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Intuitive Eating Hits a Roadblock

            I’m not losing weight from Intuitive Eating. In part, that could be because I’ve been feeling really sick to my stomach lately, which clouds my ability to judge when I’m hungry and when I’m full. And I know that part of my inability to lose weight comes from my health issues, because I don’t have the energy to exercise enough to burn extra calories each day, and because some of the medications I take impact my weight. But, according to the Intuitive Eating workbook, it could also be that my body believes it is at the right size already, and I hate that idea. I’d prefer to believe that I’m unconsciously cheating in some way, allowing myself to eat past fullness and just telling myself that I’m still hungry. That would be a relief, because then I could hold onto the hope that when I do everything right I’ll lose weight.

            I’m still working my way through the Intuitive Eating Workbook (by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch), and one of the biggest blocks I can’t move is that my brain still tells me that in order to be a worthy human being I have to lose weight, and preferably have a smaller frame, including smaller feet. Because I am too BIG.

“Do I have small feet, Mommy?”

            The workbook characterizes thoughts like these as part of the Food Police – a set of destructive voices (picked up from diet culture, societal beliefs, and family rules) that try to keep me dieting and believing that I’m not okay as I am. These are the voices that yell at me for eating a piece of chocolate cake, or for buying 2% milk instead of fat free, or for eating carbs or fat, or for eating anything at all.

“I’m the sheriff!”

            One method the workbook suggests for how to deal with these internal messages is to question whether the beliefs are reasonable, and supported by scientific evidence, or not. For example:

            Distorted thought – I have to be skinny to be loved, to get a job, or to be successful in any other way.

Has this proven to be true? There is some evidence that love and attraction is conditional on body size, but it doesn’t really seem to hold true for work or friendship, so this is at least partially untrue.

That method did not feel especially helpful. Another method they recommend for combatting these negative thoughts is to answer them with a more positive, ally voice, like what you’d say to a good friend:

            A destructive statement – I am a glutton and selfish and eat too much and try to get away with everything and never hold myself responsible.

            Ally response – None of that is accurate. You often think too much about others before thinking of your own needs, and many of your needs have gone unmet because you are afraid of taking up too much space, care, attention or money.

            That seemed a little but more effective, so I kept trying:

            Destructive statement – I’m accomplishing nothing and annoying everyone who believes in my potential. I’m not writing enough or losing weight or getting a real job and they will all give up on me.

            Ally response – It would be impossible for anyone to meet all of those goals at once, and making long to-do lists can overwhelm your ability to get anything done. In reality, you work very hard at everything you do, and you’ve made an enormous amount of progress. You are creating your own path and the people who know you well are proud of you.

“Yeah Mommy!”

All of that sounds good, but the destructive voices keep coming back and telling me that I’m making excuses and lying and being a Pollyanna, and they get more creative and more stubborn with every attempt. This is not what the workbook tells me to expect, and I resent that the authors don’t acknowledge that this is a predictable response for someone whose Food Police voices are so deeply ingrained.

“Grr.”

I’m doing my best to keep doing the work anyway, even if I can’t shut down the Food Police or lose weight, but it’s frustrating that even though I stop eating when I’m full, I still feel empty and wish I could eat to fill the emotional void. I started doing a writing exercise from the workbook in the moments when I know I’m full but I still want to eat: I’m supposed to take five minutes to sit with my feelings first and then write down anything that comes to mind, but I don’t have the patience to sit first, so I just do the writing. Sometimes I list the foods I want to eat: like spaghetti and meatballs, or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or chocolate chocolate chip ice cream. Sometimes I just rant about how angry, guilty, frightened, frustrated, sad and hopeless I feel about the state of my body. Sometimes I actually try to figure out where all of the feelings are coming from, and what underlying need they are trying to tell me about, which is the stated purpose of the exercise.

Most of the time, just the act of writing seems to be enough to stop my momentum and prevent me from overeating, in that way, the exercise has been successful. But I’ve never finished the exercise and said to myself, aha, now I know what I really need to do in order to feel calm/comforted/satisfied/relieved/finished. There’s some relief in being able to acknowledge that something is missing, and I’ve learned that I can sit with the feelings of pain or loneliness or confusion or anger or sadness, or even hopelessness, and keep breathing. But not for very long. I still want to feel better and lose weight, and I still want the Food Police to go away, and figure out what it is that makes me want to eat more than my body needs.

            My Nutritionist thinks that the real battle behind all of this is that I struggle to respect my body as it is; that the destructive messages and the feelings of not-enough come from an underlying belief that I don’t deserve to be loved as I am. And she wants me to move my goal from weight loss to body acceptance, but I’m reluctant, because I don’t think that goal is reachable. Weight loss, at least, I’ve been able to achieve before; body acceptance sounds like a fantasy to me.

            But I worry that my Nutritionist is right, and that’s bringing up a lot of hopelessness, and I don’t want to feel hopeless. So I’m going to put the goals themselves out of my mind, or off to the side, and just keep going through the workbook and doing the work I can do; and I’ll see where it takes me.

“On a walk?”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

The Emptiness

            The more successful I become at Intuitive Eating, the more I have to face the sadness of not being able to use food to fill the emptiness. I don’t know why I describe it as emptiness when it seems so full of pain, but it’s so black in there, and it’s all so un-see-able and un-name-able that it appears empty to me. I think I became a writer in order to try to name the emptiness, but I’m still working at it.

“The word you’re looking for is ‘woof.'”

