Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Graveside Thoughts

Every December after Christmas, I review the year in journal entries. Progress seems almost negligible from day to day, but when you take stock of what God does with 52 weeks, it knocks you breathless.

I've always liked that winded feeling.

This year's review has been hard. My grief over losing Jenny is poured out over the pages, some marked by literal tear stains. Grief is messy.

Yesterday, I came across my entry for 9/4/14--two days before Jenny's birthday and the day I visited her grave. The words resonate with me more now than they did four months ago when I wrote them.

Though deeply personal, my thoughts want to be shared. It's like they know they're for someone. I hope my honest and hopefully hopeful grief strengthens you somehow. One soul nourished is a worthy cause.

So here goes:


Brandon and I went to Jenny's grave this evening. My mind went back and forth all week deciding whether or not to go. On one hand, it felt silly--visiting the grave, bringing flowers, and paying homage to one who is now too happy to care--and it seemed foolish to spend so much time--precious time--doing something silly. On the other, I acknowledge Jenny's resting place as important. Her body is important enough to Jesus to raise up and restore it to everlasting perfection.

Either way, I needed to honor her memory.

Her birthday is in two days. I am ever so glad she was born. This time of year is full of her memory. I met her on 8/19/12. My first visit in her home was on 9/30/12. My last special visit with her was almost (exactly?) a year ago today.

We went. A bouquet of spray roses sat in a vase of cold water anchored between my feet, the flowers beating themselves senseless against the vase edge as Brandon drove the unfamiliar, winding roads a little too quickly. We left late in the afternoon, and drove into the sun all the way there.

Everything looked different after six months' time. Green grew thick and close on either side of the highway. Instead of frisking about in cool, spring air, the cows flicked their tails and shook their heads to shoo pestering flies.

All the change reminded me of the trip to church two Sundays ago, my first trip back in almost a year. It was very near the second anniversary of mine and Jenny's meeting. On the drive that day, I realized I had worn the exact outfit I wore the Sunday I met her. I almost crumpled.

Then I walked into the church and realized something else--my skin was the same, my clothes were the same, but the world was different. The foyer looked nothing like the foyer in which we met. The old-fashioned floral upholstery and bulky, out-dated coffee table had been replaced with monochromatic furniture featuring sharp edges and smooth lines. Modern and sleek.

The way I understood church and life and people and suffering and God were all different, too.

My world had changed. Jenny had a lot to do with that. Probably more than anyone else, she taught me about courage. The real kind that looks like weakness but packs a punch so powerful it reverberates through the cosmos.

We arrived at St. Rest Cemetery without issue, solely relying on Brandon's memory of a single trip, and parked beneath the shade of an oak. We passed through the gate, and walked up the hill to a spot where the red dirt was packed tight, no grass. No headstone either. But someone had lovingly marked the spot with one of those gaudy funeral wreaths made of silk flowers in various shades of pink, a potted plant now dead, and a sun-faded, plastic bouquet of something that looked like weeds.

Death is sad. And every attempt we make to preserve our memories is sad. Like the flowers, they fade.

I think I'm scared of this most of all. I don't want to forget the one who showed me what it is to be brave, what it is to forget myself. I don't want to forget her face or her voice, her best qualities or darkest secrets. I don't want to forget what she meant to me.

I didn't weep. A few tears had leaked out of my eyes on the drive as I listened to the playlist I'd made about her and our friendship, but out there standing right above her decaying body, feeling a connection so strong it's almost physical even in death, the closest I came to crying was when I stared too long into the setting sun. Its brilliance burned my darkness.

Fire ants were busy in the dirt. Brandon brushed several off my shoes before admonishing me to be careful and walking away so I could figure out what one is supposed to do at the graveside of a beloved.

I didn't talk. There was no point. No one could hear my words but God, and He knows my every thought. So I thought at Him and to my soul.

I thought about Jesus weeping at Lazarus' tomb. He wept knowing what He was about to do--at His friend's graveside and on the hill outside of Jerusalem not long after.


Because death is an enemy. Because death is sad. Because decay wasn't the intention. Forever was.

Because death tears souls apart, souls once knitted together, and the tearing leaves at least one soul mortally wounded, so much so she's afraid to stay the bleeding because it doesn't feel right to heal. And if she does heal, she hopes to get a scar because the idea of everything going back into place just as it was feels like a lie--a heinous, blasphemous lie.

Jesus wept at death because He had created everything for life unto life. A broken world, a broken order deserves our grief. Even if it will be made right one day.

I looked to the eastern sky, a welcome respite for my aching eyes. Her grave points east. When she is collected by her Savior on that last day, she will be facing the right direction. I wondered if all Christian bone yards are designed this way so up we'll come, bursting through earth from caskets rusted shut to face the One our souls have known but eyes have not seen. Will we rise as bones, ashes, and dust and be restored in the air or will we rise perfect and beautiful? Will the soil cling or fall away?

