Dieting for the past few weeks has led me to reflect on the Catholic notions of penance and purgatory. Penance to atone for the sin of gluttony. Purgatory as a place that’s not Hell, but clearly is not Heaven either. (In Buddhism, the explanation is less fraught with judgment. Being overweight is the result of countless causes and conditions, not all of which are known to us. Though in cases like mine, I don’t think they’re a secret. I love sugar and fat and eat too much of it.)
This past Monday I felt like I was doing penance and living in purgatory. I’m referring to the torment that comes from sharing a space with thousands of beautiful calories beckoning like Sirens, and having to turn my back on them. The occasion was a “field trip” for the Talk Time (English conversation) group my friend Linda and I lead. All twelve “students” came to my house to decorate cookies.
My torment came in two phases. Sunday I baked about fifty cookies (as did Linda, the brains behind this project, which was sadistic on her part and masochistic on mine). The ingredients consisted of butter and sugar with a whiff of vanilla and a touch of flour. Monday, I watched the “students” mix three batches of powdered sugar and lemon juice, thinned to the consistency of oil paint, and squeeze it through a paper cone onto their calorie-laden canvasses. Only after I ushered the last cookies and snacks out the door did I feel relief. Now that this test is over, I can see it was not so much an ordeal as good preparation for the next trial, which starts in a week. I’ll be dining out for breakfast, lunch and dinner with three different groups of friends within a two-day period. I may choose to spend those two days in Heaven.