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.  

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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.

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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!
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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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“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. 

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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.  

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“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.

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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.

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“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?  

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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.