Seeds of a Sea Change

by Maria Theresa Maggi on February 28, 2015

Flax Seeds in Jar original chalk pastel drawing by Maria Theresa Maggi

Flax Seeds in Jar by Maria Theresa Maggi


A while back someone on McDougall Friends started a thread asking how long or how many times others had been exposed to information about a plant-based diet before taking the plunge. Lots of people had a simple answer such as “after I saw Forks Over Knives.” Another remarked that it happened both all at once or in layers. I think by layers she meant gradually giving up meat, dairy, oil. Such answers are fine and valid, but they remind me that my own experience was not linear, and although it did happen in time, it also bent time and brought many significant moments in my life to the forefront all at once.

I struggled to think of an image that would work to dramatize what this felt like. The words that kept coming to me were “sea change.” The general definition of a sea change is ” a profound and comprehensive transformation.” More literally its defined as a change wrought by the sea. But most originally and famously, it was first used  by Shakespeare, when the spirit Ariel in The Tempest sings to the young prince Ferdinand that his father has drowned, ” and “suffered a sea change into something rich and strange.”

But it turns out his father has not drowned. By the end of the play all are transformed beyond what they thought possible at the beginning. Even Prospero himself, the magician who brings it all about in the service of peace and forgiveness, leaves his magic behind.

The Tempest is my favorite play by Shakespeare. Four years ago on a very hot summer afternoon I skipped my nap to walk down to the old empty grain towers, one of which had been converted into a makeshift theater to watch a community production. I had mistakenly hoped it would be in one of the cement silos, but I was wrong. It was so hot inside the huge perforated metal silo that I took my sandals off so the bottoms of my feet would cool off on the concrete, thus keeping me from fainting, and allowing, along with the water I had brought, to stay and watch the play (the production company gave out free water bottles to the audience as well, and everyone shared). When the actor who played Prospero hit the plywood surface of the back tier of seating on which she stood with her solid wooden staff to invoke the storm and shipwreck that begin the play, the sound raced around the huge circle of the space and made the silo become the island in the storm. She was so in tune with the echoes from the acoustics and the seafarers choreographed on the plywood platform in the middle of the stage floor that it was as if everything I heard and saw emanated from her outstretched arm. And when I saw for certain she was a she, and that she truly was Prospero, and that all the actors were women, I cried, catching the tears as they jumped overboard to run down my cheeks.

The conditions and the effect  of seeing that production of The Tempest form the best image I can come up with about what it was like for me when I began eating this way. One could say many of my different “selves” arrived to add their support for making this life changing decision.

About two weeks after beginning to eat low fat whole plant foods back in the winter of 2008, I “saw” all of a sudden how profoundly it was changing me, and how these many experiences in my life had paved the way for this path to become clear, and at this time in my life. It’s as if all of those moments came together to hand me the knowing. It’s hard to put them in order in time or importance, or even to enumerate each one. Their momentum gathered like the reverberation of sound in the silo-turned-theater, wrapping me in a past that had come forward to be fully transformed into my future. And like Prospero in the play, I had to be willing to forgive all the “enemies” within or around myself who had kept me from finding this choice as a “brave new world” (another famous phrase first uttered at the end of The Tempest by Prospero’s daughter Miranda).

The following moments are among those in my life that carried the seed of my decision and the clarity about eating this way that would blossom from it. Though the ages are approximate, the experiences hit some hidden bull’s eye I didn’t know was there until much later. Like the characters from the shipwreck in The Tempest, I wandered as if in a fog or under a spell, not knowing what to make of them for a long time, but they will give you an idea of the magnitude of this sea change when it finally came to pass.

I am four. As I wrote about in Life Beyond Chocolate, I am sitting on the couch watching The Mousketeers. I am so little my feet stick straight out on the couch, nowhere near the floor. But I am not a tiny child. I am chubby. On the arm of the brown sofa is a tin cup full of chocolate chips. My mother has given me these to eat while I watch some afternoon TV. It’s a treat, but as an adult I realize it’s also probably because she needed a diversion for me that would allow her to get some things done in the kitchen. My four year old self could not stop eating those chocolate chips. But she also knew there was something not quite right about the way they made her not be able to stop eating them. She is filled with shame and self-loathing for not being able to stop, and for knowing that the chocolate was “fattening,” but was also a reward for being “good.” She wished her sleepy baby doll could eat some of them with her, so she wouldn’t be responsible for eating all of them, just as she knew she would eat every single one, and maybe want more after that. I certainly couldn’t have articulated this at 4 years old–I could barely do it at nearly 24 years old (see below)–but I felt it, and it stayed with me, stored away for future use.

