Kat DolanMarch 18, 2021
Tim Mossholder/Unsplash

In kitchens, there are always fresh culinary school graduates appearing at the front door because they don’t know yet that cooks come in through the back. They are eager and think they are prepared for what comes next. They know ciseler (to chop finely) from emincer (to slice finely), can list you the five mother sauces (béchamel, velouté, espagnole, hollandaise and tomate) and can even list some of their endless derivatives (Suprême, Demi-glace, Mornay, Soubise, Béarnaise, etc.). If they are overachievers, they will have studied some pastry and know the differing tempering points of chocolate or the varying gluten content of flours.

But while they may know about cooking, they know nothing about cooking professionally. This is, of course, the way of the world. School can give you the vocabulary for a profession, but fluency comes through actions performed day in and day out for years.

Last summer, for the first time in a very long time, I did not know what door to enter. After nearly a dozen years working throughout North America as a cook and pastry chef, I returned to my hometown for a job. I had met a young man and decided it was time to settle down and attempt to start a family. The 80-hour work weeks of restaurant life tend to inhibit such efforts. For this and many other reasons, in the fall of 2019, I left my career to return to school and complete my long abandoned bachelor’s degree. By June 2020, I had one semester left on a B.A. in psychology and a summer internship counseling at-risk adolescents.

I arrived the first day feeling unsure but lucky to have the opportunity despite the pandemic. Within moments, faculty and social workers quickly pushed past introductions to procedures. I attempted to keep up while not screwing up. By the second day, I was performing the six-month evaluations of students on my own.

At-risk is a vague term that I sometimes think could refer to any adolescent.

At-risk is a vague term that I sometimes think could refer to any adolescent. At the internship it referred to kids who lived with learning or developmental disorders, delinquency, drug abuse, custody issues, family violence, chemical imbalances, depression, bullying and everything in between. Such circumstances arise among people of every race and income status in America.

So it was to a varied and diverse student body that I was assigned to pose a series of incredibly personal county-approved questions: Who did they live with? Were they able to maintain the same address for over 12 months? Were they safe there? Was their drug usage consistent or escalating? What drugs were they using? Had they experienced thoughts of suicide or made attempts at suicide in the last six months? And so on.

As an outsider, I was universally disdained by the students. In one session, the student almost walked out when I asked if she liked living with her uncle. While biologically he was her uncle, he was the person who raised her. By not referring to him as her father, I had disrespected her.

I had entered a world where I did not speak the language. And yet the students and I had no option but to engage—I because I could not bear to fail within the first 36 hours, and the students because they needed to comply with these evaluations to remain enrolled in the program. It was exhausting and humiliating. But gradually—mostly because I showed up every day and was not a cop—they accepted my voice and presence into the rhythm and routine of their day.

I heard stories, from the financial fears of aging out of foster care to exhilaration about embarking on their first same-sex relationship to the hopes of owning a hair salon.

In the third week, there was a breakthrough. I made a birthday cake for a girl who did not get to celebrate her Sweet 16 with friends and family. I, romantically, like to think that with food I spoke to them in the language I knew, that was authentic to me, and this authenticity earned trust. Or maybe it was simply sugar coercion. Either way, bribery didn’t make the list of venial sins we memorized at age 9 for confession, so anything achieved by it must retain some grace.

This breaking of bread by means of cake seemed to dull their hypervigilance toward me. In the following weeks, I would hear stories that ranged from the financial fears of aging out of foster care to exhilaration about embarking on their first same-sex relationship to the hopes of owning a hair salon. In between begging them to focus because kickball was not for another hour and laughing from delight at the honesty of their humor, I listened.

•••

While my Hispanic mother and my father, a former Jesuit seminarian, decided to place my primary education in the hands of Episcopalians, that school’s daily chapel service was fortified with weekly religious education classes and Catholic Mass. The routine lessons of childhood catechism often maintain a perfunctory position in our consciousness. I certainly absorbed the phrases “Catholic charity” and “Jesuit tradition of service.” To work for the benefit of others was honorable and sanctified, but I am not sure I thought much about the conviction requisite to such efforts.

On one afternoon midway through the internship, a situation arose involving a former student. He was struggling with addiction, unemployed and facing homelessness. He was also difficult, unmotivated and, since he was an adult, had fewer available options. I cannot tell you the ultimate outcome for this young man because I do not know it. I only know that the counselor was still making an endless string of calls on his behalf when I took my doubts and went home for the day. I had begun to understand that successful mental health providers are a zealous tribe, and effort alone does not guarantee membership. Faith does.

