Life Around A Table: Part Two

17056_568427814026_8232112_n-1“Who wants to pray?,” my mom proclaims as the five of us scurry to the dinner table.  Usually that question was answered with averting eyes and silent hopes that she wouldn’t call on any of us to bless the food before us on the table.  The uncomfortable silence was often broken by Heath’s inner duty, as the oldest Carter child, to take the burden for us, even though we all knew he really loved doing it.  After the prayer, you couldn’t blink without missing the food being devoured before your eyes.

I blame this Carter habit on my inability to actually chew my food.  With two older brothers, it was eat fast or don’t eat at all.  So this survival technique has followed me into my adult years.  Throughout the constant food-shoveling, we would often go around the table and talk about the highs and lows of our days in an attempt to have everyone’s voice be heard.  This tradition, though, would often devolve into a argument about how long everyone got to explain all the details of their day, thanks to Ashley’s tendency to dominant the conversation with every minute detail, and whether “the end of this dinner” could count as one of our highs.

My family table.  This is where I spent 18 years of my daily life and this is the place that continues to always offer me an open seat no matter where life leads.  The Carter table never promised to be peaceful or quiet or even enjoyable, but we were always promised a seat.  Often the table is where we would hash out the latest sibling argument or more likely sat in an unbearable silence as we all shot death glares at each other across the table.  No words were necessary because everyone knew what we were thinking.

Our table was the center of our holidays and our celebrations.  And even as my brothers left our house for college, it remained the central meeting point, the war room, the game center, and the reminder that no matter where everyone’s life took them, we could all return to this table.  While it would be nice to be able to say that I learned the best manners, the most mature ways of dealing with conflict, and the best practices in handling a board game defeat, that would definitely be distorting the truth.

It was common for table conversation to be interrupted by a thunderous sound, which we soon deduce had come from the behind of one of the Carter men.  This deduction would then lead to complaints and proclamations that the offender must spend five or ten minutes in the bathroom for his crime and in hopes to prevent a future offense from occurring in the general vicinity.  Family game time would begin with Ashley’s typical speech about abhorring games and leaving the area in order to avoid being forced to join in on a round of Taboo or Scategories.  I’m convinced, though, that it all stems from an embarrassing round of Scategories when he proudly announced his answer for “A Four Letter Word” and it happened to be one letter too many.  Then, of course, family game time would necessarily end in tears, shouts, and accusations of cheating.  Yet somehow we continued to gather around and play together.

My family’s table taught me that I can be myself, no matter what that looks like at the moment.  I’m still accepted if I’m playing the role of the bratty youngest sibling tattling on my older brothers, if I’m mad about my assigned weekly chores, or if I spend the whole time gloating about my recent victory in Taboo or a good report card from school.  I am always welcome at the table.

My family’s table was the picture of dysfunction and brokenness, but we always found a way to celebrate.  We were able to bring our genuine, authentic selves into communion with one another with the reassuring knowledge that, in the end, we are family so we have to deal with each other.  This table was the one place that we could all take off the roles that we often portrayed to the outside world and be our ugly, manipulative but extremely awesome selves.  The end result was we all knew we were pretty messed up but we accepted each other and worked to love each other in the best ways we could each day.  There was no fear of rejection, no pretense of perfection and no desire for winning the other over, because we were family.

I learned to embrace the mess that I often rejected in the rest of my life.  I learned the practice of constant forgiveness and reconciliation.  And I learned that even if we are angry, hurt or depressed we can still come to the table, shovel food into our mouths for nourishment and know that we can be exactly the messed up and disappointing people we often are.


If you missed the first post of this blog series, you can find it here: https://mackenseycarter.com/2014/06/05/life-around-a-table-part-one/

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Life Around a Table: Part One

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“One lump of sugar or two, dear?” My nana would gently call out from the kitchen corridor to the dining room table where her eager grandchildren awaited the arrival of tea-time. The answer was always two lumps, of course.  And before those sugar cubes could dissolve within the piping hot tea, my nana would be right next to me handing out beautifully decorated tea cups on top of perfectly placed saucers.   I always thought it was a luxury to be able to use her finest tea set, because my five-year-old self had grown rather accustomed to dinnerware of the less-breakable, plastic variety.

Life around Nana’s table was always a special event. And every event needed the finest of china even if that meant the occasional accident.  My Nana would just smile, sigh and say “Dishes are for breaking, right?” I was never anxious around her. I could do no wrong.

