I started sliding weeks ago, before our dog got sick and we had to put her to sleep. Losing her made me let go. No, losing her made me tell myself it was OK to let go and slide some more. To sink into a wallow of not trying, not being passionate, not caring much, and just getting by--not really a pit of despair so much as a comfy couch of meh. I lose focus and energy sometimes. This is especially true when I've worked hard for a time toward making significant changes in my life and behavior, when I have consistently toughed something out for a few months, but that first, fat rush of progress slows down. When the realization sinks in that change will no longer have dramatic effects, but is now the standard. When the work (easier now, granted) remains, but the heroics of fighting up that hill aren't there anymore. I just don't seem to have the hang of just living. I am either sinking deeper and deeper into my worst habits, with attendant ill effects on mental and physical health, or I am struggling mightily to get back up again. It's a tedious, frustrating cycle. A cycle I want to break.
Knowing that inspiration doesn't strike magically and mysteriously from the universe, but must be sought for, I tried to get out of the funk and find inspiration again. I flipped through books, started looking over my long-neglected Google Reader with its array of blogs and learned about a food blogger named Jennifer Perillo who lost her husband suddenly. A community of bloggers and readers poured out care, love, and concern. I felt deep sadness for Jennifer's loss, but couldn't help but ask myself why. Why did I feel so much for someone I did not know? I hadn't even read her blog before. Then, a few days ago, I learned through Facebook that a former colleague had died. A man I had liked very much, but not known well because we had little cause to spend much time together. I felt hideously voyeuristic when I went to his Facebook page and read the loving comments from close friends and family. Once again, I felt genuine grief and loss for someone I knew so little. One of the saddest things is to like someone but not have a chance to know them better because there isn't enough time.
I feel their loss because I can imagine what it would do to my life if I lost Mike or someone else close to me. It would leave a black hole that would distort all life around it--a void that would be almost unbearable. But like most people, I would force myself to keep going, to figure out a way to live with the void, and even eventually to learn to be happy again, even though early days would see me preferring to creep under the blankets and sleep my way to oblivion.
So what is this possibly morbid mulling over death about? Well, there's just plain sadness and grieving, but there's also the recognition that to overcome any emotional pain, whether it be the loss of a loved one or loss of passion and focus takes work. It takes going through the motions of doing what some part of you knows matters to you. It takes forcing yourself to think about what you care about and why. It takes remembering what you value.
And so, I am trying to remember what matters to me and why. Why do I care about food? Why do I care about art and literature and music? They connect me to humanity and life as little else can do. These are the things I return to again and again after losing my footing. (That's at least one definite good thing about me: I don't give up. I may fail a lot, but I always try again.) Sure food is good, and restaurants can be fun, glamorous, tantalizing. I enjoy watching great chefs do masterful things with ingredients and make edible works of art. But my care for these things is more fundamental than that. It's about connecting. It's bringing family and friends around a table to share in something together. It's passing along history and culture from past generations to future ones. It's linking your body and existence in a tangible way with the earth and the people who bring food into being. After weeks of slipping up and eating too many soulless meals in chain restaurants, I have to remind myself how much justice matters to me. How much it cuts me to the core when I eat foods that are produced by slaves, that are grown by poisoning the earth and abusing animals. Good arguments may be made for producing food in sustainable ways, but for me the reasons are all emotional. I love getting my food from the people who grew it. The large, heavyset farmer who handles his peaches like fragile kittens. The father that bickers in a comfortable, loving way with his son who can't seem to add up the total correctly. The pretty woman with brown hair and freckles who says eggs are her favorite food and sells me beautiful, tender greens. The cute young guy with a nose like a chisel and dirt under his nails who sells me flats of berries. These are the individuals who worked miracles, turning dirt into food and then worked more and slept less to get it to me.
Making food is a form of creativity--like all arts, it's an expression of the individual and the cultural context of that person. Ultimately, it's a way to communicate. That's why I love food and art and music and literature, because these are ways out of the isolation within our skin and minds, ways to cross the boundaries between us.
It's now 2:30 in the morning, I am tired and foggy. But I know what I have to do tomorrow: I have to think about what matters to me. I have to start work on a new painting. And I have to make food for my family that says that I love them.