Consider: Taking our Place at the Table

Dear Friends,

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.

Peace,
Kim

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.

Consider: What We’ve Lost. . .or Not

Dear Friends,

In my twenties it was walruses.

“I’ll never become an expert on walruses.”  That was my wistful thought when I made the decision to move to Montana, fresh from college seminars on post structuralism, moral beauty, and environmental imagination. I had just spent six months in Tanzania, where I’d gained a passable ability to converse in Swahili, a taste for ugali, and a love for the bushbabies who clattered rocks off my metal roof each night. The world seemed excessively open and curious and I seemed full of agency.  I believed implicitly in the immortal words of Dr. Seuss: “You have brains in your head.  You have feet in your shoes.  You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”

I’d never cultivated particular interest in walruses, so giving them up as a possible life career caused me little more than the passing thought: here is a direction I won’t be going.

IMG_4680One door shut.

But all others seemed to gape open.

I’m nearly two decades beyond the time when I ruled out walruses once and for all.  And life looks incredibly different from forty as it did from twenty-two.  Less branching possibility, more prescribed probability.  Fewer trips to faraway continents, more trips to the grocery store.

Recently I read Amor Towles’ novel, Rules of Civility.  In the book’s final pages the narrator reviews her life.  As she thinks about her husband, her career and the life she built in New York, she reflects, “I have no doubt that they were the right choices for me.  And at the same time, I know that right choices are the means by which life crystallizes loss.”

I took a photo of that paragraph because I wanted to have it down just so.  Like Towles’ narrator, I love my life.  I feel the fit of each significant life choice and harbor no doubts about them.  I thrill when I walk out my door and think again for, perhaps, the thousandth time, “I can’t believe I get to live here.”  And, even so, I’m cognizant of the losses – all the walruses along the way – that indwell each gain.

I don’t mean this as lament; rather as stock-taking, as faithful render of life as I find it.  And there’s something compelling about all these losses.  They pile up not like so much inanimate dust, but like little flints that sometimes, when struck just right, still spark with latent energy.

As Towles’ narrator stands on the balcony thinking back on the right choices through which her right choices “crystallized loss,” she says, “I knew too well the nature of life’s distractions and enticements – how the piecemeal progress of our hopes and ambitions commands our undivided attention, reshaping the ethereal into the tangible, and commitments into compromises.”

The idea of piecemealing life has such an honest ring.  While I want my life to hum with the passion of worthy commitments, the groceries in the fridge persist in disappearing, my kids grow out of their soccer cleats, they clamor for homework help.  Bills arrive in the mailbox requiring payment. And that bathroom is not going to clean itself.  Life feels way too tangible and all too compromised.

But then, from somewhere deep inside something ineffable sparks and flares.  At times, these sparks seer and blister – things have gone by, doors are shut.  But sometimes these sparks seem to glimmer with a hint that all things treasured up in one’s heart are never gone, that all the branching profusion, though seemingly pruned years ago, is suddenly found miraculously intact.

in the snowIs it possible for both to be true?  Does the spirit obey its own physics – wherein things coming and going are all mixed up with one another, wherein losses are real and, at once, never truly lost?

Friend, whatever walruses you bear, bear them well and with love.  For we are all complex, expansive beings, and our hearts are immense and capable of holding much.

Peace,

Lindsay

P.S. As always, we love your comments and interaction.  Thank you!

Consider: Moondust, our Longing, and the Infinite

Dear Friends,

On Wednesday, as students straggled into school, hungover from Halloween candy and the revelries of parading late in their costumes, the STEM teacher and I aired the documentary, “The Last Man on the Moon.” This documentary chronicles the life of Eugene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17, the last of America’s lunar landing expeditions.

To say I have even casual interest in space science would be a generous stretch. While I’m awed when the occasional Hubble Telescope photo crosses my path, I usually glaze over when reading sentences like the one at the bottom of the previous paragraph. As a writer of realistic fiction, my imagination is decidedly terrestrial. I’m lit up by human stories and expeditions to that vastest of interiors: the human heart.  

