As I open the door, my senses are flooded with the warm, heady aroma of fresh-baked bread. I hadn’t realized how fragrant my apartment had become until I stepped out for a moment and stepped back in. The aroma draws me back to the kitchen, where I find the two gorgeous loaves of hearty rye I’ve just pulled out of the oven, cooling on a rack. Each loaf has a long slash down one side, end to end, to partly control where the dough will crack as it heats up. A row of smaller slashes decorates the other side. They’ve turned out perfect this time. I inhale deeply, admire, snap a photo for #sourdoughbakers on Instagram. This perfection must be shared.
The entire scene pleases me in a way few things ever have, not just the bread itself but also the implements of its creation—the enameled cast iron baking pans, the bowls and jars and scrapers still in disarray, even the fine dusting of flour on every surface. All of it pleases me.
There’s something about this whole business of baking, mess and all, that makes me feel connected to a long line of bakers who, for thousands of years, have been performing the same movements with their bodies that I am now. I can almost feel them extending their floury hands down the centuries to take my own hand as I claim my place in the line.
The tools and technology have changed over the generations, but the ingredients are still the same: flour, water, salt. The basic method is also still the same: you mix flour and water, wait a few days, use the resulting fermented starter to raise your bread. For your bread dough, you mix the active starter with more flour and water, plus a bit of salt.
It was the simplicity of the ingredients that first made me even consider baking my own bread. I began thinking about it when I first tasted a friend’s homemade sourdough—crusty-crunchy, soft, airy, indescribably delicious. When she told me what was in it, I was sold. How could those three simple ingredients could produce something so divine? All that rich flavor with no sugar, no oil, dairy, eggs, nothing. Just flour. Water. Salt.
Now, after two years of baking, I still love this simplicity. And I love the whole process, not just the product. I find it so satisfying to take part in the transformation of this raw blob of dough into something edible and delicious. I love it so much that when my area was first ordered into COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020, I started buying my flour in 10-kilogram bags. A good thing, too—by the time I got to a grocery store, everybody in North America suddenly seemed to be making sourdough and all the flour was just flying off the shelves (along with all the toilet paper).
After two years of baking, I love it not only for this simplicity but also for the quiet sense of awe it always brings me, as I witness the miracle of how a mixture of those three simple ingredients consistently produces something so tasty and nourishing. In fact, it’s that sense of wonder that pushed me over the edge and onto the path to becoming the fanatical baker I am today.
One day not long after having my friend’s bread, an article landed in my inbox. The title grabbed me immediately: “Inside the fascinating (and delicious!) science of sourdough bread” (from ideas.ted.com). Before I’d even finished reading, I found myself thinking, “I absolutely have to try this for myself!”
The article turned out to be more about sourdough starter than the bread itself, so of course I had to grow the starter from scratch.
The result was Betty.
Yes, Betty. Don’t laugh. Lots of people name their starters—and it’s no wonder. For one thing, a starter can be kept alive for generations. For another, if you grow your own starter, you can actually watch it come to life.
Betty was born about five days after I mixed some flour and water in a jar and left it on the kitchen counter overnight to ferment. For the first few days, nothing seemed to be happening, even though I followed the recipe exactly, each morning tipping away a bit of starter before adding exactly 40 grams of flour and 40 grams of filtered water at room temperature. Day after day, though, the mixture looked exactly the same. Until one day it didn’t.
On the fifth day, as I uncovered the jar for the daily feeding, I heard a faint “bleurfph.” Bleurfph? It seemed to be coming from the jar. I peered at the contents, and lo and behold, a sign of life: a bubble. And another bubble. And another and another. Lots of bubbles! Success at last! As I watched, a big bubble shimmied up from the depths of the jar, surfacing with another “bleurfph.” At that moment, the name “Betty” popped into my head.
“Betty?” I thought. “Really?” But the thought was persistent, and so Betty was born.
After that, every time I checked on Betty, I’d find her merrily burbling away to herself. By day 10, she seemed lively enough to raise a loaf of bread, and so that very day we got right to work on our very first loaf of homemade sourdough. (It was amazing. Thanks for asking.)
We soon settled into a routine of baking about once a week. Betty became much easier to care for, no longer needing daily attention. Keeping an established starter going is kind of like keeping a goldfish: you have to keep an eye on her and feed her from time to time, and the rest of the time she pretty much just sits there and blows bubbles.
Or does she?
Well, actually, no. There’s a lot more going on than meets the eye. That sourdough starter on your kitchen counter is in fact very busy collecting bacteria and yeasts from its surroundings. At a certain point, the bacteria in the flour you’ve been adding magically come alive and start breathing, exhaling carbon dioxide just like we do. Even more magically, it turns out that your flour and water mixture will almost always end up with one of the few combinations of bacteria and yeasts that will consistently raise bread—with millions of possible species to choose from, most of which won’t work. Thanks to the study of sourdough starters discussed in the article mentioned above, we also know that the exact mix of microbes in your starter depends partly on the flour and partly on environment, including your own body.
