1
My life didn’t turn out how I thought it would.
2
» Family Getaway at Tradewinds Island Grand St. Pete Florida
3
» Dollywood Season Pass – Bring a Friend Free
4
» Orlando Fun in the 2019 Mazda CX-9
5
» Home for Christmas, Nashville 2018
6
» National Adoption Month
7
Celebrate Fall at Dollywood with Harvest Festival and Great Pumpkin LumiNights!
8
A promise of Joy
9
Sideline Talk
10
REVIEW: Brandless – Online Grocery Shopping

My life didn’t turn out how I thought it would.

How many conversations have you had lately that started with a similar statement? I remember making a lot of plans when I was growing up. Dreaming up a life, a house, some make-believe kids. Some of those dreams panned out exactly as I had hoped they would. A gentle husband by my side, two cherished children from other nations and two carried in my very body. Every week I buy groceries, without counting the cost, and feed them their favorites. But some dreams just didn’t come true. Maybe I tried and failed and in some instances I didn’t even come close. Maybe a choice or decision took me further from my dreams than I had hoped it would.

Many influencers have spoken into this void, telling me, telling you, to chase those dreams down, wrangle them and make them happen. They tell us we are powerful and in control. I’m an advocate of taking steps to make things happen, but I can’t get on board with the idea that we can control everything that happens to us. Because we can’t.

I’ve seen the world, just like you have. It’s full of heartbreak, death, sickness, joy, success and surprises… both good and bad. Attempting to control life is a futile effort. We are one phone call away from disaster. It’s a hard reality. And one that fully exists in our broken world.

Our expectations and dreams in such a world can break us. And that’s what it really comes down to. Expectations and how we project those onto other people, our family and ourselves. How, then, can one adjust their dreams and expectations?

As a Christian, I have to take a hard look at myself when it comes to this question. What’s in my heart? What should and shouldn’t be there? Are my dreams a benefit to me, or others? Am I trying to control my surroundings? It’s sobering to make such examinations.

Proverbs 16:9 says “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.”

When I feel like I’m fighting the course of my life this verse is a reminder to look to the one who holds the plan. When I look at life and lament that it didn’t line up with my dreams, I’m reminded that it’s impossible for me to live any other life but this one. I’m not in control, and that’s a sweet freedom. Releasing expectations, loving others and obediently stepping forward is freedom. Embracing God’s plan and love for me… is freedom.

Life didn’t turn out how I thought it would… but I’m more confident every day that it’s actually much better.

» Family Getaway at Tradewinds Island Grand St. Pete Florida

This November we spent three days exploring Universal Studies and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I’m going to save my thoughts and tips on that experience for another post. Today I want to share about our beach time that we tacked on the end of our time in Orlando. There are several gorgeous beaches within 1-2 hours of the Orlando area. After braving Disney for seven straight days a few years back we came to realize that we enjoy our vacations a lot more if a little sand and sun accompanies the endless lines and $12 ice creams.

Enter St. Pete beach, approximately an hour and a half drive from Orlando. St. Pete is a quirky, eclectic area outside of Tampa that offers everything from hand-rolled cigars to boardwalk ice cream, cuban food and high end beach resorts. For this stay we opted to check in with Tradewinds Island Grand resort. Tradewinds is comprised of two resorts, The Island Grand and Guy Harvey Outpost. Together they make up over 31 acres of prime beachfront fun. As we experienced firsthand there is plenty to do for families. Tradewinds offers a kids club, water sports, beach front pools, entertainment, fine and casual dining and family friendly suites. Our suite met the needs of our entire family AND the grandparents.

Tradewinds offers an experience that, while not all-inclusive, does include quite a bit. For example, cabanas and chairs on the beach are offered at no additional charge. Guy Harvey outpost also hosts a nightly beachside fire and smores experience at no additional charge. Other “free” activities include the massive High Tide water slide, surf wipe-out and paddle boats. There is also a daily schedule of poolside activities like bingo, which we all enjoyed.

Tradewinds offers various packages to help families add in a few extras. We did opt to try out adventure bands for our kids. This is essentially a little wristband that allows them to purchase snow cones, painting activities or other small attractions around the resort. If your child can keep up with money they may not need the band, but it worked well for our older kids who are only in the 9-11 year old range.

We spent time at Tradewinds Island Grand just as the off season was kicking in, late November. This meant lower crowds and plenty of beach space. It was just the dose of sunshine we needed as Nashville was headed into the 30’s that week. We’ve heard that a major renovation is on the horizon for this property and we are excited to see the suites and rooms get a refresh!