Regardless, there is a giant oak in her way, Lord, and unless You return in winter, she'll have to wait until she reaches the treeline to see You. That seems frustrating. Maybe the people who decide graves should face East can cut it down or lop off the top.

A stinging pain upon my shin pulled me out of my reverie.

This is why graveside visits seem silly--fretting over overgrown oaks and fire ants staking claim on Jenny's piece of earth.

I brushed it off quickly, and stayed a couple more minutes. I didn't have long before the swelling set in, but as always with Jenny, I wasn't quite ready to leave.

I placed my bouquet of spray roses and goldenrod where I imagined her hands to be clasped over her chest.

I never had the opportunity to see her body or place flowers on her casket. These will be as dead as she is by tomorrow morning.

A prayer for Jenny's people: May they feel the consolation of your sweet Spirit, Lord. And may you fill them with Christ--the hope of glory--which promises death is not the end of us and this grave is not goodbye. Hope that whispers hints of a happy ending to all this heartache.

Sweating and swelling, my body urged my soul to leave. Funny how I had almost convinced myself not to go, and now my feet didn't want to move. The tightness in my chest made me move.

My legs returned me to my husband who was perched lazily on top of the car. The words, "I got stung," brought him to life. Scolding me for standing still too long, he took my shoes and began the treatment with that look he gets when I get sick, the one full of irritation and blame I've learned to ignore.

The look isn't for me.

It's like Jesus' tears. Brandon knows every little thing will be alright, but disease and death are still enemies worthy of tears and anger.

I sighed. "It wouldn't be a trip to see Jenny without something interesting happening."

He didn't reply. A one hour drive through the middle of nowhere with me mid-reaction was on his mind, and he was not ready to joke. He's never as ready to joke about it as I am. Of course, you'll never see me laughing at cancer.

Thankfully, I did not go into shock, and we were able to drive away from the sun this time.

The song, "I Love It" by Stephanie Treo, came on. I turned up the volume joining Jenny's old defiance of disease, missing her sassy side and all her sides.

We crossed D'arbonne Lake at that royal moment when the sun sinks behind the trees, casting rays of pink and gold above its head like a crown which reflect upon the water like a train.

Smiling, I noted I could still see the light of the sun. An old oak tree is nothing to worry about, and because of Jesus, death is just a fire ant sting.

Monday, December 15, 2014

My 2014 Thanksgiving Menu (AIP, GAPS, Paleo-friendly)

For those new to my blog: I began my real food journey after becoming very ill in May 2012 with what I now know to be Mast Cell Activation Disease (MCAD). Even before I understood the scope of the problem, my intention was to heal through nutrition. From the outset, it was very important to me to eat well in spite of the changes. I love food. 

I’ve tried a lot of nutritional programs over the past couple of years. GAPS didn’t work out for me. Not enough variation. Not enough starches. Too much histamine. (Histamine is a major nemesis for those with MCAD.) Paleo wasn’t quite right. Low sulfur didn’t do it for me. Vegetarianism was a short lived experiment. Everything I tried seemed to backfire.

To further complicate matters, my trigger foods continually change. I’ve had to stay on my toes.
Until March of this year, I was kind of at a loss. Enter Jennifer Nervo of 20 Something Allergies and her fabulous nutritional therapy program.  

With her help, I learned how to manage and maintain a low-histamine, autoimmune paleo diet on a four day rotation. Eating this way has vastly improved my health. Thankful doesn’t begin to describe my feelings for this woman. Thanks to all she taught me, this year’s Thanksgiving menu was scrumptious without the unpleasant side-effect of making me ill. 

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I love the gathering and gratitude and food without the pressures which accompany the Christmas season.

This year, I had much to be grateful for.  Just one year ago, I did not know the name of my disease or how to properly manage it.

I’m not certain I would have obtained any level of stability health-wise without Jennifer’s help, and here I am actually better though I have been diagnosed with a progressive disease. I was even able to attend a family gathering after eating a quick bite at home! Praise the Lord! 

So what did I eat that was free of grains, dairy, nuts, legumes, eggs, nightshades, seeds, squashes, dried herbs and spices, high histamine foods, and latex cross-reactive foods?

The Menu

I began by considering my protein. I chose pork because I rarely eat it. It’s a treat, which keeps it from becoming a threat. (Except for bacon. Bacon makes me pay every. single. time.) If I’m going to roast pork, I might as well add some vegetables to the pan because YUM! So I came up with this recipe for Cider Glazed Ham Steaks with Roasted Vegetables. 

