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Weekend Reading | The Full Helping

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Weekend Reading | The Full Helping

Five or so years ago, I sat in my apartment in DC one late winter evening with my friend Reed. We were surrounded by dirty mugs (we’d actually taken pictures at the number of coffee cups in my dishwasher as a joke, to document how hyper-caffeinated we were), index cards, papers. It was a chaotic scene, and I was adding to the chaos with something resembling a meltdown over not being able to figure out a complicated genetics problem.

We were approaching the second exam in our genetics class. The first exam had taken us all by surprise: at that point I was used to getting Cs on post-bacc tests, but most of my peers weren’t, and a hush had fallen over the class when that test was handed back. Few had done well, and some of us had done worse than others.

For me, it wasn’t the single grade so much as the prolonged discouragement of feeling as though I couldn’t catch a break in the program. And I hated the thought of spending yet another semester with the heavy burden of having to redeem myself on the next test, or else end up with a grade on my transcript that I wouldn’t be able to recover from.

Reed and I had been doing our best to prepare ourselves for the test. He was as calm and organized as ever; he’d shown up at my place with an action plan and a stack of neat, detailed flash cards. It was no surprise: Reed was a supernaturally talented student, and in fact, seemed supernaturally talented at everything. He ran weekend marathons and practiced jiu-jitsu at the blackbelt level while achieving near-perfect grades in our program and continuing to work in finance nearly full time. It wasn’t even possible to resent all of the talent and ability, because on top of everything he was a really nice person—and an unusually patient study buddy.

Me? I wasn’t handling our study session so well. After my fourth or fifth crack at a tricky problem, I was begging Reed to simply give me the answer. “Just tell me how to do it,” I moaned. “Once I know, I’ll get to the answer and I’ll show you.”

Reed shook his head firmly. “You have to struggle a little so that you can get to the answer,” he said. “You won’t figure it out until you do.”

I kept trying to convince him that I wasn’t game for this struggle, and he kept refusing to buy it. “I’m going to stay here until you work your way through it,” he said. (It was past midnight).

I was tired and irritated to be getting this kind of a push from a friend, but Reed’s insistence worked. An hour later, I’d solved the problem and explained it to him in my own language. It wasn’t a test or a tutoring session, but it was probably the first real learning breakthrough of my post-bacc, and there were more that followed.

I think about Reed’s words each time I’m feeling spectacularly ill-equipped to do something. I think about how sure he was that, if I spent enough time with it, I’d figure the problem out. The greatest challenge of my post-bacc wasn’t the difficulty of the classes, or the workload, or even the sleep deprivation. It was my belief, which seemed to get affirmed with every poor grade, that I just didn’t have the brain for science. Reed believed otherwise, and his faith softened my own lack of confidence.

This week, I began my second clinical rotation. It’s at a large hospital, and I’m working in acute care. It’s a much faster pace and a more stressful environment than my first rotation. I’ve learned how to apply clinical judgment in the last seven weeks, but now I’m facing cases that are a lot more medically complex than most of the ones I’ve seen. It’s daunting, and while I haven’t completed an assessment on my own yet, I’m wondering if I have the critical thinking skills to do it.

I’m glancing back to that night with Reed and reminding myself that discouragement and self-doubt can be much bigger obstacles than lack of knowledge or practice. I’m keeping in mind that every single dietitian goes through this experience; my current preceptors did it, too. I have to imagine that no one feels prepared, or able, at the start. Interns do their best, and preceptors are there to guide, support and teach them along the way.

At my last rotation, one of my preceptors noted that I was still hesitant to address labs in my assessments. She was right: I still had the feeling that I wasn’t ready for the more medical parts of dietetic practice, interpreting bloodwork included. “Take a crack at it,” she said. She wasn’t being flip; she went on to explain that she’d correct me and explain my mistakes if necessary. But she wanted me to try.

She wanted this, I know, because it was her job to help me become more confident. And confidence, at least in these types of settings, isn’t a have or a have not. It’s acquired through practice, through trying and sometimes failing and then trying some more. My preceptor gave me the same push that Reed gave me five years ago.

