I am fantastic at forgetting to eat. I learned early that food is best ignored, otherwise you feel ostracised over the simplest slice of birthday cake.
Since the age of two I was a strict Coeliac. Other people would worry more about my eating than I did.
Boyfriends would eat how I would, friends would choose (and still do) restaurants based on the vegetable count, parents would have a stash of my favourite crackers, I’d be taken off working the toast counter at a cafe because one week I said I felt ill because of ‘toast’ fumes rather than admitting that I just hadn’t had breakfast.
In 2008, the blue linoleum floors of the Prague YHA stuck to my feet like the sweat cloying to my forehead. I assumed it was just from humidity. A sharp dullness in my stomach, spilled nuts and I was in hospital, again, for a familiar bout of ulcer inflammation. All caused by poor eating and sleeplessness. Sitting beneath an old stamp of the Soviet hammer and sickle, a man was resting his leg in a red ice bucket, his foot dislodged, meaty, his face green with infection. They saw me first and not him because I could afford it.
If we are not being accountable for our own balanced day-to-day health (the controllable measures like consumables, sleep, sex and exercise) then the negative impact on those who need it more can be detrimental.
On discharge, thirty hours later I found five Irish boys, drank absinthe in tyre clubs and blacked out in their dorm rooms, waking up half clad, graffitied. Pain numbed by the reckless abandonment of my own welfare.
Rather than caring properly about why I was putting food in of my body, I was more consumed by the physical act of consuming. Not using utensils at dinner where potential in-laws were present, putting my fingers in other peoples’ jars of peanut butter.
An old party trick I had was to lick all the flavouring off rice crackers and return them to the packet, then watch people eat the crackers to see if they noticed that they were an odd texture and flavour.
George Monbiot writes,
“We are often told we are materialistic. It seems to me, we are not materialistic enough. We have a disrespect for materials. We use it quickly and carelessly.
“If we’re genuinely materialistic people, we would understand where materials come from and where they go to. But, at the moment, the entire global economy seems to be built on the model of digging things up from one hole in the ground on one side of the earth, transporting them around the world, using them for a few days, and sticking them in a hole in the ground on the other side of the world.”
We handle materials in our hands, put them in our mouths, in our bodies, into the environment. The main ‘hole’ of focus has become our mouths, our taste buds, with all waste going back into the ground or atmosphere.
Efficiency, where food is not something you have to worry about attaining, has gone out of the window for an individualistic pleasured experience dictated by marketing. Wouldn’t it be great if Apple for their next product made a human-skin cover so then you wouldn’t need any human engagement, ever?
I think I should eat kale.
I think I should eat kale because that will give me a twenty-four inch waist. Despite a kale shortage imminent, I still eat kale rather than Spring Green Veg which is in abundance.
Eating was for me:
Tactile contact with food did change my perception of it: it became something other than food, something intimate that was removed out of the sustenance frame.
I did not want to think about the repercussions of eating because my response would be severe: I would stop eating, because I wouldn’t know how or what to eat, rather I would slip onto my knees in front of a toilet bowl at any moment of anxiety, or stare bemused, selfish, into my own reflection like a chimpanzee when they are given a mirror, or just never look in a mirror, too ashamed by the consequences of what I had been eating.
This algorithm worked so easily in my head:
you + what you eat = don’t worry about eating
At New Years in 2011 a friend and I came up with the idea that it would be fantastic to not have to eat meals. Instead you would eat a tablet of sustenance so that you had enough energy to do things. At the time small round white pills worked just as well… We utilised chemical convenience for a thorough exploration of our surroundings.
This is what Small Acts of Disappearance is about: hunger. It would be very easy to marginalise this work within eating and disorder and eating disorders. But Wright’s work is an investigation of her hunger. She shares her meals, cooks for others so she has the appearance of partaking in the ritual of food, but there is a sharpness, an alertness to being fragmented by her hunger.
“You don’t choose your hunger.”
I was in a bath, in Bath when I read this, and I argued with her. She would be sitting on the toilet seat, smoking, gestating as she read to me from her book and I would be exasperated:
“Of course we choose our hunger!” My fist shakes at her.
We choose what motivates us. Don’t we?
My attitude toward myself is one of military-esque hardness: Food is a privilege.
