Christmas Countdown

By Karen Hendricks

The mantra I keep hearing and repeating from all of my friends who are moms this holiday season is… “Let it go.” With Thanksgiving falling so late on the calendar this year, there just wasn’t as much time as usual to prepare for Christmas! Whether it’s holiday decorating, cookie baking, gift wrapping, or tree trimming, many of these holiday traditions are falling by the wayside this year. We are all in the same boat–flying by the seat of our pants this holiday season!

About a week ago, I decided to give in to the fact that I can’t and won’t be able to do it all this year… and I gave myself a gift: the gift of forgiveness and grace. After all, what is the true meaning of Christmas? The most important factors in the holiday season are family, friends and togetherness… not so much the number of decorations throughout my house or the number of cookies in my cookie jars (practically zero–and not because we ate them all!).

So for the first two weeks of December, the extent of my decorating included a wreath on the front door (thanks to my husband for hanging it up–although it was upside down for a few days at first, LOL), my beloved Santa painting over the mantle (shown in last December’s post Holiday Heart and Soul), candles in the windows (also thanks to my wonderful husband), and lights outside thanks to the dynamic light-hanging duo of my son & husband. And two additional time-honored traditions, the Advent calendar (check out my blog post Christmas Nostalgia here) and our December countdown calendar.

Dec Countdown

I purchased the fabric for this wall-hanging nearly 20 years ago, back in the mid 1990s, when my oldest daughter was a baby. I remember what a chore it was, to carve out some time with the sewing machine and actually stitch it up one November or December, so that we could begin using it. Back then, it was hard enough to find five minutes to take a semi-shower! But from the time it was stitched and hung in our kitchen, it was a hit. It’s always hung close to our kitchen table, so that every December morning at breakfast time, someone had the honor of moving the red fabric frame, attaching it via velcro, on its march toward December 25. The first few years, daughter #1 was in charge. As daughter #2 and then our son entered the fray, there were often competitions over who could wake up the earliest, beating everyone else to the breakfast table, and therefore have the honor of moving the marker. Really. I think there were even tears shed over this honor.

Fast forward to December of 2014. The oldest sister was away at college until a few days ago. My son, now 14, as the youngest in our household, has had the complete honor of counting down this special month. His sisters have relinquished this highest of holiday honors to him, whether it’s because they are mature, or more likely because they don’t care to compete with his early-as-a-rooster habits. They are “letting it go.”

I can see a time coming when they are all away at college, and at least for the first half of December, it’ll be me moving the red fabric frame as it outlines those early, lazy days in December when Christmas still feels so far away. By mid-December, when they all arrive home from college and the pace of December increases to a frenzy, I’m sure they’ll all enjoy taking a turn, slipping back into their childhood tradition and moving the red frame once again. As we countdown to Christmas this year, I feel another countdown creeping into our lives… the countdown towards the close of their childhood.

Cherish all the joys of the 2014 holiday season with your families, cherish your children at whatever ages and stages they are in, and if  you are feeling stressed remember to “let it go.” Merry Christmas!

Book Review: Love Skip Jump

tallbook (1)

By Karen Hendricks

Is your instinct to say “yes” whenever you’re asked to volunteer at your child’s school, help a friend or relative, serve on a church committee, etc, etc? There are so many messages today that help us “deprogram” from automatically saying yes, because it’s so easy to overextend our capabilities and our time. So, as a result, is it now your instinct to say “no” to everything? Don’t get me wrong; there are so many wonderful causes, opportunities, people in need, ways to help your children’s schools/sports teams/etc, but it feels good to say “no” without a guilty conscious, and be selective about what we’re saying “yes” to, doesn’t it?

Well, I recently read a book that turned my whole way of thinking upside-down! Love Skip Jump: Start Living the Adventure of Saying Yes by Shelene Bryan is an inspiring book that challenges us to say “yes” more often.

How many times do you hear that little inner voice, putting ideas into your head? Is it really your thoughts… or is it God speaking to you? Shelene Bryan had a life-changing thought—to go to Africa and actually meet a child that her family was sponsoring by sending money for food and other vital necessities. What an incredible first leap of faith, that set countless positive results into motion!

Now, she isn’t saying that we should say “yes” to everything like Jim Carrey in the movie Yes Man: “Saying yes to everything obviously becomes problematic and is not what I am talking about. What I am talking about is listening to God’s call and recognizing the things He wants you to say yes to, then actually doing those things.”

It’s a three-step process that she describes as starting with love—the love that God has for us, and a relationship with God. It’s the foundation of our lives as Christians. The second step, “skip,” refers to giving up, or skipping something, for the sake of someone else. This illustrates God’s love, but more than that, it’s an attitude and lifestyle of giving. And skipping comfort. The third step, “jump,” means saying yes to God, and using your God-given talents to affect others. Jumping is an action.

