I have been afraid of writing this.
This morning, at 4:45 in the morning, I lay awake in the bed in the dark grey light, Danny asleep beside me, Lu asleep in her room. I couldn’t sleep for thinking what I might say in this piece, something I have been meaning to write for awhile, but could not. I need my sleep.
You see, it has been tougher in our lives in the last year than I have let on here. This site is about baking and the goodness of life and funny stories and loving each other and cooking with a darling kid and falling down and helping others and the work of a chef and different flours and saying yes to it all.
It has not felt like the right place to talk about terrifying life decisions, watching a baby in pain, living on the ragged edge of desolate sleep deprivation, worrying about cancer, taking a pill that saddens our lives into something we never expected, and coping with it all in old, familiar ways.
This is a site about food and the joy of it.
I have been eating too much food. And now I want to talk about it.
We live in food around here. Danny and I talk about dinner, about dishes he might create, about the childhood memories of standing in the kitchen making dinner that Lu might have one day. For the past year, we have been cooking and baking on double time, testing and re-testing recipes for our cookbook. We have a darling toddler who loves to bake with me, and who is so active that she grows loudly grumpy if she doesn’t eat every three hours. Between making breakfast and falling into bed, food is a huge, joyful part of our lives.
But it’s hard to live a life of food, under the best of circumstances, and not put on weight. There’s slurping and nibbling and licking off of fingers and tasting and going back for more. It’s part of the job, part of the joy. With more mindfulness and rest, I might be able to do better at it. But this year? This year I have been a bit of a wreck.
It started a few months before Lu’s surgery. Hell, it started 12 hours after her birth, when she stopped breathing beside me and was rushed to the ICU. I was strapped to the bed, because I had undergone a c-section that afternoon and the suffocating leg cuffs that help prevent blood clots were circling my calves. I watched them race our daughter away from us, then I saw the code-blue lights flashing and the trampling sound of what must have been a dozen doctors and nurses running toward her. I couldn’t go to her. I thought she had died.
She lived. She lived in the ICU for a week, with a breathing tube and feeding tube in her. We couldn’t hear her voice for a week. When she first fed, she got my milk through a syringe. Danny and I never left her side, unless the nurses ordered us to sleep on the single cot in the room. If we cuddled into each other, we each touched part of the cot, and the other part of us falling off. There wasn’t much sleep. I didn’t eat much, either. Food felt foreign to me, removed. I lost 30 pounds in 1o days. By the time we finally returned home, all my pre-pregnancy clothes fit.
I realize now that just screwed up my system for awhile.
We could breathe again. She was alive. She was going to be fine. But as we sat her in the kitchen in her little bouncing chair as we cooked recipes and wrote them down for the cookbook, ate rich dishes for breakfast lunch and dinner or we would never finish the manuscript in time, we knew there was this cloud hanging over us. Her surgery.
My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in the middle of this. She’s fine now. But still.
Food tasted like a rich gift in those dark winter months. The cakes we developed were soft on my lips. The bread was so much better with a slather of butter. The dishes finished with sauces were so good that I kept going back for more.
Then, Lu stopped sleeping. She had started sleeping through the night when she was 10 weeks old, from 7 pm to 7 am. Every night. After the terrifying tumult we had been through after her birth, we figured we deserved it. Also, the first draft of the manuscript was due. Her sleeping allowed us to finish it.
Then she stopped. No matter what we tried, she cried piteously as soon as we lay her down in her crib. We lost more sleep every night. We couldn’t figure out why.
After her surgery, her neurosurgeon told us that her brain was pressed so tight against her skull that it actually relaxed into space. She couldn’t sleep because of the brain pressure. We didn’t know that yet.
We moved to the island, a welcome moment but moving is always stressful. Just as the lilacs outside our bedroom window came into bloom, it was May. It was time.
It has been almost a year since Lu’s surgery, thankfully. Back then, we didn’t want to say what exactly happened. It was all too raw. But it might help one of you reading, if you are going through the same thing. So here it is.
