Of Fantods and Mushrooms

It happened so fast that I hardly had time to react. One minute my hands were normal; the next moment, they started to itch. By the time I'd walked back to the parking lot from the museum, they'd started to swell. My fingers looked like pork sausage links with dimples, and the slimmest dimples in the red fatness were the three bands of my rings. Startled, I managed to get my silver and garnet ring off the third finger of my right hand, but my left hand was so puffy that my wedding and engagement rings wouldn't budge. I couldn't make a fist, my fingers and palm were so swollen. I was worried that the rings would cut off circulation; for that reason, I let my husband take me to the nearby town hospital to get my hands checked out.

The nurse. gentle, practical and thorough (as good nurses are) did a quick once-over and asked questions: where had we been? A country museum. How long had we been there? About 40 minutes. When had we had lunch? About 1 PM? When had the swelling started? About 2:30. What had I eaten for lunch? Mushroom soup, steak sandwich, salad. Aha, said the nurse. Probably the mushroom soup. Mushrooms can be quite allergenic.

Now this, to me, is low-grade tragedy. I regard the advent in my life of the Portobello mushroom as one of God's nicer tiny gifts. I do like mushrooms. I like them a lot, in fact, so much that I toss them in whenever I figure I can get away with them. Really good mushroom soup--and this had been very good mushroom soup, with a concentrated mushroomy base and green peppercorns --is lovely soul-warming stuff. But if I'm developing an allergic reaction to mushrooms, there goes that. Life without mushrooms?

I've done enough biology to understand how it works: that you can eat mushrooms for years and years and still develop a middle-aged allergy to them. And I know that if I've developed an allergic reaction, it's not going to go away; it's only going to get worse if I challenge it with more 'shrooms. It's not the 'shrooms' fault, and it's not mine either. It's just the way it is.

"Allergy" comes from two Greek roots: "all-" meaning "different" (allotrope, allomorph) and "ergos" meaning "effect". An allergy is an altered reaction to something --a reaction disproportionate to the stimulus, and destructive instead of properly defensive. Allergies are never positive, and they're frequently hyper-intense. To a child with a severe peanut allergy, a single smear of peanut oil might prove fatal.

It occurred to me, as I woozily nursed a shoulder sore from a Benedryl shot and watched my fingers slowly deflate, that the soul, as well as the body, has its allergic reactions. I know I have "hot button" areas: _touche pas!_ as they say _en francais_, unless you want to scrape me off the ceiling. And I know that in some cases, my hot buttons can be set off by perfectly innocuous (well, mostly innocuous) remarks. Or at least, my reaction is totally disproportionate to whatever got said.

It does some good, I suppose, to go back in time and figure out where these psychospiritual allergies got started, in the hopes that by understanding them, I may at least be able to de-sensitize them. It's funny, how when we once understand where our reactions are coming from, we come to see as inoffensive the very things that used to get our knickers severely twisted. But I haven't altogether got there yet, I'm afraid; too often, I still react to particular comments as I might to poison ivy: by turning all red and itching and burning something terrible, in soul if not in body.

I know I'm not the only person to live with these conditions. Most of us have hot buttons. In fact, some of us seem to be hot buttons: almost everything seems to get up our noses or set off whole series of firecrackers. And it is fatally easy, in these circumstances, to blame the world around us. "If only people were more sensitive", "if only church really accepted me", "if only my office would just let me be myself"--without reference to the possibility that we might, just possibly, have a problem with the world that's our problem to manage, not the world's. If I were, God forbid, allergic to peanuts, it would have to be my job to manage my allergy; I cannot expect the whole wide world to become peanut-free for my benefit.

What I have learned the very hard (as usual) way is that my reactions, however real and important, are often as inappropriate to the situation as my hands' puffiness was to the harmless mushrooms. I have learned to think of these particularly painful and overwhelming feelings as fantods--a lovely, old-fashioned word, defined by my Webster's New Collegiate as "nervous irritability; nervous movements; emotional outbursts." I like the word "fantod": it cuts an inappropriate hot-button response down to size and puts it in its proper place, which is under the dining room table, with bread and water. Instead of railing at life and expecting it to look after my fantods, I should instead realize that they are mine to manage. I may not have got here on purpose, and perhaps others are responsible for my condition--but the fantods are still my fantods. I really cannot expect the world to sidle around them, or pretend they don't exist, or cater to them. Fantods are, bluntly, a pain in the keister and a dead bore to anyone on the receiving end, and they are unbecoming to those who are indulging them. So far from being indulged and discouraged, they need to be taken to the corner for a little time out, or to get out for a walk in the fresh air.

I know that this is a dreadfully old-fashioned approach to Emotional Hurt, but I am a practical person. My bank manager does not need to know about the terrible stress I've been under. She needs instead to talk to me about that loan I'd taken out. My kids do not need to know the detailed ins-and-outs of my emotional life; they need me to be an effective parent. Sometimes that means being honest with them; sometimes it means recognizing a fantod-in-the-making (mine) and jamming it into the lost-sock bag, at least for the time being. I know this sounds heartless, but one of the things I learned when I was a single mother earning a living as a contract writer is that hauling your socks up and getting on with the job is far more psychospiritually refreshing than wallowing in the Awfulness of Things, however awful they really are.

Allergies are real and important. My immune system is a tad wonky, if indeed it sees 'shrooms as a threat that needs to be countered with an allergic reaction; but my soul and mind and heart are much more mine to manage directly than my immune system. I have the choice between personal dramatization and common sense, between self-indulgence and self-discipline, between demanding to be loved and learning to be loving. And you can't be loving if you have fantods sprouting from you, like mushrooms from damp compost.

Maybe I'm getting cranky in my middle age, but I find myself more and more in favour of a little emotional self-discipline. I only wish I could manage it myself, more often.

Sometime quite soon, I am going to take off all three of my rings, stand a dose of Benadryl next to me, eat a single nicely sauteed Portobello mushroom, and see what happens. Maybe I'm allergic; maybe I'm not. But those fantods--those, please God, I will learn to deal with, without dumping them all over everyone in sight.

lupa@kos.net http://sabbath-blessings.org/

Copyright © 2001 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sun, 02 Sep 2001
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