Life Around a Table: Part Three

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Clang, clang, clang. The familiar noise rang through the converted convent on S. Seeley Ave. Clang clang clang. The dinner bell: dilapidated from many years of Amate House volunteers beckoning each other to the dinner table.

Slowly all 12 of us would emerge from our post-work activities and gather around a splintered, worn table.  We called it a table, but in reality it was three tables.  Three rectangles pushed together.  It was a makeshift eating arrangement, but most things were makeshift in our lives that year.

After a few minutes of conversation while awkwardly standing in a large circle, which encompassed this beloved table, we clasped each other’s hands and blessed the food.  This was our routine and we never strayed from it.  With a glorious announcement of what the two cooks for the night had prepared for us, we all eagerly rushed into our often crowded kitchen and returned to our seats with our mismatched plates filled to capacity.

I’ve always wondered what this scene would look like from a passerby wandering down the streets of McKinley Park.  Twelve people around a over-sized table talking rather loudly to each about anything you could imagine.  When I imagine such a passerby peering into our dimly lit dining room, I usually imagine them thinking: wow, what a crazy bunch. There’s too many of them to be a family.  I wonder what they are all doing there? 

Ah, but see, they would be mistaken.  We were a family. A crazy family crowded around a huge, unattractive group of tables with a unusual-looking Swan/Santa object standing in as the centerpiece.  We were a family and this was our table.

The food on our table never lasted too long, especially if it was what we affectionately called a “solidarity meal,” which usually meant the cooks had miscalculated the correct portions for a group of twelve and everyone better be happy with what they have, goddammit. But we always had more than enough.

See, the food never lasted too long, but we didn’t come to the table for the food.  No, this table was so much more than a holder of meals and physical sustenance.  We came to the table for each other.  We came to the table to be reunited and re-centered every evening.  We came to the table to lift each other up, challenge each other, and truly know each other.  We came to the table for communion.

We made this table our sacred place.  We laughed, cried, shared, fought, debated, disagreed, rejoiced, and shouted around this table.  More than anything this table represented our lives together.  I remember many nights when I rushed through the front door at 7:30 after being called a motherf… I’ll let you fill in the rest… by one of the teenagers at my worksite or after a day when every kid decided to dump their “hot chips,” which is an enticing combination of Flaming Hot Cheetos and bagged nacho cheese, on the library carpet or a day when the guys had made yet another hole in the Swiss-cheese-like drywall with their soccer antics. I remember many nights when the last place I wanted to be was around a twelve person table.

But I came to the table.  Those nights, I came to the table with the worst attitude.  Those nights, I came to the table in hopes of finishing my food as quickly as possible so that I could escape to my room for the rest of the evening.  Those nights, I came to the table exhausted, burnt out, defeated, and frustrated.  Those nights, I probably didn’t deserve to come to that sacred table.

Yet despite my greatest efforts to remain in a terrible, self-pitying mood, something always happened.  To this day I’m still not sure how, but it happened after every crappy day.  I would come to the table miserable and leave in a much different place.  Let’s get this straight, though, this table had no special powers that zapped bad moods out of you after a “Bless Us Oh Lord.”  No.  Usually I would bring my crappy day to the table and like any normal human being try to spread my crappy day to others…I’d complain about the kids, I’d be a little snippy when the Costco-size bucket of butter took a few minutes too long to get to my side of the table, I’d ignore the glorious details of my housemates’ days.

See that would only last so long, though, because I would always realize that I could never disrupt the joy that lived constantly around this table.  When four of us had bad days, there were eight others to remind us of ourselves.  To remind us of the strength that we all had, to remind us of the importance of what we were doing, to tell their own stories of victory and encouragement from their day.  We were never alone. We were never alone in our misery or our triumph.  And that’s what we learned around the table.

While every night was sacred around that chipped and uneven table, Thursdays seemed to hold an even deeper significance.  I learned everything that I now know and believe about communion around that table on Thursday nights.  Thankful Thursday began the first week we started our year in Amate House.  We would take turns sharing a person, event, or story that we were thankful for that week.  We shared everything from supportive families to health to cheese pizza.  And every week we would pause in a not-so-silent meditation around this table.

Our thankfulness grew throughout the night since Thankful Thursday also happened to be Thursday wine nights.  We would enjoy our community meal with boatloads of cheap red and white wine.   Every Thursday was our celebration. Every Thursday we paused to remember that there is always something to celebrate, to be grateful for, to drink to.  We celebrated each other.  We celebrated our life around the table.  We celebrated together. We celebrated community.

Each day we would travel to our respective work sites.  Bearing the weight of social injustice, non-profit dysfunction and the suffering of the individuals we served on our own.  But we always did so with the hopeful knowledge that each evening we would share that burden together around our table.  No matter the defeats or victories of the day, the table was a constant reminder.  A reminder that we are in this together.  A reminder that we will all join in communion once again.  A reminder that we are one crazy, huge, dysfunctional family that shouts, cries, laughs, and shares with each other.   A reminder that when ever the twelve of us gather around this table, life is sacred and our community is one.


 

If you missed the first two posts of this blog series, you can find them here:

https://mackenseycarter.com/2014/06/07/life-around-a-table-part-two/

https://mackenseycarter.com/2014/06/05/life-around-a-table-part-one/

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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/

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.