Grief and Miscarriage — in Quito, Ecuador

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

“Nothing Gold Can Stay,” Robert Frost

One of my first little class activities for my students is to use cut-out lines of this poem (one per student, in groups depending on the size of the class) to try to put the poem back together based on content, rhyme, and chronology. Sometimes the students vaguely remember this poem from the book The Outsiders, and it’s fun to see when that lightbulb turns on. It’s gratifying to see the students working together to figure things out like, “Oh my gosh, these lines rhyme!” or, “Maybe because this line says ‘first,’ it should be the first line!” Then we get to discuss their choices and, ultimately, the poem itself.

As I begin prep work to tutor a student this year (as I am not full-time teaching anymore), I came across the activity and poem again. Wonderful memories of first days of school flooded back. What a joy it was to teach. What a joy it was to get to know the students and form real relationships with them.

I read this poem again, and my heart is flooded with something else, too.

Grief.

One of the very beautiful things about poems is that you go into them with your own life experiences: your burdens, your hurts, your joys, your worries, your faith, yourself. To a fourteen-year-old, this poem might mean a loss of a friendship, a loss of a love interest, a loss of closeness with parents, a loss of parents’ marriage, a loss of “childhood” and the time that came with it, or even a loss of identity.

I empathize with my students. It is not easy being a teenager and navigating the relationships, the friendships, the politics, the parents, the social media. It’s completely overwhelming, and I’m glad I made it through. But I’ll never forget how hard it was.

But for me in this season of life, I think of the golden excitement of being pregnant . . .
and then not being pregnant anymore.

~

Trigger warning: Miscarriage description. Graphic.

~

Two Thursdays ago, I peed and noticed some pink color. I had just gotten home from a particularly rough city-streets-and-sidewalks bike ride, so I thought there was a chance I had exercised a little too hard. And when it was just the one instance of pink over the course of the next few days, I exhaled a huge sigh of relief. The following Sunday I went to get my blood drawn to “prove” to the insurance company here in Ecuador that I was, indeed, pregnant. My HCG levels were in the 7-week range, even though I was 10 weeks. I was a little concerned, but I knew worrying wouldn’t help anything. I tried to put it out of my mind. Then on Wednesday there was that pink color again, but more. And then the pink turned a little more red. But it was really slow, and I had zero pain. I thought maybe I had twins and I was losing one of them. I googled it, and I had all the symptoms: I was older, I had lower HCB levels, the pain was on par with a mild period.

I had hope.

Thursday came, and I was still bleeding, slowly but steadily. I decided to make an appointment with an OBGYN. I got on the phone with him directly, and he told me to go ahead and come in that evening, that he’d make room for me. My kind-hearted neighbor offered to take me, my other neighbors offered to watch my kids, and, because Steve was still at school and somewhat unreachable, I accepted the help. (I am learning to accept help. It is a work in progress. But I was incredibly thankful for the kindness of my neighbors. I will bake them bread in the near future.)

The ultrasound clearly showed an egg sac.

But it was empty. And it was an irregular shape (not perfectly round). My kind doctor told me that the baby was not in the sac and that the sac had started detaching from the uterine wall. There was a teeny tiny little shape just below the sac, and my doctor said that it might be the baby.

Such a sad little gray lump on the screen.

He measured the sac and told me it measured about 7 weeks. He drew a line to show me how big a 7-week baby would be. He then drew a line about quadruple that, and way beyond the size of the sac, to show me how big an 11-week baby would be (which on that Thursday was the size baby I was supposed to have). I learned that something had gone awry around 6 or 7 weeks and that it was just now physically manifesting in my body.

We finished up with the ultrasound, sat back down at his desk, and discussed options: pills to expedite the process, a D&C (dilation and curettage — basically a scraping of the uterine lining to get everything out), or waiting it out. I chose to wait. I had done this three times already, so I felt I knew what to expect. I knew the worst was coming. I could brace for that.

I walked back out to the waiting room and cried as I hugged my neighbor. She drove me home. Steve was then at soccer with the boys, so I texted him “Miscarriage.”

I ordered Sushi on UberEats. I enjoyed what I wanted before anyone else got home.

My 9- and 6-year-olds were very sad about the news. My two-year-old was sad because he could see that I was crying; he opened his eyes wide and said, “Awww.” It was cute, in the most devastating way.

After reading a chapter of Christopher Mouse to the boys and tucking them in, I went out to watch some Netflix with Steve.

And wait.

