Cooking The Books

Bites & books with Cher Tan



Cook: Tom yum soup
Book: Journal of a Solitude (May Sarton)

I remember a question a dear friend and ex-housemate posed to me once: "What makes you truly happy?" Being a chronically depressed person with bad neurochemistry, I found myself to not have the answer at my fingertips. I can't really recall a time I've been shit-eatingly happy—not when I've won a prize, fallen in love, enjoyed a delicious meal, gone on a holiday, received a pleasant surprise, aced an exam... even naming examples to try and illustrate this seems clumsy. In an abstract sense, I understand what happiness feels like, except the feeling feels disassociative and removed: spiking dangerously and then faltering as soon as it's intellectually experienced, akin to a dirty molly. 

Not really having an answer, and not wanting to come across as more severe than I already am, my response was a vacant shrug. "Being alone, I guess."

In many ways, the demarcations made between solitude and loneliness are very starkly underscored. The latter indicates a hunger for sociality, the restless need to fill the gaping maw of one's own mind, an uncomfortable negotiation between longing and repose. Conversely, the former asserts that the state of alone-ness is voluntary—there is only peace, even amid active stimulation. One can be solitary in a bustling restaurant, but completely alone at home; they can feel acute loneliness in a crowded room, but strong in their solitude on a walk across the city. The two states are sometimes unclear: if I choose to be by myself is it because I'm lonely? If I'm feeling alone is it because solitude seemed like a better option? This blurry intermingling prods at how naturally predisposed to company humanity can be, if "no man is an island". Maybe other people inform this, maybe boredom is a socially-constructed affect, maybe alone-ness is—ironically—socially forced upon. Via a lifetime of nerdery and alienation, I have never felt lonely in my life. Yet I have often felt incredibly alone. 

What came first, then—a mind easily bored by social stimuli, or a solitary upbringing plumped up by books and deviant interests? It seems solipsistic to brag about never having felt boredom, or even much of a need for company for several weeks on end. Despite this, I derive ego from others, even when I'm not directly engaging with someone. 

In May Sarton's Journal of a Solitude, she looks to address this state of mind, what she calls her "real life", an introspective time that requires no need for pandering or pretence. Through a year's worth of journal entries, she puts this self-analysis on display, even as she negotiates mental turmoil and the "rocky, rocky depths". It's an excellent treatise on the tensions between solitude and loneliness by someone who has intimately consorted with both. Even as she writes in an inward-facing manner that foregrounds the self, the writing (unlike what a lot from the memoir genre accidentally falls into) isn't fully transfixed on the "I". Other people exist. 

Of course, to dig that deeply into one's own mind alone is more often than not a nod to depression. Sarton acknowledges this, as she enters "the matrix itself", questioning womanhood, art, her immediate surroundings, and relationships (platonic, sexual, romantic, collegial) through this lens. When there's nothing around to cushion the blows from one's own neurotically insecure mind, is self-imposed solitude worth the feelings of abject loneliness the mind will inevitably conjure, leading to further isolation? This kind of mulling is excruciating yet emancipating in its ceaselessness: "The reasons for depression are not so interesting as the way one handles it, simply to stay alive."

The clarity that Sarton enunciates—even when she herself is wrought by ennui—is astoundingly timeless. Naturally, some of the language seems dated 45 years later, but she makes many astute observations that can still be irrevocably applied to our world now. Comments like "it is troubling how many people expect applause, recognition, when they have not even begun to learn an art or a craft. Instant success is the order of the day" could easily have been written with contemporary #WIP culture in mind. 

As a result, Journal of a Solitude is an assertion of the highest kind: self-indulgent yet self-aware. It's a text that attempts to tease out one's own hypocrisies and complexities, while interacting with the externalities that makes one themselves. Sarton writes about only being able to "see the flowers", really pay attention to them if she grants herself permission to enjoy solitude; "without them I would die".

Cooking and reading are similar acts for me. Disengaging from my surroundings so as to actually associate with it, in a way that can be construed as wilful but seems to derive the most content for me—or at least what's understood as such. From lovingly arranging the mise en place to methodically washing up straight after, making the tom yum spice paste from scratch then closely smelling its flavours slowly waft up from a bubbling pot, adjusting the soup until the perfect trinity of sweet, sour and spicy is reached. It's a hard dish to photograph in its full glory, but its hug is deeply felt. Maybe happiness will never come, but at least I have this.