The Path

“Every flood has its ebb.”–variation of an old expression

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The rains began in the dark of the night, like so many foreboding events.  At times, the light showers seemed harmless and a normal part of spring. Unfortunately, there were the dark underbelly periods too, with intermittent downpours spewing from inky, looming clouds determined to demonstrate their dominance.  Within the confines of the classroom in which I teach, instructional flow was periodically interrupted, as my students and I turned towards the wall of windows to stare with wide-eyed wonder, due to the showers thunderously pounding the roof above. Rain reverberated as if threatening to break through with the strength and precision of a military special operations force. 

Lunch came and went, then one by one, like a slow trickle of water, students began to be called for an early dismissal. The trickle turned into a steady stream of children leaving school as flood warnings resounded throughout the local area.  Rumors began to circulate among the staff that waters were rising rapidly. Young children, I was told, in one local day-care school were all being moved from their first floor classrooms to higher levels, and parts of town near and around my beloved park were completely submerged under water.  A state of emergency had been declared by the mayor’s office.

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As my school emptied, my mind drifted to those young day-care children trapped at school, but safely remaining on a higher floor until the waters subsided.  I was reminded of a nearly-forgotten event of my childhood.  While I do not recall my exact age/grade level, I know I was quite young.  At the time, the creek that ran beside the main road leading to the tiny subdivision on which I lived frequently flooded.  There was a day, quite similar to this past week’s event, when during the school day, the road was completely flooded, and all of the kids who lived along that bus route were unable to get home.

We were all taken to our elementary school’s tiny gymnasium.  I remember it was a bit loud and chaotic at first, and I felt very fearful, in the way only a young could, worried that we would be stuck at school all night.  I vaguely recollect a few adults with us, most likely the principal and a teacher or two.  Eventually, a few of the older students became too loud and raucous, and we were made to stop talking and asked to sit still.  For whatever reason, it is the image that is imprinted in my mind.  In kid logic, if the adult was angry, there was something out of control about the situation; therefore, I should be really afraid.  I could not quell the heat of fear rising within me, and I leaned my head back against the blue cushioned mat that hung against the wall closing my eyes in hopes of making it all go away.

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Eventually, of course, just as it happened a few days prior to writing this piece, the waters did subside, and I was able to be picked up by my dad, still in his suit from his day at work.  He looked tired, the growth shadow of a long day was lining his face.  Looking out of the car’s window as we traversed the wet roads home, I vaguely recall seeing debris–gravel, branches, leaves, and trash–all tumbled and messy, spot-lighted by the car’s headlights. It is more of the feeling that I recall rather than precise imagery, but in that moment I felt relief, fatigue, and the remnants of fear still gnawing around the edges of my gut.  What if it happened again?

And, of course, it did, and it does.

Looking at those recent images of Ritter Park and the entire area surrounding it, I am astounded and wonderstruck.  I understand the basic science of the connection between watersheds and weather events.  Nonetheless, it was an unimaginable event, one that is often described as “a once per generation event.”  Many of those homeowners/renters, I am sure, never dreamed of, much less experienced, flood damage.  It seemed unthinkable, and yet, it happened.  

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The ebb and flow.  Today, as I write, the sunshine is luminously abundant, a light breeze is tossing about newly formed spring leaves, and the skies are a brilliant blue! Isn’t that life?  As it was written in the book of Ecclesiastes, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens . . . .” 

Looking at those images of the Ritter Park area, I am reminded of the pedestrian path below the waters that cannot be seen.  Instead, the lens of the camera could only capture the murky brown waters filled with floating bits of flotsam that covered it over.  Bottom portions of vehicles, fire hydrants, mail boxes, park benches and so forth can be seen submerged in the rising waters with no visible way through.

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How often in life do those times occur?  Times filled with fear, wondering how much higher the waters of trouble will rise.  Moments spent wondering if the showers of bad fortune will ever stop?  Day upon horrible day, moment after nerve-wracking moment, fear, like a vice, squeezing your gut, and anxiety, like a noose, threatening to cut off your breath.  

Somehow, in due time, the clouds begin to shift.  Not quickly, it seems, but enough to allow a glimpse of hope for tomorrow.  The path is there.  You cannot see it, as I cannot see Ritter’s path in those on-line images, but you know it is there.  

Like the child I once was, flooded in at school, I had to bide my time, sit with my fear, and wait for the waters to recede. Sometimes, that is all we can do. In those dark moments, life requires that we tread water, and sit with our fear.  Our legs get tired and our bodies ache, but faith beckons us to stay afloat.  

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It will happen.  It may take longer than ever dreamed, but the waters will recede, and the path will emerge, albeit still covered with the remains of the havoc that once was.  It takes work and effort to clean it up, piece by piece, part by part, and step by precious step, but eventually, you are free of the wreckage and strong enough to forge ahead. 

Dear Reader, if it looks dark now, if your path is hidden, if it is buried deep below the rising flood waters, keep treading, keep the faith.  The path ahead is still there–just temporarily covered over.  It’s not easy, it never is, but every flood has its ebb. One day, it may not be soon, but one day, the path will be revealed once more.  May you be reunited with its peace soon.

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Aging with Serenity

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”–Serenity Prayer

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After writing humorously about the aging process a few weeks ago, I ran across an article written by Paula Span, focusing on the research and work of Becca Levy, a psychologist, epidemiologist, and professor at the Yale School of Public Health. Part of Levy’s work specifically points to 7.5 years that can be added or subtracted from a person’s life based upon personal and societal attitudes towards aging.  Since then, my brain has picked up Levy’s thesis, as if it were an object of study, and has been manipulating it from all angles as I consider its premise with what I thought I knew and what I hope to understand/apply. 

And what do I know? I know that I definitely won’t be retiring during my 50s as I once believed. At one time, I harbored some resentment about this.  Then, we went through the pandemic, and I experienced the heat of transformation with millions of other people, like sand particles melting into glass.

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It was during the pandemic that I slowly began to observe many of my attachments to “how things should be,” such as my retirement age, and I began to undergo a practice of  learning to say “yes” more often to things that weren’t, “how they should be.”  It was, and continues to be, a very imperfect practice.  Learning to accept AND surrender to the things that I cannot change is NOT my natural inclination.  

In addition to my belief about retirement age, nearly ten years ago–I battled low back pain due to three bulging discs and an extra vertebra.  Without belaboring the topic, the pain led me down a meandering path of chiropractic care, regular epidural steroid injections, and ultimately two 12-week rounds of physical therapy.  Both well-meaning doctors and physical therapists, told me that I should never participate in any form of high intensity exercise, including running again.  I accepted this theory because, after all, they were the professionals, and besides I was getting to “that age”–whatever that means.  

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Fortunately, one physical therapist disagreed, suggesting that I should strengthen the weak muscles that were causing imbalances that led to my injury in the first place.  Then, if I continued to work on maintaining that strength and listen to my body, he believed that I could gradually resume running and other forms of exercise I had been told to avoid. His advice later proved to be spot-on.

Therefore, as the pandemic continued, work changed, living conditions changed, and exercise changed as we said goodbye to gyms and group exercise.  Work meant sitting for hours. Low back, hip pain, depression, and sleep disruption escalated. I learned that I was not made to sit for long periods, and I began to realize that in-person work was more beneficial to my life than I realized. 

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Through trial and error during the pandemic, I began to resume various forms of exercise that I had once abandoned, including running, and I began to rethink my belief system about my own aging process.  I started approaching my life, and my physical body, with a bit more curiosity–making observations, asking questions, forming hypotheses, testing them, and making adjustments. This continues today.

The pandemic forced me to make peace with the fact that I will work longer than I had originally planned because it is still beneficial for me. Furthermore, I have embraced my need for movement; I cannot sit for hours, and even if I could, it is NOT good for me physically or mentally.  Additionally, I need interaction with others, even if I am an introvert at heart.  However, I still value and honor my need for downtime, introspection, reflection, and quiet. 

Span’s article, combined with the pandemic experience, inspires me to seek the courage in the coming years to continue to change what I can, but to also hone my ability to know when I can’t.  This is only possible through the wisdom that comes with life experience, aka, aging.  Aging is not a point for which to attach shame, negative stereotyping, or embarrassment.  Instead, the process of aging should celebrate one’s life experiences and provide us with opportunities to not only apply the knowledge gained from these experiences to our own lives, but to also use them for the benefit of those with whom we interact and/or mentor.

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To be certain, aging brings unavoidable changes in the physical body and in the way in which we think (and forget), but it is not necessarily a time for stopping, like much of our cultural cues teach us by celebrating youthful beauty, prowess, and achievement. In fact, after reading about Levy’s work, I realize there’s plenty of money to be made.  In fact, according to Span’s article, Dr. Levy and her colleagues estimate that “age discrimination, negative age stereotypes, and negative self-perceptions of aging lead to $63 billion in excess annual spending on common health conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and injuries,” not to mention all of the money made from products promising to turn back the clock. 

One of the most compelling examples of psychological absorption and damage of cultural ageism in Span’s article occurred when Levy took her 70-something grandmother shopping in a Florida grocery store and her grandmother fell over a crate left in an aisle. The grandmother’s injury was superficial, but it did bleed profusely.  When the grandmother suggested to the store owner that crates should not be left in an aisle, the store owner replied that “old people fall all the time, and maybe they shouldn’t be walking around.”  After that point, Levy observed that her once lively grandmother began to ask others to do tasks for her that she once regularly completed.  It was as if her grandmother began to subconsciously view the grocery store incident as her cue that she was old and incapable of caring for herself.

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Meanwhile, in Blue Zone parts of the world, geographical locations in which people live the longest and are the healthiest, centenarians are celebrated as if they were highly acclaimed celebrities.  If these parts of the world can encourage, foster, and honor a culture where aging is not only accepted, but highly valued, why can’t we?  

Maybe I cannot change the current culture, but I can change my own personal view on the maturing process.  Wrinkles capture the adventures in the sun as well as countless moments of smiling. Gray hair celebrates the continuation of our inner child wanting to roam free and wild, and body aches/pains are a reminder to care for the vessel God gave us. 

I now know that phrases such as, “that age,” reflect cultural and social programmed attitudes that marketers, business, and the healthcare industry prefer is an ingrained part of our vocabulary.  While not every business or healthcare provider is personally invested in this ageism, I no longer desire to accept those marketers’ money-making, psychological damaging propaganda. What about you?

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Fudgy, Healthier Brownies (With Black Beans)

“The primary reason diseases tend to run in families may be that diets tend to run in families.”–Michael Greger, How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease

When I read the above quote, it gave me reason to pause.  Hmm.  Reflecting on the generations that I knew within my family lineage, I realized three things.  One, I came from excellent cooks on both sides of the family.  Two, heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimers/dementia were clearly present on both my paternal and maternal sides of the family.  Thirdly, those same two facts could pretty much be applied to most of my husband’s, John, family heritage.

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Let’s be honest, food is often the center of gatherings, events, and holidays.  While food is nourishing to the body, it is also comfort, warmth, love, and care, all wrapped up in a flavorful and aromatic quilted blanket of tradition.  Every family has their own unique variation of food traditions.  Even in families where the art or time for cooking has been lost, there are still food-centered events.  People love food, and why not?  

Unfortunately, food doesn’t always love us back–depending upon the foods we choose to eat, the portions we consume, and the beverages we down with it.  That said, I am not writing to push any one way of eating, cooking, or approach to food in general.  It is my firm belief that lifestyle and diet is an experiment of N = 1. Everyone has a unique genetic make-up, body, and life circumstances, so who am I to know what works best for each individual.  However, I do think most can agree that consuming more plant based foods is never a bad thing.

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One of my most treasured family recipes is my Grandmother Helen’s brownies.  It is the go-to recipe I make for special occasions, and it is most often requested by my daughter, Maddie.  In fact, I created a gluten-free variation of it, so that I, too, can enjoy this wonderful and scrumptious treat.  Thus, it was the combination of the quote above and my love for my grandmother’s brownies that led me to the research I used as motivation to cobble together this recipe variation for brownies that includes more plant based foods and uses less sugar.  

I give credit and inspiration from the following sites: chocolatecoveredkatie.com, dailydozenmealplans.com, nutritionfacts.org, busbysbakery.com, and The Jaroudi Family on Youtube.  Their recipes, combined with my own experience, gave birth to this healthier variation of my grandmother’s brownies.  Don’t get me wrong, I still plan to bake Grandmother’s Helen’s version for special occasions–there’s no replacing it; however, this recipe will do, as Grandmother Helen used to say, “in a pinch,” in order to satisfy my sweet tooth, but still sneak in the healthful benefits of a few more plants into my day.

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 From my heart to yours, I appreciate you reading this and wish you much health and vitality!  I hope this will be a recipe you try! However, based upon my experience, you may not want to let your tasters know there are black beans in the brownies until AFTER they’ve eaten it!  I’d love to hear your thoughts, and be sure to share your variations with me.

Recipe below pictures ⬇️

The humble black bean can be transformed into a fiber-rich, AND delicious, sweet treat!
You can mash those black beans with your high powered mixer!
Bake them up in a pan lined with parchment paper or nonstick spray.
Then dive into the ooey-gooeyness!

Fudgy, Healthier Brownies (With Black Beans)

Ingredients:

1 15-oz can black beans, drained and rinsed

2 fleggs* (can substitute with 2 eggs)

¾  cup cocoa powder

½ cup oats

½ cup applesauce (can substitute with ¼ cup vegetable oil)

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup sugar

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 tablespoon vinegar (apple cider or white)

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ cup or more chocolate chips

Optional: ½ cup chopped walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts to sprinkle on top of batter before baking OR 2-4 tablespoons of peanut or almond butter mixed into the batter before baking

Instructions:

If using flaxseed (fleggs) instead of eggs, add 2 tablespoon flaxseed to a small bowl, and add in 6 tablespoons of water.  Stir and place in the fridge for 5 minutes. 

Prepare square baking pan (8 x 8 or 9 x 9) by lining with parchment paper or spraying with nonstick cooking spray

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a food processor, high speed blender, or with a quality mixer set on higher setting, mash beans. (You can also do this by hand.)

In a large bowl, mix mashed beans with the rest of the ingredients EXCEPT chocolate chips and nuts if using. 

If using almond or peanut butter, it SHOULD be mixed into the batter.

Using a spoon, gently fold in chocolate chips (and/or nuts if desired) into the batter.

Pour batter into the prepared pan.  Add more chocolate chips and/or nuts if desired on top for decorative effect.

Bake for 20-25 minutes or until brownies begin to pull away from the sides of the pan.

Allow to cool 10+ minutes before serving.

Store leftovers in the fridge.  These brownies magically get better after a day in the refrigerator!

The Ceaseless Wonder and Amusement of Aging

“You don’t stop laughing when you grow old, you grow old when you stop laughing.”–George Bernard Shaw

Aging is a funny thing.  Only last week, I looked in the mirror at the end of a work day and thought I saw a streak of eyeliner running up the center of my brow bone toward an eyebrow–which seemed odd.  With a shrug, I thought, “Who knows?” as I tried to wipe it off.  Then, I just had to switch my gaze to the magnifying mirror, an addition whose assistance I seem to require on a daily basis. I should have realized–since this is not the first time it happened–what I thought was a makeup streak, turned out to be a new wrinkle.  Geesh!  Another serving of Fun-for-all Aging Humble Pie, whipped up by the Chef Life.

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Heaven forbid, if I make comments about my age to my parents, they merely make jokes about it and offer encouraging comments, such as, “Just you wait,” or “You don’t know the half of it yet.”  Nonetheless, there are seemingly preternatural changes that are beginning to occur that give me pause.

For example, at work I am (along with my husband, John) in the top 5-10 oldest employees on staff; and in all honesty, we’re probably in the top five.  On the bright side, I am pretty sure it’s the first time in my life I can claim to have ever been ranked so highly! On the downside, I often pinch myself, wondering if I am in a dream state, when coworkers ask when/if I am close to retirement; or better yet, when they can have my job. It feels otherworldly to now be one of the teachers that is perceived as “old.” Of course, in my oh-so-ignorant early career years, I also thought I would be able to retire early in my 50s, and would already be working a not-so-serious retirement job. Ha! 

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In addition to my recent elevation in work rankings, there are other insidious signs that I could be aging.  It seems my skin is now changing at an alarming rate as it thins, folds, hangs, and forms once unimaginable cavernous crevices and fanciful spots.  In fact, I am pretty sure I’ve spotted (pun-intended) a miniature Australian continent currently forming on one of my cheeks and Antarctica on the other! 

Then, there are body parts that are beginning to rearrange themselves in entertaining and unprecedented ways.  Who knew cellulite could be so shifty?  And, of course, the new found plot twists of balance, digestion, sleep, and the ever elusive recovery.  I mean, my goodness, aging is an amusement park of fun–no need to pay for the Tilt-a-whirl, Bumper cars, or Scrambler here–the aging body gratefully provides this amusement for free!  

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In the midst of all this wholesome clean fun is a bit of good cheer! Since John is only a couple years older than me, he probably hasn’t noticed ANY of these so-called changes in me.  Right? After all, the changes in vision, as we age, is like walking through life in a perpetual tunnel of Funhouse mirrors.  I’m sure he’s never noticed my thinning, gray hair or any of the other deviant developments gifted to me by life.

Oh, and then there’s the shrinking height.  I can not begin to express the sheer amount of joy that GROWS within my heart, with each annual checkup, swelling my head to new proportions, as I am reminded that I have already scaled to my highest height of  4’11”, and I will never conquer anything taller. Instead, I have the good fortune of experiencing other parts of me that are now growing, like my ear lobes, nose, and jowls! Those are nasty rides of nonsense I’d rather put a stop to–the sooner the better! Sigh, I guess I am going to finally have to set aside runway model as potential retirement gig! 

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Another fun fact? Getting lucky has a new definition.  I can’t tell you how many times I have had the titillating experience of walking into a room only to wonder, “Why am I here?”  If I remember BEFORE leaving the room, I think, “Yeah, Baby, I just got lucky.”  If, however, I start walking back and remember mid-path; well, that’s at least making it to third base.  If I return all the way to my original starting point, but then remember, I’ve at least scored a single or a double. If it is the middle of the night, or the next day, before I remember, that is a definite strike-out since it probably means I’ve left the ice cream or the cheese in the car to melt into a gelatinous gooey heap of spillage that I now need to clean up. 

While I don’t seem to have yet acquired some of my acquaintances and friends’ talents, I am told that with age, they now possess an even greater ability to multitask.  One friend claims she can sneeze, pass gas, pee, and laugh all at the same time.  Meanwhile, another person states that, like George Burns, when they bend down to tie their shoes, they look around to see if there’s anything else they could do while they are down there.  In fact, I can recall my Papaw once telling me that he was living in a haunted house with my grandmother as he claimed there were lots of unexplained sounds and smells floating around the place!

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Recently, one of my 6th grade students asked me if I ever tried to rewind movies on Netflix after I finished them.  Before I could answer, another student jumped in and asked if I ever had to step over dinosaur dung when I was a kid.  While they were on this downward spiral of frivolity, another student, inspired by their knowledge of the Holy Land, asked if the Dead Sea was only sick when I was their age.  Youth, along with its pernicious sense of humor, is indeed wasted on the young!

In the meantime, I’ll keep plucking those gray hairs sprouting in random places like spring onions in a flower bed.  I’ll continue to write-off forgetful moments to, “Sometimers,” and I’ll continue to be grateful that cellphones and social media were NOT things when I was coming of age.  In fact, I am pretty sure in bourbon or wine years, I haven’t even begun to reach perfection, but I’m leaning closer!

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 So good news, Dear Readers, if you’re reading this, the best is yet to come–no matter your age.  It’s like riding a roller coaster, as our age keeps climbing, so does our sense of humor and our sense of humility as we watch other things start sliding. Besides, I prefer to think I’ll never be “over the hill”; after all, I’ll forget where the dog-gone hill is, or I’ll be too tired to climb it!

Here’s to life! With age comes wisdom, so I am eagerly anticipating my rise to near-genius level! In the meantime, as once suggested by the great Will Rogers, if we could perhaps get Congress to take issue with aging, we could at least be guaranteed that the aging process would be slowed down for years to come! 

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Sometimes We All Benefit From Unplugging

“Today, when nearly every question can be handled instantly by Siri, Google, or Alexa, we’re losing the habit of pausing to look inward, or to one another for answers.  But even Siri doesn’t know everything.  And Google can’t tell you why your son or daughter is feeling hopeless or excited, or why your significant other feels not so significant lately, or why you can’t shake chronic low-level anxiety that plagues you.”–Vironika Tugaleva

 My classroom now includes the integration of an Apple TV through which I connect a  computer or iPad in order to project content onto a whiteboard.  One day recently, it wasn’t working, and after completing a few troubleshooting steps, I was at a loss.  A co-worker suggested that I unplug the device for a short time, then plug it back in.  Which led me down a path of reflection . . .

It is amazing to think I incorporate the Apple TV with all of the other forms of technology in my classroom after beginning my career with little to no technology in the classroom, much less in my own life.

I find the technology I integrate into my classroom a point of marvel.  The most advanced technology that I used with my students during my early years of teaching in the late 1980s was a rolling chalkboard that was also magnetic!  Since then, the role of technology, not only in my classroom, but also in life in general, has remarkably transformed.  It reminds me of making a snowperson as a kid. 

Forming the largest part of the snowperson required concerted effort, and it was slow work. With each segment, however, the snowperson became easier to form, and the results came faster until everyone in the neighborhood had access to see and enjoy its newest member.  Eventually though, no matter how much more snow did or did not fall, the snowperson melted away into the soil, and the once novelty then became part of the neighborhood’s foundational ground without the kids and their families releasing it.

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In a similar, but much more complex fashion, technology became integral to humans.  First, its development was a slow, laborious process that required the endeavors of many. People would gather and marvel at the latest creation, until eventually those cow-spotted boxes became a common home delivery sighting. However, as information began to gather, momentum picked up, and soon the technological developments started evolving at an even more rapid pace until the technology melted and integrated into the very foundation of society, no longer a curiosity.

Information can be gathered in one or two keystrokes of a computer or handheld device.  Additionally, one can gather statistics, facts, figures, and so forth, at any time of the day or night.  As a general rule, this acquisition of material is neither good nor bad–it all comes down to the producer and user of information. Unfortunately, there seems to be a growing sea of pride developing among those who can amass large quantities of data, gathering facts in their head on a daily basis–as if the more data one can gather, the more important their opinion becomes. 

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This has also led to a new mantra regarding disdain for one another’s feelings.  I have seen it crudely phrased on bumper stickers and yard flags/signs, and I’ve likewise overheard it stated slightly more civilly (although often still aggressively) in conversations.  In fact, I have even made similar statements. However, I do believe there is a danger in discounting feelings/emotions. 

I could make the argument that those who state that they dismiss feelings or emotions are still unwittingly attached to their own.  This is due to the fact that their pursuit of intellectual facts/data/statistics, on which they make their various stands, is motivated by the good feelings that accompany their accumulation of data.  In fact, according to the latest data, the use of technology–even in intellectual pursuits–is designed to create positive sensations driven by dopamine, those feel-good chemicals released by the brain.  This is the exact same chemical response that is the force behind both positive habits and negative addictions.  Therefore, to say a person’s feelings don’t matter is ironic, since at the most biological level, it is dopamine driving one’s attachment to gather facts, data, and statistics.

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Now, before I am sent outcries of defensive outrage, let me continue to lay out my points in order to get to my thesis.  I absolutely value knowledge, and I enjoy listening, reading, and discussing valid research content.  In fact, without it, I would not have an education, nor would I have a job.  In fact, without these intellectual endeavors, society as a whole would not have made many of the significant advances that contribute to our well-being.  

Instead, I think that the danger resides in valuing data/statics/facts above all else, causing us to lose sight of the importance of unplugging and listening to that still, small voice that resides within each of us.  It is that voice–that level of consciousness–that allows us to discern, not only right from wrong, but also develops and fosters those less-intellectual, but critical pursuits, such as compassion, empathy, communication, adaptability, creativity, interpersonal skills, teamwork, collaboration, and so forth . . . .   Without these so-called soft-skills, humanity is not any different from the technology on which I write this piece.

