Sleep became an out of reach privilege. Day and night turned into one, and any type of continuous, focused thinking was simply beyond me. My brain felt as if it had become covered in a wall-to-wall carpet say, or a puddle in which to jump and splash around.
I had been smoking for twelve years. Every day, about thirty or forty times a day, for twelve years. I am of the generation that knew it was unhealthy but did it anyway. It was still so prevalent, so diffused in the culture around us and the law didn’t make it even a smidge difficult. When we were 16 we used to send Hanna – the one among us with the biggest boobs – off to the kiosk to get us a pack, then we would sit behind the art building at school sharing a smoke and talking about the boys we wanted to kiss. Later, in the army, the drive-you-out-of-your-mind boredom some of us would experience led us to double what we smoked before. In my case, I went from one pack a day to two. Now I was 20, a partially developed human being, and a heavy smoker with two years under my belt. So much so that I fell asleep once with a cigarette in my hand and woke up to a hole in my mattress and a room full of thick black smoke. In university I used to leave classes half way through to give myself a little break and before and after boarding a flight I would sneak into the airport bathrooms and steel a few puffs to calm me down. It was my Achilles heel. My chocolate, or cocaine or booze, my place of infinite hunger that knew no satiety. And then I decided, or rather my doctor decided, that I have to stretch out my arms and pull open the gates to hell and try to walk along its burning coals. I had to stop. Or at least, I had to try.
From that sunny Wednesday onwards, crying became my main occupation. Also walking the streets aimlessly, staring at the wall and crying. Did I mention crying? It reminded me of the Ancel Keys experiment on the psychology of starvation. I vaguely remembered the small details of the essay but I what I could recall were the descriptions of what happened to the men mentally after they entered the semi starving part. I remembered thinking of the stories of cannibalism in Stalingrad. For once a person is hungry, food becomes the object of their every thought, their every dream. It becomes the only thing in the world they want. And though one could say this sounds more of the description of a heroin addict, let me tell you, apparently getting rid of the nicotine monkey isn’t all that far – one of the many discoveries I made trying to understand why the f@#$ this was the hardest thing I have ever done in my entire life. Nothing managed to lesson this unsettling feeling of starvation. Until, that is, I started baking.
I always found baking to be this beautiful meditative labour of soft light and silence, but never dared it. I felt my cooking was too passionately messy to allow me a good go at the accurate craft of baking. And yet, ironically, as if my subconscious knew it would come in handy I made a new starter a week before all hell broke loose and it was ready just in time for my day of judgment. Over the next few days it became like a child to care for: feed starter, make leaven, knead every half hour, rest, heat oven, act, repeat. It required me to remember what day it was, and have a clock that worked, and the small yet crucial responsibility was one that helped me structure my day and do something useful with it. Something that didn’t require much intellectual thinking or human contact. I barely ate the bread mind you. I kept giving it away to friends. I figured I really shouldn’t exchange one oral fixation with another and find myself spending the tobacco money I was saving on fashion items two sizes up. I baked for the act of baking, nothing else. It became therapeutic. Fighting the weight of the sticky substance as it clings to my skin while I worked the soft desert coloured dough through and again gazing at my fingerprint disappear and reappear slowly forming something out of thin nothing and water. It healed me. It held my body together in those moments of starvation, giving me something else to worry about. I wondered if it was having a similar effect to that which people had discovered with soil. I knew there was some research done over the past decade showing that manually working with soil can release dopamine in the brain, giving it a good antidepressant effect. Other things like stress relief and focus have also been credited to its abilities. I found interest in the subject back in the day thanks to a good friend and now it was boomeranging back to me. Could the kneading and forming and working the dough possibly have a similar effect?
I had no idea, but it was bake or break, so I’ll take what I can get.