Total Eclipse of the Last-Minute Kind

Today officially marks the beginning of my third week with VIPKID, and I absolutely LOVE working for this company (more on this soon)!  Today is also the last Monday we have off together as a family, as our two oldest children start school in exactly one week.  While it may have been ideal to sleep in with everyone else,  I have grown fond of my internal alarm clock that now goes off between 4:30 and 5:00 a.m. (I know, I know, those of you that are closely acquainted with me are gasping in disbelief!).

This day will also be an important one for the history books, as many of us in America experience the once-in-a-lifetime Solar Eclipse.  In an attempt to make this Monday extra special, I have compiled a list of activities you can do together as a family to ensure it is a memorable one.

  1.  Discuss what a Solar Eclipse is, and whether you will experience it in totality, or partially.
    Either way, since this only occurs every 375 years, it is imperative that your children know how monumental this is.
  2. Make Your Own Pinhole Camera or Projector.
    You will need a cereal box (or similar object), some foil and tape.  TADA!  The Great American Eclipse will be ready for your viewing pleasure even if you do not have fancy eclipse glasses.  Or eclipse glasses period.
  3. During reflection time, have your child fill out this worksheet, or do it with them.  This is a good one to save for the scrapbook.  Or, if you are like us, to store away in a labeled manila folder with other important documents from 2017.
  4. Finally, every good lesson should be internalized.  What better way to do that than to bake and eat?!  Whether you create Moon Pies, Galaxy Cookie Bars, or simply make Star-Shaped Cookies and decorate them (not going to lie, this is probably what we will end up doing), filling your tummies will increase the chances of this being a magical, savory and unforgettable moment!  Happy Learning!
Locals, look here!
Also, check out this event at one of our local libraries!


Summer of Unschooling (or: How to Have the Best Summer EVER with Your Children!)

I intentionally took time this week to reflect on what made this summer with our children extra special and memorable.  I had to laugh, because I immediately made the connection that this is the first summer in a while that I am not pregnant, nursing, or potty-training any little ones.  Woo-hoo!  That in itself is cause for celebration at our house.

Prior to the spring semester, I had never heard of unschooling (read: an educational method and philosophy that advocates learner-chosen activities as a primary means for learning).  After some research, I discovered that we were already doing this as a family, outside of the time our firstborn son, Jack, spends at a traditional brick and mortar school.

Pictured here are Jack’s summer wish list, and Cecily’s right above his (I helped her).

A planner by nature, I made printable calendars for June and July and stuck them to the fridge with a magnet.  I highlighted summer weeks that the children had their respective camps, and wrote, once a week, that we would have reading, piano, music and math lessons.  Fridays were reserved for field trips to the Children’s Museum and Gladys Porter Zoo.  At the suggestion of one of our pastors, Rich, who delivered a wonderful sermon about making lasting memories as a family, I also had the children make a Summer Wish List. 

To summarize, we focused more on the items our littles came up with and less on my schedule.  Learning and structure still occurred, but it was nicely balanced with free-time and play.  Below, you will find our 2017 Summer Highlights.  Our children have grown much, and we could not be more pleased with the results.


Jack has amazed me this summer (all bias aside).  He will be entering 1st grade in a few weeks and is 5 years old.  Standout moments include:  being named the MVP (Most Valuable Player) of his small group at his first church camp, earning his junior yellow belt in Taekwondo, helping lead a Walk for Alzheimer’s and learning how to swim (see video above).  For my typically reserved, oldest child, all these things were really big deals, and I am blessed to have witnessed them.

He spends his days drawing and creating comic books, writing, recording and directing short films (with our help, of course), and most recently, designing and building hotels out of Legos.  Now that he is a big boy, he also showers on his own.  He shares all sorts of ideas of what he wants to be and study when he grows up, but this summer, I overheard him tell one of his sisters, “When I grow up, I want to be a Dad.”


I got a preview into what being a Dance Mom is all about last month, thanks to my Cecily Fe.  She tried ballet and tap for the first time, and went back and forth between which she preferred.  My free-spirited and independent child, I was surprised at how attentive she was in class, wanting to get each step just right.  She is a natural little caregiver and encourager.  It’s not uncommon to catch her saying things like, “Good job, Jack!”

With an expansive vocabulary, pretend play is her absolute favorite.  From playing with her dolls and dollhouse with her siblings, to hosting tea parties with us and her stuffed animals, and whipping something up in her kitchen, she  lacks no imagination!  We are all excited for her to start 3-k preschool this fall (her teacher will be my sister-in-love), of which she has said, “There will be two teachers:  me and Mrs. Garay!”  Still a bodily kinesthetic learner, she also enjoyed gymnastics camp and looks forward to continuing in the fall.


