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Friday, June 10, 2016

Chili Lime Flank Steak with Cold Asian Pasta Salad

When the weather starts to get warmer, it is really hard to want to be inside doing ANYTHING. In my part of the world, we get 4-6 months tops of outdoor-friendly weather, usually from mid-May to mid-October. Even then, a fair share of that time frame is filled with either winds or mosquitoes that will pick you up and carry you to the next county. This week has been absolutely beautiful! Running right around 75 degrees with afternoon and evening thunderstorms, that's my happy place. Not too hot, not too cold, it's just right. 

We went camping two weeks ago over Memorial Day weekend. We have a gorgeous State park about 25 minutes away filled with fishing, hiking, mountain biking, and more. We packed up the camper and headed up on Saturday, returning on Monday, and the little escape into the Great Outdoors was just what the doctor ordered. Work has been really stressful lately, and it felt incredible and freeing to just get away and unwind. We ate typical camping food while we were up there, of course including hamburgers and hot dogs. I have been going crazy on Pinterest lately with camping pins... I look forward to putting them to good use throughout the remainder of the summer! 

When Monday rolled around and we were back home, getting unpacked and relaxing, I wanted to switch up our grilling routine and mix it up a little bit. I perused the latest Food Network magazine, which had a Memorial Day grilling feature, and found some inspiration. I ended up creating a Chili Lime Flank Steak with Cold Asian Pasta Salad, and it really delivered. It was different, refreshing, and full of flavor. It came together really quickly, too, which is always a bonus. I really enjoyed the fact that this was a "cooler" dish and that we didn't eat it while it was piping hot, plus it was full of fresh ingredients. We let the steak rest before cutting and serving it, and the pasta salad was refrigerated for an hour before we ate. The flavor pallet was all-encompassing; acidity cuts sweetness with a hint of savory spice. 

Asian Lime Flank Steak with Cold Asian Pasta Salad

For the steak: 
2-3 lb flank steak
Zest and juice of 1 lime
1 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
Dash or two of ground ginger
1-2 teaspoons garlic paste
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil 

For the pasta salad:
1/2 lb spaghetti, cooked al dente according to package instructions
1/2 lb whole wheat spaghetti, cooked al dente according to package instructions
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup reduced-sodium soy sauce
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons garlic paste
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon red chili flakes
2 tablespoons Thai sweet chili sauce
1-2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 1/2 cup shredded carrots
1 1/2 cup shredded red cabbage
1 cup julienned bell peppers (red, yellow, and green)

1. Combine lime juice, lime zest, brown sugar, low-sodium soy sauce, sesame oil, sea salt, ground ginger, garlic paste, and olive oil in a small mixing bowl. Place flank steak in a large, resealable zip bag, and pour marinade over steak. Seal bag and shake well to coat steak.  Marinate for at least 1 hour in the fridge, removing 15-30 minutes prior to grill time. 

2. Make the salad "dressing." Combine olive oil, reduced-sodium soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic paste, ground ginger, red chili flakes, Thai sweet chili sauce, and sesame oil in a medium mixing bowl. Mix well and set aside. 

3. In a large bowl with a lid, toss together both kinds of cooked spaghetti noodles, the carrots, the red cabbage, and the bell peppers. Pour  the salad dressing over the noodles and vegetables. Place the lid on the bowl and shake salad until the noodles and vegetables are evenly coated with the dressing. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour. 

4. Grill the prepared flank steak, low and slow, over direct heat, to your desired level of done. (You can also start grilling on a higher temp to get a nice sear, then reduce to low to finish cooking.) Let meat rest for 10-15 minutes, then slice. 

5. Serve steak slices alongside the cold pasta salad and enjoy!

My husband and I both loved this dish, and it was great for leftovers, too- no need to reheat! 

What are your favorite summer grilling recipes? Do you enjoy sticking to the tried and true or do you like to mix it up a bit and go on culinary adventures? 

Happy Summer! 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Trail Mix Cookies and A Lesson in Self-Acceptance

Do you ever struggle with practicing what you preach...? Sometimes real talk is hard, and sometimes it's raw and vulnerable. 

I constantly reiterate to my children how people come in all different shapes and sizes, everyone wrapped in their own uniquely beautiful skin, and that no one type is better than another. And I find myself applying that ideology in my own life to everyone... Except myself. Why is it so hard for us to practice love and acceptance towards ourselves the way we do others? 

I've gained a few pounds lately, and even though I *know* this isn't the end of the world, there are days it still *feels* like it. There is a big part of me that wants to not care, to embrace the little bit of weight, because I can acknowledge that a big part of those 5 pounds comes from things that bring me genuine happiness: baking, cooking, and making memories in the kitchen and around the dinner table with the people I love the most in this world. Delicious homemade food is one of my languages of love.

Does anyone else ever feel conflicted in this way? Wanting to not obsess about your weight or another aspect of your appearance but feeling like it's wrong to not be perpetually trying to somehow make yourself more attractive and pleasing to the outside world?  I do, and it's really hard sometimes. I get so frustrated because there are days I find myself incapable of offering the same love and acceptance to myself that I do to everyone else. I am lucky to have many people in my life who see my beauty as something that is so much more than my outer shell- they see me in the same nonjudgmental way I see others. My husband and my family are my saving grace; I'm so thankful for them and try to embrace their affectionate thoughts as my own. I know I'm not the only person who struggles with this- I think it's probably more common than we want to admit. But it's real, and sometimes it's refreshing to be real and honest and express vulnerability. 

