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Very little... almost nothing
An essay about why today always matters
Have you ever returned somewhere after many years only to feel like you could have been there only yesterday?
I don’t imagine it’s something particular to me, but I do think I have a habit of feeling that way. And it happened again when I went back to the UK a few weekends ago. My mother picked me and my family up from the airport and, by chance on our way to her place, we drove past the flat I once shared with friends in a part of London called Limehouse.
We were just metres from my old front door at one point. We drove down the same streets and past the same train station I haven’t seen in almost a decade. I even saw the same Tesco Express in which I wasted so much money on frozen pizza and Camel cigarettes. And yet, between then and now, it felt like no time had really passed at all. I looked back to my two young children, keen on telling them this is where daddy used to live. They were both asleep. And anyway, all I could really think of was how impossible it felt they didn’t exist the last time I was here. That despite the feeling nothing has changed, everything has changed entirely.
Later that weekend the Facebook “memories” page ( the only thing I use Facebook for nowadays) showed me something really lovely I posted a few years ago. It was a picture of my wife and baby son the week he was born in 2019. Along with it, being the pompous arse I am, I had posted the following quote from one of Samuel Beckett’s “Texts for Nothing”:
“There’s my life, why not… a story is not compulsory, just a life, that’s the mistake I made, one of the mistakes, to have wanted a story for myself, whereas life alone is enough.”
These two things together, the place a former version of myself lived in London and the memory of my son’s birth in Stockholm, reminded me again of how delicate the trajectory of our lives really is.
Because everything from my being a father to now living in Finland, even my becoming a chef, none of it would have happened if I hadn’t been staying in that flat in Limehouse on Easter Friday ten years ago.
It was that Easter Friday I met my wife. And none of those things would have happened if not for her.
I named this newsletter The Recovering Line Cook because I wanted the title to give a sense that my cooking days are behind me. I didn’t mean to suggest I was traumatised or mentally exhausted by the experience. Though of course, it was pretty tiring much of the time. But the more I have thought about it, and the more I’ve written these weekly posts as well, the more I recognise how changed I am for having been a chef all those years.
The most important thing I do now, having two young children, is what I do as a father. And I realise that, in changing who I am, my being a cook has changed the kind of father I am capable of being as well.
I’d say this is a good thing, for the most part. After trimming kilos and kilos of green beans, after having to polish grapes and peel crate loads of tomatoes, I think I am a more patient person than I once was.
And, yet, I hate wasting time, as well. Maybe there’s a contradiction there. But whether it’s cooking at home or getting the kids up and ready, I hate to see things done inefficiently. To be a decent chef, I think you need to be a bit stubborn. Set in the way you do things. Maybe I am too confident in the way I think things should be done sometimes.
I mean, I should probably give my wife less hassle for not “rotating” the groceries properly the way I’ve been conditioned to have it done.
If there is a downside to the person I am having been a cook, maybe it can be found in there. A certain stubbornness, an expectation that my way of doing things is the most sensible way.
I know this matters as a father because the person I am will change the type of person my children become. In as much, the fact I became a cook years ago will impact who they become one day as well.
Realising this, I realise the past doesn’t exist separately from us at all, really. The past repeats within us every moment of the present through who we are and who we are becoming.
No one tells you that on your first day at cookery school.
One thing I haven’t spoken about in this newsletter is what life as a cook was like while living with anxiety.
Since I was a boy, the fear of death is something I’ve found myself frequently shackled by. What I could really never get over was the eternity of death, the idea that everything could be taken away from me one day and that it would be taken forever.
This is actually one of the reasons being a chef was such a relief for me at times. In the heat and stress, among the noise and the laughter of a professional kitchen, my fears and anxiety always seemed to quieten for a while. For the duration of my shift, at least. To function as a cook, after all, you really need to live in the moment. You need to focus entirely on what is happening now.
Bacon has a really bad habit of burning to a crisp the second you think about anything else once you put it in a hot oven.
In the past few years, the years after I gave up cooking and became a father, I have, for reasons I don’t want to weigh this newsletter down with, learned to appreciate the present moment more fully even outside the working kitchen. Instead of fearing what could be taken away tomorrow, I have slowly learned to appreciate how precious today really is and how to live in it with more focus.
I do still fear things more than most people, I’m sure of this. I fear the occasional symptom I think I might have. I have to stop myself from over-reacting every now and then if I see a rash on my son’s arm. But having come to appreciate the present moment more, I think I fear less than I did.
I have managed this because I have come to feel that a moment spent with my son or daughter is really a moment that does last forever. And that to live fully in the present with all of myself invested in it, is to achieve something that never really ends. It goes on to reside and take root somewhere within my children, my wife and even myself. In appreciating that tiny decisions can change everything, and that small, seemingly insignificant moments are all we are made of, I’ve learned how important every moment really is.
This is an aspiration as opposed to something I can honestly say I do every day. But in trying to remember this, I know I am trying to do something worthwhile. Something for my family and myself.
The start of my healing began with realising my fear of what the future might hold was really a longing for a guarantee of safety. But the only thing that act of longing and focus on tomorrow achieved was to sacrifice today. And that being so, it was to sacrifice life itself.
It is like the Beckett quote Facebook reminded me of recently. For a thing to become a story its words and chapters must be set. It must be ended and certain. I am more comfortable now than I once was with the fact I will never know my story. All I will ever know is today. I will only ever know life. I admit, for someone who always longed for certainty about what tomorrow might bring, settling for no more than today seems very little, almost nothing. But I only started to truly find happiness when I realised that almost nothing is actually enough.
Too much is lost for it not to be so.