I am 10. The orthopedic surgeon I see for the mild cerebral palsy tells me and my mother that I should lose some weight to optimize my  mobility, and before my life is further complicated by puberty. He prescribes a low fat diet, and writes out on a prescription pad what I can and can not eat. (You can see this  list in my post The Power of the Plateau.) So at an early age, I grow accustomed to sitting at the table eating my baked potato without butter and my salad without dressing, whether at home or in a restaurant. I lose 25 lbs, which brings me a normal weight for my age. And because of that experience I never return to piling on the butter or the dressing or the oil, even though I did use it again later.

I am 17. I don’t remember exactly why, but I was drawn to vegetarianism in high school. It seems to me it was because I didn’t want to eat animals, and I reasoned that eggs and dairy did not kill the animals. Factory farming was just getting started in those days, and I was very attracted to the hippies slightly older than me who celebrated this lifestyle as healthy. When I ended up with mononucleosis, my parents of course thought my not eating meat was a cause. So there was lots of pressure to eat it again.

I am 20. I am diagnosed with “spastic colon.” The doctor prescribed a traditional “bland” diet, which did not contain much roughage, i.e., raw vegetables, and was not vegetarian. The medication bentil was also prescribed. I was advised to eat when hungry and away from my family, who argued in front of the TV during dinner. I also fell prey to trying the Atkin’s Diet for a few weeks, but the taste of all the fat made me so sick I could not continue it.

I am 21. I work at a bookstore and discover Laurel’s Kitchen. It articulated the vegetarian philosophy I had been trying to live by before it had been derailed by parental worries and doctor’s theories. It does include dairy and egg, but in small and low fat amounts, and is very mindful of the calorie density of foods. It’s still one of my favorites reads ever, even though I have moved beyond it.

I am 23. At the Safeway market near my apartment there is a mountainous display of Duncan Hines brownie mix. Both my roommate and I notice it separately and talk about how we need to buy a mix and make those brownies. I could not believe how much that display made me want to eat those brownies. I thought about it all the time. But when we make the brownies and I eat some, I do not feel good at all. I notice the huge disjunction between my longing for them and the effect they actually have on me when I eat them. But I don’t know what to do with that awareness. I still think it is  a matter of eating less of them, or somehow transforming myself so chocolate sugar and fat do not have the effect on me they always have.

I am 29, pregnant with Michael. Of course at the behest of everyone, including my health care providers, I drink milk so my baby’s bones will develop properly. By my seventh month, I am having constant and severe diarrhea. My OBGYN was not a personable man; he wrote me a prescription for a fecal test and referred me to a gastroenterologist without even making eye contact. I am out of the office within five minutes.

Luckily for me, it turns out that the gastroenterologist is an affable and caring man. He says all the extensive tests were not necessary. He tells me I am lactose intolerant. But he doesn’t suggest I avoid dairy. Instead he tells me about Lactaid, a kind of treated cow’s milk for people with lactose intolerance. All my providers and my family and friends are so sure milk is necessary that this seems like the best solution, especially since no other solution is offered. Even though I’ve never liked to drink milk, I drink the Lactaid for the rest of my pregnancy, and on into Michael’s infancy while I nurse him.

I am 29, and Michael is a tiny colicky infant. Poor little  Michael had an ear infection at two weeks old (from amniotic fluid left in the tiny ear canals he had inherited from me). He also had terrible colic and terrible diaper rash. No one told me it might have to do with the milk and dairy I was eating until he was several months old when  the pediatric nurse (who was also the wife of the pediatrician we saw during Michael’s first year) suggests the diaper rash is not just a matter of what kind of diapers we are using, but could be caused by dairy, and that I should try using formula (by this time, Michael was not breast feeding exclusively). I had never heard such a thing before in my life. I must have paid some attention to it, and used a soy based formula when he was safely old enough to drink it; to tell the truth I can’t remember. But to give up dairy completely? No one had ever suggested such a thing. It conflicted with everything I’d been taught and told by all my other doctors my whole life. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the dissonance. I never forgot it either, although I was too brainwashed to really make a clean break from dairy, or to try feeding Michael completely dairy free (which would also have meant me being dairy free). But I did start restricting it again, as I had done as a child.

I am 31, and Michael is a toddler. We’re at a  new pediatrician’s based on a health care plan I have at my teaching job. He is a wonderful internist, always busy, always behind, but excellent, sharp,  kind. He got Michael safely through a serious bout of viral pneumonia when he had to be hospitalized for a few days. I can’t remember why we were at the office when this conversation took place, but he talks about the “brat” (banana, rice, applesauce, toast) diet to heal an upset stomach, and tells me cheese is “binding.” I had never head that either. I tucked it away as another strange fact, not sure what to do with it, since it didn’t fit with all the other propaganda I had swallowed about the indisputable need to eat dairy in order to be healthy.

I am 34. At yoga one evening before class starts, I overhear a man in the class talking to our yoga teacher. He has had a heart attack, but his face is all aglow with joy and new knowledge. He s asking our teacher if she has ever heard of Dr. Dean Ornish. He seems thin to me, but he is saying he never felt better and is telling her about a low fat diet he’s following. I note that my yoga teacher, who I loved and admired greatly, was not going for it. I wondered why. I also never forgot the name Dr. Dean Ornish.

In the same yoga class, I overhear another woman talking about miso. I had never heard of it before either. In a few months at the encouragement of another writer friend  I would first learn about Gold Mine Natural Foods and Macrobiotics and try some miso.

I am 40. I receive the diagnosis of MS on Valentine’s Day, after many years of unexplained symptoms that eluded doctors and which I had long since given up asking about, a semester of being unable to teach, and a doctor who thought I was clinically depressed and inappropriately prescribed Paxil, which made me so jumpy I had to quit taking it.

I am told of Dr. Swank and his diet from the time I am diagnosed. My neurologist mentions it in passing as something I might be interested in, but he describes it as a diet on which “you eat a lot of chicken and fish.” This was spoken from his point of view as a Southerner who loves barbecue ribs. But although I had always believed in the power of diet to change a life (and experienced that power as a child), to my mostly vegetarian ears, this didn’t sound very promising. Then a phone repairman who came to put an extension in my bedroom so I could talk on the speaker phone from there reveals to me that he has MS, and that I should try the Swank Diet. Again he talks about the chicken and fish.

In all the shock and stress of those first months and the worry about not being able to support myself and my son, and not being able to drive, let alone lift a frying pan or sign a check comfortably, it never occurred to me there was a book I could read. And these two men said nothing about saturated fat count, which is much more essential to the diet than whether one eats a lot of chicken or fish. Both naturopaths I consulted stressed the importance of fruits and vegetables and one even said a low fat diet. But when I asked him what that meant, he was vague. Nobody told me to limit or avoid oil, or that different kinds of fat had different effects.

So I tried on my own to implement what I thought it might be. My experience with successful dieting as a child was helpful, and  I came pretty close to the Swank Diet on instinct alone. I severely limited my dairy intake. At the behest of friends I made myself eat fish one a week, and I kept the oil to a minimum. But I didn’t understand that I shouldn’t eat the cheddar cheese one naturopath had said was the only dairy I wasn’t intolerant of, or that I ought to stay far away from chocolate or coconut milk. I ate a lot of pumpkin seeds. But for a while, years even, I did more and less okay with this approach.

I am 44. One of Mike’s friend’s in high school, Dominic, has just moved here. He calls himself a vegan. I have never heard that term before. I show him a cookbook by Lorna Sass called Short Cut Vegetarian that I had been cooking from, making the connection that it is essentially a vegan cookbook.

Somewhere in my forties during my time in manual therapy (which, by the way, helped immensely with learning how to listen to my body) the fish eating began to catch up with me. As the levels of methyl mercury in fish rose, so did my intolerance for the fish. I am told at manual therapy that I have an alarming amount of free floating mercury in my lymphatic system. I do the hands-on body “homework” I was given in addition to the appointments, take daffodil flower essence (for help with removal of heavy metals), eat some seaweed and stop eating fish. In a few weeks the signs of free floating mercury my manual therapist could pick up through palpation were gone. My jaw, which would lock painfully, relaxed.

I am 51. The young activist family I wrote about in Pumpkin Pie in the Free World are made homeless by fire and come to live with me for almost six months. At that time, they are vegan, and as we cook together, I learn more about both their ethical and culinary lifestyle. I find we have a lot of overlap. From September until the holidays, I stop eating  any cheese (but there was still too much chocolate, coconut and oil in the food). I feel better without the cheese, although I’m still having problems. When the holidays come, I make some of the traditional dishes our family usually serves, many of which I have since adapted and shared with you here on the blog. But at that time, we ate them with wheat flour, eggs and cheese. And after the holidays, I feel seriously terrible. And for the first time in nearly a dozen years, I start to wonder if the reason I always feel more-than-worse in February is that I have eaten more dairy and eggs and fat over the holidays. I begin to recognize a pattern. After they leave for California in February, I think it will take me a couple of weeks to “bounce back.” It takes months, and even then I am losing serious ground in strength to walk, move, lift my arms.

I am 52. It’s January, just after my birthday, and I have been very sick with pneumonia. The nerves in my face have become so sensitive and inflamed due to the MS that I have trouble chewing and smiling and more trouble swallowing. I have severe and painful rosacea. I have a debilitating and exhausting inability to regulate my body temperature. I’m lucky to be able to walk around the block. More and more, it’s looking like I ought to be getting myself a wheel chair. I am back in touch with poet friends from my youth and one recommends a memoir by another poet who has MS called I Heard The Vultures Singing. I get it out of the library. I read it propped up on my bed by pillows, the book on my hospital table. I read a chapter about her failed attempts at alternative therapies, in which she mentions a famous diet doctor, but names no names. I put the book down for a minute to think. A question comes to me: have I really done everything I can do before I say ‘yes’ to the wheelchair? And then I remember the Swank Diet. And then I realize that it’s 2008, and I have an LCD screen I can tolerate looking at on my computer and an internet connection, neither of which were available when I was first diagnosed, and that I can simply google Swank Diet and see what comes up.

What I learn about amount and types of fat from the Swank Foundation web site is a revelation to me. Forks Over Knives would not be made for a few years. Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease had been written the year before, but it would be some months before I’d become aware of it, or the work of John McDougall. I wonder to myself if I could continue my experiments with veganism and still eat low fat. I get Dr. Swank’s books, both the original one written in the late 70’s and the updated one written in the late eighties and read both, to make sure there is nothing in either one that said a vegan version of his diet is not possible. On the contrary, I find that he explicitly says the diet can be done vegetarian–there are even recipes for how to prepare tofu–though he wasn’t personally advocating that. And even that fish oil could be substituted with flax oil, which was then referred to as linseed oil. I also learn that many people who are diagnosed with MS are sensitive to the theobromine in chocolate as well as the caffeine, even without the fat. That seems so true to my life-long experience I have to put the book down and take a deep breath. The “seeds” from my past were all coming forward to bloom into awareness. I join the discussion board on the Swank site, hoping to learn more and perhaps find others who were “Swanking” as vegans.

Thinking I am inventing a new phrase, I google “fat free vegan recipes” and Susan’s blog comes up.  Within the week, I realize it might be a lot more advantageous to me, starting so “late,” if I didn’t use up the 20 grams of fat Dr. Swank allots for optimal results on oil to cook with, and instead use it for ground flax and a few nuts or avocado. As I began reading Fat Free Vegan Kitchen’s presentation and recipes, I knew I could do it. Within two weeks I feel as if something that has been eating away at me for all these years has stopped–just stopped. And I know with more certainty than I’ve ever known anything about how I eat that if I keep on with this, things would slowly–and surely–improve. And they have. It’s also true, like both Dr. Swank and Dr. McDougall caution, that the earlier in the disease process one starts this kind of eating, the more optimal the results. But anyone who follows it faithfully can see significant, sometimes even life changing improvements. I am proof of that.

