Artsy Cake Woman
“I paint with frosting and express myself with icing,” says Lila,* for whom it’s therapeutic to render a portrait on a squooshy bed of cake.
Her interest in art traces back to childhood: “I never cared if my grades were perfect—but it was always deeply upsetting for me when the food I prepared for my friends and loved ones fell short of the standards I’d set for it.”
As a young adult, she had found a way to combine her proclivity for drawing and painting with her culinary skills.
I tell Lila that I’ve always felt drawn to imaginative pastries and food with artistic elements. The cake my parents got me for my third birthday took the form of an elaborate amusement park, complete with plastic ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds, and roller coasters that made fun rides for my plastic figurine toys thereafter.
As a kid my dad would cut my sister and I’s peanut butter toasts into the shape of houses; I remember I’d eat the windows and the doors first before taking a bite out of the pointy roof.
Some foods I resisted eating for a while, worrying that to do so would be to [callously] destroy their beauty and fragile magnificence. In third grade for instance, after my classmates and I baked loaves of bread shaped like alligators, while the other kids devoured theirs, I only hesitantly bit at the stubby legs of mine in an attempt to keep its overall shape intact.
I mention this to Lila, asking her if it’s hard to witness the annihilation of her creations after putting so much work into them. She tells me that actually, the demolition is the biggest compliment.
“Nothing’s built to last, and I accepted that truth before going into my craft ” she explains. “Graffiti artists and daily newspaper journalists are confronted with the same. So I take a picture of it to remember. And then I send it on its way.”
I could somewhat relate to this as a Lyft driver, a “profession” built off ephemeralness— passenger gets in, passenger leaves. New ride. Fresh slate. Time to begin again.
Like with this ride: Lila and I interacted, I learned a few things from her, perhaps we briefly connected–and then she got out. And then I wrote an entry about designing cakes for a living–the equivalent, I suppose, to the pictures Lila takes of her food pre-demolition. A Lyft Tales entry immortalizes a transient experience that otherwise would have fallen quietly away into the recesses of the fast-paced universe.
Followers, what are your most memorable cakes from childhood? I’d love to hear about them!
Friend 1: “They’re starving artists?
Friend 2: “They’re just artists. I don’t know if they’re starving. I hope they have a main gig.
Jenny and the Elusive Jungle Cats
“Creativity isn’t something you can force,” passenger Jenny* says. “It comes when it comes. It’s on and off for me. My progress as a poet moves forward in fits and starts.”
I think about my ride with Jenny later on when attempting to get work done at Farley’s Coffee in downtown Oakland. The goal that day was to edit and make progress on my long-stagnant blog entries. Dozens of them had accumulated over the past year or so, only to stop mid-growth— their development halted by self-doubts (and perhaps, let’s face it, some level of commitment anxiety).
While reading these drafts, I felt a headache coming on, followed by mental shut-down as the spike-filled observation “these are a mess” punctured the banks of my muddled mind.
The main issue I noticed in many of them: an attempt to cover too much, thematically. Afraid of missing something or not saying enough, I’d peg a bunch of words onto the page with the same energetic impulsivity that might spur a drunk person to throw spaghetti at a target on the wall. Perhaps I hoped that the more spaghetti I threw, the likelier I’d be to hit it.
Not only did none of the messy noodles hit the target, I now also had a big mess in front of me–the cleaning of which would take me further from reaching my target.
While editing, my impatience grew as I continued to find faults. Unable to think outside the box to find a way through the conundrum– or adopt a new paradigm altogether through which to envision it– my mind felt frustratedly confined.
This wasn’t the first time this predicament had confronted me. Oftentimes– and this has been true since I was 15– arriving at a finished written product has felt like chasing down an elusive jungle cat, one who’s unabashedly independent and unapologetic about his sporadic, difficult to predict appurrances.
The jungle cats aren’t always elusive; at certain times in my life, they sashay in more readily. Often when I’m seated though, with pencil in hand prepared to make things happen– as I had been at Farley’s that day—that’s when they’re more inclined to leave. Because elusive jungle cats really don’t like to be chased.
They appear for me when I’m out with friends at a bar. I set down my jalapeño margarita and excuse myself from the group because there’s a thought that needs attending to (only of course I don’t tell them that), which I record in the bathroom.
