Where do we go from here?

We believe that to be welcome – to feel wholly at ease in our own skin, to be fully seen and heard and witnessed – is a basic right. It is one that we cannot attempt to claim for ourselves, and deny for others. It is a right that, throughout our history, has been granted only to the privileged few. And it is a right that has been denied to a staggering number of people over the last several months. 

So let’s start with some #realtalk, y’all. 

It’s our job to name white supremacy for what it is, to call out the privileges many of us have been afforded by it, and to fight it with everything we’ve got. 

This last week has seen a rise in hate crimes against Muslim Americans, people of color, immigrants, Latinx, women, people with disabilities, and the LGBTQ community. 

We also believe that those decrying hate far outnumber those emboldened by it. We believe racism, sexism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and transphobia have no place in our democracy. And we believe this is a sentiment shared by many across party lines. 

We know well that some of the hardest conversations are the ones most worth having. We cannot turn our heads or look the other way at demeaning remarks said casually in our workplaces, in our communities, and within our families. We’ve seen what happens when we choose to ignore, or quickly devolve into modes of attack and defense. 

We have allowed grief – one of the few things that all of us share, regardless of age, or race, or class, or political beliefs – to become a conversation-killer rather than a conversation-starter. We choose to other one another, rather than pause to appreciate the length of roads traveled and the experiences that have shaped who we are. We live our lives online, rather than using the internet to find and connect with one another in-person. We bemoan the deterioration of conversation as we spend more time looking down at our screens than up at the people we’re talking to, when the problem is really that we do not give ourselves permission to talk about the things that truly matter. Changing that starts with each of us.

Over the next year and the years that come after, we invite you to pull up a chair. We’re vowing to create spaces for healing among others who share your identities and have navigated similar hallways, looking for a lightswitch. We’re vowing to create spaces for healing across lines of difference, among those who desire real understanding, who are willing to grant welcome in exchange for receiving it in return. And we’re vowing to expand our circles of concern, by connecting folks who wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to meet.

How ‘bout dinner, folks? 

Posted on November 17, 2016 .

RECIPE: Momery Apple Tart

My mom passed away 27 years ago. She’d take us apple picking as kids, and we always returned with way more apples than we could really use. So after we’d had apple pie, apple crisp, Apple Brown Betty, and applesauce, she’d challenge us to come up with a totally new recipe for apples. It’s a tradition I continue every year during apple season.
 
This year’s: Almond shortbread crust, vanilla pastry cream flavored with fresh apple cider syrup, baked Golden Delicious apples glazed with fresh cider syrup and drizzled with apple caramel.
 - Caroline, Los Angeles


Yield: 9-inch tart, serves 8

Almond Shortbread Crust
Ingredients: 

  • 1 ¼ c all purpose flour
  • 2 oz finely ground almonds (I use Bob’s Red Mill Almond Flour)
  • ¼ c sugar
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • ½ c (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, diced
  • ¾ tsp almond extract
  • 2 Tbs ice water
  • 4 oz white chocolate

Instructions: 

  1. Preheat oven to 375.  Fill a glass with cold water and add a few ice cubes, set aside.
  2. Whirl  flour, almond flour, sugar and salt in processor until combined. Add diced butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal. With the motor running, add almond extract and 1-2 Tbs ice water (from the glass) to form moist clumps.
  3. Dump mixture onto marble board or lightly floured surface and knead together to combine. Press into the bottom and up the sides of a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Freeze crust for 20 minutes.
  4. Place tart pan on baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes. Check the crust and puncture any bubbles with a skewer. Continue to bake for another 12-14 minutes until the crust is a pale golden brown. Cool completely on baking sheet.
  5. Melt white chocolate gently in the microwave, in 10 seconds bursts, on lowest setting. Brush a thin layer of melted white chocolate over the bottom of the cooled crust. Set aside to set. (The white chocolate prevents the filling from making the bottom crust soggy.)
  6. Crust can be made one day ahead and kept in fridge or freezer, well wrapped in plastic wrap. (When moving the cooled crust from place to place, remember the removable bottom! Keep it on a baking sheet or flat plate.)

Apple Cider Syrup

Instructions:
Reduce 2 c fresh apple cider in a medium saucepan to about ⅓ cup. (I mostly just watch it and pull it off the heat when it’s syrupy rather than measuring.) Let cool.
 

Pastry Cream (makes about 3 cups)
Ingredients: 

  • 2 ¼ c whole milk, divided
  • 6 large egg yolks
  • ⅔ c sugar, divided
  • ⅓ c cornstarch
  • 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
  • 1 Tbs cooled apple cider syrup

Instructions:

  1. In medium bowl, whisk together ½ cup milk, egg yolks, ⅓ cup sugar. Using a fine mesh sieve, sift the cornstarch over the mixture and gently whisk in.
  2. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, add the remaining 1¾ cups milk. Scrape in seeds from vanilla bean and add the pod. Add remaining ⅓ cup sugar. Bring mixture to a simmer without stirring.
  3. Once simmering, whisk the hot milk mixture, then remove from heat and slowly whisk into egg yolk mixture. Return the mixture to the saucepan and cook, over medium heat, stirring constantly, until pastry cream simmers and thickens to a pudding consistency. (This can take anywhere from 1 to 5 minutes.)
  4. Remove from heat and fish out the vanilla pod. Add the 1 Tbs of cider syrup, and whisk the cream until smooth. Transfer the cream to a medium bowl. (If you have cornstarch clumps, press the pastry cream through the fine mesh sieve into the bowl.)
  5. Press a sheet of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the cream and chill until cold, at least several hours or (best) overnight.
  6. Pastry cream can be stored in the fridge, with plastic wrap on its surface up to 3 days.

Apple Filling (adapted from Epicurious)
Ingredients:

  • ¼ tsp ground cloves
  • ½ to 1 tsp ground cinnamon (depending on taste)
  • ¼ tsp fresh ground black pepper 
  • 4-5 Golden Delicious apples, peeled, cored, sliced into ¼” slices (I use a mandoline for this)
  • ¼ c (packed) light brown sugar
  • ¼  c apple cider
  • ¼ c (½ stick) unsalted butter, melted
  • ¼ c whipping cream 

Instructions:

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F. 
  2. Place apples in a 13x9x2 glass baking dish. Sprinkle spices and sugar over the apples, then pour over cider and the melted butter. Stir gently to coat.
  3. Bake apples until tender, stirring occasionally. This should take 10-20 minutes. Check on them after 10 mins. You want them soft but not mushy. 
  4. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the apples to a medium bowl and set aside to cool.
  5. Scrape all juices from baking dish into medium saucepan. Set aside. (You will use these to make the Apple Caramel just before serving.)

Assembly:

  1. Spread cold pastry cream over the white chocolate in the tart crust. You may have more cream than you need. Chill for 20 minutes.
  2. Arrange cooled apple slices in overlapping circles over the pastry cream. When you get to the middle, cut a slice in half and arrange to look like the center of a rose.
  3. *The tart can be held at this point, lightly covered in plastic wrap, in the fridge for a few hours.*

Before serving (or taking to an event): Rewarm the cider syrup slightly and brush it gently over the apples in the tart.

Apple Caramel (adapted from Epicurious)
Ingredients: 

  • ¼  c apple cider
  • ¼ c packed light brown sugar
  • ¼ c whipping cream

Instructions: 

  1. Rewarm the juices from the apples over medium heat, add the cream, brown sugar and cider. Boil until caramel sauce deepens in color and is reduced to about ½ cup, whisking occasionally. This should take about 5-7 minutes.  Set aside to cool for five minutes.
  2. Dip a fork into the warm caramel and drizzle over the tart. (Leftover caramel can be poured over waxed paper or a Silpat on a rimmed baking sheet and cut into bite sized treats when cool.)

To serve: 
There’s a lot of sweetness here, with the apples, syrup and caramel. To cut that a bit, stir one Tbs of Calvados into 8 oz of creme fraiche or plain yogurt. Serve tart with small dollops.
Bonus! You will likely have more apples, cider syrup, and creme fraiche/yogurt than you need. Not a problem! Use them all to make stuffed French Toast! Bon appetit!

 

Posted on November 17, 2016 and filed under Recipes.

Who Ya Gonna Call

It's Noon and I'm not sure where I'm staying tonight. I know a 24-hour diner on 34th and 7th, and begin to steel myself for a night in Central Park. I'd read Patti Smith's recounting of a few homeless nights out there when she was 20 and new to New York. Surely, it's way safer now than it was in the 70s, right? 

We’re hosting an event in a couple of hours, which has occupied all of my attention of late. Fuck. Here I am, again, in a situation that's all too familiar. I'm a last-minute planner under the best of circumstances, but two-and-a-half years of running a start-up nonprofit on a dime have left me in a perpetually harried, one-day-at-a-time state.

But there's more to it than that. I stayed at my best friend, Laurel's, last night, and think about asking if I can stay another night. But I worry I kept her and her husband up late with an upset stomach, and feel like I've imposed enough on her over the last few years to satisfy a lifetime. Problem is that's true of most people in my life. 

As with anyone without a home to go back to, I'm hypersensitive to overstaying my welcome, never fully at ease in any space that isn't mine. Asking for help is hard for me, precisely because I've had to do it so many times, or been its unwitting recipient. Loss has made me both fiercely self-reliant, and more fragile than I'd care to admit, lacking an obvious safety net. 

So I run through all the reasons I can’t ask x, y, or z person until it’s too late, only to end up sending panicky text messages as I board a plane: “Hi! I’ll be in X city in six hours. Any chance I can stay on your couch tonight?”  

Fifty or so Dinner Partiers are due to descend on an apartment in SoHo for an afternoon of letter-writing, and a chance to share the things that matter most with the living and the dead.  It's the first warm weekend of Spring, so guests immediately beeline to the patch of outdoor space in the back. 

Hallie is one of the first guests to arrive. I’ve known her only a few months, met in-person only a couple of times. But in that time, we’ve talked about subjects more personal and intimate than many I’ve shared with friends I’ve known for years. We talk for a few minutes about work and the overdue arrival of Spring, and the event that’s about to unfold. 

