Cooking for One

kitchen witch

my tongue craves skin, my skin
tongue.  how to eat when the only flavor
is salt? too poor for the extravagance
of a meal served to me, i recall the logic
of giving the beloved what you want
for yourself.  this woman
is her own again, my only lover
here.  In the kitchen i peel
off my clothes and wrap around my hips
an oceanic gust from the cotton bolt
i brought from Zimbabwe
half this life before
and gave to a dear one who returned to me
one yard in thanks, tiny stitches,
this skirt. heat tears through
onion silk. with the long blade
i slice gold threads of ginger. oil pops
as punjabi mc strips the carapace
and wings unfold from my hips.
roil and scrape. peanut, coconut, turmeric, cumin.
cabbage, tomato, cauliflower, honey.
masala dust clings to raw arms, ribs
sweat red clay heat. mouth gorged
with song, the feeding precedes
the eating. my tongue thrills at the naked
steam curling into its hidden cells, my skin
tilts towards the kaleidoscope
of scents. i serve my beloved
a dish and she returns to me
one  birth  in thanks, tiny bloodbeats,
this night. the only flavor
is never the only flavor. the body can taste
every texture of loss. the body can learn
to boil sugar
from the heart.


 

Pleasure Bank

Muffin Bank

The hunger for sensation collapses into craving.  The call seems to rise up from somewhere inside my flesh.  It is deafening.  My mouth obsesses.  Sweets, yes, and the feel of pastry on the skin of my tongue.  Nothing satisfies but the hook is in and pulls me from my desk, my book, my deeper pleasures. Continue reading “Pleasure Bank”

32. Things I Can Eat: This Meal, Exclusively

Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state.

– William James

A quick metabolism and hearty genes provide cover. A person can live for decades with disordered eating, and no one — not even the most intimate partners — may know.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder include the following:

  • Eating unusually large amounts of food in a specific amount of time, such as over a 2-hour period
  • Feeling that your eating behavior is out of control
  • Eating even when you’re full or not hungry
  • Eating rapidly during binge episodes
  • Eating until you’re uncomfortably full
  • Frequently eating alone or in secret
  • Feeling depressed, disgusted, ashamed, guilty or upset about your eating
  • Frequently dieting, possibly without weight loss

The word “disorder” is troubling for a number of reasons, but it’s hard to argue with 8 for 8. For me, as for others, the genesis is in earlier chapters, with coping turned habitual. My parents both worked and once my big sister hit adolescence, she wanted nothing to do with her irritating shadow. At 10 years old, I came home to an empty house. This was no tragedy, of course. We had neighbors, bikes, a park with woods, homework, books, a piano, walls full of LPs, a thousand things to do.

Of all the activities within reach, eating was the easiest. It was low effort, quick reward. So, I ate. It kept me company. It occupied my fidgety attention. It was instantly satisfying. I could eat anything in the house without anyone assessing or demanding I share.

Even for a little girl through whom angst flowed like milk, childhood was not a particularly painful time. Even so, whatever wispy loneliness I carried cemented the habit: Food as companion, food to staunch the boredom.

Thirty years later, this is still very much so. Thoughts about food and eating — what’s coming next, what I just ate, measuring, deciding — are background noise and main score all at once.

The company of friends and family shrinks every concern about eating to a faint whine. In any sort of social setting, food is just a pleasant set piece. Eating is manageable. Even overeating in the company of others feels nothing like the lonely binge. Dining out, parties, holidays, lunch meetings, dates — all of these occasions are easy. Light. Companionship engages my attention and fills the hole that seems so bottomless when I’m on my own.

Really, any engaging activity muffles the hunger. I can dance or write, garden or volunteer, wrestle with my son or make art. I can even pay my taxes or dust my blinds. As long as the time is given to lyric, motion, and productivity, the food obsession recedes.

The challenge is the rest of life.

Alone at my desk, plowing through projects. Alone in my house at the end of a soul-sapping Thursday. Alone with my son asleep in the other room, tired myself but itching for some kind of richness, some kind of stimulation.

Alone and circling the unanswered questions about future, finances, my career, my son’s well-being. Alone and lacking any clear direction, with the nagging awareness that I should be giving shape to something more suited to us with this clay, these hands.

So I return to the compulsive, familiar pacifiers.

I know better. We all know better. But knowledge falls short of action. Instead of moving through the moment of craving and finding myself a song or a pen or a friend, I walk to the fridge.

I eat. Eat and read lit mags online, or skim leftover sections of Sunday’s Washington Post, or download podcasts. I eat and wander the house.

Hours go by this way. Eventually I break surface, climbing up from the burrow of bread and fruit. Immediately the bullets from that Mayo clinic list hammer into me. I’m uncomfortable, well past full, feeling disgusted and out of control.

