If you don’t take care of your house, it might fall down.

My husband and I got married the year after we met. Over the course of the next three years, we lived in three houses we named The Beach House, The Bay House and the Blue House. None of these were our Forever House – in fact, when he got his airline job I was afraid we were going to have to move. (That’s another story for another day.) 

But one morning, as I walked downstairs holding newborn Adelyn in our 100-year-old Victorian rental, he said, “I found it. I found our house.”

We drove to see it that day, and continued to drive by it for the next two months until it was ours. That evening, in the glow of the falling sun, we ate Chinese food on the cold tile floor as Eli wheeled Addy around in her walker, bursting with delight.

My fortune cookie read:

Everything must have a beginning.

Now, we’re many chapters in. 

We’ve been slowly fixing up our house since that night. Immediately, we changed every doorknob and toilet seat. We took down the mismatched blinds and hung new window shades. We paid a crew to clean years of someone else’s life out of the grout, watching in awe as it morphed from black to gray. We’ve patched holes, made new ones, and patched those, too. 

I’m saying “we” a lot. Mostly, I watched. My husband loves a project. (He’ll tell you he doesn’t, but as soon as he finishes one, he’s on to the next. If you need him, he’ll be at Lowe’s.)

Soon after we moved in, my Aunt Carol gave us this really cool clock. Jared took it out of the box and headed to the garage for his drill. A few hours later, while I was bathing the kids, I heard strange noises coming from the kitchen. He had placed the screw into the wall while the pocket door was inside. When he finally got the pantry closed, and we emerged from the tub, Eli said, “It’s not so bad, Dad. It only has one eyebrow.” That door winked at us for a long time until we replaced it this year. 

In an older house – or any house, I’m sure – there’s always something that needs doing. Fixing. Replacing. Patching. Painting. 

Working on the house together is some of the most fun we’ve ever had. I’m not as handy as he is, but I can hold a brush. When we moved in, every single wall was the same shade of green. Lucky for us, it wasn’t an obtrusive one. Over time, we’ve changed our colors … missing the mark a few times and hitting closer to baby blue before finally discovering Sherwin-Williams’ “Modern Gray” and vowing never to stray again.  

Most recently, we laid plank over those cold tile floors and created a beautiful stone fireplace. But there was one room left to conquer – our bedroom.

There’s nothing like a good paint job to spice up your marriage. 

If Jared feels love through quality time, I feel it through laughter. Painting together, we both get something we need. Remarkably, the kids played quietly for hours while we taped and trimmed and rolled as a team. 

In any relationship, it’s important to know who you are as individuals, but it’s also nice to remember what brought you together. Boy, that man can make me laugh. 

Just like your house, a marriage takes work – and home improvement can lead to more improvement than you think. I know I could use a little touching up, but Jared takes me as I am. Covered in paint, I was reminded I can always be every bit myself around him. 

It looks like I picked a good one. (Paint color, that is.)

How do you parent the child who’s not like you?

My firstborn is basically a boy version of me.

He’s polite to grownups, pays attention in class, wants to be awesome at everything he tries and gets frustrated when he’s not. He loves making people laugh, learns everything he can about the things that capture his interest (currently airplanes), and rarely makes a scene or gets in trouble.

Now before you go thinking I think he – I mean we – are perfect, consider the following: we’re also overthinking tattletales who talk a lot and don’t take many risks.

But you know what? I can handle him because I’m familiar with myself.

The only tantrum I remember Eli ever having was after a particularly hot and lengthy field trip to the zoo, whereabouts another mother suggested we buy our boys a “souvenir” of their visit. He wanted something bigger than I had in mind, and I was forced to carry him over my shoulder while navigating the heavy double stroller out the heavy single door.

Enter the other occupant of that stroller – his little sister, Adelyn.

Addy is a firecracker, not entirely unlike me, but enough so that I don’t know what to do with her.

She is fierce in her demands and fiercer in her outbursts. She knows what she wants and thinks screaming or throwing herself on the ground will get it. She is loud and wild and fun – and runs into things because she’s moving too fast to see them. She stands on the furniture, sits unlike a lady, and makes a scene everywhere we go. If you tell her no, it only makes her want to do it more.

If I’m being honest, reading as I’m typing, she’s a lot more like me than I thought. (Except for that last part – that’s all Daddy, and I ain’t one to gossip, he’ll tell you to your face.)

Now before you go thinking I think she’s all bad – I don’t think she’s bad at all. Addy loves harder than anyone I know. We get hugs, kisses, knuckles and high fives every time she leaves for school, and she’s the only one on the soccer field pausing every 30 seconds to scream “I LOVE YOU!” (She also screams this from the toilet and across a crowded room.) She is smart, determined and adventurous.

She just hasn’t figured out emotional self-control … but have any of us, really?

