If I Die Before I Wake

English: Sloughan Glen A great place to spend ...

A quiet Sunday afternoon with the family (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It seems that I’ve read more and more posts and memes lately about people—artists and innovators, particularly—pursuing their dreams so they won’t have any regrets at the ends of their lives. One was from Anne Lammot, and I gave her a resounding, “Yes!” After all, I was raised by parents who believe that it is more important to do something fulfilling than pocket-filling. My father has always been baffled by people who suffer through a miserable work week to make it to a weekend during which they will spend half their time bemoaning that it’s almost over. It is a wonderful ideal, to wake up excited about work every day. But what if it doesn’t pay the bills? There is a reason we’re called “starving artists.”

The question for the artist in me is: If I give up on a writing career, will I regret it when I’m eighty? But an even more important question is: If I die tomorrow, what regrets will I have? Put another way, if I knew I only had twenty-four hours left to live, what would I do?

This is a question that was posed to my mother’s Sunday school class twenty-nine or thirty years ago, when I was a baby. Her answer (in part, at least) was that she would still have the same number of diapers to change during that twenty-four hour period as during any other; even if she was leaving a number of unfulfilled dreams, she was still the mother of a dependent baby.

For myself, I would probably spend too much time writing instructions or creating spreadsheets of online usernames and passwords for my husband. What I cannot imagine saying is, “Gosh, I’m not published yet; I’d better get on it.” Mainly, I hope, I would want to be with my family. There are people every day who go home from hospitals, unable to be treated, and their only goal is to spend what time they have left with their families. Those who are left behind will have to survive on the memories made during that time.

As a healthy young woman, I could easily live another forty to fifty years. I could also easily pull out onto a busy street tomorrow and get hit by a careless driver. I apologize if this seems like a downer, and I certainly don’t want to live with my last will and testament in my back pocket, but I also don’t want to forget that life is so short and precious.

My husband and I pretty much follow Dave Ramsey’s guide to debt-free living (see The Total Money Makeover Workbook), and we’re well on our way. Ramsey promotes a lifestyle of delayed gratitude, which I think is healthy (the real world won’t give me a cookie just because I kick and scream for it), but in a way, it’s also sad that many people will never make it there. I don’t mean that a debt-free life is unattainable, just that it could possibly be attained and then not enjoyed. Several years ago, I met a woman who told me that she and her husband had everything they wanted after he retired. They finally had the means and time to travel, and they bought their dream house. It was there that he died, less than a year later, the victim of cancer. Sometimes, she said, they laughed hysterically at the irony of it all: they finally had the house in which they had always wanted to spend the rest of their lives together, yet the rest of their lives wasn’t long enough to enjoy everything for which they had saved.

I still follow the Dave Ramsey method to a point, but Thomas and I also decided that living on beans now so we can enjoy steak and lobster some thirty years down the road is not exactly how we want to live and raise our kids. If our vacations are modest road trips that only last a few days at a time, at least we hope to make good memories with our boys as long as we are able. And if we can achieve a more comfortable lifestyle in the future, so much the better.

With money and careers in mind, there is a part of me that has always said, “When I publish, I’ll finally prove that I’ve done something. The last piece of the puzzle will be in place.” But another part of me knows that I’ve already done a lot, and publishing does not guarantee authorial success, nor does it guarantee mansions or good health or unanimous acclaim.

About five years ago, I met an out-of-state friend for coffee. While we summarized everything we’d done and all we’d hoped we would do by that point in our lives, I lamented that a writing career seemed impossible to attain. I’d gone to a good school that turned out lawyers and doctors, and what was I doing? She pointed out that I was happily married and a mother. She couldn’t say either of those things for herself. Although she had achieved a level of success that I never hoped to claim for myself, she graded me according to different standards. I never thought someone would look at my life and think it enviable.

Similarly, in Bess Streeter Aldrich’s A Lantern in Her Hand, Abbie Deal gives up a possible musical career to marry the love of her life and raise a family. Her children never appreciate her true potential, how great she could have been. They don’t really understand her at all, in fact. Two of her daughters make conscious decisions to never have children and never marry, respectively, in order to pursue careers instead. Only the one who doesn’t marry regrets her decision later in life, when it’s too late to go back to the man who once loved her.

Abbie Deal made a choice that many people wouldn’t—and don’t—make. She chose something for herself—love—but something so much more than herself: she chose relationships, in this case, a relationship with her family. Abbie Deal lived a (fictional) life that I consider was without regret, even though it wasn’t what she initially wanted.

When I think about the people who are going home to spend their remaining time with their families, I realize how important yet how difficult it is to live in the present. What if the present is stressful? As much as I want to spend time with my little boys, my husband and I still have to earn enough money to keep them fed and clothed. And sometimes spending time with them isn’t what I want. I want something for me; I want to read or write or simply have a few moments’ peace.