They appear for passenger Jenny when she’s on a bike ride, stopped between Market and Noe because a line of poetry has been pressing at her mind that she has to write down.
At one point I was even tempted to pause at CVS to record a jungle cat sighting, struck as I was by inspiration (arbitrarily and inexplicably) in the laxatives aisle.
It’s at these (sometimes inopportune) times that Jenny and I are sporadically rewarded. In my case, I witness clear sentences marching through my mind in all their coherent glory. In Jenny’s, intact poems infused with structure and meaning blossom inside her head.
My somewhat entitled mindset used to be that maybe the cats were just cold and withholding. I wondered if it was best to treat them like those emotionally unavailable people I once tried to date. Basically, don’t get too invested, and don’t expect much at all
What Jenny and I have both found though– in our own way and using using not quite the same words to describe the experience–is that the cats might actually serve a higher, perhaps even altruistic purpose.
We’ve noticed that they reward both of us when we’re immersed in the world around us– in something bigger than ourselves, away from our claustrophobic minds. They grace us with their presence after we’ve momentarily abandoned our egos for the sake of connection.
That said, though we might prefer for them to operate differently, I think that the jungle cats might have something important to teach us: how to be less entitled.
They–and maybe this is a stretch– want to make us into Zener people. For, as Steve Almond once said, “Entitlement is the enemy of artistic progress.”
Think about how easy it is to feel deserving of a finished product when you’re sitting there with your expensive MacBook drinking your four-dollar cup of coffee inside an air-conditioned room. Maybe the cats pick up on that expectant, pursuing energy. And maybe it turns them off, pushing them to retreat.
When one is showering, cutting chicken, or sitting in class—activities wherein we are unlikely to feel entitled— the felines feel safe to approach.
Focusing on outcome more than process keeps us from living in the present. It diverts our attention away from what’s already there. Maybe these creatures seek to bring our focus back to the here and now, where the essence of all things resides.
I think the problem with the outcome-focused mindset when it comes to writing especially is that writing isn’t one of those endeavors that people gravitate towards primarily to strike it rich, or to achieve success in the traditional sense. It can be. At its core though– in my opinion at least, and maybe I’m generalizing– the true writers, the ones who aren’t doing it to make money or gain power or feed their own egos, engage in their craft to connect with others on a deeper level.
The more that one stares at a page and insists “I need you to turn out a certain way,” the less they appreciate, and work with, what’s already there in front of them. Fixated as they are on this illusory and hypothetical finished product, they in turn neglect the messy, scattered, yet extremely real (and therefore workable) content before them.
Maybe the reason you’re not making progress is because you’re not really connecting with the piece. You’re not surrendering to it or submerging yourself in its messiness–so its essence eludes you. And maybe it’s only once you’re soaked in its essence that you can help it to grow.
A passage from author Daniel James Brown’s book The Boys in the Boat resonates with me. He’s talking about rowing here, but I think it can apply to writing too—or really anything: “It wasn’t enough to master the technical details of it. You had to give yourself up to it spiritually; you had to surrender yourself absolutely to it. When you were done and walked away from the boat, you had to feel that you had left a piece of yourself behind in it forever, a bit of your heart.”
Making the leap here and connecting this to relationships– communication, compromise, and love vs. attachment, are a few words that come to mind. Seeing people for who we want them to be accompanies a failure to embrace them for who they are now–meaning we are not connecting with them to the full extent that we can.
Jenny seems to grasp this, for which reason she has committed to treating every song she writes as if it is one of her soul-mates.
“That’s how I’ve learned the highest quality work will result,” she acknowledges. ” By accepting it for the mess that it is, to help it evolve into something better and cleaner–so that one day it can shine.”
Later that day after Farley’s, I attempt to practice this. I put down the pen and walk over to Lake Merritt, where I then people-watch under the sun. My attention turns to the glimpses of life that surround me: a pug nuzzling a golden retriever in the grass; an older Asian lady dressed in black leggings and a long-sleeved teal floral print shirt doing squats next to a bike rack.
As I smile watching a three-legged dog race ahead to match the swift pace of his roller-blading owner, words and sentences begin to flow in. The elusive jungle cat approaches, eyes open wide, lustrous fur glistening in the sunlight.
Time for you to write.