Kitchen Table, Wood Floor, and Other Forms of Everyday Philosophy
What are the everyday images that go into your personal philosophy? It's a common mistake to think that philosophy is like religion: something most people only do on special occasions unless they belong to a class of professionals. Actually, it is only natural that when we try to express meaning, we begin with our personal lives and surroundings--with what we know. One of my favorite examples of this comes from Virginia Woolf's novel "To the Lighthouse." A married couple, the Ramsays, is made up of a professional philosopher and his vastly more interesting yet not academic wife. When trying to explain the difference between things and our perception of them, her son tells Mrs. Ramsay, "Think of a kitchen table then when you're not there." She often returns to "the scrubbed kitchen table, symbol of her profound respect for Mr. Ramsay’s mind."
What sort of everyday object symbolizes meaning for you? For me, it's my wood floor. Growing up, we had plants and animals around and ate vegetables, but some of the other components of my adult lifestyle--like vegetarianism, and buying less-- developed as I chose who I wanted to be. Part of this discovery process came as I encountered more than one way to run a household. Living in the Appalachian mountains for a year, I lived in a couple old farmhouses whose exposed rafters told the story of how they were built--by successive generations, and by hand. At first, taking care of the wood floors seemed intimidating: there were various pots of wax and stuff to maintain them, but the hardest instruction to follow was that in this case, water did not equal clean. These floors did better if they were kept dry. I even encountered a woman who lived in a log cabin with no running water: though a teetotaler, she used a jar of moonshine to wipe down her floors.
Today, I live in an apartment that has wood floors...the latest in a long string of carpet-less abodes, in fact. It's kind of a defining characteristic of my adult life, which has ranged over city and country to settle somewhere in between. It seems like one long uninterrupted expanse of wood floors stretching behind me, though the same could be said of tofu, second hand clothes, books or any number of characteristics having to do with my working definition of "simple." If given the choice between carpet and wood, I'll give up the carpet every time; don't tell me wood's cold in the winter. I like the feeling of something hard and real below my feet. It's also better for my allergies. And regardless of what I was taught, I love mopping the floor. With not too much water...usually I use a solution of vinegar and black tea. The simple action of wiping away dirt and leaving shine behind seems an accessible sort of magic. The whorls of the grained slats are a mesmerizing yet quiet reminder that they, too, have their story. That they've grown and changed and coalesced into a new whole that still contains many parts...like me.
If Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Ramsay used a kitchen table to help explain her husband's obscure line of work, she was not the first real or imagined person to encounter meaning in something simple and concrete. Proust famously wrote a multi-volume work after his childhood was brought back to him by a cookie. One of my favorite authors, Alfredo Bryce Echenique, wrote a two volume book about someone who found exactly the right chair--from this vantage point, and only this vantage point, does his life make sense. What everyday objects do you identify with? Or which ones do you associate with loved ones? Read the rest of the Virginia Woolf passage about a wife's efforts to understand her husband through a symbol, which seems a good definition of the everyday steps that go into love:
*In case you're suddenly considering switching to wood floors, keep in mind other flooring alternatives and recycling options for old carpet.