Miles to go for a miraculous meeting…

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I was walking back to my office after a meeting this week when I saw a pretty lady in the hallway in The Sheid. She entered the office suite where I work about the same time I did and I asked her if I could help her with anything.  “Yes,” she said. She had two tickets in her hand to an upcoming show, The Hit Men, and wanted to buy one more.  I took the two tickets she had to see what seats she was in and as I read her name, my eyes filled with tears and I realized I knew her. I hadn’t seen her in 30 years, but she had been someone very special to me in my youth.

You see, in 1974, my grandmother took me on the vacation of a lifetime. She and I joined one of her closest traveling friends and set out for the Holy Land.  The friend happened to bring her college-age daughter along on the trip and, to me, she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen.  Her long blonde hair, precious squeaky voice and collegiate clothes mesmerized me. To my delight, people on the trip thought we were sisters – I had long blonde hair back then, too.

After the adventure of a lifetime cruising the Mediterranean Sea together, we saw each other again a few times. Disappointingly, as life would have it, moves, jobs, and other stuff got in the way and we tried to keep in touch, but it wasn’t easy. She was a well-respected  pediatric therapist and I was trying to finish college and get a job. We didn’t have social media back then, so we had to rely on letters and phone calls and, eventually, we just lost touch.

I thought about her a thousand times and wondered what had happened to that sweet girl who treated me like a sister on that cruise. This week, there she was! Standing right front of me with two tickets to a show in Mountain Home, Arkansas, in the building where I worked. I mean, honestly!  What are the odds?  “Are you THE Diana Chiles from Jackson, Mississippi?” I asked her. She looked stunned, but nodded. Then, I explained who I was.

How the two of us got from Jackson, Mississippi, to Mountain Home is a miracle in itself; but the fact that I met her again the way I did, well….there just isn’t anything to call it BUT a miracle.  If my meeting had been 5 minutes longer, someone else would have helped her and I wouldn’t have known she lived here. If I hadn’t paid attention to that name, I would have breezed right past her and never realized we had such a connection.

God is one amazing choreographer. He had the movements of both of our days all set in motion long before we laid eyes on each other. He knew we would meet that day.

We had a big huge hug and laughed about it all. But, I got home and hit my knees in prayer of thanksgiving for God’s incredible hand in this. I have wished for years that I could talk to my grandmother to ask her questions and learn more about our trip through the Holy Lands.  I was too young to take notes or remember many of the special things we saw and did and today, I have so many questions about that part of the world.

Diana Chiles surprised me today and brought me three scrapbooks. In them were pages of notes and photographs that I have never seen of her, of my grandmother, and of myself at age 12. There was a photo of Jesus’ empty tomb; of Golgotha; of the Upper Room; of the Garden of Gethsemane; and of the Dead Sea. All the places we saw together and all my questions answered.

It will take me a while to process all of this, but for today, I am so grateful for this miracle. It’s been many years, and there have been many miles between us, but today my friend gave me an unbelievable gift….one of blessed memories.

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Miles to go for JA Superpowers…

JAVolunteerI just got home from another inspiring Junior Auxiliary meeting in Birmingham, AL.  It was the Annual Education Conference where new officers for the national association are chosen. My good friend Amanda Knauer was elected President and was installed in front of 600 women (and two men).  On each chair, Amanda left a card sharing her theme for the upcoming year…JA Superpowers!

plaque 001Imagine my surprise as Amanda told the crowd that she chose her theme based on a plaque I had given her years ago!  The plaque has a girl on a bicycle with the words “I am fairly certain that given a cape and a nice tiara, I could save the world.”

I am so proud of Amanda! To me, she has always had superpowers. She’s organized, she’s enthusiastic, she’s REAL, she’s loyal, she’s positive, she’s inspiring, and she’s SMART!  She will be a fantastic JA President.

Amanda sent me a copy of her speech, and I’m sharing a portion of it here in this blog. I hope it inspires you to find your superpower and to change the lives of children, wherever you are!
11152678_10152799029006669_1874604705588834220_nSeveral years ago our past President Christy Keirn gave me a cute little plaque that read, “I am fairly certain that given a cape and a nice tiara, I could save the world.” She said that it reminded her of me when she saw it and it truly does sum up my attitude when it comes to Junior Auxiliary. As I thought about my theme for this upcoming year, this plaque that hangs in my downstairs hallway kept popping into my head and I began to envision our members as superheroes – instead of a cape, we have our apron in Pantone Reflex Blue with the JA logo boldly emblazoned upon it.

Since I was a little girl, I have loved stories with heroes, especially if there was some kind of supernatural power involved. Some of my earliest memories of watching TV were episodes of Batman, The Bionic Woman, and Wonder Woman. When I first joined JA and learned our Prayer, I heard and listened to it with the reverence of an adult. As my girls grew older and my television habits began to change as they do when you have kids, I began to hear our prayer a little differently with the influence of the shows of my childhood creeping to the forefront.

Imagine… a Junior Auxiliary member armed with her apron as a cape, our logo and crown as her shield, and her hands on her hips in that stereotypical superhero stance as she seeks “to right the wrong” with “great daring”, keeping her “sympathies and insights ready, [her] will keen, [her] hands quick to help others in their need.” All the while, she goes where God has sent her as a “messenger to the hearts without a home, to the lives without love, to the crowds without a guide.” She rushes to the aid of the “children whom none have blessed, to the famished whom none have visited, and to the fallen whom none have lifted, [and] to the bereaved whom none have comforted.” If that doesn’t sound like the credo for a superhero, I don’t know what does.