The study also found that there seems to be an exchange going on. When the researchers collected samples from the hands of the participants, 15 bakers recruited from different parts of the world, they discovered something unexpected: the bakers’ hands were unlike any hands they’d seen before, with way more of the kinds of microbes that will raise bread. Furthermore, each bakers’ hands had the same specific bacteria as their own starters.
Well. It would appear that my friend Betty may be giving as good as she gets! She may be transforming me as much as I’m transforming her, inoculating my skin with her particular brew of microbes. The researchers didn’t publish specific conclusions about exactly how this occurs, but to me it’s no mystery at all.
If you’ve ever handled a sourdough starter or dough, you’ll know as well as I do how ridiculously sticky it is. It clings tenaciously to everything it touches, including your hands (and your hair, the bowl, the counter, the dog, and heaven help you, your plumbing, should you be so foolish or unlucky as to flush any of it down the sink). When you work the dough, you really have to get in there with your hands, stretching the dough and folding it over itself again and again and again until you eventually end up with a tidy, smooth ball like any other bread dough. Meanwhile, every time you sink your hands into that clingy, goopy, messy mass of stickiness, all those busy little microbes are insinuating themselves under your fingernails, into your cuticles, through your very pores, mixing and mingling with the microbes already living in your body until you can’t tell them apart.
No wonder our microbes match.
The bakers in the study all started with the same flour, provided by the research team. Most of the bacteria in that flour showed up in all of their starters, including bacteria that were found inside grains of the wheat the flour was made from and in the soil those grains grew in.
If that’s the case, then it stands to reason that the flour I use in my own kitchen would also contain bacteria we can trace right back to the soil the grains came from. And since bacteria are literally everywhere, it also stands to reason that some of the bacteria that flour came in contact with on its journey from farm to kitchen would also have seeped into the flour: bacteria from the store where I bought the flour, the people in the store who sold it to me, the truck driver who delivered it; from the bag the flour was packed in, the mill that ground the grain and the farmer who grew it. And all of the random bacteria emanating from the vehicles and buildings and people along the way.
This means that, through the intricate dance of exchanging nutrients with Betty, I am literally connected in a physical, measurable way to each place and every being my flour has been in contact with, from the particular patch of soil the grain grew in to the bacteria living in my own home.
Let’s just pause for a moment and take that in: I am physically connected at the cellular level to a patch of earth on a farm that may be hundreds of miles away, where the wheat or rye for my flour grew, nourished by those bacteria, by sunshine, by rain. I am physically connected at the cellular level to everyone and everything that flour has encountered on its way to my table.
This is not a metaphor and it’s not philosophy. It’s science.
You can demonstrate mathematically that the elements we’re all made of were born in the Big Bang. These elements, such as carbon, are the building blocks of life as we know it: they show up in human bodies, in the bodies of all living beings and in the fossil record; in the body of our planet and in all the planets and stars in the known universe. Quantum physics also shows that all matter is physically connected on the subatomic level.
But human understanding of this physical connectedness is much older than modern physics and cosmology. An ancient, foundational Buddhist teaching predates the field of quantum physics by some 2,500 years and comes to the same conclusions. The term “interbeing,” coined by the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh in the 1960s, is now often used to refer to these teachings.
Simply put, interbeing is the teaching that everything is literally interconnected, intersecting, interdependent. According to this teaching, in fact, nothing can exist independently; everything is actually within you, part of you, as surely as your ancestors’ DNA, and just as inextricably. That’s a vast oversimplification of this complex teaching, but I believe it captures its essence.
Making bread with Betty has made this abstract concept real for me, concretely and physically. Through Betty, I’m connected to the flour, which could not exist without the bacteria in the soil the grain grew in. Those bacteria are part of the flour, and can’t be separated or removed. And now those bacteria are also in Betty, and can’t be removed or separated from her either. Nor from me.
So, Betty contains “non-Betty” elements, and, since Betty and I share microbes, so do I. Those non-Betty elements are now also “non-me” elements that are as much a part of me as they are of the flour, and they can neither be distinguished from the rest of the cells of my body nor extracted from them.
This is interbeing in action: As much as Betty “inter-is” with the soil the grain grew in, the rain that fell and the sun that shone to make it possible for the grain to grow, I, too, inter-am not only with Betty, but also with these non-Betty, non-me elements.
If these “non-me” elements have become part of me, does that mean I’m a discrete container for these alchemical processes of absorbing and transforming the non-me elements into “me”? Arguably, that’s how most of us see ourselves—as individual beings entirely separate from each other and certainly separate from the rest of the beings in the world.
But as we’ve seen, that’s not the reality.
