Gluten-Free Vegan Lunch: Quinoa Mushroom Soup

This is a gluten-free riff on the more common mushroom barley soup. Today it's finally a little cooler, and a warm but not over-filling soup like this seems like it's going to hit the spot. Bread is in the toaster while the family plays Halo, and I'm trying to get this posted fast while the soup cools. I'll leave the fact that my 10 year-old son is already much better (after playing it twice) at Halo than I am for another post.

Here are your ingredients (this made enough for 4 and took about 35 minutes):

Olive oil
1 white onion
1 package mushrooms (any variety, but baby bellas will give a slightly richer flavor)
Worcestershire sauce (vegan gluten-free variety)
Balsamic vinegar
Yellow miso paste
Quinoa (regular white)
Potato starch (optional)
A little fresh chopped rosemary would be nice--a little will go a long way.

I made this soup in a large, cast-iron, enameled pot. Cast iron is my favorite material to cook in, hands down. It's heavy, too, so I don't feel bad about skipping the gym when I cook with it. Bonus! Also, an immersion blender comes in very handy for this recipe. If you haven't got one already, consider investing in one. A relative gave one to me years ago, which I thought was a bit eccentric at the time, but now it's one of my favorite kitchen tools.

Pour in enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pot and give the onions a slick bed to lie in. Don't be stingy. Olive oil is good for you, and it won't make your soup taste funny. Dump in your chopped onions with the heat on low-ish and throw a little salt on them. The salt will help them to release their liquid and soften. You want them to cook, but not so fast that they get brown and crispy bits when you have to run away from the stove to help your kid logon to Halo. Those brown and crispy bits will be bitter. Having said that, when the onions get away from me I carry on anyway and it turns out well enough.

While the onions cook, prep your mushrooms. Do not wash the mushrooms. I know, they have little gritty bits on them. Just get a cloth or a dry paper towel and brush it off. Mushrooms are like sponges and if you wash them they'll soak up all that water, which they will then release into the pot when you cook them, and instead of concentrating their lovely flavors you'll stew them prematurely. Once you've brushed off the dirt, slice them up, not too thick, so that they'll cook well.

After the onions have become limp and somewhat shrunken, turn the heat up to medium and throw in the mushrooms. Add a little more salt, and splash in enough Worcestershire and balsamic vinegar to have some liquid sizzling in there. You should be able to hear the cooking happening now, and there should be a little steam coming up from the pot. Here's how my pot looked as the mushrooms cooked:

In around 5-10 minutes it all should have reduced to this:

Now it's time to add in the liquid--good ol' water. I put in about 4 cups for starters and then got out the immersion blender and went after it. If you need to use a blender instead, just work in batches. The cool water should have cooled things down enough that splatters won't hurt you, but be careful anyway. It's better not to blend it to a puree. I like my soups a tad toothy. Here's how mine looked when I was done with it:

Put in some more water for your quinoa and then sprinkle in a couple handfuls. Stir, see what you think, maybe a little more would be better? Up to you. Put the lid on for a gentle simmer. If you want to add a bit of rosemary, now's the time. Also a spoonful of the miso for a little extra umph in the flavor. You know the quinoa is cooked when you see the pale little grain tendril in a circle with the expanded grain. You can see them floating there like tiny o's in the bowl at the top of this post. That soup is done.

You could garnish this with some chopped flat parsley if you have any (or fried parsley or sage--yum). Pretty much any herb will work with this soup. We had it plain with crusty gluten-free toast and butter spread. My husband was cutting up some arugula for a salad while I was cooking this, and that would probably make a nice garnish too. Or a dollop of the cashew-based NeChevre (should be PasChevre, but I won't quibble) would work well, too. Or some tofutti sour cream. I'll stop now.


Gluten-Free Vegan Breakfast--Pumpkin Rice Pudding

Okay, my food picture-taking skills are not what they should be. I'll work on that.

