I’m spending much of my week creating five fall (yes, fall already in the magazine world!) dessert recipes (gluten-free, casein-free, egg-free, soy-free, with vegan options) for a magazine. I need about five additional testers right now—people who can make one of the recipes as it’s written and report back the results to me by next Tuesday (the 16th). Testers can’t share the recipe with anyone until I let them know it’s been published, but they will get to make some tasty food and help spread the good word that gf/allergen-free can be satisfying . . . all while doing me a favor, of course. If you’re interested, send me an email at sally dot parrott at gmail dot com by Wednesday at noon. Let me know if you have further food restrictions in your email.
June 9th, 2009 · 6 Comments
June 3rd, 2009 · 9 Comments
A few days ago, my husband tweeted, “If loving cookies is wrong, I don’t want to be right.”
That man is a cookie fiend, but the cookies he was eating when he wrote that are especially delicious. They are made from a recipe I created by altering a recipe I’d already created. The first recipe calls for sorghum, teff, buckwheat, and mesquite flours. One day, maybe six months ago, when I had a craving for the unique and marvelous taste of mesquite, I began pulling out my flours to make the original cookies . . . but I discovered I was out of buckwheat. Then I noticed a package of Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free flour mix that had been opened but barely used. I decided to try the recipe using Bob’s in lieu of the teff, buckwheat, and sorghum. And honestly? Even though the batter itself didn’t taste as good as the first version (Bob’s has the tin-like beany taste in the flour), when the cookies were baked, the beany flavor evaporated, and I thought the finished product was better than the original.
After I made the new variety, I ate a couple and put the rest in the freezer—an action that I usually take with cookies to avoid the on-the-counter incessant munching phenomenon. When I popped by a friend’s apartment a few days later, I took her a couple of the frozen cookies, which she adored. Ever since then, she’s mentioned those cookies whenever I have prepared other foods around her. So when she had surgery a few days ago, I bought a bag of Bob’s Red Mill, pulled out a pack of mesquite flour, and got to work.
She ate a couple of cookies with her pain pills. They certainly don’t make it all better, but every little bit helps.
Mesquite Chocolate Chip Cookies, Take II
Gluten-free, Egg-free, Casein-free, Vegan
6 Tbsp. hot water
3 Tbsp. ground flax seeds
1 tsp. oil
2 1/4 c. Bob’s Red Mill GF baking flour mix
3/4 c. mesquite flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt (use a bit more if you don’t use salted nuts or seeds in your version)
1 c. Spectrum shortening or ghee
1 c. turbinado sugar
1 c. dark brown sugar, packed
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
2 c. dairy-free chocolate chips
1 c. roasted, salted pecans (or salted sunflower seeds, for a non-nut option)
possibly 1-3 tablespoons of water
Put the oven racks in the top half of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Mix together the flax meal, hot water, and oil in a small bowl (I use a ramekin for this). Allow to gel while you perform the next steps.
If you’ve never used mesquite flour before, open the package and put your nose to it so that you can inhale it malty, nutty, chocolaty aroma. Combine the flours, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a medium-sized bowl. Cream the shortening/ghee with the sugars and vanilla until well-mixed. Add the flax egg replacer, and mix well. Add the flour in three or four doses, mixing between each dose. Fold in the remaining ingredients. The batter should be mildly crumbly but should be easy to press or roll into small balls of dough. If you think the batter is too crumbly, add 1 tablespoon of water, mix the batter thoroughly, and test it again. Repeat if necessary.
Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper or Silpats. Scoop or press about two tablespoons of dough into a ball or somewhat flattened ball. (The cookies seem to spread more if they’re made with shortening rather than ghee.) Place the cookies about two inches apart on the pans.
Bake 15-20 minutes, or until cookies are fairly firm. (They will firm up more while they cool.) The cookies will be a bit darker than traditional chocolate chip cookies due to the flours in them. Remove the cookies from the oven, and transfer to a wire cooling rack after a couple of minutes.
(You may refrigerate the dough, covered, for a day before shaping and baking the cookies. Sometimes I think they even come out better that way.)
Makes a lot of cookies. My batch made about 36.
May 31st, 2009 · 13 Comments
What a gorgeous bounty of food.
Yesterday morning, my husband and I made our way to the park to join the wandering masses making their way through farmers’ booths, bakery stands, and stalls of homemade goods.
I picked out most of the produce we will eat this week. We already had an avocado, red potatoes, limes, lemons, squash, sweet potatoes, a bit of lettuce, and a tomato at home. As you can see above, I purchased lavender, peaches, cabbage, leeks, lettuce (oh my goodness, one of the best local purchases you can make), asparagus, radishes, broccoli, blueberries, beets, carrots, cucumbers, and blackberries. I also bought a cup of cool mint tea to sip as we shopped, a wedge of cheese for our next wine party (each person contributes money to attend), and four cilantro plants. The total came to $59.
One of the farmers was late to the market; he said it was because they’d only finished picking the vegetables an hour earlier. Another had blackberry stains on her fingers from just plucking the berries we purchased from her. One of the farmers’ teenage sons, who was running his family’s booth, gave us a discount “because you’re here every week.” I had a conversation with another farmer about how I’d taken to roasting radishes, which mellows their pungency with sweetness. He asked for details on my process so that he could go home and try it. When I complimented one of the farmers on how well the hydrangea he’d given us the previous week had held up and suggested that he tell potential customers I’d said so, he insisted I take more hydrangeas home this week as a gift.
How long were we there? I couldn’t tell you. Thirty minutes? An hour? It was so pleasant shopping under the shade of the breeze-tickled trees, warm sun peeking through at intervals, babies napping in strollers or watching the many leashed dogs trotting through beside their owners. I had no desire to hurry it up, to try to be efficient as I often do making my way through the grocery store, hugging myself to keep warm.
When we got home, I sat down and ate half the blueberries while chatting with my husband. The berries were so ripe and lovely, giving way in my mouth with each sweet bite. When I stop to think about it, I am so amazed at the beauty and diversity of what air, soil, water, sunlight, and a little seed can create—often with the hard work of a farmer, of course, especially a farmer who isn’t using chemical fertilizers or pesticides to keep the plants healthy. But just the sheer variety of what edible plants exist on this planet, or even in my area—it’s wondrous.
The food is put away now. Dan is outside potting the cilantro as I type. The hydrangea are tucked in a cobalt blue glass on the table. The peaches sit in the windowsill, where they’ll finish ripening. I just need to plan our meals for the week now, to make grateful, celebratory, and health-giving use of this abundance of local foods.
May 29th, 2009 · 10 Comments
If you’ve been missing my writing, I’ve got a rather large spread in the Summer 2009 Delight Gluten-Free magazine (a new gf mag) this month. It’s a cover article called “Weight Loss Without Willpower” about some of the same topics I’ve covered here–and some I haven’t gotten to on here, as well. It includes a two-week gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free, soy-free meal plan with all the recipes (with omnivore and vegetarian options—though veggie not soy-free, and I did accidentally leave out a veggie option for one salmon meal) and photos I took of some of the foods. (The photo of the cardamom berry crumble on page 82 makes my mouth water, if I do say so myself.) I hate when magazine meal plans have boring food, so I carefully prepared the meal plan to fulfill readers’ taste buds while offering great nutrients and reasonable calories. All the recipes were taste-tested by several preparers, and a Registered Dietitian double-checked my work. If you’re interested in checking it out, I’d be honored if you would find a copy in a store or request one from the website . . . or if you would ask a store near you that carries gluten-free products to stock it. Of course, if you want to email the editor and tell her I’m a jewel, that you’re thrilled I’m writing for her, and that I should be paid $100 a word, I won’t complain about that, either.
I was hoping there’d be more info about this issue on the website already, but that’s not up yet. C’est la vie! I’m just happy my copy came in.
May 6th, 2009 · 7 Comments
“so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
–william carlos williams
I remember in high school, junior year, explications of William Carlos Williams’s poem. I remember learning that he was a doctor, a pediatrician. Someone (perhaps the text) suggested that Williams had written the poem after making a house call where a child died. The theory went that he walked outside after the death of the child, and in the senselessness of the moment, he saw the red wheel barrow, glazed with water, and the poem formed in his mind as a representation of what we can’t divide.
But maybe it was just a moment. I’ve never seen that story of the poem since. Maybe it was just a guess, and maybe it was wrong. I cannot say.
