Places Where Grace Is

26 Jan

Last night I was scrolling through Facebook as I’m apt to do before bed, when I came across an inspiring story of a woman who cares for hospice babies – infants who are terminal and whose biological family won’t or can’t bear to care for them. You can read the story here.

I was drawn to the story for a couple of reasons. First, because I’ve wanted to be a foster parent since I was 12; second, because I discovered about ten years ago that I want to foster newborns who are in the adoption process; and third, because a few years ago a nun spoke at my church about her order’s dedication to care for the elderly poor and being the last face someone sees before they meet Jesus. The woman in this story is doing all of that and more, and she inspires me.
In the story she quotes a verse from a song she loved. “It may be unfulfilled, it may be unrestored, but anything that’s shattered that’s laid before the Lord will not be unredeemed.” I googled it and listened to the full song and sobbed, as I knew I would. I sobbed for my own private grief. I sobbed for my friends who live good, Godly lives and also harbor deep grief and loss.

The song is Unredeemed by Selah.

One of the first real lessons on my spiritual journey into maturity was accepting that I’m powerless over the past. There is nothing I can do today that will change what I did 15 years ago or said five minutes ago. There’s no undoing what has been done, no matter how many amends I or others make. There are some opportunities that are simply lost to us, and these facts when fully accepted can feel like a huge, gaping hole that seems beyond even hope’s reach.

Most of the time when I reach that hole and stare into its dark abyss, and I accept it’s real and can’t be filled with even my best attempts, I resign myself to living with it. Someone I love once described that hole as something that would swallow him whole, and he didn’t know how to live with it. His therapist told him to envision putting a manhole cover on it.

That’s what resignation looks like. A manhole cover on a collapsed star.

But the song tells me that my black holes are places where grace is.

The grace of God is the only thing infinite enough to fill a hole from which even light cannot escape.

Anything that’s shattered that’s laid before the Lord will not be unredeemed. That’s not resignation. That’s surrender.

The word “redeemed” is a loaded one, worthy of more meditation. For now, I am reminded that surrender is and always will be my only solution ever. The bigger my black holes, the more space for God’s grace in my holey heart.

The Detox Diary

24 Jan

Today is the last day of my 14-day detox, which involves fasting from processed foods, red meat, sugar, gluten, diary, caffeine, and alcohol. Before each meal (breakfast, lunch and dinner) I consume a “detox drink” of filtered water, cranberry and lemon juice, and apple cider vinegar to “prime the pump” and prep my liver to process food and flush all the toxins out.

Although the “D14” as it’s called is a fast, it is not a diet; no points, no calorie counting, no rigid schedules. I eat three meals and snacks, and I eat when I’m hungry: lots of whole foods, organic fresh fruits and veggies, protein from eggs and poultry, and snacks throughout the day. The folks who organize this detox also sell a series of nutritional supplements (shakes, capsules, gummies) that are part of the program, though these aren’t required.

It was interest in the supplements, Juice Plus, that initially piqued my interest. I have several neighbors who use Juice Plus and they rave about it. For the past year, I’ve been sluggish and bloated and a bit “down.” I blamed it on last year’s brutally cold winter, but that excuse wore thin once spring arrived. Being outside in the sun helped a little, but not enough to overcome the general malaise I was feeling.

I knew my eating habits sucked. I’m a fast food junkie, because it’s cheap and quick and takes no preparation at all. If I’m hungry, I can hop in the car and get lunch at the nearby Taco Bell, my guilty pleasure. Just typing the words “Taco Bell” initiates a craving. I tried taking a multivitamin last fall, which helped with the energy issue a little, but it was like running on empty and putting just enough gas in the car to get to my next destination – barely even maintenance.

So when my neighbor Rachel started talking up Juice Plus around Christmas time, I was ready to take notice. A group of people would be doing it together, supporting each other in a Facebook group, sharing recipes and tips, encouraging each other and holding ourselves accountable. I’ve had positive experiences with online support groups around pregnancy, house cleaning, and other issues, so I took it as an opportunity to explore healthier eating habits.