She asks where I’m staying that night. Normally I’d deflect or white lie out of embarrassment, but there’s an honesty in our interactions, a history of naming what we’re struggling with rather than tiptoeing around it, that’s become habit. Without thinking, the panic I’ve batted away until now—wiling it away until I have the time to deal with it—briefly rises to the surface.  

“Stay with me,” she says, without judgment and without hesitation. 

She lives in a studio apartment. I end up on her couch for the next three nights. 

***

Most members of our tribe are familiar with the way in which loss can cut you off from the world. We can list off the friends who disappeared, and recall the heavy silences and awkward moments with others we’d known for years, the invisible scarlet letter that will henceforth signal “otherness”.  

What’s less talked about is the way in which loss—that ultimate breeder of #realtalk—is just as often a source of deep connection, rather than its opposite. 

Hallie started hosting in January, and her table really clicked. 

In March, she and the seven other people at the table got together for their third dinner. Sarah announced that she had a little time before starting her new job, and had found a cheap last minute ticket to Costa Rica. She asked if anyone wanted to come with. 

It took Hallie two minutes to say yes. She texted her boss, who gave her the thumbs-up. She booked a ticket, and left the next day. 

The two surfed, did yoga, and relaxed on a beach. Having just emerged from a breakup, Hallie found the healing experience she’d been looking for. 

But the timing was only part of what made the trip so special. Both women have lost both parents, and prior to sitting down together, neither had known anyone else their age in a similar boat. Sarah “lives full out,” says Hallie. Connecting with her and with others who’d experienced major loss was “like water for the thirsty”. 

From left: Sarah, Paul, Rebecca, and Hallie, together at our Write_On NYC event in April. Says Paul: “I had a meeting with my grief counselor and when I showed her the pic she smiled and said, ‘Who would ever think these are the faces of grief?’”

From left: Sarah, Paul, Rebecca, and Hallie, together at our Write_On NYC event in April. Says Paul: “I had a meeting with my grief counselor and when I showed her the pic she smiled and said, ‘Who would ever think these are the faces of grief?’”

***

It's a story we see again and again: strangers turned friends; one-time acquaintances who become close, precisely because they chose to share something you're not supposed to share with mere acquaintances; people known to one another for years, but only superficially, until an invitation and a decision to show up allowed both parties to peer below the surface.  

Katie Gillespie was part of a table in Chicago, before moving to Bread Loaf, VT—a move inspired by her dad, a nature enthusiast, who first took her camping when she was six months old, and died in 2013. There we connected her to Ashley Gunn in nearby Middlebury, and the two started hosting a table together. 

"Even though we haven't known each other long, I consider her an instant friend," says Katie. 

It's a sentiment Ashley echoes: "That first time we met to get coffee was so amazing," she says. "I felt so happy and seen and heard afterward and continue to do so when we hang." 

Vermont co-hosts-turned-friends Ashley Gunn (left) and Katie Gillespie (right) at a recent beer tasting-yoga-class combo. 

Vermont co-hosts-turned-friends Ashley Gunn (left) and Katie Gillespie (right) at a recent beer tasting-yoga-class combo. 

 
There's nothing new about this, of course. Stories like this are everywhere; it’s just that, too often, they go unnamed. 

"In February, I went to Miami with a dozen other widows, only two of whom I'd ever met face-to-face," says Stephanie Cunningham, a host of ours in Austin. "The other 10 I'd only ever chatted with online through private Facebook groups for those that had lost. It was one of the most intimate friendship moments of my life. I remember telling people that all the "friends" that left were the people who just wanted to talk about how crazy our last weekend was or what vacation we were on next; the ones who stayed were the ones that would stay when I wanted to talk about writing my will and signing DNRs at 26 years old and wouldn't leave when I wanted to contemplate the afterlife and not in a 'yah man, that's rad...' sort of way. 

"The faithful (very) few and the new ones that filled those blank spaces are much more valuable to me than anyone that missed 'fun Stephanie'."

***

I first met Jaime last summer. Both of us were Scholars at the Aspen Ideas Festival, where for a couple of days, we got to do things like accidentally-on-purpose bump into Aaron Sorkin or Arianna Huffington in the breakfast line. (Been there, did that. "Pardon me, ma'am, just grabbing a muffin.") 

Jaime works in financing renewable energy, a subject I know nothing about. But we both lived in LA, and we’re both the young and hungry types, so we grabbed drinks one night, and (naturally) became Facebook friends. 

I didn’t hear from her again until February, when she was on a plane back to LA having just suddenly lost her mother. Her mother died of ovarian cancer six weeks after being diagnosed. She remembered our conversation over drinks that night, and a casual friend connect instantly became something much more. 

In March, we went to the new Broad museum and grabbed lunch afterward. We talked for two-and-a-half hours. We talked about our moms, and our relationships with our fathers, and stepfathers, and siblings. We talked about the fact that we live in a society and in a time bereft of rituals—one that leads us to feel embarrassed for feeling sad, believing that whatever it is we’re feeling, we should be feeling something else. We talked about both having moved to LA from DC: about how LA invites you to dream big, and can just as easily make you feel small, friends scattered across its sprawl, how it’s a place famous for many things, deep conversations not being one of them. 

My mom died more than nine years ago, my senior year of college. Despite the fact that our stories are years apart, that shared experience instantly became an entrypoint to a friendship, and to a conversation where nothing was off the table, the kind of conversation we rarely get to have with friends we’ve known for years, let alone someone we met one time. 

It turned out Jaime also loves hosting. So we talked about the role of a host, and whether that was something she was ready to take on. She was focused on finding meaning and purpose after her mom’s death, and building the kind of community that understood what she was experiencing. She’s a great listener and gains energy from bringing people together.

So we connected her to Brett, another old friend, who spends his days as a documentary filmmaker in Venice. He lost his mom a year ago, to complications from a sudden heart attack. We’d reconnected at a birthday party earlier this year, and talked about the hellish year of firsts. After months of grieving on his own, he, too, had expressed an interest in hosting. 

We began introducing them to other people in their neighborhood: other young and hungry types, who’ve all been among the first in their peer community to lose someone significant to them. And with that, a new table was born. 

Hosts Brett and Jamie (center) at their first dinner, July 2016.  

Hosts Brett and Jamie (center) at their first dinner, July 2016.  

***

The Dinner Party grew from a group of friends into an organization. As an organization, we see it as our mission to grow groups of friends—friends with whom you don’t have to hide any part of your story, or explain the particular form of crazy that leads you to be almost-homeless in NYC one night. 

The real measures of success have little to do with the traditional metrics found in most End of Year Reports. How might we measure the “# of couches slept on,” “# of hikes taken,” “# of dinner dates,” and “# of people with whom you feel seen and heard”?

***

We've just wrapped a host dinner at Jaime’s apartment in Santa Monica. We're stuffed on pie and banana bread and the evening's eats and just spent the last several minutes on dish-doing and apartment-reassembly. It's a process through which conversation always returns to lighter fare. 

A handful of us head to the parking lot. It's chilly, someone remarks. 

We freeze. In front of us, a print by WRDSMTH, whose works are a familiar sight to inhabitants of LA. For a second, we stay frozen, staring at the words ahead of us: "I miss you. Every day. Every way." We laugh. We hug. We drive off to our respective abodes. 

Photo credit: Kristen Hellwig

Photo credit: Kristen Hellwig

Posted on July 19, 2016 .

How to Not Be an Asshole About Suicide

Photo credit: Flickr user @Alpha

Photo credit: Flickr user @Alpha

“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”
 

– David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest


Blame it on one too many viewings of Pollyanna as children, but on the whole, we think humans are wired to not be assholes. After all, we’re social animals, who’ve evolved to care for one another. Our brains have a built-in “social caregiving system,” which leads to what’s known as a tend-and-befriend response to stress and suffering. Translation: We’re biologically inclined to want to be helpful.
 
We see grief and loss inspire remarkable acts of empathy and generosity each and every day. We’ve found that most people want to say and do the right thing by one another.
 
But every good rule has its exception: When it comes to suicide, most people are assholes.
 
As with most examples of blatant assholeishness, the problem is mostly one of ignorance. Suicide has long been a subject of taboo. Efforts to break the silence around suicide are new, and we’re only just learning to talk about it. Even today, families will sometimes go to great lengths to hide the cause of death.
 
For the two of us, and for hundreds of others across our respective communities, this is personal. So for your sake and ours, here are a few suggestions on how to be less of an asshole:
 
1. Stop saying “committed suicide.” 

Simply put, it’s out of date. People commit crimes: Using that word subtly implies fault and perpetuates the stigma around suicide. Eighty-five percent of those who die by suicide have struggled with mental illness or addiction. For most people, suicide is the final act after a long illness. 
 
Try instead: Use language like “died by suicide” or “took their own life”. Changing a few simple words displays empathy towards the person who died and acknowledges their often long and terrible fight against diseases like mental illness and addiction.
 
2. Enough with the questions. 

Before you start peppering a friend (let alone a stranger or co-worker or ____) with questions about the circumstances of the death, consider why you’re asking the question. If the answer is merely to satiate your own curiosity, don’t ask it. 
 
The decision to talk openly about loss is one we applaud, but it is a choice. It doesn’t mean that anyone ever has the right to know about it, or the circumstances that surrounded it. 

Questions like how a person did it, or why they did it, or whether they had attempted before are invasive, and serve nothing. When someone dies of cancer, does it matter which internal organ shut down first? When someone dies of lung cancer, does it matter if they smoked? (No and no.) We’ll never know the answer to the ultimate “why”, whether or not that person had a history of mental illness or addiction. That unanswered question, and the infinite supply of “what ifs” that accompany it, is one we’ll have to live with for the rest of our lives. In the end, knowing the answer wouldn’t make the loss any easier to bear. 
 
3. Was it expected? 

This is a simple one. Nope.
 
