It’s Never about the Centerpiece: The Anxiety of Entertaining

It's Never About the Centerpiece: The Anxiety of EntertainingAndy and I planned on going to his parents’ house for Thanksgiving dinner. Those plans changed in the sweetest of stomach-turning ways – skunks moved in under their house and sprayed the place. It seeped into pretty much everything and lingered for days. Rather than go there for dinner, his parents said they’d just pick food up and bring dinner to us. All we had to do was provide the place to eat it.

About that.

One saving grace

We have our own rodent in the house (though skunks it turns out aren’t rodents, but close enough) – a guinea pig whose cage we keep under the dining room table. We don’t mind it, and almost never eat at the table anyway, but something about eating Thanksgiving dinner with a guinea pig at Andy’s parents’ feet didn’t sit right with us.

A couple of hours before they arrived, we dragged Monty’s house out from under the table. It’s a big, clunky apparatus, so the furthest we could get without dismantling the whole thing was the middle of the living room. I figured we’d probably end up there by the end of the night, but surely talking over a guinea pig pooping in his cage is preferable to eating over one.

With the cage gone, it was weird seeing all that empty space underneath the table. But not as weird as all the empty space above it. It’s the kind of wall that needs either one gargantuan piece of artwork or a collection of smaller pieces, neither of which we have.

The one saving grace about this grossly under-decorated space was the plant that sits in the middle of the table. At least we had that!

We stepped back to survey the situation.

“What do you think?” I asked Andy.

“Looks good,” he said. “Maybe just move the plant.”

I don’t remember what I said (if anything) but the gist of what I thought (and probably conveyed) was, “What the fuck do you mean move the plant?”

“To make more room for the food,” Andy said.

Eventually Andy got it out of me (or did I force it down his throat?)

Thank goodness I had just watched last year’s Tori and Dean’s Thanksgiving special. The one where Tori proudly shows Dean the gorgeous table she’s decorated for their guests (with pumpkins that have succulents planted on top of them, for God’s sake!) and all Dean sees is a space too crowded for food because Tori has gone overboard with the decorations. Instead of defending herself, Tori just looks defeated and there was no way I was going to let that be me.

“People have big centerpieces!” I said in defense of myself to Andy (and you take that too, Dean).

I don’t remember what Andy said back to that; I’m pretty sure it was some sort of reluctant concession. But I remember with certainty what I said next because it was a big fat lie:

“I’m happy to move it,” I said.

And I did.

And I pouted.

And eventually Andy got it out of me (or did I force it down his throat?): “You are so insensitive,” I said. “You don’t know all the thought I put into using that plant as a centerpiece for Thanksgiving, do you?”

Which would be zero thought, by the way.

The truth was, this wasn’t about the centerpiece.

The problem is I relied on one of the tricks I use to minimize anxiety about an upcoming event

We’ve lived in our apartment going on 2 years and this was the first formal entertaining we’d done. Sure, we’ve had friends stop by here and there, and my mom has stayed with us a couple of times when she was in town, but this was Thanksgiving dinner. With Andy’s parents. And minutes before they arrived I realized I was embarrassingly unprepared.

I didn’t have placemats.

I only had three matching dinner plates and no dessert plates.

Our only matching silverware has black plastic handles.

I could only find two of my linen napkins so we had to use paper towels that I didn’t even bother folding nicely because the only thing more embarrassing than putting paper towels down for Thanksgiving dinner is trying to make them look pretty (the same reasoning that convinced me my old Chevette in high school looked better dirty).

The only thing we had to offer them to drink was water or ice water.

I didn’t make a single dish to contribute to the meal, not because I knew Andy’s parents were bringing plenty of food, but because I was too afraid they wouldn’t like my cooking.

It’s not that I didn’t have the means to go out and get what I needed to be a proper hostess. The problem is I relied on one of the tricks I use to minimize anxiety about an upcoming event. I prepare for it as little as possible. But while that might work for events I’m attending, I forgot to consider the regretful consequences when the event is at my house.

I haven’t always been like this

Let’s not ignore the obvious question here: What kind of grown woman doesn’t already have at least a four-piece set of decent place settings for the smallest of holiday dinners?

I’ll tell you what kind of person.

The kind of person who breaks dishes regularly (beside the point, but true). The kind of person who doesn’t prioritize the replacement of broken dishes because it never crosses her mind she’ll need more than two place settings at any one time. The kind of person who is an anxiety-riddled entertainment-phobe so afraid of being a failure of a hostess that she’d rather not try at all.

I haven’t always been like this.

When I first moved to L.A. in 2010, I hosted get-togethers in my tiny studio apartment quite a bit. I made food. I decorated tables. I dressed up.

I don’t know what happened to that part of me.

I did fail as a hostess big-time once. Regular ranch dressing ended up on the vegan side of the buffet table. “What kind of vegan ranch is this that tastes so real?” asked my new friend who just happened to work for Vegan Outreach. I told her the truth and she confided she’d been eating it all night. She left devastated and we never spoke again (unless you count the time she was our server at a vegan restaurant in Silver Lake where we pretended not to recognize each other).

But as shitty as it feels feeding dairy to a vegan, I don’t think that’s what did it.

It’s like I just phased entertaining out of my life the same way I have other anxiety-inducing things, like producing plays, drinking coffee, and taking a walk through the neighborhood for fear of running into that one neighbor I hate.

Yes, eliminating all of these things means less anxiety in my life, but it also means missing out on the parts of these things that I love.

Getting back in the game

Hosting Thanksgiving dinner this year was a good start on getting back in the game. So many things weren’t the way I wanted them, yet I managed to relax and have a good time. The food Andy’s parents brought was delicious and the plant – which Andy insisted we put back on the table – served its purpose as a centerpiece; his mom asked what it was:

“A prayer plant,” I said. “The leaves open during the day and fold up at night.”

My anxiety did return a bit when it came time to serve dessert without dessert plates, but it turns out maple custard pie served on full-size dinner plates is fucking fantastic.

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A Simple Approach to Meditation

A Simple Approach to MeditationOne quiet night a few weeks ago, I did something I don’t usually do. I started meditating out of the blue. I was in our living room. The lights were out and I was sitting at the windows that look out over the hillside. I closed my eyes and just like that, I was in it.

I don’t remember what I focused on. Maybe it was my breath. Maybe it was my positive affirmation. Maybe it was the breeze. I don’t know how long I meditated; I didn’t set my timer. I just went for as long as I felt like it. If I had to guess, maybe 15 minutes.

Most of the time, meditation isn’t like that for me.

Most of the time, I feel like I have to make a big production out of it. Like I have to be in just the right space, sitting in just the right position, focusing on just the right thing. And half the time, it feels like too much trouble. Like I don’t have the time. Or the focus. Or the patience.

Not that I think of meditation as hard. What I think about is me not being in the right frame of mind to do it right…so I just don’t do it at all. And what a shame that is because:

1) I can’t screw up meditation.

2) It’s when I’m the busiest, most frazzled, and impatient that I need the anxiety-reducing benefit of meditation the most.

So my aim today is to outline a simpler approach to meditation.

1) Sit somewhere

Anywhere. It can be on your bed, on the living room floor, on the grass in your backyard. Or lie down if that’s the only thing that feels right to you. Of course, that’s counter to what Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says to do, as lying down to meditate makes it so easy to fall asleep. But I get a lot of pain in my back and diaphragm, so lying down is sometimes the only way I feel comfortable enough to meditate at all. I fall asleep now and then, but it’s worth the risk; worst-case scenario, I get a great nap.

2) Be flexible with your time

If your phone is handy, go ahead and set the timer for as long as you like – 20 minutes, 5 minutes, 60 seconds even. But if you don’t have your phone, or setting the timer just feels too official, intimidating, or like too much work, forget about it. Meditate for as long as it feels right.

3) Focus on something

Your breath. I like the counting method Thich Nhat Hahn suggests in The Miracle of Mindfulness:

“As you breathe in, count 1 in your mind, and as you breathe out, count 1. Breathe in, count 2. Breathe out, count 2. Continue through 10, then return to 1 again.

“This counting is like a string which attaches your mindfulness to your breath. This exercise is the beginning point in the process of becoming continuously conscious of your breath.”

Don’t worry if you lose count. (You will lose count.) Just start over again.

Or don’t bother with counting at all and just observe the breath. On the inhale, silently say to yourself something like, “I am breathing in.” On the exhale, “I am breathing out.” And so on.