After a never-ending road trip from California to Kansas, my family would fall out of our van into the warmth of her house knowing the moment our feet grazed the plastic carpet mats we would be treated like guests of honor.  The secret was, though, everyone was treated as a guest of honor in her house, even if she had seen you the previous day.  And every guest of honor, which meant any and everyone who walked through her door, had a seat at her table.

Every week Nana would make extravagant Sunday night dinners of pot roast and Yorkshire pudding, decadent desserts like her famous homemade apple pies, and the most exquisite cup of tea this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Till this day, the passing whiff of a baking apple pie brings me back to these days, back to sitting at my nana’s table.

While all of her extravagant food and drink was a delight to us all, that was not what made my nana’s table special.  She made it special.  We would all gather around with laughter, joy and the expected family quarrel or two and my nana would beam with excitement. Nothing mattered to her more than having people, her family, around her table.  She would sometimes tell stories to her grandchildren in her soft and rather proper British accent but most of the time she was quiet, taking in the sights and sounds that engulfed her small living room. She breathed love into the space.

For my Nana, her table was communion.  It was a time where, without even a whisper of a word, she could show the people in her life that they mattered, they were valued, they were important.  She had this warmth when her eyes met yours that could take the chill away from any winter’s day.

For my Nana, her table held the cherished moments where everyone belonged, everyone was welcome, everyone ate like royalty.  Everyone was royalty for these moments.

I was only able to come to that table for seven short years before this world lost one of its greatest women.  Since my nana’s passing, her table has sat physically empty, but always beckoning us to come together once again, reminding us that we all belong to something bigger than our own lives.  In those few years that I was able to sit, to eat, to live at her table, my nana taught me that moments of feasting, of mourning, or of celebrating bring us together and that everyone deserves to feel that they belong, that they are special, that they are cared for.

More than anything, though, I knew my life, at Nana’s table, was important.  Nana, after working a whole day on a feast, her frail body weak from hours of standing, would sit at the table without asking for any praise, thanks or acknowledgement for we were the most important part of her day. I always imagined her thinking, how lucky I am to have this family, to have this moment, to have this meal.  And then she would look at us all with humanly perfect, sacrificial love and we would know that we were loved.  We were loved with a love that will always bring us back to the table.

Maya Angelou: Songs of Freedom


“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” -Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou is, was and will forever be a unbreakable prophet. She spoke of the day when the “caged bird’s song” would burst open the iron gate that rendered its wings useless dreams. She sang the song of freedom when only captivity and despair seemed present. She was a prophet of song, of verse, of life.

Poetry is more than writing. More than putting pen to paper and hoping for the best. The best of poets, like Angelou, know how to speak into the rhythm of the world, to beckon the human spirit and to call that spirit beyond this present moment to a possible future. Angelou was a poet with both her word and her life.

She spoke of a freedom that surpassed the physical chains that bound so many. A freedom of the mind, the spirit, the essence of humanity. I will never forget the moment I read Angelou’s quote above, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” She knew the goal of every artist, poet, writer, human–to be completely and utterly known.

Such is not an easy task. For to be known one must bear one’s soul for another waiting in helpless silence to hear a response. Most of us never make it to that silence. Fear keeps us living within constant noise so that we are seen through every medium possible, but never truly known. Maya Angelou lived in that silence, recklessly unleashing her soul for her own soul’s freedom.

She lived in the silence of a tomorrow where ever “caged bird” not only sang the dream of freedom but flew in its life-giving wind. May we all seek that silence for the memory of Angelou and for the future for which she so deeply lived her life. A silence that speaks of human vulnerability, acceptance and a told, heard, and known story.

Thank you, Maya Angelou, for singing, dancing, celebrating, persevering and living your freedom story. Not only was your soul unchained by your story and your voice, but, through your life and your work, you helped create a freedom story for so many of us.

Rest in peace, Maya Angelou. May her freedom song continue to tell our unending human story.

A Love Letter to My Illness

Heben “Heaven” Nigatu, November 2012

My Dear Adversarial Friend,

After years of hostile companionship, I’ve finally discovered the courage and resilience to write you this letter.  Since such courage may only be fleeting because of your current absence in my life, I had to finally force myself to pen this note of honesty and pain to you, my friend.

