On wanting

There’s a question I’ve been wrestling with for the last few months and I can’t for the heck of me figure out the answer. I could use some help, or at least some strong opinions.

I’ve stopped wanting things.

I don’t know whether that’s a good thing – some kind of enlightenment, or a bad thing – a state of mild depression.

I used to want things so badly. Wanting’s been the fuel that powered my engine. It’s done amazing things for me.

When I was a miserable, scared teenager in some god-forsaken village who dropped out of high school I ached for a very different life. I ached to lo live in London or New York City, to have friends, to have a cool apartment – I wanted it so badly. When I was lonely and poor, I wanted to not be lonely and poor anymore.  I wanted to find another human being to whom I could open up to. I wanted to be able to talk to people without feeling deeply scared or ashamed. I wanted to go to a great university. I wanted to study art and have my work in galleries. I wanted to quit working for other people and be in charge of my own life. Work whenever I want for whoever I want. Take time off, and do things I love.

Want, want, want.

Much of it seemed impossible at the time, but I wanted it all so freakin’ badly, I made it happen, every single last bit of it.

And now, I’ve stopped wanting things. And I’m not sure if I like it.

I got a great life. A lovely husband, and a strange marvel of a kid. I try and make the world around me a little better – I volunteer for a couple of causes, and also help out in other informal ways. I’m ridiculously grateful for the big things and the little things. Music, art, nature, walking, talking, food.

And yet.

That existential ache for something you don’t have is such good kryptonite. It makes you jump out of bed in the morning. It gives you energy. It forces you to do things you’re scared of. It gives direction. It makes emotions more extreme.

I miss it.

I don’t know what happened.

Is not wanting anything anymore good (some kind of nirvana)? Or is it bad (some kind of anhedonia)?

redon, grand palais, le noyé

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A world before the fall

I’m writing this post on the last day of Summer, so this could just musings on the transience of the seasons. And yet, today’s post is a brief history of the 30+ year experiment in “healthy” eating that is my life.

Beneath the nutty quest that took me from every extreme food ‘religion’ to another was the idea that there is a pre-ordained way for people to be. That there is some kind of imaginary Eden in which people lived and ate a certain way that was perfect for all human minds and bodies. That if we could only rediscover or reconstruct this paradise before the fall, we could live in perfect harmony and health.

This idea first crossed my path when I was thirteen, probably from one of my mom’s healthy eating pamphlets.  I promptly decided to become vegetarian. Teenage rebellion and a rejection of my father’s hunting ways surely had a part to play as well. So for the next four years I followed a vegetarian diet, which was in those days highly unusual and rarely catered to. I didn’t know much about nutrition, so I just ate a lot of bread, cheese and spaghetti with tomato sauce. I was a pasty, un-athletic punk living a nocturnal life, but had the innate health of a lanky teenager, so I was basically OK.

When I was 17 I came across a book extolling the virtues of living on raw foods only, and this is when I got serious about the idea of discovering the “perfect” human diet and increasing up the nutritional content of what I was eating. Raw foods seemed to make sense – after all, that’s how animals eat; cooking seemed like a wrong turn that mankind had taken by mistake. I switched to a diet of huge salads, lots of fruit, raw milk and soaked and sprouted grains. This worked quite well until I moved to London in the depth of winter, surviving in a youth hostel with not a lot of money. I lived off fresh and dried fruit and yogurt until my teeth started collapsing in on themselves. I still have gaps in my molars from those brutal days.

I didn’t put two and two together then, blaming it on poor dental hygiene. I added more foods such as gigantic amounts of vegetables, olive oil and sprouted grains. I ate and ate and ate, and still felt hungry all the time, even though I was so bloated that I couldn’t sleep. I was freezing continuously, and pale and tired, but it was Thatcher’s England after all; I was poor, and worked long hours in fast food joints, so I didn’t think to blame my diet.

I spent a few months in Southern India, living off Indian Vegetarian food, got a stomach bug and came back with a BMI of 16. I  worked in cafeterias and had crazy binges late at night. I blamed myself for my lack of self-control, not realizing that my body was fighting for survival. I added back “bad” cooked foods, mostly bread because digesting huge amounts of vegetables was painful. For years after I basically lived off bread, boiled vegetables and a bit of fruit and yogurt. That I didn’t get sick is a miracle. I worked during the day, went to classes and studied at night and weekends, often falling asleep in my bed with my books. I had so little energy.

