To My Best Friend on Her Birthday

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To the pup that makes me smile on a daily basis;

To the beast that sometimes wakes me with her dream-woofs and contented snores in the dark of night;

To my huntress extraordinaire—chaser of cats and squirrels;Biscuit 1

To the sweetheart who, for the three years before I met Bryan, snuggled with me when I got home from bad dates;

To the pup who is always foraging and acts like I don’t feed her;

To the dog who simply wants to run full throttle through grassy parks and windows of sunlight, and that would be enough;

To the pup who used to chase her tail, but stopped after she caught it, because hey, she conquered it;

To the girl who sits in the most unladylike of positions and who burps and farts whenever she pleases (we now consider these outbursts signs of affection);

To the pupper who snuggles with her Wookie sweater like it’s a real-life Wookie;

To the best judge of character I know (Biscuit never liked any of the boys I brought home until Bryan walked through the door, and she promptly climbed into his lap on the couch, literally the first night he came over);

Biscuit 2To the girl who reminds me how important it is to run and play;

To our morning alarm clock, who wakes us up by honking like a goose;

To the dog with the most expressive ears and everlasting eyeliner;

To the girl with the best and brightest smile I know;

To the best damn cuddle-bug this side of the Mississippi;

 

To the pup who’s taught me everything I know about unconditional love;

To the girl who can never get enough ear scratches;

To someone who loves peanut butter just as much as I do;

To the one in my life who always has a big kiss for me;

To the pup who is showing me how to age with gusto and grace – enjoy your food, get outside, take long naps, sunbathe, take it all in, love deeply, embrace every chance you get to play, and most importantly, pants are overrated;

Biscuit 3To the girl who always knows when I’m not feeling well and makes a point to stay glued by my side;

To the exasperating ball of fur who eats grass to spite me when I won’t let her chase anything that moves during our walks;

To the girl who’s expanded my heart in ways I couldn’t imagine;

To the pup who chose me as much as I chose her;

Who saved me as much as I saved her;

To my best friend, Biscuit, on her eighth birthday: I love you, now and always.

5 Reasons to Read Wendy Sparrow’s Servants of Fate Series

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I am utterly twitterpated with Wendy Sparrow’s Servants of Fate series! Set to publish in November, each novella in the trilogy follows one of Father Time’s sons—Zeit, Tempus, and Ruin—immortals who must sacrifice a human’s lifetime to the Fates each New Year’s Eve. In return, the sons are allowed to dole out small increments of time to deserving mortals throughout the year. About to get hit by a bus? Zeit might freeze time, move you just a millimeter to the right, and save your life.

Despite their work among mortals, Father Time’s sons are anything but. They keep to themselves and definitely don’t understand human follies…until a trio of vivacious, beautiful women capture their attention—and their hearts, turning their worlds upside down and showing them just how precious time can be.

And if that premise alone isn’t inspiration enough for you to dive into this sweet, delightful romance series, here are five more reasons to read Stealing Time, Taking Time, and Keeping Time come November.

1. The Men

Wendy Sparrow likes her immortals tall, dark, and dressed in trench coats. I’m not complaining. Zeit, Tempus, and Ruin sizzle on the page. With their striking good looks and bad boy demeanors, it’s no wonder mortal women are immediately drawn to them. However, Father Time’s sons become even more irresistible when they start to experience everyday human life and gravitate toward certain things that make them softer and more relatable. An obsession with chocolate oranges, a motorcycle, and a love for mystery novels render them alluring and adorable.

2. The Women

What kind of women can inspire immortals to slum it with humans? Smart, quick-witted, lovely ones who challenge Father Time’s sons to look at the world and their very existence differently. Each woman in this series is decidedly unique, but I found each of them wonderfully relatable, too. Sparrow has a knack for writing women with humor, honesty, and emotional resonance. I want to be friends with Hannah, Lacey, and Phoebe.

3. The Kissing

After reading this series, I was inspired to make out with my fiancé. I wanted to straight up mack in the backseat of a car. Because the kissing scenes in this series take you back to those first passionate kisses you shared with someone who ignited a spark of desire in you. The kisses are sweet and sexy and play you’re your senses in all the right ways. Readers, have chap stick and mints on hand. You’re going to want to host a makeout party after reading this series.

