Friday, October 22, 2010

Authority and the Art of Bread Making

I was making bread this morning and, once again, that familiar irritation arose. It comes half way through the kneading with unfortunate regularity— a tightening of my shoulders; a holding of breath. I slow down, rhythmically pushing and pulling the dough but now with intention rather than aggression. My mindfulness not only gets me breathing again but opens my awareness: it is not so much irritation I feel but self doubt. A part of me feels that I am failing again.

Doubt doesn’t stroll or whisper its way into these occasions; it barges in as the desire to make perfect bread becomes paramount. I am kneading and doubt shouts: The bread is too sticky, add more flour. I reach for the flour and doubt sneers, why are you doing that, you have already added twice, even three times what the recipe states. I pull my hand back and continue the seesaw motion while registering the building of inner tension. I’ve been here many a time in the last two months, this is nothing new, but today I’ve had enough — its time to break the cycle.

First off, I review the facts. I know enough (or think I know enough) about bread making to know what dough should look and feel like before the first and final rise. Moreover, there are pictures in my recipe book which I make valiant yet vain attempts to mimic: match the picture and my bread is dry and crumbly from too much flour; match the recipe and I am literally pouring the dough into the pan. These last two months, however, have been a lesson in trust. When I sink into mindfulness and truly feel the dough beneath my hands, I know how much flour is needed regardless of what the instructions demand. Unfortunately, despite this knowing, doubts can still arise at crucial times and throw me off centre.

In theory I know that bread making is never about following the recipe, at least for measurements of flour. It all depends on the kind of grain you are using, from what region it grows and the humidity in your kitchen. Furthermore, I am using new ingredients: sprouted rye berries and kamut flour. I am breaking the rules while still wanting my recipes to stand by me and lead me into certainty.

I ponder this as I transfer my molten dough into the pan. It’s too wet, doubt says, and too late to add more flour. You’ve screwed up again. I breathe into the tension and reassure myself that all will be fine. The bottom line is that no one needs to see, hear or taste this bread. If it’s a mistake, its mine alone.

Writing helps me be more self reflective and today is no different. While I wait for the final rising to be done, I sit at the keyboard exploring my feelings. The first thing I own is my desire for perfection, or at least, that is, my codependent part’s desire for perfection. These parts don’t want to fail. To fail is to solidify an age-old belief of low self worth — anything shy of perfect is just not good enough. But there is another part haunting me today: a seemingly bizarre desire for some authoritative leadership.

Authoritative leadership is one that doesn’t punish or shame (like the authoritarian kind) but guides with compassion, respect and acceptance. It encourages exploration and communication while providing boundaries for safety and space to grow. It’s the kind of leadership that most of us want in the ideal parent. With healthy parenting we can mature into adults who not only internalize a healthy sense of Self but actualize an authoritative style of Self leadership.

As a child my mother had, among other rather unhealthy mannerisms, an authoritarian bent (hairpin curve perhaps?). Without a functional role model, my internal leadership took many years to develop and I had little knowledge of healthy self care. Eventually I learned to reparent myself but even now, in times of high stress or change (didn’t summer just change into autumn?), I can fall back into default behaviours: I not only doubt, berate and/ or shame myself but look to others for some sort of leadership.

Now looking towards others is not such a bad thing if we look in the right places. An ARC therapist, for example, can help guide us back into an empowered state where healthy self parenting is part and parcel of the process. Other options include finding help in books (the Classics have served me well in this regard) or talking with a good friend. The cause of my tension today was looking for leadership in the wrong place. I wanted Peter Reinhart, the author of both the book and recipe I was following, to fill the place I had temporarily seceded— I was looking for a surrogate parent.

While I was kneading the dough and questioning my abilities, I wanted Mr. Reinhard to come through for me. I wanted him to reassure me and say: test it out, you’ll be fine, trust yourself. Instead I got pictures of perfection and exact measurements such as 2 ½ tsp of molasses. (That’s just shy of a tablespoon buster, stop being cute). I got information on why measuring out grams of flour as opposed to cups of flour was preferred and how filtered water was a necessity for perfect bread. He gave me strict guidelines and I followed them with high expectations only to be disappointed as I was in the past when another form of authority failed me. After several attempts to do it his way, I threw his suggestions out the door and did it, as Frank memorably sang, my way. And that, I finally realized, was the basis for my tension. I was trying to strike a balance along the fine line between trusting Self while trusting authority.

In the past, especially in times of stress, I forgot who I was. I relied too strongly on the advice and direction of others, relinquishing my power to those who I thought knew better. Times, thankfully, have changed. I now see who I am and value myself as one who has worth. I look to Self for leadership and find a wealth of experience, knowledge and good instincts to guide me. I also trust that I can listen and take the advice of others without losing my inner voice— my Self. Sometimes, however, I fall back and forget who I am and, for whatever reason, bread making has challenged me in this quarter. My only answer to this challenge is to keep going forth while quieting the doubts and trusting my hands. In time I know these doubtful parts will learn to trust me but until then, I will be my own ideal parent and be patient and compassionate with my fears and needs.

The bread is out of the oven now. It is chock full of flax, sunflower, pumpkin and sesame seeds and surrounded by sprouted kamut kernels. It is slightly moist, the way I like it, and delightfully chewy. It is, as my hands knew full well it would be, perfect.


  1. What is it about breadmaking that encourages these kinds of internal dialogue?

  2. Ahhh, me thinks I've found a kindred spirit.

    You know, I was talking with a friend today and we discussed how anything in life can be a tool for creative personal growth: tarot, therapy or baking bread. But in checking out your website, I get a sense you already knew that. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Yay for you and your awesome bread! I could practically see your struggle here, and at the same time, I knew somehow you'd come through by the end of the post. :) I hope you enjoy it with a liberal smattering of butter and gusto!