From a West Point grad – written with love and in honor of Colonel Eric Kail

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I met COL Kail while I was just in middle school at Apex Baptist. At that time I had no desire to join the military, wear a uniform or take orders. I just wanted to be a normal guy with freedom and a regular college experience.

You know that saying that says the easiest way to make God laugh is to tell him your plans?

Well I guess God was laughing when I told Him that because I eventually ended up becoming a cadet at West Point. In a strange set of circumstances, the Kail’s had been sent to Korea last moment only to come back to West Point during my time as a cadet.

162938_10150100327385379_7643059_nAt that time I knew he was a good man, but I didn’t know him. As a cadet I went over to the Kail’s house for a little R&R and was able to get to know the family better. What I found was that weren’t just nice, fun people.

They were (and still are) amazing people.

COL Kail especially impressed me because I saw how he interacted with others professionally around campus. I still remember talking about our leadership class with other cadets and they said, “My instructor’s amazing-COL Kail is the man!”

540225_10151141079026038_1658347826_nThey didn’t just think he was cool however.

It was evident that they had a deep respect for him.

One of my friends was amazed that COL Kail already knew the names of his students before they came in. He had memorized them before they ever stepped into the door. That kind of attention paired with his confidence, charisma and humility made cadets (myself included) opened us up to share about ourselves and to learn from his experience and example.

Although COL Kail never formally mentored me, I count him as one of my mentors. His example has inspired me to be a better Army officer, and more importantly a better man and follower of Jesus. Ever since we all found out COL Kail had cancer it always seemed like he and Mrs. Kail were the ones comforting everyone else.

IMG_3623I have been inspired by their abiding trust in the Lord and their belief that God works everything, even things like cancer out for His good and His glory.

That kind of example has been powerful for me to see and I am not the only one.

As I continue my Army career I pray that I may love my future soldiers like I could tell COL Kail loved his.

I pray that I may have faith like him and I pray that I may be a mighty rock for my family one day as he has been for his own family.

I am proud that COL Kail is my friend. And no matter what happens in my own life, I hope that I may be able to set an example as COL Kail has for his family and for everyone around him.To the Kail family, may God bless you and give you peace. You are an inspiration to us all.

John 16:33 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Respectfully yours,

Nathan Winter-Hartley
USMA ’12

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Seeing Nate for the first time after completing Ranger School

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No sooner had we arrived at our hotel near Fort Benning, when Nate called to check on our travel schedule. We had just put our bags in the room and the Hubs and I begged and pleaded to see him immediately!

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After all we had been through – the driving, the praying, the waiting, the stress, the letters, the gum, the recycling, followed by the driving, the praying, the feeding, the laundry, the eight-hour pass, the stress, the care package, the recycling (twice), etc., we deserved to see this guy, don’t you agree?

Twenty minutes later, we were hugging our Soldier. Considering everything he had been through during Ranger School, our boy looked great. We learned later that the men are well fed and hydrated before we get to see them. My mama’s heart quaked at the thought of seeing him emaciated and zombie-like. Instead, we were able to enjoy conversation and see that his spirit was still very much intact after the Ranger experience. His waist looked smaller but he didn’t have a sunken chest or hollow eyes which was something I really dreaded.

Perhaps the only glimpse I had of him not being in complete reality was when I asked him to take this picture. Had my Soldier been his usual self, he might not have stood in front of the car and posed for a few shots with this sign in the background.2013-07-11 16.20.58

Yes it’s super corny and if the tables were turned, it would have probably annoyed me when I was his age but Nate indulged my parental pride.

Careful to not push it too much, I did, however ask permission before I told our server at the restaurant that he was dealing with a Ranger. When Nate said, “NO!” I refrained and just prayed for an opportunity to casually mention the fact.

Turns out, I didn’t have to force it because soon enough, we learned that our server was a former Ranger who had been injured while serving his country. There are many broad-shouldered military types in the Fort Benning/Columbus, Georgia area.

Nate’s brothers and a family friend were on their way to celebrate this milestone. In my next post, I’ll share some reflections on that special time.

RLTW!

Btw, if you want to read an actual Ranger’s account about the experience, click here!

