I’m the kind of person to whom quite a few things come easily. I was gifted with many talents and I count myself lucky in that respect. For example, I’ve never had to question whether or not I could learn some¬thing – it’s always been simply a matter of whether or not I wanted to. Acquiring knowledge and synthesizing it for use is a skill I often take for granted and I forget sometimes that others cannot learn as quickly or as deeply as I can in the same time frame.
Cooking is another skill that comes easily to me, too. It doesn’t really matter what it is; I can probably cook it into something that’s luscious and delectable and soul-nourishing. With one exception.
There’s a casserole I can’t make to save my soul. It’s almost a foregone conclusion that it will taste horrible – or have no taste – when it comes out of the oven.
What’s the dish? A simple American classic: Macaroni & Cheese.
This is not brain surgery: it’s pasta and cheese. I’ve used recipe after recipe, from Alton Brown and Paula Deen to the Joy of Cooking and America’s Kitchen to my grandmother’s recipe. To no avail. This is not a dish you’d want me to make for a potluck. Ever.
For years, I refused to admit that I had this Achilles heel. I kept trying. I’ve thrown out more batches of homemade mac & cheese than I should mention. For a while I stopped making it because I didn’t want to fail at something in the kitchen. I don’t like to fail at anything. I don’t like to give myself room to fail. It was inconceivable to me that I couldn’t master something so basic when so many other things in the kitchen came so easily.
About five years ago I had a complete success: I added bay scallops and a few other ingredients that transformed the dish into a gourmet masterpiece. But I was never able to replicate it and besides, it wasn’t your June Cleaver classic mac & cheese. It didn’t count.
Over time, this lesson of trying in spite of inevitable failure started to sink into my head. It transformed from frustration to amusement. Out of amusement came a startling realization that I could admit most humbly that even if I couldn’t do something, I could still derive joy from it. I didn’t learn that lesson as a kid.
Making mac & cheese remains a lesson in humility for me. This humility has given me the space to grow, to allow myself some compassion even when I’m not perfect at something. Each time I decide to try again, I give myself the space to take the risk even if failure is an almost-certain option.
And yet, humility hasn’t been a way to deny failure. Instead, the heavy weight of failure has eased itself in my mind. Failure is a more transitional part of my learning process now, rather than an end unto itself.
Paradoxically, humility is teaching me to equate in importance the lack of an ability to do something with the talent to be able to do other things. It seems as if humility is a key to trying new things and to being at peace with the process regardless of outcome. This is a hard lesson to learn for someone who can take so much for granted. But I figure I’ll keep making mac & cheese to give myself a regular reminder of humility. And I’ll do the best I can to apply the mac & cheese lesson to the other parts of my life where I could use some humility-based compassion.