At last, I continue this story! You can read Part 1 of my faith autobiography here.
This post is dedicated to my family, whose unconditional love and acceptance were breadcrumbs on my trail to God.
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Thirteen was the age I slid my first brown loaves out of the oven at three or four in the morning, well before anyone else woke. Like so many at that age, I loved the late-night dark, my time to be alone, to dream and ponder without interference from the diurnal world, with its rules and schedules and standards and judgments, anathema to my tender mind and body. I’d sneak into my room and slip my head onto the pillow at the first sounds of others stirring and sleep through my parents’ seething at my floury fingerprints all over the kitchen. But they’d also eat some of the bread, heavy and inexpert as it was.
What makes a thirteen-year-old want to bake bread? You’d think I might be imitating my mother, and in a way I was. I used her copy of Laurel’s Kitchen, which I never remember her opening, but which was nonetheless as tattered and cracked as my old copy of Harriet the Spy. Though she’d never baked us bread, she’d nourished us well in our childhood, not just with whole grains and carrot sticks but also with swimming lessons and library trips and freely given hugs.
But my mom had needs of her own, dark powers to wrestle, and they seemed to be winning. She’d spent the last few years in and out of rehab centers and mental hospitals, the rest of the family trying to hope for change and cope as best we knew how. I was wrestling myself with strange memories from the last few years. Long drives to distant treatment centers while my dad blasted bluegrass music in an effort to lift the mood. Cleaning the house spotless every time Mom returned home like a lucky charm that would keep her well. Calling an emergency line in the middle of the night when I found her strung out enough to try to vacuum up a broken glass she’d dropped on the floor, water and all. Since I’d left grade school, my parents had split up and gotten back together again, we had moved from rural desert to snowy city and back, and I didn’t know who to trust anymore.
My logic went like this. Fact one: Mom was tough. She hiked to the summits of mountains in her spare time, could hold her breath underwater like a dolphin and whistle through two fingers as loud as a drill sergeant, and once she lobbed a giant rock at a half-coyote dog who had nearly bitten my arm off. Fact two: Mom was lovable. She gently freed the spiders that sent us kids into tizzies of fear, all the while giving them a tiny voice: “I’m more afraid of you than you are of me! I just want to go outside, where I belong!” She coaxed me into letting her brush my matted, snarled hair by becoming “Miss Barbie,” my personal beauty consultant with a silky Southern drawl. Most of all, while she could and did get angry with me, I never feared her rejection. I knew there was absolutely nothing I could do to make her love me less.
If a woman like this could fall into shadow, how could I hope to survive? And who was I supposed to imitate, since my parents’ future terrified me? How to navigate from childhood to womanhood armed with only my own wits?
I went back to basics. I baked bread.
I found the process magical: waking up the yeast, kneading the pliant dough rhythmically with all my weight, punching it down and waiting for the slow rising. I could never see the rise happening, but nonetheless it did, the dough doming beautifully in the bowl the first time, then cresting over the edge of the bread pan the second time. Good old Laurel taught me to thump a loaf and listen for a hollow sound to test for doneness. Then I’d slice into it, maiming it horribly, watching the steam escape. I would eat half of it myself, just like a teenager, always hungry.
Of course, I couldn’t live by bread alone. (You knew that was coming, didn’t you?) My hunger for love and acceptance continued, but my family’s fragmentation and my lack of friends had given me a dark gift: the realization that the love of people was not enough to fill me. However, I wasn’t sure where else to look. I read fluffy self-help books and Ayn Rand, introductions to Zen and Wicca, and the entire nine-book Conversations with God series. I read a lot of Anne Lamott essays, stories of her recovery, the theme of redemption hammered home again and again. To me, all these were nothing but fairy tales, if addictive ones. I read a lot of other people’s ideas of transcendent reality, hoping if I squinted I’d see a sign, but I was always unconvinced, trapped as ever in my own prosaic world.
But I kept coming back to the bread, with its ritualistic instructions and the hours of silence it demanded, the hush of the midnight kitchen like a meditation hall as the dough rose unassumingly but unstoppably. Like the book of Esther, this chapter of my life didn’t allude to God by name, but God was there. Despite my shyness, awkwardness, and deep distrust of other human beings including my own parents, I longed to connect. For the first time, I wanted not just to be accepted but to somehow find a way to feed people, uplift them, renew them. Even then, I felt instinctively that bread was not meant to be hoarded but to become a gift of energy and life, to be blessed and broken and freely shared with all.