Giving and Gratitude

People can tell you all sorts of things about living, about what to read, or say, or do… But being the one who actually does the doing, that’s why this experiment in giving has been a profitable one for both me and my family.

Not profits–as in money. No, there’s very little financial gain in giving away bread, but I believe our souls have benefited from the stretching out of our hands and hearts. And it’s not just our hearts that are being changed.

Often, not always, not even half of the time, but often enough to notice, I will bring bread to someone and they will immediately want to give me something in return.

  • When I took a loaf of bread to a new neighbor, little Owen’s mommy, she wouldn’t let me leave until she had loaded me down with peppers and parsley and lettuce from her garden.
  • And the time John Ronan chose to give pumpkin bread to our neighbors, Mia and Noe, and we returned home with two fresh eggs.
  • Nataliya, who still needs so much as she recovers from her awful illness, but she wouldn’t let us out of her home empty handed…
  • And then there’s little Ben. Every time I try to offer him something, he wants to split it in sixes or sevens and take it home to his family.

Giving.

And just last week, when John Ronan was touring the neighborhood giving away Valentines, we received a return visit from Dolores, a neighbor who loves to garden. She surprised my son with a beautiful bird book, hoping to inspire him to study all those birds that make their way into our backyards.

All these movements of sharing, of giving, of love, must help to hold up the universe and keep the sun shining. These small acts of kindness, and even prayer, mean more than we imagine. That’s what I believe.

So her bird book sparked an afternoon outing. Well, it really was midday, and we decided to take our schooling on the road. We headed to Douglas Family Preserve to birdwatch, and we weren’t disappointed.

Gratitude. Thankful for the gift. Thankful for the Giver. One little book spurred all this?

Lovely, what a little giving can do…

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The Crossing Guard

Rolls-in-the-round

Mixed: 10 am

Molded: noon

Baked: 12:45

This lent I’m trying to be more intent about giving to folks who really need food, or to others with whom I’m:

  • mad at
  • disgusted with
  • bothered by

I can really think of only two people in this town who fit this list, and so far I’ve already tried, but failed, at giving one woman a homemade and happy loaf of bread. But today?

Success!

There are two crossing guards in my neighborhood. One brings candy for the students, she puts up balloons, and waves at every car, every child and parent who passes her by. Her smile is so genuine and her demeanor so giving that you just love her, even when you’re in a hurry and she’s standing there with that STOP sign allowing ten minutes worth of kids troop by.

The other crossing guard is different. She wears bright pink lipstick and sits in her chair, a bit slumped over and –this is the thing–she tries to be like Crossing Guard Number One. She waves at all the cars, but it looks like it hurts her, like it’s a chore, as though she wouldn’t get paid if she didn’t move that hand back and forth at you… I’ve deduced that she’s trying to be something she’s not, and that bothers me.

I drive her road almost every day and have started little sarcastic conversations in my head about her. Nice wave, lady. Put a little umph into it, would you?

I recognized this in myself not so long ago when I actually said something aloud and my kids were listening. They picked up on it, (of course!!!) and I passed on my negative thoughts about this poor woman that I don’t even know.

In order to begin to heal my mean heart and change my thoughts I thought it time to bring her bread.

Today I found her bundled under rain gear, holding an umbrella with little doggies on it, her striped knit gloves on, her bright pink lipstick shimmering–rain falling all around.

“I knew you’d be out here in the rain,” I said with a smile, handing her a bag. “I made some extra bread today and want you to have it.”

“Why thanks, Sweetheart!” she said. “Now get out of this rain–you’re getting soaked!” She flashed me a genuine grin and waved her hand at me to move toward the car. “Thank you!” she yelled again.

Just a few words, a quick exchange, along with a look right into her eyes, and in a flash I loved her. I drove away and she had her nose in the bag, breathing the smell of warmth and prayers.

The mind is judgmental in everything it does. To demonstrate this point, I often recommend an exercise that consists in taking notice of people (although not in such a way as to make them feel uncomfortable). The catch is to notice people without mentally labeling them in any way. Sit quietly at an airport or a bus terminal and notice people without giving them any labels… As we walk down a crowded street, those people we notice are labeled one by one, and often not in the most flattering manner… The purpose of the exercise is to get to a point where we can notice a person without giving him or her a label. At that point we can begin to experience true compassion…

After reading those words several months ago in Archimandrite Meletios Webber’s book, Bread and Water, Wine and Oil, I’ve watched my mind seek to give labels to almost everyone I encounter. It’s hard work keeping my mind neutral, trying not to categorize people in unflattering ways.

