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Friday, January 29

Shop Around (Miracles)


If you're looking for somewhere your entire family can go and enjoy, plan a visit to Old Town, Virginia. This charming town in Alexandria offers a little of everything; shopping, art, history, boat tours, and delicious food! When walking becomes tiresome your family can jump on the FREE trolley and enjoy all the must see sites. 

This time around my friend and I decided to take a trip to Old Town and just simply explore. Sometimes its fun to not necessarily have a plan when going to a new place(hence the word SOMETIMES!) because then it turns into an adventure! After we parked we decided to ditch our coats (which later we regretted lol) and hit the streets.
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all photography by Grace Images
When we walked out of the parking garage, our first stop was the Farmers market. There were many vendors set up in the courtyard with various selections. Some of which included baked items and local goods. I learned that the Farmers Market takes place every Saturday. A lot of families were there sampling some of the free food, listening to music and letting the kids play on the large pavilion stage.
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After the market, we did some shopping. I'm a huge fan of antiques and Old Town has an abundance of them. There are plenty of unique stores that are sure to entertain people of all ages!
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We decided to walk down to the water. What a beautiful site. It was a bit chilly, but so many people were down by the water just enjoying the view. A few performers were out playing some music. On a warm day it would be a great place to come sit and relax and even have a picnic. There are also multiple Boat tours to choose from that sounded very entertaining. Another fun option we saw was the Water Taxi that can take you over to The National Harbor or to Georgetown for more site seeing.
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Another thing I love about Old Town is all the art! We decided to check out The Torpedo Art Factory, which is free. There are so many cool exhibits, and local artists. They even offer art classes. My favorite part was the time line of art. Its showed how art has progressed over time; what was popular during certain periods. I am a huge fan of the 50's, 60's and 70's eras, so it was really intriguing learning how art was perceived during those time periods.
As our adventure began to wind down we decided to take a break. We sat on a bench and took in all the different buildings, the delicious smells and the melting pot of people all around. Old town is such a unique and fun place to spend an afternoon or an entire day, with yourself, a friend, your spouse, or your entire family!

A little more about me:

Howdy!! I'm Michelle, blogger behind The Random Arrow. I'm a Maryland girl, who enjoys exploring, has to many pairs of shoes, is a professional coffee drinker, and adores my little family.

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Wednesday, January 27

Winter's Warmest Reads

A fresh crop of books, hot of the presses, to curl up with in front of the fire!  As always, we're kicking it off with our favorite pick for adults, and the kids' favorite for younger eyes...

Magic Strings of Frankie Presto (Mitch Albom)  FANTASTIC!
Mitch Albom creates his most unforgettable fictional character—Frankie Presto, the greatest guitarist to ever walk the earth—in this magical novel about the bands we join in life and the power of talent to change our lives.  In his most stunning novel yet, the voice of Music narrates the tale of its most beloved disciple, young Frankie Presto, a war orphan raised by a blind music teacher in a small Spanish town. At nine years old, Frankie is sent to America in the bottom of a boat. His only possession is an old guitar and six precious strings.  But Frankie’s talent is touched by the gods, and his amazing journey weaves him through the musical landscape of the 20th century, from classical to jazz to rock and roll, with his stunning talent affecting numerous stars along the way, including Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Carole King, Wynton Marsalis and even KISS.  Frankie becomes a pop star himself. He makes records. He is adored. But his gift is also his burden, as he realizes, through his music, he can actually affect people’s futures—with one string turning blue whenever a life is altered.  At the height of his popularity, Frankie Presto vanishes. His legend grows. Only decades later, does he reappear—just before his spectacular death—to change one last life.  With its Forest Gump-like romp through the music world, The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto is a classic in the making. A lifelong musician himself, Mitch Albom delivers a remarkable novel, infused with the message that “everyone joins a band in this life” and those connections change us all.
I honestly cannot recommend this book enough!!!  Six stars!  It should be pretty obvious to my readers that I'm crazy about music, all genres of music, and this book touched my soul.  It is a lot like Forrest Gump, in that Frankie seems to weave in and out of some very remarkable folks' lives, and some famous situations as well, but without ever being the star.  It's a story about how you can make a difference, and affect others, even from backstage.
Secret of the Village Fool (Rebecca Upjohn)

