Advice, Memoir

Unexpected Life Lessons

While trying to organize my office, I found a piece of paper with a list scribbled on it… not an uncommon thing for me to find. My mom said that from the time I could hold a pencil in my hand, I was writing lists — important things like party ideas, gifts I wanted for Christmas, outfits to wear — you know, big things.

This list was titled, “Unexpected Life Lessons.”

Below that title was a subtitle, “Setting it Straight.” I listed the lessons I wanted to remember; the ones that have helped me set my thinking straight.

It was a long list, but here is a sampling:

1. Life rarely goes according to plan.

I’ve written about this before but when I was in college, I believed that I had four major decisions to make, and then my life would run on a smooth, thoughtfully-planned path.

Laugh if you want, but I believed that I needed to decide what to study, where to work, where to live, and who to marry.

Then, off I’d go.

I was so surprised when the formula didn’t stick.

My daughter Annie recommended the book, “It’s Not Supposed to Be This Way” by Lysa Terkeurst. The book is about how life often looks different than what we hoped or expected.

“If you are a human who has been doing the adult thing for more than twenty-four hours,” she wrote, “you’ve probably come to the same stunning revelation as I have. We cannot control our outcomes.”

That truth was a revelation to me. And, of course, it continues to prove true — over and over.

We can choose how to respond to the detours, distractions, and disappointments but we can’t always avoid them even with the best laid schemes.

I grew up believing all the cliches about being the captain of my ship, the narrator of my story, the designer of my destiny. So, it surprised me when my plans didn’t always go the way I imagined.

Having a backup plan is always a good idea, or better yet, believing God has one in store can be a saving grace.

Someone was telling me recently about her plan to have children. She had it all planned out — one every three years. Then, she discovered the heartbreak of infertility, and started looking into adoption. She said, “I kept saying, I might need to go to Plan B. Then, it hit me, maybe Plan B was Plan A all along.”

So much wisdom in that statement.

Terkeurst writes that our experiences with things not going as planned help us see our lives in the context of God’s bigger story.

Remembering there is a bigger story helps us keep a long-term perspective; and thankfully, perspective and the way we choose to look at things is something we can always control.

2. Don’t let fear be in charge.

I learned this lesson while sitting around a conference table in an executive committee meeting at a U.S. Presidential Inauguration. I had just been appointed as the communications director and we were all asked to introduce ourselves and share a little bit about our background.

As I listened to the impressive resumes and titles of the other directors, I thought, “I have no business being here.” I felt this sinking feeling of inadequacy.

As fear settled in, another thought came to me that felt like a reprimand or a scolding. “Don’t ever let yourself think that again because the minute you do, you’re done. Your confidence is shot, and it’s over. Then, I thought, “Believe you’re here for a reason. Don’t worry about everyone else. Do what you know how to do.”

That bit of wisdom definitely straightened out my thinking. I didn’t have time for doubts, fears, and those pesky insecurities that can so easily get in our way.

I love how Elizabeth Gilbert talks about fear in her book Big Magic. She explained how fear gets in the way of her writing. (A very real fear.) She decided to think of every writing venture as a road trip, acknowledging that fear will want to come along. So, she accepts fear’s presence, knowing it will wedge its way in somehow, but she sets some rules for it — it never gets a vote, never touches the map, can’t suggest detours, isn’t even allowed to fiddle with the temperature.

“Dude,” she says, “you’re not even allowed to touch the radio. But, above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.”

Such an important life lesson, and one I need to remember every time fear bobs its head and makes me doubt myself.

3. You don’t need to do everything at once.

This may seem obvious to most people but it was a major lesson for me.

A friend was helping me move into a new apartment, and I was standing by my car wondering how I could get everything — or as much as possible in one trip.

Exasperated, I said, “I can’t get all this in one trip.”

Very matter of fact, he said, “Guess what? You don’t have to.”


That stopped me cold.

I don’t? I seriously thought that was one of the most profound things I’d ever heard. It’s such a basic truth, but one that often escapes me as I try — way too often — to do too much.

Just recently, I came home from a short road trip, got out of my car, and opened the back gate to retrieve everything I’d gathered on the journey, and once again thought, “I can’t get all this in one trip.”

