer Woman experience, a trip to her mercantile in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. I journeyed there with one of my besties last spring and again with my mom and aunt this fall, and I’m already scheming for my next visit. Today I’m channeling my enthusiasm into this scavenger hunt-style list for you. To maximize your enjoyment of The Merc, I recommend the following ten things:

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, which means that I may receive a small commission if you make a purchase through one of the links I've provided here--at no additional cost to you. Please check out my disclosure policy for more info, and thanks for your support!

 

1. Chat with some friendly Okies while you wait in line.

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No, that's not a friendly Okie; it's my bestie, Shannon. We arrived at The Merc after our two-hour jaunt from the Wichita, Kansas, area at about 10:30am on a Friday and hopped in line for lunch immediately, having heard tales of long waits. Our time in queue passed quickly, due mostly to the friendly Merc employee who chatted with us and entertained the crowd with her big personality. In our zeal to get this party started we'd neglected to dress warmly, so our new friend wasted no time in wrapping us both in a giant shawl and giving us gloves to wear while we stood in line. This set a tone of kind hospitality that was maintained throughout our day of interactions with Merc staff--how delightful! We ended up being seated for lunch at about 11:30am; I hear that an hour-long wait is average for a weekday, but weekends can get quite a bit busier.

Plan to wait in line, get cozy, and make some new friends of the Okie variety. You'll be glad you did!

 

2. Satisfy your stomach with Tex-Mex.

Enjoy breakfast, lunch, or dinner at The Merc, and if you're in a hurry, grab a tasty to-go meal from The Deli. The Merc's menu is extensive, and everything sounds delicious, but fortunately you've got some time in line to examine your options carefully before making a mouthwatering selection.

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You're in Oklahoma, so when in doubt choose Tex-Mex! I was extremely happy with both of these--chicken and beef enchiladas with cotija cheese and black beans and steak quesadillas with guacamole and pico de gallo. Yum!

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3. Pick up something fun for your kitchen.

Now that you've revived yourself with pico and guac, you're ready to get your shop on! The Mercantile feels like what I imagine a store of its kind might have felt like fifty years ago; it's bright and cheery and offers a colorful variety of dishes, kitchen tools, home decor, fashion accessories, books, and toys. You can purchase items from The Pioneer Woman line originally introduced in WalMart and unique things you'll only find here, all at a variety of price points.

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Though The Pioneer Woman brand has expanded to include all sorts of products, let's not forget that this all started with home cookin' and good eatin'. I bet you do a decent amount of those things in your life too, so why not pick up something that sprinkles the process with a little fun?

My favorite find at The Merc is these plates, which look like china but are actually tin, making for a low-maintenance take on a fancy family tradition.  (Win-win!) These are commemorative patterns used among English royalty, and the story of each is written on the back of the plate.

(Psst, you can find some Merc merch online as well!)

 

4. Elevate your cowgirl style game.

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If you're an aficionado of Tony Lamas, jewel-tone tops with floral embroidery, leather bags, and the like, you've probably noticed that Ree Drummond, Ms. Pioneer Woman herself, has her cowgirl style dialed in and on point. She's shared a bit of her style aesthetic with us at The Merc, which sells clothing, jewelry, and purses fit for a rodeo queen. This turquoise necklace, worn by Merc retail gals, is extra long and can therefore be styled a variety of ways. (And you know I couldn't pass up the green version!) 

Snag a PW accessory and channel your inner cowgirl.

 

5. Complete your library of Pioneer Woman books.

Many of us owe our fond feelings of familiarity with the Pioneer Woman to the fact that she's so often with us while we cook, providing us with delicious but simple recipes, showing us what the dish ought to look like along the way, and entertaining us with clever quips and gorgeous photos of ranch life. The pleasant mentorship I'm speaking of comes via cookbook, and you can find all of her cookbooks, children's books, and autobiography at The Merc. Purchase one, and she just might be around to autograph it for you! Here are my favorites from the PW book collection:

 

6. Sip the best darn iced coffee drink of your life.

When you're all shopped out, head around the corner or upstairs to one of two coffee bars for an Oklahoma-style caffeine boost. If your taste buds enjoy a bit of a kick, order yourself a Spicy Cowgirl, a delectable iced mocha with chile syrup and cayenne pepper. You'll be over the moon, I promise. (Ree has done us a favor and shared this recipe with The Food Network here!)

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7. Watch and wait for a glimpse of your girl, Ree.

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While you're sitting and sipping upstairs in the sunny bakery area, keep your eyes peeled!--Ree's office is also located upstairs, and she occasionally steps out to say hello to her adoring fans, sign autographs, and pose for pictures.

The stars aligned for Shannon and I to be seated in the bakery on one such occasion, and we loved getting to meet Ree! She was just as sweet, charming, and down-to-earth as she seems on TV.

