The Family Table, an Axis Mundi, and You

Christmas table setting in gold and red tone
It’s a wood table and five mismatched chairs at which my husband and two kids eat almost every night. This holiday season it will welcome our extended family of over 15 people for dinners and desserts.

I like to think of it as my axis mundi. Literally translated, it means “axis of the world.” Axis mundi might also be defined as the location about which the world revolves, the place where heaven and earth are connected, or a sacred place where we encounter mystery, where we encounter the divine; it is the center of everything.

I was first introduced to the idea of axis mundi in the classic book I and Thou by German theologian and philosopher Martin Buber. I remember a section where he shares that in landed communities, people erect places that have special significance, like churches, which act as their axis mundi. Yet even traveling peoples have items that come along with them (like a staff, stone or other treasure), which may be erected or placed in the new location, to serve as axis mundi; the item grounds the tribe in place and time on the earth and in the divine presence, in the same way a house of worship might. Ritual takes place about our axis mundi in a circular, swirling fashion, as life itself plays out during the changing seasons.

Since college when I first read Buber, I moved A LOT. One of the things I noticed about myself was that I didn’t feel settled in a place until I had my table and chairs in the dining area. (Are you like that?) I needed a place to light a candle, arrange a fruit bowl, set a plate, and eat dinner with my friends and family. Emerging from the feelings of nervousness, sadness, and unease in a new apartment or home, I came to know that my world is grounded by the dining room table and the connection to my family, food, the earth, and the eternal “thou”, or capitalized You of which Buber speaks.

In order to connect with “thou”, You or “other” (as opposed to an object or “it”, which is ultimately unfulfilling), Buber says humans must make space and time for the opportunity to arise for encounter with thou, because we cannot force an encounter with divine love to happen. Encounter is an instant of grace. We must wait for the presence to arise, says Buber. So how do we build structure in our lives for encounter? And how can we do it every day?

This year when my 2 ½ year old is meeting extended family for the first time, perhaps feeling nervous and uneasy like a lot of kids do, I will extend to her the grace of choosing the food she’d like to eat from the platters served up on the table and letting her eat what she chooses, knowing that sitting at the table is sometimes more important than the physiological consumption and absorption of macro and micronutrients.

Nutrition is so important for children’s growing bodies, it really is (especially for those with allergies or intolerances, or special needs)! Parents must not forget to provide a variety of foods at set times in order to meet nutritional requirements. Yet at the same time we can remember what’s important: connection, peace, grace.

Creating the space at the table for nourishment to happen, today and on holidays, we can trust that nourishment happens.

For help striking a balance that creates more connection, contact me and let’s start moving towards the change you’d like to see in your family approach to meals.

Sarah Pruett Soufl, MS, RD is a non-diet Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who is passionate about helping families develop feeding and eating habits that help children cultivate life-giving relationships with food long-term. Learn more: souflnutrition.com 

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