Of New Year’s Resolutions and One Word

Happy New Year! I hope that 2015 is off to a roaring start for you all.

I’m not a New Year’s Resolutions girl. I wrote last year about why I had ditched them in favour of picking one word for the year. It’s something that’s worked really well for me, and for friends who’ve done it as well. Personally, it’s simplified my life in ways I hadn’t expected. The things I’ve accomplished over the past 2 years have literally been due to living life in a purposeful way.

This past November, I sat down to reflect on the year. I looked at what worked, what didn’t. I kept coming back to a specific word that I was sure was going to be my word for 2015. However, as December life events unfolded, I began to waver a bit.

The first weekend in December found us on a plane returning to our beloved city of Atlanta for the celebration of my best friend’s wedding. We were able to be with ‘framily’ that have been part of our lives since before our marriage; people who’ve known and loved us and been part of our life community as we’ve lived far, far away. It was a joyous occasion, and to be honest, for someone who is not often sentimental, my heart nearly burst with love and gratitude as we travelled back to the UK.

The third weekend in December found me on a plane returning to the place I was born for the funeral of my 80 year-old Grandmother. It was a completely unexpected departure from this life to the next. I was able to be with my family that have known me since I was born; people who have also loved us and been part of our life community as we’ve lived far, far away. It was a sobering occasion, but we celebrated her life lived well. I know she would have enjoyed all of us being together, as we are a family that does laughter and tears well.

The juxtaposition of those two weekends shaped my last week of December. Recovering from intense jet lag, I struggled through the days, putting one foot in front of another. As grief and emotions whirled around in my head, I kept thinking about the word I had originally chosen for 2015, and now how it just felt wrong.

Thinking through the time I spent in both places, with the people that I love, I kept coming back to the word intentional. While in Atlanta, we were with friends who had been intentional with us at the start of our marriage, providing guidance and support as we moved from our family of origin to our family of choice; we were with friends who intentionally chose us to be godparents to their children; we were with friends who had been an intentional part of our graduate journey. While in my birth place, I was with my parents who had been intentional with they way they raised my brother and myself; I was with family that have played intentional and pivotal parts in my life.

2015 will be my year of being intentional.

I made a list and set some goals of the important ways I want to be intentional this year in my family, friendships, faith, and health. The death of my grandmother caused me to refocus on the fact that we all are here for a limited time, so we should be living purposefully, with intention, all the time. In the mundane moments of time, it’s hard to remember that. This week, I was reminded by a friend that it’s the mundane moments where we should be living our best, as they make up the bigger picture of our lives.

The good thing is, it doesn’t matter what stage of your life you’re in right now; maybe you’re a graduate wife, maybe you work full time or maybe you’re a stay- at-home-Mum. No matter where you are right now, I want to challenge you to do something different this year. Pick a word and live by it. Set some personal goals. Pick three things you know you’ll do well this year, and do them. But whatever you do: Love well. Live purposefully. Be intentional.

~Mandy

Survival Tips: Flying with Toddlers

planes-dusty-3It’s almost Christmas and many readers are preparing to fly home for the holidays. For some, this is an exciting event, the precursor to a fabulous visit with cherished family and faraway friends. If you’re reading this thinking, “Yes. That’s me. I can’t wait to board that plane!” then you need not read any further. We suspect you don’t have toddlers.

Toddlers are a game changer. They can turn flights into arduous battles standing in the way of a good time at home. Toddlers are the volatile variable in an already somewhat complicated equation. Yes, traveling with toddlers is no easy task.

The good news is that it’s not impossible. You can win the battles with the right planning. We’ve picked the brains of several graduate wives to compile what we hope to be a valuable resource. Who knows? Maybe you’ll even enjoy the flight. (Let’s not get our hopes up though.)

BEFORE YOU DEPART

Here are small things you can do in advance to ease your mind and prepare for a smooth-ish voyage.

See if the airline offers meal reservations for kids. The food is often more appealing to a picky toddler and kid’s meals are served before the adult masses.

Consider ordering a meal for yourself that is anything other than the standard fare. The novelty meals are also served before the generic ones so you and your tots can eat in advance and avoid bumping elbows with hangry neighbours.

If you can select your seats in advance, position yourself near a toilet. Hopefully this will minimize accidents.

If you’re in favour of digital play, restrict your toddler’s time on devices prior to flying so it is a real treat on the plane.

Invest in some decent headphones. Amazon has loads of choices in this area, but look for ones that have a decibel limit, to minimize potential damage to little ears.

