If You Value Your Life, Why Not Improve Your Health?

Emerson Quote: "The First Wealth is Health"When I got married, I knew nothing about nutrition, or how to cook. I had been given all kinds of kitchen stuff at my wedding shower, but was clueless about what to do with it all.

Early Marriage Culture Shock

Our first apartment didn’t help. It was on the ground floor of an old two-story Victorian house. It had a small living room, one bedroom, a tiny bathroom, and a very large kitchen area, which was basically an empty room except for a small gas range, an old GE fridge, and a deep double sink of stained porcelain. There was a closet lined with shelves to be used as a pantry, and there were no counters. I lined up all my shower gifts on the linoleum floor, stared at them in a panic, and cried. In such a large room I had no space. And I had no idea how to set up a kitchen, much less cook in one.

I was clueless – and overwhelmed. I was in culture shock.

My husband drove us over to the nearest Goodwill store in our blue and white VW bus where we found our first items of furniture: an old drop leaf oak table, two mismatched wooden chairs, and a two-door, waist-high wooden cabinet with a top drawer and three shelves inside. We brought them back to our empty room of a kitchen. He refinished the table and chairs to a luster, and then he built a butcher-block top for the cabinet that would serve as my counter space. The finishing touch was a peace sign he painted in black in the lower right corner. (Yeah, we were sort of hippies back then.)

Nutrition Awareness Takes Over

Our first kitchen began to take shape – as did my first attempts at cooking. Though my mom was a first-generation Canadian-American brought up within Eastern European culinary traditions, she was more swayed into the “revolutionary” convenience of processed foods marketed by an emerging post-World War II food industry. I grew up with no idea how to cook a meal from scratch. So, in those first months of marriage, I relied on familiar boxes of Rice-a-Roni and Hamburger Helper for our dinners. As I said, I was clueless.

But I do remember quite clearly the tipping point that stirred what must have been a latent creative desire within me to cook more like my grandmother.

I had baked a yellow cake decorated with canned vanilla frosting, and had proudly set it on my much-loved butcher-block counter top. My husband ate a piece and said, “Delicious. You’re a good baker.” I thought about that long and hard. All I had done was empty the cake mix from a box into a bowl, whisk it with water and an egg, pour it into a cake pan and pop it into a preheated oven. How could he say I was a “good baker?” I really had nothing to do with the end result.

Cookbook CollectionI realized that to earn compliments for my cooking, I needed to really cook. So I began reading cookbooks, devouring them like bestseller novels, which led me to research nutrition, which led me to shy away from artificially processed foods. Reading food labels, buying organic as much as possible, and cooking from scratch became my passion.

For several years we ate vegetarian, much to my mom’s chagrin, and then, to keep the peace at holiday gatherings, we gave in and added back poultry and fish. It turns out we were basically following a Mediterranean diet before knowing there was a name for our healthy-eating lifestyle.

Good Food Defines a Way of Life

Once our two children came along, my focus on healthy eating took on even greater importance because I understood the strong connection whole food nutrition has on maintaining good health.

And, oddly, my self-taught exploration into health and nutrition got my mother interested in digging up old family recipes. It seemed like the better I got at cooking, so did she. When she died, I found her hand-written collection of recipe journals. They have become family treasures that some day will be passed on to her grandchildren who remember favorite dishes my mom made for them – delicious memories that are far better than mine growing up.

And now that my kids are adults, I know that they consciously continue to make wholesome food choices – and I’m proud of that.

Healthy eating is a way of life for my family. But, apparently it’s not that way for everyone.

Disease and Disability

I woke up to that fact in 2009, when I started writing for a Social Security disability advocacy group. Disability claims, specifically among baby boomers, were soaring so much so that there was a serious backlog of disability claims from people who could not work because of chronic health conditions.

While doing research in order to write about medical conditions that qualify for disability benefits, I found it so disheartening to learn that not only is chronic illness in boomers on the rise but conditions such as obesity and diabetes are becoming more prevalent in children. Nearly 12.7 million children are obese. And, in 2012, about 208,000 children under the age of 20 were diagnosed with diabetes.

I find these stats disturbing. And it’s getting worse.

According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans from the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) “rates of chronic diseases —many of which are related to poor quality diet and physical inactivity — have increased.”

USDA Dietary Guidelines Quote

And, even more disturbing to me is this: “About half of all American adults have one or more preventable, diet-related chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and overweight and obesity.”

