Zucchini Cake

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.

Free image courtesy of stock.xchng and coachen

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.

Free image courtesy of stock.xchng and kyra

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.

Ever felt like a zucchini cake in a chocolate-cake world? What have you discovered about revealing that to other people? 


Brave

My novel’s characters are getting braver. 
In college, I had a writing professor who continuously told me that my stories needed more conflict, that nothing happened in them. 
I didn’t tell him that that was because I’m terrified of conflict. 
Free image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Actually, I’ve spent most of my life tiptoeing around other people’s disappointment. Conceding. Scrambling to deliver. Shying away from honesty about my needs, feelings, and limitations. 
As I revise my novel, I’m seeing that fear in my characters. In my last draft, they’d get frustrated, feel beaten down, get worked up almost to the point of an argument–and then dodge, preferring to dwell inside the safety of their own heads. 
Not in this draft. Not as much, anyway.
In the last month of my life, it seems as if opportunities for conflict have abounded. Mounting stress and limited energy have sometimes left me in a corner, with no choice but to say “no” or crumble. 
Turns out, though, that “no” can feel pretty good. (This video about “no” makes me laugh.)
“NO” is one of the hardest words for a people-pleaser to pronounce. WHAT?? I’m NOT Superwoman??!! 
Guess not.
People aren’t always going to be happy with me. It’s not always good for me to say yes. It’s not always possible. And that’s OK. Even if it makes people mad on occasion. The people who really matter will stick around, love me even when I’m not perfect.
And guess what? It’s even OK for me to ask other people for help sometimes, too! Wonders abound. 
While I was at camp this past week, volunteering as a counselor, I had the chance to walk a prayer labyrinth: an interactive tool for meditation that involves prayer in motion. As my feet walked, one in front of the other, in between the double line of stones, I got such a picture of what it means to set limits. All I can do is walk between my rocks. They’re my boundaries. I can’t control what goes on beyond them. I just need to keep walking in a lane just wide enough for my feet. Those are my limits. And it’s OK to let other people know I have them.
Touchstone Maze
 © Copyright Carol Walker and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons License 
Sometimes that means conflict.
And conflict…I guess…can actually be a good thing. Admitting that has given me such a boost of confidence.
I’m still not great at this whole say-no thing. I end up folding a lot more than I’d like to admit. But at least I don’t get nauseous anymore when I’m trying to write an argument scene. Not usually. 
My characters are learning right along with me to step up and slap conflict in the face rather than tiptoe around it. 
And here’s a sneak peek at the results. 

“Can I help too?” Vivian asked eagerly.

“You?” Captain Daevin laughed. “Help with carpentry? It’s awfully dusty work, and you’re in this charming dress. Leave the men’s work to the men. Don’t fret your pretty head about it; you probably couldn’t follow the calculations anyway.”

She whirled on him.

“I beg your pardon? At the Library I was raised to Scholar Sixth Level in half the usual time. I can read in eighteen languages, and I most certainly will not leave this work to the men! What do you think I am; a painting on the wall, existing only to be admired? Thank you, sir, but I have no fear of a little dust, dress or no dress. Here.”

She thrust her straw hat into his hands and turned her back on him, her face flushed, eyes blazing. 

“Now, what can I do to help?”

Slack-jawed, Jude handed her a hammer and a bundle of nails. Captain Daevin, still blinking in surprise, backed out of the room, her hat still in his hands.