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

Photo by Yaroslav Danylchenko on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

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.  

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

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.  

Photo by Alex Powell on Pexels.com

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. 

Photo by Vojtech Okenka on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Elina Krima on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by KEHN HERMANO on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Meru Bi on Pexels.com

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.   

Photo by Erica Busick Batten on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Julia Volk on Pexels.com

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. 

Photo by Nicole Michalou on Pexels.com

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.  

Photo by Anete Lusina on Pexels.com

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

Photo by Oleg Zaicev on Pexels.com

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.”

Photo by Olya Kobruseva on Pexels.com

 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? 

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Cliford Mervil on Pexels.com

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. 

Photo by Lukas on Pexels.com

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

Photo by Thirdman on Pexels.com


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 . . .

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Andrew Beatson on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Anas Hinde on Pexels.com

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.”

Photo by Sunsetoned on Pexels.com

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

Photo by Christina Morillo on Pexels.com

“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 . . .

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“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

Photo by ATC Comm Photo on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Fernando Arcos on Pexels.com

“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.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by August de Richelieu on Pexels.com

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

Photo by Irita Antonevica on Pexels.com

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

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Laura Stanley on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Kevin Menajang on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Martinus on Pexels.com

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

Photo by Guy Kawasaki on Pexels.com

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. 

Photo by Ian Panelo on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Kevin Menajang on Pexels.com
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

Photo by Artem Saranin on Pexels.com

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 . . .

Photo by Torsten Dettlaff on Pexels.com

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.  

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.  

Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Nikolett Emmert on Pexels.com

(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

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

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

Photo by Tomu00e1u0161 Malu00edk on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Edward Jenner on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Jonathan Campos on Pexels.com

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.   

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com

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

Photo by John-Mark Smith on Pexels.com

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.  

Photo by Vojtech Okenka on Pexels.com

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. 

Photo by Ric Rodrigues on Pexels.com

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

Photo by Free Nature Stock on Pexels.com

 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 . . .”

Photo by Aleksandar Pasaric on Pexels.com

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 . . .

Photo by Grevin Kivi on Pexels.com

“ . . . 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 . . .”

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

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?

Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

“ . . . 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”

Photo by Helena Lopes on Pexels.com

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.  

I based this recipe upon one I found on the Swerve website.  This is because since it wasn’t my official birthday, I wanted to keep the recipe fairly “clean,” and save the calorie-laden splurge for the actual big day.  This is where Swerve products check all the boxes for me.  Therefore, the recipe is not only gluten and grain free, but it is also a fairly low carb treat.  In fact, there isn’t one ingredient that leads me to feel guilty or over-indulgent.  The leftovers store well, and it is my experience that they tend to become more moist and chewy after being stored in an airtight container for a day or two.  Therefore, I can have my cake and eat it too–for several days in a row if I want–rather than saving cake for a once per year special eating occasion!

Whether you’re looking for a way to brighten a bad day, wanting to indulge without completely blowing your calories, or simply in the mood for chocolate, give this recipe a try. Within less than an hour, your house will be redolent with the aroma of chocolate cake baking, and your taste buds will be dancing with the delightful taste of warm, gooey chocolate.  Think of it as a small manifestation of making lemonade, or in this case, cake, out of the lemon of a year.

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

Chocolate Cake Mix Cookie Birthday Bars

Ingredients:

1 box chocolate cake mix (I use Swerve brand.  Also, feel free to use Vanilla cake mix if preferred.)

½ cup applesauce or melted butter at room temperature (I use applesauce to keep it plant-based.)

1 large egg, or “flegg”, at room temperature (Recipe for flegg is below.)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract or powder

½ cup oats or your favorite chopped nuts (I use Nature’s Path organic gluten-free oats.)

½ cup chocolate chips or other candy bits, i.e. peanut butter, white chocolate, and so forth (I use Enjoy Life allergy-free brand.)

Optional: White sparkling sugar

Directions:

Set out egg to come to room temperature, or if replacing egg, make your “flegg” before beginning any other steps. (Recipe below)

Likewise, if using melted butter instead of applesauce, melt first and allow it to come to room temperature.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Prepare a square baking pan with nonstick cooking spray, coconut oil, or line with parchment paper.

In large bowl, add cake mix and using fork gently break up any clumps

Stir in applesauce (or butter), egg (or flegg), and vanilla extract until well combined.

Gently fold in oats and chocolate chips until well combined.

Press mixture into pan.

If desired, sprinkle with white sparkling sugar.

Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the edges are golden, and the top is puffy.

Allow to cool before cutting into 16 squares.

Store any uneaten bars in an airtight container.

Leftover bars are especially tasty when warmed slightly in the microwave topped off with a dollop of whipped topping, if desired.

*“Flegg” egg replacement recipe:

1 tablespoons flaxseed (Chia seed works too.) 

3 tablespoons of water. 

Mix well and allow to sit for 20 minutes before mixing batter.

“Fear: False Evidence Appearing Real

“We are often more frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than reality.”–Seneca 

“Of all the liars in the world, sometimes the worst are our own fears.”–Rudyard Kipling

Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com

FEAR:  False Evidence Appearing Real.  But is it really false?  Does the body truly know what is real versus perceived? 

Panic, anxiety, stress, depression, lethargy, mania . . . this is the vocabulary that describes very real reactions to F. E. A. R. 

Fight. Flight. Freeze.  Three words that seem perfectly harmless . . .until linked with the word, fear.

There are other words too:  cancer, stroke, heart disease, COVID, Rheumatoid arthritis, muscular dystrophy, aging, dying, murder, divorce, accident, fire, flood, hurricane . . .  and even the word, change–when viewed in isolation–not attached to oneself or a loved one–are words that can seem likewise benign, or at the very least, distant.

What do all of these words have in common?  They all have the potential to strike fear in both the recipient(s) and/or the supporting loved one(s) often triggering the fight, flight, or freeze response.  

Fear is a four-letter word that is often the king or queen of many minds, including my own, if left unchecked.  It can often be the source of increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, racing thoughts, sleepless nights, shortness of breath, tightness in chest or other parts of the body, excessive worry, loss or increase of appetite, fatigue, headaches, and the list goes on.  None of us are immune.  Sometimes the fear is real and valid, other times, while it is still valid, it is often exacerbated by one’s mind.

Lack. Of. Control.  Fear creates a threat, and when the body/mind feels threatened, our nervous systems (sympathetic and parasympathetic) respond automatically in one of three ways:  fight, flight, or freeze. Fight-flight-or-freeze is not a conscious decision.  It is an automatic reaction for which you have little to no control. 

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Recently, I viewed the documentary, Robin’s Wish.  This short film, a little over an hour long, alternates scenes of honoring/remembering Williams the actor and friend, as well as reflections/responses to his decline.  Ultimately, it wraps up with events from his tragic death, and the discovery that what was initially diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease was actually Lewy body dementia, the third most common type of dementia according to the Alzheimer’s Association, shedding new light and greater understanding for William’s untimely death.  It concludes with a note of hope:  Robin’s wish . . .

“I want to help people be less afraid,”–Robin Williams

As the film revealed, Williams battled various forms of fear his entire life.  Thus, learning that he wanted to help others be less afraid struck a heart note within me.  Williams brought laughter, joy, and mirth to audiences throughout the entirety of his prodigious career.  Through his comedic words and actions, Williams helped many feel less fearful–even if only for a short moment.

Personally, I understand battling fears as I am often filled with many sundry fears.  It is hard for me to recall being without them–although I have been told that I was fearless as a youngster.  Perhaps, it is my overactive imagination, my sensitive nature, or the unique hard-wiring of my brain, but feeling fearful has been a large part of my life.  

Most days, I “fake it ‘til I make it,” moving throughout life as if I don’t possess one single shred of fearfulness; and, it usually works.  I am able to take the fearful part of myself, box it, bound it up tightly, and store it far away in the attic of my inner world in hopes that it won’t escape.  Days, weeks, sometimes, months can go by, and not a tremor of fear is felt.  Then, like unexpected heavy rains in the middle of the night, the drip, drip, drip of fear begins to leak into my life.

It is those very fears that inspired me to write.  Beginning in those angsty middle school years, when I was fearful or did not understand something, I wrote.  Over those young years of my life, pages of journals and notebooks were filled; and then, I stopped.  My writing began to feel meaningless, trite, and purposeless; and therefore, not worth the effort. 

Photo by Dom J on Pexels.com

Decades later, my fears grew heavy once more, threatening to consume me if I didn’t do something.  I attempted to keep boxing them, rewrapping them, and shelving them here and there within the messy recesses of my being, but they kept slipping their binds.  Ironically, I could not give them a voice–I could not articulate them–just felt them in my body:  deep belly aches/flutters, pounding heart, accelerated thoughts, and worries–constant, constant worries.

Then, at the gentle, but dogged, nudging of a friend, I began writing again.  I wrote for no one in particular–just to work out the kinks, find my voice, and learn to once more articulate–at least through the written word. Sure enough, the fears began to loosen–not per se, leave, but at least they were becoming more tame–most days!

Reading Williams’ succinctly summed up quote, I realized that my own drive to not only write, but to share my words with others, is because I, too, want to help people feel less afraid and more focused on the positive.  In fact, I realize that was an underlying factor for likewise becoming an educator–to help children feel less afraid.  I am not sure if I have achieved either of these goals, and I know for certain that I have not, nor will not achieve to the level of Williams’ success.  Still, I can try to make a difference.  Even if I am only able to help one reader, or one student, feel they are not alone–reassure someone that they can “do hard things,” they can persevere, and they can live with fear without it ruling their life–then, I have achieved my goal.  While my writing, or teaching, will not earn an academy award, nor lead to fame or fortune, if it leaves a small mark within a life or two, then that is enough reward.

