My friend Catherine recently told me about a 50-year-old friend of hers who'd been a member of a sewing circle for 10 years and was now dying of brain cancer. "I labored and sweated over my crooked stitches," her friend said. "And I always felt ashamed for not making stitches the right size or shape. As if making straight stitches actually meant something about me or my life. Now, the doctors say I have six months to live, and when I think about the time I wasted worrying about those crooked stitches..." She left the sentence unfinished.
Most of the people I see spend most of their lives worrying about their own version of crooked stitches—the size of their thighs, their hips, their abdomens. As if those things signify something true or real about their lives. As if when we get to the end of our lives, a number on a scale will mean anything at all.
I was in a car accident recently. We were burbling away, two friends and I, on our way to a party, when suddenly we got sideswiped a few times by someone who ran a red light. After our car crashed into two lampposts, three other cars and one stop sign, it came to a total standstill. I crawled out of the hole in the side that used to be the door and, although my ankle throbbed, my head felt as if a brick had fallen on it and I couldn't breathe very well, I was alive. And suddenly, just being alive was enough. Was miraculous. Suddenly, nothing was important except the fact that I was still breathing.
I needed a wheelchair for six weeks because of a sprained ankle and a set of bruised ribs, and sometimes, when my husband was busy and couldn't transport me from the dining room to the living room, I'd sit outside and stare at the feast in my backyard. It wasn't anything out of the ordinary. Just the usual: clouds, trees, sun. Dog barking. Birds trilling. Wind blowing. The everyday jubilee I'd been passing on my way from desk to kitchen to desk as I worried about the stitches of work, family, errands, responsibilities. As I rushed frantically to keep up with the pace of emails, text messages, book deadlines. But since I had a concussion and couldn't think clearly, and since my usual mode of running around was impossible, I had a good excuse to stop everything and contemplate the little things. Like living and dying. There is nothing like a brush with death to get a girl thinking.
The first time I taught my retreat after the accident, I asked my students to make a list of 10 things they loved most about being alive. They wrote down things like: "reading to my daughter before bed," "swimming with my son," "holding my husband's hand," "being in the forest," "taking a hot bath." Then I asked them what they would spend their time on if they knew they had only a year to live. All of them elaborated on different versions of doing what they loved and of loving the people they cherished. Not one of them mentioned losing weight, although some of them did say that they would eat only what they really, really liked. Which brings me to the subject of dieting and weight loss and being fully alive.
Why diets don't work...and what you should do instead