I always encourage our home tour guides to be honest. “It’s so worth it,” I write. “You never know who out there you’ll be helping at the perfect moment when they need your words the most.” Well, Lara Casey took me up on my plea for honesty. You will be moved and encouraged and, best yet, motivated after spending time with her thoughts.
I’m so happy to share her with you today. Welcome, Lara!
Welcome to our home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina! My husband Ari and I have quite the story. We met at the gym, back in another lifetime when I was a personal trainer and he was in the Navy. We got married five months later in Las Vegas…typing that never ceases to make me feel a little shocked at my own story!
I had just gone through a painful divorce, and he had broken up with his longtime girlfriend shortly before we met. Neither of us was in a great place to start a new relationship, much less a serious one. But we fell for each other quickly. When it came time for him to move to a new base across the country, we had to make a choice: do we say goodbye, or take a huge leap of faith together?
We chose the latter and eloped.
When the honeymoon phase ended, reality hit. We come from different faith backgrounds. Our hurried courtship and differences caused a lot of tension in our first years together. We became two ships passing in the night, and even started sleeping in separate beds.
But here’s what we’ve learned since then: the impossible is possible. No matter how far gone you feel, or how much you’ve messed up in your relationship – we messed up a lot! – you can live a new story.
We have become different people since saying “I do” on the Las Vegas strip. Our marriage is completely different than before. We just celebrated ten years of marriage last March, and we spend our days with three hilarious children.
Grace is five, and if you asked me to sum her up in three words, I’d say bubbly, dancing, and dirt. She loves to dance and sing, but most of all, she loves being out in the garden! She makes fairy houses out of sticks and flowers and comes up with the funniest things.
Today it was a patch of pansies that she had picked and laid out in a circle. She explained to me ever-so-sincerely that it was a “feeding trough for the raccoons and badgers.”
I haven’t seen either of those creatures in our garden, but if I was them, I would be delighted to find a pansy-lined feeding trough from Grace!
Joshua is a year and a half, and is most known for his wild red hair and many nicknames, lovingly bestowed on him by a certain big sister: Bro, Broseph, Weiner Tot, Mr. Wobby, Hooner Tot, and my favorite Brotato Chip. Moments after he was born, one of the nurses said, “Look at all that red hair!” I couldn’t believe it. Red hair is apparently not a recessive gene in our family tree. It fits his personality to a T.
Brotato Chip loves playing chase with Grace, coloring, and he loves food. All of it. He eats more than Ari does for breakfast!
Sarah is 11 months old, and if the age difference between her and Josh has you puzzled, she joined our family through the gift of adoption. We’re just about to celebrate one year since the day of her birth, and I feel the emotions welling up as I write this to you. We used to think that adoption was something only superhuman people did. I would hear people’s stories and think, wow that is amazing! They must have something I don’t: more wisdom, more faith, more a lot of things.
Every time I look at her, I am BLOWN AWAY. We adopted! We do not possess some superhuman gene. We are imperfect people, and all we did was say yes to God’s crazy plans.
We had been through a season of miscarriage that opened our hearts more to adoption. The night we finished our adoption paperwork, I felt a little off. I swooped Grace up in the car to get a pregnancy test, and sure enough, there were two pink lines. I cried in disbelief on our bathroom rug with Grace and said, Gracie! There is a baby in there! God is crazy! She leaned over, pulled up my shirt, and looked as if she was going to blow a big raspberry on my belly. Her little lips got close to my belly button, and then with the biggest joy she squealed, “Hiiiii baby!”
Ari arrived home moments later, and our conversation went something like this:
Me: So I finished our adoption paperwork.
Me: And then this happened. I showed him the two pink lines.
Ari: Oh. Okay.
We were both in shock. We were in shock because this didn’t change our conviction about adopting in the least. We were all in for this entirely unexpected plan.
Sarah is hilarious and sweet and feisty and dearly loved by her big brother and sister. Josh loves to feed her bottles and steal her snacks, but she gets even with him by pulling down his pants every now and then, and Grace loves to hold her and dance with her. These three are pretty fun together.