Preventable Diet-related Disability – Why?

The guidelines go on to say that “higher intakes of vegetables and fruits consistently have been identified as characteristics of healthy eating patterns…” Yet, a USDA nutrition survey conducted from 2007-2010 found that 87 percent of Americans consume less than two and a half cups of veggies per day and 75 percent of Americans consume less than two cups of fruits per day.

Clearly, most Americans are not even coming close to meeting USDA’s recommendation of eating seven to 13 servings of fruits and vegetables a day – and it’s showing.

Serious Illness Can Strike Anyone

It was a strange twist of fate, when, after several years of writing stories about medical conditions and disability, I found myself a witness to a story that would devastate my own family – and most of all, my daughter – and I was powerless to do anything about it.

In April 2014, her otherwise strong and healthy husband died of leukemia at the age of 36, even Brown Bird Mandalaafter a successful bone marrow transplant. This ravaging blood cancer struck him, seemingly, out of the blue a year prior, while they were on tour performing as the popular music duo Brown Bird. Was the cause environmental from past years working as an electrician in a shipyard? Was it from a weak link in his DNA? We will never know.

But there is one thing I do know. Health should never ever be taken for granted. I find it hard to accept that so many Americans have allowed themselves to fall victim, unlike what happened to my son-in-law, to “preventable, diet-related chronic diseases” that are compromising quality of life.

I know I sound harsh, but if we don’t have our health, what else matters?

Good Nutrition Heals

I do believe that healing through nutrition can help reverse the costly epidemic of chronic health conditions that is gripping too many Americans regardless of age. In fact, the True Health Initiative, a “lifestyle as medicine” coalition of health experts, says that nearly 40 percent of Americans – that’s 130 million people – are sick with chronic diseases and that “the next generation will inherit a world where chronic disease and premature death are the norm, not the exception.”

Stats True Health Initiative

Source
True Health Initiative

I don’t know about you, but I want to stay healthy. I want the people I love to stay healthy. And I want to do what I can to inspire healthy living in others I meet on this journey called life.

We Need to Eat More Fruits and Vegetables

I am not a trained nutritionist but I do believe we should be treating our bodies like finely tuned engines. Why not fuel our bodies with more fruits and vegetables if that’s what it takes to stay healthy? Regardless of how national nutrition guidelines have changed over the years, one recommendation has never changed. Eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables every day is essential to good health.

I truly believe that making simple lifestyle changes – a better diet; more physical exercise – can help people who have issues with their health feel better. And for those who are seemingly healthy, why not take steps to ensure they stay that way?

The Greek physician Hippocrates, called the “father of medicine,” said, “ If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health.” He also said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

I think it’s time to take his ancient wisdom to heart.

By the way, we still have that old butcher-block cabinet. It’s been repurposed several times over the years, and is now sitting somewhere in the depths of our cluttered garage. I think it serves as storage for old paint cans. It’s one of those pieces of furniture that (sorry Marie Kondo) still “sparks joy.” And the peace sign hasn’t faded over time.

Eat More Fruits & Vegetables

 

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Brown Bird Mandalas Connect Us

Brown Bird Mandala Tattoo

Brown Bird Mandala Tattoo

On the day of the memorial service for my son-in-law David Lamb of Brown Bird, I got my first tattoo. It was a Brown Bird mandala. The experience was the catalyst for helping me find the words I was able to say at the memorial to honor Dave.

I actually didn’t intend to say anything. What could I say about this gentle, charismatic man who so unexpectedly lost his life to leukemia in spite of a successful bone marrow transplant? Dave was my daughter MorganEve’s husband and music partner. He was her soul mate. I am heartbroken for her.

But looking back, I am so proud that I did find the words. And I am so proud that I was able to tell my story at the memorial because what I said turned out to be a gift to MorganEve. She has been a source of inspiration to me from the moment of Dave’s illness on through to where we are now on this roller coaster ride of grief with all its ups, downs, dips and turns. It was she who encouraged me to share my tribute to Dave on this blog.