It all seems so very silly, so first-world. Just a blink away are Baltimore and Katmandu, and here I am worrying the extra bowl (or 3) of cereal I just ate? I’ve come through the hell of a divorce and displacement, bought a home and moved forward in a fulfilling career. I raise a child and manage my investments and work out regularly and attend to a lovely intimate relationship with my Mister. All of these things seemed impossible just a few years ago. All of these things require strength I never knew I had. Don’t these experiences provide me with the capacity to tackle this one simple task?

Stop eating so goddamned much all the time.

Except that “stop eating” is not a viable goal.

Every attempt I’ve made in the past three decades to “fix” this “disorder” just puts attention squarely where it shouldn’t be: on the problem. Focusing on the broken part reinforces the bond between that essential brokenness and the gal carrying it around.

It’s also tempting to excavate ancient burial grounds and reckon with sleeping psychological ghosts. I’ve done plenty of that, with little to show for it. The phantoms are resting quite well now, thank you very much.

All of that said, if I want to be effective in this world, I’ve got to disentangle myself from this thicket of numbing, distracting, and ultimately disabling behaviors.

When participating in the 21-Day Financial Fast at the beginning of 2015, I discovered all over again that a specific, short-term objective with clear rules can take me miles further than whips and rebukes. Starting from a similar place of hopeful strength might serve this task well. It’s time to recognize that I am perfectly capable of setting smart, thoughtful goals and taking bold (if tiny) steps towards them.

So here is what I propose:

Eat when I eat.

(A revolutionary concept, right?)

Let’s put it this way: Only eat when I eat.

Applying lessons from mindfulness — another of my woefully undeveloped capacities — is proving useful here. If eating is the only activity when eating, then perhaps my mind will have a chance to notice how much (and how little) bandwidth food takes up. Exclusively eating means setting aside every other pursuit and carving out time to sit with a meal. Exclusively eating also means fully engaging in whatever occupies my hands and senses when meal- or snack-time is over. Without food to keep me company, will I be as likely to troll the internet and play Quiddler on my phone? Or will I notice that the time I’m adrift in low-reward distractions is really not very fulfilling after all?

I’m not sure what I’ll discover, but it’ll be fascinating — and undoubtedly tortuous — to find out. The 21-day financial fast was tough enough, and I went into that a skinflint who takes pride in driving a 15-year-old beater. This project will be bending loose some pretty rusted joints.

Yesterday was Day 1.

May 31 is the finish line.

Buon appetito!

Woman, Mine: Eat, Drink, Overthink

When women are faced with a difficult situation, they turn inward to control or change themselves rather than focusing outward on the environment and individuals that need to change. Whereas men tend to externalize stress — blaming other people for their negative feelings and difficult circumstances — women tend to internalize it, holding it in their bodies and minds. When something bad happens to women, they analyze everything about the problem — how they feel about it, why it came about, and all its meanings and ramifications for themselves and their loved ones.

– Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Eating, Drinking, Overthinking: The Toxic Triangle of Food, Alcohol, and Depression — And How Women Can Break Free

The self-help stacks are my first stop. Over in biography and history, the finds are nourishing but bland in comparison. Substance rarely wins. On any given week, some bestseller on living the full life accompanies me home. I gulp down the first chapter for a fix of the hottest therapy-couch trend. When I get up to run the dishwasher or my fidgety legs, I plop the earnest analysis on the coffee table as a reminder of all that needs to be explored. It’s three days overdue when I dig it out from under the board games and magazines. I’m still the same stumbling, unpolished creature I was five years ago and undoubtedly will be in another twenty.

Sometimes these finds are good, a few are great, and most hover somewhere below mediocre. I paw through them, hopeful and willing. The self, after all, is a mine. A precious vein cuts a find thread through acres of the most primitive matter. It’s hard to resist skimming to see if any can offer up a new kind of pickaxe.

Nolen-Hoeksema is a diamond drill bit.

First, the qualifiers: her writing falls short of art and her research is miles from the cutting edge. Much of what she’s exploring has already turned itself inside-out in every issue of Psychology Today. That said, she strikes oil in her depiction of this one woman’s experience: mine. I doubt the insight ends here —  this work must speak to others or it wouldn’t have made it to the shelf.

If you are out there experiencing what I experience. . . well, you have my deepest sympathy.

Also, go find this book.

Nolen-Hoeksema layers description of the emotional experience of depression with the behavioral coping strategies that are common among women. The dynamic interplay of thoughts, feelings, and actions is not a new concept, yet the insight here strikes a bright chord. I have tried to pick each of these predilections apart as its own unique concern. In my disordered world, here are the areas of most pressing need: Food issues, compulsive/addictive issues, depression issues. Also, motivation issues, anxiety issues, perfectionism issues. Daddy issues are as loyal and true as gum stuck to my shoe. Oh, then there are the communication issues along with trust issues which contribute to sleep issues… You get the idea.