Lessons I have learned from my children – guest blogger

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For those of you who have children, do you believe that God gave you the exact child(ren) He knows you should have?

My first child was several years old when I came across this question. It meant so much to me.  Why? Because prior to it, I often questioned God, “Why?! Why this child for me? I’m failing!”

100_7271My child is The Strong Willed Child. And me – I tend to be too laid back and easy going. That didn’t seem to me like a good mix. Surely God made a mistake?

Oh but wait. God doesn’t make mistakes. Ever. Uh oh.

In reading that question for the first time – that God gives us the exact children He wants us to have, I began to see my first child differently. It became, “What is God trying to teach me by giving me this child?”

I’ve never looked at my children the same since changing my mindset/attitude.

One thing I’ve learned is that the lessons God is teaching me through my children constantly evolves.  As soon as I think I have one more thing figured out and ready to cross off my “lessons learned” list, God throws another one at me. The potter refining the clay.

I have 4 children, each one so different from the others. Maybe the variety because God has so many, many things for me to learn!

Tabitha, or “Tabby” as she prefers to be called, is my oldest child and is an 11-almost-12 year old.  Tabby is very “strong willed” or “weak willed” according to Charlotte Mason, used to be very hyperactive, and loves silly things and people. She is a voracious reader, is very musical (plays piano and enjoys singing), loves photography, and has a compulsive need to craft almost every day. (Tabby makes all sorts of things – like chocolate lollipops, soaps, tie dyed baby clothes, beaded jewelry, etc. – and sells them through her blog The Craftsy Kitty in memory of her angel sister Lilly.)Tabby and Lilly

I am absolutely amazed at how a person’s temperament comes through so early – even in the womb. Tabby was my child that was the most aggressive when I was pregnant. Towards the end of my pregnancy, at the fetal monitoring test, most of the time was spent with her (from inside me) kicking off the belts strapped on me.  The nurse commented that my baby was making it clear she would hate car seats and being constrained in any way. I was skeptical. But the nurse was right!  From the first second I first strapped Tabby into a car seat she screamed and fought. That continued way too long.

Tabby quickly learned to use her screaming and crying to manipulate me. I was completely baffled by this child as she was so different than me!  Oh I did have experience with her type though, my mother and one of my brothers are also very strong personalities like her. But there I was struggling not to be bossed around by a small child. (Now that’s just embarrassing to admit!)  Tabby made it clear from the beginning that she did not care for authority. That has been, and continues to be, her biggest struggle in life.

So how does a “wimpy” mama deal with a child like that? By spending much time in prayer begging for wisdom. By learning to be a stronger person. By standing firm in what she believes is good and right – and by sticking by it, no matter what storm comes. By trying her best to be consistent in all things, no matter how wearisome it becomes. By loving her daughter even when it feels like the battles will never end.

So am I now “super” mama who has all this perfected now? NO. But looking back, I can see how far I’ve come. Not only does my child no longer control me, but I have grown in my relationships with other people. I don’t often let others push me around anymore. I’m not so timid about speaking up and sharing my beliefs. I don’t worry as much about what people think.  And I’ve gotten really good at asking God for help! (I was a single mom raising Tabby on my own for several years and came to see her as the child that God and I were raising together. I loved this feeling.) I feel like I’ve become more creative too, in working with Tabby in teaching her to use her strengths for good.

Though of course every time I think I have something figured out then BAM! some new situation arises with my creative girl to send me back to my knees in prayer.

100_8191In my son Hunter, 4 years old, I discovered that raising boys really are different from girls.

Really different.

Whereas girls tend to be sneaky and passive, a boy is just in your face with his disobedience. Ah, that makes life so much easier. 🙂

Hunter is my affectionate child – both physically and verbally. He gives me hugs throughout the day and tells me he loves me a dozen times. I grew up in a home that was not this way so having Hunter around reminds me how important this is. He often asks me “Mama do you love me?” It reminds me of our relationship with God. God is always there loving us, no matter what. Do we tell God we love him?  Do we act like it?

