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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wishing you the best health, Dear Reader!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“This too shall pass.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summertime Farmer’s Market Dessert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Apple Crisp:

Summertime Farmer’s Market Dessert

Gluten-Free and Vegan Options

Ingredients:

Filling:

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

½ cup sugar or pure maple syrup

¼ cup lemon juice

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

2 tablespoons all purpose flour, gluten-free if needed

Streusel Topping:

1 cup oats

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

¾ cup brown sugar

½ teaspoon cinnamon

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

Directions:

Peel and cube zucchini.

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

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

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

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375 degrees.

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

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

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

Spread zucchini filling mixture evenly into prepared baking pan.

Sprinkle with streusel topping mixture.

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

Allow to cool 15-20 minutes before serving.

Makes 6 generous servings or 9 smaller servings.

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

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

Peel zucchini 🥒

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

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

Come on, Let’s get moving!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entrance to the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort and Spa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Numerous peaks abound for hiking as seen from the airplane!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cactus Life and with a couple of hares

Stirring up afternoon dust storms

Majestic Mountains were the daily backdrop

A few more images shot from the airplane

Hello and Goodbye to Phoenix AZ

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

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

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

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

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

I donut have to circle around these orbs of deliciousness.

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

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

Ooey-gooey peanut buttery goodness!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donut Ingredients:

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

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

2 tablespoons cocoa powder

1 tablespoon ground flax seed

2-3 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ cup applesauce or yogurt

½ cup milk (I use plant based.)

1 tablespoon vinegar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Optional: ¼ cup chopped Reese’s pieces 

Glaze Ingredients:

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

3 tablespoon natural peanut butter, melted

½  teaspoon vanilla extract

¼ – ½ + cup powdered sugar

2+ tablespoons milk (I use plant based.) 

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

Donut Directions:

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

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

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

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

Divide batter evenly among donut molds.

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

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

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

Glaze Directions:

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

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

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

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

Using a spoon, drizzle glaze over cooled donuts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nailing down your vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Prayer for Uvalde, Texas

“There is no pain so great as the memory of joy in present grief.”–Aeschylus

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I walked through the strangely-quiet darkened hall, down the familiar stairwell, and exited under a leaden sky with light rain falling.  Students had left an hour or so earlier, and I was heading to a meeting regarding the next school year. Nonetheless, shouldn’t there be some magical feeling for the start of summer break?  Instead, all ranges of emotions churned within my gut. How could I feel celebratory when my heart was reeling from ANOTHER school shooting?  Meanwhile, the intensity of the rain increased . . .

Thinking back to the previous week’s events, I realize that powerful sentiments, including grief, were coming together like the confluence of several rivers vying for dominance as their waters merge.  35 years in education, and yet, all I could truly focus upon was the Uvalde community.  What hopes and dreams were savagely snatched forever–even from those who survived–while terror reigned supreme inside the school and confusion, disorganization, and unbelievable anguish surrounded the school?

What about the two Robb Elementary educators?  Between them, they had 40 years of teaching experience. Years of service to the community that were also brutally wrenched away.  They too had children, spouses, parents, and loved ones.  Their hopes and dreams were likewise vanquished.

Once more, a lone male–psychologically hurting–legally accessed weapons of war and played out his own private warfare on innocent victims.  While we can state the school was at fault for having a door open, as an educator, I know the reality of schools.  A door left open can happen (At the time of writing this, the report had not yet come out that, indeed, the teacher DID close the door, and the door’s lock malfunctioned).  However, an open door at a school, or any community building for that matter, should not be considered an implicit invitation to mortal combat.

I was teaching and pregnant with my daughter when the Columbine shooting occurred.  John, my husband, who is also an educator, and I sat in our modest house, silent tears streaming down our faces as we watched the news story unfold.  How could that happen?  Little did we know we were bearing witness to the start of what would become a terrifying trend in education. 23 years later, names of schools, nowhere near me geographically speaking, are as familiar as names of past students–Red Lake Senior High School, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook Elementary School, and Stoneman Douglas High School; and the list continues.  Countless schools with families and communities forever changed and affected.

