Filling up on potential

Lately I have been pondering potential. This has been triggered, among other things, by my daughter’s recent birthday party – an event that always has lots of potential for both disaster and brilliance. The thing that carries the most potential, for me, is not the party bags, the games, or Melbourne’s notorious weather. It is The Cake – the focal point, the pièce de résistance, the metaphorical rug that ties it all together.

I have been making and decorating birthday cakes since my teens. My mum – after more than 18 years of making 3 cakes per birthday (one for home, one for school, one for party) for each of her 7 children – was, by the time I was a teenager, more than happy to hand over cake duty to her older progeny. The Womens Weekly Birthday Cake Book trained me in the fine arts of beating and folding, shaping and icing, and how to use licorice and tictacs in all kinds of ungodly ways. One year I decided on something more classy for my older sister’s birthday. She was 22 and officially old, so Miss Muffet just wouldn’t cut it. I baked a beautiful round cake, filled the dent in the middle with chocolate icing (or maybe it was green frosting…) and carefully placed a ’22’ made of smarties on top. I couldn’t work out why mum was trying hard not to laugh until my sister ‘gently’ pointed out that the numbers were backwards. Like she was 55. She thought I’d done it on purpose.
But more often than not, my cakes went down pretty well. I learned early on to hide the weird bits under delicious butter cream and lollies, that the kids would be so excited they wouldn’t notice that Mickey’s ears were different sizes or that the jelly in the pool tasted faintly of dishwater, and that even if the grownups noticed, they were too polite to comment.

Still, the other day as I glanced at the empty mixing bowl and full cake tin featured above, I found myself feeling slightly nervous about how this cake would turn out. Nervous! About a cake!! Tragic. Mind you, there were a number of contributing factors – I was unwell and hadn’t slept much the night before, my broken sleep had been punctuated by dreams of epic cake-mess, and I had been charged with turning what lay before me into a pink pterodactyl by 10am.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure I could pull it off.

I was sorely tempted to hand the whole thing over to my mother-in-law.

But then I realised I was looking at the situation all wrong. As is my wont, I was focusing on what could go wrong and making plans to deal with potential disasters: if it didn’t rise, I could bake another one and sandwich them together with jam and cream; if I cut the shape wrong, I could go buy a sponge cake and draw a pterodactyl in icing on top; if I ran out of time I could convince my daughter that she had really wanted a Woolies’ icecream cake the whole time, she just hadn’t realised it yet. Instead, I reminded myself, I should think about all the positive potential contained in that wonderful blend of butter, sugar, flour, milk & eggs: how much fun I could have sculpting with cake; how happy my daughter would be to get the cake she asked for, even though mummy hadn’t been able to find a picture of it on Google; how it was going to make a blog post no matter how it looked.

And in the end, my cake’s potential was realised. It rose beautifully. It looked, somewhat like a pterodactyl (with a broken wing, but close enough!). It tasted like cake. It was too small to feed everyone at the party, but all the kids got a piece, and some got two. And I got warmly complimented on its awesomeness. I suspect it got quietly made fun of as well, but I’m totally ok with that. In fact, I would be quite disappointed if I found out I was the only one amused by it.

I am by nature a cynic. I instantly notice what could go wrong in any given situation. I tend to think and plan around worst case scenarios. Unlearning these thought cycles is an ongoing process – my life’s work, if I want to get all grandiose about it. I have made progress – I am a diehard optimist, at least (I blame Pollyanna’s “glad game” for that), and I can (and do) laugh heartily at my own dramatising. I am mindful of the way I think and know when to pay it attention and when to let it pass. And I am starting to recognise my own potential. For a long time I largely ignored it due to fear of failure and baulking from others’ perceived expectations. But these days I feel it’s more important to at least try something than to just maintain the status quo – to give myself a chance at fulfillment, and to show my child that failure isn’t a thing, really.

I know from personal experience that sometimes the potential for things to turn out badly is realised in the worst possible way – but I have learned that I have ample capacity to cope with the inevitable curve-balls life likes to hurl in my general direction. And I believe each of us has such capacity. When things turn to shit, we are given an opportunity to learn our own strength, to graciously accept our limitations, to fulfil potentials we didn’t know we had.

Life, when viewed from a certain angle, in a certain light, is full of possibility and opportunity. And cake. So much cake


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