Exactly two months ago, my life changed completely. I moved from Romania to Australia to start what I knew to be – and I was not mistaken – the biggest adventure I had ever thrown myself into. And I did not throw myself into it alone. I did it with a loving partner and an enthusiastic kid by my side.
We knew why we had decided to leave our comfortable life, the family we love, the business we had built for the past five years, the preschool our daughter loved so much. We felt there was more meaning waiting for us on the other side of the world. A research program that I could dive into and help turn some of my professional hunches into actionable principles that might help make an impact on the way adults learn. A great friend and a common dream waiting to be turned into reality. A beautiful town by the ocean, in-midst of nature. And the thrill of not-knowing, of sensing a future and building, once more, something palpable from the elusive mist of our imaginations.
Two months ago, we were coming off an airplane and checking into a temporary flat. In less than two weeks we had found a lovely house. An empty house that was waiting to become a home. And we set about the task of making it one. But life has a way of offering you the most precious lessons in the most unexpected ways. My partner and I had been through so much together – pain and joy, we were happily raising a kid together, had successfully and (so we thought) wisely navigated all the thunderstorms that one can encounter in more than seven years, but there was one thing we had never done together: buy furniture.
We naively thought that furnishing a house from scratch would be just a fun thing to to together, even with a moody preschooler in tow and all of the emotions of a new start. It turned out to be one of the biggest lessons we had ever had to learn as a couple. And, out of our whole furniture saga, the kitchen table turned out to be our biggest teacher.
Those of you who have read my posts over the years would probably never expect me to write about a kitchen table. How could its story be relevant for people in search of self-discovery and personal growth? What could it teach you about yourself or about your relationship? As it turns out, a lot. So, here’s the story.
Among all the things one needs for a house, there was one item particularly important for my partner, who is a chef and who loves a well-designed, practical kitchen more than most people I know. A kitchen table. One of those “island” tables with drawers, where people could sit on bar stools and where a dedicated chef could prepare and display delicious food for his family and guests. A spacious playground with a sturdy bench top that would welcome vegetables being chopped, as well as happy people laughing and chatting with a glass of wine in hand.
I knew my partner wanted one of these and that our kitchen needed one. And I knew that, in-midst of those very stressful weeks post move, I wanted him to be happy. But I didn’t know how his decision making process worked. As it turned out, I didn’t even really know how my decision making process worked either.
So we ended up going to a big furniture store, taking pictures of things we liked and needed for the house and finally ending up in the kitchen/dining area. It was there where I became more attentive. Trying to guess what he liked. We were mindful of budget, of course, but this one item I wasn’t willing to save on. I thought it was important to him and it didn’t matter that I was not invested in any option around that particular piece of furniture. I would have been happy with any table. I knew he wouldn’t.
We saw one that, to my mind, was perfectly fine, but he didn’t seem enthusiastic. Then we saw a couple more – decent, but I could still see no spark in him. And then we came to this other one – a beauty, even by my standards. And three times as expensive as any of the others we had seen. I could see the look of admiration in his eyes. I could see how he was imagining the cool dishes he would prepare on that bench top. Or so I thought. And it didn’t occur to me to check whether what I thought I was seeing was actually what he was feeling.
So I said: “Let’s buy this one! It’s gorgeous!”. And he said: “Are you sure? It’s quite expensive”. But I was going to let nothing stand in the way of my beloved’s joy. So I insisted and felt my enthusiasm was the excuse he needed so he could offer himself the joy of owning that table without the guilt of spending too much on it. So we ended up buying it.
It was only when the pieces of it were delivered a few days later and parts were missing that we found out that it was actually a custom item that would require specialised people to install and that those people were not at all easy to find. The thing ended up laying around for weeks, filling up our garage. Weeks in which we got to find out things about each other and each about ourselves that we wouldn’t have otherwise discovered.
When we, predictably, lashed out at each other in frustration over the damn useless table, I found out in shock that he had never desperately wanted it in the first place, as I had imagined. It was just one of several options he was considering and he would have preferred to check out what he liked, ponder about his options and then go back a few more times before making a final decision. He had only bought it to please me. And I had to confess that I didn’t care about it at all, but I had thought it would make him happy, so I insisted on getting it. Also, I had to face the fact that I tend to make rash decisions. I had to admit that the same intuition that helps me get in tune with my clients’ unspoken thoughts during a coaching session and to find those powerful questions that create moments of insight, makes me a terrible furniture buyer. It makes me a terrible buyer period.
I also had to reflect on how I relate to the wellbeing of those closest to me. To wonder how, without the safe and wisdom-enhancing distance I always have as a coach, I become too vested in making my loved ones happy. How I might end up trying to make them happy my way. I got to wonder how often have I assumed needs that weren’t there, how often have I jumped in to “rescue”, convinced I’m in tune with their needs. How often have I not listened, or not asked – simply because I was convinced I already knew the answer?
That kitchen table and the conversations it sparked in my family have reminded me of a very humbling truth. Being in a profession where empathy, presence and curiosity are paramount does not automatically make one a better wife or a better mother. It does not spare you your blind spots – on the contrary, it can enhance them, as there is always that hidden thought – “I get what’s going on in their mind, this is my profession after all”.
I took it as a warning against the hubris of so many people successful in their careers, whose professional persona ends up being far removed from their private persona – as it is so easy to bring your wise self to work and then take your family for granted, thinking you already know all there is to know about them, so there’s no point in being curious anymore. It is so easy to teach others how to listen deeply and then completely neglect to do this yourself with the ones closest to you. So easy to work hard at fostering consciousness shifts in others and then become completely blind to your own limitations. On this occasion, I was reminded of how crucial it is to stay true to your values and walk the talk in your own life, however hard that may be. Perhaps this is true even more so for those of us in the helping professions, those of us who start imagining “we get people” and “we know ourselves”. As it turns out, there’s always more to learn and keeping a beginner’s mind is the utmost proof of wisdom.
The kitchen table odyssey did not end there. When we finally thought we had gotten all our lessons from it and found somebody to put it together, we discovered that the size was wrong and the store had delivered some parts that did not fit properly. By this point I could not help but laugh at the irony of how I had thought I could just buy a “piece of happiness” to lift our moods during uncertain times and how broken it ended up being. How I could not avoid the hard work after all. Could not avoid the hard work of fixing the table (with all the extra cost it entailed) but, most importantly, could not avoid the hard work of talking things through, of deep listening, of receiving un-defensively the sharp pang of painful truths, of welcoming hard emotions and letting them run their course, instead of numbing them with easy gratification, of loving others the way they need to be loved, not the way it’s easy for us to love them – all of it part of the bigger journey of building a truly happy, conscious relationship and family.
In the end, I am deeply grateful for the wisdom that came, unexpectedly, from one of the most mundane objects in the world. That kitchen table became the metaphorical bridge upon which we, as a family, stepped into our new life. It was our bootcamp. Our testing ground. It opened a door to more mindfulness and it reminded us that the work of growing wiser never ends. Despite the pain it caused us (or, better said, that we caused ourselves), it helped us appreciate our new home even more. And, most importantly, it reminded us to appreciate each other.
Whenever I sit to eat at that table, or watch my partner cook on it, I can’t help but think how everything can teach you a powerful lesson towards becoming a better, wiser you. Even a kitchen table can whisper existential truths. If only you are willing to listen.