You can’t eat your cake and keep it too

Sometimes I get a couple of  hours, sometimes a whole morning when luminous joy bubbles into life, oxygenating a flat week.  Savour the perfection—then *pop* it’s gone. Lately, when I experience these rapturous periods, I am intensely aware of time fleeting, of the unreliability of “happiness,” of my inability to “keep” the moments, of my impotence in the face of life.

September 28 is a good day for birthdays. Two of my friends and our puppy were born on that day. Leading up to Tuesday, I was thinking about cake, how I love making, giving, and eating cake for birthdays and other occasions. But there is always the problem of excess. Do other cake bakers and eaters have the same problem? If there’s a big (9-inch) cake in the house—do you eat a slice every day for a week and gain five pounds? Or do you obsess over it, polishing it off in two or three days and feel sick? Or does it go into the compost because you can’t eat it all? Whichever scenario fits, the solution is the same: bake a small cake. Because small is practical and beautiful.

One day a couple of weeks ago, Michael and I headed to a kitchenware store, and I bought two sturdy 4.5-inch springform pans. I found a good recipe for carrot cake in Canada’s Favourite Recipes by Murray & Baird and halved the recipe. I wasn’t sure what it would yield; it turned out the batter filled the two small cake pans and three cupcake liners. 

I sliced the two cakes horizontally to fill them, then frosted both cakes and cupcakes with maple butter frosting. I put the better-looking cake and the cupcakes aside for my friends, and Michael and I “tested” the other cake, eating one slice each for three nights. I know, I should have given both cakes as gifts, but I had to test cake production. Six tiny, perfect slices of carrot cake, sweet and moist. Who needs more than a few bites of something delicious? 

Then I assembled the birthday packages. I save good boxes, so I had two shoe boxes at hand made of strong cardboard. I lined each with purple tissue paper, then went out to the garden to pick posies. Fragrant thyme, rosemary, and lavender mixed with pink, red, and purple blooms, tied with a ribbon. I put the cupcakes in a plastic container and the cake on a round of cardboard cut from an old box and covered with foil. Cakes nestled in their boxes, I added the bouquets, a small box of Eddy matches, a candle on the cake, and loose candles for the cupcakes. I closed the lids, then taped birthday cards on the box tops. 

On Tuesday morning, we fussed over birthday puppy Marvin with a new toy and some treats. Then, enjoying one of the perks of self-employment, I took off for an hour. After placing the birthday boxes in the front seat of the car, I drove along Craigflower to Vic West, listening to NPR’s jazz and blues station, window open to the breeze. The splendid fall day sparkled. Coppery leaves fell slowly from the trees, and the clear, cool, blue sky made me feel lighthearted. I parked and walked box #1 up to my friend’s townhouse door and placed it there. Then Google maps told me my other friend lived only 150 meters away. I knew they shared a neighbourhood, but I had no idea they were so close.

So rather than drive, I walked the other box through a children’s playground to my friend’s house, feeling so happy I could burst. And yet, the day before I was swimming in sadness about every little thing. I placed box #2 on the doorstep and walked back to my car, humming a song, alive to the crackling beauty of early autumn, favourite season. 

You can’t have your cake and eat it too. I’d been thinking about that proverb and how it didn’t make any sense. Turns out Ursula Le Guin agrees with me. In 2010, 81-year-old Le Guin (1929–2018) started a blog and wrote delightful posts for seven years. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published the collected blogposts as No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters (2017), which I recently finished. Many of the posts are about her cat, Pard, good reading for cat lovers: 

https://www.ursulakleguin.com/blog.

One thing that mattered to Le Guin was figuring out weird language puzzles, including the annoying cake proverb. Of course if you have a cake you’re going to eat it! Le Guin wonders in her post about the logic of this proverb, but then it dawns on her that the verb “to have” has several meanings—a less common one is “to keep.” The order of the proverb also seems awry, so, she revises it, reversing the order and using “keep” instead of “have.” And suddenly it makes sense:

You can’t eat your cake and keep it too. You can’t have it both ways—eating and keeping.

When I got thank-you texts and emails later in the day from my friends, one of them ended her message saying she hoped we could get together more often in the coming year. I had acknowledged in my card that we had hardly seen each other lately, what with the pandemic and both of us being introverts. Her final line was, “nothing is forever.” I paused. Of course.

I can’t count on that fickle flicker that moves me to make cakes, write, sew, create. It comes, it goes, I can’t keep it, I can’t summon it. The work wants to be made, and the work—not you—chooses when and how. As I head for 63, I am keenly aware of energy slowly flagging, of a narrowing in my interests and available time, of the limits to life. All the more reason to relish eating the cake when it appears on a plate in front of you. Don’t even try to keep it.

A sense of belonging

“Human beings are creatures of belonging, though they may come to that sense of belonging only through long periods of exile and loneliness.” 

David Whyte, The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship

Ever since I was small, I have felt I don’t belong. As I grow older, I see how this sense of not belonging is linked to black and white thinking: I am excluded either because I am not good enough or because I am superior (“arrogant worm,” as they say in AA). This strain of thought is endemic for alcoholics. To break the spell, it’s crucial to look for similarities not differences when you attend twelve step meetings or, indeed, whenever you feel the sharp edges of polarity creating a sense of distance. 

For me and perhaps for you, the isolation resulting from the pandemic has exacerbated loneliness and a sense of exile. Last month I was feeling particularly alone in the sadness that can arise from being a parent. Only in recognizing that many other parents across the world share in this pain did I not feel so alone. Facebook groups and other modes of connecting across space and time are wonderful to bring a sense of “I’m not the only one.” But also useful has been the Buddhist practice of Tonglen, breathing in the thick suffering of others in your predicament and breathing out coolness and healing. This practice connects me with others, but more than that, it dissolves the sense of specialness and exclusion I am prone to. We’re all in this together.   

There is another simple practice I have started. I review small events from the perspective of community. This week, for example, I went to an acupuncturist for the first time. She is a gentle young woman named Demi with a river of brown curls running down her back. She made me feel so comfortable and safe as she stuck a dozen needles into my legs, hands, and back. As I laid face down on the warm table in a quiet room, I felt joined with all of the other people suffering sciatica or other pain in their bodies, and I also felt part of a group of people who get acupuncture. I could picture hundreds of us lying on surfaces—floors, grassy fields, dusty streets, tables, beds—and kind practitioners breathing slowly and rhythmically, putting us at ease, as they insert the slim sharp points. I imagine a collective release of endorphins through bodies old and young, fat and slim, smooth and rough. I imagine our relief. 

The next day, I suffered from self-doubt about my new editing business—will I get clients? Will people I’ve done work for get back in touch with me? And imposter syndrome: Am I really an editor or just pretending? Perhaps I don’t belong.

Drawing a tarot card, I asked, “What do I need to know right now?” I pulled the Six of Wands, then consulted Joan Bunning’s Learning the Tarot. She writes that “the Six of Wands appears when you have been working hard toward a goal, and success is finally within reach. . . . If you do not feel close to victory now, know that it is on its way provided you are doing all you can to make it happen.” I felt encouraged. 

Amazingly, later that day, I received two emails from former clients who wanted me to do work for them. The next day, a new client gave me an update on work that is planned for this summer. And a referral from a colleague I thought would come to nothing yielded another email today asking for my services.

I feel not only encouraged by all of this positive activity, but connected to a community of editors. Yes, I belong. Amazed by the rightness of the card, I feel connected to all those people everywhere who use tarot to help them make sense of life.  I can see the decks being shuffled and cut by hands everywhere—brown hands, gnarled hands, arthritic hands, young hands, a hand with a missing finger. . . . We shuffle and cut and draw and learn about ourselves and others, about our Fool’s journey on this Earth.

On Friday, I felt down again, and as I sat in the backyard with my next-door neighbour and we watched the puppies play, I shared a little of my current grief. She popped out of her lawn chair, “I’m going to get my Animal Spirit cards. They’ll help you to feel better.” She came back with the deck and I shuffled and drew. I tried to pull just one, but two cards were stuck together—Elephant and Otter. She read aloud the description of each animal, and a tear rolled down my cheek. 

The descriptions felt resonant—the qualities of the unstoppable, gentle, noble elephant and the giddy and joyful otter were combined inside of me. I felt connected to my neighbour then, linked to her through her kindness to me and her willingness to explore beyond the rational self. I feel connected to everybody everywhere who is suffering and uses tools to understand themselves and bring solace: tarot, mandala-making, building sand-castles, creating songs and singing them, writing novels and poems, reading palms, tea-leaf interpretation, or casting the I Ching. 

Then on Saturday, I was washing dishes and noticed movement in our back neighbour’s yard. Raccoons? I fetched my binoculars and trained them on a raccoon couple mating—the male straddling the female and biting her neck. Their black bandit masks and long striated fur were crystal clear through the binocs. I was awed. I am part of a community of animals—our bodies are drawn to one another, we mate. I am connected not only to a world of animal lovers, but to a world of lovers of animals. We train our binoculars on birds and lovely beasts of all kinds; we are curious about the natural life we are part of. 

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote that “what is essential is invisible to the eye,” and that has been my experience. An (invisible) sense of community is essential to me now more than ever. This week I call forth community in many ways. I call it forth through my pain and suffering. I call it through being a patient of acupuncture. I call it through using tarot and other mystical tools. I call it through imagining myself as a member of overlapping groups: editors, parents, and neighbours. And I call it through membership in a society of homo sapiens and other animals. An invisible sense of belonging keeps me going. I may not be able to touch you but I feel you.

The magical golden key to being alive in a full, unrestricted and inspired way

We’ve been drawing and writing and sewing around here. Michael ordered a drawing bench from Nicole Sleeth and arranged to pick it up on Saturday. Sleeth is a painter, but as a sideline she sells handmade benches that are great for life drawing, as they comfortably accommodate the shape of your body when you are facing a model. I asked Michael if I could come along for the ride, expecting to simply pick up the bench and head home again. But when we knocked on the door, Sleeth welcomed us in, beckoning down a long narrow passageway, past her two little sausage-shaped dogs, into the studio, a long, light-filled room. I was excited to visit a working painter’s studio and see the canvases in progress; new finished work hanging on the walls; shelves of paints, supplies, and curious objects; huge windows facing Fisgard Street; a couch where, once they were tired of barking, the two dogs curled up and observed their owner chatting with us.

 

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Last September, we visited Sleeth’s show “All Eyes on You” at Fortune Gallery. Her work “centers on the female figure as an exploration of power, connection, and lived experience.” Standing before each monumental painting, I felt the personality of the woman before me. The unashamed, unadorned nakedness of women looking comfortable in their bodies startled me at first, but I was soon drinking in the honesty of these representations. I enjoyed that exhibit so much, I saved the postcard. It made me realize I am more at home in my own ageing, sagging body now than I ever was in my twenties or thirties. Later that day, I revisited the studio in my mind and appreciated Sleeth’s gracious unexpected welcome, another one of many small adventures we’ve been having this year, my year off work.

The second half of my year’s leave hasn’t gone as planned—Covid-19 cancelled our trip to Haida Gwaii, where we would have been this week, exploring the parks and learning more about the Haida Nation. So instead of travelling afar, we focus on home, neighbourhood, and our creative journeys,  all of which bring contentment. Now that I’ve finished the Eight Worldly Winds project (more on that next time), I will start working on a Courage Cape. The cape is my idea in response to a life coach who asked what I could do to grow my courage as I set out to start my own editing business.

Earlier this month, I had a free life coaching session on Zoom with Lori-anne Demers, who helped me to figure out what I need in order to be/see myself as an entrepreneur. When I go back to work in July, I will concurrently develop a plan for eventual self-employment as a writing coach and editor. Having skills and experience is one thing—I have a PhD and many years of experience in writing, editing, and teaching. In June, I start the first course in Simon Fraser University’s editing certificate program to consolidate some of those skills. But it’s the chutzpah of charging what I’m worth and facing the world with confidence that scare the shit out of me. So Lori-anne asked what I might do to feel into my courage—what symbolic creative act will give me fortitude as I launch this new enterprise? “I’ll sew a Courage Cape,” I said.

 

The Courage Cape idea just came out my mouth–no premeditation. I love sewing quilts, pillows, bags, and potholders. Lately, I’ve been eager to graduate to sewing garments. I recently ordered Stylish Wraps Sewing Book, by Yoshiko Tsukiori, from Bolen’s Books and picked it up on Saturday before we visited Nicole Sleeth’s studio. The hooded cape—one of the easier patterns—looked like just the ticket, I thought yesterday as I browsed through the different styles. I love capes; wearing them requires the kind of panache that I aspire to. But Tsukiori’s recommendation to use boiled wool to construct the cape had me worried. Boiled wool is about $30 a metre, and I know I make mistakes when I sew something for the first time. I didn’t want to waste money.

So today I got on my bike. It’s a glorious day—sunny and warm. I cycled the E & N trail to Store Street, admiring all of the graffiti along the way. I locked my bike in front of Value Village. They’ve reopened with new safety protocols. A vivacious young woman with purple hair, a plexiglass face shield, and a ready smile was stationed at the entrance, spraying each shopper’s hands with sanitizer. I headed straight to the back.  I found a big royal blue wool blanket with understated green criss-crosses for $5.99. It’s in the washing machine right now. I’ll use this wool for the first rendition of the cape. We’ll see how that goes. When I finally make a Courage Cape I am satisfied with (who knows, it may be the first iteration), I see myself wearing it with confidence as I edit a mystery novel, my feet crossed casually on my desk.

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Forty-five days left until I return to work. I counted this morning. May I treasure each adventure. May you treasure each of your adventures.

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“Being satisfied with what we already have is a magical golden key to being alive in a full, unrestricted and inspired way.” Pema Chodron, The Wisdom of No Escape. I keep this little piece of paper on my desk to remind me that I have all I need to be content with  life. It’s all here.

 

 

 

Enough

“I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?” Emily Dickinson

When I bought a birdhouse from our neighbour Bryan, a retired engineer who makes and sells them, I knew that attaching it to our shed might be distracting. I guess part of me wanted to be distracted by movement, by life. The wooden shed in our backyard that we use for storage is right in my sightline when Michael and I meditate each morning. If I sit facing west I can see the branches of the tall conifers dancing in the wind, the burnt orange of the dying cedar hedge, and the shed with its mossy roof where squirrels scramble to and fro. I can see the marvelous sky beyond, lately grey but today pearly with a swath of violet in the far distance and blue beyond that.

Bryan said the small house was perfect for chickadees, and since we mounted it above the door of the shed about a month ago, I have been waiting. Then today, about 15 minutes into our 30 minute sit, movement pulled my eyes. Two birds had landed, one on the roof of the birdhouse and one on the tiny bamboo twig Bryan had so carefully attached in front of the circular entrance. My heart leapt in joy! The birds were curious. Perhaps they were a couple, looking for a good spot to nest. One peeped into the hole and then examined the sides of the house. The first bird hopped away and the second one hopped down to the twig and made the same examination. Alas, they weren’t interested in the real estate, and my heart sank in disappointment as they flitted off. Note to self—look at my bird book for a picture of a chickadee and make sure those guys were chickadees. Perhaps they were another variety of bird (how can I have gotten to be my age and know so little about birds?) too big to fit through that little hole….

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“Madeline! you are supposed to be meditating!” and I was back to Shamatha, one-pointed meditation, this time with my gaze brought close, fixed on the orange and purple cloth spread across the shrine. Breathe in and breathe out.

