I spent most of last weekend in a kitchen heavenly fragrant with dried fruits, cinnamon, vanilla, ginger, nutmeg, brandy and red wine. That magnificent aroma of the holiday season wafting richly from mulled wine, glistening fruitcakes, sugar cookies and spicy gingerbread. I also brought out my largest pot to make a large batch of treats for my daughter’s school Christmas Bazaar.
A kilo of golden-brown almonds rolled and bobbed in the pot as the sugar syrup cooked vigorously. The syrup thickened as the water evaporated rapidly. Suddenly, all the liquid disappeared, in its place were white heaps of crystallized sugar. For a moment, it looked like a mistake. The almonds sunk into the sugar like acorns in the snow, they were two separate masses, it seemed impossible that they would ever come together. But I knew to keep stirring, even as my faith wavered.
Slowly, so slowly, the crystals began to dissolve into a clear bubbly liquid. This molten sugar began to adhere to each almond forming a crispy candy coating. It is here that the timing is crucial: Cook them too long and you will get rock-hard almond-brittle; take them out too early and they will be pale and bland. In just a matter of seconds, the sugar begins to burn into a fine reddish caramel and this forms a delicate shiny coating around each almond—the final flourish—hence the name of this traditional German winter treat: Gebrannte Mandeln “burnt almonds”, it is at that precise moment that you must take them out immediately. I carefully tipped my pot out onto the waiting parchment on my kitchen table.
Before I could make burnt almonds properly I made every possible error: I overcooked them, I made inedible rock-hard almond brittle, I cut my fingers on the sugar shards, I had to throw it all out. I learned the hard way.
I can’t help but reflect that this is how I have learned many important things in life as well, especially how I learned to be a joyful person.
I have no nostalgia for the past. Although I loved my parents and always will, I became convinced from an early age that I was all alone in the world—that I was on my own. Not having a happy childhood, I never thought I was special, or lovable, or entitled to anything. I learned that expecting things from other people would result in ridicule, shame, and disappointment, so I tried my hardest to be completely self-sufficient even when I was, in fact, not at all ready or equipped for it. I did not look to anyone to teach me how to buy things from a store, cross streets, or take the bus. I learned how to do these things the hard way after getting the wrong amount of change, getting hit by a car, and horribly lost at the age of twelve. When I was finally old enough to live on my own, I thought that the hardest part of my life was behind me. But I was wrong.
In my twenties, I felt the full impact of not growing up with a firm basis of kindness and love. I was essentially unformed, unseen, unwritten. As if sensing that as a gaping vulnerability, I became prey to adult bullies who very nearly convinced me to believe their crude stories of who I was and what I deserved. My story very nearly ended before I even realized that I could (and should) seize its narrative for myself.
My life changed exponentially in wonderful ways when I decided to seize that narrative, figuratively and literally. When I decided to pursue a writing career in earnest, I sought the advice of a respected writer I long admired. To my happy surprise, he responded to me. He encouraged me to pursue my dreams and advised that I “stay positive”. I assumed he meant in all aspects: in daily life and in the material of my work.
For the most part, I agree with him. Before I publish anything or even speak, I often ask myself “is this helping or hurting?” Oftentimes I find that I am satisfied with being silent, especially on controversial subjects, when it empowers people to make up their own minds and to tell their own stories.
However, I cannot completely disregard the negative. I do not want to fully disengage myself from pain, especially the pain that has impacted me. I could write page after page of positive stories, I could produce artwork celebrating life and the turning of the seasons, I could focus only on the things that make me happy, but it would all be missing a key ingredient.
Nothing illustrates that better than the festivities of the Christmas season: The lavish celebrations amidst the bleakness of winter, the light in the darkness, the essential note of burnt sugar in the caramel. I savor that bitterness in the backbone of a fine wine forming its complex bouquet. And amidst all the joys of my life now, I remember when I didn’t have them—when I couldn’t even dare to imagine such joy—and I am thankful.
I do not believe people, or any experience for that matter, fall into easy categories of “good” and “bad”, yet I can never become a nihilist. I will never say “it all doesn’t matter”, or that “we don’t matter”, even when we behave monstrously. We may be described as carbon-based life forms on a small blue planet floating momentarily on a sunbeam in an indifferent universe but it doesn’t change the fact that we are all we have. It doesn’t make us insignificant.
We may be delusional to expect others to comply with our self-constructed sense of entitlement or morality. We may never escape our subjectivity, biased judgments and unfair comparisons. But we have already witnessed the horrible impact of ignorance, hate, war, violence, and greed—exponentially horrible in so many ways, so many times. We don’t have to forget the pain or pretend it’s not there. We can learn from it. We can learn from our mistakes.
We can seize all that we have in our brief time in this transient world: all the joy and all the pain from the depths of the void to the heights of glory and do everything in our power to create the most beautiful, most meaningful story.
Text and pictures by M.P. Baecker.
This is my last post for 2018. I will be taking a long break from blogging to concentrate on my book projects. I would like to thank you all so much for reading my work! I truly cannot thank you enough for your invaluable support and encouragement! I wish everyone the happiest of holidays and New Year! –M.P.