This year, I will not be among the cake-baking team, having been given a reprieve by Tony Patchell because he knew I’ve been swamped at work the last couple of weeks since my boss is out of town. I will instead be spending the day taking a much-needed rest and relaxation break with my partner Sabrina.
But I will miss being part of the cake crew. I have participated twice, and both occasions proved fertile ground for stretching myself.
The first year, I had just started to attend Zen sittings in Healdsburg. I was a sporadic attendant, very hesitant about my participation, and unsure about whether or not this was the place for me. I showed up at the cake baking day, held at Phil and Barbara McDonel’s house, with the same half in/half out mindset. At that point in my life, I was terrified of cooking. I was able to do very simple baking, by myself, like chocolate chip cookies. But something complicated, like these cakes, was way beyond my comfort level. And to do it in front of other people? So, what I did was watch. There were seven or so people there, and so no shortage of hands to help. I pretended that no one noticed that I wasn’t actually doing anything. I just moved from one side of the kitchen to the other, chatting, munching on the snacks that were out, watching. But I didn’t do a single thing to help.
The second time I went to bake the cakes, I was much more firmly entrenched in my practice. I was sitting regularly, and had begun to feel a part of the sangha. I had also begun to teach myself how to cook. From the moment I arrived, I was a part of the team, instead of just an onlooker. I was assigned to make the cake batter.
For those of you not familiar with a Boston cream pie, it consists of a layer of cake, a layer of pudding, topped by another layer of cake, all of which is covered in rich chocolate frosting. Because we were expecting a big crowd at the party, we were going to make two cakes.
I was right in the middle of the action, doubling the portions, making enough for two cakes. But somewhere along the line, I missed the concept, and didn’t realize that each completed cake had, essentially, two cakes inside it, so that there would be four cakes total to bake. I made all that batter, and poured it into two cake pans, and popped it into the oven. We were all watching it expectantly, to see how it was doing. And I said, “Wow, it’s really rising high.” Eventually, somebody figured out that I had poured two cakes’ worth of batter into each cake pan — oops!
Initially, I panicked. I had been feeling so much a part of the group, so good about belonging. And then, feeling that I had screwed up, all of my old fears about inadequacy and rejection, etc. came up. I wanted to disappear. I began to make another batch of batter right away.
But then, a funny thing happened. We got creative, and we started thinking our way out of the problem. It turned out that the cakes still baked okay, all the way through. And we found that we were able to slice the mushroomed cap off the top, salvaging it as a separate layer. The whole thing ended up working after all. And through it, there was humor, and forgiveness, and community.
That was the first day I understood what sangha meant.