Is kindness more than skin deep?

Maybe this week’s actions aren’t even in the category of kindness. You tell me, according to my definition:

“Kindness is any gesture I make directly to – or on behalf of – myself, my fellow humans, or the environment, as a way of saying, “I see you. I believe we’re interconnected. I recognize your dignity and value. 

Kindness must be offered in a way that arises out of attentiveness to another. No one wants to be felt sorry for as much as listened to. Seen. Heard.”

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I’m a white woman.

I mostly bake white bread.

I live in a country where white families are statistically still – as in it’s always been this way – wealthier than non-white families.

I live in a country where white students are statistically still – as in it’s always been this way – scoring higher on standardized testing.

I live in a country where white babies are statistically still – as in it’s always been this way – twice as likely to survive their birth than black babies.

“…recently there has been growing acceptance of what has largely been, for the medical establishment, a shocking idea: For black women in America, an inescapable atmosphere of societal and systemic racism can create a kind of toxic physiological stress, resulting in conditions — including hypertension and pre-eclampsia — that lead directly to higher rates of infant and maternal death…” New York Times Magazine, “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis” by Linda Villarosa. April, 2018.

Can I spend a whole year dedicated to kindness and not inform myself deeply, and talk about, about these inequities?

I’ve benefitted all my 60 years from being white. I’ve never seen art or literary works by white women hauled out for special attention during “White History Month.” It’s assumed that my whiteness is always visible and on the shelf. Every month is white history month.

Yes, there are fewer women than men represented in the arts, and we’ll get our Women’s History Month in March, but I never have to decide if I should first fight for my race rights or my women’s rights.

When I read books by people of color, I specifically have to seek them out. Representation on book shelves isn’t even close to being equal. For example, when I searched for books in my countywide library system with “kindness” in the title, I got 79 results, none written by a person of color.

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Well, there is that one children’s book about a former slave, written by a white woman, but illustrated by a black man. Does that count? It’s the true story of William “Doc” Key, a former slave. Doc trained his horse Beautiful Jim Key to spell and read by using kindness rather than cruelty. The “Afterword” points out that “Doc and Jim’s legacy lives on in today’s stronger humane movement, better enforced animal anticruelty laws, and greater societal compassion toward animals?” Is it easier for us to advocate for kindness toward animals than kindness to each other?

I have a white dog to whom I’m incredibly kind. I’m friends with black dogs.

I subscribe to newsletters: one from Lee & Low Books, “the largest multi-cultural children’s book publisher in the country and one of the few minority-owned publishing companies in the United States”; and another from We Need Diverse Books, a non-profit and grassroots organization of children’s book lovers that “advocates essential changes in the publishing industry. Our aim is to help produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.”

I follow @goodblackreads@wellreadblackgirl, and @diverseclassics on Instagram to help lead me to books I might not easily find on my own.

In Old English, “kindness” or “kyndness” means “nation.” This is a derivative of “kind.”

Middle English kinde, from Old English (ge)cynde” natural, native, innate,” originally “with the feeling of relatives for each other,” from Proto-Germanic *kundi- “natural, native,” from *kunjam “family”

“With the feeling of relatives for each other…”

What would you do for family? What does any of this have to do with kindness?

If you’re following along with this month’s “Grow your heart” Kindness Calendar, you’ll notice repetition:

February 1: Find ways to volunteer in your community. Send 3 e-mails asking for information from a group.

February 6: Seek out a book or film set in a community different from yours.

February 8: Did you hear back from your 3 volunteer organizations?

February 21: How’s that book / film coming? Read more.

February is Black History Month. I’ve been reading, devouring really, stories about being black in America. Histories. Herstories.

I watched Jada Pinkett Smith’s Red Table Talk: Unpacking White Privilege and Prejudice.

I’ve been listening too. I heard this conversation, after a viewing of BlacKkKlansman:

What was the timeframe for BlacKkKlansman? At least it’s not like that in America anymore. Things are better now.

Better for whom? I’d like for my kin to experience no measurable disparity among races.

In 2019 still, in America, being black is a statistical disadvantage for mental health and physical safety, bad for economic stability, and for representation in books, film, art, dance, music, in boardrooms and for over-representation in the criminal justice system. Anything other than white is still “other.” If you’re shaking your head “no, no, no” right now, take a reading break and go on a search engine scavenger hunt. Look up “weathering hypothesis” and “black infant mortality.” Read “A visual look at discriminatory lending in the U.S.” Look up “US Incarceration Rates by Race.”

