Beating the Holiday Blues: What Happened When I Cancelled Christmas and Went to the Caribbean Alone

The holidays are hard for everyone. We all feel it, right? While it is the most wonderful time of the year it also comes with a great deal of stress. For me, it also comes with a great amount of sadness. I recently lost both my mother and father within 13 months of each other. And it sucks. It really sucks. Even after having some time to process it all, I still can’t put into words that, despite being 30-something, I still feel like an orphan. To add to that, my closest family is over 600 miles away. It can make the holidays exceedingly lonely.

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I am a firm believer that we are in charge of our own feelings. We can either let life’s circumstances get us down or we can fight back and make the best of our situation. I choose to do the latter. In mid-November it struck me that as a single woman “doing the Mary Tyler Moore thing,” as my financial advisor once described it, I had absolutely no plans for the holidays. I contemplated going home to Virginia to see my sister, but decided that being so close to home was a little more than I could handle this year. I then contemplated going to Los Angeles to see my brother, but thought that the lack of winter weather I was accustomed to wouldn’t make it feel very Christmasy. I considered staying in Tennessee, but that seemed like the worst option of all.

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It then occurred to me that I wasn’t limited to those 3 options. I could just skip Christmas entirely and remove myself from what was causing my blues. It was a moment of pure inspiration. I started thinking about where I wanted to go. I had a few considerations: safety (as a solo female); weather; maximizing daylight hours; and being able to make the most of my time off. I knew I had to go South.

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A few months ago a friend told me about the Dominican Tree House Villages in the Dominican Republic. Just as it sounds, it is a community of tree houses in the Dominican rainforest. There are no phones and no internet, there was only fun, relaxation, and adventure. My Christmas gift to myself was not having to experience Christmas.

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I arrived in the Dominican Republic on Christmas Eve. Between a busy week at work and preparing for the trip I had somehow avoided all things Christmas, and the holiday, which my family heavily celebrated in my youth, barely seemed to register with me. I was both thankful for this distraction and a little saddened by it.

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I should pause here to explain that I just resigned from my job, leaving my first law firm behind. A job offer at another firm just coincidentally came in two weeks before I was set to take this vacation. It seemed like kismet and I put in my notice before my trip so I could truly unplug. What was supposed to just be a Christmas vacation suddenly turned into five weeks of #funemployment.

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With leaving my job, a switch seemed to flip inside of me. My typically high-strung and high-stress personality went instantly into vacation mode in a way I had not experienced since before undergrad, a period that seems like a lifetime ago. A weight, much heavier than I realized I was carrying was lifted from my shoulders. I had a special kind of freedom. It was not just the joy of being on vacation, it was the type of freedom you can only appreciate after years of being tethered to your desk, email, and phone, and overnight all chains are released.

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How does this relate to the story? Well, this freedom awaked a part of me I truly didn’t know I had. I am generally quite the introvert and lost inside of my own head, self-consciously overthinking everything. However, the second I got to the DTHV I felt transformed into an extrovert. I found myself excitedly chatting with everybody I met and willfully (and joyfully) engaging with strangers. The fact that I felt so comfortable with this scenario was a head-trip to say the least.

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I flew into Santo Domingo and then had a 2.5-hour drive to Samana to the DTHV over windy and sometimes unpaved roads. When I arrived it was dark, so while I could hear the song of the jungle all around me, I would have to wait until morning to see it. When I walked in, everyone had already sat down to dinner. I joined a family at a large table and went through the general getting to know you type questions.

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But as dinner finished and the rum began to flow, the music switched from Christmas classics to Latin rhythmic dance tunes. The tables were pushed aside and the party began. There was laughing, there was mingling, and of course, there was dancing with handsome men. Their aim at DTHV is to have a community atmosphere, and they achieve it. I got relatively little sleep my first night. My brain was not used to shutting off. (I’ll write more on what it is like to live in a tree house in my next post).

