On Ulcerative Colitis and Saying YES to Health

Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016 • 6:35 a.m. EST

I haven’t known what to write here over the course of the past few months. I’ve experienced the full range of emotions after being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. Excitement at knowing what it was, discouragement at understanding that it’s an uphill battle to remedy, frustration at the mindset of modern medicine and it’s prescription-based approach to care…the waves of emotions and feelings come in cycles, just as my gut health comes in flares.

Ultimately, though, I adopted one of the more radical approaches to managing my symptoms by adopting the specific carbohydrate diet. It’s like super paleo, plus homemade (delicious) yogurt, to starve out the bad bacteria in my gut and allow the lining of my colon to heal. While it sounds simple enough—OK, so maybe it doesn’t sound simple—it took me two months of fighting to admit that I should at least give it a try. Taking 40mg daily of prednisone was the dealbreaker. It finally pushed me over the edge…as I watched my relationships suffer from the effects of my dramatic mood swings, my mental health suffer from the extreme feelings I experienced, and my physical health felt… well, just off. Shitty. Shaky. Achy joints after walking for more than 20 minutes. Poor sleep. Oh—and taking at least two more medications to counter balance and offset the effects of taking long-term steroids.

…yeah.

Being diagnosed with any condition certainly changes your outlook. For me, it was a huge wake-up call. I couldn’t see until recently, as I’ve slowly started to heal with the help of my support system and SCD, how sick I was. For YEARS. How underweight I was for the entirety of 2015. That my body was eating itself, or not digesting anything. I was malnourished. I was torturing myself, too, in the ways I was eating and drinking. I had no idea.

Managing a “chronic” diagnosis helped me realign my priorities. In the past three months I’ve gotten better sleep than I likely have in years. I’ve been able to narrow my day-to-day focus down to three things—exercise, health and family. I practice yoga four to six days a week and I started doing kundalini in the morning with Charles. I spend a LOT of time cooking and preparing food. I normally cook three meals a day, as processed food is no longer a part of my diet and eating out is nearly impossible (or just really expensive and not so healthy). I’ve had to let go of things and people and experiences that no longer serve me, or just don’t fit. I’ve said no, or flaked out, on more social engagements than I can count. I go to bed at 9:30 every day, and I don’t make time for much else beyond my relationship, my closest friends, my family, cooking, yoga and my job.

  

If I didn’t take these steps, I probably would have been hospitalized again and losing total control of my gut, mental and physical health.

Writing about those restrictions feels negative, but really those actions and changes in my life have been some of the most positive! I feel lighter. I feel more FREE. I feel like I’m back in control again after years of spiraling out of control. I uncovered some of my deep-seated stressors that are tied to stability, financial well-being and security, and I’m taking steps to mitigate those toxic stressors. Taking control of my diet—which at the time felt like one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made—allowed me to see that I can do anything. I can make any change.

There is no limit to what I am capable of. Anything is possible.

I feel like I got a chance to start over fresh, with a clean slate. The mental haze and fogginess is lifting. I’m getting really clear about what I want to attract in my life, a habit a dear friend introduced me to through the Desire Map—if you haven’t read about it, then you should. I put a lot of care and attention into my food practices, thanks to the same friend who recommended the UnDiet book, authored by a woman who reversed the symptoms of Crohn’s.

I am on the same path to reversing my disease. That’s why it feels funny to say that I live with chronic disease. Just over one month ago, I was back to shitting 12-15 times a day. I was totally out of control again after a period of being stable and on new medication. I was on super-powerful antibiotics and scared that I would end up in the hospital again. I protested, I kicked, I screamed and I cried about not wanting to start SCD. It would take too much time and be too expensive, I said. I couldn’t live without grains and sugar and starches, I said.

Turns out, you can! And you’ll feel fucking great in about two weeks. Who knew?

Charles read the book for me and presented the science. I bought the expensive groceries and ordered my yogurt maker. I then spent HOURS, DAYS, probably WEEKS researching and obsessing over recipes, reading different perspectives, pouring myself over the internet to learn as much as I could about the diet. I did eventually read the book. My dear family members cooked food I could eat during the holidays, and they tolerated me talking about nothing but what foods I couldn’t eat. I dreamt about being able to eat cookies again.

