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 .