Aha! “Guess what? You don’t have to!

I don’t need to do everything at once.

What an epiphany.

4. Sit with people in their grief or sadness.

When my mom died, a neighbor came to visit me to share her condolences. I invited her to sit down, and when she did, she settled into a comfortable chair in my family room as if she had all day, and said, “Tell me about your mom.”

I could tell by her body language, soft demeanor, and gentle tone of voice that she genuinely wanted to know about my mom, my loss, and memories.

That open-ended question and her sincere follow-up questions invited me to talk about how my mom died, what she was like, the hilarious things she said and did, the wisdom she shared, and what I would miss most about her.

I will always remember her example and that of so many others who have just been there for me when I’ve needed a friend — and they’ve been genuinely good listeners.

One of my favorite old movies is Shall we Dance with Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon. (It’s not a classic, but it’s always one I’m happy to watch again.) Maybe it’s because of this one line when Sarandon’s character is talking about marriage. She said when you marry someone, “you’re saying, your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness.”

Listening and sitting with someone in their grief is a form of witnessing somebody else’s life and when someone listens to us and cares about our sadness, we feel like someone is witnessing and caring about ours.

So, there you have it, four of my unexpected life lessons.

I’d love to know some of yours. What small life lessons have you accumulated that have been helpful to you?

Advice, Change

Pandemic Survival

As we live in the surreal, bewildering world of Covid-19, I repeatedly find myself thinking and feeling like I did after I was diagnosed with cancer over 10 years ago.

The lessons I learned then are helping me now.

Like a pandemic, that diagnosis made me feel helpless, confused, uncertain about the future, and worried about everything I touched, breathed, or came in contact with.

The grocery store became a petri dish, the nail salon, mall, and everywhere else became unsanitary places to avoid.

I had no control over what was happening, and every day it seemed like there was more bad news.

My life suddenly narrowed from being busy, involved, and overly social to being singularly focused on my own survival and the well-being of my family.

How many times did I hear that I had a “new normal?”

How many times did doctors tell me there was no way of predicting what might happen?

I hated the loss of control.

So, as the news has poured out endlessly over the last few weeks, I’ve thought a lot about the lessons I learned from surviving cancer that are helping me through this pandemic.

Here are a few of them. Maybe they’ll help you:

  1. Remember this is temporary. Life will not always be this way. Repeat this often. Let it become your mantra.

  2. You’re not alone — even if it feels that way. Other people feel like you do. They understand the loneliness, isolation, and fear.

  3. You will get through it. No matter what happens, you’ll survive. Even if the very worst happens, everything will eventually be okay.

  4. Plan for the future. Have something to look forward to. Imagine it in great detail, and when you feel the stress mounting, go there in your mind. Think about how it will feel, how you will enjoy it, and what a celebration it will be. I imagined being with my family at the beach, soft hair growing back on my head, the sand between my toes, the sounds of laughter as my girls played in the ocean waves, and the relief on Doug’s face because we made it through. Imagining all the small details propelled me through some hard days.

  5. Have faith. There is a God. He is in charge and if you believe in, trust, and rely on his words, you will feel at peace. God sent us here for a mortal experience and that means bad things will come our way. That’s just part of the plan. Our job is to respond well, learn, and become better through the hard times — choose faith over fear.  

  6. Rely on friends and family. I was overwhelmed with the love and kindness of others. It reminded me that even in the worst-case scenarios of life, good, helpful people are everywhere. Watch for them, appreciate them.

  7. Be someone who helps others.  We can be those good people. Doug is calling a friend every day which cheers him up and lets someone else know they’re loved. A neighbor just left us a cellophane-wrapped roll of toilet paper with a note that said, “When life gets crazy, roll with it.”  Check on people. They will appreciate it and it will make you feel better.

  8. Join in the worldwide fast tomorrow, April 10, on Good Friday, and pray that the virus can be controlled, caregivers will be protected, the economy strengthened, and life normalized. Fast for two meals or 24 hours. You decide how long you want to sacrifice.  

  9. We also have posted this graphic on our refrigerator to remind us of who we want to be during and after Covid-19.


I hope some of these tips are helpful. And, I’d love to know some of your tips.

