Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Living Without

As I was driving through town at age 18, a farm stand caught my eye. I stopped and spent my last 2 quarters for a handful of ripe, juicy plums. They were the perfection of fruit in late summer. Beautiful color, delightful texture, and amazing sweetness. As I ate the first one and then the second, the juice ran down my arms and onto the steering wheel. Inconvenient, but not worth stopping the feast. But then, as I bit into the third one, something else happenned. My teeth started to feel funny. And my ears itched. The inside of my nose, too. The itching became so intense, it slipped over into pain. I had to pull over because I couldn't see through the tears, and the painful itching just kept getting more intense. I counldn't scratch it though. It was inside my gums, my nose, and my ears. I had never before experienced anything like it, but I would again. Over the course of that fruit season, every time I ate any fruit from the apple family, the itching returned. Apples, pears, peaches, nectarines, apricots. The strangest thing was, I could eat them in pies or in ice cream, or canned, just not fresh.

At 20, I spent three weeks in France, the pinnacle of epicurean culture. I loved it, but my body did not. This time, I traced the nasty skin rash to milk and cheese, which abound in French restaurant cuisine. Another category of foods had to leave my diet.

Shortly thereafter, I experienced the itching in my face again, this time, though, it was nuts. Walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pecans. Sigh, more allergies? When I thought about it, it made sense: the nuts and fruits that give me trouble all come from deciduous trees. Peanuts and citrus fruits are fine.

I usually try not to talk about all of the things to which I am allergic in one conversation. People tend to look at me and say, "You poor thing! What do you eat?" Well, the answer is quite a lot. As a consequence of these standard American staples of freshness being taken out of my diet, I eat a lot of citrus fruit. I eat cheeses and yogurts from alternative milks (sheep, goat, water buffalo).

The transition was not without its heartache, though. I don't miss apples. I used to eat them, but I never enjoyed them. The same goes for most nuts and cow's milk by the glass. There are some things I do really miss, though, like cheese that really melts. Fresh pears, too. I look at them in the supermarket and sigh. If only. That itching reaction, though, is stage1 anaphylaxis and could someday go farther and threaten my life. It's not worth it, and poached pears are yummy, just not the same.

The first year without milk was particularly difficult. I hadn't yet discovered alternative milks or that I could have them, and I was a college student, so I couldn't have afforded them anyway. As I was learning to read labels, I was constantly discovering things that I could never have again. Bakery doughnuts. Doritos (okay, they're not so great, but it was a tragedy at the time). New York style cheese pizza cut into big triangle slices that you fold in half and the grease runs down your hand. That next summer, I bought creamsicles from the ice cream truck for my nieces and realized I could never enjoy one again. A creamsicle, it's not something you want to eat everyday, but it was a fond childhood memory that I now cannot revisit.

I have mourned these losses. When other people enjoy the pears or the pizza in front of me, I still get wistful. Sometimes, I even cheat a little on the pizza. That symptom isn't life threatening, though I do pay for the pleasure later. But for the most part, I just live without. I eat my fruit poached, baked, or canned. On the occasions that I buy the pricey alternative cheeses, I really savor them.

Recently a blogger whom I often read posted a lovely bread pudding recipe that she said she would never make again because of the milk and cream it calls for. I commented my standard sub of soy and heavy cream for milk in a custard recipe. She and another reader popped back about the way that soy or oatmilk just don't taste the same in baking.

Well, of course they don't. They're different substances. I rather like the nuttiness that soymilk adds, especially since it's the only way I get nuttiness into a recipe nowadays. In my culinary life, I've mourned my losses and found ways to cope. Generally, I don't even think about the things I can't eat any longer. I've adjusted the way I shop and I know which brands and products are contraband.

Most of the time, I'm happy. Just do me the favor of enjoying your ripe, juicy pear elsewhere.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Santa is an Act of Love

I didn't know what I was going to say to my kids when they asked about Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, et. al. I didn't want to ruin the magic. I study fairytales and myths, for crying out loud, and firmly believe that they are vitally important to the health of our personal and social psyches. But I also did not want to look my children in the eye and lie to them. Thou shalt not, you know?

Then, one day, about a year ago, totally unexpectedly, at the ripe old ages of nearly 6 and 4.5, they asked.

"Is Santa real?" came wafting forward from the backseat. My husband glanced at me. "Santa," I said, "is something we do because we love each other. Papa and I think about what you love to do and what you need and we give it to you as Santa."

"But is he real?"

"Yes," my husband said, "Santa is real because we make him real."

"Do you want to help be Santa this year?" I offered. They did. So we did.

We split up in the store. One parent and one child buying a few small stocking stuffers for the other parent and child. The we took turns going to bed on Christmas Eve while the others stuffed stockings. It was a bit awkward, but the kids got a ton of joy out of creating the surprise for someone else.

Last week, Sofia looked up at me and said, "I want to be Santa for Papa with you."