Culture, biology, and family paint the backdrop upon which these actions and reactions play out. While my sleepless internal critic insists otherwise, it is not all just chaos in here, and none of us is a hopeless mess. Indeed, giving up is another form of indulgence. It’s no small gift that Nolen-Hoeksema writes for popular consumption. Those of us who are working on something-or-other all the time would wilt at the idea of another task, even while reaching for it. The analysis here requires little more than a shot of receptiveness and a few quiet hours.

The book begins at a point central to the ways women cope. At that place, a kind of behavioral and cognitive Bermuda triangle — depression, drinking, and compulsive eating — draws other aspects of the self into it. With the same insidious force, it infiltrates what seem to be unrelated spheres of our lives. Careers suffer, bodies weaken, marriages falter, children pay.

Rooting out sources, subsequent chapters explore the patterns of over-identifying with other folks’ feedback and perceptions, the role physiology plays in stress and emotional responses, and the tendency even among successful women to swallow anger but wallow in sadness. These lines of inquiry will be familiar from feminist theory, neurobiology, clinical psychology, and human development theory. Nolen-Hoeksema tugs loose the component parts and assembles them into a new mechanism for self reflection.

After digging up the thickets and landmines, it’s time to lay new ground. The final section dedicates several chapters to concrete strategies for designing an alternative to the triangle. Practical guidance complements theory, providing tips for replacing avoidance and remorse with “approach goals,” and walking through simple problem-solving skills. The book finally urges the reader to think forward and beyond herself. The closing chapter guides offers readers tools for supporting girls and teens — particularly daughters — in developing practices and vocabulary for a healthy adulthood.

As I write this, I notice a force that seems to want to pull me away from focusing and finishing. Giving in to it would lead me to the refrigerator, or bed, or wandering through an electric smog of doubts and plans and urgencies about the unfinished business of my life. The force, of course, is less than an “it” and exactly as strong as the breath I waste fighting it.

Mine, this mind. I’m grateful Nolen-Hoeksema pieced this tool together and handed me the map. With them, I might be able to reconfigure the landscape to invite the bold step and a lifted gaze.

 

Egg and Milk

He stands with his back to the doorjamb and tries to sneak up onto his toes. “Flat feet,” I say. He grins up from under the turquoise towel a friend made as a shower gift. It had seemed huge then. A baby would drown in all that terrycloth. Now it barely covers his rear end.

He goes down on his soles and I swipe the marker across his crown before he can pop up again.

“Wow,” I say.

“What?”

He turns and looks at the black slash. It is more than an inch higher than the only other mark. We made that one half a year ago on his seventh birthday – the first birthday we celebrated in the first home we’ve ever owned. In all those cabins we half-claimed before moving out and moving on, we had never recorded his growth.

“Just six months. Look at that.” I start to write by the line.

“Can I do it?” He asks. I hand him the Sharpie. In slippery big-kid block letters he scrawls his name. Next to it, “May 2014.”


After I pick him up from school, we race in, drop our backpacks, and grab the ball and scooter. Spring. Light. At last, evening does not mean night. It happens every year and is a surprise every time.

He opens the fridge and digs, pulling out hard boiled eggs, a block of mozzarella, yogurt tubes. He takes a glass down from the cabinet and fills it with rice milk. He slips a knife from the rack and sets up the cutting board. He does all this now. The thrill of watching my boy saw off a hunk of cheese is enough to give me a shiver. No one would believe me if I told them. No one would care.

He is seven and doesn’t need to ask. This kitchen is his. In some parts of the world, he would have long since killed and dressed his first deer.

In the bedroom, I peel off my suit and whip my 6:00 hair up into a ponytail. My neck breathes and my spine shakes loose. When I come out, he is sucking down the last of the cherry yogurt and has knocked back the whole glass of rice milk. The golden ropes of hair tumbling past his shoulders are in desperate need of a comb. He bobs from one foot to the other. “Come on, Mom.” He picks up the remaining half of an egg and shoves it in his mouth. Then he jumps on his scooter and bangs out the door.

We have barely reached the corner when his name starts to ricochet around the park. Little voices call. Greeting or alert? Like prairie dogs, they pop up then down, re-arranging themselves. A girl crouched in the overgrown grass stands and waves a handful of buttercups at us. Another girl appears beside her. Together, they dart to the fence to watch us arrive then squeal and take off when we cross over. Three boys straddling the top of the slide leap to the ground and careen through the play equipment, faces flashing. The echoes of my boy’s name follow us in. He drops his scooter near the bike rack. Falling into stride with the galloping pack, he disappears.