When I want to give in to frustration that others who could truly benefit as much as I have and more from eating this way, but they don’t do it, I remind myself that it took all these experiences of my life and 12 whole years before I got clear enough to  ask that question and google the Swank Diet for myself. Twelve years. Sure, I did use diet to help my situation from the beginning and I’ve always believed diet can heal. But it’s also true that in my life it simply took as long it took for the implication and meaning of all these moments to coalesce into the clarity I was given 7 years ago. If that’s true for me, it’s probably true for others too. So I try not to “convert” people.  The truth is that we all have to be free to make our own mistakes, which may not be mistakes at all, but learning steps along the way. It’s like putting together a puzzle. Sometimes there’s a piece I want to place, but there’s nowhere to put it just yet. Or like in one of my favorite children’s books, The Carrot Seed, it’s essential to have faith each seed will sprout in its own time, even if others say it will never happen.

As I was getting more sick in my late 30’s, I felt as if I was on a train that was going to wreck, and all I could do was wait for the wreck to happen. It’s golden now to see my own image of that train wreck in the same light as the shipwreck at the beginning of The Tempest: one that was wrought to bring about the blossoming of the seeds of self-forgiveness, healing and love, both for myself, my family, and the world, as seen from this brave new perspective.



Maria (moonwatcher)



Leave a Comment

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Silvia February 28, 2015 at 11:12 pm

Dear Maria,
thank you for this truly wonderful post! It touches me deeply.
Greetings from Silvia in Germany


2 moonwatcher March 1, 2015 at 8:46 am

You’re so welcome, Silvia–I am so happy you let me know. Thanks for reading from across the world! 🙂


3 Marge Evans March 1, 2015 at 7:38 am

lovely post and even better, art! thank so much.
“cheese is binding”
I laughed when I saw that.
I was 19 and in the U.S. Army assigned to Fort Sill, OK.
We would go out for war training exercises on the plains of Oklahoma. Every woman in my platoon made sure we were constipated so we would not have to use the pit latrines for anything other then peeing and most of the time we just went with out using the latrines. We did it by eating cheese.


4 moonwatcher March 1, 2015 at 8:49 am

Oh my goodness, Marge, now I’M laughing!! A whole platoon of constipated women who have eaten cheese so the sh*t doesn’t hit the you-know-what during training exercises! Thanks so much for sharing that–you made my whole day and it isn’t even 9 o clock yet!! LOL Also, I’m happy you liked the art. I’ve been toying around with whether or not I’d like to do more sketches than photos, at least in some posts. I appreciate the encouragement. 🙂


5 Carollynne Kelly March 1, 2015 at 9:14 am

I loved read about your life, food and how it affected your life and illness too. thanks for sharing it all with us. I know it took me a long time too, to fully grasp how food can really make the biggest difference in our lives and health too.


6 moonwatcher March 1, 2015 at 9:21 am

Thank you Carollynne! It’s nice to know it took you a “long time” too, to fully grasp. In many ways, it’s a life’s work, but it sure is healthy and tasty and worth it. 🙂


7 Deborah Calderon March 1, 2015 at 10:08 am

Great story thanks. I am also a vegan with suspected MS, no diagnosis. I am used to it by now, but it was a gradual change with me too.


8 moonwatcher March 1, 2015 at 1:54 pm

Welcome, Deborah, and thanks for your comment! I am glad you’ve found this way of eating, too, and I hope it continues to help you in all ways.


9 Diane March 1, 2015 at 4:08 pm

Thank you for sharing your story — every moving, and inspiring.


10 moonwatcher March 1, 2015 at 4:21 pm

My pleasure, Diane. I’m glad you liked it. Welcome to the blog. 🙂


11 angela March 1, 2015 at 5:31 pm

What a wonderful and inspiring story Maria and I’m so happy that your health is improving with the change in diet.

My sister has MS and my daughter ME and I’m constantly searching and experimenting with new foods and diet regimes to try and help them but I feel very helpless at times.

Have you or any of your readers tried/dabbled in the Gerson Diet?

Love Angela X


12 moonwatcher March 1, 2015 at 5:49 pm

Thank you so much Angela! I am sorry your loved ones such serious health problems. I have heard of the Gerson Diet, but haven’t needed to try it. If someone else who reads this comment has, I hope they will respond. All the best to you and yours in your healthy food experiments!


