These days I feel like I’m in a competition with my old self: the one who is excited about interactive projects and possibilities, whereas my current self is obsessed with pressure cooking. I also swing between the mindsets of tomorrow may never come, and wanting to participate in the slowness of life.
There is also survivor’s guilt from knowing that tons of people are suffering while I am safe. I think this is part of the human condition, because from the beginning of our history our survival instincts had always inevitably caused others and ourselves to suffer, but that is another essay for another day.
This is my online journal though, a place where I consciously observe and document my ongoing feelings, so I want to try to express the mix of what I feel no matter how convoluted or ironic they may seem to be. Last week I had this thought that my online journal had somewhat failed its purpose. I only write when there’s some heavy topic disturbing me, or something that I deem meaty enough to write about. But I would like it to be more scrappy, more ongoing, more whole – something that can express the mundane, perhaps boring aspects of my life.
This year I have doing a lot less of what I used to do. For example, I used to read a lot, like 70-80 books a year, and my current count is in the 20s. My old self is filled with guilt, like I didn’t live hard enough because there’s only so many books I can read in my lifetime and I am “wasting” my reading opportunities away. There’s also a whole ton of plans for this website I am not acting upon. It makes me feel bad, until I remember and remind myself I am expanding in ways that I did not.
My old self, the self that has gotten me so many connections – both professional and personal – a self I still find it difficult to let go off because she had brought me so much, is a narrow self. I lived and breathed on the internet. I don’t think there is anything wrong with a narrow self should one chooses to be that way, we can think of artisans for example where they have to be narrow because of their craft. But for me, it wasn’t a conscious choice. I was that way because that was the only way I knew how to live and survive, a life where I grew up seeking comfort in books and digital interfaces. I had experienced the wonders of creating something when I first learned to built a website at 15, and that feeling made me believe I could never be interested in anything else.
So I didn’t have an offline life. When I wasn’t working I was on the internet. But I developed chronic eye pain, and it was actually surprising how lost I felt without the capacity to look at a screen or a book. Still I didn’t have anything I enjoyed doing without requiring the intense use of my eyes. I chose to watch TV whenever I had eye pain because it was less intense comparatively. It is still a screen though.
I think it was doing food delivery that first allowed me to spend hours outside without looking much at a screen (apart from the app itself). It was enlightening how liberated I felt freeing myself from the bondage of screens. I found myself developing a new sense of wonder just observing other neighbourhoods, the plants people grew, things people put in their doorways.
The pandemic hit, so I stopped delivering food. I was lost again and I went back to a screen-heavy life. I cycled daily to keep myself sane. Only recently I realised I have to cycle not so much for fitness, but rather the hour or two it makes me peel my eyes away from a screen. It acts like a circuit breaker, for the lack of a better phrase. It gives me just that bit of time for my natural thoughts to arise without the constant provocation of new information. It feels almost like a relief.
I begun getting sick again probably because of low grade covid depression – the existential feelings of not knowing when this may end and the inescapable sadness of witnessing chronic suffering – and also the sedentary claustrophobic lifestyle of the lockdown. It also didn’t help I kept compensating myself with ordering a lot of takeaways. Reluctantly, I started cooking…it is remarkably difficult to find a takeaway that does not spike my insulin levels, inexpensive, and non-greasy.
I found it tedious at first. I stopped, started, stopped, started. Like many other things, the tedium comes from inexperience. I tried too hard, did too much, so it just felt like endless prep work and washing (which some people may enjoy). Gradually I learnt that I enjoyed it the most when I kept everything simple and short.
This new self who is emerging, is unfamiliar to me. I feel anxious that I am not working on the things that I’ve always wanted to previously, but in a way I am making up for all the lost time in the last couple of decades when my entire life revolved around the internet.
What is interesting to me is, that cooking gives me a similar experience with my interactive experiments: the experience of being in conversation with something, adding and mixing it up until something results from it, and in that process it changes me a little bit. Except that with cooking I am not just moving my wrist ever so slightly to shift things on the screen, I am using my entire body, my senses, an intuition that involves a sense of timing, smell, taste, viscosity, colours, sizes, even sounds. I don’t follow recipes – guess I’m an experimentalist even with cooking, so I guesstimate and eyeball everything. I try to recreate tastes I remember, whether from childhood or from travels – it is profound how taste can be such a powerful memory –sometimes I combine them:
This is the literal version of dogfooding (a popular term in software). There were times I had to eat not so palatable experiments especially because I have no idea what are the basics of food science. My chef friends may frown at me (hi Margaret!). I learn a bit more as I go along, especially from my mistakes.
I spent the past few days learning about electric pressure cookers – is an instant pot worth the price, is the ability to cook low pressure important, etc. My old self is not happy, because she feels it is a waste of time. I guess I tend to label some activities as worthwhile and some others as not. This is not something I wish for myself, as I consciously pursue width and wholeness.
The thing about learning with new experiences, new dimensions, is that through learning we inevitably learn new things about ourselves. I learnt what type of cycling and cooking I liked: I tend to like doing things just a little bit above the average and hover around there. So I am happy cycling with a relatively inexpensive road bike at the park yet I have no desire to venture on the road, and I am happy experimenting with various cooking techniques but I am not doing precision cooking. I think we tend to sucked in by the mass perception that we have to keep getting better at everything we do, sometimes it is important to know what we ourselves prefer to be doing. As long as we enjoy the process and it makes us come alive, does it really matter that it is not “good”, whatever good means?
I’ve seen people I know give up small inner nudges to pick up hobbies or new crafts because they have this belief they can’t be good enough. I think this cultural conditioning deprives people of feeling tiny joys they should be entitled to have. Look at kids when they make art, they don’t stop to consider if the art they make is good enough, they just enjoy making it. Why do we have to give this up adults?
I learnt that I can be capable of liking new dimensions in my life, that my self is ever evolving, that I shouldn’t be too quick to shut myself down, to be a nurturing parent to myself instead of a cynical one. It took me a really long time, but I feel like it has only been recent that I have allowed myself to enjoy things just because, for no rhyme or reason. They don’t have to add up to some grand purpose, just bits and pieces of me waiting to be discovered and known.
Many times the past few years I’ve had this feeling I’m like a baby learning to crawl again. To learn to discern what is something I truly want to do versus something I am conditioned to believe it is good for me to do. Things I actually like doing rather than to fulfil some romantic image I had of myself.
I’m not sure if I am good at telling the difference yet, but I know what I would like most is to truly experience living, to experience both the width and depth of life, rather than to accept what is perceived by society to be what is worthwhile and what is not.
Is it possible to live in a way that I myself find worthwhile living and be thriving, even if the price to pay is social alienation?