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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Beer Bread: A Christmas Tradition

The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight.” —M.F.K. Fisher

Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.”–James Beard

It is a family tradition spanning over three to four decades.  I am not sure if I started baking it in my 20s or 30s, but baking beer bread for Christmas, and other special events, has been, and continues to be, a long-held Hill household custom.  From where the recipe came, I am not certain; however, I suspect I found it in the owner’s manual/recipe guide of the very first bread machine I ever owned.

Not long after John, my husband of over thirty years, and I were married, my grandparents gave us a bread machine as a Christmas gift.  It was an Oster, white in color, and it was highly popular in the late 80s.  In fact, even up until last Christmas (2019), I was still using this same Oster to help me bake bread.  

The original recipe card onto which I wrote the recipe is stained, tattered, and torn from decades of use.

This former bread making machine, for which I used to knead and rise bread dough–the loaves were baked in the oven rather than the machine–faithfully helped me bake beer bread every single Christmas after its original receipt.  When my daughter was still school age, I baked loaves for her teachers at Christmas.  Even now, I will still bake extra loaves at Christmas to give away. 

Christmas after Christmas, I go through pounds of flour, yeast, and of course, copious bottles of beer.  Typically, during the two weeks leading up to Christmas, the aroma of freshly baked bread seems to emanate from every pore of our house.  A week or two leading up to Christmas, my kitchen is typically covered with a fine dusting of flour, and a measuring glass filled beer often sits at the back of the counter in order to come to room temperature before mixing the dough.

Dough finished rising in the bread machine.

Unfortunately, by last Christmas, this antique machine was bouncing across the counter, vibrating the entire length, in an exerted effort to mix and knead the dough.  After each batch, I would find feathery grains of black metal beneath the machine as if it were sacrificing its own blood in order to continue to help me produce bread.  I knew I “kneaded” to gently close its lid and carry it to its final resting place, but saying goodbye is never easy–especially to one that has faithfully served our family, Christmas after Christmas, and one special event after another.  To add further grief, it was a gift from my grandparents–setting this machine on its final rest cycle would feel as if I was breaking an unspoken contract with them.  (Although we still have the white Toastmaster toaster they gave us as a wedding present in 1989.)

Dough dropped into prepared loaf pan and ready for the oven.

However, by New Years Day of 2020, another day in which I typically make beer bread, it was clear, the little Oster could go on no more.  It was like an appliance doctor had steathfully snuck into the house and gently sent my loyal kitchen companion to its eternal reward. I am certain, if there is an appliance heaven, that good ol’ Oster is walking the streets of homemade bread alongside other trusted tools of the trade.

While I now have a new bread machine, the kitchen doesn’t quite look or sound the same when it is operating. It appears to be the strong, silent type that likes to work without drawing attention to itself.  Black in color, oblong in shape, it is the complete opposite of its predecessor.  While the former appliance, if set to bake dough, formed bread in the shape of a chubby stove pipe chimney; however, the newer machine, were I to actually use the baking function, will bake bread that is fashioned in the traditional shape and length, but is still rather tall. Nonetheless, it does perform the necessary functions of mixing, kneading, and rising the dough–ready to dump into a prepared bread pan and bake in the oven.

The owner’s manual for the sleak, new bread machine.

The recipe that I share can be varied slightly, but certain ingredients must go into the mix in order to bake and taste properly.  To begin, I have used a wide variety of natural sweeteners including sugar (as originally called for), molasses, honey, agave, as well as real maple and date syrups.  If choosing a liquid sweetener, it will influence the color of the crust as well as the dough.  Additionally, I have played with a variety of types of flour, including whole wheat, and I have even added ½ cup of wheat germ, but I have found that using bread flour works best.  Furthermore, I prefer to use jar yeast that is specifically designed for bread machines.

Regarding the beer, I have used both high end beer and bargain beer over the years.  It really doesn’t matter.  However, what I do find is that the darker the beer, the richer the flavor–but only for the most discerning of taste buds.  Most won’t notice the difference between light or dark beer.  Also, if you don’t typically drink beer, you can buy single cans of beer.

Another tip I have learned over the years is to cool and store the loaf in an airtight plastic bag or container before slicing it.  The reason I make this suggestion is because if you slice it while it is still warm, the bread is not firm enough and tends to collapse in on itself.  Additionally, crumbs from the crust go everywhere.  However, if you allow it to properly cool, and then store it for several hours in an airtight container, it will slice nicely for those social media worthy pictures.

