On a warm Wednesday evening earlier this summer, I hosted a women’s potluck at a public park, underneath a pavilion. The event was open to all of the women in Missoula, Montana and the surrounding area.
This dinner was part of a larger project that I have been working on as preparation for a women’s retreat that I am designing and directing for the summer of 2018 in Vermont. Over the course of last spring, I had been slowly breaking off bite-sized pieces of this larger vision that I have of the retreat in order to help me explore and experience the deeper understandings of women connecting with one another in their community. My intention for this potluck was to bring women together so we could collectively peel back the layers of social constructs and outward pressures that we feel in our lives, as well as break down any barriers that have been built to enclose conversational and social norms. What I mean by this is that I wanted to sit down with women of all ages from my city to hear their perspective on real life topics, through real, honest conversation.
Through my research on women’s health I had stumbled across a documentary a couple of months ago about the women’s liberation movement of the 1960’s, titled She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014). In this film I was so impressed by the power of communication. Women would frequently meet up in small groups at someone’s house to share information from personal experiences and discuss topics such as health, as well as challenges they were facing during those times, such as learning more about different birth control methods, talking about the female orgasm (or lack there of; how to achieve it, etc.), or how to find a safe doctor who would perform abortions (which were illegal at that time). This small meet-up idea started to spread like wild fire across the country and would later be the birthplace for the profound text, Our Bodies Ourselves, also commonly referred to as the “women’s health bible,” produced by the Boston Women’s Health Collective in 1971. This was how women began learning from other women about their physical, sexual, emotional and mental health and wellbeing. This was a very big deal during this era because the majority of physicians at that time were male.
I loved this idea of bringing women together to sit and discuss topics on health and wellness that are relevant to our lives today. Ever since I can remember I have been craving a more substantial, honest, deeper connection with the women of my community. I didn’t want this event to be complex or fancy, I just wanted women to feel comfortable enough to share their truths, to whatever degree they wished. When a strong community supports us, we have room to take risks with the comfort of knowing that our support system will give us wings if we haven’t yet learned how to fly.
I got to Greenough Park a few minutes early to set the picnic tables with nice table clothes and a few lanterns. I wanted to provide a homey feel to this outdoor space so those who attended would feel cozy and relaxed. It is so easy for us to feel a false sense of connection when we’re linked to so many online networks but when we’re asked to express our vulnerabilities or struggles, this simple practice can seem unnatural and difficult. A lot of us aren't used to sharing these deeper layers of ourselves anymore. Not to mention, sharing your truths takes even more courage when you’re sharing in front of people you’ve never met before! I prepared a large bowl of vegetable pasta salad as well as a large beverage dispenser of unsweetened tea. I turned on the wireless speaker that I had brought and played my the dinner playlist, a current list of some of my new favorites, along with old standbys.
Women began to trickle in to the pavilion with their healthy dishes in hand and a big smile on their faces. I hugged each one of them as they arrived and thanked them for coming. We had 8 women attend this first potluck and a magnificent spread of food: deep green salads, eggplant parmesan, vegetable pasta salad, chopped vegetables straight from the garden, fresh deviled eggs, spicy curry yogurt dip with pita chips, as well as a vibrant, juicy fruit salad. In my invitation I had encouraged everyone to bring her favorite dish, mug and utensil in order to minimize waste and add to the homey aesthetic. As I began to introduce myself and explain in further detail my work with women’s health, community and food, the women slowly began to pass around the beautiful meal to one another family-style, with big smiles, even though we hadn’t gone over formal introductions. This was a great example of the powerful influence food has when connecting with one another. Just through this simple action alone, we were able to naturally connect back to our feminine roots as we joyfully gathered around this wonderful meal prepared with love and intention.
In my introduction I explained that this potluck represented one of the first few steps that I would be taking to dive deeper into the need for human connection and exploring the importance of community. For this occasion, we shared homemade food as a modality to deepen our relations with others. There is something so calming about experiencing food with each of our senses, that has been prepared with love. Truthfully, I find this experience to be uncommon in present day. There is now even a title for this experience, "slow food", as part of the slow food movement to combat the rise of fast life (business, fast food, etc.) beginning in the 1980s. The eater sits and enjoys their meal by savoring each and every bite while appreciating the time and effort that went into preparing the dish. Having gratitude for the simple things in life quickly turns the mundane into extraordinary.
After I introduced myself, I asked the women if they’d like to share a couple of things about themselves, including a couple of micro communities that they identified with in Missoula. This was a nice way for everyone to gain a better understanding of other’s interests and priorities in life, instead of just hearing about where each of us worked. Another nice part about this introduction was that we were able to learn about communities in our own town that we had never heard of before. Food was savored while we each took turns sharing about ourselves.