This is one of those warming, comfort-food breakfasts that lets you sneak squash into your kids' tummies without them realizing it. I made it in a rush this morning, but I could have made it the night before and chilled it in the fridge overnight. Ditto for any leftovers. This would probably also serve well as a welcoming after-school snack. If you have leftover acorn or butternut squash you need to use up (as long as you didn't cook it with garlic or cumin...:-p ), puree those bad boys up and use that instead.


Leftover Rice (white works best since it releases its starches readily while cooking, for a creamy pudding)
Non-Dairy Milk (I used Unsweetened Vanilla Almond Milk)
A little pumpkin puree (a little goes a long way here; if you open a can, save the rest to whip up some pumpkin-choc chip muffins, or pumpkin "pie" smoothies for breakfast tomorrow or after-school snack today)
Ground cinnamon
Ground ginger
Ground cloves
Ground nutmeg
Maple syrup
Handful of raisins

Add the rice into a saucepan with enough of the milk to be able to stir the rice and milk mixture easily with a spoon. Add in a few spoonfuls of the pumpkin puree and stir in. Add everything else to taste. Heat through, stirring frequently. If you overdid the milk, heat until some of the milk cooks off and you get the right consistency. Alternatively, if your leftover rice is still a bit toothy, add in a bit more milk and keep cooking. Serve warm or chilled.

* For the most part I won't be using measurements in my recipes. This is partly because I'm lazy and in a hurry and this is how I cook. But I also think recipes with measurements are part of the reason we have so much food waste. Use what you have, make it work. It takes a certain level of confidence to cook like this, but your food budget will thank you as you make use of every little bit in one way or another. Sometimes you'll have a lot of something, sometimes just a little. Learn to improvise. It's all good.


Last Night's Gluten-Free Vegan Dinner

This is sort of a housekeeping post, for my own interest. I'm keeping track of how I'm starting to put meals together, in a visual way that I can start to see patterns and opportunities for improvement in taste, variety, efficiency, nutrition, ease (not necessarily in that order). I'm posting it on the off-chance that there's someone else out there in the same boat I'm in.

Last night's dinner was highly economical, easy, tasty, and nutritious. It might have been a bit boring for the kids, but they seemed happy enough with it.

The most expensive part was the "meatballs", which I bought frozen at Whole Foods. They were from a new company, they had a distinctive mushroom-y flavor that was appealing to the kids, and they were non-gmo, soy-free, and gluten-free. These browned in the skillet in some olive oil. Along with this, I had some leftover wild rice and some leftover black beans and some leftover black bean cooking liquid that I had intended to use as a soup base, but instead all three went together into small casserole dish. I added raw chopped kale from the garden for a little color and interest, put a foil lid on it and put it in the oven at 375 until it was all steamy hot and good. Served it all with a side of sliced carrots and avocados and pepitas and hot sauce on the side. I should have taken a picture, but I wasn't thinking at the time that the dinner was enough of an "accomplishment" to warrant  a photo. But it was everything a gluten-free vegan dinner should be, so--success.


Going Vegan, Again, This Time Gluten-Free

Well, it's been about a year since I've posted on this blog, and I'm thinking of starting up again to head in a new direction here. I've posted about food before. It's a thing for me. I do all of the family cooking, and after seventeen years of cooking every single meal for myself and the others in my life, miraculously I still enjoy cooking. I must like to cook *a lot*.

Last spring my son was confirmed celiac, and my husband is gluten-intolerant, meaning that if he eats something with gluten in it, he has horrific intestinal pains for the next 24-36 hours. Happily, his gut seems to make an exception for beer.

We watched "Forks Over Knives" a couple of years ago and nearly went vegan then. Nearly. The problem, you see, is that meat tastes so damn good. Then last weekend husband watched "Cowspiracy." Some tipping point was reached. We are exploring vegan.