The fact that the 14-day detox would NOT start on New Year’s Day appealed to me. There were cookies and egg nog to consume, and a trip to DC with the girls that would surely include fast food and limited control over the ingredients at the hotel buffet. Besides, I like the New Year to envelop me gently, not body slam me with every possible resolution a person can make, all at once. (I tried that a few years ago when I attempted the “40 Day Miracle Proclamation” which is basically a fast from the “seven deadly sins,” and it reduced me to tears within days.)

The fact that the D14 would last for only two weeks also appealed to me. Not that I intend to go back to my junk-food eating ways; I do genuinely want to make a change to my lifestyle. But I believe in moderation, and I reject long-term deprivation. A occasional soda or piece of cheesecake, or a California Crunchwrap now and then won’t kill me, and a life of rigidity very well could.

Is this the voice of denial? I don’t think so. My unhealthy relationship with food has more to do with convenience than feeding or stuffing my feelings. It’s my unhealthy relationship with the idea of convenience that’s more likely a problem. More on that later.

Two other key components of this detox are rest and exercise. Bring on the 8-hour nights! I love sleep, and I love a good excuse to get as much of it as I can. Exercise is more of a challenge. With three school aged children and a job, finding time to exercise is hard, especially since I don’t belong to a gym. A few years ago I had a Y membership and made yoga and Zumba classes a part of my weekly routine, but that was before we had dance class two nights a week and religious ed classes on Thursdays and date night with the fella. This go around, I didn’t bother too much with the exercise part. I occasionally walked to the post office down the street from work, and did a few planks.

In my writing class (a New Year “detox” of another sort, sure to be the subject of published reflection soon), my friend and facilitator Sarah suggested I do more writing on why I’m doing this detox. She was especially interested in the spiritual side-effects of the process. The truth of the matter is, my main motivation for the D14 is not some deep, existential quest. It’s the food baby.

Those of you who know me in person are rolling their eyes, because I’m a little more than 100lbs soaking wet, and have a very slight frame. The doctor I went to last year told me in no uncertain terms that I should put on weight (although I’ve been this size for the better part of my life). How could someone so skinny be worried about a muffin top? Trust me, it’s there, and it’s the reason I don’t care to wear a bathing suit even though I’m a size 0.

In my 30s after having three children, I fully accepted my belly would bloat a little after big family meals; my abdominal muscles permanently separated during my first pregnancy. But more recently, the food baby hasn’t gone away after an hour or so post-dinner. The food baby has been there when I wake up in the morning with an empty stomach. I refuse to accept the food baby as my body’s new norm simply because I’m now 40. I’ve seen my neighbors’ D14 before and after pictures, and their bloat is gone. I wanted what they have (or in this case, what they don’t have).

And no, you cannot see my before and after pictures. But I can report that the bloat is gone. If I want rock hard abs, I’ll have to focus on the exercise part of the D14.

Ever my harshest critic, I can’t help but feel this is a superficial motivation for such a drastic step. However, I’m also scared of cancer, and I’m sure my unhealthy eating habits do nothing to ward off a disease that is taking its toll on far too many people I love. Far too many. I have a good friend who swears that radically changing one’s diet can actually cure cancer. I have a hard time believing this, given the complex nature of different types of cancers. But I fully believe that I can take reasonable steps to make it harder for cancer to take hold. So if drinking a putrid, bitter concoction before meals changes the chemical makeup of my body to make it inhospitable to cancer cells, I’m willing.

From a more spiritual perspective, I see this cleanse as a way to achieve balance. As I’ve written earlier this month, balance is my watchword for the year. Often when a part of my life is wildly out of balance, I go to the opposite extreme before I find my center, and this fast is pretty extreme. I know people who have weaned themselves slowly off sugar, or who have to avoid dairy or gluten, but cutting all three, and coffee, is a tall order. By God’s grace, I haven’t missed it. The hardest part was not eating that cheesecake the caterer brought to work on day one. I’ll admit, I cheated a little yesterday, taking a sip of my kids’ hot cocoa.

