Thursday, June 26, 2014


It's a humid morning here, the ground breathing dampness and fertility after last night’s torrential rain. I headed out early today for a quick intensive bike ride up a nearby hill. The route takes me through neighbourhoods lush and green, past morning joggers with their earbuds in, and labouring people whose work day starts at seven: garbage pick-up workers, construction crews, nannies.

Now I'm back, having had my airing. My blood is flowing and brain kicking into gear.

It's about time. I see from the date of my last post that it's been almost two weeks since I wrote here. Then we had just passed the full moon. Now we are waning and will soon be into the next lunar month. It's a big one, for this year the June new moon marks the start of Ramadan, the month of daytime fasting (no food or drink of any kind) and nighttime feasting, prayer, and celebration for observant Muslims. Going without food and drink for the long days here, when sunrise is early and sunset late, is an exercise in mindfulness I imagine, as well as a difficult physical feat in the heat.

How do people get work or any other chores accomplished? I wonder. It's hard enough to settle to a task in normal times, let alone with a grumbling stomach and low blood sugar. To fast well you have to be disciplined, and that means getting up early enough to eat well before dawn so that you are fortified for the long day ahead.

It's interesting to compare the different approaches to fasting in different religious traditions. For Christians fasting has usually meant doing without a particular kind of food: meat, or instead all animal products (no dairy or eggs and no meat). But somehow fish doesn't rank as animal, and so fish is permitted on fasting days. (Hence the classic tradition of European restaurants featuring fish on Friday menus, for Friday was the fasting day for Catholics, still is for some). 

I was in Georgia last spring during Lent, the forty-day fasting period before Easter when all meat and dairy are forbidden to observant Orthodox Christians. The rule has pushed cooks to invent fasting versions of favorite foods, such as khachapuri. On fasting days these flatbreads – normally filled with fresh cheese - are instead stuffed with delicious cooked beans. Home cooks and bakeries were also making cakes and other treats during Lent, using alternative non-dairy ingredients such as margarine and alternative recipes that didn’t call for eggs. That strategy seemed to me to go against the spirit of fasting. I mean, the cook might have had to be mindful, but the greedy eaters still were able to have their luscious cant-tell-it’s-any-different cake even in the middle of Lent.

In Islam, and in Judaism too, fasting means not eating at all between sunrise and sunset, then breaking the fast with a feast in the evening. This sounds much more convivial than obeying rules and trying to work around them for forty days!

I’ve been led astray by these explorations of different approaches to fasting. Sorry!

What I want to explore here is the difficulty of getting down to work, into work, focussed on work, immersed in work… You get my drift.

I find that when I have a clear succinct to-do list, a series of tasks, a set of must-do’s, then it’s not too hard to just work my way through them. But when the first job of the day is to decide what the day’s goals or tasks are, then things can get a little messy. Distractions abound, there’s no clear necessity to get a particular task done, and procrastination takes advantage of every opening.

I’m thinking about all this because of my Persian World book project. (The deadline for delivery of the manuscript is exactly a year from now: end of June 2015.) Since getting back from Kurdistan and then the Beard awards in NYC in early May, I have had six weeks of home time. I had imagined, when I was thinking about the shape of the year, that I’d use these weeks for work on the book. I have done, but only piecemeal, testing recipes, writing the occasional story, and researching history (while also watching history being made in Iraq).

But it was not until this week that I was finally able to make myself deep-dive back into extended long-stamina workdays focussed on the book. Suddenly I am deep inside it, reviewing my notes, writing, and “wearing” it in a full 360-degree way.

What stopped me from doing this earlier? I think that while there are outside obligations to others (in my case teaching a food history course once a week for six weeks, and a few other small bits of writing work) as a partial excuse, there’s something else going on.

It’s too easy to stay on the surface of a project, to skate around on it, rather than committing to being inside it. And that is because it takes serious effort to immerse and commit. And somehow I failed to put that work in, or perhaps I knew that it would be wasted, since I’d be pulled back out and into other necessities, so what was the point?

All of this may seem like pointless meandering to you. You may be very successful at setting tasks and then completing them. But for those of you who struggle to shape your work days effectively, I assume you too have had these experiences I am describing.

Another piece of the explanation, something that I console myself with, is that I am mulling things in my subconscious, putting pieces together, trying to make coherent sense of the massiveness of my project, and that I shouldn’t feel that nothing is being accomplished in these weeks of bits-and-pieces work. Hmm

We’ll see. All I can say now that I am embarked again (the last time was in November-December after I returned from Iran) is that I am loving the project. It feels rich and promising, the food is delicious, the issues and geography and history are fascinating. And above all the human layers with their warmth and distinctive cultural necessities are so engaging. I just want to roll around in all this and luxuriate in it, for a good uninterrupted stretch.

If I manage to do that kind of sustained immersion in the project, I will probably be writing here less often in the next two months. My first plane ticket in over three months will be a flight to the west coast in August for the wonderful Grain Gathering (formerly Kneading Conference West) north of Seattle on August 22 to 24. And after that…well I will need to try to re-immerse for a bit, before heading out for more travel research.

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