I am sure there are purists who are offended by anything but absolute veganism. We may get there. But we may not. We raise chickens, and we get a lot of pleasure watching them happily roam our half-acre. We also get a lot of pleasure from the eggs that they produced. These are the most beautiful, delicious, nourishing eggs available on the planet. The yolks are huge and as deep orange as a pumpkin. There is so much goodness in there. And I have read Nourishing Traditions and I believe in bone broth, particularly given the gut issues we have here. Lastly, we are also fortunate to have access to a local farm that raises a heritage breed of hog in the pasture. I still have about a third of our last hog we bought in my freezer. We are on the fence about whether or not we will continue to buy from our local farmers, who we like very much and want to see continuing to succeed. We are considering a rule of only eating animal products that we raised ourselves, killed ourselves, or that someone we knew killed for us. There is a lot of venison around in Texas, too. Hunted meats seem to be an exception to consider. We're still working this out.

Having said all of this, there is also a lot to recommend a primarily plant-based diet. Substantial evidence connects consumption of animal protein and incidence of cancer. Diabetes, heart disease, blood pressure--all of these things are improved with plant-based eating. In general, the carbon footprint and water consumption necessary to produce plant food is considerably less than to produce meat. My husband flew over a portion of the Amazon Basin five years ago and never forgot the view of a horizon filled with waves of billowing smoke from the continuous burning--to clear the jungle so there would be more room for cows to graze to feed America's beef addiction. Is my desire for braised short-ribs worth the destruction of the planet's lungs? There is also a social justice implication in choosing to eat a plant-based diet. So much of the grain we produce goes to feeding animals for consumption by people who can afford it instead of to hungry people elsewhere in the world. By eating meat, I'm supporting an economy that perpetuates scarcity of food for the rest of the world. That stops me in my tracks. It's unfathomable. It's the food equivalent to the shortage in affordable housing in urban centers where the jobs and opportunities and services are, when developers naturally develop properties to achieve the highest return on their investment possible, by building to the highest price the market will support.

These are all of the things we have thought about and discussed in arriving at our decision to go vegan. The kids, 8 and 10 years old, are reluctantly along for the ride. I'm a pretty good cook, and I do magical things with chicken thighs and pork belly and lamb chops. It's hard to contemplate passing these things up for largely ethical reasons--reasons that require a long-view to see the benefit, while the sense of deprivation is immediate and present. But here we go.

In the last couple of years I have become a bit of a boss at gluten-free cooking and baking. There are others who are better at it than I am. For instance, I don't have the patience to let my batters and doughs stand in the fridge for hours at a time so they lose some of their gritty texture from the rice flour. Instead, I amp up the toothiness of my doughs and mixes by adding ground millet, ground almonds, psyllium, ground gluten-free oats, and gluten-free hot cereal blends. I've got biscuits down. Cakes, quickbreads, pancakes, waffles, gravies, soups, sauces. Working on pizza crust. Sandwich bread, the bastard, has eluded me repeatedly. I am optimistic that I will succeed with pie crust and pastry crust.

I haven't found a gluten-free vegan resource yet who cooks like I cook--sort of southern, sort of Italian, sort of French, sort of Mexican. Also, I'm cooking for a family, which is a different way of cooking. Ingredients have to serve multiple purposes; last night's dinner has to be good as a base for today's breakfast. Recipes that stand alone, whose ingredients don't relate to a week's worth of healthy eating, aren't really useful. Very few people can afford to buy groceries for 21 separate meals a week whose ingredients don't flow one meal to the next. Economy is important, but so is simplicity. Excuse my french, but I fucking hate fussy food. So I'm going to post my successes, and probably some of my failures, here, in case there is someone else out there who has a palate like mine and has traveled down the same road to vegan and gluten-free. And yes, I know that I can't personally claim the label "vegan", but the dishes and recipes that I post here will be.


9 Alternative Gifts for the Kid Who Has Everything

A friend of mine posted a great question on Facebook: what could she get her kids this winter other than toys? In her case, she felt that her three kids had enough "stuff" and didn't need more of the same. The crowd-sourced answers were so inventive and wonderful that she suggested "someone" should write a blog post about them. I volunteered, and here it is. I hope you find some of these ideas useful.

1) Make a donation in the child's name, in a way that the child can appreciate who was helped and why.