4. The Dialogue

As a writer, I truly admire Sparrow’s mastery of dialogue. She infuses conversations between characters with healthy doses of chemistry and humor, and the repartee is on point. There were many times when I couldn’t help but smile or snicker or blush.

5. The Seasonal Cheer

When December rolls around, I will be reading all three novellas again, because they are the perfect way to usher in the holiday season. Since Father Time’s sons make sacrifices on New Year’s Eve, the stories are chock full of Christmas references—mistletoe, hot chocolate, snow, Santa, gifts, classic movies. All of the trimmings are there. And is there anything more romantic than a snowy lodge during the holidays? Sigh.

Here’s a little more about each novella and their fabulous author, Wendy Sparrow:

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Father Time’s son, Zeit Geist, must sacrifice a mortal’s lifetime to the Fates each New Year’s Eve. Last year—inexplicably, really—he made an 11:59 substitution. The Fates are pissed and they’re after his mortal Hannah. With the year ending, he ought to figure out why he’d saved her—and why he keeps doing it.

Following an unlucky year, Hannah Lyons needs a week’s holiday in a lodge to unwind. What she gets is near-death experiences and a sexy immortal who can’t avoid kissing her, but might have to kill her. After all, even Zeit can’t hold back time indefinitely.

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Tempus fugit. Time flies…unless you’re Tempus Halt, Father Time’s son. Day in and day out are the same, except for New Year’s Eve when he steals the life of a mortal on behalf of the Fates. This year marks his first failure to stay the monotonous course. A mortal’s kiss and her insistence on taking the place of his year’s sacrifice stalled out everything. Now, Tempus has to keep her alive for a year so his sacrifice isn’t wasted, but that’s the only reason—definitely.

One of these crazy grim reapers stole Lacey Carpenter’s estranged father’s life two years ago. She’ll give her own life rather than letting it happen again. It backfires when Tempus doesn’t actually kill her, and they have to spend the year together. She’s falling for an immortal who stops time, not just to save her life, but also to ruin her dates and steal her books. This can never work and fate is just not on her side—in fact, they’d really like her dead before Tempus falls for her in return.

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When Ruin’s mortal sacrifice to the Fates on New Year’s Eve is already dying, it should be the easiest life he has to take, but not this year. The dying man knows Ruin is there to kill him, but he asks Father Time’s son to look after his twin sister. Ruin can’t stay away from the sweet and sensual Phoebe. His previous interactions with women changed the definition of his name, Ruin, so he can’t fall for her, especially when the lovely mortal doesn’t know he killed her brother.

Phoebe’s brother promised to send her a guardian angel, but Ruin seems too devilish to be holy. He only wants to be friends and keep watch over her, but she can’t resist him. Loving Ruin is a sin tempting her heart. How wrong is it to cause an angel’s fall? Ruin and Phoebe’s time is running out as another New Year’s Eve sacrifice approaches, and Ruin might lose everything for keeping his true hand in fate secret.

About Wendy Sparrow

Wendy Sparrow lives in the Pacific Northwest with two quirky kids and a wonderful, amazing, handsome, sexy husband who dotes on her and who did not write this bio. She’s an autism advocate and was featured in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum. Wendy loves telling stories and has since she was a child–which is why she heard the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” so many times she could have written the screenplay at age five. She believes in the Oxford comma, the pursuit of cupcakes, and that every story deserves a happily ever after.

If she’s not writing or wrangling kids, she’s on Twitter– @WendySparrow and she’ll chat with anyone. Really.

Check out the series’ official page on Pen and Kink Publishing’s website for release dates and to pre-order your copies!

 

 

When Martial Arts Meets Pre-Marital Counseling

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The jokes started soon after Bryan and I got engaged. I’d throw my fiancé, lock him into a nasty pin, wait for his submission tap—and then we’d swap roles and I’d find myself face down on the mat, waiting for the moment to tell him yep, he’d got me. At the end of class, sweaty and smiling, we’d hear it: “How’s that for pre-martial counseling?”

Funny enough, there’s a lot of truth to that joke—not because Bryan and I work out our personal issues through aggression on the mat (that would be dangerous and incredibly ineffective pre-marital counseling); rather, it’s because practicing Aikido inspires us to cooperate with each other, communicate effectively, build trust, take care of ourselves and each other, and practice both dominance and submission in equal measure.

