a blank space, baby

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One day Nate and I decided to move from Plymouth, Massachusetts to Charleston, South Carolina, and three weeks later we did it. I think I was about as ready as anyone can be for something like that. I think I was about 80% ready.

And usually with these huge changes, I’ve been a lot less ready—but someone else has been ready for me. Americorps, grad school, they had routines and duties and people lined up for me to throw myself into. I knew people who’d moved to new cities completely alone after college, but I couldn’t relate to them. I envied them their spending money and their professional-wardrobe jobs; only now can I even approach any understanding of the crushing loneliness they must have felt, dropping their keys every night in whatever tiny apartment they had found. Of what it’s like to feel a riptide pulling you away from your perfectly fine life, to follow it with some excitement, and then to ask the ocean several times when you’ll be there until you realize that this, treading water in this wide nothing, is it.

In our case, we went from spending, collectively, four hours a day commuting, to forty minutes a day. We went from having four or five groups of people we could make weekend plans with, to zero. From a little downtown church we liked to the land of a thousand (seemingly identical) churches. From a cozy little house that seemed made of windows to an apartment whose blank white walls seem to expand, retreating us farther into the dim building, overnight. I went from a bustling startup office space 40 hours a week to working from home 30 hours a week.

It’s been an eerily quiet few weeks.

I bought Shauna Niequist’s Present Over Perfect on a bit of a whim, and when I started reading it, one little chunk at a time, trying to drag it out and absorb everything, I was immediately disappointed. The writing was so lovely and funny and honest, the story so familiar and yet different from mine, but the whole entire damn thing is all about living a slower, more grounded life. About eliminating commitments and half-real relationships and tasks of imaginary importance.

To say that I resented being told I should do what I was being forced to do would be an understatement. My eyes would travel from the book to my blank planner to Nate, my only human connection within a four-hour drive, and somehow, knowing that millions of people would revel in this state of affairs only made me deeply, inexplicably bitter toward those people. But Shauna kept drawing me in. And I started cooking.

It’s our shared love of elaborate meals that will keep me reading every book Niequist writes until the end of time. If at every other hour of the day I hated feeling alone, unuseful, and boring, I was able to lose myself in cooking. I gloried in our new dishwasher. Our CSA shares started coming, baskets brimming with local food, and this, at least, made me feel that the ground of South Carolina was mine, too. I made bread. Nate made me breakfast sandwiches out of it.

And some combination of that near-daily ritual with Shauna’s gentle words—full of wonder at how lovely the quiet life can be—soon made me half-grudgingly, half-elatedly realize that this little window is a gift. Who in the world gets to make food for their family every day? How many people are ever offered such a blank slate after they’ve grown up a little, figured out what they really want? How often does anyone get such extravagant margins with which to decide how they will live? How many books would my favorite mama-writers have written in the amount of time I’ve already wasted?

These questions, though, they often take on the tone of your life. When I was still thinking of this time as an exile, they felt accusatory. Of course I knew I should be grateful. Of course I was inadequate to the task of making the most of the situation.

Until, as is usually the case with me, I started pretending to be the good person I wasn’t.

I just got tired of railing against the situation, and stopped. And then there was even more of the dreaded, horrible quiet.

And then there was a whisper: stop seeking. just wait.

And in that blank space, like floating in water, the beginnings of a life began to emerge, one little thing at a time. Not the things that are, like, recognizable as a life—a full schedule and a full travel mug of coffee and a car and people who breathlessly tell you how much they appreciate you as you pass each other rushing in different directions. Just, the realization that I am not only able but, in fact, driven to collect as many houseplants as possible. Just a little writing opportunity I wouldn’t have found if it weren’t for my new days off. A cascade of writing ideas where before there had been only overwhelm. A few  prayers besides the same frustrations, fears, and questions I’d been hurling at the sky the past many months. And a lot of fresh-vegetable meals.

This may not be anyone else’s definition of success, but this is my life. This is the life I get to say yes to, one little thing at a time.

Breakfast Sandwich Bread

  • Servings: 12 (2 loaves)
  • Time: 3hr
  • Print

If you're sitting around the house, you might as well be baking bread. The loaves pictured are a little dense because I let them rise just a bit too long, which causes the dough to weaken and lose its shape.



Ingredients

  • 1 1/4 cups (10 oz) warm (not hot) water
  • 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 1 cup (8 oz) milk – whole, 2%, or skim
  • 1/4 cup (3 oz) honey (or sugar)2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 2 3/4 cups (13 3/4 oz) all-purpose flour, plus extra for kneading
  • 2 3/4 cups (13 3/4 oz) whole wheat flour
  • 1 tablespoon salt

Directions

Mix the water and honey in a bowl and sprinkle the yeast over top. Let this stand for a few minutes until the yeast has dissolved and begun to foam a little. Stir in the milk and oil.

Add two cups of all-purpose flour and the salt, and stir to combine the ingredients. Add the rest of the all-purpose and whole wheat flours. Stir to form a shaggy dough. Let this stand for 20 minutes to give the flour time to absorb the liquid.

Knead the dough for 8 to 10 minutes against a floured counter. If the dough is bubble-gum sticky against the counter, add extra flour a little at a time until it is no longer sticky (I usually do this several times throughout my kneading). The dough is kneaded when it is smooth, feels slightly tacky, forms a ball without sagging, and springs back when poked.

Rinse out the mixing bowl and film it with a little oil. Form the dough into a ball and turn it in the bowl to coat it with oil. Cover the bowl and let the dough rise in a warm spot until nearly doubled in bulk, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours. This dough won’t double quite as dramatically as other recipes, but the dough should look visibly puffed.

Sprinkle a little flour on the counter and turn the dough out on top. Divide the dough in two and shape each half into a loose ball by rolling it lightly against the counter. Sprinkle out a little more flour on the counter and let the balls rest for 10 minutes.

Grease two 8×4-inch (or 8 1/2 x 4 1/2-inch) loaf pans or film them with non-stick cooking spray. Shape each ball into a loaf: pull and pat it into a rectangle the size of a large book. Fold your rectangle in thirds like a letter and pinch all the seams together (including the short ends) so they seal. Repeat this step by karate-chopping and folding your cylinder in half again (hot-dog style), then seal. If your dough is perfect, this will result in a nice taut surface on your loaves, which will help them rise and prevent an overly-dense interior. If your dough isn’t perfect, your bread will likely still be delicious. Place your loaves in their snug little pans and let them rise a second time until they start to dome over the edge of the pan, 30-40 minutes.

Heat the oven to 425°F about halfway through the second rise.

Slash the tops of the loaves with a serrated knife and put them in the oven. Immediately turn down the heat to 375°F and bake for 30-35 minutes (start with 30 and then check on them). Finished loaves will be dark golden-brown and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Remove the loaves from the pans and let them cool completely before slicing.

Loaves will keep at room temperature for several days. Loaves can also be wrapped in foil and plastic, and frozen for up to three months.

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3 Comments

  1. emmanuelcbc

     /  October 19, 2016

    Learn to cherish the quiet. It is hard and practically impossible at times. I have found that as I have learned to cherish the quiet I have also learned patience. Patience with myself and with others. I wish I could have discovered such when I was your age.
    You are loved.
    FrM

    Reply
  2. Yep yep yep. We didn’t move hours away, but adjusting to post-school, part-time-employed life on the far side of a Very Big City has been a bit like this for me. Just in the last two weeks I’ve started having writing ideas, and they have been such a gift – a reminder that this quieter/sometimes lonely life is rich in its own ways.

    Reply
  3. at the risk of making you bitter toward me, too, this sounds pretty damn good. 🙂

    Reply

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