Rounding out our family is our bundle of joy and love, Felicity Belle.  Observers often comment on her huge, infectious smile, plump lips, freakishly long eyelashes and beauty mark that sits on her right eyebrow.  Or, her “Cutie Mark,” as our children affectionately refer to it.  She says, “Mama,” “Dada,” “Dog,” “Yeah,” and a few other words we have yet to discern.  Her current favorite:  Jack.  It’s the first word she says when she wakes up each morning.

At 13 months, she is entering my favorite developmental stage:  being a toddler!  I look forward to the one-on-one time I will spend with her when her siblings are in school.  Her personality is starting to show and evolve, with a sweet spirit that demands attention if she does not have it.  With two older siblings to contend with, we will sometimes hear her say, “Ahhhhhhhhh!!!” while looking at us all during suppertime.

My Beau

Beau and I will celebrate 8 years of marriage next week on August 9th.  The more time goes on, the more I cherish him!  When we first married, I did not realize all the bonuses he came with:  mad editing skills, excellent techie abilities, superb listening skills and patience, and a willingness to learn (to name a few).

Summer is our family’s new favorite season, with extra opportunities for the hubby and I to enjoy dates (even weekly at times!).  We love being outside and active together, eating great food and being on or near the water.

Together, we hosted a Summer Play and Pray Small Group through our church, where we meet at a different playground with a splash pad every week (local favorites are:  Cascade Park, Browne/Pete Benavides Park and the splash pad at Sam’s Pool).  The children have especially enjoyed getting wet and playing together with other kids.

Good job sticking with it to the end!  Enjoy my intro. video for VIPKID!

Protecting the Sacred

We live in an era where many are considered Mini-Celebrities via their social media accounts.  I had a love/hate relationship with MySpace (remember that?!) and then Facebook when I first joined, and it has continued.  While I believe in living a transparent life, it has become so easy to overshare information.

Having an online existence can be fun and make you feel connected, but we must also safeguard moments that are sacred—meant just for us and our families.

Below I have listed my Top 5 Tips for posting to your favorite accounts (be it Instagram, Twitter or others) and protecting the sacred.  Or, not divulging too many details about yourself (and/or) your family’s private life.  (By the way, I have ideas to share because, like most, I have made mistakes.)

1.  Ask yourself, “What is my intention in posting this?”  My newsfeed has been full of summer vacation photos recently.  They bring a smile to my face, and I genuinely enjoy them.  Occasionally I think, “I’d love to visit that area, too!”

My family and I have thoroughly savored this season with a healthy mix of rest, recharge and play.  It’s perfectly natural to have the time of our lives doing something and want to share it with someone else.  Isn’t that one of the main points of living, after all?  Checking my intentions has helped me before tapping that magical “Post” button.

Am I wanting to communicate with close family and friends across the miles?  Am I showing off, or trying to Keep Up with the Joneses, if you will?  I must THINK (Is it True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, Kind?) before listing.  Once something is in cyberspace, it’s there for-e-ver (The Sandlot, anyone?).

2.  When sharing photos of your children, other family members, or friends, ask for permission first.  This is something most of us take for granted.  Everybody has a Facebook account, after all.

This is one area I want to be better in.  Though I have strict privacy settings on familial announcements, and my children are only 5, 3 and 1-year old; I hope to get into the habit of asking them before divulging.  Another small, but significant, question that has helped: “Will this be something that embarrasses them when they are older?”

It can be argued that everything will embarrass them at a certain age, but I don’t want to add fuel to their adolescent fire.

3.  If you are making a big announcement, be sure that you have notified those closest to you first.  It is hurtful for a person to stumble across major news on your status update if they have not heard it directly from you.  Use your own discretion for this.

I have been in friendships where I found out more about the person via their social updates than my interactions with them.  Perhaps it’s the way the world is going, but I refuse to conform.  Plus, it’s awkward.

4.  It is possible to enjoy events and moments without sharing them with the world.  An acquaintance once joked, “If it’s not on Facebook, did it really happen?!”

We hosted a big princess party earlier this year for my oldest daughter who turned 3.  And there was nothing about it on our Facebook or Instagram accounts.  Did we like the party?  Yes, it was fabulous and everyone had a wonderful time.  Most importantly, our girl felt like a true princess that day!

We did not make a conscious decision to not share, but it simply did not happen.  I would argue that it was because we were present in the moment.  And too tired to share anything afterwards!

Some of the greatest times I have experienced with family and friends are not documented.  We were too busy savoring our time together.

5.  I am for sharing helpful information.  If there is a political candidate, idea or party you are especially passionate about, articles and ways to help are impactful.  However, oversharing also applies in this area.

I sometimes find myself rolling my eyes and thinking, “Yes, we all know how you feel,” as I mindlessly scroll on my phone.  Worst yet, during the 2016 Election, there were many I had to unfollow (on both sides of the aisle).  If you truly want to make a difference, get off of Facebook and go do something.  Call your senators, write a letter, organize a rally or peaceful protest… but please, stop telling the rest of us how we should feel.

And for the love of all that is good and holy, can we stop with the “Honk if you love Jesus,” Memes?  (That was a freebie.)

