Chocolate Cake Mix Cookie Birthday Bars

“When there is cake, there is hope.  And there is always cake.”–Dean Koontz

“My idea of baking is buying a ready made cake mix and throwing in an egg.”–Cilla Black

By the time you read this, Dear Reader, I will be celebrating another year of life.  Honestly, the way 2020 is going, I am almost afraid to celebrate, but I am throwing caution to the wind.  By golly, in spite of everything that is upside down in this world, I am going to celebrate another year of life.  I am going to smile, eat a ridiculously calorie laden meal or two, drink a bit of good wine, and dang it, I am eating cake!  Of course, it has to be gluten-free due to my celiac disease, but I will eat cake–chocolate cake to be precise because chocolate is my favorite!

Sure, 2020 has been a train-wreck of a year in many ways, but fall is in the air.  Even though winter is around the corner, there is something about autumn weather that makes me feel hopeful–hopeful for better days ahead.  Call me crazy, but I gotta believe that life has to take a turn for the better . . .at least that is my birthday wish.

In addition to feeling hopeful, I feel grateful–grateful for my health, my family, my friends and loved ones, my home–flaws and all–and my job.  I wake up every day in a warm bed, and as I step out of it, I am able to turn on hot water for a shower.  Food is stored in both my refrigerator and cabinets–not to mention the fact our water is drinkable.  My job, with all of its challenges, is still providing a paycheck that allows me to celebrate my birthday in the manner in which previously I described.  Therefore, in spite of all the negatives 2020 has to offer, there are still numerous things for which to be grateful this year.

To add to my list of items for which I am grateful, I would have to include an unexpected email that I received from registered dietitian nutritionist, Stephanie Ferrari, with Fresh Communications.  Thanks to Stephanie, and the kind (or should I say, sweet) people at Swerve, I was thrown a “swerve” ball during the summer months when the Swerve team sent a care package of products to my house.  Thanks to their generosity, I have been blessed with the opportunity to play and create with a few of their products including their chocolate cake mix, which is featured in this month’s recipe.  

As previously mentioned, I do have celiac disease, so I cannot eat products containing wheat, rye, or barley.  Furthermore, birthday celebration aside, I do try to eat in a fairly healthy manner that works best for me.  Due to an incredibly sensitive stomach/digestive system, it’s taken me years to figure out how to best eat for my body. However, I also recognize that what works for me may not work for others.  Thus, when I create recipes, I try to create choices in order to adapt to a variety of tastes/needs/preferences.  Personally, I prefer to eat plant-based, forgoing dairy, eggs, and meat products most of the time.  Therefore, you will see that reflected in this recipe, but I also list other options if that’s not your cup of tea, or slice of cake, as the case may be.  

I based this recipe upon one I found on the Swerve website.  This is because since it wasn’t my official birthday, I wanted to keep the recipe fairly “clean,” and save the calorie-laden splurge for the actual big day.  This is where Swerve products check all the boxes for me.  Therefore, the recipe is not only gluten and grain free, but it is also a fairly low carb treat.  In fact, there isn’t one ingredient that leads me to feel guilty or over-indulgent.  The leftovers store well, and it is my experience that they tend to become more moist and chewy after being stored in an airtight container for a day or two.  Therefore, I can have my cake and eat it too–for several days in a row if I want–rather than saving cake for a once per year special eating occasion!

Whether you’re looking for a way to brighten a bad day, wanting to indulge without completely blowing your calories, or simply in the mood for chocolate, give this recipe a try. Within less than an hour, your house will be redolent with the aroma of chocolate cake baking, and your taste buds will be dancing with the delightful taste of warm, gooey chocolate.  Think of it as a small manifestation of making lemonade, or in this case, cake, out of the lemon of a year.

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

Chocolate Cake Mix Cookie Birthday Bars

Ingredients:

1 box chocolate cake mix (I use Swerve brand.  Also, feel free to use Vanilla cake mix if preferred.)

½ cup applesauce or melted butter at room temperature (I use applesauce to keep it plant-based.)

1 large egg, or “flegg”, at room temperature (Recipe for flegg is below.)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract or powder

½ cup oats or your favorite chopped nuts (I use Nature’s Path organic gluten-free oats.)

½ cup chocolate chips or other candy bits, i.e. peanut butter, white chocolate, and so forth (I use Enjoy Life allergy-free brand.)

Optional: White sparkling sugar

Directions:

Set out egg to come to room temperature, or if replacing egg, make your “flegg” before beginning any other steps. (Recipe below)

Likewise, if using melted butter instead of applesauce, melt first and allow it to come to room temperature.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Prepare a square baking pan with nonstick cooking spray, coconut oil, or line with parchment paper.

In large bowl, add cake mix and using fork gently break up any clumps

Stir in applesauce (or butter), egg (or flegg), and vanilla extract until well combined.

Gently fold in oats and chocolate chips until well combined.

Press mixture into pan.

If desired, sprinkle with white sparkling sugar.

Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the edges are golden, and the top is puffy.

Allow to cool before cutting into 16 squares.

Store any uneaten bars in an airtight container.

Leftover bars are especially tasty when warmed slightly in the microwave topped off with a dollop of whipped topping, if desired.

*“Flegg” egg replacement recipe:

1 tablespoons flaxseed (Chia seed works too.) 

3 tablespoons of water. 

Mix well and allow to sit for 20 minutes before mixing batter.

We all need a little patience

“In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future.”–Eric Hoffer

“Change is only felt when it is drastic.”–Lailah Gifty Akita

Dedicated to the teachers with whom I work, and all the other educators, near and far.

As I step into the warm shower, pulsating water beats down on my tight neck, my low back is still dully throbbing from the previous day’s efforts, and my feet, my heavens, my feet, they are pulsating from the constant pounding of walking on concrete.  

It’s Friday.  You can do this.  Everyone is feeling similar aches–it’s not just you.  Yes, but most others are a heckuva lot younger!  You can do this; you’ve done this before–albeit, not so drastic . . . or was it?

Students working at school in the age of COVID and an era of paperless (as close to it as possible) education.

I remember following the Special Education Coordinator of the county school district in which I had first been hired fresh out of college.  I felt proud, excited, and eager.  The clipped, rhythmic pace of her heels as they click-clacked across the tiled floor resounded–even more so when she continued on into the gym.  At the time I couldn’t understand why we were in the gym when she was supposed to be taking me to my classroom.  

Tables cleaned and sanitized well before 7:30 am when the students begin arriving to homeroom.

Eventually we made our way to the opposite side from which we entered, walked up some steps, and began walking under one side of the gym’s bleachers.  Clickety-clack, clackety-click, past what looked like one semi-formed classroom through another vaguely formed classroom until we reached the end.  This was to be my so-called classroom with not a single window.  No textbooks.  No materials.  Broken desks.  Dirty teacher desk.  Not even real walls for two sides–just the underside of bleachers, a rolling chalkboard, one concrete wall, and metal, padded locked door with Junior ROTC weapons stowed away behind it.  All 4’11’’ of me would be serving 15-25, 9-12 grades students in this space, the majority of which were lanky, long males who did not want to be there.

Gone were those meticulous lesson plans and the abundant, never ending resources of Ohio University.  The colorful, bright, window-lined classrooms arranged, organized, and utilized based upon the current, best educational practices were nowhere to be seen.  It was 1987, so there was no internet, certainly no cell phones, and those education journals to which I had been advised by academia to subscribe were certainly not going to be of help in this unbelievable setting.  This was a drastic change, and yet, I somehow found a way to make it work for two years before facing my next challenge . . . 

Moving on to another district, I was assigned to teach twelve, K-5 grade level students with severe behavior and emotional issues that often required restraint, in a metal portable classroom isolated from the rest of the school.  I was young and foolish enough to think this was a good idea–a good move for my career.  Certainly, it was financially speaking, but after one day of passive restraint training, I began to wonder.  

