Very early on the morning of November 6th, my grandma passed away peacefully, her wracked, skeletal body stilling and ending eleven months of daily burial.
I don’t know what’s up with the baking analogies. I don’t even like to bake. But I have this thought that people are like cake.
So, this is a hard admission: as you may have deduced by now, I’m a people-pleaser. I’ve always wanted to be a chocolate cake.
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Since childhood, I’ve tried to be the “good kid”–pleasing parents, Sunday school teachers, kids I wanted to be friends with, kids I didn’t want to be friends with, college professors, people at church, random strangers at Starbucks. My code of conduct went something like, “Fly under the radar, don’t irritate people, do what you’re told, appease.” Because people only want chocolate cakes, right? Chocolate cake people make the best friends, students, children, right?
Chocolate cake people: plural noun. Punctual, humble, not only faithful in but excited about prayer, churchgoing, service activities. Don’t talk too much, don’t talk too much about themselves, modest, demure, good grades, walk the straight and narrow. Also hospitable, good conversationalists, and don’t go outside looking frumpy. Ever.
So if people only want chocolate cakes, I have to be one, right? To get approval (and what else could be worth getting?) I’ve aimed for perfection, or as close to it as possible. Other people’s displeasure was my fault, my failure.
Here’s the trouble. I’m not a chocolate cake. I think I might not even count as cake. I get this frequent, sneaking suspicion that I’m made of something else entirely–something green and lumpy that won’t stick together and certainly won’t fluff in the oven. Something like…zucchini.
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Zucchini person: singular noun. Lags just a few minutes late for every activity. Talks too much about self and sometimes snorts at own jokes. Sometimes doesn’t feel like praying. Wakes up without makeup and sometimes on the wrong side of the bed. Worries about job, friends, future.
Well, zucchini is obviously an unacceptable basis for the making of cakes, especially when all cakes are supposed to be chocolate. So my solution has been to slap some nice, thick frosting on top and smear it around. See? Picture-perfect cake.
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Then there’s the broiler.
A little summer heat is one thing; if your inch-thick coat of frosting starts to melt, you just patch the thin spots. You can still hide what’s underneath. But sitting under a 500-degree hot wire for long enough is more than any coat of frosting can bear. A hot wire like eleven months of caregiving, for instance.
Hard times have a way of stripping away your layers of fakeness. Insincerity soon melts under the flame. And what’s left for people to see is…zucchini. Embarrassing, un-chocolate, imperfect, vulnerable.
This is the point, in my imagination, where people scream and go, “Ew, gross! Someone get that unacceptable vegetable out of here!”
But, to my dumbfounded astonishment, that’s not what I’ve seen happen. The more I can’t hide my true substance, the more I show people that my cake is far from chocolate, the more I’m let in on a secret.
Other people’s cakes aren’t, either.
Vulnerability is like an amoeba. It multiplies itself. Numerous times in the last few months, I’ve had the shocking experience of hearing people–even people I regard as the gold standard of chocolate cake–reveal their failings, their doubts, their awkwardnesses, their fears. Almost no one sails through life in complete confidence (and those who do are ignoring some things). No one marches into battle without sweaty palms. No one looks in the mirror every morning, smiles a toothpaste-commercial smile, and whispers, “go get ’em, chocolate.”
Vulnerability also brings people together. I used to think, not very long ago, that I really had to be perfect for people to like me. What absolutely stuns me is the slow discovery that perfection intimidates–and honesty is true beauty. People don’t like you less when you show them your hurt, your awkwardness, your doubt. Honesty levels the playing field. It expresses trust, need, connection. The ugly green truth is what allows deep, real connection to bloom.
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So, here’s my confession. I’m not made of chocolate. Sometimes, with all my zucchini-greenness going on, I think I make a miserable excuse for cake at all. You don’t have to like it. But that’s what I’m made of. And now that that’s out in the open, I’m glad I no longer have to spend my life patching the frosting.
Well, I was going to write an elaborate and fascinating post on used bookstores.
Hopefully I still will, at some point. But not today. I’ve got something else on my mind.
Chocolate chip cookies.
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I usually have chocolate chip cookies on the brain in some form or other. Warm on a napkin, with the chocolate just a little bit melty, they make my shoulders unclench any time of day. I’m an absentminded baker who tends to calculate quantities wrong, but for these cookies, I try harder to get them right. They were one of the American delicacies I missed most in Britain. But now they’re on my mind for a different reason.
It was Wednesday night, a hard night, a gloomy night. An odometer-raising, package-juggling, asparagus-and-tears-for-dinner night. Grandma’s not doing well, and the pressure had me full under its thumb that night. I was supposed to meet a friend for coffee, but though I love talking to her, I just didn’t want to on Wednesday. I didn’t want to talk. I wanted to sit and watch British TV until my mind melted into oblivion. I texted her.
She came anyway. Showed up on my doorstep, skipped coffee. Carried in her hands a green recyclable grocery bag. Containing chocolate chip cookies.
People say all kinds of things to friends who are hurting. Sometimes they’re well-meaning things like Every cloud has a silver lining. Or God works out everything for the good of those who love him. Maybe they’re true things. But when the wave of suffering knocks you over from behind and tumbles you on the sand until your skin is scraped raw and you can’t remember which way is up, even true things don’t help.
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Suffering is a quiet place, a place where the rules don’t work right and you have to reinvent the wheel. Like falling in love, it’s a different experience for every person, and it feels like no one has ever experienced it before. That’s why platitudes, no matter how true, don’t help. They’re words. And while I love words dearly, you can’t use them to set a shattered arm or leg. Like sticky, cheerful Disney-character band-aids, they’re utterly helpless to solve the mystery and horror of bone sticking through skin.
My friend couldn’t fix my problems on Wednesday night. She didn’t try. Instead, she listened with her full attention (I did end up talking) and gave me a hug (thank you, dear). The chocolate chip cookies she brought said I don’t have all the answers. But I love you anyway. And somewhere between soggy Kleenex and melty chocolate pieces, I found the strength to keep going til tomorrow. That’s what helps.
Lately music has been helping me where words fall short. So if you’re in that quiet place tonight, reinventing the wheel or staring at shattered bone, here’s a song that another friend showed me today. It’s not a solution. But maybe it’ll be like chocolate chip cookies on your doorstep.
This is my Grammy. She will be 90 in three months. She has cancer. After she was released from the hospital with this diagnosis, she moved in with my family in early December.
My Grammy was young once; she drove a car and did Tai Chi; she was an artist who moved to Mexico and learned Spanish from scratch; she went through 8 pregnancies, lived in 4 states and 2 countries, and loved to dance. But even if she hadn’t done all those things, she would still be a person of infinite worth because she is fashioned and designed uniquely by God. So is every person: the homeless, children, the uneducated, the unborn, the comatose, the disabled. All are valuable and worth loving, covered with the fingerprints of God. And how we treat them, regardless of their utility, is the litmus test of our faith.
And so I pray for love and for patience with my Grammy. I don’t always show her the kindness I want to. But even when she can’t do the things she used to be able to do, even when we just read side by side or settle in for another night of Jeopardy, she is a one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable child of God, never before seen and never to be seen again. And that makes her more than worthy of my love and respect.
How do you love the helpless? What image-bearers in your life deserve your love and respect?