Fermented Food: If It Doesn’t Poison You, It Will Make You Healthier (…Right?)

I have never been a big fan of cabbage: let’s just get that out there in the open. Cabbage and I have a surface-level friendship at best, one whose stilted conversations (at mandatory social functions such as summer barbecues and family reunion picnics, etc.) are fraught with long and uncomfortable silences. Oh, hey Cabbage– I acknowledge your existence as a vegetable… I guess. [extended pause while Cabbage and I telepathically affirm our decided lack of common ground.] Well, I’ve got to go now. Have a good day, and easy on the mayonnaise!

I have never ordered coleslaw in a restaurant or made it myself at home, and cabbage is definitely not at the top (or even at the bottom) of my grocery list. Cabbage is like the Ugly Duckling of the vegetable kingdom; the socially awkward kid you used to say hello to in the hallways at school just to be polite; the stinky and inexpensive last-resort foodstuff; the least glamorous item in the produce aisle. No seriously, Dana– tell me how you really feel.

It is in this context of general cabbage hating that I inexplicably launched into making my own Countertop Sauerkraut a short while ago. Yes, me! And cabbage!! Who knew that I– She of the Cabbophobia and Upturned Cabbage Patch Nose– would ever purchase copious amounts of the green stuff, ferment it in a jar, and then actually attempt to eat it, all the while praying that I wasn’t going to contract some deadly strain of food poisoning? Never say never, my friends: Never say never!

Preparing for the solemn sauerkraut-making task ahead

Of course, this was all undertaken as part of my Personal Beauty Detox Journey. Kimberly Snyder provides a recipe for what she lovingly refers to as “Probiotic and Enzyme Salad” in her book. I was all excited to try this exotic-sounding dish until I realized that it was basically cabbage. Fermented cabbage at that. Blech. However, in the spirit of trying new things and blossoming into a shimmering goddess of radiant health, I forged ahead with the recipe and made my own, honest-to-god raw sauerkraut! (Naturally, with some pitfalls along the way. What else would you expect from me? Almond milk, anyone?) Allow me now to outline how I managed to eff this really simple recipe up not once, but twice, before finally getting it right. Heh.

My First Attempt At Making Raw Sauerkraut

There are a total of four ingredients in this particular sauerkraut recipe: shredded cabbage, fresh ginger, miso paste, and water. The instructions are basically “mix” and “put in a jar”, but somehow I still managed to get things wrong from the get go. (Leave it to me, right?)

My Vita-Mix blender and KitchenAid food processor: partners in crime!

My first mistake was purchasing a medium-sized cabbage that apparently wasn’t “medium-sized” enough. Thus, my inaugural batch of sauerkraut ended up looking like shredded cabbage soup in the jar– there was a ton of liquid and not nearly as much cabbage.

Something about this looks a little… off… no?

The recipe is supposed to yield 12 cups of sauerkraut. My modest-sized cabbage was on par to yield me 3 or 4-ish cups of kraut and 4-5 cups of brine… if I was being overly generous with my cabbage tally and grossly underestimating the amount of liquid I’d have left over. Is this how my sauerkraut is supposed to look?, I asked myself doubtfully as I tucked my jar of sloshing liquid into the back of a kitchen cupboard. For some reason, I think this is supposed to look more cabbage-y.

Yes, this definitely doesn’t look right.

Nevertheless, I let the gigantic jar of brine (and a modest amount of shredded cabbage) sit in my cupboard for the recommended 5 days. Then I let it sit for an extra 4 days when it didn’t seem “fermented” enough to my untrained eye. (What does “fermented” even look like? Should it bubble? Froth? Foam? Smell? Snap, crackle, and pop? Hiss? How should I know?)

Finally, after ten or so days of stealing wary glances at this jar of suspicious liquid, the moment of truth arrived: it was time to eat a half-cup of the fermented kraut with my dinner. Could I do it? Could I overcome my lifelong aversion to cabbage? Would my decision to eat fermented cabbage come back to haunt me in the form of food poisoning, violent projectile vomiting, chills, fevers, rashes, or even an untimely death?  