So I was ready to pass a sleepy morning in the company of pacified 7th and 8th graders and if I gleaned some space science knowledge, so much the better.  What I got instead was a fascinating exploration of the paradoxes and emotional minefields which no rocket shot can shake from the human heart.  Perhaps it was the extremis of being an astronaut — literally out of one’s element, suspended above the world — that dialed up the volume on the constant human scuffle between loneliness and connection. “I felt that all of humanity was with me on that mission,” Cernan says of his first spaceflight with Gemini IX. And yet later, when looking back at his three days on the moon during the Apollo 17 mission, the Earth rising like a blue pearl in the distance, he spoke of incredible loneliness.  Accompanied by all humanity and yet, at once, all alone: Isn’t this a striking picture of our perennial condition?  

On the lunar surface, Cernan traced his daughter’s initials in moondust. This heartfelt act of bestowing what he cherished most to that distant surface struck me. It was as if marking her initials there made them timeless, delivering them to a place where moth and rust cannot destroy. And yet, his relationship with his daughter and wife were fraught; sabotaged by the intense singular focus of his career, marked by his absence. “You think going to the moon is hard, try staying home,” his wife reflected on watching the broadcast of her husband out there on the spearpoint of human technology. Eugene Cernan made it back, but ultimately his marriage didn’t survive. Some frontiers are too vast to cross. Some journeys end with loss.

IMG_6799

2017 Eclipse–when we were all lost in wonder, if only for an hour

I’ve been thinking about Gene Cernan and the moon a lot over these past few days. In what ways does loneliness and deep human connection nudge shoulders in my life? How much I want what I most love to be lifted above time, to be kept safe from the world’s corrosive effects. But even now, while I have breath and life, am I giving the earth-bound, time-bound things I love my full presence?

On August 25, 2012, Gene Cernan climbed the steps to the pulpit at Washington National Cathedral to eulogize his friend and fellow astronaut, Neil Armstrong.  “Neil, wherever you are up there, almost a half century later, you have now shown once again the pathway to the stars…You can now finally put out your hand and touch the face of God.”

I, for one, don’t know much about pathways to the stars. I’m the type who firmly stands with Robert Frost when he says, “Earth’s the right place for love: I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” But Cernan’s words over his friend’s casket resonate all the same. I hear in them a rich longing for the infinite resolution to all our finite journeys. No rocket can lift us there–yet daily, we are invited on this most daring expedition.
Peace,

Lindsay

P.S. You can watch the entirety of Cernan’s moving eulogy for Neil Armstrong here.

Consider: Song in a Broken World

Dear Friends,

After a busy summer, Lindsay and I are settling back into school-year rhythms.  We’ve missed the practice of writing for Each Holy Hour and the camaraderie of exploring this good world with each of you.  We hope your fall routines are emerging with space for a cup of tea and a deep breath.  I wrote this reflection a few days ago, shortly after our summer ended in the sort of unexpected tragedy that marks all our lives.  Thank you for sharing this space with me.

It’s been a week since I watched my dog die, and today I am finding the business of living difficult. I am trying to summon my energy for tasks and goals. I am trying to make myself go for a walk, by myself.  Charley, our Jack Russell, was after all a dog, and I can live without a dog. But the truth is, I miss him terribly.

It doesn’t help that our sun glows red today from the fires devastating Washington and Oregon’s exquisite forests. Elsewhere, floods and hurricanes shatter livelihoods. As I watered my parched garden this morning, I pulsed with the ancient question: why do terrible things destroy good? Why does senseless violence pummel homes, devour lives, wreck hopes, and just last week, tear our beloved dog apart in front of my daughter Beatrix and my niece?

I haven’t been able to get the images out of my mind. As we walked home from soccer practice, a large, vicious dog appeared silently, took Charley in his jaws, and shook him until he died.  In the hours that followed, Beatrix kept sobbing, “Why did that have to happen?”

I don’t know, I don’t know, I’m sorry. It is the only refrain I can find in moments of tragedy.

What I see in this world is beautiful. What I see in this world is broken. What I know right now is sadness.

And yet. Last night, as Beatrix lingered over dinner, I suddenly thought of an old hymn we learned years ago at our Mennonite Church. Before I knew it, I was singing it out loud, locking eyes with my daughter.

My life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the sweet, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation.
No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?

