Dia de los Muertos, celebrating those we carry, & remembering to always eat the bread

“Can we, um, eat it?” Sean cautiously slips the spatula under a slice of the pan de muerto, which, only minutes before, sat, round loaf intact, on our makeshift altar in the newly emptied shed behind us.

I realize I don’t quite know how this is supposed to work: I’d read the dead are believed to consume the scents and “essence” of their favorite foods, meaning those around the table could consume the real thing. Michelle had brought Mexican Cokes, a favorite of her dad’s. I contributed a sweet potato casserole and a blinged out salad meant to satisfy the gods, or, more to the point, my mom, whose loyalty to the salad menu was unwavering. But I’d also read that bread of the dead—this one covered in a thin layer of pink sugar crystals and shaped to look like cross-bones—was intended as a sweet treat as the spirits begin their journey. Was it also up for grabs, or did removing it from the altar somehow violate its sanctity? And then I remembered: Dia de los Muertos (without the “los,” if you’d prefer to be precise) is all about fun, celebration, color, vibrancy, and above all, life. Of course we eat the bread.  

I’d never heard of Dia de los Muertos before I arrived in California. Sure, I’d heard mention of “Day of the Dead,” and I’d seen pictures of faces painted in black and white, artfully made to resemble skulls. But until then, “altars” were things I’d spied in living room corners in the homes of hippie friends and Buddhist friends alike. The only occasion I’d had to semi-publicly honor a loved one was a funeral. The day after Halloween was the day after Halloween. 

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the holiday at first. This was the very opposite of somber or morose: Altars bedecked in marigolds, skeletons playing guitar and skeletons in tuxes and wedding gowns, hot pinks and bright yellows mixing in with dark purples and black death (I didn't need a tutorial to understand the symbolism there.) Even today, the idea that remembering those who've died can be a culturally sanctioned affair—let alone one that is child-friendly, exuberant, and celebratory—strikes me, quite literally, as other-worldly. 

But it turns out, we’re the weird ones. In Japan, there’s the 500-year-old Bon Festival, which includes a lantern-lighting ceremony known as Tōrō Nagashi, and the Bon Odori, a dance which, in some regions, can last all night. In China, there’s the Hungry Ghost Festival, in which the gates of heaven and hell are believed to open up, allowing ghosts to wander freely for one month. The month-long celebration includes joss paper-burning and elaborate meals meant to appease the ghosts (note: there, too, you’re allowed to eat the food, but only after a 30-minute wait so that the ghosts can have their fill.) Madagascar’s Malagasy participate in famadihana (“Turning the Bones”,) a festival that takes place every seven years, in which living family members open the tombs of the deceased and rewrap the body in scarves, celebrating with music and dance as they do so. Hindus have Pitr Paksha, a 16-day celebration meaning “fortnight of the ancestors,” best known for its food offerings placed on banana leaves.  

A few weeks ago, The Book of Life hit movie theaters. Voiced by actors Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, and Channing Tatum, the animated children's movie tells the story of Manolo, a young suitor who must explore The Land of the Remembered and brave The Land of the Forgotten, all in a quest to win the love of his life.  In an interview on NPR, director Jorge Gutiérrez shared the inspiration for the story, which began when he lost his best friend at the age of nine. "My parents set me down, and said, 'Your friend, Mauricio, he is with you as long as you talk about him and you tell his jokes and you remember him and you keep his memory alive by talking about him."

For much of the world, remembering the dead and celebrating the lives and legacies of those we've lost is the stuff of street festivals and dance parties. Now it's the stuff of children's movies. We think that's as good a signal as any that one day, we'll know to eat the bread. 

Posted on November 3, 2014 and filed under Rituals.

Asking honest, open questions, resisting the need to fix, & letting the light in: Takeaways from our first-ever host retreat

This past weekend, 22 Dinner Party hosts came together for our first-ever host retreat in Point Reyes Station, CA: a tiny town on the coast just north of San Francisco, replete with Douglas firs, foggy mornings, and clear-skied afternoons. One part wellness retreat, one part skill-building fest, one part The Real World for adults (sans the scandal,) the weekend was--if we may be so bold--straight-up magic.

We’ve known from the beginning that successful hosting isn’t about having the perfect thing to say at any moment, or offering help or guidance--and it most certainly isn’t about being an expert. But it does require that we really show up. Hosts have to be willing to model the same vulnerability that we ask of everyone at the table, while simultaneously avoiding the urge to speak at every moment, or to become a dominant voice. We have to listen without distraction, and engage in a conversation, rather than a series of rehearsed narratives. It requires that we be, in the words of today’s bona fide meditation gurus and the many peddlers of those age-old principles, really and truly present. 

Going into the weekend, we had three goals in mind: First and foremost, we invited everyone to get their self-care on. We opened with a morning devoted to going inward: yoga and meditation and indulging in the finest cornmeal pancakes known to humankind.  We reflected on the very real men and women who’d brought us all together, and on where we are today, and where we’d been. At the group’s decree, “Monday AM” was on the list of things we were to leave behind. 

Second, we wanted a chance to share what works and what doesn’t, and to dive into the “how-to’s”: How do you create a space that’s both casual and intimate (#chillpotluckvibes), and simultaneously invites people to go deep? What do you do when someone’s steamrolling a conversation? What’s the difference between an open and honest question and one that’s really advice-giving in disguise? 

