My love of baking started young. When I was seven, I took hold of our well-loved, red-checkered Better Homes & Gardens cookbook and found a recipe for yellow cake with chocolate frosting. I kicked my mother out of the kitchen and told her that she couldn’t return until I was finished. Ever inclined to tenacity and independence, I wanted to put my name on that cake as something I did all by myself. Several hours later I had a somewhat lopsided, but reasonably tasty cake perched carefully on mom’s best crystal cake stand. I was as proud as I have ever been.
A few years later, when I was fourteen, I started volunteering on the pediatric floor of a local hospital. I took on the role with great diligence, working two shifts a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays for four hours each. With each shift I earned more of the nurse’s respect, and each week, they pushed more responsibility my way. I took ownership of the toy room, and of the weekly supplies load. I organized the breakroom and held babies. I answered call lights and made ice chips. And on Tuesdays, I baked cookies.
I’m quite sure that the oven in the coffee kitchen hadn’t been used in almost a century, and I spent one whole volunteer shift inhaling oven cleaner and scraping off baked-on potluck remnants. The next week, I rode the elevator to the sixth floor excitedly: volunteer badge clipped on my purple polo, and a mixing bowl tucked under my arm. And, every Tuesday for almost two years, I baked cookies on the floor, and replaced the smell of sanitizer and alcohol swabs with the wafting of brown sugar and melting chocolate.
The scent brought tired parents, anxious nursing students, and precious little patients into a space where the hospital didn’t press so close and people could just be people—not patients or practitioners. It was a simple thing, but being salt and light in a world of darkness and decay needn’t always be complicated. If we truly believe that God, in His providence, places us in proximity to the pain we are best equipped to remedy, then we only have to stand still and look around in order to find our vocation. In being mindful of our place, we find the opportunity to be kind: moment by moment, season by season, cookie by cookie.
I continued to bake through college, but rediscovered that early love in earnest when I moved to Buffalo and started to sail. Eager to please my crew and maintain a spot on the boat, I looked for ways to earn favor, and quickly remembered the magic of cookies. After a fair bit of trial and error, I developed a repertoire of recipes that pair well with rum, and taste just about perfect after a few hours on the water. And because baking is best done with friends in mind, it brings me great joy to have learned what each of my friends like best.
Doug and Pat like oatmeal with white chocolate and cranberries, Tom likes chocolate chip or peanut butter, Junior likes butterscotch or bourbon, Andrea likes rice krispie treats, Mike likes coconut macaroons, and Jeff and Larry will eat anything you put in front of them. It’s different than baking at the hospital, but also, it’s not. Cookies are a way of saying I can’t fix all of the hurt, or make the bad days go away, but I can bake someone their favorite cookie and fortify them with the knowledge that someone cared enough to mix butter and brown sugar together.
A few weeks ago, I could have used some of that fortifying. I was sitting in a waiting room in Cleveland, wrapped in a gown that was four sizes too big and smelled like it had been rolled in alcohol prep pads. I was anxious and uncomfortable, with an IV protruding from the crook of my elbow. I was waiting for an MRI, for something that might explain the recent mutiny of a body that until recently, loved to dance, and move, and chase the next adventure.
Sitting across from me was a woman who was anxiously fidgeting with her wedding band. When I asked how she was she smiled and said, “Tired…I’ve been dragged from test to test since seven a.m., but this is the last one.” I suggested that tomorrow might bring a return home, to Kentucky, where she had travelled from. She replied simply: “surgery tomorrow.” I wished her luck and we fell back into silence. At that point, the old man sitting next to her said, “When I’m nervous, I find that reciting the Psalms helps.” When I asked his favorite, he said, “Psalm 23 is wonderful,” at which point he leaned his head back, closed his eyes and smiled to himself. Peace that passes understanding.
We sat there for a few more minutes until the first of us was called—the old man with the peaceful smile. He turned to wish us luck and walked away into the next part of his story. While the woman and I waited, I registered again the pungent smell of disinfectant, and saline flushes, and contrast liquid. I don’t know if those cookies made as much of a difference as I like to think, but I can say with certainty that the smell of warm chocolate chips would have been a welcome distraction from that less than comfortable setting.
What I can see now is that it isn’t really about the cookies, is it? It’s about the satisfaction of knowing that we lived our spaces well and the gentle of comfort of being surrounded by those who are doing the same. It is the old man who wisely conjured the memory of a good shepherd who walks with us through every dark valley. It is the nervous woman who still found it in herself to smile and to tell me about her home. It is the nurses who comforted me and maintained my dignity when medication that was supposed to help gave me horrible and embarrassing side effects. So whether you can bake or not, do this: know your space, live it well, and smell the cookies from time to time.