…and Desks, Benches, Pews, Bleachers…
I think we should search for meaning in lots of places, don’t you? So why not look at where we sit…or have sat? Couldn’t our chairs be a real seat of meaning? (Sorry, the pun was just too easy.) I’ll go first….then you.
I’ll start with my first chair, at least the first one I can remember. When I was six years old, my big family always gathered around a kitchen table for supper. I sat on a tall metal chair, a sort of bigger kid’s high chair. I would wrap my ankles around the front chair legs from the inside so that each foot was hooked behind a chair leg. This stabilized me so that I could hold the edge of the table, lean back a little, and balance myself and the chair on the back legs. I could even pleasantly rock back and forth a few inches. This little sport would entertain me when I was done eating and my family remained around the table talking and eating desert.
One evening, I must have been listening too closely to the table talk and paying too little attention to my chair acrobatics. I suddenly went backward as my hands left the table and the chair and I crashed to the floor. On the swift trip down, I instinctively leaned forward. My habit of anchoring my feet to the chair prevented me from cracking my skull on the floor. It seems to me there was a definite lesson: risky behavior was okay for a clever kid like me….right?
Let’s just go to a different question: are chairs a secret method for organizing human beings? I mean in places like the dinner table or maybe in the classroom?
Maybe you could help me find meaning in kindergarten chairs. My kindergarten class of about a dozen was arranged around two tables. The old kids in first grade occupied the same room but they sat in desks. Wow, what independence I would have when I was older! (One thing wouldn’t change though—when I put my head down for our ten minute “nap” I would daydream about how pretty Miss Gardner was.) Okay, okay….let’s forget looking for meaning here. We’ll just move on.
When I was eight, we moved to a farm. Just as before, we lived in an old style house where the kitchen and the dining room were one and the same, and the whole bunch of us gathered around a big table for meals. To make sitting at the side near the wall more efficient, my father built a bench where four of the youngest of us could park ourselves to eat. No more eating from my perch on my own chair—no more rocking ether. But I did find a life lesson in the seating: you had better go to the bathroom before you got blocked in for a meal!
The fixed seating in our kitchen was more than matched at school. From first grade on—every year, in every class—I sat at an assigned desk. It seemed entirely normal, just like the ringing bell that ended each class and the ringing again to begin the next. But here is something that may have meaning: somewhere along in my grade school career, desks got hinged tops and became unfastened from the floor. We still weren’t free to move our desks around, but at least all my “stuff” had more freedom. It could drift around to make its own mess under hidden cover.
Hey, what about church? I can’t remember a time when I didn’t go to church on Sunday. Church meant sitting in pews. (See? “Meant” has the same root word as “meaning!”) When my big family showed up, we used up a whole pew and sometimes spilled into another. It’s hard to think of people arranged in tighter, neater rows than when they are sitting in church. Once we were parked, all we had to do was be quiet (except during hymns) and stay awake. Oh—and it didn’t hurt to pretend to listen to the sermon. John Calvin was probably looking down from above, admiring the orderly scene.
Along came high school and the opportunity to mature my thinking. High school still meant assigned seating, but the winds of freedom were blowing. I could select a lot of my courses, and—more important—I could sleep in study hall without interruption. I was even free to ignore inter-school sports and merely join the pep club. If you were a boy in the pep club, the bleachers at game time became a gift of gender disparity. You were crowded on all sides by girls because the pep club was ninety percent female! See…my thinking was maturing! Meaning could be found in where you sit—and in bleachers at that!
Next came four years of college where classroom seating was like musical chairs. Well … except that there was no music and no chairs were removed. But we were free to sit where we wanted. We also had great freedom in what courses to take. Heck we could even choose our own careers! Gosh, that brings so many questions, I almost wish I hadn’t brought it up.
Still, I did choose a profession. I became a high school teacher—of English and literature—and finally sat in a seat of authority. My chair was behind “The Teacher’s Desk.” From my chair I told students what to do. I asked them probing questions. I sat and doodled while students quietly worked.
Of course the students were lined up in rows of desks just like the rows I sat in for so many years. It was great. My room was a sanctuary of order. The idea of sliding my chair forward, sitting in it, and having an informal conversation with my wards never occurred to me. Why should it? Education depends on structure and authority. Right?
After four years of not figuring out much of anything else, I figured out that teaching wasn’t for me. I became a salesman of industrial hardware. For the most part, chairs did not figure into my work, although I did sit in a car seat a lot as I drove from one business to the next (and while so seated enjoyed many audio novels). Most of the time though, I was on my feet servicing my accounts. The only chairs I sat in belonged to customers or prospects—providing a useful arrangement when we we engaged in “business” communications. Hmmm…it’s interesting how well we communicated he or she was not parked behind a desk. I wonder if there is a lesson there that I could have applied to my brief teaching career? ….Naah.
Actually, as a salesman, I did some work sitting in a chair—my own chair in my own office. I had to sit in it and make phone calls. I had to plan sales visits. I had to fill out sales reports. But that felt less productive than actually seeing people. Well—except when I wasn’t in the mood to make new calls, or visit an unhappy customer. At those times I learned to feel very productive sitting in my chair. See—I can learn things from chairs!
Now I am a writer. When I chose this work, I thoroughly altered my office. I removed furniture. I painted the walls a warm inviting color. And I hung pictures that would encourage contemplation and creative thinking. I am using the same chair though. The chair still feels okay but—maybe you can help me here—I think there might be something wrong with it.
Back when I was a student, I did most of my work sitting in a chair. Now that I am a writer, I again do most of my work sitting in my chair. It is where I am free to contemplate and to write whatever I want. So why, in my bright office with inspiring pictures and quotes hung on my walls, does freedom—and the creativity that surely comes with it—seem to call from somewhere “out there”? I bet it is because I actually will find the creativity I crave sitting on a stool in my favorite coffee shop. Don’t you think so?
A few more pieces on the lighter side:
“So Much To Do,” a little poem about overload
“I Am Certain About Goal Uncertainty,” goal setting all straightened out
“I Think God Is Brighter Than We Think,” a lighter, brighter look at “God”