By Guest Blogger Michael Witkovsky (or as I like to call him, “my son the psychiatrist)
It may have been Wendell Barry who would admonished us to “first, build a table.” I always wondered why chairs were not the first. No reason is given. My guess is that chairs are single purposed (lounge, dining, desk, bar…). Tables are more inviting to all purposes. You could eat, play cards, do homework, make address, and feed people, or write letters to your congress person.
The table is omnipotent; it can become almost anything. The chair is fixed to a limited set of uses. But the relationship between the two is: Magical; transformative; romantic and quixotic.
If tables have unlimited potential, chairs around a table have tremendous, frequently unanticipated, power.
A Place at the Family Table
Chairs determine, by their numbers, who was invited to the table. Chairs become the instruments of dictatorial oblige telling who gets to sit where. These pronouncements become as good as law. All families developed chair assignments at the dinner table. There are some patterns that seem to be universal. Women tend to sit closest to the kitchen; men the farthest, or they are blocked from being compelled to the kitchen by virtue of the table. Children fill the distances between the parents in an all too easy metaphor for family relationships.
My family table was rectangular. My sister sat at the end near the window, I was directly opposite, close to the front door. We had the length of the table between us permitting sticking our tongues out, eye rolling, grimacing and conspiratorial smiles which we were sure the parents did not see.
Mother sat on the kitchen side. Father on the opposite side across from her, where the bookshelves were. She got the pots and pans; he got the encyclopedias and prayer books. She nurtured body, soul, and mind. He exercised sensation, thought, and practice. The closer proximity between mother and father enhanced tendencies at the table for tenderness, arguments, defensive distancing and repairing over the repast. Surely, that made us invisible to them. But that was not to be. They had perfected their dance between 1-1 defense with a zone offense. This worked to keep us reeled in and “educated” about behaviors. We would then receive reparative assignments to either post dinner cleanup or supervised homework.
Tables define the spaces for families to happen. Chairs define the roles of the persons around the table and perhaps space for dog beneath it. Together they create places for memories to be made.
Sitting Can Be the Progenitor for Memories
- Positions in the car like those around tables manifest and solidify relationships. Car rides generate many memories: The experiences we drove to; the conversation as we had on the way; novel food we were forced to eat; novel people we were forced to meet; and places to stretch our minds. (Sitting side-by-side in the front seat of a car with the adult driving has long been known as the best device to get an adolescent to talk about themselves.)
- Classroom seating is an extension of the teacher’s personality. Disruptive students are assigned to the back of the room so the teacher can assist and enjoy more motivated youth. Or, the disruptive youth were signed to the front so that the proximity to the teacher and the blackboard may enforce limits to their behavior and their wandering minds more easily arrested in the service of the teacher being successful.
- Sitting next to someone who thrills us is dress rehearsal for sharing more intimate spaces.
- When we get to sit, are assigned to sit, or when everyone else surrenders their seat, these all signify importance in one’s work or social situation. When the seat assignment is stable over time this eats practically becomes owned by the person. Who of us has not corrected a new employee or group member when they have innocently taken a senior person’s seat.
Tables Are the Places; Chairs Are the Relationships
Chairs hold people. They are the seats of power. There is little in this world more powerful than that of memories given to us by others, or the ones we rewrite when we need to make sense of our lives.
Chairs of the thrones of our memories. As such, there is no such thing as empty chair.
- There can be a chair yet to be filled by someone who was running late.
- There can be a chair which will not be filled by someone because of their own choices.
- There can be a chair never to be filled again by someone who often sat there.
Each of these unfilled seats holds a palpable presence that connects to memories, catches one off guard, or raises an unwanted feelings.
No empty chair could ever do that.
When there’s an Unfilled Chair at Your Table
Here are two examples that maybe one could try if there is this persistent sense of an empty seat. For example, the powerfulness of sitting in the car can be painful when the other person is no longer sitting there. If possible, get a different car. Make the car sitting space just yours. Similarly, if someone who has sat at the table for years is no longer there, change your seat at the table. This may be especially important if someone new has come along. Do not try to make them feel the seat of the person who used to be there. Give them a different seat and take a different one as yours, as a signifier of your interest in welcoming them as a new and different part of your life.
Chairs have most likely inhabited the spaces in each of our lives. Please send in a few words about the chairs, tables, or empty spaces and how you have been with them.