Food, or An Unprocessed Childhood

Yesterday brought a Guardian article to my inbox: How ultra-processed foods took over your shopping cart. In it Bee Wilson recalls eating slice after slice of buttered white bread, and whole tubes of sour cream and onion Pringles. It struck a chord: those were two of the specific staples of my late-teens/early-twenties diet – along with SuperNoodles, PopTarts, Papa John’s, Taco Bell, chicken cheesesteaks, Dunkin’ Donuts and frozen pizza. These are, Wilson explains, ultra-processed foods: manufactured edibles made from other manufactured items. Their role in the global obesity and disease crisis is emerging, and it fascinates me because, though I’ve eaten my share of them, I didn’t grow up eating them – which has perhaps made all the difference.

There was a lot of strange in my childhood, ranging from benign to destructive. Yet, at the other end of the teeter-totter (as we called the wooden seesaw my father carved and balanced on an salvaged driftwood log), were a few quirks for which I’m grateful. My parents’ stopped-clock moments, I’ve dubbed them, undertaken at random, or for the wrong reasons, but nonetheless beneficial. No TV was one – the edict that set me on the path to becoming a writer.

The other is harder to sum in a phrase, no junk food? No processed food? Plain food only?

potato

Photo by Lars Blankers on Unsplash

Whatever they might have called it, if asked, the food ethos of my childhood was that anything artificially colored or flavored, anything with cartoon characters or superheroes, anything that could be put in a toaster or microwave, was essentially forbidden. My mother is, by her own admission, not much of a cook. Nor was her mother. What she knew about cooking she must have learned from fellow drifters (hippies, in a loose sense) when my siblings were young and from my grandmother, a reluctant emigre of East Prussian farm stock.

We were also poor – for most of my childhood I thought Food Stamps were colored money – and my father was ardently interested in Eastern spirituality, yoga, tai chi, and Transcendentalism.

Somehow, this combined to determine that childhood meals consisted of variations on the following: potatoes (which they grew in humped rows on the east side of the house), brown rice, beans, carrots, peas, broccoli, zucchini, beans, milk, and cheese.

My mother baked whole wheat bread, brushing the crust with melted butter as it came out of the oven so the thick brown dome gleamed. Her signature dish was spinach souffle, made with a dozen eggs and two frozen bricks of greens. She also made vegetarian chilli with kidney, pinto and black beans, and fresh tortillas to go with it. I’d slice tomatoes, then get out the orange block of Tillamook cheddar and grate a golden mountain that melted through the bowl in unctuous swirls.

Dairy in everything must have come from my grandmother, whose cooking was as weighty as her Lutheran faith. When we visited my grandparents in California, or they came to Oregon, she’d make pound cake and what we called crumb cake. I have no idea of its proper name, but its flavor is ineradicable: dense, slightly sweet base topped with melt-in-the-mouth crumbs of hard-packed butter and sugar. Perhaps it is not surprising my grandmother wound up having quadruple bypass surgery and evenutally died of cardiac-related causes. What is curious, though, is that she was always slim. To my memory, thin, even. Though stockily build, my grandfather, who never missed his afternoon coffee and cake, was fit and vigorous well into his 80s.

Despite the abundance of milk, cheese and ice cream in our diet (my mother was deeply brand loyal to Tillamook Dairy) we rarely ate conventional processed foods. Sweets, apart from ice cream, were limited to elaborate home-made birthday cakes. The most popular among my siblings and I was a chocolate cake covered in chocolate ganache, layered and adorned with chocolate buttercream frosting, and wrapped in a marzipan bow. Its creation was a day-long process, at minimum. The marzipan alone required almonds to be blanched in boiling water, peeled (accomplished by pinching the fat end until the point broke the skin and the nut shot forth), cooled, and milled in an orange-plastic and stainless steel hand grinder before being mixed with the appropriate ratio of powdered sugar.

Even store-bought goodies, as we called them, were outside the usual realm. On our weekly shopping trip to Trillium, a wooden-floored, patchouli-scented health food shop where my mom bought bulk grains and beans, we were allowed to choose a treat: either a peach frozen yogurt pop that you pushed up through a blue-and-white cardboard tube, or a paper-shrouded, sticky-edged frozen sandwich: ice cream between two chocolate graham crackers. These were flavored with carob rather than cocoa, a trend which extended to my mother’s version of hot chocolate: bitter, clumpy powdered carob boiled with hot milk and laced with honey – an anti-indulgence that left me with little taste for the real thing. Other dishes we experienced only in health-food form included chow mein (tofu) and burgers (veggie).

This food ethos felt oppressive, restrictive as the Biblical edicts we were fed each Sunday – and, like any good American child, I craved Wonder Bread, Hamburger Helper, Kraft Singles, Snickers, and Capri Sun. Even without a TV, food advertising found me; the slogan – M&Ms melt in your mouth, not in your hand – has been jingling in my head since I was about six. The difference was, my parents were stubborn/mean/enlightened/impoverished (delete as required) enough to make me to eat boiled carrots and broccoli, brown rice and potatoes regardless. In another twist, they introduced me to foods like hummus and avocados, things my working class British friends didn’t experience as kids.

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Plus I had the tremendous fortune of a big sister who loves to cook, is good at cooking, and helped me discover the joy in food that was the missing ingredient in my childhood. My mom did her best, according to her lights, but daily life was too tense and unhappy for eating to be the celebration it should. One peculiar feature of her cooking was a lack of seasoning. My father didn’t like salt (or perhaps didn’t approve of it; he was a man who could be hostile to a condiment). Herbs, spices, chilli, vinegar – I don’t recall any of them. It was a relvelation to learn how fantastic vegetables can taste when slathered in olive oil, roasted, spiked with rosemary and chilli, sprinkled with lemon, sea salt and coarse black pepper. Like many aspects of growing up, the food could have been brightened, mitigated, with a little effort.

Between then and now, I spent many years in food deserts, actual and self-constructed. Unhappiness shaped my relationship with food and my body yet, simmering beneath, were memories of a worthwhile conjunction of effort and occasion.

My Marriage in 10 Restaurants

Three years ago, on a bright blue morning, Chris and I walked to the Shelby County Courthouse in downtown Memphis and got married. He wore a charcoal grey jumper and Doc Martin Chelsea boots. I wore a black silk mini-dress and the gold leather pumps I wore for my first wedding, more than a decade earlier.

After the judge pronounced us legally wed, we went to our favorite restaurant and celebrated with black-eyed pea hummus and prosecco.

Food has always been central to our relationship. Our first date was in at a Mexican restaurant – vegan mole topped with pickled purple onions, one too many margaritas. Since then, we’ve eaten (and drunk) our way around Europe and the States, finding favorites that, while we may never see them again, are touchstones. We move and travel a lot. The restaurants and bars stay, reassuringly, in place. It is a comfort to know we can go to London or Barcelona, Denver or Memphis, and rediscover our memories in flavors.

Here are a few of the places we love:

Babalu, Memphis

This was the black-eyed pea hummus wedding lunch joint, but Babalu was more than that. It was where we went for happy hour when I finished work, taking advantage of $2-off glasses of wine, chatting with the servers while we wolfed down tacos made with handmade corn tortillas.

Pyro’s, Memphis

A few minutes drive from the house, Pyro’s was can’t-be-bothered-to-cook evenings, and let’s-have-a-treat (for under a tenner) occasions. It is one of those build your own pizza places and, because or despite being a chain, has a credible gluten free base. The staff were always sweet – high school kids, early-20-somethings, smiling in the face of latex gloves and polyester uniforms. Another draw: the hot sauce collection arrayed on the condiments table. As much habanero, jalepeno and ghost chilli as we could stand.

Tostado, London

Our first trip to London together, part of our week-long second date. Of course, I wanted to go to Soho, a few blocks of cramped, crowded streets woven into more than 15 years of memories. We cut through St Anne’s Court and spotted Tostado, a single line of tables along the wall – the whole joint hardly wider than the door. It served Ecuadorian food, comfort in glazed pottery bowls: corn and potato soup thick with cheese and topped with sliced avocados, steaming plantain-leaf wrapped humitas topped with spiky green chilli and coriander sauce, fried plantains. It became our home-cooking away from home.

Siam Central, London

On the other side of Oxford Street lies Fitzrovia, where I worked during my London years. Set on a corner with a handful of tables outside, this Thai place looks unremarkable and vanishingly small. Step inside and it mysteriously expands, finding space for however many friends you happen to bring along. As creatures forced to make habit out of minimal material, food is a ritual. Here, we ordered green curry with tofu, and drunken noodles – a heap of seared, spicy, basil-laced rice stick fresh from the pan – accompanied by flinty chenin blanc.