Our home is in a little pocket of development that sits between several cow farms, a blueberry patch, and a large retirement community. I can see why so many people retire in North Carolina! Friends often come to our house for the first time and say, “I thought I was lost, but then out of nowhere there was this adorable little neighborhood.”
Being nestled in farm country is one of my favorite things about living here. Rich history and agriculture surround us, which has been delightful for the kids…and for my not-so-secret dream of being a farmer in my next life. We go on farm tours, visit local gardens, and our mail carrier is even a cow farmer!
The pace of life here is slow enough to be enjoyable, but we are also surrounded by a hub of research and education. We live in what’s called The Triangle, anchored by North Carolina State University, Duke University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ari works at the latter: UNC Hospital.
When I found out I was pregnant with Grace, we were living in a two-bedroom apartment. That may sound like a fine amount of space for two people, but something unique about our home is that my office lives here, too! I have worked from home, with employees who work alongside me, for the last decade. We had turned the master bedroom of our apartment into the Southern Weddings office at the time, so the thought of adding a baby to the mix ignited an immediate search for more square footage.
Ari had finished his commitment as a flight surgeon with the Navy and was doing his Interventional Radiology residency at UNC, so we were renting. We didn’t want to plant roots anywhere till he finished residency (four years) and fellowship (two years).
Our house-hunting criteria was unique: We wanted a rental house that was close to Ari’s work, was big enough to fit a baby and an office, and had great light for the frequent photo shoots we do!
I stumbled on this house online through a local realtor who had a few rental properties, but I almost passed it up because the wall color was a really awful brown and the furniture in the photos made the space look dated and drab. I’m skilled at using my creative imagination to visualize the potential in things, but I could not visualize this house being the one. It was a good rental price, though, so I gave it a chance anyway.
When I walked in, the light in the living room was magical. High ceilings, beautiful natural light, and sparkling wood floors. “White paint,” I thought to myself. All this place needed was a top-to-bottom coat of white paint, and it would be beautiful! That’s exactly what we did. It’s amazing what a coat of paint can do to transform a space.
A couple years into renting, Ari was offered an Associate Professor position at UNC, and we asked our landlord if he would be willing to sell this home to us. He was saving this house for retiring with his wife one day, but he liked us a lot and he agreed to sell!
We didn’t have much negotiating power on the price since we were already living there. Market value was $400K, and he asked for $414K. After praying over it, and thinking about the cost of moving to a different home and all the hassle we would endure in another transition, we decided to take it. We have never regretted that decision. Even when the HVAC system completely tanked a week after we closed, we were still so grateful we made this house our home!
There’s something exhilarating about home ownership, especially after a long period of unknown destinations. The week we closed on the house, I got right to planning our first garden. We went from a few pots of herbs the first year to now having over 40 feet of raised bed space for vegetables and lots of little flower beds all over our lot.
We also did a major expansion a couple years ago, turning our attic and a hidden space on the second floor into an additional 2000 square feet of office and a sleeping loft! The renovation cost about $30K, but the value added to our home was more than double that. And, best of all, we created space for our family and business to grow well. I love my office, and Grace loves reading books up in the loft!
My path has been rather untraditional.
I studied music theatre in college because I loved telling impactful stories. After college, I became a personal trainer: I wanted to help people live their stories well, finding not just physical strength but soul strength. Ten years ago, I started Southern Weddings magazine, after working as a wedding planner in the South and California. Yep, I told you my path was untraditional!
And five years ago, I created the PowerSheets – an intentional goal planner – to help people get unstuck, uncover good goals, and do something about them.
Day to day, I’m the accounting, HR, and payroll departments of our company, which houses two brands: Cultivate What Matters and Southern Weddings. But, I spend most of my time writing and teaching, helping people know what I didn’t know before: you don’t have to be perfect, or have it all together, to live an intentional life. You can cultivate what matters right where you are. Right in the mess, right in the tension, right where you are. Flaws and all.
I felt unqualified to do this, but I wrote two books about my story: Make it Happen, and the upcoming book Cultivate. Writing these books was one of the hardest things I’ve done. But good things come out of hard things, and I’m grateful for my imperfect path. I’ve learned far more from my mistakes than any of my successes.
