Food, glorious food!
Hot sausage and mustard!
While we’re in the mood —
Cold jelly and custard!
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about food. OK, so that’s not news. I think about food a lot. What I’ve specifically been thinking about is a common way that Americans see their food, and it makes me sad.
As we’ve gotten wealthier and consequently fatter over time, Americans have come to see food as the enemy. We’re always discovering the evils that food contains, whether it’s fat, sugar, carbs, or calories (counting calories never goes out of style). Women in particular tend to talk about dieting, or how they “shouldn’t be eating” the chocolate cake that they’re about to dig into. It really takes the pleasure out of eating when you or those around you associate it with shame and lack of self-control.
Even if you’re not religious, I’m sure that you recognize the wisdom of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” I tend to have no trouble with this. My friends, many of whom work in social services and small businesses, don’t either. We work long hours for little pay, we reassure other people that their mistakes aren’t a big deal, and we’ll drop everything for a friend if she’s going through a tough time. It’s the reverse Golden Rule that is much more of a challenge: doing unto ourselves as we do unto others.
I can’t count how many times I’ve beaten myself up for little mistakes, or fallen into despair when I hit a snag in my plans. I’ve looked in the mirror and hated what I saw: the dark circles under my eyes, the big zit, or the belly fat that won’t go away. I’ve told myself that I’m incompetent, a screw-up, and that I’ve wasted my potential.
Can you imagine treating a friend that way? Ever? As Duncan Coppock said, “If we spoke to others the way we often speak to ourselves, we’d have no friends!”
When things go awry, we tell our friends, “Everything will turn out fine.” We remind them that they’re resourceful and smart and all-around wonderful people. We see the best in them. However, we find it much harder to show ourselves the same kindness.
Aside from “So how’s Mississippi?”, the most common question I get these days is, “Are you still reschooling yourself?” I’m never quite sure how to answer that.
The project completion date is technically June 15th, marking the end of a full school year, so yes, I’m still officially reschooling. I think the question gives me pause because Reschool Yourself is gradually becoming more of a lifestyle than a finite project.
The fall was about looking back and processing the past. The spring is about moving forward, and figuring out what kind of lifestyle I want to lead. I’d originally envisioned the spring as an intensive period of travel and self-directed study. However, I came to realize that I was craving stability rather than nomadic adventure. I decided to postpone any major travels and move to the South, which is one of the best places to plant roots.
Flying into San Francisco Airport last month was a surreal experience. I’d landed at SFO dozens of times, from cities as far afield as Barcelona or Guatemala City, and every time the plane’s wheels hit the tarmac, I knew I was home. This was the first time that I didn’t feel that way, because I was just visiting.
I’d spent the past two months in my new home in Jackson, Mississippi, and I was flying back to visit for two weeks and then drive my car cross-country. As the plane flew north over the San Francisco Bay, I felt my throat get tight. I had lived in the Bay Area for all of my 28 years, and I suddenly realized that it wasn’t home anymore. I looked around the plane, at the passengers excitedly craning their necks to see the landscape, and I wanted to tell them, “I’m not one of you. I’m not just a tourist. I grew up here.”
Since I got back from a six-day, cross-country trip on Tuesday, I’ve been craving the open road. Last week Darren and I left my hometown of Sonoma, California, and drove my Jetta and most of my belongings to my new home in Jackson, Mississippi. Each day of the trip was so exciting that it’s felt like a bit of a letdown to readjust to a normal routine. In order to maintain the energy of the road trip, I’ve decided to take four major lessons from it and try to apply them to my everyday life.
1. Do things that you enjoy, especially with someone who makes everything fun.
Darren, my partner in crime, was thoughtful enough to fly to the Bay Area for just a couple of days to help me pack and keep me company on the drive east. I’m glad that we already spend so much time together working from home, so there was no question that we could handle nearly a week of 24-7 together time. Even though I don’t love being cooped up in the car, we made it fun by playing cheesy road trip mixes (including “Country Roads,” “King of the Road,” and Darren’s least favorite of the bunch, “Loveshack”) and making up games.
I’ve decided that there’s no better way to say goodbye to your past than to commit it to the flames. Ancient cultures like the Celts used bonfires for purification and consecration, and it turns out that knew what they were doing. Tonight I had my first ritual bonfire, and I feel an unexpectedly strong sense of closure.