During college, without a kitchen I tried my hand at veganism, subsisting mostly on whole wheat bread, fruits and vegetables, with a bit of peanut butter thrown in. What saved me then was an insatiable, and totally explicable desire for smoked mackerel. I beat myself up over slipping from my almost-vegan ways. My body was craving fat, protein, omega 3s. Again, I was often tired, and also quite timid and very scared in general of my much more confident, well-educated and affluent fellow students. I spent much time in hiding, studying, walking, rather than fully engaging in student life in Oxford. This is still look back on as perhaps the greatest waste of my life. Food was only a part of it but it didn’t help. I don’t live life with regret, but if I could rewind any part of my life, this would be it.

Over the next few years I added a bit more variety, like beans, hummus and tuna. But I didn’t escape from this dietary limbo until my thirties, when I met my husband who is an excellent cook. It forced me to straighten out my bizarre and highly deficient diet. But right up until then I still thought I my diet was exemplary and supremely healthy, and pretty close to perfect.

Things got better since then, apart from a dalliance with low carb eating which left me weak, tired and emotionally flat.

Then, in a final tussle with dietary dogma I started eating a paleo diet two years ago. Once again, a diet that promised to deliver mankind from original sin, by literally encouraging to eat as we would in some imaginary Eden.

I still do believe that the basic tenets behind paleo eating are sound if you mean unprocessed food, fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, dairy, starches. But to appropriate and brand this kind of eating – which encompasses a very broad range of foods and ways of preparing them – seems silly to me in retrospect.

I’m finally waking up the idea that the idea of chasing some kind of ideal is ridiculous, given the broad diversity of healthy and thriving populations across the globe. That civilization isn’t just some malignant intrusion on primal perfection and that pleasure has always been a fundamental need, and isn’t an enemy of living “right”.

Also, please don’t think I’m criticizing vegetarianism, veganism or raw food eating. I’m sure there’s ways of making them work, but I couldn’t. They just made me dogmatic, obsessive and forever guilty about not sticking to them 100%.

Oh, hindsight …

But our lives are our lives, with all their wrong turns, seeming dead-ends, discoveries, revelations, obsessions and reversals. I’ve learned a lot on this crazy journey, and thank god I came out just fine.

Image

Source: creationmuseum.org

What are you afraid of?

I wandered through big cities by myself day and night, going to concerts and the movies when I was in my mid-teens.

When I was a teenager I quit high school one morning, got myself a factory job, and went home and told my parents.

I went on a television quiz show when I was 17 to make enough money to run away.

Instead of going to work, I took the train to another country, without telling my family beforehand

A country whose language I didn’t speak very well and where I knew no-one.

After working many menial jobs I applied to a famous university and got accepted after finishing high school in evening classes.

I moved to New York City where I knew no-one.

I studied art in my thirties even though I didn’t have a background in art.

I’ve photographed almost a hundred strangers whom I found on the internet.

I regularly present to large audiences, CEOs and senior business leaders.

I quit my job a few years ago and started a freelance career even though I am the main breadwinner in my family.

I’m no daredevil. But I have no fear of big decisions and big changes.

So why the hell am I so deadly afraid of putting on even just a couple of pounds?

Crazy, irrational, self-destructive, bizarre, ridiculous fear.

What are you afraid of?

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The art of walking

“Walkers are ‘practitioners of the city,’ for the city is made to be walked. A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities. Just as language limits what can be said, architecture limits where one can walk, but the walker invents other ways to go.” ― Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

I’ve been a walker all my life.

When I was little, I walked from necessity. I spent my childhood outdoors, and to get from home to anywhere you had to walk.

When I got a little older I woke up to the liberating power of walking.

I walked hundreds of miles on the streets of Berlin when it was still fenced in, still somewhat pockmarked from the war, wistful and forlorn. I walked the ruins, I walked the East, I walked the West. I saw it transform over the years, but every time I walk I still discover places I have never seen. I walked there from loneliness, I walked from curiosity, I walked from boredom.

