Berry Good Cauliflower-Berry Smoothie

“Good nutrition creates health in all areas of our existence.  All parts are interconnected.”–T. Collin Campbell

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Summer is back!  Okay, not officially as we have not yet experienced the summer solstice, but it is strawberry season!  In fact, throughout the coming months of summer, other berries will also come into season!  Freshly picked berries are not only some of Mother Nature’s sweetest earthly treasures, but they are also some of the most nutrient rich treats.  Plus, they are just so darn versatile.  Eat ‘em plain; toss them into cereal, smoothies, or yogurt; mash them onto your toast (for real!); bake them into cake, muffin, or pie recipes; cook them down into syrup, sauces, or jams; or, can, dry, or freeze them for later use.  Honestly, what’s not to love about berries?

From a nutritional standpoint, berries are chock full of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and the all important fiber. Think of berries as your personal arsenal for warding off cancer, protecting the health of your heart, and fending off chronic inflammation and/or illness. They also benefit your skin, may help lower cholesterol, and can typically be enjoyed no matter the diet you follow due to the fact they are low-glycemic and low in calories as well as carbs.  Those tiny, juicy, brightly colored orbs are bursting with nothing but love and goodwill for your body and your taste buds. 

Photo by Julia Volk on Pexels.com

Now, contrast the vivid indigo of blueberries, the deep purple of blackberries, the candy red of strawberries, the shiny garnet of cherries and pomegranates, and the rose crimson of raspberries to the ever so homely cauliflower.  Oh sure, there are a few colorful varieties of cauliflower, but by and large, the most abundant form of cauliflower is as colorless as a canvas.  In fact, that is how I prefer to think of cauliflower: a canvas.  A canvas waiting for the strokes of color from an artist’s, or in this case, cook’s palette.

“Most flowers say, “I love you,’ but cauliflowers say, ‘I hope you live forever.’  And, that’s more intense than love.”–Unknown

Cauliflower, like the acclaimed berry, is considered a superfood.  It, too, is high in fiber, low in calories and carbohydrates, and full of vitamins and minerals.  Brimming with phytonutrients, antioxidants, and high levels of sulforaphane–an ingredient in all cruciferous vegetables–cauliflower can also wage war against cancer. Due to its high level of choline, it also supports learning and memory maintenance. (Who doesn’t need help with that?)  Additionally, cauliflower is full of bone-enhancing Vitamin K.  

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Similarly to berries, cauliflower is versatile in the kitchen.  Popularly known for creating a healthier alternative to traditional pizza crust, cauliflower can also be made into grilled “steaks,” buffalo “wings,” and stir-fried “rice.” Furthermore, it can be mashed, steamed, baked, fried, tossed into soup, salad or dip, eaten raw, its stem can be shredded and added to slaw, and it can be frozen for later use.  Plus, it can be added to smoothies! 

“If cauliflower can be pizza, you, my friend, can be anything.”–Unknown

Two simple ingredients make this smoothie naturally sweet, creamy, and a rock-solid nutritional choice to start your day of with the first positive step of the week.

If you are familiar with my work, you know I love whole-food, plant-based smoothies.  They are convenient, portable powerhouses of nutrition that can be made ahead of time and frozen.  That’s right! Blend a whole batch of smoothies up for the week in one manageably messy hour or less, and you are setting yourself up for a nutritionally robust, go-get ‘em week!  Then, the night before–or really, just a few hours ahead of time–take one smoothie out of the freezer, and set it in the fridge. Then, in the morning, you’re ready to kick off your dynamo day with a jolt of nutritional righteousness. 

Now that the weather is warming up, nothing tastes more refreshing than a cool, creamy sweet smoothie.  The sweetness occurs naturally from the succulent berries–no added sugars here.  Full of fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals; low in calories and carbohydrates; this smoothie recipe checks all the boxes.  You won’t be able to taste the cauliflower, but instead, you will taste all of the berry deliciousness of whatever berry(ies) you choose.  Your taste buds and body will be doing the happy dance, and you will feel a peace of mind knowing you made one small choice of positivity that just may lead to multiple beneficial steps towards your health for the day.

From frozen to thawed in a matter of hours . . .make ahead smoothies make your work week more organized and, well, smooth!

“A healthy outside starts from the inside.”–Robert Urich

I encourage you to give this recipe a try. Change it up, dress it up, and make your own version of this wholesome blessedness.  Then, hit me up via email, Instagram, Facebook or on this website, stephsimplycom.  I can’t wait to see what you do with it!  

From my home to yours, I simply wish you vibrant health.  Here’s to you!

Berry Good Cauliflower Smoothie

Ingredients:

1 ½ cup riced cauliflower

1-1 ¼  cup favorite liquid or other favorite liquid 

¼-½   cup pomegranate, cherry, blueberry or combination juice (You want a total of 1 ½ cup liquid.)

½ teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Dash of salt (optional)

1 inch or ½ teaspoon ginger

1 mini cucumber or ½ large

½ lime, peel removed, but leave parts of the pithe for extra flavor and Vitamin C

1 cup mixed berries (My blender can only handle 1 cup, but feel free to add in another cup!)

Optional: 1 medjool date or ½ banana for added sweetness if desired 

Go “Extra,”only if you want, with as many of these additional nutritious powerhouses as desired:

Replace ¼ cup of your favorite liquid with ¼ cup aloe

2 teaspoons amla

2 teaspoon greens powder

1-2 teaspoons acai powder

½ – 1 teaspoon matcha powder

½ -1 whole scoop of favorite protein powder 

¼-½ teaspoon of turmeric powder

Place cauliflower and all liquid ingredients into the blender and blend well.

Add-in rest of the ingredients in the order listed above.

Blend all ingredients until smooth.

Makes one large (approx 32 ounces) or two smaller (approx 16 ounce) smoothies, depending upon amounts chosen.

Scent-ual Memories of Mamaw

“The sense of smell can be extraordinarily evocative, bringing back pictures as sharp as photographs of scenes that had left the conscious mind.”–Thalassa Cruso

The tall 8th grader nodded his head slightly as he handed me a basket.  

“This is from my mom,” he added and ambled away on legs leaner and longer than I am tall. 

Filled with several items of self-care, I slowly admired each item in the basket. Noticing a tiny tin of Nivea hand cream, I twisted off its lid. Since my hands were dry from sanitizing students’ tables, I dipped a finger into the rich, velvety cream and gently massaged it into the skin of my hands and fingers.  Working the cream into my hands, I proceeded across the room and thanked the student for his–and his mom’s–thoughtful gift. Then, beginning class in my usual manner, I promptly began moving about the room as I coaxed the 8th grade students into a didactic conversation, and suddenly noticed a familiar aroma . . . Mamaw?

Mamaw and me at her house in the rarely used living room during the Christmas of 1967.

“Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.”— Vladimir Nabokov

Mamaw, whose actual name was Maxi Musick, was my paternal grandmother.  Standing 4’10” at her tallest, she became a widow not too much longer after I was born during the mid-1960s.  She lived in the same small craftsman style home in which she raised my dad and his younger brother for most of their lives. (They moved into the home when my dad was around nine years old.) 

Mamaw’s home was of great fascination to me, and it possessed a certain scent. This unique aroma seemed to mostly emanate from the bathroom and seep into the rest of the house as the one and only bathroom was situated right next to what she called the TV room. In particular, this same fragrance seemed to emanate from Mamaw’s skin.  In fact, I considered this Mamaw’s signature scent.

Where was this scent coming from? Surely, it wasn’t coming from one of the students? No, that was an absurd thought.  I’m tired and simply imagining Mammaw’s fragrance. 

Mamaw is sitting behind me in this picture from Christmas 1967. Beside me opening a Christmas gift is my Uncle Gary Musick, Dad’s brother.

Making my way around the room, discussing the topic of the day with the students, the lingering odor of Mamaw remained with me no matter in which part of the room I stood. Gesticulating in order to make a particular emphasis, a strong wave of fragrance wafted through the air.  A student began to talk, and I brought my palms towards my face.  Then rubbing my palms together and quickly inhaling, the warm scent filled my nostrils.  There she was again.  Mamaw.

Trying to force my mind back towards the speaking student, memories of Mamaw crashed to the surface of my consciousness, as if suddenly, hundreds of sticky note memories began covering my brain. Oh, I didn’t want to lose those remembrances, but I needed professional concentration. Nonetheless, winds of recollection continued to dance, lift, and float just below the surface of my focus like watching autumn leaves drifting to earth outside my classroom window.  Oh, but could I catch each one if only I weren’t inside the confines of the setting, focusing on the job at hand.

My mind drifted to summer nights spent at Mamaw’s house  . . .

Mamaw, with her thinning salt and pepper hair, topped with a wiglet, quietly swaying in rhythm, with me beside her, as we sat on a glider that gently twanged and screeched.  Not many words were spoken. The sensory thrill of summer was enough.

 Heading into the TV room once night was fully settled.  We would take turns bathing.  Mamw would emerge freshly cleaned, pink nightgown and robe swathing her tiny body;  wiglet wrapped in tissue paper so that it wouldn’t be mussed during the night, and that warm fragrance, like misty fog surrounding her being, emanating out each pore of her body. 

Together we watched The Rockford Files (or other such popular shows).  Before the episode began, Mamaw briskly entered her darkened kitchen, and using only the small light above her sink, she would prepare for us a snack. Using her cheese slicer, she deftly carved perfect slices of cheese, added a few Ritz crackers, poured a glass of water for herself, and fixed a cup of Tang for me–the drink of astronauts! 

Mamaw, Maxi, Musick is seated at the head of the table in her kitchen in 1967. Her kitchen would mostly remain the same throughout my childhood. It is interesting to note the way Mamaw tilts her head for pictures as I only now recognized that I have a tendency to do the same thing when photographed.

We were now ready to help Jim Rockford solve his current mystery. If Jim said or did something funny, Mamaw laughed with her whole body, her soft belly jiggling with delight. When he’d act romantically with his sometimes girlfriend, Mamaw would joke that she wished James Garner would date her.  Throughout the show, she and I would debate the merits of the case in our attempt to solve the crime.

By 11:00 pm, I would snuggle down in a twin bed that once belonged to my dad as Mamaw, a heavy-footed, purposeful walker for such a small person, would walk through “boys’ bedroom” to enter her own bedroom. I would fall asleep to the sounds of the C & O train cars moving around in the nearby rail yard.  Safe and snuggled in the blankets, if I listened closely, I could also hear the soft tick, tick, tick of the second hand of the square electric clock in her bedroom clicking off the passing seconds.

Rising early in the morning, Mamaw would make oatmeal for us with extra sugar for me, Sweet’N Low for her.  She boiled water to make herself a cup of instant coffee, and she poured me a cup of orange juice, or if I was really fortunate, grape juice.  Then, we might go to the local high school track for a walk, work around the house, work around the yard tending to her flowers or hanging laundry to dry on the line, or she might quilt, asking me to hand her pieces of material, thread, or find her thimble.

If I remember correctly, Mamaw drove a Toyota Corona for most, if not all, of my childhood. It did not have air conditioning, and so we traveled with the windows down in the summer. She required pillows on her seat to assist her reaching the pedals and seeing out of the window. Both hands were on the steering wheel–10 and 2 o’clock. Those hands never strayed from their designated positions, and her eyes were locked straight ahead. Therefore, she let me adjust the dial on the AM radio to WGNT, rather than WTCR, the home of the country music she preferred.

Mamaw was tight with her budget. She adhered to a schedule and routine with breakfast by 7:00 am, lunch at noon, and dinner at 5:00 pm. Her house was simple, but always neat and tidy. While she belonged to a Regular Baptist church that rotated services from one rural location to another, she talked about it only if asked, and I never heard her criticize other denominations and beliefs.

Meanwhile, back in my classroom, I felt the sticky notes of memories loosening as I required more and more focus to keep my part of the student conversation going.  

Papaw Musick and Mamaw Musick with my Dad, Larry. I just love this photo of all three as it conveys so many emotions–especially when you look at the eyes.

“We do not remember days, we remember moments.”–Cesare Pavese

Mamaw, I hope you knew, and somehow still know, how special you were/are to me.  You taught me to keep my head held high and to walk purposefully with firm steps grounded in simple truths. You further taught me to live simply and not wastefully; laugh abundantly and with your whole body; don’t proselytize your faith, but instead, live by example; eat your oatmeal and take walks; plant flowers; go to bed at a regular time, and get up early; be kind and loving; and, always remember that James Garner was one of the greats.

 I’ve decided to keep that tin of cream in my desk drawer at school in order to remind me to live by Mamaw’s simple truths as I work and teach the next generation of kids.  

Hmm . . . I wonder if I could find a way to work The Rockford Files into my curriculum?

The End of an Educational Experiment . . .for now

“What a long strange trip it’s been.”–Jerry Garcia

“Dear Ms. Hill,  Thank you for all of your hard work and patience.”

This was a one-sentence thank you note I received from a student in advance of the end of the academic school. I appreciated his sentiment and reflected over what I now think of as the “pandemic years of education”.  These past two academic school years have certainly tested teachers’, students’, and parents’ abilities to practice patience–both within ourselves and with one another in the educational community.  It forced all of the involved stakeholders to work in ways for which we were not prepared, and it stretched us to new limits.

As a middle school, 6-8 Reading Language Arts teacher, I have read countless student journals expressing their feelings of fear and uncertainty when the pandemic first began, their high levels of anxiety as well their feelings of isolation during their time in quarantine, their feelings of frustration during day-upon-day of virtual learning, and their exaperastion when dealing with glitchy/malfunctioning wifi or frozen devices.  Despite all of the pandemic educational vexations, students also wrote of their newfound appreciation for the value of the in-person community that schools foster.  Nonetheless, the scars of this experience, I fear, will remain with many of our students for years to come. 

“Reduced learning time has likely impeded student learning and also affected the development of the whole child.”–Economic Policy Institute

Meanwhile, when reflecting upon this pandemic experience with colleagues, both in the public and private school setting, many reflect upon the multiplicity of issues and/or frustrations, depending upon their unique school community.  Pedagogical adaptations seem to have been one of the major challenges often stated by the educators due to virtual learning, shortened school year, and/or hybrid learning.  Then, there were forced adjustments to instructional delivery in order to balance the engagement of virtual students while simultaneously instructing and attending to the needs of in-person students. This demanded that teachers refine and adapt instructional plans–often on-the-fly if there were wifi issues–in order to best facilitate student learning. Additionally, curriculum was often gleaned to the most essential learning objectives and standards also due to a shortened calendar year and/or class time and, in some cases, to allow for additional time to address the social/emotional needs of the students. Meanwhile, administrative tasks seemed to double with an endless supply of emails, on-line grading, and a multitude of spreadsheets and documentation monitoring student attendance, progress, or lack thereof.

Looking back over this experience, I feel as if I am standing on top of one mountain peak, but I can clearly see there are more summits to climb in the coming academic years.  From my current apex, I can tell you this.  Teachers and students should not judge themselves too harshly as this school year winds down.  Virtual teaching and learning during a pandemic was hard–plain and simple.  Students and teachers alike, across the country, were asked to exit their respective schools on March 13, 2020 with all of their personal/professional supplies and no preparation.  Then, on Monday, March 16, we were exhorted to embark on what would, at this point in my 30-plus years as an educator, be the most dramatic educational paradigm shift I have experienced that continued throughout the summer months of 2020 and on into the 2020-2021 school year for which we are now wrapping up.

One thing is for certain, the pandemic compelled teachers and students alike to establish a strong foundation in the employment of technology for educational purposes. The downside of this is that we also learned that technology is dependent upon access to wifi, devices that work, and equal access for all students to reliable devices and internet access.  While I was blessed to work in a school that offers equal access to devices (although our local wifi provider had MUCH to be desired), that was not the case for all schools.  Additionally, even with working devices, the importance of reliable internet service came to the forefront of the educational world as I witnessed in my own school.  As a teacher who committed to operating paperless during this school year, due to virtual learning, my students and I, very quickly, had to learn how to be incredibly patient when there was no service, certain platforms crashed, or devices simply froze. Which leads me to another lesson.

The last day of school for 1st period, 8th grade, Reading Language Arts students, for 2020-2021, whether in-person or virtual. Eventually, all but one student, returned to the classroom.

“It’s (COVID) taught us that technology can be wonderful, but it will never replace the value of people in safe but rigorous learning spaces talking, playing, and working together.”–Brad Olsen, Senior Fellow in the Center for Universal Education

The importance of local communities, administrators, teachers, students, and parents valuing and supporting one another cannot be overstated. Communities witnessed, very quickly, that not only do schools provide an education for their children, but they are also a reliable source of childcare that keeps children safe, fosters their social development, and supports their emotional and physical well-being.  Meanwhile, administrators, teachers, and students discovered the importance of the synergistic experience that happens with in-person classroom learning. While the remote learning model worked–and will probably continue in certain circumstances–there are real educational, social, and emotional benefits from interacting on-site with one another within the structured periphery of a school setting. 

The last day of school for my 8th grade, second period, Reading Language Arts class for 2020-2021, at times, many were virtual, and by the end of the year, all were in-person

“COVID-19 highlighted the essential role of child care for children, families, and the economy, and our serious underinvestment in the care sector.”–Daphna Bassok, Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Brown Center on Education Policy

While I have no doubt, next year will bring the educational system continued challenges from the lingering effects of this pandemic, I believe, overall, we have the ability to face them with an even greater capacity of compassion and empathy if we heed its many lessons.  The pandemic, it seems to me, has reinforced why it is crucial for the community at large to listen to the needs of educators, parents, and students.  It has given local leaders an opportunity to reflect upon the critical role of childcare and its contribution to the fiscal wellbeing of its community.  Likewise, the educational system must continue to rethink and adapt instruction in order to better facilitate student learning while continuing to cultivate ways to meet the emotional and physical needs of children, caregivers, and educators.  One-size does not fit all when it comes to technology, education, and childcare, but all affect and influence the successful functioning of the communities at large.  

In the end, I circle back to what my student simply wrote.  Thank you to the many who extended me patience through what has been one, if not the most, challenging 15 months of my career.  Many have granted me grace in moments of extreme stress and emotional duress, and for those unnamed moments, I am eternally grateful.  Here’s to summer break, and a fresh start on the coming school year.  May schools blessedly remain open.

First period class clowning around on their last day of school which was also a dress down day for their last day of 8th grade.
Second period, 8th grade, striking a pose on their last day of 8th grade which was also a dress down day.

Birdsong: A Harbinger of Hope

“Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.” –Rabindranath Tagore

It is typically during the seventh hour of the day at some point in February, when there is a noticeable shift in the time the sun rises, that I become aware of their return.  Upon first hearing their growing morning melodies, while walking into the school in which I am an educator, their sweet sounds encourage me that winter will not last forever. With the arrival of March, there is a gradual shift in the start of their chorus as it begins earlier like the daylight.  As March melts into April, and April fades into May, their symphonious soundings continue to advance, in sync with the brightening of the sky.  Softly their voices appear, as darkness begins lifting its veil, until the cacophony of their songs reaches full crescendo with the rising of the sun.

“Birdsong brings relief

to my longing.

I am just as ecstatic as they are,

but with nothing to say!

Please, universal soul, practice

some song, or something, through me!”–Rumi

As one who rises well before dawn, but does not necessarily enjoy such premature risings, I do, nonetheless, appreciate the moments before the brightening of the sky:  birdsong.  These hopeful melodies, it seems to me, offer praise and thanksgiving for the arrival of the new day.  Birds sing regardless of the temperatures, whether there is frost or dew on the ground, or whether there is a bitter bite of the wind or the air is utter stillness.  Their animated voices echo among and around the hills of our area, playing a sort of hide and seek with the give and take of the various songs of each species.

I once read that because King Solomon understood what the birds were saying in their chirpings, they often remained near him.  Supposedly, St. Francis’ presence was so calm and reassuring that songbirds frequently alighted upon his shoulders.  While I am not sure that either of these accounts are much more than lore, they are certainly lovely images to contemplate in the midst of a morning birdsong performance.

Photo by Jess Vide on Pexels.com

This year, it seems to me that the birdsong of sunrises is a metaphor not only signifying the arrival of spring, but also life after the pandemic–at least for those of us fortunate enough to live where those affected by COVID seem to be decreasing.  Like a great collective exhalation, the birds’ songs reflect the hope and freedom that is life after quarantine.  The freedom for humans to flit, flutter, and fly from place to place, as if riding on the wings of these birds, seems as welcome as the spring weather.  Of course, I would not yet throw caution to the wind, but it does seem, at least for now, the worst is behind us.

This weekend, for the first time in months, I met a friend, and we walked together on a local walking path.  In spite of the early morning chill, the give and take of conversation while exercising felt as victorious as the first blossom of crocus emerging through a crust of white snow in late February or early March. As we walked and talked, birds offered a euphonious soundtrack, better than any store muzak, as they chattered, called, and chirped from limbs, lines, and landscape, tilting their small heads this way and that; our great guardians of the walk.

As the birds awakened my later weekend slumberings on the morning of this writing, I couldn’t help but wonder, as I wiped the sleep out of my eyes, at the birds’ optimism.  Even in the darkest days of quarantine, those harmonious fowls kept up their song.  In fact, they never ceased, not for one day.  No matter the restrictions, the overwhelm, the confusion, and the fear that existed among the human population, especially in the early stages of the pandemic, the birds held fast to their habit of daily, lyrical praise.

There is a scientific theory loosely held by a few scientists that the songs of birds, especially in the early dawn hours, vibrate at an ideal frequency to promote plant growth and yield.  It is theorized that when exposed to bird song, the stomata–the mouth-like opening found on the bottoms of leaves–open wider.  This widening allows for a greater exchange of air–expelling more oxygen–and also permits greater absorption of water and nutrients.  

Photo by Dariusz Grosa on Pexels.com

I can’t help but wonder if that is what the birds are likewise trying to do for humans.  In an act of Divine Instrumentation, a bird’s song is not only to aid in the growth of plants, but likewise in the swelling of the human soul.  Perhaps, those songs occur, in the birth of the day, when all is fresh and renewed from a night of rest, at an optimal time to widen the human heart, providing a greater opening for an exchange and absorption of optimism and aspiration from these winged creatures.  

In fact, one could think of each lifted note sung by feathered friends as a harbinger of the positive possibilities each gift of sunrise brings us–if only we allow our souls to remain open to them.  Working symbiotically with the oxygen expelled from the stomata of a plant, we too, can increase our own personal growth and yield by remaining unrestricted to the promising potential each day offers.  Even though the sky is still dark, the birds faithfully start their singing.  We can choose to do the same. 

 “ . . . . Birds make great sky-circles of their freedom.

How do they learn it?

They fall, and falling,

They’re given wings.–Rumi

Photo by Jou00e3o Jesus on Pexels.com

75 years of Regeneration

“Regeneration takes a lot of energy.”My Octopus Teacher 

My mom, to the far left, with two of her relatives, Charles Paul and Jimmy Clarke.

My husband, John, and I were watching a popular documentary entitled, My Octopus Teacher.  While I could see where this movie would not be for everyone, as self-proclaimed nature lovers, John and I enjoyed it.  At one point during the movie, the octopus goes into long term hiding after one of its arms is torn off by a predator. The narrator explains, “Regeneration takes a lot of energy,” and I knew, upon hearing those words, there was a lesson for me.  

Regeneration is a word used in both biology and theology.  In its most basic definition, it means, according to Merriam-Webster, “to become formed again.”  It can also be described as a process of renewal and restoration.  Upon reflection throughout the following week, the concept of regeneration became more nuanced.  In fact, I began to contemplate the way in which I have observed forms of regeneration.

My mom, bottom row, second from left, with her older brothers; Leo, bottom row, second from left; Ralph, top row, third from left, their wives/kids; and her parents, top row, far left.

Mentally shuffling through life’s deck of cards, I began to notice all the ways in which various relations and friends have gone through numerous cycles of “forming again.”  My siblings, my parents, members of John’s family, and even John and I have experienced several crippling and/or painful stages that felt as if a limb were cut away only to witness the miraculous resilience of the human spirit once more begin to help each person renew and restore.

In fact, by the time you read this, Dear Reader, I will have, along with my three siblings and other family members and friends, created ways to help my mother celebrate her 75th birthday on May 7, two days before Mother’s Day.  Mom’s birthday was also her mother’s birthday, and I can’t help but notice, as part of the natural aging process, Mom not only looks similar to Grandmother, but also possesses many of Grandmother’s mannerisms.  

Mom’s mother, my Grandmother. They both shared May 7 as a birthday. Throughout her life, she experienced several life-altering events for which she had to regenerate.

“Sometimes the strength of motherhood is greater than natural laws.”–Barbara Kingsolver

Like Grandmother, Mom has had to go through numerous stages of regeneration that I am only now beginning to appreciate in order to achieve 75 years of life.  Like all humans, Mom went through the obvious metamorphosis that is the infant through teen years, then into the young adult years, and the mid-life adult years. Now, she is fully immersed in those golden senior years for which Mom assures me aren’t always so golden!  

As her oldest daughter who entered her life before she began her second decade of life, I have been a partial witness to moments of time when Mom has been forced to restoration phases.  While it would be easy for me to offer commentary on these significant moments, I haven’t lived in Mom’s skin.  Therefore, I cannot pretend to know the level of upheaval or turbulence that certain events must have generated for her.  All I know is that if there is one thing Mom is good at doing, and thus modeling to all of her children, is the power of regeneration.

From left to right, Mom’s parents, Mom, my Dad (her first husband), and his parents. All of these beloved family member has/had to experience multiple times of regeneration.

“A mother is she who can take the place of all others but whose place no one else can take.”–Cardinal Meymillod

On Mom’s birthday, I did something I had only done one other time this school year (and that was due to John having surgery), I took a day off work to help her celebrate her mid-septuagenarian birthday.  A few weeks prior, Mom invited me to attend her Friday morning Jazzercise class in Ironton, Ohio.  The music playlist of Meghan Trainor, as per Mom’s request, would be choreographed by instructor, Rita Isaac.  

“After all, I only turn 75 once,” my mom said to me with only a hint of heavy-handed inducement.  

To celebrate her milestone, Mom purchased cupcakes for her fellow Jazzercizers!

As I pondered my decision, I considered the past 17 months or so of Mom’s life.  Her husband, Jim, was diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia, and due to the rapid progression of this disease, Mom was forced to make the painful decision to place him into an assisted living center.  This decision had to be made in the middle of the COVID pandemic/quarantine when patients in these centers were dying by the thousands.  Thus, it was by no means an easy choice.  

This was followed by a succession of deaths, including one fateful funeral in which Mom, and several family members in attendance, contracted COVID.  The virus clung to Mom like a wine stain on a favorite shirt–there was no quick way to wash it away.  Afterwards, came more deaths of loved ones, never-ending quarantining, and a winter that would likewise regenerate in unexpected ways.  