Milek and his brother Munio live in a sleepy village in Poland, where nothing exciting seems to happen. They reluctantly do as their mother asks when she asks them to visit their neighbor Anton, knowing that the rest of the village laughs at him because of his strange habits of speaking to animals and only eating vegetables. Things change quickly when war comes to their town in the form of Nazi soldiers searching for Jewish families like that of Milek and Munio. Anton refuses to tell the soldiers where to find them, and then goes so far as to hide the family in his own home, putting his life at risk without a thought. Based on a true story.
What a wonderful, true story!  Over the past decade, I have seen many stories come from the WWII era...stories of heroism and bravery.  This one is exciting and uplifting.  It is on a children's level, but conveys the emotions that the characters felt at different times.  Also, there is a "what happened afterward" section in the back, with photos and stories of the real characters.  Very touching.   The pictures are lovely, too.  Well done!  (See more World War II Books)


Undaunted Hope (Jody Hedlund)
Tessa Taylor arrives in 1870s Upper Peninsula, Michigan, planning to serve as a new teacher to the town. Much to her dismay, however, she immediately learns that there was a mistake, that the town had requested a male teacher. Percival Updegraff, superintendent and chief mine clerk, says she can stay through winter since they won't be able to locate a new teacher before then, and Tessa can't help but say she is in his debt. Little does she know that Percival will indeed keep track of all that she owes him.   Determined to become indispensable, Tessa throws herself into teaching, and soon the children of the widowed lighthouse keeper have decided she's the right match for their grieving father. Their uncle and assistant light keeper, Alex Bjorklund, has his own feelings for Tessa. As the two brothers begin competing for her hand, Tessa increasingly feels that someone is tracking her every move, and she may not be able to escape the trap that has been laid for her.

This is the third book in the Beacons of Hope series, and there are threads that tie all three, but it is easily read as a stand-alone book.  I read it before going back to the first two, and there is a fourth coming out in summer 2016.  Having family from the Upper Peninsula, the setting was a lot of fun to get into…especially the harsh, isolated winter.  I was able to easily imagine what it was like there a century ago.  At times, the romance felt orchestrated, but the banter and flirting between Tessa and Alex felt comfortable.  There’s romance, conflict, and a love triangle…the best kind of romance!  One treat was the information section at the back, where the author included photos, background information on the setting, and places where she deviated from the true story.  Mr. Updegraff, that unscrupulous businessman, was based on an actual historical person! 

An Amish Market (four novellas)
Love Birds by Amy Clipston  While Ellie Lapp and her mother are still mourning the loss of her brother, Seth, Ellie starts working at one of the gift shops in town. Seth’s friend Lloyd is talented at carving wooden birds, but his father disapproves and expects him to take over the family farm someday. Ellie sees the beauty in Lloyd’s creations and insists Lloyd sell the birds in the gift shop where she works. As Ellie and Lloyd spend more time together, they begin to develop feelings for one another, but she accidentally betrays his trust. Will she lose any hope of a future with him?
A Bid for Love by Kathleen Fuller  Every week, Hannah Lynne brings her home-churned butter to the local market. And every week Ezra stops by to purchase some. Hannah Lynne knows not to read too much into it—Ezra is a confirmed bachelor and barely even glances her way, despite any hope to the contrary. But when Ezra bids an exorbitant amount to win the quilt she had her heart set on, Hannah Lynne can’t stop her heart from taking over her mind. Could Ezra finally be in the market for love?
Sweeter Than Honey by Kelly Irvin  Shattering a jar of pickled beets wasn’t the impression Isabella hoped to make on her first trip to the local Combination Store of Bee County, Texas. But as embarrassed as she was by the accident, she didn’t think it warranted the frosty reaction from the handsome manager of the store, Will Glick. As she soon learns, though, Will’s heart has been broken one too many times. And now, for some reason, Isabella finds herself determined to be the one to repair that broken heart and renew his faith in love.
Love in Store by Vannetta Chapman  Stella Schrock works at the Old Mill in Nappanee, Indiana, with new employee David Stoltzfus, a recent widower. When strange happenings begin occurring around town, it appears as if someone wants to close the mill. Stella and David have to work together to solve the mystery of what is happening at the Old Amish Mill, and in the process they might just find that God has more in store for their future than they would ever have dreamed possible.
I absolutely loved this book, but what's not to love? It is a compilation of four novellas, written by four different Amish-fiction-authors, where each novella centers around the theme of the market. They're all stand-alone stories, so you can read one tonight and not touch it for a week, without losing anything. I've read all of the books in this series, and this was probably my least favorite of them all. They're well-written, Christian, character-based stories, and I like how they all center around the market, but the stories seemed less genuine to me than the ones from Amish Kitchen, Amish Garden, Amish Miracle, and the others. If I had to choose, I'd say that "A Bid for Love" was my favorite of the bunch.


