Steph’s Chocolate Cherry Berry Smoothie

“Every time that you eat or drink you are either feeding the disease or fighting it.–Heather Morgan, MS, NLC

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Were you ever made to sit at the dinner table until you ate every pea on your plate?  Those wrinkled, collapsing orbs of dull green were, well, gross, at least to my kid’s immature taste buds.  Sometimes those dull greenish spheroids might get a color splash of orange from cubed or sliced carrots just as mushy and often congealed with some sort of cooking fat–margarine, bacon grease, or other unknown fatty substance.  

Based upon personal, but juvenile, experience, there are limited ways to move and rearrange those overcooked peas before they devolve into some sort of smushy, mashed concoction sure to ignite the gag reflex if sniffed long enough. Sometimes, I would hold my breath, quickly insert a forkful into my mouth, then coyly spit it out in my napkin while pretending to wipe my mouth.  Unfortunately, those paper napkins could only absorb so much, and alas, there still remained a glob of uneaten goopy green mash on my plate.  

It was a duel in epic proportions–me or the pea pulp.  One of us was going down in the end.  Ready. Aim. Fire . . .the hum of the refrigerator filtered through the air.  Through screened windows, neighborhood children could be heard playing in the little cul-de-sac in which I lived.  Sadly, there I sat, an outlaw, imprisoned at the avocado green kitchen table, unwaveringly staring down the enemy of mounded up, wearisome putrid peas.  Tick, tock went the kitchen clock . . .

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Okay, in fairness to my parents, they were young, wanted me to eat healthfully, and strongly desired that I not be so dang-gum finicky.  As a parent, I now understand their viewpoint.  Plus, in defense of the poor peas, they were merely being served in the manner in which most Americans were consuming them in the 1970s–canned vegetables flavored with some form of fat and salt.  

Flashforward to present day, and I love vegetables!  Of course, we have a wide variety from which to choose, including fresh carrots and peas (Snow or sugar snap peas with baby carrots and hummus anyone?).  Between the produce aisle and the freezer aisle, I load my cart weekly with a rainbow of goodness that also includes plenty of fresh and frozen fruits and veggies, mindful of the importance of dark leafy greens and berries.  In fact, one of my favorite acronyms for prioritizing the types of fruits and vegetables upon which to put greater emphasis, in order to assure the highest nutrition-to-calorie ratio, is GBOMBS, which comes from Dr. Joel Fuhrman. 

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 “Leafy greens have more nutrition per calorie than any other food.”–Ornish Lifestyle Medicine 

GBOMBS stands for: greens, beans (legumes), onions (and garlic), mushrooms, berries (and pomegranate), and seeds.  According to Dr. Fuhrman, while all vegetables and fruits are good for you, GBOMBS are the top six cancer preventing foods that should have the greatest emphasis when planning daily meals.  Numerous well-known, health-orientated platforms and personalities likewise encourage the consumption of GBOMBS including Silver Sneakers,  Blue Zones, Ornish Lifestyle, Joan Lunden, and Dr. Oz to name a few.  In addition to warding against cancer, these foods have also been proven to boost the immune system, prevent chronic disease, increase longevity, decrease mental decline, reduce heart disease and blood pressure, and due to their vibrant colors, are chock full of antioxidants while offering a wide variety of vitamins and minerals.  Plus, these foods are high in fiber–need I preach about the value of fiber?

“Smoothies that blend whole fruits and vegetables without additional sweeteners and are served in appropriate portions may be helpful for some people to consume more of these foods, but should not replace eating them in their whole form. It is best to prepare smoothies at home so that you can control the type and amount of ingredients added to ensure calorie control and optimal nutrients.”–Harvard School of Public Health 

With this in mind, I share with you one of my favorite GBOMBS smoothie variations.  While I know that eating one’s food is preferred to drinking one’s calories for a wide variety of reasons, I personally find sound nutritional value in whole-food-plant-based smoothies that I make at home.  I am especially fond of consuming them in the morning when my stomach is not feeling so great and/or I’m rushed for time.  These smoothies allow me to start my day off with a blast of nutrition.  Furthermore, I also drink smoothies as a useful part of my half-marathon training regime as a, a-hem, “mature” returning runner (jogger, crawler, whatever you want to call it!) as the weekly mileage increases. 

Like all of my smoothie recipes, think of this one as a scaffolding.  Feel free to add, delete, reduce, and adjust any and all ingredients to best accommodate your nutritional and caloric needs.  Although I do not feel the need to supplement my smoothies with protein powder, it is certainly a possible addition to the recipe.  I prefer to make these smoothies ahead of time–such as the night before I will drink one, and save the second one for the following day.  Some nutritionists state there is a small bit of nutritional breakdown that occurs when making smoothies ahead of time, but in my mind, if it saves me time and effort–it’s worth the minor loss.

“Berries and pomegranates have the highest nutrient-to-calorie ratio of all fruits, and they protect against cancer, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and dementia.”–VegKitchen.com

Fortify your body’s well-being with a whole food plant based smoothie.  Notice how easy it is to feel like a nutritional bombshell at the beginning of your day.  Plus, you can move through your day knowing that whatever ever else comes your way, you took time to give your heart, cells, and overall health a bit of nutritional TLC.  Best of all, nutrition never tasted so good!

From my home to yours, I wish you heartfelt, healthy, and homemade goodness!

Steph’s Chocolate Cherry Berry Smoothie

Ingredients:

½ cup favorite milk (I use plant based milk.)

2 cups chopped spinach (Can use frozen chopped spinach.)

1 ripe banana (I buy ahead of time and keep frozen once ripe.)

¼ cup chopped walnuts or pecans

1 tablespoon flax seed (Can substitute chia or hemp seeds.)

4 tablespoons cocoa powder

¼ teaspoon ground turmeric (Optional, turmeric is an anti-inflammatory, and I add it to my food throughout the day.)

1 cup frozen cherry berry medley (Can use fresh cherries mixed with favorite berries.)

½ pomegranate or cherry juice

Dash of salt (I use ground pink himalyan.)

Optional: Add favorite 2 teaspoons of favorite sweetener if desired, such as pure maple syrup and/or favorite protein powder

Place in a blender in the order listed and blend until smooth.

Divide between glasses.

Can be drunk immediately or stored for later use in the fridge.  If saving for later use, be sure to shake well before consuming.

Makes 2 servings.

Thank You to All Those Working Tirelessly to Recover from Ice Storm

Comments from Governor Mike DeWine, Ohio, respectively, February 17 & 19, 2021: 

 “Gallia County has been placed under a state of emergency. Lawrence County was put under a state of emergency Wednesday night.” 

“Thousands of people in the area are still without power because downed trees are getting in the way of utility crews that are trying to fix the power lines. By calling in the Ohio National Guard, we can help restore power faster and also prevent future flooding by removing debris from the water before the weather warms up.”

When the first ice storm hit on a Thursday evening, John, my husband, and I had just eaten an early dinner.  Within the hour of finishing dinner, the power kicked off.  We tried to get our generator working, but to no avail.  Ultimately, the power only ended up being off 6-8 hours.  No big deal in the grand scheme of things.  

Life went on as normal for John, our college-aged daughter, Madelyn, and me.  However, we could see some signs of storm demolition all along the state route on which we live in Ohio.  Additionally, many of our co-workers living in WV were without power for days, with a few never regaining power before the second round of ice hit February 15.  