The past week has been filled with particular moments, the meaning of which I cannot fully tell you, because I do not know. And yet, they have been stark, or striking, or poignant, even without comprehension.
I fell. My husband was giving me a piggy-back ride down the sidewalk. (This shouldn’t surprise you, should it? It’s a common occurrence, well befitting our absolute silliness.) And he boosted me up, but he boosted me too high. He leaned forward to try to regain his balance, and I went flying over his head. In the worst-case-scenario, reptilian part of my brain, my concern in falling was simply do-not-squash-husband’s-head (as he fell, too) between my thighs and the sidewalk. Thus, unconcerned with my landing beyond that, I hit the ground with my left arm crooked under my stomach. I punched myself in the stomach; road rash streaked my elbow. “Are you okay?” I gasped at him, panicked about his head. But he had simply scraped his knee. “I think I might have broken my arm,” I told him as I perched, breathless and nauseated, on the ledge of the sidewalk. My elbow swelled. My arm throbbed. I’ve broken my arms twice before; I’ve hurt numerous body parts. I think of myself as someone who breaks bones easily. I spent that night mostly sleepless, my arm immobile, and the next morning at the doctor’s office getting x-rays, thinking about the multitude of times I’ve pulled on a lead apron and arranged body parts under the clicking lamp, curious how many x-rays it takes to bring on the side effects of radiation.
My arm wasn’t broken. I felt like the gluten-free diet—which can prevent or reverse bone decay—is a ray of sunshine that falls upon me and warms my bones with strength. In the moment leaving the hospital, my arm aching like hell, I felt immense gratitude for avoiding certain foods.
A friend invited us over to catch up. “How was your trip?” We spilled out the stories, tumbling over each other with details of our adventures and misadventures and impressions of the different cities we saw. “What’s your news?” we replied, expecting she’d found a house to buy.
“I have breast cancer.” She had just learned. She has no family history. She’s 34.
Life feels so full, and yet, when you need to, you shove everything else aside, and you make room for what matters more. We’ve listened when she talks. I’m so amazed by her self-possession, yet I’ve told her she should never feel like she has to be anything but what she is, whatever that is at the moment. Her only young friend with a cancer history, her only friend with such self-chosen time, I accompanied her to one of the doctors to find out options. I took notes on chemo. I was able to be present for her, in whatever small way. I hate—I abhor—that she has to go through this. For the first few days, I kept thinking it could not be true, that at any time she would call to say it had been a mistake, and I kept thinking how my shock must pale in comparison to her own.
And yet, for me—I told her, and I meant it, that it’s okay if she never feels this way, and that I hadn’t thought about it until I talked to someone else who’d been through worse than I had and that girl had told me the same thing—but for me, even though it’s come at a high cost, I would never take my cancer back. It’s taught me too much. That’s easy to say when you get to live through it, maybe. Maybe if it comes back tomorrow, I’ll do nothing but rage against it, though God knows I have repercussions from it, even now, that I live with day to day. The fact is—even if it’s a small thing, and this is one of many gifts—I have been able to listen with empathy, not just sympathy, as she has worked through some of her struggles with this process. How can a person regret the ability to empathize?
Today, I made stock from the chicken we roasted last night for a small dinner party with two new friends. One of the joys of self-employment is the ability to take the time and energy, during the day when I still have time and energy, to put a stock simmering on the stove for the afternoon. Taking the bit of time to make stock, to make full use of the animal that sacrificed its life for us, just feels right. I put the chicken bones, the carrots, the onion, and the green garlic into a large pot, covered it all with water, and turned the eye on to medium-high. I dug out the kitchen shears and skipped down the stairs outside to the deck and then the yard, where the kitchen herbs grow in warm blue pots. I thought to myself what a fine thing it is to wander outside on a spring day, linger among the herbs, and clip fresh them for a simple stock. I bent down to sniff an herb I didn’t recognize.
“It’s RAIIIIINING!” I heard a kid yell joyously on the playground adjacent to the house—just feet away from me. What? I thought. My head flicked up, and I saw a drop bounce off a leaf a foot in front of my eye. Within a single second, the downpour engulfed me. I clipped what I needed and raced back up the stairs, into the house.
Sticky clothes do not feel good. My glasses were coated in rain. But how could I do anything but laugh, hard, out loud, even though I was alone in the house? It was my private moment of comedy.
