What it’s worth

Ever since we got back from our trip I’ve been trying to dedicate a lot of energy to keeping my writing rhythm. On the water I hit a cadence and an ease with it that I wanted to harness and sustain. And a good way to do that (besides quitting work and sailing away), at least for me (and what Virginia Woolf and just about every other writer ever born tells us), is to read. Read and write, read and write. That’s how I did it on the boat. One flowed into the other, outside of my awareness. I didn’t think, read; and then, now you shall write. It just happened. Like the waves and the wind and the rocking, swaying, and trimming of the sails. Peak performance was a reaction to action.

Now, though, I’m back. Back to work, back to seeking solace within discipline, back to the nagging passenger in my head on the way to work, reminding me that this is not my beautiful life. And with being back I find the reading part is much easier than the writing part. The read is buttery, salty popcorn, and the write is a hummingbird. I’m also finding that I excel at justifying doing more of the former when I do less of the latter. And I’m really super CRAZY good at then rationalizing that the tilted scale is actually a healthy and productive means to an end. Like a breakfast cookie!

It’s the barter system in downtown DawnTown. No writing today? I’ll read another Medium piece. (I’m actually becoming a better writer without writing!)  Two more unsaved drafts? Another five click-porn “news stories.” (I’m building a room of my own over here, people.) Six thoughts written down on a Post It but zero actual drafts? One more time on Bird by Bird, Chapter One. (I’m Steven Kinging the shit out of this roadmap!) Then I go eat an otter pop or rake the cedar detritus out of the garden.

And then the other day–probably while raking the garden or sitting at my writing table with a pen lid in my mouth, trying to see if I could balance something on my head–I got to thinking about this perfectionist problem and confidence problem, and all the other problems, and about all my  excuses to not do. It’s not a big shocker or anything. No big ah-hahs! here. For these things I know, and have known for a long, long time, but I just don’t ever really think about what to do to break out of them.

It’s sort of like that generic non-answer most people give you when you ask them what they want: to be happy, successful, wealthy, in a good relationship, blah, blah. Meaningless because everyone wants that. But very few of us want it all badly enough to do the work required to get it. When’s the last time you worked a 60-hour week because you were passionate, not forced? Took a real risk, like tossing your life savings at your dream? When’s the last time you said what you really felt to the person you love, even though it was hard and scary and made you feel vulnerable and ripped open?

It’s the same thing with writing: what do I want? To be a good writer? My knee-jerk genero robot response is of course yes, but now I have to ask what it means to be a “good” writer.”  Who’s the judge? Who’s *my* judge? What do I want them to think? What do I care if they think I’m good or not? And what if we have completely different ideas about what’s good? And ultimately, how much am I willing to risk (read: do) in order to get whatever it is that I want back?

This all landed me right back to where I started. And here’s the thing. I’m not just afraid of not being good; I’m afraid of not being good enough. Of being so mediocre (or worse yet, bad) that my writing is embarrassing. Pedestrian and banal and fodder for eye-rolling. Of being a hack who calls herself a writer, who really just writes crap that doesn’t change anyone’s life or make them see things in a new way. Of not writing earth-shatteringly beautiful masterpiece sentences that are so goddamned moving and elegantly crafted that you read them fifty-seven times after the first and then earmark the page and go back to it every time you want to rehydrate your parched soul.

That’s my yardstick, my version of good, and that’s the kind of writer I want to be. But Jesus H, right? The pressure of that is weighting my fingers and killing my drive and eroding any shred of “greatness” that might someday make it’s way from my heart to the page. That bar is becoming the reason I’m not finding the golden crumbs that lead to the perfect-crumb loaf of bread. That’s why I rake instead of write; or when I do get words on the page, end up copping out, ending too soon, holding back, or my favorite: defaulting to funny over the raw, risky, real of my truth.

The other day my husband and I were leaving our house. It was the middle of the day on a Sunday, and we were heading out to get groceries. The street we have to pull out onto off of our quiet little side street is a main one. It’s a cross-town throughway, and there’s only one lane in either direction, with a turning lane in the middle. The two lanes, one west- and the other east-bound, get jammed, and there’s no light, so you have to wait for someone kind enough to stop and let you go halfway, and then do the same in the turning lane–either wait for an opening in the line of cars coming up behind you, or wait again for some kind, patient person to stop and let you in.