Beautiful, freshly baked bread just out of the oven.

As a final tip, it should be noted that you may need to adjust the amounts of each ingredient and/or order in which the ingredients go into your machine, depending upon your machine’s requirements.  This is where the owner’s manual of your own machine comes in handy–to help you tweak and adjust amounts as needed.  (I know my new machine’s manual has several pages of tips for successful baking and recipe adjustments.)  

Furthermore, it should also be noted that I have only used this recipe in a bread machine.  I put the ingredients in the machine in the order recommended by the manufacturer and allow the machine to take care of the mixing, kneading, and rising.  Once through the rising process, I place dough in a prepared loaf pan and bake.  Sadly, this recipe is NOT gluten-free; and therefore, I now choose to not consume it–even at Christmas. It was a recipe I discovered years before I knew I had celiac disease.  Therefore, I bake only for the consumption of loved ones and friends to enjoy.

For those of you with bread machines sitting around waiting to be used, I hope you will enjoy this recipe.  It fills the house with an irresistible, aromatic scent, and tastes wonderful toasted, at room temperature, or slightly warmed.  Use it for breakfast, sandwiches, snacks, or even toast it for homemade croutons.  I hope that this recipe will bring your family as much joy as it has mine over the years.

From my home to yours, I wish you happy, homemade, and heavenly baked goods for the holidays!

Slice it, butter it, slather it with your favorite topping, and enjoy every yeasty bite!

Beer Bread

Ingredients:

⅓ warm water

1 cup beer (room temperature & flat)

2 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 ½ teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons sugar (or other natural sweetener)

3 cups bread flour

1 yeast package or 2 ¼ teaspoons yeast

Directions:

Place all ingredients in the bread machine according to manufacturer directions, making any adjustments needed to amounts as per manufacturer directions.

Set machine for dough setting if baking in oven; otherwise, set for white bread setting.

Once dough is nearly finished with its cycle, preheat oven to 375 degrees if baking in the oven.

If baking in the oven, remove dough from the pan once dough has gone through the entire dough setting cycle, and place dough in lightly greased loaf pan.

Bake for 30-35 minutes or until golden brown on top.

Store in an airtight container or sealed storage bag.

Stays fresh, when properly stored in an airtight container at room temperature, for over a week.

Bake up a new holiday tradition:  beer bread!
Oh, there’s nothing like the aroma of freshly baked bread.

Storyin’

“Life is not a matter of creating a special name for ourselves, but of uncovering the name we have always had.”–Richard Rohr

Some of my favorite events as a child were those extended family events spent around a dinner table.  Depending upon the size of the gathering, we kids might have been interspersed among the grown-ups, or seated at our own table, but regardless of assigned seat, we often listened in on the adults’ conversations.  These beloved grown-ups were commanding narrators, needling out one anecdote after another.  The combining effect of each account felt as if a patchwork quilt of life were being stitched together before our childhood eyes.  Great guffaws of laughter flowed over and around us as each chronicler appeared to compete for the best speil.  As a child, I yearned for that ability . . .

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Perhaps it was the change of weather, the mostly cloudy days, filled with damp and chilly temperatures.  Of course, it could also have been the rising daily count of COVID cases.  Then again, it could have been the shifting job roles–depending upon those same numbers. Maybe it was the overwhelming loss of lives in 2020; the unemployment rate affecting many loved ones, friends, and acquaintances; the uncertain national, global, and political landscape; or maybe it is the fact that trying to find soft toilet paper and a safe cleaning products for home is still a never ending battle!  Whatever the cause, this past week, I personally found that sleep was often elusive, and by Thursday and Friday, I was often given to weepiness and felt down right melancholy as my mind slid into “story mode.”  

Depending upon the situation, the “Story of Steph,” if given permission to run out of control, can be quite tragic, valiant, humble, or any variation in between.  This week it was a well-rehearsed, negative narrative that began to echo around in my head. By the week’s end, the volumes of these fables were fully crescendoed.  

The week began with an appetizer of “you’re-not-good-enough,” followed up by a tossed salad of “you never-have-been” and “you never-will-be.” Next came the main-course of “you’re-a-failure,” along with sides of “you’re-never-right, not-smart, not-good, and not-worthy.”  The mental construct of poor-pitiful-me was tantruming into a full frenzy.

