It's possible all the writing I've done over the years has been in some way a response, a pushing back against the isolation and loneliness I felt at sixteen, driving an endless loop between home and school and work, speeding through the rolling country 'burbs of southeastern Wisconsin. There, a farm. There, a subdivision. There, a snowy field. Lots of trees. Another farm. Another subdivision. Endless fields. Growing up in this landscape my edges were smoothed; I was shaped. For me, this landscape was so cold, isolating, lonely. Constantly, I seek warmth, body, connection; I seek community, conversation.
Monday, February 14, 2022
The #Midwessay: Anna Baker Smith, Croissant
To some degree, all of us here are shaped by the landscape, by the way the highways bend, by the way one watershed tilts towards the lake, another to the river, and by all the cold and snow this winter. And yet, each of us inhabits a landscape uniquely our own, built of our own experience. We are Wisconsin-born, -bred, -rooted, but we live alone in our own version of wherever we are. And Essay Daily, this #Midwessay project, what are these but elaborate feelers, searching, finding, sharing, celebrating a coming-together? I'm not sure I care all that much about what a Wisconsin essay is or isn't. I just want to hear your voice, your thoughts, your stories. The Wisconsin essay is whatever you say.
We'd love for you to join the conversation. Reach out @craigreinbold // craigreinbold[at]gmail.com
Anna Baker Smith
I’m in downtown Madison, on a bus, the street lined with autumn leaves, almost there. Then somehow—no! The bus is going the wrong way. How can this be? I almost had it, devoured the buttery flakiness, attained the goal! It looks like we’re headed west toward the football stadium. People are happy in their red jackets, lining up to see the Badgers play, and I’m on the wrong bus.
But now, even this confusing part of the dream—this in-between, this clawing and clinging—is fading.
I begin to come to—in my cabin by the creek at the dharma center, deep in the woods of Northern California. It’s morning, summer. I can hear birds. Time to close the windows, to keep out the coming heat of the day. And oh my God, look at the clock—I’m supposed to be in the kitchen right now.
This was just one of the times I dreamed that I almost had the croissant. The dreams started in the late nineties, a couple of years after I moved to the gonpa, the dharma center where I thought I would be a lifer. About once a year I dreamed that I was in Madison, Wisconsin, on my way to get a croissant at the Ovens of Brittany Bakery. Sometimes I was very close to having it, only to be interrupted, and sometimes not even close, but feeling the same frustration when I woke up.
For most of that time, I lived in a tiny one-room cabin behind the Creek House, one of the original buildings on the property that used to be “Little Star Ranch.” The Creek House had a few staff bedrooms and the office of the small publishing company where I worked when I wasn’t cooking. Gonpa (pronounced more like “gompa”) is a Tibetan word for a secluded center for the study and practice of dharma. It comes from the verb gom, which means “to meditate,” but also “to become familiar with,” as in to become familiar with your own mind and true nature.
I wish I could say I wisely saw the croissant as a symbol, but no. It was compelling, and I was still craving it after I woke up, but I didn’t ask the obvious questions: Why am I dreaming about a croissant? Why can’t I just go to the source of the croissant, dive into the unconscious, get the answer?
No, the assumption was that I was dreaming about a croissant because the thing itself was worth dreaming about. I would find it. I would know what it meant in the eating of it.
I’m in Madison, on Monroe Street, walking past Mickey’s Dairy Bar.
It’s winter, the season when Madison is her most powerful, when she happily drives away people insufficiently devoted to her magnificence. She’s a mostly benign monarch, barely noticing that many people choose not to live with Easter blizzards, enormous frozen lakes, being blasted by cosmically cold winds that will turn you to a diamond if you don’t die first.
I pass an office building, a Lutheran Church, a toy store with a Christmas window display of a train making its way through snowy countryside. I’m not even close to the usual destination, the Ovens of Brittany on State Street, three blocks from the state capitol, but my dream self has craftily decided to turn a wrong into a right.
This is one of the versions of the dream where I’m slightly aware I’m dreaming. I have to walk carefully, like someone carrying a large bubble—gentle, gentle—or the whole damn thing explodes. There is another incarnation of the Ovens of Brittany on Monroe Street, past the gargantuan football stadium, in the vortex between the humble Vilas neighborhood (the one with the zoo, where I lived when I first moved to Madison from Greensboro), and the more exalted Monroe Street area, where I never lived, but I liked to look at it when I passed through on the bus—it being gorgeous and creating the warm feeling that actual families lived there. It was the intersection of cozy and intellectual, and I once read that my favorite professor still has a house there. It’s hallowed ground.
