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Interview: The Dinner Party Chief in a Time of No Dinner Parties

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Honest, inspiring talk with The Dinner Party Executive Director and Co-Founder Lennon Flowers

Dinner Party CEO Lennon Flowers
Photo by Jessica Chou

There are dinner parties, and there is The Dinner Party. Both are warm, uplifting ways to share a meal, our news, our feelings — and maybe some wine — with people we care about and want to spend time with.

But The Dinner Party’s dinner parties are different. The Dinner Party is a global community of 20- and 30-somethings, each of whom has lost a parent, partner, child, sibling, other close family member, or close friend. Members are carefully matched to specific tables, which meet repeatedly, so that real bonds and friendships can form. Dinner Parties happen in 100 cities and towns in six countries and climbing.

It’s leader is Lennon Flowers, a gutsy and deeply thoughtful force of nature who thinks big. Lennon lost her mother when she was a university senior, and eventually turned her grief into an international community that uplifts and helps others in theirs. She is an Ashoka Fellow and an Aspen Ideas Scholar, and a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill.

You should also check out: Interview: NY Times Reporter Amelia Nierenberg and Interview: Chef and Podcast Host Zahra Tangorra

Dinner Party group Lennon Flowers
Photo via The Dinner Party

Grief often gets hidden, tucked into corners of ourselves and our relationships, lest we make others, or ourselves, uncomfortable. But The Dinner Party shows us that grief does not have to be hidden. It acknowledges that “Yes, I am grieving, but I’m also still a human being who likes to hang out!” 

The Dinner Party’s motto captures its spirit: “We know what it’s like to lose someone and we aren’t afraid to talk about it.”

So let’s talk about it.

Unpeeled’s interview with The Dinner Party’s co-founder and executive director Lennon Flowers.

This interview took place on April 3, 2020. This article has been lightly edited and condensed for space. 

Lisa Ruland [LR]: Right off the bat, I’d like to talk about The Dinner Party at this time of Covid-19 and self-distancing and self-isolation, which strikes me as being the exact opposite of what The Dinner Party is all about: gathering together.

Lennon Flowers [LF]: It feels important to name that the best practice, globally, right now is to self-isolate, and that it’s the opposite of what we do. The Dinner Party envisions a world where we are deeply unafraid of each other.

LR: What does daily life look for you right now in Los Angeles?

LF: Normal daily life is gone. The interminable month of March is now over, and I’ve gone through so many different waves and phases in such a short span of time, and still seeking out a rhythm in this new normal. I live in a group house. I have four roommates and have a partner, all sharing a roof. One thing that has been my saving grace in all this is the ability to close the day with candlelit meals. 

LR: What role does food play right now? Personally, but also as leader of an organization that focuses on gathering for communal meals?

LF: Food has become even more important in my day to day, and I have become so aware of the privileges of having a roof over one’s head and the ability to shelter in place, and the luck of having people around, and the ability to touch a human being.

A lot of our work has undergone a colossal 180 in a few weeks. Now we are supporting meeting virtually. Well above 50 percent of our tables are continuing virtually right now. We expected maybe 25 or 30 percent, but have been continually surprised. We have also launched a series in the past two weeks about some collective care practices, from journaling to yoga to virtual dinner parties.

LR: Are you grieving? What does grief look like for you right now?

LF: In deep ways. I was set to get married in October, and this is unlikely to happen, and almost certainly not in the ways I had envisioned it. I have discovered things about myself. I realized that I am not as resilient as I thought I am. I have had moments of just being a monster to people! In many ways, many of us [who have experienced grief] are just forever crisis ready. We grow accustomed to expecting the worst news on the other end of the phone line, so expecting that on the other end of the phone line creates a trauma response.

For all our language about “flight or fight,” we are seeing “tend and befriend.” I think what is different about this moment is that it is not a moment. It is not a single event. The exhaustion setting in has been a real thing for me. The experience of fear and living with it in really acute relief. I am not always my best decision maker. Anxiety is a part of most people’s daily grief experience. This is anxiety on overdrive.

The ability to plan has also been affected. In this moment, we are living in uncertainty, and with so many unknowns about the longevity of this season. What will stand literally, and metaphorically, in its wake? What are we going to be left with?

LR: I am thinking about how grief is filled with so many unknowns in that same way. 

LF: Grief can be a means through which all the things that you thought were important the day before are not important anymore. Reshaping a life and the luxury of things you took for granted, you can’t now.

We also need to get better at sitting with our ugly parts. Sitting with discomfort. Sitting with the worst versions of ourselves. We need to normalize that it is ok not to be ok. Because this present time is not ok. The ravages that the global pandemic is having on people and individual wellbeing and collective wellbeing when we are separated, and there is no end date that we know of. 

But this is also true (and I have been bowled over by this): the positive responses. More than 50 percent of our tables continue to gather, and didn’t need to be told to do so. 

LR: I’d love to talk about The Dinner Party’s format. What is important about sharing a meal vs. other forums, like a circle of folding chairs?

LF: Meals have always been a device for gathering and connection. That is why meals matter. For such a long time we had an obsession with “foodie”ism and gourmandism, which can be really intimidating. We would always hear that people couldn’t host. But it isn’t about the food; it’s about the connection. 

Food itself is powerful. Eating is a ritual we are all familiar with, wherever you come from. All of us have experienced shared meals. Meals can be an incredible conversation starter, and give a taste of where you came from and who you are. “Who taught you to cook that dish? In whose company did you eat it?” These are all powerful vehicles to open doors to the stories and people. There is also something really practical about meals that put people at ease with one another. Taking a breath and picking up a glass or a fork as you reflect on what you want to say.

A mentor of ours, Parker Palmer says, “The soul is shy.” There is no surer way to ensure that it’s going to flee the scene than sitting in a circle in folding chairs and sharing your deepest feelings. 

LR: What advice would you offer to people experience the loss and grief of this moment of life in self-quarantine?

LF: First and foremost, and I think we are seeing that the language of “social distancing” is being replaced by “physical distancing.” The desire for connection is more in demand than ever.

Reach out. Who might not be getting phone calls? Who can you check in with? Normalize whatever you’re feeling. It is everyone’s first time living in a global pandemic. You are going to experience a spectrum. We are in the beginning of a marathon, not the end. Part of living with this moment of uncertainty is not knowing how it ends. 

LR: And how can people help others who may be struggling?

When it comes to holding grief with one another: It’s the ability to sit with and witness pain — our own and each other’s. Part of living with this moment of uncertainty is not knowing how it ends. You cannot fix someone’s tragedy and pain of losing someone, or of losing a business they’ve built from scratch. Allow your presence in someone’s pain to be enough, and do not try to fix it.

We are primed to be really good to one another. Show up. Every grieving person has stories of the people who they wanted to show up and didn’t, and the people who they didn’t expect to show up and did. So afford yourself that in this moment. For everyone in our community, you know what it is to receive that. Be the friend you wish you had.

In the same breath, focus on what you need to keep you going, like moments of joy and laughter. Set up virtual board games and play together. Video chat. It is inspiring to see all the means in which people are coming together in this moment, even when we are not allowed come together.

LR: Inspiring indeed. Thank you so much, Lennon. 

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