During my gap year I used to play a game with myself, or, if not quite a game, a sort of mental exercise in minimalism: what luxuries did I need the most?
I spent a lot of the year dogged by a constant sense of not measuring up, not taking advantage, not doing being writing making as much as I should. I was scared of independence, and scared most of all that I was unable to be independent. I was (am) conscious of how my ten years in Singapore had plumped and primped me, rendered my street senses nonexistent, my ego overinflated, my elitism ingrained in far more ways than I wanted to confront. My material comforts were fulfilled in nearly every way. So I wanted to know—as I started stripping them away, where did I start wanting? Was I unprepared for anything without fifteen inches of cushioned safety net? Or stronger than I realized?
By the end of the year I came up with an answer to the question: peanut butter and dark chocolate.
The peanut butter because I know if I have a jar of Skippy’s (or whatever brand I found in the random Balkans convenience store) in my backpack, I would never go hungry, no matter how long the train journey. A bowl of oatmeal, a slice of toast: everything became more satisfying dolloped with crunchy peanut butter, which inevitably sticks in my teeth until I brush, the vaguely nutty aroma hanging around as a reminder that yes, I am satisfied. Dark chocolate—which generally I carry with me, loading up when I find Lindt bars for 30% off in the Singaporean supermarket—because I know I always have a small luxury to look forward to. Nothing made a cold afternoon in the Himalayas more decadent than perching inside my tent with a crevice open to the elements, watching everything fade under a light wash of snowfall, and nibbling gently on a square of dark chocolate with orange peel—or, at a stretch, the 25 rupee Amul dark chocolate the small market had piled beneath a dusty glass pane.
I came up with peanut butter and dark chocolate as the ultimate combination on one such afternoon when I had the brainwave of dipping my dark chocolate square in peanut butter. (Verdict: okay, may try again.)
I had trialled and dismissed many items over the year until then—my phone, sure, but then my charger broke when I began the Himalayan camp and it was rendered effectively worthless. My Kindle, sometimes, but I could, shocker, always just talk to people. My journal and pencils, yeah, but I would always be able to find something write with if I really needed. My camera, I felt the lack of when it wasn’t there, absolutely, but often that feeling forced me to look at my surroundings deeper than I would have otherwise. A bed—yes, it made a difference, but you could sleep anywhere if you were tired enough. A stable room, a change of clothes—yes, it also made a difference, but hiking pants survive surprisingly long without washing.
So peanut butter and dark chocolate it was. A reason to stay, a reason to move forward.
Peanut butter and dark chocolate were one of the first things I asked my parents to drop off for me here. I haven’t broken into the peanut butter yet (I am fed, very well fed), but I have been savoring a square of the dark chocolate after nearly every meal. I place it on my tongue and let it melt, gradually, so the taste stays as long as possible. The slight bitterness coats the back of my throat. Once I compared that lingering bitterness to regret in an overemotional poem I’ve long since deleted. I’m not sure how I feel about that association now.
It’s not that every time in the last three years when I have had peanut butter and dark chocolate, I’ve been happy. Far from it. Even during my gap year when I had everything in my grasp I was still frequently dissatisfied and restless. This winter, in a dorm room on my college campus, peanut butter and dark chocolate were one of the first things I bought. Those ten weeks were perhaps the saddest I’ve ever spent.
But now it’s more about what the objects represent and whether I let myself remember that or not. Of course inner harmony and satisfaction and happiness comes from making peace with yourself first, given basic necessities, and all that Buddhist yogic nonsense my mother is the first to spout as soon as I say anything about sadness or discontent.
But things can help. Not always, not the exclusion of anything else, not in excess. But having something to look at that reminds me I am supported reminds me. Someone is there for me. Someone is looking out. Even if that someone is just myself. Especially if that someone is just myself.