 

8. Pretend you’re a Food Network star at the Lodge.

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When planning your visit to The Merc, you might want to check out this webpage to see if your visit coincides with a day on which visitors to The Merc can also tour The Lodge, which serves as the Drummond family's guest house and the production location for Ree's show on The Food Network. I've not yet had this distinctive pleasure, so I asked Shannon to send me a few of her pics and helpful hints. (She too returned for another visit to The Merc with her mom. Are you seeing a theme?) Lodge tours are free and can only be obtained the day of the tour at The Merc. Simply ask a Merc employee for a ticket and directions--you'll need them as The Lodge is a bit of a drive out of town and requires a several-mile jaunt down gravel roads. Shannon suggests heading to The Lodge earlier in the day to avoid crowds, as most people spend the majority of their day at The Merc and then head to The Lodge closer to closing time at 4:00pm.

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9. Grab a blueberry scone to-go.

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Before heading out to begin your trek to The Lodge, grab a blueberry scone or other culinary delight from The Bakery. Take it home to indulge in the next morning while you reminisce on your dreamy day. (And I won't judge you if you eat it on the way!)

 

10. Pose for an iconic PW Merc pic.

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Don't forget to ask your bestie or your mom or a friendly Okie to snap a photo of you in front of The Merc with the Mercantile sign visible in the background. This commemorates your trip and ensures that your Facebook friends can easily tell where you've been while they're scrolling through similarly-posed pics of people standing in front of Magnolia Market. (See, I've thought of everything for you!)

Above all else have a fantastic time! You deserve it!

 

I’d love to hear about your trip to The Pioneer Woman Mercantile! What would you add to my Merc to-do list?

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The Beaver in the Basement and Other Unexpected Pitfalls of Marriage

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When you’re young and in love and looking forward to marriage, people who have been married for awhile flash you a knowing smile as they warn you about some common post-honeymoon irritations--men leaving their socks on the floor, women nagging husbands to take them to the ballet, and the like. But there are some things they don’t warn you about. I’ve gathered here for you a collection of unanticipated pitfalls of matrimony, based on three and a half years of field research, i.e. marriage to my husband, Greg. You may find comfort in identifying some parallels to your own experience, and if you’re not married and would like to be, knowledge is power, my friend. To be fair I’ve given an equal number of “his” and “hers” trials and tribulations, aided by my assistant, Greg, of course.

1. Hers: Backhanded Compliments

While discussing women and makeup, my husband says to me, “Your no-makeup face is a joke!” I blinked. Do I want my face to be a joke? Is this a good thing? Should I say “thank you?” He means, of course, that he thinks I look great without makeup. It just takes a bit of generous listening and suspension of offense to get to the actual compliment.

2. His: Food Sharing

When we go out to eat, no matter what I order—steak, pizza, tacos, pasta—or how hungry I am, she wants to taste it. “Could I just try a little bite of that, please?”, she asks sweetly. “You can have a bite of mine!”, she adds enthusiastically, as if that makes up for it. In what universe is a bite of arugula salad with goat cheese for a bite of bacon cheeseburger an even trade?

3. Hers: Startling Noises

I’m minding my own business, lost in a quiet reverie, when a noise so ear-splitting it has to be an explosion cuts through the silence. I’m so startled I immediately burst into tears (a reaction to sudden fright I’ve only experienced since being married, by the way). A split second later I realize that our Kansas home is still as it ever was. My husband sneezed. I hear that men’s sneezes grow louder and more powerful as they age, and I’m more than a little concerned about where this road ends for me.

4. His: Safety Precautions

My normal turbo speed work mode is hampered by her insistence that I wear chainsaw chaps, “put on some leather gloves if you’re going to be moving tree limbs around all day,” and “be careful!” She says she’s prolonging my life, but these safety shenanigans are costing me time in the present, so I guess it’s a wash.

5. Hers: Under-communication

He says in passing, “Hey, Babe, are we good to go on that thing I signed us up for/thing I need you to make food for/thing we’re going to?” “Huh? This is the first I’m hearing about it!”, I say. “I told you about it,” he says confidently, and then realization dawns on his face as I bore holes into him with my eyes…He did tell me…telepathically.

6. His: Over-communication

She’s talking, and I’m listening. I’m interested in what she’s saying, but I’m trying to determine if there’s a main point here, something I should be latching on to. My eyes are starting to glaze over, and she raises a skeptical eyebrow at me, letting me know she noticed and that there will be a test at the end of this monologue. I refocus in hopes of passing the test, but there are just so…many…words…

7. Hers: Strange Possessions

Thanks to my husband's lengthy childhood Daniel Boone phase, I am now the proud owner of a giant taxidermy beaver, who was most assuredly roadkill in his former life before his fortune changed and he became a much-loved Christmas gift. Justin Beaver, as he has been affectionately dubbed, lives in the laundry room, keeping me company while I work and terrifying unsuspecting guests who open the door to throw their sheets in the washer.

8. His: Personality Fluctuations

She might be the sweetest girl on the planet, but if I accidentally wake her up in the middle of the night, I meet her evil twin. She’s spitting mad, and sometimes I’m tempted to flip on the light to make sure this is the same woman! But that would send her through the roof, and it’s just not worth it. I hold my breath and hope she’ll go back to sleep soon.