I keep looking off to my left, sure it will soon be there. I remember there is a tiny branch of the public library nearby. It should be here—or here? Any moment now, and the croissant will be mine!
But something’s happening. It’s like the weather’s changing. Horribly, the scene is morphing. What are these palm trees doing here? Where did all this traffic come from? Good questions, of course, but maybe better questions would have been, Why are you trying to reason with your dream? Isn’t mayhem the very essence of dreaming?
But I can’t help it. Why am I looking at the Whiskey a Go Go? Did it move to Madison? Of course not. I’m in fucking Los Angeles, and I’ve lost it again.
When I wake up, I’m actually in LA, in my boyfriend JP’s mother’s house in West Hollywood, a few blocks off Sunset, not far from the Whiskey. And the feeling that I’m in the wrong dream seems apt. JP and I are in LA, and, not for the first time, we are arguing about this. It was the argument that never ended.
To be honest, we argued about many things, though nothing so much as this. We’d been together five years, each of us living in our own one-room cabins along the same creek at the gonpa, just a minute’s walk from each other. The idea had been to stay there—until enlightenment. Through a series of plot twists, we were now in the horror show of a long-distance relationship. He’d been a songwriter before moving to the gonpa and went back to that after years of being a yogi. At the time of that dream, I was visiting him, though I still lived at the gonpa.
Downstairs in the kitchen of his mother’s house on Bluebird Lane, there was a box of croissants and a marzipan cake. I knew his mom would be sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee with heavy cream, doing her morning pages. (She’d said to me shortly after we met, “You’re depressed because you’re not writing.” I pondered that for about a minute, sure she was right on some level, then went back to my Tibetan language flash cards.)
I made my way downstairs, poured coffee and cream, then bit into a croissant—but it wasn’t the croissant of my dreams, not nearly as good. I ate another, just to be sure. Nope, not gonna work.
I needed the kind from the Ovens of Brittany in Madison. A Wisconsin croissant.
During the long-distance part of that relationship, on visits to LA, I went to a lot of bakeries and cafés and coffee shops, favoring the ones with “bistro” in the name, but none of them came close. I saw old character actors drinking coffee, looking kind of forlorn. (Probably they weren’t happy with the croissants either.) My longing could not be assuaged.
In the downstairs bathroom in the Creek House, a few lines were in a small frame on the wall above the toothbrushes: “Reality is not what it seems / Nor is it otherwise.”
My teacher, Chagdud Rinpoche, was born in Tibet in 1930. He established this family of dharma organizations in North America in the early ’80s.
I remember a particular scene with his wife, Khadro. She had grown up in Texas and Connecticut, worked for the New Yorker, served in the Peace Corps. She’d met Rinpoche in Nepal and fallen deeply in love. She was brilliant, beautiful, witty—and intimidating.
I’d always admired Khadro, though over the years I worried she thought I was a disappointment as a practitioner and, well, a bit of a loon. The word khadro is Tibetan for dakini, which is Sanskrit for “sky goer,” and is often used as a title for the lama’s consort. (It’s pronounced “khandro,” but because of arcane rigidity on the part of Tibetan to English translators and phoneticists, we spelled it without the pronounced “n.” People made a big deal about this, to the point of not pronouncing the “n” at all—which I, equally rigidly, always pronounce.)
Shortly after I moved to the gonpa in 1995, as part of my job I took some papers for her to sign to her room in Tara House, the large building with a shrine room, a commercial kitchen, and guest rooms. Rinpoche’s rooms were also there. They were packing for their final move to Brazil.
It was May and already hot. She looked at me for a moment, like she was deciding something, then asked how I was.
Fine, I answered.
I was fine then, the fine of the newly in love. I was newly in love with the dharma—having been a serious Buddhist only a few years at the time and having just met Rinpoche three years earlier. I was in love with the lineage, in love with the very earth the gonpa was built on. It was all magic.
She looked at me a tad skeptically and said, “You know, I don’t feel like I’ve worked in a day if I haven’t written.”
I wasn’t expecting that—not then, not from her. I’d given up my job at Pretty Brick College in Massachusetts, the rent-controlled apartment in Cambridge, the plan to get married, have a kid, write a book of short stories. I thought this was renunciation—a good thing.
Another time, in the middle of washing lunch dishes in the big kitchen in Tara House, she turned to me and started talking about Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth, something about the character Gulley Jimson. The book was a favorite of my ex, the Mississippian. The coincidence of her bringing it up struck me, as if the neat categories of dharma and art, and what it means to practice, were dissolving, refusing to be fixed.