I homeschool my children and for about the last 2 years, our homeschool day starts with me working exclusively with Hunter. Honestly I had never planned to sit down and “do school” with a really young child, but you see, God has given Hunter an amazing brain. I almost can’t keep up with it at times. School time is one of his favorite times of the day and he’s disappointed on weekends because we don’t have school. He LOVES math and science especially, but delights in learning almost anything. He is a “workbook kid.” It’s not unusual for me to hear “Mama, can we please do an extra page of math?” when I’m ready to move on. I have had to really stretch myself to keep up with this 4 year old’s education! And I’m proud to say I have finally learned how to hook up parallel and series circuits successfully, something which I never “got” in government school science class. Hunter loves electricity, plumbing, building, appliances, anything with a motor. Everyday he will suddenly say “I have to draw!” and he will draw house plans or a washing machine with all it’s wires and plumbing showing, etc. He even has dreams about this kind of stuff!

This is Hunter's dream dial! What a clever fellow!

This is Hunter’s dream dial! What a clever fellow!

I find I continue to be amazed with Hunter’s enthusiasm for learning and often feel ashamed I don’t always have that same enthusiasm for opening my Bible and learning more about God. This is something I pray about. Hunter delights in so many aspects of God’s world and it has taught me to appreciate and wonder at more things too.

My third child is a little girl named Lilly, who now lives with Jesus. She is my “most famous” child as people from all over the world know about her, through my blog. Lilly lived for 17 months (7/4/10-12/15/11). She had a genetic disorder called Trisomy 18. More than half of the babies with Trisomy 18 die before or at birth.  Of those that survive birth, most die in the first 2 months of life outside the womb. Lilly was one of only 5-10% of birth survivors that lived to see her first birthday. She was a fighter! And she was aptly nicknamed “Little Firecracker” by hospital doctors and nurses when she surprised them by staying alive after birth (being born on July 4th.)

100_2080We first learned that Lilly may have Trisomy 18 during a routine ultrasound when it became apparent that she had holes in her heart, clenched hands, and several other “soft markers.”  That is when I learned to be praying even more for my children. I begged God to allow me to bring Lilly home from the hospital. Not only did He grant my plea, but allowed us to have and hold Lilly for 529 days. Lilly’s life was a rollercoaster ride and I only was able to hold on tight by God’s mercy. Many days were very good.  But other days were terrifying.  She almost died in front of my eyes 5 times. I prayed many desperate prayers for her – and for me, just to be able to breathe. My biggest fear was in her actually dying and during her life I prayed that God would help us through that when it came. The most horrific thing in my life for me was finding Lilly dead one evening. (She died during a nap.)  But I survived. I felt God holding me through it. Through Lilly, I learned firsthand that God will truly never leave us nor forsake us. How do people survive something like this without Him? I can not fathom.

Lilly had a beautiful smile and laugh. She loved her family and her daily routines. She loved experiencing new things. She made it very clear she did NOT like hospitals! Nor medical equipment in general. She was physically and mentally delayed. I sometimes feel like children like that are closer to God that we are. As she amazed me, and others, over and over again, I knew for sure that God truly has a plan for each of us. I also learned that no matter how young a person is, they can have a huge influence on others – even complete strangers. God never makes mistakes. Though many in the world saw Lilly as broken, I know she was perfect. Her life inspired me to reach out to others, especially Trisomy or angel families, and to begin The Lilly Memorial Project.

When Lilly died, she took a huge piece of my heart with her. However, not long after she passed away I was shocked to find out I was pregnant. (As I type this I still feel surprised and wonder “What will God do next??!!”) Our Solomon was born 9 months – to the day – that Lilly died.  Is that not a “God thing”? Our rainbow baby, Solomon, has brought more healing with him than I thought possible. (A “rainbow baby” is a baby born after the loss of another child. A rainbow is a thing of beauty after a storm, even among the destruction of the storm.) I had many fears of losing this boy while pregnant and then after his birth. I do not often live in this fear anymore, but I do understand fully that every breath we draw is a gift from God.

100_3491Solomon is his own very unique little person.  For the first months of his life he wanted to be held almost all the time, even at night.  I had never had a baby like this and admit I became very frustrated at times. (It did not help that we moved only 3 weeks after he was born and I had a house to unpack!) My frustration made me feel very guilty too, because I knew this baby was a blessing from God and I was so thankful for him. But then I read something that made me see Solomon’s almost constant clinging to me as a beautiful illustration of God love.  Just as I was holding Solomon so much (and still do a lot!), God holds me. As my arms are around my baby, God is holding me. Constantly. He never lets go.

