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!

“The Arboretum celebrates nature, fosters an understanding of relationships between humans and their natural world, provides cultural opportunities for the community, and serves as a community center for environmental education, horticulture, and urban forest renewal.”–as seen on the official website

Heading back to the apartment to wait out the storm, we discussed dinner plans.  The great thing about Susannah’s location was our ability to walk to dinner each night.  On the previous evening, we walked around and through Thoroughbred Park. Dedicated to the Thoroughbred Industry, this 2.5 acre park features numerous bronze sculptures by artist, Gwen Reardon, and it was located right across the street from one of our favorite Lexington eateries, Carson’s Food and Drink. Their diverse menu offers John plenty of meat-centric dishes as well as gluten-free plant based options for me.  Carson’s service is always on-point, and the food never disappoints.  This is one restaurant upon which we always look forward to returning.

“A rustic, yet refined atmosphere with chef-driven recipes paired with prohibition cocktails, hand-selected wines, and craft beers.”–Carson’s Food & Drink

Another one of our favorites places to dine is Pies and Pints, and Lexington has one!  Conveniently located across the street from both Triangle Park and the Lexington Convention Center, it is also a short walk to Rupp Arena.  Thus, making it one hot location on the night of concerts, basketball games, and other public events. Pies and Pints, personally speaking, offers me a rare opportunity to eat a pizza that is both gluten-free and vegan while still offering all of the traditional favorite pizza toppings, such as sausage and pepperoni, for John.  Plus, they have wonderful apps, salads and sandwiches, all of which have gluten-free options.  With attentive service, 35 taps for those so-inclined–including ciders and root beer, and a wide array of one-of-a-kind pizza toppings, Pies and Pints remains high on our list of go-to eateries in Lexington.

“Stop by for lunch, dinner, happy hour or anytime you want to enjoy a delicious pie & brew while cheering on the Big Blue.”–Pies & Pints, Lexington, KY location

Next week, I will share more of our Lexington adventures–including two, new-to-us food stops and a historical location that is also a base for several types of out-of-doors adventures.  In the meantime, if you haven’t put Lexington, KY on your short-list of friendly, tourist attractions, be sure to take time to add it.  Then, plan your visit soon, and hit me up on Instagram, Facebook, or at stephsimply.com with any questions you may have.  With so many points of appeal and interest, you’ll be glad you visited Lexington, KY!  And while you’re there, be sure to tell them Steph simply sent you!

Berry Good Cauliflower-Berry Smoothie

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

Photo by Anastasiia Petrova on Pexels.com

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

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

Photo by Julia Volk on Pexels.com

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

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

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

Photo by Arina Krasnikova on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berry Good Cauliflower Smoothie

Ingredients:

1 ½ cup riced cauliflower

1-1 ¼  cup favorite liquid or other favorite liquid 

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

½ teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Dash of salt (optional)

1 inch or ½ teaspoon ginger

1 mini cucumber or ½ large

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

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

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

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

Replace ¼ cup of your favorite liquid with ¼ cup aloe

2 teaspoons amla

2 teaspoon greens powder

1-2 teaspoons acai powder

½ – 1 teaspoon matcha powder

½ -1 whole scoop of favorite protein powder 

¼-½ teaspoon of turmeric powder

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

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

Blend all ingredients until smooth.

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

Scent-ual Memories of Mamaw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The End of an Educational Experiment . . .for now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birdsong: A Harbinger of Hope

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

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

“Birdsong brings relief

to my longing.

I am just as ecstatic as they are,

but with nothing to say!

Please, universal soul, practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do they learn it?

They fall, and falling,

They’re given wings.–Rumi

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