My sauerkraut jar, after 10 days spent in the back of my kitchen cupboard

Nope! (Obviously, it didn’t kill me, since I am still alive– enough– to tell you this tale.) I ate the kraut, after fishing some lonely cabbage flakes out from the virtual pond of brine. Amazingly, it was delicious! Super delicious, in fact– I was beyond surprised! Emboldened by my success at Winning Sauerkraut (despite technically failing the easiest sauerkraut recipe on the planet), I went ahead and made another batch.

My Second Attempt At Making Raw Sauerkraut

[I have no accompanying photos for my second go-round at making sauerkraut. The reasons for this will become evident rather quickly.] This time around, I bought a much bigger cabbage. I also purchased different (smaller) jars to put the kraut in so I could have multiple, cuter jars of sauerkraut available in place of my Big Mother Sauerkraut Jar. (By my reasoning, the new jars would look more quaint in the fridge after the fermentation process had been completed, it would be easier to fork sauerkraut out of smaller jars vs. one gigantic and deep jar, and did I mention that the smaller jars were cuter looking?) 🙂

The shredding of the cabbage and the mixing of the ingredients came so easily and naturally the second time around– I was sure I was going to be a Sauerkraut Making Professional. Everything fit so snugly into the cuter jars. My cabbage looked so great and perfect when I lovingly tucked it into my kitchen cupboards to ferment. I win countertop sauerkraut!, I announced to myself as I washed the prep dishes afterward. I deserve silent congratulations and a symbolic pat on my own back!

When I went to check on my jars after 24 hours had elapsed in the cupboards, I noticed that they were sitting in small puddles of liquid. It was then that it dawned on me, the Perpetually Slow Learner, that I had possibly– nay, definitely– packed my cute, small jars too full of cabbage and brine. The fermentation process had started, but there was not enough breathing room left in the jars for the mixture to properly expand. Something would have to give, and that something would most likely be glass. Images of shattered mason jars and shredded cabbage all over my kitchen cupboards came to mind.


I resigned myself to utilizing my Big Mother Sauerkraut Jar once again (pictured above). I would just transfer this newly fermented cabbage from the two small jars into the one big jar. Easy peasy, right? WRONG! Because my brain is wired to be School Smart and Not At All Street Smart, I simply opened the first of my stuffed-to-the-top cute jars like I was mindlessly twisting open a container of peanut butter.

This was not a wise move.

Suddenly unencumbered by the protective vacuum seal, shredded cabbage and brine exploded all over the kitchen (and over my clothes, and into my hair) with the force of one of those t-shirt cannons they use at half time for football games. Kapow!! Fermented juice and smelly cabbage EVERYWHERE!!! On the walls, on the ceiling, on the floor, on the countertops, on my jeans, all over my girly top– sauerkraut was literally everywhere. What a way to suddenly round third base with the otherwise awkward and socially inept cabbage patch kid! Who knew I would get so up close and personal with cabbage??

[This is why I did not take any photos. I was too infuriated and otherwise occupied with picking shredded cabbage out of my ponytail to care about documenting this ordeal on camera.] Through gritted teeth, I salvaged what I could of the mixture, stuffed it into my large jar, and then braced myself to open the second small jar.

This time, I opened the jar carefully and in the safety of my kitchen sink. It still went KAPOW!!, but most of the carnage was inflicted on the sink instead of all over the kitchen (and, more importantly, on me!) Again, I salvaged what I could and transferred the cabbage into my Big Jar for fermenting.

This batch, despite the trials and tribulations I endured to make it, also yielded delicious results, so when the third time comes around for making my own raw sauerkraut, I’ll be totally prepared:

1. I’ll know what size of cabbage constitutes a “medium”.

2. I purchased an extra cute jar so I won’t have to stuff my original ones so tightly with cabbage again.

3. I will never again open a vacuum-sealed jar of still-fermenting cabbage right in front of my precious face and slower-than-average brain. It’s not worth it!