So that is my challenge to you.  Keep posting about the big and important moments in your lives, but not if it means ignoring the person next to you.

The Failure Block

I soared through academics throughout my elementary and middle school years, and seldom had to try hard to get straight A’s.  That is, until I met Geometry my freshman year of high school.  Naturally, it was an AP (Advanced Placement) class.  My teacher was Mr. Zuniga, a man in his mid-forties with a salt and pepper flat top.  Thin-framed, he wore glasses, slacks and a tie most days.

An intelligent man, he loved math and all things numbers.  He also loved the sound of his own voice.  It sounded factual, with an air of, “I’m God’s gift to integers.”  Something would happen when he began his lectures (which usually lasted the whole class period).  My mind was magically transported to a place where I knew and recognized nothing.  He literally sounded like he was speaking a foreign language.

This continued for the rest of the semester.  Each week, I stayed after school for tutoring (also led by him) at least three times.  I took notes diligently and missed nothing that came out of his mouth.  My grade fluctuated every marking period from passing to not, and it tormented me.  I didn’t get it.  The end of the year arrived and I eagerly anticipated what my final Geometry average was.

Progress report in hand, I glanced over all the numbers solely searching for one.  And there it was.  69.  My end of the year average is a 69?!  Indignant, I never understood why he didn’t give me the last point I needed.  “Can’t he see I’ve worked my tail off?!”  I fumed.

Ultimately, Mr. Zuniga and I ended on good terms.  I wrote him a reflective letter on how I was thankful for having been in his class, and the invaluable lessons I learned through failing.  Which, looking back, was quite mature for my 14-year-old self.  My attempt at turning the other cheek.

Thus began my mental block with math.  I would go on to take courses up through Pre-Calculus in high school and do fine, but things were never the same.  I loathed mathematics, and I would never be good at it.

The Christmas Piano Recital is an event my students and their parents look forward to all year.  It is also one of my highlights.  I get especially excited for my four and five-year-old students to play a song by memory in front of an audience for the very first time.  It is not an easy feat.

My students and I were all smiles at the end of our 2016 Christmas Piano Recital.

The fall semester of 2016 was going along like most, except that I now had three young children under the age of 5.  Between keeping up with all of them, my husband, and our home; teaching piano sometimes felt overwhelming.  Still, I powered through because I love my students and appreciate the extra income.

For the big show, we found a venue that already had a baby grand, and I jumped at the chance to book it!  Most years we find a recital hall and rent the instrument separately.  This was more cost efficient for our families and easier for us, too.

The afternoon of the performance arrived and everyone was looking and playing their best.  And then it happened.  One of my precious, most hardworking little girls choked at the piano.  I watched her from a small distance as she began to cry.  I went to sit next to her on the bench, solely for comfort, and placed my hand gently on her back.  Choking back tears, she finished her songs and finished them well.  But she was crushed, and my heart hurt for her.

The four students that followed also had trouble playing, even towards the beginning of their songs, with difficulty finding their hand positions—concepts we had covered time and time again—something they had never struggled with at recitals before.  I kept my composure on the outside, but on the inside, my heart raced.  5 of my 15 students had made major mistakes, and I was baffled as to why.

During these annual presentations, I often feel like a chicken with its head cut off.  I try my best to be a gracious hostess, doting piano teacher and mother (because I also teach my own children), and master of ceremonies.  It was not until the end of our time together that I realized there were stickers on keys C, D, E, F,  and G on the baby grand, exactly one octave lower than where Middle C is located.  I keep one sticker to mark Middle C on my piano for the younger children.  For all you non-musicians reading this, some of the students placed their hands where the stickers were on the instrument the day of the performance, instead of where they belonged.  Confusion ensued, and thus, the results.

I felt like a complete failure.  Nothing anyone said (or didn’t say) consoled me.  As an educator of many years, I have always felt that my students’ success was my success, and their failure, my failure.  I had overcommitted myself once again, and it was painfully apparent (to me).

As an ambitious firstborn, I did not like the idea of doing anything I wasn’t good at for a prolonged amount of time.  As I have grown older, and hopefully wiser, I realize that failure is a necessary part of life and an excellent teacher.

My mathematical mental block lasted for many years.  It remained so until the second semester of my senior year of college when I took Teaching Mathematics for Elementary School Students.  “How hard can it be?” I thought.  While it was certainly not Rocket Science, it was also not as easy as I anticipated.  I found myself attending every tutoring session offered, constantly practicing and reviewing my notes.  I would pass the class with a hard-earned high C.

Numbers and I are friends now.  Thanks to my husband’s influence, I enjoy creating a budget and sticking to it.  I have been contacted twice in the last couple of years to write for financial institutions (read those entries here and here) as a result of crunching figures.

I often see myself in my students, too.  I remember the little girl and adolescent that feared failure, and did her best to avoid it.  Recognizing it is inevitable has helped me fail forward—the idea that our perception and response to failure is key to success (a concept made popular by John C. Maxwell).

