A note to my 25-year-old self, on the occasion of my 15th wedding anniversary

Hey, there. You’re a mess. But that’s okay, because things are gonna take a spectacular and wholly unexpected turn pretty soon. Not long after you start to get your shit together and take responsibility for yourself, you’re going to meet someone.

He’s going to be your friend, someone you are decidedly NOT interested in romantically. He doesn’t fit your usual boyfriend profile — he is bafflingly quiet, with absolutely no need to inject himself into conversation or draw attention to himself. He is employed. FULL TIME! He wears business suits and has never owned combat boots and has no tattoos. In other words, he is a creature completely foreign to you.

He is one thing above all else: kind. And you do not know quite what to do with that.

He will become your friend, your companion for late night coffee house visits and music shows. You will take two years to become sure of one another, to learn to trust and open yourself up. And one day, after a snow fall, he will show up unbidden and shovel your driveway, knowing you can’t do it yourself with your neck and back injuries. And you will think: hmmm.

Within a few months of being together, you will have the inexplicable and unshakeable feeling that this is the person you are meant to spend the rest of your life with. It just makes sense in a way you’ve never felt before.

You will spend the next 15 years changing each other — not in the sense of forcing one another into a pre-designed box. More in the sense of learning to work as a team, balancing one another, growing together. He will demonstrate a patience and surety that dazzles you. You will travel the globe, laugh endlessly, and weather some of life’s toughest storms. How you get through sorrow and heartache together is as telling as how you navigate the easy times. And you will be loved in a way you genuinely did not know was possible.

(Understand, though, that this is not about perfection. This is about respect and resilience and the willingness to stay put long enough for life to smooth over. This is about gratitude.)

In other words, 25-year-old me, everything is going to be okay, no matter how it looks now. You will work hard to reclaim your life. He doesn’t do that for you. But he stays by your side the whole time, unwavering, and your life together will just continue to get richer and better.

So I guess you could say that with him, everything is going to be more than okay. Much, much more than okay.

On not writing - here or elsewhere

I don't want to cop to the fact that I may have accidentally given up on my blog. I'm having trouble cutting the apron strings. Since I last blogged with any regularity, I spent two years in graduate school getting my MFA in Creative Writing, then another grueling six months getting a Certificate in the Teaching of Creative Writing. (Both from Antioch University Los Angeles.)

During that time, I also dealt with my father's diagnosis with a terminal illness and his much-sooner-than-anticipated death a year and a half ago. Plus this year, not long after the anniversary of my father's death, my dear, beloved Grandma Pringle died. I was incredible close to and fond of her, and my family is very small, so to weather these two losses in such a short period of time while getting through grad school has taken everything out of me.

I am not complaining. I'm trying to explain. That I want to be back here, writing and sharing with you what I'm doing, but so much of it has seemed dark, buried in a place I didn't want to be in, let alone write about. But I'm not ready to give up on this yet. If any of you are still around when I get back to blogging, I'll be immensely grateful for your readership.

Thanks for sticking by me . xoxo

On Turning 18

Today, I celebrate eighteen years of continuous sobriety. I toyed with the idea of posting something coy on Facebook as I’ve done in the past (and may yet do today). “Eighteen,” I might write. Or just the mysterious Roman numerals: “XVIII.” But what I really want to do is shout it from the rooftops, although this is generally not done in my circles – or perhaps I should say, outside of my circles – where anonymity is key.

I am a person who got sober, and stays sober today, with the help of a highly anonymous 12-step program. I’m probably not even supposed to say that much, but I’m starting to wonder about the value of anonymity in some instances. I’m not the least bit ashamed about being an alcoholic anymore, and definitely not about being in recovery. I know when I mention it casually, it can make other people uncomfortable. I don’t know how to mitigate or navigate that. I have the life I have today because I’m sober. For some reason, that can be hard for other people to reconcile.

I want to talk about my recovery. I want to tell you about my experiences, and my frustrations. For example: the biggest fallacy about 12-step recovery is that we are a bunch of feeble-minded weaklings sitting around, chanting prayers, waiting for Jesus’ guidance before we know to scratch our asses. (Although in fairness, there is the chanting of prayers, although both participating and believing are entirely optional.)

It’s painful to me how far this notion is from the truth of how the program works. And it’s frustrating that I cannot show this to the rest of the people, make them understand what it’s really like – the community, the commitment to living the examined life, the mere fact of people showing up of their own free will just to help and support other people. I don’t have that in any other area of my life. I’ve never known anything like it. These people are my second family, and if that makes us a cult, I guess I’m in.

Then, of course, I am left only with the option to accept that other people don’t need to understand this. They don’t need to know how I spend my Saturday mornings and my Wednesday evenings. It’s not about them. It is not theirs. I shouldn’t need them to get it.

Oh, but part of me still wants them to. Because I don’t really know how you know me if you don’t know this.

But then if I were to try to summarize what sobriety is and what it’s given me, I can’t begin to lay bare that giant iceberg. I can, however, give you a glimpse of how my mind works today, which is in complete contrast to the shaking, terrified mind I had when I stopped drinking at the age of 25.

Take this year, for example. I am tempted to say that this was a terrible year, one of the worst – partly because I’m given to generalizations, to short-handing pain. It is true that losing my father to a debilitating illness – a decade after my mother’s sudden death – was a devastation of indescribable proportions. The fact that I encountered orphan-hood at 43 just as I was coming to terms with my infertility seemed like the most horrible existential double hitter.

Yet, despite all that, I can – and do – look at my life and reflect on the past year with awe and deep, heartfelt gratitude. I can marvel at this life, at this man I’ve been given as a partner, at the laughter and love we share. I can find genuine gratitude, all the way down to my knees, for the luxuries like getting to take a nice vacation and the, well, luxuries like having a roof over my head and running water.

This may be obvious to you, but it wasn’t to me. Gratitude was not my default setting. I learned that in sobriety. People – lovely and sometimes crazy and frustrating people – showed up at tables and in church basements and were generous with themselves beyond reckoning, filling rooms with their painful truths and leading by example. That’s how I learned to be grateful.

It’s also how I learned to forgive myself and others. It’s how I learned to suit up and show up, to apologize when wrong, and to try to make things right. Maybe you were born knowing how to do all of that – how to be a human – but I wasn’t. I had to learn it.

And these people did that for me.

Can you even imagine?