Several years after Columbine, I was teaching Kindergarten, and it was the first time for the school to practice an “Active Shooter Response Drill.”  Given the fact that I had advance notice, I talked with my young students about the notion of “bad guys” and how the school had to practice what to do if a bad guy came to school– just like they practiced what to do in case of a fire.   

Per procedure, the coded announcement came over the intercom, and I quickly ran to lock my classroom door and instructed my students to hide and cover as we had previously practiced.  A well-meaning sheriff deputy repeatedly knocked on my classroom door stating things in an attempt to trick me to unlock the door.  One student began to softly cry, followed by another, and another as I crept from one student to another trying to allay their fears and reassure them that this was pretend.  Nonetheless, they were scared.

I share that memory to say, if those few moments of hiding in a darkened classroom evoked such a fear response in my former students, what terrors were experienced by those blameless children trapped in Robb Elementary School?  What conflicting emotions must the teachers and staff members have experienced as they tried to keep their students safe and calm, while thinking about their own families, and watching one of their very own Uvalde youth massacre beloved students and colleagues? 

Children are a sacred part of society, and the schools they attend are the heart of the community. When children and educators are in school, they should be active participants in learning, engagement, and educational problem-solving, rather than passive participants in a disturbed soul’s personal anger campaign. Parents, children, and educators should have the peace of mind that the school is valued, supported, and always protected by community leaders, policy makers, and societal structures, including local law enforcement 

I am sickened by the politicians, community leaders, and even some journalists, who use the Uvalde event as an opportunity to point fingers, grow their audience, and puff up themselves with haughty righteousness.  Their pandering, grandstanding, and virtue signaling are NOT solving the problem–which is multifaceted and requires multiple types of community interventions.  To them I say, get off your soap box, get into communities and listen–I mean really listen with both ears–and then, work for real solutions rather than sound bites.  Endeavor to genuinely serve your community, instead of posturing for cameras looking for the next crisis-opportunity for which you can preen and pose.

I end where I began this piece. Summer is starting, and schools have, or will soon be, dismissed for another academic year. Meanwhile, the blood of more children and more educators weaves and seeps into the soil and rubble of another school.  There will be no more summers for them.  No more new beginnings.

I once wrote about the importance of threading a needle when sewing. All the fibers of the thread must be concentrated and twisted together to go through the eye of the needle.  Like the fibers of thread, it is easy for one fiber to get distracted, and when that happens, the thread will not go through.  Once more, we, as a nation, are being asked to go through the eye of the needle.  This is an opportunity to bind the ties that connect us–schools, children, communities–and sew together the common ground on both sides of the aisle.  Can we avoid distractions, remain tightly focused, and come together in order to thread this needle?  The silenced victims of the Uvalde classrooms beg us to do that.

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Proffee or Protea: Beverage with a boost

“While eating an adequate amount of protein is not going to prevent age-associated loss of muscle altogether, not eating enough protein can be an exacerbating factor that causes older adults to lose muscle faster,” Wayne Campbell, a professor of nutrition science at Purdue University.

Recently, I listened to a podcast with a great deal of information about women’s health concerns after menopause.  I was stunned to hear that after the onset of menopause, women can lose up to 20% of their bone density.  Skeptic that I am, I decided to research this fact. Turns out, according to numerous bodies of research, including several articles cited on the National Library of Medicine, women lose up to 10% of their bone mass within the first five years after menopause. By age 60, according to a 2022 article by the Endocrine Society, most post-menopausal women have indeed experienced 20% bone loss, with one in two women suffering from at least one fracture in their later years of life.  I. Was. Stunned. 

While I’ve always known bone loss was a real thing, I did not realize the rapidity and significance of bone mass loss for post-menopausal women.  Furthermore, I discovered that somewhere between the ages of 65-70, men experience bone loss at approximately the same rate as women, according to the National Institute on Aging. Therefore, both men and women should be concerned about bone loss, especially if wanting to reap the benefits of one’s senior years with a healthy, fully-functioning body.

