Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Spiritual Support

Where does the seriously chemically-sensitive spiritual seeker turn in a religious landscape chock-a-block with incense worshippers? Whether you used to be a Chanel No. 5 Episcopalian or in with the patchouli oil pagans, you may now find yourself driven into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. This may be good for the sinuses as well as the soul; however, I've been trying to come up with some other options.

I used to make my spiritual home at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, which offers meditation classes and retreats "in the Buddhist tradition." It's not a venue that works for me anymore, but I don't think accommodation of the environmentally ill gets much better at the institutional level. The center doesn't burn incense (although I was recently shocked to see--actually smell--it being sold at the bookstore). A well-publicized, if unexplicated, policy requests that people voluntarily refrain from using fragranced personal products. Most impressively, one dormitory was built with minimally-toxic materials, including wood floors instead of carpets. Fragrance-free products stock its showers.

Despite these measures, I have been unable to sit inside the meditation hall on my last visits, as scents continue to abound. Instead I have taken a chair outside, by a bank of windows, listening to the teachers by broadcast on a device designed for the hard of hearing. This is a workable arrangement in the summer, but this past year a good bit of California went up in flames and smoke was still swirling while I was on retreat. So, a mask had to compete for space on my head with a hat, a pair of glasses and the earpiece for the listening device. Folks, I'm not that devout.

As a first attempt at an alternative I've tried to form a fragrance-free meditation group. We've been a community of two for the better part of a year. The other member has been a blessing in my life, but still it's a little lonely. Lately, a few more souls have come out of the woodwork. This week a dear heart asked if she could join me for a retreat day in my apartment.

I've been thinking of organizing a weekly conference call for Buddhist study. This after being inspired by phone meetings of a new group, Chronic Illness and Disability Anonymous, which adapts the Alcoholics Anonymous program (in the Judeo-Christian tradition). "But how does that fit?" you might ask. I understand the goal to be the cessation of suffering--in a Buddhist formulation--despite illness and disability. And I say if physical healing flows from spiritual healing, I'll take it. To check it out call in either Sunday at 7:00 pm (EST) or 3:30 pm (EST). The conference call number is (702)851-4044 and the access code you'll be prompted to enter is 2432#.

Initially, there is the solace and inspiration to be discovered in literature. I've been finding Rilke good for redefining a life you might consider lost by conventional standards as prime ground for spiritual development. Hey, look at things a little differently and failure becomes a lucky escape from stultifying middle-class comfort. From "The Man Watching" ("Der Schauende") as translated by Robert Bly:

. . . What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it's with small things,
and the triumph makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us . . .

The poem ends with the suggestion that one grows

. . . by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Bumper Sticker

Every political issue needs a slogan. And a song. I'm not musical but I have been manically generating sound bites for a Multiple Chemical Sensitivity bumper sticker. See the ever-growing list below. I have left off some of my favorites so that gentle souls won't be alienated, but if the authorities ever cart me off to the asylum I will be shouting "Death to Dryer Sheets!"

Feel free to steal my ideas (or those I've stolen from others). You can get an individual bumper sticker made for about five dollars by some Internet businesses. Please leave feedback and any ideas of your own in comments. However, please forgive me if I don't respond. My computer, although I love it so dearly, is trying to kill me (chemicals? radiation? flicker? space cooties?), and I have to try to just stay away. Also, let me know if you're aware of any outfits that make environmentally-friendly bumper stickers, i.e. not vinyl. If our local organization, the Environmental Health Network, decides to run with something and print a big batch I'll let you know.

Prevent Chemical Injury
Go Fragrance Free

Environmental Illness
Wake Up and Smell the Chemicals

We Are All Chemically Sensitive

Go Fragrance Free

Healthy Be
Fragrance Free

For Health's Sake Be
Fragrance Free

Thank you for not using scented products.

Scents Sicken

Raise Awareness of Chemical Injury

Your Perfume is Killing Me

Second-hand Scent Disables
Go Fragrance Free

Fragrance Free

Perfume Pollutes


Perfume? Pretty Poison
Get the Facts

Enough, Enough
with the Scented Stuff

Scented? Toxic.

The Chemically Injured Do It

Proud to be a

Monday, October 20, 2008

Rotation Sensation

"Don't repeat any food eaten on a particular day for another five days."

"Can I eat the same thing for lunch and dinner on one day?"


"Is the purpose of this diagnosis or treatment?"


This exchange constituted the entirety of my mission instructions for my latest health adventure, the rotation diet. I can tell you I was not ready on Day 1. On Day 3 I went to a potluck picnic and half-seriously considered the possibility that my fancy new doctor was simply trying to get rid of me as a patient. (Maybe she was upping the ante since the gluten-free diet alone hadn't dissuaded me from returning.) At the picnic table I forlornly eyed other people's offerings while eating what I had come to think of not so much as a meal but as a collection of "foods," in this case quinoa tabouli, water-packed sardines and a slice of watermelon. Munching some chips, a friend with his own special food needs implied that I had bogarted the sardines. I gave him a dark look.

By Day 5 a kind book store employee had thrown me a life preserver, The Ultimate Food Allergy Cookbook and Survival Guide: How to Cook with Ease for a Food Allergy Diet and Recover Good Health by Nicolette Dumke. I cited the book in a wheedling phone message to my doctor, who agreed to a four-day, rather than a five-day, cycle. The book has become my bible, although the author carves out a few pages for proselytizing about the actual scriptures.

I can only speak for the gospel according to St. Nicolette (as I've come to think of her). She has taught me the rules of rotating not just foods but genetically-related food families. She has also elucidated the rationale behind this latest lifestyle nonsense of mine--to do with sensitization (and masking of symptoms) in response to frequently-eaten items. From her, I am learning to keep my sanity while putting together menu plans. The book contains tips for gluten-free baking, sources for specialized products, and various other essentials. Finally, there is the author's personal story of her methodical and successful quest for health after near-starvation. Incidentally, she is clearly completely savvy about Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, although she doesn't emphasize it.

The concept of food families makes thinks more difficult. If you crush a little garlic into a sauce at dinner you've now ruled out eating onions, chives, shallots, leeks or asparagus for the following three days. They are all members of the Lily Family. Dumke wisely holds out such large, delicious food families from assignment to any of the four "standard" days in order to give the allergy patient more flexibility.

Flexibility won't mean what it used to. You can forget your favorite recipes, forget your favorite restaurants, forget about eating that pear on your kitchen counter when it ripens. However, if you want lettuce on Day 4 rather than Day 2, no problem. But seriously, this comes to seem big.

"Discover new foods," the book jacket promises cheerily. And, yes, variety is healthy and interesting, but the real value of weird foods for the new rotator is that they don't foreclose on future choices. Try to imagine being delighted to discover frozen ostrich patties at the nearby health-food store. I can eat them any old day without disturbing the grand menu-planning scheme. The sound principle of eating locally-grown, in-season foodstuffs goes by the wayside. Kiwi has become a prize because I eat nothing with close genetic ties to it.

It's all doable, just. I hope it will get easier. I have to break the habit of spontaneous nibbling. Otherwise I will have more moments such as the one at last Sunday's Farmer's Market. I accepted a sample of feta cheese and then mystified the farmer by slapping my forehead and coming out with, "Oh no, it's not goat day." I'd just sent myself back to the drawing board for the next day's main meal.