Leavening Grief

While many are perfecting their breadmaking skills these days, I’ve turned it into a spectator sport with Great British Bake Off (now Baking Show). The accents alone, and the cheeky humor (yes, I now toss about British phrases, complete with a bloody brilliant accent) keep me all in. I had already watched the PBS series and am now catching the most recent episodes on Netflix. (I knew about the host changes, but I still miss me some Mary Berry.)

What does this show have that other competition shows lack? Kindness. There is genuine fondness and encouragement among the contestants. Yes, they’re rivals but there’s no sabotage or backstabbing. Just the goal of scrummy bakes with no soggy bottoms. A life goal, really.

With the right ingredients and proper techniques, a baker’s precision is rewarded with deliciousness. I think that’s part of the global breadmaking obsession. When one can’t control the danger posed by the very breath of one’s neighbor, one returns to the simplicity of flour, water, and yeast. Of course, some have been there all along, like Kendall Vanderslice, author of We Will Feast: Rethinking Dinner, Worship, and the Community of God, and owner of Companion Bread Share, a community supported bread bakery in Durham, North Carolina.

In describing Bread Baking as Spiritual Practice, Kendall encourages an intentionality I would’ve never otherwise brought to the process. It isn’t only the simple ingredients one must “put in place.”

“Equip yourself for the long haul.
This work entails patience, even when changes
are imperceptible to the human eye.
It begs commitment, even after the headlines
have calmed. Prepare yourself to be transformed.”

Whoa. This is about more than bread.

All these things flashed through my mind at the start of one episode of GBBO, set off by a prop announcing the week’s assignment:  Bread, written in French.

Of course, the French pronunciation doesn’t rhyme with “main” but at first glance it’s impossible to see the word any other way.

Inside the tent, the bakers’ first challenge is always to create a masterpiece based on their own recipe. They’ve practiced the recipe before arriving and must prove their ability to recreate it under the pressure of competition and judgment. Next, however, comes an unknown technical challenge. It may be something they’ve never seen or heard of, much less made before. This is when it’s critical to follow the recipe and take each step forward with the mixing and kneading and rising, and deflating and rising and shaping and baking until finally! It culminates in bread. A warm, tasty slice of reward for one’s work.

Lately I find I’m desperate for that same process to work in life. Turns out there’s no recipe for anxiety or depression or grief that can be followed step by step to bring it to fruition, to hurry it along and make it be done. No formula that produces a modicum of peace, satisfaction, and joy. With no orderliness to the outrage, no chronology to the crying, it seems there’s no end to the ingredients list for grief.

Even though grief often appears random and uncontrollable, there’s an overall certainty about it—not unlike a recipe—that deserves respect. As memories morph into tears, there’s an unavoidable sweetness that develops as I remember that pain is a reflection of the degree to which I loved and was loved. To which I still love and am still loved.

Tears wash away any walls that attempt to serve as protection and they allow the natural flow of grief to run through my days. Grief—like water—seeks its own level.

Anne Lamott writes, “Tears will bathe and baptize and hydrate you and the ground on which you walk.” Acknowledging the sacred nature of grief, she adds, “The first thing God says to Moses is, ‘Take off your shoes. We are on holy ground.’”

Much like yeast doesn’t require permission from flour and water to grow into bread, the sacred ground where grief lives—and on which I stand—doesn’t require explanation or reason or justification. One simply exists to make the other stronger and to forever bind them together into a more cohesive whole.

Just as bread dough is strengthened by the uniting of yeast, water and wheat, I am strengthened each time grief’s tears saturate the memories of those I’ve lost. Grief doesn’t demand that I measure or weigh the ingredients of my pain. It takes what it finds without judgment, kneading together seemingly disparate sources of sorrow. A disappointment here, a failed venture there, a broken relationship tucked away in a corner.

The sadness I still feel over losing my dog Henry seven months ago pales in comparison to the sadness I feel over losing my mom less than three months ago. But tears that begin for my mom sometimes also have Henry’s name on them. They wash off a memory of her “walking” him as she, herself, struggled to walk.

When I smile at the memory of my “baby boy,” as I called Henry, grief further uncovers memories until I weep again for the actual babies I miscarried years ago. In a cruel twist of irony, grief doesn’t require proof of life for one’s heart to still ache.

Aptly, Lamott describes grieving a loved one as “a lifelong nightmare of homesickness,” and adds, “Death. Wow. So f-ing hard to bear, when the few people you cannot live without die. You will never get over these losses, and are not supposed to.”

Therefore, I don’t feel the need to defend my grief in order to cry for “just a dog” or to accept someone’s idea that I needn’t be sad because “they weren’t really people, yet.” I don’t have to justify my grief because in Christ, I, myself, am justified.

The shortest scripture in the bible – “Jesus wept” – certainly requires no justification. Even though Jesus would soon go on to bring his friend Lazarus back from the dead, He honored the moment when love and friendship mingled with illness and death by weeping at the loss of His friend.

Death. Wow. So f-ing hard to bear.

Jesus wept.

Take off your shoes, friend. This is holy ground.

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