Last night I had my first writing class at the City Lit, one of London’s largest centres for adult education. I suspect there is a class here for everyone: knitting, existentialism, urban photography, Bollywood dancing… If you’ve got an interest, they are sure to have a room and an eager instructor.
In the hour before I arrived, I sat alone at a table in the Mary Ward Cafe enjoying a delicious Spanish omelette and a salad while feeling slightly nervous and out of sorts. I suppose it doesn’t matter how many classes you’ve taken over the course of your life, there are bound to be a few errant butterflies beating their wings against the walls of your belly on the first day of school.
The class itself was inspiring: a room of eager writers, a no-nonsense teacher with a wealth of experience, ample time to write and to share. I left feeling like a woman in an advert who has just had her hair blow dried and styled by Vidal Sassoon. I flounced out of the class with my scarf blowing backwards and smiled at everyone that I passed on the way back to the tube. I suspect this is the same feeling one gets when arriving in a foreign country for a two week holiday. It is as if you can feel your potential for happiness expanding. You suspect that whatever you are about to do or see or experience, is going to push the boundaries of what, up until now, you have considered an ok life.
I confess I am addicted to this feeling. I like beginnings. I love clean slates. I adore the prospect of a good adventure. What I need more practice with, however, is letting new experiences be what they will be. As a writer I am full of odd romantic notions, blessed with the ability to fashion the future with my own details. Upon leaving this writing class, for example, I imagined a small group from the larger class meeting in a dark pub to discuss our latest manuscripts. All of us had published at least one book at this point and we were toasting our good fortune and remembering that cloudy day in January 2012 when we’d met in the Advanced Critical Workshop at City Lit.
I’d like to say that these fantasies are a rarity in my life but sadly I do this all the time. And it wouldn’t be that big of a deal if it weren’t for all the expectations that get churned up in the process. Next week I will go to class and sit next to one of the writers who was present at my mythical pub and she will seem flatter than I imagined her, not nearly as friendly and forthcoming. If I’m not careful I might leave the class with a sense of loss that I don’t completely understand.
Fortunately there is a remedy for this disease. I discovered it last year in my quest to make bread. Learning how to bake a good loaf is one of those new things that one sets out to scale like a mountain. I came to the task strapped with all my usual expectations… my belief in the power of a good recipe, for example. I looked at the list of ingredients: flour, salt, yeast, and water. I looked at the method which prescribed a period of kneading, a period of rising, some shaping and more rising and then into the oven. Voila.
But my experience was not voila. It was certainly not ta da. It was more like a brown mass with bread like qualities. It didn’t taste bad. Dave and I gobbled every morsel of it. It just didn’t look or feel like proper bread.
And what I found the most frustrating as I continued in my quest were the vague instructions. Knead the dough until it is elastic, the book said … but no one seemed to agree on the correct way. One chef on youtube suggested the heel of the hand. Another man from France advocated slapping and folding the dough with the tips of the fingers. If you actually managed to get past the kneading, assuming you had any idea what ‘elastic’ meant, there was a mine field to be found in the ‘rising,’ a process which was dependent on the temperature of your house, the altitude, the sugar in the dough, and the power of your yeast.
Here I was in the midst of my new endeavour – something that was meant to enrich my life – only I felt more like a sea-sick passenger on a kamikaze ferry.
Here is the terrible truth: I wanted to make bread really well, and I wanted every second of the process to be fun. There, I’ve said it, my terrible confession.
But what’s so bad about good intentions? Isn’t that how we all approach things?
The problem, in my case, was that all my wishing and wanting the bread to be perfect, ensured that I was frustrated when it didn’t measure up. Focused on the perfect loaf emerging from my oven, I forgot to enjoy the process of weighing out the flour on the scale, tipping in the water, beating it vigorously with my wooden spoon. I was so intent on kneading in the right way, that I failed to notice how the dough felt against my hands. It was trying to let me know. Hey Lady. Take a minute to feel me and you’ll know the meaning of elastic.
As an idea , I love process over product, the journey instead of the destination. In practice, I am a tad impatient. I have to leave the house when the bread comes out of the oven, otherwise I am bound to ruin the texture by ripping into it too soon.
Luckily the power of yeast was stronger than my child like demand for instant gratification. At some point in the bread making process, perhaps on my 14th or 15th loaf, with my shirt front covered in flour, and my head bent over a rising ball of dough, I realised what was so special about bread making. Doing it. And Being There.
Now I feel sad if I’ve gone too many days without baking bread. I’ve taken to giving it away because I just don’t have the freezer space. I even enjoy the queasy feeling I get when I am attempting a new loaf and I suspect it is on its way to being bread pudding before it’s even been baked. I like the breaks when the dough is rising and I am doing something else. I look over at the bowl from time to time and smile. When I’m able to get past my expectations, life is truly a revelation.
So my New Year’s resolution this year is to teach all my friends and family how to make a good loaf of bread. Who knows how many lessons this will involve or which breads we will explore? It doesn’t really matter so long as we’ve had the opportunity to pick hardened bits of dough from underneath our nails while standing in the line at the bank. The absurdity of life is worth a good chuckle.
And you think you’re safe just because you are reading this blog from the safety of your home or your office? Well, you’re wrong! The next post will be number one in a year-long series… I hope you ‘re up for the bread challenge!