The worst party I ever threw was on New Year’s Eve. (Rule No. 1 of throwing a party: Never throw a party on New Year’s Eve.) I had the bright idea to invite every single man I knew and to have my single girlfriends do the same, a kind of swap meet of good-guy-but-not-right-for-me potential partners. The men did their part, dutifully arriving with warm hopes and chilled prosecco, but for some reason all but one girlfriend stayed home, creating a male-to-female ratio of something like 10 to 1. It made for an awkward evening.
Then again, I say the same thing after every party, large or small, stilted failure or rousing success. Parties are a lot of work. First of all, there’s the cooking. Rule No. 2 of throwing a party: Ensure that no one leaves hungry, or even only slightly full. There must be an abundance of food, it must be fresh and homemade and delicious and accommodating of all dietary restrictions, no matter how fastidious. No meat, no problem. No dairy, that’s cool. No gluten or citrus or food grown in the ground, I will make it happen, but it takes a lot of work.
Then there is the cleaning. Rule No. 3 of throwing a party is that when guests arrive, your house must look like no one lives there, at least no children or dogs. My normal level of housekeeping is reasonably high, but party cleaning requires a different level of fastidiousness. All clutter cleared; all bathrooms scrubbed; all floors swept, vacuumed and mopped. Even the walls and windowsills get a wipe down because somebody might bump against them and get a smudge and a lifetime of charity and kindness is pretty much shot to hell.
All of which means by midafternoon of party day, I am nearly wiped out. This is when the phone calls and emails begin tumbling in. Rule No. 4 of throwing a party: Never answer the phone or check emails on party day. No one is lost, nobody has questions: the only people calling on party day are calling to blow you off. No matter the reason, the blowoff will make you feel lousy and you don’t need that grief. Save what energy remains for the first hour.
Every party is a failure in its first hour. Some people have arrived precisely on time (don’t do this) and stand around awkwardly not talking and watching you take the last of the food out of the oven. The lights are still too bright and for some reason your Bose speaker has decided to be temperamental. You wonder about those phone calls: How many are not coming? You wonder about the food: Will people like it? You wonder about the evening, now stretching endlessly out before you: Will the people who made such an effort to be there enjoy themselves, or simply endure it? Will everyone who shows up have a good time?
To throw a party is to make oneself vulnerable. Inviting people into one’s home is really a way of inviting them into your life, at best an openhearted extension of self. Like any invitation, it risks rejection, which can sting, or failure, which can make you feel like a fool. But throwing parties helped teach me that rejection is never personal unless you let it be, while feeling foolish is fleeting, if you simply let it flee. (See: New Year’s Eve party.)
But the real reason I always end up throwing another party is what happens after that first awkward hour. By the second hour of the party I have turned it all over to the spirit: Whatever happens is no longer in my hands. Everyone who is coming has arrived. The wine is flowing, the music playing, the food being happily (or unhappily) devoured. Everywhere I look are people I know and cherish, people from all walks of my life gathered together under one roof, talking and laughing, connecting face-to-face. Whether the party is large or small, a dance party for my 50th birthday or a small dinner party in honor of friends, something important is happening, something that extends far beyond me and even beyond the people invited. Something bigger. Something necessary.
Like many people, I am deeply skeptical of contemporary calls for civility. Such calls are usually meant to silence those crying out against injustice, oppression and discrimination, all of which are very uncivil things.
Community is deeply lacking in the United States; like our savage form of capitalism, our cult of individualism long ago became monstrous, metastasizing into a cancer of selfishness. Toni Morrison once pointed out how even the words used by politicians and marketers have pushed this progression toward me-ism: “The complexity of the so-called individual that’s been praised for decades in America somehow has narrowed itself to the ‘me’. When I was a young girl we were called citizens — American citizens. We were second-class citizens, but that was the word. In the ’50s and ’60s they started calling us consumers. So we did — consume. Now they don’t use those words any more — it’s the American taxpayer, and those are different attitudes.”
Throwing a party for my friends and neighbors will not solve this problem. But throwing a party is not only an antidote to my own selfishness, it is a small way to nurture the collective, to battle the tendency, even among people who tend to vote the same way or hold the same values, to hunker down and stay at home during times of turmoil. Throwing a party is my way of reminding the people in my circles that we are in this thing together, and that even in the midst of crisis, there is room for simple, human joy.
The best party I ever threw was a few years ago, one put together for no particular reason except to welcome fall. On a whim, I asked several people to bring instruments — guitars and a fiddle and even the bagpipes. I dug up every tambourine and maraca and djembe I could find in my house, which turned out, to my surprise, to be a lot. When the playing and singing started, some people were skeptical at first, held back by their weekday selves, their masks and personas, their boundaries and authorities. But after a while all of that melted. Everyone joined in, if only by clapping their hands.
At that party, as at every one I’ve ever thrown — even the so-called failures — what began as a crowd eventually became a gathering. And after a while, that gathering became a community, a place of safety and nurturing and connection and mutual, expansive joy. If only for an evening.