The last time I blogged was in August of this year. I shared some of the struggles I had faced the spring before and how the summer of 2023 was my shortest summer break ever. I talked about how I had worked on a few small house projects over my four week break and had just taken life a little more slowly than other summers. On August 1st, I jumped back into work, excited for the 2023-2024 school year.
August and September went well. We had new leadership in Central Office, a few new team members in my department, and some focused strategic growth-planning. It was shaping up to be a great first quarter.
And then came October.
On the morning of Monday, October 2nd, I was standing at my computer typing a report when I got a casual text message from my mom, "I'm gonna run up to the ER at KU Med."
Mom had been having some significant back pain for a few weeks and had pushed through the pain for a little while to get through September. We were just coming off of Homecoming week and basketball wasn't starting yet, so she felt like it might be a good time to go try to figure out what was going on with her. Little did we know that this trip to the Emergency Room would change our lives forever.
Mom was admitted to the hospital that night and in a whirlwind two weeks, had several tests and procedures done to finally reveal that she was facing Stage 4 Neuroendocrine cancer throughout her body. They sent her home with hospice on Wednesday, October 18th, and on Friday, October 20th, she went to be with Jesus.
Over the course of 18 days, we went from thinking she had a kidney stone or something similar, to planning a Celebration of Life for our amazing wife, Mom, and Grams.
It has now been just over two months since we lost Mom.
We have heard stories of her love and generosity from so many people.
We have created a hashtag in her honor to share these stories with others: #thankyoujeaniestephens.
We completed a (hilarious) bucket list of items that Mom had created for us to do, following her passing.
We have navigated a wonderful visitation and funeral with over 800 people in attendance. I will share more about her service in a future blog post. I don't think I've processed it fully yet.
We have gained another daughter, who will be with us until May (thanks to Mom's dream of hosting an exchange student).
We made it through Thanksgiving, leaning into the memories, the love of family, and the comfort of Jesus.
And this week, we celebrated our first Christmas without her here. We used paper goods from her house, handed out the stocking stuffers to the grandkids that she had already purchased (#thankyoujeaniestephens), and shared memories through the entire evening.
I know she would have been proud.
In Philippians 4, the Apostle Paul says that there is a "peace that passes understanding". I have always heard this phrase and believed it to be true.
But over this last two months, I have felt it in a way that is truly indescribable. Losing my mom has changed me to the core, and yet -- the Lord has sustained me day in and day out, wrapping His arms around me and giving me hope for the future.
God is still good, friends. He is still here and He is still good.
I can't remember a time that my brain did not run on a school calendar.
In fact, this calendar is so engrained in my head that I think of August 1st as my "Happy New Year" more than January 1st.
After having what felt like a very short summer break this year, I will go back to work tomorrow morning.
In past years, this would mean that my July 31st would be spend cleaning like a mad woman, convincing our girls that if we could just get the house organized before the first of August, it would never get out of hand during the school year and we would at least appear to have our lives together. It makes me laugh now...this absurd perspective.
The summer of 2023 has been different.
Over the month of July, we have worked on a manageable list of tasks that has really made a difference in how our home feels. We've painted & completely redone three different spaces in this short time. We've switched out a few light fixtures, decluttered several rooms, and have worked hard to set up some sustainable systems that will hopefully carry us through the school year.
Last night, I sat down and adjusted our "master house project list" and came up with a new manageable task list that we should be able to focus on during August, September, and October...even with the busyness of the school year upon us.
This has been the quickest summer break I've ever had.
I actually found a blog post from 2018 (the year I took over my current position at school), that I titled "The Shortest Summer Ever", but I am here now to concede that that statement was inaccurate.
The summer of 2018 was NOT, in fact, the shortest summer ever. It was most definitely the summer of 2023.
I had my last day of work on July 3rd and spent the rest of that week celebrating Independence Day, getting the girls in for orthodontist appointments, and attending an all-day softball tournament that weekend.
The following week, I chaperoned our older two girls in Lincoln, Nebrasks at CIY Move, an amazing conference for teenagers, where they grew in their faith, grew closer to each other, and enjoyed week of dynamic speakers, worship, and relationship-building.
This past week was our church's Vacation Bible School. It was a great week, where we focused on doing what Jesus says, believing who Jesus is, sharing what Jesus did, and going where Jesus leads. It was exhausting and wonderful and so very meaningful to lots of kids and adults.
And now...I have one week left.
I go back to school on August 1st...in eight short days.
And surprisingly...I'm okay with that.