City O’City, Denver, CO,

The few months immediately after our wedding went like this: Chris goes back to work, I stay in our rented room with the strange room-mate and needy cat finishing my own contract, then cram everything moveable into a couple of suitcases, put the cat in a carrier, fly to Oregon, and spend a few weeks camped in my sister’s basement – breaking up the time with weekend trips to meet Chris. Salt Lake and Denver were excursion, my first trip to the mile high city. While they loaded in, I ran through the thin sunshine, stopping to do a headstand in the park. Later, when work was done, we sat at the bar of this vegetarian restaurant eating arepas and drinking cocktails.

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Mi Mero Mole, Portland, OR

It was a few days before Christmas and almost everyone else in tiny taco joint was drunk and in costume – elves, Santa, fairies strung with flashing lights. A courtesy drink, I told myself. Knees close under the table, I found myself staring into his coruscating blue eyes and thinking: this is something. One of the Santas upended a chair and fell cartoon-style, legs sticking straight into the air. Chris and I tried each other’s food, deciding we’d made the right decision in trying both moles. Our hands met and laced together on the tabletop. When we rose to leave we kissed instead. Walking to my car I thought: I could marry him.

Try Thai, Manchester

Because the boys are, nominally, from Manchester, we wound up spending a lot of time there. Our first week in a comically awful hotel where we could hear fighting most nights, and had to navigate a cluster of unimpressed junkies to get in the main door. Naturally, we spent most of our time out – especially after discovering this Thai restaurant. The décor boded ill, but the food turned out to be spectacular. We ate green curry rice, complete with fat fresh green peppercorns, for lunch and returned for dinner.

Alcaravan, Arcos de la Frontera

Arcos was our longest-lived home to date, a pueblo in the foothills of the Serrania de Cadiz. We walked down one steep hill and up another to reach the centre of town where this restaurant was built into the hill beneath the old fortress. The interior was long and low, like the Arches in London, with an incongruous yet charming water fountain tucked into a nook. We ordered, without fail, the warm goats cheese with pepper jam and a plate of fried potatoes. The cheese unctuous yet sharp, and paired perfectly with a local Chardonnay called Gadir.

Teresa Carles, Barcelona

Chris spent a lot of time doing flight training near Barcelona, and I would go up to visit. Teresa Carles was a lucky Google Map find. We went, the first time, quite early in the evening so actually managed a table – the aubergine rolls and tempeh salad were enough to keep us coming back, again and again.

Tamarindo, A Coruña

A few steps away from the Atlantic, we found the best Mexican food we’ve eaten outside of Mexico and likely the best margaritas in Europe. Run by a mother-son team, it is a testimony to the Coruñés proclivity for doing things properly. Everything is handmade, from the corn tortillas to the thick smoky-spicy chipotle sauce to the salbutes – a fat lightly-fried corn cake that melts in your mouth. Like the other places we’ve dined, drunk and laughed, we’ll miss it when we’re gone.

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Embodying Empathy

It is apropos that I missed posting last week due to lack of sleep. My tiny black ninja cat decided that 2:30AM was an excellent time to sit on my pillow and conduct intensive grooming. If you’ve ever had a cat bathing in your ear, you’ll understand why this put a kink in my sleep schedule.

A day later, Chris had a trip so we were up at 5AM to get him to the train station. Then something came up workwise and I had to get up early the following day to write.

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Just a normal conflux of niggles and responsibilities, in other words, but enough to throw my system into a spin. My mouth was dry, my head ached, I yelled at the cats for getting underfoot. A layer of chill wrapped me that had nothing to do with the cold, damp day. Every small task was aggravating, painful, like a shoe-bound pebble that swells with each step.

As an adult with, heaven help us, responsibilities, it is up to me to negotiate sleep deprivation without becoming a danger to myself or others. Babies, on the other hand, are immune from expectations about how they should act when they are tired. Well into childhood, Richter scale meltdowns are excused because “s/he’s tired”. Rightly so. Being tired is harmful to health. According to the International Journal of Endocrinology, “sleep deprivation and sleep disorders may have profound metabolic and cardiovascular implications.” It is, “adversely affects the physical wellbeing and quality of life of participants, demonstrated in bad mood, somnolence, and tiredness” (Journal of Family Medicine Primary Care).