Straight up, it’s all those things young couples in love should work on before they promise themselves to each other. The only difference is we wear gis and hakamas while we work on us.

Training in Aikido is incredibly different than training in other martial arts due to one of its foundational spiritual principles. Essentially, it’s believed that if you hurt someone else, you hurt yourself. So when Aikidokas train together, there’s emphasis not only on caring for yourself (after all, Aikido is a highly applicable defensive art), but also taking care of your opponent. For many of the joint locks, weapons techniques, and open hand throws we learn, there is a more violent version that it would be easy to tap into (a joint lock can easily turn into a broken bone, for example), but in Aikido, we practice calm and restraint, only doing what’s necessary to diffuse a situation. Sure, we want to stun or invoke a little discomfort in our attacker, but there’s always an emphasis on minimizing damage and taking care of the aggressor.

Because of this unique emphasis, you can start to see where all those practices that make you a good partner in Aikido can also make you a good partner in life.

The mutual cooperation that protects Bryan and me from potentially damaging throws in Aikido is the very same cooperation that will protect us from damaging disagreements in the future.

While training, I have to speak up if Bryan’s executing a movement too fast or if I’m uncomfortable with any part of a technique; if I do, Bryan needs to listen and either adjust or help me to better understand concepts or how to move. I, too, need to be receptive if Bryan brings something up while we’re training. Conversation is necessary to keep us both safe.

Because the techniques we practice can be incredibly damaging, trust is paramount. On the mat, Bryan and I both have to trust that we won’t hurt each other. And if we do hurt each other accidentally (it happens, we’re human), we help each other up, get the first aid kit, then get back out on the mat, ready to trust each other again and move forward.

In the dojo, I’ve learned how to protect myself (something I highly recommend for everyone because it’s done wonders for my confidence and helps me combat anxiety) and in doing so, I know how to protect others, too. My compassion has grown tenfold.

And I always know that when I go to Aikido, I will practice being both an aggressor and a defender. At times, Bryan will be the one to throw me, and I have to put aside fear, ego, and any underlying anxiety I possess in order to let him do that. Likewise, I will throw Bryan during class, and when I do, I dissociate the movements from any type of aggression or feelings of latent dominance. Both sides of the coin are humbling in the best possible way.

The night before Bryan’s knee surgery, we were the only two on the mat at Jiai Aikido. And I’ll admit, at first, I was kind of bummed. I generally love the group dynamic of large classes, the chance to connect and train with a lot of different people.

But as Bryan taught me techniques that will be on my next test and we really trained one-on-one together, I realized that we were doing so much more in that hour on the mat. We were working together, humbly and cooperatively. We were teaching each other. We were taking care of each other. We were enjoying a common hobby and strengthening our relationship at the same time.

Yeah, it was kind of romantic. And I never thought I’d say that about pre-marital counseling.

Marked by Scorn is Marked by Greatness and Inclusivity

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When I learned Solarwyrm Press was gearing up to publish an anthology featuring non-traditional relationships and cultural/racial diversity, I immediately began stalking their website to see how I could get my hands on a copy.

Confession: I’m white. I’m heterosexual. I’m monogamous. I identify as female.

So why exactly would I be drawn to this sort of collection?

It’s no secret mainstream publishing tends to lack diversity, especially when it comes to stories featuring romantic relationships. I bet if you search the top 50 books on Amazon in the romance genre, you likely won’t find a story with a polyamorous, transgender, or gay protagonist. And yet,  people who identify with the “other” and their multi-faceted, deeply rooted, relevant, and beautiful relationships exist in our world—in droves. When media and cultural representation lag behind the ubiquity of real-life experiences, well, we aren’t being very inclusive to people who don’t align with “societal norms,” are we?

On a more personal level, limiting my readership to narratives that I can directly relate to thanks to my own life experience is … boring. Like, really boring. Because guess what, I’ve already lived it. Or I’m living it now. Give me something new!

Solarwyrm Press certainly did. Marked by Scorn, edited by Dominica Malcolm, is a fresh, emotionally charged, and entertaining collection of fiction, poetry, and memoir finely woven together by currents of love, sexual energy, and relational diversity aplenty.

