Marble Cake and Maugenhard

Maug boys on Thanksgiving.

Maug boys on Thanksgiving.

“Well, you should probably just make a dessert. Any kind of dessert, for Sunday night,” the Maugenhard RA tells me after a supper of spaghetti, during which we watched snow fall outside on the not-yet-green hills of the Black Forest. Spring is delayed this year, after what’s been called “the darkest winter in 43 years.”

I shudder to imagine winter 1970 in Germany.

I’ve come to Maugenhard Dorm this evening after already working in some capacity with students for the last nine hours, hours filled with classes, meetings, observations, bus rides and track practice. It’s the end of a long day, at the end of a long week, at the hoped-for end of a long winter. Spring break is only a few days away, and though we can see past the hurdles of papers to write and grade, tests to pass and mark, lessons to plan and absorb, we still have to jump the hurdles. We’re weary these days–teachers, staff and students–ready to rest before returning to the busyness of spring at BFA.

The boys clear the table and start the dishes, and I pull out a Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, its red- and white-checked cover familiar to me from childhood. What to make? I flip around aimlessly, and finally settle on yellow cake, my perennial favorite and most-missed cake mix now that I live in Germany. Yellow cake with chocolate frosting. It will be easy.

Following a recipe doesn’t take much mental energy for me, which is helpful tonight, because I’m not left alone to do this work. Every few minutes, a different student arrives in the kitchen to ask a question about the term paper that’s due tomorrow in Honors American Literature class. Meanwhile, the RA and her fiance are preparing tomorrow’s lunch across the kitchen, sharing tips on gift registry. Twenty minutes into this project, I’m switching between four or five different conversation strands at once.

Add dry ingredients together… Um… yes, I’d say Vonnegut counts as a postmodernist. A huge one… Bed, Bath & Beyond is the worst in the world! … 5, no 5 and a half cups of milk. Alternate with dry mixture… What kind of “fiery poem” did Frost send his girlfriend? … No, you have to personify Bordeaux. Like, make it into a character. If Bordeaux were a person, who would she be? … My favorite place to buy wedding gifts is Crate & Barrel. Beat on high for 2 minutes.

It’s how my week has gone, many disconnected shards of work and conversation making up each busy day. More often than not, I’ve felt like a basket of rubble at the end of them. I’ve been impatient and inattentive, anxious and short-sighted. As so often happens, I’ve lost perspective in weariness.

I finish with the cake batter, and the bin of cocoa powder in the pantry gives me an idea. I scoop a few ladles of batter into another bowl, and toss the cocoa liberally on top. As I stir it up, RA comes over.

“Ooh, what are you doing?”

“Marble cake.”

For a moment, the dorm disappears into a memory, and I’m about six, standing on a chair next to my mom as she mixes up two colors of batter, asking the same question. What are we doing? This is different!

RA watches, awed like six-year-old me, as I dollop the brown batter on top of the yellow, then draw a knife through it in serpentine lines, first vertically then horizontally. The batters swirl but don’t blend, and the ordinary cake is suddenly special.

“We’re eating this tonight!” RA cries, setting out milk and glasses in preparation for the marvelous cake. “Make some frosting, but don’t put it on. This cake looks too cool to cover it up.”

With some satisfaction I slide it into the oven, then go to the living room, where my hardworking students are finishing their assignments.

I’ve spent almost all day with some of them–in class, track and now home–and still it doesn’t get old, listening to them tell stories about authors and compose poems aloud. I proofread a paper and offer some advice to the poet, but mostly I just listen.

How different this is from school as I knew it in Seattle, where we lived in separate worlds from our teachers. They never got to see just how much we cared about what we were learning, and we never really understood the depth of their care for us. Here, both cares are out in the open, as I listen to my students tell one another stories about authors–Frost, Safran Foer and Vonnegut–while I bake a cake for them to eat later.

Living in community like this is sometimes intimidating, realizing that every decision is public, every relationship on display. Still, it’s refreshing to live and work in a place without pretension, where we can see one another in all seasons, from vibrant to weary, and appreciate the God-given uniqueness that makes up a brilliant whole.

And I’m back to the shards, a zillion topics and trains of thought that have brought me to the end of this week. Yes, to me it can seem like a basket of rubble, but if I’ll only let them go, in the hands of my Creator they can form something marvelous, a stained-glass window of broken pieces.

The marble cake comes out of the oven after a while, and for a few minutes the boys abandon their papers and poems to gather around the warm, two-toned deliciousness. We slather it in chocolate frosting and stand around the counter, all of us glad for a break.

“Ms. D made you this cake,” RA tells them. “Just because she loves you.”

I laugh, and they laugh, too, but it’s true. No matter how tired we are in these days before break, I love these kids immensely. And marble cake, that’s real love.