Give the Gift of a Personalized Book on Turtles This Holiday Season!

It’s that time of year again when we scour the Internet for the perfect gift idea. I’m gearing up for the holiday season with a big shipment of my book: 254 pages of fun and informative turtle facts in Q&A format–with pictures, of course!

turtle book

I’ve received terrific feedback from kids through adults who love the short and easy-to-read “chapters” as well as learning so much about such an incredible species. Animals really are amazing!

If you’d like to purchase a personalized copy, shoot me an email to smvenzel@gmail.com. Order soon to get yours in time for Christmas!

(If you already have a copy, please consider leaving a review on Amazon! Yippee!)

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Acting: To Be Me or Not to Be Me? That Is the Question

Yesterday, I came across a quote by Indie Wire writer David Ehrlich in his review of this year’s leading Oscar nominees. He said:

“Great acting isn’t about becoming someone else so much as it’s about becoming who you really are.” 

The sentiment hit me hard, because I’ve been analyzing my character work in film and theatre, trying to find what most challenges me as well as put into words why I feel so entranced by becoming another character.

I’ve written about theatre’s role in my anxiety management, how taking on a role forces me to set aside my fears and worries and more or less literally be in someone else’s shoes for a moment.

But what if instead of closing a door on my present self, acting opens up that door? What if acting lets me see who I am beneath my anxiety, lets me tap into my deep emotions, helps me gain further perspective?

The most challenging theatrical role I’ve had to date was playing Lt. Cdr. JoAnne Galloway in “A Few Good Men.” My friend John played the enemy, Colonel Jessup, for which he delivered a stand-up performance. About a year ago, John and I were reminiscing about the show and what makes a good actor. We both agreed that strong actors don’t just act, they react.

John and I also talked about how both of us are incredibly empathetic people–to the point that my empathy can be debilitating–and that this innate trait allows us to take to the stage and transform for a few hours into real or fictional characters. We can act out their life experiences because we are actually feeling them.

Fusing this idea of empathy with Ehrlich’s quote, maybe I love acting so much because, like writing, it’s a way for me to create and express, no holds barred. It’s a way for me to feel and learn about others…and about myself. It’s a way for me to be me.

What do you think makes a good actor? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

I Was Sexually Assaulted & This Is My Story

For quite awhile, I didn’t know if I would ever publicly share this story. I didn’t even know how much I’d personally share it. Part of that is because I felt so very, very ashamed.

Another reason is because I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to feel any better after telling it, largely because people don’t know how to appropriately respond.

The more I noticed how much I feared other people’s reactions to my story, the more I saw that I needed to share it—when I was ready.

In the networking, research, and self-help I’ve encountered since long before I realized the assault, one thing I’ve learned is that too many people don’t understand.

I want people to understand what is going on inside a person’s mind days, months, or years after he or she has been sexually assaulted so that the humans hearing these stories can be empathetic, not judgmental or dismissive.

I want other survivors to know that they are not alone, and it is important that we talk about it.

Too many people think that the assault was an isolated incident. It happened, it was horrible, and that was the end of it.

Too many people don’t realize that the incident, the memory, the trauma, lasts for years. Relocation doesn’t solve the problem. Addiction doesn’t sweep the issue under the rug. Staying busy doesn’t block it all out.

Too many people question the strength and integrity of a woman who let herself get into a situation in which she could be once, twice, repeatedly sexually assaulted.

Too many people don’t realize that it is often strong, loving, giving people with good hearts who find themselves in these situations, who hear that it’s their fault, always their fault, and so they try to do better because that’s the humans they are. But nothing was ever their fault in the first place.

Too often these people are the victims themselves.

I didn’t do anything wrong. But I was told I did. I collected stones in an invisible backpack with each transgression. I collected stones each time I did something I didn’t want to do because I was coerced, manipulated, humiliated, and dominated into doing it. I collected stones until the weight held me down and the only way to pick myself up was to start unloading those stones until my bag was empty.

Sexual assault commonly results in post-traumatic stress disorder. The realization, acceptance, and effects are not always immediate.

