Overnight, Work Week Oatmeal with optional protein boost

I love oats!  Ask my family and coworkers, and they will all attest to the fact that I eat oats 6-7 days per week!  Why?  Well, oats are like a creamy white canvas waiting to be filled in with a multitude of vibrant colors and all varieties of yummy flavors. Plus, oats happen to benefit the body, and your budget, in a multitude of ways.  Due to the versatility of oats, and its low cost per day (about .45 cents per ½ cup rolled oats), you, like me, might consider making delicious and nutritious oats part of your daily menu rotation.   

If your idea of oatmeal is cooked plain with a smattering of brown sugar and cinnamon, you are missing out on the full potentiality of oats. Think of the ingredients of your favorite quick bread varieties, such as banana nut, peanut butter chocolate chip, strawberry pecan, to name a few, that can easily be stirred into oats. However, it doesn’t have to end there. 

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One of my favorite steel cut oats recipes is made with spinach, mushrooms, and a few key spices cooked which is then cooked to savory perfection.  Then, there is another recipe for tropical rolled oats that includes coconut milk, mango, banana, and pineapple that make your taste buds want to tango. And, that’s just the tip of the, well, oat bowl.  

In addition to oats’ versatility, oats benefit your health in a number of ways as demonstrated in numerous studies and a wide array of articles. In fact, due to oats’ high nutritional value, the Food and Drug Administration permits the use of health claims on oat food-labels, boasting its ability to reduce coronary disease. However, the regular consumption of oats does more than benefit your heart.  It can also:

  • Manage type II diabetes
  • Lower LDL cholesterol
  • Offer high levels of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties
  • Help manage a healthy weight
  • Maintain a healthy gut bacteria
  • Reduce/ease constipation
  • Reduce colon cancer risk
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Are you someone who practices intermittent fasting?

Oats can be a healthy part of that protocol as well!  For example, I mostly eat two meals a day at this point in my life.  My first meal of the day occurs around a typical lunch time, so I make it brunch!  I start with a cup of veggie sticks, followed by some sort of fresh fruit, and end with a bowl of warm, creamy oats.  This meal is incredibly tasty, oh-so-satisfying, and keeps me energized until dinner.

Does making oats daily seem like too much of a time commitment?

I understand!  I also lead a fairly busy and active life.  Therefore, I set aside one day per week for food prep, which is usually Sunday afternoon, but it can be any other day of the week as long as it works for your schedule. 

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On Sunday afternoon, I clean, cut, divide into containers, and stow away all my veggies in the crisper for the week.  I keep it simple, usually a mix of carrots, celery, and sugar snap peas, but it can honestly be any veggies you like that will remain fresh. Then, I typically take bags of frozen fruits and divvy them up into lunch containers, and also store them in the fridge. 

Next, I set out six containers for oats, and I begin filling them–first, with dry ingredients, followed by liquids. After liquids are added to each container, I give it a good shake, ensuring all ingredients are mixed well.  If using nut butter, I add a dollop of it to the top of the oat mixture after shaking, and reseal the lid. All six oat containers then get stored in the fridge.  The entire prep process, from veggies to fruit to oats, typically takes less than an hour, and I have a daily lunch ready to go for Monday through Saturday, which can often be a hectic day.

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 Consider my recipe for Overnight Work Week Oats as scaffolding, and begin to experiment with building your own oat-bowl variations.  Typically, I try to have steel cut three days per week and old-fashioned rolled oats the other three.  My preferred oat bowl variations are mostly sweet, but I do branch out with other tasty profiles on occasion.

 I hope my approach to oats, and even weekly food prep, encourages and inspires you to create your own quick and easy formula for healthy workday meals that will scrumptiously nourish your body and benefit your budget too!

From my home to yours, I wish you health and vitality!

Overnight, Work Week Oatmeal cups, with optional protein boost

Be sure to use certified gluten-free oats if you have a gluten intolerance/allergy or have celiac disease

Ingredients:

½ cup old-fashioned rolled oats or ¼ cup steel cut oats

1-2 tablespoon seeds, such as, chia, flax, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds . . . 

1-2 tablespoons nuts or nut butter, such as walnuts, slivered almonds, pecans, peanut butter, almond butter, and so forth

½-1 scoop protein powder, optional

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

1-2 teaspoon maple syrup; or, for less sugar, ½ teaspoon maple extract 

½ teaspoon cinnamon as well as ¼ teaspoon other desired spice(s)

1 cup favorite milk or water, add more or less, depending upon how thick you like your oatmeal

Optional toppings: Fresh fruits, such as, blueberries, strawberries, sliced banana, to name a few; dried fruits, such as, raisins, dried cranberries, goji berries; or sweet touches, such as, chocolate chips, honey drizzle, sprinkles, or any other sweet tastes you prefer

Directions:

In a single serving bowl, add in all ingredients, adjusting milk as needed.  (I prefer one cup, but you may like less or more.)

Stir or shake well.

Store in the fridge until ready to eat for up to a week. (The longer it is stored in the fridge, the creamier it gets.)

Can be eaten cold or heated in a microwave for 2-4 minutes.

Cover with lid or an inverted plate for 3+ minutes to allow absorption of liquid.

Remove and add any desired toppings.

Serves 1 

(Can be doubled or tripled or made ahead of time as described above.)

Note: For my photographs below, my oatmeal was made with: oats, ¼ cup frozen riced cauliflower, ¼ cup pumpkin puree, ½ cup blueberries, chia seed, vanilla protein powder, pumpkin pie spice, vanilla & maple extracts, soy milk, and topped with peanut butter & chocolate chips for a weekend treat

Pumpkin oatmeal flax oatmeal
Pumpkin blueberry oatmeal with buried goji berries
Banana, peanut butter, and chocolate chip oatmeal with hidden goji berries

Find your own way to increased movement: SMART steady steps

“Set goals not for the outcome itself, but for who you get to become in the process.”–Jim Rohn

My husband and daughter recently gifted me with a popular, updated fitness watch to replace the one that I have worn for over ten years. The new watch has numerous bells and whistles that can be quite motivational to encourage movement, healthy sleep, heart health, and so forth.  However, the updated icon, consistent with the former version, tends to focus on unrealistic, outcome-based goals that are not necessarily appropriate for my unique age, gender, body type, and fitness level.  

The gadget, and its programmers, don’t know ME, the individual.  And therein lies the problem in these well-intended gadgets as well as the thousands of fitness plans found, not only on fitness watches, but also found on-line and in-print.  Therefore, in this seventh installment of my “Move into Health” series, my focus is about setting SMART movement goals that focus on your unique health needs and lifestyle.

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It is so easy and tempting to be swept away by programs with tantalizing titles such as, “9-weeks to a bikini bod,” or “8-weeks to your fastest 5-K,” or “Walk your way into a new jeans size,” and so forth, often made popular in January.  While there is nothing inherently wrong with any of these types of plans, I have personally found they tend to set us up for failure when our bodies don’t look like the 19-year old willowy model used in the workout plan, our running pace doesn’t match the 5-K plan designed by a former professional runner, or our jeans still fit the same in spite of all of our best efforts.  

Instead, there needs to be a way to personalize plans in order to adapt to individual health goals, interests, schedule, lifestyle, body type, age, and current health circumstances.  Thankfully, there is! 

This year, consider setting SMART goals that focus on the process of promoting your distinct health needs as a way to focus your movement/exercise habit, rather than predetermined outcomes. There’s no need to make outlandish New Year’s resolutions, despite what the exercise industry would have you believe.  We simply need to take steady, SMART steps.

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SMART stands for Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound processes.  

This acronym has been used for years across a wide array of disciplines and settings.  However, I find it just as useful as a tool for leaning into personal movement and health processes. Personally, I find far more joy, and little to no guilt-ridden feelings of failure, when I focus on the process of a goal, rather than a specific outcome of that goal. 

For example, I am currently training for a half-marathon in March; however, this year, I’ve adopted a SMART approach.  Completing the half-marathon in March is specific, measurable, and based on my own current level of fitness, is achievable within the 16-weeks for which I have been using to prepare for it.  What my plan is NOT attached to is a specific finish time or whether I will run, walk, skip, or even crawl across the finish line.  Instead, my focus is about the measure of fitness I will gain in the process.  

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I am no longer worrying about the pace of my jogging or walking; instead, the focus is how I FEEL before, during, and after each workout with a close eye on how my heart rate is responding.  If it takes me twice as long as it takes others to complete a certain mileage, I am absolutely ok with that.  This journey is about the scenery along my path as well as improved cardiovascular health, better sleep, reduced anxiety/stress, and the gift of time to listen to great playlists, podcasts, and audiobooks.

Your goal may not look like mine, but that is not the point.  Rather, think about what process you want to embrace?  Increased movement throughout your day? Improved cardiovascular health? Increased flexibility and range of motion?  Maybe a little bit of all three, or maybe something completely different.  Once you have decided, work through the SMART process to develop your approach.  Take time to write it down or type it up.  There is something about the power of slowing down your thinking, and then putting your thoughts down in some form of print that brings clarity to your ideas.

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Begin first by simply reflecting on your current health status as well as current lifestyle.  What could YOU realistically do to move the needle towards a gentle process of increased health.  Be honest in your self assessment, but NOT judgemental.  Once your idea is clear, write/type your thoughts using the SMART steps:

  • Be specific:  Is your goal clear and defined?  For example, the ability to walk for ____ minutes without stopping, or increased stamina to finish a 5K, or the strength to carry ____ grocery bags into the house independently.
  • Measurable: Can it be tracked or measured? How do you know if you are making progress? If your goal is to walk without stopping for a certain amount of time, perhaps each week you dedicate three days per week to walking, starting with the length of time you can comfortably walk now, and increasing that time by one minute each successive week as long as your body is comfortably recovering.
  • Achievable: Will the process be challenging but attainable?  This is the sweet spot that only you can determine.  For example, given your age and health status, walking a 5K may not be realistic, but perhaps focusing on the process of walking 15-20 minutes may be attainable with small incremental increases in walking time over several weeks or months.
  • Realistic: Is your goal relevant to your life purpose?  For example, my life purpose is to remain mobile, heart healthy, and mentally agile in order to make a positive contribution to others for as long as I possibly can. Therefore, challenging myself with a process of increased cardiovascular health is one of a handful of processes I can realistically develop.
  • Timely: Can you set a date in order to hold yourself accountable to the process? This is why the process of training for half-marathons works for me.  I can choose an event that fits my schedule, and gradually build towards that goal.  Plus, I make a monetary commitment, which I know will hold me accountable.  Along the way, I find ways to celebrate, enjoy, and embrace each little step in the process.  Once the date has come and gone, I will consider my next SMART process that will further my health and ultimately, life purpose.

You do not have to run/walk a half-marathon like me to embrace the process of SMART goals.  The point is to let go of certain outcomes established by others who don’t know you nor have your same values.  Rather, get clear on your life purpose, then ask yourself what you can do to improve your own health towards achieving that goal.  Don’t beat yourself up with unrealistic expectations of others.  Get quiet, get honest, and get “smart.”  With this clarity, you will be able to come up with the best approach for you.

Here’s to your smart version of healthy in 2023.  May you continue to fulfill your own life purpose with vitality!  And, don’t hesitate to reach out, and let me know how it’s going!  I am cheering for you!

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Reading for fun provides lifelong benefits

There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate’s loot on Treasure Island.”–Walt Disney

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I recently had a high school student ask me, with great sincerity, why reading was important.  

“It’s not like it’s as important as math, science, or even computer class,” he added.

Why read indeed?  It is a question I have had to answer for decades as an educator, and one that occurs with growing frequency.  When all the answers to nearly every conceivable question are merely a few keyboard clicks away, why pick up a book, especially a work of fiction.  The number of inquiries I now field from parents questioning the value of their teen children reading, when their child already has “so much to do” is also increasing.

My observations reflect overall data trends in the United States.  According to one recent 2021 study by the Pew Research Center, approximately 23% of the population did not read in part, or in whole, a book–paper, electronic, or audio–during last year.  Additionally, the number of American children between the ages of 9-13 who read for fun is also dropping according to another Pew Research Center article.  Adults who are reading, are reading fewer books than ever, approximately 12 books per year reports a recent 2021 Gallup Poll. This is the lowest number Gallup has observed since they first began tracking reading in 1990.

Given the fast pace of life, the number of responsibilities we tend to juggle, not to mention all social media outlets and streaming services that vie for our attention, I can certainly understand why reading has become a bottom feeder on society’s list of priorities.  However, research, science, and even the business world have a new message for us.  Reading, including reading fiction, is important, and it is worth considering moving to the forefront of routine priorities.

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Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.”–Margaret Fuller

Habitual reading is now viewed as beneficial to careers and to the business world.  This position is reflected in the growing number of recent articles by respected business publications, such as the Harvard Business Review, Business News Daily, and Business Insider.  This is because one of the benefits of reading fiction is that it helps strengthen several cognitive skills that are critical for developing EQ, or emotional intelligence. Reading increases one’s vocabulary and ability to solve problems creatively.  It fosters empathy, builds critical thinking skills, and increases the ability to understand and respect those whose beliefs and desires may differ from their own.   In fact, businesses are now using reading facilitators, such as Reflection Point, a nonprofit organization, to use shared workplace reading experiences and conversations as one method for strengthening collaboration and inclusion within the workplace. 

Beyond the business world, however, reading offers a wide array of benefits to every individual.  One of the more obvious benefits of reading is pleasure, which, in turn, reduces stress. Science not only backs this fact up, but also reveals both mental and physical benefits of reading, no matter your age.  From the youngest, emergent readers all the way through your senior years, and even those critical teen years, reading can benefit your mind and body throughout a lifetime.

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Reading strengthens cognitive function and may reduce cognitive decline.  MRI and brain-scan based studies have demonstrated that reading dramatically changes your brain.  As you read, a complex series of signals and circuits are engaged throughout your brain.  As your reading skills advance, so do those neural pathways.  Additionally, reading stimulates a flow of blood, oxygen, and other nutrients to the brain, which could help stave off age-related cognitive decline and strengthen cognitive function and enhance memory.  Reading has even been linked to increased activity in the somatosensory cortex, the part of the brain that responds to physical sensations.

Reading can help manage stress. Obviously, reading is not the only tool for managing stress, but reading, as little as 30 minutes a day, has been shown to ease muscle tension while reducing blood pressure, heart rate, and feelings of stress. 

Reading fosters empathy and improves relationships. Empathy, the ability to understand how another person is feeling, is key to fostering social, interpersonal, and work relationships.  Reading about the lives of others, be they real or imaginary, broadens our experiences and offers insight into situations, feelings, and beliefs that we may not otherwise be able to experience.  This knowledge builds what is known as “theory of mind”, which can lead to more tolerant and compassionate attitudes towards others as well as for ourselves.

 Reading builds vocabulary. This one is a no-brainer, but it also exposes us to language outside of our everyday conversational experiences as well as to a variety of sentence structures, voices, and styles that can strengthen and enhance our personal communication skills.

Reading helps adolescents with self identity.  As a middle and high school educator of a so-called “soft-subject”, this is important validation.  Identity development is a critical component of the teen years.  Identity of self is typically developed through real-world relationships, events, and maturity, but it is now known that reading can also play an important role in this development. Reading allows teens a safe and distanced way to develop insight and explore relationships, friendships, cultural identities, and personal values which can help them as they navigate their own feelings, determine their identity/values while transitioning into adulthood.

Reading builds perseverance and inspires creativity.  Reading teaches you to be ok with ambiguity, and it reduces the desire for immediate gratification.  The ability to read a book demands setting a goal, sticking with it over a period of time, and builds our focus/concentration stamina.  These skills can translate into the ability to think creatively and solve problems. 

Reading may add years to lifespan.  While reading won’t replace longevity health habits such as eating well, incorporating movement throughout the day, and getting quality sleep, regular reading has been a proven life lengthener.  According to one study, reading a chapter per day, equivalent to 3½ hours per week, adds nearly two years more to a person’s life expectancy when compared to nonreaders. 

Reading may improve your mental well-being and prepare you for a good night’s sleep.  One of the top six tips for a better night’s sleep, according to doctors at the Mayo Clinic, includes reading a print book. Within about six minutes of reading a book, the body begins to relax, the heart begins to beat slower, and the day’s stress begins to fade into the background–all of which can lead to a better night’s sleep. In fact, the National Alliance on Mental Illness encourages reading as one method for reducing anxiety and depression, lowering stress levels, and increasing one’s ability to relax. 

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No matter how busy our lives may become, taking time for reading, even if it’s listening to an audio book during your work commute, is as important now as it was when we were young.  With an endless array of  books available on-line, in bookstores, and housed in local libraries, on any number of topics, why not grab one and start reading today.  Get a friend or family member to join, so you can both reap those wonderful benefits reading has to offer.  

P.S.  If you haven’t yet discovered the Libby app, a free digital library app available through most U.S. state public libraries, I highly recommend this app for its free digital and audio content of books, magazines, and other publications!  It’s a budget friendly, easy way to read on any device! 

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Practical and mindful tips for navigating life’s storms

“Start where you are.  Do what you can. Use what you have.”–Arthur Ashe

There are times I feel as if I can’t think straight.  My thoughts are scattered like fall leaves, colorful shapes of ideas caught in the whirlwind of my mind. I have goals and lists of things to-do for school (I’m an educator), writing, home, family/friends, self, and so on . . . . 

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For example, I may begin my day feeling energized, fully focused, and operating in a flow state, moving from goal A to goal B.  Remaining clear-headed, I move on to task C, when, unexpectedly, an email or text will be sent my way, creating an impending deadline for another task that was not on my radar for the day. 

Meanwhile, another challenge develops, and another issue needs addressed, and the wires in my mind that were moving linearly, now have to bend, zig, and zag.  When time and circumstance finally permits me to circle back to task C, my thoughts are scattered as I wonder how I will ever make it through the day, much less the week.

 Too much to do, too many responsibilities/obligations, and numerous distractions, for many of us.  Is it any wonder we often feel scattered, overwhelmed, and/or agitated/anxious with greater frequency in a culture that fosters and rewards busyness.  Therefore, if hiring a personal assistant isn’t anywhere on the horizon or budget, what are some practical and more mindful techniques mere mortals can practice when feelings of overwhelm threaten to take our minds away.

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Practically speaking, there are organizational strategies.

  • Long list:  I like to start my week with a long list, or a brain dump, of all the things on my mind, mostly for the upcoming week, but some items are more long term.  I typically do this on Sunday or Monday.  I am old school, so I prefer handwriting, but it really doesn’t matter.  The point is to get all my deadlines, worries, ideas, goals visually listed and out of my jumbled mind.  I may add to this list throughout the week as various items pop-up.
  • Short list: From my long list, each day, I try to prioritize 2-4 items to complete and mark off my long list. I typically write these on a post-it note for the day or add it to my reminders app. 
  • Break down big tasks into smaller, more manageable steps: For example, in my world, this may look like setting the goal of grading one class’s (or ½ half of a class’s) essays each day, with the goal of finishing that grade level by week’s end.  I apply this to all other larger/bigger projects, setting mini-goals for each larger job.
  • Create rituals/routines:  For certain tasks, I create rituals/routines. I set aside specific time periods/days for completing certain tasks.  For example, laundry is typically started on Saturday and finished on Sunday.  Food preparation for the week is Sunday afternoon. Early mornings on Saturday and Sunday are set aside for writing and/or school tasks, with a few hours added in the afternoons of both days, if time allows. 
  • Set boundaries on email, texts, and social media: These are rabbit–holes of distractibility if I am not careful, especially when working.  Therefore, I check email at certain times of the day, and that is it.  If I am grading/writing or completing any other type of work that requires my full focus, the phone is face down, silenced, and I set a 50-minute timer with an allowance for a 10-minute movement break  and text check each hour.  
  • But, be flexible: All of these strategies may work, but–and there is always a ‘but’ in life–we have to be ready to bend with life and be flexible enough to throw lists and plans out the door as needed.  Which is why we need mindful strategies . . .
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When life gets in the way, all the best laid plans go out the door, and this is when overwhelming feelings can occur.  Therefore, we need more than neck-up strategies; we also need strategies that speak to and soothe the heart and soul.

