I Built My Life On Sugar

Diana Ha

© Copyright 2020 by Diana Ha

Photo of Diana.

I left South Korea at the age of four. In a photo of me there, I'm clutching an ice cream bar, a taste of the life that would dissolve someday. Iíve grown to appreciate how my mother managed to turn out the Korean food that is so time-consuming while juggling the challenges of survival and work as a New York City initiate. She did what she could while borrowing from the convenience that processed foods in America offered her family. I donít know where Iíd be if it werenít for her traditional cooking because the rest of my diet as a kid into my working years can be summed up by the ice cream.

Kids are no strangers to sweets but sugar, in the full spectrum of its creative forms, defined my daily fare. I grew up on the attractive boxes of sucrose we call cereal. A packed favorite for school trips was toasted Wonder bread, center soft with butter, scintillating with white sugar. My beloved Lemon CrŤme from the donut shop on the corner of Broadway and Elmhurst was a regular affair, alongside the Mint Chocolate Chip cup from Baskin Robbins across the street. My best friend and I enjoyed our daily breakfast of Lipton iced tea and Doritos from the commissary next to our junior high, ice cream a sure bet after lunch. I took to baking, which meant following nice friendly recipes from Hines and Crocker. Voilŗ! Jello and chocolate pudding too, powder confectionery, transmuted so pleasingly out of the box. In high school, friends and I would vault out of our subway car at Grand Central to grab the Mars Bar off the newspaper stand, throw down fifty cents, and dive back in while the rest of us held a death grip against the closing doors.

Then my parents started a deli.

Everything in the store was packaged or processed, embalmed or denatured. The princess of the castle had carte blanche over it all, the Kit Kat, Hšagen Dazs, Boars Head ham. One afternoon, at the same friendís house, I polished a half-gallon of ice cream all by my happy self. That may have been on the heels of the TV dinner, our comforting after-school ritual. If youíre tiring of the drill, imagine how my liver felt. I havenít even touched on my helpless relationship with caffeine, wheat, and dairy.

Fast-forward to my 20s. Life was work, food an afterthought, mealtime but a nuisance to hurdle as efficiently as possible. In sprinting toward my Master's in education and teaching full-time, I studied and planned in my school office until 11 pm. Stoufferís, sandwiches, the saccharine shake Ensure pulled me through. At lunch, I downed something mindlessly with one hand while writing with the other. If only Iíd realized my headstone wasnít going to read Most Fastidious Composer of Individualized Education Plans. I managed to stay one productive individual. But vitality, strength, wholeness, joy characterized nothing of my life. I was swallowing stuff just to exist. I wasnít living. A nutritional X-Ray wouldíve turned up an uncanny replica of Tim Burtonís Corpse Bride.

Hoping I'd respond to reason, my body came up with a host of ills. Pain, crippling insomnia, visible inflammation, severe weight loss, acne any scientist would scramble to photograph and publish. You know when someone bears a glaring deformity and you try not to gawk but find yourself gaping? Well, I was such the show that the owner of the dry cleanerís I tried one day didnít even feign looking away. In flagrant disregard for basic etiquette, she gasped in greeting, ďHave you been to the hospital?!Ē In hindsight, I find it remarkable Iíd held out so long. Yes, my comrades in the dedicated consumption of glucose are still up and running, seemingly fine. But knowing what I finally do about differing bodily make-up and predisposed weaknesses, I see that this body of mine was one that could not afford a day-in, day-out diet of unpronounceables.

The time Iíd saved in not eating right I ended up spending generously at the doctorís. I rode the merry-go-round of -ologists who each tried hard to name the -itis while examining the body part parceled out under their specialty. Who, coming up short but well-meaning, then dispensed drugs that provided the illusion that I was better. No one I had trusted for curative expertise connected the dots, thought the symptoms had anything to do with one another. Years later I saw it didnít matter what we called it. My body had given out, each department simply closing shop.

What I put in my mouth becomes my very flesh and blood and life force. And for some mystifying reason, I had dismembered food from my essence, entirely missed the requisite role that food played in my health. When I had drained my reserves, I turned to professionals to unmask the phantom and welcomed the opiates that silenced the signs that my body had something to say. I know thorough, keen doctors who look at the whole patient, and drugs are required in some circumstances. But not one physician who had my eager concession at the time ever asked about the quality of my diet and lifestyle.

About a year on the drugs, I stumbled on a book at Barnes & Noble about health and the pleasures of eating. It said the stomach opens up more readily to accept whatís coming when we are sitting. I went around stupefied the next several days, in awe of our design. We were made to enjoy our food! The unhurried posture didnít just embody a social dimension of eating. It disclosed a physiological logic. It would be yet some more years before I appreciated the profundity of relaxing over meals but the conventional wisdom had dawned in its simplicity. It slowly sank in. I was meant to STOP. And ENJOY my food. And doing so was good for me. This epiphany marked the genesis of my holistic understanding of health, the lovely play between the seen and unseen. I was a whole being, with nothing random in my inner form.

For over a quarter of a century, I built my body out of contrivances from labs and factories. I am grateful to have made it to tell about it. I have been learning how to live, which for me meant discovering how to eat. To choose simple, untampered offerings of earthís bounty to rejuvenate impaired tissue, clean blood, restore cellular function, nourish the one frame I have been given. This awareness became all-important with the marvel of a beautiful, healthy boy in my arms. The food Iíve served him has been an answer to the solemn charge that I do justice to the marvel of his little body. Iíve progressively come to enjoy the freedom to choose the foods that are best for me. I canít remember the last time I had ice cream. Itís all good, because Iíve consumed enough for two lifetimes. This catís holding on to her three lives. Renewal. Strength. Balance. Iíll take íem. They might not end with food, but surely they start with it.

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Diana Ha publishes in various genres. Her articles, narratives, and poetry feature in magazines and anthologies, among them New York's Emerging WritersCalifornia's Best Emerging Poets, and as an honoree in the Steve Kowit International Poetry Contest, The San Diego Poetry Annual. With a master's in education, she has headed the elementary Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program in the public schools, taught composition at California Baptist University, and teaches writing at education conferences. Diana discusses culture, writing, and achievement with over 16,000 followers on her blog at holisticwayfarer.com. You can read more of her professional development services at writexpressions.art.

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