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I suppose as an adult, I should not admit to such mental theatrics.  In fact, I suppose there is risk in sharing these stories.  However, I choose to share, partly in the hope that it will foster my own compassion and understanding of the truth, and partly with the hope that my experience may help others who may also undergo similar stories of the mind.  

Naturally, there are other stories that we all, myself included, prefer to show the world.  Stories regarding our role in our family; our careers; our perceived social, political, and economic status; our relationships, friends, and associations/affiliations; the list could go on.  The point is, the story-of-self is driven by the ego and our desire to survive, and perhaps fit-in (or not fit-in); and, 2020 has certainly made all of us feel threatened, insecure, and uncertain.  Therefore, it is even more critical that we understand that our mental constructs are not necessarily reflective of reality and often not the truth.  This is an especially important tool as we segue from one challenging year to another.

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Don’t laugh at a youth for his affectations; he is only trying on one face after another to find his own.” -Logan Pearsall Smith

Our self-prescribed stories change as we grow and develop depending upon influences, experiences, life-events, family status, career position and so forth.  The role of these stories are not necessarily bad. Roles and expectations of one’s personal role develop even as a baby/toddler.  If I behave this way, then a certain positive or negative thing happens, and we feel (or don’t feel) safe, secure, valued, and loved.  As we grow, and hormones kick in, we begin to try out new roles, new ways of be-ing, from the way we behave, to the ways in which we choose to appear to others, as peers begin to gain influence in our desire to feel secure, safe, and valued.  With each stage, new roles are tried on, and later tossed aside, in an attempt to find the role that brings us the greatest feelings of value, security and/or worth.  As a whole, this is a natural part of human development.

Unfortunately, as humans, we tend to attach too much to roles and to the should-das, would-das, and could-das of life roles and fulfillment.  The stories we tell ourselves often skew and mask reality. Social media adds to the distortion of who we should be, and often sends us to our proverbial closet of stories in an attempt to find the perceived right role, and soon another story is formed in an attempt to gain more self-perceived value.  The more we judge and compare our stories to that of others, the more we create discomfort by reinforcing and habituating judgement and critical patterns of thinking of what we should be do-ing and how we should be be-ing.  The compounding effect of all these stories is that we lose touch with what Fr. Richard Rohr refers to as “the face we had before we were born.”

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I have heard of your paintings too, well enough; God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another.” – William Shakespeare

The concept of, “the face we had before we were born,” is not original to Friar Rohr, but it was his words that reminded me of this notion in a recent reading.  In fact, Rohr likes to remind readers that if God created everything, and people were designed in God’s image, then all of us are stamped with the blueprint of God’s DNA.  Therefore, we are all infinitely and blessedly children of God.  

Unfortunately, this week, I had become so attached to the image of who I should be, how I should be, what I should be do-ing, and how others view me, that I became far removed from my so-called, “original God-given face.” I began to believe my own false-narratives, creating my own pain and suffering.  I suspect that I am not the only one who does this, especially in the year of 2020.  

If we could learn to let go of our false survival based stories, drop the self-limiting beliefs, and quit taking negative events so personally, and allow ourselves to relax, trusting that the Divine is ever-present with us, then we can begin to free ourselves from the need to be reactive, judgmental, self-critical, controlling, combative, or confrontational. Yes, I know this sounds too idealistic, but what if it really is that simple?  

Be kind to others, but always be compassionate to yourself.”–from Traditional Medicinals tea bag

My brother recently reminded me of what our Grandmother Helen would say, who often babysat us, if she thought one of my siblings or me was lying.  Her classic start to this conversation began by stating our name, followed up with her unique query.

Stethie,” (or whomever) “Are you storyin’?  Are you telling me a story?”  

At the time, my brother and I both had a good laugh at this fond remembrance.  It was only after I wrote this reflection, that Grandmother’s phrase once more returned to mind. Not only did it put a smile on my face, but it also gave me even greater insight to my own negative self-talk, and it empowered me with a new phrase to use as a reminder when I have given “stories” permission to hide my “original face.”  

Thank you, Grandmother Helen.  You always had a way of succinctly getting to the point.

Always worth remembering: You are loved!

