Gathering has been on my mind a great deal lately. Since the pandemic began, I’ve noticed how reluctant I am to turn up to events in person. Make it online and I’m there. But actually leaving the house? That’s a big ‘nope’ from me.
Of course, it doesn’t help that I spent the first eight weeks of this year incapacited by illness (which I wrote about in the Guardian this week). But even before that, I noticed a bodily reluctance to go out anywhere - even with people who I know, love and miss. It’s a contradictory position that, on the face of it, doesn’t make sense. And yet, given that I’m not the only one, I think it must mean something - and it’s multifaceted.
First and foremost, I’m still scared of catching covid. Let’s put that front and centre. It’s a completely valid concern. There’s also the sense that I’ve learned my pandemic habits too well, internalising the message to stay indoors so effectively that there’s a psychic speed-bump in the way of going out. It’s not impossible to cross, but it makes it that tiny bit harder. That will take a lot of unlearning, and to undertake the work, I’ll have to start desiring those outings a lot more. I’m reluctant to go back to the pace of life that I endured before the pandemic. During the space that opened up in 2020, I realised what a relief it was to not have to return from London on the midnight train after an event, or drive for several hours to show my face at a festival halway across the country. It’s nice not to be tired.
Most of all, I do not miss the social hangover from attending events that were not made with me in mind. I have absolutely no yearning to return to the days of coming home with my ears ringing from too-loud room, my skin burning from endless bumps and brushes, and my mind seething with half-understood conversations. I never sleep after evenings like that. Instead, my brain replays the whole thing in half-time throughout the night, slowly encoding each agonising detail. I stumble sleepless and disoriented into the next day, feeling bruised.
Yet I don’t think that gatherings are intrinsically bad - it’s just that many of them are poorly designed, and wrongly assume that they’re suitable for everyone. That’s why I wanted to talk to Priya Parker. When it comes to getting together, Priya turns our assumptions on their heads: gatherings, she says, benefit from firm rules and careful management, which allow us to relax more, communicate better, and come away feeling positive. It’s all about clarity of purpose. A lack of structure leads to chaotic and draining events, and may even increase the risk of conflict with others.
Priya’s work helped me to begin to think through my own retreats, making them specifically for quiet souls like me, with plenty of rest, personal space and slow processing time. Her book, The Art of Gathering, gave me persmission to create unashamedly special moments - certainly not the stuff of everyday, and possibly a once-in-a-lifetime treat, something that’s a catalyst for shifts in meaning and huge personal change. (It would be wrong of me not to plug my May and June day retreats here, right?) They’re not for everyone, and that’s okay. But the right people find their way to me.
In this episode of How We Live Now, I ask Priya how we can learn to be in the same room again - whether it’s with colleagues, family or even complete strangers. For those of us who have found it tough to return to social spaces after the pandemic, this is a reassuring conversation, reminding us of the pleasures of meeting, and offering a blueprint for more enriching, less fraught, future gatherings.
Links from the episode:
Priya's book, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters
Watch Katherine and Priya in conversation about Enchantment
Follow Katherine on Instagram
How We Live Now is recorded using RiversideFM and hosted by Acast.
From the transcript
Yeah, exactly. And she did it. And again, when you meaningfully gather, if everything's a social contract, the opening salvo, the constitution, if you will, is the invitation. So I said, "Put in the subject line, the worn out mom's hootenanny, write the rule, write the peanut butter jelly sandwich story in the invitation." All six women are RSVP, yes. Within the first 45 minutes she went on and did it. I think they ended up ordering takeout in part to embody the evening. And part of what she did just to come back to this idea of popup rules, is we think of rules as sources of control or sources of... Can only be a removal of agency without any benefit? But part of what she was doing was she was allowing six people for that evening to decide if they want to attend and then to understand at some level the kinds of conversations she was wanting with a bit of a playful punishment or maybe for some people a reward for other types.
And this is an example of a pop-up rule I love in part because while it's funny, she's actually doing somewhat radical in her community, which is she's shifting the norms around what parents can talk about when they come together and take that identity off for a moment and say, "Yes, we can be parents or mothers and we can also be journalists and we can also be community members and we can also be newspaper readers." I talk about the dinner on Blanc in the book, which is sort of these massive pop-up dinners where everyone wears white, and they're controversial and they can be seen as exclusive for different reasons. But part of the fascination of them is they're giving people a common code that's explicit that people can decide if they want to enter and engage in. And it's temporary. And if you want to have a different gathering, a different night where you explain what the rules are and people decide they're signing up for this, come on in.
Yeah, yeah, that's fine. And I'm thinking about how often when we gather, we do something that changes the rules of everyday life to mark that change in meeting. We dance, for example, which we don't often do in a mundane time. Or I'm thinking about my friend Kat's monthly full moon potluck gathering that she holds in Texas where she gathers with some friends to celebrate every single full moon. They all bring some food and they engage in acts of divination, someone brings a tarot pack or something. And they're a very specific change of mode for these very busy professional women. They're thinking about these bigger themes when they gather. And I'm struck by the beauty of that, by the effort it takes to make a different meaning and to have that real change of mind and change of action.
It's a beautiful example. And when I was researching this book, I spent time with game designers, I spent time with all sorts of people, other people credited with consistently creating transformative experiences. And I learned from some of these game designers that in the history of game design theology, if you could call it that, there was this, I think it was a Dutch game designer who had this concept called the Magic Circle. And basically, as it was described to me is that there's this magic circle where games are basically this magical world where through a set of rules, and it can be pick up soccer, right? The tree is the back post, where the grass meets the cement is the sidelines. Someone does something you don't like, you can call a time-out. We imagine a temporary alternative world together. And that, by the way, is actually every gathering.
So every time, this magic making, right? I dream something up in my head, I think I'm turning 27 or 47 or 72. Wouldn't it be delightful if I could have everyone come and fill in the blank? Dance, sing, give a TED Talk, whatever it is, it literally doesn't matter. But gathering is acts of manifestation and they're acts of persuasion. You're creating this imaginative, and this is true in the work workforce. I think, right now in the global pandemic, at least in knowledge-based work, there is huge controversy around when and how and what and where should people meet, should colleagues meet and who decides. And a huge part of what's up for contestation is basically what is worthy around meeting for.
And so part of your full moon party example is such a beautiful example. And if you think about it, that's every gathering. And particularly right now in our... When so many gatherings are still in this moment h occurring online, if you have these online Zoom calls or choose your technology, we're ricocheting, we're whiplash between different gatherings and different identities. And you're sitting in the same chair, right? You're going from perhaps a parent teacher conference on one Zoom call and then you exit and you go to a work meeting and you exit and you go to a friend's book talk.
Yeah. And you're a completely different person. Yeah.
Yeah. And these are different worlds and they, it takes some shifting, but whether you're hosting or whether you're guesting, gatherings are temporary alternative worlds. And as we begin to think about that, it becomes incredibly interesting and fun, but also beautiful and also responsibility to create and to shape and to hold and then to close.
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I read Priya’s book years ago, but it feels like one you can pick up again and again, anytime you are thinking (and rethinking) about what you want connection to look and feel like. That’s definitely on my mind these days, especially when it comes to online community. Grateful for a new convo to listen to, and for the nod to pick the book back up!
I am so looking forward to digging into this! I am recovering from a June 2022 Covid infection and it's been so challenging to consider how to reemerge into the world, despite my dire need for inspiration, connection and awe. I recently left the house for the first time in 9 months and hopped a plane to the Caribbean. I was terrified of catching Covid again, my body still racked with pain and discomfort. And still, I went. The first glimpses of tufted islands against a rippled canvas of azure blue rendered me whole. Awe.