We expect a lot of our little ones, especially for being so little. I’m self-aware enough to know I fly into a rage when pushed to my limit, so maybe it’s time to focus more on hers.

I think as parents we expect every kid that pops out to be just like us, or just like the ones who came before them. As I navigate how to be there for the one who’s not like me – but maybe more so than I realized – I look to family and friends like you to find new ways to work with her instead of against her.

It’s an adventure, this parenting thing, and if there’s one thing I could learn from Addy, it’s how to be more adventurous. I think I’ll stop fighting and see where it goes. And maybe spend a little less time in grocery stores and nice restaurants.

After all, I’ve got another one coming right up behind her, who’s a little like brother and a little like sissy – the perfect blend of Daddy and me.

(Or so I think. I’ll get back to you in a few years.)

Seeing the world through ‘Rosie’ colored glasses.

Taken straight from her scrapbook, circa 2007.

My first real job after college was with Rowland Publishing in Tallahassee, where I had just earned a degree in Creative Writing – one small step up from my previous studies in Musical Theater, in terms of employability, according to the world.

That’s not expressly true. After accepting a paid internship with Health Magazine at the Southern Living campus in Birmingham, I rented an apartment there but bailed before beginning, having taken a proper job as an editor for a magazine in Gulf Shores. (And renting an apartment there, too.)

How’s that for employability?

I worked there for five days, I think, before realizing I had made a mistake and running home to make a desperate phone call to Rosanne Dunkelberger – editor extraordinaire at Tallahassee Magazine, with whom I had worked as an intern in my final semester at FSU. (I wooed her with clips from my self-titled “Across The Pond With Ashley Kahn” series, written during an autumn abroad in England.) 

In addition to having the coolest name ever to be spoken, she played a very important role in my life, during an especially formative time.

When I called Rosanne wailing “What have I dooooooooone,” there was an opening on her team left by Erica Bailey, torturer of interns with her acerbic tongue and devastating glares. 

I would be the new assistant to Rosanne Dunkelberger, wielder of the trusty red pen. I don’t know why she hired me. Throughout my internship, Rosanne laughed with me, cried with me, celebrated me with the preppiest pink and green cookie cake I have ever seen, and listened to me lament the loss of limitless loser boyfriends. 

But she liked me, and I liked her. 

She gave me a chance to figure out who I was. 

She helped me grow up, a little. (I was only 23.)

She taught me not to overuse the word “that.” 

Example: “I know that I’m going to have to remove several “thats” before I publish this post” can be simplified to read: “I know I’m going to have to.” 

THAT just doesn’t serve any purpose here.

Neither does whining or feeling sorry for yourself or failing to book an interview for the 100th time with a lady who just turned 100 and may actually die before you get to write about her. (You can find that story, my first for the magazine, “One Savvy Centenarian,” here.) 

Evidently she also taught me the value of a clever headline, like the dance piece I called “Raising the Barre” or “Mother of Invention,” about a mom who invented a syringe to improve her daughter’s life and countless others around the world.  

Aside from grammar and “furniture” – that’s industry speak, not for couches but for things like photo captions and subheads – Rosanne taught me a lot about life. She was, and remains, a true mentor to me, but also a dear friend. 

Here are some of Rosie’s rules for living, as I remember them:

Ask the weird questions. Rosanne taught me how to conduct an interview and how to tell a story. This is good stuff outside of reporting, too. Don’t ask people how they’re doing – ask them what lights a fire under their ass. (I feel like that’s how she would have said it.)

Get what you deserve, from the get-go. I started out as Rosie’s assistant, but was quickly promoted to associate editor of a couple of magazines whose editor moved on. I think they would have made me just-plain-editor had I been a little more mature. As the jobs got bigger, she encouraged me to ask for the salary and benefits I wanted up front. Good advice for all young lassies up-and-coming in their careers.

Always order dessert. We were ladies who lunched. It was just part of the job. And we always, always had dessert. (Probably two.) Rosanne is known to many for her quick wit and formidable character, but there’s also a real sweetness about her. Somewhere between a mother and a best friend, she was there for me through the pains of young adulthood, and I will never forget it.

When life gives you lemons, laugh. Oh, boy, did we laugh a lot. She has the best laugh – the kind that makes people turn around and look. We were quite the team for those years we shared. Friends before Facebook, that’s mostly where our friendship lives now. I hope someday soon she’ll come to the beach and meet my family.

She was family to me before I knew who I was going to be.

I don’t know if Rosie would be proud of me. I hope she is. Most of the things I write now are sort of incognito for other people or nonprofits close to my heart. I haven’t published a book or made a big name for myself, YET, but I’m choosing to use my voice in ways that matter to me. 

And because she helped me find my voice, she matters to me – a lot. 

