Questions, Dinner Parties, and Conversation (again).
Be patient with all that is unresolved in your heart. Love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
- Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
Certain milestones creep up on me. One day I notice a child can tie their own shoes or one is ready for a job or to stay home alone.
Then we are invited to a dinner party.
I asked Chris, “The kids too?”
He nodded and shrugged. “What do you think?”
I paused for a moment because I tried to remember the last time I went to a dinner party. I had flashes of meeting new people and having interesting conversations. But I didn’t remember children at these dinner parties.
We accepted the invitation and we told the kids that we were going to a dinner party. They were a little confused.
“Mama, what’s a dinner party? I mean, we go to dinner at people’s houses sometimes but you keep saying that this is a dinner party. Why is that different? And who is going to be there?”
I said, “I don’t know. Dinner parties are normally made up of many different people. Some people you’ve never met before. This is also a Shabbat dinner.”
We explained the religious and cultural tradition and they were intrigued. They wondered if they have to dress up and if they would know which fork to use.
“I don’t think it’s a formal dinner party.”
They looked at me with eyes wide open.
“Wait a minute. There are different types of dinner parties? Whoa.”
Fast forward a few days.
At the dinner party, I was amazed to hear my children engage with the rest of the attendees. They speak clearly and smile and are courteous. They listened closely to our hosts explaining Shabbat. They listened to stories and different perspectives. And at the end of the meal, they took turns with other adults helping wash the dishes.
Most of all, I am grateful for the gracious and kind adults that asked my children questions and were interested in what they had to say. I am grateful for the adults who don’t mind my kids listening to our conversations and feeling also ok to speak in private if necessary also teaching my kids how to set boundaries with grace.
Sometimes I am asked how hard it is to homeschool my kids, to be with them all day. It’s a popular myth. Part of “homeschooling” is actually the opportunity to include the community in their lessons like accepting an invitation to a dinner party.
The art of conversation, in-person conversation, is the lesson at dinner parties. I don’t think people are born as natural conversationalists. I think it’s a skill that anyone can learn through practice and through watching people that are good at it. My kids love hearing real stories told by real people.
Beautiful stories of people from different backgrounds and different beliefs and different walks of life are excavated after a few minutes in a dinner party. We see each other when we listen to each other.
When we purposefully put ourselves in the place of not knowing another person and artfully getting to know them through conversation, we participate in the most basic aspect of humanity – connection.
This is what my children learn through conversation. I asked them what they learned at the dinner party. One child spent the time translating between a Spanish speaker and non-Spanish speakers and she loved it because she could fully be involved in the conversation without having to be in the conversation because it was another way to observe interactions. One child simply loved being asked an interesting question.
They are eager to learn because they have questions themselves. Questions that they have asked me at our own dinner parties at home. The dinners where the seven of us shared everything. We shared our meals, our fears, our exciting news (“We’re having another baby!”). The place where feelings were aired out and confessions heard. The table where my children learned what tension and forgiveness taste like. The conversations that always started with a question.
In this world, we are having a tougher time having conversation. We are losing the ability to listen with curiosity instead of turning away because it’s uncomfortable to be in disagreement. We are also losing the ability to speak with compassion and a lightness of being in the face of dividing issues.
So let’s start with the timeless dinner party. The first step in getting to know our neighbours. Our community. If you listen closely, you will notice we are all the same – as one of my daughters observe with small talk: “Everyone has their defaults, their safe spaces of conversation but then when someone asks an interesting question, it gets good.”
It’s how we love the question that leads us to live it.
- Choose one or more…
- Copy the Rilke quote above.
- Draw a question.
- Write questions that you are living with that may never be answered.
- Have or go to a dinner party.
- Have an interesting conversation with a child.
- Draw a question.