Today, at the start of week 2, I’m giving myself that push. I don’t expect to wield perfect clinical judgment this week, but I’ll challenge myself to keep trying. That same, excellent preceptor at my last rotation said to me at the beginning, “what we’re really looking for is growth.” Growth I can handle; growth I can do.

Wishing you all a great Sunday, and a good start to the week. I’ve got a cozy new soup recipe headed your way in a couple days. For now, here are some links I’ve been enjoying.

Recipes

I cook with cashew cream all the time, but walnut cream? What a great idea (and great looking risotto) from my friend Erin!

Has anyone else started collecting Thanksgiving recipes yet? This vegan pot pie is going on my list!

I love the idea of a mole pasta, and this particular one looks so cozy and filling. Bonus points for plant protein from black beans.

Can’t wait to try this wintery cauliflower, black lentil and carrot salad with some of my tofu feta.

Finally, a stunning dessert: vegan black sesame chocolate cake with matcha cream cheese frosting. I’m not a huge matcha person, but this would be a welcome way to enjoy it 😉

Reads

1. I enjoyed this touching essay by a pediatrician, published in the New York Times, about wearing a hijab around family to help mask the side effects of chemotherapy.

2. An interesting new study, conducted by a doctoral candidate in the UK, associates vegan diet with improved mental and physical health for Type 2 Diabetes patients.

3. I’m sort of fascinated by flow states, and this article touches upon their relationship with the perception of time.

4. Amanda Mull’s hard-hitting, insightful perspective on the language and branding of new health/nutrition apps, home testing kits, and other technologies. Her take, which I think is compelling, is that the emphasis that these technologies place on “optimization” echoes and potentially reinforces the perfectionism and rule-bound thinking seen in eating disorders.

5. I’m not a mother, but having had my own brushes with mental illness, I’m really grateful to Alissa Ambrose for this essay on post-partum depression.

Till soon,

xo

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Weekend Reading | The Full Helping

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Weekend Reading | The Full Helping

Happy Sunday, all, and Happy Mother’s day to those who are celebrating it. I’m bringing my mom vegan cake, among other treats, and taking her to dinner. She was honored for her career in teaching this week, and I’m glad that she’s being appreciated on so many fronts.

Few family relationships are uncomplicated, at least in my experience, but I’m blessed to have a pretty special relationship with my mom. Still, a skill I’ve picked up as an only child with a small nuclear family is to create family in as many dimensions as possible. Today has me thinking about all of the women who’ve mentored and nurtured me outside of my relationship with my mom.

Many of these mother figures have been yoga teachers. They’ve taught me how to respect my body, how to communicate my needs, and how to let care in. One teacher, who’s still a good friend, demonstrated this to me with particularly poignancy a few months after a tough breakup two years ago. I’d been limping through her class, spending most of my time in child’s pose because it’s all I could do at that time.

One day, when she was instructing us on an inversion, she had us all gather along one part of the wall of the room. I inched myself as far away as I could from the other students, hoping that I could curl up on my mat and go unwitnessed. “Gena, please join us,” Christine said. When I dutifully joined the rest of the class, she placed a hand on my shoulder and whispered to me “you need to be around people right now.”

It was OK for her to say this because we were close and she knew what was going on. And she was right. I’d been hiding in my apartment for weeks by then, and I did need to be reminded that I could be suffering and held in a community at the same time.

Other mother figures have been professors who took the time to challenge me when I needed it most. I’m thinking of my genetics professor at Georgetown; after the first exam of the semester it looked as if I was at risk to flounder in the class, as I had in so many others. I visited her office hours with an air of defeat. She looked at me across her desk and said, “I don’t think this is about ability, Gena. Right now, your discouragement is your worst enemy.” I dug in my heels, worked harder than ever, and I’ve never been prouder for ending up in the center of the curve.

I’m thinking, too, of my undergraduate thesis advisor, who’s still a friend. I remember arriving at her office hours in the middle of my senior year and announcing that I wasn’t going to write a thesis at all. I was coasting by easily that year, suddenly a lot more interested in my social life than in school, exhausted of trying to exceed expectations.