  • Breathe, and try not to panic: Take several deep belly breaths and acknowledge that you feel overwhelmed without judgment.  I know this isn’t easy, but be gentle with yourself. Your work may not be coming together as you originally envisioned it or within a time frame you had hoped, but you’ve completed other challenges before, you are trustworthy and committed; therefore, trust that you will get it completed.
  • Take a break: If time allows, take a short break. Consider walking away for a moment, even if only for the time it takes to walk to the restroom and grab a drink of water. If you can’t walk away, look away from the work for a moment.  Close your eyes for a breathing break, focus on an image, look out the window if you have one, pause for a prayer–whatever works to SLOW down your breathing, distract your mind, and reduce the stormy feelings inside. 
  • Switch gears to another job.  This may mean completing a short task that requires little, to no, brain power; or, it may mean jumping ahead to another item on your list and working on it for a few minutes.  The point is to gain a sense of accomplishment to refresh your spirit and put you into a more positive mindset.
  • Be your own cheerleader:  Offer yourself encouragement and supportive thoughts.  “You’re doing great.”  “Two steps completed; you’re on a roll.”  “Two phone calls down.  Only three more to go; you’re making progress.” 
  • Make peace with the storm: Work-life balance is fluid.  Sometimes life is as calm as a cloudless June day; and other times, it is like a room full of toddlers who haven’t had their naps, and they all have colds–you don’t know which nose to wipe first or which kid to attempt to calm because they are all crying.  
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Accepting that life is messy, imperfect, and sometimes turbulent is not easy, but resisting this fact, only makes it more difficult. Just as the toddler teacher cannot leave the classroom of crying kids, neither can we leave the storms of life.

In the end, making peace with our sometimes traffic-jammed brains doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be organized or equipped with strategies, it merely means we accept the process of working through the challenges of life. It’s a commitment to the implementation of daily strategies, mindful habits, and a healthy dose of gentleness in order to recover some semblance of clarity when the chaos of life occurs.

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Spinach-Artichoke Dip with plant-based and gluten-free options

“Popeye was right about spinach: dark green, leafy vegetables are the healthiest food on the planet. As whole foods go, they offer the most nutrition per calorie.”–Michael Gregor

“You’re not going to believe what I ate, Mom!”

I was talking with my daughter, Madelyn, on the phone.  She is attending graduate school, and she was describing a dinner that a friend had prepared for one evening during a break from her studies.  

“Spinach and artichoke dip!  Not only that, Mom, but it was vegan, and it was surprisingly good . . . and you know how funny I am about texture and taste.”

Maddie went on to insist that I would have to make this dip when she was home for the holidays.  In fact, she had already asked her friend to share the recipe with her, so she could send it to me.  She went on to explain how her friend has lupus, and eats an anti-inflammatory diet that focuses heavily on fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and a few select whole grains in order to reduce her inflammation.  

As I listened to her continue to describe the dip, my mind was already thinking about the ways I could adapt the recipe.  I was eager to, ahem, dip into reading various plant forward recipes and techniques in order to create my own version.  Not only did I want to make the dip in honor of my daughter’s request, but also because the dip is largely made up of two of my favorite vegetables: spinach and artichokes.

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Maddie’s friend was on to something.  Both artichokes and spinach are highly anti-inflammatory.  Spinach, specifically, is chock full of vitamins, such as A, K and C, and it also contains folate, magnesium, iron, potassium, calcium, and small amounts of other B vitamins. It is high in fiber and low in calories.  Spinach is also high in antioxidants, supports brain and eye health, has been shown to protect against certain diseases, and helps to lower blood pressure when regularly consumed.  

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Artichokes are no joke either. They, too, are full of vitamins, including folate, magnesium, manganese, potassium, as well as vitamins K and C.  Like spinach, artichokes are high in fiber, full of antioxidants, and have been shown, when consumed daily, to help regulate blood pressure. Additionally, artichokes promote liver health and are a unique source of prebiotics, which are beneficial gut bacteria that can boost immunity, assist in digestion, and benefit mood.

Of course, I can share all the benefits of these two nutritional, anti-inflammatory powerhouses, but let’s be honest, for most people, myself included, it’s all about the taste. Does this dip taste good, in addition to being made with beneficial ingredients?  Is it worthy of being shared with others?   

I had my favorite taste tasters, and pickiest eaters, Maddie, and my husband, John, taste the dip, and miracle of all miracles, they both liked it!  Maddie, the pickiest of the two, said she loved it just as I made it.  Her only wish was that we had baguette crackers like her friend served it with.  John, typically not as picky, filled up and ate a big soup bowl worth of dip; however, he added both parmesan and mozzarella cheese to his bowl because he, “wouldn’t want to eat too healthy over the holidays!”  Meanwhile, I served up the dip on a plain baked potato for my dinner, and let me just say that was one tasty dish!

Whether you make it with, or without dairy, you’re still packing a healthy punch of powerful, propitious plants. Serve it up for your next favorite gathering and watch it disappear.  No one ever has to know the dip benefits their health too! 

From my home to yours, may you have a prosperous and healthy 2023.

Spinach Artichoke Dip

Plant-based with dairy-free and gluten-free options

Ingredients

1 cup (raw) cashews, soaked overnight or at least 4+ hours

1 ¼  cup Greek or plant-based Greek yogurt (can substitute with mayonnaise)

¼ cup water

12-16 ounces (1 package) frozen spinach, thawed and drained

1 14 ounce can artichokes, drained and chopped

⅓ cup finely chopped onion

2 teaspoons minced garlic

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon

1 teaspoon braggs liquid aminos (or soy sauce, if don’t need gluten free)

 ½ teaspoon salt, or to taste

½ teaspoon onion powder

½ teaspoon pepper

Optional additions: Mix in up to 4 ounces or ½  cup of any of the following ingredients:

cream cheese (or vegan variation), parmesan/romano/pecorino cheese, soft goat cheese, and/or mozzarella cheese, if desired

Directions

Preheat oven to 400 degrees

Coat a small casserole dish with cooking spray (2 quart size).

In a food processor or high speed blender, blend cashews, yogurt and water until creamy, about 1-2 minutes.

Add cashew mixture to a large mixing bowl and stir in the rest of the ingredients.

Spread dip evenly in the casserole dish.

*Bake 20-30 minutes, or until top turns golden brown

Serve warm with veggies, tortilla chips, crackers, smear over your favorite toasted bread, or even a baked potato.

Store leftovers in an airtight container and refrigerate.

Serve warm with crackers, tortilla chips, or baguette chips

*Serves 6-10 as appetizer

Through the eyes of a child

“Chin up, chin up. Everybody loves a happy face.’–E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web

“If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. This is the most basic kind of peace work.”–Thich Nhat Hanh

Landon and Grayson often greet me in the morning with bright-eyed smiles and plenty of discoveries about the morning.

One of the special joys in my life are the smiles of toddlers and young children at the school in which I work.  As an educator working on a school campus setting that provides care/education for children, ages 6-weeks through 12th grade in different buildings, I often see parents and other educators dropping off their children for daycare or preschool.  Some of the little ones are sleepy in the morning, others are crying, some are shy, and others walk in–or are carried in—with a smile on their face and a twinkle in their eye.  They jabber, babble, talk, or even sing with joy, depending upon their age/stage of development.  

I could be having a rough start to my day, but if I happen to walk through the campus parking lot alongside a staff member’s bright-eyed child, smile as wide as the sky itself, I can’t help but smile too.  Before long, the child has engaged me into a conversation, and all the previous negative energy of the morning fades.  I share in the delight of their discovery of a rock or a piece of mulch, and smile back enthusiastically when they show me their shoes, their mittens, or their hat.  They find happiness in the very things I tend to overlook or take for granted.

Then there are the babies–wrapped, swaddled, and layered into their parent’s arms.  Face peeking out over their caretaker’s shoulder, eyes blinking in the morning air.  Those large round orbs, of all shades, take me in, and then, as if I were a royal subject, reward me with a smile.  I can’t help but smile back.

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The babies, toddlers, and young children look at me and the scenario unfolding around them with fresh eyes and innate good cheer.  Eyes that are free from judgment.  Eyes that do see my age, my skin color, my size, or care about my socioeconomic status, religious/political affiliation, and so forth.  They only see me smiling back at them and hear my affirming voice.  

Possessing the ability to look at the world and others without motive is a powerful concept.  This is the lesson young children and babies teach, but because we are so busy, or our lives are so removed from young children, we miss the lesson.  Imagine, looking at each new day, event, person, even the great outdoors with fresh eyes.  What magic, what wonders, what friendly people do we miss because our brains have a tendency to be drawn to to-do lists, work, worries, irritations, conflicts, gossip, bad news, and so forth. 

However, children, until we teach them otherwise, are inherently open and accepting. They have no preconceptions about all the things we, as adults, begin to define, discern, and draw lines of division around.  A dog’s tail is a thing of wonder to a child.  Common dandelions are flower puffs to be plucked, sniffed, touched, and held as an object of fascination.  Birds are special creatures who fly and sing for their amusement. Time is of no consequence, and space is meant to be explored–be the space a sidewalk, yard, a floor, or even cabinets of a kitchen.

Miss Evalynn often greets me in the morning with bright, inquisitive eyes.

Of course, as adults, we cannot conduct ourselves exactly in the same manner as young children.  However, there are certain behaviors for which we can adopt and put into practice more often.  The first of which is smiling.  

The late Thich Nhat Hahn was once asked why someone should smile when they weren’t feeling happy.  He responded that smiling was a practice.  Hahn went on to explain that when we smile, we release tension from our face muscles which in turn releases body tension.  The less tension we have, the more we smile. And the more we smile, the more others notice, and in turn, they smile back, often initiating a chain event of others smiling too.  A smile, he explained, is “an ambassador of goodwill”.

The act of smiling is contagious, as Hahn pointed out, and a sincere smile has the potential to change the trajectory of a moment.  Imagine the power of one person smiling, which triggers another person to smile in response.  Then that person’s smile causes another person to smile, and so the chain continues.  This is the first lesson of young children.

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Another lesson of young children is viewing the world and others with an open mind:  Looking widely, listening carefully, and taking in your surroundings without jumping to conclusions and immediately passing judgment.  Obviously, there are certain situations in which quick judgements/decisions are required; however, by remaining a calm, lucid, and observant presence, the more likely a pragmatic outcome can be achieved.  

Appreciation for the small things is another lesson provided by children.  When my own daughter was young, we would sometimes walk through the woods.  Her dad’s pant’s pockets would get weighed down from all of the “treasures” she would find along the way.  From sparkling rocks to a kaleidoscope of leaves–crimson, gold, and burnt orange, and from a discarded snail shell to a special stick perfect for digging, it was those little delights that added up to big pockets of joy!  The world continues to be full of small treasured moments that we too can collect along life’s path, if we view the world as a child. 

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Finally, there is the lesson of the restorative power of laughter and the healing power of love.  One needs only to observe–or recall–the ease with which a child can transition from tears to laughter with the embrace of a trusted loved one, and then the way in which they can explode into laughter, when afterwards, an adult gives them a raspberry.  Laughter and love are also contagious, and as the children demonstrate to me on a regular basis, can be the salve to a world full of hurt and sorrow.

Therefore, I encourage you to try, if only for one day, or part of a day, to practice viewing the world with the eyes of a child.  Smile at others and even to yourself.  Observe events and others with openness and without motive.  Notice and gather the small blessings. Enjoy a good belly laugh, or five, and, like a child offering you a flower, offer love to others (think: generosity, gentleness, patience . . .), and see what happens.  Who knows how many lives/situations your child-like focus will affect . . . including your own!  

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Exercise your right to JOY

“Around the world, people who are physically active are happier and more satisfied with their lives.”–Kelly McGonigal

“Movement awakes and activates many of our mental capacities.”–Carla Hannaford

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I was going through the movements of getting ready for my work day half-heartedly listening to a podcast whose title had promised much.  Unfortunately, like many podcasts, it ended up being another interview designed to promote the sale of a book. My phone was off to the side, away from my point of focus, so I didn’t immediately stop the interview.  

Despite my lack of focus/interest, my ears perked up when I overhead a nugget of an idea.  Unfortunately, I cannot quote the idea precisely since I wasn’t fully focused.  However, the kernel of its intent resonated with me.  It was the idea that the main focus of exercise should not necessarily be to get “fit,” to maintain or lose weight, sleep better, or any of the other valid reasons.  Instead, the main goal of all exercise/movement should be to increase joy.

This was such an interesting thesis that I had to dive more into the topic, and it turns out science has quite a bit to say about this.  Of course, I nearly always feel better when I can integrate movement into my day.  Plus, I typically felt better after more “formal” exercise sessions.  However, this was all anecdotal.  

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Before diving into the research a few days later, my mind kept going back to the notion of reframing our relationship with exercise.  Dropping the typical exercise narratives–weight management, fitness goals, therapeutic/emotional release, better sleep and so forth was fascinating. Of course, exercise provides all of those goals and more, but the idea of letting those be the side dishes, and allowing joy to be the main course was intriguing.

After perusing numerous articles, I became super excited; I knew this information needed to be shared with my local community and beyond.  This felt especially important since I have previously written pieces fostering the notion that movement is for every unique body–even those with limitations, and it can be incorporated into daily life even on the busiest of days.  Armed with this information, I was ready to spread the word: More Movement = More Joy!  

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Exercise, even in short bursts of time, improves one mood. A study conducted by West Virginia University found that middle school students who regularly exercise feel overall happier.  This was a no brainer! Ask any educator what their students’ behavior and mood is like on days they don’t have recess versus days they get it, and you’ll most likely get an earful.  Kids instinctively know they need movement, and if they can’t get it via the playground, athletics, dance, etc.–they are going to find ways to move more animatedly in the classroom.  Otherwise, if kept from moving, they become sullen, whiney, moody, or even combative/confrontational. And, this is also true for adults.

Interestingly, in one study, researchers determined specific movements that not only are associated with the feeling of joy, but also enhance the joy when completed.  These include: reaching, swaying, bouncing, shaking, jumping, and an action called, “celebration,” an action that mimics tossing confetti overhead with both hands. One researcher, Kelly McGonigal, writing for the New York Times, created, shared, and posted a video in the article, “The Joy Workout”, based upon these specific movements.  The video is approximately eight minutes long, and can be easily accessed through a quick click of keys.  (It is important to note, after giving it a try myself, not all movements are appropriate for those with limited mobility or injuries; however, movements could be modified or even completed while sitting.)  

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Another interesting study I ran across stated that simply standing, sitting, or moving with a more open posture, as opposed to a closed posture, can likewise increase positive feelings.  Moreover, a smaller 2021 study focused on participants who were asked to go through a series of movements similar to those McGonigal studied.  Once more, movement, even those completed in a seated posture, increased feelings of happiness. Clearly, exercising with the goal of joy in mind is not a crazy notion.

My research continued, including studies from the University of Michigan, University of Iowa, University of Texas, and Northeastern University, just to name a few.  What I found was that scientists tended to agree that all forms of exercise/movement are beneficial when performed safely.  That said, aerobic exercise currently seems to have a slight edge overall in brain boosting potential, but that may be because it appears to be the most researched. However, all conclude that exercise and movement benefit the young, seniors, and all ages in between.  Whether a short burst of activity or a more formal workout, movement ameliorates the effects of depression and anxiety by boosting the production of serotonin, and other feel-good chemicals and decreasing stress-inducing hormones. 

Exercise your right to enJOY movement with friends and family.

When we move, we increase our heart rate, which, in turn, moves more oxygen to the brain. As numerous studies indicate, increased oxygen to the brain mitigates symptoms of anxiety and depression. Furthermore, movement/exercise, when repeated frequently enough, can give rise to new neurons in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for not only emotions, but also memory and learning!  This means that movement/exercise not only affects your brain in the moment in which you are participating, but it also makes positive structural changes over time.

So back to “The Joy Workout.” Does it work?  Well, only you can decide that. I will say that I found it clever, cute, and definitely made me smile.  However, you do not have to do “The Joy Workout” in order to feel joy in movement.  I found multiple, what I like to call, “movement-snacks,” videos and apps that offer 10-minute or less movement breaks if that’s your thing, such as the 7-minute workout, available on-line and in app version.  

Joy can be increased through movement, step-by-step.

Of course, there are so many other ways to increase movement from taking short walk breaks, to parking farther away from your destination, from walking to another floor for a restroom break to simply stretching or walking/marching in place on commercial or pop-up breaks, and so much more. The important thing, researchers noted, is that you find ways to move and/or exercise that you enjoy, that can easily be incorporated into your daily routine, so that you will do them on a regular basis in order to reap all those joyful benefits.

Ultimately, who doesn’t want to feel more joy moving into the new year?  Help boost yourself towards that goal by determining ways you like to move.  The worst movement mistakes you can make are inactivity or repeatedly moving/exercise in a way in which you dread it.  Let’s keep it simple.  Focus on moving more, smiling more, and feeling more joy overall.  It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.

Take a leap of faith, move for joy!

Do you disturb the peace, or perpetuate it?

  “If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. This is the most basic kind of peace work.”–Thich Nhat Hanh

The tail twitches and crouching ensues. Hips raised, ears flattened, the tail twitches more rapidly.

“LJ, stop!”

He remains immobile and continues his focus.

“LJAAAY,” said with slow emphasis on the A-sound.

A look is tossed over his lowered shoulders, signaling he doesn’t feel like listening.

Hand reaches for the spray bottle, and John, my husband, walks towards LJ, trigger aimed.  That is all it took. LJ, our solidly black cat, takes off in an attempt to avoid being squirted, but he’s not to be conquered.  Not yet. 

He circles back around the dining room table and reenters the same room through another entry point as if we can not see him.  Meanwhile, the desire of his pouncing antics, Tippi (Tail), our 14 year old gray cat, with the exceptions of tuxedo white on her chest and tufts of white on the tips of her paws and tail, sits peacefully undisturbed.  The only sign that she is aware of his shenagings is the very slow whishing of her tail along the top of the carpet.

LJ prepares to pounce once more; however, John rapidly squirts water in LJ’s direction.  Although John isn’t trying to precisely hit LJ, the sound and sight of the water sends LJ scuttingly out of the room.

Tippi looks towards where the water missed its target, turns her head back to its original position as her body sighs towards the floor in a perfect cat loaf.  Her tail encircles her body once more.

Throughout LJ’s attack, Tippi remained peaceful, never hissing or spewing.  While her tail signaled her awareness, she did not otherwise bring attention to LJ’s negativity.  Instead, she chose to remain at peace with it.  Vigilant, but non-reactive.  

John and I have watched this play out repeatedly, yet no matter how many times LJ attempts to attack Tippi Tail, she rarely responds out of anger. To be sure, Tippi will occasionally respond if he corners her. Mostly, though, she remains peaceful and at ease.  

LJ is a bit younger than Tippi and has not moved from the self-absorbed stage of life.  He wants to be the center of attention on his terms.  If the humans in his home, family members or visitors, aren’t paying attention to him, he finds ways to draw attention to himself.

For example, if Tippi decides to sit with one of us, due to her arthritis, we find ways to offer her assistance to climb up beside us, such as slightly lowering the reclining portion of a chair or couch.  As she tries to lift herself up to position, LJ will haughtily cross the room and attempt to “beat” her to the desired person.  If we move a step stool near the bay window, in order to assist Tippi’s assent to the cat beds in the window, LJ will try to block her attempts in order to claim the bay window area for himself.

Nonetheless, Tippi Tail finds ways to persist with grace and equanimity.  Her peace remains (mostly) unflappable.  Neither does she appear to hate LJ, nor does she appear to be jealous of his presence.  Instead, she seems to understand with a sense of compassion and patience that he can’t help what is inside him–his tendencies to compete, invade, dominate and exploit perceived weakness.  

Due to her serene perseverance, there reigns an unspoken peace between the two cats . . . most moments.  The more peaceful and tolerant Tippi becomes, the more LJ is learning to become that way.  It has taken years, but there are times I will wake up in the morning to find both cats sleeping at the foot of the bed–not necessarily near each other–but in the same approximate area. Furthermore, it is not unusual during cold days to find both of them soaking up the morning sun in the same room and within the same area, albeit, not touching each other.  

Sometimes, upon waking, I am surprised to discover, after I turn on the bedroom lamp, that both LJ and Tippi Tail had been peacefully sleeping at the foot of the bed.

Thich Nhat Hanh once wrote that, “When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over.” When LJ sees Tippi with one of us, he suffers jealousy because he perceives that she is getting all the attention and love.  If he sees that Tippi wants to be in one of the cat beds in the bay window, he suffers fear because he is afraid there isn’t enough secure space for him in the sunlight to cozy for a nap.  

While they both lived their early lives as stray cats, it is possible that something happened in LJ’s past that causes him to remain stunted and insecure.  Then, again, due to the fact, Tippi is older, and lived with us longer; perhaps, she feels solidly secure with her position in our family.  It could also be that she remembers a time when she was the younger cat in the house, competitively trying to exploit the weakness of one of our former cats, in order to gain our attention.  Possibly, she has simply outgrown those impulsive years. 

