A health setback followed by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, followed by trying to keep a job while helping an elementary school-age daughter adjust to distance learning, resulted in burnout for Laura Kane-Punyon when the 2020 holidays were approaching.
She quit her job knowing she was fortunate to have a husband to support her family of four while she healed and reinvented herself.
“One realization for me was that a big part of self-care and psychological well-being and emotional well-being is community,” she said. “When I became a mother, it really struck me how little community there was for women.”
A book by Priya Parker, entitled The Art of Gathering: How we meet and why it matters, emphasized that gatherings—even before the pandemic—were rather superficial and exhausting rather than inspiring. So, in March, Kane-Punyon started a new small business aimed at that.
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Our table invites women of all ages and backgrounds to gather in small groups to share stories about their lives and desires. The next “Nourish and Refresh” meeting is Wednesday at Her Sanctuary, a North Buffalo women’s clothing store focused on wellness. Another one is planned there at the end of July. Two “Hooked on a Feeling” meetings will be held at the Hooked Restaurant in Williamsville in the coming weeks, while a “Spill the Tea” session is scheduled for August 14 at Cuppa Culture in Clarence.
The gatherings feature a trio of healthy foods and beverages. Costs range from $40 for tea and small bites to $100 or more for a three-course meal at Hooked. Find out more and register at our-table.com.
Kane-Punyon leads—but doesn’t dominate—open-table discussions. Each meeting is structured so that two different participants speak about themselves for 15 minutes during each of the three courses, followed by a free-flowing discussion before the next course.
The conversations during the three previous meetings were very different. The participants were between 30 and 50 years old. Some were housewives, some employed, some empty. Most of them have only known each other fleetingly, if at all.
“With just a little structure, the group grows together very quickly,” said Kane-Punyon. “We talk about real things that women face, from relationship abuse to drug issues to struggles with children or parents. The usual thing that’s said afterwards is, ‘I didn’t know I wasn’t alone in this.’”
Kane-Punyon, who is from western Seneca, met her husband, Paul Punyon, while the two were visiting SUNY Geneseo. They started their family after college in Manhattan. She worked for a hedge fund. He got a job as a computer software engineer. The couple moved to Clarence in 2013, where they raise a daughter, Elle, 9, and a son, Dex, 6.
Paul was able to keep his job by working remotely; Kane-Punyon worked with her family’s accounting company, the Kane Firm, until her neurological condition flared as the concerns and responsibilities of the pandemic mounted.
“Looking back, there are many things I did that led to burnout. You know, being everything to everyone,” she said. “It’s just not a sustainable way of life.”
When Kane-Punyon started her own business, young women with children were reluctant to attend meetings because they feared they would not have much to add to a conversation with businesspeople who have older children. Older women feared their younger colleagues would not be interested in what they had to say.
“I believe that the more diverse the group, the more intense the conversation,” she said.
“People keep asking if this is a networking group,” she added. “While networking can certainly come from that, this is really about social connections. We’re not trying to be volunteers. We’re not trying to build a business. We’re just trying to be people together.”
So far, at least, most participating women have preferred to have sober conversations, although alcohol is available for some gatherings.
“People have real conversations very quickly,” Kane-Punyon said, “even though they’ve only just met.”
Next week’s gathering will be the first since the mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas. The pandemic is waning, but war in Ukraine rages on as economic uncertainty grips much of the world.
Kane-Punyon hopes that the small gatherings can one day grow into larger group discussions in the area. In any case, she sees her efforts as a way to strengthen her community.
“With all the things we’re facing in our world right now, being apart isn’t the answer,” she said. “I think the answer is to bring together different people from different walks of life who have never met and realize, ‘Wow, we’re all so alike.”