For the past six months, I’ve been making radical changes to my diet. I won’t bore you with the nitty-gritty, but it started with a “detox” that I was required to participate in before I could consult with a nutritionist whose waiting list I’d been on for several months. I’d been told that this nutritionist could help me with an autoimmune disease I’ve been struggling with for several years. I’d tried diets before, but this was different because it was very rigorous and because I had to report back to someone about the results. Also, I was paying for it — though not for any food items. Instead I paid $99 to spend hours concocting dairy-free asparagus and leek soups, kale smoothies, and vegetable stews. Every smoothie I made seemed to come out the same weird green. One dish of lentils, eggplant, and onions was such an unappetizing brown puddle of mush that my husband just laughed when I served it. Luckily, it was tasty. Then again, anything is tasty when you haven’t had dairy, gluten, refined sugar, corn, potatoes, processed foods, or alcohol for several weeks.
The miracle of this detox, and the diet that I’ve adapted from it, is that it really did work! Symptoms that plagued me for years have vanished. Most significantly, I’m free of a nagging and sharp hip pain that used to flare up unpredictably, making it difficult to exercise or even walk a few blocks. Some of you may be thinking, I could never give up pizza/pasta/baked goods, but you’d be surprised at the will power you can muster when carbohydrates are pitted against chronic pain. I can’t tell you how dispiriting it was to wake up and realize, as soon as I put my feet on the floor, that it was going to be a limping day. I would start to panic, wondering how bad it would be by the end of the day, and how many days it would last, and how many activities I would have to reschedule or cancel. The only thing I could do for comfort was to pop a Tylenol and tell myself that it really didn’t hurt that much, and that someday it would go away. And then I would wince as I lifted my son out of his crib and he would say, “Oh, Mommy! Your hip hurting?”
What does any of this have to do with Marcel Proust, you’re wondering? Well, I could probably relate anything in my daily life to something I’ve read in these first two volumes of In Search of Lost Time, because it’s such a vast landscape, but today, I want to write about Habit — and I’m going to capitalize it, and personify it, as Proust does. We all know that our diets are influenced by Habit, and we all know that dietary habits are hard to change — in fact, as a culture we are obsessed with dietary habits, and the difficulty of changing them — and yet we do not truly acknowledge the force of Habit. Or at least, I didn’t. I guess I should speak for myself here, with some help from Proust.
The first time Proust mentions Habit is right in the opening pages, when it is described as “that skillful and unhurrying manager.” I read those pages in January, when I was putting my diet back on track after the holidays. I underlined the phrase, nodding in recognition. I felt I knew Habit quite well; I saw her as a quietly efficient administrative assistant, the kind that keeps the boss on schedule by strategic use of Outlook reminders and borderline passive-aggressive sticky notes. I found her annoying but trustworthy.
Now that I am a little further along in what I ironically/unironically refer to as my “health journey,” I don’t have the same impression of Habit. Now I think Habit is more like a stagehand, a woman dressed all in black who tiptoes onto the set between scenes. At first you notice her presence and watch with curiosity, but then you lose interest and begin to look at the program notes or whisper to the person next to you. Before you know it, a new scene is in place, the actors are carrying on with the story, and even if you concentrate, it’s hard to remember how the stage used to look. In this way, Habit is linked to memory. Habit helps us to remember certain periods of our life, e.g., the time when I lived near a pool and swam every morning. But it also blurs perception; once a behavior becomes habitual, we stop paying attention to it. Looking back on those swimming pool years, we remember the pool visits in a generalized way, not each visit in particular. Proust argues that are senses are always dulled: “As a rule it is with our being reduced to a minimum that we live; most of our faculties lie dormant because they can rely upon Habit, which knows what there is to be done and has no need of their services.” Habit, Proust writes, is “analgesic.” It takes away the pain of homesickness, of love lost, and of change in general, by making us forget the visceral reality of previous experience.
It’s been six months since I’ve had a slice of baguette with soft cheese. This used to be one of my favorite things to eat, but the other night I was at a party and there was a beautifully arranged cheese plate next to a basket of bread rounds. I stared at the plate, trying to summon up an appetite. I knew, intellectually, that bread and cheese was something I had once craved, but I couldn’t really remember why. I felt like I should be happy that I wasn’t tempted — wasn’t this the state of zen I’d been promised, if I stuck to the diet? — but instead I felt sad for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate. Luckily, Proust is the bard of vague melancholy, and the next morning I read a passage in Volume II that spoke so directly to my experience that I felt like crying. It was about Habit, of course.
