If you didn’t know that a butter knife’s blade should face away from a table’s center, you obviously weren’t doing due diligence as a thirteen-year-old and reading Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette (the 1952 and 1995 editions, thank you very much). Ever since I can remember, the intentionality behind bringing people together has fascinated me. While there was not a butter knife to be found in our kitchen, much less a fish knife, I still set the table whenever I could and upset many a meal with the provocative questions I felt such an event deserved.
I still adore flowers and elegantly scripted menus, but beyond the material, I am compelled by the quietly profound moments the act of coming together allows. My joy in creating beautiful gathering spaces manifests in last-day-of-school picnics and children’s-book-reading sessions with friends. And it brings bread and bowls of homemade soup to the table during conversations with groups of strangers about identity, bias, and intercultural connection.
Yet, in these different times, I sense we need different ways of gatherings. If we are to fulfill writer Catherine M. O’Meara’s vision of a post-pandemic future where, “people make new choices…and create new ways to live and heal the earth fully,” we must meaningfully gather even while physically apart.
Author and conflict mediator Priya Parker’s reflections open my eyes to a way of gathering that replaces the fuss over knives and playlists with intentional efforts to shape gatherings, and thus us, to serve and care for those around use. These gatherings identify a clear purpose—one that extends beyond the category of the event. We’re not hosting work meetings just because it’s Monday (or because we don’t know how to write emails). Rather, we meet to bridge a gap in communication that started last week. Or in my case, we meet for a moment of levity as we hear jokes from our co-workers’ children. Wednesday youth group’s purpose becomes ensuring teens have a space to engage faith and doubt, not just getting through the curriculum. Specific purposes for gathering make us more thoughtful in our interactions, a vital posture in a time when there is so much to be said and many weary ears.
When we come together, we have the power to create what Parker calls “temporary alternative worlds.” Now this is not a mandate to organize cosplay parties, although you certainly should if the fancy strikes you. Rather, it is a challenge to set aside self-possession and spark creativity by adding guidelines to our gatherings. When we ask our meeting group to turn off their phones or we ask everyone in a family video-call to show an example of where they recently found beauty, we show up more conscientiously and tighten our circle of belonging.
The same lessons that we apply to online birthday parties and even to moving back in with older family members also help us listen to, advocate with, and ultimately, care for each other better because they center our identity as one sometimes threadbare, but always woven cloth. It may sound silly to reflect on the declaration, “every gathering is an opportunity for an interruption” when you are planning an online lunch check-in with friends. But when we’re stuck in an addicting rut of consuming and sharing overwhelming news, a video-call that puts a moratorium on discussing the 6 p.m. news may be the interruption we need to give our minds and bodies time to rejuvenate.
In these interruptions, we learn that we hold the power to change more than we thought when it comes to caring relationships and institutions. We can take into account physical safety and community health when we make criminal justice decisions. We can ensure that families have a stable place to call home. We can carry a wholly different attitude (and thus public policy) for janitors, mail carriers, and grocery clerks.
In the midst of pain and loss, on a quiet day, if you listen very carefully, you can hear another world breathing . Despite being apart, we are creating dance parties that facilitate voter registration and church services that give space for grief. We are crafting care circles that prompt creative writing, pharmacies that care for domestic abuse victims, and bilingual concerts that float above walls.
So for as long as this moment lasts, and long after, let’s ask each other, “what is my community’s need and how can we gather to meet it?”
 Arundhati Roy, “Confronting the Empire”
Comfort Sampong’s heart is sparked by fried plantains, tropical foliage and the stories of women thriving and creating a way out of no way. She graduated in 2018 with majors in economics and international development. Now she lives in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where she works on English communications for the Association for a More Just Society, a Honduran non-profit fighting for justice and peace.