            Is it really sadness that I feel when I tell myself that it’s time to stop eating, or it is anger, or frustration, or disappointment? The first feeling that comes up is that it reminds me of being on the bumpy train with Mom from Paris to Versailles when I was sixteen years old, with no air-conditioning and a severe case of motion sickness. It feels physical, as if there are gears and strings in my belly and they are being pulled and pushed and making creaking noises, just because I won’t let myself eat another two hundred calories of whatever. And every time I try to define the feeling or suggest an activity to distract myself from it, this voice in my belly screams, NO!

“That’s my favorite word!”

            I keep picturing this space as an emptiness that needs to be filled, but the physical feeling is as if I swallowed a sharps container at the doctor’s office and all of these needles and blades are roiling around in my belly. I felt a lot of this as a teenager, but back then the sharps seemed to be in my veins, traveling through my arms and legs and into my skull, and I couldn’t name those emotions either, I just knew that they were unbearable.

            I know all of the things that I’m supposed to try to do in order to fill the void and soothe the pain, like meditation, or a bath, or exercise, or reading a book, etc. Reading and writing are, of course, my reliable old friends, but I’ve also tried different exercise programs and music and movies and craft projects over the years. Knitting used to help, and then coloring and puzzles. But sometimes the emptiness is so persistent and so prickly that nothing works. All I can feel is the sharp, bristling, feathery pangs of something as it scrapes across my insides and whispers hopelessness to me over and over again.

            In fact, a lot of the activities that are supposed to be soothing – like meditation or yoga or baths or massages – create more panic and agitation for me, and stir up the sharp things that live in the emptiness, instead of calming them down. It seems so unfair to have all of these weapons aimed at me from the inside.

            I think some of what’s in the emptiness is a need to fight or flee, even as my body freezes in place and waits for the danger to pass. It would be like catching a humming bird in a glass ball and feeling the endless beat of her wings while she can’t get out. The endless activity and rapid heartbeat and desperation for escape all lead to utter exhaustion, with no sign of an enemy anywhere nearby to explain the need to fly away.

            I keep hoping that if I can name the sharp things, and bring more light into the void, then I’ll be able to soothe the pain, but that hasn’t worked yet.

            Part of the problem is that the panic – that there will be no way to soothe the whatever-it-is that I can’t even name – is profound. And eating something often does stop the panic. The panic is then replaced with shame at overeating, and hopelessness that I will ever lose weight, but the chaos and the panic do subside with food, and in that moment, that’s the most important thing.

“Food is magical!”

            So here I am, feeling the sharp things in the emptiness, resenting them, and trying not to use food to solve the problem. Now what?

“Have you tried chicken?”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Intuitive Eating and Where I’m Struggling

             One of the basic arguments against dieting, in the Intuitive Eating Workbook is: A diet mentality is the false belief that weight loss leads to happiness. But this has always felt true to me. As a kid, I was unhappy, and I wanted to believe that there was something I could do to fix it: if I could blame all of my unhappiness and loneliness on my weight, then I could at least hope that someday I’d feel better. In reality, I have lost weight over and over again, and it has never resolved the depression or self-hatred or loneliness, and yet I’m still afraid that if I let go of the belief that weight loss will make me happy, I’m letting go of the hope that I will ever be happy.

            And it was reassuring to have a diet plan to follow. I’ve stayed on diets for months, or years, despite losing no weight at all, because the sense that I was doing the right thing made me feel better, even if it didn’t help me reach my goals.

“Two chickens a day would reassure me.”

            I crave a diet plan to tell me what to eat, how much to eat, how to prepare it, and even when to eat it. Diets feel like safe containers for someone, like me, who has learned to believe that food is dangerous and unpredictable; for someone who is overwhelmed with too many choices and who believes, fundamentally, that her body is wrong and must be controlled and limited and made smaller.

            The problem is that the diets themselves perpetuate those beliefs about the dangerousness of food and the dangerousness of my body. The diet tells me that I can’t survive without it; that I will crash and burn, and there is no alternative, except maybe for another diet. That’s why this transition to a no-diet life is so damn hard; because there is no plan, no safe container, just impossible lessons to learn, like: trust yourself, honor your feelings, respect your own body and wisdom.

            I’m no longer on a specific diet plan (Like Weight Watchers or Noom) and I’m not counting calories or avoiding carbohydrates or fats, but I still have the endless voices in my head telling me that I shouldn’t eat this and I shouldn’t eat that, and if only I lost weight I’d finally be happy. And the voices aren’t just in my own head, they’re everywhere.

“I hear them too.”

            The frustrating thing is that the research on diets has been clear: the majority of people who go on diets gain the weight back, and often gain even more than they’d lost in the first place. And it’s not just that diets don’t work, they actually create health problems, because the cycle of weight loss and inevitable weight gain is worse for the body than maintaining a weight above what the charts suggest. But no one I know actually believes the research. So, are we all in a collective delusion? And how do I escape from a belief system that is constantly reinforced?

            Doctors have been some of the worst offenders in creating shame around my weight. They have blamed any and every health issue on my weight, even when it was clearly unrelated, and they have had no interest in hearing that my health has never improved as a result of weight loss.

            I recently had to see the gynecologist for my yearly checkup, and she said that my health is good except for one thing and you know what that is. But I didn’t know, because I could think of a number of issues that are currently impacting my health. But before I could even try to answer her non-question, she said, it’s your weight. And, she said, You just need to eat less. Then she proceeded to show me what a small portion of food would look like, with her hands.

“No doctors!!!!!!”

            Aside from the fact that I probably know more about dieting than she does, and that the size of food doesn’t determine its caloric value, what she’s ignoring is that being on a diet and just eating less has taught me to feel like a bad person for eating anything.

