Celiac Disease is Real

Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disease that occurs in genetically predisposed people where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine.–Celiac Disease Foundation

Recently, I went to dinner at a popular local restaurant with a friend.  The wait staff person, whom I will call Sam, was friendly and appeared to listen as I politely explained that I had celiac disease and needed to eat gluten free. I further added that I had not previously eaten there, so Sam pointed out all of the gluten-free items on the menu, directing my attention to several items that might be of interest to me since I also added that I was a plant-based eater. 

Later, after our food had arrived, my friend and I were deep in conversation, when Sam returned to the table to tell me that the dish I had been served was not in fact gluten-free.

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At least you only ate part of yours, unlike your friend here.

Wait, what?  First of all, not only was that response rude to my friend, but it was also insensitive to the realities of celiac disease.  Sam then offered an apology and launched into stories of a friends who have celiac disease, but my head would not stop buzzing with worry.  Sam then added a story of a sibling with food allergies who required an epi-pen with the final words, “at least you won’t die.”  

People with celiac disease have a 2x greater risk of developing coronary artery disease, and a 4x greater risk of developing small bowel cancers.–Celiac Disease Foundation

Later, a person, who I can only assume was either a kitchen or restaurant manager, arrived at our table.  I was told that normally there was an upcharge for gluten-free items and another upcharge for vegan cheese, but since I had been wrongly served, I would not be charged any additional fees.  There was no apology, hint of remorse, or even concern in this person’s words or voice.  Meanwhile, my mind kept wondering how I was going to get through the next work day.   

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When people with celiac disease eat gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye and barley), their body mounts an immune response that attacks the small intestine. These attacks lead to damage on the villi, small fingerlike projections that line the small intestine, that promote nutrient absorption. When the villi get damaged, nutrients cannot be absorbed properly into the body.–Celiac Disease Foundation

Afterwards, sharing my experience with my daughter, Maddie, she was enraged since she has worked in the restaurant industry for the past two school years.  She shared this story with her current kitchen manager as well as the rest of the staff with whom she works.  They all agreed that the restaurant’s response was inappropriate, and I should to do something, such as leave a bad review on Facebook, Yelp, or Trip Advisor.  Instead, I decided to try to increase awareness of celiac disease through writing. 

It is estimated to affect 1 in 100 people worldwide.–Celiac Disease Foundation 

This is gluten

I am often faced with people, especially in the restaurant industry, who do not believe that celiac disease is serious, much less real.  Perhaps, this is because so many popular diet trends include avoiding gluten and/or because gluten-free items are now so widely available and seen as healthier options.  Often, those who are avoiding gluten for health/diet purposes will still drink beer or consume products with gluten when it suits their situation.  I understand that as someone who is mostly vegan, but will, on occasion, still splurge on cheese.  Unfortunately, this can leave the impression that those of us with celiac disease can do that too.  In fact, I have had family and friends say to me, “Can’t you just take a pill before you eat it?”  If only it were that easy for me.

Celiac disease requires consuming

Ingesting small amounts of gluten, like crumbs from a cutting board or toaster, can trigger small intestine damage.–Celiac Disease Foundation

It wasn’t until the mid-forties that I was diagnosed with celiac disease.  I had been experiencing severe abdominal pain and acid reflux, as well as bloating, cramps, and other, shall we say, digestive issues.  My doctor was treating me with a variety of prescription medications.  My life became a series of timers and pills, and nothing was helping.  After several months of no improvement, he ordered a colonoscopy and an endoscopy.  When the official hospital letter came in the mail informing me that the endoscopy revealed severe damage to my small intestine, suggestive of celiac disease, I was stunned. (It also revealed a hiatal hernia, but that’s a whole other topic!)  When a later blood test confirmed this diagnosis, my life was forever changed. 

Two and one-half million Americans are undiagnosed and are at risk for long-term health complications.–Celiac Disease Foundation 

As my doctor and I talked, it was clear that I had suffered from this disease my entire life, but I had become so accustomed to the symptoms that I didn’t realize anything was wrong.  The entire diagnosis process was spread out over a few months.  Part of the protocol included strictly removing gluten from my diet for two weeks, and then seeing what happened when I re-introduced it to my diet.  Ugh! Talk about pain.  All the stomach pains/issues returned after one day of eating glutinous foods as well as a persistent headache that would not dull.  That was it!  I walked away from gluten products at that point and never looked back.  My life quality has completely changed for the better–including none of the prescriptions of the past.

I buy and order special gluten free products. This is one of my favorite gluten free pizza crusts brand!

Currently, the only treatment for celiac disease is lifelong adherence to a strict gluten-free diet. People living gluten-free must avoid foods with wheat, rye and barley, such as bread and beer.-Celiac Disease Foundation 

Living with celiac disease is typically most challenging when dining out.  It is important that a kitchen staff understand that, no, I won’t die immediately from consuming gluten.  However, within hours of consuming gluten, side effects begin.  Furthermore, with each consumption of gluten–which can even be found in over-the-counter medications, vitamins, lipstick, and toothpaste–I am damaging my body, in particular, my small intestine.  The more gluten I eat, the more likely I am to develop other health issues, such as Type 1 diabetes, muscular dystrophy, anemia, epilepsy, migraines, osteoporosis, shortened stature, heart disease, early on-set dementia, and intestinal cancers.

Celiac disease can develop at any age after people start eating foods or medicines that contain gluten. Left untreated, celiac disease can lead to additional serious health problems.–Celiac Disease Foundation

In the end, I sincerely wish that all restaurants, local and elsewhere, would understand that celiac disease is real; it is not made up.  When I ask for gluten-free food at a restaurant, I will happily pay the upcharge for this choice.  Additionally, I will go out of my way to let staff know that I sincerely appreciate the extra steps taken to prepare my food.  I only ask that restaurants take my request seriously.  If a mistake is made, it is best to tell the customer as soon as possible and sincerely apologize. Mistakes can happen.  However, please don’t write it off as an “at least I won’t die” moment because it will take 24-48 hours for the gluten to work its way through my system–causing unnecessary discomfort, interrupted sleep, endless rest room visits, headache, and body aches–as if I have the flu.  Additionally, at the risk of sounding dramatic, consuming gluten potentially contributes to a premature life-ending, or at the very least, life-altering disease that may have otherwise been avoided.  While celiac disease does not define me, it is part of who I am–a valid part that should be respected and honored.