When I first received by advance review copy, I will admit, I was a little worried. Clocking in at nearly 300 pages, I was concerned the stories would become repetitive, but no two stories in this volume are alike, just as no two relationships in this world are alike.

In “Emergency Encounter,” Cindy Stauffer emphasizes our human need for physical intimacy to endure potentially soul-sucking hardships—even if that intimacy is at the hands or lips of someone other than your significant other.

Tara Calaby’s “Breaking Point” shows us just how far we’ll go for someone we once loved, even if that relationship was complicated at best.

Sara Dobie Bauer’s “If It Ain’t Broke” tells the story of Professor Nate Evans’ crush on his awkward yet beguiling student, Henry, and the magic of Christmas and acceptance.

Vanessa Ng’s “Keeping Mum About Dad” lends insight to the experience of a daughter growing up with a father who identifies as female.

Baylea Jones’ “Spar” dissects the cruelty of first love and keeping face in high school.

Kawika Guillermo’s “Love is in the Blood” speaks of the delicate balance between tradition, inevitability, rebirth, and identity.

GK Hansen’s “Roulez” uses the pronoun “they” in relation to the story’s gender non-binary protagonist.

And that’s only a taste of the beautiful stories in this volume that stirred up my emotions, made me laugh, made me ache, and taught me a thing or two.

Altogether, the collection is uplifting, heart-wrenching, sexy, fun, wicked, but most of all, utterly important. Because the one thing that ties all of these stories of breakups and makeups and threesomes and violence and werewolves and partnerships and understanding together—is love. And what could possibly be more important than that?

Though Marked by Scorn is not yet available for purchase, you can support the anthology’s IndieGoGo campaign and receive a copy prior to its official publication date, July 31.

Wedding Dress Shopping Advice for Brides-To-Be

Marilyn Monroe dress

Not the dress for me, but it was so much fun playing with these layers!

This weekend, I tried on wedding dresses—not for a photo shoot, but for real life! Squee! This whole being engaged business is getting real, y’all!

The experience was every bit as magical as I imagined it would be—and shockingly informative, too. Here’s a little of what I learned and some humble advice/perspective for brides-to-be.

The bride makes the dress, not the other way around. Which is why there are so many different styles of wedding dresses—to match the personalities of the incredible women who don them. In my opinion, your wedding dress should be a reflection of you and what makes you unique. Are you a little sexy and sassy? There’s a dress for that. Are you all about the glam? There’s a dress for that. Are you embracing your inner country girl? There’s a dress for that, too! So, in the end, there’s no such thing as a “bad wedding dress,” because there is a bride who will find it, love it, and it will look like a slice of heaven on them. Not because it’s a beautiful dress but because they make it a beautiful dress.

There is a big difference between stoning and beading. One of the first thing’s I told my incredible consultant, Ashley, when we began our appointment at White Flower Bridal Boutique was that I was not interested in any sort of “bling” on my gown. I was convinced it wasn’t me; I wanted something simpler and more classic. By the end of the appointment, I realized how wrong I’d been. Sure, I was trying to tell Ashley that I wasn’t into rhinestones or Swarovski crystal-encrusted dresses (for me, they were a little too reminiscent of my past life as a burlesque performer), but man do I have a soft spot for pearls, elegant beading, and touches of shimmer. In fact, I don’t think I’ll be able to get a dress that doesn’t have a little sparkle.

At wedding dress appointments, you get nekkid—a lot. And if you have a great consultant, you won’t feel self-conscious or uncomfortable in the slightest. I wore some barely there nude undies, because, come on, I was trying on white dresses. Also, panty lines are not allowed at my nuptials. I took a strapless bra with me, just in case, but discovered that most dresses have enough built-in support to keep the ladies in line—so, topless time! Additionally, you generally step into wedding dresses, then your consultant pulls them up from behind—meaning their face is probably less than a foot away from your bum on the regular. Despite all of this, not once did I feel uncomfortable, even though I was in my skivvies and nothing else—with a complete stranger. Ashley was a consummate professional, did not seem phased in the slightest, and we laughed and joked and my frequent nudity simply wasn’t a thing (as it shouldn’t be!).

