Gluten-free Apple Spice Muffins with Optional Walnut Topping

“It’s unsettling to meet people who do not eat apples.”–Amiee Bender

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I love apples.  From tart to sweet, from bright green to crimson red, and all shades in between, as long as it is a crisp, juicy orb of an apple, I’m ready to slice it up and eat it up.   Some of my favorite apples are Fuji, Granny Smith, Honeycrisp, Pink Crisp, and Pink Lady, to name a few, due to their crisp texture and bright taste.  Whether eaten alone, smeared with a bit of peanut or almond butter, or chopped and tossed in a salad, apples are a mainstay of my family’s refrigerator.

Fall, in our neck of the woods, is apple season.  Prices and selections of apples are at their prime. Additionally, new types of apples are marketed with more regularity, so this is the perfect time of year to explore new apple types.  In fact, it was only a few years ago that Honeycrisp was considered “new,” and now it is one of my favorite types of apples.

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I recall one of my friends, Jan, bringing a bag of sliced Honeycrisp apples to a Marshall University soccer game as a snack for our kids, who were both youth soccer players at the time, and the reason for our attendance at the game.  These were well before the days of MU’s Veterans Memorial Soccer Complex; nonetheless, we all enjoyed the game, and the kids loved those yummy apple slices.  Due to that experience, Honeycrisp apples entered into our family’s regular rotation of purchased apples.

Speaking of Jan, she and I were recently discussing Thanksgiving traditions and plans for this year.  Jan described a favorite spice cake with nuts and cream cheese frosting that her aunt made when she was younger.  As family lore often goes, this aunt shared her recipe at the request of numerous relatives, but all who made the recipe agreed that it never tasted as good as when the aunt made it.  Jan mused if the aunt had “accidentally” left off an ingredient.  (Which made me giggle because my sweet grandmother once confessed to doing that with one of her recipes!)

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Upon reflection of this story, and the added remembrance of our family’s introduction of Honeycrisp apples, that, a-hem, a seed of an idea was planted.  Could I create an apple-spice muffin recipe without cream cheese frosting–for which many in my family will be saddened, I’m certain, but with partial nuts? (Some like nuts, some do not.)  The answer is what follows below.

 My recipe is gluten-free, but if you do not have to consume a gluten free diet as I do, then feel free to use regular all-purpose flour.  Additionally, I kept the recipe plant-based and oil-free because it is easier on my sensitive digestive system.  That said, if that is not your preference, replace ½ cup of applesauce, with ⅓ cup oil or melted butter instead.  Additionally, 2 eggs can replace 2 “fleggs.”  Oh, and why vinegar? It makes the batter more acidic which, in the end, makes the muffins (or cake) fluffy, yet still moist.  

This recipe requires a bit more work than other recipes, but it is definitely worth the extra effort.  Your kitchen will be filled with autumnal aromas as the muffins bake.  Brew up a pot of coffee or your favorite tea, invite over a friend and/or family member, and swap stories while savoring these warm muffins.  You never know what your conversation could inspire, or conspire!

Gluten-free Apple Spice Muffins with Optional Walnut Topping

Ingredients:

Optional topping 

2 tablespoons butter (can substitute plant-based “butter”)

½ cup brown sugar

2 tablespoons of gluten-flour 

½ cup chopped walnuts

½ teaspoon cinnamon

⅛ teaspoon salt

Muffins

2 apples, peeled, cored, and chopped (I used Honeycrisp, but feel free to choose another type!)

1 ½ cup gluten free all-purpose flour (Can use regular all-purpose flour.)

1 cup gluten free old fashioned, rolled oats

2 teaspoons cinnamon

½ teaspoon ginger

½ teaspoon allspice

½  teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup brown sugar

¼ cup sugar

½ cup apple sauce

2 fleggs* or eggs

½ cup milk (or plant based alternative) at room temperature

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Line muffin pan with parchment paper

If using topping, mix it together first and set in the fridge while mixing batter.

*If using “flegg” instead of eggs, stir together 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed with 6 tablespoons of water, and set aside in the fridge for 15-30 minutes.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, oats, cinnamon, ginger, clove, nutmeg, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

In another large mixing bowl, combine brown sugar, sugar, applesauce, fleggs (or eggs), milk, vinegar, and vanilla.

Add in flour-spice mixture and mix the batter 1-2 minutes until the batter begins to thicken. 

Stir in apples.

Divide batter evenly among muffin cups.

Scatter with topping.

Tip: I cut the nut-topping recipe in half, and only topped half of the muffins.  On the half without nut topping, I sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. Finally, you can skip the nut-topping altogether, and/or stir in ½ cup chopped walnuts into batter when adding in chopped apples.

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

Remove from the oven and allow muffins to cool in a pan set on a wire rack.

Serve warm.

Store any uneaten muffins in a storage container/bag in the fridge or freezer for up to two months.

**Updated option: When baking for those who may not like nuts, or simply can’t have them either, eliminate the nuts from the optional topping, or divide all of the topping recipe in half add simply add 1/4 cup walnuts to one half, and leave the other half of the topping, nut-free.

Mix the dry ingredients.
Combine rest of ingredients.
Mix one-two minutes until batter thickens.
Stir in apples.
Gently mix together apples and batter. Then divide among muffin cups.
If desired, sprinkle optional walnut topping over tops of muffin batter before baking.

Kitchen Table Secrets

“Everybody is a story.  When I was a child, people sat around kitchen tables and told their stories. We don’t do that so much anymore. Sitting around the table telling stories is not just a way of passing time.  It is the way wisdom gets passed along. The stuff that helps us remember a life worth living.”–Rachel Naomi Remen

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I saw her on the opposite side of the block, the woman with purple cord-like hair wound round her head like a hat.  She walked along the sidewalk at the opposite end of me, and she carried what appeared to be a purple calico print backpack on her back. Talking uninhibitedly to herself in a syncopated, sing-song voice, she did an about face and turned toward a man as he stepped out of his car into the damp, cold morning air.  

“Hey, Mr., wanna buy me some breakfast?  Breakfast is good.  Food is good.  I like breakfast food.”

I could not hear his soft reply, but I heard her sadly chime a truncated response.

“Ok, ok.  I am not bad.  I am not bad. Just wanna sit at the kitchen table with Mamaw.  Just wanna sit and eat at the table with Mamaw.” 

The woman, from my distance, appeared to be not much older than my own 22 year old daughter, and emotions suddenly choked my throat and clouded my heart.  I wanted to wrap my arms around, as if she were a small child, and take her back to her home–wherever that may be. In spite of this woman’s evident mental illness, she seemed to long for the comfort, safety, and shelter that we often find at the family kitchen table. 

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Kitchen table memories spooled out in my mind plain as thread, and some were just as colorful.  Many were fond and warm pictures–snapshots of holidays past. Others were remembrances of various familial situations. I was adrift in a kaleidoscope of images; snippets of moments glided through my mind as leaves the colors of amber, crimson, and tangerine, freed from the bondage of a tree, take flight in autumn breezes.  Impressions of full bellies, hot coffee, spirited–or sometimes intense–conversations, and purposeful work endeavors around one piece of furniture continued to tumble about . . . 

Homework and games

Puzzles and paints 

Posters and patterns to sew

Papers typed late into the night

Stacks of bills to pay

Budgets in need of balance

Dancing eyes sharing stories

Tears that break the heart

Conversations and disputes,

I think I need to leave the room

Set the table please

Platters of food to share

May I please be excused?

Not ’till you clean your plate

Spills that demand to be cleaned

Bubbled burps of Friday night soda

Mix well with pizza and chips 

Quarter fines, ‘cause

Burping is rude

Peals of explosive laughter 

Oh no, we’re in trouble now

May I please have some more . . .

What about waffles with peanut butter?

My friend is spending the night

Do I have to do her chores?

Pass the butter please

No, you can’t go out with your friends!

May I have another roll please?

Do you realize the seriousness of your actions?

Come in and sit a spell, friend

Did you hear about this?

Why, yes they say it’s true

Now, listen, you can’t believe everything you hear

Birthday cakes and cookies sprinkled

Presents wrapped with curls of shiny ribbon

Curlers set, braids woven

Talks of dreams and

Future plans filled with hope

Remember when?

No, it went like this.

Did she really throw a fork at Uncle?

Well, they were wrestling

Brothers nearly tore down the kitchen

Over the last piece of cake.

It’s your turn to clean the dishes

But I had to do that last week!

Remember to sweep under the table

Whispered late night conversations

Big changes coming soon

If only kitchen tables could talk

At the heart of a home, there is the kitchen table–a field of harvested memories and land for new seed to sow.  It is my wish, as we gather, eat, converse, and work around our own kitchen tables, that we take time to not only nourish our bodies, but also savor the moments with one another, and form kitchen table memories and traditions worth sharing and passing on to future generations.  May we remember those who have gone before us, and love the ones who remain.  May we likewise take time to pray for those without homes, looking for a kitchen table at which they can sit and sip a cup of comfort.  May those lost souls find some form of peace and solace, and may they one day be reunited, or united, with people who love and care for them.  

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My final prayer of hope is for the unknown young lady with wound cords of purple hair. May she be safe and well.  May she no longer roam the streets alone, and may she make her way back to her Mamaw’s kitchen table.  After all, she was once somebody’s baby girl.

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Threading a Needle–Embracing Imperfection Wholly

Spare me perfection. Give me instead the wholeness that comes from embracing the full reality of who I am, just as I am. —David Benner

Here I am, photographed at home in a dress Mom sewed for me.

As a child, my mother sewed a large portion of my clothes, especially my dresses.  Of course, I took this talent for granted as a child.  In fact, it wasn’t until I was in my early twenties, and shopping for so-called “professional” clothes to wear while student-teaching that I began to truly realize what a gift mom’s sewing had been for me. 

It was my senior year at Ohio University, Athens campus.  It was still the era of the quarter system across most Ohio universities throughout the state. This meant that I had a break from Thanksgiving through the beginning of January.  Therefore, I used this time to work, and this year was no exception.  However, since I knew I needed appropriate clothes for student-teaching, I landed a job at Lazarus (now Macy’s) at our local mall.  My goal was to not only work, but also to take advantage of the employee discount and after-Christmas sales.

I am pictured far right with the high school group of special education students I taught inn 1987. Notice how oversized my store-bought clothes were!

I already knew that I needed to shop in the petite section of the women’s department as I was (and am) less than five feet in height, but what came as a shock to me is how long so-called “petite” sleeves and lengths of skirts, dresses, and pants were!  Plus, according to manufacturer measurements, my body shape did not fit into a precise size category.  Without belaboring the point too much, it was during these tear-filled hours spent in the Lazarus dressing room desperately trying to find a few items to fit my proportions that my appreciation for my mother’s tailoring grew.

Thinking back to Mom’s sewing, I can recall the efforts she would take to thread the needle–literally and figuratively–while sewing clothes for me. While she would begin each dress, skirt, or blouse made for me with a purchased pre-made pattern, she would also painstakingly take my measurements and alter the size of the pattern accordingly before cutting the cloth.  Throughout the sewing process, she would pin the cloth first, ask me to put it on, adjust the proportions as needed, and then thread either the sewing machine needle or her own personal needle to stitch each piece together.

The dress my Mom stitched for me in honor of my college graduation.

  In order to sew one complete dress for me, Mom was required to thread one of those needles repeatedly, perhaps even thousands of times.  I can recall countless moments of watching Mom attempting to insert the thread through the eye of the needle. Thinking back on it, she had to ensure all of the fibers/strands of thread fit through the tiny eye together. If one strand did not go through, the needle was not properly threaded, and she had to try again. The thread had to go through the eye wholly to live up to the task required by Mom.  In fact, in order to prevent a strand from sticking out, Mom would often wet the thread’s end and twist it tightly together.  Both creator and creation had to be fully concentrated in order for all fibers to fit through the eye. 

Reflecting upon this, I realized what powerful lessons were there in Mom’s sewing. On one hand, there is the lesson of flaws.  Mom, the creator of my dresses, did not see me as flawed–not fitting some arbitrary manufacturer standards.  Rather, she saw me as a whole–as the Creator sees each of us.  Mom was able to take my unique dimensions and measurements in order to create a whole piece that fit one-of-a-kind me.  Her fully, concentrated threads and efforts afforded me the opportunity to be adorned in perfectly fitting clothes, so that as a child, I could fully and wholly concentrate on my own efforts and energies into typical childhood endeavors.  

On the other hand, Mom’s repeated endeavors to thread the needle also provides another lesson–one of our Creator, and the way in which we were designed to live.  When Mom fashioned clothes for me, she had to take my so-called flawed measurements–measurements not taken into account by the pattern manufacturer.  Additionally, she sometimes had to use fabric remnants, old thread, or even mismatched thread to sew various items of clothing for me.  There were times her needle broke, her stitches were off, or a measurement was off.  There were times I even watched Mom painstakingly pick out all of the stitches along one piece, and start all over.  No matter the mistakes, accidents, mismatched thread, or sale-fabric, in the end, it wasn’t the flaws that I saw and wore, it was the whole–the entirety of the piece.

My grandparents and me photographed on the steps of their church. I am wearing a dress Mom sewed for me for Old-Fashion Days celebration.

That is how the Creator designed us to live–wholly.  Humans are not perfect, nor were we meant to be perfect.  Just as I am not “standard-sized,” our lives are not either.  It is our imperfections, blemishes, and fallibility that make us perfectly human. By embracing ourselves as we are–flaws and limitations–we are able to find our strengths and uniquenesses.  Furthermore, our mistakes, our errors, and our unfortunate times of sorrow all work together to create a richer and more wholehearted approach to life and to others–after all, how can we possess empathy for other humans if we live a “perfect” life.

It is only when we take time to bind our individual talents and gifts, along with our imperfections, that we are able to thread the eye of our lives. We were designed to be “non-standard.”  How would any work site come together if we all had the same skill-set?  In fact, how would any couple, family, team, town, and so forth, grow, develop, and thrive together if everyone were the same.

My brother, Scott, and me, once more in outfits stitched by our mom.

Life is not standard.  No one person is standard.  Each of us, however, is whole–wholly imperfect and Divinely designed to offer this world what no one else can offer.  Let each of us embrace our differences, and embrace the differences of others too. As brown sugar, butter, flour, and chocolate chips individually come together in a hot oven to create delicious cookies, so too do the trials and fires of life bind us together.  It is my lesson to learn and share that life is more beautifully adorned when we openly and humbly accept our imperfections and allow the Creator’s thread to bind us together in order to live our perfectly, imperfect designed lives.

My brother, Scott, and me, I am a dress stitched by mom.

There’s Always a LIttle More Left

“Effort is like toothpaste: you can usually squeeze out just a little bit more.”–attributed to a former pastor, Rev. Larry Brisker

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Have you ever been so tired that you feel a bit lightheaded?  I know I have personally experienced that feeling on more than one occasion, and it can be a bit worrisome.  Scenes of traffic accidents caused by the driver that fell asleep often enter my mind on those bone-tired days as my thoughts have a tendency for dramatic, worst case scenario. 

Recently, I was standing at my classroom whiteboard, writing something in preparation for the incoming class.  I could feel the lead weight of my fatigue as if I was wearing the heavy x-ray protective vest worn once a year during a regular dental check-up. The lined dark circles under my colleagues’ eyes that I had observed that morning revealed that I wasn’t the only one, and the students coming and going from my classroom looked just as worn down. 

As the next class began, I asked the students how they were doing before beginning instruction. One student honestly answered, “I’m really tired, Ms. Hill.  I just want to sleep.”

Other students piped in their agreement. I thoroughly understood.  Long gone were the well-rested days of August and September.  By this point in the school year, students’ stamina was wearing down.  Their growing bodies and minds were in need of a rest, but the school calendar stated it wasn’t yet time.    