9. Hers: Extreme Heat

Sure, we compromised on the nighttime thermostat temp. Nonetheless I’m sleeping in an arid desert.

10. His: Extreme Cold

Sure, we compromised on the nighttime thermostat temp. Nonetheless I’m sleeping in the Arctic tundra.

11. Hers: Tone of Voice Misinterpretation

On the rare occasion that I call him at his office, he answers the phone with such a somber tone of voice that I’m instantly preparing to receive really bad news. “Are you okay? What’s going on?”, I ask, gathering steam. “Did something happen?” He chuckles, and I realize—again—that nothing is awry; he’s simply using his “office tone of voice.” Apparently the animated and affectionate tone with which one greets a beloved wifey is different than that used to greet a farmer who’s calling his banker. Go figure.

12. His: Wardrobe Takeover

Despite her insistence that she’s “expanding my color palette” by introducing shades of jade, emerald, and chartreuse, I know what’s really going on here: She’s replacing the pre-existing variety in my wardrobe entirely with her favorite color—green.

There’s one more aspect of marriage I didn’t see coming, and that’s how absolutely wonderful it is to share life with my husband! Our differences keep things interesting, amuse us, and make us one heck of a great team. There’s no one I love, respect, and like more than my husband. Even though there’s a beaver in my basement.

Did you identify with any of our pitfalls? What would you add to this list? Want more day-brightening content like this from me? Subscribe to my email list here.

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Fun Tools for Fresh Quiet Times

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I still remember my first experience with the Christian practice known as a "quiet time." I was twelve years old, had just made the cut to attend church camp with my youth group for the first time, and was having the time of my life there. I was rooming with two of my besties, and there was a pool and a cave and a soft-serve ice cream machine! The music moved me, and it seemed like the campus pastor was speaking directly to me every night. Each day after breakfast we were scheduled for half an hour of "quiet time." My youth pastor explained the concept this way: "Find a tree to sit under, read your Bible, pray, and listen." Ah-ha! This sounded like what I'd seen my mom do in the mornings--only she didn't sit under a tree. I found my tree, read a few chapters in Psalms, said some simple prayers, and sat there and stared at the lake. Nothing profound happened, but in a way I couldn't explain I knew God was there with me. That fit with what my youth pastor taught--that the purpose of a quiet time is to spend time with God, to build your relationship with Him.

My quiet times have evolved over the years as my relationship with God has grown, and I've discovered a variety of tools that help guide me and some that are just plain fun! As you think about your own relationship with God, whether you want to get back to the basics, dig deeper in your study of God's Word, grow in your prayer life, get creative in your time with God, get caught up in the story of the Bible, or infuse your faith with a little fun, I've got some product recommendations for you, all tested by yours truly.

Do you need special "tools" to build your relationship with God? No, you do not! You need Jesus in your heart and a Bible in your hand. These days you can even access the Bible online, and many Bible websites offer reading plans to help you approach this awesome--but intimidating--book in a way that makes sense for you. It's never been easier to obtain the information you need to get going! However, for me there's nothing like a physical book that I can mark up and make my own. Some of the Bibles and notebooks I've used over the years have become meaningful visual reminders of my personal history with God, and these build my faith! Plus, if you're an adult who annually laments that you don't get to pick out school supplies for yourself anymore, your spiritual life is a fabulous outlet in which to redirect this passion, speaking as one who knows.

Without further ado, here are my favorite fun tools for fresh quiet times, organized by aim:

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, which means that I may receive a small commission if you make a purchase through one of the links I've provided here--at no additional cost to you. Please check out my disclosure policy for more info, and thanks for your support!

 

I want to get back to the basics.

Don't underestimate the power of simplicity in your relationship with God. Remember my youth pastor's advice to "read your Bible, pray, and listen." (You decide about the tree.) The first thing you need is a Bible, God's written Word to us. This ESV Bible is cute and compact, without a lot of extra frills, while this CSB She Reads Truth Bible contains some additional study materials and pretty typography. Both the English Standard Version (ESV) and Christian Standard Bible (CSB)  balance accurate translation with readability.

If there's one other quiet time "essential," it's a place to jot things down--prayers, answers to prayer, what you're learning, verses that stand out to you, how you see God working in your life, etc. On occasion I've simply used the margins of my Bible for these notes, but other times I've needed more space; enter the cute journals! Any notebook will do, but here are a few I especially love.

And, of course, you need writing utensils. In case it hasn't already become abundantly clear, for me the more bright and colorful the better! I like a pen with a fine point, and the three brands shown here are my favorite. Note: These pens are suitable for most journals but will bleed through thin Bible pages. I use colored pencils to write and highlight in my Bible.

 

I want to dig deeper in my study of God's Word.

If you want to take your Bible study to the next level, check out these three fantastic reference books, which earned a spot on my "faves" list because of how easy they are to use.

