It’s “Mack-i-naw” Island.

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“I think when I die, I want some of my ashes spread here,” I tell my cousin as I take a picture through the ferry window on our way over to the island. “I mean, not on this boat, but–you know–maybe Mission Point. Or behind the library. Or, wait–I know–the playground.” Yes, that little playground on the back of the island that overlooks Lake Huron is most definitely a place I will forever associate with happiness and peace and watching my children play during a magical sliver of life called summer.

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“But, for the record,” I add in a superstitious attempt to smooth out what I just threw into the universe, “that won’t be for a long, long time.”

The ferry speeds ahead while Dash snaps blurry pictures of the water spray against the window, and as we approach the island, what were dots in the distance now take shape into the setting of one of our favorite summer adventures.

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There’s the massive Grand Hotel taking up an entire corner of the island’s edge, its sheer size and stately white columns making it the first distinguishable building from the lake. And then Hotel Iroquois. And Fort Mackinac. And the harbor and the dock with all the boats where we finally stop and get off. I take a deep breath of that lake/horse/fudge-scented air that I’m certain is also laced with some highly illegal happiness-inducing chemical.

“Ahhh. Kids–this is it. The adventure begins,” I announce as we seek out our porter to ensure our bags make it to our hotel–by horse.

No direction is given this year–no “This way” or “Turn right” or “Where to first?” because they know. It’s “turn right.” Walk slowly through town. Take it in. Turn around to make sure Dash is following us and not stopped a block back, staring and taking pictures of a horse (he is).

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Find the Pink Pony. Order a round of pink lemonades…and two Michigan beers. Ask for the window booth.

It’s Deja Vu. Five years of the same places, same food orders, same smells, same sounds, same summer highs, all blurred together because it is hard to keep the years straight.

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Even the horses are the same. “Blackberry and Jay,” a carriage driver answers Dash when he shouts–aggressively, might I add–across the street, “WHAT’S YOUR HORSES NAMES?”–the first of the 789 times that will follow in the next two days.

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“We had them last year!” we excitedly explain. “What about Josie and Daisy?” we ask. “Are they still around?”

“Josie’s here,” the carriage driver informs, “but Daisy’s retired now. Livin’ the good life.”

Dash asks about Daisy several times after this, confused about this retired thing. We tell him she lives by the lake now, in a cottage like Poppa’s where she does crossword puzzles and tends to her tomato garden and is perfecting her blueberry crumble recipe. I bet post-Mackinac horses are the happiest retired horses of all.

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We close out our tab at the Pink Pony but might as well leave it open because we’ll be back later tonight. And again tomorrow. I fold up the paper placemat where we started a list of the island’s horse names and tuck it in my purse.

We turn right and continue walking. Past the harbor, the houses, the church, up the hill with the flowers. We stop for every horse carriage which is often. “WHAT’S THEIR NAMES?!?!” Dash demands. Duke & Billy. Pat & Jack. Slim & Pete. Clarence & Cindy.

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I pull out the placemat list and hand it to Lainey, our official recorder. The list will grow by the hour until we have over 100 horse names before we leave the next day.

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We turn the corner, and Mission Point appears in all its glory–the lawn with grass that feels like velvet, the water, the chairs that beg you to come and sit and think about what it would be like to stay here forever–you could make it work, you’d figure it out.

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Our visit to the lawn has unwritten rules. Like Thou Shalt Play Airplane. And Thou Shalt Cartwheel. And Thou Shalt Attempt to Throw Children in the Air for a Picture but Notice It’s Not That Easy Anymore.

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And then we walk some more.

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We walk through town, popping in to Horn’s for another beer, the Seabiscuit for fries, Murdick’s for fudge. We stand and watch the hypnotizing show of fudge makers scraping spatulas through pools of liquid fudge that looks like brown glass and smells like heaven.

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We smell soaps, buy a dish towel and peruse handmade jewelry at our favorite shops like Poppin’s and Little Luxuries Artist Market and Caddywumpus. I buy a keychain and four postcards at a new store–Canvas & Paddle–and am reminded how much I love that whole cabin-in-the-woods decor. Everywhere we walk feels like a scene from a storybook, and there doesn’t seem to be a single tourist who takes it for granted. The secret of this island is well-appreciated–it’s why we’re all here. With the absence of cars and a $25 ferry ticket to get here, people don’t stumble on the island accidentally.

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Evening takes us on a different walk–along the lake toward the Grand Hotel. We walk slowly again to drink up all the details of the homes–the red front doors, the perfect window shutters, the flowers hanging on the front porch.