I thank the Lord daily, even many times a day, for my children. We have no control over when the Lord will call them home. We do not know God’s future plans for them. But as long as we are blessed to have them, we can love them, appreciate them, and be thankful to God for His goodness in allowing us to have them.

Lisa blogs over at Pray4Lilly. She spends her days homeschooling, making to-do lists that never get completely done, talking to God, and stealing moments here and there to read.

Here’s the blog post I wrote about the day of Lilly’s passing. She was a very special little girl. Thanks Lisa for your heartfelt thoughts and perspective!

Why God gave me these kids

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One of the sweetest pictures in my collection.

One of the sweetest pictures in my collection.

“Oh, God, why did you give me these children???”

I have said these words

More than once

There have been times when I have exclaimed this in a most screaming doleful and lamenting tone.

“OH GOD, WHY did you give me THESE children???

Those moments when mothering is troubling and my spirit is weary. When Nate screamed bloody murder in the bathtub for no reason at all or when Aaron threw handfuls of dirt on the carpet after repeatedly telling him to leave the dirt in the planter. When Ike flew into an angry tirade and it felt like body parts were exploding on the walls. And those are just a few of the stories I could share.

I suppose my OS have their own share of meltdown moments from me as well but we’re not going to talk about that. They can get their own blog and share those stories one day!

But in much larger measure, I have inquired of the Lord,family5

oh God, why did you give ME these children?”

And I can’t say I have totally figured this out but I do see a theme and hear an answer when I enter the holy places of the Lord.

“They brought you closer to Me.” This is the refrain which resonates the most true.

With each successive olive shoot, my need for Jesus became clear. Here’s what I mean.

Nate

Nate

Nate taught me celebration. He was the toe-headed boy who began walking at eight months and wrote the words “hallelujah” in a prayer journal in elementary school. He is my adventurous, always-looking-for-a-challenge child currently plodding away at Ranger School.

Aaron danger boyMy middle Aaron has been used by the Lord to instruct me on the value of submission. As a toddler, it was apparent we were well on our way to raising an absolutely adorable jerk. We had to implement structure and discipline into our home. When he bit into the face of the daycare director’s granddaughter like she was a hamburger at Bull City Burger, we knew something had to give.

wh2202And Ike, oh, my soul, my adorable, orange hair, freckle face OS, he is God’s lesson in absolute dependence on the Lord. The boy who nursed just on one side, pushed his food away as a toddler as if he had been served a bowl of salty mush, Ike has rocked my world in ways I never dreamed. He is ornery and tender-hearted, stubborn as a zit on a middle-age woman and contrite in spirit to the point where it brings me to tears.

Without each of my children, I’m not sure I would know Jesus. Thankfully I’ll never know! God placed each one of my olive shoots in my life to give me life eternally! The Hubs and I couldn’t do this family thing on our own with any measure of success without Him.ikebball2

What about you? Have you ever wondered the same thing about your children? Why did God give you your babies? I’d love to hear!

Love and letters, part one

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photo copy 5The response to writing my Soldier has been incredible.

Most of us do not understand how wonderful it is for a military person to hear from loved ones and friends.

The longer I am a mama of a Soldier, the more it sinks in.

For my son, he has loved every single message.

Here’s why. Imagine marching 800m through the swamps, then doing a 9k patrol base at night followed by a 17k back. Your letters matter to these weary men.

Picture getting 30 seconds to inhale an MRE (meals ready to eat) somewhere in the mountains but then getting a funny card from a friend delivered to you sometime during training. It can kind of make you feel like a person for a second. If there’s a stick of gum inside, even better!

So today I want to highlight some of the incredible letters and cards Nate has been receiving, I’m amazed at everyone’s thoughtfulness. We’re not done yet, so please keep writing, I feel blessed because of you.

Dog owners – Can you believe that Nate is getting a letter from a couple who adopted our emotionally disturbed greyhound, Toughie? Years ago, we were the owners of a retired racing greyhound. Poor Toughie was an emotional basket case and we had to find him another home. Before going over the Rainbow Bridge, Toughie found some infinitely patient souls to care for him. Now they are sending Nate a letter! Oh how he will chuckle seeing the name Toughie again!

