Hi, loves. 🌿
There’s an hour at our house that’s a bit of a pick-your-own-adventure free-for-all. It takes place sometime after all the child-tasks are done—reading together, PJs, teeth—and the adult night begins: these days, a second viewing of, ironically enough, The Americans. (We are back on Season 5, which means we started this long before the current state of the world. Let’s just say the nuclear attack episode was more frightening this time around.)
Anyway, this hour-ish takes place when the kid is reading with a glass of ice in her bed (?), my husband is usually working, and I am…fumbling around. Sometimes I head right for the bath, sometimes I read or get some work done, sometimes I doom-scroll. It’s the hour in which hope is still present: I could read many, many chapters! I could watch some guilty pleasure TV before we return to Elizabeth and Philip and Stan! Instead, the other night I had this overwhelming urge to bake, so at 8:15pm, I pulled out Baking with Dorie and looked for the least complicated recipe.
Yes, I know, I’ve lost many of you. Baking by choice, at night? No, no, no. But, well, yes. It had been a long day, I had so many other fucking things To Do Right Now, I wanted the day to be over. But let me tell you: when our apartment started to smell like warm cardamom and lemon and espresso and butter and sugar, I felt a whole hell of a lot better about at least a few things.
My point is not that anyone should start defrosting butter when she could be in the bath with a candle, for crying out loud, but I had a voice at the back of my head niggling at me. It was Cecile Richards’, from an interview she did with Julia Turshen during the insanity of the Trump years. They were talking about whether it was trivial to talk about baking pie (or actually, you know, baking the pie) when children were being separated from their parents at the border, when immigrants were being denied entry, when women were losing the right to choose. When the world, like now, felt on the brink of collapse.
We’re all human beings, Richards said. We have to live through this period. I think it’s really important that we retain our humanity.
She was talking about this in the context of what it meant to be an activist in a time of crisis. Activists, she wanted us to know, aren’t just people who march and call their congress members and knock doors. They raise kids, have families, they love, they cook. This, she insisted, was common ground for us all. It’s what allows us to see each other as whole human beings. Even when things are hard—especially when things are hard—we cannot lose touch with that fundamental truth.
I have found that some of my most satisfying moments over the last few years have involved feeding others. I don’t say happiest moments because although baking brings me tremendous joy, it’s subtler and more profound than happiness. It steadies me and opens my heart a little and keeps me from spinning out (it’s hard to doom-scroll with hands covered in dough). It straddles the space between useful—what Marge Piercy writes of in my favorite poem of hers, “To be of use”—and totally useless (a cake is not the first priority in a war zone).
I imagine it does just was Cecile Richards is talking about: it connects me with my humanity. To my senses. To love. To generosity. To sweetness. All the things I want to bring to the world and so often fail to. A cake can’t catalogue all my mistakes, all my rage, all my ineptitude—in my career, my marriage, my parenting, my friendships, all my daily foibles. The cake simply rises and rises and appears, ready to be cut into, sweet on the tongue.
Sometimes I think my simplest, most conflict-free relationship over these last absurd years has been with our neighbor, Jay. Many nights a week I offer him part of our dinner, small plates of pasta or meatballs. I often bake just for him—my family doesn’t love sweets the way I do (quelle horreur, truly), and he loves almost everything and lets me know (“best cookies yet!”). Every Friday he gets a huge chunk of homemade challah. In exchange he tells me where to purchase new toilets, how to change our locks, how to fix our broken dishwasher. We share our particular skills, which, thankfully, don’t overlap at all. But something inside me feels better, more human, more humane, when I share our bounty with him. I’m sure all he does to help us makes him feel of use, too.
But it’s more than that, and I think the more is connected to some of the ideas Jenny Odell touches on in How to do Nothing. There’s satisfaction in doing something for its own sake, not for capitalist gain, or productivity, or attention, or even obligation. There is never a reason to make shortbread at 8:15pm when your kid is still awake and you’ve (no joke) forgotten to tuck her in; when your husband won’t eat it and it’s no one’s birthday and no one has asked for it (no one asked, believe me). In a world moving so fast, in a time when we look to clicks and algorithms and likes, something that resists all that—that serves no purpose, that garners no applause, that can’t be quantified or justified—just feels…better. It makes me feel less adrift, less like my Instagram handle might float off into the ether without my soul or body attached.
Maybe some of the reason so many of us started baking bread during the pandemic wasn’t so much because we had time, or we wanted to learn a new skill, or craved the satisfaction of making something, or because we were home and sourdough needs so many endless folds, but because we wanted to survive. We wanted to nourish ourselves and others when we could do so little else. Perhaps that nourishment would keep us going for another week, another month.
This has become particularly stark in the face of the terrorizing images coming out of Ukraine. Making bread, which often takes days, was—always is, always will be—another act of faith: tomorrow will come.
In honor of today’s topic, I’m sending 20% of Patreon profits this month to World Central Kitchen.
Sunday’s Intro to Creative Writing class was a total joy. Come for the last Sunday class of the spring, on April 24th, before I open up my Secret Summer School. (There won’t be any more classes until September so this is your chance to jump in!)
ALL THE THINGS
“Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill Will Hurt Teens Like Me.” (And more about what this barbaric, repulsive bill means.) “The Grown-Ups are Losing It.” “What a Miscarriage Looks Like” (gorgeous and heart-wrenching — graphic photos). My brain is quite rattled (familiar?) but I am happily toggling between Jenny Odell’s aforementioned How to Do Nothing, Grant Ginder’s The People We Hate at the Wedding and Catherine Price’s The Power of Fun. I loved this series of conversations with Elizabeth Gilbert about quitting on Quitted. Have had this song on repeat.