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…

random acts of kindness

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.