            When I read in the Intuitive Eating Workbook that if I am hungrier on a given day then I should eat more, I was sure that that rule shouldn’t apply to me, because, of course, I would lie to myself about my hunger level, and sneak food past myself.

When the Intuitive Eating Workbook told me to respect my cravings and learn how to eat those foods when I crave them, and then to stop when I am full, I didn’t know what to do, because I was always told to do anything and everything to distract myself from cravings, and to never give in to them. I was supposed to drink water, or take a bath, or go for a run, to avoid eating the food I really wanted to eat, even if I had no interest in doing any of those things. I automatically assume that if I crave something, or even want something with any intensity, then I shouldn’t have it. I’ve read so many articles that say craving a food is a sign that it is bad for me, and that I will crave exactly the foods I am allergic to and that’s how I’ll know I’m allergic.

            But is that true? Are the things I feel most strongly about the things I should avoid? Then what am I left with? How do I decide what to do if wanting to do something is a sign not to do it?

            Who came up with this shit in the first place?

“Um, you said a bad word.”

            During this year of social distancing, a lot of people have experienced cravings for human contact, cravings so strong that they broke safety protocols to go out to parties or bars or restaurants, because the need for human contact was so insistent. Is it the craving for human contact that’s bad or the way they chose to satisfy that craving?

            My students at synagogue school often crave movement by the time they arrive after a full day of school. They crave it so much that if I don’t create a safe and productive way for them to move, they will move in whatever way they can. I can choose to create a safe environment for them to move in, or I can choose to ignore their need and leave them to disrupt the class or drive themselves crazy, but either way, the kids are going to move; not because they are bad kids, but because they are human.

“Like me!”

            Can I accept that in myself too? Can I ever find a way to give myself permission to be guided by what I want, without worrying that I’m taking the road to hell?

In a recent visit with the nutritionist she said that I was confusing taste hunger with physical hunger, because as long as the food still tasted good I still wanted to eat. Ideally, she said, the yummy taste of the food would diminish as I became full, but that has never been my experience. So we planned out a very specific sequence of actions for me to check in with my physical fullness, and my taste hunger, separately, with the commitment that I would rely on my physical feeling of fullness to tell me when to stop eating, even if the taste hunger persisted.

I want to believe that I can learn how to do this and find a healthier and happier way to eat and live, but it still feels like a fairytale; like something I want to believe in that can’t possibly be true. I still live in a world where everyone thinks they need to be on a diet, no matter what they weigh. I still live in a world where we have no realistic idea of healthy sizes for different bodies, and we judge each other based on standards that fit almost no one. How am I supposed to ignore all of that noise and suddenly learn to trust myself?

            I don’t know yet, but I will keep working on it.

“We’ll eat the leftovers. To help you.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Intuitive Eating

            For my birthday this year, at my request, Mom got me an appointment with a nutritionist recommended by some of her friends who specializes in Intuitive Eating, rather than in creating meal plans or excluding certain foods. I’d found a book on this subject years ago, called When Food is Love by Geneen Roth. It was an exploration of how to teach yourself to feel your hunger cues, and trust your body to tell you what and when to eat. I could relate to so many of Geneen Roth’s stories about her own childhood eating issues and I was inspired by her journey to making peace with food, but I couldn’t translate her lessons into my own body and my own eating. I ended up going back to calorie counting, and then counting points, and then excluding categories of food altogether, and on and on. But it always stuck with me that, one day, I’d really like to be able to eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full.

“I’m never full.”

            My first visit with the nutritionist, on Zoom, was promising. She has experience working with people with trauma backgrounds and autoimmune disorders and a history of eating disorders, so nothing I said was shocking to her. And she was kind. Much kinder than I am to myself.

            I have been dieting since I was a kid, and I’ve had bouts of anorexia and binge eating and over-exercising and excessive dieting since then. My body is not built along the lines of the perfect American woman I see in magazines, or on TV, who is either taller than me with spindly bones or shorter than me with spindly bones. I am big boned. Even when I was anorexic and fainting from lack of nutrition, I could never get thin enough to fit into the skinny-girl clothes at the mall, because my bones stuck out. My mom was scared, because she saw that I was starving myself, but most other people thought I was just barely thin enough. Even my doctors weren’t concerned, though I was thirty pounds underweight for my frame, because they were looking at the wrong charts.

            The assumption behind every diet I’ve ever been on is that my body is wrong and bad and needs to be fixed, and I have believed that my whole life, but Intuitive Eating will require me to learn a new way of talking to myself, and I’m not sure I can do it. One of the first things the nutritionist told me was that I may have to accept my weight as it is; that people can lose weight with Intuitive Eating, but a lot will depend on what’s right for my body, not my expectations for my body. This is a hard thing to hear, because I feel certain that my body isn’t meant to be its current size, and that if I were a good enough person I would reach my ideal weight without effort.

“I’m perfect just the way I am.”

            I’m working on balancing out my meals, adding more protein to breakfast and more vegetables to lunch and more fat here and there, so that I feel full at the end of each meal. The nutritionist suggested that I replace the peanut butter powder in my overnight oats with real peanut butter, and the almond milk with Fairlife milk (high protein and lactose free). And she suggested making snacks ahead of time, like trail mix and bean salad, so that when I’m starving I won’t just reach for cookies.

“Did you say cookies?”