PS: My middle sister, who is a Raw Foods Champion and also an honorary She-Ra of Foods That Are Good For You, expressed shock and concern over the miso paste and ginger that are used in this particular recipe. (Apparently she makes her own Countertop Kraut using nothing but cabbage and some high-quality sea salts, but who was I to argue with a recipe that Kimberly Snyder explicitly calls “sacred” in her book?) I have since learned from K.S. herself that the miso and ginger are basically just added for yummy flavour, so if you decide to embark on your own kraut-making adventure, these two ingredients aren’t 100% necessary. Otherwise, go nuts! 🙂

Update: You can read about my ongoing kraut adventures and try a red cabbage/shredded beet kraut recipe on my more recent post here. See you there!

Dethroning the Dairy Queen

I used to reign Queen in the Kingdom of Dairy.

Don’t believe me? Think that I’m exaggerating my personal importance to (and sway over) the dairy industry, when all along I would only eat a modest pat of butter every few days? Ha. Consider this: A typical breakfast for me consisted of two (or three) granola bars washed down with 500mL of milk at least. Every day. Lunch would include a cheese-flavoured bagel smeared with cream cheese and topped off with generous slices of cheddar. (No, I am not making that up.) Dinner would be homemade macaroni and cheese, a Greek salad tossed with large chunks of feta, or a large bowl of pasta topped off with a cream sauce and an avalanche of parmesan. My favourite desserts? Cheesecake. Ice cream. Frozen yogurt. Milk chocolate. Iced cappuccinos. Anything milky, creamy, and full of dairy.

There is a whole *magazine* called "Dairy Today". Who knew? Cover courtesy of Pentagram website.

It would be an extreme understatement to say that I simply liked dairy. I loved dairy, craved dairy, and clung to dairy with the fevered grip of a woman possessed. Even though it made me feel phlegmy, congested, and wildly bloated within mere minutes of consuming it, I refused to give it up. Dairy was my right, my vegetarian prerogative. And even when numerous health professionals advised me to take dairy out of my diet, I resisted vehemently. No way, man– I’ve already taken out meat. You can’t make me take out anything else, especially something as ‘harmless’ and ‘innocuous’ as dairy.

My Herbivore sticker

Dairy wreaked havoc on my digestive system, but it took me all the way up until last year to acknowledge and admit this to myself. Even as a young teenager, I literally sounded like a creaky old house when I tried to digest anything with dairy in it. My intestines would gurgle and sputter like rusty old pipes, and occasionally I even had to raise my voice to be heard over the groans of my churning bowels in conversation. (Classy!) Quite often, my belly would distend after eating dairy (which was basically after every single meal), and I would waddle around uncomfortably like an 8-month pregnant woman. Dairy did not agree with my system– at all– but I would not agree to cut it from my diet. At all.

Dairy also had its way with my complexion, but I didn’t realize (or respect) this fact until just last year again. I had a considerable case of acne from the age of 12 onward. New and painful sores appeared daily, and older ones scarred my face and neck:

My best friend and I in early university. Notice her gorgeous peaches and cream complexion. Notice my not-so-gorgeous fire ants in the olive grove complexion... This was on a "good day", otherwise I would have been too embarrassed to have my picture taken from close-up.

I hated having acne, and I tried (what I thought was) everything over the span of many years to get rid of it: special creams and face washes, zit-zapping lotions, specific brands of birth control pills, and even two courses of an incredibly potent (and expensive! and dangerous!) anti-acne prescription medication called Accutane. Alas. Relief was always temporary, and my acne would return with an angry vengeance soon after I discontinued whatever treatment I had been using to keep it at bay. It was a very discouraging and self-confidence-sapping cycle. (Because who wants to have fire ant replicas crawling all over their face?)