Before I get to that passage, I want to write about some other things. It’s going to be a bit of a ramble, but let me start with an email I received from a friend whose doctor had put her on a diet similar to mine. We traded recipes and then she wrote something that stuck with me: “I’m surprised by how emotional it is.” I knew just what she meant. When I started my diet, I thought the difficulty would be in dealing with the cravings, but since I had such immediate pain relief, fighting temptation has been relatively easy. Socially, it’s been a bit more complicated, especially when I have to turn down delicious homemade food, or when I get to a restaurant and there are only two things I can order. I’ve learned to “pre-eat” before I go out, and to laugh at how vain I sound when I have to ask if there’s anything on the menu that doesn’t have grain, dairy, or refined sugar. Lately, I’m even learning how to end a day without a glass of wine, and how to begin one without a cup of coffee. So, on the surface, it’s all going very well, but as I succumb to Habit, I can’t help feeling as if a way of life, and a way of being in the world has been lost. And that’s the emotional piece.
The last time I remember feeling this sensitive about changing my habits is when I was 20 and I decided give up competitive running. After a summer of intense training, I attended my first week of practice and realized that I didn’t care if I ever ran another race in my life. The feeling took me by surprise. My coach was angry. My parents were mystified, because racing had always made me so happy. I broke the news to them when they called on a Sunday afternoon and I remember I started crying on the phone because they’d asked if I’d just come back from my long Sunday run. I hadn’t, of course. Long Sunday runs were suddenly a thing of the past. And even though I wanted to be free of long Sunday runs so that I would have time to read and write and maybe even take in a matinee, it hit me that in giving up running, I would relinquish dozens of hard-earned habits: the habit of going to bed early, the habit of morning stretching, the habit of afternoon practice, the habit of team dinners, the habit of racing (and all the micro-habits that attend an athlete on race day), the habit of Saturday night’s party, and of course, the habit of Sunday’s long run. I was tired of feeling beholden to these habits, but I also knew that they were the structure of my life. I was burning down the house — why? So I could stay up late and read? So I could write? (Could I write?) What if it wasn’t worth the sacrifice?
In a recent interview, the film director Richard Linklater said that you don’t really grow up until you give up playing sports. He gave up baseball his sophomore year of college and that’s when he started getting into theater and figuring out what he wanted to do with his life. Pretty much the same thing happened to me. I started reading more — I read Proust! — and I took my first creative writing classes. I still ran, but just for fun, without keeping track of mileage or pacing. It was like I couldn’t get serious about my real ambitions until I took running less seriously.
Changing my diet at 37 isn’t exactly the same coming-of-age moment. But it has caused me to take a step back and look at the structure of my days, to find out what habits have crept in over the years. I would evoke the word “mindfulness” if the word had any meaning left it in. Instead I’ll quote Proust, who notes “the selfish, active, practical, mechanical, indolent, centrifugal tendency which is that of the human mind.” Our attention is so easily scattered, and so invested in pleasure-seeking, that we cling to fantasy, especially fantasies of the future: “the mind prefers to imagine it [a particular pleasure] in the future tense, to continue to bring about the circumstances which may make it recur — which, while giving us no clue as the real nature of the thing, saves us the trouble of recreating it without ourselves and allows us hope that we may receive it afresh from without.”
Around this time last year, my husband was interviewing for a job in San Francisco. He got so far in the interview process that we began to seriously contemplate a cross-country move. I was surprised to find that I was excited about the idea — surprised because normally, like Marcel (and Proust himself) I hate moving. But I had a fantasy about my new California lifestyle, which would involve lots of hiking outdoors, fresh vegetables, green juice, surfing, and of course, sunshine. Without even really trying, I’d upend all my terrible NYC habits (caffeine, booze, Internet browsing, stress) and would finally be free of chronic pain! My skin would clear up! My mood would improve! My energy levels would be through the roof! When the California job didn’t come through, I was disappointed for myself as much as for my husband. I realized that I was craving change and, at the same time, I was resisting it. I didn’t want to get bogged down in the banalities of diet. Of stress reduction. I didn’t want to be that person who sets timers and plans meals and ends the day with mint tea — or rather, I didn’t want to be the person who decided to do those things. I just wanted California to force its legendary healthy culture upon me so that I wouldn’t have to think about why I was doing it or what it meant.
