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Three weeks into January, my Christmas is finally over.

I have to confess that recent turmoil has translated into a distaste for writing. I’ve been keeping busy and anti-contemplative to avoid being sad. But a sudden and painful reckoning with all the forbidden foods in the dairy camp that I’ve been quietly consuming for the sake of the holidays has kept me home instead of at work on a Saturday, and now I have nothing to do but write.

(All other activities are beyond the bounds of physical strength I possess just now, in the wake of my body’s allergic revolt.)

I grew up loving milk, butter, cheese, cream. More so because we had powdered milk in our house, and so any visit to relatives or friends meant a hallowed moment with a rich glass of (2%!) milk. My brother and I loved to comment on how thick and creamy it was.

Taco salad was a staple in our household, along with those big blocks of orange cheddar – I spent most of my teen years snacking on cheese melted to the point of perfect crispiness on salted crackers, and large glasses of cold milk, along with delicious helpings of mint chocolate chip or black cherry icecream. My favorite thing to eat after playing a basketball game was hot french fries, dipped in vanilla icecream.  In my first year of university, I nourished myself almost entirely on cheese perogies. After a long day of  managing a ranch kitchen, I’d curl up on the couch with a bowl of homemade ranch dip (heavy on the buttermilk) and some crisp ripple chips. I can’t even talk about homemade scones without getting slightly upset at their tantalizing memory.

My anti-milk bent runs in the family. My brother, I think, had an early intolerance for milk – I remember when our uncle babysat us for a week in the wake of my younger brother’s death, and I brattily told our caretaker that my brother was required to drink a full glass of milk with his meal. I’m sure such an action didn’t help his lactose intolerance – instead attaching an emotional dislike to a physical discomfort.

But how strange it is to have grown up enjoying something (cheese and crackers, buttermilk pancakes, chocolate mousse, icecream, whipped cream, strawberry shortcake, all manner of delicious Italian foods, butter on toast) and then suddenly find it intolerable and indigestible.

I’ve cheated a bit since my days of non-dairy began – a milk chocolate here, a bit of cake there, and suffered mildly for it. I clung to feta cheese and butter, as they didn’t cause any noticeable reaction.

I’ve done some considerable research into non-dairy substitutes from:

– the well-known soy bean, (generally good, although possibly cancer causing and sometimes silty)

– the fortified almond, (creamy and consistent, high in iron, makes pancakes a little too heavy for their own good)

– the versatile rice grain (perfect for pancakes, but tends to get a bit grainy, and turn greyish over time)

to the weirder realms of alternative food:

– Hemp Milk (their new, improved flavour tastes like pureed creamed corn – although they made somewhat bizarrely refreshing popsicles)

– soy cheddar (think orange silly putty, never minding that it doesn’t melt)

– goat mozzarella (the boldness of goat doesn’t mesh well with the desired subtleties of a good, quiet, white mozza).

– mystery milk, aka English Bay Non-Dairy (claims to have no “lactose, fat, protein, preservatives, soy, rice, gluten, MSG,”  begging one to wonder, what, exactly, is it made of. My guess is potatoes.)

But this Christmas, I decided that I was going to ignore all subtle suggestions of possible illness, and forays into sub-satisfactory alternatives and simply indulge. The irrational nature of my allergies (can have this, can’t eat that, varying symptoms from throat-closing to a random rash) could be overcome. Mind over milk.

And for awhile, it seemed to work. I ignored the increasing discomforts and symptoms. I politely (and happily) consumed offered desserts and gifts of homemade chocolates.  I made sure to test all the Christmas baking I was crafting at work – from delicious roasted red pepper and cream cheese pastries, to fresh parmesan and basil pesto. Somebody had to make sure that freshly whipped banana butter-cream icing was tasty, right?

But the dairy fought back with a vengeance, and now I’m relegated once again to the culinary wasteland without milk. I do have a few comforts at hand – nuts and beans, almonds and soy, are still able to execute a perfectly tasty cereal breakfast or a hot chai latte, but it’s not quite the same.

My husband, a dairy aficianado, has his own cheese drawer in our fridge, (used to be a cheese-bucket) and has kindly learned to cope with more cheese-less dinners. He fares pretty well, adding toppings at the end, but cream sauces and rich desserts are, sadly, to be consumed at understanding friend’s houses only. On days I feel especially guilty for depriving him of a fully complemented creamy menu, I buy him a pint of his favorite ice-cream as a gesture of goodwill.

I suppose being forced to return to a strict non-dairy diet coincides nicely with the coming Christian season of Lent, in which believers are encouraged to give up eating all animal products as a way of purifying themselves for the Easter season.

And it reminds me, in parallel with some emotionally difficult situations of late, that sometimes in this ever-changing life, you lose people you love or things that were a comfort or a marker of identity. A home, a job, a friendship, or a way of being.  And you have to cope somehow – grieving over what has gone, missing the flavour of happiness past, but pressing forward into something healthy, something nourishing, something new.

The pain of letting go is excruciating – but it’s a passing, freeing pain. The pain of staying in a place that your heart and soul can no longer handle, is a worse pain, an affliction that only causes more illness, the harder you fight to keep things from changing or slipping away.

So goodbye, milk! Perhaps someday we’ll meet again in slightly more pleasant circumstances.