Shelene Bryan - Photo Credit:

Shelene Bryan – Photo Credit:

She identifies lots of “things” that hold us back from saying yes: our job, spouse, relationships, addiction, success—or  the desire to have others perceive us as successful, our house, car, luxury items, or even the praise we like to receive from others. But Shelene especially felt a calling to help children and families in need.

Shelene writes about additional experiences she had, saying “yes” to ideas that popped into her head. Prior to the Christmas season one year, she contacted her friend Rachel, a neonatal nurse, and asked if she knew of a family that needed help during the holidays. As a result, the entire Bryan family bought Christmas gifts for a family that would be spending Christmas day with their baby at the hospital. In fact, they used the money that they would have used on their own gifts and shopped together. The Bryan kids still received stockings with little gifts, plus gifts from other family members, but Shelene writes about how exciting it was to watch her own children selflessly “skip” their gifts in order to help others. The icing on the cake? The Bryan family piled into their car, loaded up their surprise gifts, and visited the family, shocking them with their thoughtfulness on Christmas morning. They visited with all the other children hospitalized on Christmas morning, as well, singing Christmas carols in the hospital. How many of us would have the courage to do something like this?

One of my favorite chapters is titled “Every Jump Ripples.” Shelene writes, “We have all seen ripples moving in concentric circles away from the splash of a stone thrown into a lake or pond. In the same way, ripples happen when we say yes to God and do whatever it is He wants us to do. Our little splash has a reverberating effect on others.”

One example of a ripple: one of the neonatal nurses was moved by Shelene’s family’s visit and asked Rachel why the family would do that for someone they didn’t even know. Rachel told the fellow nurse about Shelene’s visit to Africa—to Uganda—and coincidentally the nurse was of Ugandan heritage. She had never been to Uganda but had always wanted to go. Rachel told her that Shelene planned a return trip to Uganda soon and the woman was compelled to join her on the next trip. As a result, the hospital also donated medicine… another ripple.

This book was especially thought-provoking, so much so that I’ll admit it was hard to read at times! It truly challenged me to examine my priorities, and think about being open to opportunities to “say yes” in my life. Hopefully I will not be so quick to automatically say “no” in the future… and I look forward to trying to make a difference in the lives of others,  spreading the love of God, skipping or giving up things that I don’t really need, and having the courage to take those leaps of faith, all the while involving my family. As Shelene Bryan writes, these experiences can be “uncomfortable journeys but with rich adventures.”

Every chapter in the book concludes with a prayer and there were several that especially spoke to me. I will leave you with these words and hope they are as inspiring to you, as they were to me:

Lord, help me see that my real worth is based on who I am in Your eyes, and not on my worldly successes. Help me see those who are hurting so I can show them the unconditional love You have shown me. Give me the boldness to share Your love and truth with those who come across my path. Amen.

Lord, give me the wisdom to recognize the comforts that constrain my desire to follow You. Help me seek above all else the things You would have me do in my life. Help me identify the yes opportunities You are putting in my path. Amen

Lord, allow me to know You well enough so that I can recognize Your whisper. Give me the strength of mind to hide Your Word in my heart so I can match Your Word against the voices of my culture. Give me the ability to be still and reflect on who You are and what You have done and what You want to do through me. Amen.

For more information:

Click here for

Click here for


Family Reunions: A Summer Tradition

Sweet rolling fields of hay surrounded our 2014 family reunion in central PA

Sweet rolling fields of hay surrounded our 2014 family reunion in central PA

By Karen Hendricks

Every year, the last Sunday of June, we head to the mountains surrounding Penn State’s Happy Valley area for my husband’s annual family reunion. It’s a tradition that has been upheld for as long as I’ve known my husband—I attended my first reunion before we were married, probably 25 years ago! Now our kids have grown up with this tradition—a great way to reconnect with family members and keep family ties intact.

My mother-in-law, one of 13 children, absolutely lives for family reunion day. It’s consistently one of the highlights of our summer as well. My husband is one of 40+ cousins, and now our children are some of the “next generation” of cousins. What a great tradition!