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At the time of writing, the Northern Hemisphere is in the early stages of spring.  The ground is softening, and soon, the soil will be prepared for cultivation.  Branches, rocks, and any other debris will need to be removed, the soil will require proper tilling, leveling, and fertilization in order for those tiny seeds to grow into a harvest of bountiful, nutrient dense food. Likewise, it is only by unplugging and pulling ourselves away from devices that we can prepare, fertilize, remove mental detritus, and grow a harvest of intra- and inter- personal skills–which starts when we take time to plant inner-seeds of faith in order to grow our relationship with our Creator.

Faith is not about intellectuality–although people certainly try to do this.  Instead, I believe faith requires conviction, and that conviction comes from the cultivation of one’s inner world–the heart center, the residence of, yes, emotions. Faith is not tangible, it cannot statistically be verified.  However, I argue that without faith, we cannot fully develop emotionally.  In fact, I would go so far as to state that without faith, we cannot understand, offer, and receive love; and without love, we are little more than a “resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” as one of my favorite Bible verses states. 

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 As such, I strongly suspect that many of the wars waged around us, both at home and abroad, have as much to do with a lack of faith and development of all those so-called soft skills, as they do intellectual evaluation of facts, statistics, and data. Unfortunately, we may not be able to control conflict around us, but we do have a choice in how often we unplug, look within, and cultivate/enrich our own faith/heart.  It is through these unplugged pauses that our faith becomes more strongly rooted, increasing our trust in the belief that Divine Providence will provide for a path through–maybe not the way we had hoped, but a plan, nonetheless, for all things to work towards the higher good.

So pardon me if I do value unplugging from all that input, and stand in the center of my faith–the heart of my emotions. I believe that it is through regular bouts of unplugging–even for short periods–that my faith is renewed, my resolve is strengthened, and I am refreshed and once more ready to move forward in the data-driven world–just as the Apple TV in my classroom ultimately did. The difference, however, between the Apple TV and me, however, comes down to my faith–my emotional heart center.  I believe the same is true for humanity. 

Virginia Beach is for Lovers

  “The calming movement of the sea along with the restless ocean breeze gently caresses me creating a soothing trance which lulls me to a place of peace.”–M. L. Borges

It had been one year since I had last seen the ocean and its companion shoreline.  Last March, (2021) when John, my husband, and I last visited the beach, it was for the Shamrock Marathon held annually at Virginia Beach. However, it was under COVID restrictions with limited dining and hotel options. Regardless, the creators and sponsors of the Shamrock Marathon found a way to create a safe and well-organized weekend getaway!

Flashforward one year, and we decided to return.  With COVID restrictions greatly reduced, there was more hotel and restaurant availability.  On the downside, overall prices were understandably higher to cover the past year’s losses.  Nonetheless, this did not seem to deter visitors for the 50th anniversary Shamrock Marathon weekend event as hotels were sold out throughout the town.  (I would later find out that for many hotels, this had less to do with room availability and more to do with lack of enough available support staff.)  Furthermore, with a weather forecast full of ample sunshine, light breezes, and temperatures hovering in the 60s and 70s, what was not to love? 

This year, John and I stayed at Holiday Inn & Suites North Beach.  Ideally situated alongside the north end of the VB boardwalk.  We were within walking distance to numerous dining choices as well as the King Neptune statue, the heart of the Shamrock events. The staff of this hotel was friendly and accommodating, and it was located next to the starting line for the marathon and half-marathon!  When you combine that with the ability to fall asleep listening to the waves gently lapping the shore, we are sure to return here on future trips.

One dining spot for which we were eager to return was the infamous Pocahontas Pancake and Waffle House!  This iconic VB gem serves up breakfast and lunch, and visitors need to be ready to wait during peak hours.  No matter, it is worth the wait!  The wait staff is attentive, friendly, and since this was our second year to visit, we couldn’t help but take note that much of the wait staff was the same–a sure sign that this establishment is doing something right.  

Looking over the menu at Pocahontas Pancakes is like reading a novella; they have so many choices!  I am in love with their gluten-free waffles since I cannot get those anywhere in the local Tri-state area.  Plus, they offer a wide array of scrumptious toppings. The fresh fruit bowl is actually fresh–not one of those thawed frozen fruit cups with underripe fruit, devoid of any taste.  John loves their sandwiches, biscuits, and eggs, and we both feast on their ample portions.  Oh, did I tell you about their signature, locally roasted coffee?? Mmm, Mmm, Mmm, this place, well, takes the cake!  What can I say? John and I both LOVE this restaurant and cannot recommend it enough!

Another local VB gem, we discovered last year, is Side Street Cantina.  This restaurant, located at the southern end of VB, features Peruvian-influenced Mexican fare, served up in a colorful atmosphere, filled with bold and lively artwork. Their housemade chips and salsa are fresh, crisp, and tasty.  Their menu offers a wide variety of signature dishes and cocktails for those so-inclined.  John ordered Arroz Con Pollo, and I ordered Vegetarian Fajitas.  Both meals were full of deliciousness!  While dining at Side Street, the manager, Alicia Mummert, recommended that we go visit her best friend, Julie, the manager at Mannino’s Italian Bistro for dinner one night.

Therefore, John and I decided to head to Mannino’s for our Friday night dinner–a perfect location for carb-loading before I ran my own virtual half-marathon on Saturday.  Entering this bistro felt warm, welcoming, and the aromas were mouth-watering.  Our server was none other than Julie’s daughter, Abigail (Abbi) and her friend, Katie. Along with Julie, these ladies were engaging, made excellent recommendations with regards to food and wine, and provided exceptional service.  The gluten free choices were as wide and varied as I have experienced in an Italian restaurant, and there were even a few gluten free dessert options!

  Ultimately, John chose Vitello Parmigiana with fresh melted mozzarella on top, and I savored every bite of the gluten free variation of Penne Semplice without sausage.  Additionally, I ordered their gluten free truffles to go.  (Fortunately, our room had a mini-fridge, and I was able to save a couple of those luscious truffles to take home!)  I have to say this meal fully fueled my 13.1 mile run the following morning; and best of all, NO digestive issues–which can sometimes be a real thing with some foods and long runs.  Mannino’s is another establishment John and I would highly recommend for those who love Italian!

Saturday night, after a half-marathon run, I was ready for some full-on not-so-healthy grub.  We decided to give Abbey Road Pub and Restaurant a try.  This eatery offers breakfast, lunch and dinner!  What’s more?  It makes the bold claim to have the BEST gluten-free menu in Virginia Beach!  Sounded like the perfect place for us to check out! Additionally, they also boast over 42 drafts and crafts, are certified Green Virginia, have a dog-friendly patio, and offer free parking for patrons.  Their menus were wide, varied, and while I could have easily eaten on the more healthy side, I chose to indulge on a plate of Nachos Supreme sans chili and served up with black beans instead. It was not my usual plant forward meal, but I did enjoy it with a fresh green salad!  (Hey, it’s all about balance–it’s not like I normally eat this way.)  Meanwhile, John splurged on Lobster Mac and Cheese.  Abbey Road had an upbeat and energetic vibe, it offered attentive service, and a uniquely diverse menu, including vegan and gluten-free options!   This is one place John and I will visit again, and we would also recommend it to those traveling in the Virginia Beach area!

On a side note of interest, John and I visited Sandbridge Beach, one afternoon, and found that it reminded us somewhat of the Outer Banks of NC, full of ample vacation homes, both of new construction as well as traditional beach bungalows.  Located south of VB, it struck us as a more quiet area in which to stay, especially for those larger family/friend gatherings in which you are more than happy to complete your own cooking, relax, and soak in nothing but sand, shoreline, and ocean vibes!  

Regardless of which type of vacation you prefer, the VB area offers visitors plenty of options–from low-key to highly engaged and all choices in between.  The Shamrock Marathon weekend especially offers a family-friendly atmosphere, but is also chock of full options for adults.  And, if you love new food adventures, as John and I do, rest assured, Virginia Beach has plenty to offer.  Perhaps, it is true, Virginia is for lovers–lovers of fun, beach, sun, water, and, of course, food–glorious food! 

Sandbridge Beac

Mexican Enchilada Casserole–with Gluten-free and Plant powered options

“Life without Mexican food is no life at all.”–Unknown

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Cooking in my home is a bit of a balancing act, especially since I am the only person who has to eat gluten-free due to celiac disease.  Additionally, I have a personal preference for eating a whole food plant-based diet.  It’s taken me years to figure out what works best for my body; so, I have no judgment for those who eat differently–including my own family.  Thankfully, I am blessed with a family that will eat leftovers.  This allows me to cook up oversized, flexible meals for them designed to last them a couple of days, leaving me time to also cook my own meals separately.

I must confess, however, that there are times I feel as if I fall into a cooking rut–repeating many of the same favorite meals for my family.  While they (rarely) complain, I do get excited when I stumble upon a new idea that could potentially work in a wide variety of ways to meet the needs of the omnivore and plant-based eater alike.  The recipe I am sharing with you today is one of those versatile dishes I created that was one part inspiration and another part desperation for a new idea.

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I knew there was a pound of extra-lean ground beef in the fridge, and I had just restocked all of the typical Mexican-style condiments we frequently use.  My original plan was to make taco meat for my family, a frequent go-to, which can be used not only for tacos, but also for creating nachos, salads, stackers, bowls, and the like.  However, I recalled once making something I called Mexican lasagna years ago, but the recipe was long lost. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if I could recreate a similar dish.

Research ensued, and cupboards were scoured.  Soon enough, a plan came together in my head.  I typed it all out before I began cooking; after all, if it turned out tasty, I wanted to be able to recreate it.  Plus, I figured, as I cooked, I could also easily type in adjustments to the recipe as needed.

As I cooked, the aromatic scents filled the kitchen.  The spicy fragrance was balanced and reminiscent of my younger years when I first began to learn my way around a kitchen.  Once in the oven, I let it cook, uncovered, and started checking on it around the 20 minute mark. Just as I had hoped, the sauce around the edges had started bubbling, and I could see the cheese beginning to transform into a luscious golden baked color complete with a bit of bubbling and browning.  I removed it after 25 minutes, setting it on hot pads to cool before serving.

This recipe was a home run with my husband and daughter.  They both found their own unique ways to top it.  Meanwhile, I created my own gluten free, plant-powered bowl version, and we rounded out the meal with chips and salsa.  

That said, if your family has a huge appetite, you could definitely serve up rice and/or more beans on the side.  You could even replace the black beans with corn in the casserole, and then serve black or refried beans on the side.  However you decide to vary this recipe, its ingredients are swappable and could easily be modified to suit your dietary needs or interest . . . even gluten free and/or plant-centered!  

From my home to yours, I share this recipe with you, and I am eager to hear how YOU decide to recreate it!  

Enchilada Casserole

Ingredients:

1 pound of lean ground beef (Can use plant-bant based crumbles for vegan.)

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 cup diced onion

1 packet reduced sodium taco seasoning

½ cup water or favorite broth (I use a low-sodium vegetable.)

1 can red enchilada sauce

1 cup salsa

1 small can of chiles

6 large flour tortillas (Can use 9-corn tortillas, instead, for a gluten free option.)

1 15-ounce can black beans, drained

3 cups of thickly shredded cheddar or Mexican blend cheese (Use non-dairy cheese or skip altogether for vegan.)

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Prepare a 13 x 9 baking pan by lightly spraying it with cooking spray.

Over medium heat, in a large pan, brown ground beef, breaking it up while cooking.

Once thoroughly cooked, drain fat from meat, add in onion and garlic, cooking until onion is translucent (about another minute or two.)

Sprinkle meat with taco seasoning, stir in water or broth, allow to simmer for another minute or two.

Next, stir in enchilada sauce, salsa, and chiles into the meat mixture.

Simmer for another 3-4 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking.

Place the prepared baking pan on a couple of hot pads to protect the counter, pour ⅓ of the meat mixture into the pan, sprinkle ⅓ of a can of black beans over meat, followed by ⅓ of cheese, and top with two flour tortillas or 3 corn tortillas.

Layer the tortillas with another ⅓ of meat mixture, another ⅓ of beans, and another ⅓ of cheese.

Top with tortillas.

Repeat the process with remaining meat mixture, beans, and cheese.

Bake uncovered for 25-30 minutes, until the casserole is bubbling and cheese is beginning to brown.

Allow to cool 5 minutes before serving.

Top with desired toppings, such as guacamole, sour cream, chopped scallions, etc . . .

Makes 9 small servings or 6 generous servings.

Refrigerate leftovers for up to 5 days.

Reheats well and makes great leftovers

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Step into Faith: Mood follows action

“We often can’t see what God is doing in our lives, but God sees the whole picture and His plan for us clearly.”–Tony Dungy

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I sat staring, alternating between views of my snowy backyard, a March surprise from Mother Nature, and the white screen.  Minutes ticked by, but nothing happened.  Next, I began pursuing my favorite devotional sites.  Still, nothing there–at least nothing that inspired a writing idea.  Finally, I gave in and looked at my list of writing ideas–the list of ideas that have not yet come to fruition, but still hold potential.  All good candidates, but nothing was immediately striking my writer’s voice.

Typically, throughout the week, I will pause, and allow that still small voice to whisper an idea.  It sounds corny, to see it written, but it is true.  I’ve learned that by asking and trusting, an idea will ultimately arrive.  However, there are times when it seems that my alignment is off with the Ultimate Creator, the invisible hand that pens my stories.

Even now, when I reread those words above, I feel heat rising to my cheeks.  I can hear my inner-critic now reminding me that I am NOT an authority on faith, writing, or any combination of the two.  Simply put, I am one person who believes in God, the Divine Source of all creation and inspiration, but it doesn’t make me an expert on anything.  Therefore, who am I to type and share such bold statements?  All I know is I simply write to understand; and today, Divine Providence was slowly unveiling a lesson for me to learn–only I was not seeing that when I first sat down to write this piece.  

When working a jigsaw puzzle, I begin, like many, by first connecting the edge pieces to not only begin to see the shape of the ultimate goal, but also because it is typically an actionable and achievable first step. Putting together a puzzle can seem overwhelming when first looking at all of the mixed up pieces, especially if there are a large number of them and/or the pieces are tiny.  In fact, initially, it may feel downright impossible to put all of those pieces of the puzzle together to form any sort of image, much less match the image on the puzzle box. Nonetheless, by beginning, by starting with what you can do–the outside frame–piece by piece, your sense of possibility increases.

Likewise, life comes in stages.  Initially, it is a fairly linear process–one stage of development follows another.  However, eventually, often at multiple points throughout adulthood, you encounter an in-between stage–points in life that are not linearly progressive, but rather feel like holding spots.  Often, these holding patterns shift and evolve into new phases, but during the hold, life can feel uncertain and/or even stagnant. There are any variety of in-between stages, depending upon where you are in life and your unique life experiences.  

Conceivable stages could include an in-between stage of marriage and divorce or the aftermath that follows.  Another frequent holding pattern can sometimes occur in careers–the point at which you feel you are no longer upwardly moving or challenged.  Of course, there is the classic empty-nest syndrome–when you try to establish new routines/responsibilities and even renavigate your relationship(s) with your partner and adult-children.  Then, there can tragically be the in-between stage of long-term illness–either of self or care for another.  There are numerous other examples, but the point is this:  There are times in life where you can’t see the full picture–much less, predict the future.  The “next-step” is, quite frankly, not known by anyone other than God–and even that signal can seem crossed, busy, or even disconnected. 

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These are often the moments that draw us closer to God through prayers for strength and/or answers; other situations can leave us feeling further removed from our faith due to doubt, fear, and uncertainty.  While I am no expert on faith or psychology, I can’t help but believe both responses are very human and very understandable.  What is the answer during these moments? This was my lesson to learn today as I wrote: take a step.  Find your so-called edge-pieces and start working bit-by-bit.

During the week prior to writing this piece, I was speaking with 8th grade students about a project for which they were working for my Reading Language Arts class.  Without going into too much detail, part of this project required that they choose four-plus pieces to write from four different categories of writing for which they were given a list.  They were looking overwhelmed by the project one day; therefore, in order to move them forward, I encouraged them to commit to only one piece of writing for the day.  

“Even if you don’t feel like it, pick what you perceive as an ‘easy’ piece and start.”

I knew, from my own recent 16-week training for a half-marathon, there were many days I, too, felt overwhelmed.  I was either paralyzed by the number of weeks still left on the calendar for training/conditioning, or I was not-feeling up to the run for the day, especially as that mileage increased.  However, the one thing I learned to be true from this round of training, is that mood follows action.  I may not “feel” like running, but if I simply begin without thinking–if I take one small actionable step–the simple act of starting, begins the momentum for continued action. Continued action leads to another training session checked off the plan, and one step closer to the goal. 

This is what I wanted those 8th graders to experience–the power of completing one small step.  Complete one piece of writing one day; then, come back to class the next time, and complete another piece.  One small success begets another small success, boosting confidence and the faith to tackle the next, more challenging step.  Like the large jigsaw puzzle, they didn’t have to see the whole picture in the beginning; their plans could be subject to change, but they had to take that first actionable step.  Then, step-by-step, the vision of their project could come into focus.

The writing of this piece, likewise, began with uncertainty–only the knowledge that I was supposed to write. I did not have a clear picture of how I would do it, or what nugget of understanding would be revealed in the end. I simply had to start typing; taking one small actionable step.  Piece by piece, the edges of the lesson formed first.  By faith, the rest began to gradually come together, until the entirety picture revealed itself to me. 

Dear Reader, like many of you, I, too, am (and have) experienced several versions of those “in-between” time periods of adulthood.  Without a clear picture of what the future holds, I am often unsure in which direction to step.  Therefore, let us continue to step into each day, one moment at a time, trusting that if we whisper and wait, while filling in the edge pieces, the Ultimate Creator will likewise continue to pen our story.

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Shadowy Thoughts

“It is only through the shadows that one comes to know the light,”–St. Catherine of Siena

Sunshine filtered through diaphanous clouds strung across a canvas of azure.  Inhaling gratefully, the pit-pat-pit-pat of my footfall maintained its slowly-as-I-go pace, as I headed along Third Avenue towards the campus of Marshall University.  Temperatures were hovering in the low 40s when I left the confines of Ritter Park and were predicted to rapidly rise into the 70s once the wind shifted and sky cleared.  It was a glorious morning for a run (or, in my case, a slow trot); time for my mind to likewise roam free.

It was about 40 minutes into my run that first revealed the beginnings of a lesson.  Rays began shining so brilliantly as the light of the sun began breaking free from the cloud cover. I was reminded of summer morning sunlight, especially at the beach when . . .

. . . the air is still cool, but the warmth of the sun, reflecting off the oceans waters, whispers of fiery heat to come.  Ocean breezes playfully tousle the hair of beachcombers walking the shore lines; their shadows cast long, accompanying their journey along the sand.  Birds call from above, and they too cast shadows of flight as they dip and dive at their prey . . . .

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Passing through part of the campus of MU, silhouettes of tall multiple structures stretched long and lean as I ran up, over, and around their contours thinking of all the potential possibilities that would typically pass over this walk if it were a weekday.  I was reminded of my former self on another campus, in another time.  It seemed like a lifetime ago.  Pit-pat-pit-pat, my continued cadence reminded me time waits for no one; like the dark building profiles, those university years were shadows of my former self.

Mind wandering once more, it circled back to the sunlight and the way it played hide and seek with each shadow I encountered.  How miraculous the sunlight had seemed this past week–one of those rare, early March weeks, when you know, despite the early morning chill, spring is around every corner, nook, and cranny.  It is that time when the earth remains cold, but soft–wafting with scents of melted snow, recent cold rain, and potential growth sprouting signs through the surface. Meanwhile, spring birdsong abounded each morning throughout the week, as the mating season began with the hope that winter’s shadow is finally shaken.

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Taking notice once more of my surroundings, I took in the expanse of St. Mary’s Hospital;  it’s shadow stretched towards the multitude of campus offshoots behind it.  How many visits have I made there for and/or with loved ones in the shadows of duress?  I began to name them in my head, one-by-one; and yet, my own daughter was born there–one of the most miraculous, brilliant days of life.  What a contradictory place, a hospital, filled with celebration, healing, and hope, but its shadows are filled with fear, illness, and stress.

Crossing over 29th Street, I moved back towards town along 5th avenue where the shadows flipped positions with my shift in direction. I caught a glimpse of my own shadow, appearing long and tall, cantering slowly alongside.  Do I really move like that because I know I am not that tall?  My head began to play games.  For the first time, my mind took notice of the leg fatigue and achiness, the swelling of my feet.  I have less than an hour, I remind the negative side of my brain, my own shadow-self.  Look how far you’ve come.  Think how proud you will feel knowing you did not quit. But I could quit.  I could walk the rest of the way.  I could even call my husband or daughter to come pick me up.  Why would you do that?  You can do this, mind over matter.  No sense believing your shadow, it’s only there because of the light. 

Wait, what? The shadow is there because of the light?

 I am not sure how it made sense, but there was something there, in that thought, in that moment.  Trying to grasp its meaning, its deeper lesson, my mind instead slipped back into the present moment as my feet made their way onto another side of MU campus.  People in colorful costumes were walking towards the campus’ Student Center.  Their colorfully adorned hair, swords, and/or light saber-sort of things, capes, and shields cast intricately shaped shadows that seemingly entered the building well before the actual person.  They must be headed to a comic-con celebration of the shadowy heroes of graphic design.

From 5th Avenue, I eventually made my way to 6th Ave, slowly edging closer to 8th Street for my final lap around Ritter Park as the sun continued to rise and the winds shifted in short, gusted outbursts.  Preparing to pass a presumably homeless gentleman who was walking with a grocery bag in one hand,  I voiced my approach that I would pass him on his left–not wanting to needlessly startle him. He turned to look at me.  His face was red with exposure, covered in a film of grime, his beard was in need of a shave, and his eyes were swollen, but within the center of each sparkled the hint of another life.

“Good morning, Sir.” 

He smiled a mostly toothless, friendly grin.  When he did not speak, I wished him a good day.  He raised a puffy pink hand, and shouted a cheer in my direction.  Within a split moment, his face seemed to fill with light, and for a fleeting instant, I saw the person/the child he once was.  Briefly choked with emotion, I wished desperately that I could somehow impart within him the same vision of potential that I saw within him, in the hopes he could; instead, step into the light and walk away from the shadow of addiction and/or mental illness.  Sadly, I could not, his fight was greater than I could imagine; so instead, I waved back to him, whispered a prayer of hope for his life, and continued on my way.

Returning to the welcoming, much softer path of the park, I completed my run through the dappled light of the Ritter Park loop.  Sections of the crushed limestone path were swathed in shade, and other parts were bathed in full-on sun. Newly established decorative, and highly symbolic, sunflowers dotted parts of the path, allegorical reminders of the shadows of hate and greed left unchecked on a global scale. Can the light of love and peace overcome this?  I can only pray and hope it does.

The sunlight had been a welcome sight, but it was bearing down nearly 30 degrees warmer than when I had first begun.  I was over-dressed and overheated. Nonetheless, I realized, as I walked uphill towards where I had parked, my sunlit run had brought both brightness and heat, cheer and defeat, mind over matter, and lessons of shadow-side of light. 

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Life can indeed be filled with shadows–the darkness of depression, despair, hopelessness, sickness, and for some, even moments filled with greed, jealousy, hate, and numerous other forms of darkness I cannot begin to understand.  Of course, we cannot control the shadows of the world, but we can remind ourselves that where there is shadow, there can also be light.  Without the light, there is no shadow. It is a duality for which we must make peace.

In the meantime, it is up to each one of us, in those moments when we find ourselves dwelling in the shadows too long, to step out into the light.  We may not be able to do it alone; however, by relying on faith, and trusting in the Ultimate Creator of Light, we can, step-by-step, find the light once more.  Who knows?  Your light might be the light that leads another out of their own darkness.  

May your light shine brightly.

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The Power of Whitespace

Whitespace should not be considered merely “blank” space — it is the element of design that enables the objects on the page to exist.–The Segue Creative Team 

As a middle school Reading/Language Arts teacher for grades 6-8, I spend a good portion of my time teaching various writing techniques.  Currently, in my 7th grade classes, we are focused on writing various styles of poetry with the emphasis on exploring various elements of figurative language techniques and literary devices.  Of particular importance to writing poetry, I believe, is to draw the reader into an image/story/feeling in the way a good song has the power to  draw in the listener and attach a particular feeling/image to it. 

