Why. This week’s organization

Some of you may not remember the singer/songwriter, Harry Chapin.  I do.  My whole family listened to his music a lot when I was in high school.  One night, I was doing the dishes and listening to a Harry Chapin album.  The song playing was a love song that went, “Oh, my Jenny.”  Suddenly my brother Jeff came running up the stairs from the family room to say that Harry Chapin had been killed in a car accident.  It was a sad moment for a lot of fans.

I mention all of this because this week’s organization is Why. Finding Answers for Hunger and Poverty, which was established in 1975 by Harry Chapin and radio talkshow host Bill Ayres.  A quote from their website:

WHY is convinced that solutions to hunger and poverty can be found at the grassroots level. WHY advances long-term solutions to hunger and poverty by supporting community-based organizations that empower individuals and build self-reliance, i.e., offering job training, education and after school programs; increasing access to housing and healthcare; providing microcredit and entrepreneurial opportunities; teaching people to grow their own food; and assisting small farmers. WHY connects these organizations to funders, media and legislators.

In addition to offering emergency assistance, WHY really focuses on building self-reliance and skills, so that people are helped for a lifetime, not just when in crisis.  They also sponsor the Harry Chapin Media Awards, which highlight the best writing on hunger and poverty in a variety of genres.  Definitely check out their website (link on the “Ballot” page in the sidebar).

Control

I have a few friends and family members (you know who you are, and so does everyone else) for whom control is a major issue.  It never has been for me.  In fact, I once went  to an astrologer (I was about 29 at the time) who said, “You just now figured out that you CAN exert some control over your life — up till now you’ve just assumed your life was happening and your role was to go along for the ride.”  Regardless of the accuracy of the rest of my natal chart, this particular comment really struck home.

Over the past week, especially during my time in New Mexico with my family, I struggled more than is typical with a desire to be in control — in one area in particular:  food.  When you are a guest in other people’s homes, it doesn’t feel right to dictate the food selection or to have a hissy fit if what is served isn’t quite what you wanted.  My family was very sensitive to my efforts to lose weight and my concerns about weathering the holidays without too much damage on the scale, and they bent over backwards to meet my needs.  But I still found myself confronted with options I wouldn’t have faced at home.  Of course, there were temptations to my self-discipline, like my niece Hallie’s “birds nests”.  But what I am really talking about here are the meal basics — entrees, sides, etc. — not the holiday goodies that were available in addition to the meals.

In the midst of my frustration over my lack of control,  I thought about the organizations I’ve listed on this blog who send meals to shut-ins or who operate food pantries and/or soup kitchens — and about the many individuals and families who are dependent upon these services for their daily sustenance.  And it occurred to me that one of the side-effects of being hungry (from poverty or disaster)  is that you do not get to exert any control over the food you receive, are served, or must eat to survive.  I thought it was difficult to go for a week eating what others chose to serve — and it helped me realize what a luxury the control most of us have on a daily basis truly is. 

I was thinking this very thought as my parents and I were driving to meet my sister Gwen’s family.  One of those Christmas music radio stations was on, and they were playing the Bob Geldof song written for African famine relief — at the end, they repeatedly sing the line “Feed the world”.  I’ve been listening and singing along to this song for about 20 years now.  But this line struck me anew — and I admit I got a little choked up singing it — feed the world.  In comparison to this simple imperative, it seemed silly to worry about whether I could “afford” the calories in the roast beef being served for dinner. 

It took me days to relax into the idea that I wasn’t in control of each meal’s menu; to refocus on the things that were important in the moment at hand.  Once I was able to do that, the whole food thing was a lot less stressful.  Now that I am back home and back in control of the food I’m eating, I can clearly see that I once again wasted energy focusing on the wrong things too much of the time (a lifelong bad habit).  Here, I am in control of my food choices, but I am eating alone — I find I’d rather have my mom or my sister selecting the menu if it means I get to share the meal with them.

Like I said before, I have never really had a high need for control.  It is more than time, though, to exercise control over my thinking and my tendency to be out of the moment.  Sounds like a New Year’s resolution!

Ghost of Christmas Past

I love Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I have read it many times, and each year I watch numerous adaptations of it on television and film.  The whole idea that it is never too late to realize what is important, never too late to change into a better version of yourself, has always appealed to me.  In fact, tonight I plan to curl up under the beautiful throw my friend Colette gave me for Christmas and watch “Scrooge”, the musical version starring Albert Finney — a film I remember seeing in the theater as a kid.