Bottom line, we highly recommend Tradewinds Island Grand and Guy Harvey Outpost for a beach vacation that has something for everyone. It’s family friendly with adult-only pools and areas as well. Best of both worlds!

» Dollywood Season Pass – Bring a Friend Free

It’s no secret that Dollywood has more to offer than could ever be experienced in just one visit. The many festivals and holiday events have us coming back for more all year long. Just one reason why we love having a season pass! Our favorite feature of season passes, however, is the Bring-A-Friend-Free (BAFF) tickets we receive with our season passes. 

We reserved our Season Passes in advance this year and received an EXTRA set of BAFF passes for the magical 2018 Smoky Mountain Christmas. This extra set of passes gave us a golden opportunity to kick off Christmas break with great friends. Wearing out our kids at the BEGINNING of break was a priority this year. We also needed to distract our youngest as the Christmas countdown was far too much for him to handle any longer, haha.

Our children loved experiencing the park through the eyes of their buddies. It made familiar rides extra magical as they worked to position themselves at the front of Wild Eagle or participated in soda drinking contests at Aunt Grannys, all you care to eat! Shows, treats and train rides all became new again with the addition of besties! 

TIP: We love to pack small snacks and eat them throughout the day. We then enjoy a 4pm early dinner at Aunt Granny’s. The cost is not much higher than a typical quick service and it’s a great bargain for kids 9 year old and under. Eating at 4pm helps avoid the dinner rush, and it saves us money because we opt for 1 meal at the park rather than 2.

 Aunt Granny’s is also all you can eat comfort food and our kids tear it up.

The BAFF passes certainly allowed our kids to have an extra dose of fun, but Calvin and I weren’t left out. We had just as much fun riding Fire Chaser in the dark and kicking back with another couple to watch the kids ride when we had our fill of thrill rides.

Firechaser Express

Our plans for 2019 are already developing around introducing close friends to Dollywood and enjoying even more unforgettable multi-family memories. There is still plenty of time to purchase season passes for 2019. It’s a year you don’t want to miss as the highly anticipated opening of Wildwood Grove looms in the distance. Just imagine bringing your closest friends to experience a whole new expansion at Dollywood! I, for one, cannot wait.

» Orlando Fun in the 2019 Mazda CX-9

After a year of planning, our family escaped the Nashville cold to visit sunny Orlando! We started with Universal Studios and ended in the Gulf at St. Pete Beach. The 2019 Mazda CX-9 not only fit the six of us, but we managed to pack in a week’s worth of clothes and vacation memorabilia in the back. We drove the 2018 model earlier this year and we love the changes, inside and out, that the 2019 model has brought.

Here are a few things we especially love about the 2019 Mazda CX-9:

Seats Seven – This might sound like my 2018 test drive and review but there are not many vehicles that can fit a family like ours. The CX-9 is compact but we can still fit our dog, an extra family member, or friend.


Interior – The interior of the CX-9 is just as sleek and sophisticated as the outside. Everything you need is within arms reach allowing you to control the temperature, radio, etc. without distracting you from the most important thing, keeping your eyes on the road. One of my favorite additions since last year’s model is the ability to see who in the second and third row is buckled (or not).

CarPlay – We love the fact that more and more cars are working with Apple’s CarPlay. The ability to have the Apple interface makes an unfamiliar car feel familiar immediately. I can quickly type a destination on my phone and at the same time see the route on the larger display the dash offers.

The Advanced Heads-Up Display displays the speed limit, your current speed, blind spot warnings and more right onto your windshield. The Birdseye view magically pulls up an aerial view of the car on the dash display when backing up or parking. No more playing guessing games with how much clearance you have on those awfully tight spots.

Conclusion about the Mazda CX-9

We had a blast driving through Disney and Universal parks and surrounding areas in the CX-9. Our drive to St. Pete beach an hour away allowed us to test the longer commute. The comfort and the handling of the car made the trips feel painless and quicker than they actually were. This vehicle could work for a family of six but would be ideal for a family of four or five. The extra room on a daily basis would be nice and comfortable with margin to add visitors or extra luggage for the longer trips.

Special thanks to Mazda USA for allowing us to test drive the 2019 CX-9 Grand Touring. As always, these opinions are my own.

» Home for Christmas, Nashville 2018

Nashville has a lot to offer when it comes to the year of less. If you haven’t been following along, 2017 for our family has the been the start of attempting to buy less stuff, but instead have more experiences together together. The year of less is slowly turning into a lifestyle of less. Our family is spending another December at home (for the third year in a row) and we’ve found lots to look forward to in doing so. Here are a list of events we are especially making plans to attend in December.