Gathering and getting ready to enjoy a family potluck luncheon

It seems like once a reunion has been established and planned for so many years, it is like a well-oiled machine that keeps on rolling. Here are some tips from our reunions that might inspire you to create or redesign your family gatherings:

  • Try to keep a consistent date every year
  • Also keep the location consistent from year to year. Our reunion was held at a family farm for many years, but now we rent a fire hall adjacent to a park with pavilions, playgrounds, ball fields, etc.
  • Share in the planning process by asking various families to oversee different aspects of the reunion.
  • For example, one family can send out postcard or email reminders; maintain email or physical addresses for family members.
  • Designate someone to organize activities/games for children. Our reunion traditionally ends with a piñata full of candy for the kids. We have some creative relatives who design and create a piñata from a cardboard box every year!
  • Another family organizes a traditional activity for “kids” of all ages: guessing jars filled with candy. The person who makes the closest guess to the amount of candy, without going over, wins the jar. Last year, we snagged about 6 jars between the 5 of us, and despite the rumors, we did not have any “inside information!”
  • Ask every family to bring a covered dish. Somehow it all works out and there’s always plenty of fried chicken, a variety of salads and side dishes, and plenty of desserts including the traditional Pennsylvania whoopie pies.
  • Ask every family to bring their own place settings.
  • Have one family prepare and bring large coolers of water, iced tea, etc.
  • Pass a hat every year to collect donations from each family, to pay for the next year’s expenses—rental of the venue, kid’s activities, candy, drinks, etc.
  • Although it’s good to plan activities, it’s also good to allow free time where you can talk and catch up with relatives. Isn’t that the main purpose of a “reunion?” :-)
Pinata fun!

Pinata fun!

Cousins divide up the candy stash that rained down upon them!

Cousins divide up the candy stash that rained down upon them!

Desserts, salads, fried chicken, barbeque... the buffet tables are filled with family treasures: great recipes!

Desserts, salads, fried chicken, barbeque… the buffet tables are filled with family treasures: great recipes!

Something as simple as throwing around a football makes for a fun family reunion activity.

Something as simple as throwing around a football makes for a fun family reunion activity.

Make sure to include plenty of time for talking, catching up, and taking pictures.

Make sure to include plenty of time for talking, catching up, and taking pictures.

Our family takes the "guessing jar" game very seriously!

Our family takes the “guessing jar” game very seriously!

Candy jars are fun prizes enjoyed by the "winners"--kids of all ages.

Candy jars are fun prizes enjoyed by the “winners”–kids of all ages.

Until next year...

Until next year…

Please add your tips and suggestions in the “Comments” section below… we look forward to sharing your ideas and ultimately, strengthening family bonds!

From Beth’s Kitchen: Soccer, School, and Stew-Pendous Stew


By Beth Heeschen

Well, it’s here.  Soccer practices, football practices, first day of school… and (gulp) first, first day of college.  My oldest heads to college tomorrow, and we won’t see him until Thanksgiving.  Northern Vermont is a long way from southern Pennsylvania.  I find myself incredibly jealous (tongue in cheek) of his good fate to be heading to such a wonderful school, in a beautiful area of the country, to do everything he loves.  Pursuing a degree he finds fascinating and enjoys, becoming part of the ROTC cadet family, hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, and playing his guitar.  Jealous for the outdoor adventures and open life ahead of him, but not sure I’m ready to repeat college test taking!  Mostly, proud of how he is steering his own destiny.

Tonight, as a send off, we are having one of his favorite dinners.  We call it “Stew-Pendous Beef Stew.”  It is a fabulous recipe, found by my sister, and tweaked to her liking.  She is a wonderful cook, with a year of culinary school to back it up.  She then shared it with me.  I did a little more tweaking for our tastes, and this is the result.  It is the second most asked for dinner at our house, behind “Gratifying Gumbo” (which I will save for a future blog!).  It is rather time intensive, but the last three hours is really only monitoring.  I do not recommend using a food processor for the chopping; it is better to have uniform cuts.  Also, if you can find the time, homemade beef stock is soooo much better.  Deep, rich, and complex, it brings another dimension to the stew.  I promise you won’t be disappointed!

Here’s to a week of firsts!  First day of college, first day of high school, first day of senior year, first football game, first soccer match, and… the first stew of fall :o)

“Stew-Pendous” Beef Stew:

(Stove top: 4 hours start to finish, easily doubled)

3 lbs beef chuck roast, cut into 1” cubes

3 Tbl vegetable oil, more if needed.

1/4 cup pancetta, diced

2 med-large onions, chopped

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 cup diced carrots

1 cup diced celery

1/4 cup parsley, Italian, chopped

3 Tbl flour

1 cup full bodied red wine (cabernet, merlot, zinfandel – not pinot noir)

4 large carrots, peeled and sliced ¼” thick

2 1/2 cups low sodium beef stock (preferably home made, recipe below)

2 bay leaves

1 tsp dried thyme

1 (16oz) package frozen pearl onions

1 cup thawed peas

1 package portabella mushrooms, quartered

¼ cup fresh chopped parsley, Italian

salt and pepper

fresh chopped parsley for serving


Brown the meat:

Place beef cubes in a large bowl; season with salt and pepper.  Heat a large Dutch oven over med-high heat and add the oil. Brown the meat in batches—be careful not to overcrowd the pan (you do not want to steam the meat)—about 5 minutes a batch. Transfer meat to a platter.