Through it all, I witnessed Mom scratch, claw, and climb her way through each blow that life offered.  Thankfully, she had, and continues to have, a devoted support system of friends and family to lend her a hand and/or an ear.  Additionally, there was, and is, a professional cadre of further support at Marshall Health Senior Adult Care.  Nonetheless, these past months required much internal restoration that only Mom could do for herself, and that Dear Reader, is the lesson to this story.

Several of her Jazzy friends left early, so unfortunately, I wasn’t able to photograph everyone in a group. Mom is center, and to the right of her is the instructor, Rita Isaac, who created and choreographed the Meghan Trainor playlist/workout!

The latest regeneration of Dolores, my mom, is flourishing as I witnessed on May 7 in her Jazzercise class. Once she was able to get vaccinated, and restrictions were lifted, Mom became the proverbial butterfly flitting and floating in the grassy field that is life on the other side.  Watching her dance, bop, and clap her way through her Jazzercise class with smiles for miles, I couldn’t help but admire her renewed exuberance and vibrancy.  Seeing her surrounded once more by friends and acquaintances in her various community and social circles reassures, that indeed, there is a dawn after night, and there is joy after the pains of birth, or in this case, rebirth.

Happy Birthday, Mom!  May you continue to find ways to renew and restore, and may your story remind others that regeneration of the human spirit is indeed possible! 

A Handful of Mother’s Day Love

“Happy Mother’s Day, Mom! (And while I have you, quick apologies for ages 13-21)–PureWow

Photo by Giftpundits.com on Pexels.com

As I get ready for work in the morning, I often notice my maternal grandmother’s handkerchief draped over a framed print on a dresser.  It was a gift from my mother several years ago.  Recently, as I took in its gentle embroidery work, I picked it up and sniffed it in a futile attempt to pick up the scent of Helen, my grandmother.

Grandmother, whose scent was a unique blend of Folgers coffee, Avon cream, peppermint, and Estee Lauder’s Youth Dew, was always reassuring.  This morning, I was fatigued and feeling particularly nostalgic as I held Grandmother’s kerchief.  Her scent would have at least provided some small measure of comfort.  Instead, I was left to trace the delicate stitching.  Upon closer inspection, I noticed what appeared to be a stray pencil mark or two and I was taken into the past.

My mind drifted to that fundamentalist, country church of my youth.  I often begged my mom’s permission to sit with Grandmother and Pappaw.  Grandmother’s handbag, the size of a shoebox, was always well-supplied for church services that were sure to be long.  Unclasp the top, and inside, one could find mints, assorted candy, gum, pencils, pens, and old C & O notepads from Papaw’s time of working on the railroad.  While both my grandmother and my mom expected that I stand and hold the hymnal anytime we sang, grandmother permitted me to continue holding the hymnal on my lap as a makeshift desk in order to write, draw, or even play the dot game or hangman with a sibling or cousin–if they were seated with me. In this manner, I was able to remain respectfully quiet, which was also expected by both of my “ruling” women.

If the sermon offered to the attending flock hit a certain emotional note, or if someone sang a special song, such as one originally performed by a popular gospel group at the time, the Happy Goodman Family,  “What a Beautiful Day,” “God Walks the Dark Hills,” or if the congregation simply sang, “Amazing Grace,” I would often see tears stream down Grandmother’s face.  She’d reach in her purse for a handkerchief, dab at her eyes, and continue to hold on to that handkerchief, squeezing it as if her life depended on it.  Looking at the handkerchief, I suddenly remembered with great realism, Grandmother’s strong hands squeezing mine.  It was faint, and then it was gone.

I looked at my own hands.  They are the hands of mother’s and my grandmother’s.  Already, at age 55, they are starting to slightly misshapen from squeezing/holding too tightly onto things.  My fingers, like the women before me, are short and wide–nothing like the Palmolive hand models of long ago commercials. However, like both women, my hands are strong as I am typically better at opening jars and bottle tops than my husband. 

Grandmother’s own hands were strong from years of manual labor.  She single-handedly ran a grocery store and managed/cooked/served for its lunch counter, butchered the store’s meat, maintained and sliced it’s deli cheese and lunch meats while also raising two young boys.  (She would not have my mother until over a decade later.) Later, after my grandparents lost nearly everything in the flood of 1937, they moved to higher ground, left the grocery store business, and Papaw began working exclusively for the railroad.  Grandmother then became a full-time devoted housewife and mother.  Those hands of hers ran a precise schedule for daily, weekly, and annual cleanings, cooking, laundry, ironing, and so forth.  In fact, looking at her handkerchief, I can tell it has been worn thin from repeated washings and ironing.  If there was one thing Grandmother knew how to do well, it was to create a reliable routine and schedule.

“My mother menu consisted of two choices: take it or leave it.”–Buddy Hackett

My mom likewise employed her mother’s ability to create a reliable daily structure with my three siblings and me. We got what she cooked (although Grandmother was far more indulgent with her grandkids), and we cleaned with regularity.  In fact, every Saturday we were expected to strip the sheets off our bed, remake our beds with clean sheets, and then dust/sweep our bedrooms.  Later, when we were older, we were also assigned another room in the house to likewise clean on Saturday.  It wasn’t until I was in high school that I realized very few of my friends had the same expectations!  In fact, one of my sister’s friends once shared, years later, that she drew inspiration from my mom’s Saturday schedule when raising her own children.

“I especially loved that when I spent the night with your sister, one of the siblings had to pick up her chore for that morning.”

In Grandmother’s daily routine, and later,  in Mom’s schedule, there was also set aside time for rest and relaxation.  You worked hard, when it was time to work, but likewise there was built in time for reading, relaxing, and rest. Grandmother’s house, and later my own childhood home, was filled with books, magazines, and, of course, several bibles.  Perhaps, it was because Grandmother’s 8th grade education bothered her, even though she was more educated than Papaw, reading was especially important to Grandmother, hence reading was also important to my own childhood home.

Recently, my mom has spent a good deal of time talking with me about her church.  She states that one of her friends at church loves Vestal Goodman, and all the rest of the Happy Goodman Family, whose songs were frequently sung at my Grandmother’s church.  Mom additionally has played Facebook videos of the church pianist who performs the ol’ time gospel tunes of Grandmother’s long ago church, and praises the pastor who knows how to touch her both intellectually and spiritually.  I can’t help but be reminded of Grandmother and secretly wonder if my mom carries a hanky to church too.

Preparing to write this piece, I clicked through a few youtube videos of the Happy Goodman Family, remembering their albums echoing through my grandparents house as Grandmother dusted and swept.  It wasn’t until I paused long enough for the entirety of “God Walks The Dark Hills,” that I noticed that Vestal was holding a handkerchief. As I clicked back through previously viewed videos, Vestal indeed was holding a hanky in each one!  I walked back to my bedroom and once more to pick up Grandmother’s delicate hanky.  Holding Grandmother’s handkerchief, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and I saw both my mom’s and grandmother’s faces staring back at me.  

“It’s not how many years we live, but what we do with them.  It’s now what we receive, but what we give unto others.”–written by my grandmother, Helen Slater, on November 13, 1957 in my mother’s autograph book

Grandmother Helen, thanks for the “handy” reminder of the importance of faith, family, and all of those intangibles that I once took for granted.  Even now, you’re still giving me a hand. If you can see me in heaven, I’m sending you a hand-ful of gratitude on this coming Mother’s Day.  

And, Mom, I know that I was a hand-ful, so I’m especially sending you these words of Mother’s Day appreciation along with much love. You taught me not to start a sentence with “and,” but you know I often struggled with obedience.

P. S. This quote is for you, Mom . . .

“When your mother asks, ‘Do you want a piece of advice?’ it’s a mere formality. It doesn’t matter if you answer yes or no.  You’re going to get it anyway.”–Erma Bombeck

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Steph’s Super Immunity Smoothie

“Ms. Hill, is that a green smoothie?”

Due to COVID restrictions, the school for which I work offers early drop off for students in order to stagger their arrival times; therefore, students begin entering my classroom at 7:30 am.  Until 8:05, students in my middle school homeroom class gradually fill the room while I am typically setting up Google Classroom and other platforms that we use throughout the school day.  Meanwhile, the students use this time to finish homework, study, read, or quietly chat with friends.  

While going about my morning tasks as students arrive, I typically drink a homemade smoothie.  I had not realized any of the students had noticed my habit until a few weeks ago when one of the earliest arrivals asked the question above.  When I confirmed her question, she followed it up with another.

“Why do you drink that?  Is it like a protein drink?”

I briefly explained the whole food ingredients, including leafy greens and fruit, and how otherwise I don’t make time for breakfast; she nodded in understanding.  Then the same student explained that one of her friends also drinks green smoothies, but that she, the student talking to me, never gets up early enough to make one.  At this point, another classmate came in, and the inquisitive girl’s attention was drawn away.

I used to feel the same way driven by authors who touted that smoothies must be blended and consumed within an hour of being made or vital nutrients would be lost.  Then again, I used to feel guilty for even consuming smoothies due to other authorities who insisted that all food must be chewed.  Eventually, I tossed both views aside and found my own nutritional middle ground that works best for me. 

Smoothies, made with whole food ingredients that I control, are my nutritional bombshells.  They may not work for others, but they work for me.  These breakfast cocktails are loaded with a serving of dark leafy greens (or riced cauliflower), a serving of fruit, and whatever nuts, seeds, and/or protein I choose to add–depending upon what nutritional need I want to address.  I think of them as a blended breakfast salad.

Last month I began to wonder if I couldn’t freeze smoothies in order to make them in advance, and still keep them fresh.  With a quick bit of research, I found several valid websites that shared the ins and outs of this technique!  Therefore, this past month I began freezing my smoothies.  On Sunday afternoons, I gathered all of my ingredients and blended enough smoothies for the upcoming week.  I put one in the refrigerator for Monday morning and the rest were stowed away in the freezer. Then, each morning, as I packed for work, I grabbed in one thawed smoothie from the fridge, and took another one down from the freezer to thaw for the next work day. As one who loves to food prep for the week ahead, this was a dream come true!

According to several manufacturing websites, when freezing smoothies, wide mouthed glass jars, like canning jars, work well.  Be sure to leave a gap at the top of the jar to allow for expansion.  Smoothies can safely remain frozen for up to three months and still retain their nutritional value.  When ready to use, simply take one out of the freezer the day/evening before, and allow it to thaw overnight.  

“All berries and their juices—including blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, acai berries, goji berries, elderberries, and strawberries—are superfoods.”–Joel Fuhrman

Reading through my list of ingredients, keep in mind that I am a petite, older woman whose calories and nutritional needs are on the lower end.  Additionally, I do not have one of the top of the line blenders, like a Vitamix or Blendtec.  Therefore, if you are larger and/or younger, and have a top-notch blender, feel free to double any of the ingredients according to your nutritional needs or taste preferences. (Personally, if my blender could handle it, I’d add a full cup of both fruits instead of ½ cup of each!)

“Indian gooseberry (amla powder) may promote heart health, provide anti-aging effects, improve immune function, and reduce heartburn severity and cancer risk.”–SaVanna Shoemaker, MS, RDN, LD

I call this recipe my super immunity smoothie because every ingredient serves multiple nutritional purposes. Dark leafy greens, amla powder, and spices are important for heart/vascular health and anti-inflammatory properties.  Aloe gel is excellent for digestive/gut health, skin, and maintains blood sugar levels. Walnuts and flaxseeds are healthy sources of omega-3 fatty acids which are good for heart health and cholesterol regulation. Berries and other fruits are full of fiber, antioxidants, and vitamins.  Additionally, many of the ingredients are loaded with Vitamin C,  improve brain function, lower one’s risk for cancer, and boost the immune system.  Plus, the recipe is versatile when it comes to swapping out choices of fresh or frozen fruits and greens, nuts/seeds, and spices.  Change up the amounts, swap out the ingredients, and even add your protein powder if desired!

These bright green smoothies were made with riced cauliflower, spinach, strawberries, pineapple and so forth which given them their bright green color as I stow them away in the freezer!

“Dark leafy greens have been shown to help the endothelial lining of your blood vessels, cutting inflammation, and helping blood cells to glide through your arteries.”–Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn

I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep on saying it, if you don’t have time for a sit-down breakfast, then make your own whole-food smoothie.  You can control the contents, you can make them ahead of the time needed, there are no unpronounceable additives/chemicals, and no added ingredients that you don’t want or aren’t good for your body.  Best of all, you can make them in batches, freeze them, and have portable punch of nutrition at the ready.  Homemade green smoothies check all the boxes for nutritional well-being.  Even on the most hectic, crazy days, you can start your day with a smoothie and know that if everything else goes wrong, at least one step towards your well-being was accomplished!

From my home to yours, I wish you healthy, vibrant, and nutrition filled mornings!

Notice these smoothies, stowed away in the freezer, are darker due to the fact that they were made with kale, spinach, mixed berries, cherries, and so forth. They still taste fabulous when they are thawed!

Steph’s Super Immunity Smoothie

Ingredients:

1 ¼  cups of favorite liquid ( I typically use water, but if you can afford the calories, pomegranate, blueberry, or cherry juice makes this recipe super sweet and full of antioxidants.)

2 cups of favorite leafy greens (I typically combine kale and spinach, but any dark leafy green works!)

¼ cup aloe gel (preferably from inner fillet)

1-2 tablespoons chopped walnuts

1-2 tablespoons flax seeds (Can use chia, hemp or combination thereof.)

1-2 tablespoon alma, if you have it (powdered Indian gooseberries)

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract or vanilla bean powder

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon matcha, contents of a cut-open green tea bag, or other favorite greens powder

1 ½ inch fresh or ½ teaspoon powdered turmeric, ginger, or both

¼ teaspoon black pepper (Activates turmeric, but feel free to leave out if you don’t like its taste.)

1 medjool date (Optional addition for sweetness, fiber, and other nutritional benefits.)

½-1 cup strawberries or other favorite berry/berry combination mix

½-1 cup pineapple or fruit of choice!

½-1 banana (I keep these cut up and frozen. You could also replace it with ½ an avocado.) 

Squeeze of fresh lemon juice (I keep sliced lemons on hand and toss in a couple of slices since the pith is full of fiber and vitamin C.)

Dash of salt. (I use ground pink himalyan.)

Add liquid, aloe gel, and greens first; then, blend well. (Blending greens and liquid first works well for less pricey blenders, but may not be necessary if you own a top of the line model.)

Add the rest of the ingredients in the blender in the order listed, and blend until smooth.

Divide between glasses.

Can be drunk immediately or stored in the refrigerator for up to two days, or freeze for up to 3 months in a jar with a wide mouth–be sure to leave some empty space at top to allow for expansion.   

Makes 1 extra large serving or nearly fills 2, 16-ounce bell jar size servings.

When Cardinals Appear . . .

“When cardinals appear, angels are near.”–Unknown

Tink, plink, tink. It’s 6:00 am, and the first light of the dawn is beginning to show.  While the actual sunrise won’t occur for another 40-50 minutes, I hear the newest members of our neighborhood at it again. If this were a school day, I would have been awake.  However, on this occasion, it is the weekend, and I typically give myself permission to sleep in until 6:00 or 6:30.  Ugh! 

Boink. Doink. Boink.  The sound varies depending upon which room I am in.  Persistent.  Insistent. Relentless. All members of my household, human and feline, have moved from fascination to annoyance to down-right sympathy for our neighbor’s continuous need to pound, rattling both the living room picture window and the master bedroom window.  Don’t they ever get tired?

Our newest neighbors moved in around the beginning of April.  John, my husband, Maddie, our daughter, and me, did not really think much about them.  Each couple, one across from the front of our house; and the other, across from the bedroom end of our house; seemed peaceful and pleasant enough.  In fact, both pairs could often be heard singing to one another, especially during the first light of morning and the last light of evening.  The practice seemed like such a romantic thing to do.  Clearly, they were deeply in-love, or at the very least, highly infatuated with one another.

Furthermore, we couldn’t help but notice both males have a predilection for parading around dressed in bright red with flamboyantly styled hair.  While their female partners dress more subduedly in colors of brown and buff, they do appear to try to complement their male counterparts by donning caps with red feathers and hints of red skirt their lower half.  On an odd note, both couples seemed to only own black facial masks. 

Not long after both couples moved in, we also noticed they each had the habit of dining outside.  While that wasn’t particularly unusual, given the mildness of our early April weather, it was the habit of the males feeding the females that was most striking.  In fact, it appeared as if they kissed first, allowing the female to take the food from the male’s mouth.  What love birds both pairs appeared to be!

When their habit of banging around first began, the two pairs could be observed pounding away with great intent.  This, hysterically, drew great attention from both of our lacidzical cats.  Our feline companions could, with great regularity, be found wherever our neighbors could be seen industrially belting away–so curious were our cats’ desire to see our neighbors’ carrying-ons. 

By the second week of April, however, it was only the male partners that appeared to knock around–not that we were truly keeping tabs on them.  Meanwhile, their female partners were only occasionally detected outside of their new home.  It was whispered that the females were holed up inside privately nesting.  Although, it was reported that one couple, during this same week, was observed publicly engaged, in their odd practice of kissing-before-swapping-food-mouth-to-mouth.  

As I write this during the third full week of April, both couples seemed to have somewhat settled.  While the males can sometimes be heard plinking away, they are blessedly less active than when they first moved in.  However, the tune of the pair’s vocalizations still fills the air at the day’s beginning and end.   The rarely seen females can be heard from inside of their home singing a wide repertoire of choruses, while the male confidantes still proudly sing the same ol’ melody, over and over, right outside their home.

John, Maddie, and I recently stood at the front picture window looking out at one set of our newest neighbor’s home. Rumors were continuing to circulate regarding the state of the hidden females.  Most fodder contended that due to all of the hanky-panky-dining-habits, both couples must be in the family-way.  After all, what is to be expected from all of those acts of public display of affection and strange exchange of food?  Bunch of granola-eating hippies if you ask one commentator!

Of course, John and Maddie, used to my crunchy, granola-eating, tree-hugging ways, seem to have come to terms with our newest neighbors who munch, mouth, and swap nuts, seeds, and berries.  

“What’s one more plant-based eater in the neighborhood?” Maddie teases.  “You can make friends with them, Mom.  You know, swap recipes!”

John, more prone to roam the neighborhood, than Maddie and I, claims the latest tittle-tattle accuses both couples of sometimes eating insects and spiders.  

“Supposedly, someone watched one of the males spewing an entire bug into the mouth of his partner.”

Maddie cringed with disgust.  I quickly reminded her how some people do go on and on about things for which they have little to no knowledge.

“Yeah, but eating bugs is just, well, gross.  And, I thought eating nuts and seeds was weird . . . .”  

As Maddie walked away from the conversation, one of our new male neighbors determinedly drummed a window as if for effect.  At this sound, I walked closer to the window and waved my arms above my head.  I looked at him, as he moved towards his home.  I am fairly certain that, since the windows were open, he could hear me through the screen, so I told him to stop. 

“It’s like banging your head against the wall, Buddy.  It’s not productive.  Your partner needs your protection; I get it, but you’ve got no worries with us.  We’re cool if you guys have kids out-of-official-wedlock.  I mean, it’s my understanding that you and your partner have been together for life.  The neighbors you’ve got to worry about aren’t us anyway.  The more menacing neighbors are on the hills and in the woods around us.”

I thought he was listening.  He cocked his head from one side to the other, keeping his black mask in place. (Boy, does he take this COVID crisis seriously.)  However, right as I thought my message was getting through his tiny bird brain, (I hate to be rude, but seriously, our new neighbors are TOTAL bird brains.) he flitted away as if my words meant nothing to him.  

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you when you meet our hawkish neighbor on the hill!”  I exclaim to him, but I am expending energy on one who doesn’t want to listen.  Hmph!  Just like a male to not accept advice.

I am not sure that I would call our newest neighbors angels, and in spite of their red wardrobe, I wouldn’t refer to them as devils either. One thing is for sure, from the looks of their homes, all bound up tightly like twigs of a nest, I think our new neighbors are here to stay for a while.  Maybe Maddie is right, perhaps I should ask them for their granola recipe.  After all, if it inspires all that kissing, it might be worth trying!

“Cardinals may protect a territory size of 1/2 to 6 acres during breeding season. Males will chase other males and females will chase other females from the pair’s territories.  Cardinal birds often fight with their reflection in house windows and car mirrors.” –Wild-Bird-Watching.com

As seen on Instagram @ forrestyoga

Visit Virginia Beach

This was the view out of our beach front hotel room at Virginia Beach. (It was clearly Rita’s day!)

“Because there’s nothing more beautiful than the way the ocean refuses to stop kissing the shoreline, no matter how many times it’s sent away.” – Sarah Kay

Recently, as some readers may recall, John, my husband, and I had the opportunity to visit Virginia Beach for its annual event, The Shamrock Marathon, Half-Marathon, and 8K event.  Of course, the 2020 event was cancelled due to pandemic restrictions, and the 2021 event, in which I participated, was a hybrid virtual event–it could either be run virtually from any location, or ran any day of the designated three-day weekend of the event on-site via a self-guided route that was well marked and supervised.  In spite of the not-so-cooperative weather during our stay, John, and I thoroughly enjoyed our stay at Virginia Beach so much that we have talked about returning.  Therefore, as more families begin to travel again, I wanted to share our experience in this family and couple friendly town.

While we were there, we took in a few sites, but quickly realized that we did not have enough time to adequately explore this area of Virginia.  Additionally, with a few clicks of the keyboard, while relaxing and taking in the view of the Virginia Beach boardwalk and beach from the comfort of our hotel room, I learned that there is so much more to Virginia Beach than just the boardwalk/town area in which we were staying!  Therefore, I will share a few of the highlights from our visit as well as a few tidbits I discovered from a short bit of research. 

‘‘In the planning and preparation to re-open the beaches of Virginia Beach, we believe we’ve defined the Gold Standard for beach safety and cleanliness, and our Hotel and Restaurant Associations followed suit with their own new protocols with the same important goals.’’–Virginia Beach CVB

To begin, John and I checked the usual sites, AirBnB and VRBO for budget friendly rentals.  However, since we were hoping to stay in a place with an ocean view, we quickly realized that those homes came with a price–either out of our budget or the houses were nearly as small as a hotel room.  We then compared home rental costs with oceanfront hotels and condos.  Much to our surprise, it turned out that the latter were much more reasonably priced and conveniently located within walking distance to restaurants, shops, and the Virginia Beach boardwalk.  Furthermore, due to the short nature of this trip, we knew we would not be taking time to cook, nor would we spend much time in the place in which we were staying. Therefore, the hotel seemed like the way to go.

The Hampton Inn, with its restaurant on the beach, in which we stayed.

“Together, we’ve all made a pledge to VB Smarter – and adhere to these protocols without compromise. It is Virginia Beach’s way to shine a light on our collective commitment to ensuring a safe, fun, and relaxing environment for all.”–Virginia Beach CVB

John and I were super impressed with the protocols throughout the oceanfront area of Virginia Beach.  We felt safe, and likewise, did not feel restricted in our travel or experiences. The city definitely seemed to have the right balance.  While we did walk to several of the restaurants and shops near our hotel, and we also enjoyed visiting other parts of the town due to the free parking that was in place until April 1.

One creative approach to out-of-doors dining in the era of COVID–Individual geodomes for groups!

Since our hotel’s back door literally opened out to the Virginia Beach boardwalk, John and I took full advantage of this area daily.  This three mile long and 28 foot wide expanse, equally divided with lanes for biking versus walking, runs from 2nd Street to 40th Street.  It is full of local attractions and numerous oceanfront restaurants and eateries.  Highlights include the JT Grommet Island Park, a perfectly shaded park for active children to let off some energy while parents still remain oceanfront and near public restrooms/showers.  Along the path are also two museums, the Atlantic Wildfowl museum, located in the de Witt Cottage, built in 1895, and the Surf and Rescue Museum, housed in a former U. S. Life Saving Station that is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Near our hotel was the well-known Virginia Beach Fishing Pier that does not require a fishing license.  Finally, further down from the pier was the festive 31st Street Park, home of the iconic King Neptune which was also the start/finish line for the Shamrock Marathon events.

Of course, food was a big part of our short stay; however, restaurants can be a bit tricky for me due to the fact that I have celiac disease, so I cannot eat products with wheat and gluten. Additionally, I choose to eat plant-based.  Virginia Beach, however, did not disappoint me or leave me feeling hungry.  We serendipitously discovered a hidden gem within a short walking distance from our hotel, Side Street Cantina, filled with Peruvian-influenced Mexican fare. Located in a colorful building with vibrant and funky decor, the staff worked hard to accommodate my dietary needs.  In fact, John and I loved it so much, we ended up dining there twice!  The menu was lengthy and varied, portions were generous, the drinks were cold, and food was cooked to perfection.  This is the perfect casual dining experience within walking distance from the beach.

Another restaurant within walking distance was Il Giardino Ristorante. Self-described as “upscale dining,” John and I found this restaurant to be the perfect place to celebrate the fact that I survived 12 weeks of half-marathon training and the extreme weather conditions of the actual event. Filled a wood-burning oven–creating a warm, aromatic scent emanating throughout the dining area–a wide variety of green plants, and an enormous wine collection lining the walls, the vibe of the restaurant felt clubby, and yet, relaxing.  It turned out that the exceptional service and outstanding food ended up being the shining star! Wow, did we ever enjoy this meal. 

One more exceptional dining experience that John and I discovered was Pocahontas Pancake House.  Decked out in slightly cheesy Jamestown & Powhatan murals with a teepee, this family owned, super-clean eatery turned out to be gluten free heaven for me!  Clearly, a local favorite based upon the crowd, this breakfast and lunch only diner, served up more breakfast and lunch gluten free options than I have ever before experienced.  Their menu was more like a novella, and my choices ranged from waffles, pancakes, bagels, muffins, bread, and wraps!  Plus, numerous vegan/vegetarian options, along with countless meat/egg-centric options for John.  We dined here twice and relished every single bite!

“Whether you’re a history buff, outdoor enthusiast, or die-hard foodie, or you’re just looking to do little bit of everything, Virginia Beach is an adventure you just have to experience for yourself.”–Virginia Beach CVB

While John and I did take a quick trip to visit the Lynnhaven Mall, one of the largest malls on the East Coast, we spent the remainder of our time taking in the sights and sounds along the boardwalk and beachfront town areas of Virginia Beach.  However, as I discovered with quick internet search, there is MUCH more to discover in the Virginia Beach area.  From outdoor adventures throughout the beach and Chesapeake Bay areas to more inland adventures, from historic explorations to arts and cultural discoveries, from micro breweries and distilleries to Town Center adventures and family fun, and from Sandbridge to Pungo, the areas of Virginia Beach offer a wide variety of unique beach vacation opportunities.  John and I look forward to exploring more of what this area has to offer especially since it is only a short six-to-seven hour drive away!   

From our vaccinated family to yours, we wish you the return of safe and happy travels!

Sun Kissed Stranger

“I cannot do all the good that the world needs.  But the world needs all the good that I can do.”–Jana Stanfield

Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

I was walking into a local coffee shop as I typically do nearly every Saturday morning.  It was one of those delightful early spring mornings overflowing with abundant sunshine that enlivened the brisk air.  New green grass stretched through the manicured town patches after its long winter hibernation while newly formed flowering buds and blossoms bobbed and bobbled to the rhythm of the breeze.  

Inhaling, I slowed my typical hasty pace and felt a smile forming in response to all the sensory overload.  Absorbing the glow of my surroundings, I noticed a few people, in spite of the morning chill, sitting on benches, faces tilted towards the luminescence.  Visages, unknown to me, radiating with the joy of appreciation after dreary days of darkness.

On the right side sat a young woman most likely around the age of my daughter–early to mid twenties.  Short, flaxen hair, tucked neatly behind her ears, her face wiped clean of any makeup except for lipstick, the shade of spring tulips.  Tall and curvy, she wore a lavender spaghetti strap shirt that struck me as a bit underdressed for the morning crispness, but what did I know–I am nearly always cold. Chin thrust high, eyes shut, a close-lipped smile across her face.  She seemed happy, content, and at ease.  How lovely, I thought, as I walked past her and on into the coffee shop.

It was only when I walked out of the coffee shop that I noticed what lay at the youthful feet of the woman.  There was an overstuffed worn backpack with a rather faded and worn water bottle inserted into one side of the bag that she heaved it upward in one practiced swoop.  Then, with much effort, she picked up another bag and what appeared to be some sort of walking stick.

Photo by Rachel Claire on Pexels.com

“Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing.”–Camille Pissarro

Was she a hiker?  Maybe, but she was wearing a spaghetti strap shirt, which didn’t strike me as hiking apparel for this time of year.  Besides, if she was a hiker, why would she be in-town?  I tried to put the pieces together and kept coming up short.  As I neared my car, I looked across the street, and I watched her begin to amble away from the community patio, moving westward, the opposite direction of where I would be traveling. Her shuffle and bent back stabbed at my heart.  Then, as I took one last glance at her, with the sun on her bare shoulders, she paused, straightened her posture, tucked stray strands of hair behind her ears, threw back her shoulders, and determinedly continued moving on.

 Who was she?  What was her story?  Where was she headed?  Why was she walking around with a backpack, much less alone?  Was she okay?  Did she have family and friends who loved her?  On and on my mind spun with the worry of a mother.  

Then, it occurred to me that I hadn’t truly seen her entire circumstance until she was walking away, and yet I did nothing.  I could have bought her a cup of coffee, a breakfast sandwich, a bottle of water, a piece of fruit, or something, yet I took no action.  Why hadn’t I been more observant?  Why hadn’t I taken time to check on her?  I felt an onslaught of self-criticism and disappointment.

My imagination was certainly getting the best of me.  There could have been numerous valid reasons for her carrying such a heavy load.  She could have been traveling solo, visiting random places off the beaten path.  Perhaps she was a university student heading home for the weekend, but why would she have a walking stick?  Maybe she was training to hike a big trail, such as the Appalachian Trail.  On the flip side, however, there were as many unfortunate circumstances that could have caused her to be so overburdened. I could not then, and still haven’t, been able to shake this young woman’s image.

Photo by Rishiraj Singh Parmar on Pexels.com

“Love calls us to look upon anyone and say: You are a part of me I do not yet know.”–Valarie Kaur

Since that encounter, I have often thought about this unknown female.  I have asked myself repeatedly why I didn’t pay closer attention upon first seeing her as well as wonder why I can’t forget her image. What lesson was I to glean from this chance sighting?  Then I read an essay in which the author’s main point seemed to say that it is the very people about whom we wonder that fosters our capacity for compassion, empathy, greater understanding, and sometimes even prompts us to take action for others for whom we see as different within our community and/or the world.  She (the author) suggested that by “seeing others as part of us we do not yet know,” we can begin to stop the cycle of separateness.

While the author’s vision was/is highly aspirational, it nonetheless was/is a catalyst for personal reflection.  Reflecting upon my own actions, I’d like to think I am open-minded and compassionate; however, there are still multiple ways in which I have failed to see others as part of me, to share another’s pain, grief, or dared to understand their seemingly self-absorptions.  In fact, some of my most vociferous and worst behaviors often occur while driving.  However, I have also been known to be guilty of a condescending look, a sarcastic thought, or even in my ability to look the other way.  While I can soften the blow and claim that I am a human being, having a human moment, it doesn’t make my actions in those moments any better, and it also doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t work on eliminating, or at the very least, reducing them.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“Perspective is the way we see things when we look at them from a certain distance and it allows us to appreciate their true value.”–Rafael E. Pino

My lesson to learn, at least as I presently reflect upon it, is a reminder of what I know to be true as an educator.  Every person starts as a child of someone–a symbol of hope and promise for the future.  Each child is part of a family, whether known or not, a being of a community, and a citizen of the world–the same as which we all began.  While I will never know the story of the unknown young lady, she is a part of the same humanity as me.

If the human collective could be thought of as one large web, my life would only be one of the hydrogen or oxygen atoms forming a drop of dew on one strand glistening in the early morning light alongside all of the other droplets.  If each orb of dew were a family, each uncrossed part of strand were a community, the full length of each individual strand would be a county, and the entire web would be the world, the resiliency of the web’s ability to support all of  dew drops on the strands, as well as to sustain life, depends on the integrity of each strand.  The strength of the web’s silk depends upon the bonding of various atoms to form the proteins forming the web in the first place.  If one part of the web is damaged, it must quickly be rebuilt, or the entire web will cease to exist.  To take this analogy one step further, those atoms making up the dew drops at the top of the web may perceive the green tips of grass, while those at the bottom may only discern the brown of dirt–and yet, no matter their view of the world, they all belong to the same web.

I pray that my thoughts and actions more regularly reflect the fact that every person is part of the same web of life as me.  When my brain deems someone as “another,” may I begin to habitually remember with each encounter that they are part of me that I may not yet know, and their existence matters.  I would do well to see the world from their position on the web. While it is overwhelming to think of repairing the entire web of the world, I can begin to repair, foster, and reshape my thinking and interactions within my own communities. I may not be perfect in my efforts, as the story of the young woman illustrates, but with each shortcoming, I can likewise use it as a reminder to try again.

As seen on Instagram at MyLife ( Formally Stop, Breathe, Think)

Shamrock Green Smoothie

“No matter when you start, a diet that is focused on plant foods will help you work toward the prevention of many illnesses and feeling better overall”–Julia Zumpano, RD, LD

Diet choices have long been debated.  From Adkins to Keto, 7-Day Rotation to Whole 30, Paleo to Low Carb, Mediterranean to Pritikin, and all variations in between, regardless of the varying diet trends, there’s no denying that fruits and vegetables are nutritionally sound food choices for promoting health. Experts may argue about which fruits and vegetables are the so-called better choices, but most will agree that eating unadulterated food from the ground is more nutritionally sound than eating chemically enhanced processed foods.

In fact, when going through the research, numerous medical clinics, cancer centers, and disease prevention sites recommend Americans increase their intake of fruits and vegetables.  It makes sense too.  All those different colors offer a wide array of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and anti-inflammatory properties that cannot be found naturally in processed food.  

“Eating healthy food fills your body with energy and nutrients. Imagine your cells smiling back at you and saying: “Thank you!”.” – Karen Salmansohn

Think about it.  Fruits and vegetables don’t need a label that says, “Vitamin-D enriched” or “Fortified with 12 essential vitamins and minerals.”  They don’t need it because they naturally contain a wide array of vitamins and minerals–depending upon which plant you choose to consume.  This is why, “eating the rainbow,” is an often quoted expression.  If you eat a wide variety of colorful plants throughout your day and week, Mother Nature, thanks to the infinite wisdom of our Creator, provides all the nutrition your body needs for healthy functioning and vitality. 

Like many, since March of 2020, I have become increasingly more focused on what I eat.  Keeping my immune system running high, and my inflammation low, seems more important than ever in the era of living in a global pandemic.  While I’ve been a plant based eater for nearly ten years, I find myself more attentive to daily consuming dark leafy greens and/or cruciferous vegetables as part of my desire to remain healthy and avoid COVID.  While I recognize that eating well isn’t the only protective act I need to do when dealing with a highly contagious virus, these vegetables have long been established as possessing cancer and disease preventive properties, reducing oxidative stress, and lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease.  Additionally, they increase bone health, protect eye health, and boost the immune system.  Plus, their varying shades of green are chock full of fiber and a wide array of vitamins and minerals.  

Photo by Toni Cuenca on Pexels.com

“The doctor of the future will no longer treat the human frame with drugs, but rather will cure and prevent disease with nutrition.”–Thomas Ediso

Below is a green smoothie recipe I drank throughout most of March that features leafy greens and cruciferous.  After such an extraordinary winter with snows, ice, and then flooding, drinking a bright green smoothie felt like a personal manifestation of spring. Furthermore, since March was also the month in which I was wrapping up 12-weeks of training for the Virginia Beach Shamrock Marathon, this smoothie felt like extra-nutritional insurance for remaining healthy and ready to run. 

I like to think of smoothies as a blended breakfast salad.  When made fresh at home, I am the controller of ingredients, calories, fiber, and nutrition.  I keep my smoothies whole food and plant based food based in order to start my day off on the right foot–especially since I would otherwise, at least during the work week, skip breakfast.  While I often add healthy fats in the form of nuts or seeds to smoothies, I personally do not with this one, but you could.  Instead, I tend to add a teaspoon of greens powder for an extra boost of concentrated green goodness, and sometimes matcha (ground green tea) if I feel I need a boost of energy and focus.   This smoothie fuels my morning and keeps me full until lunch.  The flavor is bright and tangy, and it’s super refreshing to drink.  

Here few other tidbits and factoids I have learned while refining my smoothies techniques:

*  Put greens and liquid in the blender first and blend well, this is especially important, if, like me, you don’t have a top-of-the-line blender.

* Spinach is always the sweetest greens, which is why I often blend it with other greens such as kale and swiss chard.

* Riced cauliflower, fresh or frozen, works well as a “green” since it’s cruciferous and makes smoothies extra smooth and creamy.

* Lightly peel/cut away any citrus fruit, leaving part of the pith (the white part).  It is high in fiber, vitamin C, flavonoids–which boost the immune system–and it is anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial.

* Ginger and turmeric are both known for their immune boosting properties, reducing inflammation, and decreasing chronic pain.  Fresh ginger and tumeric–both are roots–offer the most benefits, but ground versions are still beneficial.  Therefore, I tend to add both spices to not only nearly all of my smoothies, but also incorporate them throughout the day.

I hope you’ll give this vibrant green smoothie a try. It is an easy way to increase your fruit and vegetable intake.  Plus, you’ll start your day fueled with the power of green!

From my home to your, I wish you health, vibrancy, and vitality.  Be well, and, if you do give this, or any of my other smoothie recipes a try,  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Shamrock Marathon Green Smoothie

Ingredients:

1 cup water

1 cup of your favorite greens, fresh or frozen, feel free to combine 2 different ones (think spinach, kale, 

½ to 1 apple, quartered (I use granny smith apple.)

1 lemon, peeled, quartered & seeds removed 

1 mini cucumber or ½ large cucumber, quartered

1 stalk celery, quartered

1 ¼ teaspoon ground ginger or 1” fresh piece

¼ teaspoon turmeric or ¼” fresh piece of turmeric 

Dash of salt

Optional add-ins: 1 teaspoon greens powder and/or matcha powder, 1 tablespoon hemp, chia, or flaxseeds, and/or 1 scoop favorite protein powder 

Makes 1 generous serving

Against the Wind

“I’m older now but still runnin’ against the wind”–Bob Segar

It started out as an email.  I get a similar email every year due to the fact that my daughter and I once ran the 8k event of the Shamrock Marathon/Half MarathonWeekend in Virginia Beach while she was still in middle school.  Since she’s nearly 22, and the emails have never before planted a seed, it seemed unlikely that the December 2020 email would plant such a seed.  Nonetheless, the seed was planted, wriggled, niggled, and forced its way through my gray matter until it could no longer be ignored.  

Why not run a half marathon?  Let’s see. There’s a global pandemic raging.  My job is more challenging than ever.  Life is busy.  A back injury required me to step away from running for over three years.  I only returned to running in May 2020 via a walk/run program.  It’s hard.  I’m 55 for heaven’s sake. The list could continue.  However, like a pesky fly on a horse’s rump, no matter how many times that horse swishes its tail, that fly keeps returning, so too did this seemingly crazy notion. Throwing caution to the wind, I downloaded the beginner half-marathon training plan, and I was, dare I say, off and running. 

“Run for your life my love,

Run and you don’t give up”— Isaac Slade / Joseph King as performed by the Fray

The Shamrock was virtual, but with in-person hybrid options.  I did not have to travel to Virginia Beach; and in fact, when I initially registered for the event, I did not plan to go there. However, since John and I were both fully vaccinated, and the pandemic–though not gone–was beginning to wane a bit, we ultimately decided to travel to Virginia Beach.  

In-person participants could choose to run at any time from 7:00 to 5:00 pm on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday.  The various courses were mapped and marked, but no roads would be shut down.  No more than ten participants could be at the starting line at any given time, and participants were encouraged to wear a mask throughout the entire event, but required to wear masks at the start and finish line area.  Water bottle refill stations were provided at designated spots along the route with social distancing requirements, and participants were encouraged to run safely, stay on the route, and wear their numbered bib visibly as a form of identification.

“Ride like the wind, Bullseye!”–Woody, Toy Story 2

With an early wake-up, as planned, on Friday, I was up and ready to run.  However, the weather, like the rest of 2020 & 2021, offered an unplanned twist.  Strong winds and storms had ravaged the east coast Thursday evening.  In fact, winds were galing around 31 mph, with gusts up to 50 mph, wreaking havoc throughout the town sending scaffolding and signs down, debris soaring, and flags flapping at right angles to their poles.  Additionally, rain was moving back into the area and temperatures were dropping by the hour from the low 50s into the 30s.  I could technically put off running until Saturday morning, but with an 11:00 am hotel check-out, I would be short on time–especially given the fact that I am not a particularly fast runner.  

John did not want me to run for the sake of my safety, but I wanted the experience.  This was what I had trained for! Throughout my training, I envisioned running along the Virginia Beach boardwalk, basking in ocean views and sunshine with a gentle breeze caressing my face.  Okay, so in reality the day was cloudy, wet, and the breeze was not so gentle, but it would certainly qualify as a memorable experience!

I compromised my running plan, due to the weather, and ran the 8K route rather than the 1/2 marathon route because the 1/2 marathon route would have kept me in town longer where debris was soaring through the air like a child’s frisbee.

In the end, I compromised by running on Friday but only for the 8K distance.  While it broke my heart to NOT run the actual mileage for which I had trained, my instincts told me that I needed to respect the weather and my personal safety.  I’d be running alone in wet, cold, and windy temperatures with random windborne projectiles.  Given my natural clumsiness, there was a definite increased risk of injury. 

There was no climatic build up of pulsating music.  No welcome speeches and heartfelt prayer given by a local pastoral dignitary.  There was not a gun fire start either.  Show up with your runner’s bib on the outside of your clothing, mask on, and then, unceremoniously take off running.  Push, step, step–the tempo began.  

With the start/finish line right behind me, I used my ear band to not only protect my ears from the chilling winds, but to also hold my hat down! Notice, my mask is in my hands at the ready.

The first mile was like running straight down the steepest possible incline even though I was gliding along fairly flat ground.  With the wind thrusting me forward, I could have sworn that either I had a superpower, or God was at my back not-so-gently imbuing me with momentum and speed.  I giggled aloud repeatedly. At times, I windmilled my arms to keep from toppling forward.  Meanwhile, sand bit and clawed at the back of my exposed calves and ankles.  Push, step, step. Then, came the turn-around point.

Winds that had felt like the hands of God, now felt like Satan’s strongest snares.  Was this what it felt like to push a football blocking sled?   Push, step, step.  That is when the rain began to fall, needling my face.  My glasses were covered with droplets. Push, step, step, the cadence continued.

The race director drove up beside me in his warm, dry-looking truck.  He was checking on runners. He offered words of encouragement, as I headed towards the in-town section of course, and stated the conditions would be less challenging.

“Dust in the wind

All we are is dust in the wind”–Kerry Livgren as performed by Kansas

Ha! False hope!  The wind speed, along with the rain, increased.  Furthermore, at the end of every block, between each building, a trapped swell of wind would send me sideways, like dust in the wind, running nearly in place to hold my own.  Push, step, step. Water splashed out of my shoes with each step.  Two more miles of this. 

The final mile loomed ahead.  Half of it would be more topsy, turvy in-town-running, and the other half returned me to the boardwalk again with the wind surging me forward once more.  Push, step, step.  God at my back again. The Divine sure does have a sense of humor. 

Finally, the Virginia Beach icon, King Neptune sculpture, was once more in sight, right where I had earlier left him, at the starting/ending point.  Push, step, step. I laughed all the way to him, pushed by a force greater than me.  I didn’t resist.  I welcomed the opportunity to work with it, rather than against it.

Push, step, step–the rhythm came to an end. There was no cheering crowd in the end.  No congratulations, high fives, or “Way-to-go” cheers.  I started as I began, without fanfare or festivity.  Nonetheless, I quietly knew what I had accomplished, from the taxing Saturday runs to the tiresome after-work-I-don’t-feel-like-running-but-I’m-doing-it-anyway runs, all of those moments had led me to facing down the storm’s winds, learning when to resist the winds of change and when to work with them; and the realization that even when plans go awry, God will have my back the entire journey.  What a metaphor for life.

No.  I did not run a half-marathon.  Instead, I opened my heart to an opportunity that I most likely would not have ordinarily permitted.  My reward, if you will, was an experience I will always remember, and a first hand lesson, like no other, about the ever-presence power of God.  And for that, I am eternally grateful. 

“I run for hope

I run to feel

I run for the truth, for all that is real . . .

I run for life”–Melissa Ethridge

My hair standing straight up says it all! What a scarey image!
The official training plan!

Marble Jar Living

“When you get tired, learn to rest, not quit.”–Bansky

I have a photo of myself from early in my teaching career.  It was taken in an old portable classroom, located a good distance from the rest of the K-5 elementary school in which I worked with students with severe behavioral problems.  Filled mostly with odds and ends of what the custodians and myself could piece together, and a few study carrols that a special education resource center provided, I was tasked to help students whose behavior was considered far too disruptive/dangerous for the so-called, “regular” classroom.  These students came from diverse backgrounds across the entirety of our rural county, rather than solely the local school community, and were aged five through twelve.  Complicating matters further, roughly 75 percent of the students had been affected by drugs and/or alcohol while in the womb.  The challenge to remediate behavior while educating these students was overwhelming at times.  As a look back, it was a good thing I was young and naive! 

While behavior management is not without its criticism, I found these techniques to be effective in this particular classroom setting.  One such practice that I employed was the marble jar.  Using an empty jar, I set a clear behavior goal, such as students engaged in on-task classwork for 15 minutes (without outbursts or tantrums).  Using a timer as a clear measure of time, I added a predetermined number of marbles to the jar each time the goal was successfully reached.  Students would then be praised, take a short three to five minute break, and then resume work again for another time period. However, if the behavior goal was not reached, I would remove that same number from the jar and remind students of their goal.  As the length of time increased for appropriate on-task behavior, the more marbles could be earned or detracted.  Once the jar was filled, we celebrated with a “reward” as determined by the students, such as an extra or longer recess, a “dance party,” extended storytime, popcorn party, and so forth.

Photo by Anthony on Pexels.com

I worked to make the marble jar, and other behavior management procedures, more class-owned.  Holding group meetings, students discussed and selected group and individual behavior goals.  We talked about red light, yellow light, and green light behaviors that detracted or benefitted their own learning and the classroom community as well as the power of personal choice/accountability of behavior.  

Writing about it now, it seems like such a simplistic, idyllic world.  It was FAR from that.  The developmental, emotional, and cognitive functioning levels in this K-5 classroom were an incredibly wide gulf. Furthermore, since it was the early 1990s, I recognize now that several of my students had been misidentified/misunderstood and were actually on the autism spectrum, but that was not as recognized as it is now.

If you ask my husband, John, he will tell you of the long hours this class demanded of me.  He will further tell you the physical toll it took upon me as the job often required the instructional aides and me to restrain students who were acting out.  Emotionally, I did not leave my job at the door.  Many students–not all–were impoverished, lacked resources, and/or returned to homes that were the source of their behavior issues in which to begin.

Photo by Grafixart_photo Samir BELHAMRA on Pexels.com

“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”–Edmund Hillary

I can recall days, and even weeks in that former special classroom, in which there were no more marbles to remove and none had been added.  These were discouraging time periods for me because, in my youth and arrogance, I could not understand why I could not make a difference.  Why couldn’t I make them want to change their behavior?  Why couldn’t I do this or do that?  It was a bitter pill to swallow; to know that no matter how much I loved and cared for these students, I could not make them change. In fact, while I could provide a safe and consistent classroom environment with clear procedures and boundaries as well as maintain a professional, caring, and calm demeanor, I could not control the chemistry in their body, the functioning of their brain, or their environment outside of the classroom.  However, I could choose to adapt my thinking. It wasn’t easy, and it took a long time.

My students were with me due to multiple negative events in their personal lives and/or educational history.  They did not need a visible representation of another failure, another negative.  Instead, they needed a visual representation of their success–a reminder that they can “do good.”  Therefore, I made the adaptation to quit removing marbles from the class jar–life was already doing that for them.  I added weekly “positive meetings” in which each student, staff, and me had to state at least one positive behavior/event/thing that they witnessed, thought, or chose to do.  We added at least one marble per positive observation during this pause in our week, and celebrated the good, no matter how small.  These meetings were difficult in the beginning, but with practice and grace, we all began to take notice throughout the week of the acts of “good” we needed to remember for our weekly meetings.  

Reflecting on those marble years, I realize that many of us (myself included) have spent much of 2020 and have continued into 2021 focusing on the marbles taken from our life jar.  One negative event upon another has left many of us, at times, feeling as if our life jar is empty. However, if we allow our minds/hearts to open, there has also been at least one–if not more–positive event(s) that have occurred during this same time period, and they need to be honored/remembered.

Therefore, I realize that like my early marble jar days of education, continually focusing on the losses of our proverbial life jars only reinforces the negative.  While the losses need to be remembered for perspective, and those lives lost need to be held within cherished memories, there remain many positive events that currently fill our life jars, such as family, friends, and life itself.  Additionally, COVID numbers are dropping, more vaccines are rolling out, and daily life is beginning to feel closer to normal, it is important to recognize and feel grateful for positive steps and events, no matter how small. 

“Practice makes permanent.”–Bobby Robson

Like those weekly positive meetings of long ago, let us likewise take time to pause, reflect/look for items/events/people for which to feel grateful, acknowledge these, and perhaps even offer a “positive statement” to at least one other person–even during those days & weeks when it feels as if no marbles other are being added.  It takes practice and patience as the brain seems to automatically focus on the negatives–at least mine does.  However, with regular pauses of gratitude and appreciation, we can begin to feel, well, more “pause-i-tive,” if not every day, then at least, with greater frequency.  

Gazing at that old classroom photo, I was reminded that seeing those marble moments is about practice, not perfection.  That is what I had to learn then, and it remains true today.  Positivity and gratitude take time to foster, and, like me, for many people, it is not easy, especially after so-called negative, life-altering experiences.  

Spring eventually arrives after winter; and yet, even spring has rainy days and downpours.  There is good and bad, light and dark in every season, every year, and sometimes every day.  If we only focus on the rains of spring, we miss the birdsong and blooms.  If we only focus on the darkness of night, we fail to see the brilliance of the sunrise that follows.  Plink, plink, marbles are available if only we take time to see them.

“God brings men into deep waters, not to drown them, but to cleanse them.”–John Aughey

When It Rains, It Pours

Lions, tigers, and bears. Oh my!” states the famous quote from The Wizard of Oz.  Recently, I rewritten it, “Covid, snow, ice, rain, flooding. Oh my!”  While my rhythm and words don’t quite line up with the original, it certainly fits the 12 month period from March 2020 to March 2021.  Of course, other words like loss, death, pandemic, quarantine, masks, virtual meetings, virtual learning/teaching, work from home, job loss, business closures and so forth, could likewise be added to this list.

However, there are other words too.  Words such as faith, opportunity, growth, stretch, change, appreciation, home, family, friends, compassion, community, kindness . . . . No, I am not trying to make light of the seriousness of everything our local and global community collectively have experienced, not in the least.  Instead, I am trying to discern the lesson(s) that Divine Providence has placed within my own life path, and perhaps, yours too, Dear Reader.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

“There is always a good lesson in whatever happens to us, even in the midst of our losses . . . Every individual should think, ‘I am the only student. Everyone and everything are my professors.’”–Sri Swami Satchidananda

Personally speaking, like so many within our local Tri-state community, my family and I have been directly impacted by, not only all of the ramifications of the pandemic, but more recently, the power outages, water outages, and flooding.  As the saying goes, “When it rains, it pours,” and this adage most certainly fits mid-February through early March.  Beginning with steady rains, followed by snows, followed by ice, and wrapping up with more rain, the resulting effects of each one was felt by thousands within our three state region.

I have listened and overheard many stories from co-workers, friends, and acquaintances describing life without power for up to 14 days during the height of our coldest weather. Several more were without water for part or all of that same time period.  Meanwhile, I have encountered, or read accounts, of those working within our local communities–braving the frigid temperature, dangerous conditions, icy roads–working extraordinarily long hours to restore power, wifi, communication, water lines and so forth.  Their past and present acts of labor cannot be underestimated or underappreciated.

A major state route covered with water in recent early March flooding.

“He says to the snow, ‘Fall on the earth,’ and to the rain shower, ‘Be a mighty downpour.’”–Job 37:6

Just as power, communications, water lines, and roads began reopening–as well as the beginnings of the vaccination process–thoughts of life settling down with slightly warming temperatures seemed like an imminent reality.  Then came rain, a steady pitter patter of several days of rain during those final few days of February, in an already water-logged Tri-State area, giving way for March to come in like a lion.  