Teachers are Heroes with Heart

If you are planning for a year, sow rice; if you are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people.”– Chinese Proverb

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“Thank you, Teachers,” the sign read on the side of the road. 

Wait, what?  I couldn’t help but think.  Really?  It took a global pandemic to inspire appreciation for educators.  Hmm . . . 

I suppose that is how those who work in the medical field and first responders feel.  After all, like educators, those drawn to and working in the healthcare industry, by and large, have always been effective, efficient, and caring individuals. Naturally, praise was given to medical providers from the very beginning of the pandemic–and rightly so!  They were putting their own lives on the line while attempting to quell the flames of a ravaging wildfire sparked by a virus for which there was a dearth of knowledge.  Story after story would reveal the suffering and agony of the front line caregivers and their patients.  My heart, as well as those in my field, ached for those professionals, and we felt grateful for their long suffering service.  And yet, there was one question that continually niggled my mind . . .

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“Teaching is the one profession that creates all other professions.”– Unknown

Who were the early influencers of these various professionals that make up the health field?  Who taught them to read, write, and think mathematically?  Who helped to shape and foster their curiosity, their work ethic, and their quest for knowledge and understanding?  To be certain, parents are the first, most important, and long-lasting teacher in any child’s life.  Additionally, there are often other relatives that influence and impress a child, but guess who often spends more time with a child day-in and day-out?  Teachers.

It takes a big heart to help shape little minds.”– Unknown

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This past March (2020), many teachers across the country, as well as at a local level, were told on a Friday to get their students ready.  Educators directed students to pack up all of their personal belongings, textbooks, notebooks, personal implements, and any other necessary supplies.  Furthermore, on this same fateful day, schools–like the one in which I work–who were fortunate enough to have the resources, also directed teachers to quickly allocate technological resources to students who thought they might need one at home.  Those districts without these assets were rapidly scrambling for funds in order to likewise provide technology for students.

Once students were sent home with their overburdened school bags, teachers were likewise told to quickly gather what they thought they would need to teach from home.  Additionally, teachers were swiftly conferring with one another and administrators as to the types of resources available throughout the school that could be used to make teaching from home work.  Cobbling together this and that, gathering our own bags of wares, like ants marching in a line towards their hill mount, teachers exited the school on that pivotal Friday with the understanding that we were to be up and running as an online educator by Monday. Like a boulder plummeting onto US Rt 52, the dramatic educational paradigm shift had begun.  It was time to put on our proverbial hard hats and head into the construction zone.

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“Teaching is the greatest act of optimism.”– Colleen Wilcox

News, gossip, and directives swirled around like flaming ash from a distant brush fire.  The heat of how to get virtual school up and running amidst worry about safety, closings, quarantines, supply shortages, deaths, headlines, and the never ending chain of one email after another compounded to the ever-building fear, anxiety, and sense of uncertainty.  One thing was clear, however, teachers would be there for our students and for one another–no virus was going to stop us.

By the time Monday rolled around, teachers had students enrolled in virtual classrooms–our school used Google products, but other platforms abounded in other school districts.  We communicated to students through the virtual classroom and through virtual meetings.  The technology was imperfect and full of glitches and hiccups, but students and teachers forged through each and every challenge thrown our way.  In a way, educators were pupils once more, learning right along with our students, relying on part innovation, part intuition, and a whole lot give and take via virtual forms of communication.

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The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.”– Mark Van Doren

Together, with our colleagues and our students, educators made many new discoveries about technology and pedagogy as well as how to tap into our creativity.  We had meetings with one another in which mutual tears were shed for the loss of “how it used to be,” but more often, the focus and concern was for students’ well-beings and how to best provide for their needs–both educationally and psychologically.  Additionally, there were a multitude of professional development virtual meetings in which we listened intently, scrawled notes, typed our questions in chat boxes, and discussed with one another in virtual breakout rooms.

This is not to say that they weren’t frustrations, nor am I trying to imply it was a perfect, seamless transition of rainbows, butterflies, and magical, mythical unicorns.  It was not.  Students would not show up to class meets or not complete their work.  Administrators asked for a multitude of documented records, such as, individual missing student work, student needs, staff needs, ideas for improvement and future planning–spreadsheet after spreadsheet and list upon list.  Towards the end of April, there were so many lists, spreadsheets, and schedules that it was easy to overlook one or another, and I certainly had my fair share of oversights.  However, I wasn’t the only one, and the compounded effect sometimes led to flared tempers, quiet resentment, or virtual words of implications–albeit, never for long.

