The Kitchen Table Collective

I am flirting with the idea of going back to school. I love being a student and plan to be one for the rest of my life. There are so many things we take for granted while in college, because we’re too young to appreciate them: living in a well manicured garden, the library, the time to dive deep. But the greatest thing I took for granted was having professors. No matter where I live, however beautiful my surroundings or substantial the archives, I will not come into daily contact with experts in their field who are committed to teaching me what I do not know. And for the next few decades, I will not have the time I once had to sink into the material.

I make up for it in books, as best as I can. So when my friend Sarah approached me about  creating self-directed assignments and having checkpoints we could keep each other accountable with, I got really excited. We create two assignments for ourselves, one centering on something we are currently passionate about. Creativity can take you off on tangents, and we want to go with it when it does. The second assignment centers on something that is challenging to us. The third assignment we create for each other. It centers on an area of conviction. We know one another well and can spot things that are a bit off or that could be really fantastic if considered. This is a kind way for us to sharpen one another by saying, “Here is something I see. Dig in and get to the bottom of it. I am rooting for you.”

This is our first semester, and I am already seeing such fruit from this work. My assignments involve Theodore Roosevelt, letter writing from different voices and periods of time, assembling a group of people to critique selected poems and revising them accordingly, and journaling several times as I write a poem about a theology I believe with great difficulty. Both my challenge and conviction assignments have me well outside of comfort: asking people for help, deep vulnerability as I wrestle with a belief, and receiving good criticism of my work and pushing myself to make it better. My passion assignment rightly has me obsessed, curious, and imaginative. I am learning with each one and enjoying every moment of it.

My kitchen table is one of the few pieces of furniture in the house that I got just as I wanted it. A custom order- round, gray, simple yet varied. It is a place I gather with others, a place I find nourishment, a place where I’m pushed to my limit. It’s a place where ideas are begun, questions are asked, a place where people process their lives together. So Sarah’s name for our little enterprise, “The Kitchen Table Collective,” fit perfectly. If you live here in Fort Worth, send me a message and join us next semester. If you don’t and you want something like this, sit down at your own kitchen table, gather your people, and start a collective of your own. There are no professors here (I wish there were!), but we make the most of it. A mind is always better with another.

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The Silent Years

I have always needed and loved to write. The process of a tiny thought ruminating, growing, and then hungering for expression. Taking up space in me until the floodgate opens and words gush like water. And then I had a baby. Some of the thoughts changed but they still underwent the process. And then I had another….and another. Over the course of five years, I stopped writing despite my best efforts. Whether the thoughts stopped or I no longer had the ability to process them, or I lacked the time to express them- likely some combination of the three- I’m not sure why it happened. But those years, my time of silence, was a season. And just as I had stopped writing despite my effort to keep at it, I also started writing again despite an effort to suppress.

We knew Eloise would be our last baby. She turned two, and I reflected that if our schedule had continued, I would be preparing to bring home another one- but I wasn’t. I was done. I had three beautiful girls. My oldest had just entered Kindergarten and my youngest was growing in independence- two going on 20. Third children…they grow up so much faster. My life began to ease, and I found myself with some time. Enough anyway to read- something, anything!- other than children’s books on repeat.

You readers, you know. You begin to read, your mind is being filled and yet there is always more space for response. And the better you read, the better the thoughts are that fill the space created. Once that happened, the thoughts did what they do: they grew, they hungered, they demanded to be released. Against every effort, against my defiance, they persisted. In December I succumbed. The need to write overpowered the need to rest, in fact it became a kind of rest. I created this blog, needing to break away in format and content from my old one. I needed it to be a place where I was a person- a whole person- and not just a mom. Where thought could exist outside my home.

Why did I resist? That thought is still soaking. It’s not ready to be wrung out. No doubt fear lurks in the water. Some thoughts you don’t want to grow; you are afraid to express. Some day, when I’m braver, when I understand it more myself, those thoughts can find their way out. Because after all, thoughts are just thoughts. They are not truth. But when you let them out into the light of day, you can see them for what they are. The truth or the lies they contain become discernible to you- and to everyone else.

