About eight months ago, something happened that is so uncommon for me as to make it truly remarkable: I didn't want to eat.
I didn't want to because eating, or more precisely, digestion, caused excruciating pain and some other very unpleasant results. I remember looking at a salad someone at work had brought for lunch and thinking "Aw helllll no!", and starting in on my saltines. My business casual clothes started hanging off of me, but I couldn't enjoy the rapid weight loss because I was scurrying to bathroom every ten minutes like clockwork, doubled over.
I didn't know it at the time, but I was in the throes of what was eventually diagnosed as ulcerative colitis, which is when your colon freaks out for reasons that are not entirely clear to medical science. Another thing that is pretty clear in hindsight but which seemed to escape me at the time, was that I was acutely miserable, and not just because of the problems with the ole' poopshoot.
I was going through what you might call a Bad Time. I was working at a disheartening job, after a bout of unemployment, after having been un-hired in a somewhat unclassy way from a job I'd been working at for five months as a temp-to-hire (minus, apparently, the -to-hire part.) On top of that, each parent, my father one month and my mother the next, had to undergo major operations for life-threatening diseases. Louise, the cat I'd taken in during college and then adopted out to my aunt in order to give her a better life, passed on. On top of that, one day I came home to my apartment and as I opened the door the entire dropped ceiling collapsed. And on top of that, or perhaps because of all that, I had the mysterious gut-pain and concurrent frightening bowel movements, and an insurance plan that was chosen based on the gamble that I would not, in fact, ever get sick.
Things are better now, although I don't feel completely over it. Lo, though I walked through the valley of the shadow of death, and made it to the other side, the memory is still very sharp. But that, in a way, is why I'm here.
Later, a wise friend of mine would remark on the symbolism of having developed a problem in my gut. Literally and figuratively, I was having a hard time digesting everything. I think it was my body telling me that something was very not right, in a way that I couldn't ignore or stuff down or push past like the trooper I am. The tummy trouble is caused by my immune system attacking - responding to the threat of enemies, only there's nothing there but me. I have come to think of it as a very effective early warning system. For me there is still a direct correlation between stressors and gastrointestinal shenanigans, and there may always be. But, as I explained to my mom, in a way this is good because often when my worries get carried away and I get too wound up on the cares of the day, my body gives me what feels like a swift punch in the stomach, and it is often (sometimes) enough to make me stop. Give myself a time out, take my temperature, take a breather, take a nap.
I think of the recent unpleasantness as a turning point for me. It forced me to step back and take a good hard look at myself. What was I enduring all that misery for? A job I didn't like? A world that had become very small and very scary? A life that was so much less than I had the one I had imagined, back when I had let myself imagine anything at all.
One day, when I was balled up on the couch crying, I had enough sense to ask my friend Jo to come over to keep me company. (It's true what they say, that when adversity strikes, you find out who your friends are.) She gently suggested that perhaps now might be a time to look into seeing a counselor. And I did. One thing I am proud of about myself is that even when the world was very very dark and it felt like my back was totally against the wall, I didn't give up on the belief that things could improve. I took my shell-shocked, hopeless, depressed little self to a social worker, in the hope that she could point me to something - ideas, strategies, pharmaceuticals, whatever - that would help life be better. And, slowly, it was. It is.
I have proclaimed this year to be a year of rest and, although I sometimes cringe at the word, healing. I will nurture the fragile broken-winged bird back to life. I have decided that the events of the past are ones that I will use to make me into an awesomer person. I'm still working on exactly how, but well, for starters there's:
-learning your own inner strength, which C---- and I agree is a pretty anti-climactic consolation prize, one that we would give up freely given the choice between that and a life free of pain, suffering and loss. But there you go.
-for another thing, having more compassion for people who are going through a hard time. (And at the same time, oddly, as I have observed with others before, less compassion. "Oh, earthquake victims experiencing some of the most devastating devastation ever? That sucks. Too bad my heart is too stone cold to feel anything more than a passing twinge of regret at this." I will work on this. Eventually.)
-finding out that there are people in your life who completely and totally have your back
- Seething anger with the healthcare and health insurance industries in America.
So anyway, like I said I'm still working on the specifics as to how my hardships will be transformed into a heartwarming and inspirational tale of survival and redemption. Readers are encouraged to write in with suggestions.
But what does any of this have to do with hunger?
Well, for one, I am pleased to report that I get hungry again. Physical hunger, yet another thing to file under the category of "Don't Know What You've Got 'Til it's Gone." (I must also differentiate between hunger and what I felt while undergoing steroid treatment for the colitis. In addition to a chemically induced wit and a remarkable joie de vivre, the steroids made me feel kind of like I was a giant piece of briskly-moving machinery used to clear-cut the rainforest, except that the rainforest was bags of carbs.)
Back when I spent a third of every hour on the toilet clutching myself and groaning, I went through a phase of elaborate bargaining with God or Allah or Jim Henson Creator of All that is Seen and Unseen, or whomEVER, I wasn't in a position to be choosy. I swore that if I lived to eat without pain once again I would do a better job. I would eat real food and go to farmer's markets and make sauces that need to simmer for three days, and stop eating cheese that comes in squeezable form from a foil packet. (I have somewhat made good on this promise, in the sense that I now watch a lot of Food Network while eating squeezable cheeses.)