As the rains fell, more roads closed as the burgeoning Ohio River waters backed up its tributary waters.

“The nicest thing about the rain is that it always stops.  Eventually.”–Eeyore

Throughout the weekend, John, my husband, and I were keeping a close eye on Symmes Creek, a 76.4 mile long tributary of the Ohio River, which runs alongside OH 243, in a small section of Lawrence County.  By the end of the last weekend in February, The Symmes, as it is often called, was rebelling against its banks.  Additionally, the backwaters of the Ohio River, along OH 7, were spilling into the lowlands along the river.  

The National Weather Service issued, changed, and updated flood warnings all along the Ohio River and its tributaries.  However, the last time this type of widespread flooding occurred, our daughter, Maddie, was five years old–she is now 21.  Surely, this wouldn’t happen again, right?  We had had close calls in recent years, but we had not been flooded in, or flooded out, for that matter, since that singular year of Maddie’s life.

For the record, our family home is not in harm’s way with regards to flooding; however, the stretch of road on which we must travel to and from work and home, can potentially flood.  However, it takes unusual, long-term circumstances of wet and rainy conditions in order for this to occur.  Therefore, while we kept our eye on the waters, we really didn’t think it would happen.  Still, there was that little niggle . . .

In the early morning predawn hours, with rain pouring down, it was becoming evident, there would be wide-spread road closures.

Monday evening, driving home from a local gym after work, I couldn’t help but notice that all along OH 7, water was up to both sides of this state route.  Driving alongside OH 243, Symmes Creek was beginning to slip closer to the edge of the white line.  This. Was. Not. Good.  

“Steph, I think we’d better pack a bag in case we can’t get home,” John resolutely stated Tuesday morning.

Really?  Really?  As if going without power and water for nearly a week wasn’t enough.  As if a pandemic wasn’t enough.  As if . . .well, the tunes from WHINE radio station were spinning through my mind like a commercial-free power hour.  Packing my bag was an act of resentment and anger–spoiled adult that I am.  However, driving to work, as John and I tried to find a safe route out–the waters were swiftly advancing–my attitude quickly tempered as it became clear, there was only one route open, and it would be a close call.

Unable to get home due to widespread flooding, we stayed in local hotels overflowing with power & communication workers as well as numerous members of the National Guard still making repairs and cleaning up from the ice storm from the previous weeks.

“After the rain, the sun will reappear.”–Walt Disney

Without belaboring the point, John and I spent two days unable to return home while still working.  It was equal parts of stress and adventure.  Local hotels were still overflowing with National Guard and laborers who continued to work in surrounding areas that remained without power, water, reliable forms of communication, fallen trees and limbs, as well as blocked roads from the February ice storms. Thus, we were unable to stay in the same hotel.

Meanwhile, Maddie, who was flooded in, sent us daily reports of the rising, and eventually, falling waters.  Thursday evening, when we were finally able to make it home, I was, well, overflowing with joy.  Our home, be it full of flaws, in need of multiple repairs with a yard full of downed trees and limbs, was still our home.  It was, and is, a sanctuary of personal comfort and calm. Cooking my own food, sleeping in my own bed, hugging my daughter and listening to her stranded adventures, petting our cats, wearing my favorite stretch pants (You know you have a pair too!), and the sun shining brilliantly through our dirty windows–home never looked so good.

Sections of OH 243 remained completely submerged in spite of the lovely weather following days of rain, snow, & ice

And maybe, that is part of the lesson–appreciation for one another and for what we have–be it ever so modest–not to mention the realization that we are not in control. We can grasp, plan, and strive for future plans, such as vacations, bigger home, better job, more money, and so forth.  However, none of these “things” bring us inner peace, nor do they offer us any form of control.  Certainly, having the ability to pay the bills and meet your basic needs does bring about a certain peace of mind; but happiness and inner peace start with appreciating what you have in the here and now.  

To be happy, we don’t need much.  Family, friends, a safe place to live, meaningful work and/or life purpose, with faith acting as the glue that holds it all together, is, at the end of the day, more important than any title, job status, fancy address, or extravagant vacation. All the names and titles we use to define ourselves, all the carefully crafted plans and routines, all of our meticulously curated possessions and dwellings–all of these can be gone in a moment’s notice.  Therefore, it is vital to have faith in the Divine Force greater than all that has happened or can happen to us. I am walking away from the past 12 months with a greater understanding of what TRULY matters, a deepening faith in the Divine, and appreciation–while it is cliche– that it genuinely is the simple things in life that matter most. 

“Do not fear, the rain is only here to help you grow.”–Jennae Cecelia

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Steph’s Chocolate Cherry Berry Smoothie

“Every time that you eat or drink you are either feeding the disease or fighting it.–Heather Morgan, MS, NLC

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Were you ever made to sit at the dinner table until you ate every pea on your plate?  Those wrinkled, collapsing orbs of dull green were, well, gross, at least to my kid’s immature taste buds.  Sometimes those dull greenish spheroids might get a color splash of orange from cubed or sliced carrots just as mushy and often congealed with some sort of cooking fat–margarine, bacon grease, or other unknown fatty substance.  

Based upon personal, but juvenile, experience, there are limited ways to move and rearrange those overcooked peas before they devolve into some sort of smushy, mashed concoction sure to ignite the gag reflex if sniffed long enough. Sometimes, I would hold my breath, quickly insert a forkful into my mouth, then coyly spit it out in my napkin while pretending to wipe my mouth.  Unfortunately, those paper napkins could only absorb so much, and alas, there still remained a glob of uneaten goopy green mash on my plate.  

It was a duel in epic proportions–me or the pea pulp.  One of us was going down in the end.  Ready. Aim. Fire . . .the hum of the refrigerator filtered through the air.  Through screened windows, neighborhood children could be heard playing in the little cul-de-sac in which I lived.  Sadly, there I sat, an outlaw, imprisoned at the avocado green kitchen table, unwaveringly staring down the enemy of mounded up, wearisome putrid peas.  Tick, tock went the kitchen clock . . .

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Okay, in fairness to my parents, they were young, wanted me to eat healthfully, and strongly desired that I not be so dang-gum finicky.  As a parent, I now understand their viewpoint.  Plus, in defense of the poor peas, they were merely being served in the manner in which most Americans were consuming them in the 1970s–canned vegetables flavored with some form of fat and salt.  

Flashforward to present day, and I love vegetables!  Of course, we have a wide variety from which to choose, including fresh carrots and peas (Snow or sugar snap peas with baby carrots and hummus anyone?).  Between the produce aisle and the freezer aisle, I load my cart weekly with a rainbow of goodness that also includes plenty of fresh and frozen fruits and veggies, mindful of the importance of dark leafy greens and berries.  In fact, one of my favorite acronyms for prioritizing the types of fruits and vegetables upon which to put greater emphasis, in order to assure the highest nutrition-to-calorie ratio, is GBOMBS, which comes from Dr. Joel Fuhrman. 

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 “Leafy greens have more nutrition per calorie than any other food.”–Ornish Lifestyle Medicine 

GBOMBS stands for: greens, beans (legumes), onions (and garlic), mushrooms, berries (and pomegranate), and seeds.  According to Dr. Fuhrman, while all vegetables and fruits are good for you, GBOMBS are the top six cancer preventing foods that should have the greatest emphasis when planning daily meals.  Numerous well-known, health-orientated platforms and personalities likewise encourage the consumption of GBOMBS including Silver Sneakers,  Blue Zones, Ornish Lifestyle, Joan Lunden, and Dr. Oz to name a few.  In addition to warding against cancer, these foods have also been proven to boost the immune system, prevent chronic disease, increase longevity, decrease mental decline, reduce heart disease and blood pressure, and due to their vibrant colors, are chock full of antioxidants while offering a wide variety of vitamins and minerals.  Plus, these foods are high in fiber–need I preach about the value of fiber?

“Smoothies that blend whole fruits and vegetables without additional sweeteners and are served in appropriate portions may be helpful for some people to consume more of these foods, but should not replace eating them in their whole form. It is best to prepare smoothies at home so that you can control the type and amount of ingredients added to ensure calorie control and optimal nutrients.”–Harvard School of Public Health 

With this in mind, I share with you one of my favorite GBOMBS smoothie variations.  While I know that eating one’s food is preferred to drinking one’s calories for a wide variety of reasons, I personally find sound nutritional value in whole-food-plant-based smoothies that I make at home.  I am especially fond of consuming them in the morning when my stomach is not feeling so great and/or I’m rushed for time.  These smoothies allow me to start my day off with a blast of nutrition.  Furthermore, I also drink smoothies as a useful part of my half-marathon training regime as a, a-hem, “mature” returning runner (jogger, crawler, whatever you want to call it!) as the weekly mileage increases. 

Like all of my smoothie recipes, think of this one as a scaffolding.  Feel free to add, delete, reduce, and adjust any and all ingredients to best accommodate your nutritional and caloric needs.  Although I do not feel the need to supplement my smoothies with protein powder, it is certainly a possible addition to the recipe.  I prefer to make these smoothies ahead of time–such as the night before I will drink one, and save the second one for the following day.  Some nutritionists state there is a small bit of nutritional breakdown that occurs when making smoothies ahead of time, but in my mind, if it saves me time and effort–it’s worth the minor loss.

“Berries and pomegranates have the highest nutrient-to-calorie ratio of all fruits, and they protect against cancer, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and dementia.”–VegKitchen.com

Fortify your body’s well-being with a whole food plant based smoothie.  Notice how easy it is to feel like a nutritional bombshell at the beginning of your day.  Plus, you can move through your day knowing that whatever ever else comes your way, you took time to give your heart, cells, and overall health a bit of nutritional TLC.  Best of all, nutrition never tasted so good!

From my home to yours, I wish you heartfelt, healthy, and homemade goodness!

Steph’s Chocolate Cherry Berry Smoothie

Ingredients:

½ cup favorite milk (I use plant based milk.)

2 cups chopped spinach (Can use frozen chopped spinach.)

1 ripe banana (I buy ahead of time and keep frozen once ripe.)

¼ cup chopped walnuts or pecans

1 tablespoon flax seed (Can substitute chia or hemp seeds.)

4 tablespoons cocoa powder

¼ teaspoon ground turmeric (Optional, turmeric is an anti-inflammatory, and I add it to my food throughout the day.)

1 cup frozen cherry berry medley (Can use fresh cherries mixed with favorite berries.)

½ pomegranate or cherry juice

Dash of salt (I use ground pink himalyan.)

Optional: Add favorite 2 teaspoons of favorite sweetener if desired, such as pure maple syrup and/or favorite protein powder

Place in a blender in the order listed and blend until smooth.

Divide between glasses.

Can be drunk immediately or stored for later use in the fridge.  If saving for later use, be sure to shake well before consuming.

Makes 2 servings.

Thank You to All Those Working Tirelessly to Recover from Ice Storm

Comments from Governor Mike DeWine, Ohio, respectively, February 17 & 19, 2021: 

 “Gallia County has been placed under a state of emergency. Lawrence County was put under a state of emergency Wednesday night.” 

“Thousands of people in the area are still without power because downed trees are getting in the way of utility crews that are trying to fix the power lines. By calling in the Ohio National Guard, we can help restore power faster and also prevent future flooding by removing debris from the water before the weather warms up.”

When the first ice storm hit on a Thursday evening, John, my husband, and I had just eaten an early dinner.  Within the hour of finishing dinner, the power kicked off.  We tried to get our generator working, but to no avail.  Ultimately, the power only ended up being off 6-8 hours.  No big deal in the grand scheme of things.  

Life went on as normal for John, our college-aged daughter, Madelyn, and me.  However, we could see some signs of storm demolition all along the state route on which we live in Ohio.  Additionally, many of our co-workers living in WV were without power for days, with a few never regaining power before the second round of ice hit February 15.  

The following Monday, due to the storm’s impending presence, I made the call to once again, prepare dinner early.  (My Depression-era Grandmother Slater would be so proud by the way in which I prioritized food on the nights of both storms!)  We had just sat down to eat, when we heard what sounded like a gun-fire.  Then came another, and another, and another as branches all around our rural home began breaking.  ½ inch, or thicker, of ice coated trees making them look like winter goblins with tentacles of certain danger and doom.

Next began, what at first my confused mind thought was, lightning.  Lightning in the midst of snow, ice, and sleet?  Wait a minute . . .the cogs in my brain spun faster. Flashes of light repeatedly displayed all around us.  Transformers and power lines were exploding like bombs as the pop, pop, pop of trees branches continued to battle on.  Craaack!  With the snap of a limb, our home’s power seemed to disintegrate along with the trees.  Darkness enveloped us, and the sound of the weather war soldiered on all around.  This. Was. It. 

Scrambling for flashlights, candles, and emergency radio, Maddie and I made our way through the house as John kept stepping outside checking on the house and our vehicles.  Gallon jugs of water were strategically placed throughout the house because when we lose power, we likewise lose running water due to the fact we have well-water that makes its way into our pipes via an electric well pump.  We made jokes regarding the toilet.  “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.”  Resorting to potty humor was, indeed, juvenile, but laughter seemed better than crying.  Little did we know we were in for five days worth of no power or running water.

Going to bed that night, extra quilts on the bed (Thank you, Mammaw Musick!), we fell asleep to the snap, crackle, pop of what was NOT the famous cereal, but instead the very real surrounding woodland.  Waking in the morning, the house temperature had significantly dropped.  Walking quietly into the kitchen, as I was the first one up, I realized I would not be starting my day with a hot cup of coffee.  The fun had only begun.

Using an emergency lamp/radio/weather alert/thermometer, temperatures inside our family room, even with the fire going, hovered in the low to mid-fifties as seen here.

Facts from Jeff Jenkins, Saturday, February 20, 2021, Metro News The Voice of West Virginia:

 “Ice storms hit on Feb. 11 and then again on Feb. 15.”

“After the two storms, outages peaked at 97,000.” (In WV alone)

 “Around 44,000 customers remain out of power. Counties most affected include Cabell, where 15,019 customers are without service; Wayne, 14,203; Putnam, 5,074; Lincoln, 3,973; Jackson, 2,343; and Mason, 2,402.” (As of February 20)

  “A total of 27 bunkhouses are now in place at the Huntington Mall to house the additional (power) workers. Due to COVID-19 precautions, they will be filled only at half capacity, or 15 workers per trailer.”

Our neighbor shared with us that early Tuesday morning–he typically leaves for work around 4:00 a.m.–when he attempted the short three mile drive to the next state route in order to reach his place of employment, he was stopped by a sheriff deputy who told him that 20 or more trees were down over the road!  Hours later, when John and I finally ventured out for more gallon jugs of water, instant coffee (I found a camp stove pot for heating water.) and a few other supplies, it was like traveling an obstacle course over those same three miles.  We navigated around downed trees and limbs, fallen telephone and electric poles, power lines, and so much natural debris.  All around us, the typically scenic route looked like a war zone.  There were countless dark, injured homes and vehicles with shattered safety glass.  Shrapnel of wood covered the roads and glistening white snow.  Meanwhile sparkling tree limbs, weighed down by ice, bent their weapons of glassy appendages toward those of us daring to drive under and around their glacial shafts. Scraaape! Their frosted tips like fingernails scraped our windows, hood, and doors.

Ever the conscientious recyclers, John and I veered off-course on our way to Huntington, to drop off our recyclables in the designated receptacles located in a large parking lot behind the local post office.  Much to our astonishment, this parking lot of a large abandoned storefront was not empty as it usually is.  Instead, there were twenty to thirty power vehicles loaded with buckets, bulldozing equipment, transformers, power poles, and so forth.  Men were gathered in circles talking–hard hats and traditional cold weather garments adorned these burly, red faced men.  John and I felt an overwhelming surge of gratitude.  These men, based upon their truck identification, were from Indiana, parts of Ohio–near and far, as well as Kentucky.

“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.”–William Arthur Ward

John rolled down his window.  I rolled down mine.  Out each of our windows, we began thanking these unknown men for the efforts to abate the surrounding devastation and destruction.  Meanwhile, in an ironic twist of fate, sea gulls circled and called, seemingly encouraging these workers onward. 

Seagulls that had been circling around the power workers, lifted in flight and landed on a more empty part of the parking lot as we drove closer to the power trucks and workers.

We repeated our words of gratitude any time we ventured for supplies throughout this past icy week.  Often, opportunity would occur after waiting for our turn to drive in a single lane as we slowly made our past men working on power lines along our state route.  It was important to us that they know their efforts were heartfully appreciated, especially given the bitter weather conditions.

While I know that these power workers, tree removal specialists, state troopers, local law enforcement, National Guard members, and other community members were compensated for their time, they were, nonetheless, sacrificing time away from their family, friends, and loved ones.  This is time that they will never get back in order to help restore power for complete strangers. Hours spent in frigid temperatures, snow squalls, and dangerous conditions is not for the faint of heart.  This type of work requires grit, determination, and empathy–the ability to feel the needs of others. 

Therefore, to all the men and women who have and/or are working to repair the power, remove the fallen trees, restore safe road travel, and return water and power services to the many without, my family and I thank you.  Thank you for your long hours, your exposure to the winter elements, and your personal risk in often dangerous situations.  We are grateful for your time, energy, focus.  Behind each repair that you make, were/are people’s lives for whom your work is making a difference.  May your generosity circle back to you in some form.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.

May Her Steps Be Remembered

“Nothing is impossible: The word itself says “I’m possible!”–Audrey Hepburn

“Your body will argue that there is no justifiable reason to continue. Your only recourse is to call on your spirit, which fortunately functions independently of logic.”–Tim Noakes

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I am so cold.  I’m freezing.  

I was shaking so badly as I stepped out of bed during this nocturnal, chilly wake up call;  my legs did not want to hold me up.

What is happening?

Waves of nausea immediately flooded my middle, and I became suddenly aware of the sharp tinges of a headache that reminded me of an illness, but I couldn’t think clearly enough to define the association.  Did I have a stomach bug? The flu, or something else? 

In the bathroom, I retrieved sweatpants and a sweatshirt and donned them in protection of my pervasive cold shivers.  On wobbly legs, I humbly returned to my bed knowing that something was off.  Trembling under the covers, sleep came in fitful waves, with bouts of shuddering wakefulness and nausea in between. Tossing about from side to side, my left shoulder was noticeable tender each time I rolled onto it.  The injection site. Images danced dreamily around in my head.

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“You have the hardest arm to stick,” the young pharmacy student stated with a grimace as she pushed harder to get the vaccine needle inserted into my arm. 

Across the way, I watched as another pharmacy student injected my husband, John, as if his arm were a stick of room temperature butter, despite the fact he has spent years exercising with weights.  John winked at me as I winced at the second effort of pushing by the pharmacy student into my arm.

Oh, yes, I had my second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.  My arm was sore last time; it is sore again. 

When the alarm eventually did go off at its usual Saturday morning time of 5:30, I groggily reset a new alarm for 6:00.  This was followed with a 6:30 alarm, and a final 7:00 am alarm.  

I never sleep this late on a Saturday.  Must. Be. A. Stomach. Bug. Surely, it’s not a reaction to the vaccine.  Can’t be, right?

Saturday was also the day I was to run my first 10 miler in preparation for my first virtual half-marathon since my back injury five years ago, and I could barely walk due to my convulsing shivers.  With sudden clarity, it occurred to me that I could take acetaminophen to mitigate the symptoms.  

Why hadn’t I thought of that during the night?

Opening the childproof medicine bottle, I discovered that I had five pills.  Great.  I decided to start with two and see what happens. 

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Making my way into the kitchen area, I started a pot of coffee, guzzled down several ounces of water, although my stomach protested, and sat staring out the window.  The nausea was pervasive, my headed pounded, and the chills were ever-present as I pondered the day ahead.  I felt extremely thankful that it was Saturday, and I did not have to work. Otherwise,  I would already be at school preparing for the arrival of students at 7:30.

Slowing sipping coffee–not sure if my stomach would revolt or not, a plan for the day began to take shape–assuming the acetaminophen kicked in.  By 8:15 am, the chills had mostly subsided, the nausea and headache were present, but felt more the muzak of years ago softly played in elevators.  I made the decision; I was going to try to run.  First, however, I needed to locate a name to honor from the Honor the Fallen website. 

A few clicks later, there came a name.  Sgt. Christina M. Schoenecker, a  26-year-old was an Army Reserve soldier assigned to the 89th Sustainment Brigade, out of Wichita, Kansas.  She was so young looking.  Her eyes were bright and full of empathy, but her slightly crooked smile looked wry–as if engaging in conversation with her was sure to be filled with quick-witted, sharp comments.  As I read her story, I felt a surge of inspiration. 

Given my suppressed chills, I ruled out running outside and opted instead for the treadmill. Besides, I told myself, the treadmill offers less impact on my back. An hour or so later, I was on the treadmill hoping for the best, but ready to abandon the training plan if needed.  

Don’t look down at the numbers.  Eyes straight ahead, arms at right angles, melt those shoulders away from your ears, keep the speed slow and steady.  One mile at a time, Steph.  One mile at a time.  Focus on the name:  Sgt. Christina M. Schoenecker.  Pretend her name is written on the wall.

Podcast playing, my mind semi-focused on its content as my stomach continued its somersaults.  I decided to save walk breaks until later, when all of my reserves might be running low. Walk breaks would be the reward for early efforts.

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As a teenage girl, I often rode my bike to and from summer bandcamp. There was a hill on the way home that was steep and wound round a hill. At that time, a childhood jingle would enter my mind, “Just think you can, and know you can just like the engine that could.”  This same jingle entered my mind as I jogged on the revolving belt of the dreadmill, I mean, treadmill.  Sgt. Christina M. Schoenecker.   Sgt. Christina M. Schoenecker.   Sgt. Christina M. Schoenecker.

One mile turned into another and another.  One hour passed, and one podcast was over.  Walk break taken long enough to start a new one.  Thirty more minutes passed; another walk break began.  Can’t take another moment of the incessant talking.  Time for the power button–music.  A driving playlist of beats began its encouraging cadence.  Nausea grew greater and legs grew wobbly again.  So close now.  Increase the determined self-talk.  More nausea, more achiness. . . keep pushing.  Sgt. Christina M. Schoenecker.   Sgt. Christina M. Schoenecker.   Sgt. Christina M. Schoenecker.

It wasn’t pretty.  It wasn’t fast, but it was purposeful. My struggle was nothing compared to the struggle of those who have served in our military. Christina M. Schoenecker, the name I found on the website, served during Operation Inherent Resolve. Assigned to the 89th Sustainment Brigade, Christina was an Army Reserve soldier out of Wichita, Kansas. This young woman died in a non-combat incident in Baghdad, Iraq.  She was the third casualty of this operation at the tender age of 26. 

It is through the mission of wear blue: run to remember that I often run, “in honor of the service and sacrifice of American military.”  My contribution is minimal.  There are local and national groups who do so much more work and efforts to increase awareness and honor the fallen and their families.  My only contribution occurs each Saturday, when I search the name of a fallen person–someone’s family member–write their name on a post-it note, place that paper the zippered pocket of my running tights, and send up words of gratitude to the heavens for this person’s service as well as to the family each one left behind.  My steps, no matter how challenging, still do not equate to the service of those brave men and women freely gave to our country.  It is my hope though, in some minor way, I honor their memory and offer their family some form of unseen comfort.

Thank you, Christina, for your service.  Thank you, for your ultimate sacrifice.  Thank you, Christina’s parents.  Your daughter was remembered this past Saturday, step by step.  Her memory truly inspired me to finish.

For more information regarding wearblue: run to remember, visit their national website, or look/join the local Ashland community, found on Facebook, or via email:  Ashlandcommunity@wearblueruntoremember.org.

It Starts with One Seed

“In this earth, 

In this soil, 

In this pure field

Let’s not plant 

Any seeds 

Other than seeds of compassion

and Love–Rumi

Photo by Mary Taylor on Pexels.com

While it’s nerdy to admit this, my husband and I love shows about nature, with PBS’s Nature among one of favorites.  Go ahead, make fun of us, or roll your eyes. We teach middle schooler students; we can take it! 

Recently, an episode of Nature featured animals who survive on the highest and most extreme terrain of the Alps.  While you may continue to giggle and guffaw at our choice of entertainment, this episode fed our minds with its breathtaking cinematography of an extraordinary landscape and the unique variety of animals adapted to the Alpine mountain climate, including the chamois, ibex, marmot, golden eagle, and the spotted nutcracker.  It was while the narrator and filming focused on the nutcracker scene that, shall I say, planted a seed.

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In the Alpine world, the Swiss stone pine exists, thanks in large part to the work of the spotted nutcracker. The nutcracker relies on the seeds of the Swiss stone pine for food.  Even though this tree only produces seeds between the months of August and October, this bird is able to survive year ‘round in the harsh conditions of the Alpine climate because of its ability to stockpile these seeds in a wide variety of locations and remember their hiding spots. The birds’ naturally seem to select places that prevent their collection from being stolen by scavengers.  Interestingly, these carefully selected locations are also less likely to support seed germination–at least for a several months.  Thus, these hidden seed-pantries enable the spotted nutcracker to eat year ‘round, including feeding its young in the spring.

Fortunately, for the Swiss stone pine, it can live for as many as 500 years–which works in the favor for both the tree and spotted nutcracker.  In fact, even if only one to two seeds per year from the nutcracker’s hidden caches remain uneaten, and therefore germinate, it is enough to keep the tree viable for hundreds of years.  Thus, making this symbiotic relationship an ideal partnership for the continuation of both species.

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“Keep on sowing your seed, for you never know which will grow—perhaps it all will.”–Ecclesiastes 11:6 TLB

One seed.  Hidden, dropped, or lost–dormantly remains idle until the conditions change.

One seed.  Full of potential–enough energy to fuel the growth of a new seedling.

One seed.  Serendipity–precise temperature, water, oxygen, light.

One seed. Free to break through its hardened shell and begin growing.

From one seed of the Swiss stone pine, a root first forms, followed by a shoot that will grow into its stems, branches, and needles.  Over the years, as the seedling extends into maturity, the tree will endure countless challenges throughout the entirety of its life. From strong winds to Alpine avalanches, from temperatures well below freezing (think -30 to -40 degrees) to extremely warm temperatures, from blizzard conditions to summer storms, and all conditions in between, this tree finds a way to persevere for hundreds of years.  

However, the Swiss stone pine does not survive all those hundreds of years without breakage. In fact, the trunk of this tree is so brittle that its top may be repeatedly broken off in harsh conditions.  Despite its brokenness, it continues to grow and produce seeds that are editable–not only for the nutcracker, but also for other birds, animals, and even human consumption.

