Wednesday, November 28, 2007

When a Body Meets a Body

The following post is about a significant change in my health that I both want to write about and share on this blog. Forgive me if this seems too clinical or personal, but we’re all grown-ups here and my desire is to explain things as clearly as I can, because I’m certain that I’m not the only one out here coping with these matters. I hope you find this interesting, readable, and if necessary, helpful.

From the time I was 12 until I had a hysterectomy at 46, I knew I didn’t want children. I also had awful menstrual periods all my life that culminated in several huge fibroid tumors that nearly bled me to death for ten years until I couldn’t take anymore and had the surgery. So you can imagine how surprised I was when, as my recovery began, I felt a sense of loss as deep as that accompanying the death of a treasured loved one. I didn’t regret not having children, but I felt a peculiar sadness knowing that the issue was closed. And much to my astonishment, I missed my period and felt a palpable emptiness where my uterus used to be. It was like the kind of silence you hear when all the water in a large apartment building is shut down, the absence of a low, dull whoosh through miles of pipe that you don’t even know is there until you realize it’s missing.

It took over a year before I felt like myself again and it wasn’t my old self I returned to, but rather a familiar me who was somehow oddly different. Besides reaching puberty, which I don’t remember all that clearly, this post-hysterectomy recovery was the most stunning physical and emotional change I had ever experienced. Until now. And it feels like déjà vu all over again.

Early last month I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and put on daily oral medication to stabilize my blood sugar, as well as pills to lower my too-high cholesterol; it was a double-hitter I’ve never been hit with before. My doctor told me this over the phone during a short conversation in which he also blithely told me, essentially, to stop eating virtually everything I had eaten my whole food-obsessed life: enormous quantities of starch, fat and sugar occasionally garnished with fruit and vegetables.

If you are someone who eats to live rather than lives to eat, you may not get what this means to me. But literally from birth, I was a voracious eater and food was my raison d’etre. My parents called their new baby “our little ravenous doll.” Eating for pleasure, comfort and congeniality is a big part of both of the cultures I was raised with and the joy, indeed the imperative, to be constantly surrounded by whopping portions of wonderful food defined my world from Day One. And I had a lot of help.

My maternal grandmother was a retired professional cook who never quite got the hang of cooking for fewer than 25 people at a time, and who was convinced that I was skinny and on the verge of starvation. When I was in elementary school, every afternoon I went home to my grandparents, who provided childcare for my working parents. One of my most frequent after-school snacks was three large, chocolate-covered, custard donuts. This afternoon repast was just to tide me over until dinner, which always consisted of humongous amounts of whatever was on the evening’s menu. That barely held me until my mother came home later in the evening, when I ate again while she had dinner. Every holiday, every special occasion – in truth, every day – was reason enough for fabulous food. I loved it all and some of my fondest memories, most, in fact, are of great meals I’ve had with family and friends, not to mention a lifetime of hours of contented, solitary eating. Now everything’s different.

As a diabetic with high cholesterol, I can no longer eat whatever I want, in whatever quantity I want, whenever I feel like it. Most folks would say I never could do that, since the result was that I got very fat. I never wanted to be fat, so I tried to lose weight and did, very often, a great deal of weight on several occasions. But like 95-98% of all people who diet, I always gained the weight back, with interest. After repeatedly fighting this battle from ages 9 to 40, I surrendered. I resigned myself to the fact that I would never be thin, never even be an average weight for my height and build. Once I really made my peace with that and finally accepted myself as I was, my weight was quite stable for several years. Then, from ages 43 to 50, a lot of shit happened in my life and, as a result, I got considerably fatter. I dieted a few times during that period but it only made matters worse – as did stopping smoking for five months (that alone added 40 lbs.).

Indeed, my only experience with attempting to alter my diet has been in relation to weight loss; it was never about health. Now health is all it’s about. If I knew for certain that my old eating habits would simply lead to quick, sudden death, however prematurely, I’m not so sure I’d change my ways. But the very real prospects of blindness, amputation, kidney failure, or a stroke that wouldn’t kill me but instead leave me a drooling vegetable abandoned in some heartless institution…these are prospects much more unpleasant than straightforward death! So, I’ve embarked on a new adventure. I’ve done quite a bit of online research and each day I apply all my creative cooking talents to the creation of yummy low-sugar, low-carb and low-fat meals and snacks. I need to start exercising, too, which in my case means daily walks, but I haven’t gotten there yet. For now, I’m concentrating on what I eat, feeling okay about it, and reconstructing my emotional relationship with food. I’m not trying to lose weight, but weight loss will occur, since my new way of eating makes that inevitable; it’s already begun. Only time will tell where I level off, but wherever that is, it is. I’m more concerned with a different set of numbers – and a different way of life.