I remember we first met in high school.  My plump, pimple-covered exterior gave you the all-too-easy road into my close circle of critical inner-friends.  Our conversations enriched your attraction to me and mine to you.  For the hurtful, pain-filled words I would utter silently to myself for years were finally heard and repeated back to me.  You will never be good enough. No one will love you. There must be something deeply wrong with you. You, my depression, my anxiety, always understood.  You knew me.

We continued our mutual relationship all throughout high school, although I never knew your name or why you chose me as a friend.  I did not want to ask those questions because at least you were with me, listened to me, and didn’t seem to ever leave me.  We continued like this for a couple more years.  You echoing these lines of self-hatred and perfectionism back to my isolated mind. For we only grew closer the more I saw myself as worthless, out of control and unwanted.  Yet I started to realize the stronger our friendship grew, the lonelier I found myself.  But I told myself, you were all I needed: my depression, my anxiety.

You followed me to college.  I heaved a large sigh of relief as I stepped into my freshman dorm and you were already waiting for me.  A friend, a familiar face.  We stayed together.  Making new friends had never been easy for me, except for with you.  So I enjoyed staying in my room that first year and so did you.  You started whispering to me new thoughts and fears. You don’t belong here.  You will never succeed in softball or class. You are different.  I believed you, but something inside me hoped to one day prove you wrong.  This moment was the beginning of the end.

I did not know that striving, endlessly to prove you wrong would mean bringing my own body, mind, soul to its very breaking point.  But I wasn’t able to stop because in those moments of silence, pause, peace you awaited me.  My college life was filled with a constant battle between trying to control you, my depression, my anxiety, and allowing you to control me.  Softball, something that once brought me pride and confidence, became the one way you could destroy any ounce of self-worth I had left.  You are alone. You must be perfect. You must numb your feelings. You must be someone you are not. You were always there to remind me of the worst parts of me.

But I started realizing you were not the friend I thought you were.  Your listening was no longer innocent but a way to gain more ammunition against me.  Your repetitions always seemed to leave out the hope in which I most desperately believed.  I began seeking ways to numb or silence you because your whispers had become deafening.

I finally needed to know your name, which led me to therapy.  She called you “Generalized Anxiety Disorder” and “Depressive Episodes.” So clinical, so sterile.  You no longer seemed like a friend.  You were simply a disorder, an episode?  But how could your companionship be simplified to only that over all these years?

I finally began to learn more about you.  To learn more about myself.  To understand you as separate from me.  This was difficult for me to believe because, without me realizing it, we had become so intertwined.  I did not know how to distinguish you from me.  I often still don’t.  Medication helps, sure, but I always know that with any unexpected life event or sudden change you will be there, extending a friendly embrace. Through therapy, I have learned that you aren’t me.  I have learned that I can not blame myself for your presence in my life.  I have learned that you can be managed but I have also learned that you will always be my companion throughout this life.

I still call you my friend because of these many years we’ve shared together.  You worked so hard for me, so hard against me and I will never be outside of your constant influence.  Even though we are no longer close, for I know your name, your face, and your patterns, you will always be a part of me, a familiar and dangerous part.

Thank you for showing me the depth of pain and isolation for only in those depths did I learn the love of community.  Thank you for tearing me down because only through that experience was I able to rely and trust others to help me move forward.  Thank you for developing in me a sensitivity for emotion, for struggle, for hurt for only through that have I been able to connect with others.  Thank you for never leaving me because only through your presence have I learned the importance of resilience.  Thank you for knowing me because only through that am I able to see you in others around me and teach them your name.

I hope for a future day that I can pass by you on the street without pausing to entertain your whispers, without being drawn to your enticingly attractive lies, without recognizing your familiar taunts, but I know that we will probably meet again, my friend.  I have changed, though, since our last encounter so maybe you won’t recognize me.

With Hesitant and Undetermined Love,

Your Distant Friend

Such as a Spring Songbird

Such as a spring songbird bellowing its notes from above
but hiding its form in the tops of the maple tree.
A long winter has burst forth into a fervent spring
providing a dense protection for a spring songbird.

Such as a spring songbird desperately hoping to be heard
but fearing to be seen, to be noticed, to be known.
In just a flit such beauty escapes the searching eyes from below
giving the solitary spring songbird a moment’s refuge.

