Today is the first Friday of Lent—no meat for those observing Lenten practices. And here’s some interesting Catholic trivia I found while looking up Lenten fasting: “abstinence,” which in this case refers to not eating meat, does not include “meat juices and liquid foods made from meat. Thus, such foods as chicken broth, consommé, soups cooked or flavored with meat, meat gravies or sauces, as well as seasonings or condiments made from animal fat are not forbidden. So it is permissible to use margarine and lard.” Mmm! Also, “even bacon drippings which contain little bits of meat may be poured over lettuce as seasoning,” and (thank goodness someone has cleared this up once and for all), “no one considers gelatin or Jell-O to be meat” (Father John Huels, The Pastoral Companion). So you can’t eat a burger, but you could eat, say, a salad with lots of bacon bits, or even pasta with marinara sauce. And in case it was theological doubt holding you back, go right ahead and enjoy that Jell-O, guilt-free.
Like almost every woman in the Western world, where we have the luxury of worrying about eating too much, food is sometimes often almost always an issue for me. I have used it to play out a variety of neuroses over the years—mostly by hypochondriacally imbuing it with magical healing powers–and have practiced vegetarianism, veganism, low carb/high proteinism, and most disastrously, macrobiotics. I once asked one of my friends who is up on a lot of Asian practices what he knew about macrobiotics and he said, “I think it involves a lot of small containers.”
It does, mostly because you have to combine foods in exactly the right way, especially the pickles. It also requires a vigilance that is almost entirely unsustainable in a regular life, and the food is disgusting. And although it is supposed to cure almost any disease, about two weeks into my macrobiotic experiment, a woman I hadn’t seen in some time asked me very discreetly if I was ill. So I abandoned the macroneurotic life, and now I eat pretty much anything, but the lessons to be learned from food persist, which I think is a peripheral part of the point of fasting. Fasting is not supposed to be easy, physically or psychologically, and it forces you to pay attention to how you handle the basic human need of feeding yourself.
One of the first things to go when I am depressed or anxious is my ability to eat, which is rather nice in the short term because it is a fast, though unpleasant way to lose weight without any willpower. (While I recognize that there are very important psychological and physiological differences between anxiety and depression, I find the description of them as “fraternal twins” to be accurate to my experience.) During one episode in which I had lost quite a lot of weight, someone at work asked, “How do you stay so thin?” and though I was trying to hide my condition from my colleagues, I replied, bitterly, “Chronic anxiety.”
I am now a firm believer in the value of swift medical interventions for cases of depression and anxiety that interfere with the quality of the life you were given to live, though it has taken me many years (and more conversations with my mother than I’m sure she cares to remember) to get to that point. Perhaps the most useful piece of wisdom that finally clicked this internal debate into place was given to me by my sister-in-law, last summer, standing under a streetlamp at night in Wiesbaden. My husband and I had just returned from our first vacation alone in 13 years, and I had spent it lurching from one panic attack to the other, feeling as though I had washed up onto the shore of a lovely beach, and could do nothing by lie face down in the sand listening to other people enjoying the sun. We visited one of the most picturesque restaurants I have ever seen, one reputed to have phenomenal seafood, and we had to leave because I was not able to breathe and sit up at the same time.
After picking us up from the airport, my sister-in law listened to me feeling guilty, wretched and bewildered, then held me in her arms for a long time and talked to me about how much of my life I was missing out on. Then she said, “Think of it (medication) like the Pill: no one wants to take it, but if you don’t, you can get into big trouble.” And that was really it for me. It was the best kind of advice: sensible and given with love.
Appetite disturbances are a common symptom of depression and anxiety, but not eating did not feel like a passive experience when it was happening. After a while, there was a perverse pleasure in forcing myself to carry on without food. It was so profoundly uncomfortable to be in my body that not eating became a way to refuse to have one; if I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t really here.
Parker Palmer, a brilliant educator, writer, and Quaker, describes his own experiences with depression in the beautifully insightful book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. He writes, “One of the most painful discoveries I made in the midst of the dark woods of depression was that a part of me wanted to stay depressed. As long as I clung to this living death, life became easier; little was expected of me, certainly not serving others” (71).
He goes on to say that he had missed the deeper meaning of a bible passage that up to that point he considered a “no-brainer:” “I set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Therefore, choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19). Why, Palmer wonders, would God tell us something so obvious? His answer is: “I had failed to understand the perverse comfort we sometimes get from choosing death in life, exempting ourselves from the challenge of using our gifts, of living our lives in authentic relationship with others” (71-2).
The poem I chose for today is a reminder that if we are fortunate and choose life, there is nourishment beyond telling. It is by Derek Walcott, a poet from the West Indies who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992:
Love After Love
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
I wish you could hear this poem read aloud, because it’s so much better to experience poetry that way. Intonation is so important—you could read “You will love again” as “You will love again,” “You will love again,” or “You will love again,” and each would mean something a little different. And there is such tenderness in the lines, “Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart/to itself, to the stranger who has loved you/all your life, whom you ignored/for another, who knows you by heart.” It can be hard to hear that tenderness without hearing the poem read out loud.
To me this poem invites us to remember that life is a feast—think of all of the bible stories in which Jesus is either feeding people or at a banquet—even in the midst of Lent. Even in the midst of fasting, voluntary or involuntary. And it makes me ask questions like, What does it mean to be hospitable to your self, to all of you? To give wine, give bread, to treat the parts of yourself that you have left out in the cold like honored guests, instead of embarrassing inconveniences or unwelcome undesirables? The parts of you “whom you ignored for another” better, happier, more acceptable version of yourself?
The thing about banquets is that there is always so much food that if you don’t like one dish, there are others to choose from. Life is not without hunger, or dissatisfaction, or even outright despair, but like food, it should never be wasted. And in all circumstances, something is offering itself, is saying, “this is your life, the only one you have today, the only one that will look just this way at just this time.” It doesn’t have to be happy or even comfortable, but it should be, wholeheartedly, yours.