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The White String

Dreams of connection in quarantine

Brandon Shimoda

One night in late 2016—maybe it was early 2017—my partner and I went to Wat Buddhametta, a Theravada Buddhist temple in Tucson, Arizona. We had lived in Tucson from 2011 to 2014, left for two years (Marfa, Kaohsiung, Kure, St. Louis, Portland), and had just returned. We were exhausted from traveling, and were seeking a place, a structure and a community, in which to meditate. The night we first went was chanting night. When we entered, the monk, Ajahn Sarayut Arnanta, was leading a group of fifteen or so people in a chant, or series of chants, of the Pāli scriptures. He sat on a platform surrounded by tall vases overflowing with flowers—the flowers looked like the severed heads and necks of lithe water birds—and in front of several Buddhas, including, in the middle, a golden Buddha. Looped around the golden Buddha were several white strings (sai sin, in Thai), at least two of which were connected to Ajahn Sarayut’s wrists, at least one of which shot out like spider silk over Ajahn Sarayut’s head and onto a wooden grid suspended horizontally from the ceiling. The white string passed through the grid, where it seemed to multiply, sending many white strings hanging down to the floor. The fifteen or so people sat beneath the grid, each with a piece of string coiled or wrapped around their head. (The coiled strings made me think of the frosting on cinnamon buns.) In this way, everyone was connected—to the golden Buddha, to Ajahn Sarayut, to each other.

The chanting that Ajahn Sarayut was leading intensified and deepened the beauty of the grid of white string: the rhythmic, droning, cicada-like sound of each voice—of all the voices together—transformed the white string from a means of connection into a hypha-like form of communication, everyone speaking to each other through the white string—extrasensorially, in the form of pure thinking.

I am describing all this because I had a dream last week—or two weeks or a few days ago, I am having trouble keeping track—about the grid of white string. I had forgotten about it. But shortly after entering into self-quarantine with my partner and our one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, the white string returned.

The dream was simple: it was raining. The rain was heavy, a downpour. Yet there was one thing less simple: I saw places, right next to the rain, where it was not raining, as if there were columns of air immune to getting wet. And then, in the middle of the rain and the columns of air without rain, and the sound of it all, Wat Buddhametta appeared, and the grid of white string. They came in a flash, like the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks, except that the room, in the flash, was empty of people. The golden Buddha was there, and the white string was looped around the golden Buddha, but Ajahn Sarayut was not there, and neither was anyone else. The white string was connected to the wooden grid, and many white strings hung down to the floor.

The fact that the fifteen or so people—who, by the force of their chant, had represented the whole world, or the more infinite world beyond the visible world—had been, in my dream, removed from the room, was disconcerting not only to me, but also, it seemed, to the white string. When we attended chanting night at Wat Buddhametta, I paid more attention to the white string than I did to the people, but now in my dream, with the people gone, I missed them, and felt that something horrible had happened to them, something beyond their removal, more violent. They had been disappeared. What about their voices? Some part of their voices—some resonance or recollection of pure thinking—existed in the pathetic hesitancy of the white string. And with that, the flash burned out, and it was raining, and not raining, again.

Today is Monday, March 30. My partner and our daughter and I have been at home for seventeen days. We used to go to the park, five minutes away, with several wide-open fields of green grass and trees, so our daughter could run around. Now we take walks around the neighborhood. It is spring in Tucson, trees are leafing out, flowers are in bloom.

to ward off adversity
time speeds up the appearance
of flowers the children
play

That is from Etel Adnan’s Time, translated from the French by the poet Sarah Riggs, which I am currently rereading. “More flowers,” my daughter says, walking through flowers.

A menacing silence has befallen the world. I imagine that the silence, and its menace, is much louder—maybe even extremely loud—in places that are not the desert, that are far from, or inversions of, the desert. But in the desert the silence is faithful. By faithful, I mean also: watching. As we walk through the neighborhood, people appear—young people, old people, people on bicycles, people with dogs—but disappear just as quickly, as if they had slipped through a sleeve in the more general mirage of sociality in the age of COVID-19. Although it feels more as if the people are the mirage, from which I cannot discount my family or myself. And it feels as if the world—certainly the wide and languid streets of Tucson—is the empty room beneath the grid of white string, which still, in our absence, connects us all, maybe even more intensely.

people come back in our
dreams to bring us their truth
that which our eyes refused
to see, and for which they
burned us, in burning themselves