The Rose Book of Bible Charts, Maps & Time Lines is full of colorful charts and illustrations covering a variety of topics, such as the names of God, Old Testament feasts, the miracles of Jesus, and Paul's journeys. I love this resource because it helps me to put together big-picture info I might miss if I'm focused in on a smaller chunk of Scripture.

A concordance helps you to find specific words in the Bible, while a Bible dictionary defines those words in the original Hebrew or Greek language; these works are especially handy when taking a deep-dive into a specific topic. (Concordances and Bible dictionaries are also available online; the best web version I've found is at Blue Letter Bible. This site is a bit cumbersome, but its tutorial videos are helpful!)

Finally the Holman Illustrated Bible Handbook gives fantastic background and summary information for each book of the Bible, perfect for enhancing a book study. It also contains interesting photos and QR codes one can scan to access relevant video teaching via smartphone.

 

I want to grow in my prayer life.

Prayer is having a conversation with God, simple as that! I believe that the more we pray, the more God helps us to know what to pray for and how to pray. In other words you don't have to figure out the "right" way to do it before you dive in! (Do you worry about the "right" way to chat with your best friend on the phone? No! You just do it!) Jump in, fill your mind with God's Word, and listen, and God will guide you.

That being said, there are some tools that have helped me to take that first step, including these Sticky Prayers, which remind me that I don't need to be long-winded or fancy, and this tin of prayer cards, which each have a passage of Scripture or excerpt from The Book of Common Prayer on one side and lines to write your own prayers on the other side.

There's an abundance of books out there if you'd like to hone in on a specific prayer focus. I enjoyed Thirty One Days of Prayer for the Dreamer and Doer, which presents readings and prayers to guide girl bosses and ambitious gals like myself. I also highly recommend Pray for the World, which suggests ways to pray for every country in the world! A new edition is released every few years to attempt to keep up with current events and, consequentially, prayer needs. This is a fantastic tool for those--like me!--who want to pray for the world but feel overwhelmed by the task and need a jump-start.

 

I want to get creative in my time with God.

In the past few years a new movement has begun that pairs Bible study and prayer with art! Those desiring to add creativity to their quiet times can dip their toe in the water through devotional coloring books or go down the rabbit hole with paints, stencils, washi tape, and all sorts of artsy mediums meant especially for Bible journaling. If you'd like to venture down the rabbit hole, your Wonderland is Illustrated Faith. (You're welcome.) I love looking at other peoples' intricate Bible art, but my eyes start to cross when I think about actually doing it myself. If you feel the same way, I think you'll appreciate these recommendations: 

First, check out this drool-worthy coloring Bible. It's the New Living Translation (NLT), which attempts to express the original text's intent in the most accurate thought-for-thought modern English. It's in a one-year format, and sections of Scripture are arranged chronologically instead of by type of literature as in a regular Bible, allowing you to get a good sense of how everything fits together. It has wide, lined margins for note-taking, interrupted every few pages by a verse, word, or drawing to color. Next, take a look at this interactive journal. Each activity prompts you to take a look at a passage of Scripture and to engage with it by coloring a picture, journaling your thoughts, or doing some simple drawing (the only kind I do).

Don't forget the colored pencils, and easily take them on-the-go in a cute canvas pencil wrap, available in many adorable designs.

 

I want to get caught up in the story of the Bible.

We tend to read our Bibles one chapter at a time, but the first Christians read large portions of Scripture at once, in part because chapter and verse divisions were added much later! It's a good idea for us to do the same--to remember that the Bible is one big, amazing story and to read it as such. Perhaps the most accessible Bible translation for doing so is The Message; it converts the original languages into contemporary speech thought-for-thought. It draws the reader in and makes them want to keep reading! Perhaps my next suggestion is unconventional, as I'm pretty confident its target audience is twelve year-old boys. Nevertheless, I must admit that I, a thirty year-old woman, have recently enjoyed reading The Action Bible, a 700+ page full-color comic book Bible. If you'd like a quick and interesting tour through the Bible, I dare you to grab a copy...Then give it to the twelve year-old boy in your life!

 

I want to infuse my faith with a little fun.

Sometimes you just need to shake up your routine with a little whimsy and fun! Use this stamp in your Bible to date special verses along with notations like "prayed" or "wow God." Then when you flip back through the pages of your Bible, you can easily locate passages you wanted to remember. These stickers can be used in your journal, planner, or wherever you'd like, and they include snippets of verses, messages we all need like "bless this hot mess" (Ha!), and short lists for prayer requests and to-do's.

There's just something delightful about having all your tools together in one curated "kit"--perhaps this hearkens back to those school days when my heart rejoiced at a cute and well-ordered trapper keeper. I keep all of my quiet time tools in this pink Craftsman tool tote. It's very heavy-duty, and it has lots of compartments for organizing all of my things. Similar sturdy fabric bags and plastic totes are available where craft supplies are sold.

 

Whether or not you found a new tool you'd like to pick up to integrate into your quiet times this year, I hope your imagination was sparked with some ways to freshen up your quiet time routine, and I hope you're excited to spend time with God. May your time with Him be fresh, intimate, and fruitful!