Although this classroom had four walls, it was empty and bare, save for a few tables and desks.  Then, there was the challenge of all those different age ranges.  Developmentally, a kindergartener is miles apart from a fifth grader.  The challenges and changes I faced over the next seven years, the unbelievable behaviors I witnessed, and the most heart-wrenching stories–seriously, seriously horrible–still haunt me to this day.  No child should undergo what those children went through.  Baby bottles filled with beer, children sexually abused, parents addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, older children responsible for numerous younger siblings while mom did tricks for drugs . . . the gut wrenching stories never seemed to have an end.  On top of all of this depravity, it was the early 90s, autism was not clearly understood and accurately identified as it is now.  Therefore, I also had several autistic students, mistakenly identified as “behavior disordered” alongside students who were often prone to violent outbursts.  Given the combination of all of these factors, I honestly do not know how I made it work–and yet, somehow Divine Providence helped me through it all.

I have experienced numerous changes in education since those first nine years of my careers, many of which were drastic, and all created unique circumstances for which I was ill-prepared, but none can compare to the combination of educating in the midst of COVID while simultaneously teaching both in-person and virtual students at the exact same time.  As an educator, my colleagues and I are tasked with keeping kids safe from a pandemic-worthy virus, care for their emotional well-being, and educate them in the socially distanced manner of their parents’ choosing–at school or from home–attending a regular schedule of classes through the technological wonders of the imperfect internet.

Each morning begins well before sunrise, in order to begin planning, organizing, and posting from home.  Arrival at school for teachers starts well before 7:00, as each teacher must mix fresh bottles of both disinfectant and sanitizer that is used before and after every class change.  Students begin arriving in our classrooms by 7:30 after going through a routine check of health questions, temperature check, and hand sanitizing procedures.  Classes officially begin by 8:10 after morning announcements, prayer, and pledge.  As students enter my classroom, they must wait until all tables are sanitized.  Then, I must quickly log in and connect my chromebook with my virtual students for that class period.  While I am doing this, in-person students set up their tri-fold, clear plastic dividers and log onto Google Classroom.  We are all masked, and by the end of the day, my voice, and those of my peers, are hoarse from projecting through the barrier of the material covering our mouths and noses.

The day begins mixing fresh batches of both disinfectant and sanitizer. Tables, light switches, door handles, class counters, and sink area all clean well before the 7:30 arrival of students.

While offering instruction, I am simultaneously monitoring, engaging, and facilitating with students within my classroom and those at home.  This also means I must work hard to be as paperless as possible for the benefit of all students, but especially those who are participating virtually.  Then, there are the technological glitches that can cause delays, interruptions, and malfunctions with both groups of students.  Additionally, I am trying to learn, assemble, and implement a multitude of on-line educational platforms to enhance, streamline, and engage all levels of students.  By the day’s end, my Fitbit watch consistently reveals that I have taken anywhere from 15,000-20,000 steps with minimum time spent outside of my classroom walls.  

If the first week is any indication, my work day will consist of a constant stream of decisions, sanitizing, and juggling–juggling in my mind to best meet the needs of both in-person and virtual learners–as I work to redefine the art of facilitating instruction.  Never in my previous educational training did I ever receive training on how to engage and instruct students in a meaningful way during a pandemic.  Nor have I ever seen so many of my fellow teachers experience such high levels of anxiety, stress, and discomfort as I have in one week of school.  The emails from students and parents never end, and it feels as if there is not enough time, nor enough of each teacher to go around. 

And yet, that experience of my early years tells me that we will all adapt, grow, and learn from this.  Educators are a formidable, flexible force driven by the passion to educate and care for all of those entrusted into our care.  However, educators, parents, and students all need extra doses of patience with one another, the ever-evolving educational technological tools, and with ourselves.  The type of drastic change we are undergoing requires much patience, tolerance, and a new level of understanding. Educators and educational institutions are all trying to rapidly respond to a situation for which there has been no previous experience.  There are bound to be countless bumps along this new educational trail which we are currently blazing.

Personally speaking, I am stepping out of my comfort zone, stepping up my game, and stepping into a new role that feels very uncomfortable.  I have never been the most technologically savvy person, but I am learning—some of it on my own through trial and error, but most of it from my professional peers as well as my students  Therefore, I implore parents of students, far and wide, please be patient with teachers and schools.  We want to educate and care for your child as badly as you do, but cutting remarks, critical emails, and sensationalized social media posts only undermine our efforts and morale.  Instead, kind words, thoughtful notes, and genuine appreciation for our efforts can go a long way in supporting our new role within your child’s life. We understand this isn’t easy for you as many of us are parents too.  We understand that you are your child’s number one advocate, and you want what is best for them, but so do we.  We want to keep everyone safe and healthy, both emotionally and physically, including ourselves.

In conclusion, let us focus on what connects us–the well-being and education of children.  Let us, as a community, be supportive of one another as we forge together through this brave new educational world; so that, one day, we can look back on this, as I do on my early years in education, and proudly declare, “We did it; we really did it.  Look how far we’ve come!”

“Fear: False Evidence Appearing Real

“We are often more frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than reality.”–Seneca 

“Of all the liars in the world, sometimes the worst are our own fears.”–Rudyard Kipling

Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com

FEAR:  False Evidence Appearing Real.  But is it really false?  Does the body truly know what is real versus perceived? 

Panic, anxiety, stress, depression, lethargy, mania . . . this is the vocabulary that describes very real reactions to F. E. A. R. 

Fight. Flight. Freeze.  Three words that seem perfectly harmless . . .until linked with the word, fear.

There are other words too:  cancer, stroke, heart disease, COVID, Rheumatoid arthritis, muscular dystrophy, aging, dying, murder, divorce, accident, fire, flood, hurricane . . .  and even the word, change–when viewed in isolation–not attached to oneself or a loved one–are words that can seem likewise benign, or at the very least, distant.

What do all of these words have in common?  They all have the potential to strike fear in both the recipient(s) and/or the supporting loved one(s) often triggering the fight, flight, or freeze response.  

Fear is a four-letter word that is often the king or queen of many minds, including my own, if left unchecked.  It can often be the source of increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, racing thoughts, sleepless nights, shortness of breath, tightness in chest or other parts of the body, excessive worry, loss or increase of appetite, fatigue, headaches, and the list goes on.  None of us are immune.  Sometimes the fear is real and valid, other times, while it is still valid, it is often exacerbated by one’s mind.

Lack. Of. Control.  Fear creates a threat, and when the body/mind feels threatened, our nervous systems (sympathetic and parasympathetic) respond automatically in one of three ways:  fight, flight, or freeze. Fight-flight-or-freeze is not a conscious decision.  It is an automatic reaction for which you have little to no control. 

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Recently, I viewed the documentary, Robin’s Wish.  This short film, a little over an hour long, alternates scenes of honoring/remembering Williams the actor and friend, as well as reflections/responses to his decline.  Ultimately, it wraps up with events from his tragic death, and the discovery that what was initially diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease was actually Lewy body dementia, the third most common type of dementia according to the Alzheimer’s Association, shedding new light and greater understanding for William’s untimely death.  It concludes with a note of hope:  Robin’s wish . . .

“I want to help people be less afraid,”–Robin Williams

As the film revealed, Williams battled various forms of fear his entire life.  Thus, learning that he wanted to help others be less afraid struck a heart note within me.  Williams brought laughter, joy, and mirth to audiences throughout the entirety of his prodigious career.  Through his comedic words and actions, Williams helped many feel less fearful–even if only for a short moment.

Personally, I understand battling fears as I am often filled with many sundry fears.  It is hard for me to recall being without them–although I have been told that I was fearless as a youngster.  Perhaps, it is my overactive imagination, my sensitive nature, or the unique hard-wiring of my brain, but feeling fearful has been a large part of my life.  

Most days, I “fake it ‘til I make it,” moving throughout life as if I don’t possess one single shred of fearfulness; and, it usually works.  I am able to take the fearful part of myself, box it, bound it up tightly, and store it far away in the attic of my inner world in hopes that it won’t escape.  Days, weeks, sometimes, months can go by, and not a tremor of fear is felt.  Then, like unexpected heavy rains in the middle of the night, the drip, drip, drip of fear begins to leak into my life.

It is those very fears that inspired me to write.  Beginning in those angsty middle school years, when I was fearful or did not understand something, I wrote.  Over those young years of my life, pages of journals and notebooks were filled; and then, I stopped.  My writing began to feel meaningless, trite, and purposeless; and therefore, not worth the effort. 

