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In a strange fit of mania, I decided I needed to resume baking this week. I didn’t think I’d return to you, dear patient reader, after weeks away to talk about baking, but, well, here we are and hear me out: everything I tried failed. Everything. I bake often; regularly, and sort of, I’ll admit, rather effortlessly. Usually I buy a cookbook and within an hour or two the oven is on and the butter and sugar are coming together in a light fluffy thing and an hour later we are eating cake and it’s delicious and also no big deal, it’s another Wednesday afternoon. It is my only hobby.
Not so here. Three cakes in a row: disasters. One raw, one burnt on top, one dry as sand. I don’t get this oven, I texted friends both here and away, so frustrated I kept just trying again, throwing another hat in the ring. The baking defeats made me want to curl up, and then I wanted to sob about wanting to curl up over cake absolutely nobody asked for or needed. But this has always been something I can be guaranteed to do right, and the inability to have that one thing in my back pocket feels sort of…horrible?
Can I tell you that this is, in fact, the thing that sent me over the edge? That during the last week of my kid’s month-long Easter break (yes, yes, Moms, one month), I am starting to lose it? That in spite of some very special days thrown in there I feel like a human being who exists exclusively for other people’s needs — to buy groceries and keep the kid occupied and schedule playdates and find activities and remind people to clean up and scrub the toilets and do the laundry and think through tomorrow’s totally open-ended schedule yet again? Not a person who works or thinks? These are the moments when mothers start to lose it, isn’t it, when you are, even temporarily, reduced exclusively to the person who enables everyone else’s life to go on? Whose own life has to be put on pause in order to do so?
We had a truly magical trip back to Vienna after nearly seven years away — this is what I had thought I’d come here to tell you about! Sorry! — then a week at home sick and another weekend away rescheduled due to illness and still there are many, many days left to this break, and did I mention the week before we went to Vienna, when the kid was already off school and we had family in town?
Why on earth did I come back here to kvetch to you about all of this, especially about the totally benign baking disasters?
Because it feels, right now, like the truest thing. When I made my three pathetic bakes and then opened Instagram and saw all those perfect cakes other people managed to pull off, I felt even worse about myself, just as — I’m guessing? — when I posted beautiful pictures of Vienna (or Cambridge or London or whatever) I’ve made so many people feel bad about…whatever it might be: not being on vacation, not being in Europe (?), not being able to take a sabbatical (?), etc. etc., I don’t know, I can’t name all the things people might be upset or annoyed about, but it’s the feeling I get when I see other people’s happy vacation photos on social media when I’m in a cranky mood.
After the initial feeling of genuine glee at seeing my friends and their families on beaches or mountains or in front of the Eiffel Tower or wherever, it is this: Why am I looking at these over an app and not, say, on their couches along with the stories that come with the photos? And then: Why are you showing them to all of us, unless this is some sort of guide and you’re going to tell me what to do and see in said place? And of course: Why am I sharing mine? Why why why why why?
I didn’t want to share photos of the burnt cake or the piles of Kleenex or the kid trailing me from room to room demanding my attention when I had nothing left to give and we had nothing to do — I find those posts just as annoying, just as slanted, just as odd and intrusive. They are a genre in and of themselves (“real life”) and I get that they are trying to point to something unfiltered but they end up feeling just as manufactured. (I do this, too, of course.)
Perhaps all this frustration comes on the heels of Too Much Parenting and a week back in our old beloved city, seeing dear friends for hours and hours over long meals and many glasses of wine and cider and so much Matzo and much chaos from the children, and the feeling that absolutely none of that — nothing at all like it — can be replicated, even a teeny tiny bit, over an app. Not joy, not sadness, not deep togetherness, not true listening or connection, nothing.
This is beyond obvious but the deep immersion we experienced being back alongside these friends was nothing short of stunning; heart- and soul-filling, and nothing that could (or should) be understood by anyone other than the people who were there, even when captured with the best filter or longest caption.
And yet, we try. We try! We want to let other people in on our joy. Is that it? We want to share our lives? We want to be loved and seen and understood and accompanied in our attempts to live good, exciting lives? I don’t know. I want to think about this with my least cynical cap on: I am a person who actually sort of loves some aspects of social media, especially befriending people because of the things we share: an interest in a book or a piece of writing, a place, an overlapping experience, a mutual friend or two. I’ve made a few very sweet online friendships this way, ones that I really do cherish and would like to believe could blossom into something more were we to sit across from one another with drinks in hand.
But when I think about our week away, what sticks with me is what could never be captured by a photo, could never be adequately liked or shared or captioned: the feeling of sitting in our dear friends’ Altbau, at the same dining room table we shared with them in 2015, the children so much older now and more numerous, and it feeling exactly as it had all those years ago, easy and warm and full of the deepest laughter. Wonderfully, comfortingly so. The feeling of walking down the street and my body knowing exactly where to turn, how to get everywhere — to the 49 tram to the 13A bus to the U3 — of recognising the Haydn Kino sign and knowing I had to make a right, of knowing where to find the Weleda face cream, the Ja Natürlich milk, the rice cakes with chocolate and coconut. The feeling that all I had remembered was just where I’d left it.
A FEW WORDS ON CLASSES! In May, I’ll be sharing my summer and fall offerings, including an in-person retreat in October in Los Angeles. Woohoo! Summer School will be back in full force and I can’t wait to see you there! More soon.
A FEW WORDS ON BOOKS. I haven’t shared what I’ve been reading for a while, so here’s a little list of some recents I’ve loved, if you’re looking for something delicious: As for rereading: Rumaan Alam’s Rich & Pretty, Lynn Steger Strong’s Flight, Catherine Newman’s We All Want Impossible Things. I’m onto book 7 of Louise Penny’s Gamache series for some wonderful escapism and also a little taste of home; I’ve read the first two Kate Atkinson' Jackson Brodie books (incredible). I, of course, loved Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again, and I also devoured Ann Napolitano’s Hello Beautiful. Now onto Tessa Hadley’s Free Love and Nicole Chung’s A Living Remedy. Also, loved this conversation between Suleika Jaouad and Jon Batiste on the creative process. xx
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I love this. Maybe we should create an app that’s all captions and no photos.