She was born with a condition called craniosynostosis, which meant that the soft spots in the front of her head had already fused before she was born. This is what caused her breathing problems that propelled us into the ICU the night of her birth. Luckily, it was just a genetic anomaly, unaccompanied by anything else. But there was no room for her brain to grow, and without the surgery she would have suffered brain damage and blindness. The decision was easy. The dread of it was agony. They told us she would need to have this surgery when she was 11 days old, so we lived every day with her knowing this was coming.
In an 8-hour surgery, they lifted her skull bones off her head, re-sculpted them to be bigger and a better shape, fused them all together with space-age polymers, and put them back on her head.
We waited, barely breathing, until we could finally see her. She was alive.
Then we waited in the hospital with her, on duty by her bed and sleeping in a small cot again, until we could leave a week later. She didn’t adjust well to her pain medication and we had to go back to the emergency room and stay another few nights. And then we all came home.
And then no one slept for another 1o months.
Lu woke up every hour, on the hour, all night long, every night, for 4 1/2 months. The doctors had warned us this might happen, but we didn’t expect it to last this long. I don’t know how we did it, thinking back on it. And even when she started sleeping for a bit longer of stretches, because we brought her into our bed to cuddle between us, so we could soothe her back to sleep quickly, she still didn’t sleep that long.
For a solid year, I did not sleep for longer than 3 hours at a time. Not once.
There was a lot of pie for breakfast.
Pie is comfort. Food became comfort again, instead of the singular joy of eating healthy and living in my body that it had been after my celiac diagnosis. In a time of crisis, I went back to old habits — eating without thinking, filling my mouth with sugar and carbs and dough for comfort, not paying attention. Hell, I couldn’t pay attention to anything with much focus those days. I was just so tired. Danny was beat-down tired too, but I tend to hear Lu cry earlier than he does. In those days, she could only sleep if she was cuddled up against me, sometimes on my head. In the mornings, I walked like a zombie into the kitchen and grabbed a hot cup of coffee and whatever we had baked the day before. And then I kept eating, all through the day.
Everyone I know who has a toddler does this a bit. The kid leaves behind some scrambled eggs and you grab them and eat them instead of throwing them away. Spoonfuls of oatmeal, a cube of cheese, a handful of crackers — there was always food lying around. No good letting it go to waste, right? Throw dark-circles-under-the-eyes sleep deprivation to the mix and there’s no counting how many bites went in without my thinking. I couldn’t think about me or my weight or exercising (yeah right) when our baby was healing and we had to earn more money to pay rent and the edits of our cookbook were due. And god, I needed more sleep.
(Now I know that many studies show sleep deprivation can cause weight gain. “Women who skimped on sleep — getting five hours or less a night — were 15 percent more likely to become obese than women who got seven hours of sleep per night.” Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life Sleep deprivation produces more cortisol, which makes more hunger and anxiety both.)
The summer meant lots of fresh vegetables and picnics with friends, slices of watermelon and huge salads. I was okay. As the fall descended, my diet went right into braises and breaded foods. I started to feel lousy about my health, my body, but I had to just keep going. I didn’t have the time or energy to worry about me.
Just before Thanksgiving, I went in for my annual mammogram. With a breast-cancer-survivor mother (along with her three sisters), I don’t play around with this. They had always been fine before. A suspicious set of mammograms led to a biopsy the day before Thanksgiving. Those results led to an MRI. That led to a more extensive surgical biopsy.
Around them all, I baked and baked and baked some more. If you made anything from this website for Thanksgiving or Christmas, just know that was from me turning fear into love through my hands. I had to think about someone else besides myself. I thought about you at home for the holidays, wanting cinnamon rolls.
I don’t have breast cancer. But it took a lot of scary moments until we knew that for sure.
And then we weren’t in the clear, after all.
