In the middle of a Potbelly restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky, sits a vintage potbelly stove, with a plaque reading: “For many years the Potbelly Stove warmed millions of homes…Families had their meals around the stove. Some read by its light. It is a symbol of warmth, dependability, family, and fun.”
Sounds ideal. And, I confess, I approach the dinner table every night with the same naïve optimism.
Until the kids see the salmon.
Or the spinach. Or the Brussels sprouts. Or anything they haven’t seen before.
Then, the dinner table quits feeling like a potbelly stove. In fact, it quits feeling like a dinner table altogether, and it starts feeling like a three-ring circus—or, rather, a three-kid circus:
Oldest Son smells the salmon from the couch. Somewhere in his brain is a switch—the smell of fish makes him deaf and trips a hinge on his neck, dropping his nose even deeper into his book. He appears catatonic.
Meanwhile, Middle Son walks toward the table, sees the salmon in the distance, and it instantly and inexplicably triggers a bowel movement. He declares loudly, “I have to go poop!” Clever boy. How can a parent veto that?
Youngest Daughter starts out beautifully. She intuitively knows she can get approval by pleasing everyone, so she bounces to the table and climbs into her booster seat.
Fortunately, Oldest Son’s ears can be turned back on. Polite requests don’t work. Threats, consequences, and my “serious” tone of voice magically restore his hearing. He drags himself to the table like he’s carrying a cross.
And, fortunately, little legs can only sit on a toilet for so long before a kid goes numb from the waist down. So Middle Son eventually appears, approaching the table like it’s a haunted house.
Now we’re all present, but Youngest Daughter has already begun her nightly negotiations. She’s Hillary Clinton in a Hello Kitty t-shirt.
“How much do I have to eat to get dessert?”
“All of it.”
I worry about her memory, because she always seems surprised by this answer, even though we went through the exact same routine only twenty-four hours earlier. And, unfortunately, she has her own internal switch—our answer reliably triggers her tear ducts and shuts off all capacity for communication and reason.
Now Middle Son, who can sit like a statue for hours in front of a movie, can’t stop wriggling in his seat—gravity eventually wins, and he goes tumbling from his chair. His wounded cries are added to Youngest Daughter’s plaintive wails.
Which is usually when Oldest Son begins to share every detail of his day. Something we would have welcomed ten minutes ago. But now it sounds a lot like a last straw.
I confess: somewhere in the midst of the circus, anger begins to happen somewhere in the midst of me—it says my job is to control them and to punish them until the salmon is gone. If the potbelly stove was a place of family tranquility, I have a feeling it’s because dad scared the hell out of any kid who was inconvenient. I could achieve the order I want with an iron fist or a screaming voice, but at what cost?
At the cost of the very peace I seek.
And, I confess: a part of me just wants it to be over. And I don’t mean over for the night—I mean over forever. I start to wish I could hit a fast forward button and skip over all these complicated, frustrating years.
Yet, I confess, when the house has become empty and still, and my wife and I are looking at each other over a quiet dinner of salmon, that moment won’t be good enough, either—we’ll want it all back. Eckhart Tolle says stress is what happens when we want to be in a different moment, a different place, or a different circumstance. And, sitting at the dinner table, I know he’s right.
So, I have to confess: the problem at the dinner table isn’t my kids—it’s me.
My kids are just being kids. But I want them to be something else—adults or robots or Stepford Children. I want a different moment. I want a different circumstance. I want, I want, I want.
In the end, the dinner table isn’t a potbelly stove or a circus: the dinner table is an altar—a sacred place where we learn to sacrifice a little more of me and to embrace a little more of us, where we learn to let go of what we want and embrace what is, where we die to small wishes so we can awaken to big gifts.
And, in the end, a dinner table is just one more altar in a world full of them.
A Sacred Space
The slow line at the supermarket
or every motorist on the road
or the lover we can’t change
or the toxic boss
or the business that is failing
or people who won’t apologize
or the doubt that won’t leave us
or the spouse who did leave us
or the diagnosis
or the illness
or the wounds that won’t heal
or the scars that remain
or the nagging depression
or the raging anxiety
or a kid’s bedtime
or a kid’s bath time
or every forgotten space between all the moments of punctuated joy and sorrow.
Every moment is an altar—a sacred space in which accepting what is changes who we are.
When that happens, dinner table tears become slippery diamonds on rosy cheeks and every detail of a kid’s day is unearthed treasure and the mind quiets and the heart settles into the mess that is life.
And the sweet irony is this: the quiet mind and the settled heart are what we wanted all along.
I confess: I don’t usually find the sacred space in the midst of a salmon rebellion. But I’ll have another chance. Tonight. At the dinner table.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
Connect with Kelly
Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.