It doesn’t matter how many times they’ve attempted, or how sick they’ve been. Unless the suicide is medically assisted, it is unexpected. So skip the question. Ask if you can bring over a bottle of wine once the funeral crowds have disappeared. Ask if you can walk the dog or do the laundry. Ask a thoughtful question about who that person was. 

A good rule of thumb: Resist questions about the death itself, and focus more on the lives in question. Focus on how your friend is doing, and what they need. Focus less on how the person died or when and more on the life they led.  
 
4. “I’d kill myself, shoot myself, slit my wrists, yada yada yada.”
 
We hear these phrases all the time, and once upon a time, we said them, too. Most of the time, it doesn’t bother us anymore. But remember: A throwaway line like, “I’d kill myself if I were caught singing in the shower,” is a pretty great way to taint a perfectly enjoyable conversation. Our brains can’t help but go there. Be aware that you might be in the presence of someone whose loved one really did kill themselves or whose loved one is contemplating suicide. Joking about suicide could make it harder for them to reach out to you in a moment of crisis.
 
5. Suicide is selfish.
 
This one’s tricky. On the days when we’re desperate for a conversation we cannot have, we can’t help but feel it was selfish. 

But then we remind ourselves that the people we’ve lost to suicide, and many of those who struggled with depression or suicidal thoughts, are among the most sensitive and compassionate people we’ve known. It’s often easier to offer help than it is to ask for it, and those contemplating suicide are often wracked by guilt, or feel the world would be better off without them. Suicide is a response to pain, not indifference.   

 
Most of the terrible things we say are the result of ignorance, not intent. So the next time you encounter someone who’s struggling with suicidal thoughts, or talk with someone who’s navigating a suicide loss, try asking that person what would be helpful for them. Don’t assume you know. 

You’re not an asshole. Try not to act like one. 

 

Post Edit: Thanks to everyone who's written in, and shared their experiences. We wrote this as two women who've encountered mental illness, addiction and suicide loss within our immediate families and friend circles. We do not approach this subject lightly, and by no means do we intend to sugarcoat it. That suicide wreaks havoc on families is something we are profoundly aware of. Our goal is simply to add to what many have been working to do for years: To make the conversation more approachable and more empathetic, and to help people avoid foot-in-mouth syndrome. 

 

About the authors: 

Jennifer White is a social entrepreneur, artist and advocate for hope. She founded Hope After Project after her losing her mother to suicide in 2011. She writes about her experience with loss and her dedication to finding hope in the darkest places for herself and others. Jennifer is a member of the Creative Activist community at Creative Visions Foundation.

Lennon Flowers is the co-founder and Executive Director of The Dinner Party, a community of mostly 20- and 30-somethings working to pioneer tools and community through which young people who’ve experienced significant loss can use their shared experience as a springboard toward living better, bolder, and more connected lives. 

Posted on February 5, 2016 .

2015.

Photo credit: Nikki Reimer, TDP Host, Calgary

Photo credit: Nikki Reimer, TDP Host, Calgary

Tragedy was around long before the Greeks and death and dying is not exactly new. But as grief and loss go, 2015 was a doozy of a year. Attacks in Paris, Beirut, northern Nigeria, and San Bernadino, to name but a few. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing unimaginable atrocities, with nowhere to go. Mass shootings in Colorado, Oregon, South Carolina: on average, more than one per day in the US in 2015. This was a year in which the deaths of innocents were often met with impunity, and demagogues led in the polls. 

Over the last few years, we've learned to sit with suffering, to resist the impulse to avert our gaze or change the subject. In 2015, there was a lot to witness. 

But we've also gotten rather good at sitting with opposites, and learned that light and dark can, and indeed always do, coexist.

So we wanted to take a moment to recognize the other side of the story. In 2015, we saw grief and death and dying come out of the closet as never before, and saw loss inspire acts of remarkable generosity, empathy, and unity.  

"The plaintive voices of the dead call the living to action," writes NYT columnist Charles Blow. It was a year in which collective grief poured out on the streets. The attacks in Paris were met with candlelight memorials and peace vigils around the world, including a gathering of thousands in the very same neighborhood where several of the attackers lived. The Black Lives Matter movement forced presidential candidates to reckon on a public stage with America's legacy of racism, and in July, the Confederate flag flew for the last time at the South Carolina statehouse. At the funeral of state Senator and Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine people murdered at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, the President of the United States was joined by thousands of voices in singing "Amazing Grace".

It's a year that proved that, for all our hand-wringing about "death taboos," this is something that people really do want to talk about; we simply need better language and better spaces in which to do so. A TED Talk by Dinner Party friend/inspiration/all-around-badass BJ Miller, head of Zen Hospice Project, was viewed more than 2.5M times. In it, BJ talks about the difference between "necessary suffering"-- our common currency as human beings, "the very thing that unites caregiver and care receiver" -- and "suffering we can change," by designing better systems for end-of-life care. Artist and cancer survivor Emily McDowell's Empathy Cards went viral, giving platitude-laden Hallmark cards the boot, and supplying us with a thing to say on all the occasions when we don't know what to say. 2015 saw the death of "death panels": Starting January 1, Medicare will reimburse doctors and nurse practitioners for talking with patients about their end-of-life wishes. 

For us, 2015 was a game-changer. Two years ago, we set out on what some deemed a rather quixotic journey: to get 20- and 30-somethings to talk openly about loss and life after around potluck dinner tables, and to make it something people weren't embarrassed to share with their friends. In the last year, our tables grew 400%, to more than 100 worldwide, powered by 140+ hosts and a thousand Dinner Partiers. We were named the #1 "Thing That Can Really Help You While You're Grieving" on a BuzzFeed list, and covered on CNN, CBS LA, The Boston Globe, The Huffington Post, O Magazine, The New York Times, and more. 

In a remarkable interview with Vice President Joe Biden in September, The Late Show's Stephen Colbert used his second question to say, "I was hoping you could tell us a story about your son." The Vice President spoke of his son's life, and the moment Beau, battling end-stage cancer, said to him, "Promise me you’re going to be alright." The two went on to talk about faith, and parenting, and the experience of being both caregiver and receiver, and the act of getting up. "The people I find who I'm most drawn to are people who have been hurt," said Biden.  

Ditto.

In 2016, we promise to keep looking for the light. 

Posted on December 31, 2015 .

Help Us Grow the Table: Support The Dinner Party on Indiegogo

What a year. Since January 2015, we've grown by 400%, from a couple dozen tables to more than 100. We hired our first staff, and stopped living off our savings accounts. We found and trained 90 new hosts, and hand-matched more than 800+ people looking for a seat to nearby hosts, connecting people based not only on shared experience of loss, but on shared interests. We curated stories about what #LossIs and held dinners for 60+ in galleries and bookstores. We shared tips on how to be a better friend to those in need, and held a series of three-day host trainings, offering hosts a space for self-reflection and a chance to build key hosting skills, and to share what's working across tables. 

How? Because of people like you. To date, 65% of our funding has come from our first two crowdfunding campaigns.

Earlier this month, we launched our third annual Indiegogo campaign. Once again, we’re asking for your help

We’re looking ahead to what it will take to reach 1,000 tables, and are focused on developing the infrastructure, partner network, and revenue streams we need to sustain and scale. But we can’t do it without you.

With your help, we will:

  • Match would-be Dinner Partiers to tables in their neighborhood: Our goal is to hand-match every person who reaches out to a host in their area, or provide them with the tools to start a table of their own with folks they know.
  • Recruit, screen, & select train Dinner Party hosts: We look for people who want to be a part of the same community they're creating, and who are ready and able to be good space-holders for others around the table.
  • Hold four Host Trainings & Retreats across the US: Each year, we invite hosts to come together for a 3-day training and retreat, and a chance to reflect on their own “life after journeys,” exchange insights and best practices, and flex their hosting muscles in real-time.   
  • Break down taboos: Talking about loss on the internet generally sucks. It doesn’t have to. We're using public events, online tools, and storytelling to combat taboos, and to help those who have yet to undergo loss learn to be better friends or partners to those who have.

Thank you to everyone who's pitched in, whatever the form. Lend a hand, spread the word, and together, grow this table: https://www.generosity.com/fundraisers/the-dinner-party-help-us-grow-the-table--2. 

Posted on December 18, 2015 .

The Things We Carry

Some people visit New York. Eva Silverman has made a ritual of it: One that’s now so central to her being that it’s almost unconscious. 

She passes by what was once a garment factory at the corner of Spring and Broadway in SoHo, where her grandmother worked at the age of fifteen. She wanders through the Lower East Side, through the streets in which she and her grandmother both came of age, decades apart: one going to punk rock shows, the other as an immigrant teenager in the 1920s. She’ll sometimes take the train to Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, where her parents grew up. On walks through the city, she’ll pass by the places where CBGB and Coney Island High once stood, and where she first saw The Ramones play, and Meow Mix, where she first performed onstage. Often, she’ll stay at the Carlton Arms Hotel, or otherwise stop in to say hello to the guys who work there and its resident cats. 

Eva lost her mom to breast cancer when she was ten. Her dad died in a car accident when she was 19. But of course, as with all of our stories, Eva’s doesn’t begin with her parents’ deaths. In fact, it begins long before she was born.  

Jerry Silverman was a mathematician and an amateur photographer: a hobby he began as a teenager growing up in Brooklyn. When he died, he left behind thousands of slides and negatives. 

In the winter of 2012, Eva served as the resident-artist of the Carlton Arms. She created a visual history of New York, through the lens of the three generations of her family that called it home. Calling the project “Mapping Roots: NYC,” she mapped out the places in time that had been important to three generations of her family, beginning with her grandmother’s arrival in 1920 from Poland. Using some of her dad’s photography from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, she paired each dot on the map with a photo from “now” and “then”. Guests staying in Room 7C can still see it. Sure beats wallpaper. 

She makes a point to drop in on her native New Jersey. She crosses the George Washington Bridge, and takes the Wyckoff, NJ exit off the highway. It’s at that moment that she’s struck by a “visceral feeling of familiarity, of ‘This is where I belong.’” She recalls long car rides as a kid with her dad at the wheel, and how she’d always jerk awake at that exact spot as they approached home. She drives past the last farm in her hometown, taking note of whatever new developments weren’t there the time before. 