Plus, there was the learning curve.  Educators were continually encouraged to be flexible and foster an attitude of expansive and forward thinking.  For those teachers possessing a technologically nimble mindset, this was a Montessori school of experience, full of opportunities to explore, expand, and engage.  For those of us with less technological deftness, it was like being asked to wake up each day and start walking in the opposite direction of fast and furious freeway traffic, leaving our brains often feeling short-circuited as our work day grew longer and longer.  However, regardless of which side of the technology tree one fell, a new phrase emerged from this experience, “COVID taught me this,” and together with our educational peers across the country, we emerged stronger and more resilient.

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Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”– Nelson Mandela

Educators are persistent, tenacious, kindhearted individuals who spend their own money, their own time, and give freely of their own hearts to students each and every day.  We did this before the pandemic, we are continuing this now, and we will likewise do this after the reign of COVID.  Teachers matter, with or without COVID–just as those in the health professions matter.

Recently, I overheard a confident middle school student reporting to a peer that women tend to choose low-value degrees, like teaching.  

“They choose not to make money,” he exclaimed, “because they don’t want to do the hard stuff like be a doctor or lawyer.”

I am not sure where or how he came to this conclusion, and perhaps he will always feel that way about my chosen profession.  Regardless of his sentiment, I, along with my colleagues (and my husband–who also happens to be an educator), will continue to work to educate him along with his peers–no matter what life throws our way, in spite of our so-called, “low value” degrees.  This is because we know the truth, and now it appears, based upon that sign alongside the state route, the word is spreading.  

Cranberry-pumpkin Muffins (Gluten-free and plant-based)

Historically, the health-promoting properties of cranberries have been based on folkloric remedies, which have existed for centuries. The healthy giving properties of this fruit were recognized by Native American Indians, and early New England sailors are said to have eaten the vitamin C-rich wild cranberries to prevent scurvy.”–Massachusetts Cranberries website

Cranberries are one of just three fruits native to the United States.”–The Humble Gardener website

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I couldn’t help but notice all of the ongoing fresh cranberry offerings and deals that have been found lately in the local grocery stores; therefore, I purchased a 12 ounce bag for myself.  Those inviting, bright crimson berries have often reminded me of mini Christmas baubles hanging from an evergreen branch.  Curiosity began to get the best of me, and I decided that I needed to learn more about these tiny ruby orbs.  Afterall, a fruit full of that much color had to have some redeeming qualities, and boy-oh-boy do they ever!

One of the first facts I noticed was that numerous medical and nutritional-based websites consider cranberries to be a so-called, “super-food,” due to their overall nutritional benefits.  Part of this designation is due to cranberries’ high levels of anthocyanins, a powerful antioxidant, that give cranberries their bright red color. (I knew that bright red color was important!) In addition to being consumed in its various forms as part of the treatment for and prevention of  UTIs, research has also linked cranberries to improving the function of the immune system as well as decreasing blood pressure. Additionally, there are several promising studies indicating cranberries may be helpful in slowing down the growth of cancer cells, particularly in certain types of tumorous growths.

Stir in fresh cranberries to your favorite fruit salad.

Several websites describe cranberries’ high levels of polyphenols may play a role in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.  Studies have also found that consuming cranberries, as part of a whole-foods healthy diet, regularly promotes the health of gums and teeth.  Cranberries are also believed to decrease inflammation associated with both chronic disease and aging, and these tiny powerhouse fruits offer numerous benefits to one’s gut health and microbiota. Additionally, the naturally low-sugar, high fiber berries possess anti-inflammatory properties.  Plus, like other berries, cranberries are high antioxidants, vitamin C, and vitamin K.

Cranberries are typically in season and widely available throughout the fall and into the early winter months.  They can be stored in a refrigerator for up to two months, and frozen for several more months for later consumption.  When choosing fresh cranberries, look for smooth skin that is firm to the touch and unwrinkled.  

Fresh, ripe cranberries have smooth, unwrinkled skin, and are said to bounce like a basketball.