  

Eat eat eat. Food food food. I had major undoing of deep emotional ties to food. Maybe it’s my Italian heritage. Maybe it’s our culture. Maybe it’s an unexplainable connection to all of those things combined. Either way, I feel like I made it to the other side. I’m learning my boundaries about when I talk about my special diet. I’m OK showing up at activities where I know there are no suitable foods for me to eat. I can even make SCD-friendly cookies.

••••

When I met my new GI doctor in the hospital in October, I demanded to know how I should change or alter my diet. He mumbled something about a book that one of his patient’s had found success with, but that there was only anecdotal evidence that showed a connection between diet and improving symptoms. (Ha—OK, “modern medicine.” You keep tooting your own horn and taking my money for dangerous prescriptions and procedures. I’ll go with the anecdotal evidence.)

In December, I was in his office again the week I started SCD. Even after a few days my gut health was changing quickly. I told him I couldn’t believe that among all of his patients, only ONE was on SCD. One patient! I understand it’s a hard decision to make—it requires a big commitment upfront, but it quickly becomes easier to manage—but really.

If someone told you could you POSSIBLY, MAYBE, JUST BY A CHANCE reverse the symptoms of a disease that keeps you from enjoying and living your life to the fullest—that affects your gut, your brain, your emotions—wouldn’t you do it?

He said that if he was given the option between a major lifestyle change and taking a pill, that sure, he’d want to take a pill. And really, I couldn’t be angry at him for answering that way. But that isn’t me, or it isn’t me right now.

That major lifestyle change showed me I could do ANYTHING. I could overcome ANYTHING. And really, I believe ANYBODY can do that if they tap into their drive and willpower. I don’t think it even matters what the change is, whether it’s one particular dietary shift or another, like whole30 or going vegan or vegetarian (though eating mostly vegetables, limited or no sugar and no processed foods is certainly the best). It just requires that you “practice” and practice discipline. When you have no other choice, those become a place of comfort.

It matters that you SHOW UP. It matters that YOU DECIDE how you’re going to live your life. It matters that you LISTEN to the signs and symptoms that your body is telling you. If you don’t listen when your body is whispering, trust me, IT WILL START YELLING. Because at the end of the day, your health is about all you have. As an adult, no one else is responsible for your health, and no one else will care as much as you do. Stop asking other people—especially doctors—what you should do or looking to them for answers, and take the initiative to DO SOMETHING for yourself. Otherwise you will continue to suffer. You will continue to hurt. You will continue to rely on the prescriptions, procedures and support of a broken “health”care system that doesn’t have YOUR HEALTH and well-being in its mission at all.

I can’t express myself and share my experience without writing those words. I’m not perfect, my health journey isn’t perfect, and just because I made the shift to a healing diet doesn’t exclude me from slipping up and sometimes not showing up for myself or for other people. I just hope that by sharing these words someone, anyone, can see that they, too, have INCREDIBLE willpower, strength, and the ability to make BIG changes in their lives.

Because you do. You can. And I believe in you.

Amen.

On Healing and My Health Adventure

Where are you now?

That’s a question that often comes up in yoga. Or it did today at least. My time on the mat has been limited the past few weeks, as have many of my typical interactions with friends and family. I guess that’s why I’m writing this. I guess that’s where I am right now.

I’m on a journey. You’re on a journey, too. From the perspective I’m trying to embody, the journey is about finding the balance of health in the body. The end goal, if such a thing exists, is in taking care of your body and finding your OWN health.

 

I write here a lot about my own emotional health and well-being. But now I want to write about my physical health. It’s something that’s very hard to talk about in day-to-day interactions. It comes up a lot, especially when working at Heaven & Ale, but it’s a silent thing. It’s hard to explain in a quip why I can’t do (or eat) this or that, or why I don’t have energy to do certain things.

Because I’m healing.

