My phone’s screensaver is a stranger named Rahul who won the 2017 season of the Great British Bake Off. A nuclear physics researcher, unbearably nervous and self deprecating, he is a folk hero in my home. An Indian immigrant to Britain, Rahul didn’t start baking until he was 29 years old as a way to stave off the loneliness of being away from family. Between apologies for baking what the judges repeatedly called perfect creations, Rahul cooked through his nerves to win a competitive season on one of my favorite shows – so yes, I do in fact get a jolt of joy every time I see his smiling face and a rainbow cupcake on my locked phone.
I do not love Rahul because he is a winner. I love him because he reminds of the life changing realization I waded through in the last year. His shy smile peeking up at me quickly says: there is magic in ordinary living. Actually, the whole of the Bake Off is an exercise in this idea. The contestants come to bake on the weekends in between their chaotic lives and jobs. They compete for nothing more than a cake plate. They are moms and grandmothers and brothers and sisters and dads. They are people who work nine to five and then come home and love to share the joy of a meal or a bake with their family and friends. To glorify them in all of their amateur wonder is to celebrate the grandeur that exists in the every day.
Food for me has been a complicated matter since I was in elementary school and went on my first Weight Watchers diet. I cooked only as a way to solve the problem of hunger for me and my brothers and my mom. When I fell in love with a man who loved food and cooking for the simple joy of creating a new recipe and of making me happy – I resented the pounds I packed on from food I enjoyed rather than sustained myself on. In those days I was sick enough that I didn’t have energy to make the plain grilled chicken and vegetables I had eaten almost every day before we met, and Zach (my then-boyfriend, then-fiancé) refused to cook those bland meals for me on principle. I would devour all of the flavors and the goodness of his rich foods and desserts, then ride the wave of intense shame that followed for days.
Years later, healing my relationship with food has been a part of healing my relationship with ordinary. I had existed on so few calories for so many years that I didn’t realize how little room there was in my life for anything but focusing on shrinking my body and clearing my skin to make myself model pretty. Being involved in the acting scene and doing some modeling gave me a compulsion that filled all of my free time. The rules around what I could and could not eat, the articles on the newest diet – the obsession with wellness, those took up too much room to allow for any sort of daily appreciation of things like creating a meal you enjoy. That was quite simply, not the point of my life. I did not have time to appreciate the wonder of every day because I was single-minded on becoming the kind of person who people could look at with superhero worship.
In reflection, I can see that food is just one of the symptoms of my inability to find satisfaction in daily living. There was within me a powerful sense of unease, incompleteness constantly demanding my attention and my maintenance and self-policing. The misery I felt in myself seemed to have only one antidote: greatness. I would be happy when I got to this follower count, when I booked this job. The loneliness I felt could only go away if there were more eyes looking at me. I didn’t understand the truth that you arrive wherever you’re headed as the person you are, miserable or otherwise.
We’re told to put our lives on hold to achieve more quickly, to make sacrifices so that we can get to the pinnacle by the time we’re thirty. We are given images of people who’ve “made it” without asking about or investigating those who live happy lives without an audience. Years ago a therapist asked me who my role models were. I rattled off a couple of celebrity names. She asked if there was anyone I knew personally whom I admired. I couldn’t think of one person. It was not that there were no admirable people in my life, but that I had not learned to admire qualities that exist in people who are just normal people. I mistook fame as a proxy for worthiness – not understanding that the machine behind who gets on the stage is not a meritocracy.
Perhaps it was the brushes of success I had in film, or the reality of being disabled and limited in what I could do, but the people I admire now are much closer to Rahul - without the cake plate. People for whom their career is rewarding, their family (chosen and otherwise) is loved well, and their life is filled with equal shares of doing good and being satisfied. I no longer look to those who are the best, but to those who are truly doing their best. There is magic in finding satisfaction in an ordinary day lived well.
At times in my life I have been unable to walk more than a few steps. I’ve had days where I was stuck in bed. I’ve had bouts of dizziness and fogginess that lasted for weeks. Sadness that left me mute and immobile. These days, to take a long walk to the lake and watch the cows in the pasture near me is bliss of the highest and simplest order. To read a book and remember its words is sublime. To be wholly myself is a gift unimaginable. Life taken in this context no longer has to be unusual to fulfilling. To be able to do good things is more than I knew I wanted back when I was chasing the trappings of being seen.
Tonight I am baking cupcakes for Halloween and icing them for the simple joy of doing something fun for myself and eating red velvet cake. I’d like to think they’d make Rahul proud. I might post them for the world to see and I might not – like my life, they are mine to enjoy.