That is also from Etel Adnan’s Time. I trust my dreams. I trust them especially when I do not trust myself to reliably process what is happening outside them. Is that what I am trying to do now, by remembering, for myself and with you, my dream, and the night three years or so behind it, and the suddenly delirious and uncertain days before it? It feels as though the dreams have perfect timing. What originally appeared as a functional, however beautiful, part of daily life, returns, years later, transformed in my dream into the legend, or explanation, for life in general. Maybe explanation is not the right word. Maybe legend is not the right word either. Sai sin, the white string, and the grid on which the white string is held and disseminated, and from which it hangs down, is powerful because it is precarious. If someone were to—intentionally or not—pull too hard on any one piece of the string, the whole thing would come down, would land in everyone’s lap. Maybe the grid would come apart, and the white string would become so entangled that the entire system would need to be gathered up and carried out into the desert.

Time has passed. Now it is Wednesday, April 1 (Day 19). We just got back from a walk around the neighborhood. There were more and brighter, and more fragrant and effusive, therefore more defiant and mocking flowers. And walking through them were people—young people, old people, people on bicycles, people with dogs—all keeping their distance. Would it be otherwise? And yet there was, and has been, something beatific about the faces, above the flowers, of people who had spent their day indoors, oscillating between depression and resignation, awareness and forgetting, and the simple agenda of trying to get on.

What is a ghost? A soul that is desperate to return to that which no longer exists? Or the soullessness that has enforced the increasing lack of existence?

We passed a small house with a rusted metal fence. Cut into the vertical slats was a sculpture: six faceless steel figures on a platform. They were like the figures in Giacometti’s Piazza—walking, yet aimless—but instead of being tall and slender, they were short and squat, as if Giacometti’s figures had been hammered, by time and circumstance, deep into themselves. We knew the house, had passed it many times, but had never, until tonight, noticed the sculpture. “Look!” we said to our daughter, “it’s a sculpture!” To which our daughter said, “Sculpture, sculpture, sculpture,” and then, as we were walking away, “Sculpture, sculpture, sculpture.” Our daughter likes—and needs—to repeat words, over and over, sometimes incessantly, until she has committed them to memory. Sometimes, when she is excited or tired, a cascade of words streams out of her mind, and her mouth, as if the words had breached her capacity to contain them.

Farther along, as we walked through a stretch of bright yellow and orange daisies, our daughter (her name is Yumi) bent over to smell them, as she does with all flowers, and declared, simply: “Too many.”

Brandon Shimoda’s recent books include The Grave on the Wall (City Lights), which received the PEN Open Book Award, The Desert (The Song Cave), and Evening Oracle (Letter Machine Editions), which received the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. He lives in Tucson, Arizona.

I trust my dreams. I trust them especially when I do not trust myself.

Against the Grain

“And the house of Israel called its name Manna: and it was like coriander seed, white; and the taste of it like wafers made with honey.”

Bread, the food that symbolizes our bodily, intellectual and spiritual lives, must do one thing. It must sustain us. This has been true forever. In the Paleolithic age, we ground plant roots with stones and made coarse cakes. Ancient Egyptians baked theirs in ovens and ate so many loaves that Greeks called them “ artophagoi,” or “bread eaters.” In the Middle Ages, we used sturdy slices of barley-­wheat bread as edible plates, which we would either lick clean and crack with tough teeth, or feed to our cats and dogs.

Until the invention of the iron roll mill in the 19th century, bread, if it was available, did its job. Wheat was milled by stone wheels, its nutritious germ and starchy endosperm ground together into dark, nutty flour. The iron roller, though, squeezed the germ off, leaving behind only its pale, starchy ghost.

Today, not only does our bread not sustain us, it can barely feed us safely. Animals and humans fed exclusively on white bread quickly sicken. Studies repeatedly advise against its consumption. A divinely inspired writer long ago imagined this stuff, but without providing a good name: “And when I have broken the staff of your bread, . . . you shall eat, and not be satisfied.”

How we ended up with bread that is not bread is the ostensible subject of “White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf,” by Aaron Bobrow-Strain, an associate professor of politics at Whitman College. I say “ostensible” because he writes: “This isn’t really a book about the history of bread. It’s a book about what happens when dreams of good society and fears of social decay get tangled up in campaigns for ‘good food.’ ”

That’s clogged and academic, but Bobrow-­Strain wants to tell a cautionary tale — and clogged and academic is often how those sound. “What happens” is evident: We end up without our dietary mainstay and without a good word for what we have.

“So what can we learn from this history?” he asks. “Or, more urgently, how can reflecting on what now seem like strange and outdated efforts to change America through its bread inform the way we think about food today?”