I worried a little after we blew the Santa cover last year. Would Anna tell the other kids at school and ruin it for them? But the myth of Santa is alive and well in our house. At the same time they are plotting what to give each other and us, they want to sit on Santa's lap downtown and they write him letters in school.

I wondered about the bunny and the fairy. Then when Anna lost her first tooth, she looked at me and said, "I'm gonna go put this under my pillow so you can be my tooth fairy, Mama."

And she did, so I did.

Even though the elf and the fairy aren't corporeal beings of their own, the are very real and very true. They are expressions of our love and caring for one another. Now I understand why my mother kept putting presents under the tree with no name in the from slot (Santa's m.o. in our house) even long after my sister and I knew they were from her. And I understand why I was so sad when as newlyweds we went to my mom's for Christmas and she didn't fill my stocking. "You have someone else to do that for you now," she said.

She's right. It took me a while to convince him that this is important, but I know he appreciates the figs, Toblerone, Clementine and dime that I spirit into his stocking every Christmas Eve, and each year he gets better at expressing affection through whimsical indulgence. And now, he has the kids to help him!

Thursday, December 11, 2008


I've noticed that housework, teacher work, and writing have a symbiotic relationship with one another in my life. In turn, I use them to procrastinate from each other. Like right now, I should be grading finals and entering grades, but I've just finished cleaning the kitchen and now I'm writing this. I suppose it's okay as long as everything still gets done in a timely manner.

I've also noticed that there is a limit to my multitasking abilities. For example, I can't bake bread, do laundry, and do prep work in the same space of time. One thing gets lost in the mix. I have to choose two activities between which to toggle my attention. Bread baking and laundry serve well as the alternate activity for something more intensive since they are made up of a series of off-again, on-again tasks.

Sunday, December 7, 2008


This post came out of the mini-sermon I gave at church this morning because the pastor wasn't feeling well at the last minute. It is based on the scriptures from the Revised Common Lectionary for this week: Psalm 85, Isaiah 40:1-11, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, and Mark 1:1-8.

Recently with my students we read an article that talked about how happiness isn't only a function of what we have and experience in the present, but also highly dependent on our expectations for the future. People with moderate income, according to the article, are happier if they have reliable expectation for continued job security and raises at regular intervals.

Let me tell you, I am a total believer in the power of hopeful expectation for the future to improve my mood in and outlook on the present. I love surprizes. I savor them. I especially love when I know a surprize is coming. If I can get through the ensuing ordinary, something extraordinary is on its way.

And I totally love Advent. The time between the holidays of Thanksgiving and CHristmas is one of my favorite times of year. Despite the difficult of this time. Despite the unpredictable weather, despite the mountains of end of semester grading, despite the annoying consumerism, despite the cleaning, despite the shopping. I love Advent.

Each reading from Isaiah, each pile of presents for Toys for Tots, each Salvation Army bell ringer, each Christmas card on my wall reminds me that the surprize at the end of this stretch of difficult isn't just extraordinary; it's miraculous. It's the word made flesh. It's the divine made human. It's the holiest of holies in the humblest of places. It's Christmas!

There is excitement in anticipation, but in this case, there is a certain peace in the anticipation as well. We do Advent and Christmas every year. We know that every year, at the year's darkest point, the light comes back again. We know, becasue it happenned last year and the year before and the year before that.

The speaker of Isaiah's passage this morning says that "people are like grass, their constancy is like the flowers of the field." He says it in a derogatory way, meaning, "Why should I bother to preach to these humans. They'll pay attention for, like, 5 minutes and then turn away. Again." And God says to that cynic, "Go anyway." Because God measures things differently. "A thousand years are but a day, and a day is like a thousand years." God knows that we are like the grass and the flowers of the field. We aren't constant. We are incapable of being constant, but we are persistent. We wilt, wither, and fall away. We fall prey to doubt and darkness, but we always come back.

The cynical voice in Isaiah obviously did not belong to a gardener, because a gardener would know how persistent grass is. It may go dormant for a while in the winter, but in the spring, it comes right back, and it spreads.

It seems to me that there is a certain peace to be found in acknowledging and accepting this cycle of faith-doubt-renewal in our own lives. It mimics the annual cycles of plants and of sunlight and darkness. For each of us, the cycle is different and it can be variable. Maybe you have a time of year that is difficult for you. A time when a loss remembered makes it tough to keep your faith and enthusiasm. Or maybe the stresses of the ordinary and the difficult are just too much to handle sometimes.

Find peace in the knowledge that it is part of a cycle. Sometimes your faith may falter. The grass does, too, so do the flowers. But you know what? They come back, and your faith will, too. Trust in the roots you've laid down: your foundation in the bedrock of Christ.

Those dark hours in our lives are Advents. They are times of preparation and transition. And miraculous moments await us at the end of every one. When you find yourself in an Advent, embrace it. Find peace in the knowledge that it is a call for you to prepare. You know how to handle Advent; you do it every year. Prepare the way. Get ready for the miracle. It is coming.