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I needed to encourage them to hang on a bit longer.  Therefore, I shared with this particular group the lesson of the toothpaste tube courtesy of my own long, ago teen years.  It was handed down to me via an object lesson designed to emphasize the importance of the morning’s scripture reading given by a former, beloved pastor, Rev. Brisker. Unfortunately, I do not recall the scripture.  However, for the sake of illustrative purposes, I’ll use Luke 1:37, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” 

Sitting in the small sanctuary of the church in which my family attended about the time I entered my teen years, I sat with my red leather bound Bible with my name embossed in gold lettering across the bottom.  It was one of those Bibles with thumb-cut indexing, so that the user could find the books of the Bible with ease. While I cannot pretend that I was always this attentive–I was a teenager after all–I do recall paying attention long enough to look up the scripture the kindly pastor read . . . at least most weeks.

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On this particular Sunday, I know that I was daydreaming as I gazed out one of the sanctuary windows.  At the time, the windows were not stained glass, but instead covered with wavy, flame shaped, pastel shades.  While I could not see outside, I could observe that the sun was shining brightly, and I was ready to get out into it.  Plus, I was probably hungry by that point too!  It was hearing his wife’s name, Rita, that caught my attention.

If ever there was a saint on earth, Rita was one!  Though she was full of good-humor, and loved to heartily laugh along with her husband, her gentle, tenderhearted nature always shone through her eyes.  Why was he talking about Rita in his sermon? 

Refocusing my attention, I realized Rev. Brisker was talking about their family budget in order to help make a point.  He described how the closer it got to payday, the more they had to stretch their budget in order to make ends meet–a relatable topic as one of four kids.  He described the way in which Rita and he had to constantly remind his own three kids to turn out lights, don’t waste products such as shampoo and other toiletries, serve yourself an amount of food that is only what you’ll eat, rather than waste food, and so forth.  These were certainly common themes in my own childhood household.

He then focused on the amount of toothpaste the kids tended to use.  This was the time period in which toothpaste tubes were made of some sort of collapsable metal. Rev. Brisker described the effort and pains Rita would take to squeeze and compactly roll the tube of toothpaste in order to “squeeze out a little bit more.”  It was then, Rev. B lowered the hammer.

With God, he proclaimed, nothing was impossible.  There was always a little bit more for each of us–more strength, more perseverance, more love, more patience, more kindness, more gentleness and so forth.  God’s budget was (and is) an endless supply designed to increase our strength and meet our needs.  Rev. B encouraged his flock to know that through prayer, and a bit of effort on our part, we could make it through whatever challenges we were facing.   From managing a family budget to facing down a personal crisis as well as any other number of obstacles in between, we could endure and squeeze out a little bit more.

I wish I could say that my students were super motivated and inspired by that story.  Most were rather unfazed.  However, that remembrance served as a powerful reminder to myself, and hopefully to you, Dear Reader, that we, too, can keep going.  There’s always a little more toothpaste in the tube of life.  Hang in there, my friends, hang in there.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Banana Bars

“What’s the point in having a sweet tooth if you don’t use it?”–unknown

I blame my parents.  Who else am I supposed to blame for my sweet tooth? While both of my parents eat an overall healthy diet, they also like their dessert from time to time. I confess, I am the same way.  It’s all about moderation and balance, and, well, never underestimating the power of chocolate . . . or peanut butter! 

I enjoy nearly any form of chocolate!

About a month ago, I baked my grandmother’s traditional recipe for chocolate frosted brownies.  It is a family favorite from an old 1930s or 40s vintage Betty Crocker cookbook.  While it is not vegan, I can say it is vegetarian; and anyway, I am not about so-called perfect eating.  Besides, it’s not like I bake Grandmother Helen’s brownies on a regular basis.

My mom had dinner with us on the evening that I baked brownies, so I sent a few home with her.  The next day, my daughter walked into the kitchen where I was food prepping my work lunches for the week, laughing and shaking her head.  She said that while talking to my mom on the phone, “Gran’ma confessed to spreading peanut butter all over the brownies before eating them.”

Mash up the banana first. I find a pastry cutter perfect for this!

At first, that seemed sacrilege!  How could she desecrate that beloved, treasured family recipe?  The horror of it!  What was she thinking?

“Sounds like a good idea to me!” said my husband.  “I just might try that!”

He had a point.  Peanut butter–and almond butter for that matter–are like dessert.  Nothing can improve a bad day like nut butter.  In fact, I would argue that nut butters, as a rule, have a certain calming quality to them!  During my younger years, when annoying bodily afflictions, such as acid reflux, were nearly non-existence, banana and peanut butter was one of my favorite go-to meals.  This led me to thinking . . .  which is always dangerous!

Stir in the peanut butter.
Add in the rest of the liquid ingredients.

I began to wonder if there was a plant-based, gluten-free compromise-recipe I could find or create.  Thus, my research began.  Scrolling through one web-site after another, I eventually landed on two different recipes. One recipe was from a web-site entitled, “It Doesn’t Taste Like Chicken,” and the other recipe was from a web-site called, “Purely Kaylie.”  

Add in the dry ingredients.

Using both of their recipes as scaffolding to create my own variation, I did a bit more research on baking with both oat milk and oat flour.  These two ingredients, I decided, would not only increase the nutritional value, (Read between the lines–ease the guilt of my sweet tooth!) but also eliminate gluten and dairy products since I have celiac disease and prefer to eat plant-based.  Additionally, I also conducted a bit of research on the science of baking with dutched cocoa, my preferred cocoa, and I learned that it bakes more effectively with baking powder, rather than baking soda.

Stir in chocolate chip and mix until just blended.
Pour batter into prepared pan and sprinkle with remaining chocolate chips.

I made this recipe on a Saturday afternoon, and our entire home was redolent with the scent of baking chocolate.  The recipe was super-easy, requiring only one bowl, and honestly took no longer than 10 or so minutes of active kitchen time. The oven did the rest.  Once cooled, I cut the recipe into 9 generous sized squares and stored part of them in a plastic container in the fridge. I could have frozen them for future weekend cravings, but they did not last that long.

Give this recipe a try.  Enjoy it for breakfast, as a dessert, or a grab-and-go snack. It’s a mostly healthy, guilt-free way to have your cake and eat it too!  

All to cool before cutting into 9 generous squares.
Who prefers corner pieces???

Chocolate Peanut Butter Banana Bars

Ingredients: 

2 *fleggs (2 tablespoons of ground flax seeds + 6 tablespoons water)

1 cup ripe mashed banana–about 2-3 bananas (The bananas should have brown spots.)

1/2 cup sugar or equivalent sweetener

⅓ peanut butter

¼ cup favorite milk (I used oat-milk.)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup flour (I used oat flour to keep it gluten-free, but any all-purpose flour would work.)

½ cup cocoa powder (I prefer to use Dutched Cocoa powder as it dissolves more quickly.)

½ teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

⅔ cup chocolate chips (I use Enjoy Life chocolate chips.  They are dairy and allergy-friendly.)

Directions:

Combine ground flaxseed with water in a small bowl and set in the fridge for about 15 minutes to thicken.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Lightly coat, with nonstick cooking spray, a square 8 x 8 baking pan, or line it with parchment paper.

Mash banana in a large mixing bowl.

Mix in sugar, peanut butter, milk, vanilla extract, and flegg.

Stir in the dry ingredients–flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, & salt–but do not over mix. Gently fold in half of the chocolate chips.

Spread batter evenly as it will be fairly thick.

Sprinkle batter with remaining chocolate chips.

Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Allow to cool for at least 10 minutes, preferably longer, before attempting to cut into 9-squares.

Store in an airtight container for up to a week in the refrigerator, or freeze for up to three months.

Mix ground flaxseed and water first. Set in fridge for about 15 minutes before using for best consistency according to my research.

*Flegg= flax “egg”, which is a plant-based, allergy friendly substitute for eggs.

All Work and No Play

Walking into work this past week, I began to make my way up the flights of stairs lined with windows.  Above the alley filled with cars, a squirrel scurried along a wire.  I paused long enough to observe this rodent. It scooted forward at an energetic pace, then paused, precariously balancing above the unsuspecting vehicles, then scampered along a bit further until it was out of sight. 

Continuing my ritualistic workday ascent, I reflected on the delicate balancing act of the trapeze-squirrel and the ways in which it reflected our current work culture. Since the onset of COVID, the demands and pressure upon the labor force have greatly increased. From longer work hours to added levels of responsibility, many workers feel a lack of control over their work environment–which are often becoming more socially toxic.  Additionally, workers frequently cite insufficient reward, a lack of fairness, and even a conflict of values with the ever increasing work demands.  It’s no wonder that many workers choose to walk away. Unfortunately, the downside for those who choose to remain is that they are merely expected to pick up the extra workload, usually without any appropriate compensation or support.

A squirrel on the playground at my own worksite in the evening sun. There is actually another squirrel nearby, but it dropped out of sight just as I clicked the photo.

To add further fuel to the fire, complaints of worker burnout are often met with the belief that there is something innately wrong with the employee–that the worker is “not the right fit,” or “not a team player,” rather than examine the workplace culture. This has led to one of the highest levels of “quit-rates” since the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics began keeping records” according to their April 2021 data.   In fact, based on a growing body of evidence, it’s looking as if those business leaders who do not seriously rethink how they approach the workplace culture will most likely face issues with worker retention and shrinking work pools, leading to decreased productivity and/or unreliable timelines. 

While the term “burnout” has been around for decades, the World Health Organization only recently identified worker burnout as a real phenomenon beginning in 2019.  According to Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, worker burnout is caused by high levels of stress causing the worker to feel cynical and distant from their job which in turn affects their productivity, and more importantly, their personal health. He believes that burnout is a “serious health hazard”

Meanwhile the squirrel’s health is at risk as hawk waits above for his opportunity to attack.

“No job is worth the risk of stroke or heart disease.”–Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General

To add further support to the WHO’s identification of worker burnout phenomenon, Winona State University has identified five distinct stages of burnout.  These stages include: 

The Honeymoon Stage:  The excitement of the new job/role/position does not allow the worker to realize their workload is unrealistically large as it can be easily written-off due to the newness of the job, but can soon enough push the worker into the next stage. 

The Balancing Stage:  The employee begins to struggle with life-work balance. As the scales tilt more towards work, fatigue, sleep disturbances, and early signs of dissatisfaction lead to self-detrimental, coping behaviors, such as increased drinking, eating, smoking, and other forms of escapism.  With continued worksite pressure, the employee is nudged closer to burnout.

The Chronic Stage:  The worker is now often filled with persistent anger/resentment, depression, chronic exhaustion, physical illness, and so forth. 

The Crisis Stage:  Without intervention, the worker is overwhelmed by feelings of jadeness, powerlessness, pessimistic thinking, and ready to walk away from not only the worksite, but their chosen professional field.  

The Enmeshment Stage: If this same worker remains, they move into “enmeshment,” a point in their career where they may be held in high regard by their coworkers, but on the inside, the worker feels like another cog-in-the-wheel, unhappy, and trapped–stuck in an unfulfilling role that leaves them dissatisfied.

“Burnout is nature’s way of telling you you’ve been going through the motions your soul has departed.”–Sam Keen

Finally sensing the danger, the squirrel runs away from the work site.

Unfortunately, management, administration, and/or owners can often be tone-deaf to their workers’ heightened levels of stress.  In fact, according to research, the self-help industry and employers appear to blame the workers. Therefore, many workers indeed accept the blame without question, and those workers who do express concerns to management, are often rebuffed with off-hand comments or insincere promises, such as:

“Working long hours never hurt anyone. I like to work long hours.”  

“I still find time to do x, y, or z, with all the demands I have.” 

“It’s only for the short-term, and you’re so good at what you do.” 

Other management teams will offer token trinkets, swag, and so called “social” events/meals–with the expectation that workers don’t break to enjoy the event or meal, but either grab-and-go-back-to-work or remain longer at the work site with co-workers.  Some businesses hold annual health or wellness meetings in which employees are instructed to regularly incorporate self-care practices, such as deep breathing, yoga, exercise, or take fresh air breaks, but in practice, the business maintains its habits of scheduling back-to-back meetings, emailing their workers late into the evening or throughout their weekend, and/or remains committed to the expectation that workers pick up an extra shift or assume an addition role with little to no opportunity for those self-care breaks, much less compensation.  In fact, the culture of many work-sites seem to have an unspoken creed that working longer hours with an increased load and no breaks is often seen as a badge of honor and an esteemed level of productivity. 

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“Even the loveliest shoulders can bear but so much.”–Jill Alexander Essbaum

Worker burnout is, as one researcher writes, a “canary in the coalmine”  If the canary cannot breathe, it is not the canary’s fault but the coalmine, and so it is with burnout.  While there are some actions within the workers control, such as “setting boundaries” to the degree possible, attempting to get adequate rest, nutrition, and/or engaging in enjoyable activities outside of work–these practices can only go so far.  The less input/control workers have for their length of work hours, the type of activities in which they must engage, and little sense of fairness, the more likely burnout will continue. 

As I see it, this brave new work environment requires creative solutions. Enticing job fairs with their flashy flyers, free food, and dressed-up off-site location are merely bowls under the roof of a leaky attic–the leaking holes still remain within the structure, slowly eating away at the stability of the framework–but do not address the real issue.  

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Reflecting back to the squirrels, researchers know that squirrels are most active early in the day as they scatter collections of food in a variety of spots to stave off hunger during more meager times of the year. However, these active periods are also filled with moments of free-spirited play.  While young squirrels play the most, adult squirrels daily engage in some form of play, be it solitary or interactive.  As the day progresses, squirrels begin to wind down and spend up to 60% of their time sleeping. 

It is not unusual, at the end of my workday, to find several squirrels with their lively chitterings, dipping and diving with one another in a rambunctious game of chase.  Their high spirited antics never fail to make me smile in the slant of the evening sun. If I observe long enough, they take breaks here and there to gather food, dart away to some unseen cache, and quickly zip back for more frolicsome play.  I can’t help but wonder if the workplace could learn a lesson or two about what makes a healthy and productive work environment from our fellow squirrels.

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In Pursuit of The Meaningful Path

“It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”–Viktor E. Frankl

If you are familiar with my writing, you may have deduced that I have a significant appreciation for the Ritter Park Rose Garden. Throughout the year, I try to visit this local garden at least once per month, but more often if possible.  There is certain pleasure I derive from observing the various transformations of these bushes through each season.  I enjoy noticing the way their blossoms alter and progress through the seasons, and I even relish their stark, cut-back, bloomless appearance in winter. Throughout a large portion of the year, most bushes are not picture-perfect, but that fact does not take away from the positives each visit offers me.

It is not, per se, my attraction to roses that draws me to this garden, for I would happily regularly visit any formally planted botanical garden were there others within close proximity to my home. Rather, I have regard, not only for the miraculous seasonal changes provided by Mother Nature, but also an admiration and acknowledgement of its caregivers.  I have often encountered these seemingly tireless keepers of the garden tending to the needs of the plants in all seasons of weather and range of temperatures.  These garden custodians consistently employ their knowledge, skill, and attentiveness even though they most likely get paid a minimum income for implementing.  

“It’s the time you spent on your rose that makes your rose so important…You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed.”–Emily Esfahani Smith

I was reminded of the talented rose gardeners while listening to bits of a podcast, ironically enough, while jogging through Ritter Park after a quick walk through of the rose garden.  The person interviewed held the basic belief that happiness is an elusive and ephemeral feeling that is not sustainable for long periods of time.  In fact, this self-proclaimed expert maintained that much shame and feelings of “less than” are associated with not feeling happy all of the time.  The same person further added that living a meaningful life was far more satisfying and sustainable than buying into the belief that one should be happy all of the time.

