How forward?

Today, George Floyd’s body is laid to rest.
RIP.

Lights barely there

Last week, I wrote “How forward” for Voice of OC about how to keep working for justice for all, always, especially after the Black Lives Matter hashtag trend wanes. Again.

Find the quietest corner of your room, of your heart, and grieve. Howl if you must. Then listen. Listen to Black voices and believe them when they say they struggle to stay alive. Every. Single. Day. Then stand up with them and for them, but not instead of them and for goodness sake don’t hand-wring. Stand tall and strong, with and for all our fellow humans who have been threatened, incarcerated unfairly, murdered for their “real or perceived disability, gender, nationality, race/ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.”

Please read “How forward”  to learn practical steps you can take to work for equality for all.

Do you notice the photo that accompanies my story?

Racial Justice Book Spine Poem

Racial Justice Book-Spine Poem                                                              Catherine Keefe

It looks like a simple stack of books. It is. And it’s more than that too.

Yes. This is a fine reading list to begin an education about all the ways racism is systemic. Take your pick. Begin anywhere to start your education, then reach out and we can discuss. I’d love to hear from you.

This stack of books is also more than a reading list. In its compilation, after it’s photographed, it’s called a Book-Spine Poem.

Americanah

Citizen
deaf republic
between the world and Me
the Fire this time

Racing to justice
One with Others
Just mercy

all about Love

See, I didn’t just pull these books from my shelf haphazardly. Rather, I looked for the titles on my shelf to create an even deeper meaning in conversation with one another, as we should be.

Book-spine poems are on my radar lately because many of the poets I follow on social media have been creating them as a way of being productive while under pandemic quarantine. TAB: The Journal of Poetry and Poetics even has a call for submissions for Book-Spine Poems. I learned that:

In 2013, New York-based artist Nina Kathchadourian published a collection of photographs book spines called Sorted Books. In the book’s introduction, Brian Dillon writes, “it is as though the books have convened of their own accord like plants or insects—following secret or, in the case of more explicitly comic or narrative groupings, not-so-secret attractions.”

A little bit about each book:
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Fiction. From the author’s website:
Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Beautiful, self-assured Ifemelu heads for America, where despite her academic success, she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time. Quiet, thoughtful Obinze had hoped to join her, but with post-9/11 America closed to him, he instead plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. Fifteen years later, they reunite in a newly democratic Nigeria, and reignite their passion—for each other and for their homeland.

Citizen by Claudia Rankine has been called both poetry and cultural criticism. From the publisher’s website:
Claudia Rankine’s bold new book recounts mounting racial aggressions in ongoing encounters in twenty-first-century daily life and in the media. Some of these encounters are slights, seemingly slips of the tongue, and some are intentional offensives in the classroom, at the supermarket, at home, on the tennis court with Serena Williams and the soccer field with Zinedine Zidane, online, on TV—everywhere, all the time. The accumulative stresses come to bear on a person’s ability to speak, perform, and stay alive. Our addressability is tied to the state of our belonging, Rankine argues, as are our assumptions and expectations of citizenship. In essay, image, and poetry, Citizen is a powerful testament to the individual and collective effects of racism in our contemporary, often named “post-race” society.

Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky. Poetry. I’m very much aware that Deaf Republic is the one of two titles in my Book-Spine Poem not written by a Black author. Yet I’m also very much aware that Ilya Kaminsky, its White author, wrote something prophetic. From the back cover: Deaf Republic stands as a warning and powerful questioning of our own collective silence in the face of our time’s atrocities. I wanted this plea against remaining silent to be part of the reckoning we’re going through nationally and internationally.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Nonfiction. From the author’s website:
In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion.

The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race. Edited by Jesmyn Ward. Essay collection. From Jesmyn Ward’s website:
In light of recent tragedies and widespread protests across the nation, The Progressive magazine republished one of its most famous pieces: James Baldwin’s 1962 “Letter to My Nephew,” which was later published in his landmark book, The Fire Next Time. Addressing his fifteen-year-old namesake on the one hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Baldwin wrote: “You know and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon.” Award-winning author Jesmyn Ward knows that Baldwin’s words ring as true as ever today. In response, she has gathered short essays, memoir, and a few essential poems to engage the question of race in the United States. And she has turned to some of her generation’s most original thinkers and writers to give voice to their concerns.

