The Most Radical Thing I Ever Did: A 21-Day Cleanse

I’ve taught English in Mao’s hometown, walked 800 km – solo – across a large European country, fallen in mad love, packed up all my toys and moved to snow country to write a book without knowing a soul.  But ask me to give up ice cream?  Baguettes?  Morning cuppa joe?  Bacon?  Juice glass of vino?  No freakin’ way!

So I approached it gradually.

I bought Kris Carr‘s book, Crazy Sexy Diet, in January.  I cleaned out the fridge in February.  I bought an Omega Juicer in March – the Jag of juicers!  Small steps.  It’s like weaning myself off the bottle, only it’s not just the milk I’m relinquishing.  It’s practically everything I put in my mouth.  I was shooting for Lent (tried giving up sweets then, but I wasn’t quite ready.  The sight of my first brownie signalled failure.)  But spring time is about renewal, rebirth, rebooting our systems, yes?  So, on March 30th, I launched full throttle into a master cleanse: no wheat, no dairy, no animals, no coffee, no alcohol, and my Achille’s heel – no sugar.  No sugar! How in the wholly Himalayas was I gonna do that?  Was I to feel like Sisyphus?  Atlas?  Or an orange jumpsuit-wearing prisoner relegated to a bowl of gruel?

I couldn’t have done it without Ms. Carr’s book.  She led me gently through each day with a prayer, an affirmation, medical guidance, upbeat encouragement and expectations of what toxins feel like as they’re expelled.  Thank goodness for her hand-holding and thank the snow gods for the meditative months that led up to this undertaking.  I spent the winter shedding and I was ready for the final heave ho!

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With all those restrictions, what did I eat and drink?  Water with cayenne & lemon upon rising.  Green & herbal teas throughout the day.  Oatmeal with soy milk, seeds and flaxmeal for breakfast (my usual, anyway).  2-3 glasses of green juice daily.  (Kale, romaine, fennel, carrots, beets, grapefruit, parsley, celery – whatever was on hand).  Lunch was usually a version of Mark Bittman’s celery & fennel salad, sometimes adding in turnips, beets, carrots, daikon, orange segments, pine nuts – anything I could slice on my Muji Mandoline.  Dinner was some version of a grain/bean/veg combination:  steamed or lightly sauteed broccoli, chard, mustard greens, collards – brown rice or quinoa –  white beans, green or red lentils, chickpeas.  I’d also snack on almonds, dried plums & cranberries, sesame crackers, apple slices with nut butter.  I consulted a couple of macrobiotic  and Japanese cookbooks on the shelf for more ideas, to keep it interesting.  Having lived in Japan, I find much of their cuisine keeps with this particular dietary lifestyle.  I miss eating there – no other country has satiated me more at the table.

kale chickpea salad
I wondered if I would feel deprived, but Kris presents this cleanse in such a positive light that it truly felt like I was gaining health and well-being.  The coffee was easy – I’m really more of a tea drinker – and the caffeine withdrawal headache only lasted a week or so, and was fairly mild.  I kept super-hydrated and slept really well – better on both counts than usual.  Maybe removing the caffeine/sugar roller-coaster was all I needed for deep and rejuvenating slumber.  I awoke an hour earlier than normal, around 5:30, and experienced an unusually high amount of energy each day.  I treated myself with a few lavender baths, worked out more at the gym (weight-lifting & laps, only – no cardio machines for me: boring.)  I chose physical activities that were fun, not a chore, so daily walks and hikes were mood boosters.

Noticeably, my portions grew smaller as I was satisfied with less.  I realize that I eat emotionally, hungry for more than just caloric nutrients.  But somehow I was more tuned into my body and could put my fork down appropriately.  Buying, preparing, and cooking my meals was faster and easier.  Strangely, I found more hours in my day, as I was more mindful in every aspect of diet and digestion.  Wow – I realized how we always wish for more space in our day, more time to carry out our to-do lists, but I had energy to burn!  Granted, I’m not employed outside the home and I have no children to raise, but really – was all this uumph always available, yet hidden underneath crusty loaves and triple creme sheep’s milk?  I feel like I could run a marathon, a business, and a small country now.  And that’s just on Tuesday.