The following Monday, due to the storm’s impending presence, I made the call to once again, prepare dinner early.  (My Depression-era Grandmother Slater would be so proud by the way in which I prioritized food on the nights of both storms!)  We had just sat down to eat, when we heard what sounded like a gun-fire.  Then came another, and another, and another as branches all around our rural home began breaking.  ½ inch, or thicker, of ice coated trees making them look like winter goblins with tentacles of certain danger and doom.

Next began, what at first my confused mind thought was, lightning.  Lightning in the midst of snow, ice, and sleet?  Wait a minute . . .the cogs in my brain spun faster. Flashes of light repeatedly displayed all around us.  Transformers and power lines were exploding like bombs as the pop, pop, pop of trees branches continued to battle on.  Craaack!  With the snap of a limb, our home’s power seemed to disintegrate along with the trees.  Darkness enveloped us, and the sound of the weather war soldiered on all around.  This. Was. It. 

Scrambling for flashlights, candles, and emergency radio, Maddie and I made our way through the house as John kept stepping outside checking on the house and our vehicles.  Gallon jugs of water were strategically placed throughout the house because when we lose power, we likewise lose running water due to the fact we have well-water that makes its way into our pipes via an electric well pump.  We made jokes regarding the toilet.  “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.”  Resorting to potty humor was, indeed, juvenile, but laughter seemed better than crying.  Little did we know we were in for five days worth of no power or running water.

Going to bed that night, extra quilts on the bed (Thank you, Mammaw Musick!), we fell asleep to the snap, crackle, pop of what was NOT the famous cereal, but instead the very real surrounding woodland.  Waking in the morning, the house temperature had significantly dropped.  Walking quietly into the kitchen, as I was the first one up, I realized I would not be starting my day with a hot cup of coffee.  The fun had only begun.

Using an emergency lamp/radio/weather alert/thermometer, temperatures inside our family room, even with the fire going, hovered in the low to mid-fifties as seen here.

Facts from Jeff Jenkins, Saturday, February 20, 2021, Metro News The Voice of West Virginia:

 “Ice storms hit on Feb. 11 and then again on Feb. 15.”

“After the two storms, outages peaked at 97,000.” (In WV alone)

 “Around 44,000 customers remain out of power. Counties most affected include Cabell, where 15,019 customers are without service; Wayne, 14,203; Putnam, 5,074; Lincoln, 3,973; Jackson, 2,343; and Mason, 2,402.” (As of February 20)

  “A total of 27 bunkhouses are now in place at the Huntington Mall to house the additional (power) workers. Due to COVID-19 precautions, they will be filled only at half capacity, or 15 workers per trailer.”

Our neighbor shared with us that early Tuesday morning–he typically leaves for work around 4:00 a.m.–when he attempted the short three mile drive to the next state route in order to reach his place of employment, he was stopped by a sheriff deputy who told him that 20 or more trees were down over the road!  Hours later, when John and I finally ventured out for more gallon jugs of water, instant coffee (I found a camp stove pot for heating water.) and a few other supplies, it was like traveling an obstacle course over those same three miles.  We navigated around downed trees and limbs, fallen telephone and electric poles, power lines, and so much natural debris.  All around us, the typically scenic route looked like a war zone.  There were countless dark, injured homes and vehicles with shattered safety glass.  Shrapnel of wood covered the roads and glistening white snow.  Meanwhile sparkling tree limbs, weighed down by ice, bent their weapons of glassy appendages toward those of us daring to drive under and around their glacial shafts. Scraaape! Their frosted tips like fingernails scraped our windows, hood, and doors.

Ever the conscientious recyclers, John and I veered off-course on our way to Huntington, to drop off our recyclables in the designated receptacles located in a large parking lot behind the local post office.  Much to our astonishment, this parking lot of a large abandoned storefront was not empty as it usually is.  Instead, there were twenty to thirty power vehicles loaded with buckets, bulldozing equipment, transformers, power poles, and so forth.  Men were gathered in circles talking–hard hats and traditional cold weather garments adorned these burly, red faced men.  John and I felt an overwhelming surge of gratitude.  These men, based upon their truck identification, were from Indiana, parts of Ohio–near and far, as well as Kentucky.

“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.”–William Arthur Ward

John rolled down his window.  I rolled down mine.  Out each of our windows, we began thanking these unknown men for the efforts to abate the surrounding devastation and destruction.  Meanwhile, in an ironic twist of fate, sea gulls circled and called, seemingly encouraging these workers onward. 

Seagulls that had been circling around the power workers, lifted in flight and landed on a more empty part of the parking lot as we drove closer to the power trucks and workers.

We repeated our words of gratitude any time we ventured for supplies throughout this past icy week.  Often, opportunity would occur after waiting for our turn to drive in a single lane as we slowly made our past men working on power lines along our state route.  It was important to us that they know their efforts were heartfully appreciated, especially given the bitter weather conditions.

While I know that these power workers, tree removal specialists, state troopers, local law enforcement, National Guard members, and other community members were compensated for their time, they were, nonetheless, sacrificing time away from their family, friends, and loved ones.  This is time that they will never get back in order to help restore power for complete strangers. Hours spent in frigid temperatures, snow squalls, and dangerous conditions is not for the faint of heart.  This type of work requires grit, determination, and empathy–the ability to feel the needs of others. 

Therefore, to all the men and women who have and/or are working to repair the power, remove the fallen trees, restore safe road travel, and return water and power services to the many without, my family and I thank you.  Thank you for your long hours, your exposure to the winter elements, and your personal risk in often dangerous situations.  We are grateful for your time, energy, focus.  Behind each repair that you make, were/are people’s lives for whom your work is making a difference.  May your generosity circle back to you in some form.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.

May Her Steps Be Remembered

“Nothing is impossible: The word itself says “I’m possible!”–Audrey Hepburn

“Your body will argue that there is no justifiable reason to continue. Your only recourse is to call on your spirit, which fortunately functions independently of logic.”–Tim Noakes

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I am so cold.  I’m freezing.  

I was shaking so badly as I stepped out of bed during this nocturnal, chilly wake up call;  my legs did not want to hold me up.

What is happening?

Waves of nausea immediately flooded my middle, and I became suddenly aware of the sharp tinges of a headache that reminded me of an illness, but I couldn’t think clearly enough to define the association.  Did I have a stomach bug? The flu, or something else? 

In the bathroom, I retrieved sweatpants and a sweatshirt and donned them in protection of my pervasive cold shivers.  On wobbly legs, I humbly returned to my bed knowing that something was off.  Trembling under the covers, sleep came in fitful waves, with bouts of shuddering wakefulness and nausea in between. Tossing about from side to side, my left shoulder was noticeable tender each time I rolled onto it.  The injection site. Images danced dreamily around in my head.

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“You have the hardest arm to stick,” the young pharmacy student stated with a grimace as she pushed harder to get the vaccine needle inserted into my arm. 

Across the way, I watched as another pharmacy student injected my husband, John, as if his arm were a stick of room temperature butter, despite the fact he has spent years exercising with weights.  John winked at me as I winced at the second effort of pushing by the pharmacy student into my arm.

Oh, yes, I had my second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.  My arm was sore last time; it is sore again. 

When the alarm eventually did go off at its usual Saturday morning time of 5:30, I groggily reset a new alarm for 6:00.  This was followed with a 6:30 alarm, and a final 7:00 am alarm.  

I never sleep this late on a Saturday.  Must. Be. A. Stomach. Bug. Surely, it’s not a reaction to the vaccine.  Can’t be, right?

Saturday was also the day I was to run my first 10 miler in preparation for my first virtual half-marathon since my back injury five years ago, and I could barely walk due to my convulsing shivers.  With sudden clarity, it occurred to me that I could take acetaminophen to mitigate the symptoms.  