Racing to Justice by john a. powell. Essays. From the publisher’s website:
Renowned social justice advocate john a. powell persuasively argues that we have not achieved a post-racial society and that there is much work to do to redeem the American promise of inclusive democracy. Culled from a decade of writing about social justice and spirituality, these meditations on race, identity, and social policy provide an outline for laying claim to our shared humanity and a way toward healing ourselves and securing our future. Racing to Justice challenges us to replace attitudes and institutions that promote and perpetuate social suffering with those that foster relationships and a way of being that transcends disconnection and separation.

One With Others by CD Wright. Poetry blended with investigative journalism. This is the other title in my Book-Spine Poem not written by a Black author, but rather by a White woman. I made this exception because both the book title and its subject show what true White support for Black lives looks like. From the publisher’s website:
Investigative journalism becomes the poet’s realm as C.D. Wright returns to her native Arkansas and examines an explosive incident grounded in the Civil Rights Movement. In her signature style, Wright interweaves oral histories, hymns, lists, interviews, newspaper accounts, and personal memories—especially those of her incandescent mentor, Mrs. Vittitow (V)—with the voices of witnesses, neighbors, police, activists, and a group of black students who were rounded up and detained in an empty public swimming pool.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Nonfiction book. Film. From the Equal Justice Initiative website:
An unforgettable true story about the potential for mercy to redeem us, and a clarion call to end mass incarceration in America — from one of the most inspiring lawyers of our time…Just Mercy tells the story of Equal Justice Initiative, from the early days with a small staff facing the nation’s highest death sentencing and execution rates, through a successful campaign to challenge the cruel practice of sentencing children to die in prison, to revolutionary projects designed to confront Americans with our history of racial injustice.

All About Love by bell hooks. Essays. From the publisher’s website:
All About Love is a revelation about what causes a polarized society and how to heal the divisions that cause suffering. Here is the truth about love, and inspiration to help us instill caring, compassion, and strength in our homes, schools, and workplaces.

There are many, many more books, films, podcasts, and humans to read, to watch, to listen to.

May we humans not be a deaf republic.
May we educate ourselves and reimagine a culture of inclusivity and equity.
May we be, as bell hooks imagines us into being, all about love. For it is only with love for all that we may move forward in any lasting longtime peace.

So then what happened?

Flourless in the time of Quarantine:  Part 2.

If you’re new to the story, you can read “Flourless in the time of Quarantine” Part 1, here.

Bread Gift

Or, you can skip ahead to this recap:
After the virus-induced grocery stampede, I couldn’t find flour to keep up my sourdough bread baking until generous friends and neighbors shared:

  • The single sandwich baggie-size cupful left with a note in my mailbox…
  • The one 5-pound bag of all-purpose flour found shoved to the back of a grocery shelf…
  • The stacks of gallon-size baggies, scooped from a friend’s sister’s 25-pound stash, which she had gotten from a friend…
  • And so much more…

All this beautiful gifted flour turned into enough ingredients to allow me to revive my starter into a fresh bubbly yeast, which I kneaded into laughing dough balls, which became gratitude loaves, which I’ve now started to embellish with a sunburst scoring pattern to represent hope.

Sunburst

And then things got a little crazy.

Hard to find mustard, picked up by a friend, turned out to be just the thing to go with the hand rolled Indonesian lumpia made by my neighbor, and left on the front bench.

Another neighbor hid Easter eggs in the front yard for my grandkids.

A long-time friend texted and offered me some yeast.

Bakers, who read my story, e-mailed Voice of OC asking for my sourdough recipe. At this very moment new-to-sourdough bread makers are crossing fingers and hoping for a good loaf.

A woman who called herself “The Flour Fairy” left two, 25-pound bags of flour at my front door yesterday after reading the story. Two! That’s 50 pounds.

At this, my husband laughed out loud.

“I knew you really did want that 50-pound bag of flour from Restaurant Depot and after reading your story I see I was right. So I jumped online and found a specialty shop and you’ve got 25 more pounds of flour coming next week!”

I’ve never been good with numbers, but even I can figure out that I have more than 75 pounds of flour. Seventy. Five. Pounds!

So I’m putting out the word. Flour! Flour! Does anyone need some flour?
Sourdough starter! Sourdough recipe! Does anyone want to bake?
Homemade sourdough! Homemade sourdough! Does anyone want some fresh bread?

