In the Valley, With Bread and Masks

I will remember last week—one of a handful of representatives from seasons that I keep—turning them over and over like pebbles from the beach, as the week that 2020 crashed into us. Before this raises any alarms: no, none of us is suffering from the coronavirus, and no, our house didn’t burn down. Nothing really happened this week, at least to us. Perhaps that’s the point.

Not actually sourdough bread, but two of the twenty or so loaves I’ve baked since March.

Friday afternoon, I start the bread. Even though it’s still summer, and I’ll have to bake this bread at 500˚ F for almost an hour. Even though there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to open the windows, because the smoke from wildfires too close to us has lingered for almost two weeks now. Even as protests rage around the world, as thousands die from a disease we’re nowhere near seeing the last of and, as I’ll learn in a few hours, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg takes her last breaths. Even as the dread of what’s to come mingles with dread of the present, I start baking bread anyway.

My parents used to ask me what the Second World War was like in the little village where I lived for a long time in Southwestern Germany. I didn’t know, still don’t know. I think they hoped I would have asked a fellow resident of my town, which played host to a disproportionate number of retirees. But I never learned to ask that, or knew anyone well enough to inquire, in my halting German, what life was like there during its darkest hours, or what these elders had thought of the fascist regime that rose and fell during their lifetimes. 

And asking was the only tool I had, because my village, just five thousand people scattered over a handful of wooded hills and green valleys, isn’t the sort you read much about. There were no battles here, and I suspect no bombs, either. Young men went away, fought and died, as the war memorial overlooking the town still attests. But no one writes books about villages like ours, unless they, like Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon, across the border from us in France, rose up in organized rebellion against the Nazis. If that had happened here, I think I would have heard about it by now.

I’ve been baking this same sourdough boule in my Dutch oven, every week or so, for two years now. Someone asked a group of us recently to calculate how many loaves of bread we’d baked in quarantine. Half a year, I calculated, twenty-one weeks. A few weeks too hot to bake, a few weeks with two or three loaves, so probably… twenty-one or so. That number seemed high, in that group of fellow mothers.

I stir the ingredients together—just flour, salt and water—with my hand, then set the towel-wrapped bowl aside and turn to sewing together the pieces of the masks I cut out a few days ago. I’ve run out of the stylish fabric I bought at the beginning of the summer, so these are made from leftovers from the last few years’ Christmas presents, purple calico and a print with glasses-wearing foxes. I keep making masks. None of them are great, though each a marginal improvement on the last, and to be honest I don’t need many masks. I don’t really go anywhere. But I keep sewing them together, as if each stitch contains a tiny thread of hope that I will see friends, gather in church or school or concert halls, someday.

What was life like during the war? I couldn’t imagine asking that question then, to the neighbors who were still mostly strangers, living lives both foreign and familiar to me. I used to think that, no matter what the answer, mine would have been different. The only time I visited a concentration camp I was seventeen, and I was struck by how near it stood to a suburb. How could they have missed it, the people who lived here? I would have noticed, I thought.

The way we learn history, with its limited space devoted to heroes and villains, tricks us into believing that these are the only two ways to be. If we weren’t Governor George Wallace, we would have been Dr. Martin Luther King. We’re sure we wouldn’t have been Hitler, so we must have been Sophie Scholl or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The truth is that there is a vast valley between these opposing peaks, a valley where most of us live. A valley that likely included my village, though I was never brave enough to ask.

And in the valley, we are disturbed by current events, maybe even inconvenienced. We aren’t plotting evil, but nor do we know how to stop it. Our lives are disrupted, slightly, but often concerns of what’s happening “out there” take second place to the concerns already present in our daily lives.

The timer tells me it’s time to fold my dough, so I return, pulling the edge across the top of the pliant mound, tucking it a few times under itself, dressing it again in its cloth. How do you do it? I’ve heard that a bit, about the baking, or the masks. It’s a question about getting things done with small kids around, and sometimes it comes with its more skeptical cousin, Why would you do that? Either way, the answer is the same. Though I usually shrug and laugh, what I want to say is The bread, the masks, those are nothing. Really, they’re the easiest part.

I find myself thinking more and more about the young mothers of 1930s Germany, the ones whose children grew up to be my elderly neighbors. There must have been some like me, their children too young to be soldiers, who in the midst of vague worries about a coming war were also stressed about their kids’ schools or futures, busy with cooking and cleaning and shopping, and who later missed the way they used to be able to go out and do things, see their friends, live their normal lives. 

We want to tell them now, from the future, that they should have known what was happening in their country, because of their government, that they should have cared, should have done something. We even know that some of them did. But I find myself wondering, what should they have done? Once they knew, once they cared, what should have come next for those mothers? That’s what I want to know—need to know—right now.

As a nation, we don’t spend much time imagining ourselves anywhere in Germany’s history. Our president likes to cast himself as Churchill, a great leader facing a tough challenge, and us the stoic Londoners in the Blitz, bearing up heroically under the attack of an outside enemy, pure evil to our righteous innocence. But if I’m looking for another nation holding people in camps, one led by an insecure, amoral demagogue, who is vilifying various ethnic and ideological groups and seeking to define a national identity that excludes those groups from the picture, it’s not Great Britain. That analogy is more fun, but I owe it to history—and to the rules of figurative language—to choose the most accurate analogy.

The bread will be ready tomorrow. It takes a while, sourdough. It’s not a lot of work, but it takes some patience and planning, and a long stretch of time when you don’t have to be anywhere. Good news for me, then. Tomorrow we’ll have bread, and clean masks to wear to the places we’re not going. As for the rest of it, everything that isn’t the easiest part, I need to keep learning, seeing, asking.

Getting into the “I didn’t buy this cloth with the intention of wearing it on my face” stage of mask-making.

In a sermon on the theme of “Go,” as Jesus sent his disciples out near the beginning of their ministry, one of our pastors spoke of spending time in prayer asking for guidance on this simple question: “Go where? Do what? Show me what to do!” And I ask with her, today. From a life that seems increasingly good, but small and very fragile, what more should I be doing? How can I look beyond the borders of this village, so different yet like enough to the one I left behind in Germany?

I know. I care. After the bread, the masks, what should come next? 

Show us, Father God. Have mercy on us, Lord Jesus. Strengthen us, Holy Spirit. 

One Comment Add yours

  1. I’m behind on blogs. This one was very thought-provoking. Makes me want to read some MORE books of that period. I loved Michèle Phoenix’s newest. Interesting to say the least. But I would enjoy reading some deeper, non-fiction. Sophie Scholl was not familiar. I’ll have to look her up.

    Baking and sewing – beats wallowing in Covid-depression! Do hope you can get out soon for walks.

    Hugs to all,
    Laura

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