Dinner Parties & The Hospitality of Emotion

Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.
-Henri Nouwen

I love food: the planning, shopping, prepping, pairing, cooking, eating, hell, I don’t even mind the cleaning up so much.  My most domestic moments happen in the kitchen.  Laundry?  Not my gig, much to my husband’s chagrin.  Cooking has always been a creative outlet as well as a therapeutic one for me.   For a hot minute in my mid-twenties I toyed with the idea of culinary school yet found in my short-lived career as a sous chef at a local wine bar/cafe that cooking on someone else’s watch for people I couldn’t actually connect with was a deal breaker; it hijacked the joy of it.

Slow down

I eventually discovered two real driving passions behind my love for all things culinary: the connection that happens around it and the creativity had in the process, ( oh, and there is that eating thing as well).  As a result, one of my favorite pastimes has become throwing dinner parties.  I get a buzz just thinking about it.  We live in a world on crack; a world jacked up and in a constant crazed state of busy, exhausted, immediacy, devices, and traffic, all set to repeat.  Hospitality has become a lost art.  It forces us to slow down and do things that can be automated and/or bypassed by hitting the nearest Chipotle and inhaling it in front of our current Netflix series of choice.  As a result, we lose out on a beautiful process that facilitates good old-fashioned real-time connection, intimacy, and laughter.

Friends who cook together

My dearest friend Anna Watson Carl, author of The Yellow Table cookbook and dinner party partner in crime since high school, has been in town from Brooklyn for the last couple of weeks.  As a result, we have gotten some sacred, much-needed girl time together hiking (read: getting lost) at Percy Warner park as well as sharing a few meals.  She inspires me to dream big; to dive in heart first, with little personal regard for certainty and all the “why nots”.  She leads her life openly, with curiosity.  As a result, incredible opportunities present.  Her childlike sense of wonder lands her in all kinds of juicy and fabulous predicaments.  I’ve had the distinct pleasure of tagging along for some of them.

This past Saturday Anna and I threw a dinner party.  It was delicious and lovely complete with clinking glasses, a stained table runner,  and hours of clean up the next morning.  Perhaps my favorite part of the evening was the interesting mix of friends who came.  Stories were shared and wild connections made, which blows my mind often in this small town of Nashville.  As I sat back contentedly and observed conversations happening around the table, glasses being filled, and fall flavors offering up their glory, something occurred to me; something big.

Set a new table

Why can’t we learn to practice hospitality internally, with our own full cast of emotions? What if, we welcomed them openly, leaning in to the complex story they are trying to tell instead of running from their  grey state of purgatory?  I’ve been intrigued by this idea ever since, playing around with it in my head and heart…and I like it.

The hidden gift

Emotions are a gift if you can believe it.  I sure didn’t for long stretches of my existence.  I always thought emotions had all the power, dictating the success of any given day from the moment my eyeballs popped open in the morning.  I used to feel totally powerless over my emotions, especially anxiety, she was a loud and clumsy beast.  What I have come to learn and embrace with open arms and a big fat sigh of relief is that my emotions are not who I am.  I am not my anxiety, sadness, hurt, anger, etc.

They are also not against me.  Of course, there are more enjoyable ones we feel such as glad and excited; we tend to coddle them like spoiled children.  Then there are negative ones such as guilt and anger we avoid at all costs like that annoying, messy roommate. However, the truth is, each unique emotion invites us to the greater wisdom of our needs and desires and ultimately propel us forward.  Our emotions are a gift nudging us towards colorful truth and authentic experience.

Conversation starter

Just as the generous practice of hospitality beckons deeper connection and understanding of our unique perspectives and experiences across a dinner table, our chatty interior friends long for a space to be heard.  How will we host these voices, facilitating a curious exchange, an open conversation?  Here are a couple of questions to ask them when they chime in, with their often abrasive tone.

  • What am I feeling?  Sad, hurt, fear, anger, lonely, guilt, glad?  Naming it identifies and externalizes it.
  • What is the story you are trying to tell me?  i.e “I am afraid I don’t have what it takes to succeed, i’m not enough”.  “I am guilty because I spoke harshly to my co-worker”.
  • What is the need attached to the emotion? i.e. “I need some encouragement and affirmation”, or “I need to apologize for reacting at work, I was pretty fried and took it out on Sarah”
  • How will I meet that need?  i.e. Reach out to a trusted friend or have a conversation to set the record straight, etc…

Emotional hospitality removes unnecessary shame from our internal experience by letting light and air into dingy, dusty corners of our beings.  It swings wide open the door of our heart and places a mix of fresh flowers to claim the space, welcoming deeper connection and cohesion.  It nourishes our beings to live with presence and generosity.  This week, I invite you to set this strange new interior table and play around with the role of host.   Get into it, wear it, engage it.  I’d love to hear all about your discoveries along the way…