For the past nine to 12 months, I’ve been dealing with major digestive distress, which I believe to be an inflammatory bowel disease, like ulcerative colitis. I’ve experienced ups and downs, highs and lows, which have included losing my health insurance, successfully recovering from a flare near my birthday, and    uncovering a new way of fueling my body.

Unfortunately right now, I’m at a low point. I have insurance again. I’m waiting to see my regular doctor, who I hope can expedite me to a gastroenterologist, a delightful specialist who will be able to look inside my colon with a fancy scope. I’m eager to learn what’s going on in there, as nothing I’m doing has proven effective in easing my symptoms through this flare. What helped me earlier this summer isn’t working now.

 


What’s most difficult about this condition is that from the outside, you may never know that I’m sick. Some people tell me I look great—but they can’t see that I’m unhealthily skinny. I’ve lost almost 20 pounds in a short period of time. I weigh less than I did in high school. Unexplained weight loss accompanies extreme fatigue and dizziness when I stand up too fast, walk up a hill or go for a short walk in the woods. I don’t sleep well at night, and I experience bad cramping and pain. I sometimes get feverish in the afternoon. My fatigue and feeling bad has meant missed camping trips, missed Wilco concerts, and missed vacation time with long-lost friends. And missed work. Did I mention bloody diarrhea? For months? And going to the bathroom 10 to 15 times a day? Yeah, that.

With the help of friends, family, my sweetie (see below!), and cool authors, I’m on a wild, anti-inflammatory elimination diet that, with time, I believe will be the answer to whatever illness I have. But right now my body isn’t responding to anything I do. Not the prescription-strength probiotics, not the simple, vegetable-based diet, not all the fiber (or low-fiber low-residue foods!!hahaha) in the world.

That’s the gross side of it. But I have great hope. The best I can do is keep my spirits high. I’m OK with not eating bad-for-me foods for the next few years, or even the rest of my life. I’m OK with having to get a colonoscopy on the reg. I’m OK with these seemingly healthy changes that have helped boost my confidence. I’m going to do as much yoga as my body can handle in this state. I’m going to try really hard to maintain relationships, but it’s hard to tell even some of my closest friends what’s been going on, or why I haven’t been around or even called. It’s hard to reach out.

I am here. I am at a very low point. I don’t write this as a call for a pity party, or even a call for help. I’m confident I’ll get better, and that this is very temporary. I know I’ll get back to my normal weight, and to a place where I can heal, trail run, bicycle, maybe even consume a drop of alcohol one day. (Though I don’t have my hopes up on beer. Just give me cookies.)

Health, and my own health, has long been a priority for me in life, work and play. If I get nothing else out of this experience, it’s the understanding that NO MATTER WHAT, no matter how I got here or what my past is, I am fully responsible for taking care of myself right now. I am responsible for making decisions that boost my attitude and health. I am responsible for taking care of this precious vessel that houses my spritely spirit. And we’ve got an exciting journey ahead!

My super handsome and loving boyfriend with a huge tree of mushrooms.


I feel blessed to be interested in cooking as hobby, and to have such a strong support system of people who help me to make the most healthful decisions. I’m still working toward my dream job. I love where I live. I’m in a beautiful and nurturing relationship with someone who inspires me to be my best. I get to see friends and family regularly. I’m blessed beyond belief! I just need to get to healing my guts. It’s amazing to learn how strongly gut health and overall health are inextricably linked. There’s no doubt in my mind that will forever alter my views of health.

If nothing else, I’ve learned to say NO to many things so I can say YES to health. To life.

First the hair, now this, right? But it’s why I write—to tell my story and hopefully connect with someone reading it. Thanks for listening, thanks for your healing energy, and thanks for understanding where I am right now.

On Always Remembering

How different would our world be—how different would our day-to-day interactions be—if instead of seeing and remembering things in the negative, we viewed things through a positive light?

What if instead of “never forgetting,” we “always remembered.”

What if instead of never forgetting terrible losses, we always remembered the greatness of those whose lives were lost. And we celebrated progress.

What if instead of never forgetting tragedy, we always remembered to meet people wherever they are. And we celebrated our differences.

