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Original Essays

Life or Death. I Know Which One I'd Choose!

by Victoria Zackheim (2008)
  1. For Keeps: Women Tell the Truth about Their Bodies, Growing Older, and Acceptance
    $11.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "There is value in these honest accounts that could be critically relevant to readers....A sort of illumination occurs for the writers as they grow older." The San Francisco Chronicle
  2. The Other Woman: Twenty-One Wives, Lovers, and Others Talk Openly about Sex, Deception, Love, and Betrayal
    $9.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "[A] candid and truly fascinating look at how men and women love and hurt." Publishers Weekly
Have you ever had a medical test and the doctor tells you, "I'm sure it's nothing; we're just making certain," and you want to believe, you really do, if not for that nagging voice that creeps into your head (and your work, and your every waking and sleeping moment) that says, "Kiddo, you're dead." And in that time between the test and the moment you get the results, you start to imagine how to break the news to your friends and family. You might think of what you want said, and by whom, at your funeral. And then, days or weeks later, the news comes back that you're fine, no worries, so on you go, having dodged yet another of life's errant bullets.

I've had enough of these waiting-for-the-death-notice experiences to advance my own little philosophy, which appears in the introduction of my new anthology, For Keeps: Women Tell the Truth About Their Bodies, Growing Older, and Acceptance. In it, I say that to believe that I am healthy, to wish that I am healthy, and to live with the expectation that I will be healthy, in no way guarantees my good health. Perhaps you already know this, but do you know it in that wise place that makes you listen?

Full disclosure: I am not a good listener. In truth, I'm amazed at my health, considering how unkind I am to my body. However, I must admit that, after reading and rereading the essays in this book, my listening skills have become considerably sharper. I am now more mindful of how quickly that screw we call life can turn and, at lo! this ripe age, I'm also learning (finally!) that to believe I have full control over anything almost guarantees that something out-of-control is going to happen. In that same book's introduction, I write — perhaps as a reminder to myself — while many of us are able to regain that control, we cannot ignore the message that hovers out there, just beyond the coast of consciousness: Our bodies are for keeps. No matter what life brings us, we must forge ahead and celebrate life.

Have you ever noticed how we show more sympathy to someone with pneumonia than we do to that friend suffering from depression? We're a quick-fix society, to be sure. Take a pill and everything will be fine. Unless it's not. And then what? Friends who are depressed need us to be there for a very long time, whereas pneumonia is often treated and then it's gone. That's part of the media hype, too. It never shows people with long-term illness, only those who take the drugs and are suddenly smiling, dancing, having erections... sometimes all at the same time.

Which brings me to an important message that might have been solely for women a decade ago but now applies to men as well. With everything the media throws at us, do we dare to dream what our lives would be like if we no longer worried how every inch of our bodies looked to the world? Imagine awakening in the morning, peering into the mirror at your sleepy face, creased skin, wild hair... and loving what you see. I don't know about you, but I'm not convinced when some gorgeous, flawless, ageless woman tells me that she buys a product because she's worth it. Hell, I'm worth it, but how do I still that little voice that whispers, "What's the use?"

So really, is there a solution to all of this? Well, yes, there is, but it's hard to swallow and, like going cold turkey from various substances, you've got to be willing to believe. Believe that life would be so much more enjoyable (and less painful) if we could turn off the damn hype and just live in our bodies, which is not easy (at least not for me, someone who views myself through narrowed eyes that sometimes reflect scorn and disappointment); believe you would rather live to 90 than have tight abs, or choose a long life over unwrinkled skin, which is a piece-of-cake decision for me, but there are, sadly, too many men and women who would choose early death if that guaranteed taut bodies and smooth skin.

Again, I blame the media. And why not? We're practically assaulted on a regular basis (if you watch television, that means every twelve minutes) by someone else's idea of perfection. Every time the message begins, we're being told that we're imperfect, unacceptable, that we don't look, feel, smell, present in a way that will give us pure happiness. But what if you're a woman lounging on the sofa in your old college sweats, face free from makeup, legs unshaven, and the guy snuggled next to you loves you like that? Or you're a man hanging out, unwashed, in need of a haircut, and she can't keep her hands off of you? Even more poignant, what if you're on that sofa, with your beloved or all alone, and you love you like that?! What does that say about the message?

So, the plan is to buy this book (at Powell's, of course — is this too blatant a pitch?), and then read, inhale, absorb, laugh, nod, sigh, learn, change — after which you will undoubtedly move on to the next book. But I must warn you: the essays stay with you. After all, we have hearts to be filled, lessons to be learned.

In case you're worried that the essays in this anthology are frivolous — I got a bad wax job and can't leave the house! Cellulite has ruined my sex life! — you can relax. The authors have shared what happens when their bodies and emotions let them down, when life let them down; it's about how they responded when they found themselves tested to the limit (and sometimes beyond) and were forced to decide between giving in or fighting back. Imagine being told that you should undergo a double mastectomy to protect you from the high probability of breast cancer. Liza Nelson didn't think twice. She not only loved being alive and intended to remain so for a very long time; she also rejoiced in the reduction of the enormous breasts that had caused severe back and shoulder problems since adolescence. Christine Kehl O'Hagan fought being tall and overweight throughout her childhood, and then something amazing happened. Elizabeth Rosner discovered what it feels like to be the only naked person in the room. And Masha Hamilton shares the rare experience of giving shiatsu massage to burqa-clad women in Afghanistan.

It's no secret that poor body image can lead us into a bottomless pit of self-loathing, one of those spiraling-downward conditions that worsens as the body shows signs of age. Some of us deal with it through sensible diet, exercise, and moisturizing creams, while others of us feel the burden and opt for the temporary gratification found in dark chocolate (Trader Joe's, with almonds, heavenly... so I've been told) or other sins of the palate. And yes, there are more extreme responses: anorexia, bulimia, isolation, suicide. I love how Aimee Liu revealed, "The more my body hurt, the more my willpower gloated. A war was under way, my physical constitution its battleground. Health was no more my real goal than cheap tea was the object of the American Revolution."

Listen, we've got this message that needs to be implanted in our brain: Women have the babies, earn the degrees, run the house (and now the House!), so why can't we ease up on ourselves? Men work, take responsibility, run the majority of corporations in this country, so why can't they live comfortably in their bodies? It's so easy to blame our relationships with our mothers, or a miserable marriage, or a warped media that seems to be pointing the finger, suggesting we're fat, ugly, the personification of the antichrist. But the truth is simply this: We've all faced challenges to our health and happiness. Did we respond in a way that made us proud, that stood as an example to our children, friends, and community of the courage and confidence one needs to muster when facing adversity? Or did we buckle... and then hope for the gods to kick in and save us? If we're guilty of the latter, we've probably done a fine job of castigating ourselves, but must we fall victim to the media as well? I'm wondering if this sea of insecurity, these self-flagellating acts that require repentance, and all the body-image woes we suffer are merely life's way of making us focus on one vital message: If we do the best we can, that needs to be good enough. Beyond that, what is there?

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Victoria Zackheim is the author of the novel The Bone Weaver and editor of two anthologies: The Other Woman and For Keeps. She teaches creative writing in the UCLA Writers' Program and is the writer and story developer of the documentary film Suffer the Little Children: Frances Kelsey and the Story of Thalidomide (Rosemarie Reed Productions/Films For Thought). Visit her website at spacer

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