One of my jobs as a kid in a family of five was to set the table. And it was a job I actually liked. A placemat for each of us. Fork to the left. Knife and spoon to the right. Napkin under the fork. And when it was done there was a symmetry and orderliness across the table that appealed to me.
I still set the table for each meal. Cloth placemats. Cutlery in the right places. Napkins. It’s more than what appealed to me as a kid. I understand Mom was civilizing us, preparing us, more knowing how to dine, not just eat.
As a kid I was both impulsive and cautious. I was both outgoing and shy. I was brave and cowardly. I think I was pretty normal! But I think the most important thing I did was learn to take pen in hand [sigh, there were not computers, or tablets] and write what I wanted and how I wanted to get there. I did that through lists and calculations.
My goals have always been more short-term. Like that summer when I was eleven and babysat for the lady across the street who had two kids, girls five and seven. It was afternoon babysitting while she cleaned the house, or ironed or when around the corner to the grocery store. I got a whopping twenty-five cents an hour. After I got my first seventy five cents, I sat down and figured out that by the end of the summer, subtracting normal expenses like buying candy, I could come out with eleven dollars and thirty five cents. I don’t remember what I wanted to do with that money, but I do remember the amount because my dad teased me about it for years. I do mean years!
Long term planning is not my way. I am more into serendipity. I believe in the maxim; Make plans, God laughs, mostly because I paid attention as a kid and saw it in action. So when a recruiter would ask where I saw myself in five years or ten years would draw a blank. Eventually I came up with an answer; There are no perfect jobs, no perfect paths, only golden opportunities to move ahead in whatever direction that took me.
Finding that direction, using ‘setting the table’ as a metaphor for life, is not a bad one. When you set the table you are preparing a place to dine, maybe with family, maybe with friends. A set table is welcoming. Most importantly it is easy to add or subtract a place setting. You can make them simple for a small family dinner. Or elaborate for a wedding, Christmas or Easter celebration.
So where am I going with this? After a wonderful short story workshop through Guppies facilitated by the very prolific Simon Wood, I realized that for me, ‘setting the table’ is how I get to my characters. Forks, knives, spoons, placemats, napkins are really the quirks, strengths and weaknesses of the character laid out for me. The symmetry and orderliness comes in the blending.
I always start my stories with how I want them to finish. The very cool part of is that no matter how meticulous I am, that ending can change. I like that serendipity. I think it is only possible because of the symmetry and orderliness of setting the table in the beginning.
Photo: Cruising the Dnipro River, Ukraine. Breakfast 9/20/2006.