Why hadn’t I thought of that during the night?

Opening the childproof medicine bottle, I discovered that I had five pills.  Great.  I decided to start with two and see what happens. 

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Making my way into the kitchen area, I started a pot of coffee, guzzled down several ounces of water, although my stomach protested, and sat staring out the window.  The nausea was pervasive, my headed pounded, and the chills were ever-present as I pondered the day ahead.  I felt extremely thankful that it was Saturday, and I did not have to work. Otherwise,  I would already be at school preparing for the arrival of students at 7:30.

Slowing sipping coffee–not sure if my stomach would revolt or not, a plan for the day began to take shape–assuming the acetaminophen kicked in.  By 8:15 am, the chills had mostly subsided, the nausea and headache were present, but felt more the muzak of years ago softly played in elevators.  I made the decision; I was going to try to run.  First, however, I needed to locate a name to honor from the Honor the Fallen website. 

A few clicks later, there came a name.  Sgt. Christina M. Schoenecker, a  26-year-old was an Army Reserve soldier assigned to the 89th Sustainment Brigade, out of Wichita, Kansas.  She was so young looking.  Her eyes were bright and full of empathy, but her slightly crooked smile looked wry–as if engaging in conversation with her was sure to be filled with quick-witted, sharp comments.  As I read her story, I felt a surge of inspiration. 

Given my suppressed chills, I ruled out running outside and opted instead for the treadmill. Besides, I told myself, the treadmill offers less impact on my back. An hour or so later, I was on the treadmill hoping for the best, but ready to abandon the training plan if needed.  

Don’t look down at the numbers.  Eyes straight ahead, arms at right angles, melt those shoulders away from your ears, keep the speed slow and steady.  One mile at a time, Steph.  One mile at a time.  Focus on the name:  Sgt. Christina M. Schoenecker.  Pretend her name is written on the wall.

Podcast playing, my mind semi-focused on its content as my stomach continued its somersaults.  I decided to save walk breaks until later, when all of my reserves might be running low. Walk breaks would be the reward for early efforts.

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As a teenage girl, I often rode my bike to and from summer bandcamp. There was a hill on the way home that was steep and wound round a hill. At that time, a childhood jingle would enter my mind, “Just think you can, and know you can just like the engine that could.”  This same jingle entered my mind as I jogged on the revolving belt of the dreadmill, I mean, treadmill.  Sgt. Christina M. Schoenecker.   Sgt. Christina M. Schoenecker.   Sgt. Christina M. Schoenecker.

One mile turned into another and another.  One hour passed, and one podcast was over.  Walk break taken long enough to start a new one.  Thirty more minutes passed; another walk break began.  Can’t take another moment of the incessant talking.  Time for the power button–music.  A driving playlist of beats began its encouraging cadence.  Nausea grew greater and legs grew wobbly again.  So close now.  Increase the determined self-talk.  More nausea, more achiness. . . keep pushing.  Sgt. Christina M. Schoenecker.   Sgt. Christina M. Schoenecker.   Sgt. Christina M. Schoenecker.

It wasn’t pretty.  It wasn’t fast, but it was purposeful. My struggle was nothing compared to the struggle of those who have served in our military. Christina M. Schoenecker, the name I found on the website, served during Operation Inherent Resolve. Assigned to the 89th Sustainment Brigade, Christina was an Army Reserve soldier out of Wichita, Kansas. This young woman died in a non-combat incident in Baghdad, Iraq.  She was the third casualty of this operation at the tender age of 26. 

It is through the mission of wear blue: run to remember that I often run, “in honor of the service and sacrifice of American military.”  My contribution is minimal.  There are local and national groups who do so much more work and efforts to increase awareness and honor the fallen and their families.  My only contribution occurs each Saturday, when I search the name of a fallen person–someone’s family member–write their name on a post-it note, place that paper the zippered pocket of my running tights, and send up words of gratitude to the heavens for this person’s service as well as to the family each one left behind.  My steps, no matter how challenging, still do not equate to the service of those brave men and women freely gave to our country.  It is my hope though, in some minor way, I honor their memory and offer their family some form of unseen comfort.

Thank you, Christina, for your service.  Thank you, for your ultimate sacrifice.  Thank you, Christina’s parents.  Your daughter was remembered this past Saturday, step by step.  Her memory truly inspired me to finish.

For more information regarding wearblue: run to remember, visit their national website, or look/join the local Ashland community, found on Facebook, or via email:  Ashlandcommunity@wearblueruntoremember.org.

It Starts with One Seed

“In this earth, 

In this soil, 

In this pure field

Let’s not plant 

Any seeds 

Other than seeds of compassion

and Love–Rumi

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While it’s nerdy to admit this, my husband and I love shows about nature, with PBS’s Nature among one of favorites.  Go ahead, make fun of us, or roll your eyes. We teach middle schooler students; we can take it! 

Recently, an episode of Nature featured animals who survive on the highest and most extreme terrain of the Alps.  While you may continue to giggle and guffaw at our choice of entertainment, this episode fed our minds with its breathtaking cinematography of an extraordinary landscape and the unique variety of animals adapted to the Alpine mountain climate, including the chamois, ibex, marmot, golden eagle, and the spotted nutcracker.  It was while the narrator and filming focused on the nutcracker scene that, shall I say, planted a seed.

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In the Alpine world, the Swiss stone pine exists, thanks in large part to the work of the spotted nutcracker. The nutcracker relies on the seeds of the Swiss stone pine for food.  Even though this tree only produces seeds between the months of August and October, this bird is able to survive year ‘round in the harsh conditions of the Alpine climate because of its ability to stockpile these seeds in a wide variety of locations and remember their hiding spots. The birds’ naturally seem to select places that prevent their collection from being stolen by scavengers.  Interestingly, these carefully selected locations are also less likely to support seed germination–at least for a several months.  Thus, these hidden seed-pantries enable the spotted nutcracker to eat year ‘round, including feeding its young in the spring.

Fortunately, for the Swiss stone pine, it can live for as many as 500 years–which works in the favor for both the tree and spotted nutcracker.  In fact, even if only one to two seeds per year from the nutcracker’s hidden caches remain uneaten, and therefore germinate, it is enough to keep the tree viable for hundreds of years.  Thus, making this symbiotic relationship an ideal partnership for the continuation of both species.

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“Keep on sowing your seed, for you never know which will grow—perhaps it all will.”–Ecclesiastes 11:6 TLB

One seed.  Hidden, dropped, or lost–dormantly remains idle until the conditions change.

One seed.  Full of potential–enough energy to fuel the growth of a new seedling.

One seed.  Serendipity–precise temperature, water, oxygen, light.

One seed. Free to break through its hardened shell and begin growing.

From one seed of the Swiss stone pine, a root first forms, followed by a shoot that will grow into its stems, branches, and needles.  Over the years, as the seedling extends into maturity, the tree will endure countless challenges throughout the entirety of its life. From strong winds to Alpine avalanches, from temperatures well below freezing (think -30 to -40 degrees) to extremely warm temperatures, from blizzard conditions to summer storms, and all conditions in between, this tree finds a way to persevere for hundreds of years.  

However, the Swiss stone pine does not survive all those hundreds of years without breakage. In fact, the trunk of this tree is so brittle that its top may be repeatedly broken off in harsh conditions.  Despite its brokenness, it continues to grow and produce seeds that are editable–not only for the nutcracker, but also for other birds, animals, and even human consumption.