As I watched my scale groan less, I felt buoyant and effervescent.  I started having profound shifts in perspective.  But not before THAT ONE DAY.  Oh, yes: that one day the Dragon of Craving rose up inside of me, in an all-consuming fire (is this what heroin addicts go through, seriously?). WINE! I MUST have a drink! Give me spaghetti Bolognese! A burger! – a juicy, rare burger, with cheese and bacon and… it didn’t matter that I wasn’t hungry; I was suffering an irrational rage.

15I can’t describe the power of this monster inside, but I held on to my commitment and found relief: opting for popcorn in  sacrificial appeasement.  Then I got as far away from the kitchen as possible. I climbed in the car (leaving my wallet at home to avoid a sudden bakery raid), drove to the beach, walked over the boulders and along the shoreline, breathing in lungfuls, and called a friend.  I was the queen of crank that afternoon, but friendship, water, and the sea air calmed, soothing that savage craving.  May none of you ever meet that beast.

That was my only rough moment.

Well, except for the Morning of Traumatic Sobbing.

Interspersed with the cleanse were 3 days of green juice fasting.  I’d do six days on, one day fasting, repeating over 3 weeks.  And what happened the day after my first fast was incredible.  It was an emotional release like no other.

Simultaneously, I’ve been asking/praying for clarity.  I want revelation.  I want to see where I’m going, or at least have an inclination about what’s next.  My recent intention, to write in a wintry place, completed once March arrived and I started feeling anxious.  Stay?  Go?  Love?  Work?  Home?  Travel?  So much monkey mind I couldn’t see through the fog, so I began asking for what I wanted, an arrow, a sign, a clue.  All while eating carrots & celery sticks.

Clarity: paradoxically hard to describeWell, you know what they say? Ask and you shall receive.  Careful!  It came in spades.  Every day brought striking clarity, bold visions, answers to long-buried questions.  One in particular, during meditation, a word appeared, so I moved to the desk and began writing about it. Before I even finished a sentence, I was sobbing.  Hard and clean, not hysterical, but fully.  Now, I don’t cry; I hold on tight.  Last time I really cried was four years ago, and now tears were flushing out an unresolved memory from childhood that, it was dawning on me, I hadn’t grieved back then.  It has held me back and I don’t want anything holding me back.  Remarkably, there was no anger (at myself or anyone else), just release and mourning.  And a big pile of tissues afterwards.

Compassion washed in, and I settled.  Putting pen on paper, I wrote twenty, yes – 20 – pages and excavated decades old detritus.  Phew.  When we let go, we really let go.  Goodbye past, hello bright future!

Those 21 days witnessed the passing of so much:  defenses that no longer serve me, fears that aren’t scary anymore, eating and drinking patterns that are harmful.  What I’ve learned is enormous.  I now know that bread is as numbing as wine.  That my sugar addiction has inflamed my shoulder for more than 25 years, and if I eliminate it as best I can, it no longer hurts.  THIS alone is a miracle, and it’s ridiculous it took me this long to find out.  Chronic pain clouds our sunshine, and pain’s absence liberates.  My skin and dairy don’t make a good partnership – in fact, I was mistaken for a twentysomething the other day (I’m 43) and countless people have remarked on my glowing and youthful skin.  That’s worth the price of admission, alone.

I supplemented my regimen with drybrushing, taking vitamins & aloe juice, lots of positive thinking, journaling, meditating, putting my Netflix habit on hold, getting a massage, getting an enema (more on that later), using essential oils, reading up on raw food & veganism, and exercising a bunch more than usual.  Swimming laps and sweating it out in the sauna were divine.

What I didn’t experience were hardcore toxins getting expelled (bad smells, pimples, aches, etc…) and I think that’s due to a generally healthy diet from the start. I don’t eat much meat, fast food, or processed boxes & bags that sell in the center aisles anyway.  I do like my Ciao Bella gelato and Newman-O’s, however…

This may sound silly, but the most dramatic thing I learned is that we are what we eat.  Yes, I’ve always known that.  But when we medicate ourselves with not just alcohol or even caffeine, but with pasta, butter, toast, cheese … we suffer for it.  Eating animals that have not lived or surrendered their lives in compassionate hands means we’re digesting violence, fear, unmindfulness.  Sugar is a replacement for a lack of sweetness, perhaps.  I don’t mean to be preachy or change anyone’s mind.  Live and let live.  I just want to share the extraordinary sensitivity that I’ve developed both physically and emotionally.

