Zen Bread

I know it’s starting to feel more like home here because I’m baking bread.

The first few efforts were pretty measly, the one with the weird dinkel flour was too dry and the other loaves came out thin and flat. I’m working with different altitude, strange yeasts and foreign grains, but my substitutions and makeshift pans are starting to come together.

At least I have the desire to bake anyway.

People sometimes say that bread making is difficult. And they shy away from it because it seems intimidating. Like a little rise or fall is so scary. Of course it is, but to me it’s life. The thrill lies in not having absolute control of the process. The fun is in not knowing until the end.

Throughout my life bread baking has been witness to my sweet highs as well as the tough, low times.

I remember the tortoise-shaped loaf that Katherine proudly brought home from school in fourth grade. And also little Lewis in the kitchen: alternately enthralled with the sticky dough and then nearly having a tantrum and wanting it out from between his pudgy fingers a minute later. They used to love to “pat the baby’s bottom” before we tucked the big ball into the bowl with a warm cloth to rise.

And I remember my exhausted arms stretching out the yeasty sweetroll dough late on Christmas Eve when everyone was upstairs. And patting those sugary little mounds down to rest in the cool darkness at last. And then climbing the stairs for bed, anticipating the cinnamon aroma filling the house Christmas morning.

And the appreciative oohs and aahs at the table as the steamy aromatic basket was passed around.

The loaves baked for the neighbors, new parents and for friends going through a tough time. Usually I didn’t know what to say except to pass a hot brown bag into their doorway and slip back to my car.

And I loved baking the King’s Cake at Mardi Gras and tucking a tiny plastic infant into the dough and wondering who would get it this year (and worrying about melting and chemical poisoning).

Of course there were the angry loaves, pounded into submission after an argument with my husband or one of the kids. The dough absorbed the fury and somehow rose even higher. And later all of that forgotten except tearing off the chewy crust and savoring the moist molassesy goodness.

A few years ago there were the tears over the bread bowl as I looked out onto the driveway the morning that my son drove back to college.

And those batches that felt like the only positive thing I did all day.

And last August, the worst time of all, kneading furiously into my french bread the week before Mom died. The poor stiff dough took the brunt of my agonized grief, the frustration at my inability to change what was happening.

Through the years bread has absorbed my worry, my pain, my guilt, all of it. It has held the kernel of all of those goodbyes and a hiding place for my unspoken words and secret tears that were meant only for me.

But honestly, my loaves have very rarely ever failed to rise. I have always found bread dough to be the most forgiving substance of all.

A woman named Soleil taught me that when I was a girl. She showed me how to bake without a cookbook in a big messy kitchen in a commune where she lived with other “hippies” in a hollow outside Charleston.

I entered into it not knowing what to expect. But her spirit was so relaxed, so accepting that it was incredibly easy – stir together a little honey, a packet of yeast and then start playing around with the flour on the bread board.

It was such a joyful process and there weren’t any ways to go terribly wrong.  And the pride of seeing that whole wheat loaf rise and then come out of the oven so golden and fragrant. Well, I still don’t know anything better.

Bread baking as a spiritual practice is a familiar idea, spiritual communities have long histories of baking. When I was growing up, Edward Espe Brown, Buddhist teacher and author of The Tassajara Bread Book sparked my curiosity in Buddhism and baking. The simplicity of applying Eastern meditation to baking appealed to me.

And the grace in it allowed me to not care about messing up and making mistakes.

Years ago, Brown came to Durham and hosted a workshop at 9th Street Bakery. A small group of us gathered in the large commercial kitchen. Our teacher got elbow to elbow with us and with his soft voice and gentle movements, he guided us through the practice.

He’s a neat guy, old California style but not pretentious at all. He instructed us like a yoga class where we were encouraged to trust our intuition. Handling the dough was like stretching our bodies. Manipulating it was an extension of our mood and spirit. It was a deep connection that required confidence in the form.

And what I liked was that the form was simply in the intention and awareness brought to the task. Simple, but not without effort.

I watched as some of us struggled with sticky fingers plying off pieces that wouldn’t seem to hold together, the bothersome yuck. But Brown showed us a trick: scrape off every scrap with your fingernails, every tiny smidgen and stick it right back into the main dough. Don’t waste it.

No matter how dry or oily, fold it back in and it will become part of the smooth mass. Where I normally cast those bits off or ignored them on the side of the bowl, he told us to bring them into the center.

It will all come together, he said – just trust it.

We have to trust the yeast, the warmth, the golden honey, the fresh grains. And not over think or over knead. There is life inside that doesn’t need too much help, just gentle movements in the right direction.

I used to love baking for Mom, because no matter what that loaf looked like, she was always so impressed, so thrilled by the very fact of it. She thought that I was a miracle worker practically. For whatever reason she put it on a pedestal. And I always felt so gifted, so extraordinary in this one small way of creating something.

I baked a loaf of bread the night before Mom’s funeral and it was, without a doubt, the hardest one I’ve ever assembled. I’m sure performance anxiety played a part, but what I remember is being in her kitchen at her stove and knowing that the feeling was all wrong.

She wasn’t there. I was using her bowls and oven, but it wasn’t right. I wanted to bake but I didn’t. I felt the hole in my chest when I put on her crusty oven mitt and greased the pans and set the timer –  how many times had Mom done that?

But this was no miracle loaf from me to Mom. Because she was gone and there was absolutely no joy in it at all.

The next day we carried the bread up to the altar, but for me it had turned out dry and tasteless. It was a lousy loaf.

As Edward Espe Brown says, Zen baking is: feeling your way along in the dark.You might think it would be better to have more light, to know where you are going, and to get there in a hurry, but it is feeling your way along in the dark. Then you are careful and sensitive to what is happening.

For me, no matter where my kitchen is, every day is different, and every loaf is different. And each one is me simply feeling my way along in the dark.

Trying to be attentive. And trusting that what comes away from my hands and out of the oven is going to turn out to be something pretty wonderful.

3 thoughts on “Zen Bread

  1. Beth, baking bread was a part of my childhood, but I never thought of the process in this way. After reading your writing, I will forever see the baking of bread as a fuller experience in life.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your stories are a string of lights I remember and think about as the summer days unwind. I find myself sharing them with Rick or a close friend. They would make a beautiful short story book. I would be your first sale.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I just reread this writing, and the same writing melted my heart again, but in a different way. Maybe it is because there are different things going on in my life right at this moment, and the images formed from your writing are different images today, due to me being focused on different things than I was less than a month ago. I know I am using the word “different” over and over. I just do not have the words, but I am hoping you understand my meaning. Thank you, Beth.


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