As a young, poor newlywed, trying to make a life on love and peanut butter money, I desperately wanted to learn to bake bread. Memories of my childhood home, a tiny house we moved out of when I was in high school, are permeated with the warm, curling scent of fresh bread, unrolling fragrant steam in the house. I think that house always smelled like bread. At least, every single memory does.
These were the days before the Great British Baking Show captured our hearts and our Netflix accounts, before you could learn to tile your bathroom just from YouTube. I spent weekend hours at the library, hauling home heavy and beautiful books with pages stained with oil splatters and flour dust (that’s how you know it’s a good one). Underproved, overbaked, my patient and hungry husband ate them all, and encouraged my efforts.
Then, one evening, I opened the door, tired and late from work, to a home that smelled magical. I couldn’t put my finger on it. What is that? It smells like…cinnamon rolls! I pestered my husband, who rebuffed me, laughing. It’s nothing!
But then I found it.
Sitting on the dryer, happily rising, a pile of dough. It was pillowy perfect, and smelled like heaven.
Andrew confessed that his grandmother, every year she visited, would make him bake with her. He has known the secrets of bread since the age of ten or so. He’d been watching me struggle, letting me learn and fail. Then he taught me how.
Now, baking bread is part of my weekly rhythm. Part of our liturgy, our common rule. It is most often the simple, whole wheat loaf from his grandmother’s recipe, but sometimes focaccia or pita or challah, sometimes cinnamon rolls or hot cross buns. I want my children’s memories to smell like bread, too.
In early September of 2020, our memories smelled like ashes. The world around us was burning, burning, burning without respite. The Willamette Valley in Oregon is lush and green, surrounded by those fabled fir forests that make it so beautiful. And flammable. Every breath was toxic, filled with particulates of destroyed homes, trees, lives. The smoke lay so thick upon our yard that we couldn’t see our next door neighbors. When the sun pushed through mid-morning, it was an unearthly red.
I couldn’t bake bread.
We live our small lives of love and hope, trusting in today, trusting in tomorrow. We plan for the dough to rise. Millie Sweeny
For several days, all order ceased. We lived moment to moment, checking the news obsessively, watching the fire line creep closer and closer, knowing that a single spark could cause infinite destruction. We watched friends evacuate. We prayed and packed bags, tried to play board games with the kids, tried not to imagine all the what ifs. My thoughts were nothing beyond the next five minutes. I couldn’t plan supper, couldn’t finish a glass of water, couldn’t think about the next steps for our fixer-upper home.
With time, of course, the rains came. The winds shifted. The immediate danger passed. Life began to resume. Our lungs began to taste fresh air again.
I have always known that the act of baking bread is somehow holy, tied to the story of the whole world. There is bread everywhere in our story, from manna to the Last Supper. In our frenetic culture, it is a meditation on a slower pace, on more intentional living.
But it is also a meditation on hope.
To make bread, one must plan ahead. The yeast must be activated. The dough must be kneaded, must rise, be degassed, shaped, risen again, then finally given into the warmth of the oven.
When I blend in the oil and salt and honey, sprinkle in the flour, I am hoping, trusting, resting.
In the time the bread takes to rise, anything could happen.
When I leave my dough to prove, I am hoping that my husband will return home from work. I am hoping my children will come home safe from school. I am hoping we will gather around our table together, eating and sharing.
I am trusting that no catastrophe will strike, no emergency call me forth from tending the rising.
I am trusting that my heart will beat, my lungs expand, my neurons fire.
I am resting in the promise that daily bread will be provided.
I am planning for a future that may not come to pass.
We do this daily, hourly, without conscious thought; we make great and small plans, trusting that the earth continues its dance around the sun, bringing morning and evening. We live our small lives of love and hope, trusting in today, trusting in tomorrow. We plan for the dough to rise.
And like the bread of communion, we eat in remembrance. We live these lives in hope because of our Prince and Brother, broken and made whole, who promises a future sure to come to pass. Let us bake and break bread together, friends; let us eat together. Let us hope and wait together.
Whether it’s the scent of rising bread, or whether it’s freshly tilled earth, exhaust from a mended engine, sweet-smelling cedar shavings or the pungency of oil paints—let’s fill our homes with these scents of promise, of tending today and looking to tomorrow. Our memories should always smell so, I believe, on this earth and the new.