Thursday, March 4, 2010

An Unexpected Path (thanks to Geneen)

My friend Geneen says, ". . . you can examine your life by either looking at the way you live or the way you eat. Both are paths to what is underneath and beyond the eating. . ."

Today I'm celebrating the publication of Geneen Roth's newest book, Women, Food, And God: An Unexpected Path To Almost Everything. Please go buy a copy for everyone you know who has a murky relationship to eating. From my observations, this is 99% of women and a good deal of men too. I don't think everyone has an official "eating disorder," but it is impossible to live in this image-obsessed culture and not have some angst around food, eating, and body image. For more information about Geneen's work, books, workshops, and tapes/CDs/MP3s, go to:

My relationship to food and eating has been turned up-side-down during these past few months and I have found some unexpected treasures and terrors hiding under the places that have been exposed by my new "diet." I'm not eating differently in order to lose weight, although I think it's healthier for me to weigh a few pounds less. Women with breast cancer and lower body mass index values have a longer life, presumably because estrogen can be produced and stored in fat cells. (to calculate yours, go to )

Meryl Streep, playing the role of Julia Child in "Julie and Julia" declares with gusto, "I love to eat!" So do I. I love to shop for food. I love to cook food. I even love the feeling of the warm water of washing the dishes on which the food was served. I have a great collection of cookbooks, none of which I really follow, but which serve as inspirations. I read them like prayer books. My second day living in California I went to my nearby health food store, held a bunch of kale in my arms like a baby, and burst into tears over the beauty of its fullness. My homesickness for New York was soothed by the magnificence of the locally-grown vegetables. This is the light side of loving to eat.

The dark side of my loving to eat usually involves too much cheese or ice cream. I overshoot the mark at the end of a long hard work day, or space out and eat too much because I'm feeling tired, bored, burned out, sad or frustrated. The sensual appreciation of eating can easily be distorted into a substitute for something else that's unfulfilled. It's no great mystery how eating gets confused with the desire to be nurtured and nourished, or to feel connected to something greater. Filling oneself up with food stands in for all the other things we long for, but can't find in the moment. It seems insane that we all tend to do something that doesn't really work, but we do it for a wide variety of reasons.

The last time I saw my mother was in 1978 when I was 21. She was 53 (which I am now) and had been in a hospital in Miami for 3 months dying from ovarian cancer. I was leading a very exciting life in New York City as a psychology and neuroscience major, working in a hospital managing the admissions office and outpatient billing department, and frequenting places like CBGB, 7th Avenue South, Sweet Basil, Max's Kansas City, and The Bottom Line.  I said goodbye, knowing this would be the last time I'd be with her. As I walked out the door on the way to the airport, she said, "Make sure you get something to eat before you get on the plane." These were her last words to me. I've been trying to get enough to eat for the long ride home since that day.

Living with cancer brought all this into the spotlight for me. I woke up the morning after Thanksgiving with the realization that I had finally had enough to eat. Animal protein and fat felt like they were creating a state of inflammation that encouraged my cancer to grow. For the first time in my life the necessity to stop eating is making itself so clear that I don't need willpower or discipline to stick to a "diet." I just eat what feels right and stay away from what doesn't. The will to live is stronger than the seduction of something that tastes good or makes me feel full.

The signal of hunger is purer now than it used to be. I respond by eating something that deeply nourishes me. My drive to eat for other reasons is way less intense than it has ever been. My old tendency to "sneak a bite" of something is gone. From whom would I be hiding? Before cancer, sneaking a broken cookie or a slice of cheese didn't seem to matter, except for an extra few pounds, but now, sneaking feels life threatening. I can't sneak past a cancer cell. It's just not worth it.

It's not that I'll never eat animal products again, but for now, it feels important to create an internal milieu that discourages inflammation and cancer growth. When it feels okay to do so, I'll have a little scoop of ice cream and celebrate. Along with this new way of being with food comes an unexpected sense of freedom and new pleasures, not to mention that my cancer is shrinking at a fabulously fast pace. I must be doing something right.

Looking for something to eat for the long ride home needs to be redefined in my psycho-spiritual-neuro-immune vocabulary. What nourishment does my soul need that it wasn't getting? Where will this unexpected path take me?