No. 1: Breathe
Welcome to the space between worlds.
Content warning: Includes descriptions of domestic violence.
It’s finally over.
I had written something entirely different for the first issue of this newsletter: a manifesto about my mission, about the transformative power of food and the problems with the systems we’ve built around it, and I had it all ready to publish—until Saturday night, when I was broken open, and nothing else seemed quite as important as this feeling.
On Nov. 7, President-Elect Joseph R. Biden, Jr. took the stage, and he spoke so calmly and clearly. He wasn’t my first choice, nor is he the solution, but I felt such relief when I saw him, watching with the sad-eyed smile of one whom loss has frequented as his name was quite literally written in lights; the adults were back in charge. I watched as a woman, Vice President Elect Kamala Harris, take her place on that stage for the first time in history, and felt my heart surge at seeing a family of color back up on that platform where they belong. I looked at the ticker at the bottom of the screen, after a week of panic-inducing, alternating surges of blue and red and too-close tallies, finally frozen on the words “JOE BIDEN ELECTED PRESIDENT.” I let our new leaders’ words of rapprochement wash over me, and I listened to the songs of hope and the elated wails of the crowds, and I wept with my whole body.
A lifetime of holding my breath was released, and finally, I could exhale.
I didn’t even realize I’d been waiting to do that this whole time.
For the past four years, certainly, but the past week, surely, the nation and even the world has been waiting to exhale. We have been in the in-between place, not sure if we should celebrate or mourn. And as I was recently reminded, anyone who has lived through abuse knows the feeling we all just experienced—when you realize your abuser is finally gone, and they can’t hurt you anymore.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
You may be realizing, like me, that you have not felt this kind of relief for a very long time. Maybe you’ve never felt it before. Allow it to wash over you, and let the tears flow, if you need to, because now it can all come spilling out. All you’ve been holding; how you’ve been hurting; the scars from the scabs that have never fully healed, because each time you saw his face twisted into a snarl, the smile that curls into a grimace, the derision dripping from his lips every time someone does anything other than prostrate themselves at his feet and pledge allegiance, you also see and hear the face and sounds of your own abuser: the narcissist, the child, the tyrant.
Each word landed like the blows used to, the leveling assaults that squirreled themselves away in your psyche, your trauma spilling out all over your soul and heart and body all over again each time he gutted the legislation meant to protect our planet, as humans; our health, as citizens living through a pandemic; our civil rights, as LGBTQIA+ people; or the very right to life, for Black and Brown and indigenous people and immigrants of all stripes.
Each time a new executive order was signed—BAM! Like that time he slammed my head into the steering wheel, or threw me over a table. Every time Trump mocked Fauci, or told Americans to inject themselves with bleach, or decried the masks that would save millions from the plague, years of my abuser’s vicious verbal assaults echoed in my head. Day after day of gaslighting, thinking I was the crazy one, that I was to blame for his rapidly deteriorating mental state. A constant reminder of those times when he really got mad, and those big paws I once loved tenderly would land across my face, or through a wall.
Once, they wrapped themselves around my throat and pressed down, until his shouting started to fuzz into the drone of that primordial sound, everything and nothing all at once; pressing harder, until the colors dulled—funny how they never tell you that things fade to white more than to black—and it struck me, in those eternal seconds, how cruelly ironic it was that he once told me he wanted me to be there, holding his hand, when he died, and now the last thing I would ever see in this life was his face, the face I thought I loved now contorted in rage with eyes blazing, lips curled over snarling teeth, and I wished I could see my mom instead, until somehow, either he let me go, or I broke free.
I caught my breath.
I always fought back, which he used against me to insist that the abuse was a two-way street. And so does Trump now play the victim and insist, against all reality, that the vote has been rigged. I would scream, as if one day I could scream loud enough to snap him back into reality, into his body, to reawaken the person I once knew—like those who have suffered the worst abuse at the hands of our patriarchs have raised their voices and taken to the streets to demand a better way.
In any abusive relationship, you reach that point where you realize there are only three outcomes: you’re going to let them kill you; you’re going to kill yourself; or you’re going to get out. And at first, it hurts to leave. The road to recovery looks so long and fraught as to be insurmountable, and they try to lure you from the path by saying, this time, it’ll really be different. We’ll make it great again. They tell you that the reality you see, everything you know and experience to be true, it isn’t really happening. You’re just confused.
This works, for many of us, for a number of years. Some never make it out, and my heart aches for them daily. But for those of us fortunate enough to have a life path that leads to healing, one day, there is a moment of clarity, and you make the calls, pack your bags, and start all over. The road to recovery is long and fraught, and often feels insurmountable. The journey out of codependency and self-destruction and garbage self-worth will break your heart, if you’re doing it right, but then you will put it back together again, the way it was always intended to be; the way it was when you were first formed, and your soul chose this incarnation.
And one day, you’ll realize that you’re never going to let anybody hurt you like that again. They can’t touch you now, and that truly was the last time.
The truth always comes out; the dictators always fall; the narcissists are revealed for who they really are, and their supporters flee from them like rats from a sinking ship. On Sept. 17, 2016, I took action to remove my abuser from my life, and the nation did the same on Nov. 3, 2020. And on Nov. 7, as every major American city cheered, and drank, and danced in the town square, I cried, and I realized that only now was the cycle truly complete.
Now I could finally listen to what the Universe had been trying to tell me all along. What my body had been trying to tell me since I first left it, in childhood, all those many years ago. Now I could tune into the frequency of the present moment and begin to reincarnate. Hear, hear, what I really feel and want and need. Here, here, not in the past nor in the future, but in the infinitely expanding now.
Four years ago, I left my abusive marriage for the last time. I had moved into my best friend’s spare room, fleeing a malignant narcissist who himself had fled the law and, three arrests and two commitments to mental hospitals later, was still unaccounted for somewhere between Seattle and Mexico, but all the while, finding creative ways to lob hate-filled grenades into my life. The nightmare would continue for months and years after.
I was still identifying as female then, and on the eve of the election, we were so sure that Hillary was going to win, and that in so doing, a new era of female empowerment would begin; the narcissists would be taken down, and all of us who had been abused would take our power back. But as the night wore on, and the bewildered newscasters flipped state after state a stark, burning red, an overwhelming panic and dread gripped me down to my very soul.
They were winning. The abusers still had us in their clutches, and maybe we would never truly escape.
I didn’t even realize, until this weekend, how much of that trauma I was still storing: the pain lodged deep in my DNA. With all the healing work I’ve done around the abuse and divorce and my own codependency, I thought I had cleared it. I didn’t even know that the wounds inflicted in that relationship, in the five years before Nov. 2016, were being ripped open again and again in the four years after—that every time I saw that ruddy, orange face on TV, his name placed next to the honorific, I was transported back in time. Every vicious insult that slid from his snarling maw was the face of my ex-spouse, the person who swore in front of God and everybody to love and protect me, as Trump swore to protect the nation, neither of them ever really meaning it, nor ever really capable of rising to the task.
It wasn’t until days after Hillary lost, once the state of stunned shock had faded into a low-level depression, that I could even face my reality. Everything that once made a life was gone, and I sat surveying the wreckage, piled around me in garbage bags and tossed haphazardly into boxes. When the police had escorted me into my home, during the 20 supervised minutes you get to collect everything you own while they make sure your spouse doesn’t kill you, I had gone only for the essentials. Some clothes. A few toiletries.
And a suitcase full of spices.
I also filled it with tins of curry paste, assorted scraps of dried pasta, canned coconut milk, pale pink lentils, toasted nuts, deep green split peas, and my cherry-red Le Creuset dutch oven. Everything else, all 1,200 square feet of wanna-be mid-century accoutrement and handy appliances for modern living, left behind.
That night, when I finally found the will to unpack, I found that each item within the suitcase engaged my aching heart: the citrine turmeric, its happy hue audaciously challenging my anomie; deep crimson sumac, sand-colored cumin, bright red harissa, and salt-and-pepper speckled grains of paradise transporting me, momentarily, to a place outside of time; the scents of olive-hued za’atar, burnt-orange masala, and grass-colored coriander jolting me back to the present, like smelling salts for the soul. As I chopped and sliced and mixed and boiled and roasted and tossed, the act of preparing the meal—punctuated as it was by the occasional dry heave of despair, surging from the depths of my being to emerge in a strangled, grief-stricken mewl—was awakening something within me.
Cooking during a time of crisis is like stepping into the eye of the storm; the chaos still swirls all around you, but in here, for a moment, you are safe. It can feel like an act of resistance: refusing to be broken by the circumstances, choosing to sustain yourself or others in need. You take the raw ingredients you have and the conditions you’ve been handed, bending and shaping and cutting and combining them to fit your desires and needs, and then you forge them in the fire—and through this elemental magic, they are transformed into something beautiful; something that allows you to at least take the next step, and the next, and maybe one more.
That night, as I made my meal in the midst of crisis, documenting both the recipe and my personal deconstruction, I was beginning a journey of awakening that continues to this day. This is the place we find ourselves in now: able to finally see the light on the other side, the long road to healing that lies ahead. As we survey the wreckage of our broken systems, wondering what we can rebuild, we see that there are things in this failed state that are worth saving. There are universal human experiences that transcend the culture we constructed; the stuff of life that makes it worth living, whether they are celebrations in the streets or quiet moments in our kitchens.
As much as I would never have wished any of the horror of the past four years upon anyone, I know that for myself, I had to be pushed to the breaking point to finally choose life. And choosing life first involves a death: the death of your old ways, your old life, your old self. The empty house, the isolation, the echo of your own voice back to you, the only companion in my current home the blank page that often taunts me—these things are now familiar to us all in a world marked by coronavirus and quarantine, and there is a cold comfort in the knowing that I am not alone. And maybe we need the empty house, the echo of our own voice, the blank page, in order to see what was broken, and for new creation to come forth.