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That said, to those readers in their younger years, according to an article, updated in 2022 by Breastcancer.org, it’s never too early to take extra measures to prevent and/or slow the loss of bone mass, especially if you’re over the age of 30, when the natural loss of bone mass begins.  Common preventative measures for ALL ages include, but are not limited to ensuring a daily intake of calcium through dark leafy greens; fortified milks, juices, and cereals; low-fat dairy products; and/or taking a calcium supplement.  Additional bone maintenance measures include participating regularly in a variety of weight bearing exercises, such as running, walking, hiking, resistance training, weight lifting, and balance exercises; either quit smoking, or don’t start it; limit alcohol consumption to 1-2 drinks per day; and maintain a healthy body weight.  Finally, another commonly overlooked item is ensuring consistent consumption of daily protein. 

According to numerous recent articles, including 2019 pieces by the Mayo Clinic and Kaiser Health News, one of the biggest diet changes men and women over the age of 50 should make is increasing the intake of protein to support both muscle and bone health, especially since aging bodies process protein less efficiently. There are many valid reasons cited, but one of the most compelling reasons include reducing the likelihood of the loss of basic functioning, such as dressing self; walking up and down stairs; getting out of bed, bath, shower.  Additionally, increased protein intake helps ward off chronic or acute illness.  Furthermore, if experiencing a serious illness, surgery, or hospitalization, the added protein benefits the body’s ability to more efficiently metabolize protein, which significantly declines in times of stress, such as one experiences during serious health events.  This is especially important in the case of hip or knee replacement, or other similar surgery, in which large muscles will be underused. 

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The recommended RDA intake for protein is .8 to 1 gram of protein for every 1 kilogram of body weight (1 kilogram = 2.2 pounds) for the average healthy adult.  However, according to both the Mayo Clinic and KHN, adults over 50, should lean into slightly higher levels, 1-1.2 gram of proteins per 1 kilogram of body weight; however, those with chronic or acute illness or injury, should consider 1.2-1.5!  Ideally, this total amount is consumed throughout the day, with a serving of 25-30 grams of protein at each meal.  While supplements such as protein powders and/or ready-to-drink protein shakes are easy and convenient ways to increase protein to the diet, they should not be the end-all-be-all source of protein.  Instead, focus on consuming a wide array of whole food sources of protein such as lean meats, eggs, soy, nuts/seeds, quinoa, dairy, and beans/lentils.  

If you do choose to supplement with protein, as I am doing once per day, it is important to choose one that is low in sugar and other additives that can be harmful to the body such as heavy metals, thickeners, fillers, and extra ingredients with low nutritional value.  Personally, I look for a protein supplement with as few ingredients as possible that I can read/recognize/know and 20-25 grams of high quality, plant-based protein.  That said, protein supplementation is a highly personal choice, and I encourage you to take time to carefully read labels, research, and choose one wisely.  It should be considered only one tool in the toolbox of healthy nutrition along with consuming a wide variety of whole foods with heavy emphasis on fresh vegetables and fruits. 

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Below I am sharing a recipe for my currently favorite way of consuming protein.  It is super quick and easy.  I mix it up in the morning, take it with me to work, and sip on it with my lunch.  You may prefer it for or with breakfast, as an after work-out snack, or an afternoon pick-me-up.  It can be made with regular or decaf coffee or tea.  Personalize the ingredients, and make the recipe yours!

In the meantime, exercise regularly, eat whole foods–including lots of nutritious plants, maintain healthy sleep hygiene, and be mindful of your protein intake.  Here’s to your health and the health of your bones!  May you be strong and healthy for years to come!

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Proffee (Protein coffee)

*Ingredients:

4-8 ounces of favorite cold brew coffee

**4-8 ounces favorite milk (plant or dairy)

**4-8 ounces ice and/or water

**1-2 scoops favorite protein powder (I like chocolate flavored for coffee.)

Optional add ins:

½ teaspoon vanilla extract or powder

¼ teaspoon cinnamon or other favorite spice

Favorite sweetener 

Dash of salt

Protea (Protein tea)

*Ingredients:

4-8 ounces brewed tea that’s been cooled (black, green, matcha, etc. . .)

