Perhaps the World Ends Here

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

~Joy Harjo

Love at the Table: A Reflection

Fifteen years and one day ago, I took the day off from work for my 32nd birthday. I decided to spend some time checking out a small consignment shop in a local neighborhood that offered a collection of antiques and oddities that had caught my eye in the days before. The shop was surprisingly large inside, but it was packed with furniture and tchotchkes.

And it was there in the back room of that store where I found it: my dream table. 

Who has a dream table, you might ask? Well, I do. In my early 30s, I had discovered that I had a particular affection for French Country antiques that I could never afford but that made my little heart flutter every time I saw a rustic metal bench or milk-painted armoire. But it was the worn, honey-colored, antique wood farm tables with turned legs that were my favorite and made my heart ache with yearning every time I saw one. Unfortunately the $1200-$1500 price tag left that dream right where I found it, in the window of the European Country Antiques store in the fancy part of town.

But on that day—on the occasion of my 32nd birthday—I found my dream honey-colored, antique wood French farm table in this little consignment shop in the less fancy part of town and it was everything I wanted. Everything I hoped for. Everything I never thought I’d ever have until I was very old—at least 47—but here it was and it only cost $350. Granted, this was still a lot of money for a YUPPIE DINK like me—as the 1980s kids say—but here it was. And I could afford it. So I bought it.

But I didn’t just buy a table that day. I bought an idea. A hope. A vision. I bought a place to serve my family meals, a place for gathering and entertaining my friends and family, a place to play Uno or Bananagrams. A place to laugh or cry or laugh so hard you cry. A place to do school work or even a place to work on my laptop so I could sit in front of the one air conditioner in my house.

Because good furniture is rarely ever really just a piece of furniture. It’s an expectation or invitation. It’s a support for our tired bodies or a vessel for holding our precious things. It’s a container for our everyday lives or it’s a doorway to another time, place, or fantasy. In CS Lewis’s “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe,” The wardrobe was a literal portal to Narnia. And every night when we go to sleep in our beds, we are transported to other times, other worlds, other versions of ourselves. And every time we sit at a table, we are committing to nourishing ourselves not only physically but mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually.

I have so many memories of “real life” happening at a table. 

Growing up we had two benches on either side of our kitchen table and I remember nestling myself safe and warm in between two adults—then leaning against my mom as I grew tired from listening to them banter and laugh for what felt like hours. (And probably was.)

I remember sitting at my Aunt’s dining room table and feeling a soft panic start to rise, along with a scowling defiance, as she told me I couldn’t get up until I ate the total of 4 green beans she had put on my plate that were now lying there cold and limp. Alas! The betrayal of my favorite aunt!

I remember sitting at my stepmother’s enormous table in her eerie darkwood dining room, staring skeptically at the piece of “tuna fish” sitting on the plate in front of me that looked suspiciously like ew “salmon,” careful not to put my elbows on the table for fear of having to put 10 cents in the delightfully-misspelled “moeny box” because frankly I just did not have that kind of money for bad manners.

I remember singing at the table, praying at the table, decorating Easter eggs at the table, and I even remember stealing wine from everyone at the table until I got drunk and threw up on the carpet right in front of the bathroom. Moment after moment. Memory after memory. Big and small. Carved like letters on the tabletop of life.

Jessica wuz here.

We all have memories of being, living, laughing, studying, eating, praying, talking, meeting at the table—our wholly human memories that over time become profoundly holy parts of this human-being-ness. Tables are central to our everyday human life but they are also central to our exceptional human experiences. The meaning and importance of tables is universal and it is timeless. In fact, tables are so important in both these ordinary and exceptional human lives that they even hold significant spiritual meaning and importance in nearly every major wisdom tradition.

For instance, there are no fewer than 76 verses in the Bible that refer to or are centered on tables.

In the Old Testament—Exodus 37:10—God gives very specific and detailed instructions on how to build a table of acacia wood—so detailed in fact it’s no wonder his son became a carpenter. In this case, this ornate table trimmed in gold is shared as a symbol of God’s presence with and provision for His people. The table and its trappings demonstrated that God was ever with them, meeting their needs.