What are your favorite quiet time tools? Are you implementing anything new this year? Tell me about it!

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Wigs, Black Orchids, & The Only Thing That Makes Me Want to Exercise: 7 Fave Reads of 2017

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My reading life at age thirty looks different than it did at age thirteen. Back then I'd lay on my bed all day long engrossed in a book. Not so much anymore! However, this past year my husband and I--doers by nature--recommitted ourselves to actually resting on Sundays (Revolutionary, I know!), and with that new focus came a revival of reading in our household! I read a variety of books this year, most of which were recommended to me by friends. I'm recommending to you the following seven, my most enjoyable and helpful reads of 2017:

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, which means that I may receive a small commission if you make a purchase through one of the links I've provided here--at no additional cost to you. Please check out my disclosure policy for more info, and thanks for your support!

 

1. Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl

Memoir

Ruth Reichl tells her engaging story of the time she spent as the restaurant critic for The New York Times. Upon beginning this job, she soon realized that chefs hungry for good publicity were rolling out the red carpet for her and that she may not, in fact, be receiving the same treatment as the average diner. In order to be dealt with as a "normal" patron and thus give voice to the experience of "every man" in her reviews, she developed several elaborate disguises, complete with wigs and personalities to match. These disguises drew out different versions of herself and elicited various reactions--positive and negative--from others. This was fascinating to read about, and Reichl is a delightfully descriptive writer. I also enjoyed hearing how her stint at the Times ended and how her next opportunity providentially presented itself at just the right moment.

 

2. Spark by John J. Ratey, MD            

Health & Fitness/Psychology

My relationship with exercise has been on-again-off-again at best, so the fact that this one made it into my faves is no small miracle! My bestie told me that this book was blowing her mind, and soon I could see why--it's main premise is that exercise has a huge effect on the brain. It has been proven to be as effective as medication for treating anxiety and depression, and it helps the body and mind deal with stress. Of most interest to me is that exercise produces a chemical necessary for learning and the formation of new thought patterns. In other words, exercise is an effective weapon in getting mentally unstuck! I'm a bit of a mental health nerd, so while fitness solely for the sake of my physical health isn't moving me to action, the prospect of an infusion of power into my mental health efforts is! I know you're wondering--I'm not training for the Olympics over here, but I have resumed a regular jogging routine, and I'm feeling quite good, mentally and otherwise.

 

3. The Magnolia Story by Chip and Joanna Gaines with Mark Dagostino          

Biography & Autobiography

My husband and I enjoy watching Fixer Upper, the popular house-flipping show on HGTV, so I really liked hearing about how Chip and Jo got to where they are today. They had many ups and downs over the years, which was encouraging to read about--it's tempting to look at an adorable and ridiculously successful family on TV and think that they have and always have had it easy! Not so! Chip and Jo were in tough spots many times, especially financially, but they also experienced tons of instances of God's providence. Jo talked about the quiet but sure way that God led her to make several big decisions, and Chip talked about how he'd learned to trust her with those things--what a lovely blend of faith and marriage! Jo also described how her family thrived in a new way when she decided that beauty wasn't her only decorating aim; instead she began to assemble spaces that everyone could enjoy and in which kids could be kids. Others resonated with this as well, and this pivot in her business caused her following to skyrocket. 

 

4. Brenda Starr Reporter by Dale Messick

Comics

It's not often a comic book makes it onto my bedside table, but I'm glad that this one did! My mom and aunt had been talking about the Brenda Starr Reporter comics that enthralled them when they were young, so I grabbed this book, which contains several storylines from the Brenda Starr comics that ran in the early 1940's. Brenda is a larger-than-life heroine in the best way; she's constantly getting into and out of wild adventures in pursuit of a good story. She's smart, sassy, and self-sufficient. Men fall at her feet, and on occasion she's rescued by a mysterious man who sends her black orchids. What's not to love?

 

5. Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown

Non-Fiction

What a timely message Brené Brown has written to us as individuals and to culture as a whole with this fantastic book. In Braving the Wilderness, she suggests that true belonging--something that all of us desire--requires being oneself while fitting in requires being like others. She talks about how sorting ourselves into groups of people who think mostly the same as we do is caused by fear and fosters disconnection, which in turn allows us to dehumanize our fellow man. Because of this crisis, leaning in to perspectives different than our own is more important than ever. I appreciate that Brown encourages all sides of the political spectrum to display empathy and kindness; she resists today's seductive temptations of blanket condemnation or condoning of one "side" or the other. People are complicated, and today's issues are complex, and Brown is willing to sit with the tension, giving the reader strategies to do the same.

 

 

6. The Yada Yada Prayer Group by Neta Jackson

Fiction

I loved this book and can't wait to read more in the series! The main character, Jodi, is a female, white, middle class Christian (raising my hand here) who attends a women's conference at which she connects with a group of ladies who are ethnically, religiously, and in every way diverse. Jodi is intrigued by the powerful way that some of these women pray, and at the same time she raises an eyebrow at their family drama and regular smoke breaks. The group decides to continue meeting together after the conference ends. Their relationships deepen, and they pray for and support each other through a variety of circumstances.  Over time it becomes apparent to the main character and the reader that the ladies in the prayer group with the messiest lives are the ones who have the best understanding of grace. Jodi comes to a new realization of grace herself when she faces a personal tragedy. I loved this book's focus on heart-change as opposed to behavior modification.

