A New Path?

Life and work intruded on my weekly blog posts- most notably: grant funding for the Mass in Motion program I administer is ending in September, 2 years ahead of schedule (!). The city may fund the program, but while administrators wrangle over budgets, I’m pausing to consider my life’s work- that’s the only way I’ve ever been able to think about work- not just as a job, but as one element in a seamless life.

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angel -VSpain

For a long time, I was confused by what actually drove me re work, especially since it didn’t seem to be what society said should be driving me. Though I never (really) let go of my desire to be both creative and do good, I thought they were competing desires. They’re not.

In  Brainpickings this Sunday, March 16, 2014 I read parts of Anna Quindlen’s aborted 2000 Villanova commencement speech on work and life. What a pleasant surprise to read someone who shared my career “resume!”

“I’ve never earned a doctorate, or even a master’s degree. I’m not an ethicist, or a philosopher, or an expert in any particular field… I can’t talk about the economy, or the universe, or academe, as academicians like to call where they work when they’re feeling kind of grand… My work is human nature. Real life is really all I know.”

Though we share share a resume, we don’t necessarily share the view that life and work are  separate. Quindlen says, enjoy life and don’t get caught up in the “rat race” of work, but if you’re persistent-and if circumstances aren’t against you-meaningful work consistent with a vibrant life is available.

Whatever happens with Energize Everett, I’m firmly on a path to engage life through meaningful work.

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Go to the Kitchen

Michael Pollen goes into the kitchen to cook, and finds answers to pressing health, environmental, social– even spiritual– problems.

“…what is the most important thing an ordinary person can do to help reform the American food system, to make it healthier and more sustainable? Another related question is, how can people living in a highly specialized consumer economy reduce their sense of dependence and achieve a greater degree of self-sufficiency? … How, in our everyday lives, can we acquire a deeper understanding of the natural world and our species peculiar role in it? You can always go to the woods to confront such questions, but I discovered that even more interesting answers could be had by simply going into the kitchen.” ~Michael Pollen, Cooked

There is one thing missing from this quote, the thing you understand immediately when you read Cooked. Pollen finds answers in the kitchen because he explores cooking with great attention and care. He immerses himself in fermenting, cooking with fire and water and baking bread- its his mindfulness that connects him to the sacred, transforming aspect of cooking.

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And the people he interviews, and who teach him to cook, also pay attention to the details-often with great passion.

What could we pay attention to? Our senses. To our hands stirring, kneading, cutting-to our hands kneading and the texture of the dough- to tasting the flavors melding in a soup or braise-give over to a creative act that is experienced.

Give in to the spell of the sensuous. Give your thoughts a rest.

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“…in the end, health is just a byproduct of learning to cook.”

You could argue that cooking is the activity that most defines us as humans. Dolphins have a language; crows can create tools, but only humans can cook. By cooking, we transform the mundane into something sacred. And then we share it with others. Food is the most shareable currency we have. You probably don’t pass out money to your friends, but you can pass the paella. But first you have to know how to make it.”  –Jim Sollisch, “Cooking is Freedom,” NYT Opinionator, Sept 4, 2013

I administer a grant in the city of Everett, MA. Energize Everett is a Mass in Motion funded initiative to improve access to healthy food and physical activity. I work with city departments, non-profits and community coalitions but creating access to healthy food is a complicated business. Just giving people access to healthy food doesn’t mean they’ll buy/eat it, especially if they don’t know how to cook, or if the food available isn’t part of their traditional diet or culture.

Changing eating patterns and feeding people is as much about education as it is about access. Many people need to learn to cook, find a reason to cook, and/or rediscover the pleasures of cooking. And healthy food is really not that much more expensive than fast/junk food, and when you factor in the physical and economic toll of chronic disease (diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease etc.) there’s not much value in that $1.99 Happy Meal.

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Good food + simple cooking = good health. Could it really be that easy? It’s not very sexy. If you want sexy, buy stilettos, if you want good health, cook.

From scratch.

Often.