Do I miss the old flavors?  My taste buds have actually changed.  Drinking a glass of white wine is like sipping sugar-water.  Eating bread feels like I’m stuffing.  That drawer full of cheese?  I can feel it weighing me down already.  I had no idea that what once brought me pleasure actually was a buffer to living and what I want now is to live like I mean it.

Have I since incorporated some of those taboo ingredients?  Sure, but I’m keenly aware of their effect on body and mind, and make those choices consciously.  Food tastes better.  Almonds are delicious!  That farro and grilled spring veg plate at Eataly?  Delectable!  A small piece of high quality 78% chocolate?  Hits the spot!

Radical?  Yes.  And I’m so proud of myself for accomplishing it.  I didn’t know I had it in me.  Will it last?  I’ll let you know…and in the meantime, I would love to hear if you’ve ever done one or thought about it, if you have any questions or want to share with me your experience.  It was a journey of eye-opening magnitude for me!

Victory Edition 1919 War Gardening and Home Storage of Vegetables

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Ode to Kenmore

It’s not a mere appliance to me; it’s a Temple of Corporeal Transmogrification, a kind of gastronomic tattoo parlor where I enter sapped and hungry, and emerge energized.  It’s like my God Jar, my box o’ buff body dreams, stocked with the amino acids and omega 3’s of the indestructible soon-to-be me, the one I proclaimed would recover its optimal weight, strength and yogic flexibility by year’s end.  It’s my refrigerator and I am kneeling at its altar.  Scrubbing it out.

I didn’t always have such a soft spot for it.  Growing up, cleaning ours out was one of the least-liked chores, more often outsourced to our friends who for some strange reason relished climbing in and purging it.  Maybe it was the subversive peek into our dietary secrets or just a contest to see who could find the oldest expiration date.  Even now, when we visit home for the holidays, my sister and I marvel at the 23 jars of mustard & 14 kinds of cheese, and wonder how long it’ll take the styrofoam box to biodegrade behind the cans of V8.  But who among us hasn’t been guilty of icebox neglect at some point?  I can almost identify the particular penicillin strain in that Chinese to-go box in the back of mine.

But now my soft spot has gotten a little too soft around the middle, and I’m redefining the frozen Lean Cuisine model of my 80’s childhood to a more streamlined, whole grain version. Not an extreme makeover, as I’ve been in a beans & greens trajectory for years, but it’s time to give the fridge an enema, a cooler colonic to clean out what poisons may be lurking on the bottom shelf.

This morning’s date with Mr. Clean rejuvenated the big white box.  Inventoried, purified and reorganized,  it’s now full of yummy goodness, nary a sugary snack in sight.  There’s chard and freshly soaked yellow eye beans, a jar of red cabbage sauerkraut (biodynamic), oyster mushrooms, scallions & miso for soup, the best cider you’ll ever sip (Ricker Hill, local), and, I’m happy to say Dad, that there’s only 4 jars of mustard.  The drawers are full of crunchy veggies I’ve been shaving into salads on my Muji mandoline and Bob’s Red Mill (flax, rolled oats, wheat bran, cornmeal) has taken up whole shelf residence.  Best part, chilling in the door: a couple of bottles of vintage bubbly – because I sense there’ll be lots of celebrating in my near future!

All the lovin’ isn’t reserved for the interior – I create a visual bonanza on the outside, too – all good houses of worship are welcoming so I curate the door like an artful gallery – affirmations like “I’M LIVING THE LIFE I IMAGINED” to “THE UNIVERSE REWARDS ME FOR TAKING RISKS ON ITS BEHALF” greet my ravenous self.  There are photos of my nephew (who makes my heart melt, which is what I want the excess lbs to do) and of gorgeous landscapes that remind me of the inherent beauty in all things natural.  There’s a ticket stub to that Michael Franti concert where I sweated & bounced like a pogo stick last summer and a red, handmade, save-the-date card for the Iowan wedding-in-a-barn with the delicious roasted goat. There’s even one of my first watercolors, a postcard of a ripe Anjou pear.

