How the catfish saved my life

42d0d8f9afd26ab51f18d1a088946715I went to the store just as the latest Northeast snow storm was getting underway. Groceries were needed, and looking ahead, something to make for dinner on Sunday. I decided on fish. Tilapia. I asked the nice fish man for two pieces and as he was about to get them I noticed the note above the fish – previously frozen. I asked him if they could be refrozen, being that it was Thursday and I didn’t feel great about keeping the fish in the fridge until Sunday, always feeling extra careful about food-borne maladies – my mother taught us to simmer canned beans and other canned goods for at least 20 minutes to prevent botulism, among other things, a wise move being I lived in the Middle East.

The fish man paused for a moment and recommended I keep the fish in the fridge, lest it lose its texture if I refroze it.

I paused. … I didn’t want pre-frozen fish if I couldn’t freeze it without changing its texture, I didn’t want to keep it in the fridge. I didn’t want the tilapia.

So I nodded and said “Sure, ok”.


And familiar.

The fish man wrapped the fish and weighed it. The internal NO that had begun to build in my nervous system now morphed itself into a creeping queasiness.

Old. And familiar.

These are the words that might have expressed what I felt in my body, though the experience itself was not verbal, it was physical:

NO, I don’t want the fish now, I’ve changed my mind, I see some good looking catfish, fresh, not pre-frozen … I could bread it and fry it, serve it with couscous and greens, I could cook it in a delicious sauce of tomatoes, and turmeric, and spices, yes yes, that’s what I’d like … but I can’t say it now, can’t inconvenience the fish man, too late, what’s done is done, I’ll make do, I’ll refreeze the tilapia, it’ll be fine, I’ll cook it nice like I always do. It’s really ok.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been re-reading Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg, maybe it’s because it was the new year and I needed a resolution, or perhaps it was the years of aspiring to and practicing awareness of my own body and mind, for my own sake and for the sake of others … but the nausea of what I was doing, in the seconds that followed, as the fish man wrapped and weighed the pre-frozen fish, became unbearable. More unbearable than the taboo of changing my mind and inconveniencing someone with my desire.

“I’ve changed my mind. I’d like to take two pieces of catfish instead please”.

“Sure, no problem”.

This seems like a trivial example. That’s true in a sense. The example is trivial.

The dynamic that was operating underneath it, however, is anything but.

It’s something I see over and over again not just in myself, but in the many people I work with. The lightning fast, pre-verbal obliteration of personhood that sweeps in to avoid the perceived discomfort that may be caused by its recognition and expression – It’s really ok, what I want doesn’t matter, doesn’t exist, I’ll make do.

Do I dare disturb the Universe? – from The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot, is one of my favorite lines in a poem.

Making a shift that serves our own well-being requires, I believe, complete self-awareness of mind and body.

And nausea. And disturbance.

When what we’ve been doing out of habit and fear becomes more sickening than the perceived alternative, then, and only then, will we make a real change. In a sense it has to start small, and trivial. But then it’s not really small, or trivial.

This applies not only to the internal violence that I’m talking about here and that is an all too common problem in our culture, but also to the external violence of hurting others through anger and hatred.

“Human beings are very intelligent and have a great power of self-awareness,” says Tibetan Buddhist teacher and scholar Robert Thurman. He adds, “Once we get over the brainwashing idea that we’re just creature of habit and there’s nothing we can do about overcoming this emotional reaction, this rigidity of self-identity that we have, as we get over that we realize that we can be responsible for how we are, what we think, say, and do. We can change it for the better, and we can have a much happier life.” (From an interview published in Chronogram)

Catfish recipe to follow in the next post.

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4 responses to “How the catfish saved my life

  1. Thanks Tenkei! Lovely post – real & true & familiar, although I tend to save the behavior for my nearest & dearest, not the fellow behind the counter.

    Zuisei probably told you my happy news — if not, you’ll have to wait to hear it from me in person. Big grin.

    love, Shoju

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