Here’s an essay that was originally published in LILIPOH. It’s also included in a new edition of my little book Simply Sourdough, which is now being printed and sold by the Waldorf Early Chidhood Association of North America. I’ve turned over all the profits to WECAN in appreciation of their important work on behalf of children everywhere. Click here to learn more, and check out their many other wonderful offerings as well!
For a long time, bread scared me. Not the plastic-wrapped loaves I found on the grocery store shelves, but the idea of making this most elemental food myself, in my own kitchen. I was a late learner when it came to cooking, spending years heating up jarred spaghetti sauce or chicken noodle soup and calling it dinner. Even after I had mastered marinara and made my own stock from scratch, though, I still couldn’t imagine baking a loaf of bread. Wasn’t yeast terribly temperamental? What if I made it too warm or too cold? How would I know how long to knead the dough? What if I spent all that time and energy and ended up with a brick, or a pancake?
When I finally got my hands into a lump of dough, I had my first inkling that this bread business might not be so terrifying after all. As I took a turn at kneading a loaf made by a friend, I remember thinking “So this is what it feels like.” Just a few minutes of experience wiped out years of what-ifs. Finally I was ready to try, my fears conquered by the fascination of a substance so mysteriously capable of transforming itself.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a good thing I was getting some practice at transformation. I was pregnant with my first child, and about to enter into a whole new realm of experience that held no room for “what-ifs.”
A bowl on the counter holds a strange, spongy substance. From small amounts of flour, water, and yeast, combined and left to rest, this bubbly goo has arisen overnight. I add more water, yeast, and flour, and turn the contents of the bowl out onto the counter. I plunge my hands into the sticky mess.
The first weeks and months after the birth of my son were not easy. I was not ready for the terrifying responsbility of an infant, a helpless, voiceless creature who depended on me for his every need. My safe, predictable life was shattered, dissolved into a mess made up of my own feelings of inadequacy. Not yet knowing how to read my son’s signals, suddenly bereft of the security of words, I was frequently to be found sobbing, “I don’t know what to do!”
Slowly, I learned that it didn’t matter that I didn’t know what to do. I had to do something, and pay attention, and try again. My baby continued to survive my incompetence, and something wonderful even began to happen. A person was being born.
Pressing, turning, and folding, gradually adding more flour, I work through every bit of the damp, slimy mass. For a long time it doesn’t change much. Only once my hands are getting tired does a subtle difference begin to be felt. Pressing on, I feel the dough coming together, becoming a unity. Where it had yielded helplessly to my fingers, now it begins to press back.
With all our focus on the dramatic, miraculous moment of physical birth, we forget that birth doesn’t happen at one point in time. It unfolds through many stages as the individual who wishes to inhabit a tiny newborn body takes hold of it more and more, learning to stand, to speak, to say “I am here.” There are countless births as a child begins to become himself or herself, pressing back against the world.
At first my son did not press back very hard. According to charts and diagrams, he was late in holding up his head, rolling over, crawling. In doctor’s offices and therapy sessions I was introduced to dismaying terms like “extreme head lag” and “low tone.” I saw my child being made into a statistic — specialists debated, as if it really mattered, whether his delay was twenty-five or thirty percent. They pushed and pulled at his tiny body, poking and prodding, without visible results.
I heard voices that wanted to make me anxious and unsure, and that once I would have been all too willing to listen to. But something told me that there was nothing to be gained by anxiety, nothing to do but wait. I waited.
I form the dough, now smooth and elastic, into a ball and place it in a large bowl. Covering it with a damp cloth, I set it aside in a quiet, warm place. A couple of hours later, I uncover the bowl and find the dough has grown and changed. It no longer presses back against my finger, but is receptive and relaxed, ready to take on a new shape.
At around seven months old, Brendan’s first tooth appeared. Shortly thereafter, he rolled over for the first time. From then on, his progress was steady: pulling up, sitting, crawling. He spent a long time trolling the edges of the room, holding on to the furniture. But having seen what had already happened, I knew this was no cause for concern. He was taking his time, and whatever time it took was right.
I shape the dough into a firm ball and again set it aside to grow and change. When it once more accepts the imprint of a finger, it is ready to go into the oven for a final, dramatic metamorphosis.
When Brendan took his first steps, he fell down — but he was laughing in delight. It wasn’t long before he was walking, not to mention running, galloping and climbing. The wisdom within him had brought about this miracle, without any instruction. And as I witnessed this, something in me had also changed. I had found that for all my preoccupation with my own accomplishments, there is something else that needs to come not from me but through me, that asks not only for hard work but also for holding back.
The baker does not create a loaf of bread. She brings together substances, supplies the strength of her hands, creates a warm and stable environment, and watches for the right moment to introduce something new. But without the invisible activity within the dough, all that work would be in vain. To be truly aware of this cannot but call forth our awe and gratitude.
The bread is done, the loaf golden and fragrant. We break it with thanks, and all the work, time, and energy it has consumed becomes part of us again, part of the cycle of life. The will to create gives rise to the capacity to create, endlessly.
I learned something from baking bread about how to be a mother, but the process went the other way too. Before I had Brendan, I tended to bake infrequently and hesitantly, fearing mistakes, needing recipes. Since having him, I have baked more and more often — about once a week now. It hasn’t always turned out as I would wish. There have been shapeless loaves and tasteless loaves, batches of dough that wouldn’t rise and batches that overflowed the pan.
But if falling down can be the funniest joke in the world, then I can take my own mistakes more lightly. I’ve learned to feel into the dough, its varying temperament and needs, with more confidence in my own judgment and less dependence on others’ opinions. I’ve learned to let go of words, when they get in the way of seeing what is before my eyes.
And so I have come to understand how some of the most mundane things in life can become touchstones for the sacred. Patience and presence, rhythm and rest — these are the gifts of baking day, and every day.
From Simply Sourdough, second edition – available from WECAN