When does childhood end? Is there a specific predetermined age? Or is there a vague defining moment in life when the essence of childhood is lost forever?
I think one hallmark of reaching adulthood is coming to a stage in life when problems genuinely don’t go away by themselves, you can’t pass on your own worries to others, and you have to make your own decisions by yourself. It dawns on you that you’re on your own. You have one life and very little control over it. The problems of childhood pale in comparison: a child has elders that can be turned to for guidance and comfort. A child is not out there alone, facing the true nature of the world.
In addition to children and adults, there is a third category of people– quasi-adults. These people look like adults, but they’ve never quite grown up. Due to serious developmental deficiencies they expect an omniscient, omnipotent being to listen to and answer their prayers whenever they face problems in their lives. They can’t deal with their flawed impermanence. They can’t accept that as they cling to wreckage in the whirlwind of their lives, help is not on the way from some celestial chopper.
It may come as a surprise that I love to cook. Since I left the laboratory environment nearly a decade ago, cooking has been an outlet for me to experiment with materials and methods in a small way. It is cause and effect in a contained environment. It is chemistry at the interface of biology and physics. And most importantly, it has the tangible outcome of a (usually edible) meal that can be shared, critiqued, and improved.
But in my case, the similarities between cooking and science are not perfect. While I trained in science for many years, I have no formal training in cooking. In science, everything has to be measured precisely: protocols have to be followed exactly until you are confident enough to make one change at a time to optimize your experiment. When I cook, I try to understand ingredients and procedures as much as I can– often through trial-and-error– but I don’t follow exact recipes. I substitute ingredients quite often: I also try to replicate what I’ve eaten and enjoyed based on a personal sense of taste.
Maybe a better comparison can be made in my case between music and cooking. I was never taught how to play a culinary instrument, but I know what is music and what is not. Similarly, it took me years to recognize good food. It possesses an economy of seasoning: it is not loud or overbearing, but balanced. Like a jazz musician, my own style consists of improvisation, but I also know my limitations. I can play for friends in an informal setting, but I’m never going to perform a solo concerto for a paying audience. And, because my cooking is freestyle, by and large, I avoid the exact art of baking.
My son is no stranger to flying. Added up, he’s racked up miles close to half the distance from the earth to the moon. Of course, the longest of his many flights, in terms of distance, have been the ones taken during his four visits to India. Each time it has progressively been harder for him to come back.
This time, he cried most of the way back. Ever since his return on Friday, he has guarded the suitcases that came back with him. He will not let us unpack them. He wants to take a a red cab to go back to the airport, and take the “bigger plane” back to India.
I vaguely remember the same feeling. When I first moved to America, I was my son’s age. It was very difficult for me to leave the extended family I had grown up with up until that time. For the first few months, in our Brooklyn apartment, I hid pieces of chocolate and other goodies behind the sofa for the trip back when I would give them to my grandmother. One time, I had safeguarded a banana, which was discovered when it had rotted to a black pulp.
Those memories had been hidden for decades until my son unlocked them.
When we moved, the walls were a blank canvas of white. We had them painted over so we could add a touch of our own warmth. A house is never a home until it reminds you of who you were with and where you had been. Adding images of life to virtual walls on social media is easy– there is no geometry, the photos do not look back and hear your conversations. The corners of real walls, paradoxically. may be jagged, but they can be navigated when light is like clay– soft and malleable.
The poet Agha Shahid Ali wrote that rooms are never finished. I think it is true because walls are never finished. Some walls need to be painted and repainted, because the color is never right. Some walls need to be empty. Some walls need to capture emotions inside frames. Some walls have images within images. Some walls need to scream, “I exist. Here I am. Remember me until I crumble into dust.”