Brown Rice & Meatballs
by Aya Rice
When I was young, I used to eat brown rice with meatballs. It was somehow possible to mix my father’s macrobiotics with mom’s carnivorous ways. Dad would serve fresh brown rice hot from the pressure cooker. Mom cooked on weekends, storing meals in plastic bags in the freezer, which I could later take out and defrost.
Dad would come home at 5:30 sharp, his station wagon bumping up the sidewalk onto our driveway, signaling me that I should shut off the TV and pretend to be doing something useful. He would immediately switch into his grey sweatshirt and sweatpants and go into the kitchen to cook and cook and cook. My friends used to comment: “How is it that he cooks and eats all day and remains so skinny?”
I didn’t know. I didn’t yet know why a lot of things were happening in the house that would have a great effect on my life.
Dad used to place his meal--in three small bowls he bought in China Town--at the edge of our oval kitchen table. On one side of the huge table were piles of papers, books, newspapers--the unknown stuff that clutters tables, houses, minds, lives. He would push it all into a big heap on one side and place his three bowls on the other. Before him he would place a lit candle, dim the lights, and sit to eat. And chew. And chew. And chew. 100 bites for each small mouthful. “Daddy, what does ominous mean?” I would have to wait until the 100 bites were over. I learned to time my questions in between bites, so I wouldn’t have to wait from, say, number 13 until 100. And then the inevitable answer, “Look it up in the dictionary.” Not because he didn’t know; because this was education.
Food put a distance between words, didn’t allow conversation. I was intruding into the personal space he carved out for himself with such great effort. But I could share in his world if I ate with him. “Of course I’ll make you dinner.” It was never a burden.
Mom loved cooking, but not on a daily basis, and there was often great pressure around it. She loved when guests came over and she could display her culinary capabilities. And she had them, for sure. I loved her food, especially her lasagna. Wow, I could eat it forever. Every bite was FILLED with flavor, scrumptious.
We sat to eat as a family maybe once a year, at Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. Actually, the only Rosh Hashana I really remember was when my oldest sister Healey was no longer at home. Healey was 8 years older than me. When I was 10 she was 18 she went back to Israel for the army. So it was me, my parents and my sister Keren, 16, who would follow Healey’s footsteps in two years. My dad raised the traditional wine glass and said he wanted to note that this is the first Rosh Hashana when the entire family wasn’t all together. It took nearly 20 years for us all to sit together at the same dinner table again.
My father embraced macrobiotics when I was about 7 years old and my sisters were 13 and 15. This is my story about growing up with macrobiotics and how it affected me. It doesn’t present universal truths about children growing up in macrobiotic families. It does not suggest any general ideas or rules, any dos or don’ts. It just presents some of my experiences and thoughts.
My father got sick two years after he started bringing home tofu and seaweed. He had an operation and I remember visiting him and bringing him a drawing I had made. He came home after a week and business was as usual. He cooked from 4:30 in the morning. Mom would leave him notes: “Shel, please put the towel underneath the door.” There was a constant battle over the smells in the house. A silent battle was being fought through these small notes. “Natto – the enemy” my mother would laugh. But it was no laughing matter. Mom was not really into this new fad. She felt my father was going through his mid-life crisis.
“And what about you, Mom,” I later thought to myself, pointing an accusing finger that took years of therapy to soften into forgiveness. “Falling asleep on that cozy brown sofa every night…” Mom was large and warm, and I loved cuddling with her on that sofa. If I fell asleep there with her, she could magically bring me upstairs to my bed without waking me. Most of the time she was working long hours in the city and kept herself busy outside of the house, but she gave the best hugs and knew how to hold me close. So mom had the night shift on the sofa downstairs and dad had the early morning shift in the kitchen. I imagine them passing on the staircase sometimes.
However, I do also remember them talking. Mom would come home from work and share all the details of her day while dad went back and forth in the kitchen, cooking as usual. “Uh-huh” was just about all I felt him saying. He was like a ghost in the house. A skeleton of a ghost. He was so bony. Hugging him was almost painful, dangerous. You could get hurt from a protruding rib. Sometimes he would take his dinner to the living room, the nicest room in the house where we weren’t supposed to eat. His self-imposed exile would sometimes be his only resort for some space and silence, I assume. I can’t remember if I followed him there sometimes or not. But I remember feeling he must feel awful.
Food was a big issue at home. Healey and Keren joined in with macrobiotics and quickly lost weight, turning a bit yellow and green and losing their periods. It turns out dad was on a healing diet. He was curing himself from cancer and his diet was so strict it was quite harmful for teenage girls. But he didn’t know that at the time and I’m sure he thought he was doing the best possible for them. Mom was frantic. Her daughters were disappearing. I totally understand her distress. I wasn’t consciously aware of this conflict at the time.
I would eat everything – dad’s food, mom’s food, food at my friend’s houses. Organic brown rice and meatballs.