The Lifegiving Home  (Sally & Sarah Clarkson)
Does your home sometimes feel like just a place to eat, sleep, and change clothes on the way to the next activity? Do you long for “home” to mean more than a place where you stash your stuff? Wouldn’t you love it to become a haven of warmth, rest, and joy . . . the one place where you and your family can’t wait to be?  There is good news waiting for you in the pages of The Lifegiving Home. Every day of your family’s life can be as special and important to you as it already is to God. In this unique book designed to help your family enjoy and celebrate every month of the year together, you’ll discover the secrets of a life-giving home from a mother who created one and her daughter who was raised in it: popular authors Sally and Sarah Clarkson. Together they offer a rich treasure of wise advice, spiritual principles, and practical suggestions. You’ll embark on a new path to creating special memories for your children; establishing home-building and God-centered traditions; and cultivating an environment in which your family will flourish.

What a perfect book to have found its way into my hands right now!  As an extremely busy mother (and let’s be honest, what mother isn’t very busy?), I’m constantly juggling and trying to find a balancing act between work, home, kids, marriage, and life…and it seems like nothing is ever accomplished to everyone’s happiness.  I’d like a big bowl of busyness with a side of guilt, please!  This book puts it out there straight – forcing you to come to grips with the things that are truly important, and which ones can wait until another day.  Which is not to say that I’m going out to quit my job because, after all, food and heat are important!  The book helps to determine what is important in your world, and helps you figure out how to make it happen.  It also helps to keep Christ at the center of those decisions, and you become the home maker (not to be confused with a housewife…they are two different things) that you crave to be.  I really like the duel perspective, from both mother and daughter, that alternate throughout the book.  Falling somewhere between their two ages, both of their perspectives resonate with my own life.  The chapter on technology, by the daughter, is one of the topics that has been pressing on my heart for several years now.  It’s a necessary evil, but most days it just feels evil.  In that chapter, we are given suggestions and ideas for accountability and responsibility of technology as it relates to the home.  I also love how the book is laid out with each month being a chapter.  Based on the season, different suggestions are touched on for implementation into your own home.  While we won’t adopt all of the ideas covered, there were many great small things that could go a long way toward uniting all members of the family and creating  a more home-y home.  This book is a must-read for all moms out there, or for anyone that just wants to invest into their home as a sanctuary for themselves and others.
Under Our Skin : Getting Real About Race (Benjamin Watson)
Can it ever get better? This is the question Benjamin Watson is asking. In a country aflame with the fallout from the racial divide―in which Ferguson, Charleston, and the Confederate flag dominate the national news, daily seeming to rip the wounds open ever wider―is there hope for honest and healing conversation? For finally coming to understand each other on issues that are ultimately about so much more than black and white?  An NFL tight end for the New Orleans Saints and a widely read and followed commentator on social media, Watson has taken the Internet by storm with his remarkable insights about some of the most sensitive and charged topics of our day. Now, in Under Our Skin, Watson draws from his own life, his family legacy, and his role as a husband and father to sensitively examine both sides of the race debate and appeal to the power and possibility of faith as a step toward healing.

This is a very thought-provoking book, but not always in the way that the author intends.  Some of the situations he describes remind of being the only little white girl in an all-black neighborhood when I was younger.  But I have a hard time believing that “almost every black person in America” is frightened every time they are pulled over…at least, I have a hard time believing that they are any more frightened than any other race.  I got pulled over last week, and was terrified.  Almost every person I know, regardless of color, has the same experience.  I’m just saying that being afraid of the police, or of situations in which you are the minority, is not something that black people have the monopoly on….  That said.  Racism is something that our country has been struggling with since its birth.  It’s a problem every way….white on black, black on white, hispanic on asian, etc, etc, etc.  There are people who are color-blind, and there are people that really REALLY care about race, regardless of the race.  The author writes this book with kindness, and without accusation or anger.  He provides a different vantage point to the problem.  It was interesting to read this, and gave me some new thoughts.  The book ends with practical suggestions to bridge the gap between races.  I think we ALL could use these suggestions, and in the often-misused words of Rodney King, “why can’t we all just get along?”

