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Life Lessons From Baking Bread

We’ve lost something. It slowly slipped through our fingers as we reached for other yearnings — more convenient projects, more distracting endeavors, and those instances that fill but don’t fulfill.

We’ve lost a connection to our food. Eating reminds us that we’re limited. We’re human. We’re not entirely as self-sustaining as we like to believe.

In my digitally saturated world I was desperate for a reminder of slow, of natural, and that what I really need isn’t more data storage but what I can make with my own two hands.

So, I set out to bake bread.

Three ingredients (roughly). Much patience. And deeper thoughts than I’ve had in a long while. In baking bread I didn’t just learn a new skill or recipe, I learned about life itself. Here’s what I mean.

Life is meant to be simple.

In ages past, food was a resource. It was something we grew ourselves, thanked the earth for and prized in an almost gem-like light. But now, food is a commodity. It’s something to consume without notice, cheaply farmed and rapidly produced.

Baking bread evokes the simplicity of cooking, the time involved and the energy required — if I’m not using it to nourish my body, then where am I using it? It also took my full attention. No multi-tasking while kneading. No scrolling while stirring. Yes, time is precious, but is the point of time to shrewdly spend it, or to see life unfolding within it?

Baking bread took a lot of time — perhaps more time than I was comfortable devoting. I needed to be all there, all senses engaged, my mind tracking on one thing. I discovered that instead of stressful, it was strangely the opposite.

Ingredients matter.

Flour is flour, right? On my first try baking bread I didn’t have enough cups of all-purpose flour on hand. I thought I could (rather haphazardly) sub in some self-rising flour and a cup of whole wheat. Feels the same, looks the same, makes the same, right?

Wrong. After painstakingly following one recipe down to the minute, I was left with a loaf that rose in the shape of a half moon, not the full boule of bread the recipe had promised. I was quick to blame the recipe, of course, instead of my own interpretation of its required dry ingredients, but after a few deep breaths I found some humility. Ok, maybe I don’t know everything up front. Maybe the whole point of learning (anything) is to first admit that I don’t know something. Not everything is open to my interpretation and maybe there’s a reason why certain things are specified over others.

In short, what I start with matters. Whether in the kitchen or out, the integrity with which I start something will almost always manifest in the final product. Thoughts are their own brand of ingredient, and similar to flour, if I half-heartedly mix a little doubt or pride in with a few others, those will take root. I need to begin wisely.

Mistakes are necessary.

See thought above. It’s amazing how conditioned I am to think that I can master anything on the first try. I’m smart. I read. So, let me in there to succeed on my own terms.

After my third failed attempt at a successful loaf of bread, forearms sore from kneading and clothes covered with flour, I had a thought. Maybe the point isn’t mastery here; maybe the point is to fail a few times — maybe it’s to fail a few dozen times to remember that not everything is immediate and I can’t equate worth with ease. Where else in life should I let myself embrace multiple tries? Even if it means I’ve wasted ingredients, spent a free afternoon with nothing to show for it, or end the day making a slice of store-bought toast, maybe I need to let things be hard before they become fun.

Because, truthfully, nobody cares if I bake bread. And it’s sobering to realize just how much I do seeking applause, seeking to be the expert on something that I really don’t want to put an expert’s level of time into. Trying gets me there. At least, it gets me one step closer than I was, and it opens up the possibility of seeing worth in a new way, appreciating how life doesn’t rise at the snap of a finger.

It’s way too simple, and satisfying, for that.

By Nicole Ziza Bauer