Remembering the little feet and eyes that follow closely behind has also inspired me to shift my perspective.  Here’s to fully embracing future inadequacies, learning from them and moving forward.


Preparing for the Inevitable

I originally thought about titling this post, “Preparing to Die,” but reconsidered.  (Think Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride – anyone?)  The truth is, each one of us will pass on.  There is a 100% chance that we will not live to see forever on Earth.  While many fear death and spend most of their days avoiding it, I say it is imperative to think about it and prepare for it– not in a way that is morbid, but practical, considerate and wise.  Below you will find my Top 4 ways to make as clean an exit as possible, in no particular order (since none of us really knows how or when it will happen).

1.  Get out of Debt

My husband and I have been living debt-free for about 6 years now.  We have a mortgage, yes, but it is on a house that belongs to us.  For the story on how we got rid of roughly $14,000 worth of baggage our first couple of years of marriage, read my original entry here.

If you pass away and have a large amount of debt (or any), your spouse may be responsible for paying it off (depending on the situation, whether you co-signed on the credit, and state you live in).  If you are not married, the burden will fall to your estate.  In some cases, when the money owed is steep, heirs must sell items in order to pay it back.

If they are unable to cover it, the creditors are eventually forced to write it off.  Still, don’t do this to those you love.  Because nothing says I love you like “Here is $50,000 worth of credit I didn’t have time to take care of before kicking the bucket.” 

2.  Prepare a Will

There are a plethora of online sites that can help you create and print, or order a will.  We used legalzoom, and paid about $70.  I know people that have simply written something out on a sheet of paper before venturing on a big trip or new move.  Something is better than nothing.

In it you will dictate who inherits your home, belongings and assets.  My husband and I have had difficult discussions over “What if…?” situations before.  The most challenging was conversing over this worst-case scenario:  What if we died at the same time?  What would become of our children?  We have specified that in the official document.  We pray that it never comes to this, but you simply don’t know.

It is necessary to contact said parties and make sure all are in agreement with the arrangement, too.  These talks are not easy to have, but they are of utmost importance.  Other relevant questions deal with life support and emergency situations, and burial and cremation preferences.  Also, are you an organ donor, and does it specify that on your driver’s license?

We have what’s called a Last Will and Testament, and are at liberty to modify parts of it at anytime.  Every now and again we revisit it (like when we recently traveled abroad) to make sure our hopes and wishes are the same.  If they are not, we change it.

Emotions and tensions are at an all-time high when a loved one perishes.  I have heard horror stories over feelings that were hurt and falling-outs that occurred because there was not a will, and expectations were not made clear. This can happen even when there is one.

3.  Invest in Life Insurance

It is best to invest in a life insurance policy that is three times your annual salary.  First, you find a life insurance agent.  We found one through USAA, because it supplies many of our insurance and banking needs.  You apply for it and they send someone to your home to give you a physical.

If everything checks out fine, it takes about 6-8 weeks for documents to be filed and your insurance to begin.  I am thankful that my husband has taken care of this, should anything happen to him.  We will work on getting mine next.  The point of life insurance is to cover those you leave behind.  Funeral expenses can also be included in this.

4.  Make things right

I would argue that this is the most important.  Believe me when I say there is deep regret when it is too late.  Too late for that conversation, thank you, hug, kiss, word of encouragement, offer of forgiveness, etc.  So, have that awkward but needed talk.  Send that letter.  Make things right so that you are at peace when your loved ones pass, and they are at peace when you do.

There is no correct way to make such a grand exit, especially since most of us have no control over when or how it will occur.  Thinking of those we leave behind, their well-being and our legacy are the real treasures, not the material goods they will inherit.  As for me, I want to make sure things are right in my heart with the Lord, too.  (Feel free to comment or message me if you have questions about this.)

What are some steps you have taken to prepare for no longer being here one day?



Playgrounds, Friendships and Wonder Woman

30 May 2017

I was using the restroom in the London Heathrow Airport when I was reminded of just how loud my two older children can get when playing together.  About 20 yards away sat two soft playgrounds, adjacent to one another.

The one on the left was for littles aged 0-2 years old, the one on the right for ages 3-10.  Both were filled with bright, primary colored toys, slides and ladders.  It was a welcome respite after walking through London that day and finding no play areas, and having three more hours of our layover left before heading to Germany.

We had already experienced British customs twice with our three offspring, ages 5 and under, in tow.  It was eerily quiet in the 30-minute (at the very least) line upon entering and exiting the country.  It was blatantly obvious, to me, that we are not British.  (Our children actually did a spectacular job of “keeping it down” during this part of the journey).

