Keep Calm and Carry On: The Tradition of Sunday Suppers

Earlier this week, as I gathered my usual groceries, I had comfort foods in mind. I knew that we would be home for the weekend due to Coronavirus and possibly longer, depending on if my husband’s work unit asked his team to teleconference or not, and we’ve been experiencing sunny, but cold days. These things, as well as the fact that I’ve been re-reading Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, inspired me to bring home ingredients for a roast chicken with vegetables, cabbage and leeks for a St. Patrick’s Day meal, and enough other random produce to create any soup—carrots, celery, and onions will take you a long way to dinner!

The chicken and veggies, ready to go into the oven.

Sunday morning after breakfast, my husband and I sit in the living room with our coffee. We watch the cats wrestle in the sunbeams on the carpet. We chat about future plans, current family events, and what we want to plant in our garden this summer. As the coffee cools and the day really begins, he asks me what I want to do today…and the answer is pretty much my standard reply. I love to cook on Sundays, when the lazy hours stretch before me in uninterrupted potential. I gather my supplies and let my mind fly. 

Usually, I’ll listen to NPR, but the usual Sunday program didn’t fit my mood today, so instead I put in a Loreena McKinnett CD, “the book of secrets”, and begin on my chicken. 

As I cut vegetables and apply the rub to the chicken, my mind wanders to my great-grandmother. Whenever I cook chickens on Sunday, I think of the stories my mom tells of the days of her childhood when her parents sent her and her two sisters to live for the summers with her grandmother in the mountains of West Virginia.

My great grandmother, Glennis Carter, lived in a mountain community so small that you didn’t bother with a house address when you sent her letters. She married young, and she and her husband were expecting their third daughter (my grandmother) when he was killed at 25 years old in a mining accident. Glennis never remarried, and raised her daughters alone while running a general store. Her life was hard and she struggled. But she also found joy. Every Sunday, she killed a chicken and the town gathered at her house for dinner. She was renowned for her cooking. Even when I was a child, when we went to visit, she still baked little individual pies for each of us—she knew each of our favorites. 

My great-grandmother with almost all of her siblings: Nellie Reed, Glennis Carter, Hallie Lambert, Gene Hardway, Carol Hardway, Irene Lambert, Brooks Hardway (Not pictured Casto “Doc” Hardway)

I learned to cook by watching my mom, and she often shared stories of Grandma Carter on those occasions. They were her happiest memories of childhood, and I know that I was influenced by their simplicity: stories of swimming holes where kids swam with cattle on hot summer days; the one room school house that was open in the summer; my mom meeting her grandma after school to have a NeHi and a MoonPie on the front porch of the general store. Stories of my great-uncle Brooks, who went to the war and returned “shell-shocked”, became a hermit further up the mountain, and spent his days writing poetry. Stories of outhouse runs in the middle of the night. 

These stories often remind me that much can be made with very little. Grandma Carter made abundance from whatever resources she had on hand. Brooks only came down from his cabin once or twice a year for supplies. People grew gardens and shared their bounty.

I chop carrots, and peel potatoes. I slice onions—tears pouring down my face, sensitive not only to their aroma but to the feelings bubbling up inside as I think about how much I have, of all the abundance that surrounds me everyday. 

I don’t need to, but I start a pot of water boiling on the stove. I throw in the scraps of vegetables and spices that I’d normally throw away. The tops and ends of carrots and celery, a partial lemon, the potato peels, smaller stems of thyme and rosemary. A bay leaf and a knob of ginger. And, made from what we now could consider garbage because we are so bountifully blessed with grocery stores and restaurants, fridges and freezers overflowing, is a fragrant vegetable broth that I can use as a base for a more elaborate soup, or eat as it is. 

My kitchen is filled with the smells of roasting chicken and bubbling broth. The CD begins to play a Scottish ballad, “The Highwayman”, bringing back memories of my own country childhood with my sisters, playing Anne of Green Gables. The sun shines through the windows, and the birds and groundhogs dance through the backyard on various missions of their own.

And I know, no matter what our future holds, there will always be Sunday supper, as long as we are able to look around us and find—then share—the bounty in what we have.  

Roast chicken and vegetables.

Week 3: Attitudes & Exercise

A reward for trying to do things you always thought you couldn’t do? Taking pictures with cute firefighters!

I’m a big nerd. I’m not naturally inclined to sports or physical activities. There’s a joke that occasionally shows up in my social media about having Celtic genes means that when you exercise, your genes protect you from the marauding Englis by keeping you plump as a partridge if you are running. Pretty much me!