If somebody had told me in high school that dairy (not “my hormones” or “an oily constitution”) was the prime culprit for all of my skin problems, I probably wouldn’t have quit eating milk products. I wasn’t ready to give it all up at that time in my life (eating dairy = social acceptance), and I was more comfortable with the idea of just taking expensive, extremely abrasive medications instead– even medications that were correlated with birth defects, much-higher-than-average risks for blood clots, and depression/suicidal tendencies. Cut out dairy?! No way, José!! Look at pictures of horribly deformed fetuses and then sign a waiver that promises my doctors, their extensive legal teams, and Jesus himself that I won’t ever get pregnant while taking Accutane, forever and ever amen? Meh. No big deal. Give me those documents to sign! And bring on the celibacy!

Obviously, things have changed a lot since then. 🙂

After gaining some modest ground in the clear skin department circa 2006-2008, my complexion started getting more, um, rugged in late 2009/early 2010 again. I noticed more acne scarring and more pimples appearing on my cheeks, forehead, and along my jaw line. (So yes– basically all over my face.) While I was complaining to my dear mother about this, I discovered that she had a dairy sensitivity of her own, which manifested itself in breakouts on the skin. Who knew? Genetics! Well. I resolved to cut dairy out then and there, just to see how it would impact my complexion. (Screw my sorry-assed digestion– I just wanna be a Cover Girl!)

Lo and behold, eliminating dairy from my diet worked. Like a charm. (Or a genie!)

Within mere days of cutting dairy out from my diet, I felt lighter, less bloated, and way less phlegmy. By the 3-month mark, I had dropped nearly 15 pounds from my average-sized frame (and that’s without changing even one other thing about my diet and exercise habits!) Today, about 15 months after cutting out all dairy (even butter) from my diet, I haven’t gained any “dairy weight” back. It’s off for good (as long as milk, cheese, yogurt, and butter are off the menu). I’ll get the occasional breakout still, but only if I am very stressed out, tired, or if I’ve eaten a whole bunch of flour the day before. It’s incredible to see how much my skin gauges and reflects my diet and lifestyle as a whole– I really can read it like a map now, whereas before I gave little to no credence to the idea that our skin reflects our inner health.

Kimberly Snyder (she of “The Beauty Detox Solution” fame) recommends that everybody cut dairy out from their diets. Completely. She’s fine with people keeping some meat and eggs on their menus, but when it comes to dairy, she puts her foot down. Take it out. Too acidic, too congesting, too laden with hormones and antibiotics, too not-meant-for-adult-human-consumption, too calcium-leaching, too contrary to inner and outer health. (Of course, she is very eloquent, professional, and encouraging in her book when outlining her arguments against consuming dairy. She’s not nearly as tantrum-prone and ultimatum-laden as I’m making her sound in my overly simplistic summary! :))

I consider myself very fortunate to have already cleared this particular hurdle in my personal Beauty Detox Journey. (I first came across Kimberly’s blog when I resolved to examine the connection between dairy consumption and acne on a personal level– her post “The Acne-Dairy Connection” confirmed what I was suspecting about dairy products based on my own body’s symptoms and inspired me to take dairy out for good.) Anyway. Eliminating dairy from my diet was difficult on many levels, especially because I loved it and also because it is so prevalent in restaurants and a surprising number of packaged foods. (Read the labels– dairy, milk, and sketchy “milk ingredients” are everywhere!) I do think that having a sensitivity to dairy makes it easier to cut out; feeling horrible and/or getting acne because of dairy makes for a pretty powerful motivator to take it out! The biggest motivation for me, however, has been noticing the drastic differences between my body “on” dairy and “off” of it. Clear skin, better digestion, not as phlegmy or full of mucous, plus 15+ pounds lighter without having to think or worry about it? I’ll take it.

The Dairy Queen: Off with her acne-ridden head! 🙂

Half A World Away

Believe it or not, today marks the 5-year anniversary of my escape from the Ivory Tower. (Well, I didn’t so much “escape” from university as I “successfully defended my Master’s thesis”, but the fight-or-flight hormones were pumping all the same that day!) I am so far removed from the person I was in grad school that it’s hard to remember even being there. Ever. Some of my friends like to tease me and say, ‘Hey! If you weren’t such a quitter, you could have finished your Ph.D. by now’, but I can’t imagine having spent the past five years still in school. Talk about torture! 🙂

Hmmm... five more years in university or a World Cup soccer game viewing in Old Town Square, Prague? Decisions, decisions!