Photo by Mark Neal on Pexels.com

Recently, I was making my way down the Ritter Park path.  It was riddled with puddles after days of rain.  Unless you like mud-soaked shoes and ankles, you had to work with others to navigate through and around the numerous soggy patches of earth.  That is what life is about, working with others to get through the sloppy times.  Some of us do that on a large-scale, such as Robin Williams, and the rest of us have opportunities and moments in life in which we can help one another navigate through and around rough patches, using whatever gifts God has given us. 

Don’t ever think you are alone in your fears, Dear Reader.  You are not, and you can persist in spite of them. 

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

A Good Morning Goodbye to Summer

“ . . . Goodnight mush

And goodnight to the old lady whispering “hush” 

Goodnight stars

Goodnight air

Good night noises everywhere”–Margaret Wise Brown from the book, Goodnight Moon, illustrated by Clement Hurd

When my daughter, Madelyn, aka “Maddie,” was a toddler, she had several favorite books with which she played, banged, tugged, and, eventually, pretended to read. One of those favorite titles was Margaret Wise Brown’s, Goodnight Moon.  Of course, as with most children, we went through several phases of “favorite books” that were the bedtime default for, “one more story,” before lights were out.  However, Goodnight Moon was an on again, off again favorite for a couple of years.  There is a reason this 1947 classic children’s story has sold millions of copies and has been translated into numerous languages.

I was reflecting upon those sweet, long ago reading-bedtime-stories-memories and comparing those times within the current context as I made my way through Ritter Park on what was my final week day workout of the summer . . .

Maddie in her extra soft jammies, smelling mildly of soap, her hair slightly damp, her skin soft, pink, and warm, as she wriggled a little closer, imploring me to read, “one more story.”  Reaching for Goodnight Moon for what felt like the thousandth time, I would often change the words of the story to reflect our house, her bedroom, and her surroundings, creating a more personal narrative.  Quite often, Maddie would join in with her own improvisation as well.  

Reading to my daughter is one of those memories that brings tears to my eyes because time seems to have transpired so swiftly.  It feels as if only last week that I was reading those stories, and numerous others, with her.  I didn’t realize then, that as quickly as those page-turning moments were occurring, they were likewise being replaced in the same way Maddie’s bedtime books were changing and evolving. The time of childhood kept moving forward like the plot of her stories. For unlike her storybooks that could be paused or stopped by simply closing the book, time did not then, nor does not now, allow me to stop the story of life from progressing.  Goodnight, Maddie, as a toddler.  

Miss Maddie grew, and with every page turn of life came a new image, a new stage, a new way of saying goodnight.  Giggle-filled toddlerhood seamlessly turned into the carefree days of preschool age, and soon enough the plot evolved into the pleasant days of kindergarten.  As life progressed, cheery days of elementary years were followed by those angsty years of middle school. Next came the plot-twists that belong to the high school years.  Presently, a new page has been turned, with more COVID-related turn-of-events occurring that continue to promote both her personal and academic growth as she makes her way through the challenging college years, especially within today’s state-of-affairs.  

Time just keeps cascading, drumming along, pattering out rhythmic beats of memories.  These snapshot moments of life with our daughter are like the bubbles she created in those early bygone years. Maddie would blow the bubbles into life and then chase those bubbles, trying to “catch” them, but bubbles tend to pop when you try to grasp them.  Instead bubbles are best enjoyed while savoring the creation of each one and then enjoying their flight as they glide through air as shiny kaleidoscopes of joyful color.  However, like my toddler daughter of all those years ago, we often give chase to life, trying to hold onto bubble-like moments of the past or bubbles that might be created in the future, often unaware that current bubbles of life-moments are floating within our view with little personal awareness.  

In some ways, though the pandemic has forced many of us to be more aware of the preciousness of life.  When life as we knew it, came to a screeching halt, or at the very least, drastically slowed down, time spent driving hither and thither was reduced to a bare minimum.  Spending most, to nearly all, of your time at home became the new normal.  The hands of life’s clock tick-tocked to the same rhythm, and yet, felt s-l-o-w-e-r.  Working from home in comfy clothes was the new cool.  John, Maddie, and me, like many that were lucky enough to remain employed or in school, worked from our home battling for wifi and dealing with the imperfection technology; and, truth-be-told, imperfect people since neither John nor I are tech savvy.   Somehow, though, we managed to keep turning those pages of work, school, and life, but it was different, and it seemed to revive the age-old theme for the desire of work-life balance and the importance of spending time with family and loved ones.

Now, as we return to new variations and designs of our work worlds, I have to wonder/worry if we are returning to the proverbial rat race.  While there were, and continue to be, many negatives of living with COVID-19, there were (and are) advantages to quarantining at home.  One of my big takeaways from the experience is that growing desire to strike a greater balance between work life, family, and time spent in meaningful, personal pursuits and/or expressions. COVID has revealed there is more to life than career, and there is likewise much value in time spent with people. While being able to financially support oneself is important, COVID has repeatedly reminded me, and many others, that our time on earth is like those bubbles of Maddie’s youth, elusive, colorful, but short-lived.  I want time to create and savor more meaningful bubbles of life moments.

As I continued down memory lane on that Ritter Park run of last week, I was reminded of the certain situations for which I am/was happy to say goodbye and others for which I am/was glad to say hello with regards to COVID, quarantine, and working from home as well as the positives and negatives of returning to work (school), albeit, with a new way of working and thinking about education and work-life in general.  In my head, Maddie’s Goodnight Moon’s simple verse informed thought bubbles of random rhymes and personal prose . . .

On a great big earth

There was a virus

And a numerous people of worth

And a picture of–

Distractions of media birth

And there were numerous world leaders sitting on chairs

And there were markets

And there were targets

And people were moving

And the bug was stewing

And there was more spread that grew in a rush

And there were even some men who were proclaiming, “hush”

Goodnight school

Goodnight need for much fuel

Goodnight countless people of worth

Hello time at home

Hello best-not-to-roam

Hello extra family time

Hello singing wind chime

Hello work from the table

Hello time for evening cable

Hello bedtime at dark

Hello paths of local parks

Hello time spent in nature

Hello medical danger

Hello life with COVID-19

Hello people on a virtual scene

Goodbye summer months that went by fast

Hello school bells ringing at last

Hello to the students I will see

Hello to the in-person teacher I will be

Goodbye warm lunch peacefully eaten alone.

Goodbye work from home

Hello continued work-friend, Google Chrome

Goodbye quarantine that abounds

Hello, the virus is still around

Hello to spaced out chairs

Hello to continued and fervent prayers

Goodbye work day morning run

Goodbye savoring dawn’s sun

And there’s still no goodbye to men proclaiming, “hush”

Goodbye sweatpants

Goodbye, my growing green plants

Goodbye quarantine life . . .

May this school year and fall 

be safe for all 

Goodbye, fellow morning exerciser, Deborah Garrett who walks an hour and forty minutes most mornings at Ritter Park. She says she “just loves it in Ritter Park.” I hope that I see you from time to time on the weekends. In the meantime, keep on stepping into life!

Indulgent Chocolate Chip Brownie Bars aka “Brookies”

“Every moment of light and dark is a miracle.”–Walt Whitman

Remember the rhyme that went something like this . . . 

“Rain, rain go away. 

Come again another day. 

Little Sally (Insert any name.) wants to play.  

Rain, rain go away.” 

Well, I’ve rewritten it.

2020, go away.

Don’t come back another day.

Little Stephie (Insert any name.) wants to play.

2020, please go away.

Photo by Evie Shaffer on Pexels.com

Let’s face it, folks, 2020 has been a challenging year for the entire world on so many levels.  It seems to me that just when I think it can’t get any worse, it can, and it does!  Sometimes I feel like we’re living in the Old Testament days alongside Job.  Okay, okay, that is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. However, it does feel, at times, that there is a dark and menacing cloud hovering over the edges of life that will not dissipate.

Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

“All you need is love.  But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”–Charles M. Schulz

Therefore, trumpet trill please, I present you with a newly created recipe idea . . . Light, triumphing over darkness.  Sweetness overcoming bitterness.  All symbolically baked up into  one luscious, (fairly) guilt-free indulgence. . . or, so I thought it was a new idea.  (Insert daughter popping my bubble here.)

Photo by Miguel u00c1. Padriu00f1u00e1n on Pexels.com

My daughter, Madelyn, introduced me to the name of my so-called creation when I shared with her my, “exciting new recipe idea.”

“Uhm, Mom.  You know that’s not a new thing, right?  Mixing brownie and chocolate chip cookie dough is not new–not even close.  Look it up.  It’s called a “brookie.”

Since when?  I never heard of it.  

“Brookie.  Really?  It’s a thing?  I didn’t first create it?”

“No, Mom, you didn’t.”

Cue the pom-pom shaking teenager from a long-ago video-vine, with which Maddie used to tease me as the unknown teen looked straight into the viewer’s eyes and stated, “You ain’t special.”

“Huh, I guess I am not so clever after all.”

“Sorry, Mom.”

Nonetheless, even if I am not as special or as innovative as I thought,  I will still share my recipe for the so-called “brookies” with you, courtesy of the kind people at Swerve. 

