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Beginning Clean (book excerpt)

Beginning Clean (on fasting and failing)

Let the mouth also fast from disgraceful speeches and railings. For what does it profit if we abstain from fish and fowl and yet bite and devour our brothers and sisters? The evil speaker eats the flesh of his brother and bites the body of his neighbor. —St. John Chrysostom The Lenten journey is not about what you cannot eat. It’s about what you pray from your heart while fasting and God daily feeding your spirit. —Subdeacon Michael Chuck Hann

On the top shelf in our walk-in pantry, behind the melba toast and the cans of tuna my mother used to eat while dieting, behind the cereals we did not like, behind the tin of rum balls that had lived in that pantry longer than we had lived in that house, there were a few bottles of soda pop called Tahitian Treat. We knew they were there, though they were hidden. They were only for my mother’s consumption. None of us kids would even consider breaking the sacred trust of the forbidden pantry shelf by violating the bottles of bright red fizzy sugar water. My mother always seemed to be dieting. When things were particularly stressful in the household, we’d find remnants of junk food, wrappers and crumbs, perhaps an empty bottle of Tahitian Treat, near the floor register where she would sit late at night and study for her college classes. A few days after that, the pantry would once again be filled with melba toast and canned tuna fish—remorse for the sins of the past, recommitment to the true path of a smaller dress size.

In the Orthodox tradition, we fast. A lot. No matter how many calendars I printed and pasted on my refrigerator door, remembering the weekly fast was a struggle. I would forget halfway through each Wednesday and Friday and find myself eating meat or dairy without thinking. I’d clunk myself on the forehead in “I should have had a V8” style and finish out the day limping along across the fasting finish line with all kinds of remorse. When I began the journey into Orthodoxy, I was already moving again toward becoming a vegetarian, with designs on moving on to being a full-on casual vegan. I thought this part of the practice would be the easiest to wrap my hands around.

After spending most of my life having people compliment me on my trim waistline, I noticed I was beginning to expand my physical horizons, and I thought changing my diet might help. It wasn’t just the weight gain that moved me toward the vegetarian lifestyle, but aging in general, the fatigue, the need for more coffee in the mornings and sometimes in the middle of the day, and the fact that I had already tried so many other diets to stem my growing pants size.

I tried the low-carb and the high-vegetable and the juicing and the whole grains and the no grains and the grapefruit and the cottage cheese and pineapple, finding myself understanding my mother more and more with each switch. While I blamed perimenopause, natural aging, or low thyroid function and chronic fatigue syndrome for the weight gain, it was more likely that my expanding form was a result of the eating I did in secret, the hidden treats, the sneak snacking, medicating the emotional ills by feeding them sugar and trans fats.

By the time we moved on to the Presbyterian church, I’d lost the secret nature of the eating and moved on to utter defiance, choosing the chocolate-covered donut in the church potluck lineup because “so what” and “who cares” and “mind your own business.” My body frame supported this gain, so while it was easy to hide, I knew it was a lie when I looked in the mirror after getting out of the shower. I told myself I was fat and sighed with disgust when I looked in the mirror, and that did more damage to me than the junk food ever could.

from Nearly Orthodox: On being a modern woman in an ancient tradition

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