First Full Garden Meal or How Lousy (or Not) Are Our Habits?
Tropical Storm Isaias blew through here Tuesday night with about as much fury as a typical nor'easter, maybe less since it was in such a hurry and didn't sit over us spinning its wrath as other storms sometimes do. All in all, it was quite a non-event for Western Maine. We lost a single green tomato in the garden, dropped from its vine as a few of the cages were pushed over, and it is now resting peacefully on the kitchen window sill, we hope, to ripen in the sun there.
Nonetheless, our infamous power company left us, and many others, with no electricity for sixteen hours during and after the storm. So, on Wednesday morning, I was carefully avoiding opening the fridge or freezers, not even once. This meant breakfast was not going to be the Kodiak Cakes frozen "power waffles" I like so much, or cereal (not getting the milk out...nope), or even previously collected eggs stored in there. No, this breakfast was going to have to come from the chicken coop and the garden, so I put my Mucks on and headed outside to see what I was about to eat.
It turned out the hens had a few eggs laid already and there was a single yellow tomato ripened. I picked a summer squash, some kale and chard, a few wax beans, and some basil and returned to the house to cook it all up. Well, I didn't cook the tomato. I just sliced it, sprinkled olive oil, cut basil, and black pepper on it, and ate it that way.
Honestly, this was a better breakfast than usual and I was left to wonder why I didn't make this type of meal first thing more often. It didn't take a lot of time and it was much healthier than my usual go-tos also.
Similarly, I was unable to pop the radio on, so no BBC news, no NPR or Maine news, nothing. I sat and ate my home grown breakfast in silence, save for the drone of a couple of generators down the street, my hens making much ado about nothing, as is usual, and some construction sounds where a house is being built beyond Becca's field. In this way I was spared any bad news, which often arrives in audio clips of disordered world leaders speaking.
The day before I had listened to a podcast about the formation and breaking of habits, addictions even. One of the examples used was hard to believe in our current age of widespread opioid addiction. Apparently, during the Vietnam war there was a significant problem with soldiers becoming addicted to heroin while overseas. The drug was easily available and helped them cope with not only the horrors of active warfare, but the boredom and loneliness associated with service away from the front lines. The United States government thought that this was going to be an enormous problem at home once the addicted soldiers returned, but much to everyone's surprise, a good number of the soldiers came home and were able to relatively easily ("relatively" being an operative word here) kick what is unequivocally one of the most gripping addictions known. How is this possible?
The theory, outlined in more detail here by James Clear who wrote the book Atomic Habits, is that upon their return home, the soldier's entire environment and routine was changed very suddenly. In other words, the environment, routines, habits, and accessibility of heroin in Vietnam were all taken away when those soldiers boarded their planes home. Citing a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, Clear says, "approximately nine out of ten soldiers who used heroin in Vietnam eliminated their addiction nearly overnight."
I was dumbstruck upon listening to this information. In fact, I stopped working for a few minutes just to sit and contemplate this. We have a terrible opioid addiction problem in Maine. More Mainers have died this year of opioid overdoses than have died of COVID-19, about three times more. I am so sorry for and sympathetic to not only those who are addicted, but to their loved ones as well. I can not imagine the pain and I do not condone the stigma or judgment that is attached to addiction in this country. I want to make clear that I realize that addiction is overcome usually only after a strong battle and that that battle is sometimes, sadly, lost. But this podcast was on to something that I think is also in use in some rehabilitation centers, a re-calibration of a patient's every day life to help break harmful cycles.
How did I get from the topic of an an idyllic homestead breakfast to the subject of heroin addiction? It's this: according to the evidence, if we want to change our habits, compulsions, and even addictions, we have to change our environment. It's not about will power alone or even much at all. It's about how we set ourselves up, or allow ourselves to be set up, to carry on habits we don't want. I have set myself up every morning to grab a quick but often substandard bite to eat while I'm doing morning chores and listen to information I find toxic the whole time I'm eating and working. As in, I'm literally walking around unloading the dishwasher with a toasted frozen waffle in my hand and listening to all the bad news first thing in the morning.
On Wednesday morning, none of that was possible. The fridge/freezer was off limits, the toaster and radio were dead, and unloading the dishwasher was pointless; it's not like I could run another load. My environment had changed. Tropical Storm Isaias and a power company that has literally been rated the worst in the country in customer satisfaction, delivered an environmental change for me that has me reconsidering my entire morning habit structure. How's that for unintended consequences?
I am now doing an inventory of some of the less than desirable habits I have set myself up for: eating chocolate chips directly out of the bag from the freezer, blowing off regular exercise, procrastinating, leaving empty drink cups in my car until I'm out of cup holders, not weeding the garden, the list goes on. I've had some successes, too. For example, I no longer often work past 6 PM (mentioned in an earlier blog post as a goal) nor do I any longer bother to argue with hard core Trump supporters, especially online. My point is, I am looking at every habit I'd like to change - the ones that spur the thought, "I really don't want to be doing this but here I am doing this" - and thinking about how I can restructure my environment to set myself up for positive change.
This morning I left the radio off and took the time to make a decent breakfast again. I didn't walk around with it and, although it was a little less gourmet than yesterday's, it wasn't a frozen waffle. It's a start.
- Elizabeth Miller