Babies, kids, are responding appropriately when they have a tiredness-induced crying jag or temper tantrum; their bodies need rest and are wired to seek it at whatever cost to adult sanity. This is reasonable.

What isn’t is that as adults we expect/are expected to have a different – unnatural – relationship to sleep. Instead of acceeding to our physical needs, we are supposed to keep going, as if our bodies are wrong for needing what they need.

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Cultural deprivation

There is a certain cultural tendency to fetizishation of work at the expense of sleep. Margaret Thatcher famously slept four hours a night. “For the Iron Lady four hours was a badge of almost superhuman strength. It fits the narrative of the “warrior” prime minister…” wrote Tom de Castella in a BBC News Magazine piece. The same article noted that Trump claims to only sleep three hours a night.

That suggests something with deep implications.

As a baby, we are begged to sleep; as a small child, we are made to sleep; as an older child/adolescent we still have bedtimes or curfews. As a young adult, we have the giddy freedom of being able to stay up as late as we want – and do all sorts of dumb things as a result. Then, at some invisible point, we suddenly find ourselves expected to function perfectly, whether we’ve slept or not. We’re running to stand still and those bitterly resented childhood naps sound idyllic.

This was my experience, in any case, with minor variations. When I was very small and expected to take an afternoon nap I’d lie awake, telling myself stories to pass the time. Staying up till midnight was a once-a-year occasion, a thrilling New Year’s Eve pressed up against a space heater, eating Planter’s Honey Roasted Peanuts, turning pages with sticky-sweet fingers until the clock reached 12.

When I was a young adult, immersed in music and club culture, midnight was a starting rather than an end point. The delirium of those years seemed, at the time, like part of the fun. Now, I feel anxiety amounting to dread at the thought of being out at two or three in the morning, much less four or five.

Unrested = unhinged

When duty and distraction combines to keep me from sleeping my first reaction is anger. And, because I’m tired, it is irrational rage. I am minimally patient at the best of times; sleep-deprived, I’m plain mean. I lose the ability, or will, to see things from a different perspective, or have a sense of humor. Incidental slights – a rude driver, a slow shopper – become personal affronts.

Is it coincidence that a three-hour-a-night sleeper is unhinged and meglomaniacal? Or that a four-hour-a-night sleeper was willing to crush entire industries and thousands of lives on an ideological whim?

Trump is, and Thatcher was, remarkable for lack of empathy shading into brutality. It is horrible to witness; like a toddler’s tantrum, a sign of something amiss.

It makes sense, though, that people who deny their own basic needs are willing, even eager, to deny the needs of other. I feel bad, so why should you feel good?

A couple of years ago I had a student who responded to a prompt about homelessness with a devestating account of her own struggle with poverty, homelessness and mental ill health. It was a brave thing to write. Her conclusion shook me: “Nobody ever helped me, so I don’t think they deserve any help. If I had to do it myself, so should they.”

There is a cold, undeniable logic to her statement, but it is a building block to a society I don’t want to live in.

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Cultivating kindness

We have two options: value ourselves and others; or not. If we truly value ourselves, we can’t denigrate others; if we don’t value ourselves, we can’t then magically summon goodwill towards those around us. For all our intellectual capacities, we operate as physical beings. When we are rested, nourished, and secure, we are capable of being expansive, creative, contributing members of society.

If anxious, tired, and hungry, we can’t think about anything beyond meeting those immediate needs. We can scrape by for a while, but we can’t consistently deprive ourselves of essentials without getting pinched and wild-eyed.

Kindness has to begin with ourselves. Respect and compassion for self begin with taking care of our needs – without guilt or apology. Then, fortified and of sound mind, we have the capacity to care about other people.

 

Childless for Sleep’s Sake

There is a scene in J. D. Salinger’s Franny & Zooey where Zooey tells his mother that he doesn’t want to get married because he likes to sit by the window on the train, and once you’re married, you never get to sit by the window.

It expresses, rather beautifully, how my thoughts on children. To paraphrase, I don’t want to have a baby because I like to sleep, and once you have a baby you don’t sleep.

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To have or not to have: the baby question

Throughout my adult life I vacillated between wanting and not wanting children. Aged 18 I started a list of baby names. In my early 20s, immersed in London’s club scene, I barely had time to sleep, much less think about kids. Then it kicked through my senses like a police battering-ram. One of our friends fell pregnant and a crazed, logic-free longing rushed through me: I want a baby.

