Summer in Chicago

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Happy Friday! We start school next week, and as much as I’ll miss these slow mornings, I’m ready to get back into a more productive schedule. This is the first year that I’ll have every weekday morning to myself, and I’m excited about what I’ll get done during that time. I know. You’re laughing, right? Those of you who also once thought that everyday morning preschool would suddenly mean you’ll have time to work out, paint a room, organize your pantry, clean up your e-mail box, write two chapters and throw together a crock-pot meal? You’re on the floor, right? I’m going to drop them off at school, run to the grocery store, look at the clock and realize it’s pick-up time already, aren’t I? Wait, don’t tell me.

Whatever the case, here are our last bits of adventures away this summer. We weren’t planning on visiting Chicago, but when it was getting closer to leave, we were all craving a good dose of big city excitement after a month long hibernation in a small town.

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Plus, we have cousins there, and Lainey was hoping to get some time with her bud. A little out of our way, but so worth it. Chicago at Christmastime is still my favorite, but there isn’t a bad time for this city, and summer delivered some of the best adventures Chicago has to offer kids–Maggie Daley park, Navy Pier, a symphony in Grant Park and the splash pad at Crown Fountain.

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But first, the most important attraction…revolving doors.

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My lord, the little ones were obsessed. I mean, it became a problem. Like every time we passed a revolving door (which is pretty much every door in Chicago), they’d dart to spin through them before I could stop them. Around and around and around. Which is fine if around lands them back outside where I was with the stroller. But then there was that one time they went in the 4-story Forever 21 revolving doors and then took off on the inside. And I couldn’t chase them because my stroller wouldn’t go in the door (the attempt was funny). And the handicap access door wasn’t working. And I set Lainey loose to chase them, but she came back to the entrance (after 6 people helped me get in the door) and reported she couldn’t find them. And I started to hyperventilate until I heard giggling and saw feet sticking out of a rack of festival dresses.

Moral of the story: NO MORE REVOLVING DOORS.

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But Magnolia cupcakes and Garrett popcorn…a big resounding YES.

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Nella loved how the city provided the perfect stage for her wand act.

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And we could not get over the fabulousness of Maggie Daley Park. It was like an entire village of play buried in the heart of the city.

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Every time we thought we had seen it all, we turned a corner and there was another attraction. Oh, a lighthouse slide. Oh, a magical forest of mirrors. A climbing rock wall, a skate rink, a giant city of bridges and slides.

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We also got lucky and happened to be in the park just as an orchestra performance was beginning.

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And while we had planned to visit the Museum of Science and Industry (one of my favorites as a kid), it was just too beautiful a weekend to be spending time inside. So we did all the outdoor things…

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…and were lucky to meet up with cousins, friends and Brett’s sister, not to mention discover that half of the people we know just happened to be in the city at the same time. We actually bumped in to our babysitter at Pizano’s, I got a text from my niece that she was at a hotel a few blocks away, and received messages on Instagram from three different friends that they were in the city too. Which just proves what I already knew: Chicago is awesome.

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That lady behind Nella thinks so too.

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Ice cream street vendors came in handy for the hot day. So did Aunt Trish who had cash when Mom didn’t.

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We snagged my cousin’s little girl for our last day there and spent most of it at Navy Pier which was the cherry on our summer sundae after already experiencing lake life and cabin sleepovers.

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Nella made some huge milestones this summer. She’s been terrified of ferris wheels and wanted nothing to do with them but decided to give it a shot this time. LOVED it.

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She got off and went right for another ride she had yelled “NO!” to when we first arrived. Loved that one too.

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Even put her arms up.

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And just when we were ready to fold up all this summer and get ready for school next week, Nella surprised us again yesterday. She learned how to swim, thanks to her sister and friend who stayed in the pool with her over an hour, coaxing her through her fears. She swam like a confident little fish.

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Happy Weekend, friends!  Let the games begin.

About That Summer Bucket List

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We rolled in from Michigan late last week, and by rolled, I mean after seven days on the road and four stops, I pulled in to the driveway with three obnoxious honks, pushed the magic minivan door button, and the entire contents of the Earth spilled out.