Going to university after I graduated from high school never seemed like an option for me, and by that, I mean I always just assumed that I would go to university. (In retrospect, I’m glad I felt this way, but my parents would have loved me all the same if I announced I was going to take up semi-professional karate after Grade 12. Their love for me is the very definition of ‘unconditional’.) But yes: There was no choice involved in me heading off to post-secondary school– it just was. It was almost as though I believed that getting an undergraduate degree was as mandatory as attending K-12. So I got a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Studies and then applied for a Master’s Degree in the same field, because WHAT’S ANOTHER $15,000 and 2 YEARS DURING THE PRIME OF MY LIFE when you’re already in that game? 🙂

Me (via dramatic re-enactment in Prague): Gee, I might as well keep hanging out here...

Well. My lifelong love of school and my mad academic skillz were put to the extreme test about 2 days into my MA studies. Listening to one of my peers babble on and on excitedly about some “critical issue” or another in my COMS of Biotechnology class, I realized with a mixture of surprise and boredom: Maybe I don’t love Communication Studies as much as I thought I did, and Perhaps I’d rather die a slow and grueling death than be a university professor in the future. This was not a fun (or timely) discovery to make, seeing as I had just started the graduate program, so I resolved to “give it some more time” and, failing all else, to force myself to graduate. Unfortunately, time did nothing to soften up my bad attitude, so I ended up undertaking, writing, and defending a 100+ page thesis, hating everything the entire time. I was a smart girl, and I was not a quitter. I would earn those “M.A.” initials behind my name if it killed me!

And it nearly did.

My personal Coat of Arms during my Master's Program. (Actually, this is inside one of the chapels in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic.)

During the 17 months it took me to complete my coursework and write/defend a 105-page thesis on women’s experiences with various methods of contraception*, I transformed from a positive, life-loving young woman into a anxiety-ridden, majorly stressed-out basket case. I carried a gigantic burden of PAIN and SUFFERING with me the whole time, and every. little. thing brought me to ugly tears. I remember my dad phoning to wish me a happy birthday after my first year of grad studies and not knowing how to react when I responded to his cheeriness with high-decibel wails and frustrated sobs (probably about discursive theory or something equally rage-tastic).

I couldn’t help myself.

Me vs. Me

I developed a considerable case of first-time depression during my MA program, and I worried constantly about alienating my remaining friends and even worse: losing my still-new marriage to Marty. (Poor man had a rough go when his blushing bride morphed, almost overnight, into a screeching banshee!) I became hyper-vigilant and continually monitored my behaviours and thoughts, which only made me become more robotic and Not At All Fun To Be Around. I should have more fun. Why am I not having fun? I’m no fun to be around. Why would anybody want to be with somebody so un-fun? I will lose all the friendships I’ve ever had because I’m not fun. BEING NO FUN IS NO FUN AT ALL!!

I can’t pinpoint exactly what it was about Grad School that caused me to become such a horrible shadow of my former self. Was it the workload? Was it the forced classroom dialogues over issues I could care less about? (Foucault again? Really?) Was it the extremely rocky relationship I developed with my former supervisor? The subsequent fallout I had with my former supervisor? The fallout that effectively burned a gigantic bridge between us and precluded me from ever using her as a reference again, forever and ever amen?

In any case, once I became so stressed out and apoplectic about everything, I had a very difficult time recovering. Marty would try to take me hiking on the weekends so I could have a few hours of *not* thinking about my thesis. Of course, the entire time, my panoramic views of the Rocky Mountains would be obstructed with thoughts like “I should be working on my thesis. All of my classmates are probably working on their projects right now. I feel guilty for not working on my thesis.” I’m not even exaggerating the extent of my awfulness. Somebody else from the Legitimate Science Department could have undertaken a quantitative study on “The Degree of Dana’s Horribleness During Her M.A. Program”, and the objective, hard data results would have come back: 98th Percentile of Terrible.