It's almost time for cookies... But first, I have to confess to you that my heart is broken just a little bit as I type this post. In perfect accordance with the theme of this post so far, I was watching TV with my husband and daughter when we saw a commercial for Cool Sculpting. (If you haven't seen this yet, it's basically a new procedure that freezes your fat away, a supposed stand-in for liposuction.) Upon seeing this commercial and understanding what it was, she then immediately said she wished she could have that done to her belly. I had to fight back the tears as I asked her why and told her that she was perfect and beautiful just as she was, that skinniness wasn't the only way a person could be beautiful. She got quiet and the conversation ended, but I felt as though this was a small opening into what will inevitably turn into a lifelong battle. I wondered how I can help her overcome the media's misguided perception of what beauty is. And in that moment I knew... Lead by example. By showing her that even though I may not be a size 2, I can still find inner confidence and radiate beauty from (most importantly) the inside as well as the outside. By pointing out examples of beauty all around us that comes in all shapes and sizes. By showing her that intelligence, humor, compassion, and creativity are traits even more desirable than appearance. This is my new challenge, my new passion. Everyone says that there are moments which define your life; this seemingly innocuous conversation with my beautiful 6-year old daughter was one of those moments for me. As a society, we have to be better about teaching love and acceptance of EVERYONE, not just those who fit a cookie cutter version of what someone's ideal person looks like, believes, or loves. Beauty is everywhere, and truthfully, beauty is in diversity and in acceptance.

My daughter is actually the one who chose this recipe to make for a family BBQ over the weekend. She loves trail mix, so when I let her thumb through my favorite Joy the Baker cookbook and helped her read titles as she looked at pictures of amazing food photography, it was love at first sight when she saw this recipe. We love Joy the Baker in our house- she never disappoints. We made some tweaks and got busy in the kitchen and had a wonderful Friday evening baking and creating lifelong happy memories.

These cookies are seriously amazing. They are fun and full of spunk and originality, just like my daughter. Take an oatmeal base, add in M&Ms, Chunky Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, peanuts, and raisins, and you've got one hell of a cookie. Everyone at the BBQ loved them, too, and there were many recipe requests. We will definitely be making these again, maybe sooner than later as camping season is quickly approaching. (HOORAY!)

Trail Mix Cookies (adapted from Joy the Baker)

- 2 1/2 cups old-fashioned oats
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 cup whole wheat flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 generous teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 cup softened butter
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 cup packed brown sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 cup roughly chopped Chunky Reese's Peanut Butter Cups
- 1 cup chocolate M&Ms candies
- 1 cup roasted & salted peanuts
- 1/2 cup raisins

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Prepare two large baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the oats, both flours, baking powder and baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Set aside.
3. In a large bowl, using a hand or a stand mixer, cream together the softened butter and both sugars until light and fluffy. Add in the eggs and vanilla extract, mixing well.
4. Pour all of your dry ingredients into the bowl with your wet ingredients, mixing on medium speed until just incorporated, then add in the chopped peanut butter cups, the M&Ms, the peanuts, and the raisins. Continue mixing until fully incorporated. (Note: This is very thick cookie dough- you may need to get a sturdy wooden spoon to finish the mixing job.)
5. Roll heaping tablespoonfuls of cookie dough into balls and place on prepared baking sheets about 2 inches apart.
6. Bake for 10-15 minutes, or until the edges are light golden brown. Remove from oven and cool on cookie sheets for 5-7 minutes, then place on wire cooling rack to finish cooling completely.
7. ENJOY! Delicious with a fresh glass of milk.

Remember, some of the best cookies don't even need cookie cutters... don't worry about what society tells you is beautiful. Be you, be kind, be original, and THAT is beautiful!

Much love always - Amber

Monday, April 18, 2016

Loaded Banana Bread Oatmeal

In typical Wyoming fashion, while the rest of the country gets blissful springtime weather with budding flowers and blossoming trees, we get a foot of snow and high wind warnings. We had 60 degree weather last week, followed by heavy snowfall on Friday and Saturday. Sometimes I ask myself why we choose to live here... Then I remember the small-town western feel, the good people, and the low crime, and I decide the weather is a small sacrifice for all of the other elements I love. Anyone else nonchalantly argue with themselves in their heads? No? Okay then, moving on...

The good news is that our second (or is it third?) winter gave me an excuse to make one more warm, hearty breakfast before lighter meals dominate spring and summer. I mean, really, who wants a piping hot bowl of oatmeal when it's 80 degrees outside? Not this girl. 

I have sort of taken on the role of the baker where I work, and I happily take responsibility for ensuring everyone in our department has freshly baked birthday treats when their special day pops up on the calendar. My boss requested simple, fudgy brownies with toasted walnuts back in February for her birthday, and ever since then I have become sort of obsessed with walnuts. It used to be all about the pecans, pretty much all-around, but there is officially a new nut in town.

So there I am on Saturday morning, snow falling incessantly out the kitchen window as I sip my morning coffee, trying to decide what to have for breakfast. I notice the perfectly overripe bananas on the counter and suddenly remember that we bought more walnuts the night before. The rest just fell into place, because seriously, what pairs better than bananas and nuts? I never have time to make stovetop oatmeal during the week, so I take advantage of the extra time on the weekends. 

By combining overripe bananas, toasted walnuts, hearty old-fashioned oats, cinnamon, nutmeg, and just a smidge of dark chocolate, we have banana bread for breakfast in a bowl and life is good. And in all reality, while it feels like a naughty indulgence, the recipe is all-around pretty healthy. Eat dessert for breakfast like a boss and do it without a trace of guilt. 