Trying on a wedding dress is not like shopping for jeans—thank God! I was nervous going into my appointment. As a retired professional dancer, my body has changed since I’ve stopped training regularly, and just last week, I was fuming at Target trying to shop for new pants—or hell, anything that looked flattering on me. But here’s the thing: there’s a huge difference between the people who design for regular retail and the gods and goddesses who design bridal couture. Wedding dresses accentuate everything wonderful about your figure. Your waist falls where your waist should be. Designers leave room for your booty and your hips. Straps are long enough to accommodate lengthy torsos. Every stitch, every line, every embellishment is there strategically—to make you look stunning. It’s an incredible experience to try on clothing that is thoughtfully made and of such high quality. In every single dress, I felt like a millions bucks. And I even started loving some of the parts of my body that I generally feel like I need to tighten up or decrease in size. Seriously, my shapely booty had me like, “J Lo, eat your heart out!”

Mom and Nikki

Nerds!

I’m happy I only took two people—my mom and my maid of honor—two friends who know me, know my style, and made the experience FUN! You know that saying about too many cooks? I didn’t want that at my very first appointment. It’s overwhelming enough to try on a bridal gown; I didn’t want to feel like I had to please a big group of people. My first appointment needed to be about fun, celebration, and trying to determine what kind of style and silhouette was going to work for me. My mom and maid of honor were phenomenal! Nikki brought champagne, orange juice, and a meat and cheese plate. My mom chased me around with the clips that hold sample gowns flush to your body to show you how a dress will fit when tailored. They took selfies on my phone while I was in the changing room. They encouraged me to try on anything I wanted, and while they did offer their opinions, I never felt pressured by them. Basically, I played dress-up with two of the most important people in my life cheering me on, and it was a PARTY! Moral of the story: choose who accompanies you carefully. Surround yourself with people who will make it wonderful for you.

During your first appointment, try on every style of wedding dress, even if you know a particular silhouette or style “isn’t you.” Have a Disney princess moment, even if ball gowns aren’t your thing. Try on something conservative, even if you know you want something sexy. Play with different silhouettes. Try on a dress with rhinestone after rhinestone, even if the glitz is not your thing. This is your socially acceptable opportunity to play dress-up as an adult. Take advantage of it! And you never know; something you rule out in your head could wind up looking amazing on your body. Be fearless. Try everything.

For me, going to boutiques that allow me to take pictures is pretty important. I plan to try on a lot of dresses—and my memory will probably fail me. Where did I try on that trumpet style gown with the train? Did it have straps? Wait, was that a dress that would need a lot of alterations? There’s so much to consider, and having pictures helps immensely. Also, taking pictures gives you an idea of how your dress will photograph on your big day. Can you imagine buying a gown that looks like a dream in person and only so-so on camera?

When you try on dresses that might be THE dress, you know. There were tears, you guys. Happy, happy tears. It may not be the same reaction for every bride-to-me, but I’ll hazard a guess and say we all feel something deep in our hearts when we know a gown may be the dress we’ll wear down the aisle.

You should not feel pressured to buy anything during your first appointment at any shop. I’m a decisive person. I found a dress that may be the dress. I almost busted out a credit card. But my consultant said the dress wasn’t going anywhere, and I should try on other dresses at other shops. Ashley also made me aware of upcoming trunk shows and sample sales, which means more options and more discounts. I have another appointment at White Flower in a couple weeks to try on a completely different set of dresses. And over the course of the next few months, I’m going to try on everything I can in San Diego and the Phoenix metro area. Ashley was right to dissuade me from jumping the gun—a wedding dress is not an impulse purchase. There is much research to do, and if I do wind up back at White Flower, my dress will be waiting for me.

If you are a bride-to-be in any zip code, White Flower in Bankers Hill in San Diego, is a top-notch boutique to visit. I promise they didn’t pay me or bribe me with the dress of my dreams to say that. My first appointment was everything I hoped it would be—and more—and that has a lot to do with how I was treated and welcomed to White Flower Bridal Boutique. My consultant, Ashley, was knowledgeable, attentive, friendly, and quite frankly, I wanted to invite her out for cocktails by the end of my appointment. And the dresses the boutique carries are absolutely gorgeous. Immaculately styled and crafted. The stuff of dreams. I can’t say enough about this charming little boutique. If you have the opportunity, go, go, go!

Now excuse me while I scroll through all the pictures from this weekend and plan my next wedding dress adventure!