Early into the start of 2020, my brother, Scott, and I were talking via phone when he asked me if I had heard of a new sweetening product called Swerve.  At the time, he described it as the sweetener that he was using to regularly make lemonade in order to remain low-carb.  He added that it did not upset his digestive system as other sweeteners tend to do.  Since I also have an extremely sensitive stomach too, I was definitely interested in giving the product a try.

This was early in the pandemic when there were numerous shortages, especially in the baking aisles of grocery stores.  I was fortunate enough on my next shopping trip to pick up what appeared to be the last package of Swerve in-stock.  Trying it first in my green tea, I found I liked the taste–not possessing that fake chemical after-taste–nor was it overly sweet.  Plus, it did not upset my stomach.

In a later discussion with Scott, he shared with me that he had successfully baked cupcakes using the Swerve confectioner sugar replacement.  Whaaat???  He remained impressed with the product.  Hmm . . .

That’s when I decided to give Swerve a try in my raspberry muffin creation that I shared last month both.  It baked up well, tasted great, and did not seem to affect the texture.  Best of all,  I still did not experience any negative gastrointestinal side effects!  However, when I shopped at my supermarket the following week, they were completely wiped out of all Swerve products. 

Much to my surprise that is when the good people at Swerve reached out to me, asking if I’d like to try out more of their products.  Little did I know how many products this company makes!  Wow!  All of the products they shared were gluten-free and grain-free–which especially works for me.  Additionally, according to their packaging, Swerve products are Keto/low-carb friendly, low-glycemic, diabetes friendly, tummy friendly, natural, zero added sugar, and all natural, “born and raised in New Orleans.”  Plus, I can remain plant-based when I bake with them by merely tweaking a few ingredients as you will see below. 

Additionally, while my first batch of “brookies” was baking, I discovered the Swerve company has an amazing website chock full of support, advice, recipes, and ideas.  Sure enough, as my so-called original recipe continued baking, I learned that they already had a “brookie” recipe on-line.  Maddie was right, I was indeed NOT special.  Cue the sigh and slumping shoulders as the spotlight fades into darkness on my so-called bright idea.  

Even if not as original as I once thought, I will still share my “brookie” variation with you.  I especially recommend this recipe when you feel a little dark and down, or not-so-special.  Simply the smell alone is enough to lift the spirits!  However, it’s the ooey-gooey texture and the combination of two different tastes that is, well, enlightening–reminding the taster that even in the midst of a challenging and dark moment, life can still have its light, sweet moments.

“Life is uncertain.  Eat dessert first.”–Ernestine Ulmer

From my home to yours, I wish you healthy, happy, homemade, and not-so-original sweet treats!

P.S.  A big shout out of thanks and gratitude to Stephanie Ferrari at FRESH Communications and the Swerve team for inspiring this not-so-original recipe!

Indulgent Chocolate Chip Brownie Bars aka “Brookies”

Ingredients:

1 package brownie mix (I used Swerve Sweets Brownie Mix.)

2 large eggs (I used a plant based replacement that I affectionately refer to as a “flegg” but it’s probably not original either!  See recipe below.)

½ cup oil (I used applesauce.)

½ cup water

1 + 2  tablespoons vanilla extract or powder (I used Organic Gold Vanilla powder.)

Optional add-in:  ½ cup chocolate chips (I used Enjoy Life 100% dark chocolate Morsels.)

1 package chocolate chip cookie mix (I used Swerve Sweets Chocolate Chip Cookie Mix.)

3 tablespoons milk, dairy or plant-based

3 tablespoons melted butter (or plant-based equivalent, i.e. applesauce)

Optional add in:  ½ cup favorite nut pieces or oats (I used gluten free oats.)

Directions:

If replacing eggs, make your “flegg” before beginning any other steps. 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Prepare a square baking dish by lining it with parchment paper, or coating it with nonstick cooking spray.  (I used a 9 x 9 pan.)

In a medium bowl, mix together the eggs with oil, 1 tablespoon vanilla, and water.

Add in brownie mix, and if desired, stir in chocolate chips and mix until combined.

Spread brownie batter over the bottom of the baking dish.

In another medium bowl, mix together milk and 2 tablespoons vanilla.

Stir in chocolate chip cookie mix, and if desired, add in nuts or oats.

Add in melted butter and mix until combined.

Gently spread chocolate chip batter over brownie batter. 

Bake for 40-50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out dry and the edges are set. Cover with foil about half-way through baking time (around the 20-25 minute mark) so that the top won’t get too brown.

Allow to cool.

Makes 12-16 servings.

Store in an airtight container.

“Flegg” egg replacement recipe:

2 tablespoons flaxseed (Chia seed works too.) 

6 tablespoons of water. 

Mix well and allow to sit for 20 minutes before mixing batter.

Becoming

“To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.”–Robert Louis Stevenson

Standing on the crest of a small hill, my senses were heightened.  I could feel the weight and seemingly taste the moisture in the air. Scents of earth, rain, and floral encompassed me.  Dewy variations of pink, red, and coral stood out in contrast to the overcast dawn. Meanwhile, the unmistakable melody of creekwater rushing over rock, bed, and banks provided additional ambiance to the unfolding morning. There could be no mistaking it, this was a brief interlude before the showers once more resumed.

Down the hill I trotted, past the pristine rows of roses and on towards my companion for the next hour or so, Four Pole Creek, or “Four,” as I have come to think of it.  

“The more I run, the more I want to run, and the more I live a life conditioned and influenced and fashioned by running.  And the more I run, the more I am certain I am heading for my real goal:  to become the person I am.”–George Sheehan

Hello Friend.  My heavens, but you are swollen today, full as a tick bug, as my Papaw used to say, from the feast of overnight rain.  It’s good to see you looking lively today.  Your rhythmic song will be a welcome distraction from the noise in my mind.  

You see, a stunning new realization has recently taken root in my mind.  It whispers conspiratorially to me that I have reached a point in my life in which the years ahead are more likely to be less than the years I have lived.  What am I to do with this information, I ask you?  It is such a staggering revelation.

What’s more, my aqueous friend, the image reflected in my bathroom mirror no longer matches the image in my head.  There are these white hairs at my left temple and even more sprinkled throughout the parting of my hair.  Likewise, there are lines, especially when I smile, that run from the top of my cheekbone down towards my jaw line!   Tiny versions of those lines romp across the top of my lip, corners of my eyes, and all along my forehead.  How am I to be with this?

It seems I am not the only one changing.  I keep running across pictures from previous years in which family and friends look different.  They look incredibly young in those pictures–like unfledged, inexperienced youth.  I don’t recall that image.  In my mind, they are ever the responsible, mature, and wise people who never age, but remain frozen in time–never too young or old. 

Oh, and Four, there are all of these nagging aches and pains.  They niggle me awake during the night or flare up in the middle of work.  Sometimes, I down right hurt all over, and I can’t determine the cause.  However, I can tough out these minor hurts.  I can.  It’s the suffering of my loved ones that trouble me more.

I see my loved ones injured, battle-scarred, aging, and/or struggling.  You see, I want to help, to make them better, to help them feel whole again.  Even more than their ailing physical beings, I want to offer peace to the emotional wars waging within their minds and hearts.  I try.  I do try to help in small ways, but I am not a doctor–I don’t even play one on TV.  Thus, at times, I feel limited in what I can do to ease their burdens, pains, and sorrows.  

Still, it encourages me to see you full of vitality.  For a couple of weeks, you have been waning.  Your shallow flow lacked its usual energy and zip.  It is good to see your waters revived once more.

By the way, did you take care of the terrapin that I sent your way recently?  It was headed away from the safety of boundaries of your banks towards the traffic rolling alongside you.  I picked it up, even though it seemed offended by my action, and placed it carefully within your borders.  Hopefully, you were able to redirect its journey to safer ground.

As I was taking this picture, a couple days later, I was able to catch this image of a walnut falling into the water from the tree above.

Back to my original point, Four.  Have you any thoughts, ideas, or insight you can offer?  It seems as if your soundscape is whispering commentary.  Perhaps, if I quiet my head, I will hear it. 

“Life is a lively process of becoming.”–Douglas MacArthur

Four, I can’t help but notice that you have more riffles, rapids, and runs today. It’s nature’s way of breathing oxygen into your waters.  In return, your waters can give support to the life in, below, and around you.  

Earlier in the week, your waters were different.  They slowly glided from one pool to another. Of course, it was quite hot outside.  I couldn’t help but laugh at the number of neighborhood dogs splashing around or sitting in the cool shallows of those pools.  You remain ever the friend to the creatures in need, no matter levels and speed of your waters. 

 I have to ask though, do you ever hurt? Do pollutants irritate you?  What about those pesky people trying to reconfigure earth around you in order to build in the name of progress? Does that cause you pain as the drainage of rainwater and groundwater shift, ultimately influencing the levels and speed of your flow?  Do you mourn for your former self or for the forested neighbors that must have once lined your banks?  Regardless of those things for which you cannot control, it seems to me that you keep going, keep giving, keep supporting life to those in need of water.

Your waters are gathered from different sources. There are times, like today, when your waters are swift, becoming deep and darkened with the mud of debris, rocks, and earth.  Other times, like this past week, your waters are nearly still as you become shallow and more clear.  No matter what you are becoming, though, Dear Four, you remain ever Four Pole Creek, part of the Ohio River Watershed that feeds into the grand Mississippi River, and empties into the Gulf of Mexico flowing into the Atlantic Ocean.  Along the way, some of your water is evaporated into the air, cooled, condensed, and eventually returned to the earth–molecule by sweet molecule–a single droplet that is all part of the larger body of creation.