This is something my dad does for my kids every Christmas, and I always look forward to it. He puts together a nice package with pictures and explanations of why he chose the particular non-profit that he chose, and how the donation is going to help people. Through his donation, the kids get to participate directly in the joys of philanthropy, they learn about other people and places in the world that are having challenges the kids might never have imagined otherwise, and they get the reassuring knowledge that there are organizations and people who are committed to solving these problems and helping the people (and other kids just like them) who have been affected.

2) Give the gift of your time.

Commit to a schedule of one-on-one time where your child gets to pick out the activity. Even if it's just fifteen minutes every day, that time is precious. Play hide and seek, card games, make experimental "snacks," color and draw together, sit down and read a favorite book together. Another option is setting aside an entire day that your child gets to design all of the activities. Take lots of pictures!

3) Give entertainment.

Theater passes, passes for Jumpoline/Pump it Up/indoor obstacle courses a la American Ninja Warrior, tickets to a favorite sporting event or musical concert or other arts performance, museum or zoo memberships, magazine subscriptions.

4) Give outdoor fun.

Skiing/snow-tubing passes, horseback riding lessons or trail rides, commit to a visit to a favorite museum or water park or putt putt course, drive out to a great skateboard park or bike course.

5) Give lessons.

Piano or guitar, horseback riding, skateboarding, ice skating, lessons in an obscure language your child has expressed an interest in (you might be able to find a tutor on craigslist), rock-climbing lessons, survival camp classes, cooking classes, sewing classes. Maybe you join your child in the lessons...? And you may have friends or family members that you can employ to provide a few lessons. Maybe you make great breads and your brother's daughter wants to learn, and meanwhile your brother started playing guitar when he was 12 and your son wants to learn. It's a great way to get a little more one-on-one time with extended family and build bonds that will last a lifetime.

6) Make a kid "date".

Schedule a mani-pedi with your daughters; give a gift certificate to their favorite restaurant and let them pick their friends to invite and order dessert; or let your child pick the activity--making her favorite food together from scratch, or working on a craft project together that your child picks out.

7) Give travel.

Commit to a trip to a nearby town, park, historical sight, nature sight, dude ranch, wilderness, big city.

8) Consider some non-toy "stuff".

Tinkering/arts and crafts supplies; a watch; a calendar; sports equipment; a fishing pole; a camera; a flashlight or headlamp; camping gear; puzzles.

9) Get kids BOOKS.

We love books. Kids love books. Even kids who say they don't like books, if you get them one, will spend days going through it. Don't know which books they like? Get them a gift card to a bookstore.


Forgiveness in Absentia

Many of us encounter people in our lives who will hurt us in immeasurable ways. Siblings, parents, friends, spouses, teachers, doctors, priests. People we relied on, because we had to or because we had chosen them. People who were in a position of trust with us, and who thus had greater access to our tender and vulnerable places.

Like everyone else, forgiveness is something I've been working on all my life. I don't work on forgiveness because I'm some spiritual ninja who puts healthy practices first in my life. I can promise you I'm not that good or disciplined. I work on forgiveness because it's essential for my own survival. Forgiveness, for me, is the process of spitting out the poison that others have fed me.

There are biblical and other faith teachings that say that forgiveness requires reconciliation. That's a nice idea. What if all of our woundedness could be healed and packaged and pretty and sewn up with a hug and a smile. As I get older, I'm learning that this is not always possible. The practice of forgiveness transforms me, but it does not transform the person I am forgiving into a person who would no longer offer me poison and call it love.

If you forgive a wolf for attacking you, would you believe that real forgiveness requires you to welcome the wolf into your home? Of course not. If you have finally clearly seen a wolf for who he or she is, forgiveness means forgiving them for being a wolf, not pretending that they are something else.

We never see "forgiveness" hanging out there on its own. It's always "forgive and forget," or forgiveness and closure, forgiveness and reconciliation. Sometimes there is only forgiveness, and this is okay. For the wolves we have encountered in our lives, for the ones who hurt us and are gone, forgiveness can be especially challenging because that sense of closure is more difficult to achieve without the other person's participation. But sometimes, not having the other person's participation is either unavoidable or is necessary, because he or she is a wolf and not safe to be around. This is what I am calling "forgiveness in absentia," and here is what I have learned about it.

