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 h er 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.

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.