On Sourdough Starts

Do you remember when we used to fill our weekends with so many activities that we felt like we needed an extra day just to recover from Saturday and Sunday?

Now, we walk twice a day to visit three horses that live on the outskirt of our neighborhood. We could bike or drive, but walking takes up more of the unfilled hours.

My toddler only has animals as friends now. Maybe that is all any of us have. He calls out a greeting to each horse, sometimes a reprimand for not coming close enough to his liking. They’ve worked up enough mutual trust that when he extends a shaky hand, they gently await the pat-pat on their noses. Around the corner from the horses is a goat who munches on a plastic lid just far enough away from the fence that I can’t snatch it from him. So we watch. Concerned but intrigued, judgemental, and guilty. I Google “goat is eating plastic” to see if I should go find the owner. Then I think through the logistics of knocking on a door amidst a pandemic, just to announce that the remnants of a Happy Meal have blown into their yard. It’s just us and the animals now.

At first, it seemed like we had more than just four-legged creatures on our side. At first, it seemed like all of humanity was building mutual trust. There were neighbors helping neighbors. There was good around every corner. Now we wind the streets back home, feeling helpless about goats and hopeless about people.

My husband takes all of his uncertainty with the world and fuses it together in the form of lumber and nails. He creates a new, beautiful shed where an old, rusty one used to stand. He plans a sequence of neatly packed projects, next comes a greenhouse off the shed. He plants fruits and vegetables and delights in the promise that each one makes with the earth. If you stay still, I’ll grow.

Instead, the earth moves in ways we’ve never experienced before. At first, we think it is the dryer, off-kilter, and calling out for help. The waves keep coming and there is no ocean anywhere near us. I look outside to see my child stacking a woodpile, and I can’t understand how she is balancing logs when the earth is heaving. I don’t have enough arms to gather all my children during an emergency. The lights rattle for hours and our nerves rattle even longer. Even our ground can’t find stability.

Time no longer moves in the same way. It isn’t Monday because we go back to work. It is just the day I attempt to make homemade bagels. I track lengths of time from before my sourdough starter and after. Morning is when I feed it. The afternoon is when I measure it. Nighttime is when I worry that it will never survive. I read an article that says sourdough starter will take on characteristics of your home. Certain spices you frequently use, the humidity level, the amount of salt in the air. I imagine my sourdough starter finds us lackluster and isn’t cooperating out of spite.

It was around the time my sister got sick that I started baking. My husband and I fought over who would go live with her for two weeks if things got bad. He championed his lungs against mine. I brought up the recent track record of our immune systems. There was no winner, and no real solution, so I thought I should probably make cinnamon rolls. We used to make them with my mother, and although I often proclaim I hate baking, I watched like a child again as yeast produced the best magic I’d ever seen. The recipe told me to use a serrated knife to cut the rolls, but I instinctively started rifling through the craft closet for some string. The string is cinched through the dough precisely, without unnecessarily squeezing out the contents of the rolls.

A friend asks if this time reminds me of my childhood. It does, in its simplicity. It doesn’t, in its anxiety. It makes me think of my mother. I’m reading recipes, meal planning, and trying to make something from very little in every corner of our life. Soak the beans. Freeze the leftovers. Smile when you want to yell. Cry in the closet when nobody is watching. Pretend that everything is fine.

I don’t know what to do with the teen and pre-teen. Every motivation has been stripped from them. The minutes and the uncertainty drag on longer than we ever knew was possible. So we walk the long walks to see the animals, and we look to the magic of yeast on a daily basis. After the cinnamon rolls came the orange rolls, both of which I made by myself. Then came the lemon. I convinced my daughter to help me. I called out instructions from across the room. Lemon zest lifted our spirits, and we even found ourselves laughing at times. When the dough was tightly rolled, she reached for a piece of string I had set out to cut them. How did she know to do it that way? “I watched you do this before,” she answers. Has she? Have I just forgotten, in this mess of time, one type of roll that she watched me make? Had we done this before? Or maybe she just knew because she came from my DNA, and somewhere in my genetics is a memory of baking cinnamon rolls.

I can’t imagine returning to the type of busyness that filled our life before. We used to eat meals in cars. We used to drive across town in opposite directions to get each child to their nightly sports practice. We used to cut through dough with serrated knives and all the contents came spilling out. But the sudden cinching of this string feels overwhelming.

After a few unsuccessful attempts, I make sourdough bread. It feels so easy and I’m certain I’m missing a step. I scan the recipe over and over again, to confirm there is no eggs, sugar, or butter. I can’t decide if I want the recipe to work, or not. If it works then what will I focus on throughout the day? If it doesn’t work then how will I ever get it right? I can’t decide if I want to return to my life in a car or if I want to keep walking each day to the horses. The bread comes out of the oven and it looks like bread. My husband tells me it is the only bread he wants from now on.

I guess that I better make sure the atmosphere around the sourdough starter is one worth continuing.

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