Often referred to as the “Queen of the Alps,” the Swiss stone pine survives its brokenness and storms by forming lateral shoots that often resprout in response to the weather conditions.  Furthermore, the nutcracker typically only consumes about 80% of the Swiss stone pine seeds it hoards.  Therefore, thanks in large part to the work of the nutcracker, groups of seeds often germinate together in one spot, and the numerous trees sprout together.  What often appears as one tree with multiple trunks are actually several trees growing together in one root system. Additionally, even if the nutcracker–or for that matter, other creatures– would happen to eat all of the trees’ seeds for several seasons in a row, the Swiss stone pine’s seed cycle includes a mast season, every four or five years, producing so great a quantity of seeds that it would be impossible for all of its seeds to be consumed. Thus, ensuring the tree’s survival, but also the survival of any Alpine creature who may rely on this tree for shelter or food, such as the spotted nutcracker.

One seed. One tree. One bird.  Watch the ripples expand.

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We can’t change people, but we may plant seeds that may one day bloom in them.”–Mary Davis

Reflecting upon this unique symbiotic relationship, I was reminded of our own human to human interactions.  From day to day, month to month, and from year to year, imagine the seeds each human being can potentially plant.  Many of these seeds foster our own well being and the well being of others as we cultivate friendships and relationships for the mutual benefit of all involved.  These relationships eventually sprout into new families and new friend groups. 

Furthermore, seeds planted with coworkers, neighbors, professionals with whom we regularly interact, as well as complete strangers, can germinate ideas, thoughts, and other notions that, one day, may benefit that person.  From the compassionate gesture of helping a complete stranger to private gestures of kindness unseen or unheard by those benefiting, from one tender word of encouragement to one empathetic ear ready to listen, we all have the ability to sow seeds wherever we go.

Even when we are broken by the squalls, obstacles, and difficulties of life, through the rooted and interconnected relationships of our germinated seeds, we can find the strength to rise again.  In conditions ranging from the most arid to emotionally drowning episodes, from the frozen heart to impassioned flare of tempers, it is our propagation of seeds that comes back to us again and again, making us more resilient, more strong, and ultimately able to persevere, allowing us to continue to produce even more seeds

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One positive word. One helpful deed. One encouraging smile.  Seeds are planted.  Perhaps, they remain dormant in the recipient’s being for days, weeks, months, even years.  Nonetheless, one moment, under the right circumstance, that seed will take root, sprout, and soon enough branches and roots systems, like Swiss stone pine trees, will expand over the mountains of time.  You may not see it, but your one choice, your one act, repeated throughout your life, may create a forest from which many will be nourished and find shelter. 

Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.”–Robert Louis Stevenson

No Longer At Ease

“I had seen birth and death, 

But had thought they were different; this Brith was 

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.  

We returned to our places, these kingdoms, 

but no longer at ease here in the old dispensation . . .”–T. S. Eliot

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During the early fall months of 2020, I decided to try growing my own vegetable sprouts.  Using a sprout kit, I placed the seeds on a prepared cloth in a tray, gently watered them, covered them loosely, closed them inside a drawer, and dubiously left the container in the dark.  48 hours later, to my great astonishment, nearly a hundred tiny green seedlings, like hairs on a newborn head, were sprouting across the bottom of the tray. 

What makes night within us may leave stars.”–Victor Hugo

As a child, I was prone to vividly bad dreams.  Those early years were filled with twice weekly sermons delivered by an impassioned country preacher who warned his flock of the wailing-and-gnashing-of-teeth in hell if one remained a sinner.  Additionally, this same fervent minister also sprinkled regular doses of sermons that focused on an impending rapture.  As an impressionable child, I inferred that if I wasn’t a good girl, free of all sin, I was either doomed to the fiery eternity of hell, or my parents might get called to heaven, via the rapture, without me.  Therefore, if I went to bed having committed the slightest of sins–and I was indeed a precocious child–it wasn’t unusual for one of two things to occur.  I would either have terrorizing dreams of a flaming hell filled with snakes (My child’s mind added those.) that woke me in a sheer fright, or I would startle awake (not necessarily from a dream) to the silence and shadows of the dark, certain the rapture had taken place, my parents and siblings were gone, and I had been left on earth to suffer the numerous plagues with all of the other sinners.

It is not that I didn’t have the same fears during the daylight; however, my focus tended to be occupied with childhood activities: play, reading, school, and even invented stories that typically began with, “And so she . . . ”.  Even when I committed minor infractions, as I often did, and “got into trouble,” my child’s mind was not near as apprehensive during the waking hours as it was at night.  The dark, as a youngster, was rife with foreboding and frightening images as all my wrongs seemed to be made more plain–Satan was out to get me in the thick of the night, and God’s love was nowhere to be found.

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It was on these nights, I would often call out to my mom. 

“Mommy, I had a bad dream.”

I might repeat it several times before she heard. 

“Roll over on your other side,” she would groggily declare.

As a mom, I recognize the plight of a young mother who needs sleep.  If you can get the kid to self-soothe and go back to sleep without having to get up, that is a win.  Plus, the genius is, whether my mom purposefully knew this or not, she gave me an action to solve the problem. 

In that moment, I was “no longer at ease” in my little bed after my nightmare.  Mom did not deny that I had had a bad dream, nor did she dismiss that I was upset.  Instead, she instructed me to roll over, go with the flow, and return to the river of sleep. By following her directive, though my troubling dream still lingered, as smoke lingers in a room long after the smoker has exited, and my heart still pounded, my mind began to shift with the action of turning over. Sleep still did not come easily, even “on the other side,”  but I rode out the night anyway.  Soon enough, one of my parents would be waking me in the morning, and I would rouse from sleep surprised that I had, indeed, returned to the ebb and flow of sleep.

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“Do everything with a mind that has let go,”–John Chan

Throughout most of 2020, and lingering still in 2021, our world is enveloped in the shadow of COVID.  It is a night terror, of sorts, from which, as a civilization, we have not yet been able to escape. We have suffered deaths beyond comprehension, and our way of living is no longer at ease.  There is no denying that we are living during dark times.

Due to my early childhood experience with hellfire and brimstone sermons, as an adult I find comfort in liturgical based Christian denominations, as well as other faiths, that focus on God’s love and light.  I embrace the image of an ever-present, ever-loving God that offers brightness and clarity; and, through the vehicles of prayer, meditation, and a devoted life,  Divine Providence will illuminate THE WAY for each of us.  

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“The LORD spoke these commandments in a loud voice to your whole assembly out of the fire, the cloud, and the deep darkness on the mountain . . .”–Deuteronomy 5:22 

However, despite the fears fostered by the sincere believing, well-meaning pastor, this church, nonetheless, instilled within me many wonderful concepts, that to this day, I still honor. Sunday School and Junior Church, as it was called, offered me wonderful Bible stories full of life-long lessons and church history. One such story was the narrative of Moses trekking up a dark and ominous storm-swathed mountain in order to attain Ten Commandments. In fact, as those long ago flannelgraph images presented, God came to Moses, “out of the fire, the cloud, and the deep darkness on the mountain,” in order to give Moses and his people rules for living a faithful life.  

We are in the darkness much in the same way Moses had to brave the darkness on his faith-walk up the menacing mountainside. However, as the story of the Ten Commandments reminds us, dwelling in the dark does not mean God is not with us, nor does it mean that nothing good can come of the dark.  Seeds burst forth in the darkness of soil.  Infants grow in the darkness of the womb.  Our body heals, repairs, and builds up its immune system in the darkness of sleep. Stars are only illuminated in the darkness of night.

To be certain, in Eliot’s words, we are “no longer at ease in the old dispensations.” However, let us remember that while God is present in the light, God also dwells in the darkness. Like Moses and his people, and like the journey of the Magi of which Eliot eloquently described in his famous poem, we must be willing to travel in the dark, release our grasp on the past, and die to its previous ways. We must allow our proverbial kayaks to float with the current of life’s river, instead of attempting to paddle against it. This new way of living may even require us to, “roll to the other side.”  Nonetheless, like my seedlings in the dark of the drawer, Divine Providence is present in the darkest of times birthing new life.

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Steph’s Blues Busting Chocolate Green Smoothie

“If you have a chronic disease — such as heart disease, diabetes, asthma, (arthritis, cancer, dementia) or back or joint pain — exercise can have important health benefits.”— “Exercise and chronic disease: Get the Facts,” Mayo Clinic Staff

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COVID has taken away many so-called practices and habits that were once societal norms.  I think it is fair to say that many of us, from time to time, have felt weighed down, a bit angry, and even bereaved over the loss of the “way things used to be.”  In fact, now that we’ve begun traveling down this new road of living, I suspect there may be many things that will never return.  However, on the positive side, there are a few things that have evolved from this swift shifting of life.

One such personal benefit began during the quarantine period of 2020 as I reflected on my own health.  As I recently shared in other pieces, I have a genetic predisposition to colon cancer and heart disease.  Therefore, in an attempt to boost my immune system against these two inherited threats as well as COVID, I began to dial in my focus on the benefits of cardiovascular exercise and plant based eating, while still continuing some strength/flexibility/mindfulness practices.  None of these attempts have been perfect, but they do provide a sense of personal empowerment–a worthwhile feeling in a world that often feels out of control.

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Of particular focus for me was a renewed desire for out-of-doors exercise; however, the ever-present battle with two bulging discs and an extra vertebrae was/is a never-ending reality.  Therefore, towards the middle of May 2020, I began researching ways to strengthen my back and core muscles while simultaneously gradually working my way from walking to running in order to increase my cardiovascular fitness level. While there is nothing wrong with walking–in fact, I love it, and I honestly believe it is one of the safest and best forms of exercise–there is something about the heart pumping vigor of running that leaves me, well, breathless!

All kidding aside, I do not want to give the illusion that I run fast.  Speed is not, per se, part of my goal; instead, I focus on increased endurance.  In particular, I put greater emphasis on my resting heart rate.  The lower my resting heart rate, the better I sleep, and the less stress affects me–especially at bed time.  

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Therefore, without belaboring the point, I found a program for strengthening the back and core called, the Mckenzie Method.  Using some of the exercises from this back method and combining them with exercises from my time spent in physical therapy and practicing yoga, I cobbled together my own DIY daily back/core care routine.  Additionally, while researching this method, I ran across (See what I did there?) a book/training entitled, Run Your Butt Off, about which I have previously written.  This running program offers a plan to help a walker go from walking for 30 minutes, to running for the same length of time in 12 weeks (or however many weeks you decide to take it).  

Since completing the Run Your Butt Off plan, I have continued running 3-4 times per week. On the days that I run, I sleep much better–even if I don’t have the time to sleep long.  Even more exciting is that I have signed up to run a virtual half marathon.  Due to this, I have put greater emphasis on personal nutrition for the purposes of reducing inflammation and fostering recovery as the running mileage increases each week.

“Choosing plants will help all your body’s systems work the best they can.”–Heather Alexander, The University of Texas, MD Anderson Cancer Center

One way I am doing this is by continuing to eat plant-based.  While plant based eating does not have to mean that you will completely forgo meat and dairy, it does mean that those foods are dramatically reduced.  However, my personal choice, other than my occasional indulgence of black bean nachos, I choose not to consume meat and dairy products.  Additionally, I have (once again) committed to breakfast smoothies during this time period rather than skipping breakfast.  These smoothies are whole food, plant based powerhouses with no added sugar.  Every ingredient contained within them is full of fiber and a solid source of nutrition.  

I know that many people are opposed to drinking calories, and I understand abiding by that rule. However, I simply do not have time to commit to a sit-down breakfast, plus my stomach is often a queasy mess in the mornings.  A premade smoothie that I make ahead of time is a portable package of sound nutrition that my stomach can tolerate a couple of hours after rising.  They fuel me through my morning, and by lunch, I find I am not, per se, ravenously hungry.  

Additionally, by the time I head for my after-work runs, even if I am mentally exhausted, once I force myself to my running destination, I have plenty of fuel in the tank to complete the run.  Afterwards, I ALWAYS feel better, and even if everything else about the day seemed like it went wrong, at least I did two positive things for myself: fed my body good nutrition and exercised.  In my book, that’s a win. COVID changes be danged.

What follows below is one of my newest smoothie creations. (I’ve got a few more recipes I’m refining!)  No matter how frazzled, frustrated, or dissatisfied I may feel with external situations, this recipe has a way of mentally picking me up with its bright flavors and hint of chocolatey goodness.  Feel free to play around with and/or change the ingredients and/or the amounts to meet your personal dietary needs and taste preference.  Additionally, serve it up in a nice glass or even canning jar, and don’t be ashamed if using a straw (I use metal, reusable straw.) to slurp up all of the goodness at the bottom of the glass!  

From my home to yours, I wish you much happiness, health, and harmony even during these challenging times.  

Steph’s Blues Busting Chocolate Green Smoothie

Ingredients:

½ cup favorite milk or water (I use plant based milk.)

1 cup (75 grams) chopped romaine lettuce

1/2 ripe banana (I buy them ahead of time and freeze once ripe.)

2 tablespoons flax seed (Can use hemp or chia seeds.)

**2-4 tablespoons of Dutched cocoa powder, depending upon how chocolatey you want it.

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract or vanilla bean powder

1 ½  cup (45 grams frozen; 85 grams fresh) chopped spinach 

1  cup blueberries (Can use frozen.)

½ cup cherry, pomegranate, or pomegranate/cherry juice

Dash of salt (I use a twist of ground pink himalyan.)

Optional: Add 1-2 teaspoons of favorite sweetener if desired, such as pure maple syrup, molasses, or honey (I do NOT add any sweetener, but I know others prefer a sweeter smoothie.)

Place in a blender in the order listed and blend until smooth.

Divide between two glasses.

Can be served immediately or stored for later use in the fridge.

Makes 2 servings.

**If you are not a fan of chocolate, you can skip the cocoa powder altogether.  However, you may want to consider adding, at the very least, 1 tablespoons of it.  Cocoa powder has numerous health and nutritional benefits.  

Anxiety Awareness

“Anxiety is a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind.  If encouraged, it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained.”–Arthur Somers Roche

Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future, but from wanting to control it.”– Kahlil Gibran

When I was in fourth grade, I had the privilege of traveling with my grandparents and a cousin. We had taken a train to Washington DC, and I have a dream like remembrance of riding in a taxi transporting us towards an airport from the train station.  It was the first time I had ever traveled in major city traffic.  We were propelled with what seemed like great velocity through busy traffic, zigging and zagging in and out of traffic, bright lights of oncoming and passing vehicles playing tag in the dark of an evening.  

The route took us through a menacing tunnel with blazing lights for the evening rush hour.  This was my first experience in such a claustrophobic, wreck-inducing, our-lives-were-about-to-end, multi-lane, city tunnel. We were hurtling through a tube of neon lights, clamorous noises, and untold dangers surrounded and threatened our yellow tin can.  My heart was racing; I felt simultaneously scared and angry.  

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Danger! Danger!  We. Were. Out. of. Control.  We were going to die in a fiery collision of metal upon metal.

Like projectile shot from a military caliber cannon, we emerged unscathed from the tunnel, and signs indicated the airport was near.  That was when I saw the vwoop, vwoop, vwoop of the rotating light of the airport beacon.  That circling source of luminescence became the focus of my vision, my heart rate began to slow, and my rate of respiration resumed to more normal levels.  Safety was within sight.  I was calm again–although my poor Grandmother, I am quite certain, based upon her wide-eyes and ever-rubbing hands, was not. 

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As I think back on that experience, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to feel that way ALL of the time.  In fact, I am told that feeling is quite similar to how someone with an anxiety disorder feels daily. In fact, generalized anxiety disorder, and its fraternal twin, depression, and the other siblings in this family of mental anguish including: panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, specific phobias, stress, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, persistent depressive disorder, and their cousins of related illnesses often manifested and/or co-occurring with these disabling siblings, affect more than 40 million adults in the US alone.  Without including the population 18 years or younger, these illnesses affect 18.1% of the population– and that statistic was determined before COVID.  Sadly, it is estimated that nearly 80% of those affected by GAD, or other related disorder(s), do not seek professional help.

Like my first recollection of anxiety, it is perfectly normal to experience bouts of situational anxiety from time-to-time. However, it is when symptoms are persistent and pervasive, affecting day-to-day life, that anxiety can become a significant issue.  Unfortunately, because anxiety can express itself in numerous ways, many people may not realize that they are experiencing chronic anxiety.  Researching and preparing for this column, I soon discovered that I had very little understanding of this frequently occurring mental health issue.

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While I did know there was a genetic component to anxiety, I did not realize that anxiety was twice as likely to occur in women than men.  Additionally, I understood that there was a relationship between anxiety and depression; however, I did not realize anxiety can cause memory problems and issues with anger.  Furthermore, I realized years ago that anxiety can cause physical symptoms, but I did not fully understand the way anxiety can increase one’s risk for health complications.  I also learned that those experiencing anxiety as adults, often begin experiencing this suffering in their childhood, and it is often misdiagnosed and treated as ADHD.

As an educator, I have anecdotally observed a rise in anxiety-related issues in students.  This fact bears out statistically according to the CDC which notes that a rise in anxiety, and related disorders, began to be observed between the years of 2007 to 2012. Additionally, according to the American Psychological Association in an article published in 2019, there was a significant rise in anxiety disorders among young adults during the decade between 2010 and 2020, well before the pandemic.

Numerous factors have been attributed to cause this increase of mental distress, including the rise of social media; however, the purpose of this writing is not to point a finger at sources.  Additionally, I am not trying to parade as an expert on the subject, because I am most certainly not.  Instead, I humbly write as someone who now realizes that not only have I experienced very real bouts of anxiety, but I have also witnessed countless others suffer from anxiety, and all of its variants, especially over the past few years. I hope my few words can shine a light on what can be done to help, support, and understand the very real anguish anxiety creates.

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One tip I repeatedly read is the importance of remaining calm, accepting, and patient with those experiencing anxiety with applying pressure to “get over it.”  Do not dismiss their fears with logic or rational arguments as this can feel belittling. This is especially important for those in the midst of a panic attack.  Additionally, listen openly without judgement and without offering advice, but instead ask if there is something that you can do.

If a friend or loved one is experiencing a panic attack, no matter how upsetting it is to witness, remain a calm presence.  Let the person know you are there.  Remind him or her to breathe deeply and slowly.  Stay with the person until they are calm; and again, it is okay to ask what she or he needs.  They may not need anything, but by simply asking the question, allows the person to know you care and encourages him or her to focus on the question rather than the sensations coursing through their body.  For some people, it may help to ask them to name one thing they can feel, see, hear, taste, and smell.  Panic attacks, however, are not the time for preaching, setting ultimatums, or any other perceived negative or judgmental behaviors.

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Try to understand.  Read as much as you can on the subject.  Ask questions regarding what you can do to better help and/or support them, especially if they are prone to panic attacks.  Simply having a plan in place can offer assurance to both you and the person for whom you are supporting.

Additionally, encourage your friend or loved one to seek professional help.  Be willing to call and schedule the first appointment for them.  You may even need to help them figure out what to say to the doctor or therapist. Offer to drive and/or go with them to appointments in a show of support.  Be willing to attend therapy sessions with them to learn what you can do to help.  Group support, acupuncture, mindfulness techniques, cognitive behavioral therapy, and so forth, may also be helpful for the person experiencing anxiety.  Likewise, medications may be useful in order to better manage it. 

In the end, anxiety is not a simple matter of stress.  It is a very real mental disorder that affects millions of people daily, making even the most seemingly simple task a stress-inducing event.  Anxiety can be manifested in a wide variety of ways; and therefore, there is no one-size-fits-all form of treatment.  However, all expressions of anxiety require both personal and professional support.  If you, or a loved one, are experiencing symptoms of anxiety, know that you are not alone.  Help is available, and it is typically either a phone call or a click away.

As seen on Instagram on sherzaimd

Schedule your 5th decade “Festivities” and then celebrate your health

“If one has a routine colonoscopy at the age of 50 and then colonoscopies thereafter as the physician recommends, you could largely prevent colon cancer, you could detect it in its earliest stages and cure it.”–Laurie Glimcher

“This looks like a party in a bag!” I said to John, my husband, as I walked through the kitchen upon my return from both the pharmacy and grocery store.

“Why’s that?” he dutifully asked.

“Just take a look at all of these fine celebratory accoutrements.” 

Inside the white pharmacy bag was Dulcolax, Miralax, and Magnesium Citrate  Butt, the real fun was in the 128 ounces worth of Gatorade with which I was blessed to mix the Miralax powder.  Talk about a real party-pooper!  This was about to go down as one explosive event for sure!  

Two days worth of low-residue/low-fiber foods as specifically described in doctor’s

handout? Check.

Plenty of clear liquids stocked up for D, I mean, P-day?  Check.

Comfy clothes with elastic waist waistband?  An extra-heavy wrap or layer of clothing in which to stay warm during the fast?  Plenty of books, magazines, and/or other reading material available?  Scented candle in bathroom? Hard candies and gum to quell nausea? Check, check, check, check, and check!

On your mark, get set, go!

Let’s get the party started!

The following four days of my Christmas time-off from work were focused on the before, during, and after of a colonoscopy.  Why?  There are numerous reasons, but the number one driving factor is, while I know there is an end to all life, I’d rather not end mine early due to a genetic predisposition to colon cancer.  At the very least, I will take all the precautions and preventive steps that are available to me.

“. . . colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States.  Every four minutes someone is diagnosed, and every nine minutes someone dies.”–Kevin Richardson

You see, Dear Reader, I watched my beloved maternal grandmother and uncle both die from this horrific form of cancer.  Don’t get me wrong, all types of cancer are deplorable, but the suffering I observed in their final days tore at my soul and left an impression that I have not forgotten.  Therefore, since, “People with a family history of colon cancer,” according to LoyolaMedicine.org, “have two to five times more risk of having colon cancer,” I’d rather not take my chances.

First dose, along with flavored water . . . let the party begin!

In spite of my dramatic narrative, it is NOT necessary to miss a total of four days of work.  The first two days of colonoscopy preparation consists of simply eating a low-residue/low-fiber diet which is quite manageable while at work as I have completed in the past.  I just happened to already be off work for the Christmas break period.  Although, on a personal note, I found I was exceptionally hungry for those two days.  I suspect it is because I typically eat a high-fiber diet and rarely, if ever, consume eggs, meat, or dairy.  Therefore, my food choices felt limiting and certainly not as filling as my usual high-fiber, whole-food plant-based way of eating. 

However, I do strongly advise using a sick day for the third day of the “festivities,” aka bowel prep.  In addition to the fact that you are bloated, and potentially a bit crampy and nauseated, you will most certainly spend a great deal of time in a bathroom.  Personally speaking, I’d rather spend that sort of  “quality” time in my own bathroom, thank you very much.  However, if you have the type of job that allows you to leisurely spend time in the restroom, and you can still manage work, by all means be my guest! 

First batch mixed! What a punch it has!

Most certainly though, a colonoscopy does require at least one day away from the worksite.  This is because you are put under anesthesia for the procedure; afterwards, you do not have medical permission to drive for the rest of the day.  My own experience (which each person’s experience is unique) left me feeling a bit lightheaded and nauseated, and not ready to eat, much less work, for a few hours.  However, I have known plenty of people, along with their designated driver, who go to their favorite eating establishment and plow through some serious piles of food, but I don’t recommend that for the sake of your system.

You may be wondering why do it at all–especially since there are several viable alternatives on the market.  I researched numerous websites with that same question.  Most valid medical websites point to the same conclusion:

“. . . colonoscopy is the only test in which the entire colon can be visualized using a colonoscope and pre-cancerous polyps can be removed. Cancer risk is reduced by 90% after colonoscopy and polyp removal . . .”–American College of Gastroenterology 

A bowlful of encourage-mints!

Nonetheless, before determining the best colon cancer preventative tool for you, it is best to talk with your healthcare provider.  In fact, it was based upon a conversation with a healthcare provider that I had both a colonoscopy and endoscopy before the recommended age of 50.  It was these initial assessments that led to the discovery that I had nothing wrong with my colon at the time (as I feared), but instead, I have a hiatal hernia and celiac disease–which are fairly easy fixes with diet. No more frequent diarrhea, painful stomach cramps/pain, and little to infrequent reflux thanks to diet adjustments–not to mention the elimination of several medicines–all due to what began with a conversation with my healthcare provider!  

With that in mind, multiple websites encourage adopting healthy habits, along with regular healthcare screenings, in order to not only prevent occurrence of colon cancer but also to lower the risk of numerous other types of cancer. One such health promoting practice is to honor what most mothers tell their children, eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.  Avoid using tobacco products, and if you are currently using them, find ways to reduce, or better yet, eliminate these products from your lifestyle. Consider reducing or eliminating alcohol consumption.  Regular physical activity is also recommended.  Additionally, stress-reducing and/or mindfulness practices as well as maintaining a healthy weight are likewise considered positive steps.  

In the end, personal health and well-being often comes down to personal decisions.  I am by no means any health/well-care expert, but I do believe in personal responsibility and accountability towards one’s health–including routine, preventative health care screenings.  Afterall, if we are made in God’s image, then, as the saying goes, our body is HIS temple.  Therefore, let our habits honor our God-given skin vessel.  We only have one body, and life is a precious gift.

Cheers to your health!

Finally, I could not end this piece without saying a BIG heartfelt thank you to the staff of Cabell County Hospital, especially those on the second floor.  I was your first patient of the day, arriving at 6:30 am.  From the upbeat registration employee who checked me into the hospital when I was barely functioning without my morning coffee, and to the cheery and encouraging Lesha and Nana my pre- and post-nurses respectively; from Eric, several other nurses, and unnamed staff members whose names I did not get; to the sweetest female nurse anesthetist with kind eyes, as well as Dr. Davis and Dr. Subik; I appreciate the fact you were all working between holidays for patients like me, who did not want to miss work. And a special shout out to the spry Carlos, the speedy, affable, and efficient transporter.  Thank you for making my procedure from beginning to, well, the “end,” as comfortable as possible.  

From my heart to yours, I encourage you, Dear Reader, to keep up with all health screenings, no matter how invasive–afterall, your life may depend upon it!

Oh, yes, I agree. I look like the once famous teletubby, Tinky Winky! “Butt”, I was warm during the day of bowel prep! Cheers to your health, Dear Reader!

Starting Over

“A sunrise is God’s way of saying, ‘Let’s start again.”–Todd Stocker

Before typing this, I spent nearly 2 ½ hours trying to decide the best way to begin writing.  I looked at photo ideas, quotes, inspirational readings, ideas I have saved on a document, and so forth . . . all the usual starting points for me.  I would start typing, then moments later, delete all the words.  Type, delete, repeat. My mind was filled with a revolving door of thoughts as I reflected upon the new year and all the possibilities it held.  No matter the number of do-overs, this repeatedly blank document likewise remained an opportunity for a new start–full of the hope and promise that exploring an idea through writing offers, and the enhanced understanding that comes with it.