“There’s something about holding onto those roots and feeling them that’s essential to being able to create a home somewhere else,” she says. 

For the last thirteen years, that “somewhere else” has been Oakland, CA. 

Eva moved to her apartment sight unseen: Her best friend and her partner were living in the city, and they picked the place. 

Stepping through her front door is like stepping back in time, or better yet, through time. Everything, it seems, has a story: On her walls are two saws of her grandfather’s, a carpenter by trade. There’s the card from the hospital with the date and time in which she was born, with the words, “Baby Girl: Eva, Mother: Mona.” There’s the concert ticket from her first concert, and her first guitar. A photo of her parents taken in their early 20s hangs above her bedroom door. There’s a postcard from her dad, and a small painting that always hung in his office. 

In the kitchen hangs a framed collection of her mother’s recipes. A prolific baker, Eva is quick to point out that it’s an inherited trait. 

“There is something about seeing her handwriting and the care that went into each recipe card that makes me feel close to my mom,” she says. 

The granddaughter of immigrants, Eva has found a way to do what most of us struggle with: To integrate past and present through a smattering of objects, to discern what’s meaningful and what’s just stuff. 

“My family was really good at collecting,” she explains: A skill necessitated by having to pick and move, and months, sometimes years, spent in limbo as refugees. 

Eva's grandmother was ten when she, joined by her mom and baby sister and thousands of immigrants, arrived on the shores of Manhattan in 1920. Her father left Poland when she was just over a year old, and had been living in the country for nine years. The family settled in a three-room apartment in the Lower East Side. The front room was off limits to anyone but guests, and she and her sister slept on a foldout cot in the kitchen. 

Her grandfather also grew up in Poland, and first came to New York as a visitor in the mid-30s. It was during that visit that the two met. He returned to Poland, just as Hitler and the Third Reich were gaining steam. Eva's grandmother went back to Poland to see him, and there they married. They returned to the US, narrowly escaping the fate of most of his family members, who later died in concentration camps. 

The couple settled in Brooklyn, and gave birth to two sons. The younger of the two grew up to be Eva's father. 

Eva's mother was born in a displaced person's camp in Austria in 1947, also to Jewish parents from Poland. Her grandmother jumped off a moving train on its way to a concentration camp. She lost her two young daughters to the hands of the Nazis, and spent 14 months hiding in a small coffin-sized bunker in the woods. She reunited with Eva's grandfather, who had been captured by the Russian army, in the camp. The family made it out in 1951, and they, too, settled in Brooklyn. 

Eva still has their naturalization papers, and her grandmother's Shabbat candle sticks: One of the only things she was able to take with her.  

“They’re all these reminders of the people who are a part of my past, and who are with me in some ways.”

To Eva, home is people, living and dead. It is a collection of things and the stories behind them. It is not a place, but places. 

For those of us who are lucky enough to associate “home” with safety, it is a cradle we carry with us, a series of intertwining roots that explain where we came from and hence where we are today. It’s a place we can return to, even if Memory Lane is the only street still standing. 

To be welcomed is one-directional. To belong is a two-way relationship: alchemical and unpredictable, demanding our own exertion, and a satisfaction with our own skin. 

Ours is a nation of immigrants, for whom “home” has always been a creation story. When one home crumbles, or ceases to exist in physical form, it is up to us to be creators. 

Posted on October 20, 2015 .

Summer Reading List: The Upside of Stress

Detective novels not really your thing? How's this for a summer beach read: Stanford psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonigal's new book, The Upside of Stress

We'd been meaning to give it a read for several months now. Because, you see, we’re in it. (Yes, after years of witnessing the late night work sessions, hand-wringing, and coffee binges of start-up nonprofit life, our roommates think it’s pretty hilarious that we’re case studies for stress and its upside.) 

Stress has gotten a bad rap. Hating on it is a recipe for instant internet clickbait, whether in the form of Five Tips on How to Reduce Stress or news that it can kill you

As a health psychologist, McGonigal used to teach students about the toxicity of stress, believing that by naming its dangers, she could convince people to reduce it, and thus live longer, happier lives. Because many of the biggest sources of stress in our lives are unavoidable, however, she found her students weren’t getting less stressed out. They were simply feeling shitty about it. 

Then she came across a study that linked negative health outcomes not to stress itself, but to stress and the belief that stress was harmful. She wondered: By harping on about the dangers of stress, were we creating a self-fulfilling prophecy? 

The answer, as she uncovers in her book, is: Yes. Rather than focus on reducing stress in our lives, we need to rethink our relationship to it.  

That starts with our definition: McGonigal defines stress simply as “what arises when something you care about is at stake.” It encompasses our reactions to a deadline, or to public speaking, or to running late for a date, as well as the experience of caregiving, or of losing someone we love. Because we only stress about the things we care about, “stress and meaning are inextricably linked,” she says. 

Consider the words “stress response” and most of us immediately think of "fight or flight": racing heart, quickened breathing, and a surge of adrenaline--a vestige of our Cro-Magnon ancestry, that once upon a time allowed us to escape from a rampaging mastodon. 

But in reality, says McGonigal, "fight or flight" is only one of several stress responses we as humans are wired for (and even that one serves a modern purpose). Ever wonder why, in a crisis, you feel the need to do something? Turns out the answer isn't just about love, but biology, and what scientists call a "tend-and-befriend response". Our bodies release a surge of oxytocin, which reduces our brain's fear response and motivates us to protect the people and communities we care about. 

With us so far? Now things are about to get trippy. McGonigal draws on the science of mindsets, and the growing body of evidence that changing how we think about something can improve our health, happiness, and success--permanently. She cites studies that show that when our perceptions change, our bodies’ responses change. “Viewing stress as helpful created a different biological reality” (10). Read that again. Woah, right? 

The book is well worth the read, and no, we're not just saying that because we're in it. So grab ye old beach umbrella, postpone your Wet Hot American Summer binge for another day, and prepare for some serious mindset-shifting.

A few key takeaways to whet your appetite: 

1. We're better together. One of the biggest sources of resilience has to do with what psychologists (and, um, non-psychologists, too) call “common humanity”: the degree to which you see your struggles as part of the human experience. The truth is that everyone has a story, whether it’s of losing someone they love, or watching someone they love go through it. By keeping our stories private, we inadvertently ask others to do the same. We assume that others’ lives are exactly as they appear on Instagram, filters and all. "To feel less lonely in your stress, two things help: the first is to increase your awareness of other people's suffering. The second is to be more open about yours" (167). 

2. Both and. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, the phoenix and the ashes, wildflowers in cracked sidewalks: The idea that trauma and resilience are linked is now the stuff of Pinterest boards and Hallmark cards, those great modern canons of cliches. We're pretty big fans of the good life, but still, it's an idea that makes us wary: signs of our thirst for happy endings and our inability to sit with suffering, masquerading as an insistence to look on the bright side of life. 

In unpacking the science of post-traumatic growth, McGonigal addresses that concern head-on: "The science of post-traumatic growth doesn't say that there is anything inherently good about suffering," she says. "Nor does it say that every traumatic event leads to growth. When any good comes from suffering, the source of that growth resides in you -- your strengths, your values, and how you choose to respond to adversity. It does not belong to the trauma" (201). 

It's not that suffering is inherently ennobling. What's more, studies have shown that the ability to name both good and bad is associated with better outcomes than focusing exclusively on the upside. She cites studies that show that the "severity of post-traumatic distress positively predicts the degree of post-dramatic growth" (199).  Here again, our mindset matters: "seeing the upside of adversity changes the way we cope" (203). And did we mention the chapter features LA Dinner Partier Jennifer White, creator of Hope After Project, to illustrate the point? Get it, girl. 

3. Tend-and-befriend. It would make sense that, when under fire, our instinct would be to self-protect: to guard our resources, to pay attention to our own needs first. Not so. Our tend-and-befriend response activates three systems of our brains: The oxytocin-fueled “social caregiving system,” which leads to increased empathy, connection, and trust, and a desire for connection; the “reward system,” which releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, and increases our sense of optimism and confidence in our ability to do something meaningful; and the “attunement system,” driven by serotonin, which increases our perceptiveness, so that we can better understand what’s needed and act accordingly. 

“When we care for others, it changes our biochemistry, activating systems of the brain that produce feelings of hope and courage,” writes McGonigal. “Helping others also protects against the harmful effects of even chronic or traumatic stress” (137). 

That can come at a cost, of course: We prefer to be the helper than the helped, so it can be hard to ask for what we need. But when you see a friend who’s just lost someone he loves, and he goes immediately into “action mode,” don’t immediately pin it on denial or avoidance: This is what coping looks like, too. 

Can't find what you need? Create it. "One of the most helpful mindset shifts you can make is to view yourself as the source of whatever support you want to experience," writes McGonigal, describing The Dinner Party. We'll cheers to that. 

Our Top Mother's Day Reads

Mama Bear, 2003

Mama Bear, 2003

The first Mother's Day fell on my college graduation day. The speaker asked everyone to rise in celebration of the moms who were gathered on one side of the stadium. I fidgeted for a second, no longer sure of my place in that collective ritual, feeling like I'd suddenly been thrust into an imaginary spotlight, every eye on me, betting on my next move. I distinctly remember my friend, Anna, grabbing my hand and lifting me out of my seat, and the surge of pride and defiance at the realization that yes, I, too, still had a mom to celebrate, even if I couldn't give her a wave. 

It was a year later that I began to notice for the first time that Mother's Day isn't a really a day at all, but a two-month window in which every promotional email and every storefront reminds you of all the things you should buy Mom to show you care. Had it always been that way, I wondered? It's something that you never pay attention to, unless you can't not. 

And now, I realize I've hit a new milestone: The year I almost forgot Mother's Day. I now delete the emails without a second's pause, my eyes no longer linger on the announcements for "Mother's Day Brunch" and the advertisements in nail salons. I was vaguely aware that it was sometime in May, but I thought we had weeks to go. 