As evidenced here tonight with the projects that we have honored, and the countless untold stories, each of you and your Chapters are heroes in your communities. Junior Auxiliary allows you to use your endless talents to make a difference in this world – in the lives of the hungry, the neglected, the lonely, and the hurting neighbors around you. Each of us have God-given talents – superpowers – that He expects us to use and our projects are an excellent place to put those talents to work. You can use your powers to change the world.

Can you start a project that gives books to children in need and helps them learn to read, beyond what they get in the classroom or at home? Imagine that one of those children develops a passion for reading and creative writing and is able to use those books to escape to countless worlds and write about countless more, maybe someday sharing them with the world. Could he or she become the next J.K. Rowling? Maybe that child becomes the first in their family to finish high school, giving them crucial skills to break a cycle of dependency? Either way, you’ve rewritten the future for that child.

Are you able keep a regular appointment to mentor a child and show them that there are adults that care about them because they truly care…not because they are paid to care about them as so many children unfortunately believe? Can you be a constant presence in their life and be one person that they can count on because the people in their home change so frequently and without warning? Can you teach them the meaning of trust? You have changed their outlook on this world. Maybe your influence is enough to keep them from joining a neighborhood gang and a life of crime. Maybe a young girl learns to believe her self-worth doesn’t come from other people and doesn’t end up as another teen pregnancy statistic.

Can you and your Chapter do a program on stranger safety? When you have a child tell you that they will never forget the lesson that a grown-up does not need a child’s help to find a missing dog, as one of our CSCs shared with me, or you teach them about Internet safety, there may be one less Amber Alert in the world because of you. Can you and your Chapter present a program on suicide prevention? Imagine that there are students, or even teachers, in the audience at that time who are feeling no hope and the phone number or website that you shared resonates with them. They choose to reach out for help instead of taking irreversible action. You have changed their family tree.

Can you tutor a child? Imagine that the child develops a passion for science because of your help, goes on to excel through college, and then goes on to develop a cure for cancer. You have helped to change the world for all of us.The list of possibilities is endless and you may not think that you have an amazing superpower. But…when someone has nothing and you give a little something of yourself, no matter how small you may think it is, even the smallest act can create huge changes in their life.

Several years ago, I heard the following quote in a Beth Moore Bible study:
“His holy hand resting on the least act renders the ordinary extraordinary.”

We start every Chapter meeting with the Junior Auxiliary Prayer. We invite God to send us where we are needed. We ask that he be present with us, and we ask him to arm us with the powers that we will need to carry out our tasks. He has equipped us with an amazing collective of superpowers in this room and within each of our Chapters.

With two young kids at home, we watch a lot of Disney movies and recently watched “Big Hero 6.” At the conclusion of the movie, the main character, Hiro, says, “We didn’t set out to be superheroes. But sometimes life doesn’t go the way you planned. The good thing is, my brother wanted to help a lot of people and that’s what we’re gonna do.” When I heard that, I couldn’t help but think of the women that make up Junior Auxiliary. We just want to help people.

Throughout this next year, I challenge you to find your superpower. What can you do? On your table are postcards. My daughter, Abby, helped me design these and drew a Junior Auxiliary member armed with her apron and cape. She’s got her hands on her hips, ready to go and her pants are covered in paint, showing that she’s not afraid of hard work and getting messy in the process. During this year, I would like for you to send those to Headquarters and share your stories with me. What did you learn about yourself or your Chapter?Remember that when you put on your service attire, be it an apron, smock, or shirt with that NAJA crown, you are a hero with extraordinary talents and you will change lives…it may be one person at a time, but there will be a ripple effect, changing more lives around those we serve.

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Miles to go to learn to blog…

I am teaching these 4 awesome women how to blog…

ASUMH has some interesting Community Education classes. This one is for people who want to learn to blog.  I’m honored to share my experiences as a blogger with these women and am excited about keeping in touch with them as we inspire each other to continue to blog.  Keep up with these ladies!  They are going to be amazing!

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Miles to go for Indian Marker Trees…

There is an old tree down at my favorite spot in Buffalo City that reminds me of a church pew. It bends low, and provides the perfect base for resting on its thick trunk along the ground. Recently, I took some visiting family and friends down to my favorite tree and explained how spiritual the setting felt to me…like I was sitting in sanctuary or on hallowed ground.  The backdrop of the cliffs at Buffalo City peeking through the trees looked like stained glass windows.

It wasn’t long before I got an email from my guests sharing a legend that might explain the sense of peace I feel when I am near that tree.  The story goes that over 150 years ago, Native American Indians purposefully deformed trees to mark their routes to important water sources. The trees were trained to bend to mark travel paths and many of them still stand today. That certainly makes sense, as Buffalo City is the spot where two significant rivers converge – the Buffalo and the White. As I think about the Osage and other tribes that walked the banks of these rivers, I realize that my  instinct was right. This tree does mark a hallowed spot.  For centuries, men have gathered here to fish and celebrate life. Even today, this Indian Marker Tree has led me to the waters too.