Four, in spite of your continuous changes, from the levels of your water, to the shapes you take; from the color of your waters, to the speed at which it flows; and from the lives that your waters support, to the beauty you offer the landscape, you are constantly evolving, ever changing, and continuously becoming.  Yet, you remain a creek, one creek in the great cycle of water.

“By being yourself, you put something wonderful into this world that was not there before.”–Edwin Elliot

Like you, Four, I am changing, and so is the life around me.  Some of my loved ones have flowed on to their heavenly shores, while many others remain bound to the earthly waters of life.  Like you, no matter my shape, my hurts, the gray at my temples, the lines of my face, or the pace at which I move . . . I am still me.  I will remain me–becoming, evolving, and adapting to the changes within and all around.

One day, I will dance among the ether of your molecules.  Together, joined by those who slipped ahead, we will become part of the Great cycle–the ever more and ever was. 

Thank you, Four.  Your song returned me to the hill of roses.  Back to where I started.  This running cycle is complete.  You were a fine companion.

Container Gardening: A Lesson in Parach (Thriving)

“Love and work are to people what water and sunshine are to plants.”–Jonathan Haidt

Photo by Stokpic on Pexels.com

Since March of 2020, I have experienced a few bouts with melancholy.  I suspect that I am not unique in experiencing these moments of sadness.  In fact, I feel as if these lugubrious time periods are a normal reaction given the amount of drastic change that is (and continues) to occur.  Like others, I have found various ways of battling the blues that have mostly worked, such as exercising outside, following a meditation program, reading for pleasure, and so forth. However, the most surprising coping mechanism–at least for me–has been container gardening.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

“The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature.  To nurture a garden is to feed not just the body, but the soul.”–Alfred Austin

To be certain, my husband, John, and I have tried our fair share of gardening in the past.  Our reasons for attempting were well-intended; however, in the end, we lacked the stick-to-it-ness that a large-scale garden requires.  Ultimately, the continuous ebb and flow of life demanded our attention, and gardening fell away.  

Thus, based upon those past experiences, my foray into container gardening has been modest.  Still, nurturing my few flowering plants and vegetables has provided a positive point of focus.  Walking out my kitchen and front doors each day to bear witness to the growth of these plants has cultivated within me a renewed sense of hope and purpose.  The plants’ growth and ability to thrive depend upon not only my actions, but also the right ingredients. 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

Container plants require regular exposure to light.  That said, each plant’s needs for light vary, so I had to become a keen observer in order to determine the ideal location for each plant. I quickly learned that my current selection of herbs, begonias, and mums will turn yellow, brown, and even look burned if given too much light, causing their leaves, and ultimately blossoms, to dwindle and die off.  Therefore, placing these plants in areas that only received  morning light and/or partial shade allowed them to flourish.  Contrastly, my vegetables, a modest variety of tomatoes, peppers, and onions, grow spindly, turn yellow, and simply don’t grow without enough sunlight.  Therefore, they needed to be placed in an area that receives six or more hours of direct sunlight in order to produce.    

These red peppers are thriving in the abundant sunshine.

Growing plants in containers also requires regular intervals of watering.  Like sunlight needs, different plants have different watering requirements.  The morning-sun/partial shade plants typically need watered every other day during excessive heat periods, but less frequent waterings during more moderate temperatures.  In direct contrast, the vegetable producing plants need daily watering.  Go one day without water, and the vegetable leaves begin to wilt, droop, and even fall off.  However, too much water can be just as deadly I discovered during a mid-June rainy period.  During this time period, the vegetables, I determined with a bit of research, developed something called blossom rot caused by the depletion of calcium in the container’s soil from too much rain.  Therefore, I had to find a way to add calcium back into the soil.  Unfortunately, I also learned, the hard way, that applying too much of the calcium based product can burn the leaves–nearly killing the plant. 

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Therefore, regular intervals of fertilizer, in the right combination/amounts, is also critical to the plants ability to thrive.  Thankfully, I chose to start each of my plants in potting soil that already had been enriched with the correct combination/amount of fertilizer.  I purchased one type for flowering plants and another type for the vegetable producing plants.  Additionally, with a bit more research, I settled on a couple of different fertilizers to use several weeks into summer, and within days of adding them, the plants seemed to double in size.  In fact, this growth period taught me the importance of pruning–taking time to periodically cut back excessive growth, remove withering leaves, or pinch back fading blossoms in order to maintain the health of the plants.

I am so glad that I started these tasty herbs–oregano, basil, and lemon thyme–off in a quality potting soil with the right type of fertilizer.

One final point of interest that I also learned this summer was the size of the plant determines the size of the container–which of course, makes sense.  However, any container can serve as a vessel for a plant as long as it has hole for water drainage, so the plant doesn’t become waterlogged from too much rain or unintentional overwatering.  Afterall, heavy rains and/or summer storms often occur during the humid summer months.

Without proper drainage holes, these beauties–begonias–would have drowned in some of the heavy rains of June and July.

Therefore, these experiences have provided a poignant life lesson.  A month or so ago, I came across a reference to the Bible in which the author wrote that the word thrive is often used as a translation of the Hebrew verb, parach.  When I searched to confirm this definition, I discovered that parach has three meanings, one of which is to bud (sprout, bloom, shoot).  Therefore, like my container garden, if we want our lives to “parach,” we must fill them with the right ingredients.  Much will depend on our current circumstances, life-history, age, status, perhaps gender, and other life markers.  Just as any container can produce a beautiful plant, there is no one size fits all for individual growth and vibrancy.  However, there are a few common denominators.

Photo by Mahmudul Hasan Rifat on Pexels.com

First, while plants will wilt, wither, and wane without sunlight, each variation does have its own requisite levels when it comes to the amount of daily light needed. Likewise, our lives must be rooted in The Light, the great Creator of the pure essence of our spirit and soul.  This may look different from one person’s faith systems and/or practices to another.  For example, consider all the differences that are often seen among styles of worship within one church denomination, such as Baptist, much less all of the other variations/interpretations of worship and faith practices from one denomination or religion to another.  Nonetheless, we all need a source for hope, faith, and light.

Rooted in the true heavenly Source allows one to weather the storms.

Secondly, our lives must be watered regularly.  There is no getting around the rainy seasons of life.  Without the stormy times of life, there is no growth.  If there is no growth, then there is no sense of joy, no need to celebrate or savor special moments/accomplishments.  The old adage,“Into every life a bit of rain must fall,” is a maxim for reason!  Furthermore, like my vegetables experiencing blossom rot from too much rain, there are times in which we may become waterlogged by the storms of life. Those are the times in which we must develop and learn to rely on life’s proverbial drain holes in order to unload some of the sadnesses that are part of life. These so-called drain holes can take on numerous forms depending upon personal preferences/needs, such as talking to a trusted friend/family member, exercising, crafting, gardening, therapy, and so forth. All can encourage movement toward some form of homeostasis

As seen on Instagram at heartcenteredrebalancing.

Finally, each person needs a unique combination of fertilizer and soil mixture.  What enriches one life, may not be the spark that boosts another’s. What’s more, the very practice or habit(s) that lit you up at an earlier point in your life may not provide the same enhancement later on in years–or if it does, it may need modification.  Furthermore, like my plants that needed pruning, there may be poor or unproductive habits that need reformed, remediated, or removed in order to further facilitate quality growth. The point is that in order to increase one’s vibrancy, one needs some source of positive inner joy, interest, or motivation that creates the spark in life.  

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Unlike my plants, a human life typically lives through multiple seasons.  However, no matter the number of seasonal changes through which we live, life is still short.  Therefore, it is worth taking time to cultivate the right conditions in order to parach.  If quality does not go into your life, you can’t expect to get quality in return.  In the end, when our growing season comes to a close, we will not be remembered for the container in which we lived, but by the fruits that we shared with others.  May your harvest be bountiful.

As seen on Instagram at mylifesbt.
As seen in Instagram at myliftsbt

Volunteer Seeds of Kindness

“A tree is known by its fruit; a man by his deeds.  A good deed is never lost; he who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love.”–Saint Basil 

“Good Morning!” I say to people I pass along the path of my morning run.   Typically, my greeting is echoed back.   Occasionally, I will encounter someone who is busy talking on the phone. Likewise, there are a few who appear to ignore my greeting, but perhaps they don’t hear me, aren’t a morning person, or they are having a bad moment–at least they aren’t, per se, rude.

One particularly hot and humid morning, I observed a young couple running ahead of me, but when they took a walking break, I happened to pass by them.  I warned them that I was, “passing on the left,” as a courtesy in case they did not hear my approach and also to encourage social distancing.  As they moved over to allow me to proceed, I thanked them and wished them a good day.

“Thanks! You’re looking strong, by the way! Keep it up,” was the female’s response.

As seen on Instagram at mylifebt.

Now, if there was one thing I was NOT feeling at that moment was “strong.”  In fact, I am fairly certain that strong was not on the spectrum of emotions I was experiencing at the time.  Regardless, her kindness was enough to plant a tiny seed of positivity into my morning exercise and offered a nice boost of energy that was much appreciated.  Since then, this young woman’s random act of encouragement has remained with me, reminding me of the importance of taking time to offer a smile, kind word, or gesture to others with whom I come into contact–especially in the age of COVID.