Part of the skill in writing a relatable poem is not only using specific words, figurative devices, and imagery, but also incorporating the power of white space.  In the same way my grandmother taught me that our eyes eat food before we taste it, a poem should likewise draw readers’ eyes into the arrangement of the piece first.  In order to do that, writers must learn to use the white space.

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Whitespace 

Creates

Balance and  Style

Although it is often called “negative” space, there is nothing negative about appropriate use of white space.  In fact, when duly used, white space increases readability–up to 25% according to some sources.  White space provides breathing room for the reader, a purposeful pause, or point of emphasis. It can create a sense of balance, harmony, and style.  The eye has time to “catch its breath” and focus on the meaning of each line, word, phrase.  A sense of play, intense emotion, or serious tone can also be emphasized and enhanced through the appropriate use of white space–adding power and emphasis to select words.  By giving students permission to incorporate white space, they are more focused on words that are specific and succinct.  This is an important and transferable skill when switching to more formal writing styles that require a clear, concise, and compelling writing style. 

Whitespace is THE fundamental building block of good design . . .  provides visual breathing room for the eye.–The Segue Creative Team

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On a recent long Saturday morning run, it occurred to me that the notion of white space, as a mental construct, is underused and undervalued in our daily lives.  It is one of the things I most appreciate about my longer weekend runs is the fact that it gives me permission–and time–to let my mind wander.  Many, if not most, of my weekday runs are completed on a treadmill before I do a few strengthening exercises.  During these workouts, I typically wear headphones to listen to music, podcasts, or audible books–depending upon the workout and my mood/interest.  However, when I run outside, I rarely wear headphones; and thereby, I experience the freedom of mental whitespace.

Much of our daily life is consumed with some form of media content consumption.  From the time we get up and, quite often, until we go to bed, many of us are continually interacting and engaging with screens.  Emails, social media, work, news, even cooking, project-building, and other how-to content require some form of on-screen encounter. From content that is audible, to content that is visual, to an interplay of both, much of human interaction is now completed on-line.  As a result, our mind has become trained to repeatedly and frequently seek points of what I call distracted-focus.  Furthermore, it has never been easier to do this at any time, day or night.

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As society’s utilization of technology changes, shifts, and evolves, our minds have been forced to adapt.  Our phones wake us up, and while I can never do this for fear of falling back to sleep, I am told that many people remain in bed for several minutes, and upwards to an hour, upon waking, scrolling through media content that happened during those hours devoted to sleep. While we drive our kids to school, they are busy with screens, and we are engaged in handsfree calling or texting.  Once at work, many of us, myself included, utilize multiple devices at once as our eyes and minds shift back and forth from screen to screen, and, depending upon your career, from person to person.  At day’s end, despite eye fatigue and even brain drain, our minds still desire to scroll through social media and news outlets as the brain, like a tired toddler, still craves even more stimulation to keep going.  In a sense, our minds have become the proverbial “Energizer bunny,” continually banging on the drums of our consciousness for more, more, more.

Whitespace not only creates harmony, balance, and helps to brand a design. . . .–The Segue Creative Team

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Personally, I need breathing space, and I honestly believe that most of us do.  Time away from screens, schedules, and scintillating images/demands.  Unplugging from the visual and auditory distractions of our devices, provides our brain with whitespace–the space to pause and breathe.  I liken it to opening the door and letting a child, or even a pet, go outside to run off steam at the end of the work/school day. When you unplug, it frees the mind to mentally roam or simply be still.  By unplugging, you begin to notice the sounds of nature or even household appliances.  Unplug, and you might see things through new eyes–eyes that are fully focused, rather than distracted.  Unplug, and your senses have permission to roam–noticing the way air caresses your face, the aromas of your surroundings, the full flavor of your coffee, or other favorite beverage, as it dances over your taste buds.  Unplug, and you can breathe deeply and luxuriously as if you have all of the time in the world. Even your ability to think creatively and/or problem-solve increases more when you unplug.

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In the same way white space creates harmony and balance to the design of a web page, book, or even a 7th grade poem, creating “white space” moments in life, allows us to also feel more harmonious, balanced, and perhaps even, peaceful.  As a deep breath or sigh is gratifying to the lungs, and bring calmness to a tough moment, time unplugged offers the mind moments to rest, refresh, and recharge, providing you with more clarity and the ability to focus on what’s really important as well as give you permission to see the extraneous for the distractions they actually are. 

 It doesn’t matter if you take a break from screens inside the comfort of your own home, or outside in fresh air, unplugging and not-doing, is never a waste of time, or well, waste of space.  I especially enjoy unplugging when I am outside for a run, walk, or hike, but I also have found white space moments in the quietude of a car with all distractions turned off, including radio, or in the quiet moments of my home when others are still sleeping or momentarily out.  The ability to unplug may not occur every day, but white space of the mind, be it vacations, exercise, hobbies, or other down-time moments, judiciously scattered throughout the week and/or even month, offers innumerable benefits and is certainly worth prioritizing.  

In the same way white space creates harmony and balance to the design of a book or web site, creating "white space" moments in life, allows us to feel more harmonious, balanced, and perhaps even more peaceful.
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Gluten-free, Chocolate Donuts with Glaze: make your house smell like a bakery outlet

And the donut stood there with a glazed expression.–Unknown

Honestly, I am not what I would call a “donut” person.  Even before I knew I had celiac disease, I never, per se, craved donuts.  However, when I was quite young, my grandparents would occasionally drive about an hour away from their home to a Dolly Madison bakery outlet.  They would buy treats that would normally never be in my own childhood home.  Oatmeal cream pies, twinkies, fruit pies, zingers, and bags of donut gems. I can recall the childlike appeal of those colorful, catchy items on my grandparents’ kitchen table.

I never really understood why they made this trip because my grandmother was an excellent cook and an exceptionally tasty baker of desserts.  Up until the day my grandfather went to a nursing home, it seemed as if Grandmother always had some freshly baked dessert on-hand.  Maybe they made this trip because they came of age during the depression and never had much during those lean years.  Then again, it could have had more to do with the fact that they had once owned and operated a grocery store and simply enjoyed having packaged products. 

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Regardless of the reason, the grandkids were often able to reap the benefits of these bakery outlet trips.  While we were certainly limited in the amount of sweets we were permitted to eat, my grandparents were always more lenient.  In particular, I fondly recall those donut gems that came in the white bag with a cellophane center allowing purchasers to see those orbs of processed confectionery–ready to spike blood sugar levels of consumers far and wide, especially the small bodies of children.  

In the end, I am not sure if those memories have inspired my latest obsession with donut baking, but I do find baking these treats once per month to be a sweet, creative outlet in a world often filled with bitter headlines.  However, I do try to find ways to bake these donuts a bit more healthily–although let’s be honest, they’re still donuts.  Nonetheless, this recipe is gluten-free that can be made free from animal products, if desired, and it is less sugary than those rings of gems from that long ago bakery outlet. 

Why not set aside less than an hour of time to bake up a pleasant headline in your own home? They are easy to make and a cinch to glaze.  You don’t even have to own a donut pan. Most of all, your house will be smelling like a bakery outlet without the two-hour round trip drive! 

These donuts are ready to be eaten or glazed.

Gluten-Free Chocolate Donuts with optional Glaze

Donut Ingredients:

1 egg OR 1 tablespoon ground flaxseeds + 3 tablespoons water*

1¼  cup oat or all-purpose (gluten-free) flour**

⅓ cup dutched cocoa powder ***

⅓ cup sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon vinegar

¾ cup milk

3 melted tablespoons of favorite nut-butter, butter, or applesauce****

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Chocolate Glaze Ingredients:

½ cup gluten-free chocolate chips

1-2 tablespoons milk

2 teaspoons pure maple syrup

¼ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Directions:

  • If using flaxseed, combine flaxseed + 3 tablespoons of water, set in the fridge to “gel” for 10-20 minutes.
  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  • Prepare a donut pan(s) with a light coating of nonstick cooking spray, OR if you do not have a donut pan, do the same with a muffin pan and plan on filling with batter ½ way full.
  • Combine dry ingredients until well blended.
  • Mix in the remainder of wet ingredients including flaxseed/egg with a large wooden spoon.
  • Divide batter among 8-10 donut spots of donut pan.
  • Bake for 10-15 minutes until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.
  • Allow to cool in the pan for 5 minutes before flipping onto the rack to cool 10-15 more minutes. Serve immediately or add glaze. Makes 8-10 donuts.
Look at this yummy glaze, ready for donut dipping.

To make glaze:

  •  Lightly spray a microwave-safe bowl with non-stick cooking spray.  
  • Add in chocolate chips and milk. Heat for 30-45 seconds until slightly melted.
  • Stir gently, and once well mixed, add in maple syrup and vanilla extract
  • While glaze is still warm, individually dip one side of each donut into glaze, and place back on the cooling rack to firm up. Repeat for each donut.  Feel free to add sprinkles, sparkling baking sugar, or shaved bits of chocolate for a more festive look. 

Recipe Notes:

*Choosing between the egg or flaxseed is personal preference, but it is worth noting that

  flaxseed is plant-based. 

**I have celiac disease, so I cannot bake with wheat-based flours.  However, if you do

 do not have a gluten allergy, feel free to use all-purpose flour instead.

***I prefer dutched cocoa powder over regular cocoa powder due to its mellow, smooth

 flavor that I find to be less bitter than regular cocoa powder.  Plus, it makes baked goods

 dark and rich looking.  However, IF using REGULAR cocoa powder, reduce baking

 powder to ½ teaspoon and baking soda to ¼ teaspoon.

****Nut-butters, including tahini, offer a richer flavor and consistency; whereas, butter offers a lighter flavor and can be dairy or plant-based.  Applesauce is a no-oil choice. 

Enjoy!!

Celiac Disease is Real

Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disease that occurs in genetically predisposed people where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine.–Celiac Disease Foundation

Recently, I went to dinner at a popular local restaurant with a friend.  The wait staff person, whom I will call Sam, was friendly and appeared to listen as I politely explained that I had celiac disease and needed to eat gluten free. I further added that I had not previously eaten there, so Sam pointed out all of the gluten-free items on the menu, directing my attention to several items that might be of interest to me since I also added that I was a plant-based eater. 

Later, after our food had arrived, my friend and I were deep in conversation, when Sam returned to the table to tell me that the dish I had been served was not in fact gluten-free.

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At least you only ate part of yours, unlike your friend here.

Wait, what?  First of all, not only was that response rude to my friend, but it was also insensitive to the realities of celiac disease.  Sam then offered an apology and launched into stories of a friends who have celiac disease, but my head would not stop buzzing with worry.  Sam then added a story of a sibling with food allergies who required an epi-pen with the final words, “at least you won’t die.”  

People with celiac disease have a 2x greater risk of developing coronary artery disease, and a 4x greater risk of developing small bowel cancers.–Celiac Disease Foundation

Later, a person, who I can only assume was either a kitchen or restaurant manager, arrived at our table.  I was told that normally there was an upcharge for gluten-free items and another upcharge for vegan cheese, but since I had been wrongly served, I would not be charged any additional fees.  There was no apology, hint of remorse, or even concern in this person’s words or voice.  Meanwhile, my mind kept wondering how I was going to get through the next work day.   

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When people with celiac disease eat gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye and barley), their body mounts an immune response that attacks the small intestine. These attacks lead to damage on the villi, small fingerlike projections that line the small intestine, that promote nutrient absorption. When the villi get damaged, nutrients cannot be absorbed properly into the body.–Celiac Disease Foundation

Afterwards, sharing my experience with my daughter, Maddie, she was enraged since she has worked in the restaurant industry for the past two school years.  She shared this story with her current kitchen manager as well as the rest of the staff with whom she works.  They all agreed that the restaurant’s response was inappropriate, and I should to do something, such as leave a bad review on Facebook, Yelp, or Trip Advisor.  Instead, I decided to try to increase awareness of celiac disease through writing. 

It is estimated to affect 1 in 100 people worldwide.–Celiac Disease Foundation 

This is gluten

I am often faced with people, especially in the restaurant industry, who do not believe that celiac disease is serious, much less real.  Perhaps, this is because so many popular diet trends include avoiding gluten and/or because gluten-free items are now so widely available and seen as healthier options.  Often, those who are avoiding gluten for health/diet purposes will still drink beer or consume products with gluten when it suits their situation.  I understand that as someone who is mostly vegan, but will, on occasion, still splurge on cheese.  Unfortunately, this can leave the impression that those of us with celiac disease can do that too.  In fact, I have had family and friends say to me, “Can’t you just take a pill before you eat it?”  If only it were that easy for me.

Celiac disease requires consuming

Ingesting small amounts of gluten, like crumbs from a cutting board or toaster, can trigger small intestine damage.–Celiac Disease Foundation

It wasn’t until the mid-forties that I was diagnosed with celiac disease.  I had been experiencing severe abdominal pain and acid reflux, as well as bloating, cramps, and other, shall we say, digestive issues.  My doctor was treating me with a variety of prescription medications.  My life became a series of timers and pills, and nothing was helping.  After several months of no improvement, he ordered a colonoscopy and an endoscopy.  When the official hospital letter came in the mail informing me that the endoscopy revealed severe damage to my small intestine, suggestive of celiac disease, I was stunned. (It also revealed a hiatal hernia, but that’s a whole other topic!)  When a later blood test confirmed this diagnosis, my life was forever changed. 

Two and one-half million Americans are undiagnosed and are at risk for long-term health complications.–Celiac Disease Foundation 

As my doctor and I talked, it was clear that I had suffered from this disease my entire life, but I had become so accustomed to the symptoms that I didn’t realize anything was wrong.  The entire diagnosis process was spread out over a few months.  Part of the protocol included strictly removing gluten from my diet for two weeks, and then seeing what happened when I re-introduced it to my diet.  Ugh! Talk about pain.  All the stomach pains/issues returned after one day of eating glutinous foods as well as a persistent headache that would not dull.  That was it!  I walked away from gluten products at that point and never looked back.  My life quality has completely changed for the better–including none of the prescriptions of the past.

I buy and order special gluten free products. This is one of my favorite gluten free pizza crusts brand!

Currently, the only treatment for celiac disease is lifelong adherence to a strict gluten-free diet. People living gluten-free must avoid foods with wheat, rye and barley, such as bread and beer.-Celiac Disease Foundation 

Living with celiac disease is typically most challenging when dining out.  It is important that a kitchen staff understand that, no, I won’t die immediately from consuming gluten.  However, within hours of consuming gluten, side effects begin.  Furthermore, with each consumption of gluten–which can even be found in over-the-counter medications, vitamins, lipstick, and toothpaste–I am damaging my body, in particular, my small intestine.  The more gluten I eat, the more likely I am to develop other health issues, such as Type 1 diabetes, muscular dystrophy, anemia, epilepsy, migraines, osteoporosis, shortened stature, heart disease, early on-set dementia, and intestinal cancers.

Celiac disease can develop at any age after people start eating foods or medicines that contain gluten. Left untreated, celiac disease can lead to additional serious health problems.–Celiac Disease Foundation

In the end, I sincerely wish that all restaurants, local and elsewhere, would understand that celiac disease is real; it is not made up.  When I ask for gluten-free food at a restaurant, I will happily pay the upcharge for this choice.  Additionally, I will go out of my way to let staff know that I sincerely appreciate the extra steps taken to prepare my food.  I only ask that restaurants take my request seriously.  If a mistake is made, it is best to tell the customer as soon as possible and sincerely apologize. Mistakes can happen.  However, please don’t write it off as an “at least I won’t die” moment because it will take 24-48 hours for the gluten to work its way through my system–causing unnecessary discomfort, interrupted sleep, endless rest room visits, headache, and body aches–as if I have the flu.  Additionally, at the risk of sounding dramatic, consuming gluten potentially contributes to a premature life-ending, or at the very least, life-altering disease that may have otherwise been avoided.  While celiac disease does not define me, it is part of who I am–a valid part that should be respected and honored.

For more information regarding celiac disease or for those wondering if they, or a loved one, have celiac disease, please visit the Celiac Disease Foundation at celiac.org as well as talk to your health care provider. 

Another tasty brand of bread products.

Choose Joy

Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.  We cannot cure the world of sorrow, but we can choose to live in joy.–Joseph Campbell

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There is a documentary about a Holocaust survivor named Gerda Weissmann Klein that I have watched on several occasions with students.  Her story is, like many Holocaust survivor stories, one of inspiration, hope, and even joy.  One of the lines that often comes back to me is when Weissmann Klein specifically addresses how she survived a death march towards the end of World War II.  Despite the fact this march occurred during the height of a brutally harsh winter, Wiessmann Klein was able to survive for a number of reasons, one of which included her ability to “occupy her mind.”

In simple terms, Weissmann Klein was able to take her mind’s focus off the cruel conditions around her.  Rather than brood over the extreme cold, her hunger, her fatigue or any other legitimate complaint, she colorfully described her intentional deliberations that could last all day, such as spending an entire day planning out her next birthday party, even though she had not been able to have one since the Nazi occupation.  However, it wasn’t so much the what of her thoughts, but the fact that she was able to focus/distract her mind away from the pain/discomfort that naturally accompanied her situation.  Instead she intentionally directed her attention towards ideas/notions/thoughts that safely allowed her to “escape” and feel some sense of happiness if only cerebrally.  It is this human ability to occupy one’s mind, or shift the mind’s attention/perspective, that is a powerful take-away from Weissmannn Klein’s story, and I believe is transferable to other, much less brutal situations.   

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Given the news, the pandemic, the  major weather events, and all of the sobering occurrences from the past few years, it is easy to allow our mind to focus on the what-is-wrong-in-the-world, whether you are looking at the big picture or sometimes even your own personal circumstances. I know I can easily get wrapped up in the negative and get a full-steam-on gripe session with the best of them.  On one hand, I know it can be beneficial to get the negativity off-your-chest; on the other hand, I also know that there is danger in dwelling or focusing on it for too long–at least for me.

In a similar manner, I’ve noticed that both positivity and negativity are contagious within myself and among others. If I enter work feeling grumpy, put-off, or focused on some negative happening, I tend to attract and may even catch myself seeking out negativity.  It’s not per se always a conscious choice, it just seems to happen that way.  As soon as I recognize it, I feel badly for having given that gray cloud permission to come along for a ride.  The real danger, it seems to me, is when negativity is left unaddressed.

Negative mindsets have a tendency to spiral out of control.  It may start with something as simple as an accidental spill or mess that throws off the morning routine, followed up by that s-l-o-w driver on the morning commute while listening to frustrating news on the radio.  This may then turn into a later than planned arrival at work, followed by unhappy/unpleasant conversation, followed by a work-related problem in need of addressing for uptenth time, and by the time lunch arrives–which is often a working lunch–negativity can feel as if it is bursting at the seams.  

I think Ms. Weissmann Klein was onto something when it comes to not defaulting to the negative. We must actively and intentionally teach our mind to choose joy.  No, it’s not easy, and yes, it sounds cliché.  However, I do believe that we have a choice of how we respond to our circumstances, but like all skills, it takes practice and thought.

Photo by David Orsborne on Pexels.com

I think the lyrics to a King and Country song entitled, “Joy,” best encapsulates this thought.  It is oh-so-easy to focus on all of those nightly news headlines that vie for our attention.  Easier still, is to become wrapped up in our personal headlines: illness, death, divorce, finances, job loss/stress, future uncertainties and so forth.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve caught myself in the woe-is-me mind story; it’s so darn easy to do.  Here is what I am learning when I catch myself having fallen prey to pessimism.

Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy. –Thich Nhat Hanh

Believe it or not, the simple act of smiling can be a lightswitch for our mindset.  I first discovered this through running, but I find it just as helpful in most other situations.  Whether it’s my legs and calves aching from the exertion of exercise, or it’s my shoulders and neck tightening in reaction to stress, as soon as I catch myself responding negatively to stress–to the degree possible–I focus on deeper breathing, relaxing the tightened areas, and adding a smile.  I smile at the sense of accomplishment I will feel once I have completed the goal; smile at the fact I am proud of myself for having caught myself slipping into negativity; smile at the fact that my body still has the ability to exercise, work, read–whatever. All of which leads to more smiling because, well, I am smiling–which leads to the release of feel-good hormones.

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I was talking to a sister recently about how we wake up with the best intentions to remain sunny and positive, and then one thing might set off the day, and BOOM, there goes the mindset.  My husband says, however, that is part of living in faith.  He reminds me that it’s not about perfection, but recognizing your imperfections–your humanity–and then trying again. 

In the words of King and Country, “. . . Oh, hear my prayer tonight, I’m singing to the sky/ Give me strength to raise my voice, let me testify . . . The time has come to make a choice

And I choose joy!

I can’t pretend to choose joy in every moment, nor am I not acknowledging the very realness of life, headlines, personal crises and all.  Nevertheless, even in the bad times, sorrows, and heartbreak and loss, I can choose my response, and I can choose to find at least one reason to smile.  

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It’s never too late to Bloom

“And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight inside the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”–Anais Nin

On sunny, but cold winter mornings, it is not unusual for me to walk past the living room and see both of our cats sprawled on the floor in the bright slant of sunshine beaming through the picture window.  Therefore, this past Saturday, as I walked through the house after my morning run, a smile of comfort spread across my face as I caught a glimpse of our two aging felines sun-bathing.  However, my brain also signaled that something was “off.”

Pausing, taking a backwards step to peer once more through an entrance way, I scanned the room.  Our male cat, the longer of the two cats, full of black fur, save one white paw, raised his head, glared at me for having the audacity to enter the room, as if I needed his permission, and meowed his disapproval of my presence.  The gray female, who is, well, she is sensitive about this, but she is, shall we say, the fluffier of the two, blinked open one eye, and then the other, attempting to register the disturbance of her basking peacefulness.  Glancing around the room, seeing nothing out of place, I turned to walk out sensing the full chill of sweat drying as my body began to cool down at a more rapid pace.

I turned to walk away, but wait, there were those alarms again.  Taking one last glance over my shoulder as I simultaneously chastised myself for having a run-away imagination, something clicked.  There was the very thing my brain had been trying in vain to communicate.  

I couldn’t believe it!  Christmas had been over a month ago as the wall calendar we still faithfully use was nearly ready to be flipped to February; and yet, there it was, the only one.  It was delicate, dainty, adored in haughty punch pink and full of pride. 

Oh, wow! I thought as I looked on in amazement at one brilliantly hued bloom on a Christmas cactus.  

In December, the entire plant had been full of blooms as bedazzled as any holiday tree.  In fact, I have two Christmas cacti in the living room, and they had both spectacularly bloomed over the course of the holiday season, beginning not long after Thanksgiving.  However, there were a handful of buds on each plant that grew with great promise, but in the end, never bloomed.  Instead, those buds held tightly together, and eventually fell off the cacti without blossoming.  All of their potential, lost in their continued grasping, waiting for the precise right time to blossom, rather than letting go of control and allowing it to happen.

Turning back to get my phone in order to take a picture, my brain, now buzzing with the excitement of the discovery, was likewise pulsating with the object lesson provided by this blossom.  A Talumedic quote sprinted through my head as my memory tried to catch its fleeting words.  Something about every blade of grass having an angel telling it to grow.  What was that quote?  Did this blossom likewise have an angel?

For the love of Pete, Stephanie, get out of your story-writing head and just enjoy the exotic beauty of this blossom.

Taking the picture, then standing to admire the flower from all angles, I no longer noticed my chilling body as I became filled with inspiration.  I know, I know, I sound so dramatic, but seriously this was special–at least in my mind.  If Divine Providence doesn’t give up on a tightly closed bud, then it surely doesn’t give up on us! If we, as humans, would just quit grasping for the safety of the known and rely in faith that there is a higher power whispering gentle encouragements of growth, we might then realize that we can blossom–even if seemingly out-of-season. 

Years ago, when I taught Kindergarten, each spring, I would order a so-called “Butterfly Garden” as a more tangible way to teach metamorphosis.  Each morning, curious faces would check the caterpillars.  They could observe the ways in which they grew, formed chrysalides, and ultimately witness the emergence of Painted Lady butterflies, wet, crumpled, and rather unrecognizable.  

