The Secret Life of Bread

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I stomped one foot, then the other on the frozen sidewalk, peering down the street, hoping to see the bus. My breath fogged the air. In the canyon of Chicago high rises, here and there, lights came on. Strangers were throwing back their bedcovers and rising in the morning dark. I wondered whether they, too, were showering for a job they regretted going to. Under the streetlights, the wind swirled, revealing snow.

I was in my twenties. I had taken my job for one reason—because we needed to pay the rent.

Released from one wheezing bus, I walked several blocks, gripping my transfer, to wait for another bus. The adult world sometimes seemed like a futile game. None of my friends really liked what they were doing, either. Standing there in the cold, I could almost hear time passing. I opened and shut one frozen hand. This morning was the only morning I could be sure of. These hours were my life, and they would never return.

Every morning I walked the same way to the bus stop, past a bakery. I could often see the baker in the back room, behind the glass cases. He wore white, with a tall hat, like a baker in a movie. His ovens were turned on full blast and usually, even now in November, the door was propped open. A steamy, yeasty fragrance rolled out.

I was often tempted to stop in, but I didn't have time. Besides, what would I say to the baker? Could I tell him that I thought of the two of us as a secret society, the only people in the city awake this early? Not hardly.

But as I stood at the bus stop, I imagined all the people who would eat his bread that day. I felt such affection for him, a kind of wild gratitude that he was willing to get up (When? Was it 4 a.m.?) and start all over again, day after day, with pans and flour and yeast. That he was here with his lights on. That I could see him as I walked by. Tears welled up, stinging my nose. I brushed them away with a glove. Why did I feel connected to this baker, this stout Italian guy with his apron strings wrapped twice and tied around his waist, busy at 6 a.m., doing his useful work?

The bus was late that morning—five minutes, eight minutes, twelve minutes late. I turned impulsively and hurried the half-block back to the bakery, where by now the rising sun glittered in the window. As I walked in, the baker spotted me and emerged from the back. "What can I do for you?"

"A loaf of bread, please."

"Yes ma'am. What kind?"


He sold me a day-old loaf which was all he had at that hour. Half price.

I pulled off pieces and munched them on the bus.

That day I began to have faith in the concept of useful work. This baker was, for me, proof that useful work existed, that maybe I could find work I was created to do. Like the lost piece of a jigsaw puzzle, I could be found. I could fit.

All winter, I could see that baker in my mind's eye. I thought about what my own useful work might be. The next fall, I began teaching in the University where I was also starting graduate school. I have been teaching ever since. The job is not without its frustrations, but every morning when I wake up, I know that teaching is still what I want to give my life to.

Many years later, I wrote this poem about that baker.


The bus releases you beside the bakery
at 5 a.m. His light's on. You can smell
the secret life of bread—its russet brawny
shoulders rising in the pan, yeast swelling,
yearning toward croissants, pretzels, a braided
challah. You give the sleepy baker money,
he gives you a loaf. Neither of you can say
the mystery you share like lovers. You shyly
nod and bear your emptiness to work
in empty hands. Whatever it is, you can't
explain the only thing that matters. You break
his bread at noon and fling it toward frozen
ducks on the millpond. So insufficient,
what you have been. You want to be bread broken.

Questions for personal reflection, online discussion, or small groups:

  • Are there certain times of the day when you feel you don't fit with the work you do? It may help you to remember "Why Work Is Holy."
  • Do you need to make a choice, creating a happier life for yourself while you also do better work? What kind of choice would that be? For more thoughts on this idea, read "Discover Your Gifts, Discover Your Calling."
  • Do you need to think about changing your work to answer a calling you are not fulfilling right now?
  • In Psalm 139, David says, "Oh Lord, thou hast searched me, and known me" (KJV). Do you believe God knows what kind of work he created you to do?

* "Baker" was published in The Cresset, Valparaiso University's review of literature, the arts, and public affairs. More poems by Jeanne Murray Walker can be found in New Tracks, Night Falling, published by Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009.

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