The only problem was, as I said to my then boyfriend in so many words, was I didn’t want his baby. In my defense, I was skunk drunk; which is no defense at all. It was a terrible thing to say and he should have dumped me on the spot.

Whether to it’s his credit, he didn’t, and our relationship stumbled along for a few months. Then I gathered my courage, said what had to be said, and moved to out of the country. At the time, it seemed necessary; now, it suggests a penchant for self-dramatization that does me no credit.

Absorbed in a new life in Ibiza, I didn’t think much about getting into another relationship. The undertone hum of wanting a baby remained, though, reinforced by the Noughties cult of the yummy mummy, epitomized by Kate Moss. Ibiza’s beaches were dotted with plenty of stunning taut, topless mamas romping with catalog-cute toddlers. Even if I hadn’t wanted kids sheer lifestyle envy would have gotten me.

Still, with no potential baby daddy, and a freelance journalist’s intermittent wage, having a child remained an abstraction.

At 32, in a relationship, the baby name list I had been cultivating for over a decade took on new significance. I tried names out with my partner’s surname, and mine, and double-barreled. The only grain of sand in this oyster was my boyfriend’s horror of procreation. As a 30-year-old who lived on Fanta and pizza, and spent hours at a time playing Mario Kart, he felt their was enough youthful energy in the house.

Once again, a case of not your baby.

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The allure of old wounds

For the next couple of years friends and I discussed, semi-seriously, having children as lone parents. One dear friend said she’d nearby and help out (unlike most of these offers, I think she meant it). Another, already a mother, promised me it would be worth it. My ever-supportive sister said she thought I’d be a good mother.

It was this idea, perhaps, more than anything, that kept me hooked – the chance to be a good mother. My sister and I were not blessed with good parents. We, and our brothers, had to find our way through a fog of repression and emotional abuse. In a practical sense, we were on our own from adolescence, working minimum wage jobs while going to school, trying to secure our escape.

Time, distance and my father’s death had helped me be a bit philosophical. Finally, I could see my parents as wounded souls whose sins of omission and commission were grounded in unhealed traumas. Part of wanting to have a baby was wanting to prove it is possible to overcome a crappy childhood. Being a good mother would give me license to keep a little of the familiar old anger.

Axiomatically, this is a poor motive, but no worse than any other reason to have a child.

The right man

When I met my now-husband, one of the first things he told me was he never wanted to have kids. This conversation unsettled me but I figured he would be persuadable.

As our relationship developed, it was me who was persuaded.

Strands wove together, revealing a pattern unseen in earlier years.

Having a child is marketed (particularly to women) as a shortcut to fulfillment, an elevator ride to realms of higher purpose. Having a child is a route to social approbation, as long as you’re a well-educated, middle-class (passing) white cis-woman, as I am. Having a child is supposed to buy entry to some Rockwellian fantasy of family harmony.

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Why sleep matters

What I found in the affection, intimacy and adventure of our partnership is that these things thrive in the presence of freedom, resources and – above all – sleep.

The toughest moments of our relationship have been when work and travel schedules left us bone-tired. I learned the hard way that it is obscenely difficult to be a nice person when you’re exhausted. And when you can’t be nice to your partner, things get rough.

Going through relatively mild sleep disruption warned me, vividly, that I’m not built for protracted sleep deprivation. More than a night or two of curtailed sleep is a kick in the face of my mental health in the face. My moods start swinging like a clobbered piñata, my sense of humor vanishes, and my self-control withers – freeing the snider, sadder parts of my personality to wreck havoc. This is consistent with studies that show insomnia is a causal factor in mental health problems.

The idea of chronic sleep deprivation – recent research published in the journal Sleep shows that women’s quality and quantity of sleep suffer for six years after having their first child – is terrifying.

Perhaps choosing to not have children because I like to sleep sounds as petty as not marrying for the sake of sitting by the window. If so, I’m okay with that.

To be a good parent, you have to know yourself – and that includes knowing your limits and being realistic about your resources. It would be a disfavor to a hypothetical child, and to my real and cherished marriage, to do something that would irrevocably change the basis on which it operates.