That depends. “White Bread” is smart, though disorganized, in showing how the industrial loaf was repeatedly adapted as a hasty nostrum for the philosophic or bodily ailment of the day.

At the turn of the 20th century, urbanization outpaced civic infrastructure. Most bread was baked at home, but in dank city bakeries, bakers worked around the clock in squalor, making loaves for a growing labor class. Months after the 1906 release of Upton Sinclair’s book “The Jungle,” Chicago’s lead health inspector proclaimed sanitary conditions in its bakeries to be like those in “the worst of the packing houses.”

A frightened public fixated — with encouragement from city officials and shrewd advertisers — not on labor law or social services, but on cleaner bread. It would be produced by machines, with tired, diseased hands kept away. The hygienic Ward Bakery, the country’s largest, opened in Brooklyn in 1910. And instead of social reform, we got bread that did not rely on society.

The association between baking and germs became fixed in our minds — as it has recently between butchery and germs. Public alarm over disease turned into alarm over the safety of bread’s distribution. Ordinances were passed requiring that all bread be wrapped. Big bakeries that could afford wrapping machines seized their advantage and fanned anxieties. Smaller bakeries were forced to close.

Plastic-wrapped loaves were impossible to really see or smell, so we did what we could, and squeezed. And so softness became a proxy for freshness. On the industrialization marched: the softer loaves were too squooshy to slice neatly at home, and mechanical slicing was born.

Enriched white bread was invented as an antidote to its own poison. Recovering from the Depression and getting more calories from industrial white bread than from any other food, Americans suffered vitamin deficiencies and malnutrition. In the same wobbly boat, Britain mandated its flour be milled with its germ still included; the country’s loaves were tougher, but healthy. America’s nutritional and business establishments chose to synthetically enrich our pillowy loaves with thiamin, niacin and iron.

There are lessons to learn from all this: Squalid bakeries and malnutrition are indicative, evidence of larger problems. So is bread too soft to slice. So are fruits and vegetables, less nutritious today than they used to be, and our meat, milk and eggs, regularly incriminated in pathogenic outbreaks.

But Bobrow-Strain’s deliberations don’t teach. He neglects to point out industrial bread’s contemporary counterparts: governmental and business interests that collude, in whatever spirit, to manufacture both problem and solution, about whose influence on our food we must stay clear-eyed and diligent. Instead, he tosses up a red herring: “Fluffy white industrial bread may be about as far from the ­ideals of slow, local, organic and health food reformers as you can get today. But, in many ways, we owe its very existence to a string of just as well-meaning efforts to improve the way America ate.”

And there, his opportunity to say something scurries away.

The story of white bread may contain rare instances of well-meaning but misguided efforts. It contains many more stories of irresponsibly deployed technology, corporate greed and public welfare placed in the hands of distant stakeholders.

The Ward Bakery, which eventually became the company that made Wonder bread, adopted discoveries in microbiology and grain chemistry at the expense of quality. It engineered corporate social-work double talk, claiming to contribute to its communities while keeping costs down through labor abuse. Like other industrial giants of the period, Bobrow-Strain writes, it “pioneered the economic model of mergers and oligopoly that would define the industry for the rest of the century.”

The ignored parallels to what is happening to our food today are glaring and pitiable. They are everywhere: regulations devised to protect consumers have instead benefited behemoth slaughterhouses and contributed to the consolidation of the meat industry, leaving what happens to animals — and their meat — in the hands of very few. Something like the white bread enrichment debacle is under way with the chemical sanitizing of lettuce.

Pretending that anything in our diets is a problem to which solutions can be sold is in the interest of companies that plan to profit from them. Diet soda and 100-calorie bags of chips are examples of opportunistic treatment of symptoms. In light of this, Bobrow-Strain’s continuous, shrill bleating about farmers’ market folk — their “rampant elitism” and “narrow visions of what counts as ‘good food’ ” — is bizarre.

In “White Bread” all beliefs about bread stem from a dream. The word is used so frequently it loses meaning. We have “dreams of ‘good bread,’ ” but these are dreams of bad bread. They are often the same as dreams of purity and contagion, control and abundance, health and discipline, defense, peace, security and status. The dreams Bobrow-Strain concocts are symptoms of our having twisted a version of the American dream that would have kept bread safe into a nightmare in which haves and have-nots are divided by the greatest margin ever: our poorest eat bread that makes them sick, and our richest eat no bread at all.

A history of baking and dietary reform tells how white bread, once a symbol of American progress, became “white trash.” ]]>