My 25-year-old self was certain that the end of drinking meant the end of having a life – which is deeply ironic, considering I had very little resembling a life when I got sober. If she could see me now, she’d likely be appalled. I’m not living in a big city, a celebrated best-selling writer with a badass husband who plays drums in a rock band. I’m living in a small town, a quiet writer with a badass husband who occasionally plays drums in a folk-rock band. It is a more peaceful life than I ever imagined for myself and for that, as you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m unspeakably grateful.

How on earth did I get here? I learned pretty quickly that the biggest change in recovery is not quitting using. That is, as one friend puts it, just stopping the bleeding. The real work comes after that as you try to piece your life back together again, figure out who you are and decide what you want to be. The changes are often tiny and happen at a glacial pace. Getting sober doesn’t mean your life becomes amazing right away or, sometimes, ever. That can be devastating news for newcomers. That can be enough to send them scurrying away.

But here is what I will say about me 18 years ago versus me today, as I sit at my desk writing this: sobriety has made me more comfortable with my flaws. I don’t know that I’m a less-flawed person than I was 18 years ago. (I mean, I certainly hope so, but who am I to judge?) It may be that I’m just differently flawed. I suppose what I’m trying to say – and this is radical for me – is that I’m getting closer to accepting my humanity. I don’t (often) expect perfection from myself these days. I understand that I will make mistakes and when I’m done making them, I’ll make some more. That no longer seems like a devastating condition to me. It no longer seems like a deal-breaker. I feel modestly equipped for life – although that feeling slips away in the darkest hours. I can rest comfortably, at least for a little while, in my skin.

For some people – maybe you – that may seem like the smallest of things, the most obvious condition. For others, like me, it’s everything.

And it only took me 18 years.

Written with sincere and abiding love and gratitude for all of you who held me up on this journey, especially this year. You know who you are.



Remembering what I already knew

A few months ago I led a writing workshop called “Write More, Heal More” as part of my graduate school field study requirement. I worked with a small group of people, all of whom suffered from chronic pain and/or anxiety, and all of whom wanted to practice writing their way through some of their experiences.

The workshop members were all in wildly different places, so I found myself adjusting and individualizing goals on the fly. Some of them had stories they were already in the process of telling. Others were terrified to put anything on the page, let alone face the terrifying task of sharing their words, their experiences - even in a safe space.

Regardless, the main focus, the main message I reiterated again and again, is just how powerful and healing it can be to put our experiences on paper. To work through that fear and simply get it all down. And then, maybe when they were ready, to share their stories with other people so that they could know empathy, so that they could see they were not alone.

I bring this up now because after I wrote my last blog post, I had a terribly emotional day. I assume it was partly the fallout from getting that honest with myself - and partly the fear of having then shared that with others. Of feeling so exposed and vulnerable.

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What it's like right now

Copyright 2013, Julia Smillie

Copyright 2013, Julia Smillie

I’ve been struggling lately with how to adequately answer the question, “How are you?” which is lobbed my way frequently. Because I know the hopeful look in people’s eyes. What they mean is: “It’s been three months now since your dad died. Are you better yet?”

Am I better yet?

And the real truth – although I feel insanely vulnerable writing about it – is that no. No, I am not better yet. In fact, in many ways, I have entered into a deeper level of grief and sadness than in the first couple months after he died.

But, as a whole, society doesn’t want you to to do that. It wants you to be comfortable. It wants to be comfortable. It doesn’t like sadness and it certainly doesn’t know what the hell to do with clinical depression, even if it’s situational. Even if it’s how you’re supposed to feel.

I’m not a stranger to depression. My first experience came when I was an adolescent and it descended upon me throughout my teens and into my early twenties. At those times, though, my depression was characterized more by a sense of hopelessness, of deep loneliness, of apathy.

Whatever this is, whatever I’m going through now, is a different animal. I don’t feel hopeless. I’m still able to feel gratitude for good things in my life. But am I sad on a level I did not know existed. And I can’t sleep. That last part’s important, because I have no idea what this would look like if I could get some sleep. I’m usually awake until 3 or 4 in the morning and when I am worn out enough to fall asleep, I have awful, terrible dreams and waken frequently.

Being perpetually sleep-deprived means I feel defenseless against the sadness and grief, this smothering sense of loss. Not just for my father, but also for my mother too, who died ten years ago. I feel it for our whole family, for who we were and for whatever we're supposed to turn into now.  I wake up with it weighing me down, making it hard to get out of bed.  Some days I don’t bother.

And the crying. Oh, the crying. If I can get through hours, it’s a miracle. But it always comes. Sometimes it's just mild weepiness and sometimes it is seemingly inconsolable sobbing. It is not as simple as this: I think of my dad, then I cry - although that’s sometimes the case. It is more like I go through my day pretending not to see the sadness and grief that has attached itself to me and as soon as I give it a sideways glance, I’m a goner.

I’m crying now as I write this.

Socializing - especially in groups - is the hardest. I can’t sit at a dinner and pretend to be okay, or pretend that the conversation matters to me. I’m exhausted. I don’t have the energy to interact. For now.

And people, god love ‘em, are dying to fix you. They want to offer solutions, they want to put a swift end to this dark aspect of being human.

I don’t want to be fixed. I want to be heard. I want to be understood.

I am, in case you were wondering, doing all the right things. Or most of them anyway. I’m seeing my therapist, getting to meetings, taking medication, meditating occasionally. I could get to more meetings. I could eat better. As for my lack of sleep, I promise you I’ve tried it all. I know you mean well with your suggestions. But you have to trust me. You have to trust that I’m doing everything I can.

And I need to let go of all my worrying that people in the outside world won’t understand or I’ll offend someone with my silence.

I’m trying to survive over here. I’m trying to get through the biggest, widest sadness I’ve ever known.

So that’s it. You know, in case you were wondering how I am. This is how I am. For now, at this moment, at this place in time, this is where I live. But I know the real answer is just time. That I have to keep walking through this. Or crawling through it as the case may be.

I am telling you all this because, despite it all, if you ask me how I'm doing, habit and people-pleasing behavior and vulnerability will likely make me say, "I'm fine." And that's just not true right now.


I have been waiting for the right subject matter to kick off this blog again after a nearly a year's absence. Or, more properly, I keep waiting for the wrong subject to dissipate, to move aside and make room for something else. But the fact remains that whenever I sit down and position my hands on the keyboard, it just keeps coming up: grief.

I hesitate to write much about grief because a) I have done it in the past and b) I have nothing unique to add to the conversation about it. Googling grief returns more than 26 million entries. And somehow that still doesn't feel like enough.