Based on my family history, and what they found in the surgery, I’m officially in a high-risk category for developing breast cancer. In fact, I have a nearly 50% chance of developing invasive breast cancer at some point in my life. Nearly 50%. That’s just too high.
My oncologist gave me a list of things I can do to minimize the risk. Not smoking. (I don’t.) Not drinking (Danny quit after Lu was born, so I wasn’t drinking much. Done now.) Exercising. Eating well. And going on Tamoxifen.
Tamoxifen is an estrogen inhibitor, given to women after they have survived breast cancer. It’s also recommended for women who are at high risk. Taking it for five years can reduce the risk of developing cancer by nearly half.
Taking Tamoxifen also means you cannot be pregnant while you take it.
I’m 43. If I take the tamoxifen for 5 years, I will be 48. Taking that drug meant not being able to have more children.
We adore Lu. That’s probably clear in everything I write. We also always hoped (and pretty much assumed) we would have two kids. We had the names picked out long before Lu was conceived. And now, we had this choice: take our chances and try for another or take the drug and let go of our expectations.
There was a lot of grieving in December and January. A lot of rugelach and graham crackers and homemade mayonnaise and World Peace cookies. A lot of comfort food. Danny and I both were bereft.
One day in January we were at the Children’s Museum in Seattle for the birthday party of the son of dear friends. I went into the bathroom, still pretty raw with emotion. I saw this gaggle of girls, about four years old, gathered at the sink. They were elbowing each other for room, laughing and talking and discussing important matters. I stood and stared. I suddenly saw Lu at that age. I ran out to Danny, crying. “I don’t want to miss it. I don’t want to miss a minute.”
I’ve been on the Tamoxifen for the last three months.
We let go.
In the midst of this, another doctor’s appointment turned up worrying signs, enough that I was sent for a pelvic ultrasound to make sure I didn’t have ovarian cancer. And just last week, after intestinal issues of some mysterious nature, I had a colonoscopy to make sure I didn’t have colon cancer.
(This is, by the way, the hardest house to fast for two days in. Ay, the food everywhere.)
Luckily, I don’t have either. This has been the year of Shauna not-having cancer. Thank goodness.
But shit, this has been hard.
All through it, we were working on our cookbook, even down to the last moment. And being the parents of a sweet, active little girl who grew healthier by the moment. She is healed now, completely. And finally, she is sleeping. For the past six weeks, Lu has slept from 7 pm to 6 am, with maybe a brief rising somewhere near midnight.
Finally, finally, this year is coming to an end.
And I haven’t made a pie in awhile.
It’s spring again, the time of re-birth. With halibut and sorrel, quinoa and chard, everything feels more healthy in the world.
Me? I’m trying to change my habits, deliberately.
Last month, I started running. If you know me, you know that’s pretty unexpected. I’ve always hated running — the knees, the bouncing of the boobs, the repetitiveness. But actually, I’ve always been scared of running. It just seemed like something I could never do.
My oncologist told me, directly: you must exercise. Every one of us should. “Daily exercise is the other pill you have to take. Studies have shown it has a much bigger effect on diminishing the risk of cancer than any diet. Do it.” My other doctor told me that studies have shown that people with higher body mass index who exercise are in much better shape, and at lower risk of developing cancer and heart disease, than those with lower BMIs who don’t move. I’m already in good health — my blood pressure is consistently ideal — but I could be healthier.
So I’m moving. I’m doing the Couch Potato to 5k program, walking and running in this gradual process, three times a week. To my utter surprise, I love it. I love leaving the house with the headphones on, walking down our street to see Mt. Rainier, being washed with the smell of lilacs by that one bush, then entering the forest trail to move my body. Our lives are busy. I work from home. I’m the mother of a toddler without any childcare. I don’t have much time to myself. Feeling my feet on the dirt is one of the best parts of my day. Breaking a sweat and feeling the muscles in my legs grow strong makes me much happier than that second piece of cake ever could.