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Miles to go for chickens, purses, and glass…

There are some trips that are just tailor-made for the ladies…strolling through fall gardens, spending the night in a frilly Bed and Breakfast, wandering through a purse museum, and shopping, shopping and more shopping.  Recently two friends and I set off on such a trip and we agreed it was a darn near perfect girlfriend getaway.

DSC_0018My friends Jo Anne Dukes and Caroline Carroll are both fantastic gardeners. These two swap seeds and cuttings of plants all year long, and, while I appreciate the fruits of their labor, I’m not as into digging in the dirt as they are. My husband jokes that I am probably the only past-president of the McComb, MS, Garden Club to have a brown thumb.  My passion is arranging flowers, once somebody else has grown them, so when my gardening friends mentioned making a trip to P. Allen Smith’s farm, I had to be sure Allen was my kind of guy! One look at his website told me all I needed to know. While Moss Mountain Farm is 600 acres of pure gardening delight, it was the full access to his home, art studio, and barns (better known as Poultryville) that made me sure I didn’t want to miss this trip.

We set out on a Thursday morning before sunrise to make it to Moss Mountain Farm for the 11:00 tour.  A quick stop at Misty’s in Leslie, AR, to stock up on their famous fried pies, chocolate rolls, and peanut brittle was a good move, as we arrived at the farm before the gates even opened. Located about 30 minutes outside of Little Rock, both the drive to the farm and the setting itself are spectacular. When we spotted two enormous towers of pumpkins and a pumpkin house, we turned into girls just giddy with excitement.

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While the farm is Allen’s personal residence, it is open to the public during the fall and holiday seasons. Our tour included a walk through the main home, built in 2007, which is reminiscent of the plantation homes along the Mississippi River. Styled after 19th century Greek Revival architecture, the home is situated with a front porch overlooking a centuries-old oak tree, while the back terraced gardens overlook the Arkansas River Valley.

DSC_0033The tour started in the front parlor where the walls are filled with Allen’s own paintings, as well as antiques mixed with comfortable seating. Huge silver bowls and apothecary jars filled with gourds, apples, and tiny pumpkins were everywhere. While Jo Anne and Caroline settled in to hear the history of the farm and its “green” features, I couldn’t help but sneak around the corner to play with Duncan, an adorable Scottish Terrier who seemed to know he was the perfect complement to the setting.

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During the tour, we marveled at the number of books that were stacked on every flat surface, and that we hadn’t seen a television set anywhere!  After walking through the house and hearing about all of the gardens and animals that are tended on the farm, we realized there’s no time for watching television. P. Allen Smith and his crew are too busy filming television shows for the rest of us to enjoy.

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Throughout the house, we pointed out things we each loved – McCarty pottery from Mississippi, my favorite; giant pumpkin paintings, Caroline’s favorite; marble busts in straw hats, Jo Anne’s favorite. We all agreed we loved the huge copper bathtub on the screened-in sleeping porch, overlooking the Arkansas River – the perfect spot for enjoying a breeze and a nap!

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Once we covered two of the home’s three stories, we set out for the one-acre organic vegetable garden. Set with huge farm tables for a garden-to-table wedding reception in just a few days, the garden’s 12-foot-wide path led us past blackberry bushes, pepper plants, squash, and tomatoes.DSC_0200

 

Through a gate and beyond the rustic garden rows, the gravel trail led to a breathtaking 20,000 square-foot rose garden featuring a hand-forged wrought iron gate, an oval ring of live oak trees, Gothic garden houses, and the biggest purple salvia any of us had ever seen.

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Leaving the rose garden and heading back up to the barn for lunch, we walked a rugged path, past a pond that swans Fred and Wilma call home. The barn isn’t just any barn, though. It is a beautiful event center, where a spectacular lunch of roasted sweet potato & feta salad was served with grilled organic chicken. Dessert – a scrumptious buttermilk pecan pie – was straight out of the P. Allen Smith cookbook, Seasonal Recipes from the Garden. The tables were lined with burlap, pumpkins, and mums – the perfect fall setting.  Jo Anne might have won a door prize, but I’m sure everyone at the luncheon would agree we all felt like winners!

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After lunch, we were free to wander the terraced gardens that lie behind the main house. Each wing of the gardens that run east and west along the river are divided into eight rooms, with a stone wall running against the hill.  The beds are full of interesting plants, but two octagonal structures filled with pumpkin tablescapes and dried topiary were my favorite terrace-garden secret.

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Up a set of stairs and heading back toward the main house, we explored Allen’s personal art studio, a 350-square-foot dream of a room that doubles as a guest cottage. Just to the left of a fireplace, stood an easel with a giant squash painting he had left unfinished. Opposite the art studio on the back lawn is a summer kitchen, with its own fireplace and stainless-steel appliances. The space doubles as the set for the taping of many cooking segments for his television show, P.Allen Smith’s Garden Home. I recognized the orange dishes and yellow stoneware from videos I had seen of Allen making everything from homemade house cleaners to hushpuppies!

