A Vision for 20/20~My Sister’s Table

My Sister’s Table, Thanksgiving 2019.

December 2019

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.

I think of Elizabeth Lesser’s voice (who I met when I assisted a writing workshop at Omega) and her suggestion to Take “the Other” to Lunch in her 2010 Ted Talk   where she quotes Rumi,

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.
My Table.
Our 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.

To Your (Narrative) Health in 2020!

Full Moon Greetings!
The First Full Moon of the New Decade!!

After a decade leading women in writing journeys through the chakras (and leading yoga, dance, retreats & even business workshops through the chakras), I went dormant for the better part of 2019 without knowing why.

But now it all makes sense. Hindsight 20/20.

Instead of leading, I’ve been learning, immersed in the exploration of Narrative Medicine, curious about the intersection of medicine and writing since unlike my father, grandfather, and great-grandparents, it’s the pen that’s chosen me instead of the knife.

Alas, after assisting a half-dozen programs focused on the healing power of narrative (see list at the bottom of this page), I’m still not sure what Narrative Medicine is. I suppose this isn’t entirely a bad thing, as it once took two years of focused study and application to articulate an understanding of Non-Violent Communication.

Some things are that big (and worthy.)

What I have gleaned in the company of leading thinkers, including the originator of the field of Narrative Medicine, Rita Charon, and fellow giants from the field Carol Gilligan and Paul Browde, not to mention my regular assists with two women who over time I think on as friends, scientist/mystic Joan Borysenko and memoir writer Dani Shapiro, is a greater understanding of what makes my own writing journeys through the chakras tick,  ie. the brain science behind the alchemy of witness, presence and the page.

It’s funny to arrive at an understanding of the writing journeys I lead only after the fact, glean the how, why, and what of it now after experiencing it first-hand and through feedback from participants.

When I first started, I imagined the writing journey a one-time thing, but then some participants asked for more, returning again and again, and so I followed their energy and the energy of the journey instead of my ideas about what it was or wasn’t.

One such long-time participant is a business leader who works internationally and yet sets aside time in her travels to write and read and lean into other’s voices.

The careful articulation of her experience has enlarged my understanding again and again:

I keep returning to the journey because I love what bubbles up.

I am no longer writing for an audience. I am writing for me, to explore and unearth what wants to be said. I spend very little time analyzing- I just take the prompts and write whatever comes.   I now LOVE my words. Unedited. Raw and powerful.  Vulnerable and honest. Poetic.

Every time, I surprise myself.

I am writing into the present moment of my life – a zooming in on what currents are affecting the course of my life…… And I play with new ways of looking at my life… in any direction that moves me.

…With women who have my back, who empathize with whatever my journey is, with women who are also being vulnerable.  Total support.

Like floating on water, a woman’s womb that nurtures and feeds the soul…

New and returning journeyers echo these refrains, sometimes citing revelations that they have never spoken or understandings that they have never gleaned, or forgiveness they have never felt, or self-love they have never known (my favorite!) or a sense of community they have never experienced (which grieves me.)

Their feedback often surprises and unnerves me, but fortunately, as I age, I don’t need to understand everything or take it personally so even with my newfound understanding of the science behind these journeys, what truly matters is the journey itself and the journeyers who make magic together every. single. time.

That magic is uniquely shaped by those who gather on any specific journey, but it always feels the same–awe and wonder and soul-stopping.

Sometimes the journey points the way backward for an individual, unearthing truths, other times it points forward, toward endings or new directions or greater understandings.

I like how the author Christina Baldwin speaks of personal writing:

Life hangs on a narrative thread. This thread is a braid of stories that inform us about who we are, and where we come from, and where we might go. The thread is slender but strong: we trust it to hold us and allow us to swing over the edge of the known into the future we dream in words.

For me what has always been true of writing since I first cracked open a dusty journal in my bedroom above the garage when I was a girl of 18 and everything I knew was falling apart, is what I heard spoken at a recent Poetry as Narrative Medicine program with Lisa Weinert and Holly Wren:

Writing contains the chaos of my creative mind.

My friend Dani Shapiro has been known to say that writing saved her, and perhaps that’s true for me too.

Writing saved me as a girl of 18 and then overtook me and spit me out and swallowed me whole while taking me on adventures that continue to unfold.

May it be so.

Here’s to shaping healthier narratives for 2020, particularly for this nation and our global community and planet.

Yours on the page,

Kelly Salasin
January 10, 2020

On the First Full Moon of the New Decade!

United Nations

2019 Narrative Program Study
(some of the programs/presenters I assisted at Kripalu this past year of learning instead of leading):

Radical Listening Narrative Medicine for a Polarized World
, Rita Charon, Carol Gilligan, Paul Browde and more.

Narrative Healing Unlock the Power of Storytelling, Lisa Weinert, Jamia Wilson,  Ethan Nichtern and more…

Poetry as Integrative Medicine Narrative Healing, Lisa Weinert & Holly Wren Spaulding

The Stories We Carry Meditation and Writing, Dani Shapiro

Spirituality, Neuroscience, and Narrative Becoming Fully Human, (and upcoming in 2020: The Spiritual Art of Memoir.) Joan Borysenko

Radical Acceptance Healing and Freeing our Hearts,
Tara Brach

Bonus: Each year I return as an NGO representative at the annual Commission on the Status of Women, at the United Nations; to help shape a new narrative for the world!