Giving It Up

December 16, 2011

Tomorrow morning, for the first time this holiday season, I will be packing holiday cookies to give as gifts. My daughters are asking if they can give cookies to their favorite teachers. As I have written previously, I bake everyday. What that means for THIS holiday season, is that I have more cookies than I have ever had in the past. In previous Decembers, baking 25 varieties of cookies was almost unattainable. I had way too much to juggle and tended to put other activities in the forefront of my day. This year, with each day beginning with pans and pans of cookies created with the help of mixers, double-boilers, and ovens, I have already baked over 25 batches of cookies that have included 20 varieties. My freezer is almost impossible to shut and yet I still hope to bake 15 more types of cookies this week (or more), and my fear that there will not be enough to go around is completely without foundation. The girls can give cookies to their favorite teachers as well as those who are out of favor (I’m thinking the gift couldn’t hurt any aspect of their relationships with these educators).

One thing that will never change is the process I use to pack up the cookies and what it means to me to watch them leave my house. I start by taking out all of the cookies from the freezer. Ok, at this point we are talking about over 1000 cookies! I get the plates or bags in position, and with the help of a family member, we methodically place several of each type of cookie in each container. So far, the teachers will receive Linzer sandwiches, shortbreads of every type, caramel-chocolate bars, and amazing dark chocolate brownies with midnight milky ways. The list could go on and on. One of my idiosyncracies is that I see each cookie as a jewel. Only the best will have the opportunity to enter the gift sac and a great deal of time is spent deliberating over which cookies should go to which recipient. I feel the pride and self-consciousness that creative people must have as their photographs, ceramic vessels, or woven rugs are scrutinized by gallery-goers. I am “on,” and I want each little cookie that I give up to taste amazing but garner “oohs” and “ahhs” of delight as they are seen and eaten. I am giving up pieces of myself.

While the cookies are baked solely to be given away and shared, I feel a bit of sadness as I see the contents of my freezer dwindle and my jewels going out into the world. I have spent hours and hours and hours making these cookies and bars (as well as money purchasing 30 pounds of butter, 30 or more pounds of flour, and more sugar than I can even estimate). It made me think how much a part of me this ritual has become. I am a baker. I see it as an integral part of me. What would happen if I was no longer able to bake, create these holiday cookies (some of which had also been baked by my grandmother and mother), and had to see an empty freezer with the memories of my life of baking fading?

I have not been writing entries in my blog because I have not been running as much as usual. My physician “prescribed” 6 weeks of rest to help calm down a painful flair of arthritis. At first I thought nothing of it. She asked me if I would have any problem not running. I confidently told her it was no big deal and thought that was true. Of course I could “give it up.” Then, after 6 days went by, I realized that running was much more than merely exercise. I do almost all of my creating when I run. I visualize future conversations, make gift lists, plan lectures, work out personal problems and imagine how I am going to handle my next professional conversation. Most importantly, every single piece of writing I have done for the last 17 years has been conceived during a run. I try things out. I edit my ideas. My muse is working at full throttle and I am completely open to whatever will come to me. Without running, this part of me ran dry. I had no ideas of what to write, kept baking the same things, and gave some lectures that lacked the coherence that I expect. I was no longer a runner. I had given up a part of my identity and I panicked. It took much more of me than I could have ever predicted. I began running again, immediately, and prepared to explain my non-compliant self to my MD when she next questioned me.

That led me to ask how I really know who I am. Of course I am a mother, partner, daughter, friend, baker, a runner, a teacher, and a conversationalist. I’ve seen myself as insightful, generous (at times), ethical, intense, passionate, slow to warm up, opinionated and persistent. But how do I know those things about myself? I often tell people, “you are so much more than what you do,” but how can I see myself as an ethical person if I betray those who are closest to me? How can I be a baker if I no longer bake or a runner if I no longer run? What does it mean to give up some part of me that is so precious, so deep, so hidden, that I was unaware of its existence?

I had a conversation with my father last night about this very subject. He had a stroke a year ago and has been unable to play golf since the event. It has been a cornerstone of his life. He has been a GOLFER. I believe he has met all of his golfing goals: two holes-in-one, shooting his age (I think this means getting a score of 75 at age 75), and having a handicap in the single digits. He acknowledged that he will never golf again, and when asked, seemed completely non-plussed by the idea of giving up this key activity and part of his identity. Maybe I will understand in 25 years. Today, I cannot.

Giving it up. Giving away precious parts of me, giving away the sweets I have created, giving up activities that define me, and maybe most importantly…giving up, over the last 18 months, a true sense of who I am. How much can I give up and still be me? How many cookies need to be in my freezer to maintain my status as daily, serious baker? How much of myself needs to reside consistently within me to allow me to hold onto my identity? Who would I be without secrets, cookies, miles to travel with time to think?