Do you struggle with this too?

Anyway, the Law of Giving, which seems to always find the good and the hungry and just the perfect time, reigned supreme yet again.

And next time I’ll ask her her name. Why didn’t I ask her her name?!

Christmas Cheer

Two rounds of bread baking in one day…

It’s oven season and mine is humming along (now that I have my new and improved relay board installed!). I’ve been sticking to my experiment, to always bake double of what we need and give half away. Recently I baked two pans of a lenten carrot cake, taking the second pan to church to share with friends. Then I went on a sourdough bread extravaganza, mixing up an enormous batch, which turned out to be a mighty flop. How can you give flopped bread away? It’s hard.

Backing up. I know some of you still don’t believe that last week’s ugly batch of bread was really all that ugly. I told you, the photo just didn’t show all the hideousness. I truly would have offended someone if I’d offered it as a gift.

Well, I did it again. My sourdough loaves came out ghastly.

This is hard for me–to accept that after all these years I can still make such beginner baking mistakes. But being humbled is good. I placed the bread in a beautiful wooden bowl which is the color the bread really should be. And I brought it out into the natural light so that you could really see the pale, icky crust. And I know what I did wrong–I simply had too much water in the mix. My husband thinks the second loaf resembles a portabello mushroom. Here are the photos. Feel free to gasp and be horrified!

I may be many things, but I’m not a quitter. As soon as the ugly sourdough came out of the oven, I mixed up a new batch of French bread, making sure the dough was on the dry side. How pleased I was, several hours later, when those golden loaves greeted me as the oven timer dinged…

Of course, when you’re baking two batches of bread in one day, this all takes time. Time to mix, time to rise, time to bake. Not to mention all the other time-related things I do like reading with John Ronan, cleaning the very dusty living room, washing loads of laundry, algebra with Madeleine and running to the store for hummus…

So, when the second batch of bread came out of the oven at 6:30 pm I wasn’t sure where to take it. Most meals are planned and half way eaten by 6:30 in our neighborhood, but you just have to trust in the Law of Giving.

As we prayed for our own dinner, then sat to enjoy the simple meal my husband had cooked, we discussed who to give the warm (and gorgeous) French bread to.

As I lit the candles around our Advent wreath I was inspired. How about to the only neighbor on our block who has donned her house with Christmas cheer? How about Ashley?

The two littlest and I dashed across the street–and wouldn’t you know? Ashley hadn’t eaten yet, was thrilled to have some warm bread in her hands, plus, John Ronan got to talk to her all about the making of our Advent wreath (and many other things…).

What to do with all that ugly sourdough?

Croutons!

It’s the season of giving. Cheers to you all!

Straight Ahead

Two sourdough rounds

Mixed: 7:45 am (but first I activated the sourdough starter, as an experiment the evening before, by mixing in some fresh water and flour)

Molded: 4 pm same day

Baked: 6 pm same day

I’m still in experiment mode when it comes to making a genuine loaf of sourdough. With my oven pitching fits, I figure, why not fiddle around with the dough and just see what happens?

So, I mixed and kneaded, waited and waited, and molded and waited some more. Sourdough is the perfect fiddle dough. I like that the heat or cold or humidity of the day dictates when the bread will be finished. Sourdough is Adventure Bread.

Anyway, despite having to bake on convection, when I pulled the bread out of the oven it was beautiful.

Who to share with? At 6:45 pm, it’s quite late to run out into the street and find hungry folk. It’s already dark here at that time, and though I contemplated just sitting on the curb to wait for someone to walk by–someone who had an “I-could-use-a-nice-loaf-of-freshly-baked-bread” look, I decided to ask for advice instead.

I asked my husband. “Where to–left or right?” I was thinking that I’d just strike out into the neighborhood until I found someone.

But my husband is not a black and white thinker. “How about straight ahead?” He flashed me a smile.

“Okay,” I said, “Jack or Cindy?” (Since we don’t sit directly opposite one house, but sort of opposite two.)

“Let’s flip!”

So, I tracked down a penny  and tossed it into the air. Tails. Tails meant Jack.

Knocking on Jack’s door I was sure that he’d already had dinner. But, once again, the Law of Giving, which I’m slowly getting to know, proved that indeed Jack was hungry for a warm loaf of sourdough.

Onto the next batch!