Saturday, January 16, 2010

An Insulated Life

I live an insulated life.

I saw one of the most horrifying sights of my life on Tuesday. While driving to meet a friend, as I approached the intersection of Springfield and Baltimore Avenues I saw a car blocking the way, as if it had stopped mid-turn.

It turned out that was exactly what happened. Crumpled in the road and motionless lay an African American - man or woman, I could not say. I rolled down my window and asked if I could help. A man stood with his cell phone and explained in stammering, disjointed phrases that he had been turning and hadn't seen the pedestrian before hitting him.

He had already called 911. I wanted to do something, but my friend was waiting for me, other pedestrians were converging on the spot to similarly offer assistance, and I figured my presence was only blocking the way. So I left.

The image has stayed with me. I do not go through the intersection without thinking of the person who lay there, and the poor man who could not comprehend his accidental deed.

I compare those images with images of the earthquake in Haiti this week, after which not just one but thousands of people lay broken in the streets. Natural disasters are unthinkable in Philadelphia, and near-instant mass death had occurred while I cooked jambalaya and listened to This American Life.

My first thought was that I was glad I was not there. I could not understand the random chance that once again left me born to such a comfortable life, but since I had that privilege I was relieved to possess it.

My second thought was that I wished I could be there. While I have indeed been blessed with the means to avoid most hardship, I serve a God who says that he who seeks to save his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for His sake will save it for eternal life.

The fact is that while none of us can choose the hand we are dealt in this life, we are completely responsible for how we play that hand. And my God also says that from he to whom much has been given, much will be required.

This same God had complete freedom to remain in the very seat of heaven, waited on by angels and the whole heavenly host, sharing in the perfect loving company of the Godhead. Yet he freely chose to be born among the lowest of all people and ultimately die literally the most painful death imaginable for my sake.

Finally, he tells me that just as he was sent by his father, so he sends me. I cannot pretend to understand or receive his work for me if I take that gift and sit on it. And so I would follow him, to the ravaged streets of Haiti or to wherever else he might be found.

Yet the scene from this week challenges me. This small intrusion of reality on the road between the tricked out kitchen in which I eat and the gigantic iMac screen at which I work shows me how little accustomed I am to facing Death and Pain. I wonder - would I really follow him?

Most Americans like me will cope the best way they know how, by text messaging a $10 donation to a relief organization. I wonder if it is enough.

Lord, have mercy.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Dare I Bake?

Good things come in threes.

The bread plot deepens.

My dear friend Pat gave me a book of techniques and recipes for baking bread. I had started baking my own whole wheat bread a few months ago. My efforts, though amateur, filled me with delight during many toast mornings and many peanut butter and jelly afternoons. Making yet another decision which isolates me from the supermarket, I have sworn off store bought bread, if I can help it.

With this book I realize I may have started down a road whose destination I scarcely could have perceived. The first sentence I read spoke to sentiments I had already come to cherish in other contexts:
Although modern equipment seeks to duplicate, and thereby nullify, the hard work of the baker, in the actual bakery setting there is no true substitute for skilled hands (66).
Skilled hands! I have written before about longing for manual work with tangible results, even hinting at an inclination for cooking. Author Jeffrey Hamelman continues:
However, for someone aspiring to be an artisan in the historical sense of the word, that is, a skilled manual worker whose hands are integral to the creation of the product, a firm mastery of hand technique is required (66).
The claim that baking bread can connect one to the past, to a mode of being which has been largely forgotten, is exciting. Hamelman also makes it clear that this is skilled labor, not to be learned lightly or in a short period of time, and not to be despised.

Hamelman elaborates by discussing what exactly an artisan is:
One asks, is the baker an artist? An artisan? These days artisan and baker are often combined into one term, as if the unadorned noun baker needs further enhancement. To me, the baker is no artist, for an artist creates something new: This is the domain of poets and painters.

The skilled baker, working with his hands, doing the same work each day, takes his place with the artisans of history: the potters, coopers, carpenters, and smiths. His work may excel and reach toward perfection, but there is little, really, that is new for the bread baker to invent...The baker, each day, tries to perfect something that was worked out hundreds of years ago (86).
In light of that dignified, counter-cultural, and inspiring narrative, dare I bake? Dare I teach these hands to massage something other than a computer keyboard? Dare I meet the ancients at the hearth?

I would sure like to, for several reasons:
  • It seems a more universal skill than any other I possess. A baker can serve anyone, while (say) a programmer is of more limited use. It would be nice to think of returning to South Korea and having something to offer the people other than the English language.
  • It seems an excellent way to connect with my European heritage, since most of these techniques originated there. It would be another way to live as white and redeemed.
  • It seems to connect with other themes of thought which have occupied me in recent years, along the lines of what is lost through industrialization and mass production.
  • It seems an appropriate exploration of masculinity. After all, it was said to the man, "In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread" (Genesis 3:19). Infusing the wheat of the earth with water and air and then tempering it with the fire of the oven - yeah!
  • It seems delicious.
Time will tell if I find the time. If so, I will tell.