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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ingredients:

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

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

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

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice

1 tablespoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

1 can (15 ounce) pure pumpkin 

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

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

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

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

White sparkling sugar or cinnamon-sugar

Directions:

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

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

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

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

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

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

Divide batter evenly among prepared muffin cups.

Sprinkle muffin tops with white sparkling sugar or cinnamon sugar.

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

Allow muffins to cool on wire racks before serving

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

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

Foggy Morning Leads to Sunshine Breakthrough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cake: The bittersweet recipe for life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 They shall mount up with wings as eagles

They shall run and not be weary

They shall walk and not faint

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

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

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

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

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

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Under Pressure

“Pressure pushing down on me

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

Splits a family in two

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

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

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

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

Watching some good friends screaming

‘Let me out!’

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

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

“ . . . Ee do ba be

Ee da ba ba ba

Um bo bo

Be lap . . .”

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

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“ . . . People on streets

Ee da de da de

People on streets

Ee da de da de da de da . . .”

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

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

Sat on a fence but it don’t work

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

Why, why, why?

Love, love, love, love, love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And love dares you to care for

The people on the edge of the night

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

Caring about ourselves . . .”

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

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

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

“ . . . This is our last dance

This is our last dance

This is ourselves under pressure

Under pressure

Pressure”

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

Chocolate Cake Mix Cookie Birthday Bars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chocolate Cake Mix Cookie Birthday Bars

Ingredients:

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

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

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

1 teaspoon vanilla extract or powder

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

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

Optional: White sparkling sugar

Directions:

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

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

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

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

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

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

Gently fold in oats and chocolate chips until well combined.

Press mixture into pan.

If desired, sprinkle with white sparkling sugar.

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

Allow to cool before cutting into 16 squares.

Store any uneaten bars in an airtight container.

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

*“Flegg” egg replacement recipe:

1 tablespoons flaxseed (Chia seed works too.) 

3 tablespoons of water. 

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

“Fear: False Evidence Appearing Real

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Good Morning Goodbye to Summer

“ . . . Goodnight mush

And goodnight to the old lady whispering “hush” 

Goodnight stars

Goodnight air

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On a great big earth

There was a virus

And a numerous people of worth

And a picture of–

Distractions of media birth

And there were numerous world leaders sitting on chairs

And there were markets

And there were targets

And people were moving

And the bug was stewing

And there was more spread that grew in a rush

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

Goodnight school

Goodnight need for much fuel

Goodnight countless people of worth

Hello time at home

Hello best-not-to-roam

Hello extra family time

Hello singing wind chime

Hello work from the table

Hello time for evening cable

Hello bedtime at dark

Hello paths of local parks

Hello time spent in nature

Hello medical danger

Hello life with COVID-19

Hello people on a virtual scene

Goodbye summer months that went by fast

Hello school bells ringing at last

Hello to the students I will see

Hello to the in-person teacher I will be

Goodbye warm lunch peacefully eaten alone.

Goodbye work from home

Hello continued work-friend, Google Chrome

Goodbye quarantine that abounds

Hello, the virus is still around

Hello to spaced out chairs

Hello to continued and fervent prayers

Goodbye work day morning run

Goodbye savoring dawn’s sun

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

Goodbye sweatpants

Goodbye, my growing green plants

Goodbye quarantine life . . .

May this school year and fall 

be safe for all 

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

Indulgent Chocolate Chip Brownie Bars aka “Brookies”

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

Remember the rhyme that went something like this . . . 

“Rain, rain go away. 

Come again another day. 

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

Rain, rain go away.” 

Well, I’ve rewritten it.

2020, go away.

Don’t come back another day.

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

2020, please go away.

Photo by Evie Shaffer on Pexels.com

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

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

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

Photo by Miguel u00c1. Padriu00f1u00e1n on Pexels.com

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

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

Since when?  I never heard of it.  

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

“No, Mom, you didn’t.”

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

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

“Sorry, Mom.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indulgent Chocolate Chip Brownie Bars aka “Brookies”

Ingredients:

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

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

½ cup oil (I used applesauce.)

½ cup water

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

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

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

3 tablespoons milk, dairy or plant-based

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

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

Directions:

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

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

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

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

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

Spread brownie batter over the bottom of the baking dish.

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

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

Add in melted butter and mix until combined.

Gently spread chocolate chip batter over brownie batter. 

