Hunger is the worst of diseases ~ the Buddha

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Bolt Out of The Blue: There's a Cheesecake Crack in Everything

There's a cheesecake crack in everything, no matter how blue the skies, no matter how far above it you think you can get. You can't pan back (pardon the bakeware pun) far enough to remove it from the field of existence...and you don't really want to.

This crack applies to meditation, eggs, skies, and egos.
And of course, the whole wide world.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
                  (Leonard Cohen)

I made this particular cheesecake almost exactly four years ago for an Earth Day craft challenge, and I have never made it again. At that time, I was trying desperately to cook my way out of a kitchen prison I'd made for myself, and a bad marriage. I was also trying to ignore the crack I'd recently found in my own previously perfect armor: the numbing--a white lightning of drinking, controlling and self-deprivation--didn't work anymore.

Look closely at that cheesecake, it's still there. The crack.
What you can also see is that I wanted desperately to climb out of that crack, outside myself, and see things from the sky. 

The cheesecake was easy. No really! I say--affecting a simple-complicated, pin-tucked Martha Stewart humility.  All I did was swirl some gel food colors into the batter (always Cook's Illustrated, dense version, so you know) with a probably, relatively clean paintbrush and stick it in the oven. This was back when I felt that "just a cheesecake" from scratch was not enough, as an offering goes. I needed all food to be more than it was, and the metaphors more than they already were, because I felt I needed to be more, I guess. 
The sense of dizzy doing-ness was at least a physical feeling to replace the gut-gnawing "not enough."
(*evolutionary note: same person who brought you "pear-scrapple pizza with matter of thyme crust" is now bringing you the recipe for "melon water" here on this very blog)

I bring this ghost of cheesecakes past to your attention for several reasons. One, it was a weird, bright beautiful and delicious thing that I made, though it was born out of pretty dark times spent gagging down drams of psychological poison. Two, it turned out better than I could have imagined. Because I was just spitballing it with that color swirl, ladies & gentlemen. I had no earthly idea what would happen.
This cheesecake is a reminder to me that sometimes, even when I overcomplicate things (which is still fairly often), and against all possible reason, it still turns out.

I had no idea what would happen, adding those colors. It was just a flash of inspiration. Would they disappear or fuse into one muddy color? Would it transmute the batter's taste, with its naturally gorgeous tang of lightness, into some horrible, bitter waste of two solid pounds of cream cheese?

Well, what happened is that the colors only deepened and became more beautiful in the baking process.
They did not change the taste of the cheesecake, much to my surprise, or its consistency: tall outside walls with a gossamer dust of cracker crumbs, dense, but so very meltingly soft inside. 
And no, they did not change the existence of the crack.
But they did make it harder to see.

There's a crack in everything. Whether that's an egg or our theories, or our cheesecake selves--and we are always hiding it. Why do we do that?
Why is a crackless cheesecake supposedly perfect? How did we come to believe in that ideal?

"Sometimes, for no apparent reason, the cheesecake forms a crack. Depending on the type of cheesecake, just cover the crack with some sour cream or whipping cream. No one will know the difference, as they won't see the crack!" (What's Cooking America)

I love sour cream and can eat it with a spoon, but dear readers, no amount of creamy topping, or exclamation points, can hide the naked cheesecake reality. 


Don't get me wrong--I have a complicated relationship with that reality. I respect and have always loved the crack--just not in myself. If you handed me a plate and offered me your cracked cheesecake, I would eat it with bliss and gratitude. I would believe in its virtue, it's silkiness, I would see it's humanity, its vulnerable wisp of a crust and its tender offering from your self to my open palate.

Okay, usually the soundtrack goes at the end, but you're going to need it, pretty much right now, because the skies are about to open up on Mettāphor
Electrical Storm is one of the most achingly lovely and underrated U2 songs in the great big canon, its one I love dearly because it disturbs me and moves me--it is a storm rising.  

What I most remember about this cheesecake, aside from general perfectionism and presentation issues, was feeling huge pressure about getting the perfect photograph of it, so I could hurry up and write the copy and get it into the contest in time (no one in the house at that time even ate cheesecake, except me) so I could clean it all up, give the kids a bath, make a "real" meatandpotatoes dinner, and smooth down my emotional apron (probably with a whallop of vodka) before my ex-husband got home and everything ground down for me in every single way. 
5 o'clock was not Happy Hour, it was Fight, Flight or Freeze Hour for me, and I picked frozen and numb, every time, although I was learning to hold out longer each time.

I recall unmolding the springform and marching it outside while my kids hung onto their naps, with the camera strap in my teeth and an excruciating day 4 hangover, scurrying to find someplace in the grass where there wasn't a bald spot or heckling leaves I hadn't raked.

