Summer snaps.

This was a bit of an atypical summer for us.  Studies, a thesis defense, and a job for Brendon made it tricky to make a big summer roadtrip happen.  Still, we did our best to seize moments and make memories.

A few summer highlights:

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The return to student life.

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Beginning my journey through the MES Program with these excellent folks.

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A reunion with our New Zealand family (minus Brandon, plus kids) in Kelowna.

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Reading in a rib cage.

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Two clutch at bats resulting in a lead-off single, an RBI, and a stolen base. Run scored in a 3-2 game.

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Sister weekends in Red Deer.

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Floating. #thesummerwefloated  (Thanks @allibgood for the photo.)

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Sailing & sunsets with friends on Sylvan Lake.

He’s official: Dr. Breno.

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The last and most-nerve wracking part of the PhD process has been completed.

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In July, Brendon returned to New Zealand to defend his thesis in front of a panel of examiners.  After an hour and 45 minutes of questioning, he emerged after being congratulated of his successful defense as Dr. Neilson or Dr. Breno, whichever you prefer.

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I am extremely proud of the dedication Brendon has shown to a massive task that has not been easy.

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Though I was not able to make the journey to NZ with Brendon and be there to join in the celebrations that followed, Brendon was overwhelmed by the generosity and kindness of our loved ones who truly made NZ home.

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I’ll let Brendon share a few words about the process and his time in New Zealand.

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The successful completion of my thesis defense capped of a chapter of life I would never have pictured myself in 10 years ago.  A PhD was never a goal of mine, but now that it’s over, I am thankful for the perspective I have gained through the process, and the virtues i have developed therein.

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Following the defense, my first reaction was that of immediate relief- that it went well, that I passed, and that this was no longer a massive barrier to moving on.  For so long, it’s been my life task- both a burden and a privilege.

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I’d like to thank everyone who cheered me on along this PhD journey and believed in me- family and friends in Canada, my supervisors Martin and Tim, and those who shared the journey in New Zealand.

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Special thanks to Kyle & Bea and Mitchell & Anna for their incredible hospitality and friendship.  Thank you to everyone else who carved out time for a visit.  I was constantly in the presence of the most wonderful people.

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The New Zealand coffee community is incredible.  A shout out to Andrew, Erica, & Cris at Espresso Workshop for reminding me of the great times and passionate industry that I was blessed to be a part of.

It was weird to go back to a place that seemed to fit us so well.  It quickly turned from bizarre to completely natural.  It was like I just slipped back in.

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Our time in New Zealand was an amazing season of thriving.  I am grateful for the chance to go back and reconcile our past times in New Zealand with our present, Red Deer.

New chapters: His & hers.

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The past 6 months have held some big milestones and new beginnings for both of us.

Where to begin… Let’s start with Brendon.  Here are the important facts:

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  • In March, Brendon officially submitted his thesis. (Congrats, Breno!!)
  • He will be returning to NZ for two weeks in July (very soon) to defend his thesis.  A panel of 3 markers have read and evaluated his thesis, and after an hour-long quest period, Brendon will hopefully receive word that he will have passed his thesis.
  • Just over a month ago (in May), Brendon was hired on with the City of Red Deer to design and conduct a qualitative research project on the issue of homelessness in Red Deer.  His office building is but a 3 minute walk or a 2 minute jog from our apartment building.  So far, the job has proven to be very thought-provoking and meaningful. It’s been neat to be able to apply his research in a new context.  The territory still feels quite new and it is unsure at this time where this opportunity may lead; regardless, having a job in a related field has brought a new sense of ‘settledness’ to our lives, which we are both grateful to embrace.

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What have I been up to? The past 6 months have marked an intense season of growth, both professionally and personally.  I started reading again (a big step for someone who read a very limited number of books since university), and everything kind of unfolded from there.  If you want the long story, I’d be happy to share it with you over coffee sometime, but the short of it is that:

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  • I had an incredible and very formative year teaching Grade 2, experiencing a level of satisfaction in teaching that I didn’t think was possible.  A big part of that was the collaboration & team teaching that happened between my 3 fabulous grade partners and I, and the learning that transpired as a result.