We reach the playground and stay until the perfect moment that leaves us just enough time to walk up the rest of the hill so that the Grand Hotel appears as the sun is setting.

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On the lawn next to the golf greens is the old red phone booth where I’ve taken pictures of the kids every year. They play there for an hour, pleading to stay longer when we suggest maybe we should leave. There’s nothing really to play with but an old pay phone, but they’ve found a way to turn making pretend calls and opening and shutting a heavy booth door into a full hour of play.

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We return to the Grand Hotel the next day, this time to tour the inside and settle into big rocking chairs on the largest front porch in the world. We stay for hours.

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When the kids need more breaks from walking, we revisit the kid’s art studio in Mackinac Art Museum where they make sailboats out of paper towel rolls, painted newspaper and egg cartons.

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Even in the quiet of the studio, you can still hear the distant clip-clip-clip-clop of Duke & Billy. Or Slim & Pete. Or maybe Blackberry & Jay.

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The Michigan coloring pages they’ve offered every year are stacked on the same table with a basket of crayons. There’s something comforting about coloring the same robin every year–red-orange for the belly, and for the feathers, the broken classic brown crayon with the peeled-off paper.

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And finally, our favorite, the Mackinac Island Public Library with the mint green paint job and the reading deck that overlooks the lake. The little children’s section has so many of the same toys and games and books that we have at home, but here, my kids actually want to play with them for hours. So we whisper so as not to disturb adults on the other side of the fireplace (yes a little library fireplace, by golly) while we play Candy Land on the floor and initiate a silly puppet show we eventually take outside because the kids are giggling so loudly.

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On a shelf in the children’s section, I find a display of picture books about Northern Michigan and the island. I thumb through illustrations of lighthouses, pebbled shores, tall pines, sun-drenched dunes and facts about the history of the island, the depths of the Great Lakes, the battles fought near Fort Mackinac years ago. I put the books back and gather the kids to head to our next stop…more fudge, maybe. The harbor, perhaps. On to another page in the picture book.

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(a reaction to the smell of horse poop):

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The hourglass sand trickles as we know we’ll board the last ferry of the day, and this little island will join our own picture memories until it comes to life again next year.

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I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. Some summer in your life–any summer–find a way to visit Mackinac Island. There’s magic everywhere.

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Simple Acts of Kindness in a Small Town

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This post is sponsored by Hallmark.

In a town with a population of 1,392, it’s easy to notice things. It helps that there are less distractions here–unreliable wifi and only a handful of shops, for example–in the little town of Lewiston, Michigan to keep you from noticing the more important things like how many different kinds of birds have visited the feeder, what time is the best light for coffee in the garden and, most important, needs that exist in the town…invitations to brighten someone’s day. We’ve been able to observe and join in on a little of this town’s day brightening, and we’ve learned what so many others in this town have learned–that small acts of caring are contagious.

I’m thrilled to be partnering with Hallmark in sharing stories to inspire more acts of caring in their #CareEnough campaign. Beyond a card company, Hallmark’s roots are really in the art of caring–finding ways to spread kindness and encourage others whether it’s an “I’ve been thinking of you” card slipped in the mail to a friend or a meal dropped off to a co-worker who seems to be balancing a little more in her life than she signed up for. As soon as Hallmark approached me about their summer story-telling campaign inspiring others to join the wave of kindness spreading, I knew exactly which story I’d share. The idea is that when you care enough, you can change the world. It begins in small communities, and in the tiny northern Michigan town of Lewiston, a few people have started a wave of caring, and a growing crowd is catching on.

It started downtown where the neglected overgrown median planters weren’t doing anything to brighten the mood of the town. Gary heard the Downtown Development Authority was working to improve this and knew he had the skills and experience to help them out, so he volunteered to take them over–replanted them, enlisted the ladies of the garden club to help out, worked toward getting new gabion planters down the town’s Main Street and is now committed along with many others who’ve joined him to making this town a brighter, happier place.

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Every morning this summer, Gary leaves early in the morning to water the flowers downtown. It’s a 2-hour job, and Dash has joined him many times, learning through the process about the hard work of taking care of plants but more importantly, why it’s meaningful.

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“Why, thank you, son,” he’s been told by residents who pass by. “You’re making our town a happier place.”

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“I’ve lived here thirty-three years,” one gentleman said as he watched Dash and Gary water the flowers one morning, “and this is the prettiest this town has ever looked. Thank you.”

