“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on until you come to the end: then stop” – Alice in Wonderland
The beginning is always the hardest, is it not? To begin, to take that first step, that first breath of courage, that leap. For this whole week I have been unsure of how to start, unsure of where to begin. And then, just this morning, I discovered a lecture by Elizabeth Alexander (via On Being) and I realised perhaps I did know how to begin after all.
In her lecture, Elizabeth talks about her life of writing, and she says, “I realised that the larger questions are about staying the course, and the things that I learnt from writing a book from my inside out, are the things that seem most human and important. I write to perceive what I am living” (my emphasis). Writing to perceive what I am living is the whole point of these essays. A meditation each week on my life, on my living, in an attempt to understand and make sense of it.
I did not always need to try and make sense of things. Before (which refers to a time before depression and anxiety entered my life like a force 10 hurricane, largely the period leading up to 2015), my life, my sense of self, was defined by what I did. It was easy. First I was a pastry chef, then I was an academic in food studies. Everything I was interested in tied together splendidly, and I was happy and engaged. I had no work-life balance (or variation thereof), because I had no sense of self outside of this passion for food. Learning more about food was all that I was – whether it was reading about food history, talking to people about their food stories, thinking about things, or making food in the kitchen. I was what I ate (and thought and read)…
And then, quite suddenly, I was not. I could not get a job as an academic in food studies, which meant I had to get a job doing something else. I couldn’t pay my rent working in a cafe making cake so I went to work in an office, and then, quite unexpectedly, I had no sense of who I was or what I liked anymore. If I was not working in food, what was I doing? More importantly, if food was not my daily living, who was I?
It may sound trivial, but this question hounded my every waking moment. What was I doing with myself? Why was I living where I was? Why couldn’t I get a job doing what I loved? Why was I not good enough? These questions went around and around in my head, chasing each other in an endless black spiral. And down with them I went, into the darkness, an endless deep pit with no sides to climb out of. Pretty soon it was taking all my effort to get up in the morning, shower, and go into work. I cried in the bathroom stalls. On weekends I slept and slept and slept.
And then, finally, I went home. One of the things that working in an office bought me, which until then I had not realised I was missing, was financial freedom. Perhaps for the first time in my adult life I had enough money for holidays, and clothes, and activities. So we planned a trip home. A- had never been to South Africa before and we saved enough to do a whirlwind grand tour, visiting the places I grew up, places I loved, and (perhaps most importantly) spending time with my friends and family, all people from Before.
I have quite a large extended family, and we are close. My cousins and I grew up together and they are more like extended siblings, with shared childhood memories and weird parent relationships. Being at home, with them, that year the darkness rose and blackened my sky, brought an unexpected ray of light into the void. They did not care what I did for work, how I paid my bills, whether I was a work success or not. They loved me anyway, for all my faults and wrong words and lack of direction. It did not matter one jot that I had a random job, that I had only just submitted a journal article, that I was rejected from all the interviews for academic jobs I wanted. To them, I was far more than what I did for work. To them, I had worth simply in being me.
I had not realised that there might be more to life than the work I did. On that trip home, I had a glimmer of how I might find value in my life in a way that did not need to be defined by my work. Yes, I had to find something to do that would pay my bills, and give me some sense of satisfaction and achievement at the end of the day, but that did not need to define who I was in the inner core of my heart, of my self. Perhaps you already know this? To me, it was a revelation.
When I got back to England, in October of 2016, I sought professional help for depression and anxiety, and I embarked on (what I hope will be a life-long project) working out what I could do that would bring joy and meaning into my life… To start, I was going to learn to knit.
And that is where I will begin next week. Have a good Sunday. x