Amanda paused and told me very directly that if I didn’t write a thesis, I’d wrap up my entire undergrad experience with yet another 8-10 page paper—one I could probably write in my sleep at that point. It was my choice to do that, she told me, but wouldn’t it be more interesting to tackle one more big puzzle before I graduated? She went on to explain how we could put it together in such a way that it wouldn’t be too much of a burden.

I didn’t love writing the thesis, and I’m not sure how good it actually was. But printing it five minutes before the deadline and sprinting across campus to turn it in on a spectacular spring afternoon is actually the most vivid and happy memory I have of my last few weeks at school. It felt like a culmination, something to commemorate my experience with, and I’ve never been sorry that I wrote it.

Before I started working in book publishing, I heard lots of stories about how women could be competitive and unkind to each other in the workplace. I don’t doubt that it’s true, but it’s not the experience that I had. I had two female colleagues at the publishing house where I worked. Both took the time to mentor me, support me, and share work with me. They taught me a lot about professional graciousness, among other things.

Nowadays, a lot of my relationships with women who are a little older and wiser than me take the form of camaraderie that also holds space for mentorship and the gentle passing along of wisdom. I have a few yoga friends who I can relate to in this way, and I’ve formed these kinds of bonds through blogging, too. It is such a gift, and it gives me a sense of how I might befriend and nurture women younger than me in the future.

Today I’m sending gratitude to all of the women who have taken time to be generous, loving, and supportive with me. I’ll pay it forward in good time. Here are some recipes and reads.

Recipes

I’m drooling over Joy’s roasted cauliflower plantain tacos (and the lemony pesto that accompanies them).

I’ve never made a vegan calzone, and these tempeh calzones are the place I’d like to start!

Kate’s recipes are foolproof, and I can’t wait to try her version of mujaddara.

This creamy vegan sausage pasta skillet is most definitely my kinda comfort food.

For dessert—and as the temperatures rise—I can’t wait to try Jessica’s frozen peanut butter & jelly bars!

Reads

1. One of my coworkers is observing Ramadan, and she has taught me a lot about the month and her experiences each year. This article includes helpful information about how to communicate questions and curiosity about Ramadan or fasting in the workplace.

2. The Atlantic reports on new types of software that can measure brain volume. Coupled with MRIs, they may be able to help neurologists to better screen, diagnose, and formulate treatment plans.

3. An interesting look at what happens when good things become ruts—or rather, the whole life cycle of a good thing. (I liked the tie-in to “second acts” of relationships.)

4. I loved this article, which details how an art therapy project in an Alaska Native village helps teens talk about suicide in their community.

5. If I learned about anything in my long-term care and acute care rotations, it was dysphagia. Still, dysphagia—which is difficulty swallowing—receives relatively little mainstream attention in spite of how common it can be in clinical settings, and how significant its nutritional implications are. This Mosaic article isn’t new, but it’s detailed, and it explains more.

Have a wonderful Sunday, friends. A new recipe is on the way this week.

xo

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Weekend Reading | The Full Helping

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Weekend Reading | The Full Helping

My voice is hoarse from singing, and lots of it. I was at a kirtan last night at my yoga studio, basking in that awesome community and the friendships I’ve made within it. The kirtan featured mash ups of Vedic chants and contemporary songs: the Beatles, Magnetic Fields, Madonna. The kirtan purist in me was a little affronted when I heard that the program would work this way, but I’m glad that I kept an open mind. It was wonderful.

Kirtan and yoga: two experiences that make me feel both light and joyous. I emphasize this fact because this month, May, is mental health awareness month, and because lightness in particular is not a sensation that comes easily to me. I’ve struggled with depression, on and off, for a long time. Even when it’s distant, which it often is, I have a melancholy temperament. I’ve had it for as long as I can remember, and with it the tendency toward excessive rumination, seriousness, and sadness.

You probably wouldn’t realize this meeting me for the first time. I tend to come across as confident and upbeat. It’s not an affect; I’m both of those things in many ways. But, like many people with melancholy temperaments, I’ve learned to keep my sadness bounded. The sunny disposition is something that I cultivate consciously, for myself as much as for others, working against the pull of dark moods.