If I solely identify as white, I don’t have to spend one second of time or energy fighting racism on my own behalf, or that of my family. I statistically benefit every day from things I did nothing to earn but being born of white parents. This leaves me with a hefty store of reserves for #KindInKind, starting with my February 22 suggestion:  How about that volunteer effort?

I volunteer with the Orange County Human Relations committee to speak about hate crimes: How to identify them, report them, prevent them. I went through hours of training, a background check, fingerprinting, practice.

I’ve been waiting more than a year for someone to call on me to present, to allow me to stand safe on the other side of the podium under the banner of OC Human Relations committee and talk about race issues. I’m happy to speak to you or your group, but I’m not waiting anymore for someone to call to take action.

Do you want more from Black History month than quoting Martin Luther King?

Here are four things you can do to kindly “Grow your heart.”

Read: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson.

Just Mercy is an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming of age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of justice.”

Listen: The red line: Racial disparities in lending  by Reveal, The Center for Investigative Reporting.

“Forty years ago, Congress passed the Community Reinvestment Act, which required banks to lend to qualified borrowers in blighted neighborhoods. The act aimed to eliminate government-sponsored housing discrimination, known as redlining…Today, a new epidemic of modern-day redlining has crept quietly across America. The gap in homeownership between African Americans and whites is now wider than it was during the Jim Crow era.”

Watch: Slavery by Another Name, a 90-minute documentary.

“It is rare to have the opportunity to bring to television a story that, outside of academic circles, is virtually unknown,” says tpt National Productions’ Catherine Allan, executive producer of the 90 minute documentary for PBS.  “In telling the story of what happened to African Americans over the 80 year period of “neo-slavery”, we hope to add a significant new facet to America’s ongoing discussion about race.”

Write: Write to your library, your children’s school, your church, your market, your favorite book publisher / shoe store / media outlet / pet store. Write a letter that goes something like this:

Dear________________________,

I appreciate all you do.

You know I’ve always been a supporter of ________________, and I know the impact all your great work has in the field of ____________________.

Are you open to a suggestion? In ___________________ (months, years) it seems the number of white (presidents / preachers / teachers / presenters / readers / managers / guest speakers / etc.) far outnumber those who are people of color.

Don’t you think it’s time to make more opportunity and visibility available to the full spectrum of humanity that lives in our country?

Of course I wouldn’t dare make a suggestion without offering resources. I’m here to help in any way I can. (Don’t worry, dear reader. If you write this letter, I’m willing to help you find those resources. #KindInKind.)

Hunh, I really didn’t anticipate a deep dive in this Year of Kindness, but deep I go. That dialogue about race everyone’s saying we need to have? It’s been going on and on and on and as a white woman, I need to listen, to learn, to speak up, to widen my circle of  kynd.

I like white bread.

I like my white dog.

I love my white grandchildren. And I really want them to work with me on changes that create kindness and lasting equality in their lifetime. 

Be well. Be aware. Be kind.
~ Catherine

You don’t need to like me

The Glass Forest

I mean I really do appreciate all the like and love clicks. ButI also hope to inspire you to try a few acts of kindness yourself and tell me how it goes. 

It’s been just over a month since I vowed:

“I’m embarking on a new adventure: to intentionally incorporate one simple act of kindness into each day for one year. My certainty that kindness can change the world is a little like throwing a glass ball into the ocean and believing it won’t break.”

My glass globe of kindness is bobbing along but it’s picking up a little drag along the way.

  • What is kindness and why am I doing this anyway?
  • Is kindness different from being nice?
  • What if my kind of kindness takes longer than one day to perform? 
  • Might I disappoint some people in order to be kind to others?
  • How do I define kindness?

After one month of doing everything from hosting a Vision Board Potluck party, to romping through the mud for 7 miles to make my pup happy; from taking my Mom and Dad out to lunch and photographing them, to baking bread for my neighbor, I’m learning a few things. And speaking of learning, I took an intensive weekend-long poetry writing class to be kind to myself and my readers too.