I found one connection to a most gracious “senior” woman without family who I’ll now be fetching groceries for. She said she’d love some fresh bread. First delivery, Wednesday. “And some brownies too, if it isn’t too much trouble.” No trouble at all.

Next I’m figuring out how to scale up my tiny one-loaf-at-a-time production and I’ll be reaching out to food banks, maybe offering small batches of rolls. I really am just a hack baker. I don’t have a sewing machine to make face masks, or the knowledge to find a CoVid cure, but goodness, have I got flour and enough sense to say when the universe showers me with flour, I’d better get baking for others.

Batch of rolls

Please reach out if you, or someone you know, needs baking guidance, or if you’re in Orange County, California, if someone needs flour or bread.

And thank you to all the farmers and the pickers, the truckers and shelf stockers, to the grocery store cleaners and clerks and checkers, to all the good people who feed us, who never considered their work might be life-threatening, but who are now showing up every day so we can eat.

I see you. I’m grateful for you. May you stay strong and well.
Catherine

Next up: Sourdough Bread Recipe from my neighborhood village ancestors.

 

Flourless in the time of Quarantine

This story first appeared in Voice of OC.

Bread Gift

Flour is not metaphor. Flour is flour. Flour has gone missing.

It’s not in my pantry. Grocery stores have none. Even the specialty baking resource King Arthur Flour had this reply to my desire for one, 10-pound bag, Unbleached All Purpose Flour: Order contains item(s) on backorder. We will ship and charge your order when items become available.That was 20 days ago.

This rebuke, from the “Baking with joy since 1790” company that started “The Isolation Baking Show” to teach us quarantined how to bake bread, make bagels and doughnuts, to master the difference between baking sourdough and whole wheat bread made me feel especially empty. I’m missing the essential element to join the #greatcovidbakeoff.

My heart raced when an Amazon Fresh order promised two, five-pound bags of unbleached all-purpose flour delivered in 10 days! They delivered, yes. But substituted, without permission, two small boxes of gluten-free bread mix requiring yeast. I don’t need bread mix. I need flour.

Besides, I have no yeast. Yeast has gone missing. It’s not on my shelf. None of the groceries have any yeast. How will we rise?

Baking isn’t a new desire for me. Sometimes I’m called the Bread Lady. I learned in the kitchen of a friend and in her spirit, I’ve freely offered more sourdough bread baking lessons to others than I can count. I’ve passed along dozens of jars of ripe, bubbly starter, shared from my own starter which came to me by way of that friend, who got it from another friend, who got it from her grandmother, now long laid to rest.

Bread is my love language. I bake it for mothers who have just given birth; to nourish sick neighbors. When my dear friend’s father died, and I learned that it’s a Bulgarian funeral tradition for family to share bread with funeral goers, who say a prayer as they eat it, I baked her a loaf scored with a “W” for her father’s first name. It was leavened from the same jar of starter I had shared with her years ago, the starter that lifted the bread that she baked for her father, for what turned out to be his last meal a few days earlier.

I. Want. Flour!

Feeding the multitudes was one of my favorite Bible stories. A large group is gathered and hungry. The cautious counters look at the thousands and say, we can’t possibly feed all these people. We have only five loaves and two fishes. Yet the food multiplies enough to fill the hungry.

It’s been many years since I’ve been in a church, but this season of quarantine brings that story to mind. When shoppers began hoarding food, I was slow to shop because I didn’t really believe I needed to rush out and collect food. My cupboards were far from bare. I figured if someone was stockpiling they must need the rice, the toilet paper, the chicken, the can of cannellinis more than I.

And then I ran out of flour. Where are the miracles?

I became a needy little recluse at the same time all my Instagram friends, and real life friends, and my sisters, nieces, and neighbors were all comfort-baking bread and posting photos. Even though I’d been baking homemade sourdough for years, I was shuttered. I hid my starter in the back of the refrigerator to wait until I could revive it.

I answered a barrage of calls, texts and DMs, problem-solving for all the new bakers. Is my dough too lumpy? What kind of pan should I use if I don’t have a Dutch oven? How long should I bake my bread if I don’t want it too crispy? I had a HouseParty app conversation to troubleshoot a too-gooey Sourdough Fig Walnut loaf.  Does this look right? No. Now? Yes.

Are you baking? What kind of bread are you baking now that you’re stuck at home? You must be making so much bread!