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From what our guide said, Allen’s real passion is chickens, however, so we knew we had to make the long walk down to Poultryville. The farm hosts a spring poultry workshop where you can order birds from Moss Mountain and Allen even founded a charity, the Heritage Poultry Conservancy,  to preserve rare strains of birds and encourage youth education, stewardship and solid breeding practices. On the way to Poultryville, we passed South African Dorper sheep grazing and a cottage that was created by Allen in just 150 days for $150,000 during a filmed garden home challenge. Allen’s brother and sister-in-law live in the home with their family and are active on the farm. There is also a barn for swans and goats – my favorite.

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We were glad we wore comfortable shoes on this trip, as there was a lot of ground to cover, but we wouldn’t have missed one thing at the farm and decided we had to visit again in the spring, when more than 280,000 daffodils are in bloom.  After shopping for autographed cookbooks and other garden treasures in the gift shop, we said goodbye to Allen’s sister-in-law Joyce, who had been so good to us as we arranged our visit. We hated to go, but the farm closes at 3:00 to the public, so Allen and others can actually live there!

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We made our way back to Little Rock to the bed and breakfast where Caroline had made reservations for us to spend the night.  The Empress of Little Rock’s magnificent (and massive) Victorian architecture has been recognized as the most important existing example of Gothic Queen Anne style regionally and as the best example of ornate Victorian Architecture in Arkansas by the National Register of Historic Places. Made exclusively of Arkansas materials, the home has served as a college and nursing home, and stood vacant after the Depression.  Today, owners Bob and Sharon have created a multi-award winning AAA Four Diamond treasure.

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It was the first time Jo Anne and Caroline had stayed at a B&B, so we explored  each guest room, excited to find our own. The two of them shared the octagonal Washburn-Welch room named for Presbyterian ministers who are said to have preached the first sermon west of the Mississippi. They were especially taken with the room’s antique twin beds and claw foot tub. I was spoiled and had my own room, The Petit Jean, named for a young French girl who legend says stowed away as a cabin boy in the 1700’s to be with her love as he sailed for the new world. Arriving in Arkansas, the girl became ill and her identity was revealed. The room’s ornately carved bed was done up in blues and whites – a nod to the nautical romance of the story. My favorite features in the room were the sitting area and in-room marble sink.

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After exploring the Inn and even finding a secret room in the attic where the men used to hide away to play cards, we headed downtown to check out One Eleven, a new restaurant and bar at the Capital Hotel.  We were surprised to find a quartet from the Arkansas Symphony entertaining in the lobby of the hotel, so we grabbed a seat to enjoy the music. Our waitress was kind enough to share the recipe for Mulled White Wine Sangria – a delicious concoction of fresh Golden Delicious apples, fresh Bartlett pears, and Clementine segments macerated with Quady Orange Muscat, Strub Spätlese Riesling and a homemade mulling spice blend.  As we talked through the recipe and where we might find these ingredients in the Twin Lakes Area, she mentioned she was a native of Mountain Home! Small world, indeed.

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We made our way back for dinner at South on Main, a cool venue for musical and literary performances with southern cuisine. My hot chicken liver salad with blue cheese and bacon was to die for!  Jo Anne had fried green tomatoes and Caroline ordered Charred Romaine with Israeli Couscous, Shitake & Grilled Onions. Everyone raved about what they had, but we all saved room for sweets which are described as “Jar,” “Cookies,” or “Doughnuts.” The jar, layered parfaits of chocolate looked great, but Jo Anne and Caroline preferred the Chocolate Chip Cookies with ice cream filling and I went for the doughnuts which were deep-fried lemon lusciousness served with confectioner’s sugar like beignets.

Satisfied, we headed back to The Empress, just a couple of blocks away, where our beds were turned down and Amoretto and chocolates were left for us.  We didn’t stay up long, however, as we were exhausted from the day’s fun, and we couldn’t wait for breakfast!

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The next morning at 8:30 in the beautiful dining room, we were joined by a couple from Alabama on their way to see their daughter in Fayetteville, and a man from California who was in town to visit friends. As is customary at B&B’s, we enjoyed sharing stories of our lives and our travels and played the “do you know” game as we enjoyed coffee together. The first course was served in beautiful china bowls and was a scrumptious fresh fig soup, made from figs off the fig trees on the grounds. The main course was a cheese strata, sausage, butternut squash quiche, and fresh fruit – all delicious!

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It was hard to pull away from our new friends and The Empress, but we had plenty more fun planned for the day. After checking out, we headed back down South Main and made a stop at Esse Purse Museum, one of just three dedicated purse museums in the world. Amsterdam and Seoul couldn’t have anything on Little Rock’s museum, which is as much about women, as it is a century of handbags. We all agreed that a look at what women carried inside their purses in each decade was as interesting as the more than 270 handbags we saw. Decade by decade, the museum told the story of women through the bags they carried  and the things  they tucked inside. Esse, which grew out of a traveling exhibit selected from owner Anita Davis’ extensive collection of handbags, is housed in a historic building in the hip SoMa neighborhood.

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We loved the history and the stories of the decades featured, and told stories of our own memories the purses conjured of the decades. As Esse says, “a woman’s purse is the container of her essence, the sacred, private space that holds her identity, her valuables, her memories, her dreams, her mystery.”