**4-8 ounces favorite milk (plant or dairy)

**4-8 ounces ice and/or water

**1-2 scoops favorite protein powder (I like the vanilla flavored for tea.) 

Optional add-ins for chai tea flavor:

½ teaspoon vanilla extract or powder

½  teaspoon cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ginger

⅛ teaspoon allspice

Favorite sweetener such as honey, brown sugar, etc . . .)

Directions for both recipes:

Combine ingredients in a shaker cup or blender.

Shake or blend well.

Drink immediately, or make ahead of time and store in the refrigerator for up to 48-72 hours; however, the recipe will need to be shaken again before consuming. 

Additional notes for both recipes:

*Feel free to adjust amounts/ingredients to personalize for your taste preferences and/or dietary needs.

**Milk, added water, and/or protein powder can be replaced with favorite ready-to-drink protein shake, such as OWN, CorePower, Boost, Evolve, etc. . . .

Cincinnati, Ohio–what a place to visit

“Humidity notwithstanding, summer seems to bring out the best of Cincinnati.”–Bill Dedman

I love all three of the states that make up our Tri-state area: Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia.  In fact, even though I was technically born and raised in Ohio, due to the fact that I live in its most southern section, I feel like a resident of all three states.  I have family in all three states, I have worked as an educator in all three states, and my husband, John, and I absolutely love to travel, visit, and explore all three states. 

Therefore, when the school for which John and I worked chose to resume the pre-pandemic tradition of the 8th grade trip–this year to Cincinnati–I was stoked.  Ok, so maybe stoked isn’t the right word. After all, we would be two of the chaperones of 8th grade students, which meant little sleep and a steady stream of focused vigilance, but what a great place to take students!  Professional demands notwithstanding, we would still get to see some sights and soak up the ambiance of this vibrant river city.  

St. Joseph Catholic Middle School 8th grade students at The Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, OH.

Ohio’s Queen City, Cincinnati, is known for many things, one of which is its professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Reds, and this was our first stop on our grand, post-pandemic adventure.  I would later learn that the Reds were the first professional baseball team to play under electric lights, with President Franklin Roosevelt flipping on the switch in 1935.  However, no special lighting was needed for a mid-day 12:35 first pitch start against the Milwaukee Brewers that our group attended. Little did we know we would also be witness to a piece of baseball history in the making. 

According to AP news, Brewer’s Chris Yelich tied the record for completing his 3rd cycle, all of which have occurred against the Reds. This means Yelich hit a single, double, triple, and homerun all in the same game.  Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for the Reds, his efforts were unable to help the Brewers as Cincinnati won 14-11.  Nonetheless, it made for an exciting game for the students to attend.

St. Joseph Catholic Middle School 8th graders jumping for joy at the Cincinnati Museum Center
St. Joseph Catholic Middle School 8th graders at the former Union Terminal.

Another stop in our three day, two night adventure, was Cincinnati Museum Center, once known as the train station icon, Union Terminal.  It is considered one of the last great American train stations to be built, and it is known for its art deco style, including the largest half-dome in the western hemisphere. With its so-called magical whispering fountains and the Winold Reiss mosaics, this once former grand station of transportation (trains, buses, and taxis) now features three museums, an Omnimax theater, and the Cincinnati History Library and Archives.  While there, our students were able to view the Cincinnati History Museum, with its contemporary addition of 15 hidden Marvel movie characters for visitors to spy, and the Museum of Natural History and Science, with its interactive physical science lab, Dinosaur hall, Neil Armstrong Space Exploration Gallery, and Ice Age Gallery.

BB Riverboats, at the Port of Cincinnati, was a first-time visit for not only the students, but also for John and I.  However, it will not be our last! Our students enjoyed a delicious buffet of freshly prepared food, three decks of sight seeing featuring one of Mother Nature’s spectacular sunsets, along with a DJ and dancing on the top deck. Sipping on Shirley Temple’s, the students enjoyed a wonderful evening of cruising on the mighty Ohio River with scenic views of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.  Personally, I have to give a shout-out to the May 12 evening crew and kitchen, not only for the specially prepared, and oh-so-tasty gluten-free, plant based meal for me, but even more so, for the way in which they treated our students and staff.  They were courteous, attentive, and very helpful–especially when we had one student become sick.  Thank you, BB Riverboats! It was an evening our students will long remember.