So what if, instead of viewing ourselves as islands that end at our skin, we could open our awareness to all the elements that have contributed to our existence? What if we could recognize how those elements have become integral to us? What if we could open ourselves to this perception of the non-me elements in us? The non-Betty elements in Betty? What if, every time we ate a piece of sourdough bread, we could perceive the sunshine within the bread and also within ourselves?
What if we could see that we’re also connected to each other in the same way?
What if I could perceive not only the sunshine in me but also the sunshine in you, not only the non-me elements in me, but also the non-you elements in you?
If I can perceive the sunshine in you and the sunshine in me, maybe I could also see that we have something in common: sunshine. If I can see that we have something in common, maybe I can see that this thing actually connects us. If I can see how we’re connected in this way, maybe I can also see that the perception of ourselves as discrete beings that end at our skin, alone in a fractured universe, is nothing more than an illusion of separateness.
If I can understand that we not only have some common ground but also aren’t actually separate, if I can see that we’re connected, at the cellular level, by sunshine and carbon and soil bacteria and many other non-me non-you elements, then other perceptions could blossom as well. Maybe I could begin to see that when I hurt you, I literally also hurt myself as well as every other sentient being. When I cause you suffering, I also bring suffering to myself. Suffering, says Thich Nhat Hanh, is not an individual matter, because we inter-are. He says if you can make another being suffer less, you will also suffer less.
If I can see how your suffering is like my own—in essence if not in content or degree—I can begin to see that I could respond to your suffering as if it really were my own. Because it is.
And this perception is the birthplace of compassion. And right now, in particular, we need all the compassion we can bring to each other, as we suffer collectively in ways we’ve never experienced before.
As I write this, the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic is tearing around the globe, with mutations that may reduce the effectiveness of the vaccines being developed now. We’ve never seen anything like this and we don’t know what to do. Everything hurts. We’re tired, we’re stressed, we’re broke, and we’re constantly going through so many changes and upheavals, all of us, much more than what’s “usual” for most of us. We’ve all suffered multiple losses, prolonged uncertainty, prolonged isolation, prolonged separation from our communities and our families. Many of us are bereaved and grieving, many unable to have a proper funeral for those we’ve had to bury. Many of us have lost our jobs, maybe our homes, and the future isn’t looking much better, not for a long time, even if the vaccination programs we’re rolling out now are fully successful.
Our shared suffering gives us a choice and an opportunity. Do we lash out at each other as the stress builds? Or do we turn to each other with understanding, compassion and kindness?
Having watched the alarming speed and ease with which the virus has spread, can we connect the dots? Can we see how intimately we’re all connected to everyone else on the planet? The virus is showing us exactly how connected we are, like it or not.
I think on some level we do understand it. The lockdowns, the masks and the physical distancing we’re practicing all point to a tacit understanding of this connection, a tacit acknowledgement that any one of us could become host to the virus, to this not-me, not-you element to which we are all vulnerable. We’re even understanding, finally, that what helps to protect you is also the only way to protect me. Wearing a mask in public spaces has become routine, even mandatory in many places—in essence, many of us are being required to protect each other, by law.
This understanding of our mutual vulnerability has become part of the public discourse too, in those phrases like “we’re all in this together” that have begun to pop up everywhere, without a trace of irony; in the consistent message from pretty much everybody to “take care of each other”; and even in little things like the signs at my grocery store urging people to “please be kind.”
To be sure, these words are just words, and I’m not saying they translate into action that actually helps the people who need it most.
But there’s an opening here, now, in this moment, because words are never “just words.” Words have power. Words have energy and movement. Words are the way thoughts enter the world. Change begins with words, and some of the words I’ve been hearing in public spaces have begun pointing, however unconsciously, towards our interconnectedness, our interbeing.
Could this tiny shift in understanding radiate out into our collective consciousness, leading us out of our obsession with me-me-me? Might there be a subatomic particle of actual compassion beginning to insinuate itself under the fingernails of our world-weary, jaded cynicism? Could we learn to be less concerned with “what about me” and more with “what about you”? Could we be on the precipice of a leap into a better version of ourselves?
What if we really are all in this together?
About the Tunde Nemeth:
I have led workshops in mindful writing in the community since 2016.
I’m a long-time meditator, most recently in the Shambhala tradition, with experience in several other forms of meditation over the years.
I’ve always worked with words, as a writer, editor, student of literature and teacher of writing, and later as a registered trademark agent for a small law firm. Over some 30 years, I’ve helped people learn to write through workshops in business writing and academic writing and through individual coaching. I’ve helped scores of post-secondary students in developing language skills, including reading strategies, notetaking, test taking and writing academic essays, and to cope with ADD/ADHD and learning disabilities. I’ve also run workshops in business development and personal development as well as training dozens of people in Reiki energy healing.
Feature image by author.