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  • I have taken on the role of Literacy Lead at my school, and have been excitedly devouring literacy texts like chocolate.
  • Although it hasn’t been in my plans for very long, I have decided to pursue my Masters (in Education) through the University of Alberta.  I start my 3 week summer residency tomorrow, and will continue to teach full time while completing my Masters by distance over the school year.

Other highlights of the past few months have included:

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A trip out to the West Coast and reunions with Dale, Amber, & Jack in Kelowna, as well as Mark, Laurel, & Emery in Victoria.

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A trip to Vancouver in June to make Mel’s Sufjan dreams come true.  Little did we know we would have the unspeakable honour of sitting in the front row, thanks for our incredibly kind and gracious sister Al.

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Brendon is playing baseball in the “Twilight League” of Red Deer and reliving the joys of the ball park.  Many sunflower seeds have been eaten and weak singles hit.

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Mel had the chance to attend a literacy conference in Seattle and hear a bunch of her literacy heroes speak, and even talk with a few of them too.  An inspiring & formative learning experience, for sure.

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So this summer will be a little different for us.  No cross-continental road trips planned.  Still hoping to seize opportunities and find moments of refreshment and connection in-between pursuing our respective endeavours.

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Quebec City: Plus s’il vous plaît [more please].

Now that it’s winter, let’s jump back to 5 months ago when it was still summer and we were in Quebec.

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We spent four days exploring the historic streets of Quebec City at the end of July.  It was probably a sufficient amount of time to visit most of the key spots on our list, although we would have loved to stay longer and savour its unique flair, historic roots, and bountiful culinary offerings.

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We put together a bit of a ‘Breno & Mel style guide to Quebec City’ (a list of everything we would love to experience over again because they were so enchanting).  Here it is:

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Visit J.A. Moisan, the oldest grocery store in North America.  The prices are cheaper than you’d think, and the selection is unbelievable.  Pick yourself out some nice Quebec cheese, some smoked meat, and a few other edible delights and have yourself a picnic on the Plains of Abraham.

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On the topic of cheese, we sampled a few Quebec cheeses during our stay, and our favourite was a 2 year goat cheddar- surprising because neither of us are usually a huge fan of goat.  We were recommended the cheese by a friendly man waiting in line at a fromagerie.  He told us he was going to a party that evening, but wasn’t allowed to come without that cheese.  We were convinced to try it, and were definitely pleased we did.

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Picnic on the Plains of Abraham, the site of the great Battle of Quebec in 1759 between the French and the British, led by General Montcalm and General Wolfe.  Pack a tasty feast of local delicacies and marvel at the rich Canadian history that took place on the ground beneath you.

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For a brief recap on the battle, click here.

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Watch the sun set upon the copper roof tops of Quebec City.  A nice spot is the West side of the Plains of Abraham, by the barracks.

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Wander the quieter back streets of Old Quebec City and admire all the distinct colours and quaint details.  I could have spent hours doing this, imagining how life would have unfolded on these streets a hundred years ago.

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Take the terry across to Levis, and snap some scenic views of the City while on the boat.  Climb the stairs and walk to Chocolat Favouris to indulge in some flour de del chocolate-covered maple ice cream (or any chocolate/ice cream flavour combo that you are feeling).

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Take some time to explore Rue St. Joseph.  Not the commercialized end to the East.  The West part of Rue St. Joseph is MUCH cooler. 

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You will find L’Affair est Ketchup, William J. Walter (a sausage & beer joint), and a good cafe called Nektar that served an excellent brewed coffee, among other gems.

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Rue St-Vallier Ouest, close to where we were staying, was also a happening street.  It didn’t appear on any guides or blogs that we came across before our trip, and we probably wouldn’t have discovered it if we weren’t staying in an Airbnb place close by.  There were some cool looking restaurants & cafes, along with this neat vintage shop called Si Les Objects Pouvaient Parler.