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I came down early to breakfast the next morning and was the first one there. If you know me, you know that I am never early (or even on time) to anything before noon. It was very peaceful to sit alone and read before the day began. Due to my work schedule, this was the first full book I read in 3 ½ years. (In case you are wondering, I chose Eat, Pray, Love. Cliché, I know, but whatever, shut up, it’s good.). As we ate, White Christmas played overhead. Bing Crosby’s crooning was in utter discord with the warm tropical surroundings.

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When I awoke the next morning I was greeted with a breathtaking view of the Samana jungle. It was everything I hoped it would be, but I would later learn it was merely a preview and a minuscule slice of the beauty the region had to offer.

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My first excursion with the group was an ATV ride through Samana to sightsee and spend time at the area beaches. I’ll write more on it in a later post since ATVing was a first for me, but I will say that I loved being able to do something truly active for the first time in I-don’t-know-how-long. The last time I took all day to do something fun was July, and before that was too long to remember.

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That night, we retuned to the tree houses sore and muddy and ready for dinner. I decided to unwind with a massage (or two) because, dang it, I am here to treat myself.

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Over the next few days we had three more excursions that included ziplining through the rainforest, a visit to a bird sanctuary and National Park, and a boat trip Bicardi Island, horseback riding up (and down) a treacherous path to a gorgeous waterfall (even though I’ve previously done a post on horseback riding, this was so different to what I’ve done before that there may be separate post coming on that).

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As I spend time in the Dominican Republic, I became more and more relaxed. My first day I tried to straighten my hair to control its craziness. However, it is so humid here that it started recurling while I was straightening it. By day two I gave up on taming it completely and let it go wild with reckless abandon. This might not seem significant, but if you know me you know that this is a pretty huge deal. By the second night I was running around barefoot wearing my new Dominican dress and jewelry . . . and loving it. My structured life was slowly breaking down. Over this same period, my over-packed and very heavy backpack became lighter and lighter as I shed the things I no longer needed. How is that for a metaphor?

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One of the best parts was traveling to the different beaches and areas for our excursions. The countryside is awe inspiring and rich with culture, and the buildings are as colorful as the people. There is also no shortage of nature. The animals (horses, cows, goats, pigs, chickens, geese, peacocks, dogs, and cats) roam free with the autonomy of a newly licensed driver. The plant life does not fail to impress with its delicious offerings (we saw and sampled pineapple, coconuts, mango, papaya, oranges, passion fruit, bananas, plantains, sugar cane, coco/chocolate, and coffee). This, of course, meant that all of our food was incredibly fresh.

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Everyone is also very trusting there. You can buy everything around DTHV on credit with the promise that you would pay them later. It was not uncommon for vendors to leave their wares completely unattended. In fact, I really had no concerns about handing over my bags (full of cameras, electronics, and my wallet) to our guides or leaving my bags unattended on the beach—something I would never do in the United States. I even often left the door to my tree house open rather than take the five extra seconds it took to secure the lock.

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I read reviews about how DTHV was like a family, and it did not take long to see why. Most of the people there were traveling as couples or as families, but even though I was there alone, I felt as if we were all on vacation together. Spending time with my fellow adventurers Jane, Jordan, Manas, Nathan, Rosie, and Jon (just to name a small few) made the experience feel like a glorious pre-planned group party. They also inspired some future adventures for me. Nathan and his daughter Amelia have the next six years of their own vacations and adventures already listed out, which includes seeing all Seven Wonders by the time she turns 18. Seeing their list motivated me to make my own, something I have been avoiding doing these last few years. With my previous job, and my inability to take a vacation, I resisted making a “To See” list because it seemed so unattainable. But, the new job will (hopefully) bring new life opportunities and I plan to sit down soon and map out everywhere I want to visit in the next 10 years.

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One family made my visit particularly special. Cindi and Bruce, and their adult children Justin and Samsara were the family I didn’t have. They were warm and inviting and were some of the most special people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. They left a few days before me and I felt like I was saying goodbye to lifelong friends. I felt very lucky to spend my time with them. Interestingly, their son Justin and I shared a mutual friend. Not an acquaintance or a second cousin three times removed, but someone we had both spoken two within the last two weeks. In fact, our mutual friend had actually mentioned Justin to me on more than one occasion. I don’t believe in coincidences, and I know this unlikely connection is just evidence that I was supposed to cross paths with these wonderful, inspiring souls. (Below is Bruce, Cindi, Justin, me and Samsara posing for a “family” photo observing Bruce’s rule that all of our heads must touch).

