Recognizing a Health Hero

This is the piece that I would have written if I hadn’t missed the dang deadline for the Be Well Philly “Health Hero” essay contest. I felt that I should still send these words out into the world because we should be talking about the amazing people in our lives.

Tema Esberg saved my life. I know that probably comes off as a ridiculously hyperbolic statement, but it’s true. Each year of my life, for as long as I can remember, the scale has marched steadily onward and upward towards one freakin’ huge mountain of a number: 313. At 5’3″, that is an insane amount of weight to be carrying around on such minimal scaffolding. In January of 2015, I turned 30 and felt that the universe was giving me an ultimatum to either grab the controls on this runaway train of emotional binge eating and weight gain or witness the epic, fiery crash into diabetes, high cholesterol, and disability that was to be my inevitable end. I really couldn’t continue throwing excuses down on the tracks as I had just graduated from my master’s program at the University of Pennsylvania, I had pretty much processed the grief of losing a parent at age 24, and I did have some money that I could put towards a gym membership or other fitness-related spending.

I met Tema when I signed up for one of those snazzy package deals for Balance Chestnut Hill via GILT. I plunked down a hundred or so dollars for five sessions with their B.I.O (Balancing from the Inside Out) team and figured that I could commit to 5 sessions before jumping in wholeheartedly or bailing and never looking back. As a fat person, I am largely (oh yes, pun intended) skeptical of most things that suggest that I just might reach the goals that I want to achieve. Afterall, next to Nursing, weight loss is my other full-time job – one that doesn’t pay, one with a terrible boss, and one where I never excel. I also tend to be skeptical of those in the fitness/wellness profession because I am often being told that I need to conform to what they envision as “success” – cut out sugar; what the hell, cut out 5 food groups!; exercise until you feel like you want to die; spend $100’s of dollars a week on classes and training sessions; lose 20lbs in 2 months; send daily emails that include every single morsel of food eaten; weigh myself weekly; and on and on. I end up undertaking things to please the professional, to obtain approval and acceptance, which just ends up feeling like a whole lotta work that I’m not doing for myself. Fat people are often “yes” people. The more I say “yes” to someone else, the more I disappear within myself. I end up with no voice, unable to be accountable to even myself. Eventually, I rebel like a 13-year-old who has just discovered punk music and I rage against that machine that wants me to cram my round peg into the square hole and then I quit.

Tema, though? She’s my soul mate. I’ve been working out with her at least once per week since February. If I could serenade her (which NO ONE wants me to do), I would sing “Wind Beneath My Wings”. It would be like a scene out of Beaches and everyone would cry. (If I ever get married – this could be a real possibility if I overdo it on champagne during the toasts.) She really does lift me up. She responds to my crazy text messages of self-doubt and self-loathing with pure positivity and encouragement and love. She affirms the negative feelings I’m having with empathy but then makes it clear that she is not attending my pity party and I better find something to like about myself (Bad run? Ain’t no thing as a bad run, girl! Only the one you didn’t do!). She is joyful. No sir, she does not hide her light under a bushel. She shines brightly which makes you want to shine just as bright. She constantly reminds me of my progress during our workouts and compliments my moves even if I look like a whale trying to walk across a tightrope. She varies our workouts so that I never seem to realize they are getting harder (a sneaky move since I tend to run far far away when workouts are intense). When I wanted to start running, she got out her pom poms and cheered every milestone. She even put together a women’s running group on Sunday morning’s to keep me motivated and help me find a safe space within the running community. She NEVER asks me what I’ve been eating or what I weigh. EVER. That may actually be the lynchpin that makes all the difference. She knows that I am making progress because I can do things now that I could do six months ago or because I tell her about the clothes I can fit into now. Tema has helped me to dig up the woman inside of me who is active and healthy and happy.

Do I want to be under 200lbs? More than you know! But I am surprisingly content with the journey. I’ve lost weight, I’ve become stronger, I’ve tried a whole host of new things and inserted myself into new social situations, I’ve rediscovered some great wardrobe staples. Tema saved my life because she helped me uncover a new identity. One where I am a person who exercises, who kayaks, who runs, who ziplines. She helps me keep the self-doubt and self-loathing at bay. That’s what was killing me. The anxiety. The depression. The continually feeling “not good enough”.  Forging a new identity isn’t as complicated as one might think. I imagine it’s the same way people discover their identity as a vegetarian – it’s just something you believe in, something you do every day, something you are passionate about.

