When Anguish is a Food

I made this cake on Tuesday. Peanut butter mousse-filled butterscotch cake with cinnamon whipped cream frosting. I took solace in the mixing of butter and sugar, eggs, and flour. I took pleasure in the precision of slicing the layers, of spreading the mousse and smoothing the frosting. It was a good cake. Not great– the peanut butter overwhelmed the complexities within the flavor of the cake, but still, a good cake, tasty and pretty.

And yet, when it was done, all I wanted was to burst into tears.

Anguish Cake, ink on paper, 6" x 8"

I drew this picture of cake Tuesday morning, before I baked the actual cake. Between the two, we have my life right now. The making of meals and the making of images. As of today, I am no longer working two jobs. But for the last week-and-a-half, it’s been like this: before I leave for work, and when I come home at night, I draw and paint. In between, I fret. Actually, I fret a lot more than that.

My last day at the café is less than a week away. My last day at the bakery was yesterday. What? I know. I was so elated when I found a new job, one that allowed me to leave behind sandwiches and make pastry. To express my passion! But the moment I started, I could feel that the itch I meant to leave behind at the café had followed me.

I spent a heavy two days thinking about painting, about fear, about money, about faith and about success. Then I told the new bakery that after all I had made a mistake, and I’m not actually meant to be a pastry chef but a painter in truth,  and I couldn’t keep the job, but I’d stay till they found some one to replace me.

And I spent every day I was there wrestling with that decision. I may or may not be meant to be a pastry chef. When I cook out of love, it feels joyful. But so often, I cook to avoid facing my fears about painting. But here’s the thing: right now, I am painting.

I am just barely not overwhelmed enough that I can paint. Is that sentence confusing? It’s a confusing state of mind. In one moment, I am terrified. Utterly stricken by the fear that I cannot, in this moment, produce anything of true merit. And so of course I can’t. Which then kicks in the fear that I may never paint anything other than my own anxiety about overcoming fear.

Sketch: Things to Give, colored pencil and ink on paper, 5 1/2" x 7"

But in other moments, I can see clearly. Art is something I have to give. It is a way of cultivating wisdom, and a medium for sharing what is gained. I understand that if I can just mellow out enough to let expression happen naturally, without the vise of expectation strangling it, I’ll make good art. Art that helps. And then I do. I make art that people feel connected to, that people want. I can start to envision having a livelihood, one that’s not based on the fear of getting by but on the joy of creating and sharing.

But then I’d sink back down the dark tunnel, and I’d start to wonder if maybe I should just keep the job since they keep asking me to stay and what’s the harm in a little money on the side just to be safe?

And there’s the trap. The bear-pit among the autumn leaves. Safety. But I don’t want to be safe, goddamnit! I want to be brave. Yet I am so scared. I’ve been so tempted just to stay in my cozy identity of cook, to meander along with a meager income that’s enough to avoid really, really focusing on making art, for wisdom or for money. Then I’d feel like a coward, so I would try to make myself paint, and everything would come out full of fear, and the cycle would just keep spinning while I tried to make up my mind about what to do with my immediate future.

Pins and Needles, pencil on paper, 5" x 8"

Thus my days. Thus the extreme anguish of the peanut butter cake. I can’t just stay where it’s safe anymore. Safety feels empty. Meanwhile, living with my anxiety about both failure and success as an artist, as a contribution to this world, feels like every limb waking at once. A whole world of pins and needles. Welcome to the world.

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