Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Ten Thousand Days

There is a book by Jane Brox--Five Thousand Days like This One--that has languished unread on my bookshelf for a couple of years now. I originally bought it on the recommendation of a good friend--it promises all the elements of stuff that interests me, like farming, family, landscape, etc.--but whenever I start to read it, I don't make it very far before I put the book down and go bake a pie, or dig up a flower bed, or build a bike from scratch. This is not the book's fault that I can tell. I think it just has come along in my life when I'm feeling a bit burned out on memoir in general, and when I sit down to read one, I soon start thinking of all the action adventure I am missing. I keep the book around (as opposed to sending it to the Friends of the Library Box during my now-annual stuff purges), because I expect that one day I will come back to it and, much as anyone does when an appetite returns, enjoy it in its fullest flavor.

Even so, though I've never read the book, I think about it a lot. Actually, to be precise, I think about the title, with which I am rather taken. I understand it comes from a toast her grandfather made at a family reunion--as in, "May you have five thousand days like this one."

Some eleven years ago, at the end of July, Walt and I were in a car accident that nearly killed both of us. He broke his back and was in a body cast for three months. I was better off, but even so, I wandered around for nearly a year in something of a daze as a brain injury healed. It took a long time for us to get better.

I bring the accident up in this context because it was a kind of gift. All that following autumn, you see, as I healed I would notice moments of beauty that I might have otherwise missed. Leaves skittering across pavement in the wind. A tree that had reached a peak of fall color. The sound of children at a nearby playground. These moments of beauty were intense--so much so, I would often literally be stopped in my tracks by them.

It was as if someone opened a curtain, let me peer through to the other side, and said to me, "This."


Maybe it was just an effect of the brain injury. Maybe it was because at some cellular level my body knew how close it had come to dying and thus something chemical happened to make me hyper-aware of my surroundings. Whatever the reason, it was as if I was looking through the curtain and seeing what life was really supposed to be about.

This autumn breeze. This blue sky. This smell of piñon woodsmoke. This day.

It lasted for several months, and then the curtain closed.

I have never forgotten, though sometimes I get busy and distracted, and then I stop paying attention. It would be difficult, anyway, to live always in such a heightened state of awareness. Maybe it is even unwise.

But autumn rolls around each year, and on certain days, when the breeze is just so, or the sound of leaves rustling stirs a memory, or...something, I can hear a whisper: This.

So when I first heard Jane Brox's title, I was reminded of that window. Five thousand days like this one. Remember this day. Pay attention to this day. Do not let this day pass without notice.

There are never enough of these days in a lifetime. Five thousand is not enough.

I've been thinking about the title again, in part because it is autumn, but also for another reason. I've been working really hard for the past couple of months, trying to get back into shape and clean up my diet. For too long, I've been skating along on junk food and couch sitting, and it was starting to catch up with me in a serious way. After looking at the results of some tests, my doctor told me I needed to lose weight, start eating right, and begin exercising again. This is not a question of vanity, but of health. As in, do this, or I am going to get Type 2 Diabetes. Soon. Like maybe next week.

Diabetes runs in my family, so I was inclined to believe her. I started making lifestyle adjustments that very day.

To help me track my eating and exercise habits, I've been using a computer application she recommended called "My Fitness Pal." Probably the whole world knows about "My Fitness Pal," but in case you don't, here is a short synopsis: You put in some data (current weight, age, gender), set a weight loss goal (e.g., one pound a week), and it calculates a daily calorie limit for you. Once you've done this, you track everything you eat in a day, then you put in how much you've exercised, and it calculates how well you've met that daily limit.

Here is an important point: It is really, really hard to meet that daily limit.

I've used programs like this before without a lot of success. Because it is hard to meet that limit, I find myself getting discouraged and giving up on the food tracking pretty quickly. After a while I quit paying attention not just to how much I'm putting in, but I quit caring about the quality of what I'm putting in as well. I guess that subconsciously I figure I screwed up yesterday, so what difference does it make if I do the same today? I'm clearly already failing at this anyway.

This program has a little feature, however, that has made all the difference in the world for me. At the bottom of the page is a button that you push at the end of the day. It says, "Complete this entry."

Then--and this is the part that makes a difference--it says, "If every day were just like today, in five weeks you would weigh XXX"

And you know what? Even when I go a little over my limit, if every day were just like that day, I would still lose weight. In other words, even when I don't hit my goal, I am not losing ground. Maybe I'm not advancing as fast as I'd like, but I am still making headway. I have to trust the process.

The amount of headway I make in my nutrition is often determined--no, mostly determined--by small choices I make all day long. I can eat a Snickers bar, or an orange. I can use mustard or mayonnaise. I can eat a sweet potato, or a white one. The small choices add up. What I have found is that physically I feel better when I make better choices. For example, I no longer have the swings in blood sugar I used to have. I still get hungry, but I don't crash mid-morning or mid-afternoon.

So, armed with this encouragement, I'm making progress. Good progress. I'm not going to use numbers because it isn't about numbers, it's about health. I'm exercising, I'm eating healthy stuff, and slowly the dangerous fat I carry around my middle is beginning to diminish. I have every reason to believe that when my next checkup rolls around, I'm going find out I've turned things around.

