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beauty in a broken world
Of Course People are Baking Bread
It’s the mundane and the sublime, sustenance of all forms. Harvard Graduate School of Design student Emily Duma encourages us while confined to mix sorrow, knead beauty, bake in connection and slather the butter on thick.
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course people are baking bread. In moments like this, we search for the deepest metaphors to live into, lean into our oldest stories. Bread’s the stuff of Gilgamesh, woven into Shabbat, eaten each Sunday as the body of Christ. Of amber waves of grain, of peanut butter and jelly, of eternal life. It’s the mundane and the sublime, sustenance of all forms. The word companion comes from Latin com meaning “with” and panis meaning “bread”—if we cannot touch, we can bake.

Of course people are baking bread. In this time of uncertainty, we are searching for rhythms, for practices that move our bodies. For something to push on. Kneading mixes ingredients and makes doughs stronger. It is also a way to work an emotion out of our body. There have been times I have pushed so much anger into dough that I was afraid to feed it to people. We don’t know where cancer comes from, after all. 

Of course people are baking bread. We are searching for nourishment, for opportunities to show care, for lightness that comes from unevenly dispersed air bubbles. We share what we make, with roommates and partners and in Instagram posts, small offerings, often laughed at or dismissed, maybe rightly so. But I’m thankful for those who take small actions in the face of global pandemics. Look for the bakers, I say. There’s magic in combining flour and water, in rising dough, in loaves and fishes, and we’ll take all the magic we can get these days.

“Sorrow and beauty are inextricable, as are grief and care” 

My grandmother, Joanne McGovern, never baked bread, that I know of. She was a terrible cook, actually. She was simultaneously obsessed with what was healthy, infamous for her attempts to sneak frozen spinach juice into things like pancakes, and clear that butter should be spread, thickly, on both sides of a sandwich. When I was in college, it came out that she loved swiss chard, something that no one could recall her ever cooking. I think her love might have come from the fact that it’s beautiful, slender stalks painted red, yellow, and pink. Unlike food, she always had an eye for beauty, and saw it everywhere. In the arch of a fallen tree in the woods, in the piano music I’d plunk out for her at Christmas, in watercolors. I think she could see beauty so well because she knew its trusty companion, sorrow. She buried two sons, one just 5 weeks after he was born. My favorite thing about my 7-month-old nephew is the way his little fingers will curl around mine. I love that it’s a reflex, that our bodies teach us to hold hands before we can literally even see straight. I can only imagine the beauty she saw in my Uncle Joseph’s tiny hands, the ones that suddenly stopped grasping, reaching, holding, without warning. Or the beauty she saw in my Uncle Brian, whipsmart, headstrong, reckless, who my aunt found dead at 32. Brian had a fridge filled only with ketchup and vodka, had a lifestyle that consistently skirted danger, but the official autopsy report was that his heart had swelled and was too big for his body to handle. They say the Irish laugh so much because the only alternative is to weep from all the sorrow. 

My grandmother and I spent most of our time together when she was in her mid-80s, when I was still recovering from the loss of my best friend. I remember thinking when Lena died that I had managed to weather it, but only just barely. It had taken everything I had to get through just one loss, and if another dear one were to die, especially suddenly, that the grief would become too big to hold. To be 85 is to know that most of your friends are dead. To age, perhaps, is to learn how to live with loss. For the best of us, that journey gives us a chance to learn to hold ourselves and each other gently. She once said to me “Life is a long walk, honey. I think what I’m best suited to do is sit with people when they need a moment of rest.”

I’ve been taking long walks lately. I’m grateful to live in a place where mountains aren’t too hard to come by, just an hour or two north. I’m searching for things that feel solid, permanent, steady in a time of constant uncertainty. When mountains are on the horizon, they cradle, give us an edge to breathe into. I stare at so many curves these days, compulsively, almost. They make mountains in my dreams, and I began to feel the need to walk them. They say we’re flattening the curves, that we may be close to the peak. The climb up has been hard, to be sure, my body and mind are tired. A professor of mine says we are bad at exponential thinking—that our hearts and minds can handle a sudden, extreme shock, stasis, or linear growth. But these exponential curves, these steepening slopes—our hearts and minds haven’t yet figured out how to brace for the impact of that. Although it feels like release, hikers say the way down is actually more challenging. I’m trying to prepare myself for it.

“Memories constitute us, materially. When we lose them, we lose ourselves.” 

Alzheimer’s moves exponentially, to an extent. It’s a series of rises and plateaus, following no discernable linearity, a medical mountain with no downward slope. The best you can hope for is a pause, a brief new normal, a vantage point to stop, find any way to breathe into the break.  When we talk about Alzheimer’s, we are talking about what it means to forget and be forgotten. We are talking about grief. There’s the low aching absence of stories that can’t be told again, or those never shared, the sharpness of names not remembered. It feels like you are watching a person be whittled down, reduced. Memories constitute us, materially. When we lose them, we lose ourselves. And yet, even this terrible erosion can lead to a new balance, an unearthing. What remained of my grandmother was her bright core, a deep kindness. An attention to those around her so great that she’d shush me for talking even if no one was around, because we didn’t want to disturb their peace. My grandfather was always the funny one, the life of the party, sipping a Manhattan and dropping wry comments at every turn. But it was my grandmother who brought humor to her very last days—even when she forgot how to make sentences, her cadence was full of punchlines. 

