How do you solve a problem like [Fraulein] Maria?

Updated: May 30, 2020

I, like millions of other Americans, am part of the great bread baking bonanza that's emerged from the global pandemic of Covid-19. I've always been a baker, but now I'm even more prolific.

Several weeks ago my friend Wolf gifted me some of her sourdough starter. She dropped it off in an 8-ounce ball jar with a taped note of instructions on how to take care of my "Fraulein Maria," the name Wolf had given this gift that would keep on giving.  The first thing I'd need to do was to feed Fraulein Maria. I moved her to a bigger jar and give her one cup of flour and a half cup of water. Then I stirred her, put a lid on like a tilted beret to give her some air, and went to sleep for the night.

The next morning I could see that Fraulein Maria had had a busy night. She was at least two inches taller in her glass jar and her nocturnal expansion was clearly an invitation to bake some bread. I made two delicious loaves of sourdough bread which took several risings, kneadings, and overnight in the fridge for a total of about sixteen hours from start to finish. But the bread was delicious and I was thrilled to eat and serve bread that had its own family lineage. I continued to feed Fraulein Maria, noticing my increasing obligation to find ways to engage her. I made delightful crispy crackers with olive oil and rosemary (like seven times). I baked several more loaves. I put her in hibernation in the fridge for a week just to get a break from thinking about her.  Then I felt guilty and I took her out again. I placed her on the counter next to a Christmas cactus and a tin of flour and I fed her every night. Last week I woke up to an exploding jar. Fraulein Maria's little green beret was lifting right off her head. That day I made four loaves of bread and two batches of olive oil crackers. It was exhausting and fattening and I realized that I might be done with Fraulein Maria. I might have to kill her.

But I couldn't, and I still can't. In searching my soul about why I simply cannot release Fraulein Maria to the disposal or the compost bin, I can see that this is my pattern. Once I become attached I have a hard time letting go. In the course of my life I've had so many relationships that seem to reach their natural end point and I struggle to hold on. Starting in seventh grade when I moved to a new school, I still clung to my best friend Meredith from my old school. It's continued on like that for years, clutching people, fearing the loss even if the actual relationship wasn't working. For me, letting go, saying goodbye, is a sign of failure. If I let go I've failed at the friendship, the relationship, the job, the sourdough.

Maybe Fraulein Maria is here to teach me something. What is her lesson to me?  I might just start ignoring Fraulein Maria. I'll passively notice her drying out in the jar until she's created a hardened coat of beige paint on her inside walls. Or, one afternoon before feeding I'll impulsively induce euthanasia by running hot water into her vessel until there's just a film that I scrub out with the brillo pad. Either way, I will have to live with the feelings of letting her go, of failing Fraulein Maria. But I'll be okay. I've been there before. I've lost friends,  had break-ups, left jobs, and I've gotten over it. The sense of failure goes away eventually. And seeing clearly now how ridiculous my obligation to the sourdough starter is, I have new clarity about my clinging tendencies with humans. That historic feeling of being a failure because I choose to let go of someone or something is a bunch of bullshit. Sometimes we just need to move on. It's how life works.  I'm not ready to say let go of Fraulein Maria yet, but soon, very soon.