Words have always lured me to the page. When I am not writing, I am reading novels, memoirs, books on writing books. But days pass; they turn into weeks and I realize I’m neither writing nor reading. I am depleted and stuck.
I find a colossal cake cookbook with glossy photos of cherry-topped chocolate cakes, pudding-filled layered cakes and cakes with interesting names: snow skin mooncake and rum baba. I pore over photos and essential baking steps. Which pan will I use: rectangular, circular, Bundt? I focus on ingredients, make lists of what I need: cream of tartar, almond extract. Then come the rituals — cracking the eggs in old familiar bowls, stirring the vanilla-laced mixture. The oven warming, the greased pan waiting. I feel domestic in my kitchen with sticky hands and a counter snowed with flour.
These baking rituals replace my writing rituals: steaming mugs of coffee near the window, special pens and notebooks. Still, words compel me to write, so I try. But the chair is impossibly hard, the room unbearably hot. Plus the birds are always squabbling outside, and who can even think?
In the kitchen, baking is therapy, art, a canvas for the soul. I watch the batter spill out in gooey ribbons. It is two cups sugar, a quarter teaspoon of salt and so on. Everything measured, everything mixed. Bake at 300 degrees. When I follow the recipe, I get the outcome I expected. This is not like life at all, like pouring everything you had onto the page and ending up with a rejection letter, or pouring your heart into marriage and ending up divorced.
I bake because I feel something when I slide my hands into fluffy oven mitts and pull the cake from the metal rack. The hot blast of air on my skin and something else too, something maternal. I bake, therefore I am …
Perhaps I am the mother I want to be, if only for a moment. I am June Cleaver, Carol Brady. I am not a single mom struggling to put down words, that mom with the messy hair, that mom who forgot to sign the school forms, who cried through a box of tissues, a box of chocolates, a box of tissues again.
When I don my apron, it is a superhero’s cape. But when I sit down to write, there is no recipe. There’s just me, a keyboard and my wobbly little heart. Still, everything that isn’t writing feels like procrastination. So I try again. And again. I try until I find unexpected courage, until the words feel like the right ingredients for an essay, a story, something that’s churning inside.
“The page is your mirror,” wrote Dani Shapiro in her book, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. This phrase helps me realize that fear keeps me from creating, from peering into the page and examining my own reflection. Here’s the thing about baking: it’s a cathartic practice in which I always end up with something sweet. But when I write, I get a piece of myself. And that is both beautiful and terrifying.
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