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

Allow to cool.

Makes 12-16 servings.

Store in an airtight container.

“Flegg” egg replacement recipe:

2 tablespoons flaxseed (Chia seed works too.) 

6 tablespoons of water. 

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

Becoming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Container Gardening: A Lesson in Parach (Thriving)

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

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

These red peppers are thriving in the abundant sunshine.

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

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Mahmudul Hasan Rifat on Pexels.com

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

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

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

As seen on Instagram at heartcenteredrebalancing.

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

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

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

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

Volunteer Seeds of Kindness

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

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

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

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

As seen on Instagram at mylifebt.

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

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

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

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

As seen on Headspace app.

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

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

As seen on Instagram at meditation_and_mindfulness.

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

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

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

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

As seen on Instagram at positiveenergyalways.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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

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

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

As seen on Instagram @ Postiviteenergyalways

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

As seen on Instagram at postiveenergyalways.

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

*Raspberry Lemon Muffins

Ingredients:

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

Zest from one lemon

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

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

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

¾ teaspoon salt

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

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

¾ milk (I used a plant based version.)

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 teaspoons vanilla extract 

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

White sparkling sugar (Optional)

Directions:

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

Zest one lemon, and set aside for later use.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Line 12 muffin tins with a parchment paper. 

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

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

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

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

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

Gently fold in flour coated raspberries into batter.

Divide batter evenly among 12 muffin cups.

Sprinkle with white sparkling sugar if desired.

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

Makes 12 muffins. 

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

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

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

Bonus Recipe:

*Raspberry Buckle

Ingredients for Buckle –the cake part:

¾ cup sugar 

¼ cup soft shortening 

1 egg 

½ cup milk 

Zest from one lemon

2 tablespoons of lemon juice

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract or powder

2 cups + 2 tablespoons flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

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

Ingredients for topping:

½ sugar

⅓ cup flour

½ teaspoon cinnamon

¼ cup softened butter

Directions:

Zest lemon, and set aside.

Mix together ingredients for topping, and set aside.

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

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

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

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

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

In a separate bowl, blend together dry ingredients.

Mix dry ingredients into wet ingredients until just combined.

By hand, gently fold-in in raspberries.

Carefully spread into the prepared baking pan.

Spread topping over all of the batter.

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

Allow to cool 10-20 minutes before serving warm.

Once cooled, stored in the refrigerator.

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

Makes 9 servings.

As seen on Instagram @ lauriereasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embrace Your Inner Oak

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

Branches splayed, offering glimpses of bluebird skies

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

Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

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

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

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

As seen on Instagram at andrew.w.fischer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As seen on Instagram at positiveenergyalways.

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

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

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

As seen on Instagram at positiveaffirmations101.

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

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

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

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

Sheltered in the shade of the canopy.

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

May my life be more like that of an oak.

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

Berry Beneficial Acai Smoothie

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

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

Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s to your health! Cheers!

Berry Beneficial Acai Smoothie

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

Base Ingredients:

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

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

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

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

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

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

½ tsp vanilla extract

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

*Optional add-ins:

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

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

1-2 tablespoons of favorite nut butter

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

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

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

Add in banana, cut into chunks. 

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

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

Blend until smooth.

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

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

Mmm, drink in that refreshing fruit and veg!

The Nature of Outdoor Exercise

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

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

Photo by Retha Ferguson on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

Photo by Burst on Pexels.com

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

Image from St. Mary’s Proctorville Walking Path

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

Image from Kanawha Trestle Rail-Trail.

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

Images from Kanawha Trestle Rail-Trail

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

Images from Kanawha Trestle Rail-Trail

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

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

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

Images from Kanawha Trestle Rail-Trail

Without belaboring the details, those proverbial clouds are thinning, and the mental clarity is brightening once more. Sure, the gradual progression from walking to running feels good, but it’s the getting outside in nature and the people/critter-watching that are really at the heart of it.  Yes, I keep my distance from others, and I do have my mask nearby, but I typically do not wear it while exercising.  (The research seems to be mixed regarding whether one should or should not wear a mask, but all agree that social distancing is still the rule regardless.)  Seeing trees, smelling grass, feeling the uneven surface of a path under my feet, hearing the call of the red-winged black-bird, and even tasting the fresh air of each inhalation–I feel a renewed connection.