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Each of us had a favorite decade – Jo Anne’s seemed to be the beaded bags of the 1920’s, mine the clutches popular in the 1930’s, and Caroline’s the jeweled evening bags in a special exhibit.  We spent the most time checking out the skins – exotic Alligator, crocodile, ostrich, snake, shark, and calf.  The travel exhibit brought back memories of trips we all enjoyed through the years and elicited squeals of “I had one of those!” from us and from other women who were also enjoying the small museum.  The gift shop is worth a visit to Esse if you are looking for unique gifts or quirky one-of-a-kind pieces – scarves, jewelry, books, and of course, purses.

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From Esse, we headed downtown toward the river and all the shops in the River Market area before spending some time at Heifer International’s headquarters where Caroline bought a beautiful fair trade shawl and hammered silver bracelet. Docents let us wander the exhibits that tell the story of Dan West’s vision for the 70-year old nonprofit. West’s vision of donating livestock to small-scale farmers throughout the world, so that impoverished nations can be transformed, is told beautifully in lobby exhibits at the Little Rock headquarters. The stories of Heifer’s work in more than 30 countries around the world is impressive and all of us were happy to have the organization’s holiday gift catalog so that we could consider a Heifer gift this Christmas.

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The Clinton Presidential Center was our final stop to view an art exhibit by Dale Chihuly, who is renowned for his architectural glass installations in cities, gardens, and museums around the world.  The exhibit featured an enormous fountain installation called Red Reeds, a giant room-sized exhibit titled Mille Fiori, a series of sea forms and a giant tower of glass in the Sky Lobby. The color of the glass and its fluid forms were stunningly beautiful. Just seeing the Chihuly’s was a treat, but it’s always fun to visit the permanent exhibits at the Clinton Center, like the Cabinet Room, the full-scale Oval Office, and the exhibits that highlight life in the Clinton White House and their personal mementos and keepsakes.

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Lunch in Forty Two, the on-site restaurant named for Clinton’s spot as the forty-second President, was the perfect end to our visit. Even a cheeseburger (The Big Kahuna) in Forty Two is a real treat topped with grilled pineapple, black forest ham and melted pepper jack cheese.  We all shared sweet potato fries with a spicy strawberry jam and marveled over the 5-Spice Salmon Salad with pickled grapes, curried peanuts and baby arugula that Caroline was smart enough to order.

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We couldn’t leave Little Rock without making one last stop at Tipton & Hurst, the Granddaddy of all florists in Little Rock.  They were stocked full of fall gifts and decor and were getting the Christmas trees primped for their holiday open house.  The florist, founded in 1886, is known for their award-winning team of floral designers and resources that include premier suppliers from around the world. We left with silver pumpkins, twig cornucopia, and delicious Arkansas-made What’s Cookin’ dip mixes sure to  make our holiday get-togethers meet even P. Allen Smith’s standards!

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Sometimes getaways close to home are just as special as those to exotic locations far from home, especially when made with good girlfriends. This trip was one of those, thanks to the grandeur of Moss Mountain Farm and the hospitality of The Empress of Little Rock, coupled with great museums and fantastic food found in Arkansas’ capital city, Little Rock.

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Miles to go to Top of the Rock…

DSC_0827Several years ago, when I moved to the Ozarks, I asked around for a special place to celebrate my husband’s birthday. More than one person told me Top of the Rock at Big Cedar was just the place – it was a fairly short drive, served incredible food, and had a rustic, romantic atmosphere. Unfortunately, a kitchen fire that year caused the restaurant to close before we could visit. I’ve had plenty of other great times at Big Cedar through the years, however – girlfriend getaways and celebration dinners at the resort’s other great restaurants, like Devil’s Pool (think fried chicken livers and smoked trout with a stunning view of Table Rock Lake).

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One afternoon recently, I was ecstatic to receive an email message saying that after a seven-year renovation, Top of the Rock was reopening. I called my friend JoAnne Dukes and told her we had to head to Big Cedar – ASAP. JoAnne was celebrating her 55th wedding anniversary that week and I was graduating with a master’s degree (at age 51!) so we both felt like celebrations were in order! We loaded the car and headed toward Branson, not really knowing what to expect. Our minds were blown by what we found at Top of the Rock.

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The email said that Top of the Rock would include an Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum, which I knew JoAnne would adore. She’s always doing research on the history of the Ozarks, genealogy and such. When we walked through the lobby door of Top of the Rock and were face to face with the skeleton of a 10-ton giant woolly mammoth, we were both speechless! As you walk under and past the exhibits, you feel like you are in Chicago’s Field Museum, and for a reason – they were created by Blue Rhino Studio, the firm that assisted with the exhibitions in the Field.

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The museum was still under construction when we were there in June, but when finished, it will house one of the largest collections of Native American artifacts in the world. It will lead visitors through a chronological history of the Ozarks through artifacts, images, text, and video. Besides the woolly mammoth, there is a saber tooth cat, giant ground sloth skeleton, and prehistoric cave bears.

The museum experience doesn’t end in the lobby. The restaurants themselves are like incredible museums you don’t want to leave. Take Arnie’s Barn, for example. It’s the more casual dining option at Top of the Rock serving Mexican fare. The restaurant itself is a 150-year old barn that was brought from golfing legend Arnold Palmer’s hometown in Pennsylvania and reconstructed on-site by a local Amish family. Some of the timbers from the barn – which included now-extinct American chestnut – are so old, historians are carbon dating them. It is believed that when the barn was built 150 years ago, some of the wood was already well over 100 years old. The vaulted ceilings with 46-foot timbers and floor-to-ceiling windows look out over a nine-hole Par-3 golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus. In fact, at the back of the bar, you’ll find a life-size mount of a 1,358 pound black marlin caught by Nicklaus off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. It is the fourth largest fish by weight – and still the largest by measurement (15 feet 6 inches) – ever caught on a rod and reel. Everywhere you look, there are wonders to behold!