Be a light in the world – but don’t burn your house down.

Recently I was TPB (texting past bedtime) with an old friend I haven’t seen in 20 years, and a brand new one who it feels like I’ve known that long. 

Moment of silence for the fact I am old enough to have not seen someone for 20 years.

Toward the end of our conversation, the old friend told me something I did as a teenager made a lasting impact on her life. It was waaaaay past my bedtime, but now I had to know. What tender nugget of girlhood wisdom was I layin’ down to make such an impression? 

I must have been really smart.

“Tell me what!” I typed. 

… a digital ellipsis … then THIS:

“I was NEVER allowed to have a candle.”

Turns out, I was not really smart.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I left a candle burning – then left the house for dinner with my family. We came home to six fire engines, followed by six months in a hotel room while our home was restored. (Thank God for the little old lady who saw smoke and called 911, because, you know … where there’s smoke, there’s fire.)

This got me wondering how many people were never allowed to have a candle because of me. When people hear my name, am I still “the girl who burned her house down in high school” … or have I done enough in the past two decades to make a different impression?

The new friend I was texting is about to embark on a global adventure with her husband and three young children – living with less while making more memories and, in turn, a memorable mark on the world.  

How we live makes a difference. 

The fact that I accidentally set fire to my house at age 15 does not define me. But the way I choose to set fire to my hopes and dreams, ignite the light of kindness in myself and in my kids, and blaze the path for those who will come behind me – these things will. 

Let your path – not your past – define your days. We never know how many we’re going to get, but we can make each one count – especially as mothers.

We spend our lives putting out fires for our families and our employers and our households. Although the smoke can be thick, the tasks arduous and the recognition nonexistent, every little thing we do matters to our babies. 

Living intentionally and teaching kindness at every turn isn’t easy when most of the time we’re just surviving. But it’s so worth it. 

Because you know who I am now? I’m not the girl who burned her house down. I’m the girl who’s shining a light – for my children, for the things that really matter, and hopefully, dear reader, for you.

You are someone’s mom. Someone’s person. Someone’s flame. Someone’s world.

And that, my friend, is everything. 

Mind your own busy-ness.

“In this modern world where activity is stressed almost to the point of mania, quietness as a childhood need is too often overlooked.” 

Margaret Wise Brown

What ever happened to just sitting around at home? Is it just me – or does everyone seem really flipping busy these days? And when does really busy become too busy?

As parents, it is our job to provide opportunities for our children. We want them to try new things, fail at them, learn from failing, try more things, and ultimately find the thing that makes them happy. 

But do they really need to try all the things? Like, at the same time?

In our modern world, the way I see it, we’re battling a pandemic of busy-ness. 

Listen, I understand wanting your kids to explore varied interests to become well-rounded humans. But I also think it’s important for our kids to know the slowness and the fresh-baked smells and safety of home

I participated in a lot of things, but I still had dinner around the table – albeit the coffee table at our house. We sprawled comfortably on the living room floor, because that was our thing. (It perplexes my husband, who comes from more formal folk.) 

Now that I have a family of my own, we make a point of taking breaks. We take breaks in our day – after school, before activities – and we have dinner together, whether in the drive-thru or the dining room. We make sure we have a few free evenings on the couch, all snuggly and squeaky, before bedtime. 

When we need to, we take breaks from extracurriculars. We even take breaks from our social calendar – sometimes in the name of adventure, other times just to be bored together. 

To maintain our un-busy-ness, we have a few family rules:

1. We limit activities to two per child per season. (One if we can help it.)

With multiple kids, activities add up. We might do a sport plus a musical instrument. We might do running club, which meets right after class and only extends the school day by 40 minutes. Because my husband travels for work, this also makes my week more manageable, with all the baths and bedtimes, unexpected sicknesses and middle-of-the-nightmares.

2. We won’t be at all the birthday parties.

For friends who are reading this, please (please) take no offense. For the most part, and with exception, we only attend birthday parties of our children’s best buds, which means we might miss hanging out with friends who have kids the same age as ours. It also means we don’t spend entire Saturdays rushing from the zoo to the bounce house to the park. You could spend a lifetime going to all the birthdays.

3. We don’t always say ‘yes.’

Much as you might want to, you can’t say ‘yes’ to every invitation. Harkening back to the sickness and sleepless nights, there’s so much you can’t predict about parenthood. Saying ‘no’ does come with consequences. By being intentional with your time, you might unintentionally hurt people’s feelings. But if you can make peace with having to make peace with others now and again, your life will actually be more peaceful. 

For the record, I understand people have different tolerances for busy-ness. This isn’t a tirade on why my parenting style is better (or worse) than anybody else’s. It’s simply what works for us, in a world that thrives on being busy. 

If your world is spinning too fast, I encourage you to create some new family rules of your own. 

