Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Lessons I Learned from Family and Friends #1: The Wedding Cake

Courtesy earth_photos on Flickr, 2003, some rights reserved.
My friend (actually one of the most eloquent, elegant women I know and one of my undergrad profs) and I were in stop and go mode in rush-hour traffic after the second day of a workshop on race and social-justice consciousness raising. We had left about the same time the day before and were sure our moment of departure was the perfect window for avoiding traffic. Alas, we were not aware it had been storming during the workshop. We walked out of the building...the rainfall visibly evaporating from the parking lot asphalt as we walked to her car.

We left the Central High National Historic Site's visitor's center exhilarated and exhausted. We had been surrounded by young people of many races, religions, creeds, and it was exciting to know they had volunteered to be part of this experience. But opening up, telling our truths, being put on the spot...even though we put ourselves there...was scary. My friend and I, representing a project about the desegregation of Central High by the Little Rock Nine, are pretty white. She confessed that growing up in SoCal was hard because she couldn't spend more than five minutes in the sun. I confessed that rather than trying to tan (i.e., getting a sunburn), I sat in the windows of my parents' Victorian house identifying birds with binoculars. Both our families hail from middle-class Indiana, where "corn rows" has never been used to refer to hair. Telling black people, Asian-Americans, Jewish people the story of my life seemed silly. While I may be a woman, which gives me some insight into the "savage inequalities" Jonathan Kozol discusses in his book of the same name, I'm still the color of privilege. Why should anyone "of color" care about me? Of course, that was the whole point of the exercise: be uncomfortable until you find a place of comfort with the group you will spend this time with, recognize each as a person and not as somehow a representative of a color or a belief or a generation or a place.

But when I'm tired, I can't help but grouse: I wanted my pajamas and my K-dramas, and some slow-moving moron, jerk who refused to learn merging etiquette, or inconsiderate speeder caught by a cop were keeping me from my routine.

So my friend told me a story.

When my friend's older sister became engaged, she decided to have the wedding on her fiancée's farm in the Hoosier state, and she enlisted my friend, who was in college studying *mumble something that will give her identity away* to bake the cake. My friend had never baked a wedding cake in her life...but I could have easily guessed this part of the story: she researched the subject like the scholar she is, studying piping, stacking, accoutrements, mixes, recipes in the months leading to the production of the masterpiece.

The morning of the special day turned out to be warmer than usual. So when my friend set out to bake the cake...in the kitchen of a farmhouse...with no air conditioning...it didn't take long to realize the "icing on the cake" would be problematic. Calls were made (I imagine, having grown up in that time and close to that same place myself, on rotary phones), and the baked parts of the cake were moved to the home of a relative who had air conditioning...in the living room only. I can imagine my friend running back and forth to the kitchen as she stacked and piped, her fresh sunny face full of optimism and confidence.

But then she had to transport the finished cake back to the un-airconditioned farmhouse over several miles of dirt road.

She told me how she drove five miles an hour, clutching the steering wheel, scouting for every pothole while checking the cake's safety in the rear-view mirror.

She and the cake made it, and that's a story of true sisterly love. But it isn't the moral.

That person in front of you? The one taking up all your time, annoying you, making you question the intelligence of humanity?

The saying goes, "Every one of us has a burden to bear." We nod and believe we understand. But when that "burden" becomes tangible...a cake, a bad tire one can't afford to replace, cancer treatments that cause dizziness...when the reason is real, only then does the saying become truly meaningful. The person's race, ethnicity, age...none of it matters...just the burden.

So from now on, I'm going to believe there's a teetering wedding cake, loving months in the making, in the backseat of that person's car. I don't want to think about the other possibilities, and being angry for trifling reasons never gets us anywhere.

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