A beautiful mess.

Some days when I’m leveling off flour in a measuring cup or pouring sugar crystals, I’m visited by memories of bakings past. For a while in my youth I spent Saturday mornings at a 4-H program where Miss May taught us how to bake all sorts of yummies.

I’d never met anyone like Miss May in my town. I grew up in an area largely populated by people who’d moved south from New York and North Jersey. Their families had spent summer weekends on the Jersey shore. Scrappy and confident, from those who had made their way through Ellis Island for better opportunities, they now made the move toward bigger homes in a place that held happy memories. We were loud, quick, and bold. Everyone talked over each other, especially over spaghetti on Sundays.

Miss May’s ancestors also hailed from another continent, possibly against their will. They had moved north from the south, where I heard they knew everything there was to know about baking. Miss May moved and spoke calmly, and gave direction with infinite patience, as if time were no matter. She had a joyful spirit, a quiet tenderness in her soft drawl, and she was inspirational. I wanted to use the butter wrapper to grease the corners of the loaf pan as well as Miss May could. I had to pass the knife over the flour cup three times – forward, back, and forward again – to make sure it was as level as Miss May’s demonstration. I still do it today.

Each week she’d hand out a new paper with a recipe. We’d put them in our 3-ring binders to make our own recipe books. My pages still bear fingerprinted crusts of floury pastes and butter splotches, attesting to the name of the group – Messy Makers. I understand the program still exists, but know nothing of when Miss May stepped away. Thanks to her and the 4-H program, in the short time we spent together I learned to enjoy baking breads, muffins, rolls, and more.

I loved the feel of the dough on my fingers, the warmth when it had risen, the way the air felt when it escaped as I kneaded. I loved the way an egg rested in a mound of flour, and how it all came together when mixed. I loved when the ball of dough pulled away from the sides of the bowl, when it was changing from plain ingredients into something that would be beautiful. I loved the special set of mixing bowls and measuring cups and spoons my mom had bought so I could have what I needed to bake. I even loved the waiting periods when I needed to let something rise, and could go off and do something else while it did its thing. And I loved the smell as it cooked, and the goodness that emerged when it was out of the oven.

At some point I started entering the county fair, and winning ribbons for the goods my little fingers created. I won ribbons in the adult categories, even though I was a child. My favorite blue-ribbon winner was blueberry muffins, made with blueberries we’d picked at a farm. But there were other ribbons. So many, in fact, that one day I was trying to figure out what to do with them, moving them from one place to another. I poo-poo’d the reds and yellows – second and third place winners – as meaningless. I told my mom I could probably toss them. Oh, that did not go over well…at all. My mom was having none of that.

I got a stern but appropriate talking-to about how grateful I should be to have gotten those red and yellow ribbons; how many others would have loved to get any ribbon at all; how the fact that I had gotten them meant that someone else – someone who wanted them – did not get them that day; and generally, how I’d better become a better sportsman, or kiss my competition days goodbye. And rightly so.

Eventually I stopped entering the fair. I don’t recall why or when. But the lesson about good sportsmanship stuck with me. I still have a competitive streak. In time, though, I learned the value of effort, and that most often the effort is worth much more than the recognition or the results.

I value how the “game” – any game – is played, and what goes into it, and the personal stories that bring us to those moments. I’m willing to fail and try new things, and that helps me take chances that pay off. It’s helped me professionally to innovate, and it’s helped me personally in ways too private to share. I enjoy competing with myself, with my own best. I ask myself, “Is this my best?”, not, “Is this the best?” And I enjoy and appreciate the work of others freely, without feeling their success minimizes my own.

Although I’ve won a few awards as an adult, those I prize most are the team awards. I love people coming together and doing great work, creating something better than any of us could have done alone. I’ve learned that sharing success makes it that much sweeter. I’ve lost to competitors on some awards, and I’m just as proud of the attempts and the growth that came of them. My breads are no longer worthy of ribbons, but I love them just the same. It’s a long way from where I started, and a much better place to be.

4 thoughts on “A beautiful mess.

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