Image from WWI Memorial Path, Ritter Park, Huntington, WV

Several years ago, I learned that each person’s heartbeat is unique.  No two people’s hearts beat at the same rhythm. Add to that tidbit, the wonder and magnificence of each creature, each blade of grass, each birds’ song, each rock’s shape–all are distinctive and all are connected by the universal pulse of the Divine Creator.  Being outside and immersed in nature, I am reminded that I am connected to a bigger picture.  I am in awe of the wide-screen image of mankind, all of God’s creatures, Mother Earth, and the universe beyond; and in those moments, my mind is as free as the pitter patter of my own heart and two feet. 

Photo by Daniel Reche on Pexels.com

Whether walking, running, biking, kayaking, fishing, or simply enjoying a cool breeze in the shade, I hope you make time to get outside and soak up some of the sweetness of the natural wonder that is our world.

As seen on positiveaffirmations101 on Instagram

P.S.

Dear Reader,

Word Press, the company with which I use to produce this website/blog, recently updated, and I don’t quite have the hang of how to edit and arrange pictures. Please bear with me over the upcoming weeks as I learn to re-navigate this wonderful platform.

We all need a little patience

“In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future.”–Eric Hoffer

“Change is only felt when it is drastic.”–Lailah Gifty Akita

Dedicated to the teachers with whom I work, and all the other educators, near and far.

As I step into the warm shower, pulsating water beats down on my tight neck, my low back is still dully throbbing from the previous day’s efforts, and my feet, my heavens, my feet, they are pulsating from the constant pounding of walking on concrete.  

It’s Friday.  You can do this.  Everyone is feeling similar aches–it’s not just you.  Yes, but most others are a heckuva lot younger!  You can do this; you’ve done this before–albeit, not so drastic . . . or was it?

Students working at school in the age of COVID and an era of paperless (as close to it as possible) education.

I remember following the Special Education Coordinator of the county school district in which I had first been hired fresh out of college.  I felt proud, excited, and eager.  The clipped, rhythmic pace of her heels as they click-clacked across the tiled floor resounded–even more so when she continued on into the gym.  At the time I couldn’t understand why we were in the gym when she was supposed to be taking me to my classroom.  

Tables cleaned and sanitized well before 7:30 am when the students begin arriving to homeroom.

Eventually we made our way to the opposite side from which we entered, walked up some steps, and began walking under one side of the gym’s bleachers.  Clickety-clack, clackety-click, past what looked like one semi-formed classroom through another vaguely formed classroom until we reached the end.  This was to be my so-called classroom with not a single window.  No textbooks.  No materials.  Broken desks.  Dirty teacher desk.  Not even real walls for two sides–just the underside of bleachers, a rolling chalkboard, one concrete wall, and metal, padded locked door with Junior ROTC weapons stowed away behind it.  All 4’11’’ of me would be serving 15-25, 9-12 grades students in this space, the majority of which were lanky, long males who did not want to be there.

Gone were those meticulous lesson plans and the abundant, never ending resources of Ohio University.  The colorful, bright, window-lined classrooms arranged, organized, and utilized based upon the current, best educational practices were nowhere to be seen.  It was 1987, so there was no internet, certainly no cell phones, and those education journals to which I had been advised by academia to subscribe were certainly not going to be of help in this unbelievable setting.  This was a drastic change, and yet, I somehow found a way to make it work for two years before facing my next challenge . . . 

Moving on to another district, I was assigned to teach twelve, K-5 grade level students with severe behavior and emotional issues that often required restraint, in a metal portable classroom isolated from the rest of the school.  I was young and foolish enough to think this was a good idea–a good move for my career.  Certainly, it was financially speaking, but after one day of passive restraint training, I began to wonder.  

Although this classroom had four walls, it was empty and bare, save for a few tables and desks.  Then, there was the challenge of all those different age ranges.  Developmentally, a kindergartener is miles apart from a fifth grader.  The challenges and changes I faced over the next seven years, the unbelievable behaviors I witnessed, and the most heart-wrenching stories–seriously, seriously horrible–still haunt me to this day.  No child should undergo what those children went through.  Baby bottles filled with beer, children sexually abused, parents addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, older children responsible for numerous younger siblings while mom did tricks for drugs . . . the gut wrenching stories never seemed to have an end.  On top of all of this depravity, it was the early 90s, autism was not clearly understood and accurately identified as it is now.  Therefore, I also had several autistic students, mistakenly identified as “behavior disordered” alongside students who were often prone to violent outbursts.  Given the combination of all of these factors, I honestly do not know how I made it work–and yet, somehow Divine Providence helped me through it all.

I have experienced numerous changes in education since those first nine years of my careers, many of which were drastic, and all created unique circumstances for which I was ill-prepared, but none can compare to the combination of educating in the midst of COVID while simultaneously teaching both in-person and virtual students at the exact same time.  As an educator, my colleagues and I are tasked with keeping kids safe from a pandemic-worthy virus, care for their emotional well-being, and educate them in the socially distanced manner of their parents’ choosing–at school or from home–attending a regular schedule of classes through the technological wonders of the imperfect internet.

Each morning begins well before sunrise, in order to begin planning, organizing, and posting from home.  Arrival at school for teachers starts well before 7:00, as each teacher must mix fresh bottles of both disinfectant and sanitizer that is used before and after every class change.  Students begin arriving in our classrooms by 7:30 after going through a routine check of health questions, temperature check, and hand sanitizing procedures.  Classes officially begin by 8:10 after morning announcements, prayer, and pledge.  As students enter my classroom, they must wait until all tables are sanitized.  Then, I must quickly log in and connect my chromebook with my virtual students for that class period.  While I am doing this, in-person students set up their tri-fold, clear plastic dividers and log onto Google Classroom.  We are all masked, and by the end of the day, my voice, and those of my peers, are hoarse from projecting through the barrier of the material covering our mouths and noses.

The day begins mixing fresh batches of both disinfectant and sanitizer. Tables, light switches, door handles, class counters, and sink area all clean well before the 7:30 arrival of students.

While offering instruction, I am simultaneously monitoring, engaging, and facilitating with students within my classroom and those at home.  This also means I must work hard to be as paperless as possible for the benefit of all students, but especially those who are participating virtually.  Then, there are the technological glitches that can cause delays, interruptions, and malfunctions with both groups of students.  Additionally, I am trying to learn, assemble, and implement a multitude of on-line educational platforms to enhance, streamline, and engage all levels of students.  By the day’s end, my Fitbit watch consistently reveals that I have taken anywhere from 15,000-20,000 steps with minimum time spent outside of my classroom walls.  

If the first week is any indication, my work day will consist of a constant stream of decisions, sanitizing, and juggling–juggling in my mind to best meet the needs of both in-person and virtual learners–as I work to redefine the art of facilitating instruction.  Never in my previous educational training did I ever receive training on how to engage and instruct students in a meaningful way during a pandemic.  Nor have I ever seen so many of my fellow teachers experience such high levels of anxiety, stress, and discomfort as I have in one week of school.  The emails from students and parents never end, and it feels as if there is not enough time, nor enough of each teacher to go around. 

And yet, that experience of my early years tells me that we will all adapt, grow, and learn from this.  Educators are a formidable, flexible force driven by the passion to educate and care for all of those entrusted into our care.  However, educators, parents, and students all need extra doses of patience with one another, the ever-evolving educational technological tools, and with ourselves.  The type of drastic change we are undergoing requires much patience, tolerance, and a new level of understanding. Educators and educational institutions are all trying to rapidly respond to a situation for which there has been no previous experience.  There are bound to be countless bumps along this new educational trail which we are currently blazing.

Personally speaking, I am stepping out of my comfort zone, stepping up my game, and stepping into a new role that feels very uncomfortable.  I have never been the most technologically savvy person, but I am learning—some of it on my own through trial and error, but most of it from my professional peers as well as my students  Therefore, I implore parents of students, far and wide, please be patient with teachers and schools.  We want to educate and care for your child as badly as you do, but cutting remarks, critical emails, and sensationalized social media posts only undermine our efforts and morale.  Instead, kind words, thoughtful notes, and genuine appreciation for our efforts can go a long way in supporting our new role within your child’s life. We understand this isn’t easy for you as many of us are parents too.  We understand that you are your child’s number one advocate, and you want what is best for them, but so do we.  We want to keep everyone safe and healthy, both emotionally and physically, including ourselves.

In conclusion, let us focus on what connects us–the well-being and education of children.  Let us, as a community, be supportive of one another as we forge together through this brave new educational world; so that, one day, we can look back on this, as I do on my early years in education, and proudly declare, “We did it; we really did it.  Look how far we’ve come!”