I see advertisements for all kinds of events happening around town, but we go to only a few of them. I have some friends, and there are so many people I know, yet days go by when I see nobody but Michael. However, I don’t feel the “fear of missing out” (FOMO) that you hear about. No, I feel dreamily satisfied most days to walk and talk with my husband, marvel at the hummingbirds that visit the front feeder, look at the buds that are already showing up on so many of the trees and bushes after the long rains. The pussy willows appeared suddenly on our neighbour’s willow—a sweet indicator that spring is close.  My neighbour Don has told me February after February to help myself, take some cuttings of the furry silver catkins that stud the elegant stalks like tiny gifts. And each year, I have said “oh thank you, I will,” but I don’t because I am working and by the time I get home in the evenings it’s dark and I’m tired and week-ends go by in a crush of chores and exhaustion and I can’t imagine getting out the long cutters and the ladder.

But this year, I am not working. This, I think, is like living in a beautiful dream, to sleep until I wake up, to tune into the rhythms of my body and the dark winter earth. To have time to look at the birds and cut the pussy willows for our table. To write and to sew and pore over recipe books. To spend so much time in my room, surrounded by fabric scraps, my son’s paintings, Captain Happy the pink monkey, books and arts supplies. To choose to write for a while, make coffee, then work on a scrappy quilt—enjoying laying out colours and patterns next to each other—then to take a walk through the woods to the mall to renew my annual membership to Fabricland.  To have time to read long books—currently Mervyn Bragg’s Cumbrian trilogy—to caress the cat, to sit and do nothing.

And then a thread of anxiety starts to weave itself into my consciousness. What have I accomplished?  What do I have to show for all these months? Really? I have twelve months off work with all of this free time and all I’ve done is sewn some little scraps together? Really?

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It’s interesting how relentlessly the old tapes about achievement and success play in my mind. The endless loop of “not good enough” fades into the background for long periods now, but then when I get too comfortable with myself, just being a nobody, just being, just content, well then the hiss of angry snakes intensifies: “You should be making something substantial, something meaningful, something important—write a novel or do some important research or get GOOD at something, take a class, or do some volunteer work and if you’re not going to do any of that get back to employment, make some money, be useful, stop being lazy. You are turning into a nobody—you need to fight, be somebody, resist the fade into nothingness, get out there and push yourself or you’ll shrivel up and disappear.”

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Not Good Enough

I tune out the irritating hiss and start to spread the colours for the next series of two inch fabric squares on my cutting mat. The snakes start to recede, to slither off to their lair. I look out the window above my work table at the morning sun glinting over the fresh green of February lawns, the long shadows thrown by the boulders in our front yard, the iridescent puddles from last night’s rain.  And I glance at Captain Happy, pinkly presiding over the room that I inhabit so joyfully. Remember, all of this is impermanent. So I will rest in this great pleasure while it lasts.

 

 

 

 

Beauty way: the road home

 

 

The Navajo do not look for beauty; they normally find themselves engulfed in it. When it is disrupted, they restore it; when it is lost or diminished, they renew it; when it is present, they celebrate it.

-Erik Painter, 2017

By Michael

Leaving Winnipeg, I feel pulled towards home with increasing intensity. At the same time, I want to be open to the rest of the journey that we have before us.  I doubt that we will do any camping on this trip—it has just seemed like too much after driving for 7 hours or more to search for a campsite and set up our tent, so we continue to move from motel to motel, icing our cooler and trying to keep the cream fresh for our morning coffee, lovingly made in our French press in whatever room we happen to have found ourselves in. Sniff and stir has become the morning ritual.

We are both tired of driving and hungry for home, but in the meantime the road beckons and unfurls before us, and I find myself thinking of the Navajo concept of beauty, that it is everywhere and we are immersed in it and part of it.  I reflect on the range of landscapes and people we’ve met on this trip, and on how beauty takes many forms…and there is more to come!

