Sunday, March 11, 2012

Lenten Sweetness: Tasting Towb

Grape Harvest, Joaquin Sorolla,
1986, Valencia, Spain
I drank at every vine.
The last was like the first.
I came upon no wine
So wonderful as thirst.
(from Thirst, Edna St. Vincent Millay)

Our culture is addicted to sugar. Global sugar consumption has tripled in the last fifty years, with Americans leading the way. Current US sugar intake is up to 20 teaspoons of sweetener per day – hidden in everything from fruit drinks to ketchup.

Recent studies show what I’ve found in my own experience: sugar is addictive. The more we have, the more we want, and the more difficult it becomes to say no. And sugar is closely interlinked with our emotional histories in ways that fuel our cravings. In my own family history, sugar is closely linked with nurture, belonging, fun. It’s the approved mode of dealing with stress, the accepted ingredient of any party, the secret reward for any sacrifice.

Which is why, every Lent, I give up sugar and artifical sweeteners, completely. Which has come to mean I give up most processed foods as well, anything with sugar/fructose/dextrose/sucrose or that ubiquitious corn syrup in the top three ingredients. So no ketchup. (Sugar is ingredient # 2). No Honey Nut Os. (#2 again). No barbeque sauce.

Since I can’t drink coffee without sugar, I also give up coffee. The caffeine withdrawal headache lasts a day or two. The sugar withdrawal takes longer.

So is the point to punish myself? It feels that way for a week or two. Then something wonderful happens. I start to taste food in a new way. I find myself appreciating the subtler sweetness of real flavors: carrots, walnuts, bananas, red peppers. Raisins are almost too sweet. A single date is a delicious dessert. A cold glass of water has flavors I’d forgotten.

Sugar, in the quantities we normally eat, clouds our palates, shifts our blood chemistry, puts our energy levels on a roller coaster, and contributes to illness and emotional instability. Yet we consume more and more, searching for that happy high the soda and energy drink ads lure us toward.

Vineyards with a View of Auvers, Vincent Van Gogh, 1890, France
I find myself thinking of Isaiah 5, a beautiful, troubling song of accusation. It starts this way:
I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit. 
The prophet recounts God’s provision on Israel’s behalf, and Israel’s insistence on twisting the good gifts given, craving more and more, wanting things that are neither healthy nor wise, manipulating people and abusing the earth to fulfill desires that yield nothing but sorrow.   
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight.
Looking at old Hebrew words for “sweet,” I came across this word: towb. Occasionally translated “sweet,” it’s more often translated as good, pleasing, right. As with some of the other ancient Hebrew words I’ve come across lately, we have no word that stretches as wide as this one. Towb is good in the broadest sense: beautiful, agreeable to the senses, morally right, pleasing, pure, splendid, sweet, happy, delightful, precious, gracious, full of grace.

The “good” of Genesis 1 is towb: not just good as we understand it, but beautiful, sweet, delightful, harmonious, full of grace. Woe, says Isaiah, to those who lose their taste for towb, who substitute other things for the real sweetness we’ve been given.

This goes far beyond sugar. I recently spent the day with several preteen children who had decided that “good” and “fun” were defined in entirety by video screens. As we headed out of their house for the day, I suggested they leave laptop and handheld video game behind. They objected, strongly, and I cheerfully insisted: they were going to experience a screen-free day. And they would survive.

Summer Afternoon, Edward Dufner, 1916, New York
After a short stare-down, they grudgingly complied, and off we went, to a day that included some very different games, time at a local farm greeting goats and sheep, and a happy hour on a sunny spot of land between a pond and stream. I could see in them something like the process in me as sugar leaves my system and I learn again how to taste real food. They raced around the pond, looking for fish and frogs, foraged along the stream for smooth, round stones, then practiced skipping them across the open water. In the unseasonably warm weather, we all soaked up the sun, ending our time by the pond sitting and talking together on a bench, enjoying each others' company and the sweetness of the day. For a few minutes, we tasted towb together.

I tasted towb again just a few days ago when my husband and I sat together at the end of a long hard day, talking quietly before dinner over a small glass of chardonnay. He had been catching up from a week of travel, preparing for another season of travel and speaking in the weeks ahead, with some difficult complications thrown into the mix. I had spent the day registering voters at a nearby high school, then helping a friend in the middle of a challenging move.

Tired as we were, we were thankful for the grace to engage in the world in real and significant ways, for the chance to sit and reflect at the end of a busy day, for the sweetness of wine before a simple dinner. For towb: shared glimpses into God’s gifts of harmony, beauty and goodness.

We are masters at deception, lying to each other, but most often to ourselves. We tell ourselves we can have it all: sweet with no calories, non-stop video with no loss of life skills or real relationships, all the goods and services we want, with no impact on the globe, no harm to our own inner selves. We spend our time reaching for more: more food, more fun, more stuff, more money, telling ourselves just a little more will give us that sense of satisfaction we’ve been hungry for.

“Seek towb,” God tells us through his prophets: be still, slow down, deny yourself. That craving can’t be filled by sugar, or by anything else bought or sold on the market. We’re hungry for the gifts already given: goodness, harmony, graciousness, beauty, a sweetness that lingers, with no bitter aftertaste.

But we can’t taste it until our palates are clear, our hearts alert and quiet. Fasting is a good way to get there: fasting from sugar or tv, from wanting our own way, from the full closets, cupboards, schedules that dull our senses and scatter our attention. Slow down, be still, then taste and see. 

Taste and see that the Lord is towb: 
sweet, good, pleasing, gracious.
Blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.
Fear the Lord, you his saints, 
for those who fear him lack nothing.
The lions may grow weak and hungry,
but those who seek the Lord 
will not be lacking in towb:                                                                                                sweetness, harmony, grace, goodness, beauty. (Psalm 34)

This is the fourth in a Lenten series: 

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