When the Snow Globe Settles

We have to be exceptional in the ordinary things, to be holy in mean streets, among mean people, and this is not learned in five minutes.

My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers

Listen 6:40

Well lucky for me the people here in Ecuador are anything but mean. The streets, though? They’re pretty mean. Steve and I have learned that even though we have a stroller, it’s actually easier to put the third born in the baby backpack (I swear by the Tula; Steve’s preference is the Ergo Sport). Why? The “sidewalks” here are TREACHEROUS! Huge cracks, broken grates, cliffs-for-curbs — yeah, it’s an adventure every time we go for a walk.

So I’m reading through my mom’s copy of My Utmost for His Highest this year, and I’ll tell ya: this edition is OLD. A couple of days ago it said — and I quote — “ejaculate to Him all the time.” I’m sorry, what? Thank goodness for newer editions.

But this particular quote about being exceptional? Gold. Take even the ordinary things and make them exceptional. I think of my bread baking as pretty ordinary, and yet I am constantly trying to perfect it. At the moment, I’m struggling with a 20-year-old gas stove that doesn’t retain heat well and at the highest gets up to only 450 degrees Fahrenheit. If ever there was an “ordinary” stove, it’s mine.

(I’ve named her Beulah.)

She gets the job done baking my bread, and she’s better than the teeny electric oven in my kitchen. I keep an iron skillet in the bottom to retain the heat a little better, and things are baking along. Even with ordinary Beulah, I try to make exceptional bread. And exceptional bread makes life a whole lot better.

This thing called life certainly forces the issue of the ordinary — have you noticed? We’re always trying to avoid the ordinary, to escape it, to deny it. We want the excitement! The adrenaline! The new shiny thing!

The new oven! The $224.95 Challenger Bread Pan! The fancy bread lame (only $37.50)!

But here’s the gold nugget: even without the new oven and the expensive bread pan and the fancy lame, my bread is exceptionally yummy — it just may not consistently look exceptionally good. From the ordinary, the exceptional(ly-tasting bread) comes. That’s life, isn’t it.

But I don’t let it, let it get me down
’cause this fine old world, it keeps spinnin’ around

That’s Life, Frank Sinatra

A fine world, indeed, when we get to eat delicious bread.

Before we moved to Quito, I often thought about how life would be in a new country around new people learning a new language. So much newness and adventure and excitement! And I think that was part of the allure of moving.

I got more views on my Instagram stories than ever when we started our journey — from pulling out of our driveway in Florida to dumping our stuff and collapsing in our new apartment in Quito. The first morning we were here, I documented our apartment, our view, and my taste-testing of all the weird fruits that had been bought for our arrival. I received lots of comments about how people were so excited to follow our adventures in Ecuador.

We felt like we were inside a snow globe that had just been shaken up. We left our comfortable, familiar life behind to start a new life in a different country — with three young kids.

We didn’t know what we were doing.

And that was exciting. And a rush. And a frenzy of whatever the little white pieces inside a snow globe are.

But as life has a habit of doing, it settled.

So here we are living life: baking bread, going on walks, buying groceries, playing Mario Uno, catching the Zoomy Gloomies, and doing otherwise inane activities.

And yet, there’s something very exceptional about this ordinary life of ours. What love we have inside this apartment compound that is surrounded by an electric fence (because let’s face it we live in a dangerous area). What laughs we have together when we breakdance on the floor to the soundtrack of Trolls (because I don’t deny it we bought a smart TV almost as soon as we got here). What embarrassment we have when Quito Pizza Company calls us on the phone to confirm our address (because we definitely don’t know Spanish well enough to understand someone speaking 5000 miles per hour over the phone).

It’s a good, ordinary life.

And you know what? As I live and love and get embarrassed, I realize that sometimes the ordinary remains ordinary and that’s OK.

It’s exceptional even.

I’d like to leave you now with a picture of something very ordinary. But I hope you can see that something we consider ordinary is anything but.

Fruit:

Enjoy your life, people. Make ordinary things exceptional when you can, yes. But remember to embrace the ordinary, too. And remember that sometimes, the ordinary becomes exceptional only with a shift in perspective. Like fruit.

(Mostly I just wanted to show you my fruit haul.)

Sourdough, Love, and Life (And an Oxford Comma, of Course)

“Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.” –Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven

So I’m making bread today. And I say “making,” not “baking,” because the actual baking of the bread will happen tomorrow morning. Let’s just say that making bread is a process — for me, a process that normally takes around 24 hours. But about six years ago when I popped that first loaf out of the oven, I was hooked. I’ve been baking sourdough bread just about every weekend since.

And I confess: I really wanted to write about bread today. So I “cheated” and found this quote on Goodreads. I haven’t read the book (yet!!), but it is definitely on my “to-read” list. (Quick update: I FINALLY finished Dance of Thieves for those of you who remember the promise I made on this post.)

Taking a quick look at the quote itself, the Literary Prude English Teachers of America (LPETA, for those of you who don’t remember) would be simply appalled. It’s clearly a run-on. “Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone” –> independent clause. “it has to be made, like bread” –> independent clause. What connects the two? JUST a comma? THE HORROR. Any self-respecting, English-speaking human knows that a comma by itself cannot connect two independent clauses. AND THAT’S NOT EVEN WHERE THE SENTENCE ENDS! Le Guin then goes ahead with a semicolon (LPETA, deep breaths here), and what follows is a fragment. (OK, I’m — proudly — not a part of the LPETA, but this punctuation makes even my English-teacher blood pressure go up just a bit.)

