“Gathering is a practice to nurture and refresh.”
-Priya Parker

In the past two weeks, I have had the occasion to celebrate life and mourn loss. Over Memorial Day weekend, we celebrated my stepmother’s 75th birthday one year behind schedule. Instead of the original 2020 plan to gather a large group in upstate New York, we convened a small gathering of 17 immediate family members at my stepbrother’s home for our first indoor dinner party in 16 months. We embraced for a few seconds longer than usual, lingered in conversation, and extended the evening’s conclusion. In preparation, we were all asked to share three reflections on our lives and our relationships. 1) What was our favorite memory of our childhood home? (there were a lot!) 2) What was our favorite memory of Maine? (our family vacation spot and happy place) 3) What do we admire most about Alison? As we went around the table, each person’s story was unique to them but also built on a shared experience. While there may have been hesitation from some in attendance, the laughter and tears served to reconnect many of us who had been out of each other’s day-to-day lives for so long.

My family convened again this week to mourn, honor, and celebrate the life of my father-in-law, Bernie, who passed just 10 weeks after he was diagnosed with cancer. As we gathered together to share stories, prepare for the service, and listen to the eulogies, it was clear why we were there — it was a tribute to a man who knew who he was, and inspired those closest to him through the robust way he lived his life. As my son Greg shared, “What I admired most was that he was unapologetically himself no matter where he was or who he was with. Grandpop was one of those people that could have lived as a rich man or a poor man, and it wouldn’t have changed him one bit. He was who he was. He liked what he liked. And he wasn’t ‘too good’ to try anything.”

Although family gatherings and milestones are always important, these two occasions felt different. Each of these gatherings had a distinct and important purpose, even more so at this moment in time with a new appreciation for joining others and celebrating the simple act of being together. As we reset our lives, routines, and relationships, and reemerge from our houses and our quarantines, in-person gatherings can no longer be taken for granted.

So, after a year and change and staying inside of our personal bubbles, how do we gather? Why do we gather? For me, these two events reintroduced me into the world and allowed me to remember what true connection feels like. (Spoiler: It feels good!) With a renewed sense of what really matters to us, we can now gather with true intention and purpose.

“This is the power of gathering: it inspires us, delightfully, to be more hopeful, more joyful, more thoughtful: in a word, more alive.”
-Alice Waters

What I’m Practicing: Hugs, Handshakes and Hellos
We are in a unique period of transition, allowing us all to envision what life could look like, regardless of what it used to look like. What family occasions and rituals are too important to miss and will guarantee our in-person attendance? What meetings no longer need to exist? What routines are necessary for us to be our most fulfilled, productive selves as we return to our “normal” lives? While many of us are eager to recirculate back in the world, we all will return to life at our own pace. Like organizational consultant Rachel Cooke says, we must find the time and space to infuse one small degree of ease into each day, taking this time for reflection, rest, and reinvention. And that will look different for everyone. Some (like me) are huggers, others will extend their hand, fist or elbow, while others would prefer to simply bow and say hello from a distance. But for each of us, no matter our approach, this return to gathering allows us to reinvent ourselves and our lives, and evaluate and hold dear what means the most to us.

“Gathering again, including returning to work, is going to be complicated and possibly uncomfortable. Naming the elephant in the room is the most powerful tool we have. We need to make the implicit explicit. Even if the elephant is just awkwardness, naming what’s happening and making it explicit allows everybody to take a break.”
-Priya Parker

Who I’m Listening To: Priya Parker
Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering and master facilitator focusing on conflict resolution, told Brené Brown in a recent podcast that we are in a unique position to reinvent our concept of “gathering.” A gathering is like a bridge — it is up to the host to create and define handrails for the guests to hold on to in order to cross successfully. In order to create a productive and impactful gathering, these three questions must be answered:

What is the purpose of this gathering?
What should each of us bring to the table?
How will the guests/attendees interact?

As a host, leader, or simply an individual, we must task ourselves with providing an environment where every guest, employee, or relative feels empowered to contribute to the systems and policies that make up each gathering — whether it be an office meeting, a family reunion, or a party. This year’s important conversations about access, equity, and power in the workplace and in society as a whole must motivate us to reactivate our physical spaces and our daily routines.

Gatherings are in beta, say Brené Brown and Priya Parker, and at this point we are left with more questions than answers. Yet as individuals, we are in an exciting and momentous time. We have the power to experiment with our personal and professional lives as we test what feels comfortable to us. We owe it to ourselves, our loved ones, and our collective identity to take this time to decide how we want to reemerge and live in this new in-person world.

“Start close in. Take the first step, the one you don’t want to take.”
-David Whyte

What I’m Taking In: Healing from the Pandemic
In April, The Ritualist released a guide for how to resurface and reset after the pandemic in a group setting:
Welcome participants.
Greet properly.
Center oneself and each other.
Honor each other’s experiences.

I saw this ritual in motion as I moved through Bernie’s service and the following nights of shiva. Although we were grieving deeply, the comfort of connection — each of us coming together to celebrate a life that touched so many others — was a joyful, hopeful feeling.

Gathering with intention allows us all to bear witness to and empathize with each other’s experiences. We have been through a collective trauma, even though we may have experienced it differently. Planning our “reentry” with purpose allows us to truly connect with one another — and for that, I am grateful.

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