Weekly Edgework #61 - August 29, 2005

Layered Cake

Days in the past cover up little by little those that precede them and are themselves buried beneath those that follow them…Our self is composed of the superimpostion of our successive states. But this superimposition is not unalterable like the stratification of a mountain. Incessant upheavals raise to the surface ancient deposits (The Memory Man, by Lisa Appignanesi, 2004).

There are some people who walk around insisting that life is “a piece of cake”. Perhaps there are a few persons in the world for whom everything has fallen into place neatly - according to plan - and therefore can think of life as a continual nibble on a tasty piece of birthday cake. But my hunch is that such thoughts are based either on illusion or denial. If truth be told – when all pretense and posturing are done away with – we all have to admit to disappointments, pains and struggles as being part of the mix of our lives.

But staying with the metaphor of “cake” as an image of how life works, perhaps we would do well to think in terms of layered cake. I have some experience with layered cakes. When I was young, it was not uncommon for my mother to bake a single-layered chocolate cake to feed Sunday guests. But on special occasions, like birthdays, she often went to the extra effort to make a multi-layered cake. Two or three cakes of the same size were stacked on top of each other with a layer of icing – and sometimes coins – between them. What delight to find a dime between the layers of my piece!

But it was only in later life, while living in Virginia, that I was introduced to the ultimate in terms of layered cakes. It must have been a local tradition. At least a dozen, or even fifteen, wafer-thin cakes of the same size were stacked on top of each other, separated by layers of an assortment of puddings and icings. Even so the whole cake only stood about six inches tall. And because of the icing clinging to the sides and top of this cake the casual observer had no idea that underneath this decorated topping rested many layers of cake – each one carefully smothered in its own layer of sweetness. Only when the first piece was cut did the complexity of this baker’s delight become obvious.

In a perfect world these intact layers stay neatly in place where they have been smothered. But in an imperfect world, such as we live in, that is not always the case. Imagine the horror of the hostess serving the layered cake upon tripping on a lamp cord which sends the cake and platter flying across the room. When she picks herself up to survey the damage the neat layers of cake now lie jumbled and broken on the floor amid shards of broken glass that once was great-grandma’s prize serving platter. You might say, that at least for her, the party is over.

And so it is with life. As we go about our days it often happens that our main preoccupation is to smother each layer of our lives in icing. Layers may be imperfect – too thin, too thick, too crumbly, over-baked, under-baked or even broken. But we tuck each layer neatly into place and cover it up with a spread that is overly sweet. There! That’s done! Now let’s move on to the next layer - which as soon as it is laid, we begin to cover with frosting as well.

And so we keep building our Tower of Babel, layer upon layer. At any given point in the process we are always working on the top layer – the latest experience or episode in our lives. To the casual observer who happens to peek into the kitchen, it appears as though the cake being frosted over is all of one piece. And because of the sinister powers of illusion and denial, we might even get ourselves to believe the same. The reality is that the many layers of cake separated by slippery sweetness is actually quite unstable. It must be handled with care if the layers are not to separate and become an unmanageable enterprise.

And then, invariably, it happens. An upheaval of one kind or another disturbs the quiet elegance of the layered cake of our lives. And when that happens – when the layers become undone, broken and exposed – the whole mess ends up pierced through with shards of glass coming from generations past. For many this is too much to take and they sink into despair. The party is over. Go home, everybody! Turn out the lights!

But ironically, this is the time and place where grace can begin its healing work. Now, when others gather around to help you face realities you had always iced over so carefully. It can be a pain-staking process, but as you begin to extract the broken pieces of glass, and dispose of much of the icing for fear it might contain more unseen icicles of glass, you will end up with a bowl full of trifle instead of a carefully crafted layered cake. And who doesn’t like a bowl of trifle? It might look disorderly – even chaotic - but it really does taste good.

There is one alternative to the scene I have just described. Before some major upheaval sends your cake splattering on the floor, stop icing the layer you are working on right now. Take a knife and a fork and begin probing into the layers you have already covered up so neatly. Don’t worry that the layers begin to slide past each other. Keep going, determined to get to the bottom. And as you dig make sure to cover the newly exposed layers with a fresh coating of grace. When you come up for air, you will likely discover that you have transformed your layered cake into a trifle. But, because you have initiated the process, you likely will have less glass to extract than from a mess created in the process of an unwanted upheaval.