It feels good to be home. The intersection of post-summer-adventuring and pre-back-to-school always ignites a mad burst of nesting for me, aroused by being away from home for so long and scraping up all these little “living” inspirations we’ve collected on our travels–the way my sister’s cozy bathroom makes me feel at home, the way my dad’s entertaining makes me want to beef up my cheese plate game, the way the little home shops on Mackinac Island give me new ideas for my kids’ rooms or enjoying a big family dinner around my friend Tali’s table in Nashville makes me want to pour more nurturing and togetherness into our dinner routine.

While we’ve said our goodbyes to our beloved Michigan and transitioned back into our home routine, there’s one summer treasure I’ve committed to keeping around though…the Summer Bucket List.

It started as an enthusiastic attempt to celebrate the last day of school. While speakers blared Alice Cooper screaming “School’s Out for Summer!” and kids ran to get their bathing suits, I smoothed out a white paper roll, grabbed a fistful of markers and started to create the list I had no idea would inspire our summer fun as much as it did. Any simple summer pleasure I could think of–“twirl in a sundress,” “walk through a corn field,” “buy a tourist t-shirt,” “paint nails a summery pink”–I added to the list, sketching fun corresponding pictures next to the check-off box. A couple pieces of tape later, and it was hanging in the main area of our home where we’d see it every day, reminded on all the stir-crazy summer days when we’re running out of ideas that there’s a whole world of little pleasures just waiting to make us happy.

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When we left for Michigan, we took the list with us. It had gained significance as we realized those first few weeks of summer the role it was playing in guiding our adventures, so we referred to it as “The Holy Grail” and protected it with utmost care during the transfer to Michigan. “Put this in the ark of the covenant,” I instructed my cousin as I wrapped the roll in protective paper and handed it over for safe keeping on the road trip up. Once there, we found the perfect spot to display it–on a wall in my dad’s garden bunk house–and returned frequently to check off adventures we had “accomplished” and scan the list for more inspiration.

Because we took the time to write it on the list, we were a little more inspired to do spontaneous things like…

…pull over in the middle of nowhere to walk inside a corn field. Also known as “expose the kids to their first misdemeanor, trespassing.”

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…or hit up a small town ice cream parlor for evening double-dip cones.

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While the list wasn’t at all about creating pressure to check things off (Rule #1 of list-making–keep things simple!) and I made it a point to leave some things unchecked in the spirit of “the beauty of incomplete imperfection,” it did inspire us to enjoy some meaningful moments we might not have enjoyed otherwise. I had “lake swim at dusk” on the list and hadn’t checked it off near the end of our trip. I was going to let it go, but on one of the very last evenings in Michigan after the kids had fallen asleep (past dusk but I counted it), I thought “Do it, check it off”–grabbed a towel and flashlight and hollered to my dad, “I’m going for a swim.”

“At this time of night?” he asked.

“The most magical time to swim–it’s on the list, I’m checking it off.”

I’m so glad I did it because out there in the dark lake, floating alone on my back in the still water, I saw the stars like I’ve never seen them. I heard my heart as loud as it’s ever beat this year, and I felt the pulse of summer beating in perfect rhythm with my own. I memorized that feeling along with the pattern in the sky that night, the feeling of weightlessness, the intersection of complete peace in nature with the thrill of uncertainty–of not being able to see what’s around me. I swam underwater for as long as I could to make the satisfaction of coming up for deep breaths of summer night air even better, and when I had my fill, I climbed back on the dock, dried off and walked back to the cabin under the moon, stopping before climbing into bed only to pick up a marker and check that box off the summer bucket list.

The entire family had fun with the list:

“Mom, look! I caught this with my hand! This counts, right? We can cross it off the list!”

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…and there were many a slow day that prompted Lainey running to see if there was something on the list we could attempt–heading to the movie theater on a rainy afternoon (loved it, check.), completing a large puzzle (so much fun! check.), writing vacation post cards to friends and sending them off (keep snail mail alive! check.).

But really, the list was for me–another living reminder that, in every place and in every season, there are invitations to find, create and love all that life has to offer.

