IT MAY BE that you are aware of a weekly program of mine called “The Roundtable.” The table to which this title refers, and at which the show is recorded, was purchased in 1992 at a Kingston, Ontario antique store called Turk’s. Over the decades many have sat and drank and discussed and argued over this late 19th century furnishing. But even these twenty years are as nothing measured against the life which had similarly transpired (or perhaps dissimilarly: I shall likely never know) over this same table before I arrived to Princess Street one Spring afternoon, the requisite ninety dollars in my pocket.
Now I hear that Turk’s is about to close. This is only the latest in a series of edits which has rendered the city unfamiliar. Only last Summer I visited the Queen’s campus, barely recognizing the place. For eight years I lived in a town called Kingston, but it wasn’t this town. The city councillors against whom I issued polemics are gone. The bars in which I drank and laughed and disputed, gone. The restaurants and shops, mostly gone. And the people I once knew are gone also. I sit at my Turk’s table typing these words, and the memories pool all about me. But outside, in the “real” world, there is no longer a material condition to which memory corresponds.
Not that long ago I would have thought this an observation of the superannuated. And yet I am not recollecting the early modern era, or even the previous mid-century. “My” Kingston is of the early-to-late 1990s, a mere matter of two decades. The Queen’s student who will enter her freshman year this Fall was not yet born when I arrived in August 1990. She will walk among an entire city of people who were not yet born, or who lived elsewhere, when Brian Mulroney was Prime Minister and Bob Rae Premier. How quick comes the change which seems at the time to creep so gradually.
The human tendency is to disparage and if possible obviate change. Overlooked is the plain fact that something entirely else existed previously and was extirpated to make way for one’s familiar world. In what other manner might human affairs be arranged? Change is the great engine not only of progress but of those things which for a time subsist. This is one of a good many reasons that the notion of a static and eternal afterlife — a paradise, in other words — repulses me. Am I happy to know I’ll be plucked so that something else can take root? Not exactly — and yet, I wouldn’t want it otherwise.
The table, unlike so many things in our disposable world, was made to last. I’ve several other pieces from the same downtown Kingston shop. Doubtless much of it will outlive me, as it already has outlived its creators. The marks of many days and of many hands are across the grain, but wood is organic and will heal. It wears its history, up to a point. The deepest inscriptions leave their surface archives, and the rest are absorbed. Questions of origins and provenance are matters for the imagination. In like manner, I have on occasion allowed myself to speculate about the lives and the meals and the comings and goings of people I will never know, despite the fact that they have gathered at this table, my sanctum sanctorum.
Furniture, both of the mental and physical varieties, connects the past, present and future. The ideas, buildings, and streets among which we circulate are both fixed and impermanent, inheritances which cannot but alter. The Kingston I know can be said both to exist and not to exist. I derive a certain comfort from the solidity of material objects, such as this table. But without the ebb and flow of imperfect and impermanent being, we could not be.