If anyone is meant to be deemed a “Health Hero”, it’s Tema. She is the little spark inside of me that whispers “even when you are going through hell, keep going”.

IMG_0212

In Which I Become the Person I Want to Be

I started running in March.

I had been working with a personal trainer – Tema of Potentia Personal Training – for a few months and felt the itch to tackle what I felt to be the mother of all fitness challenges.

My brother has always been fond of telling me “you’d lose weight if you just started running”. This from the mouth of someone who has been phenomenally athletic since childhood, excelling in multiple sports, maintaining the physique of a Greek god despite appearing to be a bottomless garbage pit for all sorts of foods from those dreaded inner grocery store aisles.

Sometimes, during my walks (the earliest form of cardiovascular fitness that I attempted), I would feel myself going faster and faster to the point where I felt that my feet wanted to take flight beneath me. I would punch up the MPH on the treadmill and tentatively jog for 30 seconds or so until I couldn’t stand feeling so self-conscious about everything jiggling up and down between my neck and my knees. The feeling persisted, though. I wanted to move more and cover greater distances. I wanted to propel myself down local trails under my own power. I wanted in to that secret club that runners seem to so enjoy being a part of. I wanted to put my mind to something of a physical nature and actually accomplish what I set out to do. For once. Just one bloody time.

And I wanted my brother to stuff it.

Naturally, I turned to the Apple app store. Because there is an app for EVERYTHING (and if there isn’t, it probably wasn’t important anyway). Even overweight 30 year old nurses who fancy themselves runners. Trust me – it’s called “5K Runner”. I started the program with a healthy dose of self-doubt, anxiety, and trepidation. How many times had I attempted to lose weight and magically morph myself from sloppy slug into the svelte, physically active butterfly I imagined myself to be? I’ve lost count.

The beauty of the 5K Runner app (or the Couch 2 5K or whatever other “learn-to-run” method you might use”) is that it actually works. If you are persistent and consistent – my trainer’s mantra – your body adapts to the new levels of physical activity as your cardiovascular endurance increases. My weight did drop. A healthy 25lbs came off in the weeks it has taken me to complete 62 runs. Honestly, I thought it would be more. This is probably because I still sometimes maintain the fantasy that I will go to sleep one night and wake up the next morning in a new body. Since March, I’ve really had to come to learn to appreciate the work my body is doing – the increased lung capacity I’ve developed, the ability to go from lifting 2lb weights to 10lb weights, the feel of jogging up the stairs in my house without feeling like I need my rescue inhaler, the new jawline that has emerged out of the fat.

At some point, exercise in general and running specifically became about more than weight loss. Physical activity is something I look forward to, I enjoy the sense of pride and accomplishment, I love the floating-on-cloud-9 feeling that the endorphin rush brings. I’ve made so many new friends with the new-found confidence I have developed. My calendar is filled with fitness events of all things! It turns out that the running community isn’t the exclusive club that I imagined it to be. If you run, you are a runner. It doesn’t matter your size, shape, or speed. As long as you get out there and get it done. It’s the non-running community we should all be afraid of – that is where the detractors lie. Those are the people who will question your motivation and your will.

Those are the things that I have to continuously remind myself of when I step on the scale and realize that I am not yet below 250lbs. I have to pat myself on the back for dropping below 300lbs and keep plowing through the nagging, biting, excoriating self-criticism that says “you are failing”.

Recently, I started subscribing to Runner’s World magazine. This is where I “met” Mirna Valerio. She is my new hero. Others might see her as the exception, but I see bits of her inside of me. Her story snapped me out of my most recent funk with the whip-like crack of a bungy cord, yanking me away from barbs of my own self-loathing. Read it. You’ll be inspired, too. It will given you the sweet sustenance you need to power through your own roadblocks.

So now my nose is back to the grindstone.

One foot in front of the other.

Persistence and consistency.