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Decades later, my fears grew heavy once more, threatening to consume me if I didn’t do something.  I attempted to keep boxing them, rewrapping them, and shelving them here and there within the messy recesses of my being, but they kept slipping their binds.  Ironically, I could not give them a voice–I could not articulate them–just felt them in my body:  deep belly aches/flutters, pounding heart, accelerated thoughts, and worries–constant, constant worries.

Then, at the gentle, but dogged, nudging of a friend, I began writing again.  I wrote for no one in particular–just to work out the kinks, find my voice, and learn to once more articulate–at least through the written word. Sure enough, the fears began to loosen–not per se, leave, but at least they were becoming more tame–most days!

Reading Williams’ succinctly summed up quote, I realized that my own drive to not only write, but to share my words with others, is because I, too, want to help people feel less afraid and more focused on the positive.  In fact, I realize that was an underlying factor for likewise becoming an educator–to help children feel less afraid.  I am not sure if I have achieved either of these goals, and I know for certain that I have not, nor will not achieve to the level of Williams’ success.  Still, I can try to make a difference.  Even if I am only able to help one reader, or one student, feel they are not alone–reassure someone that they can “do hard things,” they can persevere, and they can live with fear without it ruling their life–then, I have achieved my goal.  While my writing, or teaching, will not earn an academy award, nor lead to fame or fortune, if it leaves a small mark within a life or two, then that is enough reward.

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Recently, I was making my way down the Ritter Park path.  It was riddled with puddles after days of rain.  Unless you like mud-soaked shoes and ankles, you had to work with others to navigate through and around the numerous soggy patches of earth.  That is what life is about, working with others to get through the sloppy times.  Some of us do that on a large-scale, such as Robin Williams, and the rest of us have opportunities and moments in life in which we can help one another navigate through and around rough patches, using whatever gifts God has given us. 

Don’t ever think you are alone in your fears, Dear Reader.  You are not, and you can persist in spite of them. 

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A Good Morning Goodbye to Summer

“ . . . Goodnight mush

And goodnight to the old lady whispering “hush” 

Goodnight stars

Goodnight air

Good night noises everywhere”–Margaret Wise Brown from the book, Goodnight Moon, illustrated by Clement Hurd

When my daughter, Madelyn, aka “Maddie,” was a toddler, she had several favorite books with which she played, banged, tugged, and, eventually, pretended to read. One of those favorite titles was Margaret Wise Brown’s, Goodnight Moon.  Of course, as with most children, we went through several phases of “favorite books” that were the bedtime default for, “one more story,” before lights were out.  However, Goodnight Moon was an on again, off again favorite for a couple of years.  There is a reason this 1947 classic children’s story has sold millions of copies and has been translated into numerous languages.

I was reflecting upon those sweet, long ago reading-bedtime-stories-memories and comparing those times within the current context as I made my way through Ritter Park on what was my final week day workout of the summer . . .

Maddie in her extra soft jammies, smelling mildly of soap, her hair slightly damp, her skin soft, pink, and warm, as she wriggled a little closer, imploring me to read, “one more story.”  Reaching for Goodnight Moon for what felt like the thousandth time, I would often change the words of the story to reflect our house, her bedroom, and her surroundings, creating a more personal narrative.  Quite often, Maddie would join in with her own improvisation as well.  

Reading to my daughter is one of those memories that brings tears to my eyes because time seems to have transpired so swiftly.  It feels as if only last week that I was reading those stories, and numerous others, with her.  I didn’t realize then, that as quickly as those page-turning moments were occurring, they were likewise being replaced in the same way Maddie’s bedtime books were changing and evolving. The time of childhood kept moving forward like the plot of her stories. For unlike her storybooks that could be paused or stopped by simply closing the book, time did not then, nor does not now, allow me to stop the story of life from progressing.  Goodnight, Maddie, as a toddler.  

Miss Maddie grew, and with every page turn of life came a new image, a new stage, a new way of saying goodnight.  Giggle-filled toddlerhood seamlessly turned into the carefree days of preschool age, and soon enough the plot evolved into the pleasant days of kindergarten.  As life progressed, cheery days of elementary years were followed by those angsty years of middle school. Next came the plot-twists that belong to the high school years.  Presently, a new page has been turned, with more COVID-related turn-of-events occurring that continue to promote both her personal and academic growth as she makes her way through the challenging college years, especially within today’s state-of-affairs.  

Time just keeps cascading, drumming along, pattering out rhythmic beats of memories.  These snapshot moments of life with our daughter are like the bubbles she created in those early bygone years. Maddie would blow the bubbles into life and then chase those bubbles, trying to “catch” them, but bubbles tend to pop when you try to grasp them.  Instead bubbles are best enjoyed while savoring the creation of each one and then enjoying their flight as they glide through air as shiny kaleidoscopes of joyful color.  However, like my toddler daughter of all those years ago, we often give chase to life, trying to hold onto bubble-like moments of the past or bubbles that might be created in the future, often unaware that current bubbles of life-moments are floating within our view with little personal awareness.  

In some ways, though the pandemic has forced many of us to be more aware of the preciousness of life.  When life as we knew it, came to a screeching halt, or at the very least, drastically slowed down, time spent driving hither and thither was reduced to a bare minimum.  Spending most, to nearly all, of your time at home became the new normal.  The hands of life’s clock tick-tocked to the same rhythm, and yet, felt s-l-o-w-e-r.  Working from home in comfy clothes was the new cool.  John, Maddie, and me, like many that were lucky enough to remain employed or in school, worked from our home battling for wifi and dealing with the imperfection technology; and, truth-be-told, imperfect people since neither John nor I are tech savvy.   Somehow, though, we managed to keep turning those pages of work, school, and life, but it was different, and it seemed to revive the age-old theme for the desire of work-life balance and the importance of spending time with family and loved ones.

Now, as we return to new variations and designs of our work worlds, I have to wonder/worry if we are returning to the proverbial rat race.  While there were, and continue to be, many negatives of living with COVID-19, there were (and are) advantages to quarantining at home.  One of my big takeaways from the experience is that growing desire to strike a greater balance between work life, family, and time spent in meaningful, personal pursuits and/or expressions. COVID has revealed there is more to life than career, and there is likewise much value in time spent with people. While being able to financially support oneself is important, COVID has repeatedly reminded me, and many others, that our time on earth is like those bubbles of Maddie’s youth, elusive, colorful, but short-lived.  I want time to create and savor more meaningful bubbles of life moments.

As I continued down memory lane on that Ritter Park run of last week, I was reminded of the certain situations for which I am/was happy to say goodbye and others for which I am/was glad to say hello with regards to COVID, quarantine, and working from home as well as the positives and negatives of returning to work (school), albeit, with a new way of working and thinking about education and work-life in general.  In my head, Maddie’s Goodnight Moon’s simple verse informed thought bubbles of random rhymes and personal prose . . .

On a great big earth

There was a virus

And a numerous people of worth

And a picture of–

Distractions of media birth

And there were numerous world leaders sitting on chairs

And there were markets

And there were targets

And people were moving

And the bug was stewing

And there was more spread that grew in a rush

And there were even some men who were proclaiming, “hush”

Goodnight school

Goodnight need for much fuel

Goodnight countless people of worth

Hello time at home

Hello best-not-to-roam

Hello extra family time

Hello singing wind chime

Hello work from the table

Hello time for evening cable

Hello bedtime at dark

Hello paths of local parks

Hello time spent in nature

Hello medical danger

Hello life with COVID-19

Hello people on a virtual scene

Goodbye summer months that went by fast

Hello school bells ringing at last

Hello to the students I will see

Hello to the in-person teacher I will be

Goodbye warm lunch peacefully eaten alone.

Goodbye work from home

Hello continued work-friend, Google Chrome

Goodbye quarantine that abounds

Hello, the virus is still around

Hello to spaced out chairs

Hello to continued and fervent prayers

Goodbye work day morning run

Goodbye savoring dawn’s sun

And there’s still no goodbye to men proclaiming, “hush”

Goodbye sweatpants

Goodbye, my growing green plants

Goodbye quarantine life . . .

