Bread & Broken Glass

During the night the kneading hands of the wind pried the door of the larger greenhouse loose from its rollers. Untethered at the base, it must have knocked against the frame until the topmost pane of glass shattered. Some glass fell in onto the bolting rocket and cornsalad nearest the door; most fell outwards onto the ground in great slippery shards, and minute silver fragments that hid amongst the drops of rain clinging to the grass.

Plans are discarded. There’ll be no new bed of onions today; I race around dragging escapee cloches back over their frames and tamping them down with old tiles. The greenhouse door has to be fixed as quickly as possible, not for the sake of the hardy lettuces inside, but so the changeable wind doesn’t put her fist through any more panes. We board it up with wood, stuffing rags into the last few gaps, and then with two pairs of gloves on I begin to collect up the glass.

Even in the wind, I like this kind of work. It’s the kind of job you can’t fail at. Every piece collected is a little success in itself. And when it’s done, there’s the satisfaction of something complete, something whole, something untouchable – even in a bag of broken glass.

In the afternoon, I learn to make bread.

I’ve made bread before, years ago, but now I’m learning how to make the large, regular batches we eat every day, and to bake in the Aga. It becomes clear to me very quickly that I haven’t remembered anything very useful; I have to learn this skill from the beginning.

The Community have asked me to take on the breadmaking as part of my work as a Postulant. It’s a way of serving the Community, of participating in the Eucharistic life at the heart of our community, and it’ll primarily be my sole responsibility. It’s not a small undertaking, and it’s in the grey territory outside my comfort zone. Once or twice I’ve joked about my terrible cooking skills – perhaps protesting too loudly. I’m always scared of letting people down, so I try to set the bar low: anecdote after anecdote, told in my biggest, silliest voice, about failed driving tests and burnt meals, clothes torn, examinations scraped through by a hair. The first thing I have to let go of is my anxiety: somehow the Community believe in me, and I have to take on their faith, and believe in myself. And part of this is letting go of the compulsive need to justify that faith, and to prove myself; their faith is offered freely, without qualification.

The bread I’m asked to make, in my work in the kitchen, in my work in the garden, is the bread of service. It can be made from flour, yeast and water in the kitchen. It can be made from a bag of broken glass collected in the garden, a row of broad beans reaching out of the ground, a handful of flies swept off the windowsill in an unused bedroom. It is bread, and it isn’t like any bread I’ve eaten before.

When I taught myself to make bread, in my final year of university, I was living in a large student house with four lovely, and very tolerant friends. I used to walk from room to room idly tossing the dough in my hands, wanting to be admired for my craftiness. (I have an idea now that this didn’t particularly do the dough any good.) My friends bought me a smoothie maker for Christmas. My family bought me Mason Cash mixing bowls – I ended up with three – and I bought myself small things that made me feel as if I owned the world, and all its domesticity: a rolling pin, a wooden spoon, a bread tin.

There was a time when I imagined that my happiness was dependent on drawing everything I touched and everything I loved into myself. this meant lists of all the artists I liked, so I couldn’t forget their names. It meant an endlessly re-written CV, intensely proud of all my certificates. It meant trying everything, and wanting to know and have an opinion on everything. And to symbolise all of this, I had a dream of a house. It would be an end of terrace red-brick, with bay windows and a long, sloping garden. I imagined a wide patio, fairy-lights strung down from the house to a dwarf-stock apple tree halfway down the lawn. Inside the kitchen would have warm, yellow walls and a farmhouse table. And upstairs I’d have a study full of books, where I could shut myself and all my dreams and hopes and ideas away. My Wilko rolling-pin was the first piece of that security.