Then one day the dream changed. It had to, I guess. I got a phone call from my friend, Helen, who still lives in Madison. I’d met her in my early twenties, at an AA meeting, in the chaos of early recovery. By the time we met, her chaos had abated somewhat. Mine was in full flower. Like so many of the people I met in Madison, she is family.
I don’t remember every detail of the conversation, just the key point. I took the call in the middle of the workday, from the Creek House kitchen, a badly lit place with red and white lotus-shaped Tiffany light fixtures hanging from the ceiling, which made it seem even darker. At our dark desks in the office on that floor, we often felt the need for coffee or tea, particularly in the early afternoon when the desire to sleep was overwhelming. I’d been told the Tiffany light fixtures should never be changed because Rinpoche had once said he liked them. For many people that was enough to keep us fumbling in the gloom with our coffee and tea throughout time (which we believed was an illusion anyway—still the Tiffany light fixtures would outlast us).
The first floor had dark wood paneling, touches of red here and there (the tiles of the counters and splash guard, the light shades), and dark brown linoleum. While Rinpoche had moved to South America by then to tame the minds of gorgeous Brazilians, we stayed behind, struggling to find our way—metaphorically and literally. (I’d been told by one of the lamas who’d visited there that to wear a bikini in Brazil was to be overdressed—a fact that didn’t seem to bother him at all.)
That day someone called our office, saying my friend Helen was on the phone. I probably said, “Send it to the Creek House kitchen,” meaning the extension in the darkest corner of the first floor, just inside the door from the porch, where people often crashed into each other, temporarily blinded by the relentless summer sunlight.
For the first few years I lived at the dharma center, I lived in the pantry off the Creek House kitchen. This was before I got the cabin—a major coup in the competition for staff housing; the indignities of pantry life must have earned me suffering points. On the plus-side, I had a lot of built-in cabinets. This phone call must have come during those years, since I remember pulling the phone inside and closing the door to my then bedroom.
But it was in this conversation that I learned the brutal truth: The Ovens of Brittany on State Street had closed. So had the one on Monroe. The only one left was on the far east side, on East Washington.
It was a near-death experience. My life at the Ovens of Brittany flashed before my eyes.
Being treated to breakfast there by my more flush housemates, from wealthy families in Pittsburgh and Minneapolis. Oh, the croissants were plentiful in those years!
Writing a poem over a single croissant and a refillable cup of coffee, seated beneath a print of Degas’s Glass of Absinthe. Eating as slowly as possible, in poem-writing time, one buttery bite per line.
And the time my boyfriend David (someone else I met in AA), dropped out of philosophy grad school and started waiting tables there. One of the waitresses was a lithe brunette, a dancer. He praised her to me for seeming “not at all crazy.” They’d both been raised Catholic and carried similar auras of guilt and gorgeousness. I would sit in the corner, not really writing but trying to, watching her dance across the room, carrying heavily laden trays and sweaty metal pitchers of water. Later that night he and I would fight and maybe break up.
But there were more transcendent times, too—breakfasts when the coffee was a healing balm for my brain, the brain I’d made a deal with: “Okay, if you start working again, I promise—no more drinking!” And it would start working again, with that shimmering thrill that coffee delivers.
But that day talking to Helen, from my room at the dharma center, I had to face reality. The Ovens of Brittany on State and Monroe Streets were no more, and as much as I didn’t love the one on East Wash, it was all that was left. I had to make the pilgrimage.
Sometime after that phone call, I had another dream. I’m on my bike, the air cool, a fall morning in Madison. I ride up to the Ovens downtown on State Street and start to lock my bike to a streetlamp. Suddenly, I know there’s a croissant—right there in the street. I go to pick it up, but it’s been flattened by a bus. I can see the zigzag of tire treads. It’s about the size of a small waffle, but flat like a pizzelle.
As I make my way to the door to get a fresh croissant, I begin to wake up. There’s a period when I’m aware I’m dreaming—in two worlds at once—and carrying this knowledge lightly. I just need to get to the door, go gently over the threshold, and buy a croissant. Easy does it! But I’m not skilled at maneuvering in the sea of the unconscious. The dream fabric is torn, and soon I’m in the too, too solid flesh and blood world of my cabin at the gonpa.
This time I wanted to cry. By then I knew the dream would come again, and I still had no idea why—something a good psychotherapist might have noticed.
In the years after my parents separated, new books appeared in my mother’s bedroom: Fear of Flying, The Women’s Room, and a big one with a white cover and drawings inside of people getting it on called Total Orgasm. The one that she actually wanted me to read was called The Dream Game.
I guess it was Gestalt or something like it. The part that stayed with me was not the part about how every person or object in a dream is an aspect of the dreamer; rather, I was struck by the idea that not everything in a dream could or should be understood. Like soil in the practice of permaculture, some things should remain undisturbed, covered, in the dark.