For more information regarding celiac disease or for those wondering if they, or a loved one, have celiac disease, please visit the Celiac Disease Foundation at celiac.org as well as talk to your health care provider. 

Another tasty brand of bread products.

Choose Joy

Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.  We cannot cure the world of sorrow, but we can choose to live in joy.–Joseph Campbell

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There is a documentary about a Holocaust survivor named Gerda Weissmann Klein that I have watched on several occasions with students.  Her story is, like many Holocaust survivor stories, one of inspiration, hope, and even joy.  One of the lines that often comes back to me is when Weissmann Klein specifically addresses how she survived a death march towards the end of World War II.  Despite the fact this march occurred during the height of a brutally harsh winter, Wiessmann Klein was able to survive for a number of reasons, one of which included her ability to “occupy her mind.”

In simple terms, Weissmann Klein was able to take her mind’s focus off the cruel conditions around her.  Rather than brood over the extreme cold, her hunger, her fatigue or any other legitimate complaint, she colorfully described her intentional deliberations that could last all day, such as spending an entire day planning out her next birthday party, even though she had not been able to have one since the Nazi occupation.  However, it wasn’t so much the what of her thoughts, but the fact that she was able to focus/distract her mind away from the pain/discomfort that naturally accompanied her situation.  Instead she intentionally directed her attention towards ideas/notions/thoughts that safely allowed her to “escape” and feel some sense of happiness if only cerebrally.  It is this human ability to occupy one’s mind, or shift the mind’s attention/perspective, that is a powerful take-away from Weissmannn Klein’s story, and I believe is transferable to other, much less brutal situations.   

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Given the news, the pandemic, the  major weather events, and all of the sobering occurrences from the past few years, it is easy to allow our mind to focus on the what-is-wrong-in-the-world, whether you are looking at the big picture or sometimes even your own personal circumstances. I know I can easily get wrapped up in the negative and get a full-steam-on gripe session with the best of them.  On one hand, I know it can be beneficial to get the negativity off-your-chest; on the other hand, I also know that there is danger in dwelling or focusing on it for too long–at least for me.

In a similar manner, I’ve noticed that both positivity and negativity are contagious within myself and among others. If I enter work feeling grumpy, put-off, or focused on some negative happening, I tend to attract and may even catch myself seeking out negativity.  It’s not per se always a conscious choice, it just seems to happen that way.  As soon as I recognize it, I feel badly for having given that gray cloud permission to come along for a ride.  The real danger, it seems to me, is when negativity is left unaddressed.

Negative mindsets have a tendency to spiral out of control.  It may start with something as simple as an accidental spill or mess that throws off the morning routine, followed up by that s-l-o-w driver on the morning commute while listening to frustrating news on the radio.  This may then turn into a later than planned arrival at work, followed by unhappy/unpleasant conversation, followed by a work-related problem in need of addressing for uptenth time, and by the time lunch arrives–which is often a working lunch–negativity can feel as if it is bursting at the seams.  

I think Ms. Weissmann Klein was onto something when it comes to not defaulting to the negative. We must actively and intentionally teach our mind to choose joy.  No, it’s not easy, and yes, it sounds cliché.  However, I do believe that we have a choice of how we respond to our circumstances, but like all skills, it takes practice and thought.

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I think the lyrics to a King and Country song entitled, “Joy,” best encapsulates this thought.  It is oh-so-easy to focus on all of those nightly news headlines that vie for our attention.  Easier still, is to become wrapped up in our personal headlines: illness, death, divorce, finances, job loss/stress, future uncertainties and so forth.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve caught myself in the woe-is-me mind story; it’s so darn easy to do.  Here is what I am learning when I catch myself having fallen prey to pessimism.

Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy. –Thich Nhat Hanh

Believe it or not, the simple act of smiling can be a lightswitch for our mindset.  I first discovered this through running, but I find it just as helpful in most other situations.  Whether it’s my legs and calves aching from the exertion of exercise, or it’s my shoulders and neck tightening in reaction to stress, as soon as I catch myself responding negatively to stress–to the degree possible–I focus on deeper breathing, relaxing the tightened areas, and adding a smile.  I smile at the sense of accomplishment I will feel once I have completed the goal; smile at the fact I am proud of myself for having caught myself slipping into negativity; smile at the fact that my body still has the ability to exercise, work, read–whatever. All of which leads to more smiling because, well, I am smiling–which leads to the release of feel-good hormones.

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I was talking to a sister recently about how we wake up with the best intentions to remain sunny and positive, and then one thing might set off the day, and BOOM, there goes the mindset.  My husband says, however, that is part of living in faith.  He reminds me that it’s not about perfection, but recognizing your imperfections–your humanity–and then trying again. 

In the words of King and Country, “. . . Oh, hear my prayer tonight, I’m singing to the sky/ Give me strength to raise my voice, let me testify . . . The time has come to make a choice

And I choose joy!

I can’t pretend to choose joy in every moment, nor am I not acknowledging the very realness of life, headlines, personal crises and all.  Nevertheless, even in the bad times, sorrows, and heartbreak and loss, I can choose my response, and I can choose to find at least one reason to smile.  

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It’s never too late to Bloom

“And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight inside the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”–Anais Nin

On sunny, but cold winter mornings, it is not unusual for me to walk past the living room and see both of our cats sprawled on the floor in the bright slant of sunshine beaming through the picture window.  Therefore, this past Saturday, as I walked through the house after my morning run, a smile of comfort spread across my face as I caught a glimpse of our two aging felines sun-bathing.  However, my brain also signaled that something was “off.”

Pausing, taking a backwards step to peer once more through an entrance way, I scanned the room.  Our male cat, the longer of the two cats, full of black fur, save one white paw, raised his head, glared at me for having the audacity to enter the room, as if I needed his permission, and meowed his disapproval of my presence.  The gray female, who is, well, she is sensitive about this, but she is, shall we say, the fluffier of the two, blinked open one eye, and then the other, attempting to register the disturbance of her basking peacefulness.  Glancing around the room, seeing nothing out of place, I turned to walk out sensing the full chill of sweat drying as my body began to cool down at a more rapid pace.

I turned to walk away, but wait, there were those alarms again.  Taking one last glance over my shoulder as I simultaneously chastised myself for having a run-away imagination, something clicked.  There was the very thing my brain had been trying in vain to communicate.  

I couldn’t believe it!  Christmas had been over a month ago as the wall calendar we still faithfully use was nearly ready to be flipped to February; and yet, there it was, the only one.  It was delicate, dainty, adored in haughty punch pink and full of pride. 

Oh, wow! I thought as I looked on in amazement at one brilliantly hued bloom on a Christmas cactus.  

In December, the entire plant had been full of blooms as bedazzled as any holiday tree.  In fact, I have two Christmas cacti in the living room, and they had both spectacularly bloomed over the course of the holiday season, beginning not long after Thanksgiving.  However, there were a handful of buds on each plant that grew with great promise, but in the end, never bloomed.  Instead, those buds held tightly together, and eventually fell off the cacti without blossoming.  All of their potential, lost in their continued grasping, waiting for the precise right time to blossom, rather than letting go of control and allowing it to happen.

Turning back to get my phone in order to take a picture, my brain, now buzzing with the excitement of the discovery, was likewise pulsating with the object lesson provided by this blossom.  A Talumedic quote sprinted through my head as my memory tried to catch its fleeting words.  Something about every blade of grass having an angel telling it to grow.  What was that quote?  Did this blossom likewise have an angel?

For the love of Pete, Stephanie, get out of your story-writing head and just enjoy the exotic beauty of this blossom.

Taking the picture, then standing to admire the flower from all angles, I no longer noticed my chilling body as I became filled with inspiration.  I know, I know, I sound so dramatic, but seriously this was special–at least in my mind.  If Divine Providence doesn’t give up on a tightly closed bud, then it surely doesn’t give up on us! If we, as humans, would just quit grasping for the safety of the known and rely in faith that there is a higher power whispering gentle encouragements of growth, we might then realize that we can blossom–even if seemingly out-of-season. 

Years ago, when I taught Kindergarten, each spring, I would order a so-called “Butterfly Garden” as a more tangible way to teach metamorphosis.  Each morning, curious faces would check the caterpillars.  They could observe the ways in which they grew, formed chrysalides, and ultimately witness the emergence of Painted Lady butterflies, wet, crumpled, and rather unrecognizable.  

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Nearly every year, however, there was that one chrysalis that would not open when the other Painted Ladies emerged.  Often, there were those kids who suggested that we should “break it open” as a way of helping it along the metamorphic process. I would use this as an opportunity to ask them if they liked being woken up from sleep and the comfort of their warm, cozy bed.  Of course, there were echoes of “No,” followed by the typical chatterings of five and six year olds. Eventually, in time, that snuggled up caterpillar would emerge–better late than never!

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Dear Reader, it can be so hard for us to let go of the comfort of what-was and the arms of the-way-it has-always-been.  However, if like that cactus bud and the late developing butterfly, we can bravely release our graspings, we might find that we can blossom and take flight in a metaphorically new direction, repurposed and ready for new expressions and expanded experiences, even if at the most unexpected times.  As the bud on my Christmas cactus demonstrated, it is never too late to bloom.  

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Early to Bed, Early to Rise

“Morning is an important time of day, because how you spend your morning can often tell you what kind of day you are going to have.” Lemony Snicket

One of my current personal practices of this school year is choosing to wake up at 3:50 am three out of five work days.  I’ll state the obvious:  It’s not fun at the moment the alarm sounds.  Messages, vying for attention, encourage me to hit the snooze button and/or skip the early wake up, “just this one day.”  After all, one time won’t hurt me.  Those messages are strong, loud, and clear as sleep threatens to overtake me, especially now that it is full-on winter with its early morning chill and darkness. I want to be weak and give in, but I know if I give in once, I’ll give in again and again until I ultimately return to old habits that tend to stress me out. 

To be clear, the other two work days, I get up one hour later–4:50 am–which, trust me, feels like a treat.  By the weekend, I’m exceptionally foot-loose and fancy free, setting the alarm for 5:50, which feels like being served up a warm brownie with ice cream on top! 

Okay, okay, perhaps I am being a tad bit dramatic, but the point is that I’ve discovered, after several months of implementation, that waking up early fairly consistently each morning offers me numerous benefits, many of which were unexpected. It began mostly as a way to get in a workout first thing in the morning before going to work, and that is still one of the main motivating reasons.  However, I discovered that I was reaping a few unexpected benefits as well.

Checking off goals in the predawn hours.

I became curious and wondered if I was merely experiencing some sort of placebo effect or if there was any solid data/research to support my anecdotal benefits.  Therefore, I began to nose around the internet gleaning information from various sites, trying to stick to the more reputable sources of research.  

*Early risers tend to be more proactive about their day

One of the first sources I ran across cited Harvard’s Biologist’s (Christoph Randler) work pointing to the fact that early morning risers tend to be more proactive.  This is due to the fact that they must think ahead and organize for the morning the previous evening in an attempt to anticipate and minimize potential issues. I can attest to the fact that I had to learn early in the process the importance of nightly organization in order for the early morning routine to flow efficiently.  

I continued reading on to learn more.  Here are a few more positive benefits to rising early according to those with more expertise than me: 

*Ability to accomplish most important task(s) (or personal goal) first thing

Since the early morning hours are typically the quietest, the mind (and schedule) are  fairly clear, freeing early risers to focus on the most important, or most challenging, goal of the day–in my case, that’s usually some sort of 5-10 minute devotional, followed by 30-40 minutes of writing/editing/revising/updating website, and finally about 2-3 minutes of clearing out junk work emails that accumulate overnight in my inbox and making note of important emails to tackle first thing at work.  I do these few tasks while sipping a cup of coffee allowing me to feel a small sense of accomplishment, even before I head to the gym. In fact, according to the Harvard Review, in a 2010 study, that early morning sense of accomplishment, sets the tone for your day, allowing early risers to feel more agreeable, optimistic, and conscientious.  Who knew?

Empty, or near empty gym, is an added bonus to the early morning wake-up, especially in the age of COVID.

*Morning exercise boosts the brain 

As a general rule, exercise benefits the body and mind, no matter what time of day it is completed.  However, people with busy schedules find that they are better able to stick with an exercise routine by completing it in the morning. As an added bonus, working out in the morning allows early risers to take advantage of all of the feel-good endorphins produced by the brain after exercise.  Plus, exercise reduces heart disease, boosts brain cognition, regulates blood sugar and weight, and tends to improve your mood. Therefore, if completing the workout in the morning ensures that you don’t miss a workout, then early risers are checking several boxes before the start of the official workday. Check, check, and check!

*Outlook and sleep quality improves while risk for depression decreases

Typically, those who wake early, tend to go to bed earlier, and experience overall better sleep quality which can positively increase outlook.  We can all relate to how we feel after a horrible night of tossing and turning, especially on a Sunday night after a weekend of sleeping in, when sleep seems so elusive.  According to the Sleep Foundation, by keeping a fairly consistent daily wake-up time, including the weekends, you can maintain your circadian rhythm, allowing you to fall asleep faster and sleep better.  Additionally, a 2012 study conducted by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research confirms that early risers tend to have more consistent sleep leading to healthy, happy, and overall sense of well-being. Moreover, recent 2021 studies, one published in JAMA Psychiatry and an additional one published in Molecular Psychiatry, point to the fact that rising early can significantly reduce your risk for depression as well as other mental illnesses.

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*Increased productivity

Rising early has been shown to increase productivity by enhancing one’s ability to problem solve according to the Journal of Sleep Research.  It also turns out that waking up early reduces stress (Think: beating the stress of morning rush hour), increases alertness, and minimizes forgetfulness.  Early risers have more time to acclimate to the day by moving beyond that sleep inertia period–that slower moving time period when thinking can still be foggy and the body is not fully awake–increasing focused concentration upon arrival at work, and thereby potentially increasing productivity.  Additionally, they have time to complete more tasks before becoming overtired, a major culprit of forgetfulness.  

On the way to work as the sun is rising and several daily goals have already been checked!

In the end, most researchers agree that by implementing a fairly consistent bedtime/wake-up routine, it is possible to train your body to wake up early. One thing is for sure, I like my sleep as well as the next person, and I certainly don’t enjoy those first moments of the alarm sounding, especially on those three extra-early days.  However, the benefits I have discovered, and now confirmed, far outweigh those few moments of discomfort.  I am able to meet my daily writing goals, miss fewer workouts while exercising in a fairly empty gym without being dog-tired from work, and I am much more energized and positive, well, most days.  The only caveat: I am typically in bed, no later than 9:00 pm, much to my family’s chagrin–not they really mind.

I won’t claim early rising is for everyone, but it’s working for me.  Nor can I say that I will do it forever, but for the time being, I will continue with my pre-dawn rising.  If it was good enough for Ben Franklin, one of the greatest inventors ever, it should work for a simple school teacher and writer, like me.  Who’s in with me?

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Cardinal Song and Snowstorm Memories

“A bird does not sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”–Maya Angelou

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“Stethie, you should always feed the red birds when it snows. You want them to stay near you.”

Papaw spoke these words with his sincere eyes imploring mine on a snowy winter day.  I was living with my grandmother and him during my first two years as an educator, and during this time, I came to realize what bird-lovers they both were, especially during the winter months.  

When I prodded him to tell me more, I don’t remember his precise answer, but I do recall that he talked about the cardinal’s beauty and goodness, especially when compared to the Blue Jay– the species for which Papaw was NOT a fan.  I am certain he gave me a more detailed explanation about the importance of cardinals, but like so many memories, only the basic understanding of his words remains with me.

A long image of 2016 snow, when my daughter would periodically go out with a yardstick to measure the snow’s depth.

I was reminded of this feeling on a recent January morning, the day after precipitation conspired with plunging temperatures to instigate a snow storm as the inches of fluffy white accrued.  With the arrival of dusk, winter’s hush settled over the surrounding hills and valley in which I live, as our yard residents, the cardinals, chirped their familiar song of, “cheer, cheer, cheer,” wrapping my family and me with a serene sense of quietude.  My mind floated with the flakes, and I began quickly flipping through the pages of snow days past. 

Remembrances of my youth-self entering the backdoor of my childhood home after hours of playing in the snow.  I would be ensconced inside layers of snowy, wet clothes, and my play-shoes were sucked into clear galoshes that would break me out into a sweat as I struggled to take them off.   In rapid fire succession, my mind meandered from my own childhood snow days to more recent reminiscences of my daughter’s days in the snow.  

One of the last times, I believe, my daughter “played” in the snow with friends during college.

Those seemingly not-so distant days of watching her teach our beloved dog, Rusty, how to pull her through the yard on a red sled, and the way she taught him to play “catch” with snowballs.  Rusty would catch the snow, then proceed to eat it, slinging slobbering snow-froth with every shake of his head.  Like the 8mm films my grandfather once proudly recorded and presented, my family memories reeled on . . .

Get the yardstick and measure again, that’s another inch more for sure.

Why haven’t they called school off yet?

Spoon under pillow, pajamas inside out and backwards;

It’s what they said to do for a guaranteed snow day tomorrow

Screams of delight with morning light; I’m really out for the whole day?

Dog tracks follow girl tracks, two pals capering about the sparkling white

Snow persons with carrot noses, button eyes, tree limb arms, and purple cap; “Can I have a scarf for it too?” 

Sled rides down the neighbor’s hill, “Rusty, pull, boy, pull!”

Grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup, comfort food to warm a rumbly tummy.

Wet clothes in dryer; boots and damp dog by the fire until

Back outside she goes with a whoop and a holler, “Come on, Rusty! Come on, boy!” 

Tail waggin’, he’s hobbles into action; wherever she roams, he’ll go

More hours spent, giggles and barks galore; “Oh, Rusty! You silly boy!”

Hot chocolate and chocolate chip cookies for her, and plenty of kibble for him.

Get out the crockpot, and make some veggie soup; I hope we have saltines.

Steph, how ‘bout a glass of wine?

No, really, I shouldn’t.

Well, maybe just a glass that turns into two

Jigsaw puzzle covers one end of the table, making the edges first.

Scrabble tiles are intersecting lines; Are you sure that is a word?

May I stay up a little bit longer?

What about a movie? There’s a new one I hear.

Can we read two chapters tonight? 

But we’re at a good part. How‘bout one more chapter, pleeease?

Covers piled high, snuggled up under chin; the day, like all good things, must end

Sigh! How swiftly the hands of time spin.

The next morning, I stood at the kitchen window, coffee mug in hand, watching large flakes drift down, observing my cardinal friends, and drinking in their sing-song calls.  There are three cardinal couples living in different parts of our yard; they took up noticeable residence this past spring.  They have yet to leave, and I can’t help but take comfort in their presence. 

Gone are the days I look out the window and see my daughter playing in the snow.  She has no interest now that she is the same age as I was when I lived with my grandparents.  Nor does Rusty, her once faithful companion, romp and scamper in the snow; he has since passed on to heavenly yards of the great beyond. Still, I stand there a bit longer, and I can’t help but wonder what the coming years will bring.  Certainly, the answers aren’t in the sentimental past. Nonetheless, the cardinals keep singing, in spite of the seasonal changes, serenading their song of gratitude.  Perhaps, therein lies a profound melody of truth.

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Life Must Be a Challenge

“Life must be a challenge.”–Sri Swami Satchidananda

“Have a Happy New Year, and whatever goals you set for yourself this year, I hope you achieve them.”

The sales clerk handed me my bags as she spoke these words with a broad smile. I wished her a new year’s greeting before heading out into the swarming mall milieu.  John, my husband, and I were in Cincinnati for a couple of days of relaxation between the Christmas and New Year’s holiday.  We debated the merits of traveling as the Omicron variant seemed to be spreading like athlete’s foot in a high school locker room.  In the end, we decided to take the proper precautions–as we have been doing these past couple of years–and head out for our planned excursion.

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Back home, I was later reminded of that brief encounter with a sales clerk. 

“Did you set any New Year’s resolutions for this year?” asked the young lady preparing to cut my hair on a recent January appointment .

This question led to an interesting discussion about whether or not to use the start of a new year as a reset button–a time to reflect and set new goals.  The stylist was all for it as she described the way in which her three boys, her partner, and she had shared and recorded their goals for 2022 in a journal.  She added that she wrote the goals down as points for review throughout the year, and they would serve the family as a final reflection on the eve of 2023. It seemed like such an intentional and thoughtful practice to have with her family.

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Pondering this practice, I reflected on my own goal-setting practices.  As I had explained to the stylist, my personality is such that I am constantly reviewing my own behaviors/habits.  Any perceived “mistake” I make–whether real or self-imposed–I dwell upon, running and rerunning the incidents on repeat like insurance commercials during televised football games.  I think about what I said/did wrong, or how I should have responded to a circumstance, in hopes of not repeating that behavior.  Sometimes it works, but more often than not, I fail, making the same or similar mistakes.  Ugh!  It is a broken record of imperfection.

Perhaps that is why I am drawn to setting small, achievable goals throughout the year, such as training for a half-marathon, teaching myself a new cooking technique, or even my pursuit of weekly writing deadlines.  These are typically structured goals, with steps from point A to point Z, and clearly delineated deadlines/outcomes.  Then, it’s simply a matter of following through with each step, adjusting when there is a set-back, and continuing on, one step at a time, until crossing the finish line.

In the bigger picture of life, however, things aren’t always so cut-and-dry with step-by-step progress and a clear finish line.  For example, when looking over these past two years of life with COVID, it seems one plan after another falls and one unattainable finish line falls to another.  Just as I struggle with my own fallacies, shortcomings, and humanity, science likewise seems to struggle with virus variants far more complicated than my own list of self-imposed list short-comings.  

All of these seemingly diverse thoughts came together when I reread the opening line of The Golden Present, a reference book to which I have repeatedly referred over a number of years.  The author begins with the following thesis,  “Life must be a challenge.”  In those five words, I was reminded of one simple truth.  If life is to be lived fully, then its challenges, from the personal to the global (and all levels in between), must be met, faced, and dealt with in some form.  

From surviving the ice storm in 2021, that wreaked havoc on local power grids, to navigating the following days of ice melt and rain that lead to devastating flooding; and from learning to adapt, adjust, and safely navigate the “new normal” of life with COVID, to getting up way to early each morning and trying to be a better version of myself than I was the previous day, life in 2021 was certainly full of challenges.  One look back at local, state, national, and global news headlines, and we see that every day, people around the world were faced with challenges far greater than any crisis I faced this year. 

As I write, I am reminded of the wildfires that ravaged the west in the summer, the Florida condo collapse, Hurricane Ida inflicting destruction on Louisiana, social media’s documented toxic influence on youth mental health, tornados that swept through Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas.  Even now, in the early days of 2022, headlines continue to demonstrate that life is indeed full of challenges, adversities, and difficulties. Even within my own work community, a beloved employee was recently severely injured when another vehicle ran a red-light–totaling this employee’s vehicle and putting this person in the hospital for months of recovery.  

I could go on, but the point is this.  I am alive and overall healthy.  If you are reading this, you are alive–and I pray–healthy.  Therefore, as 2023 progresses and the challenges start arriving–and you know they will persist–let us resolve to bravely face adversity while acknowledging that both the good and the bad are gifts of life.  After all, as light can only be known by the presence of darkness, the exuberance of joyful moments can only be known due to struggling through time periods of frustration, and sometimes even despair.  

We are on this earth for such a short time, let us be grateful for the moments–the good times, and the not-so-good times, when obstacles of all types get thrown our way. May we endeavor to fortify our faith in Divine Providence, believe in the power of hope, and may we cultivate love, or at the very least, patience and kindness for others–even those who see things differently from our own point of view.  As the name of my reference book indicates, the present moment is golden, and it is a gift to be unwrapped daily.  

Each day of life is waiting like a present under a tree to be unwrapped!

Besides, who wants a life that is easy?  If life were simple, there’d be no stories to tell around dinner tables, much less work cooler gossip; and, there certainly would not be any fodder for writers who need the challenge of discovering a new story to tell each week in order to meet a weekly deadline!

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Like a Prayer

“Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or in the deep, deep woods and I’d look up into the sky—up—up—up—into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer.”–L. M. Montgomery, Anne of the Green Gables

“Ms. Hill, don’t you like doing healthy stuff like hiking and running?”

The 6th grader looked at me with sincerity written across his face.  He was in my homeroom, the group of students with whom I start and end the school day.  By this point in the school year, I have come to know most of the students in this group fairly well, and this particular young man, in spite of his energetic youthfulness, has an uncommonly thoughtful side.  

The group of boys with whom he was talking and joking around at the end of the day, all turned to look at me.  I affirmed that I did indeed like both of those activities, but that I also enjoyed walking or simply being outside equally as much.

Nodding, seemingly with understanding, the same young man further inquired, prodding as to why I liked being outside.  After pausing to gather my thoughts, I explained that it made me feel happy, at peace, and connected to God. 

“So it’s kinda like a prayer, huh?” 

Out of the mouths of babes, or in this case, a 6th grader . . . 

Then, in typical middle-school fashion, the young man’s conversation quickly pivoted back to his buddies, so I returned to my routine end-of-the day tasks.  However, his words remained with me.  In fact, his words have often returned to me on a number of occasions for the past several weeks, especially during moments when I am out-of-doors. 

Scanning through photos of my recent trip to the Blueridge Parkway as well as past out-of-doors experiences, it is clearly evident from the large number of nature-centric images that I relish time spent outside.  From images of wispy cloud billows to leaf-scattered earthen trails; from layers of cerulean blue mountainous peaks to emerald green moss dressing up a boulder, and a great many variations in between, I have collected hundreds of images of Mother Earth. Nonetheless, my fondness of nature is so much more than taking photographs.

Time spent outside is like pouring soothing salve over my weathered soul.  One deep inhalation of fresh air, and I can instantly feel more calm and grounded.  In fact, I have an overall sense of vigor, not just in my body, but in my mind and soul when I am outside in the natural world.  It is as if my whole being comes alive.  

Therefore, it was no surprise for me to learn that numerous research bodies and scientific communities corroborate my personal experiences with nature.  As I scanned through several research pieces published by well-respected groups such as the American Psychological Association, Yale School of  the Environment, Harvard Health, and Scientific Reports, to name a few, there were some variations as to what defines “nature” and how long one needs to spend time in nature to reap the benefits; however, all pointed to the fact that spending time out-of-doors is overall beneficial to good health and mental well being.  Some of the commonly cited perks of spending time in nature include: improved mood, increased cognitive and memory function, reduced stress levels, improved mental health, boosted immune system, and overall reduction of blood pressure and heart rates.  

While I whole-heartedly appreciate and welcome ALL of those benefits, it has been my experience that there are also other, more ethereal, benefits of spending time in nature.  I find that when I bear witness to the brilliant rise of the sun, gaze upward as sunlight dapples through a canopy of leafy green, or catch sight of sunbeams streaming across dark silhouettes of towering tree trunks, naked in their winter respite, I feel a sense of awe and wonder.  The wide array of colors, lines, shapes, sizes, and the symmetry rivals great artists of our time–our world is a marvel!

The more I observe nature, the more curious and inquisitive I become.  How did all of this happen?  How do I, a person so small and insignificant in the face of all this wonder, fit into the grand scheme of the great I AM?  How am I to comprehend Divine Providence and this wondrous creation called earth?  I have no answers, nor do I feel a need for answers.  Rather I am in a state of being–being appreciative and feeling adoration for the great playground that is nature. After all, we are called human beings.

Francis Bacon, often cited as the father of science and ironically attributed to have invented the essay form, is quoted as once stating that God wrote two books: The Scripture and “a second book called creation.”  Time spent with the “second book” offers me tangible, first hand reminders of the greatness of our Creator.  Standing in the presence of a lofty range of mountains, floating across a lakeshore rippling with life, strolling through the rhythmical edge of ocean tide waters, or simply jogging alongside streams and trees on an earthen park trail, my heart and soul are at ease.  There are no timelines, no demands for my attention, no to-do lists, or looming deadlines.  Instead, there is a softness that envelops my soul, a well-worn quilt of comfort, that is available to all.

I suppose my student said it best after all. Spending time in the majesty of nature opens my heart and mind, allowing me to feel as if I have been gathered into an embrace by a loved one happy to see me once more as God’s peace settles over me.  My spirit is more serene, and I feel as if I am part of something larger than myself.  Something so large, I cannot fathom it, but it is something like a prayer.  

It’s Time to soar

“Motherhood is an early retirement position. Your children do grow up.”–Colleen Parro 

“Are you ready to go see Mommy? Are you ready to go home? We’re almost to the car, and then we can go home to Mommy. Daddy just has to buckle you in your car seat . . .”

I took the scene in with great fondness as my heart constricted and my vision grew temporarily fuzzy. The toddler was grinning, blinking tears from her eyes, as she took in the bright sun, while the wind ran its fingers through her fine, wispy hair. It was not an unusual exchange for me to witness since there is a daycare/preschool as part of the school setting at which I teach.  However, on this particular day, the parent’s sing-song voice, as he interacted with this sweet-cheeked cherub, led to a momentary visit with the past . . .

Mommy, Mommy!

Embracing hugs 

Turned into swings

Kisses, sweet 

On rosy cheeks

Flaxen hair

Ponytailed by morning

Chaotic halo by day’s end 

Indications of a good day

Paints and crayons

Scissors and glue

Look what I made

Just for you!

Meaningful lines

Defined shapes of purpose

There’s you and me

And that one is Daddy

Birthday parties

Dress up boxes

Can I go out to play?

Watch me climb the tree!

One more story please

This one is fun to read

Snuggled up under

Blankets of love

But my teacher says . . .

And my friend say . . .

And tomorrow we . . .

That mean boy is at it again!

Oceanside escapades

Aquariums and zoos

Museum adventures too

Why does summer never last?

Worried feelings

Broken heart

You just don’t understand!

Band Aids no longer mend the hurt

Look at this dress!

I passed the test!

How do you like my hair?

I’m heading out with friends

I once recall reading that we only borrow our children from God for a short period of time.  It seems to me that this, indeed, may be true. Furthermore, I believe that children are like birds. They begin life as nestlings–totally dependent upon parents to provide their needs. During the first years, as our children learn to express their needs and gain mobility, juvenile feathers for flight first begin to appear.

 With each transition from one stage of life to the next, more feathers are added, and soon enough, initial flight feathers materialize.  As parents it is important not to cut those wings back, but to foster their growth in preparation for what will come.  As children move into the fledgling phase, they remain with us a bit longer as they don’t yet have their full adult plumage.  Instead, they take short test flights, here and there, away from the nest, dipping their toes in the waters of adult life as parents remain nearby offering support and care as needed.  These test flights can sometimes be fraught with worrisome situations, concerns, and sometimes even a bit of danger as they awkwardly transition into independence.  However, these life experiences, as hard as they can sometimes be, allow our children to develop flight strength in order to ultimately take flight from the nest.

“Oh, it’s delightful to have ambitions. I’m so glad I have such a lot. And there never seems to be any end to them–that’s the best of it. Just as soon as you attain one ambition you see another one glittering higher up still. It does make life so interesting.”–L. M. Montgomery, Anne of the Green Gables

One day prior to writing this, and two weeks after noticing the sing-song father and daughter duo, Madelyn Clarice Hill walked across the stage to receive her college degree for which she had worked diligently to earn.  Her wings may have been hidden under a ceremonial gown of black, but they were most certainly present and ready to take flight.   Where her maiden voyage will take her, only she and life can determine.  What I can say with confidence is that she is ready to fly; she is definitely ready to fly.

Soar my daughter, soar . . .

Kitchen Table Secrets

“Everybody is a story.  When I was a child, people sat around kitchen tables and told their stories. We don’t do that so much anymore. Sitting around the table telling stories is not just a way of passing time.  It is the way wisdom gets passed along. The stuff that helps us remember a life worth living.”–Rachel Naomi Remen

Photo by Askar Abayev on Pexels.com

I saw her on the opposite side of the block, the woman with purple cord-like hair wound round her head like a hat.  She walked along the sidewalk at the opposite end of me, and she carried what appeared to be a purple calico print backpack on her back. Talking uninhibitedly to herself in a syncopated, sing-song voice, she did an about face and turned toward a man as he stepped out of his car into the damp, cold morning air.  

“Hey, Mr., wanna buy me some breakfast?  Breakfast is good.  Food is good.  I like breakfast food.”

I could not hear his soft reply, but I heard her sadly chime a truncated response.

“Ok, ok.  I am not bad.  I am not bad. Just wanna sit at the kitchen table with Mamaw.  Just wanna sit and eat at the table with Mamaw.” 

The woman, from my distance, appeared to be not much older than my own 22 year old daughter, and emotions suddenly choked my throat and clouded my heart.  I wanted to wrap my arms around, as if she were a small child, and take her back to her home–wherever that may be. In spite of this woman’s evident mental illness, she seemed to long for the comfort, safety, and shelter that we often find at the family kitchen table. 

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

Kitchen table memories spooled out in my mind plain as thread, and some were just as colorful.  Many were fond and warm pictures–snapshots of holidays past. Others were remembrances of various familial situations. I was adrift in a kaleidoscope of images; snippets of moments glided through my mind as leaves the colors of amber, crimson, and tangerine, freed from the bondage of a tree, take flight in autumn breezes.  Impressions of full bellies, hot coffee, spirited–or sometimes intense–conversations, and purposeful work endeavors around one piece of furniture continued to tumble about . . . 

Homework and games

Puzzles and paints 

Posters and patterns to sew

Papers typed late into the night

Stacks of bills to pay

Budgets in need of balance

Dancing eyes sharing stories

Tears that break the heart

Conversations and disputes,

I think I need to leave the room

Set the table please

Platters of food to share

May I please be excused?

Not ’till you clean your plate

Spills that demand to be cleaned

Bubbled burps of Friday night soda

Mix well with pizza and chips 

Quarter fines, ‘cause

Burping is rude

Peals of explosive laughter 

Oh no, we’re in trouble now

May I please have some more . . .

What about waffles with peanut butter?

My friend is spending the night

Do I have to do her chores?

Pass the butter please

No, you can’t go out with your friends!

May I have another roll please?

Do you realize the seriousness of your actions?

Come in and sit a spell, friend

Did you hear about this?

Why, yes they say it’s true

Now, listen, you can’t believe everything you hear

Birthday cakes and cookies sprinkled

Presents wrapped with curls of shiny ribbon

Curlers set, braids woven

Talks of dreams and

Future plans filled with hope

Remember when?

No, it went like this.

Did she really throw a fork at Uncle?

Well, they were wrestling

Brothers nearly tore down the kitchen

Over the last piece of cake.

It’s your turn to clean the dishes

But I had to do that last week!

Remember to sweep under the table

Whispered late night conversations

Big changes coming soon

If only kitchen tables could talk

At the heart of a home, there is the kitchen table–a field of harvested memories and land for new seed to sow.  It is my wish, as we gather, eat, converse, and work around our own kitchen tables, that we take time to not only nourish our bodies, but also savor the moments with one another, and form kitchen table memories and traditions worth sharing and passing on to future generations.  May we remember those who have gone before us, and love the ones who remain.  May we likewise take time to pray for those without homes, looking for a kitchen table at which they can sit and sip a cup of comfort.  May those lost souls find some form of peace and solace, and may they one day be reunited, or united, with people who love and care for them.  

Photo by Sam Lion on Pexels.com

My final prayer of hope is for the unknown young lady with wound cords of purple hair. May she be safe and well.  May she no longer roam the streets alone, and may she make her way back to her Mamaw’s kitchen table.  After all, she was once somebody’s baby girl.

Photo by Yan Krukov on Pexels.com

Threading a Needle–Embracing Imperfection Wholly

Spare me perfection. Give me instead the wholeness that comes from embracing the full reality of who I am, just as I am. —David Benner

Here I am, photographed at home in a dress Mom sewed for me.

As a child, my mother sewed a large portion of my clothes, especially my dresses.  Of course, I took this talent for granted as a child.  In fact, it wasn’t until I was in my early twenties, and shopping for so-called “professional” clothes to wear while student-teaching that I began to truly realize what a gift mom’s sewing had been for me. 

It was my senior year at Ohio University, Athens campus.  It was still the era of the quarter system across most Ohio universities throughout the state. This meant that I had a break from Thanksgiving through the beginning of January.  Therefore, I used this time to work, and this year was no exception.  However, since I knew I needed appropriate clothes for student-teaching, I landed a job at Lazarus (now Macy’s) at our local mall.  My goal was to not only work, but also to take advantage of the employee discount and after-Christmas sales.

I am pictured far right with the high school group of special education students I taught inn 1987. Notice how oversized my store-bought clothes were!

I already knew that I needed to shop in the petite section of the women’s department as I was (and am) less than five feet in height, but what came as a shock to me is how long so-called “petite” sleeves and lengths of skirts, dresses, and pants were!  Plus, according to manufacturer measurements, my body shape did not fit into a precise size category.  Without belaboring the point too much, it was during these tear-filled hours spent in the Lazarus dressing room desperately trying to find a few items to fit my proportions that my appreciation for my mother’s tailoring grew.

Thinking back to Mom’s sewing, I can recall the efforts she would take to thread the needle–literally and figuratively–while sewing clothes for me. While she would begin each dress, skirt, or blouse made for me with a purchased pre-made pattern, she would also painstakingly take my measurements and alter the size of the pattern accordingly before cutting the cloth.  Throughout the sewing process, she would pin the cloth first, ask me to put it on, adjust the proportions as needed, and then thread either the sewing machine needle or her own personal needle to stitch each piece together.

The dress my Mom stitched for me in honor of my college graduation.

  In order to sew one complete dress for me, Mom was required to thread one of those needles repeatedly, perhaps even thousands of times.  I can recall countless moments of watching Mom attempting to insert the thread through the eye of the needle. Thinking back on it, she had to ensure all of the fibers/strands of thread fit through the tiny eye together. If one strand did not go through, the needle was not properly threaded, and she had to try again. The thread had to go through the eye wholly to live up to the task required by Mom.  In fact, in order to prevent a strand from sticking out, Mom would often wet the thread’s end and twist it tightly together.  Both creator and creation had to be fully concentrated in order for all fibers to fit through the eye. 

Reflecting upon this, I realized what powerful lessons were there in Mom’s sewing. On one hand, there is the lesson of flaws.  Mom, the creator of my dresses, did not see me as flawed–not fitting some arbitrary manufacturer standards.  Rather, she saw me as a whole–as the Creator sees each of us.  Mom was able to take my unique dimensions and measurements in order to create a whole piece that fit one-of-a-kind me.  Her fully, concentrated threads and efforts afforded me the opportunity to be adorned in perfectly fitting clothes, so that as a child, I could fully and wholly concentrate on my own efforts and energies into typical childhood endeavors.  

On the other hand, Mom’s repeated endeavors to thread the needle also provides another lesson–one of our Creator, and the way in which we were designed to live.  When Mom fashioned clothes for me, she had to take my so-called flawed measurements–measurements not taken into account by the pattern manufacturer.  Additionally, she sometimes had to use fabric remnants, old thread, or even mismatched thread to sew various items of clothing for me.  There were times her needle broke, her stitches were off, or a measurement was off.  There were times I even watched Mom painstakingly pick out all of the stitches along one piece, and start all over.  No matter the mistakes, accidents, mismatched thread, or sale-fabric, in the end, it wasn’t the flaws that I saw and wore, it was the whole–the entirety of the piece.

My grandparents and me photographed on the steps of their church. I am wearing a dress Mom sewed for me for Old-Fashion Days celebration.

That is how the Creator designed us to live–wholly.  Humans are not perfect, nor were we meant to be perfect.  Just as I am not “standard-sized,” our lives are not either.  It is our imperfections, blemishes, and fallibility that make us perfectly human. By embracing ourselves as we are–flaws and limitations–we are able to find our strengths and uniquenesses.  Furthermore, our mistakes, our errors, and our unfortunate times of sorrow all work together to create a richer and more wholehearted approach to life and to others–after all, how can we possess empathy for other humans if we live a “perfect” life.

It is only when we take time to bind our individual talents and gifts, along with our imperfections, that we are able to thread the eye of our lives. We were designed to be “non-standard.”  How would any work site come together if we all had the same skill-set?  In fact, how would any couple, family, team, town, and so forth, grow, develop, and thrive together if everyone were the same.

My brother, Scott, and me, once more in outfits stitched by our mom.

Life is not standard.  No one person is standard.  Each of us, however, is whole–wholly imperfect and Divinely designed to offer this world what no one else can offer.  Let each of us embrace our differences, and embrace the differences of others too. As brown sugar, butter, flour, and chocolate chips individually come together in a hot oven to create delicious cookies, so too do the trials and fires of life bind us together.  It is my lesson to learn and share that life is more beautifully adorned when we openly and humbly accept our imperfections and allow the Creator’s thread to bind us together in order to live our perfectly, imperfect designed lives.

My brother, Scott, and me, I am a dress stitched by mom.