Tag Archives: bread

A life that has new languages in it

the swallowed grain
takes you through the dreams
of another night,
the deer meat becomes hands
strong enough to work.
– from “Inside,” by Linda Hogan

Outside the birds are already waking up, even though the sun isn’t up yet. My body is sore from a weekend working in the garden — we  got ourselves connected and grounded and rooted over these long, warm days.

Write in the notebook, take care of the dog, get the day’s bread ready, work in the garden, be with the child. How is this not the work we’re supposed to be doing? All the rest is about making money to pay rent. All the rest is about living under capitalism.

When I work in the garden, I think about writing. I dig in this Oakland dirt and listen to the neighborhood kids play. I listen to the neighbor’s radios, their laughter and shouts. I listen to the dogs at other houses barking and playing. I listen to the birds playing deep in the middle of the trees. I watch the neighborhood squirrel as she peeks up over the top of the fence, waggling body and tail, waiting to see if the puppy’s going to run after her. I listen for bees, to see if they’re coming back. I listen for hummingbirds and hawks. I churn up the soil with the pitchfork and then I kneel down into the garden beds and dig my hands into ever clod of turned dirt, shaking out the roots of weeds before I toss the weeds into the compost bin. I make a rhythm out of it: push forward, hands under the cover of a blanket of earth, finger into the netting of weeds, pull back, break up the soil, shake loose the root system, clear out the bed. Back and forth.

On the porch, my sweetheart rests her eyes while listening to the Giants game on the radio, and I remember my father ‘watching’ baseball while he stretched out on the couch, taking a nap. Everything comes around again.

I listen to Erykah Badu, Raphael Saadiq, India.Arie while I plant the first part of this year’s garden: red onions, lettuce, zucchini, bush beans, snap peas, tomatoes, basil, eggplant, jalapeno, yarrow, gerber daises, dahlia, delphinium, calendula, butterfly weed — one bed I seeded only with red clover, to help the soil (and for the lovely flowers); we’ll turn that over later in the season if we want to plant more. I put in creeping thyme and a couple of other groundcovers around the stone path in the yard. Still to get in are a couple more flowers, watermelon and blueberries — I need to go collect some pine leaf mould to fold into the planting mixture for that last. I read this weekend about making our own fertilizer teas from grass clippings or seaweed, and thought about how to use what we already have to tend what we are growing.

And then, too, I baked: two more sourdoughs, and I’ve got the starter back out of the fridge now and working on the counter so that I can try and get it going with more local wild yeasts. The sourdough bread I’m making is tasty — round boules with a good crust and tight crumb, perfect for sandwiches and french toast — but not sour, so I’m playing around more with it. I talk with a man at my church who spent eight years baking at Esalen; he tells me about volume, and about practice.

What do I want to say about all of this?  I feel so grateful to get to do different work with my hands. This weekend, that work looked like gardening and breadwork and holding a child and holding my love. My hands remember that they are capable of sacred work. Then, this typing can begin again to feel sacred, too — less like a chore and more like pleasure. There’s something I’m trying to figure out how to explain, how to articulate — what it feels like in me to give over to the rhythm of an intimate togetherness that includes children, even if those children aren’t “mine.” A life that has words in it but isn’t only words. A life that also has room for other rhythms, other ways of being that aren’t just thinking about what it means to survive.

Gardening doesn’t force me into my body — gardening allows my body to be a part of a larger body, allows me to engage with a larger rhythm. Baking with wild yeasts allows me to accommodate another form of life: I learn to read new signs and languages — what do big vs. small bubbles in the starter mean? What will happen if we let the bread rise very slowly in the refrigerator? How will the bread work if we add different grains? In all this, too, my body learns to speak an older language again — the language of play and hard physical labor. The language of curiosity and delight: look at those bugs here; hey, what are those pigeons doing over on the neighbor’s roof; wait, why are there earthworms over in that part of the yard but not on this side? The language of stained fingers and dry skin that comes of digging hands deep into dirt over and over again. The language of recuperation. The language of tenderness.

