“If you’re going to lick the icing off somebody else’s cake you won’t be nourished and it won’t do you any good, or you might find the cake had caraway seeds and you hate them.”
― Emily Carr
When I was in 5th grade we had periodic show and tell sessions. In a way it was my first presentation to an audience and I was terrified. The last thing an incredibly shy child whose father was the principal of the school wants is to stand up in front of a classroom of peers and share something you know. I remember discussing it with my parents and my mother came up with the idea of me teaching the class how to make a scratch chocolate cake. Although this may not seem strange today, in 1973 a ten year old boy didn’t engage in baking. The world at that time still held the vestiges of a more misogynistic past where men were the bread winners and woman stayed home to attend to the family. Women cooked, cleaned, and did laundry. Men played cards and golf. However there were two reasons why I, a ten year old boy had learned to bake a scratch chocolate cake.
Just three years prior my brother was born and even at age seven my mother realized it was better to teach me how to do basic things around the house rather than my father, whose idea of cooking literally meant opening a can of ravioli and placing it directly on the stove top. In the months leading up to my brother’s arrival my mother labeled all sorts of things in the house with instructions like the washer and dryer, items in the cupboard, etc. She began to teach me how to make basic meals, do the laundry, and even iron one of my father’s shirts. She knew my father would be helpless while she was in the hospital and the only help she had was me. My father was not one of those “hey let’s go play catch in the backyard” sort of dads. He was a high school principal who regularly escaped his family by attending every single after school event and working many Saturdays. When he was home he spent that time reading books and watching television and disengaging. So I spent time with my mother and being a scientifically minded boy saw cooking as science, so I asked to be taught, which is the other reason I learned how to bake a cake. So my mother an I practiced making a scratch chocolate cake from a recipe of my great grandmothers until I got it right.
The day before my presentation in class my mother very cleverly suggested we bake one at home that I could take with me along with the ingredients for the cake I was going to mix up. There was no oven in class and she knew that handing out cake to the class would win them over, especially the boys who were otherwise likely to call me names that insinuated I wasn’t a heterosexual. She was right of course. The presentation went off beautifully and I remember my teacher being in awe of watching this young boy make a cake while I held the entire class spellbound with a process they had only seen their mothers do. At the end I handed out delicious chocolate cake—how could I loose? It was also the beginning of years of public speaking and I partially credit it to this day with giving me the confidence to do that.
I’m telling you this story because it exemplifies our life long struggle with shame. At our earliest days of school we learn what it is to be judged by others. Every aspect of our being is scrutinized and criticized or heralded and the idea of ‘cool’ becomes the exemplar we all strive for. Cool kids like cool people seem to move through the world with an elegance that the rest of us don’t have. This becomes the frame, the frame of celebrity that we all get judged by. If we cannot live up to a certain aesthetic quality, or maintain a vibrant, charismatic personality we begin to get kicked down a peg or two. Some of us become the last person picked on the dodge ball team. But shame is an abstract construct that has no real meaning in how we live our lives. It’s a ghost of an emotion that lives purely in our idea of self worth. When we learn to deny shame a foothold in our lives we gain the territory of self worth which gives a personal landscape which can thrive in. We also learn greater empathy because we understand how challenging it was to get beyond shame in our own life and begin to recognize the struggle in others, and simply see people for what they are. In the immortal words of Jim Hendrix “But I’m going to wave my freak flag high. Wave on, wave on.” Kill shame. Wave your freak flag high and learn to bake a scratch chocolate cake.