Download some new apps for the kiddos. May we suggest anything Curious George, Duck Duck Moose, Tiny Hands, and Kapu Forest. Endless ABC, is a winner and Richard Scarry’s Busytown and Words that Go should keep things interesting.

If you’re considering medicating your toddler, which some people will do for exceptionally long flights, talk to your doctor or pediatrician about options.  Try their recommendations in advance to make sure your child is not among the minority who get hyper, or have an allergic reaction. You don’t want either while flying.

Download some apps to keep you organized and informed. Think airport maps, real-time travel updates, and more. We found this collection helpful.

Prime your toddler for the plane ride. “This is going to be an adventure!” and “I need you to be mommy’s helper” are two favourites.

See if your airports have designated kids play areas. They’ll help get the busy beans out of your toddler and make the time pass quickly.

Do your homework and confirm the specifications for getting medicine through airport security. Some airports may require prescription labels on certain drugs.

Stock up on small treats to reward good behaviour on the plane.

Photocopy important documents (birth and marriage certificates, passports, and visas) to carry with you as you fly.

If you’re flying internationally without your partner, have them write a letter of consent to fly alone. See if there are any specific requirements for the country you’re preparing to visit.

AS YOU’RE PACKING

Effective packing is both a science and an art. These tips ought to help.

Make a list of what you’ll need. This goes without saying.

Retrieve it all and lay it out on a bed. Now cut your list by physically removing half your items from the bed. Seriously. You don’t need all that.

Enroll your child in packing his or her own carry-on bag. Dote on your child for being such a good helper and pray they enjoy the responsibility instead of shirking it.

Plan your on-flight outfit to include comfortable clothes that hide stains. Leggings, cardigans and scarves are invaluable.

If you plan on tending to your toddlers whilst carrying a baby in a carrier, do yourself a favour and wear a moisture wicking tank top to minimize baptising your child in perspiration. This  is my personal favourite. You can wash it in an airport sink and dry it under an hand dryer. Here’s hoping you don’t have to.

If it’s a short trip, pack stingy and try to bring it all aboard the plan.

If it’s a long trip, check as much as possible and only bring what you can carry hands-free onto the plane. Backpacks, baby carriers and clip-on (empty) water bottles are very handy.

Pack a page containing contact details in every bag you plan on checking. Place it on top of all your belongings so it is immediately visible to anyone who finds your missing bag.

OUR CARRY-ON MUSTS

Wipes and tissues

Diapers & travel sized ointment

Ziplock bags for messy things

A least one change of clothes

Non-messy snacks

Drinks or chewable treats for take-off and landing

Empty no-spill cups and water bottles

The blankie or other treasured belonging

Toddler headphones

Tablet and charger

Minimal but effective activities (Sticker books, magnadoodle, etc.)

Energy bars

Important documents

AT AIRPORT SECURITY

Your mission is to avoid snags through planning so you can sail through with your sanity in tact.

Keep all liquids/toiletries in one bag or one compartment so you can pull everything out in one go. Abide by the rules. Don’t take chances.

Wear slip on shoes. Don’t wear jewelry or a belt.

If you’re traveling with your partner, define roles in advance. “You take the kids. I’ll get the electronics and food.” Take complete responsibility over your territory.

Keep technology together in one place. Make sure your devices are charged.

ON THE PLANE

This is your time to shine. Here’s our advice.

Set up your “home” after you find your seats. Unpack important toys, snacks and activities so that everything is within reach.

Ask for help. More importantly, accept help.

Look for allies. These passengers are your people. Traveling parents, doting grandmothers and former nannies are the jackpot.

Be proactive about bathroom trips. Time your potty breaks accordingly to avoid accidents during takeoff and landing.

Consider giving treats on the hour. This can help older toddlers grasp the concept of time.

Keep your chin up. Ignore the haters. Shake it off.

Stay positive but expect chaos. Managing expectations is the key to staying sane.

Accept that free gin and tonic and don’t be afraid to ask for seconds.

Visualize arriving at your destination. Won’t it be glorious? You will get there, hopefully in a healthy state of mind.

Did we miss anything? Leave a comment below. Safe travels and good luck!

-written by Elissa, a current graduate wife

I’ll Be Home For Christmas, If Only in My Dreams……

                                                                                           -written by Deanna, a current graduate wife

My husband and I have been doing this grad-school thing for 5+ years now and we have at least 2 to go.  Possibly as many as 5.  We’re in the thick of it.  Although we are both from the US, we started our grad-school adventure in Canada – but only about 7 hours from our families.  We had a semi-dependable car so, of course, we drove home for Christmas.  Easy peasy.  As relative newlyweds and people with great families who grew up with well-loved Christmas traditions, we really enjoyed sharing the nostalgia of childhood Christmases with each other those first few years.

