Of late, I've been on the fringes of the dinner party circuit, but New Year's Eve was a rip-snorter. Just a small affair, really, with a few couples heading off to the next soireé before midnight. I don't know if it was the bow ties and glitter in the room or the fact that even the hosts didn't know everyone there, but we all seemed in top form.
Top form for me means layers of alternately playful and serious conversation. New discoveries about those we think we know and quick connections with moments-ago-strangers that delight and illuminate. Maybe the invective that no one sit adjacent to or across from the person they came with set the conversational stage so elegantly.
Did you know there's strict protocol for table talk among royalty? I've always marveled that, at least on film, no one ever seems to be left out. Well, it was explained to me that at each course one shifts the direction of one's intended conversational partner from right to left to across the table. Everyone know that's so, and the evening progresses with social ease, clear expectations, and conversational variety.
Of course, we commoners could keep up with such protocol for only so long, and we soon devolved into mish-mashed conversational pods. I believe the hostess asked me what I was up to these days. "I've just finished writing a book," I said, "and it's being shopped around for publishing." The hip gentleman animator across the table asked what it's about. Oh boy, I thought, let's see where this goes.
"It's about women who haven't had children," I said. "I'm one of those. How about you?" Of the five of us, turned out myself and the animator aren't parents, one of us by choice and the other by circumstance. The hostess and her husband have two sons; her sister a son and daughter.
Anytime those without children exceed our statistically-expected twenty percent, I've learned that increases the chances we can actually talk about the subject. So I tossed out having tried unsuccessfully for kids, how that was tender when I was going through it, but now it's an important fact in the more broad narrative of my life. Not a source for pity or scorn, just reality.
One of the mothers disclosed she never thought she'd want kids, and now she's deservedly crazy about the two she raised largely on her own while working full-time. The other mother confessed to frequently feeling looked down upon by career women for having been a stay-at-home mom.
I don't remember exactly what was said, but a comment was made about raising kids being a noble endeavor or some such. It didn't strike me as incendiary, but the single mom bristled. My tablemates, instead of quickly shifting topics, stayed with it. We were rewarded with one of those rare exchanges of inquiry and apology, clarification and personal disclosure that I think are required before deeper understanding can be had.
Just like when we grapple with issues like ethnic and economic diversity, sexual harassment, and various forms of privilege, I believe these conversations are necessarily messy and uncomfortable. We're often in personally uncharted territory, hearing ourselves express opinions we didn't even know we had. Or making mistakes and retracting what we've just uttered. Or asking questions we've been raised to consider impolite.
My intent for 2018 is to walk more boldly into these places of vulnerability with a commitment to curiosity, humility, and forbearance. We can tolerate the discomfort of awkwardness and misunderstandings, as long as the focus remains on knowing and being known as we really are.