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Oh dear nephew, your cousin will cherish this picture forever! He will love all the detail and action! I love you and so does Nate! RLTW!

Cousins – This picture is from Nate’s seven-year old cousin, Jon. The more I look at this picture, the more I love it. Tanks, swamps, fish, words of encouragement, this drawing also has plenty of action and Nate is smiling through the whole thing. I’m not so sure about that in real life but I do know this. Nate will grin ear to ear because of this letter. According to Jon, Nate is the #1 23-year-old and I have to agree!

Katie and the kids she's working with this summer.

Katie and the kids she’s working with this summer.

Classmates and cool kids – One of Nate’s high school classmates is working with K-5th kids this summer.

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Daniel, this is a beautifully written letter. You are a really nice guy!

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974857_10201224092465611_1526572933_n Stacey, this letter is a work of art. Nate will love it!

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Thank you Alajah for thinking of my Soldier.

Since Nate is a strong example of perseverance, obedience, courage and integrity, determination, Katie had an idea.

Last week she talked to her kids about unconditional love. Then the kids sent him some snail mail. Just look at the adorable sentiments expressed by these precious children!

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So bright and colorful! Much prettier than looking at the swamps! Thanks y’all!

Thanks to Katie and her efforts, Nate will receive 30 Scripture filled letters from these boys and girls. This will mean the world to him!

Brothers – Equally delightful are the cards my orange hair, freckle face OS sends his brother.

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It takes a unique mind to come up with this character. What a creative little brother!

Spermy the Whale is the featured character Ike created during his middle school years.

Spermy now makes regular appearances on correspondence with Nate.

In particular, Nate has specifically mentioned how much he enjoys getting these bizarre greetings.

Ike really makes some interesting cards...

Ike really makes some interesting cards…I know he enjoys sending them to his bro.

It would seem that Spermy the Whale is transforming from a gangsta with grillz and a gold chain to entering the business world sporting a briefcase and a professional tie. The grillz are now a thing of the past. Um, ok!

My joy multiples as a mom. On behalf of all the families we represent who have a son, fiance, husband, boyfriend or brother in Ranger School, know it is a highlight for us to know others care.

From Korea to California, Texas to Michigan, El Salvador to New York and all points in between, thank you, bless you. We should never undervalue the significance of sending support to our military servicemen and women.

Questions: If you have a special person in the military, how have letters and cards helped your loved one?  What are creative ways you offer support to others! Let’s share ideas!

My mighty cleaners – Ike and Extreme 18X – free bonus goodies (Ike not included)

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2013-06-13 15.22.35Dirty windows + able-bodied, orange hair, freckle face ginger sitting around watching tv = opportunity

2013-06-13 15.14.03We have a VIP arriving at our house this weekend and in anticipation of her visit, I wanted the windows in our family room clean. Ike began the chore but grabbed a can of aerosol window cleaner we received years ago when the room was constructed.

When I checked on Ike’s progress, the overwhelming smell of chemicals had filled the room. One look at the contents in the can, I was shocked to see the ingredients used. The first ingredient on the list 2-butoxyethanol (or ethylene glycol monobutyl ether). Also known as 2-BU, this widely-used cleaning solvent causes anemia by damaging red blood cells, creates air pollution that exceeds workplace limits, is linked to impaired fertility and reproductive and developmental toxicity. EPA even considers it a possible human carcinogen. Liquified petroleum gas for window cleaner? Come on! Ain’t nobody got time for that!

So I quickly grabbed replaced the can of toxic ingredients with a spray bottle of water mixed with about a half teaspoon of Extreme 18X. This product has replaced at least 80% of my regular cleaning supplies so it just made good, healthy sense.

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Extreme 18X is an ultra-concentrated soap berry liquid detergent and cleaner and now the good folks at NaturOli are giving a FREE BONUS GIFT of a mini or trial size” for every $25 in merchandise ordered!*

We use Extreme 18X and soap nuts interchangeably. I’m also a big fan of their skin care products – toner, skin repair creme, facial creme and the complete daily cleansing kit.