Whatever the reason(s), Tippi seems to understand that within LJ are potential seeds of love, compassion, playfulness and peace.  However, she also appears to sense that LJ is dominated by seeds of willfulness, anger, fear, and insecurity.  Due to age, circumstances, and/or experience, she is mindful of these seeds both within herself and within LJ.  Therefore, it often appears that she uses this insight to mindfully choose her actions–modeling peaceful behaviors, and only fighting back in order to keep from getting hurt when he corners her.  

Of course, I have personified my cats in order to make a point. To live in peace and harmony with others, we must recognize that all humans have similar needs/desires:  food, water and shelter, safety, esteem/value, love/belonging and so forth.  There is often fear and/or a feeling of lack when humans sense one of these is missing.  Additionally, everyone has the potential to develop and foster seeds of insight, self-awareness, and self-control, but not everyone focuses on developing these, much less developing them at similar rates.  

As the story of Tippi and LJ illustrates, it is important to be aware of our own insecurities, fears, and impulses in order to exercise self-control.  Recognizing our own proclivities with compassion and understanding, allows us to offer that same consideration and empathy for others.  

While this is never easy, and it takes practice, by learning to be less-reactive and modeling more appropriate ways of speaking, engaging, and responding to others, the more we can reduce conflict.  Of course, this is not to say we passively agree or accept all behavior and actions; rather, it is important to recognize that not every word, action, and deed with which we disagree needs a response.  Furthermore, if a response is required, how much more productive and beneficial they can be when given with considered insight/thought, self-control, and discipline   

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we could all learn to do what Tippi does with LJ– pursue patience, tolerance, and think before acting.  

The more Tippi practices patience and tolerance with him, the more LJ is becoming more at peace with her.

Combating SAD and those winter blues

Dawn is one of my favorite times of the day.  All is quiet and peaceful.  The colors of indigo, purple, and blue gently fade into shades of boldness– cantaloupe and blood orange. Ultimately, such an audacious start cannot last, and those bold colors melt into a subtle blush.  It is as if all of nature is holding its breath.  There is a hush that can be felt, rather than heard. This quiet sweetness is often intercepted by the temerity of a bird singing, “Chip-a-we, chip-a-we.”  Soon other birds echo their harmonies–little melodies of hope.

As the sun rise wipes away the darkness from the skies, yesterday is officially rinsed away.  Lifelong teacher that she is, Mother Nature, hands each of us a new canvas.  We can begin again.  

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But what about those days, when skies are blanketed with the clouds of fall and winter?  When the morning doesn’t possess the grandeur of the symbolic gesture of a slate cleaned.  When, instead, all those burgeoning clouds seem overflowing with all of the errors and mishaps of the previous day, and the sorrows and pains of the future appear to hang low on the horizon of inky darkness.  When the mind, like a glass bottle tossed into the sea, drifts from one fret to another.

Another winter looms larger than ever.  The past feels forever chained to the soul, and the future, oh-the-future, what more frets could it hold?  Our thoughts begin to plague us. We are held in bondage to our thoughts.  Bondaged to the what-ifs, the how will I be able to, and the weight of the unseen dangers lurking within every charcoal layer of gloominess.

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It is not uncommon for many of us to fight this sort of mental tug-of-war as cozy, amber autumnal hues dissipate under winter’s drab, gray overcoat.  An affable cook with whom I worked during my long-passed college days, named Shirley, would say, “Ah, honey, that ain’t nothin’ but them winter blues.”  She’d tell me to be grateful for my life, praise God more, and, “Bundle up, git outside, girl! Go for a walk, and git ya sum fresh a’r. A little cold won’t harm ya, and it’ll chase them ol’ blues away!”   Turns out, Ms. Shirley was on to something.

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According to the Cleveland Clinic, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is a form of depression, triggered by the change in seasons, typically beginning in fall, and worsening throughout the winter months until the days begin to lengthen at some point in spring.  It more commonly occurs in young people and women, but men are by no means immune to it.  The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that about 15 million adults, or 7.1%, of the US population experience SAD, with another 10% – 20% of the population experiencing some form of the winter blues.  

With so much of the population already experiencing depression, anxiety, and/or phobias, it felt important to share a few established practices, according to several leading medical institutions, for coping with SAD and the winter blues.  

Go outside. One of the most common techniques is getting outside for a walk, even for a few minutes, like Ms. Shirley suggested all those years ago.  Even on cold and cloudy days, getting outside provides multiple benefits.  It exposes you to light, and the movement increases blood flow and oxygenation, all of which are good for producing those feel good hormones.  

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Regular exercise.  Along those same lines, according to Helpguide.org International, regular exercise–whether you are doing it inside or outside–can be as effective as medication, without the worrisome side effects. Choose a form that is rhythmic and continuous and also incorporates both arms and legs, such as weightlifting, walking, swimming, tai chi, dancing, and so forth, as this provides the most benefit to mental wellbeing.  Regular exercise and/or continuous movement boosts serotonin, endorphins, and other mood enhancing brain chemicals.  Furthermore, exercise and/or movement improves sleep and boosts self esteem. 

Light exposure. Expose yourself to as much light as possible. Open up drapes and blinds during the day.  Sit and work, if possible, near sources of natural light.  Walk outside, and if you can tolerate the temperature, sit outside, even for a few moments.  Natural light is another way to boost serotonin.  Additionally, consider bright light therapy–special lamps or daylight simulation light bulbs–to use while reading, eating, working, and so forth. 

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Be social.  Reach out to family and friends.  Volunteer your time.  Meet friends for lunch, dinner, or coffee.  Join a support group.  It doesn’t matter so much what you choose to do, rather it’s about making social connections.  Even if you don’t feel like it, being social is a mood elevator.

Eat right.  Depression causes sufferers to crave starchy carbs, which leads to lethargy, lack of motivation, and even greater mood swings.  However, choosing fresh fruits and vegetables, along with complex carbohydrates, such as whole grain bread, brown rice, oatmeal, and even bananas, can boost that ever desired serotonin, without the sugar crash. Additionally, omega rich foods, such as oily fish, soybeans, walnuts, and flaxseeds, are known mood boosters, and, if taking antidepressants, may increase their effectiveness.

Keep a regular sleep schedule and engage in stress reduction practices.  Both are beneficial to ameliorating SAD symptoms.   Avoiding naps, or limiting their length, prevents the sluggishness that can often accompany them. Managing or reducing stress through various techniques, such as yoga, prayer, meditation, gratitude journals, and other mindfulness activities may be beneficial.  Other related tips include, completing one activity/thing you love to do daily, and even watching videos, shows, and/or movies that make you laugh are beneficial to reducing symptoms associated with SAD or those winter blues.

Wint-o-green mints.  Ok, so this isn’t an established practice.  However, it is my technique for using mints to remind me that if I “wint” int-o the present mo-mint, I can stop borrowing tomorrow’s troubles.  While I can’t say it’s great practice for my teeth, those round orbs of refresh-mint offer a sweet signal for my brain to slow down my monkey mind, breathe slower, and focus on one moment/thing at time.  Mint = Mind In Now-Time.

Acknowledging that winter can make many of us feel a little sadder is important.  Not only does it allow us to feel more compassion and empathy for those experiencing SAD, but it also gives us permission to recognize those feelings within ourselves, should we begin to experience them.  I can’t say I am a fan of colder temperatures, but I still get outside most days of the week, like it or not.  In the meantime, I can’t help but think Ms. Shirley would be pleased to know science now proves her sage advice to be true.

Get into the holiday baking mood with Banana Strawberry Bread with optional chocolate chips–with gluten-free and vegan options

“As long as you know how to bake, life is sure to be sweet!”–Unknown

One Sunday afternoon this past summer, I was talking with my Dad via phone as he now lives in Florida.  He shared that after church service, a fellow worshiper shared slices of homemade strawberry bread with others.  Listening to Dad, I decided to add “strawberry bread” to my list of writing/cooking ideas.  Of course, Dad was not surprised.

It took some trial and error, but I think I found the sweet spot.  Of course, when I bake, I am trying to meet unique dietary needs.  Selfishly, I prefer baking recipes that have the ability to be gluten free due to my celiac disease; however, I also like to find versatile ingredient scaffolding for those that can safely consume wheat.  Furthermore, I choose to eat plant-based; therefore, I also like to play with ingredients that offer that option as well.  Bottom line, however, if it tastes good and is easy to make, most people don’t care if it’s gluten-free and/or plant-based. 

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The recipe all came together after picking up a grocery order one day only to discover I was given extremely ripe, fully brown bananas instead of bright yellow.  Once I saw those bananas, I knew how I wanted to create my own version of strawberry bread.  I took further inspiration from The Big Man’s World website.  

Strawberries and bananas are complementary and commonly paired in many food items, such as drink mixes, smoothies, yogurts, fruit-cups, and so forth.  Additionally, bananas are one way to bake without eggs to bind ingredients together into a batter with a creamy texture and balanced moisture composition.  Furthermore, bananas add a subtle sweetness to baking recipes that tends to compliment many ingredients.  

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When baking without eggs, I also add a tablespoon of vinegar.  This depression era egg replacement reacts with the baking soda to create carbon dioxide that helps baked goods rise as they bake.  Plus, vinegar overall improves bread texture, whether baking with or without eggs.

You may notice that I use date sugar in this recipe, although it can be replaced with your preferred form of sugar. Date sugar is considered less processed due to the fact that it is made from dried dates pulverized into a powder; therefore, it retains much of its fiber and nutrients.  That said, don’t be fooled, it is still sugar, and like any sweetener, it should be consumed in moderation.

If you like to bake for the holiday season, this bread will lend itself to potluck gatherings, as it can be made a day or two ahead of time.  It would also make a nice holiday gift or simply a fun weekend addition to brunch.  It stores well, becoming more moist with age. I have toasted leftover slices of it in my air-fryer and reheated it in the microwave–either way works.  Plus, you can substitute your favorite chopped nuts in lieu of the chocolate chips–I just happen to like chocolate!  It’s tasty plain or smeared with butter or cream cheese as my daughter and husband  do or with your favorite nut butter, as I like to do.

This recipe is versatile, using fresh or frozen fruit. (Hint: I save all over-ripe bananas–and even strawberries–in a freezer bag in my freezer and pull out what I need anytime I’m baking!) Notice all the ways I offer substitutions for the original ingredients I used, so that you can meet your own individual needs/taste preferences.  Sprinkle the top of the batter with crystallized or festive-colored sugar before baking if desired and find ways to make this recipe your own!

From my home to yours, here’s to holiday baking!

Banana Strawberry Bread with optional chocolate chips

 with gluten free and vegan options

Ingredients

2 cups oat flour, can replace with all-purpose or gluten free flour

1/2 cup date sugar, can replace with regular or brown sugar

¾ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon salt

1 ½ cup mashed banana (about 2 bananas)

1/4 cup applesauce, can replace with oil or melted butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

¼ cup milk, dairy or non-dairy work

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

½ + ¼  cup + sliced strawberries, frozen or fresh

¼  cup + 1 tablespoon chocolate chips, gluten free and/or vegan; 

(can replace chocolate chips with chopped nuts)

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Prepare loaf by spraying with nonstick cooking spray

Mash banana and set aside

In a large mixing bowl, stir together dry ingredients

Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients

Stir in remaining ingredients, including banana, into the dry EXCEPT for strawberries and chocolate chips

Fold in ½ cup of sliced strawberries and ¼ cup of chocolate chips

Pour batter into loaf pan

Top with remaining strawberries and chocolate chips

Bake for 50-70 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean

Cool in pan for 10 or so minutes, use spatula to gently lift out of the loaf pan.

Finish cooling on wire rack

Slice to serve.

Can be kept in an airtight container, once completely cooled, in the fridge for up to five days.

Can also be stored in a ziplock freezer bag and frozen for up to 3 months.

In a large bowl stir together dry ingredients and make a well in the center. Then set aside.
In a medium bowl, stir together wet ingredients.
Pour wet ingredients into the center of dry ingredients and mix with spoon until blended.
Finally, stir in sliced (or chopped, if preferred) strawberries and chocolate chips or nuts.
Bake in oven, and allow it to cool in pan at least 10 minutes before using a spatula to gently lift out loaf. Set loaf on cooling rack, and allow it to continue to cool.
Slice it up and eat it plain or with your favorite toppings, such as maple syrup, honey, nut butter, butter, or cream cheese to name a few.
Personally, I love nut butter smeared on a heated slice and allow the warmth of the bread to melt it.

Unwrap your best holiday health: Ways to keep moving from Thanksgiving through those New Year’s Celebration

“Take care of your body. It’s the one place you have to live.”–Jim Rohn

This is my fifth installment of celebrating and encouraging movement for everyone.  If you’ve read my previous pieces, you already know that my goal is fairly simple.  I want to encourage everyone to move more in whatever manner works best for you, your body, and your schedule.  I do not believe in one-size fits all when it comes to fitness and health goals.  Instead, I am writing to explore techniques, habits, and motivations for incorporating more movement into life, even during the upcoming holiday season.

Why should you consider maintaining your movement/exercise routine during the weeks of Thanksgiving through the New Year celebration?  There are many possible reasons, but only you can decide your why(s).  Personally, it allows me to feel as if I have accomplished one positive thing for the day.  If everything else derails throughout the day, at least I exercised–even if it had to be for a reduced amount of time.  However, there are so many more valid reasons.

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Increased movement and exercise is one positive way to combat the stress that often accompanies this season.  Although stress isn’t a disease, per se, it is the body’s physical, mental, and emotional responses to external events, especially change, which often occur from Thanksgiving through the New Year celebrations. High levels of holiday stress can detrimentally impact mental health.  However, being physically active throughout the holidays is a proven technique to significantly reduce stress levels.

Along the same lines, exercise during the holiday season can provide structure to your schedule. If you have already committed to moving more throughout your day/week, and you have already been consistently applying it, then continuing to follow through with that plan builds at least a sense of familiarity and comfort.  Even if you have to reduce your time and/or days for physical activity, there is at least that semblance of reassurance that you are choosing to still take care of yourself, which can increase the likelihood of making another healthier choice throughout your day/week.

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As counterintuitive as it may seem, exercise gives you more energy during the holidays.  Harvard Health explains it this way. Increased movement and exercise increases oxygen circulation, which in turn, allows your body to energy more efficiently and therefore function better.  Furthermore, exercise increases cellular level changes, including augmenting the production of mitochondria inside your muscle cells. Having more mitochondria translates to your body possessing an adequate energy supply.  Plus, exercise boosts the production of the feel-good hormones that likewise make you feel more energetic.

Exercise and increased movement is a proven way to combat anxiety and depression, often associated with the holiday season. Let’s be honest, for many people, the holidays often serve as a reminder of loved ones and traditions lost to the past.  For others, the increased requirements for more socialization, or so-called holiday-expectations, can trigger the desire to curl up in a fetal position and hide until the season is over.  Furthermore, increased levels of darkness often precipitate seasonal affective disorders (SAD), a form of depression that affects approximately 10 million people annually. Physical activity is a proven method for reducing symptoms by releasing endorphins that increase positive feelings.  

Physical activity can reduce increased sedentary behavior associated with late fall and winter months. Colder and/or inclement weather can reduce motivation to get outside and move. It’s only natural to want to stay in and watch sporting events, stream series, or watch old movies while noshing your way through comfort food snacks and often calorie laden beverages.  While there’s nothing inherently wrong with these behaviors, too much inactivity is not beneficial to the body, mind, and even spirit.  A commitment to physical activity, even if it is laps around your house on commercial breaks during sporting events or between streaming episodes will go a long way promoting your overall well-being.

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In spite of all of these benefits, it can still feel challenging to maintain that fitness plan or movement goals you have established for yourself in previous months.  However, there are ways that can help you overcome obstacles.  The key is finding the ones that work for you as no one method/approach works for everyone.

Walk, march, or even jog around the neighborhood, if weather permits, or inside your house.  Even walking, marching, or jogging in place is beneficial!  If you don’t have time for your usual amount of time, such as 20 or 30 minutes, break it up into smaller time periods spread throughout the day.  If that isn’t possible, even one shorter burst of activity is better than none!

Consider exercising with an app, DVD, or streaming platform.  There are numerous apps and platforms that are free or reasonably priced.  In fact, you can even look up “holiday themed workouts” on Youtube lasting anywhere from 10-30+ minutes!

Inexpensive, portable exercise equipment are the perfect solution when traveling.

Invest in personal, home exercise equipment for use during inclement weather, traveling, or when short on time. Resistance bands and tubing, jump ropes, and exercise mats  are inexpensive, and easy to transport when traveling and/or visiting family/friends. The bands/tubing come in different sizes and resistant levels and require little training.  In fact, most come with a workout plan or can be found online.

Think outside the box, but keep it simple: 

  • Wake up 15-20 minutes earlier for a short movement period.  
  • Be mindful of the number of steps you take throughout the day, and challenge yourself to complete more than the day before.  
  • Wear exercise shoes when shopping and add power walk breaks in between stores or consider more frequent walks to your parked car after a store visit to stow away bags. 
  • Rethink your lunchtime, if your job allows, and use it as an opportunity for a short walk.
  • Challenge a fitness buddy to hold each other accountable to a realistic daily or weekly goal.
  • Complete bodyweight exercises throughout the day, such as push-ups against desk, body weight squats and lunges, chair tricep dips, twists, stretch, and so forth.  You might get a whole body workout by the day’s end!
  • Set realistic expectations and plan accordingly.  Consider reducing time/numbers of days per week, and then make a commitment to those.
  • Make movement part of the family/friend traditions if possible.  A family walk or dance session after a big holiday meal can not only improve digestion, but take the edge of any accumulated stress.
  • Make a holiday playlist.  It doesn’t have to be holiday music.  Instead, create a special playlist that motivates you when your energy is low.
  • Make sleep a priority too.  A well rested body moves with greater ease.
  • Hydrate consistently.  (Think of all the added sodium in those holiday treats.)

The holidays do not have to derail your exercise/movement routine.  There’s only one you and one body in which you live.  Therefore, think of physical activity during the holidays as the one gift you can give to yourself.  With a bit of flexibility, creative thinking, and determined mindset, you can continue to unwrap better health, one step, or choice of movement, at a time. 

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Fall for The uniqueness of your own heartbeat

“There are days I drop words of comfort on myself like falling leaves and remember that it is enough to be taken care of by myself.”–Brian Andreas

Several years ago, I had the privilege of taking classes in order to become a certified yoga teacher. YTT, as it is often referred, was a year-long process that involved much reading, studying, and, of course, yoga practice. One of the more fascinating facts that I learned during this process was that each person has a unique heartbeat. It is a point of awe for which I find myself contemplating at times when I am in need of self-comfort/reassurance.

Driving home recently on a golden fall lit afternoon with gilded leaves swirling and whirling in a dance down to Mother Earth, I thought of our Creator and the unique gifts of creation all around. Ahead of me were the rolling hills of southern Ohio and beneath my road was a ribbon of river, sunlight glinting off its glassy flow.  Cracking the window and turning off the radio, I inhaled the crisp fall air as it glided through the car’s interior embracing me like an old friend.  Instinctively, one hand went to the heartspace of my chest, and in the moment, I felt the pulse of gratitude and sighed with peace.

Now, to be honest, it was also a sigh of relief.  I was more than happy to have the challenging work week behind me! However, that simple moment of gratitude and relief served as a reminder of the uniqueness of my heartbeat, and hence, the uniqueness of my own life.  Which led to my mind’s meanderings of the singularity of each individual life.

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It turns out that national agencies, such as NASA and The Pentagon (at the request of US Special Forces) , as well as private technology companies, such as Bionym, a Toronto based company, recently acquired by Inominds out of San Jose, have been researching and harnessing the technology around the unique heartbeats of individuals. According to Andrew D’Souza, the one time president of Bionym, the original maker of Nymi, a wearable device that the uses an ECG to identify the wearer, each one of us has a unique heartbeat that is based upon the size and shape of our hearts as well as the orientation of our heart valves and our unique physiology.  This individualized rhythm can slightly change with age, about every five years, and can also be altered if a person suffers a major cardiac event, such as a heart attack. Nonetheless, even with age or a cardiac event, our heartbeat remains unique to each person. Even when our heart rate is elevated from exercise, stress, or anxiety, D’Souza explains that electrically speaking, our heart waves still look the same. 