When Healey left, macrobiotics somehow became the enemy. Dad somehow became the enemy. Keren was strictly on mom’s side, her confidante. She slowly started to gain weight, like mom. Her communication with dad was through empty granola containers that he would silently refill from the health food store. I would track the empty containers that she left with a spoon in the kitchen sink.
Keren and I became really close those years. I had always been Healey’s little girl. When she left there was room for Keren and me to build a relationship that included things other than boxing matches and slamming doors. Keren was really depressed those two years. She would eat, sleep, go to school, and hang out with me. We loved going out together for yogurt, the really, really sour kind. Keren was fat for one year. Then she went on this huge diet and became “normal” again before she hit 18 and packed her bags for Israel.
But little did we know, someone else was also secretly packing his bags.
The silent shadow took center stage and left. Surprisingly, to Israel as well.
Israeli-born Mom was furious: “I followed you to America and now you’re going back first?!”
It was just me and mom for the duration of 8th grade. Me, mom, and our anger. Mom was angry at dad, and even though I love animals I let out my anger on the cat that dad bought for me.
After that horrible year I came to Israel to visit. I stayed with dad in Jerusalem and eventually remained there throughout my high school years. It was unplanned and unsupported within the family. “It’s not natural for a girl to live with her father.” But I was always daddy’s girl. I fought and I stayed.
Dad cooked all the time, every day, three times a day. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. I would eat whatever he made. Everything was fresh and much more varied than it used to be when my sisters and I were growing up. In between meals I would snack on whatever I wanted. My biggest downfall was pretzels. Bags and bags of them. I remember I would call them my “friends.” I felt so lonely, leaving all my friends behind, all kinds of unresolved relationships from my last turbulent year. Years later Healey told me it used to get her upset when I would say, “I’m going out to get some friends,” and laugh as I returned with a big bag of pretzels. Dad never made me feel ashamed.
I was never fat, but I was a bit round at times.
One day I decided: “This is it. I hate my moods, and I hate my body weight. I’m going strictly macrobiotic.” Dad had just made some yummy sandwiches to take on a hike and I refused to eat them. I wanted good food. I wanted to feel good. I started to chew my meals, counting, like dad used to do. My weight went down. Within days my moods stabilized. I was waking up in the morning with strong energy, and I was looking great. My resolve didn’t last very long but it was a good lesson and a resource I would turn to later in life--the knowledge that I can always turn to macrobiotics to balance myself out. However, with that belief I also internalized the more subtle message that without macrobiotics I will never succeed in reaching true harmony.
Throughout high school dad felt a huge urge to help others with macrobiotics as he was helped. Random strangers would be invited to dinner, twice, three times a week. I would meet new people all the time, hear their stories, learn about their health problems, watch them eat and then watch them leave.
“Aya, do you remember Aliza, that woman that came with her son who was really sick? Well, he died. It’s so hard to be macrobiotic, Aya. It really takes a strong personality, and a big commitment. People aren’t ready for change, for sacrifices.”
It was true. I absorbed and digested these words and thoughts again and again. “To be macrobiotic you need to be strong.” “To be macrobiotic you need to be brave, willing to stand up to social pressure.” “To heal through macrobiotics you need to be determined and never even once falter off the path.”
I had secret fantasies of getting cancer so I could prove to dad that I could do it too. I could be a true macrobiotic and get better. I sometimes felt that would be the only way I would really become macrobiotic, if my life were threatened. In high school I used to bring boxed macrobiotic lunches to school. Sometimes people would joke that my big knapsack was mostly for food rather than books, but I didn’t really get offended. I thought it was funny too. I was so weird anyway.
When friends came over they knew I had weird food at home, but I mostly met with my friends outside of the house where we would hang out on the street. I also spent a lot of time at home alone, reading, writing, doing homework. Who I was before is so different than who I am today. Adolescence was definitely not the high point of my life.
Like everyone else in Israel I entered the army at 18 and didn’t have much choice about my food. I was vegetarian at first, then stopped, then became vegetarian again after visiting a chicken coop at a friend’s house. There was no way a chicken would reach my plate again after that stuffy, feathered visit.
I longed to be normal. After a deep depression in the army I craved “normalcy”--to have a boyfriend, to be light and happy. I ate my father’s food and I ate just about everything else except red meat and chicken. I was not a hard core junkie--no McDonald’s or stuff like that. But I was fairly normal in how I ate and in how my life looked, at least on the outside. It worked. I learned the rules and played the game until normalcy felt like reality.
My journey within resumed with a painful breakup that I didn’t see coming. That breakup--not cancer--was my blessing in disguise. It forced me to ask myself questions that I had neatly stored away. The shock of rejection made me painfully aware of my faulty understanding. I had had the mistaken idea that if I were “perfect” and “normal” I would be loved, so I tried hiding my unresolved parts. Now they were coming to the surface, engulfing me in waves of sadness and despair. There was nothing to do but explore them and go deeper. I think that as a result, I began noticing things on a more subtle level.
