Woman and Ice Cream
Photo: Eric Tucker
I had just traveled home from Singapore to attend my sister's wedding. Now, a week later, I was back in Asia. My circadian rhythm was bewildered by two massive time-zone changes, so I was pleased to stumble across a magazine article about overcoming jet lag. The key, it said, was scheduling food intake. Travelers are supposed to eat at certain times and strictly abstain from food the remainder of the day. The article listed "feast/fast" schedules for several travel itineraries. I eagerly looked up mine. The chart said something like "feast, fast, feast, fast, fast, feast," as if the author were sending a message in some kind of dietetic Morse code. But in my bleary-eyed incoherence, I misread the words. I thought the prescription said "feast, feast, feast, feast, feast, feast."

I felt a spontaneous smile ripple through my whole body. I was authorized for constant feasting! As an American female, I was accustomed to thinking that the occasional ounce of chopped celery was a righteous and appropriate diet. The word feast brought back memories of childhood Thanksgivings, when I was too young to be diet conscious; the lovely chaos of sounds, sights, and aromas that swirled around me as my enormous family sat down at a heavily laden table. Those feasts had been loud and obstreperous and wonderful, and I had given them up for lost.

Within a few seconds, I realized that I'd misread the jet lag article. No, I did not have permission to indulge myself in nonstop feasts. I remember sighing with disappointment, but even so, something had changed. For the first time in years, I'd allowed myself to picture life full of feasts, and that glimpse was so seductive that it never completely faded. It took another decade or so, but I finally decided that I not only could but should "feast, feast, feast, feast, feast, feast."

Now I live that way all the time. I don't mean that I never stop eating. I mean that every day I remind myself to return to the spirit of feasting. This is part of a program I call the Joy Diet, a regimen designed not for the body but for the inner self (the word diet originally didn't mean an eating program; it was a way of living). To go on the Joy Diet, you add certain simple behaviors to your daily routine, practices that will improve your life whether you're feeling just a bit dreary or utterly confined to the pits. Feasting (Joy Diet–style) means adding an element of attention and structure to events that otherwise might slip by as too ordinary for comment. Doing this can turn the most ordinary situations into celebrations.

How to Throw a Feast

The most common definition of the word feast, of course, is a large meal. Most Joy Diet feasts, however, don't involve food, and a big bunch o' food won't always qualify as a Joy Diet feast. A compulsive eating binge, for example, is the opposite of feasting. It is isolating and tasteless and sickening; it robs delight from both the senses and the soul. On the other hand, hearing a symphony or touching the curve of your lover's elbow could definitely count as a feast, provided that you pay the right kind of attention.

It helps to perform some kind of ritual that will direct your attention to the symbolic significance of your actions. A ritual, however simple, creates a border around an activity the way a frame does around a picture. It sets this activity apart from regular life in a way that emphasizes beauty and uniqueness, ensuring that those who participate in it become more aware of its meaning.

I've watched my own children, who grew up with very little ritual, develop their own ways of formalizing celebration, as though the need to do this came precoded in their brains. One year, while learning the distinction between Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanza, the kids asked me about their own ethnic heritage. I explained that their ancestors were Celtic and Scandinavian, so we should probably observe the winter solstice, maybe by—I dunno—wearing Viking helmets, painting our faces blue, and eating venison. I was joking, but my children were so entranced by this idea that we actually started doing it (though we substitute steaks for wild game). This is now one of our family's cherished yearly rituals, one that strengthens our bonds to one another by reinforcing other people's belief that we are insane.

You probably perform dozens of small rituals already, whether you realize it or not. For example, you may follow the same pattern of actions every night before you go to sleep, when you drink a cup of coffee, or when you exercise.

If the most meaningful rituals you already observe involve preparing the washer for the addition of fabric softener, you might want to add some with a bit more psychological oomph. Here are some suggestions for ritualizing, and thereby feast-ifying, some ordinary events that can and should be extraordinary.