Hello Homesickness

Arizona

When Bryan and I moved to San Diego, California, this summer, the transition was strangely easy for me. I’d lived in Phoenix, Arizona, for 30 years, my whole life. I was ready for change, ready to escape my roots and experience something new. That desire coupled with the promises of urban, downtown living, beaches mere minutes away, a smorgasbord of incredible food, craft beer culture, June Gloom (which I love), and the beauty of Balboa Park equaled unbridled excitement for me—a new adventure. I was happy to leave my desert hometown in the dust. When we pulled our U-Haul truck out onto the I-10, I didn’t look back.

I’ve traveled back to Phoenix a few times since our initial move—for weddings, baby showers, quick trips to see family and friends—and I’ve always driven or flown back to California alight with the feeling that I’m returning home. And why shouldn’t I? I’m a California girl now. And San Diego is an exceptionally easy city to fall in love with and to call home.

But this last trip, this one was different.

Bryan had to travel back to Phoenix for work this past weekend/week, and I asked him to extend his trip so I could tag along, burn up existing vacation time, and we could visit with friends and family for the holidays. I was excited for five days of fun!

The first night, we met up with a small group of friends for authentic, beautiful Moroccan food at Couscous Express. This little establishment, on McDowell near the 51 entrance/exit ramps, is the most unassuming gem of a restaurant. The owner is friendly and welcoming, and all he wants to do is to feed you; it’s the most honest hospitality I’ve ever experienced. Together with friends, we ate lentil soup, garbanzo beans, tagine, and date shakes while French jazz music played in the background. And there wasn’t a quiet moment as we caught up, discussed the latent poignancy of Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix series Master of None, talked through the algorithms of Pandora radio, geeked out, and shared the love. At the end of the meal, the owner of Couscous gave me a headdress traditionally worn by belly dancers and everyone at the table received argon oil soap. It was the perfect, eccentric end to a perfect, eccentric meal.

GameThe next morning, we went to church at City Square, which never feels like a religious gathering and instead feels like a family gathering. Immediately, we were pulled into hugs and asked how our lives are in California. Later, as our guest pastor drew a connection between joy and pain, the beauty and volatility of nature, and the happiness and sadness of the season, I teared up—both because her message was true and beautiful and because, surrounded by so many wonderful people, I was feeling that joy she was speaking of.

After church, we played Betrayal at the House on the Hill with the Kemp-Schlemmers, the family we were staying with. We dramatically read horrifying cards and joked about creepy kids and enjoyed chile-infused beer—ever mindful there was a traitor among us! (Play the game; it’s awesome.)

Mom and meThat night, we had an early Christmas dinner with my mom. She completely spoiled us with incredible food (including homemade crème brulee, which is my favorite dessert ever!) and truly thoughtful presents. It’s very apparent your boyfriend has become a part of the family when your mom buys you both socks, heat-building undershirts (for outdoor archery, of course), and Amazon gift cards to quell our ordering addictions. My mom got a little emotional when she opened the scarf I’d knit for her, and we helped her put her new wine lovers case on her phone. We took lots of pictures, and of course, like moms do, she sent leftovers home with us.

On Monday, I had to work from home. I dropped Bryan off at work, swung by one of my old coffee haunts, Lola, and ran into a good friend I haven’t seen in many, many months. Over mugs of coffee, we talked about writing, relationships, and impending adventures before I had to head back to the house and log on to my laptop.

Mid-morning, there was a knock on the door and an invitation to go downstairs and do mommy and me yoga with Summer and Josie. And I can’t even begin to describe how fantastic an experience it is to down dog with a two-year-old who smiles and giggles and always wants to hand you your water bottle (gotta stay hydrated, after all!).

That night, we invited basically all of our Phoenix-based friends out for a group dinner. Despite some crazy restaurant mix-ups, our friends showed up in droves. What we thought would be a group of 10-15 people quickly turned into a group of 20-25. We virtually took over NYPD Pizza. And it was overwhelming to see everyone come out to see us. I uploaded a collage of pictures to social media with the simplest hashtag: #joy—because that tiny word captures everything going on in that room.

NYPD

On Tuesday, I surprised my ex-coworkers at Nationwide with an unannounced visit. And you should’ve seen the looks on their faces! Again, the hugs. Again, the inquiries about California. A few hopeful questions about whether I was back for good. “Just for vacation,” I said.