Fasts of any sort have the added benefit of being able to learn about habits we didn’t even know we had; for example, my addiction to convenience. I had no idea it was such a permeating quality, but now that I’m more aware, I see it popping up in how I relate to others, how I handle work, and even how I parent my kids. Convenience can be the gateway to a lot of self-centered behavior if I’m not vigilant.

I’ve learned I crave food when I take my kids to their dad’s house. Two weeks ago that might have meant an impromptu trip to McDonald’s for milkshakes, because I can’t very well go through the drive through and get just one for me. Last Friday evening, I was prepared. There was an apple in my purse that satisfied the urge.

I’ve noticed how good it feels to take care of myself. Planning meals and making my own lunches has built my self esteem, and having healthy snacks in the fridge and nuts in the car makes me feel truly cherished and cared for. There was a time in my life when I longed for and even expected a significant other to fill this role in my life, but it’s incredibly fulfilling to know I can do this for myself, although the fella certainly makes me feel cherished whenever he cooks for me, and especially when he encourages me in something like this fast.

Going to the grocery store was a real eye opener. Typically I go up and down the aisles, sometimes with a list, and purchase items from every section of the store. But with cutting out gluten, dairy, and added sugar, I’m pretty much limited to the produce and meat sections, and the “earthy crunchy” aisles. It makes grocery shopping a lot simpler, but it also makes me feel a little disgusted about what I was putting in my body before, and what we all eat collectively.

Prepping for this weekend’s snow storm was eye opening as well. I loaded up on produce and protein, and I didn’t even buy bread! I bought milk for the kids, and coconut and almond milk for me. Being able to feast on nutritious food throughout the duration of the blizzard has been wonderful. The old me would have been going stir crazy by now, anxious to eat at a restaurant after two days of frozen pizzas and ramen. Instead, I created recipes for butternut squash potage and a delicious maple vinaigrette for my grilled chicken salad.

I had some side effects that faded after the first week. Headaches (totally normal) and lots of peeing and gas and the urgent need to poop. I was tired, not in an exhausted way, but in a restorative way, like when my babies were newborns. I was so good at practicing self-care in those early days, making sure I ate and drank to keep up my milk supply, and sleeping when the baby slept. I can’t really sleep like that now, but I’ve definitely been gentle with myself, not pushing my body or my mind too hard.

I also lost weight. About 7 lbs. I think the doctor was wrong. Pre-detox, I regularly skipped lunch and rarely ate breakfast. My diet consisted of processed foods, drive through fare, and whatever snacks or cookies I could find in the pantry, with an occasional home-cooked meal about 2-3 times per week. On the detox, I’ve skipped a meal only once, when I was at a workshop last Saturday afternoon, and I ate plenty of nutritious snacks to make up for it. I’m certain I’m consistently eating more calories and certainly healthier calories that usual.. But I lost weight? Even I was surprised. I don’t expect I’ll get much lighter, though.

My first thought as I began this journey was, why have I waited for a D14 detox to take such good care of myself? Being successful requires a lot of advance planning – making daily menus, buying the food in advance, including healthy snacks for the times I know I’ll be ravenous, packing lunch each morning. These activities are outside my normal routine. They are not convenient. Yet I have done these things before without doing a fast, and my life is a lot more pleasant when I have a week’s worth of written on the calendar. Taking care of myself, whether through a detox or not, builds my self-esteem immeasurably. It’s the single best step I can take to reduce stress, particularly at 4:00 in the afternoon when I’m freaking out about dinner or at 2:00 when I’m feeling guilty about my side trip to McDonald’s on my way to pick up the kids from school.

So today is my last day of the bitter beverage that I’ve grown to like, if not love. When I started two weeks ago, it took all my will power to finish that first 9 ounces of lip puckering hell. I’m amazed at how my feelings truly do follow my actions and my habits. That’s another lesson of the detox. If I “just do it,” as Nike says, instead of letting my feelings dictate my eating habits, I find I actually have more control or at least empowerment when it comes to my body and my emotions. It turns out eating whole foods heals the whole package.