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Regina is dry, hot and exhausting and we get our signals crossed trying to find a parking spot at what looks like a good coffee shop.  By the time we get the car and our butts parked we are cranky and the fact that this is another “we don’t do dark roast” (featuring winy coffee) place, doesn’t help. We talk about how glad we are that even when we are cranky, we don’t blame each other, and then decide to push on to Swift Current so that tomorrow can be a shorter day.  A few miles outside of Regina on the vast prairie we realize that the yellow low fuel warning light is on—we need gas.

After 22 anxious miles we make our way into Pense, a town of 500 or so residents.  Canadian sculptor Joe Fafard lived here—I’m thinking there will be delightful sculptures of people and cows around the town.  Apparently not—there is no one to be seen.  There is a gas station that appears to be closed, the pumps barricaded with lawn furniture and plastic fencing to prevent cars driving around them. I wander into the Meat Up pub to ask for help…a vast, dark, totally empty room.  Calling out, a sleepy looking man emerges from the shadowy depths and informs me that the gas station is next door.  “Is it open?” I ask.  He peers at me quizzically: “I have no idea”.

Back we go.  I get out of the car and open the front door of the convenience store located behind the pumps.  A small (Canadian Chinese?) woman with a big smile is sitting behind the counter.  The place is crammed to the rafters with every kind of food stuff, hardware and household item you can imagine.  I ask if she is open and she nods and smiles. I ask her which pump to use. She nods and smiles. “Pump one?” I ask—she stands up, nods and gestures towards the pumps and her smile widens.  I go outside and Madeline parks the car beside the pumps while avoiding the lawn furniture and plastic fencing, negotiating the space with a new arrival, a man in a Winnipeg shirt, Ontario license plates and a huge truck. While I pump our gas, he goes into the store and comes out and asks me if the woman is crazy.  I tell him she is just trying to manage the situation in her way, and a few minutes later she emerges and starts waving and directing him to get his truck to the pumps without kinking the hose.

Driving towards Swift Current, I tell Madeline that I wish she could have seen the inside of the store.  It strikes me that this may have been the most excitement that the store owner had seen in a while—and far from being crazy she seemed enthused with her new customers, and besides, that huge, friendly smile never dimmed for a second.

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We spend two days in Calgary.  The first night we visit with our friends John and Jane with whom we are now family through marriage.  We laugh and feast have a great break from driving and the following day we visit with Floyd, a long-time friend that I hadn’t seen for 25 years. More feasting, more laughter, more heart connections.  As we ready for the final drive through the mountains, I feel warmed by these visits with friends old and new, and just grateful for the people in my life.

The beauty of northern Ontario is glorious, imperfect, substantial, with the Canadian Shield visible everywhere, and straggly corkscrew trees adorning mirrored lakes.  The beauty of the prairies is gentle, rolling and welcoming (at least in summer) with skies that open before me like the hands of generosity.

The Rockies are another matter completely. Here nature struts her stuff like a runway model—the trees are perfect cones, the mountains are rock music, with sweeping curves and sawtooth edges that carve into the sky.  The lakes are sapphire blue, fed by glaciers. This landscape is in your face, drop dead gorgeous, but I have to admit that part of me misses the wide prairie skies, and soon enough we are driving through the rolling sagebrush-adorned hills of Kamloops, and I am able to just be present with whatever is before me.

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On the ferry, weaving through the Gulf Islands, I think, so many Beauties on this trip.  The landscapes for sure, but just as much the people that we have met touch my heart. Everywhere, people have been friendly, kind and welcoming, and I realize that through this entire trip I have had the strongest sense of home, of belonging, of being immersed in beauty.

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By Madeline

 

I added Halcyon the kingfisher to our shelf of RARE mascots beside the donkey, Falstaff the pig, and the sand dollar picture.  I am so glad to be home with the kitties.  Memories of the trip will continue to simmer in my mind and give birth to more stories and posts, I am certain.  Thank you, Michael, for collaborating with me on the blog during our trip and for being a superb travel and life companion.  And thank you dear readers for reading.

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