My father died almost three months ago - and just writing that is mind-boggling on so many levels. The fact that he died at all. The fact that it's been almost three months. None of it seems possible to me.

Even right after my father died, I knew intuitively that I would feel better in time. That the searing weight would not press down on me forever. I knew because my mother had died ten years earlier and although I didn't believe people when they said it at the time, the grief did ebb. The pain retreated, although it never really vanished.

What I am discovering is that the weight of losing a second parent is a different animal. The sheer existential mindfuck of not having parents anymore is compounded by the loss of not just both of them individually, but them as a unit. It is the greatest sadness I've known.

And even though time has begun the healing process, there are times when it feels as fresh and raw, as painful and hopeless as the day he died. So maybe that's why, when I sit down here to try and write something again - something maybe witty or creative - nothing else comes up.

Just grief.

Because it's still there, coloring my outlook on the world. And so I decided just to write that. Just to say that. The grief is there. It is my constant shadow. It is an uphill battle that, sometimes, I feel unequipped for. And I know it will get better, because it has already, but I also know that I am profoundly changed in a permanent and perhaps inexplicable way. I know that this is life and that sadness is the price one pays for knowing joy.

I know all that, and I just miss my dad. I'm just so sorry he's gone. The world feels so, so much emptier.

On marathons and more

I am not a runner. Let’s get that out of the way first. I’m pretty much the opposite of a runner. But I’m married to a runner, a man who has completed more than 25 marathons, two of them in Boston. He ran it just last year when the oppressive heat had him considering forfeiting and running this year instead. That is where my mind goes when I think about what happened in Boston yesterday. (Or, it’s one of many places to which my mind races.) Chris could have been there. But then it feels like a stretch, like a manufactured fear. A way to inject myself personally into the tragedy. Or is it a way to feel connected? I don’t know how to tell the difference.


I think about the fact that, over the years, I have been a spectator at a dozen or so of those marathons. I know the madness of trying to navigate your way through the crowds to get from point to point in the hopes of getting a glimpse of your runner and cheering them on. I’ve been with Chris in Hurley, Wisconsin for the relatively tiny Paavo Nurmi marathon, where the trees outnumbered spectators the entire way. I’ve been with him for Chicago, DC, St. Louis and, yes, Boston – all packed to the gills with people milling around, bands playing, runners in crazy costumes.

In other words, I also think: I could have been there. I could have easily been a spectator. It could have been me. Is this the most selfish line of thinking? Or is it just human nature to personalize tragedy? I don’t know how to tell the difference.

Marathons are curious events. There really isn’t anything like them. You know that if you’ve run one, or if you’ve shown up on the sidelines or if you’ve even groaned at the inconvenience of giant crowds shutting down the streets in your town. I’m aware that the tendency at this moment is to glorify, but there is a spirit to marathons, something really tangible.

Runners train for marathons with a dedication I simply can’t fathom, no matter how many times I’ve watched Chris go through the process. It is, to a bystander, nothing short of insane. On race day, friends, families and loved ones of runners come out to support them, along with total strangers to form a crazy community that feels strangely titillating and invigorating. These are, for the most part, not professional athletes. They are normal human beings, pushing themselves to the limits. The struggle and the victory shows on their faces. It is, at times, unspeakably moving.

And Boston is not just any marathon. It is the marathon. Legendary. The holy grail for many runners. It is the world's oldest annual marathon, dating back to 1897, attracting amateur and professional runners from across the globe. About half a million people come out every year to cheer on the runners. Half a million. Winning Boston is like winning no other race.

All marathons, though, have a little bit of Boston in them.

In Cincinnati a couple of years ago, we showed up to watch Chris and my brother-in-law Bill. Bill had only started running that year. The fact that he was finishing a marathon was inconceivable, the absolute embodiment of that thing we’re told all the time: you can do whatever you put your mind to.

As we waited for our runners around mile eleven, my sister and I were calling out to others, reading their names off their bibs and t-shirts, shouting encouragement. My youngest niece asked why we were cheering for those people. “Do you know them?” she asked. And I thought: no. And yes. And I told her that this was just what we do along the course – provide encouragement for everyone, not just the people we know.

Think about that, for a moment. When was the last time you found yourself cheering on a total stranger, an individual who might meet your eyes and light up a little? It doesn’t happen often in my life.

The fact that Chris has twice run Boston isn't the only reason I feel somehow connected to that marathon, either. When my family moved to the U.S. from Scotland in 1978, it was to Boston. It was my first American city, rife with history like perhaps no other. It holds a special place in my heart.

During that first year we joined some neighbors to pass out Dixie Cups full of water to runners along the route. It was crazy. I’d never seen so many people in my life – except, perhaps, the time the Queen came to Glasgow. All the color and the crowds and the cheering. All the camaraderie. To me, at the risk of sounding over-the-top, this was a foreign thing, something that became, in my mind, intrinsically linked with the very idea of America.

So I’m tempted to say that, for these reasons, yesterday’s bombings near the Boston marathon finish line feel personal. Then I look around and realize that what happened feels personal to everyone I know. Some more than others, but everyone’s heart is breaking a little. Everyone’s feeling raw at yet another act of senseless violence. We feel the way we feel. Our brains take our thoughts down dark corridors. I have to believe it’s just part of the process of making sense of the senseless.

I have no grand words of conclusion. I don’t have an upbeat message or a rallying cry to leave you with. I just have some thoughts, muddled and painful, racing through my brain. I’m probably a lot like you that way.

A return to reading

I've been disinclined to post here lately, largely because I've been overwhelmed by battling a general sense of reluctance - to take care of myself, to take care of business, to do anything at all during this never-ending winter. As I'm clawing my way out of it the past few weeks, my main focus for my limited energy has been on writing. Which is a welcome change of pace for me, and a tremendous relief. It feels as though, for months, I have been stuck, experiencing the most persistent and baffling case of writer's block. (Which, as I understand it, is really more accurately something like writer's fear or writer's reluctance.) And then, thanks to encouragement from my MFA mentor and giving myself permission to write shitty first drafts, there was an opening - which felt like nothing short of a miracle. So progress is being made and when I'm putting all my energy into writing one thing, others - such as this blog - fall by the wayside. I am not complex enough to spread the wealth around, so to speak.

