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On Feeding the Spirit
A few years ago, I joined roughly 150 other people —- writers, poets, clergy, students, scientists, Buddhist thinkers, Mennonite peace-makers — at a gathering hosted by Krista Tippett and the On Being team. After losing my father in a violent accident, after losing my cousin to suicide, after suffering a profound estrangement from the people who had formed my tribe, after becoming the primary caregiver for an acutely mentally ill elderly parent with whom I had no good relationship —- after all of this unfolded in the course of less than ten years, I had come to a place of pivot: I was either going to live, in the fullest sense of the word, or I was not. I say this with neither sentimentality nor cynicism, nor do I write this because I’m particularly maudlin. But a wise therapist told me You survived for a reason, and very slowly and with great trepidation, I began to rebuild my spiritual and emotional life with words and art and action instead of dogma, and the archives of wisdom that I found on On Being. Moved to write a note of thanks to the executive producer back in 2013, I received a response: we are your tribe.
I came upon On Being in its original iteration —- Speaking of Faith —- one very early Sunday morning in the early 2000s shortly after sunrise, while I was driving from northern Connecticut back to Long Island to attend to the business of my father’s estate. Months earlier, he had been in his car with his longtime companion, when they were T-boned by a bunch of kids in a rusted-out Corolla. For a week, he lived in the gray area between life and death —- a Bardo of sorts —- until I had to make the decision to remove him from life support. I was expressly told by some family members not to grieve because, when their father died, they, as they put it, hadn’t had the luxury of grief. My foundation began to quiver and crack: the depth of my loss was unfathomable, incalculable. I had lost the man who had been my bedrock; I had also lost the people who were my tether to that bedrock. And so, on that early Sunday morning, making the almost three hour trip back to New York, I turned on the radio and for the first time listened to Krista Tippett in conversation with Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Raised in a secular Jewish home, I searched for reasons why all of this had happened, and looked for a roadmap through this desert —- Dante’s forest dark —- that I’d found myself wandering around. I pulled my car off the road to scribble down Rabbi Sacks’s words: grief must be heard.
I pulled my car off the road to scribble down Rabbi Sacks’s words:
grief must be heard.
Almost everything I have created from that time to this is threaded to some degree with grief and what it means, and the power it has to nurture us if we let it: in three books, hundreds of essays, thousands of hours of teaching memoir and speaking publicly, this has been at core for me. It has always been there in table stories about keeping ancestors with us by cooking their food. Years have gone by and I am no longer actually trying to unravel grief, or to make sense of it; I am trying instead to bind us to each other with the knowledge that grief, like food, feeds us, sustains us, connects us to the past and the future, no matter who we are or how we practice. And yet: it terrifies us. We are told to hide it, to conceal it, to ignore it, to give it a time limit. We protect those around us who we fear won’t survive it. Some consider it a luxury. Grief can be personal, and grief can be epigenetic. But grief is part of the critical yeast that actually nurtures us and forces growth and connection at the most human of levels.
Which people, “would have a capacity, if they were mixed and held together, to make things grow, exponentially, beyond their numbers?” (pg. 91, The Moral Imagination)
I oversimplify the concept, certainly. But when I think of critical yeast, I think of that which makes the human spirit and heart grow, evolve, connect and expand exponentially, beyond its container. Who are those who do this, who bring people together rather than push them apart? What and who fosters the safety of the environment? What enables us to forgive each other for our most egregious acts?
What will make us grow, and what will feed our hearts? Joy does, as does humor and love and beauty. But grief does, too, as the critical yeast it is. We need to start acknowledging it this way: as crucial, and perhaps —- ironically—-life-giving.
A Bloomer Loaf
I have been cooking for a long time, and without fail, I am always astonished at what yeast actually does: it grows, it expands, it feeds. During Covid, I wrote about bread for Lion’s Roar, and included a recipe for this loaf, which broke me of the belief that yeasted breads were terrifying to make.
Originally published by the late British food writer Elizabeth David and then adapted by the late American novelist/food writer, Laurie Colwin in her essay collection, Home Cooking, a bloomer loaf is a wonderful bread to learn on. It’s extremely forgiving and not at all cranky, it can sit for short or longer periods of time (much like me, in meditation) and is therefore ideal for busy lay schedules. The result is a baton-shaped loaf, slashed diagonally across its top. It makes wonderful toast — rub a hot slice of Bloomer bread with a raw clove of garlic and drizzle it with olive oil and pinch of flakey salt — and will fill your kitchen with mouthwatering aromas.
Makes 1 loaf
1-1/2 cups unbleached white flour, plus more for dusting
1-1/2 cups stone ground whole wheat flour
¾ cup whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon corn meal
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon dry yeast
1-1/2 cups warm water (or 1-1/2 cups milk, or a combination of the two)
In a large bowl, mix together the flours, corn meal, and salt, and set aside.
Mix the yeast into the liquid, and let rest for five minutes, until it begins to bloom.
Make a well in the center of the flours, and pour in the liquid, blending it well. The dough should begin to come together, and should be neither overly sticky nor dry; if it is too sticky, sprinkle in a little additional flour, a teaspoon at a time.
Turn the dough out onto a floured cutting board, and knead it well for eight minutes, pushing and pulling it, folding the ends over each other, turning it ninety degrees, and repeating. Roll it in flour, place it in a warm bowl, cover it lightly with a clean linen kitchen table, put it aside, and let it rest and rise for a few hours.
Turn it out onto a floured board, punch the dough down, knead it for another five minutes, shape it into a baton (or a baguette), slash the top with four diagonal cuts, brush with a little water, and let it rest again for ten minutes.
While the dough is resting, preheat your oven to 450 degrees F. Place the dough on a lightly oiled baking sheet or a pizza stone, and bake for half an hour. Reduce the heat to 425 degrees F and continue to bake for another twenty minutes. The finished bread should have a hollow thunking sound when tapped on its bottom.
Let the loaf cool on a rack, before serving with softened sweet butter, and a small bowl of flakey sea salt.