But, I have learned a lot about myself, the expectations I have for myself, and what I really can do in the last ten years, and these lessons are what I want to take forward with me in the future.

1. I Am Capable. I started running when I was 29. It was kind of a self dare to see if I could do it. I have vivid childhood memories of my elementary school gym teacher screaming at me while we ran the mile for the Presidential Fitness rest because I was so slow and I have that thing where your skin is so pale that when you run, you turn red and people think you’re dying!

I never thought I was made for running, but I wanted to challenge that belief. It was hard. I had to run from one light pole, walk to the next, and run to the third when I started. I couldn’t believe it later that summer when I ran my first full mile! I had a good friend who patiently practiced with me, though she was faster and fitter. She ran with me in my first few 5Ks. I’ve run in a 5K almost every year of my 30s! I’m not fast, but the point is that I can do it!

2. I Don’t Have to Be The Best. I’m a pretty competitive person, and I do like a challenge. But I’m never going to be a competitive athlete and I am okay with that now. I had a hard time realizing that I could do sports and fitness activities just for the joy of moving and having a body that works. That was one of the biggest benefits of going though the first phase of my chronic illness before I was diagnosed and didn’t have the simple joy of health! Now, I know that the reward for fitness is just doing it and having the blessing of a body that holds me up, moves, stretches, and breathes!

3. I Don’t Have to Be All or Nothing. I can skip a day, a week, or longer depending on what’s happening and where my priorities are without giving myself a guild trip anymore. It’s my choice to workout or not. No one is able to do everything all the time, and I have lots of things that I want to do and that I love to do. Yes, yoga and running are on that list, but I do them when I have time, and when they’re a priority. My life is full and varied and I am happy with my body because it functions.

4. I’m Not Afraid to Exercise In Front of Other People Anymore. I don’t know where this quirk in my personality came from, but I was very secretive about exercising when I was younger. I didn’t want to go to the gym with my friends. I didn’t like taking a class with anyone that I actually knew. I was embarrassed of just the way I moved and felt in my skin, and didn’t want others to see my awkward flailing! Think if a human danced like a Muppet and you’re pretty close to my typical level of gracefulness.

But it’s no fun to hide and avoid things in life. I’m really tired of all that nonsense. So, I’m no longer afraid of moving in front of people. I’m embracing my fully nerdy self and doing things with my friends! I’m even doing yoga with my husband.

5. Finally, I’m embracing my beautiful body as it is. I’m wearing what I want to wear when I am doing regular life, when I’m working out, when I’m at the beach. I’m so pale that I glow in the dark. I have a squishy body with great curves. I realize that my double chin isn’t hideous when I hang out with my niece who has the same chin! I’m just deciding that I’m having fun being me.

I read a meditation last year that rocked me to my core and changed a lot for me in this last area. And the idea was so simple: I am not my body.

I am not my body.

I am the spirit, the essential core, that resides in this body. My body is my shell, like a turtle or a crab. It’s my protection and my vehicle. It’s how I do my mission, whatever the mission is. And that idea is pretty freeing. I may be judged by my body, but that’s not a judgment of who or what I really am. Whatever I really am will outlast this physical body.

Whether you love or hate the shell you’re currently residing in, take care of it. That’s the most important thing I hope that my experience can impart to you. Health is a gift. We’re so lucky to have whatever health we’re given and it might not last. So move for the joy of it. Let other people move with you. No one actually does care if you dance like a Muppet!

My own health journey

NOTE: This post contains topics including reproductive health. If you are sensitive about these subjects, please know that this is my experience. This post is not meant to be advice and is completely my own opinion.

After approximately 30 years of relatively good health that allowed me to basically ignore that aspect of my life, all through 2013 I struggled with a snowballing list of symptoms that I couldn’t figure out.

I was working out 6 days a week because a friend and I had taken up running in 2009. I did yoga, crazy cardio classes, and ran. I was eating extremely healthfully, and kept a log of everything I ate.

Yet, with this seemingly healthy array of habits, I was exhausted. My ankles began to swell and hurt constantly. I started going to physical therapy and cut back on the running, though I didn’t stop. I also started gaining weight. Between 2010 and 2013, I put on 40 pounds and it kept climbing no matter what I did. I also started getting migraines at a much higher pace than normal for me—they started at about one a month, and by 2013, I was getting them 2-3 times a week. I started to see a neurologist but nothing helped. The entire time, I did have a very stressful job, and it was keeping me in the office for long, highly intense hours on a regular basis. I started noticing my hair was falling out. OH, and I got shingles. I started coming home from work every night, eating some food, and falling asleep. I had no energy for anything else. I felt like a 90 year old woman.