I’ll keep you posted.

This post is illustrated with the Two of Cups because the number two is regarded as the prime feminine number and symbolizes dichotomy, transformation, self-awareness and perception. In the Tarot, Cups is the suit of emotions and the Two of Cups traditionally signifies lovers presenting themselves to each other in a spirit of profound connection and on an equal footing. But during a number of readings I’ve done for others, this card has come up as a clear indication of the two halves of the self at odds and needing to merge into one – and because the Tarot is in essence a language, over time the cards “speak” to you as you perceive them. This is certainly a time of inner conflict that I have to find a way to resolve.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Thanksgiving in the 21st Century

I now know several people who don't celebrate Thanksgiving because of America’s subsequent annihilation of the Indians. I also know people who hate or avoid this holiday because their dysfunctional family gatherings are the antithesis of the Norman Rockwell/Hallmark Card stereotypes that were held up to us as normal when we were young, even though our celebrations (or families) didn’t look like that.

And I’m aware that there is a growing food-humorless population that rejects Thanksgiving as an occasion of food used as over-indulgent amusement. The wonderful but regrettably-fat-hating Bill Maher, for example, speaks with horror about Thanksgiving because we’re such pigs that we “stuff food into other food” (as if Thanksgiving were the only time for stuffing!). And he brings us full circle when he observes that Thanksgiving commemorates “the one nice moment we had with the Indians” and is (and I paraphrase slightly here): “like a date rapist saying, ‘Let’s remember the lovely dinner we had earlier in the evening and forget about what happened later’.”

However, politically incorrect though it may be, I have always loved Thanksgiving and I still do. When I was growing up, Thanksgiving was the only major holiday that wasn’t the sole province of the Christians or the Jews, so it was the one family gathering that wasn’t fraught with religious/cultural tension. I also loved the food, and I liked the mythology of sharing and friendship between the Pilgrims and the Indians. Later, in my teens, when I discovered Buffy St. Marie and read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, I still loved Thanksgiving, but was genuinely appalled by the revelation of actual American history.

Over the years, Thanksgiving went from neutral to melancholy as our immediate family circle died off and our extended families wanted no part of us. For my parents and me, Thanksgiving was often just the three of us, sometimes at home, more often in a nice restaurant; my Jewish mother preferred to save her cooking energy for Christmas dinner.

As an adult, I have come to appreciate that Thanksgiving isn’t really an Early American construct, but just another variation on the Autumn Harvest Festival celebrated in many ways by cultures around the world for thousands of years. Indeed, in earliest pagan times, farmers believed their crops held spirits who made the crops flourish or fail, and who had to be killed before they took revenge on the farmers who harvested those crops; the festivals honored defeat of the spirits. Numerous harvest festivals and celebrations of thanksgiving were also held by the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, Greeks, Romans and Hebrews, some of them paying homage to Corn Goddesses with sacrifices of fruit and animals, and enjoying games, parades and a thanksgiving feast (sound familiar?).

What I think gets lost in all this Thanksgiving dissent is the simple idea of giving thanks for the good things in our lives – whether to a deity, one another, or the tender mercies of a mysterious universe. We can’t change history, but we can give personal and contemporary meaning to this holiday by sharing, caring and re-charging our gratitude. For the record, I hereby give thanks for:

* my home – safe, dry, cozy and private;
* my reasonably good health – all five of my senses (and the sixth…) work well, I have most of my marbles, I can walk, I experience very little physical pain and I don’t have to endure horrible medical treatment;
* my independence – I’m not physically dependent on others and financially I'm holding my own (by the skin of my teeth, but still...);
* my friends and colleagues – I’m truly rich in people who like, love and appreciate me;
* my gifts – intelligence, language, intuition & Tarot, humor, music, critical thought, cooking and a few others I’m too modest to list here...;
* my history and memories – the dearly departed, the places I’ve been, the things I’ve done, the people I’ve met, the things I am;
* my toys and tools – computer, television, books, (and a few others I’m too smart to list here...).