 

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So far, this is my definition:

“Kindness is any gesture I make directly to, or on behalf of, myself, my fellow humans, or the environment, as a way of saying, “I see you. I believe we’re interconnected. I recognize your dignity and value.

Kindness must be offered in a way that arises out of attentiveness to another. No one wants to be felt sorry for as much as listened to. Seen. Heard.”

Don’t worry. It’ll smooth out to sound more poetic by the end of the year.

Another thing: for now, I’m challenging myself to actions, rather than donating to causes. I believe there’s a human connectivity that compels me to acknowledge and be grateful for all the goodness I’ve received. This connectivity is the foundational belief between the name of my project, #KindInKind. I’ve received kindness and I’ll return it, “in kind,” a phrase defined by Merriam Webster Dictionary as “consisting of something (such as goods or commodities) other than money.”

Here’s news to anyone who doesn’t tune in to conversations that take place without shouting. Spreading kindness is an entirely unoriginal idea.

There’s:
Random Acts of Kindness Foundation.
Kindness.org
Doing Good Together
The World Kindness Movement
Spread Kindness.org

To some, kindness means an odyssey, a test of the altruistic limits of humanity as in The Kindness Diaries TV series, or the memoir, The Kindness of Strangers: Penniless Across America by Mike McIntyre.

To others, it’s about creating a grand gesture like One Million Acts of Good.

For all this focus on kindness, you’d think it would be as natural an instinct as breathing, and we’d all be nothing but a big ball of happy. We’ll get there. I firmly believe we will.

Would it surprise you to learn there’s a gender bias about the expectation of kindness?

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“Words like kind and responsible, while generally used in a positive way overall, were used more consistently as valued traits for women,” according to a July, 2018 report published by the Pew Research Center, “How Americans describe what society values in men and women.”

So here again, my focus on kindness isn’t surprising. I’m a woman. I should be kind. But so should we all because kindness leads to healthier humans, especially in healthcare settings. Recent research by Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism found that:

 “The statistical significance of kindness-oriented care on improved health outcomes is larger than the effect of aspirin on reducing a heart attack or smoking cessation on male mortality.”

Even rats are impacted by kindness; they develop empathy for who (or what) is helpful to them and return a favor in-kind. You can read all about it in “Rats rescue robots,” a 2018 research study printed in the science journal Animal Behavior and Cognition. Here’s a compelling excerpt.

“There is even some evidence that rats show a form of indirect reciprocity and will “pay it forward,” by rewarding an unknown, unrelated rat that has never rewarded them, but only if they have experienced reward previously provided by other rats.”

I’ll keep testing the theory that kindness can change humanity and push it more in February with the theme “Grow your heart.” I’m learning about the California land where I live, and that means its natives, both people and plants.

Yes, I still bake and share bread and meals, send cards, make time for deep conversations, and do small gestures like running an errand for a neighbor or visiting family. January’s theme, “Close to home” continues its ripples.

But in February so far I’ve dug deep into the history of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation, people who first lived where I live in California, to learn how I might develop curriculum for California schools which still teach a 4th grade mission unit that overlooks first nations. 

I’ve researched a common and prolifically applied weed killer ingredient, Glyphosate, and its ill effects on humans and honeybees and am advocating against its use in my neighborhood.

These acts are more complex than simple random gestures. They frequently take longer than a day to finish and they push me to be brave as I approach those with different ideas than mine. In being kind to one person, I might appear to be not nice to another. Am I doing this right?

As I live my questions in the Year of Kindness, I remain inspired by the wisdom of others like R.J. Palaccio, the author of Wonder, who said in an interview after the film was released:

“I think if anything it takes much more courage to be kind in the face of everything. The choice that you can respond to any situation…with kindness…elevates us as people. It’s what we should aspire to be and aspire to do. Kindness is one of those things: You are made kind by doing kind and being kind.  Now, more than ever, it’s a message that needs to get out there in the world.”

Some remarkable things have already happened.

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I’ve gotten countless e-mails, DMs, texts, and phone calls from folks I know, and some I’ve never met, who say they’re inspired by all this kindness and they too are now walking through 2019 more aware of their fellow human beings.

They’ve committed to one kind act here, a month’s worth of kindness there.

I hired a talented young graphic designer to make a February Kindness Calendar for you. It’s filled with ideas on how to make your month, or week, or day more kind. If you want one, drop me a line and I’ll e-mail you the free downloadable PDF.

