I’ll Bring the Rum Cake

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for H & K & Z

I have to brake hard at the light, and my right arm shoots out to the seat beside me. I’m not protecting a person, or even a particularly breakable item. It’s a cake. Wrapped in foil, teetering precariously on the seat. My quick reflexes hold it in place. I exhale. I can’t show up without the cake.

I have been obsessed with my Oma’s rum cake since I was too young to be eating rum cake. It’s not a particularly complicated cake. All you need is a bundt pan, yellow cake mix, walnuts and a generous amount of rum. But it is a magical cake. My absolute favourite way to eat it is straight from of the freezer, with a hot tea, preferably for breakfast.

Today the cake is taking a trip to Bowen Island with me. Bowen Island a tiny little gem off the coast of British Columbia. The four of us will be there for 48 hours without work or children or spouses or a shred of responsibility. We’re staying at a spiritual retreat centre that looked very serious online, but the price was right. The irony that I will arrive at my first spiritual retreat with a rum cake tucked under my arm is not lost on me.

The four of us met over ten years ago. We were in our twenties, working for the same non-profit. Our days were spent walking women through eating disorders and self-harm and addiction. We somehow managed to extract joy and hilarity out of what was—at times—a very intense environment. Eventually, we all moved on. We found new careers, got married, had babies. We put down roots in four different cities, the span between the two furthest points being over an hour.

This should have been the point where we lost touch. The time between texts was supposed to  become longer and longer until communication inevitably trailed off. We expected to be left only with fond memories and nostalgia.

Somehow, that didn’t happen.

We started setting aside an evening a few times a year. Whoever was coming from the furthest point picked up the others along the way. We would settle in over a mountain of delicious food and talk until 1 am. The first time I brought a rum cake, it was ruled I simply couldn’t show up without one again.

But today, we don’t just have a few hours. We have two entire days. The anticipation makes us positively giddy on the ferry ride from the mainland to the island.

When we arrive, our rooms are simple and clean, and we have an entire floor to ourselves. I breathe a sigh of relief. As we were solemnly listening to the welcome debrief, I was convinced we would get ourselves kicked out based on the volume rules alone.

That night, we make our way to the communal sitting room in our jammies. I carve thick slices of cake and we settle in for an entire night of uninterrupted time. We talk about The Big Things right away. We know what a luxury it is to have each other for this time, and we’re not wasting it on small talk. We talk about our marriages. We talk about grief. We have intense spiritual debates and are reminded we don’t have to agree to love and respect each other. And when the plates are empty and we don’t want the night to end, we remember we have another whole day of just each other. And we sleep well.

The next morning I softly pad to the kitchen and pull the cake from the freezer. Through the window I see a sprawling forest of evergreens. Trees always make me emotional, but looking out at them while silently eating cake for breakfast is another level of perfection. We eat our fill and then head out for a day that consists entirely of woodland walks, eggs benedict and talking about everything.

There is a freedom that comes when no topic is off limits that is hard to describe. It’s likely why we had no trouble filling two days with constant conversation. Because when you know you are free from judgment, when you know you are fully accepted and loved, nothing is off the table. You can ask for help. You can seek insight and support and wisdom without censoring yourself, without diluting the situation to make it more palatable. There’s no wasting words or energy. You can just say it.

On our final evening, rather than subject the retreat to our guffawing and shrieks, we sit in the parking lot for hours, crammed into a Jeep, fogging up the windows. I talk about things I never ever talk about. We all do. We hold space for each other’s stories, knowing our time is almost up. One of my most favourite quotes is from Dr. Brené Brown: “Shame cannot survive being spoken.” I voice some of my deepest shame in that parking lot on that little island. And they are not shocked or put off by my shame or my tears. They remind me I am not broken. They tell me I don’t have to carry it alone anymore. It is the best gift I’ve ever received.

The next morning, the cake platter is scraped bare, and we put our rooms to rights. The time has come to leave. On the ferry ride home, the biting wind whips our hair as we eat tortilla chips straight from a giant bag. I feel lighter in my spirit than I have in years. I wish we had done this sooner.

That weekend was two years ago. We haven’t gone away together since, but we still make an effort to see each other every few months. Our last evening ended with us all talking about sex in a Denny’s restaurant at midnight. I wish I could find words to do justice to how this friendship with these three humans has saved me over the years. And while an entire weekend away was a dream, a condo or a park bench or a Denny’s will do just fine. It doesn’t matter. As long as we bring our whole selves.

And I bring a whole rum cake.

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