            But that’s the easy part. It’s sitting down and recognizing where I am on the hunger scale, from 0 (starving to death) to 10 (so full it’s unbearable) before and after each meal that’s getting me frustrated. I struggle to tell the difference between the kind of hunger I feel first thing in the morning, when my stomach is truly empty, and the hunger I feel after breakfast when I want to eat more but I don’t know why. I’m trying to honor my hunger, and eat when I think I need to eat, but it’s hard to differentiate between physical hunger and emotional hunger, or even my long-trained instincts to eat certain foods at certain times of the day. Keeping a hunger journal is forcing me to look more closely at why I’m eating, and what I’m feeling and thinking as I eat, and it is uncomfortable every time. I’m also afraid that moving away from the dieting mentality will lead to weight gain, because I believe that there are monsters inside of me and if I don’t set strict eating rules they will take over and make themselves visible to the outside world instead of just to me.

“Monsters?!!!!!!”

            My therapist is excited about this new eating project and has high hopes that the work will help me get in touch with deeper issues that I’ve been avoiding for too long. But I’m scared. What if I’m still not ready to deal with those feelings? What if overeating is the only thing that works to soothe the pain?

            After I cancelled my Weight Watchers membership, they sent me an email survey, asking if I’d be interested in a new plan with them that would involve being connected with doctors who could prescribe diet medications through Zoom, and that idea is sitting in the back of my mind, as a temptation and a get-out-of-jail-free card in case Intuitive Eating is too hard for me. But I hope I don’t fall into that trap again. I want to be at the point where I can accept myself as I am, and sit with my feelings when they are uncomfortable. I just don’t know if that’s possible. Yet.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Shabbat Morning

 

Shabbat is the weekly Jewish holiday of rest. It starts at sundown on Friday and ends after sundown on Saturday. The theoretical, biblical, reason for a day of rest is, of course, that God created the world in six days and therefore took a well-earned break on day seven. But really we all need a day of rest each week, even if we didn’t create a whole world by ourselves. (I’m pretty sure I need more than one day of rest in seven, but this isn’t the time to quibble).

IMG_1340

Cricket believes in resting seven days out of seven.

I grew up going to synagogue every Saturday morning, first for junior congregation with the other kids, and later to the adult services, which lasted two and a half hours and ended with Slivovitz (plum brandy) and gefilte fish. But it’s been a long time since I went to synagogue regularly on Saturday mornings. Instead, I go on Friday nights, because my synagogue is more of a Friday night kind of place. We only have Saturday morning services when there’s a Bar or Bat Mitzvah to celebrate, or a holiday that falls on Shabbat. So, for a long time now, I’ve treated Saturday like, well, any other day. A day to do chores, make appointments, get my work done, etc. I took the time out for Friday night services as my weekly celebration of Shabbat and felt like that was enough.

I didn’t realize that I was really missing those Saturday mornings until I started to teach Synagogue school on Saturday mornings at my synagogue and was able to sit in on the children’s service. We all sat together in the first few rows in the sanctuary, with the Rabbi sitting right in front of us and leading us through the short service in a very relaxed, informal sort of way. When we read the morning blessings, the Rabbi asked everyone to share a recent accomplishment, or an exciting event coming up, or a difficult problem we needed support with, and the kids raised their hands. They shared about their new braces, and trips to Disneyworld, or New Jersey, and injured wrists, and newborn siblings. I didn’t have the nerve to speak up, but their openness inspired me. It was prayer as a chance to check in with our community and ourselves, and take a deep breath (or ten) and feel the natural holiness that we bring with us into the room.

And then we drank grape juice and tore through Challahs (really, these kids can do some real damage to a very large loaf of bread), and went to class. The mood of Saturday morning class is so different from the after-school rowdiness of synagogue school earlier in the week. We can meander through a discussion and hear from everyone more fully, and share our outside interests in music and Lego and animals and bring them into the discussion of the Torah lesson for the day, knitting together the ordinary and the holy.

Shabbat was hard for me growing up, because Shabbat was one of the battlegrounds my father chose to fight over. He made us walk six miles to the orthodox synagogue, and he stopped us from watching television or doing homework. The day became a wasteland, with nothing to do and nowhere to go, because we didn’t live in a Jewish community with other people in the same situation. And it wasn’t restful at all. It didn’t feel holy or sacred to replace the toilet paper in the bathroom with tissues, just to avoid ripping paper on Shabbat, or to cover the light switches with plastic to keep from turning the lights on and off; it felt more like prison.

For years now, I’ve had therapy on Saturday mornings – either group or individual – and I accepted that I couldn’t go to Saturday morning services at a synagogue, because I knew that therapy was more important. But I realized that I liked this Shabbat School version of Saturday morning prayers. I liked that it didn’t take hours, and we didn’t have to dress up, and we did get to talk, a lot, about our actual lives. This past week the cantor ran the children’s service, and we all sat in a circle-like clump on the floor to sing along with him and his guitar, and then to breathe together, and then dance together, and I thought, yeah, I could do this every week. If only my dogs could be invited.

IMG_1068

“I wanna go!”

Cricket and Ellie know all about rest and holy time, and they don’t need as many memory aides as humans do to help them get to that peaceful, connected place. They just need the birds singing to them in the morning, and the air filled with smells from near and far, and a few chicken treats and cuddles. Though I really would love to see Ellie dancing along with the kids at Shabbat school, and she would love to share their Challah. Cricket would probably steal the whole challah and hide it under the ark, where only she and the rabbi could find it. But they’d probably enjoy that too, hunkering down in the sanctuary to share bread.

IMG_0665

“Did you say Challah?!”

001

“I could eat.”

What’s a community for, really, if not to take time out to share good food, and sing, and maybe even dance?

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

 

The Slow Fast Day

 

The summer when I was ten years old I lived in the bunk behind the bunk, at my sleepaway camp. My bunk was added on behind the popular girls’ bunk for our age group; they had a lot of light and windows and a porch facing the public, and we were hidden in back, invisible. There was a thin wall separating the two bunks, and we had to listen to the soundtrack of Footloose all summer long through that wall.

There was a girl in my bunk who was sort of my friend, but mostly not. She was the one I’d made fun of the summer before, in my aborted attempt to fit in with the popular girls, and our friendship was on a teeter totter. She was pretty, but strange, and from different evidence over the years – promiscuous behavior at a young age, severe memory lapses, a changeable personality – I realized later that she was a sexual abuse victim, like me. That could explain why I was drawn to her, even though she was often mean to me. She could say awful things, or ignore me for large swaths of time, despite the itsy bitsy size of the bunk we lived in together, and I still accepted her friendship when it was offered.

180

“I understand.”

And then came Tisha B’Av. The Ninth day of the month of Av, on the Jewish calendar, commemorates the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem, in 586 BCE and 70 CE. Over time the fast day has come to represent a long list of catastrophes in Jewish history, maybe because we need more relatable grief to hold onto, like method actors, in order to effectively mourn the loss of two temples we’d never seen, and a kind of life that none of us had ever experienced, with high priests, and animal sacrifices, and all Jews living in one place.

Tisha B’Av is regarded as the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, but generally goes unnoticed in the liberal Jewish world, except in Jewish summer camps, like the one I went to for five summers as a kid. For one full day, from sunset to sunset, we were prohibited from eating or drinking, washing or bathing (aka, no swimming). Fasting is a tool used by all kinds of religious and spiritual practitioners, because it works; depriving the body of food starves the brain of needed Serotonin, creating a neurochemically induced state of depression. Kids under thirteen are supposed to be excused from fasting, but most of us did it anyway.

The summer when I was ten years old, we trekked to the other side of camp and to sit on the basketball court in the dark when Tisha B’Av began. We sat on the ground, by bunk, with a single candle in the middle of each circle, and we listened to the older kids chanting the book of Aicha (Lamentations) in Hebrew. It was haunting, and sad, even though no translation of the text was offered. The next morning we went to services again, all together as a camp for the only time all summer, but then the rest of the day stretched out before us with no distractions, no food to eat, and no activities to keep us busy. Our counselors were felled by the fasting and most likely by the lack of caffeine, because no food or drink also means no coffee, and they didn’t have the energy to sit with us and talk with us and offer comfort.

That year we were all hanging out in our tiny bunk, to escape the heat, bored to death. All of our negative feelings were let loose in the bunk with no safe place to lock them away, and we just lived in the undifferentiated soup of our emotions for hours. Maybe that darkness, and the desperate desire to do something to disperse it, explains what happened next.

I don’t know where our counselors were, but the girl in my bunk who was sort of my friend and sort of not, decided that I needed a haircut. That was the summer when one of the girls had brought Judy Blume’s Forever to camp, and let everyone borrow it. It was the first book we’d ever read with a sex scene in it, and people were reading it in hushed voices, after dark, with flashlights. The brink-of-puberty thing left me open to a lot of criticism: for my bland clothes, my plain brown hair, my lack of makeup, etc. For some reason, this girl focused all of her frustration on me that afternoon, and offered to cut my hair, to make me look presentable. I don’t know if it was hunger, fatigue, or humiliation, but I agreed to stand over the sink in the bathroom while she parted my hair into bunches and started chopping inches off from the bottom.

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“Eeeek!!!!!!”

Our senior counselor appeared at the entrance to the bathroom when only one bunch was finished. She screamed at both of us, outraged that we would do such a thing on a holy day. Haircut Girl dropped the scissors and walked out of the bunk with a shrug. I stood still, looking in the mirror, feeling guilty for not knowing all of the rules for Tisha B’Av, and guilty for going along with something I didn’t want to do, and guilty for accepting Haircut Girl’s assessment of me as so far below her. Guilty and ashamed and lonely and depressed; it all seemed to resonate with the character of the fast day, and the shame and guilt of the Jewish people for so upsetting God that he would have to destroy our Temple, twice.

My counselor sat me at the picnic table outside of our bunk and put my uneven hair into a French braid to hide the damage, somewhat, until she could finish the haircut herself after sunset. She had to have known that there was an element of bullying in the haircut, but I think she was also confused that I’d gone along with it. She didn’t understand why I’d say yes to such a thing, and I couldn’t explain it without humiliating myself even further. It matters that the girl cutting my hair was the one I’d made fun of the previous summer, mimicking her in front of the popular girls before I realized I never wanted to do that again. Maybe I felt like I owed her the chance to humiliate me in return, except that she didn’t seem to remember any of it. She barely remembered that we’d lived in the same bunk the previous summer. Or at least that’s what she said.

Towards the end of that summer our age group had a talent show, and Haircut Girl asked me to do a dance routine with her. I’m pretty sure I was a last minute replacement when her preferred dance partner dropped out. She would have looked around our tiny bunk and reluctantly accepted that I was the one most likely to agree to do it, because I loved dancing. I would have gone to dance classes every day in camp, if they’d given any dance classes at my camp. I danced unconsciously most of the time, instead of walking, and it’s possible that that played a role in my less-than-cool reputation.

We did our dance routine to “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” from Footloose, since we’d been listening to the soundtrack all summer. I don’t remember the performance itself, but I do remember the magic of being able to match my steps to her steps as we rehearsed next to our bunk. Did we sing out loud? Or lip sync during the performance? I don’t remember. Were we better friends when it was over? Nope. But for a couple of days we were dancing to the same music, and even smiling at the same time, though probably not at each other.