Cider Glazed Ham Steaks with Roasted Vegetables:
Serves 4-6

2 pastured ham steaks, 1-2 lbs. each
1 T. coconut oil (ghee, lard or tallow would work well, too)
1 leek, sliced into 2-3 inch strips
2 medium-sized parsnips, sliced into 2-3 inch spears
1 large carrot, sliced into 2-3 inch spears
Sea salt to taste

¼ cup apple cider vinegar
2 T. honey
sea salt to taste

Place ham steaks in salt water for 1 to 24 hours. I brined mine for a little over an hour. I wish now I had let them sit overnight. If you go the overnight route, be sure to keep them in the fridge and take them out an hour before cooking so they won’t be cold going into the pan.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Warm coconut oil in an oven-safe pan over medium high heat. Remove ham steaks from brine and pat dry. Salt the steaks generously. When the pan is hot, place the steaks in, and sear on both sides (5-10 minutes per side). While the steaks are searing, whisk together the apple cider vinegar, honey, and sea salt in a small bowl. Remove the steaks from the pan, and turn down the heat to medium-low.  Add sliced veggies, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spatula until the vegetables are lightly browned and covered with the juices. The salt left in the pan should be enough to season the veggies. Add the steaks back into the pan, brushing the entire surface of the steaks with the cider glaze. Cover pan and place in oven for about an hour or until the steaks reach an internal temp of 165 degrees. 

Like I said, I wish I would have brined my ham steaks for much longer, but those vegetables were amazing. 

Cranberry Sauce:
Serves 4-6

For me, cranberry sauce is a must on Thanksgiving. I went with this recipe by Nourished and Nurtured, subbing 2 drops of Young Living's orange essential oil for orange extract.

Sweet Potato Casserole:
Serves 4-6

I’m a Louisiana girl. Casseroles are our thing. Sweet potato casserole has been a favorite of my people for years. Most traditional recipes call for milk, eggs, wheat flour, and nuts, none of which are safe for me. So I came up with my own version. 

3 cups yams, boiled and mashed (5-6 medium sized yams)
¼ cup honey
1 t. sea salt
1 t. vanilla extract
½ c. coconut oil (ghee or butter would work well if not on AIP)

½ c. shredded coconut, unsweetened
¼ c. coconut flour
¼ c. arrowroot flour
2/3 c. coconut sugar
1/4-1/2 t. sea salt
¼ coconut oil (ghee or butter)
2 t. vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Peel, cube and boil potatoes until fork tender in a 2-3 quart saucepan. Drain. Add honey, coconut oil, salt, and vanilla to pot. Puree with an immersion blender. (A food processor would work just as well, but you will need it for the topping.) Place potato puree in a greased casserole dish. In a food processor, blend shredded coconut, coconut flour, arrowroot flour, coconut sugar, and salt until well combined. Add coconut oil and vanilla extract. Blend until you have a moist, crumbly consistency. Crumble evenly over the top of the potato puree. Bake for 20-25 minutes until the crust is golden brown.

This recipe did not disappoint. It would have served perfectly as dessert, but in the south, sweet potato casserole is just a side. 

Ginger Apple Crisp:
Serves 6-8

Because pumpkin, pecans, chocolate, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice are all triggers for me, finding a satisfying fall dessert was not easy. In the end, I decided to go with a cinnamon-less apple dessert because apples were already in the cranberry sauce, and I needed to save a few foods for the next three days of the rotation.

I’m not usually a big fan of apple desserts, particularly because cinnamon isn’t involved, but Brandon likes them. I almost did not eat any, but the chef has to taste her own food, right? I was not expecting it to be so delicious! My review? Delighted giggles. That’s right—giggles. My apple-dessert loving husband was impressed, too. He didn’t even add cinnamon!

2 large apples of choice, cored and sliced thin (about 1 quart)
½ lemon, juiced
zest of ½ lemon
½ inch grated ginger root
¼ c. coconut sugar
1 T. arrowroot flour
2 T. coconut oil, solid

Topping (same as the Sweet Potato Casserole topping):
½ c. shredded coconut, unsweetened
¼ c. coconut flour
¼ c. arrowroot flour
2/3 c. coconut sugar
1/2 t. sea salt
¼ coconut oil (ghee or butter)
2 t. vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium-sized bowl, combine apples, lemon juice, lemon zest, grated ginger root, coconut sugar, and arrowroot flour. Stir until the apples are well coated. Pour apples into a greased baking dish, and evenly distribute the slices. Disperse small pieces of the solid coconut oil over the apples. In a food processor, blend shredded coconut, coconut flour, arrowroot flour, coconut sugar, and salt until well combined. Add coconut oil and vanilla extract. Blend until you have a moist, crumbly consistency. Crumble evening over the top of the apples with your fingers. Bake 30-35 minutes. Be careful not to overcook the topping.  Serve warm.

Now that was a thanks-worthy meal!

For those on restricted diets this holiday season, I hope you won’t lament over stuffing, rolls, and pies (which, in many cases, be modified into a safe version). If I can enjoy a holiday meal without having to choose between feeling deprived and getting sick, you probably can, too. I hope my menu offers you some ideas. If not, I would be happy to help you meal plan! I enjoy a good challenge!