After the visit, I met up with my friend Rachel, who is basically my chosen older sister. We lunched the way we used to, discussing the Phoenix dance community, our goals and successes, and the goings on our favorite TV shows.

When Bryan got off work that night, we went to Cherryblossom Noodle Café, our go-to for Japanese food in Phoenix. We drank sake and green tea, and I had some killer Pad Thai.

We got home to find Brian watching The Voice on Hulu, so we sat down to watch and talk music and unwind for the night.

Yesterday afternoon, we arrived home in San Diego after a grueling and tiring car ride. We unpacked the car and went upstairs to find a very naughty dog on the furniture—and yes, she knows she’s not allowed there (bad, Biscuit!). We straightened up, fed the dogs, took them on a walk, and then Bryan went to Aikido as I settled in for a relaxing night at home.

I reheated my leftover Pad Thai, turned on Mad Men, cracked open a beer—and felt terribly, terribly alone. That’s when I realized that for the first time ever, I was homesick.

But not for Phoenix. Not the city itself or the desert or anything tied to a specific geographical place. I was homesick for the people who live in Phoenix. The people who are the very definition of community. The people who show up in overwhelming numbers when we say we’re going to be in town. The people who accept us as family, even when we’re gone for a long time. The people who open their homes and their hearts to us. The people that make Phoenix my home.

If you’re one of those people in Phoenix and I saw you this trip, know that you gave me the very best Christmas present this past weekend—you. I love you and I miss you. Always.

 

Thanksgiving at The Top of the World

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We weren’t sure if we’d make it to Thanksgiving dinner. The morning of, there was talk of snowfall and tire chains, things you generally don’t associate with the holidays in ever-sunny California. But up in Running Springs, where Uncle Wally has an enormous, beautiful, mountaintop cabin nicknamed The Top of the World, snow is something to consider.

I did a load of laundry and watched Mad Men in my pajamas while I waited for my dad to take a drive down and back up the mountain to determine if the route was safe. At 9:30 AM, we got the go ahead. “The sun came out, so the roads are clear. Come on up. We’ve already got pitchers of margaritas going.” I immediately set about boiling water for pasta. Bryan had made pumpkin mushroom sauce the night before, but we were waiting for the all clear to cook the penne.

I bundled up in a turtleneck sweater I’d purchased the day prior at Old Navy as part of a Black Friday sale. I made sure to wear my black knee-high boots of which a rock star would surely approve, not because they’re bad ass (bonus), but because they provide great traction on slippery terrain. As I applied makeup, I started to sweat in our little San Diego apartment, dressed for 30-degree weather when it was a sunny 60-something outside.

At the gas station by our place, we checked the air pressure in Bryan’s tires and bought snacks for the road. Even though a Thanksgiving feast was imminent, a road trip of any length is damn near unbearable for me without white cheddar popcorn and Cherry Coke Zero.

On the way north, we watched the outside temperature dip on the digital readout as we reached higher elevation. I responded to my mom’s sporadic text messages about Christmas wish lists and clothing sizes. We listened to podcasts for entertainment since radio reception can be spotty from city to city.

Two hours later, at the base of the mountain, Bryan and I took a collective breath. I told him to be careful and did a little yoga breathing to quiet my anxiety. The distance uphill was only 13 miles, but it felt much longer as we zoomed and turned and barreled and turned some more. As we got closer to The Top of the World, little tufts of snow appeared on the side of the roads. The tufts grew thicker and thicker until the sporadic patches had morphed into a fine blanket of downy white.

We pulled to the front of a very, very long line of cars just upwind of a steep driveway that puts most sledding hills to shame. “You guys ready for a little exercise?” As we panted up the hill, I peered out into the serene canyons of San Bernardino National Park, which looked like something right out of a Bob Ross painting. Happy little trees and fine winter mist and layers of color everywhere.

Inside The Top of the World, it smelled like butter and sage and baked rolls – in other words, it smelled like home. The women of the Stevenson family bustled about the kitchen, tending to ovens and crockpots and serving dishes. Cousin Terry gave me the warmest of hugs and announced that I looked completely different than the last time I’d seen him. And it’s true. I haven’t been to California for a Thanksgiving in a long time.