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Nearly every year, however, there was that one chrysalis that would not open when the other Painted Ladies emerged.  Often, there were those kids who suggested that we should “break it open” as a way of helping it along the metamorphic process. I would use this as an opportunity to ask them if they liked being woken up from sleep and the comfort of their warm, cozy bed.  Of course, there were echoes of “No,” followed by the typical chatterings of five and six year olds. Eventually, in time, that snuggled up caterpillar would emerge–better late than never!

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Dear Reader, it can be so hard for us to let go of the comfort of what-was and the arms of the-way-it has-always-been.  However, if like that cactus bud and the late developing butterfly, we can bravely release our graspings, we might find that we can blossom and take flight in a metaphorically new direction, repurposed and ready for new expressions and expanded experiences, even if at the most unexpected times.  As the bud on my Christmas cactus demonstrated, it is never too late to bloom.  

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Blueberry Lemon-drop Donuts with gluten-free and vegan options

In all my work, I try to say ‘You may be given a load of sour lemons, why not try to make a dozen lemon meringue pies?'”–Maya Angelou

Photo by Tara Winstead on Pexels.com

One snow storm followed by another within the span of one week, and this snow was then followed by the coldest temperatures of the year.  It seems that old man winter has already tossed a few iced lemons our way in the month of January. I can’t help but wonder what frosted goodies he has in store for February!  Of course, there’s always the hope that January has dished up the worst that winter has to offer!  Hey, it could happen . . . 

Perhaps it was due to all of the snow, but I decided last week that if life was going to hand us lemons, I might as well make something out of those tart orbs of joy!  Picking up a lemon in my hand last week, it reminded me of sunshine on crisp winter snow.  I kept thinking of the way in which mid-morning winter sunlight slanted over trees that looked as if they had been dunked in a bag of confectioners sugar as decoration for the crystalized sugar frosted white hills.  Those frolicsome winter rays make me feel as lighthearted as that vibrantly colored lemon in my hand. 

Truthfully, I had already been researching the various ways in which I could bake gluten-free, plant-based donuts. Since my diagnosis of celiac disease over ten years ago, donuts are not something I necessarily crave, but every now and again, I think eating one would be a nice treat.  In fact, it wasn’t until last year during a visit to Lexington, KY, that I actually ate my first gluten-free (and surprisingly plant-based) donut since that diagnosis at Gluten-Free Miracles Bakery & Cafe.  Ever since enjoying the cakey-goodness of that treat, I have wanted to recreate it at home.

While I am dedicated to eating a whole-food plant based diet, with as little processed food as possible, I do believe in balance, and that includes occasional sweet treats–especially if I am the one controlling the ingredients.  That said, it is not my desire to determine how others should eat.  Everyone has to figure out what foods work best for their own unique bodies.  Therefore, when creating this recipe, I tried very hard to make it as inclusive as possible, so no matter the dietary preferences, this is a doable and fairly easy recipe.

Moist and springy inside, bursting with blueberry goodness!

On a final note, my family (God bless them for being my ever-willing taste-testers.) found the limoncello to be overpowering in the glaze when it was first made; however, the taste mellowed within hours of mixing it.  In fact, they determined that they preferred the glaze a bit thicker with only a small amount of lemon juice (1 tablespoon or less) and no limoncello.  Additionally, in terms of flavor and texture, they preferred a light sprinkling of sparkling sugar over the glaze, but that is totally optional!

Regardless of how you choose to make this recipe, I sincerely hope that you do give it a try.  Whether you dunk one of these lemony rings in coffee, tea, or favorite milk, or if you choose to simply serve it warm, enjoying it bite by tangy, sweet bite, may this recipe brighten and warm your heart with a taste of baked sunshine on a chilly winter day. 


Blueberry Lemon-drop Donuts with Glaze 

(with gluten-free and vegan options)

Ingredients

*2 eggs or fleggs 

**1 ½ cup all purpose (gluten free) flour 

¾ cup oat flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

¾ teaspoon cinnamon

Zest of one lemon

1 tablespoon vinegar 

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

¼ cup sugar

¼ cup maple syrup

½ cup milk

¼ cup applesauce (can substitute melted butter, melted vegan butter, or melted coconut oil)

⅓ cup fresh blueberries lightly dusted with (gluten free) flour of choice

Glaze

1 cup confectioners sugar

***1-2 tablespoon limoncello, lemon flavored vodka, or lemon juice–depending on desired strength of flavor

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

1-2  tablespoons favorite milk, if/as needed

Directions

If using “flegg,” mix together first and set aside as directed below

Zest lemon and set zest aside.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Prepare two 6-donut pans by coating with non-stick baking spray or other preferred method of “greasing”

Combine flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and lemon zest in a large bowl.

In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs (or fleggs) with vinegar,  vanilla extract, lemon juice, sugar, syrup, milk, and applesauce (or butter or oil).

Stir into dry ingredients until just combined.

Gently fold in blueberries.

Divide batter evenly among donut pans.

Bake for 10-15 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.

Allow to cool in the pan for 5 minutes before flipping onto the rack to cool 5-10 more minutes.

Meanwhile, using a fork, stir together glaze ingredients using less liquid at first until desired consistency is reached with the glaze looking white and thick, rather than translucent and thin. Drizzle glaze, as desired, over donuts.

Sprinkle tops of glazed donuts with lemon zest, colorful sprinkles, crystal sugar, or chocolate sprinkles, if desired.

Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to one week.

Can freeze, unglazed donuts up to one month in an airtight container.

Recipe Notes:

*flegg = 2 tablespoons ground flaxseed with 5 tablespoons water, stir together gently, set in fridge 15 minutes 

**Can use all-purpose flour if gluten-free variation is not needed due to allergy/celiac disease

***If a vanilla glaze is preferred, eliminate the limoncello, lemon flavored vodka, or lemon juice, and increase amount of milk as needed to achieve desired pourable thickness 

Divide the batter evenly in two 6-donut pans.
When baking with blueberries, whether frozen or fresh, it helps to dust them with a bit of flour
Allow to cool in the pan for five minutes before cooling the rest of the way on racks. Then, glaze as desired!

Early to Bed, Early to Rise

“Morning is an important time of day, because how you spend your morning can often tell you what kind of day you are going to have.” Lemony Snicket

One of my current personal practices of this school year is choosing to wake up at 3:50 am three out of five work days.  I’ll state the obvious:  It’s not fun at the moment the alarm sounds.  Messages, vying for attention, encourage me to hit the snooze button and/or skip the early wake up, “just this one day.”  After all, one time won’t hurt me.  Those messages are strong, loud, and clear as sleep threatens to overtake me, especially now that it is full-on winter with its early morning chill and darkness. I want to be weak and give in, but I know if I give in once, I’ll give in again and again until I ultimately return to old habits that tend to stress me out. 

To be clear, the other two work days, I get up one hour later–4:50 am–which, trust me, feels like a treat.  By the weekend, I’m exceptionally foot-loose and fancy free, setting the alarm for 5:50, which feels like being served up a warm brownie with ice cream on top! 

Okay, okay, perhaps I am being a tad bit dramatic, but the point is that I’ve discovered, after several months of implementation, that waking up early fairly consistently each morning offers me numerous benefits, many of which were unexpected. It began mostly as a way to get in a workout first thing in the morning before going to work, and that is still one of the main motivating reasons.  However, I discovered that I was reaping a few unexpected benefits as well.

Checking off goals in the predawn hours.

I became curious and wondered if I was merely experiencing some sort of placebo effect or if there was any solid data/research to support my anecdotal benefits.  Therefore, I began to nose around the internet gleaning information from various sites, trying to stick to the more reputable sources of research.  

*Early risers tend to be more proactive about their day

One of the first sources I ran across cited Harvard’s Biologist’s (Christoph Randler) work pointing to the fact that early morning risers tend to be more proactive.  This is due to the fact that they must think ahead and organize for the morning the previous evening in an attempt to anticipate and minimize potential issues. I can attest to the fact that I had to learn early in the process the importance of nightly organization in order for the early morning routine to flow efficiently.  

I continued reading on to learn more.  Here are a few more positive benefits to rising early according to those with more expertise than me: 

*Ability to accomplish most important task(s) (or personal goal) first thing

Since the early morning hours are typically the quietest, the mind (and schedule) are  fairly clear, freeing early risers to focus on the most important, or most challenging, goal of the day–in my case, that’s usually some sort of 5-10 minute devotional, followed by 30-40 minutes of writing/editing/revising/updating website, and finally about 2-3 minutes of clearing out junk work emails that accumulate overnight in my inbox and making note of important emails to tackle first thing at work.  I do these few tasks while sipping a cup of coffee allowing me to feel a small sense of accomplishment, even before I head to the gym. In fact, according to the Harvard Review, in a 2010 study, that early morning sense of accomplishment, sets the tone for your day, allowing early risers to feel more agreeable, optimistic, and conscientious.  Who knew?

Empty, or near empty gym, is an added bonus to the early morning wake-up, especially in the age of COVID.

*Morning exercise boosts the brain 

As a general rule, exercise benefits the body and mind, no matter what time of day it is completed.  However, people with busy schedules find that they are better able to stick with an exercise routine by completing it in the morning. As an added bonus, working out in the morning allows early risers to take advantage of all of the feel-good endorphins produced by the brain after exercise.  Plus, exercise reduces heart disease, boosts brain cognition, regulates blood sugar and weight, and tends to improve your mood. Therefore, if completing the workout in the morning ensures that you don’t miss a workout, then early risers are checking several boxes before the start of the official workday. Check, check, and check!

*Outlook and sleep quality improves while risk for depression decreases

Typically, those who wake early, tend to go to bed earlier, and experience overall better sleep quality which can positively increase outlook.  We can all relate to how we feel after a horrible night of tossing and turning, especially on a Sunday night after a weekend of sleeping in, when sleep seems so elusive.  According to the Sleep Foundation, by keeping a fairly consistent daily wake-up time, including the weekends, you can maintain your circadian rhythm, allowing you to fall asleep faster and sleep better.  Additionally, a 2012 study conducted by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research confirms that early risers tend to have more consistent sleep leading to healthy, happy, and overall sense of well-being. Moreover, recent 2021 studies, one published in JAMA Psychiatry and an additional one published in Molecular Psychiatry, point to the fact that rising early can significantly reduce your risk for depression as well as other mental illnesses.

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*Increased productivity

Rising early has been shown to increase productivity by enhancing one’s ability to problem solve according to the Journal of Sleep Research.  It also turns out that waking up early reduces stress (Think: beating the stress of morning rush hour), increases alertness, and minimizes forgetfulness.  Early risers have more time to acclimate to the day by moving beyond that sleep inertia period–that slower moving time period when thinking can still be foggy and the body is not fully awake–increasing focused concentration upon arrival at work, and thereby potentially increasing productivity.  Additionally, they have time to complete more tasks before becoming overtired, a major culprit of forgetfulness.  

On the way to work as the sun is rising and several daily goals have already been checked!

In the end, most researchers agree that by implementing a fairly consistent bedtime/wake-up routine, it is possible to train your body to wake up early. One thing is for sure, I like my sleep as well as the next person, and I certainly don’t enjoy those first moments of the alarm sounding, especially on those three extra-early days.  However, the benefits I have discovered, and now confirmed, far outweigh those few moments of discomfort.  I am able to meet my daily writing goals, miss fewer workouts while exercising in a fairly empty gym without being dog-tired from work, and I am much more energized and positive, well, most days.  The only caveat: I am typically in bed, no later than 9:00 pm, much to my family’s chagrin–not they really mind.

I won’t claim early rising is for everyone, but it’s working for me.  Nor can I say that I will do it forever, but for the time being, I will continue with my pre-dawn rising.  If it was good enough for Ben Franklin, one of the greatest inventors ever, it should work for a simple school teacher and writer, like me.  Who’s in with me?

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Cardinal Song and Snowstorm Memories

“A bird does not sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”–Maya Angelou

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“Stethie, you should always feed the red birds when it snows. You want them to stay near you.”

Papaw spoke these words with his sincere eyes imploring mine on a snowy winter day.  I was living with my grandmother and him during my first two years as an educator, and during this time, I came to realize what bird-lovers they both were, especially during the winter months.  

When I prodded him to tell me more, I don’t remember his precise answer, but I do recall that he talked about the cardinal’s beauty and goodness, especially when compared to the Blue Jay– the species for which Papaw was NOT a fan.  I am certain he gave me a more detailed explanation about the importance of cardinals, but like so many memories, only the basic understanding of his words remains with me.

A long image of 2016 snow, when my daughter would periodically go out with a yardstick to measure the snow’s depth.

I was reminded of this feeling on a recent January morning, the day after precipitation conspired with plunging temperatures to instigate a snow storm as the inches of fluffy white accrued.  With the arrival of dusk, winter’s hush settled over the surrounding hills and valley in which I live, as our yard residents, the cardinals, chirped their familiar song of, “cheer, cheer, cheer,” wrapping my family and me with a serene sense of quietude.  My mind floated with the flakes, and I began quickly flipping through the pages of snow days past. 

Remembrances of my youth-self entering the backdoor of my childhood home after hours of playing in the snow.  I would be ensconced inside layers of snowy, wet clothes, and my play-shoes were sucked into clear galoshes that would break me out into a sweat as I struggled to take them off.   In rapid fire succession, my mind meandered from my own childhood snow days to more recent reminiscences of my daughter’s days in the snow.  

One of the last times, I believe, my daughter “played” in the snow with friends during college.

Those seemingly not-so distant days of watching her teach our beloved dog, Rusty, how to pull her through the yard on a red sled, and the way she taught him to play “catch” with snowballs.  Rusty would catch the snow, then proceed to eat it, slinging slobbering snow-froth with every shake of his head.  Like the 8mm films my grandfather once proudly recorded and presented, my family memories reeled on . . .

Get the yardstick and measure again, that’s another inch more for sure.

Why haven’t they called school off yet?

Spoon under pillow, pajamas inside out and backwards;

It’s what they said to do for a guaranteed snow day tomorrow

Screams of delight with morning light; I’m really out for the whole day?

Dog tracks follow girl tracks, two pals capering about the sparkling white

Snow persons with carrot noses, button eyes, tree limb arms, and purple cap; “Can I have a scarf for it too?” 

Sled rides down the neighbor’s hill, “Rusty, pull, boy, pull!”

Grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup, comfort food to warm a rumbly tummy.

Wet clothes in dryer; boots and damp dog by the fire until

Back outside she goes with a whoop and a holler, “Come on, Rusty! Come on, boy!” 

Tail waggin’, he’s hobbles into action; wherever she roams, he’ll go

More hours spent, giggles and barks galore; “Oh, Rusty! You silly boy!”

Hot chocolate and chocolate chip cookies for her, and plenty of kibble for him.

Get out the crockpot, and make some veggie soup; I hope we have saltines.

Steph, how ‘bout a glass of wine?

No, really, I shouldn’t.

Well, maybe just a glass that turns into two

Jigsaw puzzle covers one end of the table, making the edges first.

Scrabble tiles are intersecting lines; Are you sure that is a word?

May I stay up a little bit longer?

What about a movie? There’s a new one I hear.

Can we read two chapters tonight? 

But we’re at a good part. How‘bout one more chapter, pleeease?

Covers piled high, snuggled up under chin; the day, like all good things, must end

Sigh! How swiftly the hands of time spin.

The next morning, I stood at the kitchen window, coffee mug in hand, watching large flakes drift down, observing my cardinal friends, and drinking in their sing-song calls.  There are three cardinal couples living in different parts of our yard; they took up noticeable residence this past spring.  They have yet to leave, and I can’t help but take comfort in their presence. 

Gone are the days I look out the window and see my daughter playing in the snow.  She has no interest now that she is the same age as I was when I lived with my grandparents.  Nor does Rusty, her once faithful companion, romp and scamper in the snow; he has since passed on to heavenly yards of the great beyond. Still, I stand there a bit longer, and I can’t help but wonder what the coming years will bring.  Certainly, the answers aren’t in the sentimental past. Nonetheless, the cardinals keep singing, in spite of the seasonal changes, serenading their song of gratitude.  Perhaps, therein lies a profound melody of truth.

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Life Must Be a Challenge

“Life must be a challenge.”–Sri Swami Satchidananda

“Have a Happy New Year, and whatever goals you set for yourself this year, I hope you achieve them.”

The sales clerk handed me my bags as she spoke these words with a broad smile. I wished her a new year’s greeting before heading out into the swarming mall milieu.  John, my husband, and I were in Cincinnati for a couple of days of relaxation between the Christmas and New Year’s holiday.  We debated the merits of traveling as the Omicron variant seemed to be spreading like athlete’s foot in a high school locker room.  In the end, we decided to take the proper precautions–as we have been doing these past couple of years–and head out for our planned excursion.

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Back home, I was later reminded of that brief encounter with a sales clerk. 

“Did you set any New Year’s resolutions for this year?” asked the young lady preparing to cut my hair on a recent January appointment .

This question led to an interesting discussion about whether or not to use the start of a new year as a reset button–a time to reflect and set new goals.  The stylist was all for it as she described the way in which her three boys, her partner, and she had shared and recorded their goals for 2022 in a journal.  She added that she wrote the goals down as points for review throughout the year, and they would serve the family as a final reflection on the eve of 2023. It seemed like such an intentional and thoughtful practice to have with her family.

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Pondering this practice, I reflected on my own goal-setting practices.  As I had explained to the stylist, my personality is such that I am constantly reviewing my own behaviors/habits.  Any perceived “mistake” I make–whether real or self-imposed–I dwell upon, running and rerunning the incidents on repeat like insurance commercials during televised football games.  I think about what I said/did wrong, or how I should have responded to a circumstance, in hopes of not repeating that behavior.  Sometimes it works, but more often than not, I fail, making the same or similar mistakes.  Ugh!  It is a broken record of imperfection.

Perhaps that is why I am drawn to setting small, achievable goals throughout the year, such as training for a half-marathon, teaching myself a new cooking technique, or even my pursuit of weekly writing deadlines.  These are typically structured goals, with steps from point A to point Z, and clearly delineated deadlines/outcomes.  Then, it’s simply a matter of following through with each step, adjusting when there is a set-back, and continuing on, one step at a time, until crossing the finish line.

In the bigger picture of life, however, things aren’t always so cut-and-dry with step-by-step progress and a clear finish line.  For example, when looking over these past two years of life with COVID, it seems one plan after another falls and one unattainable finish line falls to another.  Just as I struggle with my own fallacies, shortcomings, and humanity, science likewise seems to struggle with virus variants far more complicated than my own list of self-imposed list short-comings.  

All of these seemingly diverse thoughts came together when I reread the opening line of The Golden Present, a reference book to which I have repeatedly referred over a number of years.  The author begins with the following thesis,  “Life must be a challenge.”  In those five words, I was reminded of one simple truth.  If life is to be lived fully, then its challenges, from the personal to the global (and all levels in between), must be met, faced, and dealt with in some form.  

From surviving the ice storm in 2021, that wreaked havoc on local power grids, to navigating the following days of ice melt and rain that lead to devastating flooding; and from learning to adapt, adjust, and safely navigate the “new normal” of life with COVID, to getting up way to early each morning and trying to be a better version of myself than I was the previous day, life in 2021 was certainly full of challenges.  One look back at local, state, national, and global news headlines, and we see that every day, people around the world were faced with challenges far greater than any crisis I faced this year. 

As I write, I am reminded of the wildfires that ravaged the west in the summer, the Florida condo collapse, Hurricane Ida inflicting destruction on Louisiana, social media’s documented toxic influence on youth mental health, tornados that swept through Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas.  Even now, in the early days of 2022, headlines continue to demonstrate that life is indeed full of challenges, adversities, and difficulties. Even within my own work community, a beloved employee was recently severely injured when another vehicle ran a red-light–totaling this employee’s vehicle and putting this person in the hospital for months of recovery.  

I could go on, but the point is this.  I am alive and overall healthy.  If you are reading this, you are alive–and I pray–healthy.  Therefore, as 2023 progresses and the challenges start arriving–and you know they will persist–let us resolve to bravely face adversity while acknowledging that both the good and the bad are gifts of life.  After all, as light can only be known by the presence of darkness, the exuberance of joyful moments can only be known due to struggling through time periods of frustration, and sometimes even despair.  

We are on this earth for such a short time, let us be grateful for the moments–the good times, and the not-so-good times, when obstacles of all types get thrown our way. May we endeavor to fortify our faith in Divine Providence, believe in the power of hope, and may we cultivate love, or at the very least, patience and kindness for others–even those who see things differently from our own point of view.  As the name of my reference book indicates, the present moment is golden, and it is a gift to be unwrapped daily.  

Each day of life is waiting like a present under a tree to be unwrapped!

Besides, who wants a life that is easy?  If life were simple, there’d be no stories to tell around dinner tables, much less work cooler gossip; and, there certainly would not be any fodder for writers who need the challenge of discovering a new story to tell each week in order to meet a weekly deadline!

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Gluten-free Snickerdoodles (with vegan option)

“Baking cookies is comforting, and cookies are the sweetest little bit of comfort food. . . .”--Sandra Lee

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Years ago, back in the days of the VHS tape cassettes, when my daughter, Maddie, was quite young, she had her fair share of age-appropriate videos.  These were special treats as her TV time was limited. John, my husband, and I are both educators, and we strongly believed then–and still do–that screen time should be limited, especially before the age of five years.  Therefore, these videos were not watched daily, but rather saved for “special times,” such as holidays, sick days, and weekends. 

One of her favorites was Barney: Night Before Christmas.  It was 57 minutes of so much saccharine sweetness that John and I felt cavities forming, if not in our teeth, then in our minds! It used to drive us crazy with its terrible acting and poorly written script. Regardless, Maddie loved it, and she especially enjoyed singing along with the Barney closing jingle. I can still recall the way in which she would plead for her Dad and I to join her in singing it’s catchy refrain, followed by a group hug. 

One line from this video, ultimately became–and still remains–a running joke in our family.  Let me set the stage for you.  Magically, a flawlessly dressed and styled girl wakes up to find snow has fallen just in time for Christmas Eve.  Poof! Out of nowhere, a perfectly coiffed mom, garbed in stereotypical Christmas attire, emerges to hug her daughter at the window.  As Mother and daughter turn away from the window, in walks the doting Dad carrying boxes of Christmas decorations,“just in time for Christmas Eve too!”  Suddenly, Dad feigns hunger like Santa, so Mom suggests that she should bake cookies.

Ooo! Snickerdoodles cooling on a wire rack!

“Ooo–snickerdoodles?” says Dad, rubbing his hands together.

“Chocolate chip?” asks Daughter in a sing-song voice.

Mom smiles methodically in assent, as both parents make their way through the Christmas greeting card house and disappear behind a swinging door to presumably bake cookies.  Twenty or so minutes later, both parents will reappear, no worse for the wear, carrying a large Christmas basket filled with piles of Instagram worthy cookies–had social media been around then. 

The days of Maddie’s Barney obsession are long past; however, if I state that I am going to bake cookies, John, and/or Maddie, will both mimic the lines from the video.  John especially loves to say, “Ooo–snickerdoodles?” and dramatically rub his hands together as if teaching a primary science lesson on friction. As inside family jokes go, it never gets old! 

Gluten-free and vegan? Yes!

Therefore, this past Christmas week, I decided to be ironic and make those Barney dreams come true!  I researched and cobbled together my own version of gluten-free snickerdoodle cookies!  As an added twist, John inadvertently played the role of doting dad by scavenging stores for cream of tartar, the secret ingredient to these magical cookies, since it was out-of-stock at the store I most often frequent.  

Barney may have magic, but snickerdoodles have cream of tartar.

My family and I recommend giving these cookies a try.  At first glance, they may seem quintessentially Barney–simple and sweet. Unlike Barney, however, the cookies are not overly-sweet.  Instead, they are soft, pliable, and slightly complex in flavor due to the combined tang of the cream of tartar and the spice of the cinnamon.  Nonetheless, when you bake this recipe, don’t be surprised to discover that your home has been transformed into an idyllic world filled with singing dinosaurs, cued laughter, and a lovey-dovey theme song that won’t leave your head . . . “I love you, you love me . . . .