I still haven't decided what I'll do. Some years, we've hosted brunches, or held picnics in parks. Most years have passed forgettably: Notable only for the inevitable sigh of relief that came when it was over. We're big fans of #OccupyMothersDay, organized by our friends at Modern Loss, and their vows to have the day Mom would want you to have: "to kick Mother’s Day in the ass and then make out with it" (er, my mom might have phrased it differently, but hey).  

In the end, the same rule applies on Mother's Day as every other day: Whatever you do, do you. 

For inspiration, check out our top Mother's Day reads: 

  1. The Unmothered, Ruth Margalit 
    Borrowing a phrase from Meghan O'Rourke, Margalit explores what it means to be unmothered, not motherless: shaped by the women whose whose faces we occasionally glimpse in a mirror, whose words float back at the most unexpected triggers. The way that time both heals and creates its own ache, driving us farther and farther apart from the people we’ve lost. The way we continue on, and the lingering glow of those we carry with us.
  2. Unmothered, on Mother's Day, Meghan O'Rourke
    Speaking of Meghan: In this fab piece for Slate a few years back, O'Rourke talks about her changed relationship with the Hallmark holiday her mother hated.
  3. Mother's Day, and the Myth of Indispensability, Vu Le  
    Terrific read from Vu Le, the blogger behind Nonprofit With Balls. It's written for folks in the nonprofit world, but it's fair to say it applies to us all. He talks about the way in which we "don't just lose someone just once, but multiple times" as old memories blur, and the "myth of indispensability" that keeps us from spending time with the people we love, and remembering to hold on to that which is truly indispensable while we have the chance.  
  4. Mother's Day Rituals, Millennial Style, Ruby Dutcher 
    Modern Loss intern Ruby Dutcher, a senior at Barnard, penned this stunning piece on preparing (gleefully) to lash out on Mother's Day, only to be let down when the day proved to be all too ordinary. Rather than wallow, she summoned her friends for a "Mother's Day Ritual" in the park, involving her mom's go-to Tootsie Rolls, and a chance to share stories about the mothers, living or dead, who raised them. 
     
A Mother's Day brunch we held in 2011. The first time I remember the day not sucking. 

A Mother's Day brunch we held in 2011. The first time I remember the day not sucking. 

Dinner Partier Spotlight: Meet Ben Kander, Founder of WELLY Bottle

Everyone loves a good lightning-bolt moment: The sudden flash of insight that leads to the birth of an idea, and eventually, in the secret (or not-so-secret) imaginings of every hell-bent entrepreneur, to the next Apple, or Patagonia, or spork.

On Monday, Ben Kander launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the first production run of the WELLY Bottle, a sleek new water bottle that’s both good for the consumer or user (your call), and good for the planet.

Maybe the story begins when Ben, armed with a degree in sustainable business, picked up Start Something That Matters. Or maybe when he learned about the toxic fumes generated by the manufacturing of most water bottles, or the fact that more than 80% of water bottles end up in landfills. Maybe it began while he was working in London, and found himself wishing for a water bottle that could fit in his backpocket. But really, it’s a story that begins with Cancer Be Glammed, and Steeltown Entertainment, and the 21 years Ben spent learning from his mom, Ellen (“Elly”) Kander.

Elly was a pillar of the Jewish and philanthropic communities of Pittsburgh. In 2009, she and a friend, Lisa, who had breast cancer, founded Cancer Be Glammed, to help women recover their self-esteem and feel stylish, amidst the debilitating effects of chemo and radiation treatments and constant onslaught of pity faces. Years earlier, she co-founded Steeltown Entertainment, a nonprofit responsible for bringing millions of dollars of revenue to Pittsburgh, by revitalizing the city’s film and television industry.

The oldest of three siblings, Ben was a senior in college when, in 2012, Elly was diagnosed with liver cancer. A lesion found years before was never checked, until it was too late. She died a year later, just after he graduated.

Shortly afterward, he moved to NYC and started working a standard 9-5 job. It was there that he began incubating the idea for WELLY.

Along the way, he discovered TDP. His fiance introduced him to a good friend of hers, Kevin, who co-hosted the first Dinner Party table in Brooklyn.

He was hesitant at first: He’d tried grief groups in the past, and always left the experience feeling worse than when he’d arrived. When he got to Kevin's, he found something very different. For the first hour so, they simply ate and hung out, as you would with any group of friends. By the time loss was mentioned, everyone was already comfortable with one another.

“I felt so at home,” he says. “My friends would always say, 'I'm here for you whenever you want to talk.' They can listen, but they can't really add. There, we were laughing, there was a lightness to it.”

“Every time I’ve left, I’ve felt a sigh of relief, like I removed this set of toxins. Yeah, we get emotional, yeah, we get sad, but every time afterward, I feel better and that's such a blessing.”

It’s that same ying and yang effect--the good, born of the bad--he says, that’s become a familiar part of starting a company, and everything that’s happened since his mom passed.

Early on, he cried every time he got in the shower. “I've learned that when something traumatic happens to you, you can't fight it. As kids, you numb yourself and you don't take it on, and a lot of times that comes back to you in a negative way.”

The sadness never goes away, he says. But today, he is, in equal measure, fueled by his mom’s legacy.

Inspired by his mom’s commitment to living well and giving back, Ben has built wellness and sustainability into every aspect of the WELLY bottle, from the bamboo and renewable resources that go into its production, to the filtration system, that purifies the water as you drink it using coconut shells. For every WELLY bottle sold, $1 will go to charity: water, supporting sustainable water projects around the world.

“I do it for her, and I do it with her,” says Ben. “When you have a tough decision to make, you hear this voice in your head telling you what you need to do, even if you don't want to do it. For me, that voice is my mom's, telling me everything she's taught me all my life.”

“Listen to that voice. Let it guide you,” he says. “And I think I have.”

 

Posted on May 8, 2015 and filed under Rituals.

RITUAL: MAKING MUSIC -- For The Living And The Dead

For the Yoruba in Nigeria, funerals are week-long affairs, intended as a celebratory send- off as the deceased transition from one form of existence to another. The fourth day is a “day of play” called Irenoku, meaning literally “playing on the deceased’s behalf,” and is preceded and followed by various other forms of celebration, from feasting to dancing. That tradition is one of several influences behind the “jazz funerals” of New Orleans, a city made famous in part by its inhabitants’ unparalleled ability to throw a good party. A typical jazz funeral begins with a march by family, friends, and a brass band, and typically starts with a somber tone. Once the burial is complete and final goodbyes are said, however, the music hits a different note. Hymns are replaced with upbeat tunes and popular hits, and participants are invited to dance their hearts out, in an act that’s part-cathartic and part-chance to celebrate the life of the deceased.

When was the last time you lost yourself to music?

Kevin's Story

I’ve been playing music since I was a little kid. I started singing into a turkey baster when I could barely walk, and then moved to the piano at around seven years old. Music has been with me ever since, and has culminated in the completion of my first EP. Every song, guitar string, and saxophone blow has been as result of my mom’s dedication.

My mom wasn’t exactly a musical connoisseur, and I barely remember her ever introducing me to good music, but that didn’t stop her from encouraging me to pursue my passion. She bought
me my first piano and saxophone, and made sure I stuck with my practice. At every recital, audition, and performance, she was right in front doing what moms do— embarrassing me mostly, but cheering me on nonetheless.

When my mom met my stepdad, he jumped on the Kevin music wagon just as intensely as my mother did. So many great nights were spent at home, me strumming on my guitar and my stepdad clogging away. He was Irish after all, and I guess the music spoke to him, even if I was playing rock music and not an Irish jingle.

When I lost my mom and stepdad in a plane crash, I immediately flew back to North Carolina. I brought a quickly packed bag, and a slowly packed guitar case. I knew all I needed were the clothes on my back and my six-string. I wrote a song the day before their memorial service, played it before a huge crowd of friends and family, and recorded it for my EP. It’s called “Denny’s Song,” and you can listen to it on my website, kevindanielmiller.com. When I need to remind myself how proud my parents were of me, or just feel that connection to their spirit, I pick up my guitar, and start singing.

RECIPE: Eggplant Creole 

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Posted on April 1, 2015 and filed under Rituals, Recipes + Rituals, Recipes.

RITUAL: NOURISHING — Because We Are What We Eat

We are what we eat, so the saying goes. It’s no secret that how we feel often determines what we eat. What’s less known is that what we eat determines what we feel — and we’re not just talking about stomach aches and hangovers. When experiencing loss, our brains often produce more CRH, a hormone that produces anxiety-like symptoms. Increased stress stimulates the central nervous system, which can affect everything from our breathing to our sleep patterns. Our digestion, metabolism, circulation and respiration change. Our ability to concentrate and pay attention decreases. We’re left awash in casseroles and baked goods, yet lack the appetite and energy required to pick up a fork.

Fortunately, there are certain foods that feed both mind and body, and can help to combat feelings of anxiety, fatigue, irritability, and even depression. With the help of our friends at Peace Meals, we’ve pulled together a few tips on finding foods that are chock-full of the kind of vitamins you need to add a spring to your step.

And don’t forget: nourishing ourselves is not just about what you eat, but whom you eat it with, and the care that went into making it. 

So just as you’d pair the right fish with the right wine (see Wine Pairings), try pairing foods according to your mood. Go ahead: Eat, drink, and make thyself merry.

Anxious?
Have a glass of milk, or a fistful of kale. Calcium, the common ingredient in both, acts as a natural tranquilizer. Indeed, calcium deficiencies are common among people who are highly stressed. Supplement that with B vitamins, which help to maintain a healthy nervous system. Pay particular
heed to B1 (Thiamine), found in asparagus, spinach, green peas, and brussels sprouts, B5 (Pantothenic acid, known as the most potent anti- stress vitamin), found in mushrooms, cauliflower, sunflower seeds, and broccoli, and B6, found in leafy greens, tuna, bananas, poultry, and liver.