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The satisfaction of knowing you’re doing something to make someone happy is reward enough for acts of kindness, but what’s really remarkable about a simple act of brightening up this town with planting and tending to gardens is how this “Care Enough” initiative has spread to more kindness.

“It’s stirred a civic pride in this town,” a neighbor who stopped by pointed out the other day, “More people are taking pride in their own properties now. This town is becoming more beautiful; even businesses are picking up their game.”

A little caring act spreads some more. After dinner at the town’s Hotel restaurant the other night, the waitress came over without a bill. “Your dinner’s been taken care of tonight,” she told my dad. “Someone at the bar asked if you guys were the ones who had done so much work to brighten up this town this summer, and when I told him you were, he asked for your bill.”

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A simple act of caring is all that it takes to start a movement. And now, there’s an entire force dedicated to caring more in this town.

“We’re calling ourselves the RAK Group,” Gary’s cousin told me at dinner the other night. She and her husband have a cabin a few blocks from my dad and Gary’s, and she too has joined the kindness brigade. “Random Acts of Kindness,” she explained, “We started a club, and we’ll be on the lookout for people who need help in this town–maybe elderly folks who can’t maintain their yard anymore or need some chores done. We’ll anonymously come in and help them out, leaving a note that says we were there.”

I can’t help but be inspired by all of this going home. I always leave Michigan renewed at the end of the summer and inspired to slow down and live everyday life a little more attentive to nature and small moments. This year, I’m excited to find more ways to bring some Lewiston love and small town kindness back to my own community.

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Caring is a lot like flowers…give them some water, and they will grow. One person’s kindness inspires another’s.

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So many of us have the hearts and motivation to care enough and spread kindness–it’s just that we get busy and overstimulated by so many distractions around us. In the quiet of a small town, it’s been nice to listen, watch and learn.

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We’ve kept a bucket list of celebration ideas on display this summer to help inspire us to do fun things we might not normally think to do–how great would it be if we kept little bucket lists of kind acts on display to help us remember how fun it is to make someone’s day throughout the week?!

* Send a handwritten card to a friend in another town.
* Double what you’re making for dinner later this week and text a friend you’ll be bringing her dinner that day.
* Buy a pack of stickers and mail them to a friend’s child who would love them.
* Pull the neighbor’s trash bins up on garbage day.
* Slip a $10 coffee shop gift card into a note for the teacher on the first day of school.

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We love brands that sell more than products. Thank you, Hallmark, for being a brand that inspires us to care more and make the world a kinder place.

The Best Travel Souvenirs to Bring Home

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My dad’s friends from New Zealand stopped by yesterday as they were traveling, and I loved the way they described the scenery up here. “As I kid, I watched the scenes in old Disney movies like Bambi and Snow White, and we didn’t have those scenes in New Zealand,” his friend explained, “The lakes surrounded by so many pine trees with the chipmunks and the squirrels and the woodland creatures–I came to Michigan and was like, ‘This is it! This is where Snow White lives!”

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This is our last week in Michigan, so I’m waking up with heightened sensors for everything I love. Drink in the scene! Listen to those birds! Breathe in this air! You’re going to miss it! 

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We have a few more Michigan adventures before we leave and then we are headed to Chicago to enjoy a city hit before heading back home–without a travel companion this time–but I think the kids are old enough, we’ll make it okay.

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Now that the trip is winding down, I thought I’d answer a few questions from Instagram about what camera/lenses I’ve been using on the trip as well as some of our favorite souvenirs we take home when we travel. I’ll intersperse some more favorite Summer in Michigan shots to pretty it up.

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Other than a few iPhone camera pics, most of the photos I’ve shared from the trip are from my Canon 1D. I brought two lenses, the ones I use most often for everything–my 1.4 50 mm and my 24mm for wide angle shots. How do I get them on my phone to share? READY FOR THE GAME CHANGER? I use this card reader for iPhone (I have an SD slot CF card converter in my camera so this works). It takes seconds to pop out the card from my camera, insert it in this little card reader on my phone and pull up everything I’ve taken from my iPhone photo album to choose what I want to import to my phone. You do need to shoot jpegs to see them on your phone, so if you shoot RAW, you need to change your camera settings so you’re shooting RAW+jpeg. I was using a wifi card so I could transfer to my phone but this is so much quicker and easier, allows you to import just the ones I want on my phone and doesn’t rely on good Internet connections.

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When we get home, I’ll back up everything from my laptop to my hard drive and then print all these babies in a book so we can remember our summer adventures.