I didn’t have to wait long. The blood started flowing heavier and heavier. Oftentimes, shuffling back from the bathroom to watch a few more minutes of our show, I didn’t even get to the couch before I had to turn around and head back to the bathroom.

Here’s my experience with miscarriage: when it comes, you know. The bleeding becomes very heavy and there are blood clots, ranging in size from very small to two inches in diameter. It’s terrifying.

And you know that one of those clots is the fetus.

This miscarriage was so sudden, I had a difficult time managing it. And in Ecuador, the plumbing is such that you are not supposed to flush toilet paper or the toilet will clog. So all the bloody toilet paper started piling up in the little wastebasket that sits next to the toilet. Clots splashed. Blood splattered onto the toilet bowl and somehow onto the bathroom floor and wall. Blood dripped down my legs.

The word that came to mind was “massacre.”

I decided to move to the shower to clean myself up. But the simple act of taking off my clothes and walking one foot over to the shower proved difficult. More blood dripped onto the floor, but I made it to the shower. In the shower, though, the blood was flowing so heavily, I started to worry I was losing too much too quickly. Clots stubbornly got caught in the drain. I felt dizzy. I decided to get out of the shower and try to just lie down. I grabbed a big bath towel, squished it between my legs, and waddled out to try to find a place to lie down and get warm. I ended up on the cold wood floor with Steve trying to get blankets and pillows to keep me warm and make it more comfortable. I didn’t have a fever, so I figured it was safe to try to rest, even as the blood flowed. At a couple points, I thought I was going to throw up, so a trash can was my sleeping partner for the night. Eventually, I felt able to get into bed. With a new bath towel acting as a the world’s biggest pad, I was able to get some sleep in a bed.

In the morning, I felt like I had given birth that night: sore, tired, mentally exhausted, and dizzy at times.

But there was no newborn sleeping next to me. Just a trash can on the floor and lots of blood in the bathroom.

It is Saturday today, and I am taking breaks from writing this to go change my pad. But the blood is very slow now, just a drizzle to remind me of the massacre that’s taken place.

When I posted about my miscarriage on Instagram, several people reached out to offer condolences and to thank me for sharing.

Several of those several people were former students. It makes me well up just thinking about the fact that my students care about me. Teaching is a job that is so much more than a job. It is the potential for life-long friendships. It is the potential to make a lasting difference in lives — both teacher to student and student to teacher (Students, do you realize you make a difference in your teachers’ lives? You do. You matter, so much.) Maybe a poem like “Nothing Gold Can Stay” resonates with a student and stays with her for the rest of her life. Maybe the poem makes her realize that happiness is fleeting and that’s OK. Maybe she realizes that trying to prolong happiness with people and things is an act in futility but on some level it’s still worth it.

Life is not simply long stretches of happiness. And it’s the big lie if you think it is supposed to be. There are massacres along the way. And they suck every ounce of happiness right out of your body — maybe for a day or three or 58.

So we move on as humans, beaten in spirit and body, but not broken. When I am beaten, I look at my kids and soak in the love. I hug my husband hard and know he cares about me on a deeper level than any human alive. I accept help from kind neighbors who have become like family to me. I pray to God and know that there are better things to come. I talk to my parents and know that they love me on an ethereal level, whatever that means exactly.

Perhaps it’s true that nothing gold can stay. And that’s OK. It’s a good reminder to appreciate what we have. So go hug your people. Call your mom. Tell your teachers thanks. And do your best in this life to be the kind of human that makes a positive difference in other people’s lives.

Sending you all the love.

J.

I’ve Had an Accident. So May You All.

I always thought it was what I wanted: to be loved and admired. Now I think perhaps I’d like to be known.

The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah

Listen 8:09

Never have I resonated with this more than now. (OK, well, maybe with the exception of middle school because that was a complete nightmare of no one knowing anyone.)

I left a great job teaching English literature at a school where I was loved and admired and known by students and teachers.

I moved to another country where I barely know how to communicate with other humans.

I am now a stay-at-home Zoom Mom.

Ah, how the mighty have fallen.

So I’m at home a lot these days. And Quito has just mandated stay-at-home orders for the next four weekends. I am not in a classroom, I am not teaching, I am not making lesson plans, I am not pestering my students about what books they’re reading. As a teacher, I am not known here. At all. I feel like I’ve lost part of my identity. But while I am sad that people here don’t know me and the skills I bring to the table, something exciting is happening.

I am learning new things. New doors are opening for me. Dormant skills are bubbling to the surface. Dare I say, I am getting to know myself better. And while it’s great to feel known by others, it’s also great to know yourself.

It’s funny that we float through life just assuming we know all there is to know about ourselves. We are the only ones with full access to our own brains, after all. But it’s scary how easy it is to simply flip off the switch, darkening most of that mass inside our skulls.

I have to stop and wonder what we’re missing here. If we don’t know ourselves, how are others supposed to know us? And don’t we desperately want to be known by others?

It took a seismic shift of events for me to realize that there’s more to me than being a teacher. And I bet it’s similar for most humans. Maybe for you.

I learned something new this week about the word “accident,” all because of my 9-year-old’s Spanish project that asked him to write about “coastal accidents.” My son and I were both very confused — coastal accidents, like shipwrecks? Natural disasters on the coast? We were struggling. Finally, after a desperate email to the teacher, we realized that the word “accident” refers to how various landforms come into being. A bay, for example, is formed through the erosion of rocks. In the Spanish language, this is considered an “accident” because erosion is not intentional. But go ahead and Google “Tortuga Bay, Ecuador,” and you tell me if that looks like an “accident.” I’d visit that accident any day of the week.

What a mindset shift to think of accidents creating beauty. And though leaving the teaching profession, moving to a new country, and becoming a Zoom Mom weren’t accidents, per se, they certainly were in line with a seismic shift of events. And let’s remember that during seismic shifts when tectonic plates collide (accident!), beautiful mountains are formed.

I am reminded of W. H. Auden’s poem “The Unknown Citizen,” a poem about a man who floats through life, doing things and saying things and being things. He is “normal,” “sensible,” “proper,” “popular,” and even a “saint” — descriptors we’d probably appreciate being said about us. His life is smooth — no accidents. But when he dies, we realize — with horror — that no one even knew his name. No one even knew if he was free. Or if he was happy.

Go ahead and read the poem. Take your time.

The Unknown Citizen

W. H. Auden

(To JS/07 M 378

This Marble Monument

Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be

One against whom there was no official complaint,

And all the reports on his conduct agree

That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,

For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.

Except for the War till the day he retired

He worked in a factory and never got fired,

But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.

Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,

For his Union reports that he paid his dues,

(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)

And our Social Psychology workers found

That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.

The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day

And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.

Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,

And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.

Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare

He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan

And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,

A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.

Our researchers into Public Opinion are content

That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;

When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.

He was married and added five children to the population,

Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.

And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:

Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

What a truly devastating poem. To go through your entire life, doing and saying and being all the things, only to die, in the abyss of obscurity.

It’s a reminder to us to live. To live in a way that we are known to others and to ourselves. And for that to happen we might have to endure some accidents. We might have to induce some accidents.

Leaving my profession, moving to another country, becoming a Zoom Mom — these things propelled me to dig deeper into what I have to offer to my community, to my family, to myself.

And digging deeper, I have discovered within myself something very exciting — something that has been waiting patiently for me.

That something? It’s a book. A book that I will write.

(I’m terrified. Maybe terrified like those tectonic plates when they were inching closer to each other, knowing they were going to collide and there was nothing they could do about it.)

When people look at my life after I die, I want them to see beautiful bays and mountains, knowing the erosion and shifting of tectonic plates it took to get like that.

Because sometimes it takes an accident to create something beautiful. And to be known.

How Not to Fall to Your Death: Climbing Life with No Ropes

But once you’ve proven to yourself that you can do a move or even an entire route, it’s like a tiny door opens inside your mind, and the belief that you can do it, that you will succeed, creates a powerful positive visualization.

Mark Synnott, The Impossible Climb

Listen 7:34

I don’t know a whole lot about rock climbing. But there’s something about those granite walls and cracks and slab pitches that lures me in. I don’t need to do it; I’m happy in my platonic voyeurism of the sport. And I admire the mental keenness it takes to get from ground to peak.

The context of this quote is that climbers can fail again and again and again on one particular move, but once they complete it, they’re likely to complete it every subsequent time. Synnott mentions a certain “warrior spirit” that enables climbers to give just a little more to succeed on the move. And when they keep coming up short? He says that it could feel like an intentional fail, called “punting” in the climbing world.

I want to have a warrior spirit.

But isn’t it interesting that a whole phenomenon exists where people intentionally fail? I have to wonder what that looks like off the wall.