After months and months of withering away into a toxic, shriveled-up crisp of a person, the day finally came for me to defend my thesis. I was the first in my cohort to bring my thesis up for defense, and boy oh boy, was I a wreck! (Aside: I was not the first in my cohort to use academic-sounding words like “cohort”. Not a chance! I just threw that in there to sound smart.) Anyway. I had developed a severe stutter the night before my defense, and as I tried to rehearse my opening speech beforehand, I had poor Marty’s ears panicking (and probably bleeding). C-c-c-critical f-f-f-em-in-in-ist dis-dis-dis-course. I kept telling myself: Three hours and then it’s over. Three hours and then I can have my life back. Three hours of PAIN and SUFFERING and then everything can go back to normal… if I pass. (For the record: failing my thesis would have been soul-crushing. It’s rare for students to fail a defense, unless they plow ahead with the exam against their supervisor’s better judgment. Me? I had tickets booked to Europe for June, so I needed everything done and behind me before I left. PASS OR DIE!!!)

For the record: a nice, long trip to Europe cures any/all school-related blues.

I had allowed my exam to be “open”, meaning that anybody could come and watch. Yes, anybody! (The alternative was keeping it “closed” but risking tougher questions from the panel, who wouldn’t have an audience to hold them accountable for their meanness.) I ended up with an audience of about 5 people– Marty included– plus my panel, which consisted of my supervisor, the Department Head of Qualitative Psychology, and the Department Head of Women’s Studies. Tough. As. Nails.

I managed to get through my opening speech without stuttering, which was a miracle in itself. Then all I remember is saying “discourse” and “discursive” about 8 billion times over the course of a few hours. It was a blur of discursiveness. Marty watched on politely the entire time, trying not to let his eyes glaze over with the residue of Academese. What a champ! The tough questions came to a close. My panel conferred in private. It was announced that I had passed. Just a few revisions needed to be completed on my thesis, but then my program would be over and I could officially have my life back.

WHEEEE!!! Let's go and BE GYPSIES for a few months!

It took me a long time to fully recover from grad school. The program had pulverized my soul and heart with dramatic, overzealous kicks and stomps, so the transition from She-Beast back to Ordinary Woman did not happen overnight. I still have a difficult time staying out of my head, so to speak. It’s natural for me to analyze and over-analyze everything, and as much as I detest debating for the sake of debating, occasionally I find myself making a gigantic deal over nothing, just because I can. (I’m always so ashamed to catch myself doing this!)

If you can believe it, I seriously considered pursuing a Ph.D. in Sociology soon after I finished my Master’s Degree. (Yeah, a Doctorate in Delusional, maybe…) It wasn’t because I wanted to do it, but because I felt I should. My supervisor, channeling a Greek chorus, told me that I belonged in the university and that I could never escape my destiny, and for a while I believed her. But then my paltry iota of Street Smarts finally (FINALLY!) kicked in. I didn’t want to be in school for another 5+ years, and then possibly for the rest of my life!!! I wanted to travel, to work at a ‘real job’, and to just plain old live for a little while. Screw the Ph.D.! I would dig a hole out of my so-called destiny and chart a new path!

My starring role in "The Shawshank Redemption". Just like Tim Robbins, but with a darker tan. And only one leg in this shot (??)

Looking back, I feel okay that I pursued my Master’s Degree. It still doesn’t feel like the *best* thing I could have done with those two years of my life– and I definitely wasn’t rendered any more intelligent or competent by real world standards because of it– but then again, what would have been the best thing to do during that time? Take up semi-professional karate? 😉 I take comfort now in believing that I am taken care of by the Universe, even if I don’t understand the bigger picture at any given point (or at all– let’s be honest here).  Part of me also secretly believes that an opportunity will present itself one day and will demand a Master’s Degree (in COMS, no less) as a pre-requisite. Then, won’t somebody be glad she went through hell and back to earn those silly initials behind her name…

Anyway. This was a really, really long way of saying Happy Five Years Of Being Out of Grad School to me! I’m happy to be sharing the more cheerful version of myself with all of you, but I’m certainly not above signing this particular post off with the initials that rendered me decidedly less cheerful than I am now:

Dana, B.A., M.A 🙂

Inadvertently looking smug. I am the Master of Smugness.