In the New Testament, the purpose and goal of meeting at the table is really no different. In the Book of Luke, for example, Jesus dines with the enemy at a table—in this case a tax collector—receiving him as a human worth saving from the evils of tax collection, and gives him an invitation to become one of his disciples. And of course, quite famously, Jesus shares his last meal at a table with his disciples before he is arrested—offering comfort to those who follow him even while fully knowing the tragedy of his future and fate. Verse after verse, Jesus meets people at the table and verse after verse, the true spiritual meaning and symbolism of the table is highlighted as a place of welcome, of comfort, of peace, and of equality.

As you might infer from God’s elaborate instructions in the Old Testament, the table is also a central symbol in Judaism, if not even more so than in Christianity.

In Judaism, the table itself has historically been considered the center of the Jewish home. And, perhaps because of their kosher dietary laws, it has been central to Jewish life particularly up until the Reform movement in the 19th century. But even now, with the world and the religious landscape changing so much in the last 200 years, Shabbat, or the Jewish Sabbath, is typically honored and celebrated at the dinner table. Shabbat takes place on Friday night, recounting God’s rest following 6 days of creation, and it is an important and holy ritual for those that observe it—however they choose to observe it. Typically, though, the Shabbat table is dressed in honor of the Holy Temple, which is considered the most sacred site of the Jewish faith. Because in the outer chamber of the Holy Temple stood the very acacia table, dressed in all its gold and glory, that is described in Exodus 37:10.

The meaning and symbolism of tables continues across traditions from west to east. 

In Islam, it is said the Prophet Mohammed never ate at a “high table.” To do so was a sign of luxury and as a sign of his humility, the Prophet gave up the comfort of dining at a high table in order to receive the comforts and rewards of the abiding world.

And in Buddhism, the “table” is “altar”: holding symbols of Buddha’s enlightened body, spirit, and mind as reminders for us to develop those qualities in ourselves. Objects of veneration and devotion. Offerings to our ancestors. Offerings made in gratitude, made to accumulate merit and increase and reinforcing our generosity of spirit.

The table, its symbolism, and its significance to our individual and collective physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual lives is universal and timeless across cultures, across religions and wisdom traditions, all around the world.

So no. I wasn’t just buying my dream honey-colored, antique wood, French farm table that day. 

I was buying an idea. A hope. A vision. I was buying a place to eat. To pray. To negotiate peace treaties. To welcome strangers who eventually become friends. To mourn friends who will eventually become strangers. I was buying a place to offer comfort and kindness. I was buying a manual gaming platform, a homework station, and a forbidden place for the cat to sit.

I was buying a buffet. An altar. A place to puzzle and plan.

I was buying a place to serve holiday dinners, birthday parties, and family celebrations.  To serve French cheeses and baguettes. Home-made pizzas, Sunday brunches, and St. Patrick’s Day Praties.

And while the meaning and symbolism of the table is universal and timeless, we all bring different things to our different tables. Different rituals, expectations, hopes, visions, ideas, and dreams. We all serve different purposes, people, ideas, and cuisines at these different tables.

But no matter what you bring to the table—be it laughter, curiosity, sadness, frustration, or doubt—and no matter what you serve—be it Mexican, Thai, Indian, Italian, or Ethiopian—may you also always, always bring kindness to the table and may you also always, always serve love.

What’s on your Table? A Community Invitation

In addition to its literal and symbolic role in our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual nourishment, the table also holds metaphoric significance in our culture and language, particularly when it comes to negotiations and meeting places. We put a proposal on the table or take it off. We drink someone under the table or in an act of cunning duplicity, we turn the tables. If we are wise, we also give marginalized communities a place at the table as an offer of peace and respect.

Recently I was working with a therapist who deepened into the table’s metaphoric power where he suggested we could view our relationships themselves as a table. He shared that when in relationship with another person, we don’t want it to be you vs. me, winner vs. loser, but rather that together we  imagine our relationship as a third, neutral space where we place what we want from our relationship on this metaphorical table that sits between us.

When you consider your most important relationships and the different roles you play in your various relationships, what would you put on the table? What’s essential to help nurture and sustain you and that relationship?

Share in our comments below!

This reflection was offered live in our free kindness community—The House of Belonging—on Sunday, September 25, 2022.