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I almost forgot to mention the staff here, which would be a horrible disservice to DTHV. Despite being majestically beautiful, the reason the place is so magical is because the people who work here make it that way. Everyone from Pedro my driver (who greeted me with a bottle of Champaign when he picked me up and stopped for coconut bread on our return), to the manager Austin (who went out of his way to make every day perfect), to Alex (who made me a dozen or so mouthwatering rum and juices during my stay), Danielle, Patricia (masseuse and yoga instructor), Leo (our talented chef), Michael, Bebo, our tour guides, and everyone else (I wish I could list every single person because it really was a group effort).

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My week at the DTHV was a transformational experience. I do not think I will ever be the same and it will have an impact on me (and my trip planning) for years to come. I now want to have as many immersive experiences as possible and I plan to find places similar to DTHV once I return. I know, of course, that DTHV was a once in a lifetime experience that cannot be replicated.

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Next week I am going to Breckenridge for the second half of my vacation for dog sledding, skiing, and snowmobiling (all New Things with future posts), but after my time here, I am nowhere near as excited as I was when I first planned it. I want to stay in the Dominican jungle forever.

Learning to Knit, One Loop at a Time

Knitting a scarf has been one of the most arduous experiences of my life. Not law school. Not the bar exam. Not the Tennessee Vols’ 2016 football season. Knitting a stupid scarf. Why? Because the yarn never, ever ends. Just when you think that you are nearing the end of your project, the yarn ball just keeps on going. There were times I honestly questioned whether the yarn was reproducing and creating more baby yarn for the sole purpose of mocking me.

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I started my scarf the Tuesday before Thanksgiving thinking I would have a fun little weekend project. Perhaps my hopes were unrealistically raised by being told one skein of yarn would magically transform into a fully knitted scarf with about 5 hours of work. Wrong.

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I spent days and days working on the scarf. Part of me wishes I timed it so I knew just how much I invested in the process. Part of me is glad I don’t know the answer to that question.

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I took a class at Craft South to get me started with my first project. I am really glad I took a course because I had Jenn, the instructor, there to give me guidance as I went along and got into trouble. I think I would have become too frustrated with the process if I started on my own and did not know how to fix my mistakes.

After a bit of hard work I finally finished. I went through the entire skein and ended up with a scarf that is taller than me. I finished it just in time for Nashville’s first first “snow” of the season and I am sure it will keep me warm and toasty on my New Years ski trip.

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I know I seem rather annoyed by the process in this post, but it is really all in jest because I actually loved my knitting class and the finished project. And, believe it or not, I will probably keep knitting. Now that my expectations have been properly lowered, I am ready to forge ahead and try another project. It is actually a pretty great thing to do to quiet your mind, keep yourself busy while watching TV, or enjoy on a ‘knitting date’ with a friend.

Making A Gingerbread House

My mom was obsessed with Christmas. Absolutely obsessed. The woman had a different Christmas sweater for every day of December. This is not an exaggeration, and may in fact be a gross underestimate of the number of Christmas sweaters she owned. Many of these sweaters lit up, played music, or most often, both. After I reached a certain age, she promised to stop wearing the ones that lit up or made noise when I was around, which came after years of my embarrassed teenage protests.

That said, the one thing, and perhaps the only thing, we never did at Christmas was make gingerbread houses. I assume that is because making a gingerbread house is incredibly messy, time consuming, and you end up eating more candy than you put on the house. Me + sugar is still a bad idea to this day.

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It felt like it was finally time for me to rectify this injustice and make my first gingerbread house. The kits can be purchased most anywhere this time of year, but I got mine at Michaels for under 10 bucks. There is also an adorable one for sale at Starbucks which I almost grabbed during one of my daily coffee runs.

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The key to making a gingerbread house is patience. Once you use the frosting to construct the four walls, you have to let it set and harden. The same goes for the roof. So, if you want to make your own house, plan to assemble it about 4 hours before you actually want to decorate it. Otherwise, your house is going to completely cave in upon itself.

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I cheated a little and did the lines on the roof before I added those panels because I figured drawing with frosting would be hard enough without trying to do it on an angle. Once the house was ready I added candy christmas lights, frosting windows, a fondant door, an icing christmas tree, gumdrop shrubbery, and tiny gingerbread kids. I even constructed my own candy chimney.

I definitely think I consumed as much, if not more, icing and candy as what actually went on the house. In fact, as I write this, I am finishing up the left over gumdrops. And to answer what is turning into a fairly common question, no you cannot eat my gingerbread house. Build your own.

Chilling at an Ice Bar

As the temperature drops, the winter weather activities begin! Every year Gaylord Opryland features Ice, an indoor display of over two million pounds of ice sculptures hand-carved by 40 artisans. This year’s theme is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. (See below for an example of the carvings and a friendly abominable snowman.) The attraction comes with all sorts of festivities including an ice slide, snow tubing, ice skating, and for the adults . . . an ice bar!

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The ice bar, like the rest of the attraction, is only 9 degrees so we were given special parkas to put over our winter wear to keep us warm. (The cold air was a dark preview of the coming months.) The parkas helped a little, but it was still pretty icy in there. The cold wasn’t too bad as long as I wasn’t trying to take pictures. Every time I had to remove my gloves my fingers received an arctic blast.

There were 3 drinks to enjoy: A Goose Island Beer; the Jolly Mint featuring Jackson Morgan Southern Cream and Hangar One Vodka; and a Merry Margarita featuring Milagro Tequila. The Jolly Mint tasted like chocolate milk and the Merry Margarita was the first tequila drink I have ever liked. It was a nice revelation.

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While the ice bar was a cool experience (see what I did there?), I think it may be better suited for places like Las Vegas where you are trying to escape the heat instead of just exchanging one level of cold for another. It also made me rethink wanting to stay in an ice hotel in Québec.

This visit was also a good lesson that my current winter clothes will not cut it this December as I take my very first skiing trip (and that I should perhaps get some of those iPhone friendly gloves). Stay tuned for that adventure in the coming weeks!

Butter Making & 11 Delicious Recipes to Make Your Own

The holidays are approaching and that means endless meals with friends and family. To kick off the season of eating I got together with some girlfriends for an old fashioned day of making butter. Except instead of churns, we had mixers. And wine. We had a lot of wine.

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Butter making is simple and you only need a few items: heavy whipping cream (1 pint will produce about 1/2 pound of butter); cheesecloth; a food processor with a mixing or paddle blade; plenty of bowls and forks to stir in ingredients; containers for the butter (4oz mason jars work well); and salt and other ingredients as desired.

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The process is easy. You start by pouring the cream into the mixer. Lower the whisk into the cream and turn it to about half speed. Mixing typically takes 3 to 10 minutes. You can also make butter by shaking the cream in a sealed container (read about that process here). Shaking takes approximately 10 to 20 minutes (and results in a super tired arm).

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As the cream is processed it will separate into butter and buttermilk. (You can save the buttermilk for other cooking projects if you so desire). Once this happens, pour the buttermilk and butter into a bowl with a colander or cheesecloth.

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Use the cheesecloth to squeeze out any liquid and then rinse the butter. This process feels really weird and you get your hands covered in butter.

If you don’t press out all of the buttermilk the butter will spoil faster. Homemade butter will last in the refrigerator for 1-3 weeks, depending on how well you squeeze the buttermilk out. If you store the butter in the freezer, unsalted butter will stay good for 5-6 months but salted butter can last up to 9 months.

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Once the butter has been pressed and washed you are ready to add your ingredients. You can just add salt for simple plain butter, or you can add fresh herbs, spices, garlic, cheeses, wine, lemon/lime, peppers, jam, and the list goes on. Each ingredient adds its own unique flavor and flair.

