From Vesperisms Season 2, Episode 5, February 2021
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Greetings and Salutations, and welcome to Vesperisms: The Art of Thinking for Yourself. I’m here to help you recalibrate toward an artistic worldview. So grab your coffee, and have a seat in my studio, and let’s have a chat.
When I was in high school, I fell in with the Ferry Crew. What, pray tell, was the ferry crew? It consisted of those of us who were insane enough to travel the hour and a half from Staten Island, NY to the upper west side of Manhattan to get to LaGuardia High School of the Arts every day. We had exactly two things in common and not much else: we were from staten island, and we were artists. Oh, and did I mention we were insane?
I don’t remember how we first met or found each other on that ferry at 6:40 in the morning. Maybe we sniffed each other out somehow—13 or 14 years old, kind of quirkily dressed or generally freakish in our bearing from years of being unpopular as young artists are. Maybe we saw each other in class and then recognized each other as we wandered out of the 1 train station at South Ferry and into the yawning maw of the gangplank apparatus. But Aleccia, Melinda, Gail, Julie and I—we found each other, and that was that. There were other kids going to LaGuardia from Staten Island, and we knew each other eventually. There were even kids on their way to other city schools—Stuyvesant, where my brother went, or Brooklyn Friends or Xavier Catholic. But we were our own ferry crew, and we stayed that way for the next 4 years and beyond, most of us still in touch to this day.
Every day, we gathered, We huddled against the world, 3 vocal majors and 2 art majors, and learned how to imitate the call of the shoe-shine guy [audio] and brace ourselves against the smell of dirty-water hot dogs from the concession stand, what moment to get up to the front of the boat and widen our stance as the ferry clumsily knocked into the pier, so we could be the first up the gangplank and actually get seats on the train. We learned the parts of choral pieces or recited drama exercises or sketched sleeping passengers unawares. Every day, we gathered.
Even when my mom and stepfather split up and I moved to a 1-room apartment closer to school, we gathered whenever we could. I’d go all the way back to Staten Island to do community theater or whatnot, and we shared a limo to prom together, dancing into the night. It may have been unconscious but we followed each others’ rhythms and made it through 4 years as the ferry crew, as the caption beneath my yearbook photo will attest.
In season 2, episode 1, I proposed the difference between the real meaning of community, and what are, in actuality, single-interest networks. In true community, it’s not similarity but difference that makes it work. My ferry crew were truly my community. We were of different ethnicities, sexualities, socio-economic brackets, musical tastes and artistic disciplines. Aleccia liked Metallica, for goodness sake, while I grooved to Tracy Chapman. We were thrust together by chance and circumstance, and we learned to love each other’s difference because we gathered.
Four years ago, my husband and I moved to a small town outside of the city, and it’s been tough to find that sense of a “crew” here. Sure, things are different after high school, a truth you have to get used to as you get into adulthood. You don’t make friends the same way—you have to be intentional about it. Now I love having people in my house. There’s nothing more satisfying to me socially than to gather people from my disparate spheres of friendship in one place. My favorite way to throw a party—for any occasion or none at all—is to cover every square inch of my dining room table with food, fill the house with folks, and watch the magic happen. I think I throw a pretty good party, actually. People tend to stay late and make new friends. On Christmas Eve, I host an open house. Each guest brings a plate of cookies, and we cover that old farmhouse table with them. Later on, we break out some of my sister-in-law’s herb-infused whiskey for a wee dram, and what starts as a 4-hour party ends up with people remembering that they actually have to go home and wrap presents, or visit the in-laws, or order the Chinese food. We gather. It’s what we do.
Quarantine happened for us right before St. Patrick’s Day and my husband’s birthday, both of which would have meant a full house. Instead we learned to gather as just the four of us, in a tighter bond. We learned to dig into the land a little deeper, with a new garden and a bunch of chickens. The mothers’ prayer group I lead on Wednesday mornings went on Zoom like everything else. Conferences I was booked for found their way forward. I even made new friends I wouldn’t have otherwise on an artists panel in South Africa. Even in these new ways, we gathered.