1. SCHERMERHORN SYMPHONY CENTER

The Schermerhorn is a breathtaking venue that feels special no matter what you’re there for. For the last couple of years, we’ve attended Dave Barnes’ Christmas show, which we highly recommend. This year we’ll be going to Home Alone in Concert (performing on 12/5 and 12/6)! Experience John Williams’ delightful score performed live (by the Nashville Symphony and Nashville Symphony Chorus) while the movie is shown on the big screen.

We’re also excited about a Very Merry Christmas with Dave Barnes (12/2), Drew and Ellie Holcomb’s Neighborly Christmas (12/17 and 12/22), and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra: Big Band Holidays with Wynton Marsalis (12/7). Also Handel’s Messiah (four performances to choose from), which has really become an annual holiday tradition for many families.

Full schedule and tickets available at NashvilleSymphony.org

2. NASHVILLE’S NUTCRACKER
Nashville Ballet has performed Nashville’s Nutcracker for over 10 years. This has become a huge tradition for families, with fifteen performances to choose from. Our (young) family especially loves the early afternoon show so that we can grab dinner at Milk & Honey after the show!

Visit magical lands with the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Mouse King, the Nutcracker, the Dancing Bear and many historic characters from Nashville’s past.

Nashville’s Nutcracker will be at TPAC’s Jackson Hall for fifteen (15) performances:

  • Saturday, December 1, 2018 at 2 p.m.
  • Sunday, December 2, 2018 at 2 p.m.
  • Saturday, December 8, 2018 at 2 p.m.
  • Saturday, December 8, 2018 at 7 p.m.
  • Sunday, December 9, 2018 at 2 p.m.
  • Saturday, December 15, 2018 at 2 p.m.
  • Saturday, December 15, 2018 at 7 p.m.
  • Sunday, December 16, 2018 at 1 p.m.
  • Sunday, December 16, 2018 at 6:30 p.m.
  • Friday, December 21, 2018 at 2 p.m.
  • Friday, December 21, 2018 at 7 p.m.
  • Saturday, December 22, 2018 at 2 p.m.
  • Saturday, December 22, 2018 at 7 p.m.
  • Sunday, December 23, 2018 at 1 p.m.
  • Sunday, December 23, 2018 at 6:30 p.m.

Tickets available at NashvilleBallet.com

3. NASHVILLE PREDATORS

IMG_3108

The only cold temperature we enjoy is from the Nashville Predators ice. Our kids love hockey when it comes to the food, the chants, and the crazy fans. Liam still loves singing (and shaking it to) Tim McGraw’s “I like it I love it” every time the home team scores.

There are plenty of home games in December to check out. Tickets available at Ticketmaster.com

4. Marvel Universe Live!

If your kids can’t get enough of the Marvel movies or too young to watch them, this live performance might be a fit for your family. Witness cutting-edge special effects, aerial maneuvers, pyrotechnics, martial arts, motorcycles stunts, and vast video projection in this completely new thrilling adventure.

Seven shows available from December 6-9. Click here for tickets

5. Dollywood – Smoky Mountain Christmas

If you’re home but willing to drive a few hours, Dollywood should always be in consideration! Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas featuring Glacier Ridge is the most beautiful holiday addition yet. There’s no better way to spend your holiday season, and there’s no place quite as uniquely beautiful as Dollywood.

» National Adoption Month

It’s National Adoption month. A time to celebrate and advocate for adoption and foster care. It’s also a time find our place in caring for the millions of orphaned children who will never be adopted due to varying situations.

As you may already know, we’ve been through the adoption process twice; once in Ethiopia and then in China. Our son was just eight months old when we brought him home and our daughter was 5 1/2 years old. You can read more about those stories and “older child” adoption by clicking here.

I also work for an adoption agency, America World Adoption Agency, as the Director of Missions and have the privilege of sending skilled teams to support and enhance care for children and teens living in orphanages overseas.

Today, as someone who is deeply connected to the plight of orphans I would like to provide a few resources for those of you who have heard from God, but don’t yet know how to get involved in the Biblical and holy mandate to care for orphaned children.

International Adoption

International adoption has steadily declined in the past few years. Corruption, politics and long timelines have taken their toll on this process. Yet, there are still ethical programs with waiting children who are in need of forever families. China and India adoption programs both have countless waiting children. Children in these programs have minor to moderate medical needs and can thrive with the love of a family and access to medical care and specialists. Our hearts break when we see the number of children waiting with vision impairments and blindness. We have seen first hand how a child can thrive with access to Braille and vision services.

