Years ago, my husband and I returned to Washington, DC, after years of serving overseas, so he could work a desk assignment at the main State Department. In DC, I was living among my own people, in my own culture and language, but felt lonelier than I ever did in our expatriate compound in Doha, Qatar, or in the west Amman neighborhood during our years in Jordan. I had hoped to enter into neighborly bonds of affection quickly and easily.
As time passed, my desperation grew. I said hi to people, who said hi back, but I was hungry for depth. I thought about how I could smoke out my type of person. “Maybe I can host an early morning prayer group?” I said to my husband one evening after the kids were in bed—mentally turning our enclosed porch into an unconsecrated neighborhood chapel, with candles and wafting frankincense.
He looked up from his book, paused for a moment, and finally said, “Maybe,” the response closest to “No” that he knew I could tolerate when batting around an idea.
“I just want to be around people and engage in intense prayer without us having to talk too much.” He looked at me sideways.
Shrugging with exasperation, I finally admitted, “I just want to find people like me without too much effort.”
“Or, maybe I could do a bread-making class, like that one-off bread clinic I did when we were living in Jordan?”
I submitted both ideas—the bread-making class and the morning prayer group—to the editor of our neighborhood newsletter. The newsletter went out by email once a month and featured a calendar of goings-on, along with items for sale and services like after-school tutoring, piano lessons, and babysitting.
Before the monthly submission deadline, I emailed my husband the draft listing of the morning prayer idea for him to review:
Traditional Morning Prayer Group: Using the morning office of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, you are welcome to join us and other neighbors to pray the morning office, following the revised common lectionary, Tuesdays and Fridays at 6 AM. This is an ecumenical prayer group, any and all are welcome to participate/observe. We’ll begin in meditative silence, follow the form of the prayer together (including scripture readings from the Bible), and then depart in peace. Lasts about 15–20 mins, and gets the day started well. For more information, contact Laura.
And then I wrote: “What do you think?”
He replied quickly this time, though again, probably twitching with restraint, “wow, that’s something!” [sic]
It sure was. I tweaked the listing once more, now with some reticence, imagining a bunch of possible live-wire weirdos showing up at our house in the dark, wee hours, me the self-deputized lay leader running an unregulated subdivision house church of the Episcopal variety. I realized now that I might be the live-wire weirdo and, with this listing, demonstrating as much to the entire neighborhood. I switched the time to 5:30 a.m., surmising that an earlier start might help deter the truly deranged, all the while drawing out my neighborhood spiritual soul-mates.
I quickly drafted an entry for the bread-making class too, with a perky name (“Neighborly Bread”), a once-a-month project schedule, and a more normal evening start time. I sent both listings off to the editor, who promptly replied, “K! Thx!” [also sic]
“Run it up the flagpole, and see if anybody salutes,” I whispered, praying that someone would bite at something.
Praying or Baking
I didn’t get any biters for the prayer group.
The bread-making class replies came in pretty quickly, though. “I’d love to learn how to bake bread. Yeast baffles me,” one wrote. Another said, “Learning with neighbors sounds really fun,” asking for more details. Soon I had six replies, and some were people for whom I only had minimal first impressions from meeting them at the neighborhood elementary school. Still, I was thrilled and relieved: both that I had offered the prayer group idea and that no one wanted to do it, and even more so that the bread-making class had some takers.
Four showed up regularly. The bakers brought their own work tools of mixing bowls and wooden spoons, hauling flour and yeast into my kitchen. We tackled pizza dough, long-rise artisan breads, and cinnamon and dinner rolls. We learned how to wake up yeast from its slumber, feed it breakfast, and watch it burp with gratitude before putting it to work for us.
And we kneaded. This most elemental of bread-making work must be learned tactilely; it’s an education of the body. One must get into the dough—right up into its business—stretching and folding it, letting one’s hands grow intelligent with practice. It takes time, some muscle, and patient repetition. When the dough is ready, the hands will know first. Then the dough must rest, as did we.
Whether at work or at rest with our dough, we told stories. In the first class, I shared a story my husband had told me from his initial training as a diplomat. He was enrolled in a Near East studies course, and the instructor was a German Middle East specialist widely known in the bureau after having taught this seminar many times over the years to American diplomats and military officers. He oriented the students to the five main cultural centers of the Middle East, illuminating them through their staple food.
In rather thick German-accented English, he offered an oddly religious illustration in this thoroughly secular place of professional learning: “You must understand that in the Levant”—the region comprising Jordan, Syria, Israel and the Palestinian territories—“bread is the most basic food. It’s the daily provision, the baseline of survival. So, when Jesus said that he was ‘the bread of life,’ he was saying that he was what one needs daily to survive but saying so by means of the Levantine food culture, centered on its daily bread. If he had come to the Mahgreb”—generally, the region of Arabic-speaking North Africa—“he would have said he was the couscous of life.”
Kneading the dough
When wheat flour and water are first combined in bread dough, the flour proteins are all knotted and disordered, and if baked without kneading, the resulting bread will be flat and dense. Kneading allows those proteins to get organized and grow strong and supple, forming a structure into which the yeast can breathe its life. Like Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, the kneading gets the jumbled mess of flour proteins all lined up and linked up, bone to bone, so the breath has a place to inhabit when it finally arrives.
An unkneaded experiment, I can see now my dead-on-arrival prayer group would have had that kind of unappetizing intensity to it. I was trying to grab at depth and intimacy without the time and patient repetition it demands, earned through the necessarily oblique obligations of human life. But gathering to make, share, and break bread together, month by month, we bread-makers found our lives kneaded into some life-giving shape.
Before we moved to Germany, the group gave me some gifts, thanking me for gathering us together, and at once I was overwhelmed with their gratitude and the sturdiness of intimacy that we now enjoined, for which I had been so hungry. With all that repetitive gathering together, all that shared embodied learning, we now had a sinewy structure into which some life could enter. At last, I had neighbors, and they had me, and together we shared “Neighborly Bread.”
Cover image by Nadya Spetnitskaya.