What if instead of never forgetting senseless acts of violence, we always remembered to wish every being—even ones who hurt us—freedom from suffering.

What if instead of never forgetting fear, we always remembered to act with courageousness. Compassion. Consideration.

What if instead of never forgetting hurt, we always remembered loving kindness.

Screenshot 2015-09-11 14.07.30

May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes,
May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes,
May all sentient beings never be separated from bliss without suffering, May all sentient beings be in equanimity, free of bias, attachment and anger.

I tried to apply this to my own life, in a very tiny way, this week. While driving down MLK Boulevard, which is once again turning into a true boulevard, someone parked on the side of the road opened his car door and knocked off my side mirror. The driver claimed I was in the wrong. While I doubt this to be the case, I’m not sure. But I was furious. I wanted to run him over in my little safe box of steel. I was happy I hadn’t been cycling in that very spot ,as I likely would have been “doored,” which would have certainly resulted in two broken elbows and a world of pain.

What if instead of being angry at this person for acting without intention—and never forgetting the wrong I felt he caused—I always remembered that he has his own world of pain and suffering. That maybe he suffers from senseless acts of violence or pain, and that opening his car door into someone driving by was the last thing he wanted to happen on a Thursday afternoon.

I was furious that he didn’t offer to make good. He said that he was going to just drive off—and that I was in the wrong. “I have a witness!” he said, arms spread wide, pointing to his passenger. “So do I!” I said, pointing to Charles, in the passenger seat. I didn’t call the cops or file a police report. I drove off, as I wanted to enjoy dinner with my family. I was mostly hurt that someone might act that way—senselessly, without any consideration for a fellow human being.

Why is it that we must alienate the other? Why is that the hardest thing to do? How many lifetimes will it take for me to be able to not react, to not judge, to not want to curse and run someone over, or get even against someone who took advantage of me? How long will it take me to not spew hate, but instead to always remember to wish for that man to find happiness and freedom from suffering?

Today, on the memorial of one of the great American tragedies of my life so far, I hope that message rings more clearly.

How long will it take until we can treat each other with loving kindness and compassion, even when others hurt us or go against our beliefs?

How long will it take until we can treat each other with the dignity and respect that we’re all worthy of?

How long will it take for us to not just never forget, but ALWAYS REMEMBER that we’re dealing with humans? Even if their actions go against every fiber of our being.

Remember, we’re dealing with humans.

I’ve thought a lot about this, especially in light of this summer’s events that sparked the “Nooga Strong” sentiments. My small example of finding forgiveness and compassion for someone who hit my car by no means compares to the greatness of the lives lost in acts of violence.

Not everyone shares in my sense of optimism, I know, and some may find it disrespectful. But my hope is that yes, we can honor the lives of those we lost. We can also have conversations that lead to meaningful progress. In my heart of hearts, I hope we can learn to love and grow and change to reduce the impact we have on one another. To stop judging. To start conversations. To see that our enemies have their very own struggles, their very own pain and suffering.

I hope we always remember to act in ways that liberate every human being, every living thing from suffering. To allow them to find happiness, no matter who they are, where they’re from, or what their intentions may be.

“Compassion and love are not mere luxuries.
As a source both of inner and external peace,
they are fundamental to the continued survival of our species.”
—His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama

On Teachers and Loving Kindness

A teacher is not forever, but their teachings can last forever. The individuals or lessons come and go in your life. Some of them have a greater impact than others and impart infinite wisdom and kindness onto you, while others may never even directly communicate with you. Teachers are everywhere, and I’m grateful for each and every one.

This past Sunday I took an Anusara-inspired yoga class at the Landing, my home base studio, from Joe Taft, an Asheville instructor. He infused his class with allegory, exciting and loving energy, expert physical cues and pacing. It made me feel so vibrant and alive, and it reminded me of my dear teachers in Miami, Carol Garabedian and Peter Barber. I left glowing, excitedly telling my manfriend Charles that it was so similar to my Miami teachings!