Loaded Banana Bread Oatmeal

- 1/2 cup old-fashioned oats
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 cup vanilla almond milk
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- dash of nutmeg
- dash of salt
- 1 small banana, thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons toasted walnuts
- dash of pure vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon brown sugar (or more to taste)
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped dark chocolate
- drizzle of pure maple syrup (optional) 

1. Combine old-fashioned oats, water, vanilla almond milk, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring well. Put about 1/3 of the sliced banana pieces into the saucepan and stir again. 
2. Cook over medium heat until oat mixture thickens to your level of liking, approximately 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally. The banana slices should have broken down almost completely during the cooking process, and your oatmeal will be a little more creamy than normal. 
3. Once the oatmeal has cooked and thickened to suit your tastes, remove the saucepan from the heat. Stir in the vanilla extract and brown sugar. 
4. Line the bottom of your serving bowl with another 1/3 of the sliced bananas, then top with prepared oatmeal. Top with the remaining sliced banana pieces, toasted walnuts, and dark chocolate pieces, then drizzle the top with just a hint of pure maple syrup. 

At this point, you can either stir and get a hint of maple syrup and dark chocolate swirled throughout your bowl, or you can enjoy the layered effect and enjoy each element a bit more individually. Either way, it's a win. 

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Project Semicolon: Keep on Keepin' On

When I opened my blog as a forum for individuals to speak about their personal experiences with anxiety, depression, suicide, or anything else related to mental health awareness, I never truly thought anyone would take me up on the offer. These subjects are still so taboo in our world, in spite of the staggering numbers of people worldwide affected by them. Needless to say, when not just one but several people bravely offered their voice, I was so excited at an opportunity to share, learn, and support one another in a fundamental way. 

I have had the pleasure of working with Charles for 8 years now, and believe me when I say he is good people. He is genuine, heartfelt, generous, and compassionate. I am thankful to know him and consider him a friend, and I am even more thankful that, despite the many obstacles he's faced in his life, he chose to keep fighting. He chose on so many different occasions NOT to end his story. Below, he courageously shares the battlefield of his heart and soul and offers encouragement to those who can relate to him all too well. 

"Where to start? Where to start? Where. To. Start.

I guess going back to my earliest recollection of feeling depressed is as good a place as any. I was probably only 15-16 years old when I first had any serious thought of self harm or self hatred.

I can honestly say that this came about from the taunting and teasing that kids that age give each other, but I also have to say that mine was compounded by my father's drunken tirades against me as well as the rest of my siblings as to how none of us would ever amount to anything and me hearing from my own father how much of a "worthless motherfucker" I was and that I was an "ugly piece of shit". So, needless the say, getting taunted and teased at school, then coming home to hear the same things or worse from your own father just made me think, "Well, if everyone is saying it to me about me, then it just has to be true, right"?

So taking all of that into account, I figured if everyone at school hated me and my own father hated me, why should I be any different? So I started hating myself. My grades started suffering, my health started suffering. I started to be less and less involved in anything that would normally make me happy. This was around the time I started thinking that killing myself would be the best recourse for myself and everyone else. 

My first actual thought of suicide came at that same early age as well. I first thought that taking a bunch of pills would be the way to go, but being the over-thinker that I am, I read stories about how people suffered with severe health issues after being found and resuscitated before the pills could do their job. Of course at this young an age I was unable to purchase or own a firearm, but I figured that this would be the way for me to do the job, so to speak.
So for years I suffered with the self hate and anger, and did my best to try and fit in, but the constant taunting and teasing from classmates and my father made it so I ended up quitting school at  the age of 16, the bright side of that was that the school principal at the time saw that I enrolled in classes to get my GED, which I did.

I was a social outcast, never good looking enough to have a girlfriend, or for any of the girls to even be interested in me. I wasn't Kool enough to hang out with all the other Kool kids, I didn't have a car, and at the time I didn't have a job.

I eventually got a job part time washing dishes at a local drive-in restaurant and that's where I first started hanging out with the beer drinker and stoner crowd, and at last, I felt that I fit in.Now I know that alcohol is a depressant, but to me at the time it helped to quell the voices of the demons that taunted me, telling me to take my life and "make everybody happy". I also know that people insist that marijuana isn't considered a gateway drug, but to me it was, for the simple fact that I thought, "If mota makes me feel this good, what will the other kinds of drugs do for me?"

So I began seeking out other ways to make myself keep the Black Dog at bay, the only problems being, while I was high and or drunk, I was fine, but once I came down and sobered up, my problems were still there and sometimes the demons were even more tormenting. Now I want to clarify that I never heard voices per se, I am speaking of the terrible thoughts that a very depressed person keeps playing and replaying in their heads. My years of drug and alcohol abuse lasted for 17 or so years and during this whole time I constantly and consistently wanted to end my life, if only to make everybody who hated me happy. I figured that by doing this one act, I would finally do something that not only everyone would surely approve of, but that my mental anguish and suffering would end as well. A messed up way to think, but at the time it sure seemed like the proper thing to do.

I eventually started dating an older woman around the time I was about 28, she was 9 years older than I and at first, I was totally wary of her or anyone else who said they cared for me. No one, other than my own mother had ever expressed selfless love for me, and I sure wasn't going to believe someone who I barely even knew. Anyway, we dated for about a year or so before I had a terrible bout of depression that I was sure would be the end.

A really close female friend of mine had been diagnosed with cancer and her prognosis did not look good, I took it very personal because in my minds eye I could not fathom how God could try and take the life of someone so beautiful and wonderful and leave me here on this earth, suffering with this mental anguish. I went out and got filthy, stinking drunk that night and ended up with a friend who was able to score us some crack. We ended up partying until the sun came up and I had no intention on going to work that afternoon so I got a motel room to hole up in while my high went away. I remember getting my last $20.00 for the motel room. I remember telling my friend that I would park my truck on the farthest end of the parking lot and if anyone came looking for me, I left my truck parked there and left with someone. I remember going inside my room and because of all the beer, whisky and cocaine I could not go to sleep. I remember turning on the ac on high to drown out any other noises. I eventually went to sleep and was awakened some time late by someone beating on my door, I was more startled to find a fully loaded 9mm pistol on my chest!

