Feeling Vulnerable

John found this lovely Butterweed plant in our side garden.  Tall, bright, and yellow, this small wildflower stood-out among peonies and daylilies struggling to bloom in an abnormally cold and gray spring.  I noticed the plant when a first single flower appeared at the top of the long stem, surrounded by several waiting blossoms.  I could almost feel the power in the plant’s sturdy stem.  On a damp and windy day, I snapped many images, trying to capture this wildflower as it danced in the wind. 

Spring has been difficult, with much more time spent at home in dismal and sometimes depressing weather.  We know we are among the vulnerable, seniors that are at a higher risk over our younger counterparts.  Our age can be a reminder of our vulnerability, the fact that time is sometimes unkind and limiting.  

Each day, I have visited this wildflower and am greeted by more flowers perched on top of a still wavering stem.  Somehow, this little plant makes me feel less alone, a companion plant for John and I.  This one is determined to survive.  So are we.

Timeless Symphony

I was inspired to produce this composite image while standing on the shore at a local park last spring.  Leafed trees reflecting upon the water reminded me visually of the sound waves produced on audio systems years ago.  Music has ancient roots, an important part of our history and awareness.  On that day, the rustle of those leaves in the gentle wind mingled with the sound of young birds eager for the warmth of spring continued to fill my ears, a musical symphony that was truly timeless.

I am reminded that music, both figuratively and literally, continues regardless of surrounding circumstances.  This year, sheltering-in-place has prevented my participation in many of the activities I took for granted last year.  Yet somehow, it is comforting to know that birds will still sing and tree leaves will still rustle in the wind.

Unexpected Sunshine

Winter makes me sad.  Perhaps it is the gray or the cold, but my smile seems to disappear with the last dying sighs of fall.  For me, winter means weeks spent indoors peering through dirty windows, longing for budding flowers and nesting birds.  In winter, the vivid colors of spring, summer, and fall fade to sterile pastures laced with pale blues, grays and muted white.

Yet, after days of bitter cold and treacherous weather, we had a bit of a weekend reprieve in our great state of Ohio.  A mid-winter thaw brought the temperatures up to the mid-fifties, a safer bet for hiking with aging knees and hips.  Hubby and I braved the remaining remnants of snow for a day-trip to Dawes Arboretum, cameras in hand.  I hadn’t expected much, but at least had hoped for enough white blanket for a few picturesque shots.  For the most part, my shakey optimism was met by slush and muddy shoe prints.

Hiking proved to be difficult as we tread slowly on uneven and slippery pavement, rock and grass.  By sunset, we had reached the lake, completely snow covered, barren and seemingly lifeless.  A common winter scene for a picture, I thought  – except for the sun that seemed to rest so perfectly on the side of the tree with light so bright as to appear to have taken a bite from the tree’s sturdy trunk before gradually descending into the night.  John saw it while I lamented the ordinary and I captured this bit of sunshine with the press of one button.  

The beauty of sunshine glistening on blankets of snow, fragments of ice or a small lakeside tree is winter’s gift and the fact that I had not expected it made the gift all the more special.  Unlike other seasons when sun and warmth are more common, the stark contrast of winter highlights gifts that are too easy to take for granted.  That should keep me smiling for a long time to come.

A Pelican Feast

During our recent trip to New Orleans, we took a day trip to Grand Isle on the Southern tip of Louisiana to observe the birdlife in this region.  A flock of pelicans were feeding close to the pier and the gal pictured above caught my attention.  I watched her dive for food and emerge with “something” that looked difficult to swallow.  After a bit of a thrashing to drain excess water from her pouch, she flew to the pier and landed close to where I was standing.  I watched her extend her neck and swallow repeatedly.  The “meal” slowly slid down her throat coming to rest at the base of her neck.  I wondered if she would indeed be able to digest the large catch.  When I left the area the meal in her throat had not moved further and protruded like a large tumor on the side of her neck. 

