I spend a lot of time thinking about this abstract concept of balance. Specifically, life balance. Time for work and time for play. Time with loved ones and time with myself. Time for exertion and time for rest. And a balanced diet: what exactly is that? Is it salad at every meal? Is it meat-potatoes-vegetable? Is it a choice between eating for pleasure and eating for health?
The answer, I think, is that there is no simple answer when it comes to balance. The answers are as unique as each of us.
I’m a little wobbly when it comes to life balance. The reason I spend so much time thinking about it is because it doesn’t come easily to me. I’m either ON or I’m OFF. Last summer, I was ON all the time: working furiously on the experiments for my first manuscript, running all the time as I trained for a half-marathon, and halfheartedly attempting to locate my lost writing voice on my brand-new food blog. It was an exhilarating summer because I was throwing my whole heart into work and working out. As I padded out mile after mile, I would listen to the rhythm of my feet and my breathing, promising myself that it WAS possible to have the three things I wanted most: the successful career, the hot body, the man. Those were my goals; that last one eluded me all summer because I had fallen hard for a guy who had little interest in dating me.
And the successful career? Well, that’s still a work in progress. The long hours in the lab that summer paved the way for a busy fall filled with writing papers, writing grants, submitting papers, submitting grants, and now (finally!) maybe, just maybe seeing my grant funded and my paper published. We’ll see—I’m waiting with my fingers and toes crossed.
But what I miss most about that summer is the running. All summer long, I could tell myself that as long as I crossed that finish line after 13.1 miles, then my summer was a success. If my experiments tanked in the lab (and a lot did), if the guy never came around (and he didn’t), then at least I could be unambiguously successful in one area of my life. I was just eleven seconds over my goal of a sub-two-hour race, which was, to me, close enough to call it victory. Hours after the race, I was hobbling in pain, but I was hobbling victoriously: I HAD FINISHED! The glory, and the pain, were all mine.
It’s funny to me how my thinking about running changes. When I’m not actually in the middle of a work-out, I tell people that I run for the fresh air, the peace of mind, the calming rhythm of breathe in-breathe out. When I’m working out, struggling through the last two miles of a ten-mile training run, all I can think about are the goodies: the hot body and the bragging rights. Peace of mind? There is no such thing when every step feels impossible, every muscle is aching, and there’s still twenty minutes of running on the clock before you’re done.
Running fell by the wayside after I finished my race. I had to take it easy to nurse my left foot back to health. After I was no longer hobbling around, I shifted my focus to walking, yoga, and Pilates—great forms of exercise that are much, much gentler on the body.
But I miss running.
For the past few weekends, I’ve been searching for my lost inner runner. She’s there, I can tell, but she’s slow. So I run at a turtle-like pace, feeling the ground move beneath my feet and the air move in and out of my lungs. I listen to the gentle crunch of sandy gravel under my shoes as I run on the paths along Lake Michigan, blue and expansive as life itself. These are pleasure runs, designed for no purpose other than to make me feel good, both during the run and afterward. So far, it’s working. And right now, that’s good enough for me.
Peanut Butter-Cream Cheese Dip
Makes about 1 cup
There are lots of “energy bars” and “energy drinks” that you can purchase at the store, but I’m more of a homemade kinda girl. I like making my own granola and my own energy bars. Heck, I’ve even made my own yogurt! Even if the homemade treat is really, really simple, I admire the creative spirit and the effort that went into making it. This peanut butter-cream cheese dip is one of those kind of recipes: almost unnecessary given its simplicity, but it’s worth having in the old recipe file just to remind you of how easy and tasty it is. I love its creamy, nutty flavor with a hint of sweetness from the honey; it’s delicious eaten with crunchy bites of pretzel*, the pretzel serving as a conveniently edible utensil.
Peanut butter and Neufchatel cheese are by no means low-fat ingredients, but I think they have a place in a healthy, balanced diet. The combination offers plenty of protein to help satisfy hungry bellies. And if you, like me, have dreams of lacing up your sneakers and feeling the sun on your skin as you run like the wind this summer, a spoonful or two of peanut butter-cream cheese dip can be put to good use as a pre- or post-work-out snack. With or without pretzels.
½ cup Neufchatel cream cheese (cream cheese’s lower-fat cousin)
½ cup natural peanut butter, crunchy or smooth
2 tbsp. honey
1) Combine all ingredients in a food processor. Buzz until smooth. Either serve immediately or spoon dip into a container suitable for refrigeration and chill until ready to eat.
*About pretzels: I recently found that Trader Joe’s makes a very tasty whole-wheat pretzel in the shape of short rods. I’m crazy about whole grains, and these pretzels are great: 100% whole wheat with 3 grams of fiber and 3 grams of protein in a single serving of ten pretzels. They are a bit high in sodium (almost 20% of the daily limit!), but other than the salt, they are awfully nutritious for a snack food. Thank goodness for Trader Joe’s!