Of all the things to go missing off of supermarket shelves during the pandemic, I didn’t expect it would be yeast. The lysol wipes, the pasta, even the toilet paper—that made sense. But yeast? In these days of isolation, everyone seems to have had the same idea as me: this is the perfect time to bake.
Anticipating the imminent loss of my leavening, I decided it was time for a sourdough starter. It’s been years since I made one, but it’s not hard to do. You take a scoop of rye flour, a half-cup of water, and a dribble of molasses, mix it all together, cover, and let it rest in a warm place. Then you wait. Over the next week, a community of microflora starts to flourish: lactobacilli bacteria break down the flour, and wild yeast descend to feed on the sugary byproduct of their feasting. It bubbles and rises, teeming with invisible life. The flavor grows complex, tangy, deep. And when at last it has ripened, you mix it into your dough. The yeast you have gathered will exhale carbon dioxide that sticks in the strands of gluten and stretches your bread into a perfect rise. Bake it. Taste it. Even though I know the science, I’m still convinced this is magic.
It was more than a month ago now that my mother and I drove nine hours from New York to Michigan to move out of my dorm. All night as I slept in the corner room of Vorhees for the last time, a flurry of wet lake-snow was falling. In the morning, we vacuumed the carpet and wiped down the shelves and left in a hurry. Crunching through the half-inch of snowfall on the grass, I left Hope’s campus in silence. On the nine-hour drive back, I was too bewildered to grieve.
Try as I might to keep busy with school and work and baking, the grief did find me in the end. It comes in little stabs, like a stitch under the ribs. It catches me when I see a picture of the empty Pine Grove, or when I smell the steam rising off the tea I sipped all semester. This is the time of year when we should be spending our afternoons sprawled in hammocks with friends and our nights gathered in the library with classmates. This is the season when the tulips that line the paths of Centennial Park begin to bloom. This Monday would have been Brinner night, with all of its chaos and laughter and piles of fresh donuts. In the midst of all the world’s suffering, these are small losses. Yet even as I write them, that little stab of grief grows to a huge ache in the middle of my chest.
These email updates we get from Campus Health often talk about “keeping hope.” Even as I long for the simplicity of the days before everything happened, all of the ways that the people in my community are holding and extending hope takes my breath away. I see my friend leaving vegan cupcakes and a big leafy plant on my porch. I see the students of the Into the Light Project rallying to raise funds for communities in sub-Saharan Africa left vulnerable by their lack of healthcare infrastructure. I see my professor speak words of encouragement and wisdom even as she lectures with her wiggly child on her lap. I see my mother go into work at the hospital day after day, never sure what she’ll find when she arrives. I see the people in my own city and around the world stay home, even if it means losing income and living in loneliness, so that lives might be saved. I see the patience of parents and the hard work of healthcare workers and the persistence of scientists and the kindness that reaches across distance to connect the scattered students of my college, and it gives me hope.
Yet it may be in this time of fear and isolation and suffering that you’re hurting too badly to hold yourself open to hope in this way. I see you, too. Be gentle with yourself. And if you have to hide your heart away, cover it loosely—the way I draped the linen napkin over my sourdough starter—with the expectation that life may bubble into being where we least expect it. Yes, there are deadly viruses that dwell in the microscopic world. But there is also wild yeast. There are strains of good bacteria. There are chloroplasts greening the bushes outside my window. There are microglia tending my neurons. The love that holds us is greater than our senses can grasp or our minds can imagine.
I don’t know what these next few weeks and months will look like. Our anxiety will not dissipate with the end of the last exam. Even the most optimistic projections tell us that the threat to public health is far from resolved. We are not the same students we were when we left campus for Spring Break. I wish I had certainty, but I will have to satisfy myself with sourdough. And though it feels like all is collapsing, I will go on flying kites at the park with my brothers and watering my plants and taking long walks in the woods to watch them unfold with delicate new growth. I will delight in every goodness that is given to me. I will keep hope.
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