When I was five my grandfather was visiting Sydney. It was his and my day to explore the science museum, the maritime museum, to eat ice cream and dip our feet in the harbour as we watched the tall ships. My mother had given me new shoes: white Mary-Jane Clarks that she told me not to wear because they would give me blisters. I was determined so Mum said, “If your feet start to hurt, don’t complain to Granddad, he won’t like it if you complain.” So I didn’t. I said nothing. My feet by the end of the day were torn to shreds, but I had the satisfaction of knowing I had not complained.
So Wright is right when she says, ‘You don’t choose your hunger.’
Severity of self is hard for others to watch or be understood but it is needed, at times, for improvement.
You discover that you can be just as hungry for touch as you are for food, or light, or time.
So Wright is right when she says, ‘You don’t choose your hunger.’
The protagonist in Hunger by Knut Hamsun likes to be hungry. His sensation and experience is greater because he is trying to fill his need, his emptiness.
“The intelligent poor individual was a much finer observer than the intelligent rich one. The poor individual looks around him at every step, listens suspiciously to every word he hears from the people he meets; thus, every step he takes presents a problem, a task, for his thoughts and feelings. He is alert and sensitive, he is experienced, his soul has been burned…”
Being hungry is a good thing. Starving rats apparently run faster around turning wheels than satiated ones.
I went back to Australia for the first time in 21 months and enjoyed the rejigging of remembering how to read old friends. It’s much easier than attempting to read new friends (the cryptic joy of moving cities!). Stern looks, hand gestations while making an argument or the way they hold their pinky up sipping a gin and tonic. And then why you warmed to them: bitten bottom lips, raised right eyebrows, apologetic eyes.
I asked people about hunger.
Someone said that for them food and hunger are two distinguishable practices. One is an enjoyment and best enjoyed alone and the other is misunderstood and in the pursuit of finding meaning in it you can do great things.
The main response was ‘I would like more time.’
More time to sleep.
A few Saturdays ago, just before midnight an Uber driver picked us up from Shoreditch, to take us to a house party in Holloway. I spilled my apple-vodka-tizer tin onto the car door as I bent into the front seat. The driver was listening to a video through his headphones, his eyes staring ahead, traffic and sloven bodies transparent.
‘Who is Tesfay Temnewo?’ I asked, pointing to his phone.
‘A rebel warrior in Eritrea.’
‘What’s he saying?’
‘How we can achieve freedom.’
I looked at his iPhone screen. There are 37 parts to the interview. He was listening to part 26, which had 30,578 views.
‘Can you go back?’
He looked at me. Blinked. Looked back the standstill neon traffic at Old Street.
I keep looking at him, his name unpronounced on his Uber app by the steering wheel.
His head was a shape you see drawn in anatomy books. Eyes sunken in his face, ageing him as being centuries old rather than his forty-something years. He had a tattoo on his left forearm, hand drawn, half hidden under a crumpled linen blue shirt. His hunger visible.
“I fought in the Eritrean-Ethiopian war from 1998-2000. We thought that after independence there would be real democracy, but today it is absolutely impossible to return to Eritrea as an opposition member. If you do, they will pick you up upon arrival and you will disappear.”
Killing is a hunger.
Disappear. I wondered how many people think he has disappeared. Driving Ubers in London for the flexibility so that he can be with his daughters (four and two) or work his other job/s.
I wondered what Spotify requests people make at 3am in the morning. Destiny’s Child, Wheatus, Drake, Natalie Imbruglia, TLC?
I wondered how many people he has killed and if he likes killing.
Some people do. Killing is a hunger.
“Do you get hungry?” I asked him.
“What do you mean?”“Do you find you’re hungry in London?”
“Only to be home.”
We arrived at the house party, twenty-somethings loitering with cigarettes looking to see who is in the car and not who is driving. I offered him my can before I left, he took a sip, not removing his eyes from mine, the most fixed I felt all evening.
Time is infinite yet scarce. On a film shoot, when everyone is told to be silent you can always hear the ticking of the watch; I buy coffee to stay awake, to buy more time.
I grab someone’s wrist and ask for the time. No one at the party is wearing a watch; instead their wrist bones sit stoic.
We have an extra hour and the clocks go back at 14:00. It’s 12:33.
I thought about the mass of time or the time of mass. Time disappears like mass disappears from bone, and both are kept going by incomprehensible theories that make the sun sharpen the senses.
A clock set at the peak of Mount Everest would be about thirty-nine hours ahead of a clock set at sea level. Clocks that are far from massive bodies (or at higher gravitational potentials) run more quickly, and clocks close to massive bodies (or at lower gravitational potentials) run more slowly.
