on bread

Today I’m doing a new thing: baking bread. Yeast bread. With kneading and rising and shaping and baking. And I’m surprisingly emotional about it. Or maybe it isn’t so surprising.

I love baking. It delights me. Cookies, cakes, muffins. A few weeks ago I made a carrot cake that was, if I may say so myself, damn near perfection. Moist and sticky with a good balance of spice and sweet. Every element came together, but what most delighted me was that my friends loved it. They were effusive. I glowed.

Baking isn’t really something I grew up loving to do. I have memories of baking muffins with my mom and cookies with my aunt. Baking was a thing you did to get the sweet treat eventually. It was merely a means to an end.

But as an adult, once I was living on my own and cooking for myself, I realized how much I enjoyed the magic of putting ingredients in a bowl, mixing them together, throwing them in the oven, and discovering that they did turn out. Sure, some things haven’t worked. There was a disastrous pineapple upside-down cake that didn’t actually cake. That sucker haunted me until I managed this past year to make a lovely one. Baking is predictable and not at the same time. I appreciate that.

There are certain things that intimidate me in baking. Pie crusts did, until my husband suggested I just make one. Turns out, they were merely theoretically challenging. In reality, pie crusts are pretty simple. Bread is the other one. The process seems so time-consuming; the elements, so temperamental. And yet, bread is one of the most basic foods we eat. It sustains and nourishes. We break bread with friends and neighbors, with family and acquaintances, even sometimes with enemies. We break bread to celebrate and commiserate. In breaking bread, the quotidian becomes the sacramental.

No wonder I’m intimidated. Bread isn’t just bread; it’s life.

I’ve known for a while that bread baking was something I needed to do. Not like I need to do laundry or grow a business or pay bills. No, it’s deeper than that. Last year I wrote about trusting “the slow work of God.” This feels like that: a call to trust God is working slowly. And I’ve approached bread slowly. The process to making my first real loaf of bread has taken about a year.

Patrick and I really enjoy watching The Great British Bake-Off. It’s a competition show where people are nice to each other and you learn things and the contestants are pretty reasonable. I mean, can you imagine a competition show in America where the loser says, “Well, it just wasn’t my weekend. Best of luck to the others in the tent”? No, because it doesn’t exist. Watching this show has given me the courage to think maybe I could make bread and it might turn out. Perhaps. And it’s been a therapeutic show to watch. As a friend of ours has said, “When so much is happening in the world around us that’s stressful, it’s nice to spend an hour watching a show where the most stressful thing is whether the dough will rise properly.” Agreed.

So the nudge to bread began. And then Patrick gave me The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum for Christmas last year. It’s been on our cookbook shelf since then, just waiting. I knew I’d get there eventually. I knew it would wait for me. And then on Sunday I finally picked it up and began reading. The time felt right. The leaves are beginning to change colors, and autumn seems like the perfect time to start baking bread. It is a slower season, a gentler season. This is the first time in several years that I’ve been able to settle into this changing of seasons with some semblance of calm. In 2015, Patrick and I were getting ready for our October wedding; it wasn’t chaotic, but it wasn’t slow. In 2016, I had spent the summer in a heightened state of anxiety and was beginning anti-anxiety medication again. I grasped at the cooler temperatures and dreaded the heavy blanket of snow that would no doubt cover us that winter. As the medication did its work, I began to breathe again, only to be hit in the spring of 2017 with Ryan’s suicide. That following fall was marked by navigating grief again and losing my job. You know, little things.

And so it is that this year I’m looking at the turning leaves and milder temperatures and thinking of peacefulness. There is much to be concerned about these days. Midterm elections are coming, and good results (i.e., a Blue Wave) aren’t a sure thing. Children are still separated from their parents. A hurricane will soon make landfall on the east coast, and this administration has an abysmal record on disaster response. We’ve got a Supreme Court nominee who thinks Roe should be overturned and Obergefell isn’t settled and is backed by the NRA. The Catholic Church is a mess with accusations of who knew what when and where, but at the center of this crisis are people whose lives were utterly destroyed by men in power. A pope who has been articulate and passionate and challenging and forthright is choosing a path of silence when what would go a long way toward healing are a few well-chosen words.

In the midst of this, I feel the need to find center, to do what slows and steadies. In the midst of this, I feel the need to create something sacramental with my own hands, to participate yet again in the slow work of God.

And here I am. Waiting for the first rise on my cinnamon bread loaf.