now, then . . .

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I deactivated my Twitter account last week, in part because I have never been able to fully understand how to use it, but mostly because I think it takes more than 240 characters to communicate well with one another. That our politicians have allowed themselves to use it as their primary means of communication is ominous to me because what now passes for public discourse feels a lot like a playground argument during middle school recess (with apologies to middle schoolers).

My point, however, is not to rant against Twitter, though I have a pretty good rant lurking inside me, it seems. I am looking for a way out of our incessant present tense. I want room to move. To think, maybe even to be bored. To miss things, or to find them, rather than being inundated by immediacy on a daily basis.

One of my favorite sites for well put together words is LitHub.com. I like them so much that I get (and read) a daily e-mail digest from them that is full of links to great writing I would probably not know about otherwise. Each newsletter begins with an anniversary of some sort. Here’s one from a couple of weeks ago:

TODAY: In 1926, writer and critic John Berger is born.

Even they can’t stay away from the present tense. John Berger (one of my favorite writers, by the way) WAS born in 1926. He died almost three years ago. His life has come and gone–and it was an amazing life, made richer when we admit, with our words, that it is over. But he is not being born. He is dead.

Most every news outlet speaks only in the present to make it sound immediate because right now is all that matters. It continues to bother me when a reporter claims to be “live at the Capitol” at 11 o’clock at night and the event is long since over. Something doesn’t have to be happening right now for it to matter.

The “tyranny of the now” is a prescient phrase that is not mine. The tsunami of social media, or just media, that never ends makes it all but impossible to get any sense of meaningful context or perspective. It’s the way I feel in a room full of people talking when I have my hearing aids in. All I can hear is noise that I can’t make sense of.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because it is more than one day and because it is centered around the table. I love cooking and eating and being together, and all of those things are in the mix. Over the last several years, I have noticed a necessary prelude of sadness, which happened again this year. Once again, I was mindful of who was not here. I couldn’t call my mother for the recipes I already knew by heart but loved to hear her read again. I was too far away from loved ones who have sat at our table and whom I wished I could feed. One morning this week, I wrote this poem.

a feast of losses

before I can get to thanksgiving
I have to sit at the table of grief
and share a feast of losses

thou preparest a table before me
in the presence of my absences . . .

the table is full of empty chairs
not all dead, just not here
the room is full of memories

what dish that is worth its salt
is not seasoned with sorrow
only empty seats can be filled

take this bread, fill this cup
as often as you do this, remember . . .

I have gained the weight of loss
I am thickened by grief
I am starving for companionship

Immediate and important aren’t synonyms. Taking the time to remember, tell stories (in the past tense), and linger at the table to listen to one another are all subversive acts. Yes, we have much with which to be concerned. Yes, it is crucial that we pay attention. And it takes more than seeing something “live” for us to understand its significance. It is the melody of memory, or perhaps I should say the harmony that the past sings alongside the melody of the present tense, that gives the present depth and meaning.

I know I’m going to miss some things by not checking Twitter, but I want to learn (again) how to sit down without pulling out my phone, how to be bored, how to be observant, how to attend to those around me, how to sing along with an old song.

If you need me, I’ll be in the kitchen. There’s a place at the table with your name on it.

Peace,
Milton

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Three years ago my nephew, Sean, was not at our table. This year my niece, Heather, was not at our table. It hurt. But we had a day full of memories and they pushed us through the day. We are so grateful for them and all others who have passed on and left us with a warm and grateful heart.

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  2. Your poem brings to mind Naomi Shihab Nye’s words:
    “Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
    you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.”

    Holidays are bittersweet for me these days, too. Lots of “empty chairs,” even when the house is full.

    I still make your Maple Glazed Brussels Sprouts recipe (from a blog post back in 2006) and they’re always a hit. Even with people who are convinced they won’t like them. 😉

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  3. Your pies!! What fun to have made so many of so many kinds!! We had pecan and pumpkin which were plenty for our small crowd. Though someone just came in the back door to ask if we happened to have a piece of pecan pie still lurking about!

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