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Rue Saint-Jean, the very first street we explored in Quebec City has some spots you should hit up too, including some cute bakeries and bookshops, as well as the aforementioned J.A. Moisan. Jupon Presse is a cute vintage boutique along this road.

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Strolling the Petite Champlain area will make you feel like you are in Europe, especially if the musicians are out, serenading the passerby with melodies on the violin or accordion. Many local artisans have set up shop in this area, and we had some neat conversations with a few of them.

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Say yes to the maple taffy on a stick.

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Concluding thoughts.

Because of its smaller size, Quebec City was easier to get to know than its larger Quebecois counterpart, Montreal.  I was surprised by just how much it felt like Europe (or what we would imagine Europe to be like, as we have yet to visit that continent.)  We feel proud and very fortunate to have Quebec City on our home soil, and think that every Canadian should really get out here at some point in their lives to heighten their understanding and appreciation of French Canadian culture, as well as to visit firsthand the many sites that are significant to our history as Canadians.  We would love to go back for a round 2 of this fine Canadian gem.

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Merci beaucoup, Quebec, for a truly enchanting time, and to Little Al, for accompanying us on our Quebec adventures!

Christmas unicorns & other yuletide oddities: A Sufjan-inspired Christmas production.

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This year, I set out to do something I’ve never done before: to write a Sufjan Stevens- inspired Christmas production.

I didn’t so much write a whole production, as I wrote a play, or more specifically, a series of sketches to be performed at our school’s Christmas concert.

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The idea of a Sufjan Stevens Christmas musical came to me at some point last year, and with the help of our brilliant music director, Graham, and several other talented staff members, the vision became a reality.  During the second week of December, “Christmas Unicorns and Other Yuletide Oddities: A Thought-Provoking Christmas Experience” came to life.

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The process.

Inspiration for the musical came from Sufjan Stevens’ two Christmas box sets.  The idea had been in my mind for a little while, but plans were put into action during the summer, on our return journey from the East Coast.  Brendon and I did some script writing in the car, and pinned down a few sketches that stemmed from a handful of Sufjan’s songs.  The script was finished with the input and creative insight of a few others, and we had ourselves a collection of six sketches, each named after and based on Sufjan’s songs.

This was mid-October.  I thought I was done, ahead of my own personal deadline even, and was prepared to hand over the script to another teacher to carry out and bring to life with her students.  It soon became apparent that the teacher I thought would direct the play wanted to step back a bit in her involvement, and that I would need to be involved in the directing role.  Thankfully, another teacher, Yvonne, who has an extensive background in drama, expressed interest in co-directing, and we began a crazy season of lunch hours abandoned to rehearsals in order to get enough practice time in with the grade six actors and actresses.

The day before the first concert, we saw the music and dramatic sketches come together for the first time in rehearsal.  The result was magical.

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The production.

The production was held in our school gym over two separate evenings, involving the entirety of grades K-6 (split up between the two evenings) along with the Gr. 8/9 band, which is comprised of over 50 kids.  It was a lot of people (and parents) to fit into our gym.

Overall, I was really quite amazed with how things came together.  Kids stepped up to the plate when it was time to perform, and fused with the music, I think we put together something really beautiful and thought-provoking.  We had our share of minor technical difficulties that arose on both nights, which was slightly stressful, but for the most part, people weren’t phased by them and the production went over well.  The chorus of crying babies erupting just as the soft-spoken Unicorn Kid delivers the most pivotal lines of the play was rather unideal, but we had better luck the second night.

The music… was amazing.  Graham did a ton of work rearranging the songs so that they would work for the band and the kids, and the variations sounded incredible.  A staff band, consisting of Graham, Codi, & Eric, accompanied the class choirs on their songs… it sounded unreal.  We have an insane amount of talent on our staff.

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My favourite part of the show was the opening song, Barcarola.  With Grade 6 actors & actresses singing from the risers, I got to take in the spectacle of the band & lighting effects (thanks Chris Kooman) from backstage and take a deep breath as the show began.