Often referred to as the “Queen of the Alps,” the Swiss stone pine survives its brokenness and storms by forming lateral shoots that often resprout in response to the weather conditions.  Furthermore, the nutcracker typically only consumes about 80% of the Swiss stone pine seeds it hoards.  Therefore, thanks in large part to the work of the nutcracker, groups of seeds often germinate together in one spot, and the numerous trees sprout together.  What often appears as one tree with multiple trunks are actually several trees growing together in one root system. Additionally, even if the nutcracker–or for that matter, other creatures– would happen to eat all of the trees’ seeds for several seasons in a row, the Swiss stone pine’s seed cycle includes a mast season, every four or five years, producing so great a quantity of seeds that it would be impossible for all of its seeds to be consumed. Thus, ensuring the tree’s survival, but also the survival of any Alpine creature who may rely on this tree for shelter or food, such as the spotted nutcracker.

One seed. One tree. One bird.  Watch the ripples expand.

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We can’t change people, but we may plant seeds that may one day bloom in them.”–Mary Davis

Reflecting upon this unique symbiotic relationship, I was reminded of our own human to human interactions.  From day to day, month to month, and from year to year, imagine the seeds each human being can potentially plant.  Many of these seeds foster our own well being and the well being of others as we cultivate friendships and relationships for the mutual benefit of all involved.  These relationships eventually sprout into new families and new friend groups. 

Furthermore, seeds planted with coworkers, neighbors, professionals with whom we regularly interact, as well as complete strangers, can germinate ideas, thoughts, and other notions that, one day, may benefit that person.  From the compassionate gesture of helping a complete stranger to private gestures of kindness unseen or unheard by those benefiting, from one tender word of encouragement to one empathetic ear ready to listen, we all have the ability to sow seeds wherever we go.

Even when we are broken by the squalls, obstacles, and difficulties of life, through the rooted and interconnected relationships of our germinated seeds, we can find the strength to rise again.  In conditions ranging from the most arid to emotionally drowning episodes, from the frozen heart to impassioned flare of tempers, it is our propagation of seeds that comes back to us again and again, making us more resilient, more strong, and ultimately able to persevere, allowing us to continue to produce even more seeds

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One positive word. One helpful deed. One encouraging smile.  Seeds are planted.  Perhaps, they remain dormant in the recipient’s being for days, weeks, months, even years.  Nonetheless, one moment, under the right circumstance, that seed will take root, sprout, and soon enough branches and roots systems, like Swiss stone pine trees, will expand over the mountains of time.  You may not see it, but your one choice, your one act, repeated throughout your life, may create a forest from which many will be nourished and find shelter. 

Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.”–Robert Louis Stevenson

No Longer At Ease

“I had seen birth and death, 

But had thought they were different; this Brith was 

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.  

We returned to our places, these kingdoms, 

but no longer at ease here in the old dispensation . . .”–T. S. Eliot

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During the early fall months of 2020, I decided to try growing my own vegetable sprouts.  Using a sprout kit, I placed the seeds on a prepared cloth in a tray, gently watered them, covered them loosely, closed them inside a drawer, and dubiously left the container in the dark.  48 hours later, to my great astonishment, nearly a hundred tiny green seedlings, like hairs on a newborn head, were sprouting across the bottom of the tray. 

What makes night within us may leave stars.”–Victor Hugo

As a child, I was prone to vividly bad dreams.  Those early years were filled with twice weekly sermons delivered by an impassioned country preacher who warned his flock of the wailing-and-gnashing-of-teeth in hell if one remained a sinner.  Additionally, this same fervent minister also sprinkled regular doses of sermons that focused on an impending rapture.  As an impressionable child, I inferred that if I wasn’t a good girl, free of all sin, I was either doomed to the fiery eternity of hell, or my parents might get called to heaven, via the rapture, without me.  Therefore, if I went to bed having committed the slightest of sins–and I was indeed a precocious child–it wasn’t unusual for one of two things to occur.  I would either have terrorizing dreams of a flaming hell filled with snakes (My child’s mind added those.) that woke me in a sheer fright, or I would startle awake (not necessarily from a dream) to the silence and shadows of the dark, certain the rapture had taken place, my parents and siblings were gone, and I had been left on earth to suffer the numerous plagues with all of the other sinners.

It is not that I didn’t have the same fears during the daylight; however, my focus tended to be occupied with childhood activities: play, reading, school, and even invented stories that typically began with, “And so she . . . ”.  Even when I committed minor infractions, as I often did, and “got into trouble,” my child’s mind was not near as apprehensive during the waking hours as it was at night.  The dark, as a youngster, was rife with foreboding and frightening images as all my wrongs seemed to be made more plain–Satan was out to get me in the thick of the night, and God’s love was nowhere to be found.

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It was on these nights, I would often call out to my mom. 

“Mommy, I had a bad dream.”

I might repeat it several times before she heard. 

“Roll over on your other side,” she would groggily declare.

As a mom, I recognize the plight of a young mother who needs sleep.  If you can get the kid to self-soothe and go back to sleep without having to get up, that is a win.  Plus, the genius is, whether my mom purposefully knew this or not, she gave me an action to solve the problem. 

In that moment, I was “no longer at ease” in my little bed after my nightmare.  Mom did not deny that I had had a bad dream, nor did she dismiss that I was upset.  Instead, she instructed me to roll over, go with the flow, and return to the river of sleep. By following her directive, though my troubling dream still lingered, as smoke lingers in a room long after the smoker has exited, and my heart still pounded, my mind began to shift with the action of turning over. Sleep still did not come easily, even “on the other side,”  but I rode out the night anyway.  Soon enough, one of my parents would be waking me in the morning, and I would rouse from sleep surprised that I had, indeed, returned to the ebb and flow of sleep.

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“Do everything with a mind that has let go,”–John Chan

Throughout most of 2020, and lingering still in 2021, our world is enveloped in the shadow of COVID.  It is a night terror, of sorts, from which, as a civilization, we have not yet been able to escape. We have suffered deaths beyond comprehension, and our way of living is no longer at ease.  There is no denying that we are living during dark times.

Due to my early childhood experience with hellfire and brimstone sermons, as an adult I find comfort in liturgical based Christian denominations, as well as other faiths, that focus on God’s love and light.  I embrace the image of an ever-present, ever-loving God that offers brightness and clarity; and, through the vehicles of prayer, meditation, and a devoted life,  Divine Providence will illuminate THE WAY for each of us.  

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“The LORD spoke these commandments in a loud voice to your whole assembly out of the fire, the cloud, and the deep darkness on the mountain . . .”–Deuteronomy 5:22 

However, despite the fears fostered by the sincere believing, well-meaning pastor, this church, nonetheless, instilled within me many wonderful concepts, that to this day, I still honor. Sunday School and Junior Church, as it was called, offered me wonderful Bible stories full of life-long lessons and church history. One such story was the narrative of Moses trekking up a dark and ominous storm-swathed mountain in order to attain Ten Commandments. In fact, as those long ago flannelgraph images presented, God came to Moses, “out of the fire, the cloud, and the deep darkness on the mountain,” in order to give Moses and his people rules for living a faithful life.  

We are in the darkness much in the same way Moses had to brave the darkness on his faith-walk up the menacing mountainside. However, as the story of the Ten Commandments reminds us, dwelling in the dark does not mean God is not with us, nor does it mean that nothing good can come of the dark.  Seeds burst forth in the darkness of soil.  Infants grow in the darkness of the womb.  Our body heals, repairs, and builds up its immune system in the darkness of sleep. Stars are only illuminated in the darkness of night.