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Find the hidden bookstores nestled in Main Streets across the country.

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Stop at wildflower fields for pictures you’ll treasure later.

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Buy pretty handkerchiefs. Hang them to dry.

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Walk to the dock in your pajamas; sip coffee until it’s cold.

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This summer brought a few moments of sad nostalgia, watching my kids growing and changing against a summer landscape I’ve always associated with their littleness…

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…the dunes they were once too little to climb, so I carried them in a backpack…

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…the tree stump they used to have to hold my hand to climb.

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On one of the last days of our trip, it hit me that next year, our return to our summer Narnia and the petri dish where the most wonderful moments in the young golden period of motherhood for me have lived so favorably would be in a new season–with an official middle school student and my baby prepped for kindergarten. The spirit of this bucket list reminds me that it isn’t their littleness that makes me happy. It isn’t Michigan or summer or having a kid who still totes stuffed animals on our adventures (although, that’s perfectly lovely and heck yes, I get joy out of it)…

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It’s ME that makes me happy. It’s loving the season I’m in. It’s realizing that joy and all the simple pleasures of life that inspire me are not confined to specific seasons.

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Which is why the Summer Bucket List lives on this year, now taking the form of “Weekly Bucket”–a list of simple pleasures that will inspire our week.

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(You can find our hanging paper roll here)

And before we completely transition into a new season, a little more from our summer…

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On our last week in Michigan, my dad told me about a place he had heard of–some Wild West town a man had created, inspired by his love of John Wayne. “I bet Dash would love it,” he said. I put the address in my GPS, packed up the kids and drove out to find it–like 2-tracked in the middle of nowhere. The result? Such a fun adventure.

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It’s called Coopersville–completely free (donation-based), and there wasn’t a soul there on our visit–just me and the kids, walking through the saloon…

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…playing Cops & Robbers in the jail…

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…and hoppin’ on the stage coach for a quick getaway.

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Everywhere we turned, there was another building to explore, completely set up like John Wayne just stepped out for a moment.

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Dash loved the handcuffs.

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(she’s skeptical of the gun shots we heard in the distance…hunters, I’m guessing…or the ghosts of cowboys.)

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And we couldn’t leave Michigan without a visit to our favorite little town, Glen Arbor and Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Watching the kids spit cherries from the wine tasting deck:

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Bay Lavender Trading Company gardens:

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From a Glen Arbor beach (this dog introduced himself by grabbing one of my kids’ stuffed animals and BOOKING across the beach with it):

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Those dunes though. We came later than we usually do and discovered that’s the way to do it–with the sun setting across the lake. It was breathtaking.

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We stayed for over four hours. I even offered for us all to go get ice cream, but the kids didn’t want to leave. They did nothing but climb and jump, climb and jump, climb and jump.

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And the amount of sand we collected stayed with us for days.

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Dash wiped out once, rolling down the hill, thought it was the funniest thing ever and then repeated the move about a hundred more times.

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We ended our trip with a pontoon breakfast ride–a full pancake breakfast buffet with orange juice and coffee. Almost skipped it, but it was on the list and we went for it.

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So glad we did.

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Honorable mention for the unchecked items this year:

__  Buy corn from a Midwest farm stand.

__  Go Tubing (can’t do it all, and that’s fine).

__  Cracker Barrel Breakfast (needed some fun to take home–we’ll hopefully do it this week before school starts)

__  Family Slide Show with Old Pictures (still time–we’ve got this)

Everything we’ve loved about summer? It won’t end. Because all those joys are buried in other places throughout the year, waiting for us to discover it.

“August has passed, and yet summer continues by force to grow days. They sprout secretly between the chapters of the year, covertly included between its pages.” ―Jonathan Safran Foer

A knotty-pine lodge bar Cheers! to that.

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What Do You Buy New for Back to School? BTS Shopping (and a $200 Visa Gift Card Giveaway)

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This post is sponsored by RetailMeNot, Yours for the Saving ™

(pssst…there’s a $200 Visa Gift Card Giveaway at the end of this post!)

