Rachel Naomi Remen: sustenance for uncertain times

When it comes to healing, our notion of time can behave very strangely. It might speed up or it might be infinitely slow, like molasses. When we are eager for a loved one to get better, as I am now, it can seem like forever. The body heals at the rate that it heals. I remember Rachel Naomi Remen saying disease is a weird thing; it reveals itself when it’s ready to reveal itself. It can be frustrating when all sorts of symptoms appear, but no prognosis is certain. You are left wondering...where am I?

Rachel Naomi Remen, one of the pioneers of the mind-body health movement and relationship-centered care, is my inspiration for how to think about these unfathomable mysteries. How many of you have read (and reread) her book Kitchen Table Wisdom? I read it when it first came out and I was in culinary school. My copy is a dog-eared treasure on my shelf.  

Sustenance for uncertain times

Kitchen Table Wisdom is not about food! It’s about the unknowing, the mystery, the unanswered questions, the living in a state you can’t control. In other words, it’s about life!

But especially life on the edge, in a state where you’re trying to figure out things that are beyond your control, that affect your perception of time, that make time illusive. If you’re a caregiver, you know what I’m talking about. Or if you’ve been in that place yourself, or watched a dear friend or family member go through an illness. The hardest thing about the process is realizing that there are things that we can’t organize or control. We are not on terra firma. It’s a very uncomfortable feeling.

Just now I plucked my copy of Kitchen Table Wisdom from the shelf and it fell open to a chapter called “Mystery and Awe,” and this underlined passage:

“In some fairy tales there is a magic word which has the power to undo the spell that has imprisoned someone and freed them. When I was small, I would wait anxiously until the prince or the princess stumbled on the formula and said the healing words that would release them into life. Usually the words were some sort of nonsense like ‘Shazam.’ My magic words have turned out to be ‘I don’t know.’ ”

And on another page, underlined and starred, this:

“I accept that I may never know where truth lies in such matters. The most important questions don’t seem to have ready answers. But the questions themselves have a healing power when they are shared. An answer is an invitation to stop thinking about something, to stop wondering. Life has no such stopping places, life is a process whose every event is connected to the moment that just went by. An unanswered question is a fine traveling companion. It sharpens your eye for the road.”

Ah! The beauty and wisdom of her words...nectar in uncertain times.

Naomi Remen

A stratospheric healer

Rachel Naomi Remen is a formidable, inspiring woman, doctor and teacher. In 1991, she founded a healing institute at Commonweal, renamed the Remen Institute for the Study of Health & Illness (RISHI) and moved to the Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine in 2016. The institute educates and supports health professionals practicing compassionate healing.

She developed a groundbreaking curriculum for medical students called The Healer’s Art, now taught in more than half of American medical schools and in seven countries abroad. US News and World Report Best Graduate Schools has called it, “A profoundly innovative curriculum on reintegrating the heart and soul into contemporary medicine and restoring medicine to its integrity as a calling and a work of healing.”

She coined the expression “wounded healer,” based on her own life as a doctor and educator, and someone who has lived with Crohn’s disease for umpteen years. It’s not meant as a negative term; on the contrary, it signifies a health professional who’s walked in the mystery of the unknowable, and been empowered by wisdom received during the experience of healing.

"Wounding and healing are not opposites. They're part of the same thing. It is our wounds that enable us to be compassionate with the wounds of others. It is our limitations that make us kind to the limitations of other people. It is our loneliness that helps us to to find other people or to even know they're alone with an illness. I think I have served people perfectly with parts of myself I used to be ashamed of. "

For me, Rachel Naomi Remen is where wisdom meets medicine on the healing path.

I’ve encountered her personally a number of times over the years, and been awestruck every time. I’ve heard her speak many times (she’s a phenomenally good speaker), cooked for her, and met with her regarding my work training doctors in the importance of food in their patients’ lives and their own. She encouraged me to pursue my passion, to forge ahead, and to step into the unknowable. She is extraordinary at telling stories, so I was deeply inspired when she said, You tell stories, too. You just do it with food.

Seeing What’s Real: “Maybe we all need to know a little less and wonder a little more.”

Being in the not knowing

Right now, I’m a bystander in my situation and I just don't know, I don’t have an answer, and I don’t know who has an answer. Food is not the answer, and here I am, the cook! I don’t have a magic wand. Time is moving at a snail’s pace while the rest of the world is whizzing by. I know I need to stay the course, and pay attention. Eventually the mystery will unravel itself. But I can’t see around the curve yet, and being able to stay with that is not easy.

So what can I do? I go to the things I have some semblance of control over. I paint and I cook! I’m not talking about major cooking—I don't have the bandwidth for my most creative cooking right now, I’m in my “must sustain” frame of mind. It’s self care, minimal style, that one little thread that helps you nourish your soul and yourself. When you’re in the slow pace of the unknowable, and you can’t see the finish line, it’s a good thread to hold on to.

Yesterday I didn’t eat anything green except green tea. I didn’t manage the amount of vegetables I normally get in in a day. But I did the best I could do. Sometimes the best is a cup of tea.

Recipes for self-care, minimal style

Green Tea Chai

How do I love thee? By keeping thee at all times on my refrigerator shelf. Green tea is brain-boosting, and here we’ve added ginger, cinnamon, and coriander with their top-notch anti-inflammatory properties. In our house, this is a go-to for staying sharp throughout the day.

Matcha

If you’re not familiar with matcha, it’s a finely powdered green tea. And if you’re not familiar with chef Eric Gower, his matcha is to green tea as Dom Perignon is to Champagne. Eric spent sixteen years in Japan learning the customs and history behind one of the healthiest teas on the planet. I took a class with him and he made me a matcha convert! He’s allowed me to share his matcha method with you.

 

Ginger Peppermint Green Tea

With both peppermint and ginger, this tea is like a mother’s gentle belly rub for a sick child. :)  Very nice hot or chilled.

SOMETIMES MINIMAL SELF CARE IS THE ANSWER. YOUR NEW MANTRA CAN BE: JUST DO THE BEST YOU CAN DO. AND KEEP IN MIND—THAT CUP OF GREEN TEA COUNTS!

With a deep bow to Rachel Naomi Remen for the kitchen table wisdom she has brought to the world of healing!