When people find out I write about goal setting, they sometimes assume we couldn’t possibly have much in common. They envision me to be a hyper-motivated, ultra-organized, productivity machine. I am motivated, but not innately. I don’t write about goal setting because I love goal setting, and it’s not something that comes naturally to me. The words “goal setting” have often given me the heebie-jeebies. I study it and write about it because I need it. But here’s the thing: I don’t do it like most of the world.
I don’t do traditional, pressure-filled, do-it-all goal setting. I help people uncover intentional, less-is-more goals. We call these “good goals.”
Good goals are about cultivating what you’ve been given well: your relationships, your money, your possessions, your work, your children, your home, your health, and your time. A little intentional forethought goes a long way!
When I was a personal trainer, most clients would come to me with a number and say, “I want to lose ten pounds.” When I asked one particular gentleman, “Why ten pounds?” it was an arbitrary number, or a weight he was in college.
There was no real heart connection to the goal of losing ten pounds.
But when we dug deeper into what was important to him in the big picture, the motivation for true fitness started to emerge. Instead of, “I want to lose ten pounds to get back to my college weight” (not very motivating, and more guilt-inducing), we changed it to, “I will get healthy and strong so that I can live long enough to walk my daughter down the aisle.”
That is motivating.
This is why I do what I do. It’s about uncovering what matters to you and doing something about it. I don’t want to use my life by accident, and I don’t want to strive for perfection, either. So, I focus on progress, not perfection. Little by little progress adds up.
Last year, I felt stuck. It was a whirlwind year of writing my second book Cultivate, adopting Sarah, starting over completely on my book, and adjusting to being a mom of three. I struggled with the tension between motherhood and business, and I tried to do it all but didn’t do a whole lot well.
I ended up wanting to quit my business.
And I sat in that tension for months, trying to figure out what to do.
Until one morning, when I dropped to my knees on my dining room floor in a moment of desperate prayer, and what I was supposed to do became clear:
Help other people sit in the tension and not feel like they have to GIVE UP.
Sometimes, when we feel like we want to quit, it means something DOES need to change.
I needed to stop doing life the way I had always done it. I needed to let go of the old to make room for a very new season for our family. I began embracing the tension instead of fighting it, and life started to grow in a new direction.
We changed the name of our company from the Lara Casey Shop to Cultivate What Matters, and shifted to sharing more behind-the-scenes.
I passed the torch as Editor-in-Chief of Southern Weddings.
We chose to grow slow in our business and to go deep with our reach instead of wide.
And, this may seem arbitrary on the surface, but it was a life-changing shift: I stopped fighting my curly hair every day and let my hair down.
All of this change has been incredibly freeing! I started to bloom right where I had been planted, right in the tension, and in what felt undone and imperfect. I let go.
Letting go of being the EIC of Southern Weddings was harder for me at first than I anticipated, though. I thought about friends who had recently sent kids off to college: so hard to do, but a necessary leap for growth to happen. This role shift was a long time coming for me. I stepped away from contributing to editorial a few years ago, and we came to a point last year where it became clear that the magazine needed a voice that was all-in.
I still oversee the back-end business, but this change has allowed me to prepare for a season ahead of stepping away even more, as I prepare to homeschool Grace in the fall. This will be my biggest transition yet, but I’m excited, and so is Grace.
Let me get one thing out of the way first: yes, we have white couches, and, yes, I have messy kids. This conundrum is an FAQ with my mama friends. Our white furniture is upholstered in Ikea slipcovers that I slathered in Scotchguard, and they are not spotless – but that’s not the kind of home we are cultivating.
I want each space to invite you to use it. The slipcovers get washed a couple times a year, and I ordered an extra set for each piece when I bought the couches. So far, though, I haven’t considered using the extra covers and we’ve had these pieces for six years!
Now that we’ve gotten the white couch mystery out of the way, let’s move on to the rest of the kids’ spaces – which is all the spaces. When you have two under two, you have to be willing to make things work in each season and stage of development. Case in point: the great wall of couches that currently lines our living room to keep babies from wandering. Once Josh and Sarah are passed the getting-into-everything phase, we’ll shift things around again. For now, we remain flexible!