But what I have been able to do, in addition to writing, is read. Something about enrolling in my MFA program has changed the way I approach it, too. I don't think I noticed that I'd stopped reading like a writer, that I'd lost that intense passion for story and characters, that I'd lost that hunger to read more, more, more.

Yet it appears that I did.

I haven't written much about my reasons for enrolling in graduate school and while they are myriad, one is to take myself seriously as a writer. That's something I've struggled with for years. And, somehow, taking myself seriously as a writer means also taking myself seriously as a reader. Full, unbridled permission to read with abandon.

I re-read The Great Gatsby and Death of a Salesman, startled to discover how much of each seemed new to me. I read George Saunders' Tenth of December and Alice Monroe's Dear Life: Stories, incredibly different collections, both exquisite. I re-read Junot Diaz's This Is How You Lose Her and co-lead an online discussion of the text.

I adored Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins and followed it swiftly with The Financial Lives of the Poets, which I enjoyed, though not quite as much. I read Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth, which I barreled through, though ultimately didn't find as satisfying as Atonement or Amsterdam. I read Karen Thompson Walker's lovely Age of Miracles and Louise Erdrich's stunning work, The Round House. And there were others, some required by my MFA mentor, others my choice.

I'm not usually someone who reads two books at once, but if they're different enough, my brain seems able to handle it. And so right now I'm reading both Victor LaValle's Devil in Silver and Jo Ann Beard's Boys of My Youth.

And the pile of books to-read is growing larger, many of them works I always meant to read but didn't get around to before. Joan Didion's Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Mary Carr's The Liar's Club. David Ulin's The Lost Art of Reading seems all too fitting, and there is still one more book for our mentor group before the semester's out, Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis.

It's a lot. Sometimes I get a vague sense of panic that there will never be enough time to read everything I want to. But there's also an accompanying sense of deep satisfaction, like being where you were supposed to be all the time. As though feeding yourself when you hadn't even realized just how hungry you were. And that feeling? It is truly sublime.


On writing a novel or, things forgotten along the way

I've been trying to write a novel, as you likely know all too well, for a number of years now. (Is she still talking about that?) And the main obstacle in my journey seems to be: I've never done this before. Well. I suppose we could say the real obstacle is the millions of fears dusted up by the fact that I've never done this before, but that feels a bit like splitting hairs. The thing about me as a writer is that first drafts come easily to me. I write quickly and decisively in the early throes of inspiration. Whole chunks of exposition and dialogue present themselves to me at one time and I scramble to transcribe them before my brain moves on. I've always been - for better or worse - a binge writer, as opposed to someone with daily discipline. (I'd like to be the latter. I would. Although not, apparently, enough to actually do it.)

I may have mentioned briefly in my prior "catch-up" post that I'm getting my MFA. Getting the help and the discipline I need to finish this novel was one of a few key reasons I had for pursuing that. Before I enrolled at Antioch, I had what was maybe a second draft of my novel and while I knew that there were giant holes needing patched and bridges needing built, I couldn't seem to figure out for the life of me how to approach them.

Now I'm in graduate school and I've figured it all out and gotten the book written and it'll be published any day now by a respectable imprint.

No. Not really.

But graduate school has made me re-committed to finishing this novel. It has made me re-committed to learning all I can about writing and, to that end, especially, I am devouring books like a reader as I haven't in years. It's clearer to me now what I like and what I don't like and how to make some of the jaggy-edged pieces fit in just so, how to spackle some of the holes.

And one of the real blessings is that I get to work with a mentor for each project period, or semester. Having someone focused on my work in its entirety and for more than a few days at a weekend workshop is proving priceless. I need a little hand-holding right now. Or, if not hand-holding, then I need someone shining a flashlight on the path for me.

Recently, I found myself, though not producing many new pages, finally figuring out not just what needed to be fixed but also (I think), how to fix it. It didn't come to me in a dream. No, it came together - as much as it has, so far - mainly because I gave myself permission to consider the Thinking portion of events as valid as the Writing portion of events.

I kept having to silence that loud voice in my head insisting that what I was doing, thank you very much, was actually procrastinating. Overcoming that negative self-talk might have been the biggest struggle of all. Yet, at the end of it, I had sat down, figured out a new timeline of events in the novel, made notes of all the places that need tweaked, the things that needed added and/or removed. It was a monumental moment for me as a novel writer and, so, of course...I freaked.

I became catatonic. Because it is quite one thing to finally have broken through and created for yourself a blueprint and another entirely to then have to do the work. I am not a person, it seems, who loves to do the work.

I arranged to have a phone meeting yesterday with my kind and generous mentor to discuss my blueprint and, perhaps more importantly, how to get unstuck. She helped me figure out a concrete plan for approaching this next draft - I'm to make a list of everything that needs to be done; rank each item as either "easy," "medium," or "difficult"; commit to tackling a certain number of these items per week; and when I sit down to work on them, choose whatever I feel like doing at the time.

All of that was - is - of course supremely helpful. But then she also made another suggestion, almost an aside, and it is, naturally, the thing that has most stuck with me since. She suggested I change the way I'm thinking about the writing. I've obviously got myself bogged down with thinking of this as a task, something large and unwieldy that I have to do. Instead, she suggested I approach each scene, each change asking myself, "Where is the opportunity to discover more?"

And then she said this: "Try to get back to the joy in the writing."

The joy in the writing? It has been so long since I framed this book as anything other than a task I had to finish, a thing I had to do, that I had completely forgotten - as embarrassing as it is to admit - that there is supposed to be joy in writing. Pleasure in discovery. The thrill of hammering out a good sentence, the feeling when a new character shows up and you know she's what you need. Joy.

When did I get so far away from that? How do I move back? I'm not sure yet. It's probably worthy of an entire blog post of its own. For now, though, I'm again giving myself permission to Think about it. The joy in writing. What a strange, obvious and wonderful goal.

The point of re-entry

I've been mulling this over for months - how to return to a stagnant blog. Whether to return to a stagnant blog. Now that Vegan Fever has passed, what will be my focus? Do I need a focus? (Everyone else says "yes," by the way. Everyone may be in for some disappointment.) Do I need to play catch-up? To tell you where the months have taken me since that last, sad entry? Do I mention that they took me to Kentucky when fall was at its most beautiful?


Or then to Costa Rica for absolute perfection over my birthday?


And what about after that, when I went back to California, this time to Los Angeles - to return to graduate school after graduating from college half my life ago?

Venice Beach

Should I tell you what that experience is like, all the reading and writing and studying and the fear and exhilaration of being back in school?