You get a cookie, and you get a cookie, and . . .

In the meantime, feel free to drop me a line anytime. Let me know your thoughts and/or suggestions. I always enjoy engaging with readers.

From my home to yours, I wish you sweet baking experiences!

A few of the tricks to making gluten-free, and vegan, snickerdoodles!
Blend the cinnamon and sugar first!

Gluten-free Snickerdoodles (with vegan option)

Ingredients for topping:

¼ cup sugar

2 teaspoons cinnamon

Ingredients for cookies:

1 cup softened butter (You can substitute vegan butter for this if desired.)

1 ½ cup sugar

2 large eggs (You can substitute with *flegg.)

1 tablespoon vinegar

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

3 cups all-purpose, gluten free flour

2 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

Directions:

If using flegg, mix first, and set aside.

Mix sugar and cinnamon together, and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place parchment paper on a cookie sheet.

In a large mixing bowl, mix together butter and sugar until light and fluffy.

Mix in egg, vinegar, and vanilla, scraping down sides as needed, until creamed well.

Add in cream of tartar, baking soda, and salt until well blended.

Mix in flour, a cup at a time, until dough forms.

Using tablespoon, or cookie scoop, scoop out small amount of dough, and roll into balls

Roll each ball in cinnamon sugar mixture and place on the prepared cookie sheet.

If you prefer a flatter, crisper cookie, flatten each dough ball with a spoon, otherwise for fluffier, more soft cookies, leave as is.

Bake 8-12 minutes, depending upon how soft you prefer your cookies.

Allow cookies to cool 2-4 minutes on pan before removing to a cooling rack.

Store cookies in an airtight container.

*flegg=egg substitute: Per egg, mix 1 tablespoon ground flaxseed with 3 tablespoons water.  Set in refrigerator 15-20 prior to mixing dough

Are you hungry yet?

Like a Prayer

“Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or in the deep, deep woods and I’d look up into the sky—up—up—up—into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer.”–L. M. Montgomery, Anne of the Green Gables

“Ms. Hill, don’t you like doing healthy stuff like hiking and running?”

The 6th grader looked at me with sincerity written across his face.  He was in my homeroom, the group of students with whom I start and end the school day.  By this point in the school year, I have come to know most of the students in this group fairly well, and this particular young man, in spite of his energetic youthfulness, has an uncommonly thoughtful side.  

The group of boys with whom he was talking and joking around at the end of the day, all turned to look at me.  I affirmed that I did indeed like both of those activities, but that I also enjoyed walking or simply being outside equally as much.

Nodding, seemingly with understanding, the same young man further inquired, prodding as to why I liked being outside.  After pausing to gather my thoughts, I explained that it made me feel happy, at peace, and connected to God. 

“So it’s kinda like a prayer, huh?” 

Out of the mouths of babes, or in this case, a 6th grader . . . 

Then, in typical middle-school fashion, the young man’s conversation quickly pivoted back to his buddies, so I returned to my routine end-of-the day tasks.  However, his words remained with me.  In fact, his words have often returned to me on a number of occasions for the past several weeks, especially during moments when I am out-of-doors. 

Scanning through photos of my recent trip to the Blueridge Parkway as well as past out-of-doors experiences, it is clearly evident from the large number of nature-centric images that I relish time spent outside.  From images of wispy cloud billows to leaf-scattered earthen trails; from layers of cerulean blue mountainous peaks to emerald green moss dressing up a boulder, and a great many variations in between, I have collected hundreds of images of Mother Earth. Nonetheless, my fondness of nature is so much more than taking photographs.

Time spent outside is like pouring soothing salve over my weathered soul.  One deep inhalation of fresh air, and I can instantly feel more calm and grounded.  In fact, I have an overall sense of vigor, not just in my body, but in my mind and soul when I am outside in the natural world.  It is as if my whole being comes alive.  

Therefore, it was no surprise for me to learn that numerous research bodies and scientific communities corroborate my personal experiences with nature.  As I scanned through several research pieces published by well-respected groups such as the American Psychological Association, Yale School of  the Environment, Harvard Health, and Scientific Reports, to name a few, there were some variations as to what defines “nature” and how long one needs to spend time in nature to reap the benefits; however, all pointed to the fact that spending time out-of-doors is overall beneficial to good health and mental well being.  Some of the commonly cited perks of spending time in nature include: improved mood, increased cognitive and memory function, reduced stress levels, improved mental health, boosted immune system, and overall reduction of blood pressure and heart rates.  

While I whole-heartedly appreciate and welcome ALL of those benefits, it has been my experience that there are also other, more ethereal, benefits of spending time in nature.  I find that when I bear witness to the brilliant rise of the sun, gaze upward as sunlight dapples through a canopy of leafy green, or catch sight of sunbeams streaming across dark silhouettes of towering tree trunks, naked in their winter respite, I feel a sense of awe and wonder.  The wide array of colors, lines, shapes, sizes, and the symmetry rivals great artists of our time–our world is a marvel!

The more I observe nature, the more curious and inquisitive I become.  How did all of this happen?  How do I, a person so small and insignificant in the face of all this wonder, fit into the grand scheme of the great I AM?  How am I to comprehend Divine Providence and this wondrous creation called earth?  I have no answers, nor do I feel a need for answers.  Rather I am in a state of being–being appreciative and feeling adoration for the great playground that is nature. After all, we are called human beings.

Francis Bacon, often cited as the father of science and ironically attributed to have invented the essay form, is quoted as once stating that God wrote two books: The Scripture and “a second book called creation.”  Time spent with the “second book” offers me tangible, first hand reminders of the greatness of our Creator.  Standing in the presence of a lofty range of mountains, floating across a lakeshore rippling with life, strolling through the rhythmical edge of ocean tide waters, or simply jogging alongside streams and trees on an earthen park trail, my heart and soul are at ease.  There are no timelines, no demands for my attention, no to-do lists, or looming deadlines.  Instead, there is a softness that envelops my soul, a well-worn quilt of comfort, that is available to all.

I suppose my student said it best after all. Spending time in the majesty of nature opens my heart and mind, allowing me to feel as if I have been gathered into an embrace by a loved one happy to see me once more as God’s peace settles over me.  My spirit is more serene, and I feel as if I am part of something larger than myself.  Something so large, I cannot fathom it, but it is something like a prayer.  

It’s Time to soar

“Motherhood is an early retirement position. Your children do grow up.”–Colleen Parro 

“Are you ready to go see Mommy? Are you ready to go home? We’re almost to the car, and then we can go home to Mommy. Daddy just has to buckle you in your car seat . . .”

I took the scene in with great fondness as my heart constricted and my vision grew temporarily fuzzy. The toddler was grinning, blinking tears from her eyes, as she took in the bright sun, while the wind ran its fingers through her fine, wispy hair. It was not an unusual exchange for me to witness since there is a daycare/preschool as part of the school setting at which I teach.  However, on this particular day, the parent’s sing-song voice, as he interacted with this sweet-cheeked cherub, led to a momentary visit with the past . . .

Mommy, Mommy!

Embracing hugs 

Turned into swings

Kisses, sweet 

On rosy cheeks

Flaxen hair

Ponytailed by morning

Chaotic halo by day’s end 

Indications of a good day

Paints and crayons

Scissors and glue

Look what I made

Just for you!

Meaningful lines

Defined shapes of purpose

There’s you and me

And that one is Daddy

Birthday parties

Dress up boxes

Can I go out to play?

Watch me climb the tree!

One more story please

This one is fun to read

Snuggled up under

Blankets of love

But my teacher says . . .

And my friend say . . .

And tomorrow we . . .

That mean boy is at it again!

Oceanside escapades

Aquariums and zoos

Museum adventures too

Why does summer never last?

Worried feelings

Broken heart

You just don’t understand!

Band Aids no longer mend the hurt

Look at this dress!

I passed the test!

How do you like my hair?

I’m heading out with friends

I once recall reading that we only borrow our children from God for a short period of time.  It seems to me that this, indeed, may be true. Furthermore, I believe that children are like birds. They begin life as nestlings–totally dependent upon parents to provide their needs. During the first years, as our children learn to express their needs and gain mobility, juvenile feathers for flight first begin to appear.

 With each transition from one stage of life to the next, more feathers are added, and soon enough, initial flight feathers materialize.  As parents it is important not to cut those wings back, but to foster their growth in preparation for what will come.  As children move into the fledgling phase, they remain with us a bit longer as they don’t yet have their full adult plumage.  Instead, they take short test flights, here and there, away from the nest, dipping their toes in the waters of adult life as parents remain nearby offering support and care as needed.  These test flights can sometimes be fraught with worrisome situations, concerns, and sometimes even a bit of danger as they awkwardly transition into independence.  However, these life experiences, as hard as they can sometimes be, allow our children to develop flight strength in order to ultimately take flight from the nest.

“Oh, it’s delightful to have ambitions. I’m so glad I have such a lot. And there never seems to be any end to them–that’s the best of it. Just as soon as you attain one ambition you see another one glittering higher up still. It does make life so interesting.”–L. M. Montgomery, Anne of the Green Gables

One day prior to writing this, and two weeks after noticing the sing-song father and daughter duo, Madelyn Clarice Hill walked across the stage to receive her college degree for which she had worked diligently to earn.  Her wings may have been hidden under a ceremonial gown of black, but they were most certainly present and ready to take flight.   Where her maiden voyage will take her, only she and life can determine.  What I can say with confidence is that she is ready to fly; she is definitely ready to fly.

Soar my daughter, soar . . .

Greybeard Overlook and Douglas Falls–Stepping into Faith

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.–Marcel Proust

There are times in life when you have no idea where the path onto which you have stepped will lead.  For example, if you have been married for a number of years, think back to the day you said, “I do.”  When you examine the innumerable moments between the “I do” to the present day, it is sometimes astonishing the ways in which the life journey of a marriage meanders and leads.  Even if you aren’t married, or haven’t been married long, once you hit a certain age of awareness, you begin to witness how very unpredictable life can be with all of its plot-twists, side paths, and meandering stops, starts, and–SURPRISE–unpredicted events. 

The weekend before Thanksgiving, my husband, John, and I, spent a few days in the Black Mountain/Asheville area of North Carolina.  Our intent was to take a break from the work routine and spend some time hiking through the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains.  We had researched a few hiking trail options we thought we would enjoy tackling, but we had also selected a couple back-up alternatives in case those didn’t work out.  

We had hoped to hike to the top of Craggy Pinnacle, instead we ended up hiking the area around it.

Typically, another part of our travel habits is mindfully allowing time to relax and not adhering to a said schedule since our work life as school teachers is very schedule driven.  Therefore, when traveling, we usually try not to rush through our mornings to get out of the door.  Additionally, we both enjoy experiencing new dining venues as part of the fun during out-of-town expeditions.  This often means that part of our relaxed morning is savoring a late morning meal (sort of a brunch). The downside to this habit, when hiking, is that it can cause us to arrive at a trailhead anywhere between the hours of 11:00 am and 2:00 when numerous other relaxed hikers are likewise arriving.  This is why we’ve learned to have several hiking paths in mind for any given day as many trailheads have limited parking.

Other than one other couple, John and I encountered no one on this meandering part of the MTS trail.

There were two trails at the top of our list of preferred hiking experiences–one that led to Rattlesnake Lodge and another to the top of Craggy Pinnacle. Unfortunately, we were not able to hike either one.  Instead, on one of the afternoons during our trip, we found ourselves at the closed-for-the-season Craggy Garden Visitor Center, with its ample parking area and scenic views, staring at a map of hiking trails that could all be accessed from the parking lot.  We picked one that wasn’t part of our so-called list-for-the-day and headed off down the trail without conducting any research. Why not, right? After all, we had already successfully hiked one of the trails shown on the map on a previous trip; therefore, how much more difficult could another trail in the same area be? 

John led the way during this uphill section

Stepping onto the trail, which was part of the 1,174 mile long Mountain to Sea Trail that crosses North Carolina, we saw a trail marker indicating that Greybeard Mountain Overlook was a “mere” 2.8 mile hike and Douglas Falls was only 3.6 miles away.  Perfect! We had plenty of time, as it was early in the afternoon, and the mileage didn’t seem insurmountable–silly, unsuspecting fools that we were!

Without prior research, we were completely ignorant of the level of effort required on this section of the MTS trail.  In hindsight, we would later learn this section of the MTS trail was rated at a difficulty level of 5, across a multitude of hiking platforms–on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the easiest and 5 the most difficult. Plus, let’s be honest, John and I are definitely not spring chicks.  While we both maintain overall good health, we are not near as young and fit as we once were.  Nonetheless, we knew nothing of the trail’s ranking, so we persevered on, writing off the exacting switchbacks, arduous ascents, and demanding descents to our age–oblivious to the fact that the segment of MTS over which we hiked would challenge even the most fit.

Up and down, over and around, slipping and sliding, grasping and pulling, we made our way over the craggy, uneven, and mountainous terrain. We paused here and there to catch our breath and/or rest our legs–especially John’s right knee, which no longer has a meniscus thanks to an injury and requisite surgery a little over a year prior to the writing of this piece. In spite of it all, the quietude we experienced on this trail was serene and surreal, even when our hearts were often pounding in our ears!  With each pause and rest, we would gaze all around at the wondrous mountain scenery and soak up the calmness that accompanies the whisperings of nature. 

Nearly two hours later, we encountered a trail marker at a fork in the footpath informing us that Greybeard Overlook was still 1.1 miles away down one fork, and Douglas Falls was still more than 2 miles away along the other fork.  What?  Surely, this was not possible.  Had we accidentally wandered off the trail, or were we really moving that slowly?  Cloud cover, throughout our hike, had gradually been increasing, which meant that darkness would envelop the mountains sooner than the predicted 5:20 sunset.  It was already after 3:00, we were deep into a cavernous crevasse, so we felt the safest choice was to turn around without reaching either destination.  

I wavered.  I wanted to see more.  Therefore, John, used to my enduring curiosity and energy level, said he would wait while I explored ahead a bit more. While he sat down to rest on a large rock, I carried on to the Greybeard fork which began climbing once more. Continuing further along, the path became more wet and somewhat less rocky. I stepped through muck and oozing mud as small rivulets trickled along this part of the path. To my left, through statuesque trees, I spied those aegean tinged Blue Ridge Mountains, sentinels of the BRP, standing watch over it all.  I wanted to continue further, but visions of being trapped in a rocky ravine overnight surrounded by bears and numerous other critters kept me from straying too much further up the path, perhaps only hiking a ¼ of a mile more!

Turning back without having reached our destination was heartbreaking at first.  What was the point of hike without some sort of distinctive destination?  Nonetheless, as we made our way back up, over, and around the formidable trail, John and I reflected upon the rewards of this trail’s experience–from the scenic views to the tranquil stillness and from the heart thumping ascents to the balance-demanding descents–we challenged our mind, body, and spirit in new and unpredictable ways.  We hiked by faith, and our faith grew as God met us there on the mountain path.  Isn’t that like life?

Life finds ways to force us out of our comfort zone in order to step out into the unknown.  Through living, we experience mountain top high life events, endure darkened valley can’t-see-the-sun-for-days-on-end time-periods, and live through all manner of ups, downs, and unforeseeable meanderings.  Life is not about the destination, but about gathering experiences. Furthermore, life is best met through faith, appreciation for all the Creator has given us, and a recognition that the great Sentinel stands watch over us, no matter the path we trod.  

How blessed we are to live in a world with mountains, valleys, and an assortment of craggy paths!

 

 

 

South toward Grassy Branch–Traveling in the footsteps of those who have gone before us

Still round the corner, there may wait, a new road or a secret gate.–J. R. Tolkien

Hearts-pumping, legs moving, a brisk wind periodically scoured at our cheeks as John, my husband, and I began our hike into the autumnal colored woods just outside of Asheville, North Carolina.  Porcelain blue skies interspersed with frothy, opaque clouds expanded above the deciduous tree line.  To our left, as we made our way along the trail, was an expansive valley enclosed by the cerulean heights of the Blueridge Mountains–a 550 mile expanse of the Appalachian Mountains.  To our right, and above our heads, was the Blueridge Ridge Parkway, but we were moving lower and lower into the gap further away from any sounds of traffic.  I couldn’t help but smile.

Sunshines from porcelain blue skies as part of the path we hike was once an old wagon road to Rattlesnake Lodge.

Our hike had actually begun by parking in a small lot at Craven Gap and walking across the BRP.  Fortunately, due to either the Thanksgiving holiday week or the chilly temperatures–although to John and me, the mid-40 fahrenheit range was perfect hiking temperature–the BRP wasn’t too busy, allowing us to safely cross.  We followed the stoney steps down the beginning of the trail that eased our gradual descent into the ridge-hugging trail.  Before taking a more serious turn and further drop, we crossed over a large log that had been allowed to remain across the path, but had been roughly hewed half-way down mid-way up its trunk to allow easier access across.

As we walked, my mind roamed, and my senses soaked up my surroundings: the occasional call of a bird, the scuffling of our feet along the path, the aromatic scent of damp earth, and the multi-hued assemblage of leaves in all shapes, colors, and sizes.  I was reminded of the expression, forest bathing, often used by the health and wellness industry, to encourage people to spend more time in nature.  Despite its marketing association, I was certainly benefiting from this scenic Blue Ridge immersion.

How many years had this tree stood as a witness to life?

John and I paused to admire an expansive trunk that had been a victim of ice, lightning, landslide, or other natural calamity.  We admired the seemingly countless lines of growth circling the inside of the tree’s trunk.  Its age had to be more than one hundred years old.  Running my hands across those lines, I couldn’t help but wonder how many different lives this tree had touched.  How many families, dogs, squirrels, birds, insects, and other creatures either traveled past this tree or even called it home?  It felt as if I was touching a piece of unspoken history. 

Life finds a way.

Walking deeper into the wooded crevasse, John pointed out another fallen tree.  While it was much smaller in circumference than the previous downed tree, there was a unique start of what appeared to be a maple tree attempting to grow from its trunk. The leaves on it numbered less than 20, but they were changing into their fall coats of colors.  What a marvelous example of life finding a way to continue even in the midst of decay.  

Further down the path, we entered a darkened area lined with bare trees whose branches looked like works of twisted, wire art stretching out into wandering, curving lines.  This part of the path was also carpeted with aromatic, long, thin, and tan pine needles, which was unlike any other part of the path.  It felt as if we were entering a page out of a fantasy novel, and at any moment, elves, hobbits, dwarfs, or maybe even a unicorn, would enter onto the path in front of us and send us on a discovery quest. 

Christmas green ferns sprouted here and there near large rocks sank deep into Mother Earth.  Random leaves of striated emerald green emerged from piles of tawny leaves discarded from the bondage of their former trees. Moss, in shades of pistachio, pickles, and pears blanketed rocks and trunks of trees–live and fallen.

The headwaters of a spring flowing down the mountain.

Trickling headwaters of small, silver springs melodically spilled over rocks, debris, and other forest detritus on its way down the mountain.  Oozing mud, slick and thick, filled gaps between rocks on the footpath crossing these singing waters. Sucking sounds slurped at the bottom of our hiking shoes.  Above our heads the backup singing wind, provided three-part harmony, as the layers of air moved over us, rustling the tree branches, and echoing over the Grassy Creek Valley below.

Throughout the footpath, gem-stone colored leaves dotted the path with images of once per year beauty.  Blackberry jam tinged stars, mustard-stained clusters, garnet and black tear drops, mahogany and green points, butterscotch lined with granola bristles–the hues seemingly painted on the leaves were as varied as the shapes of the leaves. It was as if God left a jigsaw puzzle scattered across the forest floor.  

Sunshines from porcelain blue skies as part of the path we hike was once an old wagon road to Rattlesnake Lodge.

At one point along the pathway, John pointed to what appeared to be a game trail.  This began a quiet discussion and subsequent ponderings of the first people who traversed this particular area.  Had they been following game trails to make their way through the dense forest and rocky mountain side?  What did the mountain look like for them?  What challenges must they have faced in order to travel over and through such rugged terrain?

Mountain to Sea Trail Marker

Later, when John and I made our way back to the home in which we were staying in Black Mountain, NC for a short getaway before Thanksgiving, I did a bit of research about the route we hiked.  We had covered over five miles moving south towards Grassy Branch, as part of the 1,200 mile long Mountain to Sea Trail that stretches across North Carolina.  This unique trail begins at Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains, and it ends at Jockey’s Ridge on the Outer Banks.  Having visited both places on separate trips, years apart, I had to marvel at the trail’s length and diverse terrain.

However, there was more.  A wide section of the path John and I hiked, according to early maps of the area, was part of an old road bed that appeared to be part of a bygone wagon road to Rattlesnake Lodge, a summer home built in 1904 by Dr. Chase Ambler for his family. Named for its infamous living room ceiling that was covered in rattlesnake skins, the home was eventually sold, and it is believed that the lodge was destroyed in the 1920s due to lightning strike.  However, its remains can still be visited via another hiking trail–a footpath John and I hope to travel on another trip.

It is remarkable to think about all of those who had traversed those paths before us, and it is made further marvelous to consider those whose feet first touched its ground hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago. Did those who originally made their way through the Blueridge Mountains have the same thoughts of appreciation and awe as John and I did as we hiked on that magnificent day in November?  What were their thoughts, their experiences, and their intentions?  What stories must that one path hold?  How many more stories do those mountains and all the other paths keep secret?

 There were others who blazed the way, and there will be more who follow us.  Beyond all of that, however, is the Creator, the ultimate source of all creation.  Perhaps, it is that ultimate commune–communing with nature, our ancestors, and our Creator, in addition to all the natural beauty, adornment, and seasonal dressing, that beckons me again and again into the forest, in mountains, onto wooded paths, or near peaceful bodies of water.

Gluten-free Apple Spice Muffins with Optional Walnut Topping

“It’s unsettling to meet people who do not eat apples.”–Amiee Bender

Photo by Susanne Jutzeler on Pexels.com

I love apples.  From tart to sweet, from bright green to crimson red, and all shades in between, as long as it is a crisp, juicy orb of an apple, I’m ready to slice it up and eat it up.   Some of my favorite apples are Fuji, Granny Smith, Honeycrisp, Pink Crisp, and Pink Lady, to name a few, due to their crisp texture and bright taste.  Whether eaten alone, smeared with a bit of peanut or almond butter, or chopped and tossed in a salad, apples are a mainstay of my family’s refrigerator.

Fall, in our neck of the woods, is apple season.  Prices and selections of apples are at their prime. Additionally, new types of apples are marketed with more regularity, so this is the perfect time of year to explore new apple types.  In fact, it was only a few years ago that Honeycrisp was considered “new,” and now it is one of my favorite types of apples.

Photo by Laker on Pexels.com

I recall one of my friends, Jan, bringing a bag of sliced Honeycrisp apples to a Marshall University soccer game as a snack for our kids, who were both youth soccer players at the time, and the reason for our attendance at the game.  These were well before the days of MU’s Veterans Memorial Soccer Complex; nonetheless, we all enjoyed the game, and the kids loved those yummy apple slices.  Due to that experience, Honeycrisp apples entered into our family’s regular rotation of purchased apples.

Speaking of Jan, she and I were recently discussing Thanksgiving traditions and plans for this year.  Jan described a favorite spice cake with nuts and cream cheese frosting that her aunt made when she was younger.  As family lore often goes, this aunt shared her recipe at the request of numerous relatives, but all who made the recipe agreed that it never tasted as good as when the aunt made it.  Jan mused if the aunt had “accidentally” left off an ingredient.  (Which made me giggle because my sweet grandmother once confessed to doing that with one of her recipes!)

Photo by Visual Stories || Micheile on Pexels.com

Upon reflection of this story, and the added remembrance of our family’s introduction of Honeycrisp apples, that, a-hem, a seed of an idea was planted.  Could I create an apple-spice muffin recipe without cream cheese frosting–for which many in my family will be saddened, I’m certain, but with partial nuts? (Some like nuts, some do not.)  The answer is what follows below.

 My recipe is gluten-free, but if you do not have to consume a gluten free diet as I do, then feel free to use regular all-purpose flour.  Additionally, I kept the recipe plant-based and oil-free because it is easier on my sensitive digestive system.  That said, if that is not your preference, replace ½ cup of applesauce, with ⅓ cup oil or melted butter instead.  Additionally, 2 eggs can replace 2 “fleggs.”  Oh, and why vinegar? It makes the batter more acidic which, in the end, makes the muffins (or cake) fluffy, yet still moist.  

This recipe requires a bit more work than other recipes, but it is definitely worth the extra effort.  Your kitchen will be filled with autumnal aromas as the muffins bake.  Brew up a pot of coffee or your favorite tea, invite over a friend and/or family member, and swap stories while savoring these warm muffins.  You never know what your conversation could inspire, or conspire!

Gluten-free Apple Spice Muffins with Optional Walnut Topping

Ingredients:

Optional topping 

2 tablespoons butter (can substitute plant-based “butter”)

½ cup brown sugar

2 tablespoons of gluten-flour 

½ cup chopped walnuts

½ teaspoon cinnamon

⅛ teaspoon salt

Muffins

2 apples, peeled, cored, and chopped (I used Honeycrisp, but feel free to choose another type!)

1 ½ cup gluten free all-purpose flour (Can use regular all-purpose flour.)

1 cup gluten free old fashioned, rolled oats

2 teaspoons cinnamon

½ teaspoon ginger

½ teaspoon allspice

½  teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup brown sugar

¼ cup sugar

½ cup apple sauce

2 fleggs* or eggs

½ cup milk (or plant based alternative) at room temperature

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Line muffin pan with parchment paper

If using topping, mix it together first and set in the fridge while mixing batter.

*If using “flegg” instead of eggs, stir together 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed with 6 tablespoons of water, and set aside in the fridge for 15-30 minutes.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, oats, cinnamon, ginger, clove, nutmeg, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

In another large mixing bowl, combine brown sugar, sugar, applesauce, fleggs (or eggs), milk, vinegar, and vanilla.

Add in flour-spice mixture and mix the batter 1-2 minutes until the batter begins to thicken. 

Stir in apples.

Divide batter evenly among muffin cups.

Scatter with topping.

Tip: I cut the nut-topping recipe in half, and only topped half of the muffins.  On the half without nut topping, I sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. Finally, you can skip the nut-topping altogether, and/or stir in ½ cup chopped walnuts into batter when adding in chopped apples.

Bake for 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Remove from the oven and allow muffins to cool in a pan set on a wire rack.

Serve warm.

Store any uneaten muffins in a storage container/bag in the fridge or freezer for up to two months.

**Updated option: When baking for those who may not like nuts, or simply can’t have them either, eliminate the nuts from the optional topping, or divide all of the topping recipe in half add simply add 1/4 cup walnuts to one half, and leave the other half of the topping, nut-free.

Mix the dry ingredients.
Combine rest of ingredients.
Mix one-two minutes until batter thickens.
Stir in apples.
Gently mix together apples and batter. Then divide among muffin cups.
If desired, sprinkle optional walnut topping over tops of muffin batter before baking.

Kitchen Table Secrets

“Everybody is a story.  When I was a child, people sat around kitchen tables and told their stories. We don’t do that so much anymore. Sitting around the table telling stories is not just a way of passing time.  It is the way wisdom gets passed along. The stuff that helps us remember a life worth living.”–Rachel Naomi Remen

Photo by Askar Abayev on Pexels.com

I saw her on the opposite side of the block, the woman with purple cord-like hair wound round her head like a hat.  She walked along the sidewalk at the opposite end of me, and she carried what appeared to be a purple calico print backpack on her back. Talking uninhibitedly to herself in a syncopated, sing-song voice, she did an about face and turned toward a man as he stepped out of his car into the damp, cold morning air.  

“Hey, Mr., wanna buy me some breakfast?  Breakfast is good.  Food is good.  I like breakfast food.”

I could not hear his soft reply, but I heard her sadly chime a truncated response.

“Ok, ok.  I am not bad.  I am not bad. Just wanna sit at the kitchen table with Mamaw.  Just wanna sit and eat at the table with Mamaw.” 

The woman, from my distance, appeared to be not much older than my own 22 year old daughter, and emotions suddenly choked my throat and clouded my heart.  I wanted to wrap my arms around, as if she were a small child, and take her back to her home–wherever that may be. In spite of this woman’s evident mental illness, she seemed to long for the comfort, safety, and shelter that we often find at the family kitchen table. 

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

Kitchen table memories spooled out in my mind plain as thread, and some were just as colorful.  Many were fond and warm pictures–snapshots of holidays past. Others were remembrances of various familial situations. I was adrift in a kaleidoscope of images; snippets of moments glided through my mind as leaves the colors of amber, crimson, and tangerine, freed from the bondage of a tree, take flight in autumn breezes.  Impressions of full bellies, hot coffee, spirited–or sometimes intense–conversations, and purposeful work endeavors around one piece of furniture continued to tumble about . . . 

Homework and games

Puzzles and paints 

Posters and patterns to sew

Papers typed late into the night

Stacks of bills to pay

Budgets in need of balance

Dancing eyes sharing stories

Tears that break the heart

Conversations and disputes,

I think I need to leave the room

Set the table please

Platters of food to share

May I please be excused?

Not ’till you clean your plate

Spills that demand to be cleaned

Bubbled burps of Friday night soda

Mix well with pizza and chips 

Quarter fines, ‘cause

Burping is rude

Peals of explosive laughter 

Oh no, we’re in trouble now

May I please have some more . . .

What about waffles with peanut butter?

My friend is spending the night

Do I have to do her chores?

Pass the butter please

No, you can’t go out with your friends!

May I have another roll please?

Do you realize the seriousness of your actions?

Come in and sit a spell, friend

Did you hear about this?

Why, yes they say it’s true

Now, listen, you can’t believe everything you hear

Birthday cakes and cookies sprinkled

Presents wrapped with curls of shiny ribbon

Curlers set, braids woven

Talks of dreams and

Future plans filled with hope

Remember when?

No, it went like this.

Did she really throw a fork at Uncle?

Well, they were wrestling

Brothers nearly tore down the kitchen

Over the last piece of cake.

It’s your turn to clean the dishes

But I had to do that last week!

Remember to sweep under the table

Whispered late night conversations

Big changes coming soon

If only kitchen tables could talk

At the heart of a home, there is the kitchen table–a field of harvested memories and land for new seed to sow.  It is my wish, as we gather, eat, converse, and work around our own kitchen tables, that we take time to not only nourish our bodies, but also savor the moments with one another, and form kitchen table memories and traditions worth sharing and passing on to future generations.  May we remember those who have gone before us, and love the ones who remain.  May we likewise take time to pray for those without homes, looking for a kitchen table at which they can sit and sip a cup of comfort.  May those lost souls find some form of peace and solace, and may they one day be reunited, or united, with people who love and care for them.  

Photo by Sam Lion on Pexels.com

My final prayer of hope is for the unknown young lady with wound cords of purple hair. May she be safe and well.  May she no longer roam the streets alone, and may she make her way back to her Mamaw’s kitchen table.  After all, she was once somebody’s baby girl.

Photo by Yan Krukov on Pexels.com

Threading a Needle–Embracing Imperfection Wholly

Spare me perfection. Give me instead the wholeness that comes from embracing the full reality of who I am, just as I am. —David Benner

Here I am, photographed at home in a dress Mom sewed for me.

As a child, my mother sewed a large portion of my clothes, especially my dresses.  Of course, I took this talent for granted as a child.  In fact, it wasn’t until I was in my early twenties, and shopping for so-called “professional” clothes to wear while student-teaching that I began to truly realize what a gift mom’s sewing had been for me. 

It was my senior year at Ohio University, Athens campus.  It was still the era of the quarter system across most Ohio universities throughout the state. This meant that I had a break from Thanksgiving through the beginning of January.  Therefore, I used this time to work, and this year was no exception.  However, since I knew I needed appropriate clothes for student-teaching, I landed a job at Lazarus (now Macy’s) at our local mall.  My goal was to not only work, but also to take advantage of the employee discount and after-Christmas sales.

I am pictured far right with the high school group of special education students I taught inn 1987. Notice how oversized my store-bought clothes were!

I already knew that I needed to shop in the petite section of the women’s department as I was (and am) less than five feet in height, but what came as a shock to me is how long so-called “petite” sleeves and lengths of skirts, dresses, and pants were!  Plus, according to manufacturer measurements, my body shape did not fit into a precise size category.  Without belaboring the point too much, it was during these tear-filled hours spent in the Lazarus dressing room desperately trying to find a few items to fit my proportions that my appreciation for my mother’s tailoring grew.

Thinking back to Mom’s sewing, I can recall the efforts she would take to thread the needle–literally and figuratively–while sewing clothes for me. While she would begin each dress, skirt, or blouse made for me with a purchased pre-made pattern, she would also painstakingly take my measurements and alter the size of the pattern accordingly before cutting the cloth.  Throughout the sewing process, she would pin the cloth first, ask me to put it on, adjust the proportions as needed, and then thread either the sewing machine needle or her own personal needle to stitch each piece together.

The dress my Mom stitched for me in honor of my college graduation.

  In order to sew one complete dress for me, Mom was required to thread one of those needles repeatedly, perhaps even thousands of times.  I can recall countless moments of watching Mom attempting to insert the thread through the eye of the needle. Thinking back on it, she had to ensure all of the fibers/strands of thread fit through the tiny eye together. If one strand did not go through, the needle was not properly threaded, and she had to try again. The thread had to go through the eye wholly to live up to the task required by Mom.  In fact, in order to prevent a strand from sticking out, Mom would often wet the thread’s end and twist it tightly together.  Both creator and creation had to be fully concentrated in order for all fibers to fit through the eye. 

Reflecting upon this, I realized what powerful lessons were there in Mom’s sewing. On one hand, there is the lesson of flaws.  Mom, the creator of my dresses, did not see me as flawed–not fitting some arbitrary manufacturer standards.  Rather, she saw me as a whole–as the Creator sees each of us.  Mom was able to take my unique dimensions and measurements in order to create a whole piece that fit one-of-a-kind me.  Her fully, concentrated threads and efforts afforded me the opportunity to be adorned in perfectly fitting clothes, so that as a child, I could fully and wholly concentrate on my own efforts and energies into typical childhood endeavors.  

On the other hand, Mom’s repeated endeavors to thread the needle also provides another lesson–one of our Creator, and the way in which we were designed to live.  When Mom fashioned clothes for me, she had to take my so-called flawed measurements–measurements not taken into account by the pattern manufacturer.  Additionally, she sometimes had to use fabric remnants, old thread, or even mismatched thread to sew various items of clothing for me.  There were times her needle broke, her stitches were off, or a measurement was off.  There were times I even watched Mom painstakingly pick out all of the stitches along one piece, and start all over.  No matter the mistakes, accidents, mismatched thread, or sale-fabric, in the end, it wasn’t the flaws that I saw and wore, it was the whole–the entirety of the piece.

My grandparents and me photographed on the steps of their church. I am wearing a dress Mom sewed for me for Old-Fashion Days celebration.

That is how the Creator designed us to live–wholly.  Humans are not perfect, nor were we meant to be perfect.  Just as I am not “standard-sized,” our lives are not either.  It is our imperfections, blemishes, and fallibility that make us perfectly human. By embracing ourselves as we are–flaws and limitations–we are able to find our strengths and uniquenesses.  Furthermore, our mistakes, our errors, and our unfortunate times of sorrow all work together to create a richer and more wholehearted approach to life and to others–after all, how can we possess empathy for other humans if we live a “perfect” life.

It is only when we take time to bind our individual talents and gifts, along with our imperfections, that we are able to thread the eye of our lives. We were designed to be “non-standard.”  How would any work site come together if we all had the same skill-set?  In fact, how would any couple, family, team, town, and so forth, grow, develop, and thrive together if everyone were the same.

My brother, Scott, and me, once more in outfits stitched by our mom.

Life is not standard.  No one person is standard.  Each of us, however, is whole–wholly imperfect and Divinely designed to offer this world what no one else can offer.  Let each of us embrace our differences, and embrace the differences of others too. As brown sugar, butter, flour, and chocolate chips individually come together in a hot oven to create delicious cookies, so too do the trials and fires of life bind us together.  It is my lesson to learn and share that life is more beautifully adorned when we openly and humbly accept our imperfections and allow the Creator’s thread to bind us together in order to live our perfectly, imperfect designed lives.

My brother, Scott, and me, I am a dress stitched by mom.

There’s Always a LIttle More Left

“Effort is like toothpaste: you can usually squeeze out just a little bit more.”–attributed to a former pastor, Rev. Larry Brisker

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Have you ever been so tired that you feel a bit lightheaded?  I know I have personally experienced that feeling on more than one occasion, and it can be a bit worrisome.  Scenes of traffic accidents caused by the driver that fell asleep often enter my mind on those bone-tired days as my thoughts have a tendency for dramatic, worst case scenario. 

Recently, I was standing at my classroom whiteboard, writing something in preparation for the incoming class.  I could feel the lead weight of my fatigue as if I was wearing the heavy x-ray protective vest worn once a year during a regular dental check-up. The lined dark circles under my colleagues’ eyes that I had observed that morning revealed that I wasn’t the only one, and the students coming and going from my classroom looked just as worn down. 

As the next class began, I asked the students how they were doing before beginning instruction. One student honestly answered, “I’m really tired, Ms. Hill.  I just want to sleep.”

Other students piped in their agreement. I thoroughly understood.  Long gone were the well-rested days of August and September.  By this point in the school year, students’ stamina was wearing down.  Their growing bodies and minds were in need of a rest, but the school calendar stated it wasn’t yet time.    

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I needed to encourage them to hang on a bit longer.  Therefore, I shared with this particular group the lesson of the toothpaste tube courtesy of my own long, ago teen years.  It was handed down to me via an object lesson designed to emphasize the importance of the morning’s scripture reading given by a former, beloved pastor, Rev. Brisker. Unfortunately, I do not recall the scripture.  However, for the sake of illustrative purposes, I’ll use Luke 1:37, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” 

Sitting in the small sanctuary of the church in which my family attended about the time I entered my teen years, I sat with my red leather bound Bible with my name embossed in gold lettering across the bottom.  It was one of those Bibles with thumb-cut indexing, so that the user could find the books of the Bible with ease. While I cannot pretend that I was always this attentive–I was a teenager after all–I do recall paying attention long enough to look up the scripture the kindly pastor read . . . at least most weeks.

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On this particular Sunday, I know that I was daydreaming as I gazed out one of the sanctuary windows.  At the time, the windows were not stained glass, but instead covered with wavy, flame shaped, pastel shades.  While I could not see outside, I could observe that the sun was shining brightly, and I was ready to get out into it.  Plus, I was probably hungry by that point too!  It was hearing his wife’s name, Rita, that caught my attention.

If ever there was a saint on earth, Rita was one!  Though she was full of good-humor, and loved to heartily laugh along with her husband, her gentle, tenderhearted nature always shone through her eyes.  Why was he talking about Rita in his sermon? 

Refocusing my attention, I realized Rev. Brisker was talking about their family budget in order to help make a point.  He described how the closer it got to payday, the more they had to stretch their budget in order to make ends meet–a relatable topic as one of four kids.  He described the way in which Rita and he had to constantly remind his own three kids to turn out lights, don’t waste products such as shampoo and other toiletries, serve yourself an amount of food that is only what you’ll eat, rather than waste food, and so forth.  These were certainly common themes in my own childhood household.

He then focused on the amount of toothpaste the kids tended to use.  This was the time period in which toothpaste tubes were made of some sort of collapsable metal. Rev. Brisker described the effort and pains Rita would take to squeeze and compactly roll the tube of toothpaste in order to “squeeze out a little bit more.”  It was then, Rev. B lowered the hammer.

With God, he proclaimed, nothing was impossible.  There was always a little bit more for each of us–more strength, more perseverance, more love, more patience, more kindness, more gentleness and so forth.  God’s budget was (and is) an endless supply designed to increase our strength and meet our needs.  Rev. B encouraged his flock to know that through prayer, and a bit of effort on our part, we could make it through whatever challenges we were facing.   From managing a family budget to facing down a personal crisis as well as any other number of obstacles in between, we could endure and squeeze out a little bit more.

I wish I could say that my students were super motivated and inspired by that story.  Most were rather unfazed.  However, that remembrance served as a powerful reminder to myself, and hopefully to you, Dear Reader, that we, too, can keep going.  There’s always a little more toothpaste in the tube of life.  Hang in there, my friends, hang in there.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Banana Bars

“What’s the point in having a sweet tooth if you don’t use it?”–unknown

I blame my parents.  Who else am I supposed to blame for my sweet tooth? While both of my parents eat an overall healthy diet, they also like their dessert from time to time. I confess, I am the same way.  It’s all about moderation and balance, and, well, never underestimating the power of chocolate . . . or peanut butter! 

I enjoy nearly any form of chocolate!

About a month ago, I baked my grandmother’s traditional recipe for chocolate frosted brownies.  It is a family favorite from an old 1930s or 40s vintage Betty Crocker cookbook.  While it is not vegan, I can say it is vegetarian; and anyway, I am not about so-called perfect eating.  Besides, it’s not like I bake Grandmother Helen’s brownies on a regular basis.

My mom had dinner with us on the evening that I baked brownies, so I sent a few home with her.  The next day, my daughter walked into the kitchen where I was food prepping my work lunches for the week, laughing and shaking her head.  She said that while talking to my mom on the phone, “Gran’ma confessed to spreading peanut butter all over the brownies before eating them.”

Mash up the banana first. I find a pastry cutter perfect for this!

At first, that seemed sacrilege!  How could she desecrate that beloved, treasured family recipe?  The horror of it!  What was she thinking?

“Sounds like a good idea to me!” said my husband.  “I just might try that!”

He had a point.  Peanut butter–and almond butter for that matter–are like dessert.  Nothing can improve a bad day like nut butter.  In fact, I would argue that nut butters, as a rule, have a certain calming quality to them!  During my younger years, when annoying bodily afflictions, such as acid reflux, were nearly non-existence, banana and peanut butter was one of my favorite go-to meals.  This led me to thinking . . .  which is always dangerous!

Stir in the peanut butter.
Add in the rest of the liquid ingredients.

I began to wonder if there was a plant-based, gluten-free compromise-recipe I could find or create.  Thus, my research began.  Scrolling through one web-site after another, I eventually landed on two different recipes. One recipe was from a web-site entitled, “It Doesn’t Taste Like Chicken,” and the other recipe was from a web-site called, “Purely Kaylie.”  

Add in the dry ingredients.

Using both of their recipes as scaffolding to create my own variation, I did a bit more research on baking with both oat milk and oat flour.  These two ingredients, I decided, would not only increase the nutritional value, (Read between the lines–ease the guilt of my sweet tooth!) but also eliminate gluten and dairy products since I have celiac disease and prefer to eat plant-based.  Additionally, I also conducted a bit of research on the science of baking with dutched cocoa, my preferred cocoa, and I learned that it bakes more effectively with baking powder, rather than baking soda.

Stir in chocolate chip and mix until just blended.
Pour batter into prepared pan and sprinkle with remaining chocolate chips.

I made this recipe on a Saturday afternoon, and our entire home was redolent with the scent of baking chocolate.  The recipe was super-easy, requiring only one bowl, and honestly took no longer than 10 or so minutes of active kitchen time. The oven did the rest.  Once cooled, I cut the recipe into 9 generous sized squares and stored part of them in a plastic container in the fridge. I could have frozen them for future weekend cravings, but they did not last that long.

Give this recipe a try.  Enjoy it for breakfast, as a dessert, or a grab-and-go snack. It’s a mostly healthy, guilt-free way to have your cake and eat it too!  

All to cool before cutting into 9 generous squares.
Who prefers corner pieces???

Chocolate Peanut Butter Banana Bars

Ingredients: 

2 *fleggs (2 tablespoons of ground flax seeds + 6 tablespoons water)

1 cup ripe mashed banana–about 2-3 bananas (The bananas should have brown spots.)

1/2 cup sugar or equivalent sweetener

⅓ peanut butter

¼ cup favorite milk (I used oat-milk.)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup flour (I used oat flour to keep it gluten-free, but any all-purpose flour would work.)

½ cup cocoa powder (I prefer to use Dutched Cocoa powder as it dissolves more quickly.)

½ teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

⅔ cup chocolate chips (I use Enjoy Life chocolate chips.  They are dairy and allergy-friendly.)

Directions:

Combine ground flaxseed with water in a small bowl and set in the fridge for about 15 minutes to thicken.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Lightly coat, with nonstick cooking spray, a square 8 x 8 baking pan, or line it with parchment paper.

Mash banana in a large mixing bowl.

Mix in sugar, peanut butter, milk, vanilla extract, and flegg.

Stir in the dry ingredients–flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, & salt–but do not over mix. Gently fold in half of the chocolate chips.

Spread batter evenly as it will be fairly thick.

Sprinkle batter with remaining chocolate chips.

Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Allow to cool for at least 10 minutes, preferably longer, before attempting to cut into 9-squares.

Store in an airtight container for up to a week in the refrigerator, or freeze for up to three months.

Mix ground flaxseed and water first. Set in fridge for about 15 minutes before using for best consistency according to my research.

*Flegg= flax “egg”, which is a plant-based, allergy friendly substitute for eggs.

All Work and No Play

Walking into work this past week, I began to make my way up the flights of stairs lined with windows.  Above the alley filled with cars, a squirrel scurried along a wire.  I paused long enough to observe this rodent. It scooted forward at an energetic pace, then paused, precariously balancing above the unsuspecting vehicles, then scampered along a bit further until it was out of sight. 

Continuing my ritualistic workday ascent, I reflected on the delicate balancing act of the trapeze-squirrel and the ways in which it reflected our current work culture. Since the onset of COVID, the demands and pressure upon the labor force have greatly increased. From longer work hours to added levels of responsibility, many workers feel a lack of control over their work environment–which are often becoming more socially toxic.  Additionally, workers frequently cite insufficient reward, a lack of fairness, and even a conflict of values with the ever increasing work demands.  It’s no wonder that many workers choose to walk away. Unfortunately, the downside for those who choose to remain is that they are merely expected to pick up the extra workload, usually without any appropriate compensation or support.

A squirrel on the playground at my own worksite in the evening sun. There is actually another squirrel nearby, but it dropped out of sight just as I clicked the photo.

To add further fuel to the fire, complaints of worker burnout are often met with the belief that there is something innately wrong with the employee–that the worker is “not the right fit,” or “not a team player,” rather than examine the workplace culture. This has led to one of the highest levels of “quit-rates” since the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics began keeping records” according to their April 2021 data.   In fact, based on a growing body of evidence, it’s looking as if those business leaders who do not seriously rethink how they approach the workplace culture will most likely face issues with worker retention and shrinking work pools, leading to decreased productivity and/or unreliable timelines. 

While the term “burnout” has been around for decades, the World Health Organization only recently identified worker burnout as a real phenomenon beginning in 2019.  According to Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, worker burnout is caused by high levels of stress causing the worker to feel cynical and distant from their job which in turn affects their productivity, and more importantly, their personal health. He believes that burnout is a “serious health hazard”

Meanwhile the squirrel’s health is at risk as hawk waits above for his opportunity to attack.

“No job is worth the risk of stroke or heart disease.”–Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General

To add further support to the WHO’s identification of worker burnout phenomenon, Winona State University has identified five distinct stages of burnout.  These stages include: 

The Honeymoon Stage:  The excitement of the new job/role/position does not allow the worker to realize their workload is unrealistically large as it can be easily written-off due to the newness of the job, but can soon enough push the worker into the next stage. 

The Balancing Stage:  The employee begins to struggle with life-work balance. As the scales tilt more towards work, fatigue, sleep disturbances, and early signs of dissatisfaction lead to self-detrimental, coping behaviors, such as increased drinking, eating, smoking, and other forms of escapism.  With continued worksite pressure, the employee is nudged closer to burnout.

The Chronic Stage:  The worker is now often filled with persistent anger/resentment, depression, chronic exhaustion, physical illness, and so forth. 

The Crisis Stage:  Without intervention, the worker is overwhelmed by feelings of jadeness, powerlessness, pessimistic thinking, and ready to walk away from not only the worksite, but their chosen professional field.  

The Enmeshment Stage: If this same worker remains, they move into “enmeshment,” a point in their career where they may be held in high regard by their coworkers, but on the inside, the worker feels like another cog-in-the-wheel, unhappy, and trapped–stuck in an unfulfilling role that leaves them dissatisfied.

“Burnout is nature’s way of telling you you’ve been going through the motions your soul has departed.”–Sam Keen

Finally sensing the danger, the squirrel runs away from the work site.

Unfortunately, management, administration, and/or owners can often be tone-deaf to their workers’ heightened levels of stress.  In fact, according to research, the self-help industry and employers appear to blame the workers. Therefore, many workers indeed accept the blame without question, and those workers who do express concerns to management, are often rebuffed with off-hand comments or insincere promises, such as:

“Working long hours never hurt anyone. I like to work long hours.”  

“I still find time to do x, y, or z, with all the demands I have.” 

“It’s only for the short-term, and you’re so good at what you do.” 

Other management teams will offer token trinkets, swag, and so called “social” events/meals–with the expectation that workers don’t break to enjoy the event or meal, but either grab-and-go-back-to-work or remain longer at the work site with co-workers.  Some businesses hold annual health or wellness meetings in which employees are instructed to regularly incorporate self-care practices, such as deep breathing, yoga, exercise, or take fresh air breaks, but in practice, the business maintains its habits of scheduling back-to-back meetings, emailing their workers late into the evening or throughout their weekend, and/or remains committed to the expectation that workers pick up an extra shift or assume an addition role with little to no opportunity for those self-care breaks, much less compensation.  In fact, the culture of many work-sites seem to have an unspoken creed that working longer hours with an increased load and no breaks is often seen as a badge of honor and an esteemed level of productivity. 

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“Even the loveliest shoulders can bear but so much.”–Jill Alexander Essbaum

Worker burnout is, as one researcher writes, a “canary in the coalmine”  If the canary cannot breathe, it is not the canary’s fault but the coalmine, and so it is with burnout.  While there are some actions within the workers control, such as “setting boundaries” to the degree possible, attempting to get adequate rest, nutrition, and/or engaging in enjoyable activities outside of work–these practices can only go so far.  The less input/control workers have for their length of work hours, the type of activities in which they must engage, and little sense of fairness, the more likely burnout will continue. 

As I see it, this brave new work environment requires creative solutions. Enticing job fairs with their flashy flyers, free food, and dressed-up off-site location are merely bowls under the roof of a leaky attic–the leaking holes still remain within the structure, slowly eating away at the stability of the framework–but do not address the real issue.  

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Reflecting back to the squirrels, researchers know that squirrels are most active early in the day as they scatter collections of food in a variety of spots to stave off hunger during more meager times of the year. However, these active periods are also filled with moments of free-spirited play.  While young squirrels play the most, adult squirrels daily engage in some form of play, be it solitary or interactive.  As the day progresses, squirrels begin to wind down and spend up to 60% of their time sleeping. 

It is not unusual, at the end of my workday, to find several squirrels with their lively chitterings, dipping and diving with one another in a rambunctious game of chase.  Their high spirited antics never fail to make me smile in the slant of the evening sun. If I observe long enough, they take breaks here and there to gather food, dart away to some unseen cache, and quickly zip back for more frolicsome play.  I can’t help but wonder if the workplace could learn a lesson or two about what makes a healthy and productive work environment from our fellow squirrels.

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In Pursuit of The Meaningful Path

“It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”–Viktor E. Frankl

If you are familiar with my writing, you may have deduced that I have a significant appreciation for the Ritter Park Rose Garden. Throughout the year, I try to visit this local garden at least once per month, but more often if possible.  There is certain pleasure I derive from observing the various transformations of these bushes through each season.  I enjoy noticing the way their blossoms alter and progress through the seasons, and I even relish their stark, cut-back, bloomless appearance in winter. Throughout a large portion of the year, most bushes are not picture-perfect, but that fact does not take away from the positives each visit offers me.

It is not, per se, my attraction to roses that draws me to this garden, for I would happily regularly visit any formally planted botanical garden were there others within close proximity to my home. Rather, I have regard, not only for the miraculous seasonal changes provided by Mother Nature, but also an admiration and acknowledgement of its caregivers.  I have often encountered these seemingly tireless keepers of the garden tending to the needs of the plants in all seasons of weather and range of temperatures.  These garden custodians consistently employ their knowledge, skill, and attentiveness even though they most likely get paid a minimum income for implementing.  

“It’s the time you spent on your rose that makes your rose so important…You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed.”–Emily Esfahani Smith

I was reminded of the talented rose gardeners while listening to bits of a podcast, ironically enough, while jogging through Ritter Park after a quick walk through of the rose garden.  The person interviewed held the basic belief that happiness is an elusive and ephemeral feeling that is not sustainable for long periods of time.  In fact, this self-proclaimed expert maintained that much shame and feelings of “less than” are associated with not feeling happy all of the time.  The same person further added that living a meaningful life was far more satisfying and sustainable than buying into the belief that one should be happy all of the time.

After about ten or so minutes of hearing this expert’s philosophical point of view, I turned off the podcast and let my mind search for greater understanding, or should I say meaning, as my feet continued their thump, thud, thump along the crushed gravel of the Ritter Park path.  My mind turned, examined, and played with this intriguing thesis.  I recalled that at one point there was a brief spike in marketing purpose-driven books and other media content, but when scrolling through current popular self-help authors, media influencers, and publications, many of these outlets pitch the if-only-you-do-this then you can lead a happy life.  This philosophy often focuses heavily on receiving and acquiring for the purpose of gratifying personal needs/wants rather than giving to or focusing on the needs of others.

The podcast had a point: there are hard times in life.  You, or a loved one, will get sick.  There is a possibility that you might lose and/or have to change your job and/or life role.  This may require learning to live in a new way, perhaps even in a new geographical location.  Income may be lost, gained, and even lost again.  Accidents will happen.  Loved ones will die.  I am told that even pandemics can occur!  The point is, none of us can always be happy.  In the words of the band R.E.M., “Everybody hurts, sometimes.”

Reflecting over the past few years, I realized the level of uncertainty, fear, and sadness many of us, myself included, have experienced due to COVID.  However, as I mulled over the podcast interview, I realized that at some point this past year, something changed within me.  In spite of experiencing some fairly significant discomfort due to changes and losses, I find myself once more satisfied with my work this year–even during this, my 35th career year in education.  If you had asked me last year, or even the year before, if I was content with my work, I would have told you that I was ready to quit, ready to walk away from it all, and look for a new path.  

“The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.”–Carl Jung 

However, this year, in spite of facing numerous challenges, my continued role as a teacher once more seems fulfilling–in spite of not having near the financial rewards as many of my peers with 35 years of experience in their chosen vocations.  What has been the difference?  The podcast thesis hit the nail on the head: it’s the meaning I derive once more from my work–which had been greatly reduced throughout the virtual experience.  This school year, I can once again witness firsthand the difference my job makes, especially those lightbulb moments, when a student’s face lights with the joy of new found knowledge or greater understanding.  While not every day is filled with those illuminating moments, and I am certainly not happy in every moment; I know what I do benefits the students–that is the difference.  

Nonetheless, not everyone can have a career from which they derive great meaning, but there are still multiple opportunities from which to acquire meaning. From parenting to volunteering, to various roles, responsibilities, and personal pursuits, there are many ways which any of us can create more meaningful ways of living–even if you aren’t “happy” every moment in which you are participating. Consider parenting, for example. Most parents, if they are honest, will confess to not always being happy.  However, when asked if their role as a parent adds meaning to their life, most will say, “yes.” Otherwise, who would want to become a parent?  

“As much as we might wish, none of us will be able to go through life without some kind of suffering. That’s why it’s crucial for us to learn to suffer well.”–Emily Esfahani Smith

 Part of our unique human experience is undergoing a wide range of emotions, so why should we believe we are “less than” because we are not, per se, happy.  Perhaps, as a human collective, especially in the first world, if we put greater emphasis on the development of fortitude, perseverance, and stamina–which are especially important skills during challenging times–we might not feel like a so-called “failure” when we are experiencing negative emotions, such as sadness, grief, loss and so forth.  

Suffering is a built in part of life.  While not all suffering is the same, and the aftermath varies from experience to experience, the fact that suffering temporarily robs one of happiness does not equate with a less meaningful life.  Rather than constantly searching for sources of happiness, we might all better benefit from participating in more meaningful activities, especially those that focus on contributing to others.  Then, when the trials come, and you know they will, you can reflect back to those meaningful moments and know that once you get through this tough time, you can live with purpose once more.  We cannot always be happy, but we can have a life filled with moments that matter and make a difference.

Sowing Blossoms of Memories

“Good memories are the key not to the past, but to the future.”–Corrie ten Boom.

Plant seeds of memories. Plants seeds of remembrance. Plant a memory garden.  Plant a garden of memories.  On and on my mind randomly spun, attempting to capture and interpret the essence of what my sleeping subconscious brain was trying to communicate to my waking mind.

It was 4:00 am on a Saturday morning.  During the workweek, I rise at that time, three of the five days, in order to make time to exercise before work; therefore, it is not uncommon for me to wake at this time on the weekends, only to roll back over and fall back asleep for a couple more hours.  However, my mind commanded, well semi-commanded, my attention.  It was trying to send a message from the netherworld of sleep.

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I do not know if this is true others, but quite often, during the night, my mind can sometimes chew over finding a solution to an on-going problem, refocus my attention to a point I had overlooked/forgotten, or–as was the case on Saturday– draw my awareness to a an idea, point, or lesson that life and/or Divine Providence, was attempting to teach me.  During my younger years, I found this helpful for retaining, learning, or understanding new information, especially when it came to taking a test.  Throughout the various changes in my career, this capability has augmented my ability to adapt, modify, and/or change roles.  Most often in my present life, that nocturnal niggle has become a reliable source of creative ideas and/or lessons in personal development for which I have learned to listen. 

Therefore, as I moved throughout my morning on Saturday, I kept mulling over those phrases.  In fact, my poor brother, at one point, was the recipient of my waxings about how those ideas came to be in my mind in the first place and what on earth those phrases were teaching/telling me.  It wasn’t until I made my way to Ritter Park late in the morning that the ideas began to bloom more fully.

Since Saturday was my birthday, I decided, rather than run, I would walk and just enjoy the fall weather that had recently swept into the Tri-State area. The sun was in and out, fighting to shine its light through the moody clouds.  I made my way towards the steep stone stairs to the Rose Garden as I chose a funk and soul playlist in honor of the infamous Earth, Wind, and Fire classic, “September,” whose lyrics I often change to the “25th of September” instead of the 21st, when singing. Fortunately, for those whom I passed, I wisely chose NOT to sing aloud since I can’t carry a tune!

“God gave us memory, so that we might have roses in December.”–J.M. Barrie.

Making my way around the Rose Garden, I was reminded of the way in which summer flowers brilliantly bloom in early fall before the first frost.  It is as if they are sucking the last bit of joy juice out of the soil before fading with the falling leaves. Likewise, candles, just before they are about to burn out, tend to flicker their brightest light.  Am I in the fall of my life, I had to ask myself.  Is that what woke me at 4:00 am? 

With this birthday, my age shifted a bit closer to the sixth decade of life.  During the earlier morning conversation with my brother, we were discussing retirement plans–with all the big questions. To what age should we continue to work?  Remain in the same job or not?  How long do we want to work at the pace/pressure in which we currently work?  How long will we still be viable and contributing members of our chosen professions?  While we both agreed that we are probably both years away from that ultimate decision, we needed to be more cognizant of this impending reality.

Earth, Wind, and Fire morphed into Sam and Dave, followed by Marvin Gaye, and then the Isley Brothers. The happy-vibe music playlist continued to offer an upbeat soundtrack to my wandering mind as my feet moved in time with the beats. Words of Robert Frost’s poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay” floated through my mind as I watched a leaf drift downward, side to side, and land gently on the trickling waters of Four Pole Creek . . .

“ . . . Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf . . .”

Am I planning seeds of memories?  Am I cultivating, nurturing, and caring for the blossoms in my memory garden?  Am I a good steward of my memories?  Are there more seeds I should be sewing in this garden?  Am I sharing my blooms and planting seeds in other gardens?  Does my garden of memories offer beauty, gentleness, and goodness to the world?  Does my memory garden reflect the Divine’s intention for my life, and am I improving the soil on which I was planted?  Ultimately, when I can no longer plant seeds of memories, will I still have blooms to hold in order to shine my brightest?

What about you, Dear Reader?  How is your memory garden?  Is there more good will that you can sow?  Are you cherishing the garden into which you were planted?  Are you dispersing more seeds of positivity and hope into the world as the dandelion sends out white seeds in the winds of spring and autumn? 

“. . . So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay . . .”

Life is fleeting, but oh-so-sweet with people you love and cherish by your side.  Make a difference in the soil into which the Ultimate Gardener planted you.  Maybe you dream of a far away land, and one day, you may, indeed, get there.  In the meantime, make a difference in the garden into which you are now rooted.  Share your gifts, talents, and time.  It’s easy to go negative.  It’s easy to throw up your hands in surrender.  Neither choice, however, will plant a garden of good memories.  

May your memory garden, and mine, be long filled with blooms.

 

Made From Scratch Black Beans–The Magical Food

“Three of the most beneficial, longevity promoting, anticancer foods are green vegetables, beans, and onions.”–Joel Fuhrman  

Let’s face it, many people, myself included, lead hectic lives. Balancing the demands of our time and energy with the desires of a little bit of comfort and/or down time, while also knowing we need to set aside time for good nutrition, can feel like an impossible task, especially when it comes to our budgets.  With the costs of food, fuel, housing, and other living expenses rising, who doesn’t want to save a little money and shave a little time whenever possible?  Saving time and money, while maintaining one’s health and sanity, can seem elusive. 

Black beans pack a cost-effective nutritional punch.

Enter the humble bag of dried beans–budget friendly, healthy, and honestly, not labor intensive! With a wide variety of beans from which to choose, dried beans are quite versatile. Even if you choose canned, beans are affordable on just about any budget and can be cooked into numerous recipes.  However, with a little bit of know-how, and especially with a pressure cooker–either electric or stove top–dried beans can be super easy to fix and much more economical than their canned counterparts.

Adding salt to the soaking water, in order to create a brine-soak, is optional. Some cooks debate whether or not you should, but most experts seem to agree that salt does allow the beans to soften even more.

Black beans and soybeans are the cornerstones of longevity diets around the world.”–Dan Buettner

 Beans are often one of the most overlooked, and even undervalued, sources of protein.  Chock full of iron, antioxidants, fiber and other nutrients, beans are a nutritional powerhouse that can be eaten daily.  In fact, regular consumption of beans is often considered an important dietary consideration in many longevity studies, including the popular, “Blue Zones,” coined by author, Dan Buettner, in his National Geographic article, “The Secrets of a Long Life,” and expanded upon in his book, The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest.  In fact, regular consumption of beans offers multiple benefits for the body.

Beans can soak up to 24 hours. The longer the soak, the softer they cook up, and the easier they are to digest.

A diet filled with regular consumption of beans and legumes can reduce LDL cholesterol by up to 5 percent!  In particular, black beans, with a whopping 15 grams of protein and 15 grams of fiber per one cup serving, have a low glycemic effect.  Therefore, eating black beans may reduce spikes in blood sugar, which may also lead to a reduction of risk for diabetes.  Additionally, the high fiber and high protein count of all beans, but in particular black beans, also keeps you feeling satiated longer which could lead to weight loss, or at the very least, maintenance of a healthy weight without feeling deprived. Black beans are also an excellent source of folate, manganese, magnesium, thiamine, and iron.  Talk about a nutritional dynamo!

Rinse well after soaking beans for desired length.

“Beans are such a nice, neutral canvas, you can make a big basic pot of them and then play around with them differently every day.”–Crescent Dragonwagon 

Black beans are versatile too. They are wonderful with almost any rice variation.  Stuff beans in tortillas or taco shells, sprinkle them on salads, add them to soup or chili, spoon them over potatoes, chips, or even fries. Black beans can also be made into brownies or added to a pan with a touch of oil and/or broth, heated up, and mashed into refrieds. They can also be blended into fun dips, such as black bean hummus. The choices are nearly limitless, as black beans–also known as turtle beans– have a mild, almost sweet flavor that lends itself well to a variety of spices and condiments as well as other additions, such as avocado, oranges, peppers, onions, tomatoes, spinach, kale, chili powder, cumin, salsa, garlic cilantro, chiles, to name a few.

Draining the cooking broth from the beans after cooking is a personal choice. I typically save most of the cooking broth, and use a slotted spoon for serving.

Come on, don’t be afraid.  Cooking beans from scratch isn’t hard, time consuming, or expensive.  If you don’t have a pressure cooker, you can always use a crock pot or cook low and slow on a stove for several hours–freeing your time up to do other tasks while keeping your budget in check.  

Open an inexpensive bag of beans, pour ’em into a bowl, add salt and water, then let them soak for up to 24 hours while you go about your life. When you’re ready, cook them up, and let the magic begin!

I encourage you to give this recipe a try.  If I can do it, anyone can do it!  Let me know how it goes!  I’d love to hear from you!

Leftovers can be stored in the fridge or up to a week or frozen for up to 3 months!

Ninja Foodie or Instant Pot Black Beans

Presoaking (Quick or Overnight)

1 cup dried black beans

3 cups water 

1 teaspoon kosher salt or ½ teaspoon table salt

Ninja Foodie or Instant Pot Black Beans

Adjust, eliminate, or add in spices to taste preferences.

1-2 teaspoon olive oil (optional) for those who prefer a little fat added to their beans

1-2 teaspoons minced garlic

½ cup chopped onion

1 cup soaked or dried black beans

1 dried ancho pepper or ½ teaspoon ground ancho chili powder 

½ teaspoon garlic powder

½ teaspoon onion powder

½ sea salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

2 teaspoons reduced sodium taco seasoning

2 cups of water

1 cup vegetable broth

Juice of 1 fresh lime (optional) 

Directions for soaking if preferred:

If using a traditional soaking method of  8-10 hours (although beans can be soaked longer–up to 24 hours–if preferred), place beans, water, and salt in a glass bowl. 

(Feel free to cover for the sake of cleanliness.)

Allow beans to soak either overnight or during the day while away at work. 

When ready to cook, drain in a colander or mesh basket and rinse well.

If using a quick soak method, place dried beans, salt, and water into a pan.

Cover and bring to a boil over medium-heat, and allow to simmer for 5 minutes.

Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature for approximately 30 minutes.

When ready to cook, drain in a colander or mesh basket and rinse well.

OR skip all of the presoak methods and simply measure out dried black beans and rinse well before using. 

Ninja Foodie or Instant pot cooking directions:

Swirl oil in the bottom of the pot if using.

Add in minced garlic and onions.

Next add in black beans.

If using a dried ancho pepper, place it on top of beans.

Sprinkle on desired spices–either following my list of ingredients, or go rogue by adding, eliminating, or adjusting the listed spices–they’re your beans after all!

Pour on water.

Fasten the pressure cooker lid and set the nozzle to seal.

Click high pressure, and set time for cooking.

IF beans have soaked, set cooking time for 5 minutes; IF beans have NOT soaked, set cooking time for 25 minutes.

Once the cooking cycle stops, allow the recipe to sit for at least 10 minutes (Do nothing with lid or seal.)

Carefully release the pressure seal, avoiding skin contact with the steam. (Trust me, it can burn!)

Once steam has fully released, carefully remove the lid, stir, and serve.

If you prefer, drain beans; however, I find that the beans store/taste/texture remains best when stored in a bit of their own broth, but it’s really personal preference.  We simply use a slotted spoon to ladle beans.

Can be stored up to one week in the refrigerator or in the freezer for up to 6 months.

Makes approximately 3 cups of cooked beans.

Recipe can be doubled! 

Add your favorite vegetables, starch, and condiment(s) to your made-from-scratch beans, and you’ve got one healthy meal!

Baby Stepping into Growth

“Strive for progress, not perfection.”–Anonymous

During a recent conversation with a new mother, she shared with my husband, John, and me, the plight of her recent episode of sleepless nights.  The mother explained that her nearly ten month old daughter had learned the joys of pulling-up and cruising around furniture for short bursts of time.  Enamored with her newfound skill, the baby girl was now waking during the night in order to practice her newly discovered skills. While the new parent was thrilled and excited at the baby’s achievement of this new milestone, her eyes were rimmed with dark shadows due to her lack of sufficient sleep.  However, as the parent continued to share various stories of her baby’s zig-zag pattern of progression–crawling and rolling by day, pulling up and cruising by night–the mom’s eyes, nonetheless, sparkled with delight.

Initially, as many parents do, I reflected on my own daughter’s development.  She was much more interested in mastering her vocal and verbal skills at the nine-to ten month period.   Her interrupted sleep, at least at that age, was to wake and explore all the ways in which she could babble, vocalize, and soon enough, form meaningful words.  It wasn’t until the 10-11 month period that she became more interested in pulling up and cruising.  Even then, it seemed that she pulled up with the sole purpose to practice all the ways in which she could use her voice!

My daughter’s path of development was not better or worse than the parent’s child, rather it is an example of the varied and unique ways in which children’s bodies and brains develop. In fact, John and I took great amusement in the fact that our own daughter would be more interested in learning to talk before walking.  Likewise, the new mom did not criticize or compare her baby’s progress to that of a child who had mastered walking, rather she focused on her child’s progress.

Upon reflection, the next day, I realized that there was a nugget of wisdom in that story that was worthy of more contemplation.  Reflecting, not only my daughter’s unique mastery of walking, but also upon what I understand as an educator regarding child development, I recognize that learning is all about progress, not perfection.  In fact, the same is true for establishing new habits or making/adjusting to a drastic change in life.  Cultivating growth, change, and learning, in the real world, moves slowly through up and down periods of time.

My parents did not compare my development as a toddler to that of my grandfather!

“Sometimes the smallest step in the right direction ends up being the biggest step of your life. Tiptoe if you must, but take a step.”–Naeem Callaway

Reflecting on the ways in which babies learn to walk, child development experts state there are certain milestones, such as, sitting, rolling over, crawling, pulling up, cruising, and so forth, that parents should expect. During the process, the baby will learn to balance while standing, then bounce while standing, and might revert back to rolling or crawling. Eventually, however, the child will return his or her interest to pulling up, and perhaps begin to attempt cruising, but may still go back to crawling for a while–or in the case my daughter–focus on developing verbal skills.  

The point is that while so-called experts can point to certain milestones of development, in reality all children learn to walk (and talk) at his or her own pace–some taking longer or shorter periods of time than others.  However, we never compare the child-learning-to-walk to a so-called “master-walker.” Can you imagine a parent or grandparent saying to a baby learning to walk, “Why aren’t you walking like so and so?”  Instead, we foster and encourage each, well, baby-step along the child’s unique time-line of progression.  Which led me to wonder why so many of us, myself included, don’t do that for ourselves?

Nor did my parents compare my brother’s baby steps to his older sister (me).

Why do we, as adults, compare our own progress–or for that matter the progress of school age children–to that of a so-called, “master.”  While having a goal is absolutely worthy, as the old adage states, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and neither is progress.  In fact, I often have conversations with parents of students that growth often happens in fits and starts.  Each student’s brains are wired uniquely, and thus learning never occurs in a straight upward angled line.  The same is also true for adult learning. 

All progress–be learning a new skill, establishing a new habit, or changing/eliminating a bad habit–looks more like the zig-zag pattern of learning to walk.  How many times per day does a baby who is learning to walk fall down?  Are we ever disappointed in the baby when he or she does this?  No!  Instead, as loving adults, we say words to encourage, foster, and inspire the child to try again.  In fact, I would argue, it is the adult’s positive attitude that is part of the baby’s motivation to get up and try again–at least until they are too tired.  Even then, as we put the baby to bed, we know that tomorrow’s is a new day, and he or she will be right back at it again in the attempt to learn to walk.

No matter how long or meandering the path toward progress is, keep on stepping into the version of your best self!

“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”–Martin Luther King Jr.