St. Joseph Catholic Middle School 8th graders at Newport Aquarium on the Levee.

Newport on the Levee and the Newport Aquarium were also fantastic stops on our whirlwind Cincinnati visit. The Levee offered plenty of dining options for the students to explore and savor.  There were also options for retail and entertainment, but our focus, after eating, was the Aquarium.  Students and chaperones were able to view all forms of aquatic creatures such as the dwarf seahorse, albino alligators, upside down jellyfish, stingrays, eels, cuttlefish, penguins, and so much more.  Plus, we were able to test our bravery by crossing a rope bridge over shark infested waters!  Well, maybe it wasn’t so much bravery that we tested as much balance. Regardless, the Newport Aquarium is always a great place to visit, especially on a hot day!

Our final Cincinnati highlight was the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden.  This expansive zoo is the second oldest zoo in the United States, opening in 1875.  Currently, its Reptile House is now the oldest zoo building in the country, and it is one of three buildings on site listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  However, none of these bits of trivia were why the students were there, they wanted to see the animals!  Featuring 21 different animal habitats, there were plenty of creatures for all of the varied students’ interests.  Our group spent five hours there, and even with that much time, there was no way to see all of the animals.  However, it was time to head home as we were all worn out.

Hanging out with the girls at Embassy Suites Cincinnati Rivercenter
Hanging out with the guys at Embassy Suites Cincinnati Rivercenter.

A great trip to Cincinnati must include a great place to stay, and our group certainly drew the lottery ticket for that. Embassy Suites Cincinnati Rivercenter, located in Covington, Kentucky, was the ideal location for a large group, but would also meet the needs of traveling families and individuals.  It is located on the south bank of the Ohio River, and it offered our group spectacular views into Cincinnati proper, especially at night.  The hotel served a daily breakfast buffet featuring made-to-order foods which was perfect for our group. Additionally, it offered a fitness center, pool–both of which our students loved– as well as pet-friendly rooms, on-site restaurant, business center, and so much more. The staff, featuring Danyelle Doherty, Sales Manager; Trish Buda, Reservation Coordinator; Kris Bridge, Front Desk; and the Food Beverage Crew for our stay–Ali, Tasha, and Al–offered outstanding, attentive service.  In fact, having chaperoned several of these trips in previous years, they offered, by far, the most helpful, thoughtful, and courteous service I’ve experienced with a school group.  If you’re in the area, we certainly recommend you consider staying with them.

On a final note, our trip would not have been possible without A Goff Limousine and Bus Company out of Charlottesville, NC.  Driver, Jackie Young, was not only an excellent, safe driver–exactly what you would expect when traveling with a school group–but she was incredibly flexible when it came to our schedule.  If something needed to be adjusted at the last minute, she was always amenable.  A former school bus driver, Jackie was relaxed and comfortable with students while still remaining professional.  Thank you, Jackie!

In the end, overnight school adventures, such as the one described here, are never easy and take teamwork to plan and execute.  John and I were/are fortunate enough to be part of such a team effort. From those who went on the trip, to those who were part of the planning, it would not have been possible without their support and planning. Additionally, our students made us proud as they behaved well and even remembered to tip.  I believe they returned home with many special memories for years to come.

Chaperones ready to go! Left to right: Me, Anisa Dye-Hale, Brittani Buckley, and John.
A student snapped this picture of John and me on BB Riverboat.

The Path

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Aging with Serenity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fudgy, Healthier Brownies (With Black Beans)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Isabella Mendes on Pexels.com

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

Recipe below pictures ⬇️

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

Fudgy, Healthier Brownies (With Black Beans)

Ingredients:

1 15-oz can black beans, drained and rinsed

2 fleggs* (can substitute with 2 eggs)

¾  cup cocoa powder

½ cup oats

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

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup sugar

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 tablespoon vinegar (apple cider or white)

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ cup or more chocolate chips

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

Instructions:

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

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

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allow to cool 10+ minutes before serving.

