Sin 201: The Diet Parable

My body’s been all over the map.

That’s not Global Mom talking about the places she’s lived. That’s Melissa talking about everywhere her weight has been.

(Make that had been.)

Eating at a hawker center in  Singapore.

Eating at a hawker center in Singapore. I enjoy really good food, anywhere, any time.

Note: I’ve been stable and healthy for decades. But the road to finally feeling free in my own skin was long, painful, erratic, exhausting, costly in every sense of that word, and even life-threatening. As a teenager I battled with eating disorders, which began at 13 with anorexia so severe, I lay in hospital for months and was even fed intravenously. That led to major weight swings, all tangled in the string of yo-yo dieting.  You name the diet, by the age of 19 I’d tried them all, including ludicrously long stretches of eating nothing but ice shavings with a dash of dust mites. (For protein.)

Eating again. Several courses at a traditional family table in Lombardy, Italy.

Eating again. Several courses at a traditional family table in Lombardy, Italy.

Where did all that extreme deprivation get me? As I said, it dragged me all over the map, including to a peak when I was 80 pounds (35 kilos or 6 stones) overweight. And this all happened within my teens. For cryin’ out loud!

Which I did. Often. I was one very stuck girl. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t figure out how to find equilibrium. My messed-up metabolism made what should have been the glorious gift of a human body more like a life sentence on a Tilt-a-Whirl.

First world problems, I know. But I share this whole history to explain why, 1) I sympathize from the floor of my gut with those who struggle with their bodies, and why, 2) extremes of all kinds scare me, and why, 3) I’m repelled by the word “diet.”

In fact, we don’t say or do that four-lettered word in my family.

I also share my history to show that people can find peace, freedom, balance. People can change their appetites. 

And now my husband wants to change. Here’s where our diet parable starts.

Eating with Claire. The fries were great.

Eating in St. Cergue, Switzerland with Claire. The fries were great.

Randall’s not been all that peppy. Worst health of his life, he says. My adorable husband, a natural athlete all his life with a wicked backhand and a speedy 10k, a man who’s always met life on the tips of his toes, has recently hit an all-time slump. He’s carrying some extra weight he doesn’t like. He’s winded by stairs. Achy after a flight. Sleepless. Sleepy.  And in last week’s executive physical (a day-long battery of tests administered at a major US hospital, where Randall’s overall health and fitness were assessed), he was advised that in order to return to the health and vigor he once enjoyed, he’d have to change his diet.

That word.

Those vulgar folks and their nasty white doctor frocks.

Problem is, over the last couple of years he’s tried everything to get his zip back. He’s cut down, cut out. Skipped meals. Tried to get infected with the Asian flu. But he’s still stuck.

“Okay, hon,” I told him while we jogged together this morning. “Trust me. I’ve got a plan. You’re going to absolutely love this. I made it up in my sleep, it’s that simple. This is it: we have to get you to eat much more. Much, much more.”

Eating. . . at the Mets Stadium in New York City.

Eating. . . at the Mets Stadium in New York City.

I explained my theory, which I happen to call the Pyramid Plan. (Because a little alliteration makes it marketable. And again, we don’t use the D––– word.)

The Pyramid simply means eating a lot of the foods that are the best for your body, what your cells really need for optimum nourishment and health, the most nutrient-packed, roughage-dense foods.

“Every day without fail you build your Pyramid by eating the most of those kinds of foods. The base of the Pyramid,” I made a triangle shape with my fingers, “is 6 large servings of vegetables. Then you add 5 servings of fruits.”

I watched him in my peripherals. So far, steady. We kept running, breezy-like. Then I added the next layer. “You eat 4 servings of whole grains. Along with 3 servings of lean protein. Then you need 2 servings of calcium/dairy, and to finish it off, you’ll need one generous serving of fat.

It was then that Randall noted what you’ve just noted. “You mean. . .no Krispy Kreme food group?”

We kept jogging.

Eating gulasch in Warsaw, Poland.

Eating gulasch in Warsaw, Poland.

“Right, yeah.” I ran straight ahead, acting clinical. “The Pyramid doesn’t include that sort of stuff because the aim is to get full on the best so that there’s not much room left for the. . . not-so-best. That way, we basically reeducate the palate. You’re not supposed to be aware of this, but we’re going to try to transform your taste buds.”

It so happens that those super foods at the base of the Pyramid also have the fewest calories per serving. The higher the Pyramid, generally the more calorie-dense the food group. What is wonderful, is that you eat well, it is sustainable, and you needn’t subject yourself or your thyroid to anything extreme. And we’re not into demonizing food. We’re learning to love the best of it.