Had I not done so, I would never have known about a little girl named Julia and how much of a positive impression Brown Bird had made on her. Julia’s dad, Chris Chirco found my post online and decided to contact me via e-mail to tell me his story about Julia’s special connection to MorganEve and to Brown Bird. I think of it as a gift. With his permission, and MorganEve’s, I have decided to share our e-mails here, as another tribute to the beautiful couple we love as Brown Bird:

A Dad Shares a Story about His Little Girl Meeting Music Duo Brown Bird

E-mail fromBrown Bird Mandala Chris Chirco: Your Daughter’s Influence on My Daughter

Hello Ms. Swain,

I came across your blog and your story about David Lamb [The Mandala of Dave Lamb’s Life is Now Complete] when I was searching online for images of the tattoo that David had on his left hand (the same as the design on the Brown Bird CD Fits of Reason) and I felt compelled to drop you a note to tell you about the influence MorganEve has had on my seven-year-old daughter, Julia. 

Julia has always been very musically inclined. She could hum songs in key before she could talk. One night, while on my home computer, Julia came into the room. I was listening to Brown Bird at the time and I noticed how she instantly took to the music.  I decided then that I would try and find an upcoming Brown Bird show and take her to it. The opportunity came in April 2013 when they were playing in Portland, Maine.

They were playing two shows. Since Julia was only six years old then, the earlier show was perfect for us. Before heading to the venue, Julia drew a picture of David and MorganEve she wanted to give to them. 

Brown Bird Drawing

Brown Bird Drawing
by Julia Chirco

We got to the venue early and got seats up front.  When David and MorganEve came out to set up their instruments, MorganEve noticed Julia and her picture and came over to have a look and to talk to her. That’s when Julia gave MorganEve her picture. When MorganEve showed it to David, he gave Julia a big smile.  That moment left an indelible mark on Julia that she still talks about to this day.  Julia’s drawing was even posted on Brown Bird’s Instagram page and in the Gallery of the Brown Bird website. Julia is extremely excited about that.

Julia has not been able to listen to Brown Bird since David’s death. She said it makes her sad. But she does like to sing some of their songs, particularly the ones that MorganEve sings.  One of her favorites is “End of Days.”  Shortly after David’s death she asked me to make a video of her singing it.

Since I am a musician in a local band, it gives me such great pleasure to think that a musician like your daughter would take a minute before her show to talk to a little girl who was almost too shy to give MorganEve her drawing.

MorganEve truly influenced my daughter with her kindness, and I know that Julia, as well as the rest of our family, will never forget MorganEve, David and Brown Bird.

Julia Chirco Brown Bird Fan

Julia Chirco

My E-mail Response:

Thank you so much, Chris, for sharing your beautiful story about Julia and MorganEve with me. I know Julia’s drawing very well. MorganEve keeps it in a special box of treasures and after reading this I do remember MorganEve telling me about meeting Julia. That had to have been just before Dave got sick, so Julia is a very lucky girl to have such a wonderful memory to hold on to.

I understand how Julia feels about listening to Brown Bird now. I, too, find it difficult. It will take time, but I’m sure she will again, because even though it is so sad that Dave is not here, he is with us forever because of the music he and MorganEve created together. Their music is a very special gift that will carry us through and help us get past this overwhelming grief.

Tell Julia that MorganEve is very strong. She inspires her family and everyone who knows her with her grace and courage. The love and support she has received from fans like you and Julia is helping MorganEve fulfill what Dave instilled in her to do – to move forward with her life and to continue with her career, creating more beautiful music.

During the time Dave was confined at home after his bone marrow transplant, he wrote a lot of songs for their next album. MorganEve is working on completing that album. She is also working on her own music, so tell Julia there will be more songs from MorganEve for her to sing.

I am very honored that you found me and chose to reach out. Thank you so much.

_______________________________________________________________________________

I am sure there are many more stories about special encounters Brown Bird fans have had with Dave and MorganEve over the years.

Perhaps the mandala images that are part of Brown Bird have also become our links, in a way,  to the stories that connect us – just as their music always will.

 

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Have I Lost Optimism After Sandy Hook?

Sandy Hook Elementary SchoolUpdated 12/14/14

I have a new mantra. It’s a quote from the writer Joseph Conrad who said, “Facing it, always facing it, that’s the way to get through. Face it.” It has become my reality check, my call to action to get over this feeling of inertia that has stood in my way like a cement wall, blocking me from writing in this space for – I can’t believe it – over a year.

I know I don’t have to explain to anyone why there’s a space of absence on this blog. I could simply start from here. Why would I want to call attention to the very thing I tell my clients they should never do if they want to have a credible online brand image?

