“I am not a mathematician, but I know this: There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There’s .1 and .12 and .112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course there is a bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities.”Though the idea of some infinities being bigger than others in John Green's new YA novel The Fault in Our Stars has to do with two terminally ill teenagers finding "forever" in a terribly finite amount of time, it made me reflect - not on anything in particular, nothing grand and monumental like My Life or My Past, but a superficial touch upon the surface of memories, like the gentle patter of rain against a tin roof.
-John Green in The Fault in Our Stars
"Some infinities are bigger than other infinities." If a moment stands crisp in my memory like the clarion call of a church bell clanging, does it transcend time in a way, does it occupy an infinite continuum within the finite reserves of my consciousness - because, let's say a strong emotion exists forever, infinitely, then haven't I, on occasion, created my own small infinities? Hasn't everybody?
Last week, I attempted to make Bon Appetit's Chocolate-Raspberry Layer Cake. It was the most complicated dessert recipe I have tried so far, and I had chosen the wrong day for it. It was difficult for me to focus last Wednesday. My family was all around me, the day was warm, my baby was circling around and through my legs like a cat, and my kitchen was a mess, full of clutter and noise and people. I positively revel in the concentration it takes to bake a good cake. I like being vigilant about each step so my cake doesn't fail. It allows me to focus on something other than myself, which means, I may be baking in my kitchen, but I am not there, not really. So, if you call my name a few times and I don't answer, it's not because I am ignoring you, but because I am in the zone, detached, far away, unwound. But last week, I was simply not achieving that state of heavy-lidded, slack-jawed convergence on the cake, and so, since my body did not relax on its own, I decided to dip a finger into my imaginary Pensieve and search for a memory to stabilize me.
I was 10 or 11 years old when I baked my first cake. It was such a complete catastrophe that I did not attempt to bake a dessert from scratch again until recently. So last week, as I felt my concentration lapsing and my Chocolate Raspberry Layer Cake inching closer and closer to a similar fate of failure, I transported myself away from the noise, from the laughter around me, from the warm afternoon sun filtering in through the window and falling relentlessly on my neck, from the jangling pans and scattered flour and cocoa powder on the counter - snow and sand. I was instead in my mother's cool kitchen, dimly lit because of the neighbor's wall blocking the sun. The small 4-seater wooden dining table was littered with mixing bowls, bags of flour and sugar, eggshells, dirty spatulas. My sisters were bursting in and out of the kitchen excitedly. "Is it ready yet?" It was a November afternoon, my mother's birthday. I spent hours on the preparation. It was a basic yellow cake - I remember the amber color of the finished product that smelled of eggs and felt like a small boulder. It was my first personal failure. And what did I do? Well, of course I decorated the cake and served it. I simply could not accept that my creation was anything less than worthy of being served and enjoyed.
I wonder if that was overconfidence or faith in myself or both. I wonder if there is a way to channel it again, the absolute conviction that what I had achieved was good, or at least good enough. Instead, in my kitchen last week, I was wringing my hands, wiping small beads of sweat from my forehead, disappointed in myself for not being able to pull off the Bon Appetit recipe successfully. Whereas the ten-year-old me not only served the cake, but also insisted that the whole family taste it, last week, the present me haplessly tried to reassure herself. "It's OK, it's OK, it's OK." It was OK in the end. More than OK, actually, the cake was delicious, but I realized something: I doubt myself now. I don't just factor failure into the equations of my endeavors as a possibility - I consider it to be a likely outcome. There is a subtle difference between the two, but it's enough to make me hold back, shy away, and say, "No, this is not for me."
After hearing my family praise my cake, I leaned against my clean kitchen counter and unspooled an infinitely long thread backwards in time. I touched that little girl who exists in the small infinity of my yellow cake disaster memory. "How are you not afraid of failing?" I asked. But she didn't hear me. I looked closely at her. "I know you," I whispered. She watched the ingredients in front of her with heavy lids and a slack jaw. She wasn't there, not really.
Photos by Rebecca McCue