Fatigued?
Constant tiredness can come with poor memory, difficulty concentrating, muscle aches, and loss of appetite, to name but a few symptoms. Try adding more iron to your diet, which combats anemia. You can find it in animal proteins, like red meats, oysters, clams, and poultry, as well as quinoa, dried figs, prunes, chard, spinach, thyme, and turmeric. Also recommended: lean proteins, found in lentils, nuts, red meats, fish, and beans, & Vitamin C, which is necessary for iron absorption, and may increase energy as well. Swig a glass of OJ, and take a bite (or several) of broccoli, bell peppers, kale, strawberries and raspberries, citrus fruits, mustard and turnip greens, fennel, or parsley. And there’s more: choline, an amino acid which increases acetylcholine in the body—which in turn strengthens brain cells—can be found in egg yolks, soybeans, peanuts, potatoes, cauliflower, flax seeds, lentils, and oats. Lecithin, found in liver, kidneys, egg yolks, and soy, is known to promote energy and enhance immunity, and malic acid, found in pineapples, apples, cherries, lemons, and raspberries, can aid energy production in cells, including muscle cells. It’s also key for sugar metabolism. Last but not least, Vitamin B12 (found in red meats, sardines, snapper, and almonds) is a natural energy booster: pair it with B6, which helps its absorption.

Depressed?
While eating the right foods alone won’t cure clinical depression, they can help to lift one’s mood. Essential fatty acids—including the Omega-3s found in fatty fish, flaxseeds, and nuts, and the alpha- linolenic acid found in dark green leafy vegetables, walnuts, soybean oil, canola oil, and flaxseeds—affect the transmission of nerve impulses needed for normal brain function. Tryptophan is an amino acid which helps synthesize serotonin, a “feel- good” neurochemical shown to reduce anxiety and depression. You’ll find it in turkey, red meat, dairy products, nuts, seeds, bananas, soy products, tuna, and shellfish. Proteins found in beans, fish, beef, poultry, dairy and soy products contain tyrosine, another amino acid, which stimulates dopamine and norepinephrine. Both may boost energy and mental clarity. Folate
and folic acid aid in red blood cell development and circulation, as well as normal neurological function, and may help to prevent depression and irritability. Score it via egg yolks, legumes, lentils, dark green veggies, asparagus, parsley, cauliflower, and beets. Finally, take yourself out for
a stroll: the Vitamin D in sunlight helps in the absorption of calcium and stimulates the production
of cortisol, which can increase energy levels. And there are those B Vitamins again. (Things to avoid: gluten, which has been linked to depressive disorders in those who don’t tolerate the protein, aspartame, which may block the formation of serotonin, refined sugars, alcohol, and caffeine.)

Irritable?
Chances are you could use more calcium and magnesium, which helps with calcium absorption. Magnesium can be found in leafy greens (especially swiss chard, spinach, mustard, kale, dandelion, arugula, & collards), summer squash, broccoli, black-eyed peas, kidney & lima beans, avocado, bananas, peanuts, and almonds. Potassium is a good one, as it’s essential for proper functioning of adrenal glands and muscles: find it in fennel, kale, mustard greens, brussels sprouts, broccoli, winter squash, eggplant, cantaloupe, and tomatoes. And as with depression, tryptophan and folate/folic acid, aren’t a bad idea.

How are you feeding yourself?

RITUAL: WHEN GRIEF GETS PHYSICAL: Eat for the Mood You Want (Jill's Story)

RECIPE: Magic Mineral Broth & Carrot Ginger Soup 

 

Posted on April 1, 2015 and filed under Recipes, Recipes + Rituals, Rituals.

RECIPE: French Toast

My most memorable recipe is my dad’s French Toast. Simply eggs, milk, and a little cinnamon all mixed up and then whatever bread is around. The ratios are variable, and the most important thing is maple syrup at the end.

- Peter, New York 

Ingredients: 

  • Eggs
  • Milk 
  • Cinnamon 
  • Bread 
  • Maple syrup

Instructions: 

  1. Whisk together the eggs, milk, and cinnamon. 
  2. Dip each slice of bread into the mixture, and give it a few seconds to really soak it in. 
  3. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium high heat, and fry until nice and brown. Flip it, and do the same on the other side. 
  4. Serve hot with (ample) maple syrup.

RITUAL: PLANTING NEW SEEDS -- Before We Can Bloom Again

Posted on April 1, 2015 and filed under Recipes, Recipes + Rituals, Rituals.

Why Engaging Millennials in End of Life Planning Matters, and How to Do It

Last week, I had a chance to speak at the National Summit on Advanced Illness Care in Washington, DC, hosted by the Coalition to Transform Advanced Care. The Summit brought together hundreds of people working to improve the lives of the seriously ill, and to ensure that their wishes are known and respected. The room included doctors, policymakers, patients, researchers, and advocates: People who have been instrumental in seeing to it that more and more Americans die in hospice, rather than in ICUs. 

I was asked to speak on the opening panel about "Engaging Multiple Generations". Moderated by Pulitzer-Prize-winning-journalist-turned-social-entrepreneur (/hero) Ellen Goodman, founder of The Conversation Project the panel aimed to capture key strategies for changing how people think about and plan for end-of-life care.  

Initially, I wasn't sure what I was doing up there: Our community is, for the most part, comprised of people who find us after a loss. We don't actually spend a lot of time talking about death and dying, let alone our own end-of-life wishes; our conversations tend to be more present-tense. I know enough to know advance directives are a good idea, but haven't bothered to figure out the process. I seem to remember signing something at an event once: Was it a Five Wishes form? Good luck ever finding that again. I've heard of people hosting parties in which they each sign living wills, but even now, my gut response is "unfun". The idea of talking to my family members about their end-of-life wishes falls under the category, "yeah should do that...someday". My hesitation boiled down to one nagging question: Why bother engaging millennials in a conversation about end-of-life planning and advanced care in the first place?

And then I realized that was the problem. We hear from people all the time who've lost siblings or partners or friends their same age, or who expected to have decades more with their parents; people who've spent months or years as caregivers, watching a person they love battle advanced illness. Diagnosed at the age of 50 with Stage IV lung cancer, my mom insisted on talking openly about what was happening, and spent the final four months of her life in hospice care. And yet, here I was, still subject to the myth that death and dying affects people only when they’re older.

The reality is that people die before they should, and The Conversation isn’t just something for Baby Boomers. Two million Americans under the age of 30 lost a parent or sibling in the last two years. One in seven will lose a parent or sibling before they’re 20.
 
The scar tissue left by a bad death can have hugely devastating consequences at any age, but that’s particularly true for people at the moment they're poised to launch careers and families of their own, and to find their footing in the world. So if we can’t avoid death, it’s important that we do everything we can to avoid bad deaths. 

From the start, we’ve been completely overwhelmed by demand. Since opening our doors, we’ve grown to 40+ tables in 18 cities and counting, powered by over 65 hosts and hundreds of Dinner Partiers. The reason? It turns out that it’s actually a lot easier to spark a conversation around death and dying and end-of-life care than we make it out to be, for two reasons:

  1. Everyone has a story. It’s obviously easier to talk about what you know. So while most millennials haven’t lived through advanced illness themselves, or taken care of an aging parent, almost everyone knows someone who has. Starting a conversation about how we show up to each other as friends is an entry-point to encouraging people to rethink how they prepare for it personally. 
  2. We’re seeing this big reaction against overwhelming banality. Amidst the Kardashians and cat videos, we’re finding that young people are really hungry to talk about deeper questions about life and death and how to do both better. The problem is not that people don’t want to talk about these issues: It’s just there isn’t the right environment to do so.

Okay, so it's important. Check. Then the challenge becomes how: How do you actually get our gen through the door? 

We're guessing that the rules for engaging a younger crowd in conversations about loss also apply to advanced care planning and encouraging them to initiate conversations about end-of-life wishes--whether their own or those of the people they love. Three key tips come to mind: 

  1. Where possible, keep it peer-to-peer. What we’re seeing is a mass revolt against institutions of any kind. There was a Pew study last Spring that showed that millennials are less likely to associate themselves with organized religion or a particular political party than any generation before them. But when you dig deeper it turns out the cause of that isn’t apathy; it’s mistrust. Millennials are seeking out in each other what they previously found in institutions. More than 50% of those who reach out to us heard about it from a friend. For us, it’s been a huge draw that people they know or relate to are leading the conversation, so they’re much more willing to share it with their friends. Turns out that less control is actually better than more control, and that humans are better at being human than we give them credit for.
  2. Let 20-30-somethings be 20-30-somethings. To address childhood bereavement, the grief community made a marked shift over the last decade toward creating spaces where kids can be kids: so you see a lot of summer camps for grieving children and adolescents, and art and games to help children process and open up about their experiences. What we need are spaces where 20- and 30-somethings can be 20- and 30-somethings. 
  3. Make it fun, and don’t fear snark. Too often, we think serious matters require serious speak. We’ve found that the same rules of the internet apply: Don’t speak like a robot, and don’t use photos of white doves or ocean waves. For us, that translates into using the phrase “abstain from bullshit” in our manifesto, and insisting that everything we do be a party.

As our friends at The Conversation Project would say: Let's have dinner and talk about death, y'all. 

Being There: Introducing new campaign + downloadable tips for what to say & do when next you find a friend in need

BeingThere_cover.jpg

We’re teaming up with our friends at Help Each Other Out to launch "Being There", a nationwide campaign inviting people to read about and share the gestures that meant the most to them following a significant loss. The campaign includes a series of posters housed in storefronts, featuring photos and stories of various Dinner Partiers from across the country and the actions friends and neighbors took in their moments of greatest need. Beginning in February, posters can be found in San Francisco, to be followed by exhibits in Brooklyn and Los Angeles. 

SHARE YOUR STORY: 

We all know how easy it is to say the wrong thing. What gestures meant the most to you, immediately following a significant loss, or long after?

Tweet us at @DinnerPartiers and @2helpout or tag us on Instagram at @TheDinnerParty and @help_each_other_out. Add your story using the hashtag #helpeachotherout, and follow along for tips & stories of actions big and small that mattered most.  