It's hard.

But it is possible. It is possible to be in a state of forgiveness of a person and simultaneously want nothing to do with them. It is possible to sincerely wish someone every comfort and peace and healing, and to wish them to enjoy those things far, far away from you. The difficult step necessary to make this happen, I'm learning, is letting go of your feelings of woundedness and hurt. Being the one who was hurt, the one who was wounded, brings a certain power with it in our sick and wounded culture. It assumes a sort of moral superiority over the one who did the wounding. Letting go of that is hard, because if you're really honest with yourself, you'll admit that it feels good to feel superior to the person who hurt you. It feels good to get sympathy from others for how shitty another person was to you. But watch out, because this is you becoming attached to the poison, making it a part of you that you hold out for others to see and tell them the terrible story of how it was given to you. No one will stop to ask you, but why are you still carrying it around? But they should. And you should ask yourself this. You may not like the answers, but again, you're carrying poison given to you by someone else. Let it go.

Forgiveness in absentia has another challenge: in realizing and accepting that the one who wounded you is not someone you are safe around, there is grief for the loss of that relationship. Even relationships that ended horribly, painfully, cruelly, had some grains of good in them, some moments of connection that are worth holding onto and remembering. But mostly, when you are willing to release your feelings of woundedness and your identity as the victim of cruelty and attacks, you free yourself, finally, from the poison that was fed to you. You have spit it out. It is not who you are; it was who they were.

It is tempting at this point to tie the package up with a nice bow and say, "And then, you'll see the other person in a new light and there is space now to see them as a whole human and not just as the person who attacked you, and the two of you can start anew with a deeper and stronger connection than you had before." But no. The first part of that sentence, about seeing them as a whole human, yes, that's true. But not the second part. Unless they have also undergone their own transformation, you are still dealing with a wolf. And when, by now, there are so many happy mutts in your life occupying your heart, it's okay to leave that wolf alone.


Birds and Anxiety

When the kids were very young, I made a habit of pointing out the beauty around us in ordinary moments - the white swirl of clouds larger than skyscrapers, the dramatic and also subtle hues of sunset and sunrise, the towering grace of trees, the ever-present chirps and songs of birds.  I would tell them that one of the amazing things about living on this planet was that its beauty was always there, right in front of us, at every single moment, and that no matter what was happening for us in that moment, no matter how bad a day they were having, there would always be this, here for them, and all they had to do was remember to notice and enjoy it.

I did this in hopes that I was giving them a tool, a means to cope, to find solace and balm.  I didn't realize how much it would take root for them.

The boy, now 8, has become a bit of a junior ornithologist and naturalist.  He knows things about species, particularly birds, that I had never known, and I'm 44, and I read a lot and have been a nature lover and explorer for years.  And he still stumps me, and also his stepdad.  When he first started to rattle off facts and information to us, some of it sounding a tad implausible to our skeptical grown-up know-it-all minds, we would say, Really?  Are you sure?  I don't know, that doesn't sound quite right.  And then we would look it up, and the boy would have been right.  About all of it.  So we've learned.  Tonight, DH couldn't help himself, because the boy was talking about the cookie-cutter shark.  I would have thought, with a name like that, I would have heard about it by now.  DH apparently felt the same way, and during dinner he whipped out his phone, looked it up, and sure enough, the boy was right again.

