Discovering last minute that we were going to have a game-free Friday night, TJ and I left the boys home watching a movie and slipped out for a quick dinner. While savoring my halibut and veggies and sipping my single glass of champagne, I couldn’t help but compare this modest Valentine celebration to that of our first.
We had been dating long-distance for a few months and our semimonthly encounters were wild and passionate. We paid no attention to the world outside of our own pleasure seeking, and that February night in Madison was no different. Euphoric after an afternoon at the hotel, we cocktailed fireside before heading to dinner at a hip steak house near the capital. During our first glass of wine a drummer appeared. I can’t remember the order in which the musicians materialized, but one by one, they added their instruments to the ensemble. By desert and digestif there was a full blown jazz band, and it appeared to have formed serendipitously. The musicians riffed, and the music never paused. The room transformed from dining room to nightclub. Maybe it was the booze or maybe I was simply high on love, but it seemed as if Gabriel García Márquez himself had scripted the exotic scene. The spell of the evening continued at a house party and then with a nightcap at a favorite bar. I don’t specifically remember the next day, but Saturdays usually consisted of a long morning in bed followed by strong coffee and cigarettes, a greasy breakfast and multiple bloodymarys. We would rest until ready to repeat a slightly different version of the night before. While our Fridays and Saturdays were magical, Sunday nights, alone and crashing, were killer. The following week was emotionally and spiritually painful. I would struggle through it, distracting myself with my studies and feasting my eyes on the calendar, counting the days until we could do it all over again.
I don’t know which comes first in the cycle of celebration and survival. I think it’s a chicken and egg question. I do know that three kids, two jobs and a mortgage tamed the celebrations, but first-world adult responsibilities certainly didn’t erase the cycle completely. Instead it is a different version of the same survival game: white knuckle my way through hours of on-line grading while mindlessly rewarding myself with chocolate-covered almonds and Facebook breaks. Make it through the work day and after-school grind with the compensation of a glass of cabernet. Endure the taxing bedtime routine looking forward to a late night smoke and possible Netflix escape. Survive restless, musical-beds nights with the anticipation of a morning Americano and accompanying sweet treat. Though less glaring than during my courtship years, I have been stuck in a pattern of mindless or even bitter endurance, lured to go on by the carrot at the end of a short stick. Whole30 removed many of my carrots, and I believe that’s why the very thought of trying the program was so daunting. Without my mini-celebrations every few hours and bigger ones on the weekends, what’s the point?
“What’s the point?” is a very serious question. I couldn’t put my finger on why this experience has seemed so existential, but I am aware of a shift.
Having removed my habitual rewards, I’m forced to pay more attention to what remains. This is the stuff I was either ignoring or forcing my way through. But slowly my relationship to these labors is changing, and I’m seeing them for what they really are: the fabric of life, the part that connects, sustains and supports. I am seeing that my former rewards and celebrations are only the cherry on the top. They can be great, but perhaps they are superfluous. It’s the deep-rooted fibers of the fabric I’m appreciating more now: the meals, the good mornings and the tucking-ins, the playful chatter and even the bickering of my kids. Some of this fabric is coarse and some of it is smooth, but I am a more present witness to its changing texture. While becoming more attune to structure and focusing less on surface, I can see my highs and lows re-calibrating and the contrast between struggle and celebration weaken. I find myself engaging in moments I used to only endure, and at times even realizing that this very moment is the reward. One of the new highlights of my day is crawling into bed and taking pleasure in the cool smoothness of my sheets, contrasted with the warm body by my side. Reveling in these vibrant sensations, I find myself organically reflecting upon the moments of the day, either aloud with my husband or silently to myself. Another new celebration is awakening to a quiet house and feeling a twinge of pleasant anticipation for the day to come.
That this new level of mindfulness and contentment comes through such an intense diet and behavior modification program isn’t a total surprise. Commonly recommended exercises for cultivating mindfulness ask participants to do such things as drive home from work using an alternate, and possibly roundabout route or perform a daily task like toothbrushing or eating a meal with the non-dominant hand. These get-out-of-your-routine activities require a person to pay attention to her daily habits with the ultimate goal of being present in the moment. Whole30 has been such an exercise for me.