Saturday, May 14, 2022

Revisiting Robin Wall Kimmerer / A plant story from my life / Falling in love with the world again / A song that gave me something I needed during last few dark cloud years / Fluffy white clouds

Last night I woke up at around midnight after about 5-1/2 hours of sleep.  Unable to go back to sleep, I read for awhile, listened to a guided meditation, and then I got up and checked my email and found a link to the interview by Krista Tippett with Robin Wall Kimmerer, which I just finished listening to.  I've been using this On Being archive recently as a source of inspiration while I draw or when I can't sleep at night.


In the interview, Robin Wall Kimmerer says that although she had no indigenous elders as teachers when she was a child, she did have the natural world, specifically plants, as elders, as teachers. 

"... I was lucky enough to grow up in the fields and the woods of upstate New York. I was lucky in that regard, but disappointed, also, in that I grew up away from the Potawatomi people, away from all of our people, by virtue of history — the history of removal and the taking of children to the Indian boarding schools. And so in a sense, the questions that I had about who I was in the world, what the world was like, those are questions that I really wished I’d had a cultural elder to ask; but I didn’t.

But I had the woods to ask. And there’s a way in which just growing up in the woods and the fields, they really became my doorway into culture. In the absence of human elders, I had plant elders, instead ..."

I can say the same.  I grew up without elders as teachers (there were few elders present in my childhood, much less wise elder teachers) but from an early age I took long walks by myself.  The first plant teachers I remember were tumbleweeds and weeping willow trees and English ivy and fig trees and an apricot tree during the time my family lived in the desert that is the San Joaquin Valley of California.  Then on the San Francisco Peninsula, I remember California poppies, redwood trees, eucalyptus trees, bay laurel trees, oak trees, and various fruit trees.   The poisonous oleanders in the San Joaquin Valley as well as the poison oak on the San Francisco Peninsula were teachers, too. 

The first plant food I remember eating was sugar.  My first word was "cookie."  At age 10, when I went on my first diet, the plant foods I remember eating were sugar, potatoes, peas, corn, carrots, celery, iceberg lettuce, artichokes, the various vegetables that were in Campbell's soup, fresh fruit, and highly processed grains in the form of Rice-A-Roni, canned spaghetti, Wonder Bread, sourdough bread, and English muffins.  On Thanksgiving and Christmas, we ate wild rice.  I didn't like the taste of fresh tomatoes and refused to eat them, although I liked tomato sauces.  I didn't like mushrooms or olives or licorice.  I was what was known as a picky eater, although what I did like to eat I ate in large amounts, especially cookies, donuts, brownies, cake, pie, chocolate candy, and ice cream.

Alcohol is a plant food.  The first time I remember tasting alcohol was when I was forced to eat a  an entire Bourbon ball around Christmas time at the home of some friends of my parents.  It was offered to me and so I took a bite, thinking it would taste like chocolate.  It tasted awful to me.  I made a face.  My mother insisted that I "be polite" and eat the whole thing.  The next thing I remember is vomiting in the bathroom of their friends' home.  

The second time I remember having alcohol in my mouth was when I was confirmed in the Episcopal church at age 10.  I had felt nauseous while sitting in the pews before taking the sip of communion wine and after that sip I felt so ill that I walked out of the church in a hurry, not wanting to vomit or faint in church.

In the Episcopal church we attended, the wine ritual didn't happen every week.  After that peculiar confirmation experience, I was able to have a sip of wine at church without apparent consequences, unless I count that fact that once I had the tiniest bit of alcohol in my system, I experienced an acute sense of craving which could not be satiated, although I tried to satisfy the craving with the fancy array of cookies that was laid out on long table in the parish hall during what they called the coffee hour.  I would go back to the cookie table again and again, never ever feeling satisfied or full when it came to sugar.   

Both of my parents seemed to drink sensibly and both of them seemed to have the same reaction I did, which was that they craved sugar and struggled with their weight.  They began dieting at the same time I did but never lost the weight they wanted to lose. 

Until I was 37 years old, I struggled with my weight and lived with depression.  I drank alcohol socially and didn't feel that it caused me any problems.  It was only when I made a decision to stop eating sugar (except for that which occurs naturally in food) and to stop drinking alcohol (when I fell in love briefly with a recovering alcoholic) that I found peace of mind and body.  Since I stopped drinking alcohol, I have not experienced the degree of depression or the craving for food that I seemed to be an unchangeable part of who I was.

It occurred to me while I was listening to Robin Wall Kimmerer that those two plant-based foods were my teachers and that once I learned the lesson they had for me, I didn't need them anymore.  They are like oleanders and poison oak for me.  I need good boundaries with them.

I know of only a few people who have had an experience like mine with both of these plant teachers and that for most people, alcohol and sugar are two of life's simple joys, a sweet part of many celebrations.  I wish I could enjoy alcohol and sugar without experiencing that phenomenon of craving but that is not my fate.  

At various times it was suggested to me by medical professionals that I needed to be on medication for the rest of my life.  Not so.  I am fortunate to have found the key to the relief of my depression and struggles with weight that were insurmountable because I could not stop eating once I triggered that craving with even the smallest amount of alcohol. There are many who have stories about issues with food and weight and depression.  This is my story.

Alcohol and sugar aren't my enemies.  They are two beautiful plant teachers, two wise plant elders.  They had much to teach about what for me are healthy boundaries.

Why am I telling this story now?  On May 8, it was 35 years since the last time I drank alcohol.  I clearly remember the suicidal depression that followed that last drink and the dark cloud over my life that lifted in the months that followed and has not returned.  On September 26 of that year, I stopped eating white sugar and ate none at all for more than 10 years, although I continued to eat honey and other unrefined sugars until I could no longer tolerate them either.  My body has told me again and again that it does not appreciate sugar.  

As recently as 2019, I experimented with eating anything and everything I wanted to eat but quickly gained 20 pounds and found myself always thinking about food and craving it in the way that only happens when I eat sugar.  I wasn't binging.  I was just eating much more food at meals than I had eaten in years.  Even so, the craving for more food was nothing like that which I experienced when drinking minimal amounts of alcohol.  I did not feel suicidal when eating sugar but my mind began to be cluttered with thoughts of when my next meal would be.


Krista Tippett:  Here’s something you wrote. You talked about goldenrods and asters a minute ago, and you said, “When I am in their presence, their beauty asks me for reciprocity, to be the complementary color, to make something beautiful in response.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer:   Yes. And I think of my writing very tangibly, as my way of entering into reciprocity with the living world. It’s that which I can give. And it comes from my years as a scientist, of deep paying attention to the living world, and not only to their names, but to their songs. And having heard those songs, I feel a deep responsibility to share them and to see if, in some way, stories could help people fall in love with the world again.


Volunteer plant teachers on my porch:


Just finished reading Last Chance Texaco, by Rickie Lee Jones, which prompted me to find her songs on YouTube.  "We Belong Together" still moves as it did when I first heard it.  Rickie Lee's childhood and youth were wilder than mine, but there was much she wrote about that matched my experiences as a girl and young woman.  

In this past week, a younger woman told me that my speaking voice sounded like the woman whose voice is heard at the beginning of "Fluffy Clouds," by the Orbs.  I listened on YouTube and wondered if my voice really sounded like that.  Curious, I began googling to find out who the woman was.  It was Rickie Lee Jones.  At the end, she talks about pretending she was a horse when she was young.  I remember doing that.   I can see that my voice has that kind of stop and start quality, a similar cadence.  She sounds a little congested.  I do, too.  She smiles through her words.  I used to hate the sound of my voice and everything about myself.  That was part of the dark cloud that lifted.  I love that my voice sounds like Rickie Lee Jones.  I'm grateful to that younger woman who set me on a path that led to Rickie Lee Jones' book and back to her music.


Sabine said...

Thank you for this moving and insightful memory about food. I can relate to so much of it.
Although my parents were very keen on a healthy diet - we had home made muesli for breakfast, no sweets during the week and if at all, only doled out in tiny portions on Sundays and feast days. Soft drinks, ketchup, white sliced bread was something that the GI families had but never ever in my childhood home. I had my first pizza when I was 14 during a skiing holiday in northern Italy and I hated it. It was many years before I had my next one. The first fast food restaurant - a McDonald's - opened in my home town when I was 16 and I didn't have the money to frequent it, nobody in my family went there. Food was used as a weapon by my mother in many different ways. When we were little, she sometimes made us eat only dry bread for lunch (dinner was ok because my father was home) for a while or cooked the watery bread soups and meals from vegetables scraps the way she and her family had to survive on during the war. She rarely ate a full meal and often just sat and watched us while she smoked. She always remarked on our weight, and made us compete for what she considered "ideal". Even years later, when I would visit, her first looks and remarks were about my weight. My sister does that to this day.
We all were fat and skinny and fat and skinny throughout our childhoods hoping to please her.
I was lucky that when I left for uni, it was the years whole foods arrived. And when I met R, he was living in communes that were very much into organic gardening and baking bread and so on.
My mother was an excellent cook and gardener and maybe her gruesome war experiences, her hunger years and her resulting lifelong fear of hunger, that she would never throw out even the tiniest scrap of food, was a teacher. I think so.
And strange as it may sound, my mother's addictions meant that I never liked alcohol. I tried but no. So that was a teacher also. Definitely.

Sabine said...

Almost forgot, have a read here: