A Meditative Exercise of Practice & Punishment

She was baking for the good of her soul, under the pretense that she was making cookies for the Friendsgiving gathering later that evening. She carefully combined the ingredients in the method that would best produce fluffy results – first the butter and sugar were whipped into contortion, followed by one egg solider at a time, cracking their contents into the blur of the mechanical paddle whipping around the bowl, and finally, the liquid-based mixture intermingled with its drier counterparts in a gradual dance of folding and graceful swoops of the spoon around the tasty mass congealing in the bowl. Once all ingredients had found their perfect harmony in the forced mixture of their properties, she manipulated the dough into perfect little walnut-sized balls, rolled them in a healthy helping of fine sugar, and carefully placed them on a tray for their final stage of transformation.

She found peace in the harmony of foreign ingredients coming together to create the final product of her choosing. She had never excelled at science in school, however she had dedicated herself to mastering the experiement of baking at a young age. Thanks to an overly motivated and competitive mother, and her ability to mirror that exact same pressure and apply it to her hobbies, she began entering her confections in local county fairs as a fun way to compete with her skills. Then, what had begun as a fun exercise in competition, turned into regimented baking boot camps from Hell. Under the combined pressure of her own expectations and the pedestal that her mother had began to hold her up on, she strove to enter every baking category possible and win them all. When it was fair season, you could be guaranteed to find her dragging her young, resisting body out of bed before the sun had made an appearance, in order to start prepping her work space for mastery, with the assistance of her sous chef, Mother. The early-morning baking regimine would last for days, on an organized schedule that any German would be proud of. There was never a moment wasted, and never a moment of rest for her young, exhausted body being driven by the passion and focus of a career-climbing 30-year-old. Although she had accomplished the achievement of Best in Show for multiple confections she crafted with her 10-year-old hands, she was aiming to beat out all the other competition category by category, and then collect the Baking Sweepstakes Award of a shiny, old-fashioned, coin-operated candy dispenser, which would sit perfectly in her bedroom for her friends and siblings to gaze at in envy. Turns out that competitive 10-year-old’s dreams do come true, as she moved on to collect enough county and state fair ribbons and plaques to cover her bedroom walls in tokens of her baking achievements, with the shiny red candy dispenser sitting proudly in the midst.
All the ribbons, plaques, and candy machines came at a cost though. Her accomplishments, although valued by her and her mother, were a source of embarrassment for her and yet another sign that she was different than the rest of the kids she went to school with. While other kids were spending their weekends eating ice cream at the fair and getting sick on rides, she was in the exhibit hall nervously awaiting the results of her lastest bought of creations birthed from her sweat, tears, and blind determination to always reach greater accomplishments. While other kids were attending birthday parties, she was producing enough pastries to feed three parties. While other kids were mastering balance and learning how to ride a bike, she was mastering balancing the fragile chemical structure of whipped egg whites with the dense consistency of cream. And while a skinned knee would invoke a kind of devastated reaction from any child, she was provoked to break down from the collapsing of her souffle in its final stages of baking. Her accomplishments did not come without a strain being put on her and her mother’s relationship and screaming matches of frustration erupting in the wee hours of the morning. Although her mother was her master and teacher, she developed a resentment against her encouragement and direction. She seemed to have an uncanny ability to echo her thoughts of failure and extreme criticism, only dragging her further into a despair that would only be softened with the enthusiastic consumption of her ‘failed’ confections by the rest of her family, eagerly waiting in the wings of the kitchen, in a effort to avoid the constantly waged verbal battle yet be within close enough range to catch the pastries thrown across the room in frustration of not meeting higher expectations. Some may have accused her of being unrealistic, but she knew what she wanted to accomplish, and the steps that she should take to get there, so she saw no reason to think that it was impossible for her to climb the same steps of achievement that others, years her elder, had already accomplished. Martha Stewart, Julia Child, and many others had already blazed the path on creating the experimental process of combining various ingredients, so why could she not guide her feet along the same path of accomplishment? There were, at times, the physical restraints of not having enough arm strength or height to aptly whip a bowl of eggs and cream into oblivion, however she allowed no other excuses for not being able to follow a recipe and produce the same results pictured in the cookbook. She was a strict follower of rules and executor of directions, and there was no room for reinterpretation of the outlined steps if she wanted to obtain success.
How something that had previously invoked so much stress and self-criticism, had become an act of meditation, she was unsure, but she now retreated to baking when she needed a moment to operate without thinking. Baking was a mechanical, reflexive process that she always fell easily back into the natural rhythm of. She had been trained to know exactly when the butter and sugar were whipped enough, and what the golden edges of crisp, yet soft cookies looked like when they are pulled right out of the oven. She had an internal clock that instinctively knew when to rotate the baking trays, or punch down the rising bread dough. She operated confidently and without conscious thought, trusting the instinctive movement of her hands. It is in those moments of reflexive movement and instinctual knowledge of how to operate, that her mind is free to work out the thoughts weighing down her mind. The movements of baking had become as natural as breathing for her, and allowing the freeing of her mind and her body, lost in the rhythm of creation.

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