And finally, the host retreat was our first chance to bring together folks from across tables, and to begin to paint the canvas together. We wanted to walk away knowing that in five years, we’ll be able to look back on the weekend as a turning point: The moment the seeds of a movement first took root. We may not have a crystal ball, but we’re willing to place a bet: Mission accomplished. 

A few takeaways: 

  1. Be. Don't do. Ours is a culture obsessed with to-do lists: An obsession we share, as one look at our post-it collection will prove. The compulsion to “do” goes beyond the occasional temptation to give advice, or desire to fix, or to correct (all of which should be squelched, pronto.) We want to be the perfect host. We want to make everyone feel instantly at ease, and taken care of. We want to say the perfect things, and create the perfect space, and cook up a main dish that could leave any foodie salivating for more. Among the themes of the weekend was letting go the constant need to do. 
  2. Ask honest, open questions. We were joined over the weekend by the amazing Karen Erlichman, a facilitator with the Center for Courage and Renewal (an org we’ve gushed about before, and that it’s safe to say we’re a teeny tiny bit obsessed with.) Karen shared the distinction between open questions and closed ones, and questions you know the answer to, and questions whose answer you couldn’t possibly guess. It can be tempting to ask a question that’s actually a suggestion: basically anything that begins with the words, “Have you tried…” Asking honest, open questions means focusing on the present tense, rather than the past: “Where are you now,” rather than questions about the past, intended merely to satiate your curiosity. It means lifting up words and phrases you hear: “Say more about that,” and “OMG, I’m so glad you said that--that really resonates.” 
  3. Invite silence. As a general rule, we’re not fans of rules. But one thing we do mention when someone’s joining a table for the first time is that folks are never under any obligation to speak, and that we don’t believe in awkward silences. Yet we’re hardly immune from the compulsion to fill silence, and the tendency to feel uncomfortable the instant a conversation pauses. We were reminded again and again over the weekend of the value of silence, and those rare moments that you can block out the noise, and really listen to yourself. There’s a difference, of course, between silence and feeling silenced, so for those of us who are prone to continually speak up, resisting the urge to jump right in can give someone who hasn’t spoken up in awhile a chance to speak. It can be as easy as starting or closing a dinner with a meditation, or simply making a conscious effort to allow space in between questions and different conversation threads. 
  4. Hold opposites. “Hospitable and charged,” “silence and speech,” “forward movement" and “ugly truths,” “#chillpotluck vibes” vs. “#realtalk,” making space to laugh and to cry, a recognition that every one of our stories is different and that ours is a shared story. We got paradoxes aplenty, which can be challenging when our impulse is to put things in neat little boxes, and constantly categorize. Here, we apply the great law of improv: Yes and, y’all. 
  5. Let the light in. Srsly. Yes, this s*#@ gets heavy. No, we don’t have any interest in pretending otherwise. But “have fun” is, to us, way more than the kind of empty directive found at the bottom of a 10th-grade science assignment. To keep people coming back--hell, to keep coming back ourselves--we have to want to be there. And that means laughing as much as we cry, and forging real friendships, and balancing the light and the dark.

We’ll be heading out to eastern PA for our East Coast host retreat, September 26-28. There are still a couple of spots free for folks looking to start a table of their own, so email lennon@thedinnerparty.org if you want to reserve a spot.  

Huge thanks to everyone who gave during our Indiegogo campaign: You all are what made these two weekends possible. On behalf of all of us here in Dinner Partyland, thank you.   

Posted on September 10, 2014 .

RECIPE: Marian's Apple Pie

My mother made this apple pie for every birthday and other special occasions, because we loved it so much. It became a tradition that everyone in the family always looked forward to. The secret ingredient that makes this pie so delicious is the custard layer between the crust and the apples. It creates the perfect texture. After she passed away, my father continued to make this apple pie for special occasions. But in his cookbook, it’s listed as Marian’s apple pie.

- Jan, San Francisco

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Ingredients: 

  • 4 1/2 pounds Jonagold apples
  • 3 3/4 cup self-rising flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 sticks salted butter (250g) (at room temperature)
  • 1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 cup unsalted bread crumbs
  • 1 tbsp custard powder
  • 2/3 cup raisins
  • 3 tbsp cinnamon sugar (cinnamon mixed with sugar)

Instructions: 

  1. Warm the oven to 350 degrees F. 
  2. Peel and cut the apples into small pieces and mix with the raisins and cinnamon sugar. Let them sit in a strainer to let any juice drip out the bottom. 
  3. Mix the flour, butter , sugar, vanilla, salt, and eggs to make a dough for the crust. Grease your 11-in pie pan, and spread the dough into the pan. Leave some dough for making strips on top. 
  4. Mix the bread crumbs and custard powder, and spread this onto the crust. Then add the apple mixture on top, and place strips of dough top of that. Put the apple pie in the oven uncovered fro 45 minutes. Cover with aluminum foil and cook for another 60 minutes.
  5. Serve with whipped cream and enjoy!
Posted on July 22, 2014 and filed under Recipes, Recipes + Rituals.