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Another wonder to behold at Arnie’s Barn, I later found out when JoAnne and I returned for our second trip with two other friends, Shelley Crutcher and Lee Kothe, are the margaritas. The girls stuck with the house favorite “Arnie’s Margarita” which had a splash of orange juice, but I went straight for the Watermelon margarita with fresh watermelon puree. Everyone agreed mine was over-the-top fantastic! If we had been braver, or had more time, we would have tried the Habanero Lime Margarita or the Ozark Mountain Margarita, which featured a blood orange liqueur, a cinnamon rim, and an orange. Next time…

DSC_0801We found that the food was as delicious as the margaritas. Dos Equis Battered Cod Tacos with Mexico City Street Corn on the Cob and Grilled All Natural Chicken Enchiladas were favorites.

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You need time to linger, because the golf pro shop and the grounds themselves are spectacular. We were told there were 17 fireplaces at Top of the Rock – some inside, some out. The one in Arnie’s Barn is big enough to walk right into. The outdoor sculpture and fish ponds will have you mesmerized, but the focal point, at the end of a long covered walkway, is an infinity pool that appears to drop off into Table Rock Lake with a stunning silhouette of James Earle Fraser’s sculpture, End of the Trail.

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Osage Restaurant is the “cornerstone dining experience” at Top of the Rock. It overlooks the infinity pool and has sweeping views of the Ozark Mountains and Table Rock Lake. JoAnne and I couldn’t even take in all of the custom artwork and native artifacts. Every detail in the restaurant is of unparalleled beauty. When we exhausted ourselves (and felt we had walked every inch of the restaurant), we settled at table 11 – a prime spot for watching the sunset over the infinity pool. I ordered pan roasted Rockbridge trout amandine, featuring trout from the beautiful fresh spring water at Rockbridge Trout and Game Ranch in Rockbridge, Missouri, while JoAnne ordered brown sugar glazed cedar plank salmon with garlic spinach orzo and Missouri grown heirloom tomato & olives. We agreed, it was one of the best meals we have ever had, made even more special by a visit with Johnny Morris, creator of Top of the Rock, Big Cedar and Bass Pro Shops.

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While he’s listed on the Forbes 400 list as a Billionaire (capital B), he walked the floor of Osage Restaurant visiting with guests as if he were still working in his daddy’s Springfield, MO, liquor store, Brown Derby, in his denim shirt with a Bass Pro Shop emblem on the chest. “Are you enjoying yourselves?” he asked JoAnn and me. “Lord, yes!” we said. “Great! Tell all your friends to come see us,” he said, as he strolled on to the next table.

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Amazed that THE Johnny Morris had just asked how we liked our dinner, we walked off our meal by following a stone-lined stairwell that leads to the Buffalo Bar, where Rod Stewart look-alike Don Audette sang in a raspy voice that was a dead-ringer for Rod. While it was tempting to sit and enjoy the music, JoAnn pulled me along through the fabulous “End of Trail” All-American Wine Cellar, which has its own tasting bar, whiskey room and a vault of American wines. We rounded the corner at the perfect moment to catch the bright orange sun setting behind the slumped American Indian on horseback. We were speechless.

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It was the perfect ending to a perfect celebration – of hers, of mine, and of the breathtaking Ozarks JoAnn and I both love and call home.

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Note: In the coming weeks, Top of the Rock will feature a two and a half mile ride in an electric cart through Lost Canyon Nature Trail. Johnny Morris spent hundreds of hours walking the land and painstakingly cutting a trail that would bring visitors into contact with dramatic features of nature such as stunning rock formations, beautiful views of Table Rock Lake, and driving through the remarkable Lost Canyon Cave, with its spectacular waterfalls. Be sure to notice the primitive hand painted directional signage. Johnny Morris (Capital B), painted every one himself.

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Miles to go for bar-b-que shrimp…

photo 1(1) JoAnne and Sonny Dukes are the best hosts in the world, and when their daughter Roxanne is in town, it’s fun to get together to visit and eat. Roxanne is a great cook, and always has a special drink recipe she brings to us from her hometown of Birmingham.  This weekend, peach sangria was the treat, with peaches Roxanne bought at the Birmingham farmers market before she headed to the Ozarks. Birmingham’s farmers market is open 24/7 and Roxanne said when she stopped before daylight on her way to Mountain Home to pick up peaches she and JoAnne would spend the weekend canning, the market was full of the city’s great chefs picking out fresh fare for their restaurants.

The sangria was fabulous, as was our meal.  Roxanne fixed bar-b-que shrimp and pan-fried White River trout that she and her dad had caught just that morning.  Roxanne makes cooking look easy, but I require a recipe when I’m in the kitchen, so she shared her bar-b-que shrimp recipe with me.

