New skill number 7 acquired in lockdown is… bread making. Just pipping by one place in the top ten – cutting my own hair. Although, bearing in mind I have spent the majority of the last twelve months oscillating between shaggy chic and a sheared sheep, it’s only a marginal success (who cares what it looks like round the back – I never go round there anyway).
Bread, I have come to understand, is a molecular state more nuanced than I used to realise. Previously I thought that things where either bread, or they weren’t bread. A simple concept to reconcile with my realities of yesteryear you would think. However, I now reminisce about those times of clarity when I – dare I say – was braggishly confident I knew when something actually was bread, and when it wasn’t. I always trusted myself to be able to hold my own, in polite society, and especially in impolite society… that there wasn’t anyone out there who I would back down from, in a debate about… if something was bread or not!
To you bakery dependants out there who still buy your own bread, there is a whole universe that exists on a sliding scale between lagoon spawn and mother’s best bloomer. Half bread – half lava flow, part loaf – part house brick, some stage of a doughy, splitting metamorphosis, like the birth of a new planet (that might require a C-section).
Life changes you. I have lost that swagger, that joie de vivre of 2019, my shoulders are a little more hunched… for I have witnessed, I have come face to face with, these sunken, yet bloated emergences (or emergencies!) from my bread maker. Self sufficiency has its peaks and troughs – my attempted loaves showed me that.
It would smell like bread, oh yes; tease me with the house smelling of the undeniable promise ….of bread. The months have withered the joyful anticipation, to nervous hesitancy. Sometimes pacing around the kitchen like an expectant father, timidly opening the door once again to see a loaf – one loaf, but in three or four stages of existence, not thoroughly bread, and certainly not thoroughbred bread.
I have come to an agreement now with my bread making machine, that edibility is the only criteria it needs to deliver now in producing a loaf. I have made many lines in the sand that I swore I would not recede from, but have been forced back time and again, by my bread maker’s belligerence and my own hunger. From this final held position though, to actually be able to cut a slice, even off some subservient part of the loaf, and have it with tea and a boiled egg, I will not retreat. Leave me that last dignity.
Aesthetics went by the wayside mid November. Those soft blooming dusty crowns, like a baby’s cheek, that used to adorn loafs, are gone forever – I’m not a fool, I know that.
These months have matured me as a person. It used to be all about looks when I was a young man. Now I realise it’s what inside that’s really important. If I can put butter on it, chew it and swallow it in less than 20 minutes, then its looks of a lop-sided, bubbling mud pot emerged from some sulphurous swamp are now, no longer an issue. Love sees passed all these things. Though I no longer leave them on the window ledge to cool (in sight of the neighbours).
The worst failures I used to break up and throw out for the birds. The heavy clay-like lumps scraped or hammered out of the pan. The half-risen on one side attempts, looking like a gargoyle blowing bubble gum, were soaked in water and scattered onto the grass. Watching the birds feed on those heavy mini-dumpling like pieces, and then try and take off, like some over burdened WWII bomber creaking off the runway after a couple of near aborts; with just enough lift to take them scraping over the top of next doors fence, Dam buster style; I finally realised I was not just hurting myself now – I was affecting others.
Oh how we take the simple things in life for granted. I used to pick up a loaf of bread without a second thought. Its soft and even body, or its light and delicate crust meant little as I tossed it nonchalantly into my shopping basket. I now, between attempted bakes, loiter around the bread aisle like a teenage groupie at the stage door. Trying to edge closer to my favourite one in the group of loaves on the shelf. Dreaming about cupping one of those soft white baps in my hand. Now in the days of social distancing, and high handed hand hygiene, I dare not ‘squeeze and leave’ a loaf on the shelf like I used to. My eyes only do the unwrapping until I get chased again by security.
I watched a documentary not long ago. It was about an actor who lived in Los Angeles and played small parts in TV and film. This actor was handsome, very fit, had a good family around him and lived a very good life on the ocean side, although, he admitted, he wanted a little more, better parts for himself, more money. So, when he found himself in a little lean spell work-wise and happened to have a conversation with someone who said they might be able to help, he listened.
The actor was asked if he would like to import some expensive leather coats and jackets from the Middle East , bi-passing some import taxes, for a decent pay cheque. He decided it would be a way to see him through and couldn’t see the harm. He made several trips and all went well.
On the next occasion he made the journey, he was asked to fly to a different country this time. He was met at the airport as usual by a local and was taken to a place to stay like before. This time however, for his return journey he had more bags of luggage to take back with him. He felt something was not quite right and was nervous upon reaching the airport. At the customs gate, he was stopped and searched, within the luggage many hidden compartments of narcotics were found. He was quickly tried and sentenced to many years in a local prison.
Being an American in a Middle Eastern prison, he did not have an easy time passing the years of his sentence. There he was beaten and tortured and spent a lot of time on his own, unable to communicate with others. Many things happened to him during his stay, mostly bad, but some moments of humanity too.
Eventually, a local solicitor, who was visiting an inmate in the prison, struck up a conversation with our actor. She listened to his story and promised she would look into his details and see if she could help. Shortly after, she returned to the prison to say that the judge who had sentenced him had retired, and the years he had served were now deemed sufficient and she handed the actor his release papers.
Through his emotion of relaying his story and the gratitude he felt for the solicitor, he said something else about his return to America that stayed with me.
He said, (and I paraphrase) “I needed to go to prison. To teach me how to appreciate the birds in the trees, the sun on my face. What it means to have close family and friends. When I walk on the beach now, I am filled with the joy of such beautiful simplicity.” He went on to explain that he was ultimately glad that what had befallen him, had happened, for what it had taught him. I found this such a powerful proclamation.
We all take life for granted a little, sometimes losing sight among the noise of our everyday of what we really value. Why is it that we have to wait until those things are taken from us, to fully realise what it is we actually have. This is the lesson for Humankind about loss.
My new learned appreciation of a simple loaf of bread is a gentler lesson then our actor friend received. But my little trials have caused me to stop and think about all I that am complacent about, what I take for granted; man cannot live on bread alone we know, most definitely not my bread anyway.