Without going into further scientific depth my rabbit-hole deep dive produced, an overall message kept emerging, each person’s heartbeat is definitively different and unquestionably unique to each individual.  The power of this knowledge brought me back to that sense of awe and wonder that I felt on the autumnal afternoon drive home.  Even after an exhausting week in which I felt like one lone worker ant in a colony of ants, each with our own humble roles, knowing that my heartbeat was not like that of anyone else was a comforting reminder that I am, indeed, a uniquely Divine creation. And so are you Dear Reader!

In a world where divisiveness and partisan language seeks to divide, separate, and categorize us into opposing factions, it is worth remembering that each one of us is a unique creation, a child of our Creator.  Our individual heartbeats can serve as a reminder that we are here to, as the saying goes, march to the beat of a different drummer and not necessarily to conform to any one group or one way of being. We were not created to be the same.  Indeed, each one of us is unparalleled, designed to offer our special gifts and talents to the world.  No one else can be me, and no one else can be you!

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Therefore, on days when you’re feeling out of sorts, overlooked, or overwhelmed, place your hand on your heart center.  Feel the one-of-a-kind rhythm of your own heart.  Allow its individualized cadence to serve as a reminder that you do matter.  No one else can be you.  You, and you alone, were created to follow your own beat, and offer your own rhythms to the world.  

Your heartbeat demonstrates that you are special, and YOU ARE.  Know it.  Believe it.  Act on it in a positive way by caring for yourself and your heart, so in turn, you can walk to the beat of your own drumming heart, blessing the world in the unique ways in which only can do. 

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The realness of depression and anxiety

Speaking with a child recently, she spoke to me of the very real pain she felt from her depression and anxiety.  She shared that one of her parents was embarrassed by her need for medication and therapy.  My heart broke for her, and I wished I could make her pain go away.  However, it is not that simple, and all I could do at the time was listen, so she felt heard.   

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The pain of depression, combined with the constant worry of anxiety is very real.  In fact, most of us have felt depressed at some point to a lesser or greater degree, depending upon circumstances.  In fact, my own experiences have been fairly short-lived, no more than 1-2 years, and I was able to continue on with work/life/education, albeit with great difficulty.  For some, it is a challenging seasonal event, tied to the anniversary of an event, holiday, or winter months. However, for many, depression, and its side-kick anxiety, is pervasive, lasting two or more years.

According to a March 2022 World Health Organization report, since the pandemic, there has been a 25% increase in the prevalence of depression and anxiety world wide, with young people and women having been most affected.  In addition, the National Institute of Mental Health adds that young people, aged 18-25, currently have the highest prevalence of mental illness, a whopping 30.6%.  Furthermore, in another WHO report, globally speaking, one in seven adolescents, aged 10-19, are currently experiencing some form of mental illness. Specifically, in the US, the American College of Obstetrician and Gynecologists reports that one in five youth, aged 9-17 years, are experiencing a diagnosable mental illness.  More sobering, acccording to the same report, suicide is the second leading cause of death among those aged 15-24 years old.

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As an educator, parent, and most of all, as a fellow human being, my heart breaks reading these statistics.  It only confirms what I am witnessing and encountering on a daily basis.  More teens and young adults with whom I come into contact on a regular basis are in real pain–whether I am aware of their mental anguish or not.  The most common mental illness among teens and young adults according to several health organizations include generalized anxiety, phobias, and depression.

However, it is not all grim.  Mental illness, especially among teens and young adults, is very treatable and manageable.  There are a wide-array of techniques and support systems designed to address the unique needs of each individual case, no matter the age. 

Treatment often starts with some form of psychotherapy, also known as counseling or therapy.  Therapy may last for only a short period, or over several years, depending upon the person.  It may focus on thoughts and feelings regarding current life, issues in the past, as well as concerns about the future.  Through therapy, the person not only feels supported and less isolated, but typically develops strategies and coping skills designed to address current mental health issues.  Additionally, therapy may also include ways to develop/strengthen specific relationships, overcome fears/insecurities, address past traumas, increase self-compassion and understanding, as well as create a plan for moving forward.

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Medication is often another form of treatment used in tandem with therapy, but it does require monitoring of a psychiatrist or other trained medical doctor.  The most commonly used medications prescribed for depression and anxiety are safe and effective ways to treat mental illness.  Unfortunately, the wait times for such professionals, especially in recent times, can be months long.  

As a result, many school counselors, universities, family doctors, and churches/civic/community centers are stepping up their support for those in need of mental health support. Many universities offer access to free, or nearly, services via in-person, videolink, or phone.  Some church, civic, and community leaders are pooling services to likewise offer hotlines, group therapies, or other activities designed to promote and support mental health. 

Even once a person is diagnosed and in-treatment, progress takes time, and there can set-backs, as well as ups and downs, in the process; however, certain factors do help facilitate treatment/recovery.  These include:

  • Positive support from friends and family
  • Self-direction in determining own direction and goals for recovery
  • Positive environment living/working/educational setting
  • Financial stability
  • Self-responsibility to administer self care needs
The road for treatment, therapy, and recovery may be long and winding with ups and down, but with the right support and environment, a positive outcome can be achieved.

It is worth remembering that the therapy process is unique to each individual.  Those in therapy may not return to where they were before the illness.  Rather, the typical goal of therapy/medication is to increase a person’s ability to manage their own mental health using positive methods/coping strategies while still engaging with life.  

In the meantime, what can mere mortals do to foster and improve our own mental health? Ireland’s Public Health Agency offers five simple ways worth considering in order to maintain and improve our mental well being.  These include:

  • Connect-invest time in building relationships with family, friends, colleagues, and/or neighbors.
  • Be active– this doesn’t necessarily mean joining a gym, although it could, rather the focus is to move more, especially throughout your day, including walking
  • Keep learning-this boosts self-esteem and self-confidence as well as keeps the mind actively engaged
  • Take notice-increase awareness of the present moment; observe–without judgment–how thoughts and feelings fluctuate throughout the day, and how they may, or may not, affect the physical body
  • Give to others-acts of kindness, no matter how big or small, go a long way in helping others and positively impact personal mental well-being.

Mental illness is a very real thing, affecting nearly 50 million people in the United States, but there is hope. If you are experiencing mental health issues, do not be afraid to seek or ask for help.  And, please know that you are NOT alone. 

Furthermore, if you know someone who is suffering from a mental health issue, support them, offer forms of encouragement, and above all, let them know you care.  With so many silent sufferers in the world, it is more important than ever for us to be the light for one another.  

Now, more than ever, it is important to be the light for others with kind gestures, words, and deeds. ✨

Rice Krispie Air Fryer French Toast

“What does the best man at a French wedding do?”

“Make French toast!”

“Why is the French Toast the best team in the baseball game?”

“Because they have the best batter!”

Rice Krispie french toast sticks with melted peanut butter. Gluten-free and vegan options available!

Okay, I’ll try to stop, but in my defense, it’s way past my breadtime as I write this. My mind is crumbling, but I am not toast yet. There are still some ideas left in me, although I think they may be a bit stale. Perhaps, I should settle down, wrap up in a blanket, get warm and toasty, and go to bed to stop all this syrupy humor!

In all seriousness, National French Toast Day is November 28, 2022.  So why write about it in October?  Because I began playing with this recipe in September to, well, toast my birthday! It took several incarnations to get the recipe right, and I wanted to give you, Dear Reader, ample time to experiment with this recipe before the big toasty day.

You say you haven’t heard of National French Toast day?  Well, you’re in good company because neither had I until recently.  How did this obscure holiday come to be?  Based upon my research, no one source seems to know.  However, I did learn some interesting facts about a sweet and savory dish that is a weekend favorite food for many.

Rice Krispie French toast sticks smeared with chocolate powdered peanut butter, topped with strawberries, mixed berries, and chocolate chips!

The origin of French toast is debatable.  One source dated it back to a collection of 4th or 5th century Latin recipes.  While another source dated this eggcellent dish back to sixteenth century Europe. Additionally, the French were historically known for reclaiming old, stale bread, dipping it in egg batter, and frying it up.

It’s been known under a wide variety of names such as, “poor knights pudding,” “pain perdu,” “eggy bread,” and “French fried bread” to name a few.  The name, “French toast,” according to one popular Maryland breakfast restaurant, first appeared in American print in 1871, in the Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink. Regardless of its origins, or name given to this recipe, most of us can agree, French toast is one delicious dish of tasty goodness.

There are many variations for making French toast, but the basic formula includes bread, dipped in batter, typically made out of eggs and milk, and fried in a pan.  Some recipes call for added seasonings such as vanilla and nutmeg, while others call for rich cream and egg yolks with a dash of cinnamon.  Other recipes insist on thick bread, while others aren’t as picky.  

While reading through numerous recipes for French toast, I saw variations in cooking methodology.  Some cooks swear by frying in oil, while others enthusiastically endorse butter.  There were several variations of baked French toast, and even recipes that call for frying up the batter-dipped bread, then dipping it again in the batter, and baking it up.  I even found several French toast casserole recipes that made my mouth water.

Rice Krispie French toast smeared with chocolate powdered peanut butter and topped with strawberries, blueberries, mango, and chocolate chips.

This recipe uses an airfryer, and it offers variations for those with Celiac disease like me (hence the use of gluten free bread and crispy rice cereal).  I personally made this plant based as well by using non-dairy milk and a plant based liquid egg replacement, but that is a highly personal choice that may not be your preference.  The point is, the recipe is flexible and can meet a wide variety of dietary needs.  Plus, using the airfryer, rather than a butter or oil, can be a healthier option for those needing to cut back on dietary fat.  That being said, this recipe can be prepared in the traditional frying manner with butter or oil.

The use of Rice Krispies was intentionally designed for fun; after all, I created this recipe in honor of my own birthday.  I personally loved the way it added extra texture, visual interest, and the taste did not detract from the overall flavor of the batter.  In fact, the cereal gave the recipe a fun and festive vibe that made my inner-child, who needed to be honored on her birthday, smile!

Rather than wait for National French Toast day, why not give this recipe a try?

From my home to yours, I toast to your health and cooking endeavors! 

Rice Krispie Airfryer French Toast sticks

with gluten free and vegan options

Ingredients:

3 large eggs or plant based equivalent

½ cup favorite milk, dairy or non-dairy

1 tablespoon maple syrup

½  teaspoon vanilla extract

¼  teaspoon nutmeg, optional

⅛ teaspoon salt

1 cup Rice Krispies 

4 slices of thicker bread, cut into “sticks” (gluten free if needed)

Directions:

In a small shallow pan, stir together egg, milk, maple syrup, vanilla extract, nutmeg (if using), and salt.  

On a separate plate or shallow dish, spread out Rice Krispies.

Dip bread into batter mixture.

Press battered bread into cereal twice, coating both sides.

Place battered and coated bread sticks into the airfryer, without overlapping, into a single layer.

Turn the airfryer on 375 degrees and cook for 7-8 minutes. 

Repeat the process, if needed, until all “sticks” are cooked.

Keep “sticks” warm until ready to serve.

Top with favorite toppings, syrups, spreads, and/or fruits.

Serve immediately. 

Serves 2.

Recipes can be doubled or tripled if needed.

Refrigerate leftovers for up to three days.

Cut your bread into “sticks”.

You’ll need a few basics to make this gluten and plant based if needed/desired.

First, dip bread into batter.
Next, pressed batter-dipped bread onto Rice Krispies.
Cook up in an air-fryer for 7-8 minutes, or until desired brownness and texture reached. Then add your favorite toppings and enjoy!

Rest, recovery, and self-care: All important aspects of fitness

Self-care is never a selfish act–it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on this earth to offer to others.”–Parker Palmer

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In previous writings, I have written to encourage reluctant movers/exercisers to find ways to increase movement, mobility, and/or exercise into their daily routine.  I absolutely and wholeheartedly believe in the importance of moving more and sitting less.  There is a vast array of scientific evidence that demonstrates movement and gentle exercise increases mental and physical well-being, decreases diseases, and furthers longevity.  While it doesn’t make you bulletproof, there’s not denying its benefits.  That being said, there is also a time and place for self-care AND rest and recovery days as they are known in the fitness industry.

   Let’s first differentiate between the two as both are worthy and valuable tools.  Technically, self-care can be defined as anything you do to take care of yourself.  Self-care can, and should, include a wide range of activities that nurture your physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.  In an ever-evolving world in which more and more value is placed upon hustle, productivity, and work along with the expectation to either pass on vacation days, or if you do, then there is the pressure to continue to work on those days–taking time to care for self is more important than ever.  Plain and simple, self care is vital to the integrity of our own health, so we are more effective both in and out of the work-setting.

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Self care is a practice that can occur on any day of the week or at any time of day. It can be as simple as offering yourself kind words of praise or encouragement when you do something well, such as thinking, “I am proud of you for choosing to do this.”  However, it can also be an entire day, away from work and/or stress, filled with activities that feed your soul, mind, and body.  The point is, self care will vary from person to person and can encompass a variety of actions.

In fact, according to many health experts, areas for which self-care can occur includes many dimensions. Some of the more obvious areas comprise of spiritual, emotional, occupational, and physical well-being.  However, less obvious areas for self-care include intellectual, social, financial, and environmental.  Given these diverse facets for self-care, it creates a vast array of opportunities for self-care activities.  Here are a just a few ideas to get you thinking, but by no means are definitive:

  • Journaling, writing, drawing, creating
  • Spending time outside, gentle walks with pet, hike
  • Spending less and paying down credit cards
  • Reading/listening to books; watching a documentary
  • Change jobs/careers; Clean up that resume
  • Exercise; prioritize sleep; regular medical checkups
  • Volunteer; regularly scheduled social or family events
  • Pray, meditate; read inspirational scriptures; attend the worship service of your choice
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Leaning into daily self-care activities leads to a healthier, more well-rounded life. Just as regular movement/exercise can vary from person to person, and from day to day, self-care will too.  Even when/if current life situations limit time for self-care, a little can go a long way in contributing to our overall well being.

Likewise, rest and recovery days can be part of the self-care plan, and should be essential part of your movement/exercise plan.  Adequate rest and a day or two devoted to recovery offers the body numerous benefits. While our muscles, heart, and lungs become more efficient when we repeatedly complete the same action, such as walking, running, cycling, weightlifting, playing tennis/golf/basketball, or any other sport/activity, it also places stress on those same areas.  Resting and/or a day away from those activities, allow the muscles, lungs, and heart to take a break and recover, allowing you to actually make more progress. 

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Recovery can include completing movements/exercises that are outside of one’s regular routine, such as walkers taking a day to bike, those who play specific sports taking a day to practice yoga, or runners taking a day to swim.  However, recovery can also be a day devoted to rest, or at the very least, a day in which exercise is avoided.  Both types of recovery, in addition to a regular sleep schedule and nutritious eating habits, benefit the body in numerous ways.

Recovery days reduce the likelihood of injury and allow the muscles to rest and repair.  It also reduces muscle fatigue that can decrease performance and reduces muscle pain and soreness. Adding an active recovery day, allows our bodies and minds to experience and try out new forms of exercise. While days completely devoid of exercise allows the body and mind to rest.  Both types of recovery improve your ability to sleep soundly, promote longevity, and reduce stress. 

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In the end, increasing daily movement and activity as well as the implementation of a regularly scheduled form of exercise are important, but more isn’t always better, especially for those who are competitive or prone to over-doing it.  As with most things in life, the key to any wellness program is finding the right balance that works for Y-O-U, and that may change from season to season and from decade to decade.  

Taking care of your body, mind, and spirit are important and worthwhile investments.  After all, each of us is a creation of the Divine, but we are only given this one life.  Let’s honor our Creator by respecting the unique creation that is each of us, and live our lives to the fullest, imbued with the vitality of a healthy mind, body, and spirit!

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Gratitude over Attitude

“Gratitude is one of the strongest and most transformative states of being. It shifts your perspective from lack to abundance and allows you to focus on the good in your life, which in turn pulls more goodness into your reality.”–Jen Sincero

I caught myself complaining, AGAIN, about an irritant within my life. While I was doing this in the safe company of a trusted person, it was a habit I was beginning to recognize and for which I was beginning to feel I needed to personally address.  Therefore, I began to ponder why I have such a strong tendency to bellyache, fuss, and grumble?   Does my complaining make anything better?  Does it benefit anyone?

Furthermore, why is it our nature to yammer on about all the so called wrongs in our life?  Part of the reason, I know, is that in a polite world, we often bottle our frustrated feelings inside and continue to wear a smile on the outside.  This often leads to our complaints exploding out of our mouths with the first opportunity to release them in like-minded/sympathetic company. It plain ol’ feels good to liberate the tension–which, on one hand, is a healthy coping mechanism.  

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But what happens when we keep going on?  Telling anyone and everyone who will listen to us about the perceived infractions.  As our audience changes and expands, so does the story, expanding in power and hijacking our brains. We might even post our complaint on social media, magnifying the story and giving us the impression that we are truly supported, and most of all, righteous, in our indignation.

What does this gain us?  Is it a sense of control?  A sense of support?  A sense of community?  Perhaps all of that and more, but since I am not a psychologist, I’ll leave that answer to the professionals.  Instead, all of these ponderings brought me to the importance of mindset. 

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One of the more inspired lines that I’ve run across, previously written about, and regularly applied in my own life, is “mood follows action.”  It is a phrase I implement when I don’t feel like doing a particular task, such as getting up early, tackling a workout, or instigating work/chores.  Those three words remind me that once I complete the task, I will feel a sense of accomplishment, and my mood will lift as a result.  It is the dread that is often worse than the actual doing. I began to wonder if something similar was true with regards to complaining . . .

action = increased complaining = decreased gratefulness = negative mood

If I continue to choose the action of frequently complaining, particularly about the same thing, am I creating my own negative mood?  And if so, am I creating a bias towards these so-called “terrible” events, making them out to be more grievous than they actually were?  What if instead, like the eye doctor asking me if I preferred A or B,  I flipped my daily lens so that it was tinted with more gratitude and shaded less with attitude? 

action = reduced complaints + increased gratefulness = happier mood

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I took this thought even further and researched what the science said. It turns out that complaining can actually negatively harm your health, not to mention serve as a repellent to others.  First of all, it turns out that every time we complain, our brain rewires itself to produce more negative thinking. According to neuroscience, synapses that fire in the production of the complaint, wire together, making it easier, over time to react, complain, and think negatively with more frequency.

Negative thinking/stressing and complaining can damage the hippocampus, which is responsible for overall cognitive function, problem solving, and critical thinking.  The smaller the hippocampus, the greater our decline in memory and the less adaptive we are to change. The more we complain and/or focus on the negative, the more we increase our levels of stress, and, in turn, cortisol.  High cortisol levels decrease immune function and make us more susceptible to a wide variety of health problems such as sleep disruptions, digestive dysfunction, depression, and high blood pressure to name a few.

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Complaining, and an overall pessimistic attitude, can shorten our lifespan.  Research indicates that optimistic thinkers tend to live longer than proverbial pessimists. Additionally, like attracts like. The more positive or negative we are, the more we tend to attract others who do the same. In fact, our brains naturally mimic those with whom we most often associate through a process called neuronal mirroring. This is often due to our ability to feel empathy, which can be a positive thing, but it can backfire on us if we repeatedly surround ourselves with negative people.

Nonetheless, there is a time and place for complaining, but it is how you frame it, and to whom you speak, that makes a difference. If something is truly worthy of a complaint, think constructively when talking (or writing) about it.  Identify, before initiating the conversation or written evaluation begins, a clear purpose about the specific goal/desired behavior. Then behavioral experts encourage us to deliver the complaint like a sandwich.

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Start positive, with a true and affirming comment. (This first step may require some thought and some reframing, but it is worth the time to get the listener/reader to pay attention.) Next, state the desired outcome/behavior in a matter-of-fact tone without accusation.  Then, follow this with another positive, but true, statement.  Below is a highly simplistic example, but it illustrates the point.  

“I really love shopping at this store because the employees are so friendly and helpful.  However, lately, I encountered issues with the pick-up system in which numerous items in my order are not bagged.  I’d like to continue shopping here, so I am wondering if there is a way to ensure my order is properly bagged on my next visit.”

If, however, someone is directing the criticism to you; own it, and empower yourself as an agent of change rather than victim. By taking ownership of the issue, we have the power to create a solution that works for us. In the end, we earn more respect for owning up to our own mistakes, flaws, or misperceptions. Furthermore, it allows us to be perceived as a problem solver with integrity.

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One point worth remembering is that, while complaining can be a healthy way to relieve stress, we want to be careful with whom we confide, who is around us when we make these comments, and how often we are complaining.  If you know that you will feel better to get a grievance off  your chest, do-so with trustworthy companions in a private location–rather than on a platform for everyone to read or in an area in which anyone can hear.  Then move on, let it go, and identify at least one positive about your day/situation on which to focus, including your controlables–one of which is your attitude.  