To be certain, in Eliot’s words, we are “no longer at ease in the old dispensations.” However, let us remember that while God is present in the light, God also dwells in the darkness. Like Moses and his people, and like the journey of the Magi of which Eliot eloquently described in his famous poem, we must be willing to travel in the dark, release our grasp on the past, and die to its previous ways. We must allow our proverbial kayaks to float with the current of life’s river, instead of attempting to paddle against it. This new way of living may even require us to, “roll to the other side.”  Nonetheless, like my seedlings in the dark of the drawer, Divine Providence is present in the darkest of times birthing new life.

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Steph’s Blues Busting Chocolate Green Smoothie

“If you have a chronic disease — such as heart disease, diabetes, asthma, (arthritis, cancer, dementia) or back or joint pain — exercise can have important health benefits.”— “Exercise and chronic disease: Get the Facts,” Mayo Clinic Staff

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COVID has taken away many so-called practices and habits that were once societal norms.  I think it is fair to say that many of us, from time to time, have felt weighed down, a bit angry, and even bereaved over the loss of the “way things used to be.”  In fact, now that we’ve begun traveling down this new road of living, I suspect there may be many things that will never return.  However, on the positive side, there are a few things that have evolved from this swift shifting of life.

One such personal benefit began during the quarantine period of 2020 as I reflected on my own health.  As I recently shared in other pieces, I have a genetic predisposition to colon cancer and heart disease.  Therefore, in an attempt to boost my immune system against these two inherited threats as well as COVID, I began to dial in my focus on the benefits of cardiovascular exercise and plant based eating, while still continuing some strength/flexibility/mindfulness practices.  None of these attempts have been perfect, but they do provide a sense of personal empowerment–a worthwhile feeling in a world that often feels out of control.

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Of particular focus for me was a renewed desire for out-of-doors exercise; however, the ever-present battle with two bulging discs and an extra vertebrae was/is a never-ending reality.  Therefore, towards the middle of May 2020, I began researching ways to strengthen my back and core muscles while simultaneously gradually working my way from walking to running in order to increase my cardiovascular fitness level. While there is nothing wrong with walking–in fact, I love it, and I honestly believe it is one of the safest and best forms of exercise–there is something about the heart pumping vigor of running that leaves me, well, breathless!

All kidding aside, I do not want to give the illusion that I run fast.  Speed is not, per se, part of my goal; instead, I focus on increased endurance.  In particular, I put greater emphasis on my resting heart rate.  The lower my resting heart rate, the better I sleep, and the less stress affects me–especially at bed time.  

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Therefore, without belaboring the point, I found a program for strengthening the back and core called, the Mckenzie Method.  Using some of the exercises from this back method and combining them with exercises from my time spent in physical therapy and practicing yoga, I cobbled together my own DIY daily back/core care routine.  Additionally, while researching this method, I ran across (See what I did there?) a book/training entitled, Run Your Butt Off, about which I have previously written.  This running program offers a plan to help a walker go from walking for 30 minutes, to running for the same length of time in 12 weeks (or however many weeks you decide to take it).  

Since completing the Run Your Butt Off plan, I have continued running 3-4 times per week. On the days that I run, I sleep much better–even if I don’t have the time to sleep long.  Even more exciting is that I have signed up to run a virtual half marathon.  Due to this, I have put greater emphasis on personal nutrition for the purposes of reducing inflammation and fostering recovery as the running mileage increases each week.

“Choosing plants will help all your body’s systems work the best they can.”–Heather Alexander, The University of Texas, MD Anderson Cancer Center

One way I am doing this is by continuing to eat plant-based.  While plant based eating does not have to mean that you will completely forgo meat and dairy, it does mean that those foods are dramatically reduced.  However, my personal choice, other than my occasional indulgence of black bean nachos, I choose not to consume meat and dairy products.  Additionally, I have (once again) committed to breakfast smoothies during this time period rather than skipping breakfast.  These smoothies are whole food, plant based powerhouses with no added sugar.  Every ingredient contained within them is full of fiber and a solid source of nutrition.  

I know that many people are opposed to drinking calories, and I understand abiding by that rule. However, I simply do not have time to commit to a sit-down breakfast, plus my stomach is often a queasy mess in the mornings.  A premade smoothie that I make ahead of time is a portable package of sound nutrition that my stomach can tolerate a couple of hours after rising.  They fuel me through my morning, and by lunch, I find I am not, per se, ravenously hungry.  

Additionally, by the time I head for my after-work runs, even if I am mentally exhausted, once I force myself to my running destination, I have plenty of fuel in the tank to complete the run.  Afterwards, I ALWAYS feel better, and even if everything else about the day seemed like it went wrong, at least I did two positive things for myself: fed my body good nutrition and exercised.  In my book, that’s a win. COVID changes be danged.

What follows below is one of my newest smoothie creations. (I’ve got a few more recipes I’m refining!)  No matter how frazzled, frustrated, or dissatisfied I may feel with external situations, this recipe has a way of mentally picking me up with its bright flavors and hint of chocolatey goodness.  Feel free to play around with and/or change the ingredients and/or the amounts to meet your personal dietary needs and taste preference.  Additionally, serve it up in a nice glass or even canning jar, and don’t be ashamed if using a straw (I use metal, reusable straw.) to slurp up all of the goodness at the bottom of the glass!  

From my home to yours, I wish you much happiness, health, and harmony even during these challenging times.  

Steph’s Blues Busting Chocolate Green Smoothie

Ingredients:

½ cup favorite milk or water (I use plant based milk.)

1 cup (75 grams) chopped romaine lettuce

1/2 ripe banana (I buy them ahead of time and freeze once ripe.)

2 tablespoons flax seed (Can use hemp or chia seeds.)

**2-4 tablespoons of Dutched cocoa powder, depending upon how chocolatey you want it.

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract or vanilla bean powder

1 ½  cup (45 grams frozen; 85 grams fresh) chopped spinach 

1  cup blueberries (Can use frozen.)

½ cup cherry, pomegranate, or pomegranate/cherry juice

Dash of salt (I use a twist of ground pink himalyan.)

Optional: Add 1-2 teaspoons of favorite sweetener if desired, such as pure maple syrup, molasses, or honey (I do NOT add any sweetener, but I know others prefer a sweeter smoothie.)

Place in a blender in the order listed and blend until smooth.

Divide between two glasses.

Can be served immediately or stored for later use in the fridge.

Makes 2 servings.

**If you are not a fan of chocolate, you can skip the cocoa powder altogether.  However, you may want to consider adding, at the very least, 1 tablespoons of it.  Cocoa powder has numerous health and nutritional benefits.  

Anxiety Awareness

“Anxiety is a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind.  If encouraged, it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained.”–Arthur Somers Roche

Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future, but from wanting to control it.”– Kahlil Gibran

When I was in fourth grade, I had the privilege of traveling with my grandparents and a cousin. We had taken a train to Washington DC, and I have a dream like remembrance of riding in a taxi transporting us towards an airport from the train station.  It was the first time I had ever traveled in major city traffic.  We were propelled with what seemed like great velocity through busy traffic, zigging and zagging in and out of traffic, bright lights of oncoming and passing vehicles playing tag in the dark of an evening.  

The route took us through a menacing tunnel with blazing lights for the evening rush hour.  This was my first experience in such a claustrophobic, wreck-inducing, our-lives-were-about-to-end, multi-lane, city tunnel. We were hurtling through a tube of neon lights, clamorous noises, and untold dangers surrounded and threatened our yellow tin can.  My heart was racing; I felt simultaneously scared and angry.  

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Danger! Danger!  We. Were. Out. of. Control.  We were going to die in a fiery collision of metal upon metal.

