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Friday, January 14, 2011

Feed Your Body; Feed My Soul

      Some people eat to live; some people live to eat....yeah, I'm one of those. When I wake up tomorrow morning, I will begin fantasizing about my egg sandwich. I won't eat it until my kids are fed and busy playing. This is so I can focus all of my attention on a breakfast that is not a microwaved bowl of oatmeal. I will lick the dripping cheese off the side, bite into the side slowly, and pick up the crumbs with my finger tips and lick them off. I will make my little Saturday morning treat last as long as I can and make every carefully measured calorie count. Then, while I sip the rest of my Indian tea. I will begin thinking about what I am going to make for dinner. This will determine what I can eat for lunch. And since, like 95% of  other Americans, I started to "get healthy in 2011," I will allow myself some sort of special treat tomorrow night- just because it's Saturday. Not sure what yet, but I know it will be chocolate. And I will smell it first. I will inhale the chocolate's aroma and feel the serotonin levels in my brain rise. I will eat it as slowly as possible letting each bite melt away on my tongue before taking another tiny morsel into my mouth...yes we're still talking about food.
     Okay, so maybe I like food little bit more than the average person, but I know I'm not alone. If I was alone, there wouldn't be a study released every other week or so telling us all how fat we are. For many of us, food = love. I was raised in an Italian American home, so I can only speak from my own experience here, but I was taught that the way you show someone you love them is to cook for them. Or, if someone has taken time to cook for you, you show her your love by eating her food. We eat out to celebrate accomplishments. We eat in when we need to ease pain. We feed our colds with homemade soup. When I met my husband, we both gained 20 pounds during our first year together. Why? Because we ate ice cream while we cuddled in front of the TV. (Now I'm thinking about Phish Food....damn you Ben and Jerry!) Anyway, so much emotion is wrapped up in food, and there are some schools of thought who claim that we should re-program ourselves so that we can just eat for nourishment. "Food does not love you back." And I don't entirely disagree with this. I lost 50lbs before we got married by learning portion control and accepting the fact that EVERY meal doesn't have to be the most indulgent thing I've ever eaten. But I don't think it's possible to separate the emotion from the dinner table. I don't think we're supposed to. I have a theory......(surprised?)
     Humans are social animals. Thousands of years ago, we lived in small clans as hunter/gatherers (we even describe our species in terms of food). Living in the wild, we were always vulnerable to predators. We had to keep our guard up continuously. As animals, we are most vulnerable during certain activities: mating, sleeping, and not surprisingly, eating. When we would eat, we were sharing a kill. The people we would eat with had to be those who we most trusted and cared for. Most likely, they were a blood relation. When we ate, we naturally let our guard down. Now evolutionarily, we haven't changed much at all in the last few 100,000 years. Our bodies may be fatter, but they work the same. When we share food with others, our guard starts to come down. Think about it, when you make a new friend, what do you do with her? Go out to lunch or get a coffee. First dates are usually out to dinner. When you want to bring someone home to meet your parents, you invite them over to dinner. Breaking bread, sharing a meal is the way we build bonds of trust with other people. Every year when I get my work schedule, I frantically ask around to find out who has the same lunch period as me. And every year, I make a new friend at lunch.
     Now chew on this. So much of our memory is tied to our sense of smell. Why do we even need a sense of smell? Primarily to tell if our food is safe to eat. But it also connects us to moments in our life. In my house, I would wake up on Sunday morning to the smell of garlic and onions sauteing in olive oil. I wouldn't even eat breakfast, I just wanted to dip a chunk of bread in my mother's sauce. (And I would always burn my tongue.) The smell of Halloween: dried leaves, crisp air, and the faint smell of chocolate mixed with plastic inside my candy bag (ew, are those Mary Janes?) The smell of Entemann's Bakery (located a block away from my high school) early in the morning as I ran the mile for gym class...I was so confused in those days. And finally, the smell of rotting mangoes. Outside my "dorm" (I use that word loosely) where I stayed when I studied Sustainable Resources in Costa Rica, there was a mango tree. The mangoes were all over the ground rotting. The smell the sour alcoholic rancid mangoes mixed with the occasional waft of pesticide permeated everything and lingered constantly in the air. (I didn't eat a single mango in Costa Rica. Now I can't get enough of them.) Even the memory of the smells of food evokes emotion.
    Then there are the studies that show that when a mother nurses her baby, both the mother and child experience increased levels of oxytocin. This is a hormone associated with bonding. Incidentally, it is also released in both men and women during orgasms, and is found in high concentrations in couples who are newly in love. Even more interesting is that this same hormone is released in mothers who are not nursing and in fathers when they are feeding their newborn babies. It is a hormone that facilitates bonding. I vividly remember when my second daughter was born and I had to leave her in the hospital NICU when I was released 2 days after I gave birth. I was sitting alone in my living room pumping at 2 in the morning. I remember thinking about how she smelled and feeling the same way that I felt when I had first fallen in love with my husband, longing to hold her. Feeding, eating, bonding....it is all one in the same.
    You see, I don't really agree that food = love, but I do think that SHARING food = love. I don't want to get religious on you, but every week Christians around the world "receive God" by eating a tiny piece of  bread. When we feed people, we are giving them more than sustenance; we are giving them a sacrifice of our time and energy. When we accept food from someone, we are telling them that we trust them, and are grateful for their sacrifice. So, while I do want you to all "be healthy in 2011," I also want you to EAT. Break bread with someone. Cook for someone. Eat slowly. Eat joyfully.  Maybe just cut the portion size down a little.
......BUT if you come over my house for dinner, I WILL cook with butter, and salt. I will put cheese on everything that doesn't have chocolate on it. I will indulge you....why? Because I love you, and I want to make you happy!   Now, go!   Mangia!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Ramblings of a Hopeless Optimist

     I guess I've always been a hopeless optimist. You know, rose colored glasses and all. Somehow I am not only always able to see the silver lining, but I'm often grateful for the cloud. I think it's because I know that hardship is necessary for growth and evolution. If things never get difficult, then there is never any reason to make change. Look at the horseshoe crab. It has had the exact same morphology (sorry, forgot I'm a science geek)...It has had the same exact body plan since the dinosaur era (Paleozoic, if you care). Its habitat hasn't changed much at all, so it hasn't changed either. Evolution only occurs when a species is stressed. And likewise, we as humans, only grow spiritually and emotionally when we are stressed.
     The other reason why I think I always manage to smile and keep my head up, even during my most difficult days is because I look at what others have gone through. We all suffer. Some people suffer and wallow in it. They spend their whole lives lamenting what could have been. But then there are those who have suffered the greatest of tragedies and somehow go on to live happy full lives. These are the people who have inspired me to get up in the morning even on my bleakest of days. There are many stories, these are just a couple that stand out in my mind.

The Survivors 
     I remember in high school when Mrs. Curran had us read Night, by Eli Weisel. This was the first of many stories I've read or have been told of Holocaust survivors. In college, I read Victor Nagel's What Does It All Mean, and my perspective on human suffering changed forever. When I think of what those people lived through. The torture. The loss. There aren't even enough words. A few weeks ago, my girlfriend, Staci and I were having lunch and she began telling me about her grandparents. They were Jewish and living in Germany in the 1940's. Her grandfather was able to keep this a secret. He actually worked for the Nazis as a bookkeeper in this little shack of a building nearby where a group of enslaved Jews were forced to work. He would sometimes let them secretly come into his shack for warmth. He fell in love with a young girl (Staci's grandmother) and one day he hid her. They then somehow escaped the Nazis and ran away together. I didn't get the whole story (I told her she should record them telling it and write it down). I'm sure I may have mistold some of the details. One can only imagine that their journey was treacherous and full of hardship. I know that she said that her grandmother gave birth to her mother on the side of the road as they fled to safety in Nazi Germany. Can you imagine?! I gave birth twice in a hospital without any painkillers in a safe clean environment. It was the most difficult thing I ever did.....ON THE SIDE OF A ROAD?!!!! At some point, her grandparents made it to New York. They managed to start a new life and they raised a wonderful family. From what I gathered from Staci I can say that they lived "happily ever after." As happily ever after as a holocaust survivor can, I suppose. 
     That kind of strength and perseverance amazes me. The will to survive. The power of love. And I have the nerve to stress out about my husband's car needing a new timing belt? At least I still have my husband. Let me tell you about my girlfriend, Joanna.
    "CansKer"
     Five years ago, my friends Joanna and Carlo were celebrating their daughter's 2nd birthday. Shortly thereafter he was having strange symptoms and after a whole lot of tests he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer....in his early thirties. Carlo loved life and lived joyfully. Truly. He and Joanna never gave up hope that he would get better. Most people don't get diagnosed in their early 30's. He was young and strong and he fought. He fought hard.  They had three years together as a family before he could  fight no more. During those three years they lived their lives to the fullest. They did not let his cancer prevent them from pursuing their dreams together. They bought a house. They took their daughter to Disney. They travelled to Italy to see their family. They laughed and joked....even about the cancer. He never lost his sense of humor. In the end of  the summer of 2009, they chose to become pregnant. Joanna said to me that she wanted him to have everything he wanted in his life, and that she was prepared that she might someday be a single parent. She was pregnant and showing at his funeral that fall. Carla was born in spring of this past year. Joanna is so inspiring to me and to anyone who knows her. She is grieving, of course, but she says that she cannot help but smile everytime she looks into Carla's shining brown eyes. She is so grateful to have this beautiful little soul bless her life.  She has accepted her lot in life, and she looks forward to her beautiful daughters' bright futures. She perseveres. I know she misses Carlo. And she has a 6 year old who desperately misses her daddy. But whenever I see her, she is smiling, and talking about her dreams for their future. She is living. She is finding joy in her life. And if she can move on and face each day as a single working mother/widow with a smile and hope for a better future, then so can I. So can you.
     The thing that we sometimes forget is that humans are animals. Our first instinct is to survive. And we do because we can learn from our experiences. We have the unique mental ability to detach ourselves from our situations.  Unlike most other creatures, we are more than our physical existence. We are capable learning from others' experiences, and we can alter our responses to stimuli.  There are people living in some of the harshest environments of this planet. They live without adequate food or clothing. There are people who have to walk MILES to get water for their families every day. EVERY DAY! And these are people who still manage to love and laugh and find joy in their lives, however difficult they may be. Whenever I'm feeling sorry for myself, I think about people who have lived through great trajedy and suffering and I think...How dare I. How dare I complain when I have so much to be thankful for. So whenever I feel like life is hard, I count my blessings. I take a deep breathe. I remember what my father always says, "This too shall pass." I try to think about what lesson I'm supposed to be learning. I pray for strength, and I let go.
     I hope that you can find the strength and faith to do the same.  I wish you love and happiness.  May you rise above your suffering and find whatever it is that you need to get through.