And yet, I prefer to remember the fast day, despite all of the pain involved. For that one day, each summer, everyone was more real, with all of their light and all of their darkness visible. It wasn’t comfortable, or fun, but it was cathartic. If a fast day hadn’t already existed in the middle of the summer, we’d have had to create something like it ourselves, just to relieve the pressure of keeping up appearances, if only for a moment.

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“Phew.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. And if you feel called to write a review of the book on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

 

Finding Noom

 

I was on Weight Watchers for more than a year, and I did really well with it early on, but at a certain point I couldn’t make any more progress. I still stayed with it for another six months, though, asking for more help and trying different strategies, until I eventually gave in to the ubiquitous ads for the Noom app and switched allegiances.

On Weight Watchers there are zero point foods that you can eat in unlimited quantities; that’s what made the diet so easy to follow for so long. Whenever I was hungry, even if I’d run out of points for the day (foods are given point values instead of calorie counts on WW), I could just eat any of the zero point foods, and there were tons of them. But in the end, those zero point foods were the problem. I was eating too much.

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“What does ‘too much food’ mean?”

Noom is, basically, a calorie counting program in the form of an app. There are daily lessons in psychology, and creating small goals to change your eating habits for the long term, but the overall intention of the program is to help you stay within your assigned calorie limit. You are assigned to a virtual group, with a group coach, where you’re supposed to discuss the daily lessons and assignments and any insights that come up along the way. Then there’s a goal specialist who tries to help you come up with your own particular goal for each week – something suggested by the daily lessons, or the group, or just whatever you’ve been struggling with, like emotional eating or peer pressure or planning meals.

I wasn’t sure about the program at first, so I kept my Weight Watchers account, and as soon as I started counting calories again, the hunger returned. Hunger is a dangerous feeling for me, because I’ve dealt with anorexic tendencies more than once in my life. On the one hand, I want to eat everything in sight to fill the empty space, and on the other hand, I feel righteous and pure for feeling the hunger and not giving in to it. There’s a strange high that comes from extended starvation, but in my experience that high leads to severe health consequences, and big weight gain when you inevitably start to eat again. I can’t risk going through that again, so I have to be careful. But I survived that first week on Noom, without too much drama, so I decided to stick with it and put Weight Watchers aside for a while.

I’d love it if Noom could help me make more progress on my underlying eating disorder issues, because while being on Weight Watchers allowed me to lose weight, it didn’t require me to confront my thought distortions around food or body image. Noom, if it’s going to work, is going to have to address my food panic, and internal arguments over what I do and do not deserve, and so much more, hopefully in a very gradual and manageable way, so that I don’t feel overwhelmed.

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“I’m already overwhelmed.”

I already wish there were more interaction with the goal specialist on Noom, because what I really need is the one-on-one help. I have my own real-life therapist, but food and weight issues have never been her strength. She understands the issues intellectually, but not personally, and not with huge amounts of compassion. It would be like going to my brother for help with math – he’d just do the problem for me, speed through the solution, and then look at me like I’m speaking Swahili when I say I still don’t understand. How could you not understand? It’s simple!

            The thing is, I like to overeat. I liked the big bowls of yogurt, or soup, or sliced peaches with fat-free whipped cream I was eating on Weight Watchers. I would make a pot of vegetable soup, or turkey chili, filled with mostly zero point foods, so that I could eat as much as I wanted and never have to worry about serving sizes. I ate so many canned peaches that I developed a low grade allergy to them, but they were a zero point food so it still took me months to stop eating them!

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“Mmm, more peaches.”

Big portions give me the sense that there will always be enough, and I’ve always worried about not having enough: whether it was food, or love, or money, or time. I’m obsessive about making sure that I have more pens and notebooks and toner and printer paper than I need, and I like to go to Costco for huge bottles of vitamins and a year’s worth of paper towels, just in case. I get nervous when I’m reading the last pages of a novel, and have no new novel on deck, because, who knows? The library might be closed, or they may not have a book I want I read! And I panic in May when the official TV season ends, even though they’ve learned to stagger their start and end dates a bit so there will be shows to watch over the summer (never enough though!).

I’m really not a fan of finding out that everything I want to accomplish in life requires me to confront myself and work through my limitations, because some of my limitations are really intransigent. It would be like expecting Cricket, at age twelve, to overcome her fear of bath time. Are you insane?! Water is terrifying!

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“Water is terrifying!”

            But, here I go, down the calorie-counting path again, hoping to find fewer monsters hiding behind the shrubbery this time. Wish me luck!

 

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. And if you feel called to write a review of the book on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. Izzy’s father then sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

YG with Cricket

“Well, what?!”

Yom Daled

 

On Wednesdays at my Jewish sleepaway camp, when most of the kitchen staff took the day off, we made our own sandwiches, right after breakfast (egg salad, tuna, peanut butter and jelly), and tossed them, and some pieces of fruit, into a black garbage bag to be kept in the fridge for later. The scary part was that we had to tell our counselor what kind and how many sandwiches we wanted, so that two delegates could stay late with her and make the sandwiches. And then during lunch I had to sit there with everyone in my bunk knowing that I’d asked for two peanut butter and jelly, plus an egg salad sandwich. I wanted more sandwiches than a pre-teen girl was supposed to want. I was always hungrier than I was supposed to be. I could eat three bowls of cereal at breakfast, but at least no one was announcing it to the whole room. It’s possible that the other girls ate as much as I did, but they hid it better.