Over my career in public education, I have spent many "final weeks at home" dreading the school year, working to finish all the tasks on my to-do in a frenzy as the summer came to a close, and just not really enjoying very much of it.
However, I have learned a thing or two over the past few years and I want to share some of these things as we close the chapter of summer and move into fall.
1. Self-reflection is key.
We MUST be willing and able to look inside ourselves to reflect on all of the things.
What is driving my internal need to accomplish more and more each day?
Why do I behave the way I do?
Why do I feel that way inside when I think about or see a specific person?
Why does my mind fill with concerns regarding specific parts of my life that I cannot control?
I could continue typing on this list of reflective questions for the next several weeks. The list could go on and on and on.
Here is the kicker though:
When we ask these questions, we have to REALLY take time to listen to our answers to make CHANGES based on those answers.
This is not natural. This is a SKILL that must be practiced.
Here is an example of how I have been working on this skill.
(Fair warning: this is kind of vulnerable for me...I'm just going to lay it all out there!)
I ask myself this question:
What is driving my internal need to accomplish more and more each day?
And then I mull over the question in my head. I even might write something down in response to this. I finally end up with the answer that I feel is the most closely aligned with my truth.
I feel the need to accomplish more and more each day because at some point in my life, I have bought into the idea that my own productivity is tied directly to the happiness of my family. I have thought to myself on many occasions, "Once I accomplish ___, we will be able to live peacefully in our home." Once the house is completely decluttered and organized...once all of the home projects we have on our list are completed...once we have a small business that has a sustainable income to allow us more time at home...once we can afford to retire...THE LIST GOES ON AND ON.
But God has been changing my heart over the last three years.
I could continue to live in this place of wanting things to be perfect before I allow myself to enjoy them completely, or I can be content where He has placed me.
I have had to reflect deep within myself and I have had to make the conscious decision to choose contentment.
We will do what we can with the time we have available, and we will build in intentional time of rest and relaxation. We will do big projects on certain days and we will end those work days with a bonfire or a game of softball in the yard or a night at the drive-in movie.
My self-reflection has led me to focus heavily on balancing the "to do" list and the "to connect" list.
I've also been working on how I interact with others. Sometimes, there are things that I feel the urge to say that do not need to be said. I listen for the still, small voice of God when these things come into my mind and I use self-control to not say them.
And sometimes, there are hard things that NEED to be spoken, in love. I pray for discernment in these situations -- God, is this something you would like me to engage in or are we not ready to have this conversation? Am I in a good place to be able to deliver this message with grace and empathy? Am I in a place to be able to listen with humility?
It is prideful for me to believe that I have all the answers in every situation, so I am working hard to remember that I can listen & learn from others. I don't have to have all the answers. I can gain new information, chew on it for a while, and ask God to help me see where that new information fits into His plan for me.
After studying habits for the last few years, I have finally found a really healthy morning routine that is working well for me. Self-reflection has allowed me to adjust and revise this routine until it clicked into place.
After reading several books by Gretchen Rubin, I've learned that we need to pay attention to the natural rhythms of our bodies when we are planning our activities for the day.
I am a morning person, or a lark, as Rubin calls it. I do my best work in the morning. So after I shower and get ready for the day, if I'm home for the day, I almost always launch straight into my to do list. I try to accomplish a lot before lunch time, so my afternoons can be spent writing, relaxing with the kids, or napping.
If it's a school day, I structure my work day similarly. I try to knock out my biggest tasks early in the work day. I build in a few short breaks for myself throughout the morning, but I try to push through and get a lot accomplished before 1:00. Around 1:00, I try to take time for people. I visit classrooms, make phone calls, and attend meetings. Before I leave for the school day, I prioritize my task list for the following day and clean my office up so I'm ready to start strong the next morning.
So what does all of this mean?
We all have areas in our lives that God is calling us to make some changes. We are too busy or not busy enough. We are prioritizing the wrong activities. We are so staunchly set in certain beliefs about how the world should be that we are unable to connect with people. We are neglecting our Bible study because of other meaningless tasks and when we do study the Bible, we're not applying it to allow God to transform our lives.
We MUST self-reflect.
And in that self-reflection, when we feel that nudge from God to make changes, we have to MOVE.
Soaking up this last week of summer break and reflecting on who I am in Jesus here at the farmhouse,
Today was my LAST day of work for the 2022-2023 school year.
I am officially on summer break.
And while I will definitely need to stop by the school at some point over the next four weeks, I am looking forward to a RESET throughout the month of July.
I will admit...our July is PACKED.
It just kind of happened.
