Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Color of Cold

It is the first week of April and yesterday morning was white and gray and blue and black and cold--definitively winter. Four inches of snow fell, the result of a typical winter storm that hooked up from the Rockies and pushed across the Midwest. Blizzard conditions to the west of us, heavier snow to the north and here, rain then hail then snow and more snow.


Spring has shown up here and there in tiny slices of warm sun, and then winter sweeps back in and takes hold. Nights below freezing. Ice on the front porch, ice on the driveway. I’ve just lived through my first Iowa winter and the memories of it are strong like the cold wind still blowing outside. It is the first week of April and I feel immersed in cold.

During these past dark months I found that the color of cold is blue, milky blue or brutally blue, depending on my mood and the temperature. On warmer days, where the morning temperature is 18 or 20 and the sun promises to come up and shine all day, on those days the world is bathed, just before dawn, in milk-white suffused with still more blue--blue shadows, blue glints across the snow, night-blue sky in the west fading to true-blue, sky blue sky in the east. On other days, colder days, when the sun doesn’t shine, the cold blue night fades to gray and the world remains black and white.

I collect the other colors of cold:

• Pearlescent ivory shimmering to lavender blue in the paint job of the old man’s Cadillac, parked outside Johnson’s Bakery in a snowstorm
• The kaleidoscope of diamonds burning across the snow in the sun
• Dull, bright, dirty, blue, orange, blinding white
• Dark blue shadows huddled in the footsteps of rabbits, squirrels, birds, me
• Brown dirty slush in the roads
• Sheets of yellow-white light blasting across snowfields at noon
• The blue and white premonition of falling white in the air just before snow starts falling
• A sunrise across a slate sky in the intense cold of dawn, navy blue then a bit brighter blue and then the colors come like cold neon flames, red and pink and orange
• The speckled breast of a hawk, ivory against the new snow
• Yellow morning moons
• One long, sunny, constant streak of lightning against white and ice

I spent my childhood waiting for bad weather. I loved rainy days and their coziness, the excitement of wind, the thrilling hope of snow. Quiet and solitary by nature, bad weather gave me an excuse to stay inside and read--or to be outside alone with the drama of the world. Every winter I hoped for snow, lots of snow. I loved to watch it fall, pile up, turn the world into a pretty and muffled place. During my Maryland childhood, snow was rare. Here in Iowa, snow is a regular event. It’s my dream of weather come true--dramatic, stunning, unpredictable, brutal, gorgeous weather.

Liking snow, and liking winter, requires a serious commitment. Most people don’t, and don’t try. Winter bestows a license to complain, to give up going out, being active, eating well. I’m an outcast: I go out daily with my dog, regardless--and I secretly like the weather. The cold is solid and dependable and there is no disappointment here--yes there will be snow, yes it will be cold. There are boundaries. We are embraced, all season, by cold and ice and light.

In the very coldest time, our holidays of light appear, Christmas and Hanukah and the solstice. Did they begin as exactly this, reminders of the light to be? Down the street the blacksmith hangs his handmade Christmas lanterns high in his trees, a makeshift heaven in the air, magical and glowing globes, boxes, pyramids, a garden of glittering delights, flashing and floating above and around us, wrapping us in fairyland. They shine like cold jewels, not themselves warm but giving the illusion and dream of warmth, warmth of spirit, warmth nearby.


It is the first week of April. The grass is turning green and the tulips are above ground. Slow, but as solid and dependable as the winter cold, spring is arriving. Every day, the returning light lengthens. Every day, we are embraced by birdsong at dawn, by shining constellations of tree blossoms against a warmer sky.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Cupcake Love

It all started when I was six at Radford’s Baker—the sugary yeasty smell of it, the bright lights, the rows of pastries and cookies and the best-of-all cupcakes. My mother brought home doughnuts every Sunday morning. For me, she brought a cupcake.

I’m grown up now and it’s a January morning in Iowa. It’s five degrees outside but I’m warm in my dining room looking at a cupcake. Vanilla, white frosting, sprinkles.

The best cupcakes were always vanilla with white frosting and sprinkles—jimmies—the color of spring, pink and yellow and baby blue and orange. Soft, light cake. I bite and there’s the sudden gritty taste of sugar, that painful sweetness, the crunch of frosting and jimmies and underneath, lush and tender cake in my mouth. Eating cupcakes is an explosion of sweet.

Today there are a dozen cupcakes in my kitchen. My husband Josh got them at Johnson’s Bakery, a heavenly local oasis of sugar and light and cake, for a very grown up party we had last night. I made grown up desserts, rich complicated cheesecake, no-nonsense apple crisp, healthy fruit salad. We had a case of champagne and two dozen slender glass flutes to drink it from. We had 25 grown up people who ate all the cheesecake and apple crisp and who drank a lot of the wine and champagne.

In my thirties, divorced and an eternity away from Radfords and my sweet six year old self, I mostly baked my own cupcakes, a sure sign then of stress or despair. I took them to my neighbor, Denise, who had her own troubles but passed the cupcakes along to her kids. In those days, I leaned heavily towards chocolate with white frosting. I also happened to be dating a cupcake—what my friends and I called the solid, red-haired, adorable and absolutely unsuitable man I stuck with because I loved his parents and because he was, well, a cupcake. The comfort of any sort of cupcake is hard to resist.

The party cupcakes were a last-minute decision on my part. At dinner, the night before the party, I announced I’d better make some—no doubt a small sign of panic about entertaining twenty-five people as well as a sign of the usual creeping despair. Josh said no, it was easier if he went and bought some. A man who, for whatever reason, brings me cupcakes! Dreams do come true. At the party, the cupcakes perched on a fine china plate, gorgeous in their frosted finery, dolled and jimmied up, party cakes, festive dollops of sweetness.

No one wanted them.
I do.
I love them.

And so across my life cupcakes evolved into not so much a desire for their taste as a desire for the small, self-contained, intimate and immediate comfort they brought, their antidote to despair, a way back to a reinvented and eternally springtime childhood—a safe place of sweets, of anticipation, of being held in the arms of comfort. Cupcakes conjure up a sensory spectrum of memories—the hungry smell of baking, the enduring warmth of a kitchen in the winter, the velvety texture of cake, the strong, safe feeling of a man’s arms.

Cupcakes are time apart, small solaces, a sacrament of peace. Cupcakes and tea, cupcakes and hot baths, cupcakes and a good book, cupcakes and rainy afternoons and snowy nighttimes. Cupcakes are hope and prayers, comfort and love.


thanks to jeannine marie luke for the cupcake art