Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Hope and the Past

On May 10, I baked a cake, as I always do on that date:  it's Veronica's birthday.  It's a hopeful thing to do, one that gestures towards the past and acknowledges how close we are while she retains her autonomy, something I've been deliberate about as a mother.  There are, now, forty-five years of rich, fabulous, loving memories that stir around my mind while I whip sugar into butter. And because we celebrate beginnings on our birthdays, the hope for the future is there too.  But in some ways, the sheer baking of the cake, whether it's poppy seed, as it was this year, or the Joy of Cooking "Devil's Food Cake Cockaigne," as it often is--and which uses every dish in the house--is hopeful.

In this case, the hope also came from the past.  I have a very old lemon poppy seed cake recipe, one that uses sweet butter and buttermilk and soda rather than baking powder.  You begin by zesting three or four lemons--what could be more hopeful?  The waxy, sunny colour and the scent! Then, once the butter and sugar are "light and fluffy," you add three eggs, one at a time, beating them in thoroughly before adding the next one.  Then you add the flour in four batches, alternating with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour.  I follow these instructions to the letter. I can be casual about instructions, casual and occasionally rebellious when I am cooking, using some inspired ingredient or eliminating one that makes no sense to me.  But not with an old cake recipe.  There is comfort--and hope--in doing exactly as you are told and knowing that the results will remind people again what cake actually tastes like--the deliciously moist but fine crumb you can only get through being methodical and taking your time.  

I have a young friend, Shane Arbuthnott, author of three fabulous young adult novels, who needed an antidote to the frustrations of writing, especially the frustrations of trying to write honestly--and hopefully!--in a time when publishing and readers seem to prefer darkness, violence, and trauma.  (When he was studying improv, his teacher used to say "If it's ugly, it must be true."  We both shake our heads at that one.) He went with his wife, Alexis, to a luthier to get the bridge of her cello fixed; during COVID, when they weren't constantly ferrying their three children, now ages 10-13, from activity to activity, she decided to learn to play the cello, something she's always wanted to do and could do online during the lockdown. 

The very atmosphere of Garry Robertson's workshop was calming:  the smell of wood, the neatly-stored tools, the instruments going through their various repairs, calmly waiting for the next step.  Shane asked if he could hang out with Garry from time to time and then found himself in an apprenticeship, with his very own violin to take apart and repair by way of learning some important skills. Shane found many things in Garry's workshop, among them the sense of hope that comes from the past. We don't know much more about wood or glue or stain or varnish than the great seventeenth-century violin makers like Stradivari did. Yet there's hope in old knowledge, because it attests to human curiosity and ingenuity and to the preservation of what's important. The drive to make an excellent violin four hundred years ago is a hopeful thing.

There is also something inherently hopeful in making things, whether it's a garden or a poem or a political cartoon.  Something didn't exist and now it does. We spend way too much time trapped in the present moment (the last place one should feel trapped), doomscrolling or yearning for reactions to one's words or ideas or images.  Oddly enough, making something with our hands out of knowledge that has been passed down, and taking the time to do it right--not trapped in the present moment but glorying in it, luxuriating in it--has its own kind of hope.  The hope of human community.  The hope of human inventiveness.  The hope of keeping knowledge alive. The hope of perspective:  not everything has to happen at lightning speed. Sitting down with knowledge and one's hands with the intention of figuring out how to do this thing is hopeful. 

 During my difficult spring, hand piecing was both a worry bead and spark of hope.  I was making sunflower blocks for a quilt I'm going to put on black fabric to make fireworks of flowers and leaves.  Like baking an old-fashioned cake, it was labour intensive.  Each of the sixty pieces is marked on the fabric and cut out individually and then marked along seamlines on the back.  This is exactly how this block would have been made in the nineteenth century. (The block is not finished yet; I have to applique the centre onto the petals.)

Then you can begin to sew.  You sew twenty units made of each of the three pieces--simple enough--but when you come to put them together, the units create a seam with a dog leg, something I'd never done before.  But if you've marked the backs carefully, you have dots that help you line up your pins.  It takes patience and a lot of finagling. I was like Shane learning to painstakingly take a violin apart so he could fix a crack in the back--something he absolutely could not rush as his fingers gained knowledge.  But years of hand quilting mean that I can make tiny, straight stitches.  So I could graft what I didn't know onto what I did--new skills grafted onto old wood. It's how you grow into hope.