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“Did you say sandwiches?”

Wednesdays were called Yom Daled, or day four, because everything had to have a Hebrew name in camp. I’m not sure why it was Yom Daled, which is the fourth letter of the Hebrew Alphabet, instead of Yom Revi’i, which literally means “the fourth day” in Hebrew. This is a mystery I may never unravel. The other days of the week weren’t named after Hebrew letters, though. In fact, I think we just called them Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, like everyone else.

Anyway, Yom Daled was meant to be a break from our regular schedule of sports and arts & crafts and swimming and Hebrew classes. We went on day trips, off campus, a couple of times each summer, but otherwise it was up to our counselors to create an “experience.” Like the time they set up a trip to Russia, in the auditorium, and taught us about the Refuseniks (Russian Jews who weren’t allowed to leave Russia). I remember waiting on a long line to get my imaginary passport, and then having it ripped out of my hands (paper cut!) on another line. And I remember feeling like I was wearing a tattered woolen coat, and still shivering, even though in real life I was in a t-shirt and shorts, and sweating to death.

We learned a song that day called “Leaving Mother Russia,” written by a group called Safam, and inspired by Natan Sharansky. I don’t remember singing the song at any other time, but the chorus has stuck with me for thirty years: we are leaving mother Russia, we have waited far too long, we are leaving Mother Russia, when they come for us, we’ll be gone.

Another time, they set up the whole camp as if it were the State of Israel, and we visited a shuk (a marketplace), and had to haggle over prices, in Hebrew, and then we made pitas on a hot stone, and, of course, we had hummus and falafel and Israeli salad for lunch.

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“I’m sure I like falafel, Mommy.”

On another day, in a different summer, we learned about terrorism. Our counselors lined us up in chairs and had us pretend to be on a plane hijacked by Palestinian terrorists. It was an interesting thing to see our counselors interpret their roles as terrorists; some tried to make us understand the sorrow and pain of losing their land, and the hopelessness of being refugees under the control of strangers; others played their roles with anger and violence and scared the crap out of us.

We also spent a day learning about cults, because it was a hot topic on college campuses that year, and our counselors wanted to prepare us for being tempted to give up our individuality and free will, or something. They didn’t do a very god job of explaining how cults were different from religion or camp, though. I was used to being brainwashed in each new environment I went into, having to buy in to a new set of beliefs, and having to give up things that mattered to me just to fit in. I wasn’t sure how different a cult would be, maybe just in intensity rather than in spirit.

We went on hikes at least once per summer, and it was always exhausting and too hot, but we couldn’t opt out. By the end of each hike dozens of kids were claiming health issues and trying to cadge lifts back to camp with the counselors who had driven to the lunch spot, bringing the food and supplies. I never bothered to beg for a ride, for some reason, even though I hated every second of the steaming walk back to camp.

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“That sounds exhausting, Mommy.”

I don’t remember a lot of our day trips off campus, though there was one memorable trip to New York City. We went to an art museum (I have no idea which one) and to something called The New York Experience, where we sat in seats that shifted around as if we were on the subway, and then fog blew in our faces. Once we were back outside on the street, I realized that I was closer to home than I was to camp, and all I’d have to do was get to Penn Station, and then catch a train home. Except, I had no cash, and I wasn’t really sure I wanted to go home, though I did wish I’d known ahead of time that we’d be in the city, so I could have called my mother and asked her to meet me.

Another day trip was to Mystic Seaport, where we went on a ferry ride and saw a shipping museum, where they showed us a lot of boats-inside-glass-bottles. But then it started to rain and we couldn’t do the rest of the outdoor stuff, so they took us to see a movie. The choice was between Bull Durham and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and since Bull Durham was R-rated, they chose to make us watch a movie about an animated rabbit, and his animated, non-rabbit, cheating wife, and murder, lots of murder.

For dinner on Yom Daled, the few kitchen staff who stayed on campus would do a barbecue, setting out piles of hamburgers and hotdogs, and watermelon and chips, for us to eat outside. I don’t remember any vegetables, but there may have been pickles. The barbecues were for whoever was on campus in time, and we could start and finish whenever we wanted and sit wherever we wanted, instead of at our assigned tables. We held our paper plates on our laps, and ate with plastic utensils, surrounded by bugs, but I couldn’t always find someone to sit with, and it reminded me of eating lunch at school, just hoping someone would be willing to sit next to me.

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“I’d sit next to you for a burger.”

You know, there’s something to be said for returning to routine, and schedules, and assigned seating, where you know what’s expected of you, and you’re not tempted to hop a train home, and know you won’t have to eat by yourself.

yeshiva girl with dogs

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. And if you feel called to write a review of the book on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Passover

 

I feel like I want to take a pass on Passover this year. I’ve done it before. I tried to do the whole thing last year – closing up cabinets and shopping for matzo meal and gefilte fish and kosher for Passover candy. I spent an inordinate amount of time looking up articles about kitniyot (some Jews say that beans and corn and rice are fine for Passover, others say no, based on which crops used to grow next to other crops way back when). It is, of course, a fascinating debate. I made a double recipe of Sephardi Charoset (dates and figs and chestnuts and wine and on and on) and resolved to think Passover thoughts for the whole week. But, I didn’t have a Seder to go to, and I hate (really, really hate) Matzo.

charoset on matzo

Sephardi Charoset on Matzo is much yummier than it looks (not my picture).

charoset balls

Here the Charoset is shaped into balls (not my picture). I’ve even seen these covered in chocolate. Seriously.