A Hidden Wholeness: Parker Palmer on "creating a safe space for the soul"

We spent a lot of time in our early days around the question of, “Is this a grief group or isn’t it?” and trying to understand what we were and were not qualified to do. We read books and studies and talked to lots of people with letters after their names. We soon realized the answer to the grief group question was a pretty definitive, “no”. There are lots of highly trained people who are expert in handling trauma and working with the bereaved, and we’re not trying to replace them. This isn’t about fixing, or advice-giving, or even coaching. It’s not really even about grieving, at least not in the traditional sense. None of us are qualified to tell someone what they need; hell, most of us are still figuring out that out for ourselves, and struggling to pay close attention when our personal needs change. When we hear of someone wanting to “help others through the same experience I went through,” our eyebrows furrow. We’re interested in creating accessible spaces where you can “speak your truth” with peers, or more to the point, friends.

There is perhaps no greater champion of the “no-advice-giving” rule than Parker Palmer, founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal. Palmer is best-known as the author of The Courage to Teach, and the person who made it okay to talk in corporate retreats and other secular settings about  "the soul" and living what he calls “a divided life”. Among the celebrated voices in the self-help world, whose soundbites litter the cover of O Magazine and call to mind Tom Cruise’s character in Magnolia, he is neither a kook nor a salesman; he makes no attempt to proffer Five Easy Steps That Will Change Your Life Today.

Still, I was a bit worried when I picked up his book, A Hidden Wholeness, a couple of weeks ago. I was looking for practical tips that we could share with our hosts that wouldn’t feel cheesy or forced or generally facilitator-y: tips that steered clear of what one of our original Dinner Partiers, Jess, calls, “woo-woo”.  

My now dog-eared copy is testament to the fact that I need not have worried. In the book, Palmer writes extensively about the “divided life”: the problem that happens when we compartmentalize, and are compelled to cover up a key part of ourselves. (Okay, fine, it can sound a little woo-woo.) But it strikes me as a far more apt description of life after loss than “grief” or “bereavement.” It’s a feeling we hear a lot, and know all-too-well personally: Long after our brains have resumed functioning, after we’ve passed one anniversary and another, and adjusted to a new normal, we discover our work still isn’t finished. We continue to project one image here and another there. We choose carefully whom we share our stories with and when. We never quite adjust to our phantom limbs.

Palmer lays out the theory and practice behind an approach he calls “The Circle of Trust”: a highly refined set of principles and practices for facilitating soulful conversation, creating the kind of safe spaces where you can listen to and learn to act on your own “inner teacher”. The result is both reflective and instructive, unearthing everything from the design of “clearness committees,” a practice created by early Quakers to help participants achieve clarity, to how to practice deep listening.

It’s worth reading in full. For those looking for a Cliff’s Notes version, however, here are a few choice quotes, and a few key tips for anyone looking to create spaces where it’s cool to #realtalk.  

1. Honor the awesome in everyone. Looking for the perfect thing to say at the perfect moment? Forget it. Your goal isn’t to say something profound, or to produce a lot of head nods. It’s to create a space where everyone--yup, you included--can listen to their own voice, and in so doing, discover their own ah-ha’s.

“We all have an inner teacher whose guidance is more reliable than anything we can get from a doctrine, ideology, collective belief system, institution, or leader.” (25)

“‘I took comfort and strength from those few people who neither fled from me nor tried to save me but were simply present to me. Their willingness to be present revealed their faith that I had the inner resources to make this treacherous trek -- quietly bolstering my faltering faith that perhaps, in fact, I did.’” (62)

“It’s not about what you say. It’s about creating a space where every person can hear and discover and listen to their own voice.” (120)

2. Do not, do not, do not attempt amateur psychotherapy. The end.

“A circle of trust is not a therapy group. It is not facilitated by a professional therapist, and its members do not have a therapeutic contract with each other. In an age when therapy is practiced without credentials, competence, or invitation, the image of two solitudes protecting, bordering, and saluting each other can keep us from falling into this common form of interpersonal violence.” (63)

3. Create intentional moments of silence: Growing up, my agnostically-inclined mom insisted on starting dinners not with a prayer, but with a moment of silence. We held hands around the table, closed our eyes, and simply sat for what usually amounted to 15 seconds or so--an eternity to my seventh-grade self. I always had a slight pang of embarrassment when friends would come over and join this little ritual of ours, and it’s only now that I’ve come to really appreciate it.

Palmer suggests creating moments of intentional silence in the beginning, so that people don’t feel compelled to immediately fill spontaneous moments of silence later on. That doesn’t mean you have to spend five minutes in a meditation (unless that’s your jam, of course). A few deep breaths and the silent setting of intentions can go a long way.

4. Ease into it. The soul is shy, Palmer is fond of saying. Asking a person to share something deeply vulnerable the instant they walk into a room is generally a sure-fire way to scare them off. The Circle of Trust employs what they call “third things”--typically a poem or a song--to help kick off a conversation. Participants are invited to share whatever it is that comes up for them in hearing that particular piece or story, and to reflect on why they respond in that particular way.

