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: In the midst of winter

Dear Friends,

It is winter, the bleak midwinter, the interminable haul between the end of Christmas and the first crocus.  I’ve been remembering a grey, ugly January afternoon many years ago when we still lived in Pennsylvania, when the snow had turned black with car exhaust.  In those days, the kids were young and still needed me every moment; silence was rare, a solitary walk still rarer.  But that frozen day, I needed to be by myself.  I left the girls with Martin and tromped up a neighborhood hill to my dear friend, Nancy’s house.  I lingered on the curb and surveyed her garden.

It was rather a mess: the chard and lettuces had shot to seed long ago; a tangled vine curved around the front door.  I remembered that the summer before, robins had made a nest in the house eaves.  Nancy had instructed the entire family to stop using the front door in order not to disturb the fledglings.  A few short weeks later, she left the garden and the robins and lay down in a hospice bed; shortly afterwards, she died.  She had battled cancer for three years.  I watched as her three young children followed her casket up to the front of the church.

On that January afternoon, the robin’s nest was empty.  Nancy was a zealot for sustainability and permaculture, and her yard showed it: an almond tree’s bare branches rose above a tangle of spent basil.  Around the side of the house, there were still blackened stalks of tomatoes and limp pea vines.  There was the patch where she’d plucked the delicata squash last fall and handed it to me with great awe, as if it were a sacred thing–and it was, pin-striped yellow and green.

Nancy and I were much like sisters in those years; we swapped kids, spent long afternoons peeling apples for sauce.  She taught my daughter to read and I taught hers to sing.  In the sick, miserable months when I was pregnant with my youngest, she sat me on the stool in her kitchen and fed me soup out of her favorite pottery bowl.  We dreamed gardens together.  Late in her illness, I made her soup, I went with her to the clinic, and in the silence as she breathed in oxygen, I recited “The Owl and the Pussycat” to pass the time.

Now, in her winter garden, there was silence again.  I went to work, yanking up dead snarls of herbs, cutting back perennials, scooping up armfuls of leaves.  The dry, brittle plants I pulled and piled up for compost were the same she had tenderly put in the ground months before.  As I cleared the soil back to a dark, black richness, I felt the weight of this sacred duty, and the greatness of my love for her.  I felt, too, the surprising, miraculous presence of life.  Unbidden, even offensive to me who worked in sorrow, I smelled the coming spring.  I snapped back a dead perennial stalk and there was a flash of green.  The dried basil was redolent of summer; the earthworms, I knew, were curled tightly just below my fingers, sleeping until the earth would warm again.

A while after I tidied her garden, I accompanied Nancy’s family to visit her grave, still a unhealed gash in the pale grass.  Around us, farmland rolled away in a sea of undulating hills. Nancy’s children stood beside me, young and vulnerable, desperately missing their mother.  Nancy’s husband raised his eyes and searched the horizon.   “We look for the eternal spring,” he said.

IMG_0804I wondered at the time if those words came straight from the liturgy of the Greek Orthodox Church, to which the family belonged; for each word seemed to me to bear mysterious promise–like the perennials in Nancy’s garden.  We look for the eternal spring.  Those are the two things I remember from that season following her death: the silence of working in her garden, and the simple goodness of her husband’s graveside words.  Not gaudy or extraneous or saccharine, those words bound up pain and longing and faith at once, and I have carried them with me ever since.

In this new year, may we be present with each other, holding one another in silence, with love, with the goodness of sacred words.  May we find solace in the seasons of this beautiful world, and in the wonder that bids us look beyond the brittle stalks of winter.

Peace,

Kim

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!