Softball is over for the younger two girls, so we'll have a few days off right now, before our youngest heads off to church camp Thursday & Friday.
Saturday, our oldest has a softball tournament out of town.
Sunday, we get a day at home, before the older two girls and I head off to Christ in Youth Conference in Lincoln, Nebraska for five days.
We'll come home for a day before Vacation Bible School kicks off on Sunday, the 16th.
It sounds crazy, but after VBS, I'll have ONE WEEK off until I go back to school. One week.
At the end of my last week off, we're going to take a little surprise road trip to wrap up our summer fun!
Even in this busy summer, we had set some goals for ourselves.
We are going to make time for fun
We are going to knock out some home projects.
The girls and I decided in late-May that this would be the summer that we marked some of our items off of the ol' "procrastination list".
We have had a few things on the list for the entire six years we've lived here. Things like "paint the stairwell" and "hang Mattie's ceiling fan" keep getting moved farther and farther down the task list.
Well, that will not be the case when I go back to work on August 1st.
We have a plan and we are sticking to it!
So far, we've marked several of these "to do" items off of the list.
I painted the basement stairwell one afternoon and I will be painting the upstairs stairwell tomorrow.
We finally moved a huge pile of welding materials away from the front of the barn and down to the concrete pad with the rest of Mr. Farmhouse's stash.
The hammocks we bought late last summer have finally replaced the frayed ones that were under the Rustic Rooster.
The rest of the list includes things like painting the barn, powerwashing & restaining the deck, adding slats to the bottom of the porch, removing the doors of the coat closet and painting/wallpapering it, and possibly the biggest undertaking -- getting the basement completely clean.
I know it sounds crazy to try to fit so many things into four short weeks, but I feel like I have REALLY let things go at the house over the last six months.
So while we are prioritizing fun and relaxation, we're also going to work hard to mark some things off of our list to help us feel more in control walking into the 2023-2024 school year.
I. Can't. Wait.
Trying to get our lives together here at the farmhouse,
My word of the year for 2023 was supposed to be "simplify".
I had decided late in 2022 that as part of my new year's goals, I was going to try to take a step back from everything that didn't matter and be very intentional about what we allowed in our home, what I allowed on my calendar, and habits I wanted to build.
I announced this over on my Instagram page back on January 2nd.
On January 9th, I received some news that did NOT feel like simplifying.
For five months, I would fill my current role of Director of Special Services and also fill the role of Interim Superintendent.
I must admit that as I was navigating through the dual-role, there were some moments that felt very frustrating and complicated.
There were days that I didn't feel as if I were making progress in either job.
There were even days that I cried on my way home from work because I was feeling very overwhelmed.
However, there was also laughter.
There were opportunities for me to learn about myself, set goals, and connect with colleagues that I did not usually cross paths with.
And as crazy as it sounds, over the last five months, God has truly taught me through this experience to simplify.
Yes, I typed that correctly.
Even with the addition of these new responsibilities and expectations in my job. Even with longer hours and more tasks to complete. Even with more decisions and more personal interactions and more...and more...and more...
Habits are so very important.
I've blogged several times about habits. My morning routine incorporates several habit loops and I am thankful I had this established when my life got really busy in February. When things get stressful and overwhelming, the automaticity of our habits can keep our lives feeling more stable than not. A well-established morning routine, along with an organized task management system at work, really helped me to keep my sanity as I navigated life with two jobs.
We must prioritize.
Yes, we need to prioritize certain activities over others. To grow spiritually, we MUST be in our Bibles. To get closer to God, we MUST pray. To get healthy, we MUST make good food choices and move our bodies. But these types of priorities are not what I'm talking about here.
I'm going to be very transparent for a moment. This semester was hard. There were some moments at work where our leadership team had to make very difficult decisions, deal with unexpected conflict, and say hard things. There were some struggles within the school organization and some struggles with families.
People have big opinions about the public school system and while we are making every single decision based on the information we have (and often can't share with the public), it still hurts when people put their thoughts out there on social media without knowing the full story -- which unfortunately stirs up discourse and division. I had to learn to prioritize what I could control and what I could not control. Other people's opinions, words, and actions fell into the latter category, so I had to let them go.
I also had to take a step back in my personal life. I had to decide what I was going to give my energy to and what I was not able to give my energy to at the time. With a daughter in high school, one in junior high, and one in elementary -- the parenting game is challenging at times. There were some moments over the last five months where I had to recognize that while I would love to help everyone (I am an Enneagram 2, after all -- "the helper"), I had to take a step back from some situations and focus on my own family.
