Last night I was pressing shortbread dough into molds, Cute W was applying orange frosting to blue cupcakes in preparation for Monday Night Football, and we were catching up on news of the day. Cute W said, “A girl I went to high school died. I didn’t know her well. Cancer.” I gave a little sympathy moan.
“Yeah,” he said. “Carpe diem.”
Now, I hate that. Don’t tell me to seize the day when I’m in the middle of doing something that’s unbelievably mundane.
“Well,” I harrumphed. “If shortbread is the meaning of life, then I’ve got it all wrapped up.”
I’ve been making quite a bit of shortbread lately. It’s one of many Christmas recipes that’s a must-have holiday tradition each year (here are links to more of them). I made my first batch because we must have a multitude of cookies in tins at Christmas. That’s just how we roll. And then I remembered that I used to always give Mary her own whole shortbread, and I couldn’t shortchange Gene on his first Christmas without her, so I dragged the molds out again. And then yesterday, M arrived home with candies, a hat, and other goodies gifted by her friends. I’d asked her about gifts for friends before, and she’d pooh-poohed the idea, but I saw an opening now:
“Don’t you want to reciprocate?”
“That depends,” she said. “What does reciprocate mean?” We ended up settling on wedges of shortbread tied up with pretty ribbons. And so I’d clambered up to the cabinet above our refrigerator again to haul the molds out. The first two times this month I’d brought them out, I’d caused a small bakery-item avalanche from that cabinet. I was lamenting to J that I was silly to even bother putting the molds away again before Christmas. Each time I use them, washing up is meticulous, because little smidgens of crust like to linger in the mold’s details. This year I had the brainstorm to scrub it with our mushroom brush, so that’s an improvement. But then they have to dry and get put into their special boxes and set up and out of reach.
“Why don’t you put them someplace easier to reach?” J asked.
“Well, once Christmas is over, they’ll be tucked away until next year,” I explained. She made it clear that she thought I should keep them handy for the foreseeable future.
So, as I pressed dough into a mold for the sixth time this season and pondered other items on my to-do list, it sure as heck felt like I wasn’t seizing the particular day. I consoled myself with the thought:
What if the meaning of life is, indeed, shortbread?
It’s a piece of history from my childhood that I’m passing on to my children.
It’s just a few simple ingredients–butter, sugar, flour, vanilla–put together to make something that feels like a little bit of perfection.
It’s easy to make–with a mixer I can crank out the dough almost without thinking. But it turns out best with some care and attention.
When I first purchased the special shortbread molds, it felt like an investment, and now I can’t imagine not having them all of these years.
It feels like I get better at making shortbread every year, but there’s always a risk. When I flip one of those half-cooled ceramic pans over, there’s that dramatic pause while I hope that all will be well. And there’s almost always one spot that’s just a bit crumbly, so the best I’ve achieved is almost perfect.
When the shortbread comes out, it is a crisp and golden thing of beauty. Delicious? Of course. But if you take the time to really observe, that ordinary, yummy shortbread is a thing of splendor. I first bought my shortbread molds many years ago, and when I saw the intricate designs, it reminded me of the details in the cathedral where I used to give tours. I’d lead puffing tourists up winding stairways into the arcade below the rose window and advise them to look into the shadowed corners rarely seen. There, too, were intricate carvings, and in the tour I’d liken them to the gorgeous colors and spirals one might find deep in the ocean, more evidence of the Grace of the universe, present even when we’re not present to observe it. With the shortbread’s delicate botanical whorls and ridges, its images of thistles and flowers, it makes baking feel like efflorescence.
So I wiped down counters and washed dishes and considered that continuing this family history, investing effort and patience for something good that I can share, finding beauty in all that is ordinary. . . could my drudgery possibly be considered seizing the day? Maybe? I don’t know.
But, in any case, if shortbread is life, life is sweet.