(And I am feeling pretty darn smug knowing that my brother is a little more tight-lipped about his comments now that I am officially – a “runner”)

  
 

Heirlooms

I can be overly sentimental about the things I love; collections or bits and bobs of things that evoke a certain memory or glimpse of a bygone era. I am especially fond of those things handed down or gifted to me by family members – pieces given out of love and the desire to pass along a good story or two.

I have written about my Aunt C before and her knack for choosing just the right gift for me. We share the same birthday and she seems to know this innate part of me that few others see. This year, for my birthday, she sent me the most dear ceramic spice shakers from her own kitchen. Also included was a compendium of recipes and stories from a local Philadelphia bakery called ‘Brown Betty’. Lastly, she included her own family recipe for old-fashioned lace cookies from her mother’s kitchen.

Image

Image

Image

Image

I keep my spice shakers together with other special gifts from my Aunt C – a decorative light plate (Aunt C has small bits of whimsy like this throughout her California bungalow), a knob for a drawer to hold all those beloved bits and bobs, and a vase shaped like a bunch of radishes (to honor my passion for gardening).

I’ve made the “Plain Cake” recipe out of the cookbook several times now – a cake that was born from a Brown Betty family recipe shared at Sunday dinners and yearly birthday parties. The flavor of the cake, buttery and golden, tastes like home, like family. You feel sated and enfolded in warmth as it melts in your mouth.

If we are to accumulate “things” in this life, I am glad to have such a collection of things that lovingly speak to me of family and tradition and history when I use them.

28

28.

An age I never really imagined I’d see when I pictured myself as some fuzzy version of a “grown up”. When I was a child and in a hurry to grow up I definitely imagined myself at 16 – getting a driver’s license and having the time of my life in high school. I also imagined myself at 18 – going to the prom, starting college, making my own decisions. I don’t really recall any thoughts about life past that point. I’m sure that, at age 10, few kids are thinking about their future selves at 30. Of course, there were the traditional girlish fantasies about marriage and children that I acted out with dolls and my little girl friends, but the possibility of it seemed so remote that it was difficult to realistically picture it actually happening. And now that January 14th has come and gone, I feel that I have so many milestones behind me that I am rather unexcited about moving forward.

I still don’t feel like an adult because I have so many goals yet to achieve thanks to mistakes and detours I have made along the way.  I am still in school, working on a 3rd degree so that I can become licensed as a nurse practitioner in 2014. I can’t remember a time when school wasn’t a part of my life. Many of my coworkers, who took what I would consider a more traditional approach to life, are in long term relationships, have gotten married, and/or now have children. I don’t think I appreciated how much losing a parent in adolescence could stunt one’s progress in moving towards “the future”. Despite finishing a nursing program and starting work in a career that I am excited about, I have still felt a bit stuck and rooted to one spot by my desire to return to life before the absolute-worst-day-of-my-life  in 2009.

Grief, though it wanes over time, is fairly omnipresent. I mean, does one ever not grieve the loss of someone they love? Since my birthday, at least 5 people have told me that 28 is a good year. I don’t know where this consensus comes from or if there is even any truth to it. Several individuals have told me that 28 was their “best” year, that really good things happened to them. I hope to high heaven that they are right. I could use a dramatic twist or turn along this road I feel that I am traveling along at a plodding pace. I can feel all of that potential energy that has built up behind me over the last 4 years about to launch me into some great kinetic state where change happens and achievements are made.

Luckily, I started my new year off right with a hearty brunch at Terrain at Styer’s with some of those nearest and dearest to me. Nothing reminds you of what is most important in life than the important people with whom you surround yourself.

These ladies know me better than most.

These ladies know me better than most.

 

We survived nursing school together.

We survived nursing school together.

 

Winter Traditions

Time has certainly gotten away from me this winter season. Isn’t that always the case, though, when Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s go flying by in quick succession? I think bears have the right idea with hibernation. Ideally, I like to slow down in winter – try to go to bed earlier as the sunlight is so fleeting, relax more with reading or crafts, and cook hearty dishes whose leftovers taste better as the days wear on.

I don’t think I have a favorite season. I seem to appreciate each natural cycle of the year for its unique personality – spring brings a sense of hope and awakening and rejuvenation as the days lengthen and stretch their legs, summer is full of energy and doing and our attempt to wring every last bit of joy out of each day, autumn is a riot of color as the leaves change and the heat and humidity give way to “sweater weather”, and winter is full of tradition, change, and expectation as we enter the new year.

