The innocent mistake that keeps us caught in our own particular style of ignorance, unkindness, and shut-downness is that we are never encouraged to see clearly what is, with gentleness. Instead, there’s a kind of basic misunderstanding that we should try to be better than we already are, that we should try to improve ourselves, that we should try to get away from painful things, and that if we could just learn how to get away from the painful things, then we would be happy. –From Pema Chödrön’s The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness
I never understood this inclination or desire to flee from darkness, to live anesthetized through your waking life. I once knew a woman who proudly told me that she never consumes anything that makes her upset or cry. Instead she paints herself a world of pink and tulle, and lives in her kingdom where nobody dies and everyone sings pop songs. This is a world where the whole of one’s life is reconciled in a neat 30-minute television episode. Another woman tells me, in passing, that she can’t bear to know what’s going on in the world. How do you do it, she asks, read those articles every day? The rapes, mutilations, pillaging and murders–all of it is too much for her to manage. So instead she reads enough for casual conversation, enough to appear informed, and I tell her, without hesitation that this is actually worse. Hitchcock once talked about fear being afraid of the jump instead of the actual jump. You walk into a room, slide up against a wall and the moment before the lights flick on is the worst of it. It’s the anticipation of the fright that makes the fear scarier than it actually is. Because the lights go on, it never is as scary as you imagined it would be. So imagine living your whole life right before the jump, skirting the edges of doom instead of breathing through it. The fear of reading past the headline, of seeing that horrific image–this is the constant state of anxiety because you’re not equipped to process and understand darkness. And how, I wonder, can you ever make it out onto the other side? To true and breathtaking light?
If people exist simply to shuttle themselves from one happy moment to another careful television show to another sweet song, what is it that they’re escaping? For me, this seems like a sort of prison, a like life. Objects in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are. Perhaps because I’ve spent most of my life holed up darkness, building a home it, harvesting a garden in it–I don’t fear it as much. You could say I’m comfortable in it–I write mostly from inside of it or from the memory of it. However, I see the danger in this extreme, too. A home you so assiduously built burns to the ground as you flick a lighter (on, off, on, off) and get lost in the flame. Your thumb burns from the friction of hot metal. Limbs buried deep, painful memories locked six floors down, have no other place to sprout and grow but up, up, and around you. Until you’re tangled in it. Until you become smothered by it. Until you think the fall is bottomless, and your breath is what gives it away.
When I was younger I used to write stories where everybody dies because I thought that was the natural order of things. A man kisses her wife goodnight and he dies. A woman drives in the night and dies. A child lays her head down on the earth because she thinks it has a heart that can beat, and when she hears no sound, no thump thump, she becomes absorbed from the place from which she came. I wrote stories about people dying because everyone does, and this was the mark of my own imprisonment. Where my body was a house was an abattoir, and there was no room for life or light. I used to think that a life lived was one where one mastered the art of breathing underwater. Instead, imagine this:
“Then the children went to bed, or at least went upstairs, and the men joined the women for a cigarette on the porch, absently picking ticks engorged like grapes off the sleeping dogs. And when the men kissed the women goodnight, and their weekend whiskers scratched the women’s cheeks, the women did not think shave, they thought stay.” ― Amy Hempel, “Weekend”
Imagine seeing the world, the moment, as it happens. Imagine a life without the need to perfect every waking moment of it, without having to build ourselves into fortresses of our own discontent, denial and ignorance. We are human, infallible and flawed. We will oscillate wildly–from dark to light and back again–and the wisdom comes from balance, from understanding that equilibrium exists in the space between light and dark, that nothing good comes from being tethered to one extreme or another. Joy doesn’t come from something wrapped in a box or a denim size or letters after an altered name–it comes from a scratch on a cheek, it comes from the person, friend, beloved who stays.
That is the moment. Everything else is just background noise.
INGREDIENTS: Recipe from Hemsley & Hemsley’s The Art of Eating Well, with modifications.
3 ripe bananas
1/4 cup coconut oil, at room temperature
3-4 tbsp maple syrup
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 large eggs, room temperature
½ tsp baking soda
1 3/4 cups (7oz) ground almonds
1/4 cup tigernut flour (If you don’t have this, use another 1/4 cup of almond meal)
1/4 ground flaxseed
1 tbsp whole flax, for sprinkling
Over the years, I’m realizing that I’ve fallen out of love with the saccharine sweet taste of the old banana breads packed with buckets of sugar and butter. But I’m also fleeing the rough brick-like texture of the whole wheat varieties. So here’s my balance. A loaf that’s got some sugar in the form of maple syrup, virtuosity in terms of the flax and nut bread, but flavor and fat because…nuts.
Preheat the oven to 325F. Line a loaf tin measuring about 9in x 5¼ in with enough baking parchment to double as a wrap for storing the banana bread (if it lasts).
Mash the bananas and coconut oil in a mixing bowl to a pulp with a fork. Add the maple syrup, cinnamon, vanilla, eggs, baking soda, and a small pinch of salt. Mix well with a fork.
Add the ground almonds and ground flaxseed and mix well. Or, even speedier, you can throw all the ingredients into a blender or food processor and blitz together.
Pour the mixture into the prepared tin, sprinkle with the whole flax and bake for 1–1¼ hours. It’s ready when a skewer inserted at the centre comes out dry. If your bread starts to look quite brown after the first 30 minutes, then cover the top with baking parchment until it has finished baking.
Remove from the oven and leave to cool a little. Serve warm or at room temperature with some lightly salted butter, jam (I absolutely recommend jam for those who have a sweeter tooth as this isn’t the banana bread loaded with sugar and butter of which you’re probably accustomed) and a cup of tea. Store the bread, covered, in the fridge (remember there is no sugar or preservatives) for up to a week or slice and freeze (that way you can enjoy a slice at a time reheated under the grill).