Thursday, July 29, 2021

Fixing the Broken Table

 When I was in high school I was in a play called My Favorite Year.  In the show, I had to give a monologue where the main character talks about the importance of the family table.  On stage I spoke about how it was the center of family life and "if they ever find the center of the universe they're going to find there a dining room table."

Even speaking the words on stage, I felt a strong disconnect.  I understood what it meant, but it did not resonate with me.

I'm sure at some point my family ate together at the kitchen table besides special occasions.  I have vague memories of my brother and I sitting on tall chairs at a counter as my mom made us breakfast.  But after the divorce and my mom left, meal times were non-existent.  Everyone in the house basically fended for themselves.  We never had want of food, but I mostly remember my grade school dinners being preceded by staring sessions into the microwave as my crinkle cut fries cooked.  High school dinners usually consisted of fast food or peanut butter sandwiches while sitting in front of the TV.

Whenever I would stay at a friend's house, I found it odd when we sat together for meals.  Once my aunt made dinner for our family and had us sit down at the kitchen table.  All of us kids felt strange about it and complained the whole time.

Looking back, I think there was something missing from my childhood because of this, though I didn't realize it at the time.  Family life is crazy and as the kids grow up, everyone is being pulled in different directions.  But the dinner table anchors the family lines of communication.  There we can sit and share.  Even if each conversation isn't a complete revelation about life, the time spent builds and strengthens the relationships simply by weaving together our lives.

The closest I think I came to understanding this in high school was the lunch room.  To this day, when high school students get their schedules, the first thing they check on is what period they have lunch and who will be in there with them.

Sharing a meal is something deeply social and deeply primal.  Throughout human history and across human cultures, the table is the place where we come together.  The sharing of a meals implies an openness to the other.  How often do dates involve the sharing of a meal? When you think about it, it is kind of odd to sit across from another person and watch them shove food into their mouth.  But then again, that inward directedness forces us to focus on the other.  

During college, a number of my pals lived in the area.  Somehow we ended up in a tradition of meeting up for dinner every Sunday night at Denny's.  We would spend an hour or two in happy conversation, touching base with each other and then be refreshed to start the new week of classes.  In fact, I can remember walking into the Denny's and sitting down at a booth where my friends were sitting.  I then took out a box with a diamond ring in it and placed it on the table, announcing my intention to propose to my girlfriend.

As time went on and we grew older we began to outgrow Denny's.  The restaurant fits the temperament and time constraints of a college student with its 24-hour service.  But depending on what hour you enter, it can begin to look like the cantina scene in Star Wars.

We continued to do Sunday dinners at different restaurants.  And as many of us began to get married and have kids, our tables got longer and scheduling became more difficult.  But it was always something that I looked forward to at the beginning of my week.

Someone once said that extroverts are refreshed by socializing.  I am not extroverted, but I understand what this means.  With all of the craziness of life, there is something special about being in constant connection with the people who grew up with you and because of you.  There is something relaxing about the freedom to be yourself with people you know care about you and still choose your companionship despite your flaws.

I often tell my students that most of them will not be friends with their high school buddies in ten years.  But if you don't want that to happen, then you need to get together once a week and have a meal.  You need a chance to gather around the table and just be a human being with your people.  Incidentally, I think this is one of the reasons Christianity has persisted so long: we get together once a week around the Table and eat the Bread of Life.

For those who were out of town, we began to play Halo once a week.  I honestly don't remember many of the matches, but I can remember the conversations we had while playing.  We couldn't be together to share a meal, but we shared an activity together that opened up the pathways to conversation.

And as children began to get older and schedules became strained we began making time for once-a-month game nights.  Again, the board games created a wonderful medium where we could talk about life while trash-talking the opponent across the table.

But then the table was broken.

By God's grace, most everyone I know was not severely affected health-wise by COVID.  And I know that a silver-lining to the lockdowns was that people got to spend a lot more quality time with their families.  I know that with the exception of the anxieties involved, spending 24/7 with my wife for months was a great blessing.  But my pals and I could not connect as well.

We reached out as best we could.  We did a few zoom meetings.  In that first summer, we got together a few times at a park, catching up on all the serious and frivolous things of life.  We even watched movies together while online chatting.

I think we worked so hard on these connections because we know how important they are.  And taking time around the table makes those bonds strong.  I had a friend once with whom I hadn't spoken for months.  When we reconnected, we did so around a table.  

Even though the lockdowns broke the table, it did not break the bonds of fellowship.  But as things open up more and more, I can only hope that we fix the broken table and find a way to meet in that common space where the universe of friendship finds its center.

I often think about how Jesus would reach out to people and ask to sit at their table.  In doing so, He was telling them how much He valued them and their company.  I wonder if He felt the same way about the table.  I wonder if He looked around at His best friends at the Table of the Last Supper and felt some kind of joy despite the trials to come.  

I don't know the answer to that.

All I know is that when I look across at the people I care about, whether we are eating, playing a game, or just engaging in simple conversation, I am truly grateful that I have a seat at that table.

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