In that, I’m learning to let go of needing to be right all the time. There is a journey in discovering what is true. We never start there. We are bent, all of us, to believe lies. And once discovered, Truth is no shallow pool. We wade in, slowly, pushing under, until we’re fathoms below, if we ever get that far. Maria Popova, on my favorite blog wrote this about Amiri Baraka, and it brought me so much freedom to speak- to speak even what I doubt, even what I fear, even what I struggle with:

Any human being who is fully alive and awake to the world has a duty to be continually changing her or his opinions, always evolving, like the universe itself, toward greater complexity. To judge who a person “Is” on the basis of their views at a particular point in time is to deny them the dignity of continual being, for at any given moment we are only ever seeing a static slice of the person’s dynamic becoming, which stretches across the evolving context of an entire lifetime.

While I probably don’t believe this in the same way Maria does, I do believe we are all moving in a direction. We are never stagnant; we are never still. We live in a current. For me to be able to write something not as Truth, but as Thought or Battle or Attempt, gives me the freedom to be wrong, and the courage to be humble.

The Glass Castle

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Now here is a book! This memoir shocked the hell out of me, despite hearing from several people years ago that it needed to be read. I finally did it so I can go see the movie- currently in theaters. Two things shocked me: it should have been heartbreaking, and I should have hated her parents. What could have been agonizing to read simply wasn’t. Let me give you an example- sandwiched in between talk of scorpions and Gila monsters and cats is this:

A month after we moved to Midland, Juju got bitten by a rattlesnake and died. We buried him near the Joshua tree. It was practically the only time I ever saw Brian cry. But we had plenty of cats to keep us company.

Lest you think Juju is one of the cats, it is her little brother. And here’s the surprise- despite the matter-of-fact way she presents horrific things in this book, the reader still feels the full effect of what has happened. I got to the end of that sentence above, and though it was in the middle of a paragraph, I stopped dead in my tracks and wept with Brian. And I wept all the more for the lack of tears in the story. Maybe she had to do it this way- I’m not sure I could have endured if she had not. Maybe she couldn’t have either.

The same was the case with her parents. She was gracious. She shared the awful, but she shared the beautiful too. She had come to a point of accepting all that they were, neither good nor terrible only, but a mixture of both. Despite my vigorous efforts, I enjoyed her dad. I went back and forth between anger and wonder with him….just as she did.

It is an incredible story incredibly shared.

Attempts for Dreams: A Trade of Regret

I lost you as a game of chess
waged on a battlefield
square patches of dark and light.
In the end they blurred to gray mist.
Oh chess, my downfall!
Where any game safely played
is never won.
You, my Queen,
I surrounded with pawns
unwilling to test our limitations.
I didn’t want to know them.

You would not be risked,
not even for victory.
Never underestimate the comfort
of untried possibility.

But now, having lost so
slowly, so
inevitably
I have come to think it would have been better
losing you in a sudden stab at glory!

A Rusted History

I spent last week at the farm. Each morning began with making my way through town, trading the softball fields for corn fields. Every now and then there would be livestock, but mostly field after field after rolling field of corn, sometimes bean. The farmers were out planting, so though the first day looked like an abandoned mess of dead stalks, by the end of the week each field bore signs of purpose and hope with their uniform rows. When I return in summer, the brown soil landscape will be green and spurting “knee high by Fourth of July” as my grandma says. As I turn from the paved road to the gravel one, I pull over. I can see my destination in the distance, which means they can see me. So I stop, take some deep breaths, before going on.  I drive these familiar roads like they are maps of my heart. I drive with windows down, cool morning breeze blowing my hair, rock pounding underneath, dust billowing up behind me, as if making the declaration, “Here she comes!” I pass lines of evergreen from memory. I pass the cemetery. I crest each hill with the tension of not seeing down the other side. I drive free, the only way you can in a car that isn’t yours but is as old as your license: I drive with no assumptions, and when I arrive in the gravel driveway, I put it in park and turn it off with grateful thanks.