That, I did not remember! After I stashed the pistol, I answered to door to find my mother near hysterical and asking me what was wrong? I explained about my friend and how I just needed to sleep it all of right now and to not tell anyone where I was, so I could figure out things for myself.

Long story short, the woman I was seeing was the one who got me to seek out a therapist to get help for my suicidal tendencies and possibly try and get my drinking and drug use under control as well. I was placed on Zoloft and for the first few months, did not want to quit drinking. I eventually found it in myself to quit for a whole 120 days, not a single drop. 
One night, while my girlfriend and I were talking about what we wanted to do when we were younger, I explained to her how I had heard of a school that taught auto body and paint in Wyoming and how I had always wanted to build Kustom Kars. I was able to get financial aid and we moved to Laramie, Wyoming and I went to Wyo-Tech and eventually graduated from their collision-refinishing program and ended up disappointed with their Hot-Rod program and dropped out before completing that course. Molly and I ended up getting married on the 30th of May, 1998, and I thought my life was really turning out for the best. I got depressed after I got out of Wyo-Tech when every body shop I went to in town turned me down for a job stating that they needed someone who had been in the field for at least 4-5 years! I did odd jobs here and there and eventually settled for a decent job detailing cars for the local Chevrolet dealership. It was during this time that my wife suffered a heart attack and nearly died. She went through very bad bouts of depression at this time herself and I did my best to help her get through it. Several months passed and after not being very careful, we got pregnant and due to her previous health problems due to obesity and diabetes, and the fact that she had recently suffered a heart attack, we made the very hard decision to abort the child so that we could save my wife's life. The day before we were due to be in Boulder, Colorado for the procedure, the Columbine Massacre happened and needless to say, we postponed her appointment for a few days later. This was a terrible time in both our lives, but together we got through it.

My wife ended up getting a job working the front desk at City Hall in 1999 and suggested to me that I apply for a job as custodian there, which I did. I got this job and have currently been with the City for the last 16 years.

It was during this time in late September of '99 that her son was diagnosed with leukemia and was taken to Children's Hospital in Denver. Needless to say, this was a very terrible time for the both of us, being that she was justifiably worried for her sons health, but here I was worried for hers, seeing that she had just had a recent heart attack and an abortion.

Now, being the loving mother that she was, she wanted to drive down to Denver to see her son everyday after she got off work, but I could see that this would not be financially feasible. She and her son's girlfriend eventually found a way through Children's Hospital to get some financial aid and got an apartment in Denver and she would go down and stay on weekends and stay there for any procedures that he had to go through. Late in October of that same year, my wife's step father passed away, and I was asked to be a pallbearer. I was honored and readily accepted and the night before I was to drive down to New Mexico for the funeral, Molly called me and seemed very out of breath asking me if on my way down, could I pick her up so that she could go with me to the funeral? I of course became concerned, hearing how out of breath she sounded and asked her if she was alright, she stated that she had been feeling very tired the last few hours and felt she was coming down with a cold. I told her to lie down and try and get some rest but if she was still feeling out of breath and tired that Monica had better take her to the ER and get her checked out!

That next morning I drive down to Denver and stop by the apartment to pick up my wife and she greets me at the door, her skin is grey and ashy and her lips are purple! I of course am furious that she didn't go to the ER the night before, so Monica and I get her down to my vehicle and I drive her to a hospital and as I feared, she's having another heart attack!Now I have a wife in a hospital in Denver as well as a step son very ill with leukemia in another, not to mention that I was so scared driving around trying to find a hospital to take her to, I didn't even know where I was!

It turns out my then wife had to have bypass surgery, her son was eventually released and his cancer was in remission. Molly was eventually released and we all made arrangements to get back home to Laramie. Molly was recovering rather quickly, Edward (her son) was doing well and had lost a huge amount of weight and had declared to us both that he had planned on moving back to New Mexico to get a job with one of his uncles and try and get his own place and live on his own. I myself was very proud of him, but Molly was of course concerned that her "baby boy" would be leaving. Edward did eventually move back home and this did not seat at all well with Molly, and she fell into a very deep depression and I did my best to comfort her and care for her but she was inconsolable. Her supervisor at the City told her that it would probably be for the best if she took an extended leave of absence from her job and "go get things sorted out" in New Mexico then come back and her job would still be here.
The day her sister came to pick her up for her trip back home, I knew then and there I would never see her again in Wyoming.

We were separated for 10 months before I finally gave her the ultimatum to come home and try and make this marriage work, or I will be filing for divorce. She decided that she wanted to stay in New Mexico. I was granted a divorce in January of 2001.

I have to apologize for the long winded story, but I guess what I wanted to do was give everyone a condensed version of what I have gone through and that my story hasn't ended.
I still do suffer from depression and I do have some very, very bad days where I feel I cannot continue to go on, but I think that by going through what I went through in such a small time frame kind of forced me to fight even though I felt that I could not continue to fight.

My suicidal thoughts have been more manageable and are very few and far between, I still occasionally think that "wasting a bullet" would be the better thing to do, I still do continue to suffer from self hatred and anger, especially when I am overwhelmed and am having a bad day or am going through an emotionally trying time, but for the most part, my story continues on.I have become accustomed to using a favorite saying of Mother Teresa's that says something to the effect, "I know that God does not give us anything more than we can handle, I just wish he didn't trust me so much."

I hope that this story isn't too long and drawn out, but I also hope that by writing it down and sharing it, that I can give some comfort and help someone else who suffers as I do.