Learn more about the India program here and the China program here.

Domestic Adoption

There are several avenues to answer the call to adopt domestically. Families can contact their local agency or work with a consultation organization like Christian Adoption Consultants. Foster to adopt is, of course, another option for families hoping to adopt domestically… but I advise caution to anyone who becomes a foster parent with adoption as their primary goal. While adoption is often an outcome, it should not necessarily be the goal for foster families.

Foster Care

In 2016-2018, records show that 437,465 children are currently in the foster care system, and this number is projected to grow. Foster care is meant to be a safe, temporary solution for children when their parents are working through a number of challenges. More than half of the cases in the foster care system have the goal of reunification. If you are interested in becoming a safe, nurturing place for a child in crisis click here to learn more about how to access resources in your state. There are also private programs that offer safe places for children such as Safe families and Jonah’s Journey. These programs may be a better fit for some families.

Sponsorship

Sponsorship can often be a life-giving and life-saving tool for children living in difficult situations. Sponsorship can provide an education, medical care, supplemental nutrition and much more. Here is a list of sponsorship programs I recommend.

Ethiopia City Kids

Amazima

Save the Children  (both U.S. and International)

If you and your family are looking to grow your family through the gift of adoption, become foster parents or simply support a child who desperately needs it I hope you found some great resources above. If you have any specific questions please reach out to me or use the comments section below.

Celebrate Fall at Dollywood with Harvest Festival and Great Pumpkin LumiNights!

It’s Fall in Tennessee! This means that we alternate between 45 degrees and 98 degrees until at least the first of November. We don’t let the fluctuating temps keep us from reveling in all the pumpkin, cider and colors of fall… we just head to Dollywood for Harvest and Great Pumpkin LumiNights! The park is decked out and it fulfills our need for all the fall things even if we are still sweating in our shorts and t-shirts. If you have yet to make it over to Dollywood during the fall let me fill you in on all the details.

Harvest Festival:

Each fall artisans from around the country visit Dollywood to share their beautiful handmade crafts and talents with guests during Dollywood’s Harvest Festival. We enjoyed many of these skills on display as we viewed carvings in action as well as candle making. Special booths fill the park, but seem to be centered largely around Craftsman’s Valley. Click here for a full list of artisans. If you enjoy Southern Gospel music, this is another highlight of Harvest. The Southern Gospel Jubilee takes place during this time and features concerts, included with admission, throughout the park. Harvest is also a time for special treats like pumpkin cookies and candy apple cider, or apple cider floats.

 

Great Pumpkin LumiNights:

Great Pumpkin LumiNights are really a sight to behold. From adorable pumpkin frogs floating on lily pads to brilliantly lit massive pumpkin people resting near roller coasters they have really covered everything. The displays are fun during the day but they come to life at night. Head over to the entrance of Craftsman’s Valley at 7:15pm (foot traffic swaps to one-way at 7:30pm) and take a magical walk through the lights. Our favorite light display was definitely the massive pumpkin guitar that played along with the light display, very Nashville. LumiNights also includes opportunities for fall-themed character meet and greets, master carver skill displays, specialty fall foods (pumpkin spice funnel cakes!) and glow in the dark face painting. If you visited last years LumiNights display you’re in for an even bigger treat this year, Dollywood has doubled the size of this festive experience. LumiNights runs through November 3rd.

Are you headed out for some fall family fun?
What are your plans before winter hits??

 

A promise of Joy

This weekend I went home. Not for a celebration or fun-filled weekend, but to sit in an ever-changing and tumultuous time with my family. A time that inevitably every family experiences in one way or another. I had a lot of opportunities to think, ponder and get lost in my own mind. It’s something I do with great skill while other people ask me if I’m okay.

None of us are really okay.

Yet, there is an ever-crushing internal pressure to appear as if we are. I’ve never been a fan of this method of self-destruction. Brush it under the rug, tidy it up and put a bandaid on it.

It’s curious that this is human nature when we know, deeply, that every person who graces this earth will encounter heartbreak, anxiety, trouble and pain.

A couple of years ago, after a surgery, things went really wonky for me. My body didn’t heal like it should have. My heart did odd physical things. And in the midst of that I became really afraid. I wasn’t okay. I had a lot of time to feel all those heavy things and wrap my arms tightly around them. Strangely, over time, my response to my trial became thankfulness.

Not thankful for the trial, but thankful to be present. To feel, to be alive to struggle and seek God in that struggle. I’ve watched friend after friend meet their own trials. Some with grace and some with despair that eventually transitioned into grace. I’m astounded by how incredibly beautiful it is to live fully in both the depths of what feels like destruction and the heights of life’s celebrations. Can we fully appreciate one without the other?

