There are some places in life that never leave us, even when we leave them. What transpires in these temples of our formation lingers like an indian summer over the rest of our life. The memories and experiences imprint on our very soul and provide the standard by which we measure goodness, love, right, wrong, joy. None of these places have marble tiled foyers or soaring columns. They are rarely pristine, often worn, and always well lived in. While not mecca, they are certainly worthy of a pilgrimage when seeking a renewal of spirit. We have all knelt at these altars, humbled by their influence, grateful for their refuge. They are the sites of our most precious memories and most meaningful relationships. More often than not, we find our way back to them on the scent of fresh baked rolls, or the sound of katydids on a summer evening, instantly transported to the safety and comfort of home. It is the place our self-confidence is nurtured. It is where who we are is created.
For me this was my grandmother’s dining room table. It was the gathering place for the whole community. The coffee was always on, and more often than not, there was some fresh-baked treat or other available as accompaniment. The door was never locked. Even when my grandmother and my aunt weren’t home, they left the doors open in case company stopped by. They prioritized family, whether by blood or proximity, above all else. Those relationships were what they lived for, and the number of people whose live’s they touched was an indication of how desperately needed their kind of love was.
A typical night would see anywhere from four or five to twenty people crowded into the small dining room. There was a lot of laughter, and some tears too. Folks didn’t always agree. Healthy debate was plentiful, and often colorful. You knew better than to express your opinion if you didn’t have the knowledge and experience to defend it. More than anything else, though there was relationship. Personal interaction. Eye contact. True concern for one another and an attempt to understand even if agreement was unlikely.
It’s what I miss most about my formative years. I didn’t realize then how quickly that type of interaction was going to fade from the world. The more “advanced” we have gotten, the further we have traveled from a place where discourse leads to compassion and disagreement does not equal disrespect. Blame is now more important than resolution and redemption is unheard of. Everyone’s voice has equal volume when there is nothing to compete against, and isolation gives a sense of bravado far greater than any that would be displayed face to face.
I am as guilty as anyone of succumbing to our digital age. For years our dinner table has had as many electronic devices present as people, if it serves as a gathering place at all. The same is true of every room in the house. I’m embarrassed by the number of virtual tethers in my home. The formative years for my kids have been dominated by social media and streaming entertainment instead of real experiences and real relationships. In an effort to give them the newest, coolest, and best of what our society offers, I have deprived them of what’s most important. Engagement. We text from the same room, share memes, YouTube videos, and communicate in a shorthand as likely to include a GIF as a complete sentence with punctuation. A family desperately oblivious to our need for a reset and reconnect.
And now here we are, a couple of weeks into limited interaction with the outside world and things are starting to change. Social Distancing has lead to dinner at home instead of in a crowded, noisy restaurant becoming our new normal. That, accompanied by a strict no electronics at the dinner table policy, excluding the one we use to Zoom for an extended family Taco Tuesday, has led to conversation, collaboration, cohesiveness. We have discovered there isn’t much on social media when everyone else is home just like you are. We have discovered that there is only so much T.V. anyone can stomach before searching for a book, or a game, or better yet, seeking out a conversation. Our house has started to resemble the home I grew up in. Sad that it has taken a government order to get us here. Funny that “Social Distancing” has resulted in reclamation of some of the closest relationships anyone should have. Not how I would have hoped for a culture shift but I’ll take the victory when there aren’t too many of those going around.
Will we be able to maintain this when the social freeze thaws? Only time will tell, but right now my back patio feels a lot like my grandmother’s table used to. If we get lucky, future days will see it filled with family, both by blood and by proximity, that need that place where they feel safe. Where they can find a little bit of themselves in the person sitting across the fire pit from them on a fall evening. Where they discover what being a person is all about from someone that has lived long enough to become one. And maybe, just maybe, it will be the setting for the conversations and memories that linger like an Indian summer over the rest of their lives.