Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Bread

It’s a simple, familiar process, making bread. Flour, milk, butter, eggs, salt, yeast. I take the ingredients out of the cupboard without checking my familiar recipe, scrawled in my personal recipe book years ago. “Fleishman’s Basic White Bread Recipe.” I don’t really need to consult it anymore, but I have it out on the table nevertheless: my version of this recipe has changed and adapted so much over the years--the recipe I use barely resembles the original, but just in case, I keep it out.

It starts with heating the milk. I add the butter to melt with the milk. Next, the sugar. Then I wait for it to cool, knowing from long experience that impatience will kill the yeast. I test it with my finger several times, remembering a tip from another cookbook that suggested, in the absence of a thermometer, that the milk is ready for the yeast when it is “just hotter than the finger can stand it.” An inexact, unscientific measurement, but I use it nonetheless, knowing intuitively now if the mixture is still too hot for the yeast.

I sprinkle the yeast over the warm milk-butter-sugar concoction, and wait again.

My mind slips back, wishing I had the familiar, wide, heavy metal bowl that we used strictly for making bread in my mother’s kitchen. I see Ami standing at the counter, sprinkling the yeast over the warm water in the bottom of that bowl, the blooms of yeasty goodness hitting my nose. The same smell strikes me as I wait for my yeast to bloom, and I go back those twenty-years, standing next to her on the plywood box that doubles as a kitchen stool, watching her begin to make the bread from memory. Ami never needed a recipe.

She mixes the flour and other ingredients until it forms a lumpy ball of sorts in the bowl. She turns it out onto the floured countertop, and starts to knead, pounding and turning and folding and pounding the bread again and again and again. I can feel the rhythm in my elbows as I lean on the counter watching her, amazed at her dexterity, watching the knobbly dough turn from lumpy to smooth in a matter of minutes. Before she is done, she tears off a small piece and gives it too me. I flour my hands up as I have seen her done, and earnestly attack the dough. It’s hard to grab all the pieces together, an awkward mix of too soft and too dry. My hands don’t know the rhythm yet, and I’m too tentative in my kneading. I watch her smooth and confident folding and turning and copy her movements. Slowly, long after Ami’s lump of dough is done, mine begins to take shape, becoming smoother and smoother, my movements a bit firmer and firmer; my eight-year-old's muscles struggling to bring life to the lumpy and misshapen dough.

Next, Ami cleans the same heavy metal bowl (metal is far better than a plastic mixing bowl for rising dough) and carefully pours some oil into the bottom, and tilts it back and forth to cover the bottom. She drops her dough into the bowl and turns it over a few times to coat it with the oil. I add mine and do the same. Our two smooth lumps of dough nestle together, one large, one small, and now we wait, the tea-towel covered dough sitting on top of the stove. I nip a tiny piece off, a tiny taste of the raw dough, which I love, though I know it will result in yeasty burps over the next hour.

Now, I take my yeasty-milky-buttery-sugary concoction and add it to the dry ingredients waiting. Next, eggs, and I stir it together. Slowly, I add flour half a cup at a time until it seems ready to knead—when no more flour will be absorbed with the mere beating of a wooden spoon. I hardly have to think about what to do next—dough spills out raggedly onto the floured surface and my arms begin pounding out the rhythm I learned from Ami twenty years ago, and I turn, and fold, and turn, and fold, slamming and pounding the dough as hard as I dare onto the floured counter.

The tightness in my neck, the flutter of anxiety in my stomach temporarily fades as I lose myself in the kneading. The lurking reality of returning to school on Thursday, the guilt over the papers I didn’t grade this break, the dread of inevitably yet another dud of a discussion and the frustration over things that I can’t control all slip away for a moment or two.

My hands and memory are back in Kayes, with Ami. She will take the dough and form it into whatever Mom has decided we need—perhaps we’re having guests for lunch (a frequent occurrence). They’ll marvel over Ami’s shiny, soft rolls, and beg Mom to send Ami to them, to teach their maids the art of bread-making. Or, maybe Mom wants to make French toast for supper. The loaves will be sliced into decadently thick slices and drenched in the cinnamon-milk-egg concoction before being fried and devoured with thick layers of precious powered sugar transported carefully from Dakar or Bamako, and homemade “maple” syrup. Or, maybe we’ll just have sandwiches for supper, like usual, but the substitute of this soft, "American" bread for the typical crusty French baguettes will be a welcome change. Or, maybe it’s Christmas Eve, and Mom will shape dough into sweet rolls, and we'll savor them slowly Christmas morning, peeling each soft, cinnamony-layer off carefully, the family all together before the wild, tiring flurry that is Christmas in Kayes. 

My dough rises in the oven, where it is warm and draft free. I peek at it a few times over the hour, impatient for it to rise—I’m always impatient, though bread-making can’t be rushed (and I refuse to buy the “quick-rise” yeast). I’ll shape it into loaves, and send one back to school with my brother and sister for a tiny taste of home. My bread is never, ever as good as Ami’s, but I love making it anyway—love tasting the homey loaves that take me back to dusty, hot Kayes mornings, to the wonder of Ami’s dexterous kneading, to the moments that I never knew would end. It helps me to know that there is more to life than this hardship I am in the midst of. It reminds me that I am more than I feel that I am right now—though I doubt myself, my calling, and I wonder “what’s to become of me?” more often not—I know that this spell of melancholy can, and will, be ended. I know that there is hope in these dreary winter days of school, and grading, and more school and grading—the smell of warm, tangy, blooming yeast can do all of that for me, and so I plan on making many more loaves of bread in the coming weeks and months.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Christmas Eve's Tuesday's Musings

Dear Readers,

1) I fear my blog has been somewhat neglected of late. I had to dust cobwebs off of the link before I could open up a new post. It's been impossible to find the words to say; or, rather it's been impossible to find the right way of saying what is on my heart. I've had words aplenty--but none really suitable for this public of a forum.

I haven't written in a while because it's been a tough few months and I haven't really wanted to be grumpy and whiny here without a light, of sorts, to the end of my crankiness (though a blog is the perfect medium for being cranky and whiny, isn't it?): if there isn't some kind of "lesson" to be learned, I shy away from sharing the personal stuff, sometimes. The short story is that I've been going through some pretty hard transition blues--new job, new school, new classes, new students, and family and close friends far away. All things that I suspected I would go through, all things I knew would be challenging--but knowing that something is going to be challenging and experiencing it are quite different. And that's all I'm going to say about that, for now. If you think of it, I'd appreciate your prayers because I don't really have a light, yet, at the end of this tunnel of melancholy, and I'm waiting for it (not very patiently, I'll admit). I'm trusting that God has a plan for me here, in this country, at this school, for this time of my life. It's hard to see the plan in the swirl of loneliness and self-doubt but I do believe there is one, even if getting my heart to accept what my head knows is a different story.

2) Monday marked an important day for me--December 23rd is my anniversary of returning to the States last year. It's been a strange, topsy-turvy twelve months. It was so special to live with my parents for about eight of those months and to reconnect with them. I really appreciated having a comfort-zone while I tried to figure out what I was doing. Though I still don't really know that I've figured out what I'm doing, God has really blessed me in spite of my transition-blues. I know that I am blessed to have a job that pays the bills (and that I will eventually probably actually like), a warm, sturdy house (completely with "guard dog" neighbors), and a good little car. It doesn't feel like "home" yet ("it" meaning all of it--life, here, in America), and I don't know that it ever completely will; however, I want to have faith that it will be "home" on some level, eventually. Probably not in my timing--and possibly not before I move back overseas (it's no secret that this is the long term plan). I do hope that I can at least put some roots down here so that I have something to come back to. I don't know what roots look like when your family lives and works overseas and/or everywhere else but here, and your friends are scattered all around the world as well, but I'd like to have some semblance of roots before I depart again.

Enough moping, Danielle!

3) It is Christmas Eve, and so I am content because, you can't be unhappy on Christmas Eve, right? (Okay, I know that you can (dozens of sitcoms attest to this)--but I am not.) Ben and Susanna are here with me, and we are enjoying family times (which in the Bowers family means sitting around reading) and catching up on our lives from over the past few months. It's nice have noises in the house that aren't the mice (though I haven't seen any evidence of the mice in weeks), and nice to have people to cook for and "mother" a bit.

We are sort of figuring out what our Christmas together looks like. It's a funny thing with just the three of us, in America. Everyone keeps asking me about our "family's Christmas traditions." Our family Christmas tradition usually means going to church for six or seven hours (4+ hours of church, 2-3 hours of a meal and socializing, after), coming home absolutely exhausted, and crashing (with maybe enough energy to put in a Christmas movie). We generally do the more "Christmas-y" things before and after the actual day of Christmas. And the Christmas-y things often include singing Christmas carols in a pirogue on the Senegal River with Communists, so it's not exactly the same in Baltimore. It's also the first Christmas that we've spent together without our parents. We've had Christmases without our parents, but not together. So we are forging our way, I suppose, and that's okay. Our own way may include a Doctor Who Christmas Special marathon--and I hope that's okay, too.

And so, on this Christmas Eve, I hope and pray that you are nestled all warm in your beds, with loved ones surrounding you.

May we remember that the reason for all of this Christmas-craziness is really to celebrate the birth of Christ. Even without the gifts and the lights and the trees and the eggnog, Christ's birth will still be the reason for this season. I pray that in the hustle and bustle (and the stress!) of it all, may we find time to give thanks to our Lord and Savior for His perfect gift of Salvation and Grace!

Merry Christmas!



Sunday, December 8, 2013

You know you're an MK when...

If you're a missionary kid, you've probably seen the list that has made its way around the internet, again and again. I remember getting it in email form back in the olden days of dial-up--I think it was one of the first forwarded emails I ever got, and I remember reading through the list with gleeful delight, with the delicious realization that there were other people out there who had similar experiences. It's not that I didn't know there were other MKs, but it was one of the first time I had a sense of the "network" of other  missionary kids or TCKs--a knowing that I was not alone on my island of otherness.

You know you're an MK when...

  • People ask you if you speak African.
  • National Geographic makes you homesick.
  • The vast majority of your clothes are hand-me-downs.
  • You have a passport but no driver's license.
  • You can cut grass with a machete, but can't start a lawnmower.
  • You don't know where home is.
  • Your highschool memories include the day school was canceled do to tear gas (or, in my case: America's bombing of Afganistan in 2002 setting off a ripple of threats to American expatriates around the world, and so we closed school for a few days, and then after that had big, beefy Senegalese soldiers posted around our campus for the next 6 months for protection.
  • The big beefy Senegalese soldiers posted around your campus gates allowed the school children to handle their big, beefy guns without giving it a second thought.
  • Random old ladies come up to you in a church you thought you've never visited and tell you that they changed your diaper twenty years ago. Also in the same visit you discover a truly mortifying family prayer card from 1993 on said church's missionary bulletin board and vow never to return.
  • You watch a movie set in a foreign country and understand the language the people are saying (and if they are actually saying anything at all--The Jewel of the Nile features the Senegalese National Dance troop--posing as Ethiopian Bush Men--saying Bambara numbers--the trade language of Mali--very, very emphatically as if they were actually saying something sensible...)
  • You understand the complicated explanation I just gave about the inaccuracies of the language spoke in an obscure sequel to an almost equally obscure 80s romantic comedy featuring Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas.
  • You grew up with very little access to TV and movies and so you randomly know very well the few movies and/or TV shows that your parents lugged over the ocean, but chances are no one in your passport country remembers because who remembers movies from the 80s, anyway?


You get the idea, right?

The past few days, I've had 2 "you know you're an MK moments." Well, I have them all the time, but these two stand out to me.

First of all, a relatively minor incident, but it made me laugh--we just had our first snowfall of the year here in Baltimore (and we have a SNOW DAY TOMORROW!!!!!, but I'm not that excited about it), and I had been reminding myself to buy a scraper-do-hicky for my car, because somehow I'd never gotten around to buying one last winter (that's right folks--I've been back in the US for almost a year now!) because it was a pretty mild winter and I just borrowed my parents' when needed. So, inevitably, my putting off of purchasing the scraper-do-hicky meant that when it did snow, I was caught without one.

Never fear--ever the resourceful missionary kid, I grabbed a spatula from my kitchen and headed out to my car when I needed to get to the grocery store to stock up on necessary staples. And yes, I pushed all the snow off of my car's windows with a spatula. And yes, it worked quite well, thank you very much. And yes, I did get some funny looks at the Aldi's, but whatever--I think I Macgyvered that situation quite nicely. I did then drive to Walmart to buy an appropriate scraper-do-hicky, but if I'm ever without it, I know what to use.

But the funniest MK moment happened to me a few days ago. I've been putting off getting back into the running thing ever since my half marathon. In my defense, I did something to my foot (probably just used it too much) and it hurt after the race, and it hurt when I ran a few days later, so I gave it a break--I didn't need much convincing to take a rest from running. I ran a few times since, but not consistently, and my exercise really broke down during my extremely challenging month of November. So, last week, I was bound and determined that I would get back to the routine (especially because I have another half marathon coming up in March).

My habit has been to park my car in a parking lot for a small park/athletic field on a road that I take to and from school. I park and run a five mile loop.

So, as usual, I parked my car, stretched, and headed out on my run, enjoying the refreshingly brisk late-fall evening. I pushed myself a bit harder, knowing that I usually keep to a regime if I push harder the first time I run, and went up a side road with a steep hill that I normally avoid. I ran the return distance a bit slower, but still in good spirits, sprinting the last two hundred yards of sidewalk to the park with my car.

The problem is that the last time I ran, it was before daylight savings time. I started my run around 4:30, and it was already almost dusk at the start of my run--and night had completely fallen by the end of my run. What I did not realize was that the park's gates are closed at dark. Rookie mistake, I know. Because all parks close at dusk in sensible, suburban America. Actually, all parks close at dusk in dangerous urban America, but that just make sense.

So, I get back to my car to find the gates closed--the gates shut off the car entrance/exit, but everything else is wide open. So, basically, the only thing that can't get in or out is a vehicle. In this instance--mine.

At first, I wasn't too disturbed--I knew there was a 2nd exit, and I just assumed that it would be open. I'm not sure why I assumed this, but I was still young and naive at this point. After stretching, I started the car and headed toward the second exit.

I noticed a 2nd car coming from that 2nd exit, so this added to my assumption that it would be open.

It wasn't.

As I was driving towards it, an older woman was walking her dog along the sidewalk, and she gave me an extremely mournful look as I drove past, and I wondered why.

And then, I saw the gate: closed.

I stopped my car and just looked at it. Really? Really? How could this be happening? What should I do? Who do I call? Do I call the police? It's not like I could just walk home...home was 20 miles away.

I got out of my car and checked the latch on the gate, on the off chance that it would be easy to lift. Nope. Padlocked.

So, then, I decided to jump the curb.

This is the part where you know you're an MK. But, my car was too little and too low, and could not get up and over the curb.

Panic started to set it, and I don't normally panic in these situations.

Though, I've never been locked inside a suburban soccer-park before.

I frantically thought about who I could call, and who lived close enough to walk to. I basically have no numbers in my phone of the other teachers at my school--who all actually live really close to where I was, ironically.

If I told you I didn't cry, I would be lying. I decided to make one more sweep of the park, to see if there was any other exit that I could get through. As I drove around the other side of the park, I saw the other car on the far end, looking as perplexed as I felt.

And then, I saw it: there was a dip in the curb for the sidewalk, which led up to the main road. There were no cars coming on the main road that I could see, so I decided to do it: I drove up on the side walk, up the 10 meters to the road, hoped and prayed that the now oncoming car wasn't a cop (because it would be, knowing my luck), and plopped onto Honeygo Boulevard like it was normal to enter the road at that point. The car behind me caught up, and thankfully wasn't the police, and I went on my merry way--my tears turning to hoots of laughter.

After the bulbous lizard incidents of 2010-11, my roommate Cori and I used to say: "I can't believe that just happened!" over and over and over again after each subsequent lizard episode.

That is what I kept repeating to myself on the way home: "I can't believe that just happened!"

And so, you know you're an MK when you don't realize the local park closes at dusk and your car gets stuck in the park because the gates are locked so you drive up on the sidewalk and hope the other cars aren't the police and you get out of the park by jumping the curb onto the main road.


What's your most memorable "you know you're an MK" moment?