Have you ever been dealt a problem which you thought was a terrible, terrible problem — and it was, even — but later you discovered that it was actually a doorway, to a whole world of subtlety and self-love you really needed to uncover?
That’s how I feel about food, with which I struggled for, oh, fifteen years easy and then way more after that, though later the dial turned down considerably. I’m grateful almost daily for this particular challenge, whose profile has changed from problem to more like question, or puzzle.
It continues to be an unpredictable, daily journey of ups and downs and, finally, a reminder to listen to and honor the feelings and the inner landscape. Where am I on, and where am I off, and what is my own middle way?
One thing I did which, phewf, as le petit garçon might say — what a relief — was to stop dieting. That was around age 17 when I discovered the work and writings of Geneen Roth, in a furtive and desperate visit to Waking Owl books, where I found her book Feeding the Hungry Heart and, at last, someone who got what I was going through. The relief of dismounting the roller coaster of restriction was like exhaling after holding my breath for fifteen seconds too long.
But alas, rather than eating in a balanced way I kind-of misinterpreted that as a green light of sorts, and instead swung in the other direction to an extreme, and therein lay my struggle for years to come.
|I swear I have no idea what you’re talking about.|
Another story for another time. Twenty years hence I feel like Geneen and I are enduring pals: I’ve stuck with her and dug deeper with her as she — as we — investigate the ways how we are with food reverberate, wider and wider into all aspects of our lives.
Take Rules, for example.
Turns out, the following-of-rules is deeply ingrained in me. For years I hunted for a set to follow, along with the right label to describe myself. Maybe, I subconsciously figured, if I found them I’d finally be able to relax. I'm good at following rules, at being good — or at least trying to be good, and then knowing when I’ve been bad, so I can feel bad, and then try to be good again. I’d be OK.
But as It turns out I hate rules, even when I agree with them. The problem is that beneath the surface is the implication that without them we are not to be trusted. If left to our own devices, particularly around food, we will devour the entire box, our appetites are too big to manage, we are fundamentally bad.
It begins with food, but then it extends to other areas of our lives: don’t trust your ideas. Some outside arbiter knows better than you.
I much prefer the line of self-trust, as scary as it is. So on this journey with food I found a path of sorts which is not about following rules but rather listening closely and respecting what my body wants — which is what I wanted all along anyway.
I vividly remember seeing Danny Kaye direct the Utah Symphony when I was about twelve years old. The first half of the concert was the regular conductor Maurice Abravanel; and then, written on the program for after the intermission, was simply this:
That one question mark thrilled me, visually stamped itself onto my memory.
|Danny Kaye, Tanglewood 1961|
It strikes me that my relationship with food is more like that now: rather than a regimen to follow, it’s more like a daily question mark in relation to food. What’s right for right now?
Roth — Geneen, since we’re old friends — talks in one of her books about permitters and restricters, about how we’re often basically one or the other, kind-of fundamentally oriented that way. Of course someone with anorexia would be the classic restricter, and someone who compulsively overeats might be your classic permitter. I am a permitter all the way who once wished she were a successful restricter, because she imagined they were more disciplined and thus morally superior.
But (sigh) I guess I am a rebel at heart. It’s not the law of the land, obviously, but rather a tendency. I prefer these days to think of myself as a listener, as opposed to a blind follower of rules. I need the freedom of choice.
|Choice: definitely an option here.|
Apropos of everything, I read just this morning in the philosophy book I found in the children’s section: Quand un acte est libre, il a plus de valeur pour nous et pour les autres qu’un acte forcé. When one does something of one’s own free will, it has much more value than the same thing done under duress.
One thing Roth offers, as a counter to all this, is a set of eating guidelines. Unlike rules, there’s no feeling shitty after if you don’t adhere to them perfectly. They’re more like loving offerings. If love could speak, this is what love would tell you is helpful. Maybe you focus on one for a while, and see what happens when you follow it, and what arises.
Sit down when you eat, don’t stand there because we all know that when you stand things somehow don’t count or they’re forgotten or we don't really taste and experience them. Eat without distractions, so that you really taste and savor this food you’re putting in your beautiful body. Eat with pleasure and enjoyment: relish the gift of this food. Eat as if other people could see you, as if you were in full view of the world. There’s no hiding here. And eat when you’re hungry. Trust the messages this body sends you.
Some say that how you eat is how you live. How you eat is the messages you send to yourself about what you deserve and what you value. For me, eating mindfully, without distractions, is deeply challenging. I often do it on the fly. Or I’ll make a beautiful meal, and then I’ll think about other things and whip through it like the Queen is waiting on me, and then I’ll wonder, where did that beautiful meal go? Does that say something about what I think I deserve and how much time I deserve?
|So much to savor|
I'm still working on that one.
I do love the subtlety of it, even while the lack of confirmation makes me deeply uncomfortable. Am I fat? Am I ugly? Vegetarian? Good, bad? Straight, gay, bi? Turns out in most cases it’s somewhere in the middle.
Maybe those kinds of questions are unanswerable anyway, so it might do me well to disengage from them as much as try to answer them. Weight, another example: for me, better to turn my back, toss the scale, and trust the inner guide on that one.
(I can hear The Voice mocking me now: Trust your feelings. Inner guide. Ha! Look how far that got you! I put her in a little jar, so she doesn’t sound so intimidating, but jeez already.)
Perhaps it’s no accident that I am now in an expressly secular country which celebrates food to a kind of religious extent. I get the irony: good food is plentiful and even amazing, and I’ve the ability and luxury and good fortune to daily eat according to what feels right. The éclairs will be there tomorrow, and the next day, so there’s no rush to consume it all in one go.
|No, seriously: we’re only scratching the surface here.|
This whole damned blog could be about food and body image, really, since the topic is so deep. And constant: it’s a daily effort to meet these questions, and to treasure both food and this body.
I don’t know about you, but some of us around here might have just turned 47. How did that happen? It’s a prime number, 47; prime seems the perfect word to describe the juicy pulpy marrow of life at this age. Besides, what is age, anyway? As a wise person once said to me, we’re all kind of the same age, really, at this moment, aren’t we?
Mid-life is such a personal journey. How much longer? How will it end? What do I do with this accumulation of mini experiences and traumas? What’s it all for, and who is the final judge? IS there a gold star at the end? Who the f is issuing the gold stars? Wait, there ARE no gold stars? Oh merde, hold on a minute: who the hell am I living this life for anyway?
I mean, so I’ve heard. You probably already knew this. I had a hunch, but it’s finally sinking in.
Once again, Mary Oliver steps in to issue a nugget of wisdom and perspective. News flash: What you’re looking for is who is looking. That person, that final arbiter and distributor of the stars? That’s you, m’dear.
We’ll let her drop the mic once again, with a poem that makes the rounds frequently, and for good reason. The first three lines alone. Words to live by.