Does the same apply to watches? If you are smaller, mass inconsequential to others, does time slow down? So that when I’m sitting in the shower of an almost stranger’s house, their warrior frame twice your size, twenty-five minutes seem only five. He told you that you had ‘eaten time for breakfast’ while buttoning up his cufflinks, even though the night before, the force on height distorted 5.5 hours into a weekend.
Time dilations due to height difference of less than one metre have been experimentally measured and verified in laboratories. The clocks aboard the aeroplanes were found to be slightly faster with respect to clocks on the ground. The effect is significant enough that the Global Positioning System’s artificial satellites need to have their clocks corrected.
I’d like to test time dilation theory against human experience. Does time disappear for you? How fast do you see it leave? Or does it manifest into energy for other activities? Or will you keep it lingering on your wrist, activity and behaviour and pulse recorded into data sequences to be received by Silicon Valley and arrive back just as quickly in your inbox, or on your Apple Watch.
‘An apple a day keep the doctors away.’
‘An Apple Watch keeps media consumption at play.’
I never feel hungry.
I never feel hungry. I like being in a state of desire, because at least I am aware that I need something at undisclosed moments.
Although I still haven’t worked out what I desire, so I never messaged the warrior back, too scared of rejection, the memory of his weight saved until someone comes along and replaces him.
If I could mould time, buy time, compact all the one-hour time differences into a single day or time travel I would go back to A. And with each hug I would actually hug hjm, rather than being scared of his knowledge that humans are made to be close. He always made me feel wanted and whether or not I wanted to be wanted would dictate if I wanted him.
My first proper memory of him is catching his breath in mine on a desk on the forty-something floor of a science University of Technology Sydney tutor room. There, in that moment, I would open my eyes to look at his, tell him to write, wipe the sweat from his brow down his left cheek.
And I would send a package of time, which we sometimes send in instant words, in response to his last message before he was hit by a boxtruck on his motorcycle in North Carolina.
‘Clare, I want to write. Where do I start? How do you do it?’
I don’t, A.
First there was you but by the end of the month three of you had gone.
The shimmer of the end transforming you to memory.
It’s that dense, this thick, this feeling of time -
this feeling of walking back alone under
the tree. As if somehow, the whole world’s in
[‘Walking Back From the Dam’, Martin Harrison]
At the party, I sip on bottles of beer that I don’t know how managed to arrive in my hand. Two hours in I’ve drunk two Stella long necks, danced under street lighting and felt confused amongst other wanting bodies.
People can sense hunger. They can smell it. Last year the European Research Council published a report that claims to have shown how the endocannabinoid system controls food intake using the sense of smell.
Endocannabinoids are cannabis-like chemicals that are made in the body and are used to send “messages” between cells. The endocannabinoid system is a network of neuron receptors, enzymes and endocannabinoids that exists both in animal and human brains. The receptors in the endocannabinoid system are associated with sensations such as euphoria, anxiety and pain.
Scientists know that when we are hungry, our bodies boost the performance of our sense of smell in order to improve our chances of finding food. But our sense of smell can also smell when others are hungry, also hunting for food, or other hungers. Eyes are rounder, more intense, processing smells until we can either satisfy our hunger or at least momentarily satiate it.
The best smells are those that are unattached, ripened, slightly sweaty, close.
Are kebabs the secondary alternative to what we all want at 2am in the morning, a loitering hyper over tiredness where we try inhibit the liver from functioning even further? The liver is the most active between 1am and 4am and helps to keep our body from becoming toxic. Toxic kebabs are intoxicating.
I’ve manned up. I’m no longer a Coeliac. Which has shocked me more than it has shocked anyone else, including a very irritated ex. But being able to care about eating enough to enjoy it has made me aware of other cravings. Other sensations that I was not aware of before, like listening to the kettle boil. How cheese burns onto plates. Or the sounds matched by the smell of opening a can of tinned ravioli. Or licking the foam of an espresso martini from my top lip or nose.
There isn’t a simple hunger. And we do not choose it. But in being hungry, as much as it can make people aware that you don’t eat, you gain a history, an understanding of survival, an imaginary friend full of what you have noticed that you think no one can see.
Clare Cholerton is a freelance writer/person from London. Her first collection, Missive, was published by Poetry Australia in 2013. Her writing has appeared in The Bohemyth, The Lifted Brow, the UTS anthologies, Seizure and Plumwood Mountain.