But something was terribly amiss. As “15 days to slow the spread” turned into two months, I began to worry about people. I couldn’t visit my grandmother in her dementia care home. I thought of single friends of mine whose social opportunities were closed up. I remember standing on line at Target, a line which wrapped around the whole store, full of people standing in frightened silence, unable to buy toilet paper, scrounging for unnecessary items just because they could be bought. And I thought, This can’t last. We are, even the introverts, social animals. People can’t be separated and alone this long. We’re standing on a powder keg—pretty soon, someone’s going to do something desperate. I went to the grocery store right after that, and a lady got screamed at for going up the aisle the wrong way. This was after I had broken up a fight between two women at the post office. And there in the grocery store, I had my first panic attack in over 20 years.
Not even two weeks later, the protests began. And many of them turned violent. I went to one march in Manhattan to stand with dear friends of mine, marching up a boarded up Broadway, something I hadn’t seen since I was a kid in the dirtier days of New York. What I observed at the rally before the march was, yes, ostensibly a gathering about racial justice, but what I felt was much more about a deep response to loneliness, confusion, lack of agency, and isolation. In the very center of the protest, standing atop a monument, a small group led the rally in a series of overtly ritualistic liturgies, call and responses, hand motions and genuflections. It felt like a church service minus the Christianity. There’s a reason for that. I’m not making light of this at all. Rather, that rally spoke to me of a deep need to gather. We need to gather, and no amount of virtual substitutes will do any longer.
The gatherings of protest fill the same need that church or synagogue do, and that’s community. Real community. The sense of being actually there with people, in the same space, bearing witness to the same things. The sense of not being invisible. In fact, the protests were essentially about that, and I include the early-lockdown protests at capitol buildings by business owners and employees, against what was essentially the government seizure of their property and livelihoods. I even include the protest at the Capitol last month, even the rioters. Whether it’s the sense of racial minorities feeling invisible, business owners feeling invisible, or voters feeling invisible, that’s what lockdown has done to us. This need to gather is about that: being seen, being heard, being acknowledged as existing. Either side feels that the call for “unity” really means “submission,” not gathering. And if we can’t gather in healthy ways, the human drive to gather to be seen and heard will seep through the cracks and eventually explode, like a leaky can of gasoline. And the current call to unify, after blowing everything apart, is like trying to demand that all the shards and splinters left over from a year of isolation magically get up and glue themselves back together so we can contain all of that flammable material. It’s a fool’s errand. It’s a fool’s errand.
Am I being bleak? Yes. Yes I am. But it’s vital to understand where we’re at, to look with sobriety at the real condition we’re in, the ways we’ve numbed ourselves against it. It’s time to wake up.
The other day I watched several people go in to a store in their pajamas. I’m talking full-on pajamas, complete with slipper slippers, you know, not even the kind that look like shoes—without a winter coat on a 20º day. One pair of women were wearing Snuggies. In the liquor store. Snuggies in the liquor store, people.
Look, I’m not saying you can’t do that. And you don’t need my permission, anyway. I’m not judging those specific people. Except that when a bunch of people do it, it’s become normalized. Look, I’ll say it myself: I believe I’ve lost approximately 20% of my basic social skills this past year. I keep bypassing the normal conventions of small talk when a friend calls and blurting out things that should only go in my journal and having to apologize afterward. There’s something kind of sad about the tight level of Zoom etiquette we’ve learned that we must not trespass. Keep that microphone off unless you’re called on, people! And admit it, you’re never looking at the speaker, you’re just smiling and nodding at yourself and how you’ve managed to fool everyone into thinking you’re not in your pajama bottoms. I see you. And whatever you do, do not make jokes in virtual meetings, because they will get you in trouble.
