I am guilty of a great crime. No, I’m not talking about murder or wearing brown pants with black shoes, I’m talking about a crime of the heart. A crime of insensitivity, of incredulity. When I first heard of celiac disease, I sort of rolled my eyes and thought, “What’ll they think of next?” You see I had a teacher in grad school who was allergic to gluten, so I had to make a big effort, when baking for class, to make things without flour. It was annoying. And really, wasn’t this teacher a bit of a hypochondriac? And how bad would it be if she had gluten, anyway?
Well, I just received a copy of Shauna James Ahern’s beautiful new book “Gluten-Free Girl” and I feel like a punk. In the book’s opening chapters, Shauna–who I had the pleasure of meeting in Seattle–describes a childhood of illness and pain that sent my empathy bone atwitter. “Sometimes, I felt horribly unwell,” she writes of her childhood in the book’s first chapter. “Wheezing chest, headaches, and fevers; desperate fatigue. I developed pneumonia six times in my life, nearly dying once. If it wasn’t pneumonia, it was bronchitis, my throat constricted, my chest squeezed tight. Breathing in too deeply–more than half-hearted pants–brought prickles of pain deep in my lungs.”
It’s a credit to Shauna’s writing that by the time the diagnosis finally comes (on pg. 16) you want to get up and cheer. I finally understood, with absolute clarity, how frustrating it must be to be allergic to something so commonplace, to suffer for so long without an answer and how revelatory it must be to finally have an answer and a new way to live your life.
This book is a lovely, inspiring memoir that isn’t just for those with celiac or other food allergies. It’s a book about turning lemons into lemonade, of taking the cards that life hands you and playing a great game. Having met Shauna, I can attest to her spirit, her energy, and–most wonderful of all–her heart. She’s such a generous person and writer, that having this book on my shelf makes my apartment noticeably brighter. I highly recommend it.