May this school year and fall 

be safe for all 

Goodbye, fellow morning exerciser, Deborah Garrett who walks an hour and forty minutes most mornings at Ritter Park. She says she “just loves it in Ritter Park.” I hope that I see you from time to time on the weekends. In the meantime, keep on stepping into life!

Indulgent Chocolate Chip Brownie Bars aka “Brookies”

“Every moment of light and dark is a miracle.”–Walt Whitman

Remember the rhyme that went something like this . . . 

“Rain, rain go away. 

Come again another day. 

Little Sally (Insert any name.) wants to play.  

Rain, rain go away.” 

Well, I’ve rewritten it.

2020, go away.

Don’t come back another day.

Little Stephie (Insert any name.) wants to play.

2020, please go away.

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Let’s face it, folks, 2020 has been a challenging year for the entire world on so many levels.  It seems to me that just when I think it can’t get any worse, it can, and it does!  Sometimes I feel like we’re living in the Old Testament days alongside Job.  Okay, okay, that is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. However, it does feel, at times, that there is a dark and menacing cloud hovering over the edges of life that will not dissipate.

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“All you need is love.  But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”–Charles M. Schulz

Therefore, trumpet trill please, I present you with a newly created recipe idea . . . Light, triumphing over darkness.  Sweetness overcoming bitterness.  All symbolically baked up into  one luscious, (fairly) guilt-free indulgence. . . or, so I thought it was a new idea.  (Insert daughter popping my bubble here.)

Photo by Miguel u00c1. Padriu00f1u00e1n on Pexels.com

My daughter, Madelyn, introduced me to the name of my so-called creation when I shared with her my, “exciting new recipe idea.”

“Uhm, Mom.  You know that’s not a new thing, right?  Mixing brownie and chocolate chip cookie dough is not new–not even close.  Look it up.  It’s called a “brookie.”

Since when?  I never heard of it.  

“Brookie.  Really?  It’s a thing?  I didn’t first create it?”

“No, Mom, you didn’t.”

Cue the pom-pom shaking teenager from a long-ago video-vine, with which Maddie used to tease me as the unknown teen looked straight into the viewer’s eyes and stated, “You ain’t special.”

“Huh, I guess I am not so clever after all.”

“Sorry, Mom.”

Nonetheless, even if I am not as special or as innovative as I thought,  I will still share my recipe for the so-called “brookies” with you, courtesy of the kind people at Swerve. 

Early into the start of 2020, my brother, Scott, and I were talking via phone when he asked me if I had heard of a new sweetening product called Swerve.  At the time, he described it as the sweetener that he was using to regularly make lemonade in order to remain low-carb.  He added that it did not upset his digestive system as other sweeteners tend to do.  Since I also have an extremely sensitive stomach too, I was definitely interested in giving the product a try.

This was early in the pandemic when there were numerous shortages, especially in the baking aisles of grocery stores.  I was fortunate enough on my next shopping trip to pick up what appeared to be the last package of Swerve in-stock.  Trying it first in my green tea, I found I liked the taste–not possessing that fake chemical after-taste–nor was it overly sweet.  Plus, it did not upset my stomach.

In a later discussion with Scott, he shared with me that he had successfully baked cupcakes using the Swerve confectioner sugar replacement.  Whaaat???  He remained impressed with the product.  Hmm . . .

That’s when I decided to give Swerve a try in my raspberry muffin creation that I shared last month both.  It baked up well, tasted great, and did not seem to affect the texture.  Best of all,  I still did not experience any negative gastrointestinal side effects!  However, when I shopped at my supermarket the following week, they were completely wiped out of all Swerve products. 

Much to my surprise that is when the good people at Swerve reached out to me, asking if I’d like to try out more of their products.  Little did I know how many products this company makes!  Wow!  All of the products they shared were gluten-free and grain-free–which especially works for me.  Additionally, according to their packaging, Swerve products are Keto/low-carb friendly, low-glycemic, diabetes friendly, tummy friendly, natural, zero added sugar, and all natural, “born and raised in New Orleans.”  Plus, I can remain plant-based when I bake with them by merely tweaking a few ingredients as you will see below. 

Additionally, while my first batch of “brookies” was baking, I discovered the Swerve company has an amazing website chock full of support, advice, recipes, and ideas.  Sure enough, as my so-called original recipe continued baking, I learned that they already had a “brookie” recipe on-line.  Maddie was right, I was indeed NOT special.  Cue the sigh and slumping shoulders as the spotlight fades into darkness on my so-called bright idea.  

Even if not as original as I once thought, I will still share my “brookie” variation with you.  I especially recommend this recipe when you feel a little dark and down, or not-so-special.  Simply the smell alone is enough to lift the spirits!  However, it’s the ooey-gooey texture and the combination of two different tastes that is, well, enlightening–reminding the taster that even in the midst of a challenging and dark moment, life can still have its light, sweet moments.

“Life is uncertain.  Eat dessert first.”–Ernestine Ulmer

From my home to yours, I wish you healthy, happy, homemade, and not-so-original sweet treats!

P.S.  A big shout out of thanks and gratitude to Stephanie Ferrari at FRESH Communications and the Swerve team for inspiring this not-so-original recipe!

Indulgent Chocolate Chip Brownie Bars aka “Brookies”

Ingredients:

1 package brownie mix (I used Swerve Sweets Brownie Mix.)

2 large eggs (I used a plant based replacement that I affectionately refer to as a “flegg” but it’s probably not original either!  See recipe below.)

½ cup oil (I used applesauce.)

½ cup water

1 + 2  tablespoons vanilla extract or powder (I used Organic Gold Vanilla powder.)

Optional add-in:  ½ cup chocolate chips (I used Enjoy Life 100% dark chocolate Morsels.)

1 package chocolate chip cookie mix (I used Swerve Sweets Chocolate Chip Cookie Mix.)

3 tablespoons milk, dairy or plant-based

3 tablespoons melted butter (or plant-based equivalent, i.e. applesauce)

Optional add in:  ½ cup favorite nut pieces or oats (I used gluten free oats.)

Directions:

If replacing eggs, make your “flegg” before beginning any other steps. 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Prepare a square baking dish by lining it with parchment paper, or coating it with nonstick cooking spray.  (I used a 9 x 9 pan.)

In a medium bowl, mix together the eggs with oil, 1 tablespoon vanilla, and water.

Add in brownie mix, and if desired, stir in chocolate chips and mix until combined.

Spread brownie batter over the bottom of the baking dish.

In another medium bowl, mix together milk and 2 tablespoons vanilla.

Stir in chocolate chip cookie mix, and if desired, add in nuts or oats.

Add in melted butter and mix until combined.

Gently spread chocolate chip batter over brownie batter. 

Bake for 40-50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out dry and the edges are set. Cover with foil about half-way through baking time (around the 20-25 minute mark) so that the top won’t get too brown.

Allow to cool.

Makes 12-16 servings.

Store in an airtight container.

“Flegg” egg replacement recipe:

2 tablespoons flaxseed (Chia seed works too.) 

6 tablespoons of water. 

Mix well and allow to sit for 20 minutes before mixing batter.

Becoming

“To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.”–Robert Louis Stevenson

Standing on the crest of a small hill, my senses were heightened.  I could feel the weight and seemingly taste the moisture in the air. Scents of earth, rain, and floral encompassed me.  Dewy variations of pink, red, and coral stood out in contrast to the overcast dawn. Meanwhile, the unmistakable melody of creekwater rushing over rock, bed, and banks provided additional ambiance to the unfolding morning. There could be no mistaking it, this was a brief interlude before the showers once more resumed.

Down the hill I trotted, past the pristine rows of roses and on towards my companion for the next hour or so, Four Pole Creek, or “Four,” as I have come to think of it.  

“The more I run, the more I want to run, and the more I live a life conditioned and influenced and fashioned by running.  And the more I run, the more I am certain I am heading for my real goal:  to become the person I am.”–George Sheehan

Hello Friend.  My heavens, but you are swollen today, full as a tick bug, as my Papaw used to say, from the feast of overnight rain.  It’s good to see you looking lively today.  Your rhythmic song will be a welcome distraction from the noise in my mind.  

You see, a stunning new realization has recently taken root in my mind.  It whispers conspiratorially to me that I have reached a point in my life in which the years ahead are more likely to be less than the years I have lived.  What am I to do with this information, I ask you?  It is such a staggering revelation.

What’s more, my aqueous friend, the image reflected in my bathroom mirror no longer matches the image in my head.  There are these white hairs at my left temple and even more sprinkled throughout the parting of my hair.  Likewise, there are lines, especially when I smile, that run from the top of my cheekbone down towards my jaw line!   Tiny versions of those lines romp across the top of my lip, corners of my eyes, and all along my forehead.  How am I to be with this?

It seems I am not the only one changing.  I keep running across pictures from previous years in which family and friends look different.  They look incredibly young in those pictures–like unfledged, inexperienced youth.  I don’t recall that image.  In my mind, they are ever the responsible, mature, and wise people who never age, but remain frozen in time–never too young or old. 

Oh, and Four, there are all of these nagging aches and pains.  They niggle me awake during the night or flare up in the middle of work.  Sometimes, I down right hurt all over, and I can’t determine the cause.  However, I can tough out these minor hurts.  I can.  It’s the suffering of my loved ones that trouble me more.

I see my loved ones injured, battle-scarred, aging, and/or struggling.  You see, I want to help, to make them better, to help them feel whole again.  Even more than their ailing physical beings, I want to offer peace to the emotional wars waging within their minds and hearts.  I try.  I do try to help in small ways, but I am not a doctor–I don’t even play one on TV.  Thus, at times, I feel limited in what I can do to ease their burdens, pains, and sorrows.  

Still, it encourages me to see you full of vitality.  For a couple of weeks, you have been waning.  Your shallow flow lacked its usual energy and zip.  It is good to see your waters revived once more.

By the way, did you take care of the terrapin that I sent your way recently?  It was headed away from the safety of boundaries of your banks towards the traffic rolling alongside you.  I picked it up, even though it seemed offended by my action, and placed it carefully within your borders.  Hopefully, you were able to redirect its journey to safer ground.

As I was taking this picture, a couple days later, I was able to catch this image of a walnut falling into the water from the tree above.

Back to my original point, Four.  Have you any thoughts, ideas, or insight you can offer?  It seems as if your soundscape is whispering commentary.  Perhaps, if I quiet my head, I will hear it. 

“Life is a lively process of becoming.”–Douglas MacArthur

Four, I can’t help but notice that you have more riffles, rapids, and runs today. It’s nature’s way of breathing oxygen into your waters.  In return, your waters can give support to the life in, below, and around you.  

Earlier in the week, your waters were different.  They slowly glided from one pool to another. Of course, it was quite hot outside.  I couldn’t help but laugh at the number of neighborhood dogs splashing around or sitting in the cool shallows of those pools.  You remain ever the friend to the creatures in need, no matter levels and speed of your waters. 

 I have to ask though, do you ever hurt? Do pollutants irritate you?  What about those pesky people trying to reconfigure earth around you in order to build in the name of progress? Does that cause you pain as the drainage of rainwater and groundwater shift, ultimately influencing the levels and speed of your flow?  Do you mourn for your former self or for the forested neighbors that must have once lined your banks?  Regardless of those things for which you cannot control, it seems to me that you keep going, keep giving, keep supporting life to those in need of water.

Your waters are gathered from different sources. There are times, like today, when your waters are swift, becoming deep and darkened with the mud of debris, rocks, and earth.  Other times, like this past week, your waters are nearly still as you become shallow and more clear.  No matter what you are becoming, though, Dear Four, you remain ever Four Pole Creek, part of the Ohio River Watershed that feeds into the grand Mississippi River, and empties into the Gulf of Mexico flowing into the Atlantic Ocean.  Along the way, some of your water is evaporated into the air, cooled, condensed, and eventually returned to the earth–molecule by sweet molecule–a single droplet that is all part of the larger body of creation.

Four, in spite of your continuous changes, from the levels of your water, to the shapes you take; from the color of your waters, to the speed at which it flows; and from the lives that your waters support, to the beauty you offer the landscape, you are constantly evolving, ever changing, and continuously becoming.  Yet, you remain a creek, one creek in the great cycle of water.

“By being yourself, you put something wonderful into this world that was not there before.”–Edwin Elliot

Like you, Four, I am changing, and so is the life around me.  Some of my loved ones have flowed on to their heavenly shores, while many others remain bound to the earthly waters of life.  Like you, no matter my shape, my hurts, the gray at my temples, the lines of my face, or the pace at which I move . . . I am still me.  I will remain me–becoming, evolving, and adapting to the changes within and all around.

One day, I will dance among the ether of your molecules.  Together, joined by those who slipped ahead, we will become part of the Great cycle–the ever more and ever was. 

Thank you, Four.  Your song returned me to the hill of roses.  Back to where I started.  This running cycle is complete.  You were a fine companion.

Container Gardening: A Lesson in Parach (Thriving)

“Love and work are to people what water and sunshine are to plants.”–Jonathan Haidt

Photo by Stokpic on Pexels.com

Since March of 2020, I have experienced a few bouts with melancholy.  I suspect that I am not unique in experiencing these moments of sadness.  In fact, I feel as if these lugubrious time periods are a normal reaction given the amount of drastic change that is (and continues) to occur.  Like others, I have found various ways of battling the blues that have mostly worked, such as exercising outside, following a meditation program, reading for pleasure, and so forth. However, the most surprising coping mechanism–at least for me–has been container gardening.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

“The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature.  To nurture a garden is to feed not just the body, but the soul.”–Alfred Austin

To be certain, my husband, John, and I have tried our fair share of gardening in the past.  Our reasons for attempting were well-intended; however, in the end, we lacked the stick-to-it-ness that a large-scale garden requires.  Ultimately, the continuous ebb and flow of life demanded our attention, and gardening fell away.  

Thus, based upon those past experiences, my foray into container gardening has been modest.  Still, nurturing my few flowering plants and vegetables has provided a positive point of focus.  Walking out my kitchen and front doors each day to bear witness to the growth of these plants has cultivated within me a renewed sense of hope and purpose.  The plants’ growth and ability to thrive depend upon not only my actions, but also the right ingredients. 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

Container plants require regular exposure to light.  That said, each plant’s needs for light vary, so I had to become a keen observer in order to determine the ideal location for each plant. I quickly learned that my current selection of herbs, begonias, and mums will turn yellow, brown, and even look burned if given too much light, causing their leaves, and ultimately blossoms, to dwindle and die off.  Therefore, placing these plants in areas that only received  morning light and/or partial shade allowed them to flourish.  Contrastly, my vegetables, a modest variety of tomatoes, peppers, and onions, grow spindly, turn yellow, and simply don’t grow without enough sunlight.  Therefore, they needed to be placed in an area that receives six or more hours of direct sunlight in order to produce.    

These red peppers are thriving in the abundant sunshine.

Growing plants in containers also requires regular intervals of watering.  Like sunlight needs, different plants have different watering requirements.  The morning-sun/partial shade plants typically need watered every other day during excessive heat periods, but less frequent waterings during more moderate temperatures.  In direct contrast, the vegetable producing plants need daily watering.  Go one day without water, and the vegetable leaves begin to wilt, droop, and even fall off.  However, too much water can be just as deadly I discovered during a mid-June rainy period.  During this time period, the vegetables, I determined with a bit of research, developed something called blossom rot caused by the depletion of calcium in the container’s soil from too much rain.  Therefore, I had to find a way to add calcium back into the soil.  Unfortunately, I also learned, the hard way, that applying too much of the calcium based product can burn the leaves–nearly killing the plant. 

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Therefore, regular intervals of fertilizer, in the right combination/amounts, is also critical to the plants ability to thrive.  Thankfully, I chose to start each of my plants in potting soil that already had been enriched with the correct combination/amount of fertilizer.  I purchased one type for flowering plants and another type for the vegetable producing plants.  Additionally, with a bit more research, I settled on a couple of different fertilizers to use several weeks into summer, and within days of adding them, the plants seemed to double in size.  In fact, this growth period taught me the importance of pruning–taking time to periodically cut back excessive growth, remove withering leaves, or pinch back fading blossoms in order to maintain the health of the plants.