How are you getting through these upside-down, inside-out days? Please share!

Advice, Memoir, Relationships

The Gratitude Letter

To many of my friends and family, my husband Doug is known as Mr. Happy.

He has a degree from University of Pennsylvania in Applied Positive Psychology.


Image 11-3-18 at 10.10 PM

He has fun finding new ways to apply the principles of positive psychology in his consulting work and even in our family.

Since it’s November, the month we celebrate gratitude, it’s the perfect time to share an experience I had with a positive psychology “intervention” called The Gratitude Letter.

thank-you-515514_1920Basically, you choose someone who has made a positive difference in your life and you write him or her a letter explaining a specific thing they did that made a difference and how it affected you. Then, you visit that person, read them the letter, and give them the letter before you leave.

I chose to write my letter to my brother, Kelly, who had been diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer and given only weeks to live.

kelly & cambree

I confess it was a little awkward. I explained the rules of the game and made him sit quietly and listen to me while I read the letter aloud to him.

Let’s just say sitting quietly and listening wasn’t his greatest strength in life… but he did it. He gave me a few minutes of his complete, undivided attention.

In the letter, I wrote about our mutual dislike for each other as teenagers. My mother said that during those years, “the tension was so thick, you could cut it with a knife.”

I remember that tension well. So did he.

After high school graduation, he went off for a job in Wyoming and I went off to college.

architecture-3124331_1920One day, I went to the mailbox in my college dorm and found a letter from him.

I stared at the envelope for the longest time trying to imagine what he would write in a letter to me.

I took it to my room, opened it carefully with equal doses of curiosity and wariness.

I was shocked to read a very kind, warm letter from him. He said he loved me and missed me. He asked me how I liked college. He told me about his job, his life, his friends.

Did you catch that part where he said he loved me and missed me?

I just sat on my bed and cried. I couldn’t believe that after all those years of barely speaking to each other, he took the time to write me a letter and to tell me he loved and missed me.

The next time we were both home for the weekend, he drove me to Terry’s Drive-in on Main Street of our hometown and bought me a Coke, took me for a ride, and wanted to know everything about my life.

That letter and the Coke run to Terry’s changed everything between us. It was like all the years of anger just slipped gently away and we became best friends like we were before junior high and high school transformed us into uptight angsty teenagers.

I told him I was grateful he had the courage to write me that letter and for all the healing that took place after that.

He smiled and said he had forgotten about writing me the letter. He couldn’t remember what initiated the change in our relationship.

To me, it was crystal clear. He initiated the change and I was forever grateful.

He said, “If you had a tear reading the letter, I can only imagine the tears I had writing it.”

It was a sweet moment and I was glad I did it.

I’m especially glad now since he died a few days later.


In this month of Thanksgiving, who could you thank?

Give it some thought and make it a goal to write, deliver and read a gratitude letter to someone who made a difference in your life.

It might surprise you what a difference it will make in your life now.

I’d love to know how it goes…







Advice, Family

Wedding Planning 101

Several people have asked me to share what I learned about wedding planning after planning Annie’s December wedding. 

This might be more than you ever wanted to know…

dad and annie

The most important thing I learned is that it can become tedious, frustrating, and filled with tension if you let it.

So, decide at the beginning that you will have fun, and make it memorable. I told Annie our motto was, “When we stop having fun, we have to take a break.”

We took several breaks!

Some parts of it were not all that fun — like dealing with a soiled, stained wedding dress after the first photo shoot.  (Thanks to the genius and patience of dress designer, Nancy Barrus at Avenia Bridal, the dress was repaired and was perfect on Annie’s wedding day.)

Other lessons:

  1. It’s deeply personal and emotions run high. Just plan on a few tears and moments of exasperation.
  2. People have different stress levels and their limits don’t always coincide with the wedding planning timeline. You can’t stop the planning because someone is tired of it, but, like I mentioned, you need breaks. break
  3. If you use Pinterest as your only idea board, your wedding might look and feel like every other wedding in the universe. Also, florists and decorators don’t want to copy what’s on Pinterest. They want to have their original work pinned!

cambree4. Having a blog or a social media presence, and calling yourself a professional, doesn’t really make you one.  For example, anyone with a camera can call him or herself a photographer. But, you should look carefully at experience, equipment, credentials, references, and background before you hire someone.