After about ten or so minutes of hearing this expert’s philosophical point of view, I turned off the podcast and let my mind search for greater understanding, or should I say meaning, as my feet continued their thump, thud, thump along the crushed gravel of the Ritter Park path.  My mind turned, examined, and played with this intriguing thesis.  I recalled that at one point there was a brief spike in marketing purpose-driven books and other media content, but when scrolling through current popular self-help authors, media influencers, and publications, many of these outlets pitch the if-only-you-do-this then you can lead a happy life.  This philosophy often focuses heavily on receiving and acquiring for the purpose of gratifying personal needs/wants rather than giving to or focusing on the needs of others.

The podcast had a point: there are hard times in life.  You, or a loved one, will get sick.  There is a possibility that you might lose and/or have to change your job and/or life role.  This may require learning to live in a new way, perhaps even in a new geographical location.  Income may be lost, gained, and even lost again.  Accidents will happen.  Loved ones will die.  I am told that even pandemics can occur!  The point is, none of us can always be happy.  In the words of the band R.E.M., “Everybody hurts, sometimes.”

Reflecting over the past few years, I realized the level of uncertainty, fear, and sadness many of us, myself included, have experienced due to COVID.  However, as I mulled over the podcast interview, I realized that at some point this past year, something changed within me.  In spite of experiencing some fairly significant discomfort due to changes and losses, I find myself once more satisfied with my work this year–even during this, my 35th career year in education.  If you had asked me last year, or even the year before, if I was content with my work, I would have told you that I was ready to quit, ready to walk away from it all, and look for a new path.  

“The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.”–Carl Jung 

However, this year, in spite of facing numerous challenges, my continued role as a teacher once more seems fulfilling–in spite of not having near the financial rewards as many of my peers with 35 years of experience in their chosen vocations.  What has been the difference?  The podcast thesis hit the nail on the head: it’s the meaning I derive once more from my work–which had been greatly reduced throughout the virtual experience.  This school year, I can once again witness firsthand the difference my job makes, especially those lightbulb moments, when a student’s face lights with the joy of new found knowledge or greater understanding.  While not every day is filled with those illuminating moments, and I am certainly not happy in every moment; I know what I do benefits the students–that is the difference.  

Nonetheless, not everyone can have a career from which they derive great meaning, but there are still multiple opportunities from which to acquire meaning. From parenting to volunteering, to various roles, responsibilities, and personal pursuits, there are many ways which any of us can create more meaningful ways of living–even if you aren’t “happy” every moment in which you are participating. Consider parenting, for example. Most parents, if they are honest, will confess to not always being happy.  However, when asked if their role as a parent adds meaning to their life, most will say, “yes.” Otherwise, who would want to become a parent?  

“As much as we might wish, none of us will be able to go through life without some kind of suffering. That’s why it’s crucial for us to learn to suffer well.”–Emily Esfahani Smith

 Part of our unique human experience is undergoing a wide range of emotions, so why should we believe we are “less than” because we are not, per se, happy.  Perhaps, as a human collective, especially in the first world, if we put greater emphasis on the development of fortitude, perseverance, and stamina–which are especially important skills during challenging times–we might not feel like a so-called “failure” when we are experiencing negative emotions, such as sadness, grief, loss and so forth.  

Suffering is a built in part of life.  While not all suffering is the same, and the aftermath varies from experience to experience, the fact that suffering temporarily robs one of happiness does not equate with a less meaningful life.  Rather than constantly searching for sources of happiness, we might all better benefit from participating in more meaningful activities, especially those that focus on contributing to others.  Then, when the trials come, and you know they will, you can reflect back to those meaningful moments and know that once you get through this tough time, you can live with purpose once more.  We cannot always be happy, but we can have a life filled with moments that matter and make a difference.

Sowing Blossoms of Memories

“Good memories are the key not to the past, but to the future.”–Corrie ten Boom.

Plant seeds of memories. Plants seeds of remembrance. Plant a memory garden.  Plant a garden of memories.  On and on my mind randomly spun, attempting to capture and interpret the essence of what my sleeping subconscious brain was trying to communicate to my waking mind.

It was 4:00 am on a Saturday morning.  During the workweek, I rise at that time, three of the five days, in order to make time to exercise before work; therefore, it is not uncommon for me to wake at this time on the weekends, only to roll back over and fall back asleep for a couple more hours.  However, my mind commanded, well semi-commanded, my attention.  It was trying to send a message from the netherworld of sleep.

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I do not know if this is true others, but quite often, during the night, my mind can sometimes chew over finding a solution to an on-going problem, refocus my attention to a point I had overlooked/forgotten, or–as was the case on Saturday– draw my awareness to a an idea, point, or lesson that life and/or Divine Providence, was attempting to teach me.  During my younger years, I found this helpful for retaining, learning, or understanding new information, especially when it came to taking a test.  Throughout the various changes in my career, this capability has augmented my ability to adapt, modify, and/or change roles.  Most often in my present life, that nocturnal niggle has become a reliable source of creative ideas and/or lessons in personal development for which I have learned to listen. 

Therefore, as I moved throughout my morning on Saturday, I kept mulling over those phrases.  In fact, my poor brother, at one point, was the recipient of my waxings about how those ideas came to be in my mind in the first place and what on earth those phrases were teaching/telling me.  It wasn’t until I made my way to Ritter Park late in the morning that the ideas began to bloom more fully.

Since Saturday was my birthday, I decided, rather than run, I would walk and just enjoy the fall weather that had recently swept into the Tri-State area. The sun was in and out, fighting to shine its light through the moody clouds.  I made my way towards the steep stone stairs to the Rose Garden as I chose a funk and soul playlist in honor of the infamous Earth, Wind, and Fire classic, “September,” whose lyrics I often change to the “25th of September” instead of the 21st, when singing. Fortunately, for those whom I passed, I wisely chose NOT to sing aloud since I can’t carry a tune!

“God gave us memory, so that we might have roses in December.”–J.M. Barrie.

Making my way around the Rose Garden, I was reminded of the way in which summer flowers brilliantly bloom in early fall before the first frost.  It is as if they are sucking the last bit of joy juice out of the soil before fading with the falling leaves. Likewise, candles, just before they are about to burn out, tend to flicker their brightest light.  Am I in the fall of my life, I had to ask myself.  Is that what woke me at 4:00 am? 

With this birthday, my age shifted a bit closer to the sixth decade of life.  During the earlier morning conversation with my brother, we were discussing retirement plans–with all the big questions. To what age should we continue to work?  Remain in the same job or not?  How long do we want to work at the pace/pressure in which we currently work?  How long will we still be viable and contributing members of our chosen professions?  While we both agreed that we are probably both years away from that ultimate decision, we needed to be more cognizant of this impending reality.

Earth, Wind, and Fire morphed into Sam and Dave, followed by Marvin Gaye, and then the Isley Brothers. The happy-vibe music playlist continued to offer an upbeat soundtrack to my wandering mind as my feet moved in time with the beats. Words of Robert Frost’s poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay” floated through my mind as I watched a leaf drift downward, side to side, and land gently on the trickling waters of Four Pole Creek . . .

“ . . . Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf . . .”

Am I planning seeds of memories?  Am I cultivating, nurturing, and caring for the blossoms in my memory garden?  Am I a good steward of my memories?  Are there more seeds I should be sewing in this garden?  Am I sharing my blooms and planting seeds in other gardens?  Does my garden of memories offer beauty, gentleness, and goodness to the world?  Does my memory garden reflect the Divine’s intention for my life, and am I improving the soil on which I was planted?  Ultimately, when I can no longer plant seeds of memories, will I still have blooms to hold in order to shine my brightest?

What about you, Dear Reader?  How is your memory garden?  Is there more good will that you can sow?  Are you cherishing the garden into which you were planted?  Are you dispersing more seeds of positivity and hope into the world as the dandelion sends out white seeds in the winds of spring and autumn? 

“. . . So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay . . .”

Life is fleeting, but oh-so-sweet with people you love and cherish by your side.  Make a difference in the soil into which the Ultimate Gardener planted you.  Maybe you dream of a far away land, and one day, you may, indeed, get there.  In the meantime, make a difference in the garden into which you are now rooted.  Share your gifts, talents, and time.  It’s easy to go negative.  It’s easy to throw up your hands in surrender.  Neither choice, however, will plant a garden of good memories.  

May your memory garden, and mine, be long filled with blooms.

 

Made From Scratch Black Beans–The Magical Food

“Three of the most beneficial, longevity promoting, anticancer foods are green vegetables, beans, and onions.”–Joel Fuhrman  

Let’s face it, many people, myself included, lead hectic lives. Balancing the demands of our time and energy with the desires of a little bit of comfort and/or down time, while also knowing we need to set aside time for good nutrition, can feel like an impossible task, especially when it comes to our budgets.  With the costs of food, fuel, housing, and other living expenses rising, who doesn’t want to save a little money and shave a little time whenever possible?  Saving time and money, while maintaining one’s health and sanity, can seem elusive. 

Black beans pack a cost-effective nutritional punch.

Enter the humble bag of dried beans–budget friendly, healthy, and honestly, not labor intensive! With a wide variety of beans from which to choose, dried beans are quite versatile. Even if you choose canned, beans are affordable on just about any budget and can be cooked into numerous recipes.  However, with a little bit of know-how, and especially with a pressure cooker–either electric or stove top–dried beans can be super easy to fix and much more economical than their canned counterparts.

Adding salt to the soaking water, in order to create a brine-soak, is optional. Some cooks debate whether or not you should, but most experts seem to agree that salt does allow the beans to soften even more.

Black beans and soybeans are the cornerstones of longevity diets around the world.”–Dan Buettner

 Beans are often one of the most overlooked, and even undervalued, sources of protein.  Chock full of iron, antioxidants, fiber and other nutrients, beans are a nutritional powerhouse that can be eaten daily.  In fact, regular consumption of beans is often considered an important dietary consideration in many longevity studies, including the popular, “Blue Zones,” coined by author, Dan Buettner, in his National Geographic article, “The Secrets of a Long Life,” and expanded upon in his book, The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest.  In fact, regular consumption of beans offers multiple benefits for the body.

Beans can soak up to 24 hours. The longer the soak, the softer they cook up, and the easier they are to digest.

A diet filled with regular consumption of beans and legumes can reduce LDL cholesterol by up to 5 percent!  In particular, black beans, with a whopping 15 grams of protein and 15 grams of fiber per one cup serving, have a low glycemic effect.  Therefore, eating black beans may reduce spikes in blood sugar, which may also lead to a reduction of risk for diabetes.  Additionally, the high fiber and high protein count of all beans, but in particular black beans, also keeps you feeling satiated longer which could lead to weight loss, or at the very least, maintenance of a healthy weight without feeling deprived. Black beans are also an excellent source of folate, manganese, magnesium, thiamine, and iron.  Talk about a nutritional dynamo!

Rinse well after soaking beans for desired length.

“Beans are such a nice, neutral canvas, you can make a big basic pot of them and then play around with them differently every day.”–Crescent Dragonwagon 

Black beans are versatile too. They are wonderful with almost any rice variation.  Stuff beans in tortillas or taco shells, sprinkle them on salads, add them to soup or chili, spoon them over potatoes, chips, or even fries. Black beans can also be made into brownies or added to a pan with a touch of oil and/or broth, heated up, and mashed into refrieds. They can also be blended into fun dips, such as black bean hummus. The choices are nearly limitless, as black beans–also known as turtle beans– have a mild, almost sweet flavor that lends itself well to a variety of spices and condiments as well as other additions, such as avocado, oranges, peppers, onions, tomatoes, spinach, kale, chili powder, cumin, salsa, garlic cilantro, chiles, to name a few.

Draining the cooking broth from the beans after cooking is a personal choice. I typically save most of the cooking broth, and use a slotted spoon for serving.

Come on, don’t be afraid.  Cooking beans from scratch isn’t hard, time consuming, or expensive.  If you don’t have a pressure cooker, you can always use a crock pot or cook low and slow on a stove for several hours–freeing your time up to do other tasks while keeping your budget in check.  

Open an inexpensive bag of beans, pour ’em into a bowl, add salt and water, then let them soak for up to 24 hours while you go about your life. When you’re ready, cook them up, and let the magic begin!

I encourage you to give this recipe a try.  If I can do it, anyone can do it!  Let me know how it goes!  I’d love to hear from you!

Leftovers can be stored in the fridge or up to a week or frozen for up to 3 months!

Ninja Foodie or Instant Pot Black Beans

Presoaking (Quick or Overnight)

1 cup dried black beans

3 cups water 

1 teaspoon kosher salt or ½ teaspoon table salt

Ninja Foodie or Instant Pot Black Beans

Adjust, eliminate, or add in spices to taste preferences.

1-2 teaspoon olive oil (optional) for those who prefer a little fat added to their beans

1-2 teaspoons minced garlic

½ cup chopped onion

1 cup soaked or dried black beans

1 dried ancho pepper or ½ teaspoon ground ancho chili powder 

½ teaspoon garlic powder

½ teaspoon onion powder

½ sea salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

2 teaspoons reduced sodium taco seasoning

2 cups of water

1 cup vegetable broth

Juice of 1 fresh lime (optional) 

Directions for soaking if preferred:

If using a traditional soaking method of  8-10 hours (although beans can be soaked longer–up to 24 hours–if preferred), place beans, water, and salt in a glass bowl. 

(Feel free to cover for the sake of cleanliness.)

Allow beans to soak either overnight or during the day while away at work. 

When ready to cook, drain in a colander or mesh basket and rinse well.

If using a quick soak method, place dried beans, salt, and water into a pan.

Cover and bring to a boil over medium-heat, and allow to simmer for 5 minutes.

Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature for approximately 30 minutes.

When ready to cook, drain in a colander or mesh basket and rinse well.

OR skip all of the presoak methods and simply measure out dried black beans and rinse well before using. 

Ninja Foodie or Instant pot cooking directions:

Swirl oil in the bottom of the pot if using.

Add in minced garlic and onions.

Next add in black beans.

If using a dried ancho pepper, place it on top of beans.

Sprinkle on desired spices–either following my list of ingredients, or go rogue by adding, eliminating, or adjusting the listed spices–they’re your beans after all!

Pour on water.

Fasten the pressure cooker lid and set the nozzle to seal.

Click high pressure, and set time for cooking.

IF beans have soaked, set cooking time for 5 minutes; IF beans have NOT soaked, set cooking time for 25 minutes.

Once the cooking cycle stops, allow the recipe to sit for at least 10 minutes (Do nothing with lid or seal.)

Carefully release the pressure seal, avoiding skin contact with the steam. (Trust me, it can burn!)

Once steam has fully released, carefully remove the lid, stir, and serve.

If you prefer, drain beans; however, I find that the beans store/taste/texture remains best when stored in a bit of their own broth, but it’s really personal preference.  We simply use a slotted spoon to ladle beans.

Can be stored up to one week in the refrigerator or in the freezer for up to 6 months.

Makes approximately 3 cups of cooked beans.

Recipe can be doubled! 

Add your favorite vegetables, starch, and condiment(s) to your made-from-scratch beans, and you’ve got one healthy meal!

Baby Stepping into Growth

“Strive for progress, not perfection.”–Anonymous

During a recent conversation with a new mother, she shared with my husband, John, and me, the plight of her recent episode of sleepless nights.  The mother explained that her nearly ten month old daughter had learned the joys of pulling-up and cruising around furniture for short bursts of time.  Enamored with her newfound skill, the baby girl was now waking during the night in order to practice her newly discovered skills. While the new parent was thrilled and excited at the baby’s achievement of this new milestone, her eyes were rimmed with dark shadows due to her lack of sufficient sleep.  However, as the parent continued to share various stories of her baby’s zig-zag pattern of progression–crawling and rolling by day, pulling up and cruising by night–the mom’s eyes, nonetheless, sparkled with delight.

Initially, as many parents do, I reflected on my own daughter’s development.  She was much more interested in mastering her vocal and verbal skills at the nine-to ten month period.   Her interrupted sleep, at least at that age, was to wake and explore all the ways in which she could babble, vocalize, and soon enough, form meaningful words.  It wasn’t until the 10-11 month period that she became more interested in pulling up and cruising.  Even then, it seemed that she pulled up with the sole purpose to practice all the ways in which she could use her voice!