“Ahhhhhh, here comes the bad guy!!!” I heard my son and daughter alternatively yelling, their voices echoing down to where I was washing my hands.  My heart raced inside my chest.  My two oldest children were surrounded by a handful of tykes from around the world.  “Oh no, who are they calling ‘bad guy’?!”  my mind raced, feeling mom-guilt over not teaching them enough about diversity.  Our city of residence, Brownsville, is about 96% Latino, and we are in the majority.

I walked by and saw that the roles had been reversed.  I saw the most precious, little African girl running from my tots.  “Oh no, the bad guys!” she screamed, while my two ran towards her, also chasing a couple of Arabic boys, all squealing in delight.  I smiled and laughed (while simultaneously breathing a sigh of relief).  It was a vision I won’t soon forget.  “What happens to us when we become adults?” I was left pondering.

I have been blessed with deep friendships and relationships over the course of my lifetime.  There was a season when the thought of intimacy with other people freaked me out.  They were just so… messy.  Now, it’s how I choose to live my life, with others.

I enjoy going there with folks.  Not in ways that are inappropriate, but in ways in which our souls connect and we share things that are important.  In fact, though I hesitate to write this, friendships where the realness is not reciprocated do not last in my book.  While one can have many acquaintances, they can only have so many friends.

So here’s to those that have walked with me thus far and will continue to, and new allies I will meet in the future.  Here’s to not jumping ship when they demand much of me, inconvenience me and drive me batty.  Here’s to unconditional love, unwavering support, occasional discomfort and plenty of fun!

Perhaps one day I will have the privilege of loving people the whole world over. Until then, I’m going to practice loving my part of the world well.

I’m not sure if I’m alone in this, but when I watch epic movies (read:  Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter) I find myself, as a strong female, relating more to the male characters.  Swept up in the battles between good and evil, I envision myself as Aragorn (also know as Strider), a fierce and fearless, yet humble, leader.  I once took a Which Harry Potter Character Are You? quiz and got Mrs. Weasley as my result.  I was severely disappointed.  Nevermind that, though.

I went into Wonder Woman with an open mind.  I had heard and read fantastic peer reviews over it.  Truthfully, I was blown away.  It is an excellent movie.  At the end of the film, I left triumphant, thinking, “Finally, a heroine I want to be.”  I was particularly surprised by the spiritual parallels (which I love) that stood out to me.


Wonder Woman’s main quest is to find Ares (the God of War) and kill him.  In her mind, once she does this, it will end all wars between mankind.  While she succeeds in her goal, she finds the result is not what she expected.  Towards the end of the movie, her love, Steve Trevor, sacrifices himself for the greater good.  Shortly after, in the final showdown between her and Ares, their conversation is as follows:

Ares (also known as Sir Patrick) to Wonder Woman:  Destroy her, Diana (referring to Dr. Poison, the inventor of a poisonous gas that has killed many).  You know that she deserves it.  They all do.

Diana (also known as Wonder Woman) to Ares:  They’re everything you say, but so much more… You’re wrong about them.  Ultimately, she does not kill Dr. Poison.

And this final gem, at the conclusion:  It’s not about what you deserve.  It’s about what you believe, and I believe in love.  I used to want to save the world…to bring peace.  I learned within them [humans] there was both [light and dark], a choice.  And now I know that only love can truly change the world.  So, I stay, I fight and I give.

To all that I say, Amen!


To Coupon or Not to Coupon?

Couponing seems to be everywhere.  Whether you follow The Krazy Coupon Lady or enjoy shows like Extreme Couponingone needs not look far to find examples of people saving thousands of dollars on goods.  I originally took an interest in downsizing my grocery bill for the sheer challenge of seeing if I could do it.

Ever a diligent student, I met with a couple of other women who were further down the line, organized and experts in their economizing fields.  One had a binder full of vouchers, categorized with individual, labeled dividers.  I listened intently to her words, eager to get started on slashing my grocery bill in half.

The following is an account of my three-month process, the top three steps that save me money at the grocery store, and why I decided to stop cutting coupons out of the newspaper and other media.

1.   The Bargain Book is your friend.

This is an example of the H-E-B ad section in the Bargain Book.

Our Bargain Book is delivered every Tuesday morning, and contains specials that are good for that week.  My favorite grocery store is H-E-B, and there are ads that specifically showcase their discounted meat, produce and Combo Locos (Spanish for “Crazy Combos”-ex:  buy seasoned fajitas and receive rice, beans and a 2-liter coke for FREE).

I plan my meals for the upcoming week around which cold cuts are on sale.  While we tend to stay away from red meat (save for the occasional lasagna, spaghetti and barbecue meals), we consume our share of chicken and fish.  The Combo Locos featured in the promotion have yellow, corresponding coupons you pick as you shop.

The meat, vegetables, fruit and other items marked down will have the sale price listed.  There is also an H-E-B app you can download to check off discounted items (with digital vouchers) as you go, and other money-saving, smart-phone apps like Ibotta.

2.  Purchase only what you will consume.

Our original envelope system..

This may seem like a no-brainer, but the biggest problem I had with couponing was that the discounts were not for products my family and I regularly consume.  I would purchase the The Brownsville Herald’s Sunday Newspaper for $1.25, and it was full of specials.  I gradually began cutting out useful vouchers for products we could use, and started an envelope system to keep them organized.  I knew getting the hang of saving money in this way would take time.

Eager to learn new things, I set aside different coupons for each trip to the store that corresponded with items on our list.  The majority of the discounts were for name-brand items, and ended up being more expensive than buying the generic label.  Strike one.

On certain occasions, I ended up spending more with my magical, marked-down tickets because I began buying things out of convenience.  Both granola bars and Eggo, frozen pancakes fell into this category.  We never snacked on store-bought granola before, and then it became a staple in our home because it was on sale.  I had not tried anything made by Eggo before, but the convenience of heating up the pancakes once a week in the microwave became common place.  While neither of these products tasted terrible, I could easily make them both from scratch and save more in the end.  Strike two.

We also enjoy breakfast for supper once a week, on average (another way to save).  Our children love French Toast and Eggs.

While I did find good deals on toiletries and children’s medicine, I shaved a total of $25.00 off our monthly grocery bill (and this was once I got the hang of things).  I began to question if the time I was investing in the endeavor was worth the results.  Strike three!

3.  You can’t be a snob if you want to save.

Truly.  Once upon a time, I was a Wal-Mart snob.  I preferred stores like Target for my essentials.  And then I had three children, and poof, no more being a snob!

While H-E-B will always be my favorite, if I need to buy necessary items outside of food, Wal-Mart is where I go.  The six months following the birth of our third baby, I thrived because of their online, grocery pick-up system.  I wrote a blog post on that experience here, For the Love of Convenience.  

I also know other moms who swear by Target, and enjoy their vouchers and apps.  That is what works for them.  Ultimately, I decided to throw the towel in on couponing because it was not working for me, and I was already saving money without it.

What are special things you do when shopping for groceries or toiletries, that have proven to be gentle on your wallet?  Most of the best ideas I have followed I received from friends, so do share!









The Secret Annex

It was the 2006-2007 school year that I taught one of my greatest literary lessons.  As a 5th grade teacher, I had the task of picking out class sets of books for the children to read.  When I taught in Iowa, there was much freedom in planning and helping my students make text-to-self and text-to-world connections.  Some of my favorite memories include reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Bridge to Terabithia and taking my pupils on field trips to watch the movies in the theaters.

In our library that year, I stumbled across a modified version of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl.  It contained photos and plenty of excerpts and passages from her book.  In my years of being in the classroom, I often saw that my scholars struggled with reading nonfiction.  They were certainly capable; they were simply not interested.  Thus, I set out to inspire them with this real story I knew most had heard about.

2 June 2017

My husband and I stood in line for an hour.  We made friends with the people standing beside us; two young Latinos on a European adventure in front of us, and a Chinese-American family behind us.  From the outside, the Anne Frank House and Museum stands five stories high and looks like a typical flat.  I chatter away and glance at it on occasion, unsure of how I will react once inside.

We pay the fee at the entrance and immediately see the sign: No photography or video recordings of any kind.  I quickly stuff my Nikon in my backpack and proceed.

I refer to the two years I taught at McKinley Elementary in Des Moines as the “honeymoon period” in my educational career.  This next story is the icing on that cake.  The 5th graders thoroughly enjoyed reading The Diary of a Young Girl, and participated in great class discussions and activities.  Thanks to visiting a local Holocaust Remembrance event held at one of the synagogues, we dug even deeper into the issues of social injustice.

As I was researching on the internet one evening, I came across a newspaper article that mentioned a former World War II soldier that served in the Liberation Army would be in town.  He was going to pick one school within the Des Moines Public School System to share his story.  Interested parties need only apply.  I quickly got to work and presented our case.  This would be the capstone on our most recent literary lesson; history would come to life before our very eyes!

The whole day my husband and I spent in Amsterdam, the line for the Anne Frank museum extended outside, wrapped around the building and continued for a few more blocks.  Once inside, it was completely quiet, save for the audio tour we listened to on headphones.  We walked through slowly, taking every part in.  Black and white familiar photos and quotes lined the walls.  In each room, there was a video recording of those who knew Annelies best.  Close friends, neighbors and a video recording of her father, Otto Frank, the only familial survivor of the Holocaust, at the very end.

About 3/4 of the way through the tour, the audio recording turned off completely, because we would walk behind the bookshelf to what was the Frank family’s (along with two other families) hiding place for two years.  Up until that point, I had a mix of emotions:  wonder, awe, heaviness, acute awareness.  As soon as I took the steps up to the hiding place, everything in me went silent.  The dark rooms with the wooden floors and scantily decorated walls proved too much to bear.  My vision blurred as I began brushing tears off my cheeks.  They would not stop falling…

The children were fully attentive while the WWII soldier that helped liberate a couple of the concentration camps told his story.  “I’ll never forget that smell.  It was the smell of burned flesh because so many people had been killed,” he shared through tearstained eyes.  “It was pure evil, and I will never forget what I saw,” he said.

My pupils listened, eyes wide with understanding.  They knew the evils he spoke of.  They had read about them and seen photos.  One by one, we shook hands with the hero, and thanked him for his service, and for coming to share his story with us.  As he, his wife and son left our room, his wife leaned over and whispered, “We picked your class because we knew it would mean the most to you all.”  It was a literary lesson none of us would ever forget.

As we made our way through the secret annex, I envisioned my three children living there, being forced to be quiet, and not allowed to go outside or use running water during the day, for fear of being caught.  I thought of my husband, and what would have become of him, had he tried everything in his power to protect us and not been able to.  My heart literally ached at the end of the story I already knew.

To conclude our journey, we sat in a room where Anne’s surviving friends, and current authors, diplomats and celebrities, thanked her in recorded messages.  Hers was not ultimately a story of despair, but of triumph and hope.  You left feeling, much like after you’ve read her book, like you knew her, like she was your friend, or daughter, or sister.

While my family and I vacationed overseas, there was another act of terror committed in London, the city we had just frequented one week prior.  Loved ones messaged us (we were in Germany at the time) to make sure we were safe.  We did not envision taking our children on an overseas trip at such young ages, but when the opportunity presented itself, we could not turn it down.

We had good, hard discussions with them about how the world contains much beauty and is meant to be explored.  We were also honest about how there are people who do evil, and might want to hurt us because of the country we live in, our faith, or any other reason they might find.  We want them, like us, to be cautious and aware at all times, but unafraid.

I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity we had to visit Anne Frank’s house.  I am still processing and wrapping my mind around all that it means for me personally.  Presently, I am greatly inspired and will continue to write, teach and travel when I can.  And I think of Anne.  She gave me the best text-to-self and text-to-world connections I could ever hope to have.

The day the soldier came to visit us…


Traveling with Littles

Planning family vacations is one of my favorite pastimes.  Once we decide on a destination, I am quick to research must-sees and get in contact with locals to maximize fun time!  Below, you will find my favorite tips when traveling as a family on a budget.

Road Trip When You Can

Fall 2016: Driving through Louisiana in our family van.

We have been traveling with children for the past 5 years, and will choose to take a road trip over flying whenever possible.  Not only is it the most economical option, it allows for stopping at your leisure (believe me when I say this will be more frequent with kids).  When adventuring with preschoolers and those that are potty training and in diapers, we suggest adding a minimum of 2 hours to your ETA.  If you know this ahead of time, you can plan accordingly and not feel rushed or upset by the change.

Rest stops are your friend; the ones with play areas will be your best friend (read:  FREE fun).  Stow necessary items in easy to reach places.  A spare change of clothes is a must for anyone under the age of 5.  In special circumstances, older.  You know your group best.

Our littles have done an excellent job traversing via plane, car, bus and train.  Pinterest has a plethora of resources that you can print for free.  We have done road trip scavenger hunts, fun academic worksheets and coloring activities.  I know of families that will show movies on the road or allow their youngsters to play with their tablets.  We allow for educational games on a Leap Pad, but they have not interested our preschooler or tot when caravanning.

Playing music and singing along is a favorite pastime, along with simply looking out the window.

Budget, Budget, Budget

I strongly discourage going on a journey as a family if there is not a budget for it.  Whether you set aside money each month for a vacation fund or utilize a portion of your income-tax return, make sure that you have the means ahead of time.  You don’t want to return from your voyage stressed because you can’t buy groceries or afford basic toiletries, for example.

An example of our budget to get you started. Account for where you will stay, gas, food and attractions. Make sure you have a budget set aside before taking that trip!

Purchasing snacks for the voyage in advance will ensure you stay within your means.  We highly recommend buying easy to go food items that you can make breakfast and lunch with (ex:  yogurt, granola, fruit, turkey slices, mayonnaise, wheat bread, etc.).  Our tribe typically eats out about once a day when vacationing.  Allowing the littles to help pick treats is a huge motivator (we even permit junk food for these special occasions!).

Texas has some of the best rest stops! This is our oldest daughter a couple of years ago enjoying one in North Texas.

Stay with Relatives and Friends

All of our journeys thus far have been to areas where relatives and companions live.  I affectionately refer to this as the three-fold design:  we board with people we love, get local expertise on where to tour and save money.

It is best to bring a gift upon arrival (perhaps something unique to your area of the world) and/or serve them while there.  Our favorite present to make is Hesterberg Spaghetti for our loved ones.  There are many ways to be a gracious guest and connect intentionally with your hosts.

I once heard a pastor refer to family vacations as, “planned disasters.”  I completely agree.  In certain cases, events don’t go as intended.  Rather than being shocked by the occasional surprise, it is useful to anticipate a detour or two (a miscellaneous fund is helpful!).  Knowing there is potential for tension (something about being in the same place for prolonged amounts of time) can help in being a generous grace-giver and receiver.

Take Flight

Our firstborn enjoyed his first flight a couple of years ago!

God willing, in a few weeks, the five of us will be boarding a flight and heading across the Atlantic to visit Germany!  On the way, we will have a 12-hour layover in London and are hoping to explore that city as well.  In our single days, my husband and I both explored different parts of Europe.  We are thrilled to head that way again to visit his cousins and travel internationally with our children for the first time (prayers appreciated!).

One of the most important lessons I learned when taking flight with our oldest two (who were 3 and 1 at the time) was that modeling is imperative.  If you are a ball of nerves, your children will pick up on that energy and be nervous, too.  While some of that cannot be helped, we dialogued with them extensively and checked out books at our local library on flying and airplanes.  We were ecstatic to share in this adventure, and thus they literally could not wait!

While there are more uncertainties in taking flight, you arrive at your destination faster and possibly well-rested.

My two studs working the airport.

Make sure to carry necessities on your person (ID, passport if needed, spare clothing and toiletries).  Read through the rules your particular airline has to make sure nothing will be confiscated at the gate (I once had to leave behind mousse– not a huge deal, but it would have been better for me to know about it ahead of time).  I cannot emphasize packing light enough (rolling your clothes instead of folding them saves space in your suitcase).  Remember that you will potentially be rushing to catch your next flight with littles in tow.

My final tip is one that was confirmed last week.  Purchasing your plane tickets on a Tuesday morning can save you hundreds of dollars as a family.  In fact, it saved us about $800 on the pricey international flight.

We live frugally, by choice, for a variety of reasons.  Towards the top of our list is it frees us up to afford exposing our family to great vacations.  Please share your favorite traveling tips with me!  Until then, happy planning!

Here’s to making more memories that will last a lifetime!

A Lesson in Puking

It was a couple of days ago, when my oldest daughter was struggling with a stomach bug, that the veil was removed.  Her body was telling her to throw up, but she refused.  My husband and I sat ready to catch whatever came out, bucket in hand, towel ready.  Her small, fevered body was so fatigued that she fell asleep in between the urges to vomit.

“Ceci, I know you don’t want to throw up.  No one likes to.  But you will feel so much better if you do,” I told her gently, “just let go…”

“No, I don’t want to!” she cried in agony, her frame completely tense.

We felt helpless and prayed for it to pass.

My beautiful, spirited oldest daughter.

In between those sessions, I observed her and felt equally defeated and amazed.  It was my first time seeing someone will away the urge to throw up.  Everything was physically telling her to regurgitate, but she had made up her mind she was not going to.  The mind is a powerful thing.

Cecily is lovely and incredibly spirited.    There have been times when people have asked, “Is she your strong-willed child?”  I gently correct them and say, “She is spirited,” with a smile.

Perhaps the terms are synonymous, but strong-willed has received a bad rap over the years.  It implies that there is something inherently wrong with a tyke when they are referred to in such a way.  On the contrary, I admire my daughter’s spirit.  Do I pray that we can successfully guide it over the years?  Absolutely.  But to try to take it away, or “tame” it, would be to remove a key part of her:  her passion.

As a Mexican-American child growing up on the border, I saw the resplendent, hard and displeasing parts of our culture.  I was blessed to see many examples of family members and friends offering the shirt off their backs to help someone out, deeply ingrained lessons that will never leave me.  I also observed, however, that when those same people who were eager to help experienced tumultuous times themselves, they seldom, if ever, asked for assistance.

Thus, both illustrations became significant patches woven into the fabric of my soul.  Unbeknownst to some, I am an unbelievably proud person.  By proud, I do not mean arrogant or boastful.  The Thesaurus lists one description as, “preservation of one’s dignity.”  Bingo.  Guilty.

Every couple of years, I find myself lying face-down in the dirt, in absolute need of someone to come to my rescue.  And I hate it.  Each time, I cry out to the Lord with a sincere heart, saying, “I have really learned my lesson this time.  I do not want to be humbled in this way again.”  

And I’m “fine”—until it happens again.

Ceci never did throw-up that evening, or after that.  Not once.  As I sat there watching her, my lesson was clear.  This is exactly how I deal with things on occasion, making them more difficult than they need to be.  All the while, the Lord gently leads me, as if to say, “Giana!  Just let go…”

“But I can’t!”  I scream, fists and jaw clenched, unwilling to surrender all things to Him.

I made up my mind that night that I’m going to be better.  I am an example for my children in how they should handle life, and not only when things are going their way.  Here’s to asking for help when I need it, and gladly accepting when it’s offered!

(By the way, I completely blame my husband for the strong resemblance between my oldest daughter and me.  When I was pregnant with her, he continually prayed for a little girl, “just like Giana”).

“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” – James 4:6