The first topic that I brought up for discussion was about connection. We spend so much time behind screens that even though we may initially feel connected with one another we’re still distant. I asked the women joining me, what does it feel like when someone makes eye contact with you while you talk to them? How does it feel to be your authentic self, less chameleon-like, no matter whom you’re surrounded by? What does it feel like to be heard when you share your insecurities and vulnerabilities? This sparked some great conversation and advice. Each woman participated in the conversation by sharing wisdom and thoughtful advice about how to intentional support each other with friends and acquaintances that lifts us up. This way key, they said. This sense of backing from community members, who we respect, will empower and inspire us to be our best selves. This allows us to deepen our relationships with those special people in our lives. Yes, we can experience feeling stuck in points in our life, or with groups of people that we choose to surround ourselves with, but ultimately it is important to realize that we are the ones making the decision to stay in those relationships even when they no longer serve us anymore.* For a situation like this (that we had all experienced at one point in time) we decided, over dinner, that the best course of action was to bring in more awareness and love when choosing whom we let into our lives. This simple yet powerful action will help us continue to work toward our aspirations. I should also mention, this is a daily practice; something we should consciously be working on each and every day.
Next I wanted to address another common occurrence for many of us, and that is when others question our future. We get asked questions about marriage, bearing children, settling down, becoming a homeowner, whether or not we plan to go back to school, or if we ever plan to find a career that aligns with our degree. These questions are usually asked from loved ones who care about us a whole awful lot but who are also quick to make assumptions about our wants and desires in life based on social norms. It’s wonderful to feel cared for but the phrasing of these questions can often linger much longer than the conversation itself. If we feel like there is an assumption being made within the question, feelings of not being good enough can start to run through our veins like thick molasses. I was curious to hear from this group of women how they would approach a conversation of this nature. The responses were deep and philosophical.
Each woman was happy to share a question that they had been hearing a lot in their life lately that had them second-guessing their worth. Some described the pressure they felt when asked these questions, as a poor reflection of who they were, even though they realized how ridiculous that was, a small part of them seemed to believe it. I saw each of these women expose this evident struggle that they were feeling to make a snap decision on big life situations, such as whether or not they should pursue graduate school or having children. They felt pressure to get married, even though they were happy how their life was. I took a step back as the facilitator and just got to listen to the wisdom of these women from my community, form an organic conversation around this sticky challenge. They each took turns sharing a fork in the road that they were facing right now in their lives. These decisions are complicated and have so many moving parts, that feeling outward pressures from loved ones can make things even messier.
One woman spoke up and asked the ladies at the table why this question and these lingering feelings of being incomplete or not good enough had to be the end of their story. She told us about a previous struggle in her life and how she was able to overcome it by using questions like these as motivation and excitement to help her accomplish the goals she had set for herself. Choosing to shift our perspective like this can shine a whole new light on the circumstance at hand. Instead of getting defensive or upset, she inspired us to shift our perspective. This will help us bring in positivity and passion around our goals the next time we get asked a question like this.
The present moment can teach us so much about ourselves when we can breathe into the discomfort a little bit more, trust the process of our lives, and stop worrying so much about living for the future. Yes, it is important to have awareness for the days, months and years ahead but if we spend most of our energy entertaining those thoughts, we will end up stagnant, waiting for those moments to happen, instead of taking steps toward our dreams and aspirations. We all agreed that staying present isn’t always an easy task but we shared some helpful practices that we use to stay in the moment, such as meditation groups and apps, yoga, hiking, journaling, as well as sitting by a river or stream.
As we were breaking down these big questions our dinner got cut a little short when a large spring thunderstorm started to roll through the park! We picked things up and began to pack our food and dishes away. Gratitude washed over me as each woman thanked me for hosting this event and being a catalyst for a supportive women’s group in Missoula. It was made very clear that night that having a comforting space to express our vulnerabilities in life, being heard, being a good listener, and having empathy as well as an open mind and heart are all very important elements that I will need to incorporate into my retreat in order for women to express themselves honestly. That night, we were able to peel back layers of our own stories and if felt really good.
We sparked some wonderful conversations that I would like to pick up again, maybe when I host another potluck. I was so thrilled how open everyone was with sharing parts of their stories with women they had just met, and how quickly I felt this deep connection to each of them because of their honesty and authenticity. Small talk can be nice if you unexpectedly bump into someone that you haven’t seen for a while but after sharing this night and plenty of conversations with others in my community about this event, true experiences like there reiterate the importance of human connection and what it means to feel connected.
This potluck was a great success, as I also had a lot of interest from other women to continue doing them every few weeks, or once a month. I want to thank, again, all of the women who decided to take the leap and join in on this important conversation. You could tell by their body language and energy that they really wanted to be there and to hear how other women felt about these topics.
If you're interested in joining in on something like this, please be sure to sign up for the newsletter to get event invitations sent straight to your inbox! It’s unbelievable how much we are able to learn and connect just from sitting and talking with one another.
In health and happiness,
*I am not talking about abusive relationships, I'm talking about friends who you've grown apart from or that don't share the same interests as you anymore. If you're in an abusive relationship of any sort, please seek out professional help immediately.