Maybe you’re thinking of this family, who stopped eating sugar cold turkey for a year, and subsequently no longer desired what they’d craved earlier. But I reassured Randall that our focus is different. (It has to be. As you know, this jog we’re enjoying is in Switzerland. This is no time to rule out chocolate. I’m thinking of a way of working it into the Pyramid. Maybe as mortar.)

What I was suggesting to my husband isn’t first about what you can NOT eat, but what you CAN. And SHOULD. And MUST.

Eating my first birthday cake, Kansas.

Eating my first birthday cake, Kansas.

Experience has taught me something important. If we keep giving ourselves false fuel, we’re training our desires for just that: false fuel. We’ll crave empty calories that fill us up, but leave our cells screaming. When we fill our empty stomachs with empty calories, we remain forever hungry. Paradoxically, we can end up overeating, overfed, but ultimately undernourished. Left unchecked, this emptiness can lead to feeling imprisoned in our bodies, sluggish, even dead-ish.

It’s a difficult cycle to break. I know.

You already see this parable with sin taking shape.

Our spirits, like our bodies, crave true nourishment.  Truth. Meaning. Intimacy. Knowledge. Service. Hope. Freedom. Growth. Creation. Love. Problems arise when we become habituated to filling our spirits with “empty calories,” with tangible or intangible stuff (like the It Handbag or maybe Facebook fame,) which we’re fooled into thinking will satisfy us, but which in the end don’t. Because they cannot. “You can’t ever get enough of what you don’t need,” goes the adage, “because what you don’t need won’t satisfy you.”

Unsatisfied, famished, we keep scarfing down metaphorically “empty calories” in a passive stupor of addiction, mindlessly poisoning our systems with what will never ultimately satisfy our spirits. Shopaholics, workaholics, pornoholics. Liars, exploiters, thieves. We war, we dominate, we covet. We justify gossiping, cheating, condemning. We long for our neighbor’s salary, house, spouse. We allow drugs, binge drinking, insularity, promiscuity and bullying, every latest gadget, every designer trinket, every luxury leisure to fill the hallways of our schools,  starving our first world children spiritually, while third world children starve literally.

All the while, the sound of our innermost cells, screaming.

Eating more birthday cake, Alabama.

Eating more birthday cake, Mobile, Alabama.

Though I’m not Catholic, I appreciate this from Pope Francis:

“There’s the risk of passively accepting certain behaviors and to not be astonished by the sad situations around us . . .We get used to violence, as if it were everyday news taken for granted; we get used to our brothers and sisters who sleep on the streets, who don’t have a roof over their heads. We get used to refugees seeking freedom and dignity who aren’t welcomed as they should be…[We should fight ] this addiction to un-Christian and easy-way-out behaviors that drug our hearts.”

To undrug our hearts we might need to retrain our desires/appetites/impulses. For that, it’s not enough to just stop scarfing the bad stuff for a while. That Quickie Miracle Cleansing Flush might drain something, but it won’t retrain much. Something draconian––ever eaten only Tic Tacs for three weeks?––might feel righteous, even holy, but it won’t rehabilitate us for good. We’ll be back to Twinkies before we know it. It’s not enough to remove evil, to tell my children to not spend so much time in a daze with a digital gadget, for instance. Remove the gadget, and what you have is an empty space. There must be a desirable and  truly “nourishing” replacement that fills up –– or even crowds out –– the vacuum that remains. There has to be “nutritionally dense” matter that will fill both mind and spirit and train the soul toward those things.

As this wise voice asserts:

“Evil in its raucous, impudent, and foul forms penetrates so strongly into the consciousness of our precious young people that they scarcely have freedom of choice. We cannot isolate our young from the influences of the world, but we can teach them to differentiate so that they can avoid everything that is unclean, unspiritual, and ugly.”

-Dr. Johann Wondra, (former head of Vienna’s Burg Theater) “Art: A Possibility for Love” in Arts and Inspiration, ed. Dr. Steven Sondrup

Eating...ice cubes in Springville, Utah.

Eating ice cubes in Springville, Utah.

By filling the body and mind with the best, you are educated to differentiate and free to choose between the empty and the excellent. Furthermore, you can arrive at that magical moment when you realize with a jolt that you’re actually craving raw red peppers. Not at all like what you used to crave, the Cheet-os, Doritos, Fritos, Tostitos, Ho-Hos or anything else that ends in a zero.

Just a Plain. Red. Pepper.

