The Pleasure of Entertaining for the Family We Choose — And Putting Your Feet in the Grass
The Great Outdoors — whether it's the woods or our neighborhood park — has always offered solace during challenging times. In this essay, writer Jesse Sparks shares the role it played in his life during quarantine.
“Go put your feet in some grass.”
I knew the sentiment well. It was my mother’s go-to whenever she worried my siblings and I might rot our brains in front of the TV or computer screens that enchanted us as kids who went stir crazy easily. It felt like a luxury to lock ourselves away from the scalding heat and stifling humidity of Texas summers. But my mom’s words were a not-so-gentle-but-loving reminder to ground ourselves, to be present. We were always better for it.
When my phone buzzed to life on the counter of my Brooklyn apartment, I stifled a groan, expecting more bad news in a year rife with it. In came messages from a group of friends I’d gone from being with almost daily to only seeing during virtual happy hours and the dance “parties” we crammed between meetings and bouts of Zoom fatigue.
They were plotting an impromptu potluck in the park. I beamed, then froze. During quarantine, I’d acclimated to the stifling monotony of living and working out of a one-bedroom apartment. Did I even know how to be social anymore, even with people I adored?
But then, I remembered my mom’s adage. “I’ll be there in 30,” I replied, throwing open the fridge to see what I could spin into something presentable. My mental gears started turning, the creativity and enthusiasm I’d lost finding their way back to me. Cooking! For other people! How couldn’t I be excited when entertaining basically ran in my blood? I coaxed lackluster leftovers into steaming heaps of basil fried rice flecked with bits of chicken and cubed a watermelon before showering the resulting gems with lime juice and Tajin. I checked the clock, realizing there was more I wanted to do but my thirty minutes were up. But this event was for pleasure — not a performance. So, I loaded everything into the biggest tote bag I could find and left.
Before I even reached our spot, I knew I was in for a good time. After all, the best park hangs are the ones you can hear and smell before you even see them — and I could definitely hear my friends’ belly laughter carrying over the crowd. I recognized the playful thudding from the tinny speaker my friend carried everywhere. And when I arrived, I was greeted with squeals and bear hugs and jokes about our friend group’s loose affair with punctuality. I unloaded my tote alongside the spread of spicy-sweet chicken wings, bountiful salads spiked with lemon juice and green goddess dressing, berries from the nearby farmers market, limeades, and wine. They didn’t wait to dig in, rehashing the jokes I’d walked in on and the stories I’d missed altogether. We spent the remaining hours of light clowning each other until our throats ached.
Typically, barbecues and park hangs were staples of my summers. Park walks were a cornerstone of my lockdown mental health routine. But after going so long without them, this was different, more potent. After all, these were the friends I knew to be family. We’d seen each other through late-night breakdowns and given each other pre-work pep talks before requesting raises or advocating for ourselves. We’d spent hundreds of hours laughing, ranting, and crying until we laughed and started the whole cycle all over again. In a rush of feelings I wasn’t expecting, I stepped away to compose myself and avoid crying in the club, only offering some mumbled excuse I’d forgotten almost as soon as I’d uttered it.
On my way back, I stopped just short of the scene we’d created, all of my friends boisterous and beaming, our overlapping blankets in disarray. I didn’t rush to get back, just watched. When they asked me what took so long, I didn’t have much of an answer for them.
“I just needed to put my feet in some grass.”