The lights hang overhead, strung from one side of the deck to the other and back again. As the sun goes down late into the evening the flames flicker on the table trying to keep the pesky bugs away. The back door is either left wide open or constantly slamming depending on which kid is running in and out. The men are standing in the corner as smoke billows from the Big Green Egg cooking something my husband has a hankering for. The women are carrying out dishes, napkins, silverware, trays of grilled corn, plates of roasted veggies, and bowls of salad. We are in rhythm at our home. Familiar rhythm. Our tight knit group, the guys having been friends since junior high with the wives they married that only God could have brought together. This gathering outside is not much different than the cold and rainy days when we gather in the winter. The difference is the lightness we all feel from no schedule, the sun shining well past our kids bedtimes, colorful popsicle juice dripping down chins, staining cheeks, the grass we feel between our toes and the wide open space of being outside. While this gathering is familiar to the six of us, it is not kept just between us. When we invite others in, whether it be for Pickleball tournaments, birthday parties, showers, fancy dinner parties or crappy ones, our rhythm is welcoming. We’ve learned over the years what works and what doesn’t. We’ve tried ideas from Pinterest and from magazines. We’ve adopted family traditions and started our own. This rhythm has come from opening our door again and again. Even after marker was drawn on a marble side table, grandma’s heirloom glass was broken, bee stings, splinters cutting through the feet of many five year old girls, lego creations being destroyed and more, we continue to open our door. We continue to work on our rhythm. We know now to not have a birthday party under the tree that gives hundreds of little splinters. We know that kids will always finish eating first, so we let them have the full table and eat first. The adults then eat while the kids play. We’ve learned that not all people love our gentle giant of a German Shepherd. My kids have learned to put their most precious toys up high and to share the rest. We have learned that when one of the boys names is called out loud, we all drop what we are doing and search for the curious little wanderer. It is an ever evolving and learning process. It is one we love working on. Perfection is not something we strive for, welcoming and comfortable is. If you do not feel welcome or comfortable in our home we are doing gatherings wrong.
If you’re wanting to invite people in and don’t know where to start or what to do, Summer gatherings are a great place to start. There is an ease and simplicity that comes with summer. You don’t need a big house or large backyard. String lights are just as beautiful on your 3 foot x 5 foot concrete back patio that sits less than inches from your neighbors. If you do have any bit of a yard I recommend yard games. Cornhole and Ladder Golf are great games that are easy to explain, don’t take up much space and entertaining enough for others to watch. Have something for people to do. Put a drink in their hand soon after they arrive. There’s something about holding onto something that makes people feel more comfortable. Chalk on the sidewalk for kids, bikes and helmets to share, or a frisbee to toss is something kids always gravitate towards. If you’re not a yard game person and more of a dig down deep and talk person, try printing off conversation cards or a have a few interesting questions stored away in your head to keep the conversation going. Start light with your questions and build to more complex ones as your get to know your guests. No need to scare them away with “What is the meaning of life?” from the get-go.
People don’t want to show up empty handed. When I’ve told people not to bring anything, I’ve learned they don’t listen and bring something anyway. For a while it stressed me out because it threw off my meal plan. People want to contribute and most likely they have food in their fridge that needs to be eaten up. If people ask what they can bring, I ask what they have to share (especially families of little kids) so they don’t have to go to the store. You’d be surprised how quickly a meal comes together from salad greens, day old pasta salad, a few sweet potatoes that didn’t get used and blueberries that are still good but just need to be eaten. We, as hosts, usually always provide the meat and fill in any gaps there might be. My husband loves to either cook a pork shoulder in the crock pot if he doesn’t feel like standing by the grill. If we want to step it up a notch, Salmon with pesto will almost always be on the menu. Salmon or Chicken is always great for “what do you have to share?” meals. They tend to go with anything. If we are providing the main and the sides we most likely will do some sort of Mexican meal. Carne Asada with grilled street corn, my homemade guacamole, taco salad and chips and salsa is a low key, stress free meal that almost anyone will enjoy.
For a while when I was cooking a lot of new meals for my family I would ask if we should "Toss, Keep or Tweak" the meal. Most of the time it was tweak. There were definitely some "tosses." My son won't even look at Spaghetti Squash anymore. I had to learn what worked in the meal, what didn't and make adjustments. The same can be said for gatherings. If you're new to inviting people in, it can feel clunky at first. Start simple. Keep what works, toss what doesn't and tweak what you can. The best part, your guests probably won't even notice. And if they do, have a good laugh about it and then serve brownies. Everyone loves brownies.