So here’s the deal: Look up Le Guin, and you’ll see that she’s clearly a very intelligent, very prolific author. Her books have extremely high reviews, and she has the kind of readership who reads her books more than once.

Well.

I will say it’s yet another reminder to me as an English teacher to SETTLE DOWN when it comes to following all grammar and punctuation rules ever in existence (more about being a rule-following robot here). And if you’ve ever experienced my correcting your grammar (i.e., if you’ve ever said “I just want to lay down . . .” *shudder*), here we go . . . I’m sorry. But I will say this: in a weird way, if I correct you, it’s like a compliment. It means that I consider you a true friend — one who can laugh or shrug it off and continue putting up with me.

But back to the delicious bread. As I mentioned, it’s quite the long process. I use what’s called sourdough starter (fermented flour and water) as the leavening agent (i.e., what makes the bread RISE). Because I don’t use commercial yeast, the entire process takes longer. My basic timeline typically consists of the following:

  • In the morning, take my starter out of the fridge and “feed” it equal weights of flour and water.
  • When the starter has fermented and bubbled and doubled in size (around midday for me in the heat of a Florida summer in a house that is always quite warm because I married a man who likes to save money and the thermostat is one way he does that), I start putting bread ingredients together: water, starter, white flour, whole wheat flour (lately I’ve been on a spelt kick; 10/10 recommend), salt, and perhaps some seeds or other whole grains if I’m feeling particularly clever.
  • Mix all that together and then let it sit for around 6 hours, stretching it about every hour.
  • So at around 7 pm, let’s say, I dump out the dough onto the counter and form it into balls. Balls on my kitchen counter. It’s a treat. I let the balls sit for about a half an hour.
  • Then I shape the balls according to the proofing container I’ll be using.
  • I put the shaped dough into the proofing basket and the loaf pans, and I let that sit for about another hour.
  • Then I stick the basket and the pans into the fridge to slowly continue proofing until the morning.
  • The next morning, I bake!

Repeat every weekend. Whew! I’ll tell you, it’s certainly not difficult, but there is also definitely a learning curve. I’ve been baking for years now, and I still don’t get super consistent loaves from week to week. I can understand that for some of us, the lack of consistency (especially when doing something we’ve done hundreds of times before) would drive us mad. (Quick pause here: I did the math, and baking an average of three loaves every week for 6 years adds up to 936 loaves. What a great number, by the way — all numbers divisible by 3.)

UPDATE: As I am working on this blog post, my dough is in the I’m-stretching-every-hour stage, and WOW is the dough wet! I keep looking back at the recipe, making sure I weighed everything out correctly — and I did. SO WHO KNOWS.

But that’s life, isn’t it. If we think about it, what we have the most experience doing is living life. And life is most definitely inconsistent. Sometimes plans turn out with wonderful (maybe even delicious) results. I like to think of those times like my loaves that come out with a nice rise, open crumb, and crisp crust. Sometimes plans turn out with awful results. Those times would be my loaves that come out looking like glorified pancakes instead of artisan sourdough.

But here’s the delicious part of it all: even when my loaves come out flat, the bread always tastes good. I have to remind myself of that when I start getting uppity about how my loaves look. (Speaking of which, I am a wee bit nervous today because I do plan on bringing a loaf to school tomorrow to share with the English department. So as I am in the process of making my 937th loaf of bread, I’m nervous. And actually, I think that’s OK.)

And apart from the bread always tasting good, I’m constantly learning and tweaking (tweaking, not twerking). So it’s a win-win for me.

It’s how I try to live my life.

It’s how I try to love.

Like Le Guin says, love has to be made and remade and made new. It’s not a set-it-and-forget-it kind of deal. I don’t dump my ingredients into a bread machine to have perfect loaves pop out. I take my time with the dough. I use my hands. I come back to it again and again. I let it rest. I help shape it. And at the end of it all, it’s still going to do what it wants.

So whether you’re baking bread, loving another human, or living life, there’s a lesson here. Do expect a process. Don’t expect consistent results. Do expect a learning curve. Don’t expect to become an expert. Do try your best anyway.

And my hope for you today and always is that even if your bread doesn’t quite come out the way you’d hoped or planned, it still tastes good.

Good bread, good love, and good life to you. (And now I’m up again to stretch my dough.)

Sourdough Bread Resources:

  • Bread Baking for Beginners, by Bonnie Ohara: This one is best for beginners who are OK with starting the learning process by using commercial yeast. The book is in order of easiest to most difficult breads, and it has great step-by-step instructions that anyone can understand. I don’t own this one, but I borrowed it from the library and read it cover to cover like a novel. I ate it up!
  • Artisan Sourdough Made Simple, by Emilie Raffa: This is good for intermediate level to advanced bread-bakers. Every recipe in the book uses sourdough starter, so you’ll want to make some or get your hands on some. I own this book, and I’ve been using it as of late. I love it.
  • Tartine Book No. 3, by Chad Robertson: This one is for the bread foodie, the broodie. I’d recommend it for the more advanced bread baker. I read this one like a novel and felt a genuine understanding and love for sourdough after reading it. It has lots of background information on the history of sourdough along with interesting tid-bits about different types of whole wheat flours. The recipes are more difficult mostly because they call for a higher ratio of wheat flour. I felt kind of snobby reading this one. Which was kind of fun for a crisp minute. I own this one and find myself coming back to it every now and again.
  • Me! I always have sourdough starter to share, and it makes my heart happy when someone actually wants to give sourdough bread baking a try.