A positive affirmation. More often than counting my breath, I say a positive affirmation to myself with every inhale and exhale. Learn how to create your own positive affirmations.

A sound. Sometimes I focus on the water fountain in our living room. Sometimes I focus on chirping birds. Sometimes I even focus on things I’d rather not be hearing, like construction in the neighborhood a few months back (see how that worked out in How I Love the Hammering Next Door).

4) Let thoughts come and go

Don’t beat yourself up when you realize you’re thinking about things you need to do when you’re done meditating. (I spend a good chunk of my meditation time writing blog posts). Your mind is going to wander to all sorts of things. It’s not only okay; it’s normal. Acknowledge the thought and let it go. The same is true of feelings. If a wave of emotion comes over you, let it come, acknowledge it, and let it go.

5) Refocus

As soon as you realize your thoughts have wandered, refocus your attention. Get back to your breath, your positive affirmation, the sound. Then do the same when it happens again. (It will happen again.)

6) Accept distractions, or don’t

Your cheek is going to itch. You’re going to realize you forgot to silence your phone. The cat is going to meow (in your face and incessantly). Sometimes I can accept all of these things without breaking my meditation. Most days, though, I let myself take a break to scratch the itch, turn off the phone, and even, on occasion, to feed the cat, and I’m okay with that.

7) Let yourself feel whatever

When I first started meditating, I experienced a lot of euphoria. For whatever reason, it’s not like that for me anymore. I miss that feeling but it is what it is.

Nowadays what I feel falls somewhere in between relaxation and restlessness.

When I’m the most relaxed, I feel like I could meditate forever.

When I’m the most restless, it takes everything in me not to check my timer, certain I didn’t set it right because it’s taking forever. I used to feel bad about those restless sessions, like I was doing it wrong. Now, though, I’m better at reassuring myself that no matter how uncomfortable it might feel in the moment, deep down in there it’s doing some good.

A simpler approach to this simple approach

Since I’m realizing now that a simple approach to meditation has turned into a thousand-word post, I’m compelled to share a simpler approach to this simple approach: Sit, focus, and let yourself be.

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Fall Leaves: Guided Meditation (7 Minutes)

fall-leaves-guided-meditation

Let go of the old on a walk through the woods. Use the recording or, if you’re leading a meditation, you may want to read it yourself (see transcript below).

Welcome.

Make yourself comfortable, sitting or lying down.

Close your eyes and breathe easy.

You’re standing at a trailhead on the edge of the woods.

It’s a crisp, cool fall day.

The sky is overcast, but the warmth of the sun is coming through.

You take a deep breath.

There’s a wood fire burning somewhere.

It smells like home.

You step onto the trail.

As you walk on the soft, rich earth, dry leaves crunch at your feet.

You’re walking under a canopy of trees.

The trees are all different colors – red, orange, yellow, green.

You stop for a moment and stand very still.

All you hear is the sound of your own breath.

A red leaf falls at your feet.

You think about picking it up but decide to leave it where it fell and continue on your way.

As you walk, dry leaves crunch underneath.

You come upon a log that’s fallen across your path.

You step on top of it, standing for a moment on its thick, brown bark.

All you hear is the sound of your own breath.

An orange leaf falls at your feet.

You leave it where it fell and continue on your way.

As you walk, dry leaves crunch underneath.

Looking ahead, the trail seems to wind off its straight course.

You pick up your pace a little, curious what’s around the bend.

You wind around and it’s more of the same, only brighter.

More leaves have fallen here, letting more light stream through the trees.

You stop for a moment and stand very still.

All you hear is the sound of your own breath.

A yellow leaf falls at your feet.

You leave it where it fell and continue on your way.

As you walk, dry leaves crunch underneath.

The smell of the wood fire is getting stronger.

Through the bare branches above you see smoke moving across the sky.

You stop for a moment and stand very still.

All you hear is the sound of your own breath.

A green leaf falls at your feet.

You leave it where it fell and continue on your way.

As you walk, dry leaves crunch underneath.

You see the end of the trail.

You’re almost there.

Dry leaves crunch underneath.

You reach the end of the trail.

There’s a log cabin before you, smoke billowing from its chimney.

You walk to the cabin, open the front door, and step into the warm room.

Someone you love is there waiting for you.

You smile and sit down beside them.

All you hear is the crackle of the roaring fire.

Open your eyes.

Welcome home.

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