“A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions and the roots spring up and make new trees.”–Amelia Earhart

In direct contrast, on another muggy morning, I was making my way along the path, dodging and side-stepping mud, puddles, and oozy sections that looked like an invitation, at least for me, to fall or wrench a limb.  The grass alongside the path was especially slick with moisture because the previous evening had been filled with numerous downpours.  Most pedestrians were following an unspoken courtesy of passing one another at a socially appropriate distance without forcing anyone off into the sopping turf bordering the path.   This sometimes meant pausing, slowing down, or jogging in place behind someone in order to let another person advance from the opposite direction.  Certainly, it might temporarily slow down one’s pace, but if you were really in that big of a hurry, you could choose to step off into the wet grass–and I certainly saw a few faster runners make this decision.

I was approaching an older couple from behind as I continued along the path. I slowed down and moved to the outer edge of the path on my right as there was also a group of three women walking towards the couple from the opposite direction.  The three women formed a single file line, moving to the opposite edge, preparing to go by the couple, leaving plenty of safe space.  The man in front of me moved behind his female companion, so I jogged in place at a respectable distance behind the pair to allow the three ladies to progress by before I passed the couple.  

As seen on Headspace app.

Suddenly, from behind me, I heard the pounding of footsteps and someone huffing swear words under his breath loud enough for all of us to hear.  As I turned my head in his direction, I instantly recognized the cursing man.  When I had previously passed him earlier in my workout, he did not acknowledge my morning greeting.  In fact, having encountered him on a number of previous occasions along the same path, he has never once acknowledged my greeting.  Still, I had written off those encounters to the fact he was a focused runner, despite the fact that his running companion, who was currently at a significant distance behind the cursing man, always spoke.  

Meanwhile, the three women continued walking past the couple in front of me, and the huffy man drew up beside me at an uncomfortable closeness, barely leaving enough space for the women to pass at a safe distance.  He looked down at his watch, uttered more harsh swear words, and then quickly dashed between the last woman in line and the couple in front of me, nearly knocking down the woman and startling the older gentleman.  Meanwhile, his companion froze in place and appeared to look at the fast trotting man with a mix of bewilderment and resentment.  Afterwards, for what seemed like a long moment, though it was probably only mere seconds, the six of us glanced from one person to another as if collectively trying to recover from the near collision caused by the man’s aggressive and angry energy that was still hovering in the air as if he had run a red traffic light and escaped, but we were left with the wreckage of his actions

As seen on Instagram at meditation_and_mindfulness.

“We all have the right to be here,” I impulsively blurted out to no one in particular.

The three women nodded in agreement and added a few choice comments.

“Well, I hope you guys have a good day anyway,” I added as a moment of closure hoping to bring about a more positive tone.  However, I wondered if my words sounded hollow like attempting to give a child a lollipop after they have been given a vaccination shot.

Reflecting on my statement later, I realized the depth of what I had said, “We ALL have the right to share the path”–even cursing, impatient runners.  Oh, boy!

As seen on Instagram at positiveenergyalways.

We live in a finite space called Earth in the community of our collective humanity.  Currently, around the globe, we are faced with issues, problems, and crises–the likes of which most of us have not experienced in our lifetimes. Meanwhile, we have those, like the female runner, offering up encouragement to others in spite of his or her weariness; and, there are still others, like the antagonistic runner, pushing aside those who get in the way of his or her wants/desires.  

If I am to be honest, I have regrettably behaved like the cursing runner, so I do not want to pretend to be something that I am not.  However, both of these recent encounters have served as a reminder and object lesson to me.  First, every person has the right to share the path, aka, Earth–even those with whom whose actions I find aversion.  Secondly, I can only control my actions and my words–not others.  Finally, I have a choice, each day–and really, each moment, to decide what my actions, my responses, and my words will foster; and, so do you, Dear Reader.  

“Kind hearts are the gardens.  Kind thoughts are the roots.  Kind words are the blossoms.  Kind deeds are the fruits.”–Kirpal Singh

Sometimes plants sprout through the soil that were not intentionally planted.  They seem to grow by some unseen magical power.  In reality, those plants are caused by seeds floating in the wind, dropped by birds, or inadvertently mixed into compost/fertilizer.  In gardening terms, these surprise flowers and plants are called volunteers.  They are independently defiant, complete, and thriving in the midst of less than ideal circumstances.  

Like the unknown female I encountered, her volunteered words planted an unintentional seed of kindness in me, that even now as I write this, continues to grow and blossom.  It was such a small act, but it left me feeling uplifted with a sensation that I desire to pass on to others.  

Imagine what could blossom in our world if the winds of thoughtful engagement became the norm?  Picture seeing tolerant words printed, spoken, and displayed on social media with greater frequency than narrow-mindedness?  Envision sympathetic, sensitive, and open-minded gestures and actions mixed more often into dialogue, documents, and declarations than overt or subversive hatred, anger, and aggression?  That is the garden for which I hope to help nurture, one volunteered seed of kindness at a time. What kind of garden will you cultivate?

As seen on Instagram at heartcenteredrebalancing.
Just as this black walnut seed hold within it the potential for growth, so too do kind words, actions, and gestures. Pass one on today.

Light, Lucious, Lemon Raspberry Muffins and Buckle–with a life lesson on the side

“Imagine a world, in which your entire possession is one raspberry, and you give it to a friend.”–Gerda Weissmann Klein

“The tiny seed knew that in order to grow it needed to be dropped in dirt, covered in darkness, and struggle to reach the light.” — Sandra Kring

June sunlight hammered my backside, creating a rivulet of sweat that ran from my hairline, down my neck, and along the bumps of my spine, pooling at the elastic waistband of my athletic shorts.  Spikes of dry grass clawed at my shins and calves, while briars needled my forearms.  With single-minded focus, I picked the ruby jewels of fruit, one at a time, and slipped them into the bowl as my fingers became brightly tinged with the stain of my efforts.  One month later, a similar scene unfolded, only this time my digits were blotched a deep shade of purple.

Berry picking–full of heat, thorns, and insects.  Strongly influenced by weather with some seasons offering higher yields of succulent delight, and other years producing little fruit that are often smaller and less juicy.  This once per year event can provide a tasty selection of cakes, pies, muffins, salads, and even vinegars or wines; and yet, each tiny tender fruit is celebratory enough to pop, one at a time, onto the tongue allowing taste buds to relish the lush, acidic saccharinity. 

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As I picked berries this summer, it was a contemplative practice that was part focus, with a bit of melancholy, and part determination, sweat, and even irritation–reminding me of the similarities of berry-picking to life.  Many, if not most, memorable life moments require sustained efforts involving work, goal-setting, striving, and set-backs.  Depending upon what is produced by one’s endeavors, typically frames whether or not one continues down the same path/plan, or chooses to adjust plans accordingly.  Similarly, seasonal berry offerings may not be particularly juicy some years, much less tasty on its own merit; however, when these berries are collectively combined alongside other ingredients in a recipe, the product produced is often a delicious delight–even if it was not what was originally planned.

Likewise, dealing with the bramble, the bugs, the itchy ivy and grasses, the pollen, the heat and humidity, and so forth, may fill the berry-picker with dread even before beginning; and then, one commenced into action, the very act of picking may feel nearly intolerable.  Nonetheless, the goal of sweet, tangy fruit impels one to persevere in spite of the struggles and irritations.  In fact, even the journey to becoming a fruit producing plant is never easy.  It requires that a seed be buried in dirt, dwelling in darkness for some time while laying down roots until ready to slog through the sod, breaking the surface.  Even then, the tiny plant must learn to endure all types of weather while simultaneously stretching and extending towards the light before becoming a fruit producing plant.  The same is true for humans.

Picking berries is an annual reminder for me that we all must experience the dark, the muck, and the mire in order to strengthen our ability to break through the soil of our despairs.  Nevertheless, like the berry bramble, we cannot produce fruit without first developing roots, and then being taught to stretch towards the light in order to grow.  Even then, we will still develop thorny parts of ourselves and experience the sting of insects, the heat and cold, as well as life’s seasonal winds.  There will be choking weeds and other setbacks (much like many of us are experiencing now).  Nevertheless, it is during those very times we must be like the berry plant and keep growing, fixing our eyes upon the heavens, because eventually our efforts will produce fruit.  And when those periods of berry-picking occur, we must share our harvest with others and savor the sweet juiciness of the moment because like the weather, life offers continuous change–never standing still for long.

As seen on Instagram @ Postiviteenergyalways

As the Creator divined, there is no light without dark, no happiness without sadness, no rest without work, no pleasure without pain, and no berries without pitfalls and pests.  Make the most of good days, for they are the berries, the very sweetness, of life.  Imprint those memories into your soul, as one does setting aside berries in the freezer, so when the weeds of life threaten and clouds seem ready to burst, you can retrieve those frozen memories, and be reminded that this too will pass.  The light that is within and around you will help, once more, enjoy another season of berry-picking. 

As seen on Instagram at postiveenergyalways.

From my home to yours, I wish you a freezer full of good memories and berries! Here are a couple of recipes to enjoy . . .

*Raspberry Lemon Muffins

Ingredients:

1 tablespoon flaxseed + 3 tablespoons of water (Can substitute with one large egg.)

Zest from one lemon

1 cup + 2 tablespoons flour (I use gluten free flour.)

1 cup old fashioned rolled oats* (I use certified gluten-free oats.)

