Darker Days

Pomegranates are a food that fights you, which is one of the reasons I love them so. I like to work for my food, which is one of the reasons I adore things like artichokes, which actively try to hurt you as you painstakingly deconstruct them so you can eat them. I’m not quite sure what this says about me; maybe that I am stubborn or that I enjoy flirting with danger while I eat or that I appreciate being forced to slow down in at least one aspect of my life. All of these things run contrary to one of the core elements about me that I’m least proud of: I don’t like doing things that are hard.

Selecting a pomegranate is a careful game, as the fruit provides no clues and is largely inscrutable. A specimen with a rich, red, delightful colour could prove lacklustre inside, while the most dulled of fruits may in fact be delicious. Some deceive by size, luring you in only to reveal thick pith and tiny seeds. Others are heavy, but it’s all water. The perfect pomegranate is known more by sense than by external traits. Some people have the knack of choosing them, and others do not. I wouldn’t say it’s an innate skill, but sometimes it feels like it.

Once you’ve selected a pomegranate, opening it is an equally careful exercise, as you carefully slice through the pith with knives or fingernails, taking care to avoid puncturing the bright, colourful seeds within — if you do, you lose precious fruit and end up with red juices spilled all over you. Then comes the careful tearing away of the pitch, the gentle removal of the membrane, the slightly desperate, greedy consumption of the seeds, as they’ve required such pain, such labour, that there is a part of you that becomes almost frenzied when faced with the prize.

Pomegranates are one of my favourite winter fruits. Aside from their flavour, they push me into a strange, trance-like state as I pick them apart and eat them, and I find myself surprised when I fill up long before the fruit is finished, because I’ve actually had time to digest as I eat, instead of wolfing down the fruit and then feeling unexpectedly, painfully, unpleasantly full. There is something deeply pleasurable about picking at a pomegranate while I read on a rainy day, about taking one to the cliffs and thoughtfully nibbling at it as I watch the ocean, tossing pith below.

And there is something deeply tragic about opening one only to discover withered, tragic seeds with almost no flesh at all around them, or those gone to rot, a sickly-sweet smell pouring out from beneath my fingers, a slimy slush trickling out onto the table or my lap as I finally finish cracking the fruit open to access what’s inside. It makes me bitter and frustrated, mainly with myself for failing at picking the perfect fruit, the one that cracks open beautifully to yield what it keeps inside, the one that fills me with delighted glee when I finally peel back enough of the pith and membrane to glimpse the seeds, hidden like rubies inside — yes, it’s an overused metaphor, but it’s so apt.

I suppose most of us don’t like to do things that are hard, even if we claim to like challenges and things that push us to new heights. Why take the hard route when there’s an easy one? If you could have what you want handed to you, wouldn’t you take it, instead of insisting on stubbornly doing it your own way? My own unwillingness to do things that are hard infuriates me, though, because I feel it acutely as a personal failure, a part of myself that I should work at — because when things are handed to me, I feel that I don’t deserve them, and I live in guilt that I got a pass, a freebie.

For those of us to whom some things come very easily, it’s tempting to be spoilt, and to turn away from things that are difficult. For me, writing came and comes very easily, even though my abilities and skill are, of course, variable from day to day. But even from a young age, it never occurred to me to doubt my writing ability, and no one around me cast doubtful shadows upon me — even though in childhood and through my teens I actually didn’t want to be a writer, which is perhaps a story for another day, writing came as effortlessly and thoughtlessly for me as walking on level ground, and I didn’t understand why so many of my peers struggled with it. I failed to make the connection between my struggles with math in the face of others’ effortless and casual skill and the reverse, that I could be good at something that others couldn’t, or had to work hard for.

The consequence of being good at writing throughout childhood and into adulthood — I don’t deceive myself, there are many talented writers out there and I am not the only one, nor the best of them — is that I didn’t push myself to be good at other things. I didn’t push myself to be better at math. I didn’t push myself to be better at science. I didn’t push myself to be good at people, to exercise those skills that seem to come so easily to others, to be able to read emotions and handle social situations with grace and to not be clunky and terrible at every human interaction. One of the things I pledged to myself, privately, last year was that I would try to get better at people this year, and I honestly don’t know if I succeeded at all, even minutely, which I think is the most telling testimony of all — that we don’t like to do hard things, and that we lose all sense of perspective when it comes to judging whether we’re doing any better at them.

I don’t know if I got better or worse at people this year, but I do know this, on the shortest day of the year: I didn’t get good enough.