As we close the saga that was 2020, I can say with confidence that it was certainly a year like no other.  While it began, full of hope and promise, it quickly spiraled out of control globally, nationally, professionally, and personally.  Often, when it seemed the year could not get any worse, 2020 somehow managed to throw more curve balls than a record breaking MLB pitcher.  In fact, it seems to me that 2020 pitched a no-hitter of a game.   

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As a lifelong learner, one of the reasons I write is to increase my own understanding. The process of writing slows down my thoughts, and reduces my emotions which can cloud my thinking. Writing also coaxes my analytical brain to engage more with the world rather than my intuitive/sensitivity center that, from decades of training, extends from me like antenna–seeking, searching, and constantly evaluating the temperament of a room, situation, and people.  While this so-called sensitivity is a pretty handy awareness to have, especially as an educator, it can unfortunately become overwhelmed by the feelings, energy, and attitudes of others, short-circuiting my emotional center and nearly shutting down my brain, filling me with overwhelming negative feelings and stories.

Writing is not the only way in which I tap into my logical brain.  As an educator, I must also remain centered in logic, task-analysis, and effective communication.  While I use my sensitivity skills to help navigate the world of middle school students, parents, and coworkers, I have trained myself to not react nor take situations personally.  I am not implying that I am perfect, rather that my professional and creative self have more in common with one another than private me.

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When left alone with my own thoughts, I am often given over to emotional waves.  This was especially true during 2020.  Far too often this past year, I slipped into the stories and/or negativities that seemed to be surrounding me on all sides. Therefore, one of my hopes for 2021 is a greater sense of equanimity, no matter my circumstance or setting, and I can’t help but think I am not the only one feeling this way. 

I am reminded of a former yoga instructor who once warned students of the danger of attaching to and/or becoming our negative thoughts.  He gave the illustration that if we nourished our body with good food in order to maintain a healthy body, why shouldn’t we feed our brain positive thoughts and ideas.  Therefore, when this recollection randomly entered my mind, as I sat at my kitchen table trying to tease out the precise writing idea floating just outside the periphery of my thinking, I began to look around my kitchen. 

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Due to the holidays, my kitchen was filled with foods that we normally do not keep on hand.  In fact, there was so much excess, as I glanced around, that food was visible on the top of my fridge and counter–something that is normally a no-no for me.  Those foods were as lovely to the eye as on the tongue, but they lacked any real nutritional value.  These were foods, my body reminded me throughout the holiday season, that did not keep me feeling full for very long, and they created cravings I typically don’t experience.  Additionally, I found that these same foods also tended to generate a sense of fatigue and/or lethargy; and yet, my brain kept telling me to consume more of those delectable special sweets, salty-snacks, and other rich treats.  Each time I overindulged, which I did on several occasions, my mind would spin into negative thoughts about myself, my food choices, and lack of willpower–which was so silly since all of the foods were truly special occasion foods only made and eaten in this quantity one time per year.

In fact, by January, most, if not all, of the treats will be out of the house, and we will return to a more healthy, sustainable way of eating, but it supports my point.  2020 was like the sweets and junk food in my house for the holidays, it continually served up an abundance of low-quality fodder wrapped in bright screens, attention-seeking sound-bites, and eye catching headlines promising “breaking news” that was mostly devoid of any positive and fulfilling sustenance.  One sad, frustrating, or anger-inducing event after another kept emotions running high while nutrient-rich content was as hard to find as fresh produce at a local convenient mart.  

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If 2020 has taught me anything, it is that change is inevitable and ongoing, but no matter the change, I have a choice with what I nourish my mind and how I choose to react to change.  While I am unable to rid the world of “junk,” as I can in the kitchen of my own home, I can fuel my mind at the start of each day, as I do for my writing, by spending a bit of time in quiet reflection and devotion, with an open heart and mind, and a prayer that Divine Providence will fortify me throughout the day with those positive morning messages, providing with a greater sense of equanimity in all situations.

Happiness is not the absence of problems; it’s the ability to deal with them.”–Steve Maraboli

2021 is like this once blank document, an opportunity for each of us to start again. Of course, the new year starts with much of the baggage of this past year, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have the ability to deal with it and learn to better understand it. Just as a new black document each week offers me a choice as to what I idea or thought I choose to focus my attention, each of us likewise has a choice of where we focus our attention and how we react to each problem or challenge that may occur.  Equanimity of mind seems to me like happiness–everyone wants it, but we wouldn’t know either one without the opposite extreme.  

May the blank page of 2021 serve as a reminder that life is about progress, not perfection.  Let us remember that nature does not create a storm without an end. We may not always feel happy, or remain in a state of equanimity, but we can choose what we nourish our thoughts with.  May we say goodbye to poisoning our minds with discord, disharmony, and dissension–even if the storms of 2020 continue into the new year. Instead, may we focus on what we can control: our thoughts, our prayers, and our actions/reactions. 2020 is done, and 2021 has just begun.  It’s an opportunity for a new start– even if only on the personal level.

“And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’”–Revelation 21:5

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Fearlessly Moving Forward into 2021 with Hope

It is because of hope that you suffer. It is through hope that you’ll change things.”– Maxime Lagacé

“Mrs. Hill, I hope you have a good Christmas,” the child stated in a formal voice unique to this person. “And, I hope that 2021 is better than 2020 because 2020 was really, really bad.”

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 I could not have summed up the sentiment any better, and yet those words clung to me like a sweaty t-shirt in the summer, clinging and bunching in ways that make me want to be shed of its weight.  As I pondered those words throughout the weekend, I realized that they weighed on me beyond the obvious.  Later, it occurred to me that reflected in those words were two seemingly opposing concepts: hope and control.

As a Reading/Language Arts teacher and writer, I rely on precise word meaning.  I teach students to not only use the Merriam-Webster online dictionary and thesaurus as a tool to begin to understand word meaning, but to also look at the parts of speech a word may possess because how a word is used is just as important as its definition.  Therefore, when I looked up the definition of hope, I immediately noticed that hope, according to Merriam-Webster, is most often used as a verb–an action.   However, its second most popular definition identifies hope as a noun–an idea.  Likewise, the same can be said for the functioning of the word control–verb first, noun second. 

The more you try to control something, the more it controls you. Free yourself, and let things take their own natural course.”–Leon Brown

Part of our collective suffering during 2020 is our desire for control.  We have wished, as the definition of control states, to “directly influence,” or “have power over,” numerous events of this past calendar year.  Whether we were desiring to influence others’ behavior, or wishing to exert power over the virus, vaccine, and/or authorities, in order for, “things to get back to normal,” most of us have looked, and maybe even continue to look, for ways to gain control and, “get our lives back.”  The thing is though, that very act of living means that we do have our lives, and we can only exert control over our own life behaviors, thoughts, actions, and reactions.  However, we can hope for a different way of interacting and living; and, that is the rub.  How do we hope, while attempting to not try to control others, situations, and outcomes? 

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Most of us, including myself, want to control things that frighten us. 

I want my friend to stop smoking because I’m afraid she’s going to die of lung cancer, and I don’t want to lose her.

I want my parent(s) to be well because I am afraid of life without them in it.

I want my job to pay well because I am afraid I won’t be able to pay the bills and live the way I want to live.

I want my child to be successful because I am afraid they won’t be able to care of themselves.

On and on the examples could go, but the bottom line is our desire to control stems from our worry, but I would argue that, also from our hope.  Looking at the above examples, let me rephrase them.

I hope my friend is always around because I value her friendship and companionship.

I hope my parent(s) live(s) as long as I do because I love them so very much.

I hope my job’s salary continues to increase with the cost of living because I value living a certain way.

I hope my child is gainfully employed because I will not be their safety net forever.

Merriam-Webster’s definition of hope includes, to cherish a desire with anticipation.” 

To. Cherish. A. Desire.   

As a society, we had no idea how very much we cherished our so-called “normal” way of living–the freedom to gather where, when, and how we wanted without the confines of masks, distance, and limited numbers. We desired and relished in the freedom of dining out surrounded by the hubbub and energy that comes with a restaurant enlivened and energized with sounds of overlapping conversations and laughter.  Arenas, stadiums, or theaters filled with fans of a particular sport, performer, or other forms of entertainment were also treasured and long-established society traditions.  Gathering in groups with loved and/or friends in one another’s homes, churches, or social halls–the list could go on–was another cherished activity.  Nonetheless, we cannot control the outcomes of when/if any or all of these items will return.  Certainly, we can hope, as a child hopes for a prized present at Christmas, but we cannot control what/when (it) will happen.

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What can we do?  We can start by taking cues from nature.  Nature naturally cycles through seasons; and, by the time this piece of writing is published, the winter solstice will have occurred at 5:02 am ET on December 21–the shortest day of the year.  With the coming of winter, the increased darkness and colder temperatures allow plants to go dormant in order to rest and gather strength for the upcoming growing season.  Additionally, the frost, and other cold weather events, act as a force to help plants grow stronger and produce more roots, leaves, branches, fruits, and flowers.  Insect populations are reduced. The nights are the longest and darkest of the year allowing the stars to seemingly shine at their brightest.  And, that, Dear Friend, was my lesson to learn.

Like the stars in the winter sky, hope is twinkling in the darkened, but distant future.  Starlight may take light years to reach our eyes on Earth, but it does span the distance.  We cannot control the brightness of the stars any more than we control “the little virus that could” in 2020, but we can rest in the knowledge that we can control our reactions, our thoughts, our choices; and, we can let “it” go–let go our desires to influence or have power over things for which we cannot control.  Instead, let us, as the dictionary offers as a secondary definition for hope, “expect with confidence” that we can fearlessly move forward through our current darkness, and brightly focus on what we can do to make each day better for ourselves and others. 

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Psychologists know that simply envisioning, aka hoping for, a better future, can make even the darkest of situations feel more bearable.  In fact, hope serves as a link from our past to our present day situation.  Envisioning returning to our former life habits can make the current negative changes and consequences of life during a pandemic more bearable.

With the coming of the winter solstice, each day grows one minute longer in the amount of light provided. Likewise, our future is growing brighter, bit by little bit. Soon enough, we will emerge into the spring of a new era.  We will forge ahead, creating a more positive future . . . . 

Let us infinitely hope. 

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”— Martin Luther King Jr

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Beer Bread: A Christmas Tradition

The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight.” —M.F.K. Fisher

Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.”–James Beard

It is a family tradition spanning over three to four decades.  I am not sure if I started baking it in my 20s or 30s, but baking beer bread for Christmas, and other special events, has been, and continues to be, a long-held Hill household custom.  From where the recipe came, I am not certain; however, I suspect I found it in the owner’s manual/recipe guide of the very first bread machine I ever owned.

Not long after John, my husband of over thirty years, and I were married, my grandparents gave us a bread machine as a Christmas gift.  It was an Oster, white in color, and it was highly popular in the late 80s.  In fact, even up until last Christmas (2019), I was still using this same Oster to help me bake bread.  

The original recipe card onto which I wrote the recipe is stained, tattered, and torn from decades of use.

This former bread making machine, for which I used to knead and rise bread dough–the loaves were baked in the oven rather than the machine–faithfully helped me bake beer bread every single Christmas after its original receipt.  When my daughter was still school age, I baked loaves for her teachers at Christmas.  Even now, I will still bake extra loaves at Christmas to give away. 

Christmas after Christmas, I go through pounds of flour, yeast, and of course, copious bottles of beer.  Typically, during the two weeks leading up to Christmas, the aroma of freshly baked bread seems to emanate from every pore of our house.  A week or two leading up to Christmas, my kitchen is typically covered with a fine dusting of flour, and a measuring glass filled beer often sits at the back of the counter in order to come to room temperature before mixing the dough.

Dough finished rising in the bread machine.

Unfortunately, by last Christmas, this antique machine was bouncing across the counter, vibrating the entire length, in an exerted effort to mix and knead the dough.  After each batch, I would find feathery grains of black metal beneath the machine as if it were sacrificing its own blood in order to continue to help me produce bread.  I knew I “kneaded” to gently close its lid and carry it to its final resting place, but saying goodbye is never easy–especially to one that has faithfully served our family, Christmas after Christmas, and one special event after another.  To add further grief, it was a gift from my grandparents–setting this machine on its final rest cycle would feel as if I was breaking an unspoken contract with them.  (Although we still have the white Toastmaster toaster they gave us as a wedding present in 1989.)

Dough dropped into prepared loaf pan and ready for the oven.

However, by New Years Day of 2020, another day in which I typically make beer bread, it was clear, the little Oster could go on no more.  It was like an appliance doctor had steathfully snuck into the house and gently sent my loyal kitchen companion to its eternal reward. I am certain, if there is an appliance heaven, that good ol’ Oster is walking the streets of homemade bread alongside other trusted tools of the trade.

While I now have a new bread machine, the kitchen doesn’t quite look or sound the same when it is operating. It appears to be the strong, silent type that likes to work without drawing attention to itself.  Black in color, oblong in shape, it is the complete opposite of its predecessor.  While the former appliance, if set to bake dough, formed bread in the shape of a chubby stove pipe chimney; however, the newer machine, were I to actually use the baking function, will bake bread that is fashioned in the traditional shape and length, but is still rather tall. Nonetheless, it does perform the necessary functions of mixing, kneading, and rising the dough–ready to dump into a prepared bread pan and bake in the oven.

The owner’s manual for the sleak, new bread machine.

The recipe that I share can be varied slightly, but certain ingredients must go into the mix in order to bake and taste properly.  To begin, I have used a wide variety of natural sweeteners including sugar (as originally called for), molasses, honey, agave, as well as real maple and date syrups.  If choosing a liquid sweetener, it will influence the color of the crust as well as the dough.  Additionally, I have played with a variety of types of flour, including whole wheat, and I have even added ½ cup of wheat germ, but I have found that using bread flour works best.  Furthermore, I prefer to use jar yeast that is specifically designed for bread machines.

Regarding the beer, I have used both high end beer and bargain beer over the years.  It really doesn’t matter.  However, what I do find is that the darker the beer, the richer the flavor–but only for the most discerning of taste buds.  Most won’t notice the difference between light or dark beer.  Also, if you don’t typically drink beer, you can buy single cans of beer.

Another tip I have learned over the years is to cool and store the loaf in an airtight plastic bag or container before slicing it.  The reason I make this suggestion is because if you slice it while it is still warm, the bread is not firm enough and tends to collapse in on itself.  Additionally, crumbs from the crust go everywhere.  However, if you allow it to properly cool, and then store it for several hours in an airtight container, it will slice nicely for those social media worthy pictures.

Beautiful, freshly baked bread just out of the oven.

As a final tip, it should be noted that you may need to adjust the amounts of each ingredient and/or order in which the ingredients go into your machine, depending upon your machine’s requirements.  This is where the owner’s manual of your own machine comes in handy–to help you tweak and adjust amounts as needed.  (I know my new machine’s manual has several pages of tips for successful baking and recipe adjustments.)  

Furthermore, it should also be noted that I have only used this recipe in a bread machine.  I put the ingredients in the machine in the order recommended by the manufacturer and allow the machine to take care of the mixing, kneading, and rising.  Once through the rising process, I place dough in a prepared loaf pan and bake.  Sadly, this recipe is NOT gluten-free; and therefore, I now choose to not consume it–even at Christmas. It was a recipe I discovered years before I knew I had celiac disease.  Therefore, I bake only for the consumption of loved ones and friends to enjoy.

For those of you with bread machines sitting around waiting to be used, I hope you will enjoy this recipe.  It fills the house with an irresistible, aromatic scent, and tastes wonderful toasted, at room temperature, or slightly warmed.  Use it for breakfast, sandwiches, snacks, or even toast it for homemade croutons.  I hope that this recipe will bring your family as much joy as it has mine over the years.

From my home to yours, I wish you happy, homemade, and heavenly baked goods for the holidays!

Slice it, butter it, slather it with your favorite topping, and enjoy every yeasty bite!

Beer Bread

Ingredients:

⅓ warm water

1 cup beer (room temperature & flat)

2 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 ½ teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons sugar (or other natural sweetener)

3 cups bread flour

1 yeast package or 2 ¼ teaspoons yeast

Directions:

Place all ingredients in the bread machine according to manufacturer directions, making any adjustments needed to amounts as per manufacturer directions.

Set machine for dough setting if baking in oven; otherwise, set for white bread setting.

Once dough is nearly finished with its cycle, preheat oven to 375 degrees if baking in the oven.

If baking in the oven, remove dough from the pan once dough has gone through the entire dough setting cycle, and place dough in lightly greased loaf pan.

Bake for 30-35 minutes or until golden brown on top.

Store in an airtight container or sealed storage bag.

Stays fresh, when properly stored in an airtight container at room temperature, for over a week.

Bake up a new holiday tradition:  beer bread!
Oh, there’s nothing like the aroma of freshly baked bread.

Storyin’

“Life is not a matter of creating a special name for ourselves, but of uncovering the name we have always had.”–Richard Rohr

Some of my favorite events as a child were those extended family events spent around a dinner table.  Depending upon the size of the gathering, we kids might have been interspersed among the grown-ups, or seated at our own table, but regardless of assigned seat, we often listened in on the adults’ conversations.  These beloved grown-ups were commanding narrators, needling out one anecdote after another.  The combining effect of each account felt as if a patchwork quilt of life were being stitched together before our childhood eyes.  Great guffaws of laughter flowed over and around us as each chronicler appeared to compete for the best speil.  As a child, I yearned for that ability . . .

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Perhaps it was the change of weather, the mostly cloudy days, filled with damp and chilly temperatures.  Of course, it could also have been the rising daily count of COVID cases.  Then again, it could have been the shifting job roles–depending upon those same numbers. Maybe it was the overwhelming loss of lives in 2020; the unemployment rate affecting many loved ones, friends, and acquaintances; the uncertain national, global, and political landscape; or maybe it is the fact that trying to find soft toilet paper and a safe cleaning products for home is still a never ending battle!  Whatever the cause, this past week, I personally found that sleep was often elusive, and by Thursday and Friday, I was often given to weepiness and felt down right melancholy as my mind slid into “story mode.”  

Depending upon the situation, the “Story of Steph,” if given permission to run out of control, can be quite tragic, valiant, humble, or any variation in between.  This week it was a well-rehearsed, negative narrative that began to echo around in my head. By the week’s end, the volumes of these fables were fully crescendoed.  

The week began with an appetizer of “you’re-not-good-enough,” followed up by a tossed salad of “you never-have-been” and “you never-will-be.” Next came the main-course of “you’re-a-failure,” along with sides of “you’re-never-right, not-smart, not-good, and not-worthy.”  The mental construct of poor-pitiful-me was tantruming into a full frenzy.

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I suppose as an adult, I should not admit to such mental theatrics.  In fact, I suppose there is risk in sharing these stories.  However, I choose to share, partly in the hope that it will foster my own compassion and understanding of the truth, and partly with the hope that my experience may help others who may also undergo similar stories of the mind.  

Naturally, there are other stories that we all, myself included, prefer to show the world.  Stories regarding our role in our family; our careers; our perceived social, political, and economic status; our relationships, friends, and associations/affiliations; the list could go on.  The point is, the story-of-self is driven by the ego and our desire to survive, and perhaps fit-in (or not fit-in); and, 2020 has certainly made all of us feel threatened, insecure, and uncertain.  Therefore, it is even more critical that we understand that our mental constructs are not necessarily reflective of reality and often not the truth.  This is an especially important tool as we segue from one challenging year to another.

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Don’t laugh at a youth for his affectations; he is only trying on one face after another to find his own.” -Logan Pearsall Smith

Our self-prescribed stories change as we grow and develop depending upon influences, experiences, life-events, family status, career position and so forth.  The role of these stories are not necessarily bad. Roles and expectations of one’s personal role develop even as a baby/toddler.  If I behave this way, then a certain positive or negative thing happens, and we feel (or don’t feel) safe, secure, valued, and loved.  As we grow, and hormones kick in, we begin to try out new roles, new ways of be-ing, from the way we behave, to the ways in which we choose to appear to others, as peers begin to gain influence in our desire to feel secure, safe, and valued.  With each stage, new roles are tried on, and later tossed aside, in an attempt to find the role that brings us the greatest feelings of value, security and/or worth.  As a whole, this is a natural part of human development.

Unfortunately, as humans, we tend to attach too much to roles and to the should-das, would-das, and could-das of life roles and fulfillment.  The stories we tell ourselves often skew and mask reality. Social media adds to the distortion of who we should be, and often sends us to our proverbial closet of stories in an attempt to find the perceived right role, and soon another story is formed in an attempt to gain more self-perceived value.  The more we judge and compare our stories to that of others, the more we create discomfort by reinforcing and habituating judgement and critical patterns of thinking of what we should be do-ing and how we should be be-ing.  The compounding effect of all these stories is that we lose touch with what Fr. Richard Rohr refers to as “the face we had before we were born.”

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I have heard of your paintings too, well enough; God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another.” – William Shakespeare

The concept of, “the face we had before we were born,” is not original to Friar Rohr, but it was his words that reminded me of this notion in a recent reading.  In fact, Rohr likes to remind readers that if God created everything, and people were designed in God’s image, then all of us are stamped with the blueprint of God’s DNA.  Therefore, we are all infinitely and blessedly children of God.  

Unfortunately, this week, I had become so attached to the image of who I should be, how I should be, what I should be do-ing, and how others view me, that I became far removed from my so-called, “original God-given face.” I began to believe my own false-narratives, creating my own pain and suffering.  I suspect that I am not the only one who does this, especially in the year of 2020.  

If we could learn to let go of our false survival based stories, drop the self-limiting beliefs, and quit taking negative events so personally, and allow ourselves to relax, trusting that the Divine is ever-present with us, then we can begin to free ourselves from the need to be reactive, judgmental, self-critical, controlling, combative, or confrontational. Yes, I know this sounds too idealistic, but what if it really is that simple?  

Be kind to others, but always be compassionate to yourself.”–from Traditional Medicinals tea bag

My brother recently reminded me of what our Grandmother Helen would say, who often babysat us, if she thought one of my siblings or me was lying.  Her classic start to this conversation began by stating our name, followed up with her unique query.

Stethie,” (or whomever) “Are you storyin’?  Are you telling me a story?”  

At the time, my brother and I both had a good laugh at this fond remembrance.  It was only after I wrote this reflection, that Grandmother’s phrase once more returned to mind. Not only did it put a smile on my face, but it also gave me even greater insight to my own negative self-talk, and it empowered me with a new phrase to use as a reminder when I have given “stories” permission to hide my “original face.”  

Thank you, Grandmother Helen.  You always had a way of succinctly getting to the point.

Always worth remembering: You are loved!

Teachers are Heroes with Heart

If you are planning for a year, sow rice; if you are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people.”– Chinese Proverb

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“Thank you, Teachers,” the sign read on the side of the road. 

Wait, what?  I couldn’t help but think.  Really?  It took a global pandemic to inspire appreciation for educators.  Hmm . . . 

I suppose that is how those who work in the medical field and first responders feel.  After all, like educators, those drawn to and working in the healthcare industry, by and large, have always been effective, efficient, and caring individuals. Naturally, praise was given to medical providers from the very beginning of the pandemic–and rightly so!  They were putting their own lives on the line while attempting to quell the flames of a ravaging wildfire sparked by a virus for which there was a dearth of knowledge.  Story after story would reveal the suffering and agony of the front line caregivers and their patients.  My heart, as well as those in my field, ached for those professionals, and we felt grateful for their long suffering service.  And yet, there was one question that continually niggled my mind . . .

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“Teaching is the one profession that creates all other professions.”– Unknown

Who were the early influencers of these various professionals that make up the health field?  Who taught them to read, write, and think mathematically?  Who helped to shape and foster their curiosity, their work ethic, and their quest for knowledge and understanding?  To be certain, parents are the first, most important, and long-lasting teacher in any child’s life.  Additionally, there are often other relatives that influence and impress a child, but guess who often spends more time with a child day-in and day-out?  Teachers.

It takes a big heart to help shape little minds.”– Unknown

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This past March (2020), many teachers across the country, as well as at a local level, were told on a Friday to get their students ready.  Educators directed students to pack up all of their personal belongings, textbooks, notebooks, personal implements, and any other necessary supplies.  Furthermore, on this same fateful day, schools–like the one in which I work–who were fortunate enough to have the resources, also directed teachers to quickly allocate technological resources to students who thought they might need one at home.  Those districts without these assets were rapidly scrambling for funds in order to likewise provide technology for students.

Once students were sent home with their overburdened school bags, teachers were likewise told to quickly gather what they thought they would need to teach from home.  Additionally, teachers were swiftly conferring with one another and administrators as to the types of resources available throughout the school that could be used to make teaching from home work.  Cobbling together this and that, gathering our own bags of wares, like ants marching in a line towards their hill mount, teachers exited the school on that pivotal Friday with the understanding that we were to be up and running as an online educator by Monday. Like a boulder plummeting onto US Rt 52, the dramatic educational paradigm shift had begun.  It was time to put on our proverbial hard hats and head into the construction zone.

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“Teaching is the greatest act of optimism.”– Colleen Wilcox

News, gossip, and directives swirled around like flaming ash from a distant brush fire.  The heat of how to get virtual school up and running amidst worry about safety, closings, quarantines, supply shortages, deaths, headlines, and the never ending chain of one email after another compounded to the ever-building fear, anxiety, and sense of uncertainty.  One thing was clear, however, teachers would be there for our students and for one another–no virus was going to stop us.

By the time Monday rolled around, teachers had students enrolled in virtual classrooms–our school used Google products, but other platforms abounded in other school districts.  We communicated to students through the virtual classroom and through virtual meetings.  The technology was imperfect and full of glitches and hiccups, but students and teachers forged through each and every challenge thrown our way.  In a way, educators were pupils once more, learning right along with our students, relying on part innovation, part intuition, and a whole lot give and take via virtual forms of communication.

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The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.”– Mark Van Doren

Together, with our colleagues and our students, educators made many new discoveries about technology and pedagogy as well as how to tap into our creativity.  We had meetings with one another in which mutual tears were shed for the loss of “how it used to be,” but more often, the focus and concern was for students’ well-beings and how to best provide for their needs–both educationally and psychologically.  Additionally, there were a multitude of professional development virtual meetings in which we listened intently, scrawled notes, typed our questions in chat boxes, and discussed with one another in virtual breakout rooms.

This is not to say that they weren’t frustrations, nor am I trying to imply it was a perfect, seamless transition of rainbows, butterflies, and magical, mythical unicorns.  It was not.  Students would not show up to class meets or not complete their work.  Administrators asked for a multitude of documented records, such as, individual missing student work, student needs, staff needs, ideas for improvement and future planning–spreadsheet after spreadsheet and list upon list.  Towards the end of April, there were so many lists, spreadsheets, and schedules that it was easy to overlook one or another, and I certainly had my fair share of oversights.  However, I wasn’t the only one, and the compounded effect sometimes led to flared tempers, quiet resentment, or virtual words of implications–albeit, never for long.

Plus, there was the learning curve.  Educators were continually encouraged to be flexible and foster an attitude of expansive and forward thinking.  For those teachers possessing a technologically nimble mindset, this was a Montessori school of experience, full of opportunities to explore, expand, and engage.  For those of us with less technological deftness, it was like being asked to wake up each day and start walking in the opposite direction of fast and furious freeway traffic, leaving our brains often feeling short-circuited as our work day grew longer and longer.  However, regardless of which side of the technology tree one fell, a new phrase emerged from this experience, “COVID taught me this,” and together with our educational peers across the country, we emerged stronger and more resilient.

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Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”– Nelson Mandela

Educators are persistent, tenacious, kindhearted individuals who spend their own money, their own time, and give freely of their own hearts to students each and every day.  We did this before the pandemic, we are continuing this now, and we will likewise do this after the reign of COVID.  Teachers matter, with or without COVID–just as those in the health professions matter.

Recently, I overheard a confident middle school student reporting to a peer that women tend to choose low-value degrees, like teaching.  

“They choose not to make money,” he exclaimed, “because they don’t want to do the hard stuff like be a doctor or lawyer.”

I am not sure where or how he came to this conclusion, and perhaps he will always feel that way about my chosen profession.  Regardless of his sentiment, I, along with my colleagues (and my husband–who also happens to be an educator), will continue to work to educate him along with his peers–no matter what life throws our way, in spite of our so-called, “low value” degrees.  This is because we know the truth, and now it appears, based upon that sign alongside the state route, the word is spreading.  

Cranberry-pumpkin Muffins (Gluten-free and plant-based)

Historically, the health-promoting properties of cranberries have been based on folkloric remedies, which have existed for centuries. The healthy giving properties of this fruit were recognized by Native American Indians, and early New England sailors are said to have eaten the vitamin C-rich wild cranberries to prevent scurvy.”–Massachusetts Cranberries website

Cranberries are one of just three fruits native to the United States.”–The Humble Gardener website

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I couldn’t help but notice all of the ongoing fresh cranberry offerings and deals that have been found lately in the local grocery stores; therefore, I purchased a 12 ounce bag for myself.  Those inviting, bright crimson berries have often reminded me of mini Christmas baubles hanging from an evergreen branch.  Curiosity began to get the best of me, and I decided that I needed to learn more about these tiny ruby orbs.  Afterall, a fruit full of that much color had to have some redeeming qualities, and boy-oh-boy do they ever!

One of the first facts I noticed was that numerous medical and nutritional-based websites consider cranberries to be a so-called, “super-food,” due to their overall nutritional benefits.  Part of this designation is due to cranberries’ high levels of anthocyanins, a powerful antioxidant, that give cranberries their bright red color. (I knew that bright red color was important!) In addition to being consumed in its various forms as part of the treatment for and prevention of  UTIs, research has also linked cranberries to improving the function of the immune system as well as decreasing blood pressure. Additionally, there are several promising studies indicating cranberries may be helpful in slowing down the growth of cancer cells, particularly in certain types of tumorous growths.

Stir in fresh cranberries to your favorite fruit salad.

Several websites describe cranberries’ high levels of polyphenols may play a role in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.  Studies have also found that consuming cranberries, as part of a whole-foods healthy diet, regularly promotes the health of gums and teeth.  Cranberries are also believed to decrease inflammation associated with both chronic disease and aging, and these tiny powerhouse fruits offer numerous benefits to one’s gut health and microbiota. Additionally, the naturally low-sugar, high fiber berries possess anti-inflammatory properties.  Plus, like other berries, cranberries are high antioxidants, vitamin C, and vitamin K.

Cranberries are typically in season and widely available throughout the fall and into the early winter months.  They can be stored in a refrigerator for up to two months, and frozen for several more months for later consumption.  When choosing fresh cranberries, look for smooth skin that is firm to the touch and unwrinkled.  

Fresh, ripe cranberries have smooth, unwrinkled skin, and are said to bounce like a basketball.

Of course, cranberries are typically part of a traditional Thanksgiving meal, however, they are quite a versatile food that can be used in a wide array of recipes.  Add them to oatmeal, yogurt, fruit salads, and even dark, leafy green salads.  Cook them down into a sauce on the stove with some maple syrup, honey, or sugar, add a bit of cinnamon, and perhaps the zest or juice of an orange or a drop of orange extract.  Use this sauce as a condiment for toast, sandwiches, oatmeal, yogurt parfaits, or even in muffins.  Stir in fresh, or dried, cranberries into muffins, cakes, breads, and even cookie recipes.  The ways in which to use cranberries are only as endless as your imagination. 

Below is a recipe I created based upon one I found in an old Betty Crocker cookbook.  Betty Crocker cookbooks have been a mainstay for the members of my family, a tradition handed down to me and my siblings from both my mother and grandmother as Betty Crocker recipes are fairly easy to follow/create and typically use simple ingredients.  This recipe I adjusted to make it both gluten free and plant-based.  I added a few extras to it in order to, as my Grandmother Helen used to say, “doctor it up.”

Gently fold in cranberries into the batter, careful not to overstir the batter so that the muffins do not turn out “tough.”

Both my daughter and husband tried these plump muffins of goodness, despite the fact that they do not, per se, like cranberries.  To their surprise, they both really liked this recipe.  It is moist, but springy–like a good muffin should be.  The sparkling sugar adds a thin crusting effect to the muffin tops.  Plus, a large portion of the berries burst open into the batter during the baking process creating a just the right amount of tang and sweet.  Enjoy these muffins slightly cooled, but still warm, from the oven or warmed over in the microwave.  Share the goodness of these muffins, chock full of healthful benefits, with someone you love, and be sure to store the uneaten muffins in an airtight container or bag in the fridge or freeze them for quick morning or a snack time reheat on the run.

From my home to yours, I wish you homemade, happy, and healthy meals.

Use an ice cream scoop to help divide the batter evenly among 12 muffin cups.
White sparkling sugar, sprinkled on top, creates a nice crust to muffin tops.
Cool muffins on a wire rack.

Pumpkin Cranberry Muffins

Ingredients:

2 cups (I use a gluten-free variation.)

¾ cup sugar (Can use a sugar substitute, such as Swerve.) 

3 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon ginger

¼ teaspoon salt

1 can (15 ounce) of pure pumpkin

½ teaspoon orange extract 

½ cup apple sauce (Can substitute ½ cup oil if preferred.)

2 eggs or “flegg” equivalent (2 tablespoons ground flax seed + 5 tablespoons water, allow to sit in the fridge for 5-10 minutes.)

2 cups cranberries

½ chopped pecans or walnuts, optional

White sparkling sugar (If you do not have this on-hand, simply use regular sugar.)

Directions:

**Note: if using egg replacement, “flegg,” please make first and set aside in refrigerator until ready to use.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees

Line muffin tins with parchment paper or lightly grease.

In a large bowl, mix together flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, and salt. Stir in pumpkin, orange extract, apple sauce, and eggs. Until just mixed–careful not to over mix.  Gently fold in cranberries and nuts if using. 

Using an ice cream scoop or spoon, divide batter evenly among muffin cups and sprinkle with sugar.  Before sprinkling with sugar, you can also top with a few cranberries, a bit of pumpkin seeds, or a bit of oats.

Bake for 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.  Allow muffins to cool on a rack.  Serve warm. 

Makes 12 muffins that can be stored in the refrigerator for up to six days or frozen for up to 3 months.

Serve slightly cooled, but still warm from the oven.

Have Faith Like an Artist

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”–Hebrew 11:1

“Art begins with resistance – at the point where resistance is overcome. No human masterpiece has ever been created without great labor.”–Andre Gide

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After two years of studying the black and white hard facts of science at the university level where she was doing quite well, my daughter, Madelyn, switched gears and decided to study art at a different university.  Nearly one and a half years later, she is thriving with the challenge of the creative process.  At this point in her art journey, she has worked with clay, ceramics, water colors, photography, printmaking, fabrics, charcoal, pen/ink, and several other mediums. I can’t help but feel a sense of wonder, as I watch her transform seemingly nondescript materials into works of art, at the level of her faith throughout each the process.  

It is her example of faith in action that got me thinking about my own faith and the faith of the world around me.  Personally, I catch myself repeatedly clasping and grasping for the way-it-should-be, the if-only-things-were-like-this, and the when-it’s-normal-again, rather than, like my daughter, trusting the process and allowing Divine Providence to work through her.  Instead, I keep resisting change and focusing on the down-side of 2020: negative attitudes possessed by so-called “others,” negative outcomes, negative requirements, negative situations, and on-and-on the list can go.  And, guess what, 2021 is just around the corner, and from the looks of things, the new year will continue with much of the same so-called obstacles of 2020.

This beautiful watercolor painting study of leaves took much effort, adaptation, and was an opportunity to learn a new skill that Maddie may not have otherwise learned.

When Madelyn first started in the art program, I witnessed her very real resistance to the process. Gone were the structures, rules, and methods of the scientific process on which she had relied for years. Instead, she was now being asked to create, out of a wide variety of materials, unique creations that adhere to the rules demanded by each requisite medium, course, and/or instructor(s).  While at the same time,  she is likewise expected to “break the rules” in order to avoid creating pieces that are commonplace, cliched, or conventional .

During these early months of her transition, Madelyn would make statements such as, “I don’t like ______;” “I don’t know how I’m supposed to create _______ with ________;”  “I don’t know why I have to ________;” and so on. The first few times this happened, I began to wonder if the field of art was the correct call on her part.  She seemed so opposed to the various requirements and loosely formed experimentations/expectations.  Nonetheless, by the end of each of those early projects and classes, she exited the other side having mastered a new skill and with tangible evidence as seen in each of the pieces.  

It is because of Madelyn’s example that I now understand that resistance is part of the process of faith. It is through the act of resistance, as counterintuitive as it may seem, that her faith is ignited.  Then, as she wrestles with each new style, material, and/or expectation, the embers of her creativity are fed, allowing the heat of the process to lead her through to the other side.  Thus, by acting in faith, Madelyn is able to push through the growing pains of each project and is ultimately able to create something new.

Like Madelyn’s initial struggles with art, I too have been rather contrary with the changes around me.  I have felt the opposition to things-not being-the way-they-used-to-be.   Like an indulged child, my mind has thrown numerous tantrums and protestations. I have mentally muttered countless grumblings and asked numerous questions as to why and how I am supposed to do ______.  Nevertheless, I am now realizing that it is this very resistance that continues to spark, not only me, but all of humanity into adapting, evolving, and creating a new way of living, being, and interacting with one another.  

Faith, I am learning, isn’t blind acceptance that encourages the wave of our Maker’s hand, and, boom, we get our heart’s desires.  Faith is work; it is a labor of love, devotion, AND effort.  It is having the ability to believe in the unseen/unformed and to see that there is something new and original that can be formed through the very real friction of the struggle. Step-by-step, through set-backs, changes, and adaptation, faith is fortified.  Through perseverance, sweat, and belief, the faith process continues to grow and burgeon.  Embracing belief throughout the struggle, The One greater than us is inspiring change and challenging us with new situations and demands in order to foster growth in the same matter as Maddie’s art teachers force exploration of new materials and tools in order to push her capacity for creativity as well as her skill level.

When Madelyn starts a new art project, she typically starts with an idea.  However, I have noticed that she cannot cling to one way strict vision of the concept.  Sometimes, certain materials aren’t available.  Other times, what she originally envisioned would work, does not work in the way in which it was initially conceived, plans get altered, materials and tools are changed, outcomes or time-lines change, and sometimes even temperature fluctuations alter her outcomes/production.  It seems as if there are hundreds of tiny little changes and adaptations that contribute and influence her endeavors as well as the final product.  However, in the end, through the humility of her strivings, a new product is created, and a new skill set has evolved.

That, to me, is 2020.  The canvas that we had at the beginning of 2020 was blank.  Individual and collective visions for the final outcome of the year varied, but we all relied upon a certain amount of consistently available materials, timelines, and predictable outcomes.  Then like the multitude of art projects I’ve observed Madelyn begin, things began to go off-plan. We have been asked to follow some of the same rules, but not all rules, use this material, but not that material; likewise, we are asked to improvise as needed, and, in-the-end, we are now developing a new way of living, being, and interacting. 

Therefore, like an artist, we must overcome our own resistance.  We must continue to work through the process, adapting and improvising when needed.  The end product may continue to evolve and change, but through our collective endeavors, energies, and faith in the unseen, we must trust that Divine Providence is inspiring us to create a new work of life-art. We are but tools in The Creator’s hands.  Have faith.

A reminder for all of us from Maddie.

Enjoy the Golden Present Moment, but Don’t Attach

“Life is short, and time is swift; Roses fade, and shadows shift.”–Ebenezer Elliott

It’s all just a carnival.”–Sri Swami Satchidananda

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

I can remember as a preteen, our family made its first week-long vacation with all three of my siblings and me to Wrightsville Beach, NC.  We stayed in an old family-owned Inn just a short walk to the shoreline and pier as best I can recall.  The owner, it seemed to me at the time, was an older lady who enjoyed getting to know her guests and gathering them each afternoon/evening for some sort of simple family-centered event, such as sharing freshly cut watermelon or offering an ice cream social hour.

Honestly, I do not remember many details about this trip, but I do recall making friends with another family who stayed in the same inn.  With my parents permission, I accompanied this family to a local roller skating rink.  At the time, I loved to roller skate.  It was an older sibling in the family that drove all of us in a red-orange sports car, with the windows down, and with  rock music blaring–the likes of which I had never before heard.  Once at the roller rink, the same type of music continued, bright lights of colors were flashing, and a disco ball spun and sparkled in the center of the rink.  At the time, I felt so grown up.  I was certain that I was nearly touching adulthood as I skated around blissfully, ignorant of my very real youth.

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In a similar vein, I can remember on another family vacation a few years later.  This time we stayed on Outer Banks of NC, which was completely different from Wrightsville Beach because we were not near typical vacation attractions.  The beach, at the Outer Banks, was the center attraction, which was fine by my family and me. My family stayed in a house that was “fourth row” back from the beach.  While we could see a bit of the beach from the deck of the house, we still had about a 5-10 minute walk to the beach.

On this trip, my siblings and I made friends with another family. Their names were the Kirtleys, (I hope I am spelling their name correctly.) and they had three kids–two boys and one girl, if I am remembering correctly.  Their family had an ocean front vacation home with a line of glass windows that ran from bottom to top with a spiral staircase visible through the panes.  It seemed so spectacular in my teenage mind.

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Once, their family invited our family over for drinks and appetizers.  While my parents did not drink much in the way of alcohol, they still accepted their invitation.  I can recall walking the length of the spiral staircase with one of the Kirtley kids and looking out at the ocean from the top of the stairs that opened up into a large main floor with abundant and unspoiled views of the ocean.  I was certain that it was one of the finest things I had ever climbed and the ocean seemed so close and vivid–like I could hear the water breathing.

These trips were like visiting a carnival or amusement park, highly anticipated events that seemed the most important thing in the world, but like the numerous sand castles I have built over the years, the tide, like time, drew up, and washed the moment away.  How many moments of life are like that?  Graduating from high school, winning some sort of special event or game, attaining a job, planning and taking part in a special ceremony, and even the simple act of going to dinner with a loved one.  The people, the moment, the time, the event . . . so special, so sacred, so anticipated . . . Then, like the snap of your fingers, time’s tide rolls in, and it is over.  Just as the ocean shore in July is smooth and pristine in the dawn of the morning with no evidence of the previous day’s beach goers, so too is the present moment.

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The present moment is so golden, and yet it is so overlooked.  Magical memories are being made, and we don’t realize it.  People come and go in our lives.  Events occur and pass.  One moment, you’re on the Big Dipper roller coaster in Camden Park with a friend surrounded by strangers, and then you, your friend, the other riders, as well as the amusement park’s employees move on. 

For a time period, a child is small and dependent, but soon becomes an adolescent with thoughts of independence.  For a season, you encounter the same person at the grocery store, week in and week out, then that employee is seen no more.  You work with a person for years, but eventually, the workplace changes.  One day you’ve earned your way to the top of the work heap, the next you are no longer there.  Attaching to titles, money, things, and even moments are all temporary.  We leave this earth the way we entered it: naked and with no belongings.

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What remains in between is each present moment while it lasts. The kindnesses of gentle words, the acts of warmhearted acts of compassion, the peacefulness of the calm, the resonance of laughter and joy, and the humble tears streaming quietly down the cheek.  From the cantaloupe-colored sunrise, to the gleaming midday sun dancing through amber autumn leaves; from the purples and indigoes of sunset over the Ohio River to blinking of faraway stars and planets against an inky sky, and all other moments in between, the present moment is humbly, but fleetingly, waiting for us.  It is right there, in our sight, but cannot be grasped or attained–only lived in for that one moment–then, like the footprints in the shore line sand, it is washed away.

What also remains is the earth, the sea, and the heavens above. People come and go in our lives. Words and actions can build or destroy the present moment.  Let us all use our golden present moments to find the common ground, share kindnesses, so that one day we may walk the ultimate spiral staircase to a higher ground.

“Earth sky sea and rain  . . . 

Words that build or destroy . . .

I’d like to be around

In a spiral staircase

To the higher ground . . .” –excerpt from “Promenade” as performed by U2, written by Clayton, Evans, Mullen, & Hewson

Job: Pain is temporary, suffering is optional

“Therefore I will not keep silent; I will speak out in the anguish of my spirit, I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.”–Job 7:11

“Do your daily work, deal with everyone, move with everybody.  Be in the ocean, but learn to surf well.”–Sri Swami Satchidananda

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I had not read, or really, even thought much about the story of Job from the Bible in quite a while. Therefore, when I encountered it recently in a reading, I was reminded of my childhood days of flannel board Sunday School stories.  The large board covered with blue flannel cloth standing on a wooden tri-fold easel was used to temporarily, and seemingly, magically, attach characters, and other figures, from the Bible to help students visualize the lesson of the day.

My Aunt Janet was one of a handful of Sunday School teachers I had during my first 12 years of life, and I can still semi-remember our upstairs classroom in which she shared Bible stories with other children and me.  For some reason, as I reread parts of the story of Job, it was her flannel board lesson that filtered into my mind like the autumn fog slipping into the dark hours of morning only to fade with the light of sun.  That Sunday School memory slithered and slipped around the edges of my recollections, but no matter how hard I tried to fully summon it up, all that I could grasp was the memory of the flannel image of Job, covered with sores, on his knees, looking skyward in great anguish.  Still, that was more than I had had before reading this story.

Image is from my grandmother’s family Bible. She had a bookmark at this book and the book of Isaiah.

It was because of this memory that I began to read more from the book of Job.  Now, I do not want to lead anyone astray into thinking that I read the entire book of Job, I did not.  Nor do I want to imply that I am by any means a Bible expert, I am not. Nonetheless, as I started reading these passages, I began to see themes and parallels to present day life were held within this old book.  In fact, I found quite a few points of interest.  

Additionally, on the very same day, I encountered another story that I had previously read, but I had forgotten.  I was bowled over by the way in which it connected to the story of Job.  In this story, the writer suggests that while it is one thing to find peace by developing and fostering the habit of daily prayer and meditation, it is a completely different skill to maintain one’s inner peace when injured/sick, overwhelmed, or when feeling insulted by the actions or words of another. 

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Reflecting on the two stories, I realized both stories are of particular relevance in our current climate.  In fact, with each story, I was confronted by powerful truths.  One of the themes of Job, is that regardless of his suffering, he remained faithful to God. At the height of Job’s suffering and loss, he basically stated that if he was to accept the good things in life that God had given him, should he not accept the troubles from God as well?   Whereas, in the other story, the author essentially teaches the importance of living in the world, allowing for both the ups and downs of life, while maintaining a sense of equanimity.  Neither are easy truths. 

2020 though has certainly challenged me to learn to adjust, adapt, and accommodate all of the drastic waves of change it has brought.  From learning to stay at home for long periods of time, to teaching remotely from home; from adapting to a new normal of living and working at home, to returning to my work place in order to simultaneously teach students virtually and in-person; from thinking the discord and dissension would be temporary, to bearing witness to ever-increasing and supposedly acceptable levels of vitriol that seems to have to end in site; from viewing COVID as an illness that doesn’t affect me, to observing its lingering effects on my own mother; and from seeing others suffer with illnesses unrelated to the current pandemic, to observing and experiencing ever increasing levels of anxiety within myself and so many of my co-workers, family and friends; it all leaves me to ask, how much more injury and insult must we all accommodate, adjust, and adapt to?  

Image is from my grandmother’s family Bible.

As I read through the early chapters of Job, I did something I normally never do, I skipped over a large portion of the story, and went straight to the last chapter to see how the narrative concluded. Job’s story ended with the universal theme that good will ultimately triumph over evil, but it did not occur without some ranting and complaining by Job, it appears.  In fact, in the last chapter one can read Job admitting he was wrong and offering a humble apology to God. That is when it hit me.  The even bigger lesson of Job is that in life there will be pain, there will be suffering, there will be discord and illness, but it is our individual response that determines our level of personal suffering.  

 Job could not control events of his life any more than I can, or you can, for that matter.  Like Job, I am quick to grumble and protest things that I cannot understand.  It is easy to complain and demand answers.  It is far more challenging to choose to remain calm and ride the waves of uncertainty when life’s waters get choppy.  

I cannot pretend that I have lived a faultness life like Job any more than I can pretend to have his level of faith.  All I can humbly do is apply the lesson of his story by becoming more aware of my own petty, reactive complaints, learn to better surf the waves by adapting and accommodating to all of the changes, rather than resisting, and take heart from the words of Job towards the end of the story, “ . . . Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.”  Job 42: 3  Lastly, I must put my faith that these current life-pains that we are all experiencing, like the waves of any storm, are only temporary.  Calmer waters are coming soon.

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Image is from my grandmother’s family Bible.

Let’s Walk in Another’s Shoes

“Walk a little in my shoes; see what I see, hear what I hear, feel what I feel, then maybe you will understand why I am the way I am.”–Jerose

“If God sends us on strong paths, we are provided strong shoes.”–Corrie ten Boom

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Two emails found at the end of a full Saturday.  A day in which I tried to balance the needs of others and the mundane chores of life we all face.  The fading sunlight kissed the western sky with a melon-colored glow that felt warm on my neck as I completed the last little task for a dear one.  By the time I made it home, the dust remained in writable levels on all of my furniture, but I had managed to somehow be of small service to loved ones. After a quick shower, I started dinner.  It was already full-on dark, but I felt a good-kind of tiredness swathe me like a robe.  

In the kitchen, I scurried about like a mouse being chased by a cat throwing together a gluten-free pizza for myself, and salads for John, my husband, and me.  Our daughter was with friends for the evening, and John had already purchased a pizza for himself as he doesn’t require a gluten-free option.  Pouring myself a glass of golden wine, I sipped slowly as I relaxed in the rhythm and routine of the kitchen, my life-long source of comfort and creativity.   John would be back home soon, so could we eat, share conversation, and watch a bit of college football.  

An hour or so after dinner, John walked over to a neighbor’s house to visit with a couple of buddies.  I remained home, relaxing in the quiet.  What made me decide to do it, I don’t know, but I picked up my phone and began scrolling through emails.  I immediately began deleting all the junk and buy-me emails that so many companies send once they get your email address, and was about to close the app . . .

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Wait, what? Who is this person?  Is this spam?  Hmmm . . .  Should I even click it open?  It seems real enough though.  Huh?  Oh my goodness!  Wow!

My heart began to race and pound as if I were running from a knife-wielding maniac in one of those B-level slasher movies. Instead, however, I was mentally attempting to run away from the words of an email sent by a person with a name that I did not recognize, but this person sure did seem to think he or she knew me.  While there was nothing life-threatening in the email, the unknown sender certainly meant for his or her words to cut, and I was definitely feeling the intended slashes.

Instead of closing the email app, I clicked over to my work email.  WHY????  Scrolling through, I began to make mental notes of things to complete tomorrow afternoon and delete spam.  That was when I ran across yet another negative note from a different person.  Why did I open my email?  Why didn’t I just leave the phone alone and focus solely on the book I had planned on reading or continue watching the football game?  Why did I pick up that blasted phone?

Immediately, I was reminded of a documentary that both a friend and my dad had recommended entitled, The Social Dilemma.  John and I had watched most of it.  While some of the acting and storyline felt a tad over-dramaticized, the gist of the documentary was not lost on us.  The internet, computers, and smartphones were all created, originally, to be used as tools–streamlining information, improving efficiency, easing communication, and so forth.  However, as competition and the market grew, the tech companies began to figure out ways to create consumer-driven platforms designed to be addictive, track behavior, and target ads/influence.   By picking up my phone without thinking and mindlessly scrolling through email, I had fallen prey to the attraction of the screen as this documentary pointed out. 

Ugh, I had allowed my phone to control me. There was positively no need to pick up the phone in order to relax.  Now, I was far from a relaxed mental state!  So, what did I do?  What any normal person would do, of course, reread both emails again!  After a second reading, the words of the emails still struck the same negative chord, and I thankfully decided it was time to put away the phone and focus my attention elsewhere.  

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In the wake of those two emails, I fell asleep that night pondering why people make assumptions, especially negative assumptions, about others?  Which then begged the question, why do I?  After all, I can’t be self-righteous and not include my own behavior.  As with so many big picture questions, I had to offer it up to Divine Providence and keep my heart and mind open to answer.  It came later in the form of a novel for youth. 

As I was reading a book my 6th grade students are currently reading, an elderly male character offers a long stick to a character who is a boy with severe anger issues.  The elder asks the boy to break off the left side of the stick, and the boy does this.  The man responds that the left side is still there, and he asks the boy to break it off.  

This is again repeated until the exasperated youth finally says, “This is stupid.  There will always be a left side.”  

The older man retorts, “There will always be a left and right side to life.”  The gentleman went on to explain that the young man will always have his anger and something for which to be angry, but likewise there will always be something for which to be happy or thankful.  The choice was his, focus on the left side or the right of the stick–the choice was his every day and every moment.

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Clearly, the writers of those letters were angry.  Both had made assumptions and implications about my life or my behavior that were viewed through their own personal lens without spending a day, much less a week, walking in my shoes.  Additionally, I had initially done the same thing–passing judgement on the senders of those emails.  