I love our winter family traditions here in Philadelphia. They have changed over the years (my father no longer types out a Christmas morning letter from Santa, but the dining room centerpiece from the local florist arrives years after year) and feel a bit different than they did when I was a child, but the ritual layers beneath are mostly the same. I still think that there is something quite magical about the whole season despite the dark and cold that surrounds us.

Preparation – 5 or so years ago, our next-door-neighbors started a tradition called “Advent Soup Night”. In the Catholic tradition, Advent is the season of preparation before Christmas when Christians look forward to the joy that Jesus’ birth brings. It is a time of reflection and quiet as individuals think about all that has transpired in the past year and look ahead to the excitement and fresh start that is implicit with the coming of a new one. We celebrate this season by getting together with our neighbors and friends each Sunday evening for 4 weeks before Christmas. The evening notably features soup and bread. Each evening features anywhere from 2-4 soups depending on who is trying out a new recipe or if there is demand for an old favorite. Over the years, people have added small appetizers, wine, and dessert, turning our humble meal into a bit of a feast. Before eating, our host leads us in a reflection that is universal to all guests regardless of personal faith. Often the themes address darkness, light, hope, joy, sorrow, and peace. Then we sing a verse from “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” before everyone grabs a bowl and heads into the kitchen. Advent Soup has become one of the most important traditions in my holiday season and I often find myself out of sorts if I have to miss a night due to work.

The tree – As long as my mother lives and breathes, we will have a live Christmas tree. A Douglas Fir to be exact. It’s scent heralds the coming of Christmas and I never get tired of finding the same, decades-old ornaments hanging from the branches.

Image

Easy, peasy Christmas banner

The lights – We always have little electric candles in the window. Actually, we keep these up year round. At Christmas, my brother and I add lights to the exterior of the house, carrying on the job my father would have done. There is nothing more comforting than coming home to those warm, tiny lights. No matter how long or how bad my day, I can always find my way home.

The food – Cookies are imperative. Each year, I try out a new recipe or two in addition to the tried and true “roll out cookie”. This year I added spiced and candied nuts to the mix. I usually gift these treats along with other edibles I have preserved throughout the year. I find baking very soothing. And what is more satisfying than a warm, homemade cookie?

The gardens – My mom and I have love taking in the holiday lights display at Longwood Gardens. I look forward to dinner in their cafe, hot chocolate, and strolling the grounds as the sun settles in for the night. In the dark, the landscape is a sea of colored lights upon the trees. The conservatory has a different theme each year – this year it is “stars” – that is elaborately conveyed through the many rooms of flowers and other flora.

Image

Roof of the conservatory

Image

Paper lanterns

Image

Halo of stars

Image

Kumquat Tree

Image

Water features

Image

Fantasy table display

Image

Outdoor display

Philly Love Notes

Last month, I wrote a post for Philly Love Notes – a local blog that posts “love notes” from anyone who is passionate enough to proclaim their enthusiasm for some beloved aspect of Philadelphia. The notes run the gamut from architecture to restaurants/coffee shops/diners to boutiques to neighborhoods/parks/trees and more. The blog is a lens through which to see Philadelphia in a new light –  it implores you to view the city through another individual’s eyes or to contemplate something that you may have never paid mind to before. Philly Love Notes serves as a reminder that we do live in a pretty awesome, ever-changing metropolis that is as diverse as the people who inhabit the landscape.

My note is an ode to my favorite yarn shop – Loop – in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood and can be read on the blog.

Soup Season

I love soup.

If for nothing else, I love fall and winter because they are soup seasons. There is something very comforting about sipping warm broth on a blustery evening. My neighbors are also big fans of soup and we gather every Sunday during Advent (the month-long season of preparation before Christmas) for a soup night where we enjoy the company of friends and family, give thanks for the many blessings we have, and look forward to the coming new year. Each Sunday brings a new group of soups and we eat bowl after bowl of long-time favorites and new variations. I look forward to this tradition every year. Maybe more so than Christmas itself.