I once told a friend of mine: “I’ve realized that happiness is movement in the body and stillness in the mind.” I’m learning it once again.
On the other days, I’m doing this Jillian Michaels — 30 Day Shred, which kicks my ass, but a little less every day. I’m doing some weight training, some yoga, some long walks. I just make sure to move for at least 30 minutes a day, six days a week. And the rest of the time, I’m running after a toddler.
Movement makes me feel alive. I’m moving.
And I’m out in the garden every afternoon with Lu. That doesn’t feel like exercise, but I’m moving my shoulders and bending my back and growing more limber by the day. There’s a funny stubborn place when I’m not exercising, a place that makes it seem so impossibly hard to do. And then, when I start, that stubborn place softens, then disappears. I start to love it. And I wonder how I ever went without it.
We’re growing some food in our garden. Those are the first pea shoots and fava bean seedlings I thinned yesterday. We’ve already planted lettuce and arugula, spinach, bush beans, carrots, red cabbage, chard, lacinato kale, tomatoes, summer squash, plus lots of herbs. We have plans for much more in May. Every morning, I go out to the garden to see what has risen. It’s all green and growing. We’ll be eating our share of vegetables, plus the raspberries from the 20 thriving canes along the fence. It will easier to eat healthier with this.
I’ve been very inspired by my friend Megan’s piece about losing 25 pounds in one year, which she wrote on her blog Not Martha. She articulated how I feel about diets better than I could:
“The bits involving food slowly sorted out into simply eating in moderation. Previously I had tried low carb diets and counting calories or keeping track of what I’d eaten in a day. And you know what? All that being aware of food all day drove me crazy. The result was that I grew resentful and obsessive and felt hungry all the time. And then I would eat a whole bag of Doritos. So instead I decided to try to just not think about all that hard. I ate more carefully, more kale less Annie’s Mac and Cheese, and smaller meals with more snacks. I started eating breakfast, something I’m not inclined towards, to keep my metabolism going. Slowly I learned how long it takes for me to get rid of sugar cravings (two weeks), and that bagged baby carrots make me ill, and that I really like farro and kale, and that a little bit of olive oil used to cook a meal makes it far more satisfying than when using one of those olive oil mister things. I cut down on sugar and white flour and beer and eventually started avoiding those things knowing that they would only make me hungry later. Apples and almonds and light Baybell cheeses are surprisingly satisfying snacks, a mug of green tea in the afternoon helps a lot. I ate more carefully during the week and less on the weekends.”
I don’t believe that it’s any particular foods that make me gain weight. I have plenty of friends who love butter and bacon as much as me, and they are slender and fit. I’m still working on puff pastry and other baked goods. I’m not giving up on that, especially when I bake them for you. However, Danny’s co-workers at the restaurant are going to have a steady stream of cookies and breads from now on. Three bites, maybe one slice, and then it leaves the house.
When I remember to put my fork down on the plate between bites, I feel a difference.
I’m still going to live in food. This is my passion, my joy, my shared work with Danny. I’m just trying to find a new relationship with food in this, a different way of being with it. I’m very much interested in reading Melissa Clark’s book, The Skinny: How to Fit into Your Little Black Dress Forever. I stayed away from it because of the title. (I will never be a size 2. I laughed out loud when a doctor told me a few years ago that I actually do have big bones.) But now that I look at it more closely, I see that she has written a guide for living a life of eating well and often while still being mindful.
It’s being mindful that matters.
I’ve been inspired by this new book, written by Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lilian Cheung, Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life. It’s a Buddhist approach to looking at how we eat, which really moves me, especially this compassionate passage:
“As you begin to look deeply into the roots of your weight problem, take care not to be harsh on yourself. The ‘judge’ inside your head often makes you feel abad about all the ‘shoulds’ — you should not have eaten that cheesecake, you should have spent more time at the gym. You may also be daunted by your past failures and struggles with weight. It is time to stop blaming yourself for these failures. Perhaps you were following the wrong advice. Perhaps you were able to lose some weight initially on one diet or another, but the diets were too restrictive, your cravings took hold, and you eventually gave up and gained the weight back. You are not separate from your family and environment. In the past you did not have enough of the right conditions supporting you to maintain a healthy weight.”