My daughter’s path of development was not better or worse than the parent’s child, rather it is an example of the varied and unique ways in which children’s bodies and brains develop. In fact, John and I took great amusement in the fact that our own daughter would be more interested in learning to talk before walking.  Likewise, the new mom did not criticize or compare her baby’s progress to that of a child who had mastered walking, rather she focused on her child’s progress.

Upon reflection, the next day, I realized that there was a nugget of wisdom in that story that was worthy of more contemplation.  Reflecting, not only my daughter’s unique mastery of walking, but also upon what I understand as an educator regarding child development, I recognize that learning is all about progress, not perfection.  In fact, the same is true for establishing new habits or making/adjusting to a drastic change in life.  Cultivating growth, change, and learning, in the real world, moves slowly through up and down periods of time.

My parents did not compare my development as a toddler to that of my grandfather!

“Sometimes the smallest step in the right direction ends up being the biggest step of your life. Tiptoe if you must, but take a step.”–Naeem Callaway

Reflecting on the ways in which babies learn to walk, child development experts state there are certain milestones, such as, sitting, rolling over, crawling, pulling up, cruising, and so forth, that parents should expect. During the process, the baby will learn to balance while standing, then bounce while standing, and might revert back to rolling or crawling. Eventually, however, the child will return his or her interest to pulling up, and perhaps begin to attempt cruising, but may still go back to crawling for a while–or in the case my daughter–focus on developing verbal skills.  

The point is that while so-called experts can point to certain milestones of development, in reality all children learn to walk (and talk) at his or her own pace–some taking longer or shorter periods of time than others.  However, we never compare the child-learning-to-walk to a so-called “master-walker.” Can you imagine a parent or grandparent saying to a baby learning to walk, “Why aren’t you walking like so and so?”  Instead, we foster and encourage each, well, baby-step along the child’s unique time-line of progression.  Which led me to wonder why so many of us, myself included, don’t do that for ourselves?

Nor did my parents compare my brother’s baby steps to his older sister (me).

Why do we, as adults, compare our own progress–or for that matter the progress of school age children–to that of a so-called, “master.”  While having a goal is absolutely worthy, as the old adage states, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and neither is progress.  In fact, I often have conversations with parents of students that growth often happens in fits and starts.  Each student’s brains are wired uniquely, and thus learning never occurs in a straight upward angled line.  The same is also true for adult learning. 

All progress–be learning a new skill, establishing a new habit, or changing/eliminating a bad habit–looks more like the zig-zag pattern of learning to walk.  How many times per day does a baby who is learning to walk fall down?  Are we ever disappointed in the baby when he or she does this?  No!  Instead, as loving adults, we say words to encourage, foster, and inspire the child to try again.  In fact, I would argue, it is the adult’s positive attitude that is part of the baby’s motivation to get up and try again–at least until they are too tired.  Even then, as we put the baby to bed, we know that tomorrow’s is a new day, and he or she will be right back at it again in the attempt to learn to walk.

No matter how long or meandering the path toward progress is, keep on stepping into the version of your best self!

“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”–Martin Luther King Jr.

Thus, this is the type of attitude that we should offer ourselves in our attempts to instigate personal change and growth.  Start with small steps towards the desired goal.  If you “backslide” and revert back to old habits, such as when babies revert back to crawling, get back up the next day, and try again.  Don’t compare yourself to others with self-defeating thoughts or other comparative notions. Each of us has our own distinctive way of learning, changing, and/or progressing.

I would have never told my daughter that she should give up on learning to walk, much less called her a failure when her interest in walking was put on pause for several weeks as she focused on her vocalization.  That was part of her own idiosyncratic pattern of growth, and the same holds true for our own attempts at growth and change. 

We all need a little help along the way towards our goals. Don’t be afraid to accept structure and help as needed!

According to the Kaizen principle that is often applied in the business world, improvements and growth in an organization most successfully occurs through small steps.  In fact, as best as I understand it, the Kaizen principle for growth and change encourages a business to create a culture in which employees plan, implement a small steps towards growth, periodically review whether or not the plan is working, then take action–either by taking the next small step forward or by refining/adjusting the current step.  With each successive step and revision, growth begins to occur. This principle can be applied to our own lives.

Stop comparing yourself to a master-image of perfection.  In fact, I encourage you to stop striving for a so-called image of perfection–after all, this is life, with all of its ingrained messiness and fallibilities.   Instead, foster progress.  Talk kindly to yourself as you would a child learning to walk.  If you fall down, it’s okay.  Cry if you must, but get up the next day, and try again. If you need to hold onto a structure for a while, as a baby must hold onto furniture in its attempt to master walking, remember the baby is developing its leg strength, and you are likewise building strength!  The point is to keep moving forward, no matter if it seems like you’re only making baby steps. Eventually you will attain your version of success that works for you.  

Photo by Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas on Pexels.com

A Prayer for a Compassionate Heart

Do to others whatever you would have them do to you . . .”Matthew 7:12

As I descended the hill and made my way onto a major Ohio route, I saw the flag in front of me.  During these schismatic political times, I am not unfamiliar with numerous political variations of the American flag, but this one really bothered me.  I could feel its venomous bite, and like a poisonous snake, its toxin worked its way gradually into my consciousness.  

What is the purpose of a flag filled with hateful words?  Do they have kids?   If so, were they okay with their own children seeing those words?  This was also a major school bus route; those students would also read those words.  Did they think about them before hanging it up?  On and on my mind chewed on this image like one tries to chew taffy with its sticky consistency adhering like glue.

Miniature Old Glory hangs in my classroom.

It wasn’t long before a stereotypical image began filling my mind regarding the type of person who chose to hang the controversial flag.  Soon enough, the flag message became fodder for a few of my conversations–that is until my consciousness began to send me pangs of remorse and guilt.  

“Steph, you are pigeon-holing people you haven’t even met yet.  You don’t know that person, nor do you know the life they have lived.  Who do you think you are?  What makes you so great to sit in judgement?”

On and on my consciousness scolded me.  Then, came the remembrance of an image.  It was from my third grade classroom.  A small framed principle was hung beside the long ago classroom door, allowing it to be visible to those of us inside the classroom.  I was seated in the front of the classroom, due to my height, in a desk near the door, and consequently, the sign.  The image was embossed with golden flourishing, and the lettering was classically formatted in a bold black scripted font: “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.”  

As seen on Instagram @ drwaynedyer.

As best I can remember, this classic tenet was dulled with age, lacked any eye-catching appeal, and therefore I am fairly certain it wasn’t something to which I paid particularly close attention.  While memories of my third grade are as faded as that long-ago picture, I do seem to recall our teacher, Bonnie McKenzie, referring to the picture, from time to time, when any one of us was not acting kindly towards one another.  In fact, I have a hazy recollection of Ms. McKenzie, once standing beside the picture, and firmly instructing us that this was the most important rule in our classroom. 

It occurred to me that I had seen the very same thing somewhere in my grandparent’s house, but like all third grade minds, it wasn’t a precept I fully understood.  Rather, I interpreted it as a reminder to, “Be nice.”  Not that I always applied it, after all, I was a third grader, and life wasn’t always fair, but I’d like to think I mostly tried . . . at least until those angsty, hormonal teen years . . .

Regardless, I am now no longer a fledgling third grader and absolutely capable of understanding the golden rule more fully.  Therefore, I continued to wrestle with my consciousness over my self-imposed verdict of the flag for the rest of the evening.  My mind kept circling back to that darn third grade image, and I knew that if I was talking negatively about this unknown person, I was NOT practicing my beloved teacher’s guideline. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am sure Ms. McKenzie was as flawed and imperfect as the rest of us, but I would like to believe that it was important to her that she imparted the importance of this rule, above all others, to her students.  Thus, that is how I settled my mind.  

Do unto others the way your cat peacefully loves you! 😉

“To keep the Golden Rule we must put ourselves in other people’s places, but to do that consists in and depends upon picturing ourselves in their places.”–Harry Emerson Fosdick 

While I’d like to believe I’ve lived through a wide array of situations and therefore have a wide breadth of informed life experiences that grant me permission to quickly judge or criticize–it is one of my greatest ego-driven flaws.  One could argue, as I have, that the ability to discern quickly can be a strength in certain situations. However, quickly drawing conclusions is still deduced from my limited life experiences and perspective rather than taking time to place myself in the shoes of the other person.  

As the strangely linked cogs of my stored memories continued to churn their mental back and forth, my mind led me down another deep recess to the remembrance of an additional memory:  Rev. Larry Brisker, my one time pastor, teaching his flock about the concept of “agape love.”

Pets offer us unconditional love–no matter how we act, what mood we’re in, or what political/personal beliefs we have.

“Agape love is selfless love . . .the love God wants us to have isn’t just an emotion but a conscious act of the will–a deliberate decision on our part to put others ahead of ourselves.  This is the kind of love God has for us.”–Billy Graham

I cannot pretend to be an expert of Bible scripture, but I do faintly recall first learning about the concept of agape love from Rev. Brisker.  It was one of those rare teenage times when I truly focused on the sermon. (Sorry, Rev. Brisker, I wasn’t always focused, but in all fairness, I was awash in those darn, distracting teenage years.) As best as I can recall, Rev. Brisker’s message on agape love was based on a passage in Corinthians I often call, “The Love Chapter”.  In particular, it was the verse about the clanging cymbal that held my attention because, well, I thought it sounded cool. Ok, I was a kid, but the point wasn’t entirely lost on me.  

God loved us, period.  It wasn’t based on feeling or the hollow promises of impressive sounding words.  God’s love came from actions–not feelings–and that, Rev. Brisker explained, was the highest form of love and what we should all aspire to offer others–no matter what they believe or how they choose to act.  Of course, I am quite certain the Reverend was MUCH more eloquent than my memory.

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on Pexels.com

Therefore, Dear Reader, I recount both of these faint memories to share this conclusion.  In this extended season of recent years filled with uncertainty, political divide, and one series of crises after another–both home and abroad, it was, and is, my lesson to re-learn that when I am quick to judge, that I must step back, and try to see things from the other person’s perspective.  In fact, it is my prayer that my conscience continues to remind me to refrain from acting as a loud clanging cymbal filled with noise based only upon my perspective.  The bigger picture is NOT about me. 

Instead, I pray that I may humbly be reminded, as often as needed, to extend compassion and understanding to ALL.  May I work harder to find a more gracious, warm hearted attitude, and not be so quick to render judgement.  Otherwise, I am acting in a way that could be, and has been, hurtful if/when someone quickly passes judgement upon me.  

Therefore, as the Golden Rule encourages all of us to do, may we all offer understanding and patience to others in the same way we would expect it given to us.  We don’t have to agree on all fronts to find common ground that binds us together as fellow human beings.  Agape love challenges all of us to humbly serve and offer grace to all as our Creator does for us on a daily basis.

“You can have the ‘golden rule’ do unto others as you would have others do unto you. But then you take it one step farther where you just do good unto others, period. Just for the sake of it.”–Jennifer Beals 

Treat others as you would have them treat you!
Photo by mali maeder on Pexels.com
Mom told us to get out outside and play!

Cricket’s Song

“When the cricket’s song is the only song you hear, how peaceful the whole earth seems.”–Marty Rubin

My face masks were washed from the previous week of work.  The sun had already kissed the horizon’s forehead before slipping away into the dusk, but it was not yet full dark.  I headed towards the garage of our home with the clean masks in hand in order to stow them away with the others in a large ziplock baggie I keep in my car.  Stepping down onto the concrete pad, I was struck by the singing of a lone, unseen cricket.

Photo by NO NAME on Pexels.com

Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye . . .goodbye, goodbye, goodbye . . .goodbye, goodbye, goodbye . . .”  sang the hidden insect.

It seems as if it is a rite of seasonal passage for one cricket to find itself trapped in our garage. Even as a child, I seem to recall a single cricket trapped in my family’s garage, and later, the laundry room. In fact, I can once recall sitting on the step to the laundry room during a summer stay at home from college, listening to a lone cricket chirp its tune of summer’s end, and feeling both the mix of anticipation and sadness at the changing of seasons within my own life.  

Later in the week, having temporarily forgotten the guest residence of the cricket in our garage, my husband, John, and I exited out of our car after a dinner out, and we were greeted by the sound of our guest once more.

Photo by Neale LaSalle on Pexels.com

Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye . . .” our guest continued its mournful solo concert.

Even as I closed the garage door and turned off the light, I could still hear its song of summer’s end continuing despite no longer having an audience.  

Early the next morning, I walked out to the garage to once more stow away another item into the car.  The sun had not yet made its morning ascent, and the garage was filled with shadows and predawn edginess. As I reached for the garage door handle, I paused. The cricket was still singing its melancholic song.  I had to wonder at the miracle of this creature’s voice and sense of perseverance.  How could it continue to sing throughout the night–even if no one was there to appreciate it’s fine farewell chirrupings?

Entering the garage, its piping paused momentarily.  Then when no harm came its way, its singing resumed full strength as I made my way to the car with my belongings. Returning to the house, its trilling continued even as I shut the garage door.  

Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye . . .”  

“The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever.”–E.B. White

The cricket’s reminder that change is coming.  Summer’s warmth will soon be passing.  Leaves will soon slip the bondages of tree limbs, grasses will fade, and wintry winds will whir their chilly thoughts soon enough.  Silky time slips slowly through a faucet of seasons, drip by drip, slowly weathering away the husks of our bodies like water gradually wearing down a rock, eventually returning it to the dust of our Creator.

Photo by Vlad Bagacian on Pexels.com

Shortened days and longer nights, 

Football and band songs

Sweaters and caps, 

Bonfires and marshmallows 

Amber and red swirl over 

A ribbon of black  

Soon the first kiss of frost.

“Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye . . .  

It’s been a week since the unseen cricket took up residence in the collections that fill the garage. Since then another loved one has left the earth; perhaps he sings for him.

Life is short

Life is sweet

Love is a river of time

Filled and flowing 

With the rhythm of

Seasonal rains and

Periods of drought 

Through, over, and around

Ultimately, returning to the Source

Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye . . .”

The cricket bids you adieu, my friend. 

Dusk has slipped into night

Your tortured time 

Filled with shouts of pain

Has ceased into a timeless song of peace

Yet

Your imprint abides

Through students and players

O’er fields of dreams and

Work sites unseen

Through sons and grandchildren

And even four greats

Your legacy endures

May your hands be still at last

“Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye . . .” trills the cricket once more.

The cricket's song is a reminder that change is coming.  Goodbye warm summer days. Hello frosty autumn starts.  Soon we all will rest.




Endless Echoes of Kindness

“Kind words can be short and easy to speak but their echoes are truly endless.”–Mother 

Teresa

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

It is Saturday morning, and I was once more at Ritter Park for my weekly run.  Arriving a bit later in the morning than originally planned, the sun had burned off most of the fog, and the temperature was beginning to rise.  Early morning exercisers were chatting and/or packing up vehicles in the parking lot as late morning exercisers began disembarking from their vehicles.  It reminded me of shift changes from long ago when I once worked at a fast food restaurant. 

Sweat came easily in the August heat, and my breathing quickly became more rapid. I felt my pace slowing–although, to be perfectly honest, I don’t run particularly fast on any given day. My desire to be here at an earlier time added further negativity to my mindset. Nonetheless, in spite of part of my mind urging me to quit, I continued on towards the goal I had set for myself at the onset.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Prior to driving to the park, my day had not begun auspiciously.  A glass framed picture had randomly fallen off the wall, crashed onto the kitchen floor, taking with it a glass candle from the counter below it.  I was upset because the picture contained one of my favorite quotes, had been framed, and given to me by one of my sisters.  The clean-up took quite a bit of time, only to be followed by another larger item uncontrollably breaking in our main bathroom, sending me into a temporary river of uncontrolled tears as I wondered what else could go wrong.