The 4x4 Diet (Erin Oprea)
Discover the 4 key foods and the 4-minute workouts that will change the way readers look and feel in just 4 weeks. Celebrity trainer and former marine Erin Oprea's motto is "lean and clean." Her unique 4 x 4 diet shows readers how to get clean by reducing the 4 major hitches in most diets: sugar, starch, sodium, and alcohol. She also tells readers how to get lean, using her 4-minute tabata workouts: 8 repititions of 20 seconds of high-intensity moves, then 10 seconds of rest. Within 4 weeks, the average person will be able to reduce bloating and belly fat; gain increased muscle definition in the arms, legs, and stomach; improve cardiovascular endurance; and break sugar and sodium addictions. Complete with meal plans and recipes, the 4 x 4 diet is perfect for anyone looking to streamline their body and lifestyle.

I’ve always tried to exercise, though eating right wasn’t the first thing on my mind through high school and college.  But both are equally as important for staying healthy.  Erin, the author of this book, is the personal trainer of celebrities like Carrie nderwood and Jennifer Nettles…ladies who have received a lot of attention for both their singing and toned bodies.  So I was interested to see what exactly her secret is.  There’s not that much new stuff in the nutrition section of the book, and what was new was stuff that I am probably not going to follow after doing some research into “what I’ve been told before” versus “what this book says.”  Suffice it to say…eat whole grains, eat in moderation, and cut back on salt, sugar, and alcohol.  She has good comebacks for all of your best excuses for not working out.  But it was the tabata exercises that grabbed my attention.  I wasn’t familiar with this type of exercise, but what made it interesting was the short amount of time required.  Being a busy mom, time is something that’s running low these days.  I was skeptical that you could get a good workout in only four minutes, but it burns.  In a good way!  She shows you how to mix and match, and provides very good descriptions and pictures for each exercise.  Overall, not my favorite diet and fitness book, but one worth reading to get some new ideas.

I received some (not all) of these books in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, January 26

Take Me to Church (Hozier)

I grew up in a very traditional church...straight pews, huge pipe organ, solemn hymns, dressing up in our Sunday best.  One of my favorite memories of our church was it's beautiful architecture.  The stained glass windows in the sanctuary each tell a bible story (not the one shown's in the stairway...the light wasn't cooperative in the sanctuary). 
 The curved arches and gothic spires of the bell tower hold bricks created by local hands in the late 18th century.  The hallways are small, but full of local history, and the people are like family.  At least, that's the church that I remember.  What I found on the Sunday that we went back to my hometown was something completely different....
The building was the same, but the spirit was different.  This once-traditional church traded in it's pipe organ and choir.  The hymnals are now in a glass-box cover in the "history museum," along with robes and candlesticks.  Lyrics are projected onto the walls and the few remaining attendees of this once-thriving church rock out in their jeans and t-shirts.  And hey - that works for some people. 

Based on the current attendance, I'm thinking that most of the folks I grew up with decided the same thing that I didn't work for me.  So we left.....we went someplace that felt a little bit closer to God - for us.   (Just to be clear, I'm not judging the good folks of my home church.  Only saying that its new persona no longer feels right, personally.)
We went down to the river....which was mighty high, thanks to Hurricane Joaquin!!  We talked about life, love, spirituality, and how we saw God in the beauty around us.  We walked around and watched the lights being erected for the annual Festival of Lights.  Some days, the Holy Spirit is inside....and some days you just have to venture a little further.

Sunday, January 24

Retro Pencil Sharpener Review

We homeschool…which means that our kitchen and dining room pretty much look like a school room ALL the time.  So when we were given the opportunity to review this Classroom Friendly Pencil Sharpener, with its oh-so-cute retro look, I said yes!  It has a 1950’s feel to it, which I just love…especially in the Firehouse Red color that we received.

What makes it so special?  Well, for starters…
  • It is much quieter than your classic classroom sharpener.  You know, the grey metal ones that adjust to fit different pencil sizes…remember how grinding and loud they are?
  • It’s very easy to empty and clean.  The drawer simply slides out.
  • You can mount it or leave it portable.  We attached it to a desk.
  • It clamps on to the pencil so that it doesn’t slide around or go in at a wonky angle.  Do you remember how hard it was to hold a pencil just-so, in perfect place, while sharpening?  No more worrying about that.
  • It only takes a few cranks to get it perfectly sharp!  While you are sharpening the pencil, the chrome face plate slowly moves inward toward the sharpener’s base.  It has some sort of magic inside that prevents over-sharpening, so when you feel the crank handle become easier to turn, you know that it’s done!
  • It comes in six colors, with cute names, so you’re bound to find one that fits your personal style.
  • Replacement parts are available, if needed, at the supplier’s website.
  • Both lefties and righties can use it comfortably.  This is important.
A few downsides :
  • It doesn’t fit the big pre-school pencils, but they do have another version for those that would be worth investing in, if you are a preschool classroom teacher.
  • Instructions!  I could not figure this thing out.  It doesn’t come with paper instructions (although, there are apparently some that can be found online).  Luckily, I have a pre-teen boy who is good at figuring out mechanical things.
  • While quieter than a traditional classroom pencil sharpener, it is still loud.  We won’t be sharpening pencils during naptime or when mom is on the phone.
  • It actually gets the pencil a little too sharp for my liking.  Little hands use a lot of pressure when writing, and it quickly breaks because it is so sharp.  But the older kid is loving it for artistic purposes…the super sharp point is great for drawing!
Find out more!  Website  ::  Facebook  ::  Instagram