This is my work, and ours: to listen to my body, to our collective body, every last limb and extremity, every follicle of hair, like the one that lands now, stark white against my black sleeve despite my 35 years. Listening for the language beyond words; what do I really feel? What do all of us truly need to be nourished? What does our collective soul require? We already have everything we need; we’ve had the tools the whole time, and we simply need to give those parts of our body and soul a voice that have too long been denied.
Maybe to move into the light, we first had to be drug through the shadow; to dredge up all the darkness and muck and hate and ugliness that still plagued our culture in order to choose life, and to fully heal. And it all started—the beginning of Trump’s end and the catalyzing of our collective trial through suffering—with a virus that ravaged the respiratory, reaching its tipping point when an unarmed Black man was suffocated by a white police officer until the light left from his eyes. The lungs of the planet burned, and the world couldn’t breathe.
In meditation, they always tell you to come back to your breath, because it is your essence: the connection between your spirit and its vessel, between the material and the metaphysical. It’s how you remember you have a body and quiet a chattering mind. No wonder, then, that “I can’t breathe” became the rallying cry of a people too long downtrodden by a system built to keep them there, and the marching orders for all who have finally had enough. Enough of the abuse, the gaslighting, the false promises of change. The work has only just begun, but getting out is the first step, and together, we just took it.
Inhale. Exhale. Feel that? That’s you, and you’re free. They can’t hurt you anymore.
Never again do you have to flinch at the sound of their footsteps ascending the stairs, frantically trying to read their mood in the creaking of the floorboards. Never again do you have to lie frozen in bed as they slide in next to you and stare at the ceiling, eye twitching, temple veins pulsing, while your mind and heart race, wondering if it’s a kiss with a fist or a mouth that comes next. Now that you have chosen to leave, everyone affirms that you were right—that you are not, in fact, crazy, and these things were really happening.
As the networks called the final state, and Twitter flagged Trump’s every outburst, and his joke of a legal team mounted case after case of completely baseless lawsuits, now, finally, everyone was calling it like it always had been. A collective gaslighting. Poorly orchestrated and barely concealed deceits and manipulations on a vast scale. Illegality and abuses of power, responsibility, and other people.
And now Trump has barricaded himself in the White House like my ex used to barricade himself in the spare bedroom, or in the office, or once in my best friend’s guest room, raging against the world and fueling his impending psychotic break with a steady stream of alcohol, ketamine, and DMT (a psychedelic so powerful that many call it a phone line to the Divine, and my ex did not, as Alan Watts advised, ever hang up). Trump, too, is in the midst of a great unraveling, if he was ever really there, fueled by amphetamines and Diet Coke, realizing that he himself is not the Divine, nor a dictator. I pray we can withstand the weeks until, kicking and screaming, he is removed, and order is restored—and maybe then the real work of reconciliation and recovery can begin.
When my life was dismantled, I was forced to examine what had gotten me there; where the systems I came up in had led me astray, and where the choices I had made kept me stuck. I had leapt into the liminal: the space between worlds. Not the life I knew, and not the one I would create. Not married, and not single. Not fully awake, but not, any longer, asleep. I realized that, in various ways, I had been operating in this state for most of my life.
I came into the world an old soul, never really fitting in anywhere. But now I see that it is not really the in-between I inhabit, for the world is not binary, and neither am I. I have realized in the years since I left my abuser that I am not either gender, nor can my sexuality be clearly defined. I forged a career that has become increasingly less commercial and more creative, and all of it on my own terms. I found healing through food, and have come to understand the world through the ways in which we nourish ourselves and the stories of those who live in the liminal. And I am learning to look at the shadows, and bring all the compartments of myself into the light, and see that it’s all part of it, even the darkness.
Such is the place we find ourselves in now: over what became the 2020 Election Week, as we await inauguration, and certainly in the time of coronavirus, we all inhabit the half-life. No longer the world we knew, but not yet a new one, either. Not quite caged, and not quite free. Not quite living, but still breathing, eating, sleeping, creating, connecting. Slowly, more are realizing that we can never go back to the way things were; our culture has not yet fully awakened, but neither can anyone, anymore, stay peacefully slumbering.
The pandemic has forced us all into a kind of perpetual present moment: an involuntary exercise in collective mindfulness. All we can do is be here now, amidst the heartbreak and loss and sorrow, and while I do not wish in any way to downplay its tragedy, there is a kind of resonance in knowing that we are all experiencing similar pain at the same time. The in-between place that once felt vast and empty is suddenly filled with the whole human race. Not quite here, and not quite there. Not quite past, not quite future. But in between that is presence, and if we can learn to listen, maybe we can awaken to all that we have, and all we can become.
I invite you to join me, dear readers, on a journey into a new space, whether it’s in our souls, our bodies, our minds, or on our plates: a place that is both past and future, in the infinitely unfolding now; that isn’t where we were, and is not yet where we’re going. One that combines the old ways with the new, taking what we like and leaving the rest. One that explores all that has been and all we still might create.
Not the in-between. The both-between.