It’s because I’m compelled to do it – to be honest with myself – and I realize now that for me to creatively move on I have to do what I’ve avoided doing – write about why. So here goes:

Shock

I stopped writing in this space the day 20 first-graders and six educators were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It wasn’t a conscious thing to stop. It’s just that what happened here, where I live, was so horrendous, so shocking, that I, like everyone else, was shattered. Work for clients was a distraction – but I simply didn’t have the ambition to write here.

Sadness

It’s still so hard to believe it happened in Newtown, yet there are reminders everywhere. Ribbons of green and white – the Sandy Hook School colors – still drape mailboxes, signposts, trees and utility poles. Sometimes bunches of bright balloons mark the roadsides to honor a single-digit birthday for one of the 20 children. Often they are left drifting for weeks. It seems no one has the heart to remove them.

Every day, in my neighborhood, I drive by the houses of two of the families. I don’t know them, but I see their homes and sense their loss, and cry for them at the oddest moments. It’s not the same living here.

Disbelief

And it’s all so close. My son and daughter went to Sandy Hook Elementary School. Though it was over 20 years ago, it seems like yesterday – the familiarity of it all.

It was a great school for my kids. They loved their principal and still remember all their teachers’ names. The friends they made there are still among their closest – and the parents of those friends are among ours. Wasn’t it a blink ago that the school mascot, the Jolly Green Giant, was smudging their noses with a thumbprint of green paint at the annual school fair?

Back then I was an active PTA parent. I was responsible for booking cultural arts programs to enhance the school’s curricula. It was very important to Principal Ron Vitarelli, himself a jazz guitarist, to instill a life-long appreciation for the arts in young children. As a creative, I was very proud of what I was doing for the school. My husband, a graphic artist, designed the posters announcing when theatre groups, dance ensembles, artists, musicians or writers were coming to visit. They were on display in the cafetorium for years.

It’s odd how you remember things, like when I was talking to a longtime Sandy Hook parent-friend about how our kids, now grown and on creative career paths, loved those programs. The memory triggered a vision of the posters hanging on the walls and I dreamily said, “I wonder if they’re still there.” As soon as I said it I felt the air suck right out of me. I flashed back and saw the school – its hallways, the offices and classrooms. I knew the layout of the building as well as the shooter did. Of course the posters are gone. The school is gone. Nothing is as it was.

Despair

Last winter I was reading a story in The Newtown Bee, our local paper, about a writer and an illustrator who collaborated months after the shootings to create a new children’s book. The illustrator, Steven Kellogg, had lived in Sandy Hook for 35 years and, like my family, has strong ties to the Sandy Hook community. Kellogg is renown here for his whimsical Newtown-influenced children’s book illustrations and his story-telling art demonstrations.

I read that the collaboration began after Kellogg had reached out to his friend, award-winning children’s author Patricia MacLachlan, and told her, “I think I have lost the optimism to do what I do.”

Kellogg and MacLaghlan helped each other work out their separate grief by creating “Snowflakes Fall,” a beautifully written and illustrated book in honor of the children. Kellogg said his illustrations for the book became his “celebration of the kind of childhood we provided our family in Sandy Hook.”

The story stuck with me. I thought about what Kellogg said about losing optimism after the shootings. Is that it? Have I lost optimism?

Anger

A general definition of “optimism” is a hopefulness that good things will happen. But I feel anger, given what I know about gun-industry politics, after each and every needless shooting that has happened since Sandy Hook. I guess the one good thing, (if you can call it that) coming out of our tragedy, is that more people are waking up to our society’s gun violence culture and are taking action to do something to achieve some measure of positive cultural change to help save innocent lives. It’s complicated. Am I hopeful? Not really.

And then I think about the idyllic innocence my children had growing up here in Sandy Hook – the carefree magic of childhood that Kellogg alluded to – and I am so angry to think that the shootings have compromised “that kind of childhood.” It will take years to know just how much.

Strength

What I do know is that collectively we are a strong and resilient community. The resolve of its citizens to not allow this horrific tragedy define Newtown – is inspiring.

I also understand that the cliché “life goes on” is profoundly true. I get that. In the midst of Newtown’s push to move on, we’ve all had personal stuff happen to us, too – births, milestones, illness and death. Good times, bad times, happy and sad. Grief is complex – but so is life.

Face It Quote Joseph Contrad

Facing It

Which is why, I must get back to doing for myself the very thing I love to do – write.