Pelicans are fascinating creatures and one of my favorite birds to observe.  From high in the air, I have watched them pinpoint a catch and dive into the water like a precision arrow shot from a bow.  Rarely do they miss an opportunity to capture their prey.  Despite a heavy body, pelicans can soar at 10,000 feet and remain buoyant in water, thanks to the air sacs in their bones.  Despite popular belief, pelicans do not store fish in their pouch.  Instead, they use the pouch to “house” the catch just long enough to drain the water, tip the head and swallow.  This gal worked hard for her food and didn’t seem in any distress when I left the pier.  Pelicans are designed to eat whole fish and that fact alone amazes me.  Still, I marvel how such a feat is possible, that a large fish can move through what appears to be a much smaller pipe.  Nature has designed this bird with just the right capabilities to survive and it is wonderful to observe.

CONTEMPLATING NEW ORLEANS

My husband and I decided to visit New Orleans as our 2018 winter vacation destination.  I knew from the start that this vacation would be different.  Most of our vacations have consisted of fine sand beaches, picturesque trails, and amazing wildlife.  As a historic and cultural mecca, New Orleans would most certainly be none of the above.

We arrived in New Orleans mid-day on a Saturday, greeted by miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic.  I had expected “quaint,” but instead we sat on an elevated bridge overlooking the Superdome and a dirty, sprawling city.  I wondered if I really knew what I had signed up for.  My initial impression of New Orleans was not what I had expected.

Over the course of several days, we visited the typical New Orleans landmarks – the French Quarter, the Garden District, famous eateries such as the Commander’s Palace and the Lafayette cemetery.  We listened to fine jazz in the clubs lining Frenchman Street and wandered thoughtfully through mazes of art galleries on Royal.  This was the New Orleans I had read about, heard about and wanted to experience.

Yet, New Orleans was still not what I expected.  New Orleans was much darker and much edgier.  Laced among the tourists and everyday Joes, people pass with vacant stares.  Some drop in front of you and curl up next to a storefront to sleep.  Street musicians line corners collecting money in well-placed buckets and hats.  Conversations of poverty and sickness fill streetcars.  Glassy eyes glance your way without a hint of emotion. Drug deals line nighttime streets and tent cities reside beneath downtown underpasses.  Dinner at a finer restaurant is interrupted by a vagrant pounding on the outside window.  He is hungry and has nothing to eat.  In one art gallery, pictures from Hurricane Katrina tell a grim tale of a city laid waste by mass destruction.  

Weeks later, I still do not know how to feel about New Orleans, a city of seeming contradictions.  Of life and death. Of celebration and despair.  Yet, among her contradictions, is a picture of life that is raw, real and tangible in a way I have not experienced anywhere else.  New Orleans is a story in the making – of recovery and relapse in the best and worse ways life has to offer.  

I don’t know how to feel about New Orleans and, perhaps, that is the point.

Worship Our Image

For the past three years, I have passed these words scrawled into the blacktop on the Newark rail trail. I hike this trail frequently and often ponder the author’s intent in this choice of words. Always visible, these three words have survived several winters, as if to protest removal with words too stubborn to submit to change.  Does the author revisit this place at the first sign of warm weather to reinforce a statement apparently important enough to remain for years? What exactly does it mean to worship our image? 

The word “worship” is common to religious traditions, defined by the provision of reverence to an intended deity. To worship is to place in an exalted position, above oneself. Therefore, on the surface, to worship our image, could well smack of arrogance implying the lofty placement of self above the welfare of everyone and everything else.

I could dismiss the statement as ill-informed, but I pause at this statement every single hike. The statement gnaws at my brain, inviting me to consider other possibilities implied by the statement in search of a deeper meaning. What is the difference between the self and an image of self? Does the use of the corporate “our” in the statement denote the author’s intent to be inclusive, extending a privileged position to all humankind or even all living-kind? Do these distinctions make any real difference?

Perhaps any indictment is short-sighted and ill-advised. Perhaps I think too much. Perhaps, I should hike a different trail.

Or perhaps, a different and more positive meaning can be found beneath the surface of this statement.

Beyond the religious connotations, “honor” is but one alternate meaning for the word “worship.” And while the word “image” could be used to describe a physical object, such as a photograph or statue, image, in a broader sense, could refer to a reflection or extension of self. While, I will never know the author’s true intent, considering the possibility of worship and image from this broader context is intriguing. What if you and I truly honor the person we are and the life we have been given? What image would be produced if we truly live the gifts we’ve been given from the best self we can cultivate? 