1 pound shrimp, heads off and unpeeled

1/2 cup butter

1/2 cup zesty Italian dressing

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 teaspoons ground black pepper

1/8 teaspoon garlic powder

Preheat oven to 350 degrees; wash and drain shrimp well; melt margarine/butter in one-quart casserole dish.  Add salad dressing, lemon juice, black pepper and garlic powder.  Add shrimp to dish and stir gently to cover the shrimp with mixture.  Cover nad back, stirring occasionally for 25 to 30 minutes or until shrimp are pink.

We served the shrimp hot, and dunked our french bread into bowls of the lemony, buttery sauce that was in the bottom of the pan.  Divine!

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Miles to go for the Art of Ava…

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When Ava Obert was a baby, she carried around an art book instead of a blanket. For as long as her mother Summer can remember, Ava has been intrigued with beautiful color and design. “The book was one of my college books and Ava found it when she was two or three years old,” said Summer. “At night, she would ask me to tell her about the art in the book rather than have me read her bedtime stories.” That was Summer’s first inclination that her child might be a creative soul.

The older Ava got, the more she loved things with aesthetic beauty. While other children her age were caught up in the world of Disney, Ava begged her mom to take her to visit children’s author and artist Eric Carl. “Ava would always ask me to read the section in the back of her books about the authors and illustrators. When she was four, and I asked her where she would like to go on vacation, I expected her to say Disney World, but she said she would rather visit Eric Carl and do art with him.” When she was five, she began hitting the pause button on the television remote and drawing her favorite characters, Spongebob and Phineas & Ferb.

“We noticed Ava had a gift, but it was at a Baxter County Library children’s event one summer that her talent was noticed by others. Art instructor Steve Hargett asked the children to look at their hand and draw it. When my husband picked Ava up after the class, the instructor took him aside and said that Ava had an amazing talent, well beyond her young age of nine,” said Summer. That was the point at which Summer decided she needed to find the right person to mentor Ava and find out if this was for real.

A friend recommended Duane Hada as an instructor who might be a good fit. Maybe it’s because Duane had a frustrating time expressing himself as an artistic boy without formal training, or maybe it’s because the two have a shared love of the outdoors that makes this relationship between teacher and student so unique; but unique it is. “As a child, I didn’t have access to formal instruction and I became easily frustrated.” Creative frustration, at any age, isn’t necessary, it turns out. Duane says he can teach almost anyone to draw. “If you can hold a pencil and make a mark and have one good eye, I can train you in the mechanics of drawing. Ava has something else working for her in that she is in tune with aesthetic things, even at her young age.”

When Duane met Ava, he recognized that, even at nine, she loved color and light and was already picking out things in nature she wanted to draw. “The first time I met with Ava, I asked her what she would like to draw and she said a cheetah,” said Duane. “I knew she and I had similar passions.” Duane is a noted outdoorsman who captures the natural beauty of the Ozarks in his paintings and drawings. He holds a BSE in Art from the University of Central Arkansas, but it’s his passion for fly fishing that is reflected in his creative work. “You paint best what you know. I wanted Ava to paint what she had a passion for. I can teach mixing paint and mechanical technique, but the passion is where an artist finds their own style.”

Over the last two years of their working together, Ava and Duane have been known to ride the roads looking for the right inspiration for a painting. “We’ll pull the truck over and paint, if we see something that calls to us,” said Duane. One of Summer’s favorite’s of her daughter’s paintings is a field of purple and red flowers that Ava knew she and Duane had to paint. “She found this field of beautiful wildflowers and together, she and Duane took their paints and easels and spent an afternoon painting it.”

Ava’s eyes light up when she talks about painting. “I like things with color – contrasting color! When I’m painting dogwoods, the white just pops with an opposite color on the color wheel like pink.” Dogwoods are a new favorite subject for Ava to paint, and Duane says she paints them in watercolor with a skill he hasn’t seen even in his adult students. Ava seems to love the challenge. “I love the feel of painting with watercolors,” said Ava. “It’s simpler, but harder to do…do you know what I mean?” Duane knows what she means. “Many of my adult students have a difficult time with watercolor if they have experience in another medium like acrylics. This kid can fly effortlessly between pastels, acrylics, pencils and watercolor. It’s really amazing.”

Ava and Duane agree on one more thing…they can’t be forced to paint things they aren’t interested in. When Duane was a young boy, a man offered him $25 to paint his mailbox. The name of the man’s farm was Lone Acres and he wanted to commission Duane to paint an old man bent over on a cane on the side of his mailbox. As much as Duane wanted the $25, he turned it down. “I just couldn’t do it. I had no interest at all in painting an old man with a cane, and it didn’t matter what he was willing to pay, I couldn’t make myself do it.” Ava knows the feeling. “My uncle loves golf and wants me to paint a golf course for him, but I can’t get in the mood for it. I don’t like the activity of golf. What you have a love for, you’ll paint better.”

Talking to Ava isn’t like talking to a child; she seems balanced and mature beyond her 11 years. When you ask this child what she wants to be when she grows up, she answers like someone with the perspective of a PhD candidate. “I would love to be an artist, but it’s a very risky business. Not everyone will like your work,” she says. “If I’m not an artist when I grow up, I think I would like to be a home designer or a clothing designer.” And then, just like that, she’s a little girl again. “Do you ever watch that show on HGTV, Love It or List It? I love that show! I redecorate my room about twice a month!”

