Lived Experience/Memoir

The Spirituality of Food

I know. Right off the top, it sounds ridiculous, right? Well, it’s not.

See, of all the important and missing memories I have of my childhood, food is one of my most consistent triggers. A lot happened, revolving around this most basic need, that I still struggle to come to terms with to this day. A lot of frozen and cooked-into-oblivion happened, that makes even a trip to McDonalds seem somehow elevated. A lot of deprivation happened, and that makes me pour my heart out when someone is in need, just to try and spare them from what I went through. A lot of control of my food happened, where I was told what I can put in my body, what I can’t, and precisely how much I’m allowed. A lot of demands were made on me, to feed and cook for the rest of my entire family, especially through my last two years of high school (which often happened concurrently with the controls that were placed on me, leading straight back to deprivation). A lot of selfish acts were committed by both of my parents–one simply didn’t want to do the job of being the primary care-giver anymore, and the other didn’t care about my needs as much as he cared for his own (all too happy to take half of the food off my plate–a gesture as loud as spitting in my oldest sibling’s face from across the dinner table).

It was the combination of these numerous pressures and barriers being imposed on me (emotionally, financially, and physically); the steadily diminishing groceries in our cupboards, fridge, and freezers (despite the steady demand); and watching my parents buy fucking diamonds, televisions, surround sound, and gold jewellery; that ultimately led to my decision to liberate myself from inevitable starvation. Little did I know that for years after the fact, as my paternal grandfather’s health steadily declined from heart disease, one of my parents was phoning his own parents every night to sob into the phone and plead for help. And as my paternal grandfather came closer and closer to his own death while his doctors struggled to buy him more time on this planet, my paternal grandmother finally got fed up and handed over their life savings to my parents to save them from filing bankruptcy and losing everything. They spent it all and are still living as though impoverished, surrounded by material wealth.

Meanwhile, I became homeless 19 days after I left my parents’ home, and learned a whole new perspective on starvation. While going hungry at home was a private humiliation, being homeless was very public. I picked through other peoples’ trash, shoplifted, and pan-handled. I begged and went back daily to the church that fed the homeless at least once a day, every day of the week. I spent every waking hour walking the streets, with my nose dripping all over my face, my hair tangling together, and my hands turning orange from the untreated insides of my trash-picking gloves. I couldn’t even turn my face into the wall at night, either, because my wall was a window in a room shared by four other women.

When I escaped homelessness after two and a half months, I went to food banks and asked for emergency grocery money from welfare. I had to strategize carefully, so that not even one penny of my $22 emergency grocery money would go to waste. But I couldn’t stop the food bank donations from going bad, and they went bad at least a week sooner than the next available opportunity to pick up food again. And if I ever thought this was the worst part of it, while counting exactly how many packets of Kool-Aid I could squeeze in with that $22 after covering some other basics, I’d have been wrong. Because even more humiliating than starving, is living entirely on Kool-Aid and ramen noodles. While you’re on probation for theft under $5000 because you were caught shoplifting (Guess what? Food and personal hygiene products). And then being stuck with a $40 bill for lunch with someone who turns out to be a con artist, and having someone threaten to call the police and have you charged for fraud under $5000 because you can’t pay it and there is no lesser charge in your particular circumstance.

And before long, I was homeless again. Surviving next to a fire pit, ruining my cookware and my food, and eating little other than canned pork and beans with my ramen noodles. But a miraculous thing was happening. I wasn’t thinking of all the ways I could quietly commit suicide, just to see how long it would take my parents to take their attention away from their materialist ventures to respond to my crisis. I wasn’t wondering if I would bleed out and die on the kitchen floor before they looked over from in front of their 52″ flat tube television. All of this was replaced somehow, over time, by a will to survive and better myself as a person (starting with treating myself better as a person). I started working towards my own physical health, starting with eating better, as soon as I could afford it. And it’s taken a long time, because climbing and clawing all the way out of abject poverty always does. Because no one trusts you once they know you’ve slipped through the cracks, even if you’re sober. Even if you’re buying their groceries, filling their gas tank, paying their utilities so their services don’t get cut off, or teaching them a new skill.