In my case, it took me more than a year to realize I was sexually assaulted. And it didn’t occur to me on my own.

The effects of a past relationship slowly started to trouble me. I became nauseous when I heard his name or saw something tangible that reminded me of him. I began to flinch when men gingerly put a hand on my shoulder, making a move. I became hypervigilant and hyperaware, lending toward a constant state of anxiety and subsequent depression. I had nightmares that were only memories. And yet, I still obsessively thought about him.

My mind concluded there was something wrong with me. It didn’t help that this is what most of the world was telling me.

But one day I couldn’t take it anymore. One day I picked up the phone and told my story to someone, with as many painful details as I could remember, from beginning to end. That conversation positively changed the course of my healing, because I felt for the first time in a very long time that I was not alone. I felt listened to and respected. I felt empathy instead of judgment.

I had been carrying this burden that I didn’t fully understand and I just couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t carry it alone.

But understanding the truth of my past relationship was only the beginning. From there, I had to go through heartache all over again. I had to break up with the memories—all while continuing to function in my daily life: go to work, cook food, make new friends, sleep. Most importantly, I had to forgive myself, because in the first months of the healing process, I blamed no one but me.

I thought I was weak for getting myself stuck in this situation in the first place, for being blind to the red flags. I felt guilty and shameful, dirty and disgraceful. In my mind, I had become infinitesimal.

The man who assaulted me took my virginity. I lost something I can never get back. For a very long time, I felt that this man took with him a piece of my spirit.

Since realizing the assault, I have been trying to redefine what intimacy means—without being intimate with anyone. That’s a very hard thing to do.

But by opening up to a select few people and sharing my deepest, darkest, most vulnerable secret, I am learning. I am understanding that romantic passion between two people is not supposed to be selfish. It is not supposed to cause you gut-wrenching, incapacitating pain that leaves you unable to walk for a week. It is not supposed to make you feel like you are merely a body—inadequate, disposable. It is not supposed to make you feel like you are just an ant crawling across this great big earth, trying to escape the magnifying glass that taunts you.

I have wanted so much to forget the man who assaulted me. I have wanted to never hear his name or see his face again. On the other hand, I have wanted to stare him hard in the eyes and show him what a strong and capable woman I’ve not only become but have always been.

Sometimes what we want doesn’t really matter. Sometimes it’s what we need that counts, and what I really need is peace in my heart. The only way I know how to do this is with forgiveness.

He doesn’t deserve my forgiveness, but I won’t be doing it for him. I’ll be doing it for me.

Now, when I look in the mirror, I don’t see a woman who feels helpless, unworthy, or ashamed. I see a woman who is confident and self-aware, who is not afraid of men or love but who is learning what it means to be respected and dignified in a relationship and most importantly, within herself.

Too many people put a timeline on someone else’s healing. We often even do it to ourselves. But the truth is, time is irrelevant to matters of the heart. And sometimes, we never fully heal.

Sometimes, fresh wounds become scabs that shrink in size but remain intact, picked at accidentally on rare occasions down the road. But those wounds, those scars, make us human. Those broken pieces of us somehow make us whole.

We cannot change the past. We can wish a thousand times over that the past never happened to us, or we can learn from our unique experiences. We can be open about them so that we invite healing scabs into our wounded hearts, so that we don’t live our lives in fear of love or other people’s reactions, and so that we realize no matter how much it feels like it, we are never truly alone.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I’ve written and revised these words in an ongoing draft over the past year, knowing that I would only publish this story when I was ready. I am ready. This article isn’t about pointing fingers. It’s about sharing vulnerabilities in an effort to inform, unite, understand, and—ultimately—heal. Thank you for letting me tell my story, and for being there for me on the other side.

**This is a public post. If you feel this story speaks to you or can help someone, feel free to share it.

Vegan Pumpkin Spinach Artichoke Dip

Add a little fall festivity to your dip display with this recipe!

Baking the dip inside the pumpkin allows for some of the pumpkin flavor to seep through. If you want to get really pumpkin crazy, you can use a fork to shred the pumpkin flesh into the dip.

pumpkin chip dip

Ingredients:

1 pie pumpkin, 2 c chopped spinach (frozen or fresh), 12 oz artichoke hearts, 2/3 c unsweetened almond milk, 3 garlic cloves, 1 bag dairy-free mozzarella cheese, 1/2 yellow onion, 1/4 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp black pepper, olive oil

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. Lightly caramelize minced garlic and diced onion in olive oil.

3. In a bowl, mix the caramelization with the other ingredients, minus the pumpkin.

4. Gut the pumpkin. (Save the seeds for baking the best pumpkin seeds ever!) Place it in the oven, top off, for 45 minutes. The dip is going to bake alongside it and then in it, conveniently at the same temperature.

5. Pour the dip ingredients into a casserole dish. Cover with tin foil to prevent browning and bake for 25 minutes or until cheese is nearly melted.

6. Remove the dip ingredients from the baking dish and pour the contents into the pumpkin. Continue baking for the remaining 20 minutes. Make sure tin foil is over the hole of the pumpkin to prevent browning.

7. After baking, if desired, shred the pumpkin flesh with a fork and mix in with the dip.

8. Use dipping food of choice–from chips to crackers to bread or veggies!

9. Remove any leftovers from the pumpkin and store in fridge in airtight container.

 

 

 

Vegan Gluten-Free Blackberry Cobbler Tart Recipe

This delicious recipe is somewhere between a cobbler, tart, and crisp. It’s delicious. That’s all that matters.

It’s also relatively easy to make! The preparations take less than 20 minutes and then it bakes for 40 minutes.

These blackberries were handpicked (perks of living in the PNW!) and then frozen so that I can make blackberry goodies year-round!

blackberry cobbler tart crisp

Ingredients:

For the filling: 2-1/2 c of blackberries,  1 Tbsp maple syrup, 1/2 tsp vanilla extract, 2 tsp cornstarch (or corn flour for thickening)

For the crust: 1 c brown rice flour (or gluten-free flour of choice), 3/4 c oats, 1/4 c maple syrup, 1 tsp cinnamon, 1 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp salt, 5 Tbsp solid coconut oil

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. Mix the filling ingredients in one bowl.

3. Mix the crust ingredients in another, being sure to mash the solid coconut oil up until the mix is crumbly. Set aside a large handful of the crust mix to sprinkle on top.

4. Press a thin layer of the crust into a tart pan being sure to go up the sides of the pan about 1/4 inch.

5. Pour in the blackberry filling.

6. Crumble the rest of the crust ingredients on top.

7. Bake for 40 minutes. Tent tin foil over the top at 20 minutes so that that top doesn’t burn!

8. Serve, eat, enjoy! Store covered in fridge.

Check out my handpicked jam recipes for: blackberries, nagoonberries, and watermelon berries.

This recipe was adapted from Bakerita.com.

Recipe for The Best Pumpkin Seeds Ever

For 29 years, I’ve been eating pumpkin seeds the basic, old-fashioned way: baked and covered in salt.

This year, thanks to inspiration from my friend, I went wild with my pumpkin seed baking, and I’ve never had such delicious fall-flavored morsels in my mouth.

pumpkin seeds

Ingredients:

pumpkin seeds, salt, garlic powder, cumin, paprika, fennel

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 300 F.

2. Gut the pumpkin, separating as much goo as you can from the seeds. Be sure to save every last one!

3. Spread on a small baking sheet and sprinkle with the above spices in whatever amount you deem delectable! I recommend going easy on the fennel. I went easy on the paprika, too, because I’ve got a limited tolerance for hot spices.

4. Bake for 40 minutes, rotating frequently.

5. Remove from oven and spread around baking sheet to keep from sticking. Allow to cool.

6. Serve, eat, enjoy! Store in cupboard in airtight container to prevent staleness.

Hurricanes, Hugs & Humor

The first two weeks of October, I was on the road A LOT, offering my heart and receiving so much heart in return.

When Hurricane Irma hit the Keys, I struggled from afar for half a dozen reasons, part of which involved immense empathy and understanding for my Keys island family, having lived through a CAT 4 storm myself.

As the days ticked by, I found myself becoming increasingly more anxious to step foot in my old stomping grounds. I was antsy out of excitement, nerves, and fear.

Without consciously planning it this way, the timing of my trip proved to be quite serendipitous. I boarded a red eye on September 30, the two-year anniversary of the day a tropical storm was brewing in the Caribbean that might hit the remote Bahamian island I was living on. I landed on October 1, two years to the day I woke up to a CAT 4 historic hurricane on top of me.

But the second I walked out of Miami International Airport and into the arms of my Bahamian island parents who drove from Naples just to see me, my anxiety melted away. My island parents hug like no other–strong, sturdy, genuine. Their embrace needs no words to tell how they feel about you, about life, because their assuring physical touch says it all.

They drove me down to Florida City after a quick jaunt at Cracker Barrel (a restaurant I haven’t seen or visited in years–Amurrica!). I then waited excitedly in a Starbucks to reunite with my friend Kris who left the Keys nearly five years ago. I was SO excited that, in sending a flurry of texts and phone calls sharing my whereabouts and ETA to Keys folk, my palpable joy started putting smiles on faces of the coffee shop’s caffeine-infused customers.

I expected to hold back tears as we entered Key Largo, creeping south toward Marathon in the Middle Keys. Memorable and iconic local hot spots were strewn about; towering piles of debris lined the roads. But mostly, I had a smile on my face, because I knew I was about to see my island family.

In the short week that I spent in the Keys, I had limited time to help: ripping off moldy, sodden baseboards, tearing down dry wall, and digging through sand. My friends are exhausted; cleaning up the aftermath of a hurricane is a daunting task. Many of my friends are now homeless and/or jobless.

But they still have so much love to give.

I spent the evenings attempting to organize gatherings–relief from the hurricane relief. I knew one week wasn’t much time for me to make a dent in the clean-up and construction, but aside from putting my set-building skills to use, I also have my joy, love, and comedy to offer.

Before my trip to the Keys, I was struggling to process it all. I called one of my closest friends who knows the long version of what I’ve been dealing with the past couple years. He asked me to recall the first time I laughed after Hurricane Joaquin.

I really, really had to think about that. Due to my isolated situation following the storm, it was two weeks before I could get out into the community. I had no one to talk to about the fear I’d experienced or the apocalyptic aftermath that kept me awake and inappetent. Two isolated weeks following a traumatic experience is like two years.

But I thought hard, and then I started laughing. I remembered someone lending me some gasoline so I could drive the truck down south and make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to distribute to the now homeless, alongside the hot dogs my friends cooked. (Read more about the incredible perspective I gained from this trip south here.)

Bahamians like their meat, and they don’t eat PBJs. (It’s largely an American thing.) I made somewhere between 50 to 100 PBJs… but I had to practically beg the locals to take the sandwiches from me once we ran out of hot dogs. I remember laughing at my efforts to help and seeing how people can still be opinionated in the hardest of times. It reminded me that no matter what life throws at us, we’re still human.

Even if I am covered in sweat and dirt and my muscles are sore, I am still me. Even if my heart is broken and I can’t imagine tomorrow, I am still me. I will always have the gift of crazy, uninhibited, Energizer-Bunny energy, and I tried my hardest to share that with my island family then and now.

Another aspect of my healing process that was missing post-Joaquin was human contact. Studies show that supportive physical touch–a simple hug–actually results in incredible physiological changes within the body, including decreasing stress.

I hugged often and I hugged hard when I was in the Keys, because I’m a hugger, and I know how much I’ve missed and needed that in my life. My Keys friends are huggers, too, and they have a way of making me feel more loved than I’ve ever felt before.

Mother Nature can turn lives upside down in an instant, but she cannot destroy our human nature, that indelible mortal connection. Laughter and physical touch bring joy and hope that have a healing power all their own.

The Keys will recover just like Long Island, Bahamas recovered, and it happens with love, joy, and a little bit of laughter.

To anyone experiencing hardship: hug & laugh, more & often.

never stop dreaming. never stop doing.