You can’t always explain life. You can’t always parse it. But you can try to lean into it. Sometimes I think that’s all you can do.
April 29th, 2009 · 22 Comments
Well, I might as well get started writing something, since the longer I wait to write something, the more I feel I should be writing something powerful and significant, not just catching up. And that, dear readers, is a recipe for absolute writer’s block.
So where’ve I been?
Partly—working. Working has never precluded blog-writing before, but until this point, working has never been researching and writing. Despite my deep love of writing, it turns out that I reach a point where I either don’t want to write more or can’t get into a state of flow with writing anymore.
Partly—visiting my grandmother. That meant going with only spotty internet borrowed from a neighbor for checking email. My grandmother just told me she wishes she could be on Facebook with much of our family, though—and when a 94-year-old computer-averse woman wants to be on Facebook, you can see why the 24-year-old Facebook founder is worth over a billion dollars.
Partly—wanting to write about topics which can’t be public at this point. I rarely get trolls hitting up my blog, and I have many supportive readers, so that’s not the issue. But part of what I’ve wanted to write about is my husband’s job search and my experiences with that, and while the job search is now going exceedingly well, I don’t feel comfortable talking about it in a public location where anyone searching for my or his names can read my thoughts.
Partly—taking my energy for writing and applying it to personal correspondence. I’ve gotten really bad about communicating with my friends over email. I set emails aside to respond later and then realize way later that I haven’t responded. My friends mean more to me than that. But there’s only so much writing energy to go around, as I’ve said.
Partly—feeling too jumbled at times to pull together cohesive posts. Anxiety, excitement, and frustration have been common lately, but I haven’t gotten the clarity to write about some of it.
Partly—going places like the amazing cathedral in Cologne.
Two of the three jobs we’re most seriously considering for my husband are in Europe. We used up my husband’s (wonderful) frequent flyer miles buying me a rather last-minute ticket to go with him and see where we might move in three months. We were there nine days. I was way more focused on, “Could I live here? How do I find food I can eat? How do I find my way around?” than on taking photos, so I didn’t take nearly as many as usual. But if you want to see some of the photos, I’ll put a link to the Flickr set once I fix my Flickr uploader in Lightroom.
So what specific news can I share with you right now?
First, I’m in the process of developing a couple of gluten-free, allergen-free cooking classes in cooperation with the woman who runs our CSA here in Atlanta. The (hopefully hands-on, not just demo) classes will be held at a fabulous cooking school here. We are focusing on local, sustainably produced foods as well as the gluten-free/allergen-free aspect. Assuming everything moves forward, we’ll be having classes in the next two months. I’d love to hear your thoughts about what you’d most like to do or learn in a cooking class for people with food restrictions. I’m really pumped about offering these, because I’ve thoroughly enjoyed taking cooking classes in the past, and I’ve really missed that community connection around making food.
Second, my husband has been brewing gluten-free, and it appears that we (okay, he—but I made suggestions!) may have brewed a gluten-free beer that resembles a chocolate porter or stout. If you have ever bought any gluten-free beers in stores or restaurants, you know that a dark gluten-free beer doesn’t exist yet (or at least, not that we’ve ever found or heard of). The others he brewed this round all seem tasty, too: richer and more complex than the gluten-free beers on the market. He bottled them a few days ago, so we have a few more days for the beers to be fizzy and ready to drink. Are you a fan of dark beer, and you’re gluten-free? If so, tell me what varieties of beer you miss the most.
Third, my weight is up a bit. It’s easy to feel anxious about that, but it’s much easier to lose seven pounds now than to panic, avoid thinking about it, stress-eat, and regain 30. Gaining a bit and then losing it again is a natural part of the lives of many people who maintain healthy weights. I am telling myself I can do it, that I have the tools to do it, and that I just have to be conscientious about taking care of myself. I am mentioning it here because hiding it makes it a bigger deal than mentioning it does. Talking about this kind of stuff on my blog is what has kept me on track for this long, so I may be talking about healthy eating and weight loss—and my struggles and triumphs—a bit more again for a while. I haven’t exercised as often lately as I normally do, and I haven’t been as conscientious about what I’m putting in my mouth and whether what I actually need is food. But like I said, I can do it! Each moment of each day offers the chance to make good decisions. I don’t have to be perfect and won’t be—just have to make good decisions most of the time.
