Thursday, November 19, 2015

Finding Gratitude in Unexpected Places

I'm taking a tea break, in the midst of this busy morning, and reflecting on the importance of Gratitude. Sometimes when we're rushing around, tending to all the STUFF life throws at us every single day, trying to stay on top of everything we're responsible for, it can be hard to take a moment to stop, take a breath, and remember how Blessed and lucky we are. The chaos happening in the world right now really has me thinking about this even more than usual. I'm sitting here, going over my "to do" list for today, and while I grumble to myself about having to do this stuff, I'm realizing that each of the tasks before me is a Blessing in disguise.

1. Driving my kids to classes and activities, helping with schoolwork, etc... I'm so lucky to have a beautiful family, and so grateful that we've been able to arrange our lives so that I can be with them full time, homeschooling them, caring for them, providing them with what they need. I don't always do it well, but I'm thankful that I'm given the chance to try again, everyday, to do my best for them.

2. Housework... I have a warm, comfortable home, filled with busy, active children. I complain a lot about how much work it is to maintain my home and care for the people in it... but really, I'm SO lucky to have a nice house in a safe neighborhood. So many in the world do not. Again, I am Grateful.

3. Food Prep... Every parent knows the struggle of getting dinner on the table every night, as well as other meals, but... I'm Thankful that I'm able to provide healthy, wholesome meals for my family every day.

4. Community Service... There have been periods of time where we have really struggled, financially, and have not had much extra to share. Those have been hard times. Today, we'll be participating in a project to provide Care Packages to troops overseas, who are not with their families during the holiday season. I'm Grateful that I currently have enough resources that I can share a little bit with others.

5. Doctor appointment... I have an appointment today, because I am Blessed with good medical coverage, so that I can stay healthy, and get the care I need when I'm not.

6. Laundry... It's never-ending with a family this size, but yes, I'm even Grateful for laundry. It means that my family has plenty of warm clothing to keep them comfortable as the weather is getting colder.

Several studies have shown that people who regularly express Gratitude are happier than those who do not. This really makes a lot of sense to me! When I stop and take time to remind myself of all the good things I have in my life, and to share gratitude with the ones I love, I feel happier. This is something that I would like to make a daily habit, especially when those "poor me" feelings we all get from time to time come creeping in. I'm giving myself a Gratitude Challenge... each day I plan to write down some things I'm thankful for, and to express my Gratitude to my loved ones each day for the good they bring into my life. Will you join me in this challenge?

Friday, November 13, 2015

Journey Toward Health and Wellness

Once upon a time, I had been under the impression that if I was eating a whole food vegan diet, I could eat pretty much whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, and be healthy. I exercised, though quite sporadically, and while I knew that I should be moving more, I figured I was still probably pretty healthy based on my diet alone.

I was wrong. 

One year ago, I went in for my annual physical, and found that in spite of my whole food vegan diet, I was the heaviest I'd ever been in my life. I spent a pretty good portion of my adult life in the underweight to low average range, but as I approached middle age, my weight started creeping up. Also, my cholesterol up to 206 and my triglycerides to 231! As a vegan! I couldn't imagine how this could be, with my relatively healthy lifestyle, but apparently genetics play a big role in this stuff, and genetics were not working in my favor. 

I had been promising myself for years that I would start working out more regularly and lose some weight. But, when it became more about my health than vanity, I finally began to make some real changes. I started making exercise a priority in my life. That has been a real challenge at times, as there always seems to be something "more important" that needs to be done. But a good friend of mine gave me some advice... she said to view exercise the same way you view brushing your teeth. It's not optional. It's something you must do as basic care for yourself. I began with walking more, and eventually stepped up my routine by adding weight training. I made the commitment to work out at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week, no matter what else is going on. 

I also started paying more attention to the calories I was consuming, and boy, was that a shock. Although everything I was eating was "healthy" I was eating a lot of really calorie-dense foods (nuts, seeds, avocados, etc) which were making my daily caloric intake higher than it needed to be. I began to practice some conscientious portion control, and experimented with Intermittent Fasting. There is a lot of information out there about IF, and lots of different ways to approach it. IF proponents say fasting for a part of each day or each week gives your digestive system a break, and can help with insulin resistance and inflammation. I wasn't sure this method would work for me, as I am someone who doesn't fast well... so I did a very modified approach, which involved not eating after 6 pm (which I almost never do anyway) and then just delaying my morning meal. This works out to 16-18 hours of fasting (a good chunk of which is sleep time) and 6-8 hours of eating normally.  During the waking fasting hours, I do drink lots of water with lemon, herbal tea and I do have my morning coffee. And, if I feel really hungry, I do eat something. The best thing about IF for me is that it's given me an increased awareness of my body's hunger cues. I no longer eat because it's time to eat, but instead when I feel genuinely hungry. This awareness has been life-changing for me. 