Thus, this is the type of attitude that we should offer ourselves in our attempts to instigate personal change and growth.  Start with small steps towards the desired goal.  If you “backslide” and revert back to old habits, such as when babies revert back to crawling, get back up the next day, and try again.  Don’t compare yourself to others with self-defeating thoughts or other comparative notions. Each of us has our own distinctive way of learning, changing, and/or progressing.

I would have never told my daughter that she should give up on learning to walk, much less called her a failure when her interest in walking was put on pause for several weeks as she focused on her vocalization.  That was part of her own idiosyncratic pattern of growth, and the same holds true for our own attempts at growth and change. 

We all need a little help along the way towards our goals. Don’t be afraid to accept structure and help as needed!

According to the Kaizen principle that is often applied in the business world, improvements and growth in an organization most successfully occurs through small steps.  In fact, as best as I understand it, the Kaizen principle for growth and change encourages a business to create a culture in which employees plan, implement a small steps towards growth, periodically review whether or not the plan is working, then take action–either by taking the next small step forward or by refining/adjusting the current step.  With each successive step and revision, growth begins to occur. This principle can be applied to our own lives.

Stop comparing yourself to a master-image of perfection.  In fact, I encourage you to stop striving for a so-called image of perfection–after all, this is life, with all of its ingrained messiness and fallibilities.   Instead, foster progress.  Talk kindly to yourself as you would a child learning to walk.  If you fall down, it’s okay.  Cry if you must, but get up the next day, and try again. If you need to hold onto a structure for a while, as a baby must hold onto furniture in its attempt to master walking, remember the baby is developing its leg strength, and you are likewise building strength!  The point is to keep moving forward, no matter if it seems like you’re only making baby steps. Eventually you will attain your version of success that works for you.  

Photo by Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas on Pexels.com

A Prayer for a Compassionate Heart

Do to others whatever you would have them do to you . . .”Matthew 7:12

As I descended the hill and made my way onto a major Ohio route, I saw the flag in front of me.  During these schismatic political times, I am not unfamiliar with numerous political variations of the American flag, but this one really bothered me.  I could feel its venomous bite, and like a poisonous snake, its toxin worked its way gradually into my consciousness.  

What is the purpose of a flag filled with hateful words?  Do they have kids?   If so, were they okay with their own children seeing those words?  This was also a major school bus route; those students would also read those words.  Did they think about them before hanging it up?  On and on my mind chewed on this image like one tries to chew taffy with its sticky consistency adhering like glue.

Miniature Old Glory hangs in my classroom.

It wasn’t long before a stereotypical image began filling my mind regarding the type of person who chose to hang the controversial flag.  Soon enough, the flag message became fodder for a few of my conversations–that is until my consciousness began to send me pangs of remorse and guilt.  

“Steph, you are pigeon-holing people you haven’t even met yet.  You don’t know that person, nor do you know the life they have lived.  Who do you think you are?  What makes you so great to sit in judgement?”

On and on my consciousness scolded me.  Then, came the remembrance of an image.  It was from my third grade classroom.  A small framed principle was hung beside the long ago classroom door, allowing it to be visible to those of us inside the classroom.  I was seated in the front of the classroom, due to my height, in a desk near the door, and consequently, the sign.  The image was embossed with golden flourishing, and the lettering was classically formatted in a bold black scripted font: “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.”  

As seen on Instagram @ drwaynedyer.

As best I can remember, this classic tenet was dulled with age, lacked any eye-catching appeal, and therefore I am fairly certain it wasn’t something to which I paid particularly close attention.  While memories of my third grade are as faded as that long-ago picture, I do seem to recall our teacher, Bonnie McKenzie, referring to the picture, from time to time, when any one of us was not acting kindly towards one another.  In fact, I have a hazy recollection of Ms. McKenzie, once standing beside the picture, and firmly instructing us that this was the most important rule in our classroom. 

It occurred to me that I had seen the very same thing somewhere in my grandparent’s house, but like all third grade minds, it wasn’t a precept I fully understood.  Rather, I interpreted it as a reminder to, “Be nice.”  Not that I always applied it, after all, I was a third grader, and life wasn’t always fair, but I’d like to think I mostly tried . . . at least until those angsty, hormonal teen years . . .

Regardless, I am now no longer a fledgling third grader and absolutely capable of understanding the golden rule more fully.  Therefore, I continued to wrestle with my consciousness over my self-imposed verdict of the flag for the rest of the evening.  My mind kept circling back to that darn third grade image, and I knew that if I was talking negatively about this unknown person, I was NOT practicing my beloved teacher’s guideline. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am sure Ms. McKenzie was as flawed and imperfect as the rest of us, but I would like to believe that it was important to her that she imparted the importance of this rule, above all others, to her students.  Thus, that is how I settled my mind.  

Do unto others the way your cat peacefully loves you! 😉

“To keep the Golden Rule we must put ourselves in other people’s places, but to do that consists in and depends upon picturing ourselves in their places.”–Harry Emerson Fosdick 

While I’d like to believe I’ve lived through a wide array of situations and therefore have a wide breadth of informed life experiences that grant me permission to quickly judge or criticize–it is one of my greatest ego-driven flaws.  One could argue, as I have, that the ability to discern quickly can be a strength in certain situations. However, quickly drawing conclusions is still deduced from my limited life experiences and perspective rather than taking time to place myself in the shoes of the other person.  

As the strangely linked cogs of my stored memories continued to churn their mental back and forth, my mind led me down another deep recess to the remembrance of an additional memory:  Rev. Larry Brisker, my one time pastor, teaching his flock about the concept of “agape love.”

Pets offer us unconditional love–no matter how we act, what mood we’re in, or what political/personal beliefs we have.

“Agape love is selfless love . . .the love God wants us to have isn’t just an emotion but a conscious act of the will–a deliberate decision on our part to put others ahead of ourselves.  This is the kind of love God has for us.”–Billy Graham

I cannot pretend to be an expert of Bible scripture, but I do faintly recall first learning about the concept of agape love from Rev. Brisker.  It was one of those rare teenage times when I truly focused on the sermon. (Sorry, Rev. Brisker, I wasn’t always focused, but in all fairness, I was awash in those darn, distracting teenage years.) As best as I can recall, Rev. Brisker’s message on agape love was based on a passage in Corinthians I often call, “The Love Chapter”.  In particular, it was the verse about the clanging cymbal that held my attention because, well, I thought it sounded cool. Ok, I was a kid, but the point wasn’t entirely lost on me.  

God loved us, period.  It wasn’t based on feeling or the hollow promises of impressive sounding words.  God’s love came from actions–not feelings–and that, Rev. Brisker explained, was the highest form of love and what we should all aspire to offer others–no matter what they believe or how they choose to act.  Of course, I am quite certain the Reverend was MUCH more eloquent than my memory.

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on Pexels.com

Therefore, Dear Reader, I recount both of these faint memories to share this conclusion.  In this extended season of recent years filled with uncertainty, political divide, and one series of crises after another–both home and abroad, it was, and is, my lesson to re-learn that when I am quick to judge, that I must step back, and try to see things from the other person’s perspective.  In fact, it is my prayer that my conscience continues to remind me to refrain from acting as a loud clanging cymbal filled with noise based only upon my perspective.  The bigger picture is NOT about me. 

Instead, I pray that I may humbly be reminded, as often as needed, to extend compassion and understanding to ALL.  May I work harder to find a more gracious, warm hearted attitude, and not be so quick to render judgement.  Otherwise, I am acting in a way that could be, and has been, hurtful if/when someone quickly passes judgement upon me.  

Therefore, as the Golden Rule encourages all of us to do, may we all offer understanding and patience to others in the same way we would expect it given to us.  We don’t have to agree on all fronts to find common ground that binds us together as fellow human beings.  Agape love challenges all of us to humbly serve and offer grace to all as our Creator does for us on a daily basis.

“You can have the ‘golden rule’ do unto others as you would have others do unto you. But then you take it one step farther where you just do good unto others, period. Just for the sake of it.”–Jennifer Beals 

Treat others as you would have them treat you!
Photo by mali maeder on Pexels.com
Mom told us to get out outside and play!

Cricket’s Song

“When the cricket’s song is the only song you hear, how peaceful the whole earth seems.”–Marty Rubin

My face masks were washed from the previous week of work.  The sun had already kissed the horizon’s forehead before slipping away into the dusk, but it was not yet full dark.  I headed towards the garage of our home with the clean masks in hand in order to stow them away with the others in a large ziplock baggie I keep in my car.  Stepping down onto the concrete pad, I was struck by the singing of a lone, unseen cricket.

Photo by NO NAME on Pexels.com

Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye . . .goodbye, goodbye, goodbye . . .goodbye, goodbye, goodbye . . .”  sang the hidden insect.

It seems as if it is a rite of seasonal passage for one cricket to find itself trapped in our garage. Even as a child, I seem to recall a single cricket trapped in my family’s garage, and later, the laundry room. In fact, I can once recall sitting on the step to the laundry room during a summer stay at home from college, listening to a lone cricket chirp its tune of summer’s end, and feeling both the mix of anticipation and sadness at the changing of seasons within my own life.  

Later in the week, having temporarily forgotten the guest residence of the cricket in our garage, my husband, John, and I exited out of our car after a dinner out, and we were greeted by the sound of our guest once more.

Photo by Neale LaSalle on Pexels.com

Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye . . .” our guest continued its mournful solo concert.

Even as I closed the garage door and turned off the light, I could still hear its song of summer’s end continuing despite no longer having an audience.  

Early the next morning, I walked out to the garage to once more stow away another item into the car.  The sun had not yet made its morning ascent, and the garage was filled with shadows and predawn edginess. As I reached for the garage door handle, I paused. The cricket was still singing its melancholic song.  I had to wonder at the miracle of this creature’s voice and sense of perseverance.  How could it continue to sing throughout the night–even if no one was there to appreciate it’s fine farewell chirrupings?

Entering the garage, its piping paused momentarily.  Then when no harm came its way, its singing resumed full strength as I made my way to the car with my belongings. Returning to the house, its trilling continued even as I shut the garage door.  

Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye . . .”  

“The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever.”–E.B. White

The cricket’s reminder that change is coming.  Summer’s warmth will soon be passing.  Leaves will soon slip the bondages of tree limbs, grasses will fade, and wintry winds will whir their chilly thoughts soon enough.  Silky time slips slowly through a faucet of seasons, drip by drip, slowly weathering away the husks of our bodies like water gradually wearing down a rock, eventually returning it to the dust of our Creator.

Photo by Vlad Bagacian on Pexels.com

Shortened days and longer nights, 

Football and band songs

Sweaters and caps, 

Bonfires and marshmallows 

Amber and red swirl over 

A ribbon of black  

Soon the first kiss of frost.

“Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye . . .  

It’s been a week since the unseen cricket took up residence in the collections that fill the garage. Since then another loved one has left the earth; perhaps he sings for him.

Life is short

Life is sweet

Love is a river of time

Filled and flowing 

With the rhythm of

Seasonal rains and

Periods of drought 

Through, over, and around

Ultimately, returning to the Source

Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye . . .”

The cricket bids you adieu, my friend. 

Dusk has slipped into night

Your tortured time 

Filled with shouts of pain

Has ceased into a timeless song of peace

Yet

Your imprint abides

Through students and players

O’er fields of dreams and

Work sites unseen

Through sons and grandchildren

And even four greats

Your legacy endures

May your hands be still at last

“Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye . . .” trills the cricket once more.

The cricket's song is a reminder that change is coming.  Goodbye warm summer days. Hello frosty autumn starts.  Soon we all will rest.




Endless Echoes of Kindness

“Kind words can be short and easy to speak but their echoes are truly endless.”–Mother 

Teresa

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

It is Saturday morning, and I was once more at Ritter Park for my weekly run.  Arriving a bit later in the morning than originally planned, the sun had burned off most of the fog, and the temperature was beginning to rise.  Early morning exercisers were chatting and/or packing up vehicles in the parking lot as late morning exercisers began disembarking from their vehicles.  It reminded me of shift changes from long ago when I once worked at a fast food restaurant. 

Sweat came easily in the August heat, and my breathing quickly became more rapid. I felt my pace slowing–although, to be perfectly honest, I don’t run particularly fast on any given day. My desire to be here at an earlier time added further negativity to my mindset. Nonetheless, in spite of part of my mind urging me to quit, I continued on towards the goal I had set for myself at the onset.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Prior to driving to the park, my day had not begun auspiciously.  A glass framed picture had randomly fallen off the wall, crashed onto the kitchen floor, taking with it a glass candle from the counter below it.  I was upset because the picture contained one of my favorite quotes, had been framed, and given to me by one of my sisters.  The clean-up took quite a bit of time, only to be followed by another larger item uncontrollably breaking in our main bathroom, sending me into a temporary river of uncontrolled tears as I wondered what else could go wrong.

Ahead on the path, I observed a man walking three dogs. Two of the three pooches were  incredibly large–I am not certain of the breed, perhaps Great Danes.  The other dog was tiny, made even smaller looking by its companions. Drawing closer to the dog walker, he kindly stepped off the crushed pebbled path with his dogs, and I wished him a “Good Morning.”

“Good morning to you.  I hope you have a great jog.”

His words were like magic beans as I felt my energy suddenly seem to grow.  I could have a great jog–no matter the pace.  Plus, given my slower stride, I had more time to take in the trees with their whispered leaf secrets, listen to the creek alongside the path gurgling its story of travels, and I had enough breath to pay forward encouragement to others.  Ultimately, the stranger’s moment of kindness positively impacted the rest of my slow, but steady run, and I was able to run the length of my modest distance goal.

Photo by Anna Tarazevich on Pexels.com

“As much as we need a prosperous economy, we also need a prosperity of kindness and decency.”–Caroline Kennedy

Sitting down a bit later for a bite to eat, I fired up my laptop and opened up a news app.  Scanning through one depressing headline after another, I began to notice the positive vibes from the morning run beginning to wane.  It seemed like the entire world, including our own country, could benefit from more acts of kindness and generosity–which made me curious.  Were there any tangible benefits of kindness?  I clicked off the disheartening news feed and began my research.

According to the Mayo Clinic, as well as several other leading research hospitals, kindness increases your levels of energy and instantly boosts your mood–so that effect of that man’s words weren’t my imagination.  Offering simple gestures of kindness increases one’s self-esteem, sense of empathy, and compassion.  Kindness has been shown to increase life span.  Furthermore, kindness decreases blood pressure, but increases levels of oxytocin, the feel-good hormone.  

In the brain, kindness decreases cortisol, a stress-inducing hormone, but increases serotonin and dopamine which in turn improves your sense of well-being and feelings of satisfaction.  Acting or receiving kindness also enhances endorphins, the brain’s natural painkillers.  Practicing kindness also reduces stress, anxiety, depression, and boosts the immune system.  I was already feeling better just reading about kindness as opposed to how I felt reading the news.

Photo by Ron Lach on Pexels.com

“Kindness costs nothing.” Irish proverb

Psychologists and sociologists also note that kindness is contagious.  It has a ripple effect.  In fact, studies indicate that if you receive a kind word, gesture, or act, you are more than likely to pay it forward to another person as I found myself doing at Ritter–offering words of encouragement to other runners and walkers with whom I encountered.  In a world in which social media continuously hawks wares of the latest, greatest, and always pricey health supplement, here’s one, tried and true, scientifically supported method that will not empty your bank account: kindness.

I am but one small voice in a world filled with thunderous voices and even louder, enticing distractions. Answers to global, national, and local problems, I do not have.  What I do have is the ability to act kindly.  If each person reading my words offered one or two acts of kindness every day to others with whom they encounter, and they in turn did the same, then they did the same . . . .  Like ripples traveling down the Ohio River in the wake of one boat, what an effect those acts of kindness might have.

Take more time to notice when people smile; speak kind words; open the door for you; allow you to enter a crowded lane of traffic on a backed-up commute route; or, simply offer to help you. Notice, and pay those actions forward.  Rather than feeding your soul with the negative loop of blaring headlines with the motto, “if it bleeds, it leads,” and the frenetic diversions of screens, focus instead on the precept, “if it’s kind, it’s aligned”–aligned with health, wellness, positivity, and most of all peace–for you and the recipient. 

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Enthusiasm for Life in the Present Moment

“Discipline is not the enemy of enthusiasm.”–Joe Clark

There they were. Athletically built and full of swagger, I listened to their coach who asked them to circle up around me in the dewy grass.  The fog was rising, but the sunlight remained hidden on this humid August Saturday morning.  They were quiet and rather fatigued-looking after a week of two-a-day practices; nonetheless, they were respectful as I began to talk to each of them, my eyes moving from athlete to athlete.  

The task before me was to provide a recovery yoga practice for the St. Joseph Central Catholic High School boy’s soccer team, the sibling school to the middle (and elementary) school for which I am a 6-8 educator.  I began our morning practice by setting an intention. Mid-way through my opening statements, the thought occurred to me that I might also be talking to myself.

I began the practice with the following quote by Julia Cameron, “Over an extended period of time, being an artist requires enthusiasm more than discipline.” However, I replaced “artist” with “athlete.”  Enthusiasm comes from the Greek word, enthousiasmos, enthous, or entheos–which essentially means to be possessed or inspired by God.  Other translations include: filled by God’s essence; or, inspiration or possession of God.  When looking at synonyms for enthusiasm–passion, ardor, zeal, fervor–one begins to truly feel the emotional strength and power of the word.

The purpose of selecting this intention for the team’s yoga practice was two-fold. First, I  wanted them to walk away from practice with the thought that in order to have a successful soccer season, it would not only require disciplined practices, thinking, actions, and reactions, but also their discipline must be infused with enthusiasm–for one another and for the game.  Additionally, I hoped they would sense the Creator’s guiding presence in their life, the One who divinely and individually created each one, as they moved into and through their coming season and school year.  

As seen on Instagram @ postiveenergyalways

Discipline and enthusiasm, I believe, go hand-in-hand, especially when reflecting upon this past year and half of living with COVID. Like many, I had maintained the discipline of preventative COVID measures throughout the summer, fall and winter of last year, but by the end of February of 2021, I was beginning to lose my enthusiasm. I was ready, more than ready, to give up.  In fact, I was ready to run away from life. It seemed to me that there had been far too many deaths, distractions, changes, illnesses, storms, flooding, and other torments of life.  Like so many around me, I felt I was, like the old southern, metaphorical expression made popular by the band, REM, “losing my religion,” and barely holding on. 

Thankfully, I did not give up.  Instead, I kept showing up, moving, one foot in front of the other, one day–sometimes even one moment–at a time.  By the time summer arrived, I decided to create a disciplined morning practice devoted to inner, spiritual work in an attempt to find that lost enthusiasm.  And guess what I discovered?  The Divine Creator was still there, and at a snail’s pace, I began to once more feel the True Source of inspiration.  I began to find enthusiasm once more.  

Photo by Dom J on Pexels.com

“Write this down:  My life is full of unlimited possibilities.”–Pablo

I woke early every morning and committed myself to the practice of writing–not for publication, but for me.  Each morning, before the sun had risen, I sat and wrote for nearly an hour following a formatted plan. It didn’t matter how much my inner-self tantrumed about the early hour, time commitment, or the work, I kept up the practice and believed in the process. I filled pages of journals–words that I ultimately shredded!  

In fact, hours of work were ultimately sent through a shredder because, in the end, the words I wrote did not need to be saved.  They had served their purpose by allowing my mind to process and recover.  It took weeks, but my mindset gradually shifted. Instead of thinking, “Oh, I have to get up and write,” I actually began to look forward to my writing practice.  I was finding my joy.

Photo by Gareth Willey on Pexels.com

As I worked with those high school boys, they found their muscles tight from the pounding and compacting of twice daily running and drills.  Their bodies were not easily given over to poses (stretching positions) through which I guided them. It was as if their bodies were saying, “No! I won’t!”  I encouraged the young men to breathe through the resistance, release the tension, and relax.  The more they took deep breaths, the more they were able to relax those tight muscles.  The more they relaxed, the more their bodies allowed them to stretch. 

At the end of nearly an hour, they entered their final pose, “savasana,” final relaxation pose.  Savasana is also known as corpse pose–as there is a dying away of the body and mind to all of its busyness.  Savasana is similar to powering down your computer or phone–it gives the body a chance to assimilate all that has happened within that hour of practice, reboot, and return to homeostasis.

As seen on Instagram @ spiritualist_within

Likewise, my summer practice of writing served a similar function.  I had to learn how to loosen my rigid and restricted way of thinking.  Instead of remaining in my isolated, ego-driven “No-brain,” I had relearn how to tap into my “Yes-brain.”   Through my disciplined morning practice of writing, prayer, and affirmations, it was as if my brain was metaphorically breathing deeply, learning to relax, and eventually relearned to say, “Yes,” even to things for which I cannot control.  My brain had to die away from the busyness of my ego–the poor, pitiful me side, and tap into the True Source

Making my way around the circle of kids relaxed in savasana, I sprayed each of their feet and ankles with peppermint spray as an act of soothing refreshment. I could not help but notice all of their blisters, calluses, and chafed skin.  It reminded me of how many of us feel as we deal with this new variant(s) of COVID.

Photo by Maksim Goncharenok on Pexels.com

“Always remember to take your Vitamins:  Take your Vitamin A for ACTION, Vitamin B for Belief, Vitamin C for Confidence, Vitamin D for Discipline, Vitamin E for Enthusiasm!!”–Pablo

Many may feel chafed, not only by the notion of wearing masks again, but also by the fact that we still can’t return to a so-called, “normal,” or the sense of homeostasis. We are asked to remain vigilant and disciplined regarding not only our health, but the well-being of others, and yet our souls are begging for soothing like the peppermint oil sprayed on the soccer player’s bedraggled feet.  It is worth remembering how far we have come, and if we made it through last year, we can make it again.

I will argue that Cameron’s words can be applied to this extended period of time as we continue to live with COVID.  We need a large dose of enthusiasm, more than discipline, in order to continue to embrace life as it is and keep going.  Enthusiasm is our God-given, on-going source of inspiration and energy.  When enthusiasm is combined with taking action and believing in our Higher Power, we can continue with confidence to remain disciplined and still experience joy.  Life may not be like it was, and frankly, it may never return to what we once knew, but life in the present moment–no matter the status–is continuing; and that, my friend, is worth a mask-covered smile.  

Miss Ollie Ray is all sunshine and smiles no matter the changes around her as seen in this picture from last school year.

Black Mountain, NC, The New Cool

“Although I deeply love oceans, deserts, and other wild landscapes, it is only mountains that beckon me with that sort of painful magnetic pull to walk deeper and deeper into their beauty.”–Victoria Erikson

After all of the freedom of mask-free living, travel, and dining, it looks as if we might be heading right back into those not-so-care-free-mask-wearing days again–vaccinated or not.  Regardless of what position you take on COVID, vaccines, and masks, there is one topic on which most can agree based upon the summer of 2021–our collective love of travel.  Perhaps, it’s hard-wired into our DNA from the hunting-gathering days, but as a whole, a large part of our population embraces that wanderlust feeling–hitting the open road and taking off for a change of scenery in order to relax, recharge, and renew.

While my husband and I did not travel as much as we would have liked this past summer, we did discover an off-the-beaten path destination that we hope to return to in the near future–Black Mountain, NC.  Ideally, we would like to visit it again during the fall months, but since we are both educators, extended fall travel is not possible.  However, for those of you with the opportunity to travel during the fall months, I would encourage you to consider a visit to this charming and scenic area of NC.  Even with mask-restrictions, it’s an ideal travel destination due to its fine dining, shopping, museums, breweries/distillery/cideries, crafts, art, music, and more.   Plus, it also offers a plethora of out-of-doors activities in which you can practice social distancing if that’s your preference.  

Using populars travel apps such as Airbnb, VRBO, TripAdvisor, or Yelp, you will not only find an abundance of ideas for activities in the vicinity, but also a wide range of places to stay sure to fit any budget, including rental homes/condos/apartments, bed and breakfasts, quaint inns, camping or glamping sites, resorts, and hotels. In fact, John and I were overwhelmed with all of the choices, but ultimately went with a VRBO rental home one mile from downtown Black Mountain called Getaway Disoway.  The owners, Tony and Tricia Wilkerson, were fantastic and responsive communicators, respected our privacy, and provided us with a clean, comfortable, and cozy cottage built in 1941 that we absolutely loved.