Our third Christmas in Canada our daughter was born.  I literally went into labour after breakfast on Christmas morning, went to the hospital that afternoon, and delivered her at some unholy hour the next morning.  Adoring grandparents and aunts quite literally dropped their forks on their Christmas dinner plates and braved icy roads in the midst of a massive snow storm to come to us that Christmas day arriving at the hospital in the middle of the night… just hours before our daughter was born.  It was an eventful Christmas but needless to say, we didn’t travel that year.

The next graduate degree took us much farther from our families.  Instead of being a few hundred miles away, we were nearly 5,000 miles away (including crossing a rather significant ocean.)  Money was tight… very tight.  A flight home simply wasn’t an option.  In fact this is our third Christmas overseas.  Is it hard being away from the family we love so dearly at such a special time of year?  Yes.  (It’s even worse with a child!)  Does it get easier?  That depends on you.  But here are a few survival tips from a graduate wife who has lived it a few years running. 

First things first, admit that it sucks.  If you’d rather be back home – just say so.  Don’t bottle it all up with a brave face until you crack and turn into a big weepy puddle on Christmas day.  Talk to your spouse.  Tell your spouse about the specific things you’ll miss.  Chances are that they have a list of things they’ll be missing as well.  Grieve it if you need to.  And don’t forget to tell your family and friends back home too! They’ll be thrilled to know you want to be with them – even if you can’t be there that year.  Be sure to plan a time to video chat with your family too!

But then you’ve got to move on.  Don’t wallow in self pity day in and day out.  It isn’t pretty.  Turn off the sad songs you’ve had on repeat.  (I may or may not be speaking from personal experience when I’m guessing your repeat list includes Michael Buble’s ‘I Want To Go Home’ and the Christmas classic ‘There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays’.)  Whether intentional or not, your wallowing will likely make your spouse feel like scum for dragging you away from your family at the holidays even though, in reality, you probably made the decision to move far away together.  Instead, try to be thankful that you don’t have to deal with the headaches of holiday traffic, airport crowds, and jet lag.  And then use some of the following tips to keep your Christmas spirits up and truly enjoy the season where you are!

1.    Make some of your favorite traditions from back home happen where you are.  It may take a little ingenuity, and it won’t be perfect – but it can be done!   Here are a few of my favorites:

• Bake a plate of Christmas cookies for your neighbors (or just for yourself!),

• Put up a tree.  Make it out of paper or felt and tape it to your wall if you must – but at our house we don’t go without a tree of some sort.  Then cover it with ornaments, homemade if you didn’t bring any of your own (we didn’t).  Cut out paper snowflakes, tie a bit of string to the top of pine cones (and add a little glitter?), shape some stars out of pipe cleaners, and string popcorn.  Is it going to look like Rockefeller Plaza?  No.  But it will still be festive!

•Bust out some nostalgic Christmas music.  Try Grooveshark to put together free playlists of all your old favorites.

•Make yourself an advent wreath and follow the true story of Christmas for the 4 weeks leading up to the big day.  It can really help your perspective!

•Curl up with your spouse and watch your favorite Christmas movie with a cup of cocoa.  (Stir it with a candy cane if at all possible.)

2.  Embrace where you are.  After all, you may never be here at this time of year again!

•Pick something to do with your spouse that you couldn’t do back home.  December is packed full of concerts, plays, Christmas fairs and festivals, tree lighting ceremonies, church services, Christmas carol sing-alongs, etc. pretty much wherever you are.  Find a unique setting like a cool playhouse, grotto or cathedral near you to experience some of these things in a new way!

•Take advantage of the weather.  If it’s cold where you are, go ice skating or build a snowman with your spouse and then take a picture of the two of you with your snowman and send it to family and friends.  If it’s warm where you are, hit the beach for the day to work on your tan and fire up the BBQ for Christmas dinner!

•Try some local Christmas food traditions.  Here that means fresh roasted chestnuts, mince pies, mulled wine, bacon-wrapped sausages, brussels sprouts, roast potatoes, stuffing rolled into balls, roast turkey, Christmas pudding (doused in brandy and lit on fire!), Christmas crackers and wearing a paper crown during dinner and/or dessert.

•Volunteer in your community.  Chances are, as poor as you might feel sometimes, there are people in your city who are much worse off than you.  Find a soup kitchen or homeless shelter to help out at.  Bless people less fortunate than you are and then go home feeling grateful for all that you have instead of feeling miserable about all the things you don’t.

