My Sister’s Table is a string of words that has been tucked in my heart’s pocket as a reminder, a personal touchstone, of the capacity I find in women to hold the larger conversation, beyond the illusion of “sides.”
It arose out of a tender, painful conversation that took place between my sister and me, well over a dozen years ago, just after the re-election of Bush. That November, instead of heading across the border from Vermont into Canada, I headed south into the belly of the beast, to the very state accused of rigging the election against Gore (he, who would have prioritized stewardship of the planet upon which we all rely and upon which we are wreaking havoc.)
I arrived in Tampa during the Wal-Mart Superstore explosion which seemed to run right alongside the mainstreaming of extreme Evangelicalism. In this alternate reality, men were still head of the household and women were their helpmates who went to great lengths to look beautiful, every single hour of every single day, while fashioning their homes and their children in much the same way, the latter augmented by the return of the paddle.
Meanwhile, church members not only supported power, privilege and state-sanctioned violence but played such significant roles that one visitor to my sister’s house was dispatched to DC the moment the conflict in Iraq escalated.
I flew a thousand miles south to Florida from Vermont because I was desperate and because my sister invited me. She did so, knowing that I was outspoken against the war, against patriarchy, against spanking, and against violations of women’s bodily autonomy. She did so knowing that I had been exploring paganism since moving to Vermont a decade earlier, and she did so knowing that I would arrive with two un-churched sons, ages 4 and 9, leaving behind their agnostic father to finish building our home.
My boys and I arrived just before Thanksgiving in the hopes of returning to Vermont ahead of the Christmas vacation, but my sister welcomed us without knowing how long we’d be there because we had no place to live until that house was finished.
As soon as I arrived, my sister included me in her inner circle of mothers, nudging them to enroll their homeschooled children with hers in my writing workshop (so that I might earn some cash), assuring her cautious friends that good people lived in Vermont even if they weren’t Believers while I similarly assured my friends back in the Green Mountains that there were decent people among the Evangelicals.
I centered my 5-week, multi-age writing course around two themes: WWJD (What would Jesus do?) and the Gospel according to Luke (which I adored for its lyrical rendition of the Nativity story.)
Before studying theology in high school and at the university (both Catholic institutions), I had been saved as a girl of 8 at the Baptist Church in Colorado where my parents sent me so that they could sleep in on Sunday mornings; which is to say, I knew my bible.
Overall, I did my best to avoid conversations about religion and war while I lived among the Evangelicals though from time to time there were unavoidable skirmishes within my sister’s household, once around spanking, leaving her teen daughter in tears in the kitchen (because I had harshly judged her family), and the other leaving my sister and me in tears as we sat at opposite ends of her long wooden kitchen table after we’d tucked the kids in bed, her 5 and my 2.
My Sister’s Table.
What I recognized then and still treasure to this day, is the tenderness we both held for each other after we released our opposition after I shared what it was to have chosen abortion twice at 16, and she shared what it was to serve in a Crisis Pregnancy Center.
My Sister’s Table comes to me still when encountering women’s capacity to offer presence and compassion despite largely differing views.
Of course, as women, we have so much more in common no matter where we live on this planet or how we vote or pray.
My Sister’s Table
Though the meaning of that touchstone is much larger than a single conversation around choice, I think of it often when I visit my sister, who now lives “back home” in New Jersey where we were born instead of Florida where her first husband was stationed. With all of her children grown, her table is longer than ever in order to accommodate young adults and their partners not to mention our exponentially expanding extended family. Thanksgiving is her family’s favorite holiday and they are known to gather with 20 to 30 to 40+ guests each year.
Last night that table welcomed me alone for a pivotal birthday. While 56 is not traditionally a milestone, it meant that I outlived my beloved grandmother, she who has been the focus of my writing life these 7 years, as I attempt to capture my relationship with her before and after the tragedy that took her life at 55.
Despite our differing world and cultural and personal views, my sister has long been an encourager of my voice even though there are times when my passion and fervor give rise to hurt inside her.
On my drive home, after the beautiful birthday dinner prepared by my sister’s family (at which I was given the honor of sitting at the head of the table), I began spontaneously meditating on the phrase My Sister’s Table first ascribing it to my sister, and then considering if there something more to be harvested from the words.
The writing journeys that I’ve led with women through the chakras for the past several years come to mind as do the conversations I curate on my blogs and Facebook.
I wondered if the two could be married–the journey and the conversation–with My Sister’s Table as a guiding metaphor.
Would this be a physical place, a foundation, a curriculum or is it a larger conception of online work, and what would it offer and how would it be shaped?
There were no answers that night, just as there were no answers between my sister and me when we fought and then listened and then cried at opposite ends of her table in Florida around the topic of women’s choice; but what did happen between my sister and me at her table is that we each opened up space for the other, allowing both things to be true–choice and life, and I think that this is how we move forward, by enlarging our difficult conversations rather than reducing them to fraudulent partisan soundbites.
This quote comes to mind though I can’t place its source.
If you have more than you need build a bigger table – not a higher fence.
And this from Meg Wolitzer’s book, The Female Persuasion:
Sisterhood is about being together with other women in a cause that allows all women to make the individual choices they want. Because as long as women are separate from one another, organized around competition—like in a children’s game where only one person gets to be the princess—then it will be the rare woman who is not in the end narrowed and limited by our society’s idea of what a woman should be.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
The poem continues:
…When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.
For too long, women haven’t had a seat at the table where conversations with high stakes take place.
I think of what I heard Elizabeth Warren say when I saw her in NH last summer:
If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.
The table in my own kitchen, unlike my sister’s, rarely welcomes dinner guests; instead, it’s where I write; and while it’s quite a bit smaller than my sister’s table, and round instead of rectangular, I find it a perfect shape for hosting women’s circles which I began facilitating shortly after our mother’s death, having been introduced to the concept by women friends in Vermont who were exploring traditions beyond the hierarchy so central to patriarchy.
The words of author Jean Shinoda Bolen come to mind, a teacher who I first met in my role as an NGO representative at the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations (where my grandmother dreamed of working) and who I later assisted at Kripalu Yoga and Health Center with her women’s retreat, Artemis, Women’s Circles, and the Sacred Feminine.
Circles are fertile ground for changing our hierarchical, patriarchal culture to one of communication, support, and growth.
I think of Jean’s tiny book, The Millionth Circle, in which I’ve left dozens of page markers, and in which she describes the circle formation as one which metaphorically tips the scales and shifts planetary consciousness.
My Sister’s Table.
Mother Teresa’s words, from Lesser’s Ted Talk, ring out loudly now:
The problem with the world is that we draw the circle of our family too small.