Butter and sugar combine quickly in the vintage Kitchen Aid mixer that once belonged to my mother. I drizzle in molasses, drop in cinnamon and allspice, add eggs one at a time. I’m making four batches, 140 cookies in total, for this week’s porch drop-off. I’ve never made Hermit Bars before and admit to choosing the recipe solely for its name. I am intrigued to learn it may have originated 150 years ago in New England, even more intrigued to find it may instead hark back to 13th century religious hermitages. These sturdy treats, packed with spice and dry fruit, are said to hold up well. And what better cookie to make when social distancing creates so many involuntary hermits?
I started baking for porch drop-offs in my small rural township over a month ago. I figured I had a good stockpile of flour, butter, and sugar. I had way too many eggs from our chickens. And I had to do something with my despair.
Because I have a diagnosis putting me at greater risk of mortality from Covid-19, I have been in isolation since March 16th. Other than walks outside, I am home with only my husband. I realize what a privilege this is when people all over the world face extreme risks to work, often in jobs offering low pay and even lower agency.
Everyone in isolation handles it somewhat differently. I know people who are playing board games, watching movies, hiking, laughing arguing, and deepening family life. I know people who are relaxing after too many years of overwork, gladly getting more sleep and cherishing their newly unbusy time. I know people who are de-cluttering their homes, participating in Zoom dance groups, writing, drawing, repairing, working with renewed zest. Not me. I’ve been wretched. For weeks I struggled to keep up with editing work, barely able to write, and for the first time in my life not even reading much. I was afraid my old enemy, depression, was coming back. I felt best when I was sewing or cooking, doing anything I could to feel useful. But without our usual weekly Sunday family gatherings, there weren’t many excuses for staying the kitchen. Unless, I realized, I baked for my community. So I posted this on our rural township’s Facebook page.
Dear Litchfield neighbors,
I have a 25 pound bag of flour and plenty of other baking supplies. I’m hoping to donate baked goods weekly till my flour runs out or we’re freed from self-isolation, whichever comes first. This week I’ve made Apple Walnut Bread. It contains apples I dried last autumn, eggs from our chickens, some white as well as whole grain flour. I have 15 loaves to give away.
If you’d like a loaf, just email me your address and how many people are in your residence (so I know what size bread to drop off).
You don’t have to be in need, this is simply a friendly offer to sweeten the day for a few people. I’ll post a comment here when I have the loaves spoken for. I’d like to drop them all off tomorrow (Wednesday) early afternoon. My husband or I will leave them on your front porch unless you instruct me otherwise. I may ring your doorbell, but just wave so we can maintain social distance.
I wasn’t comfortable with any of the laudatory comments my post elicited but I was heartened to see that my offer made people feel better, especially when so many comments mentioned their renewed faith in humanity. My email filled up with requests. The next morning I was indeed cheerful as I chopped, mixed, and baked. And that afternoon we dropped off foil-wrapped loaves at all sorts of different homes. A tiny house with a rotting porch and friendly sign on the door. A newly built home with no one home. A sprawling home flying a large Confederate flag. A carefully tended ranch with a large Trump-Pence sign. A beautiful farm with little lambs out on pasture.
Although we’ve lived in this township for nearly 23 years, we simply haven’t gotten to know many people. Perhaps it’s because the houses are farther apart than in our previous neighborhoods. Perhaps because we homeschooled. Perhaps because of other encounters in our first few months here that made us wary, starting with a veiled death threat. But as the baking donation weeks have gone by I’ve started to feel closer to my community.
And also, as I’ve baked muffins and loaves and cookies, my mood has leveled off. I’m starting to catch up on work. I’m back to writing and reading and happily tending seedlings nearly ready for the garden.
I’ve also gotten some perspective on despair after talking with my friend Maureen. She told me she’s been inert and ineffectual, retreating into herself. She also said she was feeling on a deeper level all the loss she’s been through in the past few years while at the same time feeling guilty about her grief because so many people are going through far worse.
I realized I’d been feeling the same way, not depression at all but some kind of collective mourning. All that our species is going through can’t help but ask us to more intensely feel our own losses. Perhaps feeling our own grief more fully — seeing it, naming it, letting it walk with us –may help us on a collective level.
Maybe the different ways we react rise from wise inner promptings, helping to heal what has felt unbalanced in our lives while, on some level, we process the world’s larger fear, loss, and terrifying uncertainty.
As I pack up today’s Hermit Bars, I am grateful that offering homemade sweetness to strangers restores sweetness to my life. And I choose to believe everyone who claps for healthcare workers, or shops for neighbors, or sends cards to nursing home residents, or donates food, or adopts shelter animals, or plays music from balconies, or supports local businesses, or abides by social distancing to keep others safe is remaking a more connected and compassionate future for us all.