Stuff Part 2: The clothes

I’ve already written about the Worst Day of My Life, which was the day when I found out I needed brain surgery. That was the day when I went from “living with cancer” to “living with cancer,” if you know what I mean. It was the day when I started out thinking of myself as someone who was handling life’s challenges and living with cancer largely under control. But as the day progressed I realized that I was back at square one, knowing that the cancer was really in the driver’s seat and was likely to pop up at any part of my body and wave its restrictions into my life (no driving, immediate admission to hospital, prep for surgery ….) This is enough to turn your world upside down.

There were more issues than I knew how to deal with, and a raft of new questions appeared. If I could not call the shots in my life anymore, who was I? And what about my family, who surely had not signed up for this insanity? Honestly, for them especially I just wanted a ‘normal’ life. But no, now they eagerly offered me food and rides and company and moral support… it’s enough to make a girl teary, all the time.

Given that there were more concerns than I could possibly hold in my head at once, my first concern was, of course, did I have what I needed to wear for this new life of mine?  In fact, this was a small subset of the question, What is my life, now that cancer appears to have taken over the driver’s seat?  And just like that, rather than ruminate on the new state of my life, I dove into the literature of closet organization.

I peeked down the rabbit hole of minimalism, and it isn’t pretty. I’ve heard this is a common thing for people who are experiencing a health crisis, in which they get overwhelmed by the “stuff” that increasingly fills our lives. I came home from the hospital hopped up on steroids, mind warped by opioids, and could only think about how I needed to SIMPLIFY my life.

The promise is eternal – control your physical existence and you can control your life. The idea first took hold when I was introduced to Marie Kondo’s Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. You can reject things! it promised. You can say no the obligations that come with owning and caring for the material. Beyond the organization specialists like Kondo, minimalist blogs offered even a little more, as they held out the promise that you could create a sense of personal attainment through the critical editing of your very existence. Minimalism offers a route to reject consumerism, excess, capitalism, identities

I’ve long known and believed that clothing is important.  As one CBC host recently remarked, “Clothes are a passport to belonging.” Wearing appropriate clothing is how we present ourselves to the world. It’s how we express our desire to belong or to blend in or to stand out. Clothing is what we wrap our bodies in for our own protection and care. I need to wear clothes to signal that I love and care for my body, even when it’s in a state of weakness and need. I need to wear shoes that keep me feeling secure while relearning how to walk. I need clothes to signal that I am still a committed member of society, that I want to be approached, to engage, to connect.

[An aside: I’m not sure that I nailed that last one when I traipsed around University Hospital in a bloodied hospital gown, especially not after I made it all the way past the cafeteria, down to the first floor, and out the front door for a breath of fresh air, swaddled in two hospital gowns and a drooping pair of hospital pants.]

Obviously, this needed to start with my shoe collection. I came home and successfully sold 2 almost-new pairs of boots. I found minimalist blogs like Style Bee and Un-Fancy, both of which offered a way to a soothing palette of colorless clothes that promised to uncomplicate my life so that I could focus on What Really Matters. I took all my clothes out of my closet, piled them on my bed, and created a wardrobe capsule. Keeping busy took my mind off the pain and at least half-convinced myself that I was working towards becoming the self that I needed to be for the coming winter of my … what, exactly? Discontent? Infirmity? Convalescence? Healing? After a few weeks my friends Elaine and Hilary arrived and talked me out of the 2/3 of my wardrobe that no longer fit my daily activities. Some items went out for consignment, some to Goodwill, and some are languishing in storage until the appropriate season for sorting arrives. Hilary now sends me regular photos of herself wearing some of my cast-offs as part of her successful work-from-home lifestyle.