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Food: Point A to Point B

I am upset that I live in a land of plenty, have enough to eat, yet I’m surrounded by hungry people. In the communities where I live and work (both Boston suburbs), especially among children, hunger is a daily occurrence. Kids who qualify for school breakfast/lunch don’t have a stable wholesome food source after school; some people I work with struggle to meet basic needs, and some are hungry. Why can’t everyone find healthy, affordable food? Isn’t it a right? How can anyone pursue life, liberty or happiness when they’re hungry?

Last week, I began attending Community Table, a weekly event hosted by Babson College, “a hub for food entrepreneurs and curious eaters to connect, share ideas, and support one another’s work.” It’s an open forum where people can discuss anything food related, and one of the things we discussed is the difficulty of getting investors to invest in food distribution infrastructure. Food distribution is about storage facilities, and multi-purpose buildings, it’s about getting food from point A to point B and all points beyond–it’s the middle of the story, the part everyone just wants to get through to reach the happy ending. Solving the problem of food distribution is not a quick fix or a sleek new app. It’s not “sexy.”

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And I thought (again) that it’s a bad idea to hand over solving the problem(s) of our food system (and healthcare system) to the private sector. The private sector will not solve these problems even though we seem to be driving relentlessly in that direction.

I see 2 “parts” of the private sector­– small agile start-ups creating some great solutions. They are often fueled by idealism and/or a desire to do good and solve intractable human problems and meet needs. But how easy is it for them to get money to “distribute” their solutions? Who do they have to convince that their solution is “worth” the investment?

Then there are corporations/venture capitalists with their relentless bottom line need to make money for shareholders or themselves–making money and making sure all people have healthy food (or healthcare that actually provides health care people want/need–food is medicine after all–but that’s another post) do not usually go together.

They are as many answers to meeting the needs of our neighbors as there are communities–solutions are local, national and global. We do best, and accomplish the most, when we work with what is right in front of us. We don’t have to go outside our neighborhoods. I’ll share my work on food and hunger, over the next several weeks. Sharing our work keeps the networks alive and builds community. What are you doing?

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The Art of Presence

At an IMS retreat in Barre MA, I asked Rodney Smith, one of the teachers, what is being present like? How does action come out of non-action? How do you maintain a large awareness of the life you are living, and live it wholeheartedly, even the daily tasks that require thought and planning ?

We went back and forth a few minutes- then he said, if you are fully present, action and thought happen naturally. Silence. I asked, I’m an artist–is it like being in the flow of creative work? His eyes lit up- yes, he said, that’s a good analogy! 

I’ve come to understand that getting even a tiny taste of presence requires faith, of letting go of any idea of what present moment awareness could be like because invariably any idea about presence is just another thought about presence.

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lotus pod credit: VSpain

Creating requires being fully absorbed in the creative process as well as stepping back and critically observing the process- requires making decisions thinking about past or future without being attached to past or future, or even being attached to outcomes. There is no goal-there’s just the process and what happens from that process. Maybe that’s why creative endeavors lead to spiritual awakenings, revelations and other right brain breakthroughs. All the more reason to include creative activities in healthcare protocols, work places, schools, and halls of government.

What a thought.

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Why Do We Eat?

This is the first of 6 questions developed by Megrette Fletcher and Michelle May for people with diabetes and their caregivers to ask. Their approach is outlined in Eat What You Love and Love What You Eat with Diabetes.

I have to admit being confused by the 6 questions when I bought the book: Why do I eat? When do I want to eat? What do I eat? How do I eat? How much do I eat? Where do I invest my energy? After a cursory read I put it on the shelf and resumed networking with practitioners and colleagues, and researched approaches that aligned with my personal approach to dealing with eating and diabetes. But then I listened to a May and Fletcher webinar  on the The Center for Mindful Eating (TCME). And I got it. Megrette outlined that “What do you eat? is one of the questions she asks but it’s 3rd on the list. Number 1 is, why do we eat?

red carnationCaregivers focus intensely (too intensely) on what people with diabetes should eat. They ask for food logs, with lists of everything eaten for a week, then review the “good” and “bad” choices. This of course is a recipe for disaster and non-compliance–it’s also unsustainable. But if clients are asked open-ended questions, there’s an opportunity to become aware of the motives underlying behaviors and then clients can decide what they want to do. Megrette barely gets past that first question because patients have almost never been asked why they eat, and they are hungry (sorry!) to uncover answers to this question.

