When I fast, I feel
by Karen Hartman

Pop tart by Windell Oskay


In my family, even the tiniest delay in eating was an excuse for bad behavior.  Impatience, explosive temper, poor judgment, inability to concentrate, all could be chalked up to hunger.  Even now, if my even-keeled young son gets whiny and ridiculous I will calculate his last food intake, deem it insufficient, and offer a snack.  Great parenting, right?  Crappy antics earn you food.  Boredom earns you food.  Deep wailing sadness over your scooter or your legos or some minor insult two years ago earns you food.  Now of course you shouldn’t eat out of restlessness, boredom, or sadness.  But the thing is, works.

When I fast, I feel.

First I feel whatever I’m feeling, uninsulated by the food.  I feel the boredom, the crabbiness, the grief.  We are big grief eaters in my family.  When my father’s mother died, I walked in on Dad standing at the pantry eating cocoa puffs out of the box.  He jumped back, slammed the cupboard door, and twisted his body to hide the chewing.  It was like I’d caught his heroin works laid out on the kitchen table.  “I am an orphan,” he said.

Dad didn’t drink alcohol.  Caffeine could induce buying sprees and delusions of grandeur.  But food was just food, safe.   After that shivah, before the cocoa puffs, we sat around the table, Dad with a cheesecake and a fork.  I and my siblings, ages 17, 15, 4 and 3, watched Dad scoop right from the platter.  After half an hour, and half a cheesecake, he looked down and said, “Did I eat that?”

I can relate.  When I get bad news I eat too.  On 9/11, I went to the supermarket to collect emergency supplies, skipped the batteries, flashlights, water and duct tape, and returned with heavy cream, pudding pops, pop tarts and extra butter.  I am normally a healthy eater but I had to insulate, to hibernate.  There is a reason I don’t keep cocoa puffs.  When I’ve heard bad news on the phone, I am sometimes chewing before the call is done.

Fasting strips you of that, or at least it does me.  It removes my best crutch, simultaneously unhooking me from cravings and exposing those cravings.  I only fast once a year, and find it maddening to read on Yom Kippur the words of Isaiah 58 – that this very difficult bit of homebrewed suffering is probably the wrong goddamn fast.  You’re not supposed to fast and maintain.  You are supposed to fast and change.

For me, one day is long enough to consider my animal fragility and vulnerability (one DAY without food or water and I’m practically comatose?  How is it that humans can dominate and destroy the planet when we are such WUSSES?  Or is that why?).  I feel proximate to true hunger and homelessness.  I donate some money.  But unhook from craving and desire?  Not so much.

When I was younger I believed I might be a closet ascetic.  Now I know better.  I will probably never live on maple syrup and lemonade for 15 days.  But that’s a different kind of fast, also –  a cleanse to purge the toxins and the chemical addictions of our impoverished Western diet and restore purity.  To perfect the temple of one’s own body, the little nation bordered by our skin.

The fast called for in Isaiah 58 is emphatically external.  In fact it doesn’t sound like a fast at all, but an actual change in our actual behavior:  Share your food.  Shelter the homeless.  Free the oppressed.  Break injustice.

In Isaiah, the ideal fast seems to be a metaphor – the description of the true fast doesn’t mention food at all except for sharing it with the poor.  The text seems to go beyond asking for a better kind of fast, towards a totally different understand of fasting itself.  Because really, who cares if we deny ourselves food?  Who cares if we live on cocoa puffs or maple lemon water?  Isn’t a true fast, as defined by this text, a broader pause in appetite – for power, for food, for money, for security?

This “true fast” challenges our habitual attachment to the bottom level of Maslow’s pyramid of needs (or if you will, the Yogic system of chakras), the root survival instinct.  The speaker of Isaiah implores us to disengage for one day with the fear that there will not be enough – money, housing, food, freedom – and to do what essentially no culture ever does, give up power on purpose.

And not like, “Make a modest donation to a global or local hunger-based charity of your choice.”  More like, “Break the system that serves you, and replace it with one that serves everybody.”

No wonder most of us (myself included) stick with the bodily fast: tough enough to feel the extremity of being human, but small enough that nothing has to change.