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My aim in writing the production was for it to be a venue for thought.  I think it’s important to think about why we do the things we do… specifically around Christmas.  Though they had their humorous lines, the six sketches raised quite serious questions around topics such as traditions, wealth, appearance vs. reality, family, Christmas spirit, happiness, and hope, just to name a few.  In many ways, it was not a play necessarily written for kids, but for the adult audience watching the play.

We got some very encouraging feedback on the production from parents and community members, praising the seamless transitions and teamwork within the production.  It was also neat to hear that the production was indeed quite thought-provoking for people.

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The post-play lull.

I didn’t anticipate the post-play lull that hit the day after it was all over.  In fact, I honestly hadn’t thought about life past the play.

I probably wasn’t completely aware of the amount that I became invested in carrying the play out… Things like blogging, baking, crafting all took a back seat during the month leading up the play, but I didn’t seem to care.  Although it involved a whole lot more than I thought it would, most of it was fun, exhilarating even. Upon the abrupt finish, I found myself with a lost sense of purpose for a few days.

Having a big of space to breathe now, it was quite an experience to reflect on.  With this being the first time I had ever written or directed a play, I was surprised at how smoothly things came together, and how fun & rewarding the process was.  It was neat to apply my creativity to a new realm I had never worked in before.

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Even though Sufjan wasn’t there (well, I like to think he was there, dressed in a disguise of sorts), I think he would be proud.

It was an incredible experience to work with this skillful team to bring a vision to life, and have it be successful in its mission to generate meaningful thought and discussion.

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Way to go, team.  It’s been a pleasure working with you brilliant folks.

Round two in the Rouge.

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A quick flash-forward to the present.

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We made it back to safe & sound from our roadtrip mid-August.  The old Corolla held up great over our 11,500 km journey, we just had to keep her topped up with oil.  I would fill up with gas while Brendon would fill up with oil.  We had a good system going.

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Now back in Red Deer, we are currently living in a trailer (owner by B’s parents) on Nicole & Craig’s farm.  Although there have been days when running water, heat, and refrigeration have been hard to come by (trailer living can be quite the adventure), we are thankful for a place to call home while we wait for our new apartment to become ready for us to move in on October 1.

We are quite sure that round two in the Deer will be better than round 1, and feeling optimistic about the months that lie ahead.

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A new school year has started!  So far, I am loving Grade 2 and my enthusiastic & supportive grade partners.

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(Feel lucky to work alongside these amazing ladies!!)  With my school having moved school buildings over the summer, there was some extra work to do with unpacking and classroom setup.

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Thanks to the help of Brendon, Nicole, and my niece & nephews (Naomi, Luke, Wyatt & Jasper), my classroom has been transformed into a space I am really quite excited about.

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I’ve gone with a bit of a Canadian adventure motif this year, inspired by our summer travels.

Grade 2’s are funny.  They make me laugh A LOT and say the cutest things, sometimes at the most random times.  I have a feeling it’s going to be a fun year in Room 129.

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And a quick update on where Brendon is at with his thesis.

The thesis revision stage is still ongoing, but with an end in sight.  Just this past week, he was offered a space to work in a local Anglican church, which he is extremely grateful for.  It has been tricky not having a consistent space to work out of and having to cart his books with him everyday.  This will allow for a stationary workplace for this last little bit while he plows through the final revisions and adjustments, before submitting sometime this fall.  Almost there, B!!

Muscatine, Iowa: Meeting Miss Emelia.

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It’s hard to stay away from a place like Muscatine, Iowa.

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Especially when your new-born niece lives there, and she is as sweet as Miss Emelia.

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Meet Emelia Grace Goodall, everyone.  

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This beauty was born to my brother Jeremy and his wife Sarah on May 17, 2014.

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Emelia was starting to smile lots while we were there.

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It was super special to take in these moments, and spend some time getting to know our darling niece.

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Congrats, Jer & Sarah.  You guys are fantastic parents to Emelia already.

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It’s beautiful to see your support for one another and the way you two embrace this new stage of life with such flexibility and joy.

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Thanks for the awesome times in Muscatine!

Kansas City.

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Kansas City held a heartwarming reunion with our dear friends, the Keels.

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We arrived in New Zealand the very same week as this amazing family, and shared in the joys, wonders, and bewilderment of moving to a new country and continent together.  It felt so good to be in their presence again, share stories of adjustment, and validate that the experience of going to New Zealand was indeed real.

It was very special to share some wonderful times with our friends Tim, Mimi, Mabry, Annie & Blaise in their very cool hometown of Kansas City.  Some of the highlights included:

Kansas City Barbecue.

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I didn’t know it was a thing.  But it is.  It is QUITE a thing.  Kansas City BBQ is a culture unto itself that must be experienced to be understood.  Tim & Mimi took us to some of their favourite BBQ joints.  Our first Kansas City BBQ experience was takeout from Oklahoma Joe’s, a BBQ place run out of what looks like a gas station.

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Make no mistake- Oklahoma Joe’s is serious BBQ business.

Brendon savoured his Z-man sandwich, while I thoroughly enjoyed my beef brisket (sans the bun.)  I appreciated the thin slices, minimal fat, and thorough application of bbq sauce.

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Then we encountered L.C.’s.  L.C.’s has been known to have the “slickest floors in Kansas City.”  We’re talking smoky, messy, rustic style Kansas City BBQ here.  The kind of bbq where the air is a thick, translucent haze, rolls of paper towel sit on the tables and slices of white bread are used to sop up the glorious mess on your place.  It was epic.

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Mel’s first major league baseball game.  

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Mimi’s dad generously got us tickets to see the Kansas City Royals play the Detroit Tigers from the 4th row … pretty amazing viewing the game from there!

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Visiting Jacob’s Well.

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Tim started Jacob’s Well Church years before moving to NZ, then returned as Senior Pastor.  Mimi is also the Director of Children’s Ministry.  An inspiring place to visit.  One afternoon, Brendon had the chance to share his thesis work with some of the pastoral team there, which was an encouraging and affirming experience for him.

Kansas City Coffee.

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The coffee scene in Kansas City was awesome.  None of our cafe experiences disappointed in the least; mind you, Tim had hand-selected them all for us, so we knew they would be good.  Coffee highlights of the city included:

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Quay Coffee- A really nice geisha full of florals and gentleness.

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Second Best- Some nice espresso, a Kenyan pour over, and a crunch peanut butter affagato.

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Oddly Correct- An enjoyable cappuccino and an exceptional old fashioned sour cream glazed donut.

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PT’s Coffee- A Colombian (single origin) espresso, Kenyan pour over, and iced almond chai.

Meeting Jeremy Collins.

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We were on our way to the cafe Oddly Correct when Tim mentioned we should stop in and visit his friend Jeremy who works in an artists space next door.

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Jeremy kindly took the time to share some of his work with us, including some sketchbooks from a recent trip to Venezuela, and the trailer to his upcoming film, Drawn.  It’s hard to explain what our brief visit with Jeremy did… invigorated/stirred our souls a bit maybe, or gave us a hope that people really can find ways to incorporate their passions and live out their convictions in ways that are possible and meaningful.  Jeremy’s film, Drawn, is being featured as part of the Banff Film Festival, and premiers in Banff this fall.  We are going to try to be there for it.  You can watch the trailer here.

Miscelaneous gems.

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Kansas City far to cool to be thoroughly explored in 3 days.   We probably just touched the tip of the ice berg really, but here are a few other places that stood out as being exceptionally awesome:

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Little Freshie has amazing gourmet snow cones.  Blackberry lavender, anyone?  Or green tea pear?

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Utilitarian Workshop is a super cool design store full of local handmade jewellery and other beautiful objects.

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Our time in Kansas City was overall rejuvenating and inspiring.  The Keels spoiled our socks off and we are so thankful for the time that we could spend with them.  Thanks so much, Tim, Mimi, Mabry, Annie, & Blaise for making our time in Kansas City so epic!  Until next time, friends! x

Next stop: Muscatine, Iowa.