The week earlier I felt a calling to more meditation and learning about Buddhist practices, also inspired by Peter. I connected with that urge in Yong’s meditation class. The insights Peter brought to each of his classes—that all beings may be happy, and free from suffering and to move and act with loving kindness—paired with heart-centered asana echoed through me last Wednesday.

During meditation, it occurred to me to send Peter a note—email or written? I thought—but I didn’t do it yet. I wanted to tell him about my Joe Taft experience, and how I’ve been working to incorporate the loving kindness that he sought into my own practice, asana, pranayama and meditation. I wanted to tell him the guidance he gave me through the immersion with Carol still rings true and resonates in my own heart and through my movements on and off the mat. I wanted to tell him that Anusara, his classes and in particular that immersion was a turning point in my life when I realized I could embrace loving practices and a gracious heart as the connection between yoga in practice and life in practice.

Peter was 68. He was a tall, thin-framed man. A former attorney with a lingering New York accent who drove his black BMW like a bat outta hell. He focused on therapeutics and his physical abilities amazed me. He said until recently he did his age in sun salutes for his birthday every year.

Among other things, his humor and intelligent instruction delivered a safe and beautiful practice to those around him. He loved jazz, and he gave an amazing amount of love to his students and peers. He sometimes snored in savasana, farted on occasion when he was teaching, and his OM-ing pitch was often hard for me to match. He was the first teacher I knew who would guide us through a vigorous asana practice—unheated and perfect—with a cup of coffee in hand. He was the FIRST teacher I encountered in Miami, though I only met him before I went into a different class. Little did I know then what a wonderful experience I would end up having with the Anusara community.

Peter died over the past weekend, likely hours before I practiced with Joe and joyfully moved through that Anusara-inspired class. I mentioned him to Joe that morning, who said he’d practiced with Peter before.

I didn’t know Peter extremely well outside of practice, but in the interaction I did have with him, he reassured me that I was moving on my own path, in my own way. He encouraged me to push my physical asana practice forward when I joined his advanced class on Saturday mornings. He told me I would be no doubt an excellent teacher.

What is most significant about Peter and Carol, my other Miami teacher who can’t be overlooked, is that even though I looked up to them so much, and I loved them so much, they are real. Authentic. They have their quirks and oddities, but their hearts and their experience shines so brightly to me. That made the lessons I received from them all the more impactful.

While my heart is heavy for the loss of a wonderful teacher in my life and the lives of so many others, I can’t help but honor his memory with a shiny heart and bright smile today. I can’t help but move with lightness and loving kindness, because that’s what I would imagine Peter would do. That…being able to move forward with dedication and loving kindness no matter the circumstances or suffering in your midst… is what I learned from him.

Peter, you are dearly missed, but your heart still shines.

I Am Not My Hair


That was it. I was all packed. My bags were sitting at the end of the bed, where they are now, my mind and heart feeling the tug, the pull to drive back to Chattanooga after celebrating a college friend’s sweet marriage and union in Memphis.

But Facebook, you get me every time.

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I opened it up to see a reminder of a photo from two years ago. I was in Angie’s chair getting my hair buzzed, taking photos of my transformation. When I accepted alopecia areata was a part of my life. Not just a part of my life, but part of who I am. Part of my internal fabric, no matter what the true “cause” is, whether stress or my autoimmune system fighting itself or my diet or whatever. 

I have alopecia. But I hope, and I’d like to think, that I didn’t let it get the best of me.

Really, the truest transformation is now. It was just starting two years ago when I buzzed my head. I’ll never forget how shocked I felt to see how much hair I had lost, these little pieces, chunks missing from my scalp. What’s more exciting is to see how much hair I’ve grown back. Sure, I can feel around in there and find some little spots every now and then. But for the most part, except for one corner in the back left, which some consider my very stylish bald spot, I have a full, gigantic head of hair again.

What’s most difficult is when I meet people who I haven’t seen since my hair grew back. Maybe old friends, or people I only saw here and there while I was in Florida. They look at me and say, “You’re so beautiful! Your hair is amazing!”

Thank you, I say, it’s fun to have hair again.