I have to tell you, I’m worried about us. I’ve watched some of my friends’ personalities actually change completely over the course of the year. I’ve seen some of my friends disengage from real, personal friendship, and instead become intensely passionate over external causes that have nothing to do with them, flattening out their friends into caricatures and political abstractions. We can’t deny that the masks are not only part of this, but a metaphor. I saw an illustration in a children’s magazine in which every adult was masked, and only the toddler was smiling. I work for children, and I can say that on a child development level, the lives of young children who are learning to read facial cues are being damaged. I spoke with one speech therapist who works with autistic children who is seeing troubling declines in her clients. We now know that children as young as 9 are committing suicide in numbers even worse than the already existent suicide crisis, because they cannot gather and feel they have no future to look forward to. CNN tells me that the mask is here to stay and I should consider it my new best friend, and now we are told to double mask, triple mask, and wear a face shield, all the while the hand sanitizer pump at the store goes unused and ignored. It all feels a touch comedic, absurdist, like a collaboration between Orwell and Kafka, as painted by Mondrian—flat, constricted and bound.
But there is a solution.
It’s time. It’s time to start gathering. Or at least planning how you will do it, and what will be the threshold you have to step over to feel safe. It’s time to analyze that threshold and make sure it’s based in fact, not fear. We have to learn, once again, how to gather. Yes, safely. We know how to do that—stay apart, not socially but physically. Wear a mask to protect others, not yourself—especially the elderly and others with risk factors. Wash your hands. Stay home if you feel sick.
But if you can go to the grocery store, you can go to a friend’s house for dinner. You can go to a movie. Be safe. But work with the data. And the data are showing that diseases of despair—depression, anxiety, personality disorders, overdose, suicide—and preventable diseases like cancer and heart attacks—are outpacing the virus itself, which now has a vaccine. As John Steinbeck said, “A sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ.”
Even if you’re not ready to gather—and I get it—it’s time to make a plan to gather. You and I have to emerge. Things will not get back to “normal” unless we create that normal. My local movie theater, which has been there for a century, will not be there unless I buy a ticket and go. Neither will the restaurants I love, or that little gift shop struggling to stay open. And my relationships, likewise, will not remain intact unless I gather. My kids will not find their ferry crew unless I tell my local school board to fully open, because schools, we now know, should probably never have closed in the first place.
So how do we gather? We’re creative. We can do this. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but we should plan for quality over quantity. The Japanese tea master Sen no Rikyu had a principle called “Ichi-go, ichi-e”, meaning that each gathering is a once-in-a-lifetime event, and should be cherished as such, even if it is simple. It can start with a walk in the park. That counts. If it’s in person, it counts.
I’m planning a regathering as part of my overall life. I’m going to Kintsugi my community back together, and fill the cracks with gold, with more quality now than before we were broken. I’m making my home an official gathering place. This coming month, as soon as the weather gets warm enough to sit around my fire pit, I’m starting a singing club. Once a month, we’re going to be in the same physical space, even if that’s outdoors and distanced, and hear each other’s voices, because we all know you can’t do that on Zoom. And I’ve got other plans, to do art workshops—Kintsugi, pottery, watercolor—not classes, but gatherings, based on things I’m doing anyway.
You have something you can offer, too. A book club. Cooking together, even arctic style around the grill in your winter coats. Wine tasting. A potluck. Toddler time at the park. Creative thinkers have creative solutions. There is something you can do to gather. Remember, the artistic worldview means that we see the problem, we remember being human-centered, we open and expand, and we allow for growth and change. If you’ve listened to Vesperisms for any length of time, you know this.
Look, after a year in our collective pajamas, we’re all tired and washed out and angry and emotionally wrecked. But we can’t stay there. Our country is in trouble with problems way bigger than us. Social distancing has fully manifest on every level. And we have to fight it. We cannot let our communities continue to fracture and explode and leak gasoline everywhere. We have to repair our gatherings. It will take work. But maybe it’s the calling of our lives.
This week’s recommended read is “The Art of Gathering” by Priya Parker. I’m studying this book closely right now, listening to it on audiobook and reading it in paperback. It majors on the quality of our gatherings, taking them from merely getting people in the same space to thinking about human dynamics, and making each person in the gathering feel like they are in integral part of the whole. This is exactly what we need right now.
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