I’d also love to read your definition of kindness. As George Saunders said in his speech that went viral on the New York Times website and is now printed as Congratulations, by way: Some Thoughts on Kindness. 

“Because kindness, it turns out, is hard—it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs and expands to include…well, everything.”

What is your everything? Please tell me.

Until then
Be well. Be aware. Be kind.
~Catherine

I photographed “The Glass Forest” at Chihuly Garden and Glass in Seattle, WA.

Through my mother’s eyes

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She said, “Show me how you meditate.”

One of my favorite kind acts of January was sharing mindfulness meditation resources with my mom and dad.

Do you want great ideas for ways to spread kindness in February?

Reach out on the contact form below and I’ll share a gorgeous February calendar to give you a kindness quest for every day. The 8 1/2 x 11″ printable PDF calendar is free. It’s intentionally designed by Monica Greene, a young artist I’m crazy about.

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From her design stylesheet:

“That leads me to the color palette. Flowers such as primrose and violet are often associated with February as they are the first flowers to bloom in the cold. I thought this imagery was beautiful as they are harbingers of spring and better things to come and your calendar is serving as a harbinger of positivity and beauty in the winter month…

The leaves are from the Ash tree, another symbol for February and by calling on the tree a source I read says, “…you are seeking a clarification for your own vision and path”. I thought this calendar could be the clarification needed…”
Monica Greene

Go be kind.
Share your kindness journey at #KindInKind
~Catherine

 

I see you

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It was cold and windy a few nights back when Chester and I headed out the door on his last walk before bedtime. Rain was forecast. A south easterly breeze kicked up, already strong enough to rustle the eucalyptus and jangle the wind chimes. Two owls called to each other down the dark hill.

I was a little mad at myself, wondering if this year of kindness was already floundering since I hadn’t really found a way to be intentionally kind all day. I’d baked bread and shared it at a neighborhood dinner potluck. But I would have done that anyway. I’d been part of a conversation about where to donate the jar of money our friend group fed  all year instead of buying gifts for each other. But that felt like riding the coattails of a 2018 decision. Bah, I thought. I’ll do two kind things tomorrow.

Watch for coyotes, Jim said when we left. I saw one crossing the street just now as I was taking out the trash cans.

Stepping into nearly silent darkness, with its sage-fresh cold air, and tree-lined canopy, is my favorite nightcap. I take a flashlight, but rarely turn it on, especially on a night like this with the waning crescent moon, mars on the far horizon and stars enough to brighten the road.

Forgive me, I asked the moon.

There isn’t a sidewalk, but I can see cars’ headlights in plenty of time to move onto gravel or bushes long before the driver would have to swerve. Anyway, in my sleepy neighborhood on a Sunday night, cars are rare and I’ve never been hit.

So when a black SUV roared up the hill and pulled a u-turn a few feet from me and Chester, I startled. The back passenger door opened and a figure emerged, stood at the car’s back bumper, seeming to watch me. Chester growled low.

Mrs. Keefe!

I recognized the voice of a now-man, a once 7-year-old boy I’d met when we first moved in.

Zach was long gone from the neighborhood, but his father still lives on our block. I was starting to shiver, not eager to stay out longer and tempt the rain and coyote gods, but there was something urgent in the way he’d called out in the dark.

I picked up a thread of conversation we’d been pulling for more than ten years.

Are the right teams going to the playoffs? Zach played football through high school and we always caught up on his life through sports.

Nah, nothing is going right. He kicked the dirt, shoved his hands in his pockets. Inside the SUV, I heard voices between beats in the music.  I just got back from a funeral. Maybe you read about it. A guy I knew was riding a bike and he was hit by a 16-year-old girl. It was really sad. Nothing good about any of it.

Zach is the kind of guy that goes to funerals. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen him in front of his house after doing so. A friend’s mom. A friend. It seems like for such a young man he’s seen plenty of death.

So the wind blew and the cold settled while I listened to Zach talk in the dark about two shattered families. The fragility of life. How to find meaning.

I said I was really sorry about his friend.

I pointed at the sky and told him sometimes when I feel bad, I look up just to feel that blanket of stars cover me.

Mhmmm, he said. It sure is beautiful out here. Every day. We’re so lucky to be alive.