I now know things about birds that I would never have known if the boy didn't love them so much.  I know that the female cardinal is a warm, nutty brown next to her more flamboyant partner, and I can tell their song every time I hear it.  I have a deeper appreciation for the singing prowess of mockingbirds.  I never realized how many birds around us are marked with yellow.  I have seen and correctly identified a red-winged blackbird.  I have watched a woodpecker and its mate build their nest.  I have seen a green heron on the phone line, fluffing its feathers in the cold morning air.  And I love all of this, this amazing gift of appreciation from my 8 year old son, but it also scares the hell out of me.  Because, something about going through what we've been through, it leaves you with a large residue of anxiety.  Now you know that horrific things happen.  Not just on the news, not just to people whose FB page your friend "liked" and it showed up in your feed.  They happen to you, in your life.  And once one horrific thing has happened very close to you and ripped through your own life - and worse, the lives of the people you love most of all, it feels like the next horrific thing is lurking in the wings, hiding behind the furniture, waiting for its chosen moment to leap into your life and wreck you and what you love again.  So for every joy, there is a frame of anxiety around it, like the photo frames at Target that say "Friends" and "Love" and "Family", except yours says "The Next Disaster Could Happen At Any Moment".  And how do you argue with that?  It's true.  You know it. 

So along with my delight in all of this new-found appreciation given to me by my son, my anxiety has also stepped up, because I've realized that birds now will always remind me of him, like looking at a rock makes me think of my geologist dad.  I feel so naive not realizing how much my kids were imprinting my world while I was deliberately trying to imprint theirs.  Anxiety is a patient bastard, I have to say.  I'm fortunate not to be plagued by depression, that constant gnawing monster.  But anxiety, mercifully mild most of the time, is a regular visitor.  I believe this is part of what's to be expected with post-traumatic-stress-disorder.  I believe, with time, it is supposed to be self-correcting.  Sometimes I look at how much has passed in these last three years - half a lifetime for the kids, but sometimes just a blink for me.  And I tell myself, you're doing fine.  Keep moving forward.  Everyone's safe and okay.  Tomorrow will be beautiful and ordinary and good, even the feisty bits.  And then I notice all of the art from the kids hanging around the house, the many "I love you" notes, and I try to focus on that and ignore the frame.


Why Separation of Church and State Means Churches Must Abide by the Laws They Don't Like

I guess there have always been attempts by churches to be excused from following the laws that go against their religious teachings.  I am being careful not to say laws that go against their morals, because morals and religious teachings are separate sources of what's right and wrong, that for some people are very connected, and for others - are not.  So I'm speaking here only about the church's interpretations, based on their particular dogma and doctrines, for what is acceptable conduct and what is not.

Recently, several churches, hospitals, universities and private individuals claiming religious belief have argued, and even sued the federal government, for their right to go against current legal requirements for allowing their female employees access to birth control under their health insurance (even if the insurer pays the full cost, which they're willing to do because family planning is much cheaper than the alternative), for example, or for recognizing the homosexual marriage of employees, patients or students who are legally married in states that recognize them (or the legal civil unions and associated medical power of attorney in states that do not).

There has also been a steady drumbeat from the very far right that Islamists in America are trying to create Shariah-law friendly zones and to implement Shariah law in jurisdictions across America.

I want to sit these folks down and explain to them very carefully that the one thing they are trying to do above, opens the door for exactly what they most fear and oppose.  I think most people understand this, but in case they don't, I'm going to spell it out, step by step, so that folks understand that when we stand up and say, no, the church cannot pick and choose which laws it will abide by, it's to protect them and the rest of us, not to harm them and not to disrespect them.

Let's say, for example, that a law is passed that says churches and organizations affiliated with churches may submit applications for waivers from local and federal laws that would otherwise require them to go against their religious teachings.  The way laws work, it would not be possible to say specifically which type of churches are allowed this privilege.  For example, it would not be okay to say only Christian churches could exercise this privilege, because that would be a state endorsement of a specific religion, which I think we all agree is a no-no under the First Amendment.  So the law would be written to generally allow religious institutions and their affiliates to be excused from following laws that go against their teachings.

All churches, of all faiths.

The effect of a law like this would be to create a massive loophole in democracy for all religious organizations to do as their holy books, cardinals, imams, rabbis, elders, etc. instruct instead of what the law requires.  A child denied life-saving cancer treatment on the basis of the parents' religious beliefs?  Excused.  Daughters denied education on the basis of the parents' religious beliefs?  Excused.  Polygamy?  Excused.  Chopping off a hand as punishment for theft within the community?  Excused.

This is the problem.  Once it is put into law, in any degree, that religious belief is allowed to override laws that conflict with faith or beliefs, the principle that religion trumps the democratic process has now entered the law and become legal precedent.  This is exactly what you do not want in a free country.  It is an extremely dangerous path to start down, and it opens the door to religion - any religion - to override secular principles of justice and individual freedoms and liberties, including most importantly the right of freedom of conscience, that are the foundation of our country's legal and political system. 

Those who follow a specific religion are already, right now, free to make choices in their own, personal lives to live as they see fit:  don't believe in gay marriage?  No one's forcing you into one.  Don't believe in science?  Then forego your own medical care and stop using the internet.  Don't believe in birth control?  No one's forcing you to use it.  But the examples given above are all cases where members of a religious organization would require others to also live by their particular religious beliefs rather than by the individual's own conscience.  You can't have it both ways, folks.  If you want freedom of conscience, which is the law right now, then you have to respect everyone else's freedom of conscience, too.  Even if you disagree with how they are living their lives.  It's their choice, their life, but most importantly, it's the law.  It's the result of the secular, democratic process.  And once we give special dispensation to avoid the law based on  religious beliefs, we open the door for all religious beliefs to avoid the law.  This is a sacred boundary, and it cannot be breached, for anyone, ever.


We're On Your Side

My teenage years were hard.  I entered them with little to no resources for taking care of myself emotionally, for recognizing and protecting myself from people who would use me, manipulate me, disrespect my personal boundaries and treat me horribly.  I sought out attention from my peers, however I could obtain it, and was desperate for anything that resembled affection.  I was also in a lot of pain, felt isolated and worthless, and sought to numb all of those feelings with substances.

It's a wonder I survived those years. 

I came out of it rather early, and somewhat painfully, around fifteen.  I had a life-altering moment in which I realized, in a crystallizing epiphany, that the person who would ultimately live the consequences of all of my choices was not any of the people who were telling me what to do or that they knew better than I did what was best for me.  It was me.  I alone would have to live out the effects of these decisions.  And therefore no one - No. One. - had the authority to tell me how I should live my life.

This was the beginning of a long road of learning what it meant to be a successful, happy human.  A road I'm still discovering and building.

There's something important that I want my kids to hear, so I've started to say it to them, because the older one is eight, and soon things will start to show up in his life that carry more consequences, more traps, more risks for screwing up.  I want them to hear that their stepdad and I are on their side.  I said it to them the other day.  No matter what they had done, no matter how upset it might make me to hear about it, we're always here to help them.  They can count on us.  We will comfort them.  We will protect them.  We will be on their side.  Always.

One of my biggest fears as they grow older is the emergence of a space between us where I become on the outside of their lives, of what's happening to them, inside of them, and that I'm not even aware of how large this space has become.  I know that there will be some space.  It's a necessary part of becoming an adult.  But I want to be sure that if something happens to them that really scares them, no matter how ashamed they feel about it or how badly they think they screwed up, that they will come to us, because they will know that they don't have to carry it alone.  So I've started telling them now, and trying to practice good empathetic listening, and staying calm and non-judging when little things go wrong, so that when big things go wrong later, they'll still come to us. 

When I was a teenager, people already talked about how different and more dangerous the world was for my generation - AIDS, cocaine, gangs, and the explosion of pornography with cable tv and VHS recording all preyed upon the future of youth.  And that was before the internet.  Before this insane proliferation of guns in homes and purses and car glove compartments.  Before Mexican cartels moved into our neighborhoods.  Before human traficking and forced prostitution warranted their own budgets and departments in local crime enforcement.  Before organizations dedicated solely to protecting and advocating for child victims of sexual abuse even existed.

So besides keeping the computers in the family room, talking with them about how to choose their friends, teaching them bit by bit that there are dangers out there that they need to watch out for and avoid, I also want to add in, and if (when) you screw up, come to us.  Whatever pain you are in, we are your parents, we are strong, let us carry it with you and help you through it.  We will listen.  We care.  We will always be on your side.

