For well over a decade now, I have made challah almost every Friday. I have made challah in three different cities, while raising three different children, and trying to keep at least three goldfish alive — alas, unsuccessfully, I must add. I have made challah while mourning the loss of my father, while helping a friend through her cancer diagnosis, and while nursing many a child’s wounded knee and wounded pride. I have made challah while working as a busy physician at one of the world’s top hospitals, and while working as a stay-at-home mom who could never get my kids out the door properly dressed for the bitter Midwest cold. I have made challah alone and with other women, some of whom are my dearest friends, and some of whom I hadn’t even met until our hands were deep in a bowl of fresh dough.
Why have I persisted each Friday to make challah, over a thousand challahs and counting? Because my life has been crazy busy, and there have been countless demands on my time and energy. Because one night long ago, I even convinced myself that running in place in the upstairs bathroom while I sorted the day’s mail counted as exercise. Because as a physician, I know all too well that stress like this makes us sick — not just theoretically sick, but actually sick. Because I learned I could change this pattern. In taking this time each Friday to sink my hands in a bowl of dough, I learned that I could stop. I could stop for a half hour and breathe, while I cracked eggs and measured flour. I could stop and make something nutritious and delicious with my own hands, and in the process, I could reconnect with myself and with other women. I could find some happiness in this mixed-up, fast-paced world. I could, in other words, be present — and so can you.
Why does this matter? With the Center for Disease Control releasing statistics on the rise of suicide in this country, with kids struggling in school, with our country fractured politically, we are a nation in crisis. We have lost our way. We have lost our purpose. We lack meaningful engagement. We stare at our phones — and yes, as my kids will tell you, and even my dog (yes, she barks and looks plaintively at me when I’m too distracted by my phone for a while), I am addicted to my phone sometimes — actually, way too much of the time. We measure our worth by how many likes we have on social media. We look for validation from others, often from others whom we don’t even know. We cling to what we know and who we know. We don’t venture forth; we don’t seek out a greater common good.
And by “we,” I include myself. I was there, too; I had lost my way. In my clinic, my job focused on finding out what ailed my patients and then trying to fix that ailment. Yet I gave my patients advice that I wasn’t following myself. Moreover, I was headed to the same place: a place where disease loves to take hold. A place where I was disconnected from myself, my mind, and my body. It’s difficult to stop, to get off the treadmill of expectation and responsibility and reward that we create for ourselves. Despite mounting stress, I kept at it. But as the stress continued on, my feelings of inadequacy increased. There was no time for self-reflection (or perhaps, more truthfully, I made sure that there was no time for self-reflection). I had patients to see, children to raise, a marriage, and other obligations. And why stop? Why reflect? Outwardly, my life looked successful, with three kids, a fulfilling marriage, a well-regarded job. As importantly, I liked the frenetic pace; I didn’t really want to stop.
And then I found challah.
Or, perhaps, challah found me. What helped to re-center me was not some expensive prescription or procedure. No, it merely required me to show up at my kitchen counter every Friday, lay out the six ingredients, and get to work. I found meaning again with my hands in a bowl of dough. Through this weekly ritual, I found a healthier way to live. My anxiety lessened; I became more engaged with those around me and receptive to finding beauty in the quotidian. I stopped and really thought about what was nourishing me, both physically and spiritually.
In a recent article by Clay Routledge in The New York Times, Routledge posits that our nation’s rising suicide crisis stems in part from a collective lack of meaning in our lives. He explains the antecedents for our current existential crisis and then posits how and why we are seeking to solve the crisis, except that we aren’t able to sustain meaning in our current life. And hence the vicious cycle of existential angst that we find ourselves in.
Cue making challah.
Simply put, I have found that this repetitive behavior — a behavior that requires me to show up each week and be present — helps to ground me. I think that having a ritual like this in most of our lives would help to ground many of us. Making challah has afforded me an opportunity to share an experience with others, as I often make challah with other women on Friday mornings. It gave me a purpose when I had lost what my purpose might be, as I frantically kept to my treadmill of over-productivity. Encouragingly, the data backs me up. As in the research that Routledge points out in his timely article, we find some of our greatest meaning through close relationships with others. Getting my hands covered with flour with a group of women as we discuss our lives is an amazingly quick way to connect with others. I suggest you give it a try and let me know how it’s going.
Adapted from the book Braided: A Journey of a Thousand Challahs, She Writes Press