According to the United Nations, about 6,775 people die each day in the US.  Odds are we walk past, or brush by, someone grieving more often than we know.

How can we learn to carry a kind, open gentleness in our hearts when someone seemingly snubs us or nearly runs us over?

Can we learn to slow down a little, to look up together in the cold, dark and take time to listen when someone unexpectedly trusts us with an admission of sadness?

Zach and I finally said goodbye. Chester and I returned home. I sat on my balcony watching the moon slowly disappear behind gathering clouds. As clouds cover the moon, you can watch an ever-tightening circle hug the moon closer and closer, creating a focal point of light in the night sky.

The air grew damper and the wind picked up as the chimes clanged a louder dissonance. Down the hill, the owls still called. The lights went out in Zach’s house and I went in to bed.

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Grief is, unfortunately, an unavoidable part of being alive. Additionally, we seem to be living in a particularly high-stress time according to one recent indicator reported in the January 14, 2019 Los Angeles Times under the headline: “Mental health books outsell diet and exercise books at Barnes & Noble.”

“In a shift, American readers have become more interested in books about mental health than about diet and exercise, according to data released by bookstore chain Barnes & Noble.

The data, collected around the New Year’s season, seems to indicate that readers’ annual resolutions are focusing less on losing weight and getting in shape, and more on reducing stress and increasing self-esteem.” Michael Schaub

According to research, kindness is contagious and can lead to elevated feelings. In “Kindness Contagion,” a recent article in Scientific American, Jamil Zaki explains:

“Witnessing kindness inspires kindness, causing it to spread like a virus…We find that people imitate not only the particulars of positive actions, but also the spirit underlying them. This implies is that kindness itself is contagious, and that that it can cascade across people, taking on new forms along the way.” Jamil Zaki

I suppose there are many reasons why this is so, but I think fundamentally there’s great hope, healing, and joy when we feel seen by another. If you find yourself catching the kindness bug this year, and taking on new forms from my experiences, here are two simple ways to inspire others and uplift the common mood.

1: Post about your action on Instagram using hashtag  #KindInKind.
2: Write about what you did and get in touch via this blog. I’ll share your story, either anonymously or giving you credit, whichever you prefer.

Speaking of credit, my favorite photographer, Susan Greene Photography, gets all the credit for Super Blood Wolf Moon Lunar Eclipse photos.

Believe

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I’m embarking on a new adventure: to intentionally incorporate one simple act of kindness into each day for one year. My certainty that kindness can change the world is a little like throwing a glass ball into the ocean and believing it won’t break.

Feel free to call this series: 365 Reasons to Roll Your Eyes, but science says your own happiness will increase if you share the journey.

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I printed out the January 2019 Random Acts of Kindness Calendar to stuff in my adult kids’ Christmas stockings. I thought instead of buying things, our family could bond over the challenge of trying to do something kind in our own little worlds, in a Bingo sort of way. First person to finish five kind acts across the calendar, or down, or diagonal, or a blackout, would win the month and share the victory via family text. If it went well, I’d branch out to my sisters, nieces, nephews and send everyone a February calendar, then March, then…then…then…

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I anticipated darting glances, an awkward silence or, worse, feigned public interest with hidden giggles. At the last minute, I yanked the gold-tied calendar scrolls and hid them in my underwear drawer. I hung the stockings, with not so much care as a light touch since there was nothing in them but a book: 52 Lists for Happiness: Weekly Journaling Inspiration for Positivity, Balance, and Joy by Moreea Seal.

Who doesn’t want happiness for their children?

Maybe I should have persisted with my Random Acts of Kindness monthly calendar idea. (Would it seem as if I don’t think my kids are kind enough already? Is it pushy to take my values and wrap them as a gift?)

It turns out that kindness makes you happier. In her article for UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine: Science-Based Insights for a Meaningful Life, Elizabeth Hopper breaks down the findings of a May, 2018 study published in The Journal of Social Psychology, authored by Dr. Lee Rowland and Oliver Scott Curry: “A range of kindness activities boost happiness.”

“Researchers asked 683 adults from over two dozen countries—from the United States and Brazil to the United Kingdom and South Africa—to complete at least one act of kindness daily for a week, such as helping a neighbor, writing a thank you card, or paying for someone’s movie ticket. People were encouraged to carry out more kind acts—or different types of kind acts—than they normally would. One group was asked to direct their kindness towards people they were close to (i.e., friends and family), while another group was kind towards people they were less close to (i.e., acquaintances and people they didn’t know as well).