True Grit

September 23, 2011

I was having an amazing conversation with my daughter, Cameron, this weekend. We were discussing (what else?) possible colleges she might attend in the not so distant future. She admitted that even though many of the colleges on her list of “top 25” were “reach” schools, a part of her believed she would be accepted to any college she applied to, however Pollyannaish that belief might be. We laughed as I reminisced about the first time I took her to see The Nutcracker at age 3. Cameron had been taking ballet classes with a woman who was more concerned with teaching the girls in pink how to sneeze without spreading germs than any particular dance moves. Cameron loved the dance accoutrements that included pink shoes and a dance skirt. When she saw her first real ballet, she announced, “I want to be Clara.” She said it in a sincere, emphatic, yet totally innocent manner. She seemed to believe, “If I want it, it should come to me.” She has continued to be that way ever since, although now realizing the need to work very, very hard to make those dreams become real.

As we continued to share the delight of analyzing the details of her personality and experiences, we moved on to one of her first real disappointments…losing a bid for Student Council VP last year. Ever since 5th grade, she has been a Student Council officer, running for her chosen office and winning, running again, and winning again. When I heard of her defeat last year, my heart hurt and I worried about how she would take it. As is often the case, my body alerted me to what had happened and I almost felt as if the injury was mine. As we spoke of it this week she stated wisely, “You know, Mom, I was really disappointed, but I know it is important for me to learn how to lose. You know, to be able to accept not always succeeding, that can be tough for a person like me to face. I think I really needed that lesson.”

Where did this child come from? Had she read the cover of the New York Times Magazine the day before that announced the inclusion of an article entitled, “What if the secret to success is failure?” The author, Paul Tough (I did not make that up), describes educators focusing on students who exhibit ‘grit,’ which includes, “a passion for a single mission [combined with] an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take (p. 43).” Cameron clearly had grit, but what about me? How would I describe my dedication or even my willingness to name goals that might involve risk or be out of my reach?

That served as the beginning of many days of thinking about risk, perseverance, and willingness to accept failure. As in most areas of my life, I started my psychological digging by looking at examples connected to baking. Because, as we all know, baking can be a metaphor for any of life’s challenges, joys, or problems. I thought about how I tend to choose the recipes I bake each morning. While I will try something new, I rarely choose a recipe that would result in my failing. For many years I eschewed recipes that required me to make caramel that began by melting sugar. Too iffy, I thought, and my chances of burning the sugar were great. Use easier recipes that had a higher guarantee of success. No grit there. I also reflected on my desire to make real French macarons (well before bakeries selling macarons became ubiquitous), chocolate soufflés, and a cake roulade. I have tried each once, failed, and really never tried again. I voraciously read articles about how to make each of these elusive sweets, but am reluctant to risk failure again. Again, I find no grit.

I began to think of my life beyond baking, however small it may be. I had set some goals for myself that I pursued passionately until they were attained. When I was in the 8th grade I did a Social Studies project on becoming a psychologist. Fifteen years later, after completing high school, an undergraduate degree in psychology, a Master’s Degree, internship and Ph.D. all in psychology and marriage and family therapy, I reached my goal. OK, there was some grit! But did I take any risks? I couldn’t see it. While there were definitely challenges along the way, as I look back, the hard work had seemed to come easily to me. I was so passionate about what I was doing (and continue to be), that it barely seemed like work. Does that count?

Next I had to consider my current adult life. What are the real risks that I am faced with that I fear taking? There are many times that I fear admitting to myself (and others) exactly who I am and what I want. Have I ever told someone, who I thought might not share my feelings, “I’d like to be your friend”? Never. Have I ever really put myself and my feelings out in plain view for someone to see, particularly if they had the potential to change how I was viewed? Never. I live a very safe, predictable life, where I am much more likely to bake a recipe of Levain CopyCat Cookies than espresso macarons with ganache. Where is my grit? What am I afraid of? How did my daughter develop her wisdom and ability to take risks (despite her incredible fear) and I looked to protect myself in whatever way possible? What caused me to go from an idealistic 8th grader, willing to do anything to pursue my dreams, to someone who was daunted by the possibility of a roulade that would not properly roll, or my intense emotions that could overwhelm anyone who appeared in their path or let others know that I am not always as I seem? I see myself having the option to follow one of several paths to better understand this…run (to give me time to reflect on what I’m afraid of), bake (and take risks to try something unfamiliar, whatever the outcome), or talk (and let someone know how they are taking my breath away). What’s the worst that could happen?