So, true to instructions, the croissant remained elusive. I did the opposite of decoding: I bought the whole illusion. I longed to be in Madison eating croissants, more than ever.
Eventually I heard through Helen that the last Ovens of Brittany had also closed.
The thing about living at the gonpa was that there were always some absolutely essential teachings that I direly needed to receive, or a pile of transcripts that needed to be edited, or (most often) an event or a retreat I had to cook for. I went to North Carolina a few times during those years as visits to family were generally more tolerated as long as they didn’t happen during some crucial event, but a pilgrimage to Wisconsin for a croissant would have been out of the question.
Finally, in the last few months I lived in California, I had another Madison dream.
I’m with Yauch, the black lab who lives with me at the gonpa. We’re walking in the grass at James Madison Park on Lake Mendota. There’s a sandy beach off to the right, and beyond that the water. (If you know the cover of Joni Mitchell’s album Hejira—the one with the black and white photo of her ice skating—that’s the lake.) It’s June. Green leaves are waving in the breeze. Cars, buses, and bicyclists go up East Gorham Street on the left. We’re coming to an old building, what used to be a synagogue, supposedly moved brick by brick from somewhere in Europe, then reassembled. (It’s called Gates of Heaven. Now it’s the kind of place people use for meditation classes or concerts.) I’m a little afraid for Yauch, as we are in a city, with traffic—no longer at the gonpa where he roamed freely day and night—but the overall feeling is that it’s okay, we’re safe.
That was it, the whole dream. No croissant—just me, Yauch, the lake, James Madison Park, the Gates of Heaven.
Not long after the croissant-run-over-by-a-bus dream, my life at the dharma center began to dissolve. Our lockstep routine was beginning to soften around the edges. It began when my teacher—the young one, the one Rinpoche had chosen to be the lineage carrier—was in a three-year retreat. When he came out, he was different.
This teacher, Lama Drimed, is technically “the regent.” And if you’re wondering what kind of spiritual path would use that monarchy-laden language, well, welcome to Tibetan Buddhism.
(A few years later, when I was prepping to teach Survey of British Lit to community college students and reviewing the canon, I stumbled upon the medieval ceremony for knighthood, where one makes a pledge to the Lord of the Estate. The soon-to-be knight goes down on one knee, the Lord snips a bit of his hair, and the knight “pledges his troth” in exchange for the Lord’s protection. I realized these were the same basic elements as the Tibetan Buddhist refuge ceremony—the kneeling, the snip, the pledge, the protection. If you’ve ever seen a row of dominoes falling over, one after the other, that was my mind at that moment.)
Soon Lama Drimed asked the resident staff to begin the curious process of gathering in the shrine room and sitting in a circle on the maroon carpet. He sat with us, not on his usual throne. We called it “Open Space.” We were encouraged to “speak from the heart”—emotions allowed. It was not medieval at all, and pretty un-Tibetan to boot.
Plenty of people were happy to do this, if somewhat nervous at first. Others, not so much. I can’t reveal the contents of what was said, because (like so many things) we promised to keep it confidential. Some were participating but hated it, and some were pissed that they couldn’t participate because they lived off the property and technically weren’t staff. I fell into the part of the Venn diagram that was allowed to participate and loved it. It was fascinating to hear people talk about their gnarly feelings after all those years. It was like Christmas and my birthday rolled into one, and we were all much healthier for it.
I left the dharma center about eight months after we started Open Space. I spent three more years in California, but it never felt right. I lived the first year in the nearby town of Weaverville, lonely and broke, pondering the big questions like, Should I spend my last three dollars on a bar of soap, or on shampoo?
I spent the last two years on the coast in Humboldt County, in an apartment down the street from a somewhat French bistro-like place. Their croissants were okay, but not the croissants of my dreams.
Eventually it became clear I needed to be back on the East Coast. I packed the little Subaru and sent boxes to my sister’s house in Winston-Salem.
My last night in California I slept at the gonpa. In the evening, I joined the staff for the feast to Tara, complete with food, drink, and chanting. By then I only knew a few people working there, holdovers from the previous administration. Before long they, too, would leave.
Rinpoche’s wife Khadro, by then his widow, had come from Brazil to live for the year and was now in charge. She showed me the progress of the renovations to Tara House. We didn’t talk about more recent events, how it came to be that she was now the resident lama and that my teacher, Lama Drimed, was living in the Bay Area, even though Rinpoche had made him the lineage carrier. She, Lama Drimed, and the board members had agreed it was better for him to move on. It didn’t happen that smoothly, but that’s the upshot. As the lawyers say, there were “irreconcilable differences.”