Jane Pauley did a couple of segments on today’s Sunday Morning show that spoke to this idea of honoring our gifts. One segment featured comedians that had blazed the early television trail leaving a legacy for other comedians to follow. A second segment featured the iconic Beatle’s Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club’s band album and the way in which the music from this album pushed the limits of studio technology, sound and even art in ways unheard of in the industry.  

In-between days of rain, I took a hike on the one sunny day offered this week. I had to see if the statement was still visible on the trail. Much like the artist’s legacy, I found it, once again, subtle, but still speaking from the same place it has occupied in year’s past.

I doubt any of the artists featured on this morning’s broadcast foresaw or planned for the impact their work might inspire. Like ripples in a vast sea, sometimes honoring our gifts by nurturing and sharing them with the greater world, reflects into the world in unimaginable ways. How would our world change if each of us decided to live through the gifts we’ve each been given? Could the reflection of each of our best selves change our world from the inside out?  

That’s one image that could truly make a lasting statement.

As Daylight Sleeps

It is 5 a.m. and beyond my seventh-floor balcony suite, I hear the deep groan of ocean waves against the shore. Most Gulf Shore mornings, I can see the ocean stretch before me. But this morning, I cannot see the ocean yet; the sky is black with night. Above me, scattered stars glitter, but directly ahead the sky extends in complete darkness like an empty void. Every few minutes, a bolt of lightning illuminates the dense cloud cover in the distance. Except for the anxious chatter of passing seabirds, the day begins quietly and without intrusion. Day still sleeps under the blanket of night.

There is stillness in these moments before dawn, a gift from the insanity of daily life. Yet under the cloak of a quiet night, a storm looms unseen in the darkness, revealed only in the momentary flashes of distant light.

Morning breaks slowly, and with the first rays of dawn, subtle light exposes a rapidly evolving storm. The storm has drawn closer and angry skies loom large overhead, moving ponderously forward over a wind-tossed sea. The wind is gaining strength. I pull my wrap tightly around my shoulders and retreat to the kitchen.

In many ways this morning was a metaphor for some of the more difficult circumstances encountered in life. Often, life storms remain unseen until they are upon us, even though they may have been brewing for quite a long time. Clarity is the child of light and in life, often the exception and not the rule. Consider recent events – those catastrophic, unexpected tragedies that ravaged our world with wildfires, hurricanes and human violence. In the aftermath of tragedy, a question remains.  What is the best way to avoid or at least minimize damage done by each horrific event?

A certain amount of training provides some degree of preparation for handling the aftermath of a broad-scale tragedy. For the record, I am forever grateful for the men and women who continuously risk their own lives daily for the sake of others. Yet, in the moment, when countless critical decisions must be made swiftly, I cannot imagine any amount or type of training that would ease the burden of making difficult choices with irreversible and potentially life-altering consequences. Given the right circumstances, how would one choose to save one life over another or decide to move forward with a risky imperative when the outcome is far from certain. Some decisions, however necessary, come at great cost.

On a personal level, storms find us when life fails us in some way. Perhaps, a loved one dies or leaves. Maybe, success in a business or other partnership escapes our grasp or we are forced to live with a disability or fight for life in the face of a chronic or terminal disease. There are many ways in which life can take an unexpected turn, often with little or no warning.

In such times, I have wished for answers written in the sky. Life might be easier if problems would present themselves with ample time for consideration. Life might be easier if answers were clear. Life might be easier without disability, disease, hurricanes, fires, death, and pointed guns. If only I knew what was coming, I could plan an effective strategy. If only I had known what was coming, I would have made a different choice.

It seems that the best advice is most often visible only through the lens of time. 

Life would be easier without the darkness, wouldn’t it?

But then, what meaning would there be in the light? Would light even exist if not for the darkness?

In the dark of night, we find time for both rest and refinement. The unexpected brings the need for action and quick thinking. If we are wise, what we learn becomes the catalyst for growth. Struggle challenges us in ways that only exists within the delicate tension of strife. Perhaps darkness is what shoves us into the light.