I hope and pray that by the time they become teenagers, the bridge we have built will be strong and familiar enough that they will meet us on it, by habit, no matter how large the spaces between us have become.


C-Change in How We Eat

There have been significant changes in my life and in the kids' lives, good changes. Healing. Rebuidling. Love carefully, gently, patiently stitching a new family together. I got married. To a man the kids adore - they call him "Woogie". He's been with us through everything. About a year ago the kids stopped calling their Dad "Daddy" and instead started referring to him by his name when we talked about him. Sometimes it felt like they were making a point of saying something about him just to hear themselves call him by his name, to feel the word inside their mouths. And they didn't really know what to call my then-boyfriend. They had grown to love him, to the point that calling him by his name didn't seem right. But "Daddy" wasn't available. The person who was the one person who that name was for is gone. Painfully. They won't give that name to another, ever. So, Woogie. He's good with it. I'm good with it. We're all good with it.

Since our marriage, we have both lost weight. Not really trying, but we watched "Forks Over Knives". We have been flirting with going vegetarian, maybe even vegan, for a while now. We watched "Food, Inc.", and affirmed that we would only eat local, farm-raised, locally slaughtered and butchered meat. Then came "Forks Over Knives". The mountain of research and data demonstrating the terrible health effects of animal protein. The multiple cases of dramatically ill individuals, some whose doctors had given up on them and told them to prepare to die, recovering healthy, vital lives simply by changing to a plant-based diet of whole foods. It was stunning.

When you have your kids a little later in life, the idea of longevity changes from a nice thing to do for yourself to an imperative for your kids (and your grandkids, should you be so blessed). And if one parent has already died, well, you can't help but feel like you have to be that much more stable, that much stronger, that much healthier and present and available. Because you do. In addition to planning on running a marathon next February, I'm trying to change my body's chemistry. Not that it was bad to begin with. I had low blood pressure, good weight, excellent cholesterol. But I'm 43, and I want to live to be 100. Am I jinxing myself saying that out loud? I don't see any reason, short of the statistical things like getting hit by a drunk driver, why I shouldn't stay strong, active and healthy for a long, long time.

So we're making the change to being vegetarians with a view toward vegan, and I'm realizing that I'm having to start over in the kitchen in many ways. When you eat meat, making dinner is actually easier. Or right now it seems so. I could throw a piece of meat in the oven or the skillet, whether it was tilapia, chicken legs, brisket - add a quick salad, a veggie, and we were done. I didn't have to think about it much.

Now, because it's new, I have to think about it.  And it seems like there's more prep work in vegetarian cooking.  More things to chop.  More grains to cook.  Things to roast, blend, soak.  I'm following two guiding principles - not to rely on meat substitutes (I'm trying to stay away from tofu and tempeh), and not to put too many ingredients into any one dish.  There's lentil loaf and ratatouille, which necessarily require a lot of ingredients, but other than that, I'm trying to keep it simple. 

Tonight's dinner, for example, was a salad of cantaloupe and mango with vanilla soy yogurt, a kale-potato pie, and a carrot-quinoa side.  There were different flavors on the plate, which helps the kids, but each dish was very simple.  The pie had 6 ingredients (crust, kale, potatoes, bread crumbs, parmesan, olive oil), but was still very simple.  I plan to start posting some of the meals and recipes, as I've done before, but I'm realizing that there's a lot of room for creativity in vegetarian cooking, and I want to have a place to write down what I've cooked so I won't forget the dishes later.  The other night we had grilled grape tomatoes with a canellini bean sauce that came out very nice.  I don't want to forget that one either.

And, um, I know I have a few followers on this blog.  It means a lot to me to know you're there.  This is the place where I've put some of my most personal thoughts and difficult times, and you have been 100% supportive, and you didn't have to be.  We have been through a few more milestones and hoops that may help someone else who is a caregiver to a child coping with the loss of a parent.  But I just wanted to say "thank you".  And I hope I can give back here, hopefully sharing some bit of information or lesson learned that helps someone else.

There is nothing to do but love everyone.