There are moments – sitting down to a nice meal I’ve cooked myself; snuggling into a bed with clean sheets and a fluffy quilt; sitting in the quiet with a good book, strong coffee and cigarettes; looking out the window early in the morning, watching other people go to work – when a wave of gratitude washes over me and I realize that despite all the things that hurt, anger, worry or frighten me, I’m a very fortunate person.

So, however you do (or don’t) celebrate the day, I wish you a healthy and happy Thanksgiving, and a joyful awareness of the blessings in your life.

And a candied sweet potato. Trust me, it won’t kill you.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Misplace

I think I’m losing my mind. For the past couple of years, I’ve been avidly reading and watching the news, posting on political blogs, and generally feeling engaged with the insane world in which I live. Indeed, except for the blogs, I’ve done this most of my life, with minor exceptions – namely, those occasional periods when I was an emotional wack job. But over the last few months, I’ve noticed that I’m not keeping up. I used to watch The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer faithfully at 7:00 p.m., then relax with Emeril Live at 8:00 p.m. (unless there was a really good old flick on Turner Classic Movies). But awhile back they moved Emeril to 7:00 and without making a conscious decision about it, I gave up world affairs for new things to do with chicken. Bam!

I’m not really reproaching myself; anyone who isn’t going nuts in this day and age is crazy! I want to do what I should to stay in the know: watch the Presidential debates, try to understand WTF is happening on Wall Street, stay current on environmental matters, and keep up with what George W. Numbnuts is doing to destroy America as we know it week by week. But I can’t. I hate the campaign, hate it! I hate that the Democrats are responding to nearly eight years of disastrous, unconscionable idiocy by walking on eggshells and playing it safe. I hate that they’re wasting time dumping on each other when they should be united against that man! I hate that the Republicans are still kissing the Christian Right’s ass instead of saying “Uh, this isn’t working; you people are bonkers and we have to get back to running a conservative secular state.” I am not a conservative – but I would rather contend with real conservatives than the holy rolling psychos we’re dealing with now, including the one in the White House.

I hate that TV news is, for the most part, dedicated to C-list celebrity gossip, unspeakable crimes, and stories about global warming, the economy and the dearth of adequate, affordable healthcare that are all so awful, I can’t watch anymore. I hate that blueberries were $2.99 in July and are $6.99 now (at least in my Manhattan neighborhood supermarket); I need blueberries! I hate that I’m being deluged with telemarketer ghost calls, even though I’m registered on the Do Not Call list. I hate that New Orleans is still a disaster area and southern California looks like a cookout run amok.

And I hate that there is more active slavery today than at the height of the transatlantic slave trade that trafficked in Africans hundreds of years ago. Today it’s a $12 billion international sexual slave industry literally built on the backs of 30 million desperate people, 80% of them women and children – but that’s for another post…

In my defense – which is to say, in defense of my escapism, appalling memory loss, and failure to be busy 24/7 working to right horrendous social wrongs – it’s been a rough few months. I need thousands of dollars worth of dental work and can’t afford a filling. I was recently diagnosed with diabetes and high cholesterol, which turned my world upside down – but that’s for another post, too. My aging body is a mass of aches, pains and alarming symptoms that literally propel me to hide my head under the covers. My house looks like a storage room. I’m not being as helpful to others as I should be. And I’m broke. Stinking broke. I really am grateful to have what I do, but it's not enough and insufficient is exhausting. Broke sucks.

Both my dreams and waking hours are filled with fears about the future: what will become of me? What will become of everything and everyone? I’m so scared most of the time I can hardly breathe. I tell myself to calm down, to not worry about what hasn’t happened (yet), to just dread one day at a time. But I feel like I’m slipping. Sometimes I find myself watching something or listening to someone talk, and I realize I have no idea what they’re saying, even though I recognize that they’re speaking English. (It’s the same feeling I get listening to Shakespeare; I hang in for a spell, then it just fuzzes up like static.) I feel like a character out of one of those movies where someone wakes up hundreds of years in the future (for some supposedly plausible reason) and just can’t adjust. I’m not adjusting. I’m not well adjusted!