5. Utah is the best place to get married. Professionals know how to do it beautifully, creatively, simply, and affordably. And, they’re just so nice.

IMG_31136.  If you get married in the DC area, you have to, think carefully about what you really want. Once you drop the word “wedding” to a caterer, you’re instantly beginning your planning with anywhere from $130 to $180 per person. This is probably a separate blog post but here are some highlights on this point:

    • The types of venues come down to historical inns, taverns, plantations and manors; hotels; community centers; and country clubs, and your church. There is a venue rental fee and you need to find out exactly what comes with that fee — tables, chairs, kitchen, parking, etc. Sometimes all these things are additional costs.
    • The majority of venues require you to use their in-house caterers, bakers, and other preferred vendors, which can make things easier for you, but be ready for their inflated costs, and talk to them about what they can offer. Try to get a sense of whether they will be creative and work with you to personalize your event. Some of them want you to stick to their standard menus, which may not appeal to you. I worked with some self-proclaimed “high-end caterers” in DC and felt like they were too rigid and inflexible. I didn’t want the menus used at other events. I wanted a menu that fit our event. And, Annie didn’t want any food with names she couldn’t pronounce. And, there is a lot of that fancy-schmancy stuff out there.
    • If you come from a Mormon Do-it-yourself culture, like I do, you will be appalled at how much everything costs, because, of course, you know someone who can cater, design flowers, make wedding cakes, decorate, be more creative, etc. You know how to stretch a dollar because you’ve planned a thousand church events with a total budget that is less than the per-person cost of your caterer, and you are not used to having to pay just to use a big room. This means you either have your event at the church or find one of the handfuls of venues that let you bring in your own caterers, etc. Then, you rely on your friends to do everything or you suck it up and pay what you know are exorbitant rates. (We did a little of both.)
    • Before you even think about venues, set a budget — a steel-clad, hard-edged budget. If you don’t set it, and respect it, you will absolutely exceed it. I know this from experience… Enough said. Be prepared because when you set the budget and adhere to it, you have to make hard choices and a lot of compromises because “all of the above” is not an option.

7.  Create a guest list first. This will help you decide what kind of venue you need. Then make some decisions about the scope and type of your event.  If it’s a formal, sit-down dinner, and you are living within your budget, you might need to really trim down your guest list.  Because we are a social family and love our friends, we struggled with this, but our D.C. venue had a capacity that we could not exceed.  So here is what I came up with to help us stay under capacity:

      • Start with family first
      • Then add best family friends – you know, the ones you have Christmas Eve with or the ones that are like your family, especially if you don’t live near your family.
      • Now comes the hard part, friends who have been important influences in your child’s life and will likely always be in your child’s life forever.
      • If you still have room for more, then you consider friends who have been important in your lives in the past but may not be central to their daily lives now.
      • Next: people you adore but don’t have occasions to see often. BUT, you still want them to celebrate this occasion with you and your family because if circumstances were different (like if you lived near each other) they would be up higher on the list.
      • Then, you have your “other” category – the people you would love to see but may have to cut because of cost, room capacity, etc.  I know. Ruthless and calculating but unless you are a Rockefeller and do not have a hotel-sized mansion of a home, and a budget to match, you have to make some hard decisions.

8. Listen to the opinions of others. Politely nod, and freely ignore if their ideas don’t match your vision, budget, priorities, or taste. (I had to ignore Caren’s strong opinions about engraved invitations, for example.)

9. Prepare to feel like a hemorrhaging ATM.  Block all thoughts like, “This is enough money to buy a private island.’ Or, “These kids could pay their full tuition or buy a house for the cost of this wedding.” Or, “We could educate and feed a third world country for this.” As Doug kept saying, “It is what it is.” Forget practical. Repeat this mantra daily.

10. Most important of all – remember this: It is worth it.  Every bit of planning, cost, negotiation, and everything else, is worth it. It will be the best party of your life.

11. Have a DJ and/or a great playlist. That makes it a real party.IMG_3148