Let your story continue on, if only for the simple fact to be stubborn!

As one of my musical icons, Lemmy Kilmister used to say, "Don't let th' bastards grind ya' down!!"

Be Well and God Bless." 

Charles- thank you for being a kind-hearted soul and an all-around awesome human being. And thank you, too, for baring your soul for all the world to see in the hopes that you can help inspire others to continue on in their journey. 

To all those out there fighting the good fight, day in and day out, know your worth. Stay strong; life is beautiful, even through the pain. 

Project Semicolon: German Chocolate Cupcakes for my Gramps

Image result for images with inspirational quotes about defining moments

There are some moments in your life that define your future, forever influencing the person that you are and the person that you will become. For me, one of those pivotal moments took place on June 13, 2011.

It was a Monday, a beautiful summery day. I took a half day off from work because my brother and sister-in-law and their children were visiting from Colorado, and we planned to have lunch and hang out with them that afternoon. We went to the best local Mexican restaurant , and everyone was conversing and laughing over delicious food.

I always kept my cell phone set to silent while at work, and that day I forgot to switch it back to ring after I left for the day. When my husband's phone rang and it was my mother trying to get a hold of me, I was confused at first. I took a quick peek at my cell phone and saw several missed calls from my mom and my brother. That is when the pit in my stomach began to grow, and I knew in my heart that something was wrong as I took the phone from my husband and walked outside of the restaurant to speak with my mother.

As I said hello, I could hear the pain and anguish in her voice as she told me that my grandfather was dead. The tears immediately began to trickle as I asked what had happened. I felt the hesitation through the phone as she carefully chose her next words, knowing that we were two and a half hours apart and that we couldn't be there immediately to comfort and console one another. She drew in a deep breath and told me that he had killed himself. The tears turned from a trickle to a waterfall and I screamed. The kind of scream that only a true mix of horror and agony can bring about. Profanities sputtered from my mouth as I tried to find words, but one syllable questions were all I could muster as my mind tried to wrap itself around the devastation that had infiltrated my heart. How? Why?

In that moment, my mom could sense my vulnerability and instability and, to protect me, told me she didn't know. I knew she was lying, but I am not sure I was ready to process the rest of the information anyways. She told me I needed to go back inside the restaurant while she stayed on the phone with me and put my husband on the phone so she could speak with him. I followed her instructions, completely unaware of what awaited inside the restaurant.

I walked back in, sobbing uncontrollably amidst the stares of strangers. I wondered if any of them had heard my screams, not caring either way. I needed my husband. As I came into view of my family, my husband rushed to me. I blurted out in almost nonsensical gibberish that my grandpa had killed himself and buried my face into his chest as I gave him the phone. My sister-in-law wrapped her arms around me as my mother calmly told my husband what had transpired early that morning. I remember that, in the midst of the turmoil that was eating me alive from the inside, I was so incredibly thankful that I had been in the company of loved ones when this bomb was dropped.

After I calmed down, I finally learned the details myself. My grandpa had woke up that morning, had a few bites of a cookie for his last breakfast, locked the front screen door to keep loved ones out, retrieved his .22 pistol, and, in what I can only imagine as being an excruciating descent for a man who suffered from chronic back pain, sat down in the bathtub. He had removed his shirt and was wearing only his jeans and his silver cross, which he rarely took off. At some point, he raised the gun to his forehead, took his last breath, and pulled the trigger.

I can't tell you how many times I have relived those moments in my mind. No, I wasn't there, but it feels like it nonetheless. It feels like I was right there with him as he lived his last moments, invisible and muted with no way to stop him. I have imagined it so many different ways. He has been happy, relieved almost, at the thought of being reunited with his beloved wife who had passed only four short months prior. He has been crying hopelessly, thinking of how much he will miss the family he was leaving behind. No matter how my mind plays it out that day, it is one of the single most debilitating thoughts I have ever had, and the tears begin to freely flow again, just as they did that day in June, just as they are now.

Time is supposed to heal all wounds, and while the wounds are not as deep as they once were, they are still very much there, present in everything that I do and everything that I am.

I was lucky enough to grow up as part of an amazing, loving, supportive family. They were always at the center of everything I did, and I hope when my own children grow up they look back on their childhood with that same sentiment. My family has been my greatest blessing in this life, both the one I fortunate enough to be born into and the one I was lucky enough to marry into. Family is EVERYTHING. Family is my heart, my soul, and every breath I take.

My grandfather and I shared a very special bond- he was one of my best buds and probably my biggest cheerleader. My parents obviously loved me with every fiber of their being, as did my aunt, my brother, and all of my other grandparents and family members., and I loved them just as much. But in my grandpa's eyes, I walked on water. "Proud" doesn't even begin to describe how he felt about me; I could literally do no wrong in this man's eyes. Family was everything to him, too. He was a great man, full of love and mischief, and as humble as they come. I still don't know exactly why he decided to take his own life, but I do know that it doesn't change how much he loved us or how much we love him. And it never could.

I know that many people believe suicide is cowardly and selfish. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But as I have imagined his last moments so many times, dreamed about that day over and over again, no matter how different the "story" may be that day, the underlying tone is always the same: Hopelessness. And to try to relate to the fact that one of your most beloved family members is feeling that hopelessness so much that  there is simply no other choice in their mind... How that can be anything other than heartbreaking and devastating is unbeknownst to me.

Rather than judge, let us find empathy and compassion. We are all human, and we all face our own individual struggles in our journey through life. Be a friend. Lend an ear or a shoulder to someone in need. Smile. Be unnecessarily kind to everyone you meet. You never know when you might have an opportunity to brighten someone's day or their perspective on life. Practice love for your fellow man, but equally as important practice love for yourself. You are worthy. Keep loving, keep fighting. Through all of the ups and downs, life is a beautiful gift, and we only get one.