I ended up in the back field, which always felt spacious and good to me. I didn't want to be with me in that tiny kitchen in those days, and the spring and the field gave me enough room to pace (I was always pacing), and breathe
When I went for those days without a drink, I took to pacing. BIG pacing. 3 acre pacing. In deep discomfort and without any real understanding of what I was doing, I looked up. 
I begged the sky to empty some of its vastness on me. Or that I could dive up there and join it. I envied it.
I now see this was training.
"Thus we train in opening the fearful heart to the restlessness of our own energy." ~Pema Chodron
What are addictions and their pacing fallout, but our own fear and restless energy?

These photos don't look restless--they look like blue skies and suburbia, don't they? I have no idea how I caught them, because as soon as I took them, lightning cracked across the sky, which as you can see, was clear and blue only moments before.
A bolt out of the blue.
Probably my top fear, by the way: danger out of the blue, happening.
And I just stood there. With a cheesecake in my hands. 
And when the sky cracked and lit up again, every line on my face and on the cake was...
yes, visible. 

You're in my mind all of the time
I know that's not enough
If the sky can crack, there must be some way back
For love and only love

I was scared, because the summer before I'd hit the well pump with a spade digging a flower bed, and it lit up my whole body.
I was scared, because the stability of the sky seemed to be in question.
I was scared, because I had this idea that I deserved it--and not in a good way. 

People say that their entire lives flash before their eyes, but mine was just a crack.
Open enough to see how ugly unnaturally blue and green foods really are. 

Let's see colors that have never been seen
Let's go to places no one else has been

Open enough to be broken, sad. 
And somehow, very, very light. 
Bodhichitta. The open heart and mind of a buddha. Just a crack in the sky. Just for a few, illuminated seconds. 

Electrical Storm
Electrical Storm
Electrical Storm
Baby don't cry

"With practice we can learn to find this opening. We can learn to seize that vulnerable moment—love, gratitude, loneliness, embarrassment, inadequacy—to awaken bodhichitta." ~Pema Chodron

This was the beginning. 
Nowhere near practicing, or meditation, or really doing anything about the drinking. 
Just big, scary flashes that it was coming, that lit up everything up for miles for a second or two. 
And, as in an old cartoon, seemed to x-ray my soul. 
Just flashes of awareness...sometimes. Lighting the way, for a few seconds at a time, that something else was possible. But unpredictable! And terrifying. Out of the Blue.


Baby don't cry

It's how the light gets in.
We need the light--as much as breath. We cannot actually see, much less breathe, in the dark.
Do you think it's a coincidence that we are all so deficient in Vitamin D? Vitamin D is critical to the absorption of calcium. Bones giving us the strength to hold ourselves up to the light...which gives us this vitamin.
We cannot make it on our own: (the Vitamin D or the light), and we need to take it in directly into ourselves on our skin--no sunscreen.
We screen ourselves so very carefully--in every way. We slather on the obfuscating goo. We suffer not only from various deficiencies, but an opacity toxicity of the soul.

We distract with a whirl of dizzying pretty color, or we frost all the condemning cracks shut, not realizing they are the way.


Well if the sky can crack, there must be some way back
To love and only love

I say this with a light touch and a reverence for the irrevocable acts we may have all performed against ourselves: 
Once you try crack, there's no going back.
Except there is. There's a lot of going back and forth about it. Because it's terrifying. 

As Pema Chodron says of this touching on bodhichitta or mind of enlightenment, "It awakens us when we prefer to sleep and pierces through our indifference." 
Yes, like the lightning, out of the blue. The crack in the sky that shows us our own light and closes up again suddenly, darkens.

A classic meditation practice is to imagine ourselves and the field of awareness as the sky. 
The clouds come and go, the weather comes and goes, but it doesn't change the sky.
Except, what to do with an electrical storm then? 
Because lightning appears to crack that sky in half. It is terrifying and illuminating. And…where is the light coming from? Is it coming out of the sky, or going in?

We are absolutely taught to fear the fact that we can't really know or prove which it is. 
When I was in high school, a classmate was struck by lightning and killed, right in front of his parents and the kitchen window. 

I spend a lot of time at my kitchen window. It's an altar and a greenhouse. Here are my meditation tools. It's where we start seeds, where I collect and contemplate the things the kids find for me: an abandoned bird's nest, a stray robin's egg, chestnuts, halves of walnut shells that look like pig noses and hearts, old pennies, mussel shells, smoothest, smallest of stones. 
It's where I leave the parts of myself exposed to my husband and my children--to anyone in this kitchen, to you. It's where I offer these parts I am currently tending to the light. 

I just captured this moment at the greenhouse window. 
It's not nearly as pretty as the cheesecake, huh?

This cracked cup is one of my favorite objects--I tuck a small candle in it when I meditate; it's one place for my gaze to go when it wants...out.

Let me tell you about how it came to be cracked and so awkwardly repaired.
I found this for my husband at a swap meet, in the early days of our courtship--if you can call it that, two old souls meeting up again at 40, but I think you have to. 
The first time we looked into each other's eyes, CRACK!  it was positive lightning. 
That sounds like such fairy tale stuff, but it was terrifying. And blinding. 
You see, he got that three-second soul x-ray. 
He saw, I saw.

The cup may have been our first shared object. 
It hung on a little hook next to the kitchen sink. 
I loved using it, loved watching my love use it to ferry ice to our glasses, just cubes of plain water sliding down this long elegant fingers.

The cup spoke to my innate love of vessels and bowls (before I even knew of the begging bowl metaphor). It reflected us, it seemed to be us:
Our origins (it's from the early 70's, surely you remember this stuff). 
Our household aesthetics (farmhouse bohemian hodgepodge--and this was before pottery Barn decided this was the direction the nation should go in, Spring 2010).
Our reconciliations (with things that have been found and rescued and even previously loved).

It spoke in every way to where we'd surprise-landed, on this Path together, you see: chopping ice and carrying water.

It was perfect.
And then it cracked. 

First, hairline cracks, spider lightning, which I consoled myself didn't matter because it was just an ice cup:
"It can still be okay. You can hardly tell. It can still be perfect."
Electrical Storm

And then a shard fell out:
"Still okay! I can work with that!"
Electrical Storm

And another:
"Still usable! Still clinging! Still hanging on the hook!"
Electrical Storm

And then it fell into pieces:
"NOT okay! Not okay, not okay!!! 
Baby don't cry

Well, the minute we start thinking things are not okay, that there is something wrong, they become instantly unworkable, like boxed mashed potatoes.

I panicked, What does it mean??? 
Life with a meaning junkie.
Did it mean we weren't supposed to be together? (what was worse, my now-husband refused to react with the same level of terror).

That we were fatally flawed somehow? 
This was all happening while we were trying to buy the farmhouse from my former husband, and meld our families--and all of it felt up in the charged, charged air..

It felt to me that if this cup was cracked, how could we expect anything else to stay together?
Even Us.

Now, you may say, wait a minute, you were going to bow out of your life with this man, which hadn't even happened yet, because…the cup…cracked?

Hmmmm….kind of?

The cup sat on the kitchen ledge, in pieces. 
I thought to secretly replace it on ebay (boolean search "replacement+metaphor?"). Only I would know..even I'd forget it wasn't the same one! 

This was the time I stumbled on Tara Brach's work on Radical Acceptance, began fumbling my way into mindfulness, now having a name for it (I'm not even yet-talking about meditation here! I'm talking about the basic trying to be Here, un-numbing to my own existence in my physical body). 

And one day, as I was making dinner and listening to a podcast, she read a poem of Rumi's:

Trust your wound to a teacher's surgery.
Flies collect on a wound.
They cover it,
those flies of your self-protecting feelings,
your love for what you think is yours.

Let a Teacher wave away the flies
and put a plaster on the wound.
Don't turn your head.
Keep looking
at the bandaged place.
That's where
the Light enters you.

And don't believe for a moment
that you're healing yourself.

And she repeated: 
Keep looking
at the bandaged place.
That's where
the Light enters you.


So now we have a bandaged cup, which I don't believe for a second it was me who fixed.

It used to be fearful all the time. 
Now it is sometimes exceedingly uncomfortable, but rarely as fearful.
Sometimes I think lightning will come right through the window, right over the Buddha's head, right over the plants, and ZAP! Crack me open.
But I am not afraid.
Because I am already open. 

Yesterday, out of the blue, Ava said to me:
"I'm going to keep my eyes peeled for cumulonimbus clouds."

And I winced, until I realized why she's looking. She's looking for the light.

"They look like anvils, Mom!, because they collide with the upper layers of the atmosphere--they're trying to expand up."

Guess what? Eerie down in my chair…um, there actually are anvil clouds, and they produce something rare, which comes from unsuspecting blue skies--called a "bolt from the blue," or….positive lightning, and it is 10 times more powerful than negative lightning. 
I ask you: Is there anything more perfect to embody a mettathud than a cloud shaped like an anvil?


You see, like the little cracked cup, or the anvil cloud, there is just no way to hold back the widening seams opening up on your own awareness. 

So, I try not to hold back the sky, and I love and count on the crack in the cheesecake…and I am trying to rhapsodized on it in myself, as elsewhere. It's so pretty to me, so jaggedly human.

Still, I could very well say today, putting a cracked cheesecake in front of my beloved, with only partially false bravado, "Sigh, the crack just creates more surface area." 
All the while wondering, in little dark moments, if just this naked offering, the unadorned, cracked cheesecake, was really, really, really all he ever wanted.
and then
It's all light again, just long enough to see the next bite.
Of love.

To love and only love
Electrical Storm
Electrical Storm
Baby don't cry

I owe more to the white lightning than I thought, it showed me all the cracks where the light could pour in, instead. And to my little scientist.

Positive lightening.

PS: I've found it's best not to quibble with Leonard Cohen, Rumi, the sky, or Bono.


  1. "Well, the minute we start thinking things are not okay, that there is something wrong, they become instantly unworkable, like boxed mashed potatoes." ----->Thud du jour.

    Transcending the cracks. No quibbling here.