I found the spiritual food for which I longed as a child in the families of my two best friends. One was Catholic, and lived up the block. The Catholics said grace before serving up aggressively modest fare—English muffin pizzas, tuna noodle casserole, fish sticks. The parents seemed to enjoy each other's company: What a concept. Sometimes they yelled at each other and then later hugged and kissed in the kitchen—oh my God. It had never crossed my mind that peace could be found in full expression—in yelling, and weepy embraces.

I also loved to eat—and be—with a Christian Science family, who did not yell but read the Bible and Mrs. Eddy together. We prayed, eyes closed, breathing deeply. In the silence you could feel and hear your own breath in your nostrils, and that could be both relaxing and scary, like having a car wash in your head. Of course, I did not mention this to my parents—they would have been horrified. For me it was heaven, even though we frequently ate snacks for dinner—popcorn, store-bought pie. This food was so delicious because of the love in that house, the love that had at its core a sweet, strong marriage. They did not yell or kiss as much as the Catholics, but I felt enveloped by the friendly confidence of their faith, and I was sad each time I was remanded to the spiritual anorexia over at my house.

By the time I was in high school, I did what all bright perfection-seeking girls learned to do, besides staying on my toes because something bad might be about to happen: I dieted. Or, come to think of it, binged, dieted, and binged, like my mother, but never felt that simultaneous state of being full without being stuffed. And like my father, I began to drink a lot. Like both of them, I had the disease called "More!" and absolutely could not feel gently satisfied.

Nothing can be delicious when you are holding your breath. For something to be delicious, you have to be present to savor it; and presence is in attention and in the flow of breath. It begins in the mouth, my parents' preferred site of comfort, and then it connects our heads to our bodies through our throats, and into our lungs and tummies, a beautiful connective cord of air.

In the mid- and late '60s, two things came along that started to give me my life back: the counterculture and the women's movement. A beautiful hippie teacher at my tiny high school gave me I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and then Virginia Woolf's journals, all of which I consumed like someone at a hot dog eating contest. My best friend Pammy and I discovered Jean Rhys and Ms. magazine. Then I went to a women's college, and the older girls and professors gave me the Margarets, Atwood and Drabble, and the early Nora Ephron collections, and it was all like when Helen Keller discovers that Anne Sullivan is spelling the word w-a-t-e-r into her hand, and wants her to spell everything in the world now. I was learning the secrets of life: that you could become the woman you'd dared to dream of being, but to do so you were going to have to fall in love with your own crazy, ruined self.

I met in circles with more and more women, who, as we ate vats of lentils, taught me about my spirit and my needs and my body. I met with mixed groups of people to strategize protest, or save open space, and we gobbled down vats of rice and beans. I showed new friends how to make my parents' cassoulets. They taught me about halvah, pomegranate wine, and massages to heal both body and soul.

Next: No bitter ends, just a sweet journey


Next Story