Gramps- I know you are still here with all of us in everything that we do. I hope you know how important you are to us and how much you are loved still, just as much in absence as in presence. I baked you some cupcakes this week- your favorite. German Chocolate. Grams would have loved them, too, and I would give almost anything to be able to share them with you now over laughter and a cup of coffee. You would have had a pretty good chuckle when I showed you the pictures of my first cupcake attempt, which literally fell victim to our high altitude. Until we meet again, Gramps... cupcake cheers to you.

German Chocolate Cupcakes

(If you do NOT have high altitude issues, get the recipe for German Chocolate Cupcakes from Saving Room for Dessert - the batter was absolutely silky and delicious, it just did not rise to the occasion at 7200 feet- you can see pics of my failure at the bottom of the post- ha! For simplicity's sake, after failure #1, I cheated and used a box mix.)

- 1 box of German Chocolate Cake mix plus ingredients required (eggs, water, and oil, and additional flour for us high altituders)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F and line 24 cupcake tins with paper liners (or 36 if you're at high altitude, too!). Prepare cupcake batter according to instructions on box. Using an ice scream scoop, fill cupcake tins with prepared cupcake batter 1/2 to 2/3 full. Bake for 14-18 minutes, or until the top of the cupcake springs back when lightly touched. Let cool completely.

In the meantime, make the Coconut Pecan Frosting (aka, the best damn frosting I have ever had in my life).

Coconut Pecan Frosting (adapted from Saving Room for Dessert)

- 2 1/2 cups chopped pecans, toasted
- 1 12-oz can evaporated milk
- 1 1/3 cups sugar
- 3/4 cup salted butter (1 1/2 sticks)
- 6 egg yolks, beaten
- 2 1/2 to 3 cups sweetened, shredded coconut
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1. In a medium saucepan, combine the milk, sugar, and butter over medium heat, stirring until the butter is melted. Slowly stir in the egg yolks until fully incorporated, then cook for approximately 12 to 15 minutes, stirring constantly, until the mixture has thickened into a caramel-like color and consistency.
2. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla; mixture will bubble intensely during this phase- just keep stirring. Mix in 2 cups of the toasted pecans and 2 1/2 cups of the coconut to start, adding more as needed to reach your desired consistency and thickness in the frosting. For me, I liked how thick and crunchy the frosting was using the full  amounts listed above of pecans and coconut, but some may certainly prefer less. You do you.
3. Transfer the frosting to a clean bowl to cool, then spread some coconut pecan love over your German Chocolate cupcakes. Share with neighbors, friends, and coworkers, and feel the love that you've given come back to you.

Beautiful Cupcake

Not So Much...

Much love and peace to you all, my friends. Stay happy.

Project Semicolon: Living with Panic Attacks

In our second post of the Project Semicolon tribute series currently taking place on If It Bakes You Happy, my dear friend Brandi intimately shares her experience living with panic attacks. To someone who has never experienced anxiety or the oftentimes ensuing panic attacks, it is hard to envision the true level of emotional, physical, and physiological symptoms that accompany this mental illness. It is all consuming, and Brandi walks us through her life with panic attacks to give support to those who can relate and offer understanding to those who cannot.

"Crazy, irrational, overly dramatic- these a just a few words that have been used to describe
my behavior during panic attacks. In truth, I'm suffering from a mental illness, and I'm
actually feeling stressed out,  tired,  and physically ill.

My first memories of panic attacks come from very early on in life.  I vividly remember lying
in bed as a child and forcing myself to stay awake until 12:01a.m. because I was terrified
something bad was going to happen at midnight (an intruder would harm my family or  a fire
would destroy our home). As I got older,  my anxiety and panic attacks only worsened. By
my sophomore year of college I was diagnosed with anxiety,  panic attacks,  and some
depression.  The summer before my diagnosis,  my panic attacks became debilitating. At
night time,  I would completely break down.  When having a panic attack,  I would feel as
though someone was squeezing my heart or sitting on my chest. While I could still breath,  I
would be paralyzed with panic,  and I would have no way of controlling it. Waves of
emotions would rush over me, and I would feel like crying,  screaming,  and running away,
all at the same time. The smallest things would set me off. For example,  one night I couldn't
reach my mom via phone.  By 9:30, I was in a full blown panic attack,  and I proceeded to
call the hospital and police department in my home town to make sure no one matching her
description was in an accident.  She lived alone,  and I was terrified something had happened
to her. By 10:30, my mom called me back to tell me she was sick and had gone to bed early.
Knowing I was having a panic attack,  my mom talked to me to help calm me down. She
followed up with me the next day to ensure I was getting myself help and support. 

After realizing I needed help,  I visited with my doctor and began seeing a psychologist.
Soon, at the recommendation of my doctor,  I began taking anti-depressant/anti-anxiety
medication. I have been on the medication since. Although,  I have attempted to stop taking it
(with the support of my doctor). Unfortunately, without medication,  my panic attacks
continue.  I understand that medication is not the answer for everyone,  but it helped me. As
such, I believe it's imperative that anyone suffering from mental health issues find a solution
that they are comfortable with and that helps them feel mentally healthy. 

For me,  the process of being mentally healthy is three fold. First, I learned medication was a
must for me. Next,  I learned I must find ways to decompress and have 'me time' every day-
even if it's only for 5 minutes! I often decompress by taking a bath and reading. Finally,  I
must surround myself with a positive support system that I  can turn to when in need.  I am
blessed to be surrounded by wonderful friends and family members who provide me with an
abundance of support, and as needed, I have visited with a counselor for additional support. 