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How do I balance enjoying the moment and taking pictures on vacation? I pulled something from a recent online interview I did about photographing my family:

How do you balance being present in the current moment and snapping photos to document the days?

This is a common question for a lot of photo-snapping moms, but I think it’s one of those things you just have to figure out on your own. I used to pick up my camera a lot more than I do now and took it everywhere I went—grocery store, pediatrician visits, park dates, restaurants—but I don’t necessarily regret it. It’s where I was at the time. I was enamored with babyhood, and wanted to capture everything. As my kids have grown older, we’ve become busy in different ways as a family and I have a little hindsight, I look back and laugh at my silliness or skewed balance in far more areas than just taking pictures. But it takes living a little to figure that out. I know that being behind a camera makes me happy but that feeling my face pressed against my kids’ cheeks as I kiss them goodnight is what truly makes me come alive. I’m so grateful to have both in my life and know that with every year I explore living my passions and loving my family, I’ll deepen my understanding and practice of balance.

Because I’ve been doing this a long time, I’ve gotten used to what feels right for me. I love the heady cloud of inspiration that comes from both making memories with my family and seeing my kids happy, and delving into the art of photography and the beauty of capturing light, spirit, joy ad nature.
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We found our dandelions for bucket list seed-blowing and wish-making.

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(Traverse City’s Brew)

…and finally crossed off an outdoor picnic in the woods at Hartwick Pines State Park:

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As for souvenirs we’re bringing home? Whether it’s picking out things to display in our home that remind us of places we’ve visited and family adventures we’ve loved or picking out treasures to share with our friends back home, these are our favorite treasures to scoop up while traveling:

11 Fun Souvenirs to Bring Home from Travel Adventures:

1. Mugs/Cups
Pottery mugs from local artists are a bonus, but I also love mugs that have the logo of our favorite small town breakfast joint or a pilsner from our favorite lodge to keep in our freezer and smile every time we use it. A cupboard made up entirely of mugs from all of our travels is my goal–with stories behind each one.

2. Wearables
T-shirts and baseball caps are my favorite. I love to search shops for the coolest ones. We love Michigan’s M-22 shirtsThe Mitten State vintage tees sold in a lot of northern Michigan shops and the new Enjoy Michigan shop we found in Traverse City.

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3. Bumper Stickers
Even if you don’t put them on your car, it’s so much fun to find unique ones and collect them–put them in a travel jounal.

4. Canvas Tote Bags
You’ll use them all year long!

5. Postcards
Help me out here–keep the art of postcard sending alive! I’ve bought probably 20 on our trip–half to send out to our friends back home and half to tuck in travel journals or display when we get home.

6. Flour Sack Dish Towels
Another souvenir that won’t just clutter up your lives, these are something you’ll actually use. We’ve seen so many cute ones in shops along our way on this trip.

7. Pennant Flags
Fun to display, especially in kids’ rooms.

8. Earth
This one’s completely free. Making amazing memories at a special spot on your travels? Scoop up some earth–dirt from the ground, sticks, pine cones, shells, smooth stones. Put them in a Ziplock, stash them in your suitcase, and when you get home, pour them in a little jar (we look for vintage ball jars on ebay and Etsy for ours). Make a tag for the jar to mark where the earth is from, what the date was and any special memories you want to remember from that trip and collect and display them over the years. We have shelves of Earth memories in our kitchen, and they make me so happy. Remember the I Love Lucy with the stones she stashed in the camper? :o) That’s me.

9. Local Food
This one is great for bringing home to friends. We are visiting one of northern Michigan’s famous food stops today–Cherry Republic in Glen Arbor, and we always stock up on a bunch of Michigan’s cherry goods there to share with friends at home–a bottle of cherry wine, preserves, salsas, cherry soda, etc. Whether it’s a city’s famous coffee, maple syrup, hot sauce from the south or popcorn from the city (Garrett!), your friends will love getting a taste of your trip, and you’ll love revisiting your adventures weeks later at home when you’re smearing cherry preserves on your toast.

10. Accessories
These are great for kids–enamel pins (great ones for Michigan here), patches, earrings, rings–and fun to collect.

11. Spoons
Another nostalgic souvenir, you can still find travel demitasse spoons at any tourist shop or even gas stations on state lines. My grandma used to collect them and had over 100 from mission trips and vacations. After she passed away, the kids and grandkids all got to choose which ones they wanted (I have London :o).

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Happy Monday!