Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Guest Writer--Amy Halloran--Troy, New York

This week guest blogger Amy Halloran from Troy, New York….expert on grains, breads, baking and making pancakes. In today's essay Amy shares what she's learning about relationships:

For a long time I thought that asking was the most important part of getting what I need. If I could identify and articulate what was wrong or what I lacked, then someone would fill in my blanks. If I told my husband that I needed more affection, or help keeping the kitchen clean, I assumed he would work toward fulfilling my request. 

This thinking extended to all my relationships. I need to see you more, I told my sister, and she didn't argue. She agreed. But neither of us made a dedicated plan to make that happen. So we still didn’t, and don't, see each other enough.

I stated my needs and thought my problems were solved. That’s not how things work. Well, maybe they would if I were a queen, and had a royal court to do my bidding. But here in the real world, relationships are dynamic, and require give and take, two parties discussing their ideas and feelings and trying to learn how to dance to a song that you’re writing together. This is awkward and none of us are skilled at the steps, or know the tune. Not even if we’re very familiar to each other. 

 My sister and I grew up in the same family, and my husband and I shared a vision for a life together that was so strong we pursued it like a mountain we had to climb. Given the circumstances, I should be able to communicate easily and well with these two people, and yet I am learning, always learning how to be and work together with them. As much as we share, we are very distinct. Crossing the gulf between two people, any two people, is tough. Why did I think it would be easy?

One reason perhaps is linked to shopping. Consumer culture leads us to believe that we can make a list, and the store of the world will have the goods in stock. But only so many of our problems can be answered with a dollar. 

Relationships are not transactional. While I thought I was problem solving, all I was doing was making a shopping list. 

I think it’s important to note how consumer culture shapes us, regardless of family values. I grew up in a family that was not materialistic. Forcefully so. Once, I wrote a letter to my parents stating a series of inequities I observed. They didn’t treat us four kids the same – I liked math and was good, too good at measuring things, especially love. 

My dad took me out for the day to show that I mattered big to him.  We drove around, and visited my grandfather; help him with some things around his house. Did some other errands. One of our stops was a flea market, and I thought my father would buy me the easy bake oven that I craved. But our expedition was about time together, not things.  

I was a heavy user of the real oven and had been for a long time, so my dad didn’t want to get me the pink plastic thing which would require a steady stream of silly boxes of cakes. He also was demonstrating that love was not stuff. The lesson didn’t quite take. But I understood what he was doing.

My parents’ examples couldn’t fight the impression I got from our environment, a realm that got even more of a consumer bent over the last 30 years. In America we can shop our way to better health, better spiritual lives, and of course better outfits.  All of this helped me function on a premise that I could make lists for my loved ones, as if I were shopping, and we needed more cinnamon or butter in the metaphoric house of our intersections. Then, I assumed they would give me the stuff that I wanted. This seemed reasonable, right? We were out of a supply, I noticed, so fetch it, please.

Yet was I ready to be the emotional store for the people I love as they ask for what they need? That's another series of thoughts to ponder!

There is more to connecting with others than making lists. We can’t just identify our bruised feelings and find gaps that we think people should fill with help. We need to work with other people to get what we need. Identification is just one step in the process. Have I learned this yet? No. But writing this essay is another attempt to teach myself a lesson. #

Amy Halloran is the author of:
The New Bread Basket--
How the New Crop of Grain Growers, Plant Breeders, Millers, Maltsters, Bakers, Brewers, and Local Food Activists Are Redefining Our Daily Loaf

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Let Go and Grow

Beautiful Swimmers by William Warner is one of my very favorite books. It is the story of the watermen who live and work on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and it is also the story
of their counterpart, the blue crab.

It’s all there in Beautiful Swimmers: how the crab lives, feeds, courts, mates, dies and yes, is eaten. And Warner shows us how the waterman trains, dresses, plans, thinks, prays, eats, and yes, dies. These two --the crabs and the watermen-- are wonderfully and positively co-dependent.  

I learned two of my favorite words in this beautiful book: First, autotomy is the remarkable crustacean attribute of dropping a limb, allowing a pincher or leg to fall away as a means of exiting a battle or a threatening situation.

Then, autogeny, which is the related, and accompanying attribute referring to a crab’s ability to grow a new limb to replace the one sacrificed for survival.

I could not, not the first time I read this, or now, years later, miss the comparison to humans. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to know when to drop something or someone and just walk away? And, yes to also be able to naturally grow that part of one’s self again, to make a choice, and to become new.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Glorious Debris

“Every one of us
 is called upon, probably many
 times, to start a new life. 
A frightening diagnosis, a
marriage, a move, loss of a job…
And onward full tilt we go,
pitched and wrecked and absurdly
resolute, driven in spite of 
everything to make good on a 
new shore. To be hopeful, to
embrace one possibility after
another—that surely is the basic
instinct…..Crying out: High tide!
Time to move out into the
glorious debris. Time to take 
this life for what it is.”

          --Barbara Kingsolver, from High Tide in Tucson

Monday, March 7, 2016

Is Your Cancer Luck or Legacy?

You know how this goes. You tell someone you have received a cancer diagnosis and either directly or indirectly they start to probe: “Is there any other (your brand of) cancer in your family?”

We know that is often a self-comforting question: if there is cancer in your family, and you have this scary diagnosis, then maybe they can (falsely) feel a tad safer. That is, while insensitive, sort of understandable.

But it’s a different matter when your oncologist is asking the same question. Because they know some stuff that you don’t. You might bee thinking, “Hey, my granddad had colon cancer so this breast lump surely can’t be a big deal. Or the reverse, “Sure, we’ve had some melanoma scares over the years so I don’t have to worry about lung cancer.”

Or—and this is hardest—you have cancer so you think (in a magical thinking kind of way) “At least this means my kids won’t get cancer.” As if you are taking one for the team.

Or maybe you shove all of those thoughts far away and you don’t talk or think about cancer in your family tree.

But you might want to. 

A new book by Theodora Ross, M.D., Ph.D. called, A Cancer in the Family will help you learn about your genetic inheritance, and the ways that cancer moves through families. 

Ross’s very smart and very readable book gives facts and figures, yes, but it also gives you language with which to think about cancer’s patterns, causes, systems and statistics, and the when and what of genetic testing.

The foreword to “A Cancer in the Family” was written by the best cancer writer ever: Siddhartha Mukherjee, M.D., Ph.D., author of The Emperor of All Maladies. Of Ross’s book Mukherjee writes: 

“Confronting a family history of cancer and thinking about the nuts and bolts of genetics can feel overwhelming. Ultimately, though, the knowledge you gain from this book is empowering. It can save your life, and he lives of the people you love most.”

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Undiscovered Country of Illness

Francine Prose calls this sentence of 181 words, written by Virginia Woolf: “one of the most complex and virtuosic sentences in all of literature:

 "Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are
then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise in temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his “Rinse the mouth-rinse the mouth” with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us—when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.

--from Virginia Woolf in "On Being Ill”