Confession: Those Back to School Ads we’re pretending to be all sad about–all “Don’t end my summer so fast!” hold-it-back about? Yeah, those. Pssst: I love them. Listen, nothing makes me happier than the first day of summer, and I am ALL IN when it comes to shutting down the school scene and going balls-to-the-walls Summer Bucket List in June. Give me June and July. But come August 1, I’m ready for a shift of season. LET ME SNIFF ALL THE PENCILS! Rev the buses, pick out the backpacks, buy the gym shoes! It’s time for BACK TO SCHOOL, and everything about this time of year brings back all the feels. Suddenly, I am seven, my first-day-of-second-grade outfit is hanging up six days in advance (black mini skirt, hoop earrings, yellow slouchy sweater–way old for my age, but I’m thrilled, thanks Dad), and all I can think about is when I’m going to bust out my new purple jelly shoes. Second day of school? Third day? Play it cool and wait for the second week of school?

While getting ready for another year of school can be stressful, I’ve always loved the buzz of excitement that comes from preparations.

The unboxing of the Back-to-School Gym Shoes:

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Back-to-school shopping is one of those fun things for us, but let’s face it–watching your bank account get smaller is never fun. So, how do we shop for the season, add new things to start the school year, take part in all the fun without completely blowing our fall budget (save some budget for earthy fall candles come September!).

The answer? We shop smart. I have two rules for myself when it comes to back-to-school shopping.

A): Don’t get swept up in the NEW NEW NEW EVERYTHING! lies. Like Christmas, advertising this time of year can flood us with the idea that we need new everything–backpacks, lunch boxes, wardrobes, desks, homes, husbands, cars…you get it. I try to stay smart and not buy into the lie that we need to ditch all the old things for new, shiny pretty things for the start of the year. Not everyone’s getting a new lunch box this year, and if it ain’t broke, we don’t fix it.

B): Use your resources. Tax-free weekends. Coupon codes. E-mail deals. Big sales. Shopping apps.

Which brings me to a secret weapon in back-to-school shopping (and any-time-of-the-year-shopping):


Have you used it? Instead of hopping around to a hundred different shops to see if they have deals or sales or coupon codes, it puts all the deals in one place. Whether you shop online or in a store, you’ll find thousands of coupons, deals, cash back offers and discount e-gift cards for all your favorite stores and restaurants, and you can combine offers for extra savings!

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How do we use it?

First of all, I’m all about free shipping. It’s my kryptonite in getting me to buy something because I HATE paying shipping. You can search RetailMeNot just for shops that have free shipping deals.

For Back to School deals, you can search the RetailMeNot app for deals based on categories…

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We used it this year for our gym shoes, one of the things we buy new for our kids at the end of every summer. It only took an extra few seconds to do our gym shoe shopping through RetailMeNot, and we ended up saving over $20. In seconds, we had a 15% off Foot Locker coupon code we used (LKS17YKC) for shoes we had been eyeing for Nella and Dash…

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And of course you know what happens when two little siblings get new gym shoes…

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You have to test them out with a race.

“Will these make me go fast?” Dash asked.

“ROCKET FAST,” I told him.

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What is it about these cute little gym shoes that makes me all excited to send them off to school?

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One of my favorite things about RetailMeNot is that I’ve gone to buy something on a site I love before and quickly remembered to check RetailMeNot only to find there’s a deal I could have missed out on had I not checked. And for shops you visit locally, your RetailMeNot app will alert you to nearby offers that can be redeemed directly from your phone at checkout.

Here’s the bonus. Our friends at RetailMeNot are giving one of our readers a $200 Visa Gift Card to go towards all your Back-to-School shopping needs. Follow the steps below for your chance with win!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Now, about those gym shoes. Lace up or velcro?

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NO PURCHASE NECESSARY. Open to eligible legal residents of the 50 United States and D.C. at least the age of majority in their jurisdiction. Begins: August 1 at 9:00:00 AM ET. Ends: August 11, 2017 at 8:59:59 AM ET. Subject to Official Rules available at Void where prohibited. Sponsor: Mediakix LLC.