“And who the hell is this?” I introduced Bryan, and we were ushered upstairs to join the rest of the family. “We’ve got some Shirley Temples ready for you.”

In the living room, cousins and uncles and aunts piled on a small, cozy sofa in the corner, watching a football game. A wooden bar stretched across one of the walls, promising cocktails of various persuasions and bowl after bowl of bar snacks. Bryan and I made the rounds, hugging, introducing, reintroducing, catching up. I helped myself to a White Russian – the first I’d had in God knows how many years but it felt festive somehow – and my dad gave Bryan and me a tour of the house.

There are great accommodations at The Top of the World. Each of the six bedrooms boasts its own bathroom, spirit animal at the door (my folks stayed in the moose room), whimsical, fun artwork, and beautiful views. There was a full-sized Dracula-like figure in the study and an outdoor hot tub off the master bedroom. Newly fashioned snowmen adorned the sweeping outdoor patio.

Back in the living room, Wally taught Bryan and me how to play shuffleboard, and a half hour of friendly, family competition ensued. Afterward, we snacked on queso at the bar and talked with cousins about jazz and brushes with customs during the infamous U.S. Ebola scare. Every once in a while, shouts would erupt from the corner where many were watching the game.

Rumors trickled out of the kitchen. Apparently, the microwave was out of commission, the breakers overloaded. And perhaps the turkey hadn’t been cooking the whole time it had been in the oven. I heard later that one of the crockpots was moved temporarily to an unused bathroom to take advantage of the available power source there.

Of course, the Stevensons wouldn’t allow a little thing like downed power interfere with Thanksgiving dinner. Not long after Bryan and I played a few games of Pac-Man and Burger Time and Galaga on Wally’s old school arcade game, dinner was ready.

And now I understood why I hadn’t seen some of the Stevenson women since our arrival. There were three different kinds of sweet potatoes. A roast turkey and a glazed ham. Two different kinds of gravy. My step mom’s infamous mashed potatoes, the spuds for which were skinned with knives because they couldn’t find a potato peeler. Deviled eggs, creamed corn, green bean casserole. Our pumpkin pasta.

Everyone grabbed plates and ate together. The couch in front of the TV remained vacant while the family shared a meal, fitting into every nook and cranny of The Top of the World. We all commented on the dishes we loved and went back for seconds, maybe thirds. Stories of past Thanksgiving grocery store run snafus were shared.

Then, it was time for a picture. All twenty-something of us tried to cram into the stairwell to commemorate this Thanksgiving on film. There was much speculation and strategizing as we assembled. Would we fit? Should we spread out across two flights of stairs? Was everyone accounted for? In the end, a neighbor managed to snap a picture on three cameras, and then an iPad was passed down through the throng of family for one final shot.

Bryan and I were the first to approach the dessert table (surprise, surprise). All the traditional treats were there – pumpkin loaf, pumpkin pie, a few berry pies, brownies for the chocolate lovers – along with two full pineapple upside down cakes and a rum cake that was light on the cake and heavy on the rum. With extra rum sauce on the side, of course.

Not long after finishing dessert, it was time to head down the mountain and back to San Diego. The sun had melted a lot of snow throughout the day, and as the sun set, that snow would turn to ice. Bryan’s car tires aren’t exactly made for cold weather. And our dogs would be impatiently waiting for their own dinner when we got home.

“I’m so sorry this felt like hello, goodbye, but thanks for having us.” Wally said now that Bryan and I understood the rules, we could play more shuffleboard when we came back for another Thanksgiving. We made our rounds, said our goodbyes, and held tight to the railing on the way back down that rollercoaster-steep driveway.

We survived the trip down the mountain. Though it seemed faster descending than ascending, I don’t think I let out my breath till we got to the bottom. Then, Bryan and I sang along to Disney Pandora all the way home.

Our trip was much too short. It took two hours to get there, we only stayed about two-and-a-half hours when all was said and done, and it took us another two-and-a-half hours to get home.

But the trip was completely worth it.

Because while Thanksgiving is seemingly all about the meal that we spend hours upon hours making, there is no celebration, no gratitude, no point to it if you don’t have your loved ones seated at the table beside you. After years away, I’m so grateful to have been welcomed – with Bryan by my side – to Thanksgiving dinner at The Top of the World.