Like projectile shot from a military caliber cannon, we emerged unscathed from the tunnel, and signs indicated the airport was near.  That was when I saw the vwoop, vwoop, vwoop of the rotating light of the airport beacon.  That circling source of luminescence became the focus of my vision, my heart rate began to slow, and my rate of respiration resumed to more normal levels.  Safety was within sight.  I was calm again–although my poor Grandmother, I am quite certain, based upon her wide-eyes and ever-rubbing hands, was not. 

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As I think back on that experience, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to feel that way ALL of the time.  In fact, I am told that feeling is quite similar to how someone with an anxiety disorder feels daily. In fact, generalized anxiety disorder, and its fraternal twin, depression, and the other siblings in this family of mental anguish including: panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, specific phobias, stress, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, persistent depressive disorder, and their cousins of related illnesses often manifested and/or co-occurring with these disabling siblings, affect more than 40 million adults in the US alone.  Without including the population 18 years or younger, these illnesses affect 18.1% of the population– and that statistic was determined before COVID.  Sadly, it is estimated that nearly 80% of those affected by GAD, or other related disorder(s), do not seek professional help.

Like my first recollection of anxiety, it is perfectly normal to experience bouts of situational anxiety from time-to-time. However, it is when symptoms are persistent and pervasive, affecting day-to-day life, that anxiety can become a significant issue.  Unfortunately, because anxiety can express itself in numerous ways, many people may not realize that they are experiencing chronic anxiety.  Researching and preparing for this column, I soon discovered that I had very little understanding of this frequently occurring mental health issue.

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While I did know there was a genetic component to anxiety, I did not realize that anxiety was twice as likely to occur in women than men.  Additionally, I understood that there was a relationship between anxiety and depression; however, I did not realize anxiety can cause memory problems and issues with anger.  Furthermore, I realized years ago that anxiety can cause physical symptoms, but I did not fully understand the way anxiety can increase one’s risk for health complications.  I also learned that those experiencing anxiety as adults, often begin experiencing this suffering in their childhood, and it is often misdiagnosed and treated as ADHD.

As an educator, I have anecdotally observed a rise in anxiety-related issues in students.  This fact bears out statistically according to the CDC which notes that a rise in anxiety, and related disorders, began to be observed between the years of 2007 to 2012. Additionally, according to the American Psychological Association in an article published in 2019, there was a significant rise in anxiety disorders among young adults during the decade between 2010 and 2020, well before the pandemic.

Numerous factors have been attributed to cause this increase of mental distress, including the rise of social media; however, the purpose of this writing is not to point a finger at sources.  Additionally, I am not trying to parade as an expert on the subject, because I am most certainly not.  Instead, I humbly write as someone who now realizes that not only have I experienced very real bouts of anxiety, but I have also witnessed countless others suffer from anxiety, and all of its variants, especially over the past few years. I hope my few words can shine a light on what can be done to help, support, and understand the very real anguish anxiety creates.

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One tip I repeatedly read is the importance of remaining calm, accepting, and patient with those experiencing anxiety with applying pressure to “get over it.”  Do not dismiss their fears with logic or rational arguments as this can feel belittling. This is especially important for those in the midst of a panic attack.  Additionally, listen openly without judgement and without offering advice, but instead ask if there is something that you can do.

If a friend or loved one is experiencing a panic attack, no matter how upsetting it is to witness, remain a calm presence.  Let the person know you are there.  Remind him or her to breathe deeply and slowly.  Stay with the person until they are calm; and again, it is okay to ask what she or he needs.  They may not need anything, but by simply asking the question, allows the person to know you care and encourages him or her to focus on the question rather than the sensations coursing through their body.  For some people, it may help to ask them to name one thing they can feel, see, hear, taste, and smell.  Panic attacks, however, are not the time for preaching, setting ultimatums, or any other perceived negative or judgmental behaviors.

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Try to understand.  Read as much as you can on the subject.  Ask questions regarding what you can do to better help and/or support them, especially if they are prone to panic attacks.  Simply having a plan in place can offer assurance to both you and the person for whom you are supporting.

Additionally, encourage your friend or loved one to seek professional help.  Be willing to call and schedule the first appointment for them.  You may even need to help them figure out what to say to the doctor or therapist. Offer to drive and/or go with them to appointments in a show of support.  Be willing to attend therapy sessions with them to learn what you can do to help.  Group support, acupuncture, mindfulness techniques, cognitive behavioral therapy, and so forth, may also be helpful for the person experiencing anxiety.  Likewise, medications may be useful in order to better manage it. 

In the end, anxiety is not a simple matter of stress.  It is a very real mental disorder that affects millions of people daily, making even the most seemingly simple task a stress-inducing event.  Anxiety can be manifested in a wide variety of ways; and therefore, there is no one-size-fits-all form of treatment.  However, all expressions of anxiety require both personal and professional support.  If you, or a loved one, are experiencing symptoms of anxiety, know that you are not alone.  Help is available, and it is typically either a phone call or a click away.

As seen on Instagram on sherzaimd

Schedule your 5th decade “Festivities” and then celebrate your health

“If one has a routine colonoscopy at the age of 50 and then colonoscopies thereafter as the physician recommends, you could largely prevent colon cancer, you could detect it in its earliest stages and cure it.”–Laurie Glimcher

“This looks like a party in a bag!” I said to John, my husband, as I walked through the kitchen upon my return from both the pharmacy and grocery store.

“Why’s that?” he dutifully asked.

“Just take a look at all of these fine celebratory accoutrements.” 

Inside the white pharmacy bag was Dulcolax, Miralax, and Magnesium Citrate  Butt, the real fun was in the 128 ounces worth of Gatorade with which I was blessed to mix the Miralax powder.  Talk about a real party-pooper!  This was about to go down as one explosive event for sure!  

Two days worth of low-residue/low-fiber foods as specifically described in doctor’s

handout? Check.

Plenty of clear liquids stocked up for D, I mean, P-day?  Check.

Comfy clothes with elastic waist waistband?  An extra-heavy wrap or layer of clothing in which to stay warm during the fast?  Plenty of books, magazines, and/or other reading material available?  Scented candle in bathroom? Hard candies and gum to quell nausea? Check, check, check, check, and check!

On your mark, get set, go!

Let’s get the party started!

The following four days of my Christmas time-off from work were focused on the before, during, and after of a colonoscopy.  Why?  There are numerous reasons, but the number one driving factor is, while I know there is an end to all life, I’d rather not end mine early due to a genetic predisposition to colon cancer.  At the very least, I will take all the precautions and preventive steps that are available to me.

“. . . colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States.  Every four minutes someone is diagnosed, and every nine minutes someone dies.”–Kevin Richardson

You see, Dear Reader, I watched my beloved maternal grandmother and uncle both die from this horrific form of cancer.  Don’t get me wrong, all types of cancer are deplorable, but the suffering I observed in their final days tore at my soul and left an impression that I have not forgotten.  Therefore, since, “People with a family history of colon cancer,” according to LoyolaMedicine.org, “have two to five times more risk of having colon cancer,” I’d rather not take my chances.

First dose, along with flavored water . . . let the party begin!

In spite of my dramatic narrative, it is NOT necessary to miss a total of four days of work.  The first two days of colonoscopy preparation consists of simply eating a low-residue/low-fiber diet which is quite manageable while at work as I have completed in the past.  I just happened to already be off work for the Christmas break period.  Although, on a personal note, I found I was exceptionally hungry for those two days.  I suspect it is because I typically eat a high-fiber diet and rarely, if ever, consume eggs, meat, or dairy.  Therefore, my food choices felt limiting and certainly not as filling as my usual high-fiber, whole-food plant-based way of eating. 

