So who am I these days? Or rather, what do I eat these days? Well to begin, I can’t stop eating pumpkin: baked in the oven, boiled in a soup, mashed like potatoes, cooked down with shredded coconut, cubed and stir-fried. Last year the excessive rain destroyed much of the pumpkin harvest; this year the round squash seems to be rolling down the roads. My other go-to vegetables are okra, kale, carrots, cucumbers, and sweet potato leaves (which have a spinach-like consistency). An affordable new butcher shop has allowed me to pair my vegetables with some sort of meat for each meal – ground beef, chicken, beef pieces, chicken hearts, or beef liver – to provide a source of protein and fat. I buy beef bones to simmer over night and drink bone broth (gelatin is great for the gut). I ferment my own sauerkraut and Kombucha to give myself some probiotics. No more peanut butter. No more yogurt. No more grains. No more eggs (temporarily). Fruits only in a half-cup serving. Oddly enough, aside from the IBS symptoms, my energy levels and the general feeling of strength in my body are higher than they have been since arriving in Mozambique. Animal protein makes a noticeable difference. As I sit here listing the items I do and do not eat, quantifying my existence based on food consumption, reflecting on the various sources I trust for information (marksdailyapple.com, robbwolf.com, gutsybynature.com, etc.), I feel a bit of the thrill of puzzle solving, of different pieces fitting together. I’ve always been weirdly interested in health and nutrition, but I’ve hit a whole new level here folks. (Shit, even my writing has adopted some of the colloquial habits of health-bloggers, “folks”).
So when my mom recently asked the loaded and wholly uncalled for question, “Hey James, what are you thinking about doing when you come home?” a new thought surfaced. What if I studied nutrition or functional medicine? And that new thought has spawned the identity crisis in which I currently find myself. I have a Bachelor’s Degree in English and Spanish literature. Writing and/or translation have always been at the forefront of my career thoughts. Hell, I took the two easiest science classes I could find during college so I could focus on the humanities. Even today, while planning lessons for my English students, I experience the same rush of puzzle solving when I consider the best way to present the material. How do I combat over-sized classes (125 students in each of my six classes this year; I have to step over their legs on the floor to write on the chalkboard in some rooms), no books, no paper handouts, and short face-time with students in order to help my students learn? I like the challenge. I like the limitless challenges and creativity of writing. And suddenly, I feel the same way about preparing food. Heck, maybe I should just become a chef. The issue boils down to two passions: health and writing. Do I hone in on my passion for health via my career? Or do I pursue writing and be healthy on the side? The frightening kernel in the dilemma is that the healthy option seems easier. It comes naturally. Which makes me wonder whether it might be an escape ladder from an uncertain career in writing. Asserting, “I want to be a writer” is a bit like preparing to jump from a pier so high that the mist obscures the waves below. My tummy still aches too much to consider swimming.
Living in Mozambique for 18 months now has shifted my perspective on the issue as well. My experience here has altered my perception of what it means to lead a meaningful life. That’s what we’re all after, anyway. The essential question to ask anyone is, “What gives you value? Where do you find meaning” (Can you tell I have a minor in religious studies as well? Maybe I’ll just become a cook for a Buddhist monastery). Pre-Peace Corps, the concept of a meaningful life translated into accumulating as many experiences of the world as possible and contributing to the legacy of humanity via some lasting form service or of art. I wanted to help people and I wanted to create art and I wanted people to know that I helped people and created art. The thought of participating in ordinary American society and raising a family seemed dull and lifeless – anyone can do that. However, the longer I have spent away from my family and from American society, the more appealing that lifestyle has become. A poem I read this week contained the following lines:
Imagine finding you look at the world
completely different upon waking one day.
You do not know if this is permanent.
Anything can change, after all,
for how else would you find yourself
in this predicament or this opportunity,
depending on the frame? A single thought
can make loneliness seem frighteningly new.
We destroy the paths of rivers to make room for the sea.
(from “Meditation for the Silence of Morning,” by Adam Clay)
I did not wake one morning with a new perspective; I woke one morning and realized that the form of my perspective has eroded into something new. Loneliness sanded away some of my rougher edges. A job predicated on service taught me the value of selfishness (there is a time and a place for both). Losing the one person I’ve ever fully loved acted like chisel to reach a deeper emptiness, to dig for who I am when I stand alone. And five months of infectious IBS has begun to uncover new veins in the rock, new pathways in the marble. Greek and Roman sculptors were fascinated by the forms of the human body; they dedicated their lives to replicating it in stone. To be fully human in the physical sense – via what I eat, how I move, with whom I interact – to sculpt my own physicality and concomitant mentality, seems perfectly meaningful to me now. So pour me a cup of bone broth and hand me a pull-up bar.
These thoughts live latent inside me, but only via writing do I discover them. I begin with the sea and carve the paths of rivers, thoughts that must be charted to their source. I’ve said before (and I think I plagiarized this), “I hate writing, but I love having written.” I really do hate writing. It stresses me out. My shoulders and chest tighten up. I can feel my gut squirming; stress is a potent source of inflammation in the body. In response to the stressor that this text represents, my body has released cortisol. But it does that when I exercise too. Writing is like an intense exercise session, after which the body can settle into itself. We are our hormonal profile. When I finish, writing or working out alike, my mind settles like muddy water. Writing is a sieve in a dirty pond – the action is turbulent, but the result is clarity.
This much has become clear: I need to dedicate myself to both writing and wellness. The means has yet to reveal itself. I think this stream circled right back around to the sea.