But that’s it. That’s the transformation—realizing that this security blanket of hair on my head could come and go. This security blanket of my body, limbs, bones, muscles, skin, guts, heart, WILL come and go. Or rather, in the end, it will just go.

It’s really hard for people to see that, I think, to see that I was the same beautiful person with a shaved head. If not more beautiful because I felt courageous and bold, though scared shitless.

The hair doesn’t make the package, I say. The body doesn’t make the person.

You are not your body. You are not your hair. You are not your made-up face, your clothes, or the way you decorate your skin, do your hair or the glasses you fit on your head.

I am not my glasses, I am not my hair products, I am not my clothes, though I’m the first to admit that I enjoy participating and wearing ALL of those things, and the experiences and people that come along with them.

I am not my hair. I am not my appearance.

That’s the true transformation. It started with a haircut, it took me through a wild ride in South Florida, in a beautiful relationship and space where I learned many lessons about myself and the world, including just how much wonder and beauty there is to appreciate and love in the world, in people and place and in things.

So here I am, ready to go on another mission. Thank baby jesus I was given a gift like alopecia. It’s helped me appreciate my body, my skin, my hair, my self, just as I am. I hope that experience will make me more capable of meeting other people exactly where they are, and shining that light to them.

And in that way, it’s been a gift.

Amen. And welcome back hair. It’s nice to have you around.

Photo on 3-17-15 at 12.06 AM #2

On a Rainy Sunday Morning with a Full Heart

Trying to pull this batch of cookies together in my new apartment is a comedy of errors. Surely there’s an article out there somewhere about the challenges we face as single people living alone. Almost injured myself trying to scoop solid coconut oil out of the jar. Walnuts went flying as I tried to chop them, but I didn’t cut myself. My countertop is so small it’s a constant juggling act to try to make space for pans and cooling racks, all while not tripping over the opened dishwasher door where my pots and pans are drying. Not to mention that this is in fact the third time I’ve attempted to bake these cookies in the past four days. And after all that, I’m out of cinnamon.

But this chaotic kitchen by no means represents the rest of the day. I closed the bar last night with my coworker, only a four-ish hour shift for me, and it was perfect. The feeling I had when we were all standing around the bar, talking and laughing, people were making plans for tomorrow, I felt like I was home. I felt like I was part of something, connected to these people, if only around the bar, sipping beers. No one was rushed, no one pressured, everyone left peacefully, and we shut the bar down. It was a quiet night.

I came home and turned the heat on in my bathroom, creating a steam room effect with a hot shower. I lathered in vetiver and lavender oils afterwards, and even though I tried, I couldn’t keep my eyes open in bed. It was like dropping into a coma, wrapped in grounding and soothing oils and scents. It taps into a part of my brain and body that can’t be accessed with logical thinking. It was amazing. I awoke to the rain, a slight headache and a voice that makes me sound like I’ve been smoking for two nights straight. But I feel fresh, and my heart is light, despite the miserable weather. The kitchen brings chaos and fun, with simple math and an out-of-order pantry, but my soul is filled. I’m sitting in my new chair, looking at my made bed, the open curtains letting some of the gray light in. Music on the stereo, warm light from my lamps. My body is a bit creaky from yoga and work and likely not enough rest, but that is enough. I am enough. I am perfect, this moment is perfect.

I feel comfortable. I created a beautiful space. I’m setting myself up to thrive. I’m starting to feel more like a grown ass woman with a cozy apartment and neat friends. I feel the confidence growing to live my OWN life to the fullest. It will happen seamlessly, without prodding or planning. I can create the life I want to live.

Today I get to spend the day with my family, celebrating Thanksgiving! My brother and his wife are driving down. What’s beautiful is that it really DOES feel like Thanksgiving. My heart is full with gratitude for the support my Mom and Rick have given me, both in the effort to spread my wings and fly and the stability to land again, on solid ground and on my own two feet. She’s a guiding light in the storm, no doubt. It’s incredible, the bond we share. I’m her daughter, she’s my rock and my source. The giver who taught me how to give, how to create and who showed me what love should be.

