At 3 o’clock in the morning, outside an ancient monastery in the vast Egyptian wilderness, I clambered up on a camel named Whiskey, who carried me up Mt. Sinai under an eyelash of a moon and a sky strewn with stars, to catch the sunrise. That magical moment was a highlight of a 1997 trip to the Middle East, which also included mosques and mosaics, markets and many meetings—an immersion in both holy history and current political reality.
On that trip, at the bustling souk in the heart of Damascus, I bought a bright white tablecloth, exquisitely embroidered with light blue thread in the renowned style of Syrian artisans. It caught my eye as the gift to myself that I wanted to carry home as a reminder of this amazing sojourn. I showed it to friends as I related my trip stories, and then I put it into a drawer.
It stayed there for almost a decade. The tablecloth seemed far too beautiful to actually put on my dining room table. But then one day I decided it was a shame to keep it hidden away just so that it could remain perfect.
I pulled it out again last week and spread it on my table for a Thai dinner I was cooking for seven friends, in celebration of one who had just started a new job. There was the brown stain of tamari sauce in the corner from the last such dinner. And a circle of red wine spilled during a toast at a birthday celebration. In the center was evidence of a green candle that had dripped during a Christmas party one year.
Despite my trying endless laundry tips on stain removal, my gorgeous tablecloth is no longer perfect. It is marred by shared life—by gathered friends who are more interested in laughter and good food than perfection. I have finally stopped cringing at the spills and joined them.
In this particular moment, that tablecloth has come to mean even more to me. As the beautiful land of Syria is being convulsed by brutally repressive violence, I look at it and remember people the world over whose lives are not perfect, whose tables are not safe, whose futures are not certain.
Perfection isn’t all it’s made out to be. And beauty goes deeper than the threads we can see on the surface. In its marred state, my tablecloth is a reminder not only of a magical trip from a decade and a half ago, but also of several years of shared joy—and of the truth that we all really are connected.