This is a hard thing to admit to in the age of Instagram, with all of its glossy imagery and carefully curated narratives. It’s especially hard to admit when you spend a lot of time on social media, by choice and by necessity. It runs against the “positive vibes only” trope, which seems more and more predominant these days.

I don’t take that imperative too seriously (and I don’t actually dislike it, depending on the context), but how to make sense of it when your positive vibes share space with a whole lot of not-so-positive ones? I often hear that we “choose our thoughts,” but is that the case when thoughts are both repetitive and intrusive? And, while “happiness is a choice” feels spot-on to me sometimes, how true is it, really, when you have depression?

I’ve been writing about eating disorder recovery for a long time: naming it, owning it, disclosing the little, unsavory details. That, combined with the softness and self-compassion that recovery teaches, has allowed me to release pretty much all of the shame that surrounds the disease. It doesn’t trouble me to talk about it, even when that means talking about the messiness and non-linearity of my recovery.

I’m not sure I feel this same lack of shame when it comes to talking about other mental health struggles. I’m getting used to naming my depression and anxiety, but there’s still a moment of hesitation when I do it—less when I’m here than when I’m out in the world. It’s not hard for me to admit that I’m anxious—heck, so many of us are—but admitting to having had panic attacks is a little different. And it’s hardest of all to talk about the fact that I’ve self-harmed in the past, though that’s an honest part of my story, too.

When one’s culture is heavily oriented toward the conscious cultivation of a positive mindset and a happy posture, difficulty accessing happiness can feel like failure. Mental health struggles, no matter how hard we’re working to de-stigmatize them, can feel like failure, too.

As I was writing this post, I asked myself a question that I’ve asked about my eating disorder: would I take it back if I could? It’s a trick question, of course. The disorder, like everything else, is part of who I am. Wishing that I could erase it would be akin to wishing I weren’t myself, and—the obvious quips aside—that’s not actually what I want. ED recovery, with all of its lessons, is part of who I am, too.

I don’t pretend to regard my mental health struggles as blessings. That feels too pat, and it’s not exactly the truth. I often wish I could feel contented more easily, that I didn’t obsessively overthink things, that negative thought patterns weren’t so often my default. I wish that sadness didn’t sometimes descend on me without warning, like stormy weather. But these patterns aren’t active choices; they’re tendencies that are built into my foundation, so to speak. I have do a degree of choice about how I manage them, and I’ve developed a toolkit that invites me to challenge them when I can.

In the meantime, I do my best to make peace with myself and my history, which is another skill that recovery has gifted me with. I take comfort in the fact that happiness may be a little elusive for me, but I have steady access to a wide spectrum of feeling. It includes joy, awe, pleasure, and love. It also includes grief, anger, and loss. Anyone who has experienced depression as a kind of numbness and absence of feeling—which is how it has felt to me at its very worst—might understand when I say that experiencing true feeling, both painful and pleasurable, registers as a gift.

Depression and anxiety have taught me a lot, just as anorexia did. They’ve taught me to give thanks for what’s sweet. We read a lot about practicing gratitude these days. It always sounded like a worthy exercise to me in the past, but depression is actually what has taught me how to do it. Without fearing pain or despair, I give thanks for every moment of gladness.

Depression and anxiety have also taught me to stop sweating the small stuff. This isn’t to say that I don’t get agitated about work, relationships, and family—who doesn’t? But the little things—annoying encounters, train delays, boring errands, crummy weather—they don’t bother me the way that they used to. It’s not because I’m an especially calm or sensible person. It’s because I remember how deeply unhappy I was a few years ago, and when I remember that, life’s little irritations stop mattering quite so much. Having fought for happiness, I’m eager not to squander it.