I understand that discussing the topic of mental illness can be tough.  Especially because it is
not easily understood by others,  and at times others judge. I know the pain of being called
crazy or feeling irrational. In truth,  I have found that many people are effected by mental
illness. I believe we should stop judging and start supporting one another. Additionally, we
need to have more open discussions about mental health.  I believe this will allow the topic to
become less taboo and help those in need seek treatment.  I share my story in hopes that it
will help others in need, and let people suffering know they're not alone!"

For many people, myself included, food is truly a great source of comfort. Some of my favorite memories as a child revolve around spending time around the dinner table with family, and there are certain dishes to this day that instill nostalgia immediately at the sheer mention, smell, or taste of them. For Brandi, Cheesy Potato & Dumpling Soup is her soul-comforting meal. She has been kind enough to share the recipe with us today.

Cheesy Potato & Dumpling Soup 

Ÿ- 3 Large Potatoes finely chopped
-Ÿ 1 Bag Frozen Vegetables (carrots, broccoli, cauliflower)
- 4-6 Strip of Bacon
-Ÿ 1t Salt
-Ÿ Pepper
-Ÿ Celery Salt
- 16 oz. Velveeta cubed
-Ÿ 1-2 Cups milk

-Ÿ 2 eggs
-Ÿ Flour
- Salt

1. Fill large soup pan 1/2 full with water
2. Add chopped potatoes and cover water with a thin layer of celery salt
3. Add a dash of pepper and salt
4. Boil until potatoes are soft, then lightly mash potatoes
5. Add frozen vegetables and a little more water (about 2 cups)
6. Cook and chop bacon- set aside
7. Let soup cook and make dumpling: beat eggs in small bowl. Add a dash of salt, then
slowly add flour and stir. Continue adding flour until mixture begins to form a dough that
pulls away from the bowl.
8. Scoop small teaspoons of dumpling dough into soup (the dough will cook in the soup).
9. Add bacon,Velveeta, and milk (until creamy)
10. Cook about 5 minutes or until cheese is fully melted
11. Serve with crunchy Cheetos on top for a fun twist

What is the one dish that will undoubtedly brighten your mood or bring you comfort after a long and trying day?

As someone who also deals with anxiety at times,  one of my personal mottoes is to remember to just breathe. How do you deal with your anxiety or depression or other mental illness? What works for you?

Thank you for sharing your perspective and support with us today, Brandi. I am so glad you have found your personal recipe for success in managing your symptoms, and you are 110% right when you say that it is truly different for everyone. Thank you for your passion and your insight!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Project Semicolon: A Glimpse into the Soul of Another

Project Semicolon is a cause that is near and dear to my heart; a nonprofit organization focused on offering hope and love to individuals suffering from mental illness, suicidal thoughts, addiction, or other troubling situations. The symbolism behind the semicolon is that it represents the author's choice to pause and keep going rather than to end the sentence. A deep breath, if you will; something so simple yet so profound. 

When I realized that Saturday, April 16th, 2016, is the designated day to celebrate and support the foundation of this movement, I wanted to get involved somehow. In some small way, I wanted to share my story and allow others the opportunity to share theirs if they desired to do so, using this blog as our platform. I was surprised and excited to learn that there were a handful of individuals who wanted to do just that, and they will be graciously sharing their voice with us this week in a variety of guest posts. My own post is scheduled for Saturday, but the words these individuals have put together courageously and lovingly from the depths of their soul need an audience. I hope we will find that in you, and that you will share if you are moved to do so. Together, we can support and lift one another up. Always.

Our first guest wishes to remain anonymous. Her story is one of courage and strength, perseverance at its best, beautifully yet tragically written from a place tucked deep in her heart. She shares below her own experience with everything that is the essence of Project Semicolon.


Tonight I wrestle with my beautiful sister; she is slipping again. She has clinical recurrent paranoia-schizophrenia, and as she ages, it seems to go away, for months, maybe half a year at times. But now, it’s peaking, the texts of utter misery, of the repeated theme of co-workers talking behind her back, the rudeness and assaultive conversations from her boss, daughter, and husband, the feeling there is no way out, that Providence has sentenced her to a life of misery… the same themes for forty years. It breaks my heart. It is hard to ride the wave with her. I know it’s not her, it runs in my family.

My mom’s sister combined her acute schizophrenia with alcohol, killed a few of her infant children, and was institutionalized for the remaining years of her life. She was frightening to me. As a child I intuitively shied away from her, not knowing the truths until my forties. Her eldest surviving daughter, half-Cherokee and half French, like the rest of us, only 18 months older than me passed away on July 28th from the same combination. She was haunted by the entities around the kitchen table, they would come to converse with her, she would say, and then when a bottle or two of wine had gone down, the telephone calls would come. I could not pick up oftentimes, I could not manage her intensity; and her command of the English language coupled with a lovely lyrical quality that, in the worst times, crafted the most haunting of phone messages, of long nightmarish pleading for me to pick up, voice slurred as she suffered in her delirium. I had no illusions I could ease her pain.

I often wonder if I had picked up that phone when my cousin rang, would it ever have helped? I know it would not. I could not reverse a life of self-destruction and generations of the mental vice. But I was, by that time, not so strong myself – I was in about year six of my mother’s nine-year battle with cancer. I was her primary caregiver, I love her so. I miss her so.