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This place. Its field of dandelions: wishes or weeds? This place is both. As I walk the grounds in morning dew, memories flood me, bringing a confusing concoction of emotions. Every breath takes in youth, wonder, happiness; every exhale anger and betrayal and shame. I feel them all at once. I am a patchwork quilt. So my steps are slow and my breathing regulated, letting things sit in me just as they are. Letting these antitheses exist in me side by side. Letting go of being able to categorize each memory, each person, each part of me. I let them sit and I listen to the birds.

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I reach the top of a neighboring hill and look down. It is an empty shell of a place from long ago. Its fields sold, to be toiled and cultivated by other hands. The animals are gone- the barn housing only a riding lawnmower, old hay, broken glass, a creature in the back corner that was too shy to show himself to me. The hen house has broken windows, the clothes line is bare, the garden, a wasteland. I pass areas unmowed that hold rusted tractor equipment and burn piles, and I feel sorrow over the passing of this place, like the death of my childhood. I mourn as if the land was an appendage of my own body.

How did this place come to mean so much to me?  I did not grow up here. I grew up a thousand miles south where the weather is warmer and “everything is bigger,” even though the trees are not. My parents were born here- my dad growing up in this very house. This is where my family, as I knew it, began. We made trips- once, sometimes twice a year- back to my grandparents’ farm. When I was eight, I started flying here alone, to spend a week or so with them every summer. I adored everything about the farm: the smell of the animals, the reaping of what was sown, the sun shining off tall green stalks, grass blowing in the wind like waves across an ocean. The hymns, the strawberry jam, creaky stairwells, carpet from the 70s. It was the essence of summer, the essence of childhood. Each day was a wide open door: freedom and adventure beckoning me to bound through the threshold.

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Each day I walked this land alone, growing more and more at peace in the conglomeration of all it represents. I could close my eyes in the barn and breathe in my grandpa, nearly see him out in the distance working the land. I could stand at the kitchen sink, imagining my grandma bent in the garden looking up and calling, “Kati! Come see this cucumber!” I sit at their headstones and simply say, “I loved you. And I loved this place….except when I hated it. But you are what made it beautiful.” On my last day, before heading to the airport, feeling the suffocation of the city approaching, I took one last turn about the place and said goodbye.

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There is only one man
In the world I would follow
Into a corn field

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We’ve so much to say
That words could never convey
So we speak volumes
(without them)

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I’ll walk this gravel road with you
all the way to
the cemetery

Surprised by Oxford: A Memoir

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As I started planning intentionally for 2017 (which I do every December using Powersheets) I made a list of non-fiction books I wanted to read. I tend to trudge slowly through non-fiction, so when I saw the size of this book, I gave myself two months to read it. That was unnecessary. I should know better when it comes to memoirs and biographies. The story is always what drives me. And there’s a story here- a good one.

The book follows Carolyn’s first year at Oxford. She arrives lost, literally and figuratively. It’s about her finding her way, and The Way. I resonated with Carolyn. As I read I both sympathized with her struggle and was frustrated by her obstinacy (and my own?) Everything came back to me as I saw my younger self in her, trying to reconcile her past with truth. The reality of what she’s seen with the reality of what is unseen.

It doesn’t hurt that I got to live vicariously through her. Oh Oxford, how I long to be in your walls! My friend Sarah read this with me, and as we laughed about our passion and excitement for learning and with a small dose of wanting to relive our younger days, she said, “Listen….we can’t go to Hogwarts. But, surely, we could do a mini-term at Oxford.”

On March 24, I’ll be attending a lecture given by Carolyn: “Of Books and Babes: the Power of Story in Forming Identity.” If you are in Fort Worth and want to attend with me, let me know! But read it first….you’ll be glad you did.