•Find out who else is spending Christmas away from their families and plan something fun to do together:  attend a midnight carol service together, invite someone to Christmas dinner, host a Christmas cookie exchange, organize a white elephant gift exchange, bundle up for a walk together and then head back to one of your homes for a Christmas movie and some hot apple cider, etc.  The possibilities are endless – and all the friends who traveled home for the holidays will be sad to have missed such a fun time while they were away!

3. Create new traditions.  Old traditions are great.  But creating a tradition that is unique to you and your spouse (and kids!) is especially wonderful!  I’m not sure we would have discovered this truth if we had simply gone back to our parents’ house every year to take part in their traditions.  Let me encourage you to seize this opportunity!  Here are a few simple ideas:

•Build a gingerbread house together.  Can’t find gingerbread where you are and don’t want to make your own?  Browse the cracker, cookie, and candy aisles at your local shop and get creative with what’s available to you!

•Hang a stocking (or just a sock!) for each person in the house on Dec 1.  Then every day, write down one thing you appreciate about each of the other people in the house or perhaps something funny/memorable they did or said that day on a small bit of paper and put it in their stocking.  On Christmas day, each person will read dozens of affirming observations about themselves!  What a gift!

•Go for a Christmas day walk.

•Plan a yummy Christmas breakfast together.  It doesn’t have to be complicated – just something you’ll do year after year.  We tend to go for homemade cinnamon rolls smothered in butter and frosting served with eggs, fruit, and bacon or sausage.

•If you have kids, pick a small Christmas object (a star, a candy cane with a ribbon tied round it, a particular Christmas ornament, a santa hat, a small stuffed snowman or elf, etc.) and hide it in a different place in the house every day.  Whoever finds it first wins a small prize like a piece of chocolate!

I hope you will try some of these tips and that you will find them to be as rewarding as we have over the past few years.  From my family to yours, we wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year wherever you may be!

Shuga’ Mommas: Chocolate Cake

True or false:

1. You like cake.
2. You’re short on time.
3. You hate baking.
4. You love baking.
5. You want to make a cake but you’re out of eggs and butter.
5. You have a weakness for chocolate and when there’s none in your house things can get ugly.
6. You need an easy vegan cake recipe.

If you answered true to the first and any of the following statements, this recipe is worth checking out. It ticks all the boxes and can be made with pantry staples. That’s it. Nothing refrigerated. This means as long as you keep your pantry stocked, whenever your sweet tooth cries out, you can have your cake and eat it too.

There are many reasons to love this recipe. It’s the edible equivalent of a machine washable, not too fancy, not too plain, oh-so-comfortable little black dress: suitable for a variety of occasions, versatile with minimal effort and cost effective. It’s incredibly quick, easy and perfect for a lean budget.

I made a cake like this to earn my baking badge as a girl scout. Years later I discovered it again on one of my favourite food blogs as I was prepping for my son’s birthday party. It is now my fall-back midweek dessert and the rainy day activity my son enjoys most. Most of the time I don’t bother with the icing though it is very, very tasty. You choose.

I’ve since modified the recipe from Not Without Salt to suit my need for a more intense chocolate flavour. I also cut the quantities to only fill one pan because honestly, if I made two cakes every time a craved chocolate, I would need to buy a new wardrobe. Chocolate makes my clothes shrink.

This modified recipe is best for an 8″ square pan or a 9″ round.

Ready? This is too easy.

Pre-heat your oven to 350 F/175 C. (If you’re using a convection oven, 325 F/170 C)

Grease your pan and line the bottom with parchment. If you intend to eat it straight out of the oven, don’t bother. (No judgement here. You’re in good company.)

Measure the following into a large mixing bowl:

1.5 cups of flour
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup cocoa
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup chocolate chips (optional but highly recommended)

Combine the following in a separate liquid measuring cup:

1 cup coffee (I use the leftovers from the french press. Instant coffee is fine in a pinch.)
6 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 Tbsp white vinegar
1 tsp vanilla extract

Pour the liquid ingredients into the large bowl of dry ingredients and combine with a whisk until the batter is homogenous.

Pour the batter into your pan, pop it in the oven for 30-35 minutes and enjoy. If you need help checking for doneness, here’s some advice.

Just like a reliable little black dress, the possibilities are endless. Last time I added 2 tsp of cinnamon and 1/4 tsp of cayenne pepper and called it a Mexican Chocolate cake. It was delicious. Try layering it with Nutella. Play with fresh cream and preserved cherries. Blitz fresh mint into a simple buttercream. It is hard to mess this up. Even if you do, at least you won’t have wasted stipend money on butter and eggs. I hope you like it.

-From the kitchen of Elissa Watts