Start with 1″ cubes…


Beautifully browned and ready for the stew


To make the Buttato (Aromatics) and “Roux:”

Add pancetta to the pan and brown; remove.  Reduce heat to medium.  Add onion and cook until translucent, 4-5 minutes.  Add garlic; cook for another 1-2 minutes, until fragrant.  Add carrots, celery and parsley.  Sauté until very soft, almost mushy.  Add the flour, and stir until the mixture is lightly colored, thick and paste-like.  Be very careful not to burn the flour.  Deglaze by stirring in the wine and scraping up the bits (flavor!) from the bottom of the pan.


All of this chopping is worth it!

Assemble the stew:

Add carrots, beef broth, bay leaves, and thyme.  Bring to simmer.  Add meat and return to simmer.  Cover and simmer until meat is tender, 2 ½ – 3 hours, checking occasionally—it should simmer, not boil.  During the last hour of cooking, add the pearl onions, peas, and mushrooms.

Mmmmmm... the aroma is amazing

Mmmmmm… the aroma is amazing

To serve:

Stir in ¼ cup of parsley, salt and pepper to taste.  Serve over mashed potatoes or polenta, with crusty bread, and a fresh baby greens salad with vinaigrette.  This is even better the next day after the flavors have melded.  Refrigerate, remove congealed fat from top, and gently reheat.

Bon Appétit!

Stew-Pendous :-)

Stew-Pendous :-)


Homemade Beef Stock:

(450 degree oven plus stovetop, 5 hours)

6-7 lbs beef bones

2 large onions, quartered

6 carrots, peeled and cut into thirds

4 celery ribs, cut into thirds

1 can (6oz) tomato paste

5 whole garlic cloves, peeled

1 Tbl whole peppercorns

2 bay leaves

4 beef bouillon cubes

¼ bunch fresh parsley

16 cups water, plus more if needed

Kosher salt, to taste

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Place beef bones, onions, carrots, and celery on a 9×13 roasting pan.  Brush tomato paste over all.  Bake for 40 minutes, until the bones and vegetables turn brown and caramelize.

Transfer all to a stockpot and add remaining ingredients.  Bring to boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 4 hours.  Add 1-2 cups water if the stock reduces too much.  Strain through colander and discard solids.  Restrain through cheesecloth.  Let cool and refrigerate.  Skim and discard fat solids.  Freezes well.

Yield: 12 Cups

In search of the best job ever


By Karen Hendricks

We are approaching a milestone here at Off the Merry-Go-Round. We are nearly two years old!

We founded this blog and community as a way to band together and offer support to parents everywhere who were scaling back their professional lives in favor of more quality family time and a healthier balance of work and family.

It’s amazing how many of you have shared your stories, followed our blog, and commented on our articles. It is extremely rewarding to see the community grow!

It’s also incredible to read about high-profile CEOs following suit and stepping off the merry-go-round of demanding careers. Earlier this month, I caught the story of Max Schireson on the Today show. As the CEO of a major software company, he announced he was stepping down and sliding into a lesser role with the company as vice chairman, in order to focus more on his family and home life.

In his blog, Schireson explains his decision:

I am on pace to fly 300,000 miles this year, all the normal CEO travel plus commuting between Palo Alto and New York every 2-3 weeks. During that travel, I have missed a lot of family fun, perhaps more importantly, I was not with my kids when our puppy was hit by a car or when my son had (minor and successful, and of course unexpected) emergency surgery.

Friends and colleagues often ask my wife how she balances her job and motherhood…. Somehow, the same people don’t ask me.

A few months ago, I decided the only way to balance was by stepping back from my job.

I recognize that by writing this I may be disqualifying myself from some future CEO role. Will that cost me tens of millions of dollars someday? Maybe. Life is about choices. Right now, I choose to spend more time with my family and am confident that I can continue to have an meaningful and rewarding work life while doing so. At first, it seemed like a hard choice, but the more I have sat with the choice the more certain I am that it is the right choice.

He told the Today show that he’s simply looking forward to participating in his family’s everyday routine:

“I think what I look forward to most is just being more engaged in the day to day of it,” he said. “Having more time with the kids, whether making dinner or talking to them or helping with homework.”

Congrats to Max Schireson and parents everywhere who are joining us “off the merry-go-round!”

Click here to read or watch the Today show’s coverage.

Click here to read Schireson’s full blog post, “Why I am leaving the best job I ever had.”


Coping with the Emptying Nest: Easy Does It

Karen Hendricks:

A new crop of college freshmen heads out soon, and parents everywhere are preparing for “the big day.” We thought it appropriate to revisit writer Chris Little’s excellent series on “The Emptying Nest” including this piece reminding parents that “Easy Does it.” Wishing everyone the best!

Originally posted on Off the Merry-Go-Round:


By Chris Little

If you’ve got fledglings on their way out of the nest, I know you’ve also got images of them as toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergartners dancing around in your head. “How fast the time passes!” we all say. “It seems like just yesterday I dropped him off at kindergarten!” Yup, yup—it does feel like yesterday, doesn’t it? We tear up a little. Those were the good old days, right?

But I want to ask you to think back just a little farther, to those first days of parenthood, when you were fresh home from the hospital with your infant. I’m sure you can remember how happy you were. But can you remember how scared you were? How worried? Overwhelmed? My husband drove home from the hospital with our first baby at 25 mph—in a 50 mph zone! I remember alternating between passionate love for the little squirt, and…

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Summer Breeze ….


A Summer Breeze can come along at the most needed time to refresh and restore your summer-soul!

A Summer Breeze can come along at the most needed time to refresh and restore your summer-soul!

By Jennifer (Smith) Schuler

I can relate to my fellow blogger Karen’s latest blog about having the summertime blues (click here). It hasn’t exactly been the summer of my dreams either. There are, in fact, several songs written about experiencing a sad summer!

Karen’s thoughts reminded me a lot of having “the blues” around holidays – especially noteworthy in that regard is Christmas. We have a lot of expectations about Christmastime, and put an enormous amount of pressure on ourselves to make it “perfect” for us and our families, and rarely is it ever like in the movies.

Summer is the same way. We expect that we will simply end the school year, or enter the slower work season, with an automatic transition to s—l—o—w. We expect that we will be healthy and happy as we frolic in the sun at the beautiful beach-side condo we saved all year to rent. We expect that in those two or three warmer months of bright sunshine and clear skies, we will find calm, peace, and – well, Zen.

The reality is, however, that life is still just that: Life (with a capital ‘L’). And just because we expect it to slow down doesn’t mean it will. So, what is one’s option for “getting away from it all” when, at the end of the summer day, you simply can’t? Recently, I found one answer to this question lies in….


True Zen CAN be yours this summer!

True Zen CAN be yours this summer!

This idea came to me as I was experiencing yet another rather hectic summer morning. It was the usual a.m. routine: I’m startled awake by my young son at my bedside, up and ready to go (too ready to go); I feed my child, feed my dog and barely feed myself; and then dash my little guy off to a full day of fun-in-the-sun at camp.

When I’m not in the midst of all this, I wonder why it is that I can never seem to get it all done – my son is away all day. However, a big job called “Too Much” always stares me down the moment I walk through the door after camp drop-off and I never win the staring contest. I’m not quite sure how other women seem to find the time for that relaxing cup of coffee on their flower-pot-filled deck before it gets too hot, but that simply just doesn’t exist in my world!

This morning, however, I decided to outwit Too Much. So when I parked my car in the driveway and got out, I headed straight for the rustic walking path my husband created and which winds around the hilly perimeter of our 2 ½ acre property. I needed these woods today – along with the peace, quiet, and serenity they bring. As I strolled the wood chip laden path, I noticed the wind chimes my husband had hung on tree branches along the way. They have been present along the path for some time, yet for some reason this morning I was more “in tune” with them.

Have you tinkled your wind chime today?

Have you tinkled your wind chime today?

As I walked by, I reached up and gently touched the chimes. With each of the wind chimes, I listened to the different sounds the silver, rounded-end bars made as they knocked back and forth along one another – focusing on the quiet, subtle tinkling of one wind chime and the hollow bonging of another. Sometimes I would let the sound die out and the chimes stop moving before I walked on which forced me to be still for a while. During one of my laps around, I even stopped in front of each chime; and either whispered a prayer for someone or for myself, or offered a petition that reflected a need I had been holding in my heart.

Besides helping me to find some calm within before returning to my house to face Too Much, our wind chimes looked – and sounded – so beautiful, especially when a Summer Breeze came along. I had finally found my summertime Zen!

Have you been in need of some inner peace this summer? Why not take a simple walk and let us know what you saw, heard, or even touched that brought some sunshine to your world – we would love to hear from you!