What’s happened is all those good things from the Pyramid base have waged a gentle revolution, and your body chemistry has been altered. It honestly wants what is best for it.  It desires what is good.  When we fill our bodies and our hearts with the real, the good, the highest quality of nutrition—literally or figuratively–– we begin craving the real, the good, the truly nutritious. We’re nourished. We find balance. We’re free.

That, I think, is a mighty change.

Those words remind of a passage of scripture I’ve always loved. It’s about an ancient people, once a tribe of ego- and appetite-driven types (like all of us), who, through disciplined living and mindful choices, retrain their spiritual taste buds. They experience such an internal revolution, in fact, the record states they’d “wrought a mighty change” in their hearts, and they had “no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.”  (Mosiah 5:2)

Impossible? No more disposition for Krispy Kremes?

In a few posts, I’ll be back to report on how the Pyramid stands.

 

Not letting any of my cousins eat my birthday cake, Bloomingotn, Indiana

Not letting ANYONE else eat MY birthday cake, Bloomington, Indiana

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Straightening the Spine: The Risk, Cost and Necessity of Change

We would rather be ruined than changed,
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.

— W. H. Auden

Barbie as you've never seen her

Barbie, posing post scoliosis surgery. Mock-up for the full-body cast my mom wore for 9 months.

One whiff of isopropyl alcohol, and I am hurtled back to the summer of 1974, the year I learned my first lessons about the costs of change. Though I was too young to know it then, I was destined to learn that summer and over the years to follow, just how necessary to our survival ––but how painful, risky and costly––change is.

Those were hard and tactile lessons, as hard as the shoulder-to-groin body cast my mother wore for nine months, and as tactile as her waxy scars she allowed me to touch. Her “Frankenstein scars” as she called them, came from traction rods that had run through her knees, and from the four screws that had been drilled into her skull. The longer, purplish incisions that snaked down her spine and all over her torso came from surgical scalpels.

My nightly job was to swab with big wads of cotton the visible scars that were still healing, as well as the sore patches of skin around my mom’s arms, hips and at her jaw line.  These were being rubbed raw by every one of her awkward movements against the pumice-stone edge of plaster.

Mom’s change was no figure of speech. Her change was her figure, literally. She had undergone a complete restructuring of her spine to correct severe scoliosis, which series of surgeries that I’ll describe here, if you have the stomach for them, saved her life.  Straightforward as that.

scoli charts

The collapsing and twisting of her spine (begun at puberty and exacerbated by four pregnancies) was far more than some mere cosmetic bother. No, she couldn’t wear most clothes from stores, as they didn’t fit her curved back.  And no, she couldn’t sit in a normal church pew without shoving two hymnals under the hip that was three inches higher than the other.  The real problem was that the scoliosis had advanced to where her lungs and other internal organs were severely compromised. Even her thoracic cavity was showing signs of being cramped.  She didn’t have full use of both lungs.  There was pressure on her heart. Doctors vigorously encouraged intervention.

But this, remember, was the ‘70’s.  The surgical procedures for correcting spinal collapse were still experimental. Surgery was risky. And my parents, university instructors, were of modest means.  Surgery was also costly. But the risks and costs of not undergoing the change were greater than the risks and costs of not making the change at all.

Off to grandmas house with my baby brother, Aaron

Off to grandma’s house with my baby brother, Aaron. Note the length of my Mom’s kaftan.

And so this was going to be our Summer of Change.  My mom was going to be rebuilt.  Lee Majors was The Bionic Man on TV at the same time, and so the idea of a Bionic Mom was appealing.  We four children were farmed out to relatives, and my dad and mom drove to Minneapolis, tugging a camper trailer across the ominous aridity of America’s Midwest.  In St. Paul, my mom was admitted to the hospital.

legs scoli

There, on July 1st, she was put in traction. This meant that she lay flat on her back, skewered through the knees with steel rods, to which a pulley system threaded overhead was attached. At the end of the system were tied progressively heavy sand bags. They stretched her downward, toward the foot of her bed.  At the same time, she was fitted with a metal halo, literally screwed into her skull at four points, and to that halo, another pulley contraption was tethered, and sandbags stretched her to the top of the bed.

traction

For six weeks she lay in traction. She never lifted or turned her head. Never twisted to her side without two nurses’ assistance. Never went to a toilet or looked out her window or shook out her hair. Never as much as bent her legs or reached down to scratch her shin. Immobility tested her patience, if not her sanity. The threat of blood clots was constant. But in recounting those long weeks, she focuses on watching (through pulley cords and from a mirror positioned above her hospital bed) Nixon’s televised resignation and his famous waving departure on a helicopter. “He looked as miserable as I felt at the time,” she said, “but more stiff.”