For us, the “third thing” is, in a lot of ways, the dinner itself: We find it’s generally a good idea to leave a few things unfinished as folks arrive, to give people the chance to help set the table, pour drinks, and mingle casually. Preparing dishes with a story behind them--say, a family recipe, or a favorite food of the person you lost--and introducing those stories at the beginning of the meal, serves the same purpose: a way of introducing yourself and the person you lost, and easing into the conversation.

“If soul truth is to be spoken and heard, it must be approached ‘on the slant.’” I do not mean we should be coy, speaking evasively about subjects that make us uncomfortable, which weakens us and our relationships. But soul truth is so powerful that we must allow ourselves to approach it, and it to approach us, indirectly. We must invite, not command, the soul to speak. We must allow, not force, ourselves to listen.” (92)

 

Being There: What (& what not) to say & do in the aftermath of loss

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What do you say and what do you do when someone you love loses someone they love? All of us have had that awkward moment when, despite our best intentions, we’re at a loss for what to say. We repeat the lines of a Hallmark card verbatim, only to find ourselves suddenly struck dumb. We tell ourselves people need space--an ill-disguised attempt to turn our own feelings of inadequacy into an act of gentle understanding. We worry we'll say the wrong thing, and so we say nothing at all.

In a piece for Sojourners, Catherine Woodiwiss writes that surviving trauma requires both "firefighters" and "builders": those who excel in a crisis--who instantly drop everything to be by our side--and those who are a part of the long-term reconstruction crew. As days stretch into months and months stretch into years, we need the friends who are always up for a night in and who will continue to invite us for a night out, no matter how long it takes us to say yes.

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. The general conclusion? Being there is always better than the alternative. 

Below are a few tips that can help you avoid that deer-in-headlights look when next you find a friend in need. 

1. Beware the pity face.   

“After my mom passed away, I cherished people who treated me normally. This sounds like a simple thing, but, unfortunately, the default response to another’s loss often seems to be a drop in facial expression coupled with, “Ohhhh...” My life was suddenly unrecognizable, and I needed to feel grounded in my sense of self. Having that pre-grief Katie reflected back to me from others was crucial.” - Katie, Chapel Hill 

“When I've lost someone, I need space to go into crisis management. I need the people around me to give me tasks (arrange the funeral, write the obit, coordinate food deliveries, etc). I need to feel in charge of something that is so out of control. I need people to allow me to not cry, to take care of others. And then, slowly, a week later, maybe a month later, or maybe even during those days, I need someone to just hold me and let me be a mess and cry and be angry.” 
- Leora, Los Angeles 

There isn’t a person among us who hasn’t been on the receiving end of the pity face (and very likely, given it ourselves at some point). You know the one: There’s an intake of breath, eyebrows scrunch down, and lips purse together, followed immediately by the same three words: “I’m so sorry.” There’s nothing wrong with that response in itself; indeed, we’ve seen it so many times at this point that we suspect we’re somehow hard-wired for it. 

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. 

Don’t stay locked in the pity face. Offer to treat your friend to a movie, or to go on a hike: something that you two would have done in the past, but that doesn’t necessarily require a lot of conversation. If your friend is rearranging furniture, or attempting to take charge when someone else could just as easily stand in, let them, and find out how you can help. Above all, respond to their cues.  

“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends,” writes Joan Didion in A Year of Magical Thinking. We know that. We don’t need the reminder. 

2. Don’t wait for someone to tell you how you can help: Offer something specific. Or just do it. 

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"'I can't imagine what you're going through, but I want to help. I'm going shopping tomorrow: do you need anything from the supermarket?' This kind of statement didn't try to negate or obscure the emotional reality of the moment, but was very focused on a specific question and offered a specific service. It also meant that the person - who was going anyway, regardless of whether I needed something or not - wouldn't be going out of their way. This was very meaningful to me, and enabled me to take an inventory of things I needed but wouldn't necessarily have asked someone to find on my behalf." - Esther, Los Angeles 

“Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” “I’m here for you. Don’t hesitate to call if you need anything.” 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. Create a calendar and organize a group of friends to drop off meals, to avoid overstocking your friend’s freezer with too many casseroles and baked goods. And as days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months, dropping off a cake or sending flowers can be a great way to remind someone that you’re thinking of them, long after the surge of attention has faded. 

3. Don’t tip-toe, don’t compare, and don’t whitewash. Do listen. 

“Months after my dad died, I was driving with my high school best friend in silence and suddenly she said, ‘So...your dad died. How are you feeling about that?’ After weeks of people tip-toeing around the subject and not meeting my eyesight, it was so incredibly refreshing to have someone confront this fact head on. I needed that acknowledgement that, yes, he was dead, not "lost" or "in a better place". Dead. It gave me permission to speak frankly, to say exactly how I was feeling, without needing to subvert my emotions or console the listener.” - Hannah, Memphis

"At least he's in a better place now." "Everything happens for a reason." “It could have been worse.”  Mama Said Knock You Out. Most of our common platitudes are born out of good intentions: we want to somehow lessen the blow, or find a silver lining, or fix the unfixable. You don’t have to fill every silence. 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. Just be sure to stick around to hear it. 

4. “Tell me about…”

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I appreciate it when people can take it in stride and ask a bit about who the person was if they didn't know them. - Shaina, Los Angeles 

Elizabeth Edwards once gave an interview in which she talked about friends' reluctance to bring up her son, afraid that in so doing, they would remind her of one of the most painful chapters in her life. Au contraire, she said: she hadn't forgotten, and she loved knowing that others remembered that he'd lived. 

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.


The following were shared at Finding What Feeds Us, an event series we held in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, DC,  and NYC.

Have tips to share? Tell us: What's helped you? Tweet us at @DinnerPartiers or share on our Facebook page.   

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Posted on June 3, 2014 .

Finding What Feeds Us: Crowd-sourced ritual-sharing & banished elephants

When we started, we assumed the deer-in-headlights looks we received when we talked about the people we'd lost were because nobody wanted to talk about it. We thought the only way to own our stories--even to casually mention the people we'd lost, whether a mom or dad, a brother or a sister, a partner or a friend--without feeling like we'd suddenly donned a scarlet letter was to close the door: to surround ourselves with people who'd been there in private dining rooms and backyards. 

What we've found since is that that's not actually true. We've yet to meet a single person who doesn't want the chance to be a better friend, or partner, who doesn’t feel terrible when they casually ask, "What does your dad do?" or "How many siblings do you have?" only to find themselves with nothing to say to the response. It's simply that we lack the space and the tools to talk about it. 

Between February and May, we tried something new: through an event series we called "Finding What Feeds Us," we invited people who'd experienced loss to come together with people who hadn't, for one three-hour window in which we banished the elephant in the room. 

We explored some of the personal rituals and practices that have come up around our tables: crowd-sourced answers to that most basic of questions, "What works?"

Some of those rituals were of the centuries-old variety (like decorating sugar-skulls and burning joss paper), while others had a distinctly modern flavor (like plate-breaking and donut-eating and kissing in photo booths). We shared stories about the helpful (and not so helpful) things people said and did in the aftermath of loss, and shared the simple acts we did to feed mind, body, and soul. We danced and listened to sweet tunes and planted new seeds and discovered there's such a thing as healthy brownies. We reflected on stories we rarely get to tell and asked each other questions about the people we carried with us.

We're well aware we only scratched the surface. In the coming months, we're inviting you to share and discover stories, tips, and practices for living well, all by and for those who've experienced significant loss.

Share what you do to feed mind, body, & soul: Tweet us at @DinnerPartiers, share on our Facebook page, or email us at info@thedinnerparty.org

Check out a few of the highlights below. For more rituals, check out our Pinterest page.  For photos from LASFDC, & NYC, check out our Facebook page
 

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Posted on June 3, 2014 and filed under Rituals.

RITUAL: Dia de los Muertos

Photos taken on the Isla de Janitzio, the main island off of Lake Pátzcuaro.

Photos taken on the Isla de Janitzio, the main island off of Lake Pátzcuaro.

"I took a trip to Mexico for the real-deal, all-night Day of the Dead celebration, among the Tarascans, an indigenous people in the modern state of  Michoacán. Super cool and literally freezing as I hadn't planned on temps dipping into the 30s in Mexico. Ever. So there I was huddled on the steps of the old church in the cemetery yard with my own tiny makeshift altar for my dad built in the corner...( a candle I hoped would keep my hands warm!). Eventually, I found a couple of Tijuana travelers to huddle with and we shared some Mexican "anti-freeze" aka - a flask of Mezcal - to keep us warm all night! It was a great experience and felt really good to honor my dad up close and personal in this ancient sacred ceremony." - Lisa, Los Angeles 

Isla de Janitzio, surrounded by Lake Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, Mexico

Isla de Janitzio, surrounded by Lake Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, Mexico

Arriving in Janitzio with a friend from Mexico City. 

Arriving in Janitzio with a friend from Mexico City. 

Note to those who wish to stay up all night in cemeteries: Bring jackets. And Mezcal. 

Note to those who wish to stay up all night in cemeteries: Bring jackets. And Mezcal. 

Keeping watch in the Patzcuaro Cemetery.

Keeping watch in the Patzcuaro Cemetery.

The author's makeshift altar to her dad. 

The author's makeshift altar to her dad. 

Posted on May 28, 2014 and filed under Rituals.

RITUAL: When Great Trees Fall

When Great Trees Fall 

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
examines,
gnaws on kind words
unsaid,
promised walks
never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
nurture,
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
radiance,
fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold
caves.

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly.  Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed.  They existed.
We can be.  Be and be
better.  For they existed.

-- Maya Angelou 

Posted on May 28, 2014 and filed under Rituals, Recipes + Rituals.

RECIPE: Cambodian Curry

Each Cambodian cook has his/her own favorite kroeung, or curry paste, recipe. Some prefer more lemongrass, others a bit more turmeric. Some like their kroeung on the spicy side, while others forego the runny nose and sweat inducing chiles. Regardless of the variation of ingredients, the kroeung is always prepared in the same way, by throwing everything into a mortar and pestle and pounding away until sweat droplets begin to form along your brow in the Cambodian heat. This was the first Khmer dish I learned to prepare while living in Cambodia and quickly became one of my favorites. I treasured my morning adventures to the markets to purchase the fragrant roots and herbs needed and watched with eager anticipation as they came together into a colorful paste after being thoroughly smashed with the wooden pestle. 