I wanted to give people a practical look at exactly what each day looked like, meal-wise, so I’ve been keeping a food diary. If this is a “diet” then it’s a diet that I can definitely live with, because I never felt deprived. Quite the opposite. I feel nourished by every meal, with the added benefit that nothing I put in my body will betray me later.

Breakfast: Steel-cut Oatmeal with honey and dried mulberries
Lunch: Mixed greens topped with grilled salmon, banana
Snack: Dark Chocolate & Sea Salt KIND Bar (this is my one occasional cheat)
Dinner: Field greens & Grape tomatoes with balsamic dressing, apples and organic peanut butter

Breakfast: Chocolate JP shake w/almond milk and banana
Snack: Nuts & vegan cookies
Lunch: Steel-cut Oatmeal and fresh cherries
Snack: Turkey Chili (a few bites)
Dinner: Turkey Chili

Breakfast: Vanilla JP shake w/coconut milk, strawberries and blueberries
Lunch: Turkey chili, cooked green beans, banana
Snack: ½ chocolate banana peanut butter shake
Dinner: Rotisserie chicken, steamed carrots

Breakfast: Vanilla JP shake w/almond milk, wild blackberries and oats
Lunch: leftover turkey chili, fresh cherries
Dinner: Tuscan chicken stew & roasted asparagus

Breakfast: ½ chocolate and fresh strawberry JP shake
Lunch: Panera Chicken Cobb salad
Snack: Apple and nuts
Snack: Leftover Tuscan chicken stew
Dinner: Pork chop and roasted cabbage steak w/fennel seeds

Breakfast: 2 scrambled eggs and orange slices
Snacks: banana, nuts, kind bar, hibiscus tea with honey
Dinner: curry coconut soup with chick peas and carrots, carrots and humus, fresh cherries

Breakfast: banana and green tea
Lunch: curry soup with chicken added
Snack: kind bar
Dinner:curry soup

Breakfast: oatmeal
Lunch: large salad of mixed greens with chicken
Dinner: vanilla and banana shake, carrots and hummus

Breakfast: oatmeal
Lunch: small salad with chicken and chopped avocado
Dinner:prepared foods from Elwood Thompson, kind bar

Breakfast: oatmeal
Lunch: salad with chicken and chopped avocado
Snack: carrots and hummus
Dinner: roasted veggies and grilled chicken

Breakfast: can’t remember
Lunch: Avacado chicken salad on lettuce with tomatoes, apples and peanut butter
Lara Bar for evening snack
Dinner: quinoa and roasted asparagus and fresh tomato

Breakfast: chocolate banana oatmeal smoothie
Lunch: butternut squash soup
Dinner: turkey tacos with lettuce wraps

Breakfast: scrambled eggs with pico de gallo and guac and OJ
Lunch: leftover squash soup and turkey taco on lettuce wraps
Dinner: mixed greens topped with grilled chicken and maple vinaigrette
Snack: Apple and peanut butter

Sunday (planned)
Breakfast: oatmeal with fresh blueberries
Lunch: Black bean soup, tortilla chips & guac
Snack: JP chocolate and banana shake
Dinner: Maple vinaigrette chicken with roasted veggies

Butternut Squash Potage

22 Jan

I’ve made butternut squash soup before, usually as a purée with chicken stock and cream. Today’s creation more adequately fits the description of a “potage;” that is, a thick stew made from boiling veggies in water or stock. This recipe makes two modest servings. Make with veggie stock for a vegan version.

Half an onion, chopped
1 1/2 cup of cubed butternut squash
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
A few sprigs of fresh parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
Tablespoon of olive oil
5-10 tortilla chips, pulverized in a food processor

Heat the oil in a small pot. Add the chopped onion and a little salt and pepper. Cook till translucent. Add the parsley leaves (pulled off the stem) and the squash, and cook covered on medium for about 5-10 minutes. Add the stock and heat to boiling, uncovered. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 25 minutes. Uncover and mash the softened squash with a potato masher (or for a finer consistency, use and immersion blender). Add the pulverized corn chips (I used blue chips) and simmer for 5 more minutes. Add more salt and pepper to taste and ENJOY!

