JANUARY 1Put God first
"Put God first, then you won't be looking for love in all the wrong places," said Salt of the rap group Salt N Pepa on BET's Teen Summit. Salt was talking about sex and relationships, but for all the reasons we individually might need to put God first, this first day of the year would be a good time to make this our first resolution of the new year.
Often we take it for granted that we do put God first, but sometimes we need to check ourselves. Recently, I had to stop and reflect. I was packing my suitcase for a much-needed vacation during which I planned to lounge on a beach and read to my heart's content. The hardest part of packing was deciding what book to take. Should I take the hot-off-the-press book by one of my favorite authors or the novel about the life of Christ that I had picked up to help me understand the Bible better?
After entirely too much deliberation, the thought came to me: Put God first. That was it. That was the decision, as clear as could be. And that simple phrase made me evaluate a lot of other things in my life, helping me to make decisions about both complex and simple matters.
Choosing between two books to read may seem like a simple matter. Making the more complex decision that Salt referred to of not choosing a compromising relationship may make you feel lonely at first. But when grappling with which way to go, which road to take, which direction to follow, if you go with the one that puts God first, you can't go wrong.
Here are some everyday ways to put God first:
* Make prayer your first activity of the day.
* Put the word "God" in your computer code, ATM pin number, or voice mail passcode (on the phone the keypad numbers are 463).
* Do something God-like today. (Treat someone lovingly.)
Secret Ingredient: Today is the last day of Kwanzaa, traditionally the Day of Meditation. Reflect on the Kwanzaa principle of imani (faith) and the highest values, ethics, and ideals of the past and future of yourself and our people. On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, declaring slaves in the South free. So on this first day of the year "put your mind on freedom."
JANUARY 2Get happy
"There's nothing wrong with stopping to ask yourself whether you're happy and trying to change your life if you're not," writes Mark Mathabane, in his memoir Love in Black and White
. Growing up under apartheid in South Africa, Mark Mathabane had many reasons not to be happy. He took stock of them and tried to change his life by coming to America. Fortunately, he was successful.
I think it's interesting that he says, "There's nothing wrong with stopping to ask yourself . . ." because too often we don't stop to assess our situations, and we feel guilty for pursuing happiness. In other words, we do think there's something wrong with trying to make ourselves happy. Doing so may mean leaving others behind. Doing so may mean taking a risk, or seeming selfish. Sometimes it's important to stop. Stop living your life in fast forward, stop running in circles--just plain stop and ask yourself: "Am I happy?"
When I was at Heart & Soul
, we had a lot of strategic planning meetings, quarterly business meetings, three-year planning meetings, and other periods of assessment to see how well our magazine was doing. How many of us take that much time to take stock of how well our own personal lives are going?
This year, I resolve to do it at the beginning of the year, and to do it quarterly, to do "Stephanie's Three-Year Plan" (with a yearly revision); to have weekly family business meetings with my husband and daughters; to ask myself often if I'm happy, and to try to change my life if I'm not.
How about you?
* Plan a day for your own personal "Assessment" retreat.
* Take a pad and pencil and sit in your favorite spot, or take notes at a computer if printing out a plan will help make it all seem more "official."
* Jot down what makes you happy and what keeps you unhappy. Then think of strategies to eliminate the items in the "unhappy" column. Vow to yourself to focus on the things that make you happy. Follow your plan!
Secret Ingredient: Have your own Happy Hour every day--and I don't mean get drunk! Do something that makes you happy for an hour each day.
JANUARY 3Resolve to tap the power of the positive
The new year signals new beginnings; a time to assess what worked last year and what didn't; a time to change. As editor-in-chief of Heart & Soul
, the health and fitness magazine for African American women, I researched and wrote an editorial that was published one January that covered seven principles of developing a strong body, mind, and spirit. Many of these healthy habits that start on this page and are presented over the next six days, may seem like common sense to you--and they are. But what is common sense is not always common practice. So let these suggestions serve as friendly reminders of inspiration to say, "I can do it!" You can begin to use these ideas right now to help you remain true to your New Year's resolutions.
Resolution Number One: Pursue the positive. Maintaining an attitude of hopefulness, optimism, and positivity is the primary legacy of our ancestors. If they hadn't believed that things would get better, or that there would be a better day ahead for their children and grandchildren, how could those who were enslaved and those who faced bigotry, oppression, and segregation have gone any further?
With the psychological energy of positive living, even the toughest challenge is easier to meet. Living positively includes having a strong sense of spirituality, of tranquillity, or purpose in life, self-esteem, and most important, love and happiness (Al Green was right! Or as the hip-hop group Lost Boyz named a CD: Love, Peace & Nappiness--which I can personally relate to).
Are you the type of person who sees the glass as half empty or half full? Do people consider you a positive person, or a "rough customer"? Maybe things haven't worked out for you--but you didn't think they would anyway. Remember the old adage: You've got to believe to achieve.
Jewel Diamond Taylor is a motivational speaker, author, and mistress of ceremonies for the African American Women on Tour Conference. As she says at the conference, "When people give you a hard time about your optimism and try to bring you down, just tell them, 'Kiss my positive attitude!' "
Secret Ingredient: Create a personal affirmation that will help you develop a more positive attitude. Upon waking each day, write down your affirmation ten times (or more) and then practice repeating it in front of the mirror. Let your affirmation become your own sacred mantra and a protection against negative thoughts. Use it whenever you need it.
Resolution Number Two: Commit to healthy habits
To keep your body strong, resolve this year to abstain from smoking and abusing alcohol or other substances. Commit to safe sex every time. Think about the little things that can make a big difference--like, getting up early enough to be on time for work (that's a continuing challenge for me!). Work on those simple health and safety precautions, such as using seat belts, putting Baby in the backseat (never, ever on your lap in the front), and installing and maintaining smoke detectors in your home.
When President Clinton said during his campaign that he had tried marijuana but didn't inhale, I didn't laugh, because I could relate. When I was in college, I thought it would look cool if I smoked cigarettes, especially when I was out at a club or at one of those jumpin' Howard U parties. Since I didn't drink alcohol, I thought I needed some kind of prop! But I found inhaling the smoke to be unnatural and actually pretty hard to do. I thought, Well, if it's this hard, then it must not be for me. (Plus I figured I could use the money I spent on cigarettes for clothes!)
According to my childhood diary, one day my father announced to my two older siblings and me, "I'll give you twenty-one dollars if you don't start smoking cigarettes before you turn twenty-one." That was big money to a little kid back in those days, and my brother, Andre, and I took him up on the challenge. Unfortunately, Vicki paid more attention to the prevailing glamorous media images and peer messages of how "Kool" it was, and she started smoking at age fourteen.
Thankfully, for Vicki, getting older made her wiser and she began to realize the dangers of smoking. And when her friend Emily told her she would help her quit, Vicki knew she could do it. "Whenever I would tell Emily I felt like having a cigarette, she would say, 'No you don't, Vicki. You're a nonsmoker.' After you make a decision, someone's help can carry you through." Whatever your unhealthy habit, take the first step: Make the decision to stop.
Secret Ingredient: For more information on how to stop smoking cigarettes, call the American Lung Association at 1-800-LUNG-USA, or visit their Web site: http://www.lungusa.org. Or, if there's another habit you need to abandon, develop a plan to stop it, and follow it.
Resolution Number Three: Nourish your body with good food.
Don't use food as recreation or an antidote for stress. Inspirational speaker and comedian Dr. Bertice Berry says that when she was twenty-six years old the stress of writing her doctoral dissertation made her turn to overeating. "I was eating Haagen Dazs bars," Bertice recalled in 1996 at Heart & Soul
's African American Women on Tour Conference seminar called "Loving Those Big Brown Thighs and Other Healthy Habits." "When I would write a paragraph that I thought was brilliant, I would reward myself with a Haagen Dazs bar. It got down to sentences. After that I was like, 'the use of the word the--that was brilliant.' I gained about fifty pounds during that process. I was sitting there eating and writing and eating and writing, until I realized, 'I can't do this!' And I lost the weight quickly."
Like Bertice, we all can create a healthier lifestyle: Eat only when you are hungry. Nourish your body with foods low in fat, and include more vegetables, beans, fruits, and whole grains. Make these, not meat, the centerpiece of your plate. Try new ways to healthy-up old favorites: Next time you decide to make candied yams, hold the sugar and try a baked sweet potato instead. Because I rarely experimented with food, I had been cooking for my family for years before I realized that a yam can be baked just like a "regular" potato. My husband likes to experiment with seasoning greens, so when he makes a pot of greens no one misses the fattening hamhock. Sometimes he uses herbs, sometimes he cooks with smoked turkey. Men who cook just seem to be more adventurous in the kitchen than we sisters (like me) who just want to get the meal done after a long day at work. Take a cue from the brothers and enjoy the adventure of good nutrition.
Secret Ingredient: And this time I really mean it, as in recipes. Take a dish that you prepare that you know is high in fat, sugar, or salt, and give it a makeover.
Resolution Number Four: Commit to get fit.
I know it's hard--mainly because getting regular exercise can be such a chore! But I also know (and probably you do, too) that all the evidence suggests that keeping fit is not just a health bonus, but a vital necessity. The good news is that there are so many ways to get in that thirty minutes of exercise at least three times a week. You can jog, cycle, dance, play tennis, work out at home or at the gym, take an aerobics class. Or, get to steppin' like my friend Erlene Wilson, who got a step platform, a video, a cute black unitard, and now feels so good after her basement workout at home in Maryland, that she just hates to go a day without it.
Another great way to get steppin' is to go walking. In a survey of black women, walking for fitness was the number-one activity. It's also the most popular exercise among all women.
Of course, it's hard to stay motivated to walk around your neighborhood, local track, or in the park if you live in parts of the country that have frequent rain, snow, or cold weather at this time of year. And it's easy to indulge the excuse that it's too dark to exercise by the time you get home from work. Well, do as my friend Marlene Watson does: Get a treadmill or use one at your local gym. Marlene, who lives in Pennsylvania, says she has gotten hooked on hittin' the rubber every morning. Here are a couple of treadmill workout tips to get you up and running:
* Start slowly and gradually. Begin by using a very slow speed to become accustomed to the machine. Work out for only the amount of time that you feel comfortable doing so. Increase the speed and time of your workout as comfort level increases. Try for at least forty minutes at a moderate pace, three times a week.
* Get a grip. The first time I tried a treadmill, girl, I thought I was going to fall off! Don't worry about looking like a novice--hold on to the rails until you feel ready to let go and swing your arms naturally. (You'll look cuter holding on than tumbling to the ground!)
Secret Ingredient: Fitness experts say that the best way to commit to exercising is to choose an activity you enjoy doing--not what your friends like to do, or what's popular on TV infomercials, but what you enjoy returning to time after time.
Resolution Number Five: Watch your weight
Couple good nutrition with regular exercise to achieve a normal, healthy weight. This may be a benefit for vanity, but more important, it can prevent heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes--all life-threatening illnesses that we are more prone to.
The first step? Steer away from "going on a diet." Instead, change your diet by eating foods low in fat, and by stressing conscious control over eating habits.
I got a lesson in the relationship between weight and diet when I went off to college. So merry to be "free" of my mother's nutritious meals, I began a dubious, but delicious habit of having a nuked "honey bun" (imagine a huge cinnamon pastry with sugary icing slathered all over) for breakfast, lunch from the local greasy-spoon or hamburger joint (always including fries and a chocolate malt), and an all-you-can eat soul food dinner from the med-school cafeteria across the street from my dorm. This became my daily diet! Needless to say, the phrase "freshman fifteen" became a reality--and then some. I have no idea how much weight I put on because I refused to get on a scale, but when I had gained enough dress sizes that none of the clothes I had brought three thousand miles to college fit me, and I had no money for a new wardrobe, I knew I had a weight problem. Not having had that kind of problem before, I wasn't sure what to do about it, except to tell my schoolmates that I was "on a diet." But I was clueless as to how to diet healthfully and effectively. So I lost no weight.
Then, I started dating a brother who was a vegetarian. If I wanted to go out to dinner with him, that meant dining in places with names like The Golden Temple. We started talking about our bodies as "temples." When he cooked for me, I never missed the meat. And we began to study up on how to get all the vitamins and minerals our bodies needed. You can probably guess the end of my story: I lost the weight and kept it off. I haven't had a hamburger since 1972, and I don't miss it. Now, I'm not saying that everyone ought to be a vegetarian, but I will say this: I changed my diet, my way of eating, my relationship to food, my dining lifestyle--and if you are determined, so can you.
Secret Ingredient: Maintain a healthy eating plan of low-fat, high-fiber foods, including "5 a Day"--that's five servings of fruits and vegetables, which is as easy as fruit on your cereal, a salad for lunch (counts for at least two servings), and two veggies at dinner. (Serving = 1/2 cup.)
Excerpted from Daily Cornbread by Stephanie Stokes Oliver. Copyright © 2002 by Stephanie Stokes Oliver. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.