The faith of the staff was unmitigated. And in their faith, many of these children will find salvation. I know this because it is how I found my own.

At any moment of the day, any member of staff could list all the reasons why a child would succeed, would be the exception, and they believed them. They believed in these children despite the fact that the odds were nearly impossible and the exceptions rare. Regardless of outcomes, the faith of the staff was unmitigated. And in their faith, many of these children will find salvation. I know this because it is how I found my own.

At 21, in the spring semester of my junior year, I left a prestigious East Coast Jesuit university for the second time due to a severe eating disorder—at least that is the most succinct summation. Eating disorders tend to be single hornets from a very large nest.

It feels simultaneously humiliating and self-aggrandizing to speak about personal trauma publicly, and bulimia and anorexia are subjects whose written treatment I disdain. The genre seems to alternate between memoirs that function as how-to manuals and romanticized odes to sacrificial martyrdom by the thin and beautiful. I occasionally stomach the aspects of the latter characterization, if only because there is a fine line between martyrdom and terrorism. An eating disorder is a sober, daily act of violence. To have an acute eating disorder is to be fluent in that annihilating violence, and it was in the resulting devastation that I would meet the woman who would become my therapist.

We only retain the stories people can bear to tell. We do not say out loud that healing is an act of horror.

Prior to my academic exit, in one of my theology courses, the professor pointed out that our collective image of Christ levitating while enrobed in an orb of light comes from the Ascension portraits of Renaissance art. Such images have become muddled in our minds with the Resurrection; but in the Bible, Christ dies and then is risen. What happens in between is never described in the Gospels. I have obsessed over this exclusion. How is it that the apotheosis of a faith system does not appear in Scripture? All I have come up with is that we only retain the stories people can bear to tell. We do not say out loud that healing is an act of horror. By transitioning from death to salvation, we avoid our terror of the pain that is an inescapable part of transformation, and we ignore the fact that miracles require a witness.

It is in this same way that we miss the work of therapy. My psychologist did not arrive as a savior in my life. She arrived at a crypt in anticipation of a distinct and certain miracle. She arrived a believer. Without Mary Magdalene choosing to ignore fear for faith, there is no good news to spread. I am alive because a woman spent years watching me emerge from the dead and refused to be afraid. I am alive because of a woman’s unrelenting faith.

There is a successive reflection about the power of nourishment and the camaraderie of discipleship forged in the barbarism of professional cooking, but it is not this one. Know that I spent years enrobed in the obsessive and laborious cocoon of kitchens, so when I did make the decision to return to university at 36, it was numbing to feel how quickly my identity slipped from my shoulders. Within a few weeks, a career I took over a decade to build was gone. No longer would a cadre of people call “Chef!” every time I entered a room. Instead, I spent my day sitting in the molded plastic chairs of my youth, but this time the students in the room were half my age. There are moments when it is critical you do not pause to consider the terrain, or doubt will loot all mobility. Instead of panicking about the unknown future, I went to the dean’s office to switch my major from Spanish to psychology.

My psychologist arrived a believer. I am alive because a woman spent years watching me emerge from the dead and refused to be afraid. 

The decision came from a simple place: I had known pain, and through psychology I had healed. I believed. It is a sentiment similar to evangelical pronouncements that through God you will be redeemed. But it is one thing to hear the word of the Lord and another thing entirely to go out and spread the Go Vspel.

This past summer I found inspiration in the audacity and tenacity of the adolescent heart. Every day I ached for the students to have access to resources that would make a difference. I worried endlessly for their future. But was my belief in them greater than my fear for them? I now constantly wonder about how our concern for those we love competes with our faith in them.

Trauma and pain should kill us, but mostly they do not. Instead, we loom our lives into a huipil of scars, each embroidered petal marking a miracle. An instance where we halted decay. The children I met during my internship have performed more miracles than most their age. In this my faith is fearless.

I completed my final semester in December. I am a recent college graduate in the résumé limbo that accompanies that status. At 37, I am searching for a new professional vernacular, a new tongue to speak an identity into existence. I do not know what will happen next. I know only that it will be informed by the lives of 13 teenagers I spent a summer with, the duty to bear witness and the grace of birthday cake.

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