Other participants were asked to make an effort to practice self-kindness—for example, by meditating, going on a walk, or dancing to a favorite song. A fourth group didn’t engage in kind acts themselves, but they tried to observe acts of goodness carried out by other people—for example, when someone volunteered, bought coffee for someone else, or simply stopped to pick up litter. The researchers compared all these groups to a control group of people who went about their lives as usual.”

Small daily acts of kindness – for strangers, or family, or self – can quantifiably improve your happiness. We also get a mood boost by simply observing a kind act being performed.

To keep myself accountable to performing 365 Acts of Kindness, and to make you dear reader, happier by simple observation, I reached out to Kindness.org, a group with this mission statement:

“We are a nonprofit with a bold hypothesis: Kindness is the catalyst in solving the world’s biggest challenges. We believe a kinder world is possible, and we’re here to make it happen.”

Kindness.org offers the opportunity for anyone to become a Citizen Scientist, that is to try and quantify how acts of kindness in the world create positive effects. I offered myself and my writing skills up as a Citizen Scientist with this pitch:

“I too believe a kinder world is possible. I believe there are more ordinary people building a stepping-stone path toward a gentler world than any news story can tell. Invisibility isn’t non-existence. If I can help quantify and amplify with my writing skills how kindness matters, then I’m happy to do so.”

We’ll see if they get back to me. In the meantime, I’m going to call my friend who’s moving today out of the house she’s lived in for more than 30 years. I want to bring her bread and soup.

Be kind
~Catherine

I photographed Niijima Floats,” at Chihuly Garden and Glass in Seattle, WA.

Prayer before Thanksgiving

Table

Before the feast was expected to be perfect, responsibly sourced, cruelty free, gluten free, dairy free, nut free, vegan, Paleolithic meant early humans, ketosis simply what your body does when it starves. Feast and starvation are divides with plenty of middle ground.

Before the feast ever thought of being shot by a camera and able to evoke an inexplicable longing for something absent through the visual gesture of crisply edged pie and brown butter beans, sustainable meant the ability of family and friends to gather on chairs, some sturdier than others, year in and year out and be grateful for everything under the sun or snow like the way your mother is still present to pop cranberries with sugar over fire, the way her mother did, and share and the way your father’s face still lights up when he sees you. Organic meant the way we wove stories and listened until we were stuffed, as if that was cocoon enough to last all year against loss or loneliness, betrayal or hate, or the way the deep true story of the first Thanksgiving is undeniably braided with the deep true fate of the first humans to live on this land, as surely as my great aunt used to scrape the brown gravy-streaked plates white again after dinner.

Believing in the only weapon I trust, I bleed love through winter squash and garlic, bread and pie. I will lay the forks next to the napkins, hide the knives and pray so strong for peace for each hand that rises to fill an emptiness called hunger at the table in this land made for you and me. If we all share this prayer I’m certain this peace will create a collective warmth like the kitchen gets hotter when it’s filled with steaming potatoes and conversation, then a glow like vanilla votives in every window will brighten the night.

But that’s a prayer like wanting to eat without saying, first I must cook and forage, or if I eat all the feast I’ll never be hungry again.

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When we come to the table may we be so hungry we know we need each other. May we not confuse our need with anyone’s ability to fill it. May we be gentle with our expectations and may the critical voices in our heads go mute. May the brown bits crackle just the way you like. May you remember all the hands that worked in dirt and rain so you might have food on your table and may you be grateful for every small thing that fits in the palm of your hand. May you speak to someone who laughs at your punch lines and listens after asking, “How are you?” May the pie crust crumble with just the right flake to make you want to scoop up every last bit of that salty sweet and sigh and be grateful enough to walk back into the dark. May the owl sing as the full moon rises and may you lift your eyes to behold its shadow or hear it so clearly you believe it’s a sign for you alone and collectively you, and may you remember all that uplift until you gather once again.

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With gratitude,
~Catherine

A fig. A failure. A long wait.

Figs

Fig season is officially over in my corner of California which is why, at the Farmer’s Market on Saturday, I bought the very last box of tender, tiny-seeded Black Mission jewels from my favorite farmer.