Growing up, my mother made a lot of meals in big pots. I am especially fond of her bright orange Le Creuset dutch oven that I can only now just lift. A lot of good, family meals have come out of the piece of crockery – meaty, melt-in-your-mouth pot roasts with a menagerie of root vegetables and burgundy broth that was sometimes served with creamy mashed potatoes or over egg noodles, pork roasts with apples and tart apricot glaze drippings, and hearty stews with deep brown gravy that creeps up the flesh of crusty bread as you clean your bowl. The other big pot is a silver stock pot that was used to wilt collards and kale for traditional southern “greens”. Sometimes the remains of a chicken or ham hocks or turkey legs would find their way in for stock. We would ladle out thick, green split pea soup or maybe a variation on a corn chowder or possibly something bursting with beans of all shapes and sizes.

Soup is easily my favorite meal. You can make a soup as complicated or as simple as you like given your time frame and list of ingredients. With the marvel of modern technology, we can now add a few cans of this or that and be done in an hour’s time. If you have a crock pot, cooking time can be drastically reduced as well.
Soup is also a very easy way to hide a multitude of sins as you don’t have to worry about getting every detail just right – you can adjust your flavor and your ingredients as you go along. Not to mention that it is such an easy way to incorporate those foods that are tremendously good for you but not palatable in their raw form. I will easily eat my weight in kale if it is in soup.

A friend of mine passed along a recipe for kale, sausage, and cannelloni (or cannellini) bean soup that she and her family had given high marks. My version of this idiot-proof dish is below. I was skeptical about the addition of lemon juice but found that it added a bright flavor that contrasts well with the smokiness of the sausage and more bitter flavor of the kale. This recipe could be easily made vegetarian or vegan if you substituted vegetable or mushroom brother and left out the sausage. In the future, I may add more vegetables and beans to boost the antioxidant value of this meal.

Other tweaks I made:

  • I did not use sundried tomatoes packed in oil as I didn’t want to add extra fat/calories. I found that my local Whole Foods sells sundried tomatoes in a resealable pouch that I can just keep on hand in the fridge.
  • Crushed or diced tomatoes could be used to avoid the mess of chopping whole tomatoes.
  • I used the “juice” from both the tomatoes and the beans.
  • I added a few extra leaves of kale and used regular curly leaf as I could not find lacinto. Wash well! Kale often has little tiny pests that look like gray or white fuzz.
  • I used 4 links of italian-style turkey sausage. I cooked it first then cut it into pieces.

The recipe says that it serves 4, but unless your family includes 4 giants it will easily feed you several times over. I placed a few portions in the freezer for later this winter. As a single lady, I do not shy away from recipes that make many portions as I love being able to pull things out of my freezer that are already made!

Kale, Sausage, and Cannelloni Soup

* 1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

* 3 to 4 sausage links

* 2 cloves of garlic, minced

* 2 cans of cannelloni beans

* 1 can of whole tomatoes, coarsely chopped

* 40 ounces of low sodium chicken broth

* 1/3 cup sundried tomatoes, julienned, packed in oil and patted dry before using

* 1 bunch (6 to 8 leaves) of lacinto kale, stems removed and coarsely chopped

* juice of 2 lemons

* 3 Tbsp grated parmesean cheese with more for serving

* 1 tsp salt, more to taste

Heat oil in skillet over medium heat and cook sausages through. { I wanted my sausage completely cooked before being added to the soup } Add garlic and sundried tomatoes and cook for one minute. In a large pot, add chicken broth, beans, tomatoes, lemon juice, kale, 3 Tbsp cheese, sausage/garlic/sundried tomatoes from skillet, and salt. Simmer on low, uncovered for 30 minutes.

To serve: Ladle into bowls, top with more cheese and serve with crusty bread.

Badger Pride

This past weekend, I flew to Madison, Wisconsin to visit my cousin A.

A is the youngest of the cousins on my mom’s side of the family. I remember getting a call from my mom (who was present at her birth) on the day she was born. Despite being 8 years older and living on opposite coasts, she has come to be more like a sister to me. A reminds me to not take life so seriously sometimes, to treasure my friendships, to smile widely and laugh often, and to love with all my heart. I truly relish the fleeting time that we get to spend with one another.

Our family was pretty surprised (and proud!) when this southern CA girl decided to make Madison her home for college. My college experience was very intimate with only 2,300 students on the Barnard campus and I’ve been eager to see what life is like in Madison. The University of Wisconsin at Madison is home to the Badgers – the school’s immensely popular and successful football team. October seemed like a good time of year to see A, catch a heated game between UW and Minnesota, and try cheese curds (FYI – cheese curds are tasty little morsels when fried but will feel like lead pellets in your gut later).

Airplane goodies? Check!

Having your red gear is a MUST

Bascom Hall after a trek up Bascom Hill. It was quite the climb

Babcock Hall is where a lot of agricultural research takes place. More importantly, they also make ice cream here.

Lake Mendota on a cloudy morning

Displaying one’s Badger pride is very important. Note that those are W’s not M’s.

Camp Randall – aka where the football stadium resides

Kickoff

A sea of red in the student section

All smiles after UW won 38-13

Milestones

Yesterday, my father would have been 80.

I was at work at the hospital until 9:30p and almost forgot about the meaning behind October 3rd until I was caring for a patient with a new cancer diagnosis.

In nursing, though, the hectic pace of the day tends to leave little room for thought about the rest of life and I was glad to be busy.

I had never really thought of my dad as “old” until he was ill with cancer and it made him look hollowed out and lifeless. Maybe, I would have thought him “old” at 80 but his death in 2009 robbed me of the opportunity to see him as he would have been now. I can barely remember the sound of his voice at times. Photographs help but frustrate me with their two dimensions. The memory is a funny thing. When the moth of time has begun eating away at the facts and details of a memory, the imagination fills in the holes to create a slightly different version of the reality that was there before. While memories are comforting and it may have been better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all, nothing compares to the real thing.

Dad at the Trinidad airport in 2005.

Dad, in remission from cancer, at my cousin’s wedding in Grafton, Wisconsin in 2008.

 

 

 

 

 

Fruits of Fall

Figs are one of the simple pleasures of early fall. Their season in the Northeast is relatively short – if you blink, you may miss the small, plump fruits heaped into green cardboard containers at your farmer’s market or grocery store. You may be able to find a relatively local crop, but chances are that they came from the west coast. Figs grow very well in drier climates like southern California as they are a crop that made their way from Asia over centuries. I feel that Philadelphians aren’t very familiar with these purple-y black gems. The black Mission figs are the most common in the Philadelphia area and you’re bound to find them at DiBruno Bros and Whole Foods beginning in September. People seem bewildered by them – do I just eat them or put them in something? I like to eat figs plain, taking bites out of the fruit as if it is a little apple. I also like crusty bread spread with a soft cheese and sliced figs on top. In the morning, I may add them to my steel cut oats with some local honey. The easiest and most inexpensive way to enjoy figs by far, though, is by picking up some fig jam. Or, making your own!

Lately, I’ve been inclined to spend time creating when I’m feeling down. Sometimes this means that I knit or write, but today I felt like being in the kitchen. This past week has sputtered along with set-backs and disappointments. I pulled Marisa McClellan’s Food in Jars off of my shelf to see what I could make. My friend, M, had recently hinted that he would be very happy to accept a jar of fig jam so I settled on that particular recipe. I got my large, copper Mauviel preserving pan out and set to work chopping 3 pounds of fruit. The rhythmic, rocking motion of my chef’s knife is soothing and focuses my brain on one and only one thing – not chopping off a finger. It is a welcome distraction from all of the other clutter in my brain. I like Marisa’s canning recipes because you can get everything done, start to finish, in a couple of hours instead of an entire day. I prefer small batch canning because I can whip up 3 or 4 pints of any given recipe which is enough to get me through a season instead of having to be overwhelmed by the dozens of pints that traditional recipes produce. Someday, I will have a pantry lined with rows and rows of preserved foodstuffs, but that’s in the future along with the flock of chickens and small farm I want (another post for another time, perhaps?). For now, I just want something to slather on toast.

Preserving the season’s best produce isn’t the chore that it used to be. I managed to make this 5 pint batch of fig jam while studying Pathophysiology, eating dinner, walking two dogs, and catching up on prime-time season premieres! Start small and make what you like. Soon you’ll have a collection of homemade goodies at the ready for holiday gifts, parties, or even just for spicing up your own breakfast.