“No. No, I’m not baking. I have no flour, can’t find any. Not online. Not in stores.”

Well, there was that one 50-pound bag my husband found at Restaurant Depot a few days into the grocery stampede. When he texted to see if I wanted something that big, I declined, figuring a food bank or small bakery or restaurant trying to survive on take-out needed it more.

I tried to act as if I didn’t care. I had my health, and a roof over my head, two loaves of store-made wheat bread. My desire was insignificant in the face of so much global uncertainty.

Fresh Bread

I was appalled to discover I did care. I looked at old photos of my homemade bread and consoled myself that eventually stores would restock flour. It’s only a loaf. I’m happy others are learning to nourish themselves, Wait, she’s baking now too? She never even liked to walk into her kitchen…Bahhhh!

It was a tennis match: my petty envy pitted against the kind of person I thought I was. With each ungrateful thought, I tried harder to find new ways to be helpful.

I scraped together my last bit of flour and made a small starter for the neighbor who asked because her kids, now home all day, wanted to start baking. What could I do with a scant 3/4 cup when it takes more than four to make each loaf? Could I ask her to share some flour in exchange? What if she only had enough for one loaf would feel bad saying no since I was giving her starter? I printed out my favorite recipes and left them with her new starter on my front porch. Good luck! Let me know if you have any questions.

And then —

How to explain this?

Flour began to slowly sift in as if by gentle wind. It first came in a sandwich baggie-size cupful left with a note in my mailbox by my elderly neighbor. I know you like to bake, maybe this will help.

It arrived on my front-porch bench from another neighbor who found one 5-pound bag shoved to the back of a shelf on her last grocery run.

It multiplied again when stacks of gallon-size baggies, scooped from a friend’s sister’s 25-pound stash, which she had gotten from a friend, were left it in a cardboard box on my porch.

In a matter of days, I went from having no flour to an absolute whiteout. I shook my head with each delivery, overwhelmed by what I hadn’t even asked for. Could flour make me cry?

I Googled the safety of sharing baked bread with others in the time of quarantine. I washed my hands, wiped down my counters with disinfectant. I washed my hands, then washed them again. I pulled out my mixing bowl, my bread hook, my kneading board, my coarse salt and parchment and baking stone.

The first loaves into the oven were gratitude loaves. I baked for all the flour sharers, and left them on porches with notes as messy with the over-use of “thank-you!” as my flour-dusted floor.

Next I baked for my friend whose young adult son is dying on a hospital bed in her family room, not from the virus, but from a horrible disease that has outrun his ability to fight it. She’d withdrawn last week from the meal train of friends. We would like to thank everyone from the bottom of our hearts for the wonderful meals over the past 3 months. It took a tremendous load off around dinner time. We are requesting our friends to please stop and take care of your own food needs during these difficult Corona Virus times.

I blessed her loaf with a prayer for peace and left it on her front porch.

I baked for my 85-year-old parents, and my daughter, my grandchildren, my son; each loaf passed from a long distance across a porch, left on a driveway without a hug. My family missed my bread, they say, easier to miss bread than to reveal how much we crave each other standing there, unable to touch.

To retreat to the heart of my home, to bury my hands in dough and know this one small thing. I can touch something as ancient as man and fire, as miraculous as the way the right kind of bacteria ferments with grain to leaven a loaf that nourishes body and feeds spirit. I’m trying not to start rationing flour now that I can once again feel the rightness of the world as my kitchen warms with the scent of bread. I’ve looked up the practicality of growing wheat in my canyon.

Just now I went to leave another gratitude loaf on the bench to be picked up for a nurse and her firefighter husband.

There, on what I’m becoming to think of as my miracle bench, was another gift. A few weeks back, I shared corned beef and cabbage, mushrooms and fresh oranges with a neighbor. Today, she and her sons baked Blueberry Lemon Bread. “Thank you for your kindness,” she wrote. “This is our favorite. We hope you like it!”

And so on, and so on. And so on this day I know that no matter what happens next, flour is only flour, but love remains as powerfully contagious as virus in the time of quarantine.

Magic Bench on the Front Porch

With awe and gratitude,
Catherine

P.S.
You can’t believe what happened after this story appeared in Voice of OC.
That story, coming soon. And yes, I’ll post the easiest sourdough bread recipe soon too.

To read more adventures, or misadventures, with bread baking, you might enjoy A fig. A failure. A long wait.