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Pins And Needles: Bread Rising

...Somehow, doesnít rising seem morally superior to falling? At times we feel as though we can rise forever, but we only fall until we hit the ground? Maybe thatís it. Rising has no limits--upward and onward--while falling is a rock sliding, knee skinning, stock dropping, cake failing sort of a word...

By way of baking bread and recalling poems learned in Miss Portmann's fourth grade classroom, Gloria MacKay expresses her joy in words - and the use of words. That joy results in a reading treat for Open Writing visitors.

To see more of Gloria's columns please Click on Pins and Needles in the menu on this page.

Even as a school girl I was caught up with the magic of ascension. Sections of blackboard at the front of my fourth grade classroom doubled as slide-up doors to the coat closet. They held back the smell of wet galoshes and filtered the aroma of tuna sandwiches getting warmer by the hour--although nothing could stop the odor of over-ripening bananas oozing through the cracks.

The blackboards were a movable feast of arithmetic problems, spelling words, maps and explorers. And every week Miss Portmann imbued us, in this fashion, with a poem which rose and fell before our literal, child-sized eyes.

The fog comes on little cat feet.
It sits looking over harbor and city
on silent haunches and then moves on.

Our class hadnít known a poem could be that short, but since the poem of the week was also the penmanship assignment for the week, we were grateful to Carl Sandburg more for his thrift than his metaphor.

One particular poem chalked out by Miss Portmann in her most precise penmanship was all about going up.

I saw you toss the kites on high
And blow the birds across the sky
And all around I hear you pass
Like ladiesí skirts across the grass.

Robert Louis Stevenson blew me away with his kites. With a vision like this going up before my eyes at lunchtime every day for a week how could I not get hooked on the image of anything rising?

I was older when I came upon a story by J.D. Salinger. I donít remember the story, but I will never forget the title: Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters. Those six words sent me squinting through sunshine at the pale, long, lean, lumber stacked neatly in place, and the tanned, long lean workers stretching and balancing as though they were walking on air. The words rise and fall like a melody.

Somehow, doesnít rising seem morally superior to falling? At times we feel as though we can rise forever, but we only fall until we hit the ground? Maybe thatís it. Rising has no limits--upward and onward--while falling is a rock sliding, knee skinning, stock dropping, cake failing sort of a word.

Which brings me to bread. I wonder why I love to bake bread more than any other cooking I do. Partly for the aroma as it bakes and that first warm slice off the end, to be sure but mostly because of the rising. I like to peek at bread dough basking unattended in the sunshine like a baby asleep in a basket. Each moment is motionless: as calm as a summer afternoon. But turn back the corner of the warm, moist towel, just as you might peek beneath a babyís quilt, and you can feel something mysterious going on. Wait an hour or so and the mound will have grown to twice its size--without making a sound. Bread, rising, is stillness in motion.

Watching bread puff up in a bowl might seem more passive than passionate, but my favorite bread-baking story shows that spunk matters. A long time ago, an inept, New England housewife named Anna got one final rise out of her hardworking, fisherman husband because she couldnít put a decent meal on the table. He threw back his chair, leaped to his feet, and looking toward the heavens shouted, ĎAnna, damn herí and then took over the kitchen.

Propelled by passion and hunger, the man threw together some yeast, flour, cornmeal and molasses, paced for a couple of hours, and came up with a delicious new bread. It became known, of course, as anadama bread, and continues to rise in the very best kitchens.

If I had not spent my entire fourth grade watching the year rise and fall before my eyes, who knows how mundane a life I might have had. I might never have read one single poem. I might never have figured out that a balloon tethered to a string is a dream waiting to happen. I probably would have stood flat-footed in my kitchen, all these years, baking biscuits, not bread. And the fog, which comes to us all from time to time, might never have stretched its little cat feet and moved on.

Gloria MacKay
glomac@comcast.net


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