I was asked this week if I had any passions or obsessions. That made me think about people who have real passions, passions that lead them to become standouts in their very narrow fields. Like David Rees who’s perfected pencil sharpening and written a book about it, or pretty much any historian ever. I envy those people so much. But it’s a fine line. There’s the artist Simon Beck who goes out every day for up to nine hours at a time and snowshoes a huge intricate geometric pattern on newly fallen snow only to have it snowed over that night. One could say he’s very Zen and living completely in the moment, but that could also be the place where obsession crosses over to compulsion.
Obsession – good. Zen – good. Compulsion – to be avoided.
I go through phases with my obsessions. Some years ago I spent entire evenings painstakingly sorting my son’s Legos only for them to be completely mixed up again in a
few days. This Lego sorting was kind of my snow-stamping. It was soothing but I couldn’t stop until it was done. Then something came up and I forgot all about it. I went on a fresh pasta-making kick two years ago and last fall was obsessed with making bread from scratch.
My obsessions are sometimes driven by a desire to perfect a skill that would enable apocalyptic survival though it’s never anything that would actually keep us alive. Like learning how to purify or desalinate water. Or start a fire without a lighter. I did learn how to knit socks, though. I felt deep pride and comfort knowing my family’s feet would be warm and dry at the end of the world.
My in-laws put in a big garden every summer and live off what they grow, canning and freezing and jamming as much as they can. About eight years ago, after reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle I was completely obsessed with sustainably produced food and gardening. I was determined to be the change I wanted to see and set an example for my kids.
My in-laws were very excited about my participation – setting aside a manageable ten-by-four foot plot for me. We emailed over the winter about what I should grow. They even got my little garden started for me until I arrived in Maine for the summer in late June.
On our second full day in Maine I got the kids all sun-screened up and out we set to tend our garden. My in-laws had planted spinach, peas, string beans, and zucchini for me. I spent one hour bent over analyzing each shoot, trying to differentiate a weed from a plant. My kids complained endlessly about the dirt and bugs. Exhausted, I straightened up to survey my progress and discovered I’d only weeded a few feet of my garden.
Fuck this shit, I thought, that’s what farm stands are for. I abandoned my teeny garden and took my kids to the beach where we built sand castles, splashed in salty waves, and I guarded my daughter’s growing rock collection.
I’ve been disappointed in myself by how quickly I can release an obsession. I mean, what kind of an obsessive does that make me? Not a very good one. So instead, I lowered the bar, deciding that making pasta, bread, and socks could be useful in the apocalypse after all.
Perhaps my passion can be being passionate about people with passions.
In the meantime, I’ll see you on the beach.