Probably. Probably I should try to catch you up on all those things and more. But I've been corresponding this week with a friend who has suffered a profound and complicated loss, and in the midst of his grief he has discovered the most incredible freedom. Freedom, especially, not to look backwards, but to look forwards. To stop defining his life by what he sees in the rearview mirror.

So I feel less obligated to fill in the details about where I've been. The thing is, I'm here now. I'm not sure I need to know what I'm planning to write about. I do know that I want to give it another shot, showing up here on the page on a regular basis. So here I am. Let's see where we go.


What I needed

I needed all of it. I needed the cypress trees at Pfeiffer Beach, the way they stretched, low and dense, a canopy across the sand. I needed the eucalyptus, how it invaded the air and made breathing seem like something entirely new. I needed the sailboats on Monterey Bay and the vastness of the water stretched out before me. I needed the glimpse, in the distance, of the white puff from the whale's blowhole then, briefly, its tail before it disappeared back into the deep. I needed the redwoods towering above me and the strange, ropy patterns in the sandstone along the Pacific Coast Highway. I needed the craggy coastline and the crashing surf and the fog threatening to swallow it all.

I needed every bit of beauty Northern California could serve up to me.

I knew I had needed to make the call to let my cat go, my buddy of 17 years. I knew it wasn't fair to him to play out some fantasy, keeping him alive until I could get to his side. Even though making the decision from 2,500 miles away seemed impossible and surreal.

When I left the redwoods and the ocean and the waves crashing on cliffs behind me and came home, I needed to keep his bowl where it was for the first day, just as I needed to pick it up and put it away the next. I needed to toss out the ratty towel he used to sleep on behind the bathtub. I needed to keep the tuft of his white fur I found resting under my desk chair.

I needed to go out into the garden and pull out the last of this year's tomato plants, sobbing as I did, knowing it was the end of growing season, that we'd done all we could here. The plants were spent.

Later, I needed to be in the kitchen, my hands wet with the juice of the last tomatoes, cutting, roasting, coaxing them into a sauce.

I needed to feel my hands in flour, to cut butter into tiny pieces and pulse it into a dough, marveling how a few ingredients and a little electricity produce such a thing. I needed to peel the apples, toss them with lemon juice and sugar and place them in the dough.

I needed to make things. I needed to have things become, rather than go away.

I needed to cry, a lot. I needed to tell people that he wasn't just any cat. That I got him the last year of my drinking, the darkest and loneliest time in my life. I needed to tell people that he was the first thing I was able to take care of outside of myself, to make amends to. I needed them to know how, when my mother died, he sat with me as I made strange animal howls of grief.

Everything in life comes down to what we need at any given moment. That is how, I think, we get through what we get through - needing from minute to minute.

And that was what I needed, this week.

Writing under duress

I am writing this post at gunpoint. Knifepoint. Somethingpoint. My new therapist says to write something, stream-of-consciousness, no editing. My new therapist says to take action, to just engage in the act of writing, ego and outcome be damned. Many other people, of course, have given me the very same advice. But I'm not paying THEM an arm and a leg to tell me the obvious, am I?

I react well to financial investment in self-improvement, apparently. In other words, I'm afraid of going broke, so I need to feel I'm getting something concrete out of therapy.

I don't want to write about what I've been eating lately, for which I'm certain some of you will be grateful. It's not that I'm eating horrendously. Nor am I sticking to my food plan 100%. I'm firmly entrenched in the process of figuring it all out and I am bored, bored, bored of talking about it.

I keep asking myself what to write about here and the answer that keeps coming is: pain, pain, pain. It's not that I want to write about it. It's just that it's so bad right now I can't really see past it. It's like an annoying, distracting flashing neon sign so bright in my eyes I can't see anything else.

A couple of months ago, I went to see a pain management specialist. I have a rich history with pain management specialists - largely that I have a tremendous fear of them. So many times I've been told that I don't have fibromyalgia, that it doesn't exist, only to then be diagnosed with it. So many times I've been trotted off to the ineffective eight sessions of PT my insurance covers or pushed out the door with muttered instructions to eat better and put heat/ice on whatever ails me.

Doctors, in general, hate it when they cannot help you. Writers, in general, hate it when they cannot edit their own writing. This stream-of-consciousness directive is killing me.

But I digress. I went to the new pain management people. No one told me I didn't have fibromyalgia. No one told me I didn't have damage from two car accidents. No one said I can't help you. They said: here are four or five things that we can try and I wept with hope.

Now I'm two months into the process and feeling more cynical than before. I understand the goal is to keep going, keep moving forward, keep trying. But so far, the efforts to improve my pain seem to be falling flat. I did a horrendous six-week dance with Cymbalta, which I am still withdrawing from. I wasn't even on it long enough to see if it helped my pain.

I had an MRI, which showed two bulging cervical disks on top of everything else. I had a cervical epidural injection of steroids, which didn't do a thing except relieve my bank account of $600. Today I get to have another and feel like if I could have a stern talk with the injection about just what it's costing me, maybe it would endeavor to be more effective?

And then there was the psychiatrist they sent me to, who wrote about me for 15 minutes in large, childish letters on a legal pads. He handed me the name of a nutritionist and another doctor, who believes the body holds repressed rage as pain and who, he says, may be able to cure me of fibromyalgia in four, three-hour lectures. I scoffed. Internally, of course, because I'm polite like that.

But now? After the new meds and the epidural have failed me? Let's just say I'm inching closer to thinking about considering thinking about the possibility that that particular brand of voodoo might work.

And then there's the new therapist, who I saw once out of obligation, marching into her office with the intent to tell her I wasn't coming back. I already have a relationship with a therapist who I see when I need to. I don't need to start from scratch with the exhausting process of paying to tell a stranger who I am.

The universe, of course, had other plans. Because the new therapist says things that hit me where I live. The new therapist is coming at me from a different angle. She knows pain. She knows 12-step recovery. And, I'm slightly sheepish to admit, I knew in my gut she could help me.

She says to write, so here it is. My babbling. She says that we have to work on the idea that I have pain, it doesn't have me. It sounds like an awful, awful bumper sticker.

It seems like I have no choice but to try it out.

In which our heroine begs for forgiveness - and support - in the light of straying off the path

It is probably self-evident that when I fail to post for about a month, particularly where my eating plan progress is concerned, it can mean only one thing: things have gone off the rails. So, yes, let me put it out there first and foremost. Tear off the band aid, if you will. There has been meat. There has been cheese. There have been many, many technically "vegan" items consumed that did not, in any way, shape or form, qualify as plant-based whole foods.