When life gets heavy, remember your gifts.

My mom has always shown me she was proud of me. When I was in a singing competition in the first grade, she was so excited she made flyers and handed them out to my entire class. 

From Kindergarten to college, I was in as many plays as there were auditions. She wrapped foam rollers into my hair and came to every show. She has cheered me on in every role – from Cinderella’s stepsister to Eli, Addy and George’s mom. 

But I wonder if she knows how proud I am of her. 

Five months after I gave birth to my first son, we found out my mom had late-stage cancer. Through the treatments and tests, she never complained. In fact, she still continued to take care of us even as we tried to take care of her. 

My mother is always there for everyone. Have I been there enough for her?

When I was 15, we had an elderly across-the-street neighbor who didn’t have any family in town. So Mom would bring her groceries (Nature’s Own Honey Wheat bread – I now buy the same for my kids), sit with her in the afternoon, and invite her to every holiday at our house. We drove Miss Agee to the hospital the night she died, and we stayed until there was nothing else we could do.

Mom was there for me through every breakup and blunder. (Too many to count.) She was there, on the phone, when my crazed ex-boyfriend climbed the second-story balcony of my first apartment. She was there, even when I lied or messed up. 

When I became a mother myself, tears streaming down my face as the baby screamed at 3 a.m., she told me I’d better pull it together, because he needed me. She was right. 

Now she is there for my family of five, any time we need her. (And we need her a lot.)

My parents are in that delicate stage of life where they are present for me and my children, but also needed more and more by their own parents. So my mom is being pulled in many directions. 

“Can you take Eli to guitar?” … “Will you watch the baby?” … “Can we come swim?”

But also: “Papa has fallen.” … “Mimi needs a ride to her appointment.”

These things are not burdens. I know she is happy to do them. But the cumulative weight of caring for everyone else can get heavy. 

So, last night, I reminded her this is her gift.

She has been good at it all her life – caring first for little sisters, then for me and my brother, and now for grandchildren and grandparents at the same time. 

Painters paint, not only for the people who will hang their work on their walls, but also because it stirs something deep within their soul. They do it because it’s who they are. They do it because they can’t not

When life gets heavy, remember your gifts. If your gift is caring for others, make time to care for yourself. If you’re a wonderful listener, make sure your voice is heard, too. If you host a great party, make friends who also host you. 

Whatever your gift may be, I hope you get to use it often. But if it ever feels heavy, you can always rely on the gifts of others – a warm cup of tea prepared by a friend, a peanut butter kiss from a child, or a few words written by a daughter who wants to lift you up. 

(Just like you’ve always lifted me, Mom.)  

Preparing for life’s storms.

It’s late summer, and a hurricane is coming. And it’s like people have never done this before. They’re getting all the gas and buying all the water – but the truth is, you can never really be ready for a storm like this.

The hurricane has me thinking about life’s storms. Often unexpected, one moment you could be sending your child off on the school bus and the next, you could be holding his hand in the back of an ambulance. 

We are blissfully unaware of how our lives could change in an instant. 

It was a fairly normal day when my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I sat in the waiting room nursing my firstborn while she underwent a routine test, and soon we were called back to the recovery room. “This is the big time,” her doctor said. And it was. Eight years later, we have weathered that storm, but you can never get too comfortable in the sunshine.

My Papa recently took a fall, and his life has turned upside down. So have my Nana’s, my mom’s and dad’s and my aunt’s. They sit with him at the rehabilitation facility every day, hoping he will get strong enough to come home. What we wouldn’t give for things to go back to “normal.”

I have been following the story of a 7-and-a-half-year-old girl, who fell and hit her head on what I imagine was a fairly normal day. She suffered a traumatic brain injury and she is now lying in a coma in a hospital, with prayers coming in from all around the world. I can’t stop thinking about her and her family – what her mother must be feeling as she sits helpless by the side of the bed. 

I can’t stop thinking about all the hurt in the world as I cook dinner for my family and wash the dishes and wash the children and wash the laundry – and there are people I love and people I don’t even know who are hurting – and my heart hurts with them. 

I guess it’s best that we walk around in blissful ignorance of brewing storms, because we can’t go through life braced by fear. If we did, nothing would ever get done. We wouldn’t go anywhere or create anything beautiful because we’d be too afraid to ever start. 

But it’s also good to be reminded that sunny days are not a given. Life’s storms are unavoidable. 

We fall sick. We fall down. Things fall apart.

But you know what else we do? We fall in love again, with each other and with this life we are here to live, because of (and in spite of) its storms. 

So how do we prepare for them? Well, first we buy all the water and the gas … and then we walk through life with kindness and grace and love. 

Because you never know what someone else is facing – and your smile from across the room or prayer from across the world could be a shelter from the storm.