A brown-tinted photograph of jars of grains and nuts with the article title above.
Embodied Heart

Old-Fashioned Cooking: Building Healthy Habits from Scratch

What is it about being handed a bag of fried food through my car window that sets off my taste buds, only to leave me in a heap of discomfort and disgust afterwards? After binge watching shows about addiction (my TV viewing is an issue for another day!), I started to conceptualize my eating habits as being, in part, location-driven. Specifically, where I choose to obtain food, rather than simply what I choose to eat, influences the quality of my diet. Over the last few years, I slowly began to go to fast food restaurants and convenience food stores on a regular basis, rather than to cook my own food. Last fall, this tipped into what I can only describe as eating junk food, by which I mean ultra-processed foods, as my primary source of nourishment.

This year, I’ve made a commitment to eating only natural, homemade foods as much as I possibly can. Rather than wax poetic about how much cheaper homemade food can be, which may not be the case for everyone, I wanted to share both how I look at homemade food as well as some outcomes of this change that I’m noticing that are affecting me not only physically but also mentally, socially and even spiritually.

Before noting the positive changes cooking from home have brought to me, I want to check in with my privilege in this area. I have the time, money, physical and mental capacity and access to fresh ingredients necessary for these adaptations. Food, diet and, by extension, cooking, have been fraught with disordered eating patterns for me for most of my life. I’ve benefited from both mental health therapy and formal education to a point where I feel more able to set intentions and follow through on them in relation to these topics while managing my guilt and anxiety; not everyone is at that place. So, to whatever extent you read through and consider what I’ve shared below, please hold a lot of space for compassion and care for yourself if you find yourself triggered by my discussion. Feel free to leave it as it is if it doesn’t speak to you and to take only what you find beneficial.

What’s Homemade?

Before I talk about why making homemade food a priority has been valuable to me, I want to share how I define it. This article includes a chart that breaks down the different levels of processing quite effectively. Basically, I am limiting myself to foods that are only unprocessed or minimally processed as much as I possibly can. For several years, almost all the foods I’ve bought at the store had “5 or fewer” ingredients, but I was still purchasing items like dried fruit, canned sauces and breads. I now buy fresh fruits, vegetables, raw meat and nuts, eggs, and grains like uncooked rice, whole grain flour and rolled oats. The few moderately processed items on my menu include dairy products, 88% dark chocolate, and almond milk. One of my major goals for the year is to learn how to make my own pasta, right now, I do purchase whole grain versions. The most processed food I am still including is organic marshmallows, which I keep locked in a container that only opens every few days (yes, I have tried to break (unsuccessfully) into it!).*

I am also eating a set amount of foods in each macro category (protein, carbs, etc.) with specific limits on added fats and sugars. This works well because I rarely crave raw sugar or a tablespoon of oil, so the work in which I would have to engage to make a dessert helps me to limit my consumption of these foods. When the number of calories to which I limited myself (2000/day) leaves me hungry, I have an extra serving of fruit or another handful of nuts, instead of a snack made of refined foods.

What I’ve come to view for myself as genuinely addictive are ultra-processed foods, which are foods that have artificial ingredients added and which tend to contain large quantities of fats, salts and/or sugars. I am adopting the idea that I cannot have a small amount of these even occasionally and still maintain healthy eating behaviors, not because they are so horrible for my body in limited amounts, but because I cannot rein myself back in once I start. For instance, I was eating very healthy a few years ago. I started dating someone who ate poorly, copied her behaviors and, almost three years later, still have not been able to “get it together.” I’ve found myself driving past fast food places with a yearning I thought only those who crave substances like alcohol would feel. That’s why the idea that the location from which I procure my food matters just as much as what I eat hits home for me. With this understanding in mind, let’s discuss some positive aspects of traditional homemade meals.

Observed Benefits of Homemade Food

1.     Ability to customize meals for food intolerances/allergies

I have a sensitivity to foods in the allium family (garlic, onions, leeks, shallots, chives, etc). which borders on a full-blown allergy. This means that nearly every savory dish I eat that is commercially prepared, as well as pre-packaged dishes, makes me ill. Preparing my own food from scratch enables me to adjust what I’m eating to my specific dietary needs. If you’ve dealt with any kind of specialized diet, you know how frequently food you are told won’t have any problematic ingredients in it actually ends up causing you issues because the base or sauce contains the triggering item.

2.     Greater variety of foods including fresh ingredients

When I go out to eat often or buy prepared meals, my diet becomes distilled into three food items over time: (fried) chicken, pizza, and nachos. I can go weeks eating a rotation of those three foods. When I’m cooking for myself, I am more able to plan out ingredients and to find new combinations that I enjoy. I also find myself eating more foods in season. Consuming a larger mix of flavors and textures also seems to decrease my food cravings.

3.     Potentially lower exposure to toxins that cause food-born illnesses

As I fell the whole way off any sort of healthy diet last year, I started to have intestinal distress and IBS symptoms on a regular basis. Some of it was due to my food intolerances, but I also suspect that I was getting sick at times from poor sanitation control. Often, when someone says they have the stomach flu, the cause is someone in the food processing chain not washing their hands fully and passing on fecal germs such as E. coli or the Norovirus, or food being contaminated by fecal matter from field or animals, as in the case of Salmonella. These issues aren’t fully corrected by cooking one’s own meals, but I think there could be less opportunity for contamination as long as you follow proper food preparation procedures.

4.     Social connections around shared creations

For me, food is a cultural and social tool that communicates on my behalf to others and which I receive as a gift from them. I get a weird self-consciousness about sharing food I’ve made with others; there is an intimacy established by doing so that it takes me some time to navigate. For example, I tend to bring pre-packaged foods to gatherings until I feel that I’ve built up sufficient trust to share something I’ve made from scratch. In part, this is due to the fact that I cook intuitively and rarely follow a set recipe. This typically works out fine but there have been some “interesting” dishes. On the flip side, it brings me immense joy when my chosen ingredients come together and enable my creativity to shine through. Making all my foods from scratch has forced me out of my comfort zone in this area and helped me be more willing to take culinary risks. In addition, knowing someone else has taken my diet into consideration and created dishes that I can enjoy without hesitation deepens my sense of trust and connection to that person.

5.     Deeper sensory experiences mediated by slow living

Thus far, my greatest source of pride in home-cooking has been that I learned how to bake sourdough grain products, including pancakes, wraps and a variety of breads, using a starter I originally purchased from King Arthur. Nothing smells better, in my opinion, than freshly baked bread, and I feel soothed through this change in my behavior. I’ve managed to slow down my pace of living in a way that compliments my desire to cook my own meals and which has let me appreciate the experience of both eating and cooking on a physical level. Instead of scarfing down meals in my car and spending my time wrangling wasteful food packaging, I enjoy the array of colorful items I get to add to my fridge after a grocery haul and the plating of entrees it may take me an hour or more to create. (Side note: In order to adjust my lifestyle, I’ve been working less and therefore bringing in less money. I am happy to report I’ve saved at least $200/month by making my own foods!).

As I write this reflection, I feel gratitude as much or more than I feel pride. Yes, I’ve made choices that have led me to be able to slow down, but I was also privileged to have this type of lifestyle within my range of options. I’m not trying to convince you to live this way if it is different than your current approach; I am only offering for you to consider, if you are interested, what is realistically within your range of options and to be kind to yourself if your options are limited. We’ve evolved for millions of years as a species to endure both feast and famine. Now most of us in the industrialized world face a different landscape—a feast of addictive junk food is readily in abundance and the fresh and healing foods to which our ancestors grew accustomed are out of reach at times. I don’t pretend to have big answers on how to rectify the situation, but I hope, with deep appreciation for the opportunity to do so, to bring joy to myself and those with whom I interact through my striving to make dishes I create rather than simply consume.

* I’ve linked to a few products in this post that I’ve really enjoyed using; I am not an affiliate of these companies and am not getting paid to promote them.

 

A tree without leaves to the right of a snowy path.
Embodied Heart

On (and Off) the Surface

Cross-posted on my SageWoman blog.

Many trauma survivors are familiar with the concept of grounding. From a psychological perspective, it involves (re)connecting with one’s body and (re)turning to the present moment. As of late, I’ve found myself encountering it in a new and visceral way.

I experienced the coldest weather of my life thus far in recent weeks, with wind chills approaching -50 Fahrenheit. The ground was already coated in several inches of snow, which became “extra” frozen in these temperatures. Every step meant sinking into crunch, almost as if the snow had been freeze-dried. There was no moment to pause as I scuttled along with my dog for his bathroom breaks. My breathing itself had to be filtered through a cloth mask, lest I frostbite my lungs. Earth was there in sharpness and fury, present to me but without comfort. I found myself feeling oxygen-starved as I inhaled parched, brittle air. The ground crystallized itself inaccessible.

In less than a week, the temperatures soared upwards and all the snow melted. I suddenly felt held and met by the soggy grip of the muddy, raw-exposed grass. Air and land poured moisture in abundance. My breath met and melded with the fog that extended in every direction. All was soft and settled in respite. My dog and I meandered slowly, sipping in the warmth and the smells the hints of green engendered.

At the back of my mind, a simple fact lingered. Four feet below the surface, give or take some inches, it’s 50 degrees Fahrenheit. All year round. There’s liquid water mixed with soil, clay, rock and sand. Chaotic shifts, heart of winter to mild spring in a week, are happening above, but, at the right depth, there’s balance. In parallel, the sun is always shining if one’s high enough in the sky and over the right location.

I am running to rest and resting to run, but when am I pausing? Where is my depth or height at which stability and brightness come through? To what roots and risings am I entwined? Part of my experience of PTSD has gotten mixed up with the actual meteorological conditions, so my anxiety breaks loose any time there is a major shift or a threat of bad weather. I am not always capable of digging deeply enough or soaring above to meet a moment of simple being amidst the chaos, but I am now fitted with an image of it that I hope will be a returning, a reconnection. Always, somewhere not surface, Earth is sun-kissed rocky warmth.

Embodied Heart

In Flux

I shaved my head! It was an impulsive action spurred on mostly by a need to follow through on the idea once it popped into my head (honestly, this is how I’ve made most of my boldest moves in life). It coincided with a decision to be a bit more public about my abuse story in another forum. Since that time, I’ve found it harder to concentrate and settle myself into deeper reflections in writing. The sharing and the shedding took a lot out of me, and I feel in the in-between of something. What the something is, I’m not quite sure.

Most of the feedback about my new look has been positive and I feel incredibly comfortable, actually more like myself, in how I’m styling my clothing and inhabiting my body. There is a looseness, though, to my sense of self. Something between possibility and loss that moves every time I think I’ve glimpsed it. My sexual orientation has been fluid for many years. I believed that my gender identity was very defined as a woman but now I’m not quite as certain. I don’t know if this is what is bubbling up or if there is another aspect of who I am that is disconnecting from a rigidity I didn’t know I possessed.

My nature is to want answers, to problem-solve, to analyze, and to arrive at an end point from which I can make decisions. Living in the in-between disquiets my energy and drains my spiritual focus. I’ve always been here, really, given that I have dissociative identity disorder, but I come across to most people as a highly driven, consistent and deliberate person. My physical appearance, with a buzzed haircut, is a better representation of the off-from-center way I see myself, but it hasn’t quelled the inner turmoil of struggling to definitively commit to one way of being in the world. Perhaps I don’t need to commit, perhaps being in flux is who I am.

If you care to share, I would be interested in hearing ways in which you’ve felt in-between two or more ways of existing. To what extent do you pressure yourself or yield to pressure from others in order to decide who you are? Have there been specific acts of self-expression, like my shaving my head, that destabilized rather than solidified your sense of self?

A photo of a rock with sunlight filtered onto it.
Goddess Thealogy, Pagan Practice, Sacred Spiritual Growth

The Goddessing Cycle: Resting

Cross-posted on my SageWoman blog.

This post is the second (after Releasing) in my year of sharing the Goddessing Cycle, which is the flow of energy and draw toward ritual I experience in my relationship with Goddess. The phase of resting, for me, extends from December through February. The name is deceptive, as if hibernation and drawing inward are the focus of this season. Rather, I believe it is a time of deepening into the fullness of our inner world, and then a slow but steady rush of growth outward into the world around us.

The processes I’ll be describing below fit best in climates that become cold, bleak and snowy. I would be curious if those who live in very warm climates experience some of these moments in the peak of summer instead, when the heat (rather than the cold) makes it nearly impossible to spend time outside. Although I am presenting the four parts of the Goddessing Cycle as they unfold across the year for me, keep in mind that they may show up differently for you no matter where you live.

Image showing the Goddessing Cycle. A circle with bi-directional arrows containing the words Fruiting, Releasing, Resting and Unfurling in a clockwise order.

Simple Pleasures

There is something both young and ancient about resting. Babies (and puppies) physically sleep most of the time as their brains and bodies develop. Some people grow more dormant with age, casting off the tasks they deem unnecessary for those that are closest to their hearts. I find a simplicity rooted in resting, a request from my Inner Being/Goddess to settle into myself and search out that which is vital.

I spend several hours each winter compiling a record of the previous year, and then, from that place of reflection, creating goals for the new year. Rather than whine about New Year’s resolutions being stupid, I look at my culture’s practice of them and wonder about whether there are ancient or ingrained patterns to which we are attending when we seek to make new our attempts at self-improvement. I believe something has to stir in us to cause those of us who live in barren, frigid lands to believe that, during the bitterest of times, fresh and hopeful rousings are afoot.

An Inflection Point

During the resting phase of the year, I experience a shift in energy. The previous phase of releasing is inward-gathering, letting go of impediments and drawing toward inertia. There is a stillness at the heart of resting that we will be further exploring during the meditation I’ve created below. The stillness is a pause in fullness. It reflects a holding and then then turning outward of momentum and impulse. If we take time to practice being in the moment, we likely experience many of these inflections throughout each day, week and month, but it is only around the start of the new year that I make a deliberate practice of this redirection of my energy.

A Mediation for Resting

This ritual is designed primarily as a meditation on the moment—a way to connect to ourselves and the world around us through direct experience. It involves concentrating on one’s breath as a symbolic representation of the energy exchange that flows through each of us and through the world around us. It utilizes four of our five main senses, so adjust as needed to your own abilities and preferences. Exercise caution if you have an respiratory difficulties. You may want to record yourself reading the directions and play them back to yourself as you practice it.

Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down (outside if possible). Breathe deeply and slowly, noticing each in and out breath. Close your eyes and concentrate on the sounds around you. Spend a few minutes bringing your awareness to noises both close and far. Breathe in and hold your breath for a few seconds. As you do so, notice the stillness in the sounds around you. Where are the areas of silence? Where is the energy lessened? Breathe out as you feel the rush of sounds amplify. Where is there energy flowing? What form does the noise take and how does it sit with you? Continue this practice of finding the silence and the noise in rhythm with your breathing.

Next, turn your attention to your sense of touch, temperature and pressure. Breathe in slowly and deeply. Pay attention for a few moments to any skin sensations. Breathe in and hold your breath for a few seconds. Where on your body is there stillness? What areas seem neutral, neither hot nor cold, constricted nor loose? Breathe out and notice areas of high energy. Perhaps places where you can feel air flow or the dampness of the earth. Areas that are warmed by the sun or cooled by a chill. Continue to breathe in and out in the rhythm of movement and stillness.

Now, concentrate on your sense of smell. Breathe in and out to acclimate yourself to the scents around you. Breathe in through your nose and hold your breath for a few seconds. What happens to the smells when you do this? What pauses in you as scents disappear? Breathe out and, as you breathe in again, observe the movement of odors. Continue this rhythmic breathing, being sure to pause with each in-breath to notice the hollow.

Finally, open your eyes and drink in the sights around you. Breathe slowly for a few minutes as you examine your surroundings. Next, breathe in and, as you hold your breath briefly, find the areas of low energy. Where is there void? Where does emptiness and monotony show up? What lacks in color and texture? Breathe out and find places of movement, light and complexity. Continue scanning as you breathe in and out, pausing each cycle to see the neutral.

I encourage you to consider this meditation as a potential reflection of your inner world, especially if you are spending time as I am during this time in evaluating the past year and setting goals for the next one. I never knew I craved experiences like spaciousness and simplicity until I became more intentional in taking time to reflect. Modern-day life often sends us the message that we need to not only appear busy, but also effortless in our busyness. By finding the places where things are not moving or producing or changing, where they are still, we invite ourselves into internal areas of strength that we may otherwise view as weakness. It is okay to rest. Moreover, I believe we only find out the vastness of who we are (and/or who Goddess is) when we slow down enough to give every part of ourselves an opportunity to show up, be seen and just be.

Embodied Heart

Visibility as a Trauma Survivor

It has been very difficult for me to write here for several weeks. The reason, ironically, was because of opening up about my trauma experiences. I related parts of my story in a public forum outside of my blog and have been struggling with processing the experience. It was the first time I shared something that might been easily accessed by people/family from my culture of origin. I didn’t name names but I went into enough detail for individuals to identify themselves. I walked one step more fully into the spotlight and have been greeted by increased flashbacks and overwhelming anxiety.

I nearly perfected the art of invisibility when I was younger. I was the sort of girl who no one noticed nor remembered. I barely spoke outside of my house and obeyed adult instruction without question. I play-acted normality. I wasn’t bullied but I also wasn’t included in anyone’s close circle of friends for most of my childhood and adolescence. Through my actions, I hid in plain sight.

Being victimized by abusive parents at a young age meant that the shadows and edges of rooms were the only places I felt safe. The less I was noticed, the less likely I was to be harmed, as I surmised it. The problem with this approach to the world is that it leads to a life lived in isolation, fear and shame.

I elevated hiding to an art form by finding ways to be unseen while being noticed, namely, by dissociating internally. It’s cat and mouse but I so desperately want to be caught—I want someone to prove themselves capable of witnessing and supporting who I am behind the adult personas I’ve crafted to survive in the world. I periodically attempt to show my hidden forms only to collapse mentally under the weight of the fog I conjure daily in order to not spend my time clawing at the walls in sheer terror. I try to fix into a frame but instead kaleidoscope the closer anyone gets to my complexity.

I recently shaved off all my hair. It was a dramatic change and one that people have readily noticed. I absolutely love the result in terms of how it suits my appearance and am getting used to the glances and weird responses of others. I did it for the express purpose of making myself more visible. I’m outwardly singular now, someone likely to be labeled as “that bald woman” rather than forgotten. My physical form feels solidified even if my internal being remains in flux. I’m hoping to coax myself, from the outside in, to welcome being seen and to believe that some eyes hold genuine kindness.

I knew that in writing about my culture of origin, I would be tempted to retreat immediately and to add another layer of adulting in order to conceal myself where I felt exposed. I also recognized that this behavior runs counter to the deeper truth of who I am as a person. I hid out of necessity when I was younger, unconsciously biding my time. As I make myself visible, those whose determination it was to keep me in the perpetual darkness of moonless night will falter. I’m finding my power and, through it, I’m toes first stepping into the dawnlight.