Who knew you could eat so much crap and still call yourself a vegan? (On that note, I need to qualify that when I say "vegan," I mean "eating a vegan diet." My shoes are still leather, yo.) I'm beginning to understand why Engine 2 doesn't describe itself as a vegan diet - because, believe it or not, identifying as vegan doesn't necessarily mean you're eating many whole foods or even plants.

In the interest of being gentle with myself, I'm going to go ahead and say I'm in an experimental phase. I'm trying to figure out the practical applications of the whole-foods, plant-based diet in my real life. I'm trying to balance what I need and what I want, and sometimes the battle ain't pretty.

In addition, I should note that Chris and I have eaten meat-free and dairy-free about 98% of the time since mid-May.  That's the part I'm trying to focus on these past couple weeks when opening the Cheese Door seems to have caused some nutritionally disastrous results.

I may be an all-or-nothing gal.

I don't want to be an all-or-nothing gal. I don't want to live a life without some real feta or a pizza with strings of good-quality mozzarella cheese. I'm just having trouble figuring out how eating cheese occasionally does not become eating all the cheese in the world.


As for the meat, I think that's actually going to prove easier in the long run. I celebrated day 60 of Engine 2 eating, following a weekend of super-healthy consumption, by wolfing down a Five Guys burger. I know. You'd think if I were to eat meat, I'd pick something more delicate and healthy - a piece of fish, perhaps, or a morsel of grilled chicken. Or a top-rated piece of filet mignon.

But I may be an all-or-nothing gal.

Because what I wanted, what I craved, was the opposite of what I'd been eating for two months: a greasy, delicious burger. So I got one. And I ate it. And it was, sparing you the details, digestively disastrous.

So you'd think that would be a lesson learned. But, no. I am a girl with deep junk cravings and a selectively short memory. Thus, this past weekend I went for my second Five Guys burger. And, perhaps even more disastrously, it was...fine. No stomach problems. It was like my body was taunting me with the possibility of full-time meat-eating.

Which is why the next day, when Chris went to Subway to get us veggie sandwiches, I oh-so-casually asked for turkey on mine. Like it was nothing. Like I was a meat-eater again. I could actually feel the tilt of the slope I was on. I could see how easy it would be to pretend I hadn't worked so hard to change the way I was eating and just...slide into the past.

So I found it necessary to focus my thinking on another aspect of the meat-eating.  Because although the last two carnivorous instances had gone fine, from a my-body-didn't-reject-them perspective, they also weren't particularly rewarding. Taste-wise. Enjoyment-wise. I wasn't sure they were worth the diversion from my plan, worth the bother. They didn't bring anything to the table, so to speak. That's what I've been trying to examine: do I think it's worth it to eat meat?

And, really, after running this experiment, I think the answer remains: no.

But ask me again in a couple weeks.

The dairy's proving trickier, but only in the form of cheese. I'm completely used to soy creamer in my coffee, almond milk on my cereal. I'm learning to live without butter or even a butter substitute on most stuff. But when I experimented with cheese on my pizza - twice - I couldn't deny it was pretty great. And the tang of real feta on a Greek salad? There's just no substitute.

So I'm not sure where I am on the cheese issue. Trying to remember, I think, that it was my cholesterol that brought me to all of this in the first place and becoming a regular cheese-eater isn't going to help on that front.

Thus, today is another day. Another day when I swear I'm back to being a person who eats primarily plant-based, whole-foods. We'll see where I end up by evening. I figure, as long as I keep trying, as long as I'm starting over each day, I've got a fighting chance.

When I'm eating a cheeseburger for breakfast, it's game over.

The numbers don't lie

So, a million years ago, when I began boring you with tales of this new whole foods, plant-based eating plan, I mentioned that the basic goal was to try and bring my cholesterol into check. As I mentioned in a previous post, part of the problem with me has been managing my expectations, which I was concerned were growing completely out of control. I have been known to start a food plan and throw in the towel when I failed to lose 20 pounds in two weeks. It was not too far afield to think my expectations of the Engine 2 Diet's cholesterol-lowering powers would be equally unrealistic.

As it turns out, not so much.

First, let's go back to the beginning, shall we? Back to my starting numbers, my lipid portfolio of shame - which I never did quite get around to telling you about, did I? I knew I'd have to eventually, but I was embarrassed. So let's start with the worst...

Let's start with what I weighed...

Ha! That's cute. You thought I was actually going to tell you that. Not on your life. Besides, I don't actually know what I weighed at the beginning of this adventure or what I weigh now. I stopped weighing myself a while ago and I don't keep a scale at home. I'm just too susceptible to pinning my entire self worth on that number. (I do let my doctor weigh me, however, but she doesn't tell me what the number is.)

Some numbers, however, I do know. I know that I started this process with an all-time high combined cholesterol of 243. (It's funny, when I tell people this, they either say, "Oh, my God, that's huge!" or "Oh, that's not so bad," which I think says a lot about their own family's numbers.

My LDL (the bad stuff) was 162. Not good. My HDL (the good stuff) was a respectable 50 - not great, but not the worst. And my triglycerides, whatever the hell those are, were 206

For the past month or so I've wondered - and by "wondered," I mean "obsessed about" - what results a person could reasonably expect in just 30-odd days. Sure, I wanted to see 60-point drop. That seemed fair and I''m impatient like that. After many long and mind-numbing internal arguments, I settled on hoping for 30. But I told everyone I was hoping for 20. Gotta save face an' all.

So when my doctor emailed me my results yesterday, I was gobsmacked to find out that my current total cholesterol is...189. Yep, that's a whopping 53 point, or 22%, decrease. The majority of that - and the part my doc's most pleased with - is the drop in my LDL from 162 to 104. A 35% drop.

You guys.  In just 28 days. OMG.

To say I'm pleased with the results so far is an understatement. Honestly, while I wasn't exactly contemplating a cheese steak, my focus and enthusiasm have been flagging a bit lately. Nothing like knowing that what you're doing is working to keep you motivated.

Ultimately, my goal is to get my total cholesterol under 150, which some researchers consider the "heart attack free zone." We'll see where I am in another 30 days.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, the news isn't all the best. Oddly, my good cholesterol also dropped, from 50 to 44. That's not exactly a desirable outcome, but I'm hoping with greater focus on exercise I can turn that around.

My triglycerides went up considerably - from 153 to 206. Not sure why that would be. Maybe because I'm not even sure what they are. Still, that's a move in the wrong direction, so I'm just going to sally forth and hope that things on that front even out over time.

But the point is this, y'all: I'm going to sally forth. Seems to be a theme around here of late.

Unexpected Territory, or Notes from Day 32

I had so many great plans for how I would write about the monumentous reaching of Day 28, the last day in the Engine 2 28-Day Challenge. I wanted to write about the Tater Tot Debacle of Day 26. I wanted to write on Day 28 about what a tough, unrelenting physically and spiritual journey I'd just completed. (I may or may not have just read Cheryl Strayed's lovely memoir "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.") I may or may not have been over-identifying with her. Because, in fact, only one of us set out to traverse a tremendous stretch of land, crossing multiple treacherous terrains, many for which she was unproperly prepared. I'll give you a hint: it wasn't me. But I'm a projector and as I read her book - fairly devoured it, actually - I'm not ashamed to say I did feel the slightest thread of comradeship. Maybe thread is too strong a word. But what's less than a thread?

Either way, if you will stop laughing long enough at that comparison, I will embarrass myself further by trying to explain what I mean. My journey was unknown, as was Strayed's. I wasn't sure what I was in for and sometimes found myself woefully unprepared, just like Strayed. I encountered impenetrable walls of ice and crossed paths with rattlesnakes and bears. Just like...oh, forget it.

But it was hard in its own way and, I will confess, when my enthusiasm flagged around days 26 and 27, it was reading Strayed's book that injected me with instant perspective. How am I going to complain about not eating cheese when I'm reading about someone trekking in hundred-plus degree heat with half her body weight in supplies on her back? Don't worry. I did complain about it. Plenty. The book just made me feel like more of an ass for it.

I had all these thoughts about what Day 28 was going to look like, feel like. What it would mean. You know, heavy thoughts, man.

But none of that navel-gazing really came into play because Day 27 found me laid out with a cold/flu virus the likes of which I hadn't known. Two days of exhaustion, shakiness, dizziness, pain swallowing, headache and nonstop sneezing. (Now am I on par with Cheryl Strayed? Still no? Sheesh.)

There were no big Day 28 feasts. No parades. No celebratory phone calls or embarrassing deliveries of flowers. Just me, on the couch, feeling puny.

I think, in a way, that's a good thing. Because by the time I came up for air, albeit unsteadily, a couple of days had gone by and we were still just eating the way we had been eating. Without much fanfare, we decided to stay the course, soldier on, sallyforth.

And that, I think, is something even Cheryl Strayed might admit we have in common.

I'm traveling right now and still getting my sea legs, but when I feel better I'm sure I will write more about my conclusions from this adventure - and what it's going to look like for me in the next phase. I'll also get my blood tests work back from the doctor and we can see how effective just 28 days on this eating plan can be for lowering cholesterol.
Anyhoo, you'll just have to be real patient, won't you? Perched on the edge of your seat, even.

Day 19: Adventures in low-fat vegan baking

There will never come a time during the 28-day Engine 2 challenge where I say, "Yeah, but I just wish I could spend more time cooking." Within the past couple of days, though, I have found myself really missing baking, which had been one of my favorite hobbies throughout the winter and spring. I was getting close to mastering my pie crust and had just started to figure out cakes. So I decided to jump in and try a few low-fat vegan baking recipes and see what shook out. I started out braving the recipe entitled "Blueberry Dumpster Cobbler" from the Engine 2 cookbook. The book provides an explanation about the name, something to do with a dumpster fire being the fastest kind to put out and this is a quick and easy recipe. Still, it's an unfortunate choice for the name, especially since I can think of a host of other reasons to call it a dumpster cobbler.

I should have known better when I checked the list of ingredients - whole wheat pastry flour, baking powder, vanilla, soy milk, agave and blueberries. I thought, "Really? Can that add up to something that actually tastes good?"

And the answer is no. No, it cannot.

The cobbler part was dense and flat and had a strange chemical taste to it. Perhaps it was just the weird flavor combination of the soy milk and wheat flour. Maybe it was the taste of impending death. Who's to say? Either way, I'm not sure the reason we eat baked goods is because we want to invest a good amount of time trying to get used to the taste.

(It should be noted, however - and expected, by anyone who knows my husband well - that he ate the entire cobbler anyway. In which case, I think he becomes the "dumpster" in the cobbler name.)

Undaunted - or daunted, but eager to get that taste out of my mouth - I moved on to the Low Fat Vegan Black Bean Brownies featured on the Happy Herbivore site. I've heard good things about using black beans in regular brownies but, my expectations dashed by the Great Dumpster Cobbler Disaster of Aught-Twelve, I didn't have the highest expectations for these.

Which was probably fair, given that even the photo on the website isn't fooling anyone that these are going to taste like your regular ol' brownies. And they don't. They use bananas to help retain moisture, so the result is a slightly cocoa-y, banana-y, fudgy...thing. It's like a brownie's less-fun cousin, the one who sits in the corner at the wedding and no one asks her to dance because she's just a little weird even though she means really, really well.

But I'm trying to remember that my palate has already changed a lot in the last couple of weeks. I'm genuinely enjoying foods I wasn't thrilled about before. It's possible that I could become a person who craves these low-fat vegan brownies. It's also possible I could become a supermodel.

In case you miss my point, what I'm saying is: not likely.

Next up was another Happy Herbivore recipe: the Blueberry Breakfast Cake recipe. Now, if you think I was drawn to this recipe simply because it has the word "cake" in it, like a toddler with no self-control, you'd be 100% right. It's actually more like a coffee cake or a breakfast quick-bread and it benefits, I think, from a wider range of ingredients to give it a pretty nice texture. The flavor wasn't outstanding, but I think the fact that I didn't use great blueberries deserved a lot of the blame.

Dense and moist - absent the fluff eggs would bring to the equations - no one's gonna mistake this for a regular coffee cake. But that isn't really the point, is it? It'll still taste outstanding with a ton of butter spread on it! Kidding!

Except, you know, that it would.

Here's what I think: incredibly low-fat vegan baking is not going to be amazing. Also, I'm probably the last person on earth to realize that. I'm curious to see what happens when I'm ready to play fast and loose with the fat grams. Maybe I'll discover that there's just no substitute for butter. But there's probably an acceptable compromise.