 

7. Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin

Self-Help/Personal Growth

This book is about habit formation, and the reason I loved it is because it argues that there isn't one right way to form a habit! This is a relief for those of us who've done something for the standard 21 days, only to find that the habit didn't stick. (Anyone else?) Gretchen Rubin suggests that how you form a habit should be based on you. She gives the reader numerous questions to ask in order to know oneself better, such as, "Am I a familiarity lover or a novelty lover?" (Familiarity for me, please, in case you wanted to know.) She then details many creative strategies for habit formation, such as monitoring, accountability, and convenience. Thinking outside the box about habits I'd like to form has helped me to get moving on my most important tasks in the morning, get back into a regular rhythm of posting on my blog (Ta-da!), and--I admit it!--finally floss my teeth regularly. 

 

Bonus recommendation: In Better than Before, Rubin introduces her Four Tendencies personality framework, which is detailed in her more recently released book, The Four Tendencies. The tendencies categorize people based on how they respond to both outer and inner expectations. This knowledge is extremely useful for motivating oneself and helping other people. I'm an Obliger; I easily meet others' expectations, but I have a harder time meeting my own expectations, so my secret sauce for accomplishing my own goals is outer accountability.

 

What was your favorite read this year? Leave me a comment and let me know!

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4 Faith Films for Your Next Girls Night

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Christmas is over, and we're swiftly approaching January, the most boring month of the year. (Sorry, January.) While I love the fresh possibility of a new year, I'm as affected as the next person by the post-Christmas let-down. I've learned to combat this by getting some fun events on my calendar, and in my humble opinion January's cold weather and dark days naturally lend themselves to girls movie nights! Chatting with friends, munching on hearty snacks, cozy-ing up with a soft blanket, and getting lost in a good movie--my soul needs these things.

Because I'm a believer in Jesus, I love the idea of watching a movie that will inspire my faith, but frankly the Christian movie scene hasn't always delivered--or at least not without an extra layer of cheese. I'm happy to report, though, that I believe that trend is changing! In the past few years I've seen several new faith films that I loved because they managed to weave together powerful stories, humor, and motivation for my own journey. The four I'm presenting to you today will both entertain and encourage you, and they'll spark fabulous discussion between you and your girlfriends--perfect for your next movie night.

I've given you a brief synopsis of each movie, some reasons why I love it, and some talking points for you and your friends. Click on the movie title to watch a trailer on IMDb. Here we go!

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, which means that I may receive a small commission if you make a purchase through one of the links I've provided here--at no additional cost to you. Please check out my disclosure policy for more info, and thanks for your support!

1. Miracles from Heaven

Synopsis: A little girl contracts a serious illness, which causes a crisis of faith in her family. An accident incites a miracle, which influences the girl, her family, and community. 

Why I Love It: It affirms both that God sometimes does big, crazy miracles and that small miracles happen every day, making the viewer want to look for miracles and be a part of other peoples' miracles. Jennifer Garner is fantastic as the girl's mom, and in her character we see a real person struggling with legitimate doubts and fears. The movie in no way condemns her for this battle but instead shows how her faith became stronger because of it. Queen Latifah makes a welcome, funny appearance. And this movie is based on a true story! At the end of the film one can see footage of the Beam family whose story inspired the movie.

Talking Points: What kind of miracles--big or small--have you experienced in your life? In what ways could you facilitate a miracle for someone else?

2. War Room

Synopsis: A family living the American dream is actually falling apart behind closed doors. Through an unlikely friendship with a stubborn older woman, wife and mom Elizabeth begins to battle in prayer for her family.

Why I Love It: The tagline for this movie says it all: "Prayer is a powerful weapon." The viewer gets to watch the connection between Elizabeth's prayers for her husband and what's unfolding in his life. This is so compelling because we don't have the perspective of an omniscient observer in our own lives; often we have to wait for visible answers to our prayers, and sometimes we never see the fruit of our prayers! This movie causes me to ask the question, what might be happening that I can't see in response to my prayers, and what might I miss out on if I don't pray? Priscilla Shirer plays the main character in this movie, and Beth Moore makes a guest appearance--two Bible teachers I love!

Talking Points: How have you seen God answer your prayers in the past? What creative ideas do you have to create your own "war room" or to integrate prayer into your life in a new way?

3. The Shack

Synopsis: A man suffers a terrible tragedy and then receives a note in his mailbox from God inviting him to meet Him at the shack where the horrible event took place. His encounter there changes his life.