WOW. Just looking around. This apartment! Wow! I have outdone myself. What an incredible space! What a space, just for me, to savor and enjoy. What a perfect light, what a perfect color combination. I know it’s just stuff, but damn does it feel good to look around and see MY stuff. MY belongings, my bedspread, my well-loved and used quilt, a gift from my Mom. My mountain of pillows, where I snuggle up at night. My laptop full of planned and heart-lifting playlists. My artwork. My lamps, my old LJ suitcase. My table, where I’ll break bread and share memories, like of the first time I attempted to bake cookies in my house and walnuts went flying. My altar of statues, from Argentina, from Miami, from past loves. My pots that hold more heartbreak, heartache and memory, but also give me inspiration and grounding. These things, they are all mine. The memories and experiences that these objects hold and represent, every single one of them is mine. They make up my fabric, the fabric and threads of my little existence here in the Universe.

I have been building and creating this existence since I was born. Who knew I could decorate it so colorfully, with such inspiration and warmth, such love and so many gifts from the solid network of people in my life. I am so, so lucky to embark on this new journey, on this continued path, right where I left off, at the end of the last breath. I’ll find the missing ingredients, or they’ll find me, so it goes. And I’m sure, of course, the cookies will come out just right.

On Remembering to Smile

If there’s one thing I learned from working at the Bakery, it’s to keep smiling. I learned a lot about making and selling bread, and what kosher means, and devouring pastries, and of course customer service. I can sum it up in one emotion: a smile.

Today was my official last day at Zak the Baker’s. It was a busy Sunday, but things seemed to be running smoothly. I managed to expedite and run orders by myself for most of the day, and I did OK. I remember when I started working there, it was my least favorite task. Taking orders? No problem. But calling out folks’ names, coordinating orders, delivering food and try to clear tables, all under the watchful (or disapproving) eyes of customers is a tough order for most people. I’m the first to admit I have a hard time keeping my cool when orders get backed up, or someone claims the wrong sandwiches, or a bag of trash splits open behind the counter. Or we oversell an item. Or a customer is bossy or impatient, or looks at me like I’m from the moon.

Mixin and movin dough at Zak the Baker's

Mixin and movin dough at Zak the Baker’s (or on Saturdays, the “Drakery,” as we call it)

What I’ve realized, over time, though, is that (almost) no matter the circumstances, a sweet smile goes a long way. Being attentive and courteous does too, but humility and a smile seem to translate most simply.

It’s fantastic, too. Almost like a trick or secret. Smiling not only helps customers see that I’m trying, I care, and I want to make sure they’re taken care of…but it helps me stay calm. I can avoid dumping a bowl of soup on someone who’s being rude.

A smile has the ability to transform. It alters the state of the recipient, the giver, and the mood of almost any situation.

One of my favorite customers came in today. I didn’t expect to see her again. She’s someone I could sit and talk with for hours, I’m sure, about yoga, life, food and people. Situations. From the day I met her, talking across the counter over loaves of bread, I knew we just connected. Only a month or so later when we talked more did we realize our connections went beyond the cafe. We had mutual acquaintances in common. We both appreciate (and LOVE) alignment-based yoga—she prefers Iyengar, I’m head over heels for Anusara. We enjoy the same somewhat scandalous beach.

But beyond those connections, talking to her is like talking to a dear old friend. How many times I’ve wanted to sit with a cup of tea and enjoy lunch with her, right there in the cafe.

She gave me many gifts—mostly of someone sweet to chat with, while I swept tickets around on Sundays, about bread and people and life. But today she left me with a parting gift. A tiny laughing Buddha statue that she’d had for many years and that accompanied her on her own travels. “It reminded me of you! A beautiful bald head and your smile!” she quipped.

I laughed, then, and of course smiled. I saved the tears for now, though. To meet someone, just by chance, in a bakery, who recognizes a hint of buddha in you…is the greatest gift of all. Thank you for giving me the reassurance and reminder that my smile is the light that I share, no matter where I go. This little buddha will stay with me for a long time.