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

¾ teaspoon salt

⅔ cup sugar (I used Swerve brand sugar replacement.)

⅓ cup melted butter (I used plant-based replacement.)

¾ milk (I used a plant based version.)

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 teaspoons vanilla extract 

*2 cups raspberries or blackberries (Fresh are best, but frozen will work, but may require a bit longer baking time.)

White sparkling sugar (Optional)

Directions:

In a small bowl, add both flaxseed and water.  Gently stir and place in the refrigerator for later use.

Zest one lemon, and set aside for later use.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Line 12 muffin tins with a parchment paper. 

In a small bowl, place raspberries and sprinkle with 2 tablespoon of flour. Toss gently until all raspberries are evenly coated.

In a small bowl, combine the flour, oats, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

If possible, use a stand mixing bowl to whisk together lemon zest with sugar for two minutes until light and fluffy.

Mix melted butter, milk, lemon juice, and vanilla extract into lemon/sugar mixture.

Stir in dry ingredients into wet ingredients and mix until just combined.

Gently fold in flour coated raspberries into batter.

Divide batter evenly among 12 muffin cups.

Sprinkle with white sparkling sugar if desired.

Bake for 22-25 minutes or until muffins are golden brown and toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Makes 12 muffins. 

Allow muffins to cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then turn upside down on the cooling rack, and immediately right them on the rack for proper cooling.

Muffins can be stored at room temperature; however, since there is fresh fruit in them, I prefer to store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator once completely cooled.  They can also be frozen for up to 3 months.

Serve warm or cold.  They are delicious plain or served with butter, honey, agave, or other favorite topping.

Bonus Recipe:

*Raspberry Buckle

Ingredients for Buckle –the cake part:

¾ cup sugar 

¼ cup soft shortening 

1 egg 

½ cup milk 

Zest from one lemon

2 tablespoons of lemon juice

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract or powder

2 cups + 2 tablespoons flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

*2 cups raspberries or blackberries (Fresh are best, but frozen will work, but may require a bit longer baking time.)

Ingredients for topping:

½ sugar

⅓ cup flour

½ teaspoon cinnamon

¼ cup softened butter

Directions:

Zest lemon, and set aside.

Mix together ingredients for topping, and set aside.

Place raspberries in a bowl, gently sprinkle and coat with 2 tablespoons of flour, and set aside.

Prepare 9” x 9” baking pan with nonstick cooking spray

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Using a mixer, mix together sugar, shortening, and egg.  

Stir in milk, lemon zest, lemon juice, and vanilla.

In a separate bowl, blend together dry ingredients.

Mix dry ingredients into wet ingredients until just combined.

By hand, gently fold-in in raspberries.

Carefully spread into the prepared baking pan.

Spread topping over all of the batter.

Bake for 45-55 minutes or until the topping is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. 

Allow to cool 10-20 minutes before serving warm.

Once cooled, stored in the refrigerator.

Leftovers can also be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 months.

Makes 9 servings.

As seen on Instagram @ lauriereasons.

Exploring WV, Part 2: the Greenbrier River Trail, Beartown, Droop Mountain, Renick, Marlinton, and Watoga State Park

“Afoot and lighthearted I take to the open road, healthy, free, the world before me.”–Walt Whitman

In the face of COVID-19, travel warnings, and headlines of superspreader events, it may seem impossible to plan a summer getaway.  However, for those of us living in the Appalachian Region, a 205,000 square mile area that covers all of West Virginia and parts of 12 other states, including Ohio and Kentucky, travel destinations abound as the wonders of Mother Nature are all around.  Therefore, if you’re willing to rethink what travel can mean and look like, a world of outdoor adventures awaits–all within an easy drive’s reach.

Recently, John, my husband of 31 years, and I, did just that.  We took off towards the Greenbrier River Valley area and explored parts of both Greenbrier and Pocahontas Counties.  Whether you’re planning a day trip, camping, or cottage/cabin excursion–this area of WV offers plenty to see, do, and experience while safely maintaining social distancing.  What’s more, these types of adventures are pocket, family, and/or solo-friendly.

On this most recent summer of 2020 trip to the GRV area, we once more stayed in Lewisburg in a cottage called, “Stone Throw Retreat,” which we found on Airbnb.  During our first full day, which I described in a previous piece, John and I explored Cranberry Glades, the Falls of Hills Creek Scenic area, and stumbled across the birthplace of author Pearl S. Buck.  On our second day, we took the same approach as we had taken on our first–no itinerary. We just hopped onto US 219 and began traversing this scenic and meandering road, deciding where to stop while enroute.

The first place that struck our fancy was Beartown State Park. When John and I first arrived at the 107 acre natural area, located within both Greenbrier County and part of Pocahontas County, we discovered, much to our surprise, that this park has a connection to Huntington, WV!  The land that is now known as Beartown State Park, according to a marker found inside the park, was made possible, in part, through a donation by, “Mrs. Edwin G. Polan of Huntington, in memory of her son, Ronald Keith Neal, a former student employee of the West Virginia State Park System who lost his life in the Vietnam War on April 21, 1967.”

Beartown State Park derived its name from residents local to the area because the land is filled with numerous cave-like openings that look like perfect winter dwellings for black bears known for roaming WV.  Additionally, these rock formations, with their narrow passageways that look like streets, date this so-called ancient-town-of-rock to approximately over 300 million years ago! 

 

The park itself is simple, with a ½ mile carefully constructed boardwalk, zigzagging in, through, and around the rock, as the singular point of interest.  It was clearly built with the idea of preserving the integrity and uniqueness of the land while still allowing visitors to enjoy the  natural rock-like garden.  The walk, in fact, is so spectacular, that I would think it is possible to visit repeatedly and still notice something new each time.  If you’re looking for an opportunity to hear the whisperings of God, John and I highly recommend a trip to Beartown State Park! 

Continuing our drive further northeast along US 219, John and I made an impulse decision to stop at Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park.  With full knowledge that monuments to the Civil War are currently under high levels of scrutiny, our decision to visit this mountain had to do more with our genuine desire to experience the view from the top of the mountain, named for its drooping appearance, especially with regards to the perspective from the tower overlooking the GRV.  Little did we know that the park also included eight hiking trails, two picnic shelters, and an old-time playground that harkens back to the type John and I once enjoyed in the late 60s and early 70s!

Located on the border between Greenbrier and Pocahontas Counties, Droop Mountain is considered one of WV’s smaller mountains, rising 3,597 feet above sea level.  Nonetheless, the view from the top was nothing short of spectacular!  The day in which we visited was bright and clear with abundant sunshine blessing the valley below.  The wind whistled through the trees and a feeling of peace settled in our bones as John and I surveyed the numerous WV mountain tops surrounding the valley through which we were traveling.  Gaining a different perspective of the landscape from the Droop Mountain tower, at least to me, was awe-inspiring as I tried to comprehend the passage of time the mountains and the river valley represented–not to mention the greatness of Divine Providence’s hand in forging such magnificence.  The landscape from the Droop Mountain tower is highly recommended.

“In every walk with nature one recieves far more than he seeks”–John Muir

We ended day two with a four mile walk along the Greenbrier River Trail at Renick.   Despite the fact that it was a warm afternoon, with temperatures in the mid-90’s back home in the Huntington area, in the shade of the GRT, the temperatures were much more moderate with a continuous gentle breeze.  Along the trail, we saw several people kayaking the river, flowers blooming, and listened to birds sharing their sing-song.  I couldn’t help but notice that we walked past mile-marker 24 of the 78, or so, mile long trail.  Towards the end of our walk, John and I encountered a couple of fishermen who recommended we explore the other Renick entry point to the GRT in order to see an eagle’s nest.  We decided to make that our first priority for day three.

Thus, our third day began with John and I driving through Renick proper and taking site of what must have been, at one time, a thriving, if not quaint, farming community.  The streets were quite narrow, and most of the homes reflected the bygone days of another era.  It was a peaceful, but short drive as it ended right at the Greenbrier River’s edge as the fishermen from the day before had said it would.

Stepping onto the GRT from this point of entry, John and I trekked four more miles in the opposite direction from the previous day, moving more northward.  Walking in this direction, we were indeed able to spy the eagle’s nest just past an old swinging bridge that was, unfortunately, locked up–or I would have climbed upon it and crossed to the other side for sure!  The nest was located on the opposite side of the river, but even from our vantage point, we could view the vast size of this majestic bird’s nest.  While taking pictures, a biker drove past, then stopped to chat at a socially appropriate distance to share his experiences of pedaling the GRT.  Once our conversation came to a natural end, we finished our walk, and decided to head towards Marlinton, WV, the county seat of Pocahontas County, and attributed as being another excellent location for GRT exploring as recommended by the same fishermen from the previous day.

Back in the car, traveling US 219, we put our sites on Marlinton in hopes of another adventure.  After a long-ish drive, we stopped by Appalachian Sports, a business we recognized from our previous day’s conversation, to learn more about their bike rentals as a potential experience for a future visit to GRT.  While there, we learned that Marlinton is home to the Roadkill Cook-off and Autumn Festival that began in 1991, but had, unfortunately, been cancelled for this upcoming fall due to COVID-19.  However, good news for roadkill lovers, it’s already slated for a return on September 25, 2121–just in time for my birthday! 