This kroeung can be used in a simple vegetable or chicken curry, as shown below, or in the more elaborate fish amok. Regardless of the way in which the kroeung is used, the final dish must always be served with plenty of rice.

-- Katie, Chapel Hill 

An instant hit at our most recent Dinner Party in Chapel Hill. 

An instant hit at our most recent Dinner Party in Chapel Hill. 

Ingredients: 

  • 400 mL can of coconut milk (none of that light junk!)
  • 300 mL of chicken broth
  • 1 Tbs fish sauce (again, weird smell but completely necessary)
  • 1 Tbs brown sugar (bonus points if you use palm sugar!)
  • 3 Tbs kroeung
  • Extra chiles if you want em 
  • Lots of veggies (Japanese eggplant, bell pepper, green beans, sweet potatoes, whatever your heart desires!)
  • Some meat, fish or tofu cut into bite-sized chunks, if ya like
  • Olive or coconut oil

Instructions:

  1. Heat oil in wok or big skillet. Add the kroeung, fish sauce and sugar, and cook for a few minutes until it starts to darken. 
  2. Add the coconut milk and broth, then throw in the harder veggies that will take longer to cook (sweet potatoes, eggplant, bell peppers, onions, etc) and meat/fish/tofu. Simmer for about 15 minutes or so. When it's about 5 minutes from being done, throw in the quicker veggies (green beans, etc). Simmer til everything is cooked through and the green beans are tender but crunchy. 
  3. Taste the sauce and check the seasoning - you might want more sugar, chili or fish sauce. 
  4. Serve over your favorite rice and munch away :) 
Posted on April 17, 2014 and filed under Recipes, Recipes + Rituals.

RECIPE: Creamy Corn & Red Pepper Chowder

For my birthday a few years ago, my brother gave me a bound book of all of my mom's old recipes, pulled from old index cards and newspaper cut-outs. I remember very few of them, and we're pretty sure she never made the vast majority. But the present ranks high on my list of all-time greatest gifts received, and I'm only too happy to carry on her experiments. This recipe is one she got from my stepdad's brother and sister-in-law, and it works well served warm or cold, depending on the season. -- Lennon 

Ingredients: 

  • 3 tbsp butter or oil
  • 2 red peppers, seeded and chopped
  • 1 bunch scallions
  • 1 tbsp ground cumin 
  • 4 cups corn kernels (fresh or frozen and thawed)
  • 2 cups milk 
  • 2.5 cups chicken broth
  • 6 small red potatoes, diced
  • 1 cup grated cheddar 
  • 1/2 cup cilantro and/or chives for garnish 
  • Salt & pepper

Instructions: 

  1. Heat butter in large pot. Cook peppers and scallions until soft. Stir in cumin. 
  2. In blender, process corn with milk until fairly smooth. Add pepper mixture and pulse brief. 
  3. Transfer to pot and mix in broth. Bring to a boil. Add potatoes and simmer about 10 minutes until tender. 
  4. Stir in cheese, and simmer for about 3 minutes more. 
  5. Add salt and pepper and garnish, if desired. Voila! 

 

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

Why Rituals Matter: What the new science of loss tells us about resilience

Photo credit: Flickr user Rick Chung

Photo credit: Flickr user Rick Chung

Growing up, daffodils and budding dogwoods signaled something of far greater significance in our family than the arrival of Spring: Full Frame was upon us. For four days in the beginning of April, my mom and her best friend, Linda, would vanish into the crowds of the famed documentary festival, whose staging in Durham gave a whiff of the pending cultural renaissance the region would soon enjoy. Schedules, highlighters, and black tote bags in hand, they would see four or five films in a day, and more than a dozen by Sunday afternoon. 

Cancer was hardly a deterrent. One year, she famously timed her chemo appointments so that she wouldn't miss a film. For those four days, Duke Hospital's proximity to Carolina Theatre was, to her, chief among its selling points. 

My mom kept a printed list of all of the Academy Award nominees for Best Picture in the top drawer of a bureau in our living room. At the time, it struck no one as strange that this list was pulled from the Internet, and thus a mouse-click away. It was the age before laptops, after all, and she couldn't be bothered to turn on the computer when she needed to quickly confirm that In the Heat of the Night won Best Picture in 1967.

She was the only person I knew who went to see movies alone, and indeed, who relished the chance. It took awhile for me to feel the same; I tried it once or twice in college, and remember looking over my shoulder, afraid I'd bump into someone I knew, or else I’d pretend I was waiting for someone, for fear of being judged by the woman behind the ticket counter.

After she died, those solitary treks to the movies took on a new significance: my version of the kind of ritualistic scarring that men in certain parts of the world wear to mark their coming-of-age. It started benignly enough: a tepid venture out when no one else was free. But over time, the experience changed. The movie theatre became something of a temple, the empty seats on either side of me a pew. While I was conscious to pick only the ones that she'd endorse (film being the one domain about which my mom could be said to be a snob), the movie itself hardly mattered. 

We’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about rituals in all their forms—those with centuries of history, like Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos and Japan’s lantern-lighting festival, and those of our own making—as part of an event series we’re doing on “Finding What Feeds Us”. 