Color fires me up, so Grace and I do a lot of painting together on the kitchen island. We took one of the kitchen cabinets and, instead of extra dishes, we filled it with painting supplies: cheap watercolors, paper, mini canvases, acrylic paints, and brushes. Having creative goodies at the ready helps when you have littles around and not a lot of time for major craft prep. When we are done painting, we just toss the supplies back in the cabinet.
To keep the house organized, and to help me spend less time tidying constantly, we did four things:
We embraced vertical storage (thank you, Marie Kondo).
We got rid of toys that have small parts! Small parts mean more to clean up, and there are many things that can help kids with fine motor skills other than traditional toys.
We love owning books, but we also love our local library. We have fewer books sitting on the shelf or in piles around the house, and the books we get – even if we’ve checked them out before – feel like new reads!
I’ve recently started a four o’clock tidying time. We turn on some upbeat music and tidy all the stuff from the day as fast as possible. This turns a chore into a dance party.
One of my goals this year is to cultivate a life-giving home. You’re seeing some of that progress in these photographs. This goal isn’t just about creating life-giving spaces in our physical house though: it includes homeschooling Grace in the fall, living with less, implementing a plan for the office to semi-transition out of our house, growing our marriage, and planting a family legacy within the seemingly mundane everyday routines of life, and the bigger celebrations of life (holidays, traditions, milestones), too.
Our home is the center of where our children’s hearts are shaped. As my friend Sally Clarkson says, “All people need a place where their roots can grow deep and they always feel like they belong and have a loving refuge. And all people need a place that gives wings to their dreams, nurturing possibilities of who they might become.”
What I hope our children remember most from this home is grace. I hope they see Ari and me as living examples of what it means to mess up and get back up, say I’m sorry, love even when it’s hard, and cultivate what lasts longer than us.
I used to hope that they would forget the times I raised my voice, lost my cool, or failed at something, but those times have become some of the most powerful opportunities to teach them what real grace looks like. And I hope they remember all the people we welcome into our home – a diverse community that we love so much. I hope that leaves a lasting impression on them. I think it already has for Grace.
Josh grabbed a handful of dirt from the garden today and brought it to me with joy, as if he were bringing me the greatest present on earth. It actually is the greatest present. Dirt is what cradles and sustains new life. Peonies grow through the dirt, and so do we. It’s in the mess – the tension, the hard stuff, the challenges – that we are refined and ripened. My favorite thing about living with my kids is that I’m invited into the mess every day, and I get a choice: let it grow and nourish us, or see it as a mess.
I wish someone had told me that I would never find true contentment in my work alone. I used to think that my work was the source of my worth and that being busy was a badge of honor. I would work 24/7 at the expense of my health and my marriage in those dark first years with Ari. I tried to escape the pain in our marriage by growing a business.
How we spend our time is how we spend our lives, and I was just plain spent in those years. I wish someone had told me – and I had listened! – that I didn’t have to work so hard to prove myself.
What ended up turning our marriage around wasn’t escaping or achieving, it was facing the mess head-on. Little by little, and with some big leaps of faith along the way, good things grew in that mess. I’m so grateful.
Thank you, Lara, for all of this. No matter how many times others try to tell us, it’s so hard not to wear the Badge of Busy as our favorite accessory! Unpin it, everyone. Store it in the closet. Who’s in?
Also, I loved how Lara was so honest with her marriage ups and downs. That right there is a leap of courage in this online world, and I’m so thankful she opened up and shared herself with us. Marriage is work, every minute of every day. And, just like work, there are times we need to start over and come up with a brand new plan for the project of spending our lives together. Just a wonderful reminder. Thanks again, Lara.
P.S. – Are you living with your own kids in a unique way? Are you interested in sharing your home and experiences with us? Let me know! We love to be inspired! And it’s a lot of fun…I promise! I should also mention, I have a goal to bring more diverse points of view to Design Mom this year. So if you don’t see yourself or your community reflected here, let’s make it happen — send in your details, or recommend a friend! Take a peek at all the homes in my Living With Kids series here.