The garden, the sourdough starter — these are live things, not unlike pets. They require attention, tending, awareness. Like an animal, they speak to me in a language I have to learn to understand — we build a relationship with one another. They teach me about other ways of living. They ask for water or food, and in return, they bubble and swell with bright and quiet beauty. They remind me that I need to get dirty if I really want to be in the full body of this life. And, too, like the puppy does, they pull me out of my head, out of this ever-churning wash of recriminations and worries. Just stop, the garden says. Come down here and pull out some weeds. Think bigger than your small worries. Think longer. Think months away, or years, Think about what will come of this little action, one seed in soil, add water and sun. Think about the cumulative effects of one small step, little bits of effort in the direction of beauty and joy, every day. Think about the aftermath of positive labor. Think about how far you have been allowed to come away from the girl who lived inside a too-white, too-quiet house in the middle of this country, how clean and painted she was, how plastic and silent. Think about the language the dirt speaks. Think about the soil under your fingernails. Think about what it means to be in ongoing communion with all sorts of life.

“as alive as any animal”

Yesterday, the poem asked: What do I do with my body if it’s not a secret? Today, the poem says:

This soup is alive as any animal,
and the yeast and cream and rye
will sing inside you after eating
for a long time.

– from “Bread Soup: An Old Icelandic Recipe” by Bill Holm

Today, I am anxious to get off the computer. I want to be in the garden. I want to read about sourdough starter, about cool vs. warm rises, I want to bring my second attempt at san francisco sourdough bread back up to temperature (it rose in the fridge overnight) so that I can put it in the oven and get breakfast going. I want to learn about soil textures and compositions, learn how to tell what nutrients the soil’s abundant in based on what weeds are growing there. I want to learn about soil amendments and natural fertilizers. I want to figure out the best way to grow watermelons here in Oakland so that a certain young man isn’t disappointed again this growing season. I want to go to the local organic nursery and pick out native plants and organic varietals that will thrive during this coming thirsty summer. Then I want to go to an urban recycling center to find a big bucket to catch shower water (while the water’s heating up, say) to help water the garden. And a bird feeder. And a top for the bird bath.

There’s a lot I want to do these days that doesn’t involve sitting in front of the computer — or even a notebook. The work I want right now is a different sort of bodily work. It’s whole body work. Kneading, digging, bending, planting, pulling work. It’s listening to longer rhythms than the immediate insistence of twitter of facebook will ever allow. It’s thinking ahead: ok, if I want this bread for dinner, tomorrow, then I have to start it now. Or : Ok, if I want to plant this weekend, then I better spend these weekday afternoons weeding and preparing the beds– and that means spending time outside working in the sun rather than hunched here over this little computer.

That is to say, the thinking these days looks less like, What do I need to do to grow my business?, and more like, What can I do today to grow a life?

This is a fairly significant shift in my thinking, needless to say.

There’s a book I love that I discovered while I was a Hedgebrook a couple of years ago — World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down, by Christian McEwen. (Sneak a peek up there at Amazon, and then buy a copy directly from the publisher here.) I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately (I’d flip through it again, but my copy has walked away from the Writing Ourselves Whole library — that happens sometimes) — McEwen describes how necessary it is for creative folks to slow down, feel our rhythms, be all the way in our lives. Through personal anecdotes and examples from hundreds of creative folks, McEwen makes the case for a slower — rather than fast and multitasky — creative life: she describes the artist’s need to wander (literally and figuratively), to have space for silence and dreams, to do one thing at a time, to have space for deep connection with others and room in our lives for alone time Not everyone will resonate with her arguments. I myself bought a copy of her book as soon as I returned from Hedgebrook and dipped into its pages whenever I needed to counter the voices in my head (not to mention all those business-coach types out there on the interwebs) clamoring at me to do more and go faster and do it all now now now now now.

So I am listening to that part of me that wants to do other work: the building a life work. And what I notice–as I give my attention to the people I love and the garden and tend to a puppy’s hurt foot and dig up oxalis out of the raised beds and make lists of plants I absolutely must get into the ground this year (so many more than will fit in this small yard, mind you)–is that I don’t have to force myself to write when I sit down to the notebook or this little computer: the words begin to percolate around the edges. They are fermenting in the deep and bready parts of me. They are finding their own slow rise back to into my fingers. They come again to be as alive as all these other animal parts of me. I feed the words in this slowing down, even as it looks, on the surface, like I am turning away from them. This is a good kind of creative parenting. This is making a life I can live in.

the garden and the breadbowl as teachers

Good morning, good morning. I’ve got the decaf with soymilk this morning and nothing can stop me — look out. The birds are making their insistent songs under and around the morning serenade of the garbage trucks. Thanks to the folks who collect the garbage, the folks who take away what we have decided can no longer be used. Thanks to those carry the scent of our waste on their clothes, on their skin. Thanks for doing that part of our dirty work.

