Some of my best memories from childhood are the times I spent baking with my mom. Jam drop cookies, chocolate dinette cake with whipped cream and apple dumplings are what I remember most. At Christmas my mom would make the most delicious deep-fried sugared cake donuts. A recipe passed down from my step-dad’s mother.
A relatively new discovery is that baking grounds me. It brings me back to the present moment. Working the dough, measuring the ingredients, the smell of cooked apples, or cinnamon, or chocolate; it all evokes a sense of calm when I’m feeling unglued. I think this has been true for me since I was an eight-year-old child. Of course, I wouldn’t have articulated it that way then.
In some small or momentous way (depending on how you look at it), those baked goods made me feel like I was going to be okay. I know that’s a lot to get from a donut or a piece of cake. But it’s true.
My favourite author Shauna Neiquest once wrote a similar story about a pair of sneakers. And it stuck with me. In some ways I think it’s because baking is for the most part predictable. I can’t control the harsh realities of life. But I have been known from time to time to summon flour, sugar and spatula.
I’ve been baking with my son since he could pull up a chair to the counter and hold a spoon in his hand. I had idyllic thoughts about what these times would be like together. But in every way family life is so much different from what I thought it would be. It’s certainly not all bad. Exquisite moments of affection do take place. But Christmas baking this year has been done alongside hurtful profanities and looking over my shoulder to make sure I don’t get pushed into a hot oven.
Parenting a son with special needs is difficult. At Christmas and every other time of year. We all know the struggle doesn’t go away just because the magic of the season is upon us. So, what are we to do?
A couple weeks ago I heard a talk about joy. About how sometimes joy needs to be stirred up. Because all that you feel on the surface is numb indifference or worse, hopeless despair. It’s a wonderful thought that joy always resides just below the surface waiting to be called upon, waiting to be stirred up. Many times, this idea has seemed like an exhausting cliché. But I know it’s not. Joy is a gift that has been around since the very first Christmas. When the angel said,
“Don’t be afraid! I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David!” (Luke 2:10-11)
This tells me that even in all consuming darkness, joy is available to me and those I love. Even in the ugliness of attachment disorders and the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure. Joy doesn’t answer to the drama that threatens to destroy. It is just there like a warm blanket. Or a Pyrex bowl full of graham crumbs and melted butter just waiting to be stirred up. My hope for all of us as we approach Christmas is that we will celebrate the bright spots. And that we will find strength to move through whatever comes.