catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 16 :: 2008.09.12 — 2008.09.26


A history of tables

A photo is floating around our attic somewhere, probably in a Converse shoebox. In it, I am just barely fifteen years old, a sophomore in high school, wearing an oversized green sweatshirt, jeans, and perhaps the shoes that came in the box that now holds the photo. The setting is my school library. I am sitting at a table where I appear to be studying, but across from me is Rob, another fifteen-year-old sophomore. The look I’m giving the yearbook photographer is an exaggeration of innocence. Though our books are open, pens in hand, Rob has just finished giving me directions to his house for the party he plans to have while his parents are out of town.

At twenty-eight years old, nearly eight years in to my marriage to Rob, I can see this sly study hall meeting around a library table as a fulcrum on which much of my life story turns. I can also see tables—those ubiquitous pieces of furniture that invite gathering by their nature—as a key image for exploring where I’ve been and where I may be going.

My path to the table in the library began at the first table I remember: a dark, substantial dining room table for six in my parents’ first home. I was the first to edge up to its side in a high chair. Over the next nine years, Jack and Cyndy Vander Giessen would fill that table with three more kids—two girls and a boy—to round out a family of six. These days, the dining table in my parents’ home is usually sparsely populated, with my brother the last child living at home and my dad often on the road for work. However, when Rob and I make the two and a half hour trip to where we both grew up near Chicago, it’s usually for an occasion that calls for the tables to overflow with food and with our immediate family plus significant others and children. Often, we’ll sit around the table for an hour or more after a big meal, laughing, drinking good wine, telling stories and learning to know one another as adults.

Not all tables in my life have been hospitable. I remember attending my friend Traci’s birthday party in kindergarten and being scolded for sitting on my feet at the table. A small kid’s effort to be in the action, part of the conversation, was sharply shamed and I became self-consciously aware of checking my naked impulses.

Over the next several years, I’d develop a suspicion that the Lord’s Table at my home church was not a hospitable place either. Haunted by hypocrisy and the idolatry of social status, I never was able to willingly follow the path of my peers in making the profession of their faith that allowed them to participate in communion.

I don’t think it would be exaggerating to say that another table in my life kept me tethered to my faith during that time in my life, one very different from the altar in the front of my church. Shortly before that photo was taken of me and Rob scheming in the library, two couples purchased a house together in South Holland, Illinois. I don’t remember when they first invited me and Rob over to their home, but for over ten years, it’s been a place to which we return over and over again. Around their large dining room table, which nightly hosts the two resident families as well as any number of guests, our deepest doubts and longings have been met with sage words of advice and lively discussion, always accompanied by good music and lots of hot coffee. We’ve learned from them the values of living intentionally and unconventionally, extending hospitality, committing to diversity and place. About five years ago, our friends replaced their old dining room table with a new one from a local furniture store, but the old table would soon reappear in our story.

In 2002, Rob and I moved to the small town of Three Rivers, Michigan, from the south suburbs of Chicago where we had both grown up. We had been married almost two years by then and our fragile finances, as well as our lack of direction, necessitated some kind of retreat. We settled into my grandparents’ cottage to hibernate for the winter, but our slowing down was only temporary, like approaching the top of a gigantic hill on a roller coaster. We had thought we were on our way to Portland, Oregon; however, we were soon flying full speed into building a life in Three Rivers. Rob went back to school. We moved in with another couple to share their home, including many games and meals around their dining room table. I began working for our new church, a Lutheran congregation where we came to deeply appreciate the centrality of communion, approaching the table weekly with people who were both like and very unlike us.

In the middle of all of those new beginnings, we started a fair trade store in the historic downtown district, which has become a center for both local and global social justice in the community. As a grand opening gift, our friends from South Holland donated their old dining table to us, a gift of infinite symbolic value. Over the past five years, many people have gathered around that big table in the back of the store to plan and dream and organize. What could be perceived as just a piece of furniture has become so much more as it continues to facilitate the values of community and creativity one hundred miles from its original home.

These days, Rob and I hope the table in our home wherever we find ourselves can provide a taste of love and hospitality to those who gather around its secondhand, chrome edges. Books and musical instruments, photographs and light surround our table in our current home of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Even though it creaks terribly and some of its mismatched chairs are in need of repair, it provides space for work, for sharing ideas and art, for enjoying good food and drink and for loving well. Mostly, we hope to model that central Passover table from the upper room where the ritual of breaking bread and sharing wine together demonstrated the deepest of friendship and sacrificial love. We don’t doubt that the table itself will change and the people around it will come and go, but we hope that the Spirit’s presence will form a centerpiece too beautiful to keep to ourselves.

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