Ramadan afforded me the opportunity to approach the precipice of starvation and look out. From this vantage, I could see how food is understood by our bodies as hope and joy; its absence can lead to despair and sorrow. At times I felt its abandonment as if it were an actual friend. It didn’t help that my human pals seemed to be steering clear of me, saying we’d catch up after my Ramadan experience was over, as if our friendships were based on cramming goodies into our mouths. One day I felt so lonely and depressed that I convinced myself a small snack was a medical necessity to cheer me up. I ate a few almonds hoping they might function in my system like Prozac.
Every evening, as the minutes ticked closer to the time for food, I found that my hunger—which had inevitably dissipated sometime in the late afternoon—would kick back in. Just knowing I’d eat soon seemed to reengage some vital link between my belly and my brain. I worried, then, about those for whom hunger is a real problem—the kind of challenge that recurs, persistent and corrosive. What would happen if I didn’t see an end in sight? How devastating to face hunger again and again without knowing if or when you’ll eat again. It’s not just a physical toll, it’s emotional too.
If this experience was designed to heighten my gratitude for food and drink, it did that in spades. I began to think of water as “beautiful, beautiful water.” I ran an errand one afternoon and the cashier was enjoying an icy beverage from a to-go cup—the clear kind with matching lid and a straw. The liquid inside was amber; I imagined it was an herbal tea of some sort. I made believe it was mint-flavored. I waited in her line, mesmerized by the sight of the frosty condensation gathered across the plastic. I could not look away as she picked up the drink. The spots where her fingers gripped displaced tiny beads of moisture causing larger droplets to snake down. Outside, the temperature was a bone dry 95 degrees and I was approaching my 13th hour with no water. I stared unabashedly as she lifted the straw to her lips and sucked. The sight caused a slight dampness to bloom at the back of my tongue, but it was too little to swallow.
After having been apart from water, my very first sip back offered instantaneous relief and pleasure. It was an uncomplicated homecoming. With food, the re-acquaintance process was more measured, as if the time away had somehow damaged my trust. Even though the last 30 minutes or so before the fast’s end were usually some of the most difficult mentally—a point at which my Willy Wonka fantasies often kicked into overdrive—when the hour finally struck, I approached my meals cautiously. I would start with something small like toast or dates and graduate to items with more substance. I would eat methodically, over the course of many hours, my satisfaction building gradually until, at last, I felt absolutely content.
I was so excited by my normal routine when Ramadan ended. No more middle of the night water chugging. I could hydrate whenever I wanted. I resumed drinking coffee, a ritual I hadn’t realized was so vital to my productivity and sense of wellbeing. My appreciation for lunch and mid-day snacks soared. To eat before one’s energy begins to flag struck me as a revelation. My thinking was sharper, my limbs more adept. I could take walks in the middle of the day. I was instantly more cheerful.