But we all know that that is only half the story. The other half is staying healthy, with decent nutrition and exercise--not for just this year, but for a lifetime. I have a tendency to get hyper-focused about something, and then, just like that, it's over and I've moved onto to something else. I'm worried that I'll reach my goal, and then lose my initiative. And a few smothered baked potatoes and peach pies later...

I thought about setting some goals, but I reach the goal, and then what? I have to pick another goal. Pretty soon, I've run out of goals that interest me. I've been athletic most of my life, so fitness-wise, there isn't much I have to prove to myself, at least where short distances are concerned. Sure, I've never run a marathon, or biked a century, or participated in an Ironman, but frankly, I think I'd rather poke a stick in my eye than do all that training. Besides, goals are short-lived. I need a strategy that keeps it fun and is about the long term.

Then one day last week I hit the button on My Fitness Pal, and that phrase popped up: "If every day were like today..."

It reminded me suddenly of the Jane Brox title, and it struck me that this was the mindset I needed to pursue in order to keep this up for a lifetime. It isn't about today, or five weeks from today. It isn't even about next year, or the year after that.  Leaving it in that perspective--to say something vague, like "I want to do this for a lifetime"--makes the road I have to travel to health seem too long and too aimless. No, it is about five thousand days like this one. Or rather, since that is only about 16-17 years, and I plan to live much longer than that, it is about ten thousand days like this one. They can be ten thousand days of good choices, or ten thousand days of bad ones. The journey is about the balance of individual days.

So now, when I've had a pretty good day of making choices, I hit that button and say a prayer of sorts: Ten thousand days like this one.

And when I slip up a little, I remind myself that it is the balance of ten thousand days that counts. It is the balance that matters in the end.

I was talking to my friend Nancy about this the other day, and she likened it to practice. Nancy has a background in music, so it makes sense that she immediately picked up on this. Then, since we've both dealt with elderly parents--and seen the effects of lifetimes of good and bad practices--it was natural for her to make that connection, too.

"In the end, you become what you practice," she said.

You become what you practice. I mulled that over a while. Trust the process.

This could be true of all the choices you make in your life--whether you are choosing to eat French fries or choosing to stop and listen to leaves blowing across the pavement in autumn. It is this day to which you must attend, this day with all of its big and small choices. You become what you practice.

So now, finally, we have arrived at the real question and the point of all this meandering: If I could have ten thousand days like this one, what choices would I make?

You become what you practice. Make good choices. Smell the woodsmoke. Listen to the leaves. Look up at the sky. Enjoy a bike ride. Trust the process.

Ten thousand days.


  1. As you know I am struggling to get more healthy and life seems to be getting in the way. I took this viewpoint in a way when my sister died suddenly 5 years ago - she was 36 and it made me very aware of my own mortality, it put many things into perspective and made me prioritise differently. I stopped making excuses and did things - however, me being me I went too far the other way and ended up shattered and over extended!! But the sentiment and approach is right, I am trying to focus on the positives in life so when something goes wrong I try to remember something else that has gone right that day and keep things into perspective better.

    1. It's the balance, though, right? Hugs from across the pond.

  2. Beautiful, and exactly what I needed to read this morning. Good luck on your 10,000 days.

  3. Bravo !! A mind set that just might helps us all live fully and with health--and a bit less weight--!
    Thanks--just what I really needed to read today.

    your -East Coast reader--P

  4. You have such an excellent way with essays, Susan. I am on the same journey and found much encouragement in your post. Thank you and continued success to us both in our ten thousand days perspective.

    1. Yes, good luck to us both on our journeys, Clare!

  5. You are one of the most active people I know and I am in awe of all that you do. Your drive is inspiring. Thank you for a wonderfully written post. You are not the first person to mention 'My Fitness Pal'. Think it is time to check it out. As for each 'this day' I love enjoying the nature around me, each and every day.

    1. Janet, I know for a fact that you enjoy each and every day! You inspire *me*!

  6. so beautiful. I love reading your writing.

  7. This well-written post is very much a message that I needed to hear this morning. I've been struggling with health and body issues too, and making slow progress. Also, slow progress for rewards that seem non-existent. It's hard to keep going.

    1. Alison, I know it is a struggle. It is not the mile markers, though. It is the practice. Good luck to you.

  8. Wonderful post.

    Came home from a nice 5 miler on the Superior Hiking Trail (single-track technical trail) where I was enjoying the fall weather, color change and the beauty of this time of year, sat down to dinner and to catch-up on my blog reading. Just what I needed to hear.

    I would love to share this with co-workers and patients. It is the tack I try to take with folks, but you have expressed it in a way I never could.

    Also, first I have heard of that application. Will be good to share it with others.

    1. I'll bet the trail run was beautiful. I'd love to see Duluth in autumn.

      Try the My Fitness Pal. I've found it to be very helpful. Like I said, I've tried calorie counters before but found them more discouraging than helpful. This seems different, I'm guessing because of that button...


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