There’s a beautiful scene in Volume II in which Marcel observes the sunrise from his train berth. He’s en route to Balbec, a seaside town. Marcel’s parents hope that the fresh ocean air will relieve his asthma; Marcel, meanwhile, is hoping to be cured of his unrequited love for M. Swann’s daughter, Gilberte. The train ride is an exhilarating pleasure with its sunrise views and windows onto village life. He enjoys the novelty of travel, the way it makes him more attentive to beauty. (At his doctor’s advice, he also enjoys a few beers from the bar car, to calm his nerves.) It’s not until Marcel settles into his hotel room that he begins feel homesick. He tells himself that the homesickness will pass as his room becomes familiar and new habits take root. He reasons that in time, he will no longer pine for Gilberte. But he cannot convince himself; in fact, his rational explanations only make him feel worse and vaguely melancholy.
Why is it sad to change habits even when change is desired and hoped for? This is the question Marcel asks and answers in his hotel room — and this is the passage I read the morning after the party with the cheese plate. How ridiculous I feel, typing that! It feels silly to mourn party food. But for Marcel, every change of habit, even a superficial one, represents a death of self:
“it would be in a real sense the death of the self, a death followed, it is true, by resurrection, but in a different self, to the love of which the elements of the old self that are condemned to die cannot bring themselves to aspire. It is they — even the meanest of them, such as our obscure attachment to the dimensions, to the atmosphere of a bedroom — that take fright and refuse, in acts of rebellion which we must recognize to be a secret, partial, tangible and true aspect of our resistance to death, of the long, desperate, daily resistance to the fragmentary and continuous death that insinuates itself throughout the whole course of our life.”
Even the meanest of them. I love that. I stumbled on that clause at first, and even reread the sentence without it, wondering if it was necessary. But then I realized that it was the line that most applied to my situation — because Marcel is talking there, of the attachments we consider unimportant: the party foods of life, the mediocre TV shows, the old sofas, the ill-fitting jeans, the subway tokens, the store we never visited but the shuttering of which fills us with a strange sense of loss. We cling to behaviors, objects, rooms, foods, places, and even people that we don’t care for simply because they have become integrated into our lives, and to bring an end to them would mean bringing an end to a certain period of time. In the bones of our bones, we don’t want to be reminded of time’s passage. We can’t bear to think too deeply about the fact that we’re in a story with an ending.
In our culture, there is a lot of judgment attached to habits. There are good ones and bad ones and people with good habits are thought to be more virtuous. But in Proust, Habit does not vet habits; it simply implements them. And what I love about the above passage about the death and resurrection of self is that there is no talk of self-improvement. It’s not that one version of yourself dies and another, better one takes its place — that would be the American interpretation. I’m so tired of that flattening narrative! Thinking in those terms is a habit in and of itself.
And yet I often give voice to the culture of betterment, smiling when asked about my new diet and emphasizing my improved health. I don’t say that I suddenly feel my age, which is another way of saying that I’ve been aware, for the past few months, of death. Lately, it seems like every cultural figure who passes away is someone who already means something to me, whereas it used to be that a famous death was an education. David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Garry Shandling, and Harper Lee were not idols of mine, and obviously not personal friends, but they had a place in my imagination. Mourning them means letting go of a certain vision of the world — certain habits of mind.
The irony is that writing about death, and facing my very natural fear of it, does not bring me down. If anything, it cheers me. Another thing I love about the passage I’ve quoted is that it’s immediately followed by a lively, comic scene in which Marcel awakens in a good mood and heads downstairs to breakfast. His grandmother causes a ruckus when she opens a window to let in the fresh air. The wind sweeps into the room, annoying everyone as it sends menus and newspapers flying about. But Marcel’s grandmother is oblivious. She loves the smell of the sea air, the sun on her skin. She doesn’t notice that her grandson is embarrassed. She has opened the window for him, because he needs the fresh air. She wants, more than anything, for him to outlive her.