I pocket the car key, don my wide-brimmed hat and rain jacket, and then slip out of the house on an early morning mission.
It is unusual that I drive anywhere before noon, even rarer to find me behind the wheel by 8 am, but this final day of a family member’s visit, on a soggy grey morning, I am seized with the longing to serve fresh croissants and coffee. Wheat is a rarity in our house, but I am craving a proper, French-style patisserie offering — pastries that are buttery, flaky, and crisply shattering as you bite into them. To hell with healthy food. (For now.)
Mission accomplished, returning back over the hill with a box of freshly baked goodies on the passenger seat beside me, the low grey clouds cling like a misty veil over the coastal landscape, draping the pines and cypress trees in mystery. It seems a fine day to sit indoors and write, at least once I put my dear step-mom on the airport shuttle, and settle in to face the work I’ve set aside for the past six days of being a host. Time now to pick up my editor’s pen and confront the stack of manuscript pages, crossing out and rewriting.
The household remains asleep except for two English Whippets who greet me at the door with keen interest and wagging tails — you never take the car to go somewhere in the early morning, so hopefully you’ve returned with something tasty for us! They are very intrigued by the low, square box in my hands, and follow me eagerly to the kitchen. Not having an automatic coffee maker, I set the blue kettle atop a flame to boil water for the cafetière (aka French Press), and then grind some organic, French roast beans, their darkly robust aroma instantly triggering a sense of morning goodness, despite that I am mostly a tea drinker.
When the boys realize there is nothing for them, they dejectedly return to bed, tails hung low, for it’s raining and they have no desire to go outside. I wrap a tea towel around the glass cafetière to help keep it warm (years ago I had a double-walled glass one that did an admirable job of keeping the coffee hot, but the thin glass was quite fragile and it broke) and wait for it to steep to a strong, dark brew. Opening the brown cardboard box affixed with the logo of Parker-Lusseau, an eager smile on my face, I select one of the golden croissants and place it on a cherished, small, hand thrown plate from a pottery kiln in Sussex.
A fine treat, this. Seated at the table by the front window, my usual morning perch, I will savor an hour or so of quietude before the household finally rouses. An Italian hand-painted Deruta cup filled with fragrant coffee beside me, I tear the end from the croissant and pop the torn segment into my mouth, savoring its buttery goodness, pleased how its outer shell crackles and crumbles. Unless you live in an urban zone with a quality patisserie, it’s rare to find a well-made pastry in the States; they’re always undercooked and flabby, rather than bronzed and shatteringly crisp on the outside.
I learned to make croissants (and all manner of goodness) during my studies at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and I truly enjoy the extended process of making ‘laminated’ pastries; creating a yeasted dough that is then rolled out with layers of butter, folded, and rolled out again (and again), with extended periods of rest between each stage. Once cut and rolled, the crescents need to be ‘proofed’ (given time to rise a bit) and brushed lightly with an egg wash, a glaze that when baked becomes the golden exterior that helps make them flaky. They are meant to be eaten fresh, not after having sat around for hours or a day.
Like puff pastry, or the two-day, artisan pain au levain I used to make, the results are entirely worth the hours of effort, I say. Alas that my little 1980’s kitchen here at the cottage, with only a small rectangle of old, tiled counter space simply isn’t adequate for the task of viennoiserie. And then there’s the fact that I simply don’t bake much anymore, having given up wheat except for rare occasions like this morning, or my yearly pilgrimage to the Holy Land of boulangers, France.
Nibbling the flaky croissant, sipping strong coffee in a colorful cup, I gaze through the front windows at the rainy morning, feeling simultaneously content with the treat of breakfast and slightly overwhelmed by the task facing me. Like any large project, the enormous effort, discipline and commitment of creating a worthwhile book feels daunting at times. The actual writing of my latest manuscript wasn’t difficult — a memoir about living in England, it poured from my pen in a matter of a mere three weeks, filling two notebooks with jumbled black script — but the subsequent job of typing and editing, and then re-editing, feels anything but inspired. Sentence by sentence, it is solitary, mostly tedious work.
There is a part of me that just wishes it to be done, to move on to something more creative. And yet, as with life, to focus simply upon the distant destination is to miss the details of the actual journey. Good things take time. To craft something of beauty requires patience, whether that be a croissant, sculpture, painting, a tapestry, a music album, a house, a book… or simply a well-lived, authentic existence.
I have written previously about ‘soul projects’, an investment in something that is larger than ourselves, a creation or endeavor that shares a certain aspect of your soul in a meaningful way. Soul projects are a commitment to our ‘real’ work in the world, delivering the unique gift that each of us has to offer. The goal isn’t simply about finishing but rather investing in the process itself — like raising children, creating and tending a garden, or building an organization or community… or committing to one’s personal transformation and growth.
For a while now, I’ve had a self-imposed deadline looming in my head, a date by which I want to be able to show this new manuscript to an editor (whom an author friend has invited me to meet). Yet I realize that hurrying through the work will only yield a result that feels rushed. Better to trust in the mysterious process, the strangely glimmering thread that leads from one event to the next, a day at a time, sometimes only one step after another (I was just reminded of this in a curious, vivid dream).
Savoring the hushed cottage while the household still sleeps, musing on ‘soul projects’ and gazing into the rainy front garden, my eye is drawn to the two small, ornamental plum trees near the front fence that have recently burst into bright bloom. Their naked, spindly branches are adorned in inch-wide ruffled pink pompoms of soft spun silk, each with a garnet center. On a grey, wet morning, it is a wordless riot of color and exuberance.
Appreciating the stunning display of nature’s elegance and creativity, I am silently reminded, each thing in its own time. Mysterious currents and events guide us to bloom, and yet even a lovely blossom, fair as it may be, is not the end result, for the flower eventually becomes fruit, one that then goes on as seed to begin the cycle anew.
Yes, editing my manuscript feels tedious and large, and perhaps it won’t be ready to submit until autumn, which seems ages away. So be it. In the moment, my only real task is to show up fully for the day, senses wide open and welcoming, appreciating whatever beauty and grace is present. I have a delicious, flaky croissant on a hand-glazed plate, a fine cup of strong coffee (a pleasant change of pace from my usual ‘cuppa’), and a soft rain falls outside to nourish the earth. Soon there will be breakfast with my dear stepmom and my mate, a couple of English Whippets underfoot. Later, a bodywork client or two to help pay the bills. And a pile of pages that, like a sculptor with mallet and chisel, my pen will work steadily on.
Breathing in, breathing out. Savoring the little, ordinary moments of the day … the way they feel in my hand or linger within my heart, singing softly.
Show up at the page, my friend, whatever such work may be for you. Open your senses. Wriggle your bare toes down into damp soil. Laugh. Celebrate. Feed the birds. Chip away at the stone… and while you’re at it, find some flaky bits of buttery goodness to nibble on while you appreciate the fleeting flowers, the ones that wait patiently for you and the honeybees to notice them.
Each thing in its own time, quietly growing and transforming, all while we spiral forward on this blue-green jewel of a planet.