We eat to comfort, to numb, to escape, to block, to reward, to punish, or maybe to return to some place of sweetness we once knew, home sweet home. Geneen Roth, in her book Women Food and God, writes, “Our personality and its defenses, one of which is our emotionally charged relationship to food, are a direct link to our spirituality. They are the breadcrumbs leading us home.”
My best friend Sue and I loved Candy Land, the starter game requiring no skill or strategy, just a simple race to the finish, the cottage with the pink frosting roof and the Home Sweet Home sign. According to Wikipedia, it’s undergone numerous renovations since it hit the market in 1949 and still sells around a million copies a year. Later versions have replaced Home Sweet Home with a grander Candy Castle and introduced a cast of dumb characters. Our game board, circa 1965, was a simpler deal. An all-American version of Hansel and Gretel appear to be galloping into the start, jubilant and holding hands. I felt just this way sitting down to a game of Candy Land; the board alone, with its suggestive imagery, could excite my salivary glands.
We advanced our pawns along a winding track made of yummy-colored stepping stones, passing through a bed of Candy Hearts, over the Gumdrop Mountain pass and on into the final stretch where we usually got hung up in the Molasses Swamp.
My family rented an old farmhouse that belonged to Sue’s family. Traveling between our houses was like journeying through a real-life game board. We lived a country mile apart. At age 6, I was free to set out alone, under a rail fence and across a stubbly cornfield, sometimes getting a shoe sucked off in the muck. At the end of this field, I climbed a small hill by tractor path. At the top, a limestone ledge afforded views west toward Lake Champlain. Continuing on, I entered a stand of slim paper birch trees, a Lollipop Woods. The tractor path wound deeper into the Peppermint Forest, eventually joining with Sue’s half-mile-long dirt driveway. At the crest of a gentle rise, her house still holds sway in my imagination as a veritable Candy Castle.
Sue had a kid-size cotton candy machine and an Easy Bake oven, a snack drawer in the kitchen and no one policing it. She had Barbies with tons of clothes, dune buggies, and mod digs. She and her three sisters lived in the large, sound home her parents had built, nothing funky or drafty, free of spiders and rodent infestations. It had comfortable, bright, square rooms and hardwood floors, plush area rugs and slipcovered furniture. It was a haven of order and prosperity.
The cotton candy machine was of ritualistic interest to me. As it heated up and began to spin, it spat out stray sugar crystals that bit my forearms and bare legs, all part of the delicious anticipation. We sat on the braided rug in Sue’s bedroom, steeped in the smell of burning sugar, watching the opening for the first angelic wisps of cotton candy to fly out.
Some relative of Sue’s had traveled to Switzerland and brought back a large milk chocolate house. My first Swiss chocolate. They kept it in the living room in a cabinet under the bookshelf, by the games and puzzles. I got up early in the morning on nights I slept over, which were many, and tiptoed down to the living room to tear off pieces of the chimney, siding, roof. Long after everyone else had lost interest, I, Gretel, could think of almost nothing but that chocolate house.
When we drove into town, we usually stopped at the country store with the penny candy in tall glass jars: colorful dots on long strips of white paper; clear, jagged rock candy on wooden sticks; wax pop bottles containing a teaspoon or two of colored syrup; shoestrings of red licorice; Atomic Fireballs so hot you had to snatch them out and call the fire department.
A friend put it this way: When you’re a kid, it’s simple; it boils down to get candy. As I matured, I’d spend my entire allowance on candy—Milky Ways, M&M’s, Starburst, maybe a Sugar Daddy just to extend the trip. With my stash in a little brown paper bag, I’d head out to the haymow or some other pastoral safe space off my mother’s radar screen, to induce an altered state, a Molasses Swamp.
Sugar is a well-known gateway drug to more sugar, now said to be as addictive as heroin and cocaine. Make no mistake, I’m writing from inside the problem. While I’ve long suspected sugar to be a major player in a complex network of self-sabotage, like any serious addict, I’ve never been that invested in going after it. I can hardly imagine a life without the pleasure of cookies, cake and ice cream, even if I’ve gotten slightly better about the candy.
Roth speaks of a place inside us “that is unbroken, has never gained a pound, never been hungry, never been wounded.” The taste of sweetness hovers around this inner Godhead, Amrita, in Sanskrit, which means immortality and is closely associated with nectar. I had a first taste of this place in a yoga class, and the hunger for it has grown naturally over more than a decade, without ever displacing the old sugar habit. In Roth’s view, we will stop turning to food for the wrong reasons only when we understand in the physical body, not just the mind, that there is something better.
It’s said that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. A few weeks ago, I found myself in a new yoga class with a teacher who was directing us to think about how we want to show up in the world. Were our food choices supporting our goals? She spoke frankly of becoming a witch with her children late in the day, after making bad food choices. She had everyone’s full attention. Reflecting honestly upon my own days, I see that I begin with a great head of steam, and often end up swamped in the late afternoon, derailed en route to my goals.
We learned about the microbiome, the bazillions of bacteria in our gut clamoring to be fed, dictating our food choices. A healthy microbiome is key to a healthy immune system. If you feed the bacteria that thrive on junk, their voices will be the loudest; they will agitate for more of what they need to survive, growing ever stronger. Eventually, you’ll be at risk for all sorts of disease. Are you going to give the vote to the good guys or the bad guys?
Instead of issuing Orders to Self, mandating food choices, which often has the effect of pissing off the inner rebel, this new teacher suggested we start with the question, “How do I want to feel?” (Bright, clear, positive, energetic.) Or, if you’re already four cookies in, pause for a moment and ask yourself, “How do I feel now?” (Cranky, foggy, negative, sapped.) Use this information to inform your subsequent food choices.
I’ve been trying to clean up my act for about a week now, attending to the question of how I feel, and pausing to remember how I want to feel. It’s been helpful to think about which constituents I’m feeding.
Some people are inspired by science, others by metaphor. And sometimes it takes both. Roth writes that “Change, if it is to be long-lasting, must occur on the unseen levels first… With the realization that you eat the way you do for lifesaving reasons.”
Bearing this in mind, I’ve been following a trail back, past the Gingerbread Plum Tree and the Crooked Old Peanut Brittle House, to try to get to the story underneath the sugar. I think it goes something like this: I’m not happy in my home. There are sadness and anger here. Things could blow up at any moment. I’d rather be at Sue’s house.
I am only just beginning to unpack the sweetness from the sugar.