As we were waiting for the first opening, we could hear sirens. A lot of them. But we couldn’t tell where they were coming from. We kept looking around, and it seemed like they were getting louder, but we couldn’t orient the direction or whether they were anywhere really near us. At this point, a truck in the long line of cars coming at us westbound, stopped and let us in. We crossed the line of cars and turned eastbound, into the turning lane, which is about midway up a hill, with very little visibility on the other side of the hill. About a millisecond after we got there, we looked up to see the first in a line of unmarked police cars cresting the hill in front of us. They were driving in the turning lane because of the traffic in the normal lanes, and they were coming right at us at about 100 miles an hour. There was nowhere for us to go, and nowhere for them to go. What happened next was a giant, and incredibly fast blur, but I remember sort of bracing myself against my door and the center console, and involuntarily yelling, Holy Fuck.

It all happened so fast, and I wasn’t driving, but someone behind us in the eastbound lane saw what was happening and had the presence of mind and quickness of reflexes enough to pull over, and my husband was able to act similarly as quickly, and get us out of the path of that oncoming caravan of cops. And we lived. It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever experienced. The whole thing transpired in probably less than a minute, and within ten we were shopping for groceries.

But the experience has hung around for me. It pops into my head at random times and without provocation. Sirens make my heart race a little quicker than they ever used to. I’m not shell-shocked or house bound, but I haven’t driven out onto that road in that same way since; I take the other route out to the main street, which is two more turns, and a light. Maybe it’s because I’m older, or because it was so recent. Maybe it’s because it was a legitimately life-changing experience.

But having these two things intersect and move apart and cross over again in my brain every once in a while–these two very real things–the fear of failure (and let’s face it, of mediocrity), and the scary reality of facing real imminent death, is giving me some perspective. Not the motivational poster kind, or the post-heart attack kind. The it-doesn’t-matter kind. It doesn’t matter to worry about writing something that isn’t THE POINT of it at all because I don’t know what the point is yet. (And of course it doesn’t matter to put off doing it for fear of mediocrity because I might walk outside and get killed by a cop posse chasing down a carjacker, but that’s the post-heart attack kind of motivation sticking its elbow in my ribs).

The point is I’m by nature a risk-taker. I’ve moved forty times and lived in five states, the riskiest being to a state where I knew no one, had no job, no place to live, a dog, a sleeping bag, and eight hundred dollars. I sail. I ride a motorcycle. I used to rock climb. Now I want to risk my insides. I’ll write partly in order that I might find something worth sharing that might warrant being called great, but wholly to find my own way to whatever that is for me.

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Sad muffins

 

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I’ve come to know these things about love: You don’t know what it is until it grabs you by the throat and knocks you to the ground; and you don’t truly believe you’re getting it back until that certain someone loves you in all the ways you are: good, bad, weird, funny, fun, neither, acceptable, unacceptable (to everyone except the one who loves you), good at baking, or not.

Today I made some really sad muffins. They’re not high or fluffy or whatever good muffins are. They’re dense and kind of squatty, and I didn’t do the batter/berries thing right cuz the berries are sticking out of the tops like trees instead of mixed in in all equal proportions and bubbling out in berry goodness. I also attempted a “strudel” topping (I know, I know… Hi, Dawn, it’s me, baking: stop it right now.), which ended up being more just little blobs of goo that careened to their deaths when I pulled the muffins from their little cocoons in the muffin pan, which really strike me as more suitable for something like eggs and cheese, cuz what is better than eggs and cheese? NOTHING.

But I made the sad muffins because of love. Because I met a man who accepts me in all the ways I can’t accept myself, and we got married, and he loves baked goods. Yes, there are a bunch of details in there I left out, but none of your business! Just kidding. But, really, let’s just get to the baking, and better yet, to the things we don’t do because we haven’t been throttled in one way or another by love or any other ass-kicker.

Here’s the truth. I hate doing things I’m not good at. I’m an obsessive perfectionist, and if I can’t be the best or damned near close to it at whatever the thing is, I make up some weird or not weird excuse to not do it. Cuz come on. It’s easier to just hate something violently and pretend it’s stupid than to practice and get better at it, am I right?