Or perhaps it's better to save up for an occasion to land face-down in one of Big City Small World Bakery's amaaaaazing vegan ding dongs, which could go head-to-head with any non-vegan chocolate cake any day of the week.

Although - and I was so fixated on results that I almost completely failed to notice this part - I still really, really enjoyed the act of baking again. Yes, even when it should have gone right in the dumpster.

Day 16: Post-travel, lessons learned

The black bean hummus tartine at Le Pain Quotidien in Georgetown.

First, can we just note that it is somehow DAY 16 of the Engine 2 Diet? I'm really not entirely sure how that happened. As we geared up for the halfway point - Day 14 - I wasn't sure I was going to be able to follow through. Oh, who am I kidding? I knew I could follow through. I just didn't know if I wanted to.

What a difference a few days make. Not to mention we have now survived what has heretofore been the biggest obstacle we've faced in our 28-day Engine 2 diet: travel.

Last Wednesday, we left the considerable safety and comfort of our little quinoa cocoon and headed out into the big, bad world. Specifically, the big, bad world of the Washington DC area to spend QT with Chris' family and a little bonus time with friends we hadn't seen in a long time.

Here's what we knew: the travel portion itself would require planning. The faffing around at the airport, the flight, the drive from Baltimore to DC -- none of it would be long, per se, but I only need about ten minutes to work up the justification for a snack. Fine. Nothing that a bag of trail mix, some fresh fruit, and a handful of Larabars couldn't fix.

We also knew we were staying in a hotel without a refrigerator. Or, without a refrigerator that doesn't charge a million dollars if you temporarily remove their soda to make room for refreshments of your own. That limited  what we could have in our hotel room for breakfasts. "No problem," we said cheerily and with stellar attitudes! "Who needs a real breakfast when you have the aforementioned trail mix and Larabars?!"

Biggest concern of all: there would be the matter of eating actual meals - both out at restaurants and at the home of family members kind enough to entertain us without having wheatberries injected into their carefully planned menus. One thing we have been determined to avoid is becoming those people who expect others to accommodate their crazy-ass eating approach. We realize we're the ones who are insane.

I will tell you, although I write from the comfort of the "other side" of this experience, it was tougher than I imagined. But here's what I learned:

Safety trumps variety: if you find a winner, stick with it

With some help from a clean-eating pal, we were able to identify a couple of healthy, vegan friendly options. She recommended Le Pain Quotidien and Sweetgreen, both chains that would give us at least a few options.

On our second day there, we lunched at Le Pain Quotidien and thought we'd died and gone to heaven. More than two options on the menu!!! And the food was absolutely delicious. We had a tartine - their specialty, Belgian open-faced sandwiches - of house-made whole grain bread topped with black bean hummus, roasted red peppers and avocado. Sublime! Chris ordered an organic quinoa tabbouleh salad that also rocked our world.

Funny how your perspective changes so much and so quickly when you eat this way. If you'd told me two weeks ago I'd have gone bananas over a quinoa tabbouleh salad, I'd have punched you in the face.

The organic quinoa taboule at Le Pain Quotidien in Georgetown.

So grateful for Le Pain Quotidien were we that we dined there again for brunch on Sunday, branching out to different dishes and feeling equally delighted and sated. And Sunday evening, we met our friend Lisa for dinner at the buzzed-about Founding Farmers, which also has a vegan-friendly section of the menu. It felt possitively decadent - delicious, creative, thoughtful food elevating what you might think of as vegan. Chickpeas and artichokes in a vegan puff pastry pocket? White bean cutlets in a gorgeous broth? Check and check!

It's hard to describe how it feels eating in places that give us more than one option. I'm sure if you've been vegetarian for a while, or are vegan, then you get it. It's also a little like being in early recovery. If you go into a bar, sure, there are non-alcoholic options for you to drink, but there's also a heightened and potentially-dangerous awareness of what everyone else "gets" to have. It feels unsafe. However, if you find yourself at a party where there is no alcohol served or a restaurant without a liquor license, that whole element of anxiety is removed from the situation and you feel...normal.

Plan, plan, plan

It turns out a handful of trail mix and some Larabars are not a plan. Nor is going to Chris' sister's house to see what they're making for dinner and then debating long and hard about whether or not you can make the vegetarian Mexican lasagna work for you (what about the cheese? the white flour tortillas?) and waiting until you're too pissy and hungry before you go off in search of some ready-made stuff you can actually eat.

A better idea: plan ahead of things you can make to accompany the planned dinner without insulting your hostess. You're not going to feel as bad eating your chickpea salad and portabella mushrooms while everyone else has buttery orzo and grilled salmon. (Note that I said you won't feel "as bad.") Or hit Whole Foods or the local health store and have options in hand when you arrive. Once we got that part right, it kept my self pity at bay.

There will be cheating

Maybe not for the zealous and true, but Chris and I are neither of those things. Hunger and heat got the better of us sometimes and we wound up making compromises that weren't strictly E2-approved. There may have been a mango sugar-free slushie we tried, rationalizing that it's really no different than the Diet Coke we've been drinking. It may also have been disgusting.

Some wheat pretzels were ingested in a fit of pique. Notice I didn't say WHOLE wheat pretzels. GASP! Just regular ones.

And then there was the falafel. And by "the falafel," I mean "the falafels." Even though we eventually struck a balance with making sure there was enough food for us at dinner, we didn't have any contingency plan for being starving at 10 o'clock once we were back at our hotel. Searching the nearest open restaurants, we settled on a falafel place.


Our rational: it's probably vegan, definitely vegetarian. The questionable parts: hummus made with oil, fried falafel patties, all wrapped in a white flour pita. We hemmed. We hawed. We ate. You should have seen us, folded into chairs in our hotel room, devouring falafel as though it were chocolate cake, feeling reckless and decadent, rationalizing our behavior.

Damn, it was tasty, too.

Let it go

Part of me - a very old, well-practiced part - is trying to beat me up over the "cheating." But the rest of me has a good belly-laugh at the idea that eating some hummus and falafel counts as cheating at all. I mean, how far must I have come, how well must I have generally stuck with this eating plan, for that to even be a thing?

And I didn't decide to do this to be stringent and punish myself over little things. No, in fact, I'm thinking back over this trip and counting how often we did the right things. Not to mention the number of times when doing the right thing was actually entirely pleasurable and delicious. They say your palate changes once you start to eat this way. Maybe that's so. But my brain's definitely changing along with it.