Over the years, through bone-shattering tragedy that has destroyed people and places we loved with all our hearts, I have come back to that hymn. Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?

Today, once again, I hold both the reality of not-knowing, of grief, alongside this song my soul sings. It is a song shot through by the same sure joy I saw in our dog as he sprinted after a squirrel or snuggled next to Beatrix at the end of the day. It is the song that stirred us as a policeman laid his own jacket over Charley’s broken body.  It is the song of my sister quietly returning to scrub away the signs of brutality from the pavement.  It is a song I chose to hear, of being alive in a place where–despite everything–Love is Lord of heaven and earth.

Lindsay sent me an excerpt from Le Petit Prince a few days ago.

“Goodbye,” said the fox. “Here is my secret. One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”

Thank you, friend of my heart, for those words. Today, though my heart aches, I choose to return again to what is essential:  great love, a world shot through by beauty and goodness. How then can I keep from singing?

Peace,

Kim

p.s. Join us on The Back Page for a discussion about summers, dogs, and new responsibilities.  We’d love to hear your summer memories and your autumnal hopes! (Spoiler Alert: Kim is getting to know a beautiful rescue dog and Lindsay is busy with students!)

p.p.s.  We’ve still got a stack of lovely “Each Holy Hour” cards.  Please let us know if you’d like to find one in your mailbox.  Just visit the “Contact Us” page at our website and send us your address.  There’s no obligation and your information is completely private–it’s truly a free little gift of wonder.

Consider: the Miracle of Existence

Last week in the early hours of Thursday morning, my husband and I were shaken awake with much of western Montana. It took a half moment of groaning joists and rattling dishes for our senses to catch up with reality. Tim’s groggy mind got there first. “Earthquake!” Suddenly wide awake, we both jumped out of bed. As the floor swayed, we briefly dithered over protocol (rouse the kinder? decamp outside?). Before we had made any decisive moves, the shaking slackened, then died away. Everything was still.

Everything, that is, except our nerves. Those were thoroughly rattled.

I palmed my phone and spoke two words to Siri: Missoula Earthquake. Tweets popped like mushrooms in a field. “Anyone else in Missoula feel that earthquake?” inquired several Twitter users. Within seconds an Italian organization released information that a magnitude 5.8 quake had struck 129 km east of Missoula. 5.8 magnitude. 129 km east. I climbed back into bed, embracing these facts and figures like a security blanket. Perhaps it’s a great propensity of the human heart to make order out of chaos. Curiosity and knowledge are incredible gifts. But I couldn’t help detecting in my sudden interest in facts and figures another need. Surely I was seizing upon anything knowable (richter scale readings, kilometers, map locations) to paper over the existential threat shifting beneath me. While the earthquake hadn’t literally yanked a seam of ground apart, it exposed a tremendous fault I usually prefer stays deeply buried.

eeebd4ff-0855-4c02-8ede-71d600244868As I lay back on my pillow, I felt at the mercy of forces operating far beyond human scale. It’s a hereditary susceptibility, I suspect, but I can’t help my anthropocentrism. Human life and human scale are the things I think of, judge from, and orient toward. And here in a most unexpected way, I was woken from a sound sleep in the comfort of my own bed, to be reminded that all the stability and taken-for-grantedness of my world is, literally, built upon shifting ground.

Just as I was drifting back to sleep an aftershock rumbled through. Residents of California and other earthquake active locations may be used to the sensation that the Earth sometimes threatens to buck us all off, but as we say in Montana, “this was my first rodeo.” Several more aftershocks rustled us through the night, and though each rattled the house less and less, I felt wary and fell finally into fitful sleep.

It’s all an incredible miracle, of course, that we exist on this singular globe at all. Every once and again, the Earth makes us aware of the terms of our lease. It rattles the keys and threatens eviction. It reminds us that our human scale is a narrow vantage and things are really far more vast and intricate that we can fathom. No doubt, just as the earthquake shook itself out, my awareness of this miracle will subside. I’ll walk my dog over the same paths I normally do and feel that the ground is stable and knowable, and once again I’ll take my lease for granted. And while I don’t hope to be shaken awake again, I find I’m grateful for the way these shifting plates cracked my consciousness and let a little light in.
Here’s to cultivating wonder,

Lindsay