I Built My Life On Sugar
Copyright 2020 by Diana Ha
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
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
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 Writers, California'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
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won't know where to send it.)
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