By training ourselves to choose gratitude over attitude, we are more likely to see our blessings, promote our own mental and physical well-being, and increase our ability to perform tasks.  Furthermore, we may ultimately attract more good to our life by merely opening our eyes to seeing it.  For many of us, however, this takes practice and time.  Therefore, the next time you find yourself complaining, be like the eye doctor, flip the lens, determine the better view, and find something for which to be grateful.  

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If you must complain, do so. Then, flip the lens and look for the points for which to feel grateful.

Maybe it’s time to close the window: Self-care and balance includes moving away from toxic people and situations

“Only in quiet waters do things mirror themselves undistorted.  Only in a quiet mind is adequate perception of the world.”–Hans Margolius

I love to sit at my desk in the flush of morning light writing with the window above my desk open.  Even when it is cold and chilly, I will often crack the window a few inches to enjoy the predawn air. There is something about the fresh air, the stillness, and the early hymn of dawn that fills me with a sense of peace and hope. The dawn air dissipates the frights of night that may have entered my dreams and nourishes my mind with renewed resiliency for whatever the day may bring.

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One especially hushed, predawn Sunday morning, as I sat, savoring the caress of fall air on my cheeks and hands, I noticed smoke rising from the yard beside mine.  It was my neighbor burning something.  I returned once more to my writing as the serenity of the morning continued humming its charming ambience.

Gradually, every so subtly, the scent of the air shifted. Wafts of acrid air began to drift in through the window screen.  Still, it wasn’t enough to detract from the overall freshness of the morning, and so I left the window open, continuing my writing.  

For 30-40 minutes, I continued my typing, pausing for moments here and there to gaze out the window and clarify my thoughts.  I noticed the dullness of the green leaves, a sure sign that Mother Nature is changing into her fall wardrobe. A single bird rapidly called in a repeated series of three trills, “Hello, hello, hello,” but earned no response. 

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Noticing the familiar tingling in my lower half, cued me into the fact my extremities needed a walk break.  I rose and walked outside to the newspaper box.  A cacophony of Canadian geese, singing their song of seasonal change, flew overhead towards the autumnal clouds.  

It was then I realized how strong the scent was.  Whatever was being burned in my neighbor’s yard had filled the air with a noxious haze that I had not noticed while at my desk with its slightly opened window. However, when I walked back into the house and returned to my desk, the insidious odor had indeed permeated the air.  How had I not noticed previously?

Perhaps it was due to the fact my window had only been partly opened or maybe it was due to my focus.  Regardless, the scent had gradually slithered through the opening of the window, changing the air in a subtle and measured manner that I had not noticed.  I began to reflect upon how often that happens in life, for better AND for worse.

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The seemingly piecemeal process of aging is but one example.  Our children gradually change. Often, we may not notice it in the day to day, but one day you will look at your child and suddenly it hits you how much they have grown and changed.  Likewise, we may not notice our own aging process until we happen to see a photograph of ourselves, and like a slap on the face, we are quickly hit with the awareness of our own aging.  This is all a normal part of the evolution of life.

However, what about other life events? For example, the progressive way in which computers evolved and changed the way I teach.  When I began nearly 36 years ago, there were no computers in my classroom.  The most technological advancement that I had was a rolling chalkboard and a box of dustless chalk!  Flashforward, and my current classroom uses Apple TVs, Google classroom, iPads, Chromebooks, and Macbooks, with all students using their own device on which they are expected to complete work.  For better or worse, that change is here to stay.

I think back through history, for example, the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany.  It all started in a seemingly moderate way, but it progressively evolved and soon evil, incrementally, blanketed much of Europe, affecting/influencing much of the world.  This, along with countless other historical events, remains a cautionary tale of the way in which harmful developments, left unchecked, can crawl into our lives without our realization until they have fully enmeshed themselves into society.

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Back at my work area on that particular Sunday, I decided to close the window above my desk, and leave my writing space for a while, allowing the air to clear.  As I moved into other areas of my home, I could clearly observe the difference in air.  An hour or so later, the air in and around my workspace was cleared, and all it had taken was the simple act of closing the window.

There are certain ideas, concepts, environments, and even people–personally associated to us and distantly known by us– that are likewise toxic disguised in appealing and attractive soundbites, conversational style, and images.  Like the sweet lullaby of the break of dawn, they lull us into acceptance, or at the very least, acquiescence–better to play along or ignore in order to remain focused on our own goals. The problem is that, little by little, we begin to assimilate, breathe in, if you will, the poisoned atmosphere/attitude until it has permeated our being in ways we can’t clearly sense until we step away and gain a new perspective.  Only then do we fully feel the necessity of closing the proverbial window and stepping away from the baneful environment.

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The irony of it all, is once you close the window and move on, you begin to realize that there had been a small, still voice inside you all along telling you something wasn’t right.  For me, on that Sunday morning, my tingling legs told me to move since my sense of smell had been so gradually overcome by the slowly shifting air.  Therefore, it is important to tune in, listen for that inner guidance, to Divine Providence.  Perhaps, you may not be able to remove yourself entirely from certain situations and/or certain people, and if that is the case, determine what you can change, and then act.  Close the window. Move in another direction, and notice how much better you will feel with fresh air and a fresh perspective. 

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Root to rise

There will always be rocks in the road ahead of us. They will be stumbling blocks or stepping stones; it all depends on how you use them.”–Friedrich Nietzsche

There were three crossings over the stream in which we had to choose to balance-step across rocks as John is doing here, or wade the water.

Life can be challenging.  Demanding work schedules, a multitude of community and family commitments, and even the basic chores of life can often leave many of us feeling depleted.  Then, throw into the day-to-day mix, some minor crisis and/or irritation, such as the washer quit working, the car is making a funny noise, or __________ is getting sick, and we begin to wonder how we will ever get through the coming day, much less the week. 

I was reflecting on this thought, not only from personal experience, but also from experiences of others. In a recent conversation with a young mother, I listened to the challenges she faces as she tries to balance the increasing demands of work, family life–especially her growing children’s varied activities/interests–and several house issues that require extra time, money, and attention.  It was clear, in spite of her ability to joke about it, that she was completely frazzled and worn out.  My heart went out to her.  

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Haven’t we all been there?  Perhaps we may not have experienced her exact circumstances; nonetheless, feeling overwhelmed and over-extended is certainly a relatable human experience.  We all encounter rocky times along life’s path, and those times may feel like insurmountable stumbling blocks.  In fact, we may indeed stumble, stutter-step, and fall off the path, but the question is, can we then use those same life boulders as stepping stones?

Later in the same week, I found myself once more engaged with a parent of younger children.  In this conversation a young man was describing the demands of balancing the needs of his three children, whom he clearly adored, his beloved wife, and his work.  He described a recent experience in which he begrudgingly attended a study group at his church with his wife in the midst of a grueling week. 

“I did not want to go,” he said.  

Once there, however, he realized that it is at the busiest or most stressful times when he most needs to take some time for renewal if he truly wants to be of service at home or at work.

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Driving along a hill lined road a few days later, I observed a tree that seemed to grow out of the rocky rise.  Its multiple roots wrapped around and over the rock-defined prominence. I marveled at the tree’s ability to stay rooted and find nourishment in such an unlikely environment.  

In fact, later that day, I took time to read an article or two about trees that can live in rocky soil. I was stunned to learn that there is a wide variety of hardwood and softwood trees that can live in stony soil, including fruit trees.  It was the fruit trees that most surprised me because not only is the tree tasked with the job of sustaining and growing its root system, trunk, limbs, and leaves/needles, but it also must produce enough nourishment for the additional task of fruit growth.  

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As I read these articles, I found that many trees’ roots have the ability to adapt and thrive in rocky, stony, or even compacted/dry soil.  Furthermore, many trees that are drought tolerant have shallow root systems. This adaptation offers them the ability to grow in rocky soil as their roots seek and stretch to find sources of water and nourishment.  Additionally, there are other trees with deeper root systems that somehow find a way to burrow in between rocks to find water and nutrients.  Regardless of the type of root system, the one commonality among all trees is the fact that they use those boulders and rocks as stepping stones from which they extend their branches towards the heavens, rising above a so-called inhospitable environment.

In an era of disparate sound bites, images of divisiveness and dissonance, and all the demands of life, we must strive to live more like the rock loving, sand embracing, and drought tolerant trees.  We must continually seek and stretch towards our true source of life, the great I AM.  It may be difficult, as life throws us one challenge after another. Therefore, we must take time to mimic those rock-loving trees by rooting down to rise up in order to offer our unique gifts–our fruit–to the world.  

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Taking time to routinely root down into our inner faith world, allows us to rise above the stumbling blocks of life. Root down to rise up. Depending upon your faith and/or religious practice, that regular practice of “rooting down” may look different from one person to another in the same way trees’ roots vary.  However, they all serve the same purpose: anchoring us to our true foundation, keeping us straight and stable, and providing us with the ability to absorb the good and filter out the bad, storing-up a wide array of resources for when times get, well, even rockier. 

With the foundation of a well-established root system, we become like the trees that thrive in rocky and dry environments. We can climb around, over, and sometimes even remove life’s stumbling blocks, so we too can rise up, stretch towards our higher power, in order to produce more fruit, especially in our busiest times.  Root to rise.

Even in an rocky area known as Craggy Flats, ancient trees have rooted down and around the rocks in order to rise above its above of it all.

Good Fitness Doesn’t Have to Cost an Arm and a Leg

To enjoy the glow of good health, you must exercise.”–Gene Tunney

For the past two months I have written a couple of pieces focused on the importance of incorporating movement into your life.  It is my belief that movement benefits everyone and can add years to your life and life to years.  Therefore, this month, I’d like to blow open the myth that fitness requires a gym or club membership and/or requires special, and often, expensive equipment.  Rather, I’d like to shed light on free, nearly free, and budget friendly ways to increase movement and exercise.

Remember, in a capitalistic society, corporations and businesses want to make money.  Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that, but my point is that you do not have to buy into all the slick and pretty packaged marketing!  As a consumer, you DO have choice.  So when those social media pop-up ads try to convince you that you need this “exclusive, just-for-you, one-time only offer” for a studio/gym membership or the “latest, greatest, in-debt-til-die exercise equipment, you absolutely have my permission to walk away—for real.

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In fact, walking, according to both the Mayo Clinic and University Hospitals 

Network is considered, “just as good as any other form of exercise.”  Of course, walking at a steady pace for a given period of time is the best, but all forms of walking count towards your overall health.  Walking for exercise is free, all you need is a supportive, comfortable pair of shoes.  It can be completed solo or with friends.  Plus, it can be completed in a multitude of  indoor and outdoor sites.  However, walking isn’t the only inexpensive way to increase movement and exercise into your life.

You can do housework or yard work as a workout.  Cue your favorite up-tempo tunes, set a timer, if you’d like, and get to work.  Keep moving until the job is done or the timer rings–whichever works best for you. 

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If you have younger kids or grandkids, play with them.  Take them to a park if you don’t have access to a yard.  Better yet, ask them to join you while you walk, bike, hike a trail, or jog.  Play soccer, shoot some hoops, throw frisbee, toss a baseball or softball.  Other options include, but are not limited to, volleyball, pickleball, tennis, golf (make sure you’re walking if you want the full workout), badminton, and so on.  There are so many ways to move, play, and enjoy your kids/grandkids and even get to know some of their friends. Of course, all of these activities can also be enjoyed with friends!

Free workout options include walking, pushups, planks and walking up and down the steps of your house.”–Joe Cannon, MS, certified strength and conditioning specialist, NSCA certified personal trainer

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Make use of equipment at home and youtube videos (or other sites to which you may have access).  With just your body weight, a chair, and stool, you can get a whole body strength workout. You can even use canned goods and water bottles/jugs as “weights.”  Honestly, there are so many free workouts available online that require little to no equipment that can provide fantastic cardio and/or strength workouts.

Two worthwhile items I do regularly use are a quality yoga mat and athletic shoes.  Both of these are versatile and worthwhile investments.  The yoga mat not only can be used for yoga, but it can also be used for any type of exercise that requires time on one’s back, belly, hands, and/or knees.  This one time investment is portable; it can be used on a back deck or patio, carried to the park, or taken along when traveling.  Similarly, a pair of good-fitting shoes are just as versatile.  Personally, I am always willing to invest a bit more for personal service to determine a proper fit for a supportive workout shoe from my local neighborhood running/walking store. (Shout out to Robert’s Running and Walking Shop!) 

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Other pieces of inexpensive equipment to consider:

  • Exercise bands and/or tubing (love these inexpensive items!)
  • Free weights, kettlebells, and/or medicine ball (in light, medium, and “heavier” variations)
  • Jumprope
  • Step bench (can be used both for cardio and strength training)
  • Fitness ball (can be used for a variety of core exercises)
  • Exercise DVD or apps (many apps are free or a low-cost)

Learn to be a savvy shopper.  You don’t automatically have to buy from one place, nor do you need to purchase items all at once.  Gradually add pieces, and consider purchasing used items on Amazon, eBay, Facebook market, Goodwill, and consignment shops.  I am often amazed at what I find at both Goodwill and consignment shops for next to nothing.

Budget friendly pieces of exercise equipment can be gradually added to your collection. You can even build your own step bench.

Personally, I love to find free fitness plans on-line, and modify them to fit my age/fitness level.  There are so many good sites, many of which I outlined in a previous article.  Once you find a plan you like, there are no decisions to make.  Simply follow the outlined plan for the set-number of days/weeks.  Your heart, mind, and body will thank you.  One word of caution, however, be sure the plan is appropriate for your level of fitness.  You want to set yourself up for success, so choose wisely.

Other budget-friendly tips include:

  • Split a gym membership with a friend.  Many gyms offer a payment plan that allows you to bring a friend for “free” for x-number of workouts. 
  • Join walking or running clubs.  Many parks, walking/running shoe stores, and even some malls offer these for little to no cost
  •  Join community gyms.  Many religious centers and some communities offer gym memberships for little cost to no cost.
  • Try donation based classes.  Many yoga studios and community centers offer weekly donation classes that are paid as or if you can.

Bottom line, you absolutely do not have to pay much, if anything, for a quality workout.   Other than perhaps quality footwear, you can absolutely get an excellent workout without spending any of your hard earned money.  Therefore, don’t let budgetary restrictions keep you from putting a little pep in your step and vitality in your years. Exercise your right to ignore those money-mongering marketers, and take charge of your own health AND budget! 

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Chocolate Chip Muffins, gluten-free, plant-based options

Procrastibaking: the art of making muffins instead of whatever else you should be doing.”–as seen on INTO THE COOKIE JAR

I had work to do, but there it sat.  The lone, leftover banana.  Muddled and marred by dark brown spots, hiding its inner-sweetness.  Too mushy to eat, but perfect for baking.  But what?

Nosing around in my cabinets, I noticed a partial bag of chocolate chips.  Hmm?  Maybe I could bake chocolate chip cookies, but would I be able to use a banana in it?  Not sure if that would work, at least regarding taste.  Then, it hit me like a Monday morning: muffins!

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I was pretty sure that I had once read that bananas can be used as a substitute for an egg in a recipe.  Sure enough, for once, my memory was correct. One banana equals one egg. Now don’t get me wrong, bananas cannot do everything an egg can do when baking, but in a recipe such as this one, where I am also including vinegar and baking soda, bananas are a decent substitute.  

Speaking of vinegar . . . Why add it to baking?  Historically speaking, vinegar has been used in baking for centuries.  One such example was during the Great Depression when rations, such as eggs and butter, were limited.  One teaspoon of baking soda combined with one tablespoon of vinegar makes baked goods light and fluffy.  Even if you are using an egg, adding one tablespoon of vinegar to a cake, cookie, or bread recipe will help batter rise, increase moisture, and even brighten the color.  

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Regarding flours, you will notice that I chose a combination of two different types as well as oat bran.  This was an intentional choice due to the fact that I have celiac disease, so I cannot consume wheat.  Additionally, I wanted to increase the fiber/nutritional content of these muffins while keeping the texture light and fluffy side.  Think of it as a compromise–balancing out the white flour and sugar with the nutritional profile of oats!  Plus, I happen to like baking with oats and oat flour due to the texture and moisture oats tend to create while not lending an overpowering flavor.  Nonetheless, you could use almond flour, rice flour, or other preferred varieties. In fact, you could simply use nothing but all-purpose flour if that is your preference.  As long as the total amount of flour remains the same, most flours should be fine!

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Finally, feel free to play around with the stir-ins.  There’s up to one cup total, so make the recipe yours.  Stir in raisins, walnuts, peanut butter chips, dried cranberries, chopped dates, butterscotch chips, chopped pecans, and so forth.  Make the recipe fit both your taste preferences and/or the ingredients you have on hand. 

Once these muffins are baked and cool enough to serve, slather one with butter or your favorite nut butter.  Dip them in maple syrup–who says it’s for pancakes only?  Drizzle agave or honey over the tops.  Then again, eat ‘em plain–after all, they will be plenty moist! 

Customize this recipe, and make it work for you and yours!  Then, hit me up on social media, or send me an email, and let me know what variation worked for you!  In the meantime, enjoy procrastibaking! 🙂  

Chocolate Chip Muffins, with gluten-free, plant based options

Recipe inspired by Betty Crocker’s 40th Anniversary Edition Cookbook Betty Crocker’s Cookbook/40th Anniversary Edition Hardcover – September 1, 1991,

Allergy AwesomenessRhian’s Recipes, HealthyGirl Kitchen

Ingredients:

¾  cup oat flour*

¾ cup oat bran*

1 cup all purpose flour, gluten-free flour*

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

1 ripe banana

1 cup milk, any variation

½ cup sugar

1 tablespoon white or apple cider vinegar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

½ -1 cup chocolate chips, gluten-free and/or vegan if desired/needed

½ cup chopped walnuts, optional

Sparkling sugar

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Line 12 muffin tins with parchment paper or nonstick cooking spray.

In a large bowl, mix together flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

Mash banana in a medium bowl.

Stir in milk, sugar, vanilla, and vinegar.

Gently combine liquid ingredients into dry ingredients until just combined.

Fold in chocolate chips and/or nuts, if using.

Divide batter evenly among cups.

Top with extra chips, and/or sprinkle with sparkling sugar, if desired.

Bake for 15-20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out dry.

Allow muffins to cool in the pan for 5 minutes before turning onto a cooling rack.

Serve immediately.

Can store leftovers in the fridge for up to 3 days, or can freeze for up to 3 months.

After refrigerating or freezing muffins, reheat muffins before serving.

Makes 12. 

*Notes: Feel free to mix and match types of flours, and even leave out the bran, to suit your needs/taste preferences as long as the total amount of flour used equals 2 ½ cups.  Additionally, while I have to bake/eat gluten free and choose to eat plant based, you choose the ingredients that match your preferences.  Finally, you can use an egg, ¼ cup applesauce, or ¼ cup yogurt to replace the banana if desired or don’t have a banana on hand.

You’ll need two bowls.
Mix your dry ingredients in one bowl.
Mash your banana well.
Stir in wet ingredients with banana.
Pour wet ingredients into dry and gently mix.
Be sure to preheat oven and prepare muffin tins. I prefer parchment liners.
Stir in those luscious chocolate chips.

Divide batter evenly and top with desired toppings. I added mini chocolate chips and white sugar.
Allow muffins to cool on a rack, but feel free to serve warm!

Enjoy the yummy results of procrastibaking!

Seasonal Growth

“Every season is one of becoming, but not always one of blooming. Be gracious with your ever-evolving self.”— B. Oakman

This past May, John, my husband, and I were given nine tomato seedlings that our neighbor, Dianna, had started.  John purchased special potting soil, and I carefully planted those seedlings into large gardening containers.  They were my pet project this summer as I tended to them like a mother tends to a baby.  From suckering them to fertilizing them at specific points in the summer to monitoring the moisture in the soil to determine if I should water or not, I tried to be the best plant parent I could be. However, I knew that in spite of my best efforts, Mother Nature had more control than me.

Nonetheless, John and I ooed and awed over the plants’ first golden blooms.  We gleefully counted the tiny green orbs that first formed in place of the blossoms, and we celebrated as they grew bigger, and more petite tomatoes began to emerge.  As their color gradually transformed from chartreuse to a yellow-orange, and then gently evolved from an orange-red to scarlett, our anticipation mounted for a plentiful harvest, to the degree nine-plants could produce. 

