When I pop outside, bare-footed and bleary-eyed, to water my plants in the morning, I feel the cold that has started to linger on my concrete balcony floor. Vibrant veins of scarlet are slowly bleeding into the tips of the trees that dot the parking lot next door, and I’m reminded that it will be a whole other year before we’ll have sticky, sweaty summer afternoons again.
We’ve entered the part of the semester that always feels like a temporal free-fall, and I’ve reached a point of complete demotivation: detached from the excitement of the beginning and a good ways away from the end, I find myself caught up in the whirlwind of assignments, schedules and deadlines, on the teetering brink of several momentous national reckonings—and yet I am only going through the motions, driven by pure inertia, while time quietly slips away.
The aggressive pace of this compressed semester has only been compounded by the lack of breaks, and I am tired. So much so that I’ve developed a great appreciation for virtual learning solely because the distance from my bed to my lectures is a couple steps at most. Middle-of-the-semester naps are an odd coalescence of sublime relief and creeping guilt, and I have precariously treaded the line between self-care and self-indulgence by happily treating myself to naps with great abandon.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve attempted to combat the feeling of rising dread from my inability to adequately focus on anything academic without a pressing deadline by busying myself with productive procrastination. I’ve vacuumed under my bed, pickled some vegetables and finished reading an entire book while resolutely ignoring the readings for my classes.
My crowning achievement in this time has been to bake a Shockingly Easy No-Knead Focaccia Bread in my spanking clean apartment, kitchen counters sparkling. It came out a lovely golden brown with a crispy crust, pillowy crumb and true to its name, was Shockingly Easy to make. Just like Oprah, I. Love. Bread. And I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately.
Almost every culture has a form of bread: baguette, chapati, injera, mantou, tortillas, pita–bread might be the closest thing to a culinary universality (alcohol might be the next closest thing). Our ancestors developed recipes for bread before they mastered farming, meaning at some point over 10,000 years ago, someone somewhere decided that they loved bread enough to start planting more of the plants they needed to make flour from in order to make more bread (probably). In its most pared-down form, bread can be made from just two ingredients: flour and water. The Shockingly Easy Focaccia bread required just five ingredients, bao buns I made earlier this semester needed four and cinnamon rolls that I thought would be far more finicky than it turned out to be needed just seven—and yet with time and a bit of heat, what came out of the oven each time had a complexity so far from the simplicity of the ingredients that recipe steps could never eloquently explain the true extent of the transformation.
I’ve started to liken the ebbs and flows of growth, both personally and academically, to the process of making bread. It’s helped me to reconcile with the guilt when I feel like I’m only doing the bare minimum and grapple with the undercurrent of constant anxiety about my progress. I try to remember that even though it helps to have a good recipe, a solid plan of action, baking bread always gets easier even if you fumble your way through it the first time around.
Rest will always be a crucial part of the process. I let my Shockingly Easy Focaccia prove overnight because time, not toil, turned out to be the most important ingredient. I’m learning to remind myself that my automatic reaction to taking time off should never be guilt.
Sometimes, all it takes is the bare minimum to bake bread. I’ve found, more often than not, that simply showing up, dawdling along and getting on by the skin of my teeth, while not ideal, is enough. After all, even the most complicated breads tend to be made from the same few basic ingredients.
Sometimes, you’ll royally mess up the dough. You’ll be forced to confront your failure as you scrape the yeasty, doughy disaster into the rubbish bin. You’ll try again though, learn to not add as much water this time around, to be more patient.
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Sometimes, you pick up so much momentum that you manage to make croissants. You’ll have painstakingly laminated the dough, the centers will be aerated and cooked through and you can revel in the buttery, flaky pockets of joy. You’ll learn that your effort can make even the simplest recipes far greater than the sum of its parts.
As we emerge from this, the metaphorical armpit of the semester, into the frenzied sprint towards winter break, take the time to rest, to rise and remember that at the end of the day, it’s all just bread.
Hannah Homma Tong is a Trinity senior who thinks you should try the focaccia recipe at some point. It truly is Shockingly Easy.