A couple years ago, at Maria’s suggestion, I read Naomi Remen’s Kitchen Table Wisdom. In it, she writes “wounding and healing are not opposites. They’re part of the same thing. It is our wounds that enable us to be compassionate with the wounds of others . . . I think I have served people perfectly with parts of myself I used to be ashamed of. ”

These words capture the best way I have of understanding my own struggles with mental health. As long as the struggles are there, and they probably always will be, I consider the ways in which they’ve made me stronger, more resilient, more empathic. I ask myself whether they’ve enriched my perspective on life or made me more appreciative of love and kindness. The answer to both questions is yes.

Mental Health Awareness month or not, I’m glad for any opportunity to create a real, non-judgmental, and compassionate conversation about the mental illnesses that affect so many of us. If you’ve got one, or a couple, know that we’re all in it together. Today and always.

Happy May. Here are some recipes and reads.

Recipes

Kathy’s easy blueberry sauce is perfect for topping waffles, pancakes, oatmeal, French toast, and all of the other breakfast things. I’ve been making a similar one with frozen blueberries this winter, but I’m going to take her advice and add some cornstarch for a little thickening!

Speaking of blueberries, Richa’s blueberry muffin energy bites will be perfect fuel for my upcoming food service rotation.

I eat a ridiculous number of breakfast tacos. I think Jasmine and Chris’ vegan refried beans may need to become a new staple ingredient.

For the olive lovers out there, a simple, elegant, briny spring pasta.

Finally, my sweet friend Jessie May is launching a vegan cookbook club, and she kindly chose Food52 Vegan as one of the first selections! She’s sharing the book’s muesli now on her blog (and reminding me to cook more from this one, which has gotten a little neglected since Power Plates came out).

Reads

1. Lots of good news about the mainstreaming of vegan meats this week.

2. Julie Kim has written a brave and beautiful essay about her daughter’s congenital genetic disorder how it has changed her experience of parenting.

3. I think Erika‘s baking experiments are mesmerizing, and I loved this Taste profile of her work.

4. A new study finds that girls who have serious or repeated infections in childhood are at higher risk for developing eating disorders in adolescence. It’s unclear whether anti-infective agents or psychological factors (stress and trauma associated with serious illness) explain the association, but it’s interesting. The New York Times reports.

5. Not a new article, but I just found and loved Robert Sietsema’s ode to NYC’s last standing hippie cafés—places where a macro plates are in abundance and TVP and seitan continue to take starring culinary roles. This is the way I love to eat, and it always will be, no matter what other plant-based trends pop up. Reading the article reminded me of my own farewell tribute to the late, great Angelica Kitchen. Thank goodness that a few of these old-school treasures are still around.

Tomorrow morning I begin my food service management rotation. I don’t have a schedule yet, so I’m not entirely sure what to expect, but I’m taking a second to acknowledge that I’m only two rotations away from completion of the internship (it’ll be done mid- or late July). My stamina is waning a little, but I’m still going. Sending you love, and see you around here this week.

xo

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Weekend Reading | The Full Helping

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Weekend Reading | The Full Helping

Those of you who’ve been reading for a while might remember that 2017 was the year of bread baking around here.

It all started when my friend Ali published her (wonderful) cookbook, Bread Toast Crumbs. I’d wanted to get serious about homemade bread baking for a long time, but everything I’d read until that point made my eyes glaze over: it was all so technical and intimidating. Ali’s peasant bread technique—which involves no kneading and almost no dirtying of hands at all, in addition to the heartwarming fact that the loaves get baked in buttered Pyrex bowls—gave me the courage I needed.

Months later, Emilie gifted me with sourdough starter and a copy of her cookbook. Baking my first loaf of homemade sourdough was a small victory: I couldn’t believe it had actually worked, which I guess is the magic of natural leavening.

Bread baking found me at the right moment. I was having a hard time in March and April of that year: a longterm relationship had just ended, in a way that I wasn’t ready for and didn’t yet understand. For the first time in my life, I felt completely ill-suited to being on my own. I moved through my space and my days in a haze of confusion and grief, feeling scared and alone and more than a little sorry for myself.

If that period of time taught me anything, it was the gift of small things. None of the big stuff—love, graduate school, sense of direction or purpose—seemed to be working out. Even work, which is typically a major source of meaning for me, felt rote and joyless. My post-bacc years and the ones that followed hadn’t been easy, but they’d been animated with an incredible sense of yearning and direction. Suddenly, I had neither.