Ahead on the path, I observed a man walking three dogs. Two of the three pooches were  incredibly large–I am not certain of the breed, perhaps Great Danes.  The other dog was tiny, made even smaller looking by its companions. Drawing closer to the dog walker, he kindly stepped off the crushed pebbled path with his dogs, and I wished him a “Good Morning.”

“Good morning to you.  I hope you have a great jog.”

His words were like magic beans as I felt my energy suddenly seem to grow.  I could have a great jog–no matter the pace.  Plus, given my slower stride, I had more time to take in the trees with their whispered leaf secrets, listen to the creek alongside the path gurgling its story of travels, and I had enough breath to pay forward encouragement to others.  Ultimately, the stranger’s moment of kindness positively impacted the rest of my slow, but steady run, and I was able to run the length of my modest distance goal.

Photo by Anna Tarazevich on Pexels.com

“As much as we need a prosperous economy, we also need a prosperity of kindness and decency.”–Caroline Kennedy

Sitting down a bit later for a bite to eat, I fired up my laptop and opened up a news app.  Scanning through one depressing headline after another, I began to notice the positive vibes from the morning run beginning to wane.  It seemed like the entire world, including our own country, could benefit from more acts of kindness and generosity–which made me curious.  Were there any tangible benefits of kindness?  I clicked off the disheartening news feed and began my research.

According to the Mayo Clinic, as well as several other leading research hospitals, kindness increases your levels of energy and instantly boosts your mood–so that effect of that man’s words weren’t my imagination.  Offering simple gestures of kindness increases one’s self-esteem, sense of empathy, and compassion.  Kindness has been shown to increase life span.  Furthermore, kindness decreases blood pressure, but increases levels of oxytocin, the feel-good hormone.  

In the brain, kindness decreases cortisol, a stress-inducing hormone, but increases serotonin and dopamine which in turn improves your sense of well-being and feelings of satisfaction.  Acting or receiving kindness also enhances endorphins, the brain’s natural painkillers.  Practicing kindness also reduces stress, anxiety, depression, and boosts the immune system.  I was already feeling better just reading about kindness as opposed to how I felt reading the news.

Photo by Ron Lach on Pexels.com

“Kindness costs nothing.” Irish proverb

Psychologists and sociologists also note that kindness is contagious.  It has a ripple effect.  In fact, studies indicate that if you receive a kind word, gesture, or act, you are more than likely to pay it forward to another person as I found myself doing at Ritter–offering words of encouragement to other runners and walkers with whom I encountered.  In a world in which social media continuously hawks wares of the latest, greatest, and always pricey health supplement, here’s one, tried and true, scientifically supported method that will not empty your bank account: kindness.

I am but one small voice in a world filled with thunderous voices and even louder, enticing distractions. Answers to global, national, and local problems, I do not have.  What I do have is the ability to act kindly.  If each person reading my words offered one or two acts of kindness every day to others with whom they encounter, and they in turn did the same, then they did the same . . . .  Like ripples traveling down the Ohio River in the wake of one boat, what an effect those acts of kindness might have.

Take more time to notice when people smile; speak kind words; open the door for you; allow you to enter a crowded lane of traffic on a backed-up commute route; or, simply offer to help you. Notice, and pay those actions forward.  Rather than feeding your soul with the negative loop of blaring headlines with the motto, “if it bleeds, it leads,” and the frenetic diversions of screens, focus instead on the precept, “if it’s kind, it’s aligned”–aligned with health, wellness, positivity, and most of all peace–for you and the recipient. 

Photo by Lisa on Pexels.com

Enthusiasm for Life in the Present Moment

“Discipline is not the enemy of enthusiasm.”–Joe Clark

There they were. Athletically built and full of swagger, I listened to their coach who asked them to circle up around me in the dewy grass.  The fog was rising, but the sunlight remained hidden on this humid August Saturday morning.  They were quiet and rather fatigued-looking after a week of two-a-day practices; nonetheless, they were respectful as I began to talk to each of them, my eyes moving from athlete to athlete.  

The task before me was to provide a recovery yoga practice for the St. Joseph Central Catholic High School boy’s soccer team, the sibling school to the middle (and elementary) school for which I am a 6-8 educator.  I began our morning practice by setting an intention. Mid-way through my opening statements, the thought occurred to me that I might also be talking to myself.

I began the practice with the following quote by Julia Cameron, “Over an extended period of time, being an artist requires enthusiasm more than discipline.” However, I replaced “artist” with “athlete.”  Enthusiasm comes from the Greek word, enthousiasmos, enthous, or entheos–which essentially means to be possessed or inspired by God.  Other translations include: filled by God’s essence; or, inspiration or possession of God.  When looking at synonyms for enthusiasm–passion, ardor, zeal, fervor–one begins to truly feel the emotional strength and power of the word.

The purpose of selecting this intention for the team’s yoga practice was two-fold. First, I  wanted them to walk away from practice with the thought that in order to have a successful soccer season, it would not only require disciplined practices, thinking, actions, and reactions, but also their discipline must be infused with enthusiasm–for one another and for the game.  Additionally, I hoped they would sense the Creator’s guiding presence in their life, the One who divinely and individually created each one, as they moved into and through their coming season and school year.  

As seen on Instagram @ postiveenergyalways

Discipline and enthusiasm, I believe, go hand-in-hand, especially when reflecting upon this past year and half of living with COVID. Like many, I had maintained the discipline of preventative COVID measures throughout the summer, fall and winter of last year, but by the end of February of 2021, I was beginning to lose my enthusiasm. I was ready, more than ready, to give up.  In fact, I was ready to run away from life. It seemed to me that there had been far too many deaths, distractions, changes, illnesses, storms, flooding, and other torments of life.  Like so many around me, I felt I was, like the old southern, metaphorical expression made popular by the band, REM, “losing my religion,” and barely holding on. 

Thankfully, I did not give up.  Instead, I kept showing up, moving, one foot in front of the other, one day–sometimes even one moment–at a time.  By the time summer arrived, I decided to create a disciplined morning practice devoted to inner, spiritual work in an attempt to find that lost enthusiasm.  And guess what I discovered?  The Divine Creator was still there, and at a snail’s pace, I began to once more feel the True Source of inspiration.  I began to find enthusiasm once more.  

Photo by Dom J on Pexels.com

“Write this down:  My life is full of unlimited possibilities.”–Pablo

I woke early every morning and committed myself to the practice of writing–not for publication, but for me.  Each morning, before the sun had risen, I sat and wrote for nearly an hour following a formatted plan. It didn’t matter how much my inner-self tantrumed about the early hour, time commitment, or the work, I kept up the practice and believed in the process. I filled pages of journals–words that I ultimately shredded!  

In fact, hours of work were ultimately sent through a shredder because, in the end, the words I wrote did not need to be saved.  They had served their purpose by allowing my mind to process and recover.  It took weeks, but my mindset gradually shifted. Instead of thinking, “Oh, I have to get up and write,” I actually began to look forward to my writing practice.  I was finding my joy.

Photo by Gareth Willey on Pexels.com

As I worked with those high school boys, they found their muscles tight from the pounding and compacting of twice daily running and drills.  Their bodies were not easily given over to poses (stretching positions) through which I guided them. It was as if their bodies were saying, “No! I won’t!”  I encouraged the young men to breathe through the resistance, release the tension, and relax.  The more they took deep breaths, the more they were able to relax those tight muscles.  The more they relaxed, the more their bodies allowed them to stretch. 

At the end of nearly an hour, they entered their final pose, “savasana,” final relaxation pose.  Savasana is also known as corpse pose–as there is a dying away of the body and mind to all of its busyness.  Savasana is similar to powering down your computer or phone–it gives the body a chance to assimilate all that has happened within that hour of practice, reboot, and return to homeostasis.

As seen on Instagram @ spiritualist_within

Likewise, my summer practice of writing served a similar function.  I had to learn how to loosen my rigid and restricted way of thinking.  Instead of remaining in my isolated, ego-driven “No-brain,” I had relearn how to tap into my “Yes-brain.”   Through my disciplined morning practice of writing, prayer, and affirmations, it was as if my brain was metaphorically breathing deeply, learning to relax, and eventually relearned to say, “Yes,” even to things for which I cannot control.  My brain had to die away from the busyness of my ego–the poor, pitiful me side, and tap into the True Source

Making my way around the circle of kids relaxed in savasana, I sprayed each of their feet and ankles with peppermint spray as an act of soothing refreshment. I could not help but notice all of their blisters, calluses, and chafed skin.  It reminded me of how many of us feel as we deal with this new variant(s) of COVID.

Photo by Maksim Goncharenok on Pexels.com

“Always remember to take your Vitamins:  Take your Vitamin A for ACTION, Vitamin B for Belief, Vitamin C for Confidence, Vitamin D for Discipline, Vitamin E for Enthusiasm!!”–Pablo

Many may feel chafed, not only by the notion of wearing masks again, but also by the fact that we still can’t return to a so-called, “normal,” or the sense of homeostasis. We are asked to remain vigilant and disciplined regarding not only our health, but the well-being of others, and yet our souls are begging for soothing like the peppermint oil sprayed on the soccer player’s bedraggled feet.  It is worth remembering how far we have come, and if we made it through last year, we can make it again.

I will argue that Cameron’s words can be applied to this extended period of time as we continue to live with COVID.  We need a large dose of enthusiasm, more than discipline, in order to continue to embrace life as it is and keep going.  Enthusiasm is our God-given, on-going source of inspiration and energy.  When enthusiasm is combined with taking action and believing in our Higher Power, we can continue with confidence to remain disciplined and still experience joy.  Life may not be like it was, and frankly, it may never return to what we once knew, but life in the present moment–no matter the status–is continuing; and that, my friend, is worth a mask-covered smile.  

Miss Ollie Ray is all sunshine and smiles no matter the changes around her as seen in this picture from last school year.

Black Mountain, NC, The New Cool

“Although I deeply love oceans, deserts, and other wild landscapes, it is only mountains that beckon me with that sort of painful magnetic pull to walk deeper and deeper into their beauty.”–Victoria Erikson

After all of the freedom of mask-free living, travel, and dining, it looks as if we might be heading right back into those not-so-care-free-mask-wearing days again–vaccinated or not.  Regardless of what position you take on COVID, vaccines, and masks, there is one topic on which most can agree based upon the summer of 2021–our collective love of travel.  Perhaps, it’s hard-wired into our DNA from the hunting-gathering days, but as a whole, a large part of our population embraces that wanderlust feeling–hitting the open road and taking off for a change of scenery in order to relax, recharge, and renew.

While my husband and I did not travel as much as we would have liked this past summer, we did discover an off-the-beaten path destination that we hope to return to in the near future–Black Mountain, NC.  Ideally, we would like to visit it again during the fall months, but since we are both educators, extended fall travel is not possible.  However, for those of you with the opportunity to travel during the fall months, I would encourage you to consider a visit to this charming and scenic area of NC.  Even with mask-restrictions, it’s an ideal travel destination due to its fine dining, shopping, museums, breweries/distillery/cideries, crafts, art, music, and more.   Plus, it also offers a plethora of out-of-doors activities in which you can practice social distancing if that’s your preference.  

Using populars travel apps such as Airbnb, VRBO, TripAdvisor, or Yelp, you will not only find an abundance of ideas for activities in the vicinity, but also a wide range of places to stay sure to fit any budget, including rental homes/condos/apartments, bed and breakfasts, quaint inns, camping or glamping sites, resorts, and hotels. In fact, John and I were overwhelmed with all of the choices, but ultimately went with a VRBO rental home one mile from downtown Black Mountain called Getaway Disoway.  The owners, Tony and Tricia Wilkerson, were fantastic and responsive communicators, respected our privacy, and provided us with a clean, comfortable, and cozy cottage built in 1941 that we absolutely loved.

What’s not to love about squirrel watching as you relax on your mountain view deck?!

In the same way there are a myriad of places in which to stay in Black Mountain, there are likewise ample choices of eateries! This was good news for John and me since we have two different dining preferences.  I have to eat gluten free due to celiac disease, but I choose to also eat plant based; whereas, John is MUCH easier to feed as he is your basic meat, potato, salad kind-of-guy!  In spite of our differences when it comes to how we eat, we come together on our preference for eating at eclectic restaurants that are locally owned, and Black Mountain certainly has those!

Our first food stop was FRESH: Wood Fired Pizza, featuring a classic menu of pizza, pasta, salads, and desserts.  The chef, Mark Tomczak, an award winning ceramics artist, worked as an assistant chef at The Inn and Spa at Cedar Falls, in Hocking Hills, Ohio.  Later, he became head chef at The Colonial, in Jackson, Ohio, before merging his talents.  FRESH features Tomczak’s fine food and pottery creations in a vibrant, funky atmosphere featuring ample outdoors dining.  Additionally, due to fact his youngest daughter, Emma, has a gluten intolerance, Tomczak’s menu offers multiple gluten free options, and his staff go out of their way to prepare gluten free food separately from the rest of menu items in an attempt to try, to the degree possible, keep their gluten free foods from being cross-contaminated.  John and I loved FRESH so much, we ate there twice!

The next day, we visited Cousins Cuban Cafe, where we met the chef and owner, Beatriz “Betty” Sperry, while trying to decide what to eat.  Sperry took charge immediately, asking questions, and based upon our answers, making recommendations.  Sperry, a first generation American whose parents immigrated from Cuba to Miami, FL, proudly shared with us the story of her family.  Their pictures adorn one wall of the cafe.  Sperry described Cuban cuisine as being robust and full of flavor, but without being too spicy.  Oh my, was she ever right, and they also had THE. BEST. COFFEE. EVER.  The cafe’s food was like none other we had previously experienced.  Sperry made John and I feel like one of the family as we sat at a small table near the kitchen, chatting with her and soaking up the atmosphere as the kitchen staff jovially, but quickly hustled to feed the ceaseless stream of hungry diners coming in for lunch.  We will definitely return to this homey breakfast/lunch bistro.

If you’re going to hike around mountains, you need to fuel strongly, and that’s exactly what John and I did twice at Blueridge Biscuit Company–home of the gluten-free biscuit!  Unfortunately for me, since we were on vacation, we slept later than we normally would, so the advertised gluten-free, 9 oz cathead biscuits were regrettably sold out both mornings!  No worries for me though, they had numerous other gluten-free offerings, including house made granola and plenty of hot coffee!  John appreciated the varied biscuit sandwich choices. (Yes, his biscuits were also 9 oz catheads too!)  However, biscuit-based meals were not the only foods served up at this breakfast/lunch eatery, there were plenty of waffles, eggs, proteins, sides, and such, sure to please even the pickiest eater.

What vacation isn’t complete without a little Mexican food to spice up the experience?  Which is why we had to visit Ole’s Guacamole.  Full confession:  I am a BIG eater when it comes to Mexican food, especially vegetarian fajitas.  John and I visited Ole’s on an evening after our longest hike, and we were hungry.  However, the portions at Ole’s were so generous, even I could not eat all of my food!  What’s more, my margarita was so big, I couldn’t drink all of it either!  Nonetheless, you did not hear either one of us complaining, and based upon the crowd, Ole’s has plenty of adoring fans ready to take on the clean-plate challenge! 

Last up, on our Black Mountain dining adventures was Black Mountain Bistro.  This locally owned and run restaurant offers an eclectic food and drink menu, including vegan/vegetarian and gluten-free options.  While dining there, we met Jaiden, our server extraordinaire who answered all of our questions, made recommendations, and even made time to discuss her favorite hiking spots in the area.  Our food was outstanding, the atmosphere was inviting, and it appeared to be a local favorite hang-out based upon the people we met.  We had hoped to return, but our trip turned out to be one day shorter than planned, thanks to my poor booking skills! 

