Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and being home for Thanksgiving was one of the reasons I had wanted to move back to Portland. Nevertheless, this year as the holiday approached I felt a growing trepidation. How would I be able to enjoy a holiday that was centered around food? How could I keep my colitis from ruining this…and all other Thanksgivings from here on out?
To my great relief, a week or two before the big day, Jeannie’s girlfriend Anne suggested the four of us share alternative food together at the meal. Jeannie and Anne and Ron and me could sit near each other with our special food. Ron had been largely sharing my macrobiotic diet, and, it turned out, Jeannie was currently on one of her own intermittent diet experiments, with Anne joining in for support. Their diet was actually pretty similar to ours.
This was why I, and not Jeannie, was the one with colitis, I thought. Jeannie didn’t even have colitis and she was proactively trying to eat healthy. It was the kind of thing I wished I had done much more often before my disease struck–for the past decade or more, Jeannie had been taking far better care of her health than I had. We both had chronic knee pain, but we had treated it differently. While I had studied barefoot running and gone through physical therapy, Jeannie had looked deeper, doing PT but also researching inflammation, learning about the link between emotions and physical pain, and experimenting with anti-inflammatory foods. Periodically she would go off dairy, meat, gluten, eggs, nightshade vegetables, or sugar, or all of the above at once. And she would do this not because she was forced to–like I was now–but by choice, for preventive health.
Her whole life, in fact, was structured around health and healing. Jeannie was a yoga teacher who, in recent years, had been focusing on restorative yoga, leading classes for people recovering from illnesses or who needed to bring more restfulness into their lives. She was also beginning to establish a new career as a successful therapist. At home, both she and Anne were musical and artistic, playing various string instruments and singing together, or taking art classes and painting on Anne’s drafting table. Both of them were also beautiful and feminine, and when I thought of the life Jeannie had built for herself, it all seemed to have a nurturing, female energy, the softer yin energy I had learned about long ago in my Kung Fu classes.
My own life, in contrast, had always seemed yang, or masculine. I was the sister who had taken Kung Fu, after all. My family role was Big Sister: the fighter and protector. In my twenties I had pursued science, and most of my friends in Madison were fellow environmental scientists who liked to play frisbee and have Superbowl potlucks and go out to Friday night fish fries at sports bars. Madison itself had a masculine energy, I thought. All those happy, beer-guzzling football fans. This year the pattern was continuing, as I spent most of many days working with my hands around the house. And I had a different personality from Jeannie’s, a more direct, forceful, assertive style. I liked to analyze and tackle problems head on. I was at home with spreadsheets. My strategy for colitis was no exception–off and on, I had been using spreadsheets to track my diet and symptoms.
These tools–my boldness and organizational skills–had generally served me well in life, but I was questioning them now. Having hit the brick wall of my disease, I sensed that I could learn from Jeannie’s softer style.
Grateful to have eating companions at Thanksgiving, I enthusiastically suggested dishes we could contribute. The four of us put together an alternative menu: Jeannie and Anne would bring wild rice with lentils, mashed yams (potatoes are nightshades; yams are not), applesauce, and a dairy-free, gluten-free, sugar-free gravy. Ron and I would make salmon, brussels sprouts with toasted hazelnuts, butternut squash soup, cornbread with a creamy mushroom gravy, and sugar-free cranberry sauce. We’ll have a feast! :) I wrote in an email.
As the day dawned, I felt cheerful. It made all the difference to have others with whom to share food. A part of me felt bemused and even sickened at the fare I had been eating so regularly before colitis–everyone else besides our little group would be gorging themselves on foods filled with dairy, gluten, and sugar. There would be rolls made from refined flour that pumps sugar into your bloodstream, cranberry sauce or jam mixed with more sugar, gravy filled with grease, vegetables topped with sugary sauce. It had been fun, in the past, to eat the traditional Thanksgiving foods, but now that those foods were forbidden it was clear that what appealed to me most on this day was sharing food with people I loved. I missed being able to eat whatever I wanted, but I wondered: If I could eat what I wanted again, knowing what I now knew about health, would I still eat the same Thanksgiving feast as before? Likely not.
We four “kids” (all now in our thirties) arrived early to help set up Mom and Lanny’s house. Portland is a place people move to from other places, and Jeannie and I had grown up here without knowing most of our extended family. Our holiday crowd was largely a group of family friends who had become like surrogate aunts, uncles, and cousins. Jeannie, Anne, Ron, and I moved furniture around, cut flowers to make centerpieces, and laid the table with the fancy holiday dishes. In the kitchen, Mom bustled around checking the turkey and putting various other items in the oven, while we four manned our own concoctions on the stove. Guests trickled in, bringing their trays of vegetables, their carafes of gravy, their cranberry sauce. The kitchen and dining room got louder and louder as everyone stood around chattering, and as usual, I escaped to the living room to start a puzzle with the other quieter folk. The day was full of merry conversation and delicious food–even ours. At the meal, the others asked curious questions about our alternative fare, and I explained to the group about my illness. Afterwards we all played board games and worked more on the puzzle, until eventually people slipped away in twos and threes, satiated and sleepy.
The following day, Jeannie wrote me a quick email: thanksgiving was so great this year! i didn’t feel deprived at all! :)