What I did have were my daily routines, which I fought to maintain even when things like cooking and chores felt insurmountable. I knew from past experiences with depression that keeping up with small habits, even if they felt suddenly like a lot of work, was the least I could do. And I did, day after day, until they started not to feel so tough anymore.

For a while it was all pretty muted, but as the months went by, I started to be reminded of my own capacity to be gratified by simple pleasures: good food, a clean home, a walk to the park, an hour of reading. I didn’t have a plan, but I did have the next meal and the next task, and at that moment, those things were enough.

And there was bread. It’s always been my comfort food, and I’d have eaten plenty of it that spring even if I weren’t baking it from scratch (for a while there, toast and cake were the only two things I wanted to eat). But I was baking from scratch, week after week, and it was wonderful. Unlike some other DIY food projects I’ve tried—kombucha, yogurt, seitan—this felt like the right ratio of effort and reward. The bread was so much better than anything I could buy, and I actually liked the process: mixing, shaping, scoring. The small of a loaf in the oven on Saturday morning became something I looked forward to all week long. I wouldn’t quite say that bread baking got me through the year, but I can’t imagine that spring and summer without it.

I kept up with homemade bread for a while. But sometime last spring, in the race to the grad school finish line, the habit fell away. Once my internship started, it felt silly and imprudent to bake when I needed grains, beans, and fully cooked meals as weekly mainstays. During my acute care rotation, when getting the laundry done was a challenge, feeding my starter was the last thing on my mind.

My GI rotation gives me two weekdays off, which has been a gift in so many ways: it allows me to ease up on my batch cooking, to get work done during the week, and to have a true weekend. Most of all, having a little extra time on my hands gave me a kick in the pants to bake bread again. Now that I’m in the swing of it—one or two loaves weekly for the last four weeks—I’m rolling my eyes at the fact that I didn’t make time for it sooner. It’s a time commitment, sure, like anything/everything else. And it’s time perfectly spent.

I cook because it’s fun, healthful and economical. But cooking and feeding myself will always be a symbolic act as well as a practical one: it’s my way of asserting the desire to be alive, nourished, and whole. Bread making speaks to this desire more than almost any other type of cooking that I do. The fact that the process demands patience and time is only more evidence that, no matter what’s going on, I want to eat well and be well. I’m so glad to have been reminded of this in the past month.

Wishing you a week of good food and good self-care. Here are some recipes and reads.

Recipes

Speaking of Ali, I’m loving her latest, Indian-inspired fried rice recipe.

Yet more motivation to branch out with my air fryer. This time, a vegan sheet pan supper with lemony tempeh from Susan at FFVK.

I love the looks of this sun-dried tomato pesto (and the yummy pappardelle that accompanies it).

A pretty phenomenal looking vegan kidney bean burger.

I’ve never made cookie dough in a blender, but consider me inspired by these chocolate cookies.

Reads

1. I believed that too much water at mealtimes could “dilute” stomach acid for years! Evidence says otherwise, and this article—in which my current preceptor, Tamara Duker Freuman, is interviewed—explains. (For the record, when I was working in a GI practice in DC, I did learn that chugging water at mealtimes can encourage the swallowing of air, which can be bloating, so steady sips are still a wise idea if you’ve got a sensitive digestive tract.)

2. More support for the value of eating breakfast.

3. Popular Science busts some sleep myths (sobering stuff for those of us who often do without enough of it, and tell ourselves it’s NBD).

4. Yikes! Bad news for allergy sufferers like me (yes, it’s getting worse, and climate change is in part to blame).

5. Finally, I wanted to link to this post from my friend Maria. It’s a lovely meditation on meeting oneself and one’s feelings—including the despondent ones—with acceptance and faith in the promise of release and transformation.

On that note, enjoy the remainder of this Sunday. And happy Orthodox Easter to those of you who celebrate today—maybe a bowl of vegan avgolemono is in order.

xo

 

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