However, I do strongly advise using a sick day for the third day of the “festivities,” aka bowel prep.  In addition to the fact that you are bloated, and potentially a bit crampy and nauseated, you will most certainly spend a great deal of time in a bathroom.  Personally speaking, I’d rather spend that sort of  “quality” time in my own bathroom, thank you very much.  However, if you have the type of job that allows you to leisurely spend time in the restroom, and you can still manage work, by all means be my guest! 

First batch mixed! What a punch it has!

Most certainly though, a colonoscopy does require at least one day away from the worksite.  This is because you are put under anesthesia for the procedure; afterwards, you do not have medical permission to drive for the rest of the day.  My own experience (which each person’s experience is unique) left me feeling a bit lightheaded and nauseated, and not ready to eat, much less work, for a few hours.  However, I have known plenty of people, along with their designated driver, who go to their favorite eating establishment and plow through some serious piles of food, but I don’t recommend that for the sake of your system.

You may be wondering why do it at all–especially since there are several viable alternatives on the market.  I researched numerous websites with that same question.  Most valid medical websites point to the same conclusion:

“. . . colonoscopy is the only test in which the entire colon can be visualized using a colonoscope and pre-cancerous polyps can be removed. Cancer risk is reduced by 90% after colonoscopy and polyp removal . . .”–American College of Gastroenterology 

A bowlful of encourage-mints!

Nonetheless, before determining the best colon cancer preventative tool for you, it is best to talk with your healthcare provider.  In fact, it was based upon a conversation with a healthcare provider that I had both a colonoscopy and endoscopy before the recommended age of 50.  It was these initial assessments that led to the discovery that I had nothing wrong with my colon at the time (as I feared), but instead, I have a hiatal hernia and celiac disease–which are fairly easy fixes with diet. No more frequent diarrhea, painful stomach cramps/pain, and little to infrequent reflux thanks to diet adjustments–not to mention the elimination of several medicines–all due to what began with a conversation with my healthcare provider!  

With that in mind, multiple websites encourage adopting healthy habits, along with regular healthcare screenings, in order to not only prevent occurrence of colon cancer but also to lower the risk of numerous other types of cancer. One such health promoting practice is to honor what most mothers tell their children, eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.  Avoid using tobacco products, and if you are currently using them, find ways to reduce, or better yet, eliminate these products from your lifestyle. Consider reducing or eliminating alcohol consumption.  Regular physical activity is also recommended.  Additionally, stress-reducing and/or mindfulness practices as well as maintaining a healthy weight are likewise considered positive steps.  

In the end, personal health and well-being often comes down to personal decisions.  I am by no means any health/well-care expert, but I do believe in personal responsibility and accountability towards one’s health–including routine, preventative health care screenings.  Afterall, if we are made in God’s image, then, as the saying goes, our body is HIS temple.  Therefore, let our habits honor our God-given skin vessel.  We only have one body, and life is a precious gift.

Cheers to your health!

Finally, I could not end this piece without saying a BIG heartfelt thank you to the staff of Cabell County Hospital, especially those on the second floor.  I was your first patient of the day, arriving at 6:30 am.  From the upbeat registration employee who checked me into the hospital when I was barely functioning without my morning coffee, and to the cheery and encouraging Lesha and Nana my pre- and post-nurses respectively; from Eric, several other nurses, and unnamed staff members whose names I did not get; to the sweetest female nurse anesthetist with kind eyes, as well as Dr. Davis and Dr. Subik; I appreciate the fact you were all working between holidays for patients like me, who did not want to miss work. And a special shout out to the spry Carlos, the speedy, affable, and efficient transporter.  Thank you for making my procedure from beginning to, well, the “end,” as comfortable as possible.  

From my heart to yours, I encourage you, Dear Reader, to keep up with all health screenings, no matter how invasive–afterall, your life may depend upon it!

Oh, yes, I agree. I look like the once famous teletubby, Tinky Winky! “Butt”, I was warm during the day of bowel prep! Cheers to your health, Dear Reader!

Starting Over

“A sunrise is God’s way of saying, ‘Let’s start again.”–Todd Stocker

Before typing this, I spent nearly 2 ½ hours trying to decide the best way to begin writing.  I looked at photo ideas, quotes, inspirational readings, ideas I have saved on a document, and so forth . . . all the usual starting points for me.  I would start typing, then moments later, delete all the words.  Type, delete, repeat. My mind was filled with a revolving door of thoughts as I reflected upon the new year and all the possibilities it held.  No matter the number of do-overs, this repeatedly blank document likewise remained an opportunity for a new start–full of the hope and promise that exploring an idea through writing offers, and the enhanced understanding that comes with it.

As we close the saga that was 2020, I can say with confidence that it was certainly a year like no other.  While it began, full of hope and promise, it quickly spiraled out of control globally, nationally, professionally, and personally.  Often, when it seemed the year could not get any worse, 2020 somehow managed to throw more curve balls than a record breaking MLB pitcher.  In fact, it seems to me that 2020 pitched a no-hitter of a game.   

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As a lifelong learner, one of the reasons I write is to increase my own understanding. The process of writing slows down my thoughts, and reduces my emotions which can cloud my thinking. Writing also coaxes my analytical brain to engage more with the world rather than my intuitive/sensitivity center that, from decades of training, extends from me like antenna–seeking, searching, and constantly evaluating the temperament of a room, situation, and people.  While this so-called sensitivity is a pretty handy awareness to have, especially as an educator, it can unfortunately become overwhelmed by the feelings, energy, and attitudes of others, short-circuiting my emotional center and nearly shutting down my brain, filling me with overwhelming negative feelings and stories.

Writing is not the only way in which I tap into my logical brain.  As an educator, I must also remain centered in logic, task-analysis, and effective communication.  While I use my sensitivity skills to help navigate the world of middle school students, parents, and coworkers, I have trained myself to not react nor take situations personally.  I am not implying that I am perfect, rather that my professional and creative self have more in common with one another than private me.

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When left alone with my own thoughts, I am often given over to emotional waves.  This was especially true during 2020.  Far too often this past year, I slipped into the stories and/or negativities that seemed to be surrounding me on all sides. Therefore, one of my hopes for 2021 is a greater sense of equanimity, no matter my circumstance or setting, and I can’t help but think I am not the only one feeling this way. 

I am reminded of a former yoga instructor who once warned students of the danger of attaching to and/or becoming our negative thoughts.  He gave the illustration that if we nourished our body with good food in order to maintain a healthy body, why shouldn’t we feed our brain positive thoughts and ideas.  Therefore, when this recollection randomly entered my mind, as I sat at my kitchen table trying to tease out the precise writing idea floating just outside the periphery of my thinking, I began to look around my kitchen. 

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Due to the holidays, my kitchen was filled with foods that we normally do not keep on hand.  In fact, there was so much excess, as I glanced around, that food was visible on the top of my fridge and counter–something that is normally a no-no for me.  Those foods were as lovely to the eye as on the tongue, but they lacked any real nutritional value.  These were foods, my body reminded me throughout the holiday season, that did not keep me feeling full for very long, and they created cravings I typically don’t experience.  Additionally, I found that these same foods also tended to generate a sense of fatigue and/or lethargy; and yet, my brain kept telling me to consume more of those delectable special sweets, salty-snacks, and other rich treats.  Each time I overindulged, which I did on several occasions, my mind would spin into negative thoughts about myself, my food choices, and lack of willpower–which was so silly since all of the foods were truly special occasion foods only made and eaten in this quantity one time per year.

