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: Solitude Invites Us

Dear Friends,

They are here again: the arrowleaf balsamroots.

I’ve been watching closely these last months, since the deep snow of this past winter finally allowed itself to be whittled away. It was a relief when open ground emerged then tentatively greened. Along the trail, silvery nodes extricated themselves from mud, then shot up, unfurling silver broad leaves. Now, sun-yellow flowers stud the whole hillside above my house. The dogs and I take our morning constitutional. A slight breeze stirs. The yellow heads of the balsamroot bob and nod, agreeing it seems with the goodness of the morning, of springtime, of life itself.

I tell you all this because for months things have been hard.

In Western Montana, our February, averaging just 16 degrees, was the coldest since 1898.  It snowed Every. Single. Day. Not heaps and heaps. Just enough to require substantial shovel work. Under an unvaried, cheerless sky, I cleared the driveway and sidewalks, re-doing work I had toiled over the day before. And the day before that. And the day before that. In the midst of those seemingly interminable February days, my husband had knee surgery, my daughter the flu, my son switched middle schools, my puppy chewed holes in the carpet, my novel got rejected – again. And while these small, private emotional debits compiled, the insane gale of the world-at-large kept churning out new debasements to our civic life. Unmoored from thoughtful, robust discourse, from the guiding lights of ethics and empathy, and even from the self-imposed railings of honesty and norms, our politics has degenerated into a grotesque caricature of public life.

Frankly, it’s wearying. After the winter – or perhaps after these forty-one years of sentience – I’m a little care-worn, a little buffeted.

“Most people,” Rilke writes, “have (with the help of conventions) turned their solutions toward what is easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must trust in what is difficult…it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult.”

If these last months have proven anything, it’s that I want to shy away from the difficult, take the handiest exit distraction provides. Rilke’s words feel like a chance to consider the ways in which I behave like “most people.” What unexamined conventions have I adopted? What habits of mind do I rely upon, not because they enrich my life, but precisely because they shield and divert me from the wonder and, let’s be frank, terror of being alive? It’s easier, so much easier, to duck one’s head and scroll Instagram than it is to keep one’s face to the wind of our deepest questions, our mortality, our hopes, our loneliness, our longings.

Solitude invites us to an interior expansiveness. I find that just inside solitude’s gate the way is populated with advertising jingles and grocery lists, political diatribes, frustration at my son for losing his soccer jersey, my sense of failure because I didn’t make it to the gym today, the comeback I should have used on that bully back in eighth grade. But that’s just the first mile. Once I’ve passed this by, who knows what vastness I’ll find.

“But listen to the voice of the wind/ and the ceaseless message that forms itself out of silence,” Rilke writes in his first Duino Elegy.  The wind is in the balsamroots now, nodding their heads, shaking their silver leaves. It’s in me, if I have ears to hear it. It’s in this busy, hard, beautiful, passing, poignant life. What I actually long for is to listen for that ceaseless message wrought from silence. Everything good tells me it’s worth the difficult journey.

Peace,

Lindsay