The Poetry of Life

You Gotta Lose Yourself

“I can hardly recognize myself,” I thought this afternoon as I lay listless on my bed. I had no drive; nothing could light a spark inside of me. My face felt like heavy plaster hardened in non-expression. This wasn’t the first time this had happened to me. It’s a scary happening, losing oneself, but luckily it’s happened to me enough times that today I’m confident I can find myself once again. What causes oneself to go missing? Sometimes it’s an unhealthy romantic relationship. This, I believe, is the most common case. You may have noticed it in one of your friends. You’re sitting with her at dinner, and you’re talking, but you can’t seem to touch the core of the person who is your friend. Her humor is gone. Her preferences and beliefs are often altered. You can’t get out of her what you know is the truth, and her thoughts are clearly occupied with something else. She’s “a goner”. And most of time the person who is lost isn’t even aware of it until much later. Other things can cause yourself to slip away on you. Being in any new social or psychological situation in which you feel you must become someone else in order to achieve the results you want can cause you to temporarily lose yourself. The more times it happens to you, though, the more confidence you develop in the person who is really you, the person to which you can always return if you only stop and analyze the situation. This time I’ve lost myself in Marburg. They say it’s impossible to do, with Marburg being so small and all, but I’ve done it. I had anticipated this Germany experience for more than a year and had over idealized the wonderful kind of life I would lead here. I would speak fluent German, have lots of German friends, cook wonderful dishes on a pauper’s budget, eat ice cream in the park and be carefree, and submit meaningful research to prestigious scholarly journals. It would be the time in which I would do everything right. Because living in such a wonderful country and interacting with the local people, whose lifestyles are so clearly superior to my own, how could I not just become superbly cool? Well, it didn’t happen that way (never mind that I’ve only been here for four weeks!). I felt like I was failing in all areas of my life. I needed to be someone else and fast! And that’s how I lost myself. That’s why for the last four weeks I’ve been on a steepening slope of shame and have been working hard to try to hide it from everyone else. But now that I’ve realized it, I’m ready to come back empty-handed to my former self. I’m sure she couldn’t be happier to see me. What do you do when you’ve lost yourself? You mustn’t set out backpacking across Europe to “find yourself”. Those who have may know, you can easily do shots with complete strangers in every major European city without having any revelations about yourself. No, it takes a bit of introspection and analysis of your current situation. To find myself again, I quietly ask myself the following questions (which are based on Charlotte Kasl’s Traits of Differentiation) :
1) Are you being honest about the way you feel and about what you want in all of your relationships? Or have you been suppressing something in order to please someone?
2) Are you emotionally independent? Or have you become emotionally entangled in someone else’s problem? Do you feel responsible for something that is not your responsibility?
3) Do you know that your value is a given? Or have you linked your self-worth to certain achievements or goals (e.g. speaking fluent German, making tasty bok choy)?
4) Have you been trusting your internal wisdom? Or have you taken on the beliefs or trusted the judgement of some institution or person instead of your own?
5) Are you able to see different people, lifestyles, and beliefs without putting them down or envying them? Or are you trying to imitate something (e.g. the European lifestyle) because you see it as better than what you already have? Are you being judgmental of others because they make you feel insecure?
6) Are you able to recognize seduction, control, and manipulation by others and respond to it appropriately? Or do you trust blindly and hide behind “phony innocence”? Are you letting yourself be manipulated (and therefore your integrity be compromised) in order to keep some reward in your life?
7) Are you able to self-reflect and recognize the ways in which your actions have contributed to your current situation? Or are you blaming your unhappiness on outside circumstances?
8) Are you humble enough to ask others for help when you need it? Or do you think that you should be above human fallibility and the need for outside advice?
9) Do you give freely and easily? Or are you giving to receive something else in return, to feel needed, or to carry out a hidden agenda?
10) Are you able to get to know the people around you for who they are without categorizing them? Or do you create expectations for or preconceived beliefs about those people?

These questions are tough, but I feel that they really cut to the heart of the problem. They’re currently helping me to get back my old self. Losing yourself is one of the most formative things you could ever do. The process of finding yourself again is what cultivates integrity, the ability to be at peace with yourself and your decisions. As Charlotte Kasl puts it, “When we are able to take refuge in ourselves we can merge without fear because we feel whole no matter where we are.” Right now I’m on the other side of the world from everything I know to be normal, but fortunately to find myself I need not look far.

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Food

My six weeks of flavor

I’ve been in Marburg for three weeks now, and I’m finally getting tired of eating out at the same greasy döner kebab stands, watered-down Indian restaurants, and fruit-fly infested bakeries. What, that doesn’t sound appealing? Actually, it was for a while. The time has come and the wallet alerts me that it’s time to start cooking. Cooking is something that is always hard for me to wrap my mind around. To do it right, you need quite a few spices and oils on hand, plus you need to plan ahead to know when you’re going to buy which vegetables so that they don’t rot in your fridge and so on. This amount of forethought is what usually discourages me from cooking in short-term situations, which could be anything up to 3 months. : ) But no matter how many times I have to re-purchase olive and sesame oils, I now believe, given the garbage alternative, that it is worth my effort to cook. This time I’ve decided to actually put in the preparation necessary to have 2-3 balanced homemade meals every day. The result is a table on Microsoft Word saying what I will eat when and when I need to buy which groceries in my 3-times-per-week grocery runs. Choosing what to cook is always a pain as well. Unless you want to take the whole grocery store home, you had better stick with 1-2 sources of protein per week and a maximum of 3 principle vegetables. This week is shrimp and eggs with baby bok choy, kale, and garlic (no dish with them all together, thankfully). If at the end (or maybe even half-way through) the week I discover that this is a financial/practical disaster, I shall abandon the plan and continue to eat street crap. If, however, it works out flavorfully for around 50 Euro a week, I will keep up the challenge for five more weeks, in which I will cook chicken, beef, pork, lamb, fish, scallops, crab, mussels, and oysters plus a ton of assorted vegetables. Each grocery store trip and recipe will be an adventure, but I’d like to think that the flavor along the way will do me some good.

Self-discipline

German, my new religion

Let’s not lie to ourselves. It’s hard to learn a language. No matter how many Rosetta Stone levels you download illegally, no matter how many foreign films you try to absorb while reading the subtitles, you cannot just pick up a language. I speak Spanish fluently and am not so bad at Portuguese, so I’ve been told many times over the past few years that I have a gift with languages, that I can pick them up so easily. Maybe that’s true to a certain extent. But I don’t buy that any more. Now when people ask me how I speak Spanish so well, I no longer shrug as if some language angel has come and touched me on the shoulder. I tell them the truth. I’ve been learning Spanish for ten years. I had better speak it well! And during those years I wasn’t just staring at the books on my shelf or occasionally visiting the local Mexican restaurant (although great queso dip!) with hopes of someday knowing it. It took hours of tedious study. But more than that, it took thousands and thousands of really embarrassing situations. And it took a perfectionism that drove me to never stop listening to the language’s nuances. It took a lot of effort, patience, and courage. Why, then, did I think that learning German would be any easier? It’s not even a Romance language. I mean, if you’re in a pinch, you can throw in a French word and if you’re really lucky, it will be one that German has borrowed. Saying English words with a German accent is utterly fruitless (although we all still try it!). So why did I think I could just let German “happen to me”? If you haven’t guessed already, I’ll tell you: It’s not “happening”. In nearly every sentence I speak, there is a key word for which I do not know the translation. Extremely frustrating. But I just keep going to class expecting it to hit me one day. “What am I doing wrong?” I think. I’m not doing the three things I mentioned that are essential for learning a language: 1) a ridiculous amount of self-study of grammar and vocabulary, 2) putting oneself in as many over-ones-head conversations as possible, and 3) active listening, which involves full attention to pronunciation and syntax details and a willingness to retain and later look up the meaning of new words. This evening I was blessed with an over-my-head conversation. A guy from Yemen, who lives on my floor, sat down to have tea with me and spoke with me in German about our goals, our tastes in food, our understandings of religion, etc. His German was much better that mine, so he corrected me a lot, and it was so helpful! What is the best thing to do when you’re grunting senseless pieces of forgotten vocabulary to a native/proficient German speaker? Be humble, smile, and say, “danke” when corrected. You have to do it now. You’ll have to do it ten years from now. You earn a language over time and never fully. Sometimes I think a language requires even more devotion than a religion does. But on the bright side you see your progress much more quickly. : )

Food

Indian Food Snobbery

“Snobbery is a global phenomenon,” according to Alain de Botton. I agree. I’ve noticed over the past few years that one new acceptable form of snobbery is food snobbery. The plain, old meat and potatoes–these are snubbed by food snobs. This remains true until you throw in an interesting twist, maybe add some arugula or goat cheese to that meat and potatoes. Now we’re talking class. The easiest way to make a dish acceptable to your food snob friends (and we all surely have them!), though, is to add an “ethnic” twist. Chicken wings may sound a bit ordinary, but turn them into Thai chicken wings, and you suddenly have an impressive dish. Over the past few months I have fallen into the trap of food snobbery myself, namely with Indian food. You may ask, how can I be an Indian food snob if all I ever order is chicken Tikka Masala? Well, it’s because I’m that much of a food snob that I feel the need to compare different restaurants’ dishes. And using the scientific method, I must control for the type of dish, right? So chicken Tikka Masala it is. It wouldn’t be fair to my research to order anything else. The results, however, have been depressing. My favorite chicken Tikka Masala dish so far was a frozen meal sold at Whole Foods. Hey snobs, at least it’s Whole Foods! This means that every time I’ve gone out to experiment since then, including today at lunchtime, I’ve been disappointed. So disappointed that I’ve decided to take matters into my own hands and try to make the best chicken Tikka Masala I’ve ever had. It’s a big challenge, I know, but I feel that it distinguishes me from other food snobs. Instead of continuing to complain about the poor selection of Indian food we have here like any good food snob would do, I’m actually going to cook my own Indian food. This may sound hippyesque, but please don’t confuse the two. This is a whole new class of food snobbery, the upper crust, if you will. Things sure are looking bright from up here!