Know your own strength, sometimes at least

Yesterday was Dave’s birthday, and so I decided to make him a fancy cake—caramel chocolate cheesecake, to be specific—and also dinner. He requested macaroni and cheese, made from scratch, and so I planned that too. It seemed like too much cheese for one meal, but it was his birthday, and I am not one to back down from a challenge.

I was actually looking forward to how much time this would all take. I thought, it will be a day off, of sorts. No time to sink deep into the world of literature if I am interrupting myself every 20 minutes to make a different part of a cake. I thought: it sounds awfully peaceful. I thought: a clear goal, with a positive outcome, all but assured. I thought: a good use of my time.

And it was a good use, I should say that first, because it made Dave happy and that was the point. Not my meditative caramel practice, but the subtler practice of living with and bringing joy to a person who lives with and brings joy to you, which day-to-day can seem more like unloading the dishwasher when it is your turn, but over a long span of time looks much more ambitious and devotional.

The thing is, I thought I would get both: doing a nice thing, and feeling nice while I did it. But it turned out that I got a few things wrong. I’d never made a cheesecake before (or if I did, it has long since passed out of memory), and so I thought that starting at 10:30am would be enough time. More than enough! Kind of embarrassingly well-planned! (Because remember, cooking all day and then triumphally presenting the fruits of my labor was the plan!) But that was…incorrect.

Maybe it would have been fine IF I hadn’t forgotten an ingredient and had to go back to the store. And IF I hadn’t planned a chocolate caramel cheesecake, which required making caramel, also for (I think) the first time. It was around here, too, that the fact that Smitten Kitchen recipes do not always include a time estimate at the top—certainly this one didn’t—became relevant. There was no time estimate, either, for how long it would take for sugar in a pan to turn into caramel. I imagine her (Deb, the Smitten Kitchen author) thinking was a lot like the rationale on Great British Bake-Off, when, during the technical challenge, the recipe just says “Make the creme pat”—both in the sense that a good baker/chef might forget that a less experienced baker/chef might not know the basic steps and timing for such a thing & thus resort to a baffling shorthand; and because, as Paul Hollywood would doubtless laugh to whomever his co-host at the time was, “There’s a really high standard in the tent, and if they don’t know how to make a creme pat at this point, I’m not sure they belong here.” And then they’d call something scrummy.

I’m getting off-point.

The point being, making caramel the way Smitten Kitchen told me to make the caramel took a fucking hour, which was a good 40 minutes more than I thought it would take. I probably stirred it too much initially. I certainly ended up having to increase the heat, given that I was instructed to heat the sugar on “moderately low” heat which means nothing. I had to go up to about medium. Maybe that’s what “moderately low” means, but if so, thanks, I hate it!

If you’re still reading, you are experiencing, with some verisimilitude, the way I felt pretty much all day. The shock of my inexperience colliding with my loving desire to do a good job for Dave’s birthday, colliding with my generalized ambition syndrome, colliding with the realization the cake wouldn’t set until the next day and thus I had—or so I felt—wasted so much time, neither writing nor providing Dave with this fancy-ass cake, and so what…evaporating into the ether?

This morning, we woke up to a very cold day, after a very cold night (look, it was below 30! That is very cold for here) and one of my favorite cactuses in the backyard had semi-collapsed. It is, or was, a very tall prickly pear. Now, a sort of wider, less imposing prickly pear. They grow in a way that allows for collapse without disaster: each paddle has a clear seam, at which point it can peel off the larger plant, which it does sometimes, whether collapsing beneath its own weight or snapping in the wind, or, as it seems in this case, breaking due to a sudden drop in temperature. I don’t know. The pads on the ground are very satisfyingly fat and fibrous, healthy and beautiful. If I were to let them dry out a bit and then stick them in the ground, it is extremely possible they would grow new cacti.

The old one will not die, it will just be shorter.

I was mad and frustrated when I saw that cactus, and also sad, as I am when a tree falls. I thought about the birds that pass through our yard, how they chase one another around and settle, often in that prickly pear. It must be familiar to them: they must have familiar places that feel safe or comfortable. And I wondered, then, if the birds, too, would feel a stab of unfairness and sadness when they realized this comfortable place had changed forever.

I’m not trying to anthropomorphize, or at least not much, but I did wonder. I’m sure wild animals are better, in general, at moving on from shock or disappointment, but do they stop for a moment and feel an odd clenching in the heart, a confusion, a woundedness, the way I do?

All of this is a round-about way of saying I have been thinking about how best to let go from the momentary shocks and pains and even horrors of daily existence, without letting go of that existence, despite its often painful flux. I mean, I don’t need to be so stressed out about a cake, which we will simply eat today. I don’t need to mourn a cactus that is simply doing what it was designed to do, even if that design is outside my current horticultural comprehension. But I do get stressed, and I do mourn, and so what do I do with that? Obviously these are small-scale examples, but they do have a real effect. Why do I always apologize for it? The effect, small but real.

I think what I will do today, at least, is feel as happy as I can while actually eating the now-set cake. I hope to write at least one good sentence, even if, as I have before, I have to delete five pages of sentences to get there. It is ok to feel. I will remind myself of this, as I feel the sunbeam coming through the door and resting on my leg. As I feel the softness of my dog’s head. It is ok to feel. It is ok to feel. It is ok.