As a result of these experiences, food has come to mean to me, a direct expression of either love or hatred. When I take the time to buy fresh food and prepare something with care and attention, I am saying to myself “I love you.” And the same goes for when I cook for someone else (or offer to do so), whenever I buy someone else a bag or two of groceries or a meal, and whenever I recommend a restaurant to someone on the basis of how much care and attention they put into preparing their food. Good food is loving yourself and the people you care for.

But when I go to the 7-11 or McDonalds and buy 2 -for-99-cents donuts, a bottle of soda, and a disgusting burger, I’m showing myself hatred. When I feel so low on myself that all I feel like making at home is a plate of chips with melted vegan “cheese” on top, or a box of macaroni, it’s because I hate myself. And I’m fully conscious of how hateful this is now. I’m working on making myself feel better sooner, instead of making myself feel terrible first. And then there are the people who I’ve known, for whom I’ve bought groceries or who bought groceries for me or fed me, who twisted this act into a warped guilt-trip or character assassination that they can hold against me. Because these people do exist, and I’ve come to understand this as a hateful act.

I’ve come to see myself as having a responsibility to help people avoid the suffering I’ve lived with for the majority of my life, if I can do anything at all to prevent it. I’ve bought bags full of groceries for both friends and strangers in need, even when I wasn’t sure how I could afford my own, and continue to do so when I appear to be the only person prepared to answer a call for help with direct action. I’ve bought meals for complete strangers who were pan-handling on the streets or describing a three-day-long cross-country bus trip without food. I’ve taken the time out of whatever else I was doing, multiple times, to dash into a convenience store and buy the most nutritional-like thing I can find in the entire shop for street beggars. Sometimes I’ve gone into a fast food restaurant like Subway instead. I don’t ask for anything in return. I frequently don’t tell anyone unless I’m pressed for details, which is infrequently the case, and therefore very few people know about these events. But I do it because I see my Former Self in these faces, in these voices, and in these words. And I need to show my Former Self the love I was denied at the time.

But I’ve also needed help, and have received it in spades. I’ve become financially dependent on my lovers four times. I’ve repeatedly vocalized a need for help with groceries, escaping my overdraft, or paying rent on time because we’re short by just $X. Recently. And it wasn’t the first time, recently, because this began 2 years ago for the second time. I’ve been rescued by friends who are willing to lend us the rent money we’re short so that we aren’t evicted without the opportunity for appeal, for paying a day too late. I’ve been rescued by friends and friends of friends who worked as a collective to get me out of the terrifying circumstance of not having a safety net in the event that we’re unable to pay something on time to avoid disconnections and ten-day eviction notices. I’ve been rescued by people who brought groceries and a little cash to my door, and I couldn’t be more grateful than in the moment when I feel the weight of an entire bag of groceries in my hands, on a day during which I hadn’t yet eaten.

Food is love. I’m still amazed how food can be twisted into hatred, but I still take the time to carefully craft and plate each loving bag of groceries or meal I give to someone else because good food is love. Every human being deserves to be loved, without being required to earn it. I sometimes ask if my effort was fulfilling, only because I care so much that it is–that my message of love has been properly received. I put the same amount of love into every dish I eat alone because I need to feel loved by myself and for my own sake. Because I deserve it, without earning it. Food is one of the ways I explore and engage with the world outside my natal home. It’s amazing that it has occasionally led me straight back to the same dynamic as my natal home. So I keep trying to survive–to give the care, attention, time, and love I was so lacking in that place, to every person I know or come across in whom I see my Former Self.

Because good food is love. Food is one of our most basic needs, but it’s so much more than that when you put your love into it. It becomes spiritual. A way to bestow a deeper meaning to mundane things, like eating food.

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