Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Stress Baking

A week before leaving to go to my most recent summer residency, I got super anxious. I'm really not sure why, because I really love everyone at Converse and I look forward to the interaction with other writers. However, I found it really hard to drop everything at home for almost two weeks and study somewhere several hours away. I worried that my home life would fall apart without me, even though it didn't happen the first few times I left.

It really started to be apparent to me that I was overwhelmed when I started feeling really exhausted when I even thought about my mile-long to-do list: I had to get Ben to my in-laws, and write out Mark's reminder/honey-do list, pay the bills, go to the bank, the grocery store, the doctor's office, etc.

We were also in the midst of post-production on an extremely stressful documentary project (they are all extremely stressful), and I didn't really want to leave while the momentum was going so strong.

So, for that whole week, in the mornings when Ben would play in his room, I would execute the same strategy that I developed in undergrad to calm me down when things got stressful - I baked. I baked blueberry cobblers, a flan, rainbow chip cupcakes, blueberry muffins, and plain-ole' chocolate cake. Mark didn't say a word; he just pulled up a chair, fork in hand. He has learned years ago that this is my coping method, and he is grateful for it. Not that it's the only time I cook - rarely is there a night where I don't prepare a hot meal for dinnertime. He is just glad that I choose baking, as opposed to other outlets, to dispel my anxiety. One of my wonderful writing mentors, Susan Tekulve, also shares this baking compulsion. She rattled off the list of baked goods that she had prepared in anticipation of the residency after I shared mine, the first day I got to Converse.

Since I started my MFA program, I read a lot of writing craft books written by successful nonfiction and fiction writers, and there seems to be an ongoing theme of kinetic energy sparking creative work. Most of them go for long runs outside, but that is something that I will never do because of my own private set of morals (you have to take a moral stance about something in this world, right?). I was really upset, at first, when I discovered this - something I thought as a prerequisite to good writing when I first noticed the pattern in all of these books. However, without realizing it, I had my own kinetic activity that gave me the clarity of mind to follow through with my writing endeavors and to keep my family eating high on the hog, so to speak.

Everything was just fine, I was baking, and eating, and baking, and eating, and sometimes writing, and then baking, until last night. I was at church, at this "weight-loss with Jesus" program that my good friend, Kayla, roped me into, and since she is the coordinator for the class, I had to comply. I got on the scale, and had gained three pounds since the week before the residency, and only Kayla knew the results (and her four-year-old son, who refused to leave the nursery where the scale was tucked away privately), but I still felt like a failure. I haven't really been trying - let's be honest - but I really thought that the scale would not betray me like that. So, at the end of the session, I looked at the prayer request form that we always filled out every week, trying to think of something commendable to request - someone in the group was going to get this, so I wanted it to seem like I know what I am doing. I drew a blank. I couldn't think of anything noble. The collection basket was coming around to me, so without thinking anymore, I wrote, "Please pray that I will be able to resist (quicker) the stress baking compulsion that I have." I shoved it in the basket before I realized that it looked more like a confession than a request for encouragement.

So, this morning, when I started to feel stressed again (about the documentary again), I flung open the refrigerator and stared down the pint of blueberries that were begging to be baked into a cobbler. I went to grab them, and then I remembered the prayer request. I would be a hypocrite if I baked these healthy blueberries into a cobbler a day after I asked that someone tell God to stop me. I took a heavy, loud breath and shut the door. I turned to my left to look at the pile of produce sitting on my counter top. There were a bunch of red potatoes begging to be mashed. Without a second thought, I grabbed my peeler and started going at them.

Scrape, scrape, scrape!

"Why would he have done that? It doesn't make any sense."

I am talking only to myself, of course.

Scrape, scrape scrape!

"I thought we squashed this argument weeks ago!"

Again, I said this to myself.

Scrape, scrape, scrape!

"Mommy?" Ben said to me.

He was looking pretty nervous at this point.

Scrape, scrape, scrape!

"Ben, Mommy's busy. Go play in your room."

Scrape, scrape, scrape!

Fourteen potatoes later, I still didn't feel calm. I put them all in a stock pot and moved on to scrubbing the sink.

Scrub, scrub, scrub!

A sparkling double sink later, and I still felt like my heart was going to burst from stress.

I considered why this new technique didn't work for me, and the answer is this - I don't enjoy any of that. Scrubbing my sink and peeling potatoes gave me the license to be aggressively acting on inanimate objects, but I didn't have the beautiful display of something full of sugar and flour to show for it. Stress baking is my key to success because I love doing it. I wish "my thing" was running, I really do, and I wish I didn't really resent the people who use running as their kinetic release, I really do, but I can't change the way things are.

So, will I continue to stress bake?

I think I have to. Even if it means that I gain three pounds twice a year, and have to work a little harder afterwards to get them off again, it's worth it.

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