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.