*Don’t ask me how this topic relates, in any way, to Communication Studies. My logic: People spoke to me about their experiences, and Speaking = Communicating, therefore I win COMS thesis writing!

Are You There, Margaret? It’s Me: God

This is an intensely personal post for me– not in the awkward Overshare kind of way, but in the I Don’t Usually Reveal This Softer, Sensitive Side Of Me in Public kind of way. Religion and spirituality are hot button and often controversial topics already– better left untouched and/or unspoken– but when you add in layers of guilt and shame from years of being taught certain things but feeling differently in your own heart, you’ve got a regular recipe for electrocution. Shazam!! I’ll be talking about spirituality today! I don’t mind if you tune out for this particular post if spirituality isn’t your thing. Maybe check out some pictures of baby animals instead? Otherwise, I appreciate you reading this with an open mind and heart. xo!


Many of you know that I grew up in a Very Catholic Family. My grandfather was actually one of the first laypeople in our city to be permitted to read aloud from the Bible during mass, and his vocabulary is still a virtual stream of direct quotes from the Best-Selling Book Of All Time. (Well, it’s more like verses from the Gospels intermingled with frustrated strings of profanity, “And Jesus said… What in hell’s name do you think you’re doing??! Jesus Christ!!! I’m trying to quote from the Bible, for god’s sake!!” Quite a character, my grandpa is). 🙂

I attended Catholic schools from Kindergarten all the way to Grade 12. We were given crosses to hang on our walls and religious pendants to wear around our necks, and we underwent most of the church’s sacraments as a class, en masse: First Communion in Grade 2, First Reconciliation in Grade 4, Confirmation in Grade 6, and regular doses of mass during junior high and high school. Passing grades in Religious Studies courses were a prerequisite for matriculation in high school, and of course it was assumed (if not outwardly required) that we all went to church every Sunday with our families.

Because nothing says "I love you, Jesus" more than puffy sleeves, crimped hair, and a total of 2 front teeth

For the most part, things in my Catholic life were fine. I enjoyed hearing about the parables (when they were paraphrased by a teacher who was a particularly great storyteller, mind you), and I threw myself wholeheartedly into the task of making macaroni crafts at Sunday School while the adults in the congregation listened to reading upon reading from the Bible upstairs. Look, ma! It’s a spaghetti rendition of the Prodigal Son! It wasn’t until I started asking my teachers in school certain questions that everything became a little… disjointed.

What do you mean, there were no women disciples? How do you know that for sure? [asked in Grade 6 when our Waste-Some-Time assignment was to draw a picture of our favourite disciple.]

What do you mean, “love the sinner, hate the sin”? Didn’t Jesus say something about doing unto ‘the least of his brethren…’ and thereby doing unto Him?” [asked in Grade 10 when a close– and gay– friend was being discriminated against via Silver Bullet verses from the Bible]

What do you mean, we can’t ask questions about premarital sex during this supposed “Family Life” unit? Don’t Catholic schoolgirls have a very high rate of teenage pregnancies? Didn’t my own, Catholic-school mother give birth to me when she was only 16 years old?? Shouldn’t we be doing something about this or talking about something else besides the epididymis? [asked every time the boring old anatomy diagrams were whipped out and flashed to our perturbed class for all of 10 seconds in “Sex Ed” before the teacher would faint from discomfort and embarrassment.]


In my young heart and soul, I felt that the overall message of Catholicism was Love: Love your neighbours, love yourself, love this earth, love each other, love everything about this wonderful life. Love your enemies! Love people regardless of their gender, race, age, sexual orientation, ability, or even their (non-Catholic) religion! Love love love love love!!