The unexpressed, unrealised aspect of this wasn’t about possessing material goods, but about building up a ‘self’. I spent my university years desperately trying to build up a ‘character’, who would be tough, and cool, and clever. Without denying any of the interests and the wonderful people I met in those years, who changed me for the better in so many ways, I now have the task of deconstructing that person. I can love the things she loved, but now they have to become distinct from me, and I have to find a sense of self which doesn’t depend on piercings or poetry or an intricate knowledge of the history of Norwich or any one of a thousand fragments of broken glass I tried to hide behind. Part of the call of the Religious Life: love these things, but be willing to leave them behind.

When I make bread, and think longingly of the beautiful Mason Cash bowls wrapped in newspaper in my parents’ attic, I’m baking a new bread. This bread can’t be baked in my fictional buttercup-kitchen; it’s made because I’m asked to make it, with what I’m given.

And this bread comes as a choice. I can receive it a crutch for my fragile ‘self’, something that validates my place in the Community, that makes me Useful and Necessary.

Or I can give it as the bread of service, which we share. It isn’t mine and it doesn’t matter that I made it, and every impulse to brag or worry about it has to be left outside the oven door. But I receive it too. Before it is even cut, in the making, I am receiving that bread. I can’t explain it, but when I was told: this is part of our eucharistic life, I understood. It’s a blessing to make bread, as it is a blessing to break it.

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Lent 1: Ash Wednesday

Lent begins in silence. I was late downstairs, rushing to put the water on, finish making porridge before chapel. At quarter to seven I’m pushing a wheelbarrow full of bin bags down to the gate, passing the woman who delivers milk to us three times a week. I say good morning, and we smile at each other, and the silence somehow stays complete. I’m discovering the strange elasticity of silence, how sometimes it stretches around whole conversations, how at other times a cold shoulder or a single word can make it snap like burst bubblegum. There is a constant friction between me and the silence: a yearning for it fighting with the impulse to push the clutter in my head out into the empty space.

For many years I’ve thought of Lent as empty space. It’s a time of waiting, a time of absences and restrictions. The chapel is stripped of flowers and the liturgy of cheerful Alleluias. There is a need within me to fill empty spaces. Sometimes I fill Lent with projects. If I give something up, I talk about it ceaselessly; if I read a Lent book, or study, I read hungrily, without time to stop and meditate. And then comes the cavernous emptiness of Holy Saturday, between the grief of Good Friday and the blissful end of emptiness on Easter Day. In both of these days there’s plenty to fill my head and heart. But I’ve always hidden from that long, empty Saturday, unsure what to do with it, how to understand that stretch of time.

This morning I helped to clear our smaller greenhouse, ready to take trays of seeds. In the pouring rain, we emptied the space, levelled the ground, and begun to plan and place shelves. Excess soil, which I had assumed was dead to all use, we sieved and saved for seedlings which need poor soil. I’m beginning to realise how often the garden changes, and how adaptable we need to be to keep up with it. In my naivety I’d imagined that anything we hadn’t used in the last six months was never used, and sat as a permanent fixture in one place, as if it had sat there since the convent was founded. But even unseen, even in absence and emptiness, life changes our garden. The tomato seeds that lay dormant three days ago have sprouted inch long stems and inch imperceptibly towards the glass even as we turn them back. As we clear away, I see the greenhouse in a new light. Even emptier now than it was this morning, laid bare but for the neat shelves, it suddenly seems so full to me. I can see the rows of young tomato and chilli plants and the trays of lettuce and beetroot and chard, rocket and perpetual spinach, bean and berry. The greenhouse is a womb holding the next few months of our garden, even before the seeds are planted. And in it’s emptiness it also holds my hopes, for the things I might learn, the journey I’ll take over this Lent and the months and the years to come.

As a student I once wrote an essay on ‘blank space’ as a metatextual element. Emptiness and absence have become an uncomfortable recurring interest, an academic obsession. But it’s not so comfortable to be asked to live alongside emptiness or uncertainty. If we really go into Lent, this is inevitable, and it’s so human to run away. But it seems to me that, like the waiting greenhouse, the silence of Lent is a growing silence: empty, and yet so, so full.