Our Daily Bread

Peanut Butter & Jelly

There are two people I think of every time I make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. One is my first husband Sam. He always thought I was too heavy handed with both peanut butter and jelly, and I thought he didn’t lay it on thick enough. We each have our preferences.

The other is a woman named Mary, the only child of a single mom, Silvia. Mary was a few years older than I, and she never married or had children. Silvia and Mary were very close. I didn’t know either of them particularly well, I just saw them at church on Sundays, stopping to chat briefly in the portico before heading off to brunch. I remember Mary telling me, when my own sons were probably too young even to eat peanut butter, that her mother always spread the peanut butter and jam to the very edges of the bread so that each bite of the sandwich, even the crusts, had all the necessary elements of a PB&J. Mary had a great deal of appreciation for her own mother who prepared her sandwiches with this level of care. Those little details in her lunchbox epitomized the thoughtfulness in their relationship.

Mary and Sam once happened to be on the same flight to Dallas. It was exactly 17 years ago. I remember the timing because I was neurotically pregnant at the time. Sam hadn’t called me from the airport; he waited to call from the hotel. I would have been completely frantic by that time were it not for the fact that Mary had already called me from DFW airport to let me know that their plane landed safely. Right after she had called Silvia. Mary was a sales rep for an international company, and she travelled frequently. Every time she landed safely in a new airport, she called her mother.

Mary died in her 40’s. Cancer, I think, although I don’t know for sure. Silvia died not terribly long thereafter. A broken heart, I’m sure.

It may seem a small reverence, but when I prepare my boys’ sandwiches, I use a bit less PB&J than I otherwise would. I also spread the peanut butter and the jelly right to the edges of the bread. I smile, and I think of Sam and Mary every time.

 

Loaves

When Tim and I first got married, our collective brood of boys were ages 9, 11, 14 and 17. Among the many changes in our transition from two families of three to one family of six was the simple matter of buying bread. I was accustomed to using three slices of bread for the daily lunches, because the youngest only ate half of a sandwich. With four sons, however, our daily consumption increased to eleven slices, because the oldest two ate two sandwiches each. This will happen with teenage boys who are growing like weeds, especially when they play freshman football and varsity basketball.

All four boys have gone through that stage where it feels like I can watch them growing in front of my very eyes. It’s breathtaking each time. I swear they are taller when they stand up after dinner than they were when they first sat down. And it only takes them 7 minutes to eat. They unfurl every morning, stretching into men that I reach up to hug as I hand them their lunches on the way out the door. One of them playfully lifts me off the floor and moves me out of his way, and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

With two away now, our daily bread intake has decreased again. It rises and falls as each boy comes home to touch base and flies off again to create his own life. And make his own sandwiches. It is no small miracle, this feeding of children and watching them grow.

 

Bread of Life

In the flurry that comprises my life – kids and cats and dog, office work and volunteer work, church life and home life – I rarely prepare bread from scratch, although it is an activity that I thoroughly enjoy. It’s a busy weekend, and I intend to use the day to catch up on some work, tackle a few chores and bake, which honestly is a welcome reprieve from the weekly chaos that has been our standard fare. Baking bread from scratch is somewhat of a lost art in our culture of pre-made everything, but there is something deeply satisfying about the process. I have dedicated myself not to go anywhere today. I’ve been craving a day to make bread.

My favorite is challah, the Jewish Sabbath bread. It is a celebratory bread, fluffy and buttery, often prepared in a variety of shapes, but I favor the braided version. The strands look like arms intertwined. I bake dozens of loaves during the Christmas season to share with friends and family. I am abysmal at decorating ginger bread cookies, but I can turn out a golden brown, shiny loaf of challah. It also makes excellent French toast, if it’s around long enough to get slightly stale, which rarely ever happens.

The recipe book opens automatically to the page. The ingredients are simple – the basic stuff of life – eggs, milk, flour, butter, a pinch of salt, a little sugar, and of course the yeast. It’s not particularly difficult, but it does take time. And attention. And a little finesse. Too much heat or too little sugar will kill the yeast and ruin the bread. I suspect there is a parenting lesson for me in this. I am so annoyed with the inactivity of certain teenagers with exams on the horizon that I am ready to apply a swift kick with the pointy end of my boot. Instead, I think about the yeast and the sweetness, the heat and the time. I bite my tongue.

One of the things I love about baking is that it draws the boys to the kitchen. “Quick, Mom, quiz me! What’s a heliocentric system?” I know the answer immediately: “A system that revolves around the sons – like our family.” He’s not amused, but his brother in the next room laughs.

He looks over at the bowl sitting on the counter with a clean towel and asks his next question. “Why is the challah just sitting there? Did you give up?” Yes, I did. Sometimes that’s what quality parenting looks like. Giving up seems to be the only thing I do consistently as a mother. I give up over and over, right before I try again.

I set the whole sticky mess aside in a quiet spot, left alone to do its rising thing. It might look like it’s sitting there, doing nothing, but such things are not always as they seem. After some time, the needling, I mean kneading, begins, and the sticky lump begins to take shape. By this point both baker and kitchen counter are covered in a fine dusting of flour. The pounding down of the leavened dough is therapeutic for me as the baker. It is not nearly so pleasant when I feel like the dough that the Maker is beating down and molding. And yet, this part of the process is not the end of the story. The dough rises again.

Some days, I need this reminder. The process is not easy, it cannot necessarily be rushed, but the result is delicious.

These are the same basic elements worth using to create a life – a little sweetness, a warm quiet space to grow, periods of challenge and difficulty, often forcing us back to a warm, safe space, but which inspire us and form us anew. In this place, we find a community, within which we give our time, our unique talents, our own beautiful selves.

As the smell of freshly baked bread permeates the kitchen, the boys draw closer, wondering, “Is it ready yet, Mom?

The first loaf invariably disappears in a flurry of hands and steam and melted butter. Then comes the boys’ least favorite part of the process: the recipe yields four loaves, and I always give one away, even when it’s not holiday time. “Can’t we just keep them all for ourselves?” We never do, because some things – and homemade challah is one of them – are simply better in the sharing.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And daily bread.

Anticipation

Advent is about waiting,
letting the baby come,
because He will.
He is on his way.
The light comes to you.
It is not your place to force or create or accelerate its arrival.
Light is on its way.
Just wait.

Your role is to prepare,
open your heart.
Anxiously
Joyfully
Fretfully
Doubtfully
Patiently
Expectantly
Quietly
Thoughtfully.
However you wait, the light will come.

Pray.
Hope.
Anticipate.
Light is on its way.
Just wait.

The Club

I remember a brave, young widow coming to school for the first time after her husband’s sudden death, with their very young children in tow. The little ones were in kindergarten and second grade, the exact same ages and classes as my own sons, and as she approached, she said, “Well, today is the first day of the rest of our lives.” I was struck by her beauty and strength, and impressed by the fact that she hadn’t stayed in bed in her pajamas, which seemed only logical under the circumstances. I myself would have dissolved into tears right there in front of a dozen second-graders were it not for the widow’s own fortitude. It had been a rough go for our little microcosm of parents with two kids, ages 5 and 7, at the local elementary school. We had now lost two dads within two months, both with two children these same ages. Little did I know that within the year, I, too, would join this circle of newly-widowed moms.

These lovely souls who were widowed by cancer and an unexpected heart-attack welcomed me, widowed by suicide, with open arms, broken hearts and stiff martinis. Each of us entered the group kicking and screaming, without any actual kicking or screaming, but a fair amount of tears and pain nonetheless. “It’s the club you don’t want to be in,” they said, but thank God for them, these girlfriends who get it.

I never really found my place in a formal grief group. I went to a suicide survivors group meeting exactly once. I was the only widow present. Everyone else had lost a parent or a child. I managed to stay for the hour or so, and then I pretty much ran screaming from the room, but without the actual running or screaming. My friend, who had also lost an immediate family member to suicide years prior, had driven me to the meeting and attended with me. We got in her car, avoided eye contact and conversation for a while, and eventually looked at each other. I was relieved to see that she, too, was appalled and horrified by the wreckage we witnessed that night. I never returned.

Part of the challenge with that particular group on that specific night and, admittedly, through the lens of my own raw distress, was that there was no evidence of genuine healing, or progress of any kind for that matter. Instead, there was a fair amount of wallowing, some competitive grieving and an apparent lack of hope. They talked about hope, but they didn’t emanate hope. Time had passed – and for one in attendance, quite a lot of time, a decade or more – but little healing had occurred. Granted, some of the situations were horrific, which, in combination with my new and tender grief, undoubtedly colored my own impression. To be fair, most in the room had lost a child, an additional potential loss that was beyond overwhelming for me to contemplate. I had already seen the terrifying statistics on children who lose a parent (for any reason, not just suicide) and was determined to do what I could not to let my children become one.

I had no intention of joining what appeared to be a suicide-sanctioned pity party. I didn’t get a clear sense that they had lives beyond their loss. I never gave that group another chance. I needed a balance, but there was none to be found in the suicide survivors group that first night. It pointed a direction that I did not want to go.

On the other hand, I had grown up in a culture of denominationally-issued rose-colored glasses, and ignoring the loss was most certainly not going work for me. I was unsatisfied with the platitudes, that everything happens for a reason, that it’s all part of a grand plan. I do not feel drawn toward a God who plans tragedy in an effort to further my personal growth. It’s no coincidence that I would eventually join a church that reveres faith, resurrection, and hope but does not shy away from the broken body on the cross.