I’ve long sensed a shift coming in how I present myself to the world. When you go from being a young, fertile woman to being a middle-aged caretaker of oneself and others, something shifts. You are no longer in the world to add beauty and desirability, to be admired or pursued. (This was always a rough go for me, anyway.) In such circumstances, a woman may suddenly come to understand her role as one of action and subjective experience, rather than passivity.  This transition has the potential to be liberating and invigorating, or it could be disappointing and erasing, depending on how you happen to experience it.  Style icons can easily shift from Audrey Hepburn, to Iris Apfel and various of my dearest friends.

I guess that now it is time to make a shift, from presenting myself to the world as feminine, attractive, and pliant, to presenting myself as a being in need of self-care and ready for action. When I start asking, “How shall I present myself to the world?” what am I really asking is, “How do I feel about my body, and how do I want others to feel?” I’ve spent a lot of time lately sitting in hospital beds and doctor’s offices reading magazines, flipping through images of women and men dressed to present themselves in various states of action and desirability to the viewer.  #MeToo

  • How do you feel about your body?
  • How do you feel about your identity?
  • How do you feel about your status?
  • When you feel fabric coddling or constraining your stomach, breasts, hips, feet, butt, etc., do you feel comfortable/acceptable/in control/appropriate/participatory?

There is something about the act of choosing and putting on clothes that makes me wonder about how I desire to be seen. The clothing itself is a mediator between my body and the world. It shows me, for example, that time has passed, even if I’m not aware that it has. My brilliant husband observed, “This is you, dealing with your life, in your most you way.”



What I’m cooking this week: Ramps and Rhubarb

Last fall and winter, when I was so completely devoid of energy, because chemo, I had wonderful friends and family cooking and bringing us food, and I swear I didn’t cook a single dinner for like four months.  Thank goodness.  At the end of each day (which was 4:00), I was tired enough to cry, and I often did.

Being on the receiving end of the love that dear ones put into cooking for us made me see anew how cooking is a form of care and of self-care, and eventually I was eager to get back to cooking.  I’m still pretty tired at the end of the day, so instead of cooking during the week I set aside time on Sunday to cook things that I genuinely enjoy making.  This often means trying out new recipes.

These past few weeks have been full of Ontario spring staples.  Sundays we have slow roasted fish for dinner with ramp pesto, which was a revelation when I discovered it, especially since I’m only moderately fond of traditional pesto.

The farmer’s market is full of rhubarb, so we made rhubarb compote, which is great on oatmeal, yogurt, and ice cream, and these carrot and rhubarb muffins (GF&V).

Who knew rhubarb and carrot are such a great combination?  The carrot and spices are warm and comforting and then there’s a pop of tart, juicy rhubarb.  To cap it all off, for my veggie-loving son’s birthday this weekend, I made Smitten Kitchen’s rhubarb upside down cake.  And it even popped out of the cast iron pan in the perfect upside-down shape!

This week I made these black bean and sweet potato burgers for the first time; I got the recipe when Susan the World’s Best Next-Door Neighbor made them for us last fall.

With the rest of the beans I’m going to make a black bean salad with black beans, olive oil, red onion, lime juice, corn, and cilantro. Sarah Waldman claims that you can turn a slow cooker full of black beans into a week of dinners.

Rhubarb Compote

  • 1 bunch rhubarb (about 1 lb or 6 cups), chopped
  • 1 cup sugar, or more to taste
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • lemon zest, to taste
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 T tapioca

Combine all ingredients except tapioca in a saucepan over medium heat.  Once it reaches a steady simmer, stir in the tapioca and reduce heat to a simmer, stirring occasionally, for about an hour.

Breakfast Cookies: vegan comfort food without gluten, dairy, soy, or nuts

There are at least two ways to think about diet after a cancer diagnosis.  One way is to say, “Look, I have CANCER.  I’m going to eat whatever makes me happy,” and the other is to say, “I have cancer, FFS, I’d better find out which foods promote cancer growth and which inhibit it.”   Guess which approach I’m taking?  (My friend Rachel’s response: “I guess this is what happens when a Type A person gets cancer.”)