I walked all over London, freshly arrived as a teenage runaway, I kept moving, to grasp the city, to understand England, to understand a culture that was entirely foreign to me and quite hostile. I walked many evenings and nights when I had nothing else to do, when I just wanted to be among people. I walked the East End, I walked the canals, the river, the old industrial areas, the docks, the cemeteries, the Metro-land suburbs.

And I fell in love with New York by walking endless hours until my feet were swollen and blistered, because I couldn’t possibly stop  – the streets were so exciting, so busy, the people so beautiful and odd. I walked the Bronx, the outer reaches of Queens, every neighborhood in Brooklyn from Maspeth to Gravesend, and every block in Manhattan.

Many of my literary heroes used walking for epiphanies, for transformation, for understanding.

Louis Aragon, who wrote so well about the chance discoveries, the peculiar magic and mystery of Paris, creating a larger framework for experiencing the world.

WG Sebald whose books are from the perspective of the solitary walker, the solitary traveler.

I thought nothing of walking 10, 15 miles at a time, and I would have walked longer if my feet wouldn’t give out.

But the point is, I walked because I wanted to.

When I first got a pedometer I was intrigued to learn how much I actually walk. But when I started to set goals everything changed. I began walking for mileage. Five miles every day, six miles every day, eight miles every day. I walked circles in the neighborhood, circles in the park, circles in the cemetery because I had to hit my goal. I’d pace up and down the apartment just hit a round number.

I no longer walked for pleasure, for curiosity, for loneliness. I walked just to walk.

“And once had, the data mind is hard to shake” writes Craig Mod in his essay Paris and the Data Mind, where he describes the abject disappointment of climbing the Eiffel Tower and then realizing that he forgot his Fitbit, making the trek not count.

“Part of me wanted to cab it back to the hotel. Cab it back and clip on the Fitbit and do the walk again. All of it. Mirrored and remapped. Climb the Eiffel steps once more. Ground it. Make it real in the ether.”

I’m trying to rediscover my old way of walking – open to what’s around me, ready to be transformed, open to detours and adventure, unconcerned with mileage.

The basic rules are:

To never walk just for exercise

To walk into the uncharted

To walk with my eyes wide open

To lose myself

“To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away … to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.” ― Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

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Gaumarjos saqartvelos

Back in 1988 when I lived in Berlin for a few months before going to college, alone, cold, and cleaning out duplicate names from a large database, my aunt-in-law invited me to accompany her to a concert. She was then a card-carrying member of the SEW, the West Berlin branch on East Germany’s state party.

This meant that she’d been to numerous trips to the Soviet Union and its satellites, and therefore interested in the cultures behind the Iron Curtain.

I was utterly transfixed by the music I heard in that concert, of an unearthly masculine beauty, by a group called Ensemble Kolkheti, from Georgia. A place seemingly very far away, entirely foreign and unknowable.

I proceeded to buy their LP and played it many, many times.

Which meant that I spent a lot of time looking at the cover, and the more I looked, the more beautiful Georgian writing looked to me.

Which, a few years later, led me to decide to learn the language. The fact that it was so different from Indo-Germanic languages and relatively useless in early 1990s Britain made it all the more alluring.

But who would teach me? Even though the Soviet Union was in the process of dissolving, no large Georgian diaspora existed.

I posted a note at a Russian bookstore in Great Russell Street, and waited.

Eventually, I did get a response. My teacher was Vasily, a man in his forties, born of a Russian father and a Georgian mother. He was the night security guard of a beautiful modernist building, an icon of its time. His job was to sit in the silent empty building from dusk to dawn, staring at the security cameras. Teaching me Georgian in the evening was a welcome distraction and he did it for free. We’d also wander through the empty building admiring its glassy expanses.

I learned how to write those beautiful letters, to master the plosives and non-plosives, to read Georgian poetry, and to begin to understand its history and unique way of looking at the world.

But I left the country and I never persevered. Now it’s just another atrophied, melancholy skill.

The mystery of far-away countries has decreased. Georgia seems reachable and understandable. I miss the times when there were places utterly out of reach.

The birth of empathy

After having run away I spent ten months working at a McDonald’s on Finchley Road, London. And then went off to India for a few months, avoiding my first full London winter. This was just after the Bhopal disaster and Indira Ghandi’s assassination and travel visas had just become available again, and India was in a strange mood.

Global travel wasn’t as widespread at the time, but the hippies had beaten a trail through the country and back then in 1984 they were still in evidence. We stayed in cheap hotels and ate one thali a day, which meant that my life savings of 250 pounds or so lasted for many months.

I lost a lot of weight, from that frugality but also the local protozoa, ending up at a fragile 106 lbs draped over my 5’9″ frame. I was so skinny it hurt to sit down. At night I would be tormented by vivid dreams of my family and the home I had run away from. It was my first Christmas abroad and I guess I was still getting used to being all on my own in a large and indifferent world. I sent my family one postcard, which must have scared them just a little. Not only knowing that I had run away, but that I was in India, with all its perceived dangers – drugs, Bhagwan, disease.

From Bombay to Goa by ferry, along the coast, to Mysore, Trivandrum, Cochin, Ooty, Kanyakumari, Pondicherry, Tiruchirapallii, Madras, Bangalore and back to Bombay(the old names were still used back then).

I never took any pictures, being too poor to own a camera. Recently I have been going through other people’s pictures from the same places and times, to evoke more memories than I managed to retain. India, before it got run over by global corporations, smelling of diesel, wafts of music from everywhere, the sound of human voices.

I wasn’t bothered by the desperate poverty all around me, the begging children, the cripples, the desperate mothers, the people sleeping on the streets, the seemingly endless slums. When I was 18 I was almost incapable of empathy. I did not really know how to put myself into someone else’s place and to feel their despair or pain. I had never really learned in my many years of reading books. Feelings were something I had only read about.

I went on to study psychology and philosophy, and to choose a career which is built on grasping how others feel. This is surely not accidental. I was genuinely curious, from an outsider’s perspective about how emotions were built.

In college a friend had lost both parents in fairly short succession in the most miserable circumstances. He spent hours sitting with me, talking about it. He said “with you I worry less about sharing all this, because I know you can carry this and not break” and that was very true.

I did fall in love and marry, but it was only when I had a child that my capacity for empathy suddenly broke through, to a point where it became almost painful. I can no longer listen to babies cry, watch sad movies, read books about the Holocaust. It all just destroys me.

I’ve recently discovered a genetic peculiarity:

My genetic profiles states: “You have a SNP in the oxytocin receptor (rs53576) which may make you less empathetic than most people. When under stress you may have more difficulty recognizing the emotional state of others which impacts loneliness, parenting, and socializing skills… people with the (G;G) genotype were better able to discern the emotional state of others than those who carried the A-allele (which is what I have).”
Not the whole story, but interesting.

Further excavations

As I have written before, the village of my birth is a place of layers upon layers. Everyone has been here from the Celts to the Alemanni, to the Romans to the Nazis to the Americans. On a recent visit my father told me that the mystical square mile – his hunting grounds (he’s a hunter), where American Nike missiles used to be buried deep in the ground, where a small labor/sick camp once stood, where planes used to take off heavy with bombs during the Second World War – is about to become an industrial zone.

Porsche already has a large storage facility there and other buildings and distribution centers have gradually colonized the area. But the latest wave of development will obliterate, or at least cover up most of the remaining evidence. He also reminded me of old stories about the village, when had was a military airport, that planes would get stored in the woods for protection. American or British planes would bomb those woods and there is still so much shrapnel in the old oak trees that no-one will fell them. The metal in there would ruin any saw blade, so old oaks grow majestically, undisturbed. It is for those mystical oaks that I first set out, to see what I would find in the dark fairy tale forest of my childhood.

This is what I found. Foundations of buildings, with cellars beneath them. Trees with damage to their bark. Traces and signs.

My town for many years was home to its small American village. Many people harbor happy memories of their time here. But after the Iron Curtain came down many military bases were closed down and dismantled. Few traces remain of the radar towers, the barracks, the compound, or the place where missiles facing Russia were buried deep underground.

Soon, even fewer will be left.



I also tried to find out more about where the camp once stood but did not find out anything further.

Actually, I just found the map that would have pointed me in the right direction

I did however notice a gravestone for the camp’s Jewish unofficial doctor Adolf Levi (who died there, like so many others in 1944), among the gravestones of people who died in the final days of the war.

As I walked back to my father’s house, musing on how inside village limits everything looked as if forgotten by time, a strange apparition entered from left field. A young black man on a unicycle, wearing headphones and a baseball cap. What could it all mean?