I could go on complaining, but I trust you’re getting just as bored as I am with my whining. I wish I could be one of those people who smile and keep a stiff upper lip (as well as their own counsel), never letting others know their tale of woe. But I’m not. I’m me. And I feel like I’m losing my mind.

And you? How are you??

Thursday, November 01, 2007

`Tis Not the Season

It’s November 1st, which means it’s the official start of the Holiday Season, the generic term for Christmas – not the religious or social or fanciful Christmas, no – the Christmas of people buying things for each other in an atmosphere of stress so heavy it crackles like a live wire blown into the rain by an angry wind.

Actually, Christmas began with the Labor Day weekend, a traditionally busy shopping time but less so this year, because folks are freaked out. Lots of people didn’t start their shopping early and a lot of us still aren’t ready to begin. The mortgage crisis. The lead-embellished toys. Gas prices. The Fires. Food prices. The hateful, tedious campaign. The horrible news of strife and death everywhere around the world. There was an Earthquake in California. Robert Goulet died. I once heard someone describe the poinsettia as the Robert Goulet of botany… which is funny and true, and brings us back to Christmas.

I used to love Christmas when I was a little girl, even after I found out Santa was an urban myth. For one thing, it didn’t start until after Thanksgiving – the day after, yes, but no one tried to steal Thanksgiving’s thunder. Right after we took down the construction paper pumpkins and skeletons and ghosts from the school windows, up went the turkeys, Pilgrims and Indians and they stayed up for a whole month. I was in many a Thanksgiving school play. Once I recited Hiawatha in Assembly.

The weather was cold and got colder still. Within a week of Thanksgiving, those little swags of garland and lights shaped like stars went up on the avenue, linking lamp posts on opposite sides of the street, creating a low-tech fairyland. The alleged Santa held court at Macy’s and parents didn’t think a thing of letting their kids sit on his lap. Ladies began to wear Christmas corsages on their coats, little clusters of glitter-covered pine cones and holly leaves dotted with tiny, shiny Christmas balls, tied up with a red bow. We would send Christmas cards out and Christmas cards came in, dozens and dozens of them. I was sent to Woolworth’s to buy a few of the economy-size boxes of 50 assorted cards; it was something like $2.79. My father thought those people who went to the card store and spent $5.00 on boxes of 20 fancy, matching cards were crazy.

Around December 15th we got the tree. They were tall and plump when I was a child, but by the time I was in my teens, they had been downsized to pathetic little Charlie Brown trees. My father thought those people who spent $30 and $40 on more hearty Christmas trees were crazy. But whatever it looked like, we decorated it with old ornaments in muted 50s colors, and colored lights that looked like gurgling thermometers, and aluminum foil icicles that used to slip off the tree and turn up in my dust mop in April.

As Christmas Day drew closer, we played carols on the record player and drank eggnog with rum, and people would come to visit us and we would visit them. My friends and I exchanged little gifts – mugs and earrings, candles and scarves. I bought my parents sleepwear and books. They showered me with toys and clothes and money. But by the time I was in my 30s, they had simplified their gift to me. It was always the same: a bottle of Anis Anis cologne, a carton of Marlboros and a check for $100. Years later, a girlfriend laughed and said it sounded like a hooker’s Christmas haul. I don’t know; I was happy…

It’s all different now, so frantic, actually mean, and joyless. When Thanksgiving finally rolls around, a full month of false seasonal mirth and relentless sales pitches has already passed. Everything on TV, from commercials to programs to station breaks, paints a Hallmark/Rockwell/Currier & Ives portrait of Christmas that has never existed for anybody, but nonetheless makes millions of people feel cheated, dysfunctional and miserable. And broke. Because it’s all about the presents, the stuff.

I don’t mind that they took the Christ out of Christmas; I think it makes the holiday more accessible to more people as a secular party-time (and anyway, a lot of folks have begun putting the Christ back in... which is a double-edged manger). I can even accept that the message of peace, love et al is entirely seasonal. What I can’t bear is that whatever specialness and sweetness Christmas had left has been smashed down by a commercialism so insidious that each year, I want to escape to some pagan isle where the winds are balmy and there isn’t a ho-ho-ho to be heard. Meanwhile, I’m not shopping. Shsssh! I’m just trying to keep my head down and my spirits up. God willing, the season of miracles will be over before I know it.