All-in-all, John and I left a bit of our heart in Black Mountain, NC.  It is full of ample out-of-door spaces to explore, stunning scenery, a vibrant arts and craft scene, a hip, but welcoming vibe, and just the right amount of one-of-a-kind locally owned shops, restaurants, and businesses.  Stay tuned for more as we are already planning for a second trip to this mountain haven. 

Rocks in Your Head?

“It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wears you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.”–Muhammad Ali

Have you ever been walking along and discovered a rock in your shoe?  It doesn’t seem to matter how small it is, suddenly, it is all that you can think about.  This is especially true if you are on a solo walk or run.  With each step, that multi-faceted, miniscule rock pokes and prods your foot until it becomes your sole focus. Likewise, if you are walking or running with another person, try as you might to ignore the aggravating rock, it remains in the periphery niggling away at your attention in spite of your best effort to focus on the unfolding conversation. 

Have you ever noticed how much more free and spacious your mind becomes if you pause long enough to take the rock out of your shoe?  If you’re with a friend, your concentration easily returns, and if you’re exercising alone, your mind relaxes and resumes its free-flow thought.  When this happens to me, I often ask myself, why did I take so long to shake that rock out of my shoe?  Why did I allow myself to be tormented by such a small thing?  

Photo by Matheus Natan on Pexels.com

Oddly enough, there are times that I will go an entire run or walk, and complete an errand or two, before I take time to slip off my shoe. Once home, I’ll sit down on the front stoop of my porch, take off my shoe and shake out scanty pebbles and/or debris. Slipping the shoe back on, it’s like putting on new footwear–all because I had been too stubborn, lazy, or petulant to take off my shoes and toss out the rocks.

After a recent moment of emptying the rocks out of my shoes, it occurred to me that those crushed rocks were quite a bit like thoughts that can sometimes run through my head.  These are often circular notions of self-doubt, self-criticism, or self-reproach.  Depending upon the day, situation, and/or context, the narrative can vary, but the ongoing, well-rehearsed mental skirmish between Naysayer Nellie and Wetblanket Wanda certainly know how to prick and needle my grey matter like the crushed detritus poking and prodding my foot when trapped in my shoe.

These pessimistic pests tend to most often join forces during times of stress, change, and/or increase in workload.  Sometimes, all it takes is one moment of so-called failure, frustration, or new challenge to inspire those two negative allies to vie for my attention as they quickly assemble a barrage of heated messages designed.  Then, like a challenging adolescent, they turn up the volume, in case I didn’t hear their propaganda the first hundred times!  

Ironically, I know their stories aren’t true. I recognize the disinformation for what it is; and yet, like the proverbial pebble in the shoe, I don’t quickly empty the shoe, or in this case, the prodding thoughts.  Instead, I allow those irksome ideas to create a foothold in consciousness, and repeatedly nettle away. It’s as if these defeatist messages have hijacked my brain.  

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If I allow those obstructive thoughts to remain around long enough, like the shoe-bound pea gravel chafing my skin until blisters form, the negative mental chatter can create so much inflammation that my brain will begin its not-so-subtle messages of flight, fight, or freeze.  My head and heart will begin to pound, I will hold my breath, tighten parts of my body, such as my belly, back, or neck, and sleep becomes elusive or filled with nightmares.

What can I do?  Duh! Take off the proverbial shoe and shake out the rocks.  Not that it is easy, but I have to remind myself that thoughts are like clouds.  Even on the most overcast day, when all is gray and cloud-covered, the blue sky and the bright sun are still there–they have merely been hidden.  The sky is not the clouds, and I am not my thoughts–and neither are you, Dear Reader!  In fact, we are so much more than any negative messages sticking around in our heads. 

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 As I understand it, the emotional center of our brain is housed in the part of the area that evolved quite early in order to determine important life saving decisions such as, “Is this food poisonous or not?” or “Will this animal eat me?”  Once this area of the brain perceives something as dangerous–even if created by our own thoughts–this part of the brain won’t shut off until it feels safe.  (It is also worth noting that the same is true when this area of the brain experiences pleasure–it wants more and more.) 

However, we have another, more advanced part of the brain that allows humans to think, reason, make decisions, and plan.  Therefore, with practice, we can be aware of when the emotional center of the brain launches into its overwhelming fear-mongering.  We further have the capacity to choose whether or not we believe those negative stories, and we can also plan how to treat those thoughts when they do occur.  Furthermore, we can take daily actions to further reduce the rumbling rocky voices which are most often a product of fear . . . fear of failure, fear of success, fear of change, and fear of the unknown

“Remove the rock from your shoe rather than learn to limp comfortably.”–Stephen C. Paul

One of the best pieces of advice an acquaintance once shared with me:  “Stop yelling at yourself.”  She went on to ask if I would yell at my own daughter the way I think about myself.  When I said, no, she simply encouraged me to “play nice,” call fear by its rightful name, and then take steps to calm it down as you would with your own child.  

Many of the actions that can be taken to reduce negative/anxious thinking are not new suggestions.  Deep breathing, exercise, or simply walking away from a stressful situation for a specific time period are all actually quite helpful.  Other suggestions include: 

*Remind yourself of your past successes.

*Take small steps towards learning a new task. 

*Be willing to ask for help to reduce or understand new/heavy workloads.

*Talk to a trusted friend or family member–sometimes just naming your fears begins to tame them. 

*Write your problem on a piece of paper–dump it all, like you’re emptying your brain of pea gravel. The act of writing slows down the thoughts, relaxes your brains, and allows you to see things differently.  I’ve literally taken that written problem, slipped it under my pillow at night, and literally slept on it.  It never fails to surprise me how a little faith and trust that a solution will be found allows it to gradually unfold.  

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*Learn to nurture and protect your thoughts. 

*Cultivate affirmative thoughts.

*Take preemptive action if you know certain situations trigger a strong emotional reaction. 

*Be gentle and kind with yourself. 

If you begin to notice your brain is launching into story mode, each time a thought attempts to pop into your head, try to mentally swipe it away like a fly at a picnic before it can grow.

The point is, just because you think something, doesn’t mean it’s true.  Sometimes the solution is as simple as shaking out rocks.  I’m not saying it’s easy; it’s not.  Nonetheless, it is worth remembering that emotions come and go, like ever changing weather, but they don’t have to permanently hijack your brain.  

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Steph’s Key Lime Smoothie

“When life give you limes, rearrange the letters until they say smile.”–unknown

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Would you believe that eating limes or adding lime slices to water is actually quite beneficial to your health?  Personally, I love the flavor of lime.  I like to squirt the juice of a slice or two of lime on salad, in salsa, in refried beans, veggie pad thai, and many other dishes.  Lime is so refreshingly tart and tangy.  It gives instant zip to whatever it’s added, including water, and, of course, margaritas! 

When purchasing a lime, according to several top chefs, it’s best to look for limes with a bit of give to them.  While limes should not be mushy, they should not be hard as that is an indication that they are not juicy.  Additionally, lime, like lemons, can be stored at room temperature for about one week if kept out of direct sunlight.  However, most cooking sites recommend that for long term storage up to four weeks, place limes–and lemons for that matter–in a plastic bag and keep in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator.

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Limes, like nearly all citrus fruits, offer numerous health benefits including high levels of antioxidants which protect the body from free radicals or chemicals that can cause the body harm at a cellular level.  Additionally, limes are a good source of vitamins and minerals including vitamins A, B, C, and D, as well as calcium and magnesium.  Even with all of this obvious goodness, consuming limes has other health implications worth considering.

The peel, pithe, and juice of a lime may boost heart health by slowing down the build-up of plaque on the walls of your arteries.  Limes are also a good source of potassium which has been shown to help maintain healthy blood pressure levels. The acid in lime juice is good for digestion by helping the saliva break down food as well as increase digestive secretions in the stomach. It is a natural weight loss supplement due to the fact that it slightly boosts metabolism–like all citrus fruits.  Furthermore, it enhances immune function–an important factor in the age of the COVID virus and all of its nasty variants.

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“Lime juice makes things taste fresher.  I use it for drinks, salsas, relishes, soups, and sauces.”–Bobby Flay

If you have not tried adding lime to water, I strongly recommend this practice.  I also find limes especially tasty when added to lemon flavored sparkling water for added zing.  Slices of lime are also nice when added to a glass of iced green tea.  The zest of a lime is an excellent addition to plain yogurt, vanilla ice cream, white cake mix, sour cream, rice, smoothies, and mixed with a coarse salt to line the rim of a drink glass or sprinkle over your favorite dish.  Store a bowl of leftover peel in your refrigerator as an air freshener or grind it up in the garbage disposal to deodorize.  Limes, as you can see, are extremely versatile, useful, and are certainly worth keeping on hand year round.

Now, add all of that lime goodness to a whole-food, plant based smoothie, and you’ve got one nutritional bomb for a meal.  I absolutely believe drinking your calories is typically not advisable–especially with regards to sugar-laden drinks.  However, it is hard to beat the convenience and portability of smoothies.  That’s why, if you’re going to drink your breakfast, (or any other meal for that matter) why not make the drink yourself?  This allows you to control the ingredients and the portions of each to fit your specific dietary needs.  It won’t break your bank, and as an added bonus, smoothies can be made ahead and frozen for up to three months while still maintaining their freshness until ready to use. 

Add a slice of fresh lime to seltzer is a nice addition!

Finally, if you need further evidence of the benefits of a whole food, plant-based smoothie, including this Key Lime Smoothie, look no further than the reigning queen of nutrition for which most Americans are missing in their diet:  fiber! According to Harvard School of Public Health, “children and adults need 20 to 30 grams of fiber per day for good health, but most Americans get only about 15 grams a day.”  Fiber comes in two varieties, soluble and insoluble, and both are beneficial for staving off hunger, regulating blood sugar levels, and preventing health issues, including diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, diverticulitis, and constipation–the bane of aging.  

What is the best way to meet your fiber needs? Eat a wide variety of whole, plant based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains–which is exactly why this recipe is beneficial.  Of course, you can take a fiber supplement, but these are void of other essential nutrients that are found in whole foods, and they certainly don’t taste as scrumptious as a cool, creamy smoothie.  

Show your body a little TLC with a nutritious, fiber filled, whole food plant based smoothie!

Made as described below, you are consuming 18+ grams of fiber per serving and  9+ grams protein.  Plus, these ingredients provide an excellent source of potassium, calcium, iron, and other vitamins, including a full day’s supply of Vitamin C.  Even if you decide to divide this recipe into two portions, you are still starting the day full of fiber, nutrition, and protein–enough to power through your busy schedule!  

Take it from me, it is possible to give your body some extra nutritional love, no matter how busy your schedule, with make ahead, freeze until needed, whole-food, plant based smoothies!  From my home to yours, I wish you healthy, whole food nutrition!

No gut bombs here! Just whole food plant based goodness!

Steph’s Key Lime Smooth Smoothie

Ingredients:

1 ¼ cup favorite no sugar added vanilla milk (almond, soy, oat, etc)

¼ cup aloe vera

1 ½ cup frozen riced cauliflower (or a mix of your favorite greens such as kale, spinach, swiss chard)

1 rounded tablespoon of protein powder (make it vanilla for extra sweetness)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract or vanilla powder

1/2 inch fresh or 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger root 

Dash of salt

1-2 medjool date(s)

½  granny smith apple, destemmed and quartered

1 kiwi, peeled and quartered

1 lime, quartered (remove some skin, but leave most of pithe)

Optional: Add in 1 tablespoon ground flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp heart, chopped walnuts for added nutrition

Directions:

Add milk, aloe vera, and riced cauliflower.

Blend those three ingredients until thoroughly blended.

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

Blend until smooth.

Makes one extra large smoothie or two smaller smoothies.

Craggy Life Lessons

“Yonder were the mountains:  The sunlight revealed their tiny heads and wide shoulders, craggy and purple, with small black trees, delicate as eyelashes, on their slopes.”–Paul Theroux 

It never ceases to amaze me the ways in which life can manage to not only survive, but thrive.  As an experienced educator, I have worked with countless students, including those who come from the most anemic of backgrounds–impoverished in experiences, impoverished in love/emotional support, or impoverished financially.  Miraculously, many of those disadvantaged students still manage to not only survive their hardscrabble circumstances, but also find enough sustenance outside of their own rocky homelife for growth.  These kids are like camels–able to soak up enough goodness and nutrition from one or two smaller sources, such as a church, school, sports, and so forth, that allow them to flourish through long stints of inadequate and insubstantial living situations.

Craggy Pinnacle, elevation 5,817′, can be driven through via Blue Ridge Parkway tunnel or hiked to the top for epic 360 degree views.

Visiting Craggy Gardens, north of Asheville, NC and just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, I was reminded that not only can humans survive ramshackle environments, but also a wide array of plant life can likewise do the same. Craggy Gardens are part of the Great Craggy Mountains, or “the Craggies,” which is a rock-filled area of approximately 194 square miles in the Blue Ridge Mountains that border the Black Mountains.  The highest point of the Craggies is Craggy Dome rising at an elevation of 6,105 feet, but there are several other high peaks of interest in this unique geological and botanical habitat, including Craggy Pinnacle, through which visitors can drive and/or hike to the top along the scenic BRP. 

A few ancient symmetrical trees dot the bald of Craggy Flats which is mostly covered in grasses, shrubs, rocks, and few flowering plants.

The Great Craggy Mountains are known for its exposed rocky, aka “craggy,” surfaces, high altitudes with spectacular vistas, and an elevated bald known for its rhododendrons, mountain laurel, flame azalea, other colorful wildflowers, and heath.  There is both a picnic area at milepost 367.6 and the Craggy Garden Visitor’s Center at milepost 264.4; plus, there are several hiking trails for a variety of hiking skill levels. Additionally, the Craggy Mountains are known for its twisted trees, May-apple flowers, Turkscap lilies, autumnal leaf colors, the clusters of red berries that decorate the Ash trees in the fall, and its rare and endangered plant life.  In fact, according to the Blue Ridge Parkway Guide, “Craggy Gardens has been recognized by the state of North Carolina as a Natural Heritage Area and has also been recommended as a National Natural Landmark.”

During our visit to the Craggy Mountains, John, my husband, and I stopped at the Craggy Garden Visitor Center.  At an elevation of 5,497 feet, the air was significantly cooler than when we left town, hovering in the high 50s.  Inside the visitor center, a warm fire blazed in a wood burning stove in a far corner with several rocking chairs around its hearth.  Outside, posted along the front wall, was a map of the different hiking trails in the vicinity.  

The Craggy Pinnacle Tunnel as seen from the Craggy Garden Visitor Center.

As newbies, we decided our first hiking experience in the Craggies should be uphill along Craggy Gardens Trail which led to the Craggy Flats at an elevation of 5,892 feet.  Since our visit was in late June, we were hoping to see the renowned Catawba rhododendron; however, John had already been warned that these infamous flowering pink and purple shrubs had come and gone with little fanfare.  Nonetheless, I was not to be deterred in my enthusiasm for the potential adventure that awaited along the trail.

Craggy Garden Trail

  “Nature is a book of many pages and each page tells a fascinating story to him who learns her language. Our fertile valleys and craggy mountains recite an epic poem of geologic conflicts. The starry sky reveals gigantic suns and space and time without end.”–A. E. Douglass

Trekking along the path, twisted trees and shrubs formed tattered tunnels through which we traversed higher into the altitude until we reached Craggy Flats.  This area is signified by a large shelter with paths going uphill to either side of the shelter.  Once at the top, the views were spectacular, allowing us to see layer upon layer of mountain line overlaid with cloud shadows.  While as a general rule, a bald is considered a treeless area, the Great Craggy Mountains’ bald was not entirely treeless as there were a few beauties with their broad limbs fanned out in perfect symmetry.  Mostly, the bald was covered with small flowers, grasses, dirt paths, and a few shrubs that were ablaze with orange flowers–a type of rodondendum called a flame azalea due to its flamboyant flowers.  