I want to write more blog posts. I want to get my self-care series back on track—so much for 26 changes, but we can still manage 20 or so! One of the things I’m juggling right now is when to do work, when to do fun things, when to do essential things (like chores), and when to do things that fall between those zones. Working from home has many benefits, but it can also be a bit complicated.
March 24th, 2009 · 21 Comments
This is a very exciting time of year. My husband and I try to eat seasonally as much as possible, sourcing many of the ingredients we use from local growers and purveyors who use sustainable methods for what they produce. We’re fortunate, living in the South (the Southern U.S., that is), to have a variety of vegetables available to us all winter long. The Cherokee Indians, who lived in this area, had a name for the time around February that meant “Hungry Month,” but with the number of family farms that now serve the Atlanta area year-round, we do not go without in winter. Collard greens, sweet potatoes, kale, carrots, turnips, winter squash, potatoes, green onions, radishes, apples, and more are all available. Unlike most of the rest of the country, we even get salad greens in all months except July and August. (Once you’ve tasted fresh, local salad greens, no other greens can taste quite as good. You can see, when you bite into fresh greens, why the farmers have to fend the deer off from them so mightily.) And we can get citrus fruit from Central Florida, traveling to us at a distance of less than 500 miles. When I want fruit in winter, I’ll take it.
Of course, every year around this time, I look up one day and realize that Atlanta has burst, again, from the stark beauty of winter’s spread, brown, branches into a cacophony of colors and scents. Visit Atlanta late March to late April, and you’ll be scouring the real estate ads as you sip your sweet tea on a restaurant’s patio. The jonquils and dogwoods may kick things off a bit quietly, but the azaleas soon burst forth, nearly all together, within a couple of weeks. Then the maples and the cherry trees and the—just everything. Everything blooms, all at once. That’s how it rolls in Atlanta. The bees hum along from bush to bush, and the chattering mockingbirds build nests close enough to the porch to chirp warnings at you when you need to come inside or go out. If you can help loving Atlanta in the spring, may God help you—you’ve got a stone in place of your soul.
Then the glorious inevitable happens. My weekly update from the CSA arrives, and as I skim the news, I see, “We have strawberries coming in this week.” And I jump up and down and call or email my husband to tell him.
Strawberries again! We haven’t had a strawberry since last July. And while some might call us foolish for not buying the Chilean berries we could buy at the store all winter, we’ll take the real thing, thanks—local, and fresh off the vine to our plates. How else could I get so excited over the arrival of a fruit?
The strawberries will be in season through perhaps June. Peaches, with their heady scent, will show up in May or June. The watermelon and canteloupe will become available in June, too, just as we need fruits full of water to quench our Southern summer thirst. The blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries will come into season mid-summer and may last through August. And the plums will round out the season. And those are just the fruits—just some of the fruits. The available vegetables will be too numerous to list.
I didn’t always know which fruits and vegetables came into season when. A few years ago, despite growing up here, I was nearly entirely oblivious to what did or did not grow in Georgia, as well as when those foods were in season. Then, keeping only price and recipes in mind, I bought whatever I wanted at the grocery store whenever I wanted to eat it. But after I had cancer and started researching diet and sustainability and just how interconnected we all are, as we’ve adopted a diet based more around local foods, I’ve come to know what the CSA and farmer’s markets will start offering around what times of the year. And I’ve embraced the joy of getting fresh foods, at the peak of their nutrients, while developing relationships with some of the local farmers. It’s a joyful relationship, a satisfying practice.
And this season of abundance starts with the strawberries. I’ve been daydreaming since last week about what to do with my two pints of strawberries when they arrive this Thursday, but I haven’t yet come to any conclusions yet. The strawberries are likely to be a bit less succulently sweet and juicy than they will be later in the season. Dan and I are avoiding cane sugar right now, though we are using some other natural sweeteners. . . . Do you have a favorite way of eating strawberries? A favorite recipe to share?
March 21st, 2009 · 6 Comments
There’s so much we take for granted.