In fact, by January, most, if not all, of the treats will be out of the house, and we will return to a more healthy, sustainable way of eating, but it supports my point.  2020 was like the sweets and junk food in my house for the holidays, it continually served up an abundance of low-quality fodder wrapped in bright screens, attention-seeking sound-bites, and eye catching headlines promising “breaking news” that was mostly devoid of any positive and fulfilling sustenance.  One sad, frustrating, or anger-inducing event after another kept emotions running high while nutrient-rich content was as hard to find as fresh produce at a local convenient mart.  

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If 2020 has taught me anything, it is that change is inevitable and ongoing, but no matter the change, I have a choice with what I nourish my mind and how I choose to react to change.  While I am unable to rid the world of “junk,” as I can in the kitchen of my own home, I can fuel my mind at the start of each day, as I do for my writing, by spending a bit of time in quiet reflection and devotion, with an open heart and mind, and a prayer that Divine Providence will fortify me throughout the day with those positive morning messages, providing with a greater sense of equanimity in all situations.

Happiness is not the absence of problems; it’s the ability to deal with them.”–Steve Maraboli

2021 is like this once blank document, an opportunity for each of us to start again. Of course, the new year starts with much of the baggage of this past year, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have the ability to deal with it and learn to better understand it. Just as a new black document each week offers me a choice as to what I idea or thought I choose to focus my attention, each of us likewise has a choice of where we focus our attention and how we react to each problem or challenge that may occur.  Equanimity of mind seems to me like happiness–everyone wants it, but we wouldn’t know either one without the opposite extreme.  

May the blank page of 2021 serve as a reminder that life is about progress, not perfection.  Let us remember that nature does not create a storm without an end. We may not always feel happy, or remain in a state of equanimity, but we can choose what we nourish our thoughts with.  May we say goodbye to poisoning our minds with discord, disharmony, and dissension–even if the storms of 2020 continue into the new year. Instead, may we focus on what we can control: our thoughts, our prayers, and our actions/reactions. 2020 is done, and 2021 has just begun.  It’s an opportunity for a new start– even if only on the personal level.

“And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’”–Revelation 21:5

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Fearlessly Moving Forward into 2021 with Hope

It is because of hope that you suffer. It is through hope that you’ll change things.”– Maxime Lagacé

“Mrs. Hill, I hope you have a good Christmas,” the child stated in a formal voice unique to this person. “And, I hope that 2021 is better than 2020 because 2020 was really, really bad.”

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 I could not have summed up the sentiment any better, and yet those words clung to me like a sweaty t-shirt in the summer, clinging and bunching in ways that make me want to be shed of its weight.  As I pondered those words throughout the weekend, I realized that they weighed on me beyond the obvious.  Later, it occurred to me that reflected in those words were two seemingly opposing concepts: hope and control.

As a Reading/Language Arts teacher and writer, I rely on precise word meaning.  I teach students to not only use the Merriam-Webster online dictionary and thesaurus as a tool to begin to understand word meaning, but to also look at the parts of speech a word may possess because how a word is used is just as important as its definition.  Therefore, when I looked up the definition of hope, I immediately noticed that hope, according to Merriam-Webster, is most often used as a verb–an action.   However, its second most popular definition identifies hope as a noun–an idea.  Likewise, the same can be said for the functioning of the word control–verb first, noun second. 

The more you try to control something, the more it controls you. Free yourself, and let things take their own natural course.”–Leon Brown

Part of our collective suffering during 2020 is our desire for control.  We have wished, as the definition of control states, to “directly influence,” or “have power over,” numerous events of this past calendar year.  Whether we were desiring to influence others’ behavior, or wishing to exert power over the virus, vaccine, and/or authorities, in order for, “things to get back to normal,” most of us have looked, and maybe even continue to look, for ways to gain control and, “get our lives back.”  The thing is though, that very act of living means that we do have our lives, and we can only exert control over our own life behaviors, thoughts, actions, and reactions.  However, we can hope for a different way of interacting and living; and, that is the rub.  How do we hope, while attempting to not try to control others, situations, and outcomes? 

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Most of us, including myself, want to control things that frighten us. 

I want my friend to stop smoking because I’m afraid she’s going to die of lung cancer, and I don’t want to lose her.

I want my parent(s) to be well because I am afraid of life without them in it.

I want my job to pay well because I am afraid I won’t be able to pay the bills and live the way I want to live.

I want my child to be successful because I am afraid they won’t be able to care of themselves.

On and on the examples could go, but the bottom line is our desire to control stems from our worry, but I would argue that, also from our hope.  Looking at the above examples, let me rephrase them.

I hope my friend is always around because I value her friendship and companionship.

I hope my parent(s) live(s) as long as I do because I love them so very much.

I hope my job’s salary continues to increase with the cost of living because I value living a certain way.

I hope my child is gainfully employed because I will not be their safety net forever.

Merriam-Webster’s definition of hope includes, to cherish a desire with anticipation.” 

To. Cherish. A. Desire.   

As a society, we had no idea how very much we cherished our so-called “normal” way of living–the freedom to gather where, when, and how we wanted without the confines of masks, distance, and limited numbers. We desired and relished in the freedom of dining out surrounded by the hubbub and energy that comes with a restaurant enlivened and energized with sounds of overlapping conversations and laughter.  Arenas, stadiums, or theaters filled with fans of a particular sport, performer, or other forms of entertainment were also treasured and long-established society traditions.  Gathering in groups with loved and/or friends in one another’s homes, churches, or social halls–the list could go on–was another cherished activity.  Nonetheless, we cannot control the outcomes of when/if any or all of these items will return.  Certainly, we can hope, as a child hopes for a prized present at Christmas, but we cannot control what/when (it) will happen.

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What can we do?  We can start by taking cues from nature.  Nature naturally cycles through seasons; and, by the time this piece of writing is published, the winter solstice will have occurred at 5:02 am ET on December 21–the shortest day of the year.  With the coming of winter, the increased darkness and colder temperatures allow plants to go dormant in order to rest and gather strength for the upcoming growing season.  Additionally, the frost, and other cold weather events, act as a force to help plants grow stronger and produce more roots, leaves, branches, fruits, and flowers.  Insect populations are reduced. The nights are the longest and darkest of the year allowing the stars to seemingly shine at their brightest.  And, that, Dear Friend, was my lesson to learn.

Like the stars in the winter sky, hope is twinkling in the darkened, but distant future.  Starlight may take light years to reach our eyes on Earth, but it does span the distance.  We cannot control the brightness of the stars any more than we control “the little virus that could” in 2020, but we can rest in the knowledge that we can control our reactions, our thoughts, our choices; and, we can let “it” go–let go our desires to influence or have power over things for which we cannot control.  Instead, let us, as the dictionary offers as a secondary definition for hope, “expect with confidence” that we can fearlessly move forward through our current darkness, and brightly focus on what we can do to make each day better for ourselves and others. 

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Psychologists know that simply envisioning, aka hoping for, a better future, can make even the darkest of situations feel more bearable.  In fact, hope serves as a link from our past to our present day situation.  Envisioning returning to our former life habits can make the current negative changes and consequences of life during a pandemic more bearable.

With the coming of the winter solstice, each day grows one minute longer in the amount of light provided. Likewise, our future is growing brighter, bit by little bit. Soon enough, we will emerge into the spring of a new era.  We will forge ahead, creating a more positive future . . . . 

Let us infinitely hope. 

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”— Martin Luther King Jr

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