Reposting an undergrad piece from 2007 on this quiet Easter morning. How the patterns of our lives do tend to come around and come around again. Linksmų Velykų dieną, y’all.
It is Saturday night. Outside, it’s snowing; in the kitchen, bread is rising.
Twice rising. Brioche and boule, for sunrise and sunset. The rituals of my childhood are coming back to me.
For a long time now, I’ve been disconnecting ritual from sustenance. First the ritual fell away, then sustenance itself, and I’ve just been marking time. I’m not sure when I quit making bread. Sometime, I’m sure, after it became grim necessity. Some say that domesticity is drudgery, slavery, and there’s no question whatsoever that it can be. But there’s a deeper truth, too, worth acknowledging. It is possible, at times, to transcend drudgery, to find grace in the smell of fresh laundry, a sparkling shelf of cooling preserves, or the quiet teeming life in a bowl of sourdough.
The ring of a timer. Turn on the oven, fill the glass bowl with water and place it on the lower shelf. Careful not to spill. Center the stone above it. Contemplate the symmetry – earth and water, fire and air.
Cross the room, lift the cloth, pinch the brioche. The sweet, sticky, eggy mixture smells like brewing mead, and is almost the same color – honey and yeast, warmth and light.
Do not look in on the boule. It’s bad luck to worry over it.
My grandmother did vigil every Easter. When I went to bed on Saturday night, she was in the church kitchen, boiling eggs and dressing roasts; while I was rubbing my eyes and tying my shoes in the dark, she was still there, taking sweet loaves out of the oven to cool in rows; and while my mother and I sat on folding chairs on the lawn, shivering and imaging the opening of the empty tomb, she was making coffee and mixing big pitchers of juice. At “He is risen,” she was carrying steam table trays to the big buffet table that ran almost the length of the fellowship hall. And after sunrise service was over, we’d all pile in and share a big, celebratory breakfast, congratulating each other on our early-morning fortitude, and – unspoken – breathing a big sigh of relief, a ghost of a deep-rooted, pagan gratitude for the passing of death over our houses this dark season past.
There’s a lavender blush along the bottom of the boule, from the blue cornmeal scattered on the peel. The blue meal is a local oddity.
Scatter flour across the top of the loaf. Slash the surface. Any other time I might do a scallop pattern, or checkerboard, but tonight, it’s a cross. Slide the loaf onto the stone, set the timer. Walk away.
I remember precisely the night I discovered I wasn’t suited to vigils. I was eleven, and I wanted to be a woman more than I could stand. Being a woman, to me, then, meant the camaraderie of these rituals, the places where men were denied entry. Later, I would find this camaraderie, for a while, in belly dance and Goddess worship.
I lasted until a little after midnight. The very young Sunday School teacher, the one who taught the toddler class, found a blanket and I crept into the sanctuary and slept on a pew, with the ghostly white cross and the starlight through the stained glass above me.
I have not been as devout as my grandmother. In the last few years, I’ve let far too much go altogether; there’s been too much making a living, not enough making a life. More recently, I’ve been working my way back home, finding a sense of self within a sense of family and place, trying to find meaning in the small passing acts of the day-to-day.
A month ago, I baked bread for the first time in – I don’t even know. A year, two maybe. I woke up.
The rhythm of my life has changed, that’s all. Bread is not a thing for lazy afternoons when babies are sleeping; it’s a thing for early mornings, rising while the coffee brews, and for late nights, cooling while I sleep for the next day’s nourishment. My life is stir-fry and and salad now, not slow-simmering sauces and roasts. No less rich; just different. The prayer hasn’t changed, only the liturgy.
The timer chimes. It is, by blessed coincidence, midnight just exactly.
The boule is golden under a layer of burnt umber flour, which shakes loose to reveal an ashen blush. It taps to a satisfyingly hollow ring; the crust is hard, and I know that by morning it will be chewy and perfect. It cools for five minutes exactly before I pop it into a bag, and slip that into the bread box to wait for tomorrow’s dinner. I don’t know what that will be – I wasn’t sure, when I started, why I even baked bread tonight, other than needing the bowl the dough was aging in for the brioche – but now I think it might be something light and cheerful, with plenty of green. I’m ready for spring.
The brioche has risen. It always does; it’s a miracle that you can count on, like the sun coming up in the morning, or the end of winter, or the passage of family traditions from the hands of one generation to another.
I check a few minutes later; what I’m waiting for has happened. The center has fallen in. I put it in the refrigerator, and go to bed. Tomorrow morning my daughter and I will make cinnamon rolls together.
I might set aside some sticky dough for hot cross buns.