For example, I slowly stopped eating foods that just didn’t feel right energetically. I dropped seafood, milk, all those yummy yogurts that used to start my day, and white flour--they didn’t feel right. It came from within. I was flexible in my eating habits, but my core was becoming increasingly healthy. For me, healthy equals macrobiotic. I am still sort of stuck on that, I admit.
I started living in my own apartments, first with roommates and then on my own. If I just had moved in to a new place I would only feel at home after I cooked my first big meal. Cooking meant coming home. Without realizing it, macrobiotics gave me independence. I could create a home. And I did, repeatedly, moving nearly every year.
I dreamt of moving to the countryside with a partner, but the partner didn’t come. I moved out to the country on my own, not ready to put my life on hold for some far away fantasy.
Three weeks later I was robbed. Mud and torn letters covered my entire house. I was totally broke. Dad came immediately and offered me to stay at his place for a while with his second (and macrobiotic) wife, Ginat. I was there for a few weeks when I realized I would need much more than that, financially and emotionally. I was tired of being in my twenties, recreating homes every year, recreating relationships or longing for ones that were not coming. It was time to do some healing.
I decided it was time to be macrobiotic again, to regain my center. I was working an intense full-time job that included travel to Russia. I bought the biggest suitcase I could find and I packed every macrobiotic ingredient possible that I could drag with me to Siberia for my sometimes two week stints. I would get notes from the cleaning lady in the hotel not to use my electrical cooking appliances in the room, so I posted the, “Please do not Disturb” sign for my entire stay and forfeited room service.
I felt absolutely dynamite. I was grounding myself. I lost weight, those same stupid 10 pounds that keep coming on and off me since adolescence. I ate well. I was in control. I remember a visiting macrobiotic counselor telling me: If you’re macrobiotic, everything you want will come to you. Just balance yourself and you can fulfill any dream you want without even having to look for it. I moved out after a year to my own apartment once again. A year later exactly, I met Ron.
On our third date, Ron invited me over for dinner. “I’m macrobiotic, you know” I said, as if confessing to a contagious disease. “I know, no problem.” Dinner was fantastic, and I even ate the cooked peppers he made. Everything else would have passed even the strictest macro diet. Ron is often my balance, accepting me and my worries with the equanimity of his wisdom and love. Ron is definitely the kind of guy who can eat organic brown rice and meatballs, enjoying them both equally. I still have a lot to learn from him as my approach to food remains rife with fear.
Food is a constant battle for me. Am I being good? Am I bad? Am I allowing myself to be bad? Am I strong enough to be good? Am I accepting that I may need to let go with food a bit in rough times? What was I doing in France with all those pastries? No wonder I’m “fat” again according to my own standards. What if I become strict again? I’ll feel great and then I’ll go off it again. It’s so frustrating, all this winning and losing. When I win who loses? And when I lose who is it that’s winning? Who am I fighting against all the time?
I think it’s still that little girl who doesn’t know if she should follow dad into the living room with dinner or stay in the kitchen with the now-abandoned mom and pretend that has happened.
I think it’s still that adolescent who felt she wasn’t normal, not in being macrobiotic and not in any way. And who grew up with horror stories about dear people, close and far, who died from cancer even though they had the chance to be macrobiotic. Real macrobiotic. And failed.
And I think it’s still the adult who wants to find her balance, emotionally, physically, spiritually. Who knows there’s something to this macrobiotics that has been present throughout her life, but she doesn’t know how to take just some, and she doesn’t believe that some can be enough.
I am still growing up with macrobiotics. I am still the little girl, the adolescent and the adult contending with all the emotional issues that food has raised throughout my life. Food is a complex issue. It can push people away and it can bring them closer. I feel it is the external manifestation of much deeper issues negotiated first within my family and now within myself. It is way too complicated to wrap up into neat statements and insights. It is a place where “bad guys” can be friends and “good guys” can become enemies. Where strict boundaries delineate who you are for and who you are against. Where how you eat means who you believe in.
At times I still feel within me the internalized, unresolved conflict between my parents; at times I feel the independent seed of myself gently guided by the wind. At times I struggle to hang out with that extra lump of weight; in other moments I have flashes of self-acceptance.
Ron and I just recently got engaged. I am already fantasizing about pregnancy when my waistline becomes a legitimate thing to lose. A moment later I fantasize about macrobiotics returning my waistline and balancing me after giving birth. And another secret fantasy--here goes--I hope Dad will be there, bringing me huge pots of that disgusting fish soup to strengthen me. It’s there, it’s there. Macrobiotics will always be there--in my consciousness, and hopefully, in my life.
Aya Rice is a psychologist and spiritual seeker. She holds a BA in English literature and an MA in clinical psychology. She has been exposed to macrobiotics almost all her life, growing with and eventually incorporating it into her lifestyle. Her dream is to continuously find ways of integrating the often dichotomous aspects of the human experience--through working together and living life deeply--and sharing this with others. She currently lives in Pardes Hanna, Israel with her husband Ron and their son, Shir. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reprinted from Macrobiotics Today, September/October 2010, published by George Ohsawa Macrobiotic Foundation.