My sister, Gill, and I are both visiting our parents this week and made a pact to clear the clutter from our childhood bedrooms. Items like clothing and even books weren’t so hard to sort through, but it was the paper clutter that was more challenging to deal with. We each had boxes or drawers full of handwritten notes, term papers, and report cards. Going through these one by one would be time consuming and would bring up old emotions, so we had put off doing it for years. Now was the time.
Late in the evening, Gill and I emerged from our bedrooms with armfuls of papers and stacked them on the living room floor. Gill took a pile of her folded-up junior high notes from friends, skimmed a couple of them, and placed them inside our long-neglected family fireplace. She then struck a match and dropped it on top of the carefully folded pieces of binder paper, watching the paper ignite. The orange flames licked the corners of the pages and curled up the edges. They began to crumble into black ash.
I spent last evening sitting on the living room floor of my childhood home, letting go of hundreds of pages of old letters. This is something that I never thought I could do.
For most of my life, I have been exceptionally sentimental. I suppose it comes with the writer’s temperament, because you’re always collecting experiences to capture in words. And once you write about them, there they stay, preserved forever. Romanticizing and immortalizing the past makes it harder to let go.
Darren‘s mom, Jill, pointed out to me that Catholics may be especially likely to hang onto physical representations of the past. Much of the Catholic ritual centers on sacred objects: the Communion wafer, the priest’s vestments, or relics from the Holy Land. Unlike the Buddhists, whose monks may travel around with only a robe and rice bowl, Catholics bundle up much of their meaning in things. Do the math: Cradle Catholic + romantic writer = memory packrat.
Since I now live in a state that has very few Catholics, I’d forgotten that today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. I haven’t seen a single person walking around with a smudged black cross on their forehead to symbolize repentance. In fact, Lent wouldn’t have been on my radar at all if it weren’t for having spent the weekend in New Orleans at Mardi Gras. You’re supposed to get all the sin out of your system by Fat Tuesday, so starting the next day you can give up something significant to sympathize with Jesus’ 40-day Biblical struggle in the desert.
I haven’t given up anything for Lent in years, mainly because I’m one of those spiritual-but-not-religious former Catholics who doesn’t realize that Easter is coming until it’s here. Even when I was a churchgoer, I never quite understood how depriving yourself of chocolate or video games made you a better person. This never became clear to me in Sunday school, or even at my Catholic high school and college. Wikipedia provides a better explanation than I ever found as a child: during Lent, you give up a vice that keeps you distant from God — or, as I see it, from evolving as a person. Giving up a vice makes a lot more sense to me than banishing the Nintendo Wii.
My mom has close to a hundred personal narratives sitting in dusty binders at home. I didn’t even know that she had even written them, over a decade ago for a friend sick with cancer, but one day I came across them and began reading. Every one resonated with an experience that I’d had and left me feeling inspired. I told my mom that she could publish these essays, because people deserved to read them.
“Ahh, no,” she said, dismissing the idea. “Those were just for John.” But as she sat there on the couch paging through binder after binder, I could tell that she was seeing the essays objectively for the first time, as if someone else had written them. And I think that she was stunned to realize, “These are good.”
As someone with perfectionist tendencies, I’ve often been bothered when things don’t go as I want them to. Whether there’s unexpected traffic slowing me down or I cut myself while chopping vegetables, it’s common for my heart to start beating faster as my irritation rises. If something goes awry, I tend to get flustered; if I make a mistake, I get exasperated with myself.
In the past few months, I’ve begun to take mishaps in stride, in large part because of a couple of silly, seemingly insignificant jokes between Darren and me. They’ve helped me laugh off any little annoyances before they escalate into frustration. I’d like to share them in case they’re helpful to you, too.
1. “Ohhh Noooo!”
Recently, things that used to upset me have become funny, because they give me the opportunity to use my favorite catch phrase. It’s from the Saturday Night Live parody of Dateline host Keith Morrison, who has a knack for dramatizing — and perhaps even taking pleasure in — the unpleasant events he is reporting. (See Bill Hader’s brilliant impression in the video above.)
Every time I realize that the house is a mess, or I stub my toe for the tenth time in a week, I smile ghoulishly with wide eyes and say, “Ohhh nooo….I’m horrrrified,” in the nasal voice of the impression. It started as a running joke between Darren and me, but I’ve realized how much it actually helps me diffuse tension. I’ve used it dozens of times, and it still makes me laugh.