I’ve had this thought several times lately when I’ve been looking at food magazines, blogs, and books. It’s been nearly two years since my diagnoses of gluten intolerance and latent food allergies. I can still look at photos or descriptions of recipes and imagine the way a crusty popover will tear open with the first bite, or the way cavatelli, cooked just al dente, will have the perfect heft, give, and structure to make me relish a cream sauce and a crispy contrast of bacon or broccoli. And I think, There’s so much we take for granted, meaning, People who can eat anything without getting ill rarely appreciate what life is offering them.
But only occasionally has that thought led me to twinges of self-pity. Instead, the train of thought moves on to, What am I failing to cherish that deserves to be cherished? How can I lean more fully into appreciating the life I have?
I’m not sure why, but it’s extraordinarily easy to live with our minds on the past or the future. In the past, we were putting money into savings every month instead of drawing a bit out. In the past, Dan had more time to spend with me and less time he had to spend on his thesis. . . . In the future, what if Dan gets sucked into working like this at a job and rarely has time for me? Where are we moving in six months? What will it be like to live, again, somewhere without friends I already know?
I remember doing this earlier in my life, too. Like many people, I spent my childhood years wishing I could be like my older sisters. I spent my teenage years often wishing that I was an adult. In my early adult years, while I relished my freedom of movement and choice, I severely missed the freedom of not worrying about bills that I had as a teenager. And so on.
But what is life asking of me now? Life will always require trade-offs. To live satisfying lives, I think it’s imperative that we accept the fact that there are no perfect answers. So lately, when the back-thens and what-ifs come rolling through my head, I try to stop and focus on the pleasure and value of our current lives. Of any given current moment, really, whether I’m on the porch sipping a glass of wine or in the kitchen wrestling with a failing recipe.
Dan and I have enough money to make it through. We are without debt except for student loans, and we are not at risk of accruing new debt. We know we can rely on each other to try to be patient, loving, understanding, and devoted. We live in the heart of a fun city, with walking and public transit access to all sorts of parks, events, museums, and activities. Our car is reliable—and it’s old enough to be an adult, so that we don’t worry about occasional dings. I have the freedom to rest when I feel worn down. I have the unique opportunity to take the energy necessary to shape my life, accept guidance, and explore new paths. I have the opportunity to be more giving to my wonderful husband while expecting less from him as he struggles through his thesis. I have time at home after marriage and before children—which makes me more aware of it being my own time than I ever have been before. I am getting paid to develop recipes and write about things that matter to me, which feels like the most exciting and perhaps the most honest money I’ve ever made. I have the time to experiment with recipes, make beans from dried, make homemade stock. The spring is shaping up to be gorgeous, offering us the opportunity to set up a table outside and invite friends for potlucks. We are both able-bodied. We are house-sitting in a home where we have a beautiful bedroom and space for guests. We have a wide front porch with a swing, which is a dream come true for me. We have good friends, many of whom we see regularly. We throw fun parties. We have a church we enjoy attending, where we feel challenged to grow and accepted for who we are.
I’ve spent the last two months or so developing recipes, a meal plan, an article, and side bars for a small start-up magazine. (I’ll post more information when I get confirmation everything’s a go for the issue.) With my work broken down into hours, the pay for this particular piece would be fairly dismal. (It’s not mistreatment of me; it’s the nature of small magazines, especially ones just starting.) And I’ve used so much of a particular kind of mental energy on that in the last three weeks that I’ve lacked energy for things like emails and blog posts. But in the process, I’ve discovered just how much I enjoy the challenge of recipe adaptations, when I give myself over to thinking through them. I’ve given more thought to what kinds of writing I enjoy, where I want my energy to be employed, and what I value most and want to share with others. I’ve started thinking about writing a book about various aspects of self-care—and what I’d want to put in the book if I do. My sleep is as disturbed as ever, but several times I’ve woken from strange food dreams with ideas for new ways to create tasty food that’s free of gluten and allergens.
There are limitations and frustrations and fears in my life, just as anyone else’s. There’s much in this world that needs to change, and those things need our attention. But what I’m talking about is perspective. With the basic necessities of my life met, if I can focus on approbation rather than dissatisfaction, and if I keep my mind on now rather than on how the past worked and what the future may hold, there is much to celebrate. Life is good, truly.