Such as a spring songbird repeating its uniquely perfect call
but forgetting to first notice the beings around it.
Its hopeful voice breathes depth into the newly warmed air
meeting a passerby’s ear with sweet, seductive melodies.

Such as a spring songbird beckoning every gaze upward
but lacking the courage to leave its security, its place.
From above it peers down full of doubt, full of wonder
thinking only that not anyone cares to hear its soulful song.

What I Learned about Love from a One-year-old

ImageChildren can teach you many things about life.  Just from watching my young nephews I have learned: snot is always a good and ever-present snack option, milk cures all woes, Daniel Tiger is a boy’s best friend, nap is a very, very bad word and every trip to the park is an exciting new adventure. All extremely important lessons, if one is to take care of toddlers.

At Georgetown, I took a Childhood Development psychology class where we spent a week on every step or progression in a child’s brain and social development from infancy to adolescence.  While we did not learn about the snot thing or that nap is the worst curse word, many of the concepts we did cover are very evident when observing my nephews.

One of these is the idea that young toddlers, when they see sun rays coming through a window, grasp to touch or hold the sunshine.  What a beautiful idea that shows a hope or longing for the beauty of this world.  Yet after a certain age children develop the knowledge that sunshine is not necessarily tangible.  They feel the welcoming warmth of the sun on their skin but they can’t actually grab or hold onto that sun.  No matter how hard they try to grab those enticing rays, the sun will always elude them. But before their brain’s develop and they learn more about the sun, toddlers will continue to try, reach, and strain for the rays despite constant failure.

Part of this instinct comes from a stage of development known as egocentricism.  If you have ever been around a two year old for longer than ten minutes, then you know what I am referring to.  I like to affectionately refer to it as the “me-monster.”  Actually, many adults seem to have regressed to this stage as well.   But anyway for a young child their wants and needs are the center of their world and they lack the ability to put those needs aside for the sake of a more rational end.  When a toddler sees the sun’s rays coming through his living room window, I wonder if his “me-monster” brain automatically thinks, “that’s pretty and I want to have it.”

Therefore, while at the root of this developmental phenomenon there is an innate human longing for beauty and for warmth, the toddler seems to constantly be striving to own or hold onto such beauty in a possessive and egocentric way.  Okay, okay, I will admit that maybe toddlers are just reaching out and there’s no deeper meaning behind it.  I mean, hell, we probably don’t know a quarter of the crazy shit that goes on in those kids heads (which is probably for the best), but stay with me for a minute longer.

As I watched my youngest nephew leaning against the pane of glass as the sunshine poured in, I wondered if we ever really grow out of that innate reaction or desire to own beauty.  Maybe that’s why all of us are so bad at this whole “love” thing.  We see something or someone that brings us warmth, beauty and comfort.  We can usually pause and recognize such beauty and even marvel in it, but only for a fleeting second, because then our first reaction seems to always be “I want that.”

The reaction is innate, evolutionary, and important to survival, but it’s also the very reaction that we have to curb in order to experience true, genuine unconditional love from another human being.  Like the sun rays, which toddlers try so very hard to capture in their small outstretched hands, when we feel that tingle of human attraction or friendship we often try our hardest to cling to it, hold onto it, possess it for fear that if we don’t we will lose it.  I wonder if the toddler, as he watches the sun rise and set each day, fears that one day the beauty will disappear from his grasp, making his effort to hold onto those rays even more fervent and anxiety-laden.

Love, in its purest form, asks us to forfeit that part of us that is so fearful to lose the other that we try to own the other, to make the other ours, or even better to make it no different than us.  Love asks us to enjoy the one we love, to relish in him, to gaze longingly for him, but to always hold loosely and gently to him.  Love asks us to live a life interdependent on the other, like we are to the sun, without confusing the other with our selves.  Once our grip starts to tighten around our love’s beauty or being, love is no longer present.  Love is replaced by envy, jealousy, and greed.  Like I said, maybe that’s why we struggle so much with this whole “love” thing because we are confusing selfless, life-giving, beautiful love with fear-driven greed.

Beauty and love is always around us.  I see it in my handsome nephews and beautiful nieces.  I see it in the steady rain outside that nourishes the parched land.  I see it in my family’s struggle to love each other and remain together.  I experience it in the taste of strong coffee and exquisite chocolate.  I experience it in the warmth of the sun.  We will remain disappointed and discontented with this beauty if we treat it like the toddlers do with the inviting rays of the sun.