Vantage point of tree limbs

The Craggy Gardens Trail is often identified as one of the busiest trails in the area, but on the day/time John and I chose to explore it, there weren’t too many other hikers.  The hikers we did encounter were friendly and helpful, offering different pieces of advice for locating specific scenery.  In fact, one pair of sisters that I met during my exploration of the bald area remembered I was from Ohio and referred to me by shouting “Ohio!” whenever they found something of interest along the trail they thought I would want to see. 

The search for the Catawba Rhododendrone

On the way down from the bald, at the base of the flat, was a rhododendron upon whose backside (the back of the official Craggy Gardens Trail) was covered in purple Catawba rhododendron blooms!  I trotted back up the off-the-beaten-path to the top bald where the two sisters were admiring the flame azalea. I recalled they were looking for Catawba blossoms to photograph, and I wanted them to know about the hidden purple gems I had just found.  Excitedly, I led them down the hill while they readied their cameras; then I headed back to a shelter area where John was resting.

It seemed that while I was helping the sisters find rhododendron, John had made an acquaintance with a hungry squirrel that had discovered an abandoned banana peel.  It was quite the scene as John attempted to move in closer with his camera to video the squirrel. Meanwhile, the squirrel entertained John with its acrobatic attempts to eat the inside of the peel. It was certainly an “appealing” sight!

After the squirrely entertainment, John and I meandered down the hill to a gazebo overlooking the mountainside.  If we had chosen to continue further downhill, we would have traveled into the official Craggy Garden Picnic Area, but since we still wanted to visit Mount Mitchell, a bit further down the BRP, we chose to retrace our steps back to the visitor center.

Walking back allowed me to more thoughtfully take in the gnarled trees and shrubs with roots winding over, around, and sometimes even through the rocky and rugged terrain.  Several roots appeared to have a large hole at the base of their trunks, and they still seemed to support life.  In fact, it was a marvel that any life at all could be supported in such a craggy area.

It further occurred to me that most lives–at some point in time–become rocky, rough, and even craggy, like several of my past students’ lives.  The miracle is that no matter how broken and stony life becomes for any of us, we have the ability to survive. Like the Craggy Mountain plants whose limbs twist this way and that to find the sunlight while their roots lengthen and stretch to find nourishment and water, we too, through faith and perseverance, can find ways to stretch, grow, and resiliently root into sources of life-sustaining nourishment.  Even if our roots develop a hole of loss, we can still rise up like the trees, shrubs, and other plant life of the Great Craggy Mountains.

Mount Mitchell and the Blue Ridge Parkway: An Inspiration to Soar High

“Mountains know secrets we need to learn. That it might take time, it might be hard, but if you just hold on long enough, you will find strength to rise up”–Tyler Knott 

As a kid, my dad loved to take the family out for a Sunday afternoon drive.  With no real destination in mind, it was a great, inexpensive way to calm rambunctious children. Put us in a warm car (This was the pre-air-conditioning days.) with the windows down, and the bright sun shining, we were all sure to be lulled into sleep–or at the very least tricked into quietude because there’s no sense trying to talk with open windows. 

I couldn’t help but think of those Sunday drives as John, my husband, and I made our way onto the Blue Ridge Parkway while staying in Black Mountain, NC.  Leaving town, we traveled west to Asheville in order to access the BRP. Moon roof opened and windows partially lowered, John and I relished the refreshing mountain air.  The higher in elevation we traveled, however, the higher our windows lifted as the air temperature decreased. Regardless of the temperature, we never tired of the breathtaking vistas along this ribbon of roadway.  It is no wonder that the BRP is often known as America’s Favorite Scenic Drive.

When traveling the BRP it was important to note that there were no gas stations along the way; however, there were plenty of places to hop off the parkway and travel into nearby towns to fill up.  The speed limit was 45 miles per hour, but steep curves and bicyclists slowed down speeds even more.  That was okay with John and me as we enjoyed our leisurely drive.  Furthermore, we couldn’t help but notice, in addition to a plethora of bicyclists, there were large numbers of motorcyclists taking advantage of the challenging, but spectacular winding stretch of road.  There were no tolls on this route, and nearly all of the stops along the way were free with plenty of places to picnic, take social media-worthy photos, hike/walk, or simply rest, relax, and take in the majestic scenery.  With mile markers and signage along the parkway, attractions and overlooks were easy to locate and identify. In fact, according to several sources, since being fully completed in 1987, the BRP has become the most visited National Park Service sites. 

With only a couple of days to explore the BRP due to torrential rains at the beginning of our stay, it was hard to decide which sites to visit.  Therefore, before heading to the BRP, I asked several Black Mountains residents for their favorite spots to visit and/or hike.  Mount Mitchell was a clear favorite.  Located about 35 miles north of Asheville at milepost 355.4, we could drive almost to the top of the highest mountain east of the Mississippi.  While driving to the “apex of the Appalachian Mountains,” John and I listened to the Mount Mitchell AM radio station with its delightful, homespun monologue that managed to be both entertaining and chock full of information. 

This marker shows the precise highest point east of the Mississippi.

Of interest, Mount Mitchell is one peak located in the J-shaped Black Mountains which are considered part of the Blue Ridge Province of the Southern Appalachian.  It was once known by the Cherokee as Attakulla, which means “leaning wood” or “wood leaning up,” and was later named Black Dome by white settlers. However, the name officially changed in 1858 to commemorate Dr. Elisha Mitchell, a geologist, educator, Presbyterian minister, and beloved professor at the University of North Carolina, who passionately pursued his belief that Mount Mitchell was the highest peak in the Appalachian Mountains.

Dr. Mitchell’s story is epic and full of intrigue.  In fact, I could write pages on his story alone, but I’ll keep to simple facts.  Using barometric readings, mathematical formulas, as well as repeatedly journeying all over the mountainous terrain, Mitchell labored for years to prove his hypothesis. Sadly, in his zealous pursuit, Mitchell slipped and fell 60 feet into a pool at the bottom of what is now known as Mitchell Falls, ultimately hitting his head.  It is believed he died instantly.  Mitchell’s trail was doggedly tracked and his body found days later by well known mountain guide and storyteller, “Big Tom” Wilson, who had guided Mitchell on previous expeditions.

Without any of the modern technological advances, Mitchell’s work estimated the summit to be 6,672 feet. While scientists now know that Mount Mitchell is actually 6,684 feet high–Mitchell died not knowing how close his calculations were. His body is buried near the summit of his cherished Mount Mitchell to honor the magnitude and devotion of his work to this mountain.

The observation deck and Dr. Elisha Mitchell’s burial site are located directly behind John and me in this picture.
Dr. Elisha Mitchell’s burial plaque. It is interesting to note that this marker refers to Mitchell first as “Reverend,” an indication of faith’s priority in his life.

From the parking lot, John and I made the short ¼ to ½ mile steep hike along the paved path to the observation deck at the summit with its 360 degree view.  Initially, our panorama was blurred due to ongoing cloud cover traveling over the multitude of mountain peaks.  However, when the sunlight finally broke through the mist, the views were heart-quickening. According to information read in the museum, we were viewing mountain tops as far as 85 miles away! 

The cloud cover in parking lot when we first arrived at Mount Mitchell around 3:00 PM
Video of the cloud cover of parkinng lot.
Watching the clouds clear, allowing us to see mountain peaks 85 miles away.

No matter how tall the mountain is, it cannot block the sun. Tenacity and adversity are old foes.–Chinese Proverb

I felt as if I was floating on an island in the sky with the sun warming my skin. (It was around 50 degrees at the top, and it is worth noting that the top portion of Mitchell has a climate more similar to Canada than NC with many of its plants and animals reflective of northern Alpine country.) I couldn’t help but marvel at the wondrous carvings of mountain tops–at least that is how the layer upon layer of mountain peaks appeared to me.  In that moment, I sensed the greatness of our Creator, the awe of those old mountains, and felt gratitude for having the ability to be right there in that moment. It was one of those times that I placed my hand on my heart without thinking about it.  Then, realizing what I had done, I quickly moved my hand away–face feeling hot with embarrassment.

“We are now in the mountains, and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.”–John Muir

Sauntering back down the path, only a few feet from the top, John and I took time to pause at the gravesite of Dr. Mitchell.  Reflecting over what I had learned about Mitchell’s life, it occurred to me that he was quite literally committed to maintaining higher ground with his fervent faith and understanding of science.  Even though this caused a rift between Dr. Mitchell and his former student, it did not deter Mitchell from his drive to uphold what the data substantiated and what he believed in his heart to be true.

In the early 1900s, the logging industry nearly decimated Mount Mitchell, raising concern across the state, including those of North Carolina governor, Locke Craig.  This led to the declaration of Mount Mitchill becoming North Carolina’s first state park in 1915.  Present day, Mount Mitchell State Park offers visitors seven hiking trails of varying lengths and challenge levels, a visitor’s center, museum, gift shop, and restaurant–although the restaurant is actually closed for remodeling until 2022. 

With more than 91 species of birds identified, an abundance of balsam firs–fragrant with the scent of Christmas–fresh blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries for visitor picking in August, an extensive number of rare plants and animals, and a number of dramatic historical stories attached to the mountain, I could not help but marvel at Mount Mitchell’s beauty and rich history. The story of Dr. Mitchell’s integrity, perseverance, and determination–along with the unparalleled mountain top views were/are a source of wonder, inspiration, and awe.  A visit to Mount Mitchell definitely leaves you feeling closer to the Divine and filled with a sense of the Creator’s peace.  

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.”–John Muir

As seen on Instagram @ positiveenergyalways

May There Always Be a June

“Even the prettiest flower will die one day. It’s nature’s way of teaching us that nothing lasts forever.”–unknown

“Hmm . . .” I think, more than say, with a deep inhale as I yawned awake.  It was a rare, cool morning–a break from the typical heat and humidity of early July.  The bedroom windows were open, and I breathed in the fragrance of dewy grass, damp earth, and flowers. It was the lingering sweet floral scent that began a series of reflections regarding the significance of June and its likeness to the human life cycle.

At the time I am writing this, it is the July 4 weekend–marking, in my mind, the midpoint of summer.  Once July 4 begins, it feels like the rest of summer swiftly sails by.  Ah, but June.  June is sanguine–full of enough bright cheer to hold old-man winter at bay.  The early spring blossoms such as daffodils, crocus, and tulips have long passed.  Aromatic honeysuckle begins its fading away as the summer perennials and annuals begin blooming brightly in rapid succession.  July may be full of celebrations, explosive displays–all red, white, and blue–but, I adore June–modest, optimistic, June, and the colorful, unique flowers that blossom and thrive with its invitation to summer.

Photo by Suvan Chowdhury on Pexels.com

One morning, this past June, I was in Ritter Park to meet a friend for a walk.  However, the friend was running late, so I decided to meander up the old stone steps to the rose garden.  Sunshine, brilliantly glowed in its mid-morning slant, created a kaleidoscope of vivid colors, varying in texture, size, and shape. With no purpose other than to enjoy the moment, I wandered around the garden, drifting from one rose bush to the next, fascinated with all the minute differences not only among the varieties of rose bushes, but also among the flowers within the same bush.  Meanwhile, a gardener attentively tended the blooms.

Examining more closely, I noticed the various insects drawn to the roses. Bees, ants, beetles, moths and butterflies, flies, and even a few mosquitoes crawled, hovered, dove, and darted–busily buzzing about the roses with purposeful missions.  In one of the more isolated sections, closer to the wooded area of the park, I also observed a hummingbird dipping and diving among the various blossoms in a delightful, whirring dance of flight. As I let my gaze wander, my mind relaxed and began to make correlations with June, its flowers, and life.

“A rose can never be a sunflower, and a sunflower can never be a rose. All flowers are beautiful in their own way . . .”–Miranda Kerr

Each flower–from the number of petals to the size of each petal, from the varying life stages of each flower to the variances of color in each blossom–whether it be a rose in the Ritter Park garden or any one of the wide variety of flowers found in resident yards and public spaces–was, and is, a unique creation.  This is similar to the way each person, within the same family, or outside familial ties, is likewise a one-of-a-kind individual.  Flowers go through a dormant and a growing season of varying lengths, but all bloom seasonally, until they come to an end–whatever the life end may be. So it is with June and human life. 

The season of summer officially begins in June.  The air is sweet and heady with the fragrance of flowers. Winds and sunshine warm the air, and rain falls with purpose. Many plants are rooting and establishing while early spring greenery and blossoms are fading away into their dormancy. Daylight reaches its apex in June, while nighttime descends to its lowest point.  

Likewise, several key life events occurred and are honored in my own life each June.  I graduated from Ohio University in June.  Within that same month, I signed my first teaching contract, thus beginning the start of my career as an educator. Two year later, in June, I married my husband, an anniversary we have celebrated for 32 years.  Ten years later, our daughter was born in June.  As educators, my husband and I experience the arrival of each June as the beginning of a dormant period–an opportunity for reflection and renewal before a new school year begins in August.  Births and weddings, ebbs and flows, the highs and lows, and even celebrated endings.  It’s all there in June.

“All the flowers of tomorrow are in the seeds of today.”–Indian Proverb

I am but one person in the garden of many: my family, my work site, my community, and so forth.  All around me, younger lives are taking root, growing, and blossoming into their own personal expressions–making our collective garden more colorful and vibrant–buzzing with energy.  Meanwhile, I can’t help but notice that just as the flowers of June replace spring’s early blossoms, July has taken June’s place.  

Of course, one could argue that like the flowers, humans seem to be planted in dirt and threatened by weeds and all varieties of pestilence. However, when I was visiting the rose garden in June, it was the array of blossoms, in a rainbow of colors, that caught my eye, and made my heart smile.  They too were planted in dirt, confronted by pests and disease, but a gardener was there watching over them just as we have the Ultimate Gardener attending to our needs. 

The flowers offer their seeds and pollen to insects and birds to eat and disperse, ensuring more and different blooms for the future. Likewise, I pray that until my last petal drops, I am offering seeds of hope for others as June does for me.  One day, my memories of past Junes will fade away into permanent dormancy. In the meantime, I will savor the memories made this past June, find nourishment in the full blossoming of the July summer, and, in the weeks to come, accept August as the petals of summer begin to fall away, one by one.  

May there always be a June.

Crabtree Falls: Spotlighting a cascade of blessings in the midst of shadows

“There is a hidden message in every waterfall. It says, if you are flexible, falling will not hurt you!”–Mehmet Murat ildan

Crabtree Falls, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway north of Asheville, NC, is a photographers dream!

The dawning of the day brought forth memories of the day before: light sweat forming, the sound of heavy breathing, the curves of mountainous proportions, the ups and downs, and the taste of sweetness at having reached one incredible summit.  I wanted to do it again. Was it love?  Not exactly.  Instead, I was recalling the hikes from the previous day, including one short, but incredibly steep trek up to the top of Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Mississippi River.  There is a reason for the slogan, “the mountains are calling” has been popularized!

John and I were fortunate enough to recently spend a few days in Black Mountain, NC, a delightful small town in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains.  Named after the mountains that surround it, the town of Black Mountain is a walkable, quaint town filled with over 200 businesses featuring local art, crafts, artisans of types, music, unique shops, galleries, breweries, and plenty of food venues for every dining desire.  Located about 15 miles from Asheville, NC, Black Mountain is also a hub for outdoor activities, but it is the surrounding mountain line that perpetually commanded the attention of John and me.

Our initial goals were to visit both Black Mountain and Asheville as well as enjoy a few hikes.  However, weather often alters best laid plans, and it certainly influenced ours.  In fact, on our first full day, we woke to a low-visibility/heavy fog warning for the surrounding mountains  due to the soaking, overnight rains that continued throughout most of the morning curtailing any hiking plans. 

On the positive side, this allowed us to fully explore and experience the warmth and creative energy of Black Mountain.  As we made our way through the town, browsing through one interesting shop after another, I asked locals to name their favorite hiking spots.  Granted it was a challenging question given the fact there are substantial choices in the area.  Nonetheless, certain locations kept emerging, including Mount Mitchell, Craggy Gardens, and Crabtree Falls. 