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By the first week of August, we had a bounty of tomatoes.  None of them were particularly large, but they were bursting with flavor–the perfect tangy blend of sweet, tart, and acid.  With our first pickings, I cut-up fresh cucumber and tomato to add to shawarma-spiced chickpeas for me, and made bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches on homemade bread for John.  Throughout the week, there were salad plates topped with aromatic, zesty tomatoes alongside dinner, and veggie sticks and tomatoes in bowls for packed lunch.  Oh, the ways we can, and do, enjoy tomatoes!

Last weekend, I was out picking more tomatoes, and I reflected on a conversation with my dad the previous week.  He lives in Melbourne, FL, about an hour or so, east of Orlando.  He and my bonus mom, Pam, have a fenced-in backyard that they have transformed into a tropical paradise.  Vibrantly filled with plants that would never grow here locally, thrive in their backyard as they continue to learn more about the growing seasons of Florida.

In that recent phone conversation, Dad and I discussed the plants they were currently trying to grow, and the ones they would soon plant, once the temperatures cooled and moderated.  One plant he was eagerly anticipating growing were tomatoes.  He explained his plan to plant a couple of seedlings, then several weeks later, plant a couple more, then he’d plant another a few about a month after that, and so on.  Apparently, unlike here, fall is the perfect time to plant tomatoes, and throughout the winter months, he gets to reap the harvest.

Therefore, when I shared with him how well my tomato plants were producing, he bemoaned the fact he could not yet have a fresh garden tomato, but of course, encouraged John and me to enjoy our season while we could.  Nonetheless, he was looking forward to the season when he, too, could enjoy a fresh slicer tomato on a sandwich or chopped up in a salad.  We talked some more about his different growing season, and the types of tomatoes he planned to try to grow this upcoming year before moving on to other topics at hand.

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As I reflected on this conversation while picking tomatoes, with each snip of my pruning shears, I was simultaneously filled with gratitude for each tender fruit, but I was also feeling a bit of sadness for the fact that I could not share these with Dad.  Then, I reminded myself that he would be enjoying tomatoes, most likely in December, January, and February when our area will be chilling to rain, sleet, ice, and snow with not a single fresh tomato in sight.  That’s when it hit me.

In the same way I can gather tomatoes in August and September, but Dad cannot until the winter months, we all have different growing seasons in life.  I began to think about all the ways in which we, as part of our humanity, often compare our current position in life with that of others in similar circumstances, age-range, or whatnot, and feel as if our situation/status falls short in comparison.  Personally, I often think of dreams and hopes I still hold for the future, but due to life, many of those notions must be put on-hold for the time-being.  However, the more I snipped tomatoes, the more I began to realize that perhaps instead of comparing, and thinking about where/what I think I should be doing, maybe I would be better benefitted to switch my focus to cultivating and nurturing those seeds of hope, and recognize that it’s not their growing season . . .yet.

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“Be aware of what season you are in and give yourself the grace to be there.”--Kristen Dalton

Just as it is the growing season for me in southern Ohio, but not for my Dad in central Florida, the same is true for life.  Our lives are filled with seasons too.  There are times when we must let go of notions and things that no longer serve us, like the trees do in fall, and the winds change the color of our lives with a flourish.  Other times, our lives are filled with great spaces of dormancy as harsh and bitter winds send us into a blanket of darkness.  Then, there are those moments in which we experience blooms of hope, sometimes even in the midst of a rainy season.  That is when the magic can occur.

Through our letting gos and goodbyes, through those dark and latent times, and even through downpours of sorrows and grief, there remain within each of us, planted seeds of possibility and potentiality.  Those seeds have their own growing seasons, but each person has different seasons and different times for harvesting.  It is our job to be aware of our season, cultivate our inner seeds, and trust that when the time is right, new growth will occur.

As it is wisely stated in the book of Ecclesiastes, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens . . . .He has made everything beautiful in its time.” Therefore, we must put our faith in our Creator, and rest in knowing that our hopes and dreams are indeed being cultivated by a force greater than us; and when the season is right, our season for growth, and ultimately harvest, will one day come into fruition.

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There she goes . . . again, a parent’s prayer

There she goes.  There she goes again.  Racing through my brain.  And I just can’t contain. This feeling that remains.”–as performed by Sixpence None the Richer 

What is it about a child? No matter how old they are, the imprint of their tender ages remains with you, especially when you see them struggle.  You want to help, but you know that in order for them to transition, you must allow them to struggle and figure things out.  Sometimes, no advice is the best advice you can give your child as they journey along their own unique life path.

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Therefore, watching my own daughter, Madelyn, figure out her own way in the world has been a mix of bittersweetness.  Like many parents, I have observed her growing pains and celebrated her milestones.  I’ve cheered her on through uncertain times, and I have stood back when she needed her space to figure things out her own way.   Most of all, I have just loved her no matter what.

Of course, she also has her dad (John, my husband), grandparents, aunts/uncles, family, and friends who each offer their own unique form of perspective and support.  In fact, I am grateful for the influence and love bestowed upon her throughout her life from others. Their rich perspective and knowledge offer Maddie a quilted tapestry of life in which she can wrap up and take comfort at any time of need. 

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Therefore, as we recently helped Maddie move for graduate school to Athens, Ohio, a town where she did not know anyone, my mind raced to how fortunate she was, and still is, to have so much love and support, albeit at a slight distance, from that network of friends and family during this time of transition. While Athens is new territory for Maddie, it is familiar to John and me as it is home to our alma mater, Ohio University. With over 21,000 students enrolled in graduate and undergraduate programs on-campus (with a total over 28,000 when you factor in regional campuses), OU is by far, the largest university Maddie has attended since starting her college education.  

By contrast, the program in which she is enrolled is extremely small.  In fact, within her immediate field of study, art education, there are only three other students, two of which are married and with kids.  Not ideal circumstances for connecting and making friends.

Nonetheless, given the nature of Maddie’s program, a blend of working with two currently practicing Athens art teachers in their classrooms, a graduate assistantship, in-person classes, and virtual classes with a broader scope of students, Maddie will have much in the way of work to occupy her time.  

Athens, and the Ohio University campus, remains the ever charming setting I remember from all those years ago.  Situated alongside the Hocking River, amidst the iconic rolling hills, Ohio University is the oldest university in Ohio. From its historic Cutler Hall, the oldest building on campus, to its quintessential alumni gateway, and from the sprawling campus, filled with classically designed traditional, older-looking buildings, to its state of the art facilities contained within, Ohio University is certainly a source of inspiration.  Plus, it offers students a wide array of activities–no matter their interests.  

I couldn’t help but notice that the same energy I felt as an undergraduate all those years ago during the 1980s, still imbues the streets today.  Although the names of the businesses may have changed from back “in-the-day,” uptown remains vibrant and more lively than ever.  In fact, Maddie recently marveled at how busy those sidewalks and businesses can quickly become as the students embark uptown before, during, and after classes.  That said, like the other students, there is no denying, she too finds herself frequently drawn to that uptown vibe when her time permits.

On the weekend in which we first helped Maddie move into her apartment, John and I decided we needed to check out a few local spots for future dining and recreational adventures.  To begin, we found a fantastic location in which to stay, just outside of Athens proper, and approximately 10-15 minutes from Maddie’s apartment.  It’s called The Barn at Shamrock Farm, and it can be found on Airbnb and Facebook.  We were fortunate enough to stay during a discounted weekend, which made it a much more budget friendly option, right along the price point of local hotels. 

Unlike the hotels, however, The Barn offers so much more in the way of amenities and space. Host Kerry, and her husband, Michael, were incredibly responsive to their guests, and their property is located amidst the idyllic scenery of a working farm. From the stunning and comfortably appointed house/barn to the ample out-of-doors seating area and additional fire pit, and from the meandering trails over which stretch your legs for hike to all the special touches found throughout the entire home and property, this Airbnb rental is perfect for those looking to visit Ohio University or those desiring a weekend getaway!  

While there, John and I discovered, along with Maddie, several dining options that we found both enjoyable and tasty.  With regards to casual dining for breakfast, lunch, and/or coffee/snacks, we visited Fluff Bakery and Bagel Street Deli. Both of these diners offered personal, attentive service, freshly made food at a pocket friendly price level, perfect for the budget-minded student and parent alike. Both unique establishments offered a blend of made-to-order items, along with freshly baked goods, and crisp, colorful bowls of salad and fruit. If you’re a bagel fan or fond of baked goods like us, then both of these spots are for you!

Additionally, we tried a couple of local restaurants for evening meals.  The evening of the actual big move, we were sweaty, tired, and very hungry.  After communication with Kerry, back at The Barn, she and Micheal recommended the casual atmosphere of Gran Ranchero.  This allowed us to get away from the busyness of uptown, relax, unwind, and enjoy some comforting, traditional Mexican food.  This establishment did not disappoint!  Not only was the staff attentive and efficient, the beverages were cold, the food was exceptionally fresh and tasty, and we all left with full stomachs!

The following night, we were just as worn out and hungry, so we went with another local favorite, Pizza Cottage.  With a menu brimming with not only a wide variety of pizzas, but also wings, salads, pasta, calzones, subs, desserts, and so much more, Pizza Cottage filled the bill with our desire for comfort food after another long day of work.  The atmosphere was casual and light, the service was friendly and quick to offer help/suggestions, and the food was the perfect blend of spice, sweet, salt, and tanginess that one would expect from a casual Italian eatery.  

In the end, there remains that familiar parental pang now that Maddie is once more away on a new life adventure.  Still, it is worth remembering the old adage, “Give them roots, and give them wings.”  

Therefore, my prayer for all of the dear daughters and sons heading off in a new life direction. . .  May Divine Providence keep them all safe; may they learn, grow, and thrive in their new environment. May they be girded in the knowledge that even on their most challenging day, they are supported, loved, and encouraged by a community of loved ones back home. And, may they always return home safely. 

Godspeed to all young adults entering, or returning to, a new phase along life’s journey.  May you soar . . .

Plants roots us in the present moment

Biophilia: Love of living things and nature that human beings innately possess”–hypothesis of Edwin O. Wilson 

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This summer, I have relished time spent caring for both my indoor and outdoor plants.  While I don’t have many compared to other gardeners and indoor horticulturists, I find that I don’t need a larger number to reap the benefits of caring for plants. In fact, I continue to be surprised by the numerous ways in which nurturing plants increases my sense of well-being, and my recent research dive supports this, and so much more, too.

First, the back story.  I have always been drawn to plants and nature.  As a young girl, I drove my mother nuts stealing popcorn kernels from the kitchen, filling paper cups with yard soil, and planting those kernels in those soil-filled cups.  I’d set them in my bedroom window sill, water them when they were dry, and watch them grow.  The part that really got to my mom was when I fancied myself a scientist, and I began conducting my own “experiments” by placing those corn filled paper cups in different windows, and even in a bathroom without a window, to see which plant grew best, making notations in a self-made booklet. 

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Additionally, my dad was wonderful for taking my sibs and me for walks in the woods behind our house. While walking, he would point out the different trees, identify the various nuts, and pause for us to take in the marvels of mushrooms, tiny flowers, ferns, or other low-lying plants of interest that as kids, we might not have otherwise noticed.  In addition to all of the wondrous sights, there was an abundance of scents, sounds, and even fanciful touches to fill our young minds with wonder–only I am not so sure that we always felt that way when coming in contact with brier bush! Nonetheless, both of these childhood experiences never left my heart.

Fortunately, I married someone who loves the outdoor space as much as I do, and thus our travels typically include some form of nature exploration.  However, my relationship with growing my own plants did not get rekindled until the past several years.  Oh, to be certain, I tried caring for and raising plants in fits and starts, but my attempts most often ended in the Death Comes to the Plant written in tandem with complete lack of proper care and yours truly.

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“Your intuitive powers increase when you are with plants because your mind is silenced and you become more aware of the present moment.”–Sanchita Pandey

I should firmly state, before I go any further, that I have MUCH more to learn when it comes to plant care, and I still have my fair share of murderous flops.  However, that is the wonderful thing about caring for the few plants I have successfully not assassinated, I am growing right along with them. One thing I do know for sure is that when I am fully focused on plant care, my mind is firmly glued in the present moment, and all other worries and stresses of my life fade, momentarily, from my awareness.  

Nurturing plants can reduce stress and anxiety. In fact, researchers in the UK concluded that working plants, whether indoors or out-of-doors, depending upon the patients’ setting, increased feelings of well-being among those with anxiety, depression, and even dementia.  In fact, in one town in England, Manchester, there are general practitioners so-called prescribing potted plant care for patients who are experiencing depression, anxiety, and loneliness.  Programs such as those known as “horticultural therapy” and “Docs prescribing plants” were only just the tip of the iceberg in my research

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Along the same stem, plants have also been shown to expedite patient recovery from long-term illness in the hospital as seen in studies dating back to at least 2002.  Patients with scenic views of nature or those who have plants and/or flowers within their surroundings, needed less pain medication and/or spent less time in the hospital than those patients who did not have these botanically natural sights. 

Additionally, NASA scientists, way back in the 1980s, determined that low-light houseplants demonstrated the ability to improve indoor air quality by reducing the amount of indoor pollutants and toxic substances. NASA even offers a complete list of approved plants. Studies on this topic have since been conducted at both Virginia Tech and Washington State University have further established that house plants are efficient air cleaners and that even having as little as 2% of the room filled with plants will create an impact on air quality. 

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Not only do houseplants clean the air, they moisturize it as well.  This is important during the winter season and in arid environments that tend to have little moisture in the air.  The vapor plants regularly release can be beneficial for those who regularly suffer from dry nasal passages especially. Furthermore, believe it or not, there are some plants that release oxygen into the air throughout the day.  One of them is a common house plant known as the Snake Plant and the other is the Gerbera Daisy, which is not commonly grown indoors, but with proper care can survive two to three years.

Other noted and researched benefits of plants include, but are not limited to

  • Increased focus and productivity, in the work and school environment
  • Increased and sharpened attention span
  • Improved positive outlook at work–even Amazon got into the research
  • Improved cognition
  • Serve as a reminder that our actions have power
  • Demonstrate in real time the importance of completing little things
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Growing plants can be such a meditative and calming act. Their care unites us, if only for a few moments, to the present moment.  Nurturing house plants, or any other gardening endeavor, serves as a reminder of the miracle of life and our natural link to nature. With each drop of a dead leaf, plants remind us of the importance of dropping that which no longer serves us. When plants wilt and droop from lack of care, then perk back up from the simple act of watering, it is a reminder that we too can recover from wilting periods of time. Tending to plants further reminds us it’s ok to go through seasons of dormancy, and plants further remind us that when something isn’t working, it’s also ok to troubleshoot or ask/search for help. 

In the end, at least for me, caring for plants fosters the joy of biophilia, my own inner craving for growth alongside nature, and my deeper, more expressive connection to our shared Creator, the ultimate horticulturist.

Moving into health for every body: Tips for fitting additional movement into your routine

“Changing ‘exercise’ to ‘movement’ was a game changer for me . . ..” –@brittanilancaster (Tik Tok)

Last month, I wrote about the importance of rethinking exercise and the benefits of incorporating movement into your daily activity.  Nevertheless, it isn’t always easy to plan, begin, and stick with a program.  You may have the best of intentions, only to be derailed by life.  Don’t feel guilty or ashamed by this–many of us, including myself, have been there on more than one occasion. Consequently, I am not writing to preach or make you feel bad. Guilt is not, in my opinion, a sustainable motivator; however, as I have previously stated, mood does follow action.  Therefore, this month will focus on actionable steps to starting, or returning, to a routine plan of movement.  

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 Honestly, the best form of movement is the one YOU will enjoy doing, but in case you’re not sure, here are a few considerations. 

  • Solo or buddy/group system. Personally, I think it’s important to know if you’re a solo-type of exerciser or one who would stick to a program better with a buddy or a group.  Some people prefer, and are more likely to follow through, with an exercise buddy or group.  While others tend to like more solo endeavors.  Knowing your preference may increase your chances of a more positive movement experience.
  • Choose an activity that you like.  It goes without saying, but I am going to state it again, if you dread exercise, you are probably not going to stick with it.  Ideally, find a form of exercise that makes you feel happy, empowered, and/or confident.  Do you love talking and/or sharing the latest juicy tidbits with a friend?  Then, choose an activity that allows you to do that while moving, such as walking.  Do you crave alone or quiet time?  There are many types of exercise that can lend you that much needed head-space for “me-time,” such as walking, biking, or strength training to name a few.  Are you motivated by instructors or group energy? Try one of the myriad of group fitness classes offered by gyms, fitness centers, or studios. And by all means, if you try one form of exercise, and you don’t like it, don’t throw in the proverbial sweat towel, try something else! 
  • Be realistic and start small.  In an ideal world, we would all follow the Department of Health and Human Services guidelines and exercise moderately 150 minutes per week–typically divided into five days for 30 minutes per day.  However, your schedule may only allow for three or four days and/or 15-20 minutes per day.  That’s okay.  Commit to a realistic routine and time.  Better to work within your schedule and be consistent with lesser amounts, than to do nothing at all.
  • Make it part of your weekly routine. Brainstorm ways to reduce or eliminate barriers.  Schedule exercise times into your smart calendar and set reminders, so nothing else can be scheduled during this time period. Schedule workouts with a friend in advance to build accountability, or use smart watches and/or fitness apps that allow you to link with friends, during workouts. Set out clothes, water bottles, equipment, snacks, and so forth, ahead of time. (I actually lay out all of my workout clothes for the week, set them in one stack by the bathroom, so I can grab and go quickly each morning.) 
  • Remember to reward yourself.   “If I do this, then I can do this.” Think about what really motivates you, and then set mini-goals towards that reward. It could be as simple as giving yourself permission to watch your favorite guilty-pleasure TV series for thirty minutes after completing a workout, or heading to your favorite local coffee or smoothie shop with a friend after completing a week’s worth of goal workouts. With consistency, health rewards will also naturally begin to occur, such as, sleeping better, greater sense of self-esteem, reduction of stress, lowered blood pressure, etc.
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“Day 29 of exercising for mental health. Finally feeling like myself again.  I can’t believe I’ve gone my whole life without this.  Love watching my heart and lungs get stronger so quickly.  Getting my appetite for life back.”–@claraandherself (Tik Tok)

Barring any health issues, here are a few ideas for working around common obstacles that often occur when starting and/or maintaining an exercise program.

  • Have flexible expectations. Sure, we’d all like to look and move like a Marvel or DC superhero, but that’s not realistic, especially when first starting a new exercise routine or new form of exercise.  As the saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and any exercise program takes time.  However, little-by-little, improvements do occur, including moving with greater ease, less fatigue, feeling overall better/stronger, or even sleeping better.  It won’t happen overnight, but with a fair amount of consistency, improvements will occur.
  • Self-kindness and self-compassion always. Nobody is perfect. Kick ideas of perfection out of your head. Setbacks, illness, injuries, and other unplanned interruptions are going to happen.  If you miss a day here or there or if you have a time span in which your workout plan went out the window, don’t let it derail your overall goal of lifelong wellness. Offer yourself the same compassion and understanding that you would offer a friend.  Then, as soon as you can, get back to it–even if it means easing back into it or changing/adjusting your plan
  • Avoid the all or nothing attitude. You do not need to spend hours each day engaged in exercise to reap the benefits.  Even modest amounts of time will benefit your physical and mental well-being, and that could even include 5-10 minute movement breaks interspersed throughout your busy day!
  • Slide day mentality. Don’t get me wrong.  I am not giving you permission to let exercise slide.  Instead, while you may have certain days/time you prefer exercise, be willing to slide a workout to another time or day of the week in order to accommodate week to week schedule fluctuations.  Likewise, if you’re short on time, reduce your total workout time.  A short workout is still better than no workout at all!

I encourage you to banish those limiting beliefs about movement and exercise.  Ignore the toxic, guilt-inducing, body-shaming misinformation about exercise circulating on social media.  Exercise movement is all-inclusive and should be a positive experience for EVERY BODY.   

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Of course, I am not a medical professional, as such, it’s always best to talk to your family health provider before beginning a new movement program.  That said, as a so-called “non-athlete,” exercise has made a huge impact on my own physical and well-being, and I’ve watched it do the same for so many other dear ones in my life.  It is my hope that if you are not currently incorporating much movement into your life, you will consider starting today.  If you  already embrace exercise, keep it up, and while you’re at it, grab a friend to move with you!

Wishing you the best health, Dear Reader!