It is hard to find a balance, between the experience of loss and suffering on one side, and compassion and hope on the other. Healing is remembering, but not dwelling. Healing means incorporating the loss, without being consumed by the loss. Healing means kindling momentum, without running away. Healing means letting the loss color the view of the world without distorting the picture, a lens through which to consider the experience. Wallowing in misery is different than being present with the misery long enough to let it go. Pretending all is well when all is not is a lonely place, not a healing one. Healing means an ability to honor the uniqueness of each loss, to find a connection in loss without a need to compare losses.

I don’t mean to disparage groups. People are searching for different things when they join a group, and we each have a variety and range of needs (which change over time, just to render grief and healing all the more complicated). I know lots of people for whom groups have literally been life-saving, a refuge of compassion, mutual respect and shared sardonic humor. I totally get that. I didn’t find what I needed, but I learned that I didn’t want to go to a church or a hospital to find my healing place. I was too angry with God, and too wounded to be able to handle with any equanimity the various traumas present at a hospital. In that regard, at least, the group pointed me toward a healing direction.

I attended a different grief group a few times, this one designed for parents who had suffered the loss of a spouse. I found it somewhat helpful knowing I wasn’t alone in this messy business of grief, loss and single-parenting. Also helpful was that the organization simultaneously conducted a group session for the children, but neither of my boys felt especially comfortable in the kids’ setting. We attended a few times, but each week there seemed to be a widower in the parent group whose primary purpose in attending was to promote his search for a replacement wife, as though the grief group was a narrow category within a dating network where he could find someone to swoop in Mary-Poppins-style and fix everything. I started to think I needed a females-only group.

I have always had men in my life whose friendship I cherish, but after an unfortunate incident involving a single dad at the kids’ elementary school, I began to avoid single men intentionally. I’m not quite sure how he interpreted “No, thank you,” as “Not coffee, but how about Las Vegas for the weekend?” I was not prepared for male attention, with its threatening sexual vibe. I felt like Meg Ryan in that beginning scene from the movie When Harry Met Sally when she says she has male friends, and Billy Crystal says, “No you don’t. You think you do, but you don’t…. Men and women cannot be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” I suspected Billy Crystal might have been right. I began to avoid men altogether.

The feminist in me began to resent the men who thought I required their caretaking, either to fix me or the dripping faucet. The mother in me resented the men who thought my sons needed a step-father to groom them into manly men. And if I’m honest about it, the widow in me simply wanted to protect her broken heart: if I never allowed myself to fall in love again, then my heart would be safe.

I needed women to cocoon me during the storm, strong but gentle, broken-hearted-but-not-broken women. Women who had suffered loss, but who weren’t embittered by it. Women who didn’t wear their loss like a badge of honor, or an entitlement, or an excuse, but whose loss enabled them to find a deeper healing, a more expansive compassion, a larger purpose. Women who had faith – in life, in healing, in themselves, in me.

The formal grief group wasn’t the place for me, but I found my healing places in a book group (two book groups, truth be told, even though an alarming number of our book selections feature suicide), a yoga class, a meditation course, a running group and a small prayer group. I found healing on the trails, at kitchen tables and on the yoga mat. In an exclusive group consisting of my therapist and me. And on a team of one: just me with my meditation pillow, my breath and a parade of feelings.

The women in these groups were survivors of all manner of loss – death, illness, divorce, infertility. We drank together, sometimes side by side, sometimes virtually, through photos sent via text message, and we laughed at wickedly morbid repartee.

I found that several of my most reliable supporters were also single mothers, many by virtue of divorce. I do not pretend to know the divorce path and pain; I just know that there were enough parallels that these sister-friends and I clung to each other, symbiotically bailing our leaky boats, crying our synchronous tears, holding each other close and mutually celebrating our professional, maternal and emotional achievements. For whatever reason, the single-parent track was a more meaningful connection for me than the suicide specific loss. It was all a part of finding my way.

After many months, lots of coffee dates and countless loops around the Rose Bowl, I came to the realization that there is really only one club, and we are all in it. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “we all belong together in one enormous symphony of being.” Or, as the girlfriends and I say, We are all in the same leaky boat.

There is no one path to healing, but a healing path is to be found. For me, my healing places feature tears, laughter, dark chocolate and noir pinot noir. My healing groups include runners, readers, prayers, singers and an unlikely band of moms who met sporadically for tea and snacks. Women who, through their presence, encourage and inspire. Women of grace who can simply be with me. Which is the greatest, healing gift. And which, it seems to me, reflects the promise of Immanuel, or God with us. The God who comes to us in his vulnerability and innocence, kicking and screaming, and to whom we open our arms and hearts and say, “Welcome to the club, baby.”

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. Bail, baby, bail.