Thus, on the following day, John and I made our way to both Craggy Gardens and Mount Mitchell.  However, we were so enamoured with Craggy Garden that we did not spend as much time at Mount Mitchell as we had hoped.  No worries, or so we thought, we would return the following day on our way to Crabtree Falls.  Of course, if you want to make God laugh, tell him you have plans, right?

“I like the muted sounds, the shroud of grey, and the silence that comes with fog.”–Om Malik

As the following day evolved, our plans became, well, foggy, and we were not sure if the conditions would permit us to hike it given how the day started.  In order to get to Crabtree Falls, we had to traverse the Blue Ridge Parkway for nearly 90 minutes–not that this was a bad thing since this drive was, and is, oh-so-scenic! However, on this particular day, we watched with wonder as we drove through great clouds of layered gossamer drifting over the elevated mountainside, enveloping the road–and the scenic view.  

Air, so crisp and refreshing at the lower elevations, quickly became damp and bone-chilling as the temperature plummeted 20 degrees, and our visibility became drastically reduced.  Initially, our plans were to stop by Mount Mitchell before, and possibly after, visiting/hiking Crabtree Falls.  This was an attempt to experience a more clear view from the top of this summit.  Unfortunately, as we made our way up the access road towards the top of Mount Mitchell, the blanket of fog became more dense.  Stopping at the Mount Mitchell State Park Visitor Center for a map, it became clear that the cloud cover was set in for the next several hours.

Since we had never previously visited this part of the BRP, we envisioned that it was only a hop-skip-and-a-jump to Crabtree Falls!  Wrong!  Thirty minutes later, driving mostly through pea-like soup conditions, we finally arrived at Crabtree Falls Campground just past mile marker 339.  Finding the trail and determining the best strategy for tackling it was another story.

We had received what we thought was solid hiking advice from another couple.  They had advised us to start at the trailhead, and make the .9 downhill hike to the falls.  Then, instead of finishing the rest of the 1.5 trail to its end, this couple suggested that we turn around, and return the same way.  This shorter route sounded perfect since we wanted time to return to Mount Mitchell on the off-chance of cloud clearing.  It might have worked, if we had started at the trailhead!

Unfortunately, we did not see this sign until we finished our hike at the trailhead since we mistakenly hiked the trail in reverse!

After happily discovering restrooms in the campground before beginning our hike, we became turned around, and began the hike at the point in which most hikers consider the trail’s end!  We were on the 1.5 side of the trail that gently started and seemed pleasant, but it soon became rugged with thick, rambling roots acting like the proverbial bully sticking out his foot to purposely trip passersby.  In fact, for a large portion of this hike, we worried if we were even on the right path, but the few hikers we did encounter kept encouraging us that we were headed in the right direction.

We’re off to a pleasant start!

We kept traipsing, tripping, and trekking down the mountainside. Despite the air becoming cool and refreshing, we were sweating nonetheless. Along the way, we caught glimpses of Crabtree Creek and its numerous miniature falls creating a soothing natural soundtrack. Still, we wondered, was this all there was to see until another friendly family of hikers assured us that we were close. Our efforts and time, they assured, would be rewarded; however, they warned us that the next section would be a steep descent, full of mud, and slippery rocks.

Fun images along the gentle beginning–which was really the end!

Carefully continuing lower into the ravine, it began to feel as if we were descending into the damp cellar of Mother Nature with a fully opened, unseen spigot in the crevasse below.  Meanwhile, poor John, who had surgery on his knee ten months prior to this excursion, experienced jolts of sharp paint with each precipitous, downhill step.  Persevering through it all, I think we both felt hope rising as our minds whispered, “Wait, wait for it . . .” 

Crabtree Creek flowing alongside parts of the trail.

Crabtree Creek meandering alongside the trail.

Obstacles and slippery footing along the path.

“There’s no better place to find yourself than sitting by a waterfall and listening to it’s music.”–Roland R Kemler

There it was! Gushing, plummeting, and splashing over 70 feet of rock, Crabtree Creek, God’s ultimate shower. We stood in awe, witnessing such a magnificent creation from the hand of the Creator.  Moments ticked by, and then with great dramatic flare, a sunbeam spotlighted the falls.  I felt tugging at my heartstrings.

“Far away, there in the sunshine, are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.”–Louisa May Alcott

I reflected on the challenges of the hike down–from starting at the trail’s end to encountering all of the rocks, roots, sharp and sudden dips, as well as the slippery sections filled with mud.  What a likeness there was to life’s challenges–especially during the pandemic months.  Through it all, the shadow side of the mountain, like the shadow side of life, Divine Providence was present; and there, in that moment, we were bearing witness to blessing cascading from the heavens above.  

It was all uphill on the .9 return to the campground/parking area, but the worst was behind us.

We now faced a .9 mile uphill slope, but the worst was behind us, and we were not completing it alone.  Mount Mitchell would wait for another time.  For now, we would stay a while, resting beside the cool, celestial waters.

“Be still, and know that I am God . . .I will be exalted in the earth.”–Psalm 46:10

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, Gluten-free Miracles, and Corta-Lima: Lexington, KY, part 2 June 2021

 . . . “Shaker Village is reconnecting its campus to inspire a new community of adventurers, learners, makers and doers. . . . Find architectural wonders, plant a backyard garden and taste a new dish fresh-from-the-garden.”–shakervillageky.org

“Have you heard of Pleasant Hill?” I was asked.

In fact, I had not.  Hmm . . .

John, my husband, and I were staying in Lexington, KY, for a few days.  Since this wasn’t our first visit, we wanted to ensure we were visiting new spots.  As I read about Shaker Village, a year-round destination, it seemed right up our alley.  A 3,000 acre attraction honoring and remembering what was, at one time, the third largest community of Shakers in the United States from 1805 to 1910. 

The Historic Centre, The Farm, and The Preserve, all part of Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, provide activities and events for a wide range of interests.  From history to religion, from science to art, from cooking to gardening, from technological advances to Appalachain ingenuity, from dining to shopping, from day trips to overnight stays, from hiking to boating, from paddling to horseback riding, and so much more, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill is a one-stop source of inspiration and fun.  Visitors can opt for self-guided tours and activities, or join in one of the multiple-daily group led events. “Inn fact” (pun intended), BBC once named this Kentucky icon a “top hidden travel destination.”

The on-site Inn is unique due to the fact that visitors can stay in traditional guest rooms or suites, but can also choose to stay in one of 13 private cottages that are restored Shaker buildings.  The rooms, whether choosing a cottage or Inn room, make use of Shaker furniture replicas, hardwood flooring, and offer Kentucky countryside views.  While staying overnight, visitors can dine at the on-site restaurant, likewise appointed with Shaker-style furniture.  The restaurant’s menu features from-the-farm dishes and meals–changing as the growing seasons change–making for a unique year-round dining experience.

While visiting Shaker Village, guests can browse all three shops on its campus featuring local foods, art, and, of course, plenty of distinctive Shaker-style pieces and gifts.  Plus, they offer an on-line shop; therefore, allowing you to shop their one-of-a-kind wares at any time.  If shopping is not your thing, there is so much more to do at Shaker Village.

Since the Shakers believed that living a healthy lifestyle was an integral part of their spiritual life, Shaker Village offers numerous out-of-doors adventures.  There is a 36-mile trail system for hikers of all levels of experience, including family-friendly trails or more advanced treks. While hiking, take in a bird observational site, a 50-foot waterfall, High-Bridge, the first cantilever bridge in North America, or the 1866 Frame Stable, where the Shakers provided a change of horses for stage coaches.  If you prefer a more guided experience, most weekends in Shaker Village offer some form of special emphasis experience or trek, focusing on topics such as wildflowers, geology, foraging, birding, conservancy and so much more.  The village hosts seasonal runs, paddling expeditions, and other mind-body-spirit events. Additionally, you can even volunteer the third Saturday of every month to help the village in their efforts to remove invasive species.  There is just so much to do, see, and experience at Shaker Village. John and I were fully immersed and engaged for the entirety of our day there, and we only scratched the surface. We look forward to a return trip to explore more of what this destination has to offer!

The Farm at Shaker Village

Our day-long exploration of Shaker Village, as well as our previous day-tripping experiences, required proper fueling.  Boy, did we EVER find the dream! Miracles Bakery, located on 145 Burt Road in Lexington, was about a 10 minute drive from the Airbnb apartment in which we were staying.  What a miracle it was!  

“Miracles Bakery is a faith driven organization changing lives through the power of food, while helping folks with their journey.”–miraclesbakery.com

Since being diagnosed with celiac disease in my forties, all products containing gluten, wheat, barley, and rye are off limits. Therefore, I rarely ever indulge in truly decadent pastries, much less enjoy quality tasting bread.  Walking into an entire store dedicated to gluten-free baking as well as other allergies and diet specialties, I was overwhelmed with food choices for the first time in many years.  In fact, I thought I would cry.  

Meet Meghan Kerbyson, Manager, at Miracles Bakery.

Donuts, cookies, muffins, breads, cakes, cupcakes, pies, pizzas, pizza rolls, sandwiches, even biscuits–flakey, short and dreamy biscuits . . . .  Paleo, keto, vegan, and other dietary restrictions, such as egg, soy, or nuts?  Not a problem here.  Miracles Bakery truly looked like heaven, but John, who does NOT have any food allergies, and I had to put it to the taste test.  

Drum roll, please. . . We ended up eating brunch there three consecutive days!  Plus, we departed their store each day with a treat, or five, for later in the day.  On our last day, Saturday, their donut day, we brought home ½ dozen of those precious gluten-free and vegan gems.  Sweet blessings from above!  If you, or a loved one, has ANY sort of dietary restrictions, and you’re visiting Lexington, KY, Miracles Bakery is a MUST eatery.  Dine-in or carry-out.  You won’t go away hungry or leave disappointed.

“Corto Lima is a mid-scale Latin inspired restaurant specializing in a new brand of Latin cuisine with a modern interpretation.”–cortalima.com

Another food discovery, while visiting Lexington, KY, was Corto Lima, located at 101 Short Street.  This cozy, stylish corner restaurant has limited seating, but the line of waiting customers that John and I saw on a Friday evening, reinforced what we experienced: a dining experience worth waiting for!  Corta Lima describes itself as a, “mid-scale Latin inspired restaurant specializing in a new brand of Latin cuisine with a modern interpretation.”  According to their website, Chef Jonathan Lundy, creates delectable dishes, drawing inspiration from Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America, as well as the American Southwest.  Corto Lima’s menu features housemade artisanal corn tortillas, fresh ingredients, and offering gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan options as well as plenty of meat-centered dishes.  Additionally, their beverage menu, created by Director of Operations/Owner TJ Cox, focuses on Tequilas, Mezcals Rums, and wines of Latin origin.  In fact, Corta Lima boasts the best Margarita in Lexington!

John and I were challenged over all of the varied and eclectic options.  While pursuing the menu, and asking our server/bartender, Nigel Haddad, multiple questions, we noshed on salsa trio, featuring salsa verde, pineapple serrano, and fire roasted tomato: so, so good!  Eventually, I chose a side of black beans and Quinoa Chaufa, and John gleefully selected freshly made Tamales–two orders!  Surrounded by a warm, sunny atmosphere, plenty of terra-cotta potted plants, a lively room of diners, and an attentive staff, our dining experience at Corta Lima was certainly memorable. We highly recommend it and hope to return!

Nigel Haddad, Bartender and server extraordinaire

A mere two hour drive from the Tri-State area, Lexington is a great jumping off point for mini-getaways at any point of the year!  The town is welcoming to all walks of life. It’s vibrant and full of the vitality and vigor for which Kentucky hospitality is known!  Spend a weekend or spend a week, you’ll find something for nearly every interest in Lexington.  Be sure to hit me up on social media with your favorite Lexington spot or share with me at stephsimply.com!  And, if you visit any of the locations mentioned here, be sure to tell them Steph simply sent you!

Lexington, KY, June 2021, Part 1: The Adventure Begins

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”–Marcel Proust

Ready, set, go . . . travel!  Yes! After months of not traveling, like many people across the country, John, my husband, and I, were ready to hit the road for adventures.  As educators, we have the opportunity to use June and July as months readily available for travel, but last year, of course, was a different story.  In fact, our biggest trip last year was to local home improvement stores for plants!   While we debated the merits of one big, blow-the-budget-trip, we instead settled on more frequent, pocket friendly exploits.  Thus, for our first short venture we decided to visit a beloved friend, Lexington, KY.

Having been to Lexington on several previous trips, we decided to add a twist:  stay downtown.  Looking on Airbnb, we found a cute downtown apartment just off Short Street–which made me giggle since I am 4’11”!  Hostesses Susannah, and assistant, Heather, were excellent communicators to ensure we had a clean, comfortable place to stay.  Additionally, Susannah provided us with her personal guidebook to Lexington.  Full of information, this guidebook proved to be a valuable asset as we wanted to explore new parts of the city.

Rainy weather and storms forced us to modify plans and go with the flow.  However, Lexington is the perfect place in which to do this as there are plenty of indoor and outdoor sites.  One such modification led to a serendipitous stop.  

One of my student’s parents recently gifted me with two books by Kentucky & Appalachian author, Crystal Wilkinson’s books.  According to the backs of both books, Wilkinson and her partner, a poet and an artist, owned a bookstore in Lexington–Wild Fig Books and Coffee.  Based upon the book cover’s description, the store sounded right up my alley (Plus, I would have personally loved to chat with Ms. Wilkinson if the opportunity presented itself.), but I was unsure if the bookstore was still in operation due to conflicting Google searches.  John and I were never able to find it, and I later sadly read afterwards that it was permanently closed.

Nonetheless, in our search for the book store, we happened to encounter Greyline Station, which describes itself as, “A dynamic public marketplace in the heart of the bluegrass.”  This 65,000 square foot marketplace felt very grassroots and community driven as John and I walked around, visiting the numerous and varied vendors. Built in 1928, the building was home, in the 1940s, to Southeastern Greyhound which was, at one point in time, the largest employer in Lexington.  As the years progressed, this building had several reincarnations before becoming forsaken. Then, in 2014, the abandoned building was added to the list of National Register of Historic Places. Four years later, revitalization began, and it now houses eateries, bars, offices, a radio station, retail stores, event space, and a public market. John and I can only imagine the exponential potential this unique area has for growth.  We are eager to return to Greyline Station in the coming months to witness the further expansion of this vibrant and community-centered hub. 

“Greyline’s 65,000 square foot building has a storied history. For almost 100 years, the building was home to bus & transit companies, and was deemed historically significant in 2011. Come explore Lexington’s newest place to Shop, Eat, & Meet.”–as seen on the official website

With the rain clouds tentatively staved off, it appeared that we had a decent window of time to visit what was described by AirBnB hostess, Susannah, as a local favorite, the Arboretum State Botanical Garden of Kentucky, located on the UK campus near the football stadium.  Described by Susannah as a “three-mile walk/run path through beautiful gardens,” John and I were positively stunned by the sheer number and variety of flowering plants.  Identified as Kentucky’s official botanical garden, this 100-acre public garden provides visitors with both native and not-so-native flowers, trees, shrubs, and other plants. From the Children’s Garden to the Visitor Center, from the Walk Across Kentucky displays to distinctive horticultural displays, and from the Kentucky Utilities Ornamental Tree Collection to the fragrance and roses gardens, this botanical paradise has much to offer visitors.  It was clear this was a favorite spot for exercise due to the number of walkers/runners we saw in the parking area and exercising on the various paths–until lightning flashed, the thunder clapped, and the heavens dumped buckets of rain.  John and I earned an extra cardio boost as we ran to the car during this gully washer, ending our visit far too soon.  Therefore, the Arboretum State Botanical Garden of Kentucky will definitely be at the top of our list of places to return!