When I see him next, he is hanging from the monkey bars at the center of a swarm of children.

His legs windmill and his torso pivots. Motion churns milk and egg to fertile slurry. His limbs unfold between blinks, telescoping, fanning, revealing new sinew snaking out across new bone. His arms stretch skyward. He plunges toward light.
 

Leftovers

The floor stays dry but the margarine tub fills to the brim. I empty it three times over the next 24 hours knowing I will eventually have to resolve the issue. Trial-and-error or outsourcing? Neither comes for free.
 
Down the hall, Bug sings and chatters in the bathtub as I cobble together dinner. In the vegetable drawer, I discover the broken remains of my inaugural promise to the fridge. A half-full bag of slimy green beans. A bouquet of yellowing parsley. I marvel at the improbable fact of their decay. If my long-ago ancestors claimed place with crops, what to make of rot? Decomposition of the unused scrap has to be an indicator of both affluence and folly. Maybe it is also a sign of roots. When food turns bad in the larder, you’re not just visiting anymore.
 
I toss the sludge and pull out eggs and cheese. As I reach for a cutting board, I notice three bananas going brown in the basket. A fruit fly alights. Hello, excess. It is time to prepare a meal and now this plot twist? I disdain waste yet mashed bananas aren’t in my dinner repertoire. I start mentally scanning the video of my next 24-hours, watching myself prep lunches and check breakfast inventory. Office wardrobe. Commute. How in the world will fruit pancakes fit into all this? You can’t squeeze batter from a stone.
 
Then I pause. Set down the knife. Consider.
 
This granite countertop. This half-bare cupboard. My kid dive-bombing his plastic killer whale in the bath and making a giant mess.
 
This, my house. My kitchen, my parenting, my menu, my rules.
 
My way, here on out.
 
I pull out the mixing bowls, the whole wheat flour, the jar of sugar. No measuring cups. I wing it with a coffee mug. No canola oil. Olive will do. No milk. Orange juice, then. In goes the banana mush. I add twice as much cinnamon as any reasonable person would because I know Bug loves it. Into the muffin tin. Into the oven.
 
While the timer ticks down, spinach succumbs to a too-big knife. This was all that was left from a Wusthof-Trident set that split up when the marriage did. Eggs crack open into a cereal bowl. I slit a softening peach across its seam, free the stone, and shave buttery jewels from its flesh. Bug pads in, damp and pink. I ask him to set the table. He does this now, just three weeks in, with neither argument nor a need for direction. On our first night together here, he chose which seat was mine and which his. This hasn’t varied since.
 
We sit in the deep-breath echo of our dining room eating steamed broccoli with our fingers. Bug uses a pepper grinder to carpet his eggs and vegetables. He folds back the towel covering a warm bowl and closes his eyes.
 
“Mmm,” he says, breathing in the sweet steam. “Muffins? For dinner?”
 
“Yep,” I smile. “Muffins for dinner. “
 
“Can we make more in the morning? With blueberries?”
 
“Sure thing,” I say.
 
I’ve kept my second promise and fed the fridge fresh berries. She’s held up her end of the deal, at least for today.
 

Happy 100 Days: 19

He kneels before me and lets rain wet
his head. The fire is cold. Candles remain.
Three flames. A ribbon of smoke
tucked into his cheek. I do not need
to look for it. He says I’m learning.

The sheets are the red of damp
brick dust, I lay stiff there, safe, no distance
greater, no sinking
either. Place
my hands on curls and scalp,
three flames coil into locks, eyes
reflect the blue-red chili pepper
balcony lights, trees caught
halfway through their undressing.

It will never be winter here
again, no snow will blanket the gully,
no deluge to scour clean
the skin. We live packed in
tins three flights up, no place
for monsters here so we find them squatting
in the drywall, squirreled between
ribs, under the tongue,
the brimstone there, the ember
still alive. He takes me

for food. Sits next to me in the booth.
Orders salt on the rim. It is the last
drink of my life. The lime
sinks. The paper black bottom
of the jalapeno glistens as he lifts
it to me. Crisp skin and grease,
I wait for the burn, refuse to ice
the heat as it sears wet flesh. He presses
his mouth to my forehead, my oiled lips. We are not
in love but we swallow it
whole, barely chewing anymore. He kneels
before me without moving
one inch. Supplication
in the angle of his cheek, prostration
in his kiss. He scoops up brown beans
glistening with bacon fat. Holds the spoon

to my mouth. Somewhere
outside, stars burn the summer
December sky. Ducks still dip
and split the ponds. The creek still gushes.
We stop on a bridge and cast
shadows over stone. It will never be winter
here. He holds my waist.
We are not in love.
We are lit by a half
cold moon.