It’s time to face this inertia – to break down that cement wall and allow it to crumble away. “That’s the way to get through. Face it.” I know I can do it.

As for optimism – I’m working on it.

Update – December 14, 2014

It’s been two years since the Sandy Hook school shooting. The trauma has not faded, but instead invades our town like a storm cloud, darkening our holiday preparations. Today we can’t help but remember. Today is a sad day. That will never change.

Oddly for me,  Steven Kellogg, who has unkowingly helped me get back to my personal writing,  has once again influenced my sense of optimism with another article in The Newtown Bee. He wrote about why he felt it necessary to revise and re-illustrate one of his stories written 35 years ago, Pinkerton Behaves, about a Great Dane pup. The story included an illustration of a burglar with a gun. Kellogg wrote:

” In creating the burglar back in mid-1970s, I had patterned him after the stereotyped caricature of comic book bad guys I remembered from my childhood, and I portrayed him wielding an oversized pistol.”

“As time passed, the prevalence of domestic gun violence became a growing national concern, and the inclusion of that menacing gun elicited objections and protests from adult readers who were sharing the book with children in their lives. In light of the Sandy Hook tragedy, and the alarming statistics of gun violence (with more than 80 school shootings having occurred in the country since December 14, 2012), I recognized that my thinking had changed and the book must change.”

To mark the 35th anniversary of Pinkerton Behaves, Kellogg removed the gun.

“I was motivated by the conviction that caring citizens must try to reprogram their society for the safety and well-being of everyone, and authors and illustrators have an obligation to create the highest quality literature and art in order to enrich the lives of children.”

Things have changed since Sandy Hook. I’m thinking that maybe there is a reason for optimism. As we close out another year, perhaps this quote  from Alfred Lord Tennyson may inspire:

“Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, ‘It will be happier.'”

The Mandala of Dave Lamb’s Life is Now Complete

Brown Bird

Brown Bird
MorganEve Swain; Dave Lamb

On April 5, 2014, Dave Lamb of the indie-music duo Brown Bird lost his yearlong battle with leukemia. Dave was my daughter’s music partner, husband, and will forever be her soul mate.

A memorial celebration of Dave’s life took place on April 8 at the Columbus Theatre in Providence. It was “a joyous event that honored not only Brown Bird’s legacy, but also the power of love and community.”

Before the public event, the Swain-Lamb families and closest friends gathered together for a private service. Any family member or friend was welcomed to share thoughts about Dave.

The following was my contribution. I am honored to share only because my daughter MorganEve feels this to be a “perfect” tribute to her Dave…

The Mandala of Dave’s Life is Now Complete

I did something today I thought I would never do. Today I got my first tattoo.

Brown Bird Mandala Tattoo

Brown Bird Mandala Tattoo

I am one of those parents who always disapproved of tattoos. But now I’m proud to have one. It’s one of the Brown Bird mandalas displayed on their Fits of Reason album.

In looking up the meaning of a mandala I learned that mandalas “remind us of our relation to infinity extending beyond and within our bodies and minds…they symbolize circles of life encompassing friends, family and communities…they symbolize that life is never-ending, encompassing all religions…”

These meanings encompass the spirit of Dave…his capacity to nurture friendships so evident in the outpouring from all of you, the Warren-Providence community, and beyond.

In his quest to understand all religions he in fact created a global ministry of music and words that inspire thousands in profound ways.

Mandalas also reveal a person’s path in life.

I truly believe Dave’s path was revealed to him when he met MorganEve.

With MorganEve by his side, with her unconditional love, and her gift of music added to his, the mandala of Dave’s life became complete.

His friend Jeremy recently said to me, “The years Dave had with MorganEve were his happiest ever.” I cherish that thought.

What Dave and MorganEve shared is a never-ending inspiration to us all.

So yes, I’m happy I got a tattoo today. It will remind me every day of their perfect love.

                       Colleen Swain: for Dave Lamb Memorial Celebration – April 8, 2014

MorganEve and Dave Wedding Day

MorganEve and Dave on their Wedding Day: August 23, 2013
Warren, RI

Dave received a successful bone marrow transplant in September 2013. He had just passed the six-month mark and all signs pointed to a full recovery. It is not known why leukemia returned, this time to attack his white blood cells.

According to Be the Match leukemia is a blood cancer that “can happen to anyone, at any time. But so can a cure.”

Please do your part to help find cures for blood cancers. Learn more at www.bethematch.org