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Eating Empathy or Expanding my Current Level of Mental Illness (Thanks Anne Lamott)

By Maralise Petersen

A few weeks ago, I realized that if I didn’t amend my current intake of multiple spoonfuls of Nutella for breakfast, Banana mit nutella for lunch, and bread mit Nutella for dinner, I might just explode. Or, at least not fit into my formal gown for the Marine Ball. Either way, it would be a tragedy. “Dogs and cats living together – mass hysteria” (name that movie). And I thought, “What the heck…let’s get jiggy with it and go all gluten free and stuff.” Ok, so that wasn’t my exact thought but it was pretty close.

I have a pantry of gluten-free goodness in my home (my son has Celiac Disease) and I figured it couldn’t hurt to take a lesson in empathy for those that can’t eat wheat, rye, barley, and most oat products (Celiacs also risk eating gluten in every day items such as vitamins and medicines, cross-contaminated spices, or when it’s hidden in artificial or natural flavors). I didn’t think it could hurt to increase the number of fruits and vegetables I was eating and decrease the carbs either. Of course, losing a bit of water-weight from overdoses of sugar and salty refined carbs was what was most attractive (and even if it ended up that all I lost was water-weight, I thought my girdle and my seamstress would thank me later).

It started out great…Caprese salad for breakfast, veggies with Sour Rahm and gluten-free sausages for lunch, some rice cakes scattered here and there (European-chocolate covered, nummy) and a hearty dinner with lots of good protein, salad with homemade dressing, and either potatoes, rice, or corn-based products for the starch. Now, I don’t need to tell you that my supposed Mormon-born cooking ability has lagged in the past few years. And so this venture into empathetic eating was a welcome change from our scramble-at-dinnertime-routine that we had mastered since moving overseas.

Sometimes my life reminds me of a therapy session that Anne Lamott describes in her book “Operating Instructions.” Her therapist has a “sand tray” where you choose an array of objects that “call to you.” You arrange them in the tray and then talk about why those objects were chosen. She says, “Now, this is scary stuff for a cerebral type, because it takes you to places you couldn’t get on your own–it rolfs old body memories out of you. I mean, who needs it, right? It’s so much easier and more comfortable to stay at one’s current level of mental illness.”

So often I have thought that staying at my current-level-of-whatever was much better than stretching, opening, being born into something unknown, scary, possibly worse. But on that day a few weeks ago, I decided to go gluten free and I found some things out. One, I feel fantastic (depression lifted, I can run and laugh with my kids for the first time in months). And two, that my son’s diet is not “weird” or “hard” or a handicap in an otherwise “normal” life.

It reminded me of a quote in Wallace Stegner’s “The Spectator Bird” when Joseph Allston describes the relationship he has with his wife, “It is something–it can be everything–to have found a fellow bird with whom you can sit among the rafters, while the drinking and boasting and reciting and fighting go on below; a fellow bird whom you can look after and find bugs and seeds for; one who will patch your bruises and straighten your ruffled feathers and mourn over your hurts when you accidentally fly into something you can’t handle.”

My family, hubby and children, have often been the “something I can’t handle” but they have also been the ones to lead me to birth and re-birth, to coddle my wounds in their all-inclusive love, to flop their stinky bodies on me and exclaim their affection with unadulterated freedom.

It turns out that my little empathy experiment was more than sacrifice, more than a change of diet, more than a way to lose weight for a ball. You see, I was finding bugs and seeds for my fellow inmates here in our rafter. And while I know that “it can be everything” to serve others while being kind to ourselves, I also have never actually KNOWN what it feels like to really strap on someone else’s boots and take a ride.

It was thrilling. It was a craft of my own making, an ongoing art piece stitched into the seams of my skin. In Eudora Welty’s “The Optimist’s Daughter,” Laurel describes a memory of her mother explaining the meaning of a prized possession. “The most beautiful blouse I ever owned in my life–I made it. Cloth from Mother’s own spinning, and dyed a deep, rich, American Beauty color with pokeberries…I’ll never have anything to wear that to me is as satisfactory as that blouse.”

I’ll never have anything to eat as satisfactory as what my son can eat. I’ll never have any more joy than through living, thriving, and being the person that I am and the one that I intend to grow into. I’ll never feel more love than in the small and unimportant circle that I find right here, under my roof, in this community, in this country, under this beautiful God-painted sky.


About Maralise Petersen


11 thoughts on “Eating Empathy or Expanding my Current Level of Mental Illness (Thanks Anne Lamott)”

  1. Very beautiful Maralise,
    Walking in another's boots (not just flip flops) is probably the most Christlike thing we can do. I don't mean keeping them on forever, just obtaining even a smidgen of "empathy". That is what takes us out of our "natural selves" and transcends us to be more insightful and more compassionate.
    I can't think of a more correct statement than the growth and love than can transpire within our own *roof*. Again, replicating those Christlike qualities
    Not always easy, but always important.

  2. When I got gestational diabetes with my last pregnancy I felt a little this way–able to empathize more with my husband's diabetic mother. Not something I chose, as you chose your gluten-free diet, but something that was good for me to experience. Thanks, Mara.

  3. Ade–love ya babe.

    Kathy–Ding ding ding! This is my second favorite line in the movie (this is probably not the right forum for my first favorite line but I'm sure you can guess…email me).

    Wendy–Really? You've done it? Tell me more, I'm fascinated.

    pjb–Sometimes flip flops is all I can handle. Other times, I can handle more. Thanks for the analogy.

    Em–Thank goodness we don't have to actually experience everyone's illnesses/weakness to be empathetic. I think simply being willing to listen and care for a person who is unlike oneself is often good enough.

    Tracy M–Hooray! I love seeing you here.

    Heather O.–I'm afraid you visited me in my non-cooking phase. And you know where to find me…I would love to cook some gluten free goodness for you and your family. Thought about a European vacation? OH–and you'd love the shopping situation here. Loads of bio products and fresh meat (from the butchers…locally grown, no antibiotics, etc…)

  4. Yo Mara, Glad to see the GF cookbooks are helping- have you tried those amazing rice flour cupcakes/muffins yet?

    Meanwhile- why doesn't _my_ therapist have a sand tray? I mean, his room is all weird, cluttered with books and stuffed lions. Either he's a Leo or he's got king of the jungle syndrome. A tray and sand sounds so zen, comparatively. Last time I was there, his cat tried to bite me. It's not zen-like, but my husband really trusts the Dr., so whatev. No delving deeply for me, and I'm all for it. Maybe that's the deal…if you want to figure it all out, you can't, if you don't, you must?

    But: I'd forgotten how exhilarating/inconvenient/delicious/frustrating
    it is to cook and eat gluten free, so thanks for the trip down memory lane. That WAS my sand therapy for the day.


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