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September 11, Collateral Damage and the Raw Foods Retreat

Six women, attendees at an upstate raw foods retreat, sat cross-legged on cedar planks in a cedarwood sauna near a pond. We were laughing and telling stories of our lives. It was pure fun and friendship. Many logs had been thrown on the sauna fire. The sauna was very hot. We were sweating profusely. I was looking forward to jumping into the pond. Then I noticed that Marisa, an artist, slim, dark, quiet, soft-voiced, gentle, sitting opposite me, appeared to be in distress. She was coughing, low, painful hacks that hurt to hear. We had been told that the sauna’s high heat would relax the body…that it was healthy. Also, that heat would encourage us to sweat out the toxins. So perhaps the coughing was positive?

Like Mulder and Scully, we wanted to believe. Certainly, some toxins appeared to be emerging. Marisa kept surreptitiously wiping her hands, mouth, and face. She did not want to have any fuss made over her. But we couldn’t ignore her or the coughing. At length, she told us her story.

Marisa was one of the “collateral damage” victims of 9/11. She had had a studio near Ground Zero.

The collapse of the Twin Towers, like an earthquake, had strewn chaos and debris over acres of land around Ground Zero. For a long time, her studio was so deeply buried in the wreckage that she and the other tenants could not get back into their offices.

Now, however, she said, the building management had informed her that the rubble had been cleared and the building had been cleaned by an industrial firm. The air quality had been tested and found to be “acceptable.” It was, they said, safe for the tenants to go back in and work.

At this point Marisa paused. She said, “I wanted to believe them. I’d been sort of squatting with a friend and fellow artist and I really wanted to let her get back to her usual routine. And me, back to mine! I went back into my studio and got back to my stuff-my sculptures.” Marisa’s hands were kind of like a dancer’s feet. They bore the marks of powerful effort and perhaps of pain. Bumpy, scarred, twisted, with dark stuff under the fingernails, her hands clenched and twisted as she told her story:

But the building management lied—or they were misinformed. We were all misinformed…The air quality was terrible. Dust was thick. In the air and on all the surfaces. And the dust had an awful bitter metallic taste. And it still does even now, a year later. I read that toxins from asbestos to the remains of the explosives that detonated the towers were still floating around for people to inhale. Many bits of debris were carcinogenic. It was impossible not to breathe this stuff if you were working there and when you breathed it in and swallowed it, it hurt. My stomach twisted and began to hurt. I began coughing. And I’m still coughing.

I had three choices. Sue the building management. Move. Hire my own industrial cleaners. I couldn’t afford to do any of them. So I stayed. And I worked. And I’m still coughing, a year later. My fourth choice was not directed at the building. It was for me alone. I wanted so badly to get healthy again. I found this retreat on the net and that’s why I’m here. I want to stop coughing! And I hope the raw foods diet and the wheat grass and meditation and the sauna will help cure me.

Well. It was a terrible story and we wanted to applaud her efforts to get well. But even before I met Marisa, and heard the painful hacking which nothing seemed to alleviate, I had begun to have doubts about the efficacy of this raw foods retreat.

It had been advertised as a physically and spiritually cleansing experience. By eating only all raw foods and drinking wheat grass, taking daily enemas and high colonics and sweating in the sauna, then jumping in the pond, one would speed the elimination of toxins and improve one’s health. The spiritual side of the retreat was said to be managed by a rabbi, one of the owners/managers of the retreat who was also the local Zen meditation teacher and by his wife, a Sufi, or whirling dervish. Focusing constantly on one’s colon and on how many pounds you’d shed and missing the spiritual, it seemed to me that the retreat had become a toe-painting, watermelon eating, high colonic fest. Kind of like sorority frolics. I guess I was jaded.

And then the places that I thought of as my own spiritual centers, the sauna, and the pond, abruptly evaporated. The weather became intensely hot. The pond, a cooling and refreshing place to take a dip after the sauna, dried up and turned into mud. Smelly, weed-choked mud. I had in my own mind, no place to go. I decided to cut my losses and said my goodbyes and left early. Six months later I was angered and saddened – but not surprised– to see Marisa’s obituary. “In beloved memory of…9/11…Cancer. Airborne particles.”