Still, I doubt many would wish for the darkness. Hardship is never pleasant, regardless of what lessons the night holds for our souls. Yet, the next time a life storm appears on the horizon, I may be wiser to look for the gift from the night, a reminder that life can be both unpredictable and insane, a subtle urge to remain alert, thoughtful, diligent and gracious in preparation for the larger challenges which still remain hidden in the dark.

May your 2018 be filled with gifts from the night to light your path with rest, refinement, peace and joy.

Happy New Year.

Jack is Back

This time of year, some people are dreaming of a white Christmas.

As for me, I am dreaming of salmon, specifically, plump juicy salmon filets Asian-Style, the way my husband fixed them for me when we were dating. It was our first home-cooked meal together as a couple.

These days, John’s focus has been on healthy plant-based meals and although I still occasionally feel a bit “fishy” his creative breakfast meals have never failed to delight my palate. New surprises seem to await me with every meal and on a recent weekday morning, I was introduced to Jack.

I have known many Jacks in my life. As a child, Jack was a character nimble and quick until he broke his crown and tumbled down the hill with Jill. Perhaps he was weakened by his inability to eat fat, saved only by his wife who could eat no lean. At some point, Jack ended up in a box, held hostage by the turn of a crank. Poor Jack! I just hope he found the music comforting.

Two years ago, Jack was born anew as a beloved grandson, a much better fate than living in a box, don’t you think? It was high time for Jack to make a comeback. So why should I be surprised to find Jack on my plate?

Move over salmon, Jack is back!

I had no idea that Jack is also a fruit and a very interesting one indeed. Jackfruit is a species of tree native to tropical regions, reminiscent of banana and mango when ripe and meaty when still green. Sounds like a bit of a rebel to me, perhaps a relative of the equally rebellious pirate Jack Sparrow.

In the plant-based diet world, Jackfruit is a versatile meat replacement and has been used to replace pork in pulled pork recipes due to the fruit’s string-like qualities. Jackfruit also works well in Asian dishes as was the case on this particular morning. The fruit is large with a rather prickly exterior. A formidable foe when purchased fresh, jackfruit can weigh up to 100 pounds (average is 30-50 pounds) apiece. However, you can find jackfruit in a can or in a pouch, just check the label. Some varieties are very high in sodium. The jackfruit we found at the Asian market was worth the search; as a protein source, jackfruit is low in calories and fat, as well as a good source of potassium and fiber.

Alas, this fruity namesake seems destined to replace my former Jacks, except my grandson, of course. I suspect that Jack might enjoy a fruity BBQ.

What Shade of Healthy Eater Are You?

Attempting to remain a plant-strong vegan in the deep south would make for a good comedy. Recently, John and I took a trip to Gulf Shores, Alabama for our semi-annual vacation. In the past, we looked forward to the many fresh fish choices compatible with our Mediterranean meal plan. However, we knew that adhering to a vegan diet in this area of the country might certainly present some interesting challenges.

We tried to plan ahead. The result was Plan A & Plan B.

Plan A – Have breakfast at the condo with our own foods and recipes. Our first trip upon arrival was to a couple of local markets. We were delighted to find a grocer near our condo with a decent supply of vegan-friendly food items.

Plan B – Research food options for those times (and there were many) when we would be away from the condo. I installed a vegan app on my phone to help locate appropriate resources and researched local food venues ahead of our trip. Not many choices appeared on my app, but many Asian, Mexican and Indian restaurants typically have vegan-friendly offerings or the ability to modify a meal to vegan specifications.

On our first evening, weary from many hours on the road, we visited the local pub at our resort.  The only food possibility on the menu was a crab-stuffed tomato.

“So let me get this straight,” said the waiter, “You want crab-stuffed tomatoes without the crab?”

“That’s correct,” I replied.

I saw his eyebrows twitch. “No fish?”

“No fish,” I confirmed.

“We have cheese,” he countered.

“No cheese,” I said.

Although his surprise was obvious, the waiter accommodated our request without any issues and the tomatoes were so tasty that we returned the next night for more.  Our waiter wasn’t there, so we proceeded to explain to the new waiter the events from the night before along with the complete set of instructions.

Did I mention that the tomatoes were fried?  Whoops – I think the halo just fell from my head. Technically, the choice may have been vegan (no animal products) and the tomatoes may qualify as a whole food, but the “fried” part is not the healthiest preparation option – just a tasty one.

Which brings-to-mind a couple of other recent dilemmas, such as:

  • The suspicious “buttermilk” strategically located in the middle of our pancake batter ingredient list
  • The eggs and dairy products that I “know” are hidden in restaurant pasta and bread

At a recent event, I spoke with another self-proclaimed vegan hoping to reclaim my halo.

“Don’t you feel so much better since you made this diet change,” she gushed.

“I do,” I replied.  “The tasty recipes have been a pleasant surprise.”

“I really like having salmon once a week to augment my primary diet of whole fruits and vegetables,” she added.

I suppressed a laugh. I am not aware of any plant by the name of “salmon.”

Fast forward a couple of weeks to my son’s wedding. Pizza and pop were on the rehearsal dinner menu. John and I loaded up on salad (after we removed the pepperoni) and fruit. I had brought a cup of iced tea and John opted for a diet soda. Still hungry at the end of the evening, John decided to have some pizza crust.

“I’ll bet that crust has egg and milk in it,” said one observant friend at the table.

“Is diet pop vegan?” one family member asked.

Both the observation and the question were thoughtful and valid, illustrative of two important points. 

  • Not everything that technically qualifies as vegan is healthy. In fact, you can follow just about any diet plan and still not have healthy meals. You can be vegan, vegetarian, Paleo, etc. and still consume a wholly unhealthy diet devoid of whole food, plant-based options consumed raw or prepared using healthy methods.
  • In an imperfect world, options present in shades of gray, not black and white. Many choices will have pros and cons. The choice will be yours to make.

Shades of Healthy Eating

When John and I embarked on this journey, we put in place one research-based absolute with one philosophical clause:

  • We would pursue a whole food plant-based diet as the foundation for our vegan aspirations. This means that our choices overwhelmingly favor vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seeds, lentils and other naturally occurring foods over processed items that may qualify as vegan, but are not healthy. This also involves preparing foods, when not consumed raw, in healthy ways with attention to limiting potential pitfalls associated with the use of oils and sodium while favoring beneficial components such as fiber. Research supports whole foods and plant-based eating as key to obtaining and maintaining health. This commitment represents our research-based absolute.
  • From a philosophical standpoint, we would pursue this journey within the many shades of gray present in our choices and circumstances. This means that we move forward with grace and freedom versus rigidity and judgment, viewing our new commitment as a true learning journey. In a structure that provides excellent healthy choices at least 95% of the time, there shall be no chasing of halos after a rare diet soda, egg or other wayward item. The goal was never about perfection. The goal is health and enjoying the life we have been given.

If that sounds complicated, here’s the bottom line. It doesn’t matter where you find yourself in your journey towards a healthier life, even if it includes salmon disguised as a plant. What does matter is the choices you make most of the time and whether those choices support health – mentally, emotionally and physically. Strive to be closer to that goal today than you were yesterday and closer still tomorrow. 

Note: The image in this post depicts a recent favorite breakfast – a medley of fresh asparagus and quinoa on a fresh bed of spinach complimented with tomatoes, onions, carrots, pumpkin seeds and a splash of Asian dressing. This delightful meal is no more difficult than many standard meat-based breakfast options but infinitely healthier. Don’t be afraid to experiment; learning is a process and can be lots of fun. Enjoy.  

 Did You Know?

We think of quinoa as a grain that we cook and eat much like rice. However, from a botanical standpoint, quinoa is much closer to spinach, chard, and beets, than it is to grain. What we actually consume are the plant’s seeds, although the leaves also are edible. 

Quinoa is a complete protein, containing all 9 essential amino acids. This lovely seed works well as a stand-alone alternative to rice or pasta and “sprinkled” on top of other dishes and salads.

Vegan? You Must Be Kidding!

My dad was an excellent provider. Each year, he joined a group of friends in Wyoming for a yearly hunt. My childhood was filled with images of dad armed with a hunting rifle, surrounded by friends in the brush and in barns filled with hanging meat. Trophies of past kills hung on dining and living room walls.  Wild meat was showcased on the plate, most often venison simmered in Worchestershire sauce, surrounding by ample potatoes smothered in gravy.  On the side, a minuscule serving of vegetables hid under mountains of gravy, usually canned peas with onions or French style green beans.