Last week, The Atlantic ran an article by writer Emily Esfahani Smith, reporting on a 2013 study examining the impact of rituals on grief, conducted by two Harvard Business School researchers. The researchers began by trying to understand how people coped with loss, whether in the form of a break-up or a death. Defined in the study as a "symbolic behavior performed to induce some desired effect," the rituals tended to be personal—bearing some relation to the experience or to the person they’d lost. They were mostly performed privately, and except in rare instances, they had nothing to do with religion. 

The researchers found that these kinds of rituals lessened feelings of grief and produced a heightened sense of control: participants were less likely to endorse statements like “I feel that life is empty without this person,” or “Memories of this person upset me,” and felt less helpless than did their non-ritual-performing counterparts. Moreover, they found that the act of performing a ritual—even one without any apparent meaning—could produce the same results. 

The study tells of a woman who washes her husband's car each week, as he once did. And another person who goes to the hairdresser on the first Saturday of the month, continuing a tradition begun with a woman who'd died 15 years before (whether a partner, a friend, a parent, it doesn't say).

What's striking is that these rituals exist outside the bounds of anniversaries and birthdays, of Mother's Days and Father's Days and holidays—those yearly occasions when we sanction rituals, and give people a pass for public acts of remembrance. And they’re evidence that rituals, rather than signaling that someone has yet to move on, or is otherwise stuck in a narrative of loss, are actually a means through which we move forward. 

Today, I feel more connected to my mom than I have in years, even as—seven years later—the once visceral pain of her absence has faded. It’s a change I attribute not to time, or to finally reaching “acceptance”—that last purported phase among our traditional demarcations of grief. It’s because she would have loved 20 Feet From Stardom. And because this year’s crop of Oscar flicks was the best in years. And it’s because I spent many hours watching each one alone in a movie theatre. 

Posted on March 18, 2014 and filed under Rituals.

Finding What Feeds Us: Wrap-up from our LA launch (+ where we're heading next)

On Saturday, February 22, we held the first of a series of launch events, marking the transition from formerly secret-ish society to bona fide organization (call it our "I'm a real boy!" Pinnochio moment).

We discovered many things that night: the first that, yes, by jove, it's possible for people who've lost someone and people who haven't to be in the same room together, and to talk openly about it.  We discovered it's possible for those same people to simultaneously have fun. We discovered that plate-breaking is really satisfying, and that sugar skulls are absurdly easy to make. We discovered that there is no shortage of ways to feed mind, body, and spirit, and that we are each our own best experts as we navigate life after loss.   

Huge thanks to Good Eggs LA and Constellation Brands for the fine food and drink; to Nicole Weingart for the stellar photos; to DJ Trent for spinning the tunes; and to our amazing crew of volunteers who made our LA launch party such a success.

Next up: San Francisco, 3/22; DC, 4/8; NYC, date TBA

Want in? Email us at info@thedinnerparty.org. 

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Posted on March 10, 2014 .

RECIPE: Norwegian Heart-shaped Cardamom Waffles

Every Norwegian home has a heart-shaped waffle iron. (The iron makes one "plate" of waffles that can be separated into 5 individual hearts.) These waffles are a staple in Norwegian culture; they are most commonly served after dinner with coffee, tea, and other after-dinner drinks. Maple syrup isn't readily available in Norway, so these are traditionally served with jam, sugar, and butter (in whatever combination you like best).  

Heart-shaped waffles are considerably thinner than Belgian waffles, so use a Belgian iron at your own risk! Heart-shaped irons are available in the US online, but you should also be able to find irons that make thin waffles in other shapes. It won't be as cozy, but it should be just as tasty. 

This recipe is a vegan and gluten-free twist on my grandmother's traditional recipe. The secret ingredient is the cardamom; the waffles are delicious without it, but it's what really makes these "Norwegian."

-- Iselin, DC 

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Ingredients*: 

  • 1 tbsp apple cider vinegar 
  • 2 cups almond milk 
  • 3 tsp Ener-G egg replacer powder
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract 
  • 4 tbsp Earth Balance or other vegan margarine, melted 
  • 1.5 cups plus 2 tbsp gluten-free all-purpose flour (regular all-purpose flour works too if you're not concerned about making it GF)
  • 6 tbsp coconut sugar (regular sugar works too) 
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp cardamom 
  • ½ tsp salt 

*This recipe is vegan & gluten-free.

Instructions:

  1. Make "buttermilk" by pouring the apple cider vinegar and almond milk into a small bowl (no need to stir or mix).  Let stand at least 10 minutes (about the amount of time it'll take you to prepare the rest of the batter). 
  2. Mix the Ener-G egg replacer powder with with 4 tablespoons warm water until foamy. 
  3. Add vanilla extract to the egg replacer mixture.  Set aside. 
  4. Melt 4 tbsp Earth Balance in microwave or on the stove. 
  5. Combine the dry ingredients: flour, sugar, baking powder, cardamom, and salt in a large bowl. 
  6. Add the egg replacer/vanilla mixture and melted butter to the dry ingredients and whisk together. 
  7. Add the "buttermilk" and whisk together until everything is well blended.  A few lumps are okay. 
  8. Cover the batter with a dishtowel and let rest for at least 30 mins and up to overnight before cooking.  (If 30 mins, it's fine to leave on the counter.  If longer, put the batter in the fridge.)  
  9. Preheat waffle iron and grease with Earth Balance before cooking each "plate" of waffles.
  10. Stir the batter well before pouring.  Pour batter into waffle iron so that it fills about 85% of the iron -- it will spread out during cooking.  Follow directions on the waffle iron for cooking times (roughly 3-5 mins per waffle).  The waffle should be medium golden brown (darker than Belgian waffles) and a bit crispy when it's ready.  
  11. Let cool on a cooling rack (to avoid it getting soggy) or serve immediately. 