Cross-continentals.

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New Zealand, being relatively small in size (comparative to Alberta), was pretty easy to get to know over the course of our time there.  Canada on the other hand, is a much different story.

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Upon our return, we realized we hardly knew our home country and continent in comparison to the way we had come to know and appreciate New Zealand.  To remedy this, summer of 2014 would hold a cross-continental road trip for us, with a final destination of West Quaco, New Brunswick.

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After spending a few days in Edmonton celebrating Canada Day and catching up with friends, we packed up our 2000 Toyota Corolla (crossing our fingers and hoping she lives up to her longevous Toyota reputation) and hit the road.

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First stop: Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, the place of Mel’s birth.

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We had a nice visit with Nana and Auntie Judy, and shared a coffee with a high school friend of Brendon’s, Jordan, and his wife, Lauren.

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From here, we began our venture south to the destination of Rapid City, South Dakota.

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We met up with our friend Josh and the Corys (B’s friend Cory and his wife, also named Cory) who are due with their baby any day now.  Cory and I even fit an impromptu maternity shoot.

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The Corys were gracious hosts and awesome tour guides around their quaint city, which features statues of all the former US presidents on the street corners.

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We posed for a photo with John Adams.

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The scenery through South Dakota was actually quite striking at times.  They had a neat badlands region just outside of Rapid City, and some stunning rock formations which jetted starkly out of the flat surrounds.

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From there, we were on to Kansas City.  More on this in the next post.

 

Welcoming warmth in The Deer.

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We apologize for the lack of updates over the last little while.  Life has held many transitions, commitments, and deadlines which have unfortunately meant limited time for blogging.  But I’d love to catch you up on what the past 2 months have held.

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First off, we would just like to say that Red Deer definitely looks much better in green than it does in brown or white.  Well, this is probably true of just about anywhere.   The arrival of warmer seasons brought a welcomed lightness and hope to our days.  It’s wonderful to walk outside and have the air not hurt your face.

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The spring held a visit from Brendon’s mom, Fay, and sister, Karly.

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We enjoyed some fun Neilson family times at Luke’s ball games and cheering on Naomi in her first Triathalon.

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Speaking of Triathalons, a shout out to our bro-in-law, Craig, for an incredible performance in the Coeur D’Alene Ironman race and qualifying to go to Worlds in Kona again.  Congrats, Craig & Team Schmitt!!  So proud of you.

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Brendon is now in the final revision stage of his thesis work.  It has felt like a long haul, and he feels quite ready to be done, but there is still a bit more refining and revising to do before the final product can be submitted.  I keep reassuring him that he’ll get there soon enough!

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We were delighted to celebrate Morgan’s graduation from Grade 9 and be there to see Morgan rack up a series of awards at her end of year prizegiving, including the prestigious “Elmer S. Gish Family Award,” given to a student who is well-respected by peers and teachers and who has made a significant contribution to the school community.  Way to go, Morgo!!  So proud of this girl.  In general, it’s nice to be back for these sorts of things, you know?

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My first school year back in Alberta is now complete- hooray!   I had a great year with my Gr. 3’s and 4’s, and my current school has been an awesome place for me to grow as a teacher.  I really feel fortunate to be able to work in such a positive, supportive environment, and with some excellent teaching colleagues, some of whom have become friends.

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As for what next year will hold?  Well, it looks like our feet will be sticking around The Deer a bit longer.  I have kindly been offered a position teaching Grade 2  next year with the same school, and am pleased to continue my journey as a teacher working for and with people I have a lot of respect for.   As much fun as teaching a split class is, teaching a single grade again will be a nice change, and it’s been a while since I’ve taught Grade 2… it’s good to keep things fresh, right?

Staying on with the same school meant preparing to move to a new school campus over the summer.  Along with packing up the entire contents of my classroom, we also packed up the contents of our apartment and put all our belongings in storage while we do some travel over the summer months.

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The spring held its share of uncertainties, decisions, moves, and transitions.  But it did open up its share of hopes about returning to Red Deer for another year.

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