13 Carrie March 2, 2015 at 10:53 am

Hello Maria,
I could almost have written this post myself. I came to the vegan lifestyle thru a different malady than yours and my path was not the same but the similarities are amazing.
Your words bring back memories of ‘coincidences’ that I’m so thankful for as well as all those times that I was certain this wouldn’t/couldn’t work for me. Yet as my body improved so did my attitude and so I continued. I started the full vegan diet a year after you did but I had to go thru bypass surgery, cancer and had my gall bladder removed before I realized that diet could have prevented them all! I am so much better now and only wish I’d found this lifestyle earlier.
Thank you for your words of wisdom, I’ve been following you for some time and I think this is my favorite post.
Keep up the good work!


14 moonwatcher March 2, 2015 at 1:15 pm

Hi Carrie,

Thank you for this comment and for taking the time to share some of your experience with me. I really appreciate knowing how much you identify with it, and I’m so glad you have made it through so many serious health challenges, and that low fat plant-based eating helps you so much. Really nice to know this is your favorite post. I was concerned it might be too long. 🙂 Thanks for the encouragement!


15 Donna Berlin Betts March 2, 2015 at 12:09 pm

Dear Maria: Such an inspiring piece! I have been struggling of late and have lost my dedication to being vegan — back to eating, meat and dairy. A backward step — but I like the way you put it — it’s a learning process…. I always look forward to reading what is in your heart and mind — thank you.


16 moonwatcher March 2, 2015 at 1:12 pm

Hi Donna–thanks for your comment! I am happy you look forward to what I write, and it helps you on the path that is right for you– I hope you struggles with this get easier. Here’s to learning from life. 🙂


17 Pam Woods March 3, 2015 at 12:52 am

Maria, thank you so much for this post. I was in tears by the end of it. This post really touched me, and also helps me. I am still struggling with that last 10 – 15 % of my diet that doesn’t really support my health… Guess you could say that I’m waiting for some of those final seeds to be sown and to sprout, to sort out the rest. I often feel guilty for not following Swank or McDougall 100%, and your post has reminded me that we all find our own way in our own time, and I’m still sorting that out. I love the structure you used for the timeline: “I am 40, I am 51.” Thanks for sharing so much of your life with us. <3


18 moonwatcher March 3, 2015 at 8:53 am

Dear Pam, Thanks for your heartfelt comment and for being such a faithful reader and supporter of my blog. I think with everyone it’s a unique combination of acquiring information, understanding the significance of the information, and then most importantly, feeling within oneself the seriousness of one’s situation. We often have to “grow into” that kind of acceptance over time. Available information also changes over time, as well as ways to get it. There is so much more of that now, almost too much, so that the information can be overwhelming. But at least it’s out there, and we can connect in this way, too, which wasn’t available to me at the beginning. I am so glad you liked the structure of how I wrote this, too. Although no one post can tell the whole story, the structure I used best captured how it felt to me when it all came back in such clarity. I wish you that same clarity in your own journey with this, however it comes to you. xo


19 Veronica March 3, 2015 at 11:16 am

Beautiful post, Maria! It’s so interesting to see the transformation throughout your life, the different stages and thoughts… Watching the sea. And see how it all ends up with how you are today. I’m glad you have helped yourself heal and continue to be better. xo


20 moonwatcher March 3, 2015 at 2:49 pm

Thank you Veronica! I love that you used my metaphor in your comment the way you did. I so appreciate your faithful reading and following your journey on your blog, too. xo


21 Sheila April 2, 2015 at 10:02 am

Thanks so much for sharing your journey with us. I too have experienced this so it’s good to read that others have had the same experience. Sheila


22 Maria Theresa Maggi April 2, 2015 at 11:10 am

You’re welcome, Sheila! It’s always nice to know we have company in important life experiences, isn’t it? Glad to hear from you. 🙂


23 Peggy Bean August 14, 2016 at 10:46 am

Wonderful….brought tears to my eyes. Thanks, Maria!


24 Maria Theresa Maggi August 14, 2016 at 2:27 pm

Thank YOU Peggy–so honored it moved you that way.


Previous post:

Next post: