There is an Annie Dillard quote that is with me most days. I think of it during good times (reading something from a favorite writer, hiking alongside pristine water that splashes over granite boulders, or listening to my kids talking intently) and also not-as-good times (sucked down the black hole of Facebook, on hold with United, or sitting dead-still and glassy-eye-exhausted as my kids cavort dangerously on the couch at 4pm).
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.
Willed, faked, and so brought into being … I know something about this, and it has something to do with soup. And like soup, this idea of catching days, of structuring time to make my days and hence my life useful, simmers constantly at the back of my mind. I feel certain sometimes that if I could just structure my life perfectly, I could make it hold all the things that are dear to me. I could be present with everything, and everyone, and through sheer force of habit I could guarantee some sort of value to my life.
I actually suspect there is truth in that idea. But I also know that there is no schedule I could ever hold to that would really defend from chaos and whim – not when a one year old and a three year old accompany me through all the hours of my days. So I try to keep it in mind, this idea of building a life that through its own structure can make my days productive and meaningful … but I also try not to get hung up on it. Spending my days with my two little kids means letting go of some of the trappings of adulthood that I find most comforting, and embracing instead the often feverish excitement of childhood’s daily adventures.
Of course, we have a schedule. I don’t think it is the hard and fast scaffolding of a work routine that Dillard imagines, but still. Our days are predictable in their way, sometimes tediously so. My boys and I labor diligently at work that I have no doubt is important – occasional tediousness is part of all work. Or perhaps, the real work is to find our way to being really present, like children are, so that it is not tedious but profound.
Profound? There is profound joy, yes – in bug-hunting, music-making, rapt observation of the weekly trash collection. We build elaborate train tracks, we hike to the beach, we read Good Night Gorilla a hundred or so times, and we spend most afternoons at the park. And there is profound challenge: unlike any job I have ever had before, I find myself almost daily in the position of having no idea what to do. There are meltdowns, tantrums, really dirty diapers at inopportune moments, painful sibling rivalry. There are overwhelming moments of noisiness and the constant, expansive mess of preschoolers. Sometimes I find ingenious ways to cope and feel proud of myself. Sometimes I lose my temper and yell, and then Jacob climbs into my lap, gives me a big hug, and says “Mommy I’m sorry we’re having a rough day.”
But I am not sorry. I am glad – thankful for the rough days as well as the spectacular ones. Because if how we spend our days is how we spend our lives – and it is, of course it is – then I cannot imagine anything better. Ultimately, in the wreck of time, I will have this raft to cling to: the sense that I am lucky, so lucky, to be able to spend my time with my children. Watching them learn, helping them along the way, teaching them the things about the world that I most want them to know.
I’m a big Michael Lewis fan. I recently sat parked in my driveway, rapt, listening to him talk to Terry Gross and promising myself I would not forget to read his incredible piece about Obama in Vanity Fair. Lewis’s article is stunning in its revelations about the president’s days. Obama has wholly embraced his unimaginable burden of responsibility, of knowing that every single second of his time counts. This is terrible, yes, I can see that – he cannot collapse on the couch at night and watch Downton Abbey, he cannot decide on a whim to spend a weekend away with his beautiful wife. But it is also wonderful: Lewis’s stories about the president show us the scaffolding that Obama has built, the structures that allow him to squeeze unbelievable productivity out of every second of his time. Minutes become hours become days, and Obama’s example shows us how to make the most of a lifetime.
And while he writes Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speeches, worries about missing pilots in Libya, and works tirelessly to fix our economy, I explore the park with my kids, lose my temper about our messy family room, and read stories to warm and cuddly, PJ-clad boys each night. He does the work of setting our beautiful, broken country back in order. And meanwhile, I bake bread with my kids.
And we are both catching days.
Adapted from the “French-Style Bread” recipe in Beard on Bread by James Beard (1979 edition)
Beard tells us that this bread is “not truly French … [but] could be called “Continental” because it is very much like bread one finds in Italy, Spain, and Portugal.” In my head, this bread is filed away as “restaurant bread” – from the restaurant that brings it to the table in a still-steamy basket, crust waiting to chew under your teeth, crumb soft and slightly open. It’s the bread that can make your side order of soup into a real meal – especially with a smear of butter.
But the real reason to love this bread is this: despite being yeast-risen and wonderful, it comes together start to finish in a mere 2 1/2 hours. Yes! That’s all! There are two chief reasons for this: first, the dough gets only one rise. Second, it goes into a cold oven, and bakes perfectly as the oven heats. This is great tasting bread, no doubt, but it is this timing that makes it so popular here. If I can find fifteen minutes to make the dough some time between 3 and 4 pm, we can so easily have fresh bread with dinner. And so the bread itself becomes part of our scaffolding, and we labor with both hands at sections of time.
This bread is wonderful fresh, or it can be frozen. Beard recommends not keeping it around on the counter more than a day, but it usually doesn’t last that long around here. This recipe makes two long loaves.
Also, we love studding this with little chia seeds – their flavor is unobtrusive, just slightly sweet and nutty, and they add a nice dose of lots of good healthy things to a simple bread.
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
2 cups warm water (body temperature is good)
2 teaspoons salt
5-6 cups bread flour (or a combination of bread, all purpose, and whole wheat – see below)
3 tablespoons yellow cornmeal or whole grain flour, for dusting
Optional: 2 tablespoons chia seeds
Optional: 1 egg white mixed with 1 tablespoon cold water, for glazing before baking (I omit this step, and love the slightly softer bite to the crust – but the egg white does help make it more shattery in the oven)
Before you begin, line a heavy baking sheet with parchment and dust with flour.
Combine yeast, water and sugar in a large bowl and allow yeast to dissolve and foam. Mix the salt with five cups of flour. Add the flour mixture to the yeast mixture, one cup at a time, until a stiff dough forms. Add chia seeds if using.
Put the dough on a floured counter and knead by hand, adding additional flour to the counter as needed if the dough becomes too sticky. (When using the chia seeds I don’t usually need much additional flour, since they absorb a decent amount of moisture). Knead until smooth and elastic and no longer sticky, about five to ten minutes. Then form into a ball, put onto your floured baking sheet, and cover with a dish towel.
Let rise for 1-2 hours, or until doubled in bulk. Make sure you are letting it rise in a relatively warm and draft free location.
Punch the dough down, and knead for a minute into a ball. Form into two long loaves, and slash each a few times across the top. If you are using the egg wash, do it now. Dust baking sheet with cornmeal or additional flour, and then dust top of loaves as well.
Put into a cold oven, and turn it on to 400 F. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the loaves are crusty and golden and sound hollow when you tap the top lightly. That’s it!
This recipe takes very well to additions of whole wheat or other flours (don’t use more than 50%). A second rise does develop the flavor more, making a more tightly-textured and interesting loaf – but it is definitely not needed. Beard also suggests a variation with equal parts white, whole-wheat, and cracked-wheat flours, and the addition of a bit of olive oil to the dough. I haven’t tried it yet, but I plan to soon!