The problem is that Passover is a family holiday; it’s not a pray-in-synagogue holiday. Everyone comes back to the synagogue the next week with stories about their uncle Zephyr, who drank all of the wine before dinner, and second cousin Zoodle who has a matzo allergy but refuses to abstain and then spends the rest of the night complaining about his belly pains. It’s a badge of honor to come back with the most unbelievable family stories, and I had none.

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“I could eat some matzo!”

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“And chopped liver?”

I used to love Passover when I was little. I loved Grandpa standing at the head of the table, reading from the Maxwell House Haggadah. I loved falling asleep in the guest room, still wearing my dressy clothes. I loved chopped liver, and Brisket and Tzimmes, and super sweet gel candies pretending to be fruit slices.

maxwell-house-haggadah

There were things I loved about it after my grandfather died, too, just not as many, and not in the same whole sort of way. I loved learning the Yiddish versions of Hebrew songs from the Haggadah, and how the Yiddish words made me feel drunk and silly (in a good way). But I didn’t like when we had guests to our Seder who couldn’t read Hebrew, and my father still insisted on doing the whole thing in Hebrew, making them feel stupid. I hated fighting with my father, every year, because I didn’t want to drink four whole glasses of wine, and to end the argument he called me an apikores (an apostate, but in a bad way).  I remember having to carry all of the boxes of Passover dishes in from the shelves in the mudroom, because my father’s diabetic neuropathy had mostly crippled one of his arms, and I remember scrubbing out kitchen cabinets on my own, because my mother had to escape my father’s screaming abuse.

I remember the last Passover at my parents’ house, just before the divorce, when my father calmly told me that he felt better when he knew my mother was in pain. And I just stood there, frozen, with no more arguments or suggestions or strategies to make him into a real Dad.

Passover is the celebration of the Exodus from Egypt, from slavery into freedom, because we need celebrations to remind us that we really did escape, and the past is over, even though, sometimes, it just doesn’t feel that way.

This year, I’m going to celebrate the exodus by trying to help people at my internship, and studying for my future, in the hopes that that’s what will make the past seem more like the past for me. I’m pretty sure that Cricket and Butterfly are willing to help me with that project, though they were really looking forward to the Brisket.

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“No Brisket? Is she kidding?”

Shiny Poop

 

Recently, Mom has had a lot to deal with. Her sister hasn’t been well, and there’s been a lot of doubt and worry and conflict and hospital visits and family discussions, which means we have needed to resort to the heavy weaponry of comfort: chicken wings.

For some reason, chicken wings are my mother’s perfect comfort food. I’m not talking about fried chicken, or, God forbid, Buffalo chicken wings. These are tossed with some salt and pepper and chili powder and baked in the oven. It’s a plan ahead meal, because the wings need to be defrosted, and then baked for more than an hour, and then cooled so they won’t burn off your fingers. But it’s also a family meal, because the dogs think I’ve made it just for them.

I’ll make a salad or something to go with it, but that’s really beside the point.

As an antidepressant, nothing beats chicken wings and watching the dogs hop up and down, and salivate, and smile, and run in circles waiting for their share. While the chicken wings are cooking in the oven, the dogs gradually become twitchier and glassy eyed, until they are drawn to the stove like magnets, staring at it from the kitchen doorway. I tend to share a lot of my chicken, because I don’t like the skin, and they love it. But when the chicken is all gone, they don’t really believe it. They will dig into the corners of every room looking for left overs, and then get angry and start barking in disbelief. Butterfly, especially, looks high, and crazed, after she’s eaten her chicken. She’s jonesing for more, and out of her mind. I don’t understand why I’ve never seen a warning sticker on a package of chicken wings – “Danger, Addictive Substance, Keep away from young children and dogs!”

“I need chicken!”

“Chicken?!”

I myself do not have that reaction to chicken. In fact, lately, I’ve started to wonder if I’m allergic to the stuff. I’ve noticed feeling nauseous a few times and not being able to finish eating, both with chicken and with eggs. Chicken is supposed to be the universal meat – the one that everything else tastes like (squirrel, frog, whatever else people are trying to get you to eat), but it’s not really my thing.

The problem with baking the chicken wings is the mess they make. I go to a lot of trouble to cover the whole baking pan with aluminum foil, and cover the aluminum foil with parchment paper. The idea is to wait until the pan cools and then fold the aluminum foil up and put the whole mess into the garbage can so we only need to rinse the baking pan for its trouble. But no. Mom does not believe in this. She believes that the dogs should have the benefit of every drop of fat that drips onto the pan, and insists on putting the pan, paper and foil and all, onto the floor for their delectation.

One Friday night, I made emergency chicken wings before Friday night services and didn’t have time to organize the clean up before we left. Without my knowledge, Mom had put the pan on the floor and left it with the dogs while we were out, for two hours. By the time we got home, the kitchen was a storm of tiny bits of aluminum foil and large swathes of parchment paper, and Butterfly’s face was dark with oil. Cricket was standing far away from it all, to make it clear that this was not her fault. I should have taken a picture, but at the time I was too shocked, and too busy corralling the dogs outside, and telling Mom that she would be the one to clean it all up.

Bath time after chicken.

Bath time after chicken.

“But I wanted to smell like chicken forever, Mommy.”

I worried, for days, that there would be shiny poop, and when there wasn’t, I started to worry that Butterfly’s internal organs were filled with aluminum foil decorations. A few weeks have passed now though, and Butterfly is still running and hopping and pooping as usual, so, fingers crossed, there’s no shiny poop waiting around in there.

“I could eat some more chicken.”