There are times when I’m thumbing through the tattered files of my memories, that I come across a moment that is hilariously revealing. As a gay man who spent most of his life closeted and fighting to stay in the closet, these moments are a dime a dozen: making a wig out of my mother’s garden twine, pining for a stunning periwinkle cloaked cape, and choreographing “I’m a Slave 4 U” in my underwear.
Yeah. Totes straight.
Those clues to my true sexuality were about as hidden as an old man’s moose knuckle with his pants pulled up to his nipples. In those old boxes of memories, there are other hidden things I wasn’t expecting to find: the path to becoming an amateur pastry chef, the reasons why other careers never felt “right”, and my proclivity for smartass remarks that make even my loved ones want to slap me.
In my senior year of English in high school, we all had to record and make senior videos. These were videos that included photos of our lives up until that time, our wants and wishes for the future, and who we wanted to be. At the time, I was working at Dairy Queen and loving it. I worked there for five years and had a blast making ice cream cakes, sundaes, cones, and blizzards. Even at home, I was baking and cooking everything I could. I even got into making and rolling my own pasta for homemade fettuccine alfredo. If I wasn’t making the kitchen look like an active crime scene, I was in front of the TV watching the Food Network until my eyes hurt. So, in my senior video, I said I wanted to be a culinary artist. I can still see my teacher’s face when I said that: scrunched up and twisted, like a baby who just decided that their mashed pea puree would look better on the floor than in their mouth. That face made me second-guess just about everything. That same year, I was also one of the top tenors in our state for All-State Choirs.
Music has always been a big part of my life. My mother was our church pianist, my dad played the guitar and mandolin. I started playing the piano in first grade. I can remember practicing hand positions and scales and learning everyone’s eternal jam, “Hot Cross Buns”. I sang in church constantly at our Sunday night services where anyone could sing a song or a hymn. I was nothing short of a diva. Shocker, right? But, growing up in a religious family, these behaviors were reinforced by the idea that talent is a divine gift, ’ and therefore a ‘calling’ for your life. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I was told, “If you don’t use the gift God gave you, it’s a sin. You musn’t squander the gifts you’ve been given.”
Therefore, to avoid squandering my “God-given gifts”, I dove headfirst into that musical rabbit hole. I went to college for music. I studied abroad for music. I was in a Young Artist program for a prestigious group,and I performed as a concert soloist with the heads of professional music departments. I had no issues getting work, and by all accounts, I was incredibly successful very early in my journey. This made it easy to feel like music really was at the core of who I am, who I was meant to be, and who I will be. Resting on my laurels, I slid by not noticing the growing storm clouds.
In 2013 I applied to a few Masters programs. I networked, prepared tirelessly, drove hours to schools, and auditioned. I was accepted to all my schools. I was elated. Life was going swimmingly…until it didn’t. No one offered me any sort of financial assistance: no scholarships, no grants, no teaching assistantship. My student loans would not even cover one semester. I begged and pleaded with the departments, prostrating myself like an initiate priest taking their vows. I could not understand why this terrible thing was happening to me. I was MEANT for this life! This was God’s plan for me! Why me, God? Why, me???? *insert torrential rainstorm*
All joking aside, this roadblock, this failure, rattled me to my core. I had a plan. I was a “musician.” What was I to do? The terrible emptiness that followed my final call with the financial aid office is something I can still feel to this day. I was housesitting at the time and I just went to the front porch, sat on the porch swing, and watched the rain fall. All those Simple Plan music videos I watched during my emo-preteen phase had prepared me well for this very moment. As the shock faded and I started to pick myself up, I went into first-aid mode. I dug out all the bad in that wound and tried to find what was left. I dissected “who am I?” as if it were a frog splayed out on a lab table, spread eagle, with its entrails being shown to him. When my depression was at its worst, I probably smelled about as bad as that frog did too.
I spent years in that desperate rut, but finally, the answer came to me. I had been looking at it from a career standpoint, when I really needed to look deeper–people are not careers. We are not jobs. I realized what I love most in life is making people feel a sense of “home,” and in doing so, making them feel loved. There’s a good episode of Friends that displays it perfectly: Monica is trying to get people to hang out at their apartment. She does everything: bakes, cleans, remodels. In the last scene, the gang finally comes back over to her apartment and she collapses in the chair after working tirelessly, and passes out saying “I’m the hostess, I’m the hostess.” Her friends are happy with their freshly baked cookies and everything looks homey and cozy. That’s me.
Following that feeling brought me back to food. With the weight of expectation off my shoulders , I let myself really discover who I was by doing what I loved. I love food. I love the feelings it gives people. I love the power it has to bring back to life those that have passed, those we’ve loved, and the times we shared with them around the table. Is there really anything as caring as a plate full of freshly baked cookies or a pie from a friend?
So here I am today, still chasing my gut. I know who I am now, for the most part. It took me years of parsing through the good, the bad, the painful, and the joyful to get here. Some days, I’m tired and exhausted and I may fail at being joyful, but my hope is that people will always know my love for them through the food I serve.
I hope you feel loved, I hope that you feel at home…and most importantly, I hope you feel full.