Now, even before I open the door, I am uplifted, buoyant with good spirits, which is just how I want to feel before the Commencement of Nourishment.  Like setting the table with your wedding porcelain and lighting delicate tapers for romance, I want my edibles to be given as much care as the farmers who grew them.  I may have inherited a full-pantry sensibility, so my fridge won’t ever look spartan, but my Shrine of Healing is bursting with all nutritious ingredients to transform me back into the SEXY, ROBUST, GREEN GODDESS I know I am.

Now where did I put that yoga mat?

How An Acupuncturist Taught Me To Roast My Vegetables And Relax

Working in Japan was a pain in the neck, literally.  From my shoulder blades to the base of my brain, I had been in persistent agony for several months by the time I got desperate enough to call an acupuncturist.  My neck had petrified into one frozen, stony mess.  I was a stranger in a strange land on assignment in Tokyo back in 2007 and irrationally worried that if I didn’t get help, I might never be able to turn my head freely again.  Not that I necessarily wanted to, because everywhere I looked, all I saw loomed cold, lonesome and aloof.

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I missed my old restaurant job.  I missed understanding snippets of conversation on the train.  I even missed the F train – you know it’s bad when you ride the world’s cleanest, most efficient metro system and you long for the Jamaica-to-Coney Island local.  More than anything, though, I missed the flexibility that carried me through past adventures around the globe.  Where did it go?  What had happened to me? I was tight in the grip of physical and mental paralysis.  I finally called an English-speaking doctor and booked an appointment.  Must. Have. Relief. Now.

Have I mention my trypanophobia?  Come near me with a needle and I have a meltdown. I have actually skipped college matriculation just to avoid the required MMR inoculation and would almost rather get my teeth drilled sans Novocaine.  I’ll pretty much do anything to avoid the dreaded syringe.  Here I am then, lying on an acupuncturist’s table in a foreign country with a man in a white lab coat sticking needles in my neck and down my spine, trying to convince me there’s really nothing to be afraid of.  That’s how bad my neck felt.  Pain is relative, I tell myself, but I surrender as best I can to 2,200 years of Eastern orthodoxy and hope I don’t hyperventilate or start weeping uncontrollably, although that’s probably just what I need to do – breathing and crying can be great relief in times of debilitation, but I’m unable to unclench my body or my mind.

“OK, now just lie here while your body adjusts,” the doctor says, as his hands move skillfully down the back of me in a calm, healing manner.  His touch is soothing.  “Your feet are really cold,” he remarks, as he inserts a few more needles along my legs.

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“They’ve been cold lately,” I reply.

“Do you eat a lot of salad?” he asks.

“Yeah, I guess so,” I answer, slightly irritated that he’s focused on the temperature of my feet when clearly it’s my neck that needs his full attention.  I’m suffering;  who cares about my feet?  Make my neck feel better!

“You should cook your vegetables,” he advises.  “Don’t eat them raw.  You need warmth in your food, then your feet won’t be so cold.”

I resisted him; all I could think was that I liked salad.  It’s healthy, quick and easy to prepare and besides, cooking had really not been my forte anyway.  I preferred going out to eat and ordering a garde manger-composed leafy pile of raw vegetables with some fancy vinaigrette.  Or did I?  Was I just on a road that was a little too well-traveled for a contrarian like me?  Perhaps it was time for things in my life to change.  Hey, even my doctor was telling me I had cold feet.

The simple and obvious have often eluded me.  Could it be as easy as that?  Warm begets warm.  I soon came to consider his gentle demeanor and the possible wisdom in his words.  For the rest of my time in Tokyo, I sautéed up lots of greens and experimented with making vegetable miso soups.  I stopped ordering salads when I ate out, even if they sounded nutritious and gourmet.  I considered the radical notion of change and questioned the prudence of stamina.  As I began to relax into cooking, the chill in my feet lessened and the pleasures of the kitchen dawned. Gradually I gained movement in my neck and loosened up other restricted places in my life.

farmer's market Maine organic vegetablesI carried this lesson home with me and now, four years later, I love cooking.  I’ve found warmth in the kitchen and in my life.  I’m roasting  sheetpans of beets, sweet potatoes, and turnips.  I’m simmering cabbage and chard in soups and sauteing kale and garlic with local Maine shrimp and scallops.  As my upper body has slowly recovered from tension and tightness, I have also started to recover from twenty-five years in the restaurant business and its accompanying foodie mentality, which from a certain stance can both be seen as rigid and competitive.  The constant pursuit of the highest rating, the latest dish, the most perfect execution can sap the playful and judicious, leaving us in less than good health.