She went out of her way to be kind, offering me one of the guest rooms in Tara House, making sure I had everything I needed.
But later that night, in the guest room on the second floor, I hardly slept, as if everything that had happened over the years were a noisy party that kept going till the sky went from black to navy to cobalt blue.
I remembered every guest who’d slept in that room. I remembered the soul-scarring boyfriend from my first year living at the gonpa, the crazy sex with him in several rooms in that very building, even the VIP linen closet. And I remembered the day I spent trying to make croissants, because a woman who’d slept with that same boyfriend had made them—and if she could do it, I had to.
(I learned after the first half hour of beating layers of dough and butter and dough again with a rolling pin that making puff pastry is almost as impossible as non-monogamy. With both, my pride dictated that I keep trying. I tried not to imagine the boyfriend beneath every whack, but it was pretty hopeless. The rolling pin was not unlike an “encounter bat,” the foam-covered anger-management tool I’d discovered back in college, the year after I read The Dream Game.)
The next morning, my last in California, I saw Khadro in the small kitchen on the second floor. I gave her a book I’d held on to after getting rid of so many—a large hardcover, Brockett and Hildy’s History of the Theater, the kind of thing I’d begun immersing myself in a few years earlier as part of the process of unwinding from being overly zealous, right before we started Open Space.
Maybe I wanted her to remember me the way I was when we met in 1994—a lover of literature, an aspiring writer. Seventeen years later, as I handed her History of the Theater, I remembered her words: I don’t feel like I’ve worked in a day if I haven’t written.
The ghosts in the room were my teachers—Rinpoche and Lama Drimed.
The conversation we weren’t having might have started like this: “I understand what you meant long ago.” It was kind of weird of me to give her the book, but I had years of repressed weirdness to get out my system.
She thanked me, looking at the cover curiously. She’d given me books over the years: a biography of Virginia Woolf and an account of the Bloomsbury group by Woolf’s nephew; I still have them.
About six days later, I crossed the state line from deep green Iowa into Wisconsin, then into Dane County, and finally Madison. Tents were set up around the capitol building where people were protesting the actions of then-governor Scott Walker. I stayed at Helen’s. I ate dinner with David at the Italian restaurant now in the space where the Ovens of Brittany on State Street had been, where he used to wait tables. In the years after we broke up, he’d become a psychiatrist. There were no croissants on that trip, but there were friends and huge lakes you could stare at for hours, dropping you into a blissful state. I could go to sleep and wake up with the realization, I’m in Madison, I’m really in Madison—thrilled that it wasn’t just a dream.
Then finally, almost a decade after the last dream of the series—the one with Lake Mendota, the Gates of Heaven, and my black lab Yauch—my waking life collides with my dreams.
I’m in Northampton, Massachusetts, with Jim. He’s someone I’ve been with for years now, someone I longed for as a possibility: someone to love who would love me back, and I wouldn’t need to look for anyone else.
It’s early April, and the snow is gone except for dirty piles in parking lots. We leave the car around the corner from the Hungry Ghost Bakery, a place I’ve heard of, but because its name is also that of one of the lower realms of suffering in Buddhism, I haven’t wanted to go there. Or, to be honest, I’ve thought of it, but like a hungry ghost, somehow couldn’t get there: it was something I wanted but couldn’t make happen—more proof I’m nothing if not suggestible. (Months later I would be told that the “hungry ghost” in its name refers to the sourdough starter, a much less disturbing idea.)
Today we’re here to see Jim’s twenty-five-year-old daughter. She is working with four other vibrant young people and the wiry, intense-looking baker/owner, a man in his fifties. He has the dark beard and topknot of so many of the guys at the gonpa. The room smells of wood smoke. They wear long aprons and have bare, muscly arms. The overall effect is strangely familiar.
It’s Saturday, and we’ve come for croissants.
Like many true stories, here the climax and denouement are collapsed into each other. We sit in the car, the moment of truth I didn’t know would come. I take a croissant from the paper bag and bite into it.
The first flaky, buttery bite—the liberation through taste—the amazement of what this human realm can offer, so much beauty freely given, all the more powerful when it comes as a surprise years later—joy, wholly unworked for—in the morning light.
Anna Baker Smith grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina. Her essays and stories have appeared in PANK, the Massachusetts Review, TriQuarterly, After the Art, Louisiana Literature, and elsewhere. She lives on a small farm in Western Massachusetts and serves as a part-time lecturer for UMass Amherst’s University Without Walls Department of Interdisciplinary Studies.
What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond. These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors