“I’m going into a sugar coma just breathing,” my husband remarked, easing our van to a gentle halt at a stoplight and glancing in the rearview mirror at the three sleepy backseat occupants and the three tier cake they were guarding with the vigilance of armored vehicle guards en route to Fort Knox.
I’m not entirely sure how many pounds of sugar or tubs of shortening went into the fondant-coated creation our team of five transported to our church on Saturday, but I do know that six boxes of cake, eighteen eggs, and several bags of mini marshmallows went into the mix. I also know that that the three kids who designed, baked, and decorated the cake had invested all but two of the previous twenty hours into the effort. I’m fairly confident, as well, that I’ll be scraping icing from my counters, floor, and cabinets for weeks to come, but I digress.
Several weeks ago, my children’s friend, Brian, asked my daughter the aspiring baker, to help him make a wedding cake for his mother. Over the past month, they’ve whipped up batches of fondant—a blend of marshmallow and powdered sugar rolled into a smooth, thin sheath. They purchased tools and gadgets, interviewed experienced bakers, and test-driven some ideas in tasty, well-crafted prototypes. Along the way, they imagined. They hoped. They dreamed.
And then they worked. All. Night. Long. Even taking my son’s siestas into account, they easily lost a collective twenty hours of sleep.
Sometime around 11 o'clock the next morning, they decided that nothing was left other than onsite presentation details. The kids gathered around the behemoth dessert, half in awe and half in horror at the prospect of moving it.
“Do you know where this cake will be in twelve hours?” my daughter asked the boys.
“In people’s stomachs,” Brian nodded.
The kids basically shrugged off this seemingly disturbing fact, chalking it up to spreading around a lot of happiness.
I keep returning to the images of these children—the work, the excitement, the acceptance of the fleeting nature of their pursuit--even their willingness to embrace the inherent risk associated with their undertaking. I return to these thoughts not only out of sheer pride in their accomplishment, but as a reminder about why we work, and dream, and strive, because, let’s face it, most of us aren’t going to change the world. The majority of us throw ourselves into efforts only slightly more fleeting and likely less tasty than the kids’ wedding cake.
I needed these images to get me back on track yesterday, in the wake of an afternoon at an outdoor book event inhabited by a population of decidedly glum writers and poets. Oh, everyone adopted a make-the-most-of-it sort of outlook, but it was hard to miss the fact that nobody sold much printed matter of any kind, and that this wasn’t the first time this sort of thing happened to people other than me.
Which made me wonder why I write. Why I invest so much imagination, so many hopes, and a large percentage of my dreams into a craft that seems frankly disappointing. My husband, who has never written anything outside of school papers and a couple dozen blog entries, found it surprisingly simple to relate the feelings to some of his own passions. And that’s when I realized that most of our human ambitions are small efforts destined for rapid consumption; that life probably works best when viewed through the “process, not the product” approach elementary art teaches are trained to adopt.
The kids probably have it about right: whether we bake, write, or hold any number of other hopes close to our hearts, we have to go into it hoping for little more than the distribution of happiness, hope, encouragement, or peace for others, knowing that somewhere along the way we’ll find the same for ourselves in the pursuit.
At the wedding, the kids hovered around the cake table, witnessing the whittling away of the efforts. They left exhausted but with their perspective intact.
“…the finished cake lived shorter than your average housefly,” my daughter wrote in a facebook status upon her arrival home. “It was so worth it, though.”