But the point is, I never knew what a gift it was to be hungry until I wasn't, the same way that it's just not possible to understand what it means to be grateful for your health until you've been sick. There was a tipping point to my illness - and I remember it distinctly, I was balled up on Jo's front stoop on a summer evening unable to enjoy a cocktail - when I realized that I was no longer living. And that is something you don't fuck around with. Jo walked me to the ER that very evening: the first step in a long, infuriating, humiliating, expensive journey toward living again.
Paying hundreds of dollars for medications, having a laproscopic camera shoved up your butt, racking up a five-digit medical bill, crying and pleading with the non-native English speakers answering your insurance company's customer service number, blimping up like a Thanksgiving Day float from corticosteroids, filling a days-of-the-week pill box that's bigger than your Grandpa's was: it makes you think. It makes you think, wow, it is unconscionable that insurance executives are filling their swimming pools with the profits off of my human suffering.
But it also makes you think, what exactly am I fighting for here? A low-paying job that makes me crazy? The chance to come home exhausted and stare numbly at the TV? Two weeks a year plus weekends of reprieve from the drudgery? If you've been wishing there was a pill you could take that would help you get your career choices in perspective, I'm here to tell you, there is and it's called OsmoPrep.
I quit the job. I decided life's too short and suffering is too much of a certainty to voluntarily bang my head against a wall repeatedly for what has been called, to quote from a brilliant film, minor duckets.
Of course, then you are left with the daunting task of discovering what it is, if the rat race is so all-fired unbearable, you really want to do. Which brings me back to hunger. This time I'm not talking about physical hunger, although one might still feel this hunger in the body. Call it desire, longing, yearning, whatever. I think I've had this hunger since I was what, eleven? It's big, amorphous, unspecific. It's probably the kind of thing that gets easily channeled into materialism, the idea that with this next sofa, this next pair of boots or teeth-whiteners I'll finally have It, whatever It is. It's a hunger which for many years I thought would be sated by having a boyfriend who adores me, but in fact I've had a great one for a year so far and...I'm still hungry. Now I think that when I move to a nicer apartment, get a car or a dog, maybe then I'll have everything I want. I imagine hunger like this is what makes people want to be celebrities, get rich quick, star in reality shows.
It's an uncomfortable feeling, in a way. Often I'm able to make enough noise in my head, or become so flummoxed by problems and distractions, that I forget it's even there. But at times when I get halfway clear in my mind, there it is again, and it seems it's never stopped, like a whining or a dull roar, a convection current. Not like a calling or a whisper or anything so articulate. It's just like...an engine rumbling. And it wants something. But what?
I have arrived at the theory that this hunger is not, in fact, bad. Not something to be run from or squashed or stuffed full of high-fructose snacks. Perhaps this hunger, this longing or wanting or what have you, is the feeling of being alive. It's what leads us to desire and seek and move forward in life. Move toward, hopefully, more than away from. It makes me think of the Wupatki Pueblo blowhole. It's this hole, right, naturally occuring in the ground, which for vaguely mysterious geologic reasons, is always blowing a refreshing stream of air up from deep within the earth. I understand the Pueblos ascribed great spiritual significance to it. So - the desire is the rushing air, right, and the idea is not to dig down to find its origin, or try to follow it up to where it dissipates, but just to stand above it and be like, "My, this is rather exhilarating, isn't it." It doesn't lead to anywhere specific. Its source is too deep to fathom. It's just like, there. But not ignorable. Worthy of wonder and symbolizing great cosmic mysteries.
That sort of gets at what I'm getting at. But it will never be gotten at fully, because if it were completely wrapped up tight and understood, what point would there be to keep writing, keep reading, keep waking up in the morning to find out what crazy kooky thing will happen next? Some people might call it a spiritual calling, or the God-shaped hole in the heart, or the creative urge, or the life force, or whatever. And that's cool. It's probably all of those things. I think I'm most comfortable calling it a hunger for meaning, and maybe some other stuff too.
One place to which I have followed this inexplicable hunger is the Celebrant Institute, where I'm learning how to plan and officiate at non-denominational wedding ceremonies. The wedding part was kind of an odd choice for me because generally I'm not like, huge on the whole idea of marriage. It seems like nowadays when fifty per cent of the population is divorced and people get married three and four and seven times, how much does a wedding really mean? This was something I really struggled with, until I had an epiphany: I don't really need to know! I'm going to be an officiant, not some kind of all-knowing marriage guru. Rather than coming to couples as if I have all the answers, I can let them teach me a thing or two about what love means, how it looks, from whence within the majesty of the human heart it comes.
So those two things, in a nutshell, is where the idea for this blog comes from. I want to talk about the impulse to do, well, anything really - the hunger. And I want to record what I learn about this thing we call love, four short letters that belie its breadth and depth and all around bigness. So there you have it: hunger, and love. Love and hunger.