If you’re interested in learning more about food and cancer, a good place to start is Foods That Fight Cancer by Richard Béliveau and Anti-Cancer: A New Way of Life by David Servan-Schreiber.  It turns out that foods that promote cancer are just about ALL THE COMFORT FOODS, including dairy, sugar, gluten and refined grains, alcohol, and meat.  So I’m seriously limiting these foods, which is not as drastic a change as it may seem, since I’ve actually been eating dairy-free and gluten-free for 4 years.  The big adjustment was going from meat-loving quasi-paleo omnivore to nearly vegan.  Fortunately, there is a vegan renaissance happening, a.k.a. a “new veganism” movement, a.k.a. “vegetables forward” cooking, evidenced by a number of popular blogs and cookbooks and even a number of vegan restaurants popping up in my small Ontario city.  I’m in the midst of a deep dive into these cookbooks and food blogs, and I bring you the fruits of my labor.

Behold: The Breakfast Cookie!  This recipe is from Sarah Britton’s My New Roots. Here’s what I love about it: it’s a grab-and-go food, it provides the comfort of an actual baked good, but it also meets my onerous dietary restrictions.  Since it’s nut-free, I can put it school lunch boxes, and it has less sugar than granola bars.  (Even the healthiest home-made granola bar recipes rely on a lot of honey/agave/maple syrup to hold them together.)  This one is held together with white beans, coconut oil, and soaked chia seeds.  The orange zest gives it a really nice flavor.  However, Rob would want me to add the caveat that these are not really cookies in the sense of being sweet, sticky treats.  They’re more like healthy snacks that are shaped like cookies.

I tested this recipe with different gluten-free flours in place of the processed oats, and the texture was too heavy.  I also tried replacing the 1/4 cup melted coconut oil with one egg because I think it’s better for binding and browning, and that worked fine, though it makes the cookies not vegan.  I tried different combinations of dried fruits, and all were good.  I also tried replacing the applesauce with carrot and beet pulp from our juicer, and that was fine, too, if you’re looking for something to do with all of that vegetable pulp.  No doubt you can go to town with nuts, dried fruit, chocolate chips, whatever you fancy.  If you want it sweeter, you could easily double the maple syrup.  It’s a pretty flexible recipe.


Breakfast Cookies from Sarah Britton’s My New Roots
Makes 10-15 large cookies or about 24 small ones

1 tablespoon chia seeds
3 1⁄4 cups / 325 g gluten-free rolled oats
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 1⁄2 cups / 250 g cooked white beans, such as navy, white kidney, or Great Northern (about one 15-ounce / 250 g can)
1⁄4 cup / 60 ml coconut oil, melted, or 1 egg
1⁄4 cup / 60 ml pure maple syrup or raw honey
Grated zest of 1 organic orange
1⁄4 cup / 60 ml unsweetened applesauce
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1⁄3 cup / 60 g chopped unsulphured dried apricots
1⁄4 cup / 30 g  raisins
1⁄4 cup / 35 g pumpkin seeds
2 cups / 60 g organic, non-GMO cornflakes (optional)

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set it aside.
    Combine the chia seeds with 3 tablespoons water in a small bowl, and set aside for 15 minutes to gel.
  2. Pulse 1 1⁄4 cups of the oats in a food processor until they resemble a very rough flour. Transfer the flour to a large mixing bowl and whisk in the remaining 2 cups oats, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt.
  3. Pulse the beans with the coconut oil in the food processor until the mixture is creamy. Add the maple syrup, orange zest, chia gel, applesauce, and vanilla extract, and pulse until smooth.
  4. Add the bean puree to the oats mixture and stir until everything starts to come together. Add the apricots, raisins, pumpkin seeds, and cornflakes and stir to combine—you may need to use your hands at this point.
  5. Shape the dough into balls, and then flatten each one into a patty shape. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, until the bars are golden. Let cool completely before enjoying.

My young assistant demonstrated that these can be shaped as round cookies of different sizes or elongated bars or irregular lumpy masses.