It was now, or wait until next year, to create the perfect loaf of fresh Fig Sourdough.

A few weeks back I’d seen an entirely new type of fig bread at a Parisian bakery. It sat on a pedestal, just out of reach, behind the front counter glass scrawled with purple marker: Fig Sourdough. The loaf, sliced open, was the mesmerizing deep brownish-purple of sweet fig jam. I’ve eaten fig bread many times, but it’s always been a golden-brown loaf, flecked with bits of dried fruit and, usually, walnuts. I didn’t buy the bakery loaf.  I’m a baker and wanted the challenge of creating this new, beautifully colored bread on my own.

Undaunted by the lack of recipes for such a thing – every single baking website recipe calls for dried figs, and every photo looks like the fig-flecked golden-brown loaf I knew so well – I plunged into invention mode.

I added half a jar of fig jam to the initial flour, starter, and water mixture, assuming this would create my desired deep purple hue. It didn’t. I added the rest of the jam jar and waited for yeasty bubbles to rise, signaling the dough was healthy despite this new ingredient. Bread baking is an art, yes, but more than other types of baking, it’s a science. I tempted flour, yeast and water chemistry by interrupting it with jam.

The starter mix rose, although it didn’t develop the color I was hoping for.

Kneading

I chopped Farmer Sean’s last box of figs and added these to the fully floured dough and proceeded to knead. This too did nothing to imbue the loaf with rich purple. I convinced myself that some sort of kitchen alchemy would happen during the rising process.

Something did indeed happen eight hours later when I tried to transfer the dough from its rising bowl to the baking stone.

Bad dough

The rise and fall of my dream was so complete I couldn’t help but laugh and send photos to the bakers in my bread circle, the same ones I’d casually texted that morning about creating a recipe for a new kind of bread, the friends who were all awaiting my baking secrets. What happened? Oh no! Should you add more yeast? More flour? What went wrong?

Sometimes I confuse bread making with trying to leaven world peace through community, or metaphor. I had already set out plates on my table, one for each of my walking distance neighbors who I planned to surprise with hot, fresh slices of this new kind of bread that I’d invented after imagining such a loaf might exist. The butter would be pooled to perfection in the time it would take to step from my house to theirs with this triumph.

You can’t always trust the old recipes, I’d say. You have to be willing to make mistakes, I’d laugh. You have to go out into the world to see and try new things.

Perhaps it was those three empty plates on the table, or my dogged belief that I could still make something resembling the bread I’d seen, or maybe I just wanted to keep #procrastibaking rather than write, but I was undaunted by the sticky flatness before me. Buoyed by the purple beginning to tinge the dough, I convinced myself I was a thirty-minute, 450-degree bake away from a Fig Sourdough that actually bore the color of its namesake.

I kneaded in another cup of flour and slid the dough into a flat dish with sides. For good measure I smeared more fig jam on top, sprinkled it with grated parmesan cheese, added chopped walnuts and drizzled it all with a blend of ground fresh chili paste and honey. What my loaf lacked in height and typical bread perfection, and it would make up for in flavor and creativity.

While waiting, I revisited the photo of my bread inspiration.

Fig Sourdough

Surely, you immediately see what I did not. Yes, I guess there is also such a thing as Chocolate Sourdough. I’m guessing it’s a deep rich color. And that golden brown loaf on the right? Mmmm, you tell me.

I think it’s a fantasy Fig Sourdough I’m after when I write. This unicorn of breads beckons in the form of books I admire and the possibility that the writers I surround myself with will help unlock its recipe. I imagine a world where we all share bread and ideas respectfully with one another, and I write this world into existence. If I imagine it, others can too.

I’m writing these next eight weeks with a small group of students and I’ll confess we might all be trying to create fantasy bread. We want to make something amazing that we’ve always dreamed existed, maybe even thought we once saw or read, but it feels just out of reach at the moment.

We’re persisting. We’re failing. We’re succeeding, kneading, needing to keep on. I have every faith that fig season will return with us still here, awaiting new fruit with open palms, and older, wiser eyes.

With floured palms,
Catherine

This is one attempt at the first assignment for the Composing Self course I’m teaching this fall. If you’re interested more in bread success than failure, I’ll be linking to some of my favorite bakers on the Write Now page in a few days. Come back for a visit. Stay for the crumbs.