Why I made the biscuits

Here’s a peek behind the curtain at Metaforia: my first instinct, almost every time I sit down to write, is to explain my process. Hey, kinda like I’m doing right now, in this very opening paragraph (really putting the “meta” part front and center today, eh?)! I always feel an urge to publicly unpack my thought process…what led me to this story, to this realization, on this day?

Sometimes I even type the whole methodology part out. And then I delete it, because I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that this is the kind of “bad writing” that “bad writers” do. Then again, there are countless perspectives on what makes writing good or bad. Most writers have learned, for example, that adverbs are really, really, extremely bad. Imagine that! An entire CATEGORY of words on the chopping block. Some adjectives are off-limits too: we’re told not to use the word “nice” (which I find to be an incredibly nice word). I’m sure my confident-yet-flagrant use of punctuation — my most impish personal writing tic —  would give some English teachers palpitations. In short, if she avoids ALL the many proscribed sins of writing, the writer runs straight out of available words and the page is left blank.

So, indulge me. Or, further indulge me. That last paragraph was indulgent enough on its own.

I’ve been writing Metaforia weekly for seven months now. Lately, as the days of each week tick forward toward Monday, I grow increasingly panicked about when — or if — I will have an experience or revelation worth recounting. I have lots of stories to tell, but I want there to be a reason why I’m sharing them now, even if that reason only matters to me. As I’ve written before, I’m not attempting to hide a memoir in these missives. I don’t want to write about myself, not exactly; I want to write about concepts and feelings and abstract nouns (which must be filtered through personal experience…unless I become some kind of researcher in social science.) I don’t want to be trite, and I don’t want to speak from a place of false wisdom. I’d love my words to motivate, but I’m not a motivational speaker. You can give me money if you want, but I’m not selling anything.

As I was driving to church yesterday morning (Sunday! One day before Monday!), my poor little writer-brain was flopping around in my head like a fish on a pier. What meaning could I make out of any of the week’s experiences? Something about the children I met? Anything about that outdoor dinner party I went to? Maybe I saw an especially interesting billboard? Just when I’d resolved to put this anxiety aside and let the answer find me organically, I drove past the Beverly Hills Art Fair. Suddenly I knew: I would go to that art fair and write about my own personal history with art fairs. I could describe the sweet smell of the summer grass in Hawthorne Park when my parents took me to the Chesterton Art Fair. I could go on to explain how I later learned that it couldn’t have been the summer grass at all, because all art fairs smell that way. Hours later, as I walked through Beverly Gardens Park, I had my head on a swivel in case any abstract nouns tried to sneak past me. I decided that the essay’s coup de grace would be the revelation that, once you enter the scrum of booths and artists and looky-loos, there is no discernible difference between my annual girlhood art fair in small-town Indiana and this one, in America’s most famous zipcode, booths surrounding a rectangular pond that folks fly across the globe to take a selfie in front of.

I could still write that Metaforia. But instead, I’m writing this. And (in the spirit of showing my work) now comes the part where I  tell you why.

I don’t have writer’s block. It’s not a seven-month itch. This feeling of grasping at straws and feeling like they’re all the same straws you’ve grabbed a thousand times before? That feeling seems like it’s going around. On Friday, I went to a yoga class. The instructor opened by observing that it had felt like a long week. After class, when I told him I hadn’t brought much energy to the day’s practice1, he said that all week long, people had been telling him how tired they were. I nodded, because I agreed. But while this information was anecdotally interesting, it was hard to make sense of. It’s been an exhausting couple of years. Why this week in particular?

After I got home from the art fair yesterday, I found one of my favorite newsletters, Anne Helen Peterson’s Culture Study in my inbox. The enclosed piece, entitled “What’s That Feeling? Oh, It’s Fall Regression” described the very feeling I’ve had this past week, attributing it in part to the arrival of autumn. The changing of the seasons creates the calendar equivalent of mid-life crisis. Just as things are getting darker and colder, we have a lull before holiday festivities and parties take over. In that lull, we naturally begin to wonder: what’s the point? Am I wasting my time? I commented on the essay before I’d even finished reading it2. For the rest of the day, I kept getting email alerts telling me that random strangers had “liked” my comment. It read, in part, “This past week or two has felt just like this for me (a lot of ‘what is the point of my labor? What am I doing with my life and energy?’ ennui)…it’s easy to forget the power of the calendar on our minds and bodies.”

This morning I got up and, hungrily recalling that I’d thrown away the molding butts of my homemade bread the night before, I decided to make biscuits for breakfast. I made a half recipe — just four biscuits — because I’m the only one home to eat them, and they only keep so long (see: my moldy bread). I measured out the baking powder and thought, “Is this a waste of my precious time? Why am I doing this?” A few minutes later, hands caked in buttery dough, I thought to myself, “This is so stupid, why am I doing this?” I suppose I felt a bit better about things by the time the dough went into the oven, maybe because the finished product was in sight.

As I waited for the biscuits to turn golden, I sat down with my much-neglected Five-Year “One-Line-a-Day” Journal. One of the rewards of keeping this journal going is getting to see patterns emerge, year after year; ironically, that’s the main reason I’ve written in it only sporadically this year. I don’t relish rereading the detailed entries I made through much of 2020. But I picked it up again today, and was rewarded. There was no entry for 2020 at all during this week in October. But on October 16, 2019, my line began, “It’s funny how much I need sleep, and yet how I hate the feeling of an unproductive morning.” That same sentiment had been my first thought on waking, and one I’ve had several times over the past week. Whatever ennui I’ve been experiencing, it was not new to 2021. It was not the sole province of post-pandemic life. “It’s easy to forget the power of the calendar on our minds and bodies.” Hmm. Easy indeed.

At last, the timer went off. The biscuits were ready. As I’d formed the dough, I’d wondered why I was bothering to spend my precious time this way. But now, I took one look at them, one whiff of them, and I thought, “this is why.”

In the middle of anything — a year, a recipe, a newsletter writing project, a line-a-day diary — we can hit these spots where it’s impossible to see how it’s all adding up to the fullness of life. While we’re trudging through that dim place, we have to leave a little crack open for the light to hit us when it comes. The faith that it will come eventually can be the hardest part. The faith, and the patience.

So there you go. It’s not what I’d planned on writing to you all today, but here I am, attempting to wrangle those abstract nouns into prose. It came to me organically.

Note to biscuit lovers: these excellent biscuits are a simplified riff on Molly Baz’s Sour Cream & Onion Biscuits, which she describes as “highly riffable.” Riff-wise, I just left out the onions and subbed heavy cream for half the sour cream. And, as I mentioned, I only made a half recipe.

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