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The mini/trial Sizes are anything but small and NaturOli’s skin & hair care formulas are all FULL 1 to 2-oz sizes – FAR from typical tiny sample packets that are only a mere use or two.

– Values of mini and trial sizes are up to $9.90 each! You might like this gluten-free skin repair creme but take a look around and see what other things look good.

When placing your order, choose one for every $25 in merchandise in your cart. *Limit of six (6) per order. Put the product names (or product numbers) in the “Comments” Box during checkout. Please be specific about which items you desire. They’ll be shipped with your order. It’s that easy!

– No coupon required. Your selections will be on your receipt.

Offer expires Friday, 6-21 at midnight.

Ike and Extreme 18X made a good team. The pictures I took were not filtered in any way, there was no need. My windows are sparkly, streak-free clean and that was done thanks to two things – an awesome son and a petro-chemical free, formaldehyde free product that I absolutely love.

Welcome guests with a great salad – get your crunch on!

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IMG_20110120_185631“What I love most is an abundance of simple food of perfect quality and staggering freshness, very simply and respectfully treated, tasting strongly of itself.” Sybille Bedford, in The Artist’s & Writer’s Cook Book, 1961*

Isn’t that an awesome quote?

On Fridays a box of locally grown, in-season produce arrives at my doorstep from The Produce Box. Fresh fruits and vegetables bursting with color and flavor are a highlight to my week.

In our family, salad is a verb. With the exception of my ministry-minded middle who is loath to leafy greens, the rest of the gang enjoys a fresh green salad. Click here for Nate’s favorite salad!

My first experience with homemade dressing was while living in Normandy, France. My French family created their own salad dressing using Dijon mustard and vinegar and it was sublime. Prior to that I thought the only way to have a salad dressing was to buy it! Boy, was I wrong!

I guess you could say I had “un grand moment avec une salade” or “a big moment with a salad” in France.

Really, it’s so simple to make your own salad dressing. Here are a few reasons why it’s worth the small effort involved.

IMG_3010_10241. The taste is far superior to that of a bottled salad dressing. It never ceases to amaze me how many salad dressings there are in the grocery aisle but you could do the same thing at home, quite honestly!

2. Instead of some gi-normous food manufacturer determining your ingredients, you can please your own palate and your family’s.

3. You can substitute, reduce or omit ingredients based on what’s available in your cupboards.

4. Time saving The few upfront minutes I (or one of my olive shoots) invest in making extra dressing beforehand, allows us to conveniently have a fresh salad in minutes. When I make extra, I  just use a clean glass jar to store it in the fridge. When making the dressing for others, I repurpose a jar that used to contain jelly or jam.

I prefer to buy only triple-washed spring mix or romaine lettuce. That’s because despite my valiant efforts to adequately wash the leaves, I’m often left with a gritty bunch of dirt in the greens and ain’t nobody got time for that.

The recipe I’m including below is a favorite.

Add blackberries plus yellow and red peppers to give the salad a summer flair. For a different salad, throw some pears and walnuts for a delightful and slightly fancy twist. Often in the Christmas season, I toss handfuls of pomegranate seeds to make it festive and add a fun crunch. My buddy and writer pal Meredith stopped by one night and got to try pomegranate seeds which totally rocked her world! #truestory

If I have some homemade kale, spinach or beet powder handy, I’ll sprinkle a little on the salad for additional flavor, color and nutrition. Yes, I take salads seriously.

Here’s the recipe, hope you enjoy!

4 teaspoons seasoned rice vinegar

1 tablespoon honey**

1/2 teaspoon salt

freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Mix it all together and shablam, you’re ready to dress up your salad.

Questions – When you say salad, what is your family’s reaction? Does your family even eat salad? How do you make it appealing?

"My mom makes me eat salad and that's why I have big muscles. She's the best."

“My mom makes me eat salad and that’s why I have big muscles. She’s the best.” Aaron’s buddy Caleb looks by in awe.

*Quote from Simple Food for the Good Life by Helen Nearing

** Raw, unfiltered honey is the best. If you can, get your honey from a local beekeeper. Clover and wildflower honey have the mildest flavor.