I was with a group of people recently when I heard someone say, about someone else, “She can cook, but she sure can’t bake.”
This struck me as utterly absurd. Both involve ingredients and measuring and mixing, I wanted to (inexplicably) yell. Both depend upon stoves or ovens to bring their magic to completion! In actuality, I said nothing. But later, in the privacy of my own home, I set about to prove this dichotomy of kitchen aptitude/ineptitude a fallacy.
I began by whipping up a mountain of linguine noodles topped with baby clams, artichoke hearts, arugula, pine nuts, shaved Parmesan cheese, a drizzle of blood orange olive oil and a twist of cracked pepper. It was a meal so spectacular I considered starting a Facebook fan page just for it. With my intuitive talent for cooking, I thought, it’s impossible that I can’t also bake. And then I went and made meringue cookies.
According to my Yummly recipe app, the luscious little gems required only five ingredients and a time commitment of 20 minutes. They also required a stand mixer, which I did not have, but for which I substituted a hand-held mixer and stood while using it, which seemed almost like the same thing.
An hour and a half later, my kitchen was blanketed in powdered sugar and cocoa dust, the first batch of cookies were in the trash because someone on Yummly forgot to mention greasing the pan, and I realized I had, unbelievably, left out one of the five ingredients. The second batch looked to be salvageable, although I’d spooned the batter onto the baking sheet in such generous amounts that instead of 4 dozen cookies I wound up with twelve cookies the size of personal pan pizzas. Proving that there are, in fact, people who can cook but not bake.
After the meringue incident, I was forced to consider there might be other singular activities at which I was both adept and inept. Certainly there is the matter of being an excellent driver with no sense of direction. Of being well-read with no memory for plot. Of being a great joke teller, right up until it’s time for the punch line, which somehow always escapes me. Now that I’m thinking about it, I could go on and on.
There was a time in my life when seeing these disparities in my skill sets would have sent me into a week-long crying jag in which I ignored my many and diverse capabilities in favor of obsessing over my shortcomings. Those were the days when I was afraid to try new things (public speaking, meringue making) because the potential for failure was too high, the self-recriminations that would follow too devastating. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but it no longer matters that much to me if I can’t do everything well. Nobody will ever accuse me of being a perfectionist. And that’s just fine.
In the wake of the failed meringues, I revisited a Facebook post by author Elizabeth Gilbert, in which she talked about dealing with fear. The post was actually a note she’d written to a writer friend who had confessed to Gilbert that she was afraid her book was self-indulgent and shallow. Gilbert assured her repeatedly that her book was good, but the friend couldn’t take it in.
After a few rounds of reassurances, Gilbert gave up and instead sent back a note addressing her friend’s fear. Which, of course, was what the conversation was really about. The note was blunt.
“Your fears about your book aren’t very interesting or very original,” Gilbert wrote. “These are exactly the same fears that EVERYONE who has ever created anything feels. Nothing fine or precious or artisanal about them. So don’t treat them like they’re precious.”
Gilbert went on to liken the friend’s fears to “the neighbor’s dog barking in the background,” a dull, annoying patter that wasn’t going to go away, but that she didn’t have to tune into.
“I realized this about my own fears a few years ago,” Gilbert wrote, “that they are always exactly the same, and that they are always exactly the same as everyone else’s, and therefore they are nothing special and actually just kind of boring.”
Then she quoted an old Bedouin line: “The dogs bark; the caravan passes anyhow.”
“Your caravan needs to pass along now on its journey, whether fear barks at you loudly or not,” Gilbert wrote.
And what, according to Gilbert, is more interesting than fear? Mystery. The not-knowing what’s in store for us once we’ve created the thing, taken the leap, faced the challenge, embraced the resolution (accepted the speaking engagement, cracked open the eggs).
It is precisely there, in the mystery, that I have found comfort.
“Can you predict the future?” a therapist once asked me.
To which I had to admit I could not. In which case the only thing to do was exactly what scared me: relax into the unknown. Be who I want to be, and do what I want to do, regardless of the noise in my head. Starting right now.
Because fear barks, and the years pass anyhow.
To read more from Dana, check out her memoir, The Body Tourist.
Editors Note: Recipe for a Self is republished from: column for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. The art appearing on this post is original work from Dana Shavin.
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