While in Marlinton, we drove through parts of Watoga State Park, the largest state park in WV.  Covering 10,000 acres.  WSP offers camping, cabin rentals, an eleven-acre lake for paddle- and row-boating as well as fishing, 15 miles of roads for biking, and 40 miles of hiking trails.  Additionally, there is a lodge, although we never found it, that does offer a commissary and restaurant.  Our navigation through the park was filled with wooded beauty, ample dappled sunlight, and wildlife wonders.  It is definitely another state park that John and I agreed we needed to visit.

“Keep close to Nature’s heart . . .and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods.  Wash your spirit clean.”–John Muir 

All-in-all, our exploration of Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties was a wonderful, grounding experience.  We were safely able to vacation while still maintaining social distance.  What better way to get away than in wild and wonderful West Virginia–where an adventure awaits around each curve of its mountainous roads!  

From our home to yours, John and I wish you safe and healthy travels!

Embrace Your Inner Oak

“Tell your heart to beat again/ Close your eyes and breathe it in/ Let the shadow fall away . . .Say goodbye to where you’ve been/ and tell your heart to beat again.”–as sung by Danny Gookey, written by Bernie Herms, Randy Phillips, and Matthew West

Branches splayed, offering glimpses of bluebird skies

I listened to my companion.  Behind the person talking, an old oak tree stood proud and erect, sheltering us in her arms of shade.  The tree’s hefty roots thrust muscularly above and through the earth’s surface, foundational tentacles of nourishment and steadfastness, outstretched, ready to ensure the old sentinel’s position for future decades. The person spoke of loss, heartbreak, and missing the one who had provided a source of inner strength.

Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

“You’ve lost your tree,” I impulsively stated.  “You no longer have a tree, like the one behind you, on which to lean.”

Later, I chastised myself.  What a stupid thing to say.  Why hadn’t I been more encouraging?  Even choosing to remain quiet and supportively listening would have been better than saying something like, “You’ve lost your tree.”  Open palm.  Insert face.  Think, Steph, think . . .

And so I thought.  I thought about my friend, I thought about life, and I thought about that grand oak whose shade in which we sheltered on that beautiful morning.  I pondered loss, heartbreak, life changes, aging, illness, changes in the world, changes in society, change, change, change . . . 

As seen on Instagram at andrew.w.fischer.

Oak trees.  Roots, trunk, branches, leaves, acorns, canopy, crown, greens and browns, weather and wind, sunshine and rain, hail and storms, dry and wet seasons, changing temperatures, changing weather, changing levels of groundwater . . . change, change, change.  In spite of it all, a typical oak tree has an average life span of 100-300 years, some may even live 700 or more years.  During that time, how many acorns must one tree produce–all with the potential to become another oak tree?

Acorns. A tiny nut, dense with nutrients, capable of feeding a wide array of woodland creatures, such as bear, moose, mice, deer, squirrels, chipmunks and so on.   What’s more?  Acorns, with proper germination, can produce trees of 40-80 feet in height and with wing-spans of 60-100 feet across.  While that is certainly no small feat, the root system of a mature oak tree can span up to hundreds of miles–and most of these roots remain unseen!  

One mature oak tree can potentially produce 10,000 acorns.

“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone.  The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes.  To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.”–Cynthia Occelli

As I best as my non-science mind understands, when an acorn is planted, like many plants, most of its energy is used to begin the growth of the root system.  Starting with the tap root that grows and burrows deeply into the soil in search of a reliable source of water.  During this time period, very little growth above ground can be observed; however, once the taproot is established, branches and leaves begin to sprout with more regularity.  

Before much growth occurs above the ground, the tap root must develop thoroughly into its source.

Meanwhile, approximately 18 or so inches below the soil, where the eye cannot witness, roots are growing, expanding, spreading over a space four to seven times wider than the crown of the tree.  These roots, more gangly in shape and size than the tap, seek out moisture and essential nutrients, sending them circulating back through the root system in order to nourish the growth that is visible above the ground. Silently, lateral roots slither and probe through the soil, supplying continuous sustenance to all parts of the oak.  If these oak roots encounter roots of another oak tree, the roots will graft together to help one another. Still, it is each oak’s individual taproot that remains the principal form of support.

Hefty, muscular roots thrust through the earth in order to support the tree.

The taproot, combined with the ranging root system, is the oak tree’s source of health, or potential illness, and gives it the ability to weather all types of harsh environmental conditions and changes, including the ability to withstand the most severe storms of life.  It was this basic lesson in biology that I began to contemplate as I thought of my friend, myself, and all those in my life, present and past, who have suffered loss, stormy seasons, and major life changes/shifts. Finding that inner taproot and expanding that root system is key to not only withstanding turbulent times, but also to the ability to offer shelter, strength, and plant seeds of hope for others.

“When your heart is broken, you plant seeds in the crack and pray for rain.”–Andrea Gibson

As seen on Instagram at positiveenergyalways.

To be certain, mild, temperate weather in the shade of an old oak tree is splendid, and I could spend the rest of my life there in the vast, comforting blanket of its shade, gazing upward through splayed branches of green, spying glimpses of dappled sunlight and bluebird skies while a gentle breeze nuzzles my cheek.  While those sorts of moments are what I wish everyday could be like; life offers us a meteorological spectrum of experiences.  Therefore, like those expansive tree branches, we must embrace it all–the wonderful, the not-so-wonderful, and the downright heartbreaking.

Delighting in the dappled sunlight in the shade of an old oak.

We, like the oaks, have space in the soil of our soul for a taproot and a root system; and like the oak, this system is keenly connected to Divine Providence.  When we are small, others develop and influence the establishment of our roots–for better or worse–depending upon one’s childhood circumstances.  Eventually, however, we all reach a point of maturity in life in which it is up to each individual to nurture the inner self, foster personal strength (grit, if you will), and fortify our faith.  While it is a wonderful blessing to have our root system grafted with that of another’s, in the end, it is our individual tap root connection that must be our anchor, our mainstay of strength.  

As seen on Instagram at positiveaffirmations101.

Therefore, just as the rain waters the oak, so too must we water our inner taproot, encouraging it to delve deeply into that which cannot be seen or touched, but which offers a wellspring of strength, resiliency, and renewal.  With a taproot strongly secured to the Divine, our true source, we can persevere throughout the vicissitudes of life.  Winds may tear at your branches, bite off your leaves, and even snap off pieces of your life.  Lightening may crash all around as tears stream down like rainfall, and still, like the oak, you can withstand it all.  You, my friend, can continue to rise, and as your roots spread, so too will your reach. 

An oak tree, with a healthy root system, has an average life span of 100-300 years, but some can live as long as 700 years!

“You never quite know what you do in life that leaves a seed behind that grows into an oak tree.”–Michael Portillo

As many as 10,000 acorns can be produced in one year from one mature oak tree.  Acorns fall to the ground–even when there is no one to witness.  Some acorns feed wildlife.  Other seeds decay into organic matter that feeds and enriches the soil.  Finally, there are acorns that take root–perhaps carried off by an animal, blown by the wind, or gathered by human hands–and new life is formed  . . . 

Sheltered in the shade of the canopy.

 Meanwhile, underneath the canopy of the towering oak, shade is proffered for those in need, spots for seasonal nests abound, roots continue to sink and spread, and the crown continuously reaches for the heavens.  Alone, but rooted; quiet, but engaged; humble, but life-giving; falling, but rising; yielding; but tenacious, and ever reliant upon The Source.  

May my life be more like that of an oak.

Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Pexels.com
As seen on Instagram at positiveenergyalways

Berry Beneficial Acai Smoothie

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

“The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison.”–Ann Wigmore

Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels.com

With the warm, humid weather of summer making its way into the Tri-State area, I find myself craving smoothies again.  Since quarantine, I have once more fallen into the habit of not eating anything until lunchtime.  Sure, my stomach complains at times, but not enough to motivate me to pause for breakfast. As I have shared previously, I hop on and off the breakfast train–going for weeks at a time eating breakfast regularly, and then falling off that habit for weeks again.  Craving smoothies is a sure sign that it is time to hop back on that proverbial train.

However, I tend to have a sensitive stomach that has only become more sensitive with age.  I learned that I have to, unfortunately, limit my coffee intake in the early morning hours.  In fact, I typically down 16 or so ounces of water first thing in the morning before touching a coffee cup.  Additionally, I am sometimes downright nauseated in the morning, and the thought of food, even my favorite oatmeal, doesn’t even sound appealing.  (Yes, I am one of those people who loves oatmeal.)  Thus, I have learned that if I wait until lunch time, my queeziness will subside, and I am usually ready to eat.

I know some research states that one should “eat like a king” at breakfast and ensure the consumption of 30 grams of protein first thing in the morning, but those researchers don’t have my stomach and are often hocking their own protein product.  Still, I do recognize, especially as I age, the benefits of consuming quality, nutritious food at each meal–whether it’s two, or three, meals per day–for longterm preventative health care.  Additionally, there is some scientific data suggesting that making healthful choices in the morning typically leads to more positive choices as the day progresses.  Therefore, if my stomach can handle it, why not have a nutritious breakfast smoothie later in the morning, especially if exercising outdoors in hot, humid weather?

I know, I know, many diet experts warn about the dangers of drinking your calories, rather than chewing them.  Furthermore, other diet experts caution against all of the calorie laden ingredients that can be easily added to a smoothie.  However, I would argue that a properly prepared smoothie–one chock full of whole food ingredients based upon your unique dietary and caloric needs–can be a nutritious, healthy choice, especially if you have a sensitive stomach like mine.  One of those whole food ingredients is acai.