The overall theme of what was taught to me in school, however, seemed to be more like Jesus or Go To Church. Period. Like Nike says, Just Do It. Somehow, the simplicity of the word Love got lost in translation: verses of the Bible were used as ammunition against people who were “different”, being a good Catholic was reduced to having perfect attendance at church, and I received a stern talking to from the nun who taught me Grade 11 Religious Studies when I somehow scored higher on the “Buddhism” test than I did on the “Catholicism” quiz during the World Religions unit. Don’t go on becoming no godforsaken Buddhist now, y’hear? Those quizzes on other religions were just thrown into the curriculum to add a semblance of diversity to our program. The only true way is through Jesus. And Church. (But especially through Jesus Church.)

Sadly, over time I developed a skeptical crust over my otherwise open heart to protect myself from The Catholics (and The Christians, and anybody who was going to throw Bible verses at me as part of their persuasive artillery). I wasn’t buying it anymore. Alas. What started out as an honest yearning on my part to just stick to the lesson of Love became a hardened resistance to the people in my life who, unlike myself, had managed to find this Love through organized religion. I felt like my parents had been duped by the Church, and I was wholly embarrassed by the over-zealousness of my Bible-thumping grandpa. I stopped going to church altogether and started secretly judging the people who did go. I was enlightened. I knew better. I didn’t need no stinking Bible, I didn’t need no corrupted church, and I certainly didn’t need no virgin priest telling me what to do or how many Hail Marys to recite.

I’m ashamed to admit that I felt this way for a very long time. I had been brought up a certain way– Catholic– with the best of intentions, but the mere mention of the word “Bible” got me all defensive, and anybody who wanted to push my buttons for whatever sadistic reason needed only to utter the name “Jesus”. (Naturally, this all caused me to feel extremely guilty and ashamed of myself– the one lesson that definitely had stuck with me throughout Sunday School was that Guilt Was The Go-To Feeling for everything. Guilt was like the Robin Hood brand of emotions: All-Purpose.)

But something was missing.

When I met Marty, I was surprised to discover that he was an intensely spiritual person. (Wasn’t spirituality for the uneducated masses?) Having grown up in the Czech Republic during the Communist period, however, Marty knew practically nothing about Jesus, or the Bible, or even the parables I reluctantly admitted to liking. There are literally hundreds upon hundreds of Catholic churches in Prague, but nobody had been allowed to practice their religion openly when Marty grew up… so Marty, bless his commie heart, grew up naturally being drawn to the loosely spiritual practice of Love.

From (Old, Communist) Statue Park in Budapest

Marty’s respect and genuine love for other people– even The Catholics and The Christians and The People Who Quoted The Bible– opened my eyes again. Through him, I realized that my resistance to my religious upbringing had completely missed the point and defeated the purpose: I had become exactly like the people I had judgednarrow-minded and dogmatic– just in a different way.

So I opened myself up to spirituality again. I embraced God wherever I found Him– in other people, in animals, in nature, in delicious meals, in synchronicity, and in life’s tougher lessons. Today, I call myself spiritual but still shy away from the term religious. For better or for worse, I use the word Universe interchangeably with the word God. I do not read (or, I’ll admit it– respond very well to) the Bible, but I accept that millions of other people do. That’s okay. To me, being a spiritual being does not have to involve attending church or studying any particular sacred text, line by line. Instead, spirituality requires a commitment to Love and an openness of the heart and soul. That’s it– all you need is Love.

Whenever I feel like I am out of balance or losing my way, inevitably it is because I have closed myself off from the channel of Love. I have judged others or have felt judged myself. I have suffered from a lack of self-love. I have prioritized only one aspect of my health without loving my whole self: diet and nutrition plus exercise plus mental health plus sexuality plus being social plus my spiritual health. All in all, spirituality has found me again, but it looks nothing like the spirituality of my childhood and youth. That’s okay, though– it’s all good.