Of Everyday Formality: A Table Teaches Me a Thing or Two about Life

Catch-all.

Writer’s desk.

Life-size vision board.

Supper-seater for eight.

I’m talking about our dining room table.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

When Hubs and I first got married, we moved to a tiny apartment in Queens. In that home, we built the beginnings of our life together around a drop-leaf table that once belonged to my great grandfather, then my grandfather, then my mother, and now me (us). It’s not that we’re sentimental, though this is also true. It’s more that one of us (me) is Southern, and my breed of Southern abhors throwaway culture of any and all kinds.

When Mom offered the table to us — something that must have been hard for her on many levels — doing anything else besides graciously accepting it was out of the question. And some years later, when we relocated to our suburban abode, welcoming it into our next phase of life was simply assumed. It’s now sitting pretty (and better protected) in another space. One day I hope we have the occasion to pass it down anew, making this table a five-generation veteran of life. What a treasure.

That said, relocating our treasure left us in need of what I’d then considered the bastion of all “made it” purchases: a formal table for our formal dining room. This may come as a surprise to those who know me. Generally speaking, my tastes lean more modern and minimalist. But — see above — I’m also Southern. And Good Southern Girls have dining tables, formal or not. So, the very minute we could afford to purchase one, we did. Afford of course being relative because HOLY STICKER SHOCK.

If we didn’t love the table, we mightn’t’ve bought it… but we did, so we did. Since then, it’s been the setting for large holiday gatherings, work-night dinner dates, a conversation spot, a landing zone, and a desk before I had another. Lately, its uses have only expanded. Drafting table, social-distancer, reading spot, craft area, and dog den are only a few. If anything, being routinely quarantined at home has made me appreciate the everyday formality of our space and this investment. And I’m here for it.

We’re living in (through?) an age where, I imagine, more folks will start to have realizations like this. Perhaps not about their dining rooms, but about some other thing or idea or person or place that, prior to this mess, they failed to fully embrace. For me it’s the table, but also the idea of tradition, of heritage, of ways of life that, while changed, are learning to survive forward. And is that so bad? I think not.

Then again, my great grandpa could have told me that. Also my grandpa. Also my mom. I know this because they already have. They have through sharing that drop-leaf table we’ve come to cherish, even though these days we dine on something else. Turns out furniture really does reflect more than generational design tastes (she says as someone formerly of the decorative arts museum world who should’ve known better).

For those of us willing to receive it, there’s a lesson here about how we choose to structure our lives — or, perhaps stated a little differently, what and whom we choose to build ourselves around. When we make any kind of decision, whether we like it or not, we’re communicating a lot about who we are, what we value, what we stand for, and what we hope to see in the future. And that goes for interior design of both the house and soul varieties… and then of course, everything in between.

I don’t know about you, but as for me, I hope the message I’m communicating is one that sounds like: Here, take something of me with you, so that you’ll never forget what it is to be home out in the world, and what it is to be out in the world, right here at home. It’s the lesson of the table, of my family, of our ever-changing reality. What we build should be designed to last, sure; but it should also be given ample space to grow and change. I wonder what would happen if more of us lived this way — and not just for ourselves.

Like it or Not: An Examination of Something You Probably Weren’t Expecting, in Ways You Weren’t Expecting, and I Don’t Just Mean The Book.

You’ve met an Ove before. Perhaps your Ove has not been a man. Perhaps your Ove has not been Swedish. Perhaps your Ove has not been a neighbor. Perhaps, instead, your Ove looks and sounds and behaves quite differently than the Ove we read about this month in A Man Called Ove. But you’ve met an Ove before.

The question isn’t whether you’ve met one. The question, Dear Readers, is how you’ve responded to that Ove. I mean both in your private thoughts, and in your public words and actions.

Did you figure everything out about that Ove, using information that someone shared with you or information that you so astutely learned or perceived all by yourself? Did you know exactly what you were going to do about that Ove? How you were going to, dare I say it, treat that Ove?

Or rather, did you know nothing about that Ove? Did you realize this right away or did it take time? Was it a slow awakening to the reality that perhaps, just maybe, everything you thought was true turned out to be at least halfway wrong, halfway off-base, halfway totally-and-completely-missing-the-point?

You answered at least one of those questions, didn’t you? Yeah, guess what? You’re an Ove, too. Hence, I return to my original statement. You’ve met an Ove before.

And, if as we’ve just determined, you’ve met an Ove before, mightn’t we all be a little slower with our judgments and a little more empathetic in our responses? From there, accountability becomes easier, and when that happens, love becomes a way of living rather than just a way of feeling. It ceases to be something we just preach and it transforms into something we strive towards doing with great intention. We should all be better Oves.

Let’s put that into more concrete terms. We’ve all been — whether we like it or not — the person who’s been judged too soon, or perhaps incorrectly, or perhaps both. But we’ve all also been — whether we like it or not — the person who’s passed judgment too soon, or perhaps incorrectly, or perhaps both. We’ve all been — whether we like it or not — fallible, wrong, off-base, and desperately and painfully human.

And you know what?

Being human has a funny way of re-grading the moral high ground.

Whether we like it or not.

I know, recognizing this is hard work. Choosing to shift our gaze and revise our action plan(s) after the fact is even harder. But here’s the thing: none of us ever know someone else’s full story — hell, sometimes we don’t even know our own stories — and so, we should not allow ourselves to think or act as if we do.

Does this leave room for making judgments? Yes, of all kinds! The important thing is that we recognize when, where, how, and why we are making them. And then, we must have the humility to recognize when the ways we think and act must change.

How America responds to its systematized racism and the many injustices that creates is the chief “present” example I’m guessing many of you are thinking about, but let’s also acknowledge right now that it’s not a “new” example. It’s just newly relevant to a bunch of folks who, you guessed it, are being called upon to change alongside the rest of us.