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We made 11 types of butter, all ingredients are to-taste, so add as much of each as you like:

  • Lemon zest, parsley, salt, and pepper
  • Basil, lemon zest, parsley, salt, and pepper
  • Brie, roasted garlic, and salt
  • Rosemary, roasted garlic, salt, and pepper (delicious)
  • Organic basil, espresso sea salt, and pepper (my favorite)
  • Honey, honey goat cheese, blue cheese, and salt
  • White wine, thyme, honey, and salt
  • Peach brandy jam
  • Nutella (life changing)
  • Maple peanut butter
  • Pumpkin, brown sugar, cinnamon, and all spice

If you have any recipes you like add them in the comments below! It looks like this may be an annual tradition so they could make their way on to the menu next year.

Laughter Yoga: Post-Election Recovery

Well, this has been a hell of a week, hasn’t it? Regardless of your political beliefs, or expected or desired outcome, this election has been tumultuous. Like most of America, I needed a break. In order to inject some joy into my life I reached out to laughter yoga.

Laughter yoga surprisingly has no yoga in it. Instead, laughter yoga is a class that promotes prolonged voluntary laughter. Laughter yoga was developed by the Indian physician Madan Kataria and is based on the belief that voluntary laughter provides the same physiological and psychological benefits as spontaneous laughter.  Some studies have indicated that laughter yoga can reduce pain, stress, and blood sugar, and can help with short-term memory. I can’t speak to the validity of these studies, but I can say that it lifted my spirits.

Our class was filled with silly laughter. It was like improv combined with children’s playtime. We started with pretending to be squirrels, running around eating imaginary acorns and giggling wildly. I immediately realized I had no idea what I signed up for. The absurdity continued from there. We were tittering trees, cackling mad scientists, chuckling penguins, and snickering sandpipers running into the ocean waves. We also tossed around an imaginary ball, that would send the person who caught it into a fit of laughter. The goofiness of the class meant that I did not need to force my laughter. It was real and infectious laughter. Each activity is concluded with childlike clapping of your hands and shouting “Very good, very good, yay!”

When I first told friends I planned to go to the class, many said they were not up to it after a very stressful week. However, once I described how fun and uplifting it was (and how they didn’t actually have to do any yoga) many expressed a desire to try it out in the future.

I immersed myself in the class and therefore did not take any photos or videos of my experience. However, if you are interested, here is a sample of what the class was like:

Breaking Out of An Escape Room

If you haven’t heard of escape games then you are missing out on one of the country’s hottest new trends. Escape rooms are live action games in which players are locked in a room filled with puzzles and clues with the goal of escaping before time runs out. Over the last few years escape game locations have popped up all over the country and I have been itching to try one out. This weekend I finally got my chance to try to break out with The Escape Game.

Tete-a-Tete Opening and K.O.S. open galleries on Saturday February 6th, 2010 with annual members meeting and gallery talk with Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker.

There were several different games from which to choose, including Mission: Mars, Prison Break, Classified, Gold Rush, Underground Playground, Nashville Escape, and The Heist.

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We chose The Heist. I don’t want to say too much about the game and give any secrets away, but the gist of The Heist is that a famous piece of artwork has gone missing and has likely been stolen by the curator. It is up to us to recover the masterpiece. If we succeed we will be national heroes, but if we fail, we will be treated as common criminals by the authorities.

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In order to succeed, the team had to work together to finish in under 60 minutes. We were in a group with four strangers, but as soon as the clock started we worked as a unit to solve each puzzle. There are multiple clues to solve so the key was to split up the manpower but to also simultaneously communicate well with the rest of the group. There were way too many things to solve to try to attempt them one at a time.

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I’ve always loved logic games, riddles, and mysteries, so the Escape Game was right up my alley. However, there were a few points during the game where we started to stall and needed some guidance. Fortunately, we were able to get a few “hints” from the Escape Game crew. I’m not sure if there were some red herrings in the room, but there were definitely some possible clues that seemed to go unused.

escape game nashvilleThe Heist is their second most difficult game with a success rate of only 26%. But, with just 1:56 to spare, we broke out! I didn’t think we were going to make it, but everything seemed to come together in the final moments. Everyone in the group had a great time and I know that I can’t wait to go back and try it again. I am already recruiting friends for another trip.

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