Singing For the Cure

We had a sell-out concert last night: 1020 seats filled, and over $25,000 raised for Susan G. Komen. Nothing in the rehearsals prepared me for the energy of our performance. I was still awake at 3:00 a.m., still riding the waves created by our sea of voices. We rocked the house.

Lying awake this morning, I thought about cancer, thought about the fear and pain and despair that cancer creates. Cancer takes away our loves, steals our hopes, trashes our plans, turns our dreams into nightmares. But cancer also gives us gifts, if we can face our fears and look it in the face.

Cancer forces us to know our mortality. Our lives, and the lives of our loved ones are suddenly finite, and more precious. Everyday becomes a gift. Every moment can be alight with hidden treasure – cancer reminds us to look for it. Each breath becomes a gift of presence, in the present.

Cancer, by blocking our chosen paths, makes us gather our courage and take new ones. Cancer made me see that the man I loved and planned to marry was not for me. Cancer invited me to step into a new life, a life free of others’ plans and expectations. Two years after my diagnosis I met the love of my life. This year we celebrate 38 years together.

Cancer inspires artists and writers, composers and musicians, to create and express beauty and meaning in a world that often seems short of both. Sing For the Cure is but one example.

And cancer creates community and connection, inspires reaching across the distances and differences that we think divide us. Last night, every singer remembered the dear ones who are gone from our loving embrace. Every singer celebrated the survival of friends, family, and ourselves. Every singer gave life to the hope and determination that cancer will be defeated, and promised that together we will look fearlessly towards our future, with one glorious voice.

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The Space Around Me

I started Alexander Technique lessons three months ago. A couple of nasty car wrecks left me with a long-term neck and back discomfort that now bothers me more and more when I am practicing. I’m hoping to become more aware of how I create tension when I am at the harp, and to learn how to not do that.

My second Alexander lesson ended with my teacher working with me at the harp. With my neck, shoulders and ribcage loose and expanded, my arms felt like they were floating, my fingers were strong and free, and the sound that burst forth when I plucked the strings was full, rich and glorious – and different from anything I’d heard come from my harp. That was all the convincing I needed that I was on the right track.

Tonight’s lesson was different. No harp, just gentle upward strokes on my neck and head, then me walking back and forth across the length of the room. As I walked, my teacher asked me to be aware of the empty space above my head. “Now feel the space in front of you and behind you as you walk, feel it move across the room with you,” she said. “All this space is here for you. Being aware of it gives you room in which to move, and gives you freedom to relax, to open, to expand.”

What a concept! Despite what I am sure adds up to be hundreds of thousands of dollars of therapy, the idea that there is all this space around me, and that it is mine to move my body in, mine to use, mine to be in, still feels new, and breath-taking. Bourbon took up all the space in my childhood house. I grew up knowing there was no room for me, knowing that I needed to stay safely hidden away, taking up as little space as possible, hoping I would not be seen or heard when the nightly chaos began. I longed to be invisible. Staying silent, small, and unnoticed was as close to invisible as I could get. Much of my work with performance anxiety is about peeling away these layers of fear and substitute invisibility, and finding that I can be safe when I am seen and heard.

Tonight, walking across the room feeling the two feet of space above my head, I feel my neck and spine lengthen and relax. There’s no need to hold myself in. My shoulder blades slide down my back and my arms swing freely – there’s plenty of room around me. As each foot touches the floor it rolls easily from heel to toes. I feel as though I am gliding on smoothly oiled joints, instead of plodding across the room on my creaky oft-broken ankles and my cranky knees. My legs and hips are happy to hold me up and ask no help from my neck, which now only has to balance my head on its topmost vertebrae. Moving feels light, and spacious, and good.

Doing table work, my teacher gently reminds my hands of all the space that exists between the tendons and bones, and of all the movement that my fingers are capable of. After my lesson, again at my harp, my hands find the C-major chord and roll it perfectly without help from finger and thumb splints. My ring fingers stay rounded, instead of collapsing. How or why I don’t know, or don’t yet have words for. Perhaps fingers, too, find support and ease being enfolded in this new, expanded space around me? Each lesson leaves me “curiouser and curiouser.”

Tomorrow I shift to an entirely different space: the annual Southeastern Harp Weekend in Asheville, NC. The space around me will be filled with all things harp, and with people as silly-ga-ga about harps as I am, but will be quite deficient with wi-fi access. I’ll be back in Blogland with harp weekend stories next week.

It’s Not Summer Without A Tomato Sandwich

I’ve not has a piece of bread since embarking on my gluten/egg/dairy/soy-free adventure back in April. Cream scones, French baguettes, and chocolate pumpkin breads no longer emerge from my oven. As much as I enjoy baking bread, I’ve been strangely ok with my bread-less life. But all that ended when Beth sent me home with these jewels from her husband’s garden:

Fresh From the Garden
Fresh From the Garden

Home-grown tomatoes require tomato sandwiches. Sandwiches made from thick slices of tomatoes on white bread that’s been slathered with Duke’s mayonnaise. Sandwiches so sodden and drippy with tomato juice that they must be eaten standing over the kitchen sink.

And a tomato sandwich requires that which has been missing from my kitchen for the last four months: Bread.

A Google search came up with “The Top 20 Gluten-Free Bread Recipes.” Many of these bread recipes made up for the lack of gluten by using eggs or egg whites for extra leavening power. There were a few vegan bread recipes, but all of them required ingredients that I didn’t have. Making yet another foray to track down sorghum flour and arrowroot starch was not in my plans.