I don’t reject it all, however.  I do embrace eating seasonal and local, I support healthy school lunches and food security campaigns.  I enjoy the widespread availability of organic produce and all the attention and respect serving and cooking professionally get these days.  The world is a healthier place as the general public becomes more fluent on farm-to-table restaurants, the impact of governmental subsidies for corn and soy, and the environmental consequences of Monsanto-like genetic manipulations.

I’m just not as religious and precious about it anymore.  I’m looser in my approach, less driven and uptight.  This top chef, that obscure ingredient, dissecting what’s on my molecularly gastronomic plate – I leave that for the next generation.  All I really want to do now is breathe, relax, and cook up some beans and greens that warm me from head to feet when it’s cold outside.  I want to break bread that I baked this morning with people I love and turn to them with soft suppleness and toast to our good health.

You Say You Want a Resolution?

Remember those toy pellets you could send away for in the back of comic books?  The ones that when you dropped them into a glass of water would instantly turn into little sponge creatures?  Well, that’s how quickly old habits disappeared since I moved here and how quickly new ones took shape.  I have just sprung into my true form!  And I didn’t even have to write up a list.

Apparently, Maine is my January first.

Back in the city, I ate out almost every day.  It was just easier – no deciding, shopping, prepping, cooking, cleaning… AY!  Such a fuss.  Plus, I could satisfy any craving.  Ethiopian sourdough & stew?  Cambodian sandwich?  Pugliese pasta?  Check, check and check.  But now that I’m here, I revel in the abundance of garden greens and farmstands.  There’s even a decent winemaker a mile down the road fermenting grapes in his barn.  I spend my days fully engaged – mulling recipes, chatting up farmers and cheesemakers and fishermen, picking chard and kale, gathering wildflowers for the table.  Pleasure abounds…

Oyster River Winegrowers
Cast Iron Chef

As well, my exercise routine in the city was anything but.  Classic avoidance behavior:  I’d sign up for an expensive membership, and go once or twice a month.  A yoga studio on every corner but I’d rather walk by on my way to the bakery.  Here, however, sun salutations take on a whole new meaning.  I begin each day, coffee in hand, circling through the garden, down to the pond and wandering back through the meadows and trees.  My skin tingles in the chilly air.  The grass feels dewy.  My senses are invigorated.  Afternoons can find me in the kayak, oar in hand, silently paddling the shoreline and learning birdsong.  Or climbing Mt. Battie, enveloped in the ethereal chartreuse of the changing trees.  With Mother Nature as my personal trainer, who needs a rowing machine?

The strangest part, though, is how easily this metamorphosis came about.  There was no effort at all, rather a gentle hand on my back, guiding me forward, whispering in my ear… “Don’t you know… everything’s gonna be all right?”  And it is.  More than I had imagined.

Camden Hills State Park, Mt. Battie
Stairmaster alfresco

The other L word

Generally, when Maine knocks at your door, there’s either a lighthouse or a lobster on your stoop.  I’ll take either, but on Columbus Day, Red’s Eats in Wiscasset serves up their last rolls of the year, so Monty, I’ll take what’s behind door number 2.

The line here snakes along the road and can easily last 2 hours in July and August, but I came here off-peak, remember?  This is one reason.  Returning from the Portland Jetport, visiting friend in tow,  I surprise her by letting her know we’d be passing through town, and might she care for some lunch?

“Really?!  I didn’t even get my hopes up,” an eager J replied.  “Figured it was too late in the season.”

“Looks like I’m about to make all your crustacean dreams come true,”  I said.

“Ah!  I’m so excited!”  she said, grinning.  “Can the day get any better than this?” Indeed it can, but that’s another post.

The first of several serendipitous moments during our visit, we were giddy as we queued for less than a half hour.  For those of you who’ve never waited in line at Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack in New York, I must say 30 minutes is a mere blip on the fast food screen.  Not only did we have one of the finest lobster rolls ever, but for me, a new version:  no mayo, no celery.  Just hot melted butter – poured over more than a whole lobster’s worth of claws and tail.  Huge, I’m talking. The fries more than passed muster, too, and the company couldn’t be beat.

I’ll never pay $32 for one of these in New York again.

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