DISCOVER TIPS:  

Wondering what to say and do when someone you love loses someone they love? We polled the men and women who've sat down at our tables to find out the best and worst things people said or did in the immediate aftermath of loss, and long after. We compiled the resulting tips into a downloadable guide, to help you be the friend you want to be (or at the very least, to avoid putting your foot in your mouth).

In a hurry? Remember ye this: 

  1. Beware The Pity Face. Treating someone who’s just undergone a major loss “normally” may seem counterintuitive. After all, it’s better to acknowledge a friend’s loss than to carry on as though nothing happened, right? Right. But losing someone we love is also deeply unmooring. We crave some semblance of control, and long to fix things, knowing full well that the real thing we want to fix is beyond our reach. We keep ourselves busy for fear of what we’ll be left with when we’re left alone. Despite the fact that everything feels different, we long for our old selves, and seek out reassurance that we haven’t lost everything we had the day before.
  2. Don’t wait for someone to tell you how you can help: Offer something specific. Or just do it. However well-intentioned, bland offerings of help rarely work. Few of us like asking for help, and in the immediate aftermath of a loss, we struggle to name what we need. Instead, be as specific as possible with what you can offer, whether that’s running out for toilet paper or groceries, babysitting or mowing the lawn, or ordering a food delivery service.
  3. Don’t tip-toe, don’t compare, and don’t whitewash. Do listen. Most of our common platitudes are born out of good intentions. We want somehow to lessen the blow, or to find a silver lining, or to fix the unfixable. We gloss over pain and seek reassurance that everything is okay, even if those reassurances are cloaked in silence and concealment. Rather than run away from the discomfort, try sitting with it, and don’t be afraid to ask a question, even if you might be afraid to hear the answer.
  4. Tell me about… Often, one of the best things we can do for each other is to make space to remember those who now live only in memory, by asking questions about those who’ve died.
  5. Stick around. While our experiences change over time, there’s no such thing as going back, or “moving on” or “getting over it” – at least not in the traditional sense. Two, six, and sixteen years out, we no longer identify as “grieving,” and resist what feels like an open declaration that something’s wrong. Yet we remain no less colored by the experience.


Posted on February 3, 2015 .

The Dinner Party Top 7

Ah, the end of the year: A time of celebration and champagne toasts, reflection and resolution-making, and Top 10 digests.

This was the year we opened our doors, and turned what had been a spark among a small collection of friends and friends-of-friends into a full-on blaze. So we figured our year wouldn’t be complete without a list of our own.

Here are a few things we've learned along the way: 

1. Everyone’s an expert & no one’s an expert. When we sat down at our first dinner, we weren’t looking to be fixed or even helped: We craved connection and community and good food and good company. We’ve learned since that hosting doesn’t require a clinical degree, or a professional coaching certificate. We learned that the single most important factor in hosting a Dinner Party is the ability to hold space: To listen, to ask open and honest questions, to model #realtalk, and to steer clear of advice-giving. 

2. It’s all about the art of imperfection. We’ve learned that you’re actually right on time if you’re running a little late - guests feel more included if they help put the finishing touches on the meal or table setting. (And we’re not just saying that to assuage guilt, we swear.) We’ve learned that no meal is complete without something sweet, and people equally enjoy a baked masterpiece or a few pints of Ben & Jerry’s served with a pile of spoons. And we’ve been shown that family recipes are great conversation starters - even if the old recipe card is long gone and you’re using the closest thing to it from the Internet.

But owning your imperfection goes deeper than that: The best hosts don’t pretend to have answers, or to have achieved some mythic state of zenned out wisdom. Successful hosting requires a willingness to go first: To lead with your own vulnerability, to speak honestly, to name the mess rather than run away from it.  

3. Moving forward is not the same as moving on. Early on, we began to notice something interesting: Those around our tables who’d never publicly acknowledged their experiences, or found a way to remember or celebrate the person they’d lost, began to take inspiration from those who had. We grew inspired by Dinner Partiers who were running marathons, or interviewing their parent’s friends, or completing service projects in their loved one’s memory. 

The more we try to bury something, or shove it under the rug, or move on, the more space it takes up in our lives. It turns out there’s science behind personal rituals, and their relationship to grief: They’re part of how we embrace a new normal, without letting go the people and experiences that have shaped who we are. 

4. In a culture that’s largely void of rituals, food remains the great exception. Whoever we are and wherever we come from, we are each bound by our relationship to food: whether it’s over sit-down dinner parties, or backyard barbecues, food offers a way to celebrate with friends and family, new and old. It gives us a chance to share where we’ve come from and to reflect on where we’re going. It provides a way to give and receive care. 

5. The journey is yours alone, but you are not alone in journeying. We’ve come to appreciate that everyone has a story, whether they’ve lived through loss firsthand, or watched someone who has. We’ve had people start dinner tables around divorce, miscarriage, and an array of topics and shared experiences we typically keep under lock and key. The stories that we scrupulously avoid are precisely the ones that bind us together, and are precisely the ones we should be talking about. 

6. Contrary to popular belief, people actually really want to talk about death and dying and life after. We’re seeing once-tabooed topics open up on an unprecedented scale, and 2014 was a total doozy in that department. This year saw conversations open up about street harassment and sexual assault, about race and racism, about gender and gender identity, and yes, death and dying and grief. Amidst the Kardashians, cat videos, and empty news reports, we’re finding that people are really hungry to talk about deeper questions about why we’re here, and to share the parts of themselves they otherwise keep hidden. 

7. Family is something we can choose to make. It’s often easy to dwell on what we don’t have, or what we never had to begin with—particularly around the holidays. But as OnBeing contributor Courtney Martin writes, “It is our families that shape us from the very beginning, but it is our friends that truly define us down the road. They are the ones we get to invite into our lives.” Ours is a transitory age: A time in which it’s totally normal to live hundreds of miles from the worlds in which we grew up. Now more than ever, we  need people we can call when we need to flash the bat signal: People who get it, who can see us through our worst days, and celebrate our best. 

 

Posted on December 31, 2014 and filed under Rituals.

RECIPE: Cá kho tộ (Vietnamese Braised Catfish)

There were no cookbooks in our house growing up, and my mom never consulted a recipe to make her meals of Chinese, Vietnamese, and American-inspired dishes. My mom passed before I became interested in cooking, so I never got to apprentice alongside her in the kitchen. 

What she did pass along was the ritual of home-cooked family dinners every single weeknight.
Watercress soup, braised pork belly with egg, kai-lan with oyster sauce...all served family-style with a big pot full of steamed rice. There was nothing better than the slurry of cooked egg yolk and salty-sweet caramel sauce from the braised pork belly.

When I’m homesick, I make this catfish version to satiate the craving. It’s traditionally made in a claypot but works just as well without.

- Christina, San Francisco

Ingredients: 

Coat and marinate 6–8 one-inch catfish steaks in the following for a half hour or more:

  • 1 tbsp chopped green onion (white part only) 
  • 2 tbsp fish sauce
  • 1 tbsp chopped ginger
  • 3–4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 1⁄2 tbsp of sugar
  • 1 tsp chili peppers, chopped (optional) 
  • Salt and pepper

Instructions: 

  1. Make a caramel sauce by reducing about 2 tbsp of sugar or brown sugar in 1⁄4 cup of water at a rolling simmer, stirring until dark brown. Set aside.
  2. Heat a few glugs of cooking oil on high heat in a large thick-bottomed pan. Add the fish in one layer and brown on both sides (the centers will still be uncooked). 
  3. Add in the rest of the marinade liquid and the caramel sauce. Once that boils, reduce heat to low, cover with a lid, and simmer for 30–40 minutes. The dish is done when the sauce is thickened, and the fish steaks are a rich brown color.
  4. Toss in some more chopped green onions and whole red chili peppers toward the end of cooking for garnish. 
  5. Serve family-style with steamed jasmine rice, a seasonal vegetable stir-fried with garlic, and a brothy soup of your choice.

RITUAL: READING ALONG -- When Their Story Is Your Story

This piece appears in Finding What Feeds Us: Rituals & Recipes for Living Well After Loss

RITUAL: READING ALONG -- When Their Story Is Your Story

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live." — Joan Didion

The Greeks were definitely on to something. The idea of catharsis — of releasing feelings by watching someone else going through the motions of our emotions — is a powerful force, and can be your best friend in the periods following a major loss. Our culture is one where grief is “dealt with” in private (if at all), and saying we’re “hanging in there” is more accepted than really letting ourselves go. By experiencing the stories of others, whether watching a film in a sold out movie theater or curling up with an old paperback in bed, we have the chance to try out different ways of moving through loss. We have a chance to feel similar and seen, not alone in the deep worry, relief, fear, hope and pain that can come with loss. We can be a character’s companion to the depths of despair, and together find our way through the darkness. We witness what seemed to work for our heroes and heroines, and what didn’t—and can take those lessons back to our own life path.

Thankfully, “grief memoirs” are being penned by today’s most celebrated authors, and films with powerful stories of loss and triumph are waiting to be streamed online. And remember, only one half of the iconic drama mask is crying. Straight-up laughter is powerful medicine, too. So maybe the greatest catharsis will come not from reliving the difficult moments of loss, but from a snack-stocked marathon of your favorite comedies. Happy reading, watching and moving forward.

Here’s our recommended reading list—crowdsourced from Dinner Partiers across the country:

  1. Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed
  2. The Long Goodbye, Meghan O’Rourke
  3. The Rules of Inheritance, Claire Bidwell Smith 
  4. The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
  5. A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis
  6. Grieving Mindfully, Sumeet Kumar
  7. Broken Open, Elizabeth Lesser
  8. Motherless Daughters, Hope Edelman
  9. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers 
  10. I Wasn't Ready To Say Goodbye, Pamela Blair
  11. We Bed Down Into Water, John Rybicki
  12. Your Illustrated Guide to Being One With the Universe, Yumi Sakugawa
  13. Collected works of Flannery O'Connor
  14. Let This Darkness Be a Belltower, R.M. Rilke
  15. Lucia Series, E.F. Benson
  16. Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling
  17. The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri
  18. Daring Greatly, Brené Brown
  19. When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chödrön
  20. Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach

Which stories are finding you?

Christina's Story

Books have been my drug of choice since the summer after second grade when I got my first library card and my first pair of glasses. Reading is entertainment and escape, adventure and anesthesia, research and reflection.

Cheryl Strayed, Rebecca Solnit, Alison Bechdel, Elizabeth McCracken—these were my guides through grief precisely because they weren’t trying to be guides. These weren’t self-help or how-to books; instead they were personal explorations of loss. Here I found memoirs that captured the gamut of emotions from cold shock to numbing sadness to unwieldy rage to unbounded joy. In these books, tears lived alongside laughter... and in each story I found something that mirrored my own experience.

These women’s honesty gave me the courage to pick up my own pen again. For me, the only way to get past the surreal nature of losing both my parents was to transform it into a story...my story. Writing is my way of reclaiming control of the messy process that is grief. Through crafting stories out of words and pictures, I’m able to process my emotions and understand them just little bit better. I’m able to remember and honor the memory of my parents. And I’m able to fuel my own healing process by shining a light onto all of it.

RECIPE: Cá Kho Tộ (Vietnamese Braised Catfish)

Posted on December 18, 2014 and filed under Rituals, Recipes + Rituals, Recipes.

On Ferguson, and Equality in Life and Death

Photo by Flickr user Light Brigading

Photo by Flickr user Light Brigading

“I’d like to extend my deepest sympathies to the family of Michael Brown. As I’ve said in the past, I know that regardless of the circumstances, they experienced the loss of a loved one to violence, and I know that the pain that accompanies such a loss knows no bounds.”

Before the minute was up, St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch turned his attention from empty platitudes to social media. For the next two minutes and 24 seconds, he issued what would be the first of many attempts to dismiss and discredit witness testimony and media reports, and all who mourned and mourn the death of Michael Brown.

McCulloch has been soundly and rightly eviscerated for Monday’s press conference, so I won’t belabor the point. What has been less talked about is that what Bob McCulloch did in those opening three minutes is played out on a national stage each and every day. Confronted by systemic trauma, and a level of grief that is generations in the making, we offer perfunctory expressions of sympathy, and ask for silence in return. Just as we are not treated equally in life, we are not treated equally in death.

Between 2005-2012, nearly two black men a week were killed by white policemen in the US, according to a report by USA Today: a statistic that’s likely dwarfed by reality, given that we have no federal database on the number of deadly police shootings, and accurate numbers are consequently hard to come by. A study by Pro-Publica found that young black males were 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than their white counterparts. On Sunday, a 12-year-old African American boy was shot in the stomach and killed, when Cleveland police mistook his toy gun for a real one.

Among those who’ve lived through loss, the experience of having a friend or colleague express quick words of sympathy before immediately changing the subject is one that is all too familiar. To families and entire communities left in a perpetual cycle of compounded grief, we offer platitudes and sympathy: empty words designed to fill the silence, before we change the subject.

That ours is a nation that is profoundly uncomfortable with grief and death is hardly news. But the roots of what’s happening in Ferguson, and our failure to acknowledge the pounding grief that is, for many people of color in America, part of a daily reality, lay somewhere else entirely.

I spend a lot of time thinking about and talking about and writing about loss, and I work with and alongside many others who are doing the same. I can say with some confidence that vulnerability is newly in vogue, and that conversations about death and dying are opening up as never before. Yet those efforts -- our efforts -- too often ignore a central fact: we cannot talk about poverty, race, systems-failure, or opportunity in America without talking about grief. And we cannot talk about grief without talking about those for whom grief is the product, not of one loss or of several losses, but of countless losses, born out daily in the streets and sustained over generations. The story of Mike Brown, and the decision of a grand jury not to indict the police officer who shot him, demands we ask whose deaths and whose grief we choose to take seriously.

I understand how easy it is to stay silent on the subject, to believe it is better to say nothing at all. I do not know what it is to be met with distrust each time I step into an elevator, or a clothing store. I do not know what it is to raise a child whose safety on the streets is at constant risk due to the color of his skin. I do know what it is to experience the combination of acute pain and overwhelming numbness that so often accompanies loss. But I do not know what it is like to live with that combination day in and day out, as each loss compounds in the wake of chronic, complex, and collective trauma.

But I do know that the minute we begin to “other” each other, to think that because we don’t know what to say, it is better to say nothing at all, we deny each other a voice and a chance to be seen and to be heard. I do know that such silences become yet another way of silencing each other, of ignoring systemic abuses, of perpetuating the status quo.

There are no words that will give Leslie McSpadden her son back. But her grief can be witnessed. We can acknowledge the raw, visceral anguish of a mother, whose unarmed son was shot “six or seven times,” in McCulloch’s words, and we can do so without averting our gaze. And we can sit with the collective rage and historic grief erupting on the streets of Ferguson and cities across the country, without changing the subject.  

Posted on November 26, 2014 .

When Grief Gets Physical: Eat for the mood you want

Jill and her brother, Doug, on her wedding day.

Jill and her brother, Doug, on her wedding day.

My twin brother Doug died by suicide in February 2010, just before a massive snowstorm shut down travel and closed most business and government offices on the east coast. For a few days it was as it should be – the world stopped. After the memorial and death-related paperwork, I moved into my childhood bedroom, still wallpapered lovingly in blue. I visited hospitals, called doctors, and had conversations that made my body shake to get help for other family members in serious distress.  My chest was tight and cavernous. At unpredictable times, shooting pain would volt through my heart.  This was heartbreak.
 
The most mysterious change at first was what happened to my mind. On autopilot, I re-experienced conversations Doug and I had, first from the day before he died, then weeks and months before, all the way back to before kindergarten. Each memory ran through my head over and over, constantly changing in a painful search for a better ending than what came about. Trying to fix. Creating more time.
 
I was so far "in it" that although I sometimes noticed when the sun rose, it didn’t influence when I slept. One day, I watched from my bedroom window as teenagers filed down the block on what was clearly the first day of school. Summer ended? When did it start? I was out of sync, drawn inward. Three realizations got me living again.
 
First, I had to admit that I was destroying myself. Clearly my grief became sandbag-like depression. It's just feelings, right? But why was my hair falling out? Did cuts on my skin take that long to heal before? Why would a thirty-something develop eczema? How does one pick up a staph infection? My mind was slow, confused and unreliable. I drew maps to run routine errands, started to-do lists with the bullet “find both shoes,” and set an alarm to remind myself about soup re-heating on the stove.  I could no longer calculate percentages to determine a sale price, remember new names or faces, or read articles longer than a few paragraphs. I moved so slowly that once a cabdriver pulled over to pick me up because he didn’t realize I was in motion. My thoughts were destroying my body. I recalled watching this happen to Doug. I set out to find out how this happens.
 
Second, I accepted that Doug would always be dead. I could keep thinking about it forever—my mind was capable of that. But others I love were alive and suffering. I decided to divert my attention to actually doing for others what I wished I had done for him. This turned out to be more challenging, surprising, and eventually more rewarding than daydreaming.
 
Third was the day I hit my wall. I tried running a few nearby errands, and collapsed when I got back. It took minutes to crawl up the stairs to my apartment, and I prayed that all eight doors facing the stairwell would stay closed. I had nothing left to give.
 
My husband was away on a work trip, which meant meals were pasta that week. I knew I needed food. This time even boiling water was too much. There was a box of pre-washed spinach in our mini fridge. I sat on the floor with my head leaning against a cabinet, and ate small mouthfuls with water.  I fell asleep and when I awoke, took a shower, got dressed in an actual outfit and did three loads of laundry.  It felt like I had drunk Miracle Grow. Next day’s meals reverted to cereal and pasta, and I did nothing. Then I tried spinach again, with chicken that time, and found with that I could do things.
 
I took a deep dive into understanding how food changes our body and mind. I learned I needed to eat protein at nearly every meal to stabilize my blood sugar, that a candida infection caused my sugar and pasta cravings and the resulting “brain fog.”  I was deficient in magnesium and the amino acids and antioxidants that allow for healthy liver function, and had developed food allergies and an H. Pylori infection. My immune system was so over-reactive that I became allergic to dust and my joints were inflamed with arthritis. After twelve years as a vegetarian, I began eating local meat. I sought out a functional medicine practitioner to discover exactly what foods and supplements my deficient body needed. When I wanted to have a day with purpose, I ate with purpose.  
 
It turns out thoughts are intended to change the way our bodies work: everything from how much glucose we use, to what hormones we signal, and when we release enzymes. Put simply, our emotional experiences use our physical resources. If we experience certain emotions over and over, eventually those physical resources get depleted. In reverse, a body can become depleted due to unique nutritional needs, gene expression, exposure to chemicals, overwork or physical stress, and the mind can experience this as mental illness. Fortunately, nature created ways to replenish, and one of the most powerful of those ways is food. We can eat for the mood we want to have.
 
I eventually founded JustHealth to promote the understanding that mental and physical health are interdependent. With a braver, clearer mind, I now offer suicide prevention, integrative mental health awareness, and mindfulness training workshops. Families and individuals dealing with grief, difficult moods and emotions, and mental illness in all form and degrees, come to learn about the science of emotions and how to use food as medicine. Friends, co-workers and clinicians come to learn how to help.
 
Health is not all about food and thoughts, but a large part of it is. If you think you’ve tried it all, but don’t know exactly which foods support or deplete your body, there is more out there for you backed by science and clinical experience. It’s just health, and a lot of healing is available in your kitchen. 

 

Jill Sheppard Davenport is a Dinner Party host and Integrative Mental Health Educator. She founded JustHeath (www.itsjusthealth.com) to promote the understanding that mental and physical health are interdependent. Jill is pursuing a Master’s in Nutrition and Integrative Health.

Posted on November 3, 2014 and filed under Rituals.