As my friend measures the flour into the starter, a little clump of dough in a clean green-labeled Kalamata olive jar, she gives me instructions on how to replicate what she’s doing. “Every time you go to bake, feed it and divide it. Put half in your batch and half in a jar, and put the jar back in the fridge.” This will let the bacterial culture responsible for raising my bread divide and thrive.
How long does it last, I ask her. “Your lifetime,” she says. “Of course it can get too funky to be repaired, and then you’ll have to start over. But if you take good care of it and are lucky—” She shrugs: who knows how long?
That morning we had attended Mass together at a parish perched on the edge of a wild American river: in a crumbling Midwestern town, between railroad tracks and factories, a miniature Italianate church all newly renovated in local steel and stone. Its German glass windows and Italian marble altars, lovingly tended, gleam like jewels. Here again: replication, growth, nourishment—culture. Dividing and thriving.
Our children, too, thrive without our fully knowing how. Some are babies, others have grown tall; the tall ones sit together in the grass and chatter. “We are robins,” they say; “we are building our nests.” Who are they becoming? Who knows who they will be?
While we watch them, we sit and talk. It takes patience and a certain habit of being to approach other minds in a different mood from your own and turn that encounter, in the moment, into an exchange that is fruitful for all parties. It isn’t exactly art, or if it is, it’s a type of performance art, once pursued by the sort of people who used to be known as “cultivated.” I don’t excel at it; many writers don’t; more often our successes in building culture are achieved alone, trying to reach others who are also alone, trying to build a bridge. But sometimes not. Sometimes there is a small victory: a synthesis.
“[The Kingdom of heaven] is like to leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened. . . . [It] is as if a man should cast seed into the earth, And should sleep, and rise, night and day, and the seed should spring, and grow up whilst he knoweth not. For the earth of itself bringeth forth fruit, first the blade, then the ear, afterwards the full corn in the ear.” (Luke 13:21; Mark 4:26-28)