In her poem “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” Joy Harjo, American poet and member of the Mvskoke Nation, says: “The world begins at a kitchen table.”
We Americans lament cultural decline and blame modern technology, pervasive violence, fanatical religion, illegal immigration and floundering education, yet many of us overlook our own complicity — the abandonment of the family gathering around the kitchen table.
Harjo describes the sacred space a kitchen table provides: “The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.”
For some of us, however, this sanctuary of human beings gathered to share food — speaking to each other, listening to each other, getting to know each other — does not go on.
The relentless activities of modern families (fill in your own hectic schedules here) trump the easiest one to disregard: preparing a meal together and sitting down to eat without interruption.
Think of what we’re losing: “Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.”
Think about our natural migration to this uniquely human place. When friends visit, they congregate in the kitchen. Chances are you cherish those family photographs taken around a kitchen table, where everyone was together. Your child may have a desk for doing homework, but prefers the kitchen table. When you share life-changing news with your best friend, where do you offer the cup of tea and clasp hands?
As Harjo elegantly describes, “This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun. Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror.”
I think the kitchen table is a metaphor for our longing and need of the predictable, dependable coming together of the people who have our backs; who pass along our family, cultural, and national values, traditions, and pride; who demonstrate how to disagree and more importantly, how to compromise. The kitchen table is an island in the chaotic stream of our lives: “At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.”
While we wring our hands over the loss of innocence in our nation and our world, while we blame others and feel helpless in the face of such enormous challenges, perhaps we ought to tend to our own house. I suspect that if we spent a single hour each evening with our family — however that family is comprised — or even dedicated a few moments at any time of day, the other pressing requirements of our frantic lives would adjust.
And if the hopes of our nation and our world are in the hands of our children and grandchildren, where will they hear the stories that will shape them, if not from us around our kitchen tables? “It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.”
In the end, if the decline of humanity seems imminent and all hope lost, where will we gather? I can’t think of another place I would rather be. “Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.”
Marilee Swirczek is professor emeritus at Western Nevada College and lives in Carson City.