where it all began

Last week, I dug out the dark green heavy plastic bin that resides at the bottom of one of my storage closets. It’s not easily accessible, but not too hard to get to either. Years can go by without my opening it, but I like to know where it is among all of my stored stuff. It contains the artifacts of my formative years and preserves that nascent stage of my existence.

Stuffed in the bin is mainly personal correspondence of my life from pre-junior high through post-college. They are written on bright flowery stationery, thin and wide-lined loose-leaf paper, odd scraps and postcards from near and far. Some are hammered out on yellowing typing paper. They document boring summer days, summer camp activities, courses taken, teenage-angst, young love and declarations of forever friendship. There are also some official documents like my school report cards, SAT scores and college tuition bills which seem quite cachectic compared to the full robust ones of today.

On the rare occasions when I open the bin, it is easy to get lost in there, randomly opening envelopes to see what long-forgotten piece of soul revealing information lies within. On my recent excavation, I tried not to linger too long. I was looking for some particular letters to give to an old friend who had authored them many years ago–and found them pretty quickly.

However, to my surprise, I happened to dredge up a scribbled draft of my college application essay describing my intention to embark on the study of nutrition. In my once prized small script, amid the many cross-outs, the blue ink asserted that “For many years I have been concerned about my own diet and now, I have become increasingly aware of problems and inadequacies in the public’s diet due to social conditions and the lack of proper nutritional information.” It goes on to say that having worked for a summer in a local health food store, I came to understand that I wanted to pursue the field of nutrition. Every day was a learning experience as I gained knowledge from both my employer and the customers. I add that I have an interest in the social sciences and have a desire to help people. And, that I think the program I am applying for is one of the best.

It was rather embarrassing to read this declaration of purpose from my unformed self and to see my simplistic writing. It also made me wonder if I have evolved much since then, as I seem to still be living an old vision. I know it is time for me to manifest something new. Still, I was struck by my awareness at that point of the inadequacies of the American diet and its effects on our health. This was 1977. Dietetics at that time was still essentially practiced in the caverns of hospitals, nursing homes, and school cafeterias. It was also a few years before high fructose corn syrup and other chemically-transformed concoctions tsunamied their way into our entire food supply, altering the contours of the human physique which pulled the alarm bells–and margarine and saccharin were still considered rather benign.

As I mentioned in Holistic, Intuitive Eating, Community Nutritionist Seeking Michael Pollan, I thought my early intentions were focused on global hunger issues. I did not remember that health and personal feeding concerns inspired my path.

Looking back, I now know that Hy, the owner of that health food store–ironically located next to a pizza shop in a tiny row of stores in a largely industrial area–was way ahead of his time. He was a round, bespectacled man already in his late sixties who had retired from a career with the famed Harry Winston Jewelers.

Hy was self-taught, having studied the work of other nutritional gurus. From him, I learned about health issues that are only recently becoming widely accepted. He talked about the dangers of sugar, how bad it was to eat when stressed, and the importance of exposure to natural light. He knew about the healing properties of herbs. He quietly assisted customers with unorthodox treatments and kept some special products in the backroom. A few years later when I was struggling with some serious irritable bowel symptoms, I desperately sought him out. He readily guided me to a simple herbal supplement right on the shelf, and my condition was almost immediately improved. Maybe that is when my perspective changed from the global to the personal. It clearly began my departure from conventional medicine.

Little could I have imagined then where this interest would lead me. Though I have done community nutrition work, and have had some short-term experiences doing public health work in both Guatemala and Peru, my work has been very local and essentially contained within the vast personal geography of the individual.

Interestingly, the friend whose letters I was looking for was overweight as a teenager. Her frank comments about herself and her struggles with weight were a constant part of our adolescent conversations. I remember once during high school her parents went away for the weekend. Left to our own devices, she and I made a beeline to the store and giddily filled a shopping cart with boxes of junk food.

In one of the letters, she writes about being in love with some guy who she met when she started college. She describes her realization that her years of constant hunger and adoration of food had for the first time, amazingly diminished. She acquires, at that moment, an important knowing that is still barely recognized in the big chat room of culinary chastisement and dietary deprivation–that pleasure is a vital nutrient. Trying to beat down the desire to overeat without nurturing other areas of pleasure in one’s life will only foster continual frustration and unsuccessful weight loss or healthier eating attempts.

This is a very important concept that I never learned in my academic studies but which is now being beautifully presented to the world by some lovely wise women–Jena La Flamme, Tonya Leigh, and Angela Minelli. Please check out their offerings.

Right now, I am sitting on the couch taking one more glance at this old college essay before I go upstairs to pack it back in the bin. So much has changed since then. I wonder what would have happened, what would have been different if I had not been accepted to that college nutrition program. Who knows.

I’d love to hear about what sparked your interest or passion in this area.

In health, Elyn

my plate

My Plate Haiku

Food made joyfully

As a gift of time and self

Feeds body and soul.    By Anne-Marie

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