From that lateral position and after six weeks, she was hoisted directly onto a mobile operating table, wheeled into the O.R., and surgeons made a long curving incision across her rib cage. They removed a rib, ground it up, and like master chefs, kept the ground rib to the side like a bowl of dry oatmeal.  For later mixing.

Then they made another incision, this time along the crest of her pelvis. From there, they dug and scraped, harvesting more meal. That bowl they also set aside. They would need her own bone mortar for packing in around the base of her spine when they performed the final and major reconstructive surgery.  It involved making a long incision down the entire length of her spinal column, laying the flesh open, then packing like sand in a sand castle her own bone meal in and around the lumbar region of her spine, then bolting two long and delicate titanium (Harrington) rods to her spine and, in essence, jacking her up like a car on lifts.

Risk accompanied every phase of this surgery.  Just how serious the risk was, was brought home dramatically when sirens went off in her hospital room.  Her roommate, just returned from the same surgery mom was to undergo the next morning, had gone into cardiac arrest. Surrounded by screaming family and frantic but ultimately helpless doctors and nurses, the roommate died. Mom was surreptitiously wheeled out of her own room.

In the hallway that night, against the accompaniment of wailing and thick terror, my parents determined that in spite of every known risk, Mom would still undergo the surgery.

rib scar

back scar

Chrysalis, anyone?

Chrysalis, anyone?

I recall when my Mom came home. She was wearing a jersey red polka top and white pants grown suddenly too short, under which fit that bulky full body cast with its chin-high collar. The airplane crew drove her to us in one of those golf carts in which she sat primly, robotically, artificially erect. She was taller, thinner, weaker.

welcome home

But she was stronger. She was changed. And although to this very day her bionic spine sets off the occasional airport security system everywhere she travels, she travels. She’s around to do so. If you were to ask her now, on what is nearly the 40th anniversary of our Summer of Change, I am certain she would say that every fear and every violet scar was more than worth it.

The same kaftan, four inches shorter. And the worlds' most sullen blonde teenager. Whut?

The same kaftan, four inches shorter. And the world’s most sullen blonde teenager. Whut?

Reflecting on the changes I’ve faced in my life, I’m drawn to Auden’s keen assertion that, for the most part, we’d rather be ruined (let our spines collapse within us) than be changed (undergo risk-laden and costly improvement.) Many of us, myself included, sometimes accept the deadly or deadening way-things-are, only because change fills us with dread. Or it’s at least kinda scary. We’d rather die of the kind of fear that cramps the torso, leaving us only one lung-full of air, and room for only half a heart, than climb the “cross of the moment” and discover new life.

I didn’t know back when I was rubbing my mom’s chafe-marks with medicinal alcohol that one day I’d inherit a vertebrae or two of her bionic spine.  But I see I have.  We are anticipating our own Summer of Change. No life-altering surgeries (we can only hope) but some big realignments, including launching another book, sending a returned missionary daughter back to university, saying goodbye to a son when he heads off on a 2-year volunteer mission, and, yes, taking a new job in a new country.

I’m stiffening that spine. And if things get rough, sniffing isopropyl alcohol.

Less sullen then, but less strong

Less sullen then, but also less strong

DO THE WALK OF LIFE: Thoughts On Mortality While Limping Around Provence

Walking, jogging. I don’t know how I could survive without either of them.  I inherited my highly-mobile gene, I think, from my Dad, who was jogging in the ‘60’s, decades before it was hip to do so.

“Was that to keep you young?” I once asked him.

He lifted a brow. “No. It was to wake me up.”

Dad, snoozing.

Dad, snoozing.

Raised on a dairy farm in Utah, my Dad had gotten used to awakening to the shock of cold water splashed on him either by his father or by any one of his three brothers. Predawn, those men tugged on boots, denims and gloves and loaded into the back of a huge red cattle truck.  If ice water hadn’t gotten them started, a lung-full or two of the stinging smack of fresh manure usually finished the job.

Years later, when Dad was knee-deep in other kinds of. . .well, when he was deep in his Ph.D. studies, he pushed himself out on a jog every morning at dawn to wake himself up for long days of study.  He jogged daily until a few years ago. I think he jogged in the same pair of baggy grey sweats and worn tennis trainers for four decades because this was not about trendiness or beating a personal best or controlling body fat. It was more about waking up and staying intensely awake, which is the way he lives.

Student group, Château de Versailles. (Dad's taking the picture.)

Foreign study group, Château de Versailles. (Dad’s behind the camera.)

Student group, Rome. (Dad's taking the picture again.)

Foreign study group, Rome. (Dad’s again behind the camera.)

When I was a teenager and my parents led a foreign study group to Austria, my Dad out-cruised every last of the 30+ college students. Up mountain faces to European castles. Down winding paths into ancient grottos. He blazed the way, puffs of smoke trailing him like The Road Runner from my childhood cartoons.  Bee-beeeep!

Dad in the '70's, Madrid, Spain.

Dr. David Dalton, my Dad, in the late ’70’s, Madrid, Spain.

Because of that energy, the students gave him the name “Bionic Beine,” (Beine: German for legs), which proudly-worn title makes today’s gradual physical wearing down that much more frustrating. At almost eighty years old, my father’s body is starting to show its many years of good use, and now it’s come down to the hard truth that he needs a hip replacement, and soon.

But until he gets that real bionic Beine (or better, bionic Hüfte, or hip), his mobility is crumbling right along with the head of his right femur. “Avascular necrosis of the femoral head,” the orthopedic surgeon called it.  “But in my language,” my Dad said, “it’s called agonizing.”

First there was the limping.

In Rousillon, France

Dad in his late ’70’s,  Rousillon, France

Then the cane. . .Then the crutch. . .Then two crutches. . .

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Then more and more sitting to rest from constant discomfort . . .

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And then, last week, the shooting, excruciating agony. . .

Hiking up inner walkways of too-photogenic Rousillon, France

Hiking up inner walkways of the too-photogenic Rousillon, France

We’d been marking my parents’ 56th (fixty-whuooaaw-sixth!) wedding anniversary in southern France.  There’s much beauty to photograph in Provence where we took them, and my Dad’s not one to be told he can’t catalogue the whole thing in pictures.  He’s one to sling his Nikon around his neck and climb up that drawbridge, take photos from the other tipsy precipice, run around this turret, slay the dragon, and climb on top of its back, only to get better light for the prefect shot.

Main square, Rousillon

Main square, Rousillon

Door, Roussilon, France.

Door, Roussilon.

Mausanne-des-Alpilles ladies

Mausanne-des-Alpilles ladies

I followed his lead and let him function as he wished. (Sometimes, though, I hijacked the Nikon as surrogate photographer, especially when stairs were involved.)

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But I learned something: folks raised on farms don’t acknowledge pain. That is, maybe, until they are immobilized by it.

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It wasn’t the ambulance that was most disturbing for my Dad. Neither was it the gurney, the wheelchair, the emergency room staff chattering at him in rapid fire French (one language he doesn’t speak).  Nor was it the crews wheeling him in and out of laboratories for hours on end taking imaging and tests. It wasn’t the morphine drip, nor the long needles to draw fluid from his joints, nor the news that he not only has a deteriorating joint, but that he also has ancillary symptoms that manifest like acute gout.  He didn’t seem to be bothered by the news that for as far as he can see, he’d be in pain that cannot be eliminated, only muffled.

It wasn’t all that. What was disturbing – and I saw this in his eyes – was that this body, the one he’d taken such good care of all these years, was betraying him. He was trapped. Inside himself. And there was nothing he could do about it.  Laid flat out and unable – regardless of intelligence, training, charm, will, wit, or all those accumulated years of hard farm labor and morning jogs – unable and incapable of demanding his body’s cooperation.  Dad was scared.

Bionic? Ironic.

The guy who was hip enough to jog in the early ‘60’s, now hobbling on a disintegrating hip?

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We’ve brought him home to our Swiss village, where, thanks to medication, he can try one daily stroll with my mother at his side. Here, there are red velvet flowers hanging in the window boxes and healthy brown-splotched cows grazing in a neighbor’s plot of green.  The people with Nordic walking poles come tramp-tramp-tramping past our home every day, walking (some of them) the last kilometer or two of three non-stop months of cross-country trekking.  Some, on the other hand, are loaded with giant back packs, heading down to the Santiago de Compastela. That walk ends in Spain.

My Dad sees them with their jaunty gaits, nifty titanium sticks, and hip joints probably polished to a slick ivory sheen.  He remembers when he headed a pack like that, unfazed.  And he can think, as I do a lot lately, about this one recent set back, which will be followed, we trust, by many colorful, photographable passages yet to come, starting with that hip replacement in a few weeks.  Then rehabilitation.  Then learning to walk all over again. All of which is part of simply moving onward, as every one of us must, through this mortality.

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