Of course, cranberries are typically part of a traditional Thanksgiving meal, however, they are quite a versatile food that can be used in a wide array of recipes.  Add them to oatmeal, yogurt, fruit salads, and even dark, leafy green salads.  Cook them down into a sauce on the stove with some maple syrup, honey, or sugar, add a bit of cinnamon, and perhaps the zest or juice of an orange or a drop of orange extract.  Use this sauce as a condiment for toast, sandwiches, oatmeal, yogurt parfaits, or even in muffins.  Stir in fresh, or dried, cranberries into muffins, cakes, breads, and even cookie recipes.  The ways in which to use cranberries are only as endless as your imagination. 

Below is a recipe I created based upon one I found in an old Betty Crocker cookbook.  Betty Crocker cookbooks have been a mainstay for the members of my family, a tradition handed down to me and my siblings from both my mother and grandmother as Betty Crocker recipes are fairly easy to follow/create and typically use simple ingredients.  This recipe I adjusted to make it both gluten free and plant-based.  I added a few extras to it in order to, as my Grandmother Helen used to say, “doctor it up.”

Gently fold in cranberries into the batter, careful not to overstir the batter so that the muffins do not turn out “tough.”

Both my daughter and husband tried these plump muffins of goodness, despite the fact that they do not, per se, like cranberries.  To their surprise, they both really liked this recipe.  It is moist, but springy–like a good muffin should be.  The sparkling sugar adds a thin crusting effect to the muffin tops.  Plus, a large portion of the berries burst open into the batter during the baking process creating a just the right amount of tang and sweet.  Enjoy these muffins slightly cooled, but still warm, from the oven or warmed over in the microwave.  Share the goodness of these muffins, chock full of healthful benefits, with someone you love, and be sure to store the uneaten muffins in an airtight container or bag in the fridge or freeze them for quick morning or a snack time reheat on the run.

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

Use an ice cream scoop to help divide the batter evenly among 12 muffin cups.
White sparkling sugar, sprinkled on top, creates a nice crust to muffin tops.
Cool muffins on a wire rack.

Pumpkin Cranberry Muffins

Ingredients:

2 cups (I use a gluten-free variation.)

¾ cup sugar (Can use a sugar substitute, such as Swerve.) 

3 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon ginger

¼ teaspoon salt

1 can (15 ounce) of pure pumpkin

½ teaspoon orange extract 

½ cup apple sauce (Can substitute ½ cup oil if preferred.)

2 eggs or “flegg” equivalent (2 tablespoons ground flax seed + 5 tablespoons water, allow to sit in the fridge for 5-10 minutes.)

2 cups cranberries

½ chopped pecans or walnuts, optional

White sparkling sugar (If you do not have this on-hand, simply use regular sugar.)

Directions:

**Note: if using egg replacement, “flegg,” please make first and set aside in refrigerator until ready to use.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees

Line muffin tins with parchment paper or lightly grease.

In a large bowl, mix together flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, and salt. Stir in pumpkin, orange extract, apple sauce, and eggs. Until just mixed–careful not to over mix.  Gently fold in cranberries and nuts if using. 

Using an ice cream scoop or spoon, divide batter evenly among muffin cups and sprinkle with sugar.  Before sprinkling with sugar, you can also top with a few cranberries, a bit of pumpkin seeds, or a bit of oats.

Bake for 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.  Allow muffins to cool on a rack.  Serve warm. 

Makes 12 muffins that can be stored in the refrigerator for up to six days or frozen for up to 3 months.

Serve slightly cooled, but still warm from the oven.

Have Faith Like an Artist

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”–Hebrew 11:1

“Art begins with resistance – at the point where resistance is overcome. No human masterpiece has ever been created without great labor.”–Andre Gide

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

After two years of studying the black and white hard facts of science at the university level where she was doing quite well, my daughter, Madelyn, switched gears and decided to study art at a different university.  Nearly one and a half years later, she is thriving with the challenge of the creative process.  At this point in her art journey, she has worked with clay, ceramics, water colors, photography, printmaking, fabrics, charcoal, pen/ink, and several other mediums. I can’t help but feel a sense of wonder, as I watch her transform seemingly nondescript materials into works of art, at the level of her faith throughout each the process.  

It is her example of faith in action that got me thinking about my own faith and the faith of the world around me.  Personally, I catch myself repeatedly clasping and grasping for the way-it-should-be, the if-only-things-were-like-this, and the when-it’s-normal-again, rather than, like my daughter, trusting the process and allowing Divine Providence to work through her.  Instead, I keep resisting change and focusing on the down-side of 2020: negative attitudes possessed by so-called “others,” negative outcomes, negative requirements, negative situations, and on-and-on the list can go.  And, guess what, 2021 is just around the corner, and from the looks of things, the new year will continue with much of the same so-called obstacles of 2020.