Traditionally served after dinner with jam (black currant, cloudberry, or other flavor), sugar (for dusting on top), and butter. 

 

 

Posted on February 24, 2014 and filed under Recipes.

RITUAL: Writing -- who needs a postal address?

In Iceland, obituaries often take the form of letters to the deceased, written by friends and family members. Morgunblaðið, a prominent national newspaper, regularly features multiple obituaries addressed to a single person. Archaeologists have found letters to the dead written on bowls used by ancient Egyptians in funerary rites, dating back to the 3rd century AD. They remain some of the most personal writings found from that period, and typically include direct supplications to the dead to intervene in present affairs.

“The act of writing is an act of attempted comprehension, and, in a childlike way, control; we are so baffled and exhausted by what has happened, we want to imagine that giving words to the unspeakable will make it somehow our own.” So explained author Joyce Carol Oates, in a series of email exchanges with former Slate Editor Meghan O’Rourke, author of The Long Goodbye. Published in the New York Times in February 2011, the conversation ran under the headline, “Why We Write About Grief.” 

In it, the two authors talk about sleepless nights and writing at 2am, and about the way grief memoirs have become their own literary genre —attaining a level of popularity that defies our typical taboos around loss and life after.
Often, one of the best things we can do for ourselves and each other is to make space to remember those who now live only in memory, by writing a letter, or sitting down with a journal or a tape recorder and capturing stories tucked deep inside the recesses of our memory.

Here are a couple of prompts:

  • Write a letter to your parent, catching them up on where you are today.
  • What lessons are you grateful for? 
  • What are you proudest of in your life? 
  • What are you most hopeful about?

What have you been wanting to get out of your head and onto the paper?

The author's father, catching a wave.  

The author's father, catching a wave.  

Amanda's Story

My dad loved the ocean. He was born and raised in San Diego and grew up sailing with his father, was an avid and extremely talented surfer, and later in life involved in competitive Hawaiian outrigger canoeing.

So naturally when I see a large body of water I think of my dad. We spread his ashes in various areas of the Pacific, yet since all oceans connect, it’s not a stretch for me to imagine that he’s out there when I’m looking at any ocean. Sometimes I’ll just go sit in front of the Hudson river (not the same, I know) and talk to him or just reflect on his memory.

One ritual I hope to keep annually is sending out a message in a bottle to him on his birthday. Last March 18, I bought a six-pack of his favorite beer Negra Modelo, drank one, wrote my dad a letter, and sealed up the bottle with an old wine cork. I then went down to the Hudson River, emotionally wished my dad a happy 64th birthday and tossed my thoughts into the black turbulent waters. It was freezing, wet, and snowing; I couldn’t help but envision my dad chuckling at my misery in the cold, as he never did understand why I liked New York.

With any luck, the bottle’s made its way out of the tri-state area and moved on down to warmer waters. I like to envision the bottle washed up on a Caribbean shore in the sun, exactly where my dad would want to be enjoying a nice cold Modelo. 

RECIPE: Chocolate Chip Cookies


Posted on February 13, 2014 and filed under Rituals.

RECIPE: Chocolate Chip Cookies

My family wasn’t huge on cooking, and we’re all still clueless as to where my love for cooking and baking comes from. While my parents made daily family dinner a huge priority, there is no specific dish that comes to mind with the Berrill family stamp on it. The sound of my dad’s rickety beach cruiser coming through the back gate after picking up Mexican food is, even now, much more comforting than racking my brain for “his” meal. My father did bake occasionally, mostly chocolate-based things such as cream cheese-filled chocolate cupcakes or brownies. 

One of the strongest food-related memories I have of my dad is an ever-present bag of Ghirardelli’s semi-sweet chocolate chips sitting in the corner of a kitchen cabinet, obviously the most easily accessible one. He would cut corner off the bag so he wouldn’t get too many chocolate chips (everything in moderation?) per pour, just a small handful or random few each stop. Once in a while he’d bake the cookie recipe on the back of the bag, so I cannot give him full credit for the recipe, however it is just as delicious as I remember. When baking I halved the recipe but forgot to use half the baking soda, and it turned out to be the most delicious mistake. Corners off to you, Dad.

-- Amanda, Hoboken 

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Ingredients:

  • 1 ¼ cups unsifted flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda (the glorious mistake)
  • sprinkle of salt
  • ½ cup butter, room temperature
  • 6 Tbs sugar
  • 6 Tbs packed brown sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate chips

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 375F. Beat butter and both sugars together on medium speed until creamy. On low, mix in vanilla and egg. Gradually add in flour, baking soda and salt. Stir in chocolate chips. Bake on wax paper over cookie sheet at least an inch apart from one another for 9-11 minutes, until lightly golden on the edges. 

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Posted on February 13, 2014 and filed under Recipes.