For the longest time, I failed at writing. Intentionally. I was an English teacher teaching writing who didn’t write — not really. And the reason I didn’t write? Funny enough, fear of failure. So let’s climb through this, rock by rock, crack by crack: I taught writing without writing myself. The fear of failure (negative feedback, judgment from colleagues and students) kept me from it. But listen: the actual failure was not “turning on the faucet” — not writing that first sentence, and then that second one, and then the third, the fourth, and on. That first sentence for me was like that move on the granite wall that the climbers just couldn’t muster the spirit to do.

It seems silly comparing a sentence to the wrinkle of granite being used as a hand hold. Sentences don’t seem quite as scary — or dangerous. But in my bubble, I felt like I was on that wall, holding on for dear life, refusing to grab that granite wrinkle. I’d rather stay frozen, splayed to the side of the wall. No progress. But a feeling of safety.

I’d rather fail than take a chance on that move.

But just like some of the great rock climbers who scale a wall only after experiencing a traumatic event (watch the documentary The Dawn Wall to see Tommy Caldwell succeed only after heartbreak), it took a traumatic event at my school to finally light that fire under me.

I recently became “email friends” with Berit Gordon, and she mentioned that teaching is an “oddly lonely endeavor.” So true. We teachers don’t get much attention or validation from our peers. What validation we do get normally comes from the students themselves, which is great, but they’re not in charge of scheduling, pay raises, tenure, etc. So when I came back to school after taking maternity leave in the spring of 2019 to my department head demoting me, I was stunned. I would no longer be teaching my beloved AP Literature class.

There’s a whole messy story behind it, but suffice it to say, I was traumatized. And even though formal apologies were later made to me and I didn’t completely lose my AP class (I taught one section; a colleague taught another), the damage had been done. To liken my teaching to climbing, for years I felt like I was basically alone on the wall, taking care of myself, making sure I was taking all the safety precautions, successfully making my way to the summit. And I felt very confident in my abilities.

But then, in the middle of being alone on the wall, someone came out of nowhere and started fiddling with my rope, unclipping it from my harness, pulling it loose from the anchor. And then I was alone again. Without a rope. Scared. I was at the point where either I needed that warrior spirit or I was going to fall to my death.

Finally (finally), I decided to write. My starting a blog and putting my writing out there for the world (reality: tens of people) to read was my way of free-soloing the rest of my climb. No ropes, just me on the wall at my most vulnerable.

And did I mention that I’d never been on this particular wall?

But I’m making it up, trying to hold on to that warrior spirit, allowing that tiny door to open inside my mind. And let me tell you, it’s freeing. I don’t need to actually climb up a mountain wall sans ropes to feel liberated from the boundaries of this world.

And that’s the beauty of the analogy. What is rock climbing for you? What is that move you just can’t let yourself do in life? And do you realize that it’s you holding yourself back, failing intentionally? It’s a harsh reality, but one that we can face. And this difficult move you’re facing — you don’t have to wait for a traumatic event to happen to force you to make it. Alex Honnold free-soloed El Capitan without just having broken up with his girlfriend (he did wonder, though, if he was in the right headspace because his previous climbing feat was a result of a bad break-up).

So make the move. And live the rest of your life believing that you can do it, that you will succeed. Meanwhile, I’ll keep tapping the keys, wondering what my next move will be. Because, remember, I haven’t been on this wall before.

And neither have you.

Last weekend, my family and I went to El Refugio retreat center up in the mountains near Quito. The rock wall beckoned us, so we climbed. That’s me on the right and my 8-year-old son Asher on the left. We both made it to the top. With ropes.
At the top of one of the mountains. We didn’t have to rock climb to get up, but it was a feat nevertheless. No ropes.

The Absurdity of Life . . . And Other Bits of Inspiration

“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” –Albert Camus–

So this is a tricky one. If you squint, you might even think that this is an inspirational life quote.

And that, of course, is completely absurd. Because if you know anything about Camus, you know that he adhered to a philosophy of life that renounced hope and embraced dissatisfaction. He also lived a life of philosophically “searching.” So by his own standards, he may never have been happy.

I do not resonate with this.

But there is something really special about his words. Camus acknowledges that if we are constantly in a state of “searching,” we won’t be happy. And if we are constantly in a state of “looking,” we won’t be living.

Oof.

Just do a quick “search” for self-help books on Goodreads, and there are 25 pages of results for just popular self-help books. It’s overwhelming! And clearly a sign that we are searching.

We are searching for happiness.

We are searching for meaning in life.

And actually I think it’s great that we have such an innate drive to find happiness and meaning. The people I know in my life who are the most secure in themselves have a good sense of both. I like to think that I do, too. I hope to instill a good drive towards happiness and meaning to my children. To my students. To family. To friends.

But the struggle is real. Just take Sisyphus, for instance. Punished by Zeus for his trickery and deceitful ways, he spent a good portion of his life pushing a boulder up a hill just to let it roll back down and start again. This is the ultimate struggle: laborious and nauseatingly repetitive. Just — for a moment — think about that being your life.

Absurd, right?

Futility is the enemy of hope. And without hope, what do we have? We don’t search for self-help books thinking that we’re not going to find anything. We don’t go out to an expensive dinner thinking we’re going to hate the food.

But it’s important to temper our expectations. We can’t expect that once we find and read that one great self-help book, we’ll have all the answers and be happy and fulfilled in all aspects of life. The danger with this mindset is that we will keep putting off happiness and meaning until we reach some mythical (imaginary) point. Reminds me of a poem I read to my students every year. C. P. Cavafy’s “The City” illustrates to us that if we think we’ll only be happy if we go to another city[/insert any other noun here], the problem isn’t the city[/insert any other noun here], it’s us:

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,

find another city better than this one.

Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong

and my heart lies buried like something dead.

How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?

Wherever I turn, wherever I look,

I see the black ruins of my life, here,

where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”



You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.

This city will always pursue you.

You’ll walk the same streets, grow old

in the same neighborhoods, turn gray in these same houses.

You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:

there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.

Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,

you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.

Like I tell my students, this is a fresh call-out for us all. Let’s reject the cliche “the grass is always greener on the other side” and do our very best to enjoy our lives right here, right now. Because what happens if we just keep waiting and searching for the right “city”? What happens if we believe that the city is the only place we can find happiness and meaning? “Here is the deepest secret nobody knows”: if our eyes are only trained ahead of us to the city that lies beyond, we might step in dog poop.

If you’re like me, the idea of stepping in poop is repulsive. In fact, I am scarred from an experience in my childhood when I stepped in still-warm dog poop.

Barefoot.

(It squished between my toes.)

So instead of (only! ever! always!) thinking the best is yet to come, take a moment and look around (and below). Don’t discount the grass you’re standing on just because some other grass looks greener. (And don’t forget: looks can be deceiving. Remember Shakespeare’s famous sonnet about his (kind of ugly, bad-breathed) lover? She didn’t have conventional beauty, and yet he recognized her as being the best.)

Maybe at times my life is ugly. Or has bad breath. But I love it for what it is: mine. And it’s the only one I get (more about “first-and-only drafts” of life here). I’ll be sure to appreciate the grass that I’m on, but I won’t fully discount looking forward as well.

After all, there is joy in the search. I’d venture to say that searching is an essential element in really, truly living. Just because I am continually searching for happiness and meaning doesn’t mean that I don’t experience happiness or feel I have meaning in life in the present. Every year of my life, I think,

“That was the best year!”

And each one is better than the last — I think because I am continually searching. In my dissatisfaction, I’m finding my meaning and living my best life. So maybe I can resonate with Camus’ sentiment about embracing dissatisfaction in that regard. Camus knows — and I agree — that there is authenticity in dissatisfaction.

And dissatisfaction driving meaning? That is authentic living.

Paired with hope, it is a powerful force that can be used for good.

Here are the takeaways:

  • Find happiness in where you are in life.
  • But also find joy in the search for better.

Beyond that, life is going to come at you in ways no one can predict. Do your best. Try your hardest. But allow yourself to rest. Allow dissatisfaction to drive you but never to embitter you.

Above all, don’t waste your life “here, in this small corner.” Because if you do, “you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.”

Happy searching and looking, everyone. But don’t forget to live your life right now.

Authentically.

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.

Dwight, Dirt, and Dangerous Assumptions

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” –Isaac Asimov–

Oh, this is a good one, my friends. As I’m in the midst of starting a new school year (15th one — whoop whoop!), I know I need to take a little look at my own assumptions and possibly do some scrubbing. (Nobody likes dirty windows, am I right?)

I think if we were to sit down and write down allllllll the things we make assumptions about, we’d . . .

have a long list. (Cue “I’ve Got a Little List” from The Mikado.)

And you know what I’ve noticed about dirty windows? They sneak up on us. Before we know it, we’re looking through a layer of film with some smudges and maybe some water spots and definitely (so, so many) little boy fingerprints/handprints/toeprints (how, though) and just plain dirt. Even just a film hinders the light from coming through (and barely are my windows ever covered in “just” a film).

