Friday, May 14, 2010

Having Your Cake

Here’s the thing I don’t understand – I am familiar with the term ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it too’, but what’s the point of staring at a piece of cake like a portrait? And if you choose the eating option, then don’t you need to have it?? It seems like an inane lose-lose scenario, another one of those ‘caught between a rock and a hard place’ situations that I like to create for myself.  I want to choose eating the cake – and trust me, that’s not an easy option for me. But assuming I'm picking up my fork, there better be something to taste.

And yet, I'm learning that sometimes we have to conceive of a way to be satisfied with the less than perfect option, to find the beauty in the curl of the icing, content with the recollection of it’s creamy taste while forgoing taking a bite.  Holding on to the memory of taste, there are moments when cake just isn’t on the menu, when the options available are both less than ideal.  Sometimes there is no perfect option, no ‘having it all’.

 I am learning this, but lets be clear – I'm not a fan.  I spent too many years eating vicariously, drooling over menu options while munching on a dry garden salad.  I collected recipes and window-shopped in grocery stores, convincing myself that the vision of ice cream just as good as actually dipping in my spoon.  I tried to outsmart the system, to figure out a way to eat the cake without the perceived consequences. You can use cancer-causing sweeteners, substitute applesauce for butter, skim milk for cream and you’ll get a round item you can cut in slices, but that’s where the cake resemblance ends.  Still, if you try hard enough, forgo any nibbles that might suggest the original, memorize the fears and lies and horrible endings that cake might bring, you might be able to persuade your tongue that this sad looking slice is the cake of your dreams.  If you never have licked icing from a spoon or blew out the candles on a chocolate mocha cake, then this might be enough. 

But there is a difference, even if we don’t know what we are missing.  It’s the difference between surviving and thriving.  I can live on the minimum, the substitutions, the quick drafts, and the hints of color.  My brain will work overtime to meditate on the mantra of gratitude and being grateful for what you have, which can be a very useful trait, but can also be a mechanism for settling.  I am a settler.  I get a glimpse of happiness, laughter wafting through the window, and I lean back, ready to call it a day.  By comparison, it’s better than what was before.  It’s an improvement, progress, and one baby step into a well-lived life.  I stick my toe into the pool of joy and believe that I'm floating in the ocean.  It’s the small vision that preaches not to be too ambitious, not to threaten the equilibrium that holds us still. The misconception that a bite of cake is all we get, is all we should hope for, is all we deserve. 

We buy into the distortions of our minds and tread water, defending our location to those that swim by.  “Look, I'm still above water. I'm surviving. I have my life jacket on and I’ll be okay.” And that’s all true.  And maybe some truly are content with the survival mode, this level of happiness that keeps their nose just above water.  Perhaps you do prefer the fat free, sugar free, taste-free cake.  I thought I did.

 I thought my cake was just as good as the one in the bakery window. I thought that dessert was an addendum, the so-called ‘icing on the cake’ of life, and therefore not necessary.  I thought that being happy with what you had was the objective, and that having dreams and goals was arrogant or entitled. That’s what we do. If you’ve never tasted chocolate, how do you know what you’re missing? We can’t possibly know until we’ve had a bite of it. We don’t know to long for butter cream icing if it’s never been on the menu.

On one hand, this is adaptive.  We find avenues to appreciate our lot, to be comfortable, to smile in the breeze.  We catalogue the blessings of the day and access gratitude for the small gifts, like the look on a puppy’s face as she takes her first elevator ride. However, we can still cherish our days while advancing toward our dreams.  Survival is the absence of dreams.  It is subsistence on leftover’s, the blindness to anything past our own doorstep.  Survival is ordering the piece of cake without a fork; it is the life we lure ourselves into, certain that this is as good as it gets. I’ve found that sometimes survival is all you can ask for. It’s enough. It’s progress and movement. It’s waking up to another day, which is better than the alternative plan.  Survival is enough…for a while. 

But survival can become it’s own quicksand, keeping you small and limited, dictated by borders and rules, offering miniscule bites of cake but never the satisfaction of delicious fullness. Not knowing what the menu contains, it’s easy to go about your days without a craving for sweetness.  And if this is good enough for you, then okay.  But for me, I'm tired of surviving.  I'm tired of the narrow place I carve out to live in, tired of the tidbits of joy I feed myself, tired of the fat-free, sugar-free, taste-free outlook I employ.  Because once you get a taste of a real piece of cake, you know what you’re missing.  Even if you don’t believe that it’s possible for you, that it’s only something They can have, that you’re not good enough, not smart enough, not funny enough, not enough…you still know what you’re missing.  And all of those enough’s are just another way to keep us in survival mode, to keep us from dreaming and wishing and hoping for better things ahead.

Thriving is a whole different world.  Thriving is incorporating the laughter of today with the imaginings of tomorrow. Thriving is gripping the recipe even if your pantry is bare.  Thriving involves believing in success stories of others when you don’t yet have your own.  Thriving requires faith – faith in the unknown, unseen, un-tasted; faith that all is available to us but it might be a messy meal without napkins. Thriving means a willingness to learn what we’re missing so we know what to dream of. 

It’s easier not to know, isn’t it? If we don’t know what we’re missing, then there are no longings, no cravings, and no displeasure with what is.  It’s easier to stand still and sit outside the bakery, because then we never have to change. It’s easier, but dull and taste-less, ending with unlived lives spent sleepwalking. Easier doesn’t mean better.  Usually the challenge offers the greatest prize. 

So it’s a choice. Am I willing to find out what I'm missing, risk the craving and the loss when it’s not available, when it’s not baked yet? Or do I want to spend a lifetime staring at the frosting, content with having the cake but not eating it?

The truth is that it’s time to bake with real ingredients, lick the batter off the spoon, and learn that if you order the cake and can’t find the fork, lean down and take a bite…even if it means you emerge with frosting on your face.

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