***

Sleep hygiene for superheroes

Superheroes are vigilant and alert, always ready to leap into action. If, like me, you are blessed with the gift of hypervigilance – but not the cape and outside-in underwear habit – you probably struggle to sleep. Most nights, maybe every night, your mind will churn with plans, tasks, appointments, retreads of your day, ambitions, regrets. As the world lies quiet around you the pressure builds: to be better, do more, to make tomorrow a better day.

Needless to say, this anxiety fouls the spark-plugs of your brain. In the morning, it sputters and farts, never quite catching even as your pulse races in high gear.

Those of us who are, to quote Didion’s immaculate phrase: “lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss” often fight a losing battle to get the rest we need to stay sane and keep our feet on the ever-precarious ground.

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Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Sleep hygiene, defined by the National Sleep Foundation as “practices and habits that are necessary to have good nighttime sleep quality and full daytime alertness”, is as essential to us as tight-fitting spandex and avoiding Kryptonite.

The following seven strategies are essential to my sleep hygiene; your precise recipe may vary. What matters is that you identify things that help you rest at night, and ruthlessly protect the sanctity of sleep. Trust me, it makes saving the world the next day much easier.

Exercise in the morning

Studies show that exercise improves sleep. However, I know from personal experience it can also throw a spanner in the (clock) works. Running is one of my favorite activities: it clears my head, tones my body, and tunes my emotions. But the last time I ran in the evening, I tossed and turned for hours. The endorphin kick that lifts my spirits in the morning totally sabotaged my sleep. Lesson: beware of when and how you exercise.

Eat more carbs

A survey of scientific literature on the relationship between diet and sleep quality found that lower carbohydrate consumption negatively effected sleep, as did higher fat intake. The same study found that kiwi fruit, cherries, fatty fish and milk all had sleep-enhancing effects. Personally, I find that an evening meal of rice, beans, vegetables and greens is satisfying and sets me up for a good night’s rest.

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Don’t watch things in bed

There are some people who can unwind by watching TV or films in bed. I am not one of them. The speed of moving images, plus drama or pathos, plus my overactive imagination, means that if I watch something in bed it replays in my head long after the lights are out. Moving viewing to the living room creates a clearer divide between alertness and rest.

Read poetry

You know what does help me unwind? Poetry. My dear friend and mentor Paul Hendrickson once advised me to keep a book on the nightstand and read a poem or two every night. The density of language, the clarity of the images, the imagination and empathy imbued in each line, promote tranquility – an almost meditative state. If you’re not sure where to start, try Jack Gilbert or Mary Oliver.

Yoga nidra or meditation

Sometimes, the chatter in my head simply won’t let up. In these instances, replacing my own mental monologue with someone else’s words can be hugely helpful. Yoga teacher Paul Dobson recommends yoga nidra, a specific meditative practice designed to foster restful sleep.

I also love Positive Magazine Guided Meditations – the presenter has the loveliest, most soothing voice imaginable and the 10-15 minute guided meditations are the perfect length for dropping off to sleep.

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Cotton bedding

What you sleep on matters. After living in Spain, where polyester is considered a legitimate fabric for bedding, I refuse to purchase anything other than 100% cotton – the finer the weave the better. Nice linen can be ridiculously expensive, which is its own sort of worry-making, so I gravitate towards shops like TK Maxx, Ross or Nordstrom Rack. At a push, Target does decent all-cotton sheets and covers. If there is absolutely nothing else available, Amazon Basics are an option.

Lavender essential oil

Essential oils are touted as the cure for everything from unhappiness to indigestion. In the case of lavender and insomnia, though, there is actually evidence it works. A study reported on in the American Journal of Critical Care found inhaling pure lavender essential oil decreased blood pressure and improved sleep quality in hospital patients. It noted: “Sleep deprivation in hospitalized patients is common and can have serious detrimental effects on recovery from illness. Lavender aromatherapy has improved sleep in a variety of clinical settings.”

In a randomized control trial of healthy subjects, including lavender essential oil as part of a sleep hygiene routine got better results than the sleep hygiene practices alone, according to the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.

Dabbing lavender essential oil on my wrists just before I switch out the light is a welcome signal that it is time to relax.

Orgasms

Getting off is an almost guaranteed way to drift off. Remember, our bodies need sex like they need food and sleep. Neglecting our sexual self is easy when we are worried or stressed (not to mention that anxiety is a stone mood killer) so then, more than ever, is the time to love yourself.