Too often in a healthcare setting, we are told what to do by people who (with good intentions) believe they know what’s right. Caregivers see the healthy alternative/outcome just over the horizon, and they’re sure the patient’s condition would improve if only they (the caregiver) could convince the them (the patient) to agree (be compliant). But patients usually see that healthy alternative too, but the unspoken insistence on compliance, on being a “good” patient, inspires resistance rather than a desire to change behaviors. Telling rather than inquiring usually leads to frustration for both parties, plus guilt and avoidance for the patient, and maybe even for the caregiver. In the end, no one understands why advice isn’t being followed, why behaviors don’t change and why healthy outcomes remain so elusive.

This approach isn’t necessarily easier but it is kinder. And kindness is the only method I know that everyone responds to.

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Returning

For the past several months I have been consumed with work. At the end of February 2013, I was hired by the town of Everett, MA to consult to Energize Everett, community health outreach program,  funded by a Mass in Motion grant, focused on healthy eating and active living. On May 6th the same year I was hired as the director. I love this job. It’s about community outreach, coalition building and networking, about initiating and expanding programs like the farmers market, healthy food in corner stores, going beyond school nutrition guidelines, etc. It’s the work/job I visualized-and here it is!
I look forward to posting regularly again, sharing info and ideas about food and health, work and life.

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Summer in a Jar

While writing about comfort foods, Greg Brown’s song, Canned Goods came to mind. Here’s a sample of the lyrics:

images-1Peaches on the shelf

Potatoes in the bin

Supper’s ready, everybody come on in

Taste a little of the summer,

Taste a little of the summer,

You can taste a little of the summer

my grandma’s put it all in jar

She cans the pickles, sweet & dill

She cans the songs of the whippoorwill

And the morning dew and the evening moon

‘N’ I really got to go see her pretty soon

‘Cause these canned goods I buy at the store

Ain’t got the summer in them anymore.

http://www.gregbrown.org/gbonent1.html#cannedg

Apricot-Jam

Here food is a gift, connected to the seasons, filled with meaning, nourishing on so many levels. It’s an evocative description of how the food on our plate is connected to the people who plant and harvest it, the insects who pollenate it, the seasons, the elements, the sun, moon and stars, the loving hands that cook and serve it, even the sounds we hear when we eat–all of it laid out on the plate before us.

 

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Shouldn’t Comfort Foods… Comfort?

Tamara Adler wrote a well-considered article in the February 2013 issue of Yoga Journal titled, Comfort Redefined, What if eating feel-good food actually made you feel good?

Comfort food has gotten a bad rap. The words comfort food immediately conjure images of high-salt, high-sugar, high-fat foods, i.e. junk foods–modern, highly processed foods laced with chemicals and preservatives. We turn to them for the “numbing effect or fleeting rush, knowing [the] short-lived perks will make us feel bad later on.” And then she wrote something that really made me pause–

“The idea of escaping distress by causing ourselves another kind of distress is ironic of course, but goes deeper than that.” She then describes a story about the Dali Lama, who began crying during an interview. When asked why, he said, “Because you are all so violent to yourselves.”

Ah…how can one not pause reading that? Can we stop doing violence to ourselves by eating in ways that harm? Can we eat to nourish when we are distressed?

pear and plum ©VSpain

pear and plum ©VSpain

Of course, if we pay attention, we may find we need another form of nourishment–exercise, rest, etc. but if we want to eat, can we take up the practice of finding food that would truly nourish us in moments of distress? When we turn to foods for comfort, can we “choose dishes that are an expression of our beliefs, not an exception to them?”

Have you, are you, able to do this? This article has given me some things to consider more deeply. I’ll write more about this “new” idea of comfort foods in the next post. If this makes you think of something you’d like to share, please do.

 

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Grace Before Meals

I created this when my sons were little to acknowledge all aspects of eating– to honor the food that was about to nourish us, the beings who toiled to bring it to us, and the forces of nature that make it all possible.

heart ©VSpain watercolor, ink, collage elements

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Thank you earth, wind, fire and water
for bringing this food to our table.
Thank you to the beings who gave their life and time
to bring this food to our table.
May it nourish our souls
as well as our bodies,
as we eat in gratitude and in peace.

Amen

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