Like her mentor, Duane, who has won both regional and national recognition for his work, Ava has already won her share of accolades. In 2013, she took first place in the State-Fish Art Program contest (grades 4-6) and in the Junior Duck Stamp Contest (grades 4-6). Her entry in the duck stamp contest made it to the judge’s top five favorites from over 3,000 entries overall. She repeated the first place Junior Duck Stamp win in 2014 with her entry again making it to the top five favorites and then a first place selection from over 3,000 entries statewide from all age groups. Her piece went on to represent the state of Arkansas in the national judging and will be a part of the national travelling exhibit. The respected Junior Duck Stamp program is 20 years old and is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program that supports conservation education.

Ava sketches every day and spends an hour or two working with Duane each week, but she still enjoys school. While Duane’s mother received a note from his fifth grade teacher saying that Duane should spend more time on math and less time drawing, Ava says she is often recognized for her ability and feels encouraged by her teachers and peers to express herself artistically at school. “School is fun! I love being there. I get chosen to do a lot of projects at my school because of my art.” Again, the mature Ava speaks when she continues, “You know, art and science really overlap. In my science class we keep a journal and record our observations through drawings. I love that!” And then, without missing a beat, the 11 year old Ava speaks, “now math….that’s not my favorite!”

As Duane Hada would say about school, about life, or about art, “Ava, do what you love and you’ll do it best!”DSC_1076

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Miles to go to see Jesus…

I’ve been so blessed to be a part of the work of the National Association of Junior Auxiliaries for over 15 years now.  This incredible organization of over 14,000 women does so much for children in over 100 communities in 8 states.  At every meeting, this prayer is shared…

Send us, O God, as Thy messengers to the hearts without a home, to lives without love, to the crowds without a guide.  Send us to the children whom none have blessed, to the famished whom none have visited, to the fallen whom none have lifted, to the bereaved whom none have comforted.

Kindle thy flame on the altars of our hearts, that others may be warmed thereby; cause Thy light to shine in our souls, that others may see the way; keep our sympathies and insight ready, our wills keen, our hands quick to help others in their need.

Grant us clear vision, true judgement, with great daring as we seek to right the wrong; and so endow us with cheerful love that we may minister to the suffering and forlorn – even as Thou wouldst. May the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, rest upon us and upon all our work. May He give us light to guide us, courage to support us, and love to unite us now and forever more.

Amen

Imagine the power of that prayer being repeated by thousands and thousands of women for years and years!

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At a recent gathering of the NAJA Foundation Board of Trustees, Celia Ford of Columbus, MS, shared the following poem in addition to the NAJA prayer.  The poem was written by an 11 year old girl, and shows the power of service in the name of Jesus.

I See Jesus

I saw Jesus last week.  He was wearing blue jeans and an old shirt. He was up at the church building; he was alone and working hard. For just a minute, he looked a little like one of our members. But it was Jesus…I could tell by his smile.

I saw Jesus last Sunday. He was teaching a Bible class. He didn’t talk very loud or use long words. But you could tell he believed what he said. For just a minute, he looked like my Bible teacher.  But it was Jesus…I could tell by his loving voice.

I saw Jesus yesterday. He was at the hospital visiting a friend who was sick. They prayed together quietly. For just a minute, he looked like our preacher. But it was Jesus…I could tell by the tears in his eyes.

I saw Jesus this morning. He was in my kitchen making my breakfast and fixing me a special lunch. For just a minute, he looked like my mom.  But it was Jesus…I could feel the love from his heart.

I see Jesus everywhere…taking food to the sick, welcoming others to his home, being friendly to a newcomer, helping children in need. And just for a minute, I think he’s someone I know.  But it’s always Jesus…I can tell by the way he serves.

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Miles to go for Paula Deen’s Double Rum Cake…

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Between the holidays and snow days, I’ve been in the house cooking since mid-December!  It’s now mid-January and I’ve pretty much used up every can and box in the pantry.  Tonight, in anticipation of a big thaw overnight, I decided to end all of this cooking and eating by making my favorite cake – a last hurrah for this string of days at home.

Paula Deen’s Double Rum Cake is one of the easiest cakes in the world to make since it uses a packaged cake mix. The instant pudding and rum you add make it incredibly moist; and the rum syrup you pour over the top is its crowning glory!  Try this as a treat, a gift or for guests and you’ll always get raves.

Double Rum Cake from Paula Deen

One package yellow cake mix

One 3 1/2-ounce package instant vanilla pudding mix

1/2 cup rum, light or dark

1/2 cup vegetable oil

4 large eggs

1/2 cup chopped pecans

Rum Syrup:  1 cup sugar, 1 stick margarine, 1/4 cup rum, 1/4 cup water

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Blend cake mix, pudding mix, rum, oil, and 1/2 cup water.  Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.  Evenly distribute the pecans in the bottom of the prepared Bundt pan.  Pour the batter on top of the pecans and bake for 50 to 55 minutes, until a knife inserted an inch from the center comes out clean.  Do not remove the cake from the pan.  Make the rum syrup by bringing ingredients to a boil and cooking for 3 minutes.  With a fork, make holes in the top of the cake.  Pour the syrup over the cake and let sit for 30 minutes or as long as you can stand it!  Invert the pan onto a serving plate.  Divine!

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