I am so glad that I started these tasty herbs–oregano, basil, and lemon thyme–off in a quality potting soil with the right type of fertilizer.

One final point of interest that I also learned this summer was the size of the plant determines the size of the container–which of course, makes sense.  However, any container can serve as a vessel for a plant as long as it has hole for water drainage, so the plant doesn’t become waterlogged from too much rain or unintentional overwatering.  Afterall, heavy rains and/or summer storms often occur during the humid summer months.

Without proper drainage holes, these beauties–begonias–would have drowned in some of the heavy rains of June and July.

Therefore, these experiences have provided a poignant life lesson.  A month or so ago, I came across a reference to the Bible in which the author wrote that the word thrive is often used as a translation of the Hebrew verb, parach.  When I searched to confirm this definition, I discovered that parach has three meanings, one of which is to bud (sprout, bloom, shoot).  Therefore, like my container garden, if we want our lives to “parach,” we must fill them with the right ingredients.  Much will depend on our current circumstances, life-history, age, status, perhaps gender, and other life markers.  Just as any container can produce a beautiful plant, there is no one size fits all for individual growth and vibrancy.  However, there are a few common denominators.

Photo by Mahmudul Hasan Rifat on Pexels.com

First, while plants will wilt, wither, and wane without sunlight, each variation does have its own requisite levels when it comes to the amount of daily light needed. Likewise, our lives must be rooted in The Light, the great Creator of the pure essence of our spirit and soul.  This may look different from one person’s faith systems and/or practices to another.  For example, consider all the differences that are often seen among styles of worship within one church denomination, such as Baptist, much less all of the other variations/interpretations of worship and faith practices from one denomination or religion to another.  Nonetheless, we all need a source for hope, faith, and light.

Rooted in the true heavenly Source allows one to weather the storms.

Secondly, our lives must be watered regularly.  There is no getting around the rainy seasons of life.  Without the stormy times of life, there is no growth.  If there is no growth, then there is no sense of joy, no need to celebrate or savor special moments/accomplishments.  The old adage,“Into every life a bit of rain must fall,” is a maxim for reason!  Furthermore, like my vegetables experiencing blossom rot from too much rain, there are times in which we may become waterlogged by the storms of life. Those are the times in which we must develop and learn to rely on life’s proverbial drain holes in order to unload some of the sadnesses that are part of life. These so-called drain holes can take on numerous forms depending upon personal preferences/needs, such as talking to a trusted friend/family member, exercising, crafting, gardening, therapy, and so forth. All can encourage movement toward some form of homeostasis

As seen on Instagram at heartcenteredrebalancing.

Finally, each person needs a unique combination of fertilizer and soil mixture.  What enriches one life, may not be the spark that boosts another’s. What’s more, the very practice or habit(s) that lit you up at an earlier point in your life may not provide the same enhancement later on in years–or if it does, it may need modification.  Furthermore, like my plants that needed pruning, there may be poor or unproductive habits that need reformed, remediated, or removed in order to further facilitate quality growth. The point is that in order to increase one’s vibrancy, one needs some source of positive inner joy, interest, or motivation that creates the spark in life.  

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Unlike my plants, a human life typically lives through multiple seasons.  However, no matter the number of seasonal changes through which we live, life is still short.  Therefore, it is worth taking time to cultivate the right conditions in order to parach.  If quality does not go into your life, you can’t expect to get quality in return.  In the end, when our growing season comes to a close, we will not be remembered for the container in which we lived, but by the fruits that we shared with others.  May your harvest be bountiful.

As seen on Instagram at mylifesbt.
As seen in Instagram at myliftsbt

Volunteer Seeds of Kindness

“A tree is known by its fruit; a man by his deeds.  A good deed is never lost; he who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love.”–Saint Basil 

“Good Morning!” I say to people I pass along the path of my morning run.   Typically, my greeting is echoed back.   Occasionally, I will encounter someone who is busy talking on the phone. Likewise, there are a few who appear to ignore my greeting, but perhaps they don’t hear me, aren’t a morning person, or they are having a bad moment–at least they aren’t, per se, rude.

One particularly hot and humid morning, I observed a young couple running ahead of me, but when they took a walking break, I happened to pass by them.  I warned them that I was, “passing on the left,” as a courtesy in case they did not hear my approach and also to encourage social distancing.  As they moved over to allow me to proceed, I thanked them and wished them a good day.

“Thanks! You’re looking strong, by the way! Keep it up,” was the female’s response.

As seen on Instagram at mylifebt.

Now, if there was one thing I was NOT feeling at that moment was “strong.”  In fact, I am fairly certain that strong was not on the spectrum of emotions I was experiencing at the time.  Regardless, her kindness was enough to plant a tiny seed of positivity into my morning exercise and offered a nice boost of energy that was much appreciated.  Since then, this young woman’s random act of encouragement has remained with me, reminding me of the importance of taking time to offer a smile, kind word, or gesture to others with whom I come into contact–especially in the age of COVID.

“A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions and the roots spring up and make new trees.”–Amelia Earhart

In direct contrast, on another muggy morning, I was making my way along the path, dodging and side-stepping mud, puddles, and oozy sections that looked like an invitation, at least for me, to fall or wrench a limb.  The grass alongside the path was especially slick with moisture because the previous evening had been filled with numerous downpours.  Most pedestrians were following an unspoken courtesy of passing one another at a socially appropriate distance without forcing anyone off into the sopping turf bordering the path.   This sometimes meant pausing, slowing down, or jogging in place behind someone in order to let another person advance from the opposite direction.  Certainly, it might temporarily slow down one’s pace, but if you were really in that big of a hurry, you could choose to step off into the wet grass–and I certainly saw a few faster runners make this decision.

I was approaching an older couple from behind as I continued along the path. I slowed down and moved to the outer edge of the path on my right as there was also a group of three women walking towards the couple from the opposite direction.  The three women formed a single file line, moving to the opposite edge, preparing to go by the couple, leaving plenty of safe space.  The man in front of me moved behind his female companion, so I jogged in place at a respectable distance behind the pair to allow the three ladies to progress by before I passed the couple.  

As seen on Headspace app.

Suddenly, from behind me, I heard the pounding of footsteps and someone huffing swear words under his breath loud enough for all of us to hear.  As I turned my head in his direction, I instantly recognized the cursing man.  When I had previously passed him earlier in my workout, he did not acknowledge my morning greeting.  In fact, having encountered him on a number of previous occasions along the same path, he has never once acknowledged my greeting.  Still, I had written off those encounters to the fact he was a focused runner, despite the fact that his running companion, who was currently at a significant distance behind the cursing man, always spoke.  

Meanwhile, the three women continued walking past the couple in front of me, and the huffy man drew up beside me at an uncomfortable closeness, barely leaving enough space for the women to pass at a safe distance.  He looked down at his watch, uttered more harsh swear words, and then quickly dashed between the last woman in line and the couple in front of me, nearly knocking down the woman and startling the older gentleman.  Meanwhile, his companion froze in place and appeared to look at the fast trotting man with a mix of bewilderment and resentment.  Afterwards, for what seemed like a long moment, though it was probably only mere seconds, the six of us glanced from one person to another as if collectively trying to recover from the near collision caused by the man’s aggressive and angry energy that was still hovering in the air as if he had run a red traffic light and escaped, but we were left with the wreckage of his actions

As seen on Instagram at meditation_and_mindfulness.

“We all have the right to be here,” I impulsively blurted out to no one in particular.

The three women nodded in agreement and added a few choice comments.

“Well, I hope you guys have a good day anyway,” I added as a moment of closure hoping to bring about a more positive tone.  However, I wondered if my words sounded hollow like attempting to give a child a lollipop after they have been given a vaccination shot.

Reflecting on my statement later, I realized the depth of what I had said, “We ALL have the right to share the path”–even cursing, impatient runners.  Oh, boy!

As seen on Instagram at positiveenergyalways.

We live in a finite space called Earth in the community of our collective humanity.  Currently, around the globe, we are faced with issues, problems, and crises–the likes of which most of us have not experienced in our lifetimes. Meanwhile, we have those, like the female runner, offering up encouragement to others in spite of his or her weariness; and, there are still others, like the antagonistic runner, pushing aside those who get in the way of his or her wants/desires.  

If I am to be honest, I have regrettably behaved like the cursing runner, so I do not want to pretend to be something that I am not.  However, both of these recent encounters have served as a reminder and object lesson to me.  First, every person has the right to share the path, aka, Earth–even those with whom whose actions I find aversion.  Secondly, I can only control my actions and my words–not others.  Finally, I have a choice, each day–and really, each moment, to decide what my actions, my responses, and my words will foster; and, so do you, Dear Reader.  

“Kind hearts are the gardens.  Kind thoughts are the roots.  Kind words are the blossoms.  Kind deeds are the fruits.”–Kirpal Singh

Sometimes plants sprout through the soil that were not intentionally planted.  They seem to grow by some unseen magical power.  In reality, those plants are caused by seeds floating in the wind, dropped by birds, or inadvertently mixed into compost/fertilizer.  In gardening terms, these surprise flowers and plants are called volunteers.  They are independently defiant, complete, and thriving in the midst of less than ideal circumstances.  

Like the unknown female I encountered, her volunteered words planted an unintentional seed of kindness in me, that even now as I write this, continues to grow and blossom.  It was such a small act, but it left me feeling uplifted with a sensation that I desire to pass on to others.  

Imagine what could blossom in our world if the winds of thoughtful engagement became the norm?  Picture seeing tolerant words printed, spoken, and displayed on social media with greater frequency than narrow-mindedness?  Envision sympathetic, sensitive, and open-minded gestures and actions mixed more often into dialogue, documents, and declarations than overt or subversive hatred, anger, and aggression?  That is the garden for which I hope to help nurture, one volunteered seed of kindness at a time. What kind of garden will you cultivate?

As seen on Instagram at heartcenteredrebalancing.
Just as this black walnut seed hold within it the potential for growth, so too do kind words, actions, and gestures. Pass one on today.

Light, Lucious, Lemon Raspberry Muffins and Buckle–with a life lesson on the side

“Imagine a world, in which your entire possession is one raspberry, and you give it to a friend.”–Gerda Weissmann Klein

“The tiny seed knew that in order to grow it needed to be dropped in dirt, covered in darkness, and struggle to reach the light.” — Sandra Kring

June sunlight hammered my backside, creating a rivulet of sweat that ran from my hairline, down my neck, and along the bumps of my spine, pooling at the elastic waistband of my athletic shorts.  Spikes of dry grass clawed at my shins and calves, while briars needled my forearms.  With single-minded focus, I picked the ruby jewels of fruit, one at a time, and slipped them into the bowl as my fingers became brightly tinged with the stain of my efforts.  One month later, a similar scene unfolded, only this time my digits were blotched a deep shade of purple.

Berry picking–full of heat, thorns, and insects.  Strongly influenced by weather with some seasons offering higher yields of succulent delight, and other years producing little fruit that are often smaller and less juicy.  This once per year event can provide a tasty selection of cakes, pies, muffins, salads, and even vinegars or wines; and yet, each tiny tender fruit is celebratory enough to pop, one at a time, onto the tongue allowing taste buds to relish the lush, acidic saccharinity. 

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As I picked berries this summer, it was a contemplative practice that was part focus, with a bit of melancholy, and part determination, sweat, and even irritation–reminding me of the similarities of berry-picking to life.  Many, if not most, memorable life moments require sustained efforts involving work, goal-setting, striving, and set-backs.  Depending upon what is produced by one’s endeavors, typically frames whether or not one continues down the same path/plan, or chooses to adjust plans accordingly.  Similarly, seasonal berry offerings may not be particularly juicy some years, much less tasty on its own merit; however, when these berries are collectively combined alongside other ingredients in a recipe, the product produced is often a delicious delight–even if it was not what was originally planned.

Likewise, dealing with the bramble, the bugs, the itchy ivy and grasses, the pollen, the heat and humidity, and so forth, may fill the berry-picker with dread even before beginning; and then, one commenced into action, the very act of picking may feel nearly intolerable.  Nonetheless, the goal of sweet, tangy fruit impels one to persevere in spite of the struggles and irritations.  In fact, even the journey to becoming a fruit producing plant is never easy.  It requires that a seed be buried in dirt, dwelling in darkness for some time while laying down roots until ready to slog through the sod, breaking the surface.  Even then, the tiny plant must learn to endure all types of weather while simultaneously stretching and extending towards the light before becoming a fruit producing plant.  The same is true for humans.

Picking berries is an annual reminder for me that we all must experience the dark, the muck, and the mire in order to strengthen our ability to break through the soil of our despairs.  Nevertheless, like the berry bramble, we cannot produce fruit without first developing roots, and then being taught to stretch towards the light in order to grow.  Even then, we will still develop thorny parts of ourselves and experience the sting of insects, the heat and cold, as well as life’s seasonal winds.  There will be choking weeds and other setbacks (much like many of us are experiencing now).  Nevertheless, it is during those very times we must be like the berry plant and keep growing, fixing our eyes upon the heavens, because eventually our efforts will produce fruit.  And when those periods of berry-picking occur, we must share our harvest with others and savor the sweet juiciness of the moment because like the weather, life offers continuous change–never standing still for long.

As seen on Instagram @ Postiviteenergyalways

As the Creator divined, there is no light without dark, no happiness without sadness, no rest without work, no pleasure without pain, and no berries without pitfalls and pests.  Make the most of good days, for they are the berries, the very sweetness, of life.  Imprint those memories into your soul, as one does setting aside berries in the freezer, so when the weeds of life threaten and clouds seem ready to burst, you can retrieve those frozen memories, and be reminded that this too will pass.  The light that is within and around you will help, once more, enjoy another season of berry-picking. 

As seen on Instagram at postiveenergyalways.

From my home to yours, I wish you a freezer full of good memories and berries! Here are a couple of recipes to enjoy . . .

*Raspberry Lemon Muffins

Ingredients:

1 tablespoon flaxseed + 3 tablespoons of water (Can substitute with one large egg.)

Zest from one lemon

1 cup + 2 tablespoons flour (I use gluten free flour.)

1 cup old fashioned rolled oats* (I use certified gluten-free oats.)

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

¾ teaspoon salt

⅔ cup sugar (I used Swerve brand sugar replacement.)

⅓ cup melted butter (I used plant-based replacement.)

¾ milk (I used a plant based version.)

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 teaspoons vanilla extract 

*2 cups raspberries or blackberries (Fresh are best, but frozen will work, but may require a bit longer baking time.)

White sparkling sugar (Optional)

Directions:

In a small bowl, add both flaxseed and water.  Gently stir and place in the refrigerator for later use.

Zest one lemon, and set aside for later use.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Line 12 muffin tins with a parchment paper. 

In a small bowl, place raspberries and sprinkle with 2 tablespoon of flour. Toss gently until all raspberries are evenly coated.

In a small bowl, combine the flour, oats, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

If possible, use a stand mixing bowl to whisk together lemon zest with sugar for two minutes until light and fluffy.

Mix melted butter, milk, lemon juice, and vanilla extract into lemon/sugar mixture.

Stir in dry ingredients into wet ingredients and mix until just combined.

Gently fold in flour coated raspberries into batter.

Divide batter evenly among 12 muffin cups.

Sprinkle with white sparkling sugar if desired.

Bake for 22-25 minutes or until muffins are golden brown and toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Makes 12 muffins. 

Allow muffins to cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then turn upside down on the cooling rack, and immediately right them on the rack for proper cooling.

Muffins can be stored at room temperature; however, since there is fresh fruit in them, I prefer to store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator once completely cooled.  They can also be frozen for up to 3 months.

Serve warm or cold.  They are delicious plain or served with butter, honey, agave, or other favorite topping.

Bonus Recipe:

*Raspberry Buckle

Ingredients for Buckle –the cake part:

¾ cup sugar 

¼ cup soft shortening 

1 egg 

½ cup milk 

Zest from one lemon

2 tablespoons of lemon juice

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract or powder

2 cups + 2 tablespoons flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

*2 cups raspberries or blackberries (Fresh are best, but frozen will work, but may require a bit longer baking time.)