However, in the light of a new day, I chose to focus on the right side of the stick.  The first email, I decided not to answer because there was no sense in trying to defend my life and choices in a singular email to a person who doesn’t know me, much less live my life.  If the person needs to have someone with which to focus his or her anger, I can be that left side of the stick for this unknown reader.   I did, however, take time to respond thoughtfully and truthfully to the second, work-related email as I thought it was merely a misunderstanding. 

Bottom line, I don’t live in the shoes of the senders of the email.  I don’t know what life experiences have framed their thinking, much less what had happened within their life on the day they sent their emails.  Perhaps they were simply having a bad day and only able to see the left side of the stick when they chose to write to me.  I get it.  I’ve been there, and if I am to be fully honest, I have focused on the left side of the stick quite often in my own life.  

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Just as screens have practically hardwired us to seek out their company with great frequency, humans also seem to be hardwired from an early age to seek out and focus on the negative.  It takes work, effort, and energy to focus on the positive, to feel gratitude, and to feel happy just as it takes focused choices to put down, or step away, from screens.

 I can’t always choose the path my shoes walk, as life is often full of curvy roads and unexpected hills and valleys, but I can choose to take care of my shoes, aka, my life, and regularly remind myself that there are, indeed, two sides to a stick.  Thus, when I find myself focusing on the fact I can’t break off one side of the stick, I can choose to redirect my thoughts to focus on the other side, trusting that, when others try to cloud my way, I’ll put my faith in the fact that the shoes God gave me will lead me to the light.

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(Almost) One-bowl Gluten pumpkin muffins with optional add-ins

“Oh my gourdness, it autumn!”–as seen on Country Living 

“Let’s give them pumpkin to talk about!” as seen on Elite Daily

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On October sixth, I wrote about when life hands you bad tasting, bitter ingredients turn them into a sweet slice of cake.  In response to that piece, a reader named Bonnie, sent me an email asking for the made-from-scratch pumpkin cake recipe to which I referred in the article.  When I read her email, I was touched by the fact, someone beside my parents and husband read my column!  Furthermore, I felt fortunate that she would take time out of her busy schedule to send me an email.  Then, I was gourd-smacked.  I didn’t have a recipe to share with her. Oh my gourdness! 

I didn’t have the guts (gourd it?) to tell her that when I wrote the original piece, I based my so-called recipe on my knowledge of ingredients of recipes for other cakes, muffins, as well as pumpkin pie.  The closest I ever came to baking a pumpkin cake was actually pumpkin muffins for Maddie, my daughter.  It soon became one of her favorite fall recipes which was made from a spice cake mix and blueberries.  Still, I couldn’t go(urd) breaking Bonnie’s heart.  She asked for a recipe.  I had to harvest something.

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In the meantime, Maddie, who now lives at home, attends Marshall University as an art major, and works at La Famiglia at the MU student center, was showing me photos of the latest chalk art she had completed promoting the restaurant’s pumpkin cannoli’s.  In fact, her store manager had recently made one for Maddie to taste, and Maddie described in great detail how gourd the pumpkin cannoli tasted.  Maddie further added that she told her manager that the manager should try my pumpkin blueberry muffins. 

Maddie’s chalkboard art for La Famiglia at Marshall University Student Center

Hmm. . . I needed to patch some Zs on this thought.  After a good night’s rest, a new idea vined through my mind.  Why not create my own made-from-patch recipe for pumpkin blueberry muffins that could also double as a 9 x 13 cake if one desired?  I patched together some gourd research and soon enough, a new recipe was born, or should I say, carved.

Of course, I had to bake up a trail patch to taste.  Since I have celiac disease and should not eat wheat, I went with a gluten-free variation.  However, it should be noted that any all-purpose flour will work here just as well.  Additionally, I am not big on using a lot of oil in my food, mostly because it tends to create reflux which I prefer to avoid.   That said, you can always replace the applesauce with oil or melted butter if you prefer baking with a bit of fat.  Plus, with a variety of potential stir-ins, this recipe serves as a Jack-of- all-lanterns as there are many ways in which you could carve it up. 

This is the Jack-of-all-lanterns cake/muffin recipe. Pick your additions and stir up some gourdness!

Whether you are craving something a little sweet, or someone has asked you, “What’s cooking gourd-looking?”  Your answer can come straight from the vine!  Scoop out a bit of time to bake, and let the gourd times roll! Wishing you all of the pumpkin gourdness of fall!  

From my pumpkin patch to yours, I wish you happy, homemade, and hauntingly gourd pumpkin treats!  

P.S. Thank you, Bonnie, for your gourd inspiration.  Your email was the pumpkin of my pie, and it added spice to my life!

(Almost) One bowl Gluten-Free Pumpkin Muffins (or cake) with optional add-ins

Ingredients:

1egg or “flegg” (1 tablespoons ground flaxseed + 2 ½ tablespoons of water stir together and allow to sit for 15 minutes)

2 cups all purpose flour or oat flour  (I used oat flour to keep it gluten-free, but you could also use any gluten-free all-purpose flour)

1 cup brown sugar (Can substitute with other sugar or sugar replacement.)

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice

1 tablespoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

1 can (15 ounce) pure pumpkin 

½ cup unsweetened applesauce (Can also use oil or melted butter if preferred.)

½  cup milk (I like to use plant based, but any milk is fine.)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract or powder (I love vanilla powder for a more rich, vanilla taste.)

Optional stir ins: blueberries, cranberries, raisins, craisins, walnuts, even chocolate or white-chocolate chips

White sparkling sugar or cinnamon-sugar

Directions:

If  making a “flegg,” mix first and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Prepare 12 muffin tins by lining with paper, oil, or nonstick cooking spray.

In a large bowl, mix together dry ingredients until flour and spices are well blended.

Stir in egg (or flegg), pumpkin, applesauce, milk and vanilla until just combined without over-mixing.

If using an add-in, gently fold into batter.

Divide batter evenly among prepared muffin cups.

Sprinkle muffin tops with white sparkling sugar or cinnamon sugar.

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

Allow muffins to cool on wire racks before serving

Can also pour batter into a prepared  9 x 13 pan and bake for 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  If choosing this variation, allow the cake to cool, and then frost if desired.

Store leftovers in the refrigerator or can freeze for up to a month.

Foggy Morning Leads to Sunshine Breakthrough

The fog comes on little cat feet.  It sits looking over the harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on.” –Carl Sandburg

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Not only is it dark when I leave for work now, it is often foggy.  This common autumnal weather occurrence, slows my drive along the twisty, valley roads in the hills of southeastern Ohio.  In the chiffon covering of predawn, my surroundings are hidden, my future path is concealed, and all that I can see is the road directly before me, illuminated through the low-beam lights of my vehicle.  Runners sometimes appear as if they are ghosts.  Other times, deer dart, scampering across the road with the grace of a ballerina.  There are other nocturnal creatures, stray dogs, cats, opossums, raccoons, and even skunks, that amble alongside or across the roads over which I traverse.  Sometimes, there are inanimate objects, unknowingly or knowingly, fallen or dropped from an unseen vehicle.  All of these obstacles offer potential threats and hazards since they only come into view when the headlights illuminate their presence.

As the current situation unfolds, I feel as if I am often moving through my days in a fog. Life seems to be demanding as work days are now longer, and there are unseen perils abounding around every life curve and news headline.  Often, especially at the beginning of each day, all I can see is the day’s workload before me.  As the day progresses, my view becomes more widespread, and I feel tossed, pell-mell, in a sea of waves engulfed by a completely revised way of living and engaging at work and in the public realm.

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Recently, my mother contracted the COVID virus, moving this shrouded illness directly into my own personal vision.  Mom’s COVID emerged after attending a family funeral event.  At first, she thought it was seasonal allergies that developed into a cold, but one thing led to another, and soon enough, testing confirmed what we suspected–COVID.  She became yet another statistic for the local county to track, but this number had a name, Mom.

Although she was in relative good health upon contracting the virus, she kept feeling worse.  While I will not belabor her unique symptoms, it soon became apparent that she was not recovering as she should.  Furthermore, there was no Walter Reed Hospital to rescue her health.  Her own children could not go around her to help.  She was left to rely on our phone calls and a very unreliable social media to help her.

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Despite daily phone calls from her children/grandchildren, offering this bit of advice and that, she did not improve.  Eventually, a decision was reached that she must, once more, call her doctor’s office because, of course, she could not go in-person.  It wasn’t until her 8th day with COVID, I believe, that her doctor recommended she go to a local 24/7 medical campus with its own emergency staff and decontamination room.  Unfortunately, there was no advice as to how she was to get there, and no waiting helicopter, paid by tax dollars, waiting to whisk her away.

Instead, my sister and I, the two of her four children who live here locally, were left to figure out how to safely transport her to the medical facility.  Of course, we could have called an ambulance, but that would further punish my mother with an exorbitant medical bill that she could not afford to pay.  Under normal circumstances, one of us would drive her there, but these are not normal times.  Driving her there meant exposing ourselves and our own families and requiring all of us to quarantine afterwards. 

Quarantining is like the curvy lines of dominoes I used to create as a child on my grandparent’s glass dining room table.  One quarantine means another domino falls and another and another.  Since my sister and I are educators, quarantining would mean putting more work on our co-workers and exposing our spouses–meaning more work sites comprised/short-staffed.  For my work site, I would be doing double damage to the staff because my husband teaches at the same school as me.  Plus, it would also mean that our daughter, an art major at the local university who is taking three studio classes that require in-person participation, would not be able to create her requisite studio projects. Meanwhile, my poor mom still needed medical care. Clink, clink, clink, I could hear the dominoes tipping as we tried to problem-solve.

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In the end, a compromise decision was made.  Mom drove herself to the medical campus, and I followed behind in my own car.  She was dizzy, lightheaded, and weak.  To say we were filled with worry was an understatement, and my sister and I talked on the phone nearly the entire drive.  Once there, I followed behind her illness-imposed shuffling gait. As she made her way inside, I stood outside the double glass sliding doors feeling both helpless and angry–helpless in the face of an illness gone wild and angry that I felt forced to make such a decision between my own mother’s health and work.  What kind of choice is that?  What kind, indeed?

Ultimately, not only did my mom have COVID, but she was also suffering from a UTI and pneumonia in one of her lungs.  While her care was more than adequate, it was still routine–steroid injection and prescriptions for more steroids for the following days, anti-nausea pills to stave off constant queasiness, and an antibiotic for the pneumonia.  There were no therapeutics, no experimental meds, and 24/7 care around the clock care.  Instead, she was sent home that same evening. Once more I humbly followed her vehicle home knowing she was weakened even more from the exertion, and I watched with tears in my eyes as she slowly made her way into her empty house.  There were no medical follow up visits, no medical personnel to check on her throughout the night, and no one there with her when she awoke in the morning, groggy and exhausted the previous night’s efforts.

One of the things that has recently struck me, and believe me, so many current events are cutting me to the bone, is the fact not only am I feeling overwhelmed by COVID, work, and life as we now know it, but I feel undervalued.  It is expected that, like a good soldier, all of us, including me, should simply fall in line, willingly do more at my work site, work longer and longer hours–including weekends–with no extra pay, and just accept that I cannot help my mom, or any other family member for that matter, when needed. Who or what is to blame for this feels covered by a fog of political bluster and self-righteousness alongside the winds of disheartening news and current events.  Meanwhile, many of us remain transfixed by the persistent distractions that media platforms of all types offer turning a blind eye to the events of the real world affecting real people.  If it’s not affecting you, why worry, lulls social media and entertainment platforms.   

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There is a type of fog called “pea-souper.”  It is a type of thick fog of various shades of black, brown, green, and yellow reducing visibility even greater than organically occurring fog.  Pea-souper fog is caused by air pollution.  This highly toxic fog contains soot particles and the poisonous gas, sulphur dioxide.  The only way to remediate this type of persistent fog, historically speaking, has been through clean air acts.   Therefore, I am left to wonder what will clean our own current poison-filled air of living?

Sadly, I do not have answers.  Perhaps, all of this chaos is working towards a greater good that I cannot see, but will one day be revealed.  I am unsure.  Instead, I must rely on my faith to light my path forward. 

May we, as a collective, offer up prayers for compassion, prayers for healing, and prayers for a clearer vision.  Finally, Dear Reader, it’s high time we clean up the air by not only praying, but also by researching the issues on less-biased news outlets/platforms and then voting your conscious, by engaging in meaningful dialogue, and by having the courage to speak out.  We must put our faith and our convictions into action.  

The fog is lifting. I refuse to be another domino falling into line.  What about you?

Faith is like radar that sees through the fog — the reality of things at a distance that the human eye cannot see.” –Corrie Ten Boom

Cake: The bittersweet recipe for life

Take the broken pieces of your life, bake a master cake out of it.–Israelmore Ayivore

Life is a cake and love is the icing on top of it.  Without love, it becomes difficult to swallow life.–Mehek Bassi

Have you ever tasted flour or baking powder?  What about vanilla extract, unsweetened canned pumpkin, cinnamon, salt or even a raw egg, how would each item taste on its own?  Personally, I even find sugar, by itself, isn’t really that tasty, but certainly more preferred than the previously mentioned ingredients.  However, if all of these ingredients are baked together with some oil or applesauce, and perhaps some milk, you have the makings of a pumpkin spice cake, a perineal fall favorite.

My sixth grade students are required to read a novel in which a caring adult challenges the rebellious, teenage main character to try the individual ingredients of a spice cake.  Accepting the dare, the main character boldly tries each item, determined to hide how badly most, if not all, of the ingredients taste separately. 

When asked how it all tasted, the character snarked, “Gross . . . .What did you expect?”

Of course, the caring adult is providing an object lesson for the malcontent teen, and while I’ve read this book countless times, this scene really struck a chord with me this past week. 

There can be no doubt that 2020 has been full of harsh ingredients. From the bitter taste of a pandemic worthy virus causing the senseless deaths of hundreds of thousands of people to acidic rhetoric and social media posts.  From the salty feeling left from closures, unemployment, and economic fall-out to the bittersweet taste of quarantining at home, increasing feelings of isolation, anxiety, depression, and fanning the flames of fear.  Jobs have been lost, and those that remain have been drastically impacted, and many are forever changed.  People are hurting, struggling, striving, and worst of all, dying.  At times, it feels as if it is just too much, especially if we dwell upon all those negatives.

Likewise, I am certain there are many readers in which even before the life-altering events of 2020 for whom life hasn’t always seemed fair.  There are those whose experience as a child was far from ideal.  Others may have experienced the way-to-soon death of a parent or care-giver.  Some have experienced wars abroad in which morib, horrific, and violent scenes were a frequent occurrence.  While others have battled severe illness such as cancer, brain or nervous system disorders, disformed/disfigured bodies, heart/blood issues, lung/breathing issues, and, well, the list could go on . . . . There are those who have been a victim of trauma, severe accident, or other life changing occurrence.  The list of negative life events can go on, seemingly to infinity.   Additionally, others may experience the negative feelings associated with the lack of progress, the feeling of stagnation, entrapment, or and so on.  Frankly, there are numerous events that can leave us with a bitter taste in our mouths, and unfortunately it’s just so darn easy to focus and dwell upon all of the bad in the world and/or within our own lives.

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This is where the lesson of the cake began to reveal a few frosted edges of hope.  While I am not denying the bitterness, dryness, and acrid taste of this year, nor am I denying the very realness of life-altering, horrible events. I, too, have visited and dwelled in the valley of woe–and, I find, wallowing around in my own misery isn’t really that beneficial.  Therefore, I am challenging myself, and you too, Dear Reader, to reflect if it is possible to take these negative individual ingredients and create a bite of sweet hope.  

I sincerely believe in the old adage that hope springs eternal.  Additionally, I put my trust in my faith and love.  That is why I started out as a special education teacher, and even now why I continue to teach as well as write. I still believe in a world in which faith, hope, and love can make a difference.  This belief, to which I have clung for the entirety of my life, has waned and worn at times.  And yet, I am reminded of an old hymn my Grandmother used to hum, and sometimes sing in her off-key voice, around her house that was based on one of her favorite Bible passages.

. . . “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength

 They shall mount up with wings as eagles

They shall run and not be weary

They shall walk and not faint

Teach me Lord, teach me Lord, to wait. . .”–Bill and Gloria Gaither

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When I bake a cake, especially one from scratch, it takes time.  First of all, I have to gather all of the ingredients–including stopping at the store if need be.  Then, I have to preheat the oven and prepare the pan.  Next, the dry ingredients are blended together, while in another bowl, the wet ingredients are likewise mixed.  Wet ingredients are folded into the dry ingredients, and any additional fruits, nuts, or candy chips are added before all the ingredients, now one massive lump of gooey-looking gunk, gets dumped in a heap in the cake pan, spread into a thinner viscous substance, and placed into a scalding hot oven for a set time period that is never quick.  Time passes slowly as the kitchen is gradually filled with the scents–hope of what is to come.  Even once removed, one still has to wait for the cake to cool before it can be frosted.  This, of course, takes more time.

Meanwhile, whipping up frosting does not happen with the snap of fingers. It takes the sweetness of confectioners sugar combined with the acrid taste of vanilla, the brineyness of salt, and the over-rich taste of melted butter in order to create a creamy, but oh-so-sugary, frosting.

Eventually, all of the waiting, the working, the wondering, the wishing, and the hoping all come together as a fork delves from cake to mouth, and soon the taste buds are dancing, the brain is singing a song of praise, and all tastes dreamy sweet in that one moment in time.  Sure, the cake doesn’t last forever, and neither do good times.  Thus, if we want more cake, we have to endure the bitter with acid, the bland with spice, the heating with the cooling period and all the in-between moments.  And, yet, it is the cake that is remembered, not the bitter taste of all the individual ingredients.  

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2020 has certainly been rancorous at times.  What’s more is that life, on the whole, can be as challenging, and run as hot as a 350 degree oven.  Waiting can be hard.  Therefore, as I put my faith in the baking process, so too, must I put my faith in Divine Providence, and humbly ask, as my grandmother used to sing, “Teach me, Lord, teach me, Lord, to wait.”  Cake is coming soon. 

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Under Pressure

“Pressure pushing down on me

Pressing down on you, no man ask for . . .

Splits a family in two

Puts people on streets . . .” from the lyrics of “Under Pressure” as written by members of Queen and David Bowie

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 It was still dark as I drove alongside the glinting waters of the Ohio River, but I could see the sky lighting towards day.  I tried to listen to the news when I first left home, but on this particular day the stories were making me feel way too anxious.  Thus, I switched to a favorite satellite radio music channel as I made my way onto the 6th Street Bridge heading into Huntington, WV.  As I took the exit ramp and began motoring towards the school in which I am currently an educator, I heard the unmistakable beat drop for one of my favorite teen anthem songs, “Under Pressure,” written and performed by Queen and David Bowie.

As is my habit when I hear an old favorite, my hand automatically went to my heart.  It was late fall of 1981 when this song was wildly popular.  As a teen, I was attracted to socially compelling song lyrics, and the words of “Under Pressure” certainly were thought-provoking.  While I cannot pretend to recall my exact mental state in 1981, I do remember feeling the song’s lyrics resonating with me on a visceral level . . . and, boy do they ever resonate now.

“ . . .It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about

Watching some good friends screaming

‘Let me out!’

 . . .these are the days it never rains but it pours . . .”

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In the 80s, from my know-it-all teen perspective, I thought the world was incredibly messed up!  From the rallying cries and images of “Tear down the wall” to songs calling for us to “Feed the World,” and from the music and message of “Farm Aid” to the drama and news headlines surrounding the AIDS/HIV crisis alongside all of the other world/political problems that created newspaper headlines, it seemed in my young mind that the older generations were creating a world of chaos that the younger people would have to fix.  How ironic now!  

“ . . . Ee do ba be

Ee da ba ba ba

Um bo bo

Be lap . . .”

Shaking my head out of my 80s remembrances, I observed what once must have been a beautiful young lady, now bedraggled and disheveled in appearance, stumbling along the sidewalk next to the traffic light at which I was stopped.  Across the street, an older man, wet down the front of his pants as if he had unknowingly (or knowingly?) urinated on himself, began screaming curses at the woman.  She shouted incoherent phrases back to him as she attempted to stumble, bumble, fumble ahead at a faster pace, and I drove on, but the image still haunts my very human heart . . .

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“ . . . People on streets

Ee da de da de

People on streets

Ee da de da de da de da . . .”

Images from my life flashed before me as I continued to drive.  Images from childhood, teen years, college years, early adult years, parenting images, teaching images, images from past world events through where I have lived, and images from on-going current events.  Words seemed to fly through the mental space of my brain. COVID. PANDEMIC. CHAOS. QUARANTINE. DIVIDE. HATE. DIVISION. HURT. DIVISIVENESS. PAIN. DISORDER. DEATH TOLL. VIRTUAL. MISTRUST. . .

 “ . . .Turned away from it all like a blind man

Sat on a fence but it don’t work

Keep coming up with love but it’s so slashed and torn

Why, why, why?

Love, love, love, love, love

Insanity laughs under pressure we’re breaking . . .”

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Am I the only one with a heart that is breaking?  It seems as if we often become wrapped up in minutiae of policies, partisanship, and even personal egos that we lose focus of our commonalities and the lives, the real lives of people.  Why is it now okay to speak, post, tweet, and write rudely?  Why does the concept of compromise seem unacceptable and/or unattainable.  Why is mountains of completed paperwork for health care workers, educators, law-enforcement, and all other humanity-based career fields more important than actual time focused on real people-to-people interaction?  Why is society as a whole burning bridges of connection? 

“ . . . Can’t we give ourselves one more chance?

Why can’t we give love that one more chance?

Why can’t we give love, give love, give love, give love

Give love, give love, give love, give love, give love?

As a young girl in the 80s, I was a hopeless romantic who believed that words like love, empathy, compassion, and understanding were the answer to all world problems.  My grandfather used to teach the importance of  “walking a mile in another man’s shoes.”  In fact, it was a consistent message I heard throughout my childhood from the adults in my life.   While my grandfather was far from perfect, he certainly tried to apply this expression to his own life.  He, along with my grandmother, would take food to those in need, offer rides to the elderly who could no longer drive, and were overall kind and pleasant with all those they encountered–even if they didn’t agree with their personal views.  Am I naive to think this aphorism should still be practiced today?

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“ . . . Cause love’s such an old fashioned word

And love dares you to care for

The people on the edge of the night

And love (people on streets) dares you to change our way of

Caring about ourselves . . .”

Currently, I feel “under pressure” in a number of ways, and I suspect, I am not the only one.  First, and foremost, I feel the pressure to remain healthy and behave safely for the sake of all others with whom I have contact, but even more so for my loved ones. I am not sure I could live with myself if I caused another person to become sick.  

Additionally, I feel professional pressure. Like most other careers, education has had to dramatically change and respond in the wake of a pandemic. Teaching simultaneously in-person students and virtual students, as I try to meet the needs of both groups, challenges me in ways for which I never dreamed nor was prepared.  Then, there is the additional pressure of keeping the in-person students safe, their environment sanitized, and still allow them to be kids.  It is a delicate balance of walking along a tightrope with strong crosswinds of politics, policies, and personal egos abounding.  

Finally, I feel pressure as a responsible citizen.  How do I separate the wheat from the chaff?  How do I parse out the truth from the half-truths and outright lies?  And, what, if anything, can I do about the people suffering in the streets, in the hospitals and other health care facilities, at their work-sites, or currently in their own home?  Anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses seem at an all-time high with negative coping mechanisms providing easy and quick relief, but not solving problems long term. Meanwhile compassion, concern, and care seem harder to find.  

“ . . . This is our last dance

This is our last dance

This is ourselves under pressure

Under pressure

Pressure”

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My grandmother used to tell me that things had to get worse, before they could get better.  Meanwhile, my grandfather used to say that diamonds form under pressure. I have a Ninja pressure cooker in my kitchen. As the pressure builds, the food inside is cooked and transformed into a tasty treat.  In order not to overcook the food,  I must release the pressure valve, allowing the steam to rise as the temperature and pressure inside reduces.  I pray for the pressure valve to release soon.  I pray this isn’t “our last dance.”  I pray that love will dare us to care, once more, for others, and that we will soon dare to “change our ways” . . . .

Chocolate Cake Mix Cookie Birthday Bars

“When there is cake, there is hope.  And there is always cake.”–Dean Koontz

“My idea of baking is buying a ready made cake mix and throwing in an egg.”–Cilla Black

By the time you read this, Dear Reader, I will be celebrating another year of life.  Honestly, the way 2020 is going, I am almost afraid to celebrate, but I am throwing caution to the wind.  By golly, in spite of everything that is upside down in this world, I am going to celebrate another year of life.  I am going to smile, eat a ridiculously calorie laden meal or two, drink a bit of good wine, and dang it, I am eating cake!  Of course, it has to be gluten-free due to my celiac disease, but I will eat cake–chocolate cake to be precise because chocolate is my favorite!

Sure, 2020 has been a train-wreck of a year in many ways, but fall is in the air.  Even though winter is around the corner, there is something about autumn weather that makes me feel hopeful–hopeful for better days ahead.  Call me crazy, but I gotta believe that life has to take a turn for the better . . .at least that is my birthday wish.

In addition to feeling hopeful, I feel grateful–grateful for my health, my family, my friends and loved ones, my home–flaws and all–and my job.  I wake up every day in a warm bed, and as I step out of it, I am able to turn on hot water for a shower.  Food is stored in both my refrigerator and cabinets–not to mention the fact our water is drinkable.  My job, with all of its challenges, is still providing a paycheck that allows me to celebrate my birthday in the manner in which previously I described.  Therefore, in spite of all the negatives 2020 has to offer, there are still numerous things for which to be grateful this year.

To add to my list of items for which I am grateful, I would have to include an unexpected email that I received from registered dietitian nutritionist, Stephanie Ferrari, with Fresh Communications.  Thanks to Stephanie, and the kind (or should I say, sweet) people at Swerve, I was thrown a “swerve” ball during the summer months when the Swerve team sent a care package of products to my house.  Thanks to their generosity, I have been blessed with the opportunity to play and create with a few of their products including their chocolate cake mix, which is featured in this month’s recipe.  

As previously mentioned, I do have celiac disease, so I cannot eat products containing wheat, rye, or barley.  Furthermore, birthday celebration aside, I do try to eat in a fairly healthy manner that works best for me.  Due to an incredibly sensitive stomach/digestive system, it’s taken me years to figure out how to best eat for my body. However, I also recognize that what works for me may not work for others.  Thus, when I create recipes, I try to create choices in order to adapt to a variety of tastes/needs/preferences.  Personally, I prefer to eat plant-based, forgoing dairy, eggs, and meat products most of the time.  Therefore, you will see that reflected in this recipe, but I also list other options if that’s not your cup of tea, or slice of cake, as the case may be.