I went from a size 4, to a 6, skipped the 8s, then 10, and 12 within such a short period of time, I didn’t know from day to day if any of my clothes would fit. My husband found me in tears the day I couldn’t zip up my knee-high boots because my left leg was so swollen. I had to cut myself out of that boot.

Every conversation I had with a doctor went like this:

  • I would list the above litany of symptoms and concerns.
  • The doctor would look at my food log and exercise journal, look at me—obviously puffy and 40 pounds heavier than my previously natural weight—and suggest that I was not being truthful.
  • The doctor would tell me I was stressed out and should look into antidepressants.

I knew that wasn’t the answer. I just knew something else was going terribly wrong.

Finally, I attended a Christmas party where the wife of one of my husband’s colleagues started sharing about her job as a fertility consultant. Some of the stories she told about her own journey with health made me ask her some deep questions—I hadn’t been trying to get pregnant, but she had dealt with many of the same symptoms I was dealing with and I thought…maybe this isn’t a coincidence.

Through our connection, and eventually my becoming her client, we were able to finally come to a diagnosis of PCOS in 2014. I had to find a specialist who could diagnose me, and I had to advocate for myself. My doctor did not refer me. They were still pushing the antidepressant route.

April 2014: I weighed 180 pounds, up from my natural set point of 130 (natural set point meaning that’s the weight I was at, effortlessly, before I started dealing with symptoms of my disease). I had stopped exercising due to the swelling feet and ankles and the pain. I was more than tired—I felt like I was walking around dead. And, I went off birth control as part of the diagnosis process, revealing that my cycles (which had never been regular) had completely stopped happening naturally.

Me in the middle, with my friends right around the time I was diagnosed.
Me in 2009, at my wedding. I had already started gaining weight and dealing with the ankle swelling here, but it wasn’t hugely noticeable.
Me in 2006 before anything was wrong.

It was actually a relief to get a diagnosis. At that point, I was sure I would never feel healthy again. I went to the bookstore, got 3 books on my condition, and began to study.

I started to put what I learned into practice, beginning with my diet. I had an assortment of supplements that were recommended to me by my specialist. He also suggested that I go gluten free, because often gluten causes severe inflammation and digestive issues in people with PCOS. I was skeptical—it’s become such a fad diet and people don’t understand that it’s not a weight loss tool. But, my husband (who turned out to be my biggest health champion!) said we should give it a shot because I had nothing to lose.

Within two weeks my life changed. I began to feel more energy. I didn’t wake up and immediately want to go back to sleep. I felt like going for a walk to get some exercise. I stopped feeling shaky and weak an hour after eating (because I was regulating my blood sugar better with the new diet and supplements). My ankles stopped hurting and the swelling started to go down.

That first year, I lost 10 pounds of the 50 I’d gained and I kept it off for awhile, which gave me hope. I was still under a lot of stress and there were many life changes to make before things really took off, but it was a HUGE start, a relief, and a new lease on life!

In the last 4 years, I’ve had the energy to go back to grad school while working full-time, I left that job and started a business. I started a second business! I travel, I go out with friends, I do all the things I’d missed out on when I was so sick! My migraines are back to a once-a-month level.

I won’t ever be able to have children, but my husband and I are at a good place with that. We love our lives, and are just happy that I’m well enough to enjoy all the things we get to do.

Last year, I took huge strides in regaining the levels of health I enjoyed before my journey with PCOS started. I found a hair care strategy that helped me to begin regaining the nearly 20% hair loss. I started working with a body concierge who has helped me to further refine my diet to my nutritional needs and specific health concerns, and I lost 13 pounds.

This year, we’re working on building back my muscle strength, and creating a low-impact workout routine that my health can support. I want to be as strong on the outside as I feel on the inside. I will probably lose more weight in the process, but the goal is health.

I am so thankful for all that I’ve been through. It made me strong and resilient. It made me realize how much I took my health for granted. It gave me a glimpse of the struggles people go through to maintain their health in our busy culture. I had to make hard choices in order to get to this point—I truly had to change my whole life. But it has been so worth it. I can’t wait to see what happens next!

Me today—a woman with strength!