Snow Hack

22 Jan

In advance of “snowpocalypse” I learned of two “life hacks” to make digging out my car a little easier. This is especially helpful because Sunday evening I’m cantoring at church, and I’ll need to dig out as soon as the snow stops.

The first hack is to put plastic bags (or tubesocks if  you have them) on windshield wipers. Secure with a little duct tape if needed. This will keep the snow and sleet from crusting them over. I always stand my wipers up, so I don’t have to dig them out.

The second hack involves the windshield. Take a large plastic bag and cut the sides so that it’s one large sheet. For cars, this will probably cover your whole windshield and can “attach” to the car by closing the ends in your front doors. One bag covered my whole van windshield but I didn’t have enough to tuck into the doors. Fortunately static cling helped it stick to my windshield, and I secured it to the window with a piece of masking tape in each corner.

I have no idea if either of these tactics will save me any time or effort, but I’ll report back after the storm is over. Till then, be safe and stay warm! 


Bread and Milk

17 Jan

The first snow of the season is gently falling this Sunday morning and most of Richmond has been to the grocery store for bread and milk. I’m in the middle of a 14-day detox from gluten and dairy and sugar and caffeine, and I’ve gone to the grocery store for organic lemon and cranberry juice because I’ve run out of these ingredients essential for my three times daily detox drink. The Food Lion down the road was out, presumably because my neighbors who got me into this thing have been there already. So I had to go to the west end for lemon juice.

Most of Richmond is snugly watching the snowfall from the warmth of their homes. I am driving west on Mechanicsville Turnpike. The road dead ends at a park that overlooks Shockoe Bottom and the Richmond skyline. I discovered it last fall and wondered then what it would look like in a snowfall, so I drive through the “projects” to get there, snap a picture, and find my way home via Church Hill, Laburnum, and eastern Henrico. I pass a church with a red lighted sign that shouts “PRAY” in all caps, and I marvel at how my higher power never ceases to speak to me when I’m alone and silent as the falling snow.

Driving familiar back roads, I ponder how others are in search of bread and milk while I’m in search of bitter beverages. And why. My mind wanders, feeling the depth of the question and not quite wanting to dive in, and considers the couple down the street who are divorcing. She apparently left. To my eyes, they were the perfect couple with perfect children and a perfect little home, inside and out, with everything in its place. On kindergarten orientation day when our daughters met because they sat at the same desk, I envied their coupleness as they filled out paperwork together. I wonder now if she saw me in my singleness, surviving, and thought it something to aspire to. I wish I could tell her that it wasn’t my first choice. It was never my first choice.

I think about the first house my ex-husband and I looked at, in a neighborhood somewhere off this road I’m driving. It was in the back of a cul de sac and had a basement, and the day we looked at it, there was snow. We rejected it because we didn’t like the color and we thought it was out of our price range, but by April, we had signed a contract on a purple house in Glen Allen that we knew we’d repaint and that cost us just as much and didn’t have a basement. I find myself wondering how different our lives might have been had we bought our first choice, had stayed at our old church, had started our family a 20 minute drive from our parents instead of two.

I feel a sudden urge. After 48 hours of inertia, my bowels are starting to move. I tighten my muscles and race to get home, passing four police cars going, thankfully, in the opposite direction. I burst in the front door with my bottle of lemon juice in hand and notice out of the corner of my eye, my Christmas tree still standing in the living room, white lights twinkling. The snow is a month too late, I think, yet grateful I’ve left it up if only to know what it would have been like to have a white Christmas. I sit on the toilet, relishing the relief of releasing the waste of what was left behind after my body took all the nutrients it could from two days worth of organic whole foods. I reach for the toilet paper, and the roll is empty. Bread and milk and toilet paper, I think, and make my way back to Food Lion.

