I have a few distinctive tells when things aren’t going so well. One of them is that I clean everything so thoroughly even the baseboards behind the bookshelves shine. And though I have a tendency to forget the tops of doorframes because they’re far too high for me to reach and generally out of my range of sight, everything else is fair game. The windows are scrubbed, every corner gutted of dust and grime, even the insides of drawers emptied out and neatly rearranged. You might think this is a constructive habit – that at least if my inner self is in turmoil, my outer world is dazzling – and I can emerge from these periods of anxiety and overwork into a clean and ordered home.
But it doesn’t feel quite healthy. It takes a long time to clean so thoroughly, and everything I haven’t touched feels like the fuzzled spots of green mold on an orange rind, and the orange rind lines the inside of my skin. I can’t just tidy up here and there and call it a day. I have to scrub the apartment from corner to corner. I have to throw the whole molding orange away.
And I’m not the only one who suffers. One of the stranger tics of this obsessive cleaning is that I can’t water the plants until the whole apartment is clean. Somehow, if I’m suffering, I feel the plants must suffer too.
My other, maybe more telling tell, is that I don’t cook.
I guess the end of November, early December is a convenient time to decide not to want to cook. The Christmas markets are springing up all over the city, and for the price of just a few frozen toes, you can gorge yourself on crackle-skinned pork sandwiches and bratwurst split open over licking flames. And then there’s the ever-present Glühwein, hot and sweet, coating every surface in a layer of stick as if an overeager toddler has christened the world with jam-purpled fingers.
But this not-cooking throws off my sense of balance. And when I don’t cook, I don’t write, and then I really don’t know where my anchors are.
These have been difficult weeks. It’s not just the work – there’s always the work – even though it really does seem like there’s an extra awful lot of that these days. But it’s the politics, it’s the social engagements, it’s the extracurricular commitments, it’s everybody else’s holiday panic – and for me, especially, maybe more than any of the rest of it, it’s the missing person.
A few days – maybe by now it’s been weeks – ago, David moved to Tel Aviv for a postdoc position. It’s an exciting opportunity, that phrase feeling like marketing speak marbles for “this really sucks.” And of course, objectively, it makes a lot of sense, we can count the pros and cons like an eternal game of duck-duck-goose. Pro, pro, pro, pro, pro, con. And then we’re running around the circle until we’re panting, and after we catch our breath we start tapping heads all over again.
Because subjectively, for both of us, it’s really just the worst. And I find myself not entirely sure how to process this change. When people ask me how I’m doing, I’m at times flippant, full of humor, at others despondent, brave, optimistic – but always there’s an undercurrent of panic that scrapes away whatever veneer happens to fall out of the hat that day.
Part of me hopes that this busy rush of obligations will keep me so preoccupied that I’ll wake up one morning with a bushel of free time on my hands and a well-adjusted deportment to my new normal. Most of me knows that’s a silly wish to have.
So I walk this fine line, thin as a wisp of floss, between letting myself wallow and pulling myself into productivity by the teeth. I don’t make myself cook, but I read cookbooks. I don’t force my 6:50 a.m. alarm, but I keep it set. I write a to-do list, but I don’t feel guilt for not getting it done. And I clean.
The good thing about this process is that I know how it ends. In fact, if I’m writing this, it means whatever crust I’ve baked myself into is crumbling – or at least, it’s cracked. And if I get to pick the crust, which I do, because this is my visualization, I choose a flaky, buttery galette crust that doesn’t crumble so much as melt. And while I’m at it, why not nestle my head on a soft roast sweet potato pillow crusted with herbed panko and parmesan? And that way, while I’m still in this emotional space, at least I won’t go hungry.
What I’m really hoping for, once I’ve wrangled – or eaten – or spit-shined – my way out of this state is honesty, clarity, and peace: The honesty to feel without feeling the need to neatly tie it all up in a bow, the clarity to see every small moment of goodness in detail, and the peace to be where I am when I’m there.
And I know that sounds like just another trite holiday toast to toss off over the Christmas buffet, but I mean it. And so I lick my Glühwein-sticky fingers. I raise my glass and wish those things for you, too.
A note on the images: These are some of the things that have kept me sane these last few weeks. Stunning sunrises and sunsets unspooling outside my big bedroom windows; dogs, both real and imagined; tiny morsels of delicious food eaten on the street and washed down with cheap black coffee from a plastic cup; the echoing hidden halls of a church (in Sofia, Bulgaria); the beginning of a new cookbook and the end of Thanksgiving leftovers; and the alien play of light from the TV Tower shining through an early-morning fog.