When I went back for my physical this year, I finally saw the results of all this effort. My weight is down nearly 15 pounds, I've lost 3 inches off my waist, my cholesterol has dropped from 206 to 155, and my triglycerides have gone from 231 to 88! I feel strong and healthy. Life is good.

The biggest lesson I've learned through all this is that there are no "quick fixes." The Internet is full of promises of "Get great abs in two weeks!" "Lose weight fast!"and the like, but in real life, getting healthy and fit is a process. It won't happen overnight. But in this world of instant gratification, it's easy to get discouraged when we don't see results right away. In my case, it took several months before I started to see any real changes. But the results over the course of nearly a year have been dramatic, and well worth the effort. I'm grateful for this wake-up call, and grateful that I've had the chance to turn my health around. I still have lots of room for improvement, but it's good to be on the right track. I'm excited to continue on this journey of health and wellness, and look forward to what the future holds.

BEFORE: 2014
146 lbs
Waist: 32 in
Cholesterol: 206
Triglycerides: 231

(not "after" because I'm still working!)
131 lbs
Waist: 29 in
Cholesterol: 155
Triglycerides: 88

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Vegan Pumpkin Macaroni and "Cheese"

Back when we all still ate dairy, one of my favorite recipes for Autumn was a pumpkin mac-n-cheese. There were so many things to love about that recipe... it was warm, hearty and creamy, but also a bit healthier than straight up mac-n-cheese, due to the generous amount of squash in the sauce. When I started moving from vegetarian to vegan a few years ago, I began working on ways to adapt my favorite recipes to suit my new vegan ways. This fall, I finally got around to revamping this one, and I have to say, it's still every bit as delicious as the original recipe, but without the animal products.

Instead of the cheddar and cream called for in the original recipe, this adaptation uses my favorite cashew cheese spread as a base, along with some unsweetened nut milk. The cashew cheese can be made up ahead of time, and kept in the fridge until you need it. I usually make a batch each week to have available for spreading on sandwiches, using as a veggie dip, or making creamy sauces like this one. It will keep up to a week in a sealed container in the fridge.

As for the pumpkin, I like to use fresh roasted pumpkin, but you can use canned if you prefer. If you do use canned, you'll probably need to add a bit more nut milk, as it will be thicker than fresh. To roast your own, cut a sugar pumpkin in half, scoop out the seeds, then place it face down on a greased baking pan and bake at 350 until soft enough to stick a fork in easily. This will take about 45 minutes for an average size pumpkin... adjust accordingly if your pumpkin is larger or smaller. After you bake it, let it cool and scoop the pumpkin out of the skin.

And now for the recipe...

Pumpkin Macaroni and Cheese

16 oz box of macaroni (you can use a gluten-free pasta, if you prefer)
1/2 cup cashew cheese
1-1/2 cup of cooked pumpkin
3/4 cup unsweetened non-dairy milk (I use almond, but you could use soy, hemp, whatever)
1/4 tsp nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste

While the pasta is cooking, add all the remaining ingredients to a blender or food processor and blend until creamy, adding more milk if necessary to make a nice, creamy sauce. Transfer to a sauce pan, and heat through.When the pasta is done, drain it and add the sauce, stirring to coat. You can eat it just as is, or you can transfer to a casserole dish, top with breadcrumbs and bake at 350 for 15 minutes.

served up with sauteed kale

If you have leftover cooked pumpkin after you make this, check out these ideas to use up what's left:

Pumpkin Spice Oatmeal (vegan)
Creamy Pumpkin Soup (vegan)
Pumpkin Bread (vegan)

Monday, October 26, 2015

Homemade Apple Cider Vinegar

Homemade Vinegar in Progress...
As I mentioned in my recent post about Autumn, we acquired a ridiculous amount of apples this season. In addition to the apples we picked on our apple-picking adventures, we also bought several bags of "seconds" from one of our favorite farms. These are the "less than perfect" apples, which are sold in big half-bushel bags for between $13-$16, depending on the variety. They are just fine for applesauce, apple butter and baking. In the end, between what we picked and what we bought, we ended up with 2.5 bushels of apples, which we turned into apple butter, apple sauce, dried apples, apple compote, apple crisp and some apple pies. We've had plenty left for eating raw, as well. It turns out that 2.5 bushels is A LOT of apples!

Since I'm the type who can't stand to waste anything, I've always wondered if there was something useful to do with all the peels and cores leftover when I make pies and compote. I usually just toss them in the compost, but I read recently that they can be used to make homemade apple cider vinegar... thanks, Internet!

As I was doing my research, I found that there are several recipes out there. Some use sugar or some pre-made vinegar to get things started, but the most basic recipe is to just stuff all your cores and scraps into jars, and cover with purified water, and let it sit. Since I'd just used up the last of my sugar making some apple compote, I decided to try making my first batch without sugar. I started with all the scraps leftover from my compote, and water that I had boiled and let cool. I did add a splash of raw cider vinegar to mine, just to get things rolling. It is really important to make sure your apple stuff is completely submerged, so it won't get moldy. Next, put coffee filters over the top of the jar and secure with the metal band (leave the cap part off) Place your jars someplace out of direct sunlight, and let them sit for a week or so. During the week you should see some little bubbles going on in there, which indicates that fermentation is happening!

Almost vinegar
After your jars have sat for a week or so, it's time to strain out the liquid into a clean jar. Discard the solids, and then cover the liquid with another coffee filter. Now your almost-vinegar needs to sit in a warm dark place for another 6 weeks, to finish fermenting. I've read a few different things about this... some recipes say to just leave it be, while others say it's really important to stir it everyday. Since I'm brand new to this, I'm really not sure which is best. I just strained mine today, and I'm planning to stir it, though I'm guessing I won't remember to do it daily. At some point, there should be a cloudy mass in the jar... the "mother" of vinegar, which will indicate that everything is fermenting as it should.

I'm really exciting to see how this project turns out! I will most definitely post an update as our vinegar progresses.

Next post, I'll be sharing a deeeelish vegan recipe that is perfect for a chilly Autumn day...  :)

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Speaking Out Against Hate and Discrimination

I don't usually write controversial posts here, but due to some trouble I got myself into on Facebook recently (long story... and this post will be long enough) I ended up engaged in some dialogue that left me with some stuff on my mind.

In one part of the conversation that ensued (via email) I stated that I have no tolerance for mistreatment of those who are marginalized (in reference to the LGBT community in this case, though that sentiment goes for those who are marginalized for other reasons as well), and that statement was twisted around to say that I have no tolerance for "anyone who does not agree with (my) position on LGBT issues." Hmm. I thought long and hard about these two sentences, and what they really mean.

Here is the thing. I am tolerant of alternative viewpoints. You have your beliefs, I have mine. We can debate all day about who should be president, or whether or not there should be standardized testing, vegan vs paleo, or whether we should or shouldn't go to war with another country. There are thousands of issues to which I might have a very different opinion than you, and we can disagree and the world will keep on turning.

But where I draw the line is when someone's beliefs or viewpoints are harmful or discriminatory to other humans. If someone is going to insist that being gay/lesbian/trans or otherwise non-binary is a "sin" (more on that in a moment) and they do things to deny this segment of the population their basic human rights and liberties, then I will not be tolerant of that. I will not stand by and be silent as they tell other humans that they are bad, they are less, they are "disgusting" or that they are not worthy of the same rights as the rest of us. That is not simply "having a different opinion." That is hatespeak, and that is harmful to us all. If you spread this kind of hateful rhetoric, you are propagating hate, plain and simple.

Intolerance of discrimination is not a slam against or an infringement upon anyone's religion. We are ALL entitled to pray to whatever God we want, to practice whatever religious rituals we want, to celebrate whatever holidays we want, or even to not participate in any religion at all, for that matter. But human decency goes beyond religious doctrine. Treating fellow humans the way we would want to be treated is the most important principle in all faiths. 

Let's talk for a minute about this whole "being gay is a sin" concept that so many people use as an excuse to discriminate. It's important to remember that the bible was written a really, really long time ago, long before the time when science determined that humans are BORN gay... it's a biological variation. Research has shown that homosexual brains look visibly different in brain scans. Being gay is not a choice any more than having autism or epilepsy or blue eyes or brown skin or flat feet is a choice. It's how you're born, it's how God made you... how can that possibly be a sin? However, mistreating those who are born different IS a choice. And THAT most definitely goes against the teachings of the bible... "You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these."