Non-dairy Sugar-free Steel-cut Oatmeal

13 Jan

I was first introduced to steel-cut oatmeal by my fella. He uses Alton Brown’s recipe, which calls for plenty of dairy, including butter, milk, and buttermilk. (I usually pass on the buttermilk, but I use whole milk.) I love the way the texture of the oatmeal pops and crunches in my mouth. The fella and I top it off with brown sugar and freshly grated nutmeg. Unfortunately my kids won’t touch it with a ten foot pole, but it keeps well in the fridge, so when I make this batch it lasts 3-4 servings.

I developed this non-dairy, sugar free recipe is based on the Alton Brown recipe adapted for for my D14 cleanse (I’ll be writing more on that soon). This recipe is surprisingly good; I didn’t even miss the diary, and I may make my oatmeal this way going forward.

Basic Ingredients
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 cup steel cut oats
3 cups boiling water
1 cup unsweetened coconut milk

In a large saucepot, heat the oil and add the oats. Stir for 2 minutes to toast. Add the boiling water and reduce heat to a simmer. Keep at a low simmer for 25 minutes, without stirring.

Seriously, don’t stir it. Don’t watch to pot, because you will totally want to stir it. Set the timer and walk AWAY from the stove. Go fold some laundry. Take a shower. Nurse your baby.

You stirred it, didn’t you?

Well, whether or not you prematurely stirred, after 25 minutes, you have my permission to formally stir, and add the coconut milk. Cook for an additional 10 minutes.

If you like plain oatmeal, you don’t have to do anything else. It’s ready to eat or store in the fridge. (Note: if you reheat, add a tablespoon of water or coconut milk before microwaving it.)

I do not like plain oatmeal. I like lots of sugar and spice. I was concerned that a non-sugar option would be really awful. Not so. I added a squirt of honey, and a sprinkling of cinnamon, ground clove, ground nutmeg, and for extra oomph, a handful of dried Turkish white mulberries. I did not miss the sugar at all (and I love my brown sugar).

Come and See What God Has Done

4 Jan

One of my favorite aspects of the pre-Christmas season is listening to holiday music on the radio. My car radio is tuned almost exclusively to a local Christian music station, so my Christmas tunes are not your typical over-played melodies by today’s pop stars. 80% of it is spiritually inspired, and much of it is original, not just remakes of classic church carols. Every year an artist will introduce a song that really moves me, and this year, that song was Noel, written by Chris Tomlin and performed by Lauren Daigle.

What I love most about this song, beyond the haunting echo of the piano, smooth enveloping of the cello line, and raw power of Daigle’s vocals (my musical goal is to be able to sing like that) is the understanding that Christmas is not all joy and candy canes. We Christians just love to say, “Jesus is the reason for the season,” but how often do we stop to consider the reason for Jesus?

“Born to suffer, born to save, born to save us from the grave.”

Christ came to show us how to live, but he also came to die, and to show us how to die. Whether living or dying, it’s all about setting aside my ego (my Edging God Out). Without understanding at heart level my desperate need to be saved, Christmas is just the celebration of another baby being born. It makes about as much sense as needing a commercial holiday in order to give gifts to the people I love.

The “Noel” invites us to see what God has done. He was born into human likeness, and sacrificed himself as a perpetual and lasting sin offering. Our culture may not have a deep appreciation for this concept, as it’s been thousands of years since we routinely made blood sacrifices to any kind of god. But we certainly know a thing or two about punishing ourselves. New Years is often the season of self-imposed fasting in the name of health, to atone for our holiday binging. Young people cut themselves in an attempt to relieve their anxiety over not achieving perfection. Many of us endure abusive behavior from destructive people in our lives because some part of us believes we deserve it. Guilt and shame, whether rational or distorted out of proportion, is a heavy weight to bear, and many of us turn to prescriptions, alcohol, food, sex, gambling, excessive and obsessive behaviors to help us manage the burden. The Noel is that we don’t have to turn to those things, which will always fall short and ultimately bring death to us and our relationships. We can turn to the one who was born to carry our burden for us.

See what God has done. It is a story of amazing love.


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