Beauty requires a response, but not one of fear or anxiety.  Beauty requires a gratefulness that is only born from a deep and genuine love.  So if my nephew could actually understand anything I just said, I would tell him to never stop reaching out for the beauty of the sun for a meaningful life must contain a desire for such beauty.  But I would remind him that, instead of grasping with desperation, he should pause in silent reverence and appreciation.  That is where love is found, in those silent moments when we are in awe of something other than ourselves.

My Therapist Dumped Me

I’m proud of my 1 for 1 record in the dating world.  I found a good partner and kept him, which means I’ve never been dumped.  That is, until now.  Last week, my therapist dumped me.  Talk about a bad break up.

I have been going to therapy for over a year now.  A year!  That’s a long time.  I thought we meant something to each other! We laughed together, she has watched me cry, and she knows about all my thoughts and feelings.  We were pretty perfect.  Or at least I thought so… Last session, after a twenty minute update on how happy I have been the last month and how I’ve felt more in control of my life, she said the dreaded word… “termination.”

What? NO? But.. but.. my life’s not that perfect.  I have more.  I need more help. I can’t…

Why do they call it termination, anyway? It’s like Arnold Schwarzenegger is going to leap out from behind her bookshelf and escort me out of the office in order to make sure I never come back ever again.  Termination.  It’s so morbid. Permanent. No one’s dying here, but in that moment as that word slipped out of her mouth, my world of control fell apart.  My anxiety is under control.  I haven’t had a panic attack in a few months and I rarely have the constant obsessive thoughts that use to keep me up till the early morning hours each night.  But termination?  I can’t be ready.

I looked at her with my best fake smile and said “Sure, of course I’m ready for that.  I’m in such a great place and I’m confident that I am ready to.. ehh, terminate?”  But in my head my mind was coming up with every worse case scenario that could possibly result from this decision.  What if I stop coming and then I have a major life crisis?  Or what if the only reason I have been doing better is because of this safety net that she has provided me?  Or even worse what if I’m actually crazy and she is just using this whole “termination” excuse to get rid of me? I snapped back out of that fear whirlwind to make sure that my smile continued to stay glued to my apprehensive face as she replied, all too cheerfully if I may add, “Great!  Next week will be our last session.”

NEXT WEEK!  Way to really ease me out of this. I only have a week to think of all the possible issues that could possibly arise in the next 20 or 30 years.  I’m sure there are hundreds of traumatic childhood experiences, repressed memories, and defense mechanisms to work through, right?  I kept circling back to the thought that “I thought we really had something special here and you just want to throw it all away in a WEEK!”  Bitch.  Oh, sorry.  “Yes, yes I’m sooooo ready to move on. I can totally take care of myself,” I replied.

I stepped slowly out of the office that day not knowing how to feel.  I guess that’s how it feels when you are dumped.  As I rode the elevator down three flights, I contemplated the many ways I could change her mind in next week’s session.  Maybe I could fake some family death or tragedy, maybe I could bring up another fight I had with a family member, or maybe I could just get really sick and postpone it one more week.  Yeah, that’s it.  But as I exited the building listening to my own anxious thoughts ruminate about the different self-inflicted possibilities of remaining in therapy.  I finally understood.

She didn’t break up with me.  I had broken up with her.  She had given me this choice since our first session and I had finally chosen it.  Freedom.  My life has always been about the approval and advice of others.  What does he want for my life?  Will she like me if I do this?  What can I do to make them think I’m worthy?  Constant.  No wonder I have anxiety.  Over the past few months (with the help of some medication) I have broken down (although not completely) those destructive cycles and released the anchors from my life.  Accepting that life is a shit show and moving through the shit instead of pretending that I can navigate around it has granted me a freedom beyond words.

So I stopped walking and busted out laughing.  I had finally broken up with the person that helped me find my own freedom.  She was the last person that I was fighting so desperately to seek approval from, but she knew that I didn’t need it anymore.  I still don’t think they should call it termination, but I do think it signals a kind of death.  My old self and ways of operating that I dumped on her and revealed to her die now with this relationship.  I no longer have to be that person.  I am free to live.

So, thanks, to the therapist that dumped me and thanks for letting me dump you.  Because it’s not you, it’s me.