There are seasons in life where we can be on the front lines of standing in the gap for others, helping them to reflect on their own situations and make changes, and growing together through mutual accountability.
And there are seasons of solidarity in life. Seasons where the whole goal is to pray for others and keep our little families moving in the right direction...closer to Jesus and closer to each other. I've had to accept the fact that this season is where I am right now.
Finally, God is so good.
Throughout this season of having some extra duties at work, chasing three busy girls, and trying to sustain healthy relationships, I have seen the hand of God at work every day.
My family, friends, and colleagues have picked up the slack where I have been lacking. They have prayed for me and served alongside me tirelessly and for that I am so grateful.
Because my morning routine habit is so automatic at this point, my Bible time has continued through all the craziness. God has revealed so much and offered me so much peace through this practice and I am thankful He had prepared me ahead-of-time by challenging me with my habit-building.
Looking back, I am so grateful to have had this opportunity to serve in this double-capacity over the last five months. And I am so grateful to hand it over to someone else on Monday.
Thanking God & simplifying here on this rainy Saturday morning here at the farmhouse,
I used to consider myself "a runner".
It took me a long time to get to that belief, because prior to that, I would NEVER have thought I would have the where-with-all to jog consistently.
Over the COVID shut down and in the months to follow, I started doing a virtual 5K each month. Prior to this, I would do some jogs with my sisters-in-law, my girls, and a few friends...but I never had a plan for interval running or building my endurance. I never really trained or took the time to be intentional with what I was putting into my body to fuel it in a healthy way.
Instead, I just showed up to the races with my crew and walk/jogged (I call this "wogging") the entire thing.
As part of my "before 40 bucket list" though, I want to be able to jog a 10K without stopping.
According to my "couch to 10K" plan, if I start today, this should happen around September 16th. So on that date or maybe September 23rd, I'm planning to run my 10K.
I haven't decided if I'll do this here in my hometown or make it a real "event" and go find an actual race in a neighboring town. There are several that time of year, including one in St. Joseph, Missouri, one at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, and the Kansas City Zoo Run -- which I did several years ago and really enjoyed (until I injured my hip at the very, very end).
Here is the Week 1 expectations for the Couch to 10K plan I am using this round.
Because I'm also participating in 75 medium, I need to build in some sort of physical activity for 45 minutes each day. Therefore, I'll use this plan as three of my days, but my "rest days" might be taking a walk, doing some strength-training, or repeating one of these training sessions.
Here is what I'm thinking my week will look like:
I'll start today (Monday) with some interval training as my "Run 1".
Tomorrow (Tuesday), I'll probably do some sort of strength-training for 45 minutes.
Wednesday, I'll move on to "Run 2".
Friday, Run 3. I will definitely be doing Run 3 on Friday because I'll be near Warsaw and their nice paved trail by the lake is my very favorite place to run. I'll share a few photos below that I've taken through the years as I am running there.
Guess I'd better head out for "Run 1" on this beautiful Monday morning.
Lacing up my shoes here at the farmhouse,
The "75 hard" rules are as follows:
Now, while "75 hard" is a great program -- there is one area where I struggled to stick to... TWO 45-minute workouts per day.
If Frisella were standing here right now, he would tell me that I could have come up with the time to make these two workouts fit into my schedule and he would be right.
However, those two workouts would not be my main priority in my current season of life -- and that's okay.
So instead, I'm going to be doing a "75 medium".
The rules are VERY similar, with a few minor adjustments:
I am going to start my "75 medium" on Monday, June 19th. Stay tuned for progress pics and updates!
Preparing for 75 medium, here at the farmhouse,
"One more question...what is your dream job?"
"I really want to be a writer."
Today, I had the privilege of sharing with a college class of educators preparing to go into Special Education Administration.
We had talked about school improvement, and priorities in Special Education programming, and working with staff members, parents, and students. We had talked about a healthy work-home balance, philosophies and beliefs, and a Multi-Tiered System of Supports.
At the very end, one of the class members asked me what my dream job would be and absolutely without hesitation, I said, "I really want to be a writer."
It just rolled off of my tongue.
I didn't think about it or ponder or consider other possibilities -- I just said it very clearly and matter-of-factly, "I really want to be a writer."
Yet, I haven't blogged in almost a year.
I've not published a book in almost a year.
And you know -- that's okay.
I do really want to be a writer.
But for now, in this season of life, I'll continue to collect knowledge, life experiences, and family memories. And someday in the future, I'll use these quips of information to share with the world when I write another book and publish this blog more regularly.
Trying to be present in my current season here in the farmhouse,