In fact, it’s impossible not to notice the proliferation of acai products, pronounced, ah-sigh-ee, in restaurants, grocery stories, and health food markets. From smoothies to smoothie bowls, from flavored yogurt to juice refreshers (think Starbucks), from flavored protein bars to pill/supplements, and from dark chocolate bars to infused margaritas, acai seems to currently have sweetheart status in the health community.  Although acai is generally referred to as a berry, it is technically a drupe, also known as stonefruit, like cherries, plums, olives, and peaches, and it is popularly lauded for its numerous health benefits.  

Based upon my reading though, there seems to be a general consensus to group the acai with berries. Furthermore, acai tends to have a short shelf life as it only grows on palm trees in Central and South America; and thus, it is most often available in three forms: frozen fruit puree, freeze dried powder, or pressed juice.  As a self-proclaimed foodie, my curiosity got the best of me, and I decided to give acai a try by purchasing a small bag of the freeze dried powder.

To be clear, I do not believe that acai is the panacea of health that many supplement companies try to convince consumers; however, acai does offer many health benefits similar to most dark fruits and berries. Acai possesses high levels of antioxidants (even higher than blueberries and cranberries), essential fatty acids, fiber, and are nutrient dense. Still, like any one single food, acai is not the magical key to health; however, when consumed as part of a larger diet based on wide array of colorful, fresh fruits and vegetables, acai is a wonderful addition.  

One word of caution though, many frozen fruit purees, juices, and other acai-flavored products are loaded with added sugar and/or other ingredients a health-conscious consumer may not want.  Therefore, if, like me, you want to reap the nutritional benefits without the junk, the freeze dried form of acai seems to have the greatest amount of fiber, essential fats, and health-boosting plant compounds.  

Below is the recipe-scaffolding that I created using acai freeze dried powder.  Do you have to use acai?  NO!  Instead, replace the acai with ½ cup of another fruit; or, if you want to stick with the drupe (stonefruit) family, add in cherries, Indian gooseberries, or slices of nectarines, peaches, and/or mangoes. Feel free to play with this recipe.  There is never an obligation, in my opinion, to follow recipes exactly as created.  Think of this recipe as a springboard of ideas for creating your own variation of this summer-time smoothie.  Want to make it a smoothie bowl? Then, fill a bowl with this smoothie and top it off with slices of fruit and the crunchy goodness of nuts, seeds, granola, and/or oats.  Summer is the time to have fun in the kitchen; and, yes, it can still be nutritious!  After all, one positive choice leads to the next!  

From my home to yours, I wish you healthy, happy, and homemade meals or smoothies! 

P.S. If you do find another variation that gets your taste buds excited, please share it with me by emailing me or tagging me on Instagram or Facebook!  I’d love to see what you create!

Here’s to your health! Cheers!

Berry Beneficial Acai Smoothie

Makes 1 serving, but can be doubled, tripled as needed.

Base Ingredients:

½ + ½ cup favorite smoothie beverage (water, milk, plant milk, kefir, coconut water)

½ to 1 cup of frozen or fresh berries (Pick your favorite! Frozen fruit leads to a thicker smoothie.)

½  cup frozen, plain–no other added ingredients–riced cauliflower (I know, it sounds weird, but it’s a wonderful thickener, and it’s a great way to sneak veggies into your day without tasting it!)

½ banana, frozen or fresh (Remember, the more frozen ingredients, the thicker the smoothie.)

**If wishing to use protein powder, see note below, and add in here.

1 ½  – 3 tsp acai powder (depending upon the amount you want)

½ tsp vanilla extract

*Dash of sea salt and any other optional add-ins suggested below

*Optional add-ins:

**1-2 scoop(s) of favorite protein powder (This is an optional addition.  I make this smoothie with and without protein.  However, I found that even using a tablespoon of my favorite plant-based protein powder gives the smoothie a more rounded flavor and thickens the smoothie a tad bit more.)

1-2 tablespoons of favorite nuts or seed (Think walnuts, ground flaxseed, chia seeds, hemp hearts, and etc.)

1-2 tablespoons of favorite nut butter

¼ to ⅓ cup oats (As a thickening agent, and another boost of nutrition, especially if you need the extra calories.)

In a blender, or blender cup, add ½ cup of your favorite smoothie liquid. 

Next, add it fruit(s) and plain riced cauliflower 

Add in banana, cut into chunks. 

Add in all other ingredients as well as any optional add-ins

Finally, top it all off with another ½ cup of preferred liquid.

Blend until smooth.

Best if served immediately, but can be stored in fridge for later use.

Note:  Can add more or less liquid to adjust to desired consistency.

Mmm, drink in that refreshing fruit and veg!

The Nature of Outdoor Exercise

“The sky is the daily bread of the eyes.”–Ralph Waldo Emerson

“If you are seeking creative ideas, go out walking. Angels whisper to man when he goes for a walk.”–Raymond Inmon

Photo by Retha Ferguson on Pexels.com

If you have worked from home during this quarantine period, you have most likely experienced some form of frustration, isolation, emotional upheaval, or perhaps even anger, depression, and/or anxiety.  Add to the pandemic crisis a strong sentiment of public unrest due to social injustices and inequalities, as well as high unemployment, and it is no wonder that mental health issues are on the rise.  How does one cope with all of these stressors in a healthy manner?  Based upon my research, there is no one right answer.

Many mental health experts tend to agree on the fact that we should all maintain and/or create a routine for sleeping and waking, hydrating, eating healthy food, and some experts will even emphasize the importance of taking a daily shower and not working in pajamas all day–which is amusing to me on a number of levels. Others suggest the importance of finding a creative outlet, reading those been-meaning-to-read books, gardening, cooking, organizing closets, and so forth–anything that feels productive and useful.  Still, others highlight the importance of exercise and spending time in nature as ways to maintain and/or strengthen mental health.  While all of those are noteworthy and worth exploring, due to the months-long quarantine period, I rediscovered the soul-healing power of exercising in the great outdoors.  

I’ll be honest, Dear Reader, and I suspect I am not alone when I write this, I have a history of battling bouts of depression, or my dark side as I humorously like to call it.  Usually, it’s seasonal or situational, never long lasting, and fairly easy from which to recover.  However, the quarantine period was different.  In fact, the months of March, April, and May, felt dark, difficult, and downright disheartening, and I was employed!  I have to wonder how much more devastated I would have felt if I had lost my job.

Initially, I would joke that as an introvert, I had been preparing to quarantine my whole life.  However, I quickly discovered that the new demands of trying to integrate work into home life, along with a couple of other major life shifts, made it hard to establish a routine, much less stick to one. I tried meditating every morning; then I tried practicing yoga every morning.  Still, no tangible routine ever formed that significantly pushed away the mental darkness. 

Photo by Burst on Pexels.com

One event that nudged away a few clouds were the days in which my husband, John, and I cut off the work day by a certain time, and then drove to a local walking path for a 30-40 minute walk. Unfortunately, so much of our local spring was, more often than not, wet, rainy, cloudy, and cool–exceptionally cool given the time of the year– for these afternoon excursions.   This was compounded by the fact, like many Tri-State residents, that we do not live in a neighborhood conducive to walking, we always had (have) to drive to a path.  

Image from St. Mary’s Proctorville Walking Path

One day, I began randomly googling exercises for back injuries as well as walking-to-running training plans for those recovering from a back injury.  Nearly ten years ago, I had begun running as a form of exercise and found that while I was not particularly fast, I thoroughly enjoyed being outside on trails, paths, or sometimes side-walks as well as following goal-setting plans.  In fact, I loved it so much that I ultimately ran several half-marathons, a couple of 15-milers, and even completed two marathons–one in honor of my 50th birthday.  All of that came to a screeching halt when I injured three discs in my lower back.  

Image from Kanawha Trestle Rail-Trail.

It had been nearly four years since I last ran, but as I sat there that day, reading on-line, I began to wonder if perhaps I could run again.  Maybe slower and for shorter distances than last time, but what if . . . .

Images from Kanawha Trestle Rail-Trail

While researching, I also found a wealth of information regarding the benefits of exercising outside–especially as a way to cope with stress.  Some of the benefits of outdoor exercise include:  improvement of sleep; increased absorption of Vitamin D, increased productivity, creativity, and problem solving; alleviation of stress; reduced anxiety; boosted mood, and lowered blood pressure. Furthermore, for me, a training plan provides some semblance of a routine as well as the sense of accomplishment with each completed workout, especially when everything else in life feels chaotic. 

Images from Kanawha Trestle Rail-Trail

Then, as serendipity would have it, I ran across an on-line board that answers questions and provides reading material that solely focuses on recovering, healing, and preventing back injuries.  In one post, I read an article that referred to a book and walk-to-run training plan from 2011 called, Run Your Butt Off.  Quickly searching for it, I found and read the plan as well as the author’s notes.  This plan is fully available on-line; you do not have to buy the book, although I did purchase a used one later. 

The gentle and positive words of the authors of this plan have inspired my butt to get outside for exercise.

As I read the kind and encouraging words of the plan’s author, I  began to believe I might have stumbled onto something doable. While it is a 12-week plan, the author strongly and repeatedly encourages exercisers to work through the plan at their own pace, stating that most newbies take longer than 12-weeks.  With those heartening and gentle words, I decided to give the plan an honest try. (Full disclosure, the book also focuses on good eating habits, but who couldn’t benefit from a little nutritional 101, especially with the quarantine pounds many of us, myself included, have packed on.)