February 27th, 2009 · 6 Comments
I think many of us spend so much of our lives with family members, role models, religious leaders and texts, self-help books, magazine articles, and other facets of society telling us to be ruled by self-control, via willpower, that it quickly becomes ingrained in us that immense willpower is essential for running the more difficult parts of our lives. Certainly, there are times when the only thing holding us back or making us go forward is a sense of moral duty, and that can fall under the category of self-control. But self-control of that sort often doesn’t work well as willpower for healthy choices in our day-to-day lives. When the elusive ‘willpower’ fails us, we think we’re lacking something core. We have internal battles where we berate ourselves for even thinking about making poor choices. We struggle to want to make good choices. We need better motivation and methods than simply exerting willpower over ourselves our whole lives.
Fortunately, good self-care provides us with other vehicles for motivation. When we’re choosing to feed ourselves so that we blossom instead of controlling ourselves so that our urges are reduced . . . well, it just changes the equation. It becomes easier to make good choices. Those choices enable us to be more satisfied, fulfilled people with more to offer others around us. And when we err, as all of us do, we are able to forgive ourselves and move forward—to know that we will always be beautiful works-in-progress.
One of the techniques of tuning into myself to improve my life is to pause, ask, listen, and respond.
Let’s say I’m feeling upset. I feel really irritated at the world, and I don’t know why. I start feeling aggravated, and it elevates until I have worked myself into a deep funk. At this point, it’s tempting to let myself just give in to being so frustrated without figuring why—but it doesn’t make me happy, and it isn’t really fair to anyone around me (especially my husband). If I catch myself in one of these moments, I take the path of empathy.
I pause. I take a deep breath and release it slowly. In the moment of pausing, I recognize how I’m feeling, and I don’t try to struggle against the feeling. I just let it be—which is in itself an act of empathy.
I ask myself gently, “What do you need right now to feel better?” or “What’s at the heart of you feeling this way?”
I listen. I give my mind and spirit time to work through the answer. There are times I can’t tell why I’m feeling off, in which case I can simply offer myself heartfelt condolence on feeling bad and not knowing why. But more often, I’ve discovered, my body will tell me what’s really going on if I take the time to listen.
In the scenario of being grumpy, perhaps I’m tired. I discovered I was often very tired when I first started doing this exercise. In trying to suppress being tired, I would lead myself (and occasionally still do) to anger, or food cravings, or anxiety, before I realized what I needed was rest.
Then I respond. I tell my body what I’m going to do to improve the situation, and I stick to what I’ve said. It is not always possible to get instant gratification, but it is often possible to make adjustments to improve the situation over the next few hours. And just knowing that I will take steps can help my emotional state begin to improve.
When I began realizing that I was often tired—that I was regularly wearing myself out beyond the point at which I could easily recharge—I started giving myself permission to take an occasional half-day off work just to recharge my batteries with rest. I began taking more naps. I reduced my caffeine intake and regulated my hours of sleep to give my body better circadian rhythms. I started taking melatonin at bedtime. Etc. I demonstrated to myself that I could trust myself with my self-care. In the process, I became more able to take good care of myself, and I was able to create a life more suited to my needs and desires. And as I’ve continued this process, I’ve become more likely to be able to figure out what I need before I hit emotional crisis mode.
Previous Posts in the Year of Self-Care
Intro to the Year of Self-Care
Step One: Embrace Gradual Change
Mid-Point Support for Step One
Step Two: Commit to Weekly Grocery Planning
Mid-Point Support for Step Two
Step Three: Eat Breakfast Every Morning
Step Four: Offer Yourself Empathy
February 18th, 2009 · 8 Comments
Offer yourself empathy. This is a very important step in self-care. I started to say it’s one of the top three lessons I’ve learned in the past couple of years of self-care. Really, it’s one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my whole life.
Before the start of 2006, before I began offering myself empathy, my goals around self-care—most profoundly with weight loss—had to do with that supposedly magic word: willpower. I believed that if I just worked hard enough to whip myself into shape, I could make myself do anything and stick with it long-term. If only I had enough self-discipline, I could do it. When I failed at something, it meant that it was a failure of my willpower. It wasn’t that my timing was bad or that the decision wasn’t the best one for me or that my life stressors were too great to make good decisions at the moment. Instead, it meant that I had a major character flaw that I needed to correct. I would get so upset with myself at times that I’d end up in tears or with a racing heart from my inner self-flagellation. Inevitably deflated as my willpower for a given diet flagged (how long can a person struggle against herself, after all?), I fought the guilt and upset with myself by rebelling against the diet. (If I’m going to mess up, better do it in style.) The guilt returned; my enthusiasm for the diet was gone. I ate unhealthy, temporary feel-good fixes, and my weight rose again. I was miserable with myself for losing a bit of weight and then regaining it yet again.