This beautiful watercolor painting study of leaves took much effort, adaptation, and was an opportunity to learn a new skill that Maddie may not have otherwise learned.

When Madelyn first started in the art program, I witnessed her very real resistance to the process. Gone were the structures, rules, and methods of the scientific process on which she had relied for years. Instead, she was now being asked to create, out of a wide variety of materials, unique creations that adhere to the rules demanded by each requisite medium, course, and/or instructor(s).  While at the same time,  she is likewise expected to “break the rules” in order to avoid creating pieces that are commonplace, cliched, or conventional .

During these early months of her transition, Madelyn would make statements such as, “I don’t like ______;” “I don’t know how I’m supposed to create _______ with ________;”  “I don’t know why I have to ________;” and so on. The first few times this happened, I began to wonder if the field of art was the correct call on her part.  She seemed so opposed to the various requirements and loosely formed experimentations/expectations.  Nonetheless, by the end of each of those early projects and classes, she exited the other side having mastered a new skill and with tangible evidence as seen in each of the pieces.  

It is because of Madelyn’s example that I now understand that resistance is part of the process of faith. It is through the act of resistance, as counterintuitive as it may seem, that her faith is ignited.  Then, as she wrestles with each new style, material, and/or expectation, the embers of her creativity are fed, allowing the heat of the process to lead her through to the other side.  Thus, by acting in faith, Madelyn is able to push through the growing pains of each project and is ultimately able to create something new.

Like Madelyn’s initial struggles with art, I too have been rather contrary with the changes around me.  I have felt the opposition to things-not being-the way-they-used-to-be.   Like an indulged child, my mind has thrown numerous tantrums and protestations. I have mentally muttered countless grumblings and asked numerous questions as to why and how I am supposed to do ______.  Nevertheless, I am now realizing that it is this very resistance that continues to spark, not only me, but all of humanity into adapting, evolving, and creating a new way of living, being, and interacting with one another.  

Faith, I am learning, isn’t blind acceptance that encourages the wave of our Maker’s hand, and, boom, we get our heart’s desires.  Faith is work; it is a labor of love, devotion, AND effort.  It is having the ability to believe in the unseen/unformed and to see that there is something new and original that can be formed through the very real friction of the struggle. Step-by-step, through set-backs, changes, and adaptation, faith is fortified.  Through perseverance, sweat, and belief, the faith process continues to grow and burgeon.  Embracing belief throughout the struggle, The One greater than us is inspiring change and challenging us with new situations and demands in order to foster growth in the same matter as Maddie’s art teachers force exploration of new materials and tools in order to push her capacity for creativity as well as her skill level.

When Madelyn starts a new art project, she typically starts with an idea.  However, I have noticed that she cannot cling to one way strict vision of the concept.  Sometimes, certain materials aren’t available.  Other times, what she originally envisioned would work, does not work in the way in which it was initially conceived, plans get altered, materials and tools are changed, outcomes or time-lines change, and sometimes even temperature fluctuations alter her outcomes/production.  It seems as if there are hundreds of tiny little changes and adaptations that contribute and influence her endeavors as well as the final product.  However, in the end, through the humility of her strivings, a new product is created, and a new skill set has evolved.

That, to me, is 2020.  The canvas that we had at the beginning of 2020 was blank.  Individual and collective visions for the final outcome of the year varied, but we all relied upon a certain amount of consistently available materials, timelines, and predictable outcomes.  Then like the multitude of art projects I’ve observed Madelyn begin, things began to go off-plan. We have been asked to follow some of the same rules, but not all rules, use this material, but not that material; likewise, we are asked to improvise as needed, and, in-the-end, we are now developing a new way of living, being, and interacting. 

Therefore, like an artist, we must overcome our own resistance.  We must continue to work through the process, adapting and improvising when needed.  The end product may continue to evolve and change, but through our collective endeavors, energies, and faith in the unseen, we must trust that Divine Providence is inspiring us to create a new work of life-art. We are but tools in The Creator’s hands.  Have faith.

A reminder for all of us from Maddie.