When it comes to living a fulfilling, healthy life, maybe the big picture is really smaller than you think. I’ve spent a week surrounded by irony. My sister and I are cleaning out my mom’s house. It’s a four room farmhouse that over the years grew to 3500 square feet. Located seven miles south of the nearest town and 10 minutes from the first national river, the setting is lush, green, pastoral.
Mom was obsessed with her health. Well, not so much health as her “something must be wrong”. It’s a well catalogued journey. The house is filled with handwritten lists, typed medical history, actual medical records, lab reports, and book after book after book on health, healing, diet, meditation, spiritual healing, and alternative medicine.
It is also filled with spiders, trash, mouse poison dumped in odd places, and dust. The furnace filters clearly haven’t been changed recently. The kitchen counters were so dirty when we arrived that we had to scrub them before we’d even sort dusty dishes on them. The irony? One of Mom’s primary health obsessions was allergies. She wore a dust mask if she went outside and sometimes inside. Well, okay clearly she needed it inside this house.
Another favorite focus was food allergies. In the past two days, I’ve read three allergy reports in which she had skin tests for food allergies. According to an email she wrote, she tested allergic to all but 14 foods. In the lab results I read, there was only one allergy common to all 3 reports – brewer’s yeast, and only 3 foods overall above the moderate range of sensitivity. This wasn’t all that surprising. One of our favorite family stories is the time she told a waiter not to bring her coffee with dessert because she couldn’t have caffeine and then asked him to please bring her a coke. Not only did he look confused, he actually asked her which way it was. Was she allergic to caffeine or not?
For all the time, energy, and attention devoted to identifying foods she could have in order to protect her health, she ate little nutrition at all. We used to laughingly say she lived on Dr. Pepper, saltine crackers, and the occasional piece of cherry pie for 20 years.
That is how I remember it, but I’ve always doubted whether that memory was accurate. Then I found a health history Mom had written. In it she says she drank 12 to 14 twelve ounce Dr. Peppers per day. I read it three times to make sure. 12 to 14. That’s 1800 – 2100 calories per day of nothing but soda. My mom was 5’7″ and never weighed over 125 lbs. It sounds like I wasn’t that far off. She was mostly living on Dr. Pepper.
After days and days of following her health saga in bits and pieces as I sort trash, recycle, shred, donate, sell; trash, recycle, shred, donate, sell; trash, recycle, shred, donate, sell, a clear pattern has emerged. If only Mom had taken small steps each day to change her environment, perhaps she would achieved the overall health or healing she was seeking. Instead, she created an environment that isn’t healthy for anyone. Each decision she made contributed to exactly the health crisis she feared.
If she had chosen not to buy over 300 books (we’ve boxed 310 so far) on allergies, alternative cures, cancer prevention, and spiritual healing, she would have had room on the book shelves for books that stimulated her passion or imagination. Or better yet, she’d have had less books to collect dust the dust that irritated her allergies.
If she had chosen to sit on the porch swing every morning and watch the bluebirds, cardinals, swallows, and woodpeckers I saw this morning while drinking a cup of coffee, maybe she would have felt a greater sense of wonder at the beauty in her front yard.
If she had chosen to ride horses with my dad and me, she could have felt the freedom of a rush of wind when the horse hits a gallop.
If she had tried the vegetables from my grandmother’s garden next to our house, perhaps she would have feared eating them less.
Or perhaps she just would have decided she didn’t like them any more. Last year when the blackberry bushes began to produce loads of delicious blackberries, she decided she wasn’t too fond of them after all.
I will never understand or be able to explain why my mother made the choices she made, but she has provided me with many reminders that the way to create overall health lies in the small choices I make to improve the quality of my life each day.
I can choose to lift weights because it makes my muscles feel more loose and I like that feeling. I can choose to practice yoga because it helps me recognize my tendency to hold my breath when I feel stressed. I can choose to spend time with people who love to laugh. I can make time to sit on the porch and watch the birds. I can read something interesting every day. I can let go of possessions when I no longer need them. I can say no to buying something new unless it solves a problem. I can spend time playing with my granddog. I can show up to help when I’m needed and stay out of things when I’m not. I can take time to plan my meals so that I eat a variety of fresh food that tastes great. I can make time for those I love. I can sit still. I can get plenty of rest and drink plenty of water. I can practice gratitude and always, always tell myself the truth no matter how ugly it is.
Each of these choices is small and each of them improves the quality of any day. When I choose well, then add the days together, I construct a life that is improved one small choice at a time. Eventually, taking care of the small stuff every day will give me the big picture result I desire. And thus, the big picture turns out to be nothing more than one small choice at a time.