Why I Love It: This movie explores some extremely difficult questions, such as "What is God really like?", and "Why does God allow pain?" It has received a good deal of criticism for insufficiently answering these questions according to the broad teaching of Scripture. I agree with that assessment, but I disagree that there's nothing of value here. On the contrary, if you're willing to think outside the box, this film's unique but imperfect portrayal of God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit will make you want to lean in, open your Bible, and get to know the true living God better for yourself. Also in this movie is a potent reminder that God hurts when we hurt.

Talking Points: What circumstance has sent your life and faith into a tailspin? If you could meet with God face-to-face, what do you think He would say to you about that circumstance?

4. The Case for Christ

Synopsis: A journalist attempts to disprove the existence of God. Meanwhile his wife becomes a Christian. The evidence he uncovers through his research and the new faith of his wife take him on a journey he never imagined.

Why I Love It: This movie, too, is based on a true story. It acknowledges some of peoples' most common hurdles to believing God, such as the apparent impossibility of Jesus' resurrection from the dead, and it presents some of the historical proof for the Jesus story of the Bible. To me this movie serves as a reminder that God is able to meet anyone where they are, whether their barrier is intellectual, emotional, or otherwise. I also like the glimpse into the life of a woman who has recently become a believer and is now facing the reality that her husband doesn't share her faith. The young but tenacious faith with which she prays for him is empowering!

Talking Points: What obstacles have you or those close to you encountered to believing in the story of Jesus as told in the Bible? How can you support a loved one who might be struggling with a matter of faith?

I hope that one or more of these films piqued your interest. Now all you need is a group text to your girls and a box of microwave popcorn. Have fun!

Did you watch one of these movies with your girlfriends? Let me know how it went!

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5 Podcasts for Encouraged Ears

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I had an iPhone for a full two years before I realized that the purple podcast app on my screen was, in fact, not trying to sell me something but rather to gift my listening ears with all sorts of awesome content! Upon this discovery I quickly became an avid consumer of all sorts of material, and I now attribute to my podcast education everything from better time management to efficient freezer meal prep. 

Though I frequently search for podcasts on specific topics in which I'm interested, I appreciate having a few shows which so consistently meet my expectations that I listen to almost every episode they produce. Here are my criteria for those select podcasts:

1. They must discuss a mix of weighty and lighthearted subjects.

Why? Because that's real life! At times we need to dig deep in order to explore complicated relationship dynamics, and then we need to come up for air and talk about the new Starbucks drink we're loving.

2. They must be encouraging.

As we plumb the depths of our cultural or personal problems, let's grieve, yes, but let's not stay there! We need to be reminded of what's true, given some practical action steps, or--preferably--both!

Five podcasts have met these two criteria on a regular basis. The women who host these shows are so frequently in my ears that I feel like they're my friends, so I'm excited to introduce my podcast host friends to my blog reader friends! I'll let you know which iTunes category each podcast falls into, the gist of the show, and a favorite episode of mine from the previous year. Search for these shows in your favorite podcast player, or click on the links provided to listen online. Enjoy!

1. The Happy Hour with Jamie Ivey

Category: Christianity

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The Gist: Jamie interviews a different woman in every show, and they chat about the guest's story and what she's loving and reading. I appreciate the wide variety of ladies Jamie interviews from entrepreneurs to social justice advocates to fashion bloggers. Listening to The Happy Hour is truly like sharing a happy hour with friends!

Fave Episode: #166: Kathie Lee Gifford and Aaron Ivey

2. Sorta Awesome

Category: Personal Journals

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The Gist: Meg and one or more of the show's three delightful co-hosts discuss a different topic each episode of the podcast, covering everything from sleep to self-defense to Netflix shows to parenting. The four co-hosts have vibrant personalities but different lifestyles and opinions, and this makes for a lively conversation between friends from which the listener gets to benefit.

Fave Episode: #121: Boundaries for the Holidays: Sane Solutions for Difficult Dynamics

3. Happier with Gretchen Rubin

Category: Self-Help

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The Gist: Gretchen Rubin is a bestselling author who studies happiness and habit formation. On the Happier podcast she and her sister, Elizabeth, chat about these two topics and offer lots of hacks for listeners to implement right away to make their daily lives a little happier, like finding a "happiness 911" song or identifying one's "signature color"--mine would be green, of course.

Fave Episode: #116: Start a Side Hustle, a Travel Hack, and the Stumbling Block of "Raising the Bar"

4. That Sounds Fun with Annie F. Downs

Category: Christianity

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The Gist: Each episode Annie talks to a friend of hers--often a writer, musician, pastor, or psychologist--about what they do and what sounds fun to them. Annie is such an upbeat person that I always leave these dialogues feeling hopeful. I'm writing this post during the Christmas season and was thrilled to see that Annie released an episode in which she and friends did a deep-dive into Hallmark Channel's Christmas movies--what could be better?

Fave Episode: #42: Sadie Robertson

5. Dear Daughters

Category: Christianity

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The Gist: Listening to Susie Davis' podcast is like plopping down on a comfy sofa after a hard day and letting her hand you a cup of tea and tell you it's going to be alright. She interviews a variety of guests and especially enjoys asking people about their "big God dream" and what they've been cooking lately. Delightful!

Fave Episode: #21: Kate Merrick │ And Still She Laughs

Did you give any of these shows a listen? What did you think? What are your favorite podcasts? Let me know in the comments.

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Gallivanting in Green: Ireland

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It wasn't the luck o' the Irish but rather the generosity of my parents that took my husband and I to the Emerald Isle this summer. The four of us wanted an adventure full of idyllic landscapes, mysterious castles, rousing pubs, and hearty feasts, so we put ourselves in the hands of Gate1 Travel's 9 Day Classic Ireland escorted tour. The country itself and the tour company with which we traveled exceeded our expectations! Join me as I reminisce about our experience.

We made our trip across the pond in mid-July, escaping the Midwest heat for Ireland's cooler temps. We'd decided that we'd rather brave the large crowds likely in peak tourist season than travel during a less popular but more cloudy time of year, and we were pleased with our choice. Gate1 and our fantastic tour guide made sure we didn't wait in many long lines, and the weather was pleasant with several days of bright sunshine!

Lest I paint too glamorous a picture of this voyage, I'll admit to you that I don't sleep well on planes and my luggage had decided to travel to Amsterdam instead of accompanying me to Ireland, so I was a bit cranky as we strolled around downtown Dublin those first few hours. Nevertheless, eating some Irish bacon at O'Neill's and meeting up with our tour group at our stately hotel lifted my spirits.

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The next morning, after tea, pastries, and sausage, we began our tour of Dublin, learning from our delightful Irish guide about the long-ago nobility who lived in the grand residences we passed. We stopped at St. Patrick's Cathedral...

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...and the library at Trinity College.

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In the afternoon we traveled west to Galway, a small town by the sea that gave us a glimpse into a slower-paced life in Ireland. We walked past docks where people were feeding seabirds and a field where local men played soccer as if oblivious to visitors wandering through their everyday life.

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Shops and pubs lined the downtown streets, and we enjoyed hearing a variety of music, watching a street entertainer, and settling into a cozy restaurant for what would become our signature Irish meal--stew, Shepherd's Pie, or some other iteration of meat and potatoes. 

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The sound of a flute playing an Irish hymn drifted through our hotel window that evening, and my day was complete when my suitcase and I were reunited--I know you were wondering. 

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Imagine how bright-eyed and bushy-tailed I felt the next morning wearing my very own clean clothes!

We traveled to the Connemara National Forest, making a brief stop to learn about the gorgeous green, pink, and black marble quarried from the region.

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We spent the majority of the day at Kylemore Abbey, an amazing estate that was owned by Mitchell Henry, an inspiring man whom my husband has written about here on his blog.

The abbey itself, which had electricity even in the late 1800's, was impressive...

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...as were the gardens, in which tropical fruit was grown...

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...and the Gothic Cathedral that Henry built for his wife.

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The next day--the sunniest we'd seen yet!--we visited the towering Cliffs of Moher, which reminded me of the iconic Cliffs of Insanity in the movie The Princess Bride. (I was glad to be already on top of these cliffs rather than hauled up via rope.) Seriously, how beautiful is this!

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The next few days we traveled through the Ring of Kerry, and though the cloudy weather, winding bus ride, and soothing brogue of our tour guide tried to lull me to sleep, I fought back with tasty cappuccinos and a particularly delicious Irish coffee. 

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We stayed several nights in the town of Killarney, where we enjoyed a jaunting car (pony and carriage) ride through a peaceful park.

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My favorite stop on our entire adventure was the Blarney Castle and Gardens. We climbed the steps to the top of the castle to kiss the Blarney Stone in hopes of acquiring the gift of gab. What an amusing experience! The Blarney "Stone" isn't actually a stone at all but rather part of the castle wall, and one must lay on one's back at an unseemly angle to kiss it. I'll spare you those photos.

 

While the famed Blarney Stone was humorous to me, the manicured lawns, grand estate, and curated gardens were no joke! This home made me feel like I was at Downtown Abbey or Pemberley, and I wanted very badly to enter this gate into the secret garden beyond!

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Maybe I enjoyed this leg of our journey so much because it seemed to bring to life so many of my favorite stories--it sparked my imagination, and I was, for a moment, Mary Crawley, Elizabeth Bennet, and Mary Lennox.

Perhaps the most magical spot of all was this floral pathway shaded by rose-draped pergolas. It took my breath away! Pictured here are my dad and husband, trying to figure out what's taking my mom and I so long!

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That afternoon we made our way to the town of Waterford, where we toured the Waterford Crystal factory and showroom.

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The next day--our final day of sightseeing--we spent several hours in the charming town of Kilkenny, whose castle I'd love to revisit for closer inspection and admiration. Doesn't it look like we're standing in front of a painted backdrop here? Nope, it's just that awesome!

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That evening we returned to Dublin for one last feast and some traditional Celtic entertainment, and the next day we began our trip home, vowing to travel with Gate1 again in the future, to return to some of these enchanting places, and to always remember our happy time together in peaceful Ireland.

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