Ingredients for topping:

½ sugar

⅓ cup flour

½ teaspoon cinnamon

¼ cup softened butter

Directions:

Zest lemon, and set aside.

Mix together ingredients for topping, and set aside.

Place raspberries in a bowl, gently sprinkle and coat with 2 tablespoons of flour, and set aside.

Prepare 9” x 9” baking pan with nonstick cooking spray

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Using a mixer, mix together sugar, shortening, and egg.  

Stir in milk, lemon zest, lemon juice, and vanilla.

In a separate bowl, blend together dry ingredients.

Mix dry ingredients into wet ingredients until just combined.

By hand, gently fold-in in raspberries.

Carefully spread into the prepared baking pan.

Spread topping over all of the batter.

Bake for 45-55 minutes or until the topping is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. 

Allow to cool 10-20 minutes before serving warm.

Once cooled, stored in the refrigerator.

Leftovers can also be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 months.

Makes 9 servings.

As seen on Instagram @ lauriereasons.

Exploring WV, Part 2: the Greenbrier River Trail, Beartown, Droop Mountain, Renick, Marlinton, and Watoga State Park

“Afoot and lighthearted I take to the open road, healthy, free, the world before me.”–Walt Whitman

In the face of COVID-19, travel warnings, and headlines of superspreader events, it may seem impossible to plan a summer getaway.  However, for those of us living in the Appalachian Region, a 205,000 square mile area that covers all of West Virginia and parts of 12 other states, including Ohio and Kentucky, travel destinations abound as the wonders of Mother Nature are all around.  Therefore, if you’re willing to rethink what travel can mean and look like, a world of outdoor adventures awaits–all within an easy drive’s reach.

Recently, John, my husband of 31 years, and I, did just that.  We took off towards the Greenbrier River Valley area and explored parts of both Greenbrier and Pocahontas Counties.  Whether you’re planning a day trip, camping, or cottage/cabin excursion–this area of WV offers plenty to see, do, and experience while safely maintaining social distancing.  What’s more, these types of adventures are pocket, family, and/or solo-friendly.

On this most recent summer of 2020 trip to the GRV area, we once more stayed in Lewisburg in a cottage called, “Stone Throw Retreat,” which we found on Airbnb.  During our first full day, which I described in a previous piece, John and I explored Cranberry Glades, the Falls of Hills Creek Scenic area, and stumbled across the birthplace of author Pearl S. Buck.  On our second day, we took the same approach as we had taken on our first–no itinerary. We just hopped onto US 219 and began traversing this scenic and meandering road, deciding where to stop while enroute.

The first place that struck our fancy was Beartown State Park. When John and I first arrived at the 107 acre natural area, located within both Greenbrier County and part of Pocahontas County, we discovered, much to our surprise, that this park has a connection to Huntington, WV!  The land that is now known as Beartown State Park, according to a marker found inside the park, was made possible, in part, through a donation by, “Mrs. Edwin G. Polan of Huntington, in memory of her son, Ronald Keith Neal, a former student employee of the West Virginia State Park System who lost his life in the Vietnam War on April 21, 1967.”

Beartown State Park derived its name from residents local to the area because the land is filled with numerous cave-like openings that look like perfect winter dwellings for black bears known for roaming WV.  Additionally, these rock formations, with their narrow passageways that look like streets, date this so-called ancient-town-of-rock to approximately over 300 million years ago! 

 

The park itself is simple, with a ½ mile carefully constructed boardwalk, zigzagging in, through, and around the rock, as the singular point of interest.  It was clearly built with the idea of preserving the integrity and uniqueness of the land while still allowing visitors to enjoy the  natural rock-like garden.  The walk, in fact, is so spectacular, that I would think it is possible to visit repeatedly and still notice something new each time.  If you’re looking for an opportunity to hear the whisperings of God, John and I highly recommend a trip to Beartown State Park! 

Continuing our drive further northeast along US 219, John and I made an impulse decision to stop at Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park.  With full knowledge that monuments to the Civil War are currently under high levels of scrutiny, our decision to visit this mountain had to do more with our genuine desire to experience the view from the top of the mountain, named for its drooping appearance, especially with regards to the perspective from the tower overlooking the GRV.  Little did we know that the park also included eight hiking trails, two picnic shelters, and an old-time playground that harkens back to the type John and I once enjoyed in the late 60s and early 70s!

Located on the border between Greenbrier and Pocahontas Counties, Droop Mountain is considered one of WV’s smaller mountains, rising 3,597 feet above sea level.  Nonetheless, the view from the top was nothing short of spectacular!  The day in which we visited was bright and clear with abundant sunshine blessing the valley below.  The wind whistled through the trees and a feeling of peace settled in our bones as John and I surveyed the numerous WV mountain tops surrounding the valley through which we were traveling.  Gaining a different perspective of the landscape from the Droop Mountain tower, at least to me, was awe-inspiring as I tried to comprehend the passage of time the mountains and the river valley represented–not to mention the greatness of Divine Providence’s hand in forging such magnificence.  The landscape from the Droop Mountain tower is highly recommended.

“In every walk with nature one recieves far more than he seeks”–John Muir

We ended day two with a four mile walk along the Greenbrier River Trail at Renick.   Despite the fact that it was a warm afternoon, with temperatures in the mid-90’s back home in the Huntington area, in the shade of the GRT, the temperatures were much more moderate with a continuous gentle breeze.  Along the trail, we saw several people kayaking the river, flowers blooming, and listened to birds sharing their sing-song.  I couldn’t help but notice that we walked past mile-marker 24 of the 78, or so, mile long trail.  Towards the end of our walk, John and I encountered a couple of fishermen who recommended we explore the other Renick entry point to the GRT in order to see an eagle’s nest.  We decided to make that our first priority for day three.

Thus, our third day began with John and I driving through Renick proper and taking site of what must have been, at one time, a thriving, if not quaint, farming community.  The streets were quite narrow, and most of the homes reflected the bygone days of another era.  It was a peaceful, but short drive as it ended right at the Greenbrier River’s edge as the fishermen from the day before had said it would.

Stepping onto the GRT from this point of entry, John and I trekked four more miles in the opposite direction from the previous day, moving more northward.  Walking in this direction, we were indeed able to spy the eagle’s nest just past an old swinging bridge that was, unfortunately, locked up–or I would have climbed upon it and crossed to the other side for sure!  The nest was located on the opposite side of the river, but even from our vantage point, we could view the vast size of this majestic bird’s nest.  While taking pictures, a biker drove past, then stopped to chat at a socially appropriate distance to share his experiences of pedaling the GRT.  Once our conversation came to a natural end, we finished our walk, and decided to head towards Marlinton, WV, the county seat of Pocahontas County, and attributed as being another excellent location for GRT exploring as recommended by the same fishermen from the previous day.

Back in the car, traveling US 219, we put our sites on Marlinton in hopes of another adventure.  After a long-ish drive, we stopped by Appalachian Sports, a business we recognized from our previous day’s conversation, to learn more about their bike rentals as a potential experience for a future visit to GRT.  While there, we learned that Marlinton is home to the Roadkill Cook-off and Autumn Festival that began in 1991, but had, unfortunately, been cancelled for this upcoming fall due to COVID-19.  However, good news for roadkill lovers, it’s already slated for a return on September 25, 2121–just in time for my birthday! 

While in Marlinton, we drove through parts of Watoga State Park, the largest state park in WV.  Covering 10,000 acres.  WSP offers camping, cabin rentals, an eleven-acre lake for paddle- and row-boating as well as fishing, 15 miles of roads for biking, and 40 miles of hiking trails.  Additionally, there is a lodge, although we never found it, that does offer a commissary and restaurant.  Our navigation through the park was filled with wooded beauty, ample dappled sunlight, and wildlife wonders.  It is definitely another state park that John and I agreed we needed to visit.

“Keep close to Nature’s heart . . .and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods.  Wash your spirit clean.”–John Muir 

All-in-all, our exploration of Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties was a wonderful, grounding experience.  We were safely able to vacation while still maintaining social distance.  What better way to get away than in wild and wonderful West Virginia–where an adventure awaits around each curve of its mountainous roads!  

From our home to yours, John and I wish you safe and healthy travels!