John 16 has always been a great source of comfort and encouragement to me. In this passage Jesus is anticipating his arrest and his death on the cross. He speaks to the disciples, telling them of the sorrow and hardship to come. But, the sorrow is not without the promise of joy.

When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.  So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.

I truly believe that there is no trial, no pain and no struggle without purpose. It’s part of our journey here. But all of this hurt comes with the promise that Jesus has already overcome it all.  Read the very words of Jesus in John 16 and 17. Let him speak to your heart today. It’s okay to not be okay but don’t sit in it alone. We are more than conquerors.

 

Sideline Talk

I’ve been a soccer mom for almost seven years now. From the group ball chasing days of four-year-old soccer to a fast paced travel league I’ve seen it all from my folding camp chair. Have ya’ll listened to the things people shout at their kids during soccer?

Some of my favorites:

You’ve got time!
Take a touch!
Get it boogie!  over and over (I think boogie is a nickname??)
Space, Space! Spread out!
Fresh legs! First five minutes!
Think ahead!
That’s the way!
Dig!
You’re all on top of the ball! Space!!!
Cross it!
Wasted opportunity!
Look center!
You’ve got all the time in the world!
Take it up the field!
Come on Red, it’s your ball!!!

So for just a second switch places with your kid and ask them to shout a bunch of random stuff at you while you either mow the lawn, do the dishes or you could even invite them to work and let them shout at you while you work on an excel spreadsheet. I’m sure you would love that right? And your productivity? Super high I’m sure.

All that stuff up there is pure nonsense and these exasperated little sports learners are just trying to get through a game and get the ball in the net, or the basket or just hit it or whatever the game calls for. Calling for them to look center, or get to the corner or dig deep is the coaches job. Maybe sticking to enthusiastic good jobs and great plays is the best route for all involved. Honestly, the kids can’t really hear you any way, so perhaps sparing your sports watching neighbor is really the focus of this post.

And listen, if you’re the mom yelling go boogie through the whole game, I get it. We’re all proud of these kids. The first time I saw my son crest the hill running cross country, tears filled my eyes and I turned red yelling at him to dig deep and cross the finish line. It’s overwhelming to watch these little pieces of ourselves perform athletically. So lets keep the chatter encouraging, uplifting and for goodness sakes be sure the things you yell actually make sense.

(Bless your heart.)

REVIEW: Brandless – Online Grocery Shopping

We tried out Brandless last week! If that name doesn’t sound familiar to you it’s basically an online shop of “brandless” items that are mostly organic, all gmo-free and other things like gluten-free as well. Every item is either $3 or two for $3.

The experience:

The site was easy to use and shipping was free after hitting a certain price point. This was pretty easy to do as it was around $30. I found plenty of staples that we use on a regular basis and some new items to try as well. This was my first time ordering and I received six dollars off my box as a bonus. The boxes came about two days later and they were well packed. Nothing was leaking or broken. This was impressive to me, I’ve used other services that don’t go the extra mile with packing and it shows.

The products:

The products were all high-quality and very tasty. We are a folic acid free family due to MTHFR genetic mutations and we were excited to find pretzel chips without that additive. We love them with hummus! Some of the products, however, are not worth the $3 price tag. I’m actually going to make you a list of the best and the worst. This should help when and if you decide to give Brandless a try.

Brandless Best from our order:

Blueberry Muffin Mix
Pretzel Chips 2/$3
Organic Ketchup 2/$3
Granolas, all flavors
Lentil Soup 2/$3
Olive Oil
Spray Olive Oil
Organic Pasta 2/$3
Organic Pasta Sauce
Organic Coconut Oil
Organic Dried Fruit
Popcorn 2/$3
Pistachios
Organic crackers (all flavors)
Whole wheat organic animal crackers
Maple Syrup

Brandless Worst (these items are cheaper/same in the store):

Beef Jerky
Candy (all flavors)
Applesauce Pouches
Granola Bars
Cookie Thins (not much product in the bag)
Almonds (same price per ounce as store)

Is Brandless worth it?
Overall I rate Brandless as a good, and useful service. There is absolutely no monthly commitment, you can order as you please or never again if you want to! It’s a nice way to get gmo-free and organic pantry staples for a consistently low price. A lot of items are cheaper than stores with a handful being equal or slightly more (see list above). I would say, try it out with a $6 code, be sure to hit free shipping amount, and see what you think! Our family will definitely order again.

Shop Brandless

 

 

All Content © Erica Ho, Goodbye Normal