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

The Ceaseless Wonder and Amusement of Aging

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sometimes We All Benefit From Unplugging

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virginia Beach is for Lovers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sandbridge Beac

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enchilada Casserole

Ingredients:

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

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 cup diced onion

1 packet reduced sodium taco seasoning

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

1 can red enchilada sauce

1 cup salsa

1 small can of chiles

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

1 15-ounce can black beans, drained

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

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top with tortillas.

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

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

Allow to cool 5 minutes before serving.

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

Makes 9 small servings or 6 generous servings.

Refrigerate leftovers for up to 5 days.

Reheats well and makes great leftovers

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Step into Faith: Mood follows action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shadowy Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good morning, Sir.” 

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

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

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

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

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

May your light shine brightly.

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The Power of Whitespace

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

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

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

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Whitespace 

Creates

Balance and  Style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These donuts are ready to be eaten or glazed.

Gluten-Free Chocolate Donuts with optional Glaze

Donut Ingredients:

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

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

⅓ cup dutched cocoa powder ***

⅓ cup sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon vinegar

¾ cup milk

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

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Chocolate Glaze Ingredients:

½ cup gluten-free chocolate chips

1-2 tablespoons milk

2 teaspoons pure maple syrup

¼ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Directions:

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

To make glaze:

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

Recipe Notes:

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

  flaxseed is plant-based. 

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

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

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

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

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

 powder to ½ teaspoon and baking soda to ¼ teaspoon.

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

Enjoy!!

Celiac Disease is Real

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is gluten

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

Celiac disease requires consuming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another tasty brand of bread products.

Choose Joy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I choose joy!

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

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It’s never too late to Bloom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moist and springy inside, bursting with blueberry goodness!

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

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


Blueberry Lemon-drop Donuts with Glaze 

(with gluten-free and vegan options)

Ingredients

*2 eggs or fleggs 

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

¾ cup oat flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

¾ teaspoon cinnamon

Zest of one lemon

1 tablespoon vinegar 

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

¼ cup sugar

¼ cup maple syrup

½ cup milk

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

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

Glaze

1 cup confectioners sugar

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

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

1-2  tablespoons favorite milk, if/as needed

Directions

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

Zest lemon and set zest aside.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

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

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

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

Stir into dry ingredients until just combined.

Gently fold in blueberries.

Divide batter evenly among donut pans.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recipe Notes:

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

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

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

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

Early to Bed, Early to Rise

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

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

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

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

Checking off goals in the predawn hours.

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

*Early risers tend to be more proactive about their day

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

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

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

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

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

*Morning exercise boosts the brain 

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

*Outlook and sleep quality improves while risk for depression decreases

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

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*Increased productivity

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

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

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

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

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Cardinal Song and Snowstorm Memories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why haven’t they called school off yet?

Spoon under pillow, pajamas inside out and backwards;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steph, how ‘bout a glass of wine?

No, really, I shouldn’t.

Well, maybe just a glass that turns into two

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

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

May I stay up a little bit longer?

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

Can we read two chapters tonight? 

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

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

Sigh! How swiftly the hands of time spin.

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

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

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Life Must Be a Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gluten-free Snickerdoodles (with vegan option)

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

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

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

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

Ooo! Snickerdoodles cooling on a wire rack!

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

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

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

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

Gluten-free and vegan? Yes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gluten-free Snickerdoodles (with vegan option)

Ingredients for topping:

¼ cup sugar

2 teaspoons cinnamon

Ingredients for cookies:

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

1 ½ cup sugar

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

1 tablespoon vinegar

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

3 cups all-purpose, gluten free flour

2 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

Directions:

If using flegg, mix first, and set aside.

Mix sugar and cinnamon together, and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place parchment paper on a cookie sheet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Store cookies in an airtight container.

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

Are you hungry yet?

Like a Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

“So it’s kinda like a prayer, huh?” 

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

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

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

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

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