궁지에 몰린 마음을 밥처럼 씹어라
어차피 삶은 너가 소화해야 할 것이니까
- 천양희, “밥”
chew on your feelings that are cornered
like you would chew on rice
anyway life is something that you need to digest
- chun yang hee, “food” (53)
is it possible to miss someone you don’t even know? or is it the idea of what that someone could be to you? is it that hole you feel in your life that makes you think, hey, you could fill this; this gaping emptiness might be shaped like you?
sometimes, i think all the stories i write are about loneliness because loneliness is the thing i want to solve, the thing i wish i could banish from my life. similarly, sometimes, i think the fact that i love to read is that it is, in some way, an act in pursuit of that salvation, and, sometimes, i think i get close, only to realize that nothing much has changed despite all my best efforts — they’re all illusions and pretenses that fall away one day, like jean rhys writes in wide sargasso sea (norton, 1966):
‘i know that after your father died, [your mother] was very lonely and unhappy.’
‘and very poor. don’t forget that. for five years. isn’t it quick to say. and isn’t it long to live. and lonely. she was so lonely that she grew away from other people. that happens. […] for her it was strange and frightening. and then she was so lovely. i used to think that every time she looked in the glass she must have hoped and pretended. i pretended too. different things of course. you can pretend for a long time, but one day it all falls away and you are alone.’ (rhys, 100-1)
loneliness is a slippery topic, maybe one of those things you write about by not writing about. except i’m trying to write about it by writing about it. let’s see if this works.
i recently read helen oyeyemi’s what is not yours is not yours (riverhead, 2016), a collection of short stories, some of which are interconnected by multiple appearances of the same characters. the stories contain magic realism (which i normally don’t enjoy), an abundance of beautiful diversity, and several references to korean media culture (which amuses me much), and oyeyemi is a deft, skilled writer with a clever sense of humor and some seriously beautiful prose.
what i loved most, though, is how oyeyemi populates her world with people as we exist in the [real] world. her characters are situated not only in their individual stories (and lives) but also in the stories (lives) of others, and this manner of interconnectedness serves not so much to provide narrative continuity but, rather, to show how lives intersect.
we exist in a web of human interactions — in our own lives and narratives, we are the people we are with our own ambitions and relationships and struggles, but we are also present in others’ lives, whether as renters of a flat or as a coworker in a clinic who shares an adolescence with a puppeteer or as an architect of a mysterious house of locks. we pass through the peripheries of strangers’ lives; we play witness to moments and events and occasions; and we carry along these strings that trail us, creating new connections with every brief encounter and adding to this web in which we carry out our lives.
maybe to think of loneliness in this context is a telling thing, but the interconnectedness of people doesn’t mean that any of it is necessarily particularly meaningful in and of itself — and neither does oyeyemi try to make it so. she doesn’t play up these connections to dramatic effect, simply introduces new characters, tells us their stories, and casually places them within the larger network of characters in her book.
by doing so, she reminds us that we exist in a framework that is larger than ourselves, that we cross paths with so many in our lifetimes, that we are sometimes shaped by these experiences and sometimes not. she reminds us that we touch each other’s lives, that we have the capacity to do so, and she reminds us that we live in constant contact with other people. she reminds us that, in many ways, we are not alone.
having fallen into lucy’s bed, they didn’t get out again for days. how could they, when lucy held all safiye’s satisfactions in her very fingertips, and each teasing stroke of safiye’s tongue summoned lucy to the brink of delirium? they fell asleep, each making secret plans to slip away in the middle of the night. after all, their passion placed them entirely at each other’s command, and they were bound to find that fearsome. so they planned escape but woke up intertwined. […] the situation improved once it occurred to them that they should also talk; as they came to understand each other they learned that what they’d been afraid of was running out of self. on the contrary the more they loved the more there was to love. (oyeyemi, “books and roses," 11-2)
i’ve been asked before if it’s weird to eat alone in restaurants, if i don’t feel self-conscious doing so, and the answer is no. i’d like to say that it’s a result of some kind of courage or indifference to the world’s opinions, but, sometimes, i wonder if it weren’t simply a result of loneliness, of long being used to burying my nose in a book and learning to be on my own.
this isn’t to make myself sound like i’m incapable of maintaining human relationships or am absent friendships, an incorrect perception of loneliness, i find.
loneliness has nothing to do with the quantity of people in your life, and neither is it an indictment of the people in your life. there’s a lot that goes into loneliness, various disappointments, insecurities, distances. there’s loss, and there’s yearning, and there are layers to it, too, because loneliness isn’t something that’s solved by simply being in physical proximity to people.
in the end, i think we grapple with loneliness in different ways. some might look towards faith; they might view this sense of emptiness as something that all humans have because it’s a symptom of brokenness, of humanity’s need for god, a greater being to make some sense of a broken world and offer absolution. others might throw themselves into the world, chasing human connections in any form through any means, and some might self-medicate to try and numb themselves to it all. others might direct all their energy into work, into at least building something of themselves in their professional lives, because, then, at least, they’ll have that and they can go home, exhausted, and never think about what they’re missing.
in one way or another, we learn to live with it — or we don’t, and it takes us down, piece by piece.
you told me about how stories come to our aid in times of need. you’d recently been on a flight from prague, you told me, and the plane had gone through a terrifyingly long tunnel of turbulence up there in the clouds. “everyone on the plane was freaking out, except the girl beside me,” you said. “she was just reading her book — maybe a little faster than usual, but otherwise untroubled. i said to her: ‘have you noticed that we might be about to crash?’ and she said: ‘yes i did notice that actually, which makes it even more important for me to know how this ends.’” (oyeyemi, “is your blood as red as this?,” 102)
i’m not new to momofuku, but i’ve recently become obsessed with trying all the momfuku — or all the momofuku i can because, one, i’m restricted by geography and, two, i doubt i’m going to be eating at ko any time soon (insert crying face emoji here).
(i fully credit the new yorker’s recent profile of times’ food critic pete wells for this.)
as i went hopping around the various momofuku restaurants in the city, i thought about passion. given our current political and social climate, i also thought about the synthesis of passion and purpose, that result when passion finds that thing that makes it more than a singular, ultimately self-driven obsession. we live in a culture that makes a romanticized figure of passion, that ignores all the ugliness and isolating sides of it, but, then, passion becomes a thing that fuels purpose, and i think that maybe we’ve got the right idea about it after all.
(it’s still a narrow, shallow infatuation, though, that totally ignores all the work and discipline and sacrifice that go into taking passion and making something worthwhile of it.)
and this is the thing about all the great stories — that they’re created by, told by people who started off with something they loved, something they pursued absolutely because it was what they loved absolutely, and, in their pursuit of excellence in their fields, they discovered something greater than pure craft. it’s that something that brings them back to the desk, the kitchen, the practice room because they have something they want to share, some comfort they have to offer.
and that, too, is one way of dealing with loneliness, by stepping out of yourself and into these webs and trying to bring something more to these shallow connections. to some, it looks like putting your heart into preparing a meal and providing more than mere nourishment, and, to others, it’s sharing vulnerabilities, beauty, and hope through stories, photographs, music. whatever the craft, whatever the medium, the beauty about art, to me, is that artists give you the gift of their heart, and, in the end, to create is to make an effort to leave a mark, to comfort, to be together in a shitty, terrifying world.
(idk why this peach is so yellow; it should be more orange, more peach-y.)
and, so, how did i like momofuku?
noodle bar serves one satisfying bowl of ramen, though the egg is too soft and too runny for ramen; nishi’s impossible burger is fantastic and its spin on jajangmyeon is delicious, if maybe a tad salty (the crunch from the green beans is a nice touch); and the pickled daikon at fuku is so good. i liked the sandwiches, too, but found myself wishing they’d been made of breast meat because the thigh meat was too fatty, too moist, lacking the heft i would have liked. the chili cheese fries were good, too; they had a nice kick to them. the glaze on the slow roasted pork shoulder at ssam bar was fabulous; i could go though bottles of that like water; and i loved the chive pancake.
overall, i appreciate what david chang is doing with his restaurant empire, and i like seeing how he takes korean/asian food and twists it up and thinks about it in different ways. it’s interesting, and interesting is one of the highest compliments i’ve got — along with consistent because momofuku is also consistently branded, embracing warm woods and streamlined, minimalist spaces. each restaurant’s business cards are also on brand, too, each with its own little twist. i just love when all these things are thought through.
favorite stories from what is not yours is not yours:
- “books and roses”
- “‘sorry’ doesn’t sweeten her tea”
- “is your blood as red as this?”