It’s Thursday and I wore high heels. Obviously, I do that often.
Tonight I went to a Darling Dinner sponsored by Darling Magazine. The San Diego event is one of many across the country that seeks to bring women together to connect and share over a meal.
My friend Julia encouraged me to a buy a ticket with her and go, which I did only because Julia is a trendy and considerate person and also a professional engineer, so any advice of hers is worth careful consideration.
The event was held downtown in one of San Diego’s up-and-coming neighborhoods. That is to say it was hosted in was a super cool warehouse just off the highway completely surrounded by seedy, unmarked buildings.
In the entryway, white and pink peonies flourished in mismatched glassware; meticulous calligraphy named the custom cocktails on a casual black chalkboard; and the rustic industrial furniture was accented with touches of faux white fur. Basically, it was like entering into a dream world curated by all the creatives you privately ogle on Instagram while eating chips. It was precisely that except they didn’t serve any chips. They served stone fruit mini-tarts.
The mini tarts were delicious, but made me feel as if I had Goliath hands. Upon first touch, I accidentally mangled the delicate pastry into tiny crumbles on my cocktail napkin. Other women took delicate bites while smiling and making articulate first impressions. I stuffed the whole disintegrated thing in my mouth and made friendly eyes while pretending to be a gracious, mute, and apparently starving listener.
The women trickled in slowly, wearing magnificent outfits that I wanted to discretely photograph so I would know what to do next time I entered an H&M. I think we all arrived to that ultra-chic warehouse fragile as newborns, so hungry for connection but also hyperaware of our personal image. All around us there was beauty and I think each guest wondered how completely she fit in.
Conversation was easy, remarkably so. The first interactions were the most hyperactive, as if all of us were still warming up to each other and settling into ourselves. Soon, though, the whole room became warm and inviting. Perhaps it was just the sensation I experienced when I invested in it.
Most women I talked to were on the cusp of new ventures. The bulk of them were entrepreneurs, many of them in event planning or photography or art. The warehouse swelled with standing bodies and conversation and laughter, a high-pitched resonance vibrating off red brick walls and perspiring cocktail glasses.
We created space for one other, trying hard to understand each other’s industries and passions and pursuits while bumping elbows at the dinner table. My new friend Noelle owns an e-commerce site for bohemian beachware. Brooke is launching a women’s empowerment ministry. And perhaps greatest of all, my friend Julia is considering the joys and sacrifices of parenthood as her belly swells bigger and bigger. It feels like we are all beginning something, trying to put our finger on exactly what it is we want to be when we grow up, since tomorrow we’ll be one day closer to grown.
There was a moment at the end of the evening when a couple of the women at my table started discussing strategies for maintaining and augmenting their Instagram following. Both of them have successful business and tens of thousands of Instagram followers. Their conversation was not at all pompous or vain, but quite logical and mutually beneficial. I was actually stunned at how little I knew about the commerce of images. Soon, though, they started talking numbers: how many followers, how many were ‘organic’, and how to ultimately catch the eye of sponsors. These women were wildly encouraging of each other, but suddenly I noticed a churning unrest come over me. I realized that every time they mentioned a number, I compared myself to it, threw my weight against it, internally wondered if I added up. I worried that someone had finally come up with a system to quantify ambition and success and if measured I would likely be exposed as lacking in both. How quickly the warmth of a room can be punctured by the sharp edge of comparison.
But in a merciful twist, as they discussed the carefully-curated strategy of their Instagram feeds, I remembered that two of my most recent Instagram posts were photos of stick-figure illustrations I made in the second grade. I had posted them as a joke, a haphazard flashback to early childhood, but the timing could not have been more serendipitous. With relief I realized that I was not a visual artist, nor did I need to be. I was pursuing a different form of creativity, specifically in the medium of words and I didn’t need to compete, to compare. The competition was all in my mind, anyways.
Connection is so beautifully delicate, a nuanced tension between wanting the best for yourself and also wanting it for someone else. Can both coexist at the same time? On one hand, women are able to encourage and empower one another in utterly inspiring ways, but we also occasionally injure our peers with friendly fire, inadvertently severing ties with invisible swords of competition. I must confess that I caught myself with sword in hand a few times tonight, not because these women were unlovely, but because I worried they were too lovely, too wonderful, too altogether superior. Maybe they were and maybe I was, too, each one of us remarkable beings in compatible company.
Vulnerability is so tricky because inside the recesses of self-awareness we all worry that we might be the only ones suffering from symptomatic imperfection. It’s a lie, of course. We all take our pants off when we get home. I imagine most of us each chips outside of mealtimes.
But the only way to undo a lie is to expose it to light, to put it in the way of a contrary truth.
Appropriately enough, there was an extravagant amount of decorative light in the venue this evening: candles and industrial chandeliers and spotlights leaned against the walls. Somewhere between the arugula salad and mulberry panna cotta, it occurred to me that connection is just like any other craft we aim to master- it takes a lot of practice, ideally in a well-lit room.
Connection comes from pressing in, pushing through the glossy veneer of achievement and into the honest heart of vulnerability. All of us hold both within ourselves, good and bad, weak and strong, motivated and weary, but what a miracle it is to see the two at work in someone else. That is the moment real community begins: the moment we discover that our swords were not intended to aim at one another, but to sharpen each other. It’s the difference between against and alongside.
This is the light we need exposure to and what better place to practice the gentle art of connection than in a beautifully curated, romantically illuminated room among other women that are all fighting the same battle.
The vendors treated us well tonight, but more importantly, I think those of us that attended learned how to treat one another well. We practiced connection. We made room. We sat around the table, shoulder to shoulder like newly found comrades, and practiced the tender exchange of grace.