Icing on the cake

I recently had a conversation with my 14 year old daughter, Maya.

She is an excellent student, a good friend to many, and works hard at everything she does. She came home from school the other day feeling frustrated that, despite getting straight A’s, she feels she is almost never recognized by her teachers for her effort or achievements.


I thought her report card was all the proof she should need, and told her how lucky students are to have such concrete feedback on how they are doing. So different from what we face in our professions, and SO different from what we get as a Mom or Dad (but especially a Mom — truly a thankless job!).

“Yes, but it would be nice to have teachers actually SAY ‘Great job’ sometimes, too,” she said in reply.

I thought about that for a minute, then quickly agreed how nice it is to have others recognize us for the things we work so hard at. Whether it is studying all night and getting a good grade on a test, or putting in extra effort on a class project, or practicing Fur Elise over and over until it is perfected…. recognition is always nice.

“But, I said, it is just the icing on the cake. The cake itself is made up of something that isn’t dependent on what others say or don’t say, do or don’t do. It’s from our own feeling of satisfaction with our effort, or the outcome of that effort. Just make sure you focus more on the cake than the icing.”


In a rare “A” for Mom (she is a teenager, after all!), this seemed to really sink in with Maya. Her sad face quickly changed to a look of quiet satisfaction, and then even morphed into the hint of a smile.

“Thanks, Mom. That makes perfect sense. I feel so much better.”

Well, that conversation really stuck with me, and not just because it was such a rare moment of Mommy Wisdom and positive feedback from my teenage daughter. It stuck with me because I started to think about cake, and Christmas, and then about Christmas Cake (stay with me here… my mind does meander a bit).

I lived in Japan for 3 years after college, and I’ll never forget my first Christmas there. It is not a national holiday in Japan, so I rode my bike to school where I taught English to middle school students in a suburb just north of Tokyo. I returned to my small apartment, where I had a 6 inch plastic Christmas tree as my sole decoration atop my tatami floors, then I joined the family who had taken pity on this “gaijin” from America.


We ate Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner, followed by “Christmas Cake”, followed by an evening of singing at a local Karaoke box (a private, enclosed room where members of a family or party can sing as loudly or horribly as they please, without upsetting innocent strangers.)



It was a far cry from what I was used to, but I was surrounded by a wonderful family who was trying to make me feel welcome and loved, and I was.

My conversation with Maya also also stuck with me because, especially during this hectic season of giving and doing, of crowded stores and long lines, of wish lists and check lists, it is easy for me to forget about the “cake”– the important part of this time of year.

Sure, we all want to find that perfect gift for our loved ones, and make sure our holiday cards get sent out on time and our packages mailed, but it is just as important to take the time to slow down the giving and doing, and just be.

To sit quietly, as I did for several hours a few evenings ago, listening to beautiful Christmas music and looking at the lights and decorations adorning my home. This happened to be just a few nights after the anniversary of the terrible events a few miles away in Newtown, and I cried thinking of the families with an empty seat at their table.


Unimaginable loss and heartbreak, which has been met by unimaginable courage and strength. I knew there was a massive outpouring of love to that entire community, not just because social media told me so, because I could literally feel it. It was like a quiet hum, a vibration that may have gone unnoticed if I hadn’t taken the time to just sit and be still.


Newtown’s mantra “Love Wins” reminds us to slow down and remember that, in the end, it wins because it is really all that matters. Underneath the ribbons and bows, inside the boxes and envelopes, and among the cookies and treats, there is love. It comes in so many forms, shapes and sizes. Some we recognize; others we don’t notice because we take them for granted.

Love — the meal we share with friends and family, punctuated by a prayer or a toast, laughter and stories.
Love — the reliable and trusted neighbor, who helps us dig out of blizzards or brings us a meal when we are sick.
Love — the warmth from someone who tries to make you feel welcome and at home, even when you are far from home.
Love — the unconditional, unwavering affection to and from our beloved pets.
Love — the hearts that go into creating spaces that bring, comfort, care, healing and hope to people’s lives.
Love — the random acts of kindness by complete strangers who pay for our coffee or meal at the drive-through.
Love — the cake that happens to be decorated with icing that comes in the form of presents and parties, activities and things.
Love — the still and quiet part of this season of doing.
Love — the light and warmth in all of us.


Wishing you peace and love this holiday, and with gratitude for all you do to show that love does win….



    1. Beautiful comments expressing joy in what we have and what we can still give. Great losses carve a deep hole in our hearts. We can fill that hole with self pity, bitterness and vengeful thoughts. Or we can take our grief and transform it into compassion and love.

    2. Amy Primorac
      December 19th

      Beautifully said, Carey. There is always room for more love, given unconditionally, without need for that icing….while the icing is always nice, it isn’t that which will sustain us. It is the love, always, the love. 🙂

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