There must be a balance. Whenever the end of my life is, if I have the luxury of any kind of reflection, I don’t want to wish that I’d spent more time with my family; I want to be thankful for all the time we did spend together. I don’t want them to say, “Well, we didn’t get to see her much, but thank goodness she had such a successful writing career.” (At this point, they won’t be saying that anyway, but they might lament that I spent too much time chasing said career.)

While I won’t for a minute say that I’m totally selfless, that I never make decisions based on what I want to make myself happy, I hope that I can share my life and my time with the people I love. Since I won’t be able to take anything with me anyway, I can leave a legacy of many meaningful memories. Besides, watching my two little boogers dive face-first into Nutella and recite Mother’s Day poems provide good fodder for creative writing, anyway.

If You Don’t Like Diets. . .

A diet rich in soy and whey protein, found in ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While I am not a trainer or nutritionist, I have been overweight before, not to mention that I lost more than I put on after both of my pregnancies. I do exercise regularly, but that’s not all there is to it. Here are five tips that I’ve applied to my own lifestyle and could be helpful to you.

1. Keep a food intake log.

This can be as simple or complex as you need it to be. The point is for it to help you, not bog you down with needless details. There are some great calorie counting and fitness websites and apps that will track calories for you if you input what you eat. When I did the P90X diet (yes, I did—religiously for two whole months), I kept track according to which food fell into which category (carb, protein, dairy, etc.). Then I switched to tracking the number of calories I consumed versus how many I burned in a day. That was a pain, but it helped me understand my own personal limits. Once I had a handle on that, I scaled back to a list of the food I ate every day along with a record of my weight. I noticed patterns, for instance, if pizza was on the list one day, my weight would probably go up the next. You can employ any of these methods or do something different. If you have a calendar, you could write, “Ate cake today—no more this week!” The point is, make it work for you. As I discovered when I first wrote down what I ate, I wouldn’t eat something if I didn’t want to have to account for it.

2. Monitor when you eat and drink.

This was very important on the P90X diet, but that wasn’t the first place I’d encountered it. I’d heard from different sources that you should always eat within the first 30 to 60 minutes of your day. But you should also not workout within an hour of eating. That means, to follow this rule and get out the door with my kids by no later than 7:10 during the school year, either I have to get up at 3:30 or sacrifice something. I choose to sacrifice eating within the first hour most days. Sorry, but I need my sleep (and there’s a lot less of it to go around these days). With this in mind, I at least try to be good about when I eat at the end of the day. Some sources say not to eat within the last hour, although others say not to eat within the last three. I eat small portions all day long, and so I’m full well before bedtime. But you know what I’ve found makes the most difference? Liquid intake. And I’m talking plain old water. If I eat something super salty and drink water all night afterward, I’ll weigh more the next morning. It’s even worse, of course, if I drink something with actual calories. (Sports drinks seem to be the worst culprit. I never drink them at night, if I can help it, although I sometimes crave one after an evening workout.) I am not saying to deprive yourself and go thirsty, but keep in mind that twenty ounces of water right before bed will probably mean more on the scale the next day. So hydrate during the day, and determine when your cut off point should be for guzzling.

3. Cut out carbonated beverages.

This was extremely hard for me after I had my second baby. I couldn’t drink many carbonated beverages at all when I was pregnant because of swelling. So I craved them and went kind of crazy after delivering my little bundle of joy. That was a contributing factor to not losing weight as quickly as I wanted. As soon as I limited my intake, it became a lot easier. Carbonated beverages, even the zero calorie ones, contain sodium, and sodium makes you retain water weight.

4. Weigh yourself regularly.

For me, it’s a daily thing. The usual recommendation is to weigh once a week at the same time of day, but I just do it every day when I wake up. Yes, there are a lot of fluctuations, weighing every day, but the good thing about it is that it keeps me honest. I think hard about if I want that bowl of ice cream, knowing that I could very well see the negative effects the next morning. I became a believer in the daily method when, after plateauing, my mom suggested it to me. I was firmly against it at first but then tried it anyway, figuring I had nothing to lose—except seventeen pounds. What do you know? It worked, and quickly, too. That plateau became a thing of the past, and all my pre-baby clothes fit again in less than three months. (Do remember, if you’re exercising and your weight goes up slightly, but your clothes still fit, you might be converting fat to muscle.)

5. Eat Enough

The rule of thumb is to burn more than you eat in order to lose weight, but if you’re burning two thousand calories and only consuming five hundred, you won’t have the stamina to get through the day. I am not a huge proponent of crash diets because it is so easy to lose control and gain more than you lost to begin with when you start eating normal portions again. (I’ve done it myself, and it took a good four years to lose the weight I put back on.) I suggest that if you plan to do an extremely low-calorie diet, make sure it’s monitored by a nutritionist. If you exercise regularly, your body won’t take well to a lettuce and water diet. This doesn’t mean picking up a two hundred calorie candy bar because you need an energy boost (read about empty calories here). You need a balance of proteins (to rebuild muscle mass), complex carbohydrates (to give you energy), plus fruits and vegetables (for vital vitamins and minerals).