On Managing Expectations and Anise Cookies

The final book in my wonderful (if I do say so myself) dark fantasy series published Monday. I got lovely applause and cheerful “well-done’s” from my FB friends, and beautiful flowers from my husband. A few sales, too.

“Tales of Darkwood” is a thing I am proud of writing, and chuffed that I completed it in a year. But… I expected to feel a bubbly joy in this culmination of it. It was hard work. I gave it bits of my soul and lots of my time and money.

I felt heartbroken instead. A huge gasp of “now what?” No celebratory feelings at all. You know those images and videos of marathon runners staggering to the end of the race, crawling to get to the finish? They don’t look joyful either. Just determined. Or perhaps crazy. I identify with them today, the day after release. And I know why.

I failed to manage my expectations. There were no balloons or parades for completing the series. It’s just… done. I wanted more of a huzzah, glasses raised, cake, and a gift bag to take home.

As I’ve gotten older, managing expectations has taken on greater urgency. I don’t do well with the emotional hangover being crushed by disappointment leaves behind. “Live and let live” is an iteration of managing expectations. Or perhaps a hearty “Oh well!” when things don’t live up to my hopes. But sometimes the shock of the disappointment wins and then you’re depressed and cry and feel awful.

I’m sure you’ve experienced this in varying degrees. The meal that took hours to make, but just doesn’t taste good. The gift you thought would bring someone true happiness, but instead simply just gets a polite thank you. The restaurant that had five stars, but you had a one-star experience. The bored/rude/inept clerk at the store where you’re about to spend hundreds of dollars who acts like they don’t see you. The child that doesn’t call.

Sometimes I do a good job of managing my disappointment. I bake, read a book, swim, go for a walk, drink too much coffee. I gave up drinking many years ago, so that’s out. I’ve found talking to others feels a lot like dumping my emotional burden on top of them, so that’s not an option anymore, either.

Sometimes I’m going to feel sad, lonely, and less-than for a while… until it goes away. Listen, if you’ve got any coping mechanisms for this, please let me know. ‘Tis the season for multiple, possibly massive disappointments, after all. The holidays can feel like one big field of landmines for many of us, so walk carefully as you ho-ho-ho your way these next few weeks. Someone’s heart may be bruised, or close to breaking. I know I’m going to do my best to be patient and kind. Even in holiday traffic.

Luckily, baking has a spark of magic in it. I am always heartened when I mix disparate, boring ingredients together and put them in the oven… because what comes out is nearly always an aromatic bundle of love and deliciousness that I can share with others. I’m not quite sure when feeding people became my love language, but it surely is now. Right up there with telling a good story or helping an actor discover how very good they are at their chosen craft.

In that vein, here’s our family recipe for soft Anise cookies… it’s not your normal Christmas cookie… anise is a bit of an acquired taste, unless you already like black licorice, then this is the cookie for you. Anise tastes of darkness, sort of the Krampus version of a Christmas cookie. It’s fantastic with coffee. This is a half-recipe, and it still makes about 4 dozen cookies. I apologize in advance for the vague instructions. I learned this one in my aunt’s kitchen in Kingston, Iowa. My family tends to cook by how things look or smell or feel as opposed to actual measurements.

My rolling pin was made by my great-grandfather, but you can find them online, or use finding one as an excuse to go visit Germany.

SOFT ANISE COOKIES by Helen Brown (my aunt)

Beat 4 eggs for about 10 minutes with a hand mixer, then add in slowly as you continue to beat:
1 dram of Anise extract (it’s roughly ¾ of a teaspoon, but I do a bit more)
1 heaping tablespoon baking powder
1 scant tablespoon oleo (I use Nature’s Own, bc I cannot deal with Oleo, margarine, or Crisco.)
1 pound powdered sugar

This will make a nice batter, like cake batter. Then add in (you’ll need to hand mix at this point, or you’ll kill your mixer) 4 cups of flour… about… it depends on the size of the eggs you use but you want a dough you can roll out. It will look like cookie dough should (I warned you about how I learned this recipe, ha.)

Roll out dough on floured surface, about ½ inch thick and print cookies. As you go, put them on lightly floured cookie sheets. Continue until dough is all printed.

Let them dry on a table for 3-12 hours. This will allow the print you put on them to stay when they bake.

Lightly grease cookie sheets. Bake at 325 for 10 minutes or so, just until the bottoms are light golden brown. The tops will stay pale. They will puff up and stay that way.

This version is intended to stay soft. There are others that omit the bit of fat that this one uses. If you do that, you’ll get a jawbreaker, biscotti-type of cookie, but it’s just as tasty in its Krampus-like way.

