So I made this cake last Sunday to share with the Joy Search Party gathering in my apartment on Monday. It was a white cake with chocolate chips, and the first thing I’d baked since the car accident I was in several weeks ago. This felt like major progress since I’d been languishing physically, mentally, and emotionally since then.
Or let’s be honest. Some of the languishing was not new. Grief had been the metronome of my year, controlling my tempo, limiting my music. Still. I could make this cake.
On Monday, around four o’clock, I considered leaving the cake unfrosted and thus relegating it to muffin-hood. Honestly, that would have been the best choice, given that I was still so tired and off kilter. Then I could have taken a leisurely shower, and stretched my sore body out on the ground before attendees started arriving around six-thirty.
But no, how could I leave the cake alone like that? A joy workshop required a cake with frosting, didn’t it? It wouldn’t be so much work. I even had Mike pick me up a package of Pamela’s frosting mix to make it easy. All I had to do was add coconut oil.
Although, if I’m going to make frosting, I should make it spectacular. Shouldn’t I? I eyed the huckleberry balsamic vinegar, something that really fits into the ambrosia-food-of-the-goddess category, and felt delighted by my brilliance. This frosting would probably knock the socks off of the Barefoot Contessa, which would be no small feat (Note: I really, really wanted to type feet here, but I didn’t).
I got out my hand mixer and attached the beaters. I poured the Pamela’s mix into a metal bowl, added the coconut oil and a tablespoon of vinegar to start, and I mixed. Soon I had a bowl full of little brown balls, like pie dough when you first mix in the cold butter before you smoosh it together and roll it flat. Maybe I should have gotten out the rolling pin at that point and done just that. But I didn’t.
Retrospect is such a jerk of a know-it-all.
I kept mixing, but something was wrong. I held the bowl tightly, metal clicking on metal, me scraping like a champ, and willed it to reach the magical moment when it shifted from rabbit turds into a deliciously spreadable cake topping. That didn’t happen. Even after five minutes.
Now friends, this wasn’t my first icing (I am from Pennsylvania, and if you’re not, icing=frosting) rodeo, so I was perplexed. Maybe it needed more liquid. I added a little water and another tablespoon of vinegar. I mixed. Five more minutes.
Now, I was tasting as I went, and I loved the flavor. Sweet, tart, a little edgy. But damn it, the consistency was still like the crumble for a coffee cake.
(And double damn it because just now as I’m writing this I realize that’s what I could have done with it. Stupid retrospect.)
I looked at the frosting bag for clues, and the directions did say that it took time to smooth out. Okay. To my recollection, it had never taken this long. Still, okay Pamela, maybe I could mix some more. Five more minutes. Nothing.
It was about 4:30 by now, and I still needed to shower and finish getting ready for the workshop. Also, I had a mess. Because blending crumbles leads to flying crumbles, tiny wads of powdered sugar and vinegar and coconut oil covered the kitchen counter and stove.
I stopped mixing and thought. Aha! The coconut oil is too cold and needs to melt. That’s it! I quickly filled a saucepan with water, lit the burner and set the metal bowl in it. I stirred and waited. Waited and stirred. I did a few dishes, wiped up the crumble droppings, and stirred.
Twenty minutes later, I thought I noticed some measure of melting, so I took it off and blended. No change, save a little more goop factor. I suspected that the vinegar was betraying me and had curdled the frosting.
Some other more balanced being might have given up by now, but not me. I hate giving up. An opinion, a great idea, a bad attitude, control. I put it back on the stove for a while and took it off and tried again. Nothing.
I walked away, although the frosting did not leave my mind. I moved furniture into place for the workshop, readied some other supplies, and wiped up the kitchen again. It was probably 5:30 by then, so I took a rushed shower, got dressed and returned to the kitchen. I may also have had the sugar shakes by then, because Project Frosting made me forget to actually eat dinner, and all I’d had were wads of fat and sugar.
Again, I could have given up. But I didn’t want to. I started it so I had to finish it. I needed to frost this cake, come hell or high water. I decided to go rogue. I got out a bag of powdered sugar and more coconut oil and slid aside the bowl of despair. I cleaned the beaters, and in a new mixing bowl, tried again.
Almost immediately, smooth and lovely frosting appeared. Victory!
Still, I wanted that incredible huckleberry balsamic flavor, so I added just a little, confirming that it was the curdling culprit. Luckily, since I’d already blended the fat and sugar, the curdling was minimal and just sort of speckled the frosting. Flavor wise, it turned out just fine, but consistency, well, I’d give it a C, for Curdled.
Or for chemistry, a subject that baffled me in high school. I just wasn’t good at it. I passed, but it didn’t make sense easily to me, and I had to fight to get it. If I was a natural at chemistry, I would probably have thought about how oil and vinegar work together and even when you keep shaking it up for salad dressing, they quickly separate. But I didn’t think about that then.
Anyway, I frosted the cake, finished getting ready, without down time, and soon, it was time for the workshop. The Joy Search Party was gracious and happily ate my imperfect cake, and really the cake hadn’t been the point of our gathering anyway. We were deeply considering our lives and excavating joy.
I’d like to say that the story ended here, but it didn’t. Perhaps because I’m the product of parents born into the Great Depression, I can be bullheaded about not wasting. So I didn’t throw the frosting away until Friday morning, four days later. Seriously.
I’m not proud to say that it sat out in my kitchen all week, in the mixing bowl, with a plate over it. It didn’t need refrigeration, and I thought I would figure out something to do with it. It didn’t have weird ingredients. Surely I could repurpose sugar and coconut oil and huckleberry vinegar into something delicious. But I didn’t.
Instead, since counter real estate in our apartment kitchen is severely limited, I kept moving the bowl around to get it out of my way. Occasionally, I’d peek under the plate, expecting to find, well, I don’t know. Insight? Alchemy? A flock of baby vinegar coconut birds cracking out of the crumbles and rising from the mess?
Instead, a whiff of vinegar would stop me every time I walked into the kitchen all week. Whispering creepily from under the plate: I’m still here and you know should do something about me.
Then, Thursday night, Mike, who didn’t want to dirty a new plate (we have some of the same issues), decided to use the frosting lid plate for his evening snack, and thus left my disaster thoroughly exposed on the kitchen table.
I set it on top of the trashcan near the kitchen sink. I don’t know why I didn’t compost it right then, but I didn’t. I couldn’t even bear to deal with those disgusting crumbles, and I walked away.
Friday morning, I found the bowl in the corner of the kitchen floor, taunting me. Probably because Mike needed to use the trash can to thrown garbage out. Novel idea.
And the metaphor, like the unplated bowl of wrecked frosting stared me down to explain something else.
I’ve been struggling so much to use my voice, particularly on social media. I’ve wanted so much to be fierce like my writer friends who charge full on in to each new local, national, and global disaster with biting commentary, calling out bullshit, starting and engaging in tough discussions, rallying me and many others to activism, arguing policy and position, thwarting trolls and still seeming to get their other work done.
I too see the horrors in the world, especially in this horrific week of violence, refugee crisis, ongoing natural disaster crises, and an administration in power in my home country that continues to enrage and disgust me with an unending vile assault on human rights.
I too am a writer. Words are my thing. I know how to use them. I can see bigger pictures. I speak metaphor. I have facility in the language of emotion. I don’t shy away from grief or dark matter. I have and know how to use all of these ingredients. Coconut oil. Sugar. Vinegar.
And yet, I hate arguing on social media. I suck at it. It brings out the worst in me. I have trouble separating my emotions from the emotions of others, especially when they’re intense. They just get wadded up like those curdled crumbles. My whole body gets shaky. I post something edgy or jump onto a friend’s comment thread to defend something or someone, and I self-destruct. I get defensive.
I read and reread, obsess about what I’m going to write or did write or should write. What the other person wrote. I can’t stop thinking or feeling about it. I stew in anger. I chew on comebacks. I step away from the computer but it’s with me all day. I can’t get my other work done. So I keep coming back and mixing, willing the blend to come out smooth. Words, emotions, insights. But I still come out with rabbit turds. I fight to make an offering, but it usually doesn’t work.
Then I feel bad about it because I should be able to make it work, so it sits in my kitchen for a week, souring the air, wasting space, a useless mess. And nothing else gets done in the meantime.
Sometimes, I get it okay, and it comes out only a little curdled, good enough that I can post it or share it. Still, I’m exhausted.
But Friday morning, as I scraped all of that goop into the compost bin, because it was so stuck to the damn bowl, hard pebbles of it hit me in the face, and I understood. This frosting struggle had simply not been the best use of me, just as arguing online is not the best use of me.
Sure those battles on social media could be part of my day, but they aren’t the point of my day. They’re not why I’m here, or the best I can offer.
When I do engage, what happens is that instead of contributing anything, I end up hardening on the floor in the corner of my kitchen. And I want to contribute. I want to and will be part of the resistance. But I have to be in it in a different way. The way I do best.
What I do best is show up and create sanctuary for people and their stories. Space for people to consider their lives deeply and excavate joy. What I do best is offer reverence and cultivate wonder, share levity and depth. And I have to trust in the power of that offering. I also must trust others to offer fierce words with skill and grace, or whatever they do best.
I can’t get trapped in the idea that I’m supposed to be all things to all people, or the arrogance and stubborn blindness that I can be. I’m here to do my work as part of the whole and to trust in the value of that.
It can feel paltry to show up and offer wonder and reverence and levity when the world is hurting so badly. To use my voice that way. And that’s the way I use it best, the way it comes together smoothly and easily without curdling, so that’s the gift I get to offer.
Which doesn’t mean I get tone deaf or silent about bigotry and violence and misogyny and injustice. That I won’t share others’ challenging words. Or that I won’t write about it myself in blog posts or essays or elsewhere. Or that I won’t be calling my senators and taking other action, and calling out bullshit during the parts of my life that are not tied to a computer or phone screen. Sometimes I do need to stretch myself and be uncomfortable. Sometimes I do need to put some vinegar in my frosting. Sometimes it’s called for and will serve a purpose. Also, my comfort isn’t the point of my life.
What I realized isn’t about being uncomfortable. It’s about being functional, purposeful. It’s about not engaging in a way that renders me a useless bowl on top of the trashcan, something that gets moved around the kitchen and is always in the way of making anything nourishing. If I’m not functioning, I won’t be any good to anyone.
I can’t let grief or anger or social media be my metronome anymore. Ticking away the moments of my life, controlling and corralling me.
I need to let emotions move through me.
I need to move myself, around my apartment and out, where the hummingbird hovers at the edge of our porch, out into my neighborhood and beyond, over the river and through the woods, to the grandmother’s house I can only find beneath all of that surface noise.
Where the wise woman within can remind me of the rhythm of my own heart beat, my unique offering to the world symphony. Which is never forced or beaten into submission, which comes together with ease and joy, an offering freely given.
Thank you so much for reading. You might notice that I don’t have a space for comments, but I’m certainly open to conversation about what’s written here. If you’re so inspired, feel free to start a conversation with me via the contact form on the homepage of this site.