Sex is wonderful, but it it isn’t always available. Or it can come with expectations, hang-ups and emotional entanglement (happily married or not). Masturbation gives you total control which is, in itself, relaxing and empowering. I keep a bottle of lube in the nightstand by the lavender oil and a folder of photos on my phone for inspiration.

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Superheroes need shut-eye. Though it may be fashionable to brag about how little sleep you get, stinting on rest is a shortcut to long-term physical and mental fatigue – and worse.

Prioritizing routines and habits that promote sleep increases our personal well-being, and gives us the mental, physical and emotional energy to be better friends, lovers, creators, citizens and human beings

Do Less, Accomplish More

Sleeping in

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Over the holiday period I’ve fallen into the habit of sleeping till 9 or 9:30 – some 90 minutes longer than my usual routine. For the pats few days, I set my alarm for the normal hour, but hit the off-button and go back to sleep. This feels indulgent, borderline sinful, most certainly lazy.

On the night of 1 January, my husband and I settled in to watch The Big Lebowski.

It was an individual favorite when we met; since then, it has become a totem for our relationship – a source of private idiom and in-jokes on loop.

The opening voice-over informs us that the Dude was a lazy man. What a contrast, I thought, to the expectations a new year brings.

Resolutions

New Year arrives with a cultural imperative to improve. What are your new year’s resolutions?

The noun resolution, in this sense, alludes to a determined wish, or decision.

It is worth remembering that another definition of resolution is ending, or conclusion.

Linguistically, all unwitting, we start the new year by demanding conclusions.

Is it any wonder they fail to materialize?

If there is one thing writing teaches it is that you cannot force a conclusion. They are reached by patience, effort and serendipity.

Let it be

The Big Lebowski is a tale of serendipity.

Sheer coincidence brings together two characters who clumsily try to exploit their chance encounter. The lostness of this cause is what makes the film funny; the universality of the impulse to connive and manipulate makes it poignant.

That The Dude comes off better in the end has nothing to do with effort and everything to do with his ability to, in moments of crisis, tune out and go bowling.

The other foot

As a stone type A, with a self-perpetuating to-do list I love Jeff Bridge’s character because The Dude is my antithesis.

Worry… it’s how I stay in shape, poet Maggie Smith writes in ‘Let’s not begin’.

Me too.

I crave resolutions – the conclusion kind – and if one isn’t plain I’ll fret all day and toss and turn all night, trying to wrestle one into being. If I can’t see how a thing will turn out, I’ll manufacture an ending, toss a match to see what sparks.

Wearing out

This leads to plenty of fractured nights, followed by days where tiredness clouds my senses like swamp gas. The demons of weariness are legion: irritability, forgetfulness, poor hand-eye coordination, binge eating, anxiety, tearfulness. If I get less than eight or, preferably, nine hours, they swarm – shattering my mood, judgment and productivity.

Given my love of ticking items off a list, you’d think that alone would be enough to ensure I got enough rest, but something in my wiring (Puritan genes + protestant upbringing perhaps) gibes me to try harder.

One of the first rational things lost when I’m tired is the ability to admit I need a break.

Instead, I try to fix myself by doing more.

I’m almost done…”

My husband has heard these words too many times to count. They are always a lie. He’s learned to spot them for what they are: a self-sabotaging effort to put my life and spirit in order by crossing off one more line on my to-do list.

Being the partner of a perpetual fixer must be a massive drag. The nearest I got was a long-running infatuation with a man who refused to date me because he had to much to do. At the time, I thought it was a terrible, bogus excuse. We stayed friends, though, and now I’m grateful to have someone who understands the ridiculous compulsion to seek solace in busy-ness.

Even The Dude falls into this trap, lamenting that his thinking had gotten very uptight.

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Photo by Tiago B on Unsplash

Corridors without doors

When I get tired, my brain ceases to create and wallows in endless grooves. Instead of romping through fields of possibility, it marches along grim, fluorescent-lit corridors without doors. Inspiration and joy are things that happen to other people, in other places; for me, the grindstone, the factory clock; the slow treadmill.

This is lethal for my writing, and sense of self.

As someone who struggles to stay ahead of clinical depression, self-care is essential. Skimping on sleep is the first domino; next come exercise, eating, socializing, work, creating. Then the need to do more panic kicks in and flattens what is left of a painstakingly built structure.

Do less, accomplish more

My guilt at “over”-sleeping is rooted in a real fear that it’ll turn me lazy, like my good friend The Dude. Life is no movie, my brain chides. In the real world, the other Lebowski was right – you gotta get a job.

Yet this fixation with being busy is, as many wise souls have remarked, antithetical to actual accomplishment. Presenteeism is malingering for suck-ups. Most of the things I busy myself with, from house cleaning to answering email, have little bearing on the things that bring me satisfaction and joy. These things – reading, writing, time with my husband – get shoved into corners and fed scraps of my energy and attention.

Fail again

Instead of resolutions, I made a list of new year’s goals. It felt good to write them down, better to fantasize about completing them.

The next day, I woke under a cloud: sad, drained, mind blank. After drinking coffee, I got back into bed and cried for no explicable reason.

It felt like I’d put too much of myself on that page. Once again, I was looking for validation in tasks, instead of being open to what a new year might bring.

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Photo by Stijn te Strake on Unsplash

Start simple

Later, my husband and I went for a walk. The sky was bright and the air smelled of wood smoke and bales of sweet straw. We said hello to cows and picked windfall apples. The world began to resume its correct proportions. Cresting another hill, I realized it was time to edit the new year’s goals: sleep, move, eat, love. Everything else will come.

How will you honor yourself this year? 

Education by Consent

Don’t wanna

He looked like the toddler offspring of Paul Simon and Crazy Frog: all exuberant curls and a rubber-band mouth stretched across his small face. It was at breaking point when I saw him, eyes clamped shut, Jagger lips flopped open in an unceasing howl. His tiny body, taut as a tug-of-war rope, pulled against his grandma’s hand.

My class, older by a few years moved into the classroom and settled into worksheets. The image of the tiny frog-face and its owner’s belly-roar of anguish distracted me from the grammar presentation.

What good is there in forcing a tiny, hysterical child into an ESL class, or any class? His brave, futile resistance was engendered by a dangerous notion: the tone-deaf, compassion-free insistence “education” was more important than his distress.

Agency

The little boy was experiencing education as an affront to his agency and personhood. He won’t understand those words for another decade or so but children, like all animals (human and otherwise) understand the difference between agency and imposition.

“So what?” you might ask. “Kids never want to go to school. You have to make them.”

If that is the case, instead of accepting it as a fact, we need to ask, why?

Children are curious to the point of being maddening, not to mention fearsome mimics. They will dog your steps demanding to know how things work, how to do things, imitating your words and actions until you’re half-afraid to move. They don’t hate learning. If they hate school it is a sign that education, as it is currently conceived, doesn’t serve them.

Coercion versus consent

Despite his protests, this little boy had “education” imposed on him by force majeure. 

Nobody, but nobody, likes to be coerced. Not even if the activity is ultimately something they would have chosen any way. We adults hate being pressured, bullied and ordered around. Children are no different (if anything, I suspect, more sensitive to it, because they haven’t yet had their spirit deaden by years of “education”).

Coercion leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Activities that we might have sought out and enjoyed of our free will become tainted, unpalatable.

When education becomes an object of coercion, we create an ugly frequency that distorts the interaction of teachers and students; parents and children. Curiosity atrophies into suspicion as the act of learning is irredeemably conflated with authoritarianism — with long-term repercussions.

One of my close friends is an intelligent, organised, motivated, assured woman whose self-perception is that she is not a good student. Why? Because as a child and teenager, she was obliged to endure rote, deadening conventional education. Unable and unwilling to conform, she adopted the label they imposed: poor student.

As an adult, she went back to school and performed astonishingly well, earning high marks and taking on leadership roles. Now, she returns to her university every year to give a talk to incoming students.

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Photo by Santi Vedrí on Unsplash

Freedom to learn

Children, like adults, need to be active participants in their learning. The first duty of an educator is to inspire them with the possibilities and delights of learning, not drag them screaming into classrooms and force them to fill out worksheets.

Once learning has been established in kids’ minds as a positive, rewarding experience, in which they have agency and the freedom to express themselves, they will be willing and able to cope with the inevitable patches of boredom and incomprehension.

Seeking consent in education doesn’t mean we have to entertain children, or pander to their every whim, but it does mean giving them a fair say.

 

Man being … by nature, all free … no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent. –John LockeChapter 8