On Acceptance and Pear Trees

For the past 33 years or so, I’ve been guided by the Serenity Prayer when baffled or confused. So, you know, daily. I often use the short version of the prayer when pressed. I’ll share it with you. It’s handy to have when someone’s been snippy, or if an asshat cuts you off in traffic. In those times of little patience or time to speed talk your way through:

God Grant me the Serenity to

Accept the things I cannot change

Courage to change the things I can

And the Wisdom to know the difference.

You can use the short version, and just say “Oh, well.” And that covers it.

This week as we finally (finally!) stop being in the month of March and proceed into April (which surely won’t be as long, right?) I realized that during this pandemic I’ve been forcing myself to adhere to one part of that prayer, the changing things I can section. Granted, it’s my default position. Coming from a long line of pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstrappers whose mindset of “make it happen” is practically a religion, it’s hard not to try and muscle my way through things. The far side of that behavior is intense manipulation of others to get what you want, which isn’t pleasant for anyone. It also leads to never being good enough. A sticky wicket, in other words. (Have you also been watching way too much Brit Box during quarantine?)

Three weeks into this thing, and never once achieving all the things on the daily to-do list, I’ve realized that gripping onto the “changing things I can” portion of the serenity prayer isn’t working. It’s forced me into using my short version of the Serenity Prayer multiple times per day. I can’t change other people’s behavior; they will still congregate and have “quarantine parties.” Oh, well. My son’s college graduation will be postponed until next year. Oh, well. I can’t even get my 85 and 90-year-old parents to stay in their house. They’ve nicknamed me “The Warden,” and while they say it with a half-smile on their face, they resent the hell out of me, and sneak out and do inconsequential errands anyway. Oh, well. I can only change my own behavior.

Accepting things I cannot change feels unnatural, a lesser choice, the coward’s way out. The thought that if I tried harder something could be done gnaws like a rat behind the wall. It’s a struggle to accept things as they are and not try and fix them. It feels like losing. Yet its where peace is found. Accepting things is to see them clearly, and that’s when a path forward is revealed. It’s a gentler path than I’m used to walking. It includes fuzzy thinking, and naps in the afternoon, and not getting everything on my to-do list done. Very few of us currently alive on this planet have navigated a global pandemic before, so perhaps we can accept that and then move forward instead of making ourselves crazy with what could’ve been done, or what we should be doing.

I think that’s what is meant by giving yourself grace. Being in acceptance is understanding that going for strolls in your neighborhood is enough, I don’t need to jog the whole time. My dog loves those walks. No need to rearrange all the closets today. Maybe just the one shelf. Acceptance means I stop comparing myself to others, too. I love seeing clever people on Facebook making up new pandemic words to Disney songs and dressing up, so we all can laugh. It’s okay to just laugh and appreciate the gift of it, I don’t need to do one too. Besides, you for sure don’t want to hear me sing. I accepted that one back in 2nd grade.

On my long ambles through the neighborhood I see all sorts of gardens. There are apartments with cheery little window pots all the way up to huge 12,000 square foot homes that have immaculate gardens and clipped hedges formed into mazes. My personal garden consists of two small pear sprouts and another little plant on the floor of my living room. The baby pear trees have a good story behind them. They’re from a single pear produced by a long-suffering tree that sat in a pot for at least two years too long at our old rental house in Johnson City. It made a few hopeful green leaves each spring but no fruit. It endured the winters huddled against the side of the house. It’d lost most of its upper branches to some sort of black rot. But it was hanging in there, and as I’m sentimental about living things, we tossed it on the back of the truck last-minute when we moved to Dallas.

We dropped it off at my parent’s house before taking the rest of our things to the apartment, so it survived The Fire. They planted it in their yard. It sat in its new home doing very little for a year, not dejected exactly, just tired from the move and the strangeness of having its roots unencumbered by pot sides. Perhaps learning to accept its new place. Last year the little tree rallied and with a massive effort produced a single, perfect pear. My mom and I shared it when it got ripe, before the birds got it, and to the little tree’s credit, it was sweet and delicious.

I saved the two viable seeds from it, and stored them in a baggie filled with dirt in my fridge for four months like I saw on a YouTube video. The two seeds had just started sprouting when I planted them at the end of January in the pots in my living room and watered and sunned them regularly. Now we have two baby pear trees making leaves and growing very slowly. But growing they are. I talk to them daily and tell them they are the very best pear trees in my living room, and they seem to like that. Just having them there makes me happy, and reminds me one more time that we are indeed human beings, not human doings, and that accepting things I cannot change just might be okay for today.