Looking a little further down the Google search results, I found “Vegan Gluten-Free Sandwich Bread|jessicacorra,” on a WordPress blog, no less. Making a quick trip to Jessica’s blog, I found a recipe that matched all the gluten-free baking ingredients in my pantry. Three hours later (one hour to mix and bake, two hours to cool thoroughly)  I was slicing into my first loaf of gluten/egg/dairy-free bread:

My First Loaf of Gluten-Free Bread
My First Loaf of Allergy-Free Bread

My favorite mayonnaise, Duke’s, and all other real mayonnaise, is made with eggs, which makes it taboo for me. I found a tasty alternative in Earth Balance Mindful Mayo, which is made without eggs or soy. After slathering two slices of bread with it, I ended up with my first gluten-free, allergy-free tomato sandwich:

Ready To Dig In
Ready To Dig In

Yum! The only problem with my tomato sandwich was that I couldn’t figure out how to take a self-portrait of me eating it while the tomato juices dripped down my chin into the kitchen sink.

So, What DO I Eat Now?

I am not writing much lately. Instead, I am spending my time figuring out what I am going to eat, and then cooking it. After three months of recurrent bronchitis, the return of asthma symptoms after a three-year hiatus, more finger joints being affected by osteoarthritis, increasing fibromyalgia tender points, dripping red eyes not responding to allergy drops, and the acupuncturist telling me week after week that I have “too much heat,” I decided that I needed to look at how the food I eat creates inflammation.

There are many elimination diet protocols available via the Internet, with many of them authored by people with questionable or even imaginary credentials. I settled on one posted by the University of Wisconsin Integrative Medicine Family Medicine Department. They recommend eliminating potential trigger foods for three weeks, and then reintroducing foods one at a time to determine if they cause problems.

On April 10th I stopped eating gluten, dairy, corn, peanuts, sugar, and eggs. Because I had problems with soy milk years ago, I eliminated all soy as well. And given the controversy about nightshade vegetables causing inflammation, I stopped eating tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and eggplant.

Going gluten-free is not difficult these days. Even the conventional grocery stores have gluten-free foods on the shelves, and there are lots of lists of food with hidden gluten on the Internet. Egg and dairy are easy to find and avoid. Once you learn all of the food industry’s names for sugar, all the -oses, that’s easy to avoid, too. But soy hides in almost every food group. Soy oil is in canned tuna, and vegan eggless mayonnaise and butter substitutes. Soy is common in gluten-free cereals and protein powders. It’s even in chocolate bars as soy lethicin. To be safe, I avoided condiments. I ate mostly rice cereal and almond or coconut milk, fresh fruit, rice cakes and almond butter, organic pastured chicken, and organic grass-fed beef with vegetables, rice and sweet potatoes.

After three weeks my eyes no longer watered, I had no pain in my hands and fingers, I stopped wheezing, the muscles in my legs and arms didn’t ache, and the acupuncturist said I had the most even and regular pulses of the five years he’s been seeing me.

I began food trials the beginning of May. I could not follow the schedule of a new food every three days, because eggs, gluten, and dairy made me so sick that it took almost a week to get over each of them. I also reacted to sugar, peanuts and soy, but not as intensely as the first three foods. Corn, potatoes, tomatoes and peppers don’t bother me. (Eggplants are out of season at the farmers’ markets, so that’s still a mystery.)

With all these food sensitivities, I no longer know how to best characterize my diet. Am I a carnivorous, gluten-free, soy/peanut/sugar-avoiding vegan? An egg-avoiding paleo diet adherent? A pasta-free Mediterranean diet follower?

But the most critical question is, can I ever eat pizza again?

Friday night I trolled the Internet for gluten/egg/dairy-free pizza crust and cheese alternatives. Yesterday I visited all three natural food grocery stores in town to score Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free pizza crust mix, Bob’s Red Mill golden flax meal (to mix with water to replace eggs), organic nitrate and nitrite-free pepperoni, and Daiya “mozzarella style shreds.” And as evidence of a benevolent universe, I also found a Spanish gluten-free beer on sale, and a dairy- and soy-free 85% cacao dark chocolate bar. Woohoo!

The pizza dough came together with just a couple of minutes of mixing at medium speed and 20 minutes of rising. Following the package instructions to divide dough in half and “pat out with wet hands” yielded a 12-inch whole grain crust.

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I added organic Muir Glen canned pizza sauce, and olives and mushrooms from the fridge to the “mozzarella shreds” and ended up with something that looked just like all the other pizzas I’ve made at home.

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Twenty minutes later I sat down to a slice of hot pizza and a glass of cold beer.

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The beer is a lager with strong hops flavor. I prefer porters and stouts, but getting to drink any beer at all was a real treat. The pizza was everything I’ve missed – a crisp wheaty crust, with rich tomato flavor underlying spicy pepperoni, roasted veggies, and melted gooey cheese – all without any actual wheat or cheese.

My unrestricted-diet dinner companion called it “really good” and did not notice that the cheese, well, wasn’t.

The last two months I experimented with new dishes that avoid all the forbidden foods, without using any “specialty” ingredients. Roasted cauliflower, coconut rice, mango chicken, and lentil and sweet potato curry are now in my menu rotation. But I am truly excited by how well the gluten-free and vegan ingredients worked – some Saturday nights just call for pizza and beer. Using “engineered” ingredients may allow this Mediterranean paleo-vegan to eat some of the things I thought were banned forever. Perhaps wheat-free, cream-free, butter-free scones are next!