(NB: knowing about this for a longer period of time does not necessarily make you a better person. It might in fact inspire some interesting questions in your direction, depending on what you’ve chosen to do with that knowledge. Meanwhile, as we strive to hold each other accountable through love, we must all learn to both accept and allow some grace. This is very important work and we all need all the help we can get.)

For now, that’s all I’ve got to say. And besides, with a book of little stories full of big lessons, what a mistake it would be to clutter up my response. Instead, I’ll open the floor to all you beautiful, bitter, broken Oves out there. Feel free to use the discussion guide after my sign-off if you want some ideas for places to join the conversation, or pick another starting point of your own.

And meanwhile, know that if you have a lot on your hearts and minds, then here I am, a mangy cat, ready and willing to be here for you, even and especially when you think you’re doing just fine on your own, thank you very much.

May 2020 Reading Group Discussion Guide:

  1. What do we make of the juxtaposition of seemingly insignificant details against heart-wrenching, life-altering information throughout the book?
  2. Think of a time where something truly significant happened in your life. How did it change you? How did you stay the same? Then, compare/contrast your experience against Ove’s. Why do you think your stories align or separate where, how, or when they did?
  3. How many protected groups of people can you identify in this novel? Notice how they are portrayed, both positively and negatively. Think about why that might be the case.
  4. Find somewhere you can observe the world around you for at least five minutes. More is great, but not necessary. Your space can be an indoor room, a shared outdoor space, really any place where you can notice and record details of quite literally any variety. Set a timer for your predetermined allotment, get comfortable, and get noticing. Record what you see and try not to filter your thoughts or reactions. When the timer goes off, read what you wrote, sketched, or otherwise notated. What did you observe about your observations?
  5. Can you identify a time when you misjudged a person, place, idea, or situation? If so, what influenced you to reach your initial conclusion? What might have helped you reach another? Forget for a minute the idea of whether that alternative would have been “right” or “wrong.”
  6. If someone were to write a vignette about you in the least flattering manner possible, what would they have to say? Try to shy away from knee-jerk, interview-y responses to this question. Sometimes, even the “incorrect” perceptions people have about us still point to areas in which we are meant to grow.
  7. BONUS Question for Companion Read, In Five Years: Time plays an important role in both books we read this month. Contemplate singularly or discuss with others the effects time has on the main characters. If you’re struggling with where to start, consider how time affects relationships with others they encounter. Feel free to take your answer another direction as well!

May 2020 LibraRYAN Reading Group Pick/s

Friends,

Hard to believe that we’ve rounded the corner into our third month with this little venture. Apologies for the late post!

This month, we’ll be tackling A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (2012). Figured we could use a little levity after a couple of heavy months (and reads).

Additionally, it should be noted that this month is significant in two other ways:

(1) We’re — finally, some of you are saying — reading about a man; and

(2) We’ve — finally, I am saying — got a companion read recommendation! Someone in my orbit let me know that In Five Years, which you might have seen featured on my IG stories earlier this month, is indeed a great book to pick up in May!

Those who are willing/able to read one or both of these spectacular books should feel empowered to do so, and while we’re starting a little later than usual (yikes, two weeks!), I challenge all your beautiful minds to join us. I’ll be better about minding the (totally arbitrary) post deadline(s) in the future!

P.S. Has the sun finally come out where you live, too?? I hope so.

I’ll be reading outside if you need me.

Dearest Loves

Stop your pointing fingers, loves,

Stop assigning blame.

Stop pretending you know better,

For we live by one shared, distant flame.

But how, you will ask, do I keep from falling,

Without first extending my hand?

How do I survive this Hell,

When nothing gets properly planned?

I feel so much better when I claw and I grab,

You will continue to plead.

And I feel so much better when it’s my hand that lashes,

When some other body breaks and bleeds.

I start to feel better when I pull someone down,

Into this dark, angry land of the damned.

So tell me why, self-righteous one, you’ll ocean away my sand.

No, Dearest Loves,

That’s not why I’ve come,

You’ve simply misunderstood.

I’d never dream of doing so, even if I could.

Let’s take a moment to understand, hard though it may seem,

That where we see sin,

There is neither you nor I,

Instead there is only we.

Sinners, broken, flailing about,

We’re inclined to stumble and fall.

But look for the light and soon you will find,

It’s each other we’ve had through it all.

When this we remember, it’s harder to feel

That one sinner bears all the weight.

We’re all fully culpable, yes indeed,

But we can also all be redeemed.

And when this maddening struggle is over,

We’ll stand once more side-by-side.

And then, Dearest Loves,

We’ll be truly United,

Still in name,

New in heart,

New in mind.

April 2020 LibraRYAN Reading Group Pick/s

Friends,

Times like those we are currently living through make us stop and consider what really matters. I’d like to think it’s the idea of love. We need love now more than ever.

For many, this is a time of terrible loss. Loved ones, livelihoods, social groups, entire ways of life just … gone. At least gone for now, at least gone from the way they were.

It is important to acknowledge and reflect upon these realities and the feelings they inspire. Doing so helps them have less power over us, in that we are able to use them as fuel to power us forward, rather than holding us back or turning us ever-dangerously inward.

I’d like to do my small part to pull us back from the brink. Let’s spend this month reading about a woman — and a nation — on the precipice of some other incredible changes. That way, when we emerge once more into the sun, together we can find the strength and the grace to fight for what we hold dear.

NB: My copy was re-released by Scribner, A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. in May 2011. Find whatever version you can access — especially this month — and we can make it work.

And, as will always be the case, if you have ideas for companion reads, share them! I mean it when I say this should be a collaborative project. It will work better if you are reflected at all stages.

Until the last week of April.