Banish any limiting beliefs you have about exercise.  Ignore the toxic perfect perfect body images of exercise as well as misinformation.  Exercise is all-inclusive and should be a positive experience for EVERY BODY!
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Let your Life Be a Work of Art

“Make your lives a masterpiece, you only get one canvas.”–E. A. Bucchianeri, Brushstrokes of a Gadfly

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I recently came across the line, “Let your life be a work of art.”  These words were spoken by the late Thich Nhat Hanh, and they inspired me to reflect upon their deeper meaning.  As often happens, I could feel the tendrils of my brain entwining around this notion and exploring all of its complexities.  In fact, the next day, I found myself in meditation asking myself how to “live artfully” and contribute more beauty to the world.

It seems to me that all lives are pregnant with possible ways to share unique artistry with others. While I know, as Bucchianeri once wrote, we only get one life canvas, I’d like to think, that with the gift of each new day, we are each bequeathed a new canvas on which to create. Therefore, how do we bring about awareness and intention to our daily opportunity to create quality life art? 

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I think many great religious and thought leaders would point to nourishing your innerworld as a start. Initially this may sound self-centered.  However, I am reminded of the repeated directive instructing passengers, when flying on an airline, “put the oxygen mask on yourself first before helping others.”  This is because you cannot be of assistance to another person, if you don’t have a one true source for life. 

Therefore, it makes sense to foster a rich, more faith-filled inner life in order to create a more inspired and productive outer life.  Personally, I know when I mindfully start my day with time set aside for thoughtful devotion and contemplation, my actions are apt to be more harmonious and positive with others.  In fact, I find that if my inner world is unclouded, my actions and choices are more thoughtful and in better service to others.  

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That said, I don’t think it’s a linear or perfect process, but a gentle ebb and flow. When we seek, pray, read, meditate, and/or focus upon living more peacefully, as described in most major religions, we can then draw from a wellspring of faith, purposely seeking guidance for serving others.  However, that doesn’t mean we always remember to do that.  Mistakes, stress, anxiety, emotional overload, and so forth, can take us off our A-game for a span of time, but like a swing responding to gravity, our faith can draw us back to the path. 

The more we return to cultivating that inner-world, the more we begin to live in closer alignment with our higher purpose.  Life, it seems, begins to evolve and flow with greater ease, enhancing our ability to constructively contribute to the world and others around us. The greater the sense of ease, the less resistance and/or friction in life, thereby allowing for more effective and productive communication and actions.  Thus, the “art” we hope to create in life, organically continues to evolve and spread to others.  

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 In fact, at least based upon my current reflections on the subject, it seems to me, the more we get clear in our inner world, the more we learn to accept responsibility for our own actions and choices.  As we assume more responsibility for our own actions, we can begin to also foster more responsible reactions as well.  In fact, when our reactions become more moderated and considered, the more effectively we can generate a sense of calm, creating less distress in our own lives and the lives of those around us. 

Of course, writing about “life as art” is easier said than done. Nonetheless, I do believe it is worth trying. As with any work of art, the process is often filled with struggle, but as any artist can tell you, the process of creation can often be messy and imperfect.  Therefore, learning to artfully live with more intentionality and tempered reactivity is a process also permeated with struggle as it takes awareness, time, and a large quantity of patience with self and those around us. 

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However, by repeatedly returning to the cultivation of our inner life, our hearts and minds are gently reminded to remain in alignment with the higher purpose of our faith.  Even after those less-than-stellar days, that we all experience, we can return to our practice and consciously redirect.  In the end, this not only benefits you, but others also profit by your choices, and even more so, by your example.  This give and take of constructive and purposeful living creates a dynamic design of a colorful criss-cross of actions and interactions.

Admiring the beauty of a large pot of flowers, vincas, on my front porch brought me full circle in this “living artfully” thought exploration.  The flowers began as four tiny individual plants. In spite of all the crazy weather, the vincas have multiplied ten-fold, it seems, with eye popping color. The vincas are a reminder that our lives can flourish in similar fashion. 

Our Creator designed us with the ability to withstand dry times, heavy rains, and even stormy seasons. However, the more often we return to nurturing our inner world, the better able our True Source can work through us. By more frequently listening and surrendering to that deeper voice of God, the more we allow our lives to become the design of the Creator’s hands; and like the vincas on my porch, our lives can become unique and colorful works of art to which Hanh encouraged so many years ago. 

By creating the practice of cultivating our inner world, we can become aligned with our higher purpose.  Through the ebb and flow of practice, we learn to accept responsibility for actions, consider our reactions, and allow the "art" of our life to flow with greater ease.
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Good or bad, this too shall pass

“There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in the storm.”–Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark

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“This too shall pass.” 

How often have we been told and/or likewise used that phrase?  Typically, this phrase is spoken during times of trouble, stress, or suffering.  However, what about during the good times– those really sweet, special moments?  Why don’t we say those same words then?  Wouldn’t it be worth acknowledging that this wonderful time period cannot last forever either?  Now, before you think I am writing like a Negative Ned or Donavan Downer, cast your rod alongside my line of thinking, so we can fully explore these open waters.  

In life, good, bad, and temperate moments will rain down upon us.  Sometimes life serves up a spring storm, blowing in fast and furious, momentarily soaking us, but then moving on quickly, no worse for the wear.  These are those momentarily stressful times, usually only lasting a few hours, or at the very least, no longer than a day.  Typically, with a good night’s sleep, the negativity is released, and by morning light, you’re gifted with the start of a new day, refreshed enough to handle any remaining raindrops of the previous day.

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However, there are times when it seems like one day of storms follows another day.  I am often reminded of these times during the summer when there are consecutive days of hot and humid weather with afternoon storms that can be quite fierce.  Sometimes, this type of weather pattern can go on for weeks, much like troubling circumstances life can serve up. 

We’ve all experienced those periods.  For example, the car breaks down, the air conditioning unit goes out, all while trying to navigate a daunting unforeseen health, personal, or professional crises.  News headlines add further stress, and even the most mundane of tasks begins to feel like, “one more thing I have to do.”

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Personally, it is during these difficult times that I am reminded of how I take normal for granted. The grind of the day-to-day work routine may often have us looking forward to the weekend. However, when a crisis strikes, I’d give anything to go back to that so-called grind again without the outside drama, distress, and distraction.  

Similarly, we can often take our health for granted, complaining about aches, pains, stiff joints, and the like.  However, when tossed into the throes of a serious illness, our outlook may seem different. We find that we long for the days when our only complaints are stiff hips, low back ache, or overall fatigue. 

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At the beginning of the month of July, a week of hot, humid, stormy weather swept through the area in which I live.  Each afternoon or early evening, severe storm alerts were posted in the area. One particular evening, a severe storm warning was posted with a strong wind advisory, and a potential for power outages. This was the third such weather alert in as many days.

Within the hour, rumblings of distant thunder could be heard.  Minutes passed as the thunder grew louder, and rain drops began to fall.  Gradually, the intensity of the rain began to grow. It wasn’t long until window shaking thunder was reverberating throughout our home with luminous lightning bolts crashing towards earth as the rain intensified. As gales of strong winds swept through the valley in which I live, the power went out. 

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Sitting there in the fading light, surrounded by the storm, I began my usual grumbling about the power going out. However, in the middle of my spouting, it occurred to me.  I was dry.  Our roof was not leaking.  Food was in my cupboard and refrigerator–although, I was keeping it closed for the time being. We had plenty of clean water.  My family was safe.  There was a mode of transportation outside our home if, for some reason, we needed leave.  

What more could I ask for?  Besides, the storm would pass, and eventually, the power would be restored–even if it took days–which, thankfully for us, it didn’t.  It was in this moment of reflection that an often repeated phrase, “This too shall pass,” crossed my mind.  

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Storms pass.  While we may not be able to see when they are going to pass, they ultimately do move on.  It may take days, weeks, months, or even a year or more, but the downpours of life do fade.  Therefore, why don’t we more frequently push the pause button during calm-after-the-storm moments and appreciate them?  Why don’t we take more time to feel and express gratitude for the sweet, exciting, and even average times of life–really savor the fullness of those less challenging moments because they, too, shall pass. 

Both calm and stormy times can offer us lessons–lessons of strength, stamina, perseverance, appreciation, gratitude, and even acceptance. For many of us, myself included, it takes the challenging moments to teach and/or remind us how to weather and ride out storms.  These times of intensity bring us face to face with the present moment as life storms cannot be ignored–they demand our attention.  Unfortunately, it is the calm, steady-as-it-goes time periods of life which can all too often be overlooked and not appreciated nearly enough.

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Next time, a storm moves through the area in which you live, observe it closely.  Tune in to all of the chaos and turmoil that accompanies it.  AND THEN, intentionally discern the calm that follows. Take notice of the birds as they resume their singing, the return of insects buzzing, and resumption of all those surrounding precious life sounds that create the uncelebrated mundane muzak of life.  

Allow those opposing meteorological moments to serve as a reminder that no matter what type of weather life serves up, it all passes.  Storms of life may vie for our attention, providing us with numerous lessons of fortitude and resilience with each experience for which we can be grateful (at least afterwards). However, let’s remember to enjoy and appreciate those moderate to mild days.  They, too, provide valuable lessons, quietly dishing up the joy and peace that can be found even in the most monotonous routines of life. 

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I Can’t Believe It’s Not Apple Crisp: A sneaky and sweet way to use an overabundance of zucchini

Summertime Farmer’s Market Dessert

“Vegetables are a must on a diet. I suggest carrot cake, zucchini bread, and pumpkin pie.”–Jim Davis

There is an oft repeated cautionary tale reminding parishioners to lock their car doors during the summer months when attending worship services.  Otherwise, when you return after service, your car will have been gifted all the extra, and unwanted, zucchinis from a neighbor’s garden!  

My mom recently repeated that story to me, and it made me think of my grandmother, her mother, Helen.  As a child, my siblings and I often stayed with my maternal grandparents during the summer months, and we came to know much of the ins and outs of their life.  This understanding of their life grew even greater during a two year stint in which I lived with them, as a young adult.  And, that day-to-day life revolved around projects/chores around the house, their church community, family, and most importantly, mealtimes–with special emphasis on summertime produce for freezing, canning, and, of course, eating! 

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For example, during the summer months as a child, Pappaw grew a garden, as did all of their neighbors and fellow church community. Throughout the summer Pappaw gave extra vegetables to neighbors and friends.  In return, they reciprocated with their bounty.  Their in-home summer diet was supplemented with regular trips to a nearby produce stand, one town over from the little community in which they lived.  

Therefore, even though, as a young child, I grew up surrounded by distinct aromas, vibrant colors, and a wide variety of shapes of summer produce.  Half-runner beans, strung and broken into pieces cooking on the stove in a pressure cooker; sweet ears of corn on the cob, shucked, boiled and ready to be served up with tubs of “oleo;” glass jars of a neighbor’s sorghum syrup ready to be drizzled over biscuits, fresh bell peppers–although they called them “mangos”–chopped and ready for salads, sauces, or other recipes, and thinly sliced beefsteak tomatoes sprinkled with salt were common weekly summer meal features. Summer desserts featured strawberry shortcakes and blackberry cobblers, as each of those fruits came into season.  Other summertime desserts included watermelon wedges cold and salted, along with fresh summer melons, cut in half, and filled with ice cream or cottage cheese.

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Then came the two years that I lived with them.  No longer were my grandparents able to grow, manage, and maintain their garden, but it didn’t stop their neighbors and community members from sharing the bounty of their gardens with them.  Cue stage right, enter the oversized zucchini–countless oversized zucchini covering the kitchen counter from well-meaning garden-growing church community members!

Grandmother would cut up those zucchinis with fresh peppers, onion, and tomatoes.  Then, she’d season them and cook ‘em all up together–sometimes on the stovetop, like a stew, and sometimes in the oven with cheese and bread crumbs on top.  Her favorite variation was something she called zucchini boats in which she sliced large zucchinis in half, smothered each half in spaghetti sauce, sprinkled the sauce with parmesan, and baked them until golden brown in the oven. Finally, Grandmother Helen also baked zucchini breads and zucchini cakes–sheet or layer with cream cheese or buttercream icing.  Therefore, I absolutely believe that she would have loved the recipe that follows.

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Here’s to my grandparents’ summer time vegetable meal memories. And remember, if life gives you lemons, I mean zucchinis, then here’s a way to turn them into a sweet, summertime dessert!  It may have you saying, “I can’t believe it’s not apple crisp!”  

P.S. Be sure to tag me on social media, or reach out to me via email if you make this!

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Apple Crisp:

Summertime Farmer’s Market Dessert

Gluten-Free and Vegan Options

Ingredients:

Filling:

6 cups peeled, deseeded (if large) and cubed (think thick pineapple chunks) zucchini* (About 5 medium store-sized zucchini/squash)

½ cup sugar or pure maple syrup

¼ cup lemon juice

1 ½  teaspoon apple pie spice (Can substitute with 1 teaspoon cinnamon, ¼  teaspoon nutmeg, & ⅛ teaspoon allspice)

2 tablespoons all purpose flour, gluten-free if needed

Streusel Topping:

1 cup oats

¾ cup all-purpose flour, gluten-free if needed

¾ cup brown sugar

½ teaspoon cinnamon

½ cup cold butter, cut into pieces (can use vegan variety)

Directions:

Peel and cube zucchini.

Over medium heat, add prepared zucchini and all filling ingredients EXCEPT flour.

Allow to cook down, approximately 10-20 minutes, or until zucchini chunks are super soft when pressed with a spoon.   

Stir in flour and allow to cook 3-5 more minutes, or until flour has been well incorporated and filling has thickened.  

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Spray 8×8 or 9×9 square baking dish with nonstick cooking spray.

In a medium bowl, mix together oats, flour, brown sugar, and cinnamon until well blended. 

Cut in cold butter into mixture, using a fork or pastry blender, until crumbly, careful not to overmix. Set aside.

Spread zucchini filling mixture evenly into prepared baking pan.

Sprinkle with streusel topping mixture.

Bake 30-45 minutes, or until topping is crispy, golden brown and juices are bubbling along edges.

Allow to cool 15-20 minutes before serving.

Makes 6 generous servings or 9 smaller servings.

Feel free to top with favorite ice cream or whipped topping if desired.

*Feel free to experiment with other summer squashes, such as, yellow squash, crookneck squash, pattypan, cousa squash, and zephyr varieties 

Peel zucchini 🥒

Cut them up into pineapple chunk size.
MIx the filling up, add it to pot, and cook it down.
MIx together dry ingredients for streusel.
Cut cold butter into streusel mixture.
Bake it up until top is crispy and golden brown, and the juices are bubbling around the edges/sides.
Serve it up, once cooled!

Here's a sweet way to get a serving of vegetables in, and it will also help you use up all of those zucchinis your neighbors love to share! 🥒
With or without topping, you won’t believe it’s not apple crisp!

Come on, Let’s get moving!

“When it comes to health and well-being, regular exercise is about as close to a magic potion as you can get”–Thich Nhat Hanh

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Over the past few years, I’ve encountered a number of people who say they can’t exercise. This hurts my heart because these are genuine beliefs often imposed upon them at a young age by well-meaning individuals, misinformation, and/or media imaging.  Exercise is free and accessible to all.  No one should feel like, “I can’t exercise.”  We all have an inner-athlete waiting to be freed!  It is how we define athletes, and exercise, for that matter, that needs to be changed.

According to Merriam-Webster.com, there is only one definition for the word, athlete. It reads that an athlete is “a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina.”  This is where I think our mindset often goes when we think of starting some form of exercise.  Personally, I know that is where my mind often goes.  

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I can’t tell you how many times I have thought or said, “Well, I wasn’t athletic in school,” or “I didn’t play sports in school.”  I am pretty sure that I am not the only one who thinks or makes such comments.

Why do we do that? Why do we define ourselves as adults based upon four to eight years of our life?  It would be like me claiming to be a mathematician because I spent so many years during my formative schooling taking math classes. I am no more a mathematician than I am not athletic. 

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Here’s where it gets interesting.  Look up the definition of word exercise.  Go on, I’ll wait for you!  Exercise is a fascinating word.  It can be both a noun AND a verb; meaning it can be both a thing and an action–unlike the word, athlete.  Also, unlike the word, athlete, exercise has numerous definitions, such as

  • the act of bringing into play or realizing into action (n)
  • regular or repeated use of a faculty or bodily organ (n)
  • to make effective into action (v)
  • to use repeatedly in order to strengthen or develop (v)

And, the really cool thing is that these were only the first two definitions for the noun and verb form of exercise.  There are several more ways, in fact, to define exercise.  However, the definitions I share here are enough to make the point.  Exercise is nothing more than bringing something–a movement, for example–into action by repeatedly doing it.  Isn’t that excitingly simple?

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“Healthy is an outfit that looks different on everybody!”–Unknown

Exercising is for ALL.  Not once, when reading through the complete list of definitions for exercise did I come across the word athlete or athletic.  Nor did I read anything about requirements for age, body type, body size, gender, height, coordination, prior experience, prior injuries/illnesses, prior knowledge, time commitments, cost, or even special clothes/shoes.  In other words, none of those narrow boxes that we use to define ourselves or excuse ourselves can prevent us from exercise!  

I used to say, and still sometimes default to this phrase, “I’m not a real ___________ .” (Fill in the blank with whatever current form of exercise I happen to practice).  It needs to stop.  I say this to myself as much as I write it to you.  If we are moving, then we are doing real exercise. 

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Additionally, there is no one, so-called, “right” way to exercise.  Move. Walk.  Swing your arms.  Dance.  Bounce your leg.  Swing your hair (Doesn’t work for me, but if you have it, swing it!)  Put on some K.C. and the Sunshine Band and, “Shake, shake your booty!” Move from one end of your home to another.  Wave at your neighbor–do it five to ten times, and you’re strengthening the muscles involved in that movement.  The point is, get up, and move.  

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Start small, and commit to five minutes of walking or some other form of movement–preferably not sitting, assuming you have no mobility issues.  Sometimes, just committing to a small time, leads to a longer time of effort.  Even if it doesn’t, that is still five minutes in which you weren’t sitting still.  Then, building upon that success, might just be enough to get the ball rolling, or should I say, body moving.

Mood follows action.  You heard it here first.  Actually, I cannot take credit for that assertion, but it is a statement that has proven true for me repeatedly.  In fact, I embrace that declaration like a mantra.  Take a positive action, however small it is, and it elevates your mood, often leading you to either make more of a time commitment to said activity or make another positive choice.  Either way, it’s a win-win.

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Exercise has so many positive benefits.  Here are just a few of the research backed benefits in case you need extra motivation:

  • Reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • Releases tension and reduces stress levels
  • Boosts self esteem
  • Increases memory and sharper thinking
  • Improves sleep quality
  • Protects against many chronic disease
  • Lowers blood pressure and improves heart health

Typing that list made me feel a little giddy.  Seriously, stop letting your definition of how an athlete, or so-called exerciser, should look, should dress, should do, or should be–those are all beliefs embedded in your mind that are holding you back.  You have a body.  You can move it.  

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Don’t worry about what other people will think of you, because if they are passing judgment on you, that says more about them than it does you!!  You take care of yourself, and get moving.  It is not about losing weight, embodying a certain body type, or even wearing the latest greatest name in shoes, fitness watches/gadgets, and/or athletic wear.  It’s about Y-O-U and your health!  

If you’re not sure where to start, walking is the easiest and most accessible form of exercise.  It doesn’t require any special equipment and can be completed even inside a home/store/work site. My grandfather used to walk around his house for a certain amount of time–well before there were step trackers. Some people walk inside malls, stores, or shopping centers.  I’ve even been known to walk up and down my driveway just to move!

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 Additionally, there are plenty of plans, tutorials, and how-to videos on-line–just make sure you use reputable sites, such as Healthline, Verywell Fit, Exercise Prescription on Internet (ExRx), Livestrong, Bodybuilding.com, The Cooper Institute, and MyFitnessPal to name a few.  Look for beginning tips/routines/plans to get you started.  Bear in mind, these are suggestions, not laws.  The key is to explore, experiment, and find what works best for you.  

Come on, no more excuses.  Move your body; bring it into play/action–even a little bit counts.  Repeat it again tomorrow.  Start small, add more when you can.  Mood–and health–follows action.  You’ve got this! (Feel free to reach out and let me know how it goes! I love seeing others find their own movement/exercise journey!)

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Visit Phoenix, Arizona, fifth largest state in the U.S.

“You know you live in Phoenix when the four seasons are: tolerable, hot, really hot, and are you freakin’ kidding me?”–Unknown

View of the surrounding mountains from our room in the Marriott.

If you would have asked me what the fifth largest city in the U.S. was a week ago, I would not have been able to guess.  In fact, I would have not even come close.  Now, I know.  In fact, I can say I have been there.  

