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November 1, 2019

Personal Growth in a Jar: a Messy Path to Transformation & Connection.

A year ago, just before Thanksgiving, our dear friend Linda handed over a small jar filled with a nondescript white paste.

She assured me it was “the good stuff.”

It was a sourdough starter.

Linda had cultivated it in her earthen-tiled kitchen, where log beams radiate the quiet strength of the forest many miles away. A wild mix of unseen organisms had turned carbohydrate sludge into the stuff dreams are made of. That is, if your dreams are about crusty, tangy loaves waiting to be crudely sliced and slathered with nut butter and jam.

And so began a new practice. A daily routine of feeding the starter, giving it a little flour and water. Faint bubbles of early growth gave way to a burping mass as the jar filled. Then, it was time to make the bread.

I made the first loaf on Thanksgiving. Although our household thrives on whole grains, this loaf was for a dinner party. I employed a good mass of all-purpose flour. As with holiday conversations with relatives, it is good to keep things light. I followed the recipe to a tee, right down to three quick slashes across the top. It wasn’t perfect like the loaf pictured in the recipe, but it held its own against the fluffy dinner rolls at the party.

I was hooked.

I have spent the weeks and months since then making hundreds of loaves. If I were to pick three things from the last year that have been the most transformative in my life, they would be starting and keeping a journal, taking the writing course I now find myself in, and baking sourdough bread. But if you make me choose just one, I am going to have to go with the bread.

In my life, sourdough bread is about commitment, mindfulness, meditation, love, and devotion.

I commit to the practice of tending the microbiome that toils away on my counter. If I fail in my task, Sweet Lovely will die. Yes, that is the name of our starter.

I mindfully choose the ingredients for the bread. I choose ingredients that are organic, tasty, and nourishing, like rye flour and crunchy buckwheat groats, golden flaxseeds and raw walnuts, and dried cherries slightly reminiscent of pipe tobacco.

I made an early decision to forego measuring to get a feel for what works or does not, and open myself to the surprises that come with this risky approach. My loaves have run the gamut from perfect golden boules to angry, split Pac-Man shapes, a perfect crumb to a holey mess. In less enlightened times, I was known to toss botched dishes onto the front lawn. As my practice continues, I feel less and less attached. Another loaf will come, and with it an opportunity to do better.

In recent years, I have been bombarded with well-intended advice to meditate. I think I did a body scan meditation—once. I have, however, found that kneading dough is highly meditative. Sprinkling silky flour across the sticky dough and counter, kneading, folding, feeling, and repeating until the dough has the smooth elasticity of a lover’s earlobe.

Most of my loaves are shared with one customer, my wife. To her, breakfast is not complete without toast and coffee. She has, in fact, driven a hundred miles for fresh, whole grain, organic sourdough, so my bread is love. Enjoying it is mutual devotion. We share the bread in the morning when the rest of the world has not yet awakened. It is toasted with care and covered in smears of jam from the wild berries we picked together in the height of summer. Leaving no one out, we reserve a choice morsel on our plates for each of our old rescue mutts, Dusty and Simba.

Baking sourdough bread has helped me to understand more about connection.

When we grind our own grains or use other whole ingredients, the choice is much more impactful. We connect to a chain that directly influences what happens to the earth. We can help shape the very soil that provides the miraculous seeds in the palms of our hands. At the same time, we can ensure the food will sustain body, mind, and spirit.

Above all, we are connecting to both ourselves and those around us. Give a fresh loaf of homemade bread to almost anyone, and it will be heartfelt. Even if you laugh and warn them that it may best serve as a doorstop, the sentiment is clear: I made this, for you. I care, and you matter to me.

That is the very essence of Thanksgiving.

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