A few years ago, I laid a feast before a dear friend who was struggling with debilitating clinical depression. I threw myself into the task. The everyday dishes would not work. Instead, I found the china, washed it carefully, laid it on the table. I made the most nourishing dish I could think of, my mother’s beef stew. I braised the meat, added a splash of red wine, pulled young carrots and unearthed small yellow potatoes from my own garden. I cut a bouquet of heirloom roses, placed them gently beside my friend’s plate. I was ready.
I thought that my offering, given with love, would be enough for my friend. I watched as she picked at her food, stared into space. The small bites she took were like sawdust in her mouth. She couldn’t seem to smell the flowers at all. Finally, she stood and left the table. I sat there, incredulous and sad, as the dishes grew cold and my heart pulsed with questions: Why couldn’t I have done more? Why couldn’t I have made the table more welcoming, the food more palatable?
Afterward, a good counselor told me words I have never forgotten: You could never be enough to fill her need.
Through the years, I’ve had to learn that hard truth again and again. You can open your arms wide, but you can’t make your kids step into your embrace. You can take your friends on a drive past views that make your heart contract with wonder, but you can’t make them look up from their glowing phone screens. You can set the table, you can cook up the finest food, but you can’t make anyone join you. At the end of the day, you are finite, only human. You alone are not enough to fill the yawning needs of others.
But what a joy it is when people pull up a chair and fall to the feast! I see that joy reflected in my mother’s eyes when we finally find a crack in our busy schedules to jump on the ferry to join her for an afternoon. I feel it myself when my daughters lounge on our bed late at night, content to listen as we read a book out loud. Who wants dessert? Who wants coffee?
Sometimes the feast is shabby, the kind of thing I’d never post on Instagram. Sometimes it is nothing more than hot dogs eaten hastily, a vegetable if we’re lucky, and the family watching a show bleary-eyed before sleep. But we are together and trust tomorrow will yield more thoughtful food. That too is a feast I need to show up for with gratitude.
It’s sacred work: this business of setting the table again and again, while holding in check expectations of how that gift is received. But even if it isn’t received as I hoped, even if all that I laid in care can’t be enough, I don’t want to stop setting. Likewise, it’s also sacred work: this business of learning to show up at all the tables set for me, no matter how thrown-together they appear, how meager they seem. These days, I find feasts laid in unexpected places if only I have eyes to see them, and the intent to cultivate my sight.
So now, after a long day at work, I sit here in the gathering darkness. Across the street, a lingering ray of sunlight illuminates a squirrel as he ducks under the sinuous branches of the neighbor’s lemon-colored rhododendron. The garden glows with resplendent pink roses and violet salvia. Upstairs, my daughters chat contentedly. In the background, an inane pop song whines along, a tune with no apparent redeeming quality but one that makes my teens happy somehow. Soon I’ll get up and make them dinner. This evening is at once the feast I have laid and the feast that has been laid for me. I hope to take my place at the table, tonight, tomorrow, and every day that is given to me.
P.S. We’re having a blast on our Instagram these days! If you are an Instagram user, pop-over for regular pics, quotes, and conversation. We can’t serve up a steaming mug of tea through the platform, but there’s still plenty of goodness to linger over.
P.P.S. And we’re back at The Backpage. A colleague of mine always says, “Just for funsies.” Funsies is a great descriptor of what The Backpage is really all about. Join us for some thoughts and a few chuckles.
P.P.P.S: It’s Lindsay here with the most important postscript of all: I just wanted to sneak in and give Kim a shout out! Her book, Reading Beauty, was recently awarded with a Children’s Choice Selection by the International Literacy Association. Well deserved. Way to go, Kim! Keep on nourishing young minds. And, like Kim’s heroine, may you all fall into your own Deep Read.
4 thoughts on “Consider: Taking our Place at the Table”
Kim, your words themselves are a feast. There are so many things I want to say about not being enough to save people, but right now thoughts are tangled in my brain. Have you seen the play.’Night Mother? The same theme, though not as kind and gentle as what you’ve written here. Xoxo
Thank you, Jill. I’ve not seen “Night Mother.” I know that this theme of not being enough to save people, especially our children, is an ancient one–but somehow you just don’t really understand what it means until you’ve waded into those hard waters yourself. I guess that’s broadly true about experience, grief, and compassion–when we step personally into it, we recognize it, and then our experience deepens our own ability to step into those same areas of pain and uncertainty with others.
I am not the person to wish for all experiences just so I can broaden my compassion, though! I am naturally pain-avoidant and there is nothing that would cause me more pain than my children coming to some harm I can’t save them from. Faith is important here, I think. That, and this amazing community of people who uphold us even from far away–like you, friend! Then we feel held by those who love us, who make the feast for us to come to. In times of distress, I drag myself to the table others prepare for me, and there I find solace. Grace and peace to you this day, and may you feel held. xoxo
That’s so lovely, Kim. It captures your heart– your desire to please others with your work, your gift of hospitality, your appreciation of simple pleasures and beauty, and your love.
I have been a grateful recipient of all of these over and over and over again. I love this piece that reveals your heart with such transparency. Mom
Thanks, Mom! You too have offered such generous hospitality of your heart and home to so many over the years. Much love to you!!!