Remember when you were a kid and you would call up your friend and say, “Hey! You wanna come over?” And then your friend would come over and you would hang out or play and it was awesome?
Once we become adults, it gets harder to just call up our friends and ask them to come over. Part of it is busy schedules. But let’s be honest, a lot of what keeps us from these impromptu get-togethers is the work we have come to associate with them: the big meal, the clean house, the centerpiece, the playlist …
We no longer “hang out”; we “entertain.” But as a guest, do you really want to be entertained? To me, that sounds exhausting. Wouldn’t you rather just hang out? I know I would. And I came to realize that my friends would, too. (I am by no means disparaging dinner parties, because I also love those—in their time and place.)
In recent years, widespread attention has been given to the increase in “social isolation” and a significant decrease in social connection. Accompanying the surge in social media has been a drastic escalation in loneliness, and a prevailing dissatisfaction with life. While theories abound regarding trends and causes, the overwhelming theme is that many of us are searching for connection and community.
When we lived in St. Louis, we discovered we weren’t the only ones searching. We held a weekly Pizza Night for four-plus years. Every Wednesday, I made pizza and we opened our doors to any and all who showed up. People brought salads, drinks, veggies for the kids, desserts, and plenty of adult beverages. Some weeks there were 12 people, but most weeks it was more like 40. On the last Pizza Night we hosted, 100-plus people showed up.
We adults would hold down the fort in the kitchen, and the kids had the rest of the house and yard. People didn’t come because of my amazing pizza (though it is). They came for the community. We needed each other. We went through birthdays, baby gender reveals, divorce, adoption struggles, general parenting challenges, work achievements, etc. And boy, did we laugh!
We didn’t share a common age, race, political view, educational background or income level. We shared life. And it made life meaningful. That was one of the hardest parts of moving away from St. Louis.
We have discovered (thank God!) that we aren’t the only ones searching for connection in WNY, either. That’s what I love about summer at our farm, Ballyhope. We “hang out” in the winter as well, but it’s the perfect place during summer to have impromptu gatherings. School is out, along with all the sports and activities that keep us driving our teenagers around. It’s warm and green—and sometimes it’s even not raining!
We hand the kids walkie talkies and set them loose on the property to explore and play, and get muddy and wet. (We advise our friends to bring muck boots and a change of clothes for the kiddos.) We sit in Adirondack chairs in a clearing or around the fire in our “campsite,” drink adult beverages, and breathe and laugh and just hang out. It is the best.
Friends frequently drop by at dinnertime with anything they've picked up at a farm stand on the way and a growler from our neighbor, Southern Tier Brewing Company. Combined with whatever has shown up in my CHQ Local basket and my wine club, we can put together a pretty amazing fresh meal on our grill.
But it’s not even about the food. These are not gourmet meals. We’ve gnawed on plenty of over-grilled chicken and hockey puck hamburgers that tasted of lighter fluid.
Instead, it's about the connection we make while cooking and gathering around the table or the fire pit. It’s about the relief and renewal of our spirit that comes from sharing life and laughter with people around whom we can drop our pretenses and “public” personas. It’s a huge piece of “hygge”: the Swedish way of life that has become a new trend in America. It’s not a decorator’s contrivance of cozy home accessories; it’s that indescribable feeling of authentic connection.
I’ll go ahead and kill any idea that you might have of the Hagel clan living in a refurbished, stylishly decorated, dream farmhouse. We do not. I promise that if there is ever an interior shot of the Ballyhope farmhouse, it is carefully staged with all the mess just out of view.
We are a busy family with six kids, two of which are homeschooled, plus a hobby farm. Our house leans heavily toward messy chaos. (Children have a tendency to leave doors open in the summertime, and I’ll admit that we've had kitchen visits by a stray sheep or goose who immediately regretted her decision to wander in.)
So, if we were waiting for the house to be in the state of a design magazine, we would never know the joys of relaxed, adult friendships. Of course, we vacuum, we clean the bathroom, we clear the couch of piles of folded laundry. But to “hang out,” we don’t need to clean off the top of the fridge, arrange flowers, or clear the stacks of farm business off the buffet. Frankly, in summer, we really just need to clean the path from the backdoor to the bathroom, because everything else can take place in the perfectly decorated natural environment of beautiful Western New York.