I did have a character flaw preventing my weight loss, as it turned out, but it didn’t have to do with willpower. Quite the opposite: it had to do with me being too hard on myself. Miniature failings equaled character flaw equaled an angry interior voice: “What’s wrong with you that you can never succeed at this?”
Then I read an article about weight loss by the marvelous Martha Beck in O Magazine, and it changed things for me. In the brief article, Martha described “becoming the watcher,” a term (originally from Buddhist thought, I believe) that means looking at yourself objectively in order to see yourself objectively and then give yourself the emotional support that you need. When you feel panicked, exhausted, angry, whatever, instead of trying to force yourself to feel something different or chastising yourself for how you’re feeling, you offer yourself the same heartfelt emotion that you would offer a friend, “I’m so sorry that you’re ____, my body. That is a difficult and frustrating way to feel.” . . . The first few times I did it, I felt loony, talking to myself like that. But you know what? It worked.
It works, I should say—I do it to this day. After a while, I discovered it works even better if I continue the talk with my body by listening to what my body is trying to tell me underneath the lashing-out emotion or intense (often seemingly irrational) desire. After a while of forcing myself to take a deep breath and an empathetic approach when I felt off-kilter, the gentle conversation with myself mostly became second nature to me. Instead of, “What the hell is wrong with me? Why can’t I just do right?!” I began offering myself compassion. Feeling cranky and don’t know why? “I’m so sorry that you’re feeling out of sorts, my body. That’s no fun at all. What needs to change in my life in this moment to ease that feeling?” Have a craving for a food even though I know I’m not hungry? “I’m so sorry you’re confused about what you want, body. You’re really tired, I see, and it makes you think that you want to eat chocolate, when what you really want is a good nap. I want you to know that I’m going to take a nap as soon as I get home from work today so that you start to feel more balanced.”
When I work with myself instead of fighting myself, my mind calms down. When I pay attention to myself, my systems stop screaming for attention because it recognizes I will usually choose to answer the more subtle messages it’s giving me. Over time, I’m more and more able to ascertain what it is my body, spirit, and mind need from me to make my life more fulfilling.
I think there’s a tendency, among those of us who normally beat ourselves up, to think (in our worst moments) that we don’t actually deserve to feel any better than we feel when we feel bad. That is, of course, ludicrous—we have just as much right to recognize our needs and feelings, and to seek true satisfaction of those needs and feelings, as anyone else does. Take the person you love the most in this whole world—your child, your spouse, your best friend, your parent. The goal is to treat yourself with as much kindness as you would offer that person. And if you can’t think of anyone you normally treat with empathy because you’re someone who has been stuck in an unhappy mode of constant, harsh judgment of others and yourself, changing your inner voice to a more empathetic one can be the first step in broadening your boundaries enough to give yourself and others the breathing room to be imperfect . . . and grow.
It’s not just about weight loss, though self-empathy helps with weight loss. It’s about finding fulfillment in life by honoring your needs. That starts with gentle listening.
“Taking the Weight Off . . . Again” by Martha Beck (the article that got me started in offering myself empathy)
Martha Beck’s blog (If you haven’t been reading Martha Beck’s writing, it’s entirely possible that you really should be. I started reading her in O Magazine at the ripe old age of 14, and she’s been a writer who’s had one of the largest impacts on my life.)
“The Use of Mindfulness in the Treatment of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder” by Jeffery Schwartz: This is the study that Martha Beck references in her article. I found the study fascinating and gratifying; reading about it encouraged me to take becoming the watcher seriously.
Previous Posts in the Year of Self-Care
Intro to the Year of Self-Care
Step One: Embrace Gradual Change
Mid-Point Support for Step One
Step Two: Commit to Weekly Grocery Planning
Mid-Point Support for Step Two
Step Three: Eat Breakfast Every Morning