My husband and I have few truly prized possessions. We were a military family for many years, which meant many moves, and also meant a certain open-handedness with the condition of your belongings. But I must say, our dining room table is one of the few pieces of furniture that we treasure, guard, and protect. It is a long rectangular table made of Acacia wood. It has 3 pieces - 2 square stumps and 1 tabletop. It is sturdy, it is striking, it is my love...in furniture form. We have actually not bought or rented homes because our dining room table may not fit. We joke that it is our fourth child. We love this table, in part because of its beauty. But we mostly love this table for what has happened around it. People have sat around it for hours eating satisfying food, drinking wine, playing games, solving world problems, and so much more. It has become the main vehicle in our home for connecting with others.
And we have had lots of opportunity to connect with NEW others. We have moved a lot. And by "a lot" I mean 8 times in 10 years, majority of which were moves to new cities. This means we have had to make new friends more frequently than the average person. But along the way we have learned that one of the best ways to get to know someone deeper is to invite them over for dinner.
It is a vulnerable invitation, without a doubt. They will see how we live, our mail pile sitting next to the coffee maker, the fact that we are always dreadfully slow at hanging up pictures, and our full laundry baskets at the top of the stairs. They will see how we parent; nothing like having the age-old "how many more bites do I need to eat?" negotiation in front of people. And on rare occasion (that we wish every time to be rarer), what my kids' playroom in the basement looks like. Having someone see how you live in your most comfortable and defaulted place is vulnerable and very open. But isn't that the tit-for-tat in building new relationships? I let you in deeper into my life and you let me deeper into yours?
We were made to be in deep, connected relationship with others. We were not made to be alone. Isolation is the surest way to live a fearful, insecure, one-dimensional life. It is safe, yes. After all, there is very little risk and vulnerability in being alone. However, that "isolation safety" is an illusion, a momentary avoidance of risk but a long-term life without a safety net. Thus, relationships are necessary, risk is necessary, and vulnerability is necessary. With all of our moves, we have recognized how everyone longs for community and how hard it is to build that community. It takes intentionality, persistence, and lots of grace.
And this is why I love the dinner table. The table is the great equalizer. We are all equal in our natural need to eat and drink. No one comes to the table as someone whose body doesn't ever need food. No one comes to the table as someone who is never thirsty. We all get hungry and thirsty. We are also all equal in our need for a place to sit at the table. If you are coming to the table, you don't anticipate that you will be standing. No, you will have a seat. You will have a physical demonstration of an emotional reality; there is a place for you. Our most basic physical need, food, and our most basic emotional need, validation, is what we all have in common at the table regardless of gender, education, race, religion, sexual orientation, financial, or social status.
We start out as semi-strangers, united by our most basic needs, and little by little we discover what else we have in common.
So there we sit at the table, all a little nervous, making small talk (Lord have mercy! I hate small talk), and soon we are woven together through a glorious shared experience. Food. With each bite of warm, crusty bread, luscious fall-off-the-bone ribs, and crispy, nutty, roasted broccoli, we grow more relaxed, more open. What was sitting upright with shoulders tight becomes leaning back into the chair-backs with legs stretched out. We share stories over glugs of wine, we laugh while plates are being passed, and with each moment a fiber of a relationship builds. And through these tiny fibers, one by one, a tapestry of a rich, connected life begins to take form.
So here's my invitation to you: begin opening your life to others around the table. Take the step, stretch out your hand and make the invitation. Give people validation by giving them a seat at the table. Be a hunger and loneliness filler. I can't say that it will be easy, but it will be worth it.
Here's a couple of my favorite ways to bring people to the table:
- Keep the menu simple. No need to stress yourself out trying to make something impressive. Keep it simple and satisfying. I have served a hearty pot of soup many a time. Fussy food can make people feel as if the table is too formal. If you are relaxed and your food is relaxed, your guests will be relaxed.
- Put a drink in people's hands as soon as they come in. Having something in one's hand helps absorb nervous energy and acts as a social bridge in new situations.
- Your goal is to make guests feel comfortable and relaxed. Put them to work. Make them part of the team. Start the validation process by showing them they have a place and a job.
- Contrary to what our moms would say, don't clean your house to the point of sterilization. Of course, you want to make sure it is tidy and doesn't make someone uncomfortable with the filth, but this is where you live and you are inviting someone into that space. Make it feel like the home that it is.
- Music always helps create an atmosphere, filling the gaps in conversation. Nothing too crazy or loud, just something nice in the background. I like jazz or old school classics like Sam Cooke or Roberta Flack.
- If small talk feels like going to the dentist for you, perhaps think of a few questions ahead of time to ask your guests. Open ended questions always work best since they will do most of the talking. For example: Tell me about your family? Why do you enjoy your job (or not)? What do you enjoy on the weekends or in your free time? Make sure to have a secondary question ready to keep the conversation growing.
- Relax and enjoy!
Marelize is a South African girl married to an American boy who lives in Colorado. She works hard to retain her street cred while raising three kids, Malone, Judah, and Wallace, driving a mini-van, and cheering on her kids at soccer games and gymnastics meets. She loves deep connection with people, food, and Donny Hathaway. Snag some of her yummy creations over on @thetablefood