Sweeping the Paths

I let my gaze sink into a watercolor print on the wall.  I was 27 and lying on a couch while attempting to explore my psyche.  The voice of my psychoanalyst, from behind, had just asserted that I’d already experienced more than my fair share of suffering.

Refugees suffer.  Torture victims suffer.  Cancer patients suffer.  I denied mine.  My brother had not yet drowned.  I hadn’t started a PhD, much less struggled to finish it, land the tenure-track job and the Grand Tenure.  I had not seen it undone.  Plenty more suffering lay ahead.

I have spent much of my life searching for ways to alleviate suffering.  Prozac and Effexor didn’t work, so I try to develop feel-good habits, like running.  Sometimes I am misguided, like when I rush though my day or try to do five things at once.

On the first day of this month, I might have wallowed in a toxic pit of shame and inadequacy:  for the first time in 13 years, Western Illinois University did not deposit my monthly salary in my checking account.

Instead of succumbing to despair, I fasted and met my writing goal for the day.  I was learning “Intermittent Fasting” (I.F.), and much to my surprise, I.F. has softened the pain around my layoff and its unresolved arbitration.

I.F. cleans out brain and body.  The Nobel Prize has recognized this science of cellular self-cleaning.  One review of the scientific literature concludes that folks who practice I.F. report improved mood and feelings of tranquility.

With I.F., I’m gently sweeping the paths of layoff feelings:  anger at the unfairness, traumatic shocks from being lied to and about, wariness that follows betrayal, the raw vulnerability of having been stripped of the career I’d invested three decades in, anxiety about my future, and deep fears that I’m unworthy.

Repeated attacks over 22 months had kept me in an exhausting state of elevated cortisone.  My status as the only tenured professor in WIU’s recorded history to be laid off has reinforced feelings of shame and self-inadequacy that I’ve carried inside since childhood.

I have hoarded layers of pain that have crowded out good feelings. I did not expect I.F. to help me sort through the rubble and make way for feelings of peace, safety, and health.

I.F. has opened me up for “flow” in life and work.  For example,  16 hours into a 20-hour fast, I played from memory the entire Chopin Waltz in C# minor.  My piano teacher clasped her hands together and exclaimed, “Dr. Stovall, you are playing with much more focus and concentration now! I like you better this way.”

I hadn’t told her I had been fasting:  people respond both curiously and skeptically, and I don’t always want to interrupt the task at hand to explain.  Some people react defensively, and I understand that response—I hate feeling hungry and deprived.  I, too, had feared I.F. would induce unnecessary suffering.  Instead, I.F.  makes me feel good– like a child on the last day of school before summer.

A Low Carb/High Fat (LC/HF) diet facilitates fasting.  Even more remarkable, a growing body of independent research suggests that a lifestyle of LC/HF plus fasting is the most elegant method of preventing western diseases like dementia, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and anxiety/depression.

I.F. with LC/HC, together, offer one solution to many problems.

For more information on I.F. and LC/HF lifestyles, read Dr. Jason Fung’s The Complete Guide to Fasting and The Obesity Code or check out Dietdoctor.com.



A supportive spouse also alleviates suffering.  We took this on our 20th Anniversary in August.


After 22 traumatic months of an unresolved layoff arbitration, I have finally recovered enough to wonder where the intensity of my response came from.  Did my early childhood set me up for outrage?mind made

I stood on the tips of my white patent leather shoes to peek over the pew in front of me in the little sanctuary in downtown Camden, Arkansas.  I held a heavy hymnbook and harmonized with the congregation in verses I heard my way:  Christian soldiers marched onward like wooden nutcrackers, and the “life savior” to be praised “all-the-day long” sparkled like a roll of hard candy in assorted colors.

A trio of tall jeweled windows hovered above each of my shoulders.  The morning sun infused the deep hues of the east glass with iridescence–a monarch with wings transposed into crimson and purple.

I followed along through the first half of the service easily:  we opened and closed hymn books, stood up, recited the Lord’s Prayer, and sat down. Little cups of grape juice and plates of tiny crackers were passed in front of me.

During daddy’s sermon, mommy gave me a pen and a service bulletin. If I shuffled the papers loudly, Mommy would look at me with her index finger over her mouth, and then return her gaze upwards to daddy behind the wide pulpit.

Daddy usually preached about love, compassion, hope, community, grace, and justice—values that as an adult I would lose and recover repeatedly. Every week in Sunday school and church I heard we must “Follow Jesus.” Jesus chose torture and execution over silence. I could not fathom such intense and prolonged suffering, but would do my best to follow him.

Daddy kept preaching.

I slid to the end of the pew, took the outer aisle to the piano, and fluttered my fingers into random keys.

With my father’s sermon now interrupted, a flash of judgment and fear struck his eyes.  At once, my mother dashed towards me, and daddy recovered his smile.

“Well, then, it must be time for the closing hymn,” he said, re-connecting with the congregation.  They laughed easily.

Later, the silent sanctuary was mine.  Pews smelled like dry forest. Running and skipping down the center aisle, I felt the high iridescent windows tingle along my spine and lift me up.

I was flying.

“Holly honey,” daddy called from the top of the sanctuary.

Light as a butterfly, I fell onto the dark red carpet and my giggle box turned over.

camden church side

The east stained-glass window.  This church is no longer affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

The Feminist Movement was growing fast: even in the Arkansas Bible Belt, women were organizing the first state chapter of the National Organization for Women.

Katharine Graham became a Fortune 500 CEO and women now ran in the Boston Marathon! The Supreme Court ruled that states can’t force women to be mothers, and Title IX established an equal playing ground for girls and women in education– theoretically anyway.

I would reap the benefits that the feminist movement was sewing.  I was entitled to equality in marriage and work.  How could I know that sexism and misogyny would seep into my bones just as it did to my feminist foremothers?  How could I know the feminist struggle would last forever? We would constantly need to re-envision a world that values our common humanity– and work for it.

The work is rigorous.  I get tired. I need sanctuary.

loopy hair

White patent leather shoes and loopy braids –my favorite.