George Saunders says the best thing we can do right now is pay attention. That it is our job to witness, to describe, to codify this terrible and peculiar moment we find ourselves in. He is asking us to remember, or at least, to do our part to make sure we as a society do not forget. I am trying to pay attention, but damn, if focus isn’t more elusive than toilet paper. Holy texts tell us to live in the moment, always a daunting challenge, but even more when I’m constantly checking yesterday’s infection totals, and speculations on when, exactly, in the future we will be able to move freely again.  

At a certain point, all Alzheimer’s leaves you with is the present moment. With my grandmother, I couldn’t recount shared memories, or hear about my mother as a 6-year-old. And we couldn’t make plans, fantasize about trips to come. What we could do was marvel at our togetherness, sing (because lyrics are indisputably sticky, the last barricade of the brain) and say “yes, and” to whatever she decided to share. We talked about her career goals (she inexplicably told me she wanted to go into “maintenance”) and about my (deceased) grandfather’s antics in the other room, and about my life, to which she sometimes had the most deliberate and clearheaded advice. One time, she gave me a long look, and said, “You are a miracle. You all are, but you are too.” I hold so tenderly the patterns that remained in our time together—that she was always excited to see me, that she always told me I looked beautiful, and that she was always sad when I had to go. 

“What we embody, what we live through—it works its way into our muscles and our bones.” 

I’m trying to add new patterns and rituals to my life, to steady myself in times of uncertainty. I am writing every morning, documenting the dreams that seem to overflow as I wake up. My houseplants are my saving grace. After I write, I visit the church of new life, inspecting my cuttings for new roots. My largest plant, a vining pothos, was inherited from my grandmother. Its strands are long enough that it wraps around my entire room, a constant embrace. The plant metaphors get tricky when I think about pruning, however. When a leaf starts to yellow, I just pull it off. The whole is healthier this way.  There can be a science to disposability, to what should be removed so that the whole has a better chance of survival. But what is science without application, without the humans that attempt to apply reason to it? My hands physically clench when I hear about people who shirk common sense measures, who suggest it’s time to “open things back up,” proclaiming that more should be disposable, since the “cure can’t be worse than the disease.” We haven’t even seen that summit sign yet, for literal heaven’s sake. But at the same time, I wonder what parts of freedom should not be sacrificed, which parts of human contact are too sacred to give up? 

A few weeks ago, I watched a pianist friend play Chopin over Zoom. The sound quality was thin, certainly secondary to any recording. I wasn’t there with him, feeling the minute vibrations of his fingers striking the keys, or the subtle cues of my fellow audience members, and yet, my eyes filled with tears. We reach for each other in the ways we can, with the tools we have. At the end of the performance, Toni played the final note with such care, lifting his hand slowly, with grace, almost holding the ripple effect of the notes as they echoed. What is the half-life of touch? Does it increase if we squeeze harder the last time we do it? Is there a way to scaffold the resonance of it from afar?

I don’t remember the last time I touched my grandmother. I know that every time I left Elmhurst Extended Care I gave her the best embrace I could in her wheelchair, and I know that during my last visit she was resting, quietly in bed. I held her hand, told her I loved her, and how grateful I was for the time we had together. We knew the time was coming, so it felt like a true goodbye, a small miracle, like every visit was, but that too.  

“Our shared experience of grief makes us softer.” 

I didn’t make to my grandmother’s bedside the day she died. I was walking on the tracks in Ogilvie station, boarding the next train to her when my mom called and let me know that she had passed, peacefully, in her sleep, with all of her children around. Reflexively holding her hands. They spent her last few hours telling her they loved her. I learned recently that the last thing that functions as we die are our ears. Sorrow and beauty are inextricable, as are grief and care. 

I take solace in the primacy of hearing in this moment, when physical contact isn’t possible but phone calls, if we’re lucky, are. I beg that the aftereffects of touch are stronger than we think, that whispered goodbyes travel the distance even without the help of technology. And I weep for the thousands who are dying alone, and for those who are not getting a good goodbye—a fundamental dignity, a sacred task, denied. 

“If we cannot touch, we can bake.”

Of course people are baking bread. When baking becomes a practice, things begin to happen by instinct. The right consistency, supple-ness of dough isn’t a science, it’s a feeling, it’s a knowing that lives in the fingers. What we embody, what we live through—it works its way into our muscles and our bones. Some people say this is going to change everything. And they’re probably right, in a million small ways and several big ones. It seems hard to say anything for certain, but I know what I hope we keep, what I hope becomes instinct. What I hope we don’t forget. That our shared experience of grief makes us softer, reminds us we are fragile, and that we hold onto this newfound sense of fragility, even for a short time. That we carry each other gently, as if we were small, tender plant cuttings, looking for places to root and grow. That we hold onto our practices of quieting the ricochet between past and future, and we emerge into a world ready to be present, to pay attention. That we remind each other that we are miracles. Let us mix sorrow, knead beauty, and bake in connection, and slather the butter on thick. 

About: Emily Duma is a second year Master in Urban Planning student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Born and raised in Wisconsin, Emily is a fierce advocate for cheese curds and believes in the radical possibilities of oft-overlooked cities to create progressive change. She has spent the last decade working as a facilitator, organizer and activist, fighting for the rights of parent leaders, developing national policy for economic justice, coordinating community-based grantmaking for social change, and working to redistribute land, wealth and power. She’s passionate about creating a just transition to a different economy, centering community organizing strategies in planning, and fitting as many houseplants as possible into her small bedroom.  

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