Phoenix, Arizona is the fifth largest city in the United States. It’s geographically bigger than Los Angeles as it covers 500 square miles.  This desert city’s population is over 1.6 million, and, according to The New York Post, Phoenix has recorded the fastest growth of any major US city.  Although there is a growing tech industry, much of the attraction of Phoenix comes from its number of resorts, golf courses, and retirement locations.  

Entrance to the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort and Spa

I had the good fortune, along with my husband, John, to visit one of those Phoenix resorts, the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort and Spa, located in Sonoran Desert Region, the hottest desert in both Mexico and the US.  We were there for the NWEA Fusion 2022 Conference, along with our school’s principal, Dr. Carol Templeton, and Jennifer “Jenn” Hornyak, Associate Superintendent of Technology and Accreditation of the Department of Catholic Schools, Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston (WV).  

Entering the Conference Center early in the morning before thing began to heat up!

And, hot it was–both the weather and the conference itself, especially the featured speakers, Michael Bonner, Hamish Brewer, and Marli Williams!  While the temperatures were climbing towards 110 degrees outside, along with a smattering of dust storms rolling in the afternoons, these amazing consultants were heating things up inside the conference center at the start of day.  Each of these talented, charismatic, and socially connected speakers brought the roof down, reinvigorating school personnel after what has been an unquestionably challenging period during these past COVID pandemic years.

Bonner, an influencer and educator currently Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta

Bonner, an animated, inspiring educator at the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, kicked off the week. His good-humored, side-splitting, affirming discourse was filled with a series of inspiring stories, ideas, and catch-phrases.  In the end, he created an atmosphere of palpable motivation for the pursuit of creating innovative, effective, and relevant classroom environments.  

Brewer, a thought leader, known as the skateboarding principal, in northern Virginia. Brewer is also featured in the skateboarding humanitarian documentary Humanity Stoked.

Brewer, a fearless, engaging, skateboarding principal in northern Virginia, followed up the second morning.  His break-the-status-quo, love-up your students, high-octane presentation had the audience on its feet dancing and cheering.  Brewer delivered the goods by filling minds with sparks of creative, colorful, and impactful ideas for retooling, reimagining, and rethinking school culture.  

Marli Williams, a popular thought-leader and self-described “joy instigator”

Finally, Marli Williams, an enthusiastic, empowering, self-described “joy instigator,” wrapped up the conference.  Her vivacious, go-get ‘em tiger delivery wowed those in attendance.  She emboldened the audience to give themselves permission to explore more joy, and show-up, not only for your school community, but also for your own well-being, while exploring a more playful attitude–within both the educational setting and within one’s personal life.

 The conference setting for Fusion 2022 was spectacular, and its stunning design seemed to rise from the desert.  Covering 316 acres, the Marriott is surrounded by an arresting array of desert life and stately mountains.  Additionally, there is an abundance of activities that can be explored both on and off-site, including golfing, swimming, biking, shopping, hiking, sightseeing, horseback riding, and so much more.

Numerous peaks abound for hiking as seen from the airplane!

Initially, we had hoped to hike both nearby Pinnacle Peak Park and Camelback Mountain, but we were unable to complete exploration of either site due to the extreme late afternoon heat that we would have experienced at the end of each day’s conference sessions.  In fact, we were strongly warned by local residents that newcomers to the area have a tendency to hike in the high temperatures of the afternoon/evening only to suffer heat exhaustion or heat stroke.  It was further explained that countless visitors, unfamiliar with the fact that sweat evaporates quickly in dry heat, don’t realize they’re overheating until it’s too late.

However, we did go off-site for dinners to soak up some local atmosphere. On our first evening, we visited a popular chain establishment, BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse, that is not available in our home area, for a relaxing dinner while we planned out the coming days.  By the next night, we were ready to explore more local establishments.

The first local restaurant we visited was The Italian Daughter located in Scottsdale, Arizona.  Our watier, Bobby, offered extraordinary service with his vivacious personality and his experienced attention to detail.  All pastas, pizzas, and dishes were made to order with accepting and easy accommodations for those with special dietary needs, food allergies, or any other meal modifications.  We spent a lovely evening at this location, and I would highly recommend it if you are ever in the area.

Another restaurant we visited was Thirsty Lion Gastropub.  While this is not technically local, since they do have a few locations in Texas, Arizona, Colorado, and Oregon, it was local-enough for us!  Given the name, we initially expected more traditional English food.  Instead, we discovered an eclectic variety of multicultural cuisine, made from scratch, and an accommodating attitude to special dietary requests/modifications.  This was another evening full of belly laughs and good food.  I would absolutely recommend it when traveling in the West.

For our final night’s dining stop, we visited Barrio Queen.  With three Arizona locations, this establishment offered a menu full of regional, authentic southern Mexican dishes based upon family recipes.  Our waiter, Carl, was extremely knowledgeable of each dish, and quick to make helpful recommendations.  On a fun note, he was familiar with the Tri-State local area as he grew up in a community just north of Pittsburg.  If you ever visit Arizona, and you like quality Mexican food, this is your place!   

Overall, traveling to the Phoenix area and attending the NWEA Fusion 2022 conference felt like a once-in-a lifetime opportunity.  Still, if given the chance, I would love to return to the area once more, but during a cooler time of the year.  There was so much distinctive surrounding beauty I feel certain I would have enjoyed  exploring under other circumstances.  One thing is for sure though, I now know, and can say, I have visited the fifth largest city in the US!

Desert Flowers and if you look closely at the last sunflower pictures, you see native AZ green birds (I just don’t know their names!)

Cactus Life and with a couple of hares

Stirring up afternoon dust storms

Majestic Mountains were the daily backdrop

A few more images shot from the airplane

Hello and Goodbye to Phoenix AZ

Reese of Mind Donuts (gluten-free, egg-free, & dairy-free options)

“Fresh popcorn is near impossible to resist, second only to fresh donuts.”–Shannon Wiersbitzky, What Flowers Remember 

For years, I watched with glazed eyes as others enjoyed donuts. 

Donut go breaking my heart!” I would say to friends and family as they enjoyed their orbs of confectionary perfection. 

Donut worry, be happy!” They would reply, driving me glazy as they handed me a gluten free granola bar. “It’s hole-some.”  While I donut want to be ungrateful for their thoughtfulness, a granola bar donut really have a hole of my taste buds.  

I donut have to circle around these orbs of deliciousness.

After years of circling around all of those boxes of glaziness, watching others enjoy those holesome spheres of sweetness, I declared to myself, “Donut let them kill your vibe, Steph!  You can simply create your own glaze-of-glory confection!

Away in the solitude of my home work space, feeling glazed and confused, I did what any self-respecting donut-deprived punster would do, scroll the internet for recipe inspiration.  I donut, I mean, would not, stop believin’ that I could create a glazy alternative–one that was as close to being as hole food as possible with gluten-free, plant based ingredients.  Donut tell me I can’t! 

Ooey-gooey peanut buttery goodness!!

Thus, my holesome quest began.  Since then, I have created recipes for Blueberry Lemon-drop donuts and Chocolate donuts with chocolate glaze.  So what makes this recipe different from the previous chocolate donut recipe?  This recipe comes with the reese of mind that the ingredients are all holesome AND has the added benefit of protein and oats. 

Well, maybe the chocolate chips and powdered sugar aren’t particularly as healthy as some of the other ingredients?  But holey-moley, donut judge me.  You can just glaze over that part! Besides I am fairly certain I sense reesent traces of confectioners sugar on your lips!

Enjoy this gluten-free, egg-free, dairy-free wonder without any worry of stomach upset!

While these donuts may not bring world reese, they may have your taste buds singing, “Hole me closer, tiny donut.”  May this recipe, or should I say, reese-ipe really get a hole of you, and may you love them a hole lot!

P. S. Reese and desist from blaming me for all of the bad puns, I may have eaten one too many drunkin’ donuts! 

Donut cry anymore when the donut box gets passed around, fellow celiacs. You can make your own!

Reese of Mind Donuts  (gluten-free, egg-free, & dairy-free options)

Donut Ingredients:

¾ cup oat flour (Can use regular oats and used food processor to make it flour)

1 serving chocolate protein powder (I use plant protein.) 

2 tablespoons cocoa powder

1 tablespoon ground flax seed

2-3 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ cup applesauce or yogurt

½ cup milk (I use plant based.)

1 tablespoon vinegar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Optional: ¼ cup chopped Reese’s pieces 

Glaze Ingredients:

1 tablespoon melted butter or coconut oil (I use plant based butter.)

3 tablespoon natural peanut butter, melted

½  teaspoon vanilla extract

¼ – ½ + cup powdered sugar

2+ tablespoons milk (I use plant based.) 

Batter will be thick, but easy to spoon into donut molds.

Donut Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and coat 6-donut pan with nonstick spray.

In a large bowl, combine dry ingredients (flour, protein powder, cocoa powder, flax seed, sugar, baking soda and salt) until well combined.

In a small bowl, whisk together wet ingredients (vinegar, applesauce, milk, and vanilla).

Fold wet ingredients into dry ingredients, being careful not to overmix–batter should look/feel thick.  If using chopped Reese’s pieces, gently stir them with wet ingredients.

Divide batter evenly among donut molds.

Bake for 15-20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Allow to cool 5-10 minutes before turning over onto cooling rack.

They’re actually tasty without any glaze or chopped reese’s pieces stirred in and with less sugar! However, feel free to drizzle a bit of melted peanut butter on the top if you choose not to glaze!

Glaze Directions:

In a medium microwave safe bowl, combine butter (or oil) and peanut butter.

Warm in microwave until melted and smooth, stirring occasionally to incorporate.

Stir in vanilla and powdered sugar, stir to combine, adding more powdered sugar if desired.

Gradually stir in milk, 1 tablespoon at a time, until desired glaze consistency is achieved.

Using a spoon, drizzle glaze over cooled donuts.

Feel free to top donuts with chopped peanuts, mini chocolate chips, chocolate sprinkles, or crushed Reeses pieces.

Serve immediately.  Can be stored for up to a week in the refrigerator, or frozen for up to three months.

These are so easy to make. They will give you gluten-free reese of mind!

An Ounce of Prevention Goes a Long Way to Preventing Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease

Currently more than 55 million people live with dementia worldwide, and there are nearly 10 million new cases every year. . . . Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and may contribute to 60-70% of cases. . . . Dementia is currently the seventh leading cause of death among all diseases and one of the major causes of disability and dependency among older people globally.”–World Health Organization, 2 September 2021

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It happens more often than I care to admit–the inability to come up with a particular word while engaged in conversation. In my mind, I can see the shape of the word lurking in the shadows of my brain.  Try as I might to shine a mental flashlight on the word, the word will continue to evade me in a cavernous pit of forgetfulness only to materialize a few hours, or even days, after the conversation has ended.

I have witnessed dementia grip one grandparent’s aging mind and Alzheimer’s disease affect another.  Then again, how many other people can say the same thing?  Therefore, why do I worry, when my brain stutters, sputters, and struggles with a word, misplacing an item, or wondering why I walked into a room?  Answer: because I do not want to be a burden to others.

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That said, I dearly loved my Mamaw and my Papaw.  Even when they were in the throes of dementia and Alzhiemer’s respectively, I still adored them.  However, I was not responsible for their overall care and well-being.  That responsibility fell squarely upon the shoulders of my parents, their spouses, and their siblings. Instead, I was the grandchild who could visit, help-if asked–and leave as I pleased. I didn’t have to worry about the direct care and multitude of decisions that each diagnosis required–and those decisions, it seemed to me, grew in direct proportion with the disease’s progression.  

Mamaw had two children, and Papaw had three.  Even if one child was the legal guardian, they still had another sibling with whom they could confer regarding decisions, seeking help, or any of the other myriad of responsibilities that accompanies caring for a loved one with a form of dementia.  Whereas, I have one child.  One.  And in the words of Three Dog Night, “One is the loneliest number . . .”  I could cry thinking about putting that sort of responsibility upon her.  

My prayer is that dementia will not be my legacy to my daughter. Therefore, I have become somewhat obsessed with habits that could prevent dementia and Alzheimers. One quick recent search for, “preventing dementia and enhancing brain health,” and, according to Google, precisely, 1,500,000 results appeared in 0.56 seconds, many of which are considered “scholarly articles.”  Additionally, searching “habits that increase risk for dementia,” produced nearly as many results.  The point is that I am not alone in my desire to prevent and reduce risk for dementia.

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Unfortunately, there is no known cure for dementia, and even the currently prescribed therapies and medicines have proven to have little efficacy. This is often due to the fact that developing any of the various types of dementia is believed to be a complex cocktail of factors including age, medical history, lifestyle factors, and genes. Consequently, numerous scholarly sources point to a number of preventative measures since most cases/types of dementia are not directly inherited. 

One of the most cited statistical links and effective measures to prevent dementia is regular participation in movement and exercise. Some sources break down the amount of time devoted to cardiovascular, strength, balance, and flexibility, with 150 minutes/week being gold standard. However, all agree that it is the consistent practice of exercise/movement that matters most.

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Another point of agreement is the importance of consuming a healthy diet. In fact, many researchers point to the following diets: MIND, DASH, or Mediterranean as exemplary choices for prevention.  However, there are some research quibbles with regard to best diet practices.  One debate is over how much and/or what meat should, or should not, be eaten, although most seem to agree that fatty fish, such as salmon, is a solid preventative choice.  There is also some contention regarding the use, or disuse, of dairy, but the general consentment is that if you choose to consume dairy, pick low-fat products.  Most research agrees that the consumption of healthy fats–plant oils, seeds, nuts, and avocados– are an excellent choice.  However, the amount needed is not always a point of agreement.  Nonetheless, the research clearly points to an overall consumption of a high fiber diet that heavily emphasizes a wide variety of fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes; AND limits salt, sugar, saturated fats, and processed foods as effective and preventative practices.  

Alcohol consumption and sleep appear to have both positive and negative attributes when it comes to dementia prevention.  It appears that moderate alcohol consumption–no more than two drinks for men and one drink for women–specifically enjoyed with food, appears to be preventative.  However, drinking too much alcohol on a regular basis, seems to increase the likelihood of dementia.  Likewise, getting enough sleep, defined as 7-8 hours, on a regular basis is a preventative measure; conversely, getting too much sleep (10 or more hours), or not enough sleep (less than 6 hours), increases dementia risk. 

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One of the more interesting bits of research centered around the practice of Kirtan Kriya (KK). It is a type of meditation, specifically 12-minutes long, that involves small hand movements, known as mudras. This ancient practice has been cited in several scientific journals as strongly linked to the prevention of dementia. In fact, several Alzheimer’s and dementia research groups offer/sponsor tutorial videos and articles on KK.

There are several other points of agreement among the scientific community for preventing and/or lowering the risk for dementia, including: 

  • Avoid, or quit, smoking
  • Stay mentally active, socially connected, and engaged in meaningful work/tasks
  • Care for mental health 
  • Manage blood pressure and/or diabetes
  • Schedule regular wellness checkups and preventative tests/screenings
  • Maintain a faith/spiritual/meditation practice(s).

While I did not discover anything ground-breaking in my recent research dive, it was clear to me that a few good habits of health go a long way.  Best of all, it’s never too late to increase a healthy habit or two.  Just as following the basic tenets of faith are important applications for spiritual well-being, implementation of basic health practices can go a long way in ensuring the vitality of life.  In the end, we may not be able to avoid dementia or other age-related illnesses, but we can make impactful choices in order to maintain a healthy, active, and balanced lifestyle for as long as possible.   

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Nailing down your vision

“Privilege blinds, because it’s in its nature to blind. Don’t let it blind you too often. Sometimes you will need to push it aside in order to see clearly.”–Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Driving along a familiar major state route, I noticed a car was in front of me, and observed that no one was behind me. My mind began to wander while we maintained the legal, steady-as-she goes speed limit.  I took in the sights along the familiar route, then back to the car in front of me.  I took in the blueness of the sky with no puffs of white, and went back to the car in front of me. I glanced at the steadily flowing river, and back to the car in front . . .Wait, the car was suddenly braking! It was only then I noticed the turn signal.  It was not turning at an expected later point, such as one of several roads that connect to the route, but instead, it was turning into a random location. I had to brake fairly hard, grateful no one was behind me.

What caused my inability to not see the obvious turn signal? In fact, what causes us to overlook seemingly obvious items. I think I’ve lost my phone, only to have my daughter point out that it was right in plain view.  Of course, the reverse also occurs, such as when my husband, or daughter, think they have misplaced a particular object. I go to the same places they have already looked, and I find it for them.

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There are several theories/notions about why/how this happens.  Some of it is steeped in science, while some of it is more theoretically. Two, more scientifically studied reasons, include inattentional blindness and change blindness.  Based on my preliminary research, these phenomena are closely related because they are both failures of visual awareness. However, inattentional blindness is described as the inability to notice an unexpected, but fully visible, object because your focus is diverted to other items within your field of vision, such as when I was driving and did not notice the turn signal.  Whereas, change blindness is a surprising failure to notice significant visual changes. 

Thought leaders, conversely, might say that a failure to see an obvious object has more to do with a mental scotoma, or mental blind spot due to personal bias, beliefs, stress, or even pressure.  (As a point of reference, scotoma is actually a health condition of the eye in which there is a fully diminished or partially diminished area within one’s field of vision.)  Thus, in a similar vein, many of us, knowingly or unknowingly, have blind spots about ourselves, others, and/or the world around us.  Personally, I think we can fail to see something for any one of those reasons, it may just depend upon the situation. 

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This past weekend, for example, I was weeding an area in front of my house in which I am trying to fill in with one of my favorite flowering ground covers.  Stooped in the bright sunshine of the afternoon, I was weeding a bare section of soil, when I noticed a pair of roofing nails–remnants of a late fall roof replacement.  They had partially rusted and, quite frankly, looked like twigs. I removed them, and went back to work.  Low and behold, I noticed two more roofing nails, then one more, then three more, then two more, and so it went for the better part of an hour. My eyes were no longer blind to nails, aided by the clear, bright light and angle of the sun. 

How many times had I previously weeded this bed since the start of spring and never noticed the nails?  While I worked, my brain dumped other notions, such as how many times do I overlook my own flaws, but not those of others.  Likewise, how many times have I done the reverse, picking myself apart and quickly absolving others who may have the same so-called, “flaws.” As my field of vision became more agile in finding nails, my brain dump also grew larger.  

The collection of roofing nails grew as my vision became more clear.

I thought of the poem about a louse, a poem both my mom and dad would quote at different points of my youth.  How did it go?  Something about a woman feeling so self-pious as she sat in church with all of her privilege and status that she didn’t notice the louse crawling on her fancy bonnet.  There was a particular line my parents would especially quote with frequency–a turn of phrase such as–what a gift it would be if we could truly see ourselves as others see us.

Then, my mind meandered to the scriptural story of Jesus speaking in the Sermon on the Mount in the book of Matthew, when he warns hypocrites to remove the beam out of their own eye in order to clearly see before removing a speck from another’s eye.  As best I understand this section of Christ’ sermon, believers are warned to admit and address our own sins first, before attempting to pass judgment on others.  However, even then, as the book of Matthew continues, Christ did not want us to condemn another person for their flaws, but instead offer help/support and grace as they work through their own issues. 

The more nails I gathered, the more my mind expanded into the understanding that we, myself included, often do not see the full picture–not of ourselves, of others, or even on larger, broad-scale, societal issues. Without this full scope of understanding, we make snap-decisions, fall prey to false information/doctrine/beliefs, or worse yet, become apathetic.  It is all too easy to be lulled by the seas of a busy life–caught up in the minutia in order to get through the day/week/month. When this happens, our vision is blinded because our attention is distracted, our focus is narrow, and/or our scope of vision is limited. Thus, we may not realize how comfortable we’ve become with our illusions, our biases, our knowledge/understanding and even what we perceive as truth.

The point is that it is easy to elevate our views/positions/ beliefs and overlook our own issues.  It is also easy to overlook/ignore points of disagreement and/or so-called flaws with others for whom we may hold in esteem; and yet, have no trouble identifying “others”–however you define them–as being wrong, bad, or even, the enemy.  Left unchecked, the busyness of life can create a pernicious way to cloud, distract, and even blind our perceptions.  Therefore, it is worth the time to regularly pause from the distractions and noise of life, and allow the Universal Light to reveal to us the nails in our own life beliefs/actions that need to be removed.  They may be disguised as good-intentions, but once a light shines upon them, their sharp edges, like the nails in my flower bed, could hurt someone, including ourselves, or worse yet, those whom we love. 

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