Here's another thing about LGBT discrimination, particularly for perceived religious reasons. I know several people who grew up gay/trans/non-binary in religious homes, where homosexuality was considered a sin. They were taught their whole lives that being gay is this terrible thing, which is really traumatic to someone who knows in their heart that they are gay. These people grew up hearing from their parents, their families and their church that THEY were bad, that THEY were sinful, and all suffered deep scars as a result. How is this not child abuse? Since being gay is about biology and not sin, an anti-gay religious family is just as likely to give birth to a gay child as any other family. But the child in the anti-gay home is far more likely to commit suicide or engage in self-harm than the child who comes from a loving, accepting family. And what of the children from these households who are not gay themselves? They are being taught to view other humans as less, to perpetuate discrimination, and that is tragic.

I grew up in a world where being gay was no big thing. There were gay people in our lives, but we never really even talked about the fact they they were gay... they just were, and it was just the way it was. I didn't know that some people thought it was a bad thing until late elementary/middle school, when kids would throw around hateful words like "fag." I'm guessing these bullies learned this stuff from their parents. Horrible.

I'm really proud that I've raised my own kids to be more accepting. By the time my daughter turned five, she had been to three weddings. The first was for my two uncles, the second was for friends... two beautiful brides, and the third was for other friends, a man and a woman. I remember  a few years later having to explain to my kids about how some people thought people of the same gender shouldn't be married. The response? "Well, that's stupid. People should marry whoever they want." From the mouths of babes.

But it's not enough to teach our kids to accept others... it's also important to teach them to stand up against bullies and haters... to protect the rights of those who are marginalized. And that doesn't just apply to homophobia. Decent people stand up for those who need help, whether the bullying is about homophobia, racism, sexism, or any other -ism. Silence is acceptance. I will never be silent. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Autumn in New England

It is currently Autumn here in New England, and I must say, this is pretty much the best place to be this time of year. We're well into our routines of the homeschool year, which keeps us pretty busy, but we're still managing to find time to enjoy ourselves with all the wonderful things that fall has to offer. Here's a little glimpse into what we've been up to...

We've been visiting several farms, and acquiring pumpkins, mums and many, many apples... 

We've been doing lots and lots of preserving Autumn's bounty of apples...
applesauce, apple butter, dried apples. And of course, we've baked some pies!

We've been doing some fall gardening... clearing
out the vegetable beds, cutting back the
 perennials, and planting fall bulbs.

We've been "Falling Up" our home, with mums and pumpkins 

We're "Falling Up" the inside of our home too... 

...and doing some Fall crafts...
 like these beeswax-dipped leaves.

We've got lots more fun Fall things planned for the coming weeks... day trips, adventures, crafts, and more. Have I mentioned how much I love Fall in New England? ;)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The "Wonder Why" Board

About four or five years ago, I read a wonderful book called The Rhythm of Family: Discovering a Sense of Wonder Through the Seasons by Amanda Blake Soule. I absolutely adored everything about this book, and flipped through it quite often through the years. It's chock full of reflections, ideas and activities for each season of the year.

One of the ideas in this book was to create a "Wonder Why" board... a place to post all those questions kids pose throughout the day, that we don't always know the answer to immediately. By putting those questions up on the board, you don't forget about them before they get answered properly, as often happens when kids are asking questions while you're trying to get dinner on the table or pay bills. It's a nice message to send to kids, that their questions are important even if you can't help them answer a question right now. After the a question gets posted, someone else in the family can answer it if they know the answer already... otherwise, you can look up the answer together when you have a moment.
Our original "Wonder Why" Board
 circa 2011

We created one of these boards about four years ago, when the youngest kid was about 6. We had it hanging up in our homeschool area of our kitchen, where everyone in the family could see it. We all posted questions and answered them for each other, and it was great fun. We kept it going for a couple of years, but then slowly the kids lost interest and then we renovated our kitchen and Wonder Why Board was no more.

A question from our new Wonder Why Board
But then... the other day, out of the blue, my youngest (the biggest question-asker in the family) suddenly remembered The Wonder Why board, and asked if we could bring it back. Since I get absolutely giddy when my kids show curiosity and initiative, I immediately dropped what I was doing to dig out the old magnet board and some index cards. We hung the board up in the playroom, with a basket of index cards and pens next to it, and it's been in good use this week. I hadn't realized just how much I'd missed the Wonder Why board! I'm very happy to have it back in our home.

The Wonder Why Board is back!