I’m not going to say no to the self I am, or wish to remove parts of myself, or aim for some artificial goal. I haven’t weighed myself once in the last month. I’m not interested in the numbers.
I know I am on the right path by the way my clothes fit, by what other people say, by how my body feels. This isn’t about a goal for me, the endpoint when I can finally relax and say now I’m good enough. I’m here. Now.
My flickr friend, Lisa Moussalli, gave a beautiful interview to the incredible Jennifer Causey at Simply Photo. I was moved by everything Lisa said, but particularly this:
“I’ve spent a good bit of time in France, and something I certainly observe there is the importance of sitting while you eat, and of always making room at the table for guests. This starts with the early evening apéro – a drink and a snack and a time to regroup and relax at the end of a busy day – and continues with the meal and and then the cheese plate and then dessert and coffee or tea. Keeping slowness and welcome at the heart of eating is a simple and profound ethos, and it’s one I try to practice.“
I’m still going to be eating great food. I’m just going to try to do this more mindfully.
Lu’s leftover scrambled eggs can go in the trash from now on.
She is the real reason I am doing this. She has endured some enormous suffering in her short life, and yet she is resilient, aware, and funny as hell. This kid is alive.
She also never stops moving. She climbs every surface, runs at full pace, dances at the first hint of music, and is all muscle and motion. She inspires me. I want to be as active as this kid. Little kids know how to live. I want to go back to that.
Mostly, though, I don’t want to miss a minute of her life. I want to see her grow up. She’s turning 2 in three months. (What?!) Given how quickly these two years have gone, I know that 2 will become 3, 3 become 6, 6 become 12, and 12 become graduating from college in about 14 seconds. I want to be limber for this. I want to be here as long as I can.
In the past, when I tried to lose weight, I thought the pounds were the point. I hated my life. I wanted something more. I believed I could never be okay at that weight.
Now, for the first time, I’m not trying to change anything about me or my life. Danny adores me, wherever I am. But he wants me around for a long time too. In these past five years since I stopped eating gluten, I have learned more and more, in ever widening circles, about where my food comes from and what works for my body. This time, I’m listening to it.
I love my life. I just want to walk through it more lightly.
You may be wondering why I have told you all this. Well, for one, I would like you to know this: if you ever look at someone who is overweight (in your mind), and think, “Wow, she’s really let herself go,” just remember that there is always a story behind it.
Also, something has not been sitting well in my stomach these past few months, not writing about all this. I did what I could. It was all too raw at first. But this space is a haven, for me, for some of you. A place of laughter, yes. But also a place of sharing our stories and learning from each other.
Our lives have not been as idyllic as they might have seemed. They have been hard. They have also been beautiful.
Telling you is telling me. I’ve been able to hide from myself. I’m always the one behind the camera. When I saw photos of myself on friends’ blogs, I cringed and did a dozen sit-ups immediately. But with all this grieving and too much to process, I dove right back into my old habits.
For years, I have felt an affinity with this quote from Mark Doty, a brilliant American poet:
“I don’t exactly feel that this openness has been a choice, although of course on some less-than-conscious level it must be. Rather it feels to me as if it’s simply the course my life has taken, beginning in the early eighties with the process of coming out. I felt then a great thirst for directness, an imperative to find language with which to be direct to myself, which is of course the result of having been, like many young gay men, divided from my self, from the authentic character of my desire. I felt I had to hide for years! And the result of that for me, once I began to break through the dissembling, was a thirst for the genuine.”
The thirst for the genuine. That’s why I am sharing this.
Finally, if just one of you reads this and hears something of yourself, I hope it helps.