Thursday, January 21

Strange Cup of Tea (Sister Hazel)

January and February are so COLD!!  Sometimes, it feels like I'll never warm up!  My best trick is to warm up from the inside beverages, soups, and sitting by the fireplace with a good book.

If you're not wanting to leave the house to pick up that perfect hot cup of tea or coffee, why not try one of these new boxes from Simple Loose Leaf and Single Cup Club?  They also make great gifts!

Having a subscription to Simple Loose Leaf is like having a personal Tea Guru.  Each month, a box of savory loose leaf teas is shipped right to your door for just $17.  Each box has 4-5 loose leaf teas, 2 re-usable muslin tea bags and a beautiful card detailing your month's tea selection.  You can try each tea and order more from their store with a 50% member's only discount!

According to the site, each box contains :
  • At least four loose leaf teas (including black, green, herbal, and another blend)
  • Two reusable tea bags
  • A few surprises
Our experience :
  • The tea itself was delicious!  The Bird's Nest Pu'er was unique and sparked an hour's side trip from our homeschooling day as we explored it's history and where it came from...and tasted it.
  • It says that there are two reusable tea bags in each box, but we only received one.
  • It says that there are "a few surprises" in each box, but all we received was what's shown...five baggies of tea and one mesh bag.  Also, a card came with it describing each tea in detail.  (Excellent attention to detail, which is helpful if folks have any allergies.)
  • It's a nice box, but a little disconcerting that it doesn't include what it says it will on the main page.  This is something that I would give as a unique gift, for the tea lover or person who has everything.
A few other notes :
  • Shipping is free in the US
  • All boxes ship out on the 1st
The perfect friend in the pursuit of amazing coffee, Single Cup Club is like having your own "guy" in the coffee world.  Each month, a box of artisan coffees is shipped right to your door for just $19.  You'll experience three small batch roasted coffees with each month's box in the convenience of Keurig-compatible single serve cups. 

According to the site, each box contains :

  • 15 Artisan Keurig-compatible cups
  • 3 unique coffee blends

Our experience :
  • The box arrived with everything advertised.
  • The coffees were very good!  My husband's favorite was the Fogbuster, which is an extremely dark roast (his preference).  
  • The other two coffees were pretty good, more of a medium roast.
  • When we broke down the costs, it came to $1.27 / cup for the subscription box.  Our typical purchase is $0.68 / cup for online gourmet box.  So that makes it double the cost.
  • This is something that I would give as a unique gift, for the coffee lover or person who has everything.
A few other notes :
  • Delivered monthly
  • Free shipping in the US

Wednesday, January 20

Dilly Dilly Song (Dinah Shore)

Over Christmas, we got a yummy care package from my grandmother's house...full of the tastes of my childhood!  One of these blasts-from-the-past was her Dilly Crackers.  Just a warning, if you like salty tastes, these could be your undoing...LOL  
We had just gotten a crop of winter squash when these arrived, so we whipped up some yummy squash bisque to go with them.  It's a quick and easy winter recipe that will warm you from the inside out...Bon Apetit!

Dilly Crackers

  • 1/2 c olive oil
  • Tbsp dill weed
  • 1 pkg dry ranch dressing mix
  • 3 pkg (12 oz each) oyster crackers

Mix all ingredients together and spread out on a pan to dry.  Allow to dry at least an hour before storing.  Stores well for up to two weeks.

Squash Bisque

Mix pureed squash, vegetable stock, and seasonings in a large pot. 
Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer 20 minutes.  
Add heavy cream and cook five minutes (do not boil)

Some of our other favorite ways to warm up are minestrone soup and chicken tortilla soup.  What's your go-to recipe for warming up in the winter?