There is no denying that this week was hard to get through. Continuing investigations into the terrorist attacks in El Paso and Dayton, political upheaval in Russia, Central America, Kashmir, and Hong Kong, and dire reports on climate all contributed to the unease and negativity that permeated my life. On the local front, I have unseen animals in the walls of my house that are making noises suggesting they are intent on destroying it. The weather was hot and dry, and my sense of humor was missing. My hips hurt, my knees hurt, and I didn’t have patience with anyone or anything.
When I went to bed last night, all I knew was that I needed to find a way to shift my mood. I was scrolling through the channels and came across “The Great British Baking Show – Master Class!” Now, this is not the best show to watch just before one goes to bed, but it put me in the perfect frame of mind.
If you haven’t seen this show, you absolutely, positively must find a way to watch. It is a competition. But it is nothing like the ‘shaming-flaming-blaming’ competition shows shown on the Food Network. This is a polite, delightfully upbeat and veddy-British competition between amateur bakers in Britain who meet in a beautiful, bucolic setting under a huge white tent, and who make the most wonderfully-named sweet things. The competitors are challenged to create dishes that are the brainchild of two of Britain’s most revered bakers, Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood — (these are their real names. I am not kidding!) The episodes I watched show demonstrations by Mary and Paul of the recipes used in the competition. So I watched and decided that I would get up in the morning, go to the store and create British Tea Cakes.
You need to understand that I am not a baker. I love to cook, but I cannot turn out cookies, cakes, or other dessert-like items to save my life. If you come to my house for a meal, you will be served a dessert made by someone else, or nothing at all. So, deciding to do this was quite a stretch, but I figured I needed something out of my regular routine to bounce me out of my depressive state.
I went to the store this morning armed with the shopping list, purchased my items and came home. Just in case I couldn’t get the recipe done the way it was shown, I also bought some back-up food substitutes so that I could do the Mary-Flett version of this iconic tea cake. Good thing, too!
The British Tea Cake consists of a shortbread cookie topped with marshmallow and covered in a hard chocolate coating. It requires melting chocolate, coating a half-sphere mold with the melted chocolate, making marshmallow and piping it into the mold, and then putting a short-bread cookie on the top. Once it is all hardened, you flip the mold over, gently peel it off and you have a shiny British Tea Cake.
Well, at least that is the plan. Did I say that I don’t do desserts? Instead, I created a chocolate mess in a bowl, in the molds, and all over my kitchen. The melted marshmallow turned into caulking paste, and I made short-bread cookies (my Scottish grandmother’s recipe) that were too small for the mold. And I did all this under a time clock, because I was going to a birthday party!
Hopefully, you have read thus far. Because the birthday party is really what I want to share with you.
As bad as my week had been, and as bad as my morning had been, I knew I would be spending time with one of the most wonderful human beings in the world. Yesterday was her birthday. She turned 85! This woman represents everything I want to be when I grow up. She has overcome unbelievable hardship, she has experienced sadness and loss with grace and fortitude, she has touched the lives of several generations of people, her wisdom and caring are beacons of hope for old and young alike, she is multi-lingual and multi-cultural, she has a wicked sense of humor, and she can hold her own with royalty and street people without batting an eye.
I, along with 40+ other relatives, friends, co-workers (yes, she is still working!), and neighbors, was invited to a local restaurant where we spent four hours sharing stories, telling tall tales, mingling with each other, and basking in her presence. She made a short speech about being 85 years old. It went something like this: “Today I am 85! Can you believe it? But I am not old. I woke this morning, and decided I am like a book with many chapters. Some of the chapters have lots of drama. Some have lots of humor! Each day, I am writing new pages to go into my book and I am beginning a new chapter today!”
This is such a potent metaphor! Each of us is the author of our own story. It matters little whether you are a gifted writer or someone who observes all but says little, you can stitch together a storyline of your life. Putting together these chapters can help us all organize our stories and help us to realize that without the sadness and loss there can’t be a chapter of happiness or gain. Without a chapter heroically describing how you overcame an obstacle, there is no context for understanding how you came to be compassionate and tender towards a stranger. Without reading through the early chapters, I will have no sense of how much I have accomplished, or of how much I still wish to experience before my time is up.
This was such a gift. I can’t imagine feeling down or blue after basking in the love and joy that was part of that celebration. My dear friend not only turned 85 years old, she also turned my darkness into light. The gift she shared will keep on inspiring me, and I hope it will inspire you, too!