Yes, the dirt sneaks up on us, but I’d venture to say that a dirty window is a bit easier to notice than a stockpile of assumptions inside of our brains. And that’s why I love the quote. Asimov gives us the metaphor as a reminder to check ourselves. We might just be due for a scrub-down.

As a teacher, I find myself making assumptions about a sundry of stuff: best practices, best books to teach, best books to read, how many books to read, best management style, best writing activities, best communication style, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I base these assumptions on articles and books that I read, learning from other colleagues, and –more than anything — experiences I’ve had in the classroom with the students. So for these assumptions — because I’ve based them on reasonable, rational, logical things — I feel justified.

STOP! Go directly to jail.

Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200. (And if you don’t know that reference, find a friend, and play Monopoly.)

It’s one thing to feel confident as a teacher based on experience and knowledge, but it’s quite another to assume I know best. Even writing the words “I know best” is a little embarrassing. (How could I possibly have the audacity to think I know best??) And yet that belief creeps up on me. And then the pride weasels its way in. And then before I know it I’m walkin’ around like I own the place.

NOT GOOD.

So I try to stay humble. As best I can. And part of that humility has been starting this blog. I’ve wanted to write for a long time now, and pride has kept me from it. I thought that because I was an English teacher, my writing had to be “perfect,” or I’d lose all respect and then people would find out that I’m really not smart at all and then I’d have to leave my job and my home and go find a cave and live in it. (Can you tell I’m around fatalistic teenagers a lot?) I thought that if I started a blog and it wasn’t successful, I’d be ashamed.

I thought.

And it kept me from doing.

And you know what the sticky goop holding that pride together was? Assumptions. How presumptuous of me to assume I knew how (all the) things would be if I started blogging. Those pesky assumptions distorted my view.

Lucky for me, I’ve kept living and learning and growing in confidence to get to where I am today: not afraid to write. And not afraid of people reading what I write.

But I don’t think Asimov’s quote is about blogging. Or teaching.

Or any one thing.

His quote is about life. And wherever we’re at in life, it’s for us.

So when we “scrub” ourselves of assumptions, it’s not just about our jobs or our hobbies or our parenting or our diets or our religious beliefs or our political beliefs.

It’s about it all.

And I think we can all agree here that never making assumptions is very difficult to do. If we’re really being honest with ourselves, never making assumptions is just plain impossible. So what are we to do with this impossibility? I see some options here:

  1. Resign ourselves to the impossibility, make our assumptions, stay close-minded, and condemn anyone who disagrees with us. Engage in Dwight Think.
  2. Be mindful in our humility and ever increasing in our empathy, gracefully accepting the fact that we’ve been gifted with only our one perspective from which to view the world. (Oh, and while we’re at it, we’ll go ahead and be perfect as well.)
  3. Understand and accept that we’re human — and that means seeing the world through the window of our (potentially and more-than-likely fallible) assumptions. But we’ll be aware of that, and we’ll clean the window on a regular basis.

But there might be a reader out there thinking These aren’t the only options. What about science? What about facts, and evidence, and research, and numbers, and proof? And these are valid questions. Mostly. If I drop a book, I assume it’s going to fall.

Because

that’s

how

gravity

works.

But even science doesn’t deal in facts. It deals in observations and theories. Gravity isn’t a fact. It’s a theory. In Mordechai Ben-Ari’s book Just a Theory: Exploring the Nature of Science, he acknowledges that facts are ultimately observations:

We can define a fact as an observation backed up by such a preponderance of evidence that no useful purpose would be served by doubting it.

So while we might need to pump the brakes on our assumptions, it’s still OK (and good!) to believe things based on a “preponderance of evidence.” As Ben-Ari says, there would be no useful purpose in doubting these things.

What we need to try to avoid is Dwight Think and Dwight Speak, believing everything we think to be fact and then stacatto-speaking-all-our-words-as-truth-ordained-by-the-deity-that-is-us. (And if you dare disagree, he very well might lodge a formal complaint against you to Toby, and we all know that Toby sends all the complaints to a special file in New York.) Lucky for us, we don’t even have to imagine the carnival that is two people speaking Dwight Speak; just watch this clip when Jim impersonates Dwight. It’s gold.

So this post goes out to all humans in all professions with all backgrounds. Whether you’re a biology teacher or a poet, a stay-at-home dad-philosopher or a pastor, let’s go back to option 3. Let’s accept our humanness. Let’s accept the tendency we have to assume. But let’s scrub up every now and then.

And then let the light come through.

I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.

John 8:12