Anyway, baking was one of those things. Basketball is another, but let’s face it, I’m no LeBron, so if it ever comes up, you just go, “Who do I look like, LeBron?” End of conversation. Pass those olives. Baking’s harder to escape. It’s real, it’s everywhere, and it keeps coming around. Dinner parties. Work things. Holidays. Delicious treats after meals. There’s only so much putting off you can do before you’re like, OK, get your shit together. Dust off the mixer, find a few staple recipes, and stop with the hand-wringing. So I did. I found some one-pan wonders. They were good. I bought an ice cream maker, and I obsessed over that for a while. And I’m not gonna lie, it’s an easy crack that can land you right outta the park. Ice cream is a goddamned artisan crowd pleaser. But a) making ice cream isn’t baking; it’s freezing; b) it’s super easy but time consuming (i.e., no forgetting about the dessert course til 4:00 when the guests are due at 6:00); and c) I live where it’s cold nine months of the year, so there’s only so much mocha crunch your guests are gonna put up with in mid-January.

But amidst the obstacles, I hung on. I was loud and proud with my hating. I only pulled off a baked good under extreme duress, desperation, or lack of options. I pawned off the dessert part of the menu for every dinner party I could to my friend the fabulous baker, and pulled out the almond cake or fennel ice cream only when I had to. I wore my “I’m a cook, not a baker” badge with excellence and ferocity.

But then it happened. Cupid nailed me right in the ticker, and delivered unto me a tool belt-wearing, baked-goods-loving, all around great guy who deserves everything I’ve got. And just cuz, well, the universe, also… gluten free. Dear Dawn: welcome to Hell. Sincerely yours, the rest of your trying-to-bake life.

At first, before I hated baking cuz I hadn’t really tried it, I was all like, yeah, I can bake. How hard is it to make some chocolate chip cookies? Not hard. Is a chocolate cake rocket science? No, bitches, it’s like flour, sugar, eggs, and water. As a matter of fact, baking is like the menu at the Mexican restaurant. Every single thing contains the same four ingredients in different formats. Plus, I can cook. I can cook the shit out of whatever you wanna eat, so how hard can it be to transfer those skills?! Yeah, I can bake. Let’s have a bake off right now. [/glimpse into my pathology]

Fast forward to trying to bake stuff, and hahahahaha! WRONG. Baking recipes are written in code. “Don’t over mix!” “Don’t over bake.” “Cook until done.” Huh? Baking has rules you don’t and can’t know and that aren’t part of the instructions because baking is science. Not the cool fun kind of science where you shake your head and go, Yeah, the multiverse. Crazy, right?! Or, Wow, if you pour this in there, and then put it over a flame, it erupts like a volcano. Cool! I’m gonna go eat a bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos now and watch a rerun of The Jeffersons.

No. This is the kind of science where if you use the same bowl to make the meringue that you used to make the lemon filling, and you don’t wash the bowl in between (cuz why would you when it’s all going into the same PIE), the meringue doesn’t work because there’s some sort of chemical in the lemon goo that makes the meringue not do that puffy thing that makes meringue meringue. That kind of science. Fucking stupid science that makes you hate your life and feel like a failure and costs twenty-four dollars for the bakery lemon meringue pie for the fourth of July BBQ party.

So, I’ve been plugging away at baking for about a year now. I’ve got a few solid, go-to recipe books, about sixty-seven thousand bookmarked pages, and I’d say more than a few staples that are pretty damn good. I’ve even mastered a few different loaves of gluten free bread that actually taste like bread. Exhibit a = win.

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I’ve learned some of what I can and a lot of what I can’t do because I’ve tried and failed. Yes. Failed. I know when I can break the rules, and when I can’t, but I don’t yet move around the kitchen when I’m baking in the same way I do when I’m cooking. I’m not as flowy, my rhythm is choppy, and my heart pounds more than sings.

But I like it. I like the simultaneous letting go while clinging tightly. I like the learning and growing part, and I like how it’s nudging me ever so closer to learning to accept the failures part. I like all the yeasty bread and cinnamony sugar smells. This year I gave some of what I baked as holiday presents, and the gift of that giving was all mine and one of the most rewarding I’ve ever gotten.

I’m opening up my kitchen to this new world of baking in the same way I’m learning to open up my heart and accept this love that keeps holding on to me and reminding me that failing is OK. Perfection is not a requirement. Practicing is living. And hands down what I like the most is when the first thing my husband says in the morning is, “Oooooh, yay, there’s muffins!” Even when they’re sad.