…If I could not have made this garden beautiful
I wouldn’t understand your suffering,
nor care for each the same, inflamed way.
I would have to stay only like the bees,
beyond consciousness, beyond
self-reproach, fingers dug down hard
into stone, and growing nothing.
There is no end to ego,
with its museum of disappointments.
I want to take my neighbors into the garden
and show them: Here is consolation.
Here is your pity. Look how much seed it drops…
– from “Happiness,” by Paisley Rekdal

What are the things you do to come back into your body? What’s the work you do that brings you joy just in the very doing?

This morning I am sore, my back aches, my hands are rough and stained, and I am breathing more easily in my skin. I spent yesterday doing different work with my hands, and put my body out under the sun. I walked to the neighborhood natural foods store and bought the ingredients for detox teas and sprouts and bread, then came home and got my first batch of California sourdough bread rising. I’d got a starter going last week, and had refrigerated over the weekend — after bringing it back to room temperature, I pulled out a cup and used that for the dough. It took five hours for the first rise, but it rose! Beautiful. My last attempts at homemade sourdough (back in Maine) were so  pitiful that it has taken me ten years living here before I was willing to try again. (After the bread came out lovely, but not at all sour, I looked up some tips on the King Arthur flour website — they told me I ought to pitch that first cup of starter (give it away, use it to make something else), then feed the starter to get it working again, and use a cup of that starter for the bread. I’ll let you know what happens next time.)

When I wasn’t writing or working on an editing project or playing with bread dough, I was out in the garden, weeding. Not planting, not harvesting, but weeding. I cut back the pink ladies’ foliage so that other plants could breathe, and then I did some weeding in the raised beds, in the paths around the raised beds, around the newly-planted salvia and the just-beginning-to-spread mint shoots. (I know, I know, everyone warns me about the mint taking over, but in all the years I have been gardening, I’ve had sad and leggy mint plants that just sort of straggle around and look like they don’t really know what to do with themselves. I’d be beside myself to have a yard filled with mint.)  Weeding is one of my favorite things to do in the garden — so definitive and clear. This: out. The puppy follows me around with a ball in her mouth, monitoring my progress. I get to have the sun bake my shoulders and back, I get to listen to the bee song and the screams of the junior high kids from across the way, I get to smell the rich earth that reminds me what I’m made of.

Today I am supposed to be talking about writing groups as care for caregivers and partners of trauma survivors, and yet I am here in this place, caregiving myself. I am at a table covered with gardening books and making a list that already has 45+ plants on it that we want to get into the yard and garden this year (please note that this includes my sweetheart’s son’s requests for bacon flower and cocoa beans, however). Yesterday I took my hands off the keyboard and pushed them into dough, pushed them into the soil. My hands are stained with dirt that I can’t remove even after repeated scrubbings, my nails are torn and dirty: they look well-used and strong.

There is no use to tending this garden so diligently. We are in a rented place. Whatever money we put into the garden will ultimately go to waste, right? We’re developing someone else’s property. And yet, this weekend, we’ll go to to the neighborhood yard store and farmer’s market and find our new plantings. I’ll pull up the crabgrass and oxalis and bristly mallow and burweed and spotted spurge from around the stone path that someone else laid down in the lower part of the yard, and plant creeping thyme and corsican mint as groundcover there instead. I’ll plant hollyhock (for my mother and her mother) among someone else’s roses. I’ll plant daises and gerbers for my love. I’ll plant yarrow and echinacea and delphinium and calendula and globe amaranth for the butterflies and bees. And we’ll get the edibles in, too: watermelon (second try), onions, basil, tomato, cukes, bush beans, eggplants. Try it all again. When we move, none of this effort will be wasted. Every minute in the garden is a moment of phoenixing, of allowing something new to rise from fermentation and diligent, loving attention.

Yesterday I was writing about letting the new rhythm find me. Gardening and baking helps me to do this — they each have their own layers of rhythms, their own tides, their times of activity and their times of rest. They each will show you what they need if I learn to listen and pay close attention. So I am listening and paying close attention. I nurture the starter, I do a little weeding each day, I remember that what we tend to reveals what we love. What if we love ourselves enough to do what we love to do, even when that work seems (in the short term) to do no service to the greater social justice needs of the world? Tending the garden doesn’t change the world — though it does help my neighborhood, and it does bring beauty and goodness into the lives of those I love; kneading bread doesn’t undo rape culture — but it feeds a young man who is learning to navigate the complications of this world — and all of this work feeds this particular person who is finding a way toward some kind of new balance in this lifetime.

Thanks for reading. Thanks for doing the things you do that bring you joy, and that bring joy and beauty into the world.