We did not eat out often, but the year I turned seventeen, dad decided to treat the family to a steak dinner at the Ponderosa steakhouse on the westside of Columbus. This came as no surprise. Bonanza was dad’s favorite TV show; we often had dinner on tray tables in front of the television set while we watched the latest episode. I knew that dad liked steak, but in hindsight, I suspect he was looking for Hoss, Ben or Little Joe.

That Friday night, we piled in the car and headed for the Ponderosa. Once inside, we were greeted by a cafeteria style lineup of choices. 

Tray? Check.

Napkin? Check.

Silverware? Triple check. Wait!  I almost forgot the steak knife.

Next was a suspicious looking clump of greenery arranged in a bowl gingerly placed next to containers of some type of thick sauce.

I was first in line.  “What’s that?” I asked mom, pointing to the bowl of green.

“I think it’s salad,” she said.

“Do people eat that?” I replied. “Isn’t that rabbit food?”

“Just slop some of that stuff on it,” she said, pointing to the sauce.

“Which one?” I pressed.

“Doesn’t matter,” she said.  “Try the orange one.”

I scooped a generous serving of thousand island dressing from the container and drenched the salad until it looked like gravy on potatoes. Passable, I thought, but I really just wanted the steak and a baked potato loaded with butter.

It would be many years before salad would become a staple in my diet, much less consider that meals are possible without…gasp – meat.

John and I have followed a true Mediterranean diet for years with lots of fish, olive oil, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, with smaller amounts of dairy, primarily in the form of skim milk, low-fat/sugar yogurt and an occasional dusting of cheese.  A substantial amount of our diet has been whole (defined as unprocessed and unrefined) and plant based foods for years, but no one was more surprised than me when we moved decisively away from meat, eggs, and dairy.

Which brings me to that word – vegan. The term has always conjured up images of bland overcooked broccoli on my plate or skinny bead-wearing people waving spears of asparagus in the wind.

My apologies, vegetable-loving friends. Please don’t write your senator or throw any tomatoes my way. As the good reporter once said, “There is more to the story than meets the eye or, perhaps, in this case, eyeballs.”  Let’s be clear and fair. It is entirely possible to be a vegan or vegetarian and not follow a healthy eating plan. There are plenty of refined and processed foods that qualify as “animal-free,” but are completely stripped of any nutritional value. Yet, there is considerable wisdom and evidence in support of plant-based, whole food eating.

Ah…I already hear the naysayers chattering in the background. What about protein? Calcium? Vitamin B12?  What about studies in support of fish, dairy, and other animal-based foods?  Was the move away from meat, eggs, and dairy necessary?  Weren’t you already including a substantial amount of plant-based, whole foods in your diet?

These are valid questions and ones that I have entertained and studied at length. Perhaps, these concerns are topics for additional posts, otherwise, my post becomes a book. For now, I invite you to a grand experiment. Let’s put the evidence to the test.

Despite my former and relatively healthy meal plan, and commitment to remain 27 years of age for life, I have not found a way to stop getting older. At age 61 (yes, I admit it), I am relatively healthy. My doctor says if it wasn’t for my snout, there would be nothing wrong with me. I would like to stay that way, but do feel and see the effects of age in the way I feel and in objective health measures that skirt the borders of “normal.” Then, there is the question of pesky genetics. I have watched too many family members struggle with heart disease, diabetes, cancer and high blood pressure, including my dad. 

Frankly, I miss him.  He would have loved all of the grandchildren and great grandchildren. There is a piece missing from life because he is not in it.

I know there will always be threats that could “get me” no matter what I do, but why resign oneself to a fate, whether real or imagined, when life is worth fighting for. I am worth it. Dad would have been worth it. You are worth it. Adding more whole and plant-based foods to your diet can only be healthful, no matter where you fall on the meat and/or potato spectrum.

Maybe, if we ask nicely, John will share some of his amazing new recipes. No bland, lifeless overcooked vegetables here. Maybe, we will invite Hoss, Ben and Little Joe for dinner – if we ever find them.  Since the Ponderosa closed, they seem to have disappeared.