The Gift of Presence

So you invited someone into your home. As the event approached, you determined a menu, you did the last minute house pick-up, then the doorbell rang and you thought, “Now what?” Have you been putting off hosting because you don’t actually know what to do once your company arrives? Maybe you’re an introvert and the idea of holding conversation with strangers is uncomfortable. Or maybe you’re the outgoing type but you still don’t know what your role is once it’s go-time. Let me share a bit about some mistakes I’ve made and the way I try to spend my time once that anticipated hour arrives.

As I’ve alluded to in other posts, hosting can be a bit of extra work for you. You may have a few easy recipes up your sleeve, or perhaps you’ve accumulated work-saving suggestions and know some standard practices to help you calm down a bit about the workload leading up to the event. But you can’t take all of the effort out of it, no matter how dearly you might want to. So, you’ve put in the advanced legwork and now it’s finally mealtime. You get your guests’ attention, you say grace and make any announcements needed regarding the food. Now you get to relax right? Well, not so fast. All of a sudden you remember you didn’t set out a ladle for the soup. You see that you forgot So-and-So was bringing a “plus one” and have to slyly run and grab an extra place setting. Your toddler dumps his milk all over and you’re not sure if you ever turned the oven off. All of these little things can quickly add up and keep you from actually getting to sit down and eat the meal with your friends (forget aiming for a “hot” one). Some of these things really will need to be addressed, of course, but you must remember that no one wants to come over to your home to have you be their waitress. They said “yes” to the invite because they want to spend time with you. So the sooner you’re able to grab a plate of food and sit down with your guests, the more comfortable and pleased everyone will be. This is important. Please don’t forget it (as I can still sometimes do).

In order to accomplish this, you may have to accept help and even delegate some tasks so that you can actually be present for the evening. Last night we hosted a dinner party for out of town friends and I had lots of offers for help. I largely felt that having others hold my baby for me while I finished the few tasks left would be the fastest way to get us to chow time. But I also handed a friend an ice bucket and asked her to fill water glasses for me. That was an easy job that I didn’t need to handle personally. Where are you insisting on doing things yourself when you could invite someone to help you instead?

My beautiful friend visiting from Maine

Once you’re seated at the table, do your best to stay there until you’re done eating your food. If you get up, you may not make it back again before everyone else has finished eating. Trust me, I’ve done that more often than I care to recall.

So you have a plate and you’re seated to stay. How you handle the dialogue around the table is up to you and your spouse but here are a few ideas. One of the quietest men I know is also one of the greatest conversationalists because he’s a very thoughtful question asker. I’ve never inquired if he thinks of his queries in advance or if they just flow out of him naturally. In either case, he displays a compelling longing to get to know others better. Perhaps if you’re nervous about the conversational aspect of hosting you can think of some questions or topics to raise in advance. If there’s a lull in the conversation, bring up the next questions on your mental list. You’ll likely be surprised, however, about where the discussion leads you as the evening carries on.

My final and best piece of advice for helping you to get the most out of your event is that rather than moving to the kitchen sink right after you eat to start cleaning up, do the minimal amount of food putting away and then kick up your feet. Whether it’s dessert, decaf coffee or an after dinner liqueur to be enjoyed, if your company is able to stay, purpose to let people serve themselves and allow yourself to sit down for more visiting. After dinner is actually now my favorite part of the evening. Even if some of your guests have to leave, if a few will remain, that’s the sweet spot. There will always be dishes to do but there won’t always be outside relationships in your home to be relished.

This last suggestion was a game-changer for me. I whole-heartedly believe it’s the best hosting advice I was ever given.

Liz Chism, the lady on the left in the photo below (also the baby-clad woman in this photo above) once met me in the kitchen after dinner during my formal Christmas party. She said, “I’m going to allow you to be in here for another 5 minutes, and then you’re going to leave the sink and come and join us.”

She later shared that before she and her husband started the more than full-time job of opening Council Brewing, they regularly entertained in their home. One day Liz realized that after company would leave, she sometimes felt a little resentful. She finally identified that it was because she was doing so much work before, during and after the party that she had begun to feel like she was just “the hired help”. Once she identified that fact, she rectified it by postponing or abdicating the majority of the clean up to another time or to an insistent party attendee. What she was in essence telling me that night is that we are not in the catering business. That’s not why we host. In fact that’s the opposite of hospitality. Hospitality defined is:

1. the friendly reception and treatment of guests or strangers.

2. the quality or disposition of receiving and treating guests and strangers in a warm, friendly, generous way.

What attributes do we see here? Warm. Friendly. Generous. Let’s make those our goals for the evening. Having clean dishes before the guests leave just isn’t on that list. After all, when we share a meal with people, all of life’s other pulls can stop for an otherworldly moment. The emails, yard work, texts, laundry and bills can wait. What is before us is a soul we can feed and nurture and learn from in our midst. That stops time in a much-needed way. We really must slow down, forget the to-do lists for an evening and simply be, eat and share.

Why do I say all of this? In a couple of these cases, I learned by trial and error. Because of some element in the blend of factors that make me me, I can fool myself into thinking that I have to do it all myself, or that if I just clean this pot or that pan then I’ll feel like I can finally relax. That belief used to rob me of the sweet potential conversations that I had worked so diligently to help create. Spare yourself from the possible pitfalls those hosts before you have experienced, and just say “yes” to the opportunity for fellowship before you.

What advice do you need to start implementing to ensure a more present experience?

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