When I was younger, I found the idea of the three ghostly visitors to be frightening in a thrilling way.  Who wouldn’t want ghosts like these to visit and show you glimpses of the lives your life has touched?  This year, though, I am a little less enthralled with one particular ghoul — The Ghost of Christmas Past.

It isn’t that my memories of Christmas are difficult — in fact, I come from a Christmas-loving family who turned each holiday-related experience or activity into an annual tradition until we were fulfilling someone’s “favorite” tradition from sun-up Christmas Eve through sun-down on Christmas Day.  Elves, stockings, surprise visits from Santa himself…all of these memories I treasure.

But I also remember Christmases that began with homemade cinnamon bread with icing, followed by trays of delicious goodies, pretzels and cheese spread, stolen nibbles from the table before the actual hour of the meal arrived.  I can remember a couple of occasions when, after grazing for hours I sat down and ate two heaping helpings of every dish served.  There have been Christmas afternoons when I have lain on a sofa or floor and wondered if this was going to be the year my stomach actually exploded.

Dear Readers, I would be lying if I said I know for a fact that this year will not be like that.  One thing about getting where I am today with regard to food and weight is that I am a world-champion justifier.  And the absolute best justification in the past has been, “Its Christmas”.  Beautiful in its truth and simplicity.

In Dickens’ tale, each Ghost forces Ebineezer Scrooge to look at both the bright and dark moments of life.  My personal Ghost of Christmas Past is causing me to take a hard look at how it happened that I confused eating foods I love with feeling loved.  It is also asking me to keep in mind that, like Scrooge, I have been equating my emotional need with the very real need felt by so many. This is how I have justified hoarding and loading up rather than open-handedly sharing bounty I’ve been given;  it is how I have justified overindulgences of many kinds.  Scrooge and I, in our relative wealth and comfort, have both been too self-focused. 

Thursday morning, Christmas Eve, I will weigh-in on the scale at my sister Gwen’s home.  It will reveal a momentary snapshot of where I am on this quest to both change myself and make a difference for others.  I want to thank all of you for your support and encouragement these past few weeks.  I know that whatever the scale says this week or next, you will continue to offer these wonderful gifts. 

May the holiday season be bright with light and laughter for us all.  And may it be said of each of us, as in the end it was said of Scrooge — that if anyone knows how to keep Christmas, we do!

HACAP

This week’s hunger relief organization is a local, Eastern Iowa,  agency named HACAP (Hawkeye Area Community Action Program.  Their tag line: “A help up, not a hand out.”  HACAP is a member of the Feeding America network of food programs.  I’ve copied, below, some of the accomplishments of their food resevoir program.  They can be found at http://www.hacap.org.  HACAP’s programs make a real difference throughout this community.

The Food Reservoir Program:

  • Distributes approximately 1.4 million pounds of food to local organizations;
  • Provides over 5,000 food boxes a year for families in need;
  • Serves as a food distributor for Holiday Assistance Programs, which help over 2,800 families annually
  • Operates the HACAP Adopt-a-Family Program that links over 300 families with individuals and organizations wishing to donate food and gifts to needy families; and
  • Saves the 103 partner agencies over $2,000,000 in food costs, based on wholesale costs, thereby allowing them to spend those funds on other program activities and services.

Strength

My friend, Katie (age 10) and I are learning some of the same lessons this week.  Katie and her sisters have recently upped their activity level, taking on both evening swimming and club volleyball.  However, they’ve never been big eaters and are very thin — low on energy reserves for the major exercise they’re getting.  Abby, Kate’s sister, has started eating more to fuel her energy, and Katie is…working on it.  As it turns out, Katie and I are both learning that its not just about eating — its also about eating the right kinds of foods.

A few days this week, my caloric intake was pretty low (under 1000 calories) but I was feeling good and in general considered it a gift that I wasn’t feeling hungry all the time.  Then Monday came along.  After work, I worked out intensely for over an hour.  And when I was finished, I headed home, weighted down with a large box of stuff — probably only 7 or 8 pounds — but the walk was icy and the temps were just above zero so it took me a lot longer than I anticipated.  When I got home I was freezing, pooped and my shoulders hurt — but I had a list of things which needed to be accomplished that night.  I fell into bed around one a.m. completely tuckered out.

Tuesday was awful.  Every joint in my body ached, I was tired, I was cranky.  I could not get warm.  The women at work had our annual ornament exchange luncheon and I had a difficult time getting into the festive spirit of the occasion.  Then, the soup I ordered for lunch came to the table — pumpkin-squash curry soup.  It was warming, filling, flavorful and delicious.  And I suddenly realized that all of my irritability and achy-ness was actually hunger. 

After work, I went to Katie’s house to work out.  But first, her mom insisted on feeding me a salad and fresh fruit (while Katie made herself eat her green beans).  My workout felt great.  When I got home I had a serving of shepherd’s pie — a recipe I love from Clean Eating magazine — only 160 calories a serving (check out the recipe on the recipe page, right column of this blog) and a treat of peanut butter on crackers for a bedtime snack. 

Strength comes in so many forms — mental toughness, emotional werewithal, physical power, etc.  The sources of strength in our lives are also varied.  A child who shares her struggles and triumphs, friends who nourish us (literally and figuratively), the knowledge that we are thought of and prayed for.  And this week, my hard-to-learn lesson that food isn’t just for pleasure or comfort.  It is the fuel that strengthens us to face each day’s challenges. 

In honor of Katie, this week’s hunger organization is “Share Our Strength (No Kid Hungry)”.  Their website can be found at strength.org.  Just as Meals on Wheels focuses their efforts on senior hunger, Share our Strength is focused on the millions of children who are living with hunger on a daily basis.  In addition to working with food pantries and developing educational programs on nutrition, they have formed creative partnerships with states and with business.  For example, they work with the culinary industry and have enlisted chefs, restaurants, and food companies (such as Tasefully Simple) to creat innovative programs for awareness and fundraising.  It took me a while to get past the fundraising page of their website, but once I did, there is a wealth of information.

Here’s hoping we all find the strength to accomplish today’s goals!

Inspiration

Let’s face it, sometimes we’re inspired and other times…not so much.  Right now, as I sit in my cozy dining room listening to the howling wind and thawing out from the amazing hour of snow shoveling I’ve just completed (freezing and sweating at the same time just shouldn’t be possible) I am feeling good with a hint of virtuousness.  I’ve eaten carefully today, and I’ve gotten a lot of exercise.  Ah, life is good, I’m good, and all’s right with the world.

But earlier in the week, I was really struggling with a bad attitude.  I felt like all I was doing was calculating calories — eaten and expended. I told people that getting up to exercise reminded me of the old Dunkin’ Donuts commercial guy who starts out jumping from bed exclaiming “Its time to make the donuts!” but after several mornings barely drags himself out of bed grumbling, “its time to make the donuts.” As those who know me are aware, I can crab and crank in a unending stream of verbal vitriol when I am feeling negative.  The energy can be so dark I have (I am ashamed to say) actually frightened people. 

And that’s where I was emotionally a couple of days ago when I heard a speaker talking about Catherine McAuley, the founder of the Sisters of Mercy.  She said, “Look at the extraordinary things that have been accomplished in this world because of one ordinary Irish woman.”  I love being reminded that being part of a Mercy institution gives me the opportunity to be a small link in that world-wide chain of the extraordinary.  That thought inspires me, makes me want to be more than I am. More active, more caring, more merciful. I want to be a shiny link, not a dark one.

Inspiration doesn’t just come from admired heroes I’ll never meet or know.  I have been inspired by people I see every day to stay on track with this journey.  By a friend celebrating his birthday by challenging others to spend a morning doing flood recovery work. By my parents whose example has taught me that we can change the world by changing our community. By a faculty member who invariably makes you feel like the most important person in her world. By the many friends and family who speak encouragement when I’m low or celebrate when I succeed.  And tonight, by the neighbor whose name I don’t know who helped me finish shoveling my endless driveway!

Every day, I am inspired by the example of others to strive to be a better person.  As I once heard and now often repeat, inspiration means, literally, “the breath of God”.  Inspiration is a both a humbling force and great motivator.  So tomorrow morning, and the next, I plan to get out of bed cheerfully telling myself, “Its time to make the donuts.” 

(The post above was written on ‘Thursday, December 9)