I thought I’d been through the worst of it back in ’94 – the end of a 14-year long marriage where I was battered in every way ….the brochures, the books, the doctors… said. Physically, emotionally, verbally – that is when I contemplated suicide in earnest. I simply could see no way out. Domestic violence really is that, the screaming, the pushing, the yelling, the bullying, the insults… the night I washed my own blood from a head wound off my kitchen wall, and thinking, “Tonight is it. Tonight, he will kill me.” I wasn’t even angry. I was scared and tired, and my heart broke every single day. I had no idea of the resources available, but by that time I was so railroaded, I was terrified of my own shadow. I never followed through due to the love of my mother. I could not hurt her that much, not that way. I learned then that we extend our love to others more than we grant it ourselves. I endured 14 years until I was diagnosed with terminal cancer …and he literally ran off with a 19-year-old within the week of the day our beloved golden retriever passed away from cancer. The courts awarded me a lifetime restraining order at the time of the divorce, six months later when he would not come home.  Miraculously in five months, I was clear. Mom used to joke, “the dog was the real loss.” She was of course correct.

The following autumn, on September 10th, 1995, my father took his own life. Like Socrates, he knew what he was doing; he made hemlock muffins.  Like the stories, every clock in the house stopped. And he made bread. Like Dogan, he made bread and then, that evening when Mom was away, he placed another perfect loaf in the center of the kitchen table, and on an orange sticky note (which I still have) he wrote, “Voila!” Oh, but he was in SO MUCH pain – physical, emotional; such a tragedy. He was first violinist of so many orchestras, I can’t even list them. And he went deaf. Stone cold, completely  deaf, in about 1987. He had to retire early, but a nerve virus hit him in the early ‘90’s, and almost took his left eye. He developed agoraphobia because of the way our society treats deaf people – like they are stupid. And this man was a genius (unlike others, I do not use that word flippantly.) He was a first-caliber mathematician: theorems and proofs were his entertainment, his passion. But, emotionally and physically in chronic, intense pain, he turned to alcohol to dull that, as well, and it was just a downward spiral. How can a girl forget the Christmas her father was so drunk he fell into the Christmas tree, upsetting it and breaking family heirlooms?

I learned that he also had some sort of chemical omission, something that had to do with a lack of a coating , an enzyme, in the brain. A predisposition to depression; and in my twenties I learned I also had it. And my alcoholic brother had it.  My brother repeatedly tried to do himself in, drug overdoses, wild drunken driving, accidents, you-name-it. On the outside, we were a model family. We were all of us highly educated, multiple graduate degrees, doctoral school for me and honors and university appointments, a lovely home, healthy social life – nothing you could detect at a distance. My nephew when only 4 years old said “Normal people are the ones you don’t know.”

And then in November of 2013 Mom passed away after six short days in hospice. My life is irreversibly changed. I transitioned from her caregiver to the estate’s personal representative and learned how adversity brings out the worst in siblings. It seemed to go from bad to worse, but I couldn’t imagine how it could possibly get any worse. There remain echoes at the periphery of my sphere. I am devastated at her passing. I miss her a hundred times a day. If I impressed that my father was extraordinary… my mother was as much the rare and shining star. Also an accomplished concert violinist, above all her laurels, degrees, honorariums, was this shining blue spirit-light. Boundless energy, love, forgiveness, intelligence (the woman was a walking dictionary, a compendium of history, a veritable font of wisdom), compassion, funny – omg, she was so funny. And now she is gone. Like a door shut, echoes …just gone.

In the course of these most recent years I have lost ALL my bestest friends to West Nile Virus, to Inclusion Body Myosis, to a prescription drug overdose, a heart attack,  ….the list goes on and on. I reached the point where I no longer had anyone with whom I could just pick up the phone and chat, or to travel with, or to share burdens. The world has become a very empty place.

And in that emptiness, like the ability of a whisper to cut through the din, remains a sort of peace, a quietude, a graceful space of simply being. I have come to appreciate every single day granted me. I am careful (but not too), and I don’t miss sunrises or sunsets; I revel in the details. I feed and listen to my birds, talk to my mountain cottontails. I have come to positively love little blue-haired ladies, and I hope they will tell me their stories, and hope they see in my heart my respect for them. They have been through so much, every single last one of them.

Somehow I feel like I have been in the eye of the storm. I have survived, I have done my level best to never do anything I would look back upon and feel shame. There is a ringing in my ears, like when the silence is so punctuated, your ears find a way to fill in the emptiness. So many have passed; they endured so much. Life is so precious, so delicate, yet so tenacious – and I do not intend to squander what is left to me. And I have learned that when you try to encapsulate years of strife, you use a lot of semicolons.

I am so thankful that this woman fought through the darkest of nights to again see the sunniest of days. Her strength to continue and hope for a brighter tomorrow is inspiring, and I am grateful she chose to share a part of her soul with us through the beauty and pain of her words.

In remembrance of her mother, she also wanted to share with us a family recipe which captures the comfort and familiarity of home that we all embrace deep within.

Jaeger Kohl

Mom called this hunters’ stew and then joked it was for very bad hunters, the ones who
could not (or in my case would not) come home with anything to put in the stew.

It is best for cold winter’s evenings. Prep time is just the chopping of the veggies.

In large olive-oiled skillet, in layers, lay chunks of fresh washed & scrubbed (leave skins
on) red baby potatoes, then sliced carrots, and then mushrooms on the top layer. Add
water to cover, and grind fresh-cracked pepper all over, and salt to taste. Cover and steam until mostly cooked about 40-50 minutes (this is high altitude time, yours may take less). 

Fifteen minutes before the skillet of steamed veggies is to be done, in a smaller, separate
skillet